Thursday, May 31, 2007

Now for something completely different

These cakes are designed to indicate the proportions of the ingredients in each, and were taken from the website of a group of food designers sponsored by Marti Guixe which sells cooking supplies in Barcelona. According to the site "A food designer is somebody working with food, with no idea of cooking" and who

"makes possible to think in food as an edible designed product, an object that negates any reference to cooking, tradition and gastronomy. Guixé as a Food Designer builds edible products that are ergonomic, functional, communicative, interactive, visionary but radically contemporary and timeless"

It is not clear to me if any of these objects are made from edible product (I think not) but they do give pause to consider some old and puzzling questions regarding our physical relationship to food and what, if anything, food is supposed to communicate.

For example, the following picture shows a wall in a restaurant that is made of tapas. The idea here is to draw your attention to the fact that whenever we gather to eat the food is usually between us whereas here the food surround us.

The next shot is of cookies that appear to have been designed to challenge the idea that the progress of our lives is determined by chance or fate.

They are fortune cookies that allow you to choose your fortune by breaking off the part that says what you would like to happen.

Now lets wash it all down with a refreshing glass of Neutrum which is designed to allow you to enjoy the optical properties of your glass.

Gotta Love Google

Who knows if Google is going to end up knowing more about me than I know myslef and use that information to turn me into a bipedal plow animal? Right know I think they're doing a terrific job of keeping me entertained and, Ahem, informed. And they keep coming up with surprises like the new StreetView and Traffic features in Google Maps.

Check out this street view of Chez Panisse .

Funny, I haven't been to Chez Panisse since 1994, and had forgotten how banal the neighborhood was.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pre-Loaded Low Fat Cows

Chances are that if prehistoric Eurasians hadn't chosen to domesticate aurochs ca. 6500BCE, they'd have simply hunted them to extinction as they apparently had done to the woolly mammoth and a host of other mega-fauna. Actually, late and post-Pleistocene hunter-gathers are believed by some (notably Jared Diamond see "Guns, Germs, and Steel" NY: Norton, 1997) to be responsible for the disappearances of large vertebrates on every continent and island where they had existed for, in some cases, millions of years. Instead, various auroch subspecies were captured, bred, and interbred over the millennia into the varieties of cattle that we see today.

Today I am happy to announce here that the process begun by our agriculturist ancestors all those years ago, and which assures the continued existence of auroch DNA and it's diversification continues apace, and that we soon may see supermarket refrigerator cases burgeoning with bottles (sic) of Pre-Loaded Low Fat Cow Milk (my coinage).

Simply stated: Somebody done bred a cow that makes low-fat milk.

Scientists breed cows that give skimmed milk-News-UK-Science-TimesOnline

Screw the Food Network, this is the best cooking show ever

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Dishwasher Cants

A former dishwasher has written a book about his experience of being a dishwasher. I have not read the book and probably won't until I get through the stack that's on my desk right now (below) but I'm betting it's worth a shot. Anyone who has ever worked in a professional kitchen knows that as awful as it is, it'd be pure hell without dishwashers.

I don't like to remember how many times I walked into work to hear "the diswasher is sick" or "the dishwasher quit" and had to crank out lunch and dinner and peel the shallots and flute the mushrooms, and clean the grease trap, and wash pots and pans.

We also know that because dishwashers tend to come from the fringes of society, are generally low-paid, that they lead lives that are fraught with peril. So this might be a good read:

Pete Jordan - Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All 50 States - Books - New York Times

My Spring Reading List

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, PhD
Molecular Gastronomy, by Herve' This
The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac Mcarthy*

*I'm reading this now.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ruhlman Inspired Me

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - An 11-year-old Alabama boy used a pistol to kill a wild hog his father says weighed a staggering 1,051 pounds and measured 9-feet-4 from the tip of its snout to the base of its tail.

