What do we make of Michael Pollan’s seventh book, Cooked? Is it, as the subtitle suggests, a “natural history” which examines the science and paleoanthropology of cooking? Is it, as many of Pollan’s promotional interviews suggest, a polemic and a manual which tells us how and when to cook in order to repair the social fabric and national health of the United States? Is it a memoir of meals past, with ample nostalgia for a simpler time measured out with head-shaking over the bustle of the modern world? Is it the foodie equivalent of a travelogue, tracing the author’s encounters with cooking techniques in such exotic locales as Korea, Portugal, and North Carolina? Is it an intellectual history of cookery, attempting to establish the cerebral value of the culinary arts through the theories of French anthropologists and philosophers? Or do this book and its promotional tie-ins comprise an elaborately executed piece of multimedia performance art, a parody of the foodie intellectual on the level of Joaquin Phoenix growing a beard and releasing a rap album?
“I’d go with the Ewephoria. It’s under the ‘stoic’ category.” I scanned the menu for a description of “stoic.” It read “big, hard cheeses.” I peered over my glass of red wine from the Douro Valley as the attractive bartender flipped painstakingly perfect, wavy, grey-streaked hair out of his blue-grey eyes. I bet it is, I thought to myself.
The bartender at Tria, the Philadelphia wine and cheese bar, may have gotten the job based on merit alone. But placing attractive people at the front line of any business in the service industry isn’t just useful when it comes to female bartenders in nightclubs with barely-there outfits. The memory of an attractive person preparing your food or drink, no matter where it is, must stimulate some sort of pleasure center in your brain that keeps you going back. (It certainly keeps me going to a certain coffee truck between classes.) MORE
When I was young, I didn’t find too many vegetables palatable. I liked carrots, peas, and lima beans — all boiled and buttered — but would otherwise only eat produce to fill the quota to be excused from the table. When I started college, however, I was prepared to add more roots and leaves to my diet. To my mind, salads belonged to the world of adults; I was determined to belong to that world, so for lunch and dinner I dutifully filled a small bowl of raw vegetables to eat alongside my Southern college refectory’s chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
Pierre Bourdieu, a 20th century French sociologist, would argue that my transition into a dedicated eater of plants was not just a metamorphosis into maturity, but also a shifting of social position. MORE
In the 16th and 17th century, when the renowned painters of other European countries largely painted religious scenes and royal portraiture, the Netherlands developed genres of painting that reflected the mercantilist, increasingly secular culture that produced them. Wealthy merchants and other upper-class landowners had buying power to rival the Catholic church, and their patronage encouraged guilds to practice highly technical, sumptuous paintings of things: seashells and flowers, musical instruments, fine silver, and of course food — all improbably arranged onto an overflowing table and rendered in luminous layers of oil. MORE
“Oh no!” I heard my friend shriek from her kitchen. Had a mouse just run across her foot? Was an oven mitt on fire? Did someone put too much soap in the dishwasher? I couldn’t quite tell, but the loud slamming drawers and cabinet doors sounded rather serious.
“I can’t find it anywhere!” She came running back into the room, her hands full of various utensils. “What about a knife? Or maybe scissors?” she asked with a puzzled expression. “Do you know how to uncork a bottle with a fork?”
I’m a self-professed foodie, and it took me nearly three years to be able to say that. Learning about food is like learning about anything else—trial and error and lots of “learning as you go along”—and this story is no different. While some food lessons are more obvious than others (like removing bay leaves and adding cornstarch to cold water instead of hot), others can seem downright tricky. In my journey up until this point, I can think of no harsher (yet surprisingly popular) a lesson than learning about truffle oil.
The seemingly classy ingredient might very well be as crooked as the evil stepmother in Snow White, luring you in with false promises. When you think about quality ingredients, it’s not entirely uncommon to also see an increase in price, like better beef, organic produce, or vanilla beans instead of extract. So when looking at a bottle of truffle oil, everything seems to make sense. At $30 for a bottle just over three ounces, it has to be good stuff; the yellowish liquid surrounding the few flecks of actual truffle sitting peacefully down at the bottom. When I first saw it, that bottle of oil seemed so authentic and impressive until I did a little research.
