Sky Full of Bacon

I haven’t been anywhere worthy of a post on its own, but I have little fragments of semi-interesting things piling up, so… EVERYTHING MUST GO! We’re clearing out the inventory!

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Would you like a free box of our organic produce? emailed a company called Door To Door Organics. Sure, said I:

The stuff was very pretty, almost too perfect for farmer’s market stuff. Maybe they just prettied my box up because they hoped I’d take pictures. (UPDATE: they say no, they’re all this gorgeous!) Anyway, nice looking and tasting stuff, and I think the quantity I got was a “Bitty Local Farm Box” which goes for $26.99. That strikes me as on the high side given what was in it (seen below, plus there was some parsley and kale), but I may be deluding myself about what the same quantity would cost at Whole Foods— that’s surely a $4 box of tomatoes, $4 worth of peppers, etc. at yuppieville retail prices. (The two small ears of corn were kind of silly, given that that’s probably the cheapest thing in the box at the moment.) I feel like you could beat this price with an individual farmer’s CSA by a good ways, but I have a feeling they’re doing more active management of what you get, so you’d get more consistently useful boxes than some of the ones I got from Genesis last year when I did their CSA. So for the right person, this seems to be the right service.

I’ve done a few things with several of the things I got, like poking garlic all over the eggplant and tossing it on the grill to make baba ghanoush as an appetizer for my wife’s birthday dinner:

So anyway, seems like a good addition to the organic food delivery scene, and if you’re interested, I have two offers. “Bacon2011” is a promo code that will get you $10 off an order; and I have the awesome power to award a freebie box to the first person to comment that they want it in the comments on this post. UPDATE: THE BOX IS SPOKEN FOR Go for it!

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SKY FULL OF BACON EXCLUSIVE MUST CREDIT: I learned, this weekend, the followup to the infamous Paris Club stinky barn smell story. So far as I know this hasn’t been reported anywhere.

As you may recall, Paris Club, the hot new Sons of Melman place in the old Brasserie Jo space, was reported to smell like manure… sometimes; it was supposedly because the recycled wood in the place came from a barn. Mike Sula sensed a vast conspiracy on the part of people attending a VIP preview to cover up the stench, but others questioned whether it was there all the time, or only under certain circumstances (David Hammond and I walked through at 10pm and didn’t smell it), or existed at all.

Here’s what I was told. First off, the wood didn’t come from a barn at all, but from a factory, I was told. Nevertheless the recycled wood was a suspect at first and various things were tried, such as cranking the heat up as high as it would go to see if they could bake the smell out.

But then suspicion shifted to the venting from the toilets. (Which is no doubt why they didn’t send out a press release announcing the solution of the problem, even though I’m sure this kind of post-opening emergency fixer-upping is more common than we know.) They came to this conclusion for the very logical reason that the smell tended to appear only during a certain window of time— apparently after enough people were there to have used the toilets sufficiently, but not so many that the smell of people, perfume and dinner being served proved stronger. In the end, they expensively ripped open the walls and rebuilt some of the ventilation system, and the “barn” smell went away… leaving only the scent of Axe and desperation, I’m sure.

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Why, when I’m making appetizers for two different parties, do I add to my workload by insisting on canning some beets along the way? Because I had the beets, dammit. And besides, just think of the time I’d save using the hot water from the canning afterwards to loose the skins on some tomatoes for bruschetta. Yeah, right.

Anyway, I was making something for the LTHForum picnic out of David Thompson’s new Thai food cookbook, Thai Street Food. It’s a big gorgeous book but I have to say, as a practical cookbook, I’m having some trouble. Things have always worked out in the end, based on some winging it and the fact that even bastardized, winged Thai food is better than most things. But the things that seem easy for him to find and do, are not easy for the casual reader.

One thing that I’ve learned has tripped up better cooks than me is a common ingredient in the recipes— coriander root. In theory, this should exist, since coriander is cilantro and plenty of cilantro is sold around here, so how far away can the roots be? Ah, but it’s one thing to buy cilantro from a farmer and another to convince him to rip his plant out for you. Only one chef has managed that for authentic Thai recipes, Grant Achatz…

…except he’s not the only one, as Jason Vincent of Nightwood explained bemusedly; he’s been buying it from the same place, City Farm, for a while and is bemusedly irritated to keep reading that only Achatz can manage the trick. Anyway, we talked about this a bit at the Key Ingredient shoot and he offered to give me some but I forgot about it by the time we left. (We = my kids, who were tagging along, and amusing themselves during the shoot by filling up my phone with photos of Jason Vincent’s baby.)

So I just used the lower stems of coriander. Anyway, looking through Thai Street Food for a cool thing to make for the LTHForum picnic (needless to say, a high stakes event where I have a reputation to protect), I found a recipe for cured, deep-fried pork, using the cartilaginous end pieces of the rib…

…or as we call them in Chicago, the rib tips. Which have been on my mind a fair amount lately.

Suddenly I had an idea out of another cookbook entirely. Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook is full of jokey dishes that look like one thing and taste like another. Here was my chance to make something called “rib tips and sauce”— which wouldn’t be barbecued, and would taste more like Chiang Mai than Chattanooga. You start by mixing sticky rice, salt and garlic in a mortar and pestle:

Well, here was problem number one. The idea is that you pound the salty-garlicky rice into a paste, and cover the pork with it so perfectly that it is sealed up inside it, no air, and you can set it out in the hot sun for a few days (!) to get nice and funky but not spoil. Yeah, okay. But don’t pound the rice so much that you make it glutinously tough! And that was where I ran into trouble— I couldn’t get it to make a paste, but it already seemed like it was toughening up. So I abandoned plan A and went for plan B— coat the pork in the stuff and leave it in the fridge for most of the week. It might not get the full funk, but it would at least cure.

Then I had to make my own version of the dipping sauce common with things like Thai fried chicken. I roasted chilis, garlic and shallots (for which I’d fortunately paid Argyle street prices):

Another snag: my supposed seedless tamarind paste from Argyle street turned out to be, at best, “partly deseeded.” After spending entirely too much time pushing seeds out of it, I went to Patel Bros. on Devon and bought a jar of liquid tamarind goo. Which was probably much more concentrated, because the stuff was puckeringly sour when I first mixed it up. But I added a bunch of honey, and some more chilis and garlic, and in time, I had a pretty good imitation of Spoon’s version of the same sauce. I fried up the rib tips, and then it was time to assemble my dish with the thing that truly made it Chicago rib tips…

a little piece of white bread underneath the rib, soaking up the sauce.

