Sam Herlihy Of The Northwestern Says Eat Yr Words
, February 19th, 2010 06:21
Photograph by Barney Britton www.photoinsensitive.com
Alex Kapranos got a lot of things I didn't: cheekbones, the ability to make girls dance, record sales... None of these things bother me. His book deal does however. Whose idea was that? The bloke is in a band, he sells some records, raises an eyebrow wryly, struts around in some Farah Press strides, threads together Russian Constructivism and the entire Postcard Records output, throws in a bit of Brett Anderson-style sexual ballyhoo to wind up Oasis fans and then BOOM some publisher throws a book deal at the feet of the bloke who used to be in the Yummy Fur. It started as a Guardian food column. Some bright spark thinking: "Lets get that skinny, clever dude from that girldance band to yap on about life changing ceviche in Peru or the perils of goulash in Budapest back streets in-between pressing engagements playing stadiums, doing drugs and the incredibly hard work of Making Girls Dance At All Times. Then these fascinating screeds are gathered, bound up and sold as the last word on the touring musician's gastronomic lot. It's almost as odd as The Quietus giving some post-rawk-pop-majorl-label-last-hurrah-of-gargantuan-record-deals loser like me being handed a food column. Though he probably got some fat coin for his and The Quietus won't hand me a penny.
Full disclosure at this point: I only skim read his book in a shop, I played a show with his band in San Francisco and he seemed like a really nice bloke, I have no idea if he takes drugs, and am only using this opening rant as a music themed segue into the rest of this piece. Also I am jealous, very jealous, of the man's cheekbones.
I read a whole lot of books. When I was a kid i read a whole lot of books. A brave/irresponsible parent gave me The Wasp Factory to read when I was far too young to not be traumatized by burning dogs and maggots in brains. These days I tend to read two types of books. Miserable American Gothic tales of social outcasts living in smalltowns/woods/deserts doing weird, biblically horrific things or I read cookbooks. I'm all about the literary light and shade.
For a number of years I read a pile of music history books. Anthologies of rock&roll misdeeds still fill the shelves in my childhood bedroom. Chuck Berry and his scatological predilections, Led Zeppelin's aquaculture/sex fusion and Axl Rose's temper tantrums gave me a solid grounding in what not to do if ever I were to become a musician. I can assure you all that while I DEFINITELY avoided the first two, I did fling a few tantrums around for which I still feel terrible even though none ever came close to the sheer horror of Axl's egomaniacal eruptions .
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain would fit neatly on those sagging shelves of bad behavior, reckless drug taking and unusual edibles. It's one of the if not the first book about the reality of a working chef's life but served up with a big wedge of macho posturing, insanity and for want of a better term "rock&roll" in it. Some of the blurb about it is a bit tedious ("Elizabeth David as written by Tarantino" etc) but I suppose it's largely true and It's a pretty great tag to shift a load of copies of a book about cooking to people who have no interest whatsoever in chefs or restaurant life. It's the tome that made me seriously consider becoming a chef. I wanted to be a smackhead with a knife, a Ramones cassette and a pirate ship gang of hardbitten Mexican co-workers in a kitchen shifting vast quantities of amazing food to customers who I loved if they loved my food and downright loathed and pitied if they ever complained. However, as per usual, the spectre of actual hard work put me right off the idea. It haunts the whole book. Actually it doesn't haunt it whatsoever, the central point of the whole book is getting across the backbreaking monotony of endless hard work. It's riven through every page like steel wire or concrete or whatever else you could describe as "hard", "strong", or "tough". Those three words describe me and my personality about as well as "yoghurt", "satchel" or "wicker".
Also I don't want to take heroin, I don't like The Ramones and I think a piratical gang of hardbitten Mexicans would gut me like a fish in a few seconds flat if I so much as walked in a kitchen. Anyway it's a fine book and I re-read bits of it over and again and try and convince myself I have the life of a chef in my locker.
Following on from Kitchen Confidential I rolled three books by Michael Ruhlman: The Making Of A Chef: Mastering Heat At The Culinary Institute Of America/ The Reach Of A Chef: Professional Cooks In The Age Of Celebrity/The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection series. These are a lot drier but probably more genuinely informative than Bourdain's rants and addled recollections but serve the same purpose to me: reaffirming my lack of ability/ application/ aptitude for hard work with regards to a culinary career. The "making" of me as a "chef" was a whirlpool of torment and blind scrambling for something to fill the time following the collapse of my old band. The "reach" of this "chef" is just about half a metre from where I plant myself in front of the cooker, equidistant between pan and glass of cheap wine. The "soul” of this “chef”? Don’t ask.... (But I’m not a soldier BOOM! No.1 In a series of two.)
