Tag Archives: Junk Food

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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Rolly Polly Nation, the Law and the Blindered Prophets

So we’re fat. And now what?

Mayor Bloomberg has been proposing one of those simple save the world solutions to just about everything, also known as an administrative Brain Phart, in the form of a Big Gulp fiat. By limiting the size of sodas he suggests, New York can get a grip on its citizens’ girth and health.Zip Zap Zum.. Problem solved.

Now that Alice Waters’ sensationalized cerebral flatulence on (0 calorie) bottled water has petered out, the nation appears to be flocking to the soda is evil camp and willing to curtail its consumption with any possible means including taxation and prohibition. Public shaming and caning cannot be far behind.

The science behind the ardor attributes every nutritional and plenty of the physical ills of our culture to soda: Obesity, heart and circulatory disease, kidney and  liver damage and diabetes to name a few.  According to the USDA the average American ingests 360- “added” sugar calories a day, enough to add 36 pounds a year, half of them from soft drinks.  If you calculate in Americans who drink no soda, someone is piling on unimaginable tons of blubber and endangering themselves and the health economy.. A UC Davis study predicts that a soda tax would save 2600 lives a year.

Advocacy groups like the nattering CSPI, who have finally found a cause to legitimatize themselves with a National Soda Summit, are riding the wave out front while agrandizing themselve by elevating a congress to a summit.   Both the CDC and USDA support the concept of state soda taxes. Pop producers and interest groups like The American Beverage Association  have taken up the challenge and deny their claiims, smacking of Gordon Gecko self interest and insincerity as they do. Salvo’s are flying like bullets over the Alamo.

You really have to enjoy a good fight. They bring out the jesters like Brokelyn.com  and the worst and most entertaining in politicians straining to gain favor with the masses, but this one is unsettling on many counts.

For one thing the crusade against soft drinks is simplistic. Demonizing one thing, in this case soda, promotes the idea of a silver bullet as the solution to a tangled mess of complex issues, here obesity, disease and the financial burden of paying for little buddy scooters for  Mountain Dew addicts. It is the lazy approach we Americans like to take to just about any problem. Remember when Obama ran on “Change”, and a country voted for him in the assumption that he would solve all our problems in a few months, but he didn’t?  Now his approval ratings have plummeted and we blame him? It doesn’t occur to us as a Nation that things are complicated and solutions take time, so attacking one thing – token or substantial – appeals immensely to our lazy nature. This is the same.  Sensational gestures rarely reap sensational results.

Soda isn’t the only contributor to the “obesity epidemic”. There are a slew of other factors in our national weight crisis. My favorite is convenience food, mostly because I don’t eat much, so I can feel smug about damning those who do. The Huffington post just published statistics showing that processed foods, which are generally less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods, have risen to the top of the American grocery list from near the bottom, while dairy products have dropped to last place

The most obvious and my least favorite culprit is lack of exercise – I rather prefer chairs and chaise lounges to Pilates and would rather drive than hike, even though I know I lose much more weight from physical exertion than deprivation.  French women, who by the way DO get fat – just not as much as we do – walk a lot. The French and European Paradox is fairly easily explained by their greater exercise in the run of their normal days. Life in Europe is not harder but requires more motion than in the US, which burns pounds. They also don’t eat the junk so many of us like.

Fast food, famously caloric and cheap due to farm subsidies and the use of sweeteners where one does not expect them – namely in meat – coupled with America’s growing nutritional ignorance and the convenience for working families earns the obesity blue ribbon.  The statistics mentioned above also show that Americans are buying fewer groceries. Since they obviously aren’t eating less, it’s a good guess that they are getting fed at Quick Serve Restaurants. A simple McD’s hamburger contains only 250 calories, but their most advertised items like Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger have nearly 800. That’s without the fries and the Coke or the Blizzard. A Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage delivers 330 – ten of those and you’ve gained a pound.

I personally also attribute nationally increasing girths to the disappearance of vanity. My shallow sense of worth by appearance is the main reason that I stay  under the four hundred or so pounds my genes keep screaming for me to gain. The younger generation does not seem to mind large amounts of flesh drooping over their tank tops or low rise shorts.  In the dark ages at college there was one fat girl in our dorm. We loved her, but it was clear she would never have the success we envisioned for ourselves (marrying well, above all – we weren’t as smart as we thought we were) .  Groups of young girls roaming downtown today are more likely to be convex than concave and they are apparently just fine with it. Maybe Bloomberg out to ban chic clothes in plus sizes. Or dictate full length mirrors on school doors and strewn around restaurants and food stores.

Despite the nutritional left’s cries that food is too cheap and you can make do with fresh produce as economically as with convenience food, the cost of fresh produce versus convenience food is repeatedly cited as a major factor in the poor American diet. The supposed impact of posting calories and nutritional content not only on groceries but at chain eateries – another silver bullet – has not brought the expected success.

Too few people know how to cook and really understand nutrition. Cooking used to be taught at least to seventh grade girls.No more.

