Kitchen Confidential

A friend of mine has a story about a particular show he saw at a bar in Austin. At one point during the performance, the singer explained to the audience that the world was divided into day people and night people. The crowd cheered the night people, obviously (and probably intentionally) believing that singer was praising them, the people who went out and enjoyed the night while the “day people” slept.

In fact, the night people were the performers, bartenders, and kitchen staff who made the going out possible.

Rereading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential in anticipation that I will soon get to see the new documentary Roadrunner reminded me of this anecdote.

The closest I came to being one of the night people was the period immediately after college when I spent a year managing a quick-service restaurant that closed at 9 PM. I parlayed that employment into a part-time position as an “assistant manager” at another franchise of the same restaurant for the first two years of graduate school, a time when I usually went from the closing shift to either Starbucks to do my homework, the Applebees bar down the street from where I lived to drink beer and watch sports, or, sometimes, the Applebees bar to drink beer and do my homework.

That is to say, I was never really one of the night people.

At best, I was night-people-adjacent. I got to know some of the repetition that comes with the weekly orders, the tedium of making the exactly same food in the exact same way day after day, and got pretty good at breaking down a kitchen at the end of the day, but my trajectory in life even in that first year was going in another direction.

My only glimpses of the other side of that life came on trips back to Boston when a friend in the industry invited me into the off-duty experience.

Kitchen Confidential is, basically, the distillation of Tony Bourdain’s public persona. This is the cocky, swaggering, observant, and surprisingly sentimental chef who went on to develop No Reservations and Parts Unknown. I have no memory of my first introduction to this person, let alone whether I knew him through the TV show or through the book first, but I had been a fan for about a decade at the time of his passing in 2018. Tony changed over the years, but he is recognizably there in this memoir first published in 2000.

At the time of the first publication Tony Bourdain was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French steakhouse in New York City who had published several culinary mystery novels that had more or less flopped. He kept writing, though, and this memoir developed out of an article titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that he placed in the New Yorker.

The book, like the memoir that came out of it, promised to take readers into the greasy and messy kitchens of the restaurants where the American diner was eating.

But, in many ways, Kitchen Confidential is a conventional memoir, just ostensibly organized like a multi-course meal. Bourdain takes the reader back to his childhood when a trip to France ignited a life-long obsession with food and to his teenaged years when his rebellious streak led him to summers on Cape Cod where he launched himself into the chaos of the kitchen. He details how he dropped out of college and attended the Culinary Institute of America at a time when the standards weren’t exactly high and then to the run of jobs at which he progressed further into serious heroin addiction.

Despite writing a memoir from the perch at Les Halles, Bourdain positions himself as an outsider taking shots at the establishment and confidently declaring that the great Eric Ripert would never deign meet him (they became close friends and Bourdain besieging Ripert’s delicate palette with Sichuan chilis is one of the best episodes of Parts Unknown). The contradiction comes because Les Halles was not at the pinnacle of the food scene and Bourdain’s story was one of frequent, repeated failure. Celebrated chefs might put in their dues, but they weren’t supposed to be leaving a train of sunk restaurants in their wake or spend time making brunch years into their career.

And yet, this trail of wreckage and failure allows Bourdain to give a face to the lurid stories from the back of the house, to lend weight to the hard-won lessons, and to point out some ugly truths about the restaurant industry. You might not like what you see, but they aren’t going to get you sick. Probably. It just also isn’t going to be quite as fresh as it could be.

The food scene has changed significantly since Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. Antony Bourdain had a hand in those changes, too, given that his shows introduced audiences—and possibly even Tony—to a wide range of cuisines. The No Reservations episode on Istanbul from 2010, for instance, has him say that he doesn’t know anything about Turkish food several times and he at one point refers to the local flatbread as “like a tortilla.” There has also been a proliferation of celebrity chefs and shows like Top Chef have steered away from a universal (mostly French) vision of culinary excellence.

A lot of what Bourdain talks about is still relevant, of course—the hours, lessons about running a kitchen, tricks of the trade, that (illegal) immigrants make up the backbone of the restaurant industry—but Kitchen Confidential is also a snapshot of that industry in the 1980s and 1990s through one very particular experience. Bourdain’s kitchens were a riot of chaos and disorder and testosterone that created an atmosphere that was not uncommon, but neither was it exactly the rule.

