Thursday, March 26, 2009


Whenever we write or talk about food we’re inevitably writing and talking about other things as well; class, community, ethnicity, gender, status, whatever. At a certain point all food is metaphoric; from the forbidden fruit to the last supper.

Sometimes food can define or at least stereotype nationality. So the English call the French frogs and the French call the English beefsteaks; although it’s always seemed to me the French are pretty enthusiastic about steak frites themselves. Germans, of course, are Krauts.

I’m particularly interested in the way food metaphors and similes can be used to define individuals: so a woman becomes a hot tomato or a hot tamale. Tomatoes, we know, used to be called love apples. The tamale comparison suggests spiciness.

I’d always thought that calling a woman a “long tall drink of water” was an insult, implying she was cold and insipid, but talking to my wife (a six foot tall blonde) and a little bit of Googling proves I was wrong about that. The loved one says she’s always regarded it as a compliment, and online Pam Grier and Julie Strain are just two of the women I found described that way, and nobody ever called those two cold and insipid. I suppose the implication is that they satisfy thirst.

In northern England where I grew up, calling a woman “a nice bit of crackling” was a very high compliment indeed, although I can understand if not every woman in the world wanted to be thought of as a piece of roast pork.

It seems to be different for men. In Bull Durham when Kevin Costner gives Tim Robbins the nickname “Meat” this definitely isn’t a compliment, though I don’t altogether see why. Who doesn’t like meat? Well OK, half the world, but you know what I mean. Calling somebody Stringbean seems a far worse insult.

And I’ve always been surprised by the insult “as boring as a potato sandwich.” Is it just my Irish ancestry or is a potato sandwich actually pretty darned fascinating?

Food is regularly used as a metaphor for madness; nuts, crackers, fruit loop, one sandwich short of a picnic, etc. New Zealanders, apparently, use the expression “as mad as a meat axe.”

But for sheer verbal inventiveness I think this food simile from PG Wodehouse’s Bring on the Girls is pretty hard to beat.
“Guy was silent for a moment. His finely chiseled features twisted a little, as if the memory pained him. With men of the Guy Bolton type memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is better not to stir them.”

Guy Bolton looked like this:

Monday, March 23, 2009


Sometimes when I think about meat I also think about art, and then I inevitably think about Meat Joy, a performance art piece by Carolee Schneeman, although since it was first performed in 1964 it was probably called a “happening” at the time.

For decades I thought this must be the sexiest, most perverse, most exciting spectacle ever. The received wisdom was that it featured naked people have sex while rolling around in raw meat. I liked the sound of that.

Now, thanks to youtube and a bunch of other sites, we finally get to see the damn thing, or at least some blurry footage of it.

And you notice a number of things: that the people aren’t really naked at all - they’re wearing fur trunks and bikinis, as if they were in a caveman movie - which means of course that they’re not really having sex; they’re having interpretative dance. And most importantly, there really isn’t that much meat involved, certainly not enough to go round, and some of it’s chicken feet, and some of it (for Pete's sake) is fish.

And of course the performers’ “joy” looks pretty damn fake, like in the worst kind of “porno for couples” movies where everybody has to look like they’re having a really happy, happy meaningful experience.

You want some real meat art? Then you want Francis Bacon. Porcine name: porcine guy.

And maybe you want Mark Ryden.

I once met Ryden at a party given by Benedikt Taschen. The catering was a very meaty affair, done by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the guys who had a Food Channel show where they were known as the Food Dudes and now run a bacon-positive restaurant in LA called Animal. I didn’t know it at the time but Ryden once did an exhibition called “The Meat Show: paintings about children, god, and USDA grade A beef.”

In a rather snotty, or perhaps faux-snotty, interview in Juxtapoz magazine he was asked, "What is this unholy fascination you have with raw meat?" And Ryden replied, “Brisket, chuck roast, Angus beef, lamb, chicken, and the other white meat. Meat: it's what's for dinner.”

