Tuesday, May 23, 2017

THEN I SAW THE CONGO CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK …

I was watching Congo, the other night, the 1995 moviesbased on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name.  I had never heard of either, so as the movie went along I kept thinking is this a comedy, a political thriller, a monster movie?  Well yes and no to all of those, although perhaps more accurately it could be seen as a fantasy update of King Solomon’s Mines.

Anyway it was entertaining enough, but as the end titles rolled I saw on the credits “martini illusion” by Ricky Jay.  Now, as regular readers will know, I’m a great admirer of Ricky Jay (isn’t everybody?) and I know he does movie consultancy work via his company Deceptive Practices, providing “arcane knowledge on a need to know basis”


Still I was surprised to see his name there, and even more surprised that there was a “martini illusion.”  Of course I knew there was a martini scene in the movie (above):  Amy the talking gorilla (don’t ask) demands a “green drop drink,” is given a martini and drinks it.  This was one of the reasons I thought the movie was a comedy.  But it wasn’t a major scene, and certainly it was no big deal, especially since this wasn’t a real gorilla but obviously somebody in a gorilla.  Couldn’t the actor inside have drunk whatever was in the glass?  Or failing that, just poured it down into the cavity of the suit?


Well no, apparently not.  I tracked down an interview with Ricky Jay on the AV Club website:

AVC: On Congo, you were a technical consultant. 
RJ: Oh God, yeah. Well, actually, there, when working with producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, our main task was to have an extraordinarily expensive gorilla suit protected. The gorilla was drinking martinis, and we had to make it look like the gorilla in fact did this, while making sure that there was no risk to a suit that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I mean, it is fascinating on some level how varied and different what we’re asked to do might be. 
          We were creating, basically, a cocktail that drank itself, so there was no chance of anything spilling or gumming up the works. “

I think the real surprise here is that the costume cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, because frankly it looked like it cost about 50 bucks.  But who am I to be critical?


An early version of this “illusion” was devised by Pythagoras, although his version didn’t involve either a martini or a glass, but rather an earthenware vessel with a kind of reservoir in the centered which siphoned off the liquid.  It was supposed to promote moderation. If wine was poured in above a certain level, it act as a siphon and the whole drink would come pouring out the bottom and into your lap.



My wife also tells me that her dad, who was a sometime amateur magician, did a “disappearing milk trick” – milk poured into newspaper cone but never coming out.  He performed it for her and her siblings when they were small children.  I’d have thought an audience of your own kids would be more rather than less skeptical, but they loved it apparently, and I suppose tricks with liquids are always going to be impressive.

Want to see a picture from the New York Times of Ricky Jay at breakfast?  Yeah, of course you do.  I don't believe either of those vessels is a trick glass.



Monday, May 22, 2017

THE BEETS GO ON

Here's a review I wrote of Alexander Theroux's extraordinary new book, EINSTEIN'S BEETS




TO BEGIN WITH the obvious question: Does the world need a more or less 800-page book on food phobias? Beats me. But the answer is in any case moot because, despite his subtitle, Alexander Theroux has written something rather different, more interesting and grander than that.

A phobia is generally considered (I’m quoting Merriam-Webster here) “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation,” and certainly Theroux writes about those who suffer from (and let’s face it, sometimes celebrate) this condition, though he also tries to explain the “inexplicable.” Moreover he demonstrates that the distinctions between phobia, dislike, simple preference, aversion, obsession, and mere squeamishness are inevitably blurred. He’s concerned with food fetishes, fixations, fashions, food snobbery, and inverted snobbery, with food as a marker of class, status, and self-definition. He presents a parade of faddists, would-be revolutionaries, nutritional autocrats, cranks, and a few well-meaning folk with dubious ideas.

