Category Archives: Food

“Amazing” meals. Foodie, get the to a thesaurus

“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:

adjective

  • 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Swiss Thanksgiving: How I Introduced Thanksgiving to Switzerland with the Help of the Swiss Army, Several Bottles of Vodka and a Hairdryer.

As California enters the more challenging stages of seasonal cuisine when  we keep up our spirits by assuring each other that broccoli and kale are as much fun as tomatoes and peaches – more entertaining versions of seasonality come to mind.

That is: when food isn’t limited by the season but instead celebrates it,  so the smell of spices or stuffing summons waves of nostalgia and, depending on where one finds oneself, the lack of it brings on  homesickness.

Autumnal food in Switzerland means new wine and, where there are orchards, fresh pressed cider and Metzgete – the celebration (really just a big meal) of butchering and then eating a pig made into sausage and divided onto plates full of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut and little simmered apples in the village restaurant, where everyone knows everyone.

Turkey isn’t nearly as much fun as a squealing pig being butchered on the village square, the butcher drinking the blood, and the entire village chowing down the spoils, but years ago when I lived in Switzerland I got the notion that I absolutely had to have a Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving complete with Turkey served to the entire bi-continental family plus as many friends as we could fit around our new, massively over-sized table. I pictured women all sharing the basting, laughing men in the living room, then everyone sitting around the table, their faces bathed in Rockwellian golden light, awed by every culinary cliché in the Family Circle cookbook and an epic spread with the Swiss Jura mountains as a backdrop.

I decided to make it happen.

It was going to be a piece of cake. I could get the Kraft baby marshmallows and Ocean Spray jelly from Globus’s overpriced basement delicatessen, get a big, ugly pumpkin from a farmer and cook it down, make clover leaf rolls and the rest,  but the only turkey I knew of was the one Mrs Schoeneberger used to look after orphaned chicks. Turkey hens make great chicken nurse maids , but Mrs Schoenberger’s turkey was old and sinuous, and Mrs Schoeneberger would never have given her up far any amount of money.

Without the turkey the chicks would   all run out on the road and get run over just as  their mothers had. I had got good at hitting their mothers with my tree frog green Citroen 2CV(or very bad at avoiding them). “They don’t call them dumb clucks for nothing,” said Dorli Schoeneberger the first time I carried one of their limp bodies up her stairs. She sold eggs to pay for the education that would take her away from hardscrabble small farming. , “Do you want her plucked?”  I bought several  hens from Dorli this way, and while Dorlis’ eggs were magnificent, the old laying hens were good for not much more than soup and stock.

When I asked around the farmers about a turkey the general response was, “You want to eat what??” As if I had suggested I wanted cat or one of Farmer Nebel’s pet pixie goats for dinner, but I learned from an expat friend that Migros, the first real supermarket in Switzerland, was taking orders for frozen turkeys.  I put one in for biggest bird that could fit in my industrial sized oven and invited everyone we knew and my parents from San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I went to collect it, the butcher said, “Es tut mir leid. Wir haben ihr Truthahn verkauft.” (Sorry. We sold your turkey).

“Then please get me another one,” I said. “a BIG one.” “Sorry, said the butcher. They are all reserved.”  “MINE was reserved,” I snapped.. “You sold it. Now  it’s first come, first served. I need a turkey.”  “This is Switzerland.” he said – people tended to say this to me a lot, as if I were too dumb to notice and expected the Swiss to be as unprincipled and corrupt as we Americans obviously were  – “We don’t do things like that. We are an orderly people.”  The store manager couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything.

No matter where you are, if you want to get something done, you need to know the right people or people who know the right people. In Switzerland all of the right people were a) men and b) officers in the Swiss Army. They took good care of their own.

My husband, Marcel, was an officer, so  I ended up blubbering about the tiny marshmallows, my parents coming from San Francisco, Ocean Spray and tradition to the President of Migros, somebody’s cavalry buddy,  who  promised a turkey in “plenty of time for the dinner”,

By the day we had chosen for our Thanksgiving dinner I hadn’t heard from him, so I didn’t think there was much hope,  even though Swiss officers always keep their promises. It was Sunday, and no stores were open. I was about to send Marcel to Dorli to see if we could cajole her into doing in the entire scrawny, molting flock at any price she wanted to charge, when the doorbell rang.There stood the Vice President of Migros beaming with pride, as he handed over a bag containing an icy 20 pound  turkey. Frozen solid. After he turned down my invitation to join us later for dinner, I closed the door and despaired. Then came Mother.

