The “Changian” Revolution

Years ago, when I was but an infant in my research into why people suddenly gave a shit about chefs (with due respect to a chef I give most respect to: yes, I’m talking about the late, great Bourdain) – and by giving a shit I mean turned them into celebrities – I experienced something which pissed me off mightily, but which I now file in the (virtual) cupboard of naivety when it comes to online behaviour.

In brief, I had the gumption to delve into the comment section of a blog post I had an issue with, and which unfortunately got personal when someone decided to look me up and discovered that I was researching something called “food media”: ‘wot dat?‘ was among the commentary.

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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”

Deen there, done that

I’ve been experiencing various levels of annoyance at various times over the last few days. Much of this is heat(-wave) related, but mostly it’s from witnessing the brouhaha over the Paula Deen “scandal’ in the food media world. Practically every media outfit has their own take on it, but the facts are these:

– Deen (the “butter queen“, or as Frank Bruni put it, the ‘deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking’) recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes;

– She has known this for three years already;

– She is receiving money from Novo Nordisk to plug Victoza, a new diabetes drug (with as yet questionable benefits: those evil Danes!). Victoza is pretty expensive compared to other drugs on the market – think $500 a month vs. $20 a month.

The scandal includes any or all of the following:

a) she has deceived her audiences

b) she is a shill

c) she is a shilling a product that ordinary (read: poor) people cannot afford 

d) she is still fat (well, no one says it like that, but that’s what they mean when they comment on her not having made ‘significant lifestyle changes’)

e) she wasted three years not teaching her viewers how to cook healthy food.

Now, I’m not going to enter into the shilling debate. This piece in the LA Times did a fairly good job of convincing me the major problem with this, which is the illusion of a quick-fix solution that Deen’s deal with the evil Danes promotes:

‘The life of a diabetic is somewhat less than swell — but Novo Nordisk is selling swell, alongside drug companies that promise to medicate away depression, gas, incontinence, clogged arteries and fibromyalgia. … Support and encouragement is one thing, but what we’re being sold is magical thinking. In the battle between healthcare reality and fantasy, Paula Deen is small potatoes (steamed, skins on, no butter), but what she represents matters: another attempt to market immortality to a culture that’s particularly in love with misbehaving, followed by an easy fix.’

What does irk me, though, are the various permutations of a) and e), above. Suddenly now (or then, as it happens) that she has diabetes, Deen is only allowed to cook “healthy” food on television? Suddenly she now has a responsibility to make her audiences healthy too, and thereby fix the diabetes/obesity crisis? Maybe it would be a good idea for her to stop tasting and eating the food that she is apparently so good at making (even though she has pointed out that – surprise surprise – what we see her make on TV is not actually how she eats every day, and that her shows are for entertainment), but that shouldn’t stop her fans from making her fatty, buttery recipes if they damn well please. Should watching Anthony Bourdain sucking foie off a plate come with a diabetes advisory?

Bruni’s piece does an excellent job of describing the classist hypocrisies at play in much of this finger-wagging. But I am less disturbed by that than the evidence, once again, of how ready people are to blame their problems on someone else, and to expect someone else to fix them. It’s also an appetite for scandal which turns out to be a really convenient excuse to not think clearly about the actual issues, which as chef José Andrés also points out in this CBS interview, are quite simply not Paula Deen’s to fix.

Rant over. Now go buy the book.

Getting what you ask for

Anthony Bourdain once challenged the audience at one of his speaking gigs to “Go home and Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake and … count how long it’s going to take for your head to explode.” And in another interview: “Watch that clip and tell me your eyeballs don’t burst into flames.”

So of course you Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake, and wait for the inevitable. You have been warned. (Great publicity for Ms. Lee, Mr. Bourdain!)

Well fortunately my head hasn’t exploded, and neither have my eyeballs burst into flames, but it certainly felt like I was playing with that kind of fire as I sat through 141 minutes of that DUMB-ASS, BRAIN-DEAD, TORTUROUS, WASTE-OF-F**KING-TIME-AND-MONEY film, Sex and the City 2.

Yes, yes. I knew it would be shite. I knew it would be shite even without having read all the reviews telling me it was shite. And being the (generally) level-headed kind of woman that I am, I should have switched it off as soon as that was confirmed, which was about 3 minutes into the film where you have to sit through a god-awful wedding between two men – officiated by Liza Minelli. Call it escalation of commitment bias, or call plain stupid, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to justify saying all kinds of horrible things about the film unless I had seen the whole thing. So I saw it, and now I can’t even find the words to say all those horrible things about it. All I can say is that it was a waste of a Saturday afternoon, and also that I hope – I REALLY REALLY hope – that there are no people in the real world who resemble any of the characters in that film.

Yet I fear that may be wishful thinking. Spotted in my very own neighbourhood the day before:

This dog, by the way, is the very same dog that, with its mommy (not pictured), moved into my(ex-) office earlier this year, and that higher powers in my department expected me to welcome with open arms. I did not welcome them with open arms. Instead I stayed the hell away from my office. Which means that until I took this picture, I had not yet seen the dog in the flesh. But now that I have, and have realised it is in fact not a dog but a handbag, I hate it even more. And lest you think I’m just a grumpy bitch, let me hasten to add that all this makes it even more delightful that I am no longer in said office, or said department, which also means that if I ever have to have a conversation with this doggy’s daddy, I will not have to be politic about his silly ideas about “talk-show democracies.”

There. Now I feel better, and can report on the best part – so far – of the weekend, which was about satisfying my craving for coconut cake.

