Thursday, September 30, 2010


Still pursuing the global potato chip phenomenon, I found these at my local supermarket: Hawaiian Kettle Style, sweet Maui onion flavor.

Now I guess I never thought they’d be absolutely authentic, not least because they were manufactured by Tim’s Cascade Snacks of Algona, Washington.  Still, I tried them gamely enough, but I thought they were just terrible.  I couldn’t taste any onion at all, whether from Maui or anywhere else.  All I could taste was a kind of cloying sweetness.

A look at the list of ingredients on the pack explained why.  Of the top six ingredients, number three was dextrose, number six was sugar.  Onion powder was number four, though there was no mention of whether it was Maui onion powder.

There’s also salt and garlic and cheese and spices in there too, and maybe that adds up to umami, but I couldn’t taste any of them, just he cloying sweetness. Of course I believe in chacun a son gout, and I’m sure some people like their potato chips this sweet but I had to drench them in vinegar to make them palatable, which seemed to defeat the object of having flavoring in the first place.

Just to show that I do have my finger on the pulse (or somewhere), last Sunday’s New York Times magazine had a “Recipe Redux” for Saratoga Potatoes, 1905, by which they mean potato chips.  That name refers to the story, probably more of an urban myth, that potato chips were invented in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853 by one George Crum who was chef at the Moon Lake Lodge, a man part Native-American, part African-American, though in 1853 that can hardly have been how he thought of himself. 

According to legend, a customer in the restaurant kept complaining that the French fries were too thick and soggy, so, in an effort to annoy the customer even more, Crum cut them as thin as possible, so they’d be hard and crisp.  As is the way with these things, of course the customer loved them, and then many other customers loved them too, and Saratoga Chips started appearing on the restaurant menu.  The rest is history.

I’m not saying Crum didn’t serve up some very thin, crisp, fried potatoes in hopes of annoying his customer, but I can’t believe he invented them.  I think they’re one of those things that didn’t need inventing.  Once the potato was introduced to European cooks you know that somebody somewhere, probably many people in many places, would experiment with every size, shape and cooking method.  I mean, who “invented” mashed potatoes?

Some people claim that William Kitchener (above) is the godfather of the potato chip, because of a recipe that appears in his book, The Cook’s Oracle, first published in 1817.  The recipe is for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” which sounds about right, but he recommends the slices be a quarter inch thick, and his “shavings” are “cut round and round, as you would peel a lemon.”  The resulting artifact would be pretty good, I think, but I’m not sure you could really call it a chip.

This is a shame in some ways, because Kitchiner is one of history’s greatest great food eccentrics, and it would be nice if the world at large attached some important innovation to him.  The one that actually applies, that he was the first food writer to give quantities in his recipes is so universal as to have become invisible.  And in fact he seems generally to have been more of a collector of recipes than an inventor, so potato shavings were in any case invented by someone else.

Kitchiner was a repository for all kinds of culinary lore, though there are times when he wasn’t very discriminating.  He tells us, or at least quotes without question, that the Chinese eat dog, Tartars eat horse, and Greenlanders eat “garbage and train oil.”

He also gives us, as grotesque as it is improbable, a recipe for “how to roast and eat a goose alive.”  Essentially it involves plucking a live goose and having it flap around in a circle of flame for a while, so that it cooks but doesn’t expire.  This sounds like nonsense doesn’t it?  Roasting a goose in a hot oven can take a few hours, having it flap around in open flame would never work.  Either the goose would live or the goose would roast, but I don’t see how it could do both.

Kitchiner gets his recipe from Johann Jacob Wecker’s “Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art and Nature” first published in English in 1661, who attributes it to “Mizald.”  I think this is Antonius Mizaldus, a 16th century Parisian physician and botanist, who was also of the opinion that if sweet basil leaves were placed on a pile of dung to, it would become a nest of scorpions or asps.  So, not a man to be trusted, but Kitchiner doesn’t doubt him.  He just calls the method “diabolically cruel.”  Well yes.

