Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's Right With the World: Top Chef Texas

I love Top Chef, I love Texas. No surprise, I love this season of Top Chef--and they haven't even made it to Austin yet.

I've loved most of the challenges so far: catering the quinceañera, the rodeo chili cook-off, even the progressive dinner for the Dallas nouveau riche. I love the emphasis on spice, I loved last week's game dishes, I love that there's a half-dozen Shiner bottles in every table scene, every episode. Seriously, this is good TV.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Update

It's July now--the semester ended in May in a flurry of papers, grades, and coffee cups. Then came a dramatic change of scene, if not a change of pace: I'm back at the ranch, clearing all the land I can. Blogging is light because I'm not near a computer for long stretches; maybe these pretty pictures will make it better?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Haters Gonna Hate: BR Myers’ Crusade Against Foodies.

I should probably leave B.R. Myers’ recent attack on "foodies" alone--it's one of those articles where the wrongness comes in waves, where you hardly have time to come up for air from one onslaught of wrongness before another one is crashing on your head. All you really need to know is that the guy is wrong, and that's obvious from a quick glance at the article, so why wade in at all? Also, Francis Lam has already done a nice rebuttal for, which everyone should read. But Myers is so plainly unpleasant a writer that I feel compelled to respond, too.
It’s hard to know just where to begin, though. Maybe with Myers' premise, that “foodies” are self-centered boors who prioritize eating above all else, even human decency. "[Foodies] are certainly single-minded," Myers concludes. "And single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul.”
Now, for Myers, a foodie is anyone who writes about food--he lumps together in this category everyone from Jeffrey Steingarten to Michael Pollan. And how does Myers know that foodies are single-minded? Well, they write about food! And those essays about food are all about food!
You see what we’re dealing with here? Myers is wrong, but even if he were right it would be an absurd complaint, like bitching that sportswriters only write about football and baseball and stuff.
Embarrassingly, Myers takes Francine Prose as an example of one of these single-minded meat-heads, dismissing her as a "foodie writer" who "quickly lose[s] interest in any kind of abstract discussion.” But is Francine Prose really just a foodie? Okay, she writes for Saveur and is the author of an essay entitled “Faith and Bacon.” But she has also written more than a dozen novels, on topics that range from immigrant domestic labor to professor-teacher romance. She has books on Caravaggio and Anne Frank. She edited an edition of Mrs. Dalloway. I mean, come on, Myers: she publishes everywhere, on every topic imaginable. Just last week, I found an article of hers in Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine on which came first, the chicken or the egg. Not kidding. And, for the record, that article included no mention of either frying or scrambling.
Myers claims to be something of a reader, so he should know who Francine Prose is. Either he doesn’t, or he believes that because she also wrote an essay about bacon, she’s incapable of thinking with anything other than her belly.
But even more troubling is Myers’ misreading of the food writing he reviews. His favorite target is Anthony Bourdain: Myers calls him oafish and thuggish, and accuses Bourdain of “greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all.”
Look, I get not liking Bourdain. He’s abrasive and impatient and he says mean things about Rachael Ray and other harmless people. But you have to be either a very selective reader of Bourdain or an inept one to conclude that his writings are truly all about food. In the introduction to A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain writes:
I wanted the perfect meal.
I also wanted--to be absolutely frank--Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby, the Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, B. Traven, Christopher Walken... I wanted to find--no I wanted to be--one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola, and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble. (5)
That was 10 years ago. Since then, he has written and commented on Nicaragua’s Ortega regime, the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon, and Ted Nugent’s crazy-ass conservatism. Yes, his books and TV shows are about food, but they’re not about food, if you know what I mean. Here’s a clip from Bourdain’s current TV series, No Reservations--watch from about the 8:30 minute mark until 11:30:
It’s a jaw-dropping scene: Bourdain, his crew, and a Haitian movie star visit a street vendor on the edge of Port-au-Prince. The woman has struggled since the earthquake, someone tells Bourdain. Meanwhile, a crowd of kids surrounds Bourdain’s table, staring at his food, making Bourdain “painfully aware” that he’s eating three times more food than most of them will get all day.
“What would you do?” Bourdain asks his viewers in a voiceover. “Hungry kids and a hard-working business woman. A brief conference with producers, and I think, in this case, easy to make the situation better. Right?”
He decides to pay the woman full price for her all of her food and give it to the surrounding crowd. But instead of cheerfully lining up for the free food and giving Bourdain’s viewers a feel-good moment, young men push the children out of the way, and Bourdain stands around, awkward and helpless, as the crowd descends into violence.
“We didn’t think it through,” Bourdain concludes.
Is that scene about food? Of course not. Can we honestly say that Bourdain is indifferent to suffering? We could, if we enjoyed bathing in oceans of wrongitude.
The closest Myers comes to a fair point is his complaint that foodies tend toward elitism. But again, Bourdain is a bad example. In fact, as my wife and I watched that Haiti episode of No Reservations a couple of weeks ago, we were eating one of our mid-week specialties: black bean tacos with fresh pico de gallo. The dinner was everything Myers says foodie food is not. It’s vegetarian, cheap, and simple. All you do is chop up some tomatoes, an onion, a serrano pepper and some garlic, toss that with a bit of lime juice, salt, and olive oil. Then scoop that into a tortilla on top of some heated black beans. If the ingredients are good, the meal is great: it tastes like pure summer.