I’m a firm believer that size doesn’t actually matter. At 5-foot-9, I’m pretty tall for a woman, though I’ve never had a problem dating a shorter guy before. I’ve lived happily in apartments both tiny and large. And I don’t fear any size portion of food put in front of me.
The very same rule applies to my wine. I see nothing wrong with the powerful, dark fruity blasts of pleasure that complex red wines so generously offer. In fact, I often desire them. But with these big-bodied, bold-flavored deep reds, it’s not uncommon to also find heightened levels of alcohol, and not everybody loves punchier wines as much as I do. Others loathe them, running in the other direction when they hear the phrase “high-alcohol wines” being used.
Usually, when I go to a wedding I bring a check as my gift. But one Saturday morning in November, I found myself trying to explain in my neatest small penmanship inside a sparkly wedding card that my present for the bride and groom was waiting for them in my basement chest freezer.
I bought them a fraction of a cow.
It was 20-some pounds of local, grass-fed, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)-free beef to be precise. This may not at first seem like the ideal wedding gift. But hear me out:
These two are some of my closest friends, and moreover, they are probably my favorite couple to eat with. They’re the rare pair with no real food hangups, weird picky preferences, or dietary restrictions. At least they were until recently, when the groom became increasingly educated and concerned about the realities of factory farming and the meat that makes up most of the conventional food supply. Disgusted, he practically stopped eating meat.
My husband Dan is not what you would call a romantic. On one of our first Valentine’s Days together, when I had my first foolish glimmer of hope that I would receive an engagement ring, I got a cast iron frying pan instead.
Last February, I was working in an office full of cubicles and women. I knew that one by one my coworkers would retrieve their bouquets at the reception desk and if I didn’t get one I would feel terrible.
Several weeks in advance, I put my foot down about this goofy holiday. “You must send flowers to my office on Valentine’s Day,” I told Dan. “If you don’t, I will be humiliated and I will be angry.” He acquiesced. Flowers were ordered and delivered to my desk. I was spared embarrassment and we didn’t have to fight. MORE
Canned beer used to be the bad beer your dad drank while he mowed the lawn. But with more craft breweries offering canned versions of their beers and breweries opening up that are 100% dedicated to canning, the craft beer industry shattered this stereotype has been. Today, it’s easy to find well-crafted, flavorful beer in cans.
Cans make sense as a beer container: they’re impenetrable to flavor-killing light, recyclable, and easier to pack into a cooler than bottles. On top of these characteristics, new advancements in can technology mean that aluminum keeps your beer fresher for longer. It all seems perfect on the surface, but there’s a controversial subtext within canned craft beer culture.
Good News: Nigella Lawson is back on TV. Her new show, a reality-style culinary competition called The Taste, debuted on Wednesday night on ABC and it was wonderful to see her again. The show itself may be a nearly unwatchable mishmash of hackneyed reality TV contrivances, but it’s worth tuning in just for Nigella’s screen time. In the debut episode, when she was profiled in a “meet the judges” segment, the first thing she said, unabashed, was “I love fat!”
Last week via her blog, Nigella informed her fans that when The Taste’s photo production types attempted to eliminate the round curve of her midsection from the show’s promotional images, the Domestic Goddess refused. “I was very strict and English and told them they weren’t allowed to airbrush my tummy out,” she wrote. MORE
Wasted food is one of the unfortunate facts of our modern lives (a recent study says that we toss between 30% and 50% of all food produced). We overbuy, we eat out on nights when we had planned to cook, and we let leftovers wither away into slimy puddles in the back of the fridge. For our planet to survive and thrive, we need to curb this waste.
While there are grand, systemic changes that need to occur to truly rectify this issue, there’s also a lot that we can do at home to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills. To my mind, the most important thing to do is to start seeing our aging and leftover food from a transformational perspective.