The boy says he was inspired to kill and butcher the pig himself after reading a book about how to make sausage and "pork belly confit, " by noted culinary author Michael Ruhlman. "After I read Charcuterie" the boy said "I was so hungry for some rillettes or head cheese, I would have killed that hog with my teeth."

The boy's father says he's proud of his son for tracking and killing what may prove to be the largest wild pig on record, but appears to be a bit embarrassed by his son's infatuation with the book, Charcuterie, and charcuterie in general. "I hate that French [expletive], what they ever do for us? Is that Ruhlman guy French, or what? I'm sure I don't know. All I do know is I don't like it."

The boy hopes to be able to overcome his father's resistance to turning parts of the hog into pate de campagne by offering the testicles to Tony Bourdain. "My Dad loves Bourdain. Says he reminds him of The Duke, but skinnier. I figure if we send him the nuts, maybe he'll email dad or call him or something."

Both father and son agreed with a reporter who offered that this story was about more than a story about an 11 year-old boy shooting the world's biggest hog with a revolver. This is a story about how one book, by one man obsessed with pork can alter the course of another person's life. "Before I read Charcuterie," the boy said "All I wanted to do was my PS2. Now I definitely want to be a chef and make pate. Maybe I'll even to go to France where Ruhlman lives and study him."

You can read the real story of the boy and his hog here at Breitbart.

foul, gross, disgusting

Sometimes I think that eating anything is an intrinsically immoral action. If life is a right of any living thing (it isn't obvious to me that it is, btw) then by what right do we take a life to eat it? Our own right to life?

I'm sure I don't know. But one thing I am sure of is that I don't like reading this piece of crap about an abandoned ship loaded with endangered species that had been destined to end up as dinner in China.

'Noah's Ark' of 5,000 rare animals found floating off the coast of China | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

Thursday, May 24, 2007

hamburger zen

I'm don't know if I'd be making as many hamburgers as I do if I didn't have kids, but I sure like making them. They have all of the hallmarks of the kind of food I like making: they don't taste good if the ingredients are not high quality and carefully chosen and handled. They are ridiculously easy to cook and let's face it, hamburgers are iconic cultural signifiers that remind us with each step of their prep, every sizzle and hiss from the grill where we are in time and, by association, who we are.

And, and this is an important and, the recipe for a great hamburger is reduced.

My favorite recipes are the ones that yield most easily to the question "What can I leave out to get the best result?" Some recipes are an absolute pain in the brain pan when it comes to this question. Take apple pie for example. What can you leave out of an apple pie recipe and still get something that looks and tastes like an apple pie? But because a hamburger in it's most perfect and essential form-ground beef- is so simple, the question is almost moot. A burger is more like an apple than an apple pie I suppose. There isn't anything to leave out of an apple to make it taste good, yes?

So really all you have to do to make a good hamburger is get some good meat, grind it, shape it with your hands into a ball, flatten it and cook it. Adding salt to the meat before you grind it helps to emulsify some of the salt soluble proteins and helps the burger to cohere. And because the salt raises the temperature at which the water in the meat evaporates, the burger will not dry out as much when it cooks. Oh yeah, and salt jukes up the taste. But other than salt, there really isn't anything to remove.

What got me thinking about burgers this morning was an email exchange on the subject with one of my regular readers Don Luis and an article by The Minimalist, Mark Bittman
(For the Love of a Good Burger - New York Times) Bittman comes close to matching my view about the best way to make a hamburger, but veers off track a bit by seeming to advocate adding stuff like chili powder or garlic or-for christ's sake!- Worcestershire sauce.

Something you did not know about me : I've never eaten a MacDonald's hamburger (at least I'm not aware that I've eaten one.). Weird huh?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

not chef apart?

A fumarole of impassioned comments attached to a recent post by Michael Ruhlman where he alleges the arrogance of vegans, got me wondering again about what I think about the nature of the act cooking and eating and their relationship to the world outside of the kitchen and dining room.

