The second in the increasingly ill-defined ‘Foodrave’ series, a lamb-themed encounter with young author Ned Beauman for a ‘contemporary food and arts journal’. (The Gourmand, 2013)
Photography Benjamin McMahon
The Yemeni Lamb Accident
Talking food, music and lamb liver in downtown Brooklyn with Granta-listed author Ned Beauman
Ned Beauman is one of Britain’s best young novelists, and it so happens that we meet in the week this accolade becomes official. Four days prior to our lamb-themed encounter in a no-frills Yemeni restaurant on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Ned was included in Granta’s prestigious once-a-decade round-up of the 20 best young writers in Britain. The first list, published in 1983, included titans Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, while later lists added heavyweights such as Will Self, Monica Ali, Jeannette Winterson and Hanif Kureishi to the count. Along with his longlisting for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for his wildly brilliant second novel The Teleportation Accident, it would seem Ned has come a long way since the days he would pitch articles to me about dubstep MCs or superhero comics.
Based in New York for the last two years, Ned has been seduced by the city’s famous food scene, from the cheap and delicious street food all the way to crazily elaborate tasting menus. So, we warmed up with a couple of cocktails at Henry Public, then went to a local Middle Eastern café to hear about his new-found love for ‘living a rapper’s lifestyle’.
Location: Yemen Café, 176 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
Food: flatbreads, lamb Salta, lamb Haneez, Fasolia, sautéed lamb livers, and unidentified meaty broth (lamb?)
Drinks: water in metal cups
[tape starts – muffled noises, Arabic voices]
The Gourmand: Ned, please give an immediate reaction to these bowls of unidentified meaty broth that we have just been given.
Ned Beauman: Well… I want to say it’s got a lot of umami, but I say that as someone who doesn’t really know what umami is. I think I recognise one herb.
G: Do you think there’s a huge vat of this out the back, which occasionally has the lamb leftovers dropped into it, along with some spices and… [slurps] fenugreek? OK, I don’t know what fenugreek is.
N: I’ve just put some of this condiment into it, which I think might be for the bread. It’s already made my broth considerably spicier. The menu here definitely has a meat theme. I went to Fatty Cue a week ago, this restaurant in the West Village [grilled meat ed’s note: also in Williamsburg] and they do deep-fried bacon with salsa verde, which I have literally been thinking about ever since.
G: Sweet Jesus. What is that like?
N: It’s kind of the best thing you can ever imagine tasting. We ordered some greens, because we thought we should, but those also came with bacon! So, we had deep-fried bacon with non-deep-fried bacon on the side. A bit like this lamb-with-lamb meal we’ve just ordered.
G: Do you think there might be a genre of cooking which is just meat served with different meat on the side?
N: At Wong in the West Village, for four people they can do a duck meal, which is like five courses of duck, including duck ice cream.
G: Oh my God. Is that one duck per person, served five different ways?
N: It’s an entire flock… [sound of a series of plates being placed on table] Erm, I am slightly terrified by how much food we now have in front of us.
G: These lamb livers are delicious. Do you think of yourself as a food enthusiast? Would you say you take it seriously?
N: I do. But it’s all so relevant. I follow restaurants much more closely than most people I know. And I also take more pride in my 19” acacia wood chopping board than I should. But in Berlin a couple of years ago, I went to a private supper club, and all the other people there were genuine food enthusiasts, and they were into it in a way that I can’t even imagine. So, it depends.
I do take more pride in my 19” acacia wood chopping board than I should
G: I feel there’s probably a limit about how ‘into’ food you can get before it’s just depraved…
N: Well, I think as long as it’s all founded on actual, perceptible differences, then it’s fine. You would never say someone was ‘too into’ music, would you?
G: I can assure you some people can get quite boring about it.
N: True. You would never say that it wasn’t worth getting into, though.
G: I guess there’s always new experiences. It’s not like you can get to a point where you’re like, ‘Well, that’s it for me, I guess I’ve done food now.’
N: Recently I went to a restaurant and had ‘ama-ebi, smoked lime yogurt, radish, bee pollen’. That’s the point when you look at the menu, and think that, yes, we are witnessing the decadent phase of our civilisation. But then it’s unfair to single out food, because everything I DO in my life is representative of that. It’s not like anything else I do is more ‘real’. My whole lifestyle is decadent! Having said that, the reason I’m so into food now is just that I have had much more time on my hands because I can now write full-time…
G: [pause] Sorry, I was distracted by this delicious lamb liver… and then the disturbing thought of how many lambs must have died to produce this many lamb livers. [talking with mouth full] So, your interest in food has actually developed in parallel with your success as a novelist?
N: Yeah, it’s a combination of having loads more time and a bit more money, really. And just trying to basically live a rapper’s lifestyle.
G: I always think of you as living a rapper’s lifestyle. Do you keep it real, Ned?
N: I remember my roots.
G: So, after your next book deal, will you be bringing through your crew of 12 lesser talented novelists?
N: Yes, all the other A$APs – it’s not just A$AP Beauman, you know. They’re ALL going to be on my next mixtape…
[yet more food arrives]
G: So, to recap – I have a large plate of roasted lamb, Ned also has a plate of differently roasted lamb, and there is a large industrial pot of vegetables boiling in the middle of the table, possibly also containing… lamb. Which is sat next to the large plate of aforementioned lamb livers. Um, has your interest in food influenced your writing in any way?
N: Well, my third novel, which is published next year…
G: …is a cookbook!
N: …is not a cookbook. But I think you can see my new interest in food all over it. It’s the first time I’ve written about food, or food has had a role in the plot. I do think my food interests might have peaked, though.
G: So, you think there aren’t unlimited depths to the culinary arts after all?
