Friday, September 26, 2014


Until recently I’d never given much thought to the origins of the word “hipster,” though I’ve certainly had my eye on the way the word has changed from once being essentially a compliment, to now being a casual and sometimes filthy insult. 

Certainly the term “hipster restaurant” has become a catch-all term for establishments that are trying way too hard.  And that’s definitely part of the problem.  Striving to be hip is no good: it’s got to come naturally.  Think about Miles Davis.  In the beginning it all looked so effortless:

But as the years went by, though he never stopped being hip, it looked like he was really having to work at it.

But one thing about Miles takes us back to the origins of the word “hipster” – he was a junky.  And this, according to some sources, is how the word came about. When you went to an old school Chinese opium den you propped yourself up on one elbow and one hip (and I suppose calling yourself an elbow-ster would have been just stupid).

And now I see a headline in the South China Morning Post: Chinese restaurant owner laced noodles with poppy to get customers addicted.”

The story runs in part, “A noodle shop owner was detained after he was discovered to have been adding parts of a poppy plant – from which opium is made – to food so that customers would keep coming back.
The noodle shop’s owner was held for questioning and confessed that he purchased 2kg of poppy shells (the bud of the plant in which poppy seeds are found) for 600 yuan in August.  (That’s about a hundred dollars)
He secretly added it to the food to lure in more customers.
The owner was detained for 10 days. Poppy shells used to be an ingredient in a popular hot pot sauce until the product was banned, according to previous reports.”

The restaurant customers were becoming hipsters unknowingl, and against their will!!

Now, this story sounds a lot like bull to me.  Why don't they name the restaurant? It also sounds a lot like that Seinfeld episode, you know, he one where Elaine tests positive for opiates because she’s been eating poppy seeds muffins.  I was never really convinced by that plotline either.

And I think the real credibility problem with the Chinese restaurant story is that however keen you are to get repeat business, possessing opium in Chinese is a pretty high-risk activity these days.  I mean they even arrested Jackie Chan’s son, and he could be executed if he’s convicted (though something tells me he won’t be). 

You know what else is addictive that you could give away free to your customers that would keep them coming back for more (and it's legal):  alcohol!! 

Incidentally, I like to think that Miles Davis, however much he had to work at it, was far, far too hip ever to drink from a mason jar.

Friday, September 19, 2014


I’ve been reading, perhaps after everybody else, Geoff Dyer’s book Jeff in Venice, Death in  Varanasi.  I will say this: it’s very odd to read a book by a man called Geoff about a hero named Jeff, when you yourself are also called Geoff, especially when that hero is having so many thoughts similar to ones you’ve had yourself, especially about what constitutes success or failure for writers.

Photograph by Jason Oddy

I don’t honestly know how much of an eater or drinker Dyer is.  He’s certainly, by some way, the thinnest author I’ve ever met, and I assume he didn’t get that way by knocking back pies and pints, but there’s a great scene in the book where his (highly autobiographical) hero thinks about alcohol as a Tracy Emin-style art project.  Thus:
         “ ... if he were an artist he would build a one-to-one model of all the booze he’d ever poured down his gullet. Beer, wine, champagne, cider, the lot.  Christ, he’d need a gallery the size of an aircraft hangar just for the beer, the pints, the tins, the bottles.  It would be a portrait not simply of his life but of his era.  Some of the brands he’d started out with had since disappeared: Tartan, Double Diamond, Trophy, the inaptly named Long Life.”  He is describing my past here as well as his own.

I also discovered a piece by Dyer in the Wall Street Journal  “In this monthly feature, we send a bottle of spirits to a writer who is tasked with getting to the bottom of it.”  Tasked indeed, although to be strictly accurate Dyer doesn’t get sent a bottle of spirits – he gets sent some Blue House Citra Pale Ale from the El Segundo Brewing Company.  Being sent free booze by a newspaper, or by anybody, would constitute cosmic success for most writers I know.

