Sky Full of Bacon

Our conversation (see parts one, two and three) turns to the ethical and legal dimensions of food:

MICHAEL GEBERT: So one of the things that happened in 2009 was, a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer discovered something called vegetarianism which none of the rest of us had ever heard of before, and promptly wrote a book to tell us heathens all about it. Now, I fully admit I haven’t read the book, my greatest exposure to Foer has come via an NPR piece, but my feeling based on how he came across there is, while it’s great that people are becoming more aware of how food actually gets made, and realizing that the comfy advertising picture of quaint farmerly bliss is a lie, I sense something essentially anti-food in the way Foer and others approach the topic— a Puritan revulsion against a culture of Costco-Walmart excess, like the way some environmentalism seems to be driven more by sophomoric reaction against suburbia and SUVs than by actual concern for the earth. And my problem with that is, if you can take away dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, you can take away what I want to eat, too.

I think there’s a potential war ahead between the Foers with their moral scolding and people like you and me who want to reform and improve the food system by supporting the things that taste better and, not coincidentally, are usually better for farmers and the environment too. So, are we the Cavaliers who must go to war against Foer’s Roundheads, or is this just a book-biz phenomenon rather than a food one?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: Not eating animals feels like the new Scientology, i.e. some seemingly incredible meaningful movement the wealthy, famous, and those with lots of free time can sink their teeth in to until they discover how empty the whole thing is. At the end of the day I’m mostly annoyed by those who feel they need to moralize and tell me what I should be doing, especially when what I do generally has no bearing on anyone else’s civil liberties.

Just this morning I read about the plaintiffs who are about to challenge Chicago’s handgun ownership laws in the Supreme Court. My knee jerk reaction, was, well, there’s a bunch of people I have no use for. After thinking about it for a few minutes though, while I believe none of us really should or need to be carrying around or filling our homes with handguns, I also fundamentally agree with what they are doing, i.e. fighting a system that’s telling them not to do something that inherently doesn’t hurt anyone (because as we know, guns don’t kill people. People kill people).

Of course you can go deeper and say that once one has a gun, they have the ability to take away someone’s most fundamental right, life. However, most of the people who want to bear arms desire to possess weaponry mostly because they’re sating a paranoia, engaging in sport, or at worst truly believing they’re acting as a deterrent against those who would infringe on their personal liberties. As a percentage, I think the number of gun owners who are looking to kill someone actively, even when attacked, and especially in an urban environment filled with educated folks, such as Chicago, is pretty low. In my world, I don’t have use for a gun, but I also don’t know if I have much use for those who say I can’t have one.

My attitude towards those who moralize and preach about vegetarianism is pretty much the same. You can be a vegetarian, but don’t insist that I be one as well. Of course, we have a bit more of a conundrum here in that, to eat meat is to inflict some measure of superiority or infringe on one’s liberty, and thus more challenging of my general life philosophy. I have no answer to the question of whether there’s a level of infringement that’s right or wrong or acceptable. Do animals even have civil liberties? Do plants have civil liberties? Do plants want to be eaten? Who’s to say chloryphyll and xylem and phloem aren’t just as precious as blood and flesh? In fact, one might argue they’re more important, for the exchange of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen afforded by the plant cycle may be more important to the survival of earth than anything. Maybe we should be eating nothing.

Obviously that’s not the case. Survival of our species requires sustenance. I do have a curiosity and belief that our meat eating played a large role in our evolution i.e. the biological changes that occurred in our bodies, whether it’s improved musculoskeletal structure or the growth in the size of our brains. It’s tough for me to believe primordial man evolved to hunting and killing animals purely out of boredom, sport, and some idea of moral superiority, and not also out of a natural physical need. Then again it could be, no way to really tell.

That being said, basically along the way, we all make some choice about what we feel deserves to be eaten and what does not, and for every right reason we pursue that choice, there’s also generally some part of that choice fraught with some measure of poor logic, guilt, or other questionable external factor, even in the most committed of us. There are too many things we can not or do not know in the science or the spiritual balance of what we eat that no one can really definitively declare what’s right. However, and I know this is an assumption, but there’s a lot more allowable ambiguity to what and how we eat than there is for me in say allowing pedophilia.

The best thing we can do is be responsible and respectful in the choices we make. I certainly know where my food comes from, and I do believe that whatever I do eat has a right to a well-lived and well fed life before I may eat it. I also believe that if you’re willing to eat meat, you shouldn’t shirk the truth of what that means. I have no respect for meat eaters who say, I love meat, but I would never actually kill an animal. Those people are the first people that should be vegetarians if you ask me. Just as the vegetarians who pursue food that looks and tastes like meat, fake bacon and tempeh dogs or what have you, are still feeding the culture of meat-eating and thus should probably still be eating meat. I’ve killed birds and fish for a meal, and though I know it wouldn’t be easy, would be willing to do the same for any bigger animal that would be my dinner, because I understand the contract of what it means to eat meat. Because I understand that contract, and also because I value and appreciate the inherent taste of many vegetables and fruits, I tend to eat balanced meals and small portions of meat, sort of the Pollanesque ideal. If we have say steak or chicken on our plate, it’s usually like a 3 or 4 oz portion. Many nights we do not eat meat.

I’ve only read a small piece of the Foer stuff, so I’m not sure if he’s moralizing or advocating that we should all be vegetarians, or he’s just exploring his personal vegetarianism publicly, so it’s hard to comment specifically. However, it seems as if you say, his vegetarianism may be motivated or rooted in a cultural backlash of sorts. I know part of his motivation to explore the topic was to decide what he should be doing for his kids. As a father of a young child, while I want him to eat well, I intend to provide as wide a food picture as I can. I have a tough time thinking I should be the only arbiter or worse, an exclusionary force in what my son eats. I believe in giving him a cross-section and letting him decide to some extent, but then again maybe that’s because I believe meat eating is ok, especially done moderately.

Even then when I don’t love something, say what’s going on in big agriculture or commercial food culture, I still think it’s ok for my son to have a chicken nugget or a box of Kraft mac and cheese once in a while. The bulk of my food dollars will on balance go to buying locally produced and grown food, because I think that’s what tastes best and what supports the future world I want to live in, but I’m not the kind of person who’s likely to ever tell people they should be like me. I may however be ok telling the story of why I made the choices I did, and if that’s what Foer is doing, I’m ok with it.

