Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Please Excuse Eddie From Blogging....

Dear Readers,

I'm going to be posting a lot less frequently here, due to the fact that I'm now officially in the midst of OPENING A RESTAURANT.

Yes, it's official. I've posted fleetingly about this here because I didn't want to get too ahead of myself, but we closed on the purchase of the existing restaurant last Friday, the lease is in place, the brown paper is covering the windows, and I'm officially working full-time toward getting the place open early-to-mid-September.

I'm still going to be blogging...in fact, I may pick up the pace a bit, but not here. I've been using a different blog to document the buying-a-restaurant process for a while, and now I'm going to use it to document the opening-a-restaurant process. I plan on trying to write over there almost every day. It's a much more train-of-thought, journal-style blog, so it's a lot easier to crank out a quick post in a half hour.

So, given these circumstances, I would like to now take this opportunity to notify all of you that I probably won't be reviewing bacon, analyzing the difference between using half-n-half vs. heavy cream in homemade ice cream, or reviewing Julie & Julia any time soon (ok, I made up that last one--I am SO FREAKIN' SICK of hearing about that damn movie. Can it open already so people can stop prattling on endlessly about it? Damn!)

So. In conclusion. If you want to keep reading me, go run over to my burger blog and check me out over there. I'll still post here, but probably only a few times a month for a while. And mark your calendars to start counting down towards the opening of my burger, fries, and shakes joint in Evanston.

The concept? The short explanation I've been giving everyone is "Hot Dougs meets Five Guys". That works. We're going to be grinding our own beef fresh every day for burgers, cutting potatoes fresh throughout the day for fries, hand-dipping corn dogs and beer battering onion rings, and mixing up shakes and malts on the old fashioned spindle mixer. It's going to be low-key, non-chain-feeling, and inexpensive. We'll also do classic Chicago style dogs, Maxwell Street style Polish sausages, beer-simmered brats, and some fun toppings for the fries.

Anyway, thanks for reading, see you after the hiatus, and come find me over at the burger shop blog.

See you there!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Me to Michael Pollan; "You're an Elitist Gas-Bag"

Yep, that's right. The ethical-eating authority, best-selling author, and Food, Inc. star muffed one. And I'm calling him on it. I'm no authority on anything (except maybe Italian Beef sandwiches), but there it is.

I'm actually a big fan of Pollan and his writing. I loved The Omnivore's Dilemma, recently saw Food, Inc., and have kept current by following articles he publishes every now and then. The guy's really well-informed and has a lot of worthwhile stuff to say about how we eat and how we should change our approach to food.

But in his most recent article, published last week in the New York Times, Pollan screws the pooch. Big time. Not only is he just flat-out factually wrong in about six different places, but in his attempt to find a scapegoat for the current sad state of affairs in how Americans eat, he targets feminism. Specifically, Betty Friedan.

(Not that feminism, broadly, or Friedan, specifically, is above criticism. They're not. But neither are they guilty of what Pollan tries to pin on them. More to follow.)

That's not all, though. In his (mostly justified) rants about The Food Network (Lord knows I've made my feelings about the network known), he gets enough details about the shows wrong to allow careful readers to realize he doesn't actually know what the fuck he's talking about. It seems like he had a research assistant watch a few episodes and report back or something, so he wouldn't have to lower himself to actually watching "low culture" like Iron Chef or Triple D. Who knows... maybe he switched the network on and left it running in the background while he flipped through the recent issue of The New Yorker.

And, really, that's where Pollan's article rubbed me the wrong way. The whole thing has this condescending, scolding, elitist tone that really muddies the message. The article is hung on the framework of discussing the recent film Julie and Julia, but he uses the film's subject matter as a jumping-off point to continue the national discussion of our broken, dysfunctional relationship with food and eating that he's been prodding us to have for years. Most of what Pollan's got to say is right on the mark. All his major points are true and, yes, need to be written about, discussed, and changed.

