Archive for the ‘bad food’ Category

h1

The Big Frill

July 9, 2011

Adventures in Offal, Part I

For some time now I’ve been thinking the origins and illogic about my squeamishness about offal. This was prompted by my coming across a rather wonderful essay titled ‘Picky Eating is a Moral Failing’, by Matthew J Brown, in this book, Food and Philosophy.

Brown’s essay elegantly articulates the frustrations I usually feel when I hear someone say “I don’t eat olives / oysters / pumpkin / spinach /whatever”.  The crux of his argument is that to be a ‘picky eater’ – he exempts ethical vegetarians and people with physical conditions like peanut allergy or lactose intolerance – is not only to create distance between oneself and others (especially a host who may have offered the prohibited food), but to choose a narrow, ignorant path through life. He says picky eating is a wilful decision to close one’s mind, shutting down the possibility that a previously unpleasant experience could at another time be found bearable or even pleasurable, and leads to the limiting belief that obstacles should be avoided rather than overcome. In short, Brown believes that to cordon off various foods on the basis that you ‘don’t like’ them is generally to limit one’s potential to grow into an open-minded, generous, fully rounded human being. I love what he says, and agree with pretty much all of it.  And I love the fact he’s prepared to take the risk of such a provocative title, too.

Anyway, of course the article challenged me to think about my own food aversions. I like to tell people I eat anything, and I certainly would eat any food offered to me by the person who cooked it – but reading this essay made me think more about my own quite extreme squeamishness where offal is concerned. Although I am an enthusiastic meat eater, I have never really eaten innards, apart from the odd taste here and there, when I have been surprised into enjoying some of it (most particularly in Asian restaurants, Chinese and Laotian especially). But I have certainly never cooked it, nor chosen it from a menu of my own volition.

At the same time as I became enamoured with Brown’s essay, I was reading a little about the US academic Paul Rozin’s research into the emotion of disgust – and how much of it relates to animality. After decades of research Rozin and his colleagues have concluded, it seems, that the things that most disgust us in Western society are those to do with what might be called base bodily functions – shit, piss, vomit, snot and so on – and with the breach or violation of the ‘body envelope’. With the deep taboo, that is, of innards. Rozin thinks we are disgusted by these things because they remind us of our own animality – and, closely related, our mortality.

So it would seem that according to Mr Rozin, my aversion to liver, kidneys, tongue, brains, gizzards and so on can be traced to a quite natural human fear of my own death. I see a cow’s tongue on the plate, which looks so like a tongue – looks, indeed, so like my tongue, with its entirely recognisable tongue-y shape and little bobbles of tastebuds. And so, deep in my mind is drawn a connection between the death of the creature who owned this tongue, and my own death.

It all makes perfect sense to me, this theory of disgust and my own fear of death – for my aversion to offal doesn’t extend to beef cheeks, say, or pig’s trotters. I love meat of all kinds – the outer casing, if you like, of an animal. But it’s the innardness that has always made me squirm.

But all of this makes no logical sense, of course. And it’s wasteful  – to decide that some bits of an animal are perfectly fine to eat, but others taboo, goes against all the other views I have begun to hold dear about not wasting food. And surely eating meat is slightly more acceptable if the whole creature is put to use, rather than the more decadent-seeming practice of picking and choosing small bits and wasting the rest?

So far, so psychological.

In light of all this I decided it was time to have a good look at and begin to test these fears of mine, to see exactly how strong was my aversion to handling, cooking and eating offal – and whether my squeamishness was purely psychological or did have something to do with taste and texture after all.

So begins, friends, my adventure into offal. Enter the frilliest of all innards – tripe.

I chose tripe (the lining of an animal’s stomach, as you all no doubt know – in this case, cow) as offal adventure number one for a couple of reasons. First, because I have only ever eaten it once before, as a child, and it was so disgusting (in sludgy white sauce, natch) that even my parents didn’t eat it and allowed us all to leave it on our plates – unheard of in our house. But as adulthood has brought many examples of how decent cooking methods and recipes can render previously disliked foods into new favourites, and if the Italians love tripe, smothered in tomato, garlic, parsley and so on, I figured – how bad could it be?

