Travel

Top 10 Food Scenes: not just the usual suspects.

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What defines a great food scene?
Is it a cluster of big name chefs and world-class restaurateurs? A distinct regional cuisine? The diverse offerings of authentic ethnic enclaves?

The definition is changing.
We still have our celebrated food meccas like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco with countless options and Michelin stars, but America’s towns and small cities are proving that you don’t need vast offerings and high-end restaurants. Instead, what they have is communities of concerned farmers and talented food artisans, passionate and discerning food lovers, and a deep-rooted, indigenous food culture that adds authenticity and meaning to the experience.

These communities give rise to clusters of second tier restaurants. The cooking can be just as refined and inventive as anything you’ll find in their better-known, big-city counterparts, but they’re the kind of restaurants that are opened by independent chef-owners rather than investor consortiums. There’s no publicist garnering national press and pushing these restaurants onto top 10 lists. You don’t go there to add a notch to your foodie belt; you go there to eat well.

Sperling’s BestPlaces, a research firm that produces city rankings, crunched the numbers to come up with a list of America’s Top Cities for Foodies
The list ignores the ratings and emphasizes the food culture by counting up specialty food markets, cookware shops, wine bars, craft breweries, and farm markets, and the ratio of local ownership to chain franchised food outletsIt leveled the playing field for small cities by leaning heavily on density data rather than sheer volume. By Sperling’s measure the ten best ‘foodie’ cultures are found in:

1.Santa Rosa/Napa, California
2.Portland, Oregon
3.Burlington, Vermont
4.Portland, Maine
5.San Francisco, California
6.Providence, Rhode Island
7.Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts
8.Seattle, Washington
9.Santa Fe, New Mexico
10.Santa Barbara, California

 

 

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Dining on Mars: The Reviews are In

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A NASA crew of simulated Mars-dwellers returned to Earth last week and they were pretty sick of the food.

This was the second of four planned HI-SEAS missions, an acronym for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. The space agency sent six volunteers to live for four months inside a mock Mars base camp atop the Mauna Loa volcano. It’s an isolated location at an elevation of approximately 8,200 feet above sea level with a Mars-like terrain, less the 3.711 m/s² gravity. The crew spent 120 days inside the 1,000 square foot geodesic dome exiting once each week in simulated spacesuits.

The missions are designed by NASA’s Human Research Program seeking insight into the quality of life issues that will keep astronauts happy and healthy on extended missions in space. Not surprisingly, food is a primary focus of the simulations.

Some surprising ingredients fill the HI-SEAS pantry.
To make the cut, foods need to be compact, shelf-stable, and require minimal water in preparation. Of course there was Tang and the expected space-food pouches of freeze-dried processed meals, but the crew also brought along things like pepperoni, crystallized ginger, dried shitake mushrooms, miso paste, polenta, truffle oil, and anchovies, all in the same form you’d find in an earth-bound kitchen.

Textured vegetable protein loaf again?
The HI-SEAS crews have learned a lot about menu fatigue. Eggs and cheese come in crystal or powdered form, and fruits and vegetables are sliced, diced, and freeze-dried. Most of their protein comes from meat analogs created out of soy, gluten, and multi-purpose textured vegetable protein, with names like chickenish and baconish.

The crews of both missions had a nearly universally complaint: textural monotony.
There are no chips to dip or carrot sticks to munch on, no juicy burgers or spare ribs to gnaw. Frying is forbidden and crumbs are discouraged in the dome where equipment and instruments can become filmed with grease or clogged with debris. Combined with all the preserved and processed ingredients, it adds up to 4 months with no crispy, crunchy, crackly, crustiness.

Food bloggers in space
The crew members of HI-SEAS2 share recipes, food pics, kitchen tours, and more on the HI-SEAS.org website.
The next simulated mission, HI-SEAS3, takes off in October and will run for eight months.

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Pizza-nomics

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There are three prices every true New Yorker tracks: rent, subway fare, and the price of a slice of pizza.
Rents are famously crazy, but pizza and subway rides are stabilized by an economic axiom known as the New York Pizza PrincipleThrough a strange and delicate interplay of metropolitan financial markets, the cost of a subway ride has always run parallel to the price of a slice of pizza.

Comparing apples and oranges seems easy next to pizza and subway rides.
To an outsider, the relationship might seem arbitrary, but not to a New Yorker. The city’s subway system and its pizza are both essential institutions that touch nearly all of New York’s citizens.

This economic law has held with remarkable precision since 1964, when either one could be had for 15 cents.
Price increases have moved in lockstep ever since. The parallel is all the more uncanny when you consider the intervening decades of transportation and street food turbulence. State transit subsidies and deficits have come and gone for the New York City subway system, and pizza parlors have battled low-carb diets, the gluten-free craze, and a food truck invasion. Yet somehow, all the capital costs, union contracts, and passenger miles add up to the ingredient costs of flour, tomato sauce, and mozzarella.