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Something I learned at the LTH picnic, may be a hitherto unknown factoid for all I know: the reason Mario’s on Taylor Street, the legendary Italian lemonade joint, closes a week or two after Labor Day isn’t just that the season is over then. But Mario, the dad who started it, apparently keeled over while making the lemonade one day, a September 16th as a matter of fact. And so his widow decided, from then on, to honor his memory by closing down after the weekend closest to that day.

Mario’s has peach– for a very few days before closing in memoriam Mario for this year. I’ve been skeptical about it in the past— they tend to make peach when peaches get cheap, regardless of whether they’re much good or not— but this year peaches have been great, so I have hope. Go get you some!

And if you haven’t seen:

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Permanently behind the times on new movies now, I watched Julie and Julia courtesy of a Starz preview a couple of nights ago. Streep was a hoot, a caricature of Child that nonetheless captured the woman bursting with life in a Muppet’s voice; as her husband, the normally sharp Stanley Tucci was so sweet and supportive you eventually wanted to smack him with a hammer (he also looks too Hollywood-fit for 1946); while Amy Adams and Guy Who Played Her Husband struggled to have more to their characters than the sloppily-dressed slacker couple in a cellular phone commercial. (I’m a blogger! Can you hear me now?) Still, this was better, and more likable, than I expected, even ever so slightly formally inventive for second-generation chick flick auteur Nora Ephron (whose parents wrote Desk Set for Tracy and Hepburn back in Julia Child’s day).

By giving us a lush 1950s story and a much more cramped and neurotic modern parallel, it’s basically a deconstruction of one chick flick subgenre, the career gal movie. Back in the day, a career gal movie was about a young woman who goes to New York, pursues a career and independence in some field open to women like magazine publishing and advertising, fends off some powerful but married wolf, and winds up happily ever after with some lesser hunk of 1950s actorly cheese. (The masterpiece of the genre, of course, is The Apartment. This is of course because it transcends the genre with a career that sucks, a wolf who isn’t fended off, and an ending that only barely manages to seem happy.)

But Ephron, aiming at a better educated female audience than the latest Matthew McConnaughy rom-com, switches the tables around. Both Julie and Julia are married as the movie begins; the real prize at the end is something a mere husband pales next to— a book contract. (I will assume that spoilers are by definition impossible with this movie.) So this is a romance about two women groping their way toward the greatest of all loves, of an author for her name on the cover of a book.

Except one of them is reading and cooking from the life of the other— so one is basically living in a movie which the other is watching. (They can never meet on the same temporal plane, of course, not least because Child lived long enough to sniff disdainfully at Powell’s blog— accurately, to judge by the banal excerpts we hear or read onscreen.) Julia and Paul Child live in a Paris where there’s room to park a motorboat of an American car, buy whole fish at the market in gloves and pearls, and throw parties in your vast apartment managed by a smiling, welcoming concierge. That they may have actually lived this life (except for the welcoming Parisian concierge, a detail I refuse to believe) doesn’t make it any less movie-like, and as fantasy Europes go, it’s as confected and irresistible as Mary Poppins’ London. There is some modest struggle for Julia in getting to her consummation with a publisher, but basically, the movie Julia Child goes through life like a parade float.

Where Julie has all the struggles of the modern caricature— a comically dilapidated Queens apartment, comically awful more-successful friends who use cell phones at the table, a comical encounter with live lobsters. (All credit to Amy Adams for whatever real feeling she can bring to this sitcom life.) The blog will be her way out, and frankly given Hollywood’s typical portrait of technology (all those high tech intelligence agencies still using c. 1988 green screen monitors that type one letter at a time) I feared how badly this movie would get blogging.

Not badly at all, actually. There’s an early scene which exists only to explain what blogging is in the simplest of terms to the older ladies in the audience, but once she’s online, the details seem pretty right. The problem I had was with the purpose the movie purports for the blog— which is to provide a new way in which someone whose pathway from editor of the Amherst literary journal to authorial fame had flamed out can mount a sideways assault on the publishing world.

And so while Julie’s rise is tallied in terms of her readers (“I got 55 comments today! From people I didn’t know!”), what’s dramatized are her encounters with the institutions of the New York publishing world— Child’s own editor Judith Jones (who jilts her), The New York Times (via Amanda Hesser, who comes to dinner playing herself), and finally, an orgasmic cascade of phone messages from big media brand names, Simon & Schuster and Food Network, this movie’s equivalent of the montage in an old musical in which we see the marquees of Alice Faye’s hit shows (“Lois Lovely in Damaged Woman… Lois Lovely in Hearts Over Montana… Lois Lovely in A Kiss For Princess Maria”).

Although plenty of people blog to get a book deal (or even, I’ve heard, to help attract freelance writing and videomaking gigs), by focusing all of Julie’s attention upward toward bigger fish in the New York media pond, her story ultimately misses all the other cultural shifts and implications of blogging in the course of leading her to the exact same publishing climax Julia Child (or Shirley Maclaine or Doris Day or whoever) would have enjoyed 50 years earlier. Some readers send her food items, but there’s no sense of bloggy interaction with her readership; she never learns better from them how to pull off a technique in Child’s book, she certainly never invites a learned reader to join in any of the meals she makes for her same batch of old, pre-internet real world friends. (The real Julie in fact did have events to which readers were invited.)

In short, there’s no sense that blogging might not be a way to crack the old media world so much as a way to get around it— to build your own audience free of media gatekeepers and editorial interference, a new form of communication entirely in which writers and readers interact. For the movie Powell, there’s nothing about blogging that wasn’t true about using your trust fund to publish a “little magazine” in Greenwich Village back in the day— it’s just a way to try out for the only show that matters, the big publishing show in midtown Manhattan.  The irony is that Julia Child, who found herself in Paris and became famous in Boston, is less parochial in the 1950s than the woman who has the whole internet at her fingertips in the early 2000s— but never once thinks that if she hates her tiny apartment over a pizza parlor and her careerist friends, maybe she could try Portland, say, and do her blog just as well from there.  Julie and Julia offers a curious picture of the evolving media landscape in which you can now publish yourself to the whole world— but you still have to do it from the 212 area code to be anybody, just like in Shirley Maclaine’s day.  

A book review of James Villas’ Pig: King of the Southern Table, continued from here.

Great Smoky Bacon, Country Ham and Sauerkraut Pie (p. 158)

I’d intended to stop with my two efforts at barbecue, but since I was making a country ham for Thanksgiving dinner at David Hammond’s (using this recipe from Charleston Receipts, which I first learned of from Villas), the next day I got curious about what Villas might suggest for baked country ham leftovers. He had me at “sauerkraut pie.”

