Why Hello There! Welcome to our final post of Diner Month here at Kitchen Catastrophes. Yes, over 4 weeks we’ve served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, and talked history, symbolism, and definitions. So today we’re going to go back to the start, and unpack the book that started it all: Eat Me, by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreño. And to do that, we need to briefly talk about what truly started us on this path, more than 5 months ago.
This Kenny is A Living Danger Zone
Why did I decide to do Diner Month? Because I wanted to be really lazy like, 7 months ago. As I’ve mentioned several times now, I’m a big fan of Food52’s Genius Recipes, both the category on their website, and the book they published collecting the category. I’ve used it for carnitas, Broccoli Confit, Tofu, and Brussels Sprouts (though, I actually own two different cookbooks with that recipe, so it’s arguable which should get credit for it.) In short, CLEARLY YOU SHOULD BUY IT. But that’s not the book we’re reviewing, so let’s move on.
"Piggy's death, and the destruction of the conch, serve as a symbol of the final failing of science and civilization."
What? No, Lord of the Flies isn't the book we're reviewing either. What is this, 6th Grade English?
One recipe from the Book We Shall No Longer Discuss n particular was constantly catching my eye: that of Crepes in the style of Kenny Shopsin. These crepes had quite the remarkable recipe: Basically, they’re flour tortillas dipped in French Toast egg wash. Now, I’m not particularly a crepe guy, preferring a stalwart flapjack or pocketed waffle, but the idea of a breakfast pastry ready in a mere 10 minutes, mixing and all, was enticing. But I never got around to making it, because I’m actually just not a BREAKFAST guy in general. I literally didn’t eat TODAY until like, 3 PM.
Anyway, that appealingly lazy recipe put Kenny Shopsin on my radar. As did a reference in the book to him working with something called “banana guacamole”. (Spoilers: It’s guacamole with bananas instead of avocado, and I have yet to read a review that didn’t go something like “Despite sounding weird, it’s quite nice.”) My interest compounded when an interview showed up with him in an article I was reading during my father’s chemo treatments.
It looks basically how you would expect, once you've started to expect anything at all.
The article talked about Kenny, and his self-named diner in New York, Shopsin's. It talked about the time one of his waitresses threw soup on a customer, and he supported her; it pointed out that he spends a ton of money re-printing his menu every couple weeks, because he keeps changing it, adding or taking away from a collection of, at one point, nearly 900 items. Eventually my interest drove me to pick up the cookbook, and check it out myself. So, how does it fare?
Five Finger Death Punch
If you’ve forgotten how we here at Kitchen Catastrophes review cookbooks, since this is literally the second time we’ve ever done it, feel free to check out our American Craft Beer Cookbook review from back in January. For those too lazy to do so, or with better things, a quick recap. We judge on Voice (how much does the book SOUND like a person? If I wanted pure data with no humanity, I have the internet for that.), Production Quality (Is the book well-laid out? Is it nice to hold and read?), “Catapult” Effect (How much does the book want to make me cook things it’s shown me?) and Unity of Theme (Is the book like itself? Does the voice and production quality remain consistent throughout? Do the elements combine with the intent of the book.) You may think there’s a fifth category because of the title, but that’s because even JON had forgotten how exactly we rate these things, and he refuses to go back and change the title now. (I guess “Final Verdict” is technically the fifth, like the Thumb is technically a finger.)
To discuss the voice of the cookbook is, of course, also to discuss the voice of Kenny, and Shopsin’s as a whole. And that voice is a…complicated one. A voice comfortable naming a dish “Slutty Cakes”, or “Blisters on My Sisters”. It’s even more impactful in Eat Me than some other cookbooks, as the subtitle implies: The Food AND PHILOSOPHY of Kenny Shopsin. And that philosophy is quite omnipresent to the work. A discussion of Patsy’s Cashew Chicken is led by Kenny explaining how the eponymous Patsy, an old family friend, didn’t speak to him for three years after an argument in which he offended her. She returned, but, he states, he didn’t love her any more:
“I don’t mind having fights with people I love, but don’t cut me off. How can you do that to someone you love? You can hate them for the moment; you can be angry with them; you can throw plates or rocks at them; you can punish them. But don’t withhold your love.[…] I couldn’t be in a love relationship in which the love is used as a weapon”
-Eat Me, Pg 119
He apologizes, in a way, for using Aunt Jemima’s Frozen Pancake Batter for his restaurant’s pancakes. Because he realized he just wasn’t good at it, and didn’t like it, and the Frozen stuff works.
