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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
Believe it or not, it’s been ten years since Guy Fieri — “that dude that eats the deep-fried pizza corn dog sandwiches,” as he puts it in a knowing self-parody) — first burst onto the Food Network scene. In a wide-ranging interview at Thrillist, Matt Patches elicits some Ina Garten-level moments of reflection from a chef whose TV persona — a culinary id unleashed on America — increasingly feels like a savvy, if not prophetic, pre-Trumpian construction.
You gotta know me to be able to tell me what you think I should be doing, because if you get thrown off by the fact that I have bleach-blonde hair and tattoos, and listen to rock and roll, gettin’ Sammy Hagar, and that’s where your premise is going to come from, then you really don’t know me well enough to tell me to do anything or really have a position that you should be making an opinion about me. But that’s fine.
I try to improve upon myself every day, and I try to make sure that I spend more time not doing things that I think I need to be doing. Not working. Spending more time staying grounded. I’m walking around my garden right now, as I talk. It’s my favorite place. I’ve got this big organic garden. I just put another one in up at my ranch. I love coming and seeing what we produce, and food always tastes better. My youngest will pick and eat a strawberry. “It’s the best strawberry in the world.” “Well, you’re right it’s the best strawberry in the world, you grew it.”
I don’t like to watch my shows, and nobody likes to watch himself on TV. But I watch it. I watch it with a pad of paper and sit there and take notes. Am I doin’ too much of this? Am I doin’ too much of that? Am I not giving this person enough time? Just always evaluating. Kind of like I think a race car king does, you go around the car, you go back you make your changes that you need. But have I changed from the core of who I am, and how I live, and what I do, and who is Guy Fieri? No, nor have I been instructed to. I’ve always been kind of a wild guy. I’ve always been kinda, you know, out there. That’s how I am.
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.’
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?
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.
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!”