When you properly taste a fruit for the first time, you remember it. Apple: an English garden; I can’t have been more than six. Avocado: Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in a chicken sandwich. Mango: Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, filleted over sticky rice. Raspberry: England again, straight off the vine, a summer that seemed to last forever. Grape: the weird off license at the end of Borgo San Jacopo, Florence. Fig: a weird dude above a stony beach in Puglia, selling them off a wooden table – each time I tried to walk away, he’d foist another handful on me.
This seems an antagonistically globe-trotting assortment, but really it’s a set of exceptions. Because for every other fruit under the sun, there’s only one place for me, and one time: San Francisco, and the six months I spent there in 2012. Fruit you’d put in a fruit salad (the oranges!), and fruit you wouldn’t (the Early Girl tomatoes!). Berries. Stone fruit of astonishing depth and complexity of flavour, an astounding burst of both sweet and sour and length on the palate – actually deserving of the word “haunting”. After a while, California’s Edenic climate seemed to be taking the piss, producing even more delicious cross-breeds and implausibilities: aprium, plumcot, pluot.
California is a trendsetting state in more ways than one. Stuff you’re only just getting into now – fizzy cold brew; $6 toast; trigger warnings – was passé there before the London Olympics. This is even true of the current mainstream mania for clean eating, which many still denigrate on this side of the Atlantic as faddiest of fads. Out there, people make up dietary requirements just to keep restaurateurs on their restauratoes. Out there, anything’s cool.
So I came to Everything I Want to Eat, the new (and first) book from Sqirl, a multihyphenate brunch-store-restaurant in LA, with some interest. Sqirl is hailed as the birthplace of everything that matters in food right now; ecstatic encomia on the book’s cover proclaim it as such. The reasons for its success go deep – certainly beyond surface appearances. Marian Bull has an excellent, interesting piece about it on Eater at the moment called “California Dreaming“, in which Sqirl (or California more generally) is presented in Freudian terms as a problematic, almost pathological fetish for New Yorkers and other visiting East Coasters, a source of both attraction and knowing, ironic revulsion: “we roll our eyes, then thirst for it anyway.” It’s all bound up in the lifestyle, and the fantasy of a lifestyle that Sqirl sells you: if I moved here, I, too, could become one of the locals, eating Edenic, seasonal fruits, basking in year-round sunshine. I could go back to that hobby I buried deep within myself, find a way to make it work and earn a living. If only I could book that one-way flight, it would all take care of itself.
To be clear, Sqirl does not serve “true” health food – more food that fits into an elaborate Los Angeles fantasy of zero-effort body perfectionism (“If you lived here, you’d be healthier now”, Bull imagines a billboard saying; she also describes the food as “athleisure for breakfast”, which is perfect). But it’s still odd, to open the book expecting the future – and instead to be confronted with the same present that meets you everywhere that has sprung up to cater to a Deliciously Ella fiction: grain bowls, brassica salads, nuts on nuts on nuts. I will say again, for the sake of balance (a foreign concept to our girl Ella, perhaps) that it’s not altogether #clean – there is a gratifyingly high-cholesterol dessert section, which, for me at least, was the best chapter of the book – but it’s certainly Tess Ward-adjacent.
Everything I Want to Eat is not is everything I want to eat. One cool sidebar about double cream in a salad dressing and a few interesting-sounding soft drinks and jams aside, the book feels precious thin on actual ideas. It is not the lunatic, inventive culinary California with which I fell in love and which I continue to fetishise in my own way: Korean-meets-Mexican-meets-Vietnamese, banh mi with jalapeños, kimchi-fried rice in a cheesy burrito, the inspired implausible catholic inclusivity of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions.
Instead, what this book is is extraordinarily white. The cover is white: jarringly white, pure-as-driven-snow white. It is no surprise that a place that specialises in brunch – as innately privileged activities go, the Everest in a Himalayas of peak caucasity – should be quite so monochrome, but it is still odd to realise its several hundred pages are a power-fantasy for a certain tranche of society who doesn’t think to raise a quizzical eyebrow when they read that, during the summer, Sqirl spends $4,000 a week on fresh fruit, most of which will be turned into jam. Because the photos are all gorgeous, and that jam looks so damn wholesome you could cry – particularly with the ricotta toast, a layer of virginal white spread thickly, symbolically, over brioche that time in a hot pan has turned brown.
Something troubling constellates around the question of aspiration, and the lies that a sort of immaculate presentation – a literal white-washing – can tell. This is the food of the filter bubble, the sort of thing you eat the morning after an election result you never saw coming. The food of people so self-involved that a meal’s nutritional content is subordinate to its signalling value. If I eat this food (this ricotta toast, this sorrel pesto), I, too, can become a moustachioed turmeric tonic-drinking bright young – white young – thing (photos of said specimens things adorn the book, often whimsically captioned). If I eat this food (this courgetti, this sugar-free date energy ball), I, too, can finally have #theglow.
In both cases, it doesn’t work quite as well when you get a sad sack of supermarket kale in the advanced stages of decay, or a rock hard Budgens avocado. It only works if you have the garden of Eden out your back window, and chances are you don’t. And when you don’t, there are few things more joyless, further from what you actually want to put in your mouth. My experience of flirting with various wellness diets is uniform, and terrible: a brief burst of positive sentiment (the glow?!) at first, followed by a procession of dreary, fat-free heaps of Big Agriculture greens, mealtimes turned to chores. It’s a lifestyle only in the sense it’s a way to spend the time while alive; really, it’s no way to live. In a year like 2016, we owe it to ourselves to seek a better alternative.
Purely coincidentally, around the same time I started reading Everything I Want to Eat, I started flicking through Christian Puglisi’s Relae: A Book of Ideas. It’s a weird cookbook in that it’s not really a cookbook at all (the clue’s in the title). The restaurant it takes its name from is in Copenhagen; Puglisi (as his name sort-of suggests) is of Sicilian-Norwegian origin, and it shows in his (sort-of) recipes, which trot gamely around Europe (and further afield) in search of things that will taste delicious. It was a cold November night; days later the water in a standing puddle outside our window would freeze for the first time. I can’t remember the exact recipe I was looking at (it might have been a baked potato puree; it could have been charred Jerusalem artichokes) when I noticed it, but I was suddenly conscious that something had been building, something primal and fierce and a little alarming. I’d forgotten how enjoyable that feeling was, too, the promise of genuine, corporeal pleasure it brought. I got up from the sofa, emboldened with purpose. I was hungry.
Originally published by Civilian Global.