Of course, filling said batter with BBQ Duck and Marmalade is certain to distract from any shortcomings the batter may have.
Kenny’s voice is enjoyably off-beat and compelling, to me. He’s, by his own admission, an old fat lazy Jew, he hates the Health Department because they threw away a turkey of his several decades ago. Kenny Shopsin is under no illusions that he’s some sort of avant-garde creator of cuisine. He’s a man more than well aware of his failings, and willing to tell them. All he asks is you be at least somewhat honest as well.
Eat Me is just big enough to be a respectable cookbook. It’s not a dense tome of cultural cooking, like say, Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking. It’s got color pictures, the pages feel nice. The spine is a little inflexible, but these sort of things happen. The arrangement of pictures and topics is somewhat jarring, with inset boxes of varying colors and so forth, but we’ll touch on that in a bit. In short, it’s perfectly adequate.
So, how much does reading the book make you want to make the foods? That’s somewhat tricky. In terms of direct recipes, I’ve only made 2 from the book since I got it. BUT, as you read into the work, you encounter more of that philosophy I mentioned before. And one of the aspects behind it is the idea of ‘deconstructing’ a meal. Trying to find your favorite part of something specific, and produce it. The aforementioned Slutty Cakes are, in essence, an attempt to put Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup filling into a pancake. That’s a hell of an idea.
These are Breakfast Nachos, another similarly impressive idea. There's no joke here, those just look really good.
And THAT, I feel, carried over more strongly. Broccogus Soup was born because of the ideas of culinary deconstruction the cookbook instilled. Sure, no one really ATE IT, so we have no idea if it was a success or not, but I was still pushed to make something sans recipe. In reading his thoughts on various facets of his life, I find myself nodding along, or reflecting on them later. He speaks with a vivacity that sticks in the mind, a sort of just-smart-enough turn of phrase.
Unity of Theme
Kenny Shopsin is the theme of this cookbook, just as the restaurant is an offshoot of himself. It was staffed mostly by himself and his family, it rose from a grocery store he had run and relied on the relationships he and his customers have built in it. Dishes are named for the people who invented them, or for whom they were invented. (Kenny speaks of a long-time diner that he specifically makes new sandwiches using Shrimp for. He sprinkles them secretly onto the menu, so the guy can hunt them down.)
There’s a section in an article from the New Yorker about the restaurant, much of which is replicated in the foreword to the book, where the author is asked by Eve, Kenny’s late wife, “Can you believe this review says we have no décor?” And the author, looking at the mad hodge-podge of decorations, signs, and paraphernalia lining the walls, says “You’re right. Someone could say the décor isn’t to their taste, but they definitely can’t say it isn’t there.” The book is much the same way: there is a strangeness to the arrangement of text and images, a level of profanity to the text and ideas, that may be jarring or alien to an unprepared reader. But the more I read about him, the more certain I am that it connects to the man himself.
It’s not for everyone, definitely, but if you’re the kind of person who like talking with sassy waitresses at diners, or who appreciates a good dive bar, or even someone looking for a fresh and frank inspection of food, it could be for you. Because that’s what it feels like. It feels like you’re sitting at the counter as Kenny tells you the recipes, sharing stories about why this one uses that ingredient, or why it exists at all. It feels intimate, in an unrefined way, and creative in an unpretentious way.
So check it out. Or don't. What am I, your mother? No No, it's fine. I'll sit in the dark.
Hey Guys, quick heads up: This Friday, Sept 29th, is Jon's Birthday! And you know what would be an awesome birthday present? You supporting the site on Patreon! That's right, I'm shamelessly promoting myself, and using our connection to manipulate you in backing me! Think, for a mere $1 a month, you could help support the site. Meaning my present only costs you $12 over 12 months! That's like buying me lunch and putting it on lay-away! CONSIDER IT. Or don't.
MONDAY: JON MAY MAKE SOUP, BUT MORE LIKELY HE'LL EAT SOME VEGGIES.