John Birdsall

I Like to Eat Things
I live in Oakland CA. I write about food and places and the people who inhabit both. CHOW. Lucky Peach. Etc.
  • April 6, 2014 12:33 pm

    Grandma Left Me Oranges She Stole

    My grandma was a really terrible cook but she could bake. She made angel cake with chocolate glaze that tasted the way playground bark smells, only sweet. And she made lemon cookies that were tangy and had white icing that dripped a little off the edges and while it was thick it also looked gauzy. I asked her for the recipe and she wrote it out for me on the white pad she kept near the phone.

    I didn’t see her write it but I recognized the paper, with the red gummy edge on top where it attached. Her writing went uphill. It was in blue Bic and had the squashed loops of the hand I knew from birthday cards and Christmas tags. Iced Lemon Cookies, underlined a couple of times in blue, on the upslope.

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  • February 19, 2014 2:04 pm

    So, About That $4 Toast

    Oh hey, I talked to The Dinner Party Download about San Francisco’s $4 toast, which in fact costs $3.75, but who ever let a quarter get in the way of misplaced outrage? Anyway enjoy that toast, slathered with a thick layer of tech-class hatred.

    http://www.dinnerpartydownload.org/four-dollar-toast/

  • January 4, 2014 2:47 pm

    America, Your Food Is So Gay

    I was ten in 1970, a shy kid growing up in a scrub-oak suburb south of San Francisco. Our house was pitched on stilts sunk in a steep hillside, looking out onto a little arroyo and into the house of two men I loved like uncles (and more deeply than some of the uncles whose DNA I shared).

    But besides me and my older brother, Walter, my mom, and my dad, everybody on our street despised Pat and Lou. At a time when it was still a crime in California for one man to give another man a blowjob, the neighbors hated them because they shared the same enormous bed, draped in a regal turquoise coverlet. Hated them because Lou stayed home like moms did, trolling Safeway for steaks and stuffed potatoes to fix for Pat when he got home from the office.

    (Why didn’t my parents share the general loathing for Pat and Lou, a disgust expressed through passive avoidance, active shunning, and the occasional high-pitched catcall? I discovered later that my mom, bless her, is a total fag hag. And my dad always hated bullies—it trumped his ambivalence about the gay thing.)

    Pat and Lou did cocktail hour nightly from a pair of velour bucket chairs, in their beam-ceilinged, ranch-style canyon house overlooking masses of scarlet and purple irises under the oaks. They put on matching poplin jumpsuits and corduroy house moccasins to sip Gibsons, tossing nuts to Kurt, their sleek miniature schnauzer, from fingers studded with big-jeweled cocktail rings. On nights when my parents would go to the Iron Gate restaurant for shrimp scampi and saltimbocca, they dropped us boys off at Pat and Lou’s for babysitting.

    On those nights, Lou would cook us crazy shit our mom never fixed, food so rich no adult should ever serve it to a ten-year-old. There were casseroles that used Monterey Jack as a suspension medium for olives, ground veal, and button mushrooms from a can. And there were Lou’s famous burgers, so rich and salty, so crusted with a mixture of caramelized onions, Roquefort crumbles, and Grey Poupon—a thick impasto gilded beneath the electric broiler element—I could only ever eat half before feeling sick. I loved every bite.

    Looking back, I recognize in Lou’s burgers my first taste of food that didn’t give a fuck about nutrition or the drab strictures of home economics. They were calibrated for adult pleasure, acutely expressive of a formalized richness— exactly the type of thing James Beard taught Americans to eat (for all I know, Lou’s recipe was straight out of Beard). I see them now, those burgers, as unflinchingly, unapologetically, magnificently queer.

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  • January 2, 2014 6:08 pm

    In Old Town Bangkok, the pour-over rules.

  • December 12, 2013 8:02 pm

    Austin Diary: The Best Drunk Fried Chicken

    How many drinks did I have? Staggering down a dark and treacherous road in Texas, I’d lost count. My first night at Austin Food & Wine had been a booze crawl, over a topography land-mined with tasting plates of elaborate desserts. In another couple of minutes, I’d discover the best fried chicken I think I’ve ever had. Here’s how.

    I’d flown in from San Francisco to practically land in a pint of beer at the New Taste of Texas, the Food & Wine event’s opening party, set in a scrubby park in downtown Austin. After that I downed a Manhattan from a plastic cup. I needed to walk over to the Driskill hotel to pick up my press badge, and while there I paused in the lobby bar to order a shot of Willett rye. And when the waitress with the apricot-colored hair asked if I wanted the 20-year-old I said sure. “You’re gettin’ the good stuff, sugar,” she said as she set down the little snifter. When I looked at the bill it—shit!—said $35, which meant I’d squandered my dining per diem on booze, so if I wanted to eat I was going to have to mooch off trays at media parties.

    That’s exactly where I headed, with an upper lip still numb from the gold-plated whiskey I’d blown my allowance on: a party at a bar upstairs from La Condesa, theoretically presided over by Marcus Samuelsson. I think I caught a glimpse of his pork-pie hat through the crowd, though mostly I fixed my harder-and-harder-to-focus attention on a margarita, which seemed to have evaporated from my glass.

