August 6, 2012
In Italy, working on assignment for several magazines, author Bob Spitz got an unusual call from the Italian Trade Commission in 1992.
“Would you like to be an escort for an older woman?”
Spitz was quick to answer, “Lady, I don’t do that kind of work.”
“It’s for Julia Child,” the woman on the phone informed him. Even quicker to answer this time, Spitz said, “I’ll be right over.”
And thus began his month long tour with one of the greatest culinary figures in American history.
Julia Child would have been 100 years old this August 15. Known for her distinct vibrato voice, her height and her role in bringing French food across the Atlantic in the 1960s, Child stood an impressive 6-foot-2 and couldn’t help but be noticed.
The first time Spitz met her, all he could hear was a chorus of lunching Americans chirping, “It’s Julia. It’s Julia.” Seated at a hotel in Taormina, he watched her walk across the piazza. “Every head in the place turned,” he says, everyone referring to her simply as Julia, not Julia Child.
Together the pair ate their way across Sicily, talking about food and reexamining her life. Child had just watched her husband and business partner Paul enter a medical facility as his mental faculties began to fade and she was in a contemplative mood, says Spitz.
Of course, that didn’t diminish her spirit, which Spitz describes as “relentless.” Even though she didn’t particularly care for Italian food (“The sauces were too boring for her”), Child took her tour seriously.
“We went into the restaurants, but then she would head into the kitchen,” often without invitation, says Spitz. “She talked to the chef, she’d shake everybody’s hand in the kitchen, even the busboys and the dishwashers,” Spitz remembers, “And always made sure to count how many women were working in the kitchen.”
If Child received warm receptions from vacationing Americans, the Italian chefs were less than star struck. Many, says Spitz, didn’t even know who she was. “The Italian chefs, most of them men where we went, were not very happy to see a 6-foot-2 woman come into their kitchen and, without asking them, dip her big paw into the stock pot and taste the sauce with her fingers.” Her brash behavior often brought reproachful, murderous stares, says Spitz. Not easily daunted, she found it amusing. “She would say to me, ‘Oh, they don’t speak English. Look at them! They don’t know what I’m made of. They don’t know what to do with me.’ It was great,” Spitz says.
Few people in Child’s life seemed to know what to do with her. She grew up in a conservative family in Pasadena, Calif. playing tennis and basketball. After college and a brief copywriting career in New York, she headed back home and volunteered with the Junior League. Craving adventure, she tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps but was too tall. Instead, she wound up in the Office of Strategic Services, beginning her career in Sri Lanka in 1944 before heading to China and eventually France after Paul was assigned there.
The rest is a familiar history. She developed a devoted passion for French food and technique, trained and worked tirelessly to record her findings. The first volume of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, with a second volume to come in 1970. In between, she began her TV career hosting “The French Chef.”
“She never tried to work on a personality,” Spitz says of the show’s success. “The day she first walked on TV, it was all there–the whole Julia Child persona was intact.”
Her dedication to getting real French food into American homes that were used to TV dinners and Jello desserts energized every episode. But Spitz insists, she didn’t just change the way Americans ate, she changed the way they lived.
Given the opportunity to clear one thing up, Spitz has one misconception on his mind: “Julia never dropped anything. People swear she dropped chickens, roasts–never happened.” Likewise, the mythology around her drinking on the show, which was limited to the close of each show when she sat down to enjoy her meal, also developed its own life. “Julia was by no means a lush,” says Spitz. “Although,” he adds, “when we were in Sicily, she consumed alcohol in quantities that made my eyes bug out.”
“She was a woman who liked adventure,” Spitz says. The pair would sometimes tour the Italian countryside by motorcycle. “Just knowing that this 80-year-old, 6-foot-2 woman, no less Julia Child was on the back of a motorcycle, riding with me–it told me everything I needed to know about her.”
Spitz will read from and discuss his new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Wednesday, August 8, at 7 p.m. at the Natural History Museum. He will also attend the 100th anniversary celebration August 15.
