Pizza-nomics: Pegging a Subway Ride to the Price of a Slice

$2.50 doesn’t go very far in New York City.
Two things it will buy: a slice of pizza and a ride on the subway.
Through a strange and delicate interplay of markets in New York, the cost of a subway ride has always run parallel to the price of a slice of pizza.

The economic axiom known as the New York Pizza Connection or Pizza Principle was advanced in the early 1980’s. The uncanny parallel was first noticed when the cost of a single ride was being raised to $2.00, the same as the then-prevailing price of a single slice. A look back showed that this economic law had held with remarkable precision since 1964, when both items ran for 15 cents. Price increases have moved in lockstep ever since.

The decades since the discovery have brought plenty of change to transportation and street food. State transit subsidies and deficits have come and gone for the New York City subway system. Pizza parlors have battled invading food trucks and the low-carb craze of the Atkins diet. Yet somehow, all the capital costs, union contracts, and passenger miles add up to flour, tomato sauce and mozzarella.

On the surface, the relationship might seem arbitrary—aren’t pizza and subway rides comparison-defyingly disparate? To a New Yorker, there’s nothing haphazard or esoteric about the connection. The city’s subway system and its pizza are both essential institutions that touch nearly all of New York’s citizens.



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Jell-O Returns

Did you feel that?
It’s the Jell-O groundswell, and I’ll bet you’re sensing it too.

Jell-O is primed for a comeback. It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. Plus, it wiggles.

Jell-O comes with its own mythology.
Prototypically American, for years Jell-O was the official welcoming dish served to immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. It’s been found to have numerous medical applications, as a testing medium for pancreatitis, mimicking brain waves for an EEG, and as an experimental cancer therapy; and by day 3 of the stomach flu, it’s just about the only food you can handle.

Jell-O has even been touched by scandal. In the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the case hinged on a meeting between two communist spies. One spy had stolen atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, and the other was to deliver the secrets into the hands of the Russians. The prosecution alleged that Julius Rosenberg had arranged for a meeting between the pair of spies by tearing a Jell-O box in two and giving a piece separately to each. The theory went that when the spies met up to pass along the stolen secrets, they would  be able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the Jell-O box together. The torn Jell-O box shown in court was seen as a damning piece of physical evidence that led to the Rosenbergs’ controversial convictions and executions. That Jell-O box is now held in the Public Vaults of the National Archives.

A distinguished past and a bright future.
Our infatuation with all things DIY helped kickstart the Jell-O comeback.
The unique properties of Jell-O make it a magnet for tinkerers. Play with the ratios and it can be a liquid, a solid, or something in between. You can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser.

In its gelled form, Jell-O is edible entertainment. Its color and opacity are endlessly variable. It molds into any shape and suspended objects can be layered in, making it a favorite of both holiday hostesses and office pranksters who are endlessly amused by gelatin-encased staplers.

Jell-O is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity. It’s also a remnant of the unpretentious traditions of American cookery. It reminds us that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass was the height of sophisticated dining.

Liz Hickock is an internationally exhibited sculptor and photographer who is currently working in the medium of Jell-O. Best known for her gelatin renderings of urban landscapes, she has transformed the San Francisco skyline, the Arizona desert, and the city of Wilmington into fragile, shimmering mosaics.

In upstate Le Roy, New York, birthplace of Jell-O, the Jell-O Brick Road leads to the Jell-O Gallery. General Foods moved the factory out of state years ago, but the museum still hauls in busloads of tourists drawn to artifacts and exhibits like the evolution of Jell-O packaging and a Jell-O-themed Barbie doll; and a gift shop that carries boxer shorts bearing the Jell-O tagline: Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle.

The motto of My Jello Americans is ‘in order to form a more perfect union of gelatin and alcohol.’ In other words, they blog about jello shots. But that simplification belies the artistry of their creations: intricate, elegant sculptural objets wrought in boozy Jell-O.


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Apple to Apples: Technology vs. Fruit

apple apples01 Apples Apples... Talk About Geek Fruit picture

[Japanese ‘Geek Apple’ image via Weird Asia News]

Comparing a multinational corporation to the fruit of the apple tree is like, well, apples and oranges, but that’s exactly what the business resource MBA Online has done. Their latest infographic is a daffy but surprisingly edifying matchup of the technology giant and its namesake fruit.

Apple, Inc. and apples are more alike than you’d think: they are both wildly popular in the western U.S.; China is the leading producer of both; and of course there are Macintoshes (computers) and McIntoshes (fruit).

Here’s how they stack up:

Apple to ApplesHow do you like them apples?

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Why We Drool

image via Abracadebra

Pavlov’s drooling dog has nothing on us.
Each of us pumps out a liter or two of the stuff daily. Food photography, TV cooking shows, even the mere reading of menu descriptions can get us dribbling. A typical year’s worth of saliva could fill your bathtub a few times over.

