Dining out etiquette

March 25th, 2011

I did a print interview for the WBUR “Public Radio Kitchen” blog, which appeared during Boston’s Restaurant Week (and which I just now found online). In it, I brought up the concept of “dining local,” given that local eating has become so fashionable. At times, I feel that Mr. Improbable and I are awfully boring, returning over and over to our favorite neighborhood haunts. But the sense of a local place, of a relationship between the diner and the, er, diner (I didn’t say we went to fancy haunts), gives the experience a home-like quality. When you’re in a place where they know your name, or at least your face, all food is comfort food.

Greatest dinner ever

February 28th, 2011

Like a real Bostonian, I knew that the taste of spring we’d gotten in recent weeks was but a cruel joke, a taste of freedom before the iron hand of winter clutched us again. And I was ready. Because in my freezer, waiting for the return of that winter hand, was a chuck roast from Wild Idea Buffalo.

It was possibly the greatest meal I have ever cooked; certainly the best in my married life, according to Mr. Improbable. Slow-cooked chuck roast, whole-wheat egg noodles, baked squash, and collard greens (thin-sliced and sauteed in sesame oil, with a light drizzle of maple syrup). I can’t recommend Wild Idea Buffalo highly enough; I’ve been thrilled with everything I’ve gotten from them. And chuck roast is not only easy, but wonderfully aromatic as it cooks.

When you’re going through hard times, whatever they may be, it’s not a bad move to save a little treat for near the end. Yes, that’s when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also when you’re most exhausted. A reminder that winter can have its comforts was exactly what I needed this weekend.

Quote of the day #2

September 23rd, 2010

George Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” on the food choices of the poor:

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea!

Calling out Miss Conduct, Part I

June 4th, 2010

The blog “Feminists with Disabilities” called out my May 2nd column, about the mother who insists that her toddler have vegetables with every meal, pretty harshly. I have certain reservations about that blog overall, and I don’t agree with their analysis of my advice, obviously, but the discussion is fascinating, and the comments are really worth a read. Even if you disagree, there are points being made that are definitely worthy of consideration. Eventually someone did come in and defend my point of view.

(Side note: I was amused that one of the most indignant commenters referred to me as “Miss Demeanor.” I’ve always said if I’d gotten to name the column myself, that’s what I would have preferred!)

A particular dynamic that I find intriguing, and that comes up a lot, is that I will say in my column — either implicitly or explicitly — “X is something controversial that people are passionate and not wholly rational about.” And then I will get a slew of angry letters or comments disagreeing with me, by people who apparently don’t realize that the very nature of their passionate, judgmental, highly personal disagreement validates my point. I get this sometimes over gender-related etiquette (especially the use of “ma’am,” honorifics, “you guys” or any other term to address women), but I don’t think anything brings it out quite as much as food or religion.

Happy Passover!

March 30th, 2010

My all-time favorite kosher food ad:

And for those of you who are simply interested in high-quality food, kosher or not, may I recommend Wild Idea Buffalo: meat from buffalo that live grass-fed, unconfined lives and never hear a discouraging word until the day they are humanely slaughtered. (Does anyone else find “harvested” even more disturbing than “slaughtered”? Sometimes euphemisms are a lot worse than the actual word they are intended to replace. I ordered some last week and was very impressed with the pastrami.

(No, I am not getting any kickbacks from either Kosher.com or Wild Idea Buffalo. As delighted as I would be to have free bison brisket and crates of macaroons and matzoh delivered to my door, I’m only sharing the ad for its humor value, and the buffalo recommendation as a solution for those who, like me, need red meat in their diet but can’t stomach, as it were, factory-farming practices.)

Looking at the system, not the parts

February 5th, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a brilliant post up about weight loss, the American food industry, environmentalism, racism, and stuff. He’s one of my favorite bloggers anyway, and this post exemplifies why; in essence, he’s trying, as always, to get his readers to look at the bigger picture and not point fingers at individuals. This is a huge part of what I try to do with etiquette, and what part of my whole “epidemic of rudeness” post was about — looking at systemic causes for why people behave the way they do, instead of just running around shrieking “Narcissism! Internet! Mindlessness! Selfish bastards!”

You really have to read the whole thing to understand how he gets from low-fat Oreos to racism, but here’s two key paragraphs:

But more than that, I understand enough to be wary of inveighing against people who eat at McDonalds–or even McDonald’s itself–of harshly interrogating the morality of flesh-eaters (I am, of course, among them.) It’s not that any of this is wrong per se, so much as it’s limited. When you’re constantly naming people for their sins of consumption, it’s very hard to get them to act against a system of consumption. More than that, it often misses the point of how hard it is to pull oneself out of the Matrix, and thus underestimates the Matrix, in that it assumes we can win by yelling.

