Fortunately There's Still Time To Tackle This Terrible Dessert Culture That Persists

We were driving through Central Pennsylvania this past weekend and along US 11 somewhere there was a McDonalad's billboard that I really wish I would have taken a picture of. That's a good lesson: You don't know when you're going to want to return to something, so you should take a picture of all sorts of stuff.

Anyway, the billboard was pretty simple: Just a picture of an Egg McMuffin with probably a McDonald's "M" arch logo and, if I remember correctly, just two words: "300 Calories."

OK, I thought to Google it and found a picture here. It's actually a picture of an Egg McMuffin with the words "eye-opener" and underneath that it reads "300 calories." There's a "M" arch logo in the corner with the tag "I'm lovin' it," which is that tag that they've had for a while now.

We were on our way to a family event, and when we arrived it didn't take all that long for some of Jen's relatives to bring up what kind of silliness the mayor of New York City was up to. We knew, we knew. Sure, banning cups is silly, and what was worse, etc., etc. We'd been talking about it all week, so we had already mastered the talking points.

I think that's the way the mayor would like it: His administration proposes something "bold," people start talking about it, George Will denounces it on This Week and then all of the sudden not only has he invaded the mental space of people across the Eastern seaboard but you're also trying to explain how and when New York City became so fucking stupid about shit.

Which is why I wish I had a picture of that billboard, because it basically exemplifies how one of the mayor's other stupid ideas ended up so backwards. After all, New York City "pioneered" calorie counts a few years back, on the theory that if people knew how many calories they were consuming, they would think twice about what they ate.

Sometime during the first week of mayorally mandated calorie counts, Jen was at a Dunkin' Donuts, where she overheard a lady remark, surprised, that a doughnut had fewer calories than a bagel, so she would take a doughnut instead. Which is exactly what McDonald's perfected in this Egg McMuffin ad campaign I saw — it might be shit, but it's only 300 calories of shit. Or as they say:

Our signature sandwich is made with a freshly cracked Grade A egg with extra lean Canadian bacon and a slice of melty American cheese, held together by a freshly toasted English muffin. And all that for 300 calories.

Brilliant. They took the mayor's message and co-opted it perfectly.

And that's the biggest problem with the calorie stuff — it's so shallow. The message becomes that it's not so much about healthy eating as it is staying thin. Maybe you know someone who skips meals in order to indulge in vodka drinks later? That's the mayor.

The frustrating thing about the talking head debates was that the "opposition" was the New York State Restaurant Association, which is fine of course — they have a lot at stake — but it meant that the discussion was too polite. So while you listened to all this neutered talk about "serious concerns," "proper advocacy and voluntary measures" and being "adamantly opposed to increased regulation", what you really wanted to hear was someone finally say that "This is fucking stupid." And then instead of hearing equivocal nonsense about New Yorkers being "supportive of taking bold steps to address the problem of obesity" or some such, the headline might read "New Yorkers Find Latest Mayoral Initiative 'Fucking Stupid.'"

For a few days I wondered if anyone outside of the administration actually supported the idea. The closest thing seemed to be some man-on-the-street soundbites of people who thought that obesity was a problem. Then I saw some moron in Newsweek or whatever it is unsheathe some contrarian bullshit about how he was happy that the mayor wants to crack down on soda because soda is "treacly" and gross, and that the mayor probably should double down and mandate that burgers be no bigger than four ounces because larger burgers are equally gross. And then I really wish someone got ahead of the curve and instead of worrying about personal liberty — because that's so "theoretical" — they'd just come out and call this all what it is: Fucking Stupid.

Either that or maybe someone — people in Newsweek or Thomas Farley — can finally come out against dessert. Maybe the president could do this, because I remember he doesn't like sweets. Because there's really no point to dessert — it's just extra calories, mostly empty ones, and loaded with refined sugar. Have you been in a dessert shop? Have you seen the slow, sad twirl of spoons in treacly sugary goo? There's certainly nothing healthy about desserts — as Thomas Farley might put it, "they are particularly associated with weight gain, associated with diabetes and associated with heart disease." And someone should finally do something about it. Maybe even the mayor of New York City.

