Tag Archives: Food Culture

What? Now We Can’t Eat Rabbits?

Executive chef Payton Curry of Caffe Boa in Tempe, Arizona had a thought: Why not serve rabbit on the menu? Little did they know that it would be a controversial move.

Caffe Boa and Boa Bistro have touched a nerve with their plans to serve a rabbit-based menu on Easter Sunday.

“People just don’t realize what wonderful pets rabbits are,” said Doreen O’Connell, a volunteer at Brambly Hedge Rabbit Rescue in Phoenix.

“They’re just the sweetest pets, so good-natured and funny and loving. And like any pet owner, when you see that on a menu you think how could somebody take my sweet pet and slaughter it and eat it?”

Oh fer cryin’ out loud. No one is taking pets into a restaurant in order to cook them. Let’s just stop this faux outrage. We’ve been eating rabbit for thousands of years now, and I don’t think it’s prudent to stop just because a handful of people have decided that bunnies are too cute to consume. Most farmers I’ve talked to refer to rabbits as pests, not pets. They’re one of the reasons that beagles and basset hounds were bred. Rabbits are little more than rats with long ears and good PR.

At least Chef Curry has a sense of humor.

One message left for him: “What’s next? Santa pot pie for Christmas? The idea of you serving rabbit is disgusting, absurd and in poor taste.”

Curry commented, “We’re actually going to be serving venison on Christmas, in honor of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.

(h/t to my pal Kerry)

New Food Media vs. Old Food Media (or Julie vs. Julia)

The upcoming movie Julie & Julia is bringing up some interesting discussions in the food world about old-school food journal vs. new-school food journalism. Or in other words, professional food writers who work at newspapers and have had cookbooks published by mainstream publishing houses are discussing the validity of those food writers who are cutting their teeth in the blog world, and then moving on to bigger and better things.

It makes sense that this movie would initiate such a discussion, for it details the life of two women who best represent each school. In one corner, you have Julia Child, whose legacy is nearly larger than life, an icon of the food movement. In the other you have Julie Powell, an ex-food blogger whose web site hit the big time when she parleyed her exploration of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking into a book deal and then subsequently a movie deal. Both women are quite representative of their eras, as well as the technologies of their eras, Julia Child’s popularity wouldn’t have been so great without television. Ms. Powell’s popularity would be non-existent without blog technology, even if she strongly feels the need to disassociate herself with the blogging generation.

The old-school/new-school debate was put forth once again by Virginia Willis, a food writer and photographer who was brought in old school traditions, even as she embraces new school technologies. She had an in-depth exploration of her feelings a week or so back. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is the part that took me in:

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse?


People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

There’s so much I want to talk about with her perspective, I don’t know where to necessarily start.

For the most part, i don’t think that many individual food bloggers count themselves as food journalists. Granted my sampling is based off of those sites I happen to consume on a regular basis, but those I read come more from a personal memoir/diary perspective, with a tad bit of research thrown in to provide context. Not all food writers are food journalists, and to equate the two is doing a disservice to those who explicitly do not do food journalism.

But let’s talk about expertise for a moment. Can people who simply consume food without knowing its context be considered experts? If not, does this lack of expertise diminish their experience, or make that experience less important?

First and foremost, food is a reflection of any given culture, regardless of the era in which they live. Each culture has its own ignorance of items relating to their culture. Is Pliny the Elder’s position on beer to be dismissed because he didn’t know of yeast, nor of beer’s importance to the tribes of his enemies? Are the cooks of the Renaissance less important to food culture because they didn’t know the etymology and evolution of the recipes they were using? Of course not. The same can be said of those who simply mimic recipes and discuss their value on food blogs or other similar mediums. Their input has inherent value. Just because one knows the importance of Poulet au Bresse does not mean that their insight has more cultural value from one who does not.

So if cultural currency isn’t the issue, then what is? My guess is something I call “Institutional Relevancy”, or how important one person is to the institution they serve, in this case: food media.

Here’s an observation I have that most American food writers don’t want to hear – the majority of Americans don’t care about food, or at least not in the way the experts would like them to. There are many anecdotal statistics I could throw out there to support my position – the popularity of fast food restaurants, the ratio of sales of prepared food versus fresh produce, the number of people who call Kraft Singles “cheese”.

“But Kate!”, one might exclaim. “What about the popularity of The Food Network?”

Granted, The Food Networks growth over the past ten years or so have been impressive, but let’s take a look at the shows they have on. Some of them a pure entertainment, (Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef, The Search for the Next Food Network Star), others are recipe shows that have approach cooking from a very simplistic point of view (Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and others), and still others are simply border line food porn (Paula Deen). My point here is that the largest food media institution has succeeded because it either treats food as entertainment, or as a dumbed-down commodity. There are exceptions on the network, to be sure, but these tend to be the exceptions, and not the rule. On the Food Network, Poulet au Bresse is afforded the same respect as any other chicken.