I think that’s a pretty good answer, and I can’t begin to imagine why the interviewer thought there was anything unholy about meat. If I was in the business of starting religions (and don't worry, I'm not) I'd be very tempted to start The Church of God The Carnivore. But maybe Mark Ryden got there first.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I once wrote an article about soup for the London Daily Telegraph magazine. I tried to make it edgy but, you know, soup just isn’t an edgy subject. The job involved going to Yorkshire, talking to a husband and wife team who ran a small gourmet soup company, visiting their factory, interviewing them, looking at their methods, eating their soup and so on.

A photographer and his assistant were there, photographing everything in sight, industrial blenders, piles of fresh vegetables, and eventually still lives of the soup in bowls, arranged with little posies and curlicues of celery. It looked very pretty. The photographer a much longer day than I did. When I called it quits after five hours or so, having got more than enough info, he still another half dozen soup set-ups to do.

This guy was an honest photographer. He was photographing the actual food made by the company, but we know that food photography is often a cheat: chicken coated with Vaseline, mashed potatoes standing in for ice cream.

I realized recently that two of my favorite art photographs – Martin Parr and Nobuyoshi Araki – regularly, perhaps obsessively, take photographs of food, although they’re about as far away from being “food photographers" as it’s possible to be.

Martin Parr used to photograph the oddities and absurdities of English culture, and of course food played a huge part in that. Now he travels the world, and his photographs of food have become ever more lurid, in some cases downright revolting.

The mildest thing you might say about Parr is that he’s a satirical social commentator. I think you could go a lot further and say he’s a very angry man, outraged and disgusted by the crassness and the vulgarity of the world around him. The fact that he’s drawn to that vulgarity, and endlessly records it, is of course what makes him a great artist. There is very little food, as photographed by Martin Parr, that you'd want to put in your mouth.

Araki is a different case. He has an obsessive photographic eye that gazes with equal intensity at women’s bodies, landscapes, flowers and indeed food. Whatever he looks at he manages to find something perverse, dark and sexual lurking there.

His book Sokhumi - The Banquet, contains photographs of the food that he and his dying wife Yoko ate between January and November 1985. Of course we expect Japanese culture and Japanese food to be strangely, curiously sensual, and Araki doesn’t disappoint, with images like this:

And yet for all that Araki finds food, sensuous, strange and sinister, I don’t think he’s disgusted by it in the way that Parr is. He embraces those qualities, revels in them, makes them his own. Perhaps this is simply to say that the Japanese have a very different attitude toward food than do the English.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


And speaking of album covers, why is it that rock music happily admits the association between food and sex, but then finds it necessary to make a joke out of it? If it's a vaguely offensive joke then so much the better, apparently.

If there's a less sexy "sexy" album cover than the one above from Juicy Lucy, I'm pretty glad not to have seen it. I guess the days when we fretted about sexism in rock are long gone, but you don't exactly need to be a member of a lesbian separatist commune to believe this cover says something pretty nasty about the male psyche.

And what about this one from the Undertones?

This one was always baffling. I have no idea what the lads in the band did in their personal lives, but the music always seemed sort of youthful and innocent and clean living; nothing like the vibe depicted on this cover. I'd believe that Joey Ramone wrapped naked girls in bacon, but not Feragal Sharkey, surely.

The Undertones were of course very young at the time, and no doubt had a lot of things still to work out. Making a joke was easier than dealing with the real thing. And maybe what we're actually talking about here is a denial of sensuality. Good food, like good sex, is actually quite a complicated pleasure. They both involve intensity and instinct but that doesn't mean there's anything exactly simple about them.

And of course this applies to the best rock music too: it has sensuality, sexuality and a subtlety that may not be initally apparent.

Finally an image that seems to me to get it about right, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The moral here, I think, is that you can't have sex without breaking eggs. And maybe you don't want to.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I’ve been thinking about bananas and sex. Clearly many others have thought about it before me.

Bananas, obviously, are the most phallic of fruit, but that doesn’t necessarily make them very sexy, and it certainly doesn’t make them sensual. There’s something so obvious and absurd and laughable about the banana’s phallicism that it becomes a sort of jokey, knee-jerk shorthand for food and sexuality, rather than the thing itself.

