Tag Archives: foodies

In the Land of the Blind….

Getting Food Smart, II

The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova  immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.

While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.

Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.

This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.

People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.

Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)

Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.

I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.

Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.

I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.)  At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.

Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.

I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.

With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.

The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.

My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.

It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.

So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.

I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.

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Food Fight TV – behind the scenes.

OMG. What a coincidence.  It’s Amazing. Two days after I post my VIP (who would have thunk it?) invitation to pay for the privilege of working as an extra on yet another televised kitchen-schlacht with celebrity chefs, tension and bad music, Chris Cosentino’s MAD Symposium presentation  goes viral. Cosentino recounts food show abuse and exploitation of chef- gladiators and the  judges who kick them off their island. It’s pretty grim. It includes endoscopic images of Cosentino’s tortured stomach. That’s ironic considering he launched the American fascination with offal, nose to tail, snout to ass cuisine.

I’m not crazy about television culinary competitions. The concept of chefs as competitors rings false, the voice overs are unnerving, and then there’s the music. If I were one of them and they played that the tracks during my prep, my final dish would be friend producer’s heart and liver with onions with a side of sound engineer’s ears. I wouldn’t hold out watching people I respect forced to down bowls of hot chile peppers. Side by side demonstrations – fine. White coated frenzy: disturbing, so I may be a bit biased, but it I do believe everything he says.

Cosentino is  not the only one to report odd practices on gladiator cooking shows. Here’s what I’ve been told by other chefs who have participated in one show or the other.

  •  Reality schmeality – much is staged, and real kitchens don’t work that way. There’s nothing exciting about chopping vegetables in a real kitchen. The gold standard is order, not adrenaline. The gold ring of reality TV is drama, not food. Gladiators vs lions. Bread and games.
  • Compensation is poor.  The lure is fame, possible money, exposure to people who will either eat at the restaurant and come there. That works for some. Not for others.
  • The contracts are restrictive and demanding. The producers  have attorneys and the contestants generally don’t.
  • The game is rigged. The winner is frequently per-determined according to my chef friends. They set the users up to fail by artificially creating insurmountable stress situations: shortening their prep time,  the food basket or the backup staff at the last minute.  When you see a chef blow  his top on a food show, it’s because he’s been set up to fail.
  • Contestants, even the losers, are committed to appear where and when the production desires for a long time following the show, which makes finding a regular job a challenge.

After a half year flirt with the show Restaurant Headhunter and a few dealings with production companies looking for talent, I have a few insights to add.

The producers and their minions don’t seem to know or care much about real kitchen reality. The only information on potential candidates they request is a head shot and a screen test. Whether they can cook is immaterial. .

They don’t seem to have the money you would think they do. I thought Hollywood was awash with the stuff. Apparently not. Maybe it’s all come up to Silicon valley to fund sharing sites. Pointing  out that I find talent for a living and thus would charge for the service generally results in stunned silence of stammering. I suspect the minions who call are unpaid star struck interns, but this being the age of the fourteen year CEO, who knows.

The Rival VIP invite to participate as an unpaid – nay paying – extra in a show with “celebrity” chefs (they asked a few candidates of mine who are definitely not celebrity, just chefs) through a Kickstarter campaign would suggest that Valley new billionaires are not throwing wads of cash at start up food shows.

Perhaps there have been too many. Perhaps the shows are going too far afield from the first one, Japan’s “Iron Chef”.  Too many games, too much circus, too little substance. But then, Iron Chef was created by the people who make Toyota. We make Chevy’s.

Never having been a fan of extreme competition I find the entire chef as gladiator / food as blood sport bizarre for a world where teamwork and camradery have long been the norm and respect the gold standard, but then the food component is has become another  vehicle for suspense and team partisanship: Who finds the treasure first, which sexy girl gets to bed the millionaire or which millionaire gets to bed the sexy girl, who stays on the island.  Chefs are glamorous, even the homely ones are gorgeous in white and everyone eats. Obviously “Top Chef” draws better than “Star Plumber” or “Celebrity  Mortician.

One of the strange impacts of the celebrity cooking contests was a rash of young people taking out large loans for cooking school with the intent of becoming TV chefs. Maybe that’s why nobody can find good cooks these days. I’m thinking, though, I think that things are changing.