The proliferation of food blogs that take this simplistic approach reflect the current standard of American food knowledge. That is to say, we are how we eat – kind of mindlessly.

But this is changing. I doubt the local food movement would be as successful today without blogs, the same could be said for the organic movement five years ago. And each of these movements have entered our culinary vernacular, and have made us smarter when it comes to food.

I will admit to one trend that I find disturbing – the proliferation of food blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases and video links. I am not a fan of Slashfood or Eat Me Daily, who seem to believe that recapping Top Chef or providing obituaries about the Taco Bell Chihuahua are relevant to cooking or restaurant going. But this is a personal bias. I’m of the belief that the more we take these sites seriously, the more likely we’ll regress in our collective food knowledge.

Let me end on this – I’m a fan of Julia Child, and I believe her place in American food history is deserved. Her French Cooking cookbooks are near required for anyone’s cookbook library. But how effective was the method of her message when a mere generation later, someone following her cookbook didn’t understand the relevance of poulet au Bresse?

The Disconnect of Five Star Dining

Alone on the stage stands a violinist. It is dark, save one lone spotlight casting down upon the musician, which serves to cast them as the singular point of focus for the audience, as well as to create a subtle air of menace.

The violin in brought to the chin, the bow is raised, and Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major begins.

At this point, members of the audience will surreptitiously and unknowingly divide into several groups. Some will listen to the sum of the performance, ignoring the musician’s technique or skill and base their perceptions of the evening on whether they were in a good mood, , how pleasant or unpleasant the auditorium was, how the audience responded, or whether they knew the musician from previous performances. The music, if enjoyed, will be appreciated from a very personal perspective

Some will pay careful attention to the music, ensuring the musician does the piece justice. Questions such as “Does the performer have the requisite skills to perform the piece?”, “Are the performer’s fingers heard as they press upon the fingerboard?”, “Does their technique result in unintended noises?”, and “Do they understand the piece they are playing?” are all asked and answered as the piece progresses.

And still others will remain ignorant of the music or musician, unable or unwilling to understand the history of the music, nor will they be able to appreciate the skill and talent needed to perform the Concerto. The music will be heard the same way that some people hear foreign languages – unintelligible. Their response to the music will most likely be frustration or indifference, due in large part to their inability to understand what they are listening to.

Then there are those who were unable to get tickets to the concert.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some variation of the above is what goes through my mind every time I pick up an issue of Bon Appetit, read an article about Thomas Keller, or listen to someone talk about molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or any of the other genres of 5 star restaurants out there.

Over at Ruhlman.com, commenter Maura left the following note in response to Michael’s most recent post about Molecular Gastronomy:

The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observent cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena.
I’m not so sure about this. I hope it’s not true. And it leaves behind millions of people who are neither insiders nor attuned to trends in cooking. It leaves behind people who barely have enough food, or don’t have the resources to engage in these techniques. It leaves behind people who aren’t looking for an exisential experience. To suggest that this will be the only acceptable way to cook and eat is elitist.

For now, let’s leave aside the notion that “molecular gastronomy” can be defined in several ways (I see it as both a process/philosophy and separately as a ‘cuisine’). Instead, let’s focus on the larger question of whether 5 star restaurant culture affects the more general food culture.

Quick quiz – when in the kitchen, do you use any techniques made popular by Haute Cuisine? Do you intentionally seek to combine foods and techniques from two or more cultures in order to create a single meal? Is presentation equally important as taste?

My guess is that a handful of you answered yes to some of the above, less than a handful answered yes to all of the above, and a fair majority answered no to all of the above, with the caveat being that some of you didn’t know what the heck haute cuisine was, nor that presentation is actually a big deal.

Of course my quiz was full of generalizations that disregarded the many subtleties that may have affected the way some of you cook. But my general belief is that 5 star dining affects regular everyday cooks very little, if even at all.

The reason is basic economics. Can an average person afford to acquire the tools, product and skills necessary to produce meals equivalent to those found in 5 star restaurants? Unless they have a high income, a fair amount of free time, and the resources required to take care of other responsibilities (such as cleaning the house, raising the kids), then the short answer is “no”.

If these tools, products, and skills are unable to make it into the core repertoire of home cooks, then it’s unlikely to have a major effect upon the larger food culture.

So then why the big deal surrounding Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, et al? Jumping back to the violinist, those who have spent a great deal of time understanding cooking techniques and studying tastes and cuisines have found these guys to be exceptionally talented and innovative when compared to others in the restaurant industry. Their influence can and will be felt throughout the restaurant industry, especially in regard to upscale dining.

