Tag 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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Restaurant off pissers: I bet you don’t like them either.

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.

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Escape from canned spaghetti: How breaking local saved the world.

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.

 

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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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The answer to the nutritional health crisis is not a repentant Paula Deen

The Party’s over, America. Get ready to be told to eat your spinach.

After suffering Jamie Oliver’s patronizing missionary swing through the American nutritional landscape (An Englishman is telling America how to eat? They eat canned spaghetti on toast, for the love of Gawd), we are about to be treated to a much less entertaining Paula Deen proselytizing healthy nutrition. In case you’ve just come out of hibernation, Deen has outed her type 2 diabetes and with the speed of a congressman caught in a threesome with a teenager and a high priced hooker come to Jesus with a full public mea culpa and a promise to do only good with a healthy food show in future. Her conversion outraged Tony Bourdain and saddened those of us whose pleasure was watching her stuff a week’s worth of fat, sugar and salt into a single appetizer serving without apologies.

Deen’s retreat from salt, sugar and trans fats is our loss – devil-may-care-and-don’t-spare-the- lard is at the very least highly entertaining, and whether or not her new focus on what’s good for us is well intended or just self serving, like Oliver’s warnings, Michelle Obama’s charming cajoling, the Center for Science for the  Public Interest’s incessant and self-serving nagging and all of the nation’s food political media sensationalism combined, it is not going have any substantial impact on the country’s obesity statistics or diabetes crisis. You  have to get to the root of the problem, which is us, to effect real improvement. And that is what? Are we simply culinary idiots?

Granted, American eaters are occasionally stupid, as evidenced by the increasing number of three hundred pounders zipping around on disability and Medicare paid My Little Buddy Scooters years after their doctors warned them, that their diet would take out their knees and hips. Our fellow eaters know that McDonald’s 1500 calorie burgers and Starbuck’s 500 calorie frozen coffees are going to make them fat, immobile and sooner dead – but neither Starbuck’s nor Domino’s is feeling the pinch of their logical conclusions. Apparently cause and effect thinking  (Big gulps yield inability to support your own mass) is not our strong point, but you can’t hold stupidity alone responsible for the current national nutritional health crisis.

So blame it on the manufacturers, who are putting cheaper corn syrup sweetener in things you wouldn’t consider dessert and marketing a bucket of calorie packed fried chicken as a healthy family meal. So ban toys in Happy meals or pass a soda tax,  Go to battle with the First Amendment and try to stop their advertising. Good luck.

The food industry is simply doing what businesses do and Paula Dean is about to do: Playing to their audiences.  They sell what  consumers demand. You can of course,  like Paul Kenny accuse food manufacturers of creating an addiction and attempt to resolve the problem with a war on Lardo or sugar, which promises the same success as the government’s war on drugs. Or we can fix it, at least in the long term.

If we as a nation want to solve out diabetes and obesity crisis, which means addressing what it costs us in health care and welfare programs, we can’t just scoff at “stupid” and blame the providers of food, Nutritional outrage and good intentions are ineffective. We need to look beyond the buzz words and the facile finger pointing of the media and identify the underlying causes of the country’s poor eating habits. Junk food’s ubiquitous availability (evil producers are selling it) and advertising bombardment are results, not causes. If our nation’s eaters were dying to have spinach snacks, Kraft would be producing them and running million dollar ad campaigns at the Super Bowl.

Is junk food addictive? Perhaps, but “habit forming” is perhaps a better description (things you like produce serotonin, whether it’s running or eating salt water toffee) and as tidy as the accusation that big agriculture and McDonald’s are pushing addictive products, It’s more probable that we, once we reach our mid-twenties, have formed habits that we are not  likely to break until we get our own diabetes diagnosis. The fact that we will change our habits then shows that we are not that stupid.

What we are, as a nation,  however, is ignorant, and there’s an app for that.

The real underlying problem is lack on knowledge aboout and understanding of the simplest facts about food – culinary and nutritional illiteracy. Americans for the most part know pitifully little about what they eat. They don’t know how to buy it. They don’t know how to cook it, and according to the statistics on food poisonings, they haven’t got a clue on  how to keep it. I suspect that most Americans don’t know what really good food tastes like. The continued existence of Velveta is proof of that.  We build our life long pitiful eating habits as children because nobody tells us any better. This wasn’t always the case..

