Thursday, November 26, 2009


The Loved One and I have been on a road trip through Arizona and New Mexico, indulging our taste for (among other things) deserts, Americana and road food.

We did our best to avoid eating in chains, heading for the quirky, the eccentric, the soulful; but it was harder than it sounds.

Of course if you’re a restaurant trying to draw the attention of people driving by in cars it pays to have a quirky sign, a quirky building, or maybe just a quirky name.

We were suitably drawn, but once you get inside these places, the food is often quiet ordinary: burgers, patty melts, all day breakfasts. And this being the desert southwest there’s also plenty of Mexican influence: carne asada, tacos, breakfast burritos.

I can’t tell you exactly where these restaurants buy their ingredients, but there wasn’t much that suggested “local sourcing.”

My dream was that we’d be driving along the highway and turn off to discover a perfect
French-Mexican-American bistro/cantina tucked into a mini mall on the outskirts of Los Cruces. But it was not to be.

We did however find a couple of great places in Bisbee, Arizona.

The first (above )was Dot’s Diner attached to the Shady Dell Trailer Park – where the food was as good as the architecture. I liked it so much I bought the mug.

And then there was Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company:

There’s nothing like a stucco hot dog on the roof to draw the eye. We saw it one evening as we drove past, then decided we had to make a detour the next day and go back.

The hot dogs looked very good, but since I have a rule of ordering things I’ve never seen on menus before, I went for something called the Sea Dog. This is a fishy version of a hot dog (so not really a hot dog at all), actually a long thin tube of cod in beer batter served in a bun.

I admit I was a little disappointed later when I looked it up and found that the Sea Dog is a national product made by Icelandic USA Inc, but it was still new to me, and wildly inventive by the standards we’d encountered on the road.

Still, Jimmy’s Hot Dog Company was quirky, fun, different, very friendly, and what road food should be all about. Apparently the place even got a good review from Gourmet magazine.

We also stayed a couple of nights in Alamagardo, and went to the Museum of Space History where we saw some American space food that looked like this:

And then we saw some Russian space food that looked like this:

Is it just me or does the Russian version look far more quirky, eccentric and soulful?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" has received a massive amount of publicity. Here's my review of it, done for the San Francisco Chronicle. If I'd known it was going to be such a media sensation, I suspect I might have been a bit harder on it.


Jonathan Safran Foer

Reviewed by Geoff Nicholson

In World War Two Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother crossed Europe, barefoot and starving, one step ahead of the Nazis. A Russian farmer took pity on her and offered her a piece of pork. She wouldn’t eat it even to save her life, her reasoning being, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

With stories like this told around the dinner table, it’s hardly surprising that Foer has some deep and complex feelings about the role of food in culture and family. Once a wishy-washy vegetarian, now a fully committed one, he dates the origins of this book, and his concern with the morality of eating meat, to the birth of his son. He spent three years immersed in “animal agriculture,” visiting farms, talking to activisits, farmers, scientists, and in one case a vegan builder of slaughterhouses, all the time asking “what are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals?”

Much of the book describes and condemns factory farms, which Foer tells us produce all but one per cent of American meat. It won’t come as news that terrible things happen in these places, but Foer reports that things are worse than most of us ever imagined.

For example he describes how slaughtered chickens, some of them diseased, “leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces.” are dropped together into a massive tank of refrigerated water. The liquid in these tanks is known as “fecal soup.” Once in the tank, the chickens soak up the liquid, getting heavier and therefore adding to their value (or at least price). Many of us have balked at paying extra for chickens plumped up with water: the fact is we’re paying extra for fecal soup.

I wish this were the worst, most revolting fact that Foer receals. It isn’t, by many means. Much of the book is a catalogue of the horrors factory farmed animals endure, and also of the casual sadism of many who work in the industry. On grounds of basic decency this would be objectionable enough, but the process harms humans as well as animals. Factory farms create pollution, are partly responsible for global warming, and play a huge role in the spread of mutant pathogens, as well as multiple diseases including swine flu. This, Foer suggests, is a very high price to pay for cheap meat.

In his novels Foer is a witty and ironic writer, and Eating Animals contains a few nice literary touches. He describes modern fishing methods that scoop up vast quantities of unwanted fish, which are then discarded. He writes, “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”

Before long however, the sheer horror of his subject makes wit and irony unsustainable. There are extensive passages in this book that some people are not going to be able to stomach.

Set against factory farming are “ethical farmers” such as Nicolette and Bill Niman (once but no longer owners of Niman Ranch) and Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry. These are certainly the “good guys” when it comes to raising meat, and many of us see this as a way forward. But for Foer it isn’t enough.

His book is ultimately a work of moral philosophy. Having made us long for humane farming methods, he then concludes that ethically there’s no such thing. Even the most humane farmers still castrate, brand or remove the tails of animals. All farmers are ultimately involved in killing. If I understand Foer correctly, he believes all that is immoral, and considers vegetarianism the only ethical option. Since we don’t have to kill animals to survive, then we simply shouldn’t.