Saliva is much more than water. It’s teeming with hormones, proteins, and enzymes that heal wounds, keep our teeth from rotting, and help to control the hordes of unhealthy microbes that find their way into our mouths. It’s essential to our sense of taste, helps us to swallow, and makes food digestible.

Drooling also plays a role in weight loss. It’s part of the body’s automatic appetite response. We salivate at the sight, sound, and especially smell of tempting foods and that causes the body to produce insulin, the hormone that encourages our bodies to store fat and triggers hunger signals from the brain and intestines. Basically, drooling is related to the factors that undermine our resolve to eat healthfully—really, who’s drooling over celery sticks?

Successful dieters seem to be able to rewire the appetite response. Research has shown that people who struggle with their weight drool more than individuals who’ve succeeded on diets. It seems that if a dieter can consistently and repeatedly resist temptations, over time their saliva response will decrease. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows that the toughest part of any diet is just getting started; the drool data tell us that it gets easier if a dieter can push through the early days and reprogram their appetite responses.

It’s not just about food.
Are you drooling over the new iPhone? That’s not just a figure of speech; we really do salivate for material goods. The results from two recent studies published in The Journal of Consumer Research reported increased saliva flow in subjects shown photographs of shiny new sports cars, cashmere sweaters, and piles of money. By contrast, they got dry-mouthed from images of office supplies.

This is all sounding very Pavlovian. Instead of a dog and a bell, we’re drooling reflexively over everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to paper bills with pictures of dead presidents. But we are not simple stimulus-response machines. We are infinitely more complex with active internal lives and the capacity to ignore, resist, choose, and change. We’re not immune to conditioning, but we are free to chart a different course.

Now that we know why we drool, we can use the knowledge to rise above it.



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The Porkapalooza Roadshow is Coming to Your Town

Pignal via Cochon 555

The traveling pig fest rolls on in 2012.
Now in its fourth year, the high-profile touring porcine bacchanalia known as Cochon 555 will travel the country looking for this year’s King or Queen of Pork.

555: 5 chefs, 5 pigs, 5 wines
Cochon 555 holds culinary competitions in 10 cities—NY, SF, Napa, Portland, and the rest of the usual foodie suspects. At each stop, five prominent local chefs are paired with five whole heritage breed pigs and matched with five wines. They’re given a week to prepare a whole hog feast that’s judged by attendees at a public tasting. The 10 regional winners face off in a grand finale when the tour wraps up at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.

The chefs dream up menus utilizing every bit from snout to tail: all manner of charcuterie; pork belly slabs and tenderloin slices; liver-stuffed dumplings and heart-stuffed ravioli; salads of lardo topped with lardons; ribs and chops galore. You’ll drink pork fat digestifs with bacon swizzle sticks, and dessert might bring a piggy popsicle or sweet and crunchy pig ears.

Brady Lowe, Cochon 555’s founder, thought up the pork Olympics as an entertaining way to educate consumers about heritage breeds and the sources of a more natural, sustainable food system. It pits chef against chef, but also breed against breed: the rich marbling of a Berkshire pig against the bacon-friendly Tamworth, the lardy Ass Black Limousin against the beefy Red Wattle; each with its own deeply distinctive flavor and fat distribution. Breed loyalties and passions run so high that a food fight broke out in the aftermath of the Portland round, complete with tasers, contusions, and chef mug shots, when a local hog was slighted.

You can expect plenty of fireworks, culinary amd otherwise, when the tour kicks off in New York later this month.

Cochon 555’s 2012 Schedule 22:
· New York, January 22
· Napa, January 29
· Memphis, February 4
· Portland, March 11
· Boston, March 25
· Miami, April 1
· Washington DC, April 22
· Chicago, April 29
· Los Angeles, May 6
· San Francisco, May 20
·The Grand Cochon, Aspen, June 17

Tickets will be available on the Cochon 555 website.



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The Cheeseburger Footprint: Can you be green and eat fast food?

Nike shoeburger via LOL Gallery

Can you be green and eat fast food? Some fast food chains are better than others, when it comes to their environmental impact, but is a cheeseburger always going to be ethically challenged? We know about the carbon footprint of the greenhouse gases produced through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation—the normal activities of our day-to-day lives. What about our cheeseburger footprint?

Each year, the green-living website Greenopia rates the environmental impact and healthy dining characteristics of popular fast food chains. The rankings are based on factors like sustainable building design, integrity of the supply chain, and participation in recycling and composting programs. We learn that McDonald’s is greener than Burger King, and Subway is doing a better job than Taco Bell. Good to know, yes, but this still doesn’t answer the question, Can you be green and eat fast food?

Can fast food ever be green?
Fast food chains generate tremendous amounts of waste. Recycled or not, no other dining format can touch its levels. And once you peel back the wrappers and packaging, you have the food miles and greenhouse gases, and the salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup of factory farmed, heavily processed foods.

