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Member since: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 05:06 AM
Number of posts: 11,011

Journal Archives

Writing about food: Anthony Bourdain, Japanese breakfast from "A Cook's Tour"

"Dinner at the ryokan may have been the greatest thing ever. Breakfast was another thing entirely. I was OK with the smoked fish, which was very good -- the sushi, the rice. What I was not ready for, and never will be, was natto. The Japanese love natto, an unbelievably foul, rank, slimy, glutenous, and stringy goop of fermented soybeans. It's the Vegemite of Japan ... . There were two kinds of natto for me that morning: the traditional soy variety, and an even scarier black bean natto. If the taste wasn't bad enough, there's the texture. There's just no way to eat the stuff. I dug in my chopsticks and dragged a small bit to my mouth. Viscous long strands of mucuslike material followed, leaving numerous ugly and unmanageable strands running from my lips to the bowl. I tried severing the strands with my chopsticks, but to no avail. ... I sat there, these horrible-looking strings extending from mouth to table like a spider's web, doing my best to choke them down while still smiling ... . All I wanted to do now was hurl myself through the paper walls and straight off the edge of the mountain. Hopefully, a big tub of boiling bleach or lye would be waiting at the bottom for me to gargle with.

"Waiting in the wings, right behind the natto, was another concoction, described as 'mountain potato.' Of this, I could handle only a single taste. To this day, I have no idea what it really was. It didn't taste like a potato -- and I can't imagine anything on a mountain tasting so evil. I didn't ask, frightened that my host might mistake my inquiry for enthusiasm and offer up another generous helping. The small, dark, chewy nugget can only be described as tasting like salt-cured, sun-dried goat rectum -- unbelievably, woefully flavorful -- garnished by small maggotlike wriggly things ... . I thought I would die. Nothing, not bugs, not iguana, not live reptile parts, not tree grubs, nothing I'd ever eaten would approach the horror of these few not unusual Japanese breakfast items. I'm not sneering. I'm sure that natto and mountain rectum are, as they say, 'acquired tastes.' And I'm sure that over time I could learn to appreciate them. If I were incarcerated and natto was the only food provided. But for right now? Given a choice between eating natto and digging up my old dog Pucci (dead thirty-five years) and making rillettes out of him? Sorry, Pucci."

Writing about food: Russell Baker, "Francs and Beans"

"As chance would have it, the very evening in 1975 Craig Claiborne ate his historic $4,000 dinner for two with thirty-one dishes and nine wines in Pairs, a Lucullan repast for one was prepared and consumed in New York by this correspondent ... . The meal opened with a 1975 Diet Pepsi served in a disposable bottle. Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tin cans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood's curiosity. To create the balance of tastes so cherished by the epicurean palate, I followed with a pate de fruites de nuts of Georgia ... a half-inch layer of creamy-style peanut butter is troweled onto a graham cracker, then half a banana is crudely diced and pressed firmly into the peanut butter and cemented in place as it were by a second graham cracker. ... At this point in the meal, the stomach was ready for serious eating, and I prepared beans with bacon grease, a dish I perfected in 1937 while developing my cuisine du depression. ... Beans with bacon grease is always eaten from the pan with a tablespoon while standing over the kitchen sink. ... The correct drink with this dish is a straight shot of room-temperature gin.

"For the meat course, I had fried bologna a la Nutley, Nouveau Jersey. Six slices of A&P bologna were placed in an ungreased frying pan over maximum heat and held down by a long fork until the entire house filled with smoke. ... The cheese course was deliciously simple -- a single slice of Kraft's individually wrapped yellow sandwich cheese, which was flavored by vigorous rubbing over the bottom of the frying pan to soak up the rich bologna juices. ... It was time for the fruit. I chose a Del Monte tinned pear, which, regrettably, slipped from the spoon and fell on the floor, necessitating its being blotted with a paper towel to remove cat hairs. To compensate for the resulting loss of pear syrup, I dipped it lightly in hot dog relish which created a unique flavor. ... At last it was time for the dish the entire meal had been building toward -- dessert. With a paring knife, I ripped into a fresh package of Oreos, produced a bowl of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding which had been coagulating in the refrigerator for days and, using a potato masher, crushed a dozen Oreos into the pudding. It was immense."

Writing about food: Anton Chekhov's "Oysters"

"If I had been taken into a hospital at that minute, the doctors would have had to write over my bed Fames, a disease which is not in the manuals of medicine. ... Before us was a big house of three stories, adorned with a blue signboard with the word 'Restaurant' on it. ... 'Oysters' I made out on the placard. ... 'Papa, what does 'oysters' mean?' ... . 'It's an animal ... that lives in the sea.' I instantly thought it must be something midway between a fish and a crab. As it was from the sea they made of, of course, a very nice hot fish soup with savory pepper and laurel leaves, or broth with vinegar and fricassee of fish and cabbage, or crayfish sauce, or served it cold with horse-radish.

