Yelling at Clouds

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

I’ve been “Old Man Yells at Cloud” a bit more than usual lately.

That was my reaction to seeing a photo of a $30 plate of ribs, coleslaw, pickles & bread at Michael Symon’s new restaurant, Mabel’s BBQ. It was the thin slice of white bread in particular that drove me to such heroic lengths. My beef is, I think, legitimate. Foods that have been traditionally valued for their simplicity, tradition, & nostalgia have been hijacked by haute cuisine and paraded around in garish costume.

I feel like the experience of a cultural, regional, or ethnic cuisine is enhanced by enjoyment of it in context. I’m an anthropologist; I want the cultural experience of getting amazing, nothing-​fancy ribs from a guy cooking them in a converted steel drum at an abandoned gas station on East 131st Street. I want to buy poutine in sub-​zero temps from a food truck in Kingston, ON that has been parking in the same spot and serving the same lunch to the same group of people for years. I want black-​peppered grits, either plain or cooked in potlikker. I want to go into a restaurant in Little Arabia or Ukrainian Village or Asia Town where English is a second or third language and take my chances.

I’ve identified two things about this that drive me crazy, and a pretty solid reason why I’m being unfair, which I’ll get to in a minute.

  1. Branding/​Marketing. The successful haute cuisine is so aggressively marketed and granularly branded that the experience becomes less about the food and more about the exclusivity of it. Everything is sold as if it is archetypal — postmodernist edibles.
  2. Safety. The successful restauranteur these days seems to be a white guy who appropriates a non-​white cultural cuisine and adjudicates its presentation in such a way that the surroundings feel safe and comfortable to other white folks. That’s not an adventure to me.

When I say haute cuisine, I’m talking about a kitchen that mansplains food. “You plebeians, here’s how you should be making your poor-​folk food.”

I took a course called Crucial Conversations a few weeks ago, and one of the things we learned is when to identify situations where you’re telling yourself a story because you lack enough information to really know what’s going on. So I tried to come up with an alternative story to why someone might do things to foods that I love that I find completely unconscionable. The easiest empathic path I was able to come up with is thinking of a restauranteur as an artist. The stuff they are doing to food is their art. I can at least understand that motive, even if I think there’s a metric butt-​ton of privilege in the implementation. An artist would, can, and sometimes should ignore cultural context if they are remixing another art. This allows a food artist to ignore the fact that Wonder Bread is napkins and gravy-​sop for poor Southern folks and create an artisanal hand-​ground, preservative and HFCS-​free white bread to go with the $30 lamb BBQ. The thing being valued is the exclusivity and remix, not the authenticity. Damien Hirst as chef.

I can at least understand that, even if I think it’s dumb.

Most folks I know don’t think of me as particularly conservative, but on the whole I tend to value the vernacular — craft over art, things that remain rather than things reinvented. Maybe I’m a misanthropologist.


Tangentially, I read an article today about co-​sleeping and whether it’s good or bad. This is such a silly argument to me — like arguing whether circumcision is good or bad. (If it wasn’t meant to be there, it wouldn’t be). It wasn’t that long ago that women were completely knocked out when they went into labor and “medical professionals” took delivery on from there because that was considered better than natural childbirth. It wasn’t that long ago that formula was considered a better option than natural nursing. Currently, people in Western countries think it is better to leave a newborn infant alone, in a quiet room, for most of the day or night and to keep track of them via an electronic monitor than keep them close for comfort. Forget the fact that primates have been:

  1. having natural birth for millions of years
  2. nursing their offspring for millions of years
  3. not letting newborn offspring out of their sight for millions of years

By all means, keep the infant in a dark, quiet, separate room, completely cut off from warmth, comfort, and stabilizing influence of their parents. I’d cry too.

Yeah, definitely a misanthropologist.

Eating Better

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

There are lots of methods that folks evangelize about in terms of eating better. I don’t like to listen to evangelists, I learn from modeling and mentors. I learned some good things this summer that have helped me eat better and they’re pretty basic, so I wanted to share. Not evangelize. I don’t expect these things to work for everyone, but some of the ways of thinking about food may help change habits.

My family is all in Indiana. They eat like basic Hoosiers. Lots of meat and carbs. Basically everything from this cookbook would be right at home at one of my family’s dinners. The only vegetables likely to appear are a salad and green beans. But the salad is a seven layer salad drenched in ranch and cheese, and the green beans are in a casserole. I started making fruit salads to bring to meals a few years ago. I can tell whether my friends or my family posted something on Pinterest based on a glance at the photo. If it’s super unhealthy it was posted by my family.

When I moved to Cleveland, I took a fancy to cooking. I enjoy it. But for years all I knew how to make was Hoosier home cooking. I slowly grew fatter. This year, after topping out at 205, I decided to lose some weight. I’m down to 185 now, and here’s how I did it.