This recipe comes from the Smoky Mountains region (the mountains are what’s Great and Smoky, not the bacon per se) where they raise not only pork but, apparently, a lot of cabbage, and make sauerkraut out of it. You start with a lard crust (I chickened out and made half lard, half butter; I also way overworked it, unfortunately), which you partly bake, then coat with dijon mustard:

Meanwhile you fry some bacon, soften some onions in it, and then add some rinsed sauerkraut and seasoning. (I was betting I could hide the sauerkraut sufficiently for my kids to eat it. I won the bet.) That all gets sauteed a bit, then you add it to the crust:

Top it with leftover country ham and some parsley, and bake it like a quiche, basically. This was very satisfying, though it certainly seemed more like German or French food than Southern. Not that I’m complaining on a cold fall day about a dish that made the house smell like bacon, onions and sauerkraut.

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Country Ham and Turnip Hash (p. 172)

Less successful was breakfast the next morning. (Funny that it looks so much like the other dish, though it’s quite different.) Boil some turnips, chop some country ham, dice some green pepper and onion, season it and add cream… the first problem is, Villas says make this into a cake (which you will be flipping as a whole later). Not happening, this is wet goo.

No big deal, you just fry it and flip it like hash browns. But the challenge with any country ham dish is, does it concentrate the saltiness of the ham, or does it ameliorate it, the way the apple chutney spread on the ham biscuits I made did, or hiding the ham amid caramelized onions and sauerkraut did the night before. And frying what was quite a large quantity of ham made for a powerfully salty hash. I ate mine, my wife ate most of hers, the kids, irredeemable Yankees that they are, barely touched it.

Oh well. One flop, but hey, we’ll be down to the bone soon, and I’m already eyeing Villas’ recipes for soup, most of which, not surprisingly, seem to be built on the scraps or bone of a country ham. Creamy rutabaga and country ham… can’t wait.

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And the persimmon pie, you ask? That wasn’t from Villas, that was just what I felt like trying to make this year, given how ubiquitous persimmons are becoming at retail during this season. I bought some the week before and waited for them to ripen, and waited, and waited… only one was really ripe, to the point of being like a mushy tomato, by the time it was time to make pie. But pureed and baked much like a pumpkin pie, they made an interesting and novel dessert, pumpkin pie-like but with an orangey note and lightness of their own. I’m eager to try again, but this time, giving the persimmons all the time they need to ripen perfectly before I bake.

I request review copies sparingly, because I feel it’s important for the overall honor of bloggerdom to make it clear that you weren’t just trying to cadge a free copy and to actually write something (and I’m not going to go to the trouble for something I don’t care that much about, I’d rather just pay the $24.95). And especially because if I plan to review a cookbook, there’s only one way to really do that… which is to cook from it.

That presented a problem for James Villas’ new cookbook Pig: King of the Southern Table. Which was, if I was even going to make half a dozen things from it in a short time, that would be a lot of Southern-style pork for my family to consume.

Villas ranks with Lewis & Peacock, John T. Edge and only a few others among chroniclers and preservers of Southern food culture. His book The Glory of Southern Cooking was the very first thing I posted about here, and I also like that he actually knew and wrote about the legendary bon vivant and character Lucius Beebe. Whose book The Big Spenders I count alongside Mad Magazine and Monty Python as one of the things that shaped my view of the splendid absurdity of life, through its chronicling of such Gilded Age excesses as the party given on horseback, a waiter at each place holding reins in one hand and champagne bucket in the other, or the story of James Gordon Bennett Jr. being forced to flee to the Continent after committing the ultimate high society faux pas of drunkenly pissing in the piano at someone’s soiree…

…but we were talking about Villas’ book. And who could not be charmed by a book full of such dishes as Tennessee Pigs’ Feet and Field Pea Snert, Open-Face Pig and Pimento Burgers, Roasted Pork Shoulder With Applejack Gravy, Texarcana Pork and Bean Pie With Cornpone Topping, Birmingham Porcupine Balls or Palmetto Scrapple. As the geography covered in that list suggests, the book roams the South widely and learnedly, and knowing that the story is half the fun of many Southern dishes, Villas provides context with both a researcher’s rigor and an eye for the color that makes these recipes beguiling beyond their humble ingredients and make you immediately want to jump in the car:

Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-i-tosh) would be only a dot on the map of central Louisiana were it not for the distinctive half-moon meat pies that a place called Lasyone’s has been producing since 1966…

In Cajun Louisiana, it is custom in the fall at hog-killing time for home cooks (especially women) to make two styles of rice sausages with the pork trimmings: sturdy boudin noir with liver (and often pig’s blood), and the more delicate boudin blanc with chopped chicken and heavy cream added to the pork.

For generations, hogs’ brains and scrambled eggs have been considered a great delicacy in the South, and my own mother still remembers a certain Mr. Norwood including a container of brains in his biweekly house delivery of farm-fresh eggs, butter, milk, sausage and chickens.

They are made of different stuff, these Southern housewives who can open a box first thing in the morning and see brains in it, and not let out a bloodcurdling scream.

So this book will offer fun leafing through for years to come, nestled on my shelf next to other definitively one-word titles such as Fat and Bones. My only complaint about it is that I find the typography distressingly clumsy, both the fat display font (chosen to evoke the porcine?) and a too-coyly-moderne text font seem ill-chosen for easy reading and unattractive on the page. Beebe would have sniffed at them as striving too hard for effect.

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North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue (p. 276) and South Carolina Mustard Barbecue (p. 280)

But I wanted to put the book to some practical use, and then the opportunity presented itself when my wife’s best law school friend and her family were announced to be coming over for dinner… two days before Thanksgiving. The last thing I wanted to do was cook a Thanksgiving-level fancy meal, so it seemed a perfect time, especially with kids involved (who would likely turn their noses up at many of the alternatives I could have considered), for Villas’ take on barbecue.

Even though it’s not a barbecue book per se, the section on barbecue gives a solid overview of regional styles in about 40 pages.  I decided to make two wet rubs in two different styles.  The first was North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue, very similar to what I had at A&M Grill in Mebane, North Carolina this summer, a powerfully vinegary, almost clear dousing sauce or mop with just a hint of ketchup in it:

Though I should point out, again, that I didn’t find the allegedly time-honored and hard-fought distinction between Lexington (ketchupy) and eastern (non-ketchupy) sauce to have much validity, since I had vinegary without ketchup at the place in Lexington named Lexington Market, which would seem to be pretty definitive as to what the Lexington style is. But Villas’ recipe was dead-on for the ketchupy style.

The second was a mustardy South Carolina sauce, which was much more of a glaze:

The next question was pork. One of the things I find paradoxical about barbecue fanatics is that as wound up as they get about this or that, they rarely seem to pay all that much attention to the meat itself as an ingredient. We had an outbreak of controversy in Chicago over cooking styles recently when an old school tavern serving baked ribs, Twin Anchors, won a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guides, and the usual barbecue suspects decried this honor being paid to a practitioner of “meat jello.” In the barbecue-fanatic lexicon, meat jello refers to ribs where shortcuts such as parboiling are used to speed up cooking, producing a soft, fall-off-the-bone texture; for barbecue heads, proper barbecuing— and I’ll agree with this so far as it goes— over woodsmoke produces a chewier texture which still takes some effort to gnaw off the bone.

