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Archives for Food Culture

Fighting What You Eat: The Diet Cong

Apr
24
2009

I have a client, a wealthy woman in her 60s, who has celiac disease. This means gluten – a primary protein in anything involving wheat flour as well as a few other foods – makes her ill by disrupting her intestine’s ability to process not just gluten but anything she eats. It’s a serious disease although its effects are mild in some people. I cater three or four dinner parties for her every summer and those meals must not only be gluten-free but indistinguishably gluten free. In other words, it should never occur to anyone eating it – even a nutritionist – that the meal specifically avoids bread, pasta, couscous (a form of pasta), cakes, and similar dishes. She has good cause for being suspicious of food.

At one time I had another client who claimed she was allergic to MSG, but she relished dishes including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, steaks, and mushrooms – all of which have relatively-high levels of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG). She was clearly mistaken about her “allergy,” but she avoided Chinese restaurants.

I’ve had many clients who were on weight-loss diets such as South Beach, Ornish, and Mediterranean. I’ve done high protein/low-carb, carb-intensive/low fat, and mostly veggies with lots of olive oil. As a rule I charge clients more for cooking to a diet book because of the extra effort involved in adhering to an essentially arbitrary set of rules. I’ve never been asked to do a bacon or butter diet, but that’s my dream – I might offer a discount in that case.

I’ve been on several diets myself including some of the famous ones and lost 50 pounds once and 80 pounds twice. My conclusion is that most of them are either hog-wash or they’re thinly disguised versions of the standard advice: eat less and exercise more. If you want pasta, eat pasta, but less of it. If you want bacon, eat bacon, but don’t eat it often. Think of your body as a machine and adapt your energy input to your energy output. This is basic science, verified over 100s of years. But the current funky diet “theory” isn’t even “theory” in the scientific sense – it’s a guess based on hopeful correlations, if that.

Matching caloric input to output always works and it’s generally healthy if you’re careful to eat a balanced diet. But it requires discipline – not only while you’re losing weight but after you’ve lost it. It’s that last bit that’s the real kicker.

After striving for six months or a year to lose weight and succeeding you’re naturally going to begin eating more – after all, you don’t want to keep losing weight. But to relax the discipline just some is incredibly hard. That first brownie in six months tastes even better than you remembered and stopping at Burger King this once won’t hurt. Which is why the standard advice is best: don’t try to lose weight, change your fundamental eating habits.

Yeah. Right. But we eat the way we do because it gives us pleasure and it does so because we’ve evolved to derive pleasure from eating: all animals have. We have taste buds so we can distinguish good food from bad food. Specifically we have chemical receptors on our tongues that detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory flavors (the savory taste, by the way is – literally – MSG). Tastes combined with our sense of smell provide us with a highly nuanced means of finding calories and nutrients while avoiding poisons. This evolution continues. At one time most humans lost the ability to digest lactose by the time they were two or three years old and, today, most Asians still lack this ability. But beginning about 10,000 years ago some groups of humans began evolving the ability to digest lactose on into adulthood so most Caucasians like milk – and cheese! – and most Asians don’t.

Then there’s the whole issue of socialization, some of which is cultural and some of which is individual. For example, at one time the Japanese referred to Koreans as “garlic-eaters,” a term of opprobriation because the Japanese didn’t think civilized people ate garlic. On a personal level, some people think I’m nuts for liking Humboldt Fog, a butt-ugly but fairly mild cheese. However, my parents taught me there are 1,000s of excellent cheeses all worth trying while others never offered their kids anything more complex than Kraft Singles.

That’s why most diet ideas are at best nonsense and at worst harmful; we’ve evolved biologically, culturally, and personally to like food and particularly to like those foods with the highest number of calories so for many of us, losing weight is hard and keeping it off is far harder. We’re fighting a guerilla war against our own bodies and if our bodies win the war our bodies lose the war.

