Thursday, July 8, 2010


The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture, slow food will save it (and is the rallying manifesto for the movement of the same name, based in Bra, in northern Italy.) You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object – like any other commodity – that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market. In effect, the two essential players in the food chain (those who make the food and those who buy it) swapped roles. One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January of the old young man who picks his olives in September) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. The Maestro blames the supermarkets, but the supermarkets are just a symptom. (Or, to invoke a familiar piece of retail philosophy: the world changed when the food business agreed that the customer was right, when, as we all know, the customer is actually – well, not always right.) What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life, and the change has produced many benefits. I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economics, except in this respect – in what it has done to food.

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy taught my why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals – like chefs. But I don’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

From Heat (An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany) by Bill Buford.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seafood...for Lent!

I was exhausted, yet lured to a Hornets basketball game by my sister with the promise of a shrimp basket: about 15 small lightly fried shrimp served over a generous handful of warm, salty French fries. (We lost to the Denver Nuggets in the last four minutes, ugh.) I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner, so I knew AV would be left to his own devices with some pasta and canned tuna. Turns out, he went over to the nearby market and picked up some fried catfish, bypassing the huge containers of boiled shrimp and crawfish for sale that a lot of people pick up on their way home from work. That is, if they don’t go out to eat at one of the hundreds of seafood restaurants around.

And thus, we perform our Lenten sacrifice of abstaining from meat.

I grew up in New Orleans, and as long as I can remember, Fridays during Lent were always days that we’d go out for dinner to a nearby seafood restaurant and have po-boys. I think it’s safe to say many New Orleanians eat better on Fridays during Lent than they do any other time of the year. Sure, great seafood is available year-round here, but there’s just something about the exhortation to avoid meat on Fridays that inspires even the most devout to interpret it as a command to chow down on a $20 seafood platter, including soft-shell crab.

Deanie’s Restaurant in Bucktown, not far from where we live, is usually not wait-for-a-table crowded on a Friday night until about 6:30. But Fridays in Lent roll around, and it’s jam-packed at 5:30. Usually, you can have a pleasant lunch at New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company on Fridays. Not during Lent. The whole parking lot is completely packed, with people parallel parking on the side streets. Obviously, people have been watching their commercials, and know that this restaurant claims to be “Your Seafood Authority…For Lent!”

Then there are the church Friday Fish Frys. Our church has added a drive through service, so that you never have to leave your car to get that fried shrimp or catfish platter. My parents’ church is offering an even greater spread: an assortment of menu choices. According to my sister, you can choose from: boiled shrimp Caesar salad, grilled shrimp Caesar salad, shrimp basket, fish basket, and the seafood platter. You also have a choice of sides: macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, sweet potato. All the choices come with hush puppies. And that’s just if your go through their “drive-through.” If you get out of your car and walk into the Church hall, you also get a drink and your choice of dessert for free. As my mom says, “there’s a lot of competition around here between the churches for Friday fish frys!” I had a suggestion: “First 50 people to Stations of the Cross get $1 off their seafood platter!” I think lots of people would like that promotion.

There’s no lecture here. I like that people go a bit seafood-insane on Fridays during Lent in N.O. (Cue a line: “N.O. will look for any excuse to party, even the Lord’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.”) I have always remembered Jesus’ sacrifice while I’m chewing on a shrimp tail on a Lenten Friday evening. It’s a tradition, and a reminder of our humanity. We could make ourselves look glum like the Pharisees, or we could enjoy a nicely seasoned, lightly breaded soft-shell crab. I’ll choose the latter every time.