Friday, May 27, 2005

night of the long knives

Sorry: rumors, demise, premature, &c. I managed to survive the purge at a certain well known food forum. I probably shouldn't say anything about it, but if you want a laugh, you could look up self-importance in the dictionary, or google

Our review has concluded that you do not support the Society and are not a member in good faith. More to the point, you have willfully hindered us in the pursuit of our goals and in so doing have reduced the benefits of membership for those individuals who are with us in good faith.

Nor have I been blinded by my own erection, massive though it is. Instead, I will now have "Going Blind" in my head for the entire weekend (the Melvins version because they were once on Boner Records, of course). Perhaps coincidentally, when we get to leave early before a holiday weekend, it's called "early release."

No, I was distracted by the Supreme Court's lame legalese in Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association [pdf], which hinges on the fact that the government can say whatever it wants, and make you pay for it. It is interesting, though, that a point made in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago that various USDA messages are contradictory, surfaces (irrelevantly) in Ginsburg's dissent, giving Nino an excuse to indulge his famous "sense" of "humor":

The beef promotions are perfectly compatible with the guidelines' message of moderate consumption -- the ads do not insist that beef is also What's for Breakfast, Lunch, and Midnight Snack.

While we were out, Plotz's barbecue odyssey finally took him somewhere worth going, namely Texas [obvs., the decision to go to Memphis instead of the Carolinas ruined the whole piece]. However, he missed the holy shrine of Luling City Market, an annoying simulacrum of which is discussed by Robb Walsh here. Of course, anyone who wants to read anything useful about Texas Barbecue should read Robb's book instead of some egghead Slater. Update: check out this Washington Post article from Monday for a taste of the the North Carolina barbecues.

Also, you wine people need to read this:

Without context, wine has no meaning.

And speaking of long knives, an article in BMJ that is apparently not intended to be a parody wants to ban them, because they might cut people. [Thanks muse!].

Monday, May 23, 2005


By my math, you either have to be stupid or a whore in order to write

[T]he sight of tourist buses idling in the parking lots at Urbino isn't comforting. But then, Urbino is the region's best-known city, and certainly its classiest, so one does have to acquiesce to sharing the streets with a certain amount of company.

for the New York Times Travel section. This ceaseless publicity about the ever-shrinking number of "unspoiled" "getaways" is like a massive logical black hole in the middle of the room that we've all agreed to ignore. Enough.

Although the Cod approves of Store Wars on the analogy of gateway drugs, I'm going to have to insist that industrial organic is better than just plain industrial only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. Look, industrial organic does serve a function, as I've explained at length elsewhere. But it's not going to save the galaxy, or really change much of anything, which is precisely what makes the metaphor facile. And it distracts people from real change.

On the other hand: mmmm, barbecue.


SCOTUS just ruled that the Beef Checkoff is constitutional. Bad.

In other news, Cal gave Ignacio Chapel tenure last week.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

I suppose I am expected to say something about Store Wars. Despite a congenital weakness for puns, the best I can muster is that the facile message is appropriate for anyone likely to be amused by this.

As long as I'm being a dick, memo to John Alban & co.: That's great (seriously), but let's work on faux Côtes du Rhône that normal people can enjoy instead of faux Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the rich people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The horror

If I had nightmares, they'd be like this:

At one point I found this anosmia web site where people posted messages like, 'There's more to food than flavor - there's still texture and color and temperature!' And that just seemed depressing, like, 'Ah, here's a red cube, and it's tepid, oh boy!'

They must be celebrating their new mayor or something, but every single article in today's LA Times is good. Read them all.

The Chron explains how to get your freeze on.

Headline of the day: Worker gave his finger to settle $50 debt, or Women to Deliver Food in Snug T - Shirts? Mmmm, toasty.

Peter Hertzmann has secrets, and he'll even tell you some.

Daisy Hernández visits the Tohono O'odham reservation to learn about Native American foods, and diabetes:

The nurse who called him at home to tell him the results of his medical exam asked, "Are you still alive, Mr. Johnson? Are you conscious?"

Eating local in Brighton:

If I have learnt anything this week, beyond the sheer wealth of flavour available in my own backyard, it is that everyday shopping choices matter enormously - not just in terms of the nebulous food mile, but in terms of their impact on the lives of those who work so hard and with whom we share space.