Posted: June 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Andy Rooney, Feed | Tags: , , ,

L'Affaire Wells

There are a bunch of weird things going on in GQ Food Commentator Alan Richman's recounting of a recent meal at M. Wells Restaurant in Long Island City, up to and including a sexual harassment allegation, but I think the main point seems to be the service:

Well-run restaurants recognize that thoughtful service enhances an evening out, and that a bit of formality might be required in order to reach that goal. Customers these days tend to confuse discipline and manners with arrogance. Perhaps they are remembering the excess stuffiness of decades past. That hardly exists any longer. Arrogance today is exhibited by inconsiderate servers who do almost nothing for customers other than slap plates down in front of them and expect a generous tip. Arrogance is a restaurant believing it can prosper without looking after its customers.

Well, yes . . . and? You act as if this is the first time you've ever had shitty unprofessional service at a hipster restaurant. Dude, where have you been? Shitty unprofessional hipster service is endemic in any environment where there is 1) a glut of overeducated, underemployed twentysomethings and, more importantly, 2) a venue that values the artistry of cooking above mere "hospitality." The latter is something Richman surely should have encountered in, I don't know, at least the last ten years, if not longer; restaurateurs go for organs and butter before service, you know? The former has probably been around even longer, especially in New York City, where there exists a particularly big glut of overeducated, underemployed twenty- and thirty- and probably even fortysomethings.

I'm sure the service sucked at M. Wells that night — hipster service just does. Service at restaurants like that is either non-obtrusive or really fucking annoying — a zero or negative one. You can deal with waiting longer than 30 minutes between being seated and getting your entree, but waiting 20 minutes for a check — argh, I feel ya, bro. But seriously, you're just realizing that? Why bring this up now? Why pick on some hipster Queens place? Couldn't you have tried bringing down some dopey Williamsburg place? Those folks' property values don't need it. Queens, on the other hand . . .

I don't care about the sexual harassment part — basically a bizarre detour that reads as if Anthony Bourdain tried rewriting Oleanna — beyond which to say that hipsters and Alan Richman probably deserve each other. And I say this as someone who fully internalizes probably 98 percent or more of which the Hipster Puppy dude writes; I think I might buy a pair of Red Wing work boots soon, too; oh, and believe me, I've listened to Slate's Gabfest more than once and asked myself whether I really sound as ridiculous as Stephen Metcalf comes across (as Brother Michael likes to say, "Take it to heart . . ."). Which is to say, Alan Richman (or one of your asshole friends), please slap me on the tush; I've been very, very naughty.

. . .

There's a very suspect "dot-dot-dot" on the first page of the piece — it's that big-fonted red-blue-red dot-dot-dot. You know what that means — I just did it, in fact — it's that overwrought indicator that the piece is taking a chapterial/episodic turn and you can take a breath while you think about what direction the writer is going. It's like when Ira Glass says "Act Two" except you're not wanting to take a crap on the floor because you can't stand how precious the bed music is (is that something I heard on CBC3 or is it just Yo La Tengo again?). Anyway . . . point being, what's with Richman's bizarre apology for taking free shit? It's like he's protesting too much, and besides, it's kind of out of left field because did he even say he took a free meal? I will let this hang there like a Sarah Vowell clause now.

. . .

So I've come to a turning point here — I know because the dot-dot-dot above demands it — god, I wish I never started to type "dot-dot-dot" because I have no idea where to go from here. I suppose I could apologize for something — that feels about right, but this isn't going to be the kind of I'm-sincerely-sorry-for-not-caring-about-current-day-genocide apology where I admit how many times have I lurked on Chowhound when I should have been paying attention to Nick Kristoff's more boring pieces (not to mention those pieces from the students he takes with him to Africa). Maybe instead I should say that every time Stephen Metcalf speaks on a podcast he is dying slowly — for all of our sins . . . but it's not that either. What if I just say something condescendingly contrarian — what about, "And that's why we should all cook at home"? No, not that either. Maybe Darius said it best:

Let her cry, if the tears fall down like rain
Let her sing, if it eases all her pain
Let her go: let her walk right out on me
And if the sun comes up tomorrow . . .
Let her be, let her be

Posted: August 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Feed, FW: Link | Tags: , , , , ,

The Backfat To The Backlash

I was talking to a guy I know the other night and he was bemoaning the foodie arms race. I'd been having similar thoughts, and I was agreeing with him, and brought up a particular "a ha" moment I had after eating at a new pizza place in Manhattan that just didn't seem like it merited all the pre-opening buzz it received.

