Neil and Chantrelle
When Neil Gaiman was on tour for American Gods last year, I caught up with him at TechTV in San Francisco. We made a “date” to have sushi when he returned to the Bay Area. On July 2nd this year, Neil read his new book, Coraline, to a captivated Berkeley audience, all of whom regressed to being eight years old (at least I did!) while listening to the reading and it was fantastic. He kept his date with me and we met at Yoshi’s in Oakland for a lovely lunch.
We chatted a while about food, drink and the sort and then the “official” interview began. Join our lunch already in progress…
neil: I was passing through Gatwick Airport and saw a whiskey on the shelves that I’d never seen before for a price that I’d never seen before in Gatwick Airport. It was £169, which was $250, a lot more than you normally see whiskies. And it was in this really ugly box: plastic-cellophane and cardboard and looked like it had been made in the 1970s. And the label looked really weird too. It was a Strathisla whiskey, which I’d never heard of. And it went into its casks in 1955, had been decanted and bottled in about 1999 and here it was up on the shelves. And I thought, “Well, I’ve never paid that much but I’ll get it.” I took it home and it completely ruined me for whiskies. That particular Strathisla [did]. And I assumed that this was something you could always get at Gatwick airport and, ever since then, I’ve gone back, and I’ve sent people back, and people have gone and checked and they can’t find it. [Someone] found one site that had one bottle for about $500 and [this was the '57] it wasn’t even the ’55. And [the '55] did all these things. I still have some left in the bottle because it’s one of those things that you can drink in very, very small amounts. And it’s like one of those sweets, I don’t know what they’re called in America, but when I was a kid in England they were called Gobstoppers.
chantrelle: They’re the same here.
neil: Do you still have those? With the sequence of flavors? And it’s like that sequence of flavors. You put it in your mouth and taste one thing and then you taste 2 or 3 more things and then slowly it sort of evaporates in your mouth and it’s gone and you start getting this sequence of aftertastes and it runs through 5 or 6 completely separate, completely distinct tastes like a chromatic scale of whiskies.
chantrelle: I can’t do scotch. I’ve tried. My husband is really into scotch and we were going to go to Scotland last year and I was going to drive and he would get to do a distillery tour and we would hike around the hillsides. We were a week away from going when foot-and-mouth happened.
neil: And you couldn’t hike anywhere anymore
chantrelle: Right, so we went to France and Italy. We ended up having a wonderful food trip because of the change in plans though—probably a better food trip than we would have had in Scotland especially since we don’t eat meat.
neil: Did I tell you about the salad I tried to eat in Argentina? In Argentina, I have no voice. I’m completely silent. I did the Rio de Janeiro book fair and did the signing and had to make myself heard over the book fair. And then did a signing for 1200 people. And by the end of the 1200 people signing, I did not have a voice. I was completely silent. So, I’m without a voice and Andres is my guide and escort around the wonderful, wacky world of Buenos Aires. At the time I was pretty much completely vegetarian, I’ve now drifted again. I’ve always been a kind of lazy fish-eating vegetarian…
|…glad to know it’s eggplant and not some strange undersea beastie
neil: Ya, but these days I’m being much less picky about, “Ok, fine, I’ll eat meat.” But at the time I was really being rather strict. And so it was probably Argentina that killed that because there’s nothing to eat. So I go into this restaurant, which I go to because it has this amazing salad section on the window including macrobiotic salads and things and I said, “We have to go here.” We go into the restaurant. It’s like any of those wonderful old Argentinean restaurants, it’s not been decorated since 1922, they’ve expanded it and given it a couple of coats of paint but it’s still got the same ceiling and it’s obviously a tango dance floor on Saturday nights but right now it’s a restaurant. The waiter comes over and I say, “Ah, I’ll have this” but only I don’t say that because I don’t have any voice so I’m sort of pointing and nudging Andres. The waiter looks at me and says, “No.” Andres says, “No, they don’t have that.” So I say, “Ok, that one”…”No.” And then the man runs his finger down the entire list of salads until he finds the “tomato, and salad cream and tinned peas salad,” points to that with his thumb and says, “It’s very good, it’s very very good” [in a low gruff voice] which I think is probably Argentinean for “We have some in the fridge in the back.” And I gave up and had the meat. It was very strange, Andres would actually get weirded out by the quantity of vegetables. I would watch vegetarian friends of mine, Alan and Sue Grahams, trying to explain to the Argentineans that a ham sandwich does not become a vegetarian sandwich by adding lettuce.