We would like to think that simply exercising our will is sufficient just as our government thought that simply bringing greater resources to bear against the Viet Cong was sufficient and would win that war. But just as the Viet Cong owned and understood the territory in Vietnam, our biology owns and understands our bodies – our willpower is a Johnny-come-lately in this contest. Which is why I’m not sure the diet war is any more winnable than that more traditional conflict 60 years ago was.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Myth of Sustainability

Mar
23
2009

When foodies use the word “sustainable” they typically mean a system that doesn’t require outside inputs – no chemical fertilizer or herbicides, no purchased feed for livestock, and only water that falls from the sky or flows on the surface. In other words everything needed to produce vegetables, fruit, and meat over the long term is either already available (water, for instance) or can be produced (manure fertilizer) on location.

This a wonderfully pleasant, bucolic idea that takes many proponents back to a distant time when farming was less of a business and more of a way of life. But before you write it off as hopelessly romantic and idealistic you should know that a number of studies have found that such operations are capable of at least equaling the calories-per-acre production of state-of-the-art industrial farming operations. There are, however, a couple of caveats.

First, the successful farms are located in areas sporting both plenty of clean water and rich soil. Second, the farmers running these operations devote far more time and effort to their farms than the average mega- or even mid-size farmer does. It takes a lot of data collection, analysis, and planning to achieve such yields without external inputs. Add in the actual physical labor and farmers such as the Salatins, who Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, work far harder than almost anyone else in our economy. Only someone who truly loves farming would invest the effort required.

The hard work quotient is just the first road block to nationwide sustainable agriculture – the utopia many foodies dream of when they think of the future of farming. There’s also the issue of arable land. Large swaths of this country, even those that provide much of our produce, are incapable of self-sufficient agriculture. A significant percentage of the fruits and vegetables in this country come from the Central Valley of California – an area that relies on water piped in from Northern California. Arizona and New Mexico are also major producers and their climate makes Southern California look like rain forest. With irrigation these areas produce almost enough vegetables to feed the nation – and the do so year round.

Obviously the western mountain chains (and large areas of the eastern mountains) are incapable of supporting more than subsistence farming. Additionally the vicinity of major metropolitan areas (think NYC, Chicago, Boston, and so on) means a lot of potential farmland is already in use and what land is available is too expensive for agricultural uses.

Government policies also impede sustainability by encouraging mono-cultural (one crop) agriculture via direct and indirect subsidies and by excluding farms from laws regulating air and water pollution. For instance, any sane policy would prohibit the manure lagoons produced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) rather than giving them an exclusion from environmental laws.

Finally, it’s worth noting that with the exception of sunlight the Earth is a closed system – meaning we aren’t the only ones affected by our decisions and the decisions of others will inevitably affect us. In other words, although thinking about sustainability within the borders of the United States is a valid starting point, sustainability eventually must be considered globally. And, given that the Earth is a closed system, we must think about sustainability.

The initial practical answer probably isn’t the farm described in the first paragraph. Instead the answer is semi-sustainability; a reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and herbicides, a greater effort to prevent the loss of topsoil, the development of drought-resistant plants – perhaps even using genetic engineering. And it’s livestock breeding and ranching methods that don’t require antibiotics to prevent disease.

We need to keep in mind that, however appealing it may be, a system of agriculture that fed 77 million people in 1900 – the model that today’s sustainability proponents harken back to – won’t feed the 304 million people alive today. Furthermore, the current system can’t be scaled up to support even twice the current population.

That brings us to the biggest obstacle to sustainable agriculture – even a modified, more realistic, less pure agriculture – our eating habits. We need eat far less meat than we do now because our meat-eating habits simply aren’t sustainable. We need to quit throwing household organic waste into landfills and instead turn it into fertilizer (composting on a grand scale). And lastly, we need to care enough about the issues to express our opinion.

Sure, write your Congress-person. But if you educate yourself on the topics and just talk about it when the subject comes up you’ll have as much effect as writing a letter or planting a garden on the White House lawn. And eliminating meat one day a week will reduce your carbon footprint more than almost anything else you can do.

In fact, just giving a damn at all can make a difference eventually.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

St. Valentine Prep: Aphrodisia

Feb
9
2009

Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me. ~ Sarah Bernhardt

It’s nearly St. Valentine’s Day when a young chef’s thoughts turn fondly to foods that will spike the libido. In fact, Valentine’s Day is one of the two biggest days of the year for restaurants (the other being Mothers’ Day). If you’re planning on going out to dinner next Saturday and haven’t made reservations yet, it may be too late. Personally I prefer the intimacy of preparing (or sharing preparation) with my loved one. Then pile the dishes in the sink, toss a towel over them, and settle in for an evening for two.