 Incidentally, in that NYT article – it’s by Amanda Hesser – she writes of potato chips “they’re reached that late-mannerist ‘seasoning’ stage, which has produced such atrocities as sour-cream-and-onion flavored chips.”  I just can’t see the problem myself.  It could be much worse.  It could be live-roasted goose flavor.

And finally, just to explain the title of this post, The Cook's Oracle contains a recipe for Wow-Wow sauce, made from port, vinegar, pickled cucumbers or pick;ed walnut, mustard and mushroom ketchup.  Any one of those would make a fine late-mannerist seasoning, if you ask me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


            It was, I suppose, the kind of conversation that goes on in millions of American homes on a Sunday morning.
            “Honey,” I said, “have you seen my absinthe spoon?”
            The loved one, of course, said she hadn’t.
            I’ve bought exactly one bottle of absinthe in my life, and it came with a free spoon, which was why I had it.  Or had had it once.  The spoon itself was attractive enough, but in my admittedly very limited experience of “the Green Fairy” its mind-clouding powers had been much exaggerated.  One bottle seemed to be enough.  I’d never used the spoon again, which was why it had no doubt been pushed to the back of a drawer somewhere and lost.

            As regular readers of Psycho-Gourmet will know, we take a special interest in spoons and their variations - the spork, the spife, the knoon and what have you.  And I’d happened to come across these rather wonderful skull–shaped spoons designed by someone called Pinky Diablo. 

            My guess is that probably isn’t his real name.  He was probably born Bluey Diablo.  And of course you have to wonder exactly what you’d use these skull spoons for.  They’d be just fine for stirring, not so good for shoveling, and they’d be a complete disaster for, say, eating soup.  You’d get lobster bisque all down your front.

             But maybe they’d be good for absinthe.  The absinthe ritual is a pretty straightforward one.  The absinthe goes in the glass, the spoon rests across the top of the glass.  A sugar cube rests on the spoon and chilled water is poured onto the sugar cube and drips down into the absinthe through the holes in the spoon.

            Maybe the skull spoon could be used to accomplish that, although it didn’t necessary look like it would sit very easily on top of a glass, and real absinthe spoons have very regularly sized and distributed holes which I think may be considered essential to the task.  I had my doubts.

            Anyway, I found my absinthe spoon eventually.  That’s it above.  So I really have no reason whatsoever to buy myself a skull spoon.  It would only get lost.  On the other hand, I find myself thinking seriously about buying another bottle of absinthe.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Since I had those freshly made, hot potato chips at the LA County Fair, I’ve been eating other potato chips with a new, more intense interest. And I’m cobbling together some kind of a theory that potato chips reveal a society’s cultural identity, and its deepest, most profound assumptions.

The British of course like salt and vinegar, smoky bacon, lamb and mint, and (if they get them) Bovril. These are all sharp, aggressive, insistent flavors.

The Germans, by contrast, and to my surprise, really like paprika flavored chips, and my spy in Berlin tells me they also eat something called “Africa style,” though I wonder if the latter was done specially for the World Cup.

As yet I haven’t been able to sample those German flavors, nor for that matter Greek oregano or Russian caviar flavors, but I’m starting, in a modest way, to check out the international galaxy of potato chip flavors.

It seemed to me that the Indians, as in India rather than Native American, might have an interesting take on this. They seem to love potatoes, and curry spices and potatoes seem a match made in heaven. I went along to India Sweets and Spices here in LA and bought a bag of Anand brand potato chips, product of India, and described as Masala flavor.

Masala, I gather, just means “blended spices” and the list of ingredients on the pack says no more than “spices” so I suppose these chips might have tasted of anything. In fact the flavor was a single, back of the tongue hotness that might have been nothing more than chilli powder. It was OK, but I’d have liked more. The packs of Butter Chicken Masala seasoning sold in the store contain coriander, dry ginger, cassia, garlic, cloves, mace and star anise. I thought the good folks at Anand might have tried one or two of these

As an aside, I was pleased by the transparent cellophane those chips came in, and it made me wonder why so many chip packets are opaque and don’t allow you to see what’s inside. The most obvious answer is that most manufacturers don’t want you to see how pathetically few chips are actually in each bag. No such deception from Anand: good for them.

