January 5, 2012
In the past we have seen how gelatin, ice cream trucks, raw chickens and vanilla extract have figured in to the criminal behavior those who think they can live outside the law. Food crimes don’t seem to be letting up, as evidenced by the following four incidents.
December, 2011. Port Richey, Florida. A pint and a bank job.
On the afternoon of December 22, John Robin Whittle ordered a beer at the Hayloft Bar, but left for approximately half and hour and then returned to down the drink. He was soon arrested by local authorities: Whittle fit the description of a man who robbed a nearby Wells Fargo bank but ten minutes before.
October, 2011. Punta Gorda, Florida. A slippery situation.
Why steal used cooking oil? This restaurant waste product can be converted into biofuel and on the open market it can command as much as four dollars a gallon. On the evening of October 17, two men were spotted behind a Burger King pumping cooking oil into their collection truck; however, their vehicle did not belong to Griffin Industries, the usual company that picked up the oil. The two drivers explained that the regular collection truck had broken down, but on calling Griffin Industries, the restaurant manager learned that none of their trucks were in the area collecting oil. By this time the two drivers had left with approximately $1,500 worth of oil. The manager called the police, who spotted the truck at a Golden Corral, again siphoning off used cooking oil. Two men, Javier Abad and Antonio Hernandez, were arrested and charged with grand theft. (And for a lighter take on this trend in food crime, check out the “Simpsons” episode “Lard of the Dance,” where Bart and Homer conjure up a get-rich-quick scheme by stealing grease.)
Marysville, Tennessee. July, 2004. Would you like extra cheese on that?
At about 5:00 in the morning on July 18, Marysville, Tennessee police discovered a car abandoned in the parking lot of the John Sevier Pool containing a pile of clothes and a bottle of vodka. A thoroughly intoxicated Michael David Monn, the owner of the car and the articles therein, was soon spotted running toward the authorities wearing nothing but nacho cheese. The 23-year-old had apparently jumped a wall to raid the pool’s concession area. In March, 2005 Monn pleaded guilty to burglary, theft, vandalism, indecent exposure and public intoxication. He was sentenced to three years probation and a $400 fine to cover the costs of the stolen food.
Santiago, Chile. 2004. Hot Stuff.
In 2004, Chilean hospitals began treating people for burns incurred after attempting to make churros, the treat of fried dough coated in sugar. In each case, the dough shot out of the pot, showering the chefs with hot oil. The injuries came days after La Tercera, a daily newspaper, printed a churro recipe—but neglected to test it. In December 2011, the Chilean Supreme Court determined that the suggested oil temperature was far too high and that anyone following the recipe to the letter would have ended up with dangerously explosive results. The newspaper’s publisher, Grupo Copesa, was ordered to pay out $125,000 to 13 burn victims, including one woman whose injuries so severe that she was awarded a $48,000 settlement.
December 21, 2011
The custom of Jewish families dining out at Chinese restaurants, especially on Christmas Day, has long been a joking matter. “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5749,” one quip goes. “According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4687. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.” Even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made light of the tradition during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Granted, Chinese restaurants are typically among the few businesses open on December 25th, but it turns out that there are historical and sociological reasons why these two cultures have paired so well.
In a 1992 study, sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine focused their attentions on New York City, where there are substantial Jewish and Chinese immigrant populations. No matter how different the cultures may be, they both enjoy similar foods: lots of chicken dishes, tea and slightly overcooked vegetables. For Jewish newcomers, Chinese cooking offered a new twist on familiar tastes. Then there’s the matter of how food is handled, a matter of great importance to observant Jews. Chinese food can be prepared so that it abides by kosher law, and it avoids the taboo mixing of meat and milk, a combination commonly found in other ethnic cuisines. In one of their more tongue-in-cheek arguments, Tuchman and Levine wrote that because forbidden foods like pork and shellfish are chopped and minced beyond recognition in egg rolls and other dishes, less-observant Jews can take an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy and pretend those things aren’t even in the dish.
Chinese restaurants were also safe havens, the sociologists observed. Jews living predominantly Christian parts of the city might have to contend with the longstanding tensions between those groups. Furthermore, an Italian restaurant, which might bear religious imagery ranging from crucifixes to portraits of the Virgin Mary, could make for an uncomfortable dining experience. A Chinese eatery was more likely to have secular decor.