"'Papa, are oysters a Lenten dish?' I asked. 'They are eaten alive' said my father. 'They are in shells like tortoises, but ... in two halves.' ... I imagined to myself a creature like a frog. A frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws. ... The children would all hide while the cook, frowning with an air of disgust, would take the creature by its claw, put it on a plate, and carry it into the dining-room. The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs! While it squeaked and tried to bite their lips. ... I shuddered at the thought of them, but I wanted to eat! To eat!

"'Oysters!' I cried, pulling my father by the skirts of his coat. ... Two gentlemen in top hats were standing before us, looking into my face and laughing. 'Do you really eat oysters, youngster? That's interesting!' ... I remember that a strong hand dragged me into the lighted restaurant. A minute later there was a crowd round me, watching me with curiosity and amusement. I sat at a table and ate something slimy, salt with a flavor of dampness and moldiness. I ate greedily without chewing, without looking and trying to discover what I was eating. ... All at once I began biting something hard, there was a sound of a scrunching. 'Ha, ha!' He is eating the shells,' laughed the crowd. ... After that I remember a terrible thirst. I was lying in my bed, and could not sleep for heartburn and the strong taste in my parched mouth. My father was walking up and down, gesticulating with his hands."

National New England Clam Chowder Day: Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"

"Upon making known our desires for a supper and bed, Mrs. Hussey ... ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said -- 'Clam or Cod?'
'What's that about Cods, ma'am?' said I, with much politeness.
'Clam or Cod,' she replied.
'A clam for supper? a cold clam; is THAT what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?' says I, 'but that's a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain't it, Mrs. Hussey?' ... Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out, 'clam for two,' disappeared.
'Queenqueg,' said I, 'do you think we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?'

"However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! harken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition ... .

"Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. ... There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen's boats, I saw Hosen's brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod's decapitated head ... ."

National Cheese Lover's Day: John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure"

"This menu is designed and intended to give a sense of warmth, sunlight, the same feeling of opening out of the year ahead that one gets when encountering one's first glimpse, in January, of the upthrusting tenacious insouciant virginal snowdrop. ... Arrange the leaves around the sides of the plates on which they are to be served. Luxuriantly nap them with your vinaigrette. Toast a number of slices of bread, one per person, and then put a tranche of goat's cheese on each slice and pop them all under the grill. Remove just as the cheese starts to bubble and brown. Place toast and cheese in the middle of the dressed plates and serve.

"Cheese is philosophically interesting as a food whose qualities depend on the action of bacteria -- it is, as James Joyce remarked, 'the corpse of milk.' Dead milk, live bacteria. A similar process of controlled spoilage is apparent in the process of hanging game, where some degree of rotting helps to make the meat tender and flavorsome -- even if one no longer entirely subscribes to the nineteenth-century dictum that a hung pheasant is only ready for eating when the first maggot drops onto the larder floor. With meat and game, the bacterial action is a desideratum rather than a necessity, which it is in the case of cheese -- a point grasped even in Old Testament times, as Job reveals in his interrogation of the Lord: 'Hast though not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?' The process of ripening in cheese is a little like the human acquisition of wisdom and maturity: both processes involve a recognition, or incorporation, of the fact that life is an incurable disease with a hundred percent mortality rate -- a slow variety of death.

"To the right of the counter ... were the cheeses. No fewer than five different versions of the chief Norman glory, Camembert, an example of the profitable ideas sometimes born during periods of historical ferment, as the cheese was invented due to cross-fertilization between the ingredients of the Norman regions and the cheese-making techniques of Meaux, as they were exported to Camembert by the young Abbe Gobert, fleeing the Terror in 1792. Also Livarot, Pont-l'Eveque, Neufchatel, a Brie which to my perhaps hypercritical eye looked a little chalky at the center, and a rich array of small local cheeses ... "

National Popcorn Day: Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy"

"When the work was done, Father came up the cellar stairs, bringing a big pitcher of sweet cider and a panful of apples. Royal took the corn-popper and a pannikin of popcorn. ... Royal opened its iron door, and with the poker he broke the charred logs into a shimmering bed of coals. He put three handfuls of popcorn into the big wire popper, and shook the popper over the coals. In a little while a kernel popped, then another, then three or four at once, and all at once furiously the hundreds of little pointed kernels exploded. When the big dishpan was heaping full of fluffy white popcorn, Alice poured melted butter over it, and stirred and salted it. It was hot and crackling crisp, and deliciously buttery and salty, and everyone could eat all he wanted to.

"Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. ... Popcorn is American. Nobody but the Indians ever had popcorn, till after the Pilgrim Fathers came to America. ... Almanzo looked at every kernel before he ate it. They were all different shapes. ... Then he thought that if he had some milk, he would have popcorn and milk. You can fill a glass full to the brim with milk, and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk, and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. ... But Almanzo was not very hungry, and he knew Mother would not want the milkpans disturbed. If you disturb milk when the cream is rising, the cream will not be so thick. So Almanzo ate another apple and drank cider with his popcorn and did not say anything about popcorn and milk."

Happy National Champagne Day!