Leftovers from dinner can be scrambled into eggs for breakfast. The last bits of cheese can be blended into a pleasing spread the French call fromage fort. And then there’s stale bread. From use as a soup thickener, to bread puddings and panades to breadcrumbs, it can do almost anything. MORE
Among the worst instincts known to man is that of creation. Though creativity as utility or inspiration may well be a virtue, it is the incessant need of man to create infinite variations that steers away from the better practice of purposeful or thoughtful endeavor and heads straight over a jagged little cliff scattered with the wreckage of shallow, knee-jerk reactions coupled with unfulfilling, poor simulacra. And very, very bad cocktails.
But this should come as a surprise to no one, that the world is filled with bad art. Most of it we can tolerate or ignore but the problem is really not one of kind but one of volume, how steady a stream and how persistent an urge it becomes once something reaches the level of genuine fashion or trend. With cocktails in 2012, it became a waterfall. MORE
Looking over a typical day’s selection at the fishmonger, you might notice that the light pink flesh of a fluke, $12 per pound, looks remarkably like that of the pricier sole, at $16 per pound, right beside it. In fact, the two fillets could be swapped for each other and no one would know the difference. Unfortunately, this kind of seafood fraud happens much more often than you probably think.
This year, Oceana, an ocean conservation group, began reporting findings from its ongoing seafood labeling investigations. In July, Oceana found that nearly one third of 60 South Florida restaurants had mislabeled their seafood. In Los Angeles, Oceana found 55 percent of seafood had been mislabeled and in Boston, almost half (48 percent) had been mislabeled. Of 76 fish samples collected from 58 restaurants, 76 percent of samples had been mislabeled. When working with the Monterey County Weekly, Oceana also found that 7 out of 19 seafood samples (36 percent) were incorrectly identified. MORE
You probably did not have to think about your answer for more than a moment: Whether yes or no, you likely responded to a gut feeling (if you’ll excuse the phrase). On the ground, most of us identify works of art with our own variations of the famous Supreme Court stance on obscenity—I know it when I see it. But try to expand your instinctive response into an argument, as William Deresiewicz did in American Scholar last week, and you’ll find yourself on shakier ground. For good reason: That tiny word, art, has launched a thousand volumes theorizing what can or should go by its name. To mine a few treatises on the subject: Should art teach and guide, or exist without purpose and for its own sake? Should looking at art feel violently awakening or pleasantly contemplative? Does the finest art refer to larger stories and ideas or nothing beyond its own composition? Deresiewicz makes his case that food is not art on the premise that art must be narrative or at least symbolic—which would also designate Imagist poetry, abstract expressionism, and numerous musical compositions as mere craftmanship. It’s a good illustration that without a solid defense of what art is, any judgment about what art isn’t will be unsound.
But integrity of argument aside: “Is food art?” is the wrong question to ask.
Is there any wine that intimidates more than Bordeaux? Even among friends of mine who are serious wine drinkers, Bordeaux feels like the schoolyard bully that no one wants to stand up to.
“I am totally totally intimidated by Bordeaux wines,” sheepishly admitted one friend, a woman who feels totally at ease with wines as obscure as Spanish mencía or teroldego from northern Italy or vranec from the Republic of Macedonia. “I walk past that shelf in the store and all the Bordeaux bottles look exactly the same. Same colors, same scripty fonts, same gold leaf, same illustration of the damn chateau. It’s always Château du Something Something. Château du Blah Blah Blah. Château du Frenchy French. How do I even know where to begin?” MORE
At an early age, I learned that the best way to get out of the endless cleaning and dish-washing activities that accompany the Thanksgiving holiday is to help my mom in the kitchen. Each year, from Wednesday until Thursday evening, I am her prep cook, her errand runner, and her preserver of sanity. Over potato peeling, apple chopping, turkey basting, and some perfunctory wine sipping, my mom and I simply click. The conversation flows, punctuated only by her showing me, for perhaps the tenth time, how to properly roll out a pie crust, and by me reminding her, for the hundredth time, that she needs to relax. Beyond the company and holiday cheer, cooking with my mom is what makes Thanksgiving special. MORE
“That’s kinda gross,” said one of my students, a young woman who’d come to class on Halloween dressed as a bottle of malbec (“vintage 1990”).
