Saturday, December 14, 2013

Food of 2013

I travelled a lot this year, often for promotional reasons, and I also ate a lot. Here are my favourite restaurants in chronological order (limited to one per city, and leaving out cities where I didn't eat anything notable). This may seem like the document of a life of excess, but please note that only two of these meals cost more than £10.

Paris: L'Office
This year I realised that I tend to like bars and restaurants in foreign countries in proportion to how much they feel like bars and restaurants in New York. Then at the end of my trip I touch down at JFK and breathe a sigh of relief because most bars and restaurants in New York feel 100% like bars and restaurants in New York. Yes, I am a pitiful tourist, hostile to new experiences. Anyway, you know how a low-end washing machine has more processing power than the mainframe used to launch Apollo 11? Sometimes in New York it feels like they've put more thought into the house bread alone -– more agonising debate, more Hegelian synthesis, more statistical meta-study – than they would have put into the entire steak dinner for two back in the old days. And they will not let you forget it. To be honest, I love that about the place, but I also enjoyed the unfussy, down-to-earth quality of the better restaurants I went to during my two months in Paris. And my favourite was this restaurant near the Gare du Nord, which had a terrific 33€ set menu. I can't remember what I ate.

My spirit shall find eternal happiness in the arms of my lord, my saviour, the first and last, the beginning and the end – Gotham. I have eaten so much good food in this city. And of all the restaurants here, my most beloved is the northwest Chinese fast food chain Xi'an Famous Foods, which has six locations plus a new sister place called Bi'ang. When I was living in a sublet in East Williamsburg for a month in March, I was only ten minutes' walk from the Greenpoint branch, so I ate there several times a week – mostly for $3.50 cumin lamb burgers and $6.50 hand-ripped pork noodles. No, it's not the most refined cooking I've ever eaten, but no other restaurant in the world has come close to giving me, in aggregate, so much joy. Plus, there's the adorable earnestness of the warning on their menus: 'Food tastes best when fresh from the kitchen. When hot noodles cool down, they get bloated, mushy, and oily. If you must take your noodles to go, please at least try the noodles in the store or right out of the to-go containers when it's handed to you, so you can get the best possible Xi'an Famous Foods experience.'

Quemado, New Mexico: nameless barbecue truck
Quemado has a population of about 250. The general store sells souvenir T-shirts that make fun of how sleepy it is. We camped nearby only because Quemado is where the Dia Foundation pick you up to take you to the Lightning Field. And yet, bafflingly, this town is a bit of a food mecca. I had marvellous burgers in two different diners here, plus there's a third which I didn't visit but which is apparently just as good. Above all, we got some of the best barbecue I've ever tasted from a truck parked on Main Street – on the Land Art Road Trip we ate a lot of brisket and ribs, but these won easily. I can't find any reference to the truck on the internet, so I don't know anything more about it. Maybe it was a dream? I realised recently that you're most likely to lose yourself in a meal – really abandon your faculties – when you have to pick up the food with your hands and bring it right up to your face to gnaw on it. If it's good enough, you close your eyes and forget where you are, like a meaty tongue kiss.

Roswell, New Mexico: Henry's Tacos
These were probably the best tacos I've ever eaten. I had three, then went back for two more. My friend only had one. Many people on the trip didn't have any, and never will. We are playthings of an unfeeling universe.

London: Wild Honey
After spending nearly a year away from the city in 2011-12, it was a real shock to come back and find that from nearly anywhere in south London you could now look up at the Shard like a shiv in the gut of the sky. But compared to that, the hyperaccelerated maturation of London restaurant culture in my absence has been as disorienting as about a dozen Shards. Everything's changed! You can find a really good meal pretty easily now! (At least if you're willing to get on the Tube; we're still not at the New York stage where you can be confident of finding one within walking distance in almost any neighbourhood.) For all that, though, the best meal I had in London this year was at a restaurant that opened in 2006. I know 2006 doesn't seem like that long ago, but it is. Just cast your mind back – in 2006, we were all still going to Pizza Express, and we were grateful for it. Order the smoked eel here. Also, try to arrange for someone else to pay.

