"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," said famous food junkie Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825 (only I gather he said it in French). Looking at my friends, I doubt that this means of psychoanalysis is reliable.
Chris Priest, for example, used to moan to me about his local Chinese restaurants, on the ground that they're too good. "I like Chinese junk food," he wailed, "the sort of dishes they never actually made in China, things like instant chop suey...." I daren't ask if he's also addicted to those greasy chunks of fried pork coated in bullet-proof layers of calorific batter with thin red sugary slime drooled all over the starch-laden result, the whole mess whimsically called "sweet and sour".
This came to mind when the 1987 World SF Convention asked for a contribution to its planned fannish cookbook. A little essay on unauthentic cuisine sounded just the thing, and if a few other things hadn't got in the way (like putting together a 40,000 word fan room booklet all by myself – more fool I for volunteering) I'd probably have contributed more than the recipe for "Sinister Langford Apple Chutney" therein.
For example, when Hazel and I feel all upmarket and sufficiently demented to have more than one course at dinner, it's usually the work of a moment to nip round to the local Asian grocer's (mysteriously called "Eurofoods") for some big squidgy avocado pears. This fruit is almost my sole concession to the weird notion that raw green vegetable things are in fact suitable for human consumption.
Well, everyone knows how to cut them up (an axe is not advised), to balance the hard bit in a bottle of water and to overrun the house with tall weedy avocado plants each having exactly two leaves at the end of a long naked bumpy stem... but the eating part involves decisions. Hotels usually fill the unfortunate avocado with a curdled pink mess, studded with shrimp which have not led cleanly lives. The alternative tends to be some species of French dressing, which as far as this picky household is concerned Does Not Quite Work in the unique post-structural context of the avocado. Hence the development in our mighty research laboratories of...
Hazel's Stupendously Unauthentic Non-Vinaigrette For Avocados
- A lot of soy sauce.
- A lot of sesame oil.
- About one-sixth of a lot of vinegar.
- About one-fifteenth of a lot of Lea & Perrin's Worcester Sauce.
Mix together in any order and with any variations suggested by prejudice or experience... shaken, not stirred. Put in a bottle or something, and give one last vigorous shake at the table. (This offers incentives for good discipline in the careful replacement of bottle tops. Either that or it offers an interestingly brown-spotted ceiling, like ours.) Pour quite a lot into the hollow of your half-avocado. Sensuously carve out drenched gobbets of avocado flesh with a spoon. Put in mouth, masticate, etc. (Why do recipes always stop just before the interesting bit? You never even get three asterisks and a new paragraph starting with "Afterwards".)
The stuff stays usable for strange aeons, except when avocados are in season, and can even seem to improve with time. Try with various grades of soy sauce, from Dilute Tea to Creosote. There is probably no real substitute for the Worcester sauce, but fans with cosmic minds might prove me wrong.
My thoughts on green things remind me of the conceptual salad which my old pal Martin Hoare and I have elaborated from time to time, when we're in pubs far away from the potential threat of a kitchen. Never actually created in cold blood, the Langford/Hoare salad is a thought experiment in the avoidance of "rabbit food". Both of us were heavily conditioned against this at university, thanks to a college chef who believed that limp lettuce had inadequate protein value and preferred to beef it up with some nice meaty slugs and greenfly.
If it were ever to emerge from its ideal niche among the Platonic Forms, this salad would very probably include grated cheese, cold boiled new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, sliced red and green peppers, lumps of avocado (a hot point of contention – Martin suspects this of being rabbit food), chopped onions of various kinds, radishes, sweetcorn, garlic, chives, and some suitable admixture of cold cooked meat or fish.... Perhaps it would be easier to list the items which would not feature, such as lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives, mayonnaise of any description, vinegar in greater than homeopathic doses, or any of the horrible sticky proprietary messes which are called salad dressing. ("Aye," said a sceptical Macbeth, "in the catalogue ye go for salad dressing....")
STOP PRESS: Martin now claims to have consumed the ideal salad, but carping critics (me) suspect that there is a degree of unauthenticity which violates even our fuzzy definition of salad. "It was great," Martin enthuses: "We made it from a pound of beef and a lot of onions and nothing else."
