Plan an Over-the-Top Bacchanal for Spring: How-to With Artists Bompas and Parr
Let these guys show you a good party
All photos by Beth Evans and Nathan Pask, courtesy Pavilion
Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
Feasting with Bompas and Parr By Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, 224 pages, Pavilion, $34.95
Sam Bompas and Harry Parr (known for epic culinary feats like exploding food-fireworks over London, pool-sized cocktails you can row across, and, earlier, artful jellos and cocktails), published their latest book Feasting last December, just in time for the holidays.
Now seems an ideal time to pull it off the shelf; if ever a winter warranted a bacchanal-style feast for the coming of spring, it was this one. Lately, 60-degree-day teasers have titillated our tender flesh into believing spring is actually on the way, which makes what remain of these winter temperatures increasingly insufferable.
But the end is nigh: Friday is the vernal equinox, that hallowed day when the earth rights its cosmic balance, giving equal hours to day and night, and after which, of course, daylight inches ahead of darkness. And everything is incrementally better for it. So come Friday, let's not skimp on the fun. And no, a 30-rack of PBR and a few bottles of liquor with maybe a roast chicken or beef or ham is not going to cut it.
Why not throw a party that's as salacious, as lecherous, as lewd and licentious, as any you've ever been to? This spring deserves a proper welcome. And if this weekend's too soon, Easter is just around the corner.
Originally, Bompas and Parr planned to title this book Rude Food after David Thorpe's infamous books from the 1970s and 1980s, which combined food and pornography. "We were really excited about it," Bompas said via Skype one recent afternoon. "But then we spoke to the American markets, and it was just going to be too rude for them to take. No publisher would co-edition it; it was just too naughty, too outrageous."
So they took a different tack and decided to make something that was sexy and fun, but really useful for consumers; the result was an awe-inspiring guide on throwing an avant-garde, unforgettable party -- from table dressing to recipes, illustrated in lush, full-color photographs.
To host such a party, focus your attention on fewer details to get the most impact. On plating, Bompas offers: "People are visual, and when you put little medallions [of meat] on a plate, you're addressing people's visual sense, but I think you're doing it in a very highfaluting, difficult way. And a way that not many people understand. It doesn't have any meaning."
So, instead, the authors give you roasted quails, drenched in marmalade, stacked into a pan. Or a three-foot tower of crayfish. For dessert, a hotel-pan of scooped ice cream in sickly-soft pastels. These make for showstopping presentations, but they're not at all hard to do; no need for tweezers or fancy china.
Because, Bompas points out, if you're throwing a dinner party, it's about entertaining, not sustaining: "We're lucky to live in Brooklyn or London, where the majority of people don't have to eat because they've got this vast nutritional deficit they have to fill. In fact, most people are trying to cut down their caloric intake, or at least moderate it...Which puts food in the realm of entertainment. So our food is food for entertainment, as opposed to going to the opera, having sex, doing all sorts of other fun things you could be doing instead of eating. So it has to measure up against that."
And how, you ask, does one make food that measures up against a good romp in the sack, or a night at the opera?
On the next page, Sam Bompas delves into proper costuming, tableside psychology, and the merits of smoke machines.
What makes a great feast? Everyone's got to be in the right mindset to begin with, so you've got to give them a heads-up. You have to make them do something before they come, and I don't care what that is, whether it's to bring a bit of artwork, or get dressed up in black-tie...Whenever anyone gets dressed up specially, you're already rolling before anyone's even arrived.
Then for me, you need a lot of set-dressing. It doesn't need to be complex, because once everyone sits down, your scope of interest is around the table. You're all in the boat together.
We used to use jellies for table dressings, and they sort of wobble as you bump the table, which is quite insane, but we found out that after 11 pm, the jellies will be thrown; it will be chaos. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when there's a valuable old master painting by the table, which is now getting a spot of jelly on it -- which has happened -- that's probably something you want to avoid. Because then you're sitting on the back of a chair, trying to wipe it off with a napkin before the security cameras kick off and you're getting arrested.
But you want to set the stage for things to unfold. I always like to choreograph things: the descent into the more dissolute [parts of a gathering], and then the resolution at the end, where it all comes back together. You need a superabundance of food, but not excessively so, and you need to give people something interesting to try -- and it's never that difficult to find something a bit weird...I found all these fish fins, and the guy explained to me that you can put them in hot sake, so we made this fish fin sake, which starts off as like a hot dirty martini, which is really, really good. And then it starts getting really fishy and really quite an...acquired taste. But it was just fun because it was something no one had tried before, and it was interesting. There are countless little ideas like that.
I loved that escargot recipe in the book, where you put the bowl of live snails on the table and invite your guests to pick a snail to eat before the meal. We did that course a few times, and sometimes it went really well; once we literally had people leaving being like, "this is the best meal of my life," who thought it was the best thing ever, and then we did it once and it was only a table of 10, and the very dominant personality was a strident vegetarian. And I think when she had to hunt down a snail right at the start, that was the end of that meal. We had to jolly everyone a lot for the next five courses. They seemed to be happy by the end, but now I realize they were just drunk. So you have to read your audience.