There's a chapter in the Reach Of A Chef about a hob manipulator named Melissa Kelly who runs a small restaurant in Maine. It's my own personal literary mandala or mediative mantra or heavy sedative. Whenever I read it, the endless, agonizing, suffocating, vicious, pitiless, savage PAIN! of this life of mine (more full disclosure: This is in no way a truthful description of my life, I'm not in 30 Seconds To Mars) dissipates in a perfumed candyfloss cloud of organic gardening, timber clad homely restaurants, fresh sheep's milk ricotta and other entirely middle class gastro fantasies for a better life.
It's as powerful a piece of writing for me as A Drink With Shane McGowan is. Both drag me out of the now into a life I wish I had. I think my perfect self would be a hard-drinking, evil witted raconteur and drinking song composer who lived in a coastal town on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, with a giant organic vegetable garden and a unique ability to make fresh sheep's milk ricotta.
Ruhlman's books led me on into the vast and largely dull as all hell world of foodblogs. Basically as far as I can tell (yet more full disclosure: "As far as I can tell" can be translated as "I have a vague and unresearched knowledge of the topic in question. I regularly read a few of these things and ignore the rest. If the Quietus wants to chip in for a full time research assistant then I will be the damn "Oracle" of foodblog knowledge) these fair Isles of Albion suck at foodblogs.
There's no scandal, spite or muck spreading. There's a few old ladies who have taken 'Learn The Internet' day courses after Grandpa dropped dead who witter on about baking dry fruitcakes for church fetes. These blogs are depressing. They just make you sad as you ponder whether or not Enid is going to perfect her Battenburg recipe before the Reaper comes 'a knocking and packs her off after Grandpa. Most of them start with weekly updates and then abruptly stop dead. No explanations, no answers to our questions about baking powder addition ratios in fairy cakes. I pretend they have probably found better ways to fill their twilight years than foodblogging but the truth is, they dropped dead, and their fruitcake probably still tasted like sawdust and crypts.
American foodblogs are infinitely more interesting. Ruhlman's blog is always worth a look and the man defends salt like Rob Roy defended Scotland or Liam Gallager defends Be Here Now. On a side note, one must always defend salt. The addition of the poor little albino heart clogger is the reason my food is better than yours and why cheap crap processed food often tastes so damn good. He throws out some pretty nice sounding recipes too and cowrote a load of awesome cookbooks. He even makes granola sound worthwhile which is an achievement seeing as muesli sounds like a dry skin complaint and tastes similar most of the time.
The Grubstreet blogs (New York, Chicago and LA) are the most readable. Even if you will never eat in any of the restaurants they bang on about or visit their respective cities. They are a union of Pitchfork and Popbitch in foodblog form. They spread facts and rumour equally. They talk about whose going out of business, who's being sued for sexual misconduct, who lost their booze license and who is the father of "Top Chef" (Yank equivalent to Masterchef) host, Padma Lakshmi's baby. The best rumoured Pa was bizarrely E from Eels. I mainly roll the NY one as the turnover of restaurants, the levels of seething resentment and their endless hatred of Gordon Ramsay makes it quite the culinary gossip rag. After a few weeks reading I promise you're going to be fascinated by the unstoppable rise of Korean Fried Chicken joints, the foodtruck phenomenon and laughing maniacally as someone else takes a pop at Gordon Ramsay's accounts/restaurants/appearance.
After this detour into digital media, the aforementioned Grubstreet led me back to cookbooks. I've always loved cookbooks. Mike Siddell, (violin master and fellow HOTS survivor) and I used to sit in our shared kitchen in between band business reading book after book and cooking for hours and hours. He however, tended to make wild detours from the printed word. This generally involved dubious poultry hygiene and invariably, offal. The last time I saw him, the man was making wine and no doubt recklessly disregarding a recipe. If anyone sees a violin player offering gutrot moonshine at the festivals this year, that will be Mike.
