Sky Full of Bacon

I wrote about Old Town Social and its made-in-house charcuterie a year ago, so I was excited to have a chance to shoot a Key Ingredient there and finally see its fully certified, HACCP-compliant, all-T’s-crossed-with-the-health-department curing room. You can see it at the start of the video:

Okay, so it just looks like any other walk-in fridge, not the gleaming glass Bond-villain vault of meat I imagined. But if there was nothing extraordinary in how it looked, how it smelled was another matter entirely, and those deep, dripping-fat, curing-meat, phantasmagorically primal smells had me convinced that I needed to get back to the restaurant, soon.

Jared explained to us that he had made a number of improvements to the way he was making his charcuterie and that he felt it had come a lot closer to his mostly Italian ideal in the past year. The first issue, he said, is that he feels American charcuterie is too tart, has too much of a lactic acid bite to it; this, he believes, is because of the most commonly used bacterial cultures in the curing process. It’s a bit like how so many American craft beers taste heavily of the same few commercial hop varieties and thus tend to taste a bit alike. So he switched to a different strain of bacteria to use in the curing process and felt like it had produced a mellower, subtler meat flavor in the end result.

Another change he had made had to do with the culture on the outside of the meat— the one that produces the snow-white mold on the skin of certain sausages. This too has a subtle but definite effect on flavor that is responsible, in some mysterious way, for the authentic Italian taste. After a trip to Italy last year he placed an imported sausage in the curing room and its white mold seemed to spread quickly throughout the sausages hanging in there. This, too, he believes has contributed to a flavor improvement closer to his Italian ideal.

My friend Michael Morowitz and I volunteered to help test these theories by eating mass quantities of Jared’s charcuterie last week:

Although my memories of what I ate a year ago are only so clear, I did feel like compared to the general run of in-house charcuterie in Chicago, Jared’s seemed more authentically Italian overall, subtler and more about meat than about the funk of salt and curing. Several were especially outstanding, such as the pressed sopressata above at right, and the toscano with big cubes of fat next to it; we also very much liked the mortadella, which Michael said reminded him of what he and his wife ate on a train-compartment picnic leaving Bologna, and a smoked sopressata, which was an off-menu mistake— a batch of sopressata was made with the wrong curing powder (No. 1 instead of No. 2, which has both nitrates and nitrites for a more effective longer cure). Frankly, it probably would have been fine, but to ensure its safety, they smoked it a bit. Not heavy with smoke, it nevertheless gained a lot of character from the light kiss of smoky flavor.

He’s also just started work on his second restaurant in Chicago (his company has another in San Diego) which will be in the former Marché space on Randolph. Although Old Town Social’s meats will doubtless make an appearance over there, this time the emphasis will be on a broader range of Italian food, with a similarly artisanal approach taken to pasta. He spoke about how flour is one of the stumbling blocks for locavore cooking— you can make all the stuff that goes on the pizza or pasta locally, but there’s no local mill for locally-grown wheat at the specifications a restaurant requires for its range of dishes; you have to buy the same national or imported products as everyone else. So they’re working on building an in-house mill which will allow them to make everything down to “00” pizza flour in house. It sounds as if it could be a big step up for the local Italian food scene; watch for it somewhere around fall to the holidays.

Saying Jared is enthusiastic about his charcuterie hardly covers it; his enthusiasm spreads as quickly as his authentic Italian white mold, and if you’re an amateur charcuterist yourself, it is well worth not only trying his exceptional stuff but finding the opportunity to talk about it with him. (I suggest quieter nights early in the week at this popular Friday/Saturday night drinking spot.) He’s happy to talk shop and share what he knows (we saw a prosciutto ham in his walk-in that he’s hanging for Chris Pandel of The Bristol) and even to share some of the secrets of his products— he’s making enough of the small sopressata to be selling it from the restaurant on the side, and will happily encourage you to buy one and hang it with your own cured meats to catch his Italian mold. Good guy, good meats.

Exciting news, that Julia Thiel and I have been nominated for a James Beard Memorial Foundation Award in the multimedia category for the Key Ingredient series, which she writes and I do the videos for. Thanks to Julia, tireless food editor Kate Schmidt, Kiki Yablon, Whet Moser, Mike Sula, Geoff Dougherty, John Dunleavy, and Alex Parker, who are the other Readerites past and present I can remember who contributed to getting the series launched, and to all the chefs (19 so far) who have participated. (Sorry if I forgot somebody else.) Congrats also to Monica Eng for her nomination for her terrific work on school lunches at the Chi-Trib.

