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The Bat Segundo Show: Mark Kurlansky II

Mark Kurlansky recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #292.

Mark Kurlansky is most recently the translator of Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris and the editor of The Food of a Younger Land. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #220.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pushing past the patois of a forgotten linguistic formation.

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Subjects Discussed: Wanting to be Zola as a kid, thorough food research, the difficulties imposed by lawyers, racist patois, Don Dolan’s failure to understand the burrito, why so many unqualified people got jobs with the Federal Writers Project, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, manuscripts that were never intended for publication become published thanks to Kurlansky, investigative anthropologists, Coca-Cola parties, lost culinary rituals, Brunswick stew and the original recipe involving squirrel, Kurlansky’s obsession with recipes involving beaver tail, Vermont maple trees, “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners,” corroborating dishes and rituals that made it into the present day, the Nebraskan Popcorn Queen, trying to whittle down Library of Congress material for a book, food conflicts, regional gaps in the America Eats project, Kenneth Rexroth, Basque inaccuracies, Claire Warner Churchill’s extraordinary fury concerning mashed potatoes, World War II’s effect on the WPA, editorial oversight with the Federal Writers Project, geoducks, rarefied cuisine, drying meat over an open fire, hoecakes, low-class and slave forms of cornbread, an altogether different notion of Texas chuck wagon, sheriff’s barbeque, and the mint julep controversy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

kurlansky4Correspondent: First off, just a general question to tie in Zola with the Federal Writers Project book. In an introduction to The Belly of Paris, you confess that, in fact, you wanted to be Zola when you grow up. And this is very interesting because Zola, of course, was a serious investigator. And, of course, going through the endnotes of The Belly of Paris, I see all these references to sausage and meat, and simultaneously I’m thinking in terms of the investigations in this book, The Food of a Younger Land. I’m curious if you think that investigation of that particular time is comparable with Zola and the Federal Writers Project and whether you think perhaps that there’s something that is missing from that type of investigation today. What are your thoughts on all this? Just to start off here.

Kurlansky: Well, Zola was — especially as fiction writers go — a very thorough researcher. This book takes place in the Les Halles market. And he spends a lot of time in the Les Halles market and actually followed wagons from the entry of Paris to the Les Halles market. And when he did Germinal, he spent weeks and weeks in the mines with the miners. I don’t know how much writers do that now. I certainly do. And I think other writers must. Of course, there’s a lot of things where it’s getting more difficult in America to do these things. Because lawyers won’t let you.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah.

Kurlansky: There are all these legal issues if it’s a dangerous workplace.

Correspondent: Is this why the time of the past is better then?

Kurlansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have the statute of limitations.

Well, the concept of “proceed at your own risk” has been lost through lawyers. I’m married to a lawyer. I understand this.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kurlansky: I mean, part of the reason I admired Zola, outside of the fact that he was such a great writer, was that he had deep political commitments. And those commitments can be found in his writing. But his writing never descends into political diatribe. He always had it very clear in his mind that art was above that kind of thing. That in art, you could show society with all its faults, but you couldn’t rant about it. And, in fact, in The Belly of Paris, he has characters who he probably very much agreed with who he makes look ridiculous. Because they go into these rants all the time.

Correspondent: But in terms of this level of investigation, also in the anthropological folklore component of many of the Federal Writers Project’s writers, I mean, there is something interesting in reading an entry or an article in a particular dialect and essentially listening on the page to someone essentially listening a recipe. The question though is whether this is entirely accurate of the patois at the particular time or whether there are problems. I mean, you allude to a lot of racism that you uncovered and that you didn’t put into the book.

Kurlansky: Yeah, well, some I did. My original reaction was not to put any of it in. But since my whole idea of doing Food of a Younger Land was that I wanted to give readers the experience that I had when I looked through these boxes and accidentally falling into another time into 1940 America, and how different it was, and different in a lot of positive ways. And why cover up the negative ways? This was pre-civil rights South. Black people were referred to by their first name, comma “a Negro.” And a lot of the dialogue sounds like master and slave. And the black dialect is stretched to absurdity. To a point where it’s clearly racist.

(Photo: Lawrence Sumulong)

BSS #292: Mark Kurlansky II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #290.

Kathleen Collins is most recently the author of Watching What We Eat.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with traumatic cooking show associations.

Author: Kathleen Collins

Subjects Discussed: TK

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

kathleencollinsCorrespondent: I should probably start this conversation off by confessing something to you. I think that Rachael Ray is a bit on the crazy side. She’s not someone who really makes me comfortable. I’m actually quite frightened by her. You know, I don’t find her down-to-earth at all. And I think maybe we can start off by describing how we went from this relatively benign cooking show setup, in which you had a quieter, less frenetic impulse, to this more exhibitionistic cooking show that involves a Jerry Springer-like audience shouting for the EVOO and all that. How did we get from one extreme to the other? Do you have any fundamental observation throughout the course of your meticulous observations?

Collins: I do. Although first I have to address your fear of Rachael Ray. Of which I don’t think you’re alone. I can’t remember where I read it. But I heard somebody liken her to Shrek. I don’t know if it was physicality. Or the monsterness. But you’re not alone. I mean, there are people who absolutely adore her. And they’re usually moms. Somebody’s mom who loves her. But otherwise I think, yeah, she can be pretty scary. How we got to that from, let’s say, the home economists of the 1940s and ’50s?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Collins: Long story. I mean, that’s basically what I tried to cover. And it was just a gradual process from the early days of cooking shows where it was all about selling the sponsor’s products. And let’s just use this kitchen space that we have in our studio. Let’s sell this refrigerator. How are we going to fill the time? Well, this is a cheap thing to do. Let’s have some home economists in here and whip something up. Very dry. And then gradually though, they would add some spiciness. There were some shows in the ’50s that had a little entertainment in them. There was Chef Milani out of Los Angeles. And his show was almost slapstick. There was a lot of comedy in it. So for the most part, it was the home ec ladies in the early days. Very, very gradual. Adding entertainment elements. But things didn’t really change until the entertainment aspect really came on with Graham Kerr. The Galloping Gourmet in 1969. At least 1969 in the U.S. Julia Child, everyone will tell you they were in love with her. They were completely entertained by her. But that was not her sole purpose. That was not her purpose at all. She just happened to be extremely charming and lovable. And there’s been no one like her since. So, you know, as soon as the Galloping Gourmet came on the scene and people saw what you could do with the cooking show, it was sort of a light bulb going off. And then other people tried to do it. But none of them for a while. You know, there was a dry spell.