She arrived by taxi from Basel, where my parents preferred to stay when visiting, sweeping through the door ahead of my father, dressed in her designer winter white knit pants suit and knee length mink, bright and beautiful and elegant, radiating the scent of Femme ahead of her. Assessing the situation she announced: We can do this, slapped on an apron, kicked off her heels and turned the rock solid animal upside down under a stream of hot running water. Once we had douched the bird enough to pry out the frozen gizzards, she stuffed a wine bottle full of hot water up it’s rear and immersed it in hot water protected by a garbage bag.

The in-laws arrived sometime around 11:00. The wine bottle wasn’t working fast enough, so Mother got my  hair dryer.  My husband opened a bottle of Veltliner and cut off some speck from the slab we had hanging in the basement. That, along with a couple of boxes of crackers, was about all we had in the house except the dinner fixings filling our tiny refrigerator.

My father had brought his own vodka and dry vermouth  – he never traveled without a couple of bottles after the bartender at Michelin starred Euler had served mother a sweet aperitif in response to her request for a martini, which she had spewed all over the bar in astonishment. He didn’t trust the extra bottle we kept for their visits. We had blood oranges for screwdrivers. Father poured one for my mother, Marcel gave me a glass of Veltliner. Mother and I alternated at shooting hot air up the turkey’s ass.

Sometime after noon Marrius, my father-in-law declared loudly that he had come for real Thanksgiving food, not smoked speck. Dismissing the possibility of baby food or cat food as a dip I spread some of the jealously hoarded peanut butter I had carried all the way from San Francisco crackers and told my in-laws it was an American Thanksgiving tradition from the South; Southerns give thanks for the peanuts on which they survived after Sherman’s March. I left my husband and his brothers fill in the gaps and pour.

We ran out of Veltliner and My husband stuck a few bottles of Twanner in the freezer.. Mother and I were hot-tubbing  and blow-drying the turkey, chopping giblets and doing what little hadn’t been done the night before.  We ran out of oranges, so my  parents switched to martinis with the little cocktail onions we kept for fondue. So did I.

Whenever anyone asked about the hairdryer,  Mother explained that it was the secret for a tender beast.

Mother sacrificed the oysters as for hors d’oeuvres. The guests, warned that dinner would be “a little later than planned”,  arrived with food.  Mother and I collapsed in front of a burning fire in the living room. Someone poured me a glass of Nuits St Georges, which did not go all that badly with the peanut butter. Mother had another martini.

Marcel brought up some of his prized reds from the cellar, but most of our Swiss guests were more interested in the vodka, which  paradoxically in the middle of the Cold War they perceived to be quintessentially American. At some point we ran out of cocktail onions, so my father, substituted cornichons. Everyone found them dandy.  One of our friends kept filling my glass. Mother had a cornichon martini. One of our guests had brought early chocolate-hazelnut  and gingerbread Christmas cookies, which I found  paired as well with the martinis as with the wine. Mother agreed.

Mother started telling filthy jokes, which Markus translated to my in-laws as harmless vignettes, so as not to get my father-in-law started.. He did that a lot.

Somehow everything got cooked at the right time. I think my neighbor stepped in, but it could have been me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mother. Somebody put the stuffing in the oven and the caramelized onions and  sweet potatoes, which had been prepared the day before, glory be. I do know that once they got the concept of basting that everyone in the room wanted to try their hand. The bird must have turned out moist.

When we finally sat down, my father gave thanks and everyone around the table said what they were thankful for. “I am thankful that we finally got the fucking turkey thawed out,” said mother. “What did she say,” asked Marius. “She said,” translated Markus, “That she is thankful to have such a wonderful family assembled around the table to share this American feast.”

We had the whole nine yards from caramelized baby onions to pie at about eight thirty at night. When the pies came out my father-in-law and a couple of the guests opined that pumpkin was cattle fodder and how clever we were in America to make “permkin pees” of them. They finished off all three. There were no leftovers. I think it was a success. That’s what they told me later, anyway.

At some point toward the end of the evening the schnapps appeared, with it a bottle of the tax free Kirsch brewed by a local farmer. One guest drank half the bottle.  He later recounted how the street lights had bowed to him as passed on his way home. We found the last bottle of Twanner still in the freezer, exploded in perfect extended bottle shape with shards of glass sticking to it.

