Cooking the Books

Terrible title, I know, but flush with having scored an invaluable list of cool bookstores to check out as a result of a previous post, here's another chance for us to pool our brains. I'm reading Rebecca Solnit's new book at the moment, THE FARAWAY NEARBY. In it she mentions an abiding affection for cooking, noting that "it sometimes seems so pleasurable because it is the opposite of writing; it engages all the senses; it's immediate and unreproducible and then it's complete and eaten and over. The tasks are simple, messy, fragrant and brief, and success and failure are easy to determine".

True that, and there's little more relaxing after a day spent staring at a dispiritingly empty Word document than heading to the kitchen to rustle up some grub. It's not always a success, and you will encounter many a "Dad, what is this?", but it's fun. What helps are the little tricks you pick up over time, generally as a result of screwing something up, and that's what I'm asking for now. Not favorite recipes - though that's not a bad idea, and one I'll doubtless come back to - but the tiny tips, however bleeding obvious, that tilt the balance of probability in your favour.

Here's a random five of mine...

1. Mashed potato is remarkably tolerant of timing. For ages I thought I had to make sure it was ready at the same time as everything else. Not so. Once it's done, it can sit happily in the pan for some time, then brought back to life with a quick reheat, loosened with a little double cream. It's actually better that way. I'll add to this the observations that (a) you want to drain the spuds very well, (b) you should mash before adding butter, and (c) you want a lot of butter, I mean a ton, and should beat it in hard with a wooden spoon. Set aside, then rejuvinate when everything else is ready. 2. Buy good knives. They're worth it. A knife that will take a proper sharpen will make your life so much easier. Dealing with tomatoes and meat in particular will suddenly seem much more feasible. The only more important tools in the kitchen are... see (4) 3. When cooking Christmas dinner - or Thanksgiving, I suppose - don't try to get everything to land at the same time. You'll drive yourself nuts. Instead get the turkey done, then wrap it in foil. It'll very happily stay warm for an hour, relaxing nicely, leaving you free to sort out the vegetables and pan gravy from scratch. The most time-critical dish is the roast potatoes. For mash, see (1). 4. Use your hands. If tidying or preparing meat or fish, don't dick around holding it down with a fork. Millions of years of evolution put hands on the ends of your arms for a reason - there are no better tools on planet Earth. Wash them properly before and after, of course, but otherwise remember that you're eventually going to put whatever it is you're being wussy about in your mouth, and so holding it with your hands should be no big deal. 5. When making burgers, don't mess about adding egg or onion, and steer clear of over-processed beef. Buy decent ground chuck and make sure it's 15% fat, and no leaner. This will help it stay together, and it'll taste a lot better, too.

Bonus tip: don't get into some old skool pan-frying chicken scenario when you're really quite drunk. Sadness may result. Though the scar does look a bit like Kurt Cobain, which is mildly diverting.

So now, it's your turn. Tip me. And pass this thing around... the more the merrier.

ps: This post is in solidarity with one of the great cookery writers of our time, recently revealed to be married to an utter fucktard.



Announcing THE GIST winner... and thanks!

Well, the random winner of THE GIST competition has been randomly selected, by a process so very random that randomness itself is feeling disconcerted by all the uncertainty, and is wandering around town in a daze, looking haunted. If you haven't received an email saying it's you, then I'm afraid it's not. But a huge thanks to everyone for contributing to the list of bookstores. Please keep the suggestions coming on this page, and I'll think of a way of making the list more widely available.



What's your favourite bookstore? PS - There's a prize.

  I was delighted to gather yesterday that finished copies of THE GIST - something I've been working on since before my son was born, and he's now eight, for the love of god - are on their way. There's a guest blog coming out a week on Friday detailing the project's tangled road to existence, so I won't go into it now. Let's just say... it took a bloody long time.

There's information on the book here. The story concerns, in part, an antiquarian bookstore in London's Cecil Court, a 'book street' of the type that barely survives these days. This gives me an excuse to ask a question I've wanted to pose for ages: what's your favorite bookstore?

I've got a few. Bookshop Santa Cruz heads the field at the moment, as it's not only great but a mere fifteen minutes' walk from my front door. Logos downtown is also excellent, especially for second-hand and ephemera. Then there's the lose-half-a-day-in-it Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle (which, were it closer, might well top the list), Powell's in Portland, the Strand in NYC, one I can never remember the name of but is right by Café de Flore in Paris, and the Barnes & Noble on 3rd Street in Santa Monica, in which I've beguiled many a happy hour. Oh and Hennessy and Ingalls, obviously, also in Santa Monica. And the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, and Goldsboro (which actually is in Cecil Court), and Colin Page Antiquarian in Brighton, and the Waterstones in Brighton is very decent, and also Brighton Books, and Small World Books in Venice Beach, and ... okay, there's lots, and that's just off the top of my head.

But these are the ones I already know. I want, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, to know about the bookstores that I don't even know that I don't know. Tell me their names. Tell me where they are. Tell me why they're great. Do it now. Don't feel they have to be chi-chi independants that only sell pert little volumes by David Sedaris and Michael Chabon, either. If you love a bookstore that's part of a huge chain, that's just as good. Snobbery has no place when it comes to the love of books. If we want to be able to walk in off the street and touch and peruse and buy these things, charmed by serendipity and happenstance, we need to support the places that sell them.

And we need to know where they are. I'll be honest. My motivation here is to glom a list of great bookstores to hit when I happen to be in the relevant area. But hopefully it'll also be of use to anyone else who reads the comments, and I'm going to throw in another incentive, too:

Anyone who adds a suggestion - preferably backing it up with a list of reasons to schlep to wherever the bookstore may be - will be entered into the Grand Prize Draw for a signed copy of THE GIST, which will happen a week today, on the 30th of May.