It’s not surprising that we associate food with love. Eating is second only to sex in it’s sensuality, because like sex it involves our senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight. That being the case, it’s not surprising that over the centuries humans have turned to various foods to arouse and stimulate. The Romans considered asparagus and eggs to be aphrodisiacs (separately, not together).

For the most part, reputed aphrodisiacs fall into one of three categories of magic. The first group are what you might term spiritual aphrodisiacs. By eating a Tiger’s penis you take on the strength and virility of the tiger, the same applies to eating a pig’s testicles.

The second group are associative, the Aztecs associated chocolate with the fertility goddess, Xochiquetzal and the Greeks considered sparrows to be stimulating because they were favorites of the goddess Aphrodite (the root the word “aphrodisiac”).

But by far the most common aphrodisiacs are forms of sympathetic magic – foods presumed to have an effect because of their resemblance to human sex organs. Oysters, figs, strawberries, peaches, and epithelial orchids are all said to resemble female genitalia (you have to slice the fruit open to get the effect).

On the male side, I mentioned asparagus above as a symbol of the phallus, but in that same category also fall leeks, carrots, ginseng, bananas, and parsnips. Avocados are said to resemble testicles – in fact the name “avocado” comes from the name of the tree, Ahuacuatl, which means “testicle tree.” Nutmeg falls into this same category.

There are a few genuine aphrodisiacs. Testosterone affects the libido of both men and women. Anything that increases dopamine levels increases libido – cocaine falls into this category. Chocolate contains caffeine, a stimulant, and phenylethylamine, which does have a mild libidinal effect, as well as theobromine, which affects the pleasure centers by emulating serotonin.

So, if you’re planning on cooking your own romantic dinner this Valentine’s Day, here are a few suggestions from my cooking and recipe site, Seriously Good. Bon Apetit!

Oysters Shooter
Rack of Lamb
Glazed Carrots with Mint and Lemon
Leeks with Anchovy Butter
Pots de Crème

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 11:10 AM | Permalink

Politics as Usual?

Jan
19
2009

It appears that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack will be our next Secretary of Agriculture. By all accounts, the choice is as carefully considered, intelligent, and unimaginative as President Barack Obama’s other cabinet appointments. When naming him Obama said, “As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.” The food community has responded with thunderous, “meh.” – “big f-ing deal.”

Personally I think our new president is doing fine in his cabinet choices. I think they reflect his awareness of his own lack of experience at the national level and the need to put together a team that knows the ins and outs of the beltway. I don’t think he’ll be anyone’s bitch (unlike his predecessor) and while he will listen to counsel he won’t be ruled by it.

Still, Vilsack isn’t a tremendously exciting choice. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition back on December 18, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) said, “I was very disappointed in that news conference not to hear Vilsack use the word ‘food’ – or ‘eaters.’ And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land.”

Nevertheless, Vilsack, like his fellow appointees does seem able to consider issues outside of the mainstream. Not so much the senators who held hearing on his appointment, most of whom made the usual gestures of support for their primary campaign contributors and they interviewed the nominee. That’s fine, it really is the senators’ job to support those they consider their constituents. But Pat Roberts of Kansas really put his foot in the manure by dissing “small family farmers.” In his remarks he claimed:

“That small family farmer is about 5′2″…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.”

Kansas is a major corn producer – meaning Big Ag mega-farms. These industrial food companies make large campaign contributions to senators like Roberts, who received more than $400,000 of the roughly $6 million he raised in this campaign cycle from agribusiness, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog outfit. Small producers can’t afford these sort of contributions and it’s the little guys that need help. And – judging from some of the names being bandied about for other high-level jobs in the Department of Agriculture – small farmers may once again get left out.

For example, Joy Philippi is reportedly being considered for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Philippi spent two years as president of the National Pork Producers Council, an industry lobbying group. During her tenure there she argued strongly against applying pollution regulations to the huge manure ponds produced by industrial pig farms. In fact, she’s pretty much against any limits on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feed Operations). Another name that’s come up in conjunction with the USDA is Dennis Wolfe. Wolfe is a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture where he did his level best to prevent milk producers from informing customers that they weren’t dosing their dairy cows with artificial hormones.