Likewise, I think in my best writing here, in the writing that really matters, I’ve worked to steer us away from the reductive parlor game of “Is this/he/she racist?” It’s useful to a point, but ultimately self-serving. It underestimates our demons and it underestimates how an entire system warped nearly every institution in this country, and continues to warp it to this day. What I’d rather we us understand is some sense of the big system, some sense of American white supremacy as mechanized racism.

You might disagree with some of his specific points, but the overall thrust of his argument is, I think, profound.

(Also, while we are on the topic of the U.S. food system, did anyone catch “Parks & Recreation” last night? Yes, it tripped some of my body-acceptance triggers, but I thought for a sitcom, it did a damn good job of showing some of the problems of our current food system and legitimate points of view from both the liberal and libertarian sides. And all that along with a B-plot featuring an iPod/Roomba hybrid called “DJ Roomba” and a C-plot of April becoming disenchanted with her two gay boyfriends. No small accomplishment, that.)

Feeling one’s oats

January 12th, 2010

Last week we talked about the stereotype that people with a limited diet are boring neophobes, and how wrong that view is. Unexpectedly, although my diet is now restricted, I’ve been experiencing it as a broadening of my food world, of learning new cuisines and cooking techniques. My ingredients are constrained, but not my imagination.

And you notice things. For example, I’ve started eating steel-cut oatmeal every morning. I think the John McCann oatmeal tin is a thing of beauty.

oatback

Note the “Certificate of Uniformity of Granulation” on the back, attested to by not one but three officials: men, bureaucrats yet, who literally felt their oats.

oatcloseup

See the granules in question after the jump!

Click to continue reading "Feeling one’s oats"

Food rules

January 4th, 2010

Christmas was quite delightful this year (the belatedness of the annual Mystery Milo notwithstanding). We had a good group of folks with us, and “Sherlock Holmes” certainly didn’t disappoint as far as holiday escapism, and the uncanny desirability of Robert Downey Jr., were concerned.

The only part that made me slightly unhappy was when we went to Changsho for dinner afterward. We got the big table with the lazy susan — does anything speak of joy and inclusiveness more than the big table with the lazy susan in a Chinese restaurant, I ask you — and sure enough, I was That Person who had to take her entree off the lazy susan and hoard it to herself, because I couldn’t share what anyone else had ordered.

I’m going to be That Person for a while, it seems. Essentially, there is more bad acid floating around in my gastrointestinal system than at a Grateful Dead tribute band concert, and I need to change a lot of eating habits fast. After a couple of months, when things calm down, I should be able to have the occasional quesadilla or slice of pizza.

But until then, I’m one of Those People, those people who can’t share. I can break bread with you, but that’s about it. Oh, and those fabulous Ugly Wintry Mix cocktails you all came up with? Yep. None of those, either. Which means I might now encounter Mr. or Ms. Pushytipples of my own, now that I’m not drinking much. (Or, more likely in my case, Mr. or Ms. Terribly-Concerned. I can have a drink occasionally — very occasionally — and while I appreciate being warned of things like unexpected rum in eggnog and habaneros in the queso dip, I also appreciate being treated like an adult. I am at the moment eternally grateful to one of the Fabulous Bureaucrats, whom I had dinner with two days after my diagnosis, and who unblinkingly sat through my dithering about whether or not ketchup was on my new list of forbidden foods, as well as my consumption of two glasses of white wine. The FB in question knows me well enough to know that I can’t change all my habits overnight, but change they will when I set my mind to it.)

Before all of this mishegoss went down, of course, I knew that food and identity were deeply linked, as were food and sociability: it’s pretty much what the food chapter of my book is about. But having to make a lot of changes, fast, brings certain issues into even sharper perspective.

For one thing, there was this brilliant you-know-you’re-middle-aged-when moment a few weeks ago, when I met a friend at Casablanca for a cocktail-hour business meeting. He immediately apologized and said he couldn’t eat, because he had a colonoscopy the next day; I, of course, couldn’t drink, as I have gastritis. (We ordered hot waters, he shared his broth with me, and we left a really good tip.) Not sharing food turns out to be as good a bonding experience as sharing it, though I doubt restaurateurs would agree.

It’s also been interesting to see how many of my friends with a strong ethnic identity have been quick to share recipes from their own cuisine with me. I’m not just appreciating their food; I need it. Their Greek, Bosnian, Filipino, Russian recipes will save me from my own sick body and restore me to health.

So in at least two cases, having restrictive food rules has brought me closer to people who either have similar — permanent or temporary — restrictions, or people whose ethnic identity is complemented and complimented by what I can eat. I’m sure I’ll run into others, as time goes on: people who disbelieve in my condition, or the way my doctors and I are treating it; people who will take it as a personal affront that I cannot eat or drink their particular favorite food; people who, one way or the other, make my biological condition into some kind of metaphor of rejection, perhaps rejection of something they hold dear.

