Archive for the ‘Slightly Off Topic’ 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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Sometimes, I don’t know why but I don’t think it makes me weird (other things make me weird–sure–but not this one), I look around for what’s wrong or incongruous in a situation before pinching myself to confirm that I’m not dreaming and in fact there is nothing “wrong,” and that everything is as great as it seems.

No, I have not just found Jesus but props to the many who have. Instead I’ve come back from a “nothing wrong” weekend with 8 of my closest friends from college and hence, because I enjoyed college and was lucky enough to go with a whole bunch of awesome people, favorite people in the world. I hope some of them will read this so I don’t have to actually tell them how I feel about them in person–God that would be embarrassing.

Anyway, we got a cabin and spent our Memorial Day Weekend in the mountains of Colorado on a Lake named Dillon that I can only describe as big, blue and wet. I was told we were 10,000 feet up, and I’ll take it on faith that my graduating from Harvard law school friend who, while she doesn’t know everything, probably didn’t makeup the elevation of a location in a state she grew up in. We had a cabin, a hot tub and lots of provisions which thankfully included gin but did not include cilantro. Actually that isn’t entirely true.

With the $300-something grocery tab (9 people, 3 1/2 days, pretty good if you ask me–no this did not include beer) we purchased lots of things that generally fell under these categories: meat, carbs, (both refined (hot dog buns) and unrefined (7-grain hot dog buns)) cheese (including my new once-a-year favorite–Salsa con Queso), condiments, (I correctly insisted on full-fat mayonnaise) bagged and pre-washed salad mix, and Oreos, which were consumed with such abandon as to require a group of their own. A category we did not entertain the use of was herbs, which if that means no cilantro is just fine with me.

Of course, when it came time to make extemporaneous use of the (somewhat) well-stocked pantry of the cabin we stayed in, anise seed made no appearance–a slight disappointment to my doctored-up leftover hamburger baked ziti. What they did have was two containers of dried cilantro. You know who else has two jars of dried cilantro? My folks. You know who else? I’m guessing a lot of people. But here’s the thing: neither container had been used much, especially when compared to the others, especially when considering there was only one jar of most of those.

What I’m thinking is, as cilantro is now everywhere, people buy it, forget they bought it because they never use it, then buy it again because they think this would either make them fancier human beings or be something they might like to use. In either case they are wrong because those who like cilantro know it tastes better fresh and those who hate cilantro know that it always tastes terrible.

In any case, I’m very proud to report that we put a dent in neither dried cilantro jar–the gin’s another story.

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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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I hear there are bloggers out there who post, I dunno, a few times a week, every day, several times a day, but let’s be honest — as much as I may try, I’m no Perez Hilton. (It’s taken some time and support of friends to come to terms with this undeniable fact.) I’ve made the reasonable deal with myself to post once a week, you know, -ish. But sometimes, cilantro news comes to light and you (I) realize it is only really you (me) who can properly address the issue. And so it is that I have to act now; I wouldn’t be doing my cilantro-hating duty otherwise.

I Hate Cilantro.com, my friend and nemesis (these things are never simple) seems to be out of order, or under construction, or – I dont’ know – folding. This is what it looks like as of 2:49pm EST, 3/27/2008:

And it’s looked this way since at least early yesterday. I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you I don’t like it one bit. I cannot bare the literary/web burden of cilantro hate alone; I need ihatecilantro.com back. What I’m hoping is they’re going for a site redesign/revamp — they hadn’t updated their “news” since September — and will be back bigger and better than ever. While I’m not a member of their clan, I do love what they do, the multiplicity of voices they add to the truly infinite diversity that is cilantro hate.

And so, in this uncharacteristic spirit of pseudo news, frequent Perez-style posting, I’ll keep this post short and I’ll leave you with this amazing image.

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I would like to take this opportunity, that my public forum I Hate Cilantro blog has so provided me, to stand on a soap box of a different sort today. I might make some of you white hipsters out there uncomfortable in doing so, but, alas, this is a price I’m willing to pay — I like skinny jeans and Vampire Weekend just as much as the next guy (my hip, music-loving coworker has told me Vampire Weekend would be a good choice to illustrate my clear hipness).

In the past week I’ve received emailed links or Gchat status notifications that would have me reading/viewing/listening to items like Top 10 Raps Songs White People Like and the Stuff White People Like Blog. In the past month I’ve noticed similar Web 2.0 (if you will) manifestations, such as the hip office worker’s favorite SomeEcards’ treatment of Black History Month, or Black Heritage Month as I’m told by a New York Teaching Fellow friend it is supposed to be called. SomeEcards has cards with lines like “Let’s do the whitest thing possible” where a group of honkies (if you will) ride together in a ski lift. In another, it is suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate Black Heritage Month might be to abstain from shopping at JCrew. There are many more examples of a trend I’m trying to point to — indeed, a google search of “What White People Like” will also bring you to sites like Black People Love Us, a site I was already aware of because a hip friend had shared it with me several months ago. A good friend and his hip friend constantly refer to each other as honkies, and have for years.

