The Digest

Dinner with Rasputin & Other News

7th February 2017

Words: James Hansen

In this week’s round-up of the best food stories on the web: an ode to culinary simplicity, a soul-food mystery and the inscrutability of mushrooms

When he isn’t fermenting all manner of produce at Darsham Nurseries Café, chef Thom Eagle is In Search of Lost Thyme. His latest piece on the blog is a lovely ramble through culinary authenticity, the perils of margarine, and the urge to “bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.” Philosophical but lightly-worn, with a TS Eliot reference for good measure, it reflects on the fundamental truths of cookery. A natural pairing would be our Q&A with the man himself from November.

Moving into the musical realmwe find avant-garde composer John Cage reading a mushroom haiku in an enlightening Open Culture piece from Colin Marshall. In Cage’s case, obsession stemmed from need: while out foraging for food in Carmel, California, during the Depression, he relied upon a burgeoning knowledge of mushrooms. It culminated – following hunts and frolics aplenty – in The Mushroom Book, published in 1972. Despite all this, Cage’s conclusion is clear: “It’s useless to pretend you know your mushrooms.” Pair with Michael Pollan’s piece on mushroom therapy of a different kind for the New Yorker.

Over at Food 52, Mayukh Sen presents a mystery: Princess Pamela. Sen textures fine-grained observations around the “soul food doyenne of New York City”: an 11-fingered delivery boy; evocative preludes to recipes; “pumice paperbacks that would dissolve in your hands”. The details constitute an intimate biography; a captivating tale of a life lived through food and marked by sadness, with an uplifting coda: the reissue of her book, documenting the recipes that made Princess Pamela an icon.

Staying with American icons at Lucky Peach, the message is simple: America, Your Food Is So Gay. John Birdsall blends memoir with history to tell the stories of writer James Beard, French food expert Richard Olney, and critic Craig Claiborne – three gay men who had profound influence on American food culture – as a counterpoint to his own formative experiences with food. Birdsall’s history is compendious and exacting; his memories as a “shy kid growing up in a scrub-oak suburb”, enraptured by “caramelised onions, Roquefort crumbles, and Grey Poupon“, are, in his own words, “unflinchingly, unapologetically, magnificently queer”.

To finish, we pair two pieces from NPR; one looking forward, one looking back. First, Gabriel Popkin with a dispatch from the Yucatán peninsula exploring the effect of climate change on Mayan farming practice. The tradition of milpa – farming land before allowing it to regenerate over decades – is forced to evolve in the face of errant weather. It’s a well-observed local exploration of a global problem; Popkin’s interviews at farm level are as enlightening as they are urgent. The second piece, by Nina Martyris, recalls the food habits of the infamous Rasputin. Martyris’ observations bust myths – notorious for a love of sugar, he may not have been quite so sweet-toothed – and reflect on “alarming” table manners: “He licked the spoon before using it to serve others.” Adding a welcome culinary dimension to the mythic fog surrounding Rasputin, it’s fitting that he have the last word this week:

“I love wine.”

Posted 7th February 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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