Correspondent: Yeah. But there’s a fundamental difference between Graham Kerr leaping over the divide.

Collins: And leaping over the chair.

Correspondent: Yeah. Leaping over the chair. That is something I can kind of accept. Because I can imagine a friend of mine cooking penne alfredo doing just that.

Collins: (laughs)

Correspondent: I cannot imagine, for example, Rachael Ray, who is bulging her eyes at the camera, holding the utensils in a manner that is completely unnatural — just from the start — and having this thirty-minute, almost exhibitionistic quality to what we’re doing. We move from something that is plausible. Something that is — okay, we’ve got this fourth wall between the television and us. And it’s just plausible for us to have a realistic connection. We can imagine Graham Kerr possibly coming into the kitchen with us.

Collins; That’s true.

Correspondent: But we can’t quite imagine Rachael Ray demanding that we conform to this thirty-minute rigid time. I mean, she’s almost like an HR manager controlling the exact conditions of your employment.

Collins: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with the highly produced nature of the show. They have these sets that are just glistening with stainless steel and granite and all the perfect elements that we don’t — many of us don’t have in our homes. Most of us probably don’t have such nice stuff in our kitchens. So we can’t relate to that. And, you know, she doesn’t really cook a meal in front of us. She puts ingredients together in front of us. So it doesn’t look like a real activity. And as for the exhibitionism, I mean, it’s all about personality. I mean, that’s when the Food Network came into being. That’s what they quickly realized was the focal point of every show.

BSS #290: Kathleen Collins (Download MP3)

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Recession Recipes: Veggie Corn Chowder

In an effort to encourage folks to whip up some decent eats during this economic downturn, here’s an improvised recipe for vegetable corn chowder. It will probably set you back about eight bucks or so at the market (assuming you already have flour, butter, and olive oil in the kitchen, like most folks). But this will feed about four people. It goes down well with corn bread and Heineken. And the wonderful thing about this chowder is that it’s quite filling. Deceptively so.

First off, you’ll need to make yourself some fresh vegetable stock. Because trust me on this. The chowder will matter more if you have really kickass vegetable stock. You can alternatively use water. But that’s not really much fun. So here’s a quick rundown of how to make the stock. If you’re a lazy bastard, you can skip all this. But I have a sense that you’re going to want to go the distance. Because good chowder is worth it. And since you’re going to so much trouble here to make veggie corn chowder from scratch, what’s wrong with another hour devoted to the stock?

Stock ingredients: One onion, three stalks of celery, three bigass carrots (I mean, you need circumference here), ten cloves of garlic (or one big bulb), ten or so peppercorns, a bay leaf, and water (of course!).

1. Chop up all the produce. Now the segments should be substantially sized. Because keep in mind that you’re essentially filtering the flavor of the vegetables when you’re cooking this sucker. So you don’t want to chop the produce into crazed little bits. (If, like me, you love chopping shit up with knives, well, you can save your mad dicing skills for the chowder, which we’ll get to in a minute.) That goes for the garlic too. You should just be using the stripped cloves. You’re going to want carrots of about an inch or so in thickness. And you’ll only really need to halve the onions. Anyway, throw all this into a big pot (probably the same pot you’ll be using later for the chowder). Then throw in the peppercorns (could be ten, could be fifteen, don’t stress over it) and the bay leaf.

2. Fill it all up with water. You’re going to want all the vegetables to be under the agua. Once you’ve done that, fire up the burner. Once this all boils, let it simmer. Then let it sit for about an hour. Try not to go too much beyond an hour. I mean, if you’ve got a DVD you need to watch while the stock is doing its thing, make sure it’s an episode of The Wire or something (assuming you can confine your viewing experience to one episode at a time). Not some two hour movie. Because if you let the stock go beyond this, you’re going to have stock that isn’t optimal for the chowder.

3. Alright! It’s been an hour. You’ve been uplifted by some important television episode from David Simon. You’re angry at the world, probably less so than David Simon. Or maybe you’re just enthralled. Anyway, whatever your emotional state, you’re now ready to drain your stock! Now if you’ve made noodles, this is essentially noodles in reverse, in that you’re disposing of the veggies and keeping the water, which as its glorious yellowish green tint will indicate, has transformed into stock! Now be careful. You’re going to want to preserve as much of the stock as you can. Don’t beat yourself up if you spill any of this into the sink. Just make sure you get at least a cup or two of this stuff into a measuring cup or a Tupperware bowl or something.

4. Seal the stock. Refrigerate. Voila! You’re ready to make some kickass veggie corn chowder tomorrow. But you’re going to need to make sure this refrigerates for at least a few hours. Ideally, you should probably make the veggie stock the night before. And keep this in mind. If you have no intention of using the stock this week, you should probably put it into the freezer. It lasts a week in a fridge and about a month in a freezer.

Okay, so now we’re onto the corn chowder.

First off, here’s what you’re going to need.

— Two potatoes (peel and dice into small bits)
— Three or four bigass carrots (peeled and chopped; now don’t go crazy like you did with the stock; you need about 1/3 inch chunks here)
— One onion (diced into very small parts; go with a Spanish onion if you can, but I must warn you; Spanish onions are a pain in the ass in the tears department; nevertheless, they give the chowder the kind of pep that a regular yellow or white onion can’t quite do; so it’s worth crying over)
— Two thirds of a yellow bell pepper (chopped and diced)
— Three stalks of broccoli (chopped; try cutting these into thin slivers or florets; be wary of the stems; they are sometimes a pain in the ass)
— Three cloves of garlic (chopped, pressed, or what have you)
— A little bit of red bell pepper (you’ll want to grate this)
— Your veggie stock or, for the lazy bastards, water
— Some flour (about a tablespoon or two; you can eyeball this)
— 2 cups of milk (you’ll want to heat this up; it’s okay if you pop it in the microwave for about two minutes)
— Some butter and olive oil
— A can of corn kernels (or, if you’re really hard-core and you’re in a place where corn is cheap and in-season, you can use about two or three fresh ears and scrape off the kernels after you boil it)
— Fresh cilantro (okay, if you need to save money, if you’ve got some ground cilantro in your spice rack and it’s between the $2 they sometimes charge for fresh cilantro and getting fresh veggies for the stock, I’d opt for the veggies; really, you need good stock to make this work)

Now that seems like a lot of work. But once you have everything prepped, this will all get done in about an hour.

