“Tea is meant to be bitter…”

George-Orwell drinking tea

I know very little about tea, but I admire those who do. I enjoy a cup now and then and have a few favourites—English Breakfast, Genmaicha, Russian Caravan, Earl Grey, Moroccan Mint—but I’m sure I would fail any number of blind tastings.

Twenty years ago, I used to work at a non-profit that participated in projects in Sri Lanka, one of which involved supporting tea-picking women with educational and nutritional programs. So when I think about tea now, there’s sometimes this distant background noise in my brain about the colonial oppression associated with the tea plantations of the British Empire.

But the story of tea is certainly much more than the relatively recent influence of the British. Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It’s been cultivated in one form or another since the prehistory of an area that now includes northeastern India, southwestern China, northern Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

That kind of storied past and current influence inevitably leads to devotion in some.

Not long ago Boing Boing posted a link to an essay by George Orwell entitled A Nice Cup of Tea. Orwell proscribes a list of “eleven outstanding points” for properly enjoying “one of the main stays of civilization.”

According to Wikipedia, “Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid whose consumption is strongly associated with a calm but alert and focused, relatively productive (alpha wave dominant), mental state in humans. This mental state is also common to meditative practice.” Oddly enough, this clinical description echoes Orwell’s thoughts about Tea’s ability to make one “…feel wiser, braver or more optimistic…”—by which he definitely does not mean green tea: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

Despite Orwell’s reluctance to embrace it, I’ve long enjoyed green tea, which I would more closely associate with meditative states. When I went to school in Montreal in the late 80s and early 90s, I used to frequent a cheap restaurant in the basement of an ancient brownstone in Chinatown. The round pink laminate tables had clear plastic covers that the waiters would use patron’s leftover green tea to wash. This charmingly bare bones restaurant was both my first exposure to a lifelong passion for Singapore fried noodles and my first time drinking green tea.

I enjoy it now, as I did then, but sadly not enough to obsess over.

Sadly, because I think obsessive behaviour, in small controlled doses, can help us to—if not master a subject—at least become pleasurably immersed. Malcolm Gladwell’s (admittedly highly controversial) 10,000 hour rule is really only possible, to me, if you have some level of obsession with the topic you apply the time to.

In the world of food and beverages, you can find all types of people who obsess over a particular consumable—and to some degree I share a few of the more common: whiskey, bacon…I don’t know, I have so many…smoked things? And generations of obsessives have helped refine many of these consumables to the level of art.

Last January, Michelle and I went on a short shopping trip to Toronto. It was a bitterly cold  thirty-below* day and we were wandering through Chinatown. We’re both reasonably hardy in cold weather, but we reached a breaking point in the face of a nasty gust of wind and decided to duck into a tea shop. I remember thinking: I’m low on gunpowder, so look around for a bit and then drop a few bucks on a tin, well worth it.

A foot inside the door we were accosted by a tiny yet ferocious Cantonese woman who proceeded to hard sell me on a small box of Jasmine Phoenix Dragon Pearl tea that set me back a—to my rudimentary experience with Chinese tea—staggering $30. At the time it seemed a ridiculous price to pay to warm up for ten minutes, but after trying the tea, I had to concede that it’s pretty damn good. I still have no idea if the price was fair.


I, somewhat reluctantly, admire the obsessiveness that led some ancient tea master to hand roll green tea leaves with blooming jasmine into little fragrant buds that unfurl into an aromatic swirl of foliage in hot water.

An obsessiveness shared in some part by Orwell in his strict dictum on the preparation of a nice cup and, by association, you and me for spending so much time thinking and writing and reading about “simple” foodstuffs.


*Celsius…although at some point I think the different scales merge into absurdity.

“…you feel antsy and weird when you don’t have some…”

Despite being a member of, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” that is the vegan community, Colleen Shea is also the author of the charming Jam and Idleness blog, a friend and fellow book lover.

In the spirit of inclusiveness—and to perhaps balance out my many essays on flank steak—let me please share Colleen’s wonderful personal essay I Was a Salad-Hating Vegan, which is up over at Food Riot.