You hear so much about how Anglo-Indian food isn't real Indian food, a lot of the best 'Indian' restaurants in London are actually Pakistani, real Indian food is a lot of vegetables and not much meat etc. that I basically arrived in Delhi expecting to eat nothing but subtle chickpea curries for a week. Sheer blithering ignorance, of course: it's not as if Anglo-Indian food was invented in the 1970s by bureaucrats at the Meat and Livestock Commission. It has a historical basis, and at least some of that, I now know, is Mughlai cuisine. At Karim Hotel I devoured the tandoori chicken like a starving hyena, and although the intensity of the experience must be attributed at least in part to the panic hormones still effervescing in my bloodstream after a high-speed tuktuk ride through Old Delhi at night, I can nevertheless assert objectively that this is one of the world's great meals.

Kathmandu: Newa De Cafe
In Kathmandu Airport there are signs on the walls with facts about the country, one of which observes that the nation of Nepal has never been conquered. When I mentioned this to one of the Nepali literati I met in Kathmandu, he told me that although Nepal has never been conquered from the outside, it's certainly been conquered from the inside: in the eighteenth century, the Ghorkas crushed the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley. I'd never even heard of the Newari people, let alone Newari food, and between you and me my first thought was that 'the Newari' sound like one of the alien races from Babylon 5. Anyway, it's apparently a 'purer' Nepali cuisine, with fewer Indian influences. I can't describe the chicken and buffalo dishes I ate at Newa de Cafe in any detail – they were strikingly distinct from any other ethnic cuisine I've ever tried – but it was all so good I went three times in three days. This stuff should be ubiquitous. Every market town in England should have several mediocre Newari takeaways.

Seoul: one of the restaurants on Gul Bossam Alley
The Seoul Food Tour section of the Visit Seoul website has twenty sections, hundreds of photos, and its own cartoon mascot. It seems to assume that you, the foreign tourist, are not just interested in Korean food but pathologically obsessed by it. All tourist information websites should be like this. The truth is, before I went to Seoul, I never thought of myself as much of a fan of Korean food, but I now know that Seoul is one of the greatest dining destinations in the world. The highlights were the various 'food alleys', which have a dozen or more small restaurants all specialising in the same dish. Almost every one of them is able to display stills from a TV news feature on its cooks, because the Koreans, unlike the British, think that cheap food prepared by unassuming professionals is important enough to be worth celebrating. I'd only heard of bossam because it was the original, failed premise for David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village. You wrap up steamed pork, raw oysters and kimchi inside a lettuce leaf, but before you take a bite it's important to put on a protective helmet – you're probably going to have some sort of grand mal seizure because it's so delicious and you might bang your head on something.

Bangkok: open-air buffet around the corner from Chatuchak Market
I love Thai food more than any other cuisine, and I'm happy to trek all the way across London or New York or LA because I've heard a new Isan place has opened under a pub or in a strip mall, but I'd never actually been to Thailand. So after all these years to find myself eating real Thai food in Bangkok was, inevitably, both climax and anticlimax. I was like Jessica Chastain's character at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, when she's spent her entire career tracking Osama Bin Laden from a distance and then she finally gets to touch his corpse and she's so overwhelmed she doesn't know what to feel. Is that a strange analogy? My point is, I've been to the Heron in London and Ayada in Queens and Pok Pok in Brooklyn and Jitlada in LA. I've methodically eaten my through the best (non-fancy) Thai food you can eat in the western hemisphere. I wanted the food in Bangkok to be ten times better than that but most of the time it was only a bit better (which is either an indictment of my dining choices there, or, more optimistically, a tribute to the abilities of the top 0.1% of Thai cooks in the US and the UK). However, there were exceptions: one was the unidentifiable peppercorn-heavy curry I ate on my first morning there, which literally made me weep with happiness, and I wasn't even hungover.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Some personal miscellany:

1. I was recently one of the participants in the inaugural year of Gerson Zevi's Land Art Road Trip. We spent a month travelling through Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, staying in motels and campsites, looking at art. There are photos here and here. Some of the unsigned text on the latter blog is by me and some of it is by the White Review's Ben Eastham.

