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John Whiting

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Posts posted by John Whiting

  1. I couldn't agree more, especially in restaurants which allow smoking. My wife and I feel so strongly about it that, whenever the schedule permits, we always book in the evening for opening time. (That's why most of the interior shots on my website are of empty spaces.)

    The problem is, rent per square meter in desirable locations has gone through the roof, and so restaurateurs cram as many people as possible into the space. Kitchens are getting smaller too, with recipes being adapted to those which require a minimum of preparation and therefore a minimum of staff. How many restaurants, except those in enormous hotels, can afford staffing levels like Chez Panisse, which has about 120 on the payroll?!

    In other words, in our new minimalist world we are compressed in space, time (multiple servings per night) and preparation. In Paris I sometimes go deliberately to unspectacular but competant old bistros that no one is making a fuss about, just to enjoy the relaxation and the ability to stretch without inadvertently assaulting a stranger.

  2. Mirabel Osler is one of my most valued friends, so my word on "The Elusive Truffle" is supect. However, take it for whatever its worth. One recommendation of hers was very much up to date a year ago, and that's Au Caneton in Orbec. After a couple of solo visits I subsequently took my wife there on the way back to London from the Ile de Re and she was so enamoured of it that we stopped nearby overnight and ate there three times in two days. Worth a detour? Worth a standstill!

    Mirabel's preferred title (for reasons which are apparent upon reading the book) was "The Elusive Salamander" but her publisher deemed it too obscure. Having titled my own book "Through Darkest Gaul with Trencher and Tastevin", my sympathies are obviously with her!

    It's worth noting that the recipes from various restaurants that are scattered through "The Elusive Truffle" were checked and given final form by Shaun Hill, a Ludlow neighbor of Mirabel's.

    My view of calvados is colored by a bottle once given to me by an impoverished aristocrat running a B&B near Giverny. A barrel had been discovered in the family chateau which dated back to 1910. It was smooth as silk and both smelled and tasted of fresh apples.

  3. Cabrales - No talk of ortolan; I don't know if they can be legally obtained in this country. It's interesting that the English gastronome tends to spare a bird if it can sing beautifully. As for the woodcock/tapeworm thesis, what an intriguing notion! But one which doesn't bother me particularly, given what precisely goes on in a bird when it is hung.

    My wife and I once had the benefit of butchers' lore in dealing with a (tame) duck which had been stored for several days in a neighbor's defective refrigerator. We were living in South Kensington at the time and went to a distinguished local butcher in Bute Street. "Don't bring it in," he commanded, "I'll come outside." He took a sniff and proclaimed, "You can still rescue it. Rub it inside and out with Fairy Liquid and leave it for a few minutes, then rinse it thoroughly under the cold tap -- you don't want any bubbles. Dry it well and roast it as usual. The smell will be gone and it'll be very tender." It was in fact perfect. Whenever I go into a strange butcher's I always look for the Fairy Liquid.

  4. Steve, I'm afraid you don't understand what I'm saying. From the beginning I made it clear that I was talking, not about what is *right*, but about what I *like*. I like to deal with people who regard me as an equal. How they arrive at this point of view can vary diametrically from person to person; one may achieve it within a totalitarian political system, another within a democracy. It has to do with a self-confidence which is divorced from arrogance.

    If someone prefers the manipulative relationship which once existed in the temples of haute-cuisine, that's fine by me. If another likes to be slapped on the back by a steak house jockey, more power to him. I'll stick with those modest but conscientious establishments where I'm simply made to feel at home.

  5. An idea has popped into my head which I've not had time to analyze. On the whole, the foreign foods which have become the most popular in all European countries have been those with the most aggressive flavors. I suspect that this relates to a general climate of overstimulation in which colors are primary and sounds are loud -- pop music for instance continues to climb the decibel scale towards prematurely induced deafness. As Marshall McLuhan noted half a century ago, overstimulation leads to narcosis.

  6. I wasn't referring specifically to anyone's comments -- this is a controversy that will run and run. There is a legend of a French monk who was sent to England as a punishment for some unspecified misbehavior and who wrote home that the English knew nothing of presenting food: "They serve it forth as hay to horses." (But his unexpected conclusion was that the exile had been worth it to have discovered the English pudding!)

  7. Steve, this is spiralling wildly off-topic and it's probably my fault. Forgive me if I say, as a fellow-Yank even if an expat, that your take on this is very American in that it concentrates on the epic dimensions of status, fame and prosperity. All I'm talking about is equality as a basis for human interaction -- how you treat the people you serve and people who serve you. My ideal can be summed up in the way a Swiss ticket-collector on a train approaches you -- he is not wearing a uniform which shouts subservience and until he opens his mouth he is indistinguishable from a doctor or a lawyer.

  8. Steve, the second half of your posting saves me the trouble of refuting the first. Genuine equality is totally independent of the job one does, and inequality manifests itself in insolence as well as in subservience.

