Food Safety and Food Inspection and Food Labeling: Forget the Fish

A few years back, Florence Fabricant, writing in The New York Times, had a long piece on the mislabeling of wild salmon at grocers in Manhattan.  Only one or two stores that had labeled their salmon as “wild” were selling wild salmon while all the others were selling farmed salmon and labeling it wild.  The cost difference was nearly double with true wild salmon retailing at about $24 a pound and the farmed fish weighing in at about $11 a pound.

Subsequent stories in The New York Times and media outlets in Florida showed that the practice was widespread: Tilapia for grouper, farmed fish for wild fish, etc.

This past week, The Boston Globe ran a comparable series on mislabeling of fish in area restaurants and stores.  They found escolar, catfish, and tilapia were being labeled as fancier, pricier fish in restaurants and stores.  (They said that escolar is “associated with gastrointestinal problems.”  There is no evidence to support the use of the word “problems” with regard to escolar.  Escolar, as an oily fish, acts as a laxative when eaten in large quantities–over six ounces–by some people.)

Today the paper had an unsigned editorial calling for more Federal inspection of fish coming into the US; 84% of the fish and seafood eaten in the US, the editorial notes, come from outside the country, but are not inspected the way that fruit, vegetables, and meat are routinely.  Again, not true.  The Federal government, acting through the F.D.A., was supposed to get funded in 1/11 to increase inspections of all foodstuffs and medicines made outside the US, but that was vetoed by Congress.  Nothing is being inspected adequately by the F.D.A., much to the frustration and concern of that agency.

The biggest problem is not whether the grouper you are eating is catfish.

The biggest problems are the salmonella traced to uninspected cantaloupe from Central America that caused deaths and illness in the US; the food borne illnesses in fenugreek and seeds from Egypt–banned by the EU after outbreaks in Germany, but still allowed in here; the potentially radioactive fish from Japan–banned in India and the EU, but allowed in here; and, most importantly, the medicines made in China and India in plants that are not subject to routine F.D.A. inspection.

The issue of mislabeling fish is real: It’s a scam by purveyors and restaurant owners.

The crisis of F.D.A. regulation is far more serious as it involves sickness and death caused by products that the Federal government does not have at present the resources to handle.

As The New York Times noted in an article by Gardiner Harris on 6/20/11:  “More than 80 percent of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the United States are made abroad — mostly in plants in China and India that are rarely inspected by the F.D.A. Half of all medical devices sold in the United States are made abroad. Many kinds of antibiotics,steroidscancer medicines and even aspirin are no longer produced in the United States, or in many cases anywhere in the Western world.  Government investigators estimated in 2008 that the F.D.A. would need 13 years to check every foreign drug manufacturing plant, 27 years to check every foreign medical device plant and 1,900 years to check every foreign food plant at its rate of inspections at the time. And with imports growing faster than the agency’s inspection force, those numbers have only mounted.”

If you want to get distracted by the tilapia on your plate, go right ahead.  I’m more concerned about heparin.



Mickey D’s, Critics, and The Perfect Slice

In the Business section of the NYT this week it was reported that quarterly global sales of McDonald’s increased by 9% on average.  Take that, fancy-pants chefs and sustainable, organic, naturally raised, humanely slaughtered animals!  The world has spoken: Give us burgers we can afford and eat quickly.

What a charade: “Naturally raised.”  As opposed to what?  Unnaturally raised?

Which segues to the issue of the role of the food critic.  Look, it’s one thing to regard your palate as having insurable qualities, to suggest that your precious taste buds can detect, like radar, the best of this or that.  That really is fine.  I believe in that.  It comes from physiology, experience, and an ability to analyze what you are eating.  There are reasons, for example, why someone like Ed Levine can be trusted when he writes about pizza.  I can readily imagine Ed as Eddie: The little boy who could taste depth better than his peers growing up to become Big Ed who tasted lots of pizza all over the world and then developed a system for understanding what he was eating.

However, critics must go beyond the Taste of Things.  It seems that real utility might come about when critics, like Eliot griping about the poetry that preceded his, say what it is they want and not just what it is they don’t want.  They can’t limit themselves to whether something tastes good or not.  Well, OK, they can, but who cares?  Do you honestly think that chefs in Boston are thinking of what any critic in town thinks of their food?  You’ve got one critic who notoriously doesn’t eat, three who are bottom feeders taking comped meals, and one critic who has no idea how food should taste.

I thought of this the other day when I heard a discussion on public radio–Radio Boston–about the best pizza and the varieties of pizza in Boston.  It was ridiculous.  It was silly.  You know why?  Because the pizza in Boston, with three exceptions, is certainly OK, but it can’t compare to the best.  Further, one of the panelists suggested that people make pizza at home!  Look, that’s fine, if you’re looking for a bonding experience with your kids, but pizza at home?   I have a better idea: Why not pull teeth at home?  Or put in new electrical wiring?

