Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010


Here's my interview with Squid Ink

LA food blogs
Meet Your Food Blogger: Geoff Nicholson of Psycho Gourmet

By Erica Zora Wrightson, Monday, May. 17 2010 @ 9:30AM
Categories: Food writing

When asked about Volkswagens -- the subject of a trilogy of his novels -- writer Geoff Nicholson says "Well, I just kind of like 'em is all." Nicholson mainly writes novels, but he's got a blog about walking, an addendum to his book about it called "The Lost Art of Walking." He also keeps a food blog, Psycho Gourmet. It is updated rather infrequently, which is a shame because it's a rare specimen of superb writing in blog form -- really almost too beautiful to be labeled blog posts, more akin to vignettes. Luckily, Nicholson says he just finished a few projects and "it's definitely time to get back on the horse and do some more psycho-gourmet-ing." On his blog, you'll find the author's "ruminations on food, and its relationship with sex, decadence, obsession and the madness of the mouth."

Squid Ink: When and why did you decide to start blogging about food?
Geoff Nicholson: Well, like most writers I feel I should "get my name out there more." My publisher of course feels this even more than I do. It's not so much because I want to be "famous" per se, but because the better known you are the more likely people are to pay attention, read your work, buy your book etc.
And I looked at a few of these "random jottings from a tortured mind" kind of blogs (please tell me there isn't really a blog with that title) and they seemed just hopeless. There had to be a thematic connection between the posts, and I do have a number of more or less interesting obsessions -- and food is certainly one of the main ones. So why not a food blog? I started about 18 months ago.
And of course we all have the Julie and Julia fantasy, some insightful editor/publisher/filmmaker will see how great it is and I shall conquer all.

SI: How does writing fiction differ from writing blog posts? Is it hard to transition from one to the other?
GN: Well, for better or worse (I think better) I'm one of those writers who does have a recognizable voice; skeptical, subversive, quite warm, quite witty, but occasionally quite dark. And it's really the only one I've got, so that's the voice I use whether I'm writing a novel, or an essay for the New York Times or a blog entry. So the transition isn't so hard in itself. But of course a 3,000 word chapter is easy to read in a novel -- pretty hard work online. So in the blog I tend to writer shorter, more broken up paragraphs -- I haven't decided if this is good or bad.

SI: On Psycho Gourmet, You write a lot about food-related memories, or the disappointing lack thereof. As you mention in your post about the party at Taschen's house, all of this documentation of the meals we eat means we have less responsibility to remember. Do you think food photography makes us lazy? What is lost when we have photos of every aspect of a meal, instead of only a menu and our memory?
GN: Gastronomica just published a piece of mine, about my mother's weird eating habits (she only really liked white food). And I dug through all the family photos hoping to find some picture of the Nicholson family eating. Nothing there apart from my parents cutting their wedding cake, and one of me eating white ice cream. Now, of course since everybody photographs everything all the time it seems nobody can eat a sandwich without memorializing it somehow.
On the other hand, I do have a very clear memory of the best sandwich I ever ate -- at the Sidewalk Café in Sheffield -- grated cheese with pickled onion, eaten with my first ever girlfriend the morning after we'd spent our first ever night together -- actually perfectly chastely -- in her parent's house, and obviously the memory is about a great deal more than just the sandwich -- but I do wish I had a picture of it.

SI: You have a revolving-restaurant fetish, although few have lived up to your expectations. If you were going to open a revolving restaurant, where would it be and what would it serve?
GN: Well "fetish" is a tricky word -- I just like 'em is all. In the realms of complete fantasy I'd open one high atop a tower in the middle of Death Valley -- endless desert to the horizon on all sides.
The food places in Death Valley serve the most awful slop -- a decent hamburger joint would be a fantastic improvement; but if it was the all-Geoff-Nicholson-all-the-time-menu, half a dozen oysters, braised pheasant with roast potatoes, a good cheese board. I can always live without dessert.

SI: What was you favorite thing to eat as a child?

GN: It was cheese -- and probably still is. Never found one I really didn't like -- but the cheese of my childhood was crumbly white English Cheshire -- partly my mother's "white food" influence -- but I've shaken off most of the rest of my her influences when it comes to food.

SI: In your post about "Picnic at Mougins," you discuss the notion of a meal in which the company is the focus, over the food. Do you often eat out with friends? Do you ever eat out alone?
GN: I certainly don't eat out as much as I used to when I lived in New York and London -- and really it's the drinking and driving problem. Going out in London, at least in my set, meant drinking at least a bottle of wine per person with dinner. In New York it wasn't a night out unless you started with a couple of martinis.
In L.A. I, and everybody I know, is scared to death of driving drunk, or at least of being caught. So dining out tends to be a rather well-behaved business, which means it's less fun, so I do it less often. Is this a terrible confession?
I can eat lunch out alone, but not dinner.