Neil and his eggplant sushi
I always forget how much I like eating good sushi in the bay area. Until I get out here and eat good sushi and go “Yes!”
[Neil eats the eggplant nigiri]
That is great! The eggplant. I’ve never had eggplant sushi before and decided to.
chantrelle: And you probably couldn’t get it anywhere else but around here.
[Neither of us had ever had eggplant sushi before. It is strange-looking, somewhat unagi-ish but not quite like unagi. Neil is "glad to know it's eggplant and not some strange undersea beastie."]
chantrelle: It’s awesome to come here and see good jazz and eat sushi served to your table during the show. I had this “foodporn” moment during a show. I take a bite of salmon and it was one of the best pieces of salmon I’d ever had, right as the bass solo starts. So it’s completely quiet and I can’t make a sound. It was like having sex in your parent’s house. I just couldn’t say anything. It was almost painful!
neil: I really hope your microphone is working
chantrelle: That’s not going on the site. My mom reads it!
neil: You have to put it! That is one of those perfect descriptions of something.
chantrelle: I’m married now, I guess it’s ok.
neil: I was going to say. They’ve probably figured it out.
[There you go Neil...it's there :)]
neil: So what would you like to know foodporn-wise? Apart from the fact that I just discovered that I actuallylike eggplant sushi.
chantrelle: The first question is Coraline-related. What inspired the dishes that Coraline’s dad prepared?
neil: The entire inspiration for that kind of thing came from my son, Michael, who, when he was 8 or 9, would look at me in horror, I was cooking at the time. My wife was working and, one day, I realized that it would make so much more sense if I cooked than if she did. So I started cooking and I cooked for several years. I’d cook something and Mike would look at me in horror, and he would say, “Dad, you’ve made a recipe haven’t you?” And I would plead guilty to having made a recipe. He would just sigh and shake his head, go to the freezer and take out a little box of microwavable french fries and a microwave mini-pizza and he would go and put it in and sit down and that would be his dinner.
He was like so many kids, one of the most conservative eaters. I remember when we moved to America, so between the ages of 9 and 14 or 15, we’d go to our favorite restaurant and he would eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or if he were feeling adventurous he would have the grilled cheese sandwich. One day, the waiter there, who he got on with, said, “You know Mike? I always bring you the grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Have you thought of trying something else from somewhere on the menu? This is really good.” And I forget what “this” was but whatever it was Mike went, “Oh, ok.” And he ordered it and he loved it. And at that point the menu became this map to adventure. And he was very happy. These days he’s a bizarre and wonderfully adventurous eater.
So I really stole that from there.
Then I stole the dishes from various people. There is a very very dear friend of mine who I shall not name because people would read the web site and say “Haha, did you really do this?” When I first went to his house for dinner, he very proudly prepared a pizza. It was basically a tinned apricot pizza. It was apricot halves in syrup on the pizza along with the onions and stuff and it was one of those things where I could not go there. I could not reach that place. I live in a universe in which tinned apricots and pizza are things that must remain forever [apart].
And that’s why I put the pineapple pizza. That was a little tribute to my friend. And I’d never quite been one of those people who had ever really been able to get into the idea, for example, stuffing a chicken with prunes. I know that there are people who do this.
chantrelle: Stewing it in wine however is very good.
neil: Stewing it in wine is wonderful, yes. Absolutely, you make a wonderful Coq au Vin. But it’s also the kind of thing, which, as a kid, you go, “Why would you do that?” I didn’t want to make fun of her dad, which is why it was pineapple rather than tinned apricots. It would be very easy to make his recipes really silly and they weren’t. I just wanted him to be somebody who was cooking things that an 8-yr-old girl simply is not going to respond to. And, as he says, it’s quite possible that if she tried some of them she might like them but he’s never making anything that she’s ever going to go “Hey, I could try that!” He is the kind of person who would see a squid in the fishmongers and go, “I know lots of great squid recipes” and would buy the squid and she’s just going to look at it.
