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betsuni's Journal
betsuni's Journal
April 11, 2017

Writing about food: Michael Ruhlman, "The Soul of a Chef"

"One of the things you learn in culinary school ... is that everything ... gets a sauce. ... And to be so antisauce generally, as Michael Symon seemed to be, was foolhardy. ... Willfully, defiantly, hopefully, and skeptically I ordered the chicken, the roasted, sauceless chicken. ... First, the potatoes. Courtney roasted them early in the day and cooled them. When the chicken was ordered, Chatty fired it, plopping the boned half chicken onto the grates of the broiler ... then reheated those precooked potatoes with some red onion and arugula in a saute pan into which he poured a little cream, some salt and pepper. The liquid helped reheat the potatoes evenly and added some moisture and the fat that made potatoes good to eat. When the chicken was done ... he poured the potatoes into the center of a hot plate and placed the chicken atop the pile, gave the plate an artful squirt of balsamic squeeze bottle, and off it went.

"By the time it reached me, the diner, the chicken has rested ... the juices redistributing themselves in the chicken; but it was also losing juices, and when you cut into it, plenty of juice ran out. The bird was stuffed with chanterelle, shiitake, and chicken-in-the-woods mushrooms, which are loaded with juice, and as they rested, they dumped their liquid. The chicken and mushroom juices fell over the potatoes, which were generously coated with seasoned cream. The falling juices and cream were then offset by the acid sweetness of the balsamic reduction. And there it was, a dish that sauced itself -- with all the familiar components of a classical sauce ... . Not only was this ingenious, but it was light ... and practical. From a service standpoint, it reduced for the cook the number of steps needed to finish the plate. You're in the weeds, got a million orders called, potatoes, chicken, vinegar, boom out the door. No dipping a ladle or spoon into sauce and pouring. This was not insignificant, and Symon strove for this kind of efficiency. 'If I can't finish it in two pans, I won't do it,' he told me about his rule for all dishes ... . ... The business of cooking was a craft -- you worked with tools and materials -- and he was mechanically versatile."

April 10, 2017

Writing about food: Anniversary of the publication of "The Great Gatsby"

"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. ... Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York -- every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb. At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'-oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another. ... I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.

"Most of the time I worked. In the early morning the sun threw my shadow westward as I hurried down the white chasms of lower New York to the Probity Trust. I knew the other clerks and young bond-salesmen by their first names, and lunched with them in dark, crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee. ... I took dinner usually at the Yale Club -- for some reason it was the gloomiest event of my day -- and then I went upstairs to the library and studied investments and securities for a conscientious hour.

"'Highballs?' asked the waiter. 'This is a nice restaurant here,' said Mr. Wolfshiem, looking at the presbyterian nymphs on the ceiling. 'But I like across the street better!' 'Yes, highballs,' agreed Gatsby, and then to Mr. Wolfshiem, 'It's too hot over there.'
'Hot and small -- yes,' said Mr. Wolfshiem, 'but full of memories. ... I can't forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there. It was six of us at the table, and Rosy had eat and drunk a lot all evening. When it was almost morning the waiter came up to him with a funny look and says somebody wants to speak to him outside. ... He turned around in the door and says, "Don't let that waiter take away my coffee!" Then he went out on the sidewalk, and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away.' ... A succulent hash arrived, and Mr. Wolfshiem, forgetting the more sentimental atmosphere of the old Metropole, began to eat with ferocious delicacy."

April 9, 2017

Writing about food: John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley, In Search of America"

"Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown illnesses, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. ... But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.

"'It is more than possible that in the cities we have passed through ... there are good and distinguished restaurants with menus of delight. But in the eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness. It is almost as though the customers had no interest in what they ate as long as it had no character to embarrass them. This is true of all but the breakfasts, which are uniformly wonderful if you stick to bacon and eggs and pan-fried potatoes. At the roadsides I never had a really good dinner or a really bad breakfast.' ... I might even say roadside America is the paradise of breakfast except for one thing. Now and then I would see a sign that said, 'home-made sausage' or 'home-smoked bacons and hams' or 'new-laid eggs' and I would stop and lay in supplies. Then, cooking my own breakfast and making my own coffee, I found that the difference was instantly apparent. A freshly laid egg does not taste remotely like the pale, battery-produced refrigerated egg, the sausage would be sweet and sharp and pungent with spices, and my coffee a wine-dark happiness. Can I say that the America I saw has put cleanliness first, at the expense of taste? And ... that the sense of taste tends to disappear and that strong, pungent, or exotic flavors arouse suspicion and dislike and so are eliminated?