Chefs I recently approached for a show I was asked to staff flatly refused.. They tell me they’ve been “warned”.. When I was considering Restaurant Headhunter, experienced food media people warned me: They don’t care about you. They will try to make you look bad, to trip you up. They will try to make the people you get involved look bad. Your reputation can’t  use that. Eventually the producers reached out to me again and asked me to provide candidates and a restaurant as a favor, as the more media appropriate “Head Hunter” they hired hired knew nobody in California and didn’t know how to recruit them.  Guess the answer.

And there is Jon Favreau’s non reality but very real movie, “Chef The Movie” , released earlier this year, which portrays the work of a chef as chef.  Favreau’s characters are so realistic, that’s I’d send them out to kitchen jobs in a heartbeat. I know the model for his first employer. I know his sous. I’ve met him a dozen times. Favreau’s knife work is as dramatic an act as I have ever seen. Without music. The passion monologue to his son – This is what I do, this is my passion – is inspiring. The movie, aside from the tiniest pinch of fantasy or two, is really reality restaurant media.

I have no doubt Favreau’s movie has made an impact. For the past decade or so I have had many, many aspiring culinary stars asking me what my media connections are. “I don’t want to work in a kitchen. I want to be on Television and have my own show.” . For the past six months, however,  I’ve had requests for information on owning a food truck. My friend Micah Martello went that route, and he tells me he hasn’t looked back.

Obviously food trucks are not the essence of cooking, but cooks are being inspired to work in kitchens,  rather than on stages. Media is always going to be part of any chef’s life, but the kind of dysfunctional circus my chef friends and Chris Cosentino describe is at least  being put in perspective.

As  Bud the Pieman says, “Make Pie, not War.” I like that.

Chris Cosentino suggests he’s worried about his future. I am not. He’s smarter than the people who used him and he’s got more class. As for the autism issue, join the club. At least half of kitchen people are autistic. In the right setting it’s a gift. Good luck to him, but he probably doesn’t need it.


 

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“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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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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Guilty (?) Pleasures

Ways to take the fun out of brunch:

What are your guilty pleasures? I bet you can conjure up half a dozen or so in a few seconds – corn chips, Ding Dongs, PBJ’s on Wonder Bread, root beer floats? You betcha. There’s hardly a chef or a starlet, who couldn’t list a culinary foible or two one would not wish to own to in public.

Why on earth, though, do we think of them as guilty? When did eating become a moral challenge?

What part of America’s puritan heritage grabbed our sense of food and fun by the short hairs, turning lunch into an ethics exercise and a battle of social one-upmanship?

Obviously, part of this is stuffiness – we are too cool for pop corn,  and tuna melts are not sophisticated. Botarga on points is so much more hip, but the uncoolness of classic American snacking is only half of the matter.

Guilty pleasures have been assigned increasingly profound ethical contexts in the past couple of decades. A fast growing population of purist food advocates and a meme sensitive eating public has sharpened our awareness of the impact of every nosh on everything. Servers – people we pay to bring food – have become sustainability lecturers. Learning that our steaks walked grassy knolls on a  small farm has become part of the dining ceremony. We choose our wine for its local and organic labeling rather than because it takes you to a higher plane and recalls that summer in Burgundy with the beautiful French boy/girl. We’ve been brainwashed.

Moral food ideologues have slipped  into our heads and convinced  us that our simple pleasures are in fact sinful and destructive burdens on society and the planet. KInd of like highly moral pod people. How did we let them do that?

So you’re a highly engaged foodie, right? You have two walls of cookbooks and can quote Craig Claiborne, MFK Fisher and Julia Child, have touched the robe of Rene Redzepi and kissed Alice’s ring, and stuff like pig skins is too schlocky  for you, too unhealthy, too industrial for your liberal gustatory sentiments? Hide the fig newtons when the doorbell rings? Wouldn’t be seen dead with a Coca Cola on a 110  degree day? Oh, piffle. We need to get over ourselves.

