Thursday, September 3, 2020


I was eleven years old when I first tasted vodka.  My grandfather had recently died and so 

the family was taking my grandma to the Butlins Hotel in Blackpool to help console her.

        I’d been warned that this holiday might be less fun than usual. The hotel didn’t have a swimming pool or slot machines or ping-pong tables or any of the other things associated with Butlins, but it did have a large all-purpose ballroom in which bands played, where films were shown, and dances held.
         My parents liked old-fashioned dances and the one they dragged me along to had a compere who offered ‘spot prizes’ to the dancers.  So he’d say, ‘I’ll give this big box of chocolates to the first person to show me a dirty picture of the queen,’ and if you ran up to him brandishing a grubby bank note, then you were a winner.

         My dad had some experience of this kind of thing, and when the compere asked for somebody to show him ‘a row of black teeth’ dad ran up waving his comb and he won a bottle of Smirnoff vodka.

         My parents had no qualms about giving alcohol to an eleven year old. I’d already tasted beer, brandy and whisky, but vodka was a new experience.  We didn’t have to drink responsibly in those days. I liked it well enough when it was drowned in orange juice.

         There was a paper collar around the neck of the vodka bottle, for a competition to come up with an advertising slogan for Smirnoff.  The prize, as I remember, was a holiday abroad, and my dad was determined to win it.  Not only that, he quickly came up with a slogan that he thought couldn’t fail.  I never saw my dad so convinced of anything. His slogan was ‘The Onus is on Bonus.’
         Even aged eleven it struck me that this probably wasn’t a winning slogan, chiefly because it didn’t have anything to do with vodka, but I was already wise enough not to say this to my dad.
Of course I wasn’t surprised when the slogan didn’t win, and if my dad was disappointed – and how could he not be? - he kept it to himself.  Maybe it confirmed for him that the world wasn’t fair and that the best didn’t always win prizes, which is obviously true regardless of the quality of his slogan.

I’m not sure what the winning slogan was or if the company even used it, but I know that Smirnoff was famous for its slogans.  One was Clearly Smirnoff, which I imagine might dad just might conceivably have come up. Another was Pure Thrill, something that my dad wouldn’t have come up with in a hundred years.

As you see from some of the ads above, Smirnoff seems to have been ahead of the game in their racial politics.  The sexual politics still had a way to go.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


I can’t remember exactly when I first made an attempt to read Ulysses; but it somewhere between starting to drink illegally in pubs and being able to drink  legally in pubs.  And I was fascinated by the Lestryogonians section where Bloom eats a gorgonzola sandwich accompanied by a glass of Burgundy.

Mr. Bloom ate his stripes of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate.  Not logwood that.  Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off’ 

I wasn’t sure about the mustard with gorgonzola, or with cheese in general, but I know some people like that that kind of thing.

That passage in Ulysses cheered me up no end. I was already a bookish lad, and I thought. ‘This is great. This is what my life could be about: reading books and thinking about food.’  

At much the same time as I tackled Ulysses, I started to read Samuel Beckett’s novels, though somehow I missed, or at least had forgotten till I reread it a couple of weeks back, this passage in Murphy (1938).

‘She (Celia) entered the saloon bar of a Chef and Brewer and had a sandwich of prawn and tomato and a dock glass of white port off the zinc.’

I’ve had white port once or twice, though not off the zinc, and I know it wasn’t Borges brand, though for literary reasons I wish it had been.

It’s hard to think of white port without thinking of the song ‘White Port and Lemon Juice,’ or ‘WPLJ” originally by the 4 Deuces, then given some fame by Frank Zappa.

I don’t know if the Four Deuces ate a sandwich with their white port and lemon; I suspect not.

Then just the other day I was thumbing through a reprint of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meir of the Ritz bar in Paris (1934), and remembered it contained a poem by J. Ainsworth Th. Morgan titled ‘Ode to the Ritz Bar’ which contains these lines
‘The noise of liquor, ice and shake;
A kingly mixing knack,
A sandwich, almond or a chip, 
Then ‘bottoms-up” and “Smack.”! 

Of course we don’t know what cocktail our poet was thinking, and we know there are such things as ‘cocktail sandwiches’ but it seems to me there aren’t many cocktails that go very well with a sandwich, and vice versa.

Saturday, August 8, 2020


When I was a kid I had a hankering to eat unusual cheeses.  There was a cheese stall in the local market that sold all kinds of exotica, though I expect I wouldn’t find them very exotic today, probably Danish blue and brie. But my mother wouldn’t buy me any of it. She ‘knew’ I wouldn’t like them. She thought it was just a whim.   Cost may have had something to do with it too.

The only unusual cheese I was allowed was allowed to have Swiss Knight cheese spread: a variety pack, various wedges of different flavours, some definitely better than others.  It wasn’t great but it was something.

