Tag Archives: Out of Alphabetical Order

C is for Cool. Really F#_@ing Cool.

Lillet blonde, on the rocks with a twist of orange at Cafe Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. It’s my new favorite cocktail and I love it dearly.

Dinner was good — and the prices at the cafe were reasonable for the birthplace of California cuisine — and the service was great. I showed up well after 8 pm and they parked me at the bar for less than the promised 45 minutes with the wholly distracting Lillet. When I was seated, I said thanks for squeezing me in. The bespectacled, betweeded hostess said, “It’s a pleasure to have you.” I was a late-coming one-top, the type of table that is often on the recieving end of a world-class stink-eye. I’ve never been to a place as famous as CP before and was so happy to find that the staff knows how a small meal can be a big deal to someone like me.

The appetizer (tomato soup) and entree (grilled polenta) were nice, but the alpha and omega of the meal were the aforementioned apperatif and the dessert, hazelnut creampuffs with dark chocolate and caramel sauce. The puffs arrived with coffee as dark and deep as a well. I usually take cream but not tonight. Even I know not to mess with a good thing.

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Well that’s just ducky

Marylanders celebrate high holy days with crab feasts. You get a basket of some of the most beautiful, blue-tinted and darkly speckled creatures from the sea and boil them alive with a firey shower of Old Bay. Then you disembowel the now-rosy animals by hand, stuffing yourself to overfull and commenting how there’s no better way to spend a summer day. Such things tend to inure you against the horrors of butchery.

I am not sentimental about animals. I didn’t grow up with any pets, aside from short-lived goldfish, which are notoriously bad at cuddling and doing tricks and all those other anthropomorphic things. I love food so much that I instinctively recoil from anything that limits culinary possibilities. But I also like to think of myself as a Good Person, as most of us do, which is why I enjoyed the evenhanded exploration of the ethics of foie gras in Mark Caro’s book The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000 Year Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight.

Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who was drawn into the fold of foie due to a professional slap flight between two noted Windy City restauranteurs, Charlie Trotter and Rick Tram0nto. Trotter removed foie from his menu for ethical reasons, a move that eventually culminated in a city-wide ban on selling the fatty duck livers, produced by force-feeding the birds to the point of obesity. Gourmets balked at the idea of having a treasured item removed from their menus. Animal activists balked that anyone would argue a delicious tidbit was worth the torture of innocent animals. Conservatives balked that such a specific law should be imposed upon restauranteurs and consumers when everyone could just let the market decide that engorged duck livers weren’t worth the ethical or financial trouble of eating or producing them. So Caro went on a journey from Chicago to New York, California and France to see what the fuss is about. Surprising, it’s about quite a lot — ethics, culture and commerce, to name just a few.

Caro explores how and why other places have banned foie gras. Surprisingly, Israel is at the top of the list. Foie has roots in Europe’s Jewish communities — it’s basically a high-end version of schmaltz, the beloved Kosher poultry fat schmeared on bread by bubbes the world over. It was one of Israel’s first export industries. (The book mentions that Maryland briefly considered a ban, but it ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Still, the incident made producers nervous that a state “without much of a culinary scene” (!) would likely enter the foie fray on the side of the animals and their cohorts.)

Besides the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, Caro explores duck farms in the U.S. and in France, talks with animal activists and participates in the process himself, sending the readers interest in foie — as well as his own cholesterol score — through the roof. The activists and chefs and farmers make for better reading than the aldermen; Caro does his darndest to make the Chicago city council’s parlimentary procedures seem dramatic but it is a thankless task.

The Foie Gras Wars is not for the faint of heart, since even the mildest description of the most humane abbatoir may leave you reaching for a veggie burrito afterwards. But it’s worth plowing through the icky (if well-written) parts to explore the ethics of fatty duck and goose livers. Caro gets contradicting stories about the amount of suffering the birds experience during force feeding — advocates say they don’t mind, detractors say it’s torture — because there’s basically no one who investigates such matters that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. People who turn their nose up at the cruelty of foie happily power down Purdue oven stuffer roasters, even though said chickens are treated much worse than the average foie bird. Don’t eat veal because you don’t want to support the industry? Veal is a side business for the dairy industry, so you’re going to have cut out cheese and cream and milk as well to make that stand.

But just because it’s hard to avoid cruelly treated animals doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. And surely just because we can’t attain the ideal of veganism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best to minimizing suffering in the world. Right?

The foie gras debate can seem like a twee Rich People Problem, but its implications are larger. The idea of suffering, and the argument that ends can justify means, is not wholly divorced from other issues, like President Obama’s decision to withhold pictures of tortured detainees.

Does the end justify the means when the end is sustenence? What about pleasure? What about tremendous pleasure that can’t be achieved in any other way? What about the hypocrisy of being sentimental about one animal or one food and not another?

What about when the end is national security? What if short-term gains are ultimately more damaging to America’s interests? Are images of suffering unnecessarily inflamatory, or necessary to make informed decisions about how we live our lives and enjoy our freedoms? (That last one applies to both detainees and ducks.)