How’d that happen? Two generations ago your grandmother, who may have been rolly polly and not a great cook, was serving your mother a balanced meal and sending her to school with something more or less appropriate, including celery sticks with peanut butter, a tuna fish sandwich or an apple. If you are under 40, your own mother probably didn’t do that (if she did,  you are probably not obese). Nobody’s mother did. Blame it on feminism.

Our common food culture is in great  part collateral damage of the women’s liberation movement. James Beard as the spokesman for the Jolly Green Giant and Westinghouse with the first dishwashers led the way to the sea change in our eating conventions, creating conveniences which permitted Mad Men’s wives to toss away their aprons and enter the work force, but Gloria Steinem’s followers did in America’s healthy relationship with food by stripping Home Ec from our high schools.

Bless’em for that. Home Ec, frequently boring and generally run by bossy and intolerably opinionated teachers, was obligatory for girls, who usually gave up Geometry or beginning algebra in order to graduate from junior high school. Eliminating first the requirement and then the class entirely put girls on equal educational footing with boys and provided women the academic foundations to transcend the nurse, teacher, stewardess and teacher futures available to them.

Eliminating home economics also saved the schools a lot of money. Lab courses are enormously expensive to run, and insurance was just beginning its parabolic climb to astronomically expensive,  when the courses disappeared, and the cost of insurance for classes using knives and hot liquids would have destroyed school budgets.

Education equality with men also means that women know as much as their male classmates about food: Squat, a knowledge void passed on to their children. The problem was compounded by the time limitations set by women’s initial liberty to participate in the work force, reducing the time spent providing cooking experiences and instruction to their children.  Balanced sit down meals and brown bags began to disappear in the seventies, creating a population that not only did not know how to cook or understand nutritional basics, but doesn’t know what good food can and should taste like.

If you want to change America’s eating habits, you have to educate our children: Return Home Economics classes to the schools. Make them obligatory for all students in their food formative years – that would be about the seventh grade. Make them accessible and interesting and not preachy. Keep it simple and don’t insist on organic or sustainable product. Teach your children how to make basic foods – forget Alice Waters and the ideologues and stick with an American menu adolescents will like. Just do the basics. Explain vitamins and calories, flavors and technique.

Other courses won’t lose ground. Good food preparation involves math and science. It’s fascinating stuff. Show kids who have had nothing but Tortino Pizza Rolls and Pop tarts why bread has holes in  it and how absolutely awesome a little orange and cheese can taste, how much fun watching a sauce firm up can be. Make jam. Fry eggs, mix salad dressing (colloidal suspensions), make lemonade from fruit.  Cook up a BLT or a croque monsieur. Mash potatoes. Explain a food budget and make a banana smoothie. Explain why steel needs to be sharpened and milk is homogenized. Let them cook bugs and make a pie or cookies without a mix. .

Added bonus: The Trojan Horse effect. Children, being the insufferable know-it-alls they are, will carry their nutritional literacy beyond the classroom. Parents are going to get an earful when they put another batch of Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese on the table. That’s good. Some will want to cook at home, occasionally in self defense. (This was not the case with the traditional course, as the at least one person in the home could usually prepare a meal.)

Still Better: In only eight or so years the first batch of nutritionally literate adults will be opinion makers and trend setters, and their demands will be met. The fast and convenience food providers are using mass media to educate. So, Educate Back. The schools have them as a captive audience, face to face for at least an hour three times a week. Sarah Lee would die for that exposure. Why aren’t we using it.

What speaks against return Home Economy to the schools:

The Money Problem.

Food classes aren’t expensive. They are exorbitant.  They require equipment, product, and insurance. But then good education does cost something, and it is our general mandate, all of ours, to educate our children for the important things in life. We are failing here. Just as important is what an educated eating public  will save. Congress is belly aching about the cost of Medicare. What if the next generation of adults didn’t need Scooter Buddies to haul their four hundred pound carcasses around the sidewalks? What if they didn’t need insulin and knee replacements?  Would that offset the cost of teaching the most basic component of our lives to people who  need the education? You betcha. After all, we have sex education, don’t we?

