Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I’ve just been to a traditional Chinese wedding feast for my friends Marc Gerald and Christina Fang, at the Ocean Star restaurant in Monterey Park. The restaurant specializes in dim sum, and receives some fairly mixed reviews from online foodie bulletin boards, but we had a great time.

A traditional Chinese wedding feast is a ritualized and symbolic affair, I understand. Suckling pig is served to symbolize virginity. Shark fin soup to symbolize wealth. 7 Up is also served because the Chinese word for happiness sounds like the English word “up” and so the drink is a stand in for “Seven Happiness.”

We certainly ate some pork dishes, and some soup, though I can’t guarantee that suckling or shark was involved. You see we were served a multi-course set meal and it didn’t come with a menu so we struggled at times to know what we were eating, which led to much discussion and attempts at identification. This is in fact a really great way of bringing people together and giving them something to talk about.

Still, I think we can safely say we had jellyfish, abalone, pigeon, lobster, sea cucumbers among many, many other things. This was all grand.

It was the desserts that completely defeated everybody when it came to identification. They looked like this:

The one on the left tasted like a sweetened bean soup and it appeared to have a lychee floating in it, but it wasn’t a lychee. When you bit into it you discovered it was a kind of dumpling filled with a chocolaty seedy filling. This was pretty good.

The other was just plain absolutely baffling. It seemed to be, possibly was, tapioca in aspic. A first for me, and apparently for many others.

Incidentally I think the Ocean Star is the biggest restaurant I’ve ever been in. The place seats 800 people. Somebody suggested this might make it the world’s largest restaurant. But no way.

According to the Guinness peopl the world’s biggest restaurant is the Bawabet Dimashq (or Damascus Gate) in Syria. It claims to seat 6,014,and a small part of it looks like this:

But it’s an outdoor restaurant, which actually strikes me as a bit of a cheat. Anybody can have a massive restaurant if they don’t have to put a roof on. Any frankly once a restaurant gets to that size a number like 6,014 is surely pretty arbitrary. Isn’t there always room for one more? It’d be just terrible to arrive there as part of a party of 6,015 and be told one of you had to go away.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Psycho- Gourmet has won an award (sort of). A blog called bookofjoe has given this blog an award for "best name."

It's not quite the same as a Pulitzer, but since I don't know Joe and since he doesn't know me at least the award has a kind of independence and purity that a lot of awards lack. Thanks bookofjoe.

You can read him/it at:

Joe seems a good egg, who calls himself the "World's most popular blogging anesthesiologist.'" There's no arguing with that. And thanks to his blog I've found this wonderful device: the condiment gun.

Sounds like the very thing every psychogourmet needs, but I assumed it didn't really exist, that it was just one of those ironic design projects. I was wrong. It's there on Amazon, with this amazing product description: "Condiment gun triggers delicious fun when dressing burgers, fries and hot dogs. Kids and adults alike can hit the target every time when squeezing ketchup, mustard or other tasty spreads on any food that calls for a shot of flavor."

You couldn't make this stuff up. Fortunately you don't have to.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Last weekend I went along to Charles Phoenix’s Retro Holiday Slide Show at the Egyptian Theater. It’s good stuff.

Phoenix is the presenter of ironic and hilarious slide shows. He combs thrift shops and swapmeets, hoovering up other people’s discarded Kodachome transparencies mostly from the 1950s and 60s. After what must be a mind-numbing weeding out process, he then displays the best of them while delivering a campy and essentially benign commentary that nevertheless makes fun of the people in the slides; their clothes and hairdos and ugly furnishing.

Inevitably a lot of the pictures are taken at parties and holidays, inclduing Christmas them. And where there’s a party there’s going to be food and drink. Of course few things are campier than more mockable than food from the past and Phoenix doesn’t hold back.

I find this as hilarious as the next person, but I do think there's a lesson here; that those things that look so fashionable to day – the duck confit, the lamb belly, the choclate dessert with bacon, sooner or later are going to look as quaint as stuffed peppers and devilled eggs.

Charles Phoenix is also, if not the inventor, then at least the greatest supporter of something called the astro weenie, inspired by a slide he found of an edible Christmas tree. Basically it involves putting round things on cocktails sticks and arranging them to look vaguely space age.

In general I’m not a great fan of ironic food. Who wants to eat food that’s been laughed at? But I’m obviously in a minority. It seems there’s a whole atsro-weenie subculture, with blogs and websites and whatnot. Here for example is a lady called Susan Lucas and she seems to be getting more joy from her astro-weenie those most of us get from any food in our whole lives.

Only a Scrooge wouldn’t be thrilled by that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Jason Epstein, the legendary New York publisher and editor of the likes of Nabokov, Mailer, Gore Vidal and Philip Roth has published an intriguing, and pleasingly discreet memoir with the title “Eating” in which he writes about the connections between food and publishing.