The Pizza Principle suggests that New York City residents should be bracing for a fare hike from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
According to Zagat’s Pizza Week survey, the average regional price of a slice is $2.96 while a single ride on the subway is lagging at just $2.50. Similar pizza price 
inflation has preceded every single subway fare adjustment since these things have been tracked.

New Yorkers looking for a bargain can use Cheazza, an app that hunts down cheap slices around town.

Wherever you are, he number-crunching app Pizza Slice Price lets you compare prices of slices, topping, and whole pies so you can find the best deal. 

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When Food is the Vacation

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Let’s cut to the chase.
Sure, you can sit on a beach or breathe in the clean mountain air. You can tromp through museums and national parks, or get your thrills at a theme park. But you know that what you really look forward to on your vacation is the food.

What if the food is the vacation? 
Food and wine festivals are in season. Late summer and fall are prime time for culinary tourism. You can partake of local delicacies, attend a demonstration or masterclass, or rub shoulders with a celebrity chef. There are farm dinners, winemakers’ dinners, and festivals of food trucks. And it all takes place in the company of like-minded food lovers.

Delicious destinations:
There’s a celebration of Maine lobsterpersimmons in Indiana, Sheboygan bratwurst, and chiles in Santa Fe. Any region, any tastes: the toughest part is choosing. To help you decide:

Food Reference is a comprehensive list of events, expos, agricultural fairs, and food and beverage festivals, searchable by date, nation, or U.S. state. It currently lists 8,400 events in 128 countries.

The Big, World-Wide List of Festivals focuses on beer, wine, and spirits.

Eventbrite.com curates a listing of smaller food-related events like classes, workshops, lectures, tasting, and films, many geared toward food industry professionals.

For stay-cationersLocal Wine Events can find something closer to home.

 

 

 

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Instant Coffee is Still Big Business. Just not here.

 

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[Nescafé ads of the world  l-r:  India, Philippines, United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Turkey]

Speed and convenience rule the day.
We love one-click online shopping, ATMs, and microwave popcorn. We want our videos to stream, our deliveries shipped overnight, and communications capped at 140 characters. But we’re willing to wait for a cup of coffee, because we know it’s worth it.

Instant coffee is still big business, but most of that business has shifted to traditional tea-drinking nations where they don’t really know from coffee.
Only 7% of Americans regularly drink instant coffee; in France it’s 4%, and in Italy it’s a mere 1%. Contrast that with countries like England, India, and China where the vast majority of coffee- as much as 90% in some areas- is made with powders, concentrates, and freeze-dried crumbles reconstituted in boiling water.

The instant coffee strongholds are concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Britain—places with deeply embedded tea cultures. They all have highly developed aesthetics and intricate social structures associated with tea drinking. Standards are exacting and  brewing technique is perfected over a lifetime.

Instant coffee first appeared in these tea cultures when it traveled the globe in the ration packs of US troops during World War Two. It was fairly nasty stuff—bitter and stale and made from cheap, low quality robusta beans rather than the more desirable arabica variety—but what did they know? It was modern and glamorous and exotic, and all you needed was a kettle and a cup. 

Instant coffee never prevailed in the U.S.
We invented it and we foisted it on the rest of the world, but few of us will touch the stuff. Our coffee traditions are deeply resonant—the grinding, the brewing, the taste, and aroma—and can be every bit as ritualized as tea ceremonies are in other countries. We demand speed and convenience from single-serve coffee makers and a Starbucks on every corner, but our connoisseurship has been rising steadily for decades, moving us further from the quality compromise of instant coffee. In other words, we know better. 

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The Curious Popularity of Tomato Juice on Airplanes

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Tomato juice rules the skies.
The terrestrial market is all about orange, apple, and cranberry, but when that beverage cart rolls through the airplane aisle, tomato juice reigns supreme. About a quarter of the passengers on most flights will choose it, and a quarter of them say they never, ever drink it on land.

Over the years there’ve been many attempts to explain this curious phenomenon.
It’s been theorized that airline passengers choose tomato juice for its nutritional profile; it’s more filling than most soft drinks and it’s loaded with vitamin C, giving it a prophylactic effect against the germ-laden recycled air of an airplane cabin. Others hypothesize that the sense of dislocation and limbo of air travel can embolden us to deviate from routine behaviors, or just make us more susceptible to the domino effect when the guy in 12D orders a glass.
Finally, science has given us the answer.