Holly, who is now 17 as of a couple of days ago, her favorite food growing up was smoked salmon and seeing that we weren’t very rich at the time, I discovered that I could go to my local fishmonger and get smoked salmon bits, the little off-cuts. Just get a bag of them incredibly cheaply because what they sold expensively was the beautiful strips of smoked salmon but I’d buy her bags [of the bits] and she’d sit there and eat them as if it were candy.
|…the happiest moment in terms of “happy in your mouth.”
chantrelle: My friend’s daughter, who is 6, likes smoked salmon but she prefers gravlax. If you put “regular” salmon in front of her, she’ll say, “I like this, but I would rather have gravlax.”
neil: The best of all of those that I’ve ever had was in a hotel in Gottenburg, Sweden…whatever the hotel is that dominates the bay, and I’ve forgotten the name of it. They have a marinated salmon dish that is not actually a gravlax and is not a smoked salmon it’s something else. It’s their own marinated salmon thing, which is probably the happiest moment in terms of “happy in your mouth.” If I was sent to a desert island and told, “Well, you can only eat one thing, what would it be?” I’d say, “Well, I’ll have that.”
[The conversation then turns to Reykjavik and an interesting discovery of Neil's]
neil: I was in Reykjavik on a Sunday and the restaurant was not open. [I] walked down to the Japanese restaurant got to the bottom of the [menu] and there’s “pony sushi.” Which makes a kind of sense because that is the only animal they have too many of.
[The waitress returns with a menu for Neil to order more food. He goes with albacore toro, the Yoshi roll, which is salmon and asparagus, and a 2nd order of the eggplant so that he can share his discovery]
chantrelle: What’s your favorite comfort food?
chantrelle: I knew you were going to say that.
neil: No, I mean it really really is. It has to be reasonably good sushi. There is nothing more depressing in the world than being far from home, like in an airport or somewhere, and going, “Oh look, they have a sushi counter” and ordering the sushi and eating this sad fishy stuff on sort of rice pudding strips and going “Why am I doing this?”
Something I have been guilty of in the past.
So, my comfort food is sushi. Every now and then I will use sushi to reward myself and I’ll use it to keep me going through things like signing tours [which] can be absolutely hellish. People thought I was kidding or thought I was lunatic when I posted the American Gods signing tour journal, “Ok I had sushi here, sushi there, good sushi here, bad sushi here.”
chantrelle: I didn’t see a problem with it.
neil: No, as far as I was concerned I was like, “Ok, this is my tour…”
chantrelle: I would eat sushi every day if I could afford it.
neil: That was the joy of being on tour with somebody else paying. And surprisingly I think the best sushi of the entire tour was in Victoria, British Columbia. It was amazingly fresh. It was quite wonderful.
Although the place I recommended on the journal, who’s name I’ve now forgotten, in Chicago, at world horror time. Check the journal back in the beginning of May, and I actually posted the address and everything of this place in Chicago [Katsu - 2651 W. Peterson Ave, Chicago 60659]. Every now and then things come in from the Frequently Asked Question line just going, “I ate there, it was amazing.” It really was world-class sushi…in Chicago. It was this one place that was really up there, as far as preparation and inspiration, and originality and coolness, up there with the Nobu’s.
chantrelle: I ate at Nobu in London.
neil: I’ve never done Nobu in London but I have not heard nice things about it.
chantrelle: No, really? It was fantastic. All I really ate was salmon, I ordered other things but don’t remember those well, I just had order after order of the fresh salmon…Salmon for dessert. I would have had more if they wouldn’t have brought the check because they were closing.
neil: I love Nobu Next Door in New York.
But I had a strange experience at Nobu [in New York] where they accidentally nearly killed one member of our party. Which is just bizarre because one of the things they do at the beginning is that they come around saying “Do you have any allergies, blah blah blah?” It was this Comic Book Legal Defense Fund meal where these people had paid $2000 to have a meal with me for the Legal Defense Fund. When I’d said to the Legal Defense Fund, “Let’s just auction off dinner,” they’d been looking at doing sandwiches and then suddenly it’s $2000 and we’re going, “Well maybe we go somewhere worthwhile.” Then DC Comics said they’d pick up the bill and we went to Nobu.
So one of the party is saying, “I can’t eat shellfish, I will stop breathing.” They go “Ok, not a problem.” The misos come and the miso is course number 4 or 5, we’d eaten several things first. The misos come in and at the same moment two things happen: First of which is we get half way down the miso and I notice there are little clams. Little shellfish shells in the miso. The second thing I notice is, coming from the seat next door to me, the noise sort of [gasssp, gasssp] as someone slowly stops being able to breathe.
|…there are tastes that one cannot go back to.