In short, while Vilsack is maybe not so bad, the lower ranks may well be turned over to people closely associated with Big Ag. It’s not all that different from Bush loading up the Energy Department with coal executives.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Ethics of Eating Meat

Jan
12
2009

This is the season for predicting trends for the coming year. Often when these predictions come to pass, they’re more fads than trends but there is one a growing school of thought that you may be vaguely aware of but which I think is at about the point the organic food trend was six years ago: humane meat production.

This trend toward humanely-raised meat tends to get tossed into the whole organic food thing and that’s certainly where its roots were, but I think the motivations for it have diverged and will continue to do so.

Most people choose to eat organically because they consider it a healthier alternative to produce doused with herbicides and grown in soil that’s adulterated with petroleum-based fertilizers. A few also like the fact that “organic” just seems better for the planet. And lot of folks started seeking out organic meat for the same reasons. But even vegetarians don’t form emotional bonds with their broccoli. Meat-eaters, on the other hand, can imagine a bond of some sort with a steer or even a pig. Remember the pot-bellied-pig-as-pet fad a few years back?

This identification with animals means that thoughtful meat-eaters must find a philosophical basis for their choice. In The River Cottage Meat Book, English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to the issue frequently in the book’s 500 pages. My friend, Chef Bob del Grosso (a professional charcutiere) addresses it often in his blog, A Hunger Artist. Our relationship to the meat we cook and eat is becoming more and more a subject of discussion among food professionals and foodies.

When I was growing up my mother would often invite her students from at the University of Tennessee out for a day of horseback riding and dinner. It never failed to freak the new ones out when we’d sit down to a plate of beef stew and compare how tough the meat from Brown Cow was compared to Mayberry. The concept of eating an animal with a name was hard to get past for many of our guests. And back then most of us were closer to our source of meat than most of are today. So how do you justify eating a steak that had a name, or even, as in the case of Mayberry, whose birth you’d been part of?

Some (the less-thoughtful, I would assert) believe we have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Even many non-religious folks embrace this fundamental right to do as they please with non-human species. To me, that’s a phenomenally arrogant attitude – an example of supreme hubris.

My take is that I too am animal, different in ability but not in kind, from cows, sheep, lions, dogs, chimpanzees, and pigs. Cows and sheep evolved to eat grass, lions and dogs to eat cows and sheep, and baboons and pigs to eat grass and cows. I’m no more obligated by any absolute moral stricture to avoid meat than a lion or pig.

But I have different abilities from my fellow animals and two of them appear to be a more general sense of empathy and the capability to apply that empathy to abstract concepts such as ethical behavior.

The cattle we raised and ate when I was growing up lived good lives. They had plenty to eat and plenty of choice (given the opportunity cows will eat spring twigs, sassafras bark, and other things one might not expect). When the time came to butcher an animal it was prodded gently (more or less, cows are big and stubborn) into a truck, hauled to the meat processor, painlessly killed, and converted to steaks, roasts, and hamburger.

Did the cow’s life end early? Compared to what? Animals in the wild constantly face predation and being eaten alive by a lion can’t be much fun. Parasitic disease is far more common among wild animals than domestic animals raised on pasture and winters are brutal. Even though our cattle spent the entire winter outside we never lost one due to weather because they were uniformly healthy and were fed hay all winter. They had a good life and no being knows when it will die.

The majority of animals destined for supermarkets aren’t so lucky. A side effect of breeding lean pigs is a linked gene that promotes aggression – so industrial pigs have their tails unceremoniously cut off as piglets. Industrial chickens have their beaks cut off. Both live on a wire mesh floor that allows their waste to drop through to a holding area – they may not be laying directly in their waste (as industrial cattle do) but they can’t escape it either. A few months ago, in “No Prevention, No Cure” I linked to a video showing sick cows being abused with fire-hoses and forklifts at a commercial processing plant. This is probably more common than many of us would like to think.

