Archive for the ‘Profile’ Category

Good Eats with Fox

February 1, 2011

Photo: Charles Thompson, Stock.xchngMichelle Obama, after praising the barbecue in Charlotte, N.C. – the site of the 2012 Democratic convention – is taking hits from Fox.

“Not Known to Be Diet Food, Michelle Obama Hails ‘Great Barbecue’ in N.C.” reads Fox’s headline, which goes on to slam her for, well, enjoying good barbecue. The problem with that? Apparently, it conflicts with the image they’ve created of her as a food Nazi, dictating that everyone should eat nothing but celery sticks and tofu. Never mind the fact that anyone would be hard pressed to find a single statement, in print or on video, of her even suggesting such a thing.

But it also raises the question as to whether the food reform movement is conveying accurately its message that good food – real food – doesn’t have to be crap made from corn derivatives and starches and gums. If anyone is serious about good food, the message is pretty clear but to someone whose diet is comprised of convenience foods, it seems like a personal affront.

When you tell a parent, for example, that the frozen Tyson chicken nuggets they’re serving their children really aren’t that good for them, you’re doing more than just suggesting there are better alternatives: you’re telling them they don’t care enough about their kids; you are telling them they’re lousy parents. They have every right to be offended.

It’s a shame for so many reasons, not the least of them is that Obama’s important message, her realistic message, is lost in the cacophony of ideology, intentionally undermined by institutions like Fox, less intent upon informing the public than pushing a particular agenda.

And, for the record, good barbecue isn’t made with high fructose corn syrup or corn starch or caramel coloring. Clearly, the folks at Fox are shortchanging themselves if they believe otherwise.

Meeting My Muse

January 19, 2010

I should be writing about various products I saw today at the Fancy Food Show here in San Francisco but I’m far too brain dead to think objectively – or at all, for that matter – about any of the roughly 2.7 zillion products which were being promoted at me from all directions. What I’m not too tired to write about, however, is who I spent the day roaming the aisles of the show with: Marlena Spieler and Marcy Smothers.

I have admired Marlena Spieler, the author of something along the line of 70 cookbooks and, though she lives in Great Britain, a food columnist for San Francisco Chronicle. In particular, my admiration for her work really arose through my repeated use of her encyclopedic “The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking” when I was head cook for an upscale deli here in the city.

Marlena Spieler and I after she's signed my copy of her cookbook.

Full of great recipes, many of which were traditional shabbos meals, they were ideal for the deli where they would need to hold up well for two to three days at a time. Many of them I cooked repeatedly; others were handy last minute replacements when ingredients for our standards had fallen through.

The soups – well, what can I say about the soups except, like everything else in the book, they were wonderful, homey recipes that stick to the ribs and transport the diner with rich combinations of spices and down-to-earth ingredients. The recipes were clearly and concisely written; the end results, almost always perfect (I’m not the only one who thinks so. A group in Sacramento, Calif., has committed themselves to cooking their way through the book and blogging about the experience).

So, who was this woman with whom I spent so much time in the kitchen? As it turns out, she’s also friends with an old editor of mine from my days as a reporter at Anchorage Daily News. I finally took advantage of that connection – through Facebook – to write Marlena a gushy fan letter and she actually wrote back. Through a few more exchanges, she suggested meeting on her next trip to San Francisco which, happily, happened to be for the Fancy Food Show.

“I’m with my friend Marcy Smothers”, she told me on the phone as we discussed plans to connect. “She’s a radio producer.”

Marcy, as it happened, is far more than that and knows, apparently, everyone (“I love to drop names,” she stated quite unapologetically at one point, but she never dropped a name without a solid story to back it up).

We had agreed to meet at booth 1749 in the organic foods pavilion where, as it happened, Tyler Florence was on hand to promote his new restaurant and sign autographs. Marcy, of course, knew him but gushed along with all the other fans there to meet him. I took photos of the two of them together including one of them embracing (“It looks as if he’s greeting me after I returned from the war,” she said). Of course, this didn’t happen until after I pulled my well-worn and greasy copy of Marlena’s book from my knapsack along with a thick black marker and asked her to autograph it. Flattered and amused, she did just that and Marcy took a photo of me, smiling broadly alongside one of my culinary muses.

The rest of the day was spent following the two women along. Curious and knowledgeable about everything, they interviewed everyone and sampled and tasted their way through the show with enthusiasm. They graciously introduced me to everyone they knew, shared stories and gossip with me, directed me to the more notable exhibitors, and were patient and generous with a guy really only now breaking into a world they’ve occupied confidently and enthusiastically for quite some time already.

“Wow” is really the only word I can think of. And, of course, “Thanks.”

On Julia Child, fat, life, and Netflix

January 12, 2010

Note: I wrote this essay several months ago and then, apparently, promptly forgot it. It’s still timely in that I am continually asked “Have you seen ‘Julie & Julia’ yet?” I haven’t, as it happens, and I’ll probably wait until it’s available through Netflix.

Five years to the month after her death, people are rediscovering Julia Child. It’s not as if we didn’t know who she was, of course, but as is the case with many artists, true appreciation seems to come after they’ve passed away.

With the release of the film “Julie & Julia”, people are buying her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (from which I first learned to make quiche), and pushing it into the best seller category. According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, more copies have been sold in one recent week since the film came out than have ever sold in any given year since it was published 48 years ago. According to the same story, folks are a little surprised by what they’re finding in the pages: recipes that call for generous amounts of real ingredients such as butter and lard.

Now that they’re buying the book, here’s hoping they won’t be frightened off by the fat because it was always Child’s lament that too many people are afraid of food. She’s correct: fat, despite what the manufacturers of low-fat anything will tell you, is good for you.

“Fat gives things flavor,” she once observed (One of the chefs under whom I studied in culinary school was more succinct: “Fat is flavor”).

You needn’t eat a ton of the stuff, but in moderation it’s fine, and it certainly tastes and feels better than, say, soy milk made with added carrageen to hold it all together. Ingredients aside, however, what Child taught us most was to enjoy what we have, to take chances, both in the kitchen and out. Even in death, she still continues to inspire. It was after reading her biography “Appetite for Life” by Noel Riley Fitch I decided I wasn’t too old at 39 to go to cooking school. If she didn’t begin cooking until she was 37 – and I had about a 20-year head start on her there – then age truly doesn’t matter.

While I have yet to see the movie (there’s that new Quentin Tarantino flick I want to see first) I’m excited to see people taking such an interest in Julia Child’s work. Whether this current fascination will result in anything more than people rushing out to buy expensive kitchen equipment they won’t use more than one or two times remains to be seen, but for the few who discover the beauty of cooking a meal themselves, and serving it to people they care for, then it’s been more than an opportunity for movie studios to capitalize on the work of a great woman.

Julia Child’s work lives on and, luckily for us, it was work that – at its core – was little more than an example in how to live our lives more fully, more profoundly, more enjoyably.