Sky Full of Bacon

So after spending much of the week debating the morality of the $6 tamale, I knew that I would have to go back to Green City Market and try the savory ones that everyone was raving about and at least some people considered worthy of the $6 price tag.

I approached the stand carefully, scanning it to see if a blurry photo of me with “DO NOT SERVE” was tacked up anywhere. Actually, they shouldn’t be too upset with me, considering the number of people I know who twitted something this morning about going to get “$6 tamales.” Blogging about overpricing— the new way to boost your business!

The coast was clear and after a brief wait in line, I was the proud owner of $12 worth of tamales. I will note that a woman came up, said “They’re six dollars— for one?”, and left while I was standing there.

Though it’s possibly the least appetizing-looking thing I’ve eaten in some months, I liked the spicy (hardly) chorizo one quite a bit. The chorizo had good flavor, there were some bits of zucchini mixed in, and best of all the grease from the chorizo had soaked into the masa in an especially appealing way.

The brisket one had the rich flavor of pot roast and the toothsomeness of masa… but that was kind of all it had. I wanted another flavor note to sneak in there— like the spices that would have been added to a Mexican pork one at a $1.50 tamale place.

I liked these pretty well, but I still found them a little small and sparse (if there’s anything you can be generous with, it’s zucchini in July), and I can’t say I see spending $6 on them regularly. Maybe it’s just me and tamales, which I think are fine, but would not rank among my favorite things, partly because of the soft, no-teeth-needed texture, which doesn’t appeal to me all that much in general (when Kennyz was raving about how well the polenta was cooked at Davanti, I just sort of nodded, yeah, whatever, it’s polenta). I’ve certainly heard from enough tamale-lovin’ folks this week to believe that Las Manas is doing something right for somebody— I’m just not them.

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Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

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So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

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$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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David Tamarkin has an anti-locavorism piece up at Time Out, prompted by the current Green City locavore challenge, that very convincingly argues against… a type of person I have never met in real life. Maybe they exist, maybe there are doctrinaire locavores like there are militantly humorless vegetarians.  (No, I didn’t just say all vegetarians are militant and humorless, but I know those exist because they responded in the comments to this.)

As I say, maybe absolutist locavores exist. But I have yet to meet any.

Tamarkin’s argument is basically founded on this:

People who become localvores—whether for two weeks or 200—are likely well-intentioned, considerate citizens of the Earth. They choose to eat locally for two main reasons: (1) They believe it’s better for the local economy—the money spent on local food ostensibly goes to local farmers, thereby helping those farmers thrive and keeping the area flush with crops and money; and (2) They believe eating locally is better for the environment (in theory, local foods eliminate the need for long, gas-guzzling deliveries and high-emission plane rides). In short, localvores make sacrifices, severely limiting what they eat for the benefit of the land and the people around them.

Sorry, you lost me at your basic premise. Yes, locavores would like to do both of these things, and undoubtedly feel good (and sometimes smug) about it. But first and foremost, every high-profile locavore I know eats locally first because it tastes good. In-season fruit or vegetables grown a short distance away, as a class, taste 100 times better than stuff that’s been bred primarily to survive the flight from Chile in visually pristine condition. Farmer’s market eggs beat Jewel ones. Chicken tastes like chicken. Beef tastes like beef. Peaches taste like childhood. Grapes taste like wine. Without that, none of the locavores I know would follow it for two weeks. But the fact is, the principles underlying local eating are the principles that result in better-tasting produce. Far from being severely limited, locavorism seems fundamentally rooted in sensual pleasures.

That these principles do some good, kind of probably maybe, is a bonus. Tamarkin trots out some contrarian arguments suggesting that a peach that flies in on a 707 is better for the planet than one that drove down from Michigan. But even if that’s true, the peach will still suck. So put me on the record right now as someone who will still be buying local peaches even if each one kills a polar bear and melts a fjord.

But in fact, I find the contrarian arguments stoned-dorm-room-discussion sophomoric:

If the first goal of buying local produce is to help farmers in need, it would stand to reason that localvores should seek out the neediest farmers they can. If they did, they would not find them in an incredibly wealthy nation like ours. As philosopher Peter Singer and cowriter Jim Mason write in The Ethics of What We Eat (Rodale, $15.95), the profits a farmer in a developing country earns from selling his wares in America—even if it’s as little as two cents—will go further toward helping that farmer combat poverty than those profits would for a Midwestern farmer. “A decision to buy locally produced food,” Singer and Mason write, “is a decision not to buy food from countries that are significantly worse off than our own.”

And you know what? My son can already read pretty well, and it seems like he has a pretty decent moral sense for a 9-year-old. So it stands to reason that I should seek out the neediest housing project children I can, and raise them instead.