If proof were needed here’s the album cover for Millie's "Time Will Tell."

You may remember Millie from such hits as, in fact her only hit, “My Boy Lollipop” which came with its own special notion of phallic/oral sensuality.

Album cover design is always a minefield, but I think Andy Warhol, perhaps inevitably, did this sort of thing as well as anybody is ever going to do it. The banana on the cover of the Velvet Underground album seems, sure enough, to be very jokey. And yet it’s such a knowing joke, and the image is so hard-edged and contrasty, and I guess you might say butch, that it’s sexy nevertheless.

I grow bananas here in my garden in LA. I bought a banana plant at a local nursery, stuck it in the ground and we’ve had bananas ever since. Our plant produces bananas that are smaller and straighter than the ones sold in stores, and they all come ripe at the same time at which point there are far more of them than anybody can possibly have a use for. See: you start talking about bananas and the smutty innuendos come thick and fast (see: again).

But I still don’t think they’re all that sexy. On the other hand, also dangling from the banana tree in my garden is this thing:

It’s the group of flowers or more correctly the inflorescence that dangles down underneath the bunch of bananas. And of course I give myself away here, but it seems to me there’s something so dark and sensual and decadent and vaguely corrupt about it that it makes an actual banana seem unbelievably boring and vanilla, and really not very sexy at all.

Of course, I have to admit, you can't actually eat it.

Monday, March 9, 2009


I used to know a fairly loathsome, angry man in London who eventually realized just how loathsome other people found him, and how angry he actually was, and so he took some anger management classes. Part of his “cure” was to give up meat and become a vegetarian.

People, some of them way less cynical than me, said, “Well, it sure worked for Adolf Hitler.”

Last week the auction house of Mullock’s sold an intelligence report, written by a British agent in 1945, summarizing the interrogation of a German prisoner who’d been a staff member with Hitler in Berlin, and who claimed to have eaten with him at least thirty times. Nobody seems to have doubted the claim.

The German prisoner, known as PW, reported that Hitler ate a "frugal meal" at 2 in the afternoon and then had a "post-prandial nap." In the evening, at 8, he’d have his main meal which consisted of vegetable stew followed by stewed fruit.

Hitler ate this very quickly in just a few minutes (well you would, wouldn’t you?). But, according to the prisoner's account, “the entire meal usually lasts two hours.’

These must have been long nights for all concerned.

There’s a story, not necessarily apocryphal, of an occasion when Hitler was undergoing some medical tests and his doctor collected a quantity of Hitler's blood in a glass beaker. Hitler, apparently, said something like, “All you need now is some is pork fat and then you’ll be able to make Fuhrer blood sausage.”

The picture above shows Hitler eating with Goebbels at a "Fintopf" – a single pot supper.

The picture was taken in February 1945 and the original caption in the English press said they were “stewing in a pot of hate.” Undeniably true, yet they look oddly cheerful to me. I've certainly been at much less happy suppers than this one appears to be. Hasn't everybody?

Saturday, March 7, 2009


And here's my (remarkably unpsychotic) review of "Righteous Porkchop" from the SF Chronicle

RIGHTEOUS PORKCHOP: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms
By Nicolette Hahn Niman
(HarperCollins; 321 pages; $23.99)

Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson

According to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," you can't stay long in a slaughterhouse listening to the "hog squeal of the universe" without becoming philosophical. "Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering?" he asks. To which the answer, if agribusiness has its way, is a resounding no.

I don't know if Nicolette Hahn Niman has read "The Jungle" - she may well have been too busy with legal reports and farming manuals - but she's certainly spent time in a slaughterhouse, and become suitably philosophical.

At the beginning of her book Niman is the young lawyer chosen by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lead the "hog campaign" within his environmental watchdog group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, using legal processes to combat the pollution caused by factory farming, and making local authorities enforce the laws that already exist. Niman admits that hogs were not her area of expertise: She was a committed vegetarian, though with no ethical objection to meat eating per se. She describes her steep learning curve, educating the reader as she educates herself.