By the last years of his life, Bourdain was reflective on how his memoir given license to men who sexually harassed women in the kitchen. Reading Kitchen Confidential now, it is easy to see why he was concerned. He sexualizes food by his own admission and the book seems to condone all sorts of bad behavior. He mentions a couple of times women who can stand up to the men in the kitchen, for instance, and certainly he doesn’t seem to hold anyone to account. At least, this is true if Kitchen Confidential is read as a simple celebration of being a chef and not first and foremost a memoir of a junkie who obsessed over food and experiences with the same abandon as he did drugs. The latter caused him to hit rock bottom, but the former remained with him for the rest of his life.

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Between recent hours spent on the road and furiously trying to get my classes ready for the fall semester, I have managed to plow through a bunch of books I have not written about, including Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Kelly Baker’s great memoir Grace Period, and Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I intend to write about some of these books at least, and have some thoughts about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but I’m already starting to feel sped up so it may or may not happen.

I am now reading two books, James Lang’s Distracted, which examines attention in the classroom, and Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, which I will likely write about in conjunction with H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians because they have radically divergent approaches to inserting magic into a historical story and I like Cho’s approach significantly better.

What is in a loaf?

My recent infatuation with Top Chef started me down a path of consuming a lot of food media again. I am a capable cook in a lot of areas, but a recent experiment with infusing chili oil reminded me that taste is a strange alchemy. It might have certain shibboleths (don’t serve fish with cheese, at Tom Colicchio pointed out to a contestant), but the key to developing complex delicious flavors involves a sensitive palette and creativity that is just beyond me.

Bread, by contrast, makes sense to me. It is simultaneously the simplest of foods — and one that has infinite variation.

Most people might not have the full vocabulary for bread (and bread products), but they can probably explain what it is. While baking technologies and the available resources for home bakers have changed, but the basic process has remained stable for thousands of years. Bread — ἄρτος, in Attic Greek — consists of just four mandatory ingredients: flour, water (or other liquid), salt (which helps maintain structure), and heat. Leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, etc.) and time are even optional.

This simplicity is one of the reasons that I am struck by other contexts where Greek authors use ἄρτος. Herodotus, for instance, describes the cooking techniques of three tribes in Babylon that he says only at fish, explaining how they turn the fish into powder and knead them into cakes (1.200). According to this description, one of the preparation methods involved baking these fish cakes “in the manner of loaves” (ὁ δὲ ἄρτου τρόπον ὀπτήσας). Bread-baking serves as an obvious cultural touchstone, but the loaves are not themselves bread. Bread still requires grain.

So consider this, nested within a lengthy bit of bread-banter in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae:

There is a loaf called the etnites, also the lekithites, as Eucrates says.

ἐτνίτας ἄρτος ὁ προσαγορευόμενος. λεκιθίτας, ὥς φησιν Εὐκράτης.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 3.76

Two named breads with the same (or similar) preparation, made with pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family harvested as dry grains such as chickpeas or lentils. That is to say “bean-bread.” Related words in a Greek lexicon make this point clear:

  • ἔτνος – thick soup made with pease or beans
  • λεκιθίτης – made of pulses
  • λεκίθιον – bean-meal

People sometimes say that cooking is an art, baking a science. The implication is that baking is a matter of persnickety formulas that must be followed absolutely correctly in order to get results. For cakes and pastries this is certainly the case, but bread-baking is much simpler, in large part because ambient conditions such as heat and humidity can play an enormous role.

I have only one secret for bread baking: understand how things you add will affect a dough. This particularly means knowing which ones affect the leavening (enriching agents, for instance) and which ones don’t. The former group changes the proof time, while the latter group is more cosmetic. But the list could be expanded to understand how higher water contents change a dough, how different ingredients and treatments affect gluten development, etc. There are formulas that can help understand each of these points, but I largely treat them more as guidelines than as rules.

You can find modern recipes for breads made with legumes, though I have never tried them. These modern pulse breads are additives because the pulses themselves don’t have the gluten of wheat, and technical manuals note that the pulses can compromise the gluten structure.

This leads to an obvious question about this etnites/lekithites loaf: does it, like the modern pulse breads, indicate a loaf that adds a pulse mixture to a wheat dough or is this an ancient version of a lentil loaf? In other words, what makes something a loaf of bread?

This bread might be named after the legumes, but I am inclined toward the former answer. Cheese bread might be named after the cheese, but the (wheat) bread is still a necessary component, whether the cheese is melted over the top or incorporated into the dough. Moreover, the line appears in a section of Athenaeus’ work dedicated entirely to other wheat-based breads.

For now at least I don’t see any reason to amend the core ingredients of a loaf of bread: water, flour, salt, and heat, even when bakers get creative with the other ingredients.

Life Intrudes

I watch very little unscripted reality TV outside of the Great British Baking Show. I am too young for the Real World phenomenon and have a vivid memory of walking in while my brother and mother watched an early season of Survivor but never really watched that show. I have seen the odd episode of a lot of shows, but I generally don’t find either the contestants or the “game” compelling.

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the current season of Top Chef from the beginning, never having seen a single episode to this point. As I wrote several times, I fell in love with this show. In part, the focus on simple excellence and limited direct competition appeals to my sensibility, but I also found the judges and competitors charming — sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of the reality show editing of each episode.

Top Chef: Portland was filmed last year in a bubble and the editing gave the season an isolated quality that reminded me of the GBBO tent. The competition obviously put mental and emotional strains on the chefs, and talking about how much they missed their families were poignant vignettes at a time when travel restrictions kept many people from their families.

Striking this season was the lack of a villain. The contestants seemed to genuinely like one another, particularly by the time the show reached the back half of the season when the smaller number of chefs allowed more air time for each one.

The season finale, which aired this past Thursday, maintained this same atmosphere. The finalists chatted with one another, they each got an assistant from the last three eliminated to make their dream meal, and the all-star guest judges who had joined the bubble made them a meal on the night before judging.

Oh, and they all made incredible food.

The illusion was complete and a winner was crowned. He calls his family and shouts out the largely Latinx kitchen staff at many American restaurants.

And then real life returns.

Reports recently came out that Gabe Erales, this season’s champion, had been fired last December from the Austin restaurant Comedor where he was executive chef for repeatedly violating sexual harassment policies.

(He maintains that he had a consensual relationship with the woman and then reduced her hours because of performance issues, but the restaurant’s owner disputes this account.)

At the same time, Top Chef edited guest diner Eduardo Jordan out of the final altogether after recent allegations of unwanted touching made by fifteen women.

I genuinely enjoyed this season. I was blown away by Dawn’s Nashville Hot Fried Tofu, I want to learn to make some of Gabe’s Moles, and even when they cooked things I never could I appreciated the skills and techniques on display. I also liked that the contestants came off as likable people.

But what one sees on Top Chef — like any reality show — is a fantasy created in the editing room.

This is not to say that it was all feigned. Some aspects of personality are going to shine through, but everyone was also likely on their best behavior throughout filming, knowing that the cameras are rolling. At the same time, the artificially level playing field of a show like Top Chef is going to eliminate the power disparities that can lead to some of the most toxic behavior in restaurant industry — even taking Gabe’s story at face value, his sexual relationship was with someone whose hours he could cut. The result is that Top Chef did not face the same concerns on set that reared their heads back at the restaurant.

Production had wrapped by the time the allegations came out and they couldn’t very well edit the winner out of the show.

Top Chef is great television, but these stories break that illusion. Real life inevitably intrudes on the most idyllic scene. The food might be great, but there is a long way to go in these other areas that, ultimately, matter much more.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.

Ten Lessons of Phyllo

I decided I wanted spanakopita this week and in the absence of any frozen phyllo, I decided to just make it myself. My go-to cook book The Joy of Cooking refuses to give a recipe, telling you instead to go buy it frozen. This should have been a red flag.

The internet had a few recipe suggestions for this dough: water, oil, flour, salt, and a dash of vinegar, rolled thin. Simple, right? Well, here are the ten lessons I learned:

  1. Roll the dough thinner.
  2. Thinner.
  3. Thinner.
  4. Even thinner.
  5. Keep going.
  6. No, even thinner than that.
  7. Even thinner.
  8. The cornstarch and flour mixture is very important to keep the sheets from sticking together.
  9. In small amounts vinegar strengthens a dough, allowing it to retain shape or, in this case, hold together when stretched so thin.
  10. Homemade phyllo is finicky and tedious in ways that hurt my back and neck to repeatedly roll out the sheets, even to produce sheets as thick and clumsy as mine. But it is also delicious.

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

ΔΔΔ

A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Help, I’m out of yeast!

Anyone who knows me know that I bake––in case the posts about ancient bread and slew of baked goods on Instagram didn’t give me a way. The recent pandemic has inspired many people, and quite possibly everyone, to start baking, creating a shock to the flour supply chain and sold many stores entirely out of yeast. I have primarily baked using a sourdough starter for a few years now, but since I have had several conversations with people in the past two days, I thought I would collect that advice here.

Commercially-available yeast, at least in the United States, is most common either as active-dry or instant yeast (active dry technically needs proofing to activate the yeast, instant has more living cultures straight from the packet), in a shelf-stable dry version developed by Fleischmann’s during World War Two. Both types are baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) harvested from a strain first isolated in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur and protected from other yeasts and bacteria like lactobacillus that occur naturally in the environment in order to produce a regular, reliable product.