Pigs and chickens and cows aren’t human and anthropomorphizing them diminishes rather than enhances their dignity. But they are my fellows on this planet and as such are entitled to respect. And so as part of my New Year’s resolution, I make at 25-mile round trip to buy some meat and plan to continue doing. I’ve seen Tracy Monday’s farm and it reminds me of where I grew up. And if I were one of his cows, I’d be tempted to trade a short good life his farm a longer but miserable existence.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:04 AM | Permalink

Resolved: To Eat, Cook Enjoy With Care

Jan
5
2009

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, for most of us they’re empty promises just waiting to be broken by the second or third week of January. That’s because resolutions are usually negative – especially the food-related resolutions:

I will lose 20 pounds (eat less)
I will cut down on diet Cokes (deny myself that pleasure)
I will eat more healthily (avoid the foods I like best)

ChampagneBah! In modern American culture food is an enemy, it’s something we loath ourselves for enjoying and under a mistakenly puritanical impulse attempt to deny ourselves to somehow become more pure and deserving. I’m not saying we should overdue the ice cream before bed or eat a bag of pork rinds every day. But denying yourself is just begging for failure.

In that spirit, since I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions, I do have a few some food-related things I’d like to do this year – all positive.

Charcuterie: A couple of years ago I devoted some effort to learning to preserve meat, making pork and duck confit, sausages, corning a beef brisket, and so on. It was great fun, I got some marvelous treats from my efforts. I got to share this with friends and family and I learned a hell of a lot. Last year I ended up focused on writing and concentrating on making foods that I thought would interest a larger audience than my efforts to create a lamb sausage recipe. Enough of that! It’s back to the meat market this year and learning to make some dried sausages like salami and Spanish chorizo.

Cheese: I’ve been meaning to learn to make cheese for ages. My ambitions aren’t large, I’m not talking about 2-year-old aged cheddar or raclette. But I have access to cow, goat, and sheep milk – both pasteurized and un-pasteurized. I can make some fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, mascarpone, and farmer’s cheese. The trick to this effort (and the next step in my charcuterie) is getting a wine refrigerator to age the cheese and sausages in since a wine fridge gives control over both temp and humidity, which is essential.

Meat & Beans: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not as conscientious about buying meat from my local farmers as I wish I were. One reason is that, unlike the supermarket, I can’t decide I want a pork shoulder Friday morning and pick one up from Tracy the rancher that afternoon. There’s a convenience factor, in other words. There’s also cost. Meat that was well-cared for before it became meat is more expensive than the stuff at the supermarket. And part of it is I really eat too much meat.

I love meat. But I want to learn to appreciate it more than I do. Getting back into charcuterie is one way of doing that, but so is learning to use meat as a less central ingredient in meals. On the flip side, I’m not a big fan of dried beans, and yet some of my favorite recipes feature beans with a bit of meat for flavoring. So I’m planning to devote more effort to exploring this mixture. And it has the added benefit of being cheap. Win/win/win!

Ice Cream: Like dried beans, I’m not a big ice cream fan. But late last summer I got a Cuisinart ice cream maker on sale, and this summer I’m going to give it a workout. The truth is I do love fruit desserts and I enjoy both sorbets/sherbet and granitas. So I’ll get a copy of Dave Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop and add ice cream to my cooking repertoire. I think that’s a noble ambition.

Food isn’t an enemy – something to be shunned and denied – it’s one of the great pleasures in life. After touch, taste is the most sensual of our senses, a sense closely tied to our pleasure centers. So my goal, this coming year, is to enhance that pleasure not by over-indulging, but by indulging with thought, deliberation, and care.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Traditions, Again

Nov
24
2008

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but I’ve been concentrating on Christmas for over a week.

It isn’t that I’m particularly enamored of Christmas, in fact I prefer T’day, but even as a cook and a writer and a food writer I have to plan for holidays. I had to create, test, and write up Thanksgiving recipes for my CookingforTwo site back in early October and I’m finishing off Christmas now. I also have to consider my blog, Seriously Good, and how it relates to the holidays. Then there’s my work as a consultant with ChefsLine, and this column.

RecipeEven as a kid Thanksgiving was the beginning of Christmas for me, as it is for so many families. For us it wasn’t a mad battle with traffic and shoppers on the day after, but rather preparing the first three items in our Christmas feast: Eggnog, Fruitcake, and Bourbon Cake.