Yet the same people who go on and on about the crappiness of meat jello will routinely buy the cheapest cuts of industrial pork they can find, and seem to have no interest in improving their barbecue by improving the quality of what goes into it. They would never assume that you could buy the cheapest steak you could find and get satisfactory results, yet the lesson doesn’t seem to transfer to pork. For me, I’m happy eating a cheap steak in a South American restaurant, say, I’ve never been one who was obsessed with dining upon dry-aged this or wagyu that, but I sense a vast difference between lean, mushy, pale tannish-pink industrial pork tasting of the wastes the pigs are raised on top of, and a beautiful pinkish-red slab of thick, marbled pork raised by someone who cares about raising something beyond the most basic commodity hogs. What do you really get if you cast your pearls of technique before flavorless industrial swine?

Instead I contacted Jake’s Country Meats, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and they set aside two pork shoulders for me, one bone-in (my preference), one boneless. The cost was $80, which was probably about three times what I’d pay at a Peoria Packing (though they were substantially larger than the industrial ones typically are), but the result was a massive amount of beautiful marbled shoulder. Here’s what one looked like after a few hours of smoking (they were too big to both fit on one level of the Weber Smokey Mountain until they’d shrunk a bit with cooking):

After about 4 hours or so, I painted the boneless one with the mustard sauce:

Another couple of hours after that, I scored the bone-in one and dabbed it with the vinegary sauce, making sure it ran inside the slits:

The boneless one was done first, and that’s mostly what we ate that night. The sweet-hot mustard sauce made a terrific lacquer, almost a little Chinese, on the boneless shoulder. Partly pulled and partly chopped (the meat could have taken another hour, but the kids couldn’t) it was a hit. The other came in after about another hour or so, and tasted by all the adults, it was liked well enough, but it was clear that the mustard glaze was the star. I didn’t find this surprising, as the vinegary North Carolina style is very much a minority taste. But everyone loved the smoky, good-tasting meat. And I had leftovers for the rest of the week and enough to make two large freezer packages as well.

to be continued…

Fresh from toasting the winners of Bib Gourmands at The Violet Hour, I dined with one of the one-star anointees. I was invited to Everest for a lunch hosted by Chef Jean Joho and the Spertus Institute in honor of Joan Nathan, author of a couple of previous books on American and Israeli Jewish cooking, who has a new one on French Jewish cooking, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous. (Yes, the irony of Sky Full of Bacon attending such a lunch was noted.)

From the remarks (kept as brief as she could), we got a glimpse of what seems to be an interesting hidden world which made relatively few inroads into restaurant culture in France (beyond some falafel shops) but has a lot of depth to it— France is, she said, the third major Jewish country after Israel and the US and one of the only Holocaust countries where Jews returned in numbers after World War II and reestablished their culture. And most of her research was in homes rather than professional dining settings.

For Joho, who called himself “half Catholic, half Protestant and half Jewish,” and is from Alsace where the Jewish presence was strongest, cooking out of her book made for an interesting experience as his newly Michelin-starred kitchen had to turn out what are basically very homey, humble recipes. So Gemarti soup seemed wonderfully rustic until you noticed how perfectly brunoised the tiny bits of vegetable in it were:

Actually, one interesting thing she said about French Jewish cuisine is that it’s often the last place that older French recipes survive. She said this recipe, with carrots and toasted semolina, was exactly the sort of thing that was replaced otherwise in French dining by potato-leek soup when potatoes arrived from the New World. Similarly, she says this sweet-sour fish dish can be found in Taillevent in the 14th century:

My thought was, she’d found the missing link between Jews and Chinese food. This one may have stirred a little fuss at the end, because Joho said that it’s traditionally made with carp, but he doesn’t like the carp in this country, so he used another white river fish: catfish. I immediately heard people saying that catfish wasn’t kosher, however because it’s a scavenger. So’s carp, I thought, but what do I know about all this.

Anyway, after a couple of homey courses, we finished with a dessert fit for a Rothschild, in fact named for them:

A very interesting meal on a topic new to me; I recommend leafing through Nathan’s book when doing your half-Catholic, half-Protestant, half-Jewish holiday shopping. Being in a food-cultural mind as I left, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition that summed up for me our own mix of food cultures even in the Loop:

I just read a review of Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition which sniffed at it as being journalism rather than history. Guilty as charged; if ever there were a subject which called for a fast-paced, impressionistic and anecdotal treatment more than sober examination, it was the 13-year-experiment in telling Americans they couldn’t drink. The subject sprouts analogies like a hydra; this is the most insightful political book, the most informative book about what we put in our bodies, the most revealing book on American morals of the year, and it moves at a pace that, if it sacrifices detail (suddenly Prohibition has passed everywhere— were none of those state by state fights fascinating in themselves?), utterly fits a subject that seemed like a kind of mania that seized the country, and was undone by half a dozen other madnesses it spawned in its wake.

Prohibition came out of the religious revival of the early 19th century, but took a back seat to other moral causes (such as slavery) at first. (It was not being allowed to speak on temperance that drove Susan B. Anthony toward demanding votes for women.) A country so thoroughly drunken as the United States seemed unlikely to ever adopt such a cause, and there was never a pro-Prohibition majority in America, but by choosing to go the Constitutional amendment route (where they could assemble the necessary votes among rural states, and avoid the urban majorities of the House of Representatives), and where necessary preying on anti-immigrant sentiment against those beer-swilling Irish and Germans and the booze-inflamed Negro threat to white womanhood, they managed to eke out state by state victories. Suddenly, without the largest states and cities having had a say, alcohol was illegal nationwide, and the victorious Drys declared a new day had dawned in America, forever.

What they failed to reckon on was, simply, American ingenuity. Prohibition exploded in a million ways of getting liquor past the laws. People with boats could sail to floating liquor supermarkets just past the 3-mile limit of US legal jurisdiction over the seas, or take a new kind of vacation called a “cruise” to a Caribbean destination where rum flowed freely. Doctors issued alcohol prescriptions, drug stores opened to fill those prescriptions (and built mighty chains like Walgreen’s on alcohol profits, squeezing non-alchoholic druggists out of the business), and gentiles became “rabbis” to be able to distribute wine for ritual purposes to their supposed flocks. Great fortunes were made (the Bronfmans, but not, Okrent argues, the Kennedys, at least not nearly so much as is claimed today).  The formal dinner party, with its after-dinner segregation by sex, was replaced by the cocktail party, mingling lawbreakers of both sexes who, having broken one rule of morality, didn’t stop there. The income tax was created, largely to replace the decline in government revenues caused by outlawing liquor and, thus, eliminating liquor taxes. (In a real sense, the lifeblood of government before then was alcohol.)  The search power of the police was vastly expanded (including to the telephone); something called the “plea bargain” was invented to deal with the immense volume of cases.

