Saturday, May 21, 2011


 My life being as it is, I recently interviewed Ricky Jay, the sleight of hand artist, actor, writer, collector, and all round good man, for the San Francisco Chronicle.  We were there to talk about his new book Celebrations of Curious Characters, which I found just terrific, a wonderful mix of the personal and the historic, full both of telling local details and grand designs, some of them not entirely irrelevant to a blog titled Psycho-Gourmet.

I met Ricky Jay at his local deli and he ordered oatmeal with raisins, adding, “That sounds exotic.”  I wanted a bagel, and I wondered aloud if there might be anything exotic to be had in the bagel line.  Jay said,  “They have a variety – but if you order something like a quince bagel I’ll probably have to go to another table.”

Fortunately he didn’t have to go to another table, and he did tell me, though I knew it already from reading the book, that neither he nor his wife had ever drunk a whole cup of coffee, adding that he just didn’t like the taste and that, “It isn’t a religious thing.”

In one of the pieces in the book he writes about the time he was enrolled in the Cornell University School of Hotel and Restaurant management.  “I vaguely hoped to combine the talents of the cooking and gaming tables.”  It’s probably better for everybody that it didn’t work out.

He recounts that on the first day of class, the professor told his charges to light their ovens so they could preheat while he delivered a lecture.  At the end of the lecture the students’ apparently simple task was to cook bacon in the oven.  Keen to do what he was told, Jay reached into the oven and grabbed the top rack between his thumb and forefinger, with predictable results. He writes, “For years thereafter, the sound of the sizzle and the brand of the word AJAX on my digit were reminders of my all too literal acceptance of instruction: the stigmata of blind faith.”

In that same piece he describes the “culinary magic” of Sieur Herman Boaz who according to the 1795 playbill seen above concluded his act by asking six or eight ladies to think of a card, “and the cards so thought on will be found in and cut out of a roasted leg of mutton which will be brought upon the table hot.”

I would have liked to see that, though I did once see Jerry Sadowitz (above) - the foul-mouthed (though that wildly understates it) Anglo-Scottish magician/stand up comedian – produce cards from inside a watermelon.  At one point in his act Sadowitz started to rant lewdly against the famous, and over-priced, and not very good, Indian restaurant across the street from the venue, a prejudice I happened to absolutely share.

Ricky Jay also tells us about Charles Dickens’ occasional performances as a stage magician.  Dickens’ first biographer, John Forster, described the act which had as its finale a performance called “The Pudding” for which Dickens borrowed a man’s hat and, in just two minutes, cooked a plum pudding in it, “returning the hat at last, wholly ininjured by fire.”  Jay reckoned this was this well within the 19th century stage magician’s repertoire.  

In Dickens’ Night Walks he describes a man “known for his pudding,” though not plum in this case.  Dickens is sitting in a Bow Street coffee house one morning after his nocturnal ramblings, when a man enters, “in a high and long snuff-coloured coat, and shoes, and, to the best of my belief, nothing else but a hat, who took out of his hat a large cold meat pudding; a meat pudding so large that it was a very tight fit, and brought the lining of the hat out with it.”  The man who runs the coffee house provides the new arrival with a knife, but instead of cutting the pudding into slices the man “stabbed it, overhand, with the knife, like a mortal enemy; then took the knife out, wiped it on his sleeve, tore the pudding asunder with his fingers, and ate it all up.”

Despite having a cadaverous look about him, the man has a red face, which he explains he “inherited” from his mother, a red-faced drinking woman.  As he looked at her on her death bed he suddenly took on her complexion and it had stayed ever since.  Dickens concludes, “Somehow, the pudding seemed an unwholesome pudding after that, and I put myself in its way no more.”

At the risk of confirming every prejudice about English food, I should say that I grew up eating steak and kidney pudding.  The pastry was made with suet, and it came in a can and was steamed.  It's not a part of my childhood that I have much nostalgia for, but a little research reveals that Fray Bentos are still very much in the steak and kidney pudding business.  It never occurred to me how easily one of the puddings might fit into a hat, but suddenly I now see that all manner of Ricky Jay-style mischief would have been possible.  Another missed childhood opportunity.


  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  2. Wait a minute. A central image from my novel-in-progress comes from something I saw in one of Ricky Jay's book (I have two of them), and he even makes a brief appearance in my book. And I'm sure you noticed that Lars von Trier has jumped on the Melancholia bandwagon. What's next? Gefilte fish?

  3. Susan - can't help wondering what the central image is - the pig-faced lady of Manchester Square? Hans Rohrl - the human fire hydrant? The woman who gave "birth" to rabbits? The mind boggles.

  4. A writer far better known (far more well known?) than I am (i.e., she was on the best-seller list for multiple weeks, and I have never even gotten close to a best-seller list, except to read them and think how uninteresting most of the items are) said not to tell too much about such things.

  5. Susan - I completely agree - keep it under your hat.