She manages to compare salad eating to smoking and now I want a cigar…


Update: Colleen has become an official Food Rioter and has posted a hilarious new piece on taking a knife skills class—check back for more of her work in the future.

“…contestants range from the mildly deluded to the clinically insane…”

Complaining that there are no longer educational cooking shows on the Food Network is akin to whining about there being no music videos on MTV these days—a ship that sailed so long ago it’s come back over the horizon at me as an indicator of how old and out of touch I’ve become.

Nevertheless, let me repeat: I’m bone-tired of cooking competition shows. There was a middle-brow, low-def elegance to the PBS how-to shows of the past that I miss. The 21st Century disease that is reality television has so thoroughly infected the Food Network that little actual content can survive on the channel now. Once in a long while a new “personality” emerges that I find amusing or entertaining, but I never actually learn anything from watching the network anymore.

I realize that I can seem naive just for expressing the desire to learn something from watching television food shows, but it can still be a real possibility with some imagination—just apparently not on the Food Network.

In the spirit of that creative exhaustion, let me share with you Andy Greenwald‘s articulate and entertaining dissection of the egregious Food Network Star show at Grantland.

Mr. Greenwald has used a review of the 45 minutes of torture-by-overexposure-to-hyper-neurotic-posers that is Food Network Star to mount a highly cogent take-down of the whole damn network. And let me just slow clap in the back row as it all burns to the ground.

In the wake of Paula Deen’s very public—and seemingly well deserved—pillorying, Andy Greenwald’s excellent and sharply pointed article reminds many of us who spend any time thinking about food, that the Food Network no longer gives a shit about the varied and magnificent world of real gastronomy—if it ever did.

Freemasonry & French Cuisine

square and compass carved in stone

Is there any human endeavour not touched by some conspiracy theory? Apparently not…

Bon Appetit online recently posted an article in a proposed series on the influence of Freemasonry on the world of French cuisine. I have little to no opinion about Freemasonry other than I remember being a little mystified as a child about its importance in one of my favourite movies, The Man Who Would be King. And I guess I’m still surprised that so many American presidents were Freemasons. Google “Freemasonry” yourself and prepare to be inundated with a broad range of complex conspiracy theories about their impact on world events. I should even mention Dan Brown’s best selling oeuvre in this context, but I prefer not to.

I guess I’m a little disappointed. It seems inevitable in hindsight, but I like to think of cooking and eating as relatively benign activities, even though I know that’s willfully naive—just ask Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan or go back and dig out that battered paperback of The Jungle.

But, as I’ve ranted before, it’s just cooking! Psychologists have long studied the human appetite for conspiracy theories and written thousands of words on paranoia and cognitive biases and shortcuts—I get it—but do we have to drip our craziness onto everything?

Any time I’m faced with this kind of truthiness, I think of Umberto Eco’s magnificent and underrated Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s novel of self-fulfilling and Ouroboros-style self-devouring conspiracy theories is the rationalist (and literate) version of Dan Brown’s nonsense:

“The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”
—Chapter 10, Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

Jam, Idleness & Tangerines

...living reflection from a dream...

A friend and former co-worker in the corporate salt mines, Colleen Shea, writes a charming blog about reading and food called Jam and Idleness. She recently revived an interview feature from a previous blog under the new name of Brain/Food and yours truly was interviewed for the inaugural edition.

The bright and witty Colleen sent me a very engaging set of questions via email, to which I responded at some length. Too much length really. But the questions were so good, I had trouble containing my enthusiasm. I often find myself daydreaming about how I’d answer the ten Pivot questions* on Inside the Actor’s Studio, so Colleen’s interview played right into that same intellectual vanity and tendency to soapbox.

I enjoy the Jam and Idleness blend of book and food topics—such naturally related pleasures. It always makes me think of the slow Sunday mornings when I manage to leisurely read over coffee and maybe a croissant at my dining-room table. Although  to be fair, Colleen’s blog is more lively than that prosaic image might imply.

