Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Eat Me: The Earnest Summation

Entertaining, it certainly is. Also, cantankerous, funny, smart, and original. The "forget-all-rules" approach to cooking is right-on, and the brazenly ugly photography a relief in a world of gauzy food porn. I highly recommend Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me.

But when you spend hours and hours cooking from a book, you make some interesting discoveries. In the last couple of weeks I've found that I'm actively hostile to Shopsin, a dynamic that has made it hard for me to fully embrace either his food or his odd, brilliant book.

What went wrong between Shopsin and me? I offer two theories that probably say as much about me as they do about him.

1. Kenny Shopsin is skeevy. I'm not solidly behind this hypothesis, just throwing it out there as a possible subconscious influence. I don't really enjoy hearing about anyone's sex life, and Shopsin, who could play the father of a fat kid in a Judd Apatow movie, is no exception. Do I want to imagine him masturbating? God no, but he makes allusions. Do I want to think about his orgasms? No, but again. And then there's the raw sausage picture. If you have the book, you know what I'm talking about. Keep it out of my kitchen, dude! 

I thought the off-color stuff was thoroughly amusing when I first read Eat Me some months ago. But, as I've said, you develop a deeper relationship when you're cooking from a book night after night, and though I never consciously recoiled, I'm not sure I'm down with the looking-up-skirts remarks.

2. Kenny Shopsin is a jerk. While I admire candor and eccentricity, you can be candid and eccentric without being uncivil. And yes, I think it is uncivil to kick people out of your restaurant because you don't like the way they look. (Shopsin: "We can usually tell if someone is going to work out the minute he or she walks through the door -- or even sooner.") I have come to imagine Shopsin's diner as a grimy little fiefdom where he makes outlandish unwritten rules, yells at people who innocently break them, then smugly boasts about it.

I don't enjoy being humiliated and I don't enjoy watching others humiliated, whether or not they deserve it. Borat, for instance, made my skin crawl. Shopsin comes off as a small-time tyrant who relishes power and humiliation then tries to pretend it's all about values. 

I could be completely wrong -- Shopsin might be a lovely guy -- but this is my impression based on the evidence I have to go on. 

Alright, now the food.

I made 26 recipes out of Eat Me:

Worth the price of the book -- 2 (lemon ricotta pancakes, egg cream)
Great: 4
Good: 10
So-so: 6
Flat-out bad 4

Impressive tally, given how negative some of my writeups were. Clearly, it's about so much more than food. Fascinating experience.


  1. Let me guess flat out bad was...
    1.Chicken Fingers
    3.Apple Soup
    4.Cashew Chicken


  2. OK, I will stipulate the following:
    1) Kenny Shopsin is skeevy.
    2) Kenny Shopsin is a terrible recipe writer.

    But he's a one-off culinary genius, and I don't think he's a jerk. I think he has a personality disorder, which he once tried to battle with thousands of hours of Freudian analysis (this from his own lips in the enthralling documentary, I Like Killing Flies). After that much Freud, he must think of everything in sexual terms. Of course eating and sex are closely related: both are associated with appetite or craving,both are primal activities that can be deeply pleasurable or merely mechanical, both are often accompanied by alcohol. I'm sure whole books, undoutedly tedious, have been written on this topic, and I imagine Jim Harrison has an essay or two on it, with references to oysters and such. My point is that cooking and eating can be pretty sexual, and for Shopsin there probably isn't a big line between food and sex.

    I think Shopsin is a walking id--he verbalizes everything that comes into his mind, and he's ruthlessly honest (he probably also has some deep-seated Mommy issues and some degree of self-loathing, but since this is a blog and not a psychology textbook, I'll move on).

    I don't agree with his and his employees' practice of humiliating and tongue-lashing customers. However, I think Shopsin has a strong sense of integrity and I think he's genuinely unconcerned about money. Since New York City has more people in it than any other city in America, it stands to reason that it also has a proportionally higher number of poseurs, wanna-bes, and assholes. Does Kenny Shopsin have to make food for those people if he doesn't want to?

    But speaking of the food, why do the Tipsy Baker and I have such divergent feelings about this cookbook? As you note, Tipsy, it's clearly about more than the food. But you also harbor animus towards Alice Waters (whom, despite her status as a cultural icon, I would argue is at least as much of a jerk as Kenny Shopsin--if I thought Kenny Shopsin was a jerk, which I don't). In the case of your reviews of her recipes it ended up being ONLY about the food. So what gives?

