A Call For A Reasoned Approach to Food Writing

Posted in Food by Arasmus on August 3, 2010

I’ve been frustrated by food writing for quite some time. In a single sentence, my frustration is that food writers don’t write in such a way that helps their readers to learn.

The internet has been a huge asset to food lovers everywhere and it has continued the trend, started by media outlets such as the Food Network, towards an ever more popular appreciation of food. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of food and a more widespread understanding of the sociological, political, economic, ethical and cultural environments in which food as a human activity finds context. But the manner in which food writers write leaves a greater potential for growth untapped.

My understanding is, and my own personal experience seems to support this opinion, that the brain learns by adding new information to a structure that it already knows. Imagine then, if you will, a process whereby I take a child, that has lived in cave for all of its short life, outside for a few seconds everyday over several years. I show him the sky at 10AM and say “this is day.” I take them outside at 11PM, point to the darkness and say “this is night.” The process goes on ad infinitum with the child gathering snapshots of varying degrees of light and darkness, and associating them with either day or night. Obviously, the child at some point is going to encounter problematic periods, such as the break of dawn or twilight and it will try its best to categorize these periods as either day or night. This crude example is an attempt to illustrate what I call the “Sampling Approach.” It takes quite a long time and even if the child can remember all of these samples, its learning is still quite rough. By contrast, suppose if I explain to the child the process whereby night becomes day, how the sun rises in the East, makes its way across the sky and finally sets in the West. When the sun is in the sky it is day and when it is not it is night. Armed with this 5 second conversation, the “Reasoned Approach,” the child can leave the cave, look at the sky and not only determine whether it is day or night but also determine based on the sun’s position what time of day it is. It can clearly distinguish the nebulous period of dawn from that of twilight.

Much of food writing follows the Sample Approach. For example, I love sushi. I’ve probably eaten more than my fair share. I’ve read about it, watched hundreds of people on television eat it, but I still have only a vague idea as to what makes for truly excellent tuna. Of course it should be fresh, and the color is important, and I can tell what I think is a better texture. But no one has ever sat me down and said something to the effect that; “when you taste tuna, first look at it closely, you are looking for _[?]__, then when you taste it, better tuna should be more like __[?]___.” Instead I just read and see one food commentator after another saying “that’s awesome tuna” but with no instruction as to what are the tell-tale sensations that denote that quality. Now of course I could go and do a food course. But food writers are already talking to the finest chefs in the world, they eat in the best restaurants – why can’t they ask these chefs what their criteria is for determining high quality sushi, compare it with what other chefs say, and then tell me? (Needless to say, I have a suspicion that the reason this does not happen, is because a lot of people in the food industry are simply faking it. I eat therefore I write). It is in the interest of good chefs to elaborate how they measure quality. I can get bad tuna in lots of places, but if you teach me what good tuna is, and you are one of the few who has it, I’ll visit your restaurant. Leave me in ignorance and I’ll plod to the place around the corner. Bad restaurants live, good restaurants die. I keep on plodding.

I’ve expressed this opinion before and one of the responses I get is that there shouldn’t be an elite that tells people what is good and what is not good food. This completely misses the point and fails to engage my point in the reasonable center in which it is being advocated. I am not proposing that an elite tell people what is good (e.g. “Tuna from the Tasmanian Sea is the best”) but that people be given tools that they can use to measure what is good (e.g. “good tuna should have no smell and a light red luminescence due to the presence of ___ which declines as the tuna ages”). Once I have this structure to work with, I can then eat tuna and decide do I like what others consider to be good tuna? I can begin to tag my experiences eating tuna with useful metadata that helps me to grow in my knowledge and enjoyment of the food I am eating. I can begin to sort restaurants and chefs in an intelligent way. I can begin to refine the rule, interconnect it with other rules (e.g. fresher tuna is better with a more subtle sake) etc.

