Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Illustration by Stephen Webster
New York Times

Today’s New York Times Dining section has a striking front page. What is most striking to most I imagine is not the small cilantro article on the lower right, but the hyperbole of a pastrami sandwich that overwhelms the page.

I’ve been thinking a lot about juxtaposition recently (always) and while Harold McGee’s excellent article provides so much fodder to dive into here in this blog, fodder that I’m excited to dive into in the near future, while I have the eyes and possibly attention of more than I’m used to it’s the pastrami sandiwch that juxtaposes cilantro hate neuroscience/anthropology that I’m concerned with today.

Beginning January of this year, I’ve adopted a vegan diet that I keep at a strictness of oh, say 98%–due dilligence applied, the occasional doubt of trace amounts of dairy infrequently ignored. I’m not here or anywhere else to try to convince anyone they should do the same, but I think I have an interesting and less-obnoxious-than-most-vegans take on it.

The Times asks “Can This Sandwich Be Saved?” in its headline (Julia Moskin asks in her headline). A better question, I argue, is “Should This Sandwich Be saved?”

The article is about the slow but consistent decline of the Jewish deli (the number of them, the success of them, the perceived quality and authenticity of them) and the corresponding ascension of the not-Jewish deli (which is not to say Gentile deli–some not-Jewish delis are Jewish delis, just not Jewish delis of yore). It profiles several mostly younger chefs and restaurant owners who are bringing things like “sustainability,” creativity, and vegetables (that aren’t coated in mayonnaise) to delis.

On the one hand, while I value tradition, knowing what you’re going to get when you go into a place, a kind of place, on the other hand I believe in progress, that what worked yesterday at least might not work so well today. As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in his excellent book Eating Animals–which I read to rev myself up for veganism 3.0 (I’ve dabbled before for years at a time)–no one, and I can’t speak to this personally not being Jewish and all, but especially no one from such a strong cultural and culinary tradition as the Jewish one, wants to see tradition die, even if there are not so great maybe ethical or other considerations that might not make them the best practices to uphold.

My argument here isn’t whether or not certain traditions should be upheld. Certainly you can uphold their spirit and modify their specifics–this has always been so. But it gets complicated when one tries to determine what is the vital essence of this tradtion–what part of it needs to be preserved. Which is why religion is so flawed–who gets to decide that essence?–doesn’t seem to be the smartest guy in the room, does it?–but that’s another post.

My argument here is that making things better or more progressive, here through sustainable butchering practices (in house, local, grass-fed), and flavor and creativity and all these ostensibly wonderful things, can sometimes obscure that they are really much further from that than being good enough. That is, sure grass-fed pastrami is better than its factory farmed equivalent, but is it good enough? Maybe it is good enough for you and maybe it is good enough for a lot of people (everyone knows the whole slaughter process and everything is still really awful, right?) and that it should or shouldn’t be still isn’t my argument (exactly).

My argument is that these progressive means of producing meat and dairy and eggs and other foods while obviously good in some ways may be detrimental in that 1) they make well-meaning liberals and people who otherwise give a damn feel like they’re doing enough, that things are moving forward enough to 2) eat these things (maybe not so bad) and 3) (the real problem) eat the old-guard counterparts of these foods more often than the sustainable version because 99% of meat and eggs are still factory farmed. Basically, the very margainal market (supply, not demand) that exists for organic, local, sustainable, not factory farmed animal products seems larger than it is and because many seek out the good versions when they can, are used to eating these things at all, they will inevitably eat these things in their factory-farmed-mixed-pig-part-ball-park-frank-at-the-Yankees-game variety too, right? In fact, many if not most end up eating this kind of food (think cubed chicken in that make your own salad New Yorkers) more often than the good kind, because the good kind is out there so we don’t give it up completely.

And I’m not here to judge that. Food writing for years I ate my share of all these things–foie gras, Yankees hot dogs, Shake Shack burgers, Heritage Pork chops, etc–and I’m not on a mission to change anyone’s mind about anything. But I’m interested in spotting bargained logic and unwarranted self-congratulation and while I really hope that Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt of Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley and chefs like them continue to create a better product, maybe at least some of us should also be thinking of creative ways of not eating this stuff at all.

Despite all this, you can say one good thing about delis categorically–I’ve never seen cilantro in a single one.

Also, I think the New York Times should give me a vegan and/or cilantro hate food column. Just a thought.


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It’s just like me to make a flowchart on how to eat out, how to survive really, and go out of my way to ignore it.

Like the Christian Existentialists who explain life’s troubling, irreconcilable paradoxes through the existence (and source) of the greatest irreconcilable paradox–Jesus (God/man? mortal/immortal?–anyone else confused? No? Congratulations–you’re smarter than me.)–sometimes we do things not because they make or don’t make sense, but because we just do them. Some things just are. Their absurdity is in line with the inherent absurdity of the universe and hence, given a certain liberal mindset, we are comforted.

And so was my absurdly comforting dinner at Chavella‘s last night.

ordered the chicken enchiladas. Here’s the thing about chicken: I was a vegetarian for 11 years, vegan for two of them and I certainly didn’t start eating meat again to eat factory farmed chicken. But, and I’m not making excuses here as I think factory farm chicken is morally and ecologically reprehensible, in the moral/flavor cost-benefit analysis often at work in my food choices, there’s something about that ambiguously but inarguably delicious American Mexican chicken that I’m a total sucker for. So, as I said, I ordered the chicken enchiladas.

At Chavella’s, a pretty good little Mexican joint a few blocks from my Brooklyn digs, one orders his/her enchiladas with a choice of salsa verde or mole. You don’t need a PhD in Cilantro Hate to know salsa verde is quintessentially dangerous to the cilantro averse. For those of you living in the far reaches of xenophobic denial, speaking so little Spanish that you don’t know verde means green–verde means green. It gets its green moniker from a variety of ingredients, most notably tomatillo, lime, green chili and, yes, cilantro.

