Wednesday, December 29, 2010


One of my Christmas “stocking fillers” was a book by Tony Stamolis, titled T&T&A.  The middle T stands for tacos, the T and A stand for exactly what you’d expect.

Stamolis is, I suppose, what you’d call a glamour photographer, if such a thing still exists these days.  He takes pictures of naked women, but the end result is a long way from hardcore pornography.  The girls are an interesting bunch, of the tough, chipped-nail-polish, dodgy-tattoo variety.  Some of them are very sexy-looking and some of them are just plain rough-looking, though perhaps we’d disagree about which are which. 

In either case, there’s something quite special about Stamolis’s photographs. Sure, they’re titillating and meant to be, but they’re portraits as much as pinups.  Stamolis makes the women look interesting, flaws and all. He makes them look like individuals.

But the unique selling point of T&T&A  is that interspersed with the photographs of the women, are photographs of tacos. And of course there’s an unavoidable tendency to think Stamolis is making some visual pun involving food and women; that they’re both fast and cheap and tasty.  Although again, some of those tacos do look a bit unappetizing.

Or maybe he isn’t really dealing in visual metaphors.  Maybe he’s just taking photographs of the things he likes; hot babes and hot tacos.  And it works.  I find myself returning frequently to the book, looking at the women’s piercings and facial tattoos, looking at the guacamole and the shredded lettuce accompanying the tacos.  The appetite does indeed get stimulated.

At the back of the book there’s a list of the models’ names and also where the tacos came from.  Quite a lot of the taco joints are in Fresno, which is, or was, Stamolis’s home town, and inevitably I haven’t been to any of those.  Some are in New York, but I haven’t been to those either, and although a few are in L.A. I’ve only been to one of them, and that’s Machos Tacos, in Los Feliz, tucked in beside a car wash, just off Hollywood Boulevard.  I had fish tacos there, which were pretty ordinary but they hit the spot at the time.

Stamolis did an interview with the Portland Mercury in which he described the reaction of an anonymous viewer who looked at the book and “he didn't know whether to go to the bathroom and masturbate, or run to the nearest taqueria.”  Stamolis adds, “I thought that was kind of ridiculous.”  Ridiculous or not, I think there’ll be a lot of people who find it entirely understandable.

Friday, December 24, 2010


One Christmas when I was a kid, I woke on Christmas morning feeling really ill.  My family was of the “pull yourself together” variety when it came to illness but even they could see there was something wrong with me.

And as the time for Christmas dinner approached I didn’t feel much better and obviously I didn’t look it either.  Concerned relatives would look at me every once in a while and say, “Well I hope he’ll be able to have some Christmas dinner.  Maybe just a nice piece of turkey without any of the trimmings.”

And this was a problem, because if they’d known me better and if I’d have the nerve to tell them, the truth was I didn’t care about the turkey at all, it was only the trimmings I really liked.  The stuffing, the chipolatas, the bread sauce, these were the things I wanted to eat.  And the roast potatoes, of course. 

Surprisingly little has changed.  I like smoked salmon for the lemon juice and black pepper.  I like snails for the garlic butter.  And when it comes to Christmas pudding, what I really enjoy is pouring brandy over it and setting it on fire.

Christmas mince pies, however, seem to fall into a different category.  They really do fill me with a deep and intense nostalgia.  I always say I love them and that they’re part of what I miss most about not being in England for Christmas. My mother made a pretty good mince pie, but more than that, in England, several varieties of mince pie can be found in every corner shop, whereas in LA the mince pie seems to be a rare gourmet treat. Or, of course, people just find 'em disgusting.

And you know, sometimes I’m not sure if I actually like the taste of mince pies, or whether I like them because I’m just associating them with a search for lost time.  So, since, this has been a jelly-positive year, I decided to make a dessert of mincemeat jelly.

We didn't do anything very clever, just crumbled a pack of None Such “condensed” mincemeat into a pan, and rehydrated it with hot water in which a pack of orange flavor Jell-O had been dissolved.  Bompas and Parr, I know, would be horrified, and subtler versions are obviously doable.

