Archive | July, 2011

Mark Twain Longs For Home

In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain’s account of his time abroad in Europe, Msr. Clemons found himself in Venice, eating hotel food, and longing, nay, praying for the delights of the food of America. This is his accounting of that desire. I note this, because it is a good accounting of the more popular American dishes of Twain’s time.

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The European dinner is better than the European breakfast, but it has its faults and inferiorities; it does not satisfy. He comes to the table eager and hungry; he swallows his soup—there is an undefinable lack about it somewhere; thinks the fish is going to be the thing he wants—eats it and isn’t sure; thinks the next dish is perhaps the one that will hit the hungry place—tries it, and is conscious that there was a something wanting about it, also. And thus he goes on, from dish to dish, like a boy after a butterfly which just misses getting caught every time it alights, but somehow doesn’t get caught after all; and at the end the exile and the boy have fared about alike; the one is full, but grievously unsatisfied, the other has had plenty of exercise, plenty of interest, and a fine lot of hopes, but he hasn’t got any butterfly. There is here and there an American who will say he can remember rising from a European table d’hôte perfectly satisfied; but we must not overlook the fact that there is also here and there an American who will lie.

The number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such a monotonous variety of UNSTRIKING dishes. It is an inane dead-level of “fair-to-middling.” There is nothing to ACCENT it. Perhaps if the roast of mutton or of beef—a big, generous one—were brought on the table and carved in full view of the client, that might give the right sense of earnestness and reality to the thing; but they don’t do that, they pass the sliced meat around on a dish, and so you are perfectly calm, it does not stir you in the least. Now a vast roast turkey, stretched on the broad of his back, with his heels in the air and the rich juices oozing from his fat sides … but I may as well stop there, for they would not know how to cook him. They can’t even cook a chicken respectably; and as for carving it, they do that with a hatchet.

This is about the customary table d’hôte bill in summer:

Soup (characterless).
Fish—sole, salmon, or whiting—usually tolerably good.
Roast—mutton or beef—tasteless—and some last year’s potatoes.
A pate, or some other made dish—usually good—”considering.”
One vegetable—brought on in state, and all alone—usually insipid lentils, or string-beans, or indifferent asparagus.
Roast chicken, as tasteless as paper.
Lettuce-salad—tolerably good.
Decayed strawberries or cherries.
Sometimes the apricots and figs are fresh, but this is no advantage, as these fruits are of no account anyway.
The grapes are generally good, and sometimes there is a tolerably good peach, by mistake.

The variations of the above bill are trifling. After a fortnight one discovers that the variations are only apparent, not real; in the third week you get what you had the first, and in the fourth the week you get what you had the second. Three or four months of this weary sameness will kill the robustest appetite.

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows:

Radishes. Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
American butter.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Porter-house steak.
Saratoga potatoes.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
Cherry-stone clams.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Baltimore perch.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie liens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
‘Possum. Coon.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.

Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way. Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.

Americans intending to spend a year or so in European hotels will do well to copy this bill and carry it along. They will find it an excellent thing to get up an appetite with, in the dispiriting presence of the squalid table d’hôte.

Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say, “Where’s your haggis?” and the Fijian would sigh and say, “Where’s your missionary?”


Dance of the Squid

This is odori-don, and the answer to your question is, “Nope”. Your eyes are deceiving you. The squid is dead, as in past tense dead. The soy sauce is interacting with the neurons of the squid, creating electrical impulses which result in the squid looking as if it’s flailing.

h/t to The Stranger


What to Expect When Taxing Soda

Mark Bittman, he of the How to Cook Everything series of books and resident food pundit at the New York Times, wrote yesterday of the benefits of taxing soda and subsidizing vegetables.

…the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

It’s a great idea and one state governments have been floating around for a while now. In fact, here in the state of Washington, Passed a few laws doing exactly that.

So what happened? I-1107 happened. Here’s what I wrote last October:

When the American Beverage Association heard that Washington state was now taxing soda pop, they leapt into action. It is reported that they had spent an estimated $1 million gathering petition signatures for the July 2, 2010 statewide deadline to help put this initiative on the ballot.

Since that time they have donated an astounding $16,727,750 to fight these taxes. The have created false and misleading advertisements, saying things such as:

1)Taxing food and beverages is just plain wrong. It hurts middle-income families, seniors and other people who are already struggling to make ends meet during difficult economic times.

2)Taxing thousands of common food and beverage products sets a dangerous precedent. If we don’t repeal these tax hikes now and send a clear message, the politicians will think they can get away with raising taxes on other grocery products in the future.

If we were to tax foods of substance, let’s call it nutritious food, then it might be wrong. But the state of Washington took care to define these taxable items in such a way that made it clear that the newly taxed items were foods that added nothing of substance to our diet. We don’t need bottled water, we don’t need candy bars. At no point did the conversation come up that was along the lines of “Hey, let’s tax apples.” That simply did not happen.

