August 12, 2009
The Box Lunch Project
Tom Devaney, a terrific poet and friend of mine, teaches a perennial seminar at Penn on writing about food, variously titled "Food For Thought" or (in the advanced version) "The Art of Eating." The University of Pennsylvania Libraries recently put together a book based on writing and research from his courses, making use of a unique archive:
The boxes contain more than 3,000 recipe booklets from church organizations, small to mid-sized companies, food manufacture PR departments, and far-flung community groups. Every sturdy box is labeled with the implacable title, Victus Populi. The items in each box are not high-end cookbooks, but are all over the map: stapled together mimeograph copies, eye-catching (often kitschy) promotional pamphlets, one-off recipe booklets.
The boxes intrigued me. Each Victus Populi case was an archive in its particular a category: Bread, Fruits, Nuts & Olives, Seafood, Cheese, Meats, International Foods, Condiments: Herbs & Spices, Salads & Sandwiches, Health & Diets, Leftovers: Quick & Easy, Chocolate, Ice Cream, and one devoted solely to JELL-O.
And so the assignment took shape. Each student would choose a box to write about. The student essays would chronicle their journey and search of the primary source materials. They would use both large brush strokes (to provide an overview of the box) and develop one or two finer points in greater detail. To finish, they would find and cull all but two recipes from hundreds in each box.
The Art of the Box Lunch contains four of these essays, plus a generation selection of images from the collection, and a long introductory essay by Tom. I'm really stunned by how gorgeous it is - and also now feeling quite shamed into coming up with a similarly cool project for my seminar students in the fall.
And I know you were waiting for the best part: The Art of the Box Lunch is also now available as a free PDF.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Gastrosnark, Learnin'
August 5, 2009
A Fine Vintage In the Kitchen
I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff; Regina Schrambling praises vintage stoves:
So many other essentials in life are clearly improved in their latest incarnation: Phones are smaller and portable; stereos are downsized to ear buds; cars are safer and run on less fuel. But stoves are a basic that should stick to the basics: The fewer bells and whistles, the less need for bell-and-whistle repairmen. Motherboard is not a word that should ever be associated with the kitchen—put computer technology in a stove, and you're asking for a crash. Google "I hate my Viking" these days, and you get a sense of how many things can go wrong with techno-overload. Some of these ranges combine electric and gas elements, which is a recipe for trouble, as is microwave or convection capability. This kind of overdesign is what killed combination tuner/turntables—one goes, and the other dies from neglect.
I get kind of excited about things like self-updating blenders and coffee makers that I can control from my Blackberry, but there's also, sometimes, something to be said for saying, "You know, I think we've kind of figured this out. Maybe we'll work the kinks out on what's next in another few decades, but until then, let me have my dumb appliance."
This sort of dovetails with Michael Pollan's essay about Julia Child and food TV -- there's something about the convergence of cooking with electronics that transformed it into entertainment, that elevated it into something harder than most people could or would do at home, that left us with celebrity chefs and high-powered gadgets and a vastly reduced proportion of us actually cooking anything on them.
Which in turn makes it harder for technology to help us - we'd have to actually KNOW what we were doing to actually make a better (as opposed to shinier, or more convenient) device.
August 3, 2009
It Really Is Snark Week
... but that doesn't mean Christopher Shea isn't right:
I'm as big a Julia Child fan as the next person... But how many pieces about Child's cultural significance can media outlets run before it starts to look as though reporters and editors have a financial stake in the forthcoming Nora Ephron movie about her?
June 24, 2009
A Living Wage for Living Literature
If you hang around with me long enough that we get a chance to go to a fancy restaurant together, you might get to hear this parable. It used to be possible to be a professional waiter - one who thought of service as a career. And the service you received was service from a career professional. But as wages declined, so did service. A rotating cast of college students and twentysomethings can sometimes surprise you with their talent or enthusiasm, but they can't make a career of it. You come in, you do your best, and you rotate out, and what you end up with are a lot of chain restaurants where it's good to be a college student or twenty-something, good to drink a lot and eat a lot, but comparatively few places were you can feel like a gourmand.
The New Yorker's The Book Bench tells a similar story about wage cuts among younger workers in the publishing industry. The impetus to the post are cuts at William Morris, where entry-level workers saw their pay cut from 13.50/hour to 9.50/hour.