We celebrated Thanksgiving every year after that, although that was the only time my parents joined us. Nobody sold my turkey again. The Swiss celebrate Thanksgiving today, or some of them do, and turkey is no longer exotic. I think frankly I started that, but we all like to feel as we’ve made our mark in history..

Nobody died or went to the hospital.  I hear the meal is still legend.

 

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Carpe Doughnut: Nora Ephron’s uncommon food sense

How could Nora Ephron die? How could a wit that vibrant and a spirit as sassy and gracefully robust as hers not guarantee immortality?

Among her legacy is the wonderful wisdom of the relation of mortality to pleasure,  constantly proposing a Weltanschauung roughly equivalent to “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow  at some point. You may   are going to die.

Ephron’s quotes suggest nothing of a “foodie” or a food snob or a gourmet, although surely she was one (gourmet, that is..she claimed an all encompassing love of, even obsession with food.)  . Ephron’s love of food was visceral. Her knowledge of it profound. Food pervaded her work and her interviews. Heartburn, the book that buoyed me up through a miserable divorce, shifts from snide comments on “Mark” to recipes for key lime pie, all of them treasured then and still.

A collection of her commentary on the Huffington Post repeats her unapologetic, all encompassing  love of good things to eat and either contempt or pity for those who complicate their diets with the various rules fashionable in foodie circles that she espoused in her writings

“I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose. And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”

“Everybody dies, there’s no avoiding it and I do not believe for one second that butter is the cause of anyone’s death. Overeating may be, but not butter, please. I just feel bad for people who make that mistake. By the way the same thing is true of olive oil. What difference could it possibly make if there’s a little olive oil in your salad dressing? It does not take one day off your life.”

Newsweek, August 2009

In interviews on NPR  and with Charlie Rose  she asserted that waiting for the last meal (hers would be a Nate n’ Al’s hotdog) was foolish – you might be hit by a bus the next day..  Eat more Nate n’ Al’s she directed. In another she advocated eating doughnuts, not later but now. “it’s very important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up.”

I  hope that Nate n’ Al’s had a direct delivery line to MS Eprhon’s house in her later days, that the people who loved her brought dozens of doughnuts and trays of desserts.

My appetite channels Nora Ephron, as probably does yours. As for the pitiful party-line locovores,  egg white omelet fanatics, glutenophobes, fussy eaters, vegans, nutritional activists and sadly misled, loud-mouthed foie opponents in our midst, may I propose that you simply hold your peace and follow Ephron’s advice. Eat more doughnuts.

“Are we really all going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in American is so unbelievable delicious? And what about chocolate?”

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

Plagiarism admission: Most of the quotes here are p;lucked from the above linked Huffington Post article. You should read it. Reading all of Ephron’s pieces on the site has just hit the top of my own bucket list.  I don’t think they will object.  Ephron was the voice behind the Huffington Post’s exquisite food writing, or much of it. We all who eat with joy owe them gratitude for this.

 

 

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Forget the Louvre. We really go to Paris for the croissants (because we can’t get them here)

Tartine at Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Until recently I had unlimited access to a couch in Paris and used it as much as courtesy and time permitted. The apartment was in an intoxicatingly romantic, creaky floored ancient building across from the police station in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter, which had not been raised to build the grand allees of Paris and thus retained its charms. Among these were a bakery on the corner and another half a block down. In addition the café Tourelle with solid day to day food and a terrific Café au lait with either tartine or croissants was three minutes away, as was the quirky café muse.

I spent my mornings there sipping on my fat cup of chicory redolent coffee and licking the jam off my fingers, envying the chatting French couples around me who take this for granted.

The croissants were always perfect – flaky and buttery, soft with a just a enough tooth, crying to be undressed one flaky layer at a time and devoured. So were the macarons at the corner shop, which my hosts pronounced far superior and less expensive than those from LaDuree (where I gladly spent $40 on what was essentially 2 glasses of bubbly and four cookies).

LaDuree macarons

Macarons at La Duree

Now and then I picked up a box of diverse pastries, breakfast suited tartlets and assorted treats to take back to the apartment to share – an excuse, as my hostess keeps her admirable figure by not eating pastries, leaving them mostly for me.

I value good pastries. When I bought a couch of my own in Berlin,  my first requirement was a bakery within walking distance. There are three, but they are not French, While the Germans are no slouch at baking, they can’t hold a candle to the Parisian croissants, but they are generally far better than what  we can find at home.