Oxen being gored: Whose? Who knows, but any major change disadvantages someone who makes money from the status quo. 

And there are the unions.  An attempt I once participated in to set up a good culinary program at John O’Connell high school ran aground at the shoals of the hairnet lady’s union. The plan was to let the students cook lunch twice a week. The hairnet ladies said no, and the class was re-conceived as a special needs solution. We need to get our priorities straighter, if we want to resolve really large problems.

Big Food Industry: While Big Food can’t be held as the sole culprit in the American nutritional crisis, they enjoy great profits from it, which they won’t give up gladly. An early attempt by Slow food San Francisco to introduce apples as snacks twice monthly was foiled by the contracted suppliers of potato chips and Snickers bars. Big Food lobbies, and they are not going to lie back and allow the educational system to market carrots as snacks to their prime audience. They had, furthermore, effectively undermined Home Economics classes before they were dropped with donations of their products (Mac ‘n Cheese, mixes, Jello) to Home Ec programs,

You can do something. Take this immodest proposal to heart, then take it to your congress person, then take it to your school board. Michelle Obama – stop finger wagging and start lobbying for hands on food education. Just the basics. It will work.

 

 

 

 

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Food and Foie Gras and Freedom – Democracy fails again

Years after much of the foie gras brouhaha has subsided, California’s foie gras ban signed into law by Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept 29, 2004, is about to go into effect, and California’s chefs are pissed. You should be, too.

The question of animal rights and vegetarian or omnivore is less of an issue in this law than its implications for the integrity of our law makers and the protection of personal rights in a society which increasingly values the voice of the most vocal minority activists over empirical science and the greater interest of the public.

Why? I like ducks. What’s wrong with protecting them?

Lots, even neglecting the fact that avian experts at the University of California at Davis clearly determined that Gavage, the process by which the geese are fattened, neither damages nor distresses them – although legislation based on bad science and misrepresentation serves no one.

So what’s wrong with the bill, even if no birds are harmed by gavage? It’s just an elitist dish served by snooty chefs, right?

Again, lots of things.

,For one , the kickoff to the bill was nothing less than an act of vandalism or terrorism if you believe the FBI.  An animal rights group, which never had the courage to put its name to the act,vandalized a new Sonoma restaurant project and the owner’s van and threatened the chef/owner and his family by sending pictures showing his child  inside the home: “We know where to find you.” The chef owner was forced to sent his wife and child back to Europe for their protection and took the loss of the project, not wanting to see the violence escalate.

Not only the restaurateur was threatened, but owners of other small businesses were threatened and harassed. Having expressed my opinion on the subject, I  received numerous “we know where to find you” with veiled threats on my answering machine, as did chefs around the country.  The California Senate validated these criminal actions by ceding to the activists’ demands.

You don’t reward that kind of behavior.  It encourages imitation. Yet John Burton and the California Senate did just that.

It is a bill without a reason – a solution to a problem which does not exist.   It neither improves the ducks quality of live nor protects anyone nor anything from danger or abuse beyond excepting slaughter. If this bill is valid, than any bill banning meat and poultry production, sales and consumption is equally valid. It is the kind of empty and baseless pandering, crowd pleasing legislation which has contributed to California’s current legislative and fiscal dilemmas.

Counting on the reaction with enough media, the activists did not cease their activity but stepped it up  with an aggressive public relations campaign which eventually landed on the desk of outgoing California State Assemblyman John Burton. Burton, pandering to the calls for drastic action,  chose to sponsor the ban as his legacy. The passing vote was a parting gift by his colleagues.

Think of it this way: Instead of giving Burton a gold watch, they gifted  him a restriction of your right to choose what you eat and legitimate businesses’ right to provide services.

