Find it here
Definition:The act of sharing food with strangers.
The other carnal pleasure.
Author Archives: jll
For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.
In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:
According to an ABC poll  earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.
The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found.  Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.
The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.
Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. .
If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?
Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.
What is a “GMO”.
A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.
Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells .The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.
Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.
Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.
We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.
When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists.  If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.
We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.
Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate.  Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.
Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.
The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage , followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. 
We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola  who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA  for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)
Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements.  Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.
Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.”  Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.
The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you.  Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. . There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.
Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.
The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations, and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.
Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops.  University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101  .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,” which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.
What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well.  Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.
What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.
Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.
There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.
Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”
Bibliography and Footnotes.
1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt
11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/  Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.
16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm
17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s
18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101
Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.
Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/
(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)
Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf
The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0
Getting Food Smart, II
The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.
While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.
Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.
This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.
People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.
Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)
Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.
I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.
Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.
I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.) At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.
Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.
I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.
With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.
The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.
My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.
It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.
So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.
I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.
And why I have been mostly silent.
There have been only rare additions to Culinary Promiscuity in the last year, and I have an excuse. I took a kind of sabbatical for the getting of knowledge.
It’s Harvard’s fault. Somehow news of Science and Cooking, an online Harvard course in food science held by food eminences like Harold McGee , David Arnold , Joan Rocca, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Nathan Myhrvold – the list is impressive – in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Physics found my inbox.
Gee, I thought, How difficult can this be? After all I have a BA in Chemistry with plenty of physics and biology, and I work near if not quite in the food industry, so piece of cake, right? And I signed right up.
As it turned very difficult. I had forgotten nearly everything I had learned in college. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought about food science, and a lot of the things I thought I knew were wrong.
The course turned out to be extremely demanding and absolutely fascinating, covering both the theory of food in general and molecular practices in particular and the practice by some of the world’s most respected chefs. I had to relearn concepts at which I once excelled and grapple with facts I had never known. I got to watch Bill Yosses make an exquisite “glass” apple after Harvard explained how sugar bonds, Joan Roca build a little tower of super cooled ice and Myhrvold create his version of the perfect steak using frozen nitrogen. In sweats. Fabulous.
As a final assignment I designed and carried out an experiment on sous vide tuna which took me on a long and complicated web crawl seeking out facts on rigor mortis in fish and fish amino acids. The teaching assistants liked it. Exhilarating success.
As I nurtured my inner geek I learned that for me facts, the empirically provable truth is the antidote to the floods of quackery, nutritional misconceptions, food fads, the Food Network, $400 prix fixe dinners and the foolish adulation of the latest cuisine presented through spin rather than substance abounding in our matrix. I now “get” molecular cuisine. It’s not a game. It really is a science. I don’t really love it or want to subsidize the enormously high staffing cost needed to prepare it for dinner, but the premises are fascinating.
Of course Science & Cooking ate my life – sorry, I can’t go out, I have homework due – but it was worth it. I even passed it – pretty well, as a matter of fact.
While Science and Cooking is no longer available as a free MOOC, the course is still archived and can be accessed through the edx.org site. If not, the units – usually lasting a few minutes to half an hour, are available on YouTube . You don’t have to deal with the physics and chemistry if that’s not your strength. The culinary segments put anything the Food Network has to offer to shame.
Edx.org (and other MOOC sites) offer courses beyond food physics and celebrity Chefs, food, nutrition, eating being so much more than chemistry: . There are moral, agricultural, political, financial, nutritional aspects to food. Food nourishes and it kills. Every civilized country has a department or agency of food safety like the FDA. The entirety of life – human survival -comes down to a couple of inches of dirt, enough water and a little sunshine. Failing any one of those three elements armies slaughter each other, famine turns civilization into Barbary. Famished citizens die of hunger in the street, vomiting the grass they ate to stave off hunger pains. All these subjects are covered.
Mcgill University is currently holding a course on nutrition covering aspects from micro nutrients to food safety alarms to world hunger covering a great deal of what the Harvard course did not, although they share a few Venn intersections. I am taking it. It’s not nearly as sexy but a lot easier than the Harvard course. I find it comforting to have what I have long suspected about food alarms and claims to be true. The course tackles along with misconceptions about vitamin supplements (“America has the most expensive urine in the world”), agricultural practices and food poisoning. It tackles additives and pesticide use – more on that soon – old wive’s tales and modern myths.
Coursera, an alternative MOOC site has a wide array of courses on food. The site will hold a course in Science and Gastronomy through the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, one in Sustainability of Food systems by the University of Minnesota, The Nordic Diet by the University of Copenhagen (biochemistry suggested), The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida.
I haven’t tried the Coursera courses yet, but the site is better than Edx, as it offers an option to sign up to be informed of courses in planning, so that you can sign up when they go live. These non profit organizations also offer a broad spectrum of non food related courses. Coursera hosts beginning Chinese, Edx beginning coding and Greek mythology. The selection is vast. “MOOC”, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.” All MOOC’s are free, unless they are being taken for credit. The hosts are some of the world’s finest Universities. You can in every course aim for a certificate or simply audit, cherry picking the parts that interest you. If you cannot finish one in time to get certified you can go back to the archived course and finish that at your leisure. The getting of wisdom was never so cheap or so easy.
What a deal!
I encourage you to join me at the nerd table, where we can laugh at the cool kids table emoting over the current culinary myths and scares. We could hang out together with our slide rules sticking out of our pocket protectors. The kind of knowledge offered by these MOOC’s may not be power, but it’s certainly reassuring.
There are also plenty of brick and Mortar opportunities to learn about food, too. I just learned this – The University of the Pacific San Francisco plans to offer a Masters of Arts program in Food in San Francisco under culinary anthropologist Ken Alba .
UCLA offers Science and Food to it’s students with online segments. You can subscribe to their email list. There is, of course, the School in Bra, Italy, Being attached to and founded in cooperation with Slow Food, however, there will be some level of ideology served up with the math. For those really hard core good geeks out there, Universities like UC Davis have internationally recognized food science programs. I wish I had known all this earlier, but still, I’ve got McGill and Harvard. My date for tonight is Dr Ariel Fenster, Joe Schwarz or David Harpp. I think we’re going to talk discuss food cults.
OMG. What a coincidence. It’s Amazing. Two days after I post my VIP (who would have thunk it?) invitation to pay for the privilege of working as an extra on yet another televised kitchen-schlacht with celebrity chefs, tension and bad music, Chris Cosentino’s MAD Symposium presentation goes viral. Cosentino recounts food show abuse and exploitation of chef- gladiators and the judges who kick them off their island. It’s pretty grim. It includes endoscopic images of Cosentino’s tortured stomach. That’s ironic considering he launched the American fascination with offal, nose to tail, snout to ass cuisine.