So, go and take a look at my interview, and then please spend some time perusing the marvelous Jam and Idleness.


*For the record: the sound I love is the chunky guitar noise you hear on tracks like Led Zepplin’s In the Evening—it happens around minutes 3:44 and 4:02 of Jimmy’s solo. Although, if I were ever on the show, I would go on to explain that I’m not really a classic rock person per se and that The Clash is my all-time favourite band.

Chris Onstad & Restaurant Reviews

I have been an admirer of Chris Onstad since the day I read The Great Outdoor Fight—his seminal multi-part story in the groundbreaking web comic Achewood—all in one sitting while I should have been working. Achewood’s deceptively simple art is a vehicle for a restlessly imaginative world of talking cats, a meth-addicted squirrel, a sleazy robot, a worldly-wise senior teddy-bear and other assorted characters of mixed reputation.

Achewood’s magical-realism and absurdist plotting are only part of the work’s appeal. For me, the core charm of Achewood lies in Mr. Onstad’s language: a fresh blend of idiosyncratic slang and unusual character-based rhythms. Mr. Onstad is so conversant in each of his characters voices that he has even done a number of separate blogs from their…unique…points of view.

I’m pleased to find that something of this playful approach to language has carried over into Mr. Onstad’s latest ventures into the world of food writing. In addition to becoming the staff restaurant reviewer for The Portland Mercury’s Food & Drink section, Mr. Onstad recently had a wonderful article published in Saveur on dining in the Benelux.

Mr. Onstad’s approach to food writing includes much of the wry humour he brought to Achewood, tempered by the demands of different media. His Saveur article retains some of the ironic detachment of Achewood, while his restaurant reviews hew more closely to a traditional form.

Restaurant reviews are tricky bits of writing. It can be difficult to balance the implied mission of consumer advocate with the inherent desire for a writer to stretch and explore. So far, Mr. Onstad’s reviews have struck that balance with aplomb. He is neither too hard on the restaurants in question, nor too flighty in his prose. His reviews hit what I think is the sweet-spot for this kind of writing: the feeling of actually being in the presence of an intelligent and humourous raconteur, discussing one of the simultaneously prosaic and yet potentially finest experiences available to us all, a good meal.

23 May 2012, 4:43pm


  • Tattooed Chefs and the Cult of Personality

    A quick search and you can find any number of articles about the rising popularity of tattoos among chefs such as these at the Mail Online, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Weekly and the Village Voice—and even a nice profile of Canadian chef-star Chuck Hughes‘ ink.*

    Of course, tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable in all spheres, so it’s not entirely logical for the media to focus so much on the rise in tattooing among cooking professionals, but even a cursory glance at any of the more recent competitive cooking shows and you’ll see everything up to full sleeves on display on any given episode.

    Before I get to why I think this trend is largely a bad thing, let me establish for the record my feelings about tattoos in general: I’m all for them. I have four tattoos myself, of which I am all very proud. Only one could be considered even tangentially related to cooking, an elegantly scripted line in Tibetan Sanskrit of the OM MANE PADME HUM HRI mantra on my forearm; as you can see from this awkwardly taken cell phone photo:

    I say “tangentially related to cooking” for two reasons, first because this mantra can be found just outside the market in Namche Bazar:

    Which, I’m guessing, must be one of the highest places on earth that people have long gathered regularly to buy and sell food—past the altitude sickness barrier and the last stop before Everest Base Camp—the roof of the world.

    And secondly because of how I interpret OM MANE PADME HUM. I first read about the mantra in Peter Matthiessen‘s wonderful book The Snow Leopard during a particularly challenging period in my life. The middle part of the mantra—”the jewel in the heart of the lotus”—is sometimes interpreted to mean that enlightenment (the jewel) can be found in the heart of the cycles of samsara (or the lotus as representing everyday life).

    For me, this tattoo is a reminder to focus on the details of everyday life as clearly as I can. Something I think about most often while I’m cooking. The sometimes long and laborious process of cooking elaborate meals can be a real pleasure for me if I’m in the right head-space. I find chopping to be particularly mind-clearing and peaceful—a fulfilling craft.

