Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Behold

March 25, 2010



The Cheesus Burger!

Think about a cheeseburger with all the trimmings, including grilled onions. Now replace the two buns with TWO GRILLED CHEESE SANDWHICHES.

Grease. Beauty. Bliss.

The proprietors of the Grilled Cheese Grill (Portland, OR) have called their invention “The Soon-to-be-Famous Burger Behemoth.” This is something of a misrepresentation. Yes, the Cheesus is massive; but more importantly, it is a clever solution to an age old burger problem, i.e. the lack of a crunchy exterior. Pure American ingenuity, yessir. In fact, were the State Department still looking for exhibitor submissions for the US pavilion at the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, I would nominate this sandwich.

Psychology, Biology, Politics of Food — take the course!

February 2, 2010

Not only has Food (with a capital F) become a big draw for punditry and political debate in recent years, but food (with a small f) is also probably the thing I love the most. Having come to this realization, and having run afoul of a glaring lack of watchable TV (at least until new episodes of Glee and Mad Men come out), I’m going to be using some of my free time to “take a course” on food and related topics over at Open Yale courses.

If you too are unemployed, you should take it as well! Hopefully it’ll be fun. And given the recent controversy surrounding China and its poorly enforced food processing sector(s), this course may even generate ideas for a viable term paper…hmmm…

Two TV Chefs

September 20, 2009

The school year has begun! It always takes a little while to get going, and said little while has elapsed. I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand I really do enjoy the poring over texts, the pondering of abstract notions, the pontificating of…uh…woops, that’s an intransitive verb. Shucks to my parallelism…anyway, those are the fun parts.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of unwanted reading and concomitant school-type stresses to get through — picking paper topics, trying to force oneself to talk in class, worrying about how to tie in any of it with possible career goals, etc. Those are the less fun parts.

My point is that in college I discovered that cooking shows helped me to relax, and to temporarily banish the less fun parts without also forgetting too much of the fun parts. Through some accident of fate, we had free cable one year and I started watching too much Food Network. Like many Food Network viewers, I became besotted with the irrepressible Rachel Ray. But then Ray’s charms caught the eye of media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who transformed her into (or arguably, accelerated her inevitable progress towards) the culinary Ricki Lake. I had to let her go.

So lately I’ve been looking for new TV chefs to idolize, especially people who are a little edgier than Ms. Ray and are hence unlikely to saturate the airwaves down the line.

As a way of procrastinating, I wanted to share my thoughts on two that I’ve latched onto so far: Hubert Keller and Anne Burrell.

Hubert — his first name is awesome — has a PBS show called “Secrets of a Chef.” It’s supposedly geared towards normal TV-watching home cooks, but really it’s just a hilariously elaborate exploration of fancy food. I really don’t know anyone (who isn’t retired) who cooks like this. But even though I could never envision actually preparing any of these dishes, I do love watching the show because Hubert is really goofy, with his long locks and whatnot, and he does the whole song and dance without any apparent effort. Also the show has an amusing low-budget quality and (related) a cheezy jazz-funk soundtrack throughout! Incredible.

In fact Hubert did a stint on Top Chef Masters where he mentioned his other great love, which is DJing!
So here’s a clip of him DJing whilst dancing around, which I think adequately conveys why I like him:

Look at how much fun he’s having! Yay!

My other pick is Anne Burrell, who has a Food Network show with title uncannily similar to Hubert’s: “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.” (You may also remember her from the Mario Bitali kitchen crew in Iron Chef America.)

First good thing: Chef Burrell’s food is easy to make and calls for ingredients that folks probably have in their kitchens. Next good thing: her background as a culinary school instructor shines through because you definitely take away little tidbits of information with every viewing. (For example: before grilling salmon, you should let it sit with the skin up for a while — that way the skin dries out and gets all crunchy when you cook it.) The other great thing about Burrell is just style. She has spiky hair, makes wacky hand gestures whilst cooking, and seems to subscribe to some kind of vaguely transcendental hippie philosophy of food preparation, without actually being vegan or anything like that. I don’t know what this belief system is or implies exactly, but I dig it.

Finally, here’s a medley of (exaggerated) odd noises that she has made on camera — which also gives you a sense of the gestures and style and cetera:

I hope I’ve broadened your TV chef horizons a little bit. Now I’ll return to the books and to the free range chicken legs that have been slow braising with veggies for much the afternooon…awesome!