So where does the soap box part come in? I want to put this succinctly, clearly. It seems to me what one couldn’t call anything other than a trend, and what I’ll call especially a trend specific to hip, (or would-be hip) white, college-educated often urban dwelling folks, has developed: ostensible (and that word is important here) white self-mockery achieved through defining white stereotypes (of a certain class, more on this later) but, perhaps more importantly, also perpetuating black ones across the web (2.0) and in the ever decreasing phenomenon, real life. I have zero respect for or interest in political correctness, so I’m no offended by any of these sites or cards, what have you, as such, especially in isolation. What troubles me is that this trend (these “white people” sites and cards) is perhaps not what it purports to be.

Allow me to explain. Nerds often like to make fun of themselves for being nerds, especially when they’ve gone to fancy schools (like I did) in similar company. These are not the nerds from the Revenge of the Nerds. These are, generally, economically advantaged nerds who relish in their nerdiness, knowing that they aren’t really making fun of themselves at all when they do so, but actually subversively talking about how awesome they are (because it is, afterall, both cool and of socio-economic importance as an adult to be a nerd, so-to-speak). I don’t have a huge problem with the phenomenon; I’m guilty of it myself.

What I do have a problem with is when the same idea is turned into a black/white dichotomy, instead of a smart/not smart one. I might have been born smart, but I also read and stuff. One is born black or white. More importantly, I reject the idea that it is better to be black or white (as I think most people would when put in those terms). It would be naive to say they aren’t different experiences (being black or white), but it would be undeniably racist to say it is better to be one or the other. If you look at the list of things white people like to do on the Stuff White People Like Blog — study abroad, eat brunch, recycle, spend money on expensive sandwiches, read The Times — these are largely things another group of people like to do: educated, and/or rich people. And yes, unless I’m completely out of touch, there are educated and/or rich black people. The thing is, when white people (full disclosure — I’m white) make fun of themselves in these terms, they’re really saying, as nerds do when they make fun of themselves as nerds, that they’re better than black people.

People feel good about themselves when they study abroad, recycle, order imported cheeses on their sandwiches and read the Times; they think they are better than people who do not do these things (don’t deny this; you’re lying to yourself if you do). The implication is that white people do these things and black (I should say other races, but I think this whole phenomenon is setup more as a black and white thing, so maybe I should stick with that) people don’t; according to this logic white people are better than black people. I don’t think this is what is intended, but I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, it is at least part of what is accomplished.

So while everyone is busy these days making observations and drawing conclusions and theories on what white people like to do, I’d like to go on the record, as the self-declared living expert on cilantro hate (ihatecilantro.com still hasn’t posted any news since early September), as saying this: There is absolutely no correlation between cilantro love or hate and race (both Oprah magazine and Gourmet feature cilantro recipes prominently). Because it is, however, a known fact that cilantro lovers are morons, there might in fact be a correlation between hipsterdom and cilantro love, and there might be an association between hipness and whiteness, but any conclusions you want to draw out of these correlations, I assure you I don’t mean them as false or subversive insults.

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In the spirit of year-end top 10 lists and holiday giving, here’s my Christmas gift to cilantro: the top 7 things at Cosi in 2007 that are (perhaps) more annoying than cilantro.

7. The tagline, “Simply Good Taste”

6. The use of the word traditional in the Traditional Cheese Flatbread. (In case you were wondering — traditional cheese is mozzarella cheese.)

5. The way the soup guy stares at me when I order a tomato soup, rather than ask what he’s really thinking, which is “What size (eye roll) of tomato soup would you like (eye roll) ma’am?,” until I say say, “Um, small?”

4. The worst incarnation of lunch salad-ready factory farm chicken ever known to man, and at a premium price.

3. The inconsistency in flatbread salt level. It’s immeasurably better when well-salted.

2. The very very small print on everything (especially the overhead salad menu) rendering it impossible to determine what you might want in advance, giving you nothing to do while you wait in line, except strain your eyes in vain.

1. The expression “Nothing Says holiday like eggnog (we don’t know why either).” Ick. Is there anything more annoying than cold calculating corporations trying to seem ironic or hip or coolly ignorant? No, there isn’t. It’s very annoying. Furthermore, the reasons eggnog say holiday are obvious:

i. Eggnog is served always and only during the holidays.

ii. Does nothing, in fact, say holiday like eggnog? What about mistletoe, snowflakes,
Christmas trees, menorahs, turkey, ham, family, red and green together, peppermint sticks, the calendar months November and December, presents, mulled red wine, Santa Claus, reindeer, etc., etc. These take nothing away from the eggnog/holiday association, (in fact my coworkers have confirmed that eggnog is on their top 5 list of holiday word associations) but would question the superlative “Nothing” says holiday like eggnog.

iii. People love eggnog, even if they don’t love eggnog. It makes you feel warm and nostalgic. The corporate suits have absolutely, deliberately chosen eggnog as the symbol of the holidays to make you (the consumer) associate warm, nostalgic feelings with them (Cosi) and, you know, buy more stuff, and then backed away from this deliberateness by suggesting the eggnog reference is innocent, accidental, organic. We could all learn a lot from Starbucks.