What I think most important is eliminating the extremes. They generally are the most harmful. While I love small family farmed organic or sustainably farmed produce and animals, I’m not convinced it’s the future and smart model of agriculture, just as I think spraying and genetically modifying and threshing the hell out of everything isn’t either. To feed the world well, we will need a level of efficiency that I think will be a hybrid of the corporate and the individual models. I feel the same way about how we eat. We shouldn’t subsist on leaves alone, but we shouldn’t be out launching bazookas at herds of animals and killin’ em and grillin’ em while drooling near the campfire. Though it should be noted that I think Ted Nugent, who might be the poster child and the author of a cookbook called Kill Em and Grill Em, has thought deeply about what he does and respects animals more than your average vegetarian.

GEBERT: You know, at the risk of violating my own version of Godwin’s Law, which is that any productive discussion is over as soon as somebody brings Sarah Palin into it, one of the key food moments of the previous year, 2008, for me was the wave of revulsion that people had when they saw pictures of the governor of Alaska hunting moose in camo and eyeliner. So many of the comments revealed how clueless city folk are about life lived close to nature— it was obvious many people assumed that she would carve two steaks out of the moose and leave the rest of it to rot, unlike us civilized folk who buy our meat in styrofoam trays at the supermarket.

Of course, the exact opposite is true— people in Alaska who shoot a moose themselves will make 100 different meals out of it and not waste a thing; while all the bad things about eating meat come from those of us who live off the industrialized food system that turns animals into cannibals and pumps them full of antibiotics and makes them live in confinement and causes E. Coli outbreaks and, in this week’s ick story in the New York Times, built a business making hamburgers out of reprocessing the tiny bits of meat off fat scraps. So I think it’s good that Michael Pollan and others are educating us about how our food system really works and how our food gets made, with the intent of encouraging us to work toward a better system in which we eat less but better meat, for our own health and the health of the food system and the environment it affects.

The trouble is, Pollan’s a really good researcher and writer who knows there aren’t easy answers and that our food system represents a tremendous achievement in its own right, food so abundant that for the first time we have an obesity problem among the poor. He recognizes that it would be disastrous to shut it down; the question is how to evolve it toward being better, as we evolved automobiles from being gas-guzzling deathtraps to eco-cuddly hybrids, or popular music from Cole Porter to Lady Gaga. But then the subject gets taken up by other people who aren’t such good writers— they may be good stylists but they’re lazy, cheap thinkers. I ripped through Mark Bittman’s Pollan-ripoff book for that, and Foer too makes easy, overblown analogies— slavery, the Holocaust, eating dog— that seem designed to flatter the moral superiority of the reader rather than have anything to do with a realistic solution.

Much of this to me is just the latest chapter in the narcissism of Baby Boomers— if I buy frozen chicken nuggets I’m killing the planet, but if I buy organic free range chicken I’m saving it! This is simply a poor understanding of math as much as anything. If you buy or don’t buy chicken nuggets, your total effect on the 2009 U.S. consumption of chicken nuggets is a dot and a percentage symbol with a lot of zeroes in between them. You are a drop in an ocean of food. But if you buy a few free range chickens, your effect on Farmer Brown this week is substantially greater— a couple of percentage points of his take home pay for the week, potentially. So realistically, for right now, your power to do good is much greater than your power to do harm, and if you can shift a certain amount of your buying toward such purchases, you’re doing something virtuous. But obviously it’s a well-known psychological phenomenon that there’s secret satisfaction in beating yourself up for little sins, and that doing so is often, in fact, a form of pride— “I, the worst of all!”

And at that point, it’s not about food at all. It’s about moral poses, and that’s what worries me, because there’s no easier way to get government smack into the middle of everything, making moral choices for us. Now, like you, besides paying more for better meat, I am also trying to be a little more vegetarian here and there, and to eat less junk, and so on; and to teach my kids to do so.  I joined a CSA this year to force myself to get more creative with vegetables, and I’ve been making vegetarian soup all year.  Again, if I can make a net improvement in all that, great— but I’m not going to be consumed by guilt on the days it doesn’t happen. Partly because there’s simply no question that we evolved as omnivores, eating as much meat as we could get, and that it was hunting and a high-fat diet that gave us the brains we have today.

Ah, but we’ve used our technology to overcome many other savage habits, why shouldn’t eating animals be one of them? This is a hard thing to argue against— and it’s only going to get harder when lab-grown meat hits the market in the next few decades. If you think it was hard to make popular arguments for foie gras, just wait till you have to argue in a political forum why it’s more moral to raise and kill natural meat than to eat Insta-Beef™ from a factory, where no animals were harmed in the making of this pot roast. I believe something essential about our natures and about our connection to nature will be lost at that point, even moreso than it already is with today’s unnatural factory farming— but I also fully expect to be painted as a monster who wants Bambi to suffer and die for my sick gastronomic pleasures. I’ll be the equivalent of Nick Naylor in Thank You For Eating Meat.

To bring it back to the present day, we’re seeing a good example of how government can expand to crowd out our choices right now in the realm of charcuterie. I love the fact that there’s so much experimentation and interest in charcuterie and preserving on our restaurant scene. We could both name a lot of restaurants where that’s one of the real glories of the menu and a driving force of creativity in the kitchen. Yet as Heather Shouse’s terrific Time Out piece made clear, it all exists at the mercy of the health department which could kill it off in an instant. The barriers to entering the field are unnecessarily expensive and difficult, the usual old Chicago game of forcing you to spend a lot of money getting a piece of paper from somebody who’s well connected. And I know at least one old-school shop which is basically in the process of getting out of the housemade charcuterie biz because the health department just comes down harder every time they visit, they can see the writing on the wall.

Now, as small-L-libertarian as I am, meat inspection is one of those things I do actually think government should be doing. And those guys that Mike Sula wrote about with the bootleg charcuterie biz, they had to know they were asking to be shut down with that kind of publicity. But the problem is, it’s much easier for government to say no— either with an outright ban or by making the cost of meeting regulation too high for all but the well-connected big players— than to take the risk of allowing something. Too often, we are protected from the hypothetical small dangers, while the real dangers are big enough to be protected politically.

