Sunday, September 27, 2009


I was following one of my other mild obessessions, Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and I came across this quotation from the great man, “Blue cheese contains natural amphetamines. Why are students not informed about this?”

I guess he thinks they should be told so they can run out and buy a couple of pounds of Gorgonzola, although frankly I’d have thought good blue cheese was more expensive than most amphetamines. Admittedly this isn’t really my area.

Obviously Mark E. Smith is a fine character and he certainly knows his way around pharmaceuticals, but I still wasn’t convinced that there’s speed in blue cheese. A bit of research was required.

Smith is not alone in his belief. In fact, according Dr Neil Barnard author of Breaking the Food Seduction, “Cheese holds … drug-like compounds … It contains an amphetamine-like chemical called phenylethylamine, or PEA, which is also found in chocolate and sausage.” (The spelling is more usually phenethylamine, apparently.)

That seems to be saying it occurs in all cheese, not just the blue varieties.

And further research does indeed leave little doubt that phenethylamine-like chemicals do indeed occur in cheese, and phenethylamine is part of the same happy family as methamphetamine and MDMA (aka Ecstasy). There are plenty of sources online that will sell you the stuff as a diet aid.

Other sources say that phenethylamine is usually inactive when it’s taken orally because the body quickly breaks it down, and significant amounts never reach the brain.

So, eating huge quantities of blue cheese, it turns out, is unlikely to speed up your metabolism and give you that lean hungry, meth-head look, but I suppose we might have guessed that.

The best food story about Mark E. Smith appears in Stuart Maconie’s book “Cider With Roadies.” Maconie is in Smith’s flat after a boozy night out and Smith asks if he wants something to eat and Maconie says sure, so Smith goes into the kitchen and bangs around for twenty minutes or so and then comes out carrying two plates of potato crisp sandwiches (that’s potato chips in American parlance).

And because Smith is a good host, he asks Maconie, “Do you want a pickled onion with that?” I know I would have.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


And just to prove that pretension comes in many forms, I happened to be in Oceanside, near San Diego and saw in the near distance a sign for a place called “Auto Bistro.”

Well, we know things can get eclectic in Southern California. “Bistro” suggested something French-inspired, where you might expect to get a plate of rillettes, some boudin noir and a glass of Chablis.

“Auto” partly suggested a kind of drive through or maybe something like Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction where they eat in car-shaped booths, but also the old fashioned Automat where you put money in a slot and got a hot pie out of a machine.

As is always the way, I was hoping for too much.

Auto Bistro turned out to be a gas station, and yes you could buy food there, but it was strictly gas station food: hot dogs, potato chips, beef jerky, etc; not a boudin noir in sight, though they did have minute bottles of olive oil for sale.

It revived thoughts of the only TV show I’ve ever thought I could present: The Gas Station Gourmet.

The pitch: I’d go around America in a VW camper, complete with sink, fridge and cooker, go to some down-home, backwoodsy sort of town, visit the local gas station, talk to the folks, buy whatever food they had on sale, and then I’d take it back to the camper where I’d perform culinary miracles. Interested parties should talk to my agent, soonest.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel “Inherent Vice.” As mentioned in an earlier post, Pynchon has a fine eye, nose and vocabulary, for bad food.

Doc Sportello, the novel’s private eye hero, and his lawyer Sauncho Smilax, go to a fish restaurant called the Belaying Pin. The waitress, name of Chlorinda, asks what’ll it be.

“Ordinarily I’d go for the Admiral’s Luau,” Sauncho more diffident than Doc expected, “but today I guess I’ll just have the house anchovy loaf to start and, um, the devil-ray filet, can I get that deep-fried in beer batter?’

Doc orders the jellyfish teriyaki croquettes followed by eel Trovatore.

The waitress recommends they drink Tequila Zombies. “You’ll want to be good and fucked up by the time this arrives.”

One of the many lazy things reviewers have said about the book is that it’s “Chandleresque,” which suggests to me they haven’t read either Chandler OR Inherent Vice very closely.

I went back to The Long Goodbye in search of the passage where a melancholy Philip Marlowe goes to Lawry’s because he has a craving for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Now the fact is I go to Lawry’s once in a while and they do serve not bad Yorkshire pudding, but as I look around the restaurant I never see anybody except me eating it. In the picture below it's that odd thing on the lefthand side, and I gotta say it doesn't look all that appetising.

It doesn’t surprise me that few Angelenos go for the Yorkshire pudding: it seems the least L.A. of all foods. I know Philip Marlowe was no ordinary detective, but somehow it feels like Chandler’s anglophile tastes showing through rather than Marlowe’s.

