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Best Food Writing 2013
Edited by Holly Hughes
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Format:ebook $8.99 $11.99 CAD
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Contributors include: Katie Arnold-Ratcliff, Elissa Altman, Karen Barichievy, Peter Barrett, Dan Barry, Edward Behr, Alan Brouilette, Tim Carman, Bethany Jean Clement, Aleksandra Crapanzano, Sarah DiGregorio, Barry Estabrook, Kim Foster, Ian Froeb, Jonathan Gold, Diane Goodman, Matt Goulding, Paul Graham, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tim Hayward, Bernard Herman, Eddie Huang, Rowan Jacobsen, John Kessler, Todd Kliman, Corby Kummer, Francis Lam, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Tracie McMillan, Joy Manning, Brett Martin, Erin Byers Murray, Kim O’Donnel, Kevin Pang, Carol Penn-Romine, Michael Pollan, Michael Procopio, Steven Rinella, Hank Shaw, Katharine Shilcutt, Erica Strauss, Mike Sula, John Swansburg, Molly Watson, Pete Wells, Katherine Wheelock, Chris Wiewiora, Lily Wong
The vegetables were beautiful this year, fat lush heads of arugula and romaine, gleaming taut-skinned summer squash, lusty round beets, impudently tall leeks with loamy soil still clinging to their hairy roots. Every week there were a few horizon-expanding surprises—who knows what I’d have done with those spiky knobs of kohlrabi if the CSA hadn’t provided recipes? And the fruit! This was the first year I’d bought a fruit share, too, and I was astonished by how sweet and succulent the berries and peaches were, the cherries delicate and tender, not rubbery like supermarket Bings.
Every week I’d lug home this embarrassment of riches, then panic about using it all. So—what else?—I invested in a mandoline. Each Monday I made a vegetable terrine to cook up the last produce, emptying the crisper drawers for Tuesday’s CSA pick-up. Aside from the evening I nearly sliced off my fingertip (so that’s why they include that finger-guard), I found those meticulous hours of slicing and layering wonderfully meditative. Some combos were better than others, granted, especially before my daughter went full-on vegan and we had to leave out the goat cheese. But making vegetables the main course of our dinner? It seemed like an idea whose time had come.
So this is where we stand in the year 2013: The season of foam and gels has passed, and the Year of the Pork Belly has given way to the Year of Kale. Over the past several months, combing through bookstores and magazines and websites to compile this year’s edition of Best Food Writing, I’ve seen the ground shift back towards slow food. Today’s true believers are all about farm-to-table sourcing and hand-crafted ingredients, and it’s tempting to join in.
The mandate to “eat local” has done a lot to level the playing field—as Brett Martin declares in this book’s opening essay (page 2), nowadays there is “Good Food Everywhere,” not just in a few big restaurant cities. It has also inspired some fine writers to dig deep and reaffirm their faith in the elemental act of cooking—as meditation (Michael Pollan, page 223), as a way of living life (Edward Behr, page 41), even as a form of prayer (Paul Graham, page 350). Yet I sense that the locavore dogma is due for a pushback. Other voices in this year’s book view locavorism with skepticism (Katherine Wheelock’s “Is Seasonal Eating Overrated?,” page 32), tongue-in-cheek humor (Erica Strauss, “The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater,” page 36), thoughtful re-examination (Todd Kliman, “The Meaning of Local,” page 52), and clear-eyed socio-economic reaction (Tracie McMillan, “Why Cooking Isn’t Fun,” page 48).
I hope that one effect of the local-sourcing movement will last: Giving quality food producers some star power, on a level with chefs. In this edition of Best Food Writing, we meet several of them, from all over the country: Erin Byers Murray’s Massachusetts female farmers (page 112), Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s Minnesota cheesemaker (page 119), Rowan Jacobsen’s Maine heirloom-apple grower (page 104), Barry Estabrook’s Vermont hog farmer (page 142), John Kessler’s Georgia cattleman (page 150). Any self-respecting carnivore these days should vicariously slaughter an animal just once (see Tim Hayward’s “The Ibérico Journey,” page 160), or even better, go hunting with Mike Sula (page 180), Steven Rinella (page 196), and Hank Shaw (page 199), or snail-gathering with Molly Watson (page 129).