2. Since then, I've appeared as a Granta BoYBN author at Ncell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, Hay Festival Dhaka, and the Non/Fiction Book Fair in Moscow. I had a great time throughout, so thank you to all my hosts, especially the guys from Lalit magazine for introducing me to Newari food.

3. My contribution to Friday Firsts, the Radio 4 fiction series for authors who've never written for radio before, will be broadcast on January 3rd. It's called "Finding Your Voice" and it's almost gothic and lurid as another story of mine, "Light and Space", which will be published in the Guardian Weekend magazine's Christmas ghost story special on December 21st.

4. One of my favourite bars in New York, Elsa on East 3rd Street, has a new cocktail on its winter menu named after my book Boxer, Beetle, made with blackberry bourbon, rose hip grenadine, lemon, allspice dram and rosemary. If you're in the city over the next few months, go and try it.

5. I am now back in Brooklyn: below, my flatmate's new adoption cat, who because of her colour is only rarely visible against my outfits.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Rauschenberg has a show in Florence in 1953:

"One of the more eminent Florentine art historians wrote a long review of it, covering half a page in a local newspaper... His conclusion, after a good deal of scathing prose, was that the works of Robert Rauschenberg should be thrown into the Arno. Rauschenberg had the review translated. His first thought about its conclusion, he claims, was 'What a wonderful idea!' He was leaving Europe in a few days, and he had packing problems. Putting aside five or six of the objects to carry back with him on the plane, he bundled up the rest and, early on the Sunday morning before his Monday departure, he went walking along the Arno until he came to a fairly secluded spot where the water looked sufficiently deep – he didn't want somebody fishing the objects out later; it was important to him that they 'really disappear.' Nobody saw him throw them in, and not one of them has ever been seen since. Rauschenberg insists that he was not making a Dadaist gesture, but he did say that he thought it might make the eminent art critic feel uneasy if he knew about it, so before leaving the next day he wrote him a note saying, in effect, 'I took your advice.'"

from Off The Wall by Calvin Tomkins

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Let us compare the following events: 1. A tsar gives an eagle to a hero. The eagle carries the hero away to another kingdom. 2. An old man gives Súcenko a horse. The horse carries Súcenko away to another kingdom. 3. A sorcerer gives Iván a little boat. The boat takes Iván to another kingdom. 4. A princess gives Iván a ring. Young men appearing from out of the ring carry Iván away into another kingdom, and so forth. Both constants and variables are present in the preceding instances. The names of the dramatis personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change."
Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp

"When the banks where the water breaks on sonorous bridges
Are covered once again with the murmuring reeds...
When the Seine flows on over obstacles of stone,
Eroding some old dome which has tumbled into its stream"
– "Before the Arc de Triomphe" by Victor Hugo

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"In 1925, Dr. Samuel Sheppard, at the time an emulsion scientist working for Kodak, traced impurities in photographic gelatin back to the particularities of a cow's diet. Sheppard discovered that cattle who had eaten mustard seed yielded better film speeds, because a sulfuric substance in mustard oil accentuated the light sensitivity of silver halide crystals suspended in an emulsion. Sheppard's findings suggested that the failure of Eastman's plates in 1882 had been due not to the presence of an impurity in the gelatin but rather to the absence of an impurity: mustard seed had been missing in the diets of the animals from which gelatin was rendered. The head of Kodak's research laboratory, Dr. C.E. Kenneth Mees, later recounted Sheppard's emulsion breakthrough to a lecture audience: 'Twenty years ago we found out that if cows didn't like mustard there wouldn't be any movies at all.'"

from Animal Capital by Nicole Shukin

Monday, April 15, 2013

(Note: I am writing this post on Monday afternoon and scheduling it to go up later this evening – I am not blogging from the Granta party!)

I'm very pleased to announce that I've been named one of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists.