1. So you’ve got your big pot. You’re going to want to put in a dab (roughly half a tablespoon) of butter and the same amount of olive oil. Make sure you get the entire bottom of the pot coated with this wonderful concoction. Because you’re going to be zipping around later.

2. Into the pot: the potatoes, the onions, the garlic, the carrots, the ground bell pepper, the diced yellow bell pepper. Saute all this for about five minutes or so. (Don’t worry about the hardness of the potatoes. Because when you add everything else, they will cook quite marvelously.)

3. Stir in the flour after you’ve sauteed this vegetable mix well. (Don’t worry. We’re about to get to the corn and broccoli. Hold your horses.)

4. Here’s the part where you’ll need to have some care. You’re going to gradually add the warm milk and the stock (or water). Do this in increments. A little milk, a little stock, stir. Don’t go crazy because you’re going to get some bumps if you throw it all in at once. Keep doing this until you’ve exhausted all the milk. Now you’ll likely have leftover stock. Here’s the thing. If you’re a stickler for thickness, your chowder’s going to appear thicker than it really is. So you’re going to want to have a thicker chowder here while you’re letting all this boil. But be sure to use all the milk! Or else you won’t have a decent chowder!

5. Stir everything around. Keep doing this until it comes to a boil. Again, the constituency of the chowder is the most important. So you’re going to want to make sure you stir this.

6. While the chowder is congealing, add the salt, pepper, and the cilantro and stir it in.

7. When the chowder boils, reduce to low heat. You can let this simmer for about 30 minutes. And while you’re waiting, make some fresh corn bread if you like.

While the chowder is simmering, be sure to stir it every so often. You’ll then start to see what I was talking about in Step 4. The chowder is thinner than you expected. But it’s thick enough because it should be coming together.

Voila! Vegetable corn chowder! And it’s also very good for a potluck.

Now if you’re eating alone, I wouldn’t recommend this recipe. Because it is a lot of chowder. Unless you’re the sort who enjoys eating the same thing four nights in a row. But it’s not bad for a couple who likes leftovers the next day. And if you have two kids, I think that they’re likely to go crazy over this chowder with some corn bread. Certainly I have witnessed a few extraordinary reactions to this chowder. It is quite healthy. And if you’re a carnivorous type wooing a vegetarian, well, I assure you that this is a hearty enough chowder to fill your stomach.

Eat the Rich

One reads Laura Miller’s review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters with unwavering chagrin. Here is a review of a clearly ideological book, a review written by a humorless bourgeois reviewer who boasts about cooking “the vast majority of my meals from scratch,” but who does not wish to dissipate from the self-righteous upper-class foodie twits who refuse to comprehend the ineluctable associations between food and class. In Miller’s view, cooking is considered by Americans either “an elite hobby” or “an esoteric mystery,” and Bittman’s book exists as some halfway house (or, perhaps more appropriately phrased, a luxury rehab clinic) transforming eating into a Pollan-inspired prescribed formula for “better living,” with cooking becoming something accomplished with little to no effort. The snarky “Yummers!” with which Miller attempts to level the ostensible country bumpkins could just as easily be applied to Miller’s unchecked conformism.

What has not occurred to Miller, who is here an eager and unquestioning acolyte of Bittman, is that cooking is not necessarily about subscribing to a handbook, but very much about the act of discovering tasty combinations in the process. (And incidentally, a Lancashire hotpot, contrary to Miller’s anti-casserole prejudices, ain’t necessarily a bad thing in a pinch and does get people excited at a potluck.) More important than any of this is that cooking is a practical act in which one must feed a family. When there’s less than $100 in the weekly food budget to feed a family of four, sacrifices become necessary. But here’s the good news: from limitations emerge spontaneity and innovation. The bad news is that the Bittmans and the Millers of our world see fit to capitalize on these underground innovations without acknowledgment and more than a little bit of douchery.

Let’s consider some examples.

Impoverished 18th century Italians began adding tomato to their flat bread, others perfected the formula, and pizza took off. And if you want to go back further in time to find the flat bread prototype, you can find this passage in Book VII of the Aeneid:

Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

Sushi emerged as a method of preserving fish. In China, fermented rice was wrapped around a salted piece of fish. This was known as nare-sushi. And the original idea was that you would crack open the rice bubble and enjoy yourself a nice piece of preserved fish. Then some culinary innovators in Japan realized that you could enjoy eating the rice as well and came up with seisei-sushi.

John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, held his corpulent title on an innovation that emerged because Montagu was too much of a lazy bastard to leave the gaming table. The man aspired to chow down while playing cards. We’ll never know whether or not some hapless stiff in the kitchen was threatened with being sacked if he did not satisfy the Earl’s gustatory wishes. But one thing remains certain throughout history: behind every culinary decree and resultant innovation is the desperate eleventh-hour maneuvering of a terrified and often underpaid chef.

I am not against the pursuit of good food. Anyone can be a foodie if they apply some sensible chops to the task. I am on record singing the praises of MFK Fisher, whose excellent volume, How to Cook a Wolf, considered how to love food in dire times. (And let us likewise commend Jeffrey Steingarten for having the courage and curiosity to try just about everything.) But I am against the idea of being so blinded by your gourmet pursuits that you cannot possibly consider that there’s some good eating to be had with the common folk. Miller is notably bothered by the idea of balsamic vinegar being available at places like Applebee’s, and the way she marinates in her seeming “superiority” by eating in a fast food restaurant “once a year, and only when I’m ravenous and trapped with no other alternative” is disgraceful. More egregious is her failure to consider the above-mentioned hypothetical family of four. Why is the ubiquity of balsamic vinegar a bad thing if people enjoy it? Like anything along the wondrous trajectory of human development, food shifts from its origins, whether they be lower-class or upper-class. But why should we be discriminatory about it? If there is good food, should we not let other people know about it? Do such efforts not augment the taste buds of everyone? In fact, don’t we have a certain obligation to improve upon food as we cook if we can? (There’s that spontaneity in the kitchen again.)

It has also never occurred to the Bittmans and Millers of our world that there may indeed some virtue in vices, and that attempting to maintain a svelte physique merely through healthy eating is only half the problem. (There’s this little thing called exercise.)

But there’s also something more irksome here. If you’re calling for “responsible eating” and you’re not considering the origins, needs, spending patterns, and eating habits of everyday people, you’re a smug simpleton of the highest order if you think your casual condescension translates into revolution.

Are Reports of the Banana’s Extinction Greatly Exaggerated?

