Tag Archives: Restaurants

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

I use a couple of LinkedIn forums, generally unsuccessfully, to find the people I  need. One of them is called “Cutting Edge Chefs”, and while I doubt that any really cutting edge chefs have time to fool around in the forums, I like to hope.

Recently the moderator posted a list of things he really dislikes  in restaurants, which included cold butter on warm bread,  food presented better than it tastes and pizza with the cheese untouched by heat because it is covered with tomato sauce.

Never having suffered the cheese issue – San Franciscan chefs are pretty OCD about pizza – I agree entirely with his fourth peeve:  Tiny dark menu fonts on dark backgrounds  in dimly lit dining rooms. I toasted my rods in an act of defiance to  nature on the slopes of St Moritz in my twenties, so even blazing black on white is a challenge for me even with 20/20 vision, and I note for quite a few others. . He states correctly that servers seem amused but rarely helpful when he scrounges for a light source..which puts the concept of “hospitality”, as the industry is wont to call itself, in question. (Tip:  There’s a flashlight app for most smart phones.)

Pump primed, I responded with my least favorite restaurant issues. Of course you want to know what they are, so here’s the list.

Crusty, crumbly bread without a bread plate because “We are Mediterranean and that’s how we do it.” At lunch with a reviewer once we made such a mess of our table cloth that we simply gathered it up in a bundle and handed it to the passing server. Of course we had had three drinks while they got the food out, so our inhibitions were a little weak.
Servers who cannot stay away from the table during interesting conversations. (Like the discussion of a Hollywood Star’s planned restaurant with the Director of Operations). We had to call the manager to detain her.
Servers with visible belly button rings at eye level.
Anyone near me or my food who has gone to great lengths to deform their bodies, especially their ear lobes with extending rings. Thoroughly unappetizing, that.
Servers who ask “Is everything all right” (If everything is not all right, ones options are either lying or causing a scene – thanks for putting me on the spot) or worse: “Are we having a fabulous breakfast?” (At possibly the worst breakfast I have ever had at Campton Place..being with a client I could make the desired anatomical alterations on the man..sometimes restraint is hard. Note to servers: “Do you need anything” will suffice.
Figuring that my dinner is going to come to about $80 and walking out with a $120 bill due to added charges and fees. (San Francisco only).
Servers who insist on sharing their opinion. They are SERVERS, not ADVISORS. Would someone please tell them to wait until their surely valuable thoughts on the day boat scallops or the halibut are requested?
“You guys”..I am not a guy. Can someone teach the serving class that they don’t need to add a title to their greeting? A simple “Good Evening. Welcome to John’s Croissants and Offal Joint” Would do just fine.
“Good Evening, young lady”. Oh, vomit. How absolutely insulting and bleeping patronizing and slimy. Most women are smart enough to know you don’t think they are young. In fact, you have just said in effect, “You look old.”
“Would you like your change back?” No, Bubba. I always give 50% tips.
Servers who think I give a damn about their names. Really I don’t. I will forget them the moment they leave the table, and I am smart enough to figure out on my own that they will be my server tonight, as opposed, say, to my dentist.
Not seating my 75 year old dining partner until I find a parking place, even though we have a reservation, and the room empty with two tops.
Wine stewards who tell you that your wine is not in at the moment and suggest another, failing to mention that the price is double.
Bistro highchairs. Who ever got the brainfahrt that people like to perch at lunch? I left my high chair behind at two and a half years and haven’t looked back. I find feet on the ground comforting.
Common tables, where the host(ess) will seat you, even though there are empty booths: These are fine when you are alone but they stink for business lunches or trysts, not that I engage in many of the latter.
Din. You know what I mean.
Bars without purse hooks. Come on, guys. They’re cheap and make friends. If you have any class at all, you also provide some place for purses at the table. Gary Danko brings a little bag stool. You don’t want bags on the tables. Women put them on the floor in the bathroom. Enough said.
Mirrors reminding me that it’s time for another peel. Well over half the dining population do not want to see themselves in the mirror while they chew. New York has figured it out and angles the mirrors down so that you see the table, not your face. Good one. (New York also has purse hooks all over the place and usually a women’s restroom and a 00 restroom, so women don’t have to wait in line. New York has it figured out.)
The usual sustainability clichés. I expect chefs at the restaurants I patronize to use quality ingredients. It’s their job. That almost always means local, sustainable, organic, blah blah blah food. I don’t want an ecological sermon when I go to eat.
Menus with recipes and food provenance instead of short descriptions. I don’t give a rat’s rear who nurtured my nutrients. I get that at the farmers market. You know your farmer? Nice. Most likely so do I, but we are not going to chat about it at the table, as I want to enjoy my friends.
Being seated at a crappy table when I am single, which I try not to be.
The bum’s rush. You want me to go without dessert? Have I been that obnoxious, or are you just short of china, so you need every plate the moment the diner has stepped down the pace to the occasional nibble?
Having to wait an hour for the check. Ditto menu. Ditto main dish.
Feeling the urge to identify myself when everything is beyond tolerance, or even thinking, “obviously they don’t know who I am”, as they shouldn’t HAVE to know who you are. (I never do..but urge control detracts from the experience)
Snotty Gen XY hostesses. Where in the world were they raised? My Little Pony caves? Hello Kitty Land?
Hipster Restaurants (are you listening, St Francis Fountain?) who make it painfully clear that I am not hip (true that) and really should not be there. And listen, dudes, the fact that you are all hairy around the face and dressed like Paul Bunyan out looking for Babe doesn’t help a lot.  Something about bushy men in flannel with knit caps doesn’t exactly scream “clean” to me.
Restaurants trying to be cute with Gimmicks. Any Gimmicks.
Desserts purchased wholesale.  Anything that comes cold because the flash oven didn’t completely defrost it. Hell, if you can’t afford a pastry chef take a note from Giallina and  and serve great ice cream.
Pastry chefs hell bent on making dessert taste and smell like bath products.
Receptionists who think you are out-of-towners and try to give you the 10:00 seating or the 5:00 seating, because they know they can sell the middle seatings easily.
Dinner next to a bachelorette party.Restaurants should know to consign them to sound proof rooms.
“How are WE tonight? Are we here for dinner?” I don’t know about you, sistah, but I am hunky dorey and I came to get my shoes shined. Please bring the lackey.

