Craving the Food of Depravity

April 14, 2011 · 17 comments

I have, for most of my life, been what one would call a very good girl. But there have been certain instances — mostly in the ’80s — when I wasn’t. On some of those occasions, I was a freshman in college, away from home for the very first time and extremely friendly with a man-boy who lived on the far edge of campus, and who liked to cut classes in favor of listening to Frank Zappa‘s 200 Motels while trying not to ignite the gin in his bong.

In truth, I never went to such great lengths to achieve existential bliss; my youthful experiences were wine-and-just-this-side-of-illegal-hallucinogen-soaked, although I do recall one occasion when, at three in the morning after a night of benign experimentation, I strolled home with a group of friends and walked into a parking meter on the BU bridge. At the university health clinic that night where I received two stitches over my right eyebrow, I insisted that he (I applied sexual gender to it) had gotten in my way.

Anyway, the food related to such shenanigans is well-known: for me, it was all about Doritos (but only taco flavor). For my friend Beth, only a tuna salad grinder from T. Anthony’s on Commonwealth Avenue would do. Years later, when I moved home to New York, I discovered that after a night at Au Bar, I had a desperate craving for a Gray’s Papaya hotdog, but only from the one on 72nd Street and Broadway. On the morning after my cousin Mishka’s pre-wedding dinner, it was all about a croque madame, as opposed to a monsieur. When I lived in England, only cold Scotch Eggs or spaghetti carbonara would work. Or, if things were really bad, a “burger” from Wimpies.

So I find myself wondering, in these days of rampant gourmetism — where everybody calls themselves a chef and food is sometimes precioused to within an inch of its life — what people in similar situations find themselves in need of. Sure, if you live in New York, you could easily require a middle of the night bowl of David Chang’s ginger scallion noodles and a half dozen of his pork buns. But does anyone come down from happy land with a mad, insatiable yen for sauternes-poached foie gras? Or a 24 hour, sous vided egg? Or some charred octopus salad, like the one I made a week or so ago? Maybe a few French breakfast radishes  on black bread with sweet butter?

Not so much.

Because, while it’s all delicious (especially the radishes, which I adore), none of it is the food of depravity.

In truth, I honestly don’t know if some of you do desire foie gras after a night of debauchery. Maybe you do. But I know that for the last few weeks, and for reasons that I cannot fathom (because the craziest I’ve been since the 80s is wanting to use 100 proof rye in my Manhattan), I’ve been very seriously craving this manna of the corrupt — the stuff that people, chuffed or not, seem to flock to at certain times: last week, I made what amounted to a large bucket of pimiento cheese from Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s Canal House Cooking #6. I’d never had this stuff before; Jews just don’t do pimiento cheese — it’s not the food of my people — which, my Southern friends tell me, is best eaten on either plain crackers (not cracked wheat; not gluten free; not multi-grain. Just plain Saltines or Club crackers), or on squishy white bread — the kind that people like me like to write nasty things about. After basically eating a pound of this stuff on Club crackers and then sucking the rest down with a teaspoon, I can say without a doubt that this is definitely, unquestionably, food of depravity.

Then last night, on what Susan and I have dubbed Hump Night Cocktail and Hors d’Oeuvres, we had some bruschetta that came from Joe Yonan’s book, Serve Yourself, via Domenica Marchetti’s great blog.  Even though I love Joe’s work and he’s a super nice guy, I’m not a particularly big fan of bruschetta; the American hand with it took it to extraordinarily distasteful heights back in the 90s, when it showed up on every Bar Mitzvah catering pass-around topped with diced, raw, cottony tomatoes and mozzarella so rubbery you could play squash with it. But this recipe, which Susan unearthed, sounded at the very least interesting, and at the very most, delicious: toasted rounds of rustic bread (we used a baguette) are spread with very ripe avocado (buttery, fatty point), smoked oysters tossed with pimenton (slippery, smoky point), chopped green olives (briny, salty point), and toasted, unsalted pistachios (crunchy, earthy point). All points covered, it had the potential for gustatory greatness. But still, I had some concerns.

“Don’t know about the smoked oysters–” I said to her, cradling the phone on my shoulder.

“I practically lived on them when I was a kid,” she said, which I found very hard to believe because Susan has serious texture issues, even now. And although she could Hoover down two dozen Willapa Bay oysters like they were dust bunnies, I couldn’t picture her as a child eating them smoked.

“When, exactly, would you eat them?” I asked.

“As a snack–” she said. “Like maybe while I was watching tv with my parents.”

“Instead of, say, a bowl of Fritos?”

I was mystified, and imagined her at five, sitting on her mother’s flowered couch on a Sunday night, chowing down with a tiny fork while watching Topo Gigio.

“Sure–” she said. “Just like that. I also lived on them in my 20s.” And then she hung up. That last bit was a giveaway: Susan was in New York when she was in her 20s, hanging out at places like CBGBs. So, smoked oysters? Ka-ching: Food of depravity, that I’d never, ever tried.

I love tinned smoked fish: I adore smoked sardines, smoked mackerel — you name it, and the oilier and more odorous, the better. And I also love oysters — the tinier and brinier, the better. But smoking and canning oysters just seemed to me to be a crime against humanity. So I took the conversation to my Facebook page, where I learned that, like pimiento cheese, smoked oysters are just something that my people aren’t aligned with, which is odd given the whole lox thing. Culturally, these particular foods of depravity aren’t, as I like to say, Jew food. (It’s a game: Mallomars? Jew food. Twinkies? Not Jew food. Ritz crackers? Jew food. Club crackers? Not Jew food. Veggie cream cheese? Jew food. Pimiento cheese? Not Jew food.) They were out of my lexicon, and a bit mysterious. And I loved them.

So we made Joe’s bruschetta last night and after the second one, it was clear: it had it all. The salt, the sweet, the brine, the crunch. It was a culinary car crash of depravity. It screamed empty pantry/bachelor/home at three a.m./starving/nothing in the house but smoked oysters, an avocado, and a jar of cocktail olives.

Of course, this is all projection. But I can smell it a mile away, like a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya.