Food as the new rock ‘n’ roll

Odd and questionable–but unintentionally amusing–cultural commentary from Chris Richards in the Washington Post:

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the foodie class and decline of the record industry. Are the two related? When did we start talking about new food trucks instead of new bands?. . . .

Today’s gastronomical adventures provide the thrills that rock-and-roll used to. New restaurants appeal to our sense of discovery. Our diets can reflect our identities, our politics. For fans of thrash metal and/or live octopus sashimi, food is a way to sate cravings for the maximal, visceral and extreme. [Read more…]

The rooster crisis

What with the locavore movement, the organic food craze, survivalism, and the need to pinch pennies, lots of people have started raising chickens.  Even in big cities and suburbia.  Here in the D.C. area, counties and municipalities have revised local ordinances to allow chicken coops in back yards.  I salute those ventures.  But if you breed chickens, you are going to wind up with some males of the species.  Roosters don’t lay eggs; they aren’t cute enough to serve as pets; they tend to be mean; they fight if there are more than one of them; and–worst of all for city dwellers–they crow really loud early in the morning.  So now animal rescue agencies, animal control centers, and the Humane Society are getting overwhelmed by people bringing in roosters.

See Backyard chicken boom produces fowl result: Unwanted roosters – The Washington Post.

I think it’s great that people want to be farmers.  But if you are going to be a farmer, if only on a microscopic scale, you’ve got to think and act like a farmer.  What has been done with unneeded roosters, from time immemorial, is to eat them!

In the immortal words of Stephen Foster, referring to Susanna,”We will kill the old red rooster when she comes, when she comes.”  And then the next verse, “We will have chicken ‘n’ dumplings when she comes.”  [Sorry!  It isn’t Susanna or Stephen Foster.  As Todd points out in the comments, “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” is a completely different song.]  That last point acknowledges that roosters can be tough and so need to be stewed, but they can still be very delicious, and wound count as local, organic, homegrown food too.

I do understand the problem of squeamishness in wringing necks and chopping off heads–something that seems not to have been a problem with our forebears, however gentle and mild-mannered in other parts of their lives (I remember accounts of my sainted grandmother twisting the heads off of chickens)–but this could be an opportunity for a revival of another classic profession that would be local and a humane alternative to the factory-scale meat industry:  namely, the local butcher.


Farewell to Hostess

Hostess Brands is dissolving the company.  The refusal of union workers to take a pay cut was the last straw, but the company was already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Losing their jobs will be 18,500 employees at 33 factories and 500 stores. But at least they didn’t have to take a pay cut!

Hostess made products that became icons of American culture:  Twinkies, Wonder Bread, Snow Balls, Ding Dongs, Ho-Hos, and (my favorite) Hostess Cupcakes.   Other Hostess brands include Nature’s Pride, Butternut, Drake’s, Home Pride, and (my favorite) Dolly Madison.  (No more of those white powdered donuts?)

Remember the “Twinkie Defense,” in which an accused murderer pleaded that he was not responsible for his actions because he ate too much junk-food, being in a state of sugar intoxication when he killed his victim?  That didn’t work.  For other examples of Twinkies in American culture, read this.

Apparently, America has been giving up that soft, pillowy, white bread in favor of hard, wheaty, textured bread, and cutting back on sugary treats with cream filling in favor of healthy, locally-grown snacks.  (Well, that part’s unlikely.  So what happened to these products?)

They were certainly fixtures of my childhood.  I remember pondering how Hostess got that filling into the cakes!  And how can I have Thanksgiving without turkey leftovers on that soft Wonderbread?

A petition has been started asking the White House to bail-out the company.  Hostess is too delicious to fail!  Meanwhile, Twinkie hoarding has begun.  A box of ten is going for as much as $229.99 at E-bay.

But surely, for the sake of America and all that is sweet and soft and gooey, as Hostess liquidates and sells its assets, surely  some other company will buy the rights to the Hostess icons.

Twinkie maker Hostess moves to wind down operations, lay off its 18,500 workers – The Washington Post.