NAGRANT: The real problem I think is that there’s a real possibility that while Palin is out there shooting the Elk and throwing out her heirloom recipes for everything from silky Elk culatello to crispy elk ears to the press (which she obviously didn’t steal from Cindy McCain, I mean Gale Gand), when everyone goes home, she’s letting that stuff rot in the massively large deep freeze ice chest she bought with the tax rebate she paid herself and all Alaskans on behalf of the rediculously out of whack Federal subsidies Alaska receives annually.

Yeah, I also agree with you on the charcuterie thing. The nature of the cooking beast is that after a few chefs like say Adria or Achatz show how cool stabilizers or foams can be, a bunch of culinary school drop-outs start thinking they can be the next super molecular gastronomist, but they have no clue as to what they’re doing. And if they choose charcuterie as their weapon, well poorly cured meat is generally much more lethal than poorly aerated foam. Although, to be fair, you could probably make someone really sick if you served too much of some of the stabilizers out there. Which is interesting…that you don’t need any special license to wash food in sodium alginate or calcium chloride, or to mix transglutaminase in to everything, a practice which is a byproduct of the modern commercial food revolution, and yet everyone’s freaked out and licensing the hell out of a centuries old tradition with a pretty good track record of success. But, yes regulation has its place especially when the capacity to kill people exists. However legislative bodies as you point out would rather shut everything down than deal in nuance and exception. This of course is why Obama was so appealing. Here is the first man in a long time who seemed like he could be deliberative in his leadership approach. Maybe he should work on a national charcuterie initiative after the health care thing finishes up.

Also, minor issue, but I like Lady GaGa. I accept that she’s one big contrived mess, but she plots like no one else, and I believe her underlying talent is pretty real. She excites me in a early to mid career Prince and Madonna way. There are far more vapid hacks out there, Kid Sister I think being one of them. Everyone’s calling her album the dance pop album of the year, and maybe on paper it is, but I don’t think she can perform it live, and so for my money it’s GaGa all the way.

Lab cultured meat is certainly an interesting consideration. Harold McGee has been talking a lot about how the science says terroir in wines is a fallacy. While I think he’s on to something, I’d sure like for him to make a Clos du Mesnil style grand cru champagne in his lab for a couple of bucks and send it to me just to be sure. But that being said, I think there is a real case to made for terroir or the impact of environment on animals, maybe my most recent example being the acorn edition prosciuttio from La Quercia. The fat on that action really tastes like nuts, and I have a strong feeling it’s really all in accordance with the diet. Then again, I guess if we’re smart enough to culture meat, we’ll be smart enough to culture the enzyme that gives of hazelnut funk too.

GEBERT: I have no knowledge of the dark secrets of the Palin freezer, but in general, people in Alaska aren’t kidding about that stuff. I knew a guy in college who went off to be a newspaper editor in Bristol Bay, and during the two weeks the salmon run, everybody in town, newspaper editors and doctors and everybody (maybe not governors), goes to work canning fish. I always thought that was cool, that there was still a place that connected to its food source socially. One of my favorite recent food books, The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, which is about a guy who goes out to hunt and pick everything he needs for a 19th century dinner out of L’Escoffier, has an excellent chapter in Alaska that shows just how thrifty and ingenious they have to be to survive. I’d love to see those who hate hamburger culture turning to that level of low-impact food ingenuity rather than the future of industrial-sized veganism they imagine. Hell, I’d love to see a politician who actually made his own sausage, and not just as a metaphor for the legislative process.

Interesting point about the chemicals in trendy cooking. In general, charcuterie and preserving ought to be like anything else, a few good courses and we trust people not to kill us, I mean, a wrapped baked potato held for a few hours can breed Clostridium botulinum, there’s not something radically different about preserved foods that makes them a unique threat. I think it was Laurence Mate, who runs a legal charcuterie club downstate, who pointed out that plenty of people got meat-borne illnesses from lettuce last year, but not from restaurants making sopressata; the really scary thing is when corners get cut on an industrial level, and those guys won’t even close like a restaurant that sickened patrons would; they pay a fine and go right back to it, over and over.

TOMORROW: Gourmet, Twitter, Top Chef and all that jazz

Our conversation (from here and here) turns to food media, a subject dear to our hearts and, consequently, one we go on about at some length…

MICHAEL GEBERT: 2009 was an eventful year for food media, clearly we’re moving away from some things and toward some new things, in terms of the kinds of media we have and in terms of the relationship that readers have with food media.  But I’m not sure we got much closer to whatever the future is going to be, at least from the standpoint of how it’s going to get paid for.  So the question I’m going to throw out is, what do you think were the important things that happened in food media in 2009, and where are they pointing us?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I’ve got a lot of ideas here, but I think I’ve said a ton on Facebook and Twitter, so I’ll start brief and react to your thoughts on the subject.

The most salient of all events I think is how Robb Walsh and Sam Sifton said goodbye to anonymity explicitly and implicitly respectively.  How and why that happened makes a ton of sense, everything from the internet and proliferation of identity to the fact that save the NYT and a few others no one has the luxury of paying someone to write one article a week or one article a month and also shell out as much to support the dining budgets for such articles.  We have to be critics, features writers, and newsbreakers all at the same time, and as such anonymity is pretty impossible to pull off and trying to do so makes the job harder in general.

I think even more in general, bottom line, the old j-school ethics line doesn’t matter to consumers (maybe it never did – just to those who went to j school or grew up on the beat in newsrooms).  What matters bottom line over anything is that you tell a good or entertaining story and given a choice, being entertaining supercedes all.

GEBERT: Here’s where I think the job of reviewer is going. The classic restaurant reviewer has two jobs to perform for the reader: one is to be a learned writer on the scene, the other is to provide the raw material for a consumer guide in the process. So he dines secretly and carefully over some months and finally pronounces his learned judgement on a restaurant, awarding it two or three or four stars (almost never less than two). Then, six months later, the ideal reader of the paper, let’s call him Don Draper, is looking for a place to take his wife for an anniversary, and so he scans the consumer guide to find a place his wife hasn’t been to that won three or four stars… six or 12 or 24 months ago.