That, then, is the challenge. Fraternise your butcher, your baker, your goats'- cheese maker, and acquaint yourself with the local tart. Use your feet or your bicycle - and try not to spend quite as much money as I did.

A truly bizarre article about the meaning of hummus in Israel [via tfs]:

"This hummus is killing us in every sense," Halihal sums up. "I call for a hummus revolt. It could be the biggest revolt ever here. Finally everyone will really eat shit, and that is what will give the push for true peace and coexistence."

History: Babylonian chickpea delivery; historical culinary documents online; Home Economics Archive.

Regina still doesn't have permalinks, so I'm just going to have to quote her here:

Through his fawning coverage in 2000, this anything-but-the-food reviewer now ambling through restaurants helped elect the chimp responsible for a morass that has consumed more than $300 billion and killed more than 1,600 Americans and who knows how many Iraqis. The same trait that left him vulnerable to a dry drunk’s seduction is clearly at play in the restaurants of New York. Recognize him as Panchito and he’ll put his lips together and blow stars all over you.

Oh, and in case I was unclear: books without recipes are usually the only ones I want to read. I was just relatively uninspired by the examples given.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Real Bruni


Leonardo Bruni, historian, papal secretary, and Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, was smarter than your average Renaissance man. He had an admirably rigorous mind, and elegant Latin, and his History of the Florentine People remains more readable than most of the drivel you'll find at Barnes and Noble today, thanks to the excellent translation by James Hankins. His tomb is in Santa Croce, but he was born in Arezzo (then, of course, under the Florentine yoke).

Arezzo began as the Etruscan city Arretium, meaning unknown. So there is no connection between Leonardo Bruni Aretino and Cicer arietinum -- chick peas, so called for their ramlike seeds. But by further coincidence, ceci are an Arentine specialty.

Anyway, I cooked some the other day for nearly 24 hours, with nothing but onion and salt pork, and they are really good. Especially with boudin noir.

finger fingered

Chron: "The finger allegedly found in a bowl of Wendy's chili belongs to an acquaintance of the husband of Anna Ayala" [Thanks, J!].

Good causes, more or less. Slow Food in Schools ebay auction, New Farm's OPX.

CSAs in USA Today. Also see the Observer on "box schemes", in the local patois.

Clarification: of course, I should have said that the McGee and the Kurlansky are interesting, but they are old.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


More salmon crises in BC (logging) and on the Columbia (dams?). On the other hand, the year's first California King was nearly as delicious as I remembered it.

In his eagerness to piss off his readers, David Shaw appears to have conflated the deliciousness of the Neapolitan with that of the "Neapolitan" (i.e., east coast pizza). Not the same thing at all, why is why he doesn't know where to put his pepperoni. At least he doesn't indulge in the inexcusable boosterism of Chron's contribution to the subject.

Oh yeah: Bruni observed, digested, and savaged. For what it's worth, I thought the Chicago article was pretty good (notwithstanding the prose), and I love the emergency flight to Barcelona to avoid Adrià faux pas. Thanks Punch!


Nothing personal, but I find Regina's "serious" books largely uninspiring. Here's a review I wrote for Slow Food of Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (UC Press, 2004).

The ideology of organic food production, as Slow Food members are well aware, often draws on an arcadian image of the self-sufficient family farm. The American version of this agrarian imaginary came over with the English colonists, whose rhetoric of the patriarchal yeoman farm intensified as the way of life it glorified was eradicated by the industrial revolution. Its revival in the service of organic agriculture, with all its religious and historical baggage, is particularly anachronistic in the case of California, which, as Julie Guthman shows in her fascinating new book, never had an agrarian tradition.

Although she never says it explicitly, Guthman's powerful critique of the agrarian imaginary ultimately implies that the romanticized family farm is not sustainable. And she argues that there is nothing intrinsically unsustainable about large-scale farming. Her own numbers show that larger organic farms are in fact less sustainable (she rated 144 representative farms on a 5-point scale based on Miguel Altieri's Agroecology), but she insists that scale is not the determining factor. It is hard to say if either of these assertions is really true, but they are issues that we need to think about, and research, more clearly.

On top of this critique, Guthman throws in an extensive sociological survey of contemporary California organic farming, a history of the movement, and a persuasive economic analysis of the market forces that have shaped the movement. The paradox she identifies at the heart of organic farming is the way those market forces have reshaped organic farming in the image of agribusiness. But this is not a simplistic indictment of "industrial organic." Rather, Guthman shows how the inexorable logic of California real estate -- valued on the basis of "highest and best use" -- demands intense and ultimately unsustainable agricultural production.

