Free Food and The Coming Stock Market Crash

Two wildly entertaining pieces in today’s NY Times.

While The Boston Globe offered ways to cook lobsters–Earth-shattering news: If the lobster isn’t moving, it may be dead and dangerous to cook and then eat!–The Times ran a story about austerity and stocks and then one on Josh Ozersky’s Big Fat Free Wedding: www.nytimes.com/2010/06/30/dining/30comp.html?ref=dining

Are the stories related?  The coming Depression and free food?  I think so.

First, Mr.  Ozersky’s wedding.

At the wedding, he received free food from Sullivan Street Bakery and the Pat LaFrieda meat company and enjoyed the cooking and food of chefs Orhan Yegen, Ed Brown, and Michael White.  Subsequently, Mr. Ozersky wrote up the event in his column in Time magazine omitting the part  about the free food and the free venue: The Empire Hotel’s rooftop bar.

The big joke here is that chefs, P.R. folks, and owners live by the comped meal.  I receive no fewer than 15-20 invitations per week for free food from hotels, bars, and restaurants.  And not being angelic, I’ll admit it…I…have…accepted comped meals!  There I said it.  That’s a load off.

Of course, so has everyone else in the world of food writing.  Whether it’s a full boat of free food, a table made available at the last minute, or courses and drinks sent out for free…it’s how the industry works.  The Times has a policy of not publishing writers when their food is comped, but…I’ve been on free trips with some of their writers and then seen articles appear about the food and travel that was free.

As Drew Nieporent said to me, “The food always tastes better when it’s free.”

Now what does this have to do with the coming market crash?

Simple: The party is over.  Time to pay the bill.  All that free money made on dubious trades, hedged bets on failure in industry…the folks who paid nothing in banks and restaurants? Subsidized by those who pay…

Dining Around and the Supreme Court’s New Gun Laws

This past weekend I found myself in Northampton, Massachusetts.  It’s not what you think: No tats, no transgender chanting.  Rather, it was high time, not that kind either, to visit my mother who had taken up residence in the very same community hospital where on June 19, 1964, Senator Ted Kennedy had been brought back to life after a horrific plane crash.  My mom was in the hospital almost exactly to the same day as Senator Kennedy 46 years earlier!  Coincidence?  I think not.

Anyway, between visits, my father and I hit the town.  I tried to interest him in piercings–nipples, lips, eyebrows, I didn’t care really, not, per se, but just some puncture of skin with metal that might solidify our bond.  No dice.

So we hit Spoleto’s, which bills itself as Italian, and had cocktails and pasta.  The place was crowded, the streets were packed, I must have spotted no fewer than 18 restaurants!

The next day we dined at The Look Diner.  You know what Europe is missing?  Club sandwiches.  Is there anything better than a turkey club and hot coffee at 9 A.M.?  Of course there isn’t.  The visual and gustatory stimuli led me to feel that I had been up all night partying.

Returning to Boston on late Saturday night, I was keel-hauled to friends in Somerville: Spiked sangria and home baked pizzas.

Tragedy struck on Sunday: Five pounds gained, nothing lost.

To top it off, I read Krugman this morning.  Call him the boy who cried wolf, but I think he’s right.  The Third Depression is on its way.  Stock up on guns and water.  Coinicidence that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of guns today?  No, they know that if you’re broke, might as well be heavily armed.

Who’s that knocking on my door?

Get off my porch!

Boom!  Boom!  Boom!

More on The Reign of Terroir soon…

Is this a work of art or what?

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World Cup & French Gastronomy

With the implosion of the French national team this week at the World Cup, I found myself wondering about the role food plays in the consciousness of French identity and how that may have influenced the scandal and chaos.

For those of you who  don’t know what is what: Raymond Domenech, the French coach, removed Nicholas Anelka, a team member, after Monsieur Anelka swore at him.  In response, the team refused to practice.   Subsequently, Patrice Evra, the team captain, refused to sing, Les Marseillaise,” the national anthem.  And then!  And then…the team lost to South Africa and was eliminated in the first round!

Quelle Scandal!

But wait…the real scandal, as evident in today’s NY Times piece on the unfolding drama, “Racial Undertones in Reactions to France’s Exit From the World Cup,” is how leading French politicians, thinkers, and government officials are saying that all this is happening because the team isn’t white.

From the article–www.nytimes.com/2010/06/24/world/europe/24france.html?ref=:

“The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who has often criticized the failures of French assimilation, compared the players to youths rioting in thebanlieues, France’s suburban ghettos. ‘We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,’ he said in a radio interview.

