I always thought visiting a 3 star Guide Michelin restaurant would be some upscale snob kind of show off thing...The Fat Duck was none of that. Lovely review of a meal at the Fat Duck, including a few pictures and some information about how the food is colder than expected. Makes me want to go more than ever.

Gadget: Tomato Corer

Tomato CorerIt's that time of year: tomato time! That means I'll be eating sliced tomatoes (lightly salted and covered in basil, sometimes accompanied by mozzarella di bufala) nearly every day. The easiest way to core tomatoes before slicing is this little gadget. I was introduced to it at the restaurant where I worked in 2004 and now I can't live without it. Normally I frown on such a specialized single-use item in my kitchen, but it's so useful (and small and inexpensive) that I've made an exception. I [heart] you tomato corer!

Previous gadget: Kwik Kut

It's a wonderful life

This continual talk about the ethics of eating creatures that were once living is starting to get on my nerves. It’s not enough that those knuckleheads in Chicago and those sensitivos in California want to waste their time on the foie issue and the Whole Foods people figured out a cool marketing tool in playing to our arrogant anthropomorphist inclinations—giving lobsters spa treatment so we feel better about driving a knife through their skull? Brilliant.

What’s next, no oysters? No sir—they’re alive! No more salmon roe—think of all those unborn salmon you're smearing on your toast and dotting on your blini! All the good salmon deeds that will remain undone! All that emotional life of the unborn chickens! Gone! Delicately poached and nestled on frissée! Clarence the Angel where are you?

What is going on here? Lobsters are insects! Ducks are not harmed by gavage! The real victims are the agribusiness chickens, cows and hogs, but the animal rights activists can’t touch the culprits responsible, true goliaths. So instead The People try to save the little animals. But I say such people are either motivated by self-interest or ignorance.

Beyond the fact that our current hand-wringing foreshadows an America that increasingly regulates how we live our lives (with a government attempting, via warfare, to regulate how other countries run their lives), which is scary enough, the more insidious danger to me is that we think clams and ducks and lobsters are people too. They’re not. But the flip side to this is that, in a way, we’re not all that far off when we believe such things. This is the height of human arrogance, to think that we’re somehow above the animal kingdom. We have one trait beyond our handy opposable thumb: we know we're conscious. Ducks are conscious, yes but do they know it? No. Perhaps some very advanced French duck is right now fitting a Gauloise into its cork-tipped filter and adjusting its existentialist beret, but not in America. They’re animals.

And so are we, but in our self-consciousness have become hubristic, and therefore harmful. Make no mistake: we are animals. I am no different from a salmon. Why else would I return to Cleveland!? Cleveland! I had to return. I returned by smell. I returned to spawn. I’m not kidding. There is no other logical justification for the apparently ludicrous decision to live in Cleveland when I don’t have to. I think if we acknowledged our place in the animal kingdom—happily at the top of the food chain—and stopped thinking we were so damned superior to animals, it would be a better earth all around. We are animals who eat other animals. There is nothing wrong with this. Has this country gone insane? Even the restaurant critic for the New York Times, former Italy bureau chief, a thoughtful and reasonable man with a powerful pen, he’s having a moral dilemma over his shrimp! This is crazy!

Where is Bourdain? Tony, you’re an evil motherfucker, but I know you’re with me on this one. Help me. Where are you? Iran? Turkey? Put down that opium pipe and get your skinny ass back to your own country and do your show here, before we lose it. We need a full and clear view of how far off the track we’ve gone with our most common and basic pursuit, to nourish ourselves and our families. We need smart voices to get us out of these woods. Where is Steingarten? Jeffrey, you scaly curmudgeon, speak up! We can’t lay it all on Pollan—he did his part. What about someone with real power to sway the American masses. Rachael Ray! How about it? She affects the cutesy Suzie next door but I know for a fact she’s got a pair of brass knuckles in the pocket of those fat pants of hers. Emeril! Millions listen nightly to you! Put down that tube of Crest and teach people about the food we eat! Wake up! It’s not about the ducks and the lobsters. It’s about the corn and the oil. About big business and powerful lobbying in DC. They want your money and that’s all they want. They want your money and you can give it to them or withhold it. Make good choices about what you buy and what you eat and what you feed your kids.

All right, I’m done, I haven’t even started my work this morning and I’ve gone and shot 700 words on a rant. I’m going to go eat a hot dog, that’s always a good morning restorative…

Last November when I was traveling in Asia I fell in love with mangoes. So far I haven't indulged back here in the US but this video of how to properly cut a mango makes me want to run out and buy some right now.

