Unicorns

A recent early morning discussion between W and myself has determined the following:

Unicorns are raised on farms where they subsist on a diet of Reisling, oatmeal, and carrot cake. The food is consumed inside the farm’s “man shack”, entry to which is actually available to all genders. Unicorns additionally fart rainbows. The gases are employed in the production of non lead-based rainbow paint: all the colors in one can. Unicorns are, finally, distantly related to Jesus.

Carrot cake aside none of this much relates to food or art (politics, perhaps?) and yet . . . I am reminded of some of the finer aspects of Molecular Gastronomie.

The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn Representing Annunciation, Circle of Martin Schongauer

I’ve never cooked anything sous vide (dans un vide, peut etre, but we will not speak further of my kitchen) but there’s often a mythical quality to the recipes. Nathan Myhrvold’s hay smoked chicken (cooked, in part with a blow torch) or all those foams that make your dish sound as if Beowulf’s mum leered appreciatively over them just prior to their delivery by the hapless server.

Molecular Gastronomie seems emblematic of late-stage capitalism with the twinning of food production and mechanized technology. Yes it all sounds marvelous and yummy, but: no, dear service counter worker, you will not be scampering off home, post-shift, to start shoving things into plastic bags to cook slowly till the next Millennium. It’s not so much a question of costly ingredients as the time, space, and equipment needed. It’s also a bit like a sect: only the anointed may partake and I half expect there’s a secret MG reliquary somewhere with the sliced-off tip of Ferran Adrià’s forefinger or maybe sweat from the brows of the chefs at Alinea. Perhaps on the unsettlingly-named campus of the CIA??

Vernacular/ regional cuisine is usually the product of years if not centuries of gently probing and poking at an existing formula or staple: ragout sauce or the humble naan, for example. But Molecular Gastronomie pours man-power and research into the picture like a duck press on steroids or an angel backed startup: new thingie?? Voilà, new food. I’m not against this, just a wee bit jealous. Then again, all you need for caviar is a spoon.

So new to my Xmas list that it will have to be for next year:
Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions, 1500-1760

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Hans Haacke – Something in the air

They’re almost like pets.

I’m referring to the floating and waving objects in the Hans Haacke show at MIT’s List Center which have a greater level of autonomy than I would have expected.

But then these are objects from 1967 (or recreations in some cases). Things just *were* freer back then.

A series of prints in a separate room document other works created by Haacke while he was at MIT. Included are images of more floating things: a whole string of balloons, for instance, like a parade of white geese or rotund pre-schoolers out for a ropey walk (the one where the tinies walk in a line clutching a rope that keeps them linked together).

*
At times it feels as if there’s a whole sub-genre of balloon work: wistful poignant photographs of balloons, balloon installations, sound artists who work with balloons, etc. Martin Creed’s Work no. 200: Half the air in an open space, 1998, for example. The Creed work uses balloons (half a room’s worth) and photographs quite well. I’ve never seen it in person.

Haacke used the balloons to explore and elaborate upon the concept of systems. Hence the autonomy which seems less a force in other artist’s balloon work. Other artist’s pieces seems more about aesthetics, or something vaguely conceptual (or even possibly jokey). On one of my visits to the List the floating corset piece (Flight, from 1965-6, recreated in 2011) dropped; something that occurs randomly and occasionally according to the gallery attendant. In some work this might seem a technical failure, something to ignore or pretend not to have seen. In the context of Haacke’s work its a rare exception, like witnessing a shooting star; something that strays from the memetic formula but is still part of the existing genotype. In science even failure can be a point of fascination.

*
For some reason I equate balloons with birds.

The Haacke show also contains images of birds, so maybe he was thinking the same.

If the art is birds, are the viewers cats? worms? This line of reasoning has the feeling of a Russian fiction: The Master and Margarita, perhaps.

In the small gallery at the List the prints are oddly hung; some “normally” but others seriously askew, leaving me to wonder if this manner of display is intentional or a mistake. If birds were the viewers and not the art they would have no issues with crooked art, mid-air re-calibration being rather a feature of their species.

