Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Eating and walking are only two of my many obsessions, though they’re probably the most harmless.  Thanks to street food and the occasional bit of foraging, they can sometimes be combined.

On the Frieze blog last week Erik Morse was interviewing Danish chef René Redzepi whose Copenhagen restaurant noma regularly tops those “best restaurant in the world” listings.  I know Erik a little and he's a good man, and we’ve had some stimulating conversations, but I’m glad he’s never interviewed me, because he has a tendency to ask an opening question of such devastating complexity and high-mindedness (I mean that as a compliment) that I’m sure my mind would go completely blank.  Below is his first question to Redzepi.

Erik Morse: Let us begin with one of the most essential, though largely ignored, prerequisites for the experience of food – namely, walking, both as the cartographic source for and biological reason for eating. I am reminded of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who was known to walk extensively through Copenhagen on a daily basis while sampling the city’s pastries. The history of philosophy and the history of cooking once shared an intimate connection with the activity of walking. That said, why is the idea of walking and foraging such an important component for noma?

René Redzepi: Foraging is important to us for many reasons, although I must say that it doesn’t sum up what noma is …

If you’re walking in the city and suddenly find yourself in need of food it isn’t much of a problem – if you can’t find a pastry you, at least you can usually buy a chocolate bar or a piece of fruit, and chances are you’ll be able to find somewhere to sit down and eat if that’s what you want. I always enjoy Iain Sinclair’s descriptions of the greasy spoon breakfasts he has before setting off on his heroic walks – I’m sure I enjoy the descriptions more than I’d ever enjoy the breakfasts.

Photo by Phil Nicholls

Out of town you make sure you’ve got something to eat in your backpack, maybe some landjäge – aka “German walking sausage” - but even so it’s always great to come across something growing that you can eat.  Finding a blackberry bush when out walking always takes me back to walking with my dad when I was a kid.

There used to be a vast field of nettles in the meadow behind the house where I lived in Suffolk, and I always imagined I’d go out there and collect some and make nettle soup, but by the time I’d walked into the meadow I was so thoroughly nettled my mind was rather poisoned against the idea of eating the damn things.  My adventures in Essex at the end of last year, picking up oysters from the beach, is about as good as foraging ever gets for me, though I’m sure that by René Redzepi’s standards this would be puny stuff. 

The walking-eating connection has been much on my mind lately since I’ve been reading a new book, A Man In A Hurry: the extraordinary life and times of Edward Payson Weston, the world’s greatest walker, which was sent to me by Helen Harris, who’s one of its authors, along with Nick Harris and Paul Marshall.

I came across Weston while researching The Lost Art of Walking, and he did seem an amazing character, one of those late 19th and early 20th century professional, competitive walkers, who walked the length and breadth of America, and occasionally England, entering races that could be hundreds of miles long, often cheered by vast crowds that Lady Gaga would envy.  Between 1865 and 1879 he walked 53,000 miles, and he kept on walking, one way or another, until his death in 1929.  I only knew what I’d pieced together from various sources.  A Man in a Hurry is the first book length study, as far as I know, and it’s absolutely terrific.

It tells us, for instance, that when Weston was undertaking a seriously long race, he’d would use the first 24 hours to “break the neck” of the walk, hoping to cover 112 miles in that time.  But to accomplish this he’d eat nothing solid, getting by on beef tea, prune tea, coffee, egg yolks, gruel and blancmange.  Once the hard work was done he’d eat a more conventional diet, though one that modern athletes (and even walkers) would find pretty heavy - cold beef, mutton chops, potatoes, oranges, lemons, grapes bread and butter and Peek Frean milk biscuits.  I grew up in England eating Peek Frean biscuits, they were slightly worthy and not much fun.  Apparently the brand no longer exists in England, though it does in the USA, where it’s now owned by Kraft.   

Biscuits aside, it seems that Weston also got plenty of energy from chewing coca leaves, which was perfectly legal at the time, and the effects of cocaine were little understood.  But “stimulants” were a mixed blessing for the walker.  In 1885 Weston competed against Daniel O’Leary – “2,500 miles a day (but not Sunday) in numerous locations until the distance was done.”  By the 44th day they’d both walked more than 2000 miles, and O’Leary was in bad shape, yelling at Weston and pushing him off the track.  Next they were headed for Chicago, but O’Leary failed to show up and Weston was declared the winner, though he did carry on to complete the full mileage.