I’m not crazy about television culinary competitions. The concept of chefs as competitors rings false, the voice overs are unnerving, and then there’s the music. If I were one of them and they played that the tracks during my prep, my final dish would be friend producer’s heart and liver with onions with a side of sound engineer’s ears. I wouldn’t hold out watching people I respect forced to down bowls of hot chile peppers. Side by side demonstrations – fine. White coated frenzy: disturbing, so I may be a bit biased, but it I do believe everything he says.
Cosentino is not the only one to report odd practices on gladiator cooking shows. Here’s what I’ve been told by other chefs who have participated in one show or the other.
- Reality schmeality – much is staged, and real kitchens don’t work that way. There’s nothing exciting about chopping vegetables in a real kitchen. The gold standard is order, not adrenaline. The gold ring of reality TV is drama, not food. Gladiators vs lions. Bread and games.
- Compensation is poor. The lure is fame, possible money, exposure to people who will either eat at the restaurant and come there. That works for some. Not for others.
- The contracts are restrictive and demanding. The producers have attorneys and the contestants generally don’t.
- The game is rigged. The winner is frequently per-determined according to my chef friends. They set the users up to fail by artificially creating insurmountable stress situations: shortening their prep time, the food basket or the backup staff at the last minute. When you see a chef blow his top on a food show, it’s because he’s been set up to fail.
- Contestants, even the losers, are committed to appear where and when the production desires for a long time following the show, which makes finding a regular job a challenge.
After a half year flirt with the show Restaurant Headhunter and a few dealings with production companies looking for talent, I have a few insights to add.
The producers and their minions don’t seem to know or care much about real kitchen reality. The only information on potential candidates they request is a head shot and a screen test. Whether they can cook is immaterial. .
They don’t seem to have the money you would think they do. I thought Hollywood was awash with the stuff. Apparently not. Maybe it’s all come up to Silicon valley to fund sharing sites. Pointing out that I find talent for a living and thus would charge for the service generally results in stunned silence of stammering. I suspect the minions who call are unpaid star struck interns, but this being the age of the fourteen year CEO, who knows.
The Rival VIP invite to participate as an unpaid – nay paying – extra in a show with “celebrity” chefs (they asked a few candidates of mine who are definitely not celebrity, just chefs) through a Kickstarter campaign would suggest that Valley new billionaires are not throwing wads of cash at start up food shows.
Perhaps there have been too many. Perhaps the shows are going too far afield from the first one, Japan’s “Iron Chef”. Too many games, too much circus, too little substance. But then, Iron Chef was created by the people who make Toyota. We make Chevy’s.
Never having been a fan of extreme competition I find the entire chef as gladiator / food as blood sport bizarre for a world where teamwork and camradery have long been the norm and respect the gold standard, but then the food component is has become another vehicle for suspense and team partisanship: Who finds the treasure first, which sexy girl gets to bed the millionaire or which millionaire gets to bed the sexy girl, who stays on the island. Chefs are glamorous, even the homely ones are gorgeous in white and everyone eats. Obviously “Top Chef” draws better than “Star Plumber” or “Celebrity Mortician.
One of the strange impacts of the celebrity cooking contests was a rash of young people taking out large loans for cooking school with the intent of becoming TV chefs. Maybe that’s why nobody can find good cooks these days. I’m thinking, though, I think that things are changing.
Chefs I recently approached for a show I was asked to staff flatly refused.. They tell me they’ve been “warned”.. When I was considering Restaurant Headhunter, experienced food media people warned me: They don’t care about you. They will try to make you look bad, to trip you up. They will try to make the people you get involved look bad. Your reputation can’t use that. Eventually the producers reached out to me again and asked me to provide candidates and a restaurant as a favor, as the more media appropriate “Head Hunter” they hired hired knew nobody in California and didn’t know how to recruit them. Guess the answer.
And there is Jon Favreau’s non reality but very real movie, “Chef The Movie” , released earlier this year, which portrays the work of a chef as chef. Favreau’s characters are so realistic, that’s I’d send them out to kitchen jobs in a heartbeat. I know the model for his first employer. I know his sous. I’ve met him a dozen times. Favreau’s knife work is as dramatic an act as I have ever seen. Without music. The passion monologue to his son – This is what I do, this is my passion – is inspiring. The movie, aside from the tiniest pinch of fantasy or two, is really reality restaurant media.
I have no doubt Favreau’s movie has made an impact. For the past decade or so I have had many, many aspiring culinary stars asking me what my media connections are. “I don’t want to work in a kitchen. I want to be on Television and have my own show.” . For the past six months, however, I’ve had requests for information on owning a food truck. My friend Micah Martello went that route, and he tells me he hasn’t looked back.
Obviously food trucks are not the essence of cooking, but cooks are being inspired to work in kitchens, rather than on stages. Media is always going to be part of any chef’s life, but the kind of dysfunctional circus my chef friends and Chris Cosentino describe is at least being put in perspective.
As Bud the Pieman says, “Make Pie, not War.” I like that.
Chris Cosentino suggests he’s worried about his future. I am not. He’s smarter than the people who used him and he’s got more class. As for the autism issue, join the club. At least half of kitchen people are autistic. In the right setting it’s a gift. Good luck to him, but he probably doesn’t need it.
How not to raise money for a new restaurant, but it will probably be successful anyway
I have just been solicited to donate to a new restaurant opening TV competition by someone named Jason Akel. He asserts it will be the most amazing culinary experience I have ever had. Rather than comment on the mail, concept etc here – and the entire entrepreneur via Kickstarter is rife for discussion – He wants me to yelp and facebook it. I’ll do him one better. Here approach and response. Hate it? comment.
Dear Jo Lynne,
Would you buy a ticket to a live, interactive competitive cooking show where two top chefs create a dinner that you get to taste and judge? If yes, you can buy advance tickets to that exact experience at a new restaurant called RIVAL, coming to San Francisco next year:
This will be the most amazing, ultimate “foodie” event that will surpass any dining experience you have ever had in the past. So step aside “Iron Chef” and let Rival take center stage.
We’re raising money on Kickstarter, and your ticket will help us open with lots of sparkle. We’re on a roll; in fact, we were just honored with as a Kickstarter Staff Pick! I invite you to help build and be a part of this revolutionary concept. I really hope to see your name on our roster of supporters. Thanks, Jo Lynne!