It is obvious to me that advocates of veganism, organic food and a bunch of other folks who advocate one form of cooking and eating over another, believe that they can and should promote social change through what they choose to cook. But I'm not sure how much I really care about the impact of my food choices on the rest of the world.

Sure I try to buy local and organically grown foods. And I prefer to buy meat that comes from animals raised under humane conditions. But I think that in the end what I care about most is intrinsic quality. If my butcher has two types of beef: one from an animal that has been feed antibiotics and the other completely drug free, I'm going to buy the one that has the best marbling and color. And if that means buying the meat that contains traces of antibiotic, I buy it.

When I cook I don't worry much about the impact of my actions on anything other than the final intrinsic quality of the dish I am trying to prepare , and whether or not the people who will eat it will like it enough to want to eat it again. Perhaps I'm just old school at heart. After all, I learned a lot of what I know about the nature of cooking and the dining experience from chefs like my grandfather, who for several years worked in a kitchen that was managed by Escoffier. For this generation of chefs cooking was an occupation devoted to the incitement of pleasure, not social change. I suppose I'm way more of a Fernand Point than a Michael Pollan.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Culinary Institute Receives $35 Million - New York Times

Wow, Did this ever make my day! The Culinary Institute of America is getting 35 million dollars to broaden it's Latin American foods program, build a San Antonio campus dedicated to Latin American food and cooking and provide scholarships to people who want to refine their cooking skills and elevate Latin American cooking in the United States to it's right place along with all of the other great cuisines.

Culinary Institute Receives $35 Million - New York Times

Here is the official press release $$$$$

My thanks to Claudia Greco for the tip and Stephan Hengst (CIA's Senior Communications Manager) for the press release.

Truffle Oil Really Sucks. Yipee!

A few months ago I posted a comment under a Frank Bruni post on truffle oil. In effect I wrote that any I have had stinks like rotten socks or spoilt garlic because rather than being a simple infusion of truffles in oil it doctored with some skanky chemical (2. 4 dithiapentane) whose name I could not recall at the time. I concluded, in nigh-perfect academese, that truffle oil and was a waste of money and best suited for lubricating the condoms of randy swineherds and not fit for human consumption. Most of the other comments sounded like they were written by a bunch of pot smoking massage therapists and included advice like "if you use it correctly it is great" and similar drivel.

So you can imagine my glee when I found this NT Times article by Chef Daniel Patterson who explains that "many" (I'd say almost all) truffle oils are doctored with a synthetic aromatic compound.

Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles - New York Times

Thanks chef! You made my day. Now to be fair, there probably are true truffle oils out there -just don't expect to be able to find one unless you make it yourself.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Savory Wiki -Yum!

I just turned up this nifty restaurant Wiki while looking for something else entirely. I haven't spent a whole lot of time digging through it, but it looks like it's loaded with chef interview videos and tons of data of potential interest to diners in NY, San Francisco and Chicago. Check it out at Savory New York Restaurant Guide

Ctrl-Alt-Del Cooking Techniques

Today begins a news series of posts on what I am calling Ctrl-Alt-Del(ete) Cooking Techniques. For Mac users like my PC challenged colleague Michael Ruhlman, for instance, who are unfamiliar with the term, pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del is what you do in Windows when you want to terminate an open but wonky application. So from hereon a Ctrl-Alt-Del cooking technique is one that for one reason or another should be terminated.

Whether it is dangerous, inefficient, too costly to justify the expense or just plain stupid just hit Ctrl-Alt-Del and stop it before it ties up so much RAM space that our great culinary operating system crashes.

What got me thinking about this is a section in Cooks Illustrated magazine where cooking tips from readers are posted. Some of the offerings are pretty good, but some are, Ahem, kind of silly. Consider this one for example:

"When my mom fries fish, she uses a
blow-dryer to remove moisture from the skin."

