Friday, May 29, 2009


When I first got together with the Loved One she came to my apartment in London and I cooked for her. She offered to set the table and I said sure and she got out some cutlery and when I looked at what she’d laid out I said, “But honey, those are pastry forks!”

A pastry fork has a blunt blade down one side (for slicing rather than actually cutting) and tines for stabbing. See above.

She thought I was either insane or an aesthete, or both. She claimed, and I had to believe her, that she’d never seen a pastry fork and didn’t know what one was. More to the point, I think she didn’t see why a real man would even own pastry forks.

The last part is easily explained. I grew up in Sheffield, in northern England, a city that is famous for making steel and cutlery. There’s a reference in Mark Twain. My parents never actually worked in steel mills or cutlery factories but we had plenty of friends and relatives who did. All the time I was growing up sets of cutlery would arrive at the house, “gifts” from cutlery workers. These hadn’t exactly fallen off the back of trucks because most of them had never even made it onto the backs of trucks. People who worked in cutlery factories stole them because ... because they just did.

Consequently every household you ever went into in Sheffield had far more cutlery than it could ever possibly use. And after my parents died and it was my job to clear their house I found literally hundreds of knives, forks and spoons, including of course pastry forks; most of which had never been used.

At that point in my life I was a grown man with a life and household of my own. I thought I had all the cutlery I needed; but I didn’t have any pastry forks. So, as I got rid of all my parents’ redundant I kept a few pastry forks, a practical reminder of my mom and dad, which was why they were there in my apartment in London.

Now frankly I’ve never quite understood why the Loved One couldn’t tell that the forks she laid out weren’t your average fork. They had a blunt blade as well as tines. Surely you’d have noticed. But obviously she didn’t. So. Anyway ...

Lately I’ve been reading a book by Richard Wrangham called “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human” which among many other truly amazing topics discusses food and mating rituals among the Bonerif hunter-gatherers of New Guinea. Wrangham tells us that the sago palm is the year-round staple food of the Bonerif, and if a woman makes a sago meal and gives it to a man they’re considered to be married. “The association is so ingrained,” writes Wrangham, “that a man’s penis is symbolized by the sago fork with which he eats his meal. If a man takes his sago fork out of his hair and shows it to a woman, they both know he is inviting her for sex.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’m still not sure whether it makes eating and courtship much simpler of infinitely more fraught. I’m fairly sure however, that in the west, wearing a fork in your hair probably isn’t the best way of appealing to women.

I haven't been able to find an image of a sago fork, but below is one of something called a sago club , from Alfred Russel Wallace's "The Malay Archipelago:The land of the orang-utan, and the bird or paradise. A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature."

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Before 9/11, when I used to fly back and forth across the Atlantic all the time, I regularly stole the airline forks that came with dinner. Partly it was because I was outraged at the airfares and wanted a few freebies but also because some of them – the British airways ones especially - were actually quite attractive and well designed; real forks made of metal, not the plastic crud we have today. And for some reason I only ever stole forks, not spoons or knives.

Reay Tannahill in “Food In History” tells us that although forks in one form or another (pitch forks and kitchen forks for instance) have always been with us, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that they were regarded as anything other than a novelty, and often as an affectation. She says that as late as 1897 the British Navy was forbidden to use knives because they were regarded as “prejudicial to discipline and manliness.” She gives James Morris’s “Pax Britannica” as her source.

“Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things” tells us that small eating forks were introduced in eleventh century Tuscany and were denounced by the church on the dubious theological grounds that “only human fingers created by God, were worthy to touch God’s bounty.” Panati also says that over a century later, when a Venetian, fork-using noblewoman died of the plague, clergymen declared this was God’s vengeance for the woman’s excessive refinement. Mysterious ways indeed.

So I found myself wondering just what it is about the fork that gets people so riled up, and I began by wondering if it was sexual. “Forking” is slang for a certain kind of sex – what follows on from “spooning” – but I think that’s just a slightly lame play on words. As a phallic symbol the fork seems pretty useless.

And then I began thinking about the line that Injuns say in old cowboy movies; “white man speak with forked tongue.” Some scholars date the line, or at least a variation of it, to “The Great Sioux Uprising,” a 1953 movie starring Jeff Chandler (that's him below in the movie), which is credited to 3 writers - Melvin Levy, J. Robert Bren, Gladys Atwater - with additional dialogue by Frank Gill Jr. Who knows which of them came up with it? In any case these writers were definitely Hollywood types rather than experts in Native american linguistics, so they probably just made it up; or maybe this wasn’t even the first use of the line.

In any case, I’m guessing the Sioux weren’t big users of forks; and so the metaphor is presumably not theirs, but it’s obviously an incredibly appealing one. It’s used all the time by white men against themselves in fits of post-colonial guilt, and against other white men they disapprove of. Try Googling “forked tongue” and “George Bush.”