There’s a fine movie from the 1930s about Weimar Germany called Little Man, What Now?, in which one of the supporting characters is a socialist crank who supposedly loves humanity— but can’t be bothered to adequately care for his own wife, who eventually sickens and dies of neglect. It’s absurd to think that I have to scour the world for the peach from the absolute worst-off farmer— and help him a little and a shipping company a lot— or else admit I’m a hypocrite. That’s a real example of the kind of hypernarrow absolutism that no locavores I know actually practice. It is enough that I can help a farmer, and eat a better peach, and all in all it was a good thing, whether or not it was the best possible thing. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the sillier tendencies Baby Boomers have is to hyperdramatize every choice in life.  The reality is, the darkness will not descend if either McCain or Obama is elected or not elected, the oceans will not boil if you drive to the video store and will not be saved if you watch An Inconvenient Truth, etc. etc.  And eating a Michigan peach or a Chilean one is not a momentous decision for the planet.  That said, that real farmer at Green City puts your real money in his pocket, and keeps more of it than if he sold his product to a distributor.  So you and he can benefit directly from that act.  It can matter to the two of you, even if it doesn’t matter to the whole world.  And frankly, I’m fine with helping a human, over worrying about helping humanity.

What Tamarkin surely knows but isn’t going to admit in the midst of making the case for the prosecution is that the point of the two-week Green City challenge isn’t that everyone will keep it up forever and absolutely. That’s proven by the fact that it’s timed to exactly when the market is flooded with the most choices, and being a locavore is easiest and most appealing. But a two-week trial gives you a chance to try a lot of things and incorporate a few into your diet and be more likely to seek out superior-tasting market produce on a more regular basis. This is the kind of locavorism that is small-scale, individual, and makes your life and maybe, possibly, in some fraction of the Adam Smith invisible hand way, the world a tiny bit better place.

The more extreme kind of locavorism is not like that. And if I ever meet a person who actually believes in it, I’ll tell them that.

UPDATE: Although part of my point is that it’s NOT necessary to research every last consumer decision you make to death, that the act of buying good-tasting stuff from a real farmer is good enough, there’s a comment at Chicagoist that provides some solid facts about the Peter Singer notion of aiding the world’s poorest farmer or else don’t even bother. It’s here.

UPDATE 2: Tamarkin has some more comments on the TOC blog. He seems so keen on this notion of the absolute locavore that I guess we have to accept that he’s really met this mythical creature, but I haven’t and I just don’t take the whole notion seriously, maybe I’ve met enough people in my life who’ve found The Answer (whatever it is this week) and bore everybody to death with it. But again, the locavores I know aren’t like that, or this:

Localvores take the thinking out of their food choices in favor of being part of a movement; the only requirement for eating something is where it was produced, so not a lot of thought is required.

Again, couldn’t be more unlike the locavores I know, who think hard about what will be best and what to do with it for maximum flavor. Just read this LTHForum thread, for instance.

Eating locally is a principle, not a fatwa, which is to be followed for its obvious and direct benefits. And again, I find something sort of narcissistic about this boomer compulsion to make the best possible choice for the planet, or don’t even try. The local movement educates you to some major components of why things taste good when, and gives you a principle that leads you to putting money directly in farmers’ hands. The more people who do that, the better it is for farmers, health and maybe the environment. More good will come from more people partially following a good general principle than a few people rigidly following a dogma.

Maybe Tamarkin just needs to meet some different locavores….

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One of the more popular things a few years back at Green City Market were the hamburgers made from farmer-vendor meat and grilled by cooks from Campagnola/Bistro Campagne. Eventually, though, Campagnola chef Michael Altenberg shut down the burger operation in order to concentrate on the opening of Crust.

I learned today, though, that Sunday Dinner/Eat Green Foods (which I’ve never paid that much attention to and am not entirely sure what they offer) is cooking up burgers again. They’re a real Green City collaboration, too— Bennison’s makes the buns, Brunkow cheese is on top, the meat is Heartland’s terrific Piedmontese beef, and there are some greens on it which I assume did not come from Costco. Being a GCM special, it’s expensive— $9 for the cheeseburger, $8 for the hamburger, both of them kind of on the small side (if fat)— but it is, in the immortal words of Samuel Jackson, a real tasty burger! Certainly more satisfying to me than the not-all-that-exciting Epic burger. And you can’t argue with how directly your princely sum is being shared among the real producers without any middlemen, at least.

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So I was at Green City Market today (have the quiche from Floriole Bakery— see below) and I soon filled up my LTHForum canvas bag. And wished I had another. Especially with plastic bags becoming this year’s foie gras, soon to be outlawed (in the absence of any other more pressing problems here in Shootcago).

Yeah, I could have found a bag anywhere. Whole Foods, even Jewel has them. But having a little money left over at Cafe Press from the sales of LTHForum swag, I had a better idea… make my own.

I don’t plan to pimp a full line of merchandise but this, at least, makes a lot of sense and is something useful. So now you too can be one of the very few cool cats carrying a Sky Full of Bacon bag to the farmer’s market. They’re $13.99, a whopping dollar goes to support your favorite HD podcast, to order one, click here.

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Anyway, Floriole Bakery. They don’t get as much attention as some of the other bakeries that pop up at Green City but I am always very happy with both sweet and savory stuff I get from them. Today it was a gooey custardy scrumptious quiche, about three times as tall as your usual quiche, full of goat cheese and tomatoes. And for a sweet, a thing called a cannele, called that because it’s made in a mold like a candle, a vanilla-flavored batter baked until it has a tough outside and a custardy interior. I heard the woman who was running the stand say that the owner has been working on it for a year, but the recipes were old and rather vague, and only recently has she felt like she reached the point where it worked. She was right, it does. Not bad for $7.50.

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