Category Archives: Food and Dining

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

Read the story

Are We Swallowing Culinary Propaganda?

chocolate cupcakes with pink and white heart-shaped sprinkles

There are many fronts in the culture wars, but none so visceral as the tactical battleground of food. Cultural taboos make for easy bullying, whether that means slipping pork chops into the halal section of the supermarket or rebranding lamb as a meat that brings all Australians together (aside from vegans, of course). At Meanjin Quarterly, Shakira Hussein describes her encounter with a right-wing nationalist group doing culinary PR on the streets of Melbourne, and looks at how the food we eat — or don’t — is weaponized against cultures perceived as enemies.

Named for the Norse god of war, the Soldiers of Odin are the Australian off-shoot of a Finnish far-right organisation that claims to be protecting ordinary citizens against crime by conducting vigilante patrols on the streets, as well as providing succour to ‘The Homeless, Less Fortunate & The Elderly’. Like Reclaim Australia, the Q society, the United Patriots Front and of course Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, they also claim to be a frontline defence in the battle against Islamisation and sharia law. I had interviewed other members of the so-called patriots movement at their highly publicised rallies during which they had clashed with anti-racist protestors and the police, but somehow I felt more threatened by the four Soldiers of Odin than I had by the crowds at those earlier events. Perhaps the hate-speech against my religious community sounded more sinister in the darkness and the shadows, but most of all, I think it was the cupcakes.

‘Seriously, they were giving out cupcakes,’ I told my friends. ‘With love-hearts on them! It was terrifying.’

Read the story

Cookie Tasting with Trump’s Billionaire Backer

Star shaped cookies with red, white, and blue icing

At Politico, Sara Dickerman samples Trump mega-donor Rebekah Mercer’s cookies. That’s not a metaphor — Mercer owns the bakery Ruby et Violette and “is viewed as the major player in her family’s political patronage, which includes ownership stakes in Breitbart News and data mining service company Cambridge Analytica.”

I have rarely come across so many white chocolate confections in a bakery (see their Instagram celebration of the substance here). It’s tempting to take a big haymaker at white supremacist politics amid all these white chunks: Just imagine Jeff Sessions nibbling at an all-white chocolate assortment of cookies as he tells big-city police departments to stop worrying about racial bias. The truth is, however, that there is a place for white chocolate in baking, which is to sweeten and offset other flavors when they get to be too intense. The problem is that most of the cookies I tasted are far from intense. In fact, they merge on meekness, like the Lemon White, a fine-in-theory lemon cookie studded with grainy white chocolate chunks. The best lemon desserts toy with you on the edge of astringency, but the lemon flavor here is just an echo of the actual fruit: more like the soft yellow sweetness of lemon Jell-O.

What’s the culinary equivalent of TL:DR, too long, didn’t read? Is it TL:DE? Tastes lousy, didn’t eat?

Read the story

America’s Small Farmers Need More Slaughterhouses

Free range, heirloom, family-owned ─ farm-to-table eating frequently includes practices that not only improve food’s flavor but are better for the land, animals, customers and employees. At Bloomberg, Deena Shanker examines a problem that’s arisen from America’s increasingly sophisticated appetites and the corporatization of its food system: that even as more people seek noncommodity meat, a dearth of facilities able to process small farmers’ animals keeps costs up, prices high and farmers driving for hours before they can plate your meal.

Finding a local slaughterhouse is not just a matter of time and convenience. Small-scale farmers with heritage animals pride themselves on the higher animal welfare standards they say produce superior meat. After devoting months to carefully raising rare breeds on customized diets, farmers are loathe to end the animals’ lives at facilities that may mistreat them. Farmers say they will travel longer distances for better facilities they trust more. The last slaughterhouse Stone Barns used, Haynes said, was mistreating the animals. “I’m not working with those guys anymore. They don’t respect us, don’t respect the animals.”

It’s not just a compassion issue—transportation of livestock is often cited as a major stressor for animals and associated with lower meat quality, and the last hours or minutes in an animal’s life can undo months of effort.

Facilities that are better for animals are often likely to be better for workers, too. Unlike the large processing houses, where workers’ repetitive motions often lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries, Dealaman’s workers move around, trading positions and tasks, one minute gutting, the next sweeping, the next scalding. This is not uncommon in small operations, but it also adds to the price of meat.

Read the story

The Circle of Las Vegas Life Is One Never-Ending Buffet

Las Vegas is a twinkling, cream-filled temple of excess where millions of pounds of food go to waste each year. At Eater, John Semley profiles the multi-generational family business that turns casino food waste into the slop that puts fattened pigs back on Vegas buffet plates. R.C. Farms is high-tech, smelly and growing. And that smoked pork shoulder sure is good.

Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”

Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”

Read the story

Viral, Yet Ephemeral: Death On Your Cellphone

a cellphone screen with a collection of social networking app icons

Writing in Real Life magazine, Juli Min explores the way WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, has become a place to both mourn death and share graphic videos of the moment itself—a place where users post “viral videos of death as we create an endless stream of idle gossip.” What does this mean broadly, and what does it mean in a country where all data is subject to government monitoring?