All this, of course, makes great service even better appreciated. Like, for instance, Perbacco. I think Umberto Gibin is San Francisco’s Danny Meyer, but we have a lot of restaurants where the owner manages the floor masterfully.

The puzzling part of this, or perhaps not, is that one is expected to pay an extra 20% for the aggravation, when it is aggravation. I suspect a lot of it is servers trying too hard to be seen and remembered in order to get you to pony up more. And you will. If they were compensated for their work like other Food and Beverage professionals, without the pressure to sell up and use frantic sycophancy, more of us would probably enjoy ourselves more eating out.
I love to eat out. I love restaurants. I love chefs and dinners with friends, who won’t come to my hillside hovel, so I do eat out a bit. I just don’t look forward to it as much as I perhaps should.

Damn, that was fun. Definitely Therapeutic.

Please add your own peeves or disagree. The only impediment to signing up/in is a captcha system which requires math skills from 1 – 20. I know you are up for that.

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Food a Politics: The Chick-Fil-A Dustup..

The short odds are that you know the current state of the Chick-Fil-A debate. If not, here a short recap:

On the 16th of July Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy stated his clear and unequivocal opposition to  same sex marriage . He did so in the Baptist press and raised a hullabaloo.

Gay Activists rose to the tossed gauntlet, The Muppets refused to sell them any toys for their children’s meals.

Politicians with a claim to family values picked up the gauntlet and slapped everyone, Sarah Palin made a celebrity appearance holding big bags of chicken and sides , while Mike Huckabee proclaimed Wednesday a National Chick-Fil-A day (Can he do that?), and the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco vowed not to let Chick-Fil-A open any restaurants in their towns. (Can they do that?)  Ironically New York’s Mayor Blumberg, a man with a proven proclivity for banning things having to do with restaurants, thinks banning Chick-Fil-A inappropriate.

I have no dog in this fight. I am straight, not particularly (at all) interested in marriage and a bit perplexed at the number of people who are. I count devout Christians and people of various gender walks among my dear friends  and never thought of same sex marriage as having any particular connection to restaurants aside from the terrific financial boost to the industry San Francisco received when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco the first city to legalize them – you couldn’t reserve an event space for months, our hotels were full and our retailers delighted.

