Category Archives: Food and Dining

Fine for the Whole Family

Was I a picky eater as a child? Yes. But now my parents are pickier.

Selecting an appropriate restaurant for a visit from my folks has made for a decade-long challenge. In theory, I should have no shortage of options — New York City is fairly renowned for its culinary variety — but the city itself is short on a few of my parents’ preferences.

Over countless attempts and hundreds of plates, I’ve learned that the right atmosphere requires a delicate ambience of peace and quiet. (We don’t have that here.) There should be ample space. (We don’t have that, either.) Waitstaff should be more talented than necessary, with a cast-iron sense of humor that can withstand my dad’s idea of fun. (It’s the kind of fun that happens after we’ve left: he’ll rib a server with theatrical just-kidding complaints for two hours, then tip big.) It shouldn’t be crowded but it shouldn’t be empty. The bringer of cheese for the pasta should probably just leave the cheese. Dad won’t eat anything spicy. Mom won’t eat anything raw. Mom will always ask if the table is okay, which always sounds like the table isn’t okay, but when I ask her if she thinks the table is okay, she makes this face like, “Bail me out.”

Have we all become people who shouldn’t be taken anywhere? Probably. I’ve gotten used to my perennial failure to find places that thrive at this impossible nexus of enchantments. I doubt there is a food solution that will always make everyone in this particular triangle of our family totally happy. But for a while there, our solution was Olive Garden.

Olive Garden was our go-to when I was in college. There, everyone was happy — or if we weren’t, everyone was fine. My dad would order Shrimp Scampi; I would order Chicken Marsala; my mom would make their Famous House Salad more famous. We’d eat all the breadsticks, request our first refill, then wrap the second batch to go. I’d reheat them one at a time in my dorm room microwave, wrapping each in a paper towel that would soak up five finger-pressed blots of oil I wouldn’t have to clean. That was where I set the bar those days — that’s all it took to make for a singular restaurant experience with my family. Would there be leftovers? Great. Olive Garden was fine, and fine was good.

In “Dear Olive Garden, Never Change,” the latest installment in Eater‘s Death of Chains series on the slow decline of middlebrow chain restaurants, Helen Rosner reminds me that this anodyne fine-for-the-whole-family feel is completely by design. “One of the things I love about the Olive Garden,” Rosner writes, “is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.”

After three years at Vox Media as Eater‘s Features Editor turned Executive Editor turned Editor-at-Large, Rosner recently announced her departure from “the best goddamn food publication in the world.” She tweeted mysteriously to watch this space for updates, noting only that she is moving on “to crush some new things.” If they’re anything like her greatest hits thus far — on glorified vending machines, Tina Fey’s sheetcakingchicken tendersTrump’s ketchup-covered crime scenes, and takedowns of chocolatiers who may not always have had beards — her readers will be sure to bring their bottomless appetites to her next endeavor.

I feel an intense affinity for Olive Garden, which — like the lack of olives on its menu — is by design. The restaurant was built for affinity, constructed from the foundations to the faux-finished rafters to create a sense of connection, of vague familiarity, to bring to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and ease. Even if you’ve never been to the Olive Garden before, you’re supposed to feel like you have. You know the next song that’s going to play. You know how the chairs roll against the carpet. You know where the bathrooms are. Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return to over and over.

In that way, it’s just like any other chain restaurant. For any individual mid-range restaurant, return customers have always been an easy majority of the clientele, and chain-wide, it’s overwhelmingly the case: If you’ve been to one Olive Garden, odds are very high you’ve been to two or more. If the restaurant is doing it right, though, all the Olive Gardens of your life will blur together into one Olive Garden, one host stand, one bar, one catacomb of dining alcoves warmly decorated in Toscana-lite. Each Olive Garden is a little bit different, but their souls are all the same.

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‘Hotchickenfrication’: One Fowl Enterprise

Prince’s Hot Chicken, the spicy, savory comfort food which has its origins in a spurned lover’s attempt for revenge, has long been a Nashville institution. Sadly, the family-run operation has spawned imitators, from KFC to Shake Shack to a spate of already or soon-to-be-opened restaurants cashing in on the seemingly insatiable appetite for hot chicken.