Second, I decided that tripe could surely be no more squidgy and bouncy and rubbery than squid or octopus, both of which I love, and must be bland enough in flavour to allow the aforementioned tomatoey goodness to mask any creepiness of taste.

So today, I tried Stephanie Alexander’s ‘beginner’ tripe recipe – “Tripe with tomato and lots of parsley”.  Here is my introductory tripe dish, Ms Alexander writes, a blend of French and Italian traditions. It can be prepared well ahead and reheated before serving. If you don’t like this, you don’t like tripe. 

First job was to thaw the tripe we bought from the ordinary butcher across the road – if I was going to do this thing, it was a case of seizing the moment and I hadn’t seen tripe on the list at www.featherandbone.com.au, though I’m sure they would have got me some if I’d asked. Tripe is often sold frozen, apparently – I guess because hardly anybody wants it anymore.

Stephanie makes it clear the tripe should be bleached and parboiled, though our butcher (who seemed quite averse to the whole thing himself) couldn’t tell us whether it had been parboiled. A re-reading of Stephanie’s tripe section seemed to indicate that if it’s white or creamy coloured you can assume it’s bleached and parboiled, but times vary (unbleached tripe is grey, apparently, and I can tell you now there is no way I would have managed to be grownup about this if I were faced with grey innards – euurrgggh).

Once thawed, the whole bit of tripe (about 200g) was quite a pretty little pouch of a thing – a kind of soft, frilly sea sponge, and lovely to the touch. Next step was to cut it into strips, make the soffrito, add some bacon (mmm), tomato & vinegar, and then bung in the tripe bits, cook for 30 to 45 minutes. This is where I grew a bit nervous, not knowing what exactly the texture should be.

I decided that I would pretend the tripe was squid – both as a textural guide and to start bending my resistant mind to the possibility of eating it – and was hoping for a similar texture once cooked to tenderness. I consulted Twitter’s resident expert on all things culinary, @crazybrave (aka Miz Zoe who you will recognise from the comments round these parts) who confirmed that I was on the right track. It should have ” a little resistance to the tooth and then be slippery and springy”, she said.

I ended up cooking it for a bit over an hour to get this texture, which was almost right I think. I wonder though if another 10 or 15 minutes might have made it just a tiny bit softer and more pleasing. I tossed a few big spoonsful into a ramekin, topped it with parmesan cheese and bunged it under the grill for a few minutes., as suggested by Stephanie.

Then came the big moment – I tried one piece, and found it really quite revoltingly springy and chewy, though it was tender enough. What was really quite fascinating to observe was how it was my mind that caused the problem. With every chew, my mind screamed: Stomach lining! Quivery Slimy Thing! Animal Innards! DEATH! 

I decided the size of the piece was an issue, and cut the remaining pieces into much smaller ones – Stephanie recommends a strip 2cm by 6cm, but I would suggest for tripe novices these are too confronting. A much smaller slice, eaten with lots of the extremely delicious sauce, is far easier to contemplate. In this way, and by focusing very hard on imagining how my mind would be working if this were squid – Yum! Springy! Tender! Lovely Surprising Texture! – I chomped happily away on a small ramekin full of tripe. Yes, there was a teeny tiny odd twinge of an unusual flavour – which could just as easily have been my imagination – and yes, the frills certainly added a textural frisson that might take some getting used to. But all in all, it was completely fine.

Senor arrived home just as the eating experiment began, and wolfed into a bowl of tripe himself. Being the iron-guts and utterly unflappable gourmand he is, of course he had no truck whatsoever with my mental carry-on, and pronounced it delicious. We still have three more bits of tripe in the freezer, and Senor has declared he’s going to get into a bit of tripey experimentation himself.

So what’s my verdict? What’s the disgust quotient? Well, it was perfectly fine. I was not revolted, as I had expected. But I didn’t love it, and I am fairly sure it will be a long while before I try cooking it again. I have other adventures in innards to pursue, after all.

But if I visited your house and you plonked down a huge bowlful of this stuff, I would no longer stiffen in terror and allow my stomach to flip over itself in panic and revulsion. I already feel much more grownup about tripe, and as a result have much more interest in exploring other offally avenues. And who knows, on another tasting or two (Senor’s cooking next time) I might even find, as I have with so many foods since childhood, from chilli to muesli to oysters, that it soon grows on me and I like it very much.