The coastal papers

Today two of my favorite subjects were combined by one of my favorite writers about food, Judy Rodgers Salt and Russ Parsons. Rodgers, chef and an owner of SF's Zuni Cafe, is one of the most observant cooks I’ve ever met. Repetition and paying attention: that’s the essence of becoming a good cook. Judy knows the how a leg of lamb that reaches an internal temp of 100 degrees an hour after it went into the oven will be different from one that took two hours to reach that temperature. The kind of deep lamb knowledge you only get from roasting a thousand legs. Here she discusses salt, not to season food before it goes into the pan, but to transform the food well before it’s cooked. We tend to take salt for granted but in fact the ability to use salt is THE most important skill a cook has. (Is full-disclosure necessary here? Judy blurbed my charcuterie book with uncommon generosity and eloquence. And for this reason I’ll never be able to write about her for a newspaper or magazine, which is a shame, because she’s one of the most interesting cooks in the country. And she really does cook in Zuni’s open kitchen, in corduroy skirts and vivid stockings, number 2 pencils holding her long hair in a bun!)

From the big daily on the other coast, I can’t resist trumpeting a fellow Cleveland boy’s two-star triumph. Way to go, Michael (and Jonathan Sawyer and the Parea staff). You do this beleagured town proud. Stay focused.

Reminder: deadline for Have you ever wanted to write for this site "contest" is this Friday. If you live in New York and want to review the talk at the Y with Ruth Reichl, drop me an email.

Taking Manhattan, savoring one street-food delicacy at a time is a good look at the various on-the-go food options that fill the city. I love our street food, but it's nothing compared with the tasty stuff that lined the roads of Bangkok when I visited.

I go offline for a long weekend and HFCS rears its head! While I catch up, have a look at Kate's response to the New York Times article Michael linked to on Sunday.

Another maligned additive

Apropos of knowing whats what on your processed-food ingredients list in addition to high fructose cs, dont forget MSG. I'm reminded of this as I perused the just arrived Art of Eating, Edward Behr's excellent and elegant quarterly in which Rowan Jacobsen discusses the issue of Umami, also the subject of a recent book called The Fifth Taste by Anna and David Kasabian. Umami can be described as a kind of deep savoryness that you get from tomatoes and fish sauce and mushrooms, and Jacobsen's article is the most lucid and concise discussion of umami I've read. (One great source of umami, Jacobsen tells us, is breast milk: add a little breast milk to your bechamel sauce for a je ne sais quoi that will have your guests clamoring for more!)

About MSG, the effective part of which is an amino acid called glutamate, he correctly writes: MSG has taken a bad rap. It's effective as a taste enhancer but by the 1970s many second-rate restaurants had a heavy hand with the MSG, and it was blamed for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: symptoms of headaches, dizziness, and nausea after eating food to which large quantities of MSG have been added. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been debunked, and MSG now has a fairly clean bill of health, but it is still virtually synonymous with artificial food additive.

All true. Even in large quantities, MSG isn't apparently harmful and few people actually have an uncomfortable sensitivity to it. It was originally derived from seaweed, that is, it's natural. But in my opinion umami is best enlisted in your dishes via foods rather than MSG. Try adding a few drops of good fish sauce, nam pla or nouc mam, to your macaroni and cheese and see for yourself.

Agribusiness's Lab Rats

I loved Melanie Warner’s smart article on High Fructose Corn Syrup in today’s NYTimes business section not only because it explains a subject that is not very well understood by the public (what HFCS is and how it’s derived from corn), and suggests that HFCS, which has for several years been demonized as a cause of this country’s obesity crisis (and has recently obsessed the beloved megnut), is no worse for you than regular table sugar, which can be derived from sugar cane or beets. What the article points up for me is how badly we base our eating decisions, we who are trying to eat as well as we can.

The article leads with a woman-on-the-street comment—a Rhode Islander says she avoids foods containing HFCS because it’s been linked to obesity. But that’s as far as she goes. We have to stop to think if this makes sense, and if it does, why?

From a physical standpoint, I can’t imagine HFCS is worse than sugar for its being processed (enzymes break carbohydrates down into glucose then into fructose). It’s not bad for you pre se. But does that mean you should embrace it?

No: 1) If you’re eating something with HFCS this means likely that it’s got a lot of other crap in it that’s worse. 2) The cheapness of it has allowed soft drink companies, for instance, to produce bigger quantities of it, which we, like lab rats, consume in whatever quantities they give it to us in. 3) It perpetuates our reliance on agribusiness corn, which is just a couple steps away from perpetuating our reliance on oil. (As Pollan shows in his excellent book, Omnivore’s Dilemma—I’m halfway through, and so far it’s his best book.) These are the kinds of things we must know in order to make decent decisions about what we consume and why.