Tiny salaries in the low ranks of publishing are miserable for the young workers, but they’re probably worse for literature (You can insert “movies” for “literature,” if that’s the prism through which you want to read this.) It’s a truism of the industry that most of these jobs are held by people who can afford them—people with some parental support and no student loans. Often they’ve had unpaid internships, that most pernicious example of class privilege. Their superiors are the same people, ten years later. They—we!—are smart, cultured people with good intentions, but it’s easy to see how this narrow range could lead to a blinkered view of literature.
So, if you’re sick of coming-of-age novels about comfortable young men, a little solidarity with the lowly assistants might help.
Although now I'm scratching my head: the privilege thing I get, but are publishing companies and talent agencies overrun by dudes? I've never gotten that vibe.
June 11, 2009
Our Daily Bread
Today Lifehacker brings us a ridiculously good idea. You make and refrigerate a week-or-two supply of no-knead bread dough. When you're ready for a fresh loaf, you pull off a chunk and stick it in the oven for half an hour. Voila! Cheap, convenient, delicious, homemade bread! These folks turned this idea into a cookbook.
March 26, 2009
March 9, 2009
Retronovation n. The conscious process of mining the past to produce methods, ideas, or products which seem novel to the modern mind. Some recent examples include Pepsi Throwback's use of real sugar, Pepsi Natural's glass bottle, and General Mills' introduction of old packaging for some of their cereals. In general, the local & natural food and farming thing that's big right now is all about retronovation...time tested methods that have been reintroduced to make food that is closer to what people used to eat. (I'm sure there are non-food examples as well, but I can't think of any.)
No sooner does Jason oh-so-gently throw down the gauntlet than Waxy, who almost certainly meant nothing of the kind, answers the question by linking to an amazing post about a transcript of a story conference between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan about Raiders of the Lost Ark:
(Key: G = George; S = Steven; L = Larry)
G — The thing with this is, we want to make a very believable character. We want him to be extremely good at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character or the James Bond character. James Bond and the man with no name were very good at what they did. They were very, fast with a gun. they were very slick, they were very professional. They were Supermen.
S — Like Mifune.
G — Yes, like Mifune. He's a real professional. He's really good. And that is the key to the whole thing. That's something you don't see that much anymore.
Mining 1930s throwaway serials and 60s genre films to create the blueprint for 1980s blockbusters = retronovation, definitely.
But while we're on the subject, let me say a little about the word itself. I write a lot of things super-fast. But I toiled over this word. "Retrovation"? I asked. "Retrinnovation"? It was Mayostard/Mustardayonnaise all over again. "Retronovation" is the clear winner, not only because it sounds better, but because it's etymologically correct: retro + nova => "backwards new." (Or, "return to begin.") Also, hats off to Jason for omitting the hyphen (i.e. "retro-novation"). Fie on the hyphen! The hyphen is only there to draw attention. In fact, I've retronovatively changed the word in my original post to scrap the hyphen I put there. Vive retronovation! Old is the new now!
March 5, 2009
Kottke reports that there's a "Pepsi Natural" on the way to market -- featuring cane sugar in lieu of corn syrup, and served in that most magnificent of beverage transportation devices, a solid glass bottle.
Needless to say, I approve of both of these retronovations. In fact, I make semi-regular trips to my local Mexican wholesaler to pick up soda served this way. But I'm strictly a Coca-Cola man. Let's hope Coke follows Pepsi's lead, and soon.
This is the part of the post where I quote Andy Warhol:
What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.
Let's make sugar cheap, corn expensive, and bring back those Cokes!
February 8, 2009
Does This Count As Slow Food?
I've been rediscovering my slow cooker. While my boyfriend was visiting over the last week, we made bananas foster, chicken and dumplings, and sloppy joes, all in the crockpot. (Let's just say it was not a week of healthy eating.) Given the effortless deliciousness that came out of the crockpot after a few hours of cooking, I started to wonder if anyone had made a blog devoted purely to slow cooker recipes. Did I even need to ask?
January 7, 2009
It's What's Good In the Neighborhood
I lived in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for a year in 2001-2002. My state senator was this guy named Barack Obama.
My favorite show on local TV there was called "Check, Please." Three people from all over Chicago would recommend their favorite restaurants -- everything from casual neighborhood hangs to places with wine lists longer than your couch -- and they would each go to all three, then review them together.
Well, Ezra Klein got a hold of an early, unaired episode of "Check, Please" featuring -- yes -- Barack Obama. He's plugging the Dixie Kitchen, one of my favorite places for catfish. So this just made me happy today.
