Monday, April 30, 2007

More Fast Food Linkage

After a prolonged absence due to a head cold I just couldn't shake, I'm back. I haven't been cooking too much (although Edan and I did make some killer mussels on Friday night), so I'll throw some links your way instead.
  • Thanks to Apronite Doug for this terrific link comparing advertising images of fast food items with pictures of the real thing. That Arby's sandwich is nastiness itself. (On a side note: The Fillet O Fish sandwich has always looked kind of nude to me, in an unsettling way. I also think it's gross that they put cheese on it. Cheese on fish? Pretty crazy.)
  • The Millions has a post about the newest and best theme cookbook, I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with your Favorite Bands. If you live in New York, you can go tonight to the Brooklyn Kitchen and watch some dude from Les Savy Fav make ceviche.
  • I finally got around to watching Fast Food Nation. Pretty disappointing. Big-time tone problems. The sections with Greg Kinnear as a fast food company executive were heavily satirical, while the rest of the movie wasn't. It didn't mesh well at all. Maybe it's because much of the movie was in Spanish, I just didn't get the nuances or....nah, it just wasn't that good.
Tomorrow, I should have another report from Ryan in Russia, and at some point this week I will write about something I cook, I promise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tuesday Linky Goodness

Some big doings yesterday and today in the world of food:

  • The Food Network had its inaugural Food Network Awards. Apparently they weren't a big hit. Anthony Boudrain was horrified. I didn't watch them. Because I have a life...OK, you caught me. I was watching "The Bachelor: Officer and Gentleman." Edan and I played this drinking game wherein you take a swig of whiskey every time someone says "connection," "journey," "decision," or "love." I was faced by the end. Next week, I think we'll sub out journey for "here for the right reasons," since that seems to be a very big deal this year.
  • Jonathan Gold, food writer for LA Weekly, won the Pulitzer Prize for Outstanding Criticism. It's a big deal, since he is the first food critic to win the award. He celebrated by drinking alcohol from an enormous glass. (For a complete rundown on the Pulitzers, check out The Millions.)
  • Speaking of The Millions, there's a post up about Cooked, Jeff Henderson's memoir about learning to cook in a prison kitchen.
  • I have to admit that I stole a joke from Edan. In my fast food ad post, I said that the badonkadonk butt wasn't a bad thing, and I stand by that, but Edan actually pointed that out first. As a mea culpa, here's a video of Jamie Foxx singing his Tennis Ball song at the ESPYs. Enjoy.
Man I hope Jamie Foxx doesn't become the black Tom Hanks. You know, an actor who chooses only the most serious roles while saving all of his comedy for award shows. It would be a shame.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Breaking News! Mike Midgley Opens Catering Business, uses "Da" instead of Definite Article

Mike Midgley, my favorite contestant from "Top Chef: Season 2," has opened a catering business called Midgley Catering. On his website, you can find a brief Q&A with the man himself, as well as some very good-looking recipes. This is the sort of insider info I'm privy to as one of Mike's MySpace friends.

Real Food for Less

Ever hear stories about people who couldn't pay their restaurant tab and had to wash dishes to make up for it? Apparently, it really happens. In the LA Times today is an article about the SAME Cafe (the name is an acronym that stands for So All May Eat), a Denver restaurant that serves good food on a "pay what you can" system. The restaurant, which serves 2 soups, 2 salads, and 2 kinds of gourmet pizzas everyday, uses seasonal ingredients and offers food to anyone, regardless of how much money they have in their pockets. If the patron doesn't have a dime to his name, he can pay for his meal by working for a while in the cafe, washing dishes, wiping down tables, or mopping the floor. Brad and Libby Birky, the owners of the cafe, manage to make it work with some unorthodox methods:
To curtail waste, the Birkys don't set portions for their food. Customers take plates from a stack by the entrance and tell Brad how to fill them: a taste of the couscous with olives and feta cheese, a full bowl of the creamy squash soup, a thin wedge of the pear-and-gorgonzola pizza. They are always welcome back for seconds.
What strikes me about this concept isn't just that poor people are getting a meal, but that they're getting a good meal, full of nutritional value and flavor. Edan and I were talking about this just yesterday, noting that, too often, the only food available to lower-income families is fast food or junk food. Here, for once, is a place that not only presents good food, it also offers varying portion sizes for varying budgets. If only this had been around back when Chris Rock was hungry for ribs.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fast Food Ads: The Good, the Bad, and The Absolutely Horrible