If you’d like to see the nominated articles/videos for yourself, they are the first three: Grant Achatz with Kluwak Kupas, Curtis Duffy with Chinese black beans, and John DesRosiers with geraniums. If you come here just because you want to find out what Sky Full of Bacon is, click on the “Video Podcasts” category at right to see examples of the main video podcast series here.

The Family Farmed Expo is a kind of trade show for better farming and eating. I came mainly for this panel discussion, which was like a Sky Full of Bacon reunion— since it starred Paul Kahan of Blackbird et al. (There Will Be Pork), Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia (Prosciutto di Iowa), Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder (A Head’s Tale) and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats in Wisconsin (see this post), moderated by Ellen Malloy (see here). They had a lot of interesting things to say about the meat system and how and why they’re doing things to encourage better meat production and filling in the distribution gap to make things available to the consumer. One point they all seemed to agree on: eat less of chewier, but more flavorful, cuts of meat and you’ll not only have better tasting meat and be healthier, but be more respectful toward the animal and the environment.

“I was hoping I could get through this whole thing without having to speak,” Paul Kahan began his first comment. (He’s no fan of public appearances; when I shot the video three years ago, he talked about how he’d turned Iron Chef down, and later he told me that he also turned down being on Key Ingredient. We’ve arrived!) Anyway, what he did have to say was one of the most interesting bits of new news for me, which is, that the new butcher shop they’re opening next to the Publican is really designed to increase the number of new farmers selling naturally-raised meat in the city to the restaurant trade, by creating a channel of distribution to the public that also will showcase them for the restaurant community and help them grow a customer base among chefs quickly, making it more obviously attractive for them to target this market. Durand said that one problem for farmers is that restaurants will like their stuff so much they’ll overwhelm a single farmer (as was talked about in my video with Mark Mendez and Dave Cleverdon), and this is Kahan’s solution to broaden the pool of farmers selling quality meats beyond the few names like Dietzler or Slagel every restaurant-goer in Chicago has come to know.

Afterwards several of us (if I may use “us” presumptuously) went to the Publican for a party-slash-video shoot. Gastrotommy, a site which seeks out high quality food and wine deals and offers them to its members, and features video interviews about both the products and the world of food and wine more generally, was shooting Herb Eckhouse and Paul Kahan carving a bone-in La Quercia ham in an authentic Spanish-style ham torture device thing:

Kathy Eckhouse with ham.

What the heck do I do with this?

That is Gastrotommy at far right.

This Kahan kid has promise!

They cut little flakes of ham for something like two hours for a couple of dozen people, and only really cut off a chunk the size of a piece of pie. Is there anything on earth that packs so much meaty satisfaction into so little meat as La Quercia prosciutto? It was a great illustration of the earlier session’s point.

After a fine afternoon tasting wine, noshing prosciutto and a pork pie from The Publican, and chatting about ham production with the Eckhouses and video production with the Gastrotommy folks, I tagged along as the Eckhouses got VIP treatment at Big Star. We all felt very, very old there, but at least you can say if the kids of today are eating Paul Kahan’s idea of good meat on Saturday night at hipster taco and beer joints, there’s hope for the future.

Kathy texting their son, who was denied entrance to Big Star the last time he came to Chicago with them because he was underage.

Mindy Segal makes stuff with sorghum syrup in the new Key Ingredient, and as Julia says in the print piece, this could be the first one to actually go on the menu… at least it was on there last week and probably still is.

In other news… I’m quoted on the weighty issue of whether the Paris Club stinks (literally) here. And hey… what’s that smell?

Is there a Chicago school of haute cuisine? You could make a case for at least two— the Alinea molecular gastronomy one, and (moving down from the hautest hautes) the porky-whole animal one. Neither originated here (the first descends from El Bulli and French Laundry, the second from Fergus Henderson et al.) but they’ve both been taken to here with enough enthusiasm to seem ours.

