“Oh man, gelatin. It is creepy stuff, for sure.”
That’s how the chapter “Breaking Up With Panna Cotta” opens in award-winning pastry chef Brooks Headley’s recently released book, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts: The Recipes of Del Posto’s James Beard Award–Winning Pastry Chef. It’s not a typical cookbook, because that would suck. Rather, it talks about making food and hardcore punk. It’s not a culinary journey, where the author takes a pilgrimage to some place in France, or embeds himself in an Italian village, only to return to the states with an understanding of slow food. Instead, it’s just a book about making good shit however the fuck it needs to happen.
That’s not to say that Headley is punkish about food — he has the utmost respect for cooking, but doesn’t get caught up in sounding like some obnoxious foodie asswipe with a bespoke mustache. He’s just not concerned with convention or acting like his pastries should be showcased in a booth at Art Basel.
His anecdotes are romantic, not fetish. There’s an entire entry about the challenge of using eggplant as a key dessert ingredient, complete with Mario Batali commenting, “Good luck, guys. I’ve had the real thing in Italy. It was fucking gross.” He champions the skills of wd-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak with the same fondness that he recalls foraging at shitty health food stores in the early ‘90s for meat-free provisions while on tour with Born Against. It’s just fucking food for Christ’s sake, man.
Food and God were two constants in my childhood, as they are for most Italian Americans. We’d go to the 9AM Sunday mass and then gorge on whatever carb-based meal my grandmother would cook until 7PM, when we’d go to my other Nanna’s house and eat more. This might surprise you, but I was a chubby kid. However this was ritual, not a concern. I didn’t become interested in food or diet until I got into punk rock and thank God (again) for that.
After rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ our savior, adopting a vegetarian diet was my next ‘fuck you’ as a teen. Later I volunteered for Food Not Bombs and spent my Saturday mornings preparing some type of vegan stew, constructed of slightly rotting vegetables and soy-based proteins. This was 1994 and this was where I met kale, learned how to make tofu, and found out that homeless people aren’t particularly happy to eat vegan cuisine, even if it’s free. Still, this experience taught me how to cook more than stew and to understand shit. That’s something, right?
“Why can’t we get some meat?” was a common refrain at Food Not Bombs’ Saturday meal service at Boston Common. It reminded me of the Misfits’ song “Braineaters,” — whose video was also filmed in Boston — and the refrain of “Why can’t we get some guts? Oi, Oi, Oi!” I later quit donating my time to the organization, because being yelled at while standing outside in the icy winter was less appealing to me than sleeping in or skateboarding. Yes, I’m selfish. A year later, I packed up a duffle bag and embarked on my first tour with my band. It’s at times like these that eating suddenly becomes more than necessity — it’s a highlight of your day, and an adventure.
Fancy Desserts, like any good cookbook, is as much about the human experience and how to make food. Honestly, I’ll probably never make Corn-Corn Huckleberry Cookies, Cucumber Creamsicles, or Verjus Melon Candy, partly because I don’t really like dessert and I’m kind of fucking lazy, but reading about both Headley and the recipes is great. It’s great in the way that hearing Dischord Records’ Flex Your Head compilation for the first time is, which Headley cites in the book as inspiration. It’s great like the first time you fold a slice of New York City pizza and feel OK with paying way too much rent to live here. It’s great like enjoying a solid meal, before people have to fucking talk about it, or blog about it, or Instagram it, or tweet it.
Everyone likes food, if you don’t you’re weird or maybe just find eating an inconvenience in the same way that Sam McPheeters (author and member of Born Against and Wrangler Brutes who Headley drummed for) is, who contributes a passage in Fancy Desserts.
For some, food is status. It’s akin to what handbag you carry or where you vacation in the Hamptons. Desserts and cooking in general are just fun to Brooks Headley, or at least that’s what I’ve gleaned through reading his book. Everyone has to eat, everyone likes music, and being happy, and things that make you happy. Can’t we leave it at that?