1. Visit www.rivalshow.com
…watch the short video
2. Select reward level
$199+ for tickets
3. Then tell friends on Facebook and Twitter about the show
Dear Jason Akel (Or Stephen Walker, whose name is at the bottom.)
1) Who are you?
2) In answer to your question, nothing.
3) I staff restaurants. I don’t invest in them, certainly not for food. The last time I helped a chef with his dream it took me seven years to get the money back and somehow I ended up with a huge grill on my deck, which he won’t take back. I did have a bunch of chefs over for a great kid on it, though, so maybe that was good. Still, aside from the grill the investment carried no interest. I don’t think this would pay me interest either.
4) Define “celebrity”. I take it to mean there are simply too many credulous groupies with time on their hands following sensational but mediocre food media. I mean, if celebrity chefs in New York are now charging $100 for brunch and there’s waiting list, you’ve got a demographic with a yen for buck nekkid emperors, Or no? The guys I work with get flat feet and back aches and put their pants on one leg at a time. The media feeds off them, but they would I think never consider themselves celebrities, although some are. “Celebrity” is a tool and a myth for foodies. We do not be foodies. At some point the touching of robes and kissing of rings becomes tedious, anyway.
5) Easy on the superlatives—most amazing etc. Ever? Do you know how old I am? There’s a hell of experience in my “ever”. There is a finite resource and stuff like this depletes it. I have decades of eating behind me, some of which with a lot of money, and trust me, this can’t top them. The most amazing was probably a Slow Food Leaders’ event with Italy’s top chefs between the ruins of Pompei, but there was that thing on the alp, too. Never mind. You are surely too young.
6) I was with Gary Danko’s team at the opening of Rocco DiSpirito’s restaurant for the kickoff of the show “The Restaurant” Apart from a very entertaining discussion about how to keep your white laundry from getting colored by a stray washcloth or socks (Color Catchers) with Gail Gand, Rick Tramonto, Susan Spicer, Gary and I can’t remember who, it was a disaster. The food was memorable in a bad way, even if Rocco’s mother made it, and I nearly got myself in a position to be sued by some kid who asked about a local crack head celebrity, which I answered with some comment about back under the rock where he belonged until some idiot with o.p.m bailed him out (which happened). When I got back to the table Tramonto noted that the guy was wearing a wire and I spent the rest of the season watching every God Awful episode of the show with my attorney’s address next to my chair. Fortunately I have neither sufficient T or A to be put on TV, but I swore never to watch a food show again. I accidentally clicked on one recently, and they have got even worse, if possible.
7) I have occasionally been asked to staff television shows, generally by people who believe that I would do it for the connections – that is without charging them. I asked one once what they were willing to pay for the service, and they were flabbergasted Obviously these sweet, bright young things don’t have irksome issues like Rent and Groceries to deal with but live off the energy promoted by celebrity. Good for them. I need a roof and calories. I thus am not fond of or much involved with the buzz of food TV. . I don’t think I like these people, so I wouldn’t give them money.
8) I recently was asked to find a great chef to hook up with a chicken bus which would be shipped from field to field and talk about things that come from dirt. Jeremiah Tower may still be talking to them, but the person who was handling the connection would not talk to me (this was for money) and just emailed me that all she wanted were the head shots. No more food TV. Not even watching. Celebrity Chefs.
9) Say “please”. I wouldn’t tweet or FB you anyway, since that’s reserved for my business needs (actually I will in a way) or Tweet this to all my friends. One envisions Colonel Klink punctuating his order to share with all my friends with a snappy one armed salute. “ Vee know how to make you Tveet.”
10) The concept as food as battle rather than as civilization is one of the great cultural oxymorons of the 21st Century. I never watched dog fights and I don’t even like dogs all that much. I love my chefs. Why would I want to watch them turn the usual comradery and kitchen love into a tension filled food fight? Make kale salad in a mason jar, not war.
12) It is neither illegal nor immoral to take money from stupid or silly people. Frankly, I probably would have married PT Barnum if the timing had been right and he’d asked. I wish you all the luck with your venture.
Jo Lynne Lockley
“The food, opined Ted”, “was amazing.” Actually he said something more like the FOOD was AmAAAAYYYZZING.” Ted had laid down about half again a minimum wage employee’s weekly salary for the meal. You can do that a lot these days. As a matter of fact, it’s getting a lot harder to pay only a couple of hours’ wages for a blue plate special.
You would think that given the price, Ted would have expected a meal as refined and delicious, sexy and beautiful as if it came from the hand of a tweezer wielding deity.
Last year dinner at Benu in fact did amaze me: The final bill came to $400. Even mellowed by a spectacular wine flight I was floored (It had something to do with the extra price for the dried abalone, which we hadn’t quite checked. ) The magnificent, artfully prepared, once in a lifetime food, however, pretty much met my expectations. It delighted, it tantalized, it was downright spiritual bliss, but it was not a surprise. I expect mind altering flavors when I put that kind of weight on my plastic. So should you.
A 22 year old aspiring gourmet on Check Please just pronounced a meal at a Castro street bistro, “Amaaaayyyyzzing” as well. He had garlic shrimp and some nice Spanish short ribs and good wine. Truth: The meal looked really nice, and I have put the place on my short list. Even so, this kid seemed pretty easy to surprise, but then, he’s got a lot of time to calibrate his reaction levels.
As a matter of fact, everyone I know describes whatever they eat – cheese, a candy bar, a chicken fried steak or dinner at Saizon, Parallel 37 or Benu – as amazing. Considering the fact that most of the people I hear this from work in the food industry, it’s really surprising how little it takes to dramatically whelm them.
Amazing is the new must own food vocabulary accessory, the absolute superlative of approval. Sometime when we weren’t looking it rolled right over awesome (which actually described sensory experiences beyond the pale quite passably) and left “perfect” a speck in the rear view mirror. As in “How was the sandwich?” “Perfect” has become, “How is your sandwich?” “Amazing.”
The rise of everything food being “amaaayyyyyyzing in the Bay Area is pretty amazing in its own right, as we here are all about cool, laid back, not showing our weak emotional culinary underbellies, but we go into paroxysms over sandwiches. And Toast. Isn’t “amazing toast” an oxymoron? When did we arrive at the point where a sandwich, or for that matter a five course tasting meal astounds us and we all melt effusively over our collective stunned shock and awe over mayonnaise?