  • Portion control. I put my meals on salad plates and only fed myself as much as I fed my son.
  • Tactical willpower. Instead of having to exercise willpower at home all the time by avoiding junk food, I just used that willpower at the grocery. Don’t buy it there, you won’t have to resist it at home.
  • Easing into better choices. I didn’t just go all veggies all the time. I started buying avocados, and eating half of one with a meal. I’d roast carrots and broccoli. I’d make the easiest salad imaginable: a handful of spinach, a small splash of balsamic vinegar, a dash of Parmesan. All easy, tasty, and un-​intimidating.
  • Learning by example. I learned a great many easy things to do with rice and vegetables in a very short time by being in the kitchen with someone who knew how to do things I didn’t. Finding a friend or making a new friend with someone who is handy in the kitchen in ways that you aren’t is great!

That’s basically it. After awhile I started craving my now daily salad. I look forward to making an avocado, beet and goat cheese sandwich. Hell, you just have to steam, peel, and slice the beet. It’s not hard. The flavors take care of themselves. And because my portion sizes are smaller, and vegetables slowly increased in percentage, I’m eating significantly less carbs and meat. I’m not becoming vegetarian, but my diet is much closer to a vegetarian diet than it was. I don’t disdain junk food, the Pop Tarts I just had are proof against that. But the four little changes I made have added up to a big difference.

Food evangelists demanding a sea change in eating habits did not affect me. Being around people who were good dietary models but not preachy about it and making my own small choices has made much more of an impact.

Bắc — Restaurant Review

Sunday, 14 February 2010

This was the opening weekend for the eponymous Bắc, the new Asian food place in Tremont. I’d spent most of the day yesterday tramping around Cleveland in the snow, so it was a welcome change of pace to spend some time in a warm room with great atmosphere and cute wait staff. The change in the space from what used to be La Tortilla Feliz is remarkable. Gone is the yellow-​orange paint, and the stuccoed walls are now a soothing green. All of the décor was picked by somebody (I’m assuming Bắc himself) who understands that classy looks, comfort, and utility do all go together.

When I met Bắc at the Velvet Tango Room a few months ago, he said that his goal was to create a place where you can get an appetizer, a drink and a dinner for around $20. He did a good job. The menu is structured in such a way that you’ve got an array of options that meets this goal, and an equal array for a diner who wants to shell out a bit more. There’s even a custom cocktail menu (most run around $7), and $2 PBR’s that are $1.50 during happy hour.

I wanted to get everything on the menu, but whittled it down to the Banh Mi sandwich ($8) or the pad thai ($11). The Banh Mi sandwich sounds delicious, so I’ll get that next time I go there. I got the pad thai, “family-​hot”, and since Bắc’s family is in the kitchen making the food, this was hot. Also, since Bắc’s family is in the kitchen, the hotness was such that it enhanced rather than overpowered the flavor of the pad thai. The spring roll appetizer ($5) was also amazing. Fried just enough, but not greasy, the internal bits were chopped finely enough that you didn’t pull them all out when you took a bite, and the roll had enough tensile strength that it didn’t disintegrate once one end was bitten off.

Look, I can’t emphasize enough that Bắc’s family is in the kitchen making the food. So we’re talking generations-​old family recipes here.

Since today is Chinese New Year, we were even served complimentary coconut jien duy (a sesame seed dumpling) after dinner.

Bắc hits all of the restaurant sweet spots. Go there.

Pierogie Pile

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Ingredients

  • 1# kielbasa, sliced
  • 1 box frozen pierogies
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 12 red onion, diced
  • 8 oz. frozen corn
  • 2 T. butter

Recipe

  1. Put the butter in a 13×9 inch casserole dish and stick it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°
  2. Prep the other ingredients, and toss them together in a large mixing bowl.
  3. When the butter is melted, remove from the oven and make sure the bottom of the dish is fully coated.
  4. Put the pierogies in the dish.
  5. Layer the other stuff on top.
  6. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake for 40 – 50 minutes.

Pierogie Pile!

Goat Roast 2002

Monday, 22 April 2002

today was the annual Anthropology Department Goat Roast. At nine in the morning some anthro majors and the profs, using stone tools produced in the Lithic Technologies class, butchered a goat and a sheep. keep in mind that properly produced obsidian stone knives are something like 5times sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. so the actual cutting part was pretty easy. then they were marinaded, kebabed and grilled to perfection. not to mention the other great foods that accompanied it: goat curry, chili, salad, noodles, potato dishes, and wonderful peanut butter/​chocolate bars. when anthro people get together the parties are great. especially since most of the side dishes were recipes from around the world. i’m going to buy the new anthro club tshirt too its pretty nice. i got to do some flint knapping myself, but since i have never taken the class, i’m not too good at it. however, i did get a nice sharp flake that i cut my thumb with. i would have died very early if i had been cro-​magnon. cleanup sucked mostly because we were all numb with cold but hey if that is the price you pay to be an anthro nerd with all the other anthro nerds (profs included) so be it. hot damn i had fun!