Adventures in the kitchen

Stefan Gates’ new book will make you a braver cook

Illustration By Carey Wilson

Buy the book:Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave (Harcourt, Inc., 250 pages, $14) is available at Lyon Books in downtown Chico.

“The most important element is that you relate to your [pig’s] head. When you get it home, the first thing you need to do is give your pig a name—it’s such a graphic part of the animal that you’re bound to feel some anthropomorphism, and hence a relationship will develop. … For the purposes of this recipe, we’ll call our pig Martha.”

—Stefan Gates, Gastronaut

Henri is always rendered a bit atwitter when he discovers a new and well-written cookbook. On the one hand, he’s thrilled at the glorious possibility of a new world of recipes and kinsmanhip with the book’s author. On the other, he always feels as though his turf—his gazon, if you will—is being just slightly imposed upon.

Ordinarily, new books on cooking pose no such threat. After all, they’re a dime a douzaine—ostentatious, overpriced publications congested with breathless accounts (and close-up, full-color glossy photos) of rather pedestrian concoctions. Stefan Gates’ new book, Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave, however, is no such document. This is a wonderful and unassuming book, and Mssr. Gates is a very fine writer—in fact, one of a small handful that Henri suspects, with some development and maturity, has the potential to become the world’s second-best living food writer.

A former child actor and BBC food-show host, Gates is a self-described “epicurean desperado” who lives for “wild culinary quests, weird foods, and hardcore feasting … and revels in destroying the kitchen every time he cooks.” A man after Henri’s own coeur.

Gastronaut is not, technically speaking, a cookbook, but more of a rumination on eating, drinking and living well and listening to good and appropriate music. It’s also a history of food and cooking as well as an examination of cultural taboos and the queasiness that the less adventurous feel at the thought of eating certain foods, such as Monkey Gland Steak, Chicken Foot Stew or Fish Sperm on Toast.

Additionally, Gates includes detailed instructions for throwing a variety of dinner parties, such as your very own Last Supper, with certain cautions: “The trick is to avoid making exaggerated claims: Saying you’re the Son of God won’t wash, for starters.” He also has a long section on hosting (staging) a historically accurate Bacchanalian orgy, though he laments the difficulty in finding good slaves these days, and on recreating the last meal on the Titanic, establishing authenticity by wearing dinner jackets and having hovering nearby “a really, really big bag of ice.”

Along the way, Gates celebrates many of history’s seminal food writers, with nods to, and recipes from, Apicius and Brillat-Savarin, among many others. M. F. K. Fisher, the late doyenne of 20th-century American food writers, is honored with a recipe for her famous Fanny Sandwich: Sit on a cling-wrapped sandwich for about an hour, “squashing all the ingredients together with the aid of your constant 98.6-degree body temperature and the downward pressure of your torso—like a human sandwich toaster.”

Henri found that in his case cling wrap was insufficient—his first sandwich was rather collapsed—and had more success on subsequent attempts using a heavy-gauge foil and several layers of packing tape and then decreasing toasting time to 15 minutes.

In addition, Gates has taken great care to pair each dish with appropriate music, often including particular songs. Recommendations range from Wagner (Suckling Pig) to Lou Reed (Andy Warhol’s Chocolate Balls). For the 14 hours it takes to prepare and eat a pit-roasted pig (or goat), he recommends Shuggie Otis, Charlie Mingus and The Best of Cole Porter.

There’s also an excellent bibliography and an extensive list of Web sites, including suppliers of difficult-to-find ingredients.

Turns out “Martha” is the principle ingredient in Gates’ headcheese recipe, one of the longest sections in the book, and the one in which he waxes the most philosophical: “[T]he idea is to buy, commune with and cook a pig’s head. But before you flick to a recipe that sounds less gruesome, hear me out. … You’ll emerge from this quest bloodied. You’ll be a braver cook, more honest in your relationship to food, and with a deeper understanding and respect for the animals that give their lives to feed us.”