But there was overwhelming opinion against foie gras, correct?  Not exactly. There was loud opinion and prestigious opinion.  Informed opinion was missing in action.  Since most Californians had hardly ever heard of foie, they didn’t think much one way or the other. The voices were those of PETA and Pease’s followers,  who took dogma for fact. The law if based on faux science and untruths.

The charge against the small business producing the product in California was vocally supported by Governor Schwarzenegger’s tearful friends and colleagues of the glitterati, among them Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Basinger, Martin Sheen and Pamela Anderson.

But what’s the harm? Foie gras is an unnecessary luxury, after all. The harm is enormous, considering the legal intrusion into the choices of businesses and consumers practicing ethical policies. It is neither the government’s job nor its right to ban things to which a minority objects based on their general popularity. We don’t need chocolate, Coca Cola, leather belts, the color puce or hip hop, which may offend some people. Their gratuitous nature does not give the government the right to forbid them.

This ban was supported by people I admire including Paul McCarthy and Martin Sheen.

These people are great actors and contribute much to our lives. It’s hard not to love Sheen in the West Wing, but  we did not elect them to office, and I personally resent Bea Arthur’s making law, as she succeeded in doing here. They are not experts in the field of avian science or animal husbandry and apart from their strong feelings have little to say about our governmental processes. California had two actors in the Governor’s Mansion, and each time was a disaster.

Why would you trust actors and show people to sway the course of your state legislation? You wouldn’t let these people tell you  how to drive or what clothes to buy. Why would you let them how to run your state? Or would you — in which case, this piece is way above your pay scale, and you should return to TMZ.

I said forget about the law not being based on facts. Let’s not.  Remember “W” rejecting the “fact based community”?  Think of all the money and lives this country would have saved if he and his had given an ear to reality. The die hard adherents to the foie law also reject facts.

Legislation should be based on facts. The foie ban was based instead on emotion. Despite ample expert evidence presented by veterinarians, avian scientists and the University of California Berkeley contradicting the statements made by animal activists that foie production abuses animals, the Senate passed a bill for appearances, fanned by uninformed sensationalism.  Laws based on emotion and diatribe are poor choices.

The activists ignore or brush off all empirical evidence regarding the process, and the legislature ignores it. The activists are not stupid – they know and they don’t care, but distortion of the truth and misinformation fits their agenda better. Their motivation is based on identity and power issues and demagoguery (I was a minor demagogue once for a short time, and it’s really kind of fun),  rather than a logical concern for rights, reality and truth.

As a matter of fact, the lead figure in the foie battle shows a blatant disregard for “right” and rightness. Bryan Pease who has a history of what he would call Civil disobedience and the rest of us might be more inclined to consider thuggery,  was offered a deal by one of the restaurants being threatened before the passage of the bill. The restaurateur would place a 90 day moratorium on foie gras sales and investigate Pease’s claims, but in return Pease would spend some time working in a soup kitchen to experience something like the real restaurant world and take the trouble to inform himself with the help of the restaurateur regarding the actual facts of the process.

His refusal was not surprising, as Mr Pease certainly has been informed of and apparently doesn’t give a duck’s butt about the facts of the issue. His  campaign would appear to be less about the actual welfare of the birds than than visibility of his cause and the connections and power which inevitably come from this kind of lobbying and outrageous activity.

You should be concerned about this bill, furthermore, because it was passed quickly in an atmosphere of sensationalism and threats, it is a piece of political expediency by politicians who in pursuit of their own pandering engendered personal advantage and short term favor played away your rights?

“RIGHTS?”  You ask.  Why do I need the right to eat foie gras? That’s for rich people, and I am not sleeping in a tent in front of City Hall or Wall Street to support that lot of sodding thieves?

Umhh…well, yes you are, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. (sorry).  Discriminating against people you don’t like or care about can easily lead to discrimination against people you do, including yourself.  Vocal and unprincipled activists supported by throngs of the well-meaning followers with limited critical thinking abilities can get a lot of things banned. This kind of legislation was once called blue laws, and they may still exist in some places less evolved than the great State of California. No drinking on Sunday and the like.  False morality posing as factual concern inevitably results in repression of somebody.