    All of which is to reinforce the point that I am, on the whole, pro-tattoo. In fact, I think many of the tattoo artists—and let me be clear, tattooing is an art—who inked this vast cohort of superstar chef wannabes are far more creative than the cooks themselves.

    And this is where I get down to my real argument here: the cult of celebrity that has built up around the profession of cooking is a largely negative thing in my mind.

    Post Bourdain, more-and-more professional cooks see themselves as pirates, which goes some way towards explaining the proliferation of tattoos among chefs. I’ve had several friends in the industry and I know there is rampant egotism and bad behaviour in professional kitchens all over the world. But let’s step back for a second and remember that they are just cooking.

    Can a cook be an artist? Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London often comes to mind when I think about this question:

    “Undoubtedly the most workmanlike class, and the least servile, are the cooks. They do not earn quite so much as waiters, but their prestige is higher and their employment steadier. The cook does not look upon himself as a servant, but as a skilled workman; he is generally called ‘UN OUVRIER’ which a waiter never is. He knows his power—knows that he alone makes or mars a restaurant, and that if he is five minutes late everything is out of gear. He despises the whole non-cooking staff, and makes it a point of honour to insult everyone below the head waiter. And he takes a genuine artistic pride in his work, which demands very great skill. It is not the cooking that is so difficult, but the doing everything to time. Between breakfast and luncheon the head cook at the Hotel X would receive orders for several hundred dishes, all to be served at different times; he cooked few of them himself, but he gave instructions about all of them and inspected them before they were sent up. His memory was wonderful. The vouchers were pinned on a board, but the head cook seldom looked at them; everything was stored in his mind, and exactly to the minute, as each dish fell due, he would call out, ‘FAITES MARCHER UNE COTELETTE DE VEAU’ (or whatever it was) unfailingly. He was an insufferable bully, but he was also an artist. It is for their punctuality, and not for any superiority in technique, that men cooks are preferred to women. “

    Orwell used the word ‘artist’ but that classic Orwellian mode of trying to be an open minded socialist, while simultaneously reinforcing his class prejudices, allowed him to compliment cooks only so much. Orwell writes ‘artist’ but it reads like ‘craftsman’—which I think is closer to the truth.

    A cook can be an artist as Heston and Ferran have conclusively proven, but, of the world’s chefs, how many are at their level? I would think 1% is probably generous. So then, what are the vast majority of chefs? They are excellent craftsmen. I don’t want to diminish what I see as the very valuable contribution of the craft of cooking, but the current trend towards celebrity chef worship is nothing but the cult of personality repeated ad nauseam.

    And it’s this trend of chef worship that has reduced the cooking channels on television to endless variations on the Iron Chef competitive theme. I love cooking, but I’m tired of these pissing contests. I’d rather watch a cooking (or better yet, a cooking and travel) show on PBS where I might actually learn something.

    Many times civilians I have met who find out that I cook a lot, and reasonably well, have called me a ‘chef.’ In the past, I have always quickly corrected them: no, I’m just a cook, chef is a title you have to earn. I used to correct people out of a sense of respect for the difficult job of being a chef, now it’s sometimes because I don’t want to be associated with a bunch of egotistical loudmouths.

    Coda: Regardless of your feelings about tattoos or celebrity chefs, though, I think we can all at least agree that this song holds up better than expected.


    *Honestly, I’m a fan of Chuck. He still has an actual cooking show—with very good background music choices—and is proudly Québécois in all the least irritating ways. I can’t help but like him.

    Lucky Peach and Food Art

    Last week while killing time in my local big-box bookstore I stumbled upon issues two and three of Lucky Peach, a food writing magazine created by Momofuku’s David Chang and Peter Meehan under the auspices of McSweeney’s.

    The theme of the issue above is “sweet spot”—meaning, variously, the point at which food is ready (e.g. ripened or fermented or aged), the point at which a dish is done or the peak of a chef’s career—and this magazine definitely hits my sweet spot. It flirts with a too-hip attitude, but manages to negotiate a reasonable line between being irreverent and informative.