I still haven’t committed to acquiring some really good jelly moulds so I used some martini glasses and plastic cups.  You don’t have to turn them out, but it’s more fun if you do, even if they look like this.  Do click on it to get a close up.

I’m sure I can't be the first person to have tried this, but it’s a new one on me, and in the Nicholson household it amounts to a brand new nostalgia-free, Christmas food ritual.  Or it will if we do it again next year.  Hey, and believe it or not, they taste absolutely great.  It seems I actually do like mincemeat a very great deal.   Happy Christmas.  May your eating may be merry and bright.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


And speaking of Jeff Bridges, I just saw him in Tron Legacy, a movie that’s simultaneously very stupid and quite a lot of fun.  Oh wait, that’s a description of ALL Hollywood movies.

The blogosphere seems to be alive with whining about the movie’s many improbabilities, which of course is pretty much everything in the movie, but a lot of people seem to be fixated on the roast suckling pig scene, and I admit I’m one of them.

If I understood the plot correctly (and I’m definitely not sure that I did) Jeff Bridges has become trapped in cyberspace, aka the Grid, and is living with a hot virtual girl – Olivia Wilde.  It doesn’t seem such a bad life, but now a portal has opened up allowing access back and forth between the Grid and the real world, and Bridges’s son has come through more or less by accident, and now wants to take dad back with him before the portal closes. Clearly there’s some ‘splaining to do and they do it over dinner in Jeff’s gleamingly austere dining room.

We don’t get to see the entire menu of what they eat, but there’s a suckling pig set right there in the middle of the table.  It looks completely untouched but presumably it’s not just a table decoration.  Quite how a pig got into cyberspace is a matter for debate.  Is it a cyber pig?  An algorithm?  We don’t know.  Neither do we know what the blue stuff is that they’re drinking.   Curacao spritzers?

I guess Tron Legacy is taking place in the present rather than the future, but the Bridges pad does have that stark, unlived-in minimalism that the movies used to associate with the future.  I’m thinking of parts of  2001- A Space Odyssey for instance.  I guess it was Bladerunner (1982) that persuaded us the future might be even messier than the present.

A curious footnote for psycho gourmets: the star of 2001 (to the extent that it had stars) was Keir Dullea – that’s him, or at least his character, in the bed below.

Keir has had a long and interesting, if patchy, acting career.  But the movie he made, or was at any rate released right after 2001 was a little thing called De Sade, in which he played the divine marquis.  I admit I haven’t seen the film, there are some poisonous reviews floating around, but if you ask me, any movie that can produces a still like the one below, in which at various women are trying to pour wine down the man’s undies, can’t be all bad.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


 What kind of psycho gourmet would I be if I went into the Food 4 Less supermarket in Yucca Valley and passed up the chance to buy some exotic booze I’d never tasted, or even seen or heard of, before?  The booze in question was ChocoVine, “the taste of Dutch chocolate and fine red wine,” and 14 per cent proof by volume, according to the label, which also promised “grape wine with artificial flavor, cream and artificial colors.”

I take that to mean the wine is real and the chocolate is fake.  And since it claims to have a shelf life of six months after it’s been opened, I’m guessing the cream may have some artificial enhancements too.

         The woman at the Food 4 Less checkout asked me rather sternly, “Have you had that before?”
         “No,” I said. “Have you?”
         “No,” she said, with finality and that was the end of the conversation, but  I think she was expressing disapproval rather than curiosity.

         It was a brutal night in Yucca Valley as the fog settled, the wind howled and the sky dumped a winter’s worth of rain.  There were worse places to be, than in a motel room with the Loved One and a bottle of ChocoVine.  Here's a motel room still life.

ChocoVine, I can report, tastes like a very slightly grown up relative of Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Sweet, of course, and essentially bland, but the fact is wine and chocolate (even artificial chocolate flavors) go pretty well together, which is not to say you mightn’t be better off with a glass of cabernet a bar of Toblerone, but it was definitely the right thing at the right time.

Now that I’m home the ChocoVine seems considerably less fun.  It actually looks as though I’m keeping half a bottle of cold coffee in the fridge.  Naturally I started to think of ways of livening it up, using it in a cocktail for instance, adding something sour: tequila or bitters or even lime juice, but then I noticed something else on the label, “Do not mix with acidic drinks.”