So for someone like me, who’s been chasing the latter quite enthusiastically for a couple of years now, and come to half-identify it as what fine dining is in 2011, it’s a bit of a shock whenever you find yourself back in the real haute cuisine, the one truly global one— the food of Finedininglandia, taught in the same schools and served to the same international travelers regardless of whether the hotel you’re in happens to be in Orlando or Singapore. Where both of the other styles radiate personal expression and philosophy from the menu, doing for food the Romantic things that Berlioz did for orchestra conducting, Finedininglandia seems to float above any considerations of place or nationality. Its stock in trade, like that of the fast food franchise on the cross-country highway, has been assurance that what you expect to get is exactly what you will get, no matter where you are in the world.

As you may recall, I shot a Key Ingredient video at the Elysian Hotel in between two fairly momentous moments in the history of its two restaurants, Ria and Balsan, which share a kitchen and head chef. The first one was that Ria had been awarded two Michelin stars, putting it in the top ranks of Chicago restaurants. The second was that, just a few weeks later, chef Jason McLeod “left.” The initial rumor about that was that the Elysian was in trouble and had to cut costs in many areas; the second was that sous chef Danny Grant had been the real star all along (if the hotel was spreading that one to combat the first, it was rather graceless of them). I know exactly what you do about what really happened, which is… nothing.

What was more interesting to me as a question was, was Ria really one of the five best restaurants in Chicago as Michelin would have it? Had it transcended the hotel genre as spectacularly as one of the only other ones at that level, Avenues, with its Alinea-like tasting menus? Or were two Michelin stars in fact the ultimate validation of it as the technically excellent, identity-free restaurant for the traveler who doesn’t want to feel like he’s somewhere?

I couldn’t help suspect, looking at the clubby, sedate dining room in Ria, that it was exactly the sort of internationally anonymous temple of stuffy dining that Michelin would love— and would politely bore me over a very expensive evening. Much more appealing was Balsan, the peppier and more stylish lounge— and part of Ria’s problem drawing crowds may have been that people had discovered that because the same top-drawer kitchen was cooking for both, Balsan was a great value— Ria’s two Michelin stars at a discount.

So I gave Balsan a try with my 12-year-old, who was very excited to get to go out for something so grownup. And you know what? It’s a great restaurant for a hotel. Despite being shoehorned into a weird space with quirks like bathrooms being an elevator ride away— par for the course for hotel dining— it’s a chic, intimately comfortable little room full of energy (even when it’s not full of people). And the food, as much as the menu seemed driven by Finedininglandia’s something-for-everyone ethos (there’s housemade charcuterie and a wood-burning oven for pizzas and a raw bar and small plates and entrees and a hamburger if all else fails), was always expert, and once or twice even personable.

My son was out to try things he’d only heard of before, so we started with a torchon of foie gras, served with housemade grainy mustard (which I thought fell a nudge shy of full flavor) and a chunk of local honeycomb. Next we had what, in retrospect, could easily make a meal of budget chic for someone on a date— the tarte flambee from the wood-burning oven. With housemade bacon, a great nutty gruyere from Uplands in Wisconsin (points for buying regional) and the kiss of wood smoke, this was one of the best “pizzas” I’ve had in years, a welcome sight the next day in the fridge:

Two small plate choices— not that small in either case— followed, both more like doubles than home runs, and just enough shy of perfection to make one wonder if the kitchen was too big for one chef to oversee at a truly exceptional, multiple-Michelin-star level. Gnocchi with Asian mushrooms was the better one, but the gnocchi, aiming for soft and velvety, came perilously close to mushy:

I loved the octopus in an octopus salad— almost as much as I loved the fact that my son wanted to try octopus— and it was prepared beautifully, with a hint of char, but the salad around it was a bit overdressed with its tart dressing. I was happier eating the octopus out of it, and not letting the salad sting my tongue.

We finished with the hanger steak off the large plates, a somewhat hidebound old classic but beautifully done, mineral-tangy beef with a nice char, parsley butter and a heaping pile of fresh-cut fries (slightly dried out, it seemed, to the texture of steak fries; not sure if that was just life under a heat lamp or a deliberate effect to distinguish their fries from a hot dog joint’s).

