Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I see that Julie Burchill (above), a journalist who recently wrote an article with the headline “Tell us to drink 'moderately' and we'll just crack open another one,” has been interviewed by the BBC about Ava Gardner.  She said, “A woman with no temper is like a Bloody Mary with no Tabasco.”

Personally I’d say that a woman with no temper is like a Bloody Mary with no vodka, but I sure wouldn’t want to get into an argument with Julie Burchill.  And the fact is people put all kinds of stuff into a Bloody Mary: there are a few bars in New York where they lay out the ingredients so you can make your own recipe.  Ktchn, on West 42nd Street offers 20 extras including black-lava salt, capers, peppers and bacon.  This is what one version looks like (which to me looks like a Bloody Mary with a fruit and veg cocktail in it):

 I’ve been poking around trying to find a picture of Ava Gardner with a Bloody Mary in hand, and I’ve failed, though there’s no shortage of her sipping on other beverages.

However, thanks to the late Peter Evan’s Ava Gardner: the Secret Conversations, we know that she did indeed drink Bloody Marys at least once in a while, with moderately disastrous consequences.  She was dating, and drinking and arguing with her then boyfriend Howard Hughes. Hughes punched her in the face, dislocating her jaw, and she picked up an onyx ashtray and smashed it over his head.  Long after the event she said, “There was blood on the walls, on the furniture — real blood in the Bloody Marys.”

Now there’s an idea.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


I just reviewed Michael Paterniti’s book The Telling Room A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese (Dial; 349 pages; $27), for the San Francisco Chronicle.  The piece was a little bit slow coming out, so I’ve been reading other people’s reviews of the book, and it seems the world and his uncle thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced cheese, whereas  I thought it was just kind of OK.  Anyway here’s the review at the SF Chronicle website (I think you’ll need a digital subscription to read the whole thing):

And here it is as I wrote it:

Gwyneth Paltrow famously once said that she’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can, which must mean she’s never tasted Páramo de Guzmán, a great and “eccentric” Spanish sheep’s cheese, that usually comes steeped in olive oil, in a distinctive white tin.  It may not be as addictive as crack but it certainly gets its hooks into Michael Paterniti, and creates the obsession driving his new book “The Telling Room.”  To be clear, a commercial version of the cheese is still produced, but the word is that it’s a “soulless” (incarnation of its former self.  The last great tin of Páramo de Guzmán was opened and eaten a decade ago, and Paterniti was there to share it. 
His obsession begins in 1991, a time when he admits cheese for him meant Cheez Whiz, Cheez Doodles and Cheez-Its.  He reads about Páramo de Guzmán in his local deli’s newsletter.  There it’s described in enticing terms, “rich, dense, intense … sublime … discovered it by chance in London … made with love.”  Since it costs $22 a pound, Paterniti has “no intention of buying any,” but the words stick with him, indicating that right from the start the obsession is literary and philosophical, as much as gustatory. 
As a professional writer, Paterniti is on the lookout for a good story, and in due course he decides he’ll track down some Páramo de Guzmán.  A little research reveals that it’s not being made any more, but there seems to be an even bigger story than he thought.  He visits the eponymous village of Guzmán, in Castilian Spain, does some detective work, makes multiple trips, and eventually goes to live there for a while with his family.
         The story of the cheese is a good one.  The original recipe was ancient but had never been written down and was lost for a while until, in the 1970s, Ambrosio Molinos, the flawed, larger than life hero of the book, recreated it to honor his father and his ancestors.  Ambrosio’s story is inseparable from that of his cheese, a narrative of tradition, culture and family, though one that, well before Paterniti arrives on the scene, has ended in disaster, with a flurry of law suits and accusations of fraud. By Ambrosio’s account all this is the fault of Julian, a lawyer who drew up the contacts, once his best friend, now a man he wants to kill. 