Sometimes one does need to abandon these dizzy theoretical speculations, narrow one's focus from its habitual cosmos-wide scope, and tackle the problem of giving visitors some actual food. Hazel usually falls back on the all-purpose roast recipe whereby you take a chicken (or equivalent mass of pork, beef, lamb or honey-smeared peacock stuffed with larks' tongues and fattened dormice) and put it in the oven for hours and hours, while I try to remember dear old Professor Kurti's differential equation which gives the precise cooking time provided only that you have a perfectly spherical joint. But occasionally my excuses about inability to cook fail me, and I sulkily try to remember the formula for...
Chris Priest Memorial Chinese Casseroled Thing
(as never actually thrust upon Chris, but see my opening paragraphs)
This is guaranteed to be as authentically Oriental as Charlie Chan, the insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, or my pal Martin when he had jaundice. You need something suitable for lengthy cooking, e.g. quite a lot of cheap nasty belly pork (remove any fat, curly tails or nose-rings), or a similar amount of better pork when you feel solvent, modulating into stringy chicken should you feel bored with pork, or kosher, or whatever. The last time I cooked this, some 2 1/2 pounds of pork filled four people very full. You also need:
- 1 enormous onion (actually optional).
- 1 1/2 cups of Unauthentic Sauce. This is made by looking up Kenneth Lo's classic sweet-sour recipe in one of his cookbooks, which then reminds me of all the ways in which I do it differently (i.e. wrong). In the following, a "tbsp" is a tablespoon and a "tsp" a teaspoon. These are not exactly SI units: for the rigorous, I've consulted Katharine Whitehorn's deeply cheering book of desperate improvisations, How To Survive In The Kitchen, and she says that 1 tbsp equals 4 tsp, while 1 cup equals 5 tbsp of flour, sugar etc. but 10 tbsp of liquid (since flour protrudes obscenely to form a "rounded tablespoon" while liquids are perforce confined to a humble "level tablespoon" unless possessing staggering viscosity or amazing surface tension). 1 cup is about a quarter of a pint, a pint being 20 fluid ounces (if you wish to use the puny short measure on non-Imperial pints, do your own conversion), and can I please skip the metric equivalents of all these? Thank you for this small kindness.
Where was I? Ah, the sauce....
- 2 tbsp brown sugar.
- 1 tbsp cornflour (or less, and it's optional anyway).
- 4 tbsp water or, better, chicken stock.
- 2 tbsp orange or pineapple juice (in juiceless times I have been known to throw in some crushed pineapple instead).
- 2 tbsp soy sauce.
- 2 tbsp medium-dry sherry. The technical term for this variety is, "For the love of God, Montresor!"
- 2 tbsp vinegar.
- 2 tbsp tomato purée. Tomato sauce may be substituted, but don't let the People's Republic hear about it. If you compromise by whizzing a tomato in the electric blender, the result will be more dilute than real purée – reduce the water/stock content as suggested by sheer guesswork.
NB: I'm switching to tsp units now. This warning might seem needless and fussy, but I remember the chutney I made using tablespoons rather than teaspoons of powdered cloves. It was good for applying to hollow teeth.
- 1 tsp sesame oil.
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder. (Or more. Or lots more. There is no obvious reason not to specify real chillies here, except that they're less easily calibrated and used to be hard to find in Reading.)
- 1/2 tsp five-spice powder.
Stir all sauce ingredients together until Godot arrives or obvious lumps have departed, whichever occurs first. Put meat in a suitable casserole with a lid, together with the chopped huge onion, which I have just decided is probably optional too. Pour on sauce, thrust into a coolish oven (Eminent authority in the form of K.Whitehorn says this means 225°F or 110°C, but I doubt that it's necessary for you to check this to 0.5° precision with a pyrometer) and leave to its own devices for say 4 hours. As the moment of truth approaches, have a look under the lid and – if the gooey parts seem a bit thin and runny – add more cornflour stirred into sherry. (Add some sherry anyway. Have fun.) Wait a few minutes more, serve with rice, and be sure to use a washable tablecloth.
