Thursday, September 3, 2020


I was eleven years old when I first tasted vodka.  My grandfather had recently died and so 

the family was taking my grandma to the Butlins Hotel in Blackpool to help console her.

        I’d been warned that this holiday might be less fun than usual. The hotel didn’t have a swimming pool or slot machines or ping-pong tables or any of the other things associated with Butlins, but it did have a large all-purpose ballroom in which bands played, where films were shown, and dances held.
         My parents liked old-fashioned dances and the one they dragged me along to had a compere who offered ‘spot prizes’ to the dancers.  So he’d say, ‘I’ll give this big box of chocolates to the first person to show me a dirty picture of the queen,’ and if you ran up to him brandishing a grubby bank note, then you were a winner.

         My dad had some experience of this kind of thing, and when the compere asked for somebody to show him ‘a row of black teeth’ dad ran up waving his comb and he won a bottle of Smirnoff vodka.

         My parents had no qualms about giving alcohol to an eleven year old. I’d already tasted beer, brandy and whisky, but vodka was a new experience.  We didn’t have to drink responsibly in those days. I liked it well enough when it was drowned in orange juice.

         There was a paper collar around the neck of the vodka bottle, for a competition to come up with an advertising slogan for Smirnoff.  The prize, as I remember, was a holiday abroad, and my dad was determined to win it.  Not only that, he quickly came up with a slogan that he thought couldn’t fail.  I never saw my dad so convinced of anything. His slogan was ‘The Onus is on Bonus.’
         Even aged eleven it struck me that this probably wasn’t a winning slogan, chiefly because it didn’t have anything to do with vodka, but I was already wise enough not to say this to my dad.
Of course I wasn’t surprised when the slogan didn’t win, and if my dad was disappointed – and how could he not be? - he kept it to himself.  Maybe it confirmed for him that the world wasn’t fair and that the best didn’t always win prizes, which is obviously true regardless of the quality of his slogan.

I’m not sure what the winning slogan was or if the company even used it, but I know that Smirnoff was famous for its slogans.  One was Clearly Smirnoff, which I imagine might dad just might conceivably have come up. Another was Pure Thrill, something that my dad wouldn’t have come up with in a hundred years.

As you see from some of the ads above, Smirnoff seems to have been ahead of the game in their racial politics.  The sexual politics still had a way to go.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


I can’t remember exactly when I first made an attempt to read Ulysses; but it was somewhere between starting to drink illegally in pubs and being able to drink legally in pubs.  And I was fascinated by the Lestryogonians section where Bloom eats a gorgonzola sandwich accompanied by a glass of Burgundy.

Mr. Bloom ate his stripes of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate.  Not logwood that.  Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off’ 

I wasn’t sure about the mustard with gorgonzola, or with cheese in general, but I know some people like that that kind of thing.

That passage in Ulysses cheered me up no end. I was already a bookish lad, and I thought. ‘This is great. This is what my life could be about: reading books and thinking about food.’  

At much the same time as I tackled Ulysses, I started to read Samuel Beckett’s novels, though somehow I missed, or at least had forgotten till I reread it a couple of weeks back, this passage in Murphy (1938).

‘She (Celia) entered the saloon bar of a Chef and Brewer and had a sandwich of prawn and tomato and a dock glass of white port off the zinc.’

I’ve had white port once or twice, though not off the zinc, and I know it wasn’t Borges brand, though for literary reasons I wish it had been.

It’s hard to think of white port without thinking of the song ‘White Port and Lemon Juice,’ or ‘WPLJ” originally by the 4 Deuces, then given some fame by Frank Zappa.

I don’t know if the Four Deuces ate a sandwich with their white port and lemon juice; I suspect not.

Then just the other day I was thumbing through a reprint of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meir of the Ritz bar in Paris (1934), and remembered it contained a poem by J. Ainsworth Th. Morgan titled ‘Ode to the Ritz Bar’ which contains these lines

‘The noise of liquor, ice and shake;
A kingly mixing knack,
A sandwich, almond or a chip, 
Then ‘bottoms-up” and “Smack.”! 

Of course we don’t know what cocktail our poet was thinking of, and we know there are such things as ‘cocktail sandwiches’ but it seems to me there aren’t many cocktails that go very well with a sandwich, and vice versa.