Not even The Church (you choose which one) considers food a transgression. It is after all, the one carnal pleasure you would never consider confessing, because it’s not a sin. If you insist on being spiritual about food, then consider the blessed  joy of MFK Fisher, Claiborne, Beard and Julia
Child, all of whom licked their fingers and ate whatever pleased them without shame or apology, generally accompanied with several martinis. Tony Bourdain got it right, when he said, your body is not a temple, but an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

“Guilty Pleasures” are only one aspect of the American nutrition/guilt complex.  There is a vast network of concerned citizens, public advocates and experts afoot whose self appointed goal is to make sure that you understand the ethics,  morals and politics of food,  follow the principles of healthy eating and feel bad if you do not.

The culinary busybodies and public advocates of our days have developed a litany of rules and admonitions to assure that we  do not spoil the planet, degrade the sacredness of  our bodies,  or have fun with our food.

They are doing good work in their own minds and the minds of their purist circles, godbless’em. Unfortunately they are a batch of priggish  gustatory busy bodies, who in an earlier epoch would have probably got their kicks by dunking witches to save their souls or looking for communists in the local book clubs.

Their dialectic successfully redirects your objections that what you eat is your own damned business to a question of social and community responsibility – your soda consumption burdens the national health budget, your meat consumption the planet. The public advocates, non human animal advocates, health advocates, eco advocates, slowness advocates have a long list of fiats and verbots.

What you are supposed to feel bad about:

Water Footprint. The water footprint fanatics claim that two pounds of steak is 15,000 liters  (400 gallons) and suggest that your profligate use of H2O deprives Sudanese babies. The idea seems to be that the water stays inside the cow. It doesn’t.

Carbon footprint:  Carbon is an element. It is part of fossil fuel.  which contributes to greenhouse gases, bad air days and the ozone hole.  Carbon footprint adherents maintain that anything you eat stresses the environment. They maintain websites that calculate just how much carbon was used in producing, harvesting, processing and transporting your burger or Twinkie, so that even if you give in,  you will know that you were responsible for destroying the planet. (You can assuage your conscience by giving them money to offset your footprint – kind of like the Catholic Church in the 15th century, Guilt begets Geld.) If masochism is your pleasure, this is the sweet spot. It is the basis of Locovorism (no bananas for you) and  attacks on bottled water.  There’s a lot wrong with this approach to food (as opposed to jumbo jets, coal plants and hummers) but it provides the worriers with constructive anxiety.

Non human animal treatment and murder of non human animals.  Surely a valid concern, Nobody wants bunnies or furry things to suffer. Some people don’t want us to eat meat at all. The animal rights discussion of what you should feel bad about occasionally slips its moorings.  France has recently accused some farmers mistreating pigs by withholding toys from them. KFC has just announced their policy to stun chickens in hyperbaric chambers . It’s odd that we treat our poultry better than we treat our prisoners.

“Food Justice” issues – a newer term to cover everything from low wages paid to servers,  Walmart shelf stockers and farm workers. The concept of green staffing means that everyone should be earning a “living wage”, which means a comfortable wage. This is just a catalogue of things you can feel guilty about, so we won’t go into the economics of food work, except to suggest that one take with a grain of salt anything written about it with passion. (all passion should be taken with a grain of salt..it is the opposite of rational thinking.) A new restaurant app permits you to eat only at restaurants who treat their employees well. (Dollars to Donuts there is a Union connection here.)
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Fair Trade: Assumes that all Third World  producers are exploiting their suppliers, who are exploiting their laborers, unless their products are certified “Fair Trade”, making distant politics and trade issues the responsibility of the diner. Smart companies like Starbucks, Pete’s and numerous chocolate producers have been able to monetize this concept extremely well.

The environment, pollution, global warming:.  Nutritional environmentalists point out that not eating mindfully will destroy the planet. That’s doubtful, and the impact of what you may think is virtuous can cause collateral damage – the rush to soy has prompted Chinese and American producers to  clear vast stretches of third world forests and indigenous crops for monoculture, for instance. Since there is really no way to assess accurately the impact of your burger, you might just as well give up trying and feel awful about it.

Monocultures, loss of diversity, depletion of species.  You may not yet feel guilty about this one, but it’s an easy target for self flagellation. GM practices, genetic patents, maritime depletion, seed company monopolies and many other factors are endangering the vast diversity of produce in the world. The single commercially raised species of banana is threatened by a slowly spreading endemic which is projected to wipe it out in a few decades. Mindful eating would thus dictate rejection of granny smith apples and Chiquita bananas. God bless seed banks.

