In Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a book I do not like, one thing keeps me coming back — the descriptions of the food. The 2000 film version includes much of Ellis’ food excess, but the book is worth reading for its more numerous descriptions of bad food. The Wall Street goons in American Psycho eat in the best (“best”) restaurants, where polite and servile waitstaff recite impressively obscure menu items. How else to describe it but that it sounds obscenely, offensively, expensively gross? That’s the point, too — the story takes place at the height of 1980s excess, which included the restaurant scene. The only limit was a coked-out chef’s (and his coked-out customers’) imagination.
To see what it all must have tasted like, I decided it would be fun to prepare a romantic dinner for me and my long-suffering boyfriend consisting only of food featured in American Psycho. I thought this would be fun in the way that cokeheads often decide things will be fun, only to abandon those things the next day when they realize that the “dope idea” they had at 4 a.m. to form a family band or open a restaurant with their college roommate was actually not so great. But by the time I had that hangover of a realization, staring at the produce section in my grocery store with a sense of the utmost dismay, I was already locked in.
First, I set some ground rules:
- I was only preparing a few items from the huge roster of restaurant dishes, so I wanted them to be fairly representative of what I saw as American Psycho’s approach to food.
- That meant I could pick neither the easiest among the dishes (arugula Caesar salad) nor the most obscure (where the fuck would I even find partridge to rare-roast with raspberry coulis?).
- If I needed to make substitutions, so be it. I know you all tune into my column for my uncompromising realism, but squid ink ravioli is not that easy to find in the Jewish year of 5782, and I don’t love you guys enough to make it from scratch.
And now, without further ado, I hereby present Rax’s Three-Course Very Romantic and Totally Normal American Psycho Dinner for Two (Some Substitutions Required).
Appetizer: “Dorsia’s” Peanut Butter Soup with Smoked Duck and Mashed Squash
When Patrick takes his drugged-up date to dinner, he tells her they’re at a much fancier restaurant than they really are and orders food for her that the restaurant doesn’t have, trying to maintain the illusion. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to incorporate this spirit of trickery and deceit into my recreation. Sorry!
On Reddit, this is the dish that everyone seems to be the most scared of, with the possible exception of the swordfish meatloaf (which we’ll very much get to). Despite the fact that Thai and Ghanaian cuisines both regularly explore the savory potential of the peanut to great effect, American food tends to fold it into sugar or candy and call it a day. Still, I found a couple tweakable recipes, one of which did call for chicken. But this wasn’t as easy as simply subbing in some duck, which is more delicate than chicken and needs a lighter touch. Essentially what I did was: Sear off my duck and set it aside to rest; roast up some squash; and build out a hearty, squash-based peanut butter stew in the duck drippings. I also whipped up a ginger-cilantro yogurt because without something sour and light, this thing threatened to be way too rich.
People of r/Cooking, be not afraid! This dish was delicious. The boyfriend pointed out that for a cokehead, this portion would be way too big, but because it’s also nice and soft on the jaw, I think it’s perfectly plausible coke-food. It probably should have been blended more smoothly to look as un-peasant-like as possible, but my immersion blender wasn’t cooperating. As for the duck, which I could not smoke at home — it was a weird addition, good on its own but adrift in this already hearty stew. I love duck, but this felt like an attempt to be fancy with no regard for what tastes good together. Which, now that I think of it, could serve as a thesis for all the food in this movie.
Final Verdict: 8/10. I will make it again, but probably without any meat.
Entree: Squid Ravioli in a Lemongrass Broth with a Goat Cheese Profiterole
“I think you’re doing the crossing-chives thing too much,” my boyfriend said when I brought out the second dish.
“It’s kind of all I’ve got,” I said. After all, what could be more 1980s excess than a garnish that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the food?
This is one of the specials that the waiters recite during the film’s opening credits, and I had to make a couple judgment calls and adjustments. First and foremost, I’m not confident that squid ravioli is real, at least not in 2022; what I’m familiar with is squid ink ravioli, and it doesn’t even matter because I couldn’t find either, not even in the really fancy fresh pasta store. Crab-and-lobster ravioli felt true to the spirit of the dish, being expensive as fuck and yet incompatible with the broth it’s meant to be served in.
Also, I couldn’t figure out what the hell to do with the goat cheese profiterole. I couldn’t resist tossing in some sun-dried tomatoes for 1980s verisimilitude’s sake, but beyond that — profiteroles in a soup? Wouldn’t they get soggy? Wouldn’t the goat cheese dribble out everywhere? Thinking about it too much rapidly robbed me of my will to live, so I slapped the thing on a bread plate with another chive for good measure and moved on.
Anyway, this wasn’t great. But it wasn’t bad either! Once again, I feel that it would’ve been better with less self-consciously fancy ingredients. Squid ink or crab or lobster, it doesn’t matter — none of those raviolis seem like they would’ve added more to this warm, savory broth than some good old fashioned vermicelli. The broth was by far the best part. With a base of lime, ginger and cilantro, plus some chili paste to heat things up, it was the most flavorful thing on the plate.
