Saturday, April 30, 2011

"You Make Me Hungry" and Other Metaphors for What you Really Mean

It seems like a lifetime has scudded by since Gary Allen and I worked at The Culinary Institute of America. I met Gary there in 1994 during an orientation session for new faculty. I knew Gary was cool the moment I set eyes on him. He had the mien of someone who had been there, done almost all of it, knew everything, understood he knew nothing, and thought that his ignorance was amusing. 

I'm not sure when Gary became interested in exploring the philosophical and linguistic aspects of people eating people . But what I do know is that he and I began an ongoing discussion about the nature of human appetite and the language that we use to express it very early on in our friendship. Given that my first teaching assignment at CIA was in Gastronomy, it makes sense that the subject of anthropophagy would come up right away.  But what surprised the hell out of me was when I discovered that he had taken the subject so seriously, that he'd begun to write a book that explored the way that the idea of people-eating had taken root in the language of everyday speech and other forms of human expression. So a few weeks ago when Gary told me that he'd just recently handed over the manuscript of "How to Serve Man" to his publisher I invited him to write something of it at A Hunger Artist -which not at all coincidentally takes its title from story about a man who does not eat and so slowly consumes himself in an act of autoanthropophagy. Bob dG 

I recently completed editing a book I've been writing for over a decade. It's now in the hands of the publisher (and the scholars who review such books for the publisher). I can only imagine the look on their faces when the see its working title: How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, and the Nature of Eating.

Yes, it really is about all those things -- and a lot more.

Over the milennia, we humans have accumulated a lot of irrational notions about sustenance, procreation, life, death, and our relations with divinity, real or imagined. Just because we are modern and scientifically-minded, now, doesn't mean we've abandoned those notions. As each of us ages, we do not shed our younger selves, like snakeskin -- the children and adolescents we once were still live inside us. We merely add layers of experience and, at best, temper our childish urges with more mature behavior.

Our cultures mature in similar fashion; the cannibals and human sacrificers we once were, still exist within us. We merely keep them in check with a veneer of civilization. However, if we look closely, we can still see traces of earlier stages of our evolution. Our language provides just such a glimpse of what we were, and the following excerpt from the book is one such peek.

What's Eating You?

Ambrose Bierce once defined a cannibal as "A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period."

Of course, we're much more civilized today -- we no longer actually tear into our enemies with our teeth. We prefer to do it symbolically -- with our tongues -- but we reveal our ancient cannibalistic tendencies by using metaphors from the kitchen. To be verbally "roasted" by a superior is be "raked over the coals," and "basted." In French, the verb cuisiner (to cook) also means to interrogate with the help of torture.

Sometimes, if we deserve the hot treatment, we are merely left to "stew in our own juices" or "fry in our own grease." The Spanish equivalent is quemarse en su propia salsa, "burn in our own sauce." Once we are thoroughly cooked, our colleagues may properly describe us as "done to a turn." Likewise, someone who has been (or is about to become) totally defeated is "dead meat" or "gobbled up."

When someone's in trouble at the office, they're said "to be in a pickle" or "in hot water." In Italian, they're essere in un bel pasticcio, "in a lovely meat pie" -- and when an American might say that the boss is going to make "mincemeat" out of such a person, the Italians say that he fare polpette di qualcuno, "is going to make meatballs out of him." To "have someone for breakfast" or to be "chawed (chewed)" or "chawed up and spit out" is to be completely destroyed -- or at least demoralized -- by such a tongue-lashing. A worse insult, that is only implied, is to be "chawed" and not spit out -- because that means the hapless victim is digested, reduced to the status of "used food," (the stuff we flush down the toilet).

It is worth noting that, while there lots of food-based slurs, ethnic or otherwise, for others considered to be inferior (for example: "bagel-benders," "frijoles," "frogs," "fruitcakes," and "krauts"), completely different food-names are applied to superiors. Food terms can be used to indicate flaws in our superiors -- which allows us to treat them (if only surreptitiously) as our inferiors. Almost always, the descriptive insults suggest that superiors eat too much. Consider terms like "the big cheese," "the big enchilada," "old lard-ass" or "lard-bucket" or "tub-of-lard," or the "top banana," or the "big potato." In Spain, the preferred term is el pez gordo, "the fat fish." None of these terms (with the possible exception of those containing the word "lard") would be used for someone we actually believed to be more powerful but less qualified than ourselves. For sure, we don't want to be caught using one of these expressions -- lest we "get our goose cooked."

When someone asks, "what’s eating you?" they're suggesting that some imaginary, corrosive, consuming evil is the source of our discontent. What's really surprising that no one ever asks "who's eating you."