Ultimately I reckon it must have something to do with snakes and the devil. The devil is a liar. The devil is depicted as a snake. Snakes have forked tongues. And of course the devil himself carries a three-pronged fork. It’s a rich nexus, for sure, though again I think the Sioux probably have very different feelings about snakes.

The last few times I’ve flown – on Virgin America – the planes, or at least my lowly section of them, have been entirely fork-free zones. Obviously the cutlery we use always determines the food we eat, and vice versa. So Virgin now serves food that you eat with your fingers: sandwiches, wraps, cookies, cheese with fruit. There’s no need for a fork. The fork is regarded at best as surplus to requirement, at worst as a weapon. The fork is seen as dangerous. Maybe it always was. Personally I blame the devil.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Here’s proof, if proof were needed, that Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn isn’t the Tom’s Diner that Suzanne Vega sings about.

Here’s what Vega wrote in an article for the New York Times, published September 23, 2008 “I got the idea for “Tom’s Diner” in 1981, but I wrote it in the spring of 1982, making the song 26 years old now. When I was at Barnard College in Manhattan, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant for coffee, and after I graduated I also ate there before going to work. It was then a cheap, greasy place on 112th and Broadway, and it still is, in spite of its celebrity. (Sorry, but I have never been to the one in Brooklyn, though I hear it’s really cute. The real one isn’t cute, and isn’t atmospheric. It’s just plain, which is why I liked it.) And yes, it is the same one they use in the Seinfeld credits — the neon sign that says “RESTAURANT.” I actually once saw Jerry Seinfeld right near there!’

Elsewhere she says that she called it Tom’s Diner rather than Tom’s Restaurant just because it sounded better.

Still, it’s odd isn’t it that of all the diners and restaurants in the world, this particular, very ordinary one features in both a song and a TV show that have no connection with each other.

Arlo Guthrie “Alice’s Restaurant” managed to be both a song and a movie, but they were coming from the same source material, as it were.

Of couse there are a thousand and one songs that give shout outs to various restaurants and bars,from Rosa's Cantina, in "El Paso" by Marty Robbins to Dino's Bar & Grill in Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" but whole songs based around real places that seems fairly rare. I'm going to have to do some thinking about that one.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I’ve just been in New York doing the kind of things you do in New York, including a lot of eating.

The fanciest, and most old school, meal I had was the $45 mutton chop at Keen’s – and no, it most certainly wasn’t dressed as lamb.

The newest and hippest restaurant I went to was the John Dory. I had the flounder, which I was fairly sure I’d never eaten before. It was very good if you like fish and chips, and yes I do. My "companion" (do restaurant critics still use that term) was my edtior Geoff Kloske, who ate squid followed by octopus. He's hell on cephalopods, that guy. Best thing about the place was the counter top of the bar, which looked like this.

One thing I was absolutely certain I’d never eaten before was the “pork stomach porridge” I ordered at a Chinese restaurant called Great N.Y. Noodletown. It tasted much the way you’d imagine, and it seems that some bits of pork stomach are way more appealing than others, but we probably knew that already. “Frog porridge” and “beef and fish stomach porridge” were also on the menu; but I saved those for another time.

The most all-round fun meal I had was lunch at Tom’s Restaurant on Washington Avenue, in Prospect Heights, a fairly gritty bit of Brooklyn and even grittier at night than at lunchtime. Tom’s Restaurant stays shut at night.

Some authorities say this is the place Suzanne Vega sings about in Tom’s Diner, though they’re almost certainly wrong. But somebody definitely should write a song about it. I think it was the friendliest eating establishment I’ve ever been to. This was my first visit but Gus the owner treated me like family. I was there with my pal Michael Kupperman who’d been there a few times before and they treated him like a long lost son. My pastrami came with about a pound of potato salad, and I didn’t really need to eat again for the rest of the day, but somehow I forced myself.

This is the thing about New York. Of course I ate too much while I was there. It’s hard not too when there’s a deli or sushi bar, a pizza joint or hot dog stand on every street corner. There are those who say this is absolutely what’s wrong with America, that we’re becoming ever more overfed and obese simply because we overstimulate our appetites. We never really get hungry but we still want to eat all the time because there are so many enticing options all around us. As with drugs, pornography and gun crime, New York got there first.

On December 6th 1980 John Lennon was interviewed by the BBC and extolled the virtues of New York. He said, “I can go right out this door now and go in a restaurant. You want to know how great that is?” Two days later he was shot dead. Curiously enough he hadn’t been out to a restaurant. He’d been at the recording studio and had hurried home to see his son Sean before he went to bed.

Of course, one of the reasons New Yorkers eat out so often is because they have such crappy little apartments with even crappier little kitchens. It’s not so much that they want to eat out but that they can’t bear to stay home.