Saturday, August 8, 2020


When I was a kid I had a hankering to eat unusual cheeses.  There was a cheese stall in the local market that sold all kinds of exotica, though I expect I wouldn’t find them very exotic today, probably Danish blue and brie. But my mother wouldn’t buy me any of it. She ‘knew’ I wouldn’t like them. She thought it was just a whim.   Cost may have had something to do with it too.

The only unusual cheese I was allowed was allowed to have Swiss Knight cheese spread: a variety pack, various wedges of different flavours, some definitely better than others.  It wasn’t great but it was something.

Since then I’ve indulged my cheese whims as much as I can.  My mother was wrong – it wasn’t just a whim.  It was a lifelong obsession.

And then last week I was in the local Asda and came upon a Polish equivalent of those Swiss Knight variety packs, Ser Kremowy Sortett.  Thus:

The flavours are natural, with ham, and with paprika.  I’m pretty sure there was no paprika in the Swiss Knight selection.

The Polish cheese spread wasn’t great, but you know, even when cheese isn’t great, it’s still cheese. 

Monday, July 27, 2020


The look of love

I’ve been reading extracts from Finding Freedom – the “tell-all” book about Harry and Meghan.  It’s hilariously terrible.  Here’s an example:
 ’‘Over drinks (beer for him, a martini for her) they asked each other about their work.  Nibbles may have been on the low table in front of them, but neither touched the food.”

The implication seems to be that that nibbles may NOT have been on the low table in front of them. 
I really don’t care at all about Harry and Meghan (though I wish them no ill) but I would like to get it straight about the nibbles.  

This meeting was at Soho House, a place I used to be taken once in a while by my literary agent. Yes kids, that kind of thing really did used to happen.  It’s not the place I’d go for a discreet assignation and I don’t remember there being any nibbles, though conceivably Harry and Meghan got special treatment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


I was in London and had my first post-lockdown beer in a pub, at The Goose, in Walthamstow.  It looked like this:

Had to sign in to enter the pub, and give personal details for track and trace to the girl on the door who had a tattoo of Danny DeVito on her calf.  Not Danny DeVito as the Penguin, which might have been expected, but just as himself.  No, she’ll never live to regret that.

Having got in and ordered at the bar, the beer was subsequently delivered by a member of staff.  It was all amazingly pleasant and civilized, and the pub wasn’t too full – that would be the social distancing.  A man could get used to this, though presumably it won’t last. We will return to some version of the old normal.  The beer, inevitably was a bit of a disappointment, I’d hoped for too much, the gratification had been delayed too long, but I was very glad to have it, and then glad to have had it.

There was also the first post-lockdown meal, in Diner at Spitalfields market.  

There was more signing in, occupied tables suitably far apart from each other, and we were given instructions about having to wear a mask when going to the toilet, but the burger and fries were perfectly OK.  St John it wasn’t; but you know, St John wasn’t open yet.

Sunday, July 12, 2020


As you probably know by now, if there’s one food I think I couldn’t live without it’s potatoes. There are rumours, maybe urban myths, that you can live quite happily and healthily eating nothing but potatoes.

I’m not sure that this is true, but even if it is, I’m not sure that it applies to potato crisps (chips to my American readers), and I suspect it may apply even less to Chilli and Lemon Grills, Flavoured potato snack, made by Cofresh - ‘proud to be No.1 Indian Snack Brand.’  They’re based in Leicester.

The ‘grills’ taste perfectly good, but look on the back of the pack and check out the list of ingredients: the first three are ‘native potato starch, potato solids, and modified potato starch.’ That’s three forms of potato! Not too shabby.

Also, another of the ingredients is ‘Lemon Juice Powder.’ I suppose I must have encountered this before, but never knowingly, and it takes a strong man not to think of Lemsip. 

But it turns out you can buy lemon juice powder all over the Web.  I had no idea. I’m not sure why you would, but it’s probably good to know you can.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020


I’ve been thinking about Lee Miller’s prize-winning recipes for open-sandwiches.  I have my reasons.
          One of the most highly prized volumes in the Psychogourmet Archive is Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches: An Introduction to Danish culinary art,  by Asta Bang and Edith Rode.

It contains a lot of the kind of food you’d expect – herring, shrimp, cheese, sausage, and some things that you wouldn’t, such as an open sandwich with lard and potato, and (and I quote) ‘What would you say to a piece of buttered white bread with slices of a slightly unripe apples (sic) covered with a slab of liverpaste?'  I’m still trying to come up with an answer.