Gary Allen is the author (and/or editor) of: The Resource Guide for Food Writers; The Herbalist in the Kitchen; The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries (with Ken Albala); and Human Cuisine (with Ken Albala). His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, from Reaktion Press, is scheduled for release in Spring 2012. You can read more of his stuff at his website is On the Table and his blog, Just Served.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ferment This! Northeastern Thai Sour Sausage

A few weeks ago I stumbled over a post about fermented pork ribs at the Thai Home Cooking blog SheSimmers. I was impressed enough by the quality of the writing and photography -to say nothing of my chargrin when I realized that I knew almost nothing about Thai cuisine-  to briefly post about the this example of Thai "charcuterie," here. Then in what feels like a few nanoseconds, I became a virtual collaborator in a couple of fermented food projects with Leela, the author of the blog. One of these is described in this neat article about another form on fermented Thai food, a sausage known as Sai Krok Isan. Please welcome Leela to A Hunger Artist and be sure to scoot over to her blog at for more of her carefully executed and informative posts about Thai cooking.  Bob dG

One of the many misconceptions foreign visitors often have about Thailand is that the best foods it has to offer are found primarily on the sidewalks, that the shoddier a food stall the more ‘authentic’ its food, and that anything that comes via street carts is always made in a more ‘artisanal’ manner than what one would find at a supermarket or a sit-down eatery. Exceptions exist, of course, but, in my opinion, such a notion is misguided. Take for example this Northeastern Thai sour sausage (Sai Krok Isan). It is a good example of food products that are often slaughtered by street vendors yet mastered by nationally-recognized manufacturers and restaurants whose expertise is in Northeastern cuisine.

Though not all sour sausages found on the streets are unacceptable, many make you heave a sigh of disappointment after a first bite. Inside the glistening, perfectly-charred casing is very little meat and lots of garlicky rice, still in whole kernels. Some rather disturbing versions contain abundant cooked rice that tastes strangely of artificial limeade – a telltale sign that the vendor has added citric acid, or something similar, to the paste to create instant sourness without having to ferment the sausage naturally. Getting this type of sausage when you expect a well-made one is akin to being handed a cup of milk which has been curdled with bottled lemon juice when you expect natural yogurt.

Great sour sausages as made by premium brand names and respectable vendors have one thing in common: the emphasis is on the meat as opposed to the rice. It makes a lot of sense as cooked rice – a basic household ingredient in Southeast Asia – is traditionally used to promote the growth of lactic bacteria; its primary function is to act as the catalyst for fermentation. In other words, we’re souring the meat with the rice in order to get the taste of soured meat; we’re not aiming for a rice-filled sausage that tastes of rice wine.

Most Sai Krok Isan recipes follow the traditional method, i.e. they don’t call for any additives. However, in consulting with Bob, I have learned that it is best to use a pure bacterial culture as the curing agent. ­­This method can get the pH of the paste to drop through fermentation to the generally-accepted ideal range of 4.5-5.0 in roughly 48 hours as opposed to 4-5 days in a warm climate as directed by the recipe.  The whole process would be just as natural. Tinted Curing Mixture #1 (Pink Salt / TCM #/DC#1) is also added for safety reasons.

For ease of sourcing and use, Bob has recommended Bactoferm LHP (Pediococcus acidilactici & Pediococcus pentosaceus) as the bacterial culture for this particular application.  This freeze-dried culture only needs to be diluted with water before being added to the paste and spurred into action by regular table sugar (in addition to the catabolism of carbohydrates via cooked rice in the recipe).
We then played around with different formulae until the Goldilocks of Sai Krok Isan was achieved.  After precisely 48 hours of fermentation at approximately 65°-70°F, we have a traditional Northeastern Thai sausage that is not too salty, perfectly soured; it has just the right texture and level of moisture retention.  In other words, it is perfect.

Northeastern Thai Sour Sausage (Sai Krok Isan)

3.5 pounds/1590 grams pork shoulder, ground
1 pound/460 grams skinless pork belly, ground
1 pound/460 grams cooked long grain rice, ground to a coarse paste
4 ounces/112 grams peeled garlic, puréed to a paste (Note: the original recipe calls for half the amount of garlic. This is because the garlic cultivar that is commonly used in Thailand is much stronger than that commonly used in the US.  If you use Thai garlic, reduce the amount by half.)
1 ounce/30 grams kosher salt
0.7 ounce/20 grams granulated sugar
0.7 ounce/20 grams Bactoferm LHP, dissolved in 4 ounces/112 grams water
0.17 ounce/5 grams ground white peppercorns
0.17 ounce/5 grams Curing Salt #1
 8 ounces/227 grams hog casings