Fast food will ultimately hit the wall when it tries to go green.
We, the customers, are hooked on fast, cheap, and convenient. The fast food giants can improve their use and disposal of packaging materials. They have the clout to push food producers toward more sustainable options that are organic, fairly traded, and additive-free. But the high volume, low cost model will always dictate the terms and impose its own limitations. Processed travels better than fresh, fruit-flavored is cheaper than fruit, and a Big Mac is still going to cost less than a salad. Getting it ‘to go’ will always mean wasteful packaging, and cars will continue to idle in drive-through lanes.

Let’s go back to the original question: Can you be green and eat fast food?
There are plenty of anti-waste crusaders and Slow Food advocates who would answer with an emphatic, unequivocal ‘no;’ that even the greenest of fast food options run counter to their missions, producing more waste and carbon emissions than home cooking served on real dishes. But isn’t that like telling the owner of a Prius that hybrids are pointless, or even counterproductive, because they still burn fossil fuels?

While it’s true that a bicycle is a greener, more ethical option than any car, it obviously doesn’t work for everyone and in all circumstances. As an alternative, a hybrid car is a laudable, pragmatic solution, and even a catalyst for change—the presence of each one on our roads helps promote a worthy message in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, most of us won’t be giving up our quick, inexpensive meals eaten on the fly any more than we will quit driving. So when we opt for fast food, we need to patronize those chains that are making a true effort to minimize their impact on the environment, the ones given a 3- or 4-leaf rating by Greenopia’s fast food ratings.

Choosing to eat even the most ethical, sustainable fast food is an imperfect option in the same way that a Prius is an imperfect vehicle, and the self-righteous among us might challenge the ‘greenness’ of the choice. But it represents distinct, incremental progress and creates public awareness that just might be the catalyst for further change on our way to a greener future.

Just how bad is fast food’s impact on the environment? It’s all broken down for you in the Cheeseburger Footprint.


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Prohibited Pleasures

Did you find any contraband in your Christmas stocking?

Between the Department of Agriculture, The Food and Drug Administration, and the  Customs and Treasury departments, there’s a slew of delicacies that have been banned in various locales. But if your gift exchange is shady enough, you might have scored this holiday season.

Contrary to popular belief, absinthe is legal in the United States. The FDA strictly limits the level of thujone, a toxic substance found in wormwood, one of the spirit’s ingredients. Thujone has long been rumored to cause hallucinations in absinthe drinkers, although this has never been confirmed. The legal version is highly alcoholic (up to 74%) and is usually diluted before drinking.

Since 2005, caviar connoisseurs have been forced to make do without the eggs of the wild beluga sturgeon. Until the dwindling numbers of this species can be revived, caviar lovers have to satisfy themselves with the roe of salmon, trout, and other more plentiful fish. Strictly speaking, these substitutes are not true caviar.

The dried root bark of the sassafras tree has been used for tea, as a fragrance for soap, a painkiller, an insect repellent, and­ a seasoning and thickener for many Creole soups and stews. It’s best known for contributing the characteristic flavor to root beer, although few can remember the taste of true sassafras root beer. A potential carcinogen, its use has been banned for 50 years.

Foie Gras
Celebrated for its luxurious taste and texture; excoriated for the cruelty of force-feeding geese and ducks to enlarge their livers before slaughter. It’s hard to stay neutral on the subject of foie gras. Chicago banned the retail sale of this delicacy in 2006, imposing fines of up to $500 per violations. Since eating foie gras remained legal, restaurateurs skirted the ban by serving the dish under the guise of other menu items, claiming that they were giving away the livers with the purchase of the other dishes. The ineffectual ban was lifted in 2008. California is gearing up to implement its own foie gras ban this year.

Raw Milk/Raw Milk Cheeses
Raw milk proponents tout the superior flavor and nutrition of milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Government agencies worry that bacteria present in unpasteurized milk poses a health threat. Raw milk can not be legally sold in about two dozen states, and is limited to direct farm sales in a few others. A few enterprising farmers satisfy raw milk demand by selling ‘herd shares’– customers purchase a share in a cow that entitles them to a portion of its milk.

Throughout the US, unpasteurized cheeses can only be legally sold when they have been aged at least 60 days– the period deemed necessary to kill off potentially harmful bacteria in raw dairy products. True cheese connoisseurs feel that we are missing out on the distinct and extraordinary pleasures of young cheeses, such as those found in European countries where the requirement is a 30-day waiting period.

Here are some resources to help you locate and legally transport some of these forbidden foods:

Keep up with the latest legislation with the Food Law Blog.

Think twice before packing that prosciutto– failure to declare food products at border crossings can result in fines as high as $10,000. Consult the US Customs website to learn what you can lawfully transport.

Read The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit (available through for a chef’s tour of prohibited pleasures.


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Make Plans, Not Resolutions

[image via]

New Years resolutions are a sucker’s bet.
We all know it. Even so, there’s something about the next year’s calendar with all its small, clean squares so full of potential.
Resist the urge.
Make plans, not resolutions. Lay foundations instead of boundaries.