Chris Oarr from the Legal Defense Fund ended up running over, grabbing this lady, putting her in a taxi, and heading off to find a hospital or something.
neil: Here we go, ask another question.
chantrelle: What is your favorite childhood food memory?
neil: Favorite childhood food memory? Well, there are tastes that one cannot go back to. There are tastes that do not exist.
One brand of ice cream that they no longer make and no longer tastes like that when they do called Verrechia’s. It was just the local ice cream when I was a kid in Portsmouth.
Ribena gum, Ribena pastels. Which were these blackcurrant-flavored sweets. They still make something with that name in Hong Kong because a fan in Hong Kong heard me complain that this was a taste from my youth you could not get. She found me some and actually sent them. Unfortunately, it’s a completely different foodstuff. It’s not the same thing. But they were these sort of wonderful hard gums which were basically just sugar and blackcurrant essence. But they made me incredibly happy and they no longer exist. And I still get blackcurrant flavored sweets when I’m in England and blackcurrant-flavored glycerin throat drops because sometimes, if you suck one, you can sort of find something that reminds you enough of that taste. So, those would be, in terms of the tastes I still remember [my favorite].
[waitress returns with the second order]
neil: It looks wonderful.
waitress: You dug in huh?
neil: [to Chantrelle] So can I get you [to try] one of [the eggplants]? This is foodporn, I mean, you have to be experimental.
[FYI, go to Yoshi's...get the eggplant!]
What else would you like to know?
chantrelle: Well, this one is obvious too I think. If you were forced to eat food from just one region for the rest of your life what region would you choose?
neil: Oh, I’d definitely take sushi again.
Although, having said that, I have an enormous fondness…one reason why I garden is I love fresh vegetables. I love growing fresh vegetables and having fresh vegetables around.
chantrelle: By the way, the eggplant was fantastic
neil: That was why I wanted to make you guys try some. It was really good. Sometimes I love occasional counter-intuitive foods. Seeing eggplant sushi on the list and going, “Well, ok, it’s certainly worth trying” even if it’s awful and it actually was lovely. It’s got that lovely sweetness of well-grilled eggplant. And I love the color too, there’s a magical, sort of, bluish sheen to it.
chantrelle: it’s the closest thing to blue food that exists I think.
neil: [picking the parsley up from his plate] There was a while when my kids had read the Penn & Teller’sHow to Play with Your Food and we really got into the concept of “pass the parsley.” Have you ever readHow to Play with Your Food by Penn & Teller?
neil: Ok, Penn & Teller, one of their books is “Penn & Teller’s How to Play with Your Food,” an amazing and wonderful book. And it includes, when they were on the road, none of them ate parsley and wherever they ate, food would come with parsley. So they developed this game of “pass the parsley,” the object of which [is to get your parsley onto someone else's plate] but there’s a “but” on there which is that the other person cannot see you. They are into misdirection and so on and so forth and the object is to get your parsley onto the other guy’s plate without him or her ever noticing. They have to look down and go “Oh my god, there’s the parsley.” And I remember one point in the Penn & Teller book where they talk about that there was actually a major car accident immediately outside the window and a car crashed into the window of their restaurant and they sat there with their heads glued [looks intently down at the plate] to their plates.
chantrelle: I can see them doing that.
OK, two more FoodPorn questions.
chantrelle: It’s your turn to cook dinner, what do you make? What’s your favorite thing to prepare? You can do it seasonally if you’d like.
neil: Ok…Well, my favorite thing to cook is not what I would make for dinner. It’s my favorite thing to cook and it’s been my favorite thing to cook every since I was a little kid. Which I actually put in, on a sort of foodporn level, into Coraline: Omelettes. When I was a kid, I would have been about 11 or 12, I watched this British quiz show. They had this quiz show called The Generation Game, which was pretty dreadful. The idea is, two representatives from families, father and son or uncle and nephew or mother and daughter or whatever, are taken apart and a specialist would come out and make a pot. And do something that if you were a practiced expert you could do in 2 minutes and do well. So you throw your pot, you do your thing, it’s simple, it’s beautiful and the guy takes a couple of minutes, he’s got a beautifully thrown pot and they say, “And now father and daughter here are your lumps of clay!” And they’d sit down and they produce things that would not have done duty as an ashtray and everybody laughs and the potter comes out and says, “Ah, I’ll give this one 3 and this one has originality, I’ll give it 5.” So that’s very much the way it went. They had this boozy old English cook who was actually before my time, she was a Julia Child-like character called Fanny Craddock and her husband Johnny. They actually were TV cooks before my generation but they got them out, they rolled them out for the generation game and Fanny Craddock comes out and she made an omelette. And I was absolutely fascinated watching how she made the omelette. And immediately as a kid got into making omlettes using the one piece of information that I learned from her first. Which is you begin by melting some butter in a pan and then you stir that butter back into whatever your mix is.