A few weeks ago, I watched the first couple of rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. In addition to wearing a deep groove in my couch, I was subjected to hour upon hour of ridiculous advertisements for everything from cars to insurance to underwear. While nothing could top the surreal terror of the Hanes underwear campaign that features Michael Jordan and Kevin Bacon inexplicably cohabitating (Huh? Do these guys even know each other? And what about their families? Really weird), the fast food commercials left the deepest scar on my psyche. Each one has its own problems. Let's break them down one by one (most of these are still airing, so you can probably see them tonight on prime time or during the sporting event of your choosing).


Mickey Ds is unveiling a new third-pounder burger made from Angus beef. A couple of things interest me here. The first is the rise of the Angus brand of beef, a topic too large to tackle in a post about television commercials. Surely you've noticed that, all of a sudden, the meat in the burger you are eating is branded. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I expect it to grow. I can't wait for the Neiman Ranch pork sandwich to debut at Burger King. The bottom line is that, while Angus beef is a high quality brand of beef, it isn't some exotic gourmet meat. Its rise is largely the product of a successful branding campaign. The second interesting thing about the McDonalds commercials is that they have chosen Southern California as a test market. When Edan saw the ad, she said, "I guess if it sells here they figure it will sell anywhere." This represents the prevailing national attitude about California, namely that we eat better than people in, say, Missouri. This is not entirely true. While there is a segment of the population that has popularized sandwiches with sprouts on them (these are the people to blame when you get a slice of avocado on your club sandwich), there are also more fast food joints in LA than anywhere I've been. Tons of taco stands, tons of old school burger places (like Tommy's), all of the national chains, and a bunch of big fast food chains that don't necessarily have outposts on the east coast (Jack in the Box, In-N-Out, Baja Fresh). Not to mention a million places that offer both donuts and Chinese food (a combination I'd never seen until moving west of the Mississippi). What was McDonalds attempting to accomplish by testing the burger in the SoCal market? I'm not sure. My guess is that Southern California, with its racial, economic, and ethnic diversity, offers a fairly realistic cross section of the American population as a whole (but that's just a guess). As for the ads themselves, they were among the least offensive of the bunch, despite one that included three idiots doing the worst Boston accent since those Jimmy Fallon SNL skits. Why is McDonalds introducing a 1/3 pounder? Doesn't this go against the grain in a society where so many people want (and need) to lose weight? Will it be successful or is Bill Maher right when he says Americans are too dumb to realize a third of a pound is bigger than a quarter of a pound?

Jack in the Box

I'm probably the only one who feels this way, but I can't stand the Jack in the Box advertising campaign (for those of you who live in a Jack in the Box-free zone, I'll summarize: Jack, a guy with a huge clown head, is CEO of the actual Jack in the Box restaurant chain). I don't like Jack. He thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and everybody else is an idiot. In most of the ads, he's so snarky, I find it hard to believe nobody had sued his ass for discrimination or workplace harassment or something like that. And his wife is always portrayed as a closet sexpot suburban Stepford wife (Ooh, I hate that!). Also, if he has a giant clown head, and his wife has a regular human head, how does that work? Why does his kid have a smaller clown head? Shouldn't he have a grotesque half-clown, half-human head? How did she give birth to him? It must've been a cesarean. I know I'm the only one who thinks about these things. I have a problem. The other thing I hate about Jack in the Box is their "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to menu construction. I don't know about you, but something is wrong with a place that has fried chicken, pizza, tacos, burgers, and fancy faux-gourmet ciabatta bread sandwiches. Pick something and stick with it, Jack.

