CHICAGO BLUES

Brother Cadfael and the notorious Mortar and Pestle Incident

By Chris Pretorius 12 February 2021

The mortar and pestle that caused all the trouble. Yes, it is THE mortar and pestle. Oh and some knives. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

The mortar and pestle is for people interested in exploring their inner Merlin or Brother Cadfael. I’m not that kind of guy. So I stuck it in a drawer.

My most recent column was about decluttering my kitchen cookbook case. Or “editing” it, rather. Even better, I “curated” it, to use the latest buzzword. Here in America, everybody and their little cousin is a curator lately. I’ve seen wine lists, coffee selections, make-up, wallpaper and dinner plates being “curated”. Recently at a Four Seasons hotel I noticed that even the minibar had been curated by somebody. No name mentioned. It’s just another way of saying you are about to pay top dollar for your drink. What really got me was a “carefully” curated cheese selection. I would bloody hope so.

Okay, this doesn’t mean “legitimate” art curators are not getting up to mischief either. I can’t tell you how many over-curated major art exhibitions I have seen in the last few years. Although right now I’m happy to see any exhibition, over-curated or not.

The elegant chaos of my utensils drawer. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

Towards the end of last year my dear family bullied me into curating my cookbook case. But two months later, I’m happy to report, like our American democracy, it has shown some resilience and restored itself to its former unruly glory. All the books have somehow found their way back to where they were before the Big Disruption. To tell the truth, my kitchen drawers and cupboards are in a far greater state of chaos than the bookcase ever was. My utensils drawer is a mess. I even have a few chef’s knives without their tips in there. Some members of my household are under the impression that chef’s knives are perfect for prying lids off cans. What can I tell you?

A few weeks ago I was about to start cooking a lamb curry only to discover my cardamom, coriander seeds etc had just vanished off the face of the earth. I was about to start throwing plates around when I suddenly remembered I had been talked into packing them in a Tupperware bin and shelving them away neatly. I pulled down the bin and there they were, plus a whole bunch of spices that I had completely forgotten about. Surprise!

Like with my cookbooks, I seem to be utterly incapable of getting rid of old  unused pots and pans. They just tend to migrate to the far dark corners of the cupboards where they can remain undetected for years and I say good for them. This whole “wellness through decluttering” thing is such utter nonsense. Unless you’re a sucker for psychological punishment. Everything gets pathologised lately. I prefer a more layered approach. I like my kitchen to have a history.

Strange as it may seem, I tend to like sparse mid-century modern interiors. I can’t stand Victorian horror vacui. Covering every square centimetre of wall space with pictures and floral wallpaper and every surface with nick nacks and crap just doesn’t do it for me. (I hate B&Bs). But sparseness does need to be tempered with a little clutter, a little homeyness. To me, cooking is personal. I want to be surrounded by things that give me comfort. There is a story behind how each and every utensil found its way into my kitchen. Not that I can remember half of it. Whether I use it or not is my business but I have a relationship with it. Think of that old T-shirt with holes under the armpits that you just can’t get yourself to throw away. Battle scarred. It’s a loyal companion and it earned its little space in your life. Keep it.

One of the kitchens we worked on. Note the pot filler above the La Cornue Grand Palais and the stack of ‘antique’ books to the side. Sigh. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

I work in the interior design business and I can’t tell how many super high-end design kitchens I walk into that are totally characterless and bland. Totally devoid of clutter and utterly lifeless. The kind of kitchen that has a tap on a swivel arm above the La Cornue Grand Palais range, (that’s a stove when it’s home), to fill pots with water on the stove. Problem here is if you can’t manage to carry a pot with water from the sink to the stove, how the hell are you going to get it off the stove? The kind of kitchen that has a separate built-in deep fryer and a pastry counter with a cooled marble top. Like the lady of the house is going to be deep frying or rolling pastry dough. These people don’t cook. Not to mention the multithousand-dollar built-in coffee maker that has your choice of coffee ready because it knows when you get up in the morning.

