April 25, 2012
Many of the food outrages you’ve been reading about recently—pink slime in your hamburgers, insects coloring your Starbucks’ Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino, or the political frenzy over dog-eating—all revolve around revulsion. They’re foods more disgusting than they are dangerous. Similarly, there’s little evidence that low levels of arsenic harms chickens or the people eating them, but it sounds toxic, right? Policy makers wrestle with the popular notion that water recycling—going from toilet water to tap water—sullies otherwise refreshing drinking water.
What do they all have in common? Magical thinking.
Carol Nemeroff is a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern Maine who has, among other things, studied how we react to drinks in which a dead, sterilized cockroach has been dipped or how we react to fudge in the shape of dog feces. These studies, she suggests, demonstrate two kinds of magical thinking. The law of contagion describes how, in the absence of any perceptible differences, we get grossed out by a food’s history of contact. The law of similarity describes how we get grossed out when something benign resembles something disgusting. I talked with her recently about how we think about eating.
Food & Think: Despite the proliferation of exposés and shocking facts about our food—say, how barbaric slaughterhouses seem to those of us far removed from the process—we’re somehow persuaded at the supermarket that meat is pure and clean and perfectly acceptable to eat.
Nemeroff: In order to undo the connection, what we can do is to frame certain things out of awareness. Framing is a technical term from cognitive psychology. The supermarket is a great example: You see neatly packaged hamburger, you do not see dead muscle tissue from a previously living cow. The way that it’s presented is divorced from its history. This is exactly what we want to figure out how to do with recycled water because in the water’s case, it would be a good thing to do. With the case of meat, when people go to the Middle East or Europe and they go to a meat market, they’re shocked because they see a whole cow or a whole chicken, with feet, beak and head. The response they experience is revulsion because it highlights—no, simply, it doesn’t hide the fact—that this is a previously living animal, or sometimes even a still-living animal. So you can frame out of awareness all those elements that interfere with people’s desire to buy it and eat it. We have to do that. If you couldn’t do this, you would end up with a version of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]—if we were to think about contagion every time we touch a doorknob or we’re in an elevator breathing someone else’s air or we think about how many hands touched our money. We frame naturally, but by manipulating the framing you can determine what things people focus on and what things they don’t.
January 31, 2012
From guest blogger Jeanne Maglaty
Earlier this month, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new portrait of Alice Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
In the photographic portrait, a mulberry tree looms over Waters, looking chic in black in the Edible Schoolyard, her organic teaching garden and kitchen project in Berkeley that connects kids to “real” food and encourages healthy eating.
“The thing that I love most is that I’m very small and nature is very big,” said Waters as she stood beside the portrait, teary-eyed.
Waters’ acolytes gathered around her as she spoke in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, some as teary-eyed as she. But hundreds of other hungry guests dared not move closer and risk losing their place in line for the food at the event.
Washington, D.C, culinary celebrities had prepared edible innovations for a glittery reception. Here’s who and what you missed if you weren’t there:
Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve: Rappahannock River oysters with coriander migonette and green goddess vinaigrette
Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio: Roasted winter vegetables with wheat berries and garlic and anchovy dressing
Chef-owner José Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermin—Acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico ham; Selecciónes de Embutidos Fermin—Selection of cured Spanish sausages
Chef-owner Mike Isabella of Graffiato: Crudo of wild striped bass with kumquats, cranberries and arugula
Chef-owner Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: Winter root vegetable & Mushroom gratin with Ecopia Farms microlettuces
Chef-founder Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant: Lightly smoked duck breast with savory fig chutney and French baguette crostinis
Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery: Mount Tam cheese—bloomy, rinded triple crème, mushroomy, buttery; Red Hawk cheese—washed rind, triple crème, unctuous, aromatic; Wagon Wheel cheese—pressed and aged cow’s milk cheese, medium strength, semi-firm
Bar manager Adam Bernbach of Proof and Estadio: Catoctin Creek Gin with Tarragon-Pear Soda
Who could resist a single morsel? My daughter and I went back for seconds.
Waters has espoused her culinary philosophy based on using fresh, local products for 40 years. I asked cheesemonger Adam Smith of Cowgirl Creamery if it was difficult to decide what to serve at a reception for such a prominent person in his field.
Not at all, he answered. He selected three cheeses that the Petaluma, California, creamery made from organic milk purchased from a neighboring dairy.
Nearby, Bernbach mixed cocktails using gin that was distilled (from organic rye grain) only 50 miles away from the nation’s capital in Purcellville, Virginia.
Dave Woody’s selection as the portrait’s artist came with his first-prize win in the gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition in 2009. You can see the new portrait of Waters on the museum’s first floor near the G Street NW entrance.
January 6, 2012
We will not say goodbye but merely au revoir to the kitchen that once belonged to the grand dame of French cuisine, Julia Child. After Child donated her kitchen—complete with gadgets, cabinets and even the sink—to the American History Museum, the master chef’s culinary workspace was transplanted from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home to the museum, where it has been on view since 2002. It’s one of those exhibits you can go through with kid-in-a-candy-store awe, checking out the tools she used to ply her craft, from blow torches to an arsenal of cookbooks. Personally, I love seeing how she organized her space like a workshop, using the robin’s egg blue pegboard to hang her pots and pans so they’re always at the ready. And she kept a copy of the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking on her shelf.
But more than a simple assemblage of utensils and kitchen furnishings, the exhibit impresses on visitors the extent to which this one chef managed to have such a huge impact on American culture. In an age when prefab convenience foods were gaining in popularity, she not only showed people how to cook, but demonstrated that it’s OK to make mistakes along the way—and carry on with humor and resolve. (If you don’t believe me, watch her flipping a mass of mashed potatoes in a frying pan.) Unpretentious and equipped with an insatiable sense of curiosity, she was someone you could relate to through your television screen.