The OED defines amazing thus:
- causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing:an amazing number of people registered it is amazing how short memories are
- informal very impressive; excellent:she makes the most amazing cakes
Granted it’s common usage is simply approval of whatever, but basically “amazing” means “surprising”, as in, oh, I wasn’t expecting that to be good. (So you go to a place where dinner costs half an economy ticket to Paris without expectations?) How thoroughly perverse.
It is of course possible be that the techie diaspora has provided San Francisco with a sizable population of nutritionally immature and unsophisticated but moneyed people for whom a basic kale salad is epiphanic and life changing after years of Jolt and Pizza, but even forty somethings who have time to tiddle with stuff that doesn’t come out of the box pronounce themselves in the thrall of surprise at goat cheese ice cream. And friends in Paris use it.
I don’t know about you, but it’s getting to me – the universal wide eyed wonder at the most recent amuse bouche – kind of like being hit repeatedly an a vaccination site or trying to sleep in a room with a dripping faucet.
Pronouncing a meal amazing sets off a superlative oneupmanship over amazing flan and amazing espresso, which after due magnification wanders onto Yelp! or Open Table reviews, where everything is either amazing or the worst meal ever. And the funny thing is that once something is pronounced amazing, you really don’t have any sense that it is particularly good, as the word has been beaten into hyperbolic mush with a brick bat and thus has become as potent as your grampa after two bottles of the good stuff.
Foodie America needs a thesaurus. Phenomenal food deserves just a little thought in its description. I’m here to help. There’s an app for that, and even if you don’t remember all of the vocabulary you crammed for your S.A.T’s (or you managed to escape them), you can have a thoroughly adequate supply of still functional superlatives at your fingertips..eh, smart phone in a snap for just $0.99.
In case you want an instant fix, here are some of their suggestions from http://www.Thesaurus.com
astonishing, awesome , beautiful , breathtaking, fearsome , formidable , imposing , impressive , magnificent , overwhelming , stunning , daunting , exalted , fearful , frantic , grand , hairy , majestic , mean , mind-blowing , moving , nervous , real gone , something else , striking , stupefying , comforting , good , nice , pleasing , wonderful , fascinating , incredible , marvelous , prodigious , , stunning , surprising , unbelievable , wonderful , bang-up , capital , champion , excellent , fine , first-rate , fly , top , whiz-bang , wonderful , fantastic , supernatural , uncanny , unearthly , fantastic , wonderful, excellent, a-1 , awesome , best , best ever , delicious , far out , first-class , first-rate , great , like wow , marvelous , out of sight , out of this world , sensational , superb , unreal , awesome , breathtaking , fantastic , incredible , outrageous , phenomenal , remarkable , spectacular , superb , terrific .
How was your dinner at Fogard’s Kale Gastrorestaurnt? It was..oh wait a moment [tap tap tap] ..ah, flabbergastingly delectable.
Too tame? Knock it up a notch. Bleeping epiphanic.
Superlatives are manifest. In case that doesn’t do it, here are a few of mine:
Fabulous (so Roselyn Russel campy, as in “Oh, Dahling. The trout fondue with caviar foam was ahbsolutely mahvelous!”), exquisite, mind blowing, sock knocking off, gobsmackingly good, or reach back to the roaring twenties (always fun) with “The cat’s pajamas”, “The bee’s knees”. One of the finest meals I have had in a long time…the options are endless.
“How was your meal at Tres Luces?” “Oh, DUDE! It was the bleeping cat’s pajamas.”
Of course you can get really creative and avoid “It is/was” altogether as in “I loved every tantalizing bite.” “ It was like “Angels made love on my tongue”. The latter is courtesy of Ray Mazotti, one of the greatest eaters I have known, and even though Stanley Eichelbaum once noted, probably in a pique of envy for the wild turn of phrase that wasn’t his, “I don’t fancy dead people fornicating in the back of my mouth,” I find it gets cheap points now and then. Alternatively, just lapse into Harry meets Sally rapture, groan and rub your stomach.
This will all be on the test, so here’s a little homework for review:
The raclette at Hansi’s Chinese Fusion Matterhorn Café was absolutely ___________. ( You probably want to avoid “hairy”)
Magdelena said that ________________________ Chef Bernie’s crouton salad.
We really loved the ______________ doughnuts at Fred’s Croissant and Fill Dirt corner.
See. It’s easy.
Stand apart from the crowd and give the food that has made you happy the honor it deserves.
I use a couple of LinkedIn forums, generally unsuccessfully, to find the people I need. One of them is called “Cutting Edge Chefs”, and while I doubt that any really cutting edge chefs have time to fool around in the forums, I like to hope.
Recently the moderator posted a list of things he really dislikes in restaurants, which included cold butter on warm bread, food presented better than it tastes and pizza with the cheese untouched by heat because it is covered with tomato sauce.
Never having suffered the cheese issue – San Franciscan chefs are pretty OCD about pizza – I agree entirely with his fourth peeve: Tiny dark menu fonts on dark backgrounds in dimly lit dining rooms. I toasted my rods in an act of defiance to nature on the slopes of St Moritz in my twenties, so even blazing black on white is a challenge for me even with 20/20 vision, and I note for quite a few others. . He states correctly that servers seem amused but rarely helpful when he scrounges for a light source..which puts the concept of “hospitality”, as the industry is wont to call itself, in question. (Tip: There’s a flashlight app for most smart phones.)
Pump primed, I responded with my least favorite restaurant issues. Of course you want to know what they are, so here’s the list.
Crusty, crumbly bread without a bread plate because “We are Mediterranean and that’s how we do it.” At lunch with a reviewer once we made such a mess of our table cloth that we simply gathered it up in a bundle and handed it to the passing server. Of course we had had three drinks while they got the food out, so our inhibitions were a little weak.
Servers who cannot stay away from the table during interesting conversations. (Like the discussion of a Hollywood Star’s planned restaurant with the Director of Operations). We had to call the manager to detain her.
Servers with visible belly button rings at eye level.
Anyone near me or my food who has gone to great lengths to deform their bodies, especially their ear lobes with extending rings. Thoroughly unappetizing, that.
Servers who ask “Is everything all right” (If everything is not all right, ones options are either lying or causing a scene – thanks for putting me on the spot) or worse: “Are we having a fabulous breakfast?” (At possibly the worst breakfast I have ever had at Campton Place..being with a client I could make the desired anatomical alterations on the man..sometimes restraint is hard. Note to servers: “Do you need anything” will suffice.
Figuring that my dinner is going to come to about $80 and walking out with a $120 bill due to added charges and fees. (San Francisco only).
