The Digest

Butter For Its Own Sake & Other News

24th March 2017

Words: James Hansen
Painting: Antoine Vollon

This week’s food-writing digest casts an eye over a classic Irish dish, sub-zero mussels and the suspect marketing of soul food

We’ll eschew words to begin, with a beautiful film-homage to Irish food from The Perennial Plate, care of Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine. Simply entitled “Bacon & Greens” – with a voiceover from Con O’Brien’s 1930s song of the same name – it is marked by lush close-ups, expansive wides, and a sensitivity to the relationship between plate and place. The Irishman’s dish is their darling, as the song goes, and their film covers all its guises, including the eponymous B&G.

“Have you ever eaten butter by the spoon? Butter without toast to prop it up or eggs to fry in it – butter for its own tangy, full-flavored, exquisite sake?” Libby Copeland gets down and dairy for The Washington Post with an historical look at the churned stuff. Framed by her tasting with butter expert Elaine Khosrova, Copeland’s piece balances the knowledge gained from thorough research with the amateur’s perspective on the oddity of eating butter by the spoonful: “How, precisely, do you taste-test butter?” It’s a fair question, with a knowing answer: “It’s much like tasting wine, only . . . thicker.” Spread some of the good stuff on your toast – softened, lest it rip – and read on.

Over at HighsnobietyEboni Harris breaks down the cultural capital of soul food and the problems of nomenclature. Tracing the relationship between the legacy of slavery and the place of non-indigenous ingredients in American cuisine, Harris alights on a clear and problematic thesis: “Soul food, like so many other aspects of African-American culture, appears to be infinitely more marketable when stripped of any overt association with blackness.” The movement from “soul” to “southern” obscures the reality of provenance; Ebony Harris forcefully – and necessarily – argues that this worrying trend needs to be reversed in favour of a more truthful and scholarly approach.

We continue not with just one piece, but with a reading list from Emily Perper at Longreads. Perper collates eight articles on the relationship between gender and food, ranging from memoir, to an historical essay, to an entire website. Peruse the list at your leisure, but read right now for the confessional introduction that details Perper’s own relationship to food, and her first steps towards carving out her own place in “the untamed wilds” of a world she is just beginning to explore.

Writing for The ObserverJohn Hind and Tim Lewis interview five professional cooks – including two Gannet favourites, Olia Hercules and Margot Henderson – on their experience of motherhood as a cook. Punctuated by recipes representative of the relationship between parent and child found in cooking and eating, there are running themes of navigating tight kitchens, daily routines marked by food, and in Margot’s case, throwing clocks. Pair with an equally revealing series of interviews from Amanda Kludt at Eater on the industry’s failings on maternity leave – taken from the reading list above – as well as a further piece from The Observer on the darker side of the commercial kitchen. It’s sharply attuned to the atmosphere engendered by men using sharp things in hot and confined spaces.

We’re bookending this week with visual culinary storytelling: having begun with video, we end with photography from Aaron Vincent Elkaim and words from Craig S Smith for The New York Times. Their sparkling photoessay on mussels under ice – and the lengths the Inuits of Kangiqsujuac, Quebec go to collect them – maps the “beautiful, eerie world” found beneath the frozen landscape. Elkaim’s images capture the danger glinting from otherworldly ice caves; light cascades through the hole that is both a gateway to harvest and an escape route. It’s a wonderful contribution to the lineage of extreme harvest: Digest #5 covered another with cliffside honey in the Himalayas.

Detail from Mound of Butter by Antoine Vollon

Posted 24th March 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen
Painting: Antoine Vollon

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