Tuesday, July 29, 2014


I see that Dwight Garner of the New York Times got himself into some tepid (as opposed to hot) water with his review of Marja Mills's The Mocking Bird Next Door, about Harper Lee.  The book sounds pretty ropey, but our man got in trouble (or at least became the object of bogus internet outrage) with this para: 
‘"The Mockingbird Next Door" conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald's, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling "Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!" Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.’ 
This has caused Garner to be denounced in some quarters as an elitist, snob, and fast-food hater.  Full disclosure, I have eaten and drunk (modestly) with Dwight Garner a few times, though none of them at all recently, and in any case he certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but come on, there genuinely IS something sad about having a regular booth at MacDonald’s.  And eating Burger King takeout salads is deeply, unbearably sad in any circumstance, even more so on movie night.  Isn’t it?  To Kill a Mocking Bird, as I recall is full of foodie stuff about lane cake and crackling bread and molasses.

In any case, how much of a food snob can Garner be when he revealed in a Times article in 2012, that he considers the peanut butter and pickle sandwich, “the work-at-home writer’s friend”?  He writes, “The peanut butter and pickle sandwich is one of those unlikely pairings that shouldn’t work, but does … I’ve been happily eating these distinctive little sandwiches for years. The vinegary snap of chilled pickle cuts, like a dash of irony, against the stoic unctuousness of peanut butter. The sandwich is a thrifty and unacknowledged American classic.”

OK, I don’t think he should have been allowed to get away with irony and stoic unctuousness, but he goes on to tell us, “There’s a consistent but low-level Internet buzz about the combination, just as there is about the other unlikely things people like to marry with peanut butter and place between bread slices: mayonnaise, olives, thick onion slices (this was Hemingway’s favorite sandwich), horseradish, bacon, Marmite (in England) and Vegemite (in Australia), to name but a few.”

         You’ll get no sandwich elitism from me; but hell, peanut butter and onion?  Peanut butter and Marmite?  They sounds just vile.  But then again, no doubt some people (my own wife for instance) feel the same way about my own work-at-home writer’s friend” – the peanut butter and cheese sandwich.  Works great as part of your high fat diet!  The cheese in the pictures below is “golden Cheshire” but something a bit pokier is probably better.

         I’m not interested in converting anybody here, but what I think Hemingway, Garner and Nicholson have in common, is that we consider peanut butter to be a savory food – in which case other savory ingredients go with it just fine.  But there are members of another tribe who consider it a sweet food (and cheapo peanut butter actually contains added sugar) so having it in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the way to go, because it’s just more of the same.

And I’ve been I wonder how many other foods are like this, and can go either way; sweet or savory.  Quite a few I’m sure – rice, pancakes, for instance – but the one that came first to my mind was the crumpet. 

A crumpet obviously needs butter but then it’s much improved (it seems to me), by the addition of melted cheese, or Marmite, or Gentleman’s relish, or whatever: savory flavors.  Some people however take a sweeter view.
I was once at a wedding when several of the guests became outraged because they were served crumpets that had been pre-spread with butter and jam, “Bloody fools!” some old buffer, growled. “Everybody knows crumpets are a savory not a dessert!”  I agreed completely, but probably it would have been safer to agree in any case.  Fights have been known to break out at weddings over much smaller matters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


The great American novelist Thomas Berger died just over a week ago.  His obituary appeared in the New York Times yesterday. I was a big fan of Berger’s work and although I wouldn’t claim to have known him at all, we did exchange one or two emails.  I certainly never knew anything about his eating or drinking habits.

I found it interesting that in that Times obituary there was a quotation from his best known novel Little Big Man.  Jack Crabb, the book’s hero, who wanders the American West, having been “adopted” by the Cheyenne when he was 10 years old, describes some early gastronomic experiences:
“The antelope chunks weren’t too well done.  Indians don’t have a prejudice against grease, on the one hand; and on the other, they weren’t given in those days to using salt. Along with the meat was some chokecherries all cooked to a mush, and a root or two that didn’t have a taste until you swallowed it and it fell all the way to your belly and gave off the after effect of choking on sand.”

I’ll leave it to somebody else to write a PhD on the role of food in Berger’s fiction but I’m sure it’s a fruitful area.  To remind myself of Tom, I dipped around in a few of his novels, and references to food seemed to leap up at me from every page I looked at.

In Sneaky People, the first Berger novel I ever read, and probably still my favorite for that reason, Buddy Sandifer, the largely unlikeable “hero,” is having trouble with his mistress Laverne.  He asks her to make him a sandwich, and she is pretty snippy about it.
“'We didn’t know we would be serving lunch today sir, Laverne said bending to open the hydrator.  “We can make a tomato sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise.
'That’s woman’s food,' Buddy said."