I suppose the WSJ also paid him a decent fee because he gives full value in the article and writes about the horrors of American beer as perceived by British beer drinkers, less true these days I think, when pretty much every pub in England can serve you an icy, tasteless Bud.  Anyhow, the thing you see above is a quotation from Dyer, “I like beer that is tasty but not too strong so I can drink a lot of it.  I am one of life’s gulpers.”  So I suppose that trim boyish figure of his must be down simply to good genetics.  Or worry.

Jeff in Venice also contains, in passing, a great description of an almond croissant, “the size and complexion of a small roast turkey.”  I found this so moving that I felt I had to have a croissant for lunch today, though I avoided the almonds.  The resemblance to a roast turkey was slight but I did slice it open and stuff it, and it was pretty good, but somehow it tasted better in Geoff Dyer’s description.

And what did I stuff my croissant with?   Well, with cheese (“Organic Valley, hand-selected, rich and flavorful, raw sharp cheddar, made with milk from our pasture-raised cows") and some sliced chicken (“Oscar Meyer’s Selects Gluten-free Rotisserie  Seasoned Chicken Breast” – and no I don’t know what “rotisserie seasoned” means any more than you do).

But I do wonder, is it possible that as the Western world becomes ever more illiterate, that the marketing men, and perhaps even the customers themselves, think that the MORE words there are on a piece of packaging (regardless of what the words actually mean) the better the product must be.  Oh lord, that’s depressing – makes you long for a Younger’s Tartan Bitter of yesteryear.

Monday, September 15, 2014


I admire pretty much all Anthony Powell’s writing; the novels, the autobiography, the journals.  The last are probably the most fun, written towards the end of his life, an old man getting on with things, rereading the classics, occasionally fretting about his car, and going out to his local Indian restaurant in Frome, Somerset, sometimes cooking a curry for himself.

As regular readers know by now, Pyscho-gourmet isn’t usually the place for recipes, but I’m making an exception here, for reasons that will become obvious.  I’m going to present the great Anthony Powell’s not so great curry recipe which first appeared in 1985 in a book titled Men's Menus by Alice Boyd, published on behalf of the Cornwall Historic Churches Trust.   Stay with me on this.

Anthony Powell's Curry
Mutton, pork, chicken, shrimps, prawns or hard-boiled eggs
3 or 4 onions
2 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp curry powder
1 small apple
3 tomatoes
1 pint stock
Mixed spices
Slices of pimento
Mango chutney
Worcestershire sauce and/or Antgostura
For serving with the curry:
Bombay duck

Take three or four onions of medium size (I like plenty of onions) and chop them coarsely.
Add two cloves of garlic (again to taste, I like garlic) and chop or press fine.
Put these to cook very gently in three tablespoons of olive oil. Cook till soft and just about to brown.
Add a tablespoon of flour and stir in.
Add curry powder (obviously varying amount according to strength of curry powder and taste of guests).
Cook very gently, making sure onions do not stick to pan.
Add a small apple, peeled, cored and cut into thin slices.
The longer you can cook at this stage the better.
Add three tomatoes cut small, with all their juice.
Add some stock and let the curry bubble and hiss. At first a pint of stock may seem too much, but as the curry cooks the stock will be absorbed, especially if the curry is made a day or two before. Again it is a question of taste as to how liquid you like your curry to be.
Add salt, a handful of raisins, a teaspoon each of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, along with other mixed spices, a few thin slices of pimento cut small, a tablespoon of coconut, any herbs available, a tablespoon of mango chutney and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Pour rest of stock in gradually and stir.
This can simmer all day; I favour making a curry on, say, Thursday, to be eaten on Sunday.
If you leave the curry to cool it should be taken from the pan and put in a dish, then put back into the pan and warmed very slowly.
Half an hour before you propose to eat the curry, put the meat in, cut in fairly small chunks. It must have all the fat removed. Pork is always good, with chopped-up sausages of all kinds. Personally, I like mutton best and chicken least.
If you use uncooked meat it must be cooked with the onions and curry powder.
People are naturally inclined to use leftover meats for curry. This is perfectly all right, but if really good meat is used the result is correspondingly good.
A dash of Worcestershire sauce and Angostura may be added during the cooking process.
Bombay duck is dried in the oven, but popadums are not at all easy to cook without making them greasy. A fish-slice is useful in holding them down and removing them at the right moment from the pan.
Fried banana (at least one per person) is good at relieving the hot taste of the curry, as is cucumber cut in small chunks and dressed with vinegar and brown sugar.
Shrimps, prawns and eggs can be used instead of meat. If eggs are used they should be hard-boiled and set in halves on the curry.
Odds and ends of potatoes and vegetables may also be called into play, though the last should be used in moderation. A purely vegetable curry can be very good.