1.      Mix all ground pork shoulder, ground pork belly, rice paste, and garlic paste together.
2.      Sprinkle the remaining ingredients all over the surface of the meat paste; mix very well.
3.      Fill the paste into the hog casings; follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your sausage stuffer.
4.      The filled sausage should be approximately 1.5 inches in diameter. Twist the filled sausage at 6-inch intervals or 2.5-inch intervals. 
5.      Hang the sausage links to dry and ferment in a well-ventilated area for 48 hours.  Alternatively, the sausage links can be arranged in a single layer on a cooling rack with a tight grid; make sure you allow at least 2 inches of space between the countertop and the bottom of the rack.
6.      The sausage is ready to be cooked after 48 hours of fermentation. The most ideal cooking method is to grill it over low coals.  The 6-inch links can be separated into individual pieces and grilled on a stick; the 2.5-inch links can be grilled in a large coil and cut into individual balls when served.

Yield: Approximately 5.5 pounds/2.5 kilograms of cooked sausage.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

And Now for Something Really Tasty

I'm going to be making hot dogs this week and was doing a bit of research into some of the methods of production when I ran across this horror. It appears to have been filmed in 1973 and I know that this type of plant is not very common any longer. However, like Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" it still worth viewing as an historical work and an indicator of how far we've come and how the past was almost never any better than the present. Bon appetite!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Most Influential Chef of The 20th Century

Fernand and Maire Louise Point and the brigade of La Pyramide

A few weeks ago I attended an event at The Astor Center in NYC where Ferran Adria, the guest speaker, was introduced as "The Most Influential Chef" of the 20th Century. While there is no arguing that Chef Adria has been tremendously influential, a chance encounter with the words "La Pyramide" during a search for something else, reminded me that if there is one chef who deserves to be called "The Most Influential Chef of the 20th Century" there are many more.

Auguste Escoffier was a giant: Alice Waters is a giantess. No one did a better job of inspiring Americans to take up French cooking than Julia Child while Paul Bocuse made it very clear that the epitome of the chef de cuisine was a highly polished professional who is as  passionately devoted to commerce as he is to craft. And looking ahead, I think that when the votes are cast for most influential chef of the 21st Century,  anyone who has ever heard or read his explanation of how he constructs his cuisine will have to agree that one of the clear winners is going to be Grant Achatz. The man is a  brilliant culinary theoretician.

But out of the gaggle of the most influential chefs of any century, my personal favorite is the chef who was the mentor of many of the great chefs who emerged from the devastation of WWII  into a newly globalized culture and who brought to us that radical elision of  Haute Western & Asian cooking and dining modality,  La Nouvelle Cuisine. It was Fernand Point who inspired  Paul Bocuse, Alan Chapel and countless others to put quality of ingredients and technique above all other culinary considerations especially, and most significantly, the classical culinary coda the specified what went with what, and in what order, and what they should each be named. There is so much hyperbole about chefs in the media these days that it's pretty difficult to take any praise of anyone seriously. But ask any of the current great chefs what they think of Fernand Point and you will hear of  a dieu de la cuisine.

Not bad hyperbole for a Saturday morning, eh? BdG

Friday, April 8, 2011

Larry's, The Real Deal

Logo by Blue Farm Graphic Design 

This is by far the most impressive portrayal of slaughter that I have ever seen. It pulls no punches but the way Larry and his crew carry out their work is so quick and efficient that the cringe factor (which is a normal component of all slaughter videos)has been severely diminished.

I should also point out that these fellows appear to have exactly the kind of attitude that we want to see in those whose job it is to convert living creatures into food. There's no swagger in their body language, no cynicism in the language with which they tell the story of what they do and how they do it. I know I could not do what they do without becoming undone and careless, but I don't get the sense that we need to worry that they are going to get sloppy.

CADE (Part 2): The Good Slaughter: A Proud Meat Cutter Shares His Processing Floor from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Can Buy this For Me. Thanks!

It's pricy, but it looks like it will do everything I Primo 778 Extra-Large Oval Ceramic Charcoal Smoker Grill need a grill/oven/smoker to do. My current charcoal grill is a little welded sheet metal job I bought at Wal-Mart a couple of years ago for $40.00. It still does the job but the grills are buckled, the casing is rusting out and I'm starting to daydream about a replacement.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Support Your Favorite Blogger and Vote

No way is my blog worth voting for. (Not this year any way.) But why not scoot over to Saveur Magazine's 2011 Best Food Blog Awards page and nominate your favorite overworked, underpaid food blogger?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gwyneth Paltrow Wants to Teach You to Cook

What kind of a world is this where cooking is so cool that someone who already famous for her acting skills feels that she needs to make cooking videos? This makes no sense to me at all.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Hunger Artist

Sheesh, I just realized that I've only put up 13 posts in 2011. I'm either going to have to start posting more often or close this thing down.