Tag Archives: food writing

Roast Duck Soup for the Chinese-American Daughter’s Soul

Ck Chiam/Getty

Su-Jit Lin | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,431 words)

 

No matter the culture, no matter the upbringing, certain foods will always bring back certain memories. Whether those recollections are good or bad, the strength of the association is such that time stands still. For that one big moment, as you inhale the aroma, settle your teeth down, and let the flavors fill your mouth, you are again who you once were.

For me, that one dish was Hong Kong-style roast duck soup from Chinatown in New York City. To this day its heat and fragrant spices remain strong enough to permeate my sinuses and make their way into my subconsciousness.

***

Imagine this: chopped duck, dark and gamey; marrow unobtrusively seeping out of brittle, splintered bone. Rich meat covered in crackling skins, shining with fat rendered out, and glistening with that which remains. A complex broth gleaming golden, tasting faintly of toasted shallots and green onions. From this, steam rising to coat your nasal passages with delectable, moist warmth as the scent travels down to your mouth. Al dente egg noodles, floating like dense bundles of seaweed in a virtual seascape, with plump ground pork-and-shrimp wontons wrapped in translucent skins, the excess dough fluttering in the soup like the tails of fat jellyfish.

Atop it all, tender baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, or crisp mung bean sprouts add a splash of color and a refreshing, vegetative foundation to the heavy flavors. Despite how much my tastes evolve or my standards rise, this will forever be the dish that transforms me again and again, back into a buck-toothed child eagerly grinning at a bowl bigger than her head.

Coming from an underprivileged family in the restaurant industry, I learned early on in life that although cash may change hands, food is the ultimate currency. Greens hold more value than greenbacks, and bringing home the bacon wasn’t a figure of speech — it’s what my parents literally did. Although we were disadvantaged, because of my parents’ profession, food was always plentiful. In our house, money wasn’t used to coerce us to do the right thing, but tasty treats were always fair game.

Read more…

The Editor Who Brought Julia Child to America

Image: AP Photo (Richard Drew)

The adjective “legendary” has been losing its lustre in recent years. We often use it to connote longevity and persistence rather than greatness. The descriptor feels quite apt in the case of book editor Judith Jones, who died today at the age of 93. (She stepped down as Senior Editor and Vice President at Alfred A. Knopf in 2011, at the age of 87.) Imagine the second half of the 20th century without The Diary of Anne Frank (which Jones rescued from a pile of rejected submissions), Julia Child’s cookbooks, or John Updike’s fiction.

In a 2015 profile at Eater, Charlotte Druckman wisely gives Jones the stage. What follows is a string of observations and casual aphorisms on the evolution of food writing in the past few decades — including how she championed Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Read more…

The Current Hot Chicken Craze Is Also about Race and Gentrification

Photo by Sean Russell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Food trends always say something about the cultural moment in which they burst onto our collective consciousness, and Nashville’s beloved hot chicken is no exception. At The Ringer, Danny Chau recounts three days enjoying the addictive pain of cayenne-coated fried chicken, while also exploring a history of racial tension and the changing vibe of the neighborhoods that gave America its Bourdain-approved, spicy food of the moment.

Hot chicken has become one of the biggest national food trends of the last few years, but I didn’t come to Nashville to Columbus a dish that has existed for nearly a century. I did come to see, from the source, why America’s fascination with hot chicken is exploding at this particular moment. As recently as 10 years ago, hot chicken wasn’t a universally acknowledged dish, even in its birthplace. For the majority of its existence, it was largely contained within the predominantly black East Nashville neighborhoods that created it, kept out of view under the shroud of lawful segregation.

Prince’s old location was close to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry performed for more than three decades. Its late-night hours were perfect for performers, and early adopters like Country Music Hall of Famer George Morgan helped build a devout following. But in the segregation era, to get their fix, they had to walk through a side door. Prince’s was operated like a white establishment in reverse: blacks order in front, whites out back.

Even after desegregation, hot chicken remained hidden in plain sight for much of Nashville, due to what Purcell described as “comfort” on both sides of the racial divide.

Read the story

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…

So Many Food Writers Under the House-Made Polenta Sun

“Food has become entertainment,” Meehan said. As David Kamp showed in The United States of Arugula, a chef like Alice Waters can be a product of 1970s counterculture just like any musician. And Waters is much more likely to be available to talk about her motivations.