Weston said to a reporter, “You see, about a week before we finished the contest, Dan commenced to take stimulants pretty freely.  I don’t mean that he went on a spree.  But the fact is that he was so exhausted that whisky was the only thing which could keep him up.  Food had no effect on him … It will be a long time before he will be able to do much walking.”

One of the most genuinely improbable things about pedestrianism in Weston’s times is that it was regarded as a great spectator sport.  The book tells us that when Weston competed in a six day race at Madison Square Garden, there were 13,000 spectators there to see the start, at one in the morning.  Over the course of the week the lunch room got through 400 loaves of bread, 5000 pigs’ trotters, 5000 oysters, 6000 pickled sheep’s tongues and 200,000 glasses of lager.  Sounds like it would be well worth going to even if you had no interest in walking whatsoever.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


As you may already know, I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants, and given a different life and a different budget I’d happily spend all my time touring the world, spinning from one revolving restaurant to another, from the Orbit in the Sky Tower in Auckland, to Seventh Heaven in the Ostankino Tower in Moscow, to the 7 Hills Revolving Restaurant, at the Golf Course Hotel in Kampala.  If Wikipedia is to be believed there are 16 revolving restaurants in Iran alone, though possibly these are not the best places to get a good martini.

So last week, on a more local scale, I went, not for the first time, to the Bona Vista Lounge on the 35th floor of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.  Now the Bonaventure is a very special, landmark building, one of my favourites, and it has a fabulous cylindrical glass exterior, and one of the few disadvantages of being in the Bona Vista Lounge is that, for entirely obvious reasons, you don’t get a view of the Bonaventure itself, though in the course of the one hour it takes for the lounge to complete a revolution, you do get a view of all the rest of LA.

Frankly things looked less glamorous in the Bona Vista Lounge than I remembered them.  The place was more or less empty, the upholstery a little careworn, the staff kind of frazzled though not from overwork.  Our waiter, an older Asian man, was cheerful enough, though he did push a little too hard to encourage us to order the more expensive cocktails.  “They are bigger.”  And when called upon to pour a bottle of beer the result looked like this:

But he was friendly enough and when I asked for extra olives for my martini (and it was a good one) he didn’t let me down.  The place was also involved in some kind of Crystal Head vodka promotion so that certain cocktails – the Red Rush, the Mule Kick or “your favorite martini blend” - came in a souvenir skull-shaped shot glass.  I  resisted, not wanting to drink a martini, or indeed a martini blend, from a shot glass, skull-shaped or otherwise.  I have written elsewhere that everything tastes better out a skull – but in the case of a martini I think not.

There was also a menu of “Skull Bites” - $10 appetizers including mini pupusas, Guatamalan banana leaf wrapped tamales, and “Parisian Cheese fondue, dried figs, French olives and toasted garlic brioche points.”  We ordered the last of these.  It looked like this:

And the taste?  Well, those are shredded tarragon leaves on top, but otherwise the “fondue” itself actually tasted as though somebody had opened a can of Campbell’s cheddar cheese soup and poured it, unmediated, into a glass.  Now I do believe there’s a time and a place for Campbell’s cheddar cheese soup but this really wasn’t it.

But you know: bad fondue, erratic service, slightly careworn upholstery, so what?  The fact is, when you’re in a revolving restaurant, 35 stories up, the sun going down over L.A., you can forgive lot of things, it's just a shame that you have to.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


If the BBC and various PR flunkies are to be believed, this year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the sandwich.  Now, you and I know this is nonsense.   As I have ranted elsewhere, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, didn’t invent the sandwich because it didn’t need any inventing. The idea of putting things between slices of bread is too bleedin’ obvious to need an inventor, and even if it did, the ancient Romans and Rabbi Hillel the Elder got there long before the old English aristo.

But let’s not carp. Undoubtedly Sandwich did put his name to the thing, which in many ways is the real surprise, and I enjoy a celebration as much as the next man.  In honor of this largely imaginary anniversary, the BBC website had a multiple choice quiz – just seven questions, some of them as lame as “What was the John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, doing when he ordered his manservant to bring him cuts if beef and slices of bread so that he could continue uninterrupted and eat with his fingers?” 1) Playing cards, 2) Writing love poetry, 3) Practicing fencing moves.  I realize the BBC may not have a very high opinion of its readers, but honestly!