I’d just rubbed my thumb across the chalkboard and licked it, in a vain attempt to explain what I meant by the “chalky” finish of the Sancerre we had just tasted—this in comparison to the grapefruit-and-cat-pee New Zealand sauvignon blanc we were also tasting.
“Cat pee? Ew,” said Malbec’s roommate, who was dressed as a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and who’d previously told me that she’d bought Cupcake Vineyards’ Red Velvet wine because she was “excited to know if it would actually taste like a red velvet cupcake.”
As we tasted our next two wines, someone stopped me when I’d inadvertently used the au courant wine-geek term “minerality” to describe the Chablis we tasted in comparison to the Napa Valley chardonnay. MORE
Back in June, McSweeney’s ran “An Open Letter to People Who Take Pictures Of Food With Instagram.” The letter was not a supportive one. It echoed the sentiments of many an internet rant zone, where folks often complain about their friends (or “Friends”) who can’t go five minutes without tweeting what they’re eating.
Similarly, BuzzFeed’s “Why Instagram is Easily the Most Annoying App” is nothing more than slide after slide of DIY food shots with pissed-off commentary like “Thanks for making pizza look like herpes.”
“What happened to everyone complaining about how much they have to do today? Or the posting of emotionally ambiguous song lyrics?” reads the Open Letter. And later on: “. . . I really, truly, absolutely, do not care about you or your food.”
A few months ago, Garth Weldon made a tough call. As the managing partner at Philadelphia’s The Prime Rib, he saw rising beef prices eating up his already narrow margins. He tried to cut back everywhere he could, but ultimately he did what restaurateurs hate to do: he raised prices. The full prime rib went from $49 to $53, and the restaurant’s annual “15 for 15” promotion, where customers could get 15 ounces of prime rib for $15, went up by $5 to become “15 for 20.”
And that was before the Midwest drought.
Now, after the drought has decimated the corn crop used to feed most of the US beef supply, the United States Department of Agriculture is predicting beef prices will rise by at least 5 percent next year. For steakhouses like The Prime Rib, that means even more overhead, which means another menu price hike could loom on the horizon.
“Restaurateurs are always reluctant to raise prices,” Weldon says, “but you have to.” MORE
The way most chefs, restaurateurs, servers, and food writers talk about it, you’d think that Yelp is a secret society more powerful than the Masons, a malevolent cabal that can render a business insolvent, a chef and his family homeless, at the click of a mouse.
In reality, Yelp is an online community where anyone can write about their experiences with a restaurant or a wide array of other businesses. In fact, I’m a “Yelper” with a single online review to my credit. (It’s about a cleaning service.)
A new study published in the Economic Journal found that restaurants in San Francisco with higher star ratings on Yelp are more likely to be full during peak dining hours than those with a lower rating. This has been widely interpreted as evidence that Yelp has a major impact on the restaurant’s bottom line. The researchers (economics professors, not culinary experts) compared restaurants that they deemed the same in terms of quality but differed by a half-star on Yelp and made inferences about the impact of the review from there. There’s an outside chance that they may be correct, but the more likely explanation is simply that the higher rated Yelp restaurants are actually better. For example: Modo Mio is probably busier than August BYOB. Is it the additional half star on Yelp that makes the difference or is Modo Mio just the better, more interesting restaurant? I’m pretty sure Modo Mio would be busier if there were no Yelp at all. MORE
When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gave the keynote address at the National Soda Summit this summer, he seemed like a natural choice to rail against the public health risks of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sodas have been the bête noire in his fight against Philadelphia’s obesity problem. He has tried and failed twice to pass a soda tax, which would add two cents per ounce to the cost of sweetened beverages. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his administration has launched a campaign to reduce soda consumption and encourage healthier behaviors. In a city where 63 percent of residents are overweight or obese, Mayor Nutter has made it clear: Big Soda is enemy number one.
Until the soda summit, however, the mayor had been tight-lipped on the idea of regulating soda consumption directly. But his speech in Washington raised a few eyebrows here at home. In discussing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s so-called soda ban, which, if passed as expected next month, will prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, Mayor Nutter praised Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. MORE