It’s a matter of physics.
Lufthansa Airlines commissioned a study by 
The Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics that revealed the ways in which the sense of taste loses its bearings in an airline cabin. Airplanes deliberately maintain low humidity levels to prevent corrosion in the fuselage, so even before a plane takes off, the the nostrils dry out, impairing the sense of smell. As the plane begins to ascend, the changing air pressure numbs the taste buds, and by the time a cruising altitude is reached, more than a third of them are missing in action. Fruit flavors will taste about the same but salt, sugar, herbs, and acids are all muted.

To most people’s taste, tomato juice improves at higher altitudes.
While still grounded, test subjects in the Lufthansa study overwhelmingly reported undesirable attributes when they tasted tomato juice. ‘Musty’, ‘earthy’, and ‘sour smelling’ were common descriptors. But when altitudes above 10,000 feet were simulated, those same respondents described the same juice as ‘sweet’, ‘refreshing’, and ‘pleasantly fruity in its aroma.’ Ginger ale is another tart beverage that appeals to cotton-mouthed fliers, while cola and lemon-lime soft drinks lose the acid tang that makes them so popular at sea level. Tea suffers most because the low air pressure reduces the boiling point of water and flavors aren’t properly extracted.

See the high altitude effect for yourself. Order a tomato juice the next time you’re strapped in at 30,000 feet and the beverage cart rolls your way. At least until free soft drinks go the way of checked bags, blankets, and lunch trays.

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What You’ll Eat in Sochi

Sochi

 

Forget everything you think you know about Russia.
Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is the most un-Russian of cities.

Sochi is warm; subtropical in fact, with palm trees, exotic flowers, and tea plantations. Sochi is the warmest city to ever host the winter games. Sochi is so warm that organizers began stockpiling snow last year, plowing it up under frozen tarps, and snow-making experts from the world’s top ski resorts have descended on the city for a massive snow-making operation that converts 12,000 gallons of water a minute into snow. More importantly, the climate means that Sochi’s local cuisine doesn’t rely on the smoked meats and cellared root vegetables that are so ubiquitous in the rest of the country. Instead, Sochi’s markets are filled with locally-fished Black Sea flounder, sturgeon, and mussels. Citrus, berries, and tropical fruits grow wild, and local artisans sell their own wine, cheese, and caviar.

The Olympics mark the city’s global debut
In a country that’s known for its dour national character, Sochi seems downright cheerful. The city hopes to use the spotlight to market itself as a carefree playground for an elite, cosmopolitan crowd. It aspires to a St. Tropez or Cannes kind of tourism, calling the region the ‘Russian Riviera,’ and plopping outdoor café tables on every block of sidewalk. There are pricey steakhouses, sushi bars, Italian and French restaurants, and of course Starbucks outlets are everywhere. But the refinement is more of the homegrown variety. There are no Michelin stars, and traditional dishes like kebabs, borscht, and blini tend to be your best bet.

If you’re heading to Sochi (which requires you to disregard the security-related travel alert posted by the U.S. State Department, ignore the god-awful human rights policies of President Putin, and banish the image of the infamous ‘twin toilets’ of the Olympic Village from your mind), you’ll find more than 500 English language listings and reviews for Sochi restaurants on Trip Advisor.

 

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50 States, 50 Hamburgers

americanhamburgerWe’re not just a hamburger nation; we’re a bigger and a better hamburger nation than we were just a few short years ago.

We have burger momentum across the boards.
The old-school, classic burger joints are thriving in small towns and downtowns. At the same time the gourmet burger has found a legitimate place on high-end menus where it’s being made from fresh grinds of prime beef cuts and served on quality breads and buns. They’re being accompanied by a dizzying array of pickles and condiments that are crafted with renewed creativity and attention to detail. There’s even a fast-food burger revival led by chains like  In-N-Out, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Smashburger, The Counter, and Shake Shack, all serving serious but unpretentious burgers.

Tastier than a bald eagle, more beloved than Uncle Sam.
Pizza, tacos, sushi, falafel—they’ve all made a run at the hamburger. But like America itself, the burger is unshakeable. It came to us as an immigrant from Hamburg but quickly learned the language. It’s egalitarian and a little artless, socially mobile and likes to push its way onto foreign shores. The hamburger continually absorbs regional differences and global influences but remains unequivocally, unapologetically American.

The Serious Eats family of websites is never more serious than when they’re discussing burgers. 
There’s lively conversation on Burger Talk, recipes from the Burger Lab, and for the true obsessive connoisseur there’s A Hamburger Today. And now they’ve given us The United States of Burgers, an interactive map of the most iconic burgers and burger restaurants from each of the 50 states.

