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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Buon Appetito! (Part One)

In a little over a week, I’m heading to Rome for Labor Day weekend. The decision to go was made on a whim and, without too much exaggeration, shortly after watching the Mad Men episode where Don and Betty go to Rome for a quick holiday. 

It’s been sixteen years since I was in the Eternal City. And while a lot has undoubtedly changed, much has probably stayed the same—the chaotic traffic with Vespa scooters careening around the Colosseum; the well-dressed Italians; and most importantly, the delicious food. Because of my lengthy absence, I wanted to do some homework on the latest food scene in Italy. I wanted to know Italians actually eat, as well as how they eat. 

For many Americans the food in Italy is a big selling point. After all, we Americans love our spaghetti, pizza, and ravioli. Compared to the heavy wurst of Germany or the funky cheese and Escargot of France, Italian food just seems like home. But what we call “Italian” food in this country, remains a distant cousin to true Italian food. Take pasta for example. In America, it’s almost always the main course and a big one at that. In Italy, by contrast, it is only the third course—called primo—in a traditional ten-course Italian meal And yes, Italians do eat pasta almost every day (especially Romans) but they don’t get fat. Really?! Well, that’s because instead of a bowl of pasta that comes with its own ZIP code, an Italian pasta dish may weigh in at a mere 3.5 ounces.

There are other interesting difference between the way Americans eat Italian food (or how we eat generally) and how Italians eat Italian food. Here are some interesting "rules" the Italians follow.

Italians never drink cappuccino after 12:00PM, it is strictly a morning drink. So this means that, unlike us Americans, they never order a cappuccino after a meal. 

What about breakfast? Breakfast for Italians is quite different than ours. Denny’s would file for bankruptcy in Italy before the dinner rush on opening day. (For a lot of other reasons I can think of, there’s not a single Denny’s in Italy.) If you ask Italians what they had for breakfast, many will tell you, “Non mango niente”  (“I don’t eat anything.”) The typical Roman is likely to only have a quick espresso and a cornetto (Italian for “croissant”) on the way to the office. Of course, this leaves room for a wonderful, languid lunch at the piazza!

And speaking of when you may eat something and when you may not, there’s the issue of street food. Here in America, food trucks are everywhere and we eat on the street, in the park, in our cars, on the bus, on planes, on the subway, or just about anywhere. This makes sense for a country always on the move. But for Italians, eating in public or, even worse, eating while walking is just barbaric. In fact, Italy has passed a law that makes it illegal to eat within ten feet of a monument or fountain, which in Rome means one is essentially barred from eating anywhere outside. But like all rules, there are exceptions. For Romans, this means gelato and pizza bianco. These are allowed to be consumed outside, though gelato is typically a late-in-the-day snack and pizza is only eaten for lunch and never dinner. More rules!

Are the Italians more Type A than I thought? In about a week, I’ll find out. During my trip I will attempt to validate my research into these so-called rules, and I'll discover some new ones, much to my embarrassment. So, stay tuned for part two of this post—a summary of my delicious field research. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

If Plato Were Southern

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of staying at Blackberry Farm, located in the rolling foothills of East Tennessee. It is a beautiful place, like an adult summer camp. But it is perhaps most famous for its food. And it lives up to its name. It is a functioning farm, and most of the ingredients are grown on the property—the dishes changing with the seasons.

After a long, hard drive up from Birmingham, which involved a 10-mile traffic jam in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that rivaled anything I’ve seen in L.A., we arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the Great Smokey Mountains. Because we knew we would be late, we had called ahead and moved our dinner reservations to later that evening. This gave us time to unpack, freshen up, and have a drink at the bar before heading to dinner.

Along with our drinks, we had some of Blackberry Farm’s famous pimento cheese. 

With the exception of fried chicken and barbecue, nothing is more “suthern” than pimento cheese, though deviled eggs are a close second. Just about every southern boy and girl has grown up with a pimento cheese sandwich in their lunch box.

The late North Carolina writer Reynolds Price once said that pimento cheese was the “peanut butter of my childhood.” So true. Food and memory are tightly wound together; even more so in the South—it is the common bond between young and old; black and white.

I remember my mom making pimento cheese sandwiches that we ate in the car on the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my Dad driving through the nighttime darkness of the Great Dismal Swamp on a Friday night after a long day at work. Pimento cheese sandwiches were also a quick picnic lunch; a quick snack after school; and present many times at family reunions. 