DON’T resolve to eat out less often. INSTEAD get your house in good cooking order.
Keep a well stocked pantry, have your knives professionally sharpened, buy lots and lots of condiments, play with your forgotten utensils and appliances (have you ever used the sausage attachment that came with your food processor?).

DON’T resolve to limit your fats. INSTEAD plan to savor every bite.
Experiment with nut oils and buy different grades of olive oil— use the good stuff when it counts. Eat really fresh butter from grass-fed cows. Same for cheese. And ice cream.

DON’T give up meat. INSTEAD plan to broaden your culinary horizens.
Beans, nuts, grains, and even green vegetables contain protein. Did you know that there are 40,000 different varieties of rice? That should keep you busy for a while.

DON’T give up refined foods. INSTEAD plan to make informed decisions.
Know your food—where it’s from and what’s been done to it.

If you must make a New Years resolution, make it this one:
This year, I resolve to enjoy my relationship with food.
Make 2012 a celebration, not a challenge.


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Good Luck/Bad Luck Foods for the New Year


If Friday the 13th is unlucky, then 2012 should be a real doozy.
We have 3 of them coming up on next year’s calendar. That’s the greatest number that can possibly fall within 12 months.

This seems like a good time to try some of the good luck foods from New Year’s traditions around the world.

  • Beans, peas, and lentils
    They are symbolic of prosperity in many cultures because they’re thought to resemble coins when they’ve been cooked. Legumes are often paired with pork, which has its own lucky associations, so the combination makes for a most propitious meal. Italians eat sausages and green lentils just after midnight. Germans usually eat their New Years legumes in lentil or split pea soup with sausage. Hoppin’ John, a dish of black-eyed peas cooked with ham, is a tradition in the American south.
  • Noodles
    Long noodles like are eaten as a symbol of a long life.
  • Round or ring-shaped foods
    These represent a year coming full circle. Mexicans eat the ring-shaped rosca de reyes cake, the Dutch eat the donut-like ollie bollen, and in Greece, families bake a lucky coin into the round vassilopita cake.
  • Fish
    Fish makes frequent appearances on New Years tables. There’s herring at midnight in Poland, boiled cod in Denmark, and the Germans not only feast on carp, they also put fish scales in their wallets for a successful new year. In Japan, herring roe is consumed for fertility, shrimp for long life, and dried sardines for a good harvest.
  • Grapes
    In Spain it’s traditional to eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each month of the coming year. The taste-sweet or sour-gives a clue to the character of each of the coming months. Spanish state television broadcasts the New Years chimes and nearly 4 million pounds of grapes (in little 12 grape packets) are sold in the last week of the year.

What Not to Eat

  • Lobster
    Lobster is considered a poor choice for a new years meal because lobsters move backwards and could lead to setbacks, regrets, and dwelling on the past.
  • Chicken
    You don’t want your good luck to fly away.
  • White foods
    The Chinese avoid eggs, cheese, and tofu, because white is the color of death.

And never clean your plate. A little leftover food will usher in a year of plenty and guarantee a stocked pantry.



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Small Plates: Love ‘Em or Loathe ‘Em

image via Little Red Book

Appetizers are the new entree.
Is there any bigger dining trend than small plates? It’s been gaining momentum for about a decade, but in 2011 there was a quantum leap in popularity. Restaurants everywhere are encouraging us to graze our way through dinner by putting together a shareable meal of small courses in large numbers.

Eveyone has a theory.
Some say that small plates are like snippets of meals, reflecting the MTV fast-cuts and twitter-length of our attention spans. Or that it’s driven by the economy; it’s the down marketing of our plates after the sky-high vertical towers of food we saw in the dot-com boom. It could be moderation driven by health and diet issues, or a rejection of the formality and structure of traditional dining. Or maybe plate size is just fashion, like the rise and fall of hemlines.

We love small plates.
Any dining veteran can tell you that appetizers are the best part of the meal, and the small plates format gives you a veritable smörgåsbord of appetizers. The best small plates are not just scaled-down entrées; the flavors are bigger, more intense. You can take more risks with them because the commitment—of dollars, appetite, and calories—is smaller.

A meal composed of small plates has its own rhythm. It doesn’t have to fit the traditional progression of courses so it always fits into your day. You can get the variety of a tasting menu, with less expense and formality, or have fries and dessert- just fries and dessert- and no one even raises their eyebrows.

We loathe small plates.
What was wrong with full-sized plates of properly paired food? Small plates bring a clash of flavors that never quite add up to the balance of a well-composed meal. And with per plate prices that fall somewhere between appetizers and entrees, it can quickly add up to a very uneconomical way to dine.

