Breakfast in Bedlam

Asylum inmates of yesteryear were none too crazy about the food served them
Asylum inmates of yesteryear were none too crazy about the food served them What did the insane eat? In Bram Stoker's Dracula we find the lunatic Renfield dining on flies and spiders. Ken Kesey describes attendants bringing "identical trays of muddy-looking food" to asylum patients in his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And in her memoir of her time in a psychiatric ward, Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen recalls "cutting old tough beef with a plastic knife, then scooping it onto a plastic fork." (more…) Read More...

Digestive Track

Meals on the go are good in theory
"A travelling incarceration. Immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by. What is happening? Nothing is moving inside or outside the train. "The unchanging traveller is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated in the grid of the railway car, which is a perfect actualization of the rational utopia. Control and food move from pigeonhole to pigeonhole: 'Tickets, please ...' 'Sandwiches? Beer? Coffee? ...' Only the restrooms offer an escape from the closed system. They are a lovers' phantasm, a way out for the ill, an escapade for children ('Wee-wee!') -- a little space of irrationality, like love affairs and sewers in the Utopias of earlier times."--Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980) Read More...

A Short History of the Dining Room (Part 2)

The turn of the last century saw the dining room go from a haven in a heartless world to a fueling station for factory work
The turn of the last century saw the dining room go from a haven in a heartless world to a fueling station for factory work To read part 1, click here. One summer day in 1894 Walter Post took out a line of credit. The Northern Pacific railroad clerk wanted to spruce up the six-room house he shared with his young wife, Ulilla (neé Carl and known fondly as “Lillie”). To Schuneman and Evans, the department store extending him the loan, he pledged repayment in 60 days’ time. (more…) Read More...

Lost in the Supermarket

In store, circular
"I was let off near a supermarket. It was dark. I was standing comfortably enough, looking at the neon lights, but I needed a direction, the hint of some discernible habit, a movement of some kind. A place to stand but at the same time to appear busy. I have no memories, only vague symbols of separations: an overturned kitchen table, a ripped bed sheet, a broken battleship abandoned at the bottom of a bathtub. I went into the supermarket. The aisles were crowded with evening shoppers. There was Muzak. I slid into the warm colors and the clicks of the cash registers. I tried to remember near the frozen foods, I am trying to remember, what it was I had to remember, but I had forgotten what I had gone in for, what it is exactly I have to… Read More...

A Short History of the Dining Room (Part 1)

As more people found a place at the table, the concern became that of finding a place for the table
As more people found a place at the table, the concern became that of finding a place for the table For the first time in my adult life, I have a something approaching a dining room. Accustomed to eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a breakfast bar, coffee table, or some other makeshift means of support, I find myself strangely delighted by the idea of sitting down each evening at a table that seats four in a space reserved only for eating. For one, meal time is easier. (There’s no better way to test your coordination and patience than carving a turkey that’s perched atop a folding table.) I’d say having a dining room makes me a fully fledged grown-up, were it not for the fact that I still rent. Precarity is Neverland. (more…) Read More...

Chewing Through History

Imagine teeth chomping on a human face -- forever
Claude, swinging his arms loosely, took long, regular strides and enjoyed watching their shadows, happily lost in their sway, which he further exaggerated by putting his shoulders into the rhythm. Then, as though suddenly waking from a dream, he asked, "Do you know 'The Battle of the Fat and the Thin'?" Florent, caught by surprise, answered no. Claude excitedly praised this series of prints, pointing out favorite parts: the Fat, bursting from their enormity, prepare the evening glut, while the Thin, doubled over from hunger, look in from the street, stick figures filled with envy; then the Fat, seated at the table, cheeks overflowing, drive away a Thin who had the audacity to approach humbly, looking like a bowling pin among bowling balls. Claude saw in these drawings the entire drama of mankind, and he took to classifying all people… Read More...

Bodies Without Organ Meat

The offal truth
"I imagine that someone might ask me what my favorite meal would be, an utterly crazy undertaking. It’s true that I always come back to three things because they are three things that I always found sublime, but that are quite properly disgusting: tongue, brains, and marrow." --Gilles Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze from A to Z (1989)   Read More...