So then I headed to the Chocovine website which, as well as the usual flannel about awards and what a quality product it is, has some cocktail recipes.  These include Pure Bliss - ChocoVine plus hazelnut liqueur, the Treasure Island - ChocoVine with banana liqueur and coconut rum, and Lady’s Night - ChocoVine plus raspberry liqueur.

It dawned on me that I’d been knocking back (omigod) a GIRLY DRINK.  Whew.  What next?  Before you know it I’ll be drinking Cosmopolitans and Appletinis. It’s just as well I’m very, very secure in my manhood.  Even so I felt I had to manly up my ChocoVine with a good healthy slug of vodka. It looked like this, though to be honest it looked much the same before I put in the vodka.

 It’s not quite a White Russian, as drunk by the Dude in the Big Lebowski, but as he might well say, “Hey, careful, man, there's a beverage here!”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


So it’s goodbye to Don Van Vliet, who in a sense said goodbye to his own musical alter ego as Captain Beefheart nearly 30 years ago, and became a painter.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped listening to or being influenced by his music, and I don’t imagine they will now.

Elsewhere in Psycho-Gourmet we’ve celebrated such Beefheart songs as Hair Pie, Kandy Korn and Big Eyed Beans from Venus, but in searching around his various obituaries and appreciations I’ve discovered he had a certain amount to say about food, much of it eccentric if not exactly psychotic.  Such as:

In a 1971 interview, "Why would (anyone) want to label themselves?  I say, ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby!’ I'm not interested in making any new mustard or ketchup. I make very good mustard." That's the Lick My Decals Off band below.

At the time of the moon landing he said, "They're about to poke their genitals into our cream cheese moon right now. “
In 1973 he expressed disapproval of putting whale meat in dog-food. "Dogs don't want to eat whale meat. [They] can't go on the ocean."
That same year, in Oui magazine, he said of himself, “I was like an egg rolling through time until I was 24. Then the egg cracked and I popped out."

He also famously locked the Magic Band, Trout Mask era, in a house in Woodland Hills (that's it above) and deprived them of sleep and food until they played the way he wanted them to.  I always thought that sounded apocryphal but it seems to have been more or less true.  The band shoplifted food, and Frank Zappa helped them out occasionally, so the depravation can’t have been total.
We all know that musicians tend to be intransigent types, but I’d have thought that a sleepless, hungry musician would be less rather than more likely to follow instructions, but what do I know?

I haven’t been able to find a good picture of the Captain eating anything.  There he is above on the cover of Bongo Fury, and I guess there must be something consumable in that paper cup but who knows what.  Here, not much better, is the great man posing with a coffee cup.  Maybe there’s even coffee in it.

Oh and of course, I almost forgot (how could I?) it was Beefheart who said, "There are 40 people in the world and 5 of them are hamburgers."

And above all of course, of course, "I may be hungry but I sure ain't weird."

Monday, December 20, 2010


A weekend of curious potato-related convergences.  First, I was in a used bookstore in Yucca Valley and saw a copy of The Potato Book by Myrna Davis.  I was tempted but resisted because I thought it was too expensive, though I did stand in the store and read the (very short) foreword by Truman Capote.  Capote, by his own account, was not a great lover of potatoes unless they came baked, with sour cream and caviar, and unless he had a glass of Russian vodka in his hand; none of which would have been especially hard for him to arrange, you’d think.

But there’s a story told by John Richardson about the difficulty Capote once had finding baked potatoes for his lover, whom Richardson names “Jimmy N”.  The lover was a married, “nice, dim” refrigerator repairman from Palm Springs, enticed away from home, wife and job by Capote, then paraded around to Capote’s fancy friends, usually with disastrous consequences.