And then as luck would have it, I discovered that Marco, one of my wife’s colleagues, was on vacation in Japan. Maybe he could be persuaded to buy some local potato chips while he was there and bring them back. After an email or two, he duly did and my wife delivered me a bag that looked like this:

Reading no Japanese, and not having spoken to Marco, I had no idea what flavor was in the bag, but I ate them anyway, and I wasn’t much wiser. At first there was a very mild, low salt taste, and then there was a very slightly less mild, and growing, savory but inscrutable aftertaste. It was nothing as obvious as soy sauce, though you might have been able to call in umami. The chips tasted good but they were probably a little too subtle for my jaded western palate. Anyway, the linguistic research has been done. The flavor was “consommé punch,” beef flavor to you and me. There's a pretty wild commercial for them on Japanese TV featuring a little boy and a person in a dog suit.  Like this:

Much more research to be done here, as and when.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The philosophical, moral and aesthetic connections between women and meat have been discussed elsewhere in this blog.

And now those fabulously creative, original and edgy people Lady Gaga and Terry Richardson have delved deep down into the collective maelstrom of their artistic souls ...

... and come up with a picture of a naked woman covered in meat.

Gimme a break.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


On Sunday night I had dinner with some people and I was telling my county fair stories and someone said she’d had deep-fried butter at the San Diego County Fair. There was also talk, though nobody could absolutely confirm it, that these days some fairs featured deep-fried Coca Cola.

All this, it seems, is perfectly true. A bit of googling turns up endless examples of deep fried butter (that's one of them above), though of course it’s butter inside dough, and given dough’s insulating properties, it’s not really all that amazing. Whether you want a mouthful of butter and dough is up to you, but I know many do.

It isn’t a huge leap from deep-fried butter to deep-fried mayonnaise, though that isn’t some county fair curiosity, but rather the invention of molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne of the New York restaurant WD-50. His recipe requires both gelatin and a kind of gum called gellan, and it doesn’t use dough as such, though the mayo is encased in a coating of flour, egg and panko breadcrumbs, so it’s not a million miles away. This is it, the cube-shaped thing in the image below.

Dufresne usually serves it with pickled tongue and he says it’s an homage to his father who once owned sandwich shop. Dufresne says, “For a long time I have wanted to create a dish that would bring all the flavors of one of his sandwiches together in a new and interesting way. Ultimately, that’s what this dish is: a tongue sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onions, and mayonnaise.”

And to wash it down? Well, it turns out the deep-fried Coca Cola was a bit of a misnomer. It was invented by one Abel Gonzalez Junior for the 2006 Texas State Fair but in fact it’s actually deep-fried coca cola batter, served with coca cola syrup, whipped cream and what not. It looks like this:

Far more appealing, and truer to its name, is deep-fried beer, another Texas State Fair specialty, and it’s essentially ravioli with a beer filling, which sounds absolutely fine to me, the dough again acting as insulating material, keeping the beer and the fat apart.

But when you think about it, just how different is that conceptually from liquor chocolates? It must be at least as hard to fill a chocolate with liqueur as it does to fill a raviolo with beer.

When I was growing up, liqueur chocolates were things adults gave to us kids at Christmas to keep us quiet. Even the aunts weren’t keen on them, and the men wouldn’t touch them because they were too girly. I don’t believe the kids thought they were all that great either, but we ate them and that’s how some of us developed a very early taste for cointreau and cherry brandy. Though of course for certain other flavors it worked as a kind of aversion therapy. It would take a least a gun to my head to make me knock back Drambuie in any form.

Which inevitably brings us back to Thomas Pynchon and the fabulous scene in Gravity’s Rainbow where Tyrone Slothrop samples home made candies. I haven’t quite committed this to memory so imagine my surprise on finding these words, “He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed, licorice drop. It looks safe … at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.
‘You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!’ cries Mrs. Quoad.”