Inevitably the book contains a good deal of what we might call “food trivia,” although I’m sure the author would rightly insist that these matters are anything but trivial. This is a serious book. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun along the way, starting with the title: it derives from the fact that “Einstein famously hated beets,” though it’s a limited fame as far as this reader was concerned. Einstein was not alone: Michelle and Barack Obama hate them too, as does the food writer and occasional novelist Gael Greene. In fact, the book demonstrates that you’re extremely unlikely to be alone in your phobia, however singular it may seem: Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t eat eggs — but neither would President Taft, nor will Whoopi Goldberg. Naomi Watts and Jennifer Anniston can’t abide caviar. Colson Whitehead can’t face ice cream having worked an ice cream stand where the “perk” of the job was all he could eat.


William Cobbett eschewed tea because it was “a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age.” Mussolini didn’t eat mashed potatoes because they gave him a headache. Idi Amin doesn’t seem like he’d have been a fussy eater, but he had his limits, “I tried human flesh, and it is too salty for my taste.” Of course the reader can’t be sure if this flesh was raw or cooked: if the latter, then surely the saltiness was the fault of the cook. There is also some speculation about whether Amin was actually speaking the truth or just buffing up his image as terrifying despot.



Prince (the purple one) didn’t like to eat much of anything, but he particularly disliked mushrooms, feta cheese, and onions, although when he let Heavy Table look is his fridge there were 18 jars of mustard in there, and he explained, “I don’t collect it, but LOL yeah there’s a lot in there.” Incidentally, Thomas Love Peacock, the 19th-century novelist and official of the East India Company, judged an inn by its mustard pot: if he didn’t like the look of the mustard he’d leave the place.

These unlikely connections across history and culture, surprising, entertaining, sometimes free associative but not exactly random, are what give Einstein’s Beets its special flavor and appeal. Theroux’s scholarship is wide ranging and digressive, drawing on a quirky, specialized knowledge of history, literature, the higher gossip, as well as pop culture. There’s even an unexpected “compare and contrast” between food attitudes in Star Wars versus Star Trek.

The book also contains much that is genuinely informative and educational. Who knew that T-bone steak became the vogue in South Africa after Archbishop Desmond Tutu pointed out that its shape resembled that of the continent? Who knew that celery, parsnips, figs, and parsley contain high levels of fucoumarins — “potent light-activated carcinogens”? How many of us are familiar with the philosophical poem by John Heywood (1497–1580) “Of Books and Cheese”? Well, I am now: it’s a good read.

Actually, cheese does seem to have the particular power to cloud men’s and women’s minds. Which is why Mitt Romney, when on the road running for president in 2011, though he ate a lot of pizza, always took the cheese off. T. S. Eliot declared “never commit yourself to a cheese without first examining it.” And Courtney Love, who hates cheese, calls it “sour milk LARD.” Like that’s a bad thing?


From time to time I was reminded of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, similar in its baggy, overstuffed, eccentric, encyclopedic qualitieswith the author by no means restricted to his alleged subject. Theroux’s book has something of the magnificent folly about it. He tells us Brief Lives, John Aubrey’s gorgeously chaotic collection of biographies, is one of his favorite books: no big surprise there.


The index of Einstein’s Beets is in itself a thing of wonder (if not of absolute accuracy): Angelina Jolie is there next to James Joyce, Jennifer Lopez next to Lord Byron, Homer next to J. Edgar Hoover next to Bob Hope next to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Full disclosure, I should say that I too appear there, lodged somewhere between Isaac Newton and Friedrich Nietzsche.)


However, all that free-wheeling research aside, there is a personal, autobiographical element to the book. Fittingly enough the author tells us about his own phobias and dislikes. A by-no-means-complete list includes peppermint, margarine, marshmallows, kidneys, fruit-flavored teas, haggis, Scotch eggs, pork pies, all white bread, sweetbreads, overcooked pastas, salty chips, dried coconut flakes that taste like candle wax, fat-free yoghurt, three bean salad, pretty much all casseroles, head cheese, Waldorf salad, menudo, white chocolate, whole-wheat pasta, egg salad in any form, deviled eggs, any canned or jellied ham, yellow waxed beans, smoked salmon and cream cheese pinwheels, tossed salads with apples, mince pies of any stripe, store-bought candied fruits, “harsh” anchovies, tuna or sardines packed in water “or even for that matter cheap mushy tuna in oil.” Here’s an author who knows his subject.