Sharing brings its own headaches. You tussle with the number and assortment of dishes, sidestepping allergies, aversions, and dietary restrictions. Plates bring supremely unsplittable portions like a single duck leg or 3 scallops for 4 people, and you never get more than a few precious bites, no matter how much you love a single dish.

Small plates have their place.
We don’t just eat in restaurants on special occasions like previous generations of diners. The unstructured small plates format gives us versatility, expanding and contracting to fit a range of appetites and social occasions. But we are the nation that invented super-sized meals, the unlimited salad bar, and the bottomless cup of coffee. Small plates are a refreshing alternative, but not a monumental shift in the way we eat.



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How to be a Food Geek

[image courtesy of Consumer Eroski]

Food Geeks should not be confused with Foodies.
Foodies talk about past and future meals while eating the current one. They know the pedigree of the eggs they eat and will carry heirloom tomatoes like a newborn baby. They can be profoundly interested and even technically proficient in one or many aspects of food (cheese, restaurants, cooking, wines), but the focus is squarely on the pleasures of the table: the food they eat, the people they share it with, the memories they create and the ones they recall.

Food Geeks are an entirely different animal.
They not only admire a crusty baguette, they can tell you if it’s due to enzymatic browning or lipid oxidation. They measure ingredients in grams and will serve caviar with white chocolate knowing that they match on a molecular level. Food Geeks appreciate the art of cooking while they embrace the science.

In the world of geeky niches, Food Geeks are a little more socially-acceptable than Gamers and Gadget Nerds but not as cool as Music or Movie Geeks. At least according to Gizmodo’s Socially-Acceptable Geek Subgenre Scale, Food Geeks have a middling rank between top-of-the-heap Finance Geeks (Math Nerds turned cool… who’s getting a wedgie after calculus class now,  jocks?) and the bottom-dwelling human/animal fantasy-hybridists known as Furries.

Food Geek Essentials
Food Geeks are well-represented online (no big surprise).

  • The patron saint of Food Geeks is Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, a classic tome of gastronomic science first published in 1984. His blog, the Curious Cook is a must-read for any self-respecting geek.
  • Another essential bookmark is the molecular gastronomy blog Khymos. The blog is the creation of a Norwegian organometallic chemist (a fairly typical career among Food Geeks); don’t ask about the blog’s name unless you want a lesson in Greek and Arabic etymology (also fairly typical).
  • Ideas in Food showcases playful experimentation with food, reflecting the culinary rather than scientific backgrounds of its bloggers.
  • When Food Geeks just wanna have fun, they play a round of TGRWT. Short for They Go Really Well Together, the players start with the hypothesis  that if two foods have one or more key odorants in common, they might pair well in a dish.
  • Show some geek pride with a food-themed t-shirt.
  • Lifehacker has instructions for the Top 10 DIY Food Geek Projects.

You can mingle with the Food Geeks through the Facebook page and Twitter feed of And keep an eye out for TGRWT— the results from the last round should be posted any day now.



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Kim Jong Il: You Are What You Eat

Kim Jong Il

We don’t know the contents of his nuclear arsenal, but we have a pretty good idea of what was inside Kim Jong Il’s refrigerator.

In 2003, a Japanese sushi chef bearing the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto penned a memoir, I Was Kim Jong-il’s Cook. Writing from Japan, where he lives in hiding for fear of being targeted by North Korean agents, Fujimoto detailed his 13 years as the dictator’s personal chef. The book, published in Korean and Japanese, draws a portrait of Kim and his family living a pampered, decadent existence, treating North Korea like their personal plantation and feasting on the world’s delicacies while millions of citizens starved.

Kim was slow to admit foreign food donations to ease his nation’s constant famines, but regularly sent Fujimoto on international missions to satisfy his own appetites. A typical shopping trip included northwestern China for melons and grapes; Thailand and Malaysia for durians, papayas, and mangoes; Czechoslovakia for beer; pork from Denmark; Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar; Japan for seafood and rice cakes; plus the occasional jaunt to Beijing for a sack of McDonald’s hamburgers.

Kim fancied himself to be quite the epicure, although at 5’2″(not counting the 4-inch lifts in his shoes) and 196 pounds he was clearly as much glutton as gourmet. He collected thousands of cookbooks, was reputedly the world’s largest customer of Hennessey cognac, and issued exacting orders for food preparation. Before cooking, the kitchen staff had to scrutinize each grain of rice and discard any blemished by irregularities of shape or color. The rice had to be cooked in spring water from Kim’s private source and steamed over a wood fire using trees cut from a single peak along the Chinese border.

Japanese sushi was a particular favorite of Kim’s, which explains Fujimoto’s presence in his entourage. He claimed a palate so discerning that he could detect a variation of just a few grams of seasoning in the sushi’s rice, and liked fish to be so fresh that it would twitch on his plate. Kim’s sushi obsession ultimately provided an escape route for Fujimoto. In 2001, growing fearful of the paranoid and oppressive regime, the chef showed Kim an episode of the Japanese cooking show Which Dish?, tempting him with a special sea urchin dish. He offered to travel to the Japanese island of Hokkaido to shop for sea urchins, and once there he sought asylum from Japanese authorities.

