Sky Full of Bacon

I was shocked today to learn that Bobby Mueller, one of the two Texas pitmasters profiled in my current video podcast, died over the weekend at the age of 69.  (Which was a good ten years older than he looked.)  Mueller was happy to let me dog his steps with a camera as he prepared his meats for lunch one morning in July, and though he was the quintessential taciturn Texan, when he answered a question, his answer was always thoughtful and to the point.  I hope my podcast serves as a fitting tribute to one of the great keepers of the BBQ traditions, and I wish his family and his son Wayne, who now takes over, the best in preserving this legendary BBQ temple for a new generation.

If you haven’t seen the podcast, click here.

Tags: , , , ,

Having written about Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food before reading it, I thought it might be nice to write about it after, too.

As noted before, Pollan— the author of the our-food-chain-is-messed-up book The Omnivore’s Dilemma— is here trying to put a positive spin on that message by showing how it’s possible to arrive at a reasonable and healthy diet by, basically, following the principle on the book’s cover: Eat Food.  Not Too Much.  Mostly Plants.

Pollan’s overarching target in the first half of this book is what he calls Nutritionism— the unnatural practice, as he paints it, of breaking our diets down into scientific processes.  He is very compelling, first, on how this has caused a major shift in how we eat that few of us have really noticed:

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. [p. 28]

This brings us to one of the most troubling features of nutritionism… when the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinctions between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. [p. 32]

This is one of Pollan’s key points: an emphasis on nutrition rather than eating has actually made our food worse for us, because it strongly favors Big Food’s latest product over the little farmer and the real food from the soil.  Food marketing requires novelty.  Carrots are pretty much carrots, a commodity.  But new Totally XTreme Asian Ranch Whole Grain Num-Os are an improvement over last year’s Partially XTreme ones, or at least they can be if some science can be rigged up to let you make a claim that they cure heart disease.  And that’s what nutritionism’s reductive view of eating is: find a magic bullet, hype the hell out of it, and sell sugary salty gloppy glop because it has a supposed single virtue.  A mere carrot hardly stands a chance against such marketing muscle; “the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa-Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters.” [p. 39-40]

The problem with this is not only that the claims are often dubious (he shows how malleable supposedly legally-defined terms such as “whole grain” are) but that the science underlying so much of this is, simply, bullshit.  This is perhaps the most eye-opening and valuable part of the book, a long section in which he shows that, as Dr. Happy Harry Cox put it, everything you know is wrong, or rather, everything the largely self-appointed experts have told you is built on evidence ranging from flimsy to nonexistent.  Take one of the things everyone knows, that a high-fat diet leads to heart disease.  That’s like saying sunlight leads to plant growth, right?

In a recent [Harvard] review of the relevant research called ‘Types of Dietary Fat and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review,’ the authors proceed to calmly remove, one by one, just about every strut supporting the theory that dietary fat causes heart disease… Only two studies have ever found ‘a significant positive association between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD [coronary heart disease]’; many more have failed to find an association. [pp. 41-3]

But at least we know that high cholesterol is bad, right?

As for the dangers of dietary cholesterol, the review found ‘a weak and nonsignificant positive association between dietary cholesterol and risk of CHD.’ [p. 43]

Still, encouraging us to replace all that fatty red meat couldn’t have been all bad– it’s not like what we ate instead could have been worse for us:

By the end of the review, there is one strong association between a type of dietary fat and heart disease left standing, and it happens to be precisely the type of fat that the low-fat campaigners have spent most of the last thirty years encouraging us to consume more of: trans fats… the principal contribution of thirty years of nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one. [p. 44]

If this were fully recognized for what it is, it would be considered one of the great government screwups of all time, nutritionism’s Vietnam.  In the late 70s government started encouraging us all to eat in a new way, eating less fat and, more importantly, different kinds of fat.  The “low fat” or “lipids” theory was embraced by food companies and is evident in thousands of products at every supermarket today.  Yet what was supposed to make us thinner and healthier instead has made obesity, diabetes, every “disease of affluence” far more prevalent.  It has blown the O-ring on American health and sent its flaming wreckage spiraling toward the ocean.  It has done exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to do, and in a real sense the famous joke in Woody Allen’s Sleeper has proven prescient:

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

But at least from a food marketer’s, or a diet book author’s, perspective, it’s been an enormous success, because it’s created a massive market whose hunger is limitless for new products– which have the tremendous benefit, from a marketer’s point of view, of never working.

*  * *

So if nobody knows nothing, what the hell do we do now?

