Houston, we have a Substack! Yup, after thinking about it and working on it for awhile I have launched a Substack called Rough Tongue, dedicated to “sensation, emotion, and food under capitalism.” Want to see it? Here it is:
I’m going to write about why luxury feels so damn good even though we know it’s based on someone getting the shaft. Whether upper-class food or poor people’s food is objectively “better.” And why we should all listen much more to our emotions, because they’re on our side.
Some more topics: why sex when you’re old is better (at least for me 🙂 ). What does it mean that even most upper-middle-class people can’t afford to eat at the majority of Manhattan restaurants? And then, of course, regular lists of stark raving pleasures that are absolutely free, from Sappho borrowed from the library to the sight and smell of the roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, if you ask for free admission.
Two more bits of news: I was interviewed by a wonderful podcast called Beaconites about my life and writing, you can listen here.
Finally, the next Lit Lit will be Friday, March 3 at the Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main St. in Beacon. See everybody there!
Hey, I’m going to get to do something fun at the Beacon Arts members show on Saturday, November 5! I’m going to read “Parker House Loaf,” a piece about food, class, status, luxury, and art. A few of you will remember my food writing from a few years back, so here’s the place to hear some more! Along with a performance by the great Donna Mikkelsen, and of course the fabulous art of the Beacon Arts members on the walls! At KuBe Art Center, 211 Fishkill Ave. in the old high school, 4-6 PM. See you then.
I have to say, it’s hard to write about how good food tastes when Trump is compiling weekly lists of “crimes” by immigrants. I wanted to describe for you the precise degree of crispness and umami of the chicken thigh/fermented soybean/potato chip appetizer at the hot new restaurant Llama Inn, but it’s hard to stop thinking about him turning Syrian children back to die from bombing and starvation. I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out what testosterone enantato to do about this when a good idea suddenly occurred to me: it would probably be possible to roast Trump like a turkey, trussing him with a little cooking twine and rubbing him all over with European butter, salt, and pepper.
With his new, yellower hair color and more deeply-bronzed skin, he looks like a roasted turkey already, so I thought this would be a good time to try out Tom Collicchio’s Thanksgiving recipe and stuff a thick handful of Kerrygold Irish Butter between his skin and his breast meat, mixed with sage, tarragon, thyme, and rosemary to take some of his funk away. He weighs about 12 times what an average Thanksgiving turkey does, so he could provide a dinner for approximately 20 Iraqi families fleeing rape and what the UN calls “staggering violence” ultimately caused by George Bush’s war.
I have a particular idea for the stuffing. I feel more personally threatened as a Jew than I ever have in 52 years, now that we have a Nazi on the National Security Council and a White House that denies that the Holocaust had any particular impact on Jews. So I thought it would be community-building and holistic to stuff Trump up the butthole with charoset. (If you haven’t heard of it, charoset is the mix of chopped fruits, nuts, and wine Jews eat on Passover to represent the bricks and mortar we were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.) There are dozens of different versions made by Jews from different cultures, but I love my own family’s version best, diced apples and walnuts mixed with sweet, deep purple Manischewitz. There are plenty of non-Passover recipes in which charoset is used as a stuffing, including a lovely one by Martha Stewart that goes up the butt of a Cornish game hen. According to the Talmud, there are also revolutionary sexual connotations to the lush, fruity, sometimes spicy dish: the apples, dates, figs, grapes, walnuts, pomegranates, and saffron used in various versions of charoset all appear as erotic symbols in the Song of Songs, the Hebrew Bible’s ode to carnal joy. (Bananas don’t appear in the Bible, but because they’re also pretty erotic, they’re used in versions from India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Uganda.)
And the 2nd century sage Rabbi Akiva said — I am not making this up — that charoset particularly signifies the wild frolics that ancient Jewish slaves were able to have in the apple orchards when they snuck away from their overseers to defy Pharaoh’s edict against sex. Charoset for all these reasons is understood to bring a sweetness and hope into our memories of horrible slavery and oppression, and it can bring some sweetness even into Donald’s meat.
