Category Archives: Food snobbery

A victory for ugly veggies (and fruit)!

I’ve written about the plight of less-than aesthetically pleasing produce before here and here.  Finally, curvy cucumbers and contorted carrots are getting their comeuppance.  Well, in Europe anyway.  The EU has taken the bold step to relax rules put in place 20 years ago that banned the sale of blemished fruit and vegetables.

Personally, I love oddly-shaped specimens.  When I see them at the store, I’ll buy them.  I’m sort of like Charlie Brown when he gets the loser Christmas tree– everything deserves a chance.  Sometimes I’m a bit mean and will laugh at the them, like I did with this eggplant:

Is that a protusion on your eggplant or are you just happy to see me?

Is that a protusion on your eggplant or are you just happy to see me?

Other times I just marvel at their fabulous freakishness, like these webbed bananas:

Fuh-reaks!

Fuh-reaks!

But ultimately, I think the produce is just happy that someone picked it up, took it home and thought it was special enough to take a picture of it before gobbling it all up.

Who else out there buys ugly produce?  Take this poll:

Then, send me your photos of warped watermelons, bulbous brussels sprouts or squirrely squash (ooh, double points for that alliteration) and I’ll post them.  Because every fruit needs to feel good about itself.

Your own backyard garden. Can you dig it?

Its winter down here, so heres a photo of my Aunts garden in Missouri

It's winter in Australia, so here's a photo of my Aunt's garden in Missouri

The latest trend in local eating is getting the food straight from your own backyard.  Who knew that so many folks in flyover country were on the cutting edge all this time, summer after summer.  Oh.  But wait.  For it to really be trendy, you’ve got to hire somebody else come in and do all the dirty work for you, according to this article and this blog from the NY Times.

Of course, a lot of people were quick to attack this as elitist (which it kind of is) or to say that it’s nothing new since people have been eating fresh produce off their own land since the beginning of agriculture.  What really kills me is the arguments that others have offered in rebuttal to these criticisms.  The most absurd argument I’ve seen is that outsourcing a veggie patch to someone else saves fuel because it cuts down on trips to the farmer’s market.  I’m guessing that the gardener has to use fuel for his weekly trips to clients’ homes, so really it’s a wash in terms of fuel consumption.  It just shifts the burden of the gas bill to the gardener.

The main thing that rankles me about this new “trend” is the continued disconnect from how our food gets from the ground to our plates.  First, there’s the disconnect from the earth because someone else is doing the “dirty work”.  When you plant seeds or put in bedding plants and get dirt underneath your fingernails you physically connect with the earth. From that moment, not only have you planted seeds for food that will eventually spring forth, you’ve planted the seeds of anticipation.  It’s exhililarating to see the first tender sprouts pushing their way through the topsoil.  I’ll usually check on my seedlings morning and night just for the wonder of watching them grow.  When it’s time to harvest, I do so with mixed emotions.  There’s some regret, because I know when I snap off the leaves or pluck the fruit, that it’s the end of the amazing cycle of life I’ve spent weeks witnessing.  At the same time, there’s pure joy in knowing that I get to carry the food into my kitchen and eat something that I grew, in partnership with the earth and sun, and consume it at its freshest.

Another disconnect in this trend is the loss of human interaction with those who grow our food.  Sure, there’s a gardener who comes to the house and tend the garden, harvest its bounty then leave the box at the backdoor, but this presumably happens when the clients are away at work.  Some clients may only see the grower when they first meet to discuss the exchange of service for money.

At The Food Section blog, Josh Friedland wonders what the fuss is about and contends there’s little difference between these outsourced backyard gardens and CSA boxes or farmer’s markets.  I think there’s a huge difference.  With a CSA and the farmer’s market, there are typically built-in connections between growers and consumers.   At a farmer’s market, you often have face to face interaction with the person who did the growing.  Likewise, CSA members meet the farmer who grew their weekly box of goodies when they go to pick it up, and many CSA members put in sweat equity at the farm where they have their membership.

Of course, consuming produce grown in your own backyard is certainly better than buying it at your local supermarket even if someone else is doing all the work.  Unfortunately, the trend in hiring someone to do the gardening is fueled by people who feel they are too busy to do it themselves, which sort of flies in the face  of the Slow Food movement.  Slow Food isn’t just about fighting back against fast food.  It’s about fighting back against our ever-quickening way of life.  It’s about unplugging from laptops and mobile phones and Ipods and Blackberrys and taking some of the time we normally spend with technology and use it to grow and make our own food and enjoy it with others.  In other words, we need to spend less time connected to the digital world, and more time connected to the diggable one.

I eat arugula and I vote

I even grow arugula

I even grow arugula

The 2008 Presidential election has taken the politics of food to a whole new level, albeit a low one.

Ever since Barack Obama mentioned the high cost of arugula at a campaign event in Iowa, he’s been branded by some as an elitist who’s out of touch with regular people.  He apparently further cemented that image by turning down a cup of coffee at a campaign stop at a diner and asking for orange juice instead.

