Dindons, or, a nation eats itself

I’ve never really gotten Thanksgiving. I attribute this in part to my status as a first generation American. And to the fact that I hate turkey.

Oddly, I think many people do.

I also don’t particularly care for (American) football or parades, although with a bit of adventurous re-tooling of the latter I could probably be convinced. Gladiator-style balloon battles might be catchy or perhaps sharpshooters positioned to take out the inflatables as they progressed down 5th Avenue (last one floating gets some sort of prize).  No doubt I am digging for Quetzalcoatl analogies: the rituals that would accompany celebration in this new land.

But no, the latex membrane of Big Bird shall not be laid down in sacrifice.

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey declared our national bird.

I can’t help, in considering the annual feast at which the turkey is consumed, but equate the act with the ingestion of the Host *: the national bird devoured by the people of the land as the trees lose their leaves and the skies darken. At Thanksgiving America eats itself in an act of nationalistic self-consumption.  Surely this is a rejuvinative act. Or is it one of penance?

“Just follow the instructions and wait til the button pops out”. **

How can the national dish be prepared with such cavalier indifference?? Is this what constitutes celebration and the rationale for massive annual carbon footprint deposition? Where are the figs, the minstrels from those Bruegels’s feasts, the truffled oils, or the puddings cooked months in advance?

I  made a turkey once. Last year W. and I bought a “bird”, brined it in a large pot like a mutant pickle and then cooked it. As everybody says, its all about the sides. Or the goose. I think its time for an upgrade. Why couldn’t the good citizens of Plimmoth have eaten a salmon that first chilled November day??

* complete with surrogate idols: (tofurkey????).  Also that’s “Host” as in communion, not as in the kindly person who invited you over for a meal. I do no wish to imply that Americans are cannibals.

** Spoken by the care-free intelligent man at the table next to mine at lunch; he was probably an MIT professor.


Petunia the culinarily inclined skunk started her career making jams. But she tends to shy away from big messy fruits (see “sugar and its effects on fur”).

My project for today involved some relatively large juicy fruits: Valencia and Blood Oranges. My plan was to skin and slice them and then somehow “burn” them, although this is somewhat of a gastronomical overstatement. I wanted “burnt oranges” rather than “burned” or “charred” (or “ruined”) citrus. They were to be toppings for a version of Portuguese Custard Tart. As I had no recipes for Portuguese Custard Tart with burnt oranges I made one large tart (instead of individual tartlets as advised) with different test toppings dependant on quadrant /sector. My inspiration for this layout  was the design of desert bombing targets, images of which I’ve seen in google maps aerial photos.

Oh too too relevant metaphor. I failed. I bombed.

Ultimately there was too much custard. The custard was too sweet (and too runny). And the Valencia oranges didn’t really work out either, although they look rather nice.

I think I know how to fix the custard (not as much sugar, for a start, and make less of it, too). But I have to research the orange part more. Thrill seeker that she is Petunia suggests dipping the orange slices in some sugar and then blasting them with a blow torch. W. suggests a marmalade-like approach.

As I think about it more I realize I’m trying to mimic the marvelous Ines Rosales brand Seville Orange tortas that I’ve been eating for breakfast recently. They’re wonderful with a slice of St. Augur or some nice Talleggio, so I think less sugar is definitely the way to go. The tarts are sweet but marvelously bitter, in the way of Sevilles, too, and even with the cheese they don’t break Petunia’s rule of triangulation.

Marco Pierre White gets the blue sparkly mask

I’m reading Marco Pierre White’s book The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef. I tend to confuse MPW with DBC Pierre, though I do not mis-attribute their output (culinary versus literary). The confusion stems partly from the shared Pierre, as well as their respective “talented bad boy” images. I’ve never eaten at one of Mister White’s restaurants but I’ve read several of Mister, um, Pierre’s works (real name: Peter Warren Finlay). Like many readers I was thoroughly enthralled by Vernon God Little.

I’ve got a problem with much food writing (as indeed with most cultural criticism; for the record do sous chefs qualify as being part of the “culture industry”?). Not just with Marco Pierre White’s, who is obviously a more gifted chef than he is raconteur. Most restaurant reviews read like forth grade book reports. They’re lacking in the very things that drive good cooking and art: passion, substance, and strange untenable leaps that lead to new and wonderful products/pieces (and some astonishingly unpalatable failures). Much cultural criticism is similarly lacking and ultimately strikes me as obfuscated and vacant. I exempt Dave Hickey.

To rectify these literary shortcomings and as an act of personal catharsis I’ve come up with the following scenario: Mexican wrestling matches between scribes from opposite ends of the spectrum: the simplists versus the obfuscators. Marco Pierre White gets the blue sparkly mask and Frederick Jameson* the pink one, and maybe at the end they’ll be so worn down that they’ll have have no choice but to write in honest pain-felt prose. DBC Pierre can officiate since he seems to have won the battle ages ago. While you’re watching the Lucha Libre matches sip on a Michelada. Don’t skimp on the hot sauce.

W’s Michelada recipe:

Make a mixture of equal parts salt, sugar, chile powder and cayenne and spread out on a saucer. Use this to coat the rim of a tall, 20oz glass after carefully dipping just the rim in water.

To the glass add:

  • 1 full oz fresh lime juice — the juice from at least a whole large lime.
  • At least 1 full oz good-quality Mexican-style hot sauce (Tamazula, maybe Cholula, have had luck with Los Chileros — but *not* just Tabasco). To most American eyes this will look like an *insane* amount of hot sauce and lime juice. It is. Enjoy!
  • Several good shakes of Maggi sauce
  • Dash Worcestershire
  • 6-10 ice cubes
  • A bottle of Mexican beer (Best is Victoria, if you can find it, but Negro Modelo and others of that ilk will suffice). Be careful not to disrupt the rim coating.
Mix with a long spoon or chopstick. Finish with a chunky slice of lime.