The banana, as we know it, is not the banana that our grandparents knew and enjoyed. And this contemporary banana is in danger of extinction due to a new strain of Panama disease. Or so says The Scientist, which appears to be parroting alarmist reports debunked by Snopes a few years ago. The Vietnamese Cavendish banana is the one commonly exported to the United States. But it is, by no means, the only banana cultivar out there. What this may mean is that the Cavendish banana, a less lusher fruit than the Gros Michael banana decimated in the 1950s, will be replaced by an even more derivative and genetically mutated banana. Unless some pesticide is introduced which is able to decimate this latest Panama strain. The biggest regret amidst this hysteria is that there isn’t a single cultural figure who comes even close to Carmen Miranda who can put all this into perspective.

A Can of Grape Soda

It’s safe to say that most of us fail to observe where our food comes from. I am currently examining an empty aluminum can of Welch’s Grape Soda, which was imbibed about four hours ago and was abandoned on my desk. In tall and semi-gothic lettering, the words NEW YORK appear — as if to suggest some homestate affinity, perhaps a reason for another beverage enthusiast to slap me on the back with an avuncular gusto as we down a few cans of Welch’s. Less comforting than these words is the NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, which was somehow invisible to me when I procured the soda in questions. These words are more troublesomely legible than NEW YORK. And I ponder whether this is really a strong selling point. Turning the can on my side, I learn that I have put into my system the following ingredients:

carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial grape flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), red 40, blue 1

The drink was “produced under the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.,” which I am assured is “a cooperative” based out of Concord, Maine. And yet the drink was “canned by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc.” So I’m wondering where Welch Foods’s authority left off and Pepsi-Cola’s bottling began, and I’m pondering what happened between Concord and Queens. (College Point is fairly close to LaGuardia.) There isn’t an answer on this can. We accept that some complicated process has occurred and we don’t ask questions about whether any of this is good for us.

I don’t know if I completely trust “the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” And yet I placed my trust in this authority when I decided to enjoy a can of grape soda, little realizing that I was experiencing a form of “high fructose corn syrup” that Michael Pollan has probably fulminated about somewhere. I am especially disturbed that grapes are not a part of this beverage, at least not in any direct manner. It’s all concentrate and natural and artificial grape flavors here. But what of the grapes? Did anybody inspect these? In the rush to mass produce cans of Welch’s, did someone decide to skimp out on the grapes? “The authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” may very well be an austere and ruthlessly efficient force that keeps the cans running down their tracks on time and into the ebullient hands of consumers like me, but I really want to know where the grapes come from. And this website isn’t exactly forthcoming about which grapes are used.

When I obtained the can of grape soda, I naively believed that some jolly group of vintners had smashed the grapes with their feet, that there was some natural process that permitted the grapes to ferment, and that everybody had congratulated each other on a job well done. But the truth is I know nothing about the complex machinery that put this drink together. Perhaps there was scant human intervention. I’m pretty sure that what I happily ingested was probably quite bad for me. 51 grams of sugar in one can! I mean, that’s phenomenal and it’s certainly a sign of high fructose. At least Welch’s is being clear on that point. (Of course, they have to, what with federal law and all.) But Welch’s hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much sugar this is. They have informed us, quite predictably, that the can contains 12 fluid ounces (or FL OZ for short, which suggests that one should probably floss shortly after knocking back a cold can of grape soda). In parentheses, we are informed that this amount is also 355 milliliters. But why not be forthright about what this amounts to in grams? It’s probably because 12 ounces is roughly about 340 grams. Which means that one sixth of this beverage is composed entirely of sugar! That’s more sugar than someone is likely to spoon into a cup of coffee!

I must conclude that Red 40 and Blue 1 are both forms of food coloring that are hiding some terrible truth about what these grapes have been through or how they have been sullied by the fructose and the concentrate.

There is a 1-800 number on the side of the can urging me to leave a “consumer comment.” But it’s now too late for me to call and I fear that this number exists for me and other consumes to explain to Welch’s how I feel about their beverage, perhaps in polite and enthusiastic terms. But the truth of the matter is that I have questions, not comments. And the person who would answer at this 1-800 number might panic because they didn’t have these answers at their fingertips. Or I might have to climb my way up the bureaucratic ladder to find out who does know. “Uh…grape juice concentrate. I’ll have to get approval from Bob before I can tell you what this is.”

The Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc. is based in College Point, New York. It is a place that employs 1,100 people and made $166.60 million in 2007. There are two bottling plants and six warehouses. Yahoo! Finance assures me that this is “one of the largest private bottlers in the U.S.” But it doesn’t tell me where the grapes come from.

The Welch’s website assures me that their beverages are made from dark grapes. And there is this:

These dark grapes contain flavonoids, which are a likely source of heart heath benefits. Both red wine research and purple grape juice research have shown antioxidant, anti-clotting, and arterial flexibility benefits. Many scientists believe that these properties are linked to heart health.

I am somewhat suspicious of flavonoids. They sound too much like the “electrolytes” that the futuristic population of Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy, so passionately believed in. And while flavonoids are indeed good for you, a UC Berkeley study in 2000 revealed that high concentrations of flavonoids, particularly in supplements sold at health food stores, may assist in cancer formation. A 2007 article from Science Daily is somewhat more encouraging, pointing out that high-sugar drinks with flavonoids are still beneficial because of the flavonoids.

So many questions! But then trying to find answers is what the Internet is for. Thankfully, there are a few enthusiasts out there who care about these seemingly pedantic but alarming issues. A new blog, Food Mapping, appears determined to use topographical technology to answer these questions. It promises “a visual representation of the how, where, and why of our food.” And it has (so far) explained the effects of humans eating too much fish and has provided helpful maps for local dairies. It also led me in turn to this map of New Orleans, in which one can view an overlay of stores, restaurants, and sundry markets across the city — important questions for anyone curious (and indeed hopeful) about how this ravaged city can restore itself after Katrina.

It’s self-evident that independent experts and enthusiasts need to investigate these culinary mysteries. And perhaps with serious inquiry, we might loosen a few answers into the great mysteries we blindly accept. Perhaps there is a can of grape soda somewhere that is completely transparent about the manner it is manufactured and canned and that doesn’t use nearly as much sugar. Or perhaps drinking grape soda is an unhealthy fait accompli. One obvious solution would be to avoid grape soda. But wouldn’t it be better to know precisely what one is avoiding?