Where did we learn to eat like this? From Bourdain, in part. My wife and I had his first nonfiction book, Kitchen Confidential, pressed into our hands by a friend in college (Word up, Larry!). In that book, Bourdain writes about his first appreciation of well-prepared Italian food:
All the food was simple. And I don’t mean easy, or dumb. I mean that for the first time, I saw how three or four ingredients, as long as they are of the highest and freshest quality, can be combined in a straightforward way to make a truly excellent and occasionally wondrous product. (165)
Later, in A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain writes:
Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at the dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life. (6)
Somehow, Myers misses that Bourdain praises simple food as much as he does complicated food. But then he misses a lot.
The thing is, what really pisses Myers off about Bourdain, Prose, and Michael Pollan is that they eat meat. In other words, they draw a distinction between the suffering of humans and the suffering of animals. Is that a fair distinction to draw? I would say yes, but it’s a fair question. And I know lots of smart vegans who would argue that it’s not (Word up, Traci!). But Myers doesn't make that argument. Instead, propelled by his dislike for happy food-eaters, he aims for total evisceration, and that leads him into absurdity after absurdity.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's a Sunday Like all the Best Sundays

Presented last night at the Spanish Department's amazingly well run Coloquio, the culmination of a week's worth of worrying: Would my paper be okay? Would my adviser approve? Would I face impossible questions from the audience? Would nobody ask any questions because my paper was an incomprehensible mess?

But now it's Sunday, and in the words of the Digable Planets, Sunday is to relax. So I'm spending the morning in bed with wife and kid and cats, reading through my favorite sites. It's a longstanding tradition for me and H and the cats, but the kid seems to be cottoning to it pretty quickly.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Four Pieces of Fort Worth

Last weekend we made our annual trip to the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo: pics of Emma in her first pair of cowgirl boots will be posted on Facebook soon. In some ways, Fort Worth will always be home, so I want to use this post to give a few of the reasons I think the city is one of the state's most under-appreciated.

1) Ol' South Pancake House. It's not just the Dutch Babies. I love the place for managing to be both trashy and charming, eccentric and traditional. But we would be remiss not to talk about the Dutch Babies, which are miniature German pancakes swimming in lemon juice and butter and powdered sugar. You can eat three or four if you don't get sidetracked by the rest of the menu. But there's the problem: the rest of the menu is very tempting. For years I've watched waitresses (always waitresses--as far as I know, Ol' South has never had male servers) bring out waffles, french toast, and stacks of pancakes. But I'll never know how they taste--the stomach can only hold so much, and when I'm in Fort Worth, that space is reserved for Dutch Babies.

2) Cold Fort Worth Beer. Fort Worth is the home of Lone Star and Miller Lite. I only drink either when driven to financial desperation, but that happens a lot.

3) Dickies. When I moved to Fort Worth as a middle-schooler, I noticed right away that Dickies clothes (made on West Vickery Street) were everywhere: on every janitor and bus driver in town, on the budding gangsters that rode my school bus, on the country boys that came in from Mayfield and Weatherford for the Stock Show. I didn't get the appeal. I knew they were cheap, but cheap clothes aren't usually worn with the kind of pride that Fort Worthers afforded Dickies--a pride that, to me, seemed unwarranted. The shirts were stiff, and the pant legs had a peculiar stove-pipe shape.

Then, the summer before I went away to college, I worked in a factory just south of Burleson. Those days were spent entirely in Dickies workshirts and somehow, at some point, I came to like the unfussy Dickies aesthetic. Now I get excited at Wal-Marts with large Dickies selections, and one of my favorite sartorial items is a canvas Dickies belt I bought for something like $6.

4) The Cultural District. Philip Johnson's Amon Carter Museum, Tadao Ando's Modern, and my favorite, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum. Not just good buildings--perfect buildings. Buildings that change the way you think about light and space, buildings that make you fall in love with architecture. And they're surrounded by perfect lawns, green space that stretches from the bricks of Camp Bowie Boulevard, over the Stock Show grounds, all the way south to the Botanical Gardens. When I was a teenager we lived just a few minutes away, off of Forest Park; growing up so close to these buildings, and the art inside them, and the lawns, restaurants, and coffee houses around them--all of that shaped my idea of what it means to live in a city. Frankly, it spoiled me: now I'm unsatisfied if a city doesn't offer intimacy and surprise, friendliness and beauty.

That's a start, anyway. Someday I'll have to write odes to more of Fort Worth's wonders, like Ranch Style Beans, Record Town, and Mrs. Baird's Cherry Pies.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What I Ate Over Christmas Break

I kind of love my family's holiday food traditions. Somehow, we've managed to cobble together a series of meals that captures every element of our Texan/Southern/Scottish/Danish/Spanish family history. It starts in early December, when we get two Danish kringles delivered from a mail-order company in Racine, Wisconsin--one from my dad in Columbia, South Carolina, and one from my Great Aunt and Uncle in Atlanta. On Christmas Eve, at Hannah's house in Georgetown, Texas, we eat carne guisada and tamales: probably my favorite meal of the year. For Christmas dinner, Hannah's mom roasts an amazing beef tenderloin. On New Years, Hannah and I drink cava, not champagne, and make my grandmother's recipe for hoppin' john and collared greens (see picture).

But for this post I want to give you the recipe for our Christmas morning breakfast, aebelskiver. Aebelskiver are round Danish pancakes, cooked in a special pan that I thought, growing up, no one in the world owned except for my mom.

Until I met Hannah. You see, our fathers are both of Danish extraction, by way of the Midwest, and each of their mothers taught their non-Danish daughters-in-law (our mothers) how to make these delectable treats. The batter recipe is simple:

4 cups buttermilk
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons baking soda

The trick is in cooking them thoroughly and evenly. They have to be turned at just the right moment: my Grandma Rosie taught my mom to do it with a knitting needle; Hannah's mom does just fine with a fork. But you can only learn when to turn them through experience and intuition. It will take a few tries, but when you finally get them right, eat them hot with butter and powdered sugar.