Same with nitrites. People avoid them without knowing why, having only some vague notion that because it sounds like a harmful chemical additive it must be. The notion that nitrites are bad for you is underscored by bacon companies who have introduced non-nitrite bacon (both commercial companies and good companies such as Niman). In reporting a story on bacon and corned beef for The NYTimes last fall, I asked a food scientist if there were something I was missing here. He said, "No, it’s a marketing device." I wonder if the companies themselves even know why they’re doing it. Perhaps even they think they’re doing the consumer a great service.

The fact is nitrite, which I write about in Charcuterie, are naturally occurring chemicals (they’re in spinach and celery and other vegetables, for instance), and aren’t apparently harmful in and of themselves. They have been shown in certain situations (under very high heat for example) to produce nitrosamines which have been shown to cause cancer. So some caution is advisable. But there’s little evidence that shows nitrites (usually in the form of sodium nitrite, a curing salt used in bacon and sausages and corned beef) are harmful in the quantities that we eat them today. (For a definitive statement on cautions and facts, see Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.) But how many know this?

I was grilling sausages and bacon yesterday at one of our growers markets here in Cleveland and a woman asked if the stuff on the grill had nitrites. I said the bacon did but the sausage didn’t. I tried to explain to her what I knew about nitrites, but she wrinkled her nose. Though she couldn’t explain why she thought it prudent to avoid nitrite, she wasn’t buying what I had to say. And I wasn’t even selling the bacon or wursts.

Even the most fundamental aspects of eating are misuderstood, and yet are acted upon. We think eating fat makes us fat. It doesn’t—eating more calories than we expend makes us fat. Eating cholesterol doesn’t raise our cholesterol; the food cholesterol in eggs doesn’t translate into blood cholesertol, but saturated animal fats can. This is the information that’s important.

When you avoid eating something, I hope you know why you are avoiding it. As a rule I avoid eating chemically processed food (though I have a weakness for Pringles); I avoid eating anything that comes out of a box or a cellophane or waxed-paper bag. But I adore good processed food, preferably food I’ve precessed myself, like pork belly, either cured into bacon, or poached in fat. That’s the best kind of processed food there is and should be consumed with gusto.

Responding to critics

I’ve been teaching a writers’ workshop in Chautauqua all week, one of the most unusual and interesting spots of the country, a summer resort, an enclave of Victorian gingerbread cottages devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits (it has thus made anything good to eat, this many times daily pleasure of the flesh, really hard to come by).

But it’s given me a moment to do something I’ve wanted to address pretty much since I started publishing books. Respond to critics. This was one reason a non-fiction writer told me he blogged. What pleasure, what satisfaction! I thought. To answer the snarky and ham-handed journalistic rabble; until recently one could only sit there, wrists and ankles bound to the chair, mouth gagged, and absorb the mauling. It’s a double-edged sword though because one can easily come off sounding petulant and whiny, especially when the reviews are mainly favorable. But I have wanted to address a couple issues some reviews (and comments from a couple of journalists) have brought up: the notion of enthusiasm for one’s subject and conflict of interest issues for a writer who both works with and writes about chefs.

In his nytimes review of my book, John T. Edge calls me a gusher who's too cozy with his subjects and implies that I hid the fact that I’d worked with Thomas Keller on his books (he had to go to the PR material, he writes, to learn that I’d coauthored these books that I speak so highly of); in fact, I note numerous times in Reach of a Chef my part in these cookbooks and moreover they’re listed on the “other books by” page in the front of the book, and my association and friendship with Thomas Keller is spelled out in the opening pages of the book. But the implication that I’m shilling for my own work isn’t really what bothers me; it’s the slightly unctuous tone of the reviewer. Isn’t he really questioning the conflict of interest in writing about Keller? If he didn’t like the book, he should just say so. It reads as if the Times editors forced him into a positive slant at the end. I say all this, of course, with gratitude to the reviewer and to the book review editors for consideration at all, something not to be taken lightly.

A more generous review (but not without its criticisms) comes from Louisa Thomas in the NYObesrver. Identified as being on staff at The New Yorker, Ms Thomas seems to convey the spirit of my book as I intended it, but even her reading is perplexing. I make a hero out of Keller in the book, she says, adding that I believe chefs are the high priests of the food world. Edge, too, says Keller is my muse. This was more true of the last book, Soul of a Chef, in which I truly could seem to be gushing. In Reach of a Chef, I don’t gush, relative to what I’m capable of when I care about a subject. The opposite really—I’m the most skeptical person there is with regard to the contemporary chef. We are entering an unromantic era with regard to chefs and restaurants. In this new world, Keller has lost his shoes, is out of balance, and says he’s not a chef anymore. And I think this is something that people don’t want to hear. People still want to believe that chefs are artists, which they very rarely are.