Oh, and there was a little thing called “organized crime” that grew from a tiny scourge of inner city ethnic populations into a major, permanent feature of the economy and society, corrupting every police force that existed with an irresistible shower of money for something that, truth be told, most of them simply didn’t believe was wrong in the first place. The Maryland State House had an official bootlegger, who had to be fired when Prohibition ended.  In San Francisco, the city trash service delivered California wine— and took away your empties.

It’s a marvelous story, in the sense of marveling at how so many outrageous things happened, and it’s one that is trotted out all the time as a demonstration of the futility of government legislating morality, not least in the matter of our own modern prohibition of mood-altering illegal substances. Ironically that’s the one form of Prohibition that actually did work, for a time; for 40 or 50 years after the government outlawed narcotics, they did stay pretty much out of the mainstream, unlike bootleg liquor. The lesson is, you can outlaw something that people are already convinced is wrong and to be avoided, though once they stop believing that, as people did about pot in the 1960s and 1970s, you’re back where Prohibition started.

Likewise, cigarettes could be restricted once people were against them anyway, and our modern game of replacing lard with trans-fats and trans-fats with the next fat and HFCS with something else can work as long as no one really has to make a sacrifice beyond Mickey D’s fries tasting slightly different. But get more restrictive (or bossy) and you will create a black market in Russian mafiya Twinkies overnight. And while we’re tallying up analogies, the way in which Prohibition was passed through every clever procedural maneuver known to man despite substantial voter doubt and opposition, and trumpeted as a great and permanent achievement that ordinary people would learn to appreciate in time, can’t help but remind one of Obamacare earlier this year. Health care is surely as personal as drinking, and if its restrictions come to seem too intrusive on personal choice, it is not hard to imagine that American ingenuity may sprout just as ingeniously beyond the 3-mile limit of the internet. The lesson that passing a law is not the same as having the consent of the governed has to be relearned with every generation, apparently. The only truly permanent law is the one of unintended consequences.

In Prohibition’s case, when it became (rather belatedly if you ask me) obvious to the Anti-Saloon League’s tight-leashed coalition in Congress that the law was being widely violated, they did what politicians always do— they Got Tough On Crime with something called the Jones Law in 1927, which ratcheted up the penalties for serving a single glass of hooch from speeding ticket level to felonies. To the extent it frightened ordinary barmen and druggists and rabbis out of the business, it only removed competition for the gangsters who were unafraid of any laws, and its excesses finally provoked national outrage against the pecksniffs and humbugs who’d foisted this whole regime on America and found no aspect of everyday life they couldn’t stick their noses into.

Newspapers were filled with tales of the crimes the Jones Law had led to, such as “The Massacre in Aurora,” in which a middle class Illinois housewife was gunned down in her kitchen by Prohibition agents seeking to search her cellar. Even Prohibition’s victories, like the conviction of Al Capone for violating the tax laws that only existed for the same reason he did, couldn’t stem the growing conviction that it had all been a big, naive mistake.  A Wet coalition, improbably uniting immigrants (led by the likes of Al Smith and Fiorello LaGuardia) with the bluest of bluebloods (Pierre duPont, William Randolph Hearst) on the common ground of telling government to buzz off, overwhelmed the worn-out, demoralized Drys. The most effective Wet political figure, forgotten today, was probably a Morton Salt heiress named Pauline Sabin, a former Dry who came to believe that responsible social drinking among the young was better than the irresponsible binge drinking Prohibition fostered. (In a weird way, Prohibition and Repeal were both attempts to reduce the amount of alcohol consumption and the attendant social damage.) She legitimized the Wet cause among society women, and that legitimized it for everybody. And so a cause that had started with women’s newfound political power ended with it, too.

It would take five more years to pass the only Constitutional Amendment designed to completely invalidate a previous Constitutional Amendment— the Depression, and the need to restore liquor tax revenue when incomes sank, probably did the trick in the end— and pockets of dryness exist in rural counties to this day. But the idea that government could tell citizens not to drink was discredited forever on the national level (well, except for 18 to 21-year-olds, the one group that still parties like it’s 1929). And so Prohibition ended, but the types who forced it through moved on to other things to frown upon. H.L. Mencken, a vigorous defender of his own heritage of beer-drinking Germanic gemütlichkeit, described them for future generations to recognize and resist:

They cannot stop the use of alcohol, nor even appreciably diminish it, but they can badger and annoy everyone who seeks to use it decently, and they can fill the jails with men taken for purely artificial offences, and they can get satisfaction thereby for the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.

It must seem like a wondrous fantasy of salvation to modern journalists waiting for the ax to fall on an entire industry— a government program to pay writers to write! Alas, the 1930s Federal Writers Project was the sort of idealistic New Deal-era folly our hardened age would find too frivolous to spend money on, unlike more practical fictions such as credit default swaps or a viable American auto industry.  Auto workers actually have to be paid to make cars, but as the internet has proven, writers will crank it out no matter what.

The idea of offices full of neurotic young men and women composing acres of government poetry and plays about the working man would have been horrifying, so someone had the brilliant idea of sending them into the sunshine and fresh air to gather material for guidebooks about the 48 states and various major cities. The result was the wonderful, literate, highmindedly populist WPA Guides; and when those were mostly done by the late 30s, the people still in the program were given the further task of gathering material about the food cultures of the various states. These food manuscripts were collected in Washington, and a guide composed from them was being readied to go to the printer… on December 7, 1941. After that day, other priorities took over, and according to The Food of a Younger Land, an anthology edited by Mark Kurlansky (Cod, etc.) and now in paperback, most of these manuscripts were buried like Rosebud or the Lost Ark in a box in a warehouse, until this book brought them to light for the first time…

…that is, if you don’t count the previous anthology made out of the same material, and at least one book collecting a specific writer’s contributions to the project.

So if this isn’t quite the unknown treasure trove claimed, it’s still a rich slice of one of the major food projects of the previous century, and one of the earliest records of foodways around the nation.  For this foodie age, it’s not only a picture of our cuisine’s prehistory B.C. (Before Child, Julia), but a record of how people thought about food before people thought as much about food as we do, or at least in the particular way we do.