The president is known to subsist on a diet of Big Macs, buckets of KFC, and Lay’s potato chips, so it may take some doing to rinse the flavor of salmonella and excessive salt from his flesh. I suggest using the cleansing technique developed for beef kidneys: soak him for two hours in a large Dutch oven full of water mixed with a little white vinegar or lemon juice, then rinse him out three times with fresh water and drain him in a large colander.
Once you’ve cleaned the Donald, he’s perfect for the national dish of Somalia, baasto iyo sugo hilib shildan. In the years since Italy colonized Somalia starting in the late 19th century, Somalis transformed spaghetti Bolognese, the food of their occupiers, into a spicier dish with profoundly African flavors. (Mussolini tried to boost his popularity at home by intensifying the occupation in the ’30s, but you should read up on how that ultimately turned out for him, Mr. President!) One thing to note before I give the recipe: Somali cuisine is halal. Is the First Golfer? I’m not equipped to give a religious opinion.
(With apologies to Somali cooks everywhere.) To prepare, sauté a load of onions in a large skillet. Add cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, crushed green cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds, and fresh garlic and green pepper. Add fresh Donald, minced, till nicely browned. Add diced tomatoes and tomato paste, sauté until fully blended, about five minutes. Add a little chicken stock and some large-diced potatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve over al dente pasta, topped with chopped cilantro. Eat a banana on the side. (Somalis like to have one with every entrée.)
The Somali civil war is one of the bloodiest going on right now, with the widespread kidnapping of children so they can be forced to be soldiers, and systemic sexual violence. All sides target civilians. The conflict, like most of the current wars in Africa, ultimately stems from the massive destabilization wrought by European colonization. Somali refugees could use a good meal like this: 2 million of them have been forced to flee the country, and only one hundredth of one percent of them — 299 people — were granted visas by the United States in the last fiscal year on record, 2015, according to Quartz.
A Desi chef who insisted on going nameless out of fear of being rounded up offered this recipe: “I just think that given our president’s unnatural tone and coloring, as a chef of Indian cuisine I think immediately of tandoori chicken, with that ridiculous, unnatural bright pink tone a lot of versions of it have.” (Much commercial tandoori chicken relies on food coloring,the chef notes; more holistic versions use a mixture of tomato paste and yogurt that turns the chicken reddish.) “But if you used the president, you wouldn’t even have to marinate him, he’s already that color. And given the sort of injustices he’s committing against humanity, he surely deserves” some time in “an 800° tandoori oven.”
For those of you who can’t bring themselves to bite into such meat and digest, here’s a vegetarian recipe from La Morada in the South Bronx, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city:
La Morada’s Guacamole Recipe
1 whole avocado, hand-picked by undocumented immigrants in California
1 tablespoon of diced tomatoes cultivated by undocumented immigrants in Milwaukee, Florida
1 tablespoon of cilantro harvested by undocumented immigrants in California
1 tablespoon of onions gathered by undocumented immigrants in Washington
½ lime, hand-picked also by those whom you persecute.
1 pinch of salt.
First take the avocado and smash it with the same passion that activist smashed Richard Spencer’s face, [and activists have smashed] xenophobes, racists, homophobes, and other forms of injustice. Keep smashing the avocado until justice and equality reign. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well until it harmonizes the same way solidarity and intersectionality triumph together. Pair with your favorite Mexican food because you know America can’t survive without Mexicans. Enjoy. ”
Friends and FBI agents, this column is a satire. I don’t believe that any human being should be eaten, not even the president. I do believe his policies are immoral, and he should resign immediately in favor of Bernie Sanders, Angela Davis, or Jasilyn Charger.
In times of trouble, cooking makes me whole. I may be tired, irritable, I may have gotten home late, I may even be sick, but I stand at my fry pan tossing in onions, that base of almost every culture’s cooking. To me, it might as well be the base of life itself, as I stand there trying to make something tasty and satisfying and warming out of a few teensy bits of vegetables and some shreds of meat.