Add to the above that we eat too much. Before we settled on blaming soda  for everything there was a hue and cry about candy, fats, salt and sweets. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA , maintains, possibly correctly, that sugar and fat are addictive and that America’s tendency to treat itself to more carbonara, King Size Snickers and multiple Whoppers is due to a kind of conspiracy by the food companies, who act like dope pushers, hooking us young and stringing us along until our common food caused illnesses shorten our national life span. Kessler has also stated that he supports government intervention in food choices and costs.

This is where it gets scary.

Kessler’s and others’ complete lack of hesitation to support government intervention into personal dietary choices is troubling. When we find that the soda tax doesn’t work, a new demon will be found and regulated (remember trans fats? yet another silver bullet). Whether it is a junk food tax, a fast food intervention or an age ban on selling ice cream or candy to minors is unimportant. What does matter is that some politicians will at least try to do public good by invading personal choice. .The New York Health Commission has already discussed control of other high energy foods.  Britain is already debating a 20% “fat tax” on unhealthy items. Denmark has initiated a butter tax.

There is another problem with panacea, single demon of the day thinking of the obesity problem: We imagine immediate results (think Obama again). This is scientifically improbable as far as fatness is concerned. Changes in national average weight and health are more likely to take generations than years. Enough studies have revealed that excessive weight once gained sets the brain and body to continue to demand energy intake.  Individuals with strong will power can lose weight and keep it off, but we cannot suppose that demographics will do so. Yanking on the anchor chain will hardly turn the Queen Mary.

And this: Polls show a large portion of the populatoin in favor of bans and interventions of one kind of another – that means many people telling many other people what to do, “If it solves the health problem” (it won’t). or “saves us money spent on health care” (it can’t). When we begin to tell our neighbors how to live their lives, no matter how good we believe it might be for them, we cross a very dangerous line. It’s not quite drowning Salem witches to save their souls, but their dinner is simply none of our business. If you want to intervene, you can tell your congress person to stop funding mobility assistants for people who eat too much, but one should be careful at handing the keys to someone else’s cupboard to politicians. It could backfire.

Tax and ban proponents liken themselves to anti tobacco campaigners and the taxes they support to cigarette taxes, an interesting comparisojn but false.  There is no such thing as second hand Coke, and drinking a Pepsi in your home will not give your children earaches.  While cigarettes are the proven cause of many miserable deaths, sugared drinks are contributors to some.

East Virginia promotes its proposed Soda tax with the promise that the money will be used to sponsor nutritional education, as are many cigarette taxes. Good idea? Certainly, but if it please the sovereign state, why the Hell weren’t you offering nutritional education without a tax, if it’s so damned important? (It is).

This is where I offer a solution, and if I were God, I’d be glad to. I don’t have one, but I have a couple of ideas: Start working for long term success by educating children and young adults, use media to get messages out to the country – our English channels could take a cue from Spanish speaking television’s impressive public service announcements “Salud es vida”- health is life. Stop subsidizing sugars.

Rather than banning large portions, require that any outlet selling super-sized portions also offer reasonably small servings of popcorn, soda and ice cream for reasonable prices, increasing rather than reducing consumer choice.  You just try now to get a one man popcorn at the movies or an edible portion at Cold Stone Creamery, where every cone is family sized.

As long as you are at it, legalize fruit kiosks like those in New York in all cities and insist that inner city grocers selling liquor and snacks also stock fresh fruit. It’s invasive, true, but not as much as preventing them from selling empty calories.

If the government really wants to make an impact, might we suggest that instead of reducing the amount of time allotted in schools for physical ed they increase it. John F Kennedy’s school fitness programs, aimed at making us competitive with the dreaded Russians, were effective.  So we’ve got drones doing our dirty work – so what.  Fitness is still in our national interest.  Let the kids climb rope, do jumping jacks and run races again. It supposedly helps their brains as well as their physical health. If you say it is too expensive, then please quit bellyaching about the cost of health care for the unfit.

There are a lot more suggestions out there.  Let the Senate form one of their famous committees for something both useful and attainable. Obese children and food sick adults clogging the system  should give them some common bilateral ground, for a change.

Bloomberg is hardly a stupid or simple man, although touting National Doughnut Day as he introduced his plan was not all that astute.  I suspect the proposed Big Gulp Ban is conceived as much a statement as a fix. Unfortunately as we have all seen there are many less astute politicians urged on by public advocates, who will hustle to follow suit and outdo it with perverse creativity.

I realize the desire is illusionary, but it would be so uplifting to see measured common sense minus the sensationalism injected into the obesity, diabetes, health care debate. I don’t know about you, but I had a terrific mother once who told me to eat my broccoli and not the candy bar. I loved her, but that was really annoying, and I don’t want my mayor or state senate stepping into her unfortunately empty shoes. (For one thing they wouldn’t stand a 500 calorie snowcone’s chance in Hell of filling them.)

Don’t expect the same results from Bloomberg’s program and other states’ proposed soda taxes as the smoking bans achieved. You may see a change in your lifetime, but I am sure I will not. My family lives to 100.

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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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Street Junk Food

The Iowa State Fair comes to Downtown San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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