"'Let's take the books, magazines, and papers we have seen displayed where we have stopped. ... There have been local papers and I've bought and read them. There have been racks of paperbacks with some great and good titles but overwhelmingly outnumbered by the volumes of sex, sadism, and homicide. ... If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation? Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback? And if this is so, why are there no condiments save ketchup and mustard to enhance their foods? We've listened to local radio all across the country. And apart from a few reportings of local football games, the mental fare has been as generalized, as packaged, and as undistinguished as the food.'"

April 8, 2017

Writing about food: Happy Birthday to Barbara Kingsolver, from "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

"Vegetables are gorgeous, especially spring greens, arriving brightly as they do after a long winter of visually humble grains and stored rood crops. Bronze Arrowhead lettuces, Speckled Trout romaine, red kale -- this is the rainbow of my April garden, and you'll find similar offerings then at a farmers' market or greengrocer. It's the reason I start our vegetables from seed, rather than planting out whatever the local nursery has to offer: variety, the splendor of vegetables. I have seen women looking at jewelry ads with a misty eye and one hand resting on the heart, and I only know what they're feeling because that's how I read the seed catalogs in January. In my mind the garden grows and grows, as I affix a sticky note to every page where there's something I need. I swoon over names like Moon and Stars watermelon, Cajun Jewel okra, Gold of Bacau pole bean, Sweet Chocolate pepper, Collective Farm Woman melon, Georgian Crystal garlic, mother-of-thyme. Steven walks by, eyes the toupee of yellow sticky notes bristling from the top of the catalog, and helpfully asks, 'Why don't you just mark the ones you don't want to order?'

"Leafy green are nature's tonic, coming on strong in local markets in April and May, and then waning quickly when weather gets hot. ... But on a brisk April day when the tranquils are up and Jack Frost might still come out of retirement on short notice, hot weather is a dream. This is the emerald season of spinach, kale, endive, and baby lettuces. The chard comes up as red and orange as last fall's leaves went out. We lumber out of hibernation and stuff our mouths with leaves, like deer ... . In April I'm happiest with mud on the knees of my jeans, sitting down to the year's most intoxicating lunch: a plate of greens both crisp and still sun-warmed by the garden, with a handful of walnuts and some crumbly goat cheese. The is the opening act of real live food."

April 7, 2017

Happy Beer Day: Garrison Keillor, A Glass of Wendy from "Leaving Home"

"Wendy's is the beer a man drinks because it's the best. It's made from the deep wellwater from the town of Saint Wendell's ... Wendy's is made from it, using an old German recipe, by people who have worked for Dimmers Brewery so long they don't remember if they were hired or if they took a vow. The old brick brewery was supposed to resemble a Bavarian castle, but when it was built, in 1879, bricklayers had beer rights: there was two-fisted day-long drinking on the job. When the layers got on high scaffolding, it made them dizzy. So the building starts out to be a castle and rises royally for two stories and then it quits and becomes a sort of barn. The bricks for the towers were used to make a brick road because the layers felt more comfortable on their hands and knees. The brick road is a hundred feet wide for about seventy-five feet and then it's seventy-five feet for one hundred feet and then it becomes a path.

"You think of this as you sit in an old dim bar and drink a Wendy, and you think of how the beer wagons kept rolling in Saint Wendell's through Prohibition. They trained the horses to make the deliveries, and these smart Percherons memorized complicated beer routes -- stop here, skip two houses, stop there -- and when they stopped, a guy ran out of the house and grabbed his beer. The horses didn't make change but they did everything else, but of course if a horse got on the sauce himself, he might get mixed up, but usually they did the job and if the sheriff came, all he found was a wagon and a horse with red eyes and bad breath. ... In Minneapolis, you go to any hotel or shopping mall and find an English pub or a Western saloon or small-town tavern with a name like BILLY BOB'S, but the antiques come from the antique factory and the concept was developed by a design team ... but those aren't the same as a joint where people have sat for fifty years, and all of them people you know. It's the difference between a lie and the truth. It's not true that Wendy's is the best beer in the world, actually it's not that good. And it gives me terrible gas."

The beer I drank tonight, which I bought only for the pretty cherry blossom can:

April 5, 2017

Writing about food: Happy Birthday Barbara Holland.

Picnics, from "Wasn't the Grass Greener?"

