David Kamp (davidkamp) Fri 27 Jul 07 07:09
To John's question "Do you think we lose something when a formerly exotic cuisine or style becomes a mainstream category?" Of course, something is lost any time a little upstart movement goes mainstream. That's why there are certain indie rock fans who say that R.E.M. was never the same once it jumped from the IRS label to Warner Brothers, or Nirvana was never the same once it jumped from Sub Pop to Geffen. Those Rock Snobs were being pedantic (and I have a humor paperback devoted to this breed of person, "The Rock Snob*s Dictionary"), but in the food world there is a more legitimate complaint that some innovations and ethnic specialties get compromised by popularity. I daresay that the Starbucks coffee I fell in love with in Seattle in the early 90s (see an earlier post of mine, about being wowed by Starbucks when I visited my sister, a Seattle resident) is not the same Starbucks coffee you now get at the kiosk in the airport. Oftentimes, quality control suffers as volume expands. Giorgio DeLuca told me that much the same happened with balsamic vinegar. The most traditional form of aceto balsamico, from Modena, Italy, is aged, thick and almost syrupy, and was traditionally used sparingly, and kept in tiny, ornamental bottles. People would anoint their summer strawberries with a tiny drop, for example. Then Giorgio started selling a lower-grade but still legitimately flavorful and authentic version of aceto balsamico at Dean & DeLuca in the 1970s, marketing it as a salad dressing, more or less. It caught on big-time, and now we hear "balsamic this" and "balsamic that" everywhere we go. Giorgio is the first to tell you that his brainstorm led to some hideous corruptions of what people think balsamic vinegar is. Lots of it that's now sold in America, if not most, is not real balsamic vinegar but simple white vinegar that's been flavored and dyed. That said, these are sometimes the sacrifices that have to be made in the name of innovation. The U.S.A. is a big capitalist country--inevitably, someone's going to seize on a small craze and try to make a buck by going wide with it. Pizza is a great example, and you can get truly awful chain pizza in every state in the union. But at the same time, especially in this new era of artisanal this-and-that, there's a backlash against the grim, institutional "chain" mentality. Beyond the old-line places that still make good pizza (like Pepe's and Sally's in New Haven, CT), there are new-wave places using the best dough and house-made cheese. And not necessarily going all designer-kooky with the toppings. I'm thinking, for example, of Chris Bianco's Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ, and Nancy Silverton's Mozza in L.A. Their pizzas would not necessarily be recognizable to an Italian-American living in any city's Little Italy in 1931, but, in their fealty to good, yeasty dough and with their chops as real bakers, Bianco and Silverton have more in common with the old-timers than your typical corner place does. In any event, I'm not bothered by the way traditional/ethnic foods mutate and change via assimilation and experimentation, as long as the end product is good. A "traditional" New Haven pizza is itself an Americanized mutation of a Neopolitan pie.
Berliner (captward) Fri 27 Jul 07 08:18
As are most American pizzas. One of the biggest shocks of moving to Europe was discovering that I did *not* grow up on Italian food; I grew up on Italian-American food, a separate but related cuisine. Just regarding pizza, the earliest American pizza makers didn't have quite the right kind of flour, yeast, tomatoes, or cheese to make it with. Mozzarella you can grate, for instance, is unknown in Italy, from what I can tell.
David Kamp (davidkamp) Fri 27 Jul 07 09:01
I meant to say "Neapolitan," not "Neo-" Though I suppose sloppy spelling is part of the fun of the Inkwell. Or, rather, teh Iknwll.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 27 Jul 07 09:05
>>Oftentimes, quality control suffers as volume expands.<<< Sometimes, and those companies suffering quality control don't last long. More often, quality control actually improves as quality expands -- if, by "quality control," you mean the same thing the food industry means when it uses the phrase, which is consistently meeting a standard. To consistently meet a standard, though, oftentimes the standard must be lowered as distribution widens.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 27 Jul 07 09:57
I actually look forward to the day when miso, pomegranate molasses, tamarind, rose water, and chipotle in adobo all go through craptasticization, watered down for mass appeal, as balsamico has. David, was there anything you wanted to include in the book but couldn't for whatever reason? How about a little "director's cut" commentary on what didn't go in?