One of my earliest memories is of standing beside my father in the kitchen as he made his eggnog base of eggs, whiskey, and sugar. I must have been six or seven at the time, because I remember the silvery bowl was almost as big as I was. The bowl shrank over the years, as I grew, but in the beginning it was huge. I also clearly remember the tintinnabulation of the metal beaters against the metal bowl.

The base, once made, was poured into a small, antique, terracotta butter churn, covered with cheesecloth, and placed at the back of the pantry to age and mellow. On Christmas Eve my father would mix a portion of the base with whipped cream and we would have a toast – even we kids were permitted a small punch glass of ‘nog although, of course, these days my parents would likely end up in jail if anyone found out.

Dad also made the fruitcake on Thanksgiving weekend. It was actually a pretty good fruitcake as such things go. But when it came down to it everyone, except possibly my father, preferred the Bourbon Cake my mother made that same weekend.

The Bourbon Cake was passed down from her mother and my guess is the recipe is at least 100 years old. It could well be older. It’s a dense butter cake with raisins, nuts, and spices and like Dad’s eggnog and fruitcake it ages for a month and gets a weekly dose of bourbon. As children we were permitted a small slice, as adults we limit ourselves to a small slice: It’s that rich and that alcoholic.

The Bourbon Cake has become too much work for my mother. The batter is thick and heavy and she no longer has the strength, suppleness, or stamina to make it: I’ve inherited that task (made much easier with a stand mixer) and this coming weekend I’ll be making the cake using my mother stained note card. Between now and Christmas, I’ll carefully tend the cake, providing weekly does of bourbon, before finally cutting it into sixths and mailing the huge slices to my family and, if she’s lucky, my editor.

I’ve made Dad’s eggnog on occasion, but he also continues to make it sometimes so eggnog at Christmas is less predictable but always welcome. As for Dad’s fruitcake… well it’s gone if not forgotten.

Our traditions link us to each other and the past we share with our family, our friends, our ancestors, our culture. Whether those traditions are religious or sectarian, familial or cultural, they provide context for our lives and a framework for defining our selves. The acquisition of new traditions , the modification of those we know and love connects us to our current reality.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Girl’s Night Out

Nov
10
2008

By the time I got to Sonoma it was dark and drizzling rain – a really unpleasant December evening. I had printed out a map and directions to my bed and breakfast from MapQuest but for the first (and only) time MapQuest had it wrong and for the life of me I couldn’t find the place and no place I stopped and asked for directions recognized the street. Finally I spotted a UPS truck, followed him to his next stop, and then asked the driver for help. He knew the place and I arrived there about 7:00 PM, two hours late.

I tried the front door – locked – and as I left I mis-stepped on the dark, slippery, wooden stairs and fell heavily on my thigh and butt. Limping around the building I couldn’t get in the backdoor either. Finally, I checked an out-building with a light where I found a note to me and keys. I got to my room sore, tired, and soaking wet. It was now 8:00 and I was starving. I drove into the center of town and looked for a place to eat, getting wet – again – as I wandered the town square.

I finally settled on a place named The Girl and the Fig. I recall the hostess was a large woman and the place was packed on a Tuesday night. I wearily requested a table for one. She looked me up and down, told me a table would be about 30 minutes, and commented that I didn’t look happy. So I recounted my tale of woe. She escorted me to the bar and told the bartender to serve me a drink on the house. Five minutes later she came back and directed me to an empty stool. Fifteen minutes later I was at a table nursing a second free single-malt scotch while I looked over the menu.

On the waitress’s recommendation I ordered a braised lamb shank, which was served with Baby Artichoke Gratin and polenta – she also suggested a Zinfandel to wash it down. Service was impeccable, the food perfectly prepared, and the hostess stopped by once to check on me. My horrible night had been transformed. As I left I asked the hostess, “Are you the Girl?” She was.

The Girl and the Fig is an example of why I so seldom eat out. It was a stellar experience. Few restaurant meals are even good.

I ate there twice more while I was living in California. There was no pretense – ever. The food was simply prepared and yet offered complex flavors, the sort of stuff that can hold up well on a busy night when service slowed. The wait-staff was completely professional and if the tables were somewhat tightly packed, that’s typical of a brasserie. That evening has remained in my mind as the quintessential restaurant experience.

