Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The political economy of flavor: an exchange with a chowhound

Responding to this post--my tribute to an effort to link traditional hog-raising with traditional North Carolina barbecue--New York food writer and chowhound.com founder Jim Leff objected to my characterization of his take on a Manhattan barbecue joint. I had written: "Leff once told me he thought it was ridiculous that a certain restaurateur insists on using Niman Ranch pork, from heritage-breed pigs raised on small farms without industrial inputs, at his high-toned Manhattan BBQ joint."

Leff went on as follows:

Hmm...if you say so, I'm sure I said this in some context. And I'm glad if discussion of the issue helped spur some insights. But this isn't actually how I feel - about food in general or about that particular Manhattan BBQ joint.

I've eaten food made from crap ingredients where the final result tasted so ecstatically delicious I was made to gasp. And I've gasped over food made from fussy foodie fixings (FFF's), as well. Ingredients are irrelevant, really. Unless you're eating a single raw ingredient (i.e. gnawing on an artichoke), all that truly matters is the skill, care, and touch of the chef. I'd vastly prefer soup made by a loving genius from canned supermarket ingredients to soup made from FFFs by someone just going through the motions. This might sound reverse-snobbish, but it's not.

If a chef feels the need to pour 1959 Chateau Lafite into the stock to give it that certain oomph (and someone else is footing the bill), I'm all for giving that chef what s/he thinks is needed. But same if the secret ingredient is Jiffy Peanut Butter. I don't take a materialistic view; ingredients don't interest me. Great cooking is more than the sum of its parts, and I aim to live entirely in that margin.

By the same token, I'm never impressed with glib adjectives or pandering to status...though that, too, could be mistaken for a reverse-snobbish attitude.

The place you're talking about is Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant run by Danny Meyer (of Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe). They use blue chip provisions, and the chef is a fancy trained fellow, not some backwater 'cue meister. The result doesn't taste like folkloric 'cue; the meat is infinitely more subtle and rich, and everything's extremely refined...and there's soul to the food and I deem it delicious. It's not "authentic", but who cares? It's just another manifestation of deliciousness.

And it's Blue Smoke's deliciousness that impresses me, not its refinement in and of itself. Refinement is merely a parameter. The spectrum from sophisticated refinement to guileless simplicity is horizontal, not vertical, and there are peak experiences (and soulless crap) to be found at every point of that spectrum.

Both snobs and reverse snobs miss good stuff, and I strive to be a universal receiver for every manifestation of treasure (there's so little of it, we mustn't disregard an iota!).
--Jim Leff, chowhound.com

Bitter Greens Journal responds
Jim Leff may be the most important restaurant critic writing in English today.

I say that not because he visited my farm once and wrote mostly nice things about us. Or because I consider him a friend and excellent company. (I once spent an afternoon careening through Lexington, N.C., with him in what he calls his "chow-mobile," sampling the famed local 'cue. On the chow trail he comes off as a kind of nebbishy Falstaff, mixing wry humor with unchecked hedonism. Watching him unlock the secret to Lexington 'cue--two words: "side brown"--was like tagging along on Saul's fateful trip to Damascus.)

I praise Leff for his ability to slice through the swaths of marketing hype that blanket "dining" in America today to find what he calls the treasure. Celebrity chefs may be plunking down foodie temples in Vegas and snatching book, TV, and even movie deals with the ease with which they can julienne a carrot; but that doesn't mean that our national store of culinary treasure is growing.

Indeed, what's happened along our highways tells a different story, one not likely told in the Dining In/Dining out section of the New York Times or Bon Apetit magazine. What one finds there is the death of culinary culture: a torrent of bland, institutional food--what Leff might call "soulless" fare. I'm not even speaking of the hordes of McDonald's and its ilk. The locally owned holdouts, by and large, have surrendered. The ubiquitous Sysco truck has left a trail of culinary death in its wake.

And, whether we like it or not, the cities have succumbed as well. From my perch in North Carolina, New York--with its great diversity and bulk of wonderful food--seems a culinary paradise. But a visitor who walks randomly into a restaurant in Manhattan--or even Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island--is likely to find crap prepared with all the passion a suburban pool cleaner might bring to his task. Face it: Typical New York pizza--save for a few miraculous outposts--sucks. So does most food there. But the exceptions, the treasure, are glorious--if you can find them.