Why, was she so inspired by her fried hair that she wanted to try the technique on fish or was she making a clever fugu metaphor? If you want to dry off the fish wouldn't isn't it more practical to use a towel?

How about this tip for pit free lemon juice?

"Cut the lemon in quarters and put the quantity you need in a plastic bag. Squeeze the lemon quarters in the bag."...then use scissors to cut a hole that is smaller than the seeds.

Uhm...ever hear of a strainer?

One of my personal favorites was something my boss (a six foot four inch red headed coke freak and self-proclaimed chef) did when I was working at his parent's shop in 1981. After days of being reminded about the case of chickens that was sitting in the walk-in, he finally yanks them out and finds that they now smell like a supermarket loading dock. "No problem" he says "Get me a bottle of bleach" and proceeds to dump the case of chicken into the pot sink and fill it with water. Then he pours in 2 quarts of bleach and says "Just let it sit for an hour and we'll put it in the terryaki sauce. Noboby will know the difference.

If you know of a technique that should be or should have been terminated, please add it in a comment or email it to me at and I'll feedback.

Monday, May 14, 2007

to dis or not to dis, dis is da question

Recently someone asked me if I had any interest in writing reviews of restaurants. I said I was on the fence about it because having worked in restaurants for so many years I felt that I'd have a hard time taking putting the public interest above that of the people who actually worked in restaurants. I've never been on the bad end of a review but I know I lost many nights of sleep worrying that I would. So I'm not sure I like the idea of being in the position of ruining some hard working chef's reputation with a withering public critique of his taste and technique.

I've also had some very limited experience of writing reviews and the blowback really gave me pause to think that I may not be entirely comfortable with the genre.

Lately my memory seems to be suffering the effects of age and having more things to take care of than it was originally coded to accommodate, so I may be a little fuzzy on the details. But I wrote a review of Restaurant Daniel in the CIA school paper in, I believe, 1994. The review was pretty positive overall. I praised the quality of the cooking but wrote that the service was arrogant, dismissive of diners who were not repeat customers and celebrities, and that the menu's claim to feature "seasonal" ingredients was misleading at best. (I couldn't understand by what definition of the word "season" "raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, mache and other summer produce become seasonal in December.) I expected to catch some flak from a few of my colleagues or perhaps the school administration (neither ever happened) but was totally unprepared to learn that one of my students, who was an extern at Daniel, showed the review to Daniel Boulud, and now the chef wanted by ass on his flat top.

But honestly, I don't know what to think. I mean, a very good case could be made for the assertion that the overall effect of restaurant critics has been very good for the business and for the people who work in them. And having a few famous enemies can be good for a career -it sure hasn't hurt Frank Bruni. This guy has more enemies than George W Bush. (No, that can't be. How about more enemies than Al Sharpton?) Anyway, there are a lot of people who don't like and even hate, Frank Bruni but he sure tracks a lot of attention in the cyberspace and elsewhere. Check out this article from the New York Observer that addresses the age old question of whether of not a food critic can close a restaurant but which ends up talking mostly about Frank Bruni. Amazing. You go Frankie !

Feel the Bruni Effect, New York! | The New York Observer

Saturday, May 12, 2007

McGee refines the 5 second drop rule

I have met Harold McGee and correspond with him occasionally, and am well aware of the subtle nature of his sense of humor. But if you only know him as "that food science geek" you will be delighted to read his most recent NY Times article about the 5 second rule (If food is on the floor for 5 sec or less it's still safe to eat.)

You're gonna love this

The Five-Second Rule Explored, or How Dirty Is That Bologna? - New York Times

Lowdown Chinese Catfish Blues

Turns out those American catfish farmers who complained that imported Chinese catfish were really crapfish because Chinese fish farms were so filthy that the fish had to be dosed with (banned in the US) antibiotics were telling the truth.