The profiterole was a big old fucking failure. I rewatched the opening credits a few times to make sure I didn’t have that part of the dish completely wrong, but no, there it was, tossed off with no little shame at the end of the waiter’s “today’s fresh pasta” line. Dip it in the broth and it becomes unseemly and wet; eat it on the side and the goat cheese clashes with everything else. The only thing to do was scrape off the goat cheese for the dog, who found it much more successful than I did.
Final Verdict: 5/10 for the whole combination, but 9/10 for the broth, which I will use as a base for something much less fancy-pants next time.
Dessert: Swordfish Meatloaf with Onion Marmalade
At this point in our romantic dinner, I was getting cocky. Here were two dishes that audiences were supposed to believe were the height of Wall Street disgustingness-for-its-own-sake, and I’d pulled them off! The soup had been a great success, the ravioli only slightly less so and through very little fault of my own. I was due for a reality check. I needed to be taken down or, more accurately, violently thrown down a peg.
Enter swordfish meatloaf.
Now: Those are two very ugly words to hear together. But at the end of the day, I suspected that what was intended by this dish was essentially a fish cake — baked rather than fried, with more meatloaf-y flavoring agents than might go in a light and simple fish cake. It was certainly a waste of an expensive fish that deserves less aggressive treatment. Still, fish cake. How far wrong could I go?
Before I answer that question, a note on the topping first: You can see that there’s no ketchup. Not true to the spirit of meatloaf, but the thing is, I fucking hate ketchup and there is no amount of money MEL could pay me to eat it. The boyfriend and I decided that our best bet for producing an edible swordfish meatloaf was to replace the ketchup topping with a more fish-friendly one of breadcrumbs and Old Bay. At that point, we still thought we could salvage the swordfish meatloaf.
My cockiness waned as I smelled the meatloaf baking. I didn’t like the cafeteria-fish-sticks smell that had begun perfuming my kitchen. When I peered through the oven door, the meatloaf was indeed bubbling away, but not the way delicious food does. What I saw was much more sinister — primordial ooze, say, or the contents of a witch’s cauldron.
I’ve never baked a fish cake before, and it was a mistake to poach the fish first. It’s what I do when I fry fish cakes, but in retrospect, I don’t think the poached swordfish was ever going to stand up to a lengthy bake, and it was wetter from its poaching than it should have been when I mixed it with the binder. I can take that blame, at least. But what happened in my kitchen that day was never going to be salvageable by any act of God or man. When we recoil at the term “swordfish meatloaf,” it’s the same instinctive repulsion we experience at the smell of moldy food or rotting meat. Certain things aren’t meant to be eaten by humans.
“Maybe a cross section will photograph better,” said my loyal boyfriend, who was unwilling to admit that I’d committed a hate crime against swordfish.
I watched him take a bite, and he carefully said, “That’s not bad.” His eyes squinted and his throat gulped the way mine always do when I have to drink pre-colonoscopy prep fluid.
I scrounged around in the dish, looking for “a good bite,” until he gently told me that I wasn’t going to find one. So I shut my eyes, went with God… and could not swallow this stuff. I tried! But all I could think was of the dishonor I’d inflicted on this poor swordfish, who died so that we could have this unholy meatloaf. Once again, this dish was self-consciously fancy, and once again, that fanciness was its downfall. I mean, I made some mistakes for sure, but this would’ve been a plausible dish with some much cheaper cod, no?
“You’d have to be on coke to like this,” my boyfriend finally admitted. “The really good 1980s coke where you can’t even taste anything so it’s all the same to you.”
I forgot to photograph the onion jam, sorry. Rest assured, it didn’t help.
Final Verdict: 3/10 because neither of us died and my boyfriend did totally go back for more when he thought I wasn’t looking.
Who’s the Psycho Now?
In some ways, today’s restaurants are guilty of just as much excess as those of Ellis’ imagination, even if it’s excess of a different kind. Back then, the mission seemed to be expanding what a single ingredient could do — to push duck, swordfish, squid to their absolute limits and eat the results with coked-out pride. The approach now is ostensibly humbler, to take the best versions of ingredients and make them taste like the best versions of themselves, so that any restaurant serving chicken is now expected to serve the platonic ideal of chicken-qua-chicken.
I like this mode of excess better, but is it that much less excessive? Are today’s Wall Street goons any better for their fluency with grass-feeding and free-ranging?
Tastes change over time, and ours will change again, so that the next big thing makes today’s evolutions in cuisine look just as quaint as the swordfish meatloaf of yesteryear. Still, I’d call this a mostly successful experiment. I walked away with two dishes to tweak and make again, and one dish to file away along with the number for my local Poison Control Center.
Not too shabby, American Psycho — these truly were some playful, mysterious little dishes.