We talked and agreed and talked some more and then he brought up a great wine pairing he tasted — something about the nuttiness of a sherry working with a particular dish. I was excited because we had just tried a bunch of sherries and I was lucky enough to experience the same kind of pairing wonderment.

He suddenly stopped me and said we were now sounding like the same thing we were just saying we were sick of. True . . . but . . . there's a difference.

The people in the Village Voice Media chain have have thrown down — a la Bobby Flay — pronouncing a Foodie Backlash. Here's a writer in the Houston Press noting the "self-aggrandizing" of foodies that has turned into "a pompous satire of itself." A writer in the Seattle Weekly went further with his disdain for "those coup-counting, lock-jawed, cake-eating, nose-in-the-air dimwits who, with sticks planted firmly in their flabby asses will make their weekly cruise out to the hottest addresses in town, get weak little culinary boners over year-dead trends, focused-grouped Frog-humping menus and anyone doing New American comfort food or French-Asian fusion in million-dollar spaces; who will swoon after 'discovering' restaurants with 200 Yelp reviews, dismiss cheeseburgers and chicken-fried steak and sloppy tacos and Americanized Chinese food as beneath their notice, but go fucking bonkers for any restaurant that name-checks a farm on its menu". (Irony: Even bloggers for the Village Voice Media chain are exhibiting the same tendencies as the foodie straw men they try to villify when they rush to post ever-evolving takes on the food world.)

I like trying to string together a bunch of humorous observations about straw men as much as the next guy, but I think we need to clarify some of the criticisms.

It wasn't so long ago that "foodie" was a neutral term for someone who embarked on a personal quest to fulfill culinary essentialism checklists. Then it got overexposed. And then there was a backlash. I'm less interested in backlash because it's easy to feel annoyed by shit you read in the Sunday Styles section. Or T Magazine, as both Jen and I were the other day when we came across this convoluted apology for a Toll House log:

Anyone else craving a nice refreshing wedge of iceberg lettuce from the local A&P?

Actually, no. I wasn't even that impressed by my wedge salad at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc on fried chicken night.

That's a joke, at least the second part of it.

Seriously though, I don't like iceberg lettuce — it's bland and tasteless and has little nutritional value and is probably the reason it took me years to start to really eat salads, which, if you do them right, can not only be healthy but also quite good tasting. The point of experimenting with good ingredients isn't to impress shallow people or raise the ire of Village Voice Media bloggers but rather to learn how to make great tasting food. I know the T Magazine writer is being facetious, but there's a reactionary impulse in there that is disturbing.

The other day I got free tickets to a taping of a podcast. The less said about it the better, except which to say that I came to the conclusion that maybe there are ideas and thoughts that don't need to be podcast. Or, the kind of idle discussion about culture or whatnot that sounds brilliant in your living room can come off as really annoying on your iTunes, much less real life. Just because you can say something in a podcast doesn't mean you necessarily should.

"Fuck, man," I turned to Brother Michael after we were out of earshot of anyone at the taping, "Do I sound like that?" Like as in, is this what we come off like when we shoot the shit in our living room? All he said was, "Take it to heart." It shook me to my core.

I think in part people are lashing back at the mediated experience — which is fine, whatever — but I don't think I want to go back to how it was when there were only a few gatekeepers and relying on word-of-mouth recommendations about where to eat or how to cook something. The free flow of information has made it simple for us to discover — for ourselves, not for humankind — great places to eat and fun recipes and ingredients to try. I'll tolerate a few insufferable food snobs in exchange. (Besides which, it's easy to figure out who is full of hot air and who isn't — in real life and online.)

The real problem with the foodie backlash is that it often doesn't differentiate between restaurant-goers and home cooks. Granted, sometimes there's overlap, but there are two levels here.