Alabama has banned the sale of Chinese catfish throughout the state.
{News Links Here}

Mississippi and Louisiana have issued Stop Sale orders to several supermarket chains.
{News Links Here}

It's kind of interesting to me that the locus of alarm about the detection of two illegal antibiotics — ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin in imported Chinese catfish happens to be in the states that have the largest number of domestic catfish farmers. But not at all surprising given how badly these guys have been hurt by the huge influx of cheap Chinese product.

So there you go: another reason to buy local. If you happen to live near a catfish farm. Let me try again. So there you go: another reason to buy American. But wait a minute. Don't catfish farms, like feedlots, major polluters, have large carbon footprints, rob other species of plants and animals of niche space? (And doesn't catfish suck anyway?)

It's tough to decide what to eat sometimes, no?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mark Bittman's Inessentials

There's no doubt in my mind that Mark Bittman knows his audience -which must be full of guilt ridden yuppies and wannabe chefs who are too busy and too broke to pull it off.
Okay, okay I know I sound snarky. I shouldn't be because I actually liked his piece in the Times which is about how you don't have to spend a fortune on equipment to cook like most pros. (I'm not talking Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz here.)
Anyone who has cooked in a restaurant knows that most of us use really cheap pots and pans and yes, even knives. But I wonder about some of the items in a list of what he calls "The Inessentials"

Here is his list. My comments are in Italics. The Bittman article is HERE.

YOU can live without these 10 kitchen items:

BREAD MACHINE You can buy mediocre bread easily enough, or make the real thing without much practice.
I could not agree more. Bread machines are stupid.

MICROWAVE If you do a lot of reheating or fast (and damaging) defrosting, you may want one. But essential? No. And think about that counter space!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I'd give up my cutting board (which I made myself, by the way) before I'd lose my microwave. It is extremely useful for bringing things up to temp quickly, and I use it a lot to heat up a dish that may have sat off the fire for too long before service. And can anyone tell me a better way to reheat coffee?

STAND MIXER Unless you’re a baking fanatic, it takes up too much room to justify it. A good whisk or a crummy handheld mixer will do fine.

If a baking fanatic is someone who likes to make bread once a month than perhaps he's right. But kneading bread by hand is really boring unless you smoke pot -I don't anymore.

BONING/FILLETING KNIVES Really? You’re a butcher now? Or a fishmonger? If so, go ahead, by all means. But I haven’t used my boning knife in years. (It’s pretty, though.)

He's right. No one really needs more than a chef's knife and a bread knife.

WOK Counterproductive without a good wok station equipped with a high-B.T.U. burner. (There’s a nice setup at Bowery Restaurant Supply for $1,400 if you have the cash and the space.)

He's right, wok = waste. There are few things that you do in a wok that you cannot do in a saute pan.

STOCKPOT The pot you use for boiling pasta will suffice, until you start making gallons of stock at a time.

Right again. But I'm beginning to wonder why I care.

PRESSURE COOKER It’s useful, but do you need one? No.

Weird comment coming from the man who became famous for his rapid minimalist approach to cooking. I don't own one of course, but I'm a slow food guy (and a member of Slow Food)

ANYTHING MADE OF COPPER More trouble than it’s worth, unless you have a pine-paneled wall you want to decorate.

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. Most of my pots and pans are copper. I don't mind cleaning them, they preform beautifully and they are so well made that I know I'm never going to have to replace them. But I suppose they aren't essential. So okay, he's right.

RICE COOKER Yes, if you eat rice twice daily. Otherwise, no.

What's a rice cooker? LOL

COUNTERTOP CONVECTION OVEN, ROTISSERIE, OR “ROASTER” Only if you’re a sucker for late-night cooking infomercials.

Now how is Ron Popeil going to afford to retire if people stop buying counter top ovens? Shame on you Mark Bittman!

Lastly I, del Grosso, would like to add something to the list: food processor. No one who knows how to use a knife, a meat grinder or a blender really needs one of these things. Most food processors are very blunt instruments that tear food to shreds, suck for purees and take up too much room. The commercial types are great for making forcemeat but they are pretty pricey.