However, their effect upon the food culture as a whole will be minimal. Those of us are unable (or unwilling) to hear the violinist and the music they are playing are unlikely to be moved by it. Anyone who claims otherwise speaks primarily from hubris.

The Culinary culture of Utah

Oh Utah. You are an enigma. For years I went on through life believing that you had little or nothing to teach me in the ways of food. In the map of my mind, Utah was a black hole of culinary tradition, stuck between the California farmlands and the breadbasket of America that is the Midwest.

Utah, oh Utah. I admit. I was wrong.

The first clue that I was incorrect in my thinking was provided by a piece of evidence that I misinterpreted : Green Jello.

I first heard of your passion for green Jello back when Bill Cosby asked your state legislature to make Jello the state snack. In the back of my mind, I chuckled a bit. Jello? You do know that Kraft makes the stuff, right? The idea of Jello becoming a state snack was as ludicrous as making Cheez Whiz the state cheese.

And then I saw the Jello lapel pins that were sold at the Winter Olympics in 2002. My mind was aghast. I didn’t know whether to mock you, or applaud you. It appears as if you have a severe passion for Jello, and it’s difficult for me to mock other people’s passions.

My tipping point came recently, when I learned of your joy of all things Dutch Oven related. It seems as if you have an equal amount of passion for dutch ovens. The International Ducth Oven Society is based in Utah. You even have made it the official pot of your state. Consider that for a moment : You have a historical evidence declaring your states undying love for a pot! I don’t think even the French have that level of commitment to cookery. You guys are HARDCORE!

Consider this my apology. I’m sorry Utah, that I ever might have mocked your food choices. You have passion and love for food as equal or greater than many other areas of the country. You have a tradition that cannot be denied. The mockery that I once reserved for you will now go to someone who deserves it…like Nevada.

tags technorati : Utah Green Jell Dutch Ovens

Cultures and Cuisines

A Commenter over at Megnut posed this question:

I’ve been reading ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and near the end Pollan talks about all cultures being omnivorous but picking a selection of the available foods (forming their cuisine) and about all cultures having rules of eating (whether they’re codified concretely or not). This got me wondering if anyone has collected in one place the essence of different cuisines…

The short answer is no, there has been no attempt at defining the essence of various cuisines.

The Long answer is that it would be quite an impossible task. Impossible, not in the sense of “Oh my GOD that’s a lot of work”, but rather in the “the thesis is invalid and unworkable”. This might take a bit of explaining.

Cuisines are a direct result of economies, with a little bit of politics and religion thrown into the mix. “Culture”, for lack of a better phrase, only gets its hands on affecting cuisines once the aforementioned variables have played their roles.

Because economies, politics, and religion can significantly change in a society (sometimes over a timeframe as short as a generation), a culture’s cuisine will find itself in constant flux. American cuisine (in all of its iterations, from Cajun and Tex-Mex, to fast food and supermarket selections) is the perfect example of this.

Let’s take fast food for an example. The popularity of fast food would have not taken off without an assist from the automotive industry, as well as the creation of well maintained roads that provided easy access to these restaurant. That the rise of fast food restaurants in the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s coincided with the creation and completion of the interstate is not a coincidence. But I digress.

Economics play the biggest role in food cultures. Poverty, food supplies, trade, barter systems all play a role, with other variables such as political instability and even the weather affecting all of the above in some fashion or another. Pollan’s comment that culture’s picked their foods, is really shorthand for the economic realities that everyday people had to contend with.

The idea of recognizing cuisines is still rather new on the planet, and is likely a direct result of having little concern over one’s access to a food source. When a culture has less wealth, it’s less likely to concern itself with the idea of cuisine, and more likely to simply try to feed itself.

Look at it this way – Do you think the poor of the middle ages were concerned with rules of eating, or do you think that they were more concerned with ensuring there was food available to them in the long periods of time between harvest season and growing season. Culturally, it’s only with the relatively recent explosion of the middle class since the time of the industrial revolution that has seen an interest in food beyond simple survival. I’m speaking other than the ruling class of course, who have almost always have been lavish with foods, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Once a culture gets to a point where it has the luxury to actually examine other cuisines of the world and apply them to themselves, it’s always through the bias of their circumstances.

Let’s take Italian food for instance. America, Argentina, and Ethiopia all have had notable amounts immigrants and expatriates from Italy. These immigrants and expatriates left their mark on each countries perception of Italian food. But America has focused more on pastas and tomato sauces, almost completely ignoring polenta and meat, Argentina has meat dishes and polentas with very distinct Italian influences. And while American Italian food was directly influenced by poor immigrants, Ethiopian Italian food is influenced by by wealth, due to Italy’s history as colonizers. Meanwhile, back in Italy, they have their own take on their own cuisine, with differences both subtle and great.