         Paterniti writes, “I’d spent years traveling the world for my job, hoping to meet someone like this Ambrosio … someone who actually had a grand philosophy of life.  Who was ribald and holy.  Who had staked his life on a code ...” The problem for the reader is that this grand philosophy doesn’t amount to very much.  Ambrosio is in favor of raising your own chickens, believes we should go to nature for answers, thinks food should not contain preservatives; which is OK as far as it goes, but it sounds like the kind of thing you can hear in any farmer’s market in America.  It also occurs to the reader, long before it apparently does to the author, that Ambrosio may be a highly unreliable narrator.  Or perhaps it does occur to the author, but he holds back the thought for the sake of a good story.
         Paterniti is beguiled by Ambrosio, precisely because he’s a great storyteller, and so the book becomes in part a meditation on the nature of stories.  The “telling room” of the title is a bodega, a manmade cave, once a place to store produce, now more often used as a venue to eat, drink and talk, and in Paterniti’s case also to write.  He styles himself a collector of stories, which gives him scope for digressions; about soccer, Goya’s Black Paintings, the history of amputation, the Spanish Civil War, among other topics.  This is a bit hit and miss, but a few asides about Walter Benjamin do seem especially relevant.  Benjamin is quoted as saying, “The perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings,” and Paterniti, like Benjamin, is keen to reclaim narrative as a form of fable.
         Consequently Paterniti’s quest sometimes takes on mythical and mystical aspects.   He sees Ambrosio as a giant in his lair, while he sees the cheese itself as a symbol of “lost purity.” Less grandly, he sometimes seems simply to be looking for a different, more authentic way of life, other times the book feels like the description of a midlife crisis.
         The book also contains the story of how it was written, an extremely long and difficult process, we’re told, and we’re given details of contracts, deadlines missed, drafts abandoned.  We even learn the size of the advance from his English publishers, who seem to think he’s writing a novel.   Ultimately then, Paterniti’s real quest is to write a book, a quest in which he self-evidently succeeds.

         Paterniti does tell a good story and he certainly leaves me desperate to taste of 

piece of ancient Páramo de Guzmán, a cheese that is now lost to history.  I’m not sure it would actually live up to Paterniti’s claims, but as with all the best stories, you sometimes just have to take the author’s word for it.

As for tinned cheese in general, I gotta say I think Gwyneth has a point.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


I’ve been reading an interview Anthony Bourdain did for Yahoo TV.  One of the questions:  What do you think of people who Instagram their food?  Bourdain replies, “Look, I'm guilty of it, too. I think it's worth making fun of. We deserve to be mocked. It's a dysfunctional, even aggressive practice. Why do we Instagram pictures of our food? It's not to share. It's to make other people feel really bad. … It's basically a f--- you. You say, "Look what I'm eating, bitches." You don't want people to be eating dinner with you when you Instagram a picture of your food. You want them to be eating a bag of Cheetos on their couch in their underpants. It's a passive aggressive act.  That said, I do it all the time.”

I’d have thought Bourdain was way too cool to do Instagramming (even I feel like a tool when I photograph my meals) and I’d also think he’s too cool to do passive aggression.  Why not active aggression?  But I guess it’s all publicity to further his “brand.”  And hell, it’s not such a bad brand.

I went and looked at his Instagrams – some very enticing pics with some very terse titles, such as Lobster Night:

 Lunch Sicily:

The Glory of Spain:

And the one below has no caption at all but seems to be in South Africa. Pap Beef Curry – pardon my immature snigger:

I cut Bourdain plenty of slack for two, linked, reasons.    First, he knows a good guitarist when he hears one.  In an interview with Karen Brown for she asks him: If you could bring back four dead rock stars, who would you bring back?  After Johnny Thunders, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joey Ramone – he goes for Robert Quine.  Robert Quine!!  All right!! – the only truly great bald guitarist or at least the only one who ever seriously fessed up to his baldness.  Brian Eno writes of him,” Our friendship clicked and resolved itself around the following: a love of wandering round New York and eating in obscure oriental restaurants” also of course “a feeling for music that was 'at the edge of music.'”

Bourdain is also a fan of the desert – he’s done at least two shows about the Mojave, and in one of them he and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age go to eat and drink at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown, a place I know somewhat, and a place I became aware of because of that other great guitarist and desert guy Howe Gelb, who used to live close by, though this pic is obviously taken in Arizona.

And here are Bourdian and Homme at the bar of Pappy and Harriet's, where I have frequently sat.

 I think Bourdain rather overstates the desert weirdness of Pappy and Harriet’s – the place is often full of kids and old couples doing line dancing, but I do believe their steak sandwich with thinly sliced Santa Maria BBQ topped with grilled onions and shredded cheese on toasted French bread  - $11.95, is pretty much unbeatable.  It’s what I always get when I’m there but I’ve never been so uncool as to take a picture of it.  Others, I’m sure have felt no such inhibition.