Pommes Frites

It was an unwonted warm afternoon in January when my corpus decided that it required protein. My culinary id had screamed for the wrong kind of protein, the messy kind that requires many napkins. We settled ourselves inside a rectilinear restaurant in Fort Greene. I procured a burger, along with a large gantry-like basket of fries that towered over my small glass of RC Cola. I was hungry and had eaten without wisdom that day, but there were more potato slivers here than even the most ravenous soul could devour. The basket was an apparent bargain for three bucks, but ultimately a remarkable waste. Having been instructed as a young boy to “clean my plate” and having maintained this half-hearted economic virtue over the years, I considered all the fries that this restaurant, like many others, had willfully wasted on a daily basis.

pf.jpgDays before at a French bistro, there had been an elliptical receptacle of fries (or, to be specific, pommes frites, lightly seasoned with salt and fresh parsley). A bonus. An unanticipated side dish, really. We masticated on ten out of the perhaps ninety thin rectangular wedges jutting upward like baked and irregular flowers. But the waiter had not waited to take them away. Indeed, he had not given us the choice of picking away at more fries or a moment of silence in which we could grant them the eulogies they clearly deserved. Perhaps he wanted this table cleared so that another set of customers could use it.

More fried casualties. If someone possessed the foresight to construct a potato cemetery for all these fallen soldiers, there would surely be ten Vietnam Memorials for one day in Manhattan restaurants alone. And yet over three decades of existence, I had never thought to name any of the fries. I had never eaten a French fry and said to it, “Hey, Joe, you’re about to be eaten!” or “Phyllis, nice curves! How did you get away with that daring French fry figure? I hope you don’t have body image problems. Here, let me straighten you out with my bicuspids!”

I speculated to my dining partner that it hadn’t always been like this. There must have been a time in culinary history in which one ordered a burger and there were about five steak fries on the side. A reasonable portion that was neither wasteful nor encouraged sloth on the part of the diner. But at some point during the twentieth century, there may very well have been a collusion between the fries suppliers and the restaurant managers. Perhaps it was not economically sound to throw five mere steak fries into a fryer. From an economic standpoint, it was better to use as much of the fryer’s cooking juice at one time instead of spoiling the oil with small orders. Plus, there was likely a large bag of fries that had to be used, along with many other large bags that had been included in the bulk box purchase. And all the fries had to be used before the expiration date.

Additionally, if the supplier was going to deliver frozen food, expending gas and labor to ship many boxes to many restaurants, then it really needed to be worth his while. The restaurant manager was forced to order too many fries and then had to find a way to move fries. And a dainty portion that came with a meal would result in a surfeit of fries. If, however, the restaurant manager could sucker the customer into paying two or three bucks to order too many fries as a side dish, the restaurant manager could not only move the fries rapidly, but he could also make a large return and ensure that all of his fries would be cooked.

But this does not discount the fact that too many fries are wasted. Now I’m not a religious man, and, as such, I don’t believe in life after death. So I must presume that these glorious fries wither their flaxen luster away, going nowhere in particular and remaining unremembered by anyone save Mama and Papa Spud, both of whom would enact a Charles Bronson-style death wish against ape-descended bipedal life forms if they had minds, mouths, and, most importantly, an ability to use a Luger pistol.

And how does one reuse these abandoned fries? Because of their terrible nutrition value, they cannot be recirculated among the less fortunate with any ethical grounding. They grow cold too quickly. They lose their oily taste if they are microwaved. They cannot be mashed up into a delightful potato concoction because the majority of the fry is a crisp affair and mushiness has been compromised.

Thus, for the moment, suppliers and restaurant managers turn a profit on a product that is readily wasted. And the French have the temerity to call these pommes frites! (The British had gone further with the benign-sounding “fish and chips,” which resulted in a tasty but rather unhealthy fried concoction and more waste.)

I now feel tremendously guilty for having eaten so many fries over the years, because I have never been able to entirely finish a serving. From a dollars-to-food perspective, I am likely losing more money with fries than I am with other dishes.

The only ethical solution here is to stop eating fries or to insist to the person who serves me that I really don’t need that many of them. But even if I were to carry out the latter, more fries would be wasted and led to that black plastic coffin within the garbage can.

There are clearly no winners here in the fries scenario except those who are making the money. And I harbor a not-so-small revolutionary fantasy in which diners rise up, boycott restaurants, and demand smaller portions of fries. It seems only fair to the maligned fries, who are being thrown away every day by the thousands, and this would probably help in a small way to combat the national health problem.

I’m Done With Progresso Soup

I would like to kick the ass of the son of a bitch at General Mills who came up with the unsuitable and deadly metal can top for their Progresso Soup line. Progresso Soup, presumably in an effort to compete with the Campbell’s Chunky Soup counterpart, has recently swapped their standard metal can — which was previously normal and easily opened with a commonplace can opener — with one that has a metal ring. Like Chunky Soup, the idea here is to lift the ring up and peel off the top of the can and provide convenience to consumers. The problem, however, is that the apparent R&D genius — clearly unaware of the forces of gravity and settling upon a thinner and presumably cheaper tab than Chunky Soup’s version — hasn’t considered that the fatter and shorter cylinder offered by Progresso is less conducive to this immediate can-opening strategy than the thinner and taller counterpart offered by Chunky Soup.

What resulted, as I attempted to make myself a modest lunch this afternoon, was me pulling up the tab, applying no more puissance than anyone else in tearing off the lid, with the jagged top jeering dramatically upwards with a force incommensurate to what I had effected with my thumb and forefinger. The deadly elliptical edge then made its way deeply into my right thumb — metal particulates embedding themselves, hitting nerves, causing all manner of “You Progresso motherfuckers!” to emerge from my lips, thus sullying the divine silence of my apartment, and a ruddy Peckinpah geyser of blood spawned from a vicious cut that took almost two hours to clot.

I would like to find the bastard who came up with this design, whose idea of lunch is a Robespierrean homage, and I want to watch this man open up one hundred cans of Progresso Soup and watch his own hands be sliced by his abominable creation. I am not normally a vengeful monkey, but, in this case, I want to see the bastard cry after opening up Can #89 and then have to carry on opening eleven more cans, all of them causing additional cuts.

I present this episode to warn any and all consumers of Progresso Soup that these new cans are deathtraps. And that the forty cent difference between Progresso and Chunky Soup really isn’t worth it. Particularly when you have a shitload of deadlines to meet.

(This is the reason why, by the way, I’m not answering email today.)