Needless to say, I emphasize the yawning geologic epochs in this account because the world doesn’t work like that any more. In an age of farmer’s market-driven hyperseasonal dining, who the hell looks at a three-year-old review of Spiaggia and thinks it has advice worth following today? For the consumer guide, we turn to Zagat or Yelp or leaf through the What’s Happening Now!!! sections of Chicago or Time Out. But it’s also an archaic notion, or ought to be, that the primary function of your food section is still to satisfy the needs of businessmen on expense accounts for new upscale dining in the Loop. The audience and the subject are both so much more diverse today, why do we still focus on that one narrow slice at the top? (Maybe some of this comes from my background in film, where the fight to show that B movies often have more going on than self-important A movies was fought and won by Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris half a century ago.)

What I want from a reviewer now is not a dining guide for Winnetka executives, but a life fully lived in our food scene and reflected in their coverage of everything. When you, Michael Nagrant, write about fine dining places, you root it in a broader understanding of the food scene and wrestle with the food as an expression of an artist’s temperament.  In other words, you write about it personally, not with a target market’s needs in mind.  And that’s where I think so much of journalism is going— the big media conglomerates had half a century to subsume the personalities of their writers in a faceless marketing-driven mission and voice, and the result is that they’ve about driven the entire industry off a cliff.  What will save something, if not necessarily them, is the rediscovery of the individual journalist as a compelling personality.  That can take a lot of forms— it’s Kevin Pang doing his drily ironic take on Guy Fieri to put a face to his byline, but it’s also Monica Eng writing about how she feels watching animals die. What it’s not, is writing for an abstraction to serve a need he no longer has, if he ever existed and did.

And when you look at those as the priorities for the new millennium, the old ones start to look like a lot of smoke the media blew up their own backsides.  The rigorous rules about anonymity and so on that were so important to Don Draper’s sacred trust in your carefully rendered judgement for the ages matter a lot less when food writing is a lively, impressionistic, tweet-about-opening-night, if-you-disagree-with-today’s-opinion-there’ll-be-another-one-tomorrow business.  As you suggest (I’m finally getting around to one of your actual points!), it’s tough to do all that AND be the invisible reviewer monk at the same time.

Now… all that said, I have to say that I was, in my naive guy from Kansas way, shocked by the recent discussion of blogger ethics that took place on Twitter and Ellen Malloy’s RIA Unplugged. I am untroubled by the occasional goodie from the kitchen by a place I already like and know the chef at; I know I’m not exactly objective at that point, and I believe the world knows that, to the very tiny extent they care.  But to hear that there were people walking into restaurants and saying “I’m a blogger and that’s a f—–g valuable thing, feed me for free or else!”— I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was.  And I’ve had a couple of experiences recently involving PR firms or restaurants that made me wary of what they think they ought to get in return for a few baubles of food; if they think they can expect anything other than me being myself, then I don’t want to touch them.  So I don’t dismiss the dangers, and I think we’re in an era where you have to consider the source and suss out the hidden agenda of anything you read.  But that’s as opposed to when, precisely?

NAGRANT: Of everything you’ve said about the old media world, I pretty much agree.  Most saliently, I think, as you point out, the whole idea of writing a consumer guide for Don Draper, though it became the model, never really existed as a real demand, but as a contrived deliverable from a group of managers, err, editors.

For the last hundred years, the reviewers and even features writers, food or otherwise, that we remember and relish are the ones who made it personal and who gave real meaningful context.  If there’s anything to learn from This American Life, it’s that the bottom line to everything about life is the story.  If you tell a great story you can get away with anything, even reporting on mortgage backed securities or health care reform.  Ruth Reichl was a storyteller in everything she did.  At her very worst she was still an intrepid discoverer of something previously overlooked by the haute bourgeoisie foodies.  That’s why we love her.

That’s what frustrates me so much with Chicago’s major reviewers, Bruno, Vettel, and Dennis Ray Wheaton among others.  Their work is a checklist type affair of blow by blow course descriptions punctuated with cheap adjectives.  Anatomy of a typical review: Open with joke about noise or hot blondes or history of the chef.  Then, start talking about décor.   Get annoyed at noise level or server.   Finish with an anecdote about dessert.

Vettel is probably the best of the three and the most talented.  Every once in a while he says some really smart things, and if you were say 50+ years old and you remember when Le Francais was really something, you are probably entertained by his jokes on a regular basis. At worst he’s a decent writer who understands organization and structure. His features tend to be enlightening when he gets around to writing a few.

I appreciate Bruno from say 25 years ago.  There was a time when he was actually ferreting out the fringes, the far off Mexican spot or the mom and pop Italian joint that opened in a bad neighborhood. He was actually kind of a treasure in the mid eighties.  I don’t know what happened, but at some point he discovered he could collect a paycheck as long as he wanted by doing whatever he wanted and then writing a few bad paragraphs about it and he continues to do so.

What amazes me more than anything is that the organizations don’t demand more of these people.  I mean the thing about Kevin Pang is he could skate like these guys too I think.  His and Monica Eng’s success is pretty much a function of their personal initiative.  Not, only that, but the city and this food scene deserves more.   The reason we’ve come so far has nothing to do with the quality of our local stories, but of the national writers who swooped in and got it right. Everyone locally wrote some story about Michael Carlson and Schwa, but only Alan Richman came in and actually got it right.

But that being said, the tide is definitely changing.   Look at Chicago Magazine.  Dennis Ray Wheaton is out the door.  They didn’t hire a new writer.  Jeff Ruby took his spot and another editor took Ruby’s spot.  This to me looks like the first step in big organizations realizing they can’t justify paying a person to review full time if they’re not entertaining and drawing a real valuable large reading audience.  The irony of course is that I really believe and hope Ruby will be that kind of writer, and so maybe he’ll make the world safe again for those of us who love to read and eat.

As for anonymity, etc, again I’ve said a lot in other places.  Bottom line, my focus on anonymity and avoiding comps doesn’t have anything to do with j school lessons, old school guidelines, or some golden ideal.  For, me, human nature as I believe it is that when you get something from someone or put yourself in the position where one might give you stuff, relationships and actions change.  I want to avoid changing relationships as much as possible and just focus on what I can learn at the most objective level.