There are a lot of people these days who take offense at cars. With the same tactics they could force you to use your lousy public transportation system.  Ideologues in China made everyone wear the same dreary Mao suits (not mention imprisoning and killing quite a few).  You and I do not want the most vocal groups to tyrannize us and to limit our options.  It doesn’t matter if they are members of the Christian Right effectively making homosexuality illegal through their emotionally contagious aversion to sodomy, Environmentalists striving to ban cars in cities or food groups forbidding the sale of corn syrup (which despite the fact that it sounds like a good idea is not). In our system we don’t want the mob with the biggest stones pushing the rest of us around, and that’s what happened here.

In short, what has happened to California is mob rule. Small, loud mob. Big stones. It’s bad policy.

Chicago went through a similar process and eventually passed a ban on fatty goose liver with just about the same  machinations, plus one vegan alderman seeking reelection. Fortunately Mayor Chris Daly was not particularly moved and eventually convinced the more level headed of his political colleagues to reverse the decision, calling it Hogwash.

Finally, the entire process was cowardly in that it targeted not those who one could logically accuse of mistreating their animals, but one small business without the money to fight back, but which feeling they were right,  went into debt trying. Had there been any integrity whatsoever in Pease’s avowed desire to better the lot of animals, Tyson chicken rather than an immigrant duck farmer who cared about his livestock would have been in the process and won.  The animal activists are bullies. I don’t know about you, but I hate being bullied.

So what do you do if you think this is a bad idea?

For one thing,  do your civic duty and bang on your Congressman’s door. Sweet talk your Senator or Representative. “You Sir/Madam,  I know, weren’t part of this stupidity, and I am sure you have the intelligence to reverse it, bless your heart.”

For another,  inform yourself. Learn the facts.

The Artisan Farmers’ website provides ample, highly credible information on the process, including an informative video by Anthony Bordaine statements by veterinarians and testimonies to the California State Senate rejecting claims that foie production harms fowl.

Sign the Artisan Farmers’ Alliance petition to reverse the law.

So, what if you are still not comfortable eating foie gras? Don’t. It is not going to become a fast food item any time soon. It’s production requires great care of the animals and costs accordingly. Like so many cholesterol laden innards, it’s hardly health food. Choose the heirloom tomato salad instead, knowing that I and those who share my opinion of your right to determine what goes on your own plate will not sit beside you and preach that you should not be eating tomatoes because tomato pickers are exposed to pesticides.  Keep those standards you feel necessary for your own integrity and let others keep theirs.

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The Bread Game

Food as sport divides up fairly tidily into two categories, contact and spectator, with a bit of media, a few big talkers around the fringes and vast secondary economies cashing in on every aspect of the game.

The active mode, growing, brewing, cooking, canning and baking, has experienced a surge under the current food movements, which have catapulted millions of Americans into their gardens and kitchens much as the back to the earth and self sufficiency communities of the seventies sent young hippies into growing and baking communes.  Of course the-bus dwelling, pot-growing Hippies didn’t have Arclinea kitchens and Whole Foods markets, and their clumpy all grain breads and biodynamic grain gruels were usually barely edible, but the sentiments of the two factions are similar.

The current culinary moral imperative – know your food, calculate your water footprint, save the planet – traces its roots straight back to the children of thee summer of love, and that’s a pity, because it misses the point of the downright fun of playing with your food. Dogma is a poor reason for embarking on the creative process that ends up with golden loaves of bread and shelves of Mason jars filled with jewel toned jams.

Swiss Zopf

The spectacular thing about home production for me is that it doesn’t require justification or social motivation. It’s fun – a joyous, sensual, self affirming process starting with a flat of berries, a dead fish or a bag of flour and progressing through a series of motions and senses to a completed, delicious, lovely edible item you can either share with your friends or hoard for yourself.

My favorite food for play is bread. I inherited the knack for it from my mother and aunt, the McClintock sisters, who may have begun making it out of the frugal fiats of their Scott’s heritage, but were skilled enough to create identities for themselves from their successes, Maxine (my mother) winning the Pillsbury bakeoff from which she brought home a pile of swag which included the newest GE stove, a mink stole and a mixer, and Jimmie, who baked her way to the top of her Tidewater society, getting up at 5:00 am daily to pour herself a pint of beer and set up the starter for the day’s bread and food. The smell of rising yeast and fresh loaves was and is for me synonymous with home.