SI: Do you read other food blogs? Who are some of your favorite bloggers? Food writers?
GN: Among bloggers I loved the guy who tried to eat in an L.A. restaurant of a different ethnic group every day -- I've just searched for it and can't find it. (SI: That's Noah Galuten's year-long eating project, Man Bites World)
But I see someone's doing the same in Washington D.C. I like a blog with something quirky, obsessive and "conceptual" about it like The Great Taco Hunt.

Among food writers I loved the late Alan Davidson and waited eagerly for his Companion to Food -- but then was a bit disappointed -- he was a genuine obsessive and scholar and I felt it should have run to 20 volumes -- I still re-read his collection A Kipper With My Tea from time to time.

I used to love an English food writer called Jonathan Meades -- but he's gone on to bigger things. I guess the burn out rate is high for food writers. And I'm sure it goes without saying -- but I'd better say it -- Jonathan Gold.

SI: Oh, and about the Volkswagens...
GN: I confess to having written three novels about them. As may be obvious from the blog if nowhere else I'm obsessed with obsession I'm not really a true obsessive myself but I'm fascinated by people who really are and many have been obsessed with VW Beetle -- basically from Hitler to -- well you name it, but certainly Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. And, of course, this makes a great structure for a novel.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


There was a hilarious piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Kim Severson, with the headline “Marijuana Fuels a New Kitchen Culture.”

The article comes up with the startling revelation that a lot of younger chefs and their customers like to smoke dope.

Now I can see it might be a great thing, if you were running a restaurant, to have customers who were stoners because they don’t much care what they eat. Open up the cupboard, and what have you got, a box of Coco Puffs, refried beans, a spray can of cheese whiz, yep, that’s pretty much all it takes to keep a pot head happy.

But the article doesn’t stop there, it refers to, very possibly invents, “the haute stoner cuisine movement.” Oh boy, and according to Kim this has something to with the democratization of eating.

She quotes somebody named Rick Darge, 27, who’s a big fan of the roaming taco truck. “We don’t have to go into an establishment, or be a certain way inside,” he says. “It’s more organic than that.”

Then she quotes one Mr Choi, who runs a fleet of trucks says, "It's this silent message to everyone, to the every-day dude ... Weed is just a portal."

Oh give the kid a Twinkie and let the grown ups get on with their dinner.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I’ve been thinking lately, the way you do, about the Bucklands, father and son, William and Francis. William (1784-1856) was a geologist, the first man to identify what we now recognize as a dinosaur fossil, though he used the word megalosaurus. That's a pair above. This is him below:

His son Francis (1826-1880) was a surgeon, then a naturalist, and an important figure in the history of fish farming,nd here he is. The thing in his left hand is a tile for cultivating oysters.

Both of them were zoöphages: animal eaters, who tried to eat their way through the entire animal kingdom. No Leviticus-style prohibitions for them, and William was indeed a clergyman. As the crown of creation, man was obviously entitled to eat all the other creatures on earth, though some were a lot more palatable than others.

Between them they certainly ate giraffe, leopard, porpoise, hedgehog, puppy, rhinoceros, elephant, and eland, among a menagerie of others. And William certainly once, experimentally, and slightly accidentally, tasted bat urine. For a long time he said the mole was the worst thing he’d ever tasted, though he later decided it was the bluebottle.

In February 1868 Frank organized a horse-flesh dinner at the Langham Hotel in London, and served horse in various form to 160 people. It wasn’t a great success apparently, and it surely can’t have helped that they passed round a photograph of one of the horses before dinner.

Buckland concluded “Among the better classes the flesh of horses will never become popular; for in the first place cooks will not cook it … in the second place, the ladies will object to it; and thirdly the master of the house will find it vastly inferior to beef and mutton.”

Of course, once in a while, I think of eating my way alphabetically through the animal kingdom, and I start out pretty well, having eaten alligator, bear and camel, but I can’t get any nearer to Z than whelk, which you could argue isn’t really an animal, anyway.

Waverley Root in Food, and Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, both start with the aardvark, Dutch for “earth pig” and which Davidson says is porky tasting. At the other end of the alphabet Root’s last entry is zebra, which his pals tell him is “more palatable on the plain than on the plate.”

Davidson also includes zebra but goes as far as the zebu, the African and Asian hunchback cattle. He doesn’t say how that tastes, but perhaps it’s not so different from any other cattle.

Both Waverley Root and Alan Davidson mention the eating of rats - the latter gives a Maori recipe, which is a kind of confit- but neither specifically discusses mice. William Buckland would have thought this a serious omission. He evidently served mice to his guests. John Ruskin wrote, “I have always regretted a day of unlucky engagement on which I missed a delicate toast of mice.” Good for him, you’d have thought Ruskin might be a bit squeamish in these matters, but no.