Now what would be thrilling about the net-effect of a move from the current Sample Approach to what I’m calling the Reasoned Approach is the impact that it would have on our food culture. Imagine if hundreds of thousands of foodies armed with these Reasoned Approaches ignited an ever-improving eco-system of better and better restaurants. Imagine how these reasoned approaches bubbling up to the surface, in a process akin to what we see in the world of open-source software, would create a cultural inheritance that could be added to, day after day, year after year and generation after generation. It would very quickly drive charlatans into the light and recognize and reward the true chefs, the true keepers of the flame of quality, nuance, honesty and integrity. In a traditional culture, these rules are passed from one generation to the next. A few bright-line rules delivered to me squarely in a vineyard during my youth helped me to appreciate wine more than years of watching quaffers on television. Because of the wonderful diversity of our culinary traditions in the United States, in this culture that role of observing, documenting, preserving and communicating falls to the food-writer. The challenge of course is that this will require food writers to do more work. Their writing must move from impressionist stories that feature food to reasoned arguments as to why the steak, tea, wine or stout, at a certain restaurant or bar is on the better end of the spectrum. But this discipline will over time give them an admirable cogency that will benefit them individually as well as the rest of the community.

And so, to the extent that anyone is listening, I’d like food writers to think about this. And more than that I would like them to start adopting a mental process when they begin to write of asking – what tool can I give the reader to help them appreciate better steaks, better cupcakes, better wines, Indian Pale Ales etc. Start your articles, books etc. by stating the standard, and then tell me how this particular experience compares to that standard and why. Feel free to describe two standards, or variations due to geography. But give it structure. I am not (and I feel I may have to repeat this) calling for “thou-shalt-nots” but I am asking for “it’s-often-better-ifs.” Structured in this way, the articles will begin to accumulate over time into a body of work that I think any writer looking back on his life will proudly be able to say – “that’s my contribution, that’s how I tried to help.” The alternative notion, that somehow everyone is remembering an opinion here on a particular set of facts, and another one there on a different set of facts, and another tip from this friend of mine who went to Napa once, is just a delusion. It’s an Emperor’s-Clothes scenario that better minds ought to leave behind. No one is remembering any of that unstructured random information in a useful intelligent way. It’s just not how our brains work. People have busy short lives. Food writers should try to help to make them more enjoyable. The net result will be better food for everyone now, and those to come.


Zeitgeist for starters, gemütlich for dessert

Posted in District of Columbia, Food by Arasmus on December 9, 2009

I had lunch today at the Taj Mahal restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. I love the Taj, even though it is not the best Indian restaurant in the city. Far from it in fact. My gratitude to the incredibly polite waitstaff chastens my descriptions. It may be sufficient, and sufficiently cryptic to say that any young man leaving the restaurant after a successful date should immediately marry the object of his affections. For the captivating charm of the Taj remains hidden to most. In short, it looks and feels like a hotel in Delhi in 1979. Or at least what I imagine such a place and time must have felt like. The timber laminate walls, the golden chandeliers, the red cloth napkins stuck in stout glasses. Its all so excellently retro, so precisely in accordance with my imagination. You’ve got to admire someone who stays out of the loop for so long that now they are back in it. Its a variety of chutzpah. It is perhaps odd for a non-Indian to say, or just odd to say, that the Taj to me feels gemütlich. Forgive me for reaching for words from foreign languages to adequately explain its poignancy, but English is simply insufficient to capture the meat of the matter. As I look around the second floor, my mind starts imagining the type of conversations that would have occurred in such a place at such a time; whispers of Kashmir, non-aligned nation foreign policy, third-path economic development, nationalization, the implications of Chinese-American detente, ridiculous eyewear. Despite the current much improved situation in India, the 70s in Delhi had their charm. I can say that with all the certainty of one who just arrived. Or maybe its just that looking back I know how things will turn out. Every hostage thinks of breakfast. There are not many places in America as honest and easily genuine as the Taj. Restaurateurs spend millions to convince me that I’m in an American steakhouse. I don’t think I say that just because I’m a foreigner in the US. I’ve been a foreigner in many countries and yet as such I’ve been blessed enough to feel the spirit of Japan’s ancient martial traditions in a kendo hall in Tokyo, the serenity of Thailand’s monasteries, the love of life in a Roman neighborhood, the bohemian carelessness of a Parisian dive. America is in such a rush that its ghosts can’t afford the rent. Ignorant reviewers describe the Taj as a dump. But there is a difference between a dump and a place of rest.