Monday, September 13, 2010


I was at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, sitting on metal bleachers watching the pig racing. If I’d been a betting man my money would have been on Mr. Jowl. There were two women sitting behind me and one of them was saying to the other, “Oh, I couldn’t. No way. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly put a thing like that in my mouth. I just couldn’t. I’d gag. I’d just die.” Her companion was doing her very best to persuade her to try some of the chocolate covered bacon that was on sale all over the fair. For all the drama, the woman did eventually try a piece. She didn’t gag, she didn’t die, and why would she? I knew, as I’d known all along, that she was protesting way too much. And frankly if you were worried about putting odd things in your mouth, there were far scarier items than chocolate covered bacon, such as the “frosting shots” and the fried dill pickles.

But the chocolate covered bacon was really, really good; pieces of bacon of varying lengths, coated with dark chocolate of varying thicknesses so that each piece had a slightly different ratio of bacon to chocolates. The pieces were served chilled to keep them crisp and crunchy. I had mine with a pint of ice cold beer, thereby simultaneously hitting three major food groups.

I’d decided my visit to the LA County fair would be all about the pig. I realized recently that I’d never seen a live pig in America. Back in England I saw them all the time as I drove up the A12 into Suffolk, hundreds of happy, odorless, free range porkers rooting in fields either side of the main road. But never in America, and given that there are about 60 million pigs alive in America at any given moment this didn’t seem right. It was a situation that needed to be corrected. I hoped the LA County Fair would get the job done, and it did.

I saw 29 pigs at the fair. The majority of them should more properly be called piglets; there were 19 of them along with three sows in a large pen in Thummer’s barn. There were also four fully-grown pigs lying singly in pens. You could reach right in and touch them, which I duly did. The flesh was far more solid and unyielding than it looked, and the pigs seemed to have no objection to being gently prodded and stroked. Then there were the racing pigs – three races with four pigs per race, along with a tiny little piglet thrown in for comic effect. That makes 29.

But I hadn’t gone to the fair just to view pigs; I’d gone there to eat them. The fair could provide pork in many forms, pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue, hickory smoked pork butts, sausages, carnitas. I’d also heard reports of the intriguing “pork chop on a stick” and I thought I needed one of those to extend my porcine education.

Certainly as a whole, the event seemed less about pork and more about dough. I knew, of course that county fairs are the home of deep-fried everything: Twinkies, Oreos, Krispy Kreme chicken sandwiches, White Castle cheeseburgers, all coated in dough and submerged in hot fat. But I was a little surprised to find it was also the home of deep fried frogs legs, deep fried avocadoes and deep fried cheese on a stick.

I only tasted some of these, but I was especially taken with the idea of the cheese. I could see them there at the counter, blocks of bright yellow cheese looking like cheese popsicles; how could that fail? Well, reasonably easily actually.

In my naivety I was imagining that the blocks were some good solid, flavorful, mature cheddar but they turned out to be Velveeta, or at least the bulk catering equivalent, and by the time one of them had been doughed and fried it turned to rather bland cheese sauce. It was OK as far as it went, but why couldn’t it have gone further with a lump of artisanal goat feta or some regional blue?

The problem with dough, or at least with the dough I ate at the fair, is that it overwhelms whatever’s inside it, so it becomes dough with cheese, or dough with avocado, and I dare say dough with frogs’ legs. The one thing that did work really well was the deep fried Klondike bar. Here dough tasted very much like a doughnut, and ice cream and chocolate are two things you can plausibly eat as topping on a doughnut, so this was absolutely fine. The melting ice cream and chocolate lubricated the dough and made a perfectly good dessert.

Given the presence of all that dough, I assumed the pork chop on a stick would get the same treatment, coated and deep-fried. That gave me some slight trepidation but by that point I was willing to go for it. I was wrong, however. There was no dough, no deep-frying, just a well cooked pork chop that somebody had pushed a stick into and cooked on a grill. It was very good, and I’m sure it tasted better than a doughy, deep-fried version would have, but I was still somehow disappointed. My appetite had coarsened, and I was wanting something grosser and more vulgar, something more like county fair food. I wondered if the fair would have had the same effect on Ferran Adrià.