Native Regard

Some colonial women held captive by Native American tribes found the experience liberating
Some colonial women held captive by Native American tribes found the experience liberating One clear spring afternoon in 1758 a raiding party descended on the Jemison farm in western Pennsylvania. The party, which consisted of six French soldiers and four Shawnee warriors, managed to capture all the family members except the two oldest sons, who escaped. "Every one trembled with fear," one Jemison daughter, Mary, later recalled in her 1824 account of the event. Without “a mouthful of food or a drop of water” they marched until nightfall. Whenever Mary and her siblings cried for something to drink, they were told they may have urine or nothing at all. The Jemisons' captors began to think that they had taken too many captives. Mother and father, along with two of their children, were led behind some trees and killed, their scalps… Read More...

Negative Dietetics

Kant turn back
"The trajectory leading to aesthetic autonomy passes through the stage of disinterestedness; and well it should, for it was during this stage that art emancipated itself from cuisine and pornography, an emancipation that has become irrevocable." --Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970) Read More...

Life of Pie

You won't mind filling yourself in on the history baked into this dessert
You won't mind filling yourself in on the history baked into this dessert During the nor’easter that descended on New England last week I spent many dull, rainy hours fixing a bicycle and baking pies. Fixing a bike has its charms. There’s a certain sense of accomplishment in taming a balky bottom bracket. But it's baking pies that I find more absorbing. It’s great fun seeing just how many foods can be transformed into dessert. At one time or another this past month I’ve sprinkled sugar over various fillings and packed them into inexpertly shaped crusts. Some pies have turned out better than others. Apple pie, pumpkin pie, and even green tomato pie find takers when I give one away. Great northern bean and evaporated milk pie, however? Not so many. (more…) Read More...

Room for Improvement

Tenants had a real beef with the food served in New York boarding houses
Neurotic landladies, ill-sorted fellows, uncomfortable beds -- these characteristic annoyances of boarding house life pale in comparison to most boarders' "chief objection," writes Thomas Butler Gunn in his 1857 book Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, which applies "all most universally to the cuisine." American journalist Mortimer Thomson, writing in his 1855 book Doestick's Letters: And What He Says, echoes his contemporary Dunn in this vivid anecdote: Another search and another home. Here for a week things went on tolerably well; the steak was sometimes capable of mastication, the coffee wasn't always weak, nor the butter always strong; but one day there appeared at breakfast a dish of beef, (Bull Dogge asserts that it was the fossil remains of an omnibus horse) -- it was not molested; at dinner it made its appearance again, still it was not disturbed; at tea fragments of… Read More...

The Potato System

Peeling back the layers of this humble vegetable's history reveals that, no matter how you slice it, there's power in spuds
Peeling back the layers of this humble vegetable's history reveals that, no matter how you slice it, there's power in spuds Nothing orients like food. Wherever I find myself living I try to eat according to the region and season. In Rhode Island I ate mussels and stuffed quahogs. Nopales, carnitas and citrus sustained me in Arizona. Pennsylvania presented me with a real cornucopia -- beets, cucumbers, duck eggs, garlic scapes, delicata squash, ground elk meat. Now that I’m in Maine, it’s potatoes for me. (more…) Read More...

Noshing with Nomads

Wandering peoples knew no distinction between home-cooked dinners and meals "on the go"
Wandering peoples knew no distinction between home-cooked dinners and meals "on the go" I’m moving again. This move will be my fourth in eight years and, like the three before it, owes not to any restless impulse but to banal necessity. Contrary economic winds have blown me from Arizona to New England, from New England back to Arizona, and from Arizona to western Pennsylvania. Now I’m returning to New England. Relocation ranks just below divorce and illness in terms of unusually stressful events. I feel this fact palpably. (more…) Read More...

Radish Malorum

Tolstoy's take on the "guns versus butter" problem
"We have pink radishes on the table, beautiful yellow butter, plump golden bread on a white tablecloth.... Our ladies in their muslin gowns are so happy, sitting among the green plants in the garden, because it is hot and they are in the shadow. But beyond, the evil devil famine is already hard at work, covering the fields with weeds, crazing the arid soil, tearing the soles of the peasants' calloused feet and splitting the animals' hoofs, and will so shake and agitate us all that we, too, under the shade of our lime trees, with our muslin gowns and our lumps of butter on our flowered plates, will get what's coming to us." --Leo Tolstoy, "Letter to Afanasy Fet" (May 16, 1865) Read More...