World Hunger:  How do you reconcile your fabulous $250 dinner at Coi (and it is fabulous) with pictures of pinch cheeked babies in the Sudan? Is this your responsibility?  Most of us manage to keep our own pleasure and our awareness of others’ needs neatly separated, but it’s still something you can feel bad about.

World obesity: What do you mean it’s not your responsibility? Of course it it. If you drink Coca Cola,  you support the mega national corporation that is causing type 2 diabetes  in ten  year-olds.  You should be ashamed.

Your own body: There’s the temple thing again. It’s a sin to debase what you were given. Salt, trans fats, HFC.. the stuff that makes food taste good will kill you. (so will living longer, but that’s not the issue here.)  You owe it to the world to keep away from sugar and eat your spinach, have five healthy meals of fruits and vegetables a day, avoid junk food, no matter how much you want a Snicker’s bar.  Non whole grain pleasures are guilty. Shame again.

Other people’s bodies: Michael Bloomberg is so concerned with the effects of salt on health that he has forbidden certain donations to food banks, disallowed large sodas for sale and waged a campaign on salt and trans fats. Center for Science in the Public Interest and other public advocacy groups would have the government tax or forbid “unhealthy” food. Nutritional meddling has become an international sport, affording all who participate great rewards in the form of self satisfaction.London is cracking down on medium burgers. The justification for this is that if you get sick it will cost us all money, so since you are so inconsiderate that you don’t take care of yourself, the rest of us will make sure you do. Have I already mentioned saving witches’ souls?

Waste: The newest scream in the field of virtuous food concerns is the accusation that we Americans throw away up to/over 50% of our  food. The math on this is unclear to me, as is the argument that our waste takes food from the mouths of the third world. I didn’t buy it when my  mother told me that Children in China wanted my spinach, either. Mario Batali has made a great show of his dedication to restaurant waste control on NPR.

Loss of small industry. Was your food grown by a subsistence farmer, or by big AG. Big Ag is another guilting point.  This is easy enough to fix, and I have friends who do by eating only in and buying only from independent owned businesses. The trade off, of course, is price and sometimes quality.

Beef is bad: Mark Bittman’s recent Tedd commentary dealt with the meat issue much more cogently than I can. The Readers’ Digest version is that we eat too much of it, and it messes up the environment and plays  havoc with International economies. Since I personally don’t eat a lot of it, this is a comfortable philosophy. Should you feel bad about the next burger? Your call.

That’s not all of the baggage you can schlepp to the dinner table, but it will do for our purposes. The problem is that some of these issues are real, so how do you keep your moral compass while not profaning the communion of dinner?

I wish I knew. For my part  I seem to be able to block out the noise when it comes to eating and really nearly never feel abashed about what I like. My own policies are neither to tell others what to eat or to let them tell me, or even approach something like a sermon. My dining friends, many of the best met during a stint as a Slow Food leader, are gracious and non judgemental – a surprising blessing, considering the fact that Slow Food not only has a mission but a manifesto.

Perhaps, too, what we unfortunately term “guilty pleasure” is, in fact, visceral pleasure. Something more rooted in our genes or our childhoods, as disassociated from our intellectual processes as breathing or sleep. We in America have always had a troubled relationship with our bodies and our urges.  Pity really. If Fig Newtons transport you to the thrill of your 2nd grade lunchbox, or you just love to sit eating only the green M&M’s, that’s just ducky. Nobody else’s hang-ups should spoil the tiny bits of hedonism that brighten our lives.

My own schlocky pleasures are guiltless (your’s should be too): They may be junk food, but they’re  my junk food.

 

High end Cheese Doodles: Microwave a little piles  of  really good hard cheese on a Silpat for about thirty minutes. They are great.

Toast:  I like mine white with good texture, Keep your benighted sprouts. Possibly potato bread. Spread with salted butter and jam or honey.  Eat with hot chocolate. Forget dinner.

Orange Julius: Throw about a cup of orange juice, a couple of ice cubes, a little sugar or sweetener and vanilla into a blender, give it a whirl and voila, close enough.

Honey (Jam/Nutella) Spoon. Basta.