Carl's Jr. (or Hardees, depending on where you live)

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. Carl's Jr. has always been known for their vulgar, hyper-masculine advertising (these are the people who made the infamous Paris-Hilton-washing-a-car-in-a-bikini-while-eating-a-hamburger ad), so I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised anymore when their ads portray men as brainless, sex-crazed calorie consumers. And yet I am. The most recent Carl's Jr. campaign involves a guy and girl...well, why don't you just watch it.

(I'll twiddle my thumbs while you watch the ad. Because I can't figure out how to make it appear here.)

There are many, many things wrong with this commercial, but I'd like to focus on a couple. First of all, why is the guy staring at the waitress so openly? He's with his girlfriend; is he retarded? Secondly, why is the waitress staring back? She's not a stripper, so why is she trying to seduce this dork? It doesn't make any sense. And the girlfriend, the only one in the ad giving a half-decent performance, by the way, would not just sit there and take it. I think she would throw her fries at "Sarah" and call her a slut. Or maybe that's just what I would do. On a production note, I would've cast a brunette for one of the roles (probably the girlfriend). The two women look too similar. Unless that's the point and I'm just not getting it, I would've tried to make them look as different as possible while still making them both pretty. But that's just me, and what do I know? I just have a Masters Degree in this shit. The bottom line is that Carl's Jr. makes a commercial that manages to offensively portray both men and women. Congratulations, Carl's Jr., mission accomplished (in a George W. Bush sort of way).

Carl's Jr. has always sold testosterone. That's nothing new. Their best ads were the "Burger, Fries, and a Coke" campaign, which emphasized the ease, familiarity, and simplicity of their 'cuisine.' It was successful on a number of levels, not the least of which that it managed to make the burger seem appetizing. This wing commercial does nothing, other than remind me why I'll never eat at Hooters again.

In N Out

The winner for the cheapest looking commercial, and yet strangely, maybe the most effective. All they do is show the burger, put up a really lame slogan relating to basketball or March Madness, and play the jingle. The burger looks good, the music is familiar. It actually makes you want to a burger. Funny how In N Out always seems to get it right.


Subway continues to push the fact that it serves healthier food than their fat-happy competitors (and continues to downplay the fact that their sandwiches taste like whatever condiment you choose to put on them and little else). The most recent commercial has a couple pulling up to the drive-thru and ordering some disgusting body parts like blubber, a gut, and a double chin. My problem with this commercial is that the woman orders a "badonkadonk butt," and she orders it like it's a bad thing. Jamie Foxx begs to differ, ma'am.

Wendy's, Taco Bell, and KFC

Wendy's ads have sucked since Dave Thomas died. There's just no getting around that. Taco Bell continues to push the concept of 'Fourthmeal', which is probably less healthy than eating a 1/3 pound of Angus beef. KFC, meanwhile, continues forcing Lynard Skynard down our throats. We get it, you're southern. Fried chicken, "Sweet Home Alabama." That's great. Keep it up. Also, they have a lot of ads where families sit down and eat a big bucket of chicken at their kitchen table. The idea is that KFC brings families together. But what I always take away from these ads is that the family is too lazy to cook and is probably going to die early from heart disease or diabetes. I might be reading the subtext here, though.

Anyway, there you have it. The current crop of fast food ads is not too sweet. But are they ever?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Russia, a Real Place -- Eastern Easter Eggs and Cake

Ryan sends another dispatch from Russia, where he lives and occasionally eats (And before you say it, yes, I know Ryan is a better photographer than I am. He has talent; I don't. It also helps that he uses a fancy digital camera while I have a shoe box with a pinhole in it).

Mmm, bliny.

Often when Natasha and I want to be fed by professionals, we go for sushi,
which is more prevalent in this town than MickeyD's, or something Caucasian
(as in Georgian, Armenian or Uzbek). The Caucasian restaurants lay out
excellent spicy soups, skewered meats, and cheesy, eggy breads—hachipuri
being my favorite, a godsend in a nation where pizza sucks. If the
establishment has tablecloths, then it's a safe bet that they also have a
severely beautiful woman positioned under a hot light, accompanied by a
disheveled uncle-figure who strikes a few notes on his synth to juice up the
pre-recorded track. I'm always the evening's only patron who doesn't know
every song by heart, bringing into question the breadth of my own internal
classic romance collection. When the bill arrives, Natasha and I squeal at
the expected offering of gum. It's just Wrigley's, but in stick form, which
is a luxury inaccessible to the average consumer (it's just pellets for the
masses). Though my stomach is full and never entirely suppressed by the
efforts of breath refreshment, I typically get up from the table a bit
disappointed. My dining partner and the mock-traditional costumes worn by
the waitstaff were lovely and entertaining, but did the quality of the food
merit either the cost or my labor ordering in a language with six noun
cases, three of which I'm unable to use? The answer is hurtling towards "no,"
but a few very positive dining experiences keep hope breathing in this city.