La Corrida

Posted in Food, Literary, Short Story by Arasmus on December 10, 2007

Diego tried not to look at himself in the mirror as he vigorously shook the can of shaving foam. There wasn’t much left but he was determined to make it last until he and Maria could head to Costco next weekend for their Christmas shopping. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that an artist is one who can hold two opposing views at the same time? Diego thought of himself as an artist and he felt the tension of two opposing views as he applied the razor to his throat. The static sound of the blade cutting through the stubble failed to keep him present. His mind was lost in questions. Yesterday he phoned his family back in Huelva to see what was happening for Christmas. It all began well. His mother relayed how his sisters and brothers were all coming home from Barcelona, Madrid and Brussels. He was the only one whose whereabouts and plans were unknown. His mother didn’t say anything but his father didn’t come to the phone. It was the end of the month. Last night he and Maria had sat around the table and worked out the expenses and the bills that needed paying. It was clear something needed to be done. His face was shaved clean. Two patches of foam hung from his ear lobes. He wiped one away and then looked at himself. He was a Spanish conquistador with a single precious pearl to mark his adventures.

Its funny how something can mean nothing to everyone and something to someone. For Diego the sound of a pot hitting the sink sounded like a key turning in the door of a prison cell. He barely had time to tie his apron when the first one arrived. What are you doing Diego? He heard his mother’s voice pronounce very word even though she had never asked that question. What am I doing? He reached for the liquid soap to wash the large black pot. Pupo. He could smell the sea of his childhood as he scrubbed the inside of that pot. His earliest memory of octopus was when Uncle Alessandro pulled one into the fishing boat during that summer when he first went out with the villagers. Diego watched the lost creature crawl around the boat looking to escape. Its reaching, stretching ambitious tentacles pointed to him. Then there was that cosy smell of charcoal and the white suckers looking at him from his grandmother’s yellow platter. It tasted so good and in his mind’s memory that whole summer tasted good. The translucent lines of so many fishing nets like elfish gossamer pulling magic from the warm sea. He rinsed the pot.

Today was a special day in the restaurant. Maria knew. For several years, Chef, the renown José Andrés, had been lobbying the United States government to allow the importation of jamón ibérico. Today the first package was due to arrive. It was going to be a very grand affair. The Spanish ambassador was slated to appear that evening with a host of other dignitaries to celebrate the occasion. The press and the critics were all going to be there. Diego ran his finger along the skin by the back of his jaw bone and felt a patch of unshaven stubble. How many times has Maria teased him about missing that spot? He prayed that Chef would not notice. He thought of that late night several weeks ago when he and Chef had sat at the only illuminated table in the dark empty restaurant. “It’s done,” Chef said. The Americans had agreed to lift the ban and Chef had just placed the first order with Embutidos y Jamones Fermín. Together they raised their ruby red glasses of Rioja, to Spain, and to dreams. For Chef, the bureaucratic decision was loaded with emotion and significance and that evening he let Diego see an exhausted peace that no one had ever seen before. Diego felt he should say something, but instead he just wanted to close his eyes and imagine the taste of the translucent jamón laid across his tongue. He saw the olive groves around his grandmother’s farmhouse, his sister’s yellow boots and multiple annotated copies of Cervantes stacked high in the stable. He saw the laughing smiles of aunts and uncles and felt the earth breathing in summer like a sleeping baby. Moments later he returned. Chef was staring at the floor through half-opened eyes, his hand resting half-dead on his apron. Diego reached for the delicate stem of the glass. Chef awoke, looked at him and smiled.