Fortunately they called upon Sam Bompas, a good man, a great friend of this website, and now described by the BBC as a “Foodsmith.”  He used to be a "Jellymonger."  He said the Earl was eating with his fingers "when cutlery was de rigueur ... Eating of record at the time was service á la française where all the food went on the table at the same time and there was an elaborate ritual of carving, aided by troops of servants.  What you have with the sandwich is the shock of informality. He was a daring man to eat in such a way coming from his social background."

“The shock of informality” – man, I wish I’d said that.

Anyway, in order to join in the celebratory fun, I spent 6 dollars on a tiny item titled The Sandwich Book (above), and really it’s more of a pamphlet than a book, measuring about 3 inches by 6, just 16 pages long and unillustrated except for the image on the cover.  There’s no date of publication though the prose style has a nicely dated feel, “Here, in handy form, is a varied collection of recipes for making sandwiches.  The large cook books may contain a few recipes of this kind, but for quick reference and convenience, and a large number of recipes to select from, this little book will be found especially valuable in every home.”

It contains 86 recipes, including the rice sandwich, the Johnny Bull (that’s boiled beef and macaroni), Love in A Cottage (that’s cottage cheese and salad), and my favorite of all - A Boy’s Dream.  I am not, as they say, making this up.  The recipe reads, “A Boy’s Dream is relished by all sweet-toothed mortals.  Equal parts of diced banana and pineapple are mixed with strawberry jam and spread between buttered slices of bread.” You know, I have a feeling that boys’ dreams aren’t what they used to be.


"What (And How) to Eat Naked," my latest contribution to Gourmet Live can be found here:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


As a man with an interest in dying forms – the book, the printed map, the devilled egg – it probably won’t surprise anybody that I’m also interested in picture postcards. I suppose the impulse behind sending a postcard is no different from that behind sending an email or a tweet, but the physicality of the postcard, the small amount of trouble that’s involved in matching a card to its recipient, buying the stamp, going to the mail box, shows that the sender has made an effort in a way that, for instance, posting an image on Facebook just doesn’t.  When food is involved it’s better still. 

I got dragged along to a “paper show” at the weekend and came away with a few food-related postcard treasures.  I’m not a serious collector, certainly not an “archivist,” I just grab what appeals to me, and it turns out I’d grabbed several postcards showing Chicago restaurants, as you see, above and below.

Now, we all know that the past is another country, that they eat and drink things differently there, and we also know that postcard images rarely tell any version of the truth, but the fact is, the bars and restaurants depicted in these postcards are more elegant and stylish than any restaurant I’ve ever been in, or am ever likely to go, in my entire life. 

A little bit of research reveals that none of these restaurants is still in existence.
Hoi Sai Gai apparently means the Good Old World, so I suppose it may have been on its way out even at the time.  The back of the postcard claimed it was the world’s largest chop suey house.  Its menu looks way less stylish than the place itself.

Fritzel’s, which describes itself on the card as “Chicago’s Beauty Spot,” was included recently 
as one of the city’s all time 40 best restaurants by Chicago magazine, which described it as, “Home of the three-hour lunch for columnists, models, and moguls … Chicago’s version of Toots Shor’s."  Personally I liked it a lot better with the curved bar.

There’s less celebration online for Sheridan’s than for the other two, despite its selling line on the back of the card “Air Conditioned – Smartness – Choicest Foods – Moderate Prices for All.”  There’s now a liquor store and deli in its place.  This picture is from the flickr set of somebody named Cragin Spring.

Among my other scores, the card below for Tillamook cheese.  Interesting that they choose to show the place as a giant industrial facility with “storage plant of 3 million pounds capacity.” Today’s cheese makers would surely show a happy cow and a couple of “artisans.”

And finally this card from Arbogast and Bastian Inc, of Allentown, Pennsylvania for “Heat-n-eat sliced bacon, fully cooked.”  The card is aimed at restaurants that wanted to get their bacon cooking time down to three minutes or so.  There are 300 slices per case. 

“Ideal for all bacon uses,” they add helpfully.

