Category Archives: Hype and hoopla

Kids in the Kitchen

It’s funny how every time I think everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket, there’s something to remind me that there’s still a lot of good in the world and that people do things for the right reasons.

Case in point: This past week there was a great article in Slate by Regina Schrambling about precocious kids who are being primed to be the next Escoffier, not that any of them would know who that is (Hint: He’s not on the Food Network).  Her article really put into focus why all the recent hype about these kinderchefs bothers me. 

I’m all for kids spending time in the kitchen and learning about food– in fact, I’d say not enough do.  But it really irked me that six year old “chefs” were becoming YouTube sensations and that a 12 year old was being touted as the next Craig Claiborne.  I thought perhaps I was  jealous of these kids with their newspaper columns and internet shows. Afterall, I am in my mid-30s and  in the process of re-inventing myself as a food writer after spending two years and a crapload of money to get a degree in Gastronomy.  But it turns out,  I’m not jealous of these kids, thanks to the insights in Schrambling’s article.  I am, however, completely annoyed by those in our society who, in fits of contextless celebrity worship, are mere minutes away from annointing the “next big thing” even if the “next big thing” knows next to nothing about which they speak.   And don’t even get me started on the parents who cashed in all their dreams to buy a McMansion in the ‘burbs and then had kids who are now just little mini-me’s living their parents lives instead of their own. 

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story on CBS Sunday morning today about a boy named Aaron Ware who started a baking business.  He didn’t go into business to earn fame and fortune, although he’s had some time in the spotlight lately, and deservedly so.  He started baking, something he loved to do, as a way to deal with his grief after the death of his twin brother.   He gives the proceeds to the organizations that helped his family during his brother’s illness.  Aaron’s just being a kid, doing a kid thing and we can learn a lot more about food from him than we can any of those celebrated kinderchefs who are actually trying to teach us something.

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Useless Kitchen Gadgets

Pizza scissors???  Really?  I mean, come on.  REALLY???

If you need one of these things to “effortlessly” cut your pizza, you probably shouldn’t get near a hot oven in the first place.  When you find cutting pizza with a knife or a pizza wheel too taxing, perhaps you should have just called Dominos.

This thing looks like a PITA to clean and store.  I would assume it would quickly be relegated to the back of the kitchen gadget drawer to take its rightful place with the avocado slicer, creme brulee torch, and melon baller. 

I want to know what you think are the most useless gadgets you’ve ever seen, or –‘fess up now– owned.  I’ll own up to the melon baller.  But as God as my witness, I will never own a pair of pizza scissors.

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!”

So THIS is what “Bottomless Salad & Breadsticks” means!

Well, actually, topless would be more like it.  Playboy likes to keep its nudity above the waistline, sunshine.  The magazine that people “only read for the articles” has just released an online pictorial called the “Girls of the Olive Garden” (I’m not linking it here for my own reasons, but if you can’t find it by googling, you’re just not trying hard enough).

While The Olive Garden doesn’t have the most stellar reputation in serious food circles, tens of millions of Americans looooove it, and I remember it being quite popular with the post-church Sunday lunch crowd.  So I have to wonder how this Girls of the Olive Garden will go over with the Church Ladies.  I’m guessing more than a few will get their slips in a twist.

I also wonder if this means Olive Garden will run a special to coincide with the spread.  Pasta Puttenesca came immediately to mind (which translates to “whore’s pasta”), but I’m guessing it’s probably a little too bold and spicy for average OG goers.

I know Hef and his lady love du jour came up with the idea because of their love of OG breadsticks and the fact that they claim to spy a lot of hot servers there (huh?), but it seems they could have come up with some restaurant chains with names that tie in much better to a Playboy spread.  Hooters is almost too obvious.  How about Le Peep, Fuddruckers, Sweet Tomatoes or does anybody remember Rax?  My own personal favorite, though, is In & Out.  I left a few off the list because I thought they crossed the line (although I think I might have with In & Out), but I’d love to see what others come up with in the comments section.

And you know what?  Just for kicks, here’s a recipe for Pasta Puttanesca.

8 oz. penne rigate pasta (spaghetti seems to be more “traditional” but I like this sauce with penne rigate)

2 Tbsp. olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped

3-4 anchovy filets, roughly chopped

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 15 oz can of crushed tomatoes (or chopped, or whole that you crush yourself)

2 Tbsp. of capers

10 (or so) black olives, pitted and chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh Parsley, coarsely chopped

Torn fresh basil leaves

Freshly grated Parmesean cheese

1. Cook pasta according to package directions in salted water

2. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and add garlic, crushed red pepper and anchovies until anchovies melt, about 2 or 3 minutes.  Be careful not to burn the garlic- it gets bitter if you do.

3. Add tomatoes, capers, olives, and a few turns of freshly ground black pepper and bring sauce to a bubble then turn the heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes to let the flavors come together.

4. While sauce is cooking, pasta should be done.  Drain it and put into a large serving bowl.

5. Toss sauce and 1/4 c. of freshly grated parmesean with pasta and garnish with chopped parsley and a few torn basil leaves.  Pass more parmesean at the table and serve with hot bread and a simple green salad.

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.

Picky, Picky makes us sicky

The incredible, edible (or not) egg How could you not like these?

I thought it was pretty interesting that a list of America’s 20 Most Hated Foods and the 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating came out at about the same time.  Even more interesting is that there was some crossover between these two lists (beets, blueberries) and some foods on the hated list that were quite similar to the foods on the best for you list (brussels sprouts/cabbage, raisins/prunes). Generally speaking, at least 70% of the foods on the Most Hated list are good for you, and more than that are beneficial in moderation. 

What really struck me were some of the childish comments people made about the foods they disliked!  I think it’s high time a few American adults grow up and quit behaving like picky pre-schoolers.  Is it any wonder our population has so many food-related health problems when we can’t get over our infantile phobias of foods that are, by and large, good for us?