January 8, 2012 will be your last chance to see Bon Appetit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian for a while, so hurry by the American History Museum if you can. It is scheduled to be re-exhibited in a show on American food and wine slated to open in the summer. Can’t stand to live sans Julia for a few months? There’s always the online version of the exhibition, and the bloggers over at the American History Museum have a few ideas to help you get your Julia Child fix. My favorite ideas of theirs involve diving into some of Child’s books and learning to make a few culinary creations from someone who was at the top of her craft.
December 20, 2011
If you’re Jewish—and maybe even if you’re not—there’s an excellent chance that you will eat latkes sometime before the end of Hanukkah next week (it starts tonight). I fully support this: Latkes are delicious. It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without them. (I’m going with a zucchini-potato version this year to fit in with my low-carb pregnancy diet.) But are you going to eat them all eight nights of the festival of lights? Probably not.
I’ve been thinking it’s time to throw some new food traditions into the Hanukkah mix. I have a few ideas to propose:
Have a fryapalooza. The reason latkes are so associated with the holiday is that they’re fried, evoking the miracle of the oil that was supposed to last no more than one night but lasted for eight. So why stop at shredded potatoes? Have a fried-food fest that would put the Iowa State Fair to shame.
There are at least two ways you could go here. One is down-home, with fried pickles from Homesick Texan; corn dogs from Average Betty (using Hebrew National wieners, of course); Paula Deen’s Southern fried chicken; and don’t forget your veggies—Grit magazine’s fried zucchini, perhaps. For dessert, if you and your guests aren’t doubled over with stomachaches by this time, may I suggest funnel cakes, those crispy fried dough treats dusted with powdered sugar? Moms Who Think shows you how to make them.
Another way to go would be a world tour of fried food. Mediterranean appetizers could include Spanish-inspired smoky fried chickpeas from Food52 or Italian fried olives from Giada De Laurentiis. Japanese tempura vegetables have a lighter, more delicate flavor than their Western counterparts; Leite’s Culinaria shares a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s new vegetable cookbook Plenty (which I’m hoping Hanukkah Harry brings me). And, though less famous than the cheesy Swiss version, fondue bourguignonne, where pieces of meat are speared on a fondue fork and cooked in hot oil, lets your guests get interactive. Make your final stop in Israel for a dessert that really is a Hanukkah tradition, the jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot; Chow shows how it’s done.
Whichever way you decide to go, this fatty menu should probably be followed by a juice cleanse. Of course, you could always space these recipe ideas out over the course of the holiday instead of eating them all in one go. But where’s the fun in that?
Dip it, don’t fry it. There’s no rule that says oil is only for frying. In fact, as Italians and other people from around the Mediterranean have long known, some oil is just too delicious to waste by heating away its flavor. You could host an olive oil tasting party with quality oils and slices of good bread, then follow the tasting with a meal of salads and other dishes that highlight the star ingredient. Kim Vallée and Fine Cooking magazine both offer suggestions for pulling it off.
Eat a miracle (fruit). Unlike the Passover story, which requires the whole Haggadah to explain, the Hanukkah story is told succinctly by the dreidel, the spinning top with four sides spelling out in Hebrew, “A great miracle happened there.” Although the name has more to do with marketing than divine intervention, so-called miracle fruit is pretty neat anyway. Miracle fruit is a West African berry that temporarily alters the way you perceive flavors, turning everything sweet—even something as sour as a lemon—for a while. It’s similar, though much more dramatic, to what happens when you eat an artichoke. The berries are available frozen, dried or in tablet form, or you can buy seedlings and grow your own. You could turn the evening into a game, serving an array of foods, some with bitter or sour flavors, and asking blindfolded guests to guess what they are.
December 13, 2011
It’s the holiday season, and for many that’s reason enough to indulge (responsibly) in a mixed drink at a holiday gathering. But as you’re convivially tossing one back, do you ever wonder why a drink looks and tastes the way that it does? Harvard University physicist David A. Weitz and grad student Naveen Sinha offer a unique look at the science behind mixology, including techniques for building a better cocktail.
According to Weitz and Sinha’s report in Physics World magazine, our sensation of a mixed drink can be broken down into three elements: flavor, appearance and texture. Ethanol, also known as pure alcohol, is the delivery mechanism for flavor. On the molecular level, ethanol does a great job of trapping aromatic molecules in an aqueous solution (i.e. your cocktail) in addition to extracting flavors from flowers, spices and fruits. (Think infusions: if you’ve ever tried flavoring vodkas by adding in whatever tickles your fancy, after letting it set for a few days you get a flavorful spirit.) Some bartenders are even utilizing lab equipment such as rotary evaporators, which can distill a liquid’s aroma molecules to attain more potent flavors.
It also turns out that when it comes to creating the look of a drink, the method of mixing can make all the difference. For example, a Manhattan—composed of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters—is clear when stirred but cloudy when shaken. This happens because shaking introduces air bubbles, which scatter light and produce an opaque drink. Shaking also impacts texture and produces more viscous drinks. While 12 minutes may sound a little extreme to create a Ramos gin fizz, the air bubbles in the drink progressively divide into smaller bubbles during the mixing process, with the end result being the drink’s signature stiff layer of foam strong enough to support a metal straw. Some chefs have taken the element of texture to extremes to create drinks that have chewy or even solid consistencies. With an understanding of how cocktails work on a molecular level, it will be interesting to see what new concoctions mixologists will offer us.