Here's a funny story; slightly off topic.

In 1984 I was charged with supervising a new extern from the CIA in the restaurant where I was working as lead line cook. The extern was a really nice fellow and very eager and earnest but unfortunately, legally blind.
One morning I asked the extern to get a bucket of peeled shallots from the walk-in and chop them in the Robot Coupe (food processor) for lunch service. In the meantime, I said, I was going to go up to the bar and call in some orders for meat and produce. About ten minutes pass and the extern comes up to the bar to ask me something so I ask him about the shallots.

"They aren't done yet" he says. Bam! I hang up the phone and I'm like. "Are you nuts? They're going to stink! You're not making puree! Jesus Christ do you know how long it took to peel those things?"

So I storm back to the kitchen with him trailing behind me looking like he's going to cry and what the hell do I find?

The shallots whirling around in the ice cream machine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

be careful what you ask for, it may not be real

When I recently found one of my former students from The CIA working in a local hardware store, it gave me pause to consider something I had not thought about for a long time. Why would someone make the effort to go through a program of study that is extremely narrow in it's scope of subject matter, is expensive to fund but is designed to provide workers to a field that has a surplus of unfilled jobs, end up changing careers so soon after graduation?

I'd always assumed that what drove ambitious chefs-to-be from the kitchen had something to do with the working conditions. I know that as a young cook I was not prepared for the reality of kitchen life (I did not go to culinary school, BTW.) of split shifts, a 6 sometimes 6.5 day work week, 12 hour days on my feet, having to scrub dumpsters crawling with maggots -and worse.

Then there were the co-workers: the drug-addled line cooks who would disappear for days so you had to cover their station and yours; the dishwasher who disappeared for a week only to return beaten-up and smelling like a phone booth because the trick who stomped him had given him a golden shower.

(Ahem!) Anyway, I'm sure the "rigors" of kitchen life are in many instances responsible for why culinary grads decide to leave the profession so early in their careers. But it seems that some significant number of grads are struggling to stay in the business because they are having trouble paying off their student loans. Apparently many of these grads were not aware (or in denial) about the reality of the pay scale for professional cooks. Some blame their schools for not telling them that the typical salary for a line cook is about 10 dollars an hour. Other's claim to have been misled into thinking that they were going to score jobs as chef de cuisine paying 70K right out of school.

An article in yesterday's NY Times (sent to me by The Foodist. Thanks!) suggests that some of these grads were self- deluded into expecting instant success and glamor by media images of successful and highly remunerated chefs. But the creepiest thing that came out of the article is the suggestion that some private culinary schools are willfully misleading students into taking non-government subsidized high-interest loans in order to pay some pretty steep tuitions.

I'll bet this is true.

There are a lot of privately run, for-profit culinary programs out there that do not have to justify their recruitment and retention practices to any oversight agency. I'm not going to name and names, but if I were counseling someone who was thinking of entering a culinary ed. program at the post secondary level, I'd tell them to make sure that the school is accredited by an organization like the Middle States Association. When I was working at the Culinary Institute of America we went through the process of getting accredited by Middle States. It was an extremely rigorous process that involved divulging virtually everything about the institute: financial records; faculty credentials; curricular materials and learning outcomes etc. And, of course, the institute had to justify how it recruited students and how they paid for their tuition.

Do some number of CIA grads become disillusioned with the profession and have trouble paying off their loans? You bet. But I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that this is the CIA's fault.
Actually, I think the CIA does an excellent job of trying to steer students into the sector of the hospitality field where the pay is best and the potential for growth is greatest. I'm referring of course to the corporate sector. Trouble is that this sector of the field is not especially glamorous and a lot of grads instead choose to work in the restaurant business in the hope that they will have greater creative freedom, get recognized for their efforts and score a show on The Food Network. But you can only steer a horse to water. If he doesn't want to drink, that's his choice.