If I don’t understand why people who don’t have to get married are so eager (I understand the legal implications, however, and in fact, my wedding was a great party, dancing bears and all) , I sure as hell don’t get why people who are or could get married feel it their mission to stop others from doing it. For the love of God (That is the point of Christianity, isn’t it? God’s love? The quote as I remember it is, “I am an angry god”, not “I am a small minded, petty god”) if two people want to get married, let them – it’s good for the economy, there will be more happy people on earth, there will be some fabulous parties, and most of my gay friends have shown a better commitment than a lot of us in mixed gender marriages manage to keep.  Why does the religious right want people to be unhappy?

Don Cathy of course, has a right to say and think anything he wants, no matter how bombastically and sanctimoniously stupid, as long as he doesn’t scare the horses, and the public has an absolute right to vote with their feet and wallets and to express their opinions about Cathy, his church, his chicken and his values – screaming with signs outside his restaurant, if they feel so inclined. (That’s pretty much a given).

I personally think the man is a blowhard ass, I’m glad he’s not my neighbor, and if I owned stock in the company I would demand his removal from the board, then sell (although this seems to be a boost for their sales – they are not fools and playing to their audience very well).   I’ll bet so did their VP of Public Relations, Donald Perry, before the stress of the whole affair did him in.  But that’s just my opinion.

It is remarkable, as an aside on Perry’s death, that no activists, liberals and friends of couples dying to walk down the aisle haven’t made the sort of comments about Perry’s death as conservative icons of the religious right like Gene Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have been known to do about God’s wrath causing various national tragedies. There is little question here as to who takes the high road.

For one thing, Cathy/Chick-Fil-A  donates funds (a little less than $2 million) to organizations like The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and others, whose lobbying  efforts extend to areas well beyond  one man one woman, so two thighs, biscuits and a side of coleslaw at one of their locations may mean giving money to the enemy. Of course Citizens United has made this perfectly legal, but none the less, it’s sure disconcerting. I for one would like to know if a dime of my super-sized Coke is going to anti abortion or gender discrimination or immigration lobbies (either way) or whatever.

Since the Cathy Brothers’ billionaire status is to some extent attributed to their followers in faith, the restaurants are in effect donation machines. I can’t think of any other business..certainly on that level…that functions in this way.

On the other side of the oh-no-you-did-not coin is the rush to political correctness by Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.  It’s bone headed posturing, since Chick-Fil-A would be fools  to open in any of those cities – nobody would eat there – but the hubris of any mayor or city council barring a business based on their political views is beyond outrageous. Freedom of opinion counts for both sides.

There’s something more insidious about the Cathy’s amygdala hijack: the conversion of restaurants into political vehicles.

Once upon a halcyon time civilized eating meant avoiding religion, finance or politics during the meal. I never really observed the rule, but then I am occasionally ill mannered and not a gadzillionaire with a restaurant chain.  Cathy should have done. He crossed the Rubicon by polemicizing what ought to be civil, neutral ground, the tables we share. Breaking bread with people of different opinions civilizes us. Eating in political conclaves does the opposite.  Apart from the quality and the mean mindedness of his sentiments, dividing our tables by politics is indecent.

We should be concerned that or resigned to the fact that he may have opened Pandora’s Box – that our tables could  come to represent not only our culinary tastes but our political stripes.  That would be disastrous.

A senior member of the California Legislature recently mourned the civility of the time when  members of Congress went out for drinks or dinner together after the day’s session, and contributes the eroding of decency to the loss of that. Democrat and Republican congressmen/women in DC eat at separate dining clubs. No need to wonder why they can’t find common ground.

Ojala Mr Cathy’s self obsessed foolishness remains an isolated phenomenon. Let tire shops and newspapers and department store owners express their prejudices and beliefs, if they are dumb and crude enough to do so  – the places where we break bread need to be inclusive meeting places in which we our paths cross with people of opposed opinions.   Switzerland made a lot of money staying neutral during WWII. Let’s hope the rest of our watering  holes and eateries do likewise.

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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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Fire vs Raw

Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of us scratched our heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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