My overall point, I suppose, is that there is no “one essence” of any cuisine, due in large part due to economic fluctuations, as well as the biases we all carry in regard to food. Changes in food due to culture has played a lesser role in teh shaping of cuisines.

Technorati Tags: Cultures,, Cuisines

Rock and Roll and Restaurants

There’s a deleted scene in Almost Famous, where the lead guitarist for the band Stillwater talks about why he loves music. I’m paraphrasing here, but the jist of the monologue was that it was the tiniest of imperfections of an otherwise perfect song that made rock and roll such a joy to behold.

I have the same feeling towards restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a great deal of respect to the chefs, owners and staffs of the various three and four star restaurants I’ve been to in my life. I’ve enjoyed food that I couldn’t recreate in my lifetime, and I’ve been the recipient of customer service so precise that I would have sworn that there was a Marine drill sergeant masquarading as a floor manager. In my mind, I equate these places to classical music – highly talented artisans and craftsmans working in concert to provide the consumer the most technically proficient product that can be had.

But my heart? My heart belongs to the rock and rollers of the food world. These are the people who know only three or four chords, and only know how to keep tempo in 4/4 time, yet can bring thousands of people to their feet, light their lighters, bang their heads and get their asses out on the dance floor or into a mosh pit.

These are the folks who make Philly Cheesesteaks, bowls of Tex-Mex Chili, and Barbeque in it’s many iterations. These are people who wouldn’t know mirepoix from soffritto, and don’t give a damn about this gap in their knowledge. It’s the folks who run the pho houses, teriyaki joints, and Indian buffets that get their followings by word of mouth. It’s the restaurants that I go to on a regular basis as opposed to the restaurants I go to on special occaissions.

Or to put it another way, I recognize the artistry and influence of the Haydens, Bachs and Copelands of the world, and even click on them in my iPod from time to time. But when push comes to shove, I’m more likely to listen to The Clash, Husker Du, or The Who.

So when I see things such as chefs trying to make a foie gras hot dog, or sell haute hamburgers, I chuckle a bit inside. To me, this sounds as odd as Yo-Yo Ma covering The Killers. Yeah it may sound interesting, and certainly they’ll be a proficiency to it which cannot be denied, but it’s still not rock and roll.

Technorati Tags: Food,

Deep Fried Coke: Why all the Hate?

I know, I know. I’ve knocked down fair food before. But I’ll let you in on a secret – there’s a part of me, deep within the nether regions of my id, that loves the idea of deep fried fair foods. This is also the same region of my brain that revels in the fantasy of eating turkey drumsticks with my bare hands, while shouting “Off with their heads!” in some sort of bizarre amalgamation of King Henry the VIII and Queen Victoria. My brain – it’s both my asset and my curse.

It is this decadent part of my brain that is keeping me at odds against the folks who keep telling me how outrageous this story is…that someone dared come up with a concoction that involves Deep Frying Coca-Cola Syrup. Or, more specifically:

…a batter mix (is) made with Coca-Cola syrup, a drizzle of strawberry syrup, and some strawberries.

Balls of the batter are then deep-fried, ending up like ping-pong ball sized doughnuts which are then served in a cup, topped with Coca-Cola syrup, whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and a cherry on the top.

This sounds absolutely, positively decadent! I so want to try one!

I’m sure there are several folks who read this site on a regular basis whose jaw just thumped upon their desk. But I’m curious to the negative responses to this story (which has been making it’s way around the food world for about two months now). Is it the fact that the dessert is unhealthy? Is it because it’s gratuitous? One could make those claims at number of desserts sold at 4 star restaurants across the country. What makes an dark chocolate sponge cake topped with meringue, spiced almonds with a dusting of cinnamon and cayenne pepper okay, but deep fried batter made with cola syrup and strawberries is looked upon (by some) with disdain?

The title of the above linked article was entitled “Because we don’t already have enough fried foods..”, giving the impression that this dessert is unnecessary. Blogging Stocks mentions “Fried Coke underscores how far from healthy Coca-Cola is“. NPR reports on the dessert under the title “From the Annals of Bad Eating: Deep-Fried Coca-Cola“. From all of these stories, it sounds like Deep-Fried Coke is a ticking time bomb upon our health, and a culinary disaster to boot.

Nonsense, I say. Of course it’s unhealthy…name me a dessert found at most restaurants that isn’t. It’s not exponentially worse than the crème brulee or the tiramisu being sold at the upper-scale restaurant down the street.

Personally, I have no idea if it’s a good idea, from a taste perspective, because, y’know, I haven’t actually tried the dessert. I’ll refrain from giving an opinion upon it’s taste to when I have eaten Deep-Fried Coke.

Technorati Tags: Deep Fried Coke, Fair Food