Unlike pastry, bread is not a science. It is an instinct, hedonistic, atavistic and Dionysian. It draws on living things and earth, yeast, bacteria and the gluten strands, which thank the baker for brutalizing the cells of the grain by forming chains to hold water and air.  American breads are – or were – mid things between bread and pastry. By the time I reached adulthood, you had to go overseas to experience the infinite possibilities of leavened grain.

Fifteen years after the war I had the good fortune to land in Europe with the limitless offerings of regional bakeries not yet impacted by the gargantuan food corporations which would eventually decimate them when European women began to demand convenience and price without realizing the quality it would cost them in their foods.  Master bakers still ruled, and the preferred shops were easily identifiable by the lines of disciplined shoppers stretching out onto the sidewalk.

In Germany, where I landed, there were  “Semmel” – hard crusted, soft centered breakfast rolls with a pinwheel on top, which cost me a few clothing sizes – and “vollkorn”, dense, black-brown, moist breads baked with entire grains and berries. Smeared with pate or white cheese sprinkled with herbs, it was dinner.  The German word for dinner is not “Abendbrot” or “evening bread” by chance. Each town or village had its own signature baked goods, and every other country – France, Sweden, Austria added to the wealth.

A few years later I found myself in Switzerland with my own kitchen and mixer with a mill/grinding attachment. Since our back yard was bounded by a hundred or so acres of wheat, barley or depending the season, corn, baking was a given. Every housewife knew how, had her own recipes and tips, and everyone wanted to share.  On holidays we baked with the kids. Our kitchens and homes smelled like fresh loaves. Bread was a social connection, a metaphor and a health food.  That was twenty years ago, and it could not last.

About a year back I got bit by the baking bug again at Rainbow Grocery. I had gone for something else, but one minute I was standing in front of bins of hard wheat and soft wheat, rye, graham, 00 and high/low gluten flour, and the next I was at checkout with $20 worth of different flour varieties.

They shouldn’t say that something you stop doing and then start again is “like riding a bicycle.” They should say “It’s like making bread.”  Once you learn, you never forget the right feel of the dough, the look of the surface and even the sound of the dough slapping against the butcher block.  It’s hard for me to understand how I went for so many years without the ceremony of cutting off the hot heel of the oven hot loaf and smearing it with butter.

A lovely friend, whose previous incarnation was as a baker and celebrated pastry chef, says there’s an old village (that’s redundant – there are no new villages) in the Canton of Vallais outside of Geneva, where the local bakery gives weeklong baking courses for making the original breads of the region. It would be in autumn. Maybe I’ll go.

In the meantime I have a sweet dried apricot rye that brings happiness from the moment the yeast bubbles to the last end crust of the double loaf.   I’m in the game again, just for the pleasure of it.

 

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Swiss Cherries

This year’s cherries are nearly compensation for San Francisco’s bleak and endless winter – plentiful, fat sweet and juicy. Vendors at the Alemany Market have so many that they pack up bags of four to five pounds of the nearly perfect fruit for $5 two hours before the stalls closed.

“I’m cherried out,” says Naomi, as she passes them up. “I can’t get enough of them, ever,” swears Lisa., “I can’t stop eating them.”

I used to live an a cherry economy. They were the life blood of my village on the slopes of the Swiss Jura. We were surrounded by orchards, where the white blossom lace covering the hillsides brought buses of Germans out the Basel city dwellers in hiking knickers and boots to hike the winding trains between the stands of trees in bloom and stop at Restaurants Kreuz or Roessli to wash down cold meat or cheese with a beer and a shot of local Kirsch.

The Kirsch came from the Schwarzbuben distillery in Nuglar, which processed the local fruit into a delicately cherry scented eau de vie that burns with a pure blue flame. It was the villages only real industry. The owners, the Morrand family, also owned the grocery store, which carried baby booties and tools in addition to a full line of respectable schnapps – the signature product of course being Kirsch – and a meager assortment of groceries.