Servers who insist on sharing their opinion. They are SERVERS, not ADVISORS. Would someone please tell them to wait until their surely valuable thoughts on the day boat scallops or the halibut are requested?
“You guys”..I am not a guy. Can someone teach the serving class that they don’t need to add a title to their greeting? A simple “Good Evening. Welcome to John’s Croissants and Offal Joint” Would do just fine.
“Good Evening, young lady”. Oh, vomit. How absolutely insulting and bleeping patronizing and slimy. Most women are smart enough to know you don’t think they are young. In fact, you have just said in effect, “You look old.”
“Would you like your change back?” No, Bubba. I always give 50% tips.
Servers who think I give a damn about their names. Really I don’t. I will forget them the moment they leave the table, and I am smart enough to figure out on my own that they will be my server tonight, as opposed, say, to my dentist.
Not seating my 75 year old dining partner until I find a parking place, even though we have a reservation, and the room empty with two tops.
Wine stewards who tell you that your wine is not in at the moment and suggest another, failing to mention that the price is double.
Bistro highchairs. Who ever got the brainfahrt that people like to perch at lunch? I left my high chair behind at two and a half years and haven’t looked back. I find feet on the ground comforting.
Common tables, where the host(ess) will seat you, even though there are empty booths: These are fine when you are alone but they stink for business lunches or trysts, not that I engage in many of the latter.
Din. You know what I mean.
Bars without purse hooks. Come on, guys. They’re cheap and make friends. If you have any class at all, you also provide some place for purses at the table. Gary Danko brings a little bag stool. You don’t want bags on the tables. Women put them on the floor in the bathroom. Enough said.
Mirrors reminding me that it’s time for another peel. Well over half the dining population do not want to see themselves in the mirror while they chew. New York has figured it out and angles the mirrors down so that you see the table, not your face. Good one. (New York also has purse hooks all over the place and usually a women’s restroom and a 00 restroom, so women don’t have to wait in line. New York has it figured out.)
The usual sustainability clichés. I expect chefs at the restaurants I patronize to use quality ingredients. It’s their job. That almost always means local, sustainable, organic, blah blah blah food. I don’t want an ecological sermon when I go to eat.
Menus with recipes and food provenance instead of short descriptions. I don’t give a rat’s rear who nurtured my nutrients. I get that at the farmers market. You know your farmer? Nice. Most likely so do I, but we are not going to chat about it at the table, as I want to enjoy my friends.
Being seated at a crappy table when I am single, which I try not to be.
The bum’s rush. You want me to go without dessert? Have I been that obnoxious, or are you just short of china, so you need every plate the moment the diner has stepped down the pace to the occasional nibble?
Having to wait an hour for the check. Ditto menu. Ditto main dish.
Feeling the urge to identify myself when everything is beyond tolerance, or even thinking, “obviously they don’t know who I am”, as they shouldn’t HAVE to know who you are. (I never do..but urge control detracts from the experience)
Snotty Gen XY hostesses. Where in the world were they raised? My Little Pony caves? Hello Kitty Land?
Hipster Restaurants (are you listening, St Francis Fountain?) who make it painfully clear that I am not hip (true that) and really should not be there. And listen, dudes, the fact that you are all hairy around the face and dressed like Paul Bunyan out looking for Babe doesn’t help a lot. Something about bushy men in flannel with knit caps doesn’t exactly scream “clean” to me.
Restaurants trying to be cute with Gimmicks. Any Gimmicks.
Desserts purchased wholesale. Anything that comes cold because the flash oven didn’t completely defrost it. Hell, if you can’t afford a pastry chef take a note from Giallina and and serve great ice cream.
Pastry chefs hell bent on making dessert taste and smell like bath products.
Receptionists who think you are out-of-towners and try to give you the 10:00 seating or the 5:00 seating, because they know they can sell the middle seatings easily.
Dinner next to a bachelorette party.Restaurants should know to consign them to sound proof rooms.
“How are WE tonight? Are we here for dinner?” I don’t know about you, sistah, but I am hunky dorey and I came to get my shoes shined. Please bring the lackey.
All this, of course, makes great service even better appreciated. Like, for instance, Perbacco. I think Umberto Gibin is San Francisco’s Danny Meyer, but we have a lot of restaurants where the owner manages the floor masterfully.
The puzzling part of this, or perhaps not, is that one is expected to pay an extra 20% for the aggravation, when it is aggravation. I suspect a lot of it is servers trying too hard to be seen and remembered in order to get you to pony up more. And you will. If they were compensated for their work like other Food and Beverage professionals, without the pressure to sell up and use frantic sycophancy, more of us would probably enjoy ourselves more eating out.
I love to eat out. I love restaurants. I love chefs and dinners with friends, who won’t come to my hillside hovel, so I do eat out a bit. I just don’t look forward to it as much as I perhaps should.
Damn, that was fun. Definitely Therapeutic.
Please add your own peeves or disagree. The only impediment to signing up/in is a captcha system which requires math skills from 1 – 20. I know you are up for that.
I lived an involuntarily local existence for ten of the twenty or so years in Switzerland.
It is the kind of food experience mourned by tediously delusional dreamers who have not participated in it – with a pervading nostalgia for a photo-shopped emotional landscape of happy cows and crofts and the simple elegance and purity of an age they feel we should never have left behind.
This was the good part: Fresh eggs from the farm, carried home in saved flour bags. Half a pig and half a calf butchered by the local butcher and divided under his supervision to be put in the freezer. Mache and fabulous winter salads in season, berries, stone fruit leeks and tender beans straight from the field or orchard. Fresh pressed apple juice on frosty late summer mornings and air filtered ten gallon bottles to dispense apple juice throughout the winter. Real veal. A fresh chicken every time we ran one over on the road home. Otherwise on order. Fresh cream. Wood oven baked Meringue. Bread made in a hollow of the dying coals of an oven fired at 5:00 am.. A really great still which produced Kirsch that burned with a pure blue flame. Sides of raw smoked bacon to cut off in little tiles whenever you wanted. Landjaeger, square sausages. Emmentaller. Fondue. Raclette. Venison or wild boar any time somebody ran into one on the steep road into the village. Dole wine sitting in front of a roaring fire and looking out over the snow white fields towards the black forest.