Most European bakery goods, in fact,  blow our American selection out of the water . They are made by better and differently trained artisans using different wheat and fatter butter . European bakeries play to a more demanding audience. Parisians  would rise up in arms at our low American standards.  The French complain loudly and immediately that the baguettes are endangered.  The average American wouldn’t k now a good baguette from a sandwich roll.

The majority of American pastry is produced in commissaries from mixes of a sort or par baked and finished off where it is sold. Hotels which used to vie for the top European and American pastry chefs now buy their goods pre-baked from wholesalers. A recent promising breakfast at San Francisco’s once exquisite Campton Place served a selection of breakfast breads which would have been equally in place at an IHOP.  The Maitre d’ gliding by with the inquiry, “Isn’t everything absolutely fabulous? “ It was not.

The main reason American pastries and “small” breads, known as Vienoiserie, are third rate is because that’s what Americans expect and want – hockey puck scones, cardboard Danish, huge cookies tasting of baking soda and an assortment of  sticky things kept in a cool case, which alters the proteins making the pastries them tough, stale and stickier.

Most bakery items are over sized – The French appreciate the the tiny, flavor packed macaron. We tend to prefer the sweet only six inch cookie or the half pound muffin, an overly sugared giant cupcake in reality.  A nice coffee shop I frequent tried selling a few higher quality small pastries and ended up throwing them out, because nobody would buy them. We are used to big and sweet as opposed to flavorful with mouth feel, and that’s what we buy.

There are some very acceptable, even good volume small item pastry/bakery producers/wholesalers, but their good work is foiled by the ignorance of retailers unaware of how to store and sell them, so cool cased palmiers end up tasting like glue covered shoe box covers.

La Boulange Palm Leaves

La Boulange Palm Leaves Correctly Stored

Of course we are not to blame, because most of us have no way of knowing any better. We get our sense of what is possible from the market, and coffee shops like Starbucks set the bar very low. We have scant basis for comparison.

Every once in a while a great bakery shop opens, then disappears.  A wonderful artisan Italian bakery in West Portal sold as a turnkey business to an operator who quickly switched to Costco before closing his doors last week. Creighton’s, another neighborhood store offering excellent, rustic pastry switched hands and products to the standard mass market trash.

The most recent sad story of short lived great bakeries, at least for its many fans,  is that of  La Boulange, the small business triumph of Pastry Chef/ entrepreneur Pasqual Rigo, which opened it’s first unit in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, then began to expand with a a cafe in that neighborhood and another grand little cafe in the Metreon building, where lines formed out the door within a month.

Latte and pastries at La Boulange

Rigo, a smart, skilled artisan, with a little help from his friends created a line of French style pastries and lunch snacks which would surely pass French muster. He manages to sell small items – macarons, madeleins, financiers – at profitable prices and offers home made tasting jam and butter for breakfast items, and a selection of savory sides – cornichons, sauces, etc –  and the coffee, served in warm bowls like a French farmhouse kitchen, is delicious (for the moment). It is a growing corporation with a single unit feel. Or at least it was.

La Boulange has just been purchased by Starbuck’s for $100 million with the explanation that they need the group to improve their quality. I don’t buy it. As a matter of fact I predict that this will be the short of long death of La Boulange.

Rigo’s skill and vision have about as much chance of uplifting Starbuck’s quality as the Titanic did of raising the iceberg.  “They needed a place to produce their pastry,” said a local LB manager. With more than 25,000 total units (including the Starbuck’s owned Seattle’s Best outlets) Starbucks would need a “Place to produce their pastry” half the size of Texas.  At this point La Boulange’s production is artisan, which means among other things that it is produced in proximity to the outlets. It also means that it is not too large to be overseen and quality controlled by people who both know and care. Those people are hard to find and probably won’t flock to Starbucks. Starbucks will not be able to do that, even with dispersed commissaries, which means cooled product transport. (Again, cold is the enemy of great baked goods.)

So why did they buy the company at that price? Starbuck’s management team must have known that La Boulange’s products could not inspire their national audience. I think Starbucks acted out of a different motivation:Corporate intervention.

If a growing, vibrant company threatens to outshine an existing larger corporation, then that corporation has two options: 1)They can expend the money and effort to meet the higher standard, or 2) they can kill or consume the upstart  it before it grows and becomes a threat.  Hostess Brands failed to see the threat when California’s Acme Bread and La Brea Bakery started America’s bread revolution. Now they have filed for Bankruptcy.   La Boulange CanellesStarbucks could not afford to lose business to a group which could attract a substantial portion of their business. If Starbucks had not subsumed La Boulange, It’s probable that an investment firm wold have taken it national.