"Certain foods came to be sacred to picnics, like deviled eggs, rarely served indoors and, being fragile and slippery, always a challenge to transport safely. Eggs were hand-boiled, cooled, and carefully sliced in half lengthwise. The yolks were popped out, mashed up with mustard, mayonnaise, and creative touches like chopped pickles or Worcestershire sauce, and replaced in the whites. Dedicated picnic packers stuffed the yolk mixture into fluted pastry tubes so it came out in curlicues. The final touch was a sprinkling of paprika, a red cosmetic powder widely used to brighten colorless foods. ... They were eaten in the hand, messily. For the respectable middle class accustomed to more than one fork at meals, half the joy of the picnic was eating with their fingers. They tore apart cold chicken and barbecued spareribs and chewed the bones; they picked up the strawberries by the tasseled end. ... Picnickers plunged their faces into watermelon and broke off chunks of cake. Peach juices dribbled down their chins. Bones and apple cores were winged into the bushes. Probably they talked with their mouths full. It was a glad cathartic orgy of unthinkable manners, sanctified by the outdoors.

"My grandparents, long ago in Colorado, often climbed the hills to a likely-looking stream and built a fire, buried potatoes in the coals, heated the skillet and then, when it was hot, caught and gutted a trout to throw in it fresh and sizzling. I don't know what they did afterwards. ... Innocence was an essential ingredient in picnics. Picnics provided a temporary rebirth into a sinless state; wherever we spread our blanket and opened our basket was a pre-apple Eden. ... In all those Impressionist picnic paintings, clothing could be doffed without prurience; indoor nakedness was suggestive, nakedness on the grass was a celebration. Where lunch was spread out under the sky, sin hadn't yet uncoiled its head. An enthusiasm for picnics required a belief in the possibility of innocence. We may have stopped believing."

April 4, 2017

Writing about food: Sumo Size Me, from Michael Booth's "Sushi & Beyond"

"It was lunch time: what I had been waiting for. ... Amused at my interest in his lunch plans, Sumo Monster explained that he was making a chanko nabe, the traditional sumo hotpot. 'There are lots of different kinds,' he said. 'Maybe as many as ten. We all take turns to make it and each of us has a specialty. This is a chicken and soy sauce one.' He chopped daikon radish then carrots into a pot of simmering water seasoned with soy, as if sharpening a pencil ... . He then added half a ladle of salt. Did he have a recipe? 'No, this is man's cooking, we don't really worry about the details. The important thing is that there is enough -- this is how the chanko nabe developed. Sumo stables used to be much larger, up to a hundred wrestlers, and they needed a dish that could be cooked in one pot but feed many.' With Sumo Monster engrossed in his chanko nabe I took my chance to sneak a look into the fridges. Instead of the cakes and chocolates I was hoping to find, they were full with sweetcorn, tofu, chicken, and other vegetables -- a veritable showcase of healthy eating.

"The lunch spread, though relatively healthy, was on an impressive scale. As well as the protein-rich chanko nabe, there was omelette, rice, cocktail sausages and, of all things, fried spam ... . We barely made an impression on the amount of food at the table, and left them to enjoy their well-earned feast and afternoon beauty nap."

I attended a morning sumo practice and lunch at a shrine a couple of years ago. During the practice I couldn't stop obsessing about how if I stepped, even a little, onto the sacred sumo dirt place I would instantly pollute it because of my woman parts. They'd have to get the Shinto priests to come and purify it for the fat guys to be able slap each other around again safely. I felt guilty ten years ago at my father-in-law's funeral ceremonies when the Shinto priest waved around sacred branches in his pure white garments and I was there quietly menstruating, polluting everything.

The chanko nabe was superb because the wrestler in charge made the broth from scratch, no instant dashi with MSG. I can taste MSG, I don't care what people who can't tell the difference say about it. You can or you can't. There were deep-fried things, a large mayonnaise noodle salad, other things I avoided. It was a hot summer day and who can eat so much besides wrestlers. The stable master asked me if I liked sweets and when I said I didn't, complained about the foreign wrestlers who did, and how obscenely large food portions were in the U.S. when he traveled there. Heh. Then the wrestlers bathed and had their hair done and took naps.

April 2, 2017

Writing about food: James Villas, "American Taste"

"Often I have occasion to glance into home refrigerators, and what I usually see makes my temperature rise; gallons of soda, frozen vegetables, pizzas and TV dinners, pounds of processed cheese in individual plastic wraps, boxes of disgusting breakfast cakes and rolls, and packages of those processed meats I wouldn't even feed to my beagle. At movies I'm dumbfounded at the amount of popcorn, candy, and sweet drinks that is consumed (when and where do those people eat dinner?). ... Nerves wracked, metabolism shot, and overweight, much of this same society (roughly 20 percent of the American population at any given time) eventually reaches out for any means possible to correct the damage.