I understand that sometime to do so becomes a construct and/or getting closer than you would like or accepting something is totally unavoidable and sometimes it’s necessary to get a story, but I think if people would hew more towards the line of erring toward avoiding taking stuff or being friends, we wouldn’t be living in the ridiculous era of entitlement that we do.  I think part of the reason so many people are taking comps and asking for stuff etc and not feeling bad about it is, they’ve really come to believe that it’s all good and above board because the culture really says it is.

MICHAEL GEBERT: I haven’t seen that much of Ruby’s longform writing that I can recall offhand, but he seems to have a different sensibility from what’s become that magazine’s approach and I do hope he’ll bring new things to Chicago magazine. That magazine, to me, is probably in the position that Gourmet was in, maybe a few years ago, it has a solid moneyed subscriber base, but they also ain’t gettin’ any younger.

The Alan Richman piece on Schwa was one of those things where I just went damn, damn, I shoulda written that. I mean, I live two miles from Schwa, why couldn’t I just go hang out there day after day until I got that whole story? But then we come back to, if we’re doing this on our own, with no support staff, we can only do what we can do. I don’t have Richman’s name and I don’t have his budget, and that’s not just an excuse, it’s a real reflection of the limitations one faces as a one-man media outlet. Most of my podcasts are focused on one person in one place, because that’s what’s achievable for me to do with no organizational backup and maintain a schedule that can actually be considered a podcast. The fish ones got more complex because Carl made some connections for me and it was just lucky that the lady from Cleanfish was in town in the next couple of weeks. But normally, I don’t have the resources to get a zillion different perspectives— partly I do a This American Life of Food format because that’s what I can achieve by myself. So journalism is clearly going to change in big ways if it goes from being an organizational project to an individual one.

MICHAEL NAGRANT: One of the questions I have which really hasn’t been talked about regarding the future of food journalism, especially the written portion, is the prospect of making a full time living at it and how one does that, or if it’s even possible? I mean guys like you and [David] Hammond who freelance in the advertising and corporate worlds and also write, direct, or communicate very effectively, passionately, and deeply about food very much look like the future to me as things stand now.

Part of it still comes back to how we get people to pay for things on the net. Clearly you’ve shown you can get hundreds of thousands of people to view your videos. Likewise when I was doing Hungry magazine actively, I’d get 10,000 downloads a month of popular podcasts. If only each of those listeners paid 50 cents…blah blah blah….but the thing is getting people to do that actively is very difficult, and even if the payment method was ridiculously passive, the nature of the internet suggests that one cent is too much. We just expect things to be free. You may love what I do, but how I get paid is not your problem and it never will be. I’m definitely interested in some of these new methods, where say you can text a code and an amount and a charge will be added to your cell phone bill. I know micropayments have been talked about for a decade or so now, but they still seem to be a linchpin of sorts.

The other major idea at play is the difficulty of capturing people’s attention without resorting to being a major caricature or demagogue. Folks are still pretty adept at ferreting out quality when they see it, but there’s so much out there commanding their attention, they may never see it. Maybe it’ll come off as self-serving or egotistic, but this I believe, I’m really good at what I do. I’m not saying I can’t get better – I can get much better and hope I always believe that, but I know that what I do and the way I do it now, if I’d done it say twenty years ago, I really think I’d grown much more commensurate to my output and quality than I have in this era where everyone’s attention is divided a thousand times.

As for working for established organizations as a freelancer writing only about food, at least here in Chicago, it’s almost impossible long term. It’s easy if you’re early career, and if you work like me and write 25 pieces a month and work at last half the week in the evenings or weekends like you don’t have friends or family. If so, you can expect to earn about as much as you would in a very entry level job in corporate America or as an assistant retail manager. However, you won’t have benefits of any kind and you probably won’t make more than that in the future, as in four years of doing this, I have only seen one increase. Every single one of my other outlets has reduced pay or stayed the same over that period (and trust me not for lack of asking and negotiating).

While I love writing so much and have no problem writing until the day I die, my brain or my body may not always agree with me, and thus one does need some retirement plan. That’s pretty inconceivable for me right now, and I don’t mean I’m blowing what would otherwise be retirement cash on booze, babes, and baubles. I mean there is nothing left over after expenses related to the job and basic life stuff. Add in the idea of getting married and maybe wanting to have a kid, well, forget about sending them to college. However, I understand those are personal life choices and don’t apply to all, but we all have an expectation somewhere that’s reasonable that you can sub in for “family” or “kid” that can’t be met by food writing as a freelancer.

Even in the full-time world, I’m not sure I know many full time writers especially in their 20’s or 30’s who aren’t supplementing work with freelance and books, and not because they want to be famous, but because it’s tough to pay the bills on the salaries offered now. That’s why so many great writers become editors, because that’s how they get more money. Problem is they’re no longer writing, so they get frustrated and try to do their writing through their editing, and thus often restrain that personal voice we miss and value so much.

GEBERT: A big important subject (at least to those of us it affects; but it affects readers, too) and if I had the answers, I’d be out being a new media mogul making it happen. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet, and for much of that I have to blame my oldest profession, advertising. I was there as ad agencies let millions of dollars— their whole business, really— walk out the door because the people in charge only wanted to do the glamor part of the biz, TV commercials. So they let business walk to the sales promotion agencies and the direct mail agencies and then the internet agencies. And now much of the money that once went to support our media goes to end-caps in grocery aisles and beer company street festival sponsorships. I really feel like these people not only shot themselves in the foot (well, not personally, they’re all rich and retired in Boca) but did real harm to the journalism that supports democracy, because they were too goddam lazy and hidebound to steer their agencies into a new world where there would be solid ad networks capable of paying for all this new media and delivering measurable audiences to their clients.

So no, there is no clear path to making a decent living at this yet, and thanks to the internet all writers are sort of in the famous position of poets, that there are more poets than readers of poetry out there. And I suspect the dilettantes who dabble in food writing have always been a big part of the business— so much of the “lifestyle” side of journalism always belonged to women writers with lawyer or stockbroker spouses, or probably, editors’ and publishers’ mistresses (ah, the old days of journalism!). That said, I don’t rule out that there are lucrative pathways out there— Steve Dolinsky, after he attended that food writer’s conference at the Greenbriar (how can food writers afford the Greenbriar?), said a lot of the talk was about magazines, specifically microtargeted regional magazines, like all those Edible ones. They’re profitable because they smartly found an unserved niche— local restaurants and shops who might have a few hundred bucks to spend on an ad, but were being given the high hat by the big daily papers, who only cared about people with a few thousand and up to spend.