For the farmers they brewed a stronger schnapps for the tax free liters allotted per cow.

Schwarzbuben

Cows and orchards are symbiotic. The Cows graze the hills too steep for mowing in summer and live off silage from late summer grass in winter. In return the trees are fed with the runoff from the stalls sprayed on the snow around the trunks. The two liters, well above the 90 proof commercial schnapps,  are purportedly for washing down udders. The cows, the farmers maintain, like it better than rubbing alcohol. It probably gets used for that now and then.

If you are lucky, you will be offered the good stuff straight or in Kaffee Kirsch, the Swiss equivalent of Irish coffee, in warm farmhouse kitchens smelling just a little of the adjoining stall.  The farmers prefer to drink at Kreuz or Roessil, where they sit on the warm tiled oven and grumble about the cherry crop.

Cherry farming isn’t an easy way to make a living.  Even if the blossoms don’t shoot prematurely in the treacherous warm days of February die in the ensuing freeze, the “Ice Saints”, killing frosts on the saints’ days of Pankratius, Servatius und Bonifatius in late May, can wipe out an entire crop. A thunder storm can bruise and decimate the fruit hours before harvest. Too much rain, and the cherries split or mildew. Not enough rain stunts or shrivels them. A good year producing an abundance of cherries lowers the prices.  Cherry farmers are completely content only one day a year: when the trees have been picked bare of all but a few stragglers, the square, slat wood baskets filled with perfect, sweet black cherries have been loaded on the truck and the check for the fruit is signed.

Harvesting is communal. Children, cousins, and friends climb into the crowns of twenty foot trees with deep willow baskets belted around their waists. They descend to dump the full baskets into crates, then return to the tree tops

Most summers we picked with friends, standing high on wooden ladders handed down for generations. Their round rungs pressed through the soles of our thick boots. The sticky cherry juice stung the twig scratches on our hands and signaled to wasps that we were fair game. I miss it, none the less – the smells and buzz of summer, the shade of the tree crowns, the increasing weight of the basket hanging from my belt and the feel of the hard, cool cherries in the summer heat. I can still pick cherries out of a pile with my eyes shut. My fingers see the flaws.

The health authorities cautioned seniors not to go up the ladders, because old people now and then either died of the heat or a stroke on the ladders and fell to the ground dead, or fell off the ladders, or drop off and perished on impact. It was a sort of chicken and egg question, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter which came first. Few were deterred. There are worse exits.

Cautious elders, sore footed pickers and kids with stemmed pairs hanging over their ears sort through the crates being filled for the silver flatbed cannery truck that followed the one lane road winding along the hillsides from orchard to orchard. The buyers, usually Hero A.G., demand flawless fruit with stems. A few bad pieces in a crate get the entire lot rejected.

A day of picking probably produces enough fruit to fill thirty 20lb slatwood crates. The pickers take home a basket or two plus the culls for jam, Kirschpfannkuchen (Clafoutis), Weihe, a fruit and custard tart, and cherry pound cake.

Except for the jam, the pits stay in. Otherwise the cherries bleed and make the cake soggy. Everyone expects pits and either swallows them or spits them out. Competitive distance spitting makes cherry picking more entertaining than the plum harvest.   My pastry chef friend Paul tells me that he tried real clafoutis with pits in here in San Francisco, but he gave up. Every customer complained, despite the servers’ warnings. Management had liability concerns.

For the jam I had a manual two barreled cherry picker. It sprayed everywhere, so it could only be used outside. Mostly we just ate them with the stones or stood on the edge of our porch and vied for the longest shot. I never won.

Everyone agrees that the cherries this year are magnificent. Maybe miserable winters are the secret of a perfect crop. I have four pounds in bowls around the house. I’m thinking cherry pancake, pits and all. Three or four eggs with the whites whipped a little, the yolks stiffened with a few tablespoons of flour, a little salt, a bit of milk, folded together and poured over cherries strewn on the bottom of the frying pan with plenty of melted butter, then cooked until it’s hot and sweet with dark cherry tops shining through the golden brown crust.

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