In the end, there are genuine reasons to be enthusiastic in today’s chef world (e.g. Melissa Kelly, Masa Takayama—if there’s a hero in my book, it’s him—Judy Rodgers and her smart words, what an observant cook and excellent writer she is)—but it’s more complex now, the chef is in transition, and I don’t know what the next phase will be. There’s simply too many alumni coming out of great kitchens; a finite number can fit into the always moving circle cast by the spotlight of public adoration; we can only have so many celebrity chefs. Those chefs who no longer cook have become in effect CEOs, and it’s hard to maintain celebrity when you’re a CEO, except by becoming a criminal.

About the gushing: I don’t gush indiscriminately (and I wouldn’t call it gushing; over-idealizing is more accurate). The people about whom I “gush” deserve it. And again, I do very little gushing in the new book, because I think a lot of what’s happening in the upper echelons of the chef world are confusing and sad. But I think that for journalists, especially those in the New York food media, being skeptical and snarky (which is the opposite of gushing) is somehow perceived as an asset and somehow beneficial to the reader. Only rarely is the snarky writer talented enough to deliver a truly great read, a really ugly, delightful evisceration. I’d go so far as to claim that snarkiness and talent are mutually exclusive for all but the rarest writer.

Two journalists have questioned how I could have written about someone formerly close with Keller, Adam Block, a businessman, for The Times magazine, which, given the aforementioned reviews deserves a response. It's important and interesting, and I intend to address it, but I’m late for my class...

I'm off for the long weekend. Have a great Independence Day and I'll see you back here on the 5th.

Ever wanted to write for this site?

A while ago I bought tickets for A Celebration of Life's Simple Pleasures at the 92nd St Y in Manhattan. Ruth Reichl, Anne Patchett, Jane and Michael Stern, and David Rakoff/Leonard Lopate will discuss good food and great writing. Now it turns out I'll be out of town, so I'm sitting on two tickets (a $50 value!) for Thursday, July 13 at 8:00pm.

So here's a deal for you. If you'd like to attend I will give you my two tickets, on one condition: You must write up the event for publication on this site. If you're interested in being Megnut's first stringer, send me an email explaining why you should get the tickets and do the write-up. I will select the "winner" based on demonstrated writing ability and enthusiasm for covering the event for this site. You have until next Friday July 7th to get your message to me. Send your messages to "reader" at this domain with the subject "92nd St Y tickets". Good luck!

For reference, see my Notes from Michael Pollan's 92nd St Y talk and Thoughts about The End of the Plate.

CSA wipe out

Flooded greenhouseIt's been raining heavily in the northeast for the past few weeks, but I wasn't aware just how much rain we'd gotten until yesterday. I received an email that my weekly CSA (from Norwich Meadows Farm) fruit and veg pick up was cancelled because a road was washed out and the delivery trucks couldn't make the trip. Bad news to be sure, but today's email contained worse:

"Our lower field was devastated. Our plantings of squash and cucumbers were washed out. Our upper field was flooded as well. It will take a week or so to know the extent of the damage."

Flooded fieldWith all the rain, they've fallen behind on planting, and with the reduced income due to crop loss, cannot afford to hire more employees. Members are working to arrange trips upstate to help on the farm. It's disappointing as a CSA member to realize we might not get much in the way of a harvest this summer, but that disppointment is nothing compared to what the farmers are going through. So much rain is devastating for the farm. As you can see from the pictures, the fields are filled with water. With rain like this, it becomes easier to see why local products might cost considerably more than those grown and shipped from California's arid Central Valley.

AG muses on the violence in professional kitchens. The worst kitchen violence story I heard was pretty bad: my sous chef reported one of his chefs at culinary school was doing a stage at Daniel. There was some trouble on the line between chefs, one of whom kept screwing up but not taking the blame, thereby getting others in trouble (big no no in the kitchen, you own up to your fuck ups in a kitchen). Finally, the unfairly-blamed chef snapped, and grabbing his chef's knife, he stabbed the other chef! Of course this story came out right after I said, "I've got the card of the person who arranges stages at Daniel. I was thinking of doing one..." I never did follow up.

First the came for the foie gras, then they came for the trans fats. Chicago looks to ban trans fats in all the city's restaurants. Ald. Edward Burke has proposed the ban and says “Why not start here to talk about what government can do to keep people more healthy? If they can't resolve to do it themselves, maybe municipal government ought to step in.” Watch out Chicagoans, up next: government-mandated calisthenics at work!