“Fadela Amara, the junior minister for the racially charged suburbs who was born to Algerian parents, warned on Tuesday that the reaction to the team’s loss had become racially charged.  “There is a tendency to ethnicize what has happened,” she told a gathering of PresidentNicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, according to news reports. ‘Everyone condemns the lower-class neighborhoods. People doubt that those of immigrant backgrounds are capable of respecting the nation.’  She criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of a debate on “national identity,” warning that “all democrats and all republicans will be lost” in this ethnically tinged criticism about Les Bleus, the French team. ‘We’re building a highway for the National Front,’ she said, in a reference to the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

I’ll tell you what I think: I think that if the French spent half as much time talking about immigration and racism as they did about gastronomy, none of this would have happened.  Distracted by salivary glands, they continue to ignore the growing needs and skills of folks of color who are as French as Madame Le Pen.   (What’s up with her, anyway?  Why can’t she be pleasant?)

White boy with ball just prior to me coming upside his head:

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Ingredients: Molto Gusto

The secret to cooking day and night in an expedient way that coaxes flavors from food is: Ingredients.

The truth is: You don’t need many ingredients and you certainly don’t need much time or recipes to get delicious food on the table.

More than half of the dining out experience has to do with service and ambience: Creating the illusion of privilege, providing comfort, having a staff anticipate needs.  Not a home or work environment!

So, at home, many of the daily dishes here have to do with: A stalk of celery, a carrot, a red onion, and a clove of garlic–chopped into tiny pieces, sauteed in good olive oil, and served with tomatoes and a protein.

In light of this, the best discovery I have made in years is Pomi.  It’s a product from Italy: Chopped or strained tomatoes in a plastic container.  Stirred into sauces, noted above, and with a half can of tomato paste and a bit of chicken stock, it creates dense textures and amazing flavors.

I discovered Pomi by reading Mario Batali’s great, new book, “Molto Gusto,” which is a brief compendium of simple, spectacular Italian dishes with few ingredients and prep that takes typically under 10 minutes.

As Tony Bourdain noted in a recent interview: An example of this fast, easy cooking is Puttanesca: Olive oil, garlic, capers, dried anchovies, black pepper, and canned tomatoes cooked and served in a sauce with pasta.  The idea is to cook with alacrity so as to leave the lion’s share of time for talking, listening, and making love.  Bourdain notes that the dish was “invented” to provide food for the “sudden” guest.  It’s kind of ironic, I reckon, “Whore’s sauce,” is the translation.

Pre-Puttanesca:

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Why, it’s an outrage, sir, an outrage!

Yesterday, not wishing to drive from here to Timbuktu to buy a pound of sliced, roasted turkey for work lunches, I dragged myself into Formaggio Kitchen, which is in the neighborhood.  I loathe this store for many specific reasons:

1.  The staff is snooty and ill-informed.  You’d think they were selling The Elixer of Life rather than cold cuts.

2.  Essentially, the store sells cold cuts.  They call them “artisanal” meats and cheeses, but while, in fact, some of the products are produced in small batches, artisanal implies craft and this is certainly an inconsistent feature of many more of the processed foods sold here: Crackers, pretzels, canned fish, and canned vegetables.  Artisanal here is a strategy for marketing food at high prices.

3.  The high prices: Most stuff here is 30-40% higher than at any of the competing stores: Russo’s, Salumeria Italiana, and Whole Foods.  When the Swiss eliminated the exit tax on food shipped to the U.S. two years ago, prices on cheeses from Switzerland sold at Formaggio stayed the same.  (Anyway, is the owner paying the taxes? He once told me that he has the cheese from Switzerland sent to his offices in Paris, relabels them as EU products, and sends them here to skip the U.S.-Switzerland tax, which does not apply to EU-US transactions.)  More broadly, prices here from any of the faraway places are uniformly higher than the competition.

4.  Green, it’s not: It’s ironic that the seemingly liberal bunch who shop here can get up in arms about the environment, but ignore the cost to the planet in flying over cheeses and meats thousands of miles from points of production.  Must. Have.  Brie.

5.  The stuff isn’t healthy.  Eating cheese and processed meats, all heavily salted, as a routine part of a daily diet contributes to cardiovascular disease.  There is a small fruit and vegetable section here, but the real money in this shop is in the fancy-pants cold cuts.

So, back to the turkey.

Two types sold here.

I said to the clerk, “May I please have a pound of the inexpensive turkey?”

One type is $18 a pound, the other is $10.

He sliced the turkey, packaged it, handed it to me.

Here is where it gets tragic.

It was the $18 turkey!  And to top it off this was the second time in two months that this has happened at the store.

I politely handed it back and explained that I had asked for the $10 turkey.

“I thought you asked for the expensive turkey,” he said.

“Why would I do that?” I asked.

Indeed, why would I?

An outrage, I say, an outrage!