The creation of commercial yeast makes baking easy, but people have been baking without it for thousands of years, so there are plenty of options for anyone who wants to keep baking. Here are four tried and true replacements for commercial yeast:

1. Make unleavened flatbreads. Passover might have just passed, but you can make matzah anytime, and the best soft varieties are just an an unleavened flatbread. Similarly, you could go with Indian Roti or flour tortillas pretty easily.

2. Make soda bread. Yesterday I declared beer bread a waste of good beer, but every once in a while it goes very well with some honey or maple butter, and there is a whole world of soda breads that you can try. These breads using baking powder and/or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as its leavening agent. Too much of the leavening agent can leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and most simply aren’t to my taste, but they are an easy workaround if you don’t have yeast. Try this one for a cheddar cheese enriched soda bread from King Arthur Flour.

3. Harvest yeast from raisins. Seriously. A few years back I came across a story about a baker in France recreating the bread distributed to French soldiers during World War One. His scratch yeast came from raisins, which makes sense given both ancient precedent (Pliny the Elder mentions creating levain from millet kneaded with grape must, NH 18.26) and that the original baker’s yeast was identified on the skin of grapes. This technique is easily recreated at home; I promise that your bread will not taste like raisins unless you actually add raisins to the dough, at which point you are on your own.

4. Just make a sourdough starter. As Instagram culture and social media in general fuels all manner of anxieties surrounding people’s body and lifestyles, so too does it drive attitudes around sourdough. There are hundreds of videos about making the rustic Tartine country loaf. I know, I’ve watched them, and I still regularly fail to create the perfect loaf. My oven sucks, I don’t have the ideal dutch oven, I am notoriously ambivalent to precisely-weighing my ingredients* and yet my sourdough starters (I actually have two) still make spectacular breads without a hint of commercial yeast. My easy go-to bread is a simple sandwich loaf enriched with just a little bit of sugar and milk.

*This only holds true for breads; cookies and cakes require much more precision.

In short, the idea that you have to be “ready” for a sourdough starter is a myth, and with a little bit of care to adjust for different ratio of flour to water you can make any recipe. I’ve been known to tag Instagram posts with #sourdougheverything.

(To do this, prime the starter with water and flour to get it going ahead of time, and then add this to the recipe, adding extra flour a little at a time to reach the right dough consistency. The amount of flour will vary based on a number of factors, including how wet your starter is, how much of it you use, and the type of flour you’re using. You will need to allow more time, up to 1.5 or 2x, depending on the temperature and the starter’s activity, over what the recipe calls for with commercial yeast.)

Much as with harvesting yeast from the skin of grapes, natural leavening has been around for millenia, cultivating strains of yeast from the environment and the flour itself. The process is actually very easy––all you need is time. There are numerous guides available online and if you’re worried about harmful bacteria, use one with citrus which inhibits the growth of those strains until the good stuff can take over (grapefruit juice is the most common; I used lime).

Once the starter gets going, it is actually quite easy to maintain. I have been using two sets of the same strain cultivated in my kitchen for year, sometimes going as long as a few weeks between feedings. I keep my starters in Tupperware in the fridge taking out a small portion and building it up in preparation for each bake. When the base gets low, usually about once a week at my rate, I refresh it using a 1 cup of water and roughly 1.5 cups of flour and letting it feed for a few hours until it becomes fluffy and doubles or so in volume before it goes back into the fridge. Here are more detailed instructions.

I might be a sourdough heretic in some respects, and my instructions do not bring the starter quite to its most active the way that the instructions that call for three or four feedings in the day or so right before baking, but it is an easy way to manage a starter without discarding any of it.

Happy baking!

Thearion: Paul Hollywood of Ancient Athens

My scholarly interests have recently begun to drift the way of my stomach, leading to more time spent thinking about ancient bread. About a year ago I delivered a paper at the Classical Association of the Middle-West and South annual meeting that looked at bread in the public food-scape of the Greek city, concluding, among other things, that most of the labor was done by women and non-citizens, both free and enslaved. Meanwhile the celebrated baker of Ancient Athens, credited with training a generation of bakers and introducing large bread ovens was a man named Thearion.

(The introduction to the paper is available here.)

Plato’s Gorgias (518B–518c) mentions Thearion at a point where Socrates is dismantling the idea that food can train the body for gymnastics:

As if, when being asked with regard to gymnastics who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” Equally you might be aggrieved if I were to say to you: “Sir, you know nothing about gymnastics: you speak to me of servants, providers for the appetites of human beings, but without any right and proper understanding of [those appetites], those men who first fatten and fill human bodies to great applause and then wipe away even their original flesh.