I also found this passage in the Long Goodbye about American sandwiches:

”I went down to the drugstore and ate a chicken salad sandwich and drank some coffee … the sandwich was as full of rich flavor as a piece torn off an old shirt. Americans will eat anything if it is toasted and held together with a couple of toothpicks and has lettuce sticking out the side, preferably a little wilted.”

I’d say that last sentence was just a little overcooked. He might have stopped after the toothpicks: but I’m not going to argue with the great Raymond.

Incidentally, in Inherent Vice, Pynchon can't resist a bit of further food-related mirth - an English rock band called Spotted Dick. Why is it that Americans find spotted dick so hilarious, yet can take noir novels about private dicks effortlessly in their stride? That's a rhetorical question, incidentally.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


There are people here in America, and I’m sure elsewhere too, who like to think that England is quaint. Admittedly most of these people have not spent very much, if any time, in England. That’s why they imagine it’s a theme park of mock-Tudor tea rooms and roast beef restaurants, pubs serving hearty fare and good honest fish and chip shops. And these are the people who think they LIKE English food.

There’s also a home-grown fantasy about the classic English caff – there are websites devoted to these. The idea is that these places may be a bit rough, the crockery will be chipped, the cook will be surly, but the fry up will be fantastic. Well, only up to a point. It seems to me, as with George Orwell’s pub The Moon Under Water, that these great cafes are mostly fictional.

For some time while now, as an antidote to the idea that English eateries have charm, I’ve been photographing ones that scare the hell out of me. Maybe the food’s good, maybe it’s not, but in every case they’re a very, very long way from any notion of what a typical English restaurant is, or should be, like. And I guess that's not a bad thing. But who would have thought of, and who wouldn't love, an eaterie combined with a minicab office?

And I realize I said, a couple of posts back, that I thought English food was becoming a mite pretentious. Well not always, obviously.

I loved these “novelty doughnuts,” proof, if proof were needed, that the English don’t always take their food too seriously, and also that the spirit of Martin Parr still exists in the old country.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Safe to say that the otherwise reliable Mark Twain had, at best, conflicted feelings about English pie. A Tramp Abroad from 1880 is admittedly a satire, but when he makes a list of the foods he’s missing this doesn’t sound very satirical. He, or his narrator, misses apple pie, peach pie, American mince pie, pumpkin pie, and squash pie. Most of these, I’d have thought the English would have done reasonably well, though probably not the pumpkin.

He also gives a recipe for “New English Pie”: “To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows: 
Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and 
slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”

I can’t help thinking he may have gone to the wrong restaurants.


The last time I was in England I was writing a piece for Bon Appetit: I got paid, it didn’t get published – not the worst result. So I went to Simpson’s in the Strand, Fergus Henderson’s St John, Gordon Ramsey’s Maze and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen – all pretty great except the last – although if you want to pay $200 dollars for a so-so Italian meal, you’ll absolutely love it.

This time I was paying for myself, so I ate a lot of pies. What is it with the English and pies? Why do they do them so well, why do they (I) like them so much? Interesting fact: the first English pies were called coffins.

Well obviously comfort is involved, but why do the Brits find comfort in something the rest of the world views with suspicion?

When I first moved to LA, I became aware of the House of Pies “a slice of heaven on earth” – corner of Franklin and Vermont – frequented by Kirstie Allie among others - and I thought great, I’ll be able to get a Cornish pasty or a cottage pie of a steak and kidney pudding. Yeah, right.

House of Pies is a burger joint – the pies are the desserts – Banana cream, French Blackbottom, Bayou Goo - perfectly good pies if you like that sort of thing but a very long way from the English tradition.

So, once back in England, I tucked into the Cornish pasty seen above, Melton Mowbray pork pies, a home made cottage pie, and this (tastes better than it looks) steak and oyster pie at O’Neill’s Irish pub in Southend on Sea.

However, if you go to Southend what you really want is not pies but seafood: whelks, cockles, jellied eels.

I hadn’t been to Southend in a long while but my memory was that you couldn’t walk ten yards without running into a jellied eel stall. Now the place seems to have been oddly gentrified. The cockle stalls are to be found huddled together within a shell’s throw of each other at Leigh on Sea.

But, and it’s a big but, and I don’t know if my palate has become more sophisticated or less, whether the local cooking methods have changed or improved, but these cockles and whelks, were some of the best I’d ever tasted – subtle, delicate, briny but not salty, and the jellied eels were absolutely, no doubt about it the very best I’d ever had.

I think it would be an odd person who went to England solely for the food; but a man who went there and couldn’t respond favourably to steak, kidney, oysters. eels, whelks and so on: well he’s no person at all in my book. whether Kirstie Allie fits into this category, I'm not sure, (fact is I still think she's pretty hot) but she doesn't quite look like a savory pie girl to me.