In the first chapter of Neighbors, Berger writes of his protagonist Earl Keese,
'He wandered disconsolately back to the living room.  She had drunk the remainder of the white wine.  He possessed nothing more in the way of an alcoholic beverage, and there was only frozen succotash for dinner.  His watch assured him that the village market had closed an hour ago and that the liquor store would lock up in half a minute.”
I think that’s as great an image of suburban angst as anything in modern fiction.

Neighbors was made into a notorious movie starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd.  It was a nightmare shoot by all accounts, and the end result was much hated when it came out, though there are signs that some people are now revaluing it and liking it rather more.

In Reinhart’s Women, the comic hero, Carl Reinhart has thrown himself into cooking, it being "the only thing in life he had ever done well."  He has invited his new girlfriend over for lunch so she can meet his daughter.  It all ends in quiet, civilized disaster, naturally, but some decent cooking skills are on display.  Reinhart is making oeufs en meurette.

“He tasted the liquid, which had reduced somewhat in the simmering.  Despite the sugar it was still slightly tinged with acidity, but this condition would surely be corrected when the cooked mushrooms were added.  When that was done it was time to poach the eggs in the perfumed bath of wine and stock and bacon and onions and garlic.”

Authors being what they are, Berger might well have lifted this straight from a cookery book, but I like to think he was a proper food lover.  Actually I suspect that oeufs en meurette is one of those dishes that everybody is impressed by without ever actually liking.  Another great symbol of suburban angst right there.

Monday, July 14, 2014


A couple of people have drawn my attention to a blog titled “Tom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet: Every drink in every Pynchon novel” which strikes me as a great idea that hasn’t been fully realized in its current form, not as yet anyhow.  

The blogger (apparently male and in Australia) tries some chianti in honor of a mention in V, “The Chianti is tasty stuff.” He writes, “Sweet but pretty tannin-ey on the tongue. Basically tastes like wine.” Which seems less than helpful.  Maybe it’ll get into its stride later.

Me and the other members of my own old sick crew decided that Raymond Chandler’s Liquor Cabinet might be a more intriguing prospect.  Within the first few pages of our introduction to Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, he’s knocking back slugs of brandy which he likes “any way at all.”  His client, General Sternwood, can no longer drink but recalls that he used to like his brandy with Champagne “as cold as valley forge.”  Sounds good to me.

Self- referential you think?

Anyway, for quite different reasons, I’ve been re-reading Chandler’s The High Window and there’s a scene where Marlowe thinks he’s being followed and goes into the Tigertail Lounge (Chandler’s invention), where he sits in a “shallow booth” and orders a martini and a sandwich.  There’s no mention of what kind of sandwich, which is perhaps not all that odd: Marlowe is more interested in drink than food.

But I do find myself wondering what kind of sandwich goes with a martini.  None that I can think of.  The Loved One suggested maybe a pastrami sandwich because the intensity of the alcohol would cut through the greasiness of the meat, and that may be true, but I always find I need plenty of liquid with a pastrami sandwich – like a pint of beer.  A martini’s going to run out far too soon.  Maybe something more delicate would be better.  Smoked salmon?  Cucumber?  Not very hardboiled, I realize.

And then yesterday in the New York Time magazine, there were (some rather heated) extracts from Warren Harding’s letters to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips, written in the ten years before he became president in 1920. On January 2nd 1913 he wrote, “I stopped play to have sandwiches and crack a bottle of wine, so I could dwell with my thoughts. You can guess where they centered — on the New Year’s beginning a year before, when the bell rang the chorus while our hearts sang the rapture without words and we greeted the New Year from the hallowed heights of heaven. . . .”  It goes on.

Again, no mention of what kind of sandwich he “stopped play” to have, but at least he thought he needed a bottle of wine to go with it. 

Warren Harding gets a bad rap in political circles, and hasn’t left us with many quotable lines.  But he did once say, “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything.”  That could have been written by Chandler about Marlowe, though I don’t think Marlowe actually had any friends at all.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Maybe not the greatest headline in the history of the Daily Telegraph, but not 

too shabby.


Just how funny does this sound anyway?  

But you can read the whole thing here, if you'd like.  The metaphor pretty much works for any vegetable or fruit, actually.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014


I’ve speculated elsewhere about the eating habits of the divine Tilda Swinton, having rather assumed that she lived on air, or orchids.  Certainly not on tomato soup.  

But now, here she is being interviewed by punters on Reddit AMA  (Ask Me Anything).  One of them, named DemJukes asks, “What is your favorite sandwich?”
And Tilda replies, “Today, I have to say avocado and goat's cheese.”

And then some wag with the handle UnbeatableUsername asks, quite reasonably it seems to me, “What was it yesterday?”

And he gets no reply!