Does Food Matter?

Alex Beam, writing in his column in today’s Boston Globe, expresses keen views which, feeling immodest, I admit to sharing wholeheartedly.  For starters, like the estimable Mr. Beam, I love Dunk’s.  I love Dunk’s so much, my daughter knew that the perfect XMAS present this year would be a $10 Dunk’s card.  I flash this and feel as if I’m a millionaire when moments later a hot cup of Joe is presented to me as if it is a gift, as if I haven’t paid, as if I deserve it just for being who I am.  “You’re special,” that coffee says.

More broadly, Mr. Beam’s disparagement of food writing and the world of food is correct on so many counts.  Chiefly, there isn’t much context.  That was horribly evident this week when the disasters in Japan began.  Food writers scrambled to post comments on their favorite foods and where they’d just eaten.  Just go to the blogs and twitters of well-known food writers and you’ll see.  Same with Chowhound sites.  It’s like describing snack foods in bomb shelters.

The other issue Mr. Beam raises is pretension: Indeed, how many times does one hear of sustainable, humane, organic, and local this and that before feeling dizzy and nauseated?  I mean, honestly, most people don’t have enough to eat.  And while it’s good to introduce nice ways to rase and kill animals, what about human rights?

Which leads to today’s top story: Got to love it.  Upper Crust, the ironically named chain of pizza stores, is now under double investigation–Exploitation of labor, unfair immigration practices.  As is often true, the most interesting stories concerning food are to be found in the Business sections of the media.

Too often, writing about food is a distraction from what matters.  It comes down to the triviality of writing about a pleasurable activity without analyzing the why, the who, and the what of it.  In that way, the facile writing about food, the cultishness of it, serves as a relief from stress and life’s challenges.

Certain food writers transcend that: Gold, Reichl, Ruhlman, Richman are among them.  The king?  That was A.J. Leibling.

But few attain their levels of humor, insight, and humility.

What a refuge from ideas.


Prior to the earthquake, Sendai, the center of the prefecture of Miyagi, was known to many outsiders due to the high quality of its beef.  The cattle bred in the region are fat and small portions of the beef are enough to satisfy large appetites.  A speciality is beef tongue, but what I enjoyed, as recently as January this year, in Tokyo, was a simple filet grilled rare.

According to the Japan Tourism Site: “Beef tongue (Gyutan):  When discussing Sendai’s food, one cannot fail to mention the aromatic and uniquely textured dish of beef tongue. Sendai was the birthplace of barbecued beef tongue when, during the food shortages that followed World War II, a cook decided to create a dish ‘for citizens working towards the reconstruction of the city.’  Charcoal-grilled beef tongue is usually served together with oxtail soup and boiled barley and rice.”

    More Words from Japan

    My doctoral thesis was on the psychological effects of living under the threat of nuclear war.  Research took me to the work of Robert Jay Lifton who later became my thesis advisor.  Long before I ever knew anything about Japanese gastronomy or popular culture, I learned about their immediate and long term responses to the horror and humiliation of being the victims of nuclear holocaust.

    I’ve often wondered if the silence, opulence, luxury, and obsession with cleanliness I’ve experienced in Japan were significant responses to the sense of victimization.  I’ve long been fascinated, too, by a nation that, by an act of legislation, during the Meiji period, tried to create its own national identity independent of its geography.  The Japanese have a unique understanding of terroir.

    Friends in Japan and Japanese friends in NYC write within the past 24 hours:

    “We are safe, or I should say, we hope we are, far enough from the N plants.  But because of power shortage, there will be several hours of planned blackouts for the coming weeks.”  (Yumi, Tokyo)

    “Yes, I just had talked about the nuclear explosion with my junior colleague.  I knew about this accident through the radio and I remembered, “Silkwood,” one of my favorite movies.  The report about the accident was very protected, I felt.  Beyond the wall, I could see many labors and a complicated relationship between Tokyo Electric Power Company and the local government.  That is what society is.”  (Yuko, Tokyo)

    My country is the only one who suffered from it directly and have to go through it again….I feel almost guilty not being there to share it. My family and friends will experience power outages for a while few hours a day, just like after WW2.  (Shoko, NYC)

    Words from Japan

    When I heard news of the earthquake, I sent emails to friends in Japan to show solidarity and be assured that they were safe.  Thank goodness, everyone was safe, though rattled and scared, from Tokyo to Niigata to Ishikawa.