Create a quality, targeted environment a group of advertisers can afford, and hey, maybe you can vacuum up a lot of people with a little money each. (This is basically the same business model as one of your outlets, Chicago Social, except there it’s bars and jewelers.) So I believe there are opportunities out there, in a business sense (though ironically they still may be more in “dying” print than in wave-of-the-future online media). But if we had business sense, we wouldn’t be writers… or at least, we’d be James Patterson (another ex ad guy, by the way).

TOMORROW: Vegetarianism, charcuterie, and food as a matter of morality

My conversation with fellow food writer Michael Nagrant about the last year in Chicago restaurant openings and trends continues (from here):

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I don’t know if the recession prevented Town and Country from happening, or Dale Levitski prevented Town and Country from happening.  I mean I feel for the dude losing his mom, and I can see how the anguish would be crippling, but that being said, I also have a lot of suspicion about someone who’d rather accrue $4,000 in back rent and squat than leverage the reputation he has and get a job to pay the bills while he gets his ideal thing going.

But, yeah I hear you and agree.  The 2008 Brasserie Ruhlman/Trump Tower explosion etc was a total Michael Milken/Gorden Gekko/Edward Lewis (Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman) corporate raid by New York restauranteurs and chefs trying to leverage the reputation our homeboy chefs earned on the cover of every magazine in 2005-2007.  The cool thing is instead of Julia Roberts getting screwed, the economy screwed the carpetbaggers.

Speaking of the eighties, your fervor for these high low concepts has sort of a Roman Polanski reporting on his five minutes looking through the peephole to the girl’s locker room at the local junior high feel.  Well, ok, maybe more like you just did a couple lines of coke from Jack Nicholson’s golden bowl-type enthusiasm (I kid), but still, I’m not sure I’m as positive about the actual execution.

I agree with the theory and ideal you outline, about the possibility of exploring authentic culture deeper and offering value in the process.  However, I feel like the general reality has been that those folks practicing this new form of restaurant ownership are subconsciously or otherwise using the low part of it as an excuse to lower their expectations.

Bill Kim worked at Charlie Trotters for a while.  I can’t believe he got by without tasting his food on a nightly basis.   And yet, there’s this wild inconsistency of plates served at Belly Shack and Urban Belly in terms of salt, mouthfeel, and balance.  Thing is, when it’s on, it’s really something.

But, where’s the discipline?  I feel like the real value of these high level chefs opening lower end concepts up is in their ability to enforce the discipline from the high level at the low level.  The most remarkable thing about places like Blackbird, Trotter’s, Alinea, irrespective of how you feel about the powders or the close tables and loud music or the relatively now old school fusion (guess which is which) is that the food experience is military precision consistent.  The dish that goes out unsalted or underseasoned at these spots in my experience is a very rare thing.  You may not agree with the flavor combinations or may dislike the intellectual underpinnings, but rarely have I disagreed with the technical execution at these spots.

Then again, Big Star gets that right, in fact, again I agree with you, pork belly taco, nice fusion of the worlds, though I’ll quibble that that since a pork belly McGriddle is pretty much a fait accompli at this point, maybe it’s not so impressive. Also, Paul Kahan’s tacos are a lot tastier than Wolfgang Puck’s pizzas, and soup for that matter.  I’ve never understood it, but while I respect Puck as one of the most innovative chefs of his time and a back upon which many stand, he has a Kevin Costner like ability to suck it up when unveiling mass-market concepts.    But, look past the food at Big Star and you start focusing on the vinyl stools and fake rough hewn pine look or whatever and ache for the real character one really would have found in Bakersfield in the 50’s.

If Merle Haggard walked in to Big Star, the record player would screech to a stop and a group of hipsters in Ryan Adam’s t-shirts would converge on him and beat his ass.  The sleek unfinished comforting womb off Avec has somehow given way to the concrete and Home Depot factory second finishes that look like a cold unfinished family basement.

Interesting on Powerhouse….as I said then, the place looked like a steakhouse as imagined by the Ramada Inn interior design team.  However foodwise, and I’m not sure if you ate there when John Peters was in the kitchen or when he’d left, but while it was very straightforward, it was a technically precise elevated level of comfort food I was really excited by.  In that same vein, my new foodie fan boy obsession right now is Kith and Kin – David Carrier’s of Trio, French Laundry and Andrew Brochu’s of Alinea, Pops new spot.  The only thing revolutionary about it is that they’re serving what you want to eat every day seasoned at incredibly perfect levels, aka Michelin chop mom food.   It’s sort of this perfect marriage of what I’ve been looking for from Bill Kim, Blackbird team etc…I mean you even get a sort of reinvention of form in that you get what seems like your everyday Montreal Poutine augmented by French Laundry quality gravy, all for like $6.   Of course, the disclaimer for those who don’t know, I had an essay in the Alinea book, and so maybe I’m prone to liking Alinea shoot-off dudes, though I never knew or met John Peters or David Carrier – they were before my time.

The culture guy friend of yours who doesn’t know about Alinea, yeah, I mean talk about humbling.  I’d say 9 out of the last 10 people I’ve mentioned the word Alinea cookbook or restaurant to, look at me like I’m from Mars, including a person who lived two blocks from the place. Again, I don’t know if this is the entrée to the media discussion or discussion about how food journos make a living in the next decade.  But when Gourmet Mag’s best restaurant in America isn’t on people’s radars, can we even expect to make a living talking about food that doesn’t involve me getting a surf punk color and cut and wearing sunglasses on the back of my head?