Finally, I'd like to add that while it is largely true that corporate jobs are not the best platform for launching a celebrity chef career, they can offer the opportunity to be creative. I've had many opportunities to stay in some very upscale hotels in Europe and the US, and have been amazed by the quality of the cuisine in some of these places. It's a shame really that FoodTV doesn't publicize the work of chefs who work in places like the Ritz Carlton or the Four Seasons.

Perhaps if corporate chefs enjoyed more media exposure, more culinary grads would choose to listen to their school's job counselors and and choose a job that offered a decent salary, benefits, a clear career path, the potential to be creative and a media darling (Ouch! That sounds tacky.)

Top Chef’ Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt - New York Times

Overproofed! Portnoy the Boulanger on Late Night

I've always thought of the act of bread making as a combination of agriculture and cooking. But this guy has other ideas.

Thanks to Gary Allen for the link!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

another turn on the food panic merry-go-round?

It looks like we are on the cusp of yet another wave of food phobia. Today, the NYTimes published an article that cites increasing public concern about a handful of proteins in wheat (Collectively known as wheat gluten; from hereon, WG.) as the culprits in a variety of ailments that include arthritis, depression, incontinence and anxiety.

To date, the only disease that is known to be caused by WG is celiac disease. (You have to be genetically predisposed for it to develop.) But I’m sure that lack of definitive evidence that WG consumption leads to anything other than this truly awful intestinal disorder (I’ve known a couple of people who have had this, and it is not good.), will not dissuade millions from believing that the loaf of bread sitting in the bread box is the root cause of all of their health problems. Neither will it stop the food industry from flooding the marketplace with disgusting WG-free foods. I’m sure of this because I’ve seen it happen many times before.

Counseled by their doctors about the role of salt in the development of hypertension, the 1970's saw an increasingly middle-aged WWII generation abandoning sodium chloride for salt-free diets or changing out their table salt for tasteless potassium chloride and awful herbal seasoning schemes.

In the 1980's large numbers of baby boomers, weaned on sugary breakfast cereals and soft drinks, became convinced that refined sugars such as sucrose and various formulations of corn syrup were responsible for everything from headaches and attention deficit disorder to mass murder. The market response to sugar-phobia was to laden supermarket shelves with ghastly products made with honey, turbinado sugar, apple sauce and synthetic sweeteners. Later in the decade, it seemed that at least half the population was convinced that they were allergic to monosodium glutamate (MSG), resulting in its removal from prepared foods and a precipitous decline in the patronage of Chinese restaurants.

When you examine the scientific rationale behind most of these "ingredient avoidance episodes," there is usually some good science to back up the claims that the ingredient in question really does cause problems for some portion the population. Salt certainly does promote hypertension in people who are already predisposed to the condition and anywhere from 10-15% of the general population is mildly allergic (We are not talking anaphylactic shock here; MSG has never been indicted as a cause of severe allergic reactions.) to MSG. However, I'm not personally aware that sugar has ever been proven to cause any of the psychiatric and behavioral problems of which it was accused, and continue to believe that it is perfectly safe to eat in modest amounts unless one suffers from diabetes.

In most instances the personal affect of widely held assumptions that some basic ingredient is dangerous, eclipses whatever concerns I might have about the threats they represent to my health. For example, in the wake of the panic caused by the recognition that MSG provokes allergic reactions, many Chinese restaurateurs began leaving it out of their food so that now I have to ask for MSG when I go to a Chinese restaurant. It's a modest inconvenience, and one I'm willing to accept if it means that genuine sufferers of MSG allergy can enjoy their dim sum without having to worry about breaking out in hives before the fortune cookie arrives, but still it kind of sucks. But try to punish me with sugar-free ice cream or cake, and you are likely to see a side of me that usually only shows itself when the moon is full and I've had raw meat and fur for dinner.