The Omelette Report

Some culinary skills come late in life. But they do, in the end, arrive, if you are pigheaded enough. (Of course a desire to feed people is a great motivator too.)

omelet.jpgAs I reported rather discreetly back in September, I finally figured out how to make a pretty tasty omelette. Yes, I learned in my early thirties. But in my defense, I should note that on the breakfast front, I had the scrambled eggs, pancakes, and onion-potatoes thing down pretty well — in part because I worked as a short-order cook in my early twenties. (The manager, discovering my ineptitude, eventually stopped giving me morning shifts. Which was fine back in those days, seeing as how I was dilatory and frequently hungover just after sunrise back in those days. I’ve since taken to getting up very early in the morning to get a good start.)

But there were also ancillary factors. During my early twenties, as a last resort, I used my crude breakfast making skills as a desperate bargaining chip to get into bed with women. It worked twice, although in both cases the women in question were somewhat inebriated. Maybe they just felt sorry for me. This was one of the reasons I related to Pirate Prentice’s Banana Breakfast in the early pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. It seemed stemmed from the same hapless masculinity.

But the omelette thing befuddled me. Until recently, when I became determined to eat the majority of my meals in rather than out.

So that other anonymous souls suffering this same problem might be granted succor, here are some helpful hints.

First off, you need to make sure that you have a good egg base. And this means having a good omelette pan. My sister, knowing of my ontological omelette imbroglio, was kind enough to give me a Calphalon 12-inch pan for my last birthday, and the slick non-stick surface, carefully buttered, makes whipping up and cooking an omelette easier than if you have a standard issue shitty frying pan. One other thing about the omelette pan. It’s great for a well-cooked four-egg omelette, which you can then slice delicately down the middle and serve for two. So if you’re serious about omelettes, get this pan. Plus, it has a thick oblong steel handle that makes you feel as if you’re driving a fucking sports car or something. And if you’re thinking that this is some kind of scam, it isn’t. You can use it for other things. It’s also great for chicken quesadillas.

Now you need to be absolutely scrupulous about cooking the egg. And you can do this quite fine with a fork. You bat down the light rising bubbles with the back of the fork, while gently scraping the cooked edge away from the side. When you see a well-cooked edge, be sure to tilt the pan so that the egg on top will flow just underneath the egg. The fork is handy because you’ll be able to lift the congealed egg and that’s where the magic happens!

Keep doing this for a while until 90% of the uncooked egg are underneath the edges. If you’re thorough like me, you’ll want to lift up the entire elliptical perimeter and make sure it’s all cooked. (Plus, this will help when you get to the tricky flip.)

You’re going to need a good deal of cheese to lay down. Ideally, if you shred some gouda or some feta, you’re in for a tasty breakfast! A smidgen of fresh, meticulously ground parsley goes with this well too, although you’ll probably want to mix this into the base. But be sure that you have enough cheese! Because this cheese is going to save your ass when you get to the inside of the omelette.

Now the tricky part. The filling. In my early omelette experiments, I was so eager to make a great omelette that I often employed too much zeal here, and I learned some harsh lessons in applying grand dollops down the middle. Be sparing here. Because if you have too much filling, then it’s going to be a pain in the ass when you flip the egg over. And not only that, but you’re really going to need to make sure the inside of the omelette is cooked, with the cheese melting into it magically.

You may need to make about two or three omelettes to get the filling-to-egg ratio right, but once you have this down, your omelette will rock.

Now flipping the egg over can be a bitch. You’re going to need the fork and you’re going to need a spatula. You’ll need the fork to lift up the edge, which you can then slide over very carefully with the spatula. And if you have your filling-to-egg ratio right, you shouldn’t have much of a problem if you use considerable solicitude on this front.

Then you’ll just want to keep the puppy cooking. But don’t leave it one place. You’re going to want to move the omelette around every minute for presentation purposes. After all, the last thing anyone wants when eating an omelette is a dun-colored bottom. But you will need to cook this thoroughly. When you see some thoroughly melted cheese emerging from the edge, chances are you’re done.

And voila! A grand omelette that should keep you going until the early afternoon at least!

The whole thing costs maybe $3 to make. A few bucks more if you want to get extravagant. Throw in some potatoes, some fruit, a toasted English muffin with grape jelly, and you’ll have yourself a grand breakfast. (And to think, they’re charging $10 for this racket at a diner!)

Another Endorsement for City Jerk

As I’ve begun to settle into my delightful new neighborhood, I’ve become addicted to the PLG-based blog Across the Park. Some weeks ago, I conducted an elaborate independent canvassing campaign along Flatbush Avenue to determine the lay of the land and apply my own personal Google Maps “street view” to my temporal lobe for later processing. (I apologize if such terminology is perceived as ostentatious, but I can only report the way that my twisted little brain operates. If it’s any consolation, the sickness has caused much of the machinery in my noggin to operate at half speed.)

During the course of this prodigious walk, I espied the fantastically named City Jerk, which seemed rather fitting in light of a specific type of individual I have observed in Manhattan with troubling frequency. The establishment specializes, as one can easily aver, in jerk chicken.

Now I’m a fan of jerk, but the difficulty in stepping into any random neighborhood restaurant is that there are approximately 300 other restaurants also doing business with this Jamaican delight. I had thought that the prodigious number of taquerias in the Mission District was impressive and perhaps nonpareil in its near rhapsodical dissemination. Until I encountered Brooklyn’s bountiful jerk restaurants. The jerk restaurants may very well stop rapacious landlords from gutting the boroughs and replacing them with high rises and jacking up property values with little concern for everyday folks. (Accordingly, I must don a skirt and a pair of pom-poms and shout, “GO JERK RESTAURANTS! GO! GIVE ME A J…,” inter alia. Your tips on apposite eye liner for these ostensibly Marxist purposes are, of course, quite welcome.)

However, I have also recently discovered — almost entirely by accident — that chicken has proven strangely beneficial to the recovery of my voice. Shortly after I have eaten chicken, I have been shocked to discover some of my voice’s affable qualities returning. Now whether this has occurred because of the steam that flows from the meat as one delicately peels back the skin, causing a pleasant aroma and visible mist to drift up one’s nasal cavity, or it’s the chicken’s protein and grandma’s panacea qualities which permit it to form a dominant allele in that trusty homeopathic formula that was, according to my unreliable notes, devised by Mendel (I refer, of course, to “chicken soup”), I cannot say. I am not a medical expert. But I do observe what works.

Which is to say that chicken was very much in the cards.

