One not-so-recent Saturday I opened my Sunday paper and found the latest “we need ads and we can’t get ’em” color supplement. After a quick flip through the extravaganza my skepticism was so validated I envisioned hundreds of copies laid flat alongside induction cooktops all across the gullible country as readers followed along. Taking away measurement lists and technique steps but spelling out how to make one dish yields . . . a recipe. It’s not liberation. It’s a change of format. FFS, that’s what Elizabeth David was doing decades ago, and so well.
I quit reading the Sunday Arts & Leisure section literally decades ago after a couple of theater people I met at a dinner party pointed out the obvious: It is nothing but promo copy to fill up the spaces around, and justify, the theater/movie/gallery ads. The food pages of course have no ads, so there really is no excuse for a huge feature that amounted to a press trip for which subscribers paid by kicking in to pay “journalist” salaries. I mean, really? Signing on to shill for a teevee show as a way to explore a story you could find literally in the backyard with all the cheap-and-shitty Thai restos on Ninth?
Then again, on one of my increasingly regular trips to the consort’s hometown, I happened upon a laudatory story in the hometown paper on how all the local taxpayer dollars were paying off in high-profile coverage of a city that has been, for at least 10 years, a food scene happening in plain sight. Lede: “America’s favorite city. One of the top places to see in 2016. A top 10 food city in America. These are the accolades that Travel & Leisure, CNN and National Geographic, respectively, have showered on Buffalo recently. Over the past few years, writers from USA Today, The New York Times, popular travel media and newspapers nationwide have visited the Queen City and shared their intrigue and, ultimately, their love . . . Last year, we were able to influence well over 230 stories, and some of them, of course, went viral in other ways. They had a media value of $4.1 million.” How much was in “clean” coverage? And how did we get to this so-called president, anyway? On Kerala wings?
On my last trip to Istanbul, a year ago, I succumbed to a Starbucks for a wake-up cappuccino in Attaturk airport after a twin-babies-behind-me-with-mom-screaming-what-is-your-fucking-problem overnight flight, so I’m not as derisive as most about the chain opening in Italy. If it can brave the home of Turkish coffee, and also the home of the far superior Gloria Jean’s, it can barge in wherever the hell it wants. Even so, you could only read this and think a flack could not have paid for better placement.
Not sure what goes on in editorial meetings these days, but somehow “mom cards know best” results in 10-inch recipes (It’s coconut cream pie, not molecular gastronomy, for pop’s sake! ) and “you don’t need an Italian grandma to learn to make pasta” turns into “consult a bunch of American chefs.” Spring is to be celebrated right before the Fourth of July, with peas not in Greenmarkets and second mortgages required for $60-a-pound morels and $10-a-softshell feasts. And the wackiness is everywhere: Advice on wasting less food runs with ridiculous sell-by dates that result in, yes, more wasted food. But at the main outlet, the one hoping “recipe cards will save the day,” Helen Keller is clearly running the design show. All gray and no white space would communicate better in the original Braille.
Just back from Philadelphia, I have a higher suspicion that the hometown paper’s bacon-saver might not be. Judging by a lively discussion over dinner one night, the more some cooks see it the more they wanna get back to the Garten. And if you search but can’t rate, you’ll go find 17,000 choices elsewhere.
News you can use: Finds are often found on the food scout’s desk. With a hint of mint.
I always joke that I recognize more names lately in the paid death notices than in the socially vetted wedding announcements. One reason I scour them is to keep up as food legends fade away. The latest was our old neighborhood butcher, who was a real character who did things right back in the competitive days when every neighborhood had at least one butcher. His shop over on Broadway was very Old World, with gleaming tile and a sawdusted floor, and he was always behind the counter, wearing a bolo tie that looked doubly incongruous as soon as he started barking. The great Irene Sax summed him and his business up well in her still-invaluable “Cook’s Marketplace” in 1984: “Yes, he has prime beef, pale veal, game, does 50 percent of his business over the phone. But you don’t have to be rich to shop at his market. Specials are always posted, and his butchers are glad to sell an elderly woman a piece of Romanian tenderloin or some lamb breast. That’s why, Oppenheimer boasts, his shop is busy all summer, when other butchers go hungry because their customers are in Maine and the South of France.”
As his family said in paying to memorialize him, he was a butcher to the stars as well as to us earthbound cooks. Maybe if he had played bass on a one-hit wonder back in 1968 he would have merited a real obit.
Our most memorable encounter came the day after one Thanksgiving, when we went back to bitch that our “fresh” turkey had freezer burn. He just said, with his German brusqueness: “Take anything you want. I know you’re not trying to put one over on me.” He bought an awful lot of goodwill with a few veal cutlets. And don’t get me started on the butcher farther south who once sold us a turkey with a tumor and pretty much told us where to stuff it . . . .
Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who thought she got up the other Wednesday a.m. to find herself back in another century. My early emails included two from the other coast marveling that the town crier for most advanced food city in the country would choose to regress to the good ol’ days, as one put it, when the ads had chuck roast for 59 cents a pound. Of course the margarine in the butter biscuits just made that Betty Crocker vibe much vibier.
Then it got worse. Green grapely, and baking-powder-in-the-unbaked-mashed-potatoes, worse. Having lived in six states and eaten in at least 30 more, I wondered why, if they were gonna go back to the Claiborne heyday, they didn’t just pull out their own excellent compilation of regional recipes. Kolaches are not Danish in that compendium. Snickers are not tights, neither.
And I’m not even going to get into how dumbed-down comestible coverage is becoming as high-minded Dining sinks to Des Moines-worthy Fud. Zombie recipes exhumed. Woman’s World-worthy prose. Two shades of grey in a Holi-colorful world. But I will note that dinner with someone who would know echoed my bafflement at how the Egopedist graduated beyond snippets that had to be edited for half a day to be made deep. Limp handshakes must move fast. . . .
Maybe I should stable my high horse. I read the Murdoch Crier’s cheerleading piece on farmed salmon and wanted to blow it off as pinkwashing. Then I did some poking around for what it didn’t say. Turns out there really has been a literal sea change in the chicken of the sea. To the point that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch now rates farmed Coho as a best choice. I still have qualms, because I’m haunted by the Scottish fisherman I interviewed eons ago who saw such a threat to the beautiful swimmers from the chicken-cooped kind, and because all these years of shunning the latter have left me with a taste for the wild ones. But it was one more reminder of how you need to read the business pages for your food journalism these days. So much else is just service.
And I forgot to post this in my last blast here, but I wanted to praise the hometown paper for running two important stories, a graphic one on the horrific pig virus pushing up the price of industrial bacon (you’ll notice sustainable is not affected yet) and down the quality of drinking water, and the other on how food chains actually do well by paying well (or at least better than minimum wage). But I also have to complain that both ran on a Saturday on a long holiday weekend. When virtually no one but an old print junkie who calls out the crazy price in the Chanel ad every morning was likely to see them.
My sources read Panchito so I don’t have to suffer the increasingly saccharine insipidity while the Chimp he flacked continues to go unpunished. So I know the lamest restaurant critic ever has gone all Hallmark on America’s ass without ever noting he is the first gay uncle who does not have to pretend to be straight. Given that we are, for the first time, going through a civil rights revolution driven by neither a war nor legislation crammed down the throats of the free Xians, surely the cause deserves a better banner bearer. As the cries to burn down the op-ed pages grow, and especially after the pushy broad has been ousted, maybe sign up a guy who can both bake and think? Anyone who could bring his own mom over to the enlightened side would be preaching to the convertible. And I don’t mean that in the car sense.
I have a lot of catching up to do, but in the meantime I have to note that I can remember every time I ate out, puked/squittered in. The third worst was after a waiter in Florence touched his runny nose while serving us lunch. The second was that time, was in another lifetime, when I took an inter-Appalachian bus to meet a friend for Thanksgiving dinner off a buffet and rode back on my knees, talking to Ralph on the big white telephone. (Well, little stainless-steel telephone.) But the winner was the day I brought home an outstanding felafel sandwich from a neighborhood joint where I chose to ignore the fact that a baby was sitting on the takeout counter. Within 24 hours, I thought I’d died and gone to liquid hell. So I guess it makes perfect sense that visionaries thought people waking up after the most alcohol of the year would want to see a diapered butt posed over a slab of salmon, with beans looking like turds shooting off to the side. The only thing more sickening would be tilapia paired with white chocolate and macadamia.
I could understand the awe the nonagenarian rich guy inspired with his $100 nightly treats for himself. Sure, he earned it. But given that one in five olds in NYC relies on food assistance, you gotta wonder about his priorities and the weird tone-deafness of a section that natters about the great divide but celebrates excess (tell us what was on the table, ye who have no money worries?) Forget the four-dollar organic greens. The average geriatric female in NYC would be happy with a feast o’Friskies.
Times must be getting less tight down to the Taj Pinch. Dinners that cost almost as much as a Chanel bag are getting written up (surely no one only spat). But the bigger laugh was seeing how the sausage was made with the Putin placement — flacks typed something up and “it went through the normal editing process.” Maybe that explains so much about how someone I was warned “is not a very sophisticated writer” can stiffen up to 20 inches.