Given the presence of livestock, not only pigs and cows, but also goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, even yak, I thought the organizers might have made something out of rare breeds, heritage, sustainable agriculture, that kind of thing, but there was none of it. Cows were being milked, but the milk that came out of the cows couldn’t be sold, for health reasons. There was a display of cheeses, but they were in sealed glass-fronted cabinets and none of them were for sale either. This seemed a bit much. Surely even the most committed cheese fancier wants to do more than just LOOK at cheese.

So I tried to imagine a county fair in which the gourmets and the food obsessives were let loose to run the asylum. If absolutely anything could be doughed and deep fried, why not deep fried snail porridge or pig cheek? Wouldn’t visitors enjoy the new sous vide fad that’s sweeping the nation? Why not try hot dogs or S’mores that had been vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath for a few hours? Rather than smoothies and shaved ice how about pints of sea urchin foam or tomato water? Why not a deconstructed corn on the cob? Why not a molecular taco? How about a freeze-dried hotdog?

I was getting a bit fevered by now. I bought myself a basket of hot, freshly deep-fried potato chips. They calmed me down no end. It felt like coming home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I’ve started reading Jeffrey Steingarten again. Like a lot of people I first discovered him through his book The Man Who Ate Everything, which I read cover and cover and enjoyed immensely. Then I read It Must've Been Something I Ate, which was probably just as good, but it was more of the same and therefore less enjoyable. And then I’d read him in Vogue once in a while, but he always seemed to be banging on about exotic coffee beans or what he fed his dog, and then I saw him as a judge on Iron Chef America, and it really didn’t seem that television was his medium. And so, with no great animosity, though no great regret, I stopped reading him.

But now a couple of recent issues of Vogue have found their way into the house and I’ve come to think that Steingarten is quite the waspish ironist and that I’ve been missing something.

First, in the August issue, there was an exquisite hatchet job on Gwyneth Paltrow, inspired by her forthcoming cookery book, due out in April 2011, My Father’s Daughter; “85 xeroxed pages” Steingarten blithely observes. He reckons the recipes aren’t too bad and so he and Gwyneth do some cooking together.

He suggests making the ten hour chicken but she can’t fit that into her schedule, so they settle for making chicken dumplings, and corn chowder. He’s arrives late for their cooking date, but once there he admires her knife skills. He tells us she has two outdoor pizza ovens, one in her backyard in London, another in Long Island. “I took her ownership of two of them as the mark of her seriousness as a cook,” he says. He’s not serious, surely.

Then she makes pizza, but with the wrong kind of flour according to Steingarten. And he tells us, with apparent admiration, that she makes her own stock. Personally I find this about as impressive as hearing she makes her own toast, and Steingarten can’t help adding, “But Gwyneth does have skilled kitchen helpers.” Sarcasm? I do hope so.

Things seem to be going along quite civilly between the pair of them, but obviously Steingarten’s had enough. He asks her if she hates any part of her own body, and that’s it, the end of a beautiful relationship. She doesn’t give an answer, and there’s no more cooking a deux. Reading not very closely between the lines, I think Steingarten couldn’t stand the arrangemnt a moment longer and sabotaged things to be rid of her.

Then in the September issue he visits “the best restaurant in the world,” Rene Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen. Noma concentrates on “local ingredients,” which in this case (Steingarten helpfully tell us) means food from anywhere in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, an area of about 1.2 million square miles by my reckoning: it’s Greenland that really bumps up the area.

Steingarten and Redzepi go foraging. They walk along the beach and sample five different kinds of sorrel. They go to a nearby farm where, says Steingarten, “I could not always tell whether it was a planted field or a vacant lot.”

Next day he eats lunch at the restaurant, and writes, “A white vase on the table was filled with various small evergreen branches: dip them into an oil infused with cepes ... then pop them into your mouth. There was a printed card nearby listing norman fir, black spruce, lodgepole pine, mountain elm, and four other trees. Soon the bulrushes arrived …”

All this is described deadpan and without comment: the most ludicrous food since the inventions in American Psycho. All of which leads me to believe that Steingarten is a master satirist who knows that all the best jokes are told with an absolutely straight face. He had me howling with laughter.