If you're in the UK, my second novel The Teleportation Accident, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was published in paperback last week by Sceptre.

If you're in the US, the book was recently published in hardback by Bloomsbury.

Here is a full list of my appearances over the next few weeks, many of them related to the Granta list. Click to see the whole poster.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

'Freud liked to associate the system-building of paranoia with philosophy: "a paranoiac delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system," he writes in Totem and Taboo (1913). Did he sense that the analogy might run the other way too? Might the systematizing of madness in psychoanalysis be a defense against madness? There is a paranoid dimension in much postwar French philosophy as well – the alienation of the gaze in Sartre and Lacan, the power of surveillance in Foucault, and so on but – but the stake is different. As suggested above, perhaps the very critique of the subject in such philosophy is also a secret mission to rescue it. As Leo Bersani comments: "In paranoia, the primary function of the enemy is to provide a definition of the real that make paranoia necessary. We must therefore begin to suspect the paranoid structure itself as a device by which consciousness maintains the polarity of self and non self, thus preserving the concept of identity."'

from 'Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill' by Hal Foster

Monday, March 11, 2013

"'I show my models deprived of their airs and graces, reduced to the level of animals cleaning themselves." – Degas

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and son on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur's final race, Cleopatra's naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next." – Raúl Ruiz

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In December I went to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria to write about it for the new issue of AnOther Magazine, out today.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"By 1918, the French were trying large-scale visual deception, camouflage par faux-objectifs. Giant models of the Gare de l’Est railway station, together with fake boulevards and avenues made of wood and canvas, were set up in fields north-west of the city, with strings of lights that stayed on when Paris blacked out its street lights. But the British Royal Engineers remained sceptical of these kinds of objectifs simulés as antidotes to air raids. When enthusiastic amateurs wrote suggesting ‘the erection of a replica of London at some little distance in the country, meanwhile covering the real London with imitation fields’, the ideas were (as a witty letter to The Times by Colonel J. P. Rhodes pointed out) ‘received with reverence’, but ‘reluctantly discarded as unsuited to this imperfect world’."

from Churchill's Wizards by Nicholas Rankin

Friday, February 08, 2013

"It has sometimes been said that European society is the only one which has produced anthropologists, and that therein lies its greatness. Anthropologists may wish to deny it other forms of superiority, but they must respect this one, since without it they themselves would not exist. Actually, one could claim exactly the opposite: Western Europe may have produced anthropologists precisely because it was a prey to strong feelings of remorse, which forced it to compare its image with those of different societies in the hope that they would show the same defects or would help to explain how its own defects had developed within it."

from Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Gossip, says Proust in Sodom and Gomorrah, 'prevents the mind from falling asleep over the factitious view which it has of what it imagines things to be and which is actually no more than their outward appearance. It turns this appearance inside out with the magic dexterity of an idealist philosopher and rapidly presents to our gaze an unsuspected corner of the reverse side of the fabric.' And as this implies, In Search of Lost Time is deeply concerned with epistemology – almost everyone is confidently wrong about almost everything almost all the time. But I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the fourth volume of the novel also contains an interesting example of what analytic philosophers call a Gettier Case?

Although the character of the Baron de Charlus is indeed a gay man, 'if in the world of painters and actors M. de Charlus had such a bad reputation, this was due to their confusing him with a Comte Leblois de Charlus who was not even related to him (or, if so, the connexion was extremely remote), and who had been arrested, possibly by mistake, in the course of a notorious police raid. In short, all the stories related of our M. de Charlus referred to the other. Many professionals swore that they had had relations with M. de Charlus, and did so in good faith, believing that the false M. de Charlus was the true one, the false one possibly encouraging, partly from an affectation of nobility, partly to conceal his vice, a confusion which was for a long time prejudicial to the real one (the Baron we know), and afterwards, when he had begun to go down the hill, became a convenience, for it enabled him likewise to say: "It isn’t me." And in the present instance it was not him to whom the rumours referred.'

Do these people – the 'professionals' – know that the Baron de Charlus (as opposed to Comte de Leblois Charlus) is gay?

