Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Coke and A Smile

I got to thinking lately about the shelf life of mass-produced food, following a conversation on the ASFS listserve - indestructable twinkies and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. I realized there has been a plastic bottle of coke on a shelf in my office for 7 years. I bought it when I first started doing a big food history course, and we got to the topic of high fructose corn syrup, long commodity food chains, mass production and so forth, so I bought this by way of illustration. It's been there ever since.

I think it's fair to say that Coke does not have a long shelf life. Notice how you can almost see through it now, and how the plastic bottle is slowly imploding. I think this kind of PET bottle (basically polyster) is supposed to leach arsenic or something into the bottle if kept too long, so I'm assuming this is now poison. So modern mass produced food can stay on the shelf for years in some cases, but this may be just as scary - what resolutely should not stay on the shelf. But I'm sure it sometimes does. Glad I don't drink the stuff, unless with rum of course.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Rattler Appetizer

This past Saturday, camping at a ranch way up in Glenn county, an impressive rattle snake was found just a few steps from my tent. Paul, standing behind me, who comes equipped with a "snake stick" decided it would be best to remove the beastie with children around, snagged it. And let me dispatch it, with the axe here depicted.
I also had the honor of cleaning her (as it turned out) and apart from the disconcerting writhing of its body after decapitation - its headless form struck at me when I removed the rattler - it was pretty easy to clean and cut into segments. can you imagine how much meat there is on a snake of this size? Roughly 6 or 7 little chicken wing nibbles. And I wont say it tasted like chicken, but it was pretty good as long as you were willing to crunch through the tiny rib bones. Lightly sauteed in butter with nothing orethan a little salt and pepper. I'd recommend it to anyone.
We also did fishing this weekend, large mouth bass, but through them all back. Either that or it was the same fish each of us caught in turn. At this spot - a beautiful pond - we also saw a little troup of wild boar, and had I not been seriously hung over, I would have considered chasing them, and taking down one of the juicy little piguoles with my bare teeth. Ah, missed opportunity!
But mostly it was cows, huge lumbering black beeves, the leader of whom bellows a most pathetic doleful caterwaul, and they follow, randomly, over literally several thousand hilly acres which they pretty much have to themselves. I had a taste of one last night. Quite nice, grass-fed.
Now just so you don't get the impression that this is the sort of thing I do all the time, the camping food story in the last post and this one were separated by about 3 or 4 years. Wildman Gourmand I am not. I'll have to post something totally civilized and extravagant next.

Friday, May 25, 2007


A couple of years ago I was hiking with a big group of friends along the coast in Northern California, up near Fort Ross. Stunningly beautiful place, with mountains adjacent to the ocean, the best of both worlds. Normally when hiking I like to rough it, packing eveything necessary in, at least 5 miles or so, and then cooking with as little equipment as possible. Ideally it would be foraging or hunting, coming in with nothing but a knife and a match, but I've never gone that far. Mind you, the goal of hiking has always been primarily gastronomic for me. The trek rouses up a fierce appetite, the smell of smoke permeates everything as you cook over a wood fire. But this time was different. It was "car camping" and there were lots of little kids, tents everywhere and the cars a few feet away. So everyone pretty much brought everything they could ever possibly need, including the kitchen sink. In defiance, for one night's meal I dug a pit and lined it with little banana leaf parcels of seafood and vegetables, a vague simulacrum of a real campfire cooking experience, without tools.

Somehow the conversation got around to abalone one night. I had never actually tasted it before, as they're illegal to sell now in California, and I think divers are only allowed to take two a day, or something like that. An imported can never appealed to me. So it was an experience I expected to do without. I must have been blabbing on about everything I'd ever heard about abalone. Lo and behold up walk a young couple, who had just returned from diving, hey we have some abalone, would you like it? I guess they only wanted the shell, and had no interest in eating it. Mind you, this was not like saying, would you care for a clam, or will you take a look at this limpet I just found? This was about 10 or 12 inches in diameter. A huge hunk of flesh, several pounds-worth. I gasped for air and graciously accepted it, thanking them profusely, and fell over myself in my good fortune. My heart was racing.

I knew you couldn't just pop it in a pan, so I broke out my trusty laguiole, sliced it thinly, pounded it with the only sturdy utensil at hand, which happened to be a hammer. Then dipped the slices in egg wash and coasted with crushed saltines. These were fried in my cast iron pan in butter. Frankly amazing, everyone acceded. But not as amazing as just briefly passed over the fire in butter. Meltingly subtle, slightly chewy, redolent of the ocean, but nothing like any other shellfish I'd ever eaten. This was magical. Now I know what all the fuss was about.

I've never tasted abalone again. I wonder if it was the freshness, the mountain air, the company, or the thrill of singular experiences. Part of me really never wants to try it again, how could it possibly be that good another time?