    There's an illuminating story from postwar London about an aristocrat who was badly treated by a lazy and arrogant shopgirl. Her ladyship looked down her nose and remarked, "I dare say you think that you're just as good as I am." "I certainly do!" the girl replied with considerable heat. "In that case," concluded the lady, "I'll thank you to be civil to your equals."

  9. I won't continue to argue my metaphor; strictly speaking it's off-topic anyway. Your point about the unspeakable practice of double tipping has a terrible relevance in Britain, where it's increasingly common to add a service charge to the bill and then present an open credit card slip with a marked space in which to add a further gratuity. If they could figure out a system for tripple-tipping, they'd do it.

  10. I didn't refer to "slaves" but to "servants"; race was a metaphor for an obvious superior/inferior social relationship. As to whether "tipping" is inherent in American society, my reference to senators wasn't a joke: the Enron Saga has revealed unequivocally that it's endemic.

    My desire truly to be treated as an equal remains an ideal which is all too rarely realized. Friendliness without formality but also without pretense or obsequiousness: I've experienced it most memorably in Chez Panisse and l'Astrance.

  11. I haven't had a problem with French tap water for years. Alas, the water of rural Scotland, which used to be spring-like in its freshness, now tastes strongly of the chlorine which is routinely added as an insurance policy. This is an aesthetic problem and politicians do not normally concern thselves with matters of taste.

    Fortunately there's a cheap and simple answer for the householder. Fill a pitcher with water, cover it loosely with a napkin and let it sit for a few hours. Gradually the chlorine escapes into the atmosphere as gas. (This is a lot cheaper than using proprietary filters, which soon accumulate bacteria which are more of a potential hazard than the mineral impurities they remove.)

  12. Last Monday Nichola Fletcher of Reediehill Farm conducted a comparative game tasting for the Guild of Food Writers in which over a dozen different varieties of bird and rodent were all prepared in the same simple way – thin slices quickly pan fried. The result enabled one to compare like with like rather than merely sampling the chef’s virtuosity. We were warned that individual flavors could vary according to age and season; in this instance there was general agreement that the most inherently complex and interesting were the woodcock and the pheasant.

    In the case of the woodcock we were each given a small round crouton with a smear of the guts, topped with a morsel of the meat. The crouton was sensational. We were also given the reassuring information that the bird, as it takes to the sky, always evacuates; thus one’s excremental intake is minimized. (Anyone who shoots a woodcock on the ground is in for a rude shock.) Shaun Hill serves it at Merchant House, where, for those who like the brain, he includes the head. But not the guts - his minute kitchen is immediately adjacent to the small dining room, and so the smell would drive those of delicate constitution out into the street.

    We also had squirrel. To everyone’s surprise it was not at all unpleasant but quite bland. It was also extremely fatty – a great deal had to be removed before it was cooked. Again, we were told that this could vary according to age, season and sex.

    Finally, I am always amused at the efforts to reconcile St. John’s with the fashionable method of serving up food that looks like a structural engineer’s wet dream, otherwise known as the Leaning Tower of Pizza. I’m reminded of a Helen Hockinson cartoon years ago in the New Yorker, in which one of her rotund clubwomen is asking the instructor of a flower arranging class, “How do I achieve the effect of a sombrero carelessly thrown down?”

  13. I remain convinced that a system which demands an extra tip for service is inherently as demeaning as the white/black master/servant relationship which prevailed for so long in so much of America. There were always those who got around it by civilized behavior, but there was a barrier which had to be consciously crossed. Tipping takes service inevitably into the vaguely distasteful area of quasi-prostitution. How would your doctor react if you tried to slip him an extra twenty as you paid the bill? What response would, say, Daniel Barenboim make if you threw a wad of money onto the stage at the end of a Chicago Symphony concert?

    In America, where even senators are generously tipped for their legislative services, it's very difficult to go against this demeaning system. Chez Panisse attempted to abolish it, but the suspicious attitude of the Infernal Revenue inspectors ultimately made it impossible to resist. Our whole economy runs so much more smoothly when it's simply assumed that everyone's on the make. It doesn't help when American waitstaff become overtly pally and introduce themselves with, "Hello, I'm George and I'll be serving you this evening!" I have a certain sympathy with wicked old Herb Caen, who is supposed to have replied, "Do you mind if I call you waiter?"

    As for myself, I breathe a sigh of relief when I settle down at a French table. If a waiter treats me haughtily, I know that it's because he happens to be that sort of person and, so long as the food is good and arrives warm and more or less on time, I put up with it, grateful that I'm not expected to wave a stack of euros under his nose. The best restaurants, so far as I'm concerned, are those that make me feel as though I were being fed and served by my equals.

  14. I grew up in Provincetown half a century ago, and so I have a certain proprietary interest. I've been back a few times over the years, the last being about five years ago. Napi's was indeed remarkable, both in conception and execution. I'm sorry if it's declined. Sal's no longer belongs to Sal Del Deo (an original founder of Ciro & Sal's), so I'm not surprised that it's slid.