Folks, I’m not saying it’s rocket science!  It is very easy to make great pizza.  All it takes is a great oven, a pizza maker who knows what he or she is doing from years of experience, patience, and top drawer ingredients.  That is not home cooking.

In Boston the three best pizzas? Galleria Umberto, Pizzeria Posto, Iggy’s.   The first is old school Sicilian: precise and traditional.  The second was just accorded membership in the Neapolitan Association for authentic pizza–the only pizza place in New England to be made a member.  The third is a terrific bakery.  What we can conclude from this, what all three have in common, are: Attention to detail, good ingredients, focus, great ovens, and…few goofy toppings.  It’s pizza, not strawberry shortcake.

Affordable and good for eating quickly.

Group On Group On: 50% Off!

I don’t know if you noticed it, perhaps you were way too busy discussing the merits of cellared cheeses, where to find the best Bolognese sauce, or what’s the latest & greatest gastropub downtown, but, as usual, the best Food news isn’t to be found in Food sections of the media, but rather or instead is in the Business sections.

About the Bolognese: A firestorm raged on the Boston Chowhound site about Chef Michael Schlow’s secret for great Bolognese sauce.  Seems that Michael, along with Chef Barbara Lynch, is using chicken livers!  This would be newsworthy except for the fact that chicken livers have been used in the Tuscan version of Bolognese sauce since the Tuscans were Etruscans.  Schlow learned how to do this from Pino Luongo–Schlow was his chef at Le Madri.  In turn, Pino Luongo learned how to do this from Silvano Marchetto at Da Silvano.  Silvano taught me how to do it, too, when I spent two years helping him write the book about his restaurant.  Silvano on Luongo: “I taught that guy how to eat with a knife and fork!”

Back to the food news in the Business section.  (I am so readily distracted!  Would someone please add Concerta to my Cocoa Puffs?  [I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!])

A few months ago, Group On announced it was going public and would offer itself as an IPO (Initial Public Offering) at  “$25-30 billion.”  Today, the NYT reports that the offering is estimated to be down to $12 billion: “Groupon, the daily deal site, is seeking to sell shares in an offering that would value the company at close to $12 billion, several people with knowledge of the situation said on Wednesday.”

Here’s the link:

The cool part of the story is that Group On, which offers 50% of goods and services is now basically its own discount coupon.  Personally, I love the company’s bargain approach to life.  I’ve got coupons for Bule Ribbon, Symphony 8, Om, etc.  I am glad to see that they are not just applying the discounted outlook to other companies, but are stepping forward to include themselves.

I wonder if I can get a Group On for a good plate of Bolognese?



The Neurology of Food

A great piece in today’s NY Times: On the Op-Ed page, Frank Bruni, one of the paper’s former restaurant reviewers, inveighs against Romera.  Here’s the link:

Back in the Spring, a P.R. person from a very well known firm pitched the story to me: Miguel Sánchez Romera, a Spanish neurologist, is also a chef who is convinced that the foods he serves and cooks has an effect on neurotransmission and behavioral changes stemming from the effect on neurology.  I told the flak that as a psychologist married to an M.D. I was offended by this kind of chicanery.  She admitted to feeling similar, being knotted to a doc herself, and noted, however, that it was work.  OK?  OK, I get it.  Sorry.  We all gotta make rent.

Anyhow, Bruni deftly discusses the sheer silliness of the dining experience at Romera and goes further by tying it to broader misconceptions about what food is and isn’t, what it can do to our senses, and what it cannot do.

It is a wonderful piece.

I have to concur with Bruni: You give me a plate of good pasta and a glass of wine and I can remember happy times and envision happier times as well.  As Mario Batali has noted: A tavola nessuno diventa vecchio.  No one grows old at the table.

48 Hours in NYC

The trick to eating in NYC is to plan ahead and eat small amounts of food at each place you visit.  That way you can get seats and enjoy the scene rather than run around madly and pontificate on the elements of the food.  Ever dine with crews? Those folks can eat.  They are not analytical while eating.