* I purchased The Origins of Postmodernity by Perry Anderson over ten years ago and I have yet to finish it. I used to bring it as my onflight book until I made the connection that, fearful of flying though I was, if the plane crashed I could at least leave the book unfinished.

I should also add that so far I am enjoying the Marco Pierre White book; its a quick read and a good insight into the fact that you shouldn’t wait for permission to do something; just do it. Its basically a light co-authored autobiography of someone who happens to be a famous chef/restaurateur. I’m excited to start Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton next.

Pardon, its Lardons (well, actually . . .)

I’ve been stumped for a day, trying to write something to go with my pre-selected title of “Pardon, its Lardons”: projected to be a short essay concerning a salad I ate in New Haven* (yes, with lardons, even though they insisted on calling them “bacon lardons”).

I have failed.

In art school you learn the idea of “killing what you love” which basically means that your piece will continue to suck until you get rid of the part that you’ve been clinging to madly (which has actually been draining the life blood from your piece, formally and conceptually).

So no more lardons, even though they were astonishing and the best W. or I had ever had. Instead: **KALE**.

I hate kale.

At least I did until 2 weeks ago, when I had the first of several highly positive kale experiences. At Area Four in Cambridge W. and I split the kale and brussels sprout salad. And then a few days ago I had the kale salad at Heirloom in New Haven. Brilliant, once again, and neither of them too difficult to replicate I would imagine. The thing is, I’d only previously eaten cooked kale, which I still think is dreadful. These were made with raw kale. Both of them contained candied hazlenuts and I think this is an imperative ingredient. The sweet nuttiness plays nicely with the strength of the kale. I preferred Area Four’s, which I believe had as a secret ingredient thinly sliced onions; they now list as indredients “Shaved Brussel Sprouts, Candied Hazelnuts & Pecorino, Lemon Vinaigrette”. If they have gotten rid of the kale I will cry (or make my own).

Kale contains a huge amount of vitamins and minerals. If you eat enough you will be able to caber-toss Michelle Bachman into the Charles, should she ever venture this way.

* the salad was from Caseus. It consisted of arugula with very thinly sliced shallots, shaved gruyere,  nice dressing, and a **deep fried duck egg**. I had a really nice astringent Basque Cider with it; none of that sweet fizzy stuff from Vermont with the cute animal on the label. And that’s my deep fried duck egg in the image above, in case you were wondering.

A Matter of Feet

At the small but scrumptious Yale University Art Gallery works by John Baldessari and Hieronymous Bosch hang within 200 (horizontal) feet of each other. A few hundred feet further, in the similarly rather scrumptious New Haven Green, sits Occupy New Haven.

The Baldessari piece is a text heavy painting called Solving Each Problem As It Arises (1967). When I was at the Gallery there was a tour group from New Jersey (identifiable via bus logo and accents) hating on a nearby Basquiat but oblivious to the painterly and conceptual complexities of the Baldessari.

“. . . When he feels that he has interpreted the subject to the extent of his capabilities he may have a one-man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem.” Baldessari writes. The people at Occupy New Haven are still trying to articulate the problem (at least in it’s more subtle nuances) but they have some very clear starting points. It’s essentially an age old issue, the subject of the meta-work of which the Bosch panel in New Haven is a part. The piece at Yale is titled Allegory of Intemperance (ca. 1495–1500); another section of the now-dismantled triptych depicts Gluttony, aka Greed.

There’s a surprising grace and solemnity to the Occupy New Haven encampment. The Green is a perfect spot for such civic engagement. Tents sit beneath the outspread boughs of coloring  trees with plenty of space left for cogitation (or more tents). It’s like a Quaker meeting or a vast quiet installation: a more organic version of a Walter de la Maria installation, perhaps, less the thunder. But maybe one day that too will come.


*Many* years ago my friend Andy stopped by my apartment with a little bottle of something. Honestly I don’t remember why, though I suspect a party or other social gathering. And it wasn’t really a little bottle. At any rate, to reduce things to the relative level of complexity of a first year language lesson: “Andy brought a bottle to my apartment.” And contained therein was rather a lot of Cynar.

I still have the bottle, with much of the contents intact. Over the years a few brave souls have tested the liquid, but mostly the bottle lives on the top of fridge, like a deaf aging octopus that periodically splashes around and calls out to startled passersby. (Note, I mean the metaphor to be taken exactly as written: imagine that the dear old octopus lives on top of a refrigerator, which should do much to increase the “wow” factor). I honestly don’t remember what Cynar tastes like, but I imagine it to be something akin to: Jägermeister, Campari, and Pimms. (Possibly mixed together).

I can’t imagine getting rid of the Cynar, other than to return it to Andy should he decide to marry. But I also don’t really fancy drinking it. So imagine my excitement at reading the cocktail menu of Bespoke in New Haven and seeing a drink made with Cynar . . . Far easier to take the plunge of re-acquaintance with someone else’s peer-approved mixology, especially as their bottle of Cynar is probably not in a state of advanced dessication. Additionally, their drink contains not only Cynar but egg white, thereby raising the act of its consumption to “feat” status: even if the product is vile you get some bragging rights. (Note, I do not think the same of eating competitions: they just seems wasteful, although the Cameron Jamie/Keijo Haino video of the Nathan’s hot dog contest is fucking astounding, so I’m at least glad that contest exists).

I’m off to New Haven tomorrow and will report back.