Fujimoto’s memoir has value beyond the voyeuristic appeal of his tales of excess. He was one of the few foreigners to document life inside the closed, secretive North Korean society, and analysts from international intelligence agencies have mined the details for insight into Kim Jong Il’s nature. Jerrold M. Post, the former director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, built a profile of Kim based largely on information about his eating habits. He diagnosed Kim as a ‘malign narcissist’ convinced of his “special sense of self so that there is no contradiction between the exquisite care that goes into his own cuisine and the fact that half his population is starving.”

In the late 1990s, while Kim indulged shamelessly in the world’s finest food and wines, the state’s propaganda machinery was advising famine stricken North Koreans to dine on foraged grasses and ground tree bark, and its police were sweeping through markets, confiscating smuggled food imports as symbols of ‘rotten bourgeois ideology.’  There were an estimated 2 million deaths by starvation, and 45% of North Korea’s young children were permanently stunted by malnutrition. Fujimoto’s memoir is not a portrait of a world-class epicure, but of a world-class sociopath.



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The Restaurant is Cursed

A priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a burger joint.
No joke, they were there to remove a curse.

Holy water was sprinkled, the four corners received a Buddhist blessing, and a mezuzah was installed in the doorway. The new tenant, New York Burger Company, wasn’t taking any chances; the location had been named to Eater NY’s list of New York’s Cursed Restaurant Spaces.

Is there such a thing as a cursed location?
You know the one. Every other business on the block seems to be doing just fine, but there’s one restaurant site that constantly and inexplicably houses doomed restaurants. It has the same foot traffic and parking as its neighbors, no ancient burial ground underfoot, but it has a revolving door of struggling owners and concepts. When New York Burger Company took over the spot at 470 West 23d Street—an attractive corner on a fashionable block in Chelsea—it had been home to an Italian restaurant, a neighborhood bar and grill, a Latin lounge, and a French bistro, all in the span of seven years.

Of course restaurants are a notoriously risky business. Recent studies peg the first-year failure rate at 30%, with another 30% closing within three years. Most fail for obvious reasons: bad food, bad, service bad management; and if there is a lurking malign influence, it’s like cockroaches in the kitchen–no one in the industry wants to talk about it. Leasing agents will pooh-pooh the notion, and restaurant owners speak only in whispers for fear of infecting their staff with superstitions.

Customers and reviewers are another story. Familiarity with a location’s history can give new ventures guilt by association; diners will subconsciously scrutinize the new restaurant for signs of impending doom, their appraisals are more forensic, they sniff the air for the whiff of failure.

New York Burger Company seemed to be beating the odds. Business was booming. AOL Cityguide had named it the city’s best burger, GQ Magazine talked about its onion rings in an article on The Twenty Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die. Last December, one of the partners of New York Burger Company was confident enough to proclaim the jinx to be ‘officially dead’.

Despite the good press and multi-denominational blessings, New York Burger Company currently awaits the court appointment of a custodian to manage its troubled finances while the two co-owners sue and counter-sue each other. One partner has been evicted from her home office, the other has been charged with financial mismanagement, staff has been dismissed, locks have been changed.

Cursed? Who knows. But you’d be crazy to try another restaurant in that location.

A psychic-medium took a tour of the cursed spaces from NY Eater’s list. Check out her readings of the spaces on Metromix.


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Food-centric Films


Among everyone’s favorite food scenes, clockwise from top:Julie and Julia; When Harry Met Sally; Ratatouille; Annie Hall; Chocolat; Babette’s Feast.

There’s the moment in Big Night when the two chef brothers unveil their prize dish. Desperate to save their struggling restaurant, they are banking everything on the success of one special meal, and have cooked their hearts out creating a timpano, an elaborate layered pasta dish baked inside a domed pastry crust. With much fanfare, the siblings carefully lift the dish to reveal the timpano. At that moment, there’s an audible exhale from the audience, a kind of half sigh/half moan of relief, pleasure, and envy.

Food on film can have that effect.
Sex and violence are said to be the two vicarious pleasures that drive most films, but food is a close third. It often appears as G-rated erotica, lovingly-lit with lingering ‘money shots.’ It’s idealized fantasy, but unlike the other larger-than-life stars on the screen, it’s one that we can attain in our real lives.

Food is also used as a narrative tool in film.
The cinematic exposition of a relationship to diet and food preparation can cut right to the heart of a character. We see commitment and sacrifice when we watch Rocky Balboa gulp down raw eggs, and the ice water flowing through the characters’ veins in Goodfella’s, when they horrifically brutalize Billy Batts and then swing by Mama’s house for a late night supper. Or the bag lunches of the Breakfast Club— the privileged girl’s bento box, the soup thermos and crustless sandwich of the nerd, the Pixy Stix and Cap’n Crunch sandwich of the oddball—that tell us everything we need to know about the characters’ home life.