Now since Across the Park gave the thumbs up to City Jerk a few weeks ago, I decided to investigate it myself. The proprietor was exceedingly kind, helping to acquaint your yokel correspondent with the provincial culinary procedures, and took great care to provide and recommend very specific amounts of rice and gravy. For a mere seven dollars, I walked out of City Jerk with a remarkably tasty congeries of delicate chicken, sauce that was very precise in its spiciness (not too overpowering but resonant enough in taste and texture to more than warrant its application), perfectly cooked plantains (soft and not overcooked), and some vegetables. We’re talking good chicken with the fixings.

I must disagree, however, with Across the Park’s view that the jerk chicken in question is better intact. Because the aforementioned proprietor was thankfully not inspired by the comfort food mentality that has proven remarkably resilient six years after September 11. Thus, she did not chop the chicken to unsuitable particulates. She clearly understood that, rather than having oblong bits of chicken breast to tear up awkwardly and mix with the various sides, it needed to be chopped ever so slightly, so as to be better disseminated across the plate and mixed up among the rice.

All this is to say that City Jerk is certainly worth your time, particularly if you’re in the latter stages of laryngitis and you find yourself in my hood. It’s located at 591 Flatbush Avenue.

On the Menu

There’s a time and a place for good literary discussion. I’m assuming that’s why Ed lined up so many fine folks to fill his rather unfillable shoes this week. And then there will be my posts, straight from a basement in Terre Haute to you. Ed claims to be doing a little relocating this week, but I’ve done some investigating, and I know, for a fact, that he’s in Wisconsin enjoying some fine dining:

Wisconsinites have deep-fried cheese curds, candy bars and Twinkies. They now have deep-fried livestock testicles, too.

More than 300 people paid $5 for all-you-can-eat goat, lamb and bull testicles Saturday at the ninth annual Testicle Festival at Mama’s Place Bar and Grill in Elderon in central Wisconsin.

“Once you get over the mental (aspect) of what you’re eating, it’s just like eating any other food, and it tastes good,” Buster Hoffman said.

If Buster Hoffman says it’s so, then it’s gotta be so. Have fun, Ed! But don’t eat too much.

Update: Because I can, I will. I’m Jeff from Syntax of Things, one of the original Superfriends from way back when. I’ve never tried testicles; I’m allergic to some nuts. I do like some cheese curds though.

Teo Kridech, My Hero

San Francisco Chronicle: “The posts ‘nearly killed my business,’ said Kridech, a native of France who has worked in the food industry for 25 years and spent $150,000 revamping the Senses space. ‘Everyone has become a food critic. They think they’re real big shots. They probably can’t even make scrambled eggs.'”

I am one of the few cultivated San Franciscans who can, in fact, make scrambled eggs. So I take no offense to Teo Kridech’s charges. In fact, I agree whole-heartedly with them. It’s about time that someone identified those vermin now sitting in restaurants because they are incapable of cooking a basic breakfast. It’s about time that rebels like Mr. Kridech raked these bastard diners across the coals. I believe in a society in which those who cannot make scrambled eggs are massacred by unscrupulous men in Nazi uniforms and epaulettes. I will begin shooting these so-called “food bloggers” in the head, should Mr. Kridech request my services. These uncultured vultures think that can simply place something in a microwave and call it dinner. They think that they can go to a restaurant and describe its problems to people on the Web! Well, what good are these interlopers with good men like Teo Kirdech determining our cultural norms?

So I salute Teo Kirdech’s unapologetic and somewhat strange embrace of Manichean vales. Since I can make scrambled eggs, perhaps I might be styled a “big shot” and even, quite possibly, a “food critic.” (Many years ago, I was asked to write restaurant reviews. Whether these scribblings count as “food criticism” proper, I cannot say. I was a younger man then and I often described how I was feeling in these reviews, which was probably my career as a “food critic” was a brief one. Nevertheless, I shall send copies of these on to Mr. Kirdech, where he can then offer me his opinion about whether these scribblings constitute criticism. Or perhaps I can simply cook scrambled eggs in front of Mr. Kirdech and earn his trust.)

To settle this matter once and for all, I plan to check out Mr. Kridech’s restaurant at some random point during the next three weeks, investigating these claims of “cheap porcelain plates” and the “little butter dish from Ikea.” If this plateware is causing an inordinate amount of stress among San Francisco eaters, and if Mr. Kridech is indeed stiffing his customers, it will be duly reported here. And I will have to abandon the clear homicidal plan implied by Mr. Kridech.

The ball, as they say, is in Mr. Kridech’s court. And he should be a little frightened. For while other food bloggers have been hard on Mr. Kridech, who I hope will be my friend no matter what I think of his restaurant, I am a harder man to be reckoned with. I can make scrambled eggs.

Problem Solved, If Some Vegetarians Stopped Being Self-Righteous Douchebags

Laura Miller: “We’re so used to linking masculinity with carnivorousness that we seldom stop to recognize how illogical it is. Just because vegetarianism is correlated with pacifism — people who draw the line at killing animals are probably loath to kill human beings, too — it doesn’t follow that eating flesh, and especially the flesh of mammals, causes the battery of aggressive behaviors we choose to call manly. Yet even today, insulting vegetarians is presented as a display of bold, defiant machismo, a way of saying, ‘I understand and embrace the bloody truths of life with lusty vigor, unlike you salad-noshing pansies!'”

On the Upside, This is Good News for Those Who Sup Upon the Bland Monoflavorous Offerings at Red Lobster

New York Times: “Cod, haddock, white hake, halibut, cusk and dozens of other groundfish, fish that live near the ocean bottom, mingled with clams, shrimp, lobster and mussels under the creamy surface of the stew, cresting a puddle of yellow butter here, a slick of smoky pork fat there. Today there is nothing but lobster to be fished commercially near Stonington. Lobster floats alone in the local chowder, pinking the cream and, in the mind of food lovers, perhaps elevating Everyman’s dish to luxury status. But when Mr. Bridges looks at a single species stew he sees a dangerously impoverished fishery.” (via MeFi)

Politics and the Culinary Language

New York Times: “And according to [food service industry research firm principal] Tom Miner, ‘The food has to be fast, it has to be handheld, and No. 1 across the board is egg and cheese on a bread carrier.'”

I don’t know if I find the phrase “bread carrier” as appealing as Jenny D, in large part because I think it’s silly to put “bread” and “carrier” in the same noun phrase. I can get behind “bread bowl” because the bread has been constructed as such. But to me, “bread carrier” sounds like a Samsonite innovation gone terribly wrong. It also suggests a strange cowardice on the part of Tom Miner. Why not just say bagel like the rest of us? Or did Miner, forced into the position of advocating food at large, feel the need to be non-exclusionary about bread in general? Did he fear an array of phone calls and emails from those restaurants and wholesalers using English muffins? Who knew that bread could be so political?