Candied Orange and lemon peel. Put in heavy simple syrup and simmer until soft. Drain. Use syrup in tea. Eat peel. Easy. Good. Melt some chocolate and pour over peel. Break off pieces and eat whenever.

Emmentaler crackers: Put Emmentaler on crackers and microwave. Or Gruyere. Or Manchego. Those oblong crackers with sesame seeds on top from Trader Joe’s are especially suited. Eat.

Bacon: Crisp. BLT if you must justify your food with a vegetable.

Chinese Lemon Chicken:  The irresistible combination of fat and sweet and meat and salt, plus the tang of vinegar and garlic shows that white trash food has crossed all ethnic demarcations. I have no idea  how to cook it. You find it at really cheap Chinese restaurants. It wants steamed rice, not fried. Requires chopsticks. Forks won’t work.

Gas burner s’mores. The chocolate must be Hershey’s. At least I assume that’s real chocolate. It’s like Wonder Bread for Bar B Que and Jiffy peanut butter for PBJ’s.

Microwave quesadillas: Chese zapped in a cheap taco.

Hot Dogs  Not the gourmet links. Ballpark kinds in sweat, soft industrial bun  with lots and lots of ketchup and Heinz relish.(Don’t zap the hotdog Put it in cold water and bring to simmering.. )

Taco Chips.  Give me a bag, put me in a corner, and if I stroke out, bury me with some.

PBJ’s.

Gelato. Any kind except pistachio.

Cinnamon Toast. The ultimate cure for the duldrums. Possibly with tea with a few mardarin orange peels thrown in. (Toast, butter, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I guarantee it works.)

Pate on anything. Ditto smoked salmon. Lacking anything, use a fork. Or the tip of a knife.

A roll of salami, a knife, bread and cornichons.

Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce made from the huge bar of Trader Joe’s cooking chocolate, milk and sugar on the stove top. Licking the bowl.

Tortillas heated in a pan or microwave or steamed then rolled up and dripping with salted butter.

Toaster oven raclette with baby potatoes.Or Triskets.

The occasional Oreo. Don’t we all?

French Toast in an ocean of real maple syrup. 

Tiny egg/flour/milk pancakes with lemon juice and sugar.

Figs and Gorgonzola.

Cheerios for dinner

There are, really , no rules.

If you are still burdened with the weight of an unsustainable world, just forget the ethical conundrums and ideologues  and channel the greats for the length of a snack or a meal or a vacation and bask in the benediction of your food, simple or fancy. What would Julia say?

If you read this, please feel free to add your own visceral addiction..I have a chef friend who would kill for Nutter Butter. I haven’t got a clue what it is, but it’s on my list of things to try.

 

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Tarians and Vores

What kind of Tarian are you?

When I was a kid everyone ate about everything unless you happened to have the misfortune of being Catholic with Lent or Vatican imposed meatless Fridays, Seventh Day  Adventist or Orthodox Jewish and had to adhere to theologically imposed dietary restrictions. Or poor, of course, which came with its own set of limitations.

As Episcopalians we were theologically/nutritionally unencumbered. My mother, who railed at people who came to dinner then disclosed their dietary restrictions (there were fewer back then), never invited the one Seventh Day Adventist she knew and invited our Catholic friends on Saturdays rather than Fridays unless she happened to expect bluefish or crab off my uncle’s boat on a Friday.

A Friday dinner invitation from Catholic neighbors was cause for some nose wrinkling, but then most of the Catholics we knew back then were Irish, who, apologies to the sons and daughters of the Green Isle, are far from the best ambassadors for Catholic cuisine. Had we known Josephine Gasparro, things surely would have been different. Josephine cooked a mean salmon.  Kosher was never an issue..the only Jews we hung out with were reformed and were lavish eaters and phenomenal cooks.

Times have changed.

The Vatican lifted it’s fiat on meat, thus removing its negative image of an imposed food and possibly contributing to the endangerment of hundreds of species, as seafood became not only interesting but hotly desired for any night you wanted to have it. The Adventists may still be meatless, although the two I know eat non garden burgers with gusto. My Jewish friends now are staunch proponents of all things porcine. Religion no longer rules the plate. Instead we have made our self imposed food limitations to our religions.

Vegetarianism has gone secular-mainstream and highly vocal and spawned a score of variations, some extreme, some simple variations, and we have named them all.