The pampered life defined by agonizing social restraint comes through in a single shot of the elaborately choreographed banquets at the heart of The Age of Innocence. The food fight in Animal House is an exuberant juvenile protest against everything and nothing. Babette’s Feast celebrates the need in all of us to nourish our souls.
Whenever food makes it way on to the screen, it tells us something about our existence.

Relive your favorite iconic food scenes with Feast, a video essay that was screened by the Museum of the Moving Image.

Time Out New York magazine recently compiled its list of the the 50 best food-on-film moments of all time, complete with links to the film clips.

Babette’s Feast can be your feast. The recipes in Cooking with the Movies: Meals on Reels recreate classic cinematic meals.
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Your Plate is Making You Fat

image via Beard Crumbs

It turns out that portion control is just an optical illusion.
The size and shape, even the color of dishes and glasses have a huge effect on how much we eat and drink. We pour larger drinks into short, wide glasses, and put big servings on big plates. When the food coordinates with the plate’s color, we load up even more.

Did you think it was your appetite and willpower determining choices?
We face an average of 226 food-related choices in a day, but we exercise conscious decision-making in only around 15 of them. The other 200 or so daily food choices are essentially mindless decisions. You’ll finish any sized hamburger just because you always eat a whole hamburger, grab a doughnut because someone brought a box into the office, and help yourself to seconds because the bowl is right there.

Size matters.
Fifty years ago, the standard dinner plate had a 9 inch diameter. Today, it’s most likely to be 12 inches, and we tend to calibrate our appetites to what’s on the plate instead of what our bodies tell us.

Color matters too.
Portions appear smaller when the food blends with the plate color. You’re likely to eat more spaghetti with marinara sauce on a red plate and cornbread on a yellow one. White and blue plates tend to provide the best contrast for portion control; researchers say red and gold are the worst. Even the tablecloth color can shape portion perceptions.

It’s impossible to avoid the environmental cues that encourage us to eat, but recognizing them is a step in the right direction.



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2011 Food App Award Winners

image via National Post

Talk about understatement.
Do you cook? There are apps to plan a menu, find a recipe, convert to metric, shop ethically, analyze nutritional content, pair a wine, and donate your leftovers to a soup kitchen. Maybe you feel  like eating out. You can get cuisine- and location-based restaurant suggestions, read reviews, book a table, preview the daily specials, map your route, figure the tip, and calculate the excercycle mileage that will burn off the meal.
There are food apps for travelers, for fans of street food, and apps that will let you know when to take a cake out of the oven. They stop short of washing the dishes for you, but there is a house cleaning hypnosis app that promises dishwashing enjoyment through the power of suggestion.

The food app category has grown so large that it has its own, dedicated awards. Toque, the online magazine of food journalism, has just announced the first annual Food App Award winners. Entries came from multinational media giants, independent web designers, and everything in between. They were judged on creativity, technical excellence, and the ability to solve a problem (that we often didn’t even know we had until the app came along).

Here are this year’s winners:



Posted in appliances + gadgets, phone applications | Tagged , | 2 Comments

American is the New Ethnic

photo via Meat America

There’s a culinary frontier right in our own backyard.

We spent the past few decades mastering the fine points of regional cooking from all around the globe— we know our Szechaun from our Cantonese, our Burgandy from our Provençal, and can spot a Neapolitan pizza at fifty paces. It’s time to come home.

America’s regional cuisines are getting their due. Finally.
For years, American food was ridiculed abroad and ignored at home. American food was what we ate in diners and fast food joints; fine dining was synonymous with French cuisine and Continental restaurants.

Not anymore. Seriously credentialed and pedigreed chefs are exploring the foods of every region and sub-region from every corner of the U.S. They’re treating our regional dishes with the respect previously reserved for the imports, elevating both the cuisine’s stature and our pleasure.

Chefs are combining contemporary aesthetics and local ingredients into modern incarnations of regional cuisines. They’re exploring indigenous flavors and products from the well-known regional cuisines of  New England, New Orleans, and the Southwest; fast-rising regions like the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Northwest; and newly emerging sub-regions like Hawaii and Florida’s Panhandle.

Of course we’re still a big, old melting pot. We have a vast and complex culinary heritage that continues to be renewed and enriched as new ethnic groups and generations add to the mix.

Regional American food is constantly evolving and will never truly reach its fullest enunciation. Some are troubled by the notion of a cuisine that defies a tidy definition, wondering if there is a true American cuisine. But that’s just culinary semantics. American food is in a constant cycle of rediscovery and renewal, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

Open Table has just released its 2011 Diners’ Choice Awards. They culled over 10 million individual reviews to name the top 100 restaurants serving American cusine.

The all-American food marketplace Foodzie offers carefully curated tasting boxes that let you choose representative regional products from small-batch producers.



