Tag Archives: food culture

Haute Cuisine Has a Low Wage Problem

Every April, the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list makes a little wave in the culinary world with its endorsements and snubs, comebacks and falls from grace. At Eater, Corey Mintz takes a hard look behind the clean, minimalist lines of these restaurants’ dining rooms to expose a rarely discussed reality: The proliferation of underpaid and unpaid apprentices. Along the way, he places this labor practice in its historical context, as the high-end kitchen has become the place where the Renaissance guild meets 21st-century-privilege.

Having had the same conversation with a hundred chefs, I’ve heard all of the justifications for the unpaid staff. I’ve even had chefs suggest that, for the education they’re getting, stagiaires should be paying the restaurant. This isn’t a new idea. In the Middle Ages, children as young as seven were sent to work as apprentices, sometimes paying to learn under a master craftsman of the highly controlled craft guilds, such as printmaking or goldsmithing.

But if we have to go to “once upon a time” to date the history of your employee practices, then your labor standards are literally medieval. The Industrial Revolution — which began in the late 18th century and stretched through the mid-19th century — created a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers that radically changed the labor market. The development of unions, the rise of professional education, and the idea that children should not be indentured slaves evolved the nature of apprenticeship. While informal internships persisted — copy boys, messenger boys, bobbin boys — they weren’t part of the post-secondary educational process until the late 1960s. Within a decade, universities systematized and incentivized internships through course credits, shifting the skill-building and networking opportunity into the mandatory experience it is today.

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Back in the Kitchen: A Reading List About Gender and Food

I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…

The Cultural Revolution of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain’s on-screen persona strikes a careful balance between discipline and recklessness. In her Eater essay on Bourdain’s writing career, Maria Bustillos reveals a similar dynamic at play in his early works of fiction, and all the way back to his suburban upbringing in New Jersey:

Bourdain came of age in the mid-1970s, a time of no brakes at all, a moment of pure hedonism in America. “Decadence” meant the dark beauty and excitement of debauchery, rather than anything gnarly. (The gnarly part was coming up fast, but it was a ways off yet.) A keen reader even as a teen growing up in Leonia, New Jersey, he wolfed down Hunter S. Thompson, Orwell, Burroughs, Lester Bangs, and I bet Baudelaire and DeQuincey; listened to the Stooges, the Dolls, Roxy Music, the Velvets, and The Ramones. (He dedicated his 2006 essay collection, The Nasty Bits, “To Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee.”)

The only culture worth knowing then was the counterculture. The Vietnam War began in 1956, the year of his birth, and ended the year he turned nineteen — surely now, in 1975, the reign of the liars and the squares had ended for good. Cocaine was routinely touted as a natural, plant-based high — health food, practically. (“It’s made from leaves!”) There was, as yet, no AIDS. Peak Free Love had arrived. That the young Bourdain literally “wanted to be a junkie” only meant that he was a little more committed than most to the prevailing atmosphere of pleasure and abandon. “I always wanted to be a criminal,” he confesses blithely in the essay, “A Life of Crime.” He once told an interviewer that he was expelled from Vassar as the result of a “depraved incident” involving angry lesbians and firearms.

This rebel son was raised in an ultra-civilized suburban family atmosphere. His mother, Gladys, was a New York Times editor, and her byline, G.S. Bourdain, appears over Times stories about Robbe-Grillet, opera stars, Cinecitta and the opening of Fauchon in Manhattan; her subjects and her writing both are suggestive of high standards, formality, propriety. Sam Sifton once described her as “a legendary editor… with a legendary temper.” She was a good cook, too. Bourdain describes favorite childhood dishes now and then — his mother’s meatloaf, her crème renversée — though his memories of the crisply pressed shorts and matching socks he and his younger brother were made to wear as kids, boarding the Queen Mary for a vacation in France, are not so fond.

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The Many Meanings of Fruitcake

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Rudisill, crotchety patron saint of the fruitcake, is related to one of the most famous American queer men of all time. She was an aunt of Truman Capote. Capote, effeminate and limp-wristed, could be considered the ideal target for the word fruitcake in its other, equally noxious meaning.

The expression “nutty as a fruitcake” has been sewn into common American parlance since as early as 1935. Fruitcake is something like the word faggot’s first cousin. To be nuts was to be mentally ill, after all, and queerness was, for a time, a flavor of mental illness. The common history of the moniker goes as follows: A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.

This word association is quite fun; it’s like rummaging through an old thesaurus from a blazingly shittier America. Recently, I began trying to trace the precise pathways through which this food became a pejorative, motivated by intense personal curiosity: I had grown up eating fruitcake and considering it a delicacy. My family is from the Indian state of West Bengal, where fruitcake is widely considered a food to cherish rather than to trash. The architecturally stodgy, pre-packaged variety that so many Americans seem to abhor was a food my family and I would eat with tea. Other families could have stuff from Entenmann’s or Carvel; we preferred these tutti frutti cakes that came in rectangular aluminum packaging. We’d even eat it for breakfast. It was aseasonal, dislodged from Christmas. If doing so were nutritionally sound or socially permissible, we’d eat it every meal.

In Food52, Mayukh Sen explores the ways fruitcake became a homophobic slur, queerness and his own personal attachment to the namesake food.

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Salt, Sugar, Fat, Repeat: A Reading List on Restaurant Chains

The first restaurant chain in the US, the late-19th-century Harvey House, popped up in train stations and followed the rapid growth of rail travel. It disappeared decades ago, but the project of connecting huge swaths of land with the promise of culinary sameness lives on. In a country that currently seems fractured and exhausted by its own divisions (at least from across the Canadian border, where I live), are chains a unifying force, a common denominator — or yet another arena in which cultural and political tensions play out?