The Russian Orthodox calendar gave us Easter this past weekend (it doesn't
always coincide with Easter back home), so we left the restaurateurs to their smoky
dens and questionable behind-closed-door tactics to face the challenges of our own
kitchen. Saturday morning doesn't hold up without some kind of pancake, so
we did bliny in the classic style and I was even permitted to wield the
spatula once the pan had produced a few successes, though the batter's
secret is still too heavy a burden for my weak foreign brain.

Breakfast led to a depression of will and napping, but we gathered ourselves
by the afternoon and trekked to one of the superstores, or hypermarkets, as
the call them, for a stock up. It started snowing mid-journey, with the sun
persistent in the sky, so we were intent on buying something kind of weird
by the time we got there. We left with a fully intact salmon and a bag of
squid. I generally expect tentacles from my squid, but these were large and
elf-hat in shape and Natasha said, "Of course they don't have legs," so
again I felt cheated by this persistent deficit of knowledge and personal

Legless squid.

We fried them up until they looked familiar and I poured beer while Natasha
gutted the fish, filled him back up with onions and lemon, and sewed his
belly with needle and thread. We left him baking in the oven and plotted
our next move.
Salmon, whole.


If you celebrate Easter, you may have recently found yourself maneuvering a
hard-boiled egg balanced on a customized wire doohickey into a Dixie cup
full of water and food coloring. Not so in Russia. Those of the Orthodox
faith take a more natural approach, which works for fabric too (so my sister
says). It goes like this: toss some red and yellow onion skins into a pot,
mingle with water and raw white eggs, boil for a while. They come out
looking like something produced by a very small pterodactyl.

Easter eggs, Russian-style.

So we ate ourselves to sleep and woke up to reddish-brown eggs and a
store-bought loaf of "kulich," which is the traditional bready cake of
Easter. It's basically raisin bread topped with a thin layer of frosting
and sprinkles, the kind that comes on those pink and white circus cookies.

Now we're fasting between weekends.


Monday, April 9, 2007

Notes from a Fromager: Quick Dinner

When I am both hungry and lazy, and when the fridge is empty save for some dog food and a few tablespoons of milk, I will watch the Food Network, hoping somehow to visually absorb a calorie or two. The other day, I caught an episode of Barefoot Contessa. While host Ina Garten waited for her stew with biscuits to cook, she made this easy and delicious (or should I say: delicious looking) chicken recipe. Ina sang its praises as she ate it, but then, of course, after a few performative bites, went out to cut some fresh tulips from her Long Island garden. (Which is what I always do after lunch too!)
A few days later I gave her recipe a try.

Here's what you do:

Take some chicken, and under the skin stuff some fresh basil and fresh goat's milk cheese. Drizzle olive oil over it, sprinkle some salt and pepper, and pop it in the oven to bake. The result is juicy, cheesy, herby, chicken goodness.

Despite my gourmet hook-up at the Cheese Store, I used some cheap fresh goat's cheese from Trader Joe's called Silver Goat Chevre with garlic and herbs, which was very good. I was thinking I might try this recipe next time with Le Roule (there should be an accent on the "e" there...), a hand-rolled fresh cow's milk cheese from France that bears a distinct swirl of garlic and herbs. Le Roule is similar to the popular Boursin cheese, except the herb and garlic flavors are stronger. (I can't eat it at work on the sly because my breath will give me away).

Try it, and tell me what you think.


Where have YOU been?