Scoring ingredients is only the first step, though. In this Golden Age of Foodism, it’s okay to get a wee bit obsessive in the kitchen, especially when a dish carries special significance. Check out culinary mad scientist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, deconstructing his childhood favorite New England clam chowder (page 212); Tim Carman, resurrecting a lost family cookie recipe (page 240); Michael Procopio, trying to reproduce a favorite restaurant dish that was cut from the menu (page 246); and Bernard L. Herman, lovingly curating a Thanksgiving feast keyed to his family retreat on the Chesapeake shore (page 259).
Farm-to-table sourcing hasn’t killed off the four-star restaurant—far from it. Witness the current vogue of multi-course chef’s tasting menus, as lamented by Corby Kummer (“Tyranny: It’s What’s For Dinner,” page 19) and played out in real time by Matt Goulding (“Confronting a Masterpiece,” page 74). But the rules seem to have subtly changed for top-flight chefs. Joy Manning’s skeptical review of Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken cookbook (page 236) holds star chefs to a real-world standard. John Swansburg (page 266) profiles Danny Bowien, whose Mission Chinese started as a pop-up; Peter Barrett (page 281) follows Zak Pelaccio as he re-invents himself for a small-town market; and Kevin Pang (page 289) reveals Curtis Duffy as an ex-delinquent redeemed by cooking in high-end restaurants. Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat (page 330) credits his family’s passion for Taiwan street food as the root of his restaurant Baohaus.
Other chefs profiled this year are working all over the place—cooking in a food truck (Jonathan Gold, page 276) or on a small Caribbean island (Francis Lam, page 309), as a private chef (Karen Barichievy, page 314) or a pizza maker (Chris Wiewiora, page 323).
The line between epicurean ambition and simple home cooking requires constant navigation, as Elissa Altman shows in her memoir Poor Man’s Feast (page 357). Foodies can be just as interested in Low Food as in High Food, which may be why Dan Barry rhapsodizes about Ding Dongs (page 99), Katherine Shilcutt surrenders to the allure of the McRib (page 95), and Sarah DiGregorio marvels at the healing power of Hood ice cream in a cup (page 371). As Katie Arnold-Ratliff confesses (page 230), our favorite cookbooks aren’t always the complicated ones.
Buzzwords like “local,” “seasonal,” “artisanal,” and so on are bound to fade away, as trends always do; what’s certain is that our national obsession with all things foodie shows no sign of letting up, especially in the 18-to-30 demographic. As publisher Daniel Halpern remarked in a recent New York Times article, “The passion my generation felt about poetry and fiction has gone into food, I think, into making pickles or chocolate or beer.” Another Times article interviewed 20-somethings in entry-level jobs who spend all of their limited disposable income on dining out in trophy restaurants, instead of on rent or clothes or travel. My college-age kids raptly watch Chopped and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives every night during dinner, not because of me—God forbid!—but because that’s what their friends are talking about. Only a couple of years ago, snapping a photo of your restaurant meal to post on Twitter would instantly brand you as a food obsessive. Nowadays—for better or worse—it’s almost de rigueur. With such an insatiable audience, there are more outlets for food writing than ever, in print and online and on the airwaves. It’s an embarrassment of riches, not unlike those overstuffed CSA bags of produce. Cutting through the chatter to find the really good stuff can be a challenge—and that’s where Best Food Writing 2013 comes in. Curating this year’s collection has been a bit like assembling a vegetable terrine, building a rich flavor from many different tastes, layered all together. Plunge in and enjoy!
The Way We Eat Now
GOOD FOOD EVERYWHERE
By Brett Martin
To get a handle on the Big American Food Picture, feature writer and essayist Brett Martin travels coast-to-coast, a roving cultural investigator for publications such as GQ, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine. His diagnosis? It’s all good.