"Basically people know that the answers to good health and weight control ultimately come from no other source than plain old common sense, but big business stands steadfast. 'The will to be cheated,' Lucius Beebe commented some years ago, 'is, apparently, a deep-rooted and inherent American instinct, but it seems a pity when it leads to the rejection of the all-too-frequent natural pleasures that make life bearable at all. As someone once remarked, the customers at diet-fad groceries always seem to look as though they got there ten years too late.'

"Well, at least as far as I'm concerned, healthy weight control is no more problematic than brushing teeth or walking the dog or preparing breakfast, meaning that what might appear to be a boring chore can, through habit, be transformed into a very enjoyable experience. When I wake up in the morning (even with a hangover), I know exactly where and what type of food I'll be eating throughout the day and night ... the anticipation nears being erotic. ... Many enlightened souls throughout the centuries have championed gourmandism as one of life's more civilized pleasures, but surely none stated the case more colorfully than the composer Rossini: 'Aside from doing nothing, I know of no more delightful occupation for myself than eating -- eating, that is, properly. What love is to the heart, appetite is to the stomach. The stomach is the chapel master which activates and directs the great orchestra of our passions. An empty stomach represents the bassoon or piccolo, one groaning out dissatisfaction, the other yelping for contentment. A full stomach, on the other hand, is the triangle of pleasure, the tympani of joy.'"

March 9, 2017

Writing about food: Jim Harrison, "The Raw and the Cooked, Adventures of a Roving Gourmand"

"I spent two weeks at the Rancho La Puerta health spa ... in order to quit smoking ... . Almost incidentally I lost seventeen pounds in two weeks. ... The menu was total vegetarian with fish twice a week. ... At the Rancho one day at lunch I told some ... ladies what I thought was a charming story of simple food. One August, years ago, I was wandering around the spacious property of a chateau up in Normandy, trying to work up a proper appetite for lunch. The land, owned by a friend, doubled as a horse farm and a vicious brood mare had tried to bite me, an act I rewarded with a stone sharply thrown against her ass. Two old men I hadn't seen laughed beneath a tree. I walked over and sat with them around a small fire. They were gardeners and it was their lunch hour, and on a flat stone they had made a small circle of hot coals. They had cored a half dozen big red tomatoes, stuffed them with softened cloves of garlic, and added a sprig of thyme, a basil leaf, and a couple of tablespoons of soft cheese. They roasted the tomatoes until they softened and the cheese melted. I ate one with a chunk of bread and healthy-sized swigs of a jug of red wine. ... A simple snack but indescribably delicious. I waited only a moment for the ladies' reaction. CHEESE, two of them hissed, CHEESE, as if I puked on their sprouts, and WINE! The upshot was that cheese was loaded with cholesterol and wine has an adverse effect on blood sugar.

"At dawn the next morning I decided to skip human life and spend the day in the mountains. ... I took my binoculars, an orange, a hard-boiled egg, and a one-once bottle of Tabasco for the egg. ... Four hours into the mountains I ate the egg and the orange with relish. ... Then out out of the chaparral appeared a tough, ragged-looking Mexican who asked me if I had anything to eat. I said no, wishing I had saved the orange. He smiled, bowed, and continued ... presumably toward the United States and the pursuit of happiness, including something to eat.

"I remembered, in my wandering starving artist years in the late 1950's, spending subway fare for a thirty-five-cent Italian-sausage sandwich and walking seventy blocks to work the next morning, eating free leftovers given to me by Babe and Louis at the Kettle of Fish bar, buying twenty-five-cent onion sandwiches on rye bread at McSorley's. I had wonderful meals working as a poetic busboy at the Prince Brothers Spaghetti House in Boston; I often devoured two fried eggs after Storyville, the best jazz club ever, closed at dawn. In the San Francisco area there were two-for-a-nickel oranges, the oddly delicious macaroni salad at the Coexistence Bagel Shop for a quarter, the splurge of an enormous fifty-cent bowl of pork and noodles in Chinatown. And let's not forget the desperation of eating ten-cent cafeteria bread and ketchup in Salt Lake City or the grapefruit given me by an old woman in the roadside dust near Fallon, Nevada."

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