22 February 2011

In Support of Foodies

Go ahead: call me a foodie. I dislike the term, but it’s unavoidable. I adore food, actually; much of my life – both personally and professionally – revolves around it. I take an active interest in learning where my food comes from, but to some extent isn’t it the responsibility of every self-respecting human being to accept the same obligation in this day and age? B.R. Myers is a vegan, though he somehow eliminates himself from any gastronomic coalition. After reading his recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” I’m convinced he simply hates food.

Like many others (I'm slightly late to the Myers-bashing party), after several readings I find myself struggling to find the universal point of Myers’s article, or any point at all for that matter. He isn’t preaching the wonders of veganism, or even telling me I should abstain from eating meat. What he does point out, through a scapegoat-style name-calling of various food writers – Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jeffrey Steingarten, Kim Severson, and Michael Pollan – is that I’m a stuck-up elitist with no appreciation for abstract discussion or the arts (real arts, like literature) who only respects cultural traditions when they benefit me in some gastronomical way, preferably involving the torture of animals.

I understand that to pick up a book by one of the aforementioned authors is to admit moderate to severe interest in food. For instance: Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune, one of my favorite restaurants in New York City. I find her style of cooking to be very simple and traditional, yet curiously forward-thinking, and I am excited to learn how her upbringing influenced her culinary approach. Bourdain is read by industry folk and travel enthusiasts alike. While he is often (okay, mostly always) sharp-tongued, I find him to be an honest example of what it means to be culturally respectful. Can anyone else say they’ve experienced a meal of warthog rectum – and even graciously accepted a second helping – for the sake of being polite? Also, he’s a damn fine writer.

Myers defended his article during a recent appearance on New Hampshire Public Radio, claiming his point is merely to suggest that writers who are not food-based should contribute more to the current state of… food writing. While this could easily serve as a stable argument, his piece doesn’t even begin to do it justice, stretching so far as to accuse food writers and foodies in general of being gluttonous, and asserting that the unbound writer would somehow be more objective when discussing topics such as the nation’s obesity epidemic. His supposed cause is further downgraded by my realization that the last few articles pertaining to food I’ve read in the New Yorker are actually penned by contributors not at all known for food writing (with the exception of an excerpt of Hamilton’s upcoming memoir). Yet all have managed to create the same level of excitement for me as, say, Calvin Trillin, the magazine’s longtime food writer (who, interestingly enough, also writes articles not pertaining to food at all) reliably does. One of the recent pieces, written by Adam Gopnik, is about the opportunities pastry chefs have to impact the direction of food and dining using new and innovative techniques, tools, and ingredients. As I mentioned earlier, Myers doesn’t think foodies are interested in such abstract conversation, but perhaps this doesn’t count as such since it’s food-related. Never mind that it’s one of the most fascinating articles I’ve read in a long time, food-based or otherwise; Myers would call me single-minded.

The chefs profiled in Gopnik’s piece (Alex Stupak, formerly of wd-50, and the Adria brothers, of El Bulli) are pioneers in the food community, just as Radiohead continues to push boundaries in the music industry, and just as Alexander McQueen created an almost unattainable standard for design and tailoring in the fashion world. These people are artists above all else, and are no more or less deserving of respect than their creative counterparts. In the kitchen where I work, even while the line cooks are taking a beating, the goal is to always present the best ingredients available in the most inspired, yet simple and honest way. The same can be said for the pastry station. Above all, I want the guest to taste every distinct detail of the dessert without having to presume anything.

Along these lines, Myers claims that money is no object for foodies as it relates to partaking in our gluttonous need for the finest ingredients and the most elaborate meals. A $100 lunch that’s a great value for the money? Please. I live in New York City – the most expensive city in America – and have never experienced a restaurant review so pretentious. Myers focuses on meat, meat, and more meat – preferably butchered right in front of our eyes! – to attempt his cost argument. Kindly allow me to call bullshit on this. Being a meat-eater has absolutely nothing to do with my fascination with food or how much money I’m willing to spend; I’m equally obsessed with the idea of Thomas Keller’s nine-course vegetarian tasting menu at Per Se as I am with the cheeseburger at the Spotted Pig, and I’ll bet you can guess which one is more exorbitant. The reason it’s possible to eat well without dropping an entire paycheck is seasonality; the best ingredients are generally cheaper when purchased during their prime growing periods, resulting in a meal that both tastes fantastic and is easy on the wallet. Myers, as a vegan, must be aware of this well-known fact. I don’t buy asparagus in December not only because it’s expensive, but also because, well, it’s not very good.

I don’t want to jump too far into the topic of meat because I understand there are several points of view – all relevant, but mine is that I love it. It’s possible for me to not eat it for days at a time, and I have absolutely no problem doing that… but I love it. I have many pescetarian, vegetarian, even vegan friends, and I respect the hell out of their efforts because I know their reasons are genuine (I’ve even tried to cut back on my lighthearted teasing). I grew up in a meat-eating household in the Midwest, for crying out loud – with barbecue (more on that later). As I grow older and more concerned with what I put into my body, I am learning the value of supporting local, family-owned farms that raise animals based on certain standards. How supporting people and businesses in my region can possibly be seen as elitist and snobby makes absolutely no sense to me. It stimulates the local economy, encourages dialogue and camaraderie with the people supplying what I eat, and helps raise food requirements and standards on all counts while encouraging smart meal planning on my end.