So a very creditable meal, certainly, if one whose personality had only poked through once or twice. Would I rank it in the top 5 restaurant experiences to be had in town? No, because I’m looking for personality and daring and this meal had only flirted with such things. Grant’s background includes a stint at North Pond, and he professes (see this interview) a farm-to-table philosophy which I can believe based on certain things (such as the hanger steak), but which I nevertheless came to feel is somewhat hidden from the average patron.

But would I recommend it for someone looking for a swank night out? Without hesitation; its best was very good indeed, its low points were only the most modest of dips, its atmosphere felt very big city, its bill didn’t leave me feeling like I’d paid the Hotel Dining Sucker Tax. And then…

I knew nothing— still don’t— about the pastry chef at Ria/Balsan. (No, wait, I know her name, Stephanie; Jason McLeod said it toward the end of the Key Ingredient video.) But Stephanie, whoever you are, you’re like animal acts in vaudeville— no act is good enough to be on the same bill with you and not be at least a little bit overshadowed. We had two of Stephanie’s desserts and they were both eyes-wide-open, oh-my-god good. One was that wonder-turned-cliché of 20 years ago, the molten-center chocolate cake. I would have called it a sign of desperation on the menu if I hadn’t tasted it, because what made this one was the ice cream that went with it, a little football of milk stout ice cream. The beer funk balanced the dark chocolate beautifully, jolting new life into 1992’s favorite dessert.

The other was what’s apparently their signature, the Paris Brest. I have no idea what the name means (wouldn’t that be a train, Paris to Brest on the coast of Brittany?) but the dessert is an eclair shaped sort of like a bagel and filled with a toffee-ish cream with little crunchy bits of something. And it’s wonderful, just wonderful, like biting into a toffee cloud.

Okay, I just Googled it and it’s a fin-de-siecle dessert whose wheel-like shape commemorated a Paris-Brest bicycle race. A praline-flavored bicycle tire. God, no wonder Michelin loved this kitchen’s food.

I was excited about a barbecue place opening a walkable distance (not the most pleasant walk in the city of Chicago, perhaps, but technically possible) from my house. But before I could act on my excitement, the reviews for Pork Shoppe started pouring in. LTHers struggled to be kind; Heather Shouse in Time Out felt no such need. I passed it often, and passed on it, regretfully, last fall.

But I didn’t do so because I believed that the last word had been spoken. The one thing that everybody had praised guardedly— a pork belly pastrami, inexplicably served cold— was different enough to make me think that there could be potential in this place down the line; if any food has a learning curve, it’s slow-smoked barbecue. Finally the day to check in at Pork Shoppe arrived at the beginning of February.

I’ve been back twice since.

Is this the greatest barbecue place in Chicago? No, but it’s significantly better and more consistent than the place described last fall must have been, with enough unique things about it that it’s well worth giving another chance (the last LTH post was in December; only three out of more than 100 have been since August). The kitchen seems to have gained in skill, and they also seem to have listened to the criticism— since for one thing, you’re now asked if you’d like the pork belly pastrami warm or cold. (I still don’t understand why it’s even a question with a meat this fatty.) Such determination to learn and improve deserves reward in the form of a second chance.

The most interesting thing is definitely the pork belly pastrami, though I have to admit, having tried and liked it once, I also kind of felt like I never needed it again; it’s just so fatty and salty that one blast of its voluptuous excess will last a long time in the memory. There’s also beef pastrami, which is to say more conventional pastrami; since pastrami is usually steamed, this has to be smoked long enough to be soft enough to eat, so some may object to the brittle, falling-apart chunks this turns into, which again yield a pretty serious saltiness. On its own terms, I thought this was first-rate, and both of the pastramis show where Pork Shoppe’s commitment to better and more sustainable meats yields a cleaner, meatier taste even under lots of smoke and salt.

A complaint about the regular brisket and pulled pork was that it was soft, a likely consequence of being held after smoking in warming bins (where barbecue kind of steams itself soft). That’s almost inevitable in restaurants— one time at Smoque, Barry Sorkin advised me to wait for a batch coming fresh from the smoker, and that showed what a difference that made even for Smoque’s very good restaurant barbecue, which squares the circle of restaurant practicality with barbecue better than almost anybody’s. When the descriptor “pot roast” is used somewhere in a review, that steaming effect is why. But even the great places in Texas that have ferocious lunchtime turnover sometimes call pot roast to mind (City Market in Luling did, for instance, and so did Black’s in Llano on one of my two visits), and unless you’re absolutely fetishizing ripping meat with your teeth, it’s just not something to get crazy over. The brisket had a rich beefiness that was quite satisfying; I didn’t get a comparable porky bliss out of the pulled pork the one time I tried it, but it was decent, and I’d try it again to see if it was better another day. There’s also a lunchtime special of Texas brisket tacos which I’m going to try one of these days, probably before I get around to trying any more Korean tacos.