Seriously, what are you waiting for?



Damage Joy

I was in Monterey over the weekend, as part of a program of squiring visiting family members around some of the nicer parts of the state where we now live. Late Sunday morning, after a trip down to Carmel, we drove back into Monterey for lunch. As we entered Cannery Row we encountered a bunch of motorcyclists, who were holding up the entire street in an officious and fantastically self-important way while they steered their ludicrous rides into a couple of parking spaces. They took a long, long time over this, with utter disdain for other traffic, evidently very pleased with themselves. My father eventually tired of the situation, rolled down his window - he was in the back seat - and told them to get out of the way. My wife, who was driving, additionally hooted the horn, at about the same time. Two things happened as a result. The biker nearest my father's window told him to fuck off, and lunged at at him in a hostile fashion. The biker was in his mid-forties. My dad is seventy six. Another of the bikers, a huge and fat-gutted gentleman who must have outbulked me by at least eighty pounds, smacked the wing mirror on my side into the car and yanked my door open. He towered over me, red in the face, loudly declared himself of the opinion that I was a prick and a fucking asshole, and made it clear that it would be his pleasure to have a fight with me.

Now. I am a lover, not a fighter (reviews for even the first of those have been mixed, apparently because of that thing I do with my ears). It was very evident to me that I was a single ill-judged sentence away from having my face smashed in, not least as I was hampered by my physical position. I therefore used a combination or calming gestures and words to signal a total retreat on behalf of my family. He slammed the door on me. We drove away. After we'd parked some distance up the street, I got out and looked back and saw the man and his friends - several of them middle-aged women - laughing it up. Score for the weekend warriors. I felt, of course, something of an ass.

But what else are you going to do? If a guy makes it clear he's not just ready but eager for violence, and does so in front of your wife, septuagenarian father, and eight-year-old son, then you choice is simple: spend the next 48 hours in hospital, or don't. I chose not. As a man, you naturally feel diminished after such an event, but I can live with that. It didn't stop my wife and I coming up with several things we'd like to do, including finding a way of writing DRIVEN BY A **** on the guy's bike in a way that only bystanders would be able to see.

But of course we didn't, and wouldn't. Why? Because we're not like that, in the same way that I don't want to fight him or anyone else. Not because I'm a coward, or a saint. I simply don't covet violence. Some people do, however. They really, really do. It's their thing.

Which brings me to what happened in Boston yesterday. The two events, I'm well aware, are a billion miles apart in seriousness: but they are linked in nature. The guy in Monterey wanted to hit me because it would make him feel good. It would impress his friends, and give him a thrill. Whoever planted the bombs in Boson did it for the exact same pathetic reasons, and the hell with whatever political or cultural bullshit they use to legitimate it to themselves.

There's a well-known German expression "schadenfreude", most often used of a tedency to take satisfaction in the misfortune of others. The literal translation, however, is "damage joy" — and that's what we see in these people. A deep and abiding pleasure in causing damage, and sadness, and grief, a pleasure so compelling that it appears para-sexual in nature. The people who planted the bombs in Boston - whoever they were - must, like those who plotted the WTC attack and countless other vilenesses both large and small, have sat and contemplated their plans over and over, for many hours, gloating in sweaty-palmed anticipation of the results of their intentions. That's nothing to do with political activism. That's to do with being wrong in the head.

As I write this, it doesn't appear to have been established who committed the atrocity in Boston, but I can tell you that we already know what they're called. My son knows the term. You hear it in the playground. We use it to warn our kids. They're Bad People. It's that simple. Sometimes you can overthink things. I don't care what they call themselves. These are Bad People. That's the end of it.

They've lived amongst us since the dawn of time. They're the ones who steal, and rape, and humiliate, and destroy. I'm sure the men (and possibly women) will organised the bombings in Boston have gained kudos amongst other Bad People, just as the asshole in Monterey got props from his fellows for scaring a novelist in front of his family. That kind of peer validation is doubtless important amongst the vapidly psychotic and spiritually dead. But I suspect that it's when they're alone that they get the most satisfaction, when they can leer back over their deeds and feel they proved something (what, and to whom, I have no idea). That makes sense. Bad People are fundementally alone, and always will be, because they're nothing without us, all the people who — with varying degrees of success - spend our time trying to be good, or at least decent.

They're the ones who love damage, but we're the ones who love making, and healing, and putting things back together, and in the end that will always win. If we hold our position, and aim for good, everything the Bad People do is merely another rusty nail in their own cramped and sordid coffins  - so long as we're very careful to ensure that in fighting the Bad People, we never take even a single step in their direction.



Second Giveaway Winner...

Well, you lovely people, the random recipient of the second giveaway has been randomly selected, and if you haven’t received a random email, then I’m afraid you're not the winner. That’s randomness for you, sadly: a sharing, beneficent source of plenty for some, cold-hearted and tight-fisted bastard to others. I feel your pain, not least as the winner was not not one of the people who offered inducements like home-made gingerbread or the souls of close family members. All is not lost, as I’ll be instigating a similar thing for the publication of THE GIST (coming from Subterranean in May) and the new collection EVERYTHING YOU NEED (which will be published in July by Earthling). And probably the US release of WE ARE HERE in the fall, and anything else I can think of... and who knows, next time maybe I'll dispense with randomness and simply choose the person with the most compelling bribe. So get thinking.

Thank you for taking part in this one, and be assured any further draws will always include anyone who subscribes to this blog...
As you were.