The equal and opposite reaction to the steady surge in demanding vegetarian diners sprung up in the form of testosterone laden carnivore movement under the name of the Whole Beast Movement or Snout to Ass, initially carried by chefs like Chris Cosentino, then picked up by butchery event planners like Big John Fink,  who creates butchering shows followed by orgies involving large pigs on spits.

There are nutritional crusades and tirades on both sides. Animal rights activists have effected bans of foie gras and shark fins in California and attempted to pass laws requiring that restaurants observe “Meatless Mondays”.  At a North Beach Pizzeria a young Swiss guest responded to the gorgeous Italian server’s suggestion of a porchetta spiked pie with, “I don’t eat meat,” spoken with the vehemence of a Jonathan Edwards holding out a cross and snarling, “Get the behind me, dead animal.”   Professed carnivores also have their obnoxiously vocal moments.

Most of us omnivores in the middle eat just about anything anyone sets down  in front of us, or at least it around our plates or feed it to the dog, so people think you liked it.

That was the Readers’ Digest version – our personal nutritional sects are considerably more complex.

The Administrative Director of the Culinary Institute of America told me years ago that the Institute had done a survey of eating habits. Among those who stated their diet as vegetarian a large number – I believe over half – also stated that they ate seafood and/or poultry frequently, and a smaller number occasionally meat. I eat vegetables, ergo I am vegetarian.

There is now a term for that:

Vegetarians remain vegetarians, at least in theory people who don’t eat meat, poultry or seafood.

Seafood eaters but not meat eaters, on the other hand, are either Pisquitarians or pescatarians, the word being so new that nobody has settled on a proper spelling.

Vegetarians who avoid eggs, honey and milk are vegans. Vegans believe in making life more challenging by foreswearing eggs, honey and cheese, which supposedly exploit chickens, bees and cows.

There’s more.

Vegans who don’t cook their food are Raw Foodists.

Vedic Vegans reduce their options by the entire nightshade family, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes.

The most radical vegans are the fruitarians, who eat no live fruit – that is, eat nothing that is  picked from the tree on the theory that picking it would be killing a living thing.  In other words, they live from vegan road kill. One suspects that the pharmaceutical company is not producing sufficiently effective meds, but perhaps the fruitarians reject them because their production exploits some bacilli or fungi.

Omnivores don’t get away with a simple label, either.

Those of us who eat meat but not huge steaks have recently been dubbed “flexitarians”, which apparently means that we are not huge meat eaters. That would be in less pretentious food speak “omnivores”, or perhaps nothing, since we are still the people who generally eat what is put in front of us (or push it around the plate.)  Most of us still consider ourselves, probably irrationally, the default.

My son’s best friend’s mother is a socially conscious vegetarian with an irresistible taste for salami, which makes her a salmitarian (or salumitarian, if you include things like coppa and sopressata, which she probably does. )

My father’s second wife who actually ate mostly Cheetos and taco chips unless they went out  was a poultry eater and pronounced herself an “avitarian”. Actually she also ate some seafood, preferably fried, which would probably make her a pisqueavitarian.

And then there are the locovores, who, donning one of the rougher nutritional hair shirts of our times, swear never to eat anything grown more than a hundred miles from their homes. There aren’t many locovores in Minneapolis, and God bless the others. More bananas and Prosecco for the rest of us.

Fortunately the dining community, omnivore, flexitarian vegan et al, have not yet come to the point where we define ourselves by what we don’t eat – I am an antiglutenitariian or a non-lactositarian, but for an identity starved society who craves labels, it’s probably not far off.

The poor are still around, but they would probably just as soon renounce their dietary restrictions.

As for me, you can ask me to dinner any time. I’ll eat it if you’re a good cook. Unless it’s steamed spinach, in which case it will be neatly distributed around the plate.

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Farming as Spectator Sport

Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.

To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath,  farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will)  moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor,  and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria.  I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.

I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.

Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden”  (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in  the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless,  (I’d guess more like fifteen).

Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms.  Nor does farming involve around the clock guards  (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.

The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press,  urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.

With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden  to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban  Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.

Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.

It was probably Farmer Al,  a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s  pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed  could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food.  For a hefty fee  he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.

Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go  to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.

Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and  yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs.  It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.

I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.

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