Diego recognized the voices of the investors approaching the kitchen. As he rinsed the pot they entered in their pinstripe suits. A beautiful tall blond haired woman stood among them as Chef arrived with the first box of jamón ibérico legally imported into the United States. “Congratulations Jose,” the woman said. Chef raised his hand in the air like a successful matador in the corrida. They all smiled and laughed. Deigo quietly placed a small knife next to the box on the table and Chef reached for it, knowing it should be there, and used it to open the seal on the box. It was 7:20 pm. The Ambassador was arriving at 7:30. Chef reached for the best platter and started to plate the ham, delicately laying each individual slice like memories in a eulogy. Diego reached for another pot and started scrubbing intently. The sous chefs were busy chopping. One of the investors glanced sideways and then whispered urgently to Chef – “he’s here – you should be the first to welcome him.” Chef went to the sink to wash his hands, grabbed a towel, dropped it and left. The platter lay there. Diego couldn’t help staring. How silly that we should all get excited by a plate of ham he thought, and then, at the same time, it looked like the most beautiful thing in the world. “Diego, Diego!” “Si Papa.” His father lay crouched beside him, his finger pointing through the tall grass. About five feet ahead, among the oak trees stood a family of black Iberian pigs eating acorns. “You see Diego – this is why it tastes so good – do you see now?” “Yes Papa.” At that time the wild pigs seemed like magical creatures moving through the evening forest as the first leaves began to fall. He was close to his father then. He could smell pipe tobacco and the cold steel of the shotgun.

“Jose wants everyone to come out front,” the head chef bellowed to the line and sous. They all smiled, moved various dishes off the heat, and quick-paced out to the front. Diego rinsed the pot and reached for a colander. The kitchen was empty, white and cold. Chef burst in and reached for the platter. His foot had just returned to the saddle of the kitchen door when he stopped and turned. “Diego!” “Si Chef!” Chef stopped, walked towards Diego and reached for a fresh plate. He grabbed a baguette, broke it, split it, and laid a slice of jamón across the white soft center and handed it to Diego. “A aquellos que pagan el precio mas alto por sognar, debe de ir la primar prueba del cielo.” Diego felt the hard crustiness of the bread, the soft whiteness like clouds viewed from an airplane, and then the velvet, fruity softness of the jamón ibérico and home. He felt his father beside him and the aroma of sweet tobacco. La primar prueba del cielo.

My Hot Dog

Posted in Anthropology, Food, Politics by Arasmus on June 7, 2007

One of the first things I did upon my arrival in the United States some nine years ago was to try an American hot dog. The scene is recreated now in my memory as it never existed in reality. I know that it was the end of summer and the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan heaved with the stored heat of another hectic day. Yellow taxis zoomed by and the Statue of Liberty peered between the Twin Towers at her new arrival. The vending cart was made of stainless steel and staffed by one such as I, a dreamer from a far-off shore. The regulation red and yellow plastic condiment bottles stood guard to witness the impending loss of my virginity. There was the shuffle of plastic, the splitting of the soft bun with the metal tongs, the opening of a lid and the rescue of a swimming red cigar. Self-consciously replaying a stock-scene from Matlock, I padded the sandwich with some sauerkraut and painted it with mustard. I turned out across the open waters in front of Battery Park and bit into my first American hot dog. The pickled taste of the sauerkraut and the sting of the mustard spread across my tongue. My teeth pressed through the soft bread and bit down on the meat, feeling first the resistance of the skin and then the unchanging consistency of the compressed beef within. I was unimpressed. The bread was not the crunchy banquette that I had tasted in Paris but that soft sweet air-filled bread I associated with cheap hamburgers. The meat was boiled and bland, not grilled and juicy. This was most definitely not good eats.