As far as the “sets a dangerous precedent” line, let me point out that alcohol has been taxed here for quite some time. Taxing soda or chocolate bars is not taking us into a scary new “tax every consumable” world.

The American Beverage Association knows this. But here’s the thing. They don’t want you to associate Pepsi and Coke with Budweiser and Miller. What they want is for you to associate the products that they are lobbying for with chicken, fish, and bread. They want you to believe that every item in a grocery store inhabits a sacred area, and once entered, it means that the product is inherently good for us.

The result of the initiative? The voters rejected the taxes that the State Legislature had tried to instill upon the the makers of soda. It wasn’t even close. Those voting to reject the tax had,522,658 votes, and 60.44% of the electorate. Those voting to retain the tax had 996,761 votes and only 39.56% of the electorate.

The ABA came in, spent $16.5 million dollars (and, fun fact, they were the primary funder of this initiative, by far. The next donor only gave $100), outspending the supporters of the tax by a ratio of 54 to 1.

Or, to put it in more stark terms, the soda industry didn’t like being taxed, came in to the state of Washington, and essentially bought an election by lying and misrepresenting the facts of the soda taxation.

The result? The state of Washington is out $352 million dollars over the next five years. And, as predicted, we are having problems paying for education, police forces, and elderly care.

So, yes, by all means. Let’s tax soda and candy. But know this – we’re going to be in a hell of a fight.


More Food Porn: Bolognese

Ahhhh…much better.


Organic Water (Signs of the Food Marketers Apocalypse)

I…just…but…huh?

Organic Water ?

But…Isn’t…I just…By definition…Basic chemical properties…Gah!

From their website:

… Llanllyr Water Company mirrors the ethical aspirations of the Llanllyr Farm over the generations. The farm has been accredited organic by the Soil Association for many years, but more than that it has never been farmed any other way.

Our sources are entirely sustainable. We have Organic Farmers and Growers accreditation for both our line and processes and have established programmes to maximize the use of recycled materials including now over 25% of the glass we use. We are UN Global Compact signatures.

It’s shit like this that makes me believe that marketers are the worst people on the planet.

Here’s some basic science for you (touched upon in the NPR article above). The definition for an inorganic compound is when a compound is considered to be of and inanimate, rather than biological origin. Unless water has somehow learned to gestate and procreate since I last drank a glass , by definition it can never be considered to be organic.

Ever. Not once. Never a chance. Can’t be done. It’d be like saying the Sun not only has a soul, but is a kind one at that, and makes a great neighbor, even if he does have a bit of a temper. It’s like saying that one should avoid eating anything with nitrogen in it, because nitrogen feels pain. It’s akin to saying that you feel sad because you once heard helium cry.

When marketers say stuff like this, it’s admitting that they not only failed seventh grade science, but think everyone else failed it as well.

Oh, and the same thing applies to you bastards selling organic salt.

Gah!!!


The World’s Worst Restaurant Recommendation

I’m a bit trepidatious in discussing the following topic, for reasons that should soon be apparent. My job here is not to offend, but to question, and if I’ve accomplished the former, rather than the latter, then I haven’t done my job very well.

There is one type of restaurant recommendation that makes me shudder every time I hear it. It usually goes down like this:

Me: What do you think of this Mexican restaurant?
Friend: I’ve only eaten there once, and it was okay. But every time I go by, I see a lot of Mexicans eating in there.

In the above example, you can replace “Mexican” with any other ethnic variation, and I’d still have the same response – me doing a double take, as if my brain had been suddenly doused in ice water.

The basic premise of my friends response strikes me as a bit off, as if a collective group of people, based solely off of their race, will primarily congregate in a restaurant based solely on the quality of said restaurant.

Every time I hear this sort of recommendation, my mind races to the converse argument – if tourists want to find a good restaurant in a America, they need only search for the busiest American restaurant that happens to be filled with Americans. As this would invariably lead them to TGIFriday’s in Manhattan, I can see no good from this type of thinking.

(Actually, the better argument would be finding an American restaurant in Tokyo or Mexico City, but if anecdotal evidence is any guide, American expatriates tend to congregate in local bistros, pubs, and taverns more than the local KFC or Pizza Hut.)

The use of “I see a lot of ____________ eating there,” is a culturally peculiar recommendation as well. It’s as if the person giving said recommendation is under the belief that the collective status of the customers’ race is a far more significant variable in rating the quality of a restaurant than an individual experience. That an individual’s (oftentimes incorrect) perception on fifty-plus people whose only tie to one another is eating at the same restaurant and possibly, possibly sharing the same heritage is a better indication on how good the food may be than actually going to the counter and ordering the special of the day.