Myers refers to meal planning as ritualistic behavior, and I’d take it one step further and even call it therapeutic, much in the same way a lyricist might feel about beginning a new song, or a painter attacking a blank canvas. How one is more relevant than another is beyond me. As far as I’m concerned, all that matters is the ability to invest time and effort into something that raises our most prominent skills, talents, and interests to the highest possible level. And everyone is self-critical, not just Nikki Sixx. When I spend time making a cake for someone’s birthday, my goal is for it to be the best cake I’ve ever produced, and for everyone who gets a slice to feel the same way. That’s a ridiculous standard to have, but I don’t think I’m wrong for possessing such a mindset.

It’s fair to note that my stomach is a bottomless pit, and I guarantee when I finally visit home (after being away for over a year), I’m going to eat way more Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue in one sitting than I should, accompanied by a lot of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat beer. Gluttonous though it may be, it’s also an effort of appreciation and support for a fine local business. I would be willing to bet that the majority of people waiting inside the gas station at 47th and Mission for their Z-man sandwiches, ribs, and roast chicken have no fucking idea who Grant Achatz is, or that the Michelin Guide critiques restaurants, not tires. Nor do they care. All they care about is sharing a good meal with family and friends, and that is the ultimate point, and the most fundamental argument in favor of food.

05 November 2010

Ode to the Strand

While visiting New York City last Christmas I spent much of my time at the Strand Bookstore. I had a tendency to do this every time I was in the city, come to think of it. The kind of visits where you enter at some point in the afternoon, only to exit to a pitch black sky and bright city lights. To say one could get lost inside the Strand is an exaggeration, but it is no stretch to say it's an easy place to lose track of time.

During this particular December visit, it occurred to me to fish around for a book that had been mentioned to me by several pastry chefs: Claudia Fleming's The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. This book is out of print; a new copy from Amazon.com is currently priced at $250.00, a used copy priced around $125.00. When I (expectedly) didn't find the book, I inquired about it at the information desk. The employee told me she'd be happy to take my information and get in touch in the event the store received a copy.

I then proceeded to forget all about it. Stepping into daylight from the subway platform yesterday, I noticed the voicemail icon on my phone appear. "Hi, this is Sarah at the Strand Bookstore. I'm calling to let you know we've received a copy of The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern by Claudia Fleming. It is a first edition copy with a hardcover and sleeve, and is in 'like new' condition. We will hold it for you until Saturday, November 6th at the Strand list price of $20.00. If you have any questions, feel free to call us at...." Nearly eleven months later, I am at last in possession of this wonderful book.

Now that I live in the city, I probably - no, definitely - spend way too much money at the Strand. It is one of my favorite places in New York, and the approaching winter months make me excited to spend even more time within its cozy confines, surrounding myself with "18 miles of books."

14 October 2010

Luke's Lobster

A summer treat continuing its welcome well into autumn, Luke's Lobster is one of my favorite NYC food discoveries. Luke Holden (only 26-years-old) just recently quit his "day job" as a banker to focus solely on his wildly successful pair of restaurants. His father, Jeff, owns a seafood-processing plant in Maine (where Luke was born and raised), and is the source of all of the delicious shellfish at Luke's Lobster. In fact, everything in the restaurant comes from Maine: the bread, the chowders and bisques, the ice cream, even the sodas. The shellfish travels from the ocean to your plate within a mere 48 hours, and always from the same source, reaffirming the company's commitment to sustainability.

The idea behind a Luke's Lobster roll is both quality and quantity at a reasonable price. Rolls in the city typically go for anywhere between $20-30, and what you end up with is usually a little bit of lobster mixed with a ton of mayonnaise and celery. No bueno. At Luke's, a lobster roll starts with fresh, toasted and buttered bread which is ever-so-slightly smeared with mayonnaise. It is then stuffed with a quarter pound of delicious chunks of lobster meat and topped off with a celery salt-based spice blend and a little bit of lemon-infused butter. And at $14, it doesn't leave my wallet wondering what happened.

You can also order the same roll at Luke's made with shrimp or crab, both as crave-worthy as the lobster. On my second visit to Luke's, my friend Royal and I went in for the Noah's Ark: two servings apiece of each of the three rolls, with empress claws, chips, and sodas thrown in for good measure. (My favorite soda, by the way, is a fabulous, almost throat-burning ginger brew. Hey, I love ginger.) We still talk about it.

Now that the chilly weather is arriving, I have a feeling my go-to meal will be half a roll paired with a cup of thick, creamy clam chowder or lobster bisque. East coast autumns have never tasted so good.