“Those of us who have pursued this course are on the pleasure beat,” Gordinier told me. “It doesn’t mean we partake of the pleasure the entire time. It means we’re interested in the way culture engages with pleasure, and what the pursuit of pleasure says about us. The defining pleasure of the ’60s was music. To some extent, the defining pleasure of the ’70s was film. The defining pursuit of our time now is food.”

At The Ringer, editor Bryan Curtis examines the rise of modern food writing and the confounding popularity of writing about food. Everyone’s doing it. Why is everyone doing it? Food writing is the new Applebees but at Lonchero prices, and something smells fishy. See? It’s harder than you think.

Read the story

The Scientific Language of Cooking

“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”

The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.

“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering.  Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”

In the California Sunday Magazine, Daniel Duane eats with the unassuming culinary celebrity Harold McGee, to find out how the failed academic’s popular first book changed the way we talk and think about cooking.

Read the story

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.

Read the story

Longreads Best of 2016: Food Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in food writing.

* * *

Rachel Khong
Former executive editor at Lucky Peach magazine; author of the novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, forthcoming in July 2017, and the cookbook, All About Eggs.

Citizen Khan (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker)

I would read anything by Kathryn Schulz, and this story makes a perfect case why. Ostensibly it’s the story of a man named Zarif Khan, who in 1909 found his way to Wyoming from the Khyber Pass, and made a name for himself selling tamales (the name: “Hot Tamale Louie”). Khan was a recognizably curmudgeonly chef (God forbid you put ketchup on his burgers!) of the sort writers reliably profile today. But “profile” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this goosebump-inducing story is. Woven into this tale are captivating tangents—about Wyoming’s inclusive beginnings, the various histories of naturalization (and denaturalization), tamales, and Muslims in this country (a history that goes back so much further than Trump would have you believe)—that turn out not to be tangents at all: the heart of this story about tamales and burgers is a story about America, and the immigrants that make it. In Schulz’s hands it’s skilled and quietly hilarious. The story felt fitting when it was published in June; it feels even more essential now.

At Tampa Bay Farm-to-Table Restaurants, You’re Being Fed Fiction (Laura Reiley, Tampa Bay Times)

I read this story about food fraud slack-jawed. Laura Reiley’s basic premise is this: when you go to a restaurant advertising “local” or “farm to table,” it’s not only possible but highly likely(!) you’re being lied to. Years of working in restaurant criticism made Reiley rightly skeptical of menu claims, and suspicious that more was afoot than frozen cakes passed off as homemade. For her story she systematically investigates restaurants in the Tampa area that make declarations about their ingredients—sometimes embarrassingly high-mindedly—that they don’t exactly see through. A lot impresses me here, like Reiley’s persistence, guts, attentiveness, commitment, and spy moves (she kept ziptop baggies her purse to secrete away fish to lab-test later). The piece’s focus is on restaurants in Tampa, but it makes a broader statement about our convoluted food supply chains, and what it means to be an eater and consumer living in our increasingly weird world. Read more…

Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive

One version of my perfect day would consist of nothing but walking from one spicy-noodle stand to another, consuming so much chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns my mouth would no longer feel like it’s connected to my body. At Roads and Kingdoms, Josh Freedman made that dream reality, following Mr. Lamp — Chongqing’s most devoted noodle explorer — around the city, in search of the ultimate bowl of xiaomian.

Lamp steps out to take a call; he returns to tell me it is a reporter for one of China’s national newspapers. The article written about me the day before has been published in the local morning paper, under the headline “American Guy Loves Chongqing Noodles So Much He Flies All the Way to Chongqing to Eat Noodles and Learn About the Ingredients.” Within hours, the article was reposted by the flagship state-run paper, the state newswire, and dozens of aggregators. The article about me writing an article was such a big hit that the national press wanted to redo it for the international edition.

I look around the table, uncomfortable with the attention, thinking about the xiaomian stories that link each person together. Mrs. Lamp and her sister-in-law sit to our right, drinking sugary iced tea and gossiping. Across the simmering hotpot, Ms. Hu and her husband propose a toast to the table. They run a store called Fat Sister’s Noodles, named, they quickly add, after Ms. Hu. They operate the store themselves, with little help, starting before dawn every morning; rarely do they have a free moment to go out and eat with friends. After several rounds of toasting and laughter, Ms. Hu’s cheeks have turned bright red, almost as red as the hotpot broth on the table between us. Brother Lamp sits back, soaking it all in, watching connections borne of noodles grow into friendship and camaraderie. He has started smoking again.

Read the story

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

James Beard
James Beard, photo by Paul Child.

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?)

Read more…