And so here we are, under the arc lights, under the Southern California stars, on a picture-perfect summer evening in America. The kids are arriving, headlights swinging slowly down La Brea, down Beverly. They’re cruising, looking for parking, checking out the scene at the car wash and gas station on the corner.
I myself am driving a brand-new, bright-red Ford F-150 pickup truck. This feels important. If you’ve never been in one of these monsters, it’s hard to describe how mighty and right it makes you feel. You understand why men who drive trucks drive like assholes: (a) There’s a good chance that, despite mirrors the size of a normal human car’s hubcaps, they simply don’t see other vehicles. (b) In some larger, existential sense, all other vehicles have ceased to exist. Driving an F-150 makes you want to run over smaller, lesser cars. It makes you want to invade smaller, lesser countries.
So, with all this fine American muscle rumbling underneath me, I roll up to The Truck Stop. Except, for all its American Graffiti trappings, this is no temple to car culture. The pumps are covered. A handwritten sign reads “no gas.” The shiny, souped-up vehicles everybody’s lining up to see aren’t here for a drag race. And those beautiful kids may have youthful hunger in their eyes, but not, it would seem, for young love. A couple, he in black-on-black Yankees cap, she in Snooki sweats and flip-flops, wander arm in arm between the idling trucks. “Ohmigod,” she squeals as they approach one. “Those homemade pierogies are uh-mazing.” They kiss.
Elsewhere, they’re lining up for lobster rolls at the Lobsta Truck; for artisanal Pittsburgh-style “Sammies” at Steel City Sandwich; for salad, of all things, at the Flatiron Truck: butter lettuce and heirloom carrots sliced mandoline thin, tossed with mustard vinaigrette, and topped with pieces of steak marinated in star anise, cooked sous vide, finished on the grill, and sent off with a puff of shiitake-mushroom dust. If there’s a muse here, an avatar presiding over all this transmutation of energy to young America’s stomach from organs slightly farther south, it’s the mud-flap girl emblazoned on the most popular truck in the lot. She’s a classic: in recline, chest thrust forward, dewy lips lifted and parted to receive—yes, ah yes—a Gruyère and double-cream-Brie grilled cheese sandwich.
But you know this. You’ve been there, or some version of there. Food trucks have become to food scenes what porcupines are said to be to a forest: a sign that you’ve got a healthy, vibrant ecosystem at work. And by the time I stood before The Grilled Cheese Truck, midway through a monthlong journey from sea to shining sea, I could already state without equivocation that the nation’s food ecosystem was thriving. I’d had magnificent meals in an airport and in a hospital. My coastal urban bigotry had been undermined by amazing eating in small out-of-the-way cities. Just that morning, on a seedy stretch of the Venice Beach boardwalk, where the air hangs heavy with the smell of medical marijuana and white-man’s dreads, I had breakfasted on artisanal bread pudding and Blue Bottle coffee from a closet-sized counter squirreled amid the henna-tattoo and cheap-sunglass shops.
It had long since become clear that the fortuitous collision of political, philosophical, health, and fashion movements that together form the Food Revolution had, over the past decade, penetrated nearly every corner of American life. We are now a nation with so many farmers’ markets that The New York Times has reported that farmers are getting a little worried. A nation in which phrases like “Kosher in Fargo?” or “Filipino in Detroit?”—which once would have been failed pitches for fish-out-of-water sitcoms—are now perfectly reasonable queries on foodie boards. We the people have come to rely on, indeed feel entitled to, good food everywhere.
Given the generally blah economic climate, what, it’s fair to ask, exactly the hell is going on? How to square the seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory of our eating lives with the supposed downward trajectory of nearly everything else?