There’s just something relaxing about a pimento cheese sandwich. Maybe that’s why they serve them at The Masters, the epitome of Southern gentility. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed that pimento cheese during happy hour at Blackberry Farm.


But as I got up to stroll over to dinner, I realized that life is not always so gentile or so conclusive. Like many things in the South (or life in general), pimento cheese engenders some rigorous debate, everything from how it should be made to whether it’s any damn good. And then I realized that maybe we all like the idea of pimento cheese more that we like pimento cheese itself.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Wine, Wine Lists, and the Disappearing Sommelier

There are two recent dining trends that have me thinking. The first is the rise of the tasting menu. The second is the disappearing sommelier. Tasting menus are very popular these days, but they run the risk of becoming victims of their own success. They seem to be getting longer and longer and less cohesive. When done right, they are sublime, but there really is not much margin for error. Another complaint is that they can be thematically incoherent, becoming another attempt by the chef to show off.  If you have suffered through an overdone evening of molecular gastronomy run amok, you know what I am talking about.

And then there’s the wine pairing. I usually get the wine pairing option because it can be fun to try many different wines and experience how they pair—and sometimes don’t—with the courses. Another interesting facet is that wine pairings reveal how the sommelier and the chef view the meal. Many times, however, it’s the sommelier’s view because, believe it or not, chefs don’t really think about how wine pairs with their dishes. (One famous chef who shall remain unnamed once told me that he simply drinks Burgundy with most of his meals.) 

However, I sometimes miss studying the wine list while I finish the last of my cocktail; thinking about what I might like to try; what my companion might like, and finding just the right bottle to make everything come together. And this is where the rise of the tasting menu with wine pairings correlates with the disappearing sommelier, at least one that is visible and with whom you can have an actual conversation about the wine that interests you for that meal.

I suspect that a lot of diners prefer wine pairings because they are intimidated by wine lists and certainly by the sommelier. And even if that is not the case, then diners are embarrassed to ask for the sommerlier’s  help. As you might expect, a lot of us guys would rather ask for directions before asking for help from a sommelier, especially if said request occurs on a first date.

This is unfortunate because a good sommelier is your best friend. The stereotype of the haughty, arrogant stiff, trying to sell you the most expensive bottle is long gone—if it were ever true in the first place. (One of the best sommeliers I’ve ever encountered, as well as the least pretentious and condescending, was Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin. And if there’s one place you should be intimidated about the wine list and the sommelier, it is Le Bernardin!)

In the same way you should be truthful with your doctor or lawyer, you should also be truthful with your sommelier. Besides, it’s not like the sommelier is going to tell you that you only have six months to live or that your ex-wife is going to get your bass boat and half your 401K!

Also, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes red wine goes with fish and chicken (though I don’t think the same can be said for white going with steak – champagne is another story – champagne goes with everything!). Pork, however, can go with white or red. Zinfandel goes very well with barbecue. And when it comes to spicy Asian cuisine, nothing works better than an Alsatian Gew├╝rztraminer.  

While the sommelier doesn’t expect you to be an expert, he or she would probably prefer that you know what you like; what you can tolerate; and what you despise. More importantly, however, the sommelier would really prefer that you tell him or her what you like, can tolerate, and what you despise. Be honest, don’t say you like this or that wine because it’s the latest “it” wine. Really, your job is not to impress the sommelier.

Price is another sensitive issue. No one wants to look cheap. As a result, it has been said in certain circles that the worst bottle of wine to order is the second cheapest one on the list. No one wants to appear to be cheap, but then again they don’t want to buy an expensive bottle, so they go with the one just above the cheapest. This is really the bottle the restaurant wants to get rid of.  Restaurants can read us like a cheap paperback on this point. Rather than fall into this trap, you should be up front with the sommelier and let him or her know what your price range is. Again, a good sommelier will find something in your price range. And there’s nothing wrong about seeking out value in a wine list. 

What I’ve found during the many hours spent in restaurants eating and drinking wine, both high and low, is that, at the end of the day, having the sommelier help you with a wine selection is like a conversation with a friend you’ve not seen in a while. Awkward at first, but by the end of the encounter, you wonder why you don’t meet more often.