For a long time philosophers tended to agree, following Plato's Theaetetus, that you can be said to know a fact if and only if you have a true and justified belief in that fact. The professionals' belief that the Baron de Charlus is gay is, first of all, true, since the Baron de Charlus is indeed gay; and, second, justified, since if you hear about a certain M. de Charlus getting caught in a notorious police raid, and you have no reason to think there exists any other M. de Charlus than the Baron de Charlus, that is, by any practical standard, evidence enough to conclude that the Baron de Charlus is gay.

So the professionals have a true and justified belief that the Baron de Charlus is gay. And yet it doesn't seem to us that they really know that the Baron de Charlus is gay, since all their 'evidence' refers to a totally different guy (Comte Leblois de Charlus). Where does that leave our definition of knowledge?

Cases like these are called Gettier Cases because they were formalised in 1963 by the American philosopher Edmund Gettier in a paper called 'Is True Justified Belief Knowledge?' When I was studying philosophy at university, we were told the following story. Gettier was on the point of losing his teaching job at Wayne State University because he'd never bothered to publish any research. This was pointed out to him and he responded, more or less, 'Oh, all right then, I'll throw something together over the weekend.' The resulting essay, only three pages long, demolished an epistemological dogma that had stood for thousands of years and became one of the most famous and influential philosophical papers of the twentieth century. Knowing that his job was now secure forever, Gettier never published anything again.

The truth is presumably a bit less satisfying. (For one thing, whatever I may have said up there about how 'philosophers tended to agree, following Plato's Theaetetus', there's some debate over whether anyone except first-term undergraduates has ever genuinely taken knowledge to be as simple as justified true belief. 'It isn't easy to find many really explicit statements of a JTB analysis of knowledge prior to Gettier,' writes Alvin Plantinga. 'It is almost as if a distinguished critic created a tradition in the very act of destroying it.') Regardless, to me, the myth presents Gettier as a very Proustian character. From Sodom and Gomorrah again, only a few pages earlier:

Mme. Verdurin 'was convinced that [Ski] would have developed that aptitude into talent if he had been less indolent. This indolence seemed to the Mistress to be actually an additional gift, being the opposite of hard work which she regarded as the lot of people devoid of genius.'

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I am living in Belleville at the moment.

Saul Bellow arriving in Paris in 1947:

"The Guggenheim Foundation had given me a fellowship and I was prepared to take part in the great revival when and if it began. Like the rest of the American contingent I had brought my illusions with me but I like to think that I was also skeptical (perhaps the most tenacious of my illusions). I was not going to sit at the feet of Gertrude Stein. I had no notions about the Ritz Bar. I would not be boxing with Ezra Pound, as Hemingway had done, nor writing in bistros while waiters brought oysters and wine. Hemingway the writer I admired without limits, Hemingway the figure was to my mind the quintessential tourist, the one who believed that he alone was the American whom Europeans took to their hearts as one of their own. In simple truth, the Jazz Age Paris of American legend had no charms for me, and I had my reservations also about the Paris of Henry James - bear in mind the unnatural squawking of East Side Jews as James described it in The American Scene. You wouldn't expect a relative of those barbarous East Siders to be drawn to the world of Mme. de Vionnet, which had in any case vanished long ago."

Christopher Hitchens makes the connection again in his essay on Bellow's Augie March:

"Barely a half-century before The Adventures of Augie March was published, Henry James had returned to New York from Europe and found its new character unsettling in the extreme. In The American Scene, published in 1907, he registered the revulsion he imagined “any sensitive citizen” might feel, after visiting Ellis Island, at having “to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien. ”On the Lower East Side, James discerned the “hard glitter of Israel.” In east-side cafés, he found himself in “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” And he asked himself: “Who can ever tell, moreover, in any conditions and in presence of any apparent anomaly, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be ‘up to’?” The Master was by no means alone in expressing sentiments and sensitivities of this kind. With The Adventures of Augie March, and its bold initial annexation of the brave name of “American,” his descendants got the answer to the question about what that genius was “up to.”"