Yesterday’s “Coupling” addressed that, from the perspective of a food consultant/chef who finds it impossible to form relationships with men who have food rules. She writes, “Gradually, I realized that a willingness to try new foods spoke to a person’s general openness to the world and new experiences.”

It may. Or it may speak to a person’s number of taste buds, or to their immune system or bowel functioning. Our bodily processes may be a metaphor for deeper psychological issues — or they may simply be the sometimes working, sometimes on-the-fritz results of a complicated and frankly klugey system. (No offense, but how anyone over the age of 25 can believe in Intelligent Design is beyond me. Wait ’til your knees start going and see how intelligently you think you were designed then, kid.)

Why “Children of the Soy” is just wrong

October 27th, 2009

Here’s a Halloween-themed post for you all. I’d gotten into a horror-fiction kick a while back, and noticed that every New England gothic that deals with the human or supernatural evil of some little farming town — it’s always about corn. From “The Lottery” to Children of the Corn to Harvest Home. Corn is the basis of the community, the source and/or excuse for the evil. So I figured, hey, I know someone who manages a farm, I wonder what Verena would say about this. I mean, get two women together, one of whom did a dissertation on literary genre and one of whom is a farmer, and surely we could figure out this “evil corn” thing, right? I had a few ideas of my own, so I shot them off to her. Here they are, and her responses:

1. Coincidence. Corn is a native crop to New England, which happens to be where America’s literary horror tradition got started. If the tradition had started in the midwest, it would have been “Children of the Wheat.”

Verena replied: That seems plausible. Corn’s native to the whole continent though (including Central America). Wheat was introduced from Europe, and doesn’t do well in the N.E. climate (fall rains come in just as the crop is ready). Wheat is also much shorter (not quite like lettuce, but still short). Wheat is romantic (“Days of Heaven”). You can’t really romp with your lover in the cornfields like you can in the wheat. Wheat is soft.

2. Structure. Cornfields are taller than people and make a scary rustling sound and you can hide in them, so you can set cool plot sequences in the cornfields that might not be possible in other agricultural settings. You pretty well have to be Peter Rabbit to get a lot of suspense going in a lettuce patch.

Verena replied: I think you’re totally right that big cornfields are easy to hide in and get lost in. That’s pretty scary. And unlike woods or mountains, there’s a man-made uniformity to a cornfield, so you can’t get your bearings. A corn field does have this weird human-like quality to it…hayfields are tall and uniform, and make rustling sounds, but you never feel like you’re standing in some kind of vegetable army.

Okay, doesn’t the phrase “vegetable army” just freak you out right there?

3. The Uncanny Valley. It is easy to make disturbingly human-looking poppets and fetishes out of corncobs and husks.

Verena replied: Yeah, kids love that! We always do husk doll making with little kids and it’s a blast. They all turn out so amazingly different.

That was pretty much all I knew about corn and why it might be scary, so I went on to ask her, “Is corn so important that in a given farming community it might not be just a crop, but the crop, much as potatoes were in Ireland? So that the needs of the corn become paramount and it’s treated in a sort of idolatrous fashion?

“Is corn so temperamental and hard to grow that a human sacrifice now and then might not seem like a bad idea? (I mean, do you sit around with your farmer friends and talk about ‘The Lottery’ and joke, ‘Well, of course it would be wrong, but don’t say you’ve never wondered if it would actually work …’)”

And that’s when it got really scary! (Okay, I’m cuing the music and holding the flashlight under my chin now.) She said corn isn’t really hard to grow, and that up until modern times there wasn’t an issue with monoculture that would lead to the kind of dependence I was wondering about … but then … she wrote …

sacrifice – here’s a thought – Blood has a lot of nitrogen in it (remember those school stories about how Native Americans planted a fish head at the base of every corn mound). Great fertilizer. You can buy “blood meal” as an organic fertilizer – it’s just dried blood and it’s the best thing you can get. A sacrifice that spilled blood all over your corn WOULD actually make it grow better.

So how about that!

Are you a “mediocrevore”?

August 11th, 2009

In 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary dubbed “locavore” the word of the year:

The “locavore” movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.

(This is a quote from the Oxford University Press blog; the online 3rd edition of the OED that Harvard has still hasn’t included the term, so I can’t give you their precise definition.)

I got another one for you, that I coined this weekend during a discussion with a friend: mediocrevore. Definition: A person who wants to eat local, organic food that is produced sustainably and without abusing farm workers, but about half the time is too busy and lazy and just grabs whatever is inexpensive and/or convenient.

I think this has the potential to really take off! Please feel free to use it and tell any foodie or writer (prosie?) friends about it–ideally, with a link back here.