From Peter Mayle's "Acquired Tastes":

"Beneath the two famous towns of Reims and Epernay are literally miles of cellars and passageways, some of them three or four stories deep, all of them filled with champagne. ... Onward and downward we went, until we came to the angular ranks of tent-shaped wooden racks, each of them sprouting dozens of bottles. The racks, as tall as a man, were invented in the nineteenth century to solve the problem of the sediment that forms in the bottle as a result of fermentation. The bottles are stuck, neck first, into oval holes set at a steep angle that allows the sediment to slide up to the cork. To make sure this happens completely and evenly, the process needs a little assistance from time to time. The bottles have to be lifted gently, given a slight clockwise turn, and replaced ... and despite experimenting with ingenious mechanical methods, progress has yet to find a totally satisfactory replacement for the human hand. Cold and lonely work it must be, too, but an experienced remueur can twist as many as 3,000 bottles an hour. ... The neck of the bottle is frozen so that the sediment, trapped in ice, can be removed. The bottle is topped up, recorked, labeled, et voila! What started as grapes in a muddy field has been turned into the most famous drink in the world.

"It is 11:30 on New Year's Eve, and you're feeling wonderful. The vintage Krug is fizzing though your veins, beautiful strangers are lining up to kiss you at the stroke of midnight, and the New Year, as full of promise as a rich and indulgent uncle, lies ahead. ... And then someone -- there is always someone, and he or she is always drinking Perrier with a twist -- comes up to you and asks, 'What are your New Year's resolutions?' Oh, God."

Writing about food: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

The year being so young that yester-even saw its birth,
That day double on the dais were the diners served.
... Then lords and ladies leaped forth, largess distributing,
Offered New Year gifts in high voices, handed them out,
Bustling and bantering about these offerings.
Ladies laughed full loudly, though losing their wealth,
And he that won was not woeful, you may well believe.
All this merriment they made until meal time.

But Arthur would not eat until all were served.
... His noble announcement that he never would eat
On such a fair feast-day till informed in full
Of some unusual adventure, as yet untold,
Of some momentous marvel that he might believe,
About ancestors, or arms, or other high theme;
Or till a stranger should seek out a strong knight of his,
To join with him in jousting, in jeopardy to lay
Life against life, each allowing the other
The favour of Fortune, the fairer lot,
Such was the King's custom when he kept court,
At every fine feast among his free retinue in hall.

... These were disposed on the dais and with dignity served,
And many mighty men next, marshalled at side tables.
Then the first course came in with such cracking of trumpets,
(Whence bright bedecked blazons in banners hung)
Such din of drumming and deal of fine piping,
Such wild warbles whelming and echoing
Their hearts were uplifted high at the strains.
Then delicacies and dainties were delivered to the guests,
Fresh food in foison, such freight of full dishes
That space was scarce at the social tables
For several soups set before them in silver
On the cloth.
Each feaster made free with the fare,
Took lightly and nothing loth;
Twelve plates were for every pair,
Good beer and bright wine both.

Writing about food: James Joyce, "The Dead"

"At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. Mr. Brown led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies' punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip. 'God help me,' he said smiling, 'it's the doctor's orders.'

"A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper full round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side dishes: two little ministers of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyma figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

"While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane's idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. ... There was a great deal of confusion and laughter and noise, the noise of orders and counter-orders, of knives and forks, of corks and glass-stoppers. Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly so that he compromised by taking a long drought of stout for he had found the carving hot work."

Writing about food: Dostoevsky's "The House of the Dead" -- The Christmas Holidays

"Towards evening the old soldiers, who executed the convicts' commissions, brought them all kinds of victuals -- meat, suckling pigs, and geese. Many prisoners, even the most simple and economical, after saving up kopecks throughout the year, thought they ought to spend some on that day, so as to celebrate Christmas Eve in a worthy manner. ... Through the little windows of our barracks, half hidden by the snow and ice, could be seen, flaring in the darkness, the bright fire of the two kitchens where six stoves had been lighted. In the court-yard, where it was still dark, the convicts, each with a half pelisse round his shoulders, or perhaps fully dressed, were hurrying towards the kitchen. Some of them, meanwhile -- a very small number -- had already visited the drink-sellers. ... The stars were paling, a light, icy mist was rising from the earth, and spirals of smoke were ascending in curls from the chimneys.

"The cooks were wanted to receive gifts brought from all parts of the town in enormous numbers; loaves of white bread, scones, rusks, pancakes, and pastry of various kinds. I do not think there was a shop-keeper in the whole town who did not send something to the unfortunates'. Amongst these gifts there were some magnificent ones, including a good many cakes of the finest flour. There were also some very poor ones, such as rolls worth two kopecks a piece, and a couple of brown rolls, covered lightly over with sour cream.

"... the Mayor and the Commandant arrived. ... He made a tour of the barracks ... wished the convicts a happy Christmas, went into the kitchen, and tasted the cabbage soup. It was excellent that day. Each convict was entitled to a pound of meat, besides which there was millet-seed in it, and certainly the butter had not been spared. We dined. ... I could never understand how, five minutes after the Mayor left, there was a mass of drunken prisoners, whereas as long as he remained everyone was perfectly calm. Red, radiant faces were now numerous, and the balalaiki soon appeared."
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