Fries are fresh-cut; the cole slaw was described by Kennyz as being like a housewife’s potluck dish, with sweet dressing and fruit in it, which he seems to think is a bad thing, but which I like just fine, as long as you’re not really trying to think of it as cole slaw. There are three sauces, all better and more complex than supermarket sauces; even the medium, let alone the “tangy,” has a fair amount of heat. Service is friendly and welcoming; the location is easily reached once you’ve driven by the line at either Hot Doug’s or Kuma’s and decided there’s no way you’re standing in that. There haven’t been many alternatives in the vicinity before (Burger King doesn’t count), but there is one now.

Pork Shoppe
2755 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 961-7654

In what I can comfortably say is the grossest Key Ingredient yet, Cary Taylor of The Southern uses fish eyeballs in a recipe for an oyster stew, and demonstrates a few finer points of butchering your own fish.

Cary had a lot of interesting things to say, not all of which could go into the video, so be sure to read the article which fills in a lot of details as well. (See, there are two parts to these, made by two different people in collaboration. Freaky, I know. Anyway, if you’re wondering WTF this recurring part of these announcements is about, and you won’t be the first by any means, email me for details.)

My sons have done 4H for three years. This despite the fact that we live in the heart of Chicago, which always prompts a chuckle from the auctioneer at the Lake County Fair when we show our lamb (“Not sure what kinda farms they got in Chee-cawger”). But they fell in love with the idea of raising an animal and winning ribbons for it many years ago, and as participants in the 4H program at Wagner Farm in Glenview (the last working farm in Cook County, now run by the park district) we have raised, and yes turned over for slaughter, three lambs, Triskaidekaphobia, Arachnophobia, and Ewe2. (Who was neither a ewe nor our second lamb, but the boys had just discovered rock and roll that year.) You can see some of the history of our experiences raising lambs in these videos— and in the accompanying story about protesters at Wagner Farm; not everybody is happy to keep a little piece of agricultural reality alive in Cook County.

This year they’re going to raise a pig. And because this is qualitatively different from raising a lamb, for reasons some of which will begin to be stated below, and the year promises to have several interesting features to it (including one very interesting guest speaker next month), I’ve decided to keep a chronicle here of our adventures with our pig from now until the fair in at the end of July. To read them all, click the “Our Season of Pig” link under Categories at right. Here’s the first one.

Swine Management 101

“Pigs are better. Pigs are smarter than lambs,” one of the girls in my car says.

“A crust of bread is smarter than a lamb,” another girl says.

We’ve driven so far out of Chicago that we’ve reached the point where towns and farmland alternate, the rhythm of passing KFCs and Merlin’s Muffler shops suddenly opening up to the blankness of the night sky. It’s pitch black at 6:45 pm, which means that not only do I not know where I really am, but wherever I am has all kinds of sinister associations from movies; we are one flat tire away from wandering into the wrong abandoned barn on a moonless night and being killed by the Children of the Corn. Add to this the fact that I don’t even have my own children with me, but someone else’s— for reasons of which boys wanted to all go together, and which girls didn’t— and the “what the hell have I gotten myself into” factor is ranking about as high as the time I lost my mountain-biking partner in the Gooseberry Mesa in Utah. (He later designed this blog, so he must have survived.)

Our destination is Woodstock, Illinois, which in daylight looks exactly like its quaint small-town self in the movie Groundhog Day, but at night is a dark void without feature or especially clear road signage. Finally with the help of a couple of phone calls, we find the McHenry County Fairground and I take the last parking space in the front lot, which requires driving my Prius up a mound of snow and leaving it parked nose in the air at an angle, like a pickup truck in an ad. Which is ironic since it’s about the only vehicle in the entire lot that isn’t a pickup truck.  I’ve never felt as much of a fraud in 4H as I do at this moment.

We find the door and enter the large hall, which is painted a shade of green last seen on wood-paneled station wagons, and enter under the watchful eyes of past fair queens.

We are here for Swine Management, which is a required annual course for anyone raising a pig to show at the fairs in the state of Illinois. (There’s also an online test in ethics, which is good for life— not necessarily the most effective choice when it’s being mainly taken at the age of 10.  This may explain a lot about the pretty awful state of industrial pork production.) The girls in my car, who’ve taken Swine Management before, have helpfully explained that it is the most BORING thing on earth, and the setup— a Powerpoint presentation given by a man with no P.A. system, who surely can only be heard by half the very large room— seems designed to drive home her point. Nevertheless, the 4H kids do much better than I would expect at paying attention to a fairly arcane agribusiness discussion of historical trends in pig design, selecting pigs for maximum profit, and feeding and caring for them in a way that will score highly with the judges and bring a good price at auction. I find it pretty fascinating too, as most glimpses inside an entirely different way of life are.

When I said pig “design,” I wasn’t exaggerating for comic effect. The first part of the talk is devoted to discussing the changes in pig body types over the years, which are something like the changes in cars over the same period— first round and lardy, then long and streamlined, then shorter and boxier, then more sleekly rounded around the shoulders and back legs. People who are put off by the idea of caring for an animal only to have it killed for meat act as if one day you have a pet and the next you have pork chops, but a discussion like this has nothing to do with pets— this is the pig as industrial product from the very start, selected for its efficiency as one interchangeable part in an industrial process.

Except, of course, in 4H it’s not.  These are kids, raising one pig apiece, and I have to think my sons will form a closer and potentially more emotionally upsetting bond with this relatively more intelligent and personable animal than with the lambs who, as mammals go, were about as cold and blank as a lizard.  4H is creating modern farmers (in some kids, anyway, probably not in mine) by harkening back to an older way of farming that can’t really exist profitably any more.  Like the ethics test, this one early experience of hands-on, personal animal husbandry will have to last a lifetime.

The protesters at Wagner Farm last year imagined that the kids were ignorant of what would ultimately happen with their animals. But when this slide depicting the inspection of hanging carcasses came up on screen, there was only the slightest murmur rippling through some of the younger kids in the crowd. Pigs are business, pigs are meat, and everyone here knows it, no matter how young they are. That’s the first difference between farm kids and city ones.

After the presentation, we went to the McDonald’s across the street, and the kids hungrily scarfed down the epitome of industrial food while talking eagerly of the season of the pig ahead.

Myles, deliberately making his deranged Children of the Corn face.

Ten years ago an unknown guy named B.R. Myers wrote a scathing article about modern literature, the gist of which was, modern writers have gotten so wrapped up in making beautiful sentences full of poetic (but often repetitive or self-contradictory) imagery that they’ve lost their grip on the whole book— on such trivia as story, character, social observation, etc. He went after nearly all the heavyweight names who came to the forefront since the 1980s— E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, etc. etc.— as well as the incestuous reviewing-workshopping industrial complex they belong to. And the sarcastic spotlight he threw on their excesses could be devastating:

Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

This may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.

Myers, at the time a thoroughly obscure professor in Korea, was attacked by the literary establishment for being a nobody, which kind of proved one of his points. But his manifesto struck a chord, became a book, and he is now a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of a well-received book on North Korea.

What he’s not, however, is a foodie— he’s a vegan. And I think that shows in his attack, a decade later, on foodies, which comes on the heels of a similar foodie shitstorm in The Atlantic a year ago, when Caitlin Flanagan ripped into Alice Waters. Obvious bait as it is (it’s not like Corby Kummer in The Atlantic wasn’t one of the pioneers of exactly this sort of the-best-place-to-get-roasted-hazelnuts-in-Sardinia food porn), let’s take it.

It’s not that many of Myers’ points aren’t true so far as they go— he starts out quoting, and somehow simultaneously agreeing with and disapproving of, Tony Bourdain’s attack on excesses in modern food culture. But on the whole he comes off like one of those mainstream-media liberals like David Weigel put on the conservative beat to parse for readers the difference between thoughtful conservatives and rightwing kooks— but who quickly reveals he doesn’t really believe there is any.