That's what makes Leff so valuable. He's omnivorous; he haunts the city's dining scene--its haute temples and shabby storefronts alike--with an eager palate and what Hemingway called a bullshit meter. "Astonish me," he essentially says, whether confronted by an indifferently cleaned plastic table or a purse-lipped sommelier with a crisp white cloth draped over his forearm. He can find mana or dreck as easily in one as the other.

The formidable owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a bookstore on Manhattan's Upper East Side, once told me, as I was buying Jim's old guide to New York restaurants, that "Leff isn't impressed with a place unless its some filthy dive in Queens." He had it wrong, of course. Sure, Leff has discovered gems among Queens' filthy dives; but he has also bowed with great respect to some of Manhattan's great chefs. Go to a four-star recommended by Leff, and you can be sure that its celebrity chef still cooks with passion and care.

I hail Leff's importance because I've seen what he's done in New York. One example: Some years ago, he identified an obscure pizza joint in deep-central Brooklyn--Di Fara--as a throwback to the days when southern Italians swarmed into New York and created its reputation as a pizza paradise. His writing has given Di Fara's venerable owner and master cook, Dom, near-celebrity status. Go there now on a Saturday afternoon and you'll find the place buzzing--thrill-seeking Manhattan pilgrims jostling elbows with locals just hungry for a slice.

Many have plausibly speculated that without Leff's intervention, Dom would have retired long ago. Now I hear tell that Dom's sons recently opened a pizza place in Greenwich Village. Ultimately, that's Jim's doing.

And yet...reading Leff's philosophy of food--as exemplified by his response to my post--reminds me of reading the literary criticism of the great Vladimir Nabokov. I'm thrilled by it, I learn from it--and I mostly disagree with it.

Nabokov didn't give a damn about anything in literature expect for what he called the shiver a writer could or could not send up his spine. He reveled in artistic genius and rejected everything else. Writers have nothing to teach us about the era in which they wrote; they only offer us a vivid or dull prose style, a well- or poorly told story. Politics is divorced from literature, or at least irrelevant to it.

Jim brings a similar "art for art's sake" sensibility to food. "Ingredients are irrelevant, really," he declares. "[A]l that truly matters is the skill, care, and touch of the chef."

He's overstating the case here, and I think he knows it. Jim, what if a scoundrel were to sneak into Di Fara at night and replace Dom's beloved extra-virgin olive oil with Wesson corn oil? Could the great one, even with all his soul and care, salvage that pie?

But Leff is wrong in a deeper sense, too. I grant that cooks play a key role in creating what ends up one the plate, but let me usher a second actor onto the stage: the farmer. Everything we eat, from the palest Perdue chicken to the greenest leaf of spinach, was ultimately coaxed out of the earth by a farmer. And I argue that whether that farmer is suspended high above a vast corn field in some massive and terrifying contraption spewing petrochemicals or on the ground spreading well-composted manure into his field makes a critical difference.

I salute the cooks the world over who have learned to turn industrial products--what Jim calls crap ingredients--into delicious food. Yes, it can be done. But the returns are diminishing as topsoil erodes and parches and small farmers are evicted from the land.

Yes, by all means, let's “receive ... every manifestation of treasure”! But let's also question why there is so little of it, and what we can do to restore our stock of it. The answer lies in the earth, my friend, and in transforming the political economy of food.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Clearing the air on ethanol: an exchange

Responding to this post, an unnamed person from the American Lung Association of Minnesota wrote in with the following spirited defense of ethanol.

Bitter, green, and uninformed, I'm afraid.

Patzek [Editor's note: Berkeley oil geologist and ethanol critic Tad W. Patzek] is a Big Oil Apologist (crisis, what crisis? Drill ANWR!) living in an Ivory Tower fantasyland. Look at his C.V. -- he actually brags about his "friend of the oil industry" award. Look it up -- I did.

Let Roger [I think the author means Tad. --Ed.] know he can move to Minnesota, the E85 Capitol of North America, anytime. With 20 models of FFVs (flexible fuel vehicles) on sale now and more than 150 E85 pumps statewide (new stations opening every week), Minnesota is the place to be to use E85.

Who says so? The American Lung Association of Minnesota. Read more at www.CleanAirChoice.org

Ethanol isn't a miracle fuel. But it is cleaner burning than gasoline, and a good short-term step until practical, clean vehicles and/or fuel can be develped fully.

Bitter Greens Journal responds:

Not a miracle fuel, eh?

Adding ethanol to our fuel supply causes air pollution...You have more vapor emissions when you're refueling and when your car is sitting in a parking lot on a hot summer day. And ethanol can degrade systems in cars, so you'll get more leaks.