Pollan starts by suggesting that we back our way out of the nutritionist mindset and accept that we just don’t know what we don’t know about how food works.  The search for magic bullets has been a red herring, we just don’t know how the combinations of foods produces healthful effects, eating one thing to produce one result almost never seems to work.  We’re in the dark ages still on this stuff.

But what we can reasonably deduce is the basic validity of things like the French paradox– that if we need complex combinations to produce a fully healthy diet, then the traditional diets of most cultures have evolved to provide such combinations.  As he points out, nearly every culture, whether they eat lots of vegetables or nothing but meat and blubber, manages to have roughly the same low incidence of diseases of affluence– except us.  Only we managed to create, scientifically and industrially, a diet that so overdelivers on the things humans crave that it causes us problems.

This is where the advice to eat nothing your grandmother wouldn’t recognize comes in.  Basically, he says, if you eat real foods from before the days of food science, you should wind up with a diet that reflects cultural knowledge of what makes you healthy.

The problem with this is that the apple’s been eaten and we can’t go back to Paradise.  Once we have knowledge of Mexican and Thai and sushi, we’re not going to be happy living on an American farm diet full of English or Germanic touches circa 1910 (which would probably be what most of us, strictly choosing to eat like Grandma, would wind up with).  But the danger of being an omnivore is that in choosing to eat from many cultures, we’ll wind up cherrypicking the most appealing foods from those cultures– and miss out on the balance part.

To my mind, the grandmother advice doesn’t really work, except as a reminder to keep a skeptical eye toward the new foods (or, as Pollan calls them, edible foodlike substances) that pop up every year in the supermarket.  The other problem is that the foods in the supermarket aren’t themselves any more, anyway.  Grandma might recognize a steak (though it’d look pretty darn lean to her) but its cornfed taste would seem very odd.  And that difference conceals the fact that a cornfed steak is lacking precisely the omega-3s that were one of a grassfed steak’s contributions to your balanced diet and health.  It really isn’t the same food it was in her day.

Nevertheless, Pollan does try to identify some basic principles which, if followed, will help you generally work your way toward a diet as balanced and healthy as Grandma would have recognized:

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.  [Since the real stuff tends to be along the walls, and the fake stuff is in the center.]

Avoid food products that make health claims.  [If it had to be engineered and tested, it’s too fake to be part of a balanced Grandma diet.]

Eat meals.  [Grabbing a sack of food and wolfing it down in the car, or grazing all afternoon, is not a meal.  The way the French sit and eat for an hour and a half has all sorts of mechanisms built into it to provide satisfaction and feedback without stuffing yourself silly.]

These principles are the way Pollan avoids falling into the trap he’s set for himself, which is being someone who’s just condemned nutritionism, and then proceeds to write a diet book.  There are no recipes and no weight-loss schedule here– which is why it’s all the more startling when he suddenly turns up advocating we all take supplements.  Isn’t that exactly the kind of nutritionism, healthy eating reduced to a pill, that he’s been against in the rest of the book?  It may be good advice for the middle-aged, but so is making sure to invest in your employer’s 401k, that doesn’t mean it belongs in a book about looking at eating as a part of a rich and happy life, not as a system of self-medication.

One principle is perhaps the most thought-provoking: Eat less and pay more. It’s not that paying more is exactly a positive good, but until you know you’re paying more for your food and spending more time preparing it, you’re not getting the stuff that’s better for you, better for the farmer and the food chain.  If it’s cheap and convenient, there’s something wrong with it, is Pollan’s basic point.  To be that cheap, it must be being grown in a way that’s less than ideal.

*  *

In warning us against the latest breakthrough in nutrition science, Pollan runs the risk of being exactly that— this season’s Scarsdale Diet or The Zone or South Beach, the book that finally Explains It All… until the next one.  And in reviewing it, I run the risk of becoming the acolyte who has Found the Answer… until the next book.

Yet I think the first half of the book, demonstrating how completely farbungled our dietary situation is, thanks largely to science and experts who were just plain wrong, is extremely important— a key text of American skepticism and debunking, up there with Mencken and Jessica Mitford, if not as wittily written.

And the second half, if not entirely news you can put to use today, thinks seriously and practically through the issues involved in trying to get back to a more sensible way of eating in today’s world, as it’s just becoming possible enough to actually do it thanks to farmer’s markets and CSAs and so on.  It may not be possible to live entirely according to Pollan’s principles yet, without growing it all yourself, but living according to as many of them as you can will make that day come a little closer, and probably make your meals taste better— even as they also take longer to make and cost you more.

This is what Food TV would be like if I was in charge.

A while back I wrote about whether or not the length of my video podcasts was too long, too short, or just right. Now, having three of them under my belt, I’d like to say something about why they feel the way they do within that length.

