Snail porridge not by Heston: homage or plagiarism?

I’ve recently confessed my confusion about how to make sense of the case of the homophobic baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple (because it’s obviously wrong. Unless it’s not, because one could grudgingly respect an asshole who’s willing to forego money for the sake of sticking to his (wrong) beliefs?). Apart from the philosophical conundrum it presents, I was intrigued by the legal implications of the case, which seemed to rely on whether the (non-existent) cake in question could be considered a work of art, in which case it would magically be protected by the rights to freedom of speech. Or not baking. Whatever floats your homophobic boat. Continue reading “Snail porridge not by Heston: homage or plagiarism?”

The problem with cake

Cake has been getting attention lately, not because it’s delicious and should be enjoyed by all (which it is, and should be), but because it’s the subject of a controversial hearing about free speech. Specifically, whether it’s OK or not for a homophobic baker to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. The baker in question, the Washington Post informs us, also refuses to make Halloween cakes for religious reasons:

To be compelled to do so would, he says, violate his constitutional right to speak freely. This, he says, includes the right not to be compelled to contribute his expressive cake artistry to a ceremony or occasion celebrating ideas or practices he does not condone. Well.

The First Amendment speaks of speech; its presence in a political document establishes its core purpose as the protection of speech intended for public persuasion. The amendment has, however, been rightly construed broadly to protect many expressive activities . Many, but there must be limits.

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“I hope this email finds you well”

We’ve all experienced that annoying beginning to an email (or some variation thereof – “I trust you’re well” is particularly egregious – why bring trust into it?). It is, I think, mostly an email convention, for reasons that escape me – why can’t emails be more like Whatsapps, of Facebook DMs, or another other mode of modern communication, where you just get straight to the “Yo wassup, drinks later?”. Maybe (and I’m conjecturing on the fly here) emails are stuck in some grey zone between the “old” and “new”, where the excitement of immediacy took precedence over common sense.

I mean, yes, there were faxes before emails in the whole “immediacy” game, but imagine standing over a fax machine watching it laboriously pixelate a message that begins with “I trust this fax finds you well”, and not kind of freaking out thinking of what’s coming next while you wait for the rest of the thing to materialise: why wouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t I be? We didn’t even have Dr. Google to address panic attacks back in those days. (It’s nothing, calm down.) Continue reading ““I hope this email finds you well””

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film by Zero Point Zero, the production company responsible for the excellent Parts Unknown (featuring Anthony Bourdain) and The Mind of Chef (narrated by Bourdain)

Tower, for those who haven’t heard of him (which is apparently a lot of people, including myself before hearing about this film), worked at Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse restaurant back in the days (meaning the 70s), and apparently helped to turn a little hippie venture into one of the most sought-after restaurants in the area. From Wikipedia:

After his grandfather died, Tower, who was used to being taken care of and supported, found himself out of money and in need of employment.

Inspired by a berry tart he had eaten at the then-unknown Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, he applied for a job there in 1972. Alice Waters and her partners hired him for his demonstrable skills and brazenness when it came to recreating great French traditional food. Within a year, he became an equal partner with Waters and the others. He was in full charge of the kitchen, the writing of the menus, and the promotion of the restaurant.

‘Being taken care of and supported’, we learn in the film, meant being a child of wealthy parents who took him with them on trips around the world in first-class passage, where he was pretty much left to his own devices by a father he describes as an asshole and a mother as a raging alcoholic whose dignity he had to protect by stepping in to poach, skin and decorate the salmon at dinner parties once he noticed that she was too tanked on martinis to finish the job herself. Continue reading “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

Theatre of Life: Massimo Bottura’s plan for wasted food

The documentary Theatre of Life is a lovely film about a lovely initiative, started by a lovely man. (Yes, most sentences are impoverished by adjectives, and the worst sentences contain three repetitions of the same adjective. Not off to a good start then.)

It’s a film about what started as chef Massimo Botturo’s idea to deal with all the wasted food at the 2015 Milan Expo (that tagline of which was rather ironically “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”). It was (and remains) a fantastic initiative – everyone’s favourite Danish chef René Redzepi after all told Massimo that he’s now “in it for life!” (ie. Robert De Niro, below) – which basically involves getting star chef buddies from around the globe (hello Ferran Adrià, Joan Rocca, Mario Batali, Alex Atala, Daniel Humm, et al.) to fashion amazing food out of stuff like stale bread and veggies no one (who’s paying) wants to eat.

Massimo and Bob planning their next strike

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The Good Old Days with Keith Floyd

I’ve been thinking about Keith Floyd lately.

