Welcome to a new year and a fresh batch of beautiful, thought-provoking, and clever food writing. Start off with a brisk detour into rural Kentucky where co-essayists chef Tunde Wey and Appalachian Food Summit founder Lora Smith find common ground at a potluck dinner. Then, Thrillist reporter Kevin Alexander lays out his argument for what he perceives as a restaurant bubble in the final entry of a three-part series looking at the American food industry. Could inland fish farming be the answer to the world’s seafood woes? Mother Jones takes a deep dive into a massive Iowa Barramundi farming operation, while Road & Kingdoms explores the history of Hawaiian cattle ranching.
Oh, what can change in a year! New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells was applauded at the beginning of 2016 for his no-holds-barred takedown of Per Se and is now on the receiving end of unfriendly epithets for his zero-star review of Locol. Eater’s Matt Buchanan takes a look at why Wells’ critique was so poorly received and what the critic’s mindset may have been. Meanwhile, in brief histories, writers explore the development of the steakhouse build-your-own salad bar and the dominance of the Hass avocado. Is sugar just another drug? Read up on all this and more in these eight great reads.
I travel around the country, staging pop-up dinners where Nigerian comfort food and discomfiting conversations about race in America are on the menu. When I told my friends in Louisville, Ky., that I was headed eastward into Appalachia to cook, I got many an incredulous, "Really?! Are you sure that's a good idea? Don't get shot ..." — usually followed by a collegial elbow jab and a self-conscious chuckle.
White, urban Kentuckians told me to be wary, that my blackness and foreignness were a combustible identity cocktail in that rural place. These warnings would have been innocuous if they hadn't been pervasive — and universally smothered with uncomfortable laughter. They were just joking. Except they weren't.
As soon as he walked through the door, Matt Semmelhack knew it was over. He'd been away from his San Francisco restaurant AQ for less than a week, but when he got back, it just felt different. It went beyond the usual concerns of the modern restaurateur. "I wasn't worried the lights were properly dim, or the regulars were in the right booths," he says. Instead, Semmelhack was just looking at his staff -- people he hangs out with on weekends, people whose livelihoods he supplies, some of his closest friends -- and all he could see was the money each one of them was costing him, flashing in front of him like a video-game score. "I knew right then," he says, "we had to shut it all down."
At the beginning of 2016, Pete Wells, the New York Times dining critic, was not just the most important restaurant reviewer in America, he was a "populist hero." In his January 13 column, he had demoted from four stars to two perhaps the most gilded fine dining establishment in New York City, Thomas Keller's Per Se, by way of a spectacularly eviscerating review that at least one third-party headline claimed "changed fine dining forever."
Now, a year later, Wells is being pilloried for being a "fucking jerk." After awarding zero stars to the Oakland, California location of Locol — the community-minded fast-food chainlet from chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, which many in the food media have hailed as the most important dining establishment of 2016 (oh, hello) — a consensus has emerged that he pulled "a completely dick-ish and unnecessary move," with readers sarcastically suggesting he "take on soup kitchens next.
The Hass avocado (which rhymes with “pass,” by the way) was an accidental discovery—a seedling of unknown parentage planted in 1926 by its namesake, postman Rudolf Hass. Farmers heralded the productive and compact tree, and shoppers loved the buttery, nutty fruit. But it wasn’t perfect. “Its single disadvantage is its black color which has been associated in the minds of the public with poor quality fruits,” said a report in the 1945 yearbook of the California Avocado Society. Avocados of the time came in many shapes, sizes, and colors—and the most popular variety, called Fuerte, ripened green.
Roads & Kingdoms
Rapozo began driving cattle for Parker Ranch in 1972, when the ranch was still the largest under individual ownership in the United States. At its peak, Parker herds wandered some 500,000 acres under the care of Hawaii’s cowboys, the paniolos. Together they left their mark on the physical landscape of Hawaii, as well as the culture and cuisine. As cow hooves introduced grasses that helped form the rolling grasslands around Waimea, the paniolos also helped popularize such Hawaiian icons as ukuleles and slack key guitars, coffee and sweet Maui onions, and the hamburger beef now part and parcel of plate lunches like loco moco or kal bi served with macaroni and rice.
Imagine a drug that can intoxicate us, can infuse us with energy and can be taken by mouth. It doesn’t have to be injected, smoked, or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effects. Imagine that it mixes well with virtually every food and particularly liquids, and that when given to infants it provokes a feeling of pleasure so profound and intense that its pursuit becomes a driving force throughout their lives.
Could the taste of sugar on the tongue be a kind of intoxication? What about the possibility that sugar itself is an intoxicant, a drug? Overconsumption of this drug may have long-term side-effects, but there are none in the short term – no staggering or dizziness, no slurring of speech, no passing out or drifting away, no heart palpitations or respiratory distress.
In Brinker’s mind, the addition of a serve-yourself salad bar satisfied diners on several levels: It occupied guests during the wait between placing orders and receiving entrees, and it created a greater sense of value and customization. “The customer can get a salad while the waiter is turning in the order and delivering it,” Brinker explained. “The speed was much faster. And you, the customer, ate what you wanted from the salad bar, right off the bat.”
Their neighbors raise hogs and cattle, sow soybeans, and tend pumpkin patches and orchards now sagging with apples. But five years ago, the Nelsons—a third-generation Iowa farming family—turned to raising fish. Hundreds of thousands of silvery barramundi, to be precise. Part of a hearty species that's roughly the size of coho salmon and has flesh the flavor of red snapper, the Nelsons' barramundi start their lives in their native Australia. Seventeen days after spawning, they are flown in plastic bags of water to central Iowa, where they spend their adolescence swimming against a current pulsing through rectangular tanks on the Nelsons' farm. Barramundi easily tolerate many environments and have a flexible diet, attributes that led Time in 2011 to call them "just about perfect" as a farmed species. Once the fish reach nearly two pounds, they'll be shipped live to seafood markets and restaurants across the country, or filleted, flash-frozen, and sent to food distributors like Sysco.
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