Below is the best food sign I saw in New York, in the window of a restaurant on 23rd Street called Live Bait.

My sentiments exactly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Friday’s LA Times ran an article with the headline “You’d rather eat pate than dog food? Try telling them apart.”

It described research done by the American Association of Wine Economists who fed 18 volunteers with 5 food samples, all of which looked like pate. The samples included duck liver mousse, liverwurst and Spam but one of them was Newman’s Own dog food.

Only 3 out of the 18 volunteers identified the dog food correctly. 8 thought the liverwurst was the dog food, 4 thought Spam was dog food.

I’m not sure this proves much of anything except that America is not a nation of pate eaters. I believe 18 Frenchmen would score rather higher.

I, however, am a pate eater. I enjoy cheap and cheerful pates as much as the high-end stuff, and since I make no claims to have the most sophisticated palate, I did wonder how I’d do on such a test. Also, I confess, I’d always wondered what dog and cat food taste like.

I wanted to take the test. However one dog food sample out of 5 seemed way too easy. What if you had 6 samples, 3 pates of various qualities, alongside 3 samples of dog or cat food ditto? (Actually 2 cat and 1 dog) Wouldn’t that be far more of a challenge? My wife, a tolerant and experimental woman, set up the blind test for me.

The first thing to say is that it’s very easy to make pate look like dog and cat food: no doubt the reverse is true too. And brave omnivore that I am, I admit that knowing you’re going to be eating cat or dog food isn’t a very appetizing prospect. We eat with our eyes but also with our preconceptions. I had a 24-ounce can of Miller Genuine Draft at hand to keep the palate cleansed.

Incidentally my wife tells me that watching someone eating cat food isn’t an especially comfortable experience, either.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it was dead easy to tell the difference. I was spot on in my identifications, six out of six. And basically the ones that tasted best were the ones intended for humans. Well, duh.

However, the best cat food - Fancy Feast Tender Beef and Liver - really didn’t taste so very much worse than the cheapest pate – Sells Liver Pate - and it would have been no great ordeal to eat the two cat foods I was presented with. They tasted a bit too strong, and they left a bitter after taste but put them on a cracker and serve them with a cornichon and they’d have gone down easily enough.

The only one that was completely gag-inducing was – perhaps you guessed – the Newman’s Own Chicken Formula For Dogs “Made With Organic Chicken.” The label lists brown rice, flax seed and kelp among many ingredients. To my palate it also seemed to contain bone fragments, sand, grit and god knows what else.

Well, this is hardy a criticism. Newman’s presumably understands the tastes of its demographic much better than I do.

As a final test we offered all 6 items to our cat – an old and fussy animal to be sure – and he wouldn’t touch any of them.

I’m sure this all proves something, but I’ll leave it to the American Association of Wine Economists – whoever the heck they may be – to decide what.

I was reminded of a passage in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The hero, Jurgis, learns a thing or two about what goes on in the canning-room at Durham’s meat processing plant.

“They advertised ‘potted chicken,’ – and it was like the boarding house soup of the comic papers, through which a chicken had walked with rubbers on. Perhaps they had a secret process for making chickens chemically – who knows? Said Jurgis’s friend; the things that went into the mixture were tripe, and the fat of pork, and beef suet, and hearts of beef, and finally the waste ends of veal, when they had any. They put these up in several grades, and sold them at several prices; but the contents of the cans all came out of the same hopper.”

Monday, May 4, 2009


This article of mine appeared as an essay in yesterday's New York Times Book Review (May 3, 2009)


By Geoff Nicholson

Like many people, I’ve been spending time lately with Roberto Bolaño’s enormous posthumous novel “2666.” The book is strange and wonderful in all sorts of ways, not least because I can’t think of any other novel in which so many meals are consumed while being so little described.

In the 150-page opening section, four lovelorn literary scholars zip around the world, trying to find a fugitive author and (I think you’d have to say) themselves. They’re always away from home and going out for meals in bars, restaurants, trattorias, taverns and in one case a “Lilliputian” cafeteria. But what do they eat? I have very little idea.

Most of these meals aren’t described at all, and even when certain items are mentioned — a taco here, sausage and potatoes there — there’s no attempt to evoke any sense of how the meal looked, tasted or smelled. I find this curious. I also find it a tremendous relief. Haven’t we all read too many novels in which authors go to town describing meals in sumptuous, elaborate detail, in some cases even giving us the recipes?

It’s all very well for Bob Cratchit and his family to sit down to a Christmas goose whose “tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness” were “the themes of universal admiration.” But since I’m likely to be reading this while sitting alone on the couch sustained only by instant coffee, I tend to develop a bad case of food envy. It’s a lot like sex, I think. I don’t want characters in novels to eat better than I do, any more than I want them to have better sex lives than I do.

