Top, New Food Ingredient: 2018

Wow, tough call, I was back and forth on this one.  Was it cinnamon, persiflage, yuba?  Or some other rare product sucked out of the earth in Orwellian named Democratic Republic of Congo?

Well, none of the above, and those of you who are adept at puzzles and prestidigitation know where I am going with this.

That’s right: It came down to one thing with at least two meanings.

Dough.

That was the top ingredient this year.

From pizza to bread to croissants to pretzels to doughnuts to sandwiches, the big boom in 2018, which will herald investment in years to come is: Flour and water.  OK, add salt, be my guest.  Anyway, FLOUR is the big ingredient this year, 2018, and that’s because it has, next to coffee, the greatest profit margin in the food and beverage industry.

If you look at your “local” bakeries and pizza joints, you will find that the non-franchise outfits are either: Fewer in number; about to go under; and, unable to compete in marketing or pricing with international brands.

Which is the second meaning of dough.

The #1 franchise in the U.S. in terms of growth in 2018 was pizza.  That pie you buy–“artisanal, gourmet, healthy, natural”–for between $12-$28 has a food cost about 90% less per slice.

Folks, the food world is where the music world was in 1972: Undervalued, in the early-middle stages of monetization, and not so much about the taste of things, but about the sale of things.

And that’s not persiflage.

 

 

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Best Food Books!

This year’s bumper crop of food books, from recipes for soup to the world’s best restaurants, is surefire.  Let’s take a gander at some of the best.

Yes, the Reichstag is burning, but why go negative?  In, “Berlin’s Beer Halls,” author Pieter Ulrich takes us down back alleys and into luxe hotel cellars showing us where brown shirts and the yet-to-join lift up big steins of frothy, fresh beer.  The famous joints are celebrated while those establishments new to the scene are given their due.

Closer to home, you can bitch about income inequality until the cows come home, but why not wine and dine at the restaurants where private equity is sinking their dough, literally.  In, “America’s Best Pizza and Bakery Franchises,” by Rose Starr, we join in the fun of “eateries” that capitalize on our hunger for fun, fun, fun!  And because wages are kept low, and profit soars on flour and water, you are guaranteed to come back for more.

Books with recipes?  Why, there are books galore!  So never mind about surfing the ‘net and discovering for yourself how to make a bowl of soup or a cheeseburger.  Pick up, “Trading Plates,” by Sally Doherty, in which the author takes us into her kitchen, sponsored by the manufacturers of the products in play, and shows us how to cook, well, everything!

Save room.  In this soon-to-be-classic, Stephanie Hammond is our guide to, “Food Is the Answer.”  Using guided meditation, she reaches back to soothing broths, jams, jellies, and stews, proving that, yes, everything is political.  “You may think,” she writes, “that cooking is a way to avoid engagement with the world, but wait until you taste my toffee pudding!”  Kudos to Hammond!

 

Christmas in November

I’m not naming names, but a neighbor on Sunday night did the unthinkable.

There I am, out walking the dog, and I look up and what do I see?

That’s right, you guessed it: A Christmas tree.

Adorned with white lights, pushed toward the front window in what was once, a hundred years ago, a parlor, there it was, a big tree, conical and unmistakeable.

Now, look, I get it, there’s a kid there, a boy about two, it seems, nice kid, it seems, the dad carries him around, talks to him as if he is sentient, it’s all good.

But isn’t this the wrong message to send junior?  Four days after the culling associated with Halloween we’re on to Christmas?

Shouldn’t dad be taking the boy-o into cranberry, turkey, sides and stuffing territory?

Reluctantly, I’ve contacted the city’s Department of Youth Services, let them take a look.  Probably tip of the iceberg, I don’t know, not for me to decide.

Sausages in Sudentenland

Sure, the international press has loads of opinions about our boys reclaiming Sudetenland, but all that negative reporting misses the great sausages here–To say nothing of the beer halls.  Why, as we prosper as a nation, must two-bit reporters use their outlets to promote personal agendas?

Closer to home, there is so much “despair” over events that distract from terrific recipes, chefs, and seasonal ingredients. You might think that criticism of Nationalism is more important than how to prepare soups and what sides are best for Thanksgiving.

After all, isn’t it great that highly educated individuals spend their time attracting readers with the best cranberry sauce rather than using analytical skills?  Think about it: If those writing about food chose to provide information about society to readers and viewers and listeners, we wouldn’t have a recipe for chestnut stuffing.

Can you imagine a turkey without stuffing?

 

Social Geography and Food

Neighborhoods in cities where you walk to restaurants may, in fact, contribute to what’s on the plate.  Long before there were, “Destination Restaurants,” and, “Restaurants Worth A Detour,” as described in the Michelin guides (designed by a tire company and meant to promote automobile travel), cities had places in which to dine where customers walked in.

The walkers often lived in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, and cooked a lot of the same food at home. In these restaurants, people dined for a number of specific reasons.

It was nice to be sociable with neighbors.  Great not to have to cook.  Good to have a place to celebrate some occasion, big or small, in ways that let others know of the success.  A place to do business, advance a cause, have a conversation that could not be held at home, wonderful to be taken care of in a familiar setting.

Some cities still have this.  And the result are restaurants where cooks and patrons have a shared and often simple understanding of what tastes good.

But in cities in which people are separated by cars and don’t interact much day to day with restaurateurs or cooks, the restaurants, most of them, have a separate life.  These restaurants reflect the ideas and intentions of the chefs and owners who try to create a reality that may have little to do with the social geography of their customers.

