Category Archives: food

Food, Empathy, and Continuing to Mourn Anthony Bourdain

It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.

As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.

In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.

I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).

The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.

bourdain-obama

Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?

As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,

… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.

This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:

It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.

If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.

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Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

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One of the many tributes to Anthony Bourdain I’ve read in the last twenty-four hours said that he was a connoisseur of “authentic” food.

That’s the wrong word. “Authenticity” as it relates to culture is fraught at best, actively misleading at worst: the search for the authentic too often becomes a fetishistic quest that ignores the glorious, protean, evolutionary nature of culture—and, as Anthony Bourdain spent the last twenty years exploring, there is no better exemplar of this principle than food.

Bourdain didn’t care about authenticity, he cared about honesty. Or perhaps more accurately, he loathed bullshit, whether it took the form of political pieties, pretentious or corporatized food, or, not infrequently, his own fulminations. Aside from his enormous intelligence, talent, and insight, his death comprises the loss of that rarest of commodities in the present moment: an open mind. Though he was never shy about his political leanings, he was always willing to break bread and find common ground with just about anybody, and was always brutally honest about his own blind spots. He started his public career celebrating the brutal and caustic masculinity of the professional kitchen; he ended it apologizing for his part in valorizing such meathead attitudes and embracing #MeToo. He made great hay in the early days ridiculing celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, but would later acknowledge their culinary talents, befriend them, and speak in a more nuanced way about the complexities of food and celebrity. And through it all, he never claimed for himself the mantle of brilliant chef, though many people tended unthinkingly to make that assumption: he was, he was always very clear to assert, a journeyman cook who lucked out.

The stars might have aligned for him when he got an article published in The New Yorker, but from that point on he made his bones on his talent as a writer, critic, and observer. My first encounter with Bourdain’s work was when I read Kitchen Confidential twelve years ago. By then, I knew his name, but only vaguely. Reading that book was a revelation, not just for his exposé of the life of a professional cook, but for his narrative voice: though he matured beyond the punk aesthetic of that career-making book, he never lost his caustic, no-bullshit approach. I envied his verbal dexterity and ability to be at once pithy and eloquent. Television might have become his medium of choice, but he was first and foremost a writer of enormous talent.

His death by his own hand reminds us that no outward appearance of success or happiness necessarily reflects what is inside.

His life reminds us that there is always more to learn, and the best way to learn is from other people. Food was how Anthony Bourdain entered the world; it’s eminently appropriate that his television career took him increasingly farther away from food as his focus while it also remained the anchor of his explorations. Parts Unknown was far more about culture and history and the specifics of a given locality than about the vagaries of cuisine, but it remained the basis of his interactions with people: his interviews almost always took place over food and drink, and whether he was talking to gun-loving Trump voters in West Virginia, survivors of America’s illegal war in Cambodia, or (recently) Newfoundlanders in a Big R restaurant in St. John’s, food wasn’t just a symbol of common humanity but the literal, material thing that connects us.

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A Feast of Thrones

All this season of Game of Thrones, my friend Andrew has been coming over to watch, and beforehand I’ve made dinner. I love to cook, so as the weeks passed I set myself the challenge of not repeating a meal (which I failed last week—one of our first dinners was burgers on the BBQ, and last Sunday was so beautiful, simply barbecuing some burgers seemed utterly appropriate. For those unfamiliar with Newfoundland in June, you should know that warm sunny days are not a given, so we tend to enjoy them as much as humanly possible when they happen). I’ve done pork souvlaki, barbecued chicken, jerk chicken, pulled pork, steaks, and a bunch of stuff I can’t recall. A few weeks in, Andrew’s son Nathaniel came home from university and started joining us, as did my girlfriend Stephanie.

For the finale last night, however, I decided something big was in order. And so I invited a bunch more Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and cooked a meal inspired by the show. Specifically, I consulted the website Inn at the Crossroads, whose creators Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer set themselves the task of recreating meals described in A Song of Ice and Fire. Their research is impressive: they find medieval analogues to GRRM’s often lavishly-described dishes, compare them to modern versions, and develop their own recipes. The website garnered them a publishing deal with the cookbook A Feast of Ice and Fire. Based on the recipes I made last night, that deal was very well-deserved.