Cooking, which I came to only in my 40s and disabled, like someone clutching a lifeline, reminds me of the sacredness of the act of creation. It feels like making something out of nothing: whatever’s assembled on my cutting board – a little mess of garlic bits and bitter vegetables and cheese snips – always seems so poignantly small to me as the basis of a hot dinner that will somehow sustain two adults. The process that transforms these scraps into a whole always seems mystical to me: what god created this eggplant parmigiano pasta?
Certainly not me.
With cooking, as with writing, providence comes in and accomplishes what we ourselves, with our conscious minds, can barely accomplish. When I say providence, I don’t exactly mean God. Who made this dish? It was the fire (which reshapes molecules and “denatures” proteins and divinely caramelizes eggplants). It was the balsamic vinegar in all its oddness, sour, acid, musty, sweet, powerfully itself and shaped by hands and minds other than my own. It was the traditions of a million years of hominids cooking (while humans have only been around and making dinner for 200,000 years, our hominid ancestors have been cooking for even longer). It was my innumerable memories of meals out and Food Network snippets and half-remembered recipes, plus glimmering images in my brain (my mother’s ancient Italian friend’s fresh sausage and tomato sauce), and, maybe most of all, dumb luck and inspiration!
It was also me, yes, along with all of these. It was my own arm strength and my thinking mind, saying “Now! A dab more tomato paste!” and “Now! I want sesame oil and more parsley!” In point of fact, I feel really butch when I cook, much more butch than I do when writing, say, or making love. Turning the flame up and down, I am Hephaestus at the forge; I am Casey at the switch. I feel powerful, capable, gripping my 11-inch pan and smelting tomatoes, refining wine, building skyscrapers out of flour and beef. I am doing this for my family which consists of my partner and me, making things to keep us good and warm inside, and feeling loved. I am blending tahini in a machine noisy as a cement mixer, making a sauce so sumptuous it can make steamed zucchini taste good. I am butchering squashes and making rebellious Jewish bricks out of walnuts, apples and wine that will make our conquerors choke. I am constructing fantasy universes out of ground turkey and breadcrumbs and spices and egg. The turkey meatballs I make will make our hearts happy as we eat them in a radiant red sauce before going to the demonstration.
So, gentle reader who loves the taste of food, dear one who loves kimchi, posole, and democracy: go to the demonstration. There are a lot this week, and there will be more the week after, and the week after that. Keep going. Eat something hot before and after. Take care of yourself. Take care of other people, too. There is no contradiction between activism and compassion, no contradiction between activism and tenderness or sweetness: remember that. What I am trying to say is: everything we do, whether we are masters or novices, we do in the context of other people. I’m no great chef by any measure, but I learned to make a damn good dinner, and so can you. Individual writers don’t create literature, individual cooks don’t create the art of cooking, and individual actors don’t create entire movements. Everyone is needed, and everyone needs others.
Everyone is important in cooking up this struggle, even and especially you.
The queerest thing about last week’s James Beard Foundation conference in Manhattan was the ginormous photograph of a brown-black human turd, pictured underneath a similar-looking red sausage. The photo was displayed on a huge screen by public-policy academic Raj Patel, who announced to the assembled corporate honchos, entrepreneurs, and bland food-nonprofit wonks, “I’ve come to be the turd in the punch bowl!”
The James Beard Foundation is the most prestigious organization for American chefs and gourmands, and every year since 2010 it’s been holding an “educational” conference about food activism — a really, really tame one, if this year’s confab was any indication. The turd Patel had come to deliver was the message that the sustainable food movement must be grounded in, er, politics — and not just any politics, but a progressive “politics of justice and equality.” Otherwise, the handsome Patel said in his lovely Brit accent, food activism can be used just as easily by the fascist right — as in Italy, where haters of Muslims have passed laws banning kebabs, and in India, where the Hindu right has beaten to death Muslims accused of eating beef.