But over the years since that day things have changed. The textures and tastes remain the same but the feelings I associate with them are now distilled, potent, transubstantiated. America is not perfect – the bread is not crunchy, but always cheap. When I eat a hot dog today I am consenting to play a role in a great experiment. Millions arrive on this shore with wonderful cuisines, a myriad of languages and a single hope. And somehow we arrive at a messy, sometimes unsatisfying compromise. But when you think of the differences in our cultures and backgrounds, when you think of so many individuals with their own ideas, standards and desires, isn’t this peaceful compromise, this constantly evolving negotiation, a worthwhile, remarkable and rare achievement? The world is full of ridiculous conflict and yet the same people that kill each other elsewhere here work together, perhaps begrudgingly, perhaps with secret prejudices, but nonetheless effectively. Some come here for a while, some forever, some to recreate what they once had and some to forget. From each is asked a compromise, a contribution of moral capital to the idea of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, meritocratic republic. And sometimes the deal seems barely worth it, but yet sufficient enough to keep investing. The rule of law is available to all but lawyer’s bills often mean that some are more equal than others. Medical miracles can save the life of a loved one but the cost can destroy a family. You can achieve anything if you really want to but often it will be your children that will see the promised land of your imagination. You can grab a meal for two dollars, but the meat is factory-processed and the bread is soft.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke of how at that time America was engaged in a great civil war, testing whether a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are born equal could long endure. For many arriving on this shore there is that same internal struggle between prejudice and idealism, remembering and forgetting, evolution and loss. Stretched thin across two cultures, we each stumble through the twilight between past and future, reality and our dreams. And there is no answer – only, after a while, the realization that we are all stumbling, but still standing, and the value of that. Then this becomes our common bond, our compromise and our foundation. For me, as for many others, the American experience is the immigrant experience and I cling to that because it seems to me that it is in that light that America is at her most noble, her most beautiful and sublime. I have eaten many fine meals in countries ruled by tyrants and despotic cliques, salivated in lands infused with fear and complicit silence. And so, when I eat a hot dog today, I bite down into a humble, imperfect, democratic, noble experiment and consent.

Peking Duck

Posted in China, Food, Politics, Travel by Arasmus on April 26, 2007

The best Peking Duck in Peking (or is it now Beijing Duck in Beijing?) is supposedly found at Liqun’s Roast Duck Restaurant on Beixiangfeng Zhengyi Road in the Qianmen district. Walking around with an address written in English in China is like walking around with a sieve to collect rainwater, so I stopped at the front desk in my hotel and asked them to write the address in Chinese characters. Inevitably, there was the five-minute exercise where the words in English are spoken aloud as the translator tries to imagine the sounds to which the English words might refer. Colleagues are consulted and often at least one telephone call is made. I find it’s best to have some tea at this point. For those of us without a tonal language it all seems quite opaque. “Be-xing-feng,” followed by a look of puzzlement. “Be-xiang-feng,” accompanied by a look of less puzzlement and mild satisfaction – no – now consternation. “Be-xing-feng . . .ah . . yes . . . Be-xing-feng.” The final combination is always spoken in a crescendo indicating that the exercise has reached its terminus. Of course, to me, it sounds like the same sound they started with but my role in the exercise is akin to that of an orchestral conductor, that is; to encourage diligence by leaning over the desk and looking perturbed until the end when I am supposed to pass through an appearance of relief to one of ecstasy. Using a wand does not help.

Although the address was at this point written in Chinese, the taxi-driver, the second movement in the logistical symphony, is compelled to repeat the central motif. “Be-xing-feng . . .Be-xiang-feng . . .ah Be-xing-feng.” In my experience, if he is under 40 you must have your look of relief in hand, but if he is over 40 it is unnecessary as he will not look at you but simply return the notebook. We were off. Beijing has broad streets and outside of rush hour the traffic moves swiftly. I sat back and listened to Johnny Cash sing Folsom Prison Blues on my ipod as government office blocks filed past the window.