Last night’s menu:

  • Honeyed chicken
  • Nan’s Beef and Bacon pies (with peas and onion)
  • White beans and bacon
  • Cucumber, apple, and tomato salad (not a GoT recipe, but I didn’t want to send my guests home with scurvy)
  • Sansa’s lemon cakes

I know this isn’t this blog’s usual bailiwick, but I can’t resist being a bit of a hipster foodie in advance of my co-post with Nikki. So bear with me, and trust me: all of these recipes are winners.

dinner-spread

Cocktails

When my guests asked what they could bring, I just told them to bring whatever they wanted to drink. Then after a bit of reflection, I sent them this link to Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, and said that if they wanted to bring the makings of any of these, they were welcome.

 

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The Tyrion Lannister Shot, courtesy of the lovely and brilliant Jennifer Lokash: pear vodka, elderflower liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, mint. These are dangerous. You wouldn’t know from the taste that they have any alcohol at all.

dragon-cocktail

The Dragon Lady, courtesy of the equally lovely Andrew Loman: vodka, lemon juice, mango juice, Triple Sec, dragon fruit (substituted here with papaya), cayenne pepper. It’s the cayenne that makes this, a nice little afterburn to go with the sweetness.

Honeyed Chicken

I tweaked this recipe a little. The website calls for a basic roasted chicken, which you then cover in a honey sauce. I decided instead to baste the chicken with the honey sauce—which is SO tasty—in the last fifteen minutes of roasting or so, and then let my guests drizzle the sauce to their taste over the chicken on their plate.

chickens-cooked

I also went a little beyond simple roasted chicken. I put a lemon in the chickens’ butts (roll the lemon vigorously on the counter for a few moments, then stab it repeatedly so the juice leaks out while cooking), and made a compound butter of garlic and thyme that I put both underneath the skin and smeared on top. This at once keeps the chicken moist and juicy, and helps crisp the skin.

Oh, and be very generous with the salt and pepper on the chicken. I would say that goes without saying, but it always bears repeating.

chickens-raw

Also: one of my favourite ways to roast a chicken is to place it on a thick slice of sourdough bread. This is a pro-tip I learned from the Food Network (specifically, Ina Garten). The bread toasts as the chicken roasts, and gets impregnated with the chicken juice and fat. This is a fantastic way to make croutons if you’re also serving a Caesar salad; last night I just cut the bread into cubes and served them as is. I had some leftovers this morning, but the bread was totally gone.

The honey sauce is ridiculously simple and incredibly yummy. I did make a change, though: the Inn at the Crossroads calls for raisins, and I substituted dried cranberries for three reasons: (1) cranberries felt a little more medieval; (2) I don’t like raisins; (3) the tartness of the cranberries offset the acid of the vinegar and sweetness of the honey.

I also roasted the chickens alongside a whack of small new potatoes, carrots, whole garlic cloves, and fresh thyme. Also not strictly speaking a Game of Thrones recipe, but roasting any kind of meat without also cooking some form of potato (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew!) simply goes against my hobbit-sense.

veggies-prepped

Nan’s Beef and Bacon Pies (with peas and onion)

This one was my own creation. I had originally planned to make the pork pies as described on the website, but none of the grocery stores in my area happened to have ground pork this past weekend. So as I was out for a walk on Saturday, I started thinking about the beef and bacon pies Jon Snow and Sansa reminisce about in episode four of this season (“Book of the Stranger”). Nan’s beef and bacon pies, with, as Jon says in his inimitable accent, “peas and onion.”

As it happens, Inn at the Crossroads has a recipe for beef and bacon pies, but as I walked I started working through my own concoction in my head. I was quite proud of what I devised.

I started with stewing beef, which I threw in my slow cooker with beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, and a glug of balsamic vinegar, after browning it in a skillet. (Again, salting and peppering the beef before cooking should go without saying). I let that cook on high for four hours.

stewing-beef

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the grocery store had oxtails (no ground pork, but oxtail? weird), which I used to make my own beef stock. In the same pot I’d browned the stewing beef in, I browned the oxtails, and then threw them in a 450 degree oven with two chopped carrots, one large onion cut in half (skin on), a few bay leaves, and about half a dozen garlic cloves (skin on) cut in half. I let that all roast for half an hour, and then put the pot on a medium burner and added water. That simmered for a few hours.