Here are some of my favorite reads on America’s restaurant chains, from the generically upscale to the proudly down-home. They cover politics, economics, regional identity, and even (surprise!) food.

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The Slow Death of Restaurant Kitsch

Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:

The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.

“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”

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Six James Beard Finalists You Might Have Missed: A Reading List

James Beard

The James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its 2016 food media awards last week, so it’s a great time to make a cup of tea and cozy up to some excellent food writing. You might have already read some of the nominees featured here throughout 2015 — “The Brief, Extraordinary Life of Cody Spafford,” “Straight-Up Passing,” “Corn Wars,” “The Second Most Famous Thing to Happen to Hiroshima,” “The Chef Who Saved My Life,” and “On Chicken Tenders,” which features some of the most passionate writing about fried snack foods to hit the internet’s tubes — but here are six more you might have missed:

1. “Ham to Ham Combat: A Tale of Two Smithfields” (Emily Wallace, Gravy, December 2015)

Worth it for the title alone, Emily’s piece wends from 350-year-old pro-pig promotional literature to the interstate tensions at the 1985 Ham & Yam Festival — with a pit stop to visit The Oldest Peanut in the World — in service of a single question: is the ham capital of the U.S. in Virginia, or North Carolina?  (And a runner-up question: Why does it matter?)

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The Misguided Meal-in-a-Box Phenomenon

Andy Samberg and Colonel Sanders aren’t the only people to put memorable things in boxes. Corby Kummer wrote about his trials and issues with the booming meal kit delivery industry in The New Republic last October, weighing the benefits of convenience and culinary experimentation with the reality of waste:

I won’t be marketing my services as an investment adviser, at least not soon. Friends and relatives are ordering these boxes—functional adults who know how to cook and have at least a passing familiarity with grocery stores and farmers’ markets. More startlingly, one friend is putting money into “meal-kit” companies, as he informed me is the term of art. It seemed clear I couldn’t keep dismissing Blue Apron, with its three million meals a month and almost $200 million in venture capital raised so far. Or its rival Plated, co-founded by two fresh-out-of-Harvard-Business-School entrepreneurs, Nick Taranto and Josh Hix, whose office I recently visited. On one wall was a huge drawing of the Plated world of the future, with employees dispensing Plated boxes as if from a CSA in a mini-grocery store run, of course, by Plated; vertical farms along the brick walls of a reclaimed factory neighborhood; cyclists bearing Plated boxes; and, my favorite touch, hovering drones dangling multiple boxes emblazoned with the bright red Plated logo. Both services deliver to all the Lower 48—or as Matt Salzberg, the founding CEO of Blue Apron, put it, “We reach 99.7 percent of the population.”

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What Goes into Japan’s Famous Powdered Green Tea

Matcha ─ you’ve read about its health benefits, you’ve seen it in chic cafes sold as bright green lattes and iridescent bubble teas. Consumed in Japan since the 12th century, it’s suddenly trending in America. So what is it and where does it come from? In Serious Eats, food writer Matthew Amster-Burton provides a rare look inside matcha’s complex, multi-step production process. With his usual good humor, Burton takes readers through a factory in southern Japan and details the stages of production, from the tea fields to the leaves’ drying to the creation of tencha, the shaded leaf that eventually gets pulverized between stones. It’s a fascinating look inside one of the world’s most rarified and ancient beverages, and an education for those who just know matcha as that stuff in green ice cream.

I asked if I could taste a leaf. “Go ahead,” said Toshimi Nishi. I pulled one off and stuffed it into my mouth. It was tough and fibrous and tasted like, well, a leaf. How does anyone taste this and decide it’ll make good tea?

Toshimi Nishi can. He’s more like a chef than a corporate suit. He’s the man in charge, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of tea. And he can learn a lot by tasting a raw leaf: the variety of tea bush, the quality, the time of year. Spring-harvested tea is considered higher quality than late-season tea. It was now July, hot and humid even in the mountains. Specialized tractors with spindly legs and deadly blades on the underside stood by, ready to give the rows of tea a haircut during the next harvest.

We got back in the car and headed for the factory. “Do people at the factory drink tea all day?” I asked Takahashi.

“Nah, they mostly drink coffee.”

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In Praise of Polarizing Food

Canned sardines turn many Americans off to fresh sardines, which is a shame. In Tin House‘s 2009 Appetites Issue, Jeff Koehler shares the little fish’s pleasures, describing how eating canned sardines in his vagabond youth led him to savoring fresh sardines as an adult, which culminated in years of culinary experimentation in his adopted home of Barcelona. Koehler’s essay was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2010 anthology and is for anyone who’s ever loved something other people find gross.

Sardinas en escabeche became part of my repertoire, and I still enjoy it in autumn when the hues and scents of the dish feel right for the cool, clear days. Eventually, I learned to prepare sardines in many different ways. At home we like them pan-grilled and eaten with plump grapes. Or grilled and crowning a slice of toasted country bread piled with strips of roasted red peppers, eggplant, and onions. Or batter-dipped and fried with slices of acidic apple. These days, my two girls love it when I bury a mess of sardines whole under a mound of coarse sea salt, and then bake the lot in a hot oven for 15 minutes. They enthusiastically take turns breaking open the salt crust with a wooden mallet while my wife and I scramble to dig out the succulent fish—moist and completely cooked in their own juices—before the girls crush them.

But, without a doubt, the most pleasurable way to eat fresh sardines is a la brasa, grilled outside in the open air over hot embers. The flavors are at their robust finest, the flesh sparkling and briny, shaded with smoky oils. Inside, that distinct smell of searing sardines is overpowering, even pungent (and immediately alerts every neighbor as to what’s on the stove), but outside, among green leaves and dusty loam, or on a sandy beach with sea breezes, it’s evocatively, stirringly aromatic.

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