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The Gastronaut

Of course you can like whatever it is you like, as can I. No one is saying you can’t. Culture of all sorts is nothing without appropriation. Matisse wouldn’t exist without Japan and Warhol would be different without Matisse. Everything feeds on everything else and almost always improves it. Without ingredients and dishes from India, China, Thailand, not to speak of Italy, France and Spain, British food would be horrible. No curries, no wanton, no pasta or chorizo. (No chicken-topped pizzas, either, so it wouldn’t all be bad). No potatoes or tomatoes, no avocados, lemons or beans. We would eat like peasants in the Dark Ages, muddy parsnips and grass for dinner, a carrot for dessert in the good times.

Without everywhere else getting a look-in on British food culture we’d be… well… like France. Have you eaten in France recently? Did you eat in France in the 1980s? Not much difference. And so constrained by provincial boundaries are the Italians that if you, say, go to an ‘international’ food shop in Rome, there, in the corner, will be shelves each labelled with a different region – Puglia, Toscana, Umbria – each holding a different shape of pasta particular to that region. Not even a different food type. And you wouldn’t eat a shape from Emilia Romana with a sauce from Liguria. No cultural crossover ever.

Some things seem beyond the pale, though, don’t they. Recently a trend has grown in the food-trendiest city on the planet. (London). You can pull a face at the thought of London ten times a week but Londoners will still be looking everywhere for novelty, a new taste, a new style of cooking. The new trend I’m talking about is a cross between Korea and Mexico. Yes, a Korean has married a Mexican and together they’ve made what looks to me like a horrible baby. I should confess, I don’t know that much about either cuisine. I once saw a photo of a market stall in Seoul of piles of skinned dogs, their tails in the air, both pink and perky, all ready for the pot. Maybe they’d already been in a pot, I was too horrified to look. I saw another picture of a food stall in, let’s say, Guadalajara, with heaped piles of fly eggs and locusts, all ready to be eaten. I didn’t linger on that, either. Just long enough to decide the world is big enough that I never have to go to Korea or Mexico. There are plenty of other places where I won’t have my nose rubbed in a bowl of puppy-tail soup.

But I looked into it and the Korean-Mexican hybrid is all about kimchi wrapped in burritos. No dogs, no insect eggs. Nothing frightening. Nothing to alarm. So, like everyone, I’m a bit hidebound. I’m stuck loosely with what I was brought up with and underneath I’m as sentimental as a teenage vegetarian. And, when you think about it, why shouldn’t a Mexican get frisky with a Korean? Haven’t I just been arguing for exactly that sort of cultural mash-up. Didn’t I say the world was better for crossover. What is ‘culture’ without the mixing of different sets of genes, without fusion?

There are some foods I couldn’t bear to look at before I was 50 that I now can bear to look at and even enjoy: brassicas of all types, dates, ginger, white chocolate, invertebrates. I have a list, somewhere. I was handed, at a very strange surf and turf in Tel Aviv last year, a bowl of deep-fried calamari with my burger. I know! It looked like a bowl of pale, shiny hula hoops. I hmmed for a second and then, almost absent-mindedly, started to pick at them. They weren’t great, a little tough, which I learn means they were overcooked, but still…. I got through more than half of the bowl. Go me for eating something that previously, for more than fifty years, I’ve barely been able to look at. Go me for almost liking something that half the world loves. Go me for being that tiny bit less squeamish. Squeamishness is the enemy of trying something new.

It’s all, like everything is, the fault of my parents. We grew up eating very safe, easy things, the things people still give their children, Heinz tomato soup, fish fingers, Arctic Roll. We had Jewish food, too, of course; chopped lived, salt beef, chicken soup and kneidlach (dumplings). My mother is the definition of a picky eater. Now 80, she only eats white food and buttermints. The only person who was a worse cook than her was her mother, who made egg and chips for my grandfather five nights a week. A fish cake or minced meat, both also with chips, the other nights. He was quite happy about this. He would turn away a courgette on the grounds that it was a) green and b) French. He lived until he was 84 on this diet, without a day’s illness. My older brother will eat nothing that he hadn’t first tried by the time he was fourteen. So it’s beans on toast and chocolate digestives and little else for him. I once saw his wife pull out the ‘bits’ from the sauce that came with a hamburger so he wouldn’t have to endure such horror. My younger brother recoils from any meat with a sign of blood on it. He has an electric barbecue. My father grew up in a poor family in Poland. He spent a part of his life as an inmate of concentration camps. He knew what starvation meant. As an adult he ate whatever was put in front of him. We may draw some conclusion from that, I think.

So next to them I’m some sort of world-class gastronaut, but next to a world-class gastronaut I’m not. I wish I was omnivorous, I really do. I wish I could chuck down barnacles like the Spanish, scoff snails like the French and eat any part of anything like the Chinese. I have tasted sweetbreads. I was at a Hix and my friend ordered them. I thought I should try one. It had been breaded and deep-fried, crunchy on the outside and creamy in the centre. It was lovely, actually. But then I remembered what I was eating and didn’t want another piece. My friend was enjoying the dish and didn’t really want to give me another taste, anyway, so it all worked out.

I once, quite recently, ate gésiers in Bordeaux. Bordeaux is a beautiful city and I would urge you to visit. Gésier is the gizzard of a bird. It’s part of the digestive system. It’s very popular in the west of France, maybe other parts, I don’t know. I’ve never seen gésiers on a Parisian menu. Never seen rôti de veau, either. As I say, those continentals are strict about regionality. But in Aquitaine and the West you often see people with a plate of gésiers in front of them. I told the waitress I’d never eaten it. Oh la la, she tutted and wouldn’t allow this state of affairs to continue. A plate arrived with a bed of bright green lettuce. On top were coin-sized rounds of red/pink animal matter. There it is, in the picture at the top. Gingerly, like a child, I nibbled at one. I have to tell you, gésiers is (are?) delicious. Savoury, salty, meaty, chewy. A thumbs up from me and points on my intrepid traveller gastronaut card, too, I’d say. I cleared the plate. The waitress didn’t add the gésiers to my bill, either. (While working on this piece I discovered the gizzard is eaten in Jewish cuisine, too. My father would often talk about pipik’lach. I never knew what he was going on about. It literally means ‘navels’, but refers to gizzard. A mystery solved).

Chefs can eat anything, even things they don’t like. I’ve watched them pop things in their mouth, things I know they hate – brains, razor clams, jelly babies. They know it won’t kill them. They chew and down it goes. There.

My friend Camilla has the right idea. She has two beautiful, very young children. The oldest, not yet three, has shining white hair like the child Boris would have with an angel. As it happens, Camilla did once meet Boris. She said she’d never fancied anyone so much in her life, so you never know. Now she insists he said it of her, and that does sound more reasonable, but I’m going to stick to my memory of the time. Camilla doesn’t always make sensible choices in the man department. Don’t get me started on that one. Still, she’s a brilliant mother especially in the area that concerns us most; how she feeds her children. Everything is put in front of them; offal and broccoli and those tiny, curly, baby squid that I couldn’t, I just couldn’t and you can’t make me. So they know the taste of everything and are frightened of none of it. She has always let them feed themselves. There’s never any one more for mummy or here’s the airplane flying into the hanger rubbish. They feed themselves until they’re full so there’s no bargaining, no using food as a weapon. These are brilliant gifts to give your children, don’t you think. I think, anyway.

I think ‘gastronaut’ was coined, brilliantly, by Keith Floyd in the eighties, but please tell me if I’m wrong. I think he meant a mix of omnivore and gourmet.

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