But having a Long Island born-and-bred, Northern California-dwelling Berkeley-tenured ivy tower male like Pollan lecture middle America about why they're morons for watching The Food Network isn't a great way to move that discussion forward or get people to listen. And blaming Friedan's Feminine Mystique for re-framing our approach to cooking causing generations of women to view it as "drudgery" isn't a great way to get feminists, stay-at-home-moms, or working women to take what you're saying to heart.

I'm going to quote liberally from the article and simply respond, since this is what I found myself doing as I sat in front of my computer screen reading it. Overall, it's a thought-provoking piece containing lots of valid points and valuable insights. But in the name of a good rant, I'm going to focus just on the parts that really got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, starting with the one that's drawing so much ire all around the net:
Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.
This is the quote that's gotten Pollan into trouble with the feminists and has bloggers and twitterers of all stripes buzzing. I don't take issue with the sentiment behind it--neither Friedan nor feminism is anything approaching a sacred cow with me--but it's just flat-out factually incorrect. Dead wrong. Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing, Mike, you can pick up your parting gifts on the way out.

Saying that Friedan's book "taught millions of women to regard housework...as drudgery" is just drastically, laughably, misleading. The post-war years prior to 1963 saw women emerging as a huge sector of the workforce and factories that had been geared up for the war effort re-tooling as production facilities for all manner of convenience food products. The booming advertising industry was quick to jump in and assist in the food industry's effort to convince women that food preparation was drudgery to be avoided at all costs, and did so with incredible effectiveness. All of this was well-underway by the time The FM was released in 1963. There are entire books dedicated to documenting this phenomenon and what gets me is that I'm confident Pollan is not only aware of them, but has read them.

Which means that his scapegoating of Friedan and feminism is lazy at best. Perhaps he didn't want to stretch an already-very-long article to more fully flesh out the various parties who really were responsible for this negative re-frame of cooking. A less charitable read, though, could view Pollan's choice as a cynical attempt to co-opt negative sentiment towards feminism to bolster his cause, or maybe just as a way to drum up some controversy and get people talking.

Regardless of which explanation is accurate, it's some weak-ass shit from a guy I expect far better from. Incredibly enough, a few short paragraphs later, he says:
Many of these convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff.
So Pollan acknowledges here that other forces were working to portray food prep as "drudgery", not very long after trying to blame the whole thing on Friedan. But who had more influence in the early 60's? A feminist writer or "food marketers"? Which enjoyed more circulation--The Feminine Mystique or magazines like Women's Day and Family Circle?

I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.”
Another cheap shot in an attempt to make a valid larger point. I admit to having more limited knowledge than this Balzer guy, but I've never heard anyone refer to microwaving a frozen pizza as 'cooking'. It just seems like Pollan is taking the easy way out to make his point.

...you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth.
This comment misses the mark for me on two levels. First, the shows he's discussing--Iron Chef America, Chopped, and Top Chef--do not claim to be instructional cooking shows. They're billed as entertainment. Although the recipes are often made available online after the show airs.

And second, the ability to improvise and construct a dish or meal from random ingredients *constantly* comes in handy in real life. I do it ALL THE TIME. It's a great skill to have and shows that give contestants a basket of unlikely ingredients and challenge them to compose a tasty dish with them can, yes, be instructional, but--and this is even more important--they can be inspirational, especially to home cooks who find themselves fishing around the bottom of the freezer with a hungry family due to arrive home any minute.

I guess a guy like Pollan, who probably only shops at organic-humane-eco-friendly-localvore farmer's markets hasn't ever found himself in that situation. Must be nice.

We learn things watching these cooking competitions, but they’re not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow;
Arrgh! HUGE pet peeve! Learning how to cook isn't about following recipes! Are you KIDDING me, Michael? This statement actually makes me wonder if *you* really know how to cook.

Or as a chef friend put it when I asked him if he thought I could learn anything about cooking by watching the Food Network, “How much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the N.B.A.?”

Um....tons? But besides all that's learned by watching, the more important point is that watching often inspires people to get out there and PLAY. What a dumb, dumb comment.

