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.


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

Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.


I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

Four Months Without Coffee

I had my last cup of coffee on November 6. If my quick finger math is correct, that means I had my last cup of coffee four months ago today.

This realization dawned on me this morning when several old friends posted pictures and captions about their love of coffee to Instagram. One of these, a college suitemate, I might term a coffee buddy. Seeing these posts sent my mind wandering, wondering whether I miss coffee.

Back in November I wrote a short reflection on the painful transition away from my drug of choice, noting the feeling of mental fog and general exhaustion that came with removing the stimulant from my system. Gradually that sensation faded. My body doesn’t react nearly as poorly to either too much or too little black tea (mostly English breakfast) as it did to coffee so while I still drink three or four cups a day, there are also days when I reach the late morning before realizing that I would like one.

And yet, there are times I still miss coffee. As a constant writing companion, tea does just fine, but I liked the taste of good coffee with just a splash of cream and I liked the ritual of brewing and drinking, particularly at coffee shops, that tea comes close to, but never quite replicates. But this is insufficient reason to return to a behavior that was becoming physically destructive to my body, so for the foreseeable future I remain someone who doesn’t drink coffee.

One Week Without Coffee

I have not had coffee in an entire week.

This is literally unbelievable to anyone who knew me in graduate school and later years of college. As in, “I don’t drink coffee anymore,” is the innocuous phrase that would let people know that I was under duress. I am the type of person who keeps a list of his favorite coffee roasters and shops in every city and who once made the joke on Twitter that he “is more caffeine now than man, twisted and evil.” And yet, here we are.

My body started reacting very poorly to even relatively small amounts of coffee, probably on account of the acid. I am quite clearly a caffeine addict, so began to scale down my intake rather than risking going cold turkey. This meant several weeks of just a small cup of coffee at about 5 AM before cutting it out entirely, replacing some of the caffeine with black tea.

Last Wednesday was the first day without a cup of coffee in I don’t know how long, and it went about as expected. I had four cups of tea and several doses of ibuprofen for the headaches. I did the same on Thursday, and the headaches had stopped by Friday. I have been through this process a couple of times in the past decade when I thought my coffee intake was creeping too high and cut myself off so that smaller doses of caffeine would work again. But these periods were always during the summer when I didn’t have to worry about my head feeling like it was full of wool and could just take an entire day to nap. This time, in addition to various writing projects, I had to teach. Talking in front of students through a fog of caffeine-withdrawal is a challenge, to put it mildly.

The switch to tea seems to be working, though. Still, it has absolutely still been a struggle. Without the constant buzz I feel a little bit dull and want to go to bed a little bit earlier, but my gut is happier and the early returns indicate that my sleep is a bit better. Other than struggling to read more than a few pages of a book before bed, these changes have been good, healthy.

But I say this knowing that I wouldn’t have stopped drinking coffee had I not been all-but forced and that I will probably start drinking it again if I am able. The thing is, as much as I like the bolt of energy, I also like sipping on a cup of good coffee when writing, or grading, or reading. I find it relaxing. Tea may someday supplant coffee, but right now it doesn’t have the same effect.

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

On pizza toppings

I bake a lot and although the item I am most proud of, the one that would be my technical challenge for GBBO contestants, is the bagel, the foodstuff that started the compulsive baking is pizza. For a little context, I have tried five different dough recipes and although I have settled on one that I like a lot, it is not yet perfect. But crusts, even though they are absolutely essential to the perfect pizza, are not the subject of this post, the toppings are. Or rather, some toppings are.

A little more background: I was in Minneapolis recently for family reasons and on my way out of town I stopped at Punch Pizza, a chain that fires their pizzas at exceptionally high temperatures, which gives a delicious char onto their chewy crust. Punch does not have my favorite pizzas around, but theirs are more than serviceable, especially for when I am pressed for time. Being on my own, I went with one of my favorite pizza toppings: onions. Usually when I go there I am sharing my pizza with someone who doesn’t like onions, so I this was the first time I had them at Punch. As it turns out, I was not a fan of the onions on this particular pizza and since I had an eight hour drive that followed immediately upon eating, I had ample time to think about what went wrong here.

According to Punch’s website, they fire their pizzas “in a wood-burning oven to a blistering 900 degrees,” which, as noted above, is one of the reasons I like their crust so much. The extreme temperature also cuts down on the cooking time since the toppings warm and the cheese melts quickly. And yet I found a strange thing happened: the onions I ordered were warmed up, but they did not completely cook through and caramelize the way that they frequently do on pizzas I cook at home. I still ate the pizza, of course, but I think that I will have to take into account the cooking time and temperature when choosing toppings in the future.

Brunch: A History – Farha Ternikar

You don’t eat brunch. You do brunch.

I took a break from reading War and Peace to breeze through Ternikar’s slim history of Brunch from its origins in Great Britain in the late 1800s to its global phenomenon.

Although it began in Great Britain, Ternikar shows that Brunch took root in the United States. One vector, epitomized by french toast, entered through New Orleans, while another, with Eggs Benedict, came through New York. In both cases, brunch began as am meal enjoyed only by the elite because it required leisure time that few could afford. From these beginnings, though, brunch became a middle class and even working class meal, one that still went hand-in-hand with relaxation, but also that offered freedom for women because it combined two meals into one, thereby limiting the number of dishes that were used and freeing time for families. The combination of leisure and pomp associated brunch with church and weddings, as a time for people to mingle and eat, and culture manuals described how it was the perfect opportunity for single women to socialize with married friends. And, of course, day drinking features prominently.

Brunch consists of five short chapters: history, cultural importance, brunch at home, away from home, and in popular culture. Ternikar draws extensively on and quotes think pieces, culture manuals and magazines that both support and oppose the phenomenon, which frequently makes it a lively read. Themes such as luxury, relaxation, female activity, all appear clearly in these chapters. I enjoyed reading Brunch, but had some questions about the choices in putting the book together. For instance, I found the black and white images that are drawn from internet sources rather than, say, from field research to take away from overall product. I also found that the author did well to show the breadth of brunch in popular culture and around the world, but it also makes the book repetitious.