On the one hand, yes, food publicity and restaurant oneupmanship has gotten a little out of hand. There are a lot of goofy tropes in the restaurant world that are ripe to be lashed back at. There is a fetishism on the part of restaurant-goers that has contributed to an artistry-hospitality imbalance on the part of restaurateurs.

But even Guy Fieri's worst excesses don't mean that we should go back to a pre-lapsarian world of chain restaurants and Sysco-distributed ingredients. To all the Village Voice Media bloggers looking to "discover" a new take on the "controversy," get a fucking grip — it's still a good thing that people are searching for high-quality restaurant experiences, even if you have to deal with fellow diners photographing their food. There are worse things to get pissed off about. Banning foie gras, for example.

On the other hand — and this gets at the T Magazine article — what the fuck is wrong with trying to cook cool shit? Have you ever actually met anyone who was so obnoxious about the ingredients he or she was using that you didn't want to enjoy a home-cooked meal? I don't believe you. I don't even believe the piece. One person quoted in it seems to look down on homemade ice cream made with vanilla beans shipped from Madagascar. If I had been the person making the ice cream I would have been like "fuck you."

I was going to say "Only in America do people look down on well-intentioned though perhaps misguided home cooks who labor to make good-tasting food" but it's probably just a matter of "Only in the minds of over-educated freelancers do people look down on well-intentioned though perhaps misguided home cooks who labor to make good-tasting food." If someone I knew made me free-range whatever with whatever "Gilroy garlic" is and went out of his or her way to find a good head of baby lettuce for me to eat I would say thank you to him or her. What I wouldn't do is submit a snarky column about it to The New York Times, especially not for the glossy adservers that comprise those special magazine inserts.

But really this gets back to the artistry-hospitality divide. There's a backlash against artistry that seems forced or pretentious, whether on the part of restaurants or restaurant-goers or home cooks. But at least with home cooking, please don't overlook that someone is making you something to eat, and that in itself is a gesture that we've gotten away from.

I started writing these posts on restaurants because I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to entertain people in your own home. Our financial position — or I should say my financial position — means that we've gone to way fewer restaurants lately, which is something I'm OK with (Jen maybe less so, truth be told). I've adapted Michael Pollan's "eat food/not too much/mostly plants" to apply to eating at restaurants — basically: "Eat out, not that much, if you can't."

Just kidding. Actually, it's more like eat out only at restaurants that are truly special dining experiences — it doesn't matter if it's an expensive prix fixe or an exceptional ethnic restaurant, just being more cognizant of what is "special" means that you're going to avoid all the craptastic chicken sandwiches and french fries that are probably not that great for you anyway. A corollary is only drinking at bars that serve high-quality drinks that you wouldn't normally make at home — no more twelve-ounce "pints" of draft beer that costs triple what you would spend at the already overpriced corner store.

Don't misunderstand, there's nothing "wrong" with a simple burger and beer at a neighborhood place, but more and more I'm kind of wondering why we should bother in the first place. One, it's just not that special. Two, it's overpriced for what it is. Three, you and I have no idea what they put into those things or where they come from, and even if you do know where it comes from, knowing the "sourcing" probably makes you want to revisit point #2. (And I know some of what I'm saying about the "artistry-hospitality imbalance" goes against this, but welcome to The Slightest; the first rule of The Slightest is that its authors reserve the right to tolerate apparent logical inconsistencies from entry to entry, or even within an entry as the case may be; email for a refund if you have a problem with this.)

I'm not excited about the service industry imploding when everyone follows this advice, and of course no one will, so there's nothing to worry about, but maybe people would at least feel less fatigued by it all.

Finally, it's absurd to get excited about cooking at home, but in a city where people use their stoves as storage, and hot plates as stoves, and it would take you eleven years to visit every restaurant that New York Magazine blurbs, it's not clear that home cooking is "typical" behavior. That's weird and troubling.

Fortunately, people are entertaining more at home. Unfortunately, this practice is also producing quotes like this:

"If you can't afford to hire a bartender," he added, "you shouldn't be having a party."

I kind of don't believe this guy said this, or if he did, that he wasn't joking about it. We should probably stop reading Styles articles, too, or if we do, then maybe fewer of them. Maybe we should just apply a Michael Pollanism here, too:

Read The Times. Not too much. Mostly the front section.

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Feed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,