Philosophers, presidents, chefs and citizens struggle with these questions every day. They stare back at us from the television screen, from a plate of seared foie served with quince and toast points, and from our paper box of Chicken Nuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce. Freedom of choice can be a terrible, magnificent burden.

I is for Irate

I usually don’t pick out my AHH spots too far in advance, but after this I’m reserving the I spot for Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia. which has been vandalized twice in the past month. The first time, on March 23, anti-foie gras protestors took credit for the act. This time, no one has stepped up, but it appears to be the same group.

I have had foie gras exactly once in my life, at 1789 in Georgetown. It tasted like meat butter, and I was undecided on if I liked it or not. I’ve read Fast Food Nation and Consider the Lobster. I’m aware that other cities have banned foie gras for ethical reasons. I realize that gavage is not all the fun you can have with your feathers on for the ducks. But I do not like violence or destruction or waste, which is what vandalizing a restaurant in protest of one dish on their extensive menu is. Restaurants are tough businesses to keep afloat, and repeated  vandalizations don’t help the bottom line. Foie gras protestors, vote with your wallet, protest outside the building and start a petition to outlaw foie in Maryland. Just keep it legal. You’re winning more foes than friends. How many people eat foie per year anyway? Wouldn’t it be more effective to lobby against unethically raised cows or chicken?

Arguably my aforementioned distate for violence and destruction and waste could be targeted towards the people who turn living, breathing duckies into meat butter. But because of the methods employed, my sympathies lie with the restauranteurs who seem rational and professional in comparison to the childish antics of the protestors. Quoth Steve Wecker, a co-owner of IBWC: “You can be an activist. You don’t have to be an anarchist or an idiot.”

Word, Steve. I’ll see you in a few weeks.  I’m going to eat so much foie that my liver will become deliciously engorged with fat and you’ll want to serve me with toast points and truffle butter.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Meat

I officially ended my Lenten meaten fast this morning with a Jimmy Dean sausage patty on an English muffin, and scarfed some Pascal ham and several other meaty hors d’oeuvres today. I tried not to go too nuts, since I’ve heard that re-integrating meat into your diet can be tricky. I don’t know that 40 days would really make that much of a difference…plus I slipped up a few times.

Forbidden Meat #1 — I entered the break room during  an all-day work event and was so excited to see the free food that any non-meat promises flew straight out of my head. You’d think I’d never seen a steam tray of hot dogs before.

Forbidden Meat #2 — Ain’t no way I was telling my boyfriend’s parents, who don’t speak the best English and who had prepared me a wonderful chicken dinner, that I wasn’t going to eat it. Also, my mom’s rule when we were growing up was that it was more of a sin to waste food that it was to break fast, so I figured this fell under that category as well. The chicken was cooked, and turning it down wasn’t going to accomplish anything. That said, it must be difficult  for real vegetarians to find ways to turn down animal-based food graciously. Kudos to those who do it well.

Forbidden Meat #3 — I initially didn’t see any vegetarian appetizers while at a cocktail party so I ate some Swedish meatballs and chicken fingers. After I found the veggie eggrolls, I stopped. Mostly.

Forbidden Meat #4 — In a round-robin tournament between Jesus and a hotel breakfast buffet, Jesus went 0-2. The Son of God lost to longtime favorite free bacon, and, in a surprising upset, chicken apple sausage. It was the morning after the cocktail party so the whole weekend was something of a meat bender.

Forbidden Meat #5 (?) — My dad made me pasta with what I think was meat sauce on it.

All in all, I was not a very good vegetarian. Or at least not a very healthy vegetarian. I tried to eat lots of yogurt and beans to get protein, but you know what’s vegetarian? Onion rings. And french fries. And diet soda. I would eat a nice salad with some nuts in it for lunch and then flag mid-afternoon and prop myself up with caffeine and salty snacks. I most certainly did not lose any weight. Dropping lbs. was not a priority, but I wondered if it might happen, just because I read so much about how Americans eat too much meat.

As it turns out, I didn’t miss meat as main course as much as I missed meat as accent. As I alluded to the ode to a veggie quesedilla in my E is for El Salto entry, meat can provide a depth of flavor that vegetarian dishes often lack. I’m sure there are ways to manipulate vegetables and soy and dairy to be as complexly delicious as meat, but I didn’t find it in the last 40 days. (If you have suggestions for good veggie dishes I should try, please post in comments.)

Personally I’m better off having a deli sandwich for lunch and not compensating with meatless but unhealthy midafternoon snacks. Halfway through Lent, I was fantasizing about driving to Andy Nelson’s while mainlining bacon fat, but today I’m surprisingly meh on meat.

I am planning on checking out a G spot (…that’s what she said) with a friend who gave up alcohol for Lent. We shall feast mightly upon meat and wine. But perhaps not as mightly as I once planned.

11 Diet Sodas

As a testament to how thorough my last Lenten Promise failed, I give a rundown of one week’s sodas:

Diet Soda # 1 – Purchased at Bella Roma, the superior, but further away, take-out spot. Had to dodge Robert Poole kids having snowball fights at the bus stop to make to Bella Roma. (What’s with all the mean “Goddamn punk kids” looks, Hampden residents? Could kids possibly do something MORE wholesome than have a snowball fight?) Counter Guy immediately asks if I want a Greek salad. I quite often want a Greek salad but not today. Feel immense pleasure at having attained regular status at local eatery.