Friday, May 11, 2012


 If you’re on the email list for Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine you occasionally get sent one of his molecular gastronomy recipes. I know he doesn’t much like the term molecular gastronomy, but until something better comes along to describe his cooking it will have to do.  As a meaningful term “modernist cuisine” strikes me as a complete a non-starter.  Modernist as in Modernism?  As in Picasso?  As in Ezra Pound? As in Le Corbusier? Come, come.

Anyway, these emailed Myhrvold recipes produce much innocent mirth in a reader like myself, since they involving hours, if not days, of labor, the use of massively expensive quasi-industrial equipment, and in the end you’re left with a spoonful of lemon curd or some such.

The latest recipe to come across the bows is Chorizo French Toast (above).  This is actually one of the simpler recipes, requiring only a sous vide machine and a vacuum chamber, and could probably be accomplished in a couple of hours or so.  You might think that the average sous chef (as opposed to a sous vide chef) might be able to rustle up something remarkably similar in about ten minutes, but why be negative?

I think the result seen above, looks pretty decent, shown here with a "quenelle scoop of olive marmalade." And there’s a word to the wise from the email under the heading “tips and substitutions.”  “Save your quail shells. We like to serve a trompe l’oeil in them. We use spherification to make a passion fruit egg yolk and white, and serve it in a quail eggshell.”  Well they would, wouldn’t they?

Eggs have been on my mind lately because the Tam O’Shanter restaurant, just down the road from me, is currently celebrating 90 years in business, and to mark this, each month they feature dishes from a specific decade of their history.  They also print facsimiles of the relevant menu.

Last month they celebrated the 1940s and the menu was from the war years, and on the front there’s praise for, “The stupendous job the government is doing in distributing the food so that all may be adequately fed,” although it concedes that “shortages and restrictions are inevitable before long.”

Inside, the menu itself shows few signs of austerity.  There’s Planked Hamburger, Fresh Cuban Pineapple (with or without cottage cheese), Little Pig Sausages with Potatoes.  There are also eggs served many ways, including devilled.  I actually ordered these in the restaurant.  They were perfectly good, as good as devilled eggs ever are.

And, having a long memory, I recall the days when dinner parties in England regularly featured devilled eggs as a starter.  I even made them myself - this was right before the avocado vinaigrette craze swept the nation.  The term “devilled” originated in the 18th century, and doesn’t mean much more than “spicy,” although the concept of flavoring egg yolks is ancient and dates back to at least Roman times.

The English variety I used to make weren’t especially devilish, the yolks were mixed with mayo, mustard and Worcestershire sauce, and paprika was sprinkled on the top.  Trust me, in 1970s England this was regarded as pretty darned exotic. How they were regarded in America in the 1940s I’m not sure.  How Nathan Myhrvold would regard them I can only imagine.

Anyway, above are some I made earlier.  They're probably not restaurant quality, and definitely not modern.  Modernist? Nah.  Postmodern?  Just possibly.

Friday, May 4, 2012


In the latest New York Review of Books, Mark Ford reviews Alastair Brotchie’s, Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life.  The piece quotes a description of Jarry from “the memoirist and femme de lettres Rachilde” – the pseudonym for Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, who was also a novelist. 

The description runs as follows: “Jarry began the day by consuming two litres of white wine, then three absinthes between ten o’clock and midday, at lunch he washed down his fish or steak, with red and white wine alternating with further absinthes.  In the afternoon, a few cups of coffee laced with brandy or other spirits whose names I’ve forgotten, then dinner – after, of course, more aperitifs – he would still be able to take at least two bottles of any vintage, good or bad.  Now, I never saw him drunk …”  

Ford says, “Drinking himself to death may have seemed to Jarry an exciting aesthetic program, but it also ran in the family.”

Jarry’s Ubu Roi contains these lines, an exchange between Mere and Pere Ubu, in certain English translations, aka Mama Turd and Papa Turd.

      MERE UBU:  If you don’t distribute food and gold you’ll be overthrown within two hours.
      PERE UBU: Food, yes.  Gold no!  Slaughter up three old nags.  That’s good enough for such swine.

In the end it would probably have been more than good enough for Jarry too.  In the earlier part of his life he was keen on fishing as a way of obtaining free food, but eventually he gave that up because “drinking on an empty stomach is more efficacious.”