The book is, unsurprisingly, organized regionally; and it starts, unfortunately, in the northeast, a section which proves a bit colorless when it comes to food.  America Eats! had already used the better of two pieces on a Vermont May breakfast, and the one that’s left sums up the boringness of the flinty Yankee palate perfectly (“Among other things served at that first breakfast was cold boiled ham”). It only comes to life in gleaming Art Deco New York, where we get a snarkily droll account of a literary tea (“If the party happens to be given in honor of a new author, he is almost always completly ignored”), and a well-observed piece on drugstore lunch counters that includes news of a new dish, hyphenated as if T. Herman Zweibel were writing, called the cheese-burger (“a doughty bit combining grilled hamburger and melted American cheese served on a soft bun and tasty enough to ensnare even the one-cylinder appetite”).  Most usefully to the author of imitation hardboiled fiction, there’s an extensive glossary of classic diner slang, such as Bay State Bum (a demanding lousy tipper), Guinea Footballs (jelly doughnuts), or Two Cackles in Oink (ham and eggs).

The South, unsurprisingly, has the longest and most colorful section, not to mention the biggest names among the writers (such as Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston). Many of these pieces read like fiction, or scenes from longer stories, and you can just about pick a passage at random and find something evocative of that old weird America:

The Negroes begin to gather by sundown. The host walks around barking:
“Good fried hot chitlins crisp and brown,
Ripe hard cider to wash them down,
Cold slaw, cold pickle, sweet tater pie,
And hot corn pone to sap your eye.”
(Menu for Chitterling Strut: A North Carolina Negro Celebration)

This is the part of the book that fulfills the idea of a lost American food culture, full of exotically named delights (Mississippi Mullet Salad, Georgia Possum and Taters, South Carolina Pee Dee Fish Stew) and, more to the point, a rich social dimension to how food is made and consumed in large groups.  It’s also the part that truly seems to care about how you make the food; where the New England section could be frustratingly cryptic about recipes, here the detailed descriptions are loving and meticulous.  It is hard not to conclude that this is the part of America where food matters, has always mattered, as more than mere sustenance.

The Midwest portion is missing some sections (Chicago, for instance, somehow vanished from the surviving manuscripts) and some of what’s left reads like parody of its food’s legendary plainness— the first piece on Kansas seems designed to convince you it’s the most boring steak-and-potatoes place on earth. There’s also a definite tendency to overwrite here, as if to make up for the drabness of the subject— Nelson Algren’s would-be intro to the section is a clumsy clip-job of the info presented in the actual pieces. And William L. White— son of the smalltown editor William Allen White, and famous for the European airs he put on after working as a foreign correspondent— affects a rowdy rusticness in the other major piece on Kansas that sounds like a city dude trying to play a tall-hat rancher.

A lot of the Midwest section is devoted to what the Indians ate before the white man, and the same is true of the Southwest section, which, as the area was pretty unpopulated, would be quite short if Southern California weren’t shoehorned in. The best of this part is a surprisingly thorough picture of the basics of Mexican-American cooking, introducing the cheese-burger’s great rival for the hearts of late 20th century Americans, “a sandwich called the taco: a tortilla fluttered through hot grease, folded around shrimp, sausage, and chili stew, garnished with shredded lettuces and grated cheese.”  The remaining section, covering the west and northwest, gives just a modest preview of the impact this region would have on American dining in the postwar era, mainly conjuring up a half-lost world of plentiful seafood like geoducks and salmon. It does offer two of the quirkiest pieces; one is a three-page rant against inferior ways of making mashed potatoes, and the other is sympathetic account of the choices in industrial alcohol products available to skid row sterno bums, which reads like a parody of connoisseurship (“a new type of tippler now tops all in drinking bravado, according to Portland police. His drink is a mixture of gasoline and evaporated milk”).

Mexicans come off pretty well, and so do blacks, thanks to the regional division of the book. Otherwise ethnic cuisine is pretty much ignored, save for the occasional ringer (some Scandinavian material from the midwest, a piece on Basques in Idaho).  You’ll look in vain for New York deli or Providence red-sauce Italian; this is a book about the old WASP culture.  Of course, fast food doesn’t exist yet (those nascent cheese-burgers and tacos are just harbingers from the future) and there’s little mention of restaurants at all outside the New York and Los Angeles sections; “famous chef” is very nearly an oxymoron in these days.

Mostly this is a book about social gatherings, as that would be the main occasion when rural Americans (and the country was still about evenly rural and urban then) escaped a subsistence diet (like the “corn-dodger” bread described in one piece) and managed to eat, well, high on the hog.  We tend to be convinced that the generation or two before us spent less time consuming media and more time interacting with people, but this book is so filled with affection for church suppers, barbecue struts, Nebraska bison roasts, police widow benefit potlucks and the like that you start to wonder, did they feel like the golden age of food togetherness had been just before their time, too?  Were they regretting the time they spent listening to Amos & Andy and thinking they should have been out catching possums for a burgoo?  On the evidence of this book, America has been bowling alone for longer than we may realize, and the social events that bring us together over food at its most dressed up have always been the cherished exception, not the everyday rule.

I’ve pretty much made my peace with Thomas Keller since starting to regularly make his vegetable stock (as described here). I accept that he is the world’s worst home economist, always urging you to toss away things that frugal housewives would carefully hoard and use to their last bit of life. I accept that he is more particular than I will ever be about straining and clarifying, and that he will always add a step of work if there is the teeniest bit of value to be gained from it. So I make his vegetable stock the way he makes it, and strain out my pricey leeks and fennel after 45 minutes like he says to, and then when he’s left the room, I simmer the vegetables some more and get from them the flavor he would have left behind, because it wasn’t quite pristine and clear enough for him, and then I have two vegetable stocks— a beautiful clear-tasting Keller one for delicate soups, and a slightly down-and-dirtier one for not so delicate ones, and each jar of vegetable stock cost me a buck or two, not three bucks or four. Everybody’s happy.

Well, until Keller came out with what was supposed to be his casual home cooking cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Somehow, not remembering my failed attempts to cook out of The French Laundry Cookbook, I convinced myself that it was not only a cookbook I wanted to have, but it would be a worthy Christmas gift for my sister, who’s a fine cook but let’s just say about 10,000 times less hyper about food than I am.

I snapped back to reality when Aschie30 wrote this LTHForum post about how difficult Keller makes the act of making something as simple and homey as chicken and dumplings. True, she finally decides that all the extra work was worth it, but in the process she certainly puts the lie to Keller’s opening claims that this is the casual food “I love to sit down to with my family and friends.” Charlie Trotter successfully put away the chive shears and managed to produce a book of modestly-scaled recipes which achieve his cuisine’s baseline virtues without a staff of 20, but Keller has not. I mean, this is a book which devotes an entire oversized spread to making your own soup crackers. Keller writes a book for casual home cooking like Wagner would have written one on musical entertaining at home.