This kind of competition intervention is legal and from the shareholder standpoint, justified.  Google bought Skype and Microsoft purchased Yammer for $1 billion for that reason. But this is different.  There is a vast difference between smart aps and social networking and food. As the grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s novel tells Heidi, “you can’t bite into a coin.”  When corporate interests reduce the quality choices of the greater public, questions of integrity apply.

Why do I think that Starbucks’ motivation was not a sincere desire to serve their customers better treats? Because the company could have addressed their quality issues more easily and economically.

I used to walk the Fancy Food Show with the culinary director of one of a local airline catering company – he may have been working for one of the large San Francisco production bakery café groups at the time – who was charged with sourcing most of the Starbucks’ pastries. His criteria were clear: nothing over $0.40 per piece. “I’d love to get this, he’d say, but they won’t pay for it.”   If Chef J. was squaring with me (I am not sure he always did this), then the goodies now sold by Starbucks  have 200% to 400% markup as opposed to an industry standard of about 75% to 100%.

If Starbucks had wanted to address the quality of their food and snacks, they could have started there. They could also have hired a great baker / pastry chef for as little as $300K a year – a lot of money, but far less than what they paid for La Boulange. American Pastry chef and baker come Paris expat David Lebovitz comes to mind – he surely would have saved them a few million.   Finding these people is my livelihood, and I can attest to the availability of highly qualified individuals who could have worked with the company to create attractive and financially  effective product .

La Boulange's Condiments

La Boulange Condiments

They could simply have hired a completely independent consultant to assist them with the selection and storage and showcasing of the product they already sell.

It is in fact possible, if Rigo and his team stay on, that Starbucks’ products will be a little better, but it is an absolutely sure thing that La Boulange’s selection will be dragged down.  The staff  at La Boulange stated they will start serving Starbucks’ coffee on Monday. (A new face there stated today that they would continue to serve the LaBoulange selection).  It will be interesting to see if it comes in the big, frothy cups. That is not improvement.

Macarons at La Boulange

Macarons at La Boulange

San Franciscans are murmuring that Rigo sold out. He did not.  He cashed in, and deservedly so. He achieved the American dream by hard work and smart business, and he and his partners deserve everything they have earned.  The fault, if it is one, lies with Starbuck’s. Quashing the quality competition before your own brand is subjected to negative comparison shows a regrettable lack of integrity along the Michael Douglas “Greed is Good” line of corporate thought.

Unlike many of my friends, I have nothing against Starbucks. I never thought that being large or successful is evil, although it clearly may corrupt ethical decision making. In the past Starbucks found “a need and filled it.” For all the condemnation of their pushing out mom and pop coffee shops with sour, stale brew, they introduced America to a wider and better range of coffees than most of us knew and provided common spaces with WiFi, setting a standard others picked up. Kudos for all that, but  scant respect for this caper.

Miss Maudie’s explanation of  Atticus’s admonition to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind: ““Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Can you say the same thing about a nascent corporation based on tradition and quality?

It is unfortunately too late for Starbuck’s to put down their BB gun. Their contrivance will be a loss to hoards of Americans who will never know what they missed.  Pity.

Perhaps Starbucks will prove me wrong. Let’s hope so, but even supposing that their intentions were not to keep the product quality bar low, the size of their operations poses a surely insurmountable impediment to maintaining La Boulange’s promise. I’d love to eat my words and good if not great croissants at any of their 17000 locations, but that’s pretty improbable.

Then again, there are more than one smart, talented and skilled bakers in the world, and with the possible incentive of $100 million (or a percentage of that sum – Rigo unfortunately  needs to share with investors and deal makers), who knows which young Turk will bless us with financiers? Look what Nancy Silverton kicked off with La Brea in the bread world.  Let the games begin.

 

 

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Kitchen Stuff vs. Culinary Zen

simplicity

The hiatus in Culinary Promiscuity’s postings was due to a minor calamity; a neighbor desiring more bang than his home renovation buck deserved hired cheap and fairly irresponsible contractors who, fearing that coming rains would harm whatever internal improvements they had made, diverted all the rain water from his higher roof onto mine. The $35K  resulting damages left me with three months of nothing but a kitchen and a bedroom intact and furnished. All the rest of the furniture was removed, leaving an empty hull of waterlogged drywall, bare studs and curling floor boards with a view.