It happens on occasion, in a sporadic, nostalgic fashion (somehow – peculiarly? – when I watch some modern rubbish “food TV”). Here’s what I had to say about him a few years ago when I was being all academic and bookish:

Floyd was in many ways the pioneer of modern food television – at least in the UK and Europe, and particularly in terms of breaking down the artifice that had been a staple of televised cooking until he famously took the cameras out of the kitchen studio and into whichever exotic location he (iconic glass of wine in hand) happened to be cooking in. He was postmodern before that word was fashionable, talking to his cameraman [“Clive, back to me, thanks”]  and often enough scolding him for not paying enough attention to the food. Floyd directed his shows from the stage, and in that way made it impossible for his viewers not to be aware of the whole enterprise as a construction. By not allowing us to feel like flies on a kitchen wall, Floyd rarely displayed the conceit of imagining that he was stepping into our worlds, and that he therefore had any sense of responsibility to his audience. On the contrary, his particular conceit – and also what made him so entertaining to watch – was that he was allowing us a glimpse into his world, and into a world of food and television where things did not always go according to scripts or plans. It was a world away from the patronizing refrains of ‘see how easy it is?’ which populate our screens today.

Floyd became famous because he was eccentric in his ways, and because he did what he liked. As he wrote on his short-lived blog, ‘If you don’t like my approach you are welcome to go down to MacDonald’s [sic]’. Perhaps this was also the reason, sadly, that his fame was soon eclipsed by a number of younger Turks who took inspiration from Floyd to make careers of food and television, as well as a number of television producers who took inspiration to create and nurture a new brand of stars – though less likely to be drinking on set, and therefore less potentially liable to their respective producers. Slowly but surely, once Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson started appearing on television, we began to see less and less of Keith Floyd, until he virtually disappeared altogether.

Until 2009, that is, when his erstwhile producer David Pritchard published a book called “Shooting The Cook”, which details the rise (and fall) of their friendship and professional partnership. Later that year The Daily Mail published a series of extracts from Floyd’s forthcoming autobiography, “Stirred But Not Shaken”. In it, Floyd tells his own version of Pritchard’s story, including what he saw as an important correction: ‘I don’t want to napalm the cooks (as Pritchard has accused me in his book Shooting the Cook). I want to napalm the producers.’ The book also chronicles a number of details of his life depressingly at odds with the Floyd we knew from television: four divorces, a bowel cancer diagnosis, and recurring bouts of heavy drinking and weariness from the fame he had inadvertently earned (‘I’d walk onto the stage, a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other,’ he said of one of his last gigs, ‘Floyd Uncorked’. ‘“My name is Keith Floyd.” And they were screaming, which is strange because I am not a pop star. I’m just a cook.’)

That same evening, the UK’s Channel 4 screened a film called “Keith Meets Keith”, which documents a trip by British comedian Keith Allen to France to meet Floyd, his one-time cooking icon. It was not a pleasant film to watch, because physically Keith Floyd was a shadow of his earlier television self. But he was as acerbic as ever, and had no reservations about calling celebrity chefs – though not, this time, their producers – a bunch of attention seeking ‘cunts’, and pointing out that it made no sense for chefs to become celebrities in the first place, because, as he put it, a chef should be the chief of his kitchen, while the person who cooks is a cook. Just a few hours after “Keith Meets Keith” was broadcast, Keith Floyd died of a heart attack (following a meal, we are told, of oysters, partridge, pear cider jelly, wine and ‘a number of cigarettes’). © Me, 2012

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Withnail and I Dinner Menu

I recently listened to an excellent BBC Food Programme podcast on the topic of food and cult fiction. It was fun listening to all the food stuff from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and a writer I hadn’t heard of before (to my shame, it now seems), Colin MacInnes, who authored a trilogy about London in the mid-20th century, at least one of which apparently contains excellent passages about working class “mods” eating smoked salmon sandwiches while admiring fabulous views of London from some rooftop.

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Food addiction, and why words matter

Years ago I had a friend who used to talk about being “addicted to being a victim”. I thought it very deep and clever at the time (I was a teenager, and he an aspiring poet).

That was before I really cared – or thought that others should really care – about how we use words, or understood that how we use words can *actually* be deep and important.

(For the record, I don’t actually use the word “deep” anymore.)

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On love and madness in Swaziland

Swaziland is a shithole. With more than 28% of its population positive, it has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. (Male) homosexuality is illegal (LGBT+ does not exist in the Swazi lexicon). The king is currently trying to ban divorce. He would also like everyone to just forgive Zuma for Nkandla. He currently has 13 wives (don’t scoff – his father had 70).

It’s also the country I grew up in, and from the age of 5 to 18, I had no idea it was such a shithole. Not (I like to think) because I was stupid, but because it was a wonderful place to be a child. It’s beautiful, with rolling hills and majestic mountains, and people who seemed cool about everything. My parents’ friends lived in cool houses built into the mountains, and on Sundays when we came to visit they’d pad around in kikois smoking joints, and then we’d go swim in a river. My parents wore kikois too, and when we had people round, they would assemble around a big fireplace my father had fashioned out of an old tractor tire rim in the garden, and my mother provided roasted peanuts, marinated fillet for the braai, and Keith Jarrett or Dave Brubeck booming through the speakers perched on window sills inside the house. (They also had a live recording of then Dollar Brand playing piano at another house they lived in down the valley before I was born.)

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