Delaware has lava rock-grilled burgers from the 1950’s-era Charcoal Pit drive-in; New Mexicans top theirs with roasted green chiles; Iowans eat loose meat, falling somewhere between a hamburger and a sloppy Joe; and New Jersey has its sliders, although Kansas claims White Castle as its own. There are hamburgers that call out for a road trip like Minnesota’s legendary cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucys, and the dry-aged ground beef burgers from New York’s Peter Luger Steakhouse. And there are states we prefer to just drive straight through without stopping like Tennessee where Dyer’s deep fries its hamburgers in cooking oil that they proudly claim has not been changed in over 100 years. Order a cheeseburger and it gets a second, cheese-melting dunk in the century-old grease.

You can let The United States of Burgers be your guide, or design your own burger pilgrimage with help from Burger GPS, a mobile app from hamburger expert George Motz that directs you to all the best hamburgers from coast to coast.

The results from the National Burger Survey show how we really like our burgers.

[image via Zazzle UK]

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Dining Chez Vatican with Pope Francis I

 

  [Pope Francis I commemorative plates via Zazzle]

 

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The new pope has been shaking things up in Rome.
He’s a famously austere man who’s been chosen for a life of pomp, pageantry, gold hats, and tricked out Popemobiles. But that’s just not him. His eating habits make that abundantly clear.

The newly-minted Pope Francis I set the tone in his first official hours. After the papal election he headed back to the conclave housing for a communal meal with the cardinals, despite the fact that the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera depicted the conclave meals (rather unkindly to the nuns from the Sistine Chapel who did the cooking) as “similar to fare served in hospitals.” The paper also reported that all of the other cardinals described the food as “rather forgettable compared to the menus at the restaurants in nearby Rome.” On Vatican moving day, the Pope passed on the grand papal residence on the top floor of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace in favour of a simple, kitchenless two room apartment from which he’ll take his meals in a communal dining room with all the other Vatican residents.

In the kitchen with Francis and Benedict.
Pope Francis stepped into the red shoes of a predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who had made very different dining choices. Benedict not only resided in a palatial papal penthouse apartment, he redid the kitchen with marble countertops and new appliances. Benedict swapped out the Polish nuns who cooked for John Paul II and brought in his own kitchen crew including a pastry chef to satisfy his notorious weakness for tiramisu, strudels, and tarts.

The moderation of Pope Francis distinguishes him from a long line of epicurean popes.
Gelasius I introduced the crepe to France and Clement VI put the “Pape” in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The personal chef to Paul II wrote a cookbook that was the first ever printed on a press, and Pius IV predated TV’s Iron Chef by about 400 years when he orchestrated Vatican food challenges like a 24-course all-veal meal, another with salted fish in every dish, and an entire dinner made of only butter, cheese, and eggs.

Pope Francis is the church’s first Jesuit pontiff, a Catholic order with its own set of dining traditions and table manners. The Jesuits believe that the soul shouldn’t be overly focused on meals because indulgences at the table are a path to other temptations and an abandonment of self control. Meals need to be simple to keep the eater from imagining other sensual delights. The tradition instructs eaters to fill up on bread to avoid the ‘disorder’ that comes from being tempted by other foods.

He’s divinely chosen but still, a pope’s gotta eat. The blog Catholic Cuisine has recipes for every day of the liturgical year including an homage to the cuisine of the pope’s homeland of Argentina.

 

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The Italian Bank that Lends Cash for Cheese

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cheese vault via Credito Emiliano

 

It must be one of those ‘only in Italy’ things.

Here in the U.S. when you take out a car loan the bank keeps the pink slip as collateral; get a mortgage, and it holds on to the deed to your house. Italy’s Credito Emiliano accepts cheese as collateral for loans and to cover interest payments, and locks it away in bank vaults until the loan is repaid.

Of course it’s not just any cheese. The bank only takes Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is king in a country where cheese is revered, and where the cheese making arts are refined with unique varieties that represent every region, city, town, nook, and cranny of the country. It’s one of Italy’s biggest exports, but the industry remains resolutely artisinal. The cheese is made with infinite care by hundreds of small producers who adhere to labor intensive, centuries-old techniques. It’s also a time-consuming process, and that’s where the bank comes in.

Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for two years. A lot of money is tied up in each wheel which contains 550 liters of milk, and this can create cash flow problems for small cheese makers who need to keep buying milk and paying their employees. Credito Emiliano takes the unaged cheese as collateral and provides financing to keep production going. Producers can get 80% of the value of their cheese, and if they default on the loan the bank can sell the cheese and still make a profit.

Credito Emiliano is one of Italy’s largest banks with hundreds of branches and thousands of employees. It’s pretty much like any other bank—except for the cheese vaults and some unusual job descriptions. Bank employees oversee the aging process, turning the 80-pound wheels a few times a week, and a former branch manager wields a little metal hammer and periodically taps each cheese listening for hollow sounds indicating that the wheel has cracks or voids or is a dud that’s gone soft.

