Category Archives: Food and Dining

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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Radical Candor and Radical Comfort: The Road to Danish-ness

cyclists ride along a blue bike path in copenhagen, denmark

Andrew Richdale wants to feel at home in Denmark, but is he ready for the brutal (to an American) honesty? His first forays into communicating like a Dane, chronicled in a fun piece in Saveur, leave him nowhere to hide.

“Well, to be honest—”

“No!” Bo snaps. “That! That was not Danish. We do not say ‘To be honest’ in Denmark! What you just told me is ‘Oh, now I will begin being honest.’ To be Danish is to not be afraid of saying exactly what is happening at any moment, with elegance and wit.”

I ask Bo how to shake the feeling that I’m a self-conscious visitor passing through a foreign land—how to, instead, feel I belong.

“Do you ever Instagram certain obligatory places or dishes to prove you’ve properly ‘done’ somewhere? I know it’s bullshit but—”

“Andrew! What is this thing you have, this real you and this other you?” Bo asks. “The way you live—you are in danger.”

A bit embarrassed, I ask to be excused, to go to the bathroom “real quick.”

“You can also do it real slow!” he shouts as I walk away.

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To Be an Instagram-Ready Restaurant, Don’t Forget Your Selfie-Optimized Lamps

Back in the 1970s, memorabilia-heavy restaurants became popular as they facilitated the loosening-up of sexual mores. These days, colorful tiles, bold wallpaper, and the occasional (ironic?) taxidermy piece can all trace their origins to our need to capture and broadcast our well-curated pleasures. As Casey Newton shows at The Verge, Instagram is the driving force behind the current vogue for easily reproduced, sleek-kitschy idiosyncrasy — including adjustable lighting that allows diners to take the most flattering selfie possible.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

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Sometimes a Bowl of Soup is Just a Bowl of Soup

a bowl of vegetable soup with a spoon in it

On a visit to Jerusalem, Taffy Brodesser-Akner went back to a beloved restaurant for a bowl of soup that was transcendent for her college-age self and found… a bowl of soup. It’s still no ordinary bowl of soup, though; it’s a vehicle for exploring the way our capacity for joy can contract even as our lives expand. She writes in Saveur:

God, I’ve made it all too complicated. That’s what I thought when I stared down at that soup, devastated by its regularness—by its very soupness. These days, the conditions for me to enjoy a hamburger are contingent on the bun having sesame seeds and astrological order and my menstrual cycle so that I won’t spit it into the sink or sneer at the person who made it for me. These days, I can’t put butter on bread without the bread having a texture to it, and I can’t eat vanilla ice cream unless there is something to bite like a chip or an almond in it. These days, if I am going to eat a vegetable soup, it has to be a vegetable soup that defeats ISIS and fades liver spots and cures belly fat, a vegetable soup that will send people screaming into streets like a postwar victory parade, grabbing women and kissing them and throwing babies in the air and catching them with big whoops. I will never enjoy simplicity again; it will never be good enough for me. I require so many more ingredients; I require so much more technique. I need to be danced for and entertained. I have made the region of my delight a tiny head of a pin. Did anyone tell me that it would be this exhausting to get older?

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“Beef and cheese are the most important ingredients… But really, cheese.”

The U.S.’s reputation in the world might be in a state of… flux, let’s say. But there’s one thing we can still boast about: the 1.3 billion pounds of surplus cheese we have in cold storage. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Clint Rainey introduces us to government-sponsored Dairy Management Inc., which is charged with packing as much dairy into food as is possible, sometimes by embedding food scientists like Lisa McClintock into companies like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell to help engineer maximum cheese delivery. You can thank them for Pizza Hut’s cheese-stuffed crust and for Taco Bell’s latest hit, the Quesalupa.

“If you tried using something like cheddar, you’d get too much oiling off,” McClintock says. “It’s a fattier cheese—it’s not going to hold up well in terms of cheese pull.” She also quickly nixed mozzarella. “Great stretch, but you expect something bold from Taco Bell,” she says. “Pepper jack gave us the extra kick from the jalapeños.” Crucially, it’s also a high-moisture cheese, which means fewer casein connections and therefore a more reliable melt. She toyed with the idea of inserting a cheese “puck” into the tortilla pocket to see if that melted more uniformly, but grated cheese proved the most even. McClintock and Gomez recall intense competitions in the lab where they’d fry up a bunch of Quesalupas and tear them apart to see who could get the longest cheese pull. Winners sometimes stretched theirs a full arm span.

(More exciting advances in cheese science are on the horizon, as Taco Bell’s R&D department is hard at work on Quesalupa 2.0 which, rumor has is, will come in “Volcano and Bacon Club” flavors. If you’re wondering where the Doritos Quesalupa Crunch is, don’t worry: they started testing it this spring.)

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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.

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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.’

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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?

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