The kind of kitchen where the designers hire me to come in with my crew and give it some charming hand painted character, a light patina of faux history. So basically I supply the “French country kitchen” look. It’s all set dressing really. Squeaky clean wealthy Americans buying a little history.

But very carefully curated history, mind you. Can’t clash with the squeaky clean preppy thing going on. And that kind of thing doesn’t come cheap. You need to know what you’re doing to make a kitchen look “old”, not just old. These are of course the same people that buy antique books by the metre to fill their bookshelves to make them look smart.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m quite capable of throwing things out. I can think of cheese knives with bright yellow handles with pink cows and strange horn shaped prongs, obviously to spear the cheese with. Don’t ask. Of course, those got curated straight into the trash. I find myself in the unfortunate situation to be regarded as the family foodie by my in-laws. Guess what I get for Christmas? Useless kitchen gadgets. And on top of that, I’m perceived as arty so you can imagine where that ends up. The only useless gadget I haven’t gotten so far is a chartreuse banana slicer.

To illustrate my point, sort of, I should mention what has become known as the MORTAR AND PESTLE INCIDENT. One Christmas my mother-in-law presented me with a mortar and pestle. Nothing really wrong with that except that I’m not really that kind of guy. I have a cheap little coffee grinder dedicated to spices and it works like a bomb. The mortar and pestle is for people interested in exploring their inner Merlin or Brother Cadfael. I didn’t throw it out because it was made of marble and kind of cute, not offensive looking. So I stuck it in a drawer. Of course, the next time mom-in-law came to visit she opened the drawer, found it and sniffed it. “This has not been used,” she hissed. Oh god. So after she left I got Willem to crush some cardamom and fennel seeds in it. On her next visit it passed the sniff test. Yes, she sniffed it again. On her next visit, she made straight for the drawer and sniffed it, again.

Don’t ever give a person of a certain age, and known to be a cook, kitchen gadgets for Christmas. That person already has every gadget that person needs and more. And I include cookbooks in this lot.

Anyway, finally, it is 2021. Christmas is long gone and there were no goofy kitchen gadgets under the tree this time. We are still under Covid lockdown, finally we have a grownup in the White House again and the future is suddenly looking a little brighter.

But let’s stay in the kitchen and out of politics. As it happens, more than 50% of American conservatives don’t know what a foodie is or are even familiar with the term. You’re talking about people here who apparently consider Chinese takeaways to be exotic foreign food, despite the fact that there are three times as many Chinese restaurants as McDonald’s in the US (There’s a McDonalds University right here in Chicago. Seriously.) Never mind the fact that Chinese takeaways originated in New York in the late 19th century. And wealthy conservatives tend to prefer pricey national steakhouse chains over independent restaurants. They always want to go to the same restaurant, no matter where they are, whichever city they find themselves in. Like Morton’s Steakhouse, the home of the $60 steak, for instance.

And here’s a funny little tidbit that I came across: Conservatives consume less alcohol and are a lot tidier and more uncluttered than liberals. So that makes me a bona fide liberal. Go mess up your kitchen a little and you can be one too.

It seems that liberals have far better eating habits than conservatives. Democrats also tend to live closer to high quality groceries, and that means the bigger metropolitan areas. And it’s way easier to buy alcohol in Democratic-leaning areas. In Chicago you can buy liquor in any shop selling food. There are also no time restrictions on alcohol sales, even on Sundays. In small-town USA the liquor store is usually banished to the outskirts of town next to the porn shop. It’s easier to buy a gun out there than a bottle of whiskey. I’ve mentioned in previous columns that the food situation in the rural areas of the US can be pretty dismal. I discovered this first hand on two road trips I took towards the end of last year.

Both trips were work related and I decided to drive rather than risk flying. The first trip was 11 hours to Atlanta, Georgia. You go south from Chicago, all the way through Indiana, then Kentucky, Tennessee and finally Georgia, probably four of the most conservative states in the US. We stayed overnight at a self-catering hotel in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. And the supermarket was totally hopeless. And not a mask in sight. We ended up with a few greyish looking steaks and wrinkled potatoes. No salad. That’s a liberal thing.