Credito Emiliano treats cheese like other banks do gold.
For good reason: the bank holds about 400,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano each with a street value of nearly $1,000. High-tech electronic door locks, motion sensors, security cameras, and armed guards stand watch over the vaults, but that hasn’t deterred bank robbers who’ve targeted them three times over the years. The most recent theft took place in 2009 when the robbers dug a tunnel beneath one of the vaults and made off with 570 cheese wheels.

Like gold, with serial numbers that identify each metal bar, every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano carries an ID code that indicates the dairy source and production date, and when they reach the one year mark, the outer rinds of the partially-aged cheeses are indelibly branded with the EU classification, each with its own registration number. Of course every Italian knows the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and ordinary Parmesan, and even on the black market the thieves had to prove the authenticity of the stolen cheese. Ultimately, the registration numbers were traced back to the bank and the robbers were apprehended.

Once the cheese was safely back in the vault, no one was more relieved than Mr. Bizarri, the former Credito Emilian branch manager who now brandishes a cheese hammer. He spoke for all of us when he said:  “Thank heavens we caught the robbers before they grated it.”

 

 

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The Happiest Place is Also the Most Organic

Bhutanese photo-illustration via The Weekly Standard

Bhutanese photo-illustration via The Weekly Standard

 

The Happiest Place On Earth®
Disney owns the trademark, but the Kingdom of Bhutan has cornered the market for Gross National Happiness. Bhutan is a quirky little nation perched in the Himalayas between India and China with few roads, no railway, and a per capita income of around $1,400. It has the second worst soccer team in the world, beating Montserrat in FIFA’s World Cup match for that distinction; cigarette smoking is a crime; and television has only been broadcast throughout the kingdom since 2006. But they sure are happy.

BhutanmapInstead of the single, economic yardstick of Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan has always tracked its progress with a multidimensional happiness index. It’s only had a constitution since 2008, but as far back as 1729 the national law stated “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.”

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index takes into account all the usual standard-of-living data like literacy rates, life expectancy, employment rates, and housing stock. The index also incorporates holistic factors like quality of meals, social relations, ecological diversity, and individual ties to community and environment. The Bhutanese have decided that this comprehensive definition of happiness will elude them without a national policy of environmentally-sound and sustainable agriculture.

Bhutan is aiming to be the world’s first 100% organic nation.
In 2011, the government implemented policies that will convert all of the nation’s agricultural land into organic farms within 10 years; a goal that’s all the more significant in a country where two-thirds of its citizens are agricultural workers.

Bhutan is already well on its way there. As a poor, less developed country, many of Bhutan’s farmers engage in sustainable practices by default. Even if they can afford modern equipment and materials, the geographic remoteness and lack of transport have kept pesticides and synthetic fertilizers out of their hands. The majority use local water sources and homemade compost, and farm on land that’s untouched by industry, traffic, and other forms of urban blight. The government roadmap to organic conversion is primarily focused on rural education and organic certifications.

Bhutan should be an interesting laboratory for whether a nation can become organic.
And it will be just as interesting to learn if their Gross National Happiness Index trumps our Gross Domestic Product as the true measure of a nation’s well-being.

Read A Short Guide to the Gross National Happiness Index from the Centre for Bhutan Studies.

The nation’s road map to sustainable agriculture is found in The Royal Government of Bhutan’s Economic Development Policy.

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U.S. State Department Recruits Chef-Ambassadors

image via Cutest Food

 

It’s called Gastro-Diplomacy and it’s the latest weapon deployed from the U.S. smart power arsenal.

Food isn’t traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can.
                                                     — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton             

80 chefs have been inducted into the newly-formed American Chef Corps where they’ll serve as resources to the State Department. They can be called on to prepare meals for visiting dignitaries or dispatched around the globe for educational programs and cultural exchanges. The list includes big name working chefs from all over the country plus a smattering of media celebrities from the Food Network and Top Chef franchise.

For god, country, and a snazzy chef jacket
The chefs are unpaid emissaries, volunteering their time and energy to the budget-neutral initiative. Once they complete a ‘posting’ they’re anointed as State Chefs and get the official uniform of a navy jacket embroidered with the American flag and their name in gold. Other Corps costs are covered by corporate sponsors like Lenox China and the Mars candy company.

Winning hearts and minds
Culture has always been a linchpin of our public diplomacy; everything from US. pavilions at World Expos to the old episodes of Mork and Mindy that are running right now on Croatia National Television. Our culture might be our most sustainable weapon in the war on terror in its subtle but wide-ranging ability to communicate our values and shape world opinions.