As Zach Stafford laments at Eater, “hotchickenfrication” — as it’s come to be known in Nashville — is polluting “hot chicken’s actual history, its particular origins in a distinct community…transforming it into a pale echo of what it was — a spicy but soulless joyride.”

Prince’s favorite food was fried chicken, and his lover knew that, making it the perfect vehicle for her pain. While he was sleeping, she went out to the garden behind the house and grabbed a bunch of cayenne peppers she’d grown, then started frying some chicken. As the chicken cooked, she created an unbearably hot spice mix with the cayenne. When the chicken came out of the skillet, still sizzling, she tossed an enormous amount of seasoning all over the bird, thinking it would be agonizingly inedible. Prince awoke and stumbled into the kitchen, almost tripping over the aroma. He took a seat at the kitchen table in front of the pile of chicken; his lover watched, anticipating the first bite of revenge. Her plan was thwarted immediately: Prince loved the chicken so much he wanted more.

What you might call “hashtag hot chicken” is the kind served at Party Fowl, a restaurant that once provided the official hot chicken of the Tennessee Titans football team. Last summer, over plates of its signature hot chicken with bourbon-glazed beignets — a play on chicken and waffles — and hot chicken lollipops, Bart Pickens, the executive chef, who moved to Nashville from New Orleans in 2006, explained the broad appeal of his menu. “ You can take our menu to Chicago; it’s got enough reflection,” he told me, referring to Party Fowl’s wide variety of hot chicken dishes, from poutine to Cuban sandwiches. “If I’ve got to make a Giordano’s deep-dish hot chicken pizza, I can go there.” (He has gone there; I’ve seen the pictures.)

While longtime hot chicken aficionados may cringe, Pickens sees the trend as a natural evolution of local tradition. “Food is up for interpretation,” he said. “My philosophy has always been, you have to know the original to go forward with it.”

Pickens’s views echo those of many of the Nashville chefs I spoke to over the last year. They believe hot chicken is a larger-than-life dish that is fair game for their own interpretations, so they are capitalizing off the trend with a clear conscience despite the dish’s singular creation, rooted in a specific time and place in the city. But the history these chefs and new hot chicken dishes refer to is a tall tale, one they often don’t even fully understand. “There’s nothing worse than a scorned woman,” Pickens said, looking over the vast tableau of hot chicken iterations on the table between us. “How does that story go?”

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The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Getting Through 9/11

Joshua Bernstein is one of the more prolific craft beer writers working today. (Longreads featured a Q&A with Bernstein after the publication of his recent book, Complete IPA) As he explains in an essay about living in New York on and after 9/11 for Good Beer Hunting, Bernstein’s path has been winding, including stints working at American Baby magazine, and editing a porn magazine.

His office was located in Chinatown, a brisk walk from the Twin Towers, and even before that clear blue morning, Bernstein liked to escape the doldrums of his office job by fleeing to his apartment’s rooftop in Astoria and doing what every New Yorker in their twenties has done: drink.

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The Oldest Restaurant in Kabul: Where Tradition Trumps Rockets

Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)

 

In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”

While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.

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When Celery Was King

Celery is the outcast of the vegetable kingdom. Sure, the plant is rich in Vitamin K, but its fibrous stalks, bitter tasting leaves, and unique aftertaste are undesirable to the palate. Celery is either hidden (in sauces or as mirepoix) or left uneaten on crudité plates (no matter how good the ranch or blue cheese dressing with which to slather it). In short, celery is disgusting.

However, the vegetable wasn’t always neglected; during the Victorian era, the stalks were revered and highly sought-after, a symbol of one’s status and wealth. The mid-19th century was the boom time for the vegetable, as Heather Arndt Anderson explains in her Taste treatise on celery:

Native to the Mediterranean, celery cultivation began in the early 1800s in the cool, damp wetlands of East Anglia. It was fussy to grow and difficult to obtain—and this made it irresistible to the Victorian upper classes. Between the 1830s and the early 1900s, celery appeared as a standalone dish in countless cookbooks and housekeepers’ guides.

Referred to by Anderson as the avocado toast of its day, celery was still en vogue in the 20th century to be served to first-class diners on the Titanic, but after nearly a hundred years of vegetable dominance, celery’s star began to wane. It became… basic.