Thursday, May 24, 2007


This delighful mess is called okonomiyaki. (As You Like It.) The picture was taken (by photographer Nancy Ellen Jones) for a forthcoming little book on pancakes I wrote for Reaktion Press, though I don't think this shot will be used. I was dreaming about them last night becasue I wrote a little recipe for them. In Japan they're eaten in the same sort of context that we eat pizza, but I contend it's best for breakfast. This picture also has sriracha hot sauce on it - the red zig zags. Here's the recipe:
Okonomiyaki (As I like it)
Buy a package of okonomiyaki flour mix in a Japanese grocery store. Regular wheat flour will not work, since this contains Japanese yam flour and dashi seasonings too. Make a batter with about 1 ½ - 2 cups of this mix and water. Add to it finely shredded Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, snow peas and any leftover vegetables you have around. Fry this in one huge honking pancake. It will take two spatulas to turn over. When cooked, which will take some time, put on a plate and sprinkle with bonito shavings and dried sea weed flakes from a jar. I prefer furikake with sesame seeds and dried bits of egg, but any kind will work. Then garnish garishly with okonomiyaki sauce (sort of a brown sweet barbecue sauce) and mayonnaise,which must be squeezed from an obscene little Kewpie doll-shaped bottle, both of which can be found in any Japanese grocery. Tuck in with friends.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Prairie Oysters

Can you guess what these are? My friend Paul mentioned that they were castrating calves on his in laws' ranch, so I said bring 'em on over. I didn't realize that they require yet another surgical procedure to render them palatable, but here I am removing a tough membrane. Then they were simply breaded and deep fried. I am certain that even cardboard would taste fine breaded and fried. These were pretty much like any other garden variety giblet.

Everyone had a taste, including my young finicky sons, and one of their friends Innes, the human hoover, who sucked down a few dozen, undaunted by their origin. They were, in all honesty, fairly tame.

The odd thing is that this weekend we are going to this very said ranch for a hootenany. Neighborhood dads play in a band. We suck, but it's fun. But the question is, how do I approach these beeves? Do I apologize to them? Thank them in person for a nice snack? How often does one get to thank a creature for sustenance ex-post facto? It has given me a mild existential pang of conscience. Not for having cooked and eaten their balls, but facing up to the living steers themselves. And it is also so perversely timed, while some of these said dads have just or are about have vasectomies. I know, not the same thing. And no is is eating them. But why all of a sudden, out of nowhere, have balls become the topic of conversation?


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Work and Food

Work and Food

I have endured some pretty dreadful jobs – mostly summer gigs, but a few longer term. Not all of them were food related, but most somehow found their way in that direction. For example, I once proudly wore the blue in New York City, the polyester blue of a museum guard that is, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing for 12 hour shifts before objects of unspeakable beauty wasn’t exactly torture, and it fostered in me an immense capacity for patience. Now, long airline flights, holidays with insufferable relatives – these can made be tolerable if one resorts to a simple trick I learned at the Met. Abandon all hope of ever leaving. Just assume the rest of your life will be spent right there and never even entertain the thought of budging. Time then flies, even becomes pleasant, and you’re surprised when the ordeal suddenly ends.

This was a food related job only insofar as my breaks were spent daydreaming - projecting myself into still life paintings, wallowing among the carved fruits and shell fish like a little fly, dipping my toes in the Venetian goblets of unctuous red nectar. You can see a beautiful example of such a painting (from the Met) on the jacket of my first book. A little bird peers down, perplexed by a cooked colleague on a plate; it’s luscious and morbid at the same time. Art historians will tell you this is a classic momento mori scene, but I can help but think how delicious the roehmer full of wine looks, or the crusty bread, not to mention the fat green olives. All of my favorite foods. Maybe that’s why I chose this painting.

As for being a museum guard, believe it or not, I never resented doing it, despite my freshly minted PhD. My co-workers were delightful people, the museum visitors usually very nice. But I must admit to an ecstatic rush of pleasure that I had never felt before when returning to the museum years later I found my first book sitting on the shelf in the museum store.

I will pass over some other non-food jobs: personnel secretary at a factory that makes firing mechanisms for nuclear bombs, dispatcher at an air-conditioning repair company, shelver at a medical library – I can highly recommend this to anyone who wants to build biceps, the New England Journal of Medicine is killer. I was director of the theater program at a summer camp for children for many years. To this day if I hear even a few notes of “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow,” I fall into an apoplectic fit. Among the more lucrative jobs was very spare time while studying in Oxford. It’s called busking or playing music in public for coins. A chum and I covered Dylan tunes and renditions of Verdi arias accompanied by my sawed off banjo. I still have the first pound note I ever earned that way. I also spent an entire year as a production editor and ruined a good number of books. One was an edition of French medieval lyrics that was supposed to have the original and translations on facing pages, but somehow they ended up back to back. Oops. Sorry.