Is food the jazz of our times?
In the 1950’s, America’s international standing was at a low point similar to today’s. Russia’s Cold War propaganda was winning over our allies, and segregation in the south had further tarnished our image. The State Department decided to shake things up. Rather than shipping off ballet companies and symphony orchestras, a racially blended group of American jazz musicians was sent out into the world as our cultural envoys. Benny Goodman blew his clarinet in Red Square, Dizzy Gillespie played a snake charmer with his trumpet in Pakistan, and Duke Ellington sat and smoked a hookah with the locals in Iraq. Dubbed the Jazz Ambassador Tours, they were a potent symbol of America’s freedoms, and far cooler than Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. The New York Times called the tours our ‘Secret Sonic Weapon.’

Hearts, minds, and now stomachs
This time, food replaces jazz. Of course gastro-diplomacy is nothing new—think of the state dinners the White House has used to welcome foreign dignitaries since the 19th century. From the standpoint of protocol, the dinners demonstrate respect and celebrate the diplomatic ties between nations. Underlying that is an opportunity to connect on a human level; the hope is that it fosters tolerance and understanding that will carry through to the real business of the leader’s visit.

Food is a universal experience. It’s the soul of each nation but it speaks a common language. Even Secretary Clinton, who spurned the image of the chocolate chip cookie-baking First Lady, recognizes the persuasive power of  food to cross cultures and borders, bringing friends and enemies to the table.

Read the U.S. Department of State press release announcing the formation of the American Chef Corps.
Eater shares the first list of chefs that have been invited to join the Corps.

 

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It’s a Hamburger Nation, and We’re Just Living in It

 


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 Hamburger America, the film, the book, the blog, the photo gallery, the app

We’re not just a hamburger nation; we’re a bigger and a better hamburger nation than we were just a few short years ago.

We have burger momentum across the boards.
The old-school, classic burger joints are thriving in small towns and downtowns. At the same time the ‘gourmet’ burger has found a legitimate place on high-end menus where it’s being made from fresh grinds of prime beef cuts and served on quality breads and buns. They’re being accompanied by a dizzying array of pickles and condiments that are crafted with renewed creativity and attention to detail. There’s even a fast-food burger revival led by chains like  In-N-Out, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Smashburger, The Counter, and Shake Shack, all serving serious but unpretentious burgers.

Much of the credit for the better-burger boom goes to George Motz.
He’s not a chef or a butcher or a restaurateur. He isn’t a farmer or a cookbook author. But he’s done more to spread the gospel of the better-burger than all of them combined.

Hamburger America is Motz’s James Beard nominated documentary film that tells the stories of eight unique hamburger restaurants (well, joints) around the country. They’re all real mom-and-pop places that have been around 40 years or more, and the food at each one has nearly as much character as the characters who populate them.

Hamburger America (the book) is a state-by-state guide to the 150 best hamburgers in America. It’s an essential read for burger lovers and seekers, and the pilgrimages it has inspired have raised the profile of dozens of struggling businesses, helping to preserve our hamburger heritage.

Burger Bites is Motz’s web series of short films. Each episode explores a single locale or subject like Kate’s First Burger (That’s right, 27 and she’s never had one, and no, she’s not a vegetarian) and Odd Griddles and Techniques (poached hamburger?!).

Hamburger America (the blog)– further exploits.

Burger GPS –wherever you are, this mobile app will direct you to the best burger.

He’s also busied himself devising hamburger heritage curriculum for colleges and founding wildly successful food film festivals in Chicago and New York.
Next up—Burger Land, a hamburger-focused series being filmed for the Travel Channel.

According to Technomic, 48% of us eat at least one burger a week. Just three years ago, that number was 38%.

You’ll find links to the book, the film, the blog, and more at Hamburger America.
The Burger Land pilot will air on the Travel Channel on September 2 at 7:00 and 7:30.

 

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Rethinking Airplane Food

This fall, Continental joins every other major U.S. airline when it ends free economy-class meals on domestic flights. Like checked luggage and bulkhead seats, in-flight meals join the list of existing amenities that airlines are looking to spin into upgrades. The stuff of jokes probably since the dawn of aviation, few are mourning their passing.

Entrees On Trays

Prison food, hospital food, school cafeterias— has anything good ever been served on a divided tray? In fairness, serving meals at 40,00 feet poses unique challenges of logistics, space, cooking technology, and security. On top of all that, the altitude messes with the body’s sense of taste.

When ‘beef or chicken?’ is a trick question.

The recently published Titanic Awards, a celebration of dubious achievements in travel, identifies the 5 worst airline meals of all time. The current titleholder is Estonian Air’s Baltic herring (we think) with potato salad.

Airline food doesn’t have to suck.