At the risk of discovering that the main thing I’d strained was my family’s patience, I decided to have an all-Thomas Keller Valentine’s Day dinner, and thus settle the question in my mind: does Keller’s perfectionist approach to casual cuisine yield benefits worth sweating for, or is he freakin’ nuts? (It would have been an all-Ad Hoc at Home dinner, but I finally decided I liked the sound of a dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook better.)  But in any case it involved four main recipes from Ad Hoc, plus two additional recipes which produced something to be used in one of the main recipes; plus four separate recipes to produce the parts which would come together to make the dessert.

Braised Beef Short Ribs (p. 41-2)

I settled on short ribs because I figured a braise would give me some leeway to handle the extra steps in whatever other dishes I made— and because it seemed like something I could buy happily from the grassfed beef guy selling at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market.  I know all the reasons why I’m supposed to eat grassfed beef, but it’s just too harsh for my taste eaten in straightforward form (like a steak).  A nice braise though, lots of wine and aromatic vegetables, that’s where the stronger flavor of grassfed beef would work for me, I figured; and so I was eager to experiment with something like short ribs.  The pieces I got were certainly gorgeous looking:

Meanwhile, I spent about an hour making a wine glaze using Keller’s usual assortment of vegetables (onion, carrots, leeks, no celery) plus thyme.  Heedless of cost as usual, he says to use an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or other red wine; I finished off three leftover opened bottles of random red (two shiraz, one merlot), saving at least $10 right there:

And in typical Keller fashion, given his belief that vegetables have given up most of their flavor by the 45-minute mark, this is just the first of two sets of nearly identical vegetables and spices that you add to the braising liquid— throwing both away at the end.  Nonsense, said I, and so I rescued the second set of carrots at the end and served them alongside the meat.  They were fine, you should try them sometime, Tom!

Meanwhile, I browned the short ribs, and then, because Keller is so horrified by the prospect that meat might wind up with a little piece of limp parsley adhering to it, you’re supposed to wrap the meat in a shroud of cheesecloth and bury it in the liquid.   I did that, then cut out the little parchment paper doily that is another of Keller’s signatures, and put this in the oven to braise for a couple of hours.

As it did I prepared:

Puree of Garlic Potatoes, p. 223

I wondered how much Keller would gild the lily of something as straightforward as garlic mashed potatoes, a dish whose entire recipe is basically in its name.  He did so in two ways.  First, his method of adding garlic flavor was to make:

Garlic Confit and Oil, p. 266

Put some garlic cloves in a pan, cover with half a bottle of canola oil, poach in the oil until they’re soft and gooey.  The two bucks’ worth of canola oil seemed profligate— though I suppose it could be used later in something— but the resulting garlic was really nice and mellow, subtle once it was mixed into the potatoes.  And not much work, really, for a Keller extra step.  I would do this again, certainly.

The other was to have me cook the potatoes by dropping them, whole, into cold, heavily salted water, then bringing them to a simmer, then peeling them hot.  What does this add compared to peeling them with a peeler and cooking them skinless?  Not much that I could tell.  (I guess you could argue that it’s actually less work to peel them this way, but only if you have titanium fingers and don’t mind peeling something boiling hot.)

Brioche, p. 272

I hadn’t planned on making anything from his book breadwise, but then I spotted the brioche recipe, which is actually rather easy (if you have a Kitchenaid mixer) and though the quantity it makes is fairly huge, I knew there would be another use I could make of much of it, which I’ll post about separately.  So I used some of it to bake round brioches in a muffin tin.  The kids loved the buttery bread.

Little Gem Lettuce Salad, p. 142-3
with Honey Vinaigrette, p. 143

One of the things that I came to find frustrating about looking through the book was that Keller would often be quite specific about the fruits or vegetables he wanted you to use— for instance, this salad requires Little Gem lettuce, Ruby Red grapefruit, blood oranges (at least he didn’t specify Sanguinellos over Moros), Satsuma oranges and a pomegranate.  Well, that’s fine and dandy if you’re Thomas Keller and can basically get your hands on anything with a phone call, but here I am in a major city and the closest I came at my local Whole Foods was a Rio Star grapefruit (at least I knew that would be similarly sweet), blood oranges, no pomegranates (but I finally found a lone box of pomegranate pips), and some tangerines (actually, I later realized that WF had a small bunch of Satsumas, when I remembered what they were— the little oranges with dark green leaves— but the sign for them was missing).  As for the lettuce, only because of a passing reference to Little Gem being like butter lettuce was I able to find something that would substitute reasonably well— I assume.

This is annoying not only because it’s unrealistic, to think that the shopper even in a major city will be able to find all of these things at once, but because you can’t believe it’s how Keller would really assemble a dish— he’d see what was available and adjust accordingly, making things a little more sweet or tart based on what he could find.  And even the slightest clues as to how to do that myself would be of far more use than telling me that I have to find some specific lettuce variety that may be easy to have trucked over to your restaurant in Napa, but which I’ve never seen in my life.

That complaint registered… this is a fantastic salad.  Maybe I just lucked out and despite having the wrong grapefruit, the wrong tangerine, etc., the balance was pretty much perfect anyway, but the sunny juiciness of the fruit and the tart note of the vinaigrette and the tenderness of the lettuce— just wonderful, especially at this time of year.  Even my sons, whose ideas about salad are pretty much that they like ranch dressing and NOTHING ELSE, gobbled it up.  This will undoubtedly be a keeper… and I will undoubtedly evolve its mix of flavors depending on what I find in the store from one time to the next.

Meanwhile the meat seemed tender— well, the middle parts seemed tender; the upper stripe of meat was either over or undercooked, I frankly couldn’t tell with this grassfed meat— and so it went into a pan in the oven while I reduced much of the sauce to a glaze.

So the grass-fed beef: good rich flavor, I need more experience braising it to really know how to do it right, but on the whole I was happy with it this way. That said, I can’t say that I particularly thought all the little Keller touches— making the wine glaze first, then the braising liquid with stock, putting the doily on top, etc.— added up to much, I made just as nice a short ribs braise from The Balthazar Cookbook with less fuss.  So final score for dinner from Ad Hoc at Home: salad great, brioche fine, potatoes worth the effort of making the garlic confit if not the pain of peeling unskinned, boiled potatoes, braised shortribs fine but no great difference from anybody else’s recipe for a dish like that.