So what about you? Any offal fans? When was the first time you ate it, and what made you like it?

h1

I need your help with fictional food

September 29, 2010

I have a little quest, and I think all my beloved shuckers are just the folk to help me. I need to compile a list of novels in which food and cookery is central – can be any genre, any era, just so long as food is somehow inextricably linked to the story and the characters. Australian novels most particularly welcome, but all suggestions will be very warmly welcomed. As we’ve discussed before here and here, I am quite keen on bad food in fiction – and not so interested in the exotic school of luscious lyrical pomegranate/chocolat/cinnamon-and-jaggery-love (or as @cityoftongues rather more tartly termed them in a Twitter chat this morning, ‘chutney and incest novels’)  but still, all ideas welcome.

All this is in aid of a proposal I’m writing for some academic work on food in literature – and as the highly sophisticated, erudite and learned creatures you are, I just know you will have some contributions for me!

And by the way, I have some happy news. I can officially announce that my new novel, Animal People, has been accepted for publication by the wonderful folks at Allen & Unwin. It will be out toward the end of next year – October 2011 to be precise – giving me a gorgeously long lead time for editorial sprucing. I am so thrilled they will have me back.

Now, kiddies, I look forward to your fictional food suggestions!

h1

How to make a vegetarian smile, pt I

September 15, 2010

Earlier this year I happened to be travelling for a week in the company of two vegetarians, and was shocked by the severely limited options they had in restaurants.

In South Australia, a state famed for its quality gourmet produce (Maggie Beer and Gay Bilson live there, for godsake!), my companions were constantly given the evil eye by staff in cafes and restaurants for asking for non-meat options. I was stunned. As a meat eater, I realised how little attention I generally pay to whether a restaurant menu has more than one (usually pasta or risotto) vegetarian dish. And on my buddies’ behalf, I grew increasingly angry. For just as meat-eaters generally like to vary their diets with different kinds of protein and carbs, so do vegetarians. But time and again I saw these extremely polite and tolerant people being offered either a boring green salad containing no carbs or protein at all, or a bowl of pasta. And when you’re travelling and staying in hotels, that means eat pasta twice a day or go hungry.

The attitude of restaurant staff was another nasty shock – the suggestion that not everyone eats meat seemed to be taken as a personal insult, with the result that whatever was eventually provided was done so grudgingly, the food hastily shoved on a plate with minimal effort at presentation,  and dumped on the table with a punitive sneer, usually long after everyone else had their meals delivered. Take that, freak. And now pay for it.

Since then, I’ve asked lots of vegetarians what they think are the biggest culinary faux pas they’ve come across, either in restaurants or at friends’ houses for dinner. To a person, they have been keen not to sound critical or fussy, and said that any vego food cooked by friends is always fine, and a bowl of pasta or risotto is perfectly lovely. But their views on restaurants are another matter, as discussed in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald Good Living. I mean, it’s not as if a restaurant doesn’t have lots of great ingredients sitting there in the kitchen, and it is a pretty simple matter to chuck a few chickpeas or lentils in a salad or other dish. But I’m told vegetarians are still routinely offered seafood, things cooked in chicken stock, bacon (“You do eat bacon, right?”) or punished with rock-hard vegetables, vegie burgers dripping in meat juices or even – I kid you not – microwaved instant noodles. The ones in a packet. The ones that look and taste and smell like nuclear waste.

I don’t get it. If you’re a chef, I’d have thought that having some exciting and original meat-free dishes on the menu is all part of the fun of the job. My most stringently vego friend, tells me, for example, that she went wild with joy at the complex and interesting dishes to be found on the menu at our pal Hamish’s gorgeous M On the Bund restaurant in Shanghai.