File under: Gastrosnark, Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
December 18, 2008
Magnificient and Fleeting (In Praise of Butter)
The most common mistakes made by home bakers, professionals say, have to do with the care and handling of one ingredient: butter. Creaming butter correctly, keeping butter doughs cold, and starting with fresh, good-tasting butter are vital details that professionals take for granted, and home bakers often miss.
Butter is basically an emulsion of water in fat, with some dairy solids that help hold them together. But food scientists, chefs and dairy professionals stress butter’s unique and sensitive nature the way helicopter parents dote on a gifted child...
“Once butter is melted, it’s gone,” said Jennifer McLagan, author of the new book “Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes” (Ten Speed Press).
Warm butter can be rechilled and refrozen, but once the butterfat gets warm, the emulsion breaks, never to return.
So tragic -- it's like Paradise Lost!
I say forget bacon -- butter is king.
November 28, 2008
Boy, This "Gastrosnark" Category Sure Is Useful ...
Found on Ask MetaFilter: "When asked for dessert recommendations, my friend’s 8-year-old son suggested 'chocolate chip cookies with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough in them.' How on earth can I pull off this fantastic treat?"
November 27, 2008
Cranberry Sauce Recipe
If you want to make your entire house smell amazing for two hours, make this. Exactly as the recipe says. It's brilliant.
Note: The jalapenos seem like a lot at first. Just go with it. I was also tempted to put in a little more water, but I'm happy I didn't. The recipe is perfect. Trust the recipe.
Also: My other contribution to Thanksgiving dinner is creamy potatoes au gratin. I diced the onions like a few of the other reviewers did, sprinkled over a dusting of garlic salt-and-pepper seasoning, and topped the whole with bread crumbs and a handful of shredded cheese before putting it into the oven.
November 26, 2008
Flat, Fast Turkey
We did Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, because we went shopping on Monday and couldn't wait. (It also worked out better with our work schedules.) We opted to try Mark Bittman's 45-minute roast turkey, with the following results:... Read more ....
November 24, 2008
I Hate Cooking, But...
Jason's write-up of the Alinea cookbook (which is sponsoring his RSS feed -- wow, talk about sentences that only make sense in the year 2008) made me start thinking about, um, cookbooks.
I own two: One entry-level affair called "The Essentials of Cooking" and another slim volume called "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen."
But I'm starting to think maybe I've been taking the wrong approach. Turns out I am never going to cook a workmanlike stew for myself. I'm not going to fire up some sorta chicken stir fry. It's just too boring, and the take-out options in San Francisco are just too good.
But what about more interesting fare? What about the fun stuff?
What's your best way-out-there recipe? Something that's not just fun to eat but fun to make?
November 10, 2008
Adventures in Dorm Food
November 3, 2008
The Politics of Food
We all know I'm a giant fan of Michael Pollan, and his recent NYT Magazine piece is no exception, containing a bevy of ideas for how the next President can transform U.S. food policy. But it seems to me his locavore-cheerleading and attacks on factory-farm monoculture are in direct conflict with the claims Paul Collier makes in this month's Foreign Affairs.
Two parts of Collier's thesis - that we should promote factory farms in developing countries and work to overcome Third-World opposition to GM foods - seem to run counter to Pollan's ideas. (They agree on a third argument - that US farm subsidies are wack.) Re-reading Pollan's article after reading Collier's, I'm struck by how quickly Pollan glosses over the effects of his policy recommendations in the developing world. (A characteristic line: "To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t.")
Where the two seem to be especially in conflict is in Collier's total disdain for what he calls "peasant agriculture," or what Pollan might call "sustainable farming."
As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.
The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture. With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. ... But [...] given the chance, peasants seek local wage jobs, and their offspring head to the cities. This is because at low-income levels, rural bliss is precarious, isolated, and tedious. The peasant life forces millions of ordinary people into the role of entrepreneur, a role for which most are ill suited. In successful economies, entrepreneurship is a minority pursuit; most people opt for wage employment so that others can have the worry and grind of running a business. And reluctant peasants are right: their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source. Far from being the answer to global poverty, organic self-sufficiency is a luxury lifestyle. It is appropriate for burnt-out investment bankers, not for hungry families.
I'm tempted to call it a wash and seek some sort of half-hearted journalistic middle ground, but I sense there's some nuanced truth somewhere in here that should be sussed out, and I'm not sure who to believe. I've gotta say Robin was right, a "great reconciliation" is in order.
Anyone got a link to the equivalent of a Pollan/Collier online cage match I could read?