A-maize-ingly bad commercial/pun

September 4, 2008

So I’ve been watching the US Open this week and I keep seeing this commerical. It is atrocious! (albeit somewhat less iiritating than the afore mentioned “Breakfast Club” JC Penny commerical…)

The corn syrup commercial obviously doesn’t mention that corn production is pesticide intensive, promotes erosion, depletes aquifers, etc. Hell, these aren’t new or sexy phenomena — they’re really just the mundane after-effects of gargantuan scale agriculture. Similarly, the insane rise of obesity and diabetes in the United States is happening because people eat too much sugar/corn syrup — “moderation” is not the issue. There’s nothing interesting there.

What’s interesting is that sugar (and the corn syrup designed to imitate it) is *not* a picnic-in-the-meadow, guitar-strumming “natural” category of food. While sucrose is a very common form of energy for plant cells, crystallized sugar and liquid corn syrup are *extremely* labor intensive. In his book “Sweetness and Power,” Food historian Stanley Mintz goes as far as to claim that the first activity to be organized in a way that we might today recognize as “industrial” was sugar production!

“When it is remembered that the plantation form probably first developed in the eastern Mediterranean, was perfected (mostly with enslaved labor) by the Crusaders after 1000, was transferred to (and, in part, perhaps reinvented on) the Atlantic islands by 1450, and was thereupon re-established in the New World colonies, the significance of their industrialism — at a time when industry itself was largely based on home labor, except for shipbuilding and some textiles in Europe irself — becomes more persuasive.”

Mintz goes on to describe the process by which French and British holdings in the Carribean islands were converted to sugar plantations — which in turn caused the slave trade to grow exponentially.
The slaves produced sugar for Europe’s growing class of city dwellers; the consumer’s subsquent shake-up over protectionist tarriffs contributed to the origin of the “free trade” system.

Mintz quotes Marx’s summary of how this happened:

“Freedom and slavery constitute an antagonism…We are not dealing with the indirect slavery, the slavery of the proletariat, but with direct slavery, the slavery of the black races in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America. Direct slavery is as much the pivor of our industrialism today as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, no cotton, without cotton, no modern industry. Slavery has given their value to the colonies; the colonies have created world trde; world trade is the necessary condition of large-scale machine-industry. Before the traffic in Negroes bega, the colonies only supplied the Old World with very few products and made no visible change in the face of the earth. Thus slavery is an economic category of the highest importance.”

Well, wage slavery has replaced slavery, corn syrup stands in for sugar…but the same dynamics made that shitty commerical. Except now consumers are supposed to use corn (and sugar cane) for our energy problems too…

Goodbye Brooklyn!

August 30, 2008

So I have officially moved away from Brooklyn!

In light of this, I should probably change the title of this blog…but, I do like it. So I’ll keep it for now.

I wrote a previous post about how comfort can be perilous — when you achieve a certain level of comfort, especially in an urban environment, it’s possible to get caught up in a senseless routine. On the other hand, restlessness and moving from place to place doesn’t do much to address this problem; it only complicates things. I’ve spent a few years entrenched in a pattern of moving somewhere, finally settling in, then leaving for greener pastures…it can be quite a stressful experience. And here we go again!

Not enough time has passed for me to really get nostalgic. But here, in no particular order, is a non-exhaustive list of Brooklyn-related things that I have enjoyed:

Loud hip hop. It’s a public service! It imbues the surroundings with a syncopated rhythm for your walking pleasure. If you’re walking down the street in the ‘hood, as it were, there’s nothing like a dose of loud hip hop to give you a little more spring in your step — a little boost of joie de vivre if you will.

Patties, especially those hailing from Flatbush/Crown Heights, are a terrific way to warm oneself up on a cold day. I’m not talking about the sad yellow ones under the glass counter at the deli — I mean the fresh ones from the Caribbean bakery. Even Golden Krust is great!

The Subway system — even if the map *is* ridiculously distorted! What was once an impossible labyrinth became a way of life. The futuristic DC system does have its advantages, such as cleanliness and air conditioning, but the MTA will be missed!

24 oz Coors (and 23.5 oz Arizona) tall boys are only a dollar! You’d be a fool not to buy them. How could they be so cheap? Well, if you haven’t already, check out The Story of Stuff for some perspective on that question.

The Brooklyn Public Library is my true love — for reasons I’ve articulated in a previous post, as well as the fact that they recently hosted transcendent the amazing Scott McCloud to speak about his work. He is great.