Diet Soda # 2 – Guzzled down at desk as displacement activity for editing item about a teenager who died in a car accident.

Diet Soda #3 – Sipping customary afternoon combo of soda and Lay’s Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffled Potato Chips. Have convinced myself that the texture of the sweet bubbles and the salty ridges of the chips are Pavlovian catalyst for my creative process. It’s like a really, really low-rent version of sparkling dessert wine and a fine English cheddar.

Diet Soda #4 – Once a month I crash through the door of Angelo’s (inferior but closer take-out spot) screaming, “GIVE ME A LARGE DIET SODA, CHEESEBURGER AND FRIES AND NO ONE GETS HURT.” They throw a styrofoam bucket of soda at me (My favorite way to drink soda – fountain soda in an Earth-killing cup with lots of ice) which I cling to and suck like an angry baby. A counter lady drops the fries at my table and I slather them with cheap, thin ketchup. By the time the burger itself arrives, I have begun to calm down, like the Hulk coming out of a rage.

Diet Soda #5 – Motherfucking phone company.

Diet Soda #6 – Drunk whilst watching Wife Swap in bathrobe and socks.

Diet Soda #7 – Drunk whilst housecleaning and eating bacon.

Diet Soda #8 – To stave off depression of forthcoming $320 physical therapy bill for ankle sprained during improv performance. (Fell off the stage; am gifted physical comedienne.)

Diet Soda #9 – Very exciting: first soda purchased from new machine in office break room. The soda is brash and young, much like a fine French vin de primeur with hints of oak and corn syrup.

Diet Soda #10 – In mall food court, panicking over possibility of having committed fraud at upscale retailer. I bought a coat on an online final sale for $99 but it was too big. When I returned it to the store, dissembling that I had no receipt, I was refunded the full price, $325. Thrilled at first-ever profitable mall visit; terrified of judgment of God and man. $225 would nearly offset my physical therapy bill, but Sister Catherine would be so disappointed in me.

Diet Soda #11 – Purchased to make it seem like I was not coming into the Royal Farms solely for the purpose of purchasing deodorant at 1pm. I was just thirsty, and stopped in for a drink, and then happened to notice that deodorant was for sale and casually asked the clerk to retrieve the item for me from the shelf behind the counter. If you’ve never noticed it, convenience stores keep the deodorant behind the counter along with cigarettes and meth-ingredient cold pills because it’s a commonly shoplifted item. Because even the homeless don’t like spending half a day with B.O., although I apparently can live with it.

My Lenten Promise

After a whopping 16 years of Catholic education, there are a few things that will never leave me. On the rare occasions I do go to Mass, my favorite part is still the Sign of Peace. (Everyone turns to his neighbors, shakes hands and says, “Peace be with you.” It is very friendly and personal and sweet.) I can still recite the Hail Mary in French. (Je vous salut Marie, pleine de grace.) And I always give up something for Lent.

As we learned from the charming and sensitive film 40 Days and 40 Nights, Lent is a 40-day fasting period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. (In elementary school, Ash Wednesday was the bomb — it takes a while for everyone to go through not only the Communion line but through the ash-getting line, which ate up a delightfully large portion of the school day. Plus, it was entertaining to see everyone, including teachers, with huge black smears on their foreheads, and convincing girls with bangs who’d inadvertantly wiped their ashes off that they’d pretty much punched a one-way ticket to hell by disrespecting God.) This fasting has popularly devolved into the practice of “giving something up for Lent.” Catholics forgoe an indulgence — be it a food or a hobby or a habit or sex with Shannyn Sossssamynnn– for the whole 40 days.

Some people donate the money they would have spent on the habit to a charity; others just use it as a reminder of the season. (Step 1. Reach for chocolate bar 2. Remember you gave up chocolate for Lent so it’s forbidden. 3. Curse softly to yourself. 4. Think about how He gave up His mortal LIFE for you and your sins, so maybe you can show some respect and lay off the Dove bars for a few weeks, OK?)

My Lenten sacrifice is always food. Last year it was my namesake, the mighty potato: no French fries, no chips, no home fries, and a surprising amount of soups. I did pretty well. The year I gave up soda was a disaster. Diet Pepsi, you are my dark, bubbly master. I literally betrayed Jesus for you. At least Judas got 30 pieces of silver.

This year, I’m kickin’ it pre-Vatican II style, and giving up meat. I am an enthusiastic carnivore, so this should be interesting. The next six (or so) AHH stops will have an emphasis on places that serve things that did not have parents. The forthcoming “C” restaurant has some mean vegetarian paninis, or so I hear.

C is for Clipper City

If you’re looking to entertain out-of-towners, the Saturday tours at Clipper City are a deal at $5. Drink, learn how beer is made, drink more. Support local businesses. Generate neutral topics of conversation for your visiting in-laws. Drink.

Clipper City official site

Note: Clipper City doesn’t count towards the official total, because I visited in 2008.