Theroux emerges as quite a character, perhaps his own literary creation; irascible, opinionated, easily distracted, with a lot on his mind. He doesn’t do political correctness, hardly a shock to readers of his earlier works, and that may be an objection for some, though it would be a very sour individual indeed who could keep an entirely straight face at some parts of his chapter titled “Liberace’s Sticky Buns, or How Gay is Your Food?” which reaches an apotheosis in a description by Neil Patrick Harris of his visit to an Asian restaurant in Montreal where he ate “acupunctured snapper.” Theroux quotes Harris as saying, “It’s snapper that has been caught and then killed in a way that is very calm — the fishermen insert needles so that the trauma of death is avoided and the cut is really tender.” I’d have thought this must be satire, but apparently not. The information comes from an interview in Bon Appétit, a magazine not much known for its zesty sense of irony and subversion.


Theroux meanwhile does a very nice line in casual, personal abuse. Bill Cosby is “the moronic, face-pulling jester/rapist.” Andrew Zimmern — he of Bizarre Foods fame — is “[s]calp-bald, beaky and voracious, he has the head of a California Condor, except that the body is that of a manatee.” Diana Vreeland whom he despises for her snobbery (she once said, “I loathe native food”) is “[t]all, loud, brash opinionated, and as homely as an empty glass of buttermilk.” Both Ogden Nash and Elaine Dundy are dismissed as poetasters. Mahatma Gandhi was a “peevish foodie,” P. J. O’Rourke a “would-be humorist,” Dick Cheney a “sour ball and satanic creep.” He isn’t always politically incorrect.


Joan Didion the “cadaverous novelist” and a “frail, querulous near-dwarf” comes in for special treatment. The dislike here (and it does seem downright phobic) surely has more to do with her writing than her eating habits, though Theroux takes time to pour scorn on her “personal cookbook” — “a bunch of astonishingly unoriginal recipes.” And he finds a surprising ally in Angela Carter — “Although I am a card-carrying and committed feminist,” she writes, “what I would like to see happen to Joan Didion’s female characters is that a particularly hairy and repulsive chapter of Hells Angels descend upon their therapy group with a special squeal of brakes and sweep these anorexic nutters behind them despite their squeaks of protest.” Ouch, in all sorts of ways.

Being an equal-opportunity abuser, Theroux also directs some venom at his own brother, “Dear Paul who is also compulsively and self-admiringly forever the steadfast, brave, and unwavering hero of his own books, both fiction and non-fiction.” He also casts doubt on Paul’s claims to have eaten owls, sparrows, and beaver, among other rarities.


As for his high seriousness, there’s a polemical section about the Israeli government’s policy to restrict the amount of food going into Gaza, and he quotes Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to (now-disgraced) Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as saying they were “putting the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger.” There’s also a pretty sharp analysis of Hillary Clinton’s political disingenuousness, in her refusal to express any food preference whatsoever, declaring that “all food is good,” presumably for fear of offending anyone. Trump is simply dismissed (the book was evidently written before the election), not least because Trump’s a man who will eat a whole bucket of chicken with a knife and fork.


But above all the book is an attempt to understand the various meanings that attach to eating and food, not only, or at least not narrowly, in terms of phobias and aversions. It may be a cliché to say that we are what we eat, but it’s true enough. And perhaps we’re even more defined but what we don’t eat, or what we refuse to eat. Theroux writes: “A negative chic attaches to refusing something outright. The act of spurning acquires a kind of power. It gives advantage, dominance.”

Well yes, most of us carnivores have ceded power to the vegetarian at our table, haven’t we? And most of us, however omnivorous, have probably turned up our nose at mom’s cooking in order to assert our independence. Theroux has a chapter titled “We Inhabit the Universe of Mom.”

Not that it’s only about mom. In a different chapter, titled “Hearst, Hebrews, and Hydrophones,” he offers a convincing analysis of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” Kafka may or may not have been suffering from anorexia nervosa, but he was certainly suffering from a troubled relationship with his father. Theroux sees the repudiation of food in this short story as an example of self-cancellation. “The Hunger Artist controls the one thing that he can,” and later he adds, “I have often thought that in extreme cases the food a person selects to dislike might very well be an objective correlative of his or her guilt, the projection of an inner demon.” The hunger artist “selects” to dislike everything.