N: I will always love good restaurants, but the occasion I think it might have peaked is when I went to Corton, and it was the first time I had a proper tasting menu. And it was so expensive and elaborate, and probably the best cooking I ever had on a technical level, but it didn’t fill me with that much joy. I just thought I’d seen the best, and it didn’t thrill me that much – I felt I had nowhere to go. That said, there’s loads of different ethnic food I’d like to try. This is really exciting.
G: A gourmand is someone who appreciates good cooking, rather than a gourmet who just wants fine cooking, and I personally don’t really care about all that. But I do think if you have zero interest in good food, that’s just weird. Do you think New York’s reputation for food is justified?
N: Completely. It’s so much better than Paris, and it’s considerably better than London as well… Quite soon after I got published, there was a Christmas party for my publisher Sceptre, and lots of their authors came. At the end of the night, almost everyone had gone home, and it was just me, my former editor, an author and a publicist. We all decided to get dinner, and I was really excited. I thought, ok, it’s a late-night dinner in Soho with important publishing people, we are going to go to some amazing downstairs Italian restaurant, where they will know the owner, and we’ll have loads of bottles of wine, and it will be delicious and brilliant, and it will be my initiation into publishing. Until someone said, ‘Pizza Express?’ and someone else said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I didn’t really feel I could make any fuss, so off we went. I became very disillusioned with publishing at that moment.
G: Ha! You spend your life reaching this moment, you access the inner cabal, and they take you to Pizza Express. Surely, you at least all went and did loads of drugs in the Groucho afterwards?
N: Publishing could probably afford to be a little more hedonistic. In New York, sure – people here know how to have a good time. London is drab.
G: Is that why you’re here? Did you just chase the publishing party scene?
N: Partly, yeah! Books parties are so much better here. At the Guardian First Book Awards, it was the first time I’d even been to an awards ceremony, let alone one I was shortlisted in – so, obviously, I started drinking way before I got there, and I arrived with a hipflask. I thought everyone would get drunk! But of course, it was a Wednesday evening in publishing, and no one else was really drinking. It was the only time in my life I have drunk neat Pimms. They didn’t serve spirits, and that was the closest that they had. I think the barman suggested it.
G: How did that work out for you?
N: It’s the worst thing in the world.
G: OK, as we approach the end of our lamb, I suppose it would be remiss of me not to ask you about food’s role in literature, generally.
N: The two obvious ones are The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchaster, which is a novel written in the form of a cookbook. More relevant to this conversation is American Psycho – I read it quite recently. The chapters about trying to get a reservation at a restaurant, I couldn’t see why that was satirical! They’re just trying to get a reservation at a cool new restaurant in New York. What’s so weird about that? It’s hard to get a good table. But then in the 80s, maybe that might have seemed more pretentious. Once, this would have been a marker for real scum… now, this world just permeates my life.
The chapters in American Psycho about trying to get a reservation at a restaurant, I couldn’t see why that was satirical! They’re just trying to get a reservation in New York… It’s hard to get a good table
G: It’s like the famous business card scene, where they discuss the different typography and types of paper. I must admit that now doesn’t seem a million miles away from a conversation I could imagine having with my friends. This weird world that Ellis described is becoming our reality.
N: That is true, that is our world now. I wonder if it’s the internet. Clay Shirky wrote that book Cognitive Surplus, the premise is that humans have huge brain capacity but so much is done for us now through technology, that we have much more leftover brainpower than any generation before us. We have to do something with it, so a lot of our lives are spent finding ways to use up that power. That’s definitely true in my case. I only became interested in food when I had time on my hands, the same applies to fashion.
G: It seems that it’s as much about time as it is about brainpower. If you spend all your time worrying about survival, you’re not going to care about iPods or Prada, but if you are comfortable and have a lot of time on your hands…
N: Maybe it’s something to do with the change in masculinity. It’s more acceptable for men to have aesthetic opinions now. In the recent past, you could be a man and just not have a single aesthetic opinion about clothes, food and so on.
G: Not even ‘not have to’, but be actively judged for doing so… and be doused in Stella and testosterone or something, until you realigned your thinking…
N: Does that apply to food?
G: I think so. If you’d gone to meet your mates for a pint, and started talking about a lovely little restaurant you’d found…
N: I talk about this a little in my new book. At least in the past, part of masculinity is about not admitting taking pleasure in anything for its own sake. Sex and drinking are so central to traditional masculinity, to me there’s a contradiction at the heart of that – why do you want to do this so much? Surely, it’s because it’s pleasurable. But as a man, you can never really talk about the pleasure, you can only talk about attaining things, ticking things off, etc. And it’s really hard to talk about food in any detail without talking about pleasure. So, perhaps we are more interested in food because it has become more acceptable for men to talk about pleasure. Maybe.
Perhaps we are more interested in food because it has become more acceptable for men to talk about pleasure. Maybe
G: Unless it was talking about food in a competitive sense.
N: Like, I can eat a spicier curry than you can. Exactly. Or a bigger steak, or a more expensive steak.
G: Do you think men have grown up a bit?
N: Is growing up about being able to focus more on sensory hedonism? That’s not really that grown up. But I do think it’s progress. At least, instead of eating a really bad, large steak, now maybe you’re eating a good one and enjoying it a lot more.
G: OK, I really can’t eat any more – I want you to describe the scenes in front of us, as if these were the closing pages in a yet to be written novel of yours.
N: There’s a harrowing scene of desolation. Bones not even picked clean, strewn this way and that. A crescent of livers on a plate. A half-demolished patty of white beans… unfinished flatbreads…
G: The horror… the horror…
Originally published in The Gourmand, Issue 2 (2013)