chantrelle: I noticed that in the book. I’d never done that before.
neil: It’s stirring that little bit, it doesn’t have to be a lot of butter, but it’s stirring that melted butter back into the mix and then adding…These days I’ve now discovered that plain yogurt is actually my favorite thing to then add to the egg mix. And you wind up with this amazing, amazing texture and amazing taste omelette. So actually my favorite thing to cook…If someone said you can cook one thing forever what would you cook, I’d cook omlettes. I take pleasure in making a perfect omelette and folding it and flipping it.
In terms of doing a dinner, I go through phases where this is my favorite thing to cook. I went through my major curry phase for a while. I just found all of these strange Indian books and just cooked. The house just smelled like garam masala for a while. But I think probably my favorite thing just to cook is really, really simply grilled fish.
My most embarrassing cooking admission at this point is when I actually stayed at a friend’s house in Florida….this isn’t my friend Tori, because normally when I say I stay at a friend’s house in Florida everyone goes, “Ahh it’s Tori,” but this wasn’t actually. This was my friends Jonathan and Jane who are very famous in England but completely unknown over here. And I was staying at their place in Florida and doing some writing and they had this George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine thing which I laughed at. I went “Hahaha” and then I started experimenting with it because I was out there and they really didn’t have a working grill and this was the only thing I could grill anything on and I went “This is great!” And I discovered that in terms of cooking fish it was just absolutely magnificent.
|And they just sort of go into your mouth and they do things.
So, when I got home I said to my wife, “This is really embarrassing but I want to buy one.” I love the sheer efficiency of cooking perfectly grilled fish every time. So that’s my most embarrassing cooking admission but I love cooking fish.
I love doing interesting things with fish. My favorite bizarre and unusual recipe with fish is a trout recipe, which is “Trout in Newspaper.” You need black and white newspaper, which is harder and harder to find these days as they get more and more into color printing and color printing inks are poisonous, but you need black and white newspaper. And you take a whole trout and you slit it down the middle and you stick some herbs and maybe some sliced lemon into the middle of it. You fold it up in several layers of newspaper, make a sort of package essentially, a tight package of your trout wrapped in the newspaper. Then you hold it under a tap until it is completely soggy and wet. And you put it into a hot oven for about 25 minutes. And the outer newspaper will dry out. The inside ends up steaming it. The heat of the water will steam the trout. All cooking smells are kept inside that newspaper package.
chantrelle: Like parchment.
neil: Except it’s much thicker. And the other cool thing that happens is then when you come with your scissors at the end and you cut the trout out of the newspaper, the skin and everything sticks to the newspaper and you get this perfect, absolutely perfect, pink trout. It takes the head and the tail and the skin and you just get this perfectly cooked and perfectly done fish onto the plate. And it’s something I learned watching a TV episode of “Floyd on Fish” many, many years ago. [Keith] Floyd, another magnificently boozy English cooking show host. He went off to a trout farm and said, “What is your favorite recipe?” and they said, “Trout Newspaper.” Then he put it into his book, Floyd on Fish, and I seem to remember he got something wrong. I always love that, misprints in cooking books are always interesting. At that point I think they said you cook it for, like, 10 minutes or something. We tried it and it doesn’t work. You need about 1/2 an hour.
chantrelle: Ok, last one. Since this is for FoodPorn, what do you think is the sexiest food?
neil: Oh, that’s a good one. In terms of sheer sensual fun, I love sushi. And sushi I love because you have this whole combination of textures and tastes and things that you can do with it and you’re dipping it and your putting the thing on and there’s something deeply sexual…or sensual.
In terms of sex, it’s probably a really, really good red wine. But at that point you’re into those sorts of red wines that cost an awful lot and I tend to only drink if other people are paying for them. And you go “That’s how much and that could feed a family of how many?”
chantrelle: But “Oh my god it’s good!”
neil: Yes. And normally those red wines that are magically that tawny color. They’re not even red anymore. It’s hit that sort of reddish-amber in color. And they just sort of go into your mouth and they do things. And it’s the nearest thing there is to sex. So that’s it.