It is a whole different scene at the front of the plane. A seat in the first-class cabin of Singapore Airlines can get you pan-seared scallops and grilled-to-order steak washed down with fine French wines (the airline happens to be the world’s second-best customer of Dom Perignon Champagne). While airlines typically spend about $5.00 for an economy class meal, the cost can soar to over $100 in first class.

Before you book your summer travel, take a look at these online resources to see what you can expect on your tray. Personally, I say the airlines can keep their meals. I’ll pack a sandwich. But how about a little extra legroom?

The Independent Traveler presents a survey of food service on major domestic carriers.

The Diet Detective rates the healthfulness of on-board meals and snacks.

Air Meals has a staggeringly complete photo gallery of airplane food. More than 18,000 photographs depict meals served on 552 airlines around the world. Other galleries on the site are devoted to vintage airline advertisements, crew meals, and in-flight dining scenes on film.


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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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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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How Far Would You Go For a Meal?

A strange little story got picked up recently by the national news agencies:
Man Drives 1,400 Miles for Pizza.
It seems that David Schuler, a resident of  Jackson, Mississippi makes regular pizza runs to Town Spa Pizzeria in his former hometown of  Stoughton, Massachusetts.

Traveling for a special meal is nothing new. The Michelin guidebooks turned it into a provincial French industry nearly a century ago, and today, a third Michelin star is a global event. 100,000 out-of-towners tried to book dinner and a hotel room when that third star was awarded to Noma, a Nordic/Scandinavian restaurant that’s rather obscurely located in a warehouse on Copenhagen’s Greenlandic Trading Square.

The International Culinary Tourism Association defines a destination restaurant as “a restaurant that is so interesting, different, or special that people travel just to eat there.” Usually this means that the food, the service, the decor, the setting—any or all of these factors—are so distinctive, so unique, or so authentic and typical of a place or style, that the restaurant creates a singular culinary experience.

Mr. Schuler’s trip raised eyebrows because Town Spa Pizzeria doesn’t seem to fit the bill as a culinary destination. There are no Zagat ratings or stars, Michelin or otherwise; it doesn’t even make the Globe’s cut for the top 25 pizza’s in the greater Boston area. And let’s not forget that his road trip took him through more than a dozen states, including such pizza strongholds as New York, Philadelphia, and New Haven.

What the culinary tourism professionals don’t understand is that the best food destinations are more than just notable dining experiences. They are great adventures that are etched in our memories—the time zones crossed, the inaccessible location, the sheer audacity of the journey can all punctuate a meal with a piquancy that’s all its own.

By that definition, Town Spa Pizzeria made for a worthy culinary destination for Mr. Schuler.

For the record, he placed a takeout order for 150 frozen, par-baked, vacuum sealed pies, evenly split between cheese, linguica and onion, and pepper and onion.

 

 

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The Middle East Falafel Conflict

image via Falafel Road


The Arab-Israeli conflict is playing out over a pita sandwich.

Does the falafel belong to the Arabs or the Israelis?
This is no ordinary food fight. It might seem like a silly and inconsequential question, but it captures the essence of a conflict that has been one of the most world’s most complex and intractable struggles for nearly a century. Whether it’s the falafel or the West Bank, it boils down to the same issue of the legitimacy of claims, and in the Middle East, both sides take it very seriously.

Here in the U.S., we have a hard time comprehending its significance.
We’ve always been culinary magpies. We’re content with borrowing hamburgers from the Germans and pizza from the Italians, and tossing it all into our great melting pot. Cultural expressions like food take on new meaning when your society is threatened with eradication. To Arabs and Israelis, dominion over the local dish demonstrates a toehold on the land.

In the 1960s, there was a deliberate effort to create a collective Israeli identity along side the nation building campaign. Falafel was an obvious symbol: it’s made from local, desert foods and is a parve dish that fits with kosher laws. It had been eaten for centuries by the Mizrahi, the Middle Eastern Jews who then comprised 70% of Israel’s Jewish population and are still the majority. It quickly became an icon of Israeli culture and the official national dish of the young state.

The problem is that falafel is also a staple of the Arab diet. Israel’s Arab neighbors saw it as another way in which the European-descended Jews appropriated what was theirs. It became part of the wider conflict, finding its way into debates over territory and history.

The debate has spilled over into international courts, with the Lebanese Industrialists Association claiming copyright infringement over falafel recipes. Arts groups like Falafel Road and the theatrical production the Arab-Israeli Cookbook have examined issues of culinary colonialism through culture. And there is an ongoing battle for supremacy in the record books, as national teams compete to fry up the world’s largest chick pea fritter. It’s even crossed oceans to Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue, where a long-established Palestinian falafel stand is facing a challenge from an Israeli-American owned food truck.

At the center of the controversy is the humble falafel, a spicy fried rissole made from mashed chick peas or beans that is the most unlikely of political footballs.