First off at Lupa: House-cured beef tongue with pickled onions followed by a bowl of guanciale and chicken stuffed tortellini.  Simple, honest Rome-inflected food.  Small and powerfully flavorful portions. Chill, confident waiter. (West Village)

Later that same day, we’re talking Friday, Locanda Verde: Four top enjoyed fried artichokes, whipped ricotta, lamb sliders, bucatini with a veal sauce, roasted sea bass, etc.  If you want to know about just how refined Italian-American cuisine can be, this is your place.  The kitchen sent out desserts.  Were they good?  They were delicious.  I have to say that there is simply no place more fun to eat than LV, and that’s not just because I’m friends with the chef.  (Tribeca)

Saturday, in the morning, I walked over to EATALY.  I’d been many times before, but found it overwhelming.  This time I focused; maybe it was a contact high from all the Concerta addled, ADHD folks shopping.  Dunno, couldn’t say for sure.  Anyhoo, I picked up plin-created agnoletti, little ravioli, red cow parm, Cesare’s cured sausage, and a big piece of Piemontese style beef from some farm in Montana.  (Union Square)

Noon: it was literally a pilgrimage to Di Fara: Old school pizza parlor in Brooklyn.  Hard to reach, but worth the trek.  At this tiny hole in the wall, there’s a 74-year old guy, Dom DeMarco, who single-handedly rolls the dough, ladles the sauce, adds the cheese, and bakes the pies.  He works in silence and very slowly: Reverentially, it’s fair to say.  He uses chunks of mozzarella, adds Romano, and adds parmigiano.  There are four tiny formica tables in the back, there are long waits, it’s like being a teenager and visiting granma in East New York again.  When the pies come out of the oven, Dom or his young assistant slice it up, and then Dom snips fresh basil over each one, drizzles olive oil over the pie, and sprinkles about half a handful of more parmigiano.  The taste?  It’s by far the most unique, deeply flavorful, and in a league of its own pizzas I have ever enjoyed.  It’s like this: I’ll never think of pizza again in the same way.  (Midwood, Brooklyn)

Pre Chinglish (a play worth seeing by the way), it was dinner at Esca: Is this my favorite restaurant–just talking about the food–in the country?  Probably.  A flight of six crudo and then tuna meatballs.  Here’s a chef, Dave Pasternack, who has the confidence and skill to allow the food to assert itself rather than put his spin on it. (Hell’s Kitchen)

Later that night, we cabbed down to DBGB: Burgers, salads, soup, drinks.  A room full of happy people or people who looked happy.  I know the chef who owns this place, and am always happy here, too. Or at least I look happy. (Lower East Side)

Almost finally, on Sunday morning we walked over to Russ & Daughters.  Simply, the finest smoked fish establishment in North America.  No kidding.  The cutters move with the finesse of surgeons. Twenty minutes into it and we had a week’s supply of belly, eastern Nova, sturgeon, horseradish cream cheese, and six poppy, six everything.  (Lower East Side)

Got to eat before hitting the road, right?  A quick brunch at The Dutch: Same smart chef/owner as Locanda Verde.  Spectacular pan seared Albacore on a burger roll with tobiko “infused” mayo.  The chef’s refined look at food–here it’s A-OK American–is evident here.  The spot is cool, too: The old Cub Room.  (Soho)

All in all, what unifies these very disparate joints is the way we can enjoy the food and not think too long or too hard about the chef who created the dishes and directs the teams cooking.  Imagine going to the theater or a magic show and mulling: How do they do it?  The point is to enjoy the experience.

The Food Chain

There was a time, not so long ago, when I ate out frequently in Boston.  It was part of my job.  I reported on food for an NPR affiliate and did weekly interviews in the studio or pieces in the field.  The work got me three James Beard nominations for best radio host, national, and then I won that third time.

Ironically, winning the award ended the gig: The host of the program, figuring that the show had given me a platform, thought, Hey, it’s my show!  I can win, too.

Well, fair enough, not in so many words, but here is what did happen: The host decided to do all the food reporting.  No nominations followed for her.  Part of the problem with her reporting was that she made each story about her.  It wasn’t: Let’s interview Sal Carmellini about his pasta.  It was: Let’s interview Sal Carmellini and ask him what he thinks of me eating his pasta.  This is fun, but not in a good way.

Anyhoo, as ma would say, this meant that I was no longer given routine V.I.P. service in restaurants in Boston: No special tables, no food sent out from the kitchen, no palsy-walsy stuff from the chef or P.R. flaks.  I had to eat the same food in the same way as everyone else.

As Drew Nieporent has pointed out, and as I discovered, “Food always tastes better when it’s free.”

The pleasure of eating out lost its allure.  Look, when you write about restaurants, and let people know about it, you can easily mistake all the fuss that’s created around you as real fuss.  It’s not.  As Cameron Crowe noted: “These people are not your friends.”  For insecure people whose lives have kind of stalled, who lack an ability to sustain a sense of Self that has a validity no matter what others think, writing about restaurants can provide a much needed but ultimately shallow sense of self importance.