The trend in all visual media has been toward more and faster cutting, punctuated by the little bursts of visual fireworks known in the trade as “Avid farts,” not because someone is farting avidly but because the Avid editing system was the one that first made this sort of pizazz easy to do (and overdo).  (Now Avid farts are within the grasp of anyone with a Mac, like me.)  Food TV is especially prone to this—every show about food zips and bips and POWS! through its running time like a dexedrine addict playing Batman, because it’s thought that a fast pace is the surest way to keep you from flipping the channel in search of other, more satisfying visual sensation.  In effect, to keep you from channel switching, television has taken on the form of channel switching within programs.

This works fine for professional TV for several reasons, not just because it keeps you hooked (hopefully) but because it makes shows easy to assemble in the editing room— you get lots of coverage (editor-speak for plenty of choices) but the cameraman or director doesn’t really have to make artistic decisions in the field, they just need to get some of everything. (Shoot them all, let Avid sort them out.)

But it imposes a real cost, too, which is that everything looks the same.  Every show looks the same, because it’s made in the same sausagey way, lots of little bits squeezed into the Tube.  And every place depicted in every show feels the same, since it’s filmed the same way and edited the same way.  Think about it: when have you ever watched a food program on TV and gotten a distinct feel for an individual place, that was so different from the other two in the same program?  Not too much more often than never, I’d say.  The mode of production imposes a uniform feel on every place they visit.

Well, I just don’t work like that.  One, as a one-man production band, I don’t have a second unit getting shots of everything; I actually think about what I’ll need while I’m there.  Two, as an editor shooting in the field, I’m shooting with a sense of what the piece will be like in the end— in a real sense, editing it in my head as I get it.  Three, I just don’t like that style.

That’s the main thing.  I don’t have to keep you from changing the channel, partly because I have no advertiser to worry about yet, but mainly because you went to some effort to watch it on your own, if you got this far you’re probably interested enough to stay to the end (unless I really screw it up).  So since I’m not driven by that need, I don’t have to make my podcasts like their shows.  I can take the time to soak in the atmosphere of a place, and make sure you get a real sense of what these high-pressure, industrial and yet artistic environments called kitchens and restaurants are really like— individually and uniquely.

I can slow down and just look, absorb, be.  Maybe some will find that boring.  But it can be hypnotic.  Think how many people have lost themselves in the circular space waltzes of 2001 or the desert emptiness of Lawrence of Arabia over the years.  Movies today are usually move-move-move but when they stop and let you be, in a place that’s new and interesting on its own, that can be the most compelling thing of all.

Of course, I’m not making the Lawrence of Arabia of barbecue or Chinese food here.  But I do want to take the time to give you a real chance to feel what these places are like, and never to wonder what the place was you just saw because it moved by so fast and felt just like all the others.

So that’s part of why these are like this, and not that.

Here’s a quick link to the newest podcast, and there are a couple of good comments too worth reading.

Thanks for links to Andrew at Gaper’s Block, Chuck at Chicagoist, and Bill Daley at the TribStew whose story on Taylor is also linked in the original thread. When I was at Taylor Cafe, Vencil Mares was talking about all the different places his customers come from (you get a little of that during the end credits) and he asked me again where I was from. I said Chicago, and he said, “You know that othah fellah from Chicago who came down here, wrote an article?” I looked and saw it was Bill’s piece on the wall; I’ve never met Bill in person but had a little back and forth with him on LTHForum, and so when Mr. Mares asked me that if I knew him, I thought, well, sorta yes and sorta no, in a 2008 Internet kind of way that’s not going to be easy to explain to an 84-year-old D-Day veteran in a small town in Texas….

I haven’t had a favorite cheap sushi place for a while. I guess I always have Tampopo, but looking for some place that’s a little closer and, sushi being sushi, hipper, I had enjoyed T-Spot Sushi on Lincoln near Irving on a couple of visits, but then experienced one of my most expensively disastrous meals of last year:

G Wiv, Stevez and I had the Pluto Nash of lunches at T-Spot. Not the most expensive disaster any of us had faced— since all three of us were at the infamous Devon Seafood Grill dinner, to name one, it couldn’t be— but in terms of sheer money burned, $79 before tip, for absolute nothingness returned, this really could be the all-time, Matthew Modine as a whimsical pirate, Matthew McConnaughy as an Indiana Jones type, Eddie Murphy in space champ.

Read each of our takes at the link above; very different ways of saying it, but an unmistakable common message of suckage. This was so disastrous, in fact, that it pretty much put me off modest-priced sushi (I really don’t believe in cheap sushi) for a while.