But the thing is the gentleman next to me had ordered the chicken enchiladas with salsa verde and he was enjoying them with gusto in a not-subtly audible fashion. I asked, “Sir, excuse me, I can’t help but notice that you’re enjoying those enchiladas.”

“Oh, God yes. They’re so delicious,” he replied.

“Sir, do you have a palate for cilantro? What I mean to say is, would you notice if there was cilantro in your salsa verde there?,” I continued.

A good sport, he confirmed what I already knew: “Well, yes, it’s noticeable but certainly not overwhelming and did I mention how truly delicious they are?”

So then the waitress did what I didn’t even consider asking her to do, which was to bring me the mole and verde to try. The cilantro-hating friend who was with me tried them both too. Strangest thing: I could kind of tell there was cilantro in the verde, but I liked it anyway, not because of the cilantro mind you, but despite it. Now, it’s common knowledge that the cilantro taste is mitigated in the cooking process and in this case it was cooked. There was no extra fresh cilantro chiffonade or fresh cilantro finishing touch of any kind. As such it just sort of became one with the sauce. I don’t know what I’m saying here. This doesn’t make sense! This is so, so, absurd.

So I ordered the enchiladas with the very bright, pleasant, garlicky, limy, spicy sauce. It was perfect with the queso fresco and crema and yummy chicken and delicious house-made tortillas. The mole would have overwhelmed everything as (if you want my opinion) it does most everything it touches. In short, the chicken enchiladas verdes were good.

Now, this is not the post you’ve all been waiting for where I change my ways, start liking cilantro and ruin my blog. No. This is the post where I admit there was once a time in my life when I ate something that had cilantro in it and enjoyed it and much to the chagrin of you polarizing cilantro lovers out there–I’m OK with that. Existence precedes essence, if you know what I’m saying.

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If you’re anything like me (first of all, God bless you — it’s messy up there, huh?) there are few things as amazing as stumbling across a movie, a book, a philosophy, anything that sort of lays it all out there in a way that not only connects seemingly disparate kinds of things and thoughts, but also does all that in a way that seems true (and you don’t know how you feel about this idea of “true” to begin with — that’s sort of what makes it special). Oprah would call that a light bulb moment; I’d call it learning something really cool, feeling a little more clued in to what’s really up.

So, in the event the foreshadowing has been inadequate, I had one of those experiences or, rather, the catalyst for one of those experiences watching Half Nelson the other day. The movie itself I really liked, but it’s this idea of dialectics that it deals with in explicit and more subversive ways that has me thinking about it still. Before the movie I really wasn’t familiar with these dialectics, but was very much attracted to how the protagonist (Mr. Dan Dunne) was teaching history — not how he was teaching high on crack, which admittedly leads to some practical problems, but that he was teaching through this dialectical lens, if you will. The lessons were dynamic and weird — I question whether the kids were getting it, but I choose to believe kids are as smart as I think they are, so I’ll give them and the movie the benefit of the doubt on that one — and I wanted to learn more about this philosophy that had gotten idealistic Dunne in such a frenzy, to both good and bad effect (to simplify: good = caring and engaging teacher; bad = self-hating drug addict with terrible personal relationships).

So, I did what any self-respecting office job holder would do and googled dialectics at work. Suddenly I was reading Marx and Hegel and Wikipedia! Now I’m not going to try and explain the whole thing to y’all because 1) I only know what I know about it, which is relatively little and 2) I wouldn’t want to condescend to anyone who does actually really get it, especially the linguistic conventions of talking about philosophy. But, to the point, it has to do with conflict, paradox, change, progress, movement and uncertainty. In the context of history (of Half Nelson), we can understand events, changes and history itself as reactions to internal and external conflicts, as struggles between opposing forces: it isn’t cause and effect (if a then b). Dialectics doesn’t really work for science (or rather the scientific method; Darwin was all about this shit), but, if you ask me, science can teach us how to make an iPhone (debatable), but not how to live our lives.

So, opposites and contradictions have at least three properties: 1) they’re interdependent, 2) they interpenetrate and 3) they’re in union. A lot of Eastern thought, to be totally Orientalist, relies on this — hence the beautiful green yin-yang you see, which is probably why I dig it and subconsciously why I found myself consulting the I Ching the day after watching Half Nelson. But, if it’s valid, to use a word, it ought to hold up to any part of my life, like, and here it is, my hatred of cilantro. How can dialectics inform my understanding of this hate?

Well, as it turns out, it has totally shed some light. First, there’s hate in every love and love in every hate (that’s the interpenetration part — the little white and black dots in the yin-yang). What that really means to me is that nothing is pure, nothing is the real ideal of the thing ever, certainly not in reality. So, I can hate cilantro as much as pure hate is possible (and I do; I hate it more than mean people), but it’s only so possible. What’s more interesting to me is the interdependence of love and hate. For better or worse, I need cilantro lovers both to define myself, as in opposition to something and for tons of fodder — I love making fun of those morons. Without cilantro love, cilantro hate couldn’t exist, cilantro would just be. It couldn’t be loved or hated, or it would have gone extinct from lack of consumption or taken over like a weed or who knows but it certainly wouldn’t be like this: the silent culture war instigator that it is.

Then, there’s the union of opposites, that the closer you get to the extreme of something the more it is it’s opposite. It’s like my friend Miki’s always saying, hate isn’t the opposite of love, indifference is; I think she’s right. In my case, it’s not so much that I hate cilantro so much that I love it; it’s that it’s become so much fun to hate it I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for it.

I hate cilantro, but I love it too.

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