Myers’ distaste for meat-gorging blurs together groups with obvious philosophical differences: the eat-anything gross-outers like Andrew Zimmern, the expense account world travelers like Jeffrey Steingarten, and the earnest sustainable-farming/food-spiritualist types like Michael Pollan. Thus Pollan’s pushing for a better way of raising meat than ugly industrial CAFOs is turned into an elitist gourmand pursuit:

The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.

If you’re trying to recall exactly on what page of The Omnivore’s Dilemma the contradiction of Pollan eating coelacanth or snow leopard appeared, that’s because it didn’t. Myers brings up the damned ortolans-for-Mitterand’s-last-meal story by Michael Paterniti from 15 years ago as if endangered songbirds turned up as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef every week, but of course that tale— whose point was its rare and utter decadence— is about as far as you can get from Pollan talking about eating more green vegetables and less processed corn.  (To be fair, Bourdain brought it up first when he ate ortolans.  That makes two ortolan meals in a mere 15 years in print.  One more and it’s a trend.)  Can he really think foodies haven’t been worrying all this time about how you move better farming practices from a tiny elite subculture to a place in the mainstream marketplace?

Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

Now? What was a seder for the previous three thousand years if not a meal turned into a religious ritual? Myers simply seems insensible to one of the oldest human urges around eating; it would be like me writing about dance, as incapable as I am of telling one form of running around the stage like third-graders from another.  He mocks the idea that the ritualistic killing of meat could have meaning (“Anthropological research, I should perhaps point out, now indicates that Homo sapiens started out as a paltry prey animal… he could at best look forward to furtive boltings of carrion until the day he became meat himself”), as if scientific reality could unravel a myth as central to so many cultures as the sharing of a large roasted beast, one of the main ways humans define and enforce community. He’s aghast at the idea that butchers could be admired citizens, as if no other humble hands-on pursuit of the pre-industrial village has ever been honored by a society numbed by the modern, industrial way of doing the same thing. Tell it to feminist quilt-makers, buddy.

In the end he sits by himself with his rice bowl, denouncing the ebullient feast at the next table over by pronouncing that the foodie’s “single-mindedness… is always a littleness of soul.”  Which is one way of denying the good time those people are having, I guess.  But to do that he has to reduce all of food writing to one faction, the excess and weird ingredients crowd whom he pictures as solitary grunters at a marble trough:

In Bourdain’s world, diners are as likely to sit solo or at a countertop while chewing their way through “a fucking Everest of shellfish.”

Funny, that’s not how it looks on Bourdain’s TV show, where the exact same meals (Bourdain is very sustainable that way, as any sensible freelance writer should be) are shown as large communal affairs full of people happy to share their culture and cuisine with the gaijin trailed by a TV crew.

I think this piece is unfortunate because if Myers had stuck to the kind of thing he made his name with ten years ago, and not gone off on what is, at bottom, a vegan’s anti-meat rant, there’s a perfectly good case to be made on literary grounds against much of foodieism. He starts to take on the faux-spirituality food crowd, but he seems too repulsed by the whole thing to draw distinctions— there’s a great piece to be written by some post-feminist with the balls to write it about how name-brand women writers like Barbara Kingsolver can respectably take on domestic subjects like food only if they’re cloaked in enough politics of meaning and personal self-fulfillment to not leave you prey to coming off like Debbie Homemaker. He correctly identifies the Hemingwayesque faux-machismo of eating exotic things, too, but doesn’t really delve into it either, because he might have to praise someone like Steven Rinella in The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, for the lack of affectation with which gourmet food leads him into hunting and fishing subcultures.

In short, there’s a great literary critique to be written that might clear a lot of underbrush in our foodie culture. Get started now, The Atlantic will be looking for another one of these soon enough, I suspect.

As good as Jared van Camp’s dish was in this week’s Key Ingredient, the coolest part was getting to see inside his very expensive, fully HACCP compliant meat curing room, and all the amazing things going on in it.  If we could have done smellovision, I would have.  You get to see it at the beginning.

The full article is here.  (The above video is by me.  You know, in case that information doesn’t appear somewhere you regularly visit.)

By the way, Jared gave Julia and me big hunks of the bacon he made to take home (a most excellent practice I recommend all Key Ingredient chefs follow), and I brought some to WGN Radio for Nick DiGilio to try when we were on his show.  You can hear the podcast of our segment, about 35 minutes, here.