One of the great secrets of unauthentic cooking is that most ingredients, all proportions and all cooking times are negotiable... so don't fret about precise chronology and amounts. This is one of those squidgy dishes which anyway never turn out the same twice running – largely because in spite of those frighteningly scientific tbsps and tsps, one ends up (a) judging half the quantities by eye, and (b) throwing in interesting-looking extras for luck. Water chestnuts and cashews were both Good Ideas. Sugar-coated fennel seeds, Asian style, were agreed to be a mistake. (I'd actually been reaching for the next jar along. This sort of thing used to happen all the time when I worked with nuclear explosives.)
I think I'll skip the Langford pear wine recipe, since it may only work with the peculiarly vile and maggot-ridden pears produced by our garden, and winemaking technicalities are even more tedious than tbsps, and – the clinching argument – I've lost the bloody recipe anyway. It would, however, be unBritish to close without some vaguely booze-related items. The following have been tested on recent overnight visitors, and provide ideal conversation pieces at breakfast. They can also be eaten, on toast....
Really Quite Authentic Post-Party Welsh Rarebit
This comes with an epigraph from Don Marquis ("the bilge and belch of the glutton welsh as they smelted their warlock cheese / surged to and fro where the grinding floe wrenched at the headlands knees") and shows how Britons can bring themselves to consume beer even for breakfast, with the aid of:
- Cheese, the delicate variety known here as "mousetrap", i.e. case-hardened old cheddar from the fridge, and any and all wizened, dried-up bits left over from last night's party food. Only good cheese is verboten.
- Black pepper, to taste.
- An egg. Maybe two if you're making an awful lot.
- A little bitter beer (if none is available fresh, there are the dregs of glasses and bottles from that party, and after that you can start shaking and smelling abandoned cans to verify that they contain some stale beer but have not been adapted as impromptu ashtrays. As you see, we're talking real sleaze here).
Grate all the cheese and moisten the resulting flakes with the quantity of beer considered to be "enough", producing muck of sufficiently stiff consistency that it can be spread on toast but will not flow off it while cold. (Think "slime mould".) Stir in either the tediously separated yolk of the egg – which is marginally more authentic – or the egg's entire contents: in either case, this is what keeps the spread from flowing merrily off the toast when it is cooked. Slice and toast some bread; spread with goop; sprinkle with pepper etc. as desired; grill until brown and bubbly; eat.
The first stage of this recipe will always produce more of the gooey mixture than you expect, even when you know what to expect; but people are generally happy to carry on eating the result until supplies fail. "God help us, for we knew the worst too young."
It was famous Aussie fan Judith Hanna who forced the invention of this succulent slime, one groan-laden morning after a Langford party. She started converting odd remnants of cheese, milk and things into a sort of breakfast fondue. After long stirring and perspiring comments of "I'm sure this is the right way to do it," she found herself with a revolting viscous mass which squatted sullenly in the pan and refused point-blank to dissolve in an orderly fashion into the thin steaming pus which surrounded it. Before starting again and coming up with unauthentic rarebit as above, we poured the results of Judith's alchemy into an unloved tree-stump which had persistently refused to stop sending up shoots. It died within a month.
Meanwhile, for those with a sweet tooth, there is always...
Langford Patent Juniper And Quinine Lemon Marmalade
The ingredients are even less rigorously quantitative than before:
- Many lemons.
- Quite a lot of white sugar.
- Some water.
- Some more water (solid phase).
- The all-important MARINADE.
This is not a recipe for the faint-hearted. Our most recent batch of this marmalade was two years in the making. (You will need a spare corner in the freezer, by the way.) It is the marinade which makes the process such a prolonged one, since only a small amount of lemon can be properly treated at one time.
The marinade should be prepared in the six- or eight-ounce liquor glass of your choice; it consists of approximately one part of gin to four (or two, or six, or one; who am I to cramp your culinary style?) of a good proprietary tonic water. "Diet" tonic water will completely ruin the flavour, although the marmalade will probably turn out OK. Ice may be added, and one slice of lemon is then slid delicately into the glass.
(Americans sometimes seem puzzled by subtle allusions to tonic water. Soda water might be good enough for T.S.Eliot's foot-bath, but is not the same: you want the stuff which is or used to be flavoured with quinine. Throw away those malaria chills, and walk again.)