I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. Where I come from, that's called a vacation. Sorry if that doesn't sit well with your buttoned-down, traditionalist notions of a what a "blogger" is suppose to be. But now I'm back. What's happened since I last wrote? Not much. I ate some food -- most pretty good, some not so much -- restaurants opened and closed, and Anthony Bourdain smoked about twenty packs of cigarettes. So to kick off your post-Easter week, here's a few little appetizers of infotainment to help you through your sugar crash:

  • The New Yorker has an article by Adam Gopnik about food in fiction. He discusses the 19th Century authors like Trollope, who use food as "the Styrofoam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative," as well as more contemporary examples from Ian McEwan and Robert B. Parker. Despite his ridiculously hokey jokes ("European mussels have fewer [beards], it's true -- more like soul patches."), he brings up some very valid points, especially regarding the contemporary fiction writer's repeated use of cooking as a means of meditation:
    "While you are doing all this, I was reminded as I did it, you are thinking about the bouillabaisse, not about life in our time. Or, rather, you are not thinking about the bouillabaisse, or about anything: you are making the bouillabaisse. And here, I suspect, lies the difficulty with using cooking as the stock for the stream-of-consciousness stew. It is the act of cooking as an escape from consciousness--the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity."
    Indeed. One of the best things about cooking is that you have to worry about cooking, and, consequently, can't worry about student loans, bio-terrorism, or the Red Sox middle relief. Gopnik's analysis doesn't include the best contemporary food and cooking novel, Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament. Not only does Christensen create a memorable misanthropic protagonist, full of whiskey and cigarettes, she gives a smashing recipe for quick and painless shrimp Newburg as well. One of the great things about the book is that the main character, Hugo, cooks and eats because he's good at it, and because it brings him pleasure. The food scenes in the book are not excuses to ruminate on anything other than the food itself. And maybe women.
  • Edan and I went to Oakland last weekend and ate some really, really good food. Everybody in the free world had recommended that we go to a place called Burma Superstar, which, as you can imagine, serves Burmese food (I thought about suggesting they change the name of the restaurant to "Myanmar Superstar." You know, cause it rhymes. But then I remembered that the a-holes who are responsible for the name change run one of the five most oppressive regimes in the world, so I decided to keep my mouth shut). It did not disappoint. We had a tea-leaf salad, some spicy lamb, and a chicken casserole, made with rice and peas and a host of spices I can't name. Very delicious. A little like Indian food, a little like Thai food, but different. I highly recommend it. We also had a great dinner at a place called Cesar, which is tapas. The restaurant was the size of basketball court and had every kind of liquor known to man. I got to try both Booker's and Baker's, two bourbons I've wanted to try for a long time. Among the highlights were a hangar steak made olive butter and grilled chicories, spinach salad with grapefruit and bacon (wow!), and a bread pudding that saved dessert. After dinner, I sang a near-flawless rendition of "Piano Man" that brought the house down at karaoke. Surprisingly, the culinary low-point of the trip was our dinner at Cafe Chez Panisse. You all know Chez Panisse, so I won't bother with the in-depth background preamble. I'll just say that we ate upstairs at the cafe, which has a menu and is cheaper, as opposed to downstairs, which is prix fixe and expensive as hell. I had chicken al mattone (which means "under a brick;" basically they cook a de-boned chicken thigh and leg on a grill with a skillet on top of it to press it down), topped with chopped panceta and egg, and served with shoestring potatoes. For once, I ordered well and ended up with the best dish at the table. We all shared some very fresh, tasty oysters to start. Edan had a manilla clam and pea dish that was very heavy on the peas. She was quite disappointed. Others had a pizzetta of radicchio and Roquefort, which I tried. I loved it, but the flavors were intense. It made a nice appetizer, but I'm not sure I could've handled it as my main dish (as I write this, I'm tasting it right now. Isn't it funny how certain foods do that? Cinnamon always does this to me, too). Finally, on Sunday night, one of our hosts, Josh, made us a terrific Japanese noodle dish with beef and Japanese eggplant. Really delicious. Thanks to Diana and Josh, not only for putting us up at their place, but also for putting up with about four hundred stories about our dog.