Eating in Atlanta also became an issue because despite the lovely southern weather, there was very little outdoor dining available and no safe distancing or mask wearing indoors. Back home indoor dining was totally banned. It occurred to me that Chicago restaurants would kill for Atlanta’s mild weather.

Atlanta also has a very large South African population and I found a South African restaurant called 10 Degrees South and a biltong bar called The Biltong Bar, owned by the same people. We ended up not going, for a few reasons. The first being no outdoor dining available, but the prices were astronomical. They were charging $36 for one sosatie and yellow rice and $26 for a slice of bobotie. Come on man, give me a break! That’s nearly R540 for one bloody sosatie and R400 for bobotie. I love bobotie but it is basically meatloaf and can be prepared in large batches. Forget it. I can throw my own sosatie on the grill for a dollar fifty. So I googled the owners, Derek and Diane Anthony, and their son, and came across a bizarre photo of a smiling Derek and Diane with a group of semi-naked Zulu dancers. In the photo Derek can be seen clutching some animal’s tail. A little culturally tone deaf, to say the least. Natal Midlands comes to Atlanta. Now you know why I’m not allowed to be a restaurant critic.

The Anthonys and the supposedly ‘Zulu warriors’ at an event at their restaurant. Place your favourite gobsmacked emoji here. (Screen grab from www.mdjonline.com/neighbor_newspapers)

On the drive back to Chicago, my son Willem noticed something funny about the billboards along the highway. And there are lots of them. Sometimes it’s hard to see the landscape through the clusters of billboards. Anyway, in Tennessee the majority of them advertised fireworks and guns. But in Kentucky the majority advertised fireworks and porn shops. Definitely a randy bunch down there in good old Kentucky.

Two weeks later we did a 20-hour trip from Chicago to Aspen, Colorado. You go straight west from Chicago, across the Mississippi, through Ohio, Nebraska and a chunk of Colorado. Oh my god, there I was thinking the drive south was dreary. Wait till you see Nebraska. There’s a 150km stretch of highway that is completely straight and flat. Not Karoo straight, I mean as straight as a ruler. There’s actually a country song about the only way to survive driving through Nebraska is totally drunk. My wife Jill found it so hilarious that she insisted on playing it over and over, driving everybody crazy. At least it kept us awake.

And of course, no food. Unless you consider the stuff they sell in the dingy little fast food places attached to the petrol stations on the edges of the dilapidated little towns to be food. Usually across the road from a truck stop and a porn shop. Not to mention the maskless warriors pulling up to the porn shop in their pickup trucks. One feels for the porn actors performing in those dismal places in the middle of nowhere.

After all this, Aspen feels like it’s on a different planet, nestled high up in the snow-covered Rocky mountains, inhabited by the super wealthy. Only the super wealthy can afford to live in Aspen. The service people (there are only rich people and service people in Aspen) all live about 50km out of town. The supermarket was great though. Or should I say, tastefully curated, just like in Chicago. Also, we learnt from our Atlanta experience and rented an apartment with a kitchen. Even in Aspen, the restaurants were crowded and not a mask in sight. I must say, though, that after spending more than a week cooking on one, I can’t imagine how anyone manages to cook on an electric stove.

All that driving made it clear to me how vast and polarised this country is. And how complicated the food distribution system really is. They don’t grow vegetables in Nebraska, only corn and cattle. Everything else needs to be imported from centralised distribution centers, which makes a decent meal really expensive. If you can find the ingredients. I would also feel disgruntled and neglected if I had to live out there in Nebraska.

Not that I sympathised with those yahoos busting up the Capitol. But I wasn’t all that surprised either. I drove by those people, out there in the middle of nowhere, driving up to the porn shops in their pickup trucks and eating junk. You end up being what you eat, as the old adage goes. Maybe I don’t mind tastefully curated cheese selections and wine lists after all. I think. DM/TGIFood

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  • Great read. Lived in the mid west for seven years. Your article pretty much nails the vibe. And I hear you on families requesting more order in the kitchen- how dare they?!

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