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” in Four Acts

July 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Chef Ramsay — Vigilante of good cooking (also posessed of copious reserves of money)
Owner — Befuddled man, his noble heart is racked with worry and tremendous debt
Manager — Fast-talking egomaniac, both lazy and overbearing
Chef — Beleaguered kitchen worker whose inspiration to cook has seeped out of him
Various Waitstaff — None-too-bright women who bemoan the lack of customers
Customers — Average Joe(s), having two functional states: very angry or very satisfied.

ACT I

(Chef Ramsay arrives at a fledgling restaurant. Finds the staff engaging in Group Think)
Ramsay: Bloody hell, look at this restaurant! (tastes the food) This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten!(enters kitchen) This kitchen is without a doubt the dirtiest, most disgusting kitchen on the face of the planet!
Chef: I am nonchalant…(shrugs)
Owner: I am embarassed! (faints)
Manager: Who is this #*%& to come here and criticize my restaurant? (seethes)
Ramsay: You are all lazy, stupid, and hopeless!

****INTERMISSION****
(commercials, and a re-cap of the situation)

ACT II

Chef Ramsay:(confidently) I have hatched a plan. (To staff) You guys are terrible, but you have the potential to be better. Let’s clean the kitchen!
(Cleaning montage proceeds)
Ramsay:(cooking) I am introducing a new menu with high quality ingredients and simple, robust flavors!
Manager: (grumbles)
Chef:(raises eyebrow suggestively)
Owner:(hugs Ramsay with enthusiasm)

ACT III

Ramsay: It is opening night at your new *redesigned* (new decorations unveiled) restaurant!
Manager: (paralyzed)
Chef: (skeptical)
Various Waistaff: (disorganized)
Customers: (some *very angry*, some * very satisfied*) Food!

ACT IV

Manager: I realize now that humility and self-discipline are positive values
Chef: I know now that I enjoy cooking.
Various Waitstaff: I like having customers to serve.
Owner: I hope I can recoup my debts before this publicity stunt is over!
Ramsay: My work here is done!

FIN

Root Beer Revelation

June 26, 2008

I don’t usually read the Dining section of the NYTimes because I don’t have any money and I’m not a masochist. But today there was an eye-opener about root beer tasting, which made me want to recount my own experiences with the mysterious beverage.

As a kid I was raised on cola, encountering root beer only very sporadically at birthday parties or the like. As such I developed a vague but persistent distrust for the brew. I was (and am) addicted to sugar — and yet, as far as I was concerned, no soda should be this sweet! And what was that tangy aftertaste all about? The old timey medicine chest ring of the words “root beer” didn’t help things…exactly what “root” were they referring to? And what century did the root come from?

Finding no satisfactory answer, I embraced a staunch policy of avoiding the stuff. In situations of the absolute last resort, when even ginger ales or lemon limes were unavailable, I would not say no to a proffered Mr. Pibb or Dr. Pepper. But root beer was categorically out of the question.

Flash forward to high school. I was hanging out with a friend of mine and we had just made a trip to Jerry’s Subs and Pizza, where we each got cheese steaks of the insanely gargantuan size that only Jerry’s can furnish forth. When we got back to this kid’s house, he offered me a bottle of Stewart’s root beer. I was hesitant…

But I chugged it! Pure joy. I immediately chugged another one. It had the same root beer tang, but balanced with a happy hint of vanilla. I ended up drinking so many Stewarts’ that I didn’t have room for my continent-size heart attack sandwich. (I think I saved it for later, but that’s a waste in itself because the bread got soggy and the grease congealed…the fate of forsaken cheese steaks is not pretty) At any rate (here’s some free advertising for Stewart’s) my whole attitude about root beer was changed instantly and forever.

So Stewart’s being placed in the bottom slot of the NYTimes Top 10 list is a revelation: Wow. There are in fact better root beers out there!

— and I’m a try ’em.

ALSO It should be noted that the method of transmitting the root beer makes a huge difference. Root beer on tap is a beauty that bottles just can’t convey.

The pleasure of Top Chef

June 7, 2008

David brings up an interesting question about Top Chef : “How do they deal with the fact that they are judging a competition based on a sense that can’t possibly be transmitted to the viewer?” If we can’t taste the food and we can’t know whether judges are being honest, then how does the show capture viewer’s attention?

I think this is an excellent point of inquiry.