I then fried some cubed bacon in butter until crisp. Removed the bacon with a slotted spoon, and sautéed roughly chopped onions. When the onions were translucent, I added chopped mushrooms (one carton’s worth), and continued cooking until they were nicely browned.

bacon

onions_fryingonions&mushrooms

Then flour (about ¼ cup), which I let brown (you always want to cook the flour, or else you taste it unpleasantly later) before slowly adding ladlefulls of the beef stock. When that reduced to a nice gravy, I added frozen peas and the beef, which I’d removed from the slow cooker and shredded. You can add some of the stewing liquor now if you like, or else just a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and a glug of balsamic vinegar. And lots and lots of freshly ground pepper. Oh, and put the cooked bacon back in the mix.

peas

filled-tartstarts-unegged

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Uncooked pies with eggwash.

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Finished pies.

gluten free pies

The gluten-free option.

Given that one of my guests has a severe gluten allergy, I kept some of beef and bacon aside and made a separate batch with everything but the flour for the gravy, and thickened it with cornstarch. I made some pie pastry with millet flour, which took a bit of experimentation (basically, one cup of millet flour, enough olive oil until it’s the consistency of damp bread crumbs, and half a beaten egg). The regular tarts I made with the recipe off a box of Crisco shortening.

I painted the tarts with egg wash, and baked them until they were nice and brown (sorry, I don’t tend to pay attention to things like time—I usually just eyeball my recipes).

 

White Beans and Bacon

Well, this one is pretty ridiculously simple, and ridiculously delicious. I chose to complicate things by getting dried beans, which means I needed to soak them for twenty-four hours and then simmer them for a further hour or two, but you can simply buy canned beans and skip that step. Again, just sauté the bacon until crisp, remove and sauté a whole chopped onion to desired doneness (i.e. do you prefer pronounced onion flavor? Then undercook it. Prefer sweetness? the caramelize that bastard), add the beans and and bacon, and simmer until cooked through. You’ll need to add a bit of water. If you’re like me and like to complicate things by using dried beans, you can keep the water you used to boil them and add it now.

white beans and bacon

Cucumber, Apple, and Tomato Salad

As I said, not an actual Game of Thrones recipe, but I felt I should offer my guests something that doesn’t contain bacon. And this is a great salad anyway, so you’re welcome.

Basically: chopped cucumber and Granny Smith apples, halved grape tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It’s very simple, and one of the best salads I’ve ever made.

 

Sansa’s Lemon Cakes

This one was also a bit of a cheat, as it wasn’t taken from the Inn at the Crossroads. They offer two variations on lemon cakes, one medieval and one modern, but neither quite appealed to me. So I did a bit of searching, and as it turns out, Sansa Stark’s predilection for lemon cakes has inspired any number of variations on this theme. This recipe is from Bon Apetit, and was quite easily the biggest hit of the night. Given that I followed the recipe to the letter, I won’t narrate my cooking process. I will however say that they surprised me a little by being more custardy than cakey, but holy crap they were sublimely delicious.

 

lemon_slices

If you want to be really fancy, simmer lemon slices in simple syrup for about 20 minutes, and then let dry for 24 hours. Top the cakes with a dollop of lemon creme and a candied lemon slice.

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And that’s all she wrote! Thanks to my guests for a lovely evening.

guests

My lovely guests, clockwise from left: Lady Stephanie the Scrivener, of House Van Der Linde (motto: “We Prefer Not To”), Keeper of the Bulbous Cat; Ser Nathaniel the Gangly, of House Loman (motto: “Um, OK, Sure, I’ll Make Your Poster”), Master Crafter; Lord Andrew the Loquacious, Elder of House Loman, Keeper of Black Cats and Avoider of Meetings; Lord Robert the Apiarist, of House Finley (motto: “Splendid!”), Fledgling Beekeeper and Lord of the Gourmands; Lady Jennifer the Badass, of House Lokash (motto: “You Have A Complaint? Awesome”), Keeper of the Nuthouse; Lady Danine The Recently Deaned, of House Farquharson (motto: “Don’t Even Fucking Start With Me!”), Repository of All Gossip.

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