The first and most obvious answer is that this is another reflection of the enormous gap between rich and poor. After all, at the same time some of us engage in quests for the perfect taco al pastor, obesity and hunger stalk the land—often, in a perverse histori-nutritional anomaly, side by side. Where I live, in New Orleans, is a so-called “food desert” where locals are hard-pressed to buy a fresh lemon, much less a Meyer lemon.
But while the Food Revolution may have started as an indulgence of the boom years, it was just as finely tuned to the crash and sluggish present. It is, first of all, a movement built on entrepreneurs—a generation of countercultural capitalists created, at least in part, by the lack of more traditional, stable work. You start cooking in trucks, don’t forget, when you can’t afford brick-and-mortar rent. The foods of the movement, meanwhile, though not cheap, tend to be those that soothe: fatty, melty, salty, sweet. Comfort foods. It’s no surprise that the flavors ascendant over the past ten years are so often rooted in the cuisines of Italy, Asia, and the American South—places that have long made a virtue of elevating the simple foods of poverty. And the ethics espoused—local, community-based, anti-corporate, anti-industrial—are those of an uneasy population reaching for an idealized past. It just happens to be one of the moment’s many dozen paradoxes that the path there is paved with $20 plates of truffled mac and cheese and an endless series of better and better pizzas.
Not long ago, a nice 85-year-old lady from Grand Forks, North Dakota, wrote an earnest review of a new branch of the Olive Garden in the Grand Forks Herald. Marilyn Hagerty had been filing reviews for the paper for decades without incident, but this one was picked up and ridiculed by food bloggers. It quickly went viral, becoming another weird semiotic data point in the cyclone of lash and backlash that makes up the electronic food conversation.
In truth, the to-do was less about the provincialism of food than it was about the provincialism of newspapers. But it was notable mostly for how anachronistic it felt. Years ago, Calvin Trillin coined “La Maison de la Casa House” to identify the interchangeable “good restaurant” in any given town. Today’s version of that eatery will feature warm, modern design employing lots of wood and recessed lighting. There will be a large bar and a TV, just to hedge its bets with more conservative locals. It will have a blackboard on which are listed the various sources of its ingredients. The menu, too, will read like a 4-H register, so loaded will it be with the names of various farms. It will offer dishes that vacillate between ambition and comfort and probably err on the side of piling too many ingredients on one plate. It will be called something like Market Table Tasting Market, or perhaps Loin, and it will stand a decent chance of actually being good.
That is to say that the coasts and big cities long ago gave up their monopoly on good food scenes. I saw that while eating simple roasted carrots painted with honey at the Red Feather Lounge in Boise, Idaho, and a deep-fried fish head at Jolie in Lafayette, Louisiana. I tasted it in a smoky barrel-aged Manhattan at Frog Hollow Tavern in Augusta, Georgia, and in the Imperial Slam Dunk—a triple shot of Earl Grey tea, brewed with maple syrup and quince paste and topped with a shot of espresso—at MadCap Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town once commonly referred to as “Bland Rapids,” as if the official nickname, “the Furniture City,” didn’t convey a sufficient sense of white-breaditude. I could see it in the glistening smoked brisket covered in hickory-hoisin sauce and served on focaccia from the Bone-In Artisan BBQ truck, parked at the farmers’ market in Columbia, South Carolina, where one could also buy small-batch artisanal sea salts with a food-pairing guide—surely some decadent edge of food worship.
It’s a fair bet that the average supermarket in North Dakota is better today—offering healthier, fresher, and more varied choices—than the same store was in New York City twenty years ago. The idea that there was a fine restaurant to be found in Grand Forks would be less surprising than the notion that all there was to review there was an Olive Garden. We’ve become a country without a Peoria.
At the Boise, Idaho, airport, a sign welcomed me to the “City of Trees.” Out the window I could see nothing but dusty, camel-colored hills with a few straggly specimens sticking up like broken toothbrush bristles. Feeling very small and truckless in my Ford Fusion, I headed downtown.