The small town of Maryville about 10 miles south of Knoxville has an excellent restaurant named the Foothills Milling Company. Again, the food is well-thought-out and well-executed, the service unobstrusive, and the price appropriate to the experience. You see, eating out is a combination of fact – the food and service – and ambiance – the promise realized or not, of comfort. And I would be deeply disappointed if I had a meal at a renowned restaurant like Alinea or Per Se that I could have gotten at The Girl or Foothills Milling, Three-star restaurants (and their reviews) promise a great deal more. But I’m constantly astounded at how many restaurants make much smaller promises than the three-star joints make and still can’t even hit the low bar they’ve set.

One of the last restaurants I visited was horrible. The chairs were uncomfortable, the wait-staff by turns overly familiar or missing, the décor was pretentious without being appealing, and – sin of sins – the food poorly thought out and badly executed. The very the last place where I ate out was in a concrete-block building serving basic southern fare (collard greens, barbeque, cornbread, and so on) served buffet-style on paper plates with plastic utensils. The food wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad either. It was honest, like The Girl and the Fig, and while I wouldn’t go back to it, I wasn’t disappointed.

A couple of days ago I called and spoke to The Girl and The Fig’s owner, Sondra Bernstein, for the first time since my first visit. I told her my story and we chatted a bit. She opened a new restaurant, The Estate, this fall. It’s Italian-American rather than French-American and apparently more upscale than The Girl and the Fig, but as we talked it was clearly a place I wanted to try because with every word she reminded me of my most beloved meals in Italy.

Sondra isn’t a chef. By training she’s an artist and she got involved in the business as a waitress, but she understands food and the way it connects us to the world. If that means spending a few minutes caring for a bruised stranger, understanding a cuisine’s fundamental strengths, or celebrating a location’s beauty – it’s all part of the role good eating plays in our lives. So find the Girls near you, and help them succeed.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:08 AM | Permalink

Politics on Wry

Nov
3
2008

Today , Nov. 3 is the birthday of Lord John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and, reputedly, the inventor of the sandwich. In point of fact, sandwiches were likely invented the day after bread was invented, nevertheless there is a good chance that Montague is the namesake of the portable delight we’ve all enjoyed at one time or another.

The story goes that the earl was gambling and to avoid having to stop and eat he ordered that he be brought a slice of meat between two slices of bread. His fellow aristocrats were impressed with his dedication to losing farthings and the Sandwich idea quickly spread among the upper-crust before trickling down to the masses – thus proving Ronald Regan’s economic thesis when it comes to mustard.

As a sandwich-lover from way back, I always celebrate the earl’s birthday with a carefully planned sandwich, but this year I thought it might be fun to consider what sort of sandwich the presidential candidates might choose. The easy one and first to occur to me was Sarah Palin, the “real” American. I suspect it would be a grilled cheese sandwich consisting of margarine, a Kraft Single, and Wonder bread demonstrating a complete lack of sophistication, experience, and judgment in food as in other matters. This is not to put down the grilled cheese sandwich, which can be extraordinary when made well using, er, real ingredients.

Palin’s running mate provided a greater challenge. Arizona is far better known for it’s Southwestern cuisine than for sandwiches. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Phoenix and never had a sandwich there worth remembering. But Sen. John McCain is a conservative and, at one time, the conservative motivation was more about preserving the past (or, at least, slowing and controlling change) than about promoting fundamentalist Christian teachings or giving tax cuts to the wealthy. Since in the past, Arizona was part of Mexico I elected to be generous and define the fajita as a sandwich – after all, it is a filling wrapped in bread. So what if the bread is flat?

Moving on to Sen. Joe Biden, as best I could determine Scranton, Pennsylvania – unlike Philadelphia with its cheese-steak – doesn’t have a unique sandwich. So I called Biden’s office in Wilmington, Del. Odd thing, politics. I knew Biden was from Scranton, I knew his political reputation and a fair bit of his history in the Senate, but somehow it had never registered on me that he represented Delaware and not Pennsylvania. Anyway, the person I talked to (who wished to remain anonymous when discussing the Senator’s sandwich proclivities) dug up his schedule, called the campaign, and reported that Joe’s favorite sandwich is a “turkey and Swiss with tomato on wheat.” I asked about his position on condiments, specifically raising the issue of mustard and mayonnaise, but she claimed she didn’t know. Cover-up? You be the judge.