The catastrophe that upended my life and business also brought an odd blessing: As the bright, freshly finished floor and the pristine white walls emerged from the wreckage, the space became light, open, and for want of a better word, Zen –  accidental Sheng Fui – a few dishes in the kitchen, no chairs, no trappings and no table. I ate seated on a kitchen stool at a pull out bread board by the sink, listened to music and read. Not once did I have to look for my keys. I cooked some, i sat on the deck a lot and made friends with couple of bread junkie blue jays.

The empty space was soothing, full of its emptiness and at times vaguely blissful.  I briefly considered calling the furniture removal  team to tell them to keep it all and send me a prayer rug – impractical unless one prays and probably not very comfortable in the long run,   Instead I put a yellow bistro table with a batch of flowers in the middle of an otherwise empty  living room. It gladdened my mornings.

The furniture was returned on Wednesday, catapulting me into five days of something like spring cleaning – arranging, selecting and culling, not only the returned three rooms of the house but the kitchen

Aromaster Coffee Maker

Braun Aromaster

Mostly culling. Less is not more, but less and better for being that.  Three months of  forced minimalist living left in its wake a need for more space, simpler surroundings and fewer possessions.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. The real world dictates more stuff and more complexity.

During the final reconstruction phase  a dysfunctional painter somehow disappeared my  simple “vintage” Bauhaus style  Braun coffee maker – the kind with a single on or off function, simple elegant design and great coffee.  I looked for a similar replacement. It does not exist. I  ended up with a contraption reminiscent of Darth Vader with a grinder and  NASA pretensions – a menacing piece of equipment with options requiring something like pilot training to make ten cups.  It’s green lights snarl at me when I enter the kitchen.

The Empire makes coffee

In search of something as theoretically simple as a coffee maker, I discovered that just about everything  in the Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s kitchen appliance department is like that. Simplicity, elegance, reliability and the basic on/off switch have been replaced by imposing things with circuitry. Not only has the pompous design and engineering of everyday items expanded beyond the modest needs of a one family kitchen, the number of things proposed for the home cook has exploded.

A practiced cook prepares a poached egg by slipping the egg into nearly boiling water, gently folding it over onto itself as the whites seize, finally removing a neat, delicate package with a slotted spoon. The perfect egg requires a pot and a slotted spoon.  The gourmet products market offers electric (electronic) egg poachers, microwave forms and silicon egg poaching pockets, as well as single purpose items like Smore’s kits, $100 milk frothers,  single sandwich presses, carrot curlers, electr(on)ic asparagus steamers and chocolate fountains.  While some of the newer items – say anything Silpat – are welcome, even indispensable improvements,  one could live and cook better without most of them. They are mostly  cabinet clutter and decidedly un-Zen, distasteful metaphors for an unpleasant evolution of the relationship between people with kitchens and food.

Thomas Mann subtly mocks the bourgeoisie in his novel Tonio Kröger,  noting ironically that the  Krögers, a wealthy North German Merchant family,  were cultured and educated, as they possessed all the knowledge of the civilized world in the unread books in their vitrines.  The food revival, the culinary madness of this millennium, has created a similar foodie bourgeoisie with all of the potential great dishes of the world in their cabinets, or worse, on their counters..

Pimping out kitchen basics comes at a price. The food prestige and luxury marketing industry has replaced the fifteen dollar citrus juicer with a $199 Breville sans reservoir.   Coffee makers have evolved from light, sleek and simple with one on/off button and great coffee to space age pod machines and  $100 – $300 mini IT coffee factories, heavy and loaded to the gills with delicate circuitry which guarantees you will be paying to replace or repair within less than a decade.  I dread to think what will happen when my magnificent first generation DeLonghi espresso maker bites the dust – the newer models have the footprint and the price tag of a small European car.

The question, following the food / society / people theme of this blog, would be who buys this stuff and why? If it’s basic and good,why not?  New owners of exorbitant  All Clad  pans are amazed at difference in ease and precision in  cooking – sometimes outrageous price is based on solid quality. There are, however, a limited number of such necessary cooking utensils and appliances, and the food equipment industry has long outgrown the market’s actual needs.The greater part of the luxury and single application appliance sales are driven by luxury marketing principles and created desire rather than the usefulness and need for products. It’s obviously successful. If consumers did not want space age $120 toasters, those could not have replaced the original simpler, more economical and robust models.