Posted in cook + dine, local foods | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Mmm…mmm…Maybe not so good

image via Brainless Tales

You might want to lay off the canned soup.
I really hate to ask you now, it being soup season and all, but the latest report is a real shocker.

A new Harvard study, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that just a single bowl of canned soup at lunch for just five days increased BPA levels in urine by an astounding 1,200%. The researchers were shocked by the results, one calling it “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

This was the first study to measure BPA amounts that are ingested when we eat food that comes directly out of a can, but the health risks have been the subject of hundreds of studies. There’s a growing body of research linking BPA to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. The FDA will be issuing a decision on BPA use by the end of March 2012, but Consumers Union, the group that publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, has already weighed in with its recommendations, and it found BPA levels exceeding 100 times the recommended daily limit in some soups (worst of all is Progresso Vegetable Soup at 116 times the limit).

Waiter, there’s a toxin in my soup!
Take a look inside any can and you’ll see a thin plastic film separating your food from the metal. That’s where the BPA is coming from. Manufacturers have been lining cans with plastic since the 1950s to protect the food from botulism and other bacteria that can grow if the can is damaged or corroded, and there’s no doubt that lives have been saved.

Plastic-lined cans have been so effective at preventing food-borne illnesses that it’s next to impossible to find a BPA-free can of soup. Nearly all aluminum soup cans, even organic brands, contain BPA in the linings. But you can keep soup on the menu: opt for dry soup mixes or prepared soups packaged in glass or cartons, or best of all, make your own.

BPA is of particular concern for young children and women of childbearing age.
The Breast Cancer Fund, which is leading the charge to expose environment causes of cancer, has specific recommendations for reducing the risk to those vulnerable groups.

BPA isn’t the only one.
Experts from a variety of food-related fields offer insider recommendations of foods to avoid. These are foods that are all USDA or FDA approved, but those in the know won’t eat them, and they won’t feed them to their own families.
Read Gigabiting’s 7 Foods the Experts Won’t Touch.



Posted in food knowledge, food policy, health + diet | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Credit Card Fees on the Tip: Who Pays?

Did you know that servers cover the tip’s fees on credit cards?

According to the federal fair labor standards, restaurant owners can (and they do) deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up.

Take a restaurant chain like Olive Garden. The average location brings in nearly $5 million in revenue and there are 750 of them. Figuring tips as 15% of sales and about three-quarters of them going on credit cards, the fees collected on tips would be in the neighborhood of $14,000 for each restaurant and more than $10 million for the entire chain.

For a full-time waiter, the fee give-back adds up to an amount approaching $1,000 annually. That’s a lot of lost income to a predominantly minimum wage workforce, and let’s not forget that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is a staggeringly stingy $2.13 an hour.

This is not meant to be an indictment of restaurant owners. They are simply passing the fees along to the credit card companies, and themselves feel the squeeze from credit card fees cutting into their slim margins. Still, the practice is controversial. Many in the industry view the credit card fees as any other cost of doing business, like the electric bill or linen rental, and believe that like those costs, should be borne by the owner. To date, the labor departments in 15 states have banned the practice.

According to the National Restaurant Association, diners now use plastic 80% of the time at fine dining establishments, 60% of the time at casual restaurants, and even 25% of the time for fast food. That tip you thought was 15%— it’s not.


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Pork-Flavored Poultry: The Kosher Breakthrough of the Millenium

image via Bang it Out

Kosher Pork.
It’s like the Jewish version of the Holy Grail.

Jews worldwide are bound together by the ancient dietary laws. Whether they choose assimilation through bacon or uphold traditional values, they share a common dream: guilt-free charcuterie, BLTs without ambivalence, sausage links with a clear conscience; a truly porky meal that adheres to the rules of kashrut.

The pork-flavored goose is here.
Like penicillin, microwave ovens, and so many of our greatest discoveries, the pork-flavored goose is a lucky accident. Spanish farmers stumbled upon the distinctive goose flesh while experimenting with natural, free-range feedings. They immediately thought of the sales potential in a Jewish market, and sent off samples to Israel’s chief rabbi. While the rabbi was wholly unqualified to comment on the meat’s porkiness, he found some non-Kosher tasters who confirmed the discovery of a true culinary double.

While Israeli newspapers trumpeted the discovery with headlines like ‘Duck, Duck, Pork?’, ‘Hamming it Up’, and ‘Rabbi Brings Home the Bacon,’ Israel’s rabbinic councils deliberated, and ultimately determined that there is no Jewish injunction against eating goose, whatever it tastes like, as long as it’s slaughtered according to Jewish ritual and is approved by the rabbinical kosher authorities.

The Jerusalem Post said it best:

If the dream of tasting pork – that most forbidden of forbidden foods – has always been yours, then dream no longer. And if you thought the idea of a rabbinically approved slice of swine was less likely than a flying pig, then think again.



Posted in food business, funny | Tagged | 2 Comments
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