I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t had a piece of this piece of moist coconut (and a touch of cardamom) goodness warm from the oven with a Nespresso “flat white” halfway through that film, I would not have survived. And if I hadn’t had another piece for brunch just now, I might indeed be a grumpy bitch. It’s true, coconut makes everything better, and come Women’s Day tomorrow, the Philosophe can celebrate the return of his charming wife.

Things you don’t want to know – but probably should

I recently watched a new Danish film called The Woman That Dreamed About A Man (or Kvinden der drømte om en mand, if you’re a native). It’s certainly not director Per Fly’s best work, but decent enough psycho-thriller entertainment when that’s what you need. Anyway, there’s one of those typically raunchy scenes when two strangers who have been eyeing each other across various rooms finally find themselves alone on a dark road, next to a conveniently located alley that they slip into without saying a word. The air is thick with erotic tension as they silently play the yes-no game, and then finally give in to an anonymous screw against the wall.

If that last sentence came across as rather lacking in finesse, good, because that’s exactly how sex between strangers in an alley should be. But what irritated me was that when their 30 seconds of heavy breathing (anti-)climaxed into a rather awkward button-closing, zip-locking silence, they suddenly lost all credibility as characters. No remorse, no guilt, and more importantly, no mundane panics about contraception, STDs, or the possibility of having just f**ked a psychopath. Just some inevitable exchange about when they can see each other again.

Fine, you may say, films are supposed to be in la-la land. But in 2010, that just doesn’t fly, no matter how much of a psycho you turn out to be (the woman did become one of note). Good films don’t let the banal stuff go. They linger on it, like that brilliant film Japanese Story, where Toni Collette has an affair with a married Japanese man who accidentally dies when they go skinny dipping. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with no one around, she has to get his body into her car, and it turns out to be quite a mission to manoeuvre a dead body. The scene goes on for ages, and is admittedly a little boring, but it’s also thoroughly captivating because it is so “real”.

Too much food media suffers from the same rubbish unreality as those two strangers in the alley. Everything is “dead easy”, or even if it’s complicated but “worth the effort”, it looks fabulous and tastes “divine”. But no one ever talks about how they feel after eating all this beautiful food – and here I’m not just talking about cooking shows, but also high end restaurant reviews. Which is why I was delighted to read the bit in Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw, where he talks about how exhausting it can be to eat poncy tasting menu after poncy tasting menu at some of the “best” restaurants in the world. He wasn’t just jaded because luxury gets boring (surprise!), but because a lot of those menus are seriously taxing on one’s digestive system. So post-prandial romance is often off the cards – to paraphrase him very liberally – because the two of you flop into a taxi trying to suppress burps and farts the whole way home, and all you really look forward to is 24 hours later when you’ve managed to get all the crap (literally) out of your system.  (A general note on the book: a fun read IF you haven’t followed Bourdain’s speaking gigs over the last year or so, in which case you will realise that he has become his own speaking puppet. He speaks in quotes rather than thoughts. I call it the Michael Pollan syndrome).

Which leads me to the actual topic of this post: stuffed steak.

Tired of plain old steak, I wanted to make beef olives. But when it came to the whole pounding, rolling and tying bit, I was overcome by laziness, so decided to just stuff the steaks instead.

Pretty simple really. Make some kind of delicious stuffing (for instance, white anchovies, capers, olives, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, pecorino, chilli flakes: all the major foodgroups). Then use a good sharp knife to transform your steak into a meaty pita pocket into which you stuff as much of the stuffing as you can possibly cram in. Now wrap tightly tightly in cling and leave in the fridge for an hour or so (to “set) while you enjoy a spicy Bloody Mary (it being the cocktail hour of course). When you’ve slurped the last of your Mary, get a pan nice and hot, dredge the steaks in a little flour, and get frying:

Look, so they aren’t exactly pretty. In fact we joked that I had produced a Rousseau version of KFC’s Double Down “sandwich” (where chicken stands in for bread, and cheese and bacon stand in for chicken). But apart from the meat being a touch dry, it was pretty delicious. It’s like steak and puttanesca, all in one. What’s not to love?

Should you try this at home? By all means, but I have two recommendations. Don’t forget to deglaze the pan with some sherry (or something), and perhaps a touch of cream, to create a bit of a gravy which you can serve as “jus”. Secondly – and this is important – do make absolutely sure that all your ingredients are good and fresh, and particularly that you don’t use anchovies which may have passed their best-before date.

Otherwise expect to spend most of the night on the loo. Bon appetit!

If I were a TV cook…

(or a cookbook author for that matter), I could imagine myself delivering all number of clever little tips and tricks – as they do – to give people the idea that I sit around and think hard and long about what works and what doesn’t.

For my (to die for) “caramelized brussel sprouts with pecan nuts and blue cheese”, for instance, I would tell you that the secret is to add the garlic at the last minute of pan-time. That way you get a kick of fresh garlic to temper the sweetness of the sugar and nuts, but without the harshness of actual fresh garlic. (Because don’t you also find that if you add garlic too early, it loses its oomph?) You want garlic. But you want it just right. This is how, trust me.

(Excuse the photograph. My stylist is away watching Argentina getting thrashed by Germany).

If I were Jamie Oliver, I would tell you that this goes fantastically with small, crumbed pork cutlets (and a nice dollop of horseradish on the side), and then tell you how easy crumbed pork is to throw together. (Like this: bish bash bosh).

If I were Rachael Ray, I would tell you not to bother with the bish bash bosh, because I don’t have the time, and you don’t have the time or money to hop on your scooter, head down to your friendly (organic) butcher, have a chat about the missus, get some beautiful hand-reared, grass-fed, acupuncture-tenderised local pork, and neither do you have half a loaf of day-old sourdough lying around waiting to be whizzed into crumbs in the KitchenAid (which you don’t have either).

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