See you in 2008, earnestly back to the business of hating cilantro.

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When you’re 25, more or less making a living as a writer of various merits and degrees of seriousness, residing in New York City and haling from small college town Ohio, returning to New York after Thanksgiving in said college town Ohio (and it’s distant cousin, Southwestern farmland Ohio) to begin reading Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer with lines like, “Mother, I will not prate in platitudes to please the adults!” (a rare instance of exclamation point in the otherwise understated Roth punctuation situation) you kind of second guess how you’re going to write the ostensible would-be write itself “Thanksgiving: A Safe Haven From Cilantro in a World of Fewer and Fewer” that would go something like this:

People talk about all the familiar wonders of Thanksgiving: the turkey, the dressing (stuffing, whatever), candied yams (sweet potatoes, whatever), green bean casserole, mashed potatoes (which apparently are basically full-proof, apparently), the pies, the gravy (you can poor it on everything, it’s so good, right?) And the best part of all of it: no where, ever, ever will you find a scant piece, a dash, a chiffonade of cilantro.

Is this a coincidence I ask you? Well, of course it is, strictly speaking, but it is interesting that America’s favorite meal of the year, the one we all can get totally behind is the cilantro hater’s favorite meal too. There are some places, some meals, some traditions just too sacred, just too refined to be bastardized by the presence of that nasty, can’t even compete with sage, rosemary and thyme herb…

when what you’re really thinking about is, as Roth and many great “meta,” if you will, or don’t, that’s an obnoxious ivory tower term, or write about writing writers will tend to make you do, the place of the writer, the vanity of the question itself, the inherent narcissism of it all, the writing’s relationship to other people in the writer’s life, the question of its meaning other than to perk readers to say “that’s good,” “I get it,” “that’s funny” or be entertained. These are questions others have mused on, successfully – notably, Joyce, Hollingshurst and Roth himself. I’ll leave that discourse where it lies, dynamic and totally unanswerable.

What strikes me is something I would imagine affects everyone who writes, produces art, performs any job, really: that sometimes there are more important things going on than what you’re doing. (Sure, sure, this is a young liberal idea, I get that, but we don’t want to stop wanting to be important, or rather, to do important things, right?) Food writers, when they talk about their form, tend to take one of two positions: they write entertainment (maybe infotainment) or the work is very important because everyone eats and food matters to our cultures and our histories and connects people and so on (Ms. MFK Fisher is the incontrovertible paradigm here). I agree with both positions, and I really honestly sometimes totally agree with the second one, it’s just that damn sanctimonious tone always used to defend it.

Nate Zucherman, the great protagonist of many of Roth’s novels, including The Ghost Writer, talks with his mentor, the secluded (I’m thinking Pynchon-esque) EI Lonoff, who describes his own long days of writing as essentially creating a sentence, rearranging it, eating lunch, writing another sentence, moving it around, going for a walk, throwing away all the sentences, then starting over. Bumped into my lit.-loving friend Wells in Ohio who talked about David Foster Wallace’s description of writing as setting up a 9-hour day, 1 hour of writing, 8 hours of hating himself for not being able to write anything: indeed, poor bastards.

It’s a funny occupation and people who do it love to complain about it. But they all seem drawn to it as if to some kind of duty, but a duty to self, which gets complicated. Kind of reminds me of other professions, notably chefs, who are only allowed to complain on their own time, lest they get fired, stabbed, hated or, worse, never promoted. Complain they will, but love it, need it — absolutely.

It seems to me, at the end of the day, it’s all about pleasure. People write because they’re gifted and very often privileged enough to do so and they love the sweet agony of producing something good. People read for the same reasons (yes to learn, but people that really like to learn do it for pleasure, right?) Chefs cook for their own pleasure and for that of their diners. David Kamp talks about this in his United States of Arugula, that dining, above all else, should be pleasurable.

And back to Thanksgiving, which is one of the more pleasurable meals most of us will eat in a given year. Those crazy folks we call our families we often haven’t seen in awhile, the food that never wavers, and if it does can and should be a source of hot contention, the cheesy but awesome spirit of thankfulness, or, as I like to thank of it, luckiness. The pleasure the day’s chef gets from cooking the meal: basting the turkey, sweating the onions, seeing the smiling faces of everyone eating it, not doing the dishes. Then everyone sits back and does exactly as they would like to do: take a nap, watch the game, drink a little too much and zing your family, what have you. It’s all permissible. Anything goes.

Thanksgiving is a great day and a great meal because people find pleasure in doing what they want to do and feel basically thankful for the whole situation. The same pleasure can come from writing. When you get to write about food, you get to double up on your own pleasure, and, if you can share that somehow (like my Grandpa’s tried and true every year corn pudding), well, maybe that is something important enough, at least for a day’s work.

Also, I hate cilantro.

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