I had come to Boise because I had heard you could get a great cocktail there. Indeed, considering that there is nothing for 350 miles in any direction and that one of those directions is Utah, it’s shocking to report that there’s actually something of a cocktail war in effect between two businesses there: the aforementioned Red Feather and The Modern Hotel and Bar, a onetime Travelodge that’s been transformed into a boutique hotel. In addition to the de rigueur high-thread-count sheets, flat-screen TVs, and an exterior that looks like it’s been beamed in from East Hampton, that now means sophisticated food and drink programs.
The latter is run by Michael Bowers. He is a serious 27-year-old gay man with thick-rimmed glasses and a tattoo of modern composer Arnold Schoenberg’s name on his forearm. In other words, precisely the kind of person who, until recently, would have automatically migrated to one of the coasts to follow his passions. A local boy whose cocktail experience was once limited to drinking mai tais, Bowers had a scales-falling-from-his-eyes moment over a Ward 8 (rye, grenadine, lemon and orange juices) at the bar Milk & Honey in New York. Instead of staying, though, he returned home committed to bringing Boise serious drinks. He researched recipes on cocktail blogs, learned to shake and stir from YouTube. Most important—because the spread of good food is a conspiracy of producer and consumer—he was confident he would find customers.
He has—though not totally without some necessary education. “The first time we did an egg-white drink, Boise wasn’t ready,” Bowers says. Both The Modern and Red Feather print drink menus that could double as reference works. Whenever someone orders a boring vodka drink, Bowers politely suggests substituting a Cameron’s Kick, a startlingly light and friendly concoction made from scotch, Irish whiskey, lemon juice, and orgeat. Switching scotch for vodka is one decent definition of culinary cojones, but Bowers reports a 99 percent success rate.
Of course, he’s not laboring alone in raising the standards of his neighbors. By the time they sit down at The Modern, they’ve probably already heard the word mixology on TV. They’ve already seen, on Top Chef, something like Bowers’s technique for drawing the essential oils out of coffee beans by setting them on fire. They’ve followed blog posts from friends’ trips to Portland and Seattle. They’re demanding quality even if they’ve never tasted it before. I recently had a conversation with a discerning eater and drinker who spends a good deal of time on the road. He’d just watched an episode of Portlandia for the first time and said, “It’s set in Portland, but I see people like that—who are interested in the same things—everywhere I go.” Given that the man was John Flansburgh of the hipster-nerd heroes They Might Be Giants, this was a little like Jennifer Aniston reporting that one out of every two human beings is a paparazzo. But he was onto something: Mere geography, as a determining factor in how we dress, what we watch, what we listen to, and yes, what we eat, has all but lost its sway. Portlandia wouldn’t be especially funny if, in some way, we all didn’t live there.
In Boise, I remember eventually sitting before a skyline of empty glasses, each having contained some spirit or combination of spirits Bowers just had to have me try. I remember eating some ethereal gnocchi from The Modern’s kitchen. I remember discussing organic gardening at a table containing an MFA student, a philosophy professor, a farmer, and a belly dancer. And I remember finally plummeting into bed with a final thought that I felt reasonably confident had never been thought before: that I’d had such a good time in Boise, I’d have nothing left for Las Vegas.
Vegas! You didn’t think we could avoid Vegas? Vegas is such a ruthless beast of commodification—its hungry tendrils relentlessly probing American culture to see what can be turned into fresh dollars—that it is always important. Eating in Las Vegas was once strictly about signifiers of the good life—prime rib! lobster tail! king-crab legs!—at rock-bottom prices. Then the casinos got hip to the fact that high-end food had become something that gamblers would want to spend money on, another badge like Gucci or Chanel; in came the first generation of celebrity chefs, who were handed blank checks, glitzy spaces, and little obligation to be present past opening weekend. The food, while more important than the bad old buffet days, was still secondary to the flash.