Richardson (that's him on the right above) entertained Jimmy N and Truman in Venice and found Jimmy, “No problem really, except for constant moans about the lack of air conditioning, comics, TV, above all baked potatoes. Every meal Truman would ask on Jimmy’s behalf for baked potatoes—he would describe exactly what he meant—‘in their jackets.’ Yet at every meal crisp little sautéed cubes would be served. Jimmy grew sulkier and sulkier. Finally I volunteered to scour the market for the nearest thing to an Idaho potato …”

From Yucca Valley we drove down to the Palm Springs Art Museum (which used to be called the Palm Springs Desert Museum and had live desert scorpions on display – now gone, alas) where there was a terrific exhibition of photographs by Richard Avedon, including this one of Truman Capote.

Now, I know, the phrase “potato-faced” is perhaps a bit overused, but if ever I saw a man with a potato face, it’s Truman Capote in that picture.  Russian vodka may also have played a part in the overall effect.

We drove home afterwards and waiting in my email was an image of an unusually shaped German potato, or Kartoffel as they would have it.  Perhaps both Jimmy N. and Truman would have been happy with a potato like this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


If you’re really in search of food, sex, obsession and the madness of the mouth, why look further than the Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade?  Of course, most people don’t read de Sade for the recipes, as it were, but the divine Marquis saw an absolute connection between food and sex.

     He wrote, “Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other.”  Sounds fair enough, although he also added that, “Sex without pain is like food without taste,” to which most of us might respond, “Well, yes and no.”

    When de Sade writes about sex, he’s generally absurd: when he writes about god, nature, justice and all that, he becomes unreadable.  But just once in a while his writings turn into dark, fantastical, absurdist fables, like the section in Juliette when the heroine encounters the giant Minski, a Muscovite, also known as the Hermit of the Apennines.

Juliette and her traveling companions go along to Minski’s castle where he shows them his idea of fun.  Some of this is certainly food-related.  He tells the guests about his taste for human flesh. “Whoever tries this diet is certain to triple his libidinous capacities,” he reckons.  In the dining room the tables and chairs are made of contorted, live naked women, a la Allen Jones or rather vice versa.  Dinner is served by twelve naked girls, and as it arrives Minski obviously feels some need for self-justification and tells his fellow diners, “it is no more extraordinary, after all, to eat a human than to eat a chicken.”

     They tuck into a “joint of boy” and Minski downs 12 platters of the stuff; which presumably means many joints and many boys.  He drinks thirty bottles of wine with the first course, another thirty by the time the meal’s finished.  Then there’s a break for sex and murder, Sadism you might say, and then he decides to round off the evening with “mards, exquisite in form and exceedingly fresh.” “From the best asses in my harem,” he explains.  Juliette, who until then has been pretty much game for anything, excuses herself by saying, “an appreciation for these dainties is slow to come by,” and Minski takes it surprisingly well.  There’s lots more murderous libertinage, before Minski starts waffling on about the hypocrisy of hospitality, a discourse that goes on through the night until it’s time for breakfast, and Minski has “8 or 10 virgins-blood sausages” and eighteen magnums of Greek wine.  Neither Minski, nor de Sade, ever contemplated the notion that less is sometimes more.

Juliette was published anonymously in separate volumes between 1797 and 1801.  Napoleon ordered that the author of this outrageous text be imprisoned, and de Sade’s anonymity was insufficient to protect him.  He spent the last thirteen years of his life incarcerated, first in prison, then in the insane asylum at Cherenton

     Incarceration was not an entirely new experience for him.  He’d already spent fourteen years in prison, first in Vincennes, then in the Bastille, before the Revolution freed him.  He’d found the regime in Vincennes more or less tolerable, but in the Bastille he found much to complain about, not least the food.  And you can’t help thinking he complained a little too much.

According to Neil Schaeffer’s The Marquis de Sade: a life, meals were served in the Bastille at seven and eleven in the morning and then at six in the evening.  “The midday meal,” Schaeffer writes “might consist of a soup, an entrée and a meat dish of mutton, salt pork, sausage, or veal, plus one pound of bread, and a bottle of wine.  Supper consisted of two dishes, including a meat dish, perhaps of roast chicken or calf’s liver. “Clearly they are starving me to death here,” de Sade wrote to his wife.