Same goes for the starch-free foods that began appearing on menus and supermarket shelves following the widespread anti-starch panic caused by the South Beach and Atkins diets at the beginning of the new millennium.

Part of the central tenet of both diets is the assertion that carbohydrates are responsible for weight gain -at least that the way the public interpreted it. In other words, the public reduced a complex relationship between multiple causes and one effect into a one cause: one effect pas de deux. Ridiculous? You bet. Did millions of people believe it? Yep.

Of course the food industry loves it whenever we do this sort of thing. When seemingly everyone with money is scared out of their wits about some ingredient, it always responds with products and meal plans containing deletions and substitutions of whatever it is we have come to fear. And they can charge a premium for the ineluctable crap, because of the value added by the fact that we are scared witless and will pay dearly to have the hated ingredient liposuctioned out of our diets.

So, I don’t know about you all, but I’m bracing myself for another round endless pop-cult nattering about the dangers of something that most of us need never worry about. Get ready for bookstores groaning from the pressure of gluten-free cookbooks and supermarkets stocked to the ceiling joists with gluten free garbage food. And steady your nerves against the moment when you find yourself invited to dine at the home of someone who has decided that they are allergic to bread. Sigh, here we go again. Let's hope that this one is shorter lived than the last one.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Beard Award News Flash

I've just got word that Leite's Culinaria has won the James Beard Foundation Award for best website focusing on food, beverage or nutrition. it's only the second time the awards been offered and it's the second time Leite's won. Of course, I'm not at all surprised by the news because Leite's really is the best of the best. A dyed-in-the-wool class act with beautiful graphics, terrific writing and a seriousness of purpose conveyed in a cheerful tone that refreshes even as it informs.

Way to go David Leite, Linda Avery and a special shout out to Food History editor Gary Allen!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

knife sharpener expose

Charles Passy of The Wall Street Journal reviews knife sharpeners this weekend. That's right, knife sharpeners. I'm not sure why a serious cook would need one of these as protocol dictates that we work our knifes on a steel each time we pick it up and before we put it away (and don't we all have oil-stones?). But I don't know, the Rachel Ray sharpener looks pretty tempting. (NOT!) Give it a pull at On the Cutting Edge -

A Survey about Reservations

NYTimes restaurant critic Frank Bruni is hosting a survey about restaurant reservations being conducted by Cornell University. The survey is linked in the preceding sentence and can also be accessed at his blog...

Register Your Opinions: A Survey about Reservations - Diner’s Journal - Dining & Wine - New York Times Blog

Friday, May 4, 2007

Trump Meat

Donald Trump has licensed his name to beef wholesaler who will market Trump-branded Angus- branded beef at, of course, premium prices. Is this exciting news or what? I'm not sure what's more thrilling, the prospect of sinking my teeth into a bleeding piece of meat named "Trump," or the fact that Trump-steaks are going to be sold through through "The Sharper Image." I'm not kidding, check it out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

vaccinate this

Great article in the NYTimes about different approaches to protecting farm animals and people from infection and intoxication by e. coli O157:H7. The most promising approach seems to be a vaccine made from a protein and the polysaccharide coating found on wild e. coli bacteria.

Whether food is produced by your local CSA or a humongous factory farm, it can become contaminated by e. coli. and O157:H7 is the nastiest variant of the lot. So a universally prescribed vaccine against it would be good news indeed.

organic ketchup?

Apparently this stuff has been out for a while, but it's appearance on the shelf at a local supermarket was startling enough to me to send me tapping letters into Google. Organic Heinz Ketchup, huh?
I suppose if that Reagan era meme about how as ketchup is made from tomato it should be counted as a vegetable in school lunch program funding calculations, then this product opens the door to potential claims by your local school district that it's serving organic vegetables. No?

What's next? Organic Gatorade? Organic Bacon Bits? The mind reels with consideration...

Heinz Organic Ketchup