What advice can you offer city dwellers wanting to prepare and host a worthy feast in a small city apartment? When we started out, we were just cooking in my small city apartment, and my whole front room was filled with these massive banks of fridges, and the floor was sticky all the time, because we were cooking meals, literally for hundreds of people out of this tiny apartment.
But what I would say is...my favorite thing is just hiring a smoke machine. Because it just makes everything a lot cooler, the music louder, the food tastes better, as long as there's not too much smoke. But in terms of creating an atmosphere, it's the cheapest, easiest thing ever. You can see all the light, shafts of light flying around the place.
Also, pig's heads are great as a centerpiece. They're really cheap because they're off-cuts of meat; just ask your butcher and he'll sort it out for you. Just put it in your oven, and it doesn't matter how long you cook it for, because there's probably going to be one bit that's done perfectly. The thing I love about these at feasts is it really polarizes people, and lets them start playing this role around the table, so you'll get someone who'll be really girly, like, "Oh my god, I've never would have done that," which she loves, as well, because she's enacting that role, and there's the guy who's able to be really like Cro Magnon and rip the jaw open and rip out the tongue and chew on it. So it's like the food allows people to assume these characters in a small social group, and allowing that to unfold.
What can you recommend specifically for an Equinox feast? There's a drink in the book that would be absolutely perfect. It's one we adopted from Aleister Crowley, who is widely regarded as a satanist, sexual deviant, but also, he was voted in a BBC poll as the 72nd greatest Briton ever, of all time. But what people don't really know about him -- and there's actually a whole book to be written about just this -- is that he was a keen cocktailer. But he didn't really shy away from unusual ingredients; he would put things like laudanum and other opiates into his cocktails. This particular one is called the Eagle's Tail cocktail, and it uses ether. We actually got a hold of some a couple years ago (and it's not that hard to come by if you look for it), and because it's so volatile, it's very hard to use in cocktails. Then we found this Crowley recipe, in which he makes an ether syrup, which binds the ether for two weeks or so, which means you can cocktail with it. I've got to say, having used that drink to kick off a large party, it was just unbelievable. The party finished at 10 p.m. and everyone was wheeled out. I've never seen anything like it. It was pretty feral. So, Equinox: long robes, nudity, and rituals, and you're away.
Ingredients: 1 1/4 fl oz aged brandy 1 1/4 fl oz old kirsch 1 tsp absinthe 1 tsp syrup of ether* 1 maraschino cherry, to decorate
*Syrup of ether: (Enough for 8 drinks) 5 tbsp sugar syrup** 5 ml/1 tsp ether
Mix the ether with the standard sugar syrup and store in a well-capped glass bottle. This will keep refrigerated for a week.
**This is just a basic simple syrup, made by combining 1 1/2 c sugar with 2 1/2 c boiling water, and stirring until completely dissolved.
Drinking this cocktail is an initiation ceremony in its own right. It was developed by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) the occultist, mystic and astrologer whose sexually deviant ceremonial magic titillated the early twentieth century. Crowley's mother referred to him as "the Beast" a term he reveled in and he founded the religious philosophy of Thelema. The supreme moral law being: "Do what thou wilt".
The philosophy of Thelema and Crowley's personal life were dogged by scandal, outrage and sensation - the esoteric practices being confused with devil worship. But even with rumors of women having sex with goats at Crowley's Abbey of Thelema he was voted the seventy-third greatest Briton of all time in a poll by the BBC in 2002.
Crowley's less notorious pastimes included chess, mountaineering and cocktails. In 1902 he led the first European party to attempt K2 but was forced to turn back at 6096 m/20,000 ft. The cocktails are more successful despite the inclusion of outrageous ingredients. His Kubla Khan No 2 is a dry Martini laced with laudanum and one cocktail even contains small quantities of strychnine sulphate (rat poison so probably best avoided).
We were first introduced to the drinks of "The Great Beast" by mixologist Stuart Bale who had tracked down the recipes but was lacking the exotic ingredients. We were able to furnish ether for the magnificent Eagle Tail - a cocktail that tastes like black forest gateau with a gunning chainsaw finish.
Ether is not too hard to track down (for a full discussion of ether see our previous book Cocktails with Bompas & Parr). We were happy to discover the drink as Crowley's formula solves the major problems of ether's extreme volatility by incorporating it into a sugar syrup. In the past we'd had to impregnate soft fruits with the ether to stop the chemical evaporating before you could ingest it.
Shake over ice and serve in a Martini glass decorated with a maraschino cherry. It's such a strong drink you could safely split it between even two committed drinkers and serve in peculiarly small glasses.
If you can't get hold of ether, or the cocktail strikes you as dangerous and depraved, you might try another of Crowley's gayer concoctions. Soak raspberries overnight in Grand Marnier and float them in pink champagne to serve.
Check out our Cookbook of the Week archives for more like this.
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