What we mainly learn about on the Food Network in prime time is culinary fashion, which is no small thing: if Julia took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear — the social anxiety — out of ordering in restaurants. (Hey, now I know what a shiso leaf is and what “crudo” means!) Then, at the judges’ table, we learn how to taste and how to talk about food. For viewers, these shows have become less about the production of high-end food than about its consumption — including its conspicuous consumption. (I think I’ll start with the sawfish crudo wrapped in shiso leaves. . . .)
And the hits keep on comin'. It was at about this point in the article that I became really aware of Pollan's insulated bi-coastal sensibility. I'm not saying that he comes off as a totally out-of-touch, holier-than-thou elitist, but...um...yeah...actually, that IS what I'm saying.

Listen, I've barely ever even seen crudo or shiso leaves on menus and I've been a chef for 15 years. I had to go look up sawfish to find out what the hell it is and the first thing I find out is that it's critically endangered and is completely banned from international trade. Where the hell is this Pollan guy eating? What's next? Is he going to drop a reference to the last ortolan feast he went to?

His point here his valid, but it gets completely lost in the underlying messages he's cluelessly broadcasting about himself and the perspective from which he approaches his work.

Sure, Guy Fieri, the tattooed and spiky-coiffed chowhound who hosts “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” ducks into the kitchen whenever he visits one of these roadside joints to do a little speed-bonding with the startled short-order cooks in back, but most of the time he’s wrapping his mouth around their supersize creations
Again, Pollan doesn't allow reality to stand in the way of his scapegoating. I happen to watch D,D&D almost religiously and I can attest to the fact that Fieri almost always speaks with the owner or chef, that he's sincerely respectful of their success and their "creations" and that he possesses a solid enough kitchen background to know exactly what the folks he's interviewing are talking about--something that probably couldn't be said of Pollan. Fieri doesn't usually interview "short order cooks" and his characterization of the restaurant staff as "startled" reveals Pollan's ignorance of how the show is filmed (restaurants featured on the show close down on the day they do the "kitchen shoot" so no one is being caught unaware).

“I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

Ok, I haven't seen the movie and I assume Pollan has, but I'm not sure how he gets souffle from egg yolks, chocolate, sugar and milk. Maybe that's what Julie Powell was talking about, but soufflés, which do usually contain some egg yolks, are more characterized by the presence of egg whites, which are whipped stiff and then folded into the mixture to give the soufflé its essential poofy rise. I've also never seen a soufflé recipe containing milk. When I hear a recipe described as "yolks, chocolate, sugar, and milk getting thick", I think chocolate mousse, not chocolate soufflé.

I'm telling you, I think this Pollan guy DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO COOK!

Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours — the equivalent of a month’s full-time labor — to the total amount of time we spend at work each year, and in households where both parents work, the figure is more like 400 hours. Americans today spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation — an extra two weeks or more a year. Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.
Oh, but it's all Betty Friedan's fault that women view cooking as drudgery and reach for Rice-a-Roni or canned soup. Gimme a freakin' break!

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care.
Gosh, I just can't imagine why feminists like Friedan would portray this sort of mindset as a form of oppression. Uh....maybe because it IS one? Sheesh, Pollan, can you contradict yourself MORE?

Chunks of animal flesh seared over an open fire: grilling is cooking at its most fundamental and explicit, the transformation of the raw into the cooked right before our eyes. It makes a certain sense that the grill would be gaining adherents at the very moment when cooking meals and eating them together is fading from the culture. (While men have hardly become equal partners in the kitchen, they are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals, many of them on the grill.)

Yet we don’t crank up the barbecue every day; grilling for most people is more ceremony than routine.
Ugh. The dreaded use of "barbecue" as a synonym for "grill". A bigger pet peeve doesn't exist in my world. More evidence the guy's not a cook. Attention, fancy, multi-degreed writer guy; "grilling" is cooking food quickly directly over live flames. "Barbecuing" is cooking food slowly with low, indirect heat. They aren't the same. You grill a burger. You barbecue a pork shoulder. Look it up.

Rant over. I'm done here. Read the article and lemme know what you think. My take on it is that Pollan didn't do his normal standard of due dilligence. Maybe the grad students that usually do his research for him are all on summer break.

Either that, or he's trolling.