Barack Obama posed the biggest problem because of the cultural wealth of his background: Indonesia, Kansas, Hawaii, and Chicago. For instance, I found a couple of Indonesian sandwiches, the Nama Nama and the Variasi, but I couldn’t find English descriptions of them. Kansas took me the Palin direction and, having already been there, I didn’t want to return. Hawaii: James Cook the first European to find the Hawaiian Islands named them the Sandwich Islands and they were, in fact, named in honor of John Montague – this could hardly be a coincidence! But again, there was a dearth of sandwichs associated with the islands and so I was left with Chicago.

Chicago loves sandwiches and is famous for it’s hot dogs. These are distinguished from other dogs by being a steamed or boiled all-beef tube on a poppy seed bun. The dog is topped with mustard, onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, peppers, and a dash of celery salt. Ketchup is prohibited. Chicago also serves other sausage-based sandwiches, but perhaps it’s greatest claim to sandwich fame – at least according to my friends – is the Italian Beef sandwich.

This is made of thinly-sliced, seasoned roast beef that’s then kept warm au jus. The meat is spooned onto a hoagie-style bun (often the bun is briefly dipped in the jus) and topped with giardiniera or sauteed sweet bell peppers. It’s one of those sandwiches that requires “assuming the stance” (standing, legs spread, leaning forward from the hips, elbows akimbo) to eat without spilling everything down the front of your clothes.

It sounds like an excellent sandwich and I’m sure Obama has eaten many of these while organizing communities. Hell, I’d organize a community for one.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Eating Oil

Oct
27
2008

On October 12 Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food took over the New York Times Magazine for his polemic, “Farmer in Chief” framed as an open letter to the next president. Pollan writes: “what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food … focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.”

CornThe article is a tour de force of the problems facing the American and world food supply. Pollan begins with food prices but moves on to farm policy, climate change, economic policy, health care, energy policy, and diet. He does a masterful job of showing how these issues relate to and affect each other.

There is much with which I agree. Pollan notes: “Monoculture is the original sin of American Agriculture.” We have a system designed to produce the most possible calories of food for the least possible price – factory farms are the result of this policy. It began with Earl Butz during the Nixon administration when he completely revamped farm policy to encourage maximum production and instead of offering farmers insurance during hard times the government began actively subsidizing crops such as corn, soy beans, and rice. This meant that farmers could make a profit even when their costs of production exceeded the market price of the commodity.

The most obvious result of this policy are CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the increased use of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) in processing our food Both encourage obesity and both are based on the over-supply of corn due to subsidies. That’s corn. But there’s also oil. Another product of corn subsidies, Ethanol – possibly the first bio-fuel – is increasing the demand for corn and thus contributing to increases in food prices. And, as the cost of oil and natural gas increase so does the price of crops dependent on high levels of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, made in many cases from petroleum by-products.

Pollan’s point is that the next president needs to have a Food Policy, a set of principles and plans that account for how energy, health, economics, and diet relate to and influence each other. Pollan’s thesis is that a piecemeal approach to the issues makes things worse and the next president needs to use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to think more deeply about these issues and their interconnections. He even recommends turning part of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as Eleanor Roosevelt did during World War II.

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none. But that’s not really the point. Food issues, whether the issue of animal confinement being addressed by California’s Prop 2, or buying organic, or even entertainment in the form of the Food Network is becoming something more and more Americans care about.

We see this interest reflected in the media. For instance, we not only have a Food Network, but one of Bravo’s hits is “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel offers both “No Reservations” and “Bizaare Foods.” The cover story of the November 2008 issue of Wired is “The Future of Food.” And equally telling, two years ago Spot-On asked me to write this column – not a food and cooking how-to but instead about how food and cooking fit into and are reflected in our culture.

This increased interest in food is a good thing because we’re approaching a food crisis that will affect even those of us in the developed world. The more thought we give to the issues now the better prepared we’ll be when the crisis hits and we actually do something about it. As Pollan writes, “…most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.”

In other words: We need to quit eating oil.

——————–

Update: Apparently I was wrong when I wrote:

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none.

According to this article Obama read at least a synopsis.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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