Elsewhere in the book Theroux writes, “resistance, outward and inward, is nothing less than a whispering answer to our need […] The struggle is for freedom,” although of course it may well end up as a kind of enslavement. The last line of the book asks: “Why can’t food have its own devils?” But by then, Theroux has proved that it can, it does, and probably it must.

So to return to that opening question, does the world need an 800-page book on food phobias, as well as dislikes, simple preferences, aversions, obsessions, squeamishness, food fetishes, fixations, fashions, snobbery, and inverted snobbery? Simple answer: Damn right it does — and with Theroux at the helm, you can’t help wondering why it wasn’t a thousand, two thousand pages long. Some of us will be eagerly awaiting an expanded edition.
¤

Thursday, May 18, 2017

DINING WITH THE DALIS

You’ll find many sources telling you that Salvador Dali’s soft clocks – the kind you see in “The Persistence of Memory” - were inspired by seeing a camembert cheese melting in the sun.  This kind of thing:


I didn’t Know this till very recently, and to my eyes, those clocks look to be inspired more by the thin floppiness of brie than of camembert, although admittedly it's hard to  who am I to argue with art experts?  Salvador Dali’s cookbook titled Les Diners de Gala (first published in 1975, reprinted in 2016 by Taschen) gives no clue, and makes no mention whatsoever of camembert or brie, although Roquefort is mentioned as the basis of a sauce to go with turkey.


Digging around I did find this picture by Irving Penn made in 1992, an homage to Dali no doubt, he did a lot of food photography for Vogue and he photographed Dali too.  And this surely is a camembert, unless of course it’s a baby brie:


Les Diners de Gala is an odd confection, for one thing it’s not absolutely clear who wrote it.  Dali one assumes, though it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in the book.  It says he “conceived and materialized” it, and presumably Gala had a hand in it as well.  It’s translated by Captain J. Peter Moore who was one of Dali’s “aides,” a man so trustworthy than in 2004 he and his wife Catherine Perrot, were convicted of “tampering” with Dali's 1969 painting "The Double Image of Gala." The painting was stolen in 1974 and found in the Perrot-Moore Art Center in 1999.  The authorities then searched Moore’s home and workshops and found 10,000 allegedly fake Dali lithographs.


Other names appear on the book.  There’s an introduction by P. Roumeguere.  The Draeger Freres “assured the layout” with the collaboration of Max Gerard “under the direction” of Rene Toutain.  


The book is illustrated partly with Dali’s paintings and partly with photographs, some of the photos are credited to R. Guillemot, a few to other photographers – and some are not credited at all.


As for the recipes, some of the dishes are really not very appetizing – frog cream, and veal cutlet stuffed with snails.  Some sound perfectly good but way more trouble than they’re worth: blood sausage with chestnut soufflé, Peacock a l’Imperial (actually a quail dish, though foie gras and truffles are involved).  Some just seem a bit dull.  Do I really need Dali, or Gala, to tell me how to make a celery gratin?


Still it’s a fine and intriguing art volume.  Obviously it was never intended to be a practical recipe book to be used in the kitchen, and for that very reason I had to try making one of the recipes. I went for quail eggs with caviar, a dish that requires assembly rather than cooking, and in fact it’s a recipe “given by Maxim’s.”  Of course I didn’t use real caviar, and I hardboiled my eggs whereas the recipe called for them to be soft poached.  Runny quail egg yolks and black fish eggs struck me as a bit revolting, but arguably that was the point.  The end result tasted fine and it more or less looked the part, though I can’t say it was very Dali-esque,


By all accounts (especially John Richardson’s) Gala was a bit of pill, but Dali obviously got something he needed from her, and together they did seem, at least once, to bond over the pleasures of a good lobster.