At there’s an interview with him by Julia Reed. In it he says,“Most publishing work takes place at lunch; occasionally at dinner; very seldom in the office. That’s where all the negotiation and stuff that you have to do to be a publisher occurs. You come into the office at about ten o’clock in the morning, you look at your mail, you read the Wall Street Journal and the Times and then you make a lunch date. And then you find things to do, or not to do, until 12:30, and off you go; and you come back at 2:30 and it’s time to think about what you’re going to do for the evening. So in that sense, eating and publishing are inseparable.”

Talk to anybody in the book business and they’ll tell you that the golden age ended just before you got there. Like all authors I have the fantasy that my publisher will take me out for a heavy lunch, asks if I have any ideas for a book, and over the third brandy he signs me up then and there with a million dollar advance. I’m sure this must have happened once of twice in history but never to me, nor to anybody I’ve ever met.

So I think Epstein’s being a bit of a tease here, but still, good on him for perpetuating the myths of the old school gentleman publisher and for suggesting that great things may happen over a great lunch.

In the book he records a conversation he had with Patrick O’Connell (above), the chef proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington. Epstein writes, “When I suggested some years ago that cooking for others is a gratuitous act of generosity, he (O’Connell) said no: we feed others so that they won’t eat us.”

I can see a sort of logic in this, that we offer hospitality as a way of deflecting hostility but the idea that chefs live in fear of being cannibalized by their customers is a really very appealing one. It’s nice to know you strike fear in hearts in restaurateurs. I’ve certainly met one or two who deserve to be gutted and deep fried.

Monday, December 7, 2009


December’s issue of Food and Wine contains an article by Alberto Manguel, seen below holding an invisible sandwich. The article is headlined “How You Eat Reveals Who You Are,” to which any sane person might respond “Well DUH!” But let’s assume it was some junior sub who came up with the title.

Manguel writes, “I’ve know great authors whose table manners told me much more about them than even their writing.” The rest of the article suggests he means tastes in food rather than table manners but let’s not get pedantic.

He writes that Italo Calvino ate “eclectically,” that Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told him you should never eat a dish unless you knew its story, that Tennessee Williams thought all food should be an erotic experience.

But far and away the most intriguing fact concerns William Saroyan. Manguel writes “Once, after trying snails in garlic he said that it was a magical experience, like “tasting fairy horse meat.” To which any sane person might response, “Wha?” That's Saroyan below, with small pomegranate:

I admit I’ve never tried horse meat (not for lack of trying) but I’ve eaten a truck load of snails in my life, and I’ll be damned if I thought they tasted either like horses or fairies.

I was a college with a man called Rob Roberts who claimed, amusingly enough and I’m sure he wasn’t the first), that you can tell how people are in bed by the way they are at the table. Those women who spend all night toying with an arugula leaf – forget about it. Those girls who say they’ll just have a starter – avoid like the plague. Men who devour whatever’s put in front of them in sixty seconds flat – not good. But the women who order the tasting menu, who savor ever mouthful and once they’ve started they can go on all night, they’re the ones you really want to eat out with, and stay in with.

And if, a la Spartacus she likes oysters as well as snails, you know you're in for a feast.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Some years back I was a panelist at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. As is the way at these things, a miscellaneous group of us went out for dinner afterwards. I fund myself sharing a cab and then a table with Rick Stein, the culinary sage of Padstow. He runs four fish restaurants there, and is a TV chef with all that that means: books, a cookery school, an online gift shop that sells such wonders as the Rick Stein John Dory Double Oven Gauntlet.

In the course of the evening Rick proved himself to be the nicest man in the world, and this can’t have been easy. Of course people asked him all about food. The restaurant we went to was fairly modest, but even so the chef insisted on giving him a grand tour of the kitchen. The driver of the taxi insisted on giving him a fish recipe, “You’ll never have had anything like it.”

Rick Stein continued to smile and nod and be the nicest man in the world. If was just an act it was an amazingly convincing one.

I was reminded of this because I’ve just been down to the Guadalajara Book Fair as one of a largish group of writers representing Los Angeles.

One of the others was Jonathan Gold, the food critic for the LA Weekly, who’s won a Pulitzer Prize, been profiled in The New Yorker and is generally regarded as a godlike presence in LA foodie circles and beyond.

If anything I imagine he had an even harder time than Rick Stein. All Stein had to do was be charming; nobody asked him to whip up a fish stew on the spot. But since Gold is in the business of dispensing recommendations everyone was constantly asking his advice about where they should go to eat, what they should order and so on.

It struck me as an awesome responsibility and in some ways a thankless task. If people didn’t like his recommendation then he’d look bad; and if they did like it, then they still wouldn’t be impressed because after all he OUGHT to be able to recommend a good restaurant, it’s what he gets paid for. Rather him than me.

However, Mr. Gold was fully up to the task. I’m not inclined to pass on secondhand restaurant recommendations, but suffice to say his advice was very sound. On his advice I found myself eating some pretty good birria and cueritos.

Here’s a plate of pigs’ feet that’s about to be eaten by me and the man himself: