In the book Fight Club, the nameless narrator returns home from a business trip to discover that his condominium has been blown up. Numb and distraught, he walks around the debris of his possessions (a scene evocatively captured in the film version of the novel). The police tell him they suspect the compressor of the fridge provided the spark which caused the explosion.
Oh, not my refrigerator. I’d collected shelves full of different mustards, some stone-ground, some English pub style. There were fourteen different flavours of fat-free salad dressing, and seven kinds of capers.
I know, I know, a house full of condiments and no real food.
The refrigerator described by the narrator reflects the bleak message of Fight Club: his life has the trappings of fullness, but there is nothing to provide nourishment. The variety and diversity of the condiments he is able to purchase and consume (or collect) do nothing to disguise the spiritual poverty of his existence.
I’ve been obsessed with this sentiment ever since – and indeed, my boyfriend has started to worry about my habit of texting people to ask them about their fridge contents. The idea that contents of the fridge and kitchen cupboards can reflect who we are is obviously compelling, and there’s some truth in it. Surely the Puy lentils, goat’s cheese and sundried tomatoes of the 1990s said as much about the era as the chia seeds, frozen bananas (for smoothies) and mashed avocado says about the 2010s?
So for this little series, which I think will run fortnightly, I’ll be sharing the insides and insights of our fridges, starting but not limited to my own.
Show me your fridge, and I will tell you who you are…
I had to send my camera in for repairs due to a ‘broken pixel line’ earlier this month. While it enabled me to catch up a little on blog writing without the distraction of photography, I did really miss being able to photograph and film when I wanted. It was very nice indeed to be reunited, and I threw together a belated video on my favourite food things from July. I definitely feel like fun and play became, inadvertently, a theme, from messing around with biscuit making to a short, snappy, entertaining food read. Very summer appropriate…
I’ve shared some of the great food-related things I’ve loved in June, from a great food read, favourite restaurant, ways with vegetable cooking (you know my recent obsession with seasonality), cookbook indexing, and delicious snacks, including a beautifully creamy nut butter and a chocolatey, salty, almondy treat.
While I was in New York earlier this month, I visited three outposts of David Chang’sMomofuku empire. The Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar offered up some out-of-this-world spectacular food, the find of food I’m still thinking of. (I also visited the Milk Bar, if you’re wondering about the third outlet). I would love to go again and would recommend them heartily to anyone (apart from vegetarians – no real non-meat/fish options are available. It seems kind of out of step with current sensibilities but hasn’t affected their success). Anyway, considering I fell pretty hard for the slurpy, spicy, punchy food offered at Momofuku, I also picked up two copies of Lucky Peach, the food journal David Chang founded: the Pho Issue and the Versus Issue.
Unlike other food magazines, it’s quarterly rather than monthly and is decidedly a journal of food writing rather than a small recipe compendium smattered with writing, reviews and other features. Clearly comparing Lucky Peach to Olive, Delicious or BBC Good Food would be to compare some quite different beasts. While the latter serves an audience of keen home cooks, Lucky Peach is aimed at true food hobbyists, the kind of people who some might say are unhealthily obsessed with eating. And it is true that for anyone whose interest or passion is food there is a real danger of fetishisation, whether of chefs, produce, or fancy and expensive equipment. Fortunately Lucky Peach‘s editors prick an inclination to pretentious with amusing and perhaps even bold send-ups of the food reviewing genre: in the Pho issue, for example, a writer reviews packets of instant pho and freely admits to them becoming samey and boring and feeling ‘full of noodles’ at the end of the challenge.
The writing is also bloody good. I became surprisingly into the history of pho, even though it was hard work initially considering I’ve like, never eaten it and stuff. But once I let go and got immersed into the writing I learned so many interesting things about not just pho but Vietnam itself: the country’s fraught relationship to America; its transition from imperial outpost to Communist state to capitalist transition; the people who fled and how they built their lives; how all this history has come together in a bowl of beefy noodle soup. Despite living in South East Asia for the better part of my life I’ve never visited Vietnam (nor Cambodia nor Laos for that matter) and Lucky Peach really captured a lot of dimensions and complexity about the country, a particular feat when you consider the whole thing was ostensibly about soup.
Again, I started off by finding the Versus issue somewhat hard going (the rivalry between San Francisco and New York as food capitals is pretty much alien and irrelevant to me as a rivalry between Marseilles and Avignon would be: I mean, I’d be happy to visit either!), but again a really great selection of energetic writers and compelling interviews drew me in despite my initial scepticism. Lucas Peterson’s article on disordered eating was frankly one of the most affecting pieces I’ve ever read about food, as someone who has suffered from bad cycles of binge eating, self hatred and extreme dietary deprivation (not as an adult, but as an overweight teen). I ached for the loneliness that came through in his eating; by contrast to his patterns of indulge as a teenager, his writing is calm and self-reflective without dipping into self-pity or pathology.
Surprisingly the article on Tokyo by David Chang himself was a weak spot and suffered from one of Lucky Peach’s greatest downfalls, its manufactured bad-assery. I mentioned to my boyfriend when we were eating at the Ssam Bar that David Chang is considered this majorly rebellious, bad-ass, bad-boy, rule-book-tearing chef. “Why’s that?” said the boyfriend, not unreasonably. “On you know, he swears and has tattoos,” I said, and we both laughed because neither are exactly the acts of a wild child dismissive of taboo.
So there’s a lot of swearing in Lucky Peach and Chang’s Tokyo article is one ‘fuck’ after another (of Italy: “For fuck’s sake, can you eat anything besides fucking pasta?” I don’t disagree with the sentiment as such, but it doesn’t actually require the swearing to make its point; it’s there like a Christmas decoration in July, superfluous but the owner likes it, which is fine when it comes to home decor and less fine when it comes to literature and especially the confines of print media). Like we get it, you don’t believe in the norm of being polite to your reader or mindful of their potential delicacy. But swearing isn’t really that original or shocking and frankly is too often used as a crutch in Lucky Peach, a shorthand to show how edgy and alternative the writers and editors are, the expletive delivered in lieu of any real nuance or insight. It’s fundamentally laziness that occasionally mars and, more rarely, threatens to entirely derail an article, which doesn’t do justice to the magazine’s typical depth and grasp of complexity.
All in all, if you see food as more than just fuel and are interested in it as a mechanism and medium for biography, history, geography and even anthropology, I’d recommend having a bite of Lucky Peach (this is the kind of lazy and derivative metaphor which falls into the same category as the swearing I complained about above, but it was surprisingly hard to resist! Sorry guys). It’s definitely one for those whose interest goes beyond cooking as a craft and is not too sensitive to swearing, who has the tolerance to get through some slightly dense articles, the patience to forgive the ones trying too hard to shock (and failing), and can survive long thematic issues on seemingly narrow topics. But perseverance wins the day: if you can make it through, you will discover some truly excellent food writing and experience some real insight into issues you might not have thought about or considered interesting without prompting.
It’s late in the month – May is a memory – but I still wanted to share some of the great food, drink and cooking items which have crossed, or in some cases recrossed, my path in May. Once again featuring cookbooks (by Diana Henry and Thane Prince), my dish of the month (a really rather good Thai seafood salad), a spectacular restaurant, a new way to keep cut fruit and veg fresher, great breakfast items, a delicious snack and – of course – and new, excellent tea. I hope you all enjoy watching!
I haven’t written in a bit because the past couple of weeks have involved the following: preparing to travel (including trying to finish off as much work as possible before leaving the office); travelling and enjoying myself enormously; recovering from travelling. My travels took me to New York, where I visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled around Central Park, and ate some amazing food. You can read the first instalment of my adventures in the Big Apple here.
Since back, I have absolutely devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificently inspirational Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver is primarily known as a novelist, with The Poisonwood Bibleprobably being her most immediately recognisable work (true to form, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read The Lacuna which, if nothing else, introduced me to the concept of the lacuna). (That sounds flippant. It was very good). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, is something like a memoir, something like a work of journalism, something like a handbook for seasonal eating. It follows Kingsolver and her family as they move to her husband’s farm in Appalachia and agree to eat seasonally and locally for a year, as a family project. I’ve always been interested, in a token way, in locality and seasonality, and occasionally get so prickly about our general reliance on fossil fuels, a reliance embedded deep within the food supply system, that I wake up in the middle of the night and sit bolt upright, panicking. However, in recent years, what was once a passionate interest has seemed marginal when I have struggled to find time to cook at all on occasion. Even when you love food, the reality of cooking
I can’t and won’t live without aubergine, but I am making an effort to eat seasonally and locally. In this I have been aided by two things. The first is April Bloomfield’sA Girl and her Greens, an ode to vegetables which bursts with creativity and ideas for beautiful, sometimes unusual, vegetables. Not all the recipes are 100% to my taste (like many professional chefs, she uses more butter than I am personally comfortable with!) but I feel genuinely excited when flicking through this book, inspired to cook new things in different ways. The quirky illustrations of dancing pigs and quizzical chickens are also a delight.
The second aid to seasonality is Farm Direct, a website my friend Mehrunnisa directed me to. It’s effectively a virtual marketplace where farmers can list their produce; the food you order is delivered straight to your door. I browse the website like some people browse Asos or Tiffany’s: I just want it all, and everything is precious. So many wonderful things are growing around this time of year and I piled my online basket high, and then reluctantly took stuff out, bitterly acknowledging the fact that we are a two-person household who can only eat so much. The fantastic thing about the produce offered is that there are plenty of things simply not available in supermarkets: think sorrel, baby purple turnips, red spring onions. I find the prices competitive, too, especially for the unusual and organic produce, and I like the fact that farmers are earning more than they would if I purchased their food through a supermarket. I can’t wait for my next crate of baby turnips, gooseberries and Tiptree strawberries to arrive this weekend.
So immersed in my new love of seasonal, more local, eating (fresher! Directly benefitting farmers in my locality! Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels!) was I that reading Adam Johns’ opinion column ‘What’s so great about reating seasonally?’, published in the ‘A Good Rant’ section of delicious magazine was something of a shock. Johns describes encouragement to eat seasonally (though he intertwines this with the issue of eating locally – admittedly the two are very intersected) as an “absurd foodie dictum” and characterised by “piety, hypocrisy, and chauvinism”, not to mention snobbery and “culinary xenophobia”. He bemoans being unable to find South African apples in his local supermarket. I found the article pretty judgemental, but most of it was just his opinion, and I’m excellent at living and letting live on those (I just don’t have the energy to get exercised about how other people feel most of the time). However, there were two parts in particular where I thought Johns’ arguments were specious. Firstly:
Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? […] why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato?
My counter-point to that argument is the simple issue that fresh food is perishable. When it is imported via air, huge amounts of fuel are used to bring over produce which is, largely, destined to have a relatively brief shelf life. Coupled with the knowledge that UK households throw out 7 million tonnes of food items a year, half of which could have been eaten, the implication is that a lot of food is being imported only to be thrown away. A huge amount of non-renewable fossil fuel has been used to transfer out of season green beans to our rubbish (or perhaps compost!) bins. When importing clothes and shoes, there is no real shelf life (beyond the vagaries of fashion) as these are not perishable items, therefore importing them is not so risible. They are also much more likely to be shipped by container, and not a refrigerated one, either.
The second argument that Johns makes is as follows:
There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.
As I said I am unlikely to be able to live entirely without products from the world’s larder: in my fridge and on my counter I have bananas, aubergines, tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs and spices from around the world (and when it comes to fossil fuels…I did travel to New York recently!). But attempting to tread a little more lightly on the earth by reducing my reliance on foods imported by fossil fuel is driven not by xenophobia or pettiness but by an attempt to live more responsibly in my day to day actions. I don’t think this is a bad thing.
It’s Sunday the 15th of May today, so pretty much bang on halfway into the month, but I have put together another video of my favourite food and cooking items from the month of April (see my first video of March favourites here). I talk about things to read, a fabulous recipe for a wonderful white loaf, my new breakfast obsession (handy hint: it’s skyr) and a lifechanging cooking implement (hint: I’m holding it in the thumbnail). I hope you enjoy it!