Unfortunately, the message most conference-goers seemed to take away from the author’s exciting but rambling speech was simply not to be Islamophobes, which the chefs, food-service companies like Aramark, Dunkin’ Donuts brass, and school-garden advocates in attendance seemed to feel they could sign on to fine. The larger message of Patel’s excellent food writing — that systemic economic inequality is the biggest barrier to food justice, not poor people’s confounding failure to educate themselves about kale – was lost at a conference who stated goal was “to explore the genesis and lifecycle of trends and apply that knowledge to food system issues. We’ll draw on the experience of other trend-focused industries, such as technology, fashion, and design, to understand why some trends last and others fizzle.”
The conference was entitled “Now Trending: the Making of a Food Movement,” and the people in the room were almost exclusively white people with very well-paying jobs.
At one discussion at my table, I heard white attendees earnestly debating how to get “people from the inner city” aware they should eat vegetables, as though people of color had no awareness of good health practices. When we finally discussed the need to increase free school meals for hungry children, a man at my table dubiously asked if there was any “empirical data” that they improved test scores.
A few tips for the James Beard folks for organizing future activist conferences: 1) Don’t have a dress code. (“Business casual attire.”) Most of the people you want to get in the room will be wearing jeans and T-shirts or low-end dresses. They will be most comfortable (and most ready to fight the system) if they’re not forced to dress as if for a job interview. 2) Don’t charge your attendees $500 to attend ($600 if they’re unable to pay by the “early bird” date). 3) Have nitty-gritty sessions on how to lobby, how to organize other human beings, how to organize mass demonstrations. Don’t waste chefs’ and advocates’ time with hours devoted to “hot brands” like Gordon Ramsay and “the Internet of things” and wondering how we can make the movement for food justice just as um, “exciting” and sellable. 4) Learn the difference between a market and a movement. Continue reading “The James Beard Foundation’s Non-Activist Conference”
There is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.
That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.
You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds).
That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.
It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle-class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.) Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuko Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews – restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and The Spotted Pig — are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top 5%, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us. Continue reading “Caviar for the 99%”
Is there something gay about the wild visual and tactile fantasies at play in dessert-making?
“Of course, it’s a gay sensibility! We don’t say it in public anymore, but fuck them, of course it’s a gay sensibility!” said Ron Ben Israel, one of the most elite wedding-cake makers in America and the queerest queer to have ever starred in a TV food series.
You’ll remember him as the madman behind Sweet Genius, the Food Network pastry-competition show where he subjected patissiers to amusingly cruel tests like making a cake with duck fat and fusilli that somehow reflected the artistic inspiration of a diamond. The surrealism of Ben Israel’s tests seemed queer in itself: on the show, he made chefs confect chocolates out of Pop Rocks and beef jerky, inspired by a disco ball, and insisted on another occasion that they create a frozen dessert out of squid ink that also somehow got across the idea of butterflies. Continue reading “Ron Ben Israel, Queerest Chef of All”
The words “fancy food” make my heart swell, for better or worse. In 1970, “fancy food” is what we called it when my father got a gift basket from his boss full of special jams and cheeses that weren’t Kraft Singles and chocolates that were not from Hershey. That basket thrilled me. (The cheeses were still processed ones, but it was 1970 and for them not to have been, we would have had to be Italian-American or a different income level.) The words artisanal and upscale, and that strange new term “noms,” had not yet been applied to food, but I would get a feeling of world-shaking satisfaction whenever I’d go to the Jewish “appetizing” store on Avenue J, where there were preternaturally bright dried fruits and smoked fish that magically smelled delightful, not offputting. Hence “fancy,” special. We seldom could buy anything there, but seeing it was enough. So it was with a sense of being in a childhood paradise that I found myself at the Summer Fancy Food Show last week, the national trade show for the Specialty Food Association, the 64-year-old association of producers and purveyors who sell “high perceived value” food to the American market. Continue reading “Getting Fancy”