    Lucky Peach wants you to think it’s punk—and printing a fantasia/meditation on LSD and David Chang’s obsession with the movie Road House, written by Anthony Bourdain, is a kind of instant cred—but any magazine prominently featuring an article by Harold McGee is really the brainchild of food nerds. And I mean that as a compliment. Give me Kimball over Ramsay any time.

    One of my favourite things about Lucky Peach are the copious illustrations. The editors favour art that’s often challenging to the point of confrontational and an overall aesthetic that matches the detailed but unpretentious prose style. I was particularly impressed with the work of Vanessa Davis, who opens the second issue of Lucky Peach with a fantastic two-page comic of corrections from the previous issue.

    It brought to mind a similar strip I had read recently by the legendary New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast—a page of comics showing her head-to-head comparison of two cookbooks.

    Click to read full review

    Both Ms Davis and Ms Chast have a similar seemingly casual but detailed method in these strips. Much like the prose in Lucky Peach: working hard to appear easygoing. It’s a winning style that suits food topics.

    Many cookbooks with hand drawn illustrations seem to follow a similar aesthetic, influenced by the sketches a chef or food experimenter might include in a notebook. Food is, in a large part, a visual medium as any of the thousands of food-porn-style cookbooks demonstrates. But rarely do artists attempt elaborately realistic renderings of food or recipes unless they are working under some kind of conceptual approach.

    The art of Lucky Peach encapsulates the best parts of the magazine’s overall aesthetic: an unpretentious but boundlessly passionate love of the world of food.

    Some Thoughts on Martha Stewart

    If you are interested at all in crafts, cooking, gardening or hosting, you will eventually have someone either compare you to, or ask you your feelings about, Martha Stewart.

    When I was younger, Martha Stewart was revered as being the ultimate home-maker. She would serve the most wonderful meals on a beautifully-set table and be gratious while she put time and attention into unimaginable details. She shared stories of finding the most charming little knickknacks, service pieces, spices, preserves, and flavourings that seemed to always come from some exclusive shop in New York or some remote town in the south of France . What didn’t come from there was somehow grown in her back yard. Her taste for refinement in homemaking was remarkable.

    What built Martha Stewart’s name and what anyone meant in the craft world that said, “That’s so Martha” was an aim towards perfection. If a good baker would bake you a tasty cake, a ‘Martha’ baker would bake you a cake in a century-old bowl, mixed with a hand-carved spoon from New England driftwood and the cake would include eggs from her unique breeds of hens in her back yard. There wouldn’t just be any old icing on top, either. There would be the most luscious icing made from hand-churned butter and with rich cocoa from a shop in New York that only supplies authentic Dutch cocoa from a company that has been made by the same family for over 100 years. The cake would be on an antique cake stand from a shop she passes by when she goes to town on her horse and the cake would be topped with adorable creatures shaped out of some special Spanish marzipan, which is softer than the German kind and has a hint of rosewater to distinguish it from the classic French marzipan. Quite simply, she was  the ultimate when it came to home-based projects like baking, gardening, and crafts.

    This model, caterer, mother, animal-lover and writer showed how to have the absolutly perfect item for your occasion.  At one of the many used book sales I have been to with Andrew, I came across Martha Stewart’s Christmas book. It was her 8th book, which is impressive for most authors but since she has published dozens since, it is considered one of her earliest.

    While styles and trends change, I still find I can pull inspiration from the projects Martha Stewart puts out in all of her publications. As a paperphile, I was particularly taken with her guilded wrapping paper project, which I hope to try later this year.

    Click to enlarge

    This picture took me back to when I was a pre-teen and hand-drew my wrapping paper one year for my family. It took time but it was a good project to do. Tip: If you are going to make your own wrapping paper, you will want to avoid wasting time on sections you’ll cut away or you won’t see once the item is wrapped. Pre-wrap your gift with the paper (or with newsprint as a template and mark with a pencil or with light folds where you will have an exposed surface and be sure to put your most interesting sections there.