Vincennes was different from the Bastille in that the former allowed prisoners to receive parcels from home, the Bastille did not, but after much protesting De Sade got his way, and before long his wife was sending him pates. terrines, chocolate, special jams, marrons glace, and what not.  He doesn’t seem to have been quite as grateful as he might have been.  Schaeffer tells us that prison records from June 1784 show he was provided, at least for a time, with cut flowers once a week, and fresh strawberries every day.

There were a couple of occasions in the late 1990s when I went to a place in New York, named La Maison de Sade; it closed in 2001.  It was, I think you’d have to say, a theme restaurant, that billed itself as an “S&M supper club.”

One surprising thing about the place was that it was right there on 23rd Street in Manhattan, close to the Chelsea Hotel, and anybody with enough nerve could walk right in off the street.  Even more surprising was that although there was a stage show that involved some willing slave being stripped and paddled, and various people wandering around in leather corsets, jock straps and dog collars, there were also a surprising number of what appeared to be just plain folk sitting at tables (that weren’t made of human bodies) eating perfectly ordinary three course meals.  In fact some of the people in corsets, jock straps and dog collars would turn out to be waiters and waitresses.

I seem to remember I just had a couple of drinks and some bar snacks, although unless I’m completely imagining it, there was a guy there celebrating his birthday and he got a birthday cake rubbed into his naked torso.  The marquis, I’m sure, would have found it all a bit vanilla.  

One of the de Sade ancestral homes was at Lacoste in Provence, a grim edifice in all the extant images, and poverty forced him to sell the place in 1796.  Since then, after much plundering, looting and neglect it’s been sliding steadily into ruin, with only occasional, not quite convincing, attempts at restoration.   But now I discover, a little belatedly, that the old de Sade pad has been bought and partly restored by Pierre Cardin, a man whose name appears inside my own overcoat. 

Cardin owns the Maxim’s restaurant chain, along with their range of food products, and in 2009 he was nominated as Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, so clearly he has some interest in food. How much of a connection he makes between food and sex, I can’t say, but I do know what he’s done with the dining room in Lacoste, see below.  It really doesn’t look like a place where you could comfortably eat virgins-blood sausages.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


And speaking of the madness of the mouth, I went to a Thai restaurant in Glendale, name of Sedthee, which in fact calls itself an “eatery.”  I was there for lunch.  They claim to do a six dollar lunch, but the menu is so hard to understand that I think very few people know exactly what they’re ordering and it’s absolutely guaranteed to be more than six dollars.  Then again, who really thinks they’re going to get a restaurant lunch for six dollars? 

The place is very modern and airy and designed, and absolutely cavernous, though you don’t realize that at first.  And on the menu was something called “fried nut case.” Who could resist?

I did worry I might end up with a plate of fried peanut shells, but when the mystery ingredient turned up it looked like, and I think actually was, cashew nuts, and they weren’t in their shells.  It also turned out that, more or less unknowingly, I’d ordered them mixed in with seafood.  They looked like this: 

They were perfectly good, in a Thai lunch kind of way, but the best part was they allowed me to say afterwards that I’d had a nut case lunch: a small but real pleasure.

Oh, and another curiosity of the Sadthee, after we’d ordered, without actually specifying what kind of rice we wanted, the waitress came back to say they’d run out of white rice, and would brown rice be OK?  Of course, it was fine, but a Thai restaurant that runs out of white rice, seems a very odd one indeed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


For years now, I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen, though chiefly to editors, publishers and agents, that what the world needs is a grand, majestic book about the sandwich.  I’m not talking about some jaunty “celebration” of the sandwich, but an authoritative cultural history, a great tome, 500 or 600 hundred pages long, dealing with the sandwich in all its forms, manifestations and meanings, a book that deals with the sandwich in history, art and literature, the sandwich as a means of self-expression, as an agent of western imperialism, sandwiches in space, Charles Lindbergh’s sandwiches, the Quaalude sandwich Ron Wood gave to his wife so she’d pass out and he could turn his attentions to another woman, the sex sandwich; and much else beside.

This great idea of mine has largely fallen on stony ground.  But recently I discovered that Bee Wilson had written Sandwich: A Global History, part of the Edible Series, published by Reaktion Books.  Of course my first reaction was to be all bitter and twisted about it, but having read the book, I feel much less than way, not least because the book is much less grand than the title, running to fewer than 150 small pages.  But to be fair to Bee Wilson, she covers a lot of ground in that short text.