But I think my favorite is the Sandwich Pie, seen below on the right, essentially a loaf of bread got up to look like an iced sponge cake, with mustard butter, mayo, and Dutch cheese instead of frosting.

You know, I often think that sandwich recipes are unnecessary.  You put some things you like between or on slices of bread, and there you have it.  But I don’t think many of us would have come up with that sandwich pie.

And I’m not sure how many of us would have come up with Mrs. Beeton’s notorious ‘toast sandwich’ – two slices of bread with a slice of toast between them.  

I suppose it all depends on the bread, but as you see, Mrs. B does also suggest putting some meat in there, and also that it’s food for invalids.

Every bit as intriguing is the recipe that immediately precedes it: Toast and Water.

She admits it’s ‘exceedingly disagreeable’ drunk tepid or lukewarm, but I’m really not sure how great it would be at any temperature.  Also, when you strain it, what exactly gets strained out?  The bread I suppose, so you’ve just got some vaguely bready water.  It was a different age, obviously.

Monday, July 6, 2020


I’ve been rereading (in some cases reading for the first time) parts of Francine Prose’s book The Lives of the Muses: Nine women and the artists they inspired.

It turns out – and very possibly we knew this all along – that it’s very hard being a muse.  And it’s no picnic having a muse, either.  Prose discusses Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll, Gala and Dali, Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, among others It’s surprising how often food crops up.

There’s John Lennon baking his own bread, taking Polaroids of it (way ahead of the Instagram game there, John) and bringing all the staff in for lunch.  Yoko says, ‘He makes the bread, and if they don’t eat it it’s a personal insult.’  Muses are, I suppose, allowed to make the occasional snide remark.

There’s Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson’s muse, even while she was married to Henry Thrale, a brewer and MP. After Henry had had three strokes he started to eat and drink compulsively.  I haven’t been able to find exactly what he consumed but Johnson, who was no stranger to heroic eating, was so appalled that he said, ‘Sir—after the Denuriciation of your Physicians this Morning, such eating is little better than suicide.  True enough.  Thrale didn’t stop eating and he died.  Johnson apparently though that Hester would then marry him, but in fact she married an Italian tenor named Gabriel Piozzi.   Muses, eh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

Gala and Salvador Dali we know were sufficiently food-obsessed that there were two books: Les Diners de Galaand The Wines of Dali. (Gali?), though they never looked as though they did much actually eating. And yes, that is Gina Lollobrigida

I had some idea about all the above people but I didn’t know the full story of Lee Miller.  I knew her as a model (OK, muse) for Man Ray, then a collaborator, then as a photographer in her own right, photographing fashion, portraits, and then by force of circumstances becoming a war photographer, largely for Vogue. I knew that she’d married Roland Penrose but I didn’t know that after the war she suffered terribly from depression and alcoholism, (and probably boredom) and had developed a new, consuming interest in cooking, as a partial consolation.

There’s even a recent book. Lee Miller: A Life of Food, Friends and RecipesRecipes include champagne and camembert soup, marshmallow-cola ice cream, carrots in whiskey, and chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. I guess you could describe this as influenced by Surrealism.

Francine Prose finds this ‘dismaying’ and quotes from Roland Penrose’s Scrapbook to reinforce her point.  ‘Devoted to parlour games, she found a fascinating pastime in kitchen games, competitions which she often pursued with success, winning countless gadgets for the kitchen and at one time a triumphant tour of Norway … as a reward for a most startling and succulent open sandwich.’
Yes, this does sound like a bit of a comedown after Miller’s previous activities, but then, if you’ve washed yourself in Hitler’s bathtub, and photographed at Dachau and Buchenwald, well, what wouldn’t be?

The internet being the fine thing it is, I was able to find a description of her tour-winning entry, in an article in Gastronomica magazine by Becky E. Conekin.  It’s for something called a Penrose; mushrooms stuffed with pink foie gras mousse, seasoned with paprika and Madeira, and made to resemble roses.  I gotta say that doesn’t sound like quite enough to merit a triumphant tour, still according to the article, Miller won first, second, and third prizes, which I suppose does deserve some serious recognition.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


You know me, I disagree with Virginia Woolf on most things – Joyce and Lawrence for instance - and she’s obviously completely and utterly wrong when she writes in A Room of One’s Own, that novelists, ‘seldom spare a word for what was eaten.’ What novelists had she been reading? In the works of Dickens for instance, according to Margaret Lane in ‘Dickens on the Hearth’ there are 35 breakfasts, 32 dinners, 10 luncheons, 10 teas and 8 suppers in The Pickwick Papers alone. Virginia Woolf wasn’t keen on Charles Dickens, so perhaps she didn’t read him very closely. 