But toast is toast, and higher prices and prestigious design do not mean better coffee or waffles.  The only logical conclusion I can reach on the reason for the replacement of good by not necessarily better but more expensive and unnecessarily complicated items is that the great demand for this equipment is propelled by social aspiration rather than the real pleasure of the kitchen. Desire for prestige rather than practicality. Working appliances and equipment have become status symbols, a role previously reserved for Limoges porcelain, Baccarat crystal and other luxury dining settings.

Remember that those with the means to enjoy such luxury generally paid someone else to cook their meals,so it is logical that the status symbols were confined to the spaces where they entertained rather than the kitchen, were solid and serviceable were the standards,

Having lived Zen for a quarter year now, I have a low tolerance for complexity and clutter and limited desire for luxury in the form of over the top  or superfluous machinery. I was having a bit of trouble with it even before the great flood, but  I am now realizing the desire for order and a lighter domestic load, at least as far as it is possible. (The coffee maker is a total failure in this regard.)

Dan Scherotter, Chef Owner of San Francisco Restaurant Palio D’Asti shared as he showed me his lovely, vast but minimally furnished kitchen (Zen) that as a chef he abhors clutter and that any piece he did not use daily had a place only in the garage. If you walk into the best restaurant kitchens you see not more but more robust equipment. Dan’s point is that a good cook or a chef relies on his knowledge and skill to cook with an economy of exceptional tools. He does not expect the tools to cook for him.

I have taken his point. Less is less and less is better. I want my counters clear and my shelves roomy and organized. If I don’t need a thing frequently, it does not earn kitchen real estate.  If a kitchen item  isn’t crammed in the back of a cupboard, it won’t need looking for. Stuff:  bad / Zen:  good. On/off button: good / electronic timer with alarm and timer: annoying, bloated frippery. If you are unimpressed by my toaster, stay home and make your own damn tuna sandwich. My kitchen is there for me to enjoy, not to impress anyone. But then, I was never very “social” so it’s an easy decision.

“THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
.

The World is too much with us. Wordsworth, 1806

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They Paved Paradise and….

The Value of Things

In occasional delusional moments I fancy I have a profound gift of appreciating the details of special experiences when the occur, like the beautiful Tiffany skylight, dramatic oak stairway and ceiling friezes of delicate, pastel flowers which comforted me through an entirely miserable winter in a posh private school for young ladies.  At least of those details I thought, “This is special and this is what I will remember when I leave,” which couldn’t be soon enough.

After a year of unhappy  Victorian splendor, I managed to whine myself into a public school, which although lacking a library of leather bound first editions was not without its charms.The greatest of these was a lackluster cafeteria, where sublime doughnuts  – the real kind you really do remember, crisp and full of cinnamon or light and yeasty, glazed with real chocolate, as doughnuts should be, were sold for ten cents. Who needed a thirty foot expanse of Tiffany skylight?

Liking the doughnuts seemed wrong,  as did the wonderful little chocolate cakes I scored in a funky tobacco and sandwich shop on the corner near my summer job in a law office where legal history was being made.  The history did not impress me, and most is forgotten, but I will always remember the oddly cool frosting on the cellophane packaged squares. Their wrongness made them more memorable than all of the wonderful foods I have been blessed with since.

My mother never understood why I had a weight problem. I was rarely hungry enough to eat all of her painstaking prepared low  calorie meals inspired by early copies of Gourmet Magazine and an exploding library of cookbooks. My relation to her cooking is where my conceit about having the sense to appreciate the good  things when they happen to me dissolves like cheap tissue in the washing machine.  I envied my friends, whose mothers made mac and cheese or set out TV dinners. Mine made veal  piccata and sole Veronique. I wanted ice cream.  She crafted soufflés.

You don’t miss what you have ’till it’s gone, da da da……”

Maxine Lockley possessed a profound love of food and all of the people and processes connected to it.  She enjoyed immediate rapport with anyone  who worked with food. She was not so much a foodie as a groupie, enthralled by and attracting to not only chefs, before they were monumental, but anyone who planted, harvested, sold, fished or prepared meals.

Long before the “new food culture” lionized and patronized the new age organic farmer and culinary artisan, Maxine was drinking Strega, sharing shockingly filthy jokes and playing cards with fishing boat owners in the basements of North Beach restaurants. She cozied up to farmers she met smoking Camels through a dramatic three inch cigarette holder among the vendors at the Produce Mart restaurant before 7:00 am, where she also picked up the chefs who graced our table and invited her into their kitchens. Her skills as a pickup artist filled not only the seats at our table, but our pantry.