In the best parts of the book she gives us a snapshot history of American agriculture and food production, showing how we moved from traditional farming methods to a situation in which animals are regarded and treated as an industrial product.

The book is full of astonishing and sometimes horrifying facts. If you want a crash course in the mechanics of feedlots, confinement pens and "manure lagoons," this a good place to start, though you're sure to learn things you'd rather not.

Will it surprise you, for instance, that when researchers from the University of Maryland sampled packages of ground meat, they found salmonella in 16 percent of the pork, 24 percent of the turkey and 35 percent of the chicken?

Did you know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has apparently decided that chickens aren't really animals, since they're not covered by laws relating to humane slaughter? Consequently, Niman tells us, "spent hens are frequently vacuumed up into trucks and dumped into a rotating blade chopper ... while ... still alive and conscious."

Perhaps quite a few people are already aware that cattle, natural herbivores, are fed the bones, organs and skin of other animals, along with beef tallow, but surely it's a shock to discover that agribusiness is addressing the problem of excess manure production in cattle by feeding it back to them.

We go with Niman to hog factories of varying degrees of grimness, we share in her legal battles, but then halfway through the book her life takes an abrupt turn. She leaves the Kennedy fold after finding herself at odds with a new boss, and then marries cattleman Bill Niman, founder of the impeccably credentialed Niman Ranch. She rapidly progresses from observer to fully fledged participant, along the way becoming a passionate advocate of "ethical animal stewardship."

Niman never comes across as smug, and yet this idyll is the least interesting part of the book. Her story is further sabotaged when we learn what many readers will already know, that Bill Niman is no longer associated with the ranch that bears his name. The moneymen decided that the operation had to be run more like the rest of the meat industry, and Bill departed to raise goats and turkeys. The author calls this "an interesting twist," and I assume she's working under legal constraints; even so, I felt a bit cheated.

Still, the fact is, most of us are hypocrites when it comes to food. We say we want to eat well and ethically, we admit to qualms about modern methods of food production, but most of us would rather not know the whole story. We certainly don't want to be denounced and berated by fanatics. Fortunately for people like us there's Nicolette Hahn Niman, a generally sane and sympathetic character, pushing us gently but firmly in a direction we know we should already be heading.



My pal Jeremy Beale writes to me:


I just read the latest on Psycho Gourmet and it reminded me of that old
thing about people eating in French films and not in Hollywood films. Movies
may be outside your remit but may I suggest the Proust films? There's the
scene in Ruiz's Time Regained when St Loup, returned to Paris on leave from
the trenches lunches with Marcel - there's a sort of savagery about the
relish and hunger with which he eats; it's extraordinary - we're inclined to
think of the pleasures of the table as being refined but here (with fantastic realism given what we imagine he's been eating whilst on active duty) the way he wolfs down his food is almost sexual.


Proust is not a completely open book to me. I don't believe I've ever eaten a madeleine - the expectations would surely be too high - and if it weren't for Proust I'm not sure I'd even know they exist.

Proust tells it thus:

“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”

From this it seems to me he didn't necessarily expect his readers to know what a madeleine was: some explanation was obviously necessary. And although I grew up thinking it was perfectly OK to dunk biscuits in my tea, I suspect there are books of etiquette that say otherwise.

Above is a still from a Korean tv drama series called My Lovely Sam-soon, in which the heroine, Kim Sam-soon, a French-trained pastry chef explains to her doctor friend all about Proust and the madeline. She concludes, at least according to the online translation, "This is sexy cookie."

Marcel would perhaps have put it differently, but I think he'd have understood.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Actually I think there are problems in approaching food through literature. Authors have the tendency to make their food over-symbolic. Sometimes a sausage is just a sausage.

When I was a teenager, Joyce’s Ulysses was one of the first pieces of “literature” I read by myself, without a teacher leaning over my shoulder. I can’t really remember what the experience was like – confusing no doubt – but I do remember the books seemed to be full of food.