Cafe Umaiya is a spartan but cozy little place in the block that includes hot new Mixteco Grill, hot semi-new Angel Food Bakery, a place where I took a Betamax player to get it repaired, a place where Tom Hanks sends his antique typewriters to be repaired, and the usual assortment of Mexican groceries and Pilates or Curves spots. It’s run by Thais, but covers the usual pan-Asian repertoire from pad Thai to salmon skin rolls. My guess was that the Thai-type dishes would be better than tarted-up sushi rolls with too much sweetness and mayo to them. I wasn’t exactly right, but I wasn’t far wrong, either— the sushi rolls did tend to be tarted up that way, but on the whole, purely Japanese things scored quite a bit better than Thai-leaning dishes.

Tako-Su, octopus seaweed salad, was delightfully fresh and simple.

Singapore noodles, alas, were a rather wan rendition, with the taste of canned curry powder and overcooked vegetables. The late Hi Ricky did better.

The Winter roll, white tuna and herbs topped with tomiko, was fresh and clean-tasting, one of the better rolls I’ve had.

The Thailand roll would probably please a lot of people who like gloppy mayo-y rolls with a sweet flavor (it’s rolled in toasted coconut). One bite was probably enough for me, but at least on its own terms, it seems reasonably well thought out and not overdone as more “creative” rolls so often are.

Service was very friendly, as it nearly always is in Thai places, and the price of about $40 with tip for all of the above was extremely reasonable. Cafe Umaiya isn’t a sushi mecca but I’d say it’s a pretty good and reasonable neighborhood spot— or alternative to Mixteco on a night when the line’s going out the door.

Cafe Umaiya
1605 W. Montrose Ave.
Chicago, IL 60613

(What’s the number in the title? This is #9 in my quest to visit 50 restaurants that haven’t been talked about on LTHForum and are generally little known in the Chicago food community/press. To find more, click on “Restaurant Reviews” in the right-hand bar.)

Tags: , ,

Just as a very silly debate was raging on LTHForum about whether suburbanites ought to be a protected species, their eating habits saved from the indignity of being shot like fish in a barrel by snarky commenters such as myself, I happened to have reason to go to the suburb of Way The Heck South On The Dan Ryan and decided to take the slow way back along Harlem and Roberts Road, looking for actual food down there.

There’s a substantial middle eastern presence in that area, and in the past I’ve noted #2’s of a number of the Kedzie middle eastern places; and Steve’s Shish Kebab, formerly on 63rd near Midway, moved there a couple of years ago. But where there’s emigrants from the city, there are probably also brand new spots with no city cousins, and so I decided to hunt up one of those.

The one I found was Al-Basha, in Palos Heights, located in a strip mall and decorated with this jaunty fellow, who clearly comes from the same school of clip art as the Italian chef on your last pizza box.

Inside was not the most encouraging welcome, as the word “banquets” (usually a warning sign) might suggest.  The interior was sort of shabby posh, like a place your grandmother would go for brunch in Boca, and there were half a dozen parties scattered around the larger room, most of them smoking (it’s always surprising now to smell smoke inside a restaurant).  No one appeared to be in charge, and finally a large fellow lumbered out and provided service that seemed intent on defining the precise line between lackadaisacal and neglectful, though it did, at least, come with housemade pickles.

So my hopes for the food by this point were that it would be merely competent— after all, is it possible to screw up falafel and hummus?  I suppose so, but I hoped it would take more ingenuity than they really seemed likely to display.  Just be decent, don’t make me find a hamburger for my kids to keep them happy on the long drive home…

One bite made me ashamed of my snark-filled doubts.  Okay, maybe two or three bites, but that’s all.  This was all the standard stuff, but about as good as I’ve had it anywhere, including LTHForum fave raves like Salam or Steve’s.

Falafel were freshly-cooked, both beef shawerma and kifta kebab were moist and more flavorful than usual, and one dish seemed even innovative— a combination of hummus and foul, which merely meant a little bit of the latter bean dish was stirred into the hummus, but its earthy flavor added welcome complexity to the usual beige goo.  Atmosphere aside, Al-Basha makes me want to go back and keep digging further in this rich, but still fairly unexplored, area for middle eastern food.

Al Basha
7216 W. College Rd.
Palos Heights

(What’s the number in the title?  This is #8 in my quest to visit 50 restaurants that haven’t been talked about on LTHForum and are generally little known in the Chicago food community/press— though in this case, Steve Dolinsky beat me here, and I ended up mentioning it on LTHForum myself before posting.  To find more, click on “Restaurant Reviews” in the right-hand bar.)

Tags: , , , , , ,