And let’s talk about heritage, because ethnic enclaves in any major city are never as simple as “this is the Mexican neighborhood” or “this is Chinatown”. Even presuming that everyone in a Mexican neighborhood is, in fact, Mexican (which is itself a huge presumption), there’s still a great difference between a person who can trace their heritage to the state of Sonora, and one who can trace their’s to Oaxaca. Each will have a different perception and desire surrounding food, and what constitutes “good”. Thanks to regional differences, we here in the United States can’t decide what constitutes good Barbecue. What makes us believe that 50 people who might come from the same country can tell us what constitutes a good molé?

When it comes to restaurant recommendations, it would be for the better if we dismissed how busy a place may or may not be as a basis for our choice. Popularity has never been a good indication of quality. The better option, as always, would be to actually visit the restaurant in question and draw your own conclusion. Barring that, ask someone whose opinion you trust.


The Statistics of a “Food Renaissance”

I have been fascinated by these two infographics of late, because they are providing me some statistics to back up some ideas I’ve had for quite some time now.

(Of course the usual caveats surrounding infographics apply. They lack nuance, they only show one view of the data, the data may have been cherry-picked, etc, etc. For the purpose of this post, it would be prudent for me to caste an all-encompassing qualifier of “If the numbers bear out, then…”)

Fact one that you need to know for this post – the average median American household income for 2009 was $50,221. This is the top of the bell curve for household wages in America, and I’m using it here as a line in the sand (so to speak). Half of the households in the United States made less than $50,221per year.

Now, on average, those households that bring in less than $50k a year spend about $2209 per year dining out (see the third chart on this infographic). That translates to $184 per month. For a member of a household were to go out to eat once a week, that would translate to spending $46 for each visit. Twice a week? $23 per visit.

(And yes, each trip to Starbucks, and each beer grabbed at the local tavern were considered in this report. So, in my case…and I’m definitely an outlier…I visit a coffeeshop about 9 out of every 10 days, go to a bar about once a month, and have dinner out about two to three times a week. My dining out costs are higher than most.)

Even if we were to consider the average amount of money spent on eating out in America (which, unsurprisingly, increases dramatically when household income increases above $70,000 per year), the numbers don’t move all that much. Americans spend, on average $2736 per year eating out. This translates to $228 per month, and $57 per visit if eating out once per week, and $28.50 if eating out twice per week.

Now, as a point of context, let me provide some numbers for you for some more popular restaurants in America.

Restaurant – Palace Kitchen. City – Seattle. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $35 per person.

Restaurant – Frances (1 Michelin Star). City – San Francisco. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $42 per person.

Restaurant – Picholine (2 Michelin Stars). City – New York. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $72 per person.

Restaurant – Aalinea (3 Michelin Stars). City – Chicago. Price for Prix Fixe? About $210 per person.

Restaurant – The French Laundry (3 Michelin Stars). City – Yountville, CA. Price for Prix Fixe? About $270 per person.

My point here is not to pick on these fine establishments. Rather, it’s to point out, that the great majority of people in America don’t go to restaurants such as these on a regular basis, if even at all. The statistics just don’t support this sort of behavior. Yes, there are outliers, to be sure. But these are the folks who are on the far end of the bell curve.

What this all means is that the great majority of press surrounding restaurants affect a minority of people in this country. Even here in Seattle, where we spend on $3810 per year on dining out ($317.50 per month, $79.38 per visit when eating out once a week, or $39.69 if eating out twice a week), a great majority of folks wouldn’t know Ethan Stowell from Jason Franey.

For people trying to get a grasp on American food culture, understanding these numbers is critical. If we’re going to say we’re in the midst of a culinary rennaissance, as the Christian Science Monitor recently did, then it would be good to know what the average American adds to our culinary culture. From the article:

America is, quite simply, fascinated by food in a way it never has been. We have become a nation of “foodies” who celebrate, debate, pursue, and show off knowledge of what we eat and how to make it. We’re watching food shows endlessly on TV. We’re enrolling in cooking classes in record numbers. We’re loading our shelves with cookbooks and our e-mail with recipes for salt-crusted snapper. Our new celebrities aren’t LeBron James or Julia Roberts. They’re Bobby Flay and Southern food queen Paula Deen. In short, we have become something of a Sous-Chef Nation.

“We are witnessing the Italian Renaissance in food … an intellectual elevation that is turned into something durable through media,” says Krishnendu Ray, a food and nutrition expert at New York University. “The world of food today is exactly how the world of literature and painting evolved.”

Really? An Italian Renaissance in food? Please show me the numbers that support this. Because ultimately the food culture is defined by the foods that the majority of people can afford, not those that they wish they can afford. If I were a betting person, considering we live in a culture where nearly 1 in 10 food service experiences results in an order of pizza (if this site is to be believed), then this renaissance is far different state from what the Christian Science Monitor would have us believe.

UPDATE: Fixed a link reference and some wording.