*
Ten days later the prints (which are mounted on foam-core) are still crooked, though I can’t remember if its the same or different ones. I start wondering idly if Hans Haacke is a bird, and by extension whether I would be less annoyed by the orientation of the prints had a bird been responsible. Knowing this disarray to be some sort of avian conceptual gesture would certainly make things more interesting and the artist’s talk would be delightful . . . According to the front desk staff the prints are crooked by design (I don’t ask them about the Hans Haacke=bird stuff). Ultimately I think its a nice show and I like the floating ballon and corset pieces (the real ones, not the documentation). I wouldn’t call it great. It feels a bit sparse for all that space and I’m really not sure about all those crooked prints. A dedicated iPad would do just as well for the documentation. This is MIT, afterall. Maybe if they were framed?

*****

The Otto Piene light installation in the other half of the gallery is utterly transfixing. I have no desire to write about it as it strikes me that words would diminish its oneiric efficacy. Go see it. And look up MITHenge. I can’t help imagining a connection. Lights at the Palace of Technology.

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.

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.

Petunia

I’ve owned Petunia for years. Over time I’ve created some rather elaborate histories about Petunia and her friends, several of which were at one time available on-line through my old website. Needless to say I’m a big fan of Grayson Perry and of his teddy bear Alan Measles. You may follow Alan’s twitter feed here or his blog here. Petunia does not have a twitter feed, although her friend Lydia Behr, who also lives with me, does have a gmail account. You may friend her on Google+, although she’s oddly timid about posting status updates. I believe her paws are too big for the keyboard . . . The Petunia and co. stories have something of Yoknapatawpha county about them: an ongoing and ever growing micrososmos with some very real-world attributes projected onto a group of fictional beings. Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp inhabitants are also conceptual kin.

Petunia is an artist, scientist, and chef (she started out making jam). She’s also a skunk. For years she’s been coming up with  “recipes” and art projects, most of which horrify her friends or get no attention in the art world, despite immense amounts of thought and labor. Petunia is withdrawn and hard working, with unique powers of imagination, and an almost overwhelming need for external validation. Lately, however, things have been changing. Paging through Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine (blog here, Amazon listing here) I felt as if Petunia’s recipes weren’t so crazy, a sentiment re-iterated after looking at Cooking Science. Condensed Matter. The latter even contains a periodic table of preserves!

Petunia’s recipes are based on a system of triangulation: 3 components, in opposition to each other. Baked salmon skin, with marshmallow, and salted prune, for example. Coming up with the recipes has always been a fun exercise: a bit like filling in the correct elements of a Sudoko to complete the puzzle. Always the same framework, but with different components. But I’ve realized this is a system I often use in my own cooking and art making. Ice cream, sound, and sculpture, for example (not the three added together; these are just 3 examples of media where I apply this technique, although an ice cream based sound piece might be fun . . . Contact miked ice creams being licked by cows, for instance,). More than 3 elements and the dish or piece gets too busy; only 2 and its a rather boring binary argument.

Dark chocolate ice cream with creme de peche and flaked red pepper
From memory.

The wonderful thing about ice cream is that there’s not much change in taste between the before and after freezing stages so its very easy to make things “to taste”. Adjust according to yours.

1. Do this step only if you have access to a nice ripe peach. Otherwise omit, as this also breaks Petunia’s triangulation rule.

2. Peel the peach and then puree it to the point where you have mostly liquid with some small solid bits.

3. Follow the directions for a custard based (eg, uses egg yolks) dark chocolate ice cream recipe. Look online or perhaps you have a book of recipes (I own and love Lola’s Ice Creams and Sundaes by Morfudd Richards. Its a great book but all of the portions are metric so you need a good metric scale and measuring cup). I use High Lawn cream from the milk of Jersey cows and do equal parts milk and heavy cream. I also recommend good quality bittersweet chocolate with a high cocoa content. And use a thermometer when making the custard.

4. Once the custard is in the Bain Marie (ice bath) and prior to refrigerating the mix, add the peach puree, several tablespoons of Creme de Peche, and a teaspoon or so of dried Red Pepper flakes. You should be able to taste the Creme de Peche, but don’t overdo it, in part because the stuff is so damned expensive. Don’t overdo the pepper flakes, either, but also don’t be a wimp . . .

5. Refrigerate the mix for at least 6 hours and preferably longer and then churn in an ice cream maker. You’ll need to to churn it longer because of the alcohol, which lowers the temperature at which the mix will freeze.