I don’t know anywhere that serves a good dish of mouse on toast, but there is a place here in LA where you can at least go to look at one, and that’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology. A couple of mice are displayed there in a vitrine, laid out on a slice of toast, not as an example of a culinary treat but as a cure for bewetting. The mice have to be eaten whole, fur, bones, head and all; I’m sure the Bucklands, father and son, would have had it no other way.

Monday, May 17, 2010


And speaking of potatoes, it probably won’t surprise anybody that I have a taste for eccentric and vaguely ludicrous cookbooks, and that I have a smallish collection of them.

And one of my favorites is The Rock & Roll Cookbook, by Dick and Sandy St. John, aka Dick and Dee Dee, edited with the help of Pamela Des Barres. The idea is that rock and roll folk - or at least somebody in their press office - come up with recipes that seem vaguely to fit their persona or the title of one of their hits.

So Bobby Vee, who had a hit with The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, comes up with The Night Has a Thousand Island Dressing: and Jan and Dean have Dead Man Curve’s Spaghetti Pie. You get the idea. But two potato-related dishes particularly catch the eye.

One is Peter Frampton’s, slightly hesitant, recipe for roast potatoes, seen above. He may have cooked them once, but by now he’s forgotten how long you keep them in the oven cook. This at least sounds authentic.

The other is Sex Pistols Steve Jones’ recipe for Pie and Mash. I’m not sure if this is for real, or if somebody just came up with something that seemed “appropriate” for Steve Jones. The references to weird old minced meat and eating with your fingers, just seems to be trying a bit too hard.

In any case, the years of potato eating have been a little kinder to Frampton (above) than to Jones (below), but I don’t blame the potatoes. I blame genetics.

The recipe of her own that co-editor Pamela Des Barres includes in the book is for Pamela’s Morning-Aphrodisiac Brew Ha Ha (For Two) – it’s a smoothie, basically.

Now it so happens that I once ate breakfast with Ms. Des Barres in her hotel in London. It wasn’t the morning after anything. I was interviewing her for a men’s magazine, and she was hard work. But I’ve never forgotten what she had for breakfast: kippers smeared with HP sauce. I’ve never seen anybody else do that. I guess it was a bit rock and roll.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Well it seems I’m back at the trough, blogging again, if for no other reason than even when not blogging I still seem to be writing about food.

I’ve just written a piece for Tin House about food and class in England and America – and yes, yes, I know it’s a PhD topic, but I managed to cover it in 1500 words.

I’ve also been asked to write something for Lotus magazine (as in the car) on the subject of whether or not food is cool. Simple answer, yes, but they want a little more than that.

And to cap it all I got an email from Erica Zora Wrightson who asked to interview me for her occasional column “Meet Your Food Blogger” at the LA Weekly, so I guess I’m back in the game.

One of the things I read while away from the table, was an article in The New Yorker about Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo – the guys who run the restaurant Animal in L.A.. It seems the New Yorker is very interested in LA food – what’s that about?

In the piece Shook talks about how he came to cooking. He washed dishes in a restaurant in his native Florida, and he loved it, because he says, “They used to feed me. My favorite dish was a mashed-potato sandwich, ‘cause they had French bread. That might have been the first time in my life I had French bread and real mashed potatoes.”

Now I can just about there are parts of Florida where French bread is unknown; but no real mashed potatoes? That’s what I call a deprived childhood. And I was reminded, obliquely, of Gene Kelly.

Now, I don’t know if you own a copy of the Official Special Olympics Celebrity Cookbook, the 1979 edition, but if you don’t, then you should really think about acquiring one. In it you’ll find Betty Ford’s recipe for Chuck Roast with vegetables, and Erik Estrada’s Pernil, which is Puerto Rican roast pork.

But best of all, along side these, you’ll find Gene Kelly’s recipe for True Old Irish Potato Sandwich. That's it above and if you click on it, it'll become legible. And as you'll see, he likes it pretty rough, cheap white bread, day old potatoes, onions, lot of butter and salt; eaten with a beer. Gene Kelly always looked pretty good on it, but I guess his dancing burned off a lot of calories.

And then, I found myself in LA’s Little Tokyo at the Yamazaki bakery where they were selling their own version Japanese version of the potato sandwich.

This one, illustrated above, is a buttered roll, with a potato croquette, cabbage and Tonkatsu sauce, which was sweet and sticky and I wouldn’t have been able to identify the ingredients, but various websites tell me (at least a homemade version) is a blend of ketchup, worcestshire sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, ginger and garlic, and it’s usually eaten with pork.

I like the Yamazaki bakery, not least because they sell something called British Bread. It bears very little resemblance to any bread I’ve ever eaten or seen on sale in Britain, but knowing that there’s a market for it, and that somebody somewhere thinks a food's Britishness might be an attraction, is incredibly endearing.