And now? I headed for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, branded as the Strip’s first hipster casino, which is another way of saying a fifty-two-story memorial to the Death of Hipsterism. I passed by video art of botanical prints in the lobby and rode an elevator playing Devendra Banhart up to the high-end food court area. At Jaleo, José Andrés’s tapas and molecular-gastronomy restaurant, I noshed on buttery jamón ibérico and wobbly science-fiction-like reverse-spherified olives—the modern answers to prime rib. But across the way, at the dark, quiet bar of a genetically engineered replica of Scott Conant’s New York Italian joint, Scarpetta, I ate a tangle of perfectly cooked pasta, topped with a fresh tomato sauce and ribbons of torn basil. Not long ago, nearly anywhere in America, such a dish would have been found on a children’s menu, if at all. That it holds pride of place on a menu in the most au courant casino on the strip is as revolutionary as finding fine food in one-time gourmet wastelands. It does, though, raise the same question that hovers over the new Korean Steak Tacos to be found at T.G.I. Friday’s, or over Domino’s Pizza’s no-substitution “Artisan” pizzas: Who’s winning? Has the Food Revolution really changed the corporate food business, or has it just provided it with new slogans? The cynic in me might assume the latter, but it was the optimist running his finger around the bowl to catch the last bits of sauce at Scarpetta.
It was the same hopeful fool who, not long before, had found himself pushing through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, headed for One Flew South, chef Duane Nutter’s upscale eatery tucked into a corner of Terminal E. Walking in was like entering the Star Trek holodeck set on Soothing Restaurant World, and once again I was rewarded, this time by a dish I’d never seen before—a deconstructed fish “chowder” in which rich white miso stood in for cream while a large clamshell held the remaining ingredients: celery, potato, and a cube of fatty salmon. It would have been a pleasing revelation anywhere in the world. I was getting used to this. We all are.
Indeed, there is no place left—geographic or institutional—where good food would be noteworthy simply for being unlikely. Well, not quite no place. . . . At one point, I found myself in a hospital on the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina, surrounded by men in white coats. Each, thankfully, was at the top of his field. One described for me the other’s credentials, how he had gone to the very best schools and run a successful practice elsewhere before being recruited to this facility. I was in the very best hands, he assured me, clapping his colleague on the back: “You should taste his cannoli!”
I was standing in the vast kitchen serving Rex Hospital, where Jim McGrody has brought the Food Revolution to the shitshow that is American health care. Around us, McGrody’s team of sous-chefs, some of whom attended the Culinary Institute of America, were at work: A cook was grilling yellow squash in batches. Another lifted a tawny, glistening roasted pork loin from an oven while yet another mixed fresh sausage with spinach and rice, to make stuffing.
McGrody has been a lifelong institutional chef, first in the army and then at various universities. It was while working at his first hospital, in Washington, D.C., that he began to believe that the food he was in charge of serving seemed antithetical to anything resembling healing. He began to fantasize about a better way. “Cooks in our hospitals know how to make veal stock. They know how to make pan gravy using the fond,” McGrody writes in his memoir/manifesto, What We Feed Our Patients. “The days of canned peas and three-compartment plates . . . are over.”
The kitchen at Rex went a long way toward fulfilling that fantasy. In an office off the kitchen floor, an army of operators fielded orders from patients in the hospital’s 433 beds. Each is provided with a room-service-style menu featuring such items as pecan-crusted sautéed chicken topped with maple-butter pan sauce and lime-and-ginger-glazed salmon. A software program alerted the operators to any allergies or other proscriptions: a diabetic ordering four chocolate “mud” shakes, for instance. Even those patients labeled “non-appropriates”—those who can’t swallow traditional food—are treated to dignified fare like fresh peas pureed and molded into actual pea shapes, or blueberry panna cotta made from low-fat yogurt. Ingredients were overwhelmingly fresh. Across the board, the notion that healthy and tasty are not mutually exclusive, a lesson that has perhaps had a harder time penetrating the South than many other places, was emphasized—not by lecture but by example. “When I die,” McGrody told me, “I want my tombstone to read ‘The Man Who Killed Off Fruit Cocktail.’”
- On Sale
- Oct 29, 2013
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books