I’ve realized that the moments of literary eating I like best are the ones in which the characters suffer because of their food. In “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance, there’s an early scene in which the wartime inhabitants of a London maisonette enjoy bananas served in myriad forms, including mashed bananas “molded in the shape of a British lion rampant.”

This is good stuff, but the truly magnificent scene in the book has Tyrone Slothrop sampling various hideous English candies, flavored with the likes of quinine, pepsin, eucalyptus, tapioca, until, choking, he’s offered a Meggezone, “the least believable of English coughdrops.” This is a real product, a nasty little black lozenge, still available, and if my childhood memory is reliable, Pynchon’s description of its effects — “Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs” — gets it about right.

Of course, nobody feels guilty about mocking English taste, least of all the English. In “1984,” George Orwell details the hideous food served in the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, chiefly a “pinkish-gray stew” that he says at one point has a “sour metallic smell,” at another is “tinny” and elsewhere is a “filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit.” O.K., George. We get the idea.

As with the Meggezone, I don’t think Orwell is actually inventing much here. He’s just remembering the terrible food he ate at school, in the army, and indeed in the BBC canteen. A few years earlier he’d written an article called “In Defense of English Cooking,” but since his defense was based on the virtues of bread sauce, marrow jam, suet and haggis, I wonder if it really helped.

I was recently rereading “Moby-Dick,” and it struck me as a vast smorgasbord (bouillabaisse?) of bad eating: the Try Pots Inn, where even the milk tastes of fish; the grim formal meals aboard the Pequod; and the notorious scene of Stubb’s Supper, in which the second mate gets a craving for whale steak and sends a crew member to slice some flesh off a poor dead beast attached to the side of the ship. The steak is “cut and cooked,” and although it’s not clear by what method, Stubb isn’t happy with the results and berates the ancient cook. He devours the steak regardless, and as he eats he hears sharks in the water far below tearing apart the rest of the whale carcass. This all leads Ishmael to ruminate about cannibalism — certainly some members of the ship’s crew are cannibals — and he concludes, “Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”

Not me, honest. But I accept that in literature, all sorts of people are; from Tamora in “Titus Andronicus” to the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine” to Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman. I assume it’s the idea of eating human flesh that’s repulsive rather than the flesh itself (I’ll bet it tastes a lot like chicken).

I know nothing about the eating habits of Thomas Harris or Bret Easton Ellis, but I would think that authors who revel in inventing nightmarish food scenes probably revel in eating really good food. Not Franz Kafka, however. He was a food faddist, a sometime passionate vegetarian, a drinker of vast quantities of unpasteurized milk and, according to current diagnosis, also an anorexic. There are those who claim that his short story “A Hunger Artist” is autobiographical, the story of a man who can fast indefinitely because he’s never found any food he likes.

According to Kafka’s great friend and biographer Max Brod, there was a time in the 1920s when Kafka considered, or at least fantasized about, opening a restaurant with his lover Dora Diamant, who was apparently an excellent cook. Kafka was going to be the waiter. The mind reels. How very different the history of 20th- century literature could have been if Dora had managed to put some flesh on those dry Czech bones. We might still have “The Trial,” but perhaps we’d also have “The Franz Kafka Cookbook.”

It would have some good company. Today, we have not only “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” a literary memoir as much as a cookbook and source for Brion Gysin’s infamous hash fudge (not brownie, as is so often supposed), but also “Dining With Marcel Proust,” “Tea With Jane Austen” and at least four cookbooks inspired by Sherlock Holmes; there’s also a book called “The Joyce of Cooking” (as in James), a title so wonderful that if you’d thought of it you would have had to write the book.

I tried, briefly, to come up with some preposterously unlikely titles — “A Lettuce Leaf With Joan Didion”; John Updike’s “Rabbit Reflux”; “Venus in Curds: In the Kitchen With Sacher-Masoch”; or “The James Frey Stovetop Companion,” in which all the recipes sound pretty good but you just can’t trust ’em. Then I discovered there actually is a book called “Kafka’s Soup,” although to be fair this is an ironic enterprise giving “a complete history of world literature” in recipes in the styles of various writers, including “Cheese on Toast à la Harold Pinter,” “Lamb With Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler” and Kafka’s “Quick Miso Soup.”

Still, I think we can safely assume that nobody will be publishing “The William Burroughs Cookbook” anytime soon, and that’s a shame, since “Naked Lunch” contains my favorite description of disgusting food. Burroughs writes: “In Egypt is a worm gets into your kidneys and grows to an enormous size. Ultimately the kidney is just a thin shell around the worm. Intrepid gourmets esteem the flesh of The Worm above all other delicacies. It is said to be unspeakably toothsome.” This is surely Burroughs’s own hallucinatory invention, but I’d still like the recipe. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten anything that was unspeakably toothsome.