Another thing I’ve been surprised by is how frightened some people seem to be of cooking for vegetarians at home. I do understand some fear of vegan cooking – without eggs or dairy the options are much more limited – but for your garden-variety vegetarian it’s really pretty easy. The most obvious route is the pasta or risotto option and I’ve done it many a time. But these days, just for interest’s sake, I try to come up with something a little more complex when vegetarians come to dinner, and provide at least a bit of protein (think nuts, the beloved lentil, dried bean or chickpea, or tofu & tempeh if you’re a bit more adventurous), a bit of dairy, some contrasting textures and some complex, kickarse flavours. A while ago, Stonesoup had a fantastic post on how to host a vegetarian feast, in which you’ll find lots of hints on cooking great veg food for guests. Interestingly, Jules’ musing on that topic was prompted by a veg friend bemoaning the ubiquity of vegetarian lasagne in her life, and others tell me that even in otherwise reasonable places, veg food tends to fall into the categories of cheesy stodge or textureless slop – which takes me back to the time I thought I hated lentils because of the flavourless yellow slop passed off as dahl in just-left-home share houses of old. Ugh.

Bah. Enough ranting. In the next post I’ll provide a menu for the last decent vego dinner I made. But in the meantime, I’d love your views. If you don’t eat meat, what makes your eyes light up on a restaurant or dinner party menu? And what makes your blood boil? If you are carnivorous, what are your best recipes for your vego mates?


h1

Four-letter word, and it’s not ‘food’

January 12, 2010

I am indebted to my friend Eileen for alerting me to this nugget of gold from The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs: The Cursing Mommy Cooks Italian. Perfect antidote for a crap day in the kitchen (or the marriage!) …

h1

Living in the seventies: Fondue, baby!

November 29, 2009

The topic of fondue arose recently, as it does now and then among friends when drink has been taken.

Everyone in the room recalled their parents’ fondue set and its occasional outings along with the funky pantsuits and false eyelashes of yore. But there was general disagreement about what fondue actually involved – some purists insisted that only cheese and bread was called for, while others of us recalled boiling oil and lumps of meat.

Serendipitously, the day after this conversation my beloved spied this book at a market and swooped. I suspect we will never actually use it, but it does make an entertaining conversation starter if you leave it on the coffee table. Published 1971, and in mint condition, Fondue and Table Top Cookery by Marion Howells runs the gamut of things-cooked-at-table, from your trad cheese fondues to your Oriental Fondue (meat in stock) to some rather desperate inclusions such as omelettes and dubious-sounding desserts (Apricots Jubilee, anyone?).

On fondue, Marion tells us that:

This popular dish originated in Switzerland. Many stories are told of the villagers being isolated in the long winter months, and supplies of food becoming short, they were forced to rely on local produce like cheese, wine and home made bread. As the cheese became dry they melted it in their wine.

So there we have it – a yicky gloopy mix borne of near-starvation becomes a classic fad for ‘entertaining of the more intimate type’, and into the bargain produces perhaps the earliest example of Fusion Food. As evidence, I leave you with the list of ingredients for my favourite recipe in this collection.

Fondue Bengali

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1.5 cups dry white wine
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 4 cups grated Gruyere cheese
  • 2 cups grated Emmenthal cheese
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons Kirsch
  • white pepper, cayenne pepper
  • mango chutney
  • French bread
h1

Kitchen calamity

August 28, 2009

garbagedispsalWell, it doesn’t happen very often, but it did last night. I cooked a Truly Revolting meal for my beau and myself.

It was supposed to be a lovely rich dahl and a dish of potatoes and peas in a yoghurt sauce, but let’s just be frank and call it vomit-coloured slop (and thanks to the yoghurt, there was even a whiff of the sick bowl about it too). I haven’t posted a photograph of it here, but believe me that’s for your own good.

Nor will I slander the recipe-writers because obviously I did something hideously wrong, but they are both well-known & respected. I can’t figure out what I did, unless it was just the combination of dishes that made it so disgusting.

Suffice it to say if anyone has a recipe for dahl that does not end up as powdery, tasteless slop (there’s only so much salt and lemon juice you can add before you get past the point of no return, and it seemed to make no difference), can you share, please? I have eaten delicious dahl many times, so what the hell went wrong with mine?

And ‘yoghurt sauce’. This dish proved that sometimes you really need a photograph accompanying  a recipe (I checked back later, and the book had one of those photo pages with a spread of different dishes. But they craftily did not include a picture of this dish). To me, ‘yoghurt sauce’  conjured up images of lovely thick clustery, creamy spicy goodness. But in fact, if one followed the recipe the result was a watery pale yellow (the V-word again) soup in which the peas were drained to a lovely grey colour and the potatoes just gave up the ghost entirely and slumped there, defeated and drowning. I ended up reducing the hell out of it just to rid it of the nuclear-waste-affected pondwater effect, which process sapped even more colour and any remaining life from the solids.