This was the rough part: Initially almost no citrus, and then at a price. Non raw milk needed to be ordered a week in advance. No avocados. Long winters. Eight or so months living on roots and cabbage. Two to three weeks of hot, sticky canning during the season in addition to a full time job. Having to break down the calf and the pig in a cold cellar until your fingers ached and the blood stung in the scratches on your hands. Seafood restricted to fish sticks (inland country). A local market with the worst of frozen foods. Canned beans. Canned peas. Canned asparagus. Leberkaese. Horse flies. Tough beef. Canned spaghetti. Tape worms (fortunately none of them ours). Grit and dirt in everything from leeks to peas. The fine smell of animal and human fertilizer sprayed over snow in winter (so it would soak in gradually) and the times when some fool farmer sprayed it on ice instead, so it entered the water system. Going down to the town with old milk cans for water until the system cleared. Dead hedgehog stuck in the dryer vent for weeks. Canned milk when we couldn’t get it fresh. Raw milk that tasted of nothing but udder and barn. Cowbells at 2:00 am.
So we cheated: We crossed the border for white asparagus. We drove all the way up to Germany to get into the American PX for beef. Of course it wasn’t cheating then, because we didn’t know we should eat local. Except for smuggling everything past customs. Fortunately Swiss customs guards never looked too closely at cars with two women and either screaming or sleeping babies in the back seats, stuffed in between the boxes of Post Exchange pampers ( not yet available in Switzerland) with American beef and plunder stuffed in between.
The day Migros finally opened a supermarket within a 30 minute drive, I joined all the women from the surrounding villages, lining up for hours to buy Spanish oranges and Israeli avocados, lemons, $40 a pound American steak and French wines and cheese. Migros is the anathema of contemporary sustainability standards: Seasonal be damned, big box and discount with a massive variety of everything including a full service cheese department that would put any cheese shop in the US to shame. The supermarket had a counter of the best of European varieties that extended from the front to the back, a full butcher shop and fresh seafood. We loved it. I still love the place, as food politically incorrect as it may be.
My forty minute commute from the school where I chaired the English department passed along a frontage road by the freight rail tracks. Things in Switzerland tend to be pristine and perfect, but beside the narrow road was an unmarked, roughhewn wood structure, like a temporary construction office, from which I had noticed people emerging with shopping bags. When I needed milk too close to the 5:30 local shop closing time, I decided to see if I could buy some there.
Inside the shotgun structure was whitewashed with myriad cheeses, produce, and salumi displayed at the front in upturned produce crates stacked to form a crude counter. Prosciuto and dried vines dripping wrinkled up tomatoes hung from the rafters, and oil, pasta, sweets and canned goods were stacked on simple pine shelves at the back.
The apparent owner was speaking rapid fire Italian to three or four men in splotchy overalls, probably guest laborers from the nearby chemical plants, and a couple of older women in black, grabbing things from the shelves, measuring out olives, rice, and cornmeal into brown paper bags. She ignored me.
I stood fixed to the floor, staring at the exotic foods and not understanding a word.
In a pause I managed to say “Scusi,” which I had heard at the butcher shop, and pointed to a cheese, holding out my hands to show the size of a piece I would like. She cut it and signaled another, apparently praising it, cut a little piece for me to taste. I took a hunk of that, too.
A man emerged from the back of the store, exchanged a few words with the woman, then turned to me and said forcefully, “Parmiggiano Raggiano della Prima Qualita”, my first real Italian phrase, pointing to the wheel. “Very good,” he said in German. I nodded and was given a piece. I signaled the tomatoes and then the prosciutto and was given a vine and a number of slices on waxed paper. They handed me pasta, olive oil. He kept saying “Very Good”. I kept nodding.
I was in a daze. What they proposed with hand signals, unintelligible Italian and a the man’s Swiss German vocabulary of perhaps twenty words. I bought. The other customers had purchased a hundred grams of salumi or mortadella, a box of cookies and perhaps a brick of ice cream. I spent about a tenth of a month’s salary, filling the back of our tree frog green 4cv hatchback with boxes of food. We parted friends.
Initially my husband was not pleased. We had what I then would have best described as cold cuts for dinner with Italian cookies for dessert. He came around. The next night we had fresh pasta.
I told my neighbors and my best friend, Ruth, who grew up in Tecino, across the border from Italy. She showed me what to do with the polenta and the tomatoes – I did not know. She went down that week, then told her friends.
I told my colleagues at work about the market. The chemistry teacher began bringing the more adventurous offerings for after class breaks. Swiss schools then were civilized, and we had white wine and food in the two long pauses. We started an antipasti pool.
The store became more crowded. I signed up for Italian lessons.
We left local in the rear view mirror and never looked back.
In those years the Swiss didn’t think much of the Italians, the Greeks or the Spanish, probably because most of them were guest labor permitted to remain in the country as long as there were jobs the Swiss wouldn’t do. Too many Swiss thought them dirty, lazy, stupid and mostly dishonest and treated them accordingly.They called them cinquen after the card game the men played in the pubs at night, a word vaguely equivalent to WOP (which interestingly enough means “With Out Papers”) and accused them of any crime or mishap in the area. Some Swiss claimed that the Italians would dilute pure Swiss blood and Swiss culture. That may sound vaguely familiar.
I had little opinion, except that I knew from my experience with our old house manager, Leo Delvasto, who worked by day as a mechanic, that they were neither lazy nor dirty, and surely not dishonest. Leo’s wife, Marinella, had moped our stairway every time one of the high rise tenants passed, outswissing the Swiss, and lured me into their apartment to pour tiny cups of strong coffee with boxed cookies every time I passed on the stairs. I liked Marina and Leo.
There is hardly a Swiss today who would own to ever having looked down on the Italians. The children of the grease monkeys became doctors and business men. My old neighbor Leo DelVasto has retired after owning the most prestigious Ferrari dealership in Northern Switzerland. Today everyone wants to speak, eat, and furnish their homes Italian. I think I always did.
I suspect, without denying the immigrants their due for hard work and intelligence, that my hut of a store and others like it throughout Switzerland helped pave their way. Pasta diplomacy. The shop, I have been told, has since moved to the center of the town and is breathtakingly expensive today. Well, good for them, although I would have wished it had stayed right where and just as it was, and that I could go back any time I got to Basel. It was one of those wonderful experiences you appreciate at the moment, but perhaps not quite enough.
The Swiss Italian culinary rapprochement and the resulting endless fun of eating those wonderful, strange foods we now all take for granted, discovering new tastes and flavors is the absolute opposite of the current locavore belief system, which places provincial prejudices above the vast offerings of the world beyond tribe, village, state or country – a silly little idea based on the false algorithm of Local = Better.