Then came dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook:

Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon Stick Ice Cream (p. 286-7)
with Chocolate Sauce (p.280)

This was a satisfying recipe first of all because you could methodically prepare its parts over the preceding week without the stress of a last minute rush to get it made.  The velouté is sort of somewhere between a mousse and a meringue, and you make it in plastic wrap inside a ramekin or other round object and freeze it.  The ice cream you see underneath it below is cinnamon ice cream, made by steeping a stick in your custard; it’s subtle, almost ethereally cinnamony.  The flat disc is a cinnamon cookie, which you par-bake a day or two before.  At the bottom is a basic chocolate sauce.  When the time comes you bake the veloute on top of the cookie until it’s got an outer skin and a gooey inside, then assemble it quickly.

This is another great recipe, an easy way to wow your crowd; it looks complex but really it’s no harder to put together than a cheeseburger.  Ironically, I don’t think a recipe like this would have made it into Ad Hoc at Home, it’s too restaurant-showy, yet designed as it is for efficient production in a busy kitchen, it’s actually easier, and even more practical perhaps, for the home cook than many of the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home which take something simple and then fuss and fret it into a lot of extra work.

So where did I come out of all this on the subject of Thomas Keller?  I think there’s a lot of value in going through his overelaborated ways of making things, because it forces you to think about what goes into your dish, where extra efforts are worth it and where shortcuts are shortchanging you.  I think you will often decide that Keller is overdoing it for not enough return— but not always; here and there his way of doing it really is a better way, a way that takes an old familiar dish to the next level.  In a world where most cookbooks promise ease, there’s something to said for the master who challenges you to try harder and do more.  You may not always like his book, but you will learn a lot from it— including what matters more to you in the kitchen, time or perfection.

It may seem wrong to review books you haven’t read all of, but I suspect it’s often the case with food books, whose formats lend themselves to constant nibbling more than cover-to-cover devouring.  This is the first of two reviews of books I’ve been nibbling at, haven’t finished, but feel capable of judging now and enjoying for some time to come.  The second, Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, will follow in a couple of days.

Milk at least has cheese as its bid for immortality, but chefs don’t even have that— meals are made to be made to disappear.  Our more conceptual chefs clearly find this frustrating, hence the arrival of the commemorative, menu-as-book-as-art-object volume carefully cataloguing the dishes and bites produced by such conceptual artists in the medium of food as Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal, arguably the most conceptual of them all.  Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook originally came out as a slipcased $250 volume, more expensive than the iPod hidden in a seashell to play sounds of the sea in one of his more famous courses, and has now been reproduced as a $50 objet d’art that’s an absolute bargain by comparison, so lavish and complete that the meal itself must seem like a mere appendix next to it.  (Careful about using a word like “appendix” next to someone like Blumenthal, by the way, it could go anywhere from there.)

There are really five books here, and whether you will enjoy this or not depends on how many of them can truly interest you.  Two of them are really of technical interest only to chefs hoping to follow in Blumenthal’s footsteps: that’s the actual recipes for his dishes, and the extended glossary on his weird-science ingredients and methods.  Given that dishes such as “snail porridge” and “sardine on toast sorbet” sound like parodies of modern cuisine gone mad, the actual audience for home cooking of such things has to be minuscule.

In a tactical error, as far as I’m concerned, the book actually begins with a memoir by Blumenthal (who may have discovered many marvelous things, but the chapter break is not among them) about the opening, management and steady success of The Fat Duck.  It seems to be designed to convince us that a man who thinks “Hmm, what about snails with porridge” is just a regular restaurateur, which strikes me as the wrong tack to take, normalizing the strangeness of his cuisine rather than embracing it with gleeful, Peter Lorre-esque abandon.  The problem with this is, minus Surrealism Luis Buñuel’s story is no different from any other movie director’s, and minus the molecular gastronomical weirdness this becomes just the story of a guy running a small business, not that different from any other restaurateur— or plumber or video store owner.

That leaves the last two books, easily the most fascinating parts and the ones that justify the $50 price tag for the non-mad-science-chef.  One is what comes before each recipe, a description of the thought process by which Blumenthal thought up each of his coups de foudre, each of his happenings on the theatre of the plate.  The madness and brilliance that the memoir lost in a blizzard of kitchen renovations and mounting bills finally comes to life, as he recounts how childhood taste memories and some odd bit of food science came together again and again in a moment of inspiration and a long process of refining execution at the far edge of food science.  Here is his Duck pressed between the covers of a book; here is the master class spent trying to keep up with a brilliant, unpredictable teacher who the memoir tried to hide in the clothes of an earnest manager.

The other is the book that runs all the way through the others— the book of art inspired by his cooking, including dazzling foodpornogasmic centerfold displays of his exquisitely plated dishes, spread wide and glistening for all to lust over, and (liveliest of all) drawings and collages by Dave McKean, an English caricaturist definitely in the blotchety line of Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, and Ralph Steadman.  These drawings sustain the memoir during its more pedestrian moments, and the photos convey a sensuality about his food that the focus on science and juvenile memory in the text has somewhat obscured.

Which raises a point about these avant-garde chefs.  For all his free-range braininess, Blumenthal, with his emphasis on turning childhood experiences into lightning flashes of taste memory, is still working with a careful and unthreatening conceptual palette, rooted in childlike pleasures and delights— the ocean, the forest, primary colors, a magician’s switcheroo of expectations.  Our conceptual chefs will not rank with the other artists until they can find a way to bring the whole of human experience into their work— where are the dishes that evoke the alienation of modernity or the existential terror of existence?  Where is the take on Spanish food as powerful as Picasso’s Guernica, where is the play on banh mi that smells like napalm in the morning?  You can question whether diners would be willing to pay for that— but this has been a whole book devoted to dishes no sane businessperson would think diners would want to pay for, and now the restaurant they come from is booked months in advance.  If there is to be a Fat Duck Vol. 2 that doesn’t merely repeat Disneylike tricks of wonder, these are the dark places Blumenthal, and all our conceptual chefs, must go next.

Mike Gebert, creator of Sky Full of Bacon and a founder of LTHForum, will host and moderate a conversation with Tom Standage, author of An Edible History of Humanity and business editor of The Economist, Saturday June 6th at the 25th Printers Row Literary Festival, from 10:30 to 11 am at the Good Eating Stage presented by Jewel-Osco.

An Edible History of Humanity shows how food has been an important shaper of culture from the earliest days of seed cultivation to today’s global food-transportation system. Sky Full of Bacon is devoted to exploring what food means in people’s lives and how they use it to express their values and culture, so it should be an interesting and wide-ranging conversation.

At 2:15 the same day on the Good Eating stage, hot dog authors Bruce Kraig and Bob Schwartz, hamburger author Andrew Smith and moderator Kevin Pang will talk fast food icons. So c’mon out for some great food chat.

For more info: The official guide to the Lit Fest will be printed in a special section in the Friday, May 29th issue of the Chicago Tribune and the website is updated frequently.