Now, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has taken issue with the Obama camp’s orders for the food that will be served at the upcoming Democratic convention:

He’s already in danger of seeming too prissy about food… The “lean ‘n’ green” catering guidelines… bar fried food and instruct that, “on the theory that nutritious food is more vibrant, each meal should include ‘at least three of the following colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white.’ (Garnishes don’t count.)

Somehow, in Maureen Dowd’s world, eating healthily makes Obama humorless and thus potentially unelectable.  What is so off-putting about good eating habits?

Of course, Americans have been quick to revere less-than-healthy Presidential dietary idiosyncrasies:  we loved that President Reagan loved Jelly Bellies, that George H.W. Bush hated broccoli, and, although he took a lot of flak for his penchant for McDonald’s fries, we felt like Bill Clinton was just like us because he gave into Mac Attacks, too.

In this era of rising obesity rates, the threat of a diabetes epidemic, and pediatricians reccomending putting kids as young as eight years old on cholesterol meds because so many of them eat like… well… crap, how great would it be to have a President who’s also a gastronomic role model?

Like the Reagan era when Jelly Belly sales skyrocketed, maybe there would be an Obama effect at farmer’s markets and produce sections across America.  People would think twice before single-handedly polishing off the Bloomin’ Onion from Outback Steakhouse.  And parents could have the power of the President behind them in that eternal dinner time battle.  “Don’t you want to grow up to be the leader of the free world?  Then eat your veggies because President Obama does!”

El Bulli: All That and a Bag of Chips

Not just for Superbowl snacking anymore

Not just for Superbowl snacking anymore

Some activity in the blogosphere this week about Ferran Adria, the chef at the temple of Molecular Gastronomy, El Bulli, in Spain.  It seems the man who many believe is the World’s Greatest Chef is using Frito-Lay  3Ds chips in one of his creations in a new cookbook. At that news, many foodies (I hate that word.  I must make it a separate entry on here one day) let out a collective gasp and began nattering away about how industrially processed crap (their word, not mine) has no business in the kitchen of the world’s top restaurants, how Adria is just a sell-out and that he’s only doing this because he designed some products for Lay’s, and how on earth could he charge the prices he does when he’s cooking with a $3 bag of chips.

Now, there are some who are down with any ingredient or technique, as long as it’s used in the name of Molecular Gastronomy and preferably by a chef of Adria’s esteem (of course, if I were to use crumbled Lay’s potato chips on top of a tuna casserole, a lot of those same people would sniff and call it gauche– and that’s only if they were being really nice).  In the instance of the Lay’s 3Ds, Adria re-fries the cone shaped chips, fills them with cream, and tops them with lemon basil shoots making them resemble little carrots. He then plates them by sticking them in a mound of something that looks like dirt, but is actually probably something edible.  What I find most interesting about all this talk about what Adria’s doing with a bag of chips, is that I have not seen one person mention Jean-Francois Revel’s theories about cuisine.  So I’m going to.  And I’m going to use it to defend The World’s Greatest Chef (Mr. Adria, if you’re reading this, you can thank me in meal vouchers).

Revel wrote a pretty important book (at least to those who study food) called Culture and Cuisine.  In it, he says that erudite cuisine (fancy chef food, or haute cuisine) often takes inspiration from popular cuisine (the food regular people make).  Remember a few years ago when “comfort food”  like braised meats, heaps of mashed potatoes and all sorts of gussied up versions of mac & cheese was all the rage at restaurants ?  It was like every chef pulled out their mom’s Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and worked their magic. That’s what Revel is talking about. 

So, back to Adria. That’s all he’s doing and I say, “Good on ya’.”  He’s taking a food of the masses, in this instance  chips, and re-using them in a way that the rest of us would never dream of.  Well I might have– if I’d eaten a slab of barbecue ribs, a giant burrito and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food and fallen immediately asleep, but Ferran Adria beat me to it.

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennfer 8. Lee had been on my radar since earlier this year when an article adapted from the book ran in The New York Times where Lee works as a reporter, so I enthusiastically jumped at the chance to read and review it when it was finally released in Australia.*

The premise of the book, which delves mostly into Chinese American popular culture, is brilliant and proof that truth is stranger than fiction.  Jennifer Lee began researching fortune cookies after 110 people won the 100,000 dollar second prize in the Powerball lottery in 2005 – many of them by picking numbers that had been printed on the little slip of paper in their fortune cookies.  This sent her sleuthing to the restaurants that gave out the fortune cookies, the factories that made them and ultimately to their origins which is actually in Japan. 

Like Lee, I also have an obsession with Americanized Chinese food, and more particularly with a distinctive regional variation in the town where I grew up, so I read her descriptions of Crab Rangoon, Szechwan Alligator and Chow Mein sandwiches with great relish (and slight horror in the case of the Chow Mein sandwich).

But The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is about more than just Fortune Cookies, because as Lee followed those cookies down the rabbit hole, it led her to write a book that is a buffet of stories about the globalization of Chinese food-particularly American-style Chinese food and the people who make it. 

Lee also writes about the genesis of Chop Suey in a chapter called “The Biggest Culinary Joke played on one Culture by Another”.  Other chapters deal with Soy Sauce packets, the trapezoidal take-away cartons with the wire handles and General Tso’s Chicken- a dish, that for all intents and purposes, exists nowhere in China.