Pearls before piglet

Her liaisons brought us an abundance of magnificent food: flats  of sweet miniature melons or a package of little squares of paper thin, hand cut pasta from North Beach cooks, whole salmon and crates of Dungeness crab from her card playing cronies, and  veal cutlets and enormous chunks of San Francisco corned beef from one vendor or another. We usually had more food than a family of three could possibly eat.

She was acknowledged as the most accomplished cook in her various circles. The salmon -poached, steamed or baked in salt as she learned from some Portuguese boat owner -and the corn beef with baby potatoes must have been wonderful. Everyone praised her dishes, but I was the swine to her pearls. A good portion of the salmon, crab or corned beef ended up frozen in  weeks’  worth of  sandwiches  for my school lunch bags.  I despised them and traded for the peanut butter and jelly or other sandwiches from the American mediocre lunch canon. She would have been  horrified.

Oblivious in Germany

I finally came to my senses in Germany, nine thousand miles from my mother’s kitchen and its mother daughter emotional undercurrents.  The dense, dark German bread and pungent cheese, which I would have rejected at home, tasted wonderful. I discovered salmon.  I ate what my new German and French friends ate with enjoyment but little mindfulness. We biked to the country for new wine and green onion cake with about the same awareness I would have accorded a visit to the Hippo, Home of a Thousand Hamburgers.   I was deliriously happy and food was a nice bonus.

If I had money I slipped into a Konditorei for a  piece of Pflaumenkuchen or Sachertorte and an enchanting little white baroque Bavarian porcelain pot of real hot chocolate or drank cool white wine on a balcony overlooking the Neckar with friends , which felt merely normal, nowhere nearly as exceptional and special as those experiences in fact were. Maybe that is because most things were shared with locals, for whom they were normal. We enjoyed them, and probably said so, but we never talked it into the ground.  We took it all in our twenty something stride.

Americans return from abroad armed with bragging rights about what they ate and where, how delicious and special it was. I didn’t. They are Appreciative in a way I never managed to be. My mothers friends swooned over her food and remembered it to me long after her death.  They talked about it to each other, making it larger and more real than I can remember.

A friend recalls an evening at the French Laundry where a neighbor punctuated every course with squeals of “isn’t this fabulous” and “don’t you just love it.”   They will surely remember every bite vividly forever. Perhaps taste awareness sharpens in a sort of aural synesthesia, where emotive sound or flashing cameras deepen the perception of the experience.   It is always disconcerting to me to hear visitors loudly reinforcing their gustatory sensations, but it may be a valid end to a means. I’ve  never been able to talk my food into the table cloth beyond a “this is wonderful, have you seen the new movie”,

I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy what we had to eat later at my mother’s table or in the Swiss years, although often either the work needed to procure it there (butchering our own veal, the muddy work of growing the vegetables we couldn’t buy) or the things we didn’t have (decent vegetables in winter, baking soda, grocery stores open after 6:00 pm) overshadowed the bounty i tended to take for granted.

In praise of culinary innocence

I managed to spend a very long time in Europe, enjoying good food but never obsessing over it, before necessity brought me back to the States, where culinary nostalgia didn’t settle in completely in for several years – the various experiences bubbling their recriminations to the surface one by one. “You were thankless”, say the  pungent cheese dinners and fresh, sweet veal kidneys. “You didn’t cherish us, when you had us.” “I liked you well enough at the time,” I respond, and that’s enough.

In that environment, the smells and sounds, the tastes and the feels were inseparable from the whole cloth there and then,  among friends.  The wonderful details were subsumed by the complete experience of simply being, and that is, when you think about it, just about  perfect. One ought to be able to take life’s good offerings for granted.

The call of the  “new food movement” is mindfulness of what you eat – its provenance, its health qualities, its artisan roots. Scrutinize each bite, photograph each plate. Appreciate. I have never achieved and hope never to reach that level of nutritional consciousness. Somehow it feels like homework.

Some people seem to live in  perpetual awe of everything fate puts on their fork, and although I envy  their apparently heightened pleasure, I much prefer that blessed state of culinary innocence which allows us to live in the abundance of good things and enjoy them without making each one a punctuation point in our lives. That, I think, is how we should be.

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