Since then I’ve indulged my cheese whims as much as I can.  My mother was wrong – it wasn’t just a whim.  It was a lifelong obsession.

And then last week I was in the local Asda and came upon a Polish equivalent of those Swiss Knight variety packs, Ser Kremowy Sortett.  Thus:

The flavours are natural, with ham, and with paprika.  I’m pretty sure there was no paprika in the Swiss Knight selection.

The Polish cheese spread wasn’t great, but you know, even when cheese isn’t great, it’s still cheese. 

Monday, July 27, 2020


The look of love

I’ve been reading extracts from Finding Freedom – the “tell-all” book about Harry and Meghan.  It’s hilariously terrible.  Here’s an example:
 ’‘Over drinks (beer for him, a martini for her) they asked each other about their work.  Nibbles may have been on the low table in front of them, but neither touched the food.”

The implication seems to be that that nibbles may NOT have been on the low table in front of them. 
I really don’t care at all about Harry and Meghan (though I wish them no ill) but I would like to get it straight about the nibbles.  

This meeting was at Soho House, a place I used to be taken once in a while by my literary agent. Yes kids, that kind of thing really did used to happen.  It’s not the place I’d go for a discreet assignation and I don’t remember there being any nibbles, though conceivably Harry and Meghan got special treatment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


I was in London and had my first post-lockdown beer in a pub, at The Goose, in Walthamstow.  It looked like this:

Had to sign in to enter the pub, and give personal details for track and trace to the girl on the door who had a tattoo of Danny DeVito on her calf.  Not Danny DeVito as the Penguin, which might have been expected, but just as himself.  No, she’ll never live to regret that.

Having got in and ordered at the bar, the beer was subsequently delivered by a member of staff.  It was all amazingly pleasant and civilized, and the pub wasn’t too full – that would be the social distancing.  A man could get used to this, though presumably it won’t last. We will return to some version of the old normal.  The beer, inevitably was a bit of a disappointment, I’d hoped for too much, the gratification had been delayed too long, but I was very glad to have it, and then glad to have had it.

There was also the first post-lockdown meal, in Diner at Spitalfields market.  

There was more signing in, occupied tables suitably far apart from each other, and we were given instructions about having to wear a mask when going to the toilet, but the burger and fries were perfectly OK.  St John it wasn’t; but you know, St John wasn’t open yet.

Sunday, July 12, 2020


As you probably know by now, if there’s one food I think I couldn’t live without it’s potatoes. There are rumours, maybe urban myths, that you can live quite happily and healthily eating nothing but potatoes.

I’m not sure that this is true, but even if it is, I’m not sure that it applies to potato crisps (chips to my American readers), and I suspect it may apply even less to Chilli and Lemon Grills, Flavoured potato snack, made by Cofresh - ‘proud to be No.1 Indian Snack Brand.’  They’re based in Leicester.

The ‘grills’ taste perfectly good, but look on the back of the pack and check out the list of ingredients: the first three are ‘native potato starch, potato solids, and modified potato starch.’ That’s three forms of potato! Not too shabby.

Also, another of the ingredients is ‘Lemon Juice Powder.’ I suppose I must have encountered this before, but never knowingly, and it takes a strong man not to think of Lemsip. 

But it turns out you can buy lemon juice powder all over the Web.  I had no idea. I’m not sure why you would, but it’s probably good to know you can.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020


I’ve been thinking about Lee Miller’s prize-winning recipes for open-sandwiches.  I have my reasons.
          One of the most highly prized volumes in the Psychogourmet Archive is Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches: An Introduction to Danish culinary art,  by Asta Bang and Edith Rode.

It contains a lot of the kind of food you’d expect – herring, shrimp, cheese, sausage, and some things that you wouldn’t, such as an open sandwich with lard and potato, and (and I quote) ‘What would you say to a piece of buttered white bread with slices of a slightly unripe apples (sic) covered with a slab of liverpaste?'  I’m still trying to come up with an answer.

But I think my favorite is the Sandwich Pie, seen below on the right, essentially a loaf of bread got up to look like an iced sponge cake, with mustard butter, mayo, and Dutch cheese instead of frosting.

You know, I often think that sandwich recipes are unnecessary.  You put some things you like between or on slices of bread, and there you have it.  But I don’t think many of us would have come up with that sandwich pie.

And I’m not sure how many of us would have come up with Mrs. Beeton’s notorious ‘toast sandwich’ – two slices of bread with a slice of toast between them.  

I suppose it all depends on the bread, but as you see, Mrs. B does also suggest putting some meat in there, and also that it’s food for invalids.

Every bit as intriguing is the recipe that immediately precedes it: Toast and Water.

She admits it’s ‘exceedingly disagreeable’ drunk tepid or lukewarm, but I’m really not sure how great it would be at any temperature.  Also, when you strain it, what exactly gets strained out?  The bread I suppose, so you’ve just got some vaguely bready water.  It was a different age, obviously.