It is a well-known phenomenon, extensively documented by Charles Fort, that this marinade evaporates with startling swiftness. Quite soon the prepared lemon slice can be removed from your suddenly empty glass and dropped into a plastic bag in the freezer. It is now permissible to treat another slice... and so on while supplies of marinade ingredients hold out and the cook can remain upright.
An admixture of non-marinated lemon is permissible: our 1987 batch of this fine preserve gained additional, subtle flavour from the inclusion of (a) partially mildewed half-lemons discovered in the fridge after periods of slackness in marinade treatments; (b) lemon slices included with takeaway Indian meals, and thus interestingly flavoured with a soupçon of tandoori sauce; (c) country-of-origin labels accidentally left sticking to the occasional lemon rind.
When "enough" has been accumulated – meaning that the plastic bag is full, the previous batch has run out, or one's spouse is complaining loudly about lack of space in the freezer – the final preparations are easy. All the lemon shards are thawed, pips and things (especially moving things) removed, and the whole lot chopped thinly (perfectionist method) or shoved brutally through a mincer (my method).
It all goes in a big pan with the amount of water indicated above, being as little as will see you through the next stage. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour or two, stirring with lackadaisical grace, until the bits are soft. During this period you are free to realize that you should have shut the doors and windows, since the penetrating smell acts as a long-range lure for enormous kamikaze wasps. Add exactly the amount of sugar specified above... no, I tell a lie, we just tip in more sugar until it tastes "right", meaning not too bitter to be eaten thinly spread on the substrate of your choice. Another half-hour of simmering and it can be ladled via a large jam funnel into previously heated jars. Put on the lids before too many loathsome spores drift in, hoping to surprise Sir Alexander Fleming.
(Our 1987 batch behaved in a semi-miraculous way: on the third day, instead of rising, it finally condescended to set.)
Certain aspects of the procedure are sufficiently boring – especially the long simmering and the even longer wait for the stuff to set firmly enough to be tried – that to pass the time one finds oneself irresistibly impelled to start work anew, marinating lemons for the next batch. Any fan wishing to drop in and help, thus cutting down that two-year preparation time, will be very welcome. Bring your own marinade ingredients.
- Kingsley Amis: On Drink, 1972; Every Day Drinking, 1983; How's Your Glass?, 1984.
- M.F.K.Fisher: anything and everything.
- Maurice Healy: Stay me with Flagons, 1940.
- George Saintsbury: Notes on a Cellar-Book, 1920.
- Katherine Whitehorn: How to Survive in the Kitchen, 1979.
- Colin Wilson: A Book of Booze, 1974.
Lagniappe: Sinister Langford Apple Chutney
Shamelessly plagiarized from a rather more innocent version developed by Mrs Beeton in 1861, this recipe will use up spare apples from your tree (if any), clear blocked digestive systems, alarm and irritate neighbours, and help interested fans become TAFF delegates. Winner of the Borgia Award, 1987. Ingredients:
- 2 1/4 lb peeled, cored and coarsely sliced apples
- 1 lb brown sugar
- 3/4 lb sultanas
- 2 oz salt
- 1/2 oz ground ginger
- 1/2 oz coarsely crushed black peppercorns
- 1/4 oz crushed (or powdered; we're not proud) garlic
- 1/8 oz cayenne pepper
- 1 imperial pint (20 fluid oz) malt vinegar
- (optional) a few oz of sliced chillies or similar for the really suicidal
Stick the apples, sugar, vinegar and optional chillies in a suitably vast pot and simmer until the apples assume a Lovecraftian formlessness, the house reeks of the fumes, and people in the next block stumble choking to your doorway to ask What The Hell. Turn off the cooker and stir in all the remaining ingredients, thoroughly. (Respirators may be worn.) Tip the result out into a basin, cover with a cloth, and let it hum gently to itself for a week or so. Stir timorously two or three times daily. Then coax the stuff into jars – a big jam funnel is recommended, the chutney now being gooey and repulsive beyond belief – and seal up securely. Use as your natural good sense and sadism dictate. We like it with cheese sandwiches or the less lethal Indian curries.
Unfortunately we've moved to a house with no apple trees. Coming soon: Sinister Langford Pear Chutney. Conversion of the above recipe is left as an exercise for the student.