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Fri 27 Jul 07 10:14
Pizza is something that people always seem to have strong opinions on, and it always seems to hinge on where you grew up. I'm from Providence, and my pizza is Caserta's. WE used to have it every sunday. Now, my cousin who lives in New Hope PA, buys 6 or 7 pies whenever he's in town and freezes it. That's how much he loves it. The pies are square and thick (Sicilian) , and they have limited choices (pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, anchovies, cheese. That's it.) I know that <realfun> has been trying to duplicate their dough and has been unable. He finally decided that buying the dough was much easier. Me, I feel like buying the pizza is easier. My girlfriend's dad was one of the first importers/manufacturers of pizza stones and clay bread cloches in the 70's, (they still make and sell them, along with a whole bunch of kid's baking and cooking accessories) <http://www.kidsbaking.com> David, most of your book is about trend-setters-- guys who followed their foodie passion and made it big. Were there people who didn't make it big? Who were some of the guys who were the grand losers of the food biz, and how did they gamble (and lose) ?
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Fri 27 Jul 07 10:15
slipped by eric
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 27 Jul 07 13:15
I love pizza. Any pizza that is NOT made at a chain. I particularly like the pizza I am currently making for my kids and their babysitter this evening. But I must say, as a purist, I prefer to have pizza that doesn't have anything sun-dried on it (or designer-kooky toppings, either).
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Fri 27 Jul 07 14:25
I love all kinds of things called pizza. Crispy tomato and cheese, deep dish, and even some of those "california pizzas" that my Jersey girl wife used to diaparage but finally came around to. She's even quit saying, "It ain't pizza, but it's pretty good". A couple of years ago, we went to New York to visit relatives and went out to see what her family called good pizza. After all the crap they used to give us about pizza in SF, I have to say I was less than impressed. It was good, but nothing to get religious about. Actually, it wasn't all good. We tried three places that week, and one was pretty mediocre. It's like music. You bond with the stuff you were exposed to as a kid.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 27 Jul 07 17:01
Another pizza slut here. I love good pizza, bad pizza, though I prefer good pizza. But I echo Eric's question. What were you forced to leave out, David? (Forced meaning you realized it was tangential, or your editor suggested it was, or you got a little squirmish, or whatever.)
David Kamp (davidkamp) Fri 27 Jul 07 17:05
Eric Gower and Adam Gertsacov both had questions in a similar vein, Eric asking about "director's cut" stuff that didn't make the final version of the book, Adam about the "grand losers of the food biz," gamblers whose gambles didn't pay off, and whose stories were therefore not in the book. Because I focused on the "winners," the people who ended up making a difference, I didn't come across many "grand losers" with romantic tales of what might have been. There's a character in my book named Michael Field who sort of qualifies. For a time in the late 60s, he was considered to be on a par with James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne in the food firmament. He was a former concert pianist turned cooking-school instructor and cookbook author, and he wrote really rigorous, exacting, occasionally nasty cookbook reviews for NY Review of Books. In the then much-smaller food world, Field was feared and respected but unpopular. He was also tightly wound and twitchy. Nora Ephron's famous New York mag piece "The Food Establishment" captures him mid-meltdown. And he died young of a heart attack, probably too tightly wound for his own good. That said, his three cookbooks, now out of print, are all quite good. But Field wasn't really a "grand loser" in the romantic sense. I know what kind of character you mean, Adam, because I was looking for him (or her) myself. I kept asking the various chefs and food folk I met if there was a Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson of the food world, someone of incandescently brilliant vision but tragic fragility or illness or foodhardiness. No one had a good answer, or a good story in this regard. I'm sure such a person exists, or several do, and I vow to write about such a person when he or she is found. If anyone has any leads... As for cutting-room floor stuff, Eric... I guess the one thing I wish I could have used more in the book is what was going on more at the supermarket level. I focused heavily on tastemakers and fancy-food innovators in the final version, but I was intrigued by the families that ran supermarket fiefdoms in their regions, and how they flourished or floundered as they adjusted or failed to adjust to changing consumer tastes. There were also more ambitious grocers who transcended being mere grocers to become "gourmet" impresarios, people like Russ Vernon at the West Point Market in Akron, Ohio. In the later parts of the book I focus more on the elevation of chef at the expense of looking at what consumers were buying at markets. This was a deliberate choice, because I wanted to examine how America's food curiosity got perverted into the "celebrity chef" phenomenon. But I still think the groceries and supermarkets are a great subject for a book in and of itself.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 27 Jul 07 20:31
I cut teeth on Field's books. LOVED them. You can feel the crankiness in his prose; someone *utterly* sure of himself, so it's easy to see why he created so many enemies. Supermarkets are indeed a great subject. What are you waiting for!
bill braasch (bbraasch) Sat 28 Jul 07 08:14
Eric. I just heard on KWMR that you'll be at the Point Reyes Farmers Market this morning.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 28 Jul 07 11:39
Thanks. So here's another kind of question. An essay came my way a few weeks ago suggesting that, what with global warming, the great global population growth, and the cost of fuel (which not only makes running farm equipment and supplies costlier, but also makes it more attractive to grow plants to be turned into biofuel instead of food) we have probably reached the end of the era of cheap food. I ran this past a farmer friend who agreed. Well, maybe, maybe not. Questions are: do you think it's true, and if so, what effects will that kind of scarcity start to have?