The result is superficiality on the plate, or at least a division between the food and the person eating it.

Or, on a positive note, the restaurateur or chef casts a very wide net, and aims to entice as many customers as possible.  This lack of specificity spawned franchises and big menus.

All in all, what’s lost is one purpose of a restaurant, which is, fundamentally, to bring people together.  Instead, the result are restaurants that have little to do with community, and instead are rather like a social imposition.

 

I Just Want Something to Eat: Tale of Two Cities

So I’m driving around town, or on my way back home from work, and pass by pizza joints that sell slices with, is that cheese?, on baked dough, and some of it’s good, especially if you’re hungry, but most of it’s not.  Then, too, burgers.  A plethora of burgers.  Dumplings.  Ramen showing up more and more, and if it’s salt and pork fat you’re after, this cannot be beat.  Croissant the size of a baby’s arm jammed with cheese and ham.  Here and there: Subs, roast beef, sandwiches with enough ingredients to fill a dictionary available in shops where it’s $20 for two slices of bread and a pile-on and an iced tea.

Or.

I’m walking down streets or along avenues.  Great vegetarian “burgers.”  Hummus that tastes like it was made an hour ago: Lemony, chick peas, and a little tahini.  Pizza that’s epic, from Rubirosa to Joe & Pat’s.  Potato pancakes and bowls of soup.  A bagel with lox spread for $5.  Cold noodles with carrots and beans sprouts.

 

 

Racism & Boston Restaurants

The Boston Globe recently ran a long piece puzzling over why Boston isn’t regarded by anyone with common sense as a restaurant town.

The piece was prompted by Bon Appetit‘s article last month that named Portland, Maine–little Portland, Maine–as the, “restaurant city of the year.”  This stripped bare the excuses made by local defenders: That NYC and Philadelphia, because of their big sizes, are an unfair comparison to Boston when it comes to food.

In fact, there are numerous reasons why dining out in Boston is a reflection of the city’s broader problems.  Chief among them is, “the silo effect,” which typifies life in the city and its neighboring communities.  The racial segregation of Boston noted by many black Americans extends to the food’s scene.

Have a look at this list of Boston magazine‘s 50 best restaurants of 2018:

White males: 32 restaurants listed

White females: 9 restaurants listed

Asian males: 4 listed

Asian females: 2 listed

Hispanic males: 1 listed

(One restaurant of the 50 has a while male and white female in charge.)

According to the U.S. census bureau, 53% of Boston is white, 25.4% is African American, 9.3% is Asian, and 19% is Hispanic.

Gender: 52% female, 48% male.

So when restaurants are acclaimed by one the city’s chief arbiters of dining and there is zero representation of African Americans, 2% Hispanic, and 30% female, it tells you a lot about why dining in Boston is so awful.  There is great cooking going on throughout the city: But it’s being ignored by those in authoritative positions to effect change.  Gee, wonder why?

Culinary History of Boston

The name itself–“Boston”–is Anglo-Saxon for a very famous item of food that has become a synecdoche for the city today.

“Bos” is the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for, “bag,” or, “sack of.”  It refers to a container, typically made of cloth centuries ago, but which can be applied to paper or cardboard.

“Ton” is more complex with multiple meanings, from, “fruitful forest,” to, “holiday fare,” to its most common use, which is, “dough.”  Specifically, over the years, “Bos,” came to mean the dough sold at religious fairs, typically fried and served with an array of toppings, such as sprinkles (these days known as, “jimmies”), or stuffed with cream or jelly.

Hence, Boston means, “Bag of Doughnuts,” and indeed the city exemplifies the pinnacle of this extraordinary dish.  While it is impossible to find a worthwhile bagel outside of Katz’s, located in Chelsea, in Boston, there is no shortage–none!–of doughnuts.

Alongside doughnuts, relying upon the telegenic past of its best known authority on food, a person who never worked in a professional kitchen for pay, there are croissants, some stuffed with processed pork from commercial farms, and others served with enough butter to trigger cardiac arrest.

Bon Appetit!

Kiss It Goodbye

As another summer winds down, and what a summer it has been, waves of wet heat keep me housebound as much as possible.  Me, the dog, the cat.

On a positive note, that’s led to a bunch of decent pages of my new book: UKEIRE.  Due with Da Capo in 2019, and out in 2020, just in time for Tokyo summer Olympics, the book touches upon day to day practices that we North Americans might cherry pick from and adapt to life here from Japan.

The #1 failing of all food writing is that it exists outside of time, without contexts, and with little regard for economics, gender, and commentary on current reality. If you look at most of it, it could be 1950, 1960. 1990, etc. It lacks sufficient meaning.

So the challenge of contemporary observation exemplified by this new book is worthwhile.

 

ROBUCHON

Certainly no chef has influenced me more in terms of cookbooks or smarts than Robuchon.  His cookbook is in both places where I spend the most time, and what I love about his work, which seems to have philosophical underpinnings, is his overriding simplicity.

Joël flew me to Vegas ages ago for a weekend, and talked about his life and food.  We spent time in his kitchen where I asked him to show me how he made his famous whipped potatoes.

A few peeled fingerlings, salted water, butter.  But by far the best potatoes I’d ever had, which he explained had come about because he sourced the best and spent months and months doing so.  What a palate.

The meal I had that night at his restaurant remains the best I’d ever had.  Four courses of small, tightly focused dishes pairing fresh white truffles with one ingredient each.  A scrambled egg.  A piece of fish.  Pasta.

He told me that weekend that he had thought of becoming a priest.

His patience in the kitchen was natural.

The announcement of his death today is sad.