    I would propose that it may be a gender thing. I like Judd Apatow movies, and I like Kenny Shopsin. Maybe deep down all guys are just sloppy, sex-obsessed vulgarians, and Shopsin is one of the few of us who is brave enough to strip off the varnish of civility and express his true self. Much of his food is classic guy food--onion rings (wihout any batter!), sliders, hamburgers, cheesesteaks, chili. And his whole approach (get it done, serve it up, don't stand on ceremony, don't dwell too much on the provenance of your ingredients) is, I would suggest, a bit more of a male way of doing things. (I paint with a broad brush here, I know, but that seems appropriate when discussing Kenny Shopsin.)

    I'm also fascinated by the systems he uses to produce that much food on short order, and I think that's also more of a guy thing. His cook station is like the workshop that many real guys have (I, as a librarian, don't conform to some of these cultural norms): everything in its place and within reach for maximum efficiency and productivity.

    So, in conclusion: I think it's possible a woman could enjoy Kenny Shopsin's book and food. I just think it's more likely that men would, and that some women would recoil in horror from his warts-and-all self-presentation. Probably some men would, too.

    I like the big lug. His cookbook, which is what we're really talking about here, is a funny and generous-spirited portrait of a sui generis personality and way of cooking. The recipes are, in many cases, very badly written, but the headnotes are the best I've ever come across. It's not an exaggeration to say the book has fundamentally changed the way I think about food. Oh, and there's this: Every morning for the past week my oldest son has come downstairs and greeted me with, "Hi Dad. Can I have Eat Me French toast for breakfast?" What would Freud say?

  3. As I'm in the middle of making ravioli (Alice Waters recipe, btw -- can NOT surpass her recipes, damn it) I won't respond at great length immediately. I don't disagree with you at all. I appreciate your insight into Shopsin's mentality and my problem with him definitely IS a gender thing. I must go now and mince some tiny baby organic herbs, but when I am through I will be back.

  4. I'm back to finish our dialogue, Melvil. Isn't this exciting? It's almost like being in one of those Slate conversations except, you know, without the readers.
    The big question I have is, why did we have such different experiences with the cashew chicken? Simple recipe, easily executed -- but in my house it was loathed, in yours loved. One possibility is that you're wrong, we're right and we simply have better taste.
    Kidding. But what IS the explanation? Do you think your ardor for Kenny Shopsin has predisposed your family to like his dishes? Did my growing resistance to Shopsin's personality somehow affect how I prepared, presented, and perceived the cashew chicken? And did that animosity spread to other family members? It's a stretch, but it's crossed my mind.
    I also want to answer your question about Alice Waters and why I didn't explore her personality but have been tearing into Kenny Shopsin. First of all, you expect consistency from someone who calls herself the Tipsy Baker?
    But the real reason I didn't get into Alice's personality is that there is almost no personality expressed in her books, especially the one I focused on (Art of Simple Food.) And I complained about that.
    Eat Me is a more interesting, provocative, intelligent book than anything Alice Waters has ever written. I have read numerous reviews of EAT ME, and all have been rapturous. Rightfully so. My initial review of EAT ME was glowing and I would not change a word of it.
    But if you have an intense, interactive relationship with a cookbook, it all suddenly becomes very personal. As you say, eating and sex are closely related, and so all these irrational factors come into play. Your own personality, your prejudices, predilections and gender. I think we're seeing that played out in our diverging experiences of EAT ME, a book we both objectively, at least, deeply admire.

  5. What a fun and provocative exchange of views and speculations about, not just Kenny Shopsin and food, but gender and honesty as license for rudeness. Perfect reading for Thanksgiving morning. And, I learned a new word I can't wait to use.

  6. Mr. Dewhickey,

    You have outdone yourself with your insightful commentary in defense, as far as I can tell, of Kenny Shopskin.

    It raises the question of whether one can outthink or overthink food and other base animal activites.

    Descartes said, "Cogito, ergo sum." To which I might reply, "Semper ubi sub ubi."
    I.e., you eat, therefore you are. Thinking is an elective.