The Carrot Stick Conspiracy

Okay, folks, there is a vital issue that has been troubling me this morning, one I hope that I’m not alone on.

What on earth happened to carrot sticks? There was a time, perhaps fifteen years ago, when one went to a party and found copious carrot sticks available on a vegetable platter. These carrot sticks were not ellipitical, but pared down into a thin three-sided stick. If they were particularly compelling carrot sticks, each end would form a perfect isosceles triangle. The sticks, I must point out, were much longer than the baby carrots we enjoy today.

baby carrots.jpgBut those halcyon days of veggie snacking are gone! Now the carrot industry, having made something of a splash on the baby carrot front, has now made our decisions for us. One now picks up a baby carrot and dips it into ranch dressing, wondering what became of those glorious orange triangular prisms.

Understand, dear readers, that I harbor no particular ill will towards ellipitically pared vegetables. I’m just wondering why everyone has willingly accepted this development without question. Why is there no army of scruffy twentysomethings picketing Safeway, pointing out that the carrot stick is now near extinct and that this insensitive move on the part of carrot growers simply will not stand?

Am I the only one who misses the carrot stick? Am I the only one who nibbles the ends of a baby carrot, hoping that the triangle will emerge like a sculpture embedded within a slab of clay? Why didn’t we get a vote on this? Surely, the triangle is just as compelling as the circle!

Not Even Dessert is Sacred

Nora Ephron: “Dessert spoons are large, oval-shaped spoons. They are so large that you could go for a swim in them. I’m not one of those people who like to blame the French for things, especially now that the French turned out to be so very very right about Iraq, but there’s no question this trend began in France, where they’ve always had a weakness for dessert spoons.”

You Can Justify Your Eating Disorder and Have Yourself Two to Three Extra Years Rotting Away in a Convalecent Home. Me? I’ll Enjoy My Damned Burger and Fries.

Wired: “Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University gerontologist, recently wrote a paper concluding that CR [caloric restriction] is unlikely to add more than two or three years to the mean or maximum life span. De Grey said he is skeptical of CR’s potential for radical life extension in part because he sees no reason why it would be advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. “

AudBlog #1 — The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Bagels

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[1/24/06 UPDATE: As insinuated in the comments, during an earlier incarnation of this site (Dr. Mabuse’s House of Fun) that you will likely never see, I had a program entitled “Babblings of an Insomniac,” which I suppose was a podcast years before podcasts were podcasts, that involved getting together with a friend and talking about whatever we felt like it. I had coined the term “aug,” hoping for some Peter Merholz-style propagation. But it never caught on. Should some Brobdingnagian entity grant me limitless spare time, I may post my audio development over the past seven years in full.]

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atwood-marg

Does Maragaret Atwood Hate Food?

atwood.jpegIn the Margaret Atwood universe, not even an innocent cookie is safe.

From The Blind Assassin:

“Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea — a slab of putty, covered, in chocolate sludes — and a plastic screw-top jug of her very own battery-acid coffee.” (37)

“She says [hamburgers] are pre-frozen patties made of meat dust. Meat dust, she says, is what’s scraped off the floor after they’ve cut up frozen cows with an electric saw.” (44)

“On the menu, displayed in the window — I’ve never gone inside — are foods I find exotic: patty melts, potato skins, nachos. The fat-drenched staples of the less respectable young, or so I’m told by Myra.” (51)

“jars of jam with cotton-print fabric tops, heart-shaped pillows stuffed with desiccated herbs that smell like hay” (52)

“I sat on the park bench, gnawing away at my cookie. It was huge, the size of a cow pat, the way they make them now — tasteless, crumbly, greasy — and I couldn’t seem to make my way through it….I was feeling a little dizzy too, which could have been the coffee.” (54)

“There was nothing much I wanted to eat: the draggled remains of a bunch of celery, a blue-tinged heel of bread, a lemon going soft. And end of cheese, wraped in greasy paper and hard and translucent as toenails.” (56)

“Consomme, rissoles, timbales, the fish, the roast, the cheese, the fruit, hothouse grapes dressed over the etched-glass epergne. Railway-hotel food, I think of it now; ocean-liner food.” (60)

“Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with forgiveness, forgiveness on the buttered toast.” (77)

“I purchased a small iced tea and an Old-fashioned Glazed, which squeaked beneath my teeth like Styrofoam. After I’d consumed half of it, which was all I could get down, I picked my way across the slippery floor to the women’s washroom.” (83)

“I’d eaten too many cookies, too many slivers of ham; I’d eaten a whole slice of fruitcase.” (96)

“We’d have buttered white bread spread with grape jelly translucent as cellophane, and raw carrots, and cut-up apples. We’d have corned beef turned out of the tin, the shape of it like an Aztec temple. We’d have hard-boiled eggs.” (138)

I’d keep going, but I think the point is clear. Either the narrator’s very being is hindered by eating, or Atwood is a closet anti-culinary type. To which I reply, if music be the food of love, play on.

Addendum (May 21, 2013):

Margaret Atwood’s remarkably nihilistic food description has continued unabated in the past decade, helped in large part by the fact that she’s spent much of her fiction writing time building an apocalyptic universe in the Oryx and Crake trilogy. Here are more recent samples:

From Oryx and Crake:

He said it was only pure dumb chance he wasn’t dead — that this fucking country hadn’t killed him with its lousy food.

Worms and grubs were what he recommended for a snack food. You could toast them if you wanted.

…the food in the cafeteria was mostly beige and looked like rakunk shit.

No point thinking about it, not in this heat, with his brain turning to melted cheese. Not melted cheese: better to avoid food images.

From The Penelopiad:

Have I mentioned that there’s nothing to eat except asphodel?

He was sorry he’d asked them for something to eat.

From Moral Disorder:

I was not an orphan, I told myself; I was not nearly enough of an orphan. I needed to be more of one, so I could eat food that was bad for me… — “The Other Place”

As a child she’d separated her food into piles: meat here, mashed potatoes there, peas fenced into a special area reserved for peas, according to a strict plan of her own. One pile could not be eaten before the one already started had been consumed: that was the rule. — “Monopoly”

From The Year of the Flood:

“Why would we hunt?” said Zeb. “To eat,” said Amanda. “There’s no other good reason.”