MICHAEL GEBERT: To answer a few of these things in not too long a manner: the unfortunate thing about these high/low joints, and now I’ve been to Xoco too, is that they all seem to be struggling to hit half the menu being worth a damn.  (For instance, I think the potstickers at Urban Belly were one of the most egregious cases of critical— and LTHForum— emperor’s-clothesism this side of Cho Jung.  Honestly, I could buy a bag of shu mai from Trader Joe’s, stick ’em in freshly made ginger soy sauce, and claim they were Slagel Farm organic goat-testa potstickers from Urban Belly, and nobody would call me on it. It’s mainly the soups that wowed me there.)  At Trotter prices, that failure rate would be unacceptable.  But the point is, they’re not at Trotter prices (although they’re not necessarily so revolutionary in pricing, either; I wouldn’t say that Xoco is any cheaper than Frontera, really, and if Avec dished you up three tacos, I don’t think it would be that much more than $6).

Maybe a lot of the difference in our outlooks is that so much of my food adventuring happens at lunchtime.  I’m pretty damn grateful for Belly Shack existing, ready to serve me something interesting and with a certain affected chicness at 12:30 on Tuesday.  You are, of course, right about the inauthenticity of Big Star’s interior, which is about as honky-tonk as a dorm room at Brown, but again, that’s a complaint about the execution, not the philosophical issues involved in being a Baudrillardian simulacrum of a Texas roadhouse by way of Sprockets.  Anyway, I hope we get ten more of them this year, and five will have something worth going back for, and two will, hopefully, be really good.  Let a thousand pork belly tacos bloom.

I ate at Powerhouse at what should have been John Peters’ highpoint, but I thought it was a well-executed, largely unmemorable meal, like dining in the best non-Disney-property restaurant in Orlando (which I also did, some years ago).  I have more hopes for the comfort food at Kith & Kin, even if it does sound like a tea shop opened by two lesbians with lots of cats.  As for your future career tasting 20-gallon tubs of slop and going “Whoa, now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about,” perhaps that is the segue to our food media discussion….

TOMORROW: The Food Reviewer, Dinosaur or Last Man Standing?

This year food writers in Chicago seemed to do as much writing about the act of writing about food in backchannel places like Twitter and blogs as they did actual writing about food.  Those discussions were lively, fun and not entirely closed to outsiders, but even those participating in them often felt that important pieces of the conversation were happening just out of sight.  So I invited the published-everywhere, tireless Michael Nagrant to kick some of this stuff back and forth with me here, in a more coherent form than a stream of tweets.  Also unlike on Twitter, the discussion quickly ran very long, so all this week I’ll be running it as a series of back and forths.  We start with the subject of how the year looked from the point of view of new restaurants; one of us thought it was a bad year, one of us, surprise, thought the very opposite:

MICHAEL GEBERT: Welcome to Baconland, sir. Despite the recession, it seems like we had no shortage of openings this year and really, not that many closings of places that weren’t on life support already.  If anything, we had fewer big boom and busts, like the way the year before we suddenly had a bunch of places with “brasserie” in their name, then quickly had a bunch of closed brasseries.  How did the year look to you as far as the food scene goes in Chicago?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: Yeah, I mean last January, I think everyone was all doomsday about the death of dining out etc. I can’t say I was any different. It just seemed like there was a big shake-up coming.

However, as someone who cooks at home a lot, I made the mistake of thinking everyone else does too. I think I’ve underestimated the general public’s frequency of dining out, which is to say despite the proliferation of Food Network, artisanal this and that blah blah blah, people more than ever don’t know how to cook, and thus, eat out a ton. Constrained by a bad economy, they may do it less, but they still do it. Eating out at the really high end may still be a luxury, but I’m not totally convinced eating out in general is a luxury anymore as much as it’s become a way of life and pseudo-survival. The chefs who understood that, scaled down, offered $2 tacos or $8 gourmet burgers etc and captured that market on its way down to some extent.

I also think what ended up happening, or why we didn’t see a big boom bust, is that the class most responsible for such cycles, i.e. all the foodie dilettantes with extra money, the surgeons or lawyers or investment bankers who think opening a restaurant is all about having a club house to party at or that it’s like throwing their annual dinner party stayed out of the market. They were either scared away or they just didn’t have the liquid cash for such ventures.

The folks who ended up opening anything last year were opening up second or third restaurant launches. They were established groups, who knew what they were getting in to, and thus understood how to manage a restaurant, the importance of being well capitalized, and were poised to take advantage of some of the real estate deals being offered in a depressed economy. Last year was the year of Bill Kim, the Blackbird team, the Lula team, the Frontera team, Mia Francesca folks, well-funded hotels launching restaurants, Michael Kornick, and Hearty Boys.

I do think super high-end dining was impacted to some extent. Rumors were everywhere about the empty tables at Charlie Trotters and L20 on Friday and Saturday nights. Laurent Gras told me they were down 33% a year ago. The thing is, more than any other segment, these are the best funded of restaurants and probably those most likely to survive a downturn, at least in the short term because they actually have operating capital on hand.

I also saw some of the most marvelous PR campaigns of my life last year. I mean late 2008, early 2009 was the year of L20 – Gras was everywhere, NYT, Wall Street, Esquire etc etc…when the chips were down, some people got super-creative.

That being said, there was a real thread of conservatism and a general lack of innovation in what happened. 2009 was the least inspiring year of restaurant openings in the last seven or eight for me. Not that it matters in the final equation to me much, but I wasn’t inspired by any dining room architecture, save the ceiling fresco at Cibo Matto. When the most innovative part of a new Paul Kahan restaurant is the dulce de leche milkshake, it just doesn’t feel right.

Also, the biggest thing to suffer as a result of this economy is service. Service just seems to get worse and worse, which I find counterintuitive. I mean, with the glut of out of work folks, you figure restaurants have some hungry competition for top notch servers, and yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. I mean this, no irony…when I’ve gone back to Detroit to visit my folks and ended up in a chain restaurant, I’ve generally gotten much better attentive sincere and knowledgeable service than I have at fine dining spots in Chicago. Not sure why that is.

What did you think? Excited, not excited?

GEBERT: Well, I’m pretty excited by the high/low combinations popping up.  Not that I think any of them is perfect, but I guess I felt like some of the high end openings of last year (say, Brasserie Ruhlmann) were like a repeat of the 80s, from the Donald Trump feeding Nancy Reagan’s social set with decor by Mario Buatta era of moneyed glitz— literally, of course, in the case of Sixteen, which actually is in a Trump property.  And as a devoted subscriber to Spy back in the day, been there done that.  (That also may reflect my own increasing unwillingness to drop the wad on $400 meals of dribbles and powders, in favor of the let’s-cook-every-frickin’-thing-on-a-naturally-raised-pig school of Vie, Mado, The Bristol, etc.)  I mean, we nearly had a restaurant with the ultimate stuck-up-WASP name, Town and Country.  If nothing else, the recession prevented that.