There was also the sense among some Jewish participants in the study that Chinese dining, with exotic interiors and the strange-sounding menu items, was a delightfully non-Jewish experience. Furthermore, like visiting museums and attending the theater, Chinese restaurants were seen as a means of broadening one’s cultural horizons. “I felt about Chinese restaurants the same way I did about the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” one of the study’s unnamed interview subjects remarked. “They were the two most strange and fascinating places my parents took me to, and I loved them both.”
For a fuller explanation on how this dining trend came about, you can read Tuchman and Levine’s study online [PDF]. And if you have memories of a Chinese restaurant experience, share them in the comments section below.
November 10, 2011
Mealtimes are fairly well represented in fine art. Wayne Thiebaud had an affinity for deserts. Manet gave us images of Breakfast in the Studio and Luncheon in the Grass. And I think Da Vinci may have a dining scene in his oeuvre as well. And then there’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s instantly recognizable scene of a convivial bunch of diners enjoying a summertime meal alfresco. Completed in 1881, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of the most famous midday meals committed to canvas, but it’s curious to note that in spite of the title, there’s precious little food to be seen. Taking a cue from Clara Peller, I have to ask: where’s the lunch?
“It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. By the time we see the table, all that’s left are a few not-quite-empty bottles of wine and a compotier of fruit such as grapes and pears, perhaps a peach or two. “It’s the end of the meal. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a beguiling picture. It’s of that time that comes when everyone has had a delicious meal, they’ve all gathered, they’ve focused on the food and now they’re just focusing on each other and this beautiful day and they don’t want it to be over. And we’ve all had those kinds of experiences where you want to linger and those are the best meals we ever have.”
The scene takes place at the Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where people of all social classes mixed and mingled as they enjoyed their leisure time away from the bustle of the city. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists. It remains open for business, although the scenic views have changed a bit since Renoir’s time.
But it seems Renoir wasn’t much of a foodie. In a memoir, son Jean Renoir, who made a name for himself as a film director, remembers his father preferring simple fare, even when finer things—like veal and soufflés and custards—were laid on the table. In terms of food as a subject for his paintings, actual foodstuffs crop up most often in his still lifes, and even then, his attentions turned to raw ingredients instead of finished dishes. “He could paint a beautiful onion,” Rathbone says. “They’re the ingredients in their most natural form, which is their most beautiful moment. Let’s face it, a chopped onion isn’t nearly as beautiful as an onion whole. I think Monet and Caillebotte did more prepared food in their still lifes than Renoir did. We have a wonderful still life in the collection that’s a ham and it’s a marvelous subject in Gauguin’s hands. He makes the most beautiful ham you ever saw.”
Instead, Renoir seems to prefer to focus on the social aspect of the dining experience. “He was a people person, and people love food. So I think the subject came to him naturally.”
Next time you are in the D.C. area, you can enjoy Luncheon of the Boating Party first-hand at the Phillips Collection, which is a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro.
September 13, 2011
Food is a basic human need and humans are prone to unusual behavior. That combination has provided fodder for several blog posts that take a look at people behaving badly with edibles. Once again we’re serving up a helping of criminal behavior involving food and the food industry.
Kalamazoo, Michigan. September, 2011. Dine, dash and defraud.
Stacy Skartsiaris, 65, had been the owner of Theo and Stacy’s restaurant for 38 years and had never had a problem with customer violence until the morning of September 1. Two women, Deaunka Lynn Dunning and Sheba Jean Kirk, both 30, stopped by the downtown restaurant for breakfast, but as they went to leave with doggie bags in tow, they complained about the quality of the food and informed Skartsiaris that they were not going to pay for the meal. Skartsiaris followed them as they left and said she was going to call police. That’s when the pair allegedly attacked her, kicking her in the midsection and striking her face, leaving her with bumps and bruises. The belligerent pair was eventually arrested and charged with aggravated assault and defrauding an innkeeper. They are due back in court on September 14 for pretrial hearings.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. BYOB (Bring Your Own… Bag?).
In a push to cut down on plastic usage and be more environmentally friendly, many grocery stores are encouraging customers to bring in reusable bags. Some people interpret the term “reusable bag” fairly loosely, subbing their pants for a traditional shopping bag. Donald Noone, 65, is one of those people. While intoxicated, he went to a Giant grocery store and tried to secret about $20 worth of ribs down his trousers. He was arrested and charged with retail theft and public drunkenness. Turns out he’s also a repeat offender: he tried pulling the exact same stunt back in May. Noone plead guilty to the charges.