Excluding any and all distant enterprises or agriculture from commerce comes down to protectionism. Exclusively supporting your local farmer or fisherman in all fairness would implicate in the extreme that your local farmer or fisherman should not invade others’ commercial territory, Minnesota would have no oranges and Phoenix no blueberries. Whether or not that economy would function if resuscitated is a mute point, as the global economy has long crossed the Rubicon. Talk about spoilsport.
Local is not a synonym for good food and global is not an irresponsible choice. The opposite of good is inauthentic, over processed, stale, warehouse ripened, bad. Not foreign. Not imported. Not produced out of state. Everything is local somewhere. But that’s just my opinion, and those who hold eating local a necessity won’t be influenced by it. How sad for them. We apostates will enjoy the bananas, Grana Pedano and Epoisses they disdain. The injustice will remain that we will enjoy not only the best of what is grown here but supplement it with what the rest of the world produces. Back yard honey or maple syrup – the choice is ours. Pity the poor locavore. Viva Italia. Viva Helvetia.Viva il Mondo.
Two of the this week’s historical events:
- The NRA has shared their solution for the country’s exploding shooting death toll: If every sane man, woman and adolescent in the country is armed, nobody will get shot. – We shall create a permanent internecine American Cold War with our schools, malls, sports arenas and public squares guarded by armed minimum wage employees and
- Mattel, the Barbie and GI Joe people, have announced the dawn of a gender neutral Easy Bake Oven. Talk about serendipitous events!
The NRA has once again shown that not being part of the solution to this issue makes them the problem – while Mattel’s open minded reasoning makes it a solution to many things.
Having a dog in this fight,– more a purse poodle than a pit bull – I have strong feelings about the gun issue, the greatest of them being perplexity at the level of cowardice and denial in our elected representatives. In the fifty years since my own mad shooter experience nothing has been done, apparently because a front for various gun makers has members of Congress on both sides firmly by the short hairs.
I am equally perplexed that otherwise seemingly intelligent people subscribe to “Arm the Schools” and concealed carry philosophies based on their beliefs that the cow is now over the cliff and we have to deal with the situation we have rather than the situation we want (reasonable gun control). There are by now, they maintain, too many guns in circulation for Congress and the country at large to turn back the ballistic tide, so we need to turn our schools into armed fortresses and pack heat ourselves.
As Joe Biden would say, Malarkey. If Australia and Britain were able to call in guns and ammo, so can we, Congress can regulate extreme and excessive firearms and limit ammunition. Early discussions of potential gun laws discuss measures like reporting gun sales exceeding one a week and ammunition purchase of over 500 or 100 rounds. 500 rounds?? I am still using the last half of the 500 Q-Tips I bought in 1986 – Why are our lawmakers still thinking bulk when it comes to weaponry? It’s high time for congress to grow a spine.
The weapons in circulation? There is no non-self-interested reason for Congress not to recall “assault” weapons. The argument that people would not turn them in holds only if insufficient incentives are included, which brings us to Mattel.
A Mattel Easy Bake Oven in exchange for every returned gun would be poetically just in view of Mattel’s contribution to our gun culture. Mattel’s Thommy Burst automatic machine guns were to today’s old guard gun nuts what Easy Bake Ovens were to their sisters. . Reports of every teenage ninja murderer note that only boys engage in school shootings. Girls don’t do this. Well, big surprise. Who the Hell do you think got the Easy Bake ovens and who got little plastic Rambo dolls?
If the Jimmies and Donnies of the world had been taught the Zen of baking rather than the manly rush of emptying a clip into the “enemy” (a disturbingly vague concept), there’d be a lot more muffins and a lot fewer head stones.
Think this through with me for a moment: Would you rather have your home smell of gunpowder or warm chocolate cookies? Not sure? Take the test. Rate from 1 to 10, where one equals I detest them and 10 means great:
Muffins 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Massacres 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
No contest, what? Cupcakes are bound to trump corpses on the popularity scale every time.
Sure, shooting off two hundred rounds at a paper target gets rid of pent up aggression (so does shooting a few dozen mall visitors), but wait until the survivalists and avid shooters try knocking the gluten silly in a couple of pounds of bread dough – true catharsis without having to wear hearing protection.
With or without the Easy Bake for gun exchange, here my two Christmas letters to the gun bearing and legislating communities.
Dear gun freak, you don’t need 100 rounds to fell a doe (or you really should not be out there in the woods – you’re dangerous) and there is no excuse for your stash of AR-15’s and “Action Pistols”.
As for your second Amendment right – it stands until the point at which it conflicts with my right to life. Is it an American tradition? Remember cock fighting and dog fights? They’re traditions.
Dear Congress Member: As tragic as it is that all of the “Good Guys with (automatic) Guns” are going to have to find another pastime just because the “tiny minority” of “Bad Guys with Guns” are ruining it for everyone, your mandate is composed of a far greater and less vocal population of Good Guys without guns, many of them as we have been sadly reminded children. You duty is to answer to that majority with effective, realistic legislation – not watered down proposals which would allow gun owners to purchase 52 guns a year unchecked or hundreds of rounds of ammo because going to the gun store is such a nuisance. It is time to ban weaponry designed to kill more than one deer (or neighbor) at a time.
Make muffins, not mayhem.
I was going to put up a last minute Swiss cookie blog this weekend, but this week’s events at Sandy Hook have me eating all the cookies I baked compulsively. Somehow cookies seem inappropriate in view of 27 dead, eighteen of whom would have put out cookies for Santa in a few days.
The name of this blog, culinary promiscuity, promises a level of obscenity it doesn’t deliver. This week’s events and some of the comments made since by gun rights’ advocates are, however, purely obscene.
The news blindsided me. I have been there. First hand. I’d just managed to forget it. Crazed shooters are not a new phenomenon. They are simply a more frequent one, as massacres have become more efficient with the availability of semi-automatic weapons to the average homeowner. We actually refer to them as “events like this.”
My personal encounter with gun violence was about fifty years ago when an unhinged client began calling my mother threatening my father’s life. My parents protected me, but fortunately I had learned how to eavesdrop on their calls without being detected. I understood clearly what was going on. I told only my best friend Dianne Estrin.