There are so many reasons why I don’t enjoy eating in most restaurants these days.  Chiefly, there is often little value.  I know that for some diners in some cities, value is associated with cost.  Perversely, some diners think that the more they spend, the better it must be.  Having grown up with a working class mother, I just don’t see things that way, and the older I get the more protective I am of the mother in me.

More specifically, spending $27.50 for “Boston’s best roast chicken” (that feeds one) doesn’t make sense to me when for $25 I can buy a Misty Knolls chicken that not only feeds four, but is a better bird than that $27.50 menu item.  Same goes for “Atlantic halibut,” at Menton which is one of four courses for $95.  (Halibut is a type of flounder, but if you don’t tell anyone, I won’t either.  It will be our little secret.)  Take a look at “seared scallops” for $36 in a certain place in Harvard Square.  That’s silly.  Really, it is.  Ask anyone.  Ask a scallop.  I will admit this requires an active imagination, but if you can be creative, you will hear the scallops say, “No, of course not!”

Honestly, Nantucket scallops are, tops, $29 a pound.  Buy a pound, go home, put some butter in pan, sear the scallops.  Turn off the flame, add salt, pepper, white balsamic, lemon juice, and white wine.  You’ll be so much happier, and you’ll have money left over to get on the bus to occupy Boston.

Where was I?

Value.  Right, value.  This concern for value led me to try to find purveyors as good or better than what chefs in Boston bought from.  Savenor’s is wonderful for prime meats: The place is a world-class butcher shop.  New Deal Fish: By far one of the best fish shops in the country.  Tropical Foods and Russo’s: First rate fruits and vegetables.  Salumeria Italiana: Can’t beat the cheeses or meats.

Look, I understand that good restaurants exist: Last week I was in Market, the new Legal (second floor), and Craigie on Main.  Each restaurant was truly memorable in service, food, and ambiance.  I recognize that running a restaurant is a huge challenge, too, but it really is like any business…only 2% are the best.




The Fox in the Attic

I’m nearly done reading, “The Fox in the Attic,” a novel by Richard Hughes and while lacking the greatness of his earlier book, “A High Wind in Jamaica,” it ranks as one of the most fascinating and odd works I have had the good fortune to come across.

Among the treats in the book is this line:

“It quite shocked the Englishman to hear men all talking so excitedly about food.”
I thought the observation lovely and spellbinding.
Namely: Is talk of food a distraction?  The men whom the Englishman is shocked by–not surprised, but shocked–are talking in 1923 in Bavaria only hours after the notorious Beer Hall putsch has failed.
The men who led the insurrection are on the loose!  However, the men talking “so excitedly about food” are talking about pastry drenched in honey from hives kept by their host.
Isn’t that some kind of metaphor or semaphore and might it be applied to what is happening with food in the upper ranges of the economic culture right now?
Probably so.  People get more riled up about the cellaring of cheese and crummy restaurants than they do about the turmoil that changes lives.  Meanwhile the fox in the attic paces and chews on the soft wood.

Stinky Cheese

Back in the days before my book contract, when I had time to distract myself, I joined a rambling, very hostile mosh pit on Chowhound.  The pit was all about the benefits of cellaring cheese.  See what I mean about time?  Anyhoo, the upshot was that the people who call themselves “the hounds” (these are adults, no kidding) were largely of the opinion that Formaggio Kitchen cellars its cheeses because it adds flavor and texture and depth to the cheeses while I, lone voice, said: Pshaw.

Redemption in today’s NY Times Food section!

The lead story in the section today is about cellaring cheeses.  Here’s Steve Jenkins:  “This affinage thing is a total crock,” said Mr. Jenkins, the cheese monger at Fairway and the author of the pivotal 1996 book “Cheese Primer.” “All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense.” Mr. Jenkins, a New York retail pioneer, argues that affinage is ultimately about marketplace savvy. Long ago in places like France and Belgium, the affineur first stepped in to extract profits by acting as the middleman.  “It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good,” he said. “It has to do with getting paid. And it’s morphed into a typical ‘French things are cool’ thing that Americans have bought hook, line and sinker. They all think, ‘I can even turn this into a marketing tool, so people will see how devoted I am to my craft.’ ”

The link:

In my ongoing effort to be a positive person with a sunny disposition, here’s a better alternative: Go to Savenor’s.  The guy buying cheese there has been picking up stuff from Quality Cheese.  This outfit, run by the very estimable Caroline Hostettler, brings Rolf Beeler’s cheeses from Switzerland into the USA.   Perfection!

The thing is this: When cheese makers release their products to the market it’s because they are ready.  You think Rolf Beeler needs some guy in Cambridge or NYC to improve his work?  Of course not.