She starts by gamely trying to define what a sandwich is, and concludes that a sandwich demands enclosure.  This means that wraps, pita bread, and possibly even a burrito, come within the definition but she reckons an open sandwich, which isn’t really a sandwich at all. 

I think she’s got a point, but it’s a tricky one.  I remember on my first trip to the United States I went to a diner close to the bus station in San Francisco and ordered a turkey sandwich.  I still recall my amazement and pleasure at finding it came open-faced with mashed potatoes and gravy.  It also seemed somehow indecent.  I certainly had the sense that it wasn’t true a sandwich.  On the other hand I never had that feeling with a Danish smørrebrød.

Bee Wilson is really good on the history and development of the sandwich.  Much of this is well known of course (Rabbi Hillel et al), but she’s tracked down a possible mention of a poisoned sandwich in an anti-papal tract of 1571, titled Spiritus est vicarious Christi in terra, which strikes me as a brilliant bit of research.  And I very much like her parsing of the banh mi, and its transmission from French culture to Vietnamese to that of the United States.

But perhaps inevitably the most enjoyable parts are when she digs out some curious old cookbooks that contain notions of (and recipes for) the sandwich that are a very long way from our own.  She mentions a 1933 book with the title Something New In Sandwiches (that’s its stunning jacket above) which has a recipe for a double-decker sandwich called “High Finance” containing a layer of ham in gravy, above a layer of sheep’s brains and parsley.  There’s the Gentle Art of Cookery (1947) with a recipe for rose petal sandwiches, which I think must surely have been a rather spirited and slightly decadent response to post-war British austerity: rose petals weren’t on ration after all.

She also mentions the books of Florence A. Cowles; who first wrote her book Seven Hundred Sandwiches in 1928, which (I think, the bibliograhpical details are confusing) was subsequently published in England in 1929 as Five Hundred Sandwiches; I guess the English publisher thought 500 was plenty.  Then in 1936, she really went for it and published a new edition as 1001 Sandwiches.  I just ordered the last of these from Abebooks and can hardly wait for it to arrive.  I’m not sure if she just added new recipes to the old ones or whether there was some ebb and flow.  Bee Wilson describes a recipe from the 1928 edition for peanut butter and cabbage sandwiches.  I sure hope that’s in my copy.

Incidentally, Bee Wilson mentions the cucumber sandwich scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.  “Algernon,” she writes, "expresses horror that there are no cucmber sandwiches for tea …  The truth is he has eaten them all without noticing.  Lane, the butler, has to explain ... ‘there were no cucumbers in the market .. No sir, not even for ready money'.”  I’ve always assumed this was a downright filthy single entendre about the phallic properties of the cucumber, and the unavailability of bought sex; but then I would, wouldn’t I?

She’s more comfortable with the notion, accurate enough, that sandwiches are class indicators.  The upper crust eat dainty little sandwiches, the lower ranks eat doorstops. I’m not sure that’s absolutely true.  I suspect daintiness is actually an attribute of the aspiring middle class.  I suspect most toffs enjoy a big fat sandwich as much as most working men.

I once worked briefly in a bad restaurant with pretentions, and one lunchtime the manager commanded me to make a cheese sandwich for a customer.  This wasn’t on the menu but I didn’t think it was much of a challenge, and knowing nothing about anything, I produced a vast, and admittedly not very pretty sandwich.  The manager took one look at it, pushed me aside, took a sharp knife and resliced bread to a half of its thickness and did the same with the piece of cheese.  He reassembled the sandwich and scattered it with watercress and sauntered out of the kitchen satisfied that he’d made an “elegant” sandwich.  I was duly humiliated, but the bloke who did the washing up, turned from his sink, gave me a look of sympathy and said, “Typical of this fucking place.”  And he was quite right.

So anyway, Bee Wilson’s book is a good and useful volume, and having read it I now feel, not so much bitter and twisted as vaguely relived.  The great sandwich book still needs to be written.  Sometimes I even think I’m the man to write it.