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Harvard Square Dining and Toy Story 3

Leaving “Toy Story 3,” on opening night, dewy eyed and nostalgic, I found myself hungry and tired in the Square.  People filled the streets, which was wonderful, and the night air was cool and warm simultaneously.  Many choices were available for dining and all seemed good.

Border Cafe, Cambridge One, Harvest, Bertucci’s, Casablanca, Legal Seafood, Om, Russell Street Tavern, Grendel’s, The Beer Garden, and Upstairs in the Square.

It was lovely to see so many people making so much happy noise.

Of course, I settled for two pepperoni slices at Pinocchio’s that I took home and ate in my kitchen.

But still it was nice to know that people were out and about.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Eating

Theory A:

Thinking about food is, I find, nearly as enjoyable as eating.  That’s just me, but a lesson can be found that applies to others.  Chiefly, being hungry, I am more alert and intrigued than when I’m satisfied.

Corollary #1: Most food I eat is pretty boring after the first few bites.  One reason why in most restaurants I’ll order two appetizers rather than an entree or why small servings of multiple courses are intriguing.

Corollary #2: Most food I see in stores, cafes, and restaurants has no appeal.  Too big, too colorfully packaged, too evidently salty or sugary, too limited in textures, lacking a relationship to terroir or place.  Might as well be in a space station on Mars.

Theory B:

Most people I know eat for emotional reasons as often as they do to satisfy a physiological need.  When I’m anxious, no food interests me.  I’ll run or take a walk.  Depressed, I crave pasta.

Corollary #1: Anxiety reduces awareness.

Corollary #2: Carbohydrates may increase serotonin levels.

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Where Are the Best Stories about Food or China Goes “Organic”

The best stories about food?  The Business section of The New York Times.

No recipes there for chicken puttanesca!  Bobby Who?  Ingredient of the year?  (Hint: It’s a restructured CDS with a hedge on the collapse of Greece.)

Today’s Top Story?

Easy.

Turns out that the most of the organic stuff people pay top dollar for at Whole Foods, under the store label, was grown and packaged in China and then certified by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA):

Whole Foods Market, the nation’s leading organic retailer, has used Chinese organics, including those from association-inspected producers, in many of its store brand products, including frozen vegetables, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and bottled teas.”

What’s the problem?

Setting aside for a moment the politics of environmental irresponsibility  implicit in flying or shipping food 8000 miles from its source to consumers in the U.S., ignoring the labor conditions of the workers in China who produce the stuff…

Effective today, the USDA–United States Agriculture Department–has banned the OCIA from operating in China citing conflict of interest:

“Federal officials say the banned inspector, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities. The group, based in Nebraska and known by the initials O.C.I.A., has for years been one of the leading inspectors of Chinese organics for the United States market. Anticipating the department’s action, the group shut most of its operations last year.”

Further:

“In China, the O.C.I.A. joined forces with the Organic Food Development Corporation, an agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The association kept a small staff — one or three people in Nanjing — while inspectors from the Chinese agency went out to farms and factories. Their findings were translated into English and sent to O.C.I.A. headquarters in Nebraska, where staff members reviewed the material and made the final decisions on certification. The department objected to the arrangement after a 2007 audit, saying the partnership violated a rule barring certifiers from reviewing operations in which they held a commercial interest.”

Whole Foods is cutting its reliance upon its Chinese farmers except for edamame:

“…the number of those products has been shrinking, in part because of consumer worries about their credentials as organics. Two years ago, the company said, it sold about 30 private label items with organic ingredients from China; by the end of this year, it will stock only two: shelled and unshelled frozen edamame soybeans.”

Buy organic?  Sure….but not with the Whole Foods label.

Stewing

So last night it was necessary to cook for my father, which is an experience I recommend to everyone.  Not cooking for my father, per se.

We drove around until I could find meat that met The Haas Test Kitchen Standards.  Big Y and then Whole Foods were neither big or whole, but I did find nice veal for nice stew at the latter.

Fast and good:

Roll veal in flour with salt and pepper.

Sear in olive oil.

Remove.

Add chopped carrot, chopped celery stalk, can of tomato paste, two cups of white wine.

Return veal.

Lower heat.

Adjust salt and pepper.

Simmer for an hour and serve.

Where’s the Beef?

The big food story today?  As usual, in the Business section: The worst outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 100 years in Japan threatens to wreck their beef industry.

Kobe is down one game and now this!

It may seem remote and inconsequential, but the impact is both global and local.

The farmers don’t have much of a profit margin:  “For me, this is the end,” said Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, 86, who has raised cattle in a small hamlet for 60 years.

www.nytimes.com/2010/06/12/business/global/12beef.html?ref=business