    A few comments:

    Yes, I am Ok!  I am in the calmness. Strange.  Luckily, I was at home -equal my temporary office right now– today relaxing or wandering about my future, I almost finished all things about my book on Tsukiji market yesterday. Here are some residents in the afternoon, so I am not alone. A little boy and his mother who is the same age as me is at the next next door. This is what the most feel-safe thing: somebody is near.  It seems every transportation in Tokyo city is out of control. This is what the big city is.  The moving of the weather or nature was a bit strange in this afternoon. Very silent day, I notice light and gentle squall hit the window, then earthquake. After the first shaking, the sky got so bright and everything were wrapped by warm sunshine. Very silent. Beautiful sunset, then turned very black.  The night comes.  I put on the radio three hours ago, and understood this earthquake is really the biggest. One specialist says we might have or not such a huge scale one time a 1000 years.  The first big shock was 3PM. Now it is 11PM. Still shaking. It get me sick!  I am so glad to hear from you.  (Yuko, Tokyo)

    Yes I am safe.  My son was stuck in the train between Nagano and Niigata.  So I drove there.  I was so lucky to meet him.  It too seven hours to pick him up.  Yes, our family is fine.  (Jiro, Ishikawa)

    Yes, very terrifying.  All the TV stations have been only broadcasting the earthquake related news and the pictures of the affected area, especially tsunami hit area, were very shocking and made me depressed.  The whole towns are gone!  We wish the earthquakes this time will cease soon and won’t induce another devastating one.   The nightmare is still going on.  Today, we were frightened at the news of the explosion occurred at one of the nuclear power plants in the earthquake-hit area.  According to the official, it was not so dangerous, but it is true something abnormal has happened inside the furnace.  Though I have no acquaintances in the suffered area, I can not do anything but just looking at the TV news.  (Kiyomi, Ishikawa)

    Had terrible shakes in the afternoon.   All my family members are safe.  My brother in Tokyo walked 20km home because all trains are off.  (Takeshi, Niigata)

    What Do Chefs Want?

    I’ve been on this book for decades, I reckon, and before “Kitchen Confidential,” I’d been, “Backstage at the Bistro,” which never set sail.  And why not?  The chef, at that time, said, “Because I’m not Wolfgang Puck, and you’re not George Plimpton.”   Ah, I thought, “You’re not Wolfgang Puck,” and set about to find a Puck-like substitute.

    That led to reporting on public radio, a book deal with Silvano Marchetto, thanks to Andrew Wylie, and many long days and nights in kitchens where Robuchon, Keller, Boulud, et. al. showed me what’s what.  It was an education, a humbling one, and now I’m ready to try to answer the question: What Do Chefs Want?

    Pizza Face

    As I often do, I woke up thinking of pizza.  Some confusion arose this past week regarding my thoughts on pizza.  I’d said that Boston has more pizza joints popping up than NYC.  I misspoke.  What I’d meant to say was that the best food in Boston can be found at pizza joints.  Along with bakeries and bars that serve food.  Don’t get me started on restaurants in Boston.  Just don’t.  OK?  Do not.

    Good pizza in Boston can be found all over town.  Maybe it’s the students, the people who work for a living, the faculty.  Who doesn’t like pizza?

    In the past few months, two newcomers arrived: Otto and Posto.  Both are first rate and I wish them well and intend fully to eat their pizza often.  If they only delivered, we’d marry, settle down, and raise a family.

    Who said that?  Boston restaurants?  OK, here’s but one example.  Tonight I’m seeing Betty LaVette in a wonderful, small club in Harvard Square.  It’s nice to dine out before hearing music, but what’s available in the Square?  The best restaurant, Harvest, would run me, ballpark, $150 for two people to eat good, but not great food.  Rialto?  Even more for even less.  Monday Club Bar is terrific, but for $100 it’s a treat.  I love the burger at Casablanca, but we had waygu here for four last night in my home at a cost of $8.00.  I love Tamarind Bay, but eating in a basement, I dunno.  Small Plates is cute and do I sound as if I’m in the mood for cute?  Sometimes I am, just not tonight.  So where’s that leave us?

    Take out pizza.

    Food & Culture

    Is there a relationship between food and culture?  Well, of course there is, you don’t need me to tell you that.  The questions are: Does food represent culture?  How?  In France, food is understood as an expression of regional and national identities. You know how biting into a ham sandwich reminds you, say, of grandma and the Jersey shore?  Well, that’s how the French are about their gastronomy only times a billion gazillion.

    The French eat a cassoulet and start meandering in their thoughts: Musketeers, road trips, visiting a great aunt in Carcassonne, first love and hot smooches while it’s raining on Rue Barbette and then ducking into a bistro for the cassoulet.

    Same with Italy: Pastas, sauces, roasts, braises, grilled meats and fish all evoke times of family and legacy.

    Happy, happy, happy.