Patton Township, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. Something “borrowed.”
Planning what foods to serve at a wedding reception is a big deal—and can be a big chunk of your budget. One Pennsylvanian decided to try to avoid the financial burden. Married on August 18, Brittany Lurch, 22, and Arthur Phillips III, 32, stopped off at a Wegman’s after their ceremony to pick up food for a reception to be held two days later. Cops keeping a keen eye on security cameras observed the newlyweds piling over $1,000 of merchandise in their cart and casually walking out of the store. They were soon apprehended by police and sent to Centre County Jail with bail set at $2,500, more than twice what the reception spread would have cost them. Both were charged with retail theft and receiving stolen property and, of course, they missed their own party.
St. Louis, Missouri. August, 2011. She came in through the drive-through window.
At 2:50 in the morning, a car pulled up to the drive-through at the White Castle on Herbert Street and North Florissant. But instead of cash, the two attending White Castle employees were handed a note demanding all the money in the cash register from a woman who seemed to be packing heat. The two employees ran and locked themselves inside a nearby office and called police. Meanwhile the woman climbed halfway through the drive-through window to grab the cashbox before speeding away, dropping her weapon—a toy gun—in the process. Police were able to track the still-unnamed 33-year-old suspect to her home where, in a last-ditch effort to elude capture, she climbed to the roof and took a three-story leap to the ground. She was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries and now faces robbery charges.
Taichung, Taiwan. July, 2008. Watch what you write.
A blogger, identified only by the surname Liu, went to a beef noodle restaurant and wrote about her dining experience on her blog. Her words were far from glowing, describing the food as salty and the dining conditions unsanitary. When the restaurant owner learned about the review, he filed defamation charges against her. The court found that the salty food remarks were out of line as she had only one main dish and two sides at the establishment. Her cockroach criticisms, however, could not be classified as slander. Liu was sentenced to 30 days in detention, suspended for two years, and fined NT$200,000 (approximately $6,900 in American dollars.)
July 5, 2011
We introduced two Inviting Writing themes in June, one about bizarre dining-out experiences, and the other about food and sickness. Our grand finale for the latter category comes from Victoria Neff, a computer programmer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs at I Need Orange.
A Long Recovery From Chocolate
By Victoria Neff
When I was five, someone took me, my friend, and his little brother down the street for ice cream. I remember we sat up high, on counter-side stools, and I remember all three of us chose chocolate.
That was the last time I ever wanted chocolate ice cream. All three of us (and our mothers) were up all that night, while our bodies did everything they could to get rid of whatever contaminant was in that ice cream. For years after that, even the thought of chocolate ice cream would turn my stomach. My little-kid brain put hot chocolate in the same category, and I couldn’t stand it, either.
Eventually disgust reduced to indifference. The time came when I could eat chocolate ice cream, or drink hot chocolate, but I never enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I had the chance to spend three weeks in France with my daughter, exploring different regions and cuisines. We started in Bayonne, the capital of France’s Basque country. Bayonne is known for ham, Espelette peppers and chocolate.
One lovely morning (all our days in Bayonne were lovely), we strolled over the bridge spanning the river Adour, to the old part of town. The narrow, cobbled street leading to the cathedral is lined with bakeries, boutiques and chocolate shops. Cazenave is known as one of the very best places for chocolate. In addition to dozens of varieties of fancy chocolates, its attractions include a hot-chocolate and tea room. The tea room is a charming place, with white wooden chairs, lace, brown-sugar cubes, tiny napkins, cute china and historical information in four languages. It has been serving hand-whipped hot chocolate for over 100 years.
I ordered tea. My daughter ordered the hand-whipped chocolate. The tea was fine. The hot chocolate was much better than “fine.” Here, at last, was the hot chocolate that was able to overcome my aversion. Here was hot chocolate that was delicious. Chocolatey. Bitter. Rich. Complex. Creamy.
We delighted in a large variety of wonderful foods in France. It’s hardly a surprise that it was there that I recovered an ability to connect with chocolate. I didn’t miss hot chocolate, and I haven’t missed chocolate ice cream all these years, but as I write, I wonder if French chocolate ice cream may be as delicious as French hot chocolate. Perhaps, next time I am there, I will eat ice cream, and will be glad I chose chocolate.