Veganism, foie gras and personal choice

I received the following via email today:

Regarding Jason's letter: Just go vegan. My wife and I did it about a year ago, and it's one of the best decisions we've ever made.

I will admit to being upset and thrown off about what and how to eat after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. But my distress is not limited to meat but to how all the food we consume is produced, including vegetables. Sure if I'm troubled by meat production, I could "just" remove it from my diet. But do I remove fruits and vegetables and grains as well because I'm concerned about pesticides and pollution and monocultures? I'd be pretty skinny if I followed that diet!

I have been a vegetarian three times, the final most severe phase of which occurred from 1998-2002. During that stint I forsook all dairy products, all eggs, and all meat. I was almost vegan (AV) except that I couldn't give up fish and ate a four to five servings of it a week. This was not because I thought fish had less feelings than cows or pigs, I simply enjoyed fish too much to give it up. Giving up the other foods hadn't felt like much of a sacrifice. The decision to go AV was based on a dislike of meat initially. I dropped the dairy when I realized soy would give me more protein with less fat. And eggs had always grossed me out. It was not a moral decision.

In 2002, a visit to the French Laundry and a torchon of foie gras precipitated a rapid and total collapse of my almost-veganism. I haven't looked back and I don't want to. Being an AV created a very contentious relationship between me and my food. Eating was rarely fun or pleasurable. It was always a series of questions and compromises, trying to find something on a menu that would work when I was out, a frozen Amy's vegan pizza at home.

Since my return to meat, I've learned more about food and garnered more pleasure from eating and sharing food with friends than I had in years. My culinary world has expanded in ways I'd never imagined -- I'll actually order bone marrow and liver when I'm out to dinner. And I'm more engaged and aware of food production methods and practices than I ever was as an AV. I eat with eyes wide open, with the full knowledge that an animal was bred and slaughtered for my consumption. And I am OK with that.

This leads to what angers me about the recent foie gras bans, PETA, and animal rights activists in general. First, there's the assumption you must be eating meat because you're ignorant of where it comes from. I support efforts to educate consumers about factory farming (though I draw the line at the propaganda activists produce that utilize intellectually dishonest methods to support their "arguments") but trying to convince anyone of anything by initiating an argument with an insult isn't particularly effective.

Second, there's the moral superiority that oftentimes accompanies said argument. Great, YOU made YOUR choice because it aligned with YOUR values and beliefs. That does not mean your choice is right for me, and your condescension isn't going to convince me of anything. Keep your veggie burger, and leave me my Shake Shack.

As with everything in life, eating is a series of personal choices. The more education we have, the better choices we can make. I believe in personal responsibility and the freedom to make choices, and I don't think the government should be in the business of restricting them. Factory farms, whether they produce milk or eggs or beef or berries, are environmentally unsound and cruel. And I do not support food produced in this fashion (with I'd wager about a 95% success rate in reality). In my ideal world, everyone would be aware of the conditions under which their food is produced and we'd all purchase humanely treated meat and organic vegetables.

If state and local government want to do something to prevent animal cruelty, banning small scale foie gras production provides a minimal and questionable (many argue that foie gras birds are humanely treated and do not suffer) result. Why not legislate sunlight and fresh air requirements, or set a certain amount of square footage required for a given number of animals? Heck, enforce and update the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). But banning foie gras production has little impact on the suffering of animals in the United States. Leading producer Hudson Valley Foie Gras processes 7,000 ducks a week1. But more than 27,000,000 farmed animals are killed a day in the United States2.

Instead of forcing one's individual choices upon others, everyone should be working together to expand consumer education and improve treatment for all animals on this planet, including fellow humans. Then allow people to make decisions based on their socio-economic and religious reality, not yours.

I guess I could have just said, "Go vegan? No thanks!"

1 Anthony Ramirez, "Animal Rights Groups Ask New York to Ban Foie Gras," June 22, 2006, <> (28 June 2006)

2 Dena Jones, "Crimes Unseen," July/August 2004, <> (28 June 2006)

Foie gras and lobster are not at the heart of the real tough issues of animal welfare, says Michael Pollan. I agree, and that's why I view the recent bans as more of a gesture than anything attempting to effect actual change.

Seven restaurants that stand out in Chicago's excellent dining scene. Alinea makes the list but Moto does not.

My husband writes an open letter to Michael Pollan about my growing food obsessions. Of course he exaggerates: the lot is in the East Village, not Queens; the cow is really just a calf; and our neighbors aren't complaining, they've all joined my CSA!

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