Dianne and I were alone in my house a couple of weeks before my 16th birthday. When the doorbell rang I knew it was Jerry Cousins, the husband of a my father’s client who was making the threats. Cousins owned a gun and had threatened his wife (and my parents). Having heard the threats I had been locking and chaining the door. We usually did not. When he tried to break in, I knew he was armed. “My father has a gun,” whispered Dianne, “Let’s go get him.” We climbed onto the roof through the kitchen window and ran across the roofs to her house. Instead of grabbing his rifle, Milt Estrin called the police. Despite the incident my parents’ request a police guard was refused, even though the Sheriff’s office heard Cousins state that he had intended to shoot me and would kill us all on our tapped phone.
My father went to court to apply for a restraining order. While he and Mrs Cousins waited outside the courtroom Cousins came towards them, pulled a repeating handgun (“you just pull the trigger, and it keeps shooting, pop pop pop,” he had told my terrified mother on the phone.) and started shooting, “pop, pop, pop.” My father stumbled into the courtroom and told the judge, “Your honor, I regret that I cannot proceed. I have been shot.” Then he collapsed.
A doctor testifying in the next courtroom disobeyed the judge’s orders and ran to hold the two ends of my father’s shattered carotid artery together with his fingers, until he was in the operating room. The Ambulance drivers defied instructions, instead taking him to the nearest hospital where he had the best chances of survival. The surgical team defied FDA orders and implanted the first artificial artery a few days before it was officially released for trial.
I was shielded from the events.Ida, Dianne’s mother, picked me up from school and kept me protected from theTV at their house under some pretense, but I knew. I slipped out of the house and found the newspaper reporting my father’s death on my doorstep. There was no trauma counseling at the time, and I was the least important part of the events,so I just told them I knew. Ida gave me a cigarette and said something like, “Try this. It always works for me.” We had brisket for dinner. I continued smoking for fifteen years.My mother fell apart and spent the next week in bed on tranquilizers and rum Coke.
The hospital called to say my father had in fact survived but was brain damaged due to loss of blood, and he would never recover, probably never again speak or walk. I went to school the next day, but nobody talked about it. I think they didn’t talk to me at all, as they usually didn’t.
We visited my father in the hospital. He had no neck. His head topped an angry red, purple and yellow tent of flesh which sloped down to his shoulders without any indentation. He was drugged and drowsy, but lucid. He eventually recovered, thanks to a lot of people who had the courage to do what was needed instead of doing what was required, although it took him years to completely recover the use of his left hand.
That week/month was all a blur and has remained one for five decades. I watched from outside. I don’t remember crying or even being frightened.
The massacres at Aurora and Columbine and a spate of disgruntled workers “going postal” left me only with the usual shared horror and general distaste for guns and abhorrence of lame brained gun rights bromides, but for some reason Sandy Hook somehow ripped the lid off of 1961, perhaps because I can so vividly envision my own child at six years with his ram rod straight back and skinny shoulders trembling as a crazed shooter fills one classmate after another with bullets from a gun that just goes “pop, pop, pop.”
My personal can of worms finally being opened, I am now trying to reorder the contents and find a larger can to put them back in. It may take a while.– When I start thinking about it, I tremble. Not figuratively. It makes me feel cold and ..well, how would you feel? I realize what it did to my life, which was much and not good, and it makes me angry and just a little lost in resentment in what James Taylor calls “Places where I should not let me go.”
And so what? Really. I got off easy. Think of those people in Newtown and Columbine and Aurora. What has just happened to the rest of their lives? It is beyond comprehension. I buried my father fifty years later at 96. They will bury their loved ones next week at six and their teachers in their twenties and thirties. How did we allow this to happen?
Everyone connected to a shooting carries lifelong wounds. A couple of years ago Cousin’s daughter read my father’s obituary and called me. She, too, had been protected, but having learned of the tragedy, she was distraught. She seemed nearly suicidal, wanting absolution. She was perhaps twelve at the time of the incident and had not lived with her father for years then. I had no way to comfort her. Nobody walks away.
Today, three days after the shooting, the NRA has not issued a statement and has refused to appear in the media. That is the least decency they could exhibit, although their motive is more likely political sense than empathy or civil consciousness. After all, there isn’t much to be said to justify the death of eighteen babies, and the timing for the NRA, an organization most of whose following feels strongly about Christmas, is going to be hard for them to justify.
The less disciplined gun loving ranks, however are speaking their minds and protecting their dearly held beliefs with pitiful utterances. Even before the victims were identified or their blood was dry people like Huckabee opined that the culprit was godlessness and the usual mindlessly delusional ideologues are repeating phrases like “2nd Amendment right” and “Duty to protect the Constitution,” not to mention that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns. Or, “It’s a mental health issue.” A gay friend who plans on adopting a baby has said that this has convinced him to go out and buy the 45 he’s always wanted. Aside from the unlikely marvel of having a gay redneck friend, you have to marvel at the disconnect.
I’ve been doing too much self medicating with Facebook. It works a little. At some point I shared the fact, probably unwisely, that I consider gun advocates to be sociopaths and met with nastiness from a woman named Kelly who feels it is her duty to support the Constitution. “Sociopaths is an odd term,” she opined. No it isn’t. It is accurate. I stand by it. Sociopaths are individuals with no sense of or care for the effect of their actions and beliefs on others’ welfare. The term is perfect.
We have more than a gun problem a democracy problem. The tail is wagging the dog. Those dealing with cognitive dissonance by vocally and financially supporting the extreme lobbying successes which facilitated the Sandy Hook tragedy outspend and outshout the saner majority.
It is time for that irrational imbalance of influence to end. Sandy Hook needs to be the turning point. It is time for reasoning and experience to speak loudly, for individuals to write their Congress people, to sign petitions and to rally in the street. It is time for Republicans to reflect on the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment and stand up to the small, unhinged segment of the population that fears we will be taken over by a government conspiracy unless we are allowed to store a semi-automatic rifle in every garage. It is time for our lawmakers to buckle down and make the burden and liability of gun ownership a priority over the ease of gun possession.
It is time for bone headedly single minded gun lovers to drop their pride and quit trying to justify their fixed ideas with inane arguments. Is the death of eighteen small children not enough to shock them to perspective? Each and every person who has stood up for the right to own any fire arm produced, who has supported the production by buying one or who has sent money to the NRA has the blood of those eighteen babies on their hands.It is time for people who believe they might after all win the lottery to stop justifying this horrible incident with statistics that show you are more likely to be killed in a car accident or shot by a police officer than murdered by a semi automatic in kindergarten. It is time to draw logical consequences of illogical events.
Really. It’s time. Now is the time. Do what you need to do.
Addition: It is good not to be the only blog feeling unable to rejoice in Christmas Food. Luisa Weiss reveals her sentiments on The Wednesday Chef.