I now have hundreds of the overpriced, oversized things. Some of them I've never cooked a thing out of. The pictures are rubbish, the ingredients are boring, the blurb is too smug or I can dismiss a book purely because it has a recipe for some sort of "bake" in it. Some of them however are proper veterans of my own personal culinary Hamburger Hill. Pages soaked in blood, my own and that of various beasts. Torn pages, covers with gouge and/or bite marks. If these books could talk, they wouldn't. They would lie mute with nothing but the torment and horror of what they've experienced etched on their faces. My most recent addition to this cooking infantry has become a true General. A marshal of my forces, a guiding warrior not afraid to drown in Bacon dashi, be struck by togarashi (a japanese seven spice blend) or catch a bit of finely chopped ginger shrapnel. The Momofuku cookbook is awesome, and though I have long stretched this metaphor past breaking point, we have been going into battle together nightly since Christmas and I've had to call in supplies from way behind the front line (The Japan Centre in Piccadilly who sent me loads of weird stuff I needed, including Kewpie mayo which I think is the Far East's answer to Hellmans and comes in a soft plastic bottle like an IV bag, but with a picture of a scary baby/StayPuft Marshmallow Man on it). My need to cook from the book has caused a number of problems. It led me to seriously offend the proprietor of a Chinese supermarket by asking for loads of Korean ingredients. Jesus! I didn't ask the man for anything Taiwanese! I am also currently making Kimchi which is a spicy fermented cabbage, in a double sealed tub in the fridge. There is every possibility that the damn Kimchi could rise up like an evil brassica Godzilla and wipe out everyone within a ten mile radius if the smell is anything to go by. The recipes are largely Korean/American things. The chef is David Chang who is basically the most worshipped chef in America. He is Radiohead. To give you a comparison, Gordon Ramsay is Muse, successful and very good at what he does but never, ever cool and getting boring very quickly. Or maybe David Chang is Animal Collective but with huge record sales? But less weird? I dunno, the bloke is all kinds of popular and successful and if his food in his restaurants is even fractionally better than my clumsy idiot versions of it from his book, I want a table forthwith. Also the book has pictures of two of Sonic Youth eating there, a shout out to Merge Records in the acknowledgments, he describes Brussels sprouts as "stinky little fuckers" and opens a chapter with the immortal line: "I was Ahab and the burrito was my white whale". You don't get any of this in Jamie Oliver, though his food is pretty great a lot of the time if you can forgive him for Scarlet Division and Toploader.
Anyway, this is a music website, and I need a conclusion or at least an ending. Cookbooks lead into the kitchen which leads to food. Food and silly gender politics go together like bacon and...just about anything so therefore, in conclusion: Sirs, buy a few books and learn a few tricks but always remember, it's just a book. It's not The Bible_ or pitchfork.com, you don't have to believe every word it tells you. You can sail your own boat within reason. Possibly avoid the Siddell technique of making wine out of raw chicken as a detour from the gnocchi recipe you're giving a go (this didn't actually happen as far as I know) but bring a little something to the show of your own. You don't need many tricks but you need more than one. Blokes who can cook one thing only and reckon they do "THE BEST" one in the world really suck (and so does their vile Thai Green Curry). Also be aware that no woman in their right mind is properly impressed with Thai Green Curry or "spag bol" (even if it is, in a casually racist way, "just like mama used to make". It's not, and she didn't, because your mum was from Brentford or St Kilda and didn't give a toss about Italian regional food, she just wanted you to stuff yr gob quickly with packets of cheap hell from the freezer and go to bed so she could spark up a Rothmans, crack open the bottle of supermarket brand vodka she hid under the sink and let the neighbour in through the patio door so she could cheat on yr Dad.)
If they are impressed with your single wonder of a blandfest dish then those women probably like the La Roux record and think Florence Welch is actually 22. Roll out an awesome Ramen, roast a chicken properly or at least learn to make soup. Soup is hot, it's like vegetable pheromones, possibly. Cook a few things well and her Liz Phair records are going in the bin, those sly digs at your (probably faked) penchant for avant garde electro records are going to stop and she might even deign to take your Topman cardigan off once in a while. Ladies, (put a ring on it BOOM BOOM!: No2 in a series of two) if your man is incapable of cooking, is a fussy eater and/or can't read then he is the type of man who analyses the lyrics of obscure Canadian agitprop bands with at least eleven members, one of whom probably plays a dulcimer. He doesn't deserve you. He deserves only to be friends with people who hurl insults on obscure band's message boards. He probably only likes early Animal Collective records. In short, he is a fool. If you can't cook, that's fine, you don't have to impress blokes who like music. You should probably read though. Reading is cool and even blokes who like music, like girls who can read.