Now for two food jobs: Neither was slinging fast food burgers, alas. Nor even waiting tables. I’m sure had I ever tried either I would have loved it. The first was a stint of a few weeks picking strawberries at a local orchard. I earned about 12 dollars a day, 8 AM to 1 PM, barely enough to cover drinking expenses per diem. My original motives were purely philosophical – to commune with nature a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau – some good honest back-breaking labor. And that it was.

Strawberries, as the name suggests, are planted in rows lined with straw. Really. And the berries are so fat and delicate that they must be picked by hand, which means you have to get down on your knees in the damp straw and push a tray in front of you as you make your way down the row, filling up the cartons. Here’s the problem – we were allowed, no encouraged, to eat as many strawberries as we liked. This was not an act of generosity, it was calculated cruelty. (Same tactic ice cream store owners take with employees.) If we had been forbidden to munch, surreptitious pilfering would have put them out of business. But with an open invitation, the new picker gorges the first day. Maybe even the second. I must have eaten five pounds the first day I started and spent the afternoon reeling in agony. It isn’t hunger that drives the neophyte to glut. In fact, we were brought snacks – ice cold cider and crunchy misshapen donut rejects, among the most delicious things that have ever passed my lips. It was being openly taunted to eat whatever you want among several acres of glistening red fruit.

After a day or two, pickers might make a ritual gesture of tasting a berry or two, perhaps an offering to the Gods, but never more than that. The berries were ultimately saved. Almost to spite this sadistic strategy to spare the berries, my friend Joy and I took to hurling them at each other. Even just recalling the dull thub of a strawberry hitting someone in the back of the head makes me giggle. Incredibly satisfying, and left a lovely bloody stain on her long blond hair. When not chucking fruit, we passed the time singing spirituals or Old Man River, which in retrospect really was in terribly bad taste.

But the strangest part of the job was left to those who could bear the afternoon heat, earn a few extra dollars by tending to the peach trees. This was early in the summer, so the peaches were little hard green nubbins at this point. Part of the job was thinning the fruit, pulling off some to let the others grow bigger. Fine, except that the fuzz was somehow volatile. It found its way onto every sweaty inch of skin and into every orifice. And the more you scratched the more you spread the fuzz on your fingers. But even worse was the tactic to protect the newly planted saplings from wayward deer. We were given tiny mesh bags into which we placed a hand full of human hair freshly swept from a local barber shop floor. The hair also contained as a bonus deer deterrent: cigarette butts, lollypop sticks, and odd unidentifiable morsels of human detritus. This apparently deer cannot abide.

The other food job beats the former. Again, this was a summer job, driving a beat up old Italian Ices truck in one of the seedier sections of the Jersey Shore. And not even by the beach, which would have made sense, but through adjacent neighborhoods, where there were only little children with dirty hands and sticky money. That might have been tolerable, but these were traditional Italian Ices, that came in huge tubs, so every single order had to be scooped by hand. And normally they consisted of a few flavors stacked in a little, very thin, white paper dixie cup. Florescent yellow, red, purple, blue. Of course the ices melted a bit, stained your hands a lurid hue, as they do children’s lips. And then you had to get back to the steering wheel and drive down the road, with this vapid jingle lasting no more than a few seconds played over and over and over again. “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy” After an hour or so, the sugar in the ices began to penetrate the skin. It began with a mild rush, but eventually became nausea. Of the sort you get if you say, eat a pound of dark chocolate at one sitting. But this was a chemical sort of auto-intoxication. Your body came to crave it and need it. And it wanted the juice mainlined into the bloodstream – eating the stuff would never do. Now if they found a way to dry and powder the ices – sugar, flavoring, food dye, you might be able to smoke it. I’m sure the results would be spectacular.

In case you are in any doubt, driving a truck, listening to the same stupid jingle all day, while scooping and counting money is a lethal combination. After a few weeks I found myself speeding through my route. Or hitting the gas when I could hear children shouting. Eventually I would wait until they got a few feet away and then gun the engine. It was so much fun. And at the end of the day when I returned, the owner, a burned out hippie, suspected me of stealing when I came back with so little money. I said “Look at the vats, count the cups….no one was buying today.” He then imagined somehow I was replacing the cups and refilling the vats, maybe with an inferior product, so I could skim the profits. This was obviously pointless; I gave up after about 2 and a half weeks. But I have to say I craved chemical laden sugar for a long time after. And every once in a blue moon I have a flash-back. Everything goes blue, and I swear I can hear “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy.”

Now food is my whole job, I teach food history, write about it, read cookbooks and food zines, make pots to hold food, and day dream about it. Call it monomania, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Welcome to my Food Rant

Welcome to my new blog, started on a whim at 5:45 AM Tuesday May 22nd, 2007. Expect a totally eclectic melange of random food history, culinary anecdotes and gastronomic silliness. All the things I feel compelled to write, and which may eventually show up somewhere in one of my books.