July 3, 2012
Nathan Handwerker ran a nickel hot dog business at the corner of Stillwell and Surf that became as much a part of Coney Island as Dreamland, Steeplechase and the Wonder Wheel. In the summer of 1916, according to one of the more apocryphal tales about the workingman’s lunch, Nathan’s held the first in what would become its annual Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest, a competition that pitted four immigrants against each other. The winner scarfed the most hot dogs as a demonstration of his American-ness. The contest still endures but it wasn’t the stand’s only stunt that brought in hungry visitors, nor was it the most convincing.
Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, got his start in New York as a dishwasher at Max’s Busy Bee. On weekends, he moonlighted at Feltman’s in Coney Island, an ocean pavilion home to Tyrolean singers, Swiss wrestlers, carousels and, according to one writer, its hideous noise. (The owner of the place, Charles Feltman, may have, in 1867 or 1874, commissioned a wheelwright to make him a wagon with a burner unit, thereby inventing the practice of serving sausages plonked inside a sliced “milk” bun, although Feltman railed against these mobile vendors in 1886, telling the Brooklyn Eagle, “Sausages must go.”) “A swank place, Feltman’s charged 10 cents for its hot dogs,” The New York Times wrote in 1966. “Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, then singing waiters at Coney Island, complained that a dime was a lot of money for a frankfurter.”
So, in 1916, Nathan opened his eponymous hot dog stand and sold frankfurters for five cents each. The crowds, he later recalled, were initially stand-offish and a cut-rate frank remained a suspect food. This was 1916, remember, only a couple decades after the birth of the term “hot dog” and inexpensive meat came with questions. “Hot” was code for dodgy, and, as Barry Popnik, the co-author of a 300- page book called Origin of the Term “Hot Dog” writes, the phrase probably originated a kind of joke. Take, for instance, this popular 1860 song:
Oh! Where, oh! Where ish mine little dog gone?
Oh! where, oh! Where can he be?
His ear’s cut short, and his tail cut long:
Oh! Where, oh! where ish he?
Tra, la la….
Und sausage is goot: Baloney, of course,
Oh! where, oh! where can he be?
Dey makes ‘em mit dog, und dey makes ‘em mit horse:
I guess dey makes ‘em mit he.
Customers in Coney Island had good reason to suspect Nathan’s original five-cent dogs would be of lower quality, maybe even the sign of an unscrupulous horse- or dog-killer—taboos that would become more un-American as the 20th century progressed. The Times had also reported that the “rottenest of all” the offal from New York’s hotel ended up in Coney Island’s frankfurters. “So Mr. Handwerker hired whi[t]e-jacketed young men to stand in front of his stand munching hot dogs. This brought in the ‘class’ visitors. They had decided that Nathan’s franks ‘must really be good because all the doctors are eating them.’”
The stunt with the “doctored” hot dogs apparently worked, immortalized as recipes for success in books like Selling: Powerful New Strategies for Sales Success. Medical marketing claims still sells food (“nitrate-free” hot dogs, anyone?), although the American carnival in Coney Island only, on rare occasion, includes any scientific, made-for-TV gastrointestinal scrutiny.
Moreover, the early gimmicks proved to be neither the first nor the last on the boardwalk. In 1954, Handwerker went to Miami Beach and left his son, Murray, in charge of the store. A man named Leif Saegaard approached him with a proposal to include a 75-foot long, 70-ton embalmed finback whale. Soon, Nathan’s Famous had a cetecean display, but thanks to an unexpected heat wave, the whale soon became a stench and was towed out to sea.
June 11, 2012
The average American consumes about 175 calories per day in sugary soda, at least according to the numbers presented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the recent roll-out of New York City’s anti-obesity campaign. Where do these statistics come from, and how accurate are they? After all, we can measure how much soda is being poured into the system, how many 12-ounce bottles and cans are sold on the open market (so-called “dispersal” data), but no one’s actually measuring the volume going down our collective hatch (“consumption” data). Moreover, if you ask city residents, they’ll tend to say, “Oh no, I don’t drink soda. I’m on a liver and cottage cheese kick.”
This phenomenon of underestimating junk food and overestimating healthy food in self-reported dietary surveys is known as the “Lean Cuisine syndrome.”
William Rathje, a forefather of modern garbology (the academic study of garbage, not a fancy name for street-sweeping), gave the phenomenon its name in his 1992 book Rubbish!. After examining trash bags full of soda cans and liquor bottles, Rathje found that what we claim to have eaten and drunk rarely lines up very closely with the actual stuff stuffed in the trash bag—especially when it comes to soda and liquor.