    As you can tell by even this one simple project, when you looked to Martha for inspiration, you were only going to take about 20% of her skills and resources for your project and that was on a good day. Many women somehow found that oppressive or stressful. They felt they HAD to be Martha and either resented their own efforts for not living up to the perfection laid out as an example or else they used Martha’s attention to detail as an excuse to write her off as an unrealistic model and opted out of any attempts. I don’t understand that. I guess I am content with my own limitations and feel perfectly happy to learn a new technique from her but make an empirically lesser product. Seriously, a product with a strong nod to Martha Stewart’s skills is still a solid project. Besides – where is the room for fun? I mean, do I NEED to have the very best home-painted wrapping paper? Certainly not. Having any such thing (if it turns out not to be too ugly) is enjoyable in and of itself.

    In recent years, marketing groups have knocked the pervasiveness of the Martha Stewart brand. Sure, she is everywhere but when when the brand continues to produce items that are recognizably of Martha Stewart quality, I hardly see how that is a true business criticism. For me, the only time I don’t care for the new Martha (read: the post-incarceration Martha) is when she puts out items to be more accessible to the average  home cook/crafter. I forgive Martha Stewart for having to reinvigorate her company but I will always prefer the unattainable perfection set out by her in her more challenging books and articles. I like knowing full well I will never duplicate her efforts because it gives me something to strive for, rather than to easily master and move on. That said, it is super satisfying to try something that looks ridiculously fussy and turn out a version that ain’t too shabby.

    No one but Martha can truly be Martha and so I take any reference or comparison to her as a  great compliment. I am happy to take bits and pieces of her work and try to apply them to my own projects at home.

    Fictional Gastronomy: Paprika Chicken

    As a teenager, I acquired an over-sized, illustrated paperback copy of The Annotated Dracula—a reproduction of the second printing (from microfilm kept at Yale) of Bram Stoker’s novel, along with copious notes by Leonard Wolf from 1975. I still have this now well-worn and well-traveled copy:

    I had read Dracula once previously at the age of 10 or 11. But this deluxe version was my first experience with annotations. I remember distinctly having never before seen a book with so much additional content and commentary. I clearly remember being amazed that on the first page there was a footnote to not one, but two versions of a recipe for the “paprika hendl” chicken dish that protagonist Jonathan Harker enjoys on his journey through the Carpathians to Dracula’s castle. Harker makes a note to himself to get the recipe for his beloved Mina. I also remember annoying my sister with this discovery.

    “This book has notes for everything! See…?”
    “There’s even recipes for what Jonathan eats! Check it out…”
    “Mm-hm. Neat.”

    My sister is six years older than I am and is now a respected professor of English at a University in New Brunswick. She was probably already familiar with the concept of annotations.

    The original passage made an impression as well. It seemed such a natural note to put in a journal. Food had always been very important to me and Stoker’s attention to this detail made Harker seem more real. It seems obvious to anyone who is reasonably well read that including details of everyday life in fiction—like enjoying a good meal—help to make characters seem more substantial. But to the teenage me, the annotations of recipes in a book I’d already read, made this literary device visible to me for the first time.

    “I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

    I think the combination of novelty and epiphany helped to secure a place in my memory for both the passage and the annotations. When I first left home for university, I dragged this book with me. Leafing through it one lazy Sunday afternoon it occurred to me that I could actually attempt to make the recipe.

    I had started really cooking several years earlier. When I was in high school, my mother went back to work. To try and help out, I began preparing family meals from time to time. Nothing too difficult, but I had successfully attempted a handful of new recipes—beef carbonnade for example.

    Re-reading the recipe for paprika hendl for the nth time in a dingy third-floor apartment in Montreal, it came to me that I could recreate this thing that Jonathan Harker had eaten in my imagination, in the real world, by my own hands.

    Click to enlarge

    “I’m running out to buy the stuff to make paprika chicken, like in Dracula! Are you home for dinner?”
    “Okay, be right back, it’s going to be great!”