You can see the conflict play out in the West Bank Story, a musical spoof of West Side Story that tells the story of the forbidden love between David, an Israeli soldier, and the Palestinian cashier Fatima, the children of rival falafel stand owners in modern day Israel. It won the 2007 Oscar for best live action short, and is available on Netflix.

Read about McDonald’s failed foray into the falafel : McDonald’s Israel. But is it McKosher?

 

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A Most Unusual Restaurant Map

CLICK !

 

You ate what?! You ate where?!

You know the feeling. Chinese—been there; pizza—done that. The taste buds are feeling a little jaded, the neighborhood spots are old hat. If only there was a restaurant where you could be served by monkey waiters. Or nuns. Or a restaurant with an all-blueberry menu, or one with straw-hatted donkeys wandering between tables waiting for leftovers.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World is here to rescue you from the same old, same old. The map, assembled by an eccentric Russian foodie, is marked with hundreds of little map pins, each with the promise of a unique dining experience. There are rare delicacies, exotic settings, quirky service, and wacky themes.

Restaurants with unusual settings.
You can dine in a quarry or a tree house, underground, or under the sea. There are working prisons, churches, cemeteries, and sewage treatment plants with restaurants open to the public. You can dine at the rim of an active volcano, in a Mediterranean fishing hut, or feast on cabbage soup and pelmeni in Stalin’s bunker.

Restaurants with unusual service.
Yes, there really are monkey waiters at Japan’s Kayabukiya Tavern; they prefer their tips in edamame. At Rome’s L’eau Vive, the serving nuns (who favor the title  ‘Missionary Workers of the Immaculate,’ or  ‘Daughters of the 44th Psalm’) dish up a fine plat du jour—today’s is steak served with an eggplant mousse and potato croquettes—or you can always order from the John Paul II Beatification Menu.

You can find meals delivered by robots, model trains, and catapult (at Bangkok’s Ka-tron Flying Chicken). Child labor laws are skirted at Holland’s Kinderkook Kafé, and good taste goes out the window at Hobbit House and Dwarfs Island (yes, little people do the serving).

Restaurants with unusual food.
There’s plenty of exotica; the bats, snakes, and sheep heads of foreign menus, but the map also points you to the prosaic. In addition to blueberries, you can find menus with nothing but potato dishes, grilled cheese sandwiches, apples, eggs, cheese, or breakfast cereal. For the truly undecided, one Thai restaurants checks your blood type and personality traits and then brings what it thinks is best; or you could try a restaurant where the customers choose each others meals.

There are restaurants where you catch your own fish or cook your own meal; others lend lonely diners a cat or bunny for company. You can eat in a recreated Jewish ghetto, Alice’s Wonderland, a vampire’s lair, or  a hospital room.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World  links to websites, menus, and directions. It’s a work in progress that welcomes your suggestions.

 

 

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Americans Love Ice Cubes. And we’re the only ones.

They do things a little different over there in Europe.
The main course comes before the salad, and they eat cheese for dessert. We’ll grant them a certain logic there. But the ice thing is a mystery.

Nothing refreshes a European like a lukewarm glass of Coca Cola.
We can assume they are refreshed, since that’s the beverage of choice when the thermometer hits 32° (that would be 90° to you and me). Ask for ice and the request is either met with a blank stare or fulfilled with two tiny slivers that dissolve on contact with the tepid beverage.

Here in the land of plenty, we take ice cubes for granted. We expect them in our soft drinks and in every glass of water at every restaurant. Our home refrigerators dispense a continual stream of them, and when there’s a party we buy bags of ice cubes to fill buckets and tubs. There’s an ice machine in the hallway and a bucket in every room of every hotel or motel from coast to coast. Just try and find that in Paris’ George V.

The ice cold war.
Historians, cultural critics, economists, culinarians, and the medical community have all weighed in on European ice avoidance. Theories abound to explain the continent’s cold shoulder:

  • The poor quality of many of Europe’s urban water supplies produces unpalatable cubes.
  • Energy costs are higher.
  • Smaller houses, smaller, kitchens, smaller freezers.
  • Teeth are overly sensitive to cold due to the notoriously inferior dental hygiene of certain nations.

And then there are the explanations for America’s warm embrace:

  • Big cups, loads of ice, free refills—in the U.S. we believe that more, not less, is more!
  • The taste of our inferior whiskeys and other spirits welcomes dilution.
  • Our taste buds lack an appreciation of nuance and subtlety.

Puis-je avoir de la glace s’il vous plaît?
Posso avere un po di ghiaccio per favore?
Могу ли я иметь лед, пожалуйста?
Kann ich etwas Eis bitte?¿Puedo tener un poco de hielo, por favor?
Can I have some ice please?

 

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