The other half of the paradox is more complicated. By erecting barriers to entry to preserve their price premium -- in the form of the three year transitional period required to certify organic land -- Guthman believes that organic farmers have hindered a more widespread transition to sustainable agronomic practices. And they have re-created the rat race logic of market pricing in their own niche. Someone establishes a new crop (organic arrugula, say; a contemporary example is the "wild arrugula" that currently fetches $10/lb.), and rakes it in for a few years until the big guys get into the market and the bottom falls out. The effects on the organic market are more drastic because it is so much smaller than the conventional one.

I never figured out how Guthman would have us avoid the obviously destructive logic of this market cycle. She singles out the barriers to entry to the organic market, but it is unclear how eliminating these would help farmers in the long run. It would be nice to get rid of the bust, but do farmers have enough motivation to enter the market without the boom? Her conclusion, which seems half-hearted even in context, envisions state intervention, in the form of government subsidies, as the only real solution to this bind. If that is true, we are in trouble.

And Guthman never addresses the issue of food quality, which is of course central to Slow Food's support of price premiums for farmers. Shouldn't we pay more for better food? That wild arrugula tastes a lot better than supermarket romaine. Guthman's most valuable insight is that consumer alienation from agricultural production is a two-faced process. On the one hand, it leads to flavorless romaine, and the apathetic devaluation of food that Slow Food was formed to fight. But on the other hand, consumers who do care about food have no way to evaluate it outside of the mystified world of commodity fetishism. And Guthman insists that the structural problems of our industrialized food system are not going to be solved by the privileged throwing money willy-nilly at "artisans" or "family farmers," however deserving.

Labor is one of the most significant mystifications attending food production, organic or otherwise. Despite common perceptions to the contrary, organic agriculture depends on the same racialized cheap labor and unsavory contracting practices as conventional agriculture. Too many people are burying their heads in the sand on this issue. If organic farmers are heroes, as Alice Waters has said more than once, so are the men and women who actually plant, care for, and harvest the crops we all eat for heroically low wages. Can agriculture be sustainable in any meaningful way without providing a living wage for its labor?

The answers to many of the questions Guthman raises are currently unknowable. The market's invisible hand has forged the pervasive global agribusiness system we all live in today: a hegemonic discourse, in the words of another Italian Marxist, that stifles our ability to imagine alternatives. Would an exclusively organic agriculture, under the USDA's current rules, even be sustainable? To begin to answer that question, we need to carve out intellectual and agricultural margins where we can think outside of the market's suffocating embrace. Guthman's book is an important attempt to create such a space. Though she might not agree, Slow Food can do the same thing. But we have to think about what we're doing clearly and critically, instead of sinking into a different kind of complacency.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Wednesday's news today

Hey Frank: don't eat where you shit. Better late than never.

Proof that not only Bruni but also God himself is mocking me came with dinner last night, when my moules marinieres arrived with andouille in them. What the fuck? The sole wasn't bad enough?

Inspection of the menu revealed that they hadn't bothered to change the title, but the description was correct. Except that the alleged rouille was really romesco (more or less). At least it was edible.

Well, that was pretty funny, but not as funny as the finger lady's "black magic shrine." You can't make this shit up.

Publicity whores, however, frequently make shit up, and one of them finally got nailed for it by David Shaw. Who, however, remains curiously sanguine about the whole thing. David, these douchebags are liars. And pathetic ones at that. If a Paso pinot ever beat DRC in a blind test there will appear great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. (Although, judging by the the epistomo-culinary instability of seafood terminology, we're probably halfway to the apocalypse).

The Chron had more bad news on salmon scarcity and French cheese imports (by the reliably excellent Janet Fletcher).

On the internets: life begins at 30 and knife's edge (via Tana); flaming grasshopper (The Chelsea Green blog, probably most interesting for its food, e.g., this fava bean post; via Derrick).

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

on sourcing

Ever since Amanda explained all these fancy words to me, I can't stop using them! I'm, like, so "in". Since you aren't, let me explain that "sourcing" is how we talk about "ingredients." Here are some things I've been meaning to say about those:

Sorrel came up a few weeks ago, and I neglected to mention -- I am hardly the first person to discover this -- that it works very well with fish when you are too lazy to go pick a lemon. Halibut cheeks with a sorrel salsa verde. Just saying.