So anyway, even if Belly Shack has the phoniest graffiti in town, and charges a lot (relatively) for a kogi sandwich I compared to the future kogi pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, there’s something really appealing about guys from that world descending to earth and battling Subway and a million bar burgers and pizza deliverers for a place in the hearts of people who want change back from a $20.  As I commented on your most-important-restaurants-of-the-decade piece, I see this as the real area of excitement over the next couple of decades, young Asian entrepreneurs creating Asian fast food concepts that reflect their own cultures much more deeply than Panda Express or La Choy canned chop suey does, yet with a Disney/Blade Runner-esque feel to them that cannot be called authentic in any traditional sense.  Like Beard Papa, that opened last week— I mean, who knew we were lacking a national cream puff chain?  I’m not sure I’m even sure what a cream puff is, exactly.  Yet go read how CrazyC salivates over the first dozen she bought at LTHForum.

I think this is a heartening development not least because, as you say, the high end foodie world isn’t even the tip of the iceberg, it’s the ice cube on the top of the tip, and the iceberg is still megaboxes of frozen crap from Costco or Jewel.  I was surprised, but not really, some months back when I mentioned Alinea to another dad from my son’s class, and he’d never heard of it.  Big deal, except this guy does marketing research for arts organizations, he’s as versed on high culture in town as anybody, he’d be astonished if I’d never heard of Barenboim, yet high food culture just isn’t on his radar in the same way.

I don’t want to jump ahead to the media discussion portion, but for me so many of these issues are interlinked— the importance (or not) of four-star dining, the importance (or not) of reviewers for Establishment media, the increased attention paid to the diversity of ethnic dining, the increased attention I pay to bloggers and food sites where they talk about low-end dining.  They’re all part of a broadening of how people look at dining, forged initially by people like Calvin Trillin and the Sterns and then greatly accelerated by the internet.  And to me that’s had a huge influence on everything, from once hoity-toity media deigning to acknowledge that such dining exists, to chefs being unafraid to play around in low-end genres.  Ten years ago, Wolfgang Puck started selling pizzas in airports, he was a whore.  Now Paul Kahan starts selling tacos in a dive bar, and it’s the cutting edge.  And, not coincidentally, it’s accessible to a lot wider swath of Chicago than Blackbird is.

Even though I felt like a lot of Big Star was No Big Deal, there’s one thing there that absolutely shows the value of high end chefs entering a low end genre, and that’s the pork belly taco.  There are ten million taquerias in Chicago, but it took Kahan and Co. to put pork belly on one.  (Yes, I expect it happens at carnitas places all the time, but I don’t know of a place specifically selling pork belly tacos.)  That’s because small Mexican businesses are all conservative, they’re all about hewing to tradition.  The great ones are the ones that hew to tradition without crappy American foodservice compromises.  But it took chefs from high end dining, where novelty is a selling point, to shake it up and innovate something like the pork belly taco.  So that intersection of high and low is, again, the place for me where the real excitement is happening.

I’m less concerned about architecture, though I enjoy that and, in general, think it’s an upscale restaurant’s job to put on a show from the moment you walk in.  I can’t think of a place where I’ve walked in and found the room boring that I didn’t find the food boring too. (Powerhouse, for instance, was one recent failure where an underexciting meal started with prophetically bland decor.)  But I’ll go along with you that we didn’t see much excitement at the high end, but I’m okay with that.  Broadway was safer than ever, but Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway were pretty damn exciting.

TOMORROW: Nagrant explains why I’m crazy

So it being the first of the year and whatnot, I decided to take an inventory of the various charcuterie projects I have going.

Saucisson Sec. I’ve served a few people off one of the sausages I made from the Ruhlmann book, and as noted before, it’s been universally praised. I’m very happy with this one and this recipe. I took the remaining sausages down and carefully examined the ones that had been problematic. The one where I circled a blue mold spot on the outer skin seemed fine; I’m still going to treat it carefully. The one that really did have problems was one of the two that were too long for my wine cooler, and I had make them slightly j-shaped; this one I could see had formed a gap inside the casing at the point where the meat had to make a left turn, and not surprisingly, a little fuzz grew there. I trimmed it off substantially above where that point was, about 2″, but a very modest taste test of the upper portion (which looks great) seemed fine. Still, I’m going to do a little reading and not be surprised if that one has to go.

Sopressata. Well, having made two things from Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand, I can safely draw one conclusion: he likes cloves a lot more than I do. I tasted this today (having just reached its suggested range of 50 to 60 days) and clove was the main thing I tasted. The pork didn’t seem to have nearly the good funky flavor that it does in the saucisson sec; it doesn’t have the lactic funkiness of great sopressata, or the clean porky flavor of the meat. Really, it was kind of blah. It’s also not very pretty because the skin is all wrinkled up and dried on the outside, not snugly wrinkled like the saucisson sec. Not sure if something didn’t go right— I did make it much smaller than the customary sopressata size, which surely affected something— but I guess I’m glad I didn’t make all of these and still have most of the ground pork, unseasoned, in my freezer. I put this back to hang another week, what the hell, and I’ll try it again then, but in the meantime, I may start investigating a different recipe that can use that quantity of leg meat.

Coppa. I unwrapped the coppa to see how it was doing. Of all of these, it spent the least time in the less than optimal conditions of the wine fridge and the most in the fairly perfect conditions of my wine cellar in wintertime. It looks great! It’s lost over a third of its weight (1105 to 698 grams), feels appropriately gnarled, smells appropriately spicy-funky. I’m looking forward to this one a lot.

By the way, I was just sent some samples by a new artisanal charcuterie company here in the midwest, and tried one of them last night.  Very promising… watch for a report soon.

Check Out My Sausage!
Misadventures in Sausage-Making
Feeling Better About My Sausage
More About My Meat
How My Meat’s Hangin’
Meat on the Move