By the time this meal reached the table we had a bowl of rice (fine), a bowl of yellow soupy starchy tasteless slop (dahl) and a bowl of the pale starchy mess, which by now was a sort of grey and lumpy glue, but at the same time tasteless (except for the faint topnote of bile) and somehow textureless. Quite a feat, I think you’ll agree. We also, thank god, had the cumquat chutney – but again, it’s rather tart and sweet, so more than a tablespoon of that was always going to make the eyes water. Nothing could save us on this occasion.

I was so horrified I could barely eat a mouthful, and sat squirming in my chair while Senor doggedly chewed on, in a prim and dignified fashion, telling me to stop behaving like a three year old as I rolled my eyes and gagged and made faces. He got quite cross when I refused to eat my plate’s worth, and told me I was being ridiculous, and then to prove a point served himself a bit more grey slop. He is a brave and noble man.

I suddenly remembered what it was like  being a child and having to eat food that made you physically gag, and felt a stab of surprised sympathy for all the kids at my table over the years who have had the same response to some (perfectly good, I might add) dish I’ve served. Poor little beggars. Next time one of them convulses and makes vomit noises I shall take their plate away and give them ice cream.

Ugh. Bad food. I guess one good thing is to realise how shocking it is when it happens, which shows how generally well we eat.

There is, of course, a bucketload of dahl left, which Senor claims he will eat for lunch. But we shall see. Even the greatest nobility has its limits. To my mind, this is one occasion on which food waste is not only acceptable but the only humane course of action.

What about you? I doubt any of you have had any disasters recently, but any comforting anecdotes of calamities from the past that you’d like to share?

h1

Michael on Julia’s legacy

August 4, 2009

Does anyone in Australia understand the Julia Child adoration thing, or is this purely an American phenomenon?

I have known virtually nothing about her except her name – but in the New York Times this week  is a long and lovely essay by the wonderful Michael Pollan about Julia Child, the first American TV chef, prompted by the new movie Julie &  Julia, starring Meryl Streep as JC.

He muses about the changes in American home cooking and the influence of television upon it, starting with the way Julia Child apparently liberated a generation of American women from fear of cooking by dropping a potato pancake and then retrieving it and patching it back together – her show was live TV, after all.

Pollan is such an engaging writer (his book Second Nature, about gardens, was a big influence on me as I wrote my second novel The Submerged Cathedral, and his other books on food production and ethics, In Defence of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are just as lively and provoking), and this essay is a beauty.

michael pollanPollan’s essay goes on to discuss the exponential rise of television cookery, and how American studies show that people spend more time watching cooking being done than doing it themselves (particularly interesting given the popularity of  Master Chef here, and the talk about how it’s supposedly got people back into the kitchen. I wonder…).

Pollan writes that there are oodles of cooking shows on US television, but says of many of them:

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

He also notes that Julia Child began her cooking show in the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and points out that although they could have been seen as adversaries, this wasn’t true: Child had an aversion to the word ‘housewife’ and treated cooking as a skill and an art, rather than another bit of household drudgery for women.

Anyway I could go on and on – but better for you to simply read this excellent essay here.

Then discover more about Julia Child here (or this fab Youtube video of her show here – it’s hilarious), and more  here about the Nora Ephron movie (which in the way of this strange new world, originated from a blog. Yes, a food blog, called the Julie/Julia Project.).

I just watched the movie trailer and confess that I can’t wait!

Postscript – October 3 2009

Two more amusing additions to this post must be made.

First, this link to the beautifully narky Regina Schrambling at Slate, on ‘Why you’ll never cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking’.

And second, rather more entertainingly, The Defamer’s round-up of cranky food bloggers and their snooty dismissals of Julie Powell, the blogger whose work started the whole JC revival. Hilariously chock-full of envy and rage at their fellow blogger’s success, this stuff makes for rich reading. One namedropping post by a ‘trained chef’ even says, with disgust, “People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts”. Seems rather to miss the point of Julia Child’s taking cookery to the masses, no? Not to mention that the remark is written by a food blogger.

Anyway, all good for a laugh and found here.

Bon appetit!