Clearly the majority of us aren’t going to agree with him on this, and he doesn’t expect us to. However, the fact that he makes me wonder whether I’m being, at best, a hypocrite every time I eat a piece of beef, suggests he’s completely successful in at least one his ambitions. He writes, “We need a way that brings meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates.” After reading this book, it’s hard to disagree.


Incidentally a brace of cornish game hens from Good Shepherd Poultry will cost you $94, but that does include postage.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Not surprisingly the Internet is awash with recipes for giblet pie, although pictures of it are extremely scarce. Maybe they’re not necessary: pies all look much the same regardless of what’s in them. But here’s a picture of Clare Rudebeck that accompanied an article she wrote for the Independent, describing how she made giblet pie for, it seemed to me, some rather annoying friends.

‘“Is that a bit of chicken thigh?" says one, popping it in his mouth. "No, that's a bit of neck," I say once he has started to chew. He spits it out.’

He’d get a slap upside his head if he spat out my food at my table.

Rudebeck’s recipe comes from her grandmother and is actually a bit tame. “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes” dated 1852, has a more interesting one:

“Giblets of fowls are always to be bought at a low price at most poulterers'; when you have a mind to lay out 6d. or 1s. in this way, first scald the necks and feet, to remove the feathers from the head and the rough skin from the feet; split the gizzard and scrape out the stones, etc., and the yellow skin there from, and when the giblets are thoroughly cleaned, put them into a saucepan with some thyme, winter savory, chopped onions, pepper and salt, and about a quart of water, and set them on the fire to stew very gently for an hour, by which time the liquor should be boiled down to half that quantity; then add two ounces of flour and a little mushroom ketchup; stir all together, and put the giblets into a pie-dish; cover this over with a dripping crust, and bake it for about an hour and a quarter.”

If you couldn’t guess, this book was for the English working class, the “dripping” gives it away. The author was Charles Elmé Francatelli, chief cook to Queen Victoria. He was an Anglo-Italian chef, trained in France to cook haute cuisine: and in a way it’s surprising that he concerned himself with concerned himself with working class cookery.

But maybe he was doing a Jamie Oliver. The book apparently has its origins in his claim that he could feed a thousand families on the food that was wasted every day in London. Presumably that would be even truer today.

In Oliver’s British TV series “Jamie’s Ministry of Food,” he went into the homes of people in Rotherham, an industrial town just a few miles from where I grew up in northern England, a place with high rates obesity and related illnesses, and created a place where people could learn to cook.

According to an interview in the New York Times one of the biggest problems he had to come was the attitude of Rotherham people. Oliver said, “They thought that cooking a meal and feeding it to your family was for posh people.” I find that the most depressing, most unsurprising and most truly English thing I’ve read in a long time.

The people of Rotherham claimed they were misrepresented in the show. Perhaps they were. Below is an ad for an outlet in Rotherham called Factory Foods. “A completely new shopping experience to what you are used to, we guarantee that!” This has to be a parody, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Friday, November 6, 2009


The American paperback edition of my book “The Lost Art of Walking” came out this week: this is an only slightly shame-faced plug.

In writing the book it was far more of a problem knowing what to leave out than what to put in. At one point I considered writing a chapter about walking and eating, but on balance I thought this might be too peripheral. Now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been re-reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, and I’m struck by the fact that she and William were as passionate about food as they were about walking.

The very first line of the Grasmere Journal, May 14 1800, runs, “Wm and John set off into Yorkshire after dinner at ½ past 2 o’clock – cold pork in their pockets.

And throughout her writings there are references combining food and walking.

16 March 1802 “I went & sate with W and walked backwards and forwards in the Orchard till dinner time – I broiled Beefsteaks.

And I think my favorite, November 28 1801, “Baking bread apple pies, & Giblet pie – a bad giblet pie – it was a most beautiful morning … The sun shone all day – but we never walked.” A bad pie and no walking was as worthy of mention as a good pie and a good walk.

Dorothy Wordsworth was born in 1771, a little under 200 years before me, but the vast majority of the food she mentions is perfectly familiar from growing up in Yorkshire childhood: gooseberry, rhubarb, tapioca, potted beef, parkin.

However, if by some time traveling miracle Dorothy found herself in a modern English restaurant, say one in the Gordon Ramsay chain, would she even recognize some of the dishes as being food at all?

And looking at the menu mightn’t help her much either. What would she make of these items from the appetizer menu at Ramsay’s Maze?

Crab salad, marinated golden beetroot, apple jelly, Bloody Mary sorbet.

Braised octopus, oxtail vinaigrette, dehydrated black olive, fine herbs and confit lemon.

Confit of wild mallard, raspberry gel, walnuts and compressed celery.