Somehow I already knew about Leopold Bloom eating with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowl, but the passage that really got to me was in the “Lestrygonians” chapter when Bloom goes into Davy Byrne’s “moral pub” and orders a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich. This struck me as almost insanely exotic.

I came from a family that preferred its food not to taste of anything. Blue cheese was regarded as a horror; a glass of wine at lunchtime would have been considered both decadent and pretentious.

Of course, in retrospect, I guess you that Bloom only orders Gorgonzola because it contains the word “gorgon” and so Joyce can keep up his patterning based on the Odyssey. It wouldn’t have worked with Gouda.

The passage also contains that line “Cheese digests all but itself,” which I’ve never understood, because cheese DOESN’T digest all but itself, does it? “Ulysses Annotated” by Gifford and Seidman tells us the phrase originated in the 16th century and that cheese making “was popularly regarded as a process of digestion because it involved the use of rennet,” but that sounds to me like cheese is digesting itself and not everything else.

In any case, I suspect food is best in literature when it’s bad rather than good, just like bad restaurant reviews are so much more entertaining than good ones.

And while we’re still with Gorgonzola and the Irish, I think my favorite literary bad food passage appears in Samuel Beckett’s Dante and The Lobster.

What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.
He looked fiercely at the grocer.
“What's that?” he demanded.
The grocer writhed.
“Well?” demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, “is that the best you can do?”
“In the length and breadth of Dublin” said the grocer “you won't find a rottener bit this minute.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Sherlock Holmes, perhaps like quite a few coke users, seems not to have been particularly interested in food.

In The Adventure of The Norwood Builder Dr Watson tells us, “My friend had no breakfast for himself, for it was one of his peculiarities that in his more intense moments he would permit himself no food, and I have known him to presume upon his iron strength until he has fainted from pure inanition.”

Nevertheless there are at least four Sherlock Holmes cookbooks. The one I own is called The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook, by William Bonnell, a source of much amusement, not all of it intentional.

We know that Holmes and Watson were fans of Simpsons in the Strand and that Holmes and brother Mycroft went to the Diogenese Club, but it’s hard to find a detailed description of an actual Holmesian meal.

The best, and it’s the only one that Bonnell can really come up with, appears in The Adventure of The Noble Bachelor in which Holmes and Watson sit down to a “quite epicurean little cold supper” featuring “a brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate-de-foie-gras pie, with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles.”

The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook doesn’t give us recipes for any of these things. Instead, the author proceeds by way of free-association. So, in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot there’s a mention of Cornwall, and then we get a recipe for Cornish pasties.

In The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez Holmes says that he and Watson are “famous fishermen” and Bonnell gives us a recipe for Hot Pickled Salmon.

Holmes and Watson often travel by train, therwfore we’re given a recipe for Railway Journey Egg Sandwiches. Apparently the Victorian often used a slice of toast for sandwiches, slit open as if it were pita, which OK I admit is surprising and interesting.

But my favorite hoot is in the intro. Bonnell speaks of the housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, “Did she also offer them haggis, the oatmeal and internal organ mixture prepared in a sheep’s stomach, during Hogmanay?” he asks. And then concludes, “Perhaps not.” So why trouble us with the speculation?

Is he mocking the haggis here? Or does he simply know that others will? I hope not. I have enough Scottish ancestry to be resentful. Haggis is really good. And if you’re prepared to eat an American hotdog a haggis will contain no new horrors.

Still I have to accept that foods from other cultures are a source of low comedy. And even my beloved Simpsons mocks English food – I don’t object to the mockery I just don’t want it to be too easy. I suspect somebody somewhere is writing a PhD on the Simpsons and food even now, it’s a huge area, but I’m thinking here of the Four Beheadings & A Funeral episode, and the search for the Mutton Chop Murderer - a Sherlock Holmes parody in which the killer is caught because the murder weapon smells of eel pie.

When I first lived in London I knew there were such things as eel and pie shops, and I assumed they sold eel pies. In general they don’t. They sell eel, and they sell meat pies. Why not eel pies? I don’t know. A case for Sherlock.