As American cultivation improved, celery became an everyman’s item. By then, the British upper classes had moved on to French luxuries like truffles and oysters. Celery vases may have gone the way of the dodo, but one would be hard-pressed to find a premade veggie tray without a slot for celery. Like it or not, celery isn’t going anywhere.

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Moonshine: The Black Tradition of Distilling ‘White Whiskey’

Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

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Eating the Texas State Fair

People walking the midway past food stands at a State Fair

The food came in two categories: savory and sweet. He would try them all. He would eat them on sticks, with plastic utensils that would litter the grounds of the park long after he and his descendants had passed, he would pick them up and eat them with his hands.

From the Texas State Fair website, “Each year, State Fair concessionaires fry up tasty and unique foods for a chance to become a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards. Everything from Fried Beer to Fried Peaches and Cream have made the cut to become a part of an exclusive club.”

On Texas Monthly, Dan Solomon goes full Hemingway (or is it Faulkner?) describing the finalists.

He started with the Surfin’ Turfin’ Tator Boat. It was a potato. He looked at it, sniffed the air, and stared at the lobster claw sticking straight up from the split in the spud.

“That there sure is a potato,” said the man.

“It sure is. The finest potato you ever did see,” said the woman collecting money for the meal.

“I never seen a potato like that,” said the man.

“You never will again, neither,” she told him.

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If Clean Food Is for Everyone, Why Are Its Gurus All Young, Pretty Women?

Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, traditionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.

Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.

Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.

There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”

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Grist for the Celebrity Food Mill

Kris Jenner and Rocco DiSpirito pose together, while Kris holds up a copy of her new cookbook

At Thrillist, Kevin Alexander reviews the life and times of Rocco DiSpirito — whose career trajectory has included leading much-lauded restaurants, being a reality television star, and hawking frozen foods. But once upon a time, he was just a gifted, audacious young cook: when Ruth Reichl was still reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, she described DiSpirito’s food as “shockingly unique. As a critic, you’re dying to find chefs like him.” Unfortunately for New York’s epicures, DiSpirito hasn’t been in a restaurant kitchen since 2004. Why? He got famous, and being famous became a job of its own.

He achieved celebrity status. And once you agree to the Faustian bargain that is celebrity status, every decision becomes a business decision, every utterance becomes a matter of branding. Your tweets and Instagram posts are agonized quid pro quos with other celebrities or boldfaced promotions of your products or shows. Your appearances are only to promote things, to further push your Sisyphean rock up Celebrity Hill. You tweet at Kim Kardashian when she mentions protein shakes, because she’s higher up the celebrity chain, and you hope she does you the solid of responding in front of millions so they can see that you two are just Two Celebrities Bantering On Twitter. You tweet at Dr. Oz when he wins a Daytime Emmy. You tweet reviews of your protein powder. You tweet nine consecutive times about watching “The Chew vs The View.

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An Ode to Dishwashers, the Unsung Heroes of the Restaurant Kitchen

In the Washington Post, food critic Tom Sietsema signed up for a dishwashing shift at Caracol, a 250-seat Mexican restaurant in Houston to experience the job Anthony Bourdain said taught him “every important lesson of my life.”

Dishwashers get paid a median annual wage of $20,000 a year in the U.S. and are a critical component of the restaurant industry. As Emeril Lagasse puts it, “You can’t have a successful service in a restaurant without a great dishwasher.” More restaurants are finding ways to recognize and reward their dishwashers:

After years of performing tasks no one else wants to do — cleaning nasty messes, taking out trash, polishing Japanese wine glasses priced at $66 a stem (at Quince in San Francisco) — the unsung heroes of the kitchen might be finally getting their due.

This spring, chef Rene Redzepi of the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen made headlines when he made his dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a partner in his business. The Gambian native helped Redzepi open the landmark restaurant in 2003. And in July, workers at the esteemed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., one of master chef Thomas Keller’s 12 U.S. restaurants and bakeries, voted to give their most prestigious company honor, the Core Award, to a dishwasher: Jaimie Portillo, who says he has never missed a day of work in seven years.

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