Food as cultural barometer

Greek food critic Diane Kochilas traces her country’s cultural ups and downs of the last few decades by examining its cuisine:

The Athens I knew in the 1970s and ’80s was a provincial city of bougainvillea-draped neighborhood tavernas, mostly family-run, that were cheap enough to visit almost nightly. The wine was rough and the service rougher, but the real reason for going was social. The dining scene was commendably egalitarian; even Aristotle Onassis mixed with the hoi polloi.

But Greece evolved. With tourism bringing the enticements of affluence and with the return of a generation of Greeks who had studied abroad and become more sophisticated in their tastes, the classless taverna was eclipsed by high-design restaurants where people could show off their ease with chopsticks and discuss whether a risotto was sufficiently al dente. By the mid-1990s, foreign cuisines were reaping the top prizes in nascent restaurant awards. Beyond the few lingering neighborhood tavernas, souvlaki joints and tourist traps in the Plaka area, there were few notable Greek restaurants in the capital. In retrospect, the country was wholeheartedly forsaking its traditional cuisine and, by extension, its traditional values.

E.U. membership ushered in a torrent of new foods, many available for the first time on supermarket shelves. Restaurant menus from the 1990s read like a catalogue of novel ingredients that were embraced more or less indiscriminately. In the early 1990s I reviewed dishes such as spinach-cheese pies in wonton wrappers, potato pancakes with smoked trout and heavy cream, and baked wheels of camembert with berry sauce. There was smoked salmon or salmon roe on what seemed like every other plate of pasta, with the then-requisite vodka-cream sauce.

As the ’90s progressed and stocks rose, restaurants reflected new wealth and unabashed hubris. Bouncers became fixtures at the doors, controlling who was allowed in. At one now-defunct restaurant, where my ancient Volkswagen Beetle was the only jalopy in a row of gleaming BMWs, the chef served me fish on a plate garnished with a large rock. Lavishly designed restaurants opened one after another. Mostly, the food was flashy with little substance, a metaphor for what was happening in society. The stock market eventually crashed, and the well-guarded, oversized and over-designed eateries began to close.

When the 2004 Olympics loomed large, chefs began to embrace regional ingredients and to rework forgotten dishes to fit a modern nation. Pride and provenance pervaded the restaurant scene almost to the point of excess, with menus reading like maps of the country’s food products. Greek was in.

But the five years after the Olympics marked one of the most corrupt and decadent periods in modern Greek history. Scandal after government scandal soured headlines. Crooked officials cooked the books. The epitome of excess for me came at one of Athens’s most fashionable restaurants, when I sampled, with (much justified) hesitation, a heaping mound of freeze-dried feta, numbingly cold, dry as sawdust and about as flavorful. Like the tenuous foundations on which Greeks erected their glorious glitz, so did chefs serve food that was the culinary equivalent of a house of cards: They fashioned foams from the components of skordalia, the unapologetically heady garlic-potato puree; fed us feta in myriad guises, including ice cream; and tumbled cubes of Greek-salad-flavored gel and even sacrosanct moussaka into martini glasses.

To be fair, not all of it was bad, but most of it was intimidating, food that bullied even savvy diners into feeling that they had to like it in order to fit into some new socio-culinary order. The media, meanwhile, waxed poetic about every spritz of foam. No one asked why so much of what had been a robust, earthy cuisine had been deconstructed into hot air, much like what was happening on a larger stage with government coffers.

Now, as the crisis begins searing the pockets of ordinary Greeks, the Athens food scene has suddenly retrenched. The bright side is that this is a time of much self-examination in a society not usually given to such ruminations. People are trying to figure out how to regain the dignity and perseverance that have always fueled the Greek spirit.

What is happening in Greek society is also happening in Greek kitchens: Chefs and home cooks alike are again embracing the understated splendor of their essential cuisine. The traditional fare is founded on real nutritional value and respect for the unadulterated flavors of seasonal ingredients. I see it in a resurgence of casual tavernas with affordable prices and familiar, if more artful, foods and in a food press that is catering to the needs of regular people who are looking for simple, healthy recipes that will nourish them in these hard times.

via Diane Kochilas – As goes Greek cuisine, so goes the Greek economy.

So how does American cuisine of the past few decades, from fast food to the local food movement, exemplify American culture?  And is it possible that our economic problems here, as in Greece, may force us in other ways to “get real”?