Thursday, May 11, 2017

THE GUILT-FREE SANDWICH

You know, I really don’t “do” guilty pleasure: pleasure is pleasure – I have shed my quasi-Catholic upbringing to at least that extent.


And yet I always feel I shouldn’t enjoy  Pret A Manger quite as much as I do.  It is by many accounts a generic and soulless chain.  Yet at the one I always go to when I’m in London you get served quickly, you can always get a table, and they have a toilet you can use.  When you’re looking for a sandwich in London this is as good as it gets.  I usually go for the crayfish and arugula sandwich.


Obviously I’m not alone in enjoying Pret – the shops are always busy – but most of the customers don’t look like gourmets, much less fans of molecular gastronomy, but if the New York Times Style section is to be believed - Wylie Dufresne – he of the now defunct New York restaurant WD50 - is also a fan.


I’ve always had a lot of time for Mr. Dufresne.  He seems like a genuine original which I suppose is why he hasn’t gone the predictable and profitable path of the typical “celebrity chef,” a fact rather proven by his appearance in a column called Rituals, in which he says he goes to Pret pretty much every day and buys a balsamic chicken and  avocado sandwich.


“‘It’s smartly engineered,’ he says, explaining that the grilled chicken, not the mesclun, is dressed in the balsamic vinaigrette and sits between the dry lettuce and the avocado, so the bread doesn’t ‘sog out.’”

Things get even more interesting in the Dufresne sandwich universe when you realize
that his father is in the sandwich business.  He used to used to operate a sandwich shop with the vaguely ironic name (I think) Joe’s Old Abandoned Grocery Store, in Providence Rhode Island. 

And he’s about to open a sandwich place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan named BIGGYZ.  Here are father and son bonding over a “Tuna SOF tuna,” (at least I think that's what is is) "extra-virgin olive oil, black-olive spread, marinated artichokes, tomato, capers, red onion and hard-boiled egg slices, on sesame bread from Chinatown’s Prosperity Dumpling."


“He’s got a great sandwich palate,” says Wylie of Dewey.

And a finally a bit of historic sandwich lore, this picture appeared on a Facebook group called london in the 60s & 70s:


I not only remember sandwiches like that – I actually used to eat them for my lunch when I was a working stiff in the West End.  They were never very good, and some of them were just horrible, but we thought that was the way commercial sandwiches had to be.  We could imagine better but it seemed that nobody was ever going to put the necessary care and effort into making an improvement.  Lovers of Pret have very little to feel guilty about.

Monday, May 8, 2017

MI CASA ES SOUS-VIDE CASA



Being the well-connected tastemaker that I am, I sometimes get sent emails about “new and exciting” products.  I don’t actually get the sent the products themselves  - I’m not that well-connected - but at least I’m spared the agony of being corrupted.


So I’ve been receiving a lot of news lately about Sous-Vide magazine.  I suspect most of the world has never heard of sous-vide cooking - vacuum-sealing ingredients and then cooking them very slowly in warm water bath for a very long time, and requiring some expensive machinery if you’re serious about it.


Among those who have heard of it, many are still skeptical. I once ate a boiled egg that had been cooked sous–vide (for 12 hours as I remember, but I may be exaggerating) and it was great, probably as great as a boiled egg can ever be – but you know, it was still a boiled egg.

Anyway I thought the days of peak sous-vide were behind us but given the existence of the magazine (now on its second issues) perhaps not.


The current issue has recipes for sous-vide octopus (and it does seem to me that would be an ideal way to cook octopus) and also instructions on how to make sous-vide compressed watermelon and cryoconcentrated pea soup (don’t ask).

And there is even a sous vide recipe for – set your face to stun - a cocktail, in this case named “A Sour in the Key of Raffi” as served at The Aviary, Chicago.  The mag tells us, “This gin-based cocktail combines a kicky sous-vide banana-curry syrup with a thick, creamy egg foam and nutmeg finish.”

Oh, who among us hasn’t craved kicky sous-vide banana-curry syrup with our gin?  I won’t spoil thing for you, and them, by giving away the rest of the recipe – full marks for effort - and it ends up looking like this:



You know, I’m really glad I don’t have to drink it.