Virginia Woolf holding an invisible sandwich.

I wonder if she ever read Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.  It seems unlikely although (in one of those literary confluences which in the end are too common to be genuinely surprising) the first book length collection of William stories was published in 1922, the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (also The Waste Land).
If she did read Just William I think she’d have disapproved, but I imagine  Dickens might have rather enjoyed William – a character painted in broad strokes, though never quite what he seems and never entirely predictable, and much defined by food.

Yes, I’ve been revisiting William, another combination of comfort reading and comfort.  In a story titled ‘A Question of Grammar,’ William and the Outlaws raid his family’s pantry.  ‘Ginger seized the remnants of cold ham and picked the bone.  George with great gusto drank a whole jar of cream.  William and Douglas between them ate a gooseberry pie. Henry ate a whole currant cake. Each foraged fir himself. They ate two bowls of cold vegetables, a joint of cold beef, two pots of honey, three dozens oranges, three loaves and two pots of dripping. They experimented upon lard, onions and raw sausages …’

This is wonderful and now I discover, thanks to an amenuensis, there’s a book titled Just William’s Cookin’ Book.

It’s an odd one to be sure.  It was published in 1970, as a tie-in for a television series of William, and it wasn't written by Richmal Crompton.  In another confluence this was just one year after Richmal Crompton died.  Her last book William the Lawless was published posthumously, also in 1970.

Part of the problem with Just William’s Cookin’ Book is that if the fictional William actually did any cooking it’d involve lard, raw sausage and very possibly frogs, and obviously they can’t put that out as a children’s book.  And since they want it to function as an actual cookbook there are some recipes here that I think would have been very alien to William and his family and his family’s cook: lasagna, moussaka and croque monsieur among them.  And yet, and yet …

There’s also a ‘recipe’ not that you’d need one, for Cheese Crumpets, a great standby when I was growing up and still a serviceable treat even now, like cheese on toast, substituting a crumpet for the bread. 

 Inspired by William, I made some.  I should have left them under the grill a bit longer so that the cheese melted more, but I was too eager.

Now it so happens that I’ve been reading Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and boy is it a wild ride in all kind of ways. Here, in his office, Mr. Grewgious is planning dinner, saying to his assistant Bazzard, ‘And perhaps you wouldn’t mind stepping over to the hotel in Furnival’s, and asking them to send in materials for laying the cloth.  For dinner we’ll have a tureen of the hottest and strongest soup available, and we’ll have the best made-dishes that can be recommended, and we’ll have a joint (such as a haunch of mutton), and we’ll have a goose, or a turkey, or any little stuffed thing that may happen to be on the bill of fare – in short, we’ll have whatever there is on hand.’  This is dinner for three.  William Brown would be salivating.

The 1935 movie of Drood.

Thursday, June 25, 2020


Some of the most exciting words about food that I’ve read in recent days were written by Polly Vernon, in a piece in the Times about the joy of pubs.  Yes, newspapers still have to be filled up with something or other.

Vernon’s words runs, ‘My earliest memories of good times involve … cheese sandwiches with chips squished in on a bench outside the Lighter (a pub) while the adults got lightly sozzled (inside).’

Polly Vernon comes from Devon.  I come from Yorkshire, where of course chip butties are thought to be a pillar of our cuisine, but you know I’m not sure I’ve ever had one.  My mother, a Catholic of the guilt-inducing school, somehow managed to convince me that chips were a bad thing, and that chip butties were downright sinful.  Despite having lost whatever religious impulses I ever had, this has stayed with me.

But the idea eating the chips in a CHEESE sandwich, well that sounds perfectly OK, not a road to hell after all – I shall try it soonest.

Polly Vernon is the author of the book Hot Feminist, and she doesn’t look like she eats a lot of chips, in sandwiches or otherwise, but maybe she just has a fabulous metabolism.  The picture is from her Instagram feed.

So obviously I then when off and made one - all-supermarket - buns, oven chips, mature cheddar - and loads of vinegar obviously.  It was OK but now I'm thinking blue cheese, brie, truffled goat ...