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  • December 11, 2013 12:29 am

    Paris Diary: The Perfect Little Shitty Little Bistro

    First night on our Paris vacation, we eat at Au Passage in the 11th arrondissement. It’s a bistrot à vin, a modern wine bar with small plates, which looks like some old tabac—consciously retro, intentionally offhanded (our waiter’s a cute kid in a T-shirt). We demolish a hunk of coarse-grained lamb and fig pâté and a pretty arrangement of raw fish (tuna, with thin slices of rhubarb and radish), and drink a cool Gamay. It’s nice, but clearly this is not the meal we—me, my husband Perry, and our best friend Michelle—came to Paris for. It’s too fussy, too composed, and, honestly, just too California. “I want Amélie food,” Michelle says, whining, probably still hungry. I know what she means: French dishes both nostalgic and charming, served in some mirrored, wood-paneled bistro right out of Brassaï, the Hungarian-born photographer who documented the seedy glamor of Paris’s streets and bistros starting in the 1920s.

    On night two we try an old-fashioned bistro, also in the 11th, L’Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes. It looks right: checkered tablecloths, a row of Armagnac bottles on a shelf in the dining room, and the owner, Madame, who’s a mix of formal and jovial, dangling eyeglasses from a neck chain. We eat frisée salad with poached egg and lardons, cassoulet and confit goose legs, and drink a Moulin-à-Vent. By the time we leave, Madame is sitting down to dinner, a sagging hunk of overripe cheese off the tray. The place is charming, but a bit too above-the-radar, filled with middle-aged American guys in shorts and tropical-print shirts: the dinner stop on the Paris bus tour.

    If you’re an American who’s into food, you probably come to Paris like I did, expecting to have that Julia Child moment, the one from Julie & Julia, where a listing, husky-voiced Meryl Streep takes Julia’s first bite of sole meunière in a bistro and discovers…transcendence.

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  • December 10, 2013 11:05 am

    Sydney Diary: Luminous at Billy Kwong

    I think it’s The Desert Music where William Carlos Williams says it’s the strange hours tourists see things that makes them seem luminous, even if those sights are completely ordinary. They’re electrified with travelers’ anticipation, the current converter in the fanny pack of the imagination.

    December in Sydney, a night drenched by fierce, stuttering rain. Perry and I hurtled through the dark in a cab, a vague plan for a late dinner at Billy Kwong, Kylie Kwong’s modern Cantonese place. But the murky glamor of a Surry Hills hotel bar seduced us, until we figured out what it really was: kids in some sloppy celebration of the convergence of Aussie summer and Christmas. Wiry, handsome boys in fauxhwaks or Rod Stewart rooster cuts; girls in holiday sheath dresses, some drunk as hell, tottering on the curving staircase down to the WC, a dizzying spiral of hangovers and remorse.

    We escaped, walked the few blocks to Billy Kwong huddling under a brittle claw of an umbrella stretched with flimsy nylon, borrowed from our short-term rental. We’d read the warnings about Billy Kwong: painful waits for the privilege of crowding into a restaurant half a decade past its prime, where the crispy duck with blood plum sauce could either be delicious…or not. We were taking a chance.

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  • December 9, 2013 10:57 pm

    Spain Diary: Death Comes to El Pelillo

    At a bar in Alicante, Spain: facing a tapa of meaty cuttlefish (sepia) in a thick, sticky pool of its ink. Warm—it’s emerged from the microwave behind the bar—congealing slightly as it cools, deep with coppery salts, like the taste of blood. Perry, my husband, doesn’t want more than a bite, and I admit it’s a tad gory, too murky a concentration of flayed sea life for me to finish.

    Earlier in our hotel room, in a thick-walled arcade ringing the plaza in front of the ayuntamiento, the town hall, looking out onto a crude baroque clock tower, I flicked on the TV. It was a bullfight, part of the San Ysidor Festival, Spain’s World Series of matadordom.

    A boyish matador in tight turquoise pantaloons and a pink cape gaudy as paper roses: curly dark hair, handsome and sinuous, like the gay guys around La Chueca in Madrid, only with a drag queen’s tuck, ripe and sexless at the same time. He looked petulant, prancing gracefully in the ring.

    Cutaway to an older torreador in a wide-brimmed hat, advancing with elaborate picks to stab the bull, already sprouting a plume of ribbons from where he’s been gored. Cutaway to the crowd in the stands: celebrities, politicians, the monied in delicate straw hats, expensive-looking clothes and tans, a super-hyped whiff of anticipation, a delicious pause before the load of ritualized violence about to drop.

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  • November 29, 2013 3:38 pm

    Holidays, Whatever

    When you’re gay, you take a seam ripper to the holidays, snipping the threads of family obligation one by one until there’s nothing left. What you stitch back together is a holiday coalition of the wounded: the relative or two who gets you, the friends who amputated their own festering relationships and are happy about it or bitter about it or both. You all end up drinking too much, and what you eat, well—free from the conventions of ham or turkey and sorrow, you eat what you want.

    Over the years my husband Perry and I have claimed the Sunday before Thanksgiving as our holiday. We invite friends, Perry’s sister, my mom and aunt, our nieces. I make the Thanksgiving dish I think I always wanted to be served: turkey legs and thighs, braised for hours in a slow oven with Zinfandel and aromatics. Skimmed of fat, the sauce reduces to a beautifully lithe little sauce as dense as slurry, blackish, spooned over polenta so long-cooked it’s more like corn purée. The house is a shambles. The kids corral the cat under the bed until her hissing gets so loud I go in and yell. It feels like family.

    On Thanksgiving Day itself Perry and I are often on a plane. Two years ago we were en route to Sydney, where through the incomprehensible logic of the International Dateline we actually skipped the fourth Thursday of November entirely. It just fell off the calendar.

    We were kind of okay with that.

    {a different version of this little essay appeared in SF Weekly on November 16, 2010}