    So what’s up with Marie Le Pen and Silvio running like bulls?  Is there a relationship between the brilliant cuisines of these two nations and the inchoate right-wing, anti-democratic forces bubbling?  Are they too sated to think straight?  Is this a food of elitism?

    I’m puzzling over all this…thinking it over, raising questions, buckling my boots, trying to recall the lyrics.

    Meanwhile, in our nation of obesity, home of The Happy Meal, we have a body politic exemplified by President Obama.  As the kid’s sweatshirt read in The Triplets of Belleville: “I like big.”

    Diva Bistro: A Review

    All I can say is: Thank goodness, for Group-On!  This was my first Group-On purchase, which meant that I received a Group-on worth $35 for something like $7.  That’s about right.

    Located in bustling Davis Square, Diva has a restaurant and a bar attached to it.  We walked into the restaurant.  Guys, hands in pocket, demurred and acknowledged our presence like girls at a middle school dance.  Feigning interest, they steered  us to the bar so the tall blond behind the bar might get some work.  The bar looks like a 80’s spaceship disco: Aluminum, mirrors, bulging plastic.

    “I need some music,” said the blond.

    Guy took hands out of pockets, pushed buttons on a remote: Techno played loudly.  Dinner music for lab mice.

    Drinks ordered: Tall glass of red wine, cold draft beer not topped off.

    One dinner of “tandoori” chicken arrives.  Turns out the blond forgot the second order, which is odd considering the room was empty except for our deuce.

    Order goes in: “Vindaloo” chicken arrives.

    Both poultry plates were good and would have been exemplary had they been our first meals on pre-release from incarceration.

    Check arrives.  Something like $45, but more like $9 with the Group-on.  $9 tip = $18.  Perfect.

    We show ourselves out as guys have put hands back in pockets and blond is swaying to thump-thump-thump.

    Good News: Food Prices Going Up, More Businesses Hiring

    When you go to the store this week, you’ll discover an increase in the cost of many products: Vegetables, fruit, dairy, etc.  This will continue in months ahead as commodity traders and hedge funds win bets.  Of course, no reason is adequate to explain the complexity of rising food prices, but the money guys are a big part of it.  The same money guys ordering tasting menus!  Making money from food, buying food with the profits.  Somehow I think of Harry Lime & zither music.  What goes around, comes around.

    The good news is that the profits accruing in the private sector may lead to more people being hired.  The lead story in today’s NY Times: More jobs are being created.  Is there a link in the rising food costs and confidence in hiring more folks?  How should I know?  Do I look like an economist to you?

    What I do think is this: As the village idiot, which I am, I tend to look on the bright side.  So: When I pay more for things I know should cost less, I hope that something good will happen.  Like those jobs!

    Pizzeria Posto: A Review

    Pizza, pizza, pizza.  In a town renowned for sandwiches, steak tips, and bar food nonpareil, it’s good to see a restaurateur come up with a solid business plan that accepts what is what.

    Hence: Pizza town.  They are ubiquitous, those slices, and no wonder.  In a town of students and working stiffs, with ovens that heat up fast, and pizza easy to make, no wonder there are so many choices.  I’ve always said that bad pizza is like bad sex.  Better than not having any.

    And can you guess why the pizza in Boston is getting better?  New competition and lots of it.  Unlike the restaurant scene–high prices, low bar–there are many pizza joints, some old and several new, which means that the businesses must try harder to get, as Michael Bonadies, F&B top guy at The Myriad Restaurant Group put it so eloquently, “The asses into the seats.”

    Same theory on competition applies to cities like SF & NYC and nations like Italy & Japan: More competition and, all things being equal, the food is better.  Maybe one day Boston restaurant owners will glom onto that.  For now?  They don’t have to so they don’t care.  Why pay more for ingredients when customers don’t complain?  Why provide better service when customers don’t complain?  Why lower prices when customers don’t complain?

    All that said, Pizzeria Posto is a gem, a slice above.  Pies that are the perfect size for individual eating.  Bubbly cheese, blackened edges of crust, perfect thickness or thinness, and first-rate ingredients.  It’s really as delicious as the best of NYC and I urge everyone to go there at once.  Immediately.  Drop everything, pick up a slice.

    What’s nice is the space, too: It’s a real dead end location, but the chef-owner has done a good job: The room is chill, tat covered wait staff is efficient, stiff and well priced drinks.  Speaking of money, honey: It ain’t cheap, these pies, with portions for one between $15-18, but it is good value.  When you compare the pies here to Boston and Cambridge icons, Pizzeria Posto wins big.

    And guess what?  Go on, guess.  Guess.  No?  The restaurant also serves pastas, entrees, and appetizers.  And these are very good, too.