Here’s a quick answer: Top Chef usually challenges contestants to organize and execute good food in difficult catering situations. You get a strict shopping budget, a crazy time limit, and intense pressure to be creative. This, coupled with the ongoing drama between contestants, makes the viewer want to see what the chefs can come up with, regardless of the fact that they can’t participate in the judging. (Plus there’s the Schadenfreude when contestants make mistakes.) After witnessing the frantic kitchen drama you choose favorites and you watch the judges (who are indeed not accountable to viewers for their decisions) to see if they jibe with your own estimate. If so, you feel validated. If not, you get immense frustration!! (the very emotion which started this whole blog-a-log.) That’s why you watch the show.

Here’s a longer answer: The question brings up related questions about TV cooking in general. If you can’t taste what someone is cooking for you, how do you know the food is good? Why do you watch? There is (as of now) no way to transmit taste via television — so what is the deal with food television, particularly televised competitive cooking?

Scholar Pauline Adema maintains that the pleasure of watching cooking shows is a false satiation of, “the hunger for emotional and physical pleasure vicariously grafted by watching someone cook, talk about, and eat food.” I think that’s about right — food television is about vicarious pleasure.

Some cooking shows display the ease of cooking good food with ordinary ingredients (Rachel Ray, Paula Dean, Jaimie Oliver, etc.) while other shows feature haute cuisine methodology (Wolfgang Puck, Jacques Pepin, the original dean of TV cooking Julia Child, etc.) Regardless of these shows’ different goals, the viewing pleasure is about the same.

However, new forms of cooking show have appeared in recent years, particularly on Food Network. These shows alter the standard cooking show, usually borrowing from other successful TV genres. Food 911 features an expert helping ordinary folks, akin to Nanny 911 and the like, Emeril is a variety show with a classic ostentatious host, Good Eats with Alton Brown is more of a Bill Nye-esque science show, etc. Each of these change the cooking show formula to produce different viewing pleasures. TV cooking programs with a focus on competition, like the original Japanese Iron Chef, its American spin-off, and the old UK favorite Ready, Steady, Cook, add something unique — the suspense of cooking against opponents and against the clock.

Top Chef is ingenious because it incorporates both the competition/race against time cooking show with the relatively young reality TV form, perfected by producers at Bravo. Watching Top Chef is multifaceted fun: suspense, reality TV personal drama, AND cooking. (Food Network has tried to capture this formula with it’s Top Chef imitation The Next Food Network Star — a show that falls flat in a number of ways.)

Should we let a table of authoritative judges dictate what counts as good food via the TV? Giving up our real senses to their televised equivalent is certainly bizarre and possibly quite dangerous.

How do we know that TV food is good? We don’t. Ignoring this question, and indulging mindlessly in TV food, is arguably disempowering with respect to your own personal dealings with food. Fellow Wesleyanite Johanna Goetzel writes about the feminist implications of Food Network’s comodification of the traditionally feminine sphere of the kitchen — a place where cooking could be empowering for women! Goetzel argues that, “while it can be argued that food produced on Food Network shows is real, it requires a trust beyond the sensory, and beyond the viewer’s discursive power. By exploring the extensive following of Food Network, American interests in the culinary comes to the front and threatens the real (personally experienced) empowerment in the kitchen.” Traditional cooking shows (and cookbooks from time immemorial) are involved in marketing a false discourse of domesticity, making public the private sphere of the kitchen, and promoting a corporate-sponsored ideal of cooking and, hence, of the feminine.

I’d argue that Top Chef inaugurates the TV cult of the professional chef and restauranteur rather than contributing to the ancient cult of the domestic wife and cook. There has been a spate of Bravo shows about professionals in an affluent service economy (professional dancers, fashion designers, hair stylists, personal trainers, etc.) of which Top Chef is one. Any analysis of Top Chef from a cultural studies perspective should take this into account: Top Chef is about professionalism, power, superiority, and, ultimately, class. (Think about the many challenges that call for serving “the masses” or using low class ingredients to create top flight dishes, or distinguishing between high quality and low quality ingredients, etc.) So asking why we watch it can be drawn out into a difficult but important question about ideology, the full answer to which is beyond the scope of this blog.

*even more* Top Chef

June 5, 2008

Alright now, I know this is ridiculous. But viewers of last night’s astonishing episode, in which Lisa once again narrowly avoided the cut, will understand why I remain fixated on this.