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Sat 28 Jul 07 11:59
I heard Marion Nestle speak a couple of months back, and oh, boy, would I love to ask her that question as well as David.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 28 Jul 07 12:16
I've already seen chicken double in price here.
David Kamp (davidkamp) Sat 28 Jul 07 15:55
Pamela, I'm simply not qualified to answer that question. But I will say that the essay's Malthusian premise sounds dubious. Bear in mind that I haven't read the essay and don't even know which essay you're referring to, so it's ultimately kind of fruitless for me to pass judgment on it. What I've usually heard from food scientist types is that distribution is a far bigger issue than scarcity. But again, I'm no expert. I know Marion Nestle--shall I call her? As for the end of cheap food, there's an argument made by some food folk that we Americans have been spoiled for too long by artificially low food prices (and gasoline prices, for that matter). With subsidized agribusiness, the market is flooded with cheap but not necessarily healthful or desirable food product. Yikes, we're veering into Michael Pollan territory here. Just what I didn't want to happen. No disrespect, Mike. I can say that both Judith Jones (the great cookbook editor) and Alice Waters remarked to me that they admired how Europeans spent more of their family budgets on food than we Americans do. You get what you pay for, they seemed to be saying, and we should be paying more for high-quality food. I know the populist counterargument to this is that it's easy for some elitist Berkeley or New York freaks to demand that average Americans spend more for food, but there is something to be said for spending that much more on what goes into your mouth and that much less on, oh, a plasma-screen TV. Americans love to snidely call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck." Why doesn't anyone call Best Buy "Best Part of Your Paycheck"?
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Sat 28 Jul 07 15:57
That paragraph you're saying is Michael Pollan territory is also Marion Nestle territory.
David Kamp (davidkamp) Sat 28 Jul 07 16:52
Luvvv Marion, and like what I know of Michael. But my book is not a "food issues" book--it's about the pleasure of discovery, it's about the characters who shaped a cultural sea change, it's about looking at food people as innovators and three-dimensional figures, not as culturally marginal figures to be condescended to, or, alternately, as faultless saints. I know that some "food issues" stuff necessarily has to figure into all this, especially in the later parts of the narrative. But Marion Nestle, who kindly blurbed my book and is a joy to know, was one of the first people to tell me that she liked my book as a *read*, for the stories it tells. Even Marion Nestle needs a break from Marion Nestle territory sometimes.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 28 Jul 07 17:43
Hah, yes; well put. I was thinking along these lines, David. That food prices go up for the reasons I've mentioned (the essayist I referred to is a British commentator on world affairs generally, not food necessarily) and people who have only known food that cost a small fraction of their budget are suddenly faced with it costing a larger and larger fraction. Do they resent what might be called fancy food? (For that matter, how does anybody feel about fruit being flown from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere in the middle of winter, given what airline fuel costs?) Does it suddenly become fashionable to eat only the simplest, most local foods, with nearly no value added by a chef? If you live in a place where lettuce is hopeless in winter, do you give up salads for a few months? We won't hold you to any forecasts; this is just an invitation to speculate.
Berliner (captward) Sun 29 Jul 07 03:27
David remarked further up there about fancy foods going mainstream. Well, I just learned of the existence of wasabi Funyuns, so I think that point's just been sledgehammered home. Fortunately, I'm about 6000 miles from a bag of them.
David Kamp (davidkamp) Sun 29 Jul 07 07:29
Pamela, them's a lot of questions. Don't know if I can answer them all in a concise, Inkwell-friendly format, so I'll just sort of offer a broad take: I think the notion of people resenting "fancy food" is growing increasingly outdated, because A) there are fewer and fewer distinctions between "gourmet" and regular foods; for example, as I say early in the book, the millions of people who now get their coffee from Starbucks each morning are technically purchasing, to use the trade term, "specialty" coffee, but at this saturation point, is going to Starbucks really a "specialty" experience anymore?; and B) Americans are less and less hung up on fears of "other" or "fancy" foods, as we've all observed in this conference. As a matter of fact, last autumn, on the eve of the midterm elections, I did a humorous audio essay for NPR on the tiredness of the culinary-slander trope in political campaigns: the portrayal by conservative strategists of left-leaning candidates as out-of-touch "latte-sipping, sushi-eating, Chardonnay-swilling" twits. It's really ridiculous to try to demonize a candidate this way--and about as dated a strategy as accusing someone of being a "pinko." As I said in an earlier post, there might have been a time when such food and drink was the province of an elite, which I have no problem with--lots of good ideas and movements start with a small elite. But we're so far past that point. And you wouldn't have supermarket sushi and a struggling Kraft if America's taste for new/different/foreign/fancy/organic foods didn't cut across party, cultural, state, and economic lines. That said, Pamela, there are still some dubious notions put forth by otherwise smart people in the food world. While I really do think it's wrong to fly up produce from the southern hemisphere so we can eat asparagus out of season, and while I do believe in local foods and seasonality, I still want to eat salad greens in the winter. And I don't think it's a sin for California lettuces to be trucked to the East Coast in winter. Perhaps there are better, more energy-efficient ways for this distribution to be handled, and there's certainly room for farming techniques to be improved. But I can't see a time when we cold-weather people will fully rely in wintertime, as Alice Waters advises, on "lettuces grown in hoop houses on the East Coast and the Midwest." Hey gang, I'm headed to London for a work trip, so I might be a little slow in posting the next couple of days. I will have my laptop, though, and will check in at odd, Ed Ward-like hours.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 29 Jul 07 09:38
Thanks, David, and have a splendid (if ruinously expensive for your employer) trip to London!
