The Digest

The Tao of Percy Pigs & Other News

21st October 2017

Words: James Hansen

In this week’s food writing round-up: making it nice in restaurants, an appreciation of ghee, and floating fish farms in China

Chris Townsend interrogates the existentialism of Percy Pigs (i.e. the Marks & Spencer pig-featured sweets) for Prospect Magazine. The “smiling anthropomorphic pig has proven himself to be doubly irresistible to the consuming public: cute in appearance; delicious in taste.” He has also proven himself to be philosophically troubling: in asserting the uniqueness of his veggie cousin, his manufacturer unwittingly highlights another truth: Percy Pigs contain pig. All kinds of moral dilemmas and touchstones ensue, from the biblical to The Simpsons, and at the centre of it all is Percy’s smiling, faintly cannibalistic jowl: “the gelatine that wants to be eaten.”

George Reynolds provides further interrogation – this time of restaurant principles – at his blogEgo Scriptor. At the centre of it all is “Make it nice”, a call for perfection trademarked and wielded by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara at Eleven Madison Park in New York (aka the World’s Best Restaurant). Reynolds’ conviction is clear: by deploying various versions of the catchphrase in casual environments, top chefs such as Humm, Grant Achatz (Alinea) and David Chang (Momofoku) have pulled a fast one. Gone in all cases are the trappings of Formal Fine Dining; very much still here are premium ingredients, eye-watering prices and (maybe) cookie-cutter cynicism. It comes in the wake of Jeff Gordinier’s 18 Best New Restaurants in America list for Esquire, which is peppered with establishments promising no-frills food while charging the likes of £18 for a broccoli salad.


Aditya Raghavan unearths the impact of terroir on ghee for The Goya Journal. Using honey as an analogy, Raghavan writes that “Just as bees are attracted to the first blossoms of the season, bovines follow fresh grass. The concept is simple – it takes roughly 30 kg of milk to produce 1 kg of ghee. The flavours of the terroir – the wild shrubs, the grasses and flowers – that animals have fertilized and grazed upon, are heightened in this compression, giving the ghee its particular flavour.” Treating ghee as a mere glance in the direction of clarified butter is to ignore its diversity: ghee can also be derived from yoghurt or malai (a kind of cream). A yoghurt base adds lactic, fermented flavours; malai ghee tends towards caramelisation and toffee; the pasture on which cows graze adds the top-notes. As with so many “basic” products, ghee is never just ghee.

Kaushik (other name unknown) takes a birdseye view of China’s floating fish farms for Amusing Planet. Not quite a photo-essay nor an article, but somewhere in between, the images from south-eastern China’s Fujian province capture the remarkable scale of the fish industry in the country, while dwelling on a more sour note – overfishing threatens to wreak havoc upon the waters, if it hasn’t done so already. The sprawling patchwork of boats, pathways and huts is itself a living community – floating above the living community by which it sustains itself.

Scaachi Koul takes the festival of Diwali as a time to reflect on how her mother’s cooking has shaped her own for Buzzfeed. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve been trying to learn my mom’s recipes myself. She got hers from her mother, who died more than a decade ago in India, and who used to make the most delicate little pats of paneer. (We called it tsamen, a word I learned is used only in our little corner of North India.)” That change – from an adequate but vague description to a word that names and takes ownership of a family speciality – is the heartbeat of the piece: adopting a culinary vernacular to pass down and remake time and time again. As her mother’s culinary generosity dovetails with her reticence in giving out recipes, Koul reflects on the limitations of lineage:

Somewhere along the line, we’ll forget my mom’s maiden name. We’ll forget what her actual name was before she changed it when she moved. We’ll lose language and the way to make a candle from ghee and a cotton ball. I can’t pull all of this information out of her, and I can’t carry all of it after she’s gone, and I panic when I think about how impossible it feels to one day not need her. But at least I can try to cook.

Posted 21st October 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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