    Of at least academic interest is the Flagship, a rambling old waterfront restaurant with miles of history behind it. It was there when I was growing up -- the devil's clubhouse, as  I was earnestly warned. It was a favorite hangout of Anais Nin; for whatever it's worth, it's also the Ptown kitchen where Anthony Bourdain cut his well-sharpened incisors. (In Kitchen Confidential he identifies it as the Dreadnaught.) Worth going in just to drink at the bar, which is half of an old fishing dory. When last there I had a grilled tuna steak which was quite OK.

  15. A lot of misinformation can be avoided and a lot of useless debate bypassed if anyone who is interested goes to Paul Richardson's _Cornucopia: A Gastronomic Tour of Britain_. Written just over a year ago, it takes the reader around England, Scotland and Wales, introducing us to local specialties -- some traditional, some newly invented -- which can hold their head up with anything in Europe. At the same time, he doesn't pretend that they're easy to find on every street corner, or that the mass of food which is easily accessible in the provinces isn't disgusting almost beyond one's imaginings.

    Paul is a good friend of Colin Spencer, and so he understands that a British culinary tradition has had to be rediscovered by a process of  gastronomic archaeology. At the same time, he's aware that "British" food is now integrally blended with the ethnic cuisines of our immigrant population, to the point where chicken tikka massala is virtually our national dish. The last chapter is a work of genius, in which he balances the showcases of the celebrity chefs against the neighborhood ethnic hangouts which are gradually achieving a quality and a quantity to rival New York's at the height of American immigration, before the iron gates were slammed shut.

    At the end of the chapter he gives us a quote from Jane Grigson which should be carved on every kitchen wall: "We have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness."

  16. There are enough possible origins and variations of the cassoulet to fill a book, which they often do. (I'm aware of the Jewish cholent as one possible root, which is quite plausible.) There are so many contradictory traditions. One modern convention is that it is cooked in a slant-sided cassole like a squashed flower pot -- I picked up a set of them from the Not family pottery in Languedoc where they're still made for the regional restaurants. The cassole is baked in the oven and the crust broken -- some say nine times -- so that it gradually becomes thick and rich. But Anatole France reported that his favorite cassoulet was made at a restaurant where the dish had been kept simmering continuously on the stove for twenty years. No crust there.

    I suspect that the cassoulet is a dish which over the centuries has embraced a wide range of prosperity as well as of ingredients. It would have this in common with bouillabaisse, which arguably goes back to the first Phoenician settlers of the Marseille area, but was also what the fishermen's wives did with the ugly little buggars like the rascasse which were often still unsold at the end of the day.

    All these cyclical one-pot dishes allow for a lot of variation. My father was once a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Kansas and Nebraska. There was a lady in one parish who always gave him lunch when he was passing through. One day she served up a particularly thick and delicious soup. My father asked for the recipe, whereupon the good lady through up her hands and cried, "Lor'! There ain't no recipe for soup! It jes' accumulates!"

  17. One must go back in history for a clue as to why Britain, more than any other European country, lost what had been a rich and fertile culinary tradition, even at the peasant level.  English food historian Colin Spencer sums it up brilliantly in the Cambridge World History of Food. His encapsulated analysis of the collapse of British dietary health explains how it resulted primarily from the Enclosures (c18th-early 19thC) followed by the industrial revolution. The peasantry was driven from the land and the women from their kitchens, so that there was no longer a place where cooking skills could be passed on to the next generation “Rural life was radically altered and partially destroyed and whole villages were abandoned. Within a generation, cooking skills and traditional recipes were lost forever, as the creative interrelationship between soil and table (the source of all good cuisine) had been severed.”

    This is the context of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”:

     Far, far away thy children leave the land.

      Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

      Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

    This continuity was preserved in France, where it was a much more important factor than any imagined benevolence on the part of the aristocracy. Fernande Costes wrote in 1976, “My grandmother . . . was always hungry. I would sit on her lap . . ., listening to the throbbing of her hunger as she evoked memories of . . . her bitterness towards her rich and tyrannical employers. . . . It was amazing how hunger, even at that age, struck me in my relationship with my parents, ‘Eat up your soup or you’ll get nothing else.’ How it continued to govern my ties with my mother and how typical she was of the end of the last century when poverty was total.” (Bonaguil ou le chateau fou, Seuil, pp.7-8)

    The promotion of “cuisine terroire”within the context of modern prosperity has given us a grotesquely romantic view of how the French peasants must have eaten. (It also leads to ridiculous arguments over the "authenticity" of dishes such as cassoulet which made use of every available scrap.) Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Italian Slow Food movement has been to demonstrate that the evolution and preservation of a genuine cuisine is dependent on a social and economic system which supports the artisans who produce it.

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