ὥσπερ ἂν εἰ περὶ τὰ γυμναστικὰ ἐμοῦ ἐρωτῶντος οἵτινες ἀγαθοὶ γεγόνασιν ἢ εἰσὶν σωμάτων θεραπευταί, ἔλεγές μοι πάνυ σπουδάζων, Θεραίων ὁ ἀρτοκόπος καὶ Μίθαικος ὁ τὴν ὀψοποιίαν συγγεγραφὼς τὴν Σικελικὴν καὶ Σάραμβος ὁ κάπελος, ὅτι οὗτοι θαυμάσιοι γεγόνασιν σωμάτων θεραπευταί, ὁ μὲν ἄρτους θαυμαστοὺς παρασκευάζων, ὁ δὲ ὄψον, ὁ δὲ οἶνον. ἴσως ἂν οὖν ἠγανάκτεις, εἲ σοι ἔλεγον ἐγὼ ὅτι Ἄνθρωπε, ἐπαίεις οὐδὲν περὶ γυμναστικῆς: διακόμενους μοι λέγεις καὶ ἐπιθυμιῶν παρασκευαστὰς ἀνθρώπους, οὐκ ἐπαίοντας καλὸν κἀγαθὸν οὐδὲν περὶ αὐτῶν, οἵ, ἂν οὕτω τύχωσιν, ἐμπλήσαντες καὶ παχύωαντες τὰ σώματα τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἐπαινούμενοι ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν, προσαπολοῦσιν αὐτῶν καὶ τὰς ἀρχαίας σάρκας.

Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (3.78) includes several fragmentary references to Thearion, including a clipped section of Plato’s Gorgias that inverts Socrates’ point.

Antiphanes also recalls the Attic loaves as particularly excellent, thus in the Omphale:

How could one of good birth
Be able to come out from such a chamber,
Looking upon these white-bodied loaves
Fill the oven close-packed in the passage
And seeing them, form shapes in covered vessels
Copied by Attic hands, who Thearion
Trained for the common people.

[Note: I struggled to reconcile δημόταις, settling on something akin to “for the public good.”]

τῶν δ᾽ Ἀττικῶν ἄρτων ὡς διαφόρων μνημονεύει καὶ Ἀντιφάνης ἐν Ὀμφάλῃ οὕτως:
πῶς γὰρ ἄν τις εὐγενὴς γεγὼς
δύναιτ᾽ ἂν ἐξελθεῖν ποτ᾽ ἐκ τῆσδε στέγης,
ὁρῶν μὲν ἄρτους τούσδε λευκοσωμάτους
ἰπνὸν κατέχοντας ἐν πυκναῖς διεξόδοις,
ὁρῶν δὲ μορφὴν κριβάνοις ἠλλαγμένους,
μίμημα χειρὸς Ἀττικῆς, οὓς δημόταις
Θεαρίων ἔδειξεν.

The passage continues:

This is that Thearion the bread maker whom Plato recalls in the Gorgias and along with him Mithaicus, writing so: “about those who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” And thus Aristophanes in his Gerytades and Aeolosicon:

“I come, having left Thearion’s bakeshop,
where is the abode of the cookwares.”

οὗτός ἐστι Θεαρίων ὁ ἀρτοποιός, οὗ μνημονεύει Πλάτων ἐν Γοργίᾳ συγκαταλέγων αὐτῷ καὶ Μίθαικον οὗτως γράφων οἵτινες ἀγαθοι γεγόνασιν ἢ εἰσὶ σωμάτων θεραπευταὶ ἔλεγές μοι πάνυ σπουδάζων, Θεραίων ὁ ἀρτοκόπος καὶ Μίθαικος ὁ τὴν ὀψοποιίαν συγγεγραφὼς τὴν Σικελικὴν καὶ Σάραμβος ὁ κάπελος, ὅτι οὗτοι θαυμάσιοι γεγόνασιν σωμάτων θεραπευταί, ὁ μὲν ἄρτους θαυμαστοὺς παρασκευάζων, ὁ δὲ ὄψον, ὁ δὲ οἶνον. καὶ Ἀριστοφάνης ἐν Γηρυστάδῃ καὶ Αἰολοσίκωνι διὰ τούτων:

ἥκω Θεαρίωνος ἀρτοπώλιον
λιπών, ἵν᾽ ἐστὶ κριβάνων ἑδώλια.

Further Reading:
A. Dalby, Food in the Ancient World From A to Z (Routledge 2003), 325.

Image result for paul hollywood
Paul Hollywood, judge on the Great British Baking Show