That quotation comes not from an academic with ties to the oil industry, but from one Peter Iwanowicz--director of the American Lung Association of New York State. You'll find it in this rather devastating piece from the 8/2004 Audobon magazine.

Note that Iwanowicz's critique of ethanol is independent of the fuel's energy balance, or the energy a fuel delivers divided by the energy required to create it. Thus, even given the most generous calculations of ethanol's energy balance (highly disputed territory; more below), there's no consensus that ethanol actually improves air quality--even within the American Lung Association itself.

Indeed, the production of ethanol in my critic's home state of Minnesota has not been entirely smooth viz. air pollution. Here's that Audobon article again:

[I]n October 2002 the EPA settled with 12 ethanol plants in Minnesota, hitting them with civil penalties ranging from $29,000 to $39,000 each, and requiring that each spend about $2 million cutting back on emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and other hazardous pollutants.

None of this has stopped the American Lung Association of Minnesota from vigorously promoting ethanol as, well, a miracle fuel. Not only does the group evidently scan the Internet to root out obscure blogs that dare quetion the wonderous benefits of ethanol, but it also runs an entire Web site, mentioned above by the letter writer, designed solely to flog the many benefits of the controversial fuel. The group does so in terms even more enthusiastic than you'll find even on the Web site of Archer Daniels Midland, the corporate ethanol king and the greatest champion and beneficiary of the fuel's many public subsidies.

In its almost evangelical zeal for ethanol, the ALA of Minnesota has plunged itself into an alliance with some of the nation's major industrial agriculture interests. Here it is in bed with Monsanto, promoting a special strain of the GMO's seed giant's corn. Appropriately enough, the initiative is called "Fuel Your Profits."

The ALA of Minnesota has also allied itself with its state's Corn Grower's Association. Minnesota is the nation's fifth most prodigious producer of corn, and its corn farmers draw about $400 million per year in federal commodity subsidies.

Now to address the specific charge leveled against BGJ by the unnamed ALA of Minnesota functionary, namely that the blog is "uniformed" because it failed to note Tad Patzek's ties to the oil industry. Patzek's CV does not include a "friend of the oil industry" award, but it does demonstrate a cozy relationship with Shell and other petrol giants.

Does that fact automatically discredit his charge that ethanol production consumes more energy than it renders? No, but it surely casts doubt. (I can't resist pointing out that the ALA's almost wild-eyed support of ethanol as a clean-air panaecea, in the face of contrary evidence, is rendered suspect by its cozy relations with the companies who benefit most from ethanol subsidies.)

At any rate, Bitter Greens Journal has always acknowledged that studies measuring the energy balance of ethanol contradict each other. The USDA, which partially underwrites ethanol production with its generous corn subsidies, claims in a report much-hyped on the ALA of Minnesota's Web site that ethanol generates 1.67 units of energy for every unit consumed.

Patzek is one of two major academics who dispute the USDA's rosy finding. The other is Cornell's David Pimentel, who charges that the USDA's methodology assumes that every farm producing corn for ethanol uses "best practices" to maximize yield, and operates under the very best soil and water conditions. "If I[ made the same assumptions as the USDA], I think I could get my figures to be positive, too," Pimentel told Audobon magazine.

Under real-world conditions, the scientist reckons that corn-based ethanol production requires about 29 percent more energy than it renders at the pump.

Now, my critic at the ALA of Minnesota will point out that Pimentel has worked professionally with oil-tainted Tad Patzek. BGJ does not have the scientific background to judge whether the rosy or the dire assessment of ethanol's energy balance holds more true. But the USDA's generous sponsorship of industrial corn production renders its pronouncement's on ethanol at least as suspect as those of Patzek and Pimentel.

Indeed, that great friend of oil GW Bush recently installed industrial corn man Chuck Conner as deputy secretary of the USDA. Before taking that post, Conner served for several as Bush's special assistant on agriculture. Before that, Conner was president of the Corn Refiners Association--a front group for Archer Daniels Midland. Read all about it here.

One thing I learned from reading through USDA material is that coal is a major source of energy for ethanol-production plants. Why would the Lung Association of Minnesota throw its lot so emphatically with a technology that relies on such a lung-ruining energy source? Surely, that question bears more investigation from BGJ.

Meanwhile, let me urge the group to try a different path: urge Minnesotans to reject Big Oil and Big Ag alike, and boost their cardiovascular health, by riding their bikes to work--and by buying as much of their food as possible from small, local farms.