Tencent WeChat accounts, like Facebook accounts, are technically leased to their users. The data and photos do not belong solely to individuals in the end, as Tencent maintains the rights to copy, use, and forward whatever is shared on the platform. Accordingly, Tencent’s servers themselves are leased from the Chinese government, subjecting all messaging data to government monitoring and surveillance. A viral video of a mother’s death by escalator will happily make the rounds, whereas a video of a Tibetan monk burning himself in protest will be shuttered by government monitors — “we” are allowed to gawk at the spectacle of death, but not the spectacle of resistance. In 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, prescient founder of the Situationist International, wrote: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Aside from the work of mediation, he wrote, spectacle also allowed for the proliferation and control of the masses and degraded authentic life and experience.

Monitoring is both the source and the function of internet spectacle.

Read the essay

Good Coffee Shouldn’t Have to Cost More Than $1

A funny thing happened after colonists, disguised as Native Americans, dumped 300-some chests containing tea into the Boston Harbor: The importance of tea—both politically and culturally—in the United States was over, and the people needed something else to drink. That void was filled by coffee, which first arrived in North America courtesy of Captain John Smith, but until the Boston Tea Party, coffee was a niche beverage: just .19 pounds per capita was consumed in 1772.

Following the Revolutionary War, a period in which John Adams wrote of the troubles “wean[ing]” himself off tea, Americans had fallen in love with the coffee bean, drinking 1.41 pounds per capita by 1799, and the infatuation skyrocketed for the next 150 years. Coffee was enjoyed by all classes—Park Avenue socialites and coal miners alike could take their coffee black or with a dash of cream. And as boiling the grounds with water gave way to the percolator and the electric drip coffeemaker, Americans put the pot on more and more often, drinking an astonishing 46 gallons per person a year—a record that will never be topped. Read more…

The 2017 James Beard Award Winners: A Reading List

The growth of food writing has evolved with the explosion of all the food-watching that accompanied programs like Top Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and we’re way past the days of Craig Claiborne or Ruth Reichl reveling about an up-and-coming chef in an out-of-the-way corner of a yet-to-be-gentrified-neighborhood somewhere.

The James Beard awards—otherwise known as the Oscars of food—were announced earlier this week, and befitting the honor’s nearly 30-year history, let’s toast sparkling rosé and caviar-topped amuse-bouches to the best food writing published in 2016 (here is the full list of winners).

Read more…

American Media is Still Getting Chinese Food All Wrong

Chinatown window by Pam Mandel

Of the 263 entries under the “Chinese” recipe filter on the New York Times food section, almost 90 percent have a white person listed as author in the byline. Only 10 percent of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers.

On Munchies (a Vice channel), Clarissa Wei shares what we’re missing when Chinese food is covered by writers with no personal connection to the cuisine. Many writers still use a colonial era style guide (the Wade-Giles guide). Some are stuck on the notion of Chinese food as cheap eats, with no sense of what it takes to make the food. Writing about Chinese food is also subject to a lot of “discovery,” as though a dish hadn’t been around for hundreds of years, influencing other cuisines we take for granted.

Prosciutto, in the Western world, is glorified, but people have rarely heard of Chinese ham. Marco Polo allegedly brought ham-making techniques from the Chinese city of Jinhua to Europe, and many of today’s processing technologies for dry-cured hams have evolved from the techniques from this modest Chinese city.

Clocking in at about 5,000 years, China is the longest continuous civilization in the world. The Chinese, after all, were master farmers and cooks. Though the country only has 10 percent of arable land worldwide, they produce food for 20 percent of the world’s population.

Yet, here in the West, we read and commission more stories about poop-themed restaurants, Communist hot pot eateries, and dog-eating festivals than deeply, thoughtfully researched pieces on Chinese pickling techniques and the art of Chinese lamb roasts.

Read the story

Tell Me What Donut You Prefer, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

freshly glazed donuts on a conveyer belt

Have you ever thought really hard about donuts? Like, 7,000 words hard? Keaton Lamle did, The Bitter Southerner published it, and it’s very much worth the reading — an extended meditation on food, America, capitalism, regional identity, and the future. Turns out we have a lot to learn from donuts.

Lamle, who can be forgiven for reserving his most effusive gushing for Krispy Kreme rather than Dunkin’ by the accident of his Southern birth, gets a bit more personal when reminiscing about the famous Krispy Kreme “Hot Now” sign. And I’ll give him that; a freshly-fried donut is a thing of beauty and joy forever.

They are very much not all over Atlanta, or Birmingham, or Charlotte. Despite expansion around the turn of the 21st century, you’ve still got to go out of your way to find Krispy Kreme stores. In fact, it’s almost like they find you. You’re driving down Atlanta’s magnolia-draped Ponce De Leon Avenue, and red, cursive neon, evocative of a ’50s downtown movie marquee, unexpectedly beckons. Majestic Ks that trail to the end of each word — somehow without connoting the South’s tortured history with such plosive consonants and alliterative acronyms — calling you to come.

The inevitable dilemma comes when you spot that anachronistic “Hot Now” neon sign ablaze. The promise you’ve made to yourself or spouse or kids: that if it’s hot, we stop. But shit, that’ll mean pulling a U-turn across three lanes of traffic. That’ll mean turning around and fighting to get in the parking lot. Is anybody in this car even hungry? Can’t we let it slide this one time? What inviolable principle are we even abiding by with this “it’s hot, we must stop” directive, anyway?

For me, the prospect of wearing the paper sailor’s hats on Instagram usually ends the argument.

You’ll still pry my Dunkin’ Donuts medium iced latte and Bavarian cream donut out of my cold, powdered-sugar-covered, New Jersey-born hands, but Lamle’s piece is piped full of food for thought. (Zing!)

Read the story