    It never occurred to me until much later that my roommate Dave* didn’t even comment on the mention of Dracula, yet I had never shown him the recipe (or even the book) before.

    At the grocery store, I experienced some mild confusion: “What’s sweet paprika? How is it different than just…paprika?” But, youth is a shield from some anxieties. And, to be fair, I have never worried much about experimenting on people who sit down to a meal I’ve prepared—the rewards of a successful risk always outweigh the negatives in my mind.

    Once back at the apartment, I experienced another brief moment of hesitation standing in the narrow doorway of a fairly dirty galley kitchen, but the spirit of culinary adventure gripped me and I got down to work.

    I quickly realized I was right to hesitate.

    What the hell was I going to use to cut up a whole chicken? The small assortment of crappy serrated and badly used kitchen knives banging around a junk-filled draw seemed ill-suited to the task. I settled on a Swedish filleting knife that my father had given me for camping.** A bloody struggle ensued but I ended up with a plate full of chicken parts that more-or-less resembled what I would get in a bucket of KFC.

    Taking “2 tablespoons fat” a little too literally, I proceeded to sautée onions in lard and then carried-on through the remaining steps without much difficulty. Not having a sieve, blender or food mill, I was left with a chunky, reddish, cream-sauce covered plate of chicken, shiny with grease. I also had no idea what “flour dumplings” meant, and so served the chicken with mediocre white bread on the side.

    Unexpectedly, the “hot greasy gravy” that John Paget describes was transcendent. It was a ridiculously rich dish, but somehow more than the sum of its ingredients. In fact, looking back now, I’m not sure I remember if the chicken itself was really any good, but the sauce was amazing. I don’t think that at home I had had much experience with the type of sauce that results from cooking in liquids with meat still on the bone. There was a depth of flavour in this humble paprika chicken that was new to me and inspiring.

    If I was to make paprika hendl today—and I might for nostalgia’s sake—I would spend longer browning the onions to add even a little more depth of flavour. I would also mix the sweet paprika with up to half smoked paprika and maybe even some hot. And, most importantly, I would look for opportunities in the process to skim some of the fat.

    And I now know what spätzle are, and would definitely make them to serve alongside.


    Paprika Chicken (The Art of Viennese Cooking, Marcia Colman Morton, 1963)

    1 young fowl, about 4 pounds
    2 tablespoons fat
    2 large onions, chopped
    2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika
    1/2 cup of tomato juice
    2 tablespoons flour
    1/2 cup sour cream

    Cut chicken into serving pieces, and salt. Lightly brown onions in fat. Blend in half the paprika. Add tomato juice and chicken. Simmer, covered, 1 hour or until tender. Remove chicken. Add remaining paprika to sauce, then add the flour beaten into sour cream. Simmer, stirring, 5 minutes or until well blended. Put sauce through sieve, food mill or blender. Heat chicken and puréed sauce together over low flame. Arrange chicken on warm platter. Pour half the sauce over; pass the rest separately in a sauce boat. Serve with Flour Dumplings.  6 servings


    *Dave—despite being one of the best artists I’d ever known—was one of these people who used to claim that food didn’t matter to him at all—that the quality of what you ate was immaterial. “It’s just fuel,” he used to say. He would make empty margarine tubs full of white rice with salt & pepper on it and take that to school with him for lunch. This behaviour enraged me.

    One day, I spent all afternoon cooking a lavish four-course dinner in the apartment. I put all the food out and sat down to eat it myself. Dave came out of his room like one of those cartoon animals floating on the air, sniffing. He couldn’t believe I wasn’t serving a dinner party or something. He asked me if he could have some and I said only if he admitted that the quality of the food one ate mattered. He stuck to his convictions for all of about five minutes before sitting down to eat—rapturously.

    **I wish I still had this knife and had kept it specifically for filleting fish only. It was always razor-sharp and cleaned fish like magic. As as young man I underestimated the value of good tools and their maintenance.