If there is a train to Mexico you would think that the U.S. Marshals would search it from end to end pretty thoroughly – so I am not sure it’s the best way for Johnny to escape. My taxi came to a stop – because we had no more road. We were barreling down a four-lane concourse five seconds before but then the road just stopped and seemed to gaze up insolently at a huge apartment block standing in its path. The taxi driver looked at me as if I might have the rest of the highway in my pocket. Suddenly, a rickshaw driver appeared outside the window holding a sign with the words “Liqun Roast Duck.” Hmmn, that was a bit too convenient. The taxi driver looked at me and I felt we are both thinking the same thing, different languages but the same tone. The rickshaw driver said the streets of the old hutong neighborhoods where Liqun hung out were too narrow for taxis. It sounded like a classic opportunity to get into trouble and fresh out of Folsom I was seduced. In places the alleys were only about 5-6 feet wide and there were no lights whatsoever. The driver was in his mid-thirties and seemed fit so if it came to it, it would be a fair fight. I tried to keep my sense of direction as we twisted and turned through the warren of tiny lanes. The evening smog hid the stars. I moved my wallet to my right hip-pocket. Eventually we reached a sign that said “Liqun’s Duck.” The rickshaw driver asked for our agreed price but now said that he wanted it in U.S. dollars and not Chinese Yuan. I couldn’t help but laugh at him. I handed him the price in Yuan and told him that when we were in America I’d pay him in dollars. I turned my back on him and walked toward the restaurant with one eye on the shadows.

In the West, Liqun’s would be considered a dive but I like to think of it as authentic and I think they do too. The main room was about twenty by thirty feet and the décor could optimistically be described as shabby chic, but without the chic. There were other rooms too, around the back and apparently up the stairs. In the kitchen bald ducks hung on hooks, their heads bent low. There was an open-faced brick oven and the chef used a long pole to take the ducks, push them through the flames and hang them on hooks at the back of the oven. He does this to order and so when your golden brown duck arrives at the table it is literally fresh from the oven. And that is the trick with Peking duck it seems to me – its got to be piping hot. Duck is fatty and if it’s not hot – you feel the fat as you eat it. If it is hot, then you just taste and feel the succulent juices of the meat. Analysis complete.

My rickshaw driver from the restaurant was much more jovial. Faces of old women sitting on doorsteps emerged from the darkness as we wound our way out of the hutong. He dropped me off at Tiananmen Square. I headed to the Forbidden City, at the north end, figuring that would be the best place to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Ahead a crowd of about 30 Chinese men and women were gathered outside the tourist office and anticipating that they were the usual collection of hawkers and scam-artists I prepared myself to avoid eye-contact. The tourist office was closed and out of the corner of my left eye I could see my reflection in the darkened shop-front window as I moved through the group. Suddenly, there was a shout and half of the crowd turned on the other. In the window-glass I saw the face of a man, his arm in the air reaching for me. I instinctively ducked and turned towards him but he jumped on a neighboring hawker and wrestled him to the pavement instead of me. In an instant there was a sea of black cloth and red faces as everyone seemed to be wrestling with everyone else. Then it all froze. Apparently, this was a police arrest. About 20 plain-clothes police officers held about 15 men and women face down on the pavement. One refused to submit and two officers descended on him. Even though his body was struggling his eyes were vacant, staring and lifeless, as if he had just died. I thought of Liqun’s ducks hanging from their hooks. The officers darted frightened looks around the street as they shouted for the police van – no doubt fearing an escalation beyond their control. Because they were all dressed the same it was difficult for me to tell who was who, which was order and which was chaos. Violence pulsed in the air. The van pulled up. Everyone was rushed inside, the sirens were turned on and they all disappeared into the dark night. I alone was left standing, my orange jacket reflected in the window of the tourist office. The lights of Tiananmen Square appeared as faint and fading stars in the dirty window. New pedestrians soon filled the emptiness all around me. They looked at me standing there. They had no knowledge of what came before.