Tag Archives: Eating

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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Street Junk Food

The Iowa State Fair comes to Downtown San Francisco

In May of 2010, a handful of visionary food entrepreneurs were running a Kafkaesque bureaucratic gauntlet in exasperating attempts to get permits for the kind of food trucks that were making the front pages of the New York Times and the LA Times, stumbling into walls and redirects as they wandered City Hall. In theory, the police department assigned mobile food permist, but the cops were having nothing to do with a new set of vehicles with open kitchens. (“They could sell drugs from those,”  said one.) The Health Department had its doubts, and the Board of Supervisors, whose previous president and current bar owner Chris Daly had pronounced that “There are already too many restaurants in San Francisco” was absorbed with their usual social experiments and international political declarations.

“I’d be happy to give the City $10,000 for a permit, groaned Gail Lillian, who was trying to set up a falafel truck, but they won’t take it. I thought the City needed money, but they won’t let me pay it to them.”  .Gail wasn’t the only one. La Cocina, a non profit food business incubator which initially enabled Latina women (and now everyone)  to turn their ethnic specialties into business models, had been trying to get permits for street food in carts and trucks for about two years, but had only been able to secure off street spots at the Farmers’ Market.  More daring young business-chefs hadn’t waited, choosing instead to run outlaw operations, using Twitter to inform their locations to an avid fan base, who thrilled to the idea of eating illegal food on the sly.

The economy was thus effectively routing around the broken system of food permits (or lack of them) when Supervisor Bevan Dufty  took up the cause and pushed It through the Board in a just a few months. By November of last year a streamlined permitting process had been transferred to the Department of Public Works with a substantially reduced price tag of about $3000 per vehicle, and a street usage fee of $125 per year. (This has since been reduced to about $1,000 for permits and street usage.) Opposed brick and mortar restaurant owners had been placated by an agreement not to locate trucks serving similar fare in front of local eateries.

Dufty, it seemed,  done good: In addition to securing the appreciation of San Francisco’s infinite resource of street hungry foodie hipster voters, he and the other City Hall occupants gained not only Gail Lillians now celebrated “Liba”  falafel, but a daily shifting street food selection including the already permitted La Cocina trucks at the Wednesday farmers’ market and the collection of trucks serving everything from Kobe beef sandwiches (sells out fast) to Asian noodles and Samosas at “Off the Grid” a random herd of wheeled eateries at United Nations Plaza, a block away.

The development was not without protest –  previous Mayoral Candidate “Chicken John” Rinaldi announced a “puke iin” in response to one of La Cocina’s trucks in Dolores Park – but most San Francisco residents and office population fortunate enough to live or work where trucks could be parked started to hope that they, too, would soon be carrying All Star Tacos or foie sandwiches back to their homes, desks or break rooms for lunch. Silly them.

The downtown, Union  Square business community is not, it seems, going to be treated to a daily changing menu of kobe beef sandwiches and Vietnamese noodles. But that’s all right. It’s getting the Iowa State Fair. Three  (3) trucks of it, Monday to Sunday, all day. Kettle Corn, funnel cakes, waffles and crème brulee (they probably serve crème brulee at some state fair.). The center of one of the two top food cities in the US has been handed a kettle corn monopoly. So much for the office girl’s dream of culinary diversity.

It makes sense in a way: That’s where the tourists settle into block long, fog bound lines waiting for the Cable car, and that’ what a lot of them are  used to. We certainly wouldn’t want to overwhelm them with Pho and quesadillas. Now they will all go back to Lubbock or Detroit swooning over our upscale junk food – “Margaret, you wouldn’t believe it. We ate Funnelcakes in the cable car line!  Those people in Frisco really know how to eat.” And then, of course, there are Herb Caen’s flying rats as well as the earth bound kind. They’ve been looking pretty emaciated recently, but wait until they’re put on a steady diet of fallen kettle corn. Our patron saint would approve. Making Market Street look more like Fisherman’s Wharf will bring a comforting lowest common denomenator consistency to the City. 

In case you were wondering how this was planned, it wasn’t. Some junk food lord just swooped down on the cheap, available spots. It could have been worse – fast food companies have reportedly realized that there’s a cheap version of the Oklahoma land rush going on and are vying in Los Angeles with the “legitimate” chef vendors, creating what the LA Times has dubbed a “food truck bubble”.

Downtown business associations have their own objections and have stopped everything to confront the trucks. “It’s turned my life upside down,” said one of the directors. They object to the lack of any kind of plan or guidelines, the result of speedy cobbling of the bill. At the moment the “Planning” process consists of submission of a permit request with first come, first serve selection.

Cartier on Union Square is understandably apoplectic at the proposed taco truck blocking their high rent luxury windows. Aside from an obvious stylistic disconnect between the truck and brand, they cite long lines and litter. Remembering the 10% tax on Bottega Veneta’s $10,000 purses buys a lot of pot hole fill, San Francisco might want to listen to their concerns.  A mostly middling collection of eateries in the food court in Bloomingdale’s basement is opposed to anything that vies with their selection being stationed in the neighborhood. Real estate owners and property management companies fear liability issues: If the kettle corn propane tank blows and injures someone in Bloomie’s entrance, who is liable. (Hint: Who has the deeper pockets?) Our food truck arrangements are still a little rough around the edges.

Maybe Bevan and the stupes didn’t do all that well after all. Perhaps there’s still time to step back, take a breather and refine the concept with a distribution plan that actually serves the communities whose limited food vendor slots are being practically given away, before they all go to businesses who sell deep fried Twinkies and Hooters or McD’s.

And then, just maybe, it would be a really, really good idea to circulate the trucks – after all, the suckers are on wheels  – to put different trucks in different places on different days. Put those vehicles in gear and let them roll.  Give us at our desks access to a diverse menu – the kind of food so many of us left Iowa and Texas and Alabama for.. I want the Kobe sandwich. Crème brulee once a week or once a month doesn’t sound like all that bad. Daily kettle corn is a plague.

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Fire vs Raw

Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad

The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by  Richard Wrangham,  primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“.  Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our  species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.

With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.

Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community.  Others, however, didn’t get the memo.

During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,”  suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?

The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data  was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.

The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened,  Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,”   I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,”  and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”

I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy,  but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s  book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball.  Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with  Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of  the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.

Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,”  is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta  have fire.”  Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,”  said potential candidate.  The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”

The trio of arguments against raw food  –  safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F).  The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters.  As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?

Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty.  The usual promotional tricks surely worked;  Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in  her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public.   The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.

One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the  country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the  new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling  prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.

The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.

Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed.  At the height of the “living food” revolution,  any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.

Some of us scratched our heads.

The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend  is further  puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets.  Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?

Like other food fads,  the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity.  We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.

A claim was that cooked foods fostered  allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.

As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.

The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from.  As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous.  It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out.  The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.

The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..

So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.

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