Favas. Andy Griffin wrote last week about Jack and his broad bean stalk, but it's not online for some reason. And while Saveur's editorial direction remains mystifying, the fava pastiche from the May issue was quite good, if a little late: "habas de abril para mí; las de mayo para el caballo": too true, I'm afraid. They're already over. But the strawberries are finally turning the corner.

I'm not trying to torment you poor east coasters, who will have to wait another two months for your own strawberries, really. Take solace in your ramps. Dana's got a good idea of what to do with them [and, pardon the phrase, their rectal repercussions].

Beef. I finally picked up a Creekstone prime strip steak the other day [background] . I hate to say it, but when it comes to a steak, grassfed is not ready for prime time. Maybe restaurants can get a good steak out of it, but they have better suppliers than the rest of us. Braises and the like are a different story, but there are still some seasonal problems with off flavors, in my experience. But you should only be eating a real steak a couple times a year, unless you are my sister. Anyway, the Creekstone was good, dripping with the lipid gold of your agricultural subsidies at work (i.e., corn-fed fat), but it is a crime to sell prime beef that hasn't been properly dry aged. It just reminds you of its own wasted potential. This was confirmed a few weeks later when I picked up some dry aged prime Niman T-bones. Sublime, of course. Problem is you can only get meat like that if you know someone or live in NYC. And you pay through the nose.

Speaking of which, my sister angrily corrected me (re: the Smith and Wollensky hair that she was already outside Brooklyn when the need for steak arose. Depsite the "surprisingly fast" L train, there was no time to dawdle, so she had to go to S&W. Also, when told of the hair, I did not reply "gnarly," despite speculation based on our reported conversation.

Of course, it is important to know about how your ingredients are produced if you are really concerned about quality. I don't know who this douchebag is, but he does explain, at excruciating length, a little bit about organic certification and its discontents.

Part of an excellent Farmers Market theme issue from the LA Times, which I will -- ever so carefully -- critique along with the rest the food media if I ever have a chance. At least the Cod is doing the heavy lifting, wading through T: and all its effuvia:

Evidently, the Times stylebook is changing, as "tasteful" is clearly some kooky rhyming slang for "indescribably vulgar."

[Finally, the whole Radosh thing is outside our purview, but in keeping with the "where does my food come from?" theme, it did unearth John Bowe's 2003 New Yorker article on agricultural slavery. Read it again.]

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Ok, now I'm really disturbard

Ice cream finger:

"I proceeded to put the object in my mouth. Got all the ice cream off of it, spit it in my hand, said 'God, this ain't no nut!' So I proceeded in here to the kitchen, rinsed it off with water, and realized it was a human finger, and I just started screaming," he said.

Please, make it stop.

Monday, May 02, 2005

restaurant news

Actual conversation:

My sister: So [redacted]* came to town and I took her to Bouley.

Me: Dude!

Sister: Totally.

[Uncomfortable silence. Unspoken pact to pretend that didn't happen.]

Sister: It was awesome!

She also reported a lengthy hair on a Smith and Wollensky steak. Serves her right for leaving Brooklyn in search of beef.

La D. writes in with more restaurant tips, re: my dark night of the sole:

Usually the problem is that it's not sole, not not meunière. I fucking love sole meunière. When I'm in Paris I eat it like everyday at Le Dôme. La Grenouille here makes something nice with sole, but not quite meunière.

(On the west coast, one abandons the sole part immediately, but a proper meunière is worth it anyway.)

And Hugo's lovely rabbit roulade seems to confirm my mother's recommendation of that restaurant.

Speaking of T:, it would be too exhausting to review. It is interesting that certain editors are resorting to lowly bloggers for thir column inches. Too bad Chinese prison labor is illiterate! (Though it's hard to see how that matters if you have to define integrity for your readers). To be fair, Bruce is a real writer; and today he's got Pete Wells's Oxford American hog farm article as a nice counterpoint to the Times on the Salatins.

And for those of you who actually pay attention to the fish you eat, there is some very bad news from California. Looks like we'll all be resorting to Alaska this year. Cf. the Economist on the death of the seas.

Oh shit: the Trib has noticed that the emperor has no clothes:
That disparity points out an awkward truth about the USDA: what it urges people to eat to remain healthy does not match what it pays farmers to grow.
You heard it here first: ag subsidies are hott.

*I have officially given up.

©2002-2005 by the author