Now Maze is a very good restaurant and I think Dorothy would have enjoyed herself once she got over the future shock, but like me she might have thought to herself, isn’t it odd that food stays much the same for hundreds of years and then suddenly good food is nothing if it doesn’t involve a confit of this, a carpaccio of that, a velouté of the other.

She would also surely have noticed that none of these were exactly dishes she could put in her pocket and go out walking.

There seems to be some evidence that “giblet pie” was once a term for having sexual, though I don’t really think that’s what Dorothy had in mind.

“The Odd Index" by Stephen J. Spignesi includes it in his list of “Euphemisms for Sexual Intercourse” but frankly according to him just abut everything you can thing of is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Here are just some of the food-related ones:

“Eat cauliflower. Eat hymeneal sweets. Feed the dummy. Get a belly full of marrow pudding. Get jack in the orchard. Get oats from someone. Give juice for jelly. Give pussy a taste of cream. Give someone a stab. Give someone the works. Have a bit of curly greens. Have a bit of fish. Have a bit of fun. Have a bit of giblet pie. Have a bit of pork. Have a bit of split mutton. Have a bit of sugar stick. Have a bit of summer cabbage. Have a hot roll with cream. Have a lady feast. Have hot pudding for supper. Have live sausage for supper. Hide the salami. Hide the sausage. Mix your peanut butter. Play hide the weenie. Rub bacons. Slip someone the hot beef injection. Spear the bearded clam. Suck the sugar-stick.”

He doesn’t include one of my favorite euphemisms, which includes sex, food (or at least herbs) and walking: to go for a stroll around the parsley patch.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


So, Claude Levis-Strauss is dead.

Of course if you’d asked me a few days ago whether or not he was still alive I’d have had no idea, but even so it seems a major passing.

I don’t claim that The Raw and The Cooked is an entirely open book to me, but I’ve had a copy for decades and I open it from time to time and read a couple of pages and think I must be learning something.

Still, I think his basic premise is now so widely accepted that it’s become more or less invisible; that the cultural practices of “primitive” tribes are every bit as sophisticated and complex as those of our own, which is to say we’re not nearly as sophisticated as we think we are, and that the taboos and rituals surrounding food express itself this fact extremely clearly.

In The Raw and the Cooked Levi-Strauss quotes from an anthropologist named Conklin, who’s describing a Philippino tribe thus:

The Hanunoo regard as a “real” food only that which is prepared for human consumption by cooking. Hence, ripe bananas which must be eaten raw are considered as “snack” foods. Real foods such as pre-ripe banana, root crops, cereals, cucumbers, tomatoes are never eaten raw. A meal must include cooked food. In fact, meals are usually enumerated by the term: pag’apuy, “firemaking.”

This pretty much expresses my own attitude towards food. There’s nothing wrong with a banana smoothie. A raw-banana oat breakfast certainly has its place. When you want a banana split there’s nothing better. But none of these constitute “real” food. Whereas, (and I’m not sure the Hanunoo have mastered this) a flambed bananas Fosters – that’s a meal.

This photograph by Dario Novellino shows some Hanunoo-Mangyan men about to go off on a pig hunt:

Monday, November 2, 2009


When I first started to cook with any degree or seriousness, I began by using odd or obscure ingredients. My thinking was that I probably wasn’t going to be able to make the world’s greatest Beef Wellington but if I cooked sweetbreads or squid in its own ink, there was a chance that people would say, “Oh boy, this is the best squid in its own ink I’ve ever tasted.”

In this spirit that I decided to make a stuffed beef heart, which in a perfect world might have looked something like this:

I seem to remember I bought it from Selfridges’s Food Hall. I took it home along with the other ingredients I need for the stuffing, and next day when I took the heart of its plastic bag it stank to high heaven. It was off. It was rotten. It was horrifying.

I suppose there are those who’d have run back to Selfridges’s and returned the thing but I just wanted to be rid of it. It so happened I was living in a flat with a garbage disposal in the sink. I shoved the heart down, turned on the blades, and tried to forget about it.

A day or so later a hideous smell started to come from the sink. The disposal hadn’t been butch enough to deal with heart. It was stuck in there. I had to put my hand in there and pull out a partly mashed up and partly decomposed organ. It was enough to turn you right off beef heart, and it did. I haven’t eaten it since.

But then about 20 years later I found myself at a lunch given by Steve Rinella and his publishers. Rinella is the author of the Scavenger’s The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, and American Buffalo, and a very good man.

It was one of the most extraordinary and wonderful meals I’ve ever eaten. The food included wild turkey galantine, antelope mince meat pie, starling and smoked black bear ham.

Also on the menu were two kinds of heart, buffalo and elk, both stuffed with wild mushroom Duxelle. They were wonderful and looked exactly like this. Sorry for the motion blur - I was a little excited.

They were, without a doubt, the best stuffed buffalo and elk hearts I’ve ever tasted.