Lisa Hirsch (sunbear) Tue 31 Jul 07 11:43
Heh heh. David's in London and, as he noted, even more out of synch with West Coast time than when he's in NYC. David, could you say something about food writing in the US before Beard and Claiborne, especially, came on the scene?
David Kamp (davidkamp) Tue 31 Jul 07 13:24
Well, first, let me clarify that Beard was never really much of a food writer, except for his decent if slightly twee memoirette from the early 1960s, "Delights and Prejudices." He was more of a food authority and teacher. But anyway, most of my favorite food writing is old food writing. My favorite food book remains A.J. Liebling's "Between Meals," which I think I've already mentioned, and I also have lots of respect for MFK Fisher. The New Yorker also had some good people like Joseph Wechsberg and Sheila Hibben doing surprisingly modern-seeming food writing in thr 1940s and 50s. But popular food writing--meaning for a large audience, meaning for newspapers--was very different from what we're accustomed to now. It existed at two extremes, one represented by Clementine Paddleford, one by Lucius Beebe, who happened to write for the same paper but in very different capacities. Clementine Paddleford was a fantastic character in the American food world when that world was still very small. She was the food editor of the New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s and 40s and kept on writing until her death in the 1960s. It would be easy to turn her into a jokey artifact of a less food-enlightened time--and indeed, Craig Claiborne was patronizing towards her--but I went back and read her stuff and found her to be a smart, industrious, insatiably curious journalist. Yes, she was housewifey in her language, using expressions like "That'll do the job up brown!" and referring to the women she wrote about as Mrs. Horace or Mrs. Herbert So-and-So. And yes, she was possessed of demented cat-lady lunacy, with a kitty forever sleeping in her "IN" basket at work. But she was also capable of pulling off some beautiful writing ("The sun grew pale as a frosted penny," she once wrote of an Ohio sunset), and she was hip to turning Americans on to eccentric regional dishes decades before Jane and Michael Stern. She was an aviatrix, flying a single-engine Piper Cub plane low over small country roads to see where they led--to which little family restaurants, church suppers, and such. Her 1960 compendium of all the regional dishes she'd tasted and gotten the recipes for, "How America Eats," is a favorite of mine and well worth getting your hands on. And James Beard loved her. Lucius Beebe was another sort of character altogether, representative of how segregated food experiences were before the 1960s. He wrote for the Herald-Tribube in the same period as Paddleford, but as a society columnist with a sideline in fine dining. He was an unrepentant snob, Francophile, and nostalgist for the Gilded Age era when obese robber barons ate sixteen-course banquets at ornate dining palaces like Delmonico's. He was also a sharp dresser and train enthusiast, marvelously queeny in manner--today, he'd have a reality/makeoever show on TLC or Bravo. (James Villas, the veteran food writer for Town & Country, now in his seventies, knew Beebe and told me he was the campest person he'd ever met--but wonderful company.) In any event, what's instructive about Beebe's columns is their revelation that dining out was strictly a pastime of the rich in the old days. Regular folk didn't go out to eat, except to humble taverns and lunch counters and such. It really wasn't until Craig Claiborne came along in the late 1950s that going out to a nice restaurant became a middle-class thing, a widespread phenomenon. Also, Beebe's reverence was for the male, usually French chefs in the kitchens of the restaurants where he dined. Paddleford wrote about the women who cooked at home. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the roles could be switched, that husbands could cook at home and that women could cook in professional kitchens. And I love the twist of fate that one of America's foremost woman chefs, Lydia Shire, now runs what was one of Beebe's favorite restaurants, Locke-Ober in Boston.
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