In response to blogly critics and conspiracy theorists, like myself, the stoic Head Judge Tom Colicchio blogged copiously about Top Chef shooting + judging procedure, sprinkled with some very upfront words about his own feelings on the Lisa thing:


I think Lisa, along with a few chefs from past seasons (Dave Martin and Mike Midgley are two that come to mind,) benefited from a phenomenon I call the “lucky-dog-who-keeps-skating-by-effect,” in which a chef of decent, but not stellar, skills gets lucky and doesn’t screw up at precisely the moment that one of their more gifted opponents does. And since we judge each week’s Elimination Challenge on its own merits, we are operating each time under the assumption that everyone still cooking deserves to be there.

Now you may hate us for standing in the “judge each week on it’s own merits” corner, and personally subscribe to the “judge each week by overall performance” camp, but consider for a moment if we did judge each contestant based on their cumulative merits — by whose analysis, exactly? And how do we arrive at a consensus? My idea of how the chefs rank may vary widely from Ted or Gail’s. And what about our Guest Judge — he or she doesn’t know any of the chefs — of what value at that point is their input? The debate would shift from “who won this episode?” to “who’s won the most episodes?” and “should we factor in the Quickfires?” “Does attitude or likability count?” “How about we assign each dish a score, tally them up, and then knock people off by the numbers?” Etc. etc …. It opens a huge, even more contentious can of worms. The “week-by-week” logic may be only incrementally fairer than the “overall performance” argument, but it’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

That being said, I felt manipulated by the week-before-last’s show — it really did seem like Lisa should have been sent home over Dale. I wrote this in my blog not to sell my fellow judges up the river, but rather to empathize with viewers who are left to wonder, How did that happen?” It’s hard to boil four or more hours of nuanced debate into a few minutes of screen time, and I can see why the results don’t always mesh with what viewers have seen.

I can only resolve to follow my gut each week about the food in front of me, and hope that Top Chef fans stick it out with us and keep writing in. Your thoughts and comments, even when I don’t agree, are an essential part of making this a dish that works.

Tom

Wow. I guess it just struck me as pretty cool that he would take time to respond in such a careful, sober way to all of us silly blog types.

Top Chef!!!

May 22, 2008

OK at this very moment I’m in the midst of an epic 5 day training for community health workers and I need to vent my frustration by writing about the current idiot box show of choice: Top Chef!

From the people who brought you “Project Runway”, it’s…the exact same concept except with food! Which I personally find *infinitely* more interesting than fashion.

Rather than musing about reality TV or singing this show’s praises, which I could do at length, I want to address an evil spectre that lurks in the shadows of Top Chef. Consider the very real possibility that a lesser chef can get very far in the competition simply by not screwing up! A chef could make mediocre food, hardly ever win a challenge, yet avoid elimination until the last stages of the season just because some brighter star screws up once!

OR if said bright star meets the ire of the producers in some way! If you are nerdy (silly, bored, obsessive…) enough to actually type the words “Top Chef” into Wikipedia and read through the article that appears, you will see this sentence: “According to the credits, some elimination decisions (eg. Cliff Crooks’ disqualification in Season 2) are made in consultation with the show’s producers.”

Tyranny!

The elimination of Dale in last night’s Top Chef was justified, surely. He was executive chef in this season’s version of the infamous Restaurant Wars episode. Choosing to be ExChef of your team is always a risky move because of the added responsibility if your team performs poorly. Indeed Dale botched the executive function by delivering a poorly organized, absurdly decorated restaurant in the overdone genre of Asian Fusion. Plus the dude’s a dick and the food was no good!

But Lisa, who was also responsible for some of the shitty food, has performed poorly and appeared on the chopping block multiple times in the last several episodes — each time saved only by the even more severe blunders of other chefs! Dale, for all of his personal faults, won quite a few challenges in the past. In my estimation, this past performance should count for something. Lisa should have been chucked out while Dale remained in.

My conspiracy theory: The producers are trying their best to have this season’s winner be a woman, as the Top Chefs in all previous years happened to have been men. This year both Antonia and Stephanie are extraordinarily tough contenders who have won many challenges in the past! But there is no way that Lisa should still be on there. Ridiculous.


Addendum:
Queer Eye‘s Ted Allen, a regular judge on the show, responds with aplomb to fan’s comments about the Dale/Lisa controversy over on Bravo’s Top Chef website. Beware! You have to be a real Top Chef junkie to start sifting through the stuff posted over there. Which I am. So I wonder: am I just more hospitable to a show that involves food, or have there been significant advances in the way they stage, produce and edit this brand of “reality TV”?