Some hints of the famous Powell prose style there, and it’s by no means the end.  He  then goes on at what seems to me needless length about how to cook rice.  Fortunately he ends with the thoroughly Powellian remark, “Leftover curry may be used for mulligatawny soup.”  Well yes it may.

In a book titled The World As it Is, Patrick French quotes one of Powell’s relatives as saying of the curry, “it was disgusting but we had to pretend to like it.”  I think the relative was were being a bit harsh.  In fact this sounds like a typical home-made English curry of the very old school.  The first curries I ever ate in other people’s homes always involved raisins and bananas, which now sounds as much Polynesian as Indian.   But I was never offered Worcestershire sauce, much less Angostura bitters.

One of Powell’s less obviously admirable traits: he found Margaret Thatcher sexy, (though it’s amazing to discover how many did: JG Ballard and Christopher Hitchens among them).

Powell writes: “I continue to find Mrs. Thatcher very attractive physically. Her overhanging eyelids, hooded eyes, are the only suggestion of mystery (a characteristic I like in women, while totally accepting Wilde's view of them as Sphinxes without a secret). Her general appearance seems to justify Mitterand's alleged comment that she has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe …”

On the other hand he had his doubts about Thatcher as a hostess, suffering through a number of Prime Minister’s dinners, including this one described in his 1985 journal:
“In the anteroom before dinner we were given well-iced non-vintage cgampagne (International Cooperative Wine Society?)  “it appeared that, owing to last-minute changes, the food (cooked mostly by Vanessa Thomas), which we subsequently ate, was brought down by car from Ladbroke Grove.  It was eatable, without being at all exciting; the claret was decidedly dim…”

-       Some, no doubt, would have been reluctant to sit down with Margaret Thatcher, but Powell had, a long time earlier, once sat down with the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.  

Powell was working for the publisher Duckworth who had published a book in which Crowley thought, indeed hoped, he might have been libeled.  (In a later case the jury decided he was a man impossible to libel.)  So Powell and Crowley had lunch at Simpson’s in the Strand: they both had the roast mutton.  Powell drank beer, Crowley drank milk.  The event seems to have been essentially uneventful, but I think Powell’s description of Crowley gets him absolutely.  “There was much that was absurd about him; at the same time it seems false to assert - as some did – that his absurdity transcended all sense of being sinister.  If the word has any meaning, Crowley was sinister, intensely sinister, both in exterior and manner.”  The account appears in Messengers of Day.
-       We now know that Crowley was also a maker of curries.  Here’s a passage from his book The Confessions of Aleister Crowley:
“The weather made it impossible to do any serious climbing; but I learnt a great deal about the work of a camp at high altitudes, from the management of transport to cooking; in fact, my chief claim to fame is, perhaps, my “glacier curry.” It was very amusing to see these strong men, inured to every danger and hardship, dash out of the tent after one mouthful and wallow in the snow, snapping at it like mad dogs. They admitted, however, that it was very good as curry …”

Well this sounds like tosh, doesn’t it?  In any case the recipe has been lost, if it ever existed, but a recipe, without quantities, for “Riz Aleister Crowley” “to be eaten with curry” was found among his papers at Syracuse University: raisins are again involved, along with almonds, pistachios and “cardamoms (very few).”  The MS looks like this – (I found it on, but I’m not sure where it originates):


As with Powell, this sounds like overelaborate instructions just for cooking rice, but I suppose a little effort is to be expected when you’re “Making it a Poem of Spring.”