What’s really refreshing about Lee’s approach to this food, is that she makes no judgments of authenticity.  She says “Authenticity is a concept that food snobs propagate, not one that reflects how people really cook and eat on a daily basis”.   As a Chinese American, the Americanized versions ARE authentic to her.  When she finally does track down General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan, it’s nothing like the dish to which she’s become accustomed in the U.S.

The author is at her most compelling, though, in chapters when she tells the stories of the Chinese immigrants who have helped make Chinese food ubiquitous in the United States.  They’ve left homes and families for a strange new place with hopes of a better life-some nearly lose their lives on the voyage and wind up in immigrant detention centers, families fall apart under the stress of running a restaurant, and others face unimaginable danger making deliveries; sometimes they’re beaten and robbed-a few even lose their lives. 

My only complaint about these immigrant tales is that Lee seems to fixate on the doom and gloom.  In one chapter called “The Mystery of the Missing Chinese Delivery Man,” she writes: “Death is only the lowest point in what is almost universally the miserable existence of a Chinese Restaurant Worker.”   It almost makes Kafka sound cheerful.  Certainly there are plenty of Chinese who have immigrated and made fortunes working their way up through the massive Chinese restaurant industry or at least had jobs in Chinese restaurants before finding success in other businesses.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles also has some editing errors and some needless repetition in places, and I think the author at times tries too hard to be profound or poignant.  On a tour of a factory that makes take-out cartons, she laments the piles of rejected cartons  saying “I understood why their loss was so unsettling: these boxes were stillborn-purposeless”.  A statement like that is a bit over-the-top considering the plight of immigrants she’d written about a few pages before.

Initially, I felt Lee had dropped the ball by ignoring Fortune Cookies after her first two or three chapters, but when they re-appeared in the middle an again at the end of the book, I was actually a little disappointed to be returning to that topic.  It turned out I’d had my fill of them earlier in the book and I found stories of other food and people much more satisfying when all was said and done.

Like many culinary works of literature, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles uses food as a metaphor.  This book is also the author’s search for her own identity as a second generation Chinese American.  Everywhere she goes, Jennifer Lee is recognized as being Chinese, but she is also distinctly American-just like the fortune cookies that launched her journey of culinary-and ultimately personal-discovery.

Despite a few minor shortcomings, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a delightful book.  It’s a pretty quick read, even though it’s almost three-hundred pages long.  Not only is the book sprinkled with interesting trivia that you can use later to impress your friends, you’ll likely walk away with a much better understanding of the food served at your favorite local Chinese restaurant.  More importantly, the next time you go,  this book may make you look the people who work there in the eye, and for the first time really appreciate everything they’ve done to keep you well fed.

  

*This review is adapted from one I did on the Gastronaut program on Radio Adelaide.

 

This Bud’s for Us

 The King of Beers

I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I was positively giddy to see a guest at my friend’s 4th of July party here in Adelaide show up with 6 packs of Budweiser and MGD bottles the other night.  Along with the Memphis-style ribs and Red Velvet Cake, the beers were a welcome taste of home.  Apparently there were a few expats looking for that taste of home Friday night; the woman who brought them said the bottle shop (that’s Aussie for liquor store) was almost completely sold out of Budweiser.

As I drank my bottle of Bud, I was reminded that I need to get something off my chest.

QUIT BASHING BUDWEISER, PEOPLE!!

I’m not normally besotted with Budweiser and I have absolutely no connection to the Anheuser-Busch company other than the fact that I grew up in Missouri, but recently, I’ve felt the need to stand up and salute the King of Beers, perhaps, in part, because during a recent trip to visit my folks,  I was re-indoctrinated to the cult of AB by the catchy little jingle  played at Springfield Cardinals games.

Anheuser-Busch has been in the news recently due to the buyout offer from the Belgian company InBev which it subsequently– and thankfully– rejected, and because of that there’s been more chatter about Budweiser on the internet and I’ve seen a few snide comments made about it by food and beverage snobs.

I’m not about ready to argue that Budweiser is the world’s best beer– far from it.  But to categorically say that a microbrew is better than a Bud, or that Bud is bad just because it’s  mass-produced is crazy, because I’ve had some pretty crappy microbrews.  Some so crappy they make Budweiser taste like the nectar of the Gods.

And besides, Budweiser started out the way many microbrews today do: small.  Bud is the brainchild of a German immigrant who ran a brewer’s supply shop 150 years ago and eventually married into a family that ran a small St. Louis brewery.  Adolphus Busch just happened to be an incredibly gifted businessman who grew that small company into a global giant.  Despite the fact that Budweiser is a global giant, all those haters need to keep in mind that it is, technically, still a locally brewed beer for those who happen to live in the neighborhood of St. Louis, MO.

The Anheuser-Busch company is a true American success story, and thankfully, at least for now, will continue to be an American success story.  And when you’re living abroad, looking for a beverage to help you celebrate your American-ness on the 4th of July, when you drink a Budweiser, you’ve said it all.