In other words, we are what we eat, but we tell the truth about it only in what we leave behind. Rathje is not a psychologist and doesn’t spell out exactly why we lie, but perhaps it’s a coping mechanism. After all, it’s tough to own up to another statistic—that a third of our food goes to waste.
May 15, 2012
Japanese knotweed—a common spring edible and a relative of rhubarb, quinoa and spinach—grows like crazy, so much so that it’s considered an invasive species. Brought here as an ornamental, it’s now better known as a blight; Monsanto even makes a herbicide dedicated to its eradication. On my afternoon jogs, I’ve often wondered what might happen if all my neighbors descended on the rapidly proliferating patches and harvested the tender young shoots for tart, tangy additions to their dinner.
The idea that armies of hungry knife-wielding “invasivores” could eradicate exotic invasive flora and fauna has taken hold in popular culture and among conservation scientists. There are at least two invasive species cookbooks. Fishermen hold tournaments to chase down the Asian carp, which escaped Southern ponds and now threatens to invade the Great Lakes, and biologists have even attempted to re-brand the fish as delicious “Kentucky tuna.”
Eating invasive species might seem like a recipe for success: Humans can devastate a target population. Just take a look at the precipitous decline of the Atlantic cod (PDF). Perhaps Asian carp and lionfish, too, could be sent the way of the passenger pigeon. It’s a simple, compelling solution to a conservation problem. Simply put, “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”
However, as ecologist Martin A. Nuñez cautions in a forthcoming article in Conservation Letters, edible eradication strategies could backfire and might even lead to a greater proliferation of the target species. First off, harvesting plants or animals for food doesn’t always correspond with ecological suppression. (Harvesting knotweed, for example, doesn’t require uprooting the plant, which can easily reproduce even after being picked). While the eat-‘em-to-beat-‘em effort calls attention to unwanted species, in the long run, Nuñez says popularizing an introduced species as food runs the risk of turning invasives into marketable, regional specialties (as with Patagonia’s non-native deer, fish and wild boar).
Before dismissing his cautionary note about incorporating alien flora and fauna into local culture, it’s worth remembering one of America’s cultural icons, a charismatic animal that may help underscore the questionable logic behind the invasivore diet: the Equus caballus, a non-native species originally introduced by Spanish explorers to facilitate transport in the Americas. Now, Nuñez writes, these “wild” horses have become “so deeply rooted in American culture and lore that control of their populations is nearly impossible, and eradication unthinkable.” To say nothing of eating them.
Drawing of Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)/Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 106, 1880.
Thanks to Roberta Kwok at Conservation magazine, who brought my attention to the study.
May 2, 2012
With the political season going full tilt and food fights coming to a head over eating dogs and questionable cookies, there’s another place you might find signs of the nation’s red-state blue-state political divide: the advertising on potato chips bags.
In a study published last year in Gastronomica, student Josh Freedman and linguist Dan Jurafsky of Stanford examined the language found on 12 different brands of potato chips. They discovered that six less expensive brands of chips had fewer words on the bags and that those words emphasized the food’s authenticity through tradition and hominess, making claims like this: “Family-made, in the shadow of the Cascades, since 1921.” (In much the same way politicians aren’t prone to usin’ highfalutin language around down-home audiences.)
More expensive potato chips—the ones you might expect to find at health food stores—tended to distinguish themselves with longer words. Their descriptions focused more on health and naturalness, emphasizing how they were different: “No artificial flavors, no MSG, no trans fats, no kidding.” Indeed, for each additional “no,” “not,” “never,” “don’t,” or “won’t” that appeared on the bag, the price of potato chips climbed an average of four cents an ounce.
In a post about the research (in which he notes readers should take the study “with a grain of salt”), Jurafsky writes: “These models of natural versus traditional authenticity are part of our national dialogue, two of the many ways of framing that make up our ongoing conversation about who we are.”
Perhaps the results are not all that surprising. This is how marketing a President or a potato chip works—you find a target audience and you try to sell them something, using their language, even when your product might not be all that different from its competitors. “No” can tap into yes, indeed.