File this under How to Stretch a Lobster With Steak: A wine writer decides to go bargain hunting and sets the bar at $20 — while those of us out in the real world are wondering what’s good for $5 these days. But I suppose newspapers still need to pander to the suffering who have to cut corners on nose jobs and private jets in tight times. And I guess it’s better than $400 worth of caviar in a single sauce. Clearly, language is not the only reason no one reading print saw the greatest photo of the last week: At a rally on Wall Street, a protester holding up a sign reading, “Jump, you fuckers!”
One of the things that drove me bitter in my second gig at the Greatest Newspaper on the Planet at Least in Its Own Estimation was the frustration of, metaphorically, trying to make stellar soup out of wilted carrots. At best we could get the turkeys off the ground. It was impossible to make them fly. So I especially enjoyed a fellow refugee’s recent instigation of a debate on which is more important: spectacular ingredients or mad-wise kitchen skills. Obviously, you can guess my answer. Even Thomas Keller could not turn Perdue chicken into L’Ami Louis’ juicy roast. Or rancid buckwheat into shining gold leaf.
The bloviating over the shrinking of newspaper food sections reminds me of the glory days of e-rectum, when a thousand cretins who would not know a pica pole from a spatula felt qualified to weigh in on how stories came to find their way into newsprint. All due respect to the esteemed Serious Eater, but my experience has been that the food sections are not targeted first. Idiots are going through with chainsaws and leveling every expensive (read experienced, or, if you insist, older) byline in sight. (Anyone notice the San Jose Mercury News is advertising for a food writer as I type?) And while I doubt Sulzberger is quailing at the blogosphere, I am finding it has made flacks more omnipresent if not more powerful, something even I would never have predicted. The internets have given “print” incredible exposure, and not just on blogs. Mostly, though, food sections have always existed for one reason, advertising, which is why DI/DO is not being folded into the A section or Bizday; Metro and Sports are. Funny that no one is talking about the end of cookbooks in a world where countless recipes are just an Epicurious search away. Like newspapers, they will probably always be with us. Only the delivery system will change for both. Unfortunately, an iPhone makes a lousy litter box liner.
I made my first trip to Washington in the mid-Seventies, when my older sister was working on Capitol Hill and I was naively ensconced in the Midwest, and I have to say it never seemed to change demonstrably until the early 2000s. Even under the Clinton boom, it was a mysteriously sleepy backwater with the same hotels and restaurants every time I would go down to meet my consort while he was navigating the Geographic shoals. Something happened after the first election by Supreme Court, though, and I never understood it even though DI/DO did a big piece in 2003 on a neighborhood that had become restaurant central for reasons never even hinted at. Only now, thanks to Thomas Frank’s “Wrecking Crew,” and the series of tubes, is it clear why the dark-booze-drinking city on the swamp is busting out all over with boutique hotels and trendy restaurants and Holy Foodses and gentrification. The Chimp crew would call it privatization. Cynics know it is raping and pillaging.
The money being raked in in a time of bogus war is obscene, to the point where the teevee shows a lobbyist in her mega-mansion wrapping gifts using sheets of dollar bills as paper. In a video, Frank drives around pointing out the huge sleek office buildings erected out in the suburbs for companies like KBR (formerly Halliburton, Go-Fuck-Yourself’s evil empire). Campaign ads this season will be rife with allusions to how the restaurant world has benefited (I still remember a New York restaurateur saying, just after opening his steakhouse there, that he would never disclose his party; “capitalist” would be the belief system to draw both sides). I don’t blame anyone, but I do buy into the theory that the Villagers have done the country a terrible disservice by their insularity. The frog in the pot slowly comes to a boil, and the rest of America never perceives how absolutely absolute profits can corrupt. In retrospect I wonder what the impact would have been from having an outlander fly into DC to look into it the way they do other corrupt capitals. Personally, I always find stories on New York restaurants more fascinating when they are written by wide-eyed reporters rather than our own Villagers. Even when you want to spoof them, the kernels are generally of truth.
In a sane world, all food writers would skip the big “Fancy Food Show” at the Javits Center and just wait for the nice slick magazine showcasing all the edited highlights a couple of months later. From what I can tell, you don’t even need to taste the products. I kinda liked macaroni and cheese with lobster when I had a forkful among 30,000 other tastes at the show, so I was happy to see it get a belated shout-out after the helpfully organized magazine arrived in the mail. Similarly, I could see in context why a decadent packaging program for spices seized several awards: When you’re talking fancy, concept trumps practicality every time. I liked those dosage packets enough to write them up for my editors, but they apparently did the math and the geometry: A teaspoon priced like a quarter-bottle really is more than ridiculous, and 16 tins are way too many for the average kitchen.
On a related topic, it was more than amusing to watch the blowback when one restaurant reporter had the nerve to complain another was playing unfair. The commenters seemed to be in a wild contest to out-ignorant each other. What’s funnier is remembering what a crybaby she used to be when new joints would give their “news” first to the weekly magazines because they ran photos, and in color. Considering the Momofuku frenzy set off by the blogs, I kinda think the days when the likes of Mr. Ko could be extorted are running out.
Traveling with Panchito must give new meaning to the concept of hardship duty. Why else would the carrot so outweigh the stick? It’s a sad situation, though, when the reader has to pay the price for the splitting of the spaghetti. Take a grocery list, please, and check it twice — Einstein figured out bigger stuff faster. And he never had to conform to journalism standards, of which the what and the why outrank the who and the when. All those questions, along with the fifth commandment, also went into the sausage grinder for the farmer drummed out of the Greenmarket five years after his integrity was challenged. I have to say, the duck the guy sold was so outstanding he had to have bagged it somewhere else; no one can produce that many farm products that well or there would not be a Union Square. But even the poor headline writer could not summarize what the thing was really about. And kudos for the Mandarin transcriptions, but I think hell would be serving as a line cook in a restaurant where all the non-Asians come in and order the one dish they have been assured is safe to eat. No wonder the mall shut down almost as soon as the papers landed.
The base camp is getting even harder to maintain now that I have been swept into the E-ZPass of the internets, a blog that needs links more than words. But it can be trouble, too. After skimming part of the Drivelist’s latest “and then I did this and then I did that” when the wheel was already invented, I set off to Youtube in search of a postable “toddler makes first doody.” Yikes. If I had any money to invest, I’d be sinking it into pharmaceuticals big time. A whole generation is going to regret that youthful exuberance in a cellphone/video world. But even so, a close-up of a floating first turd in a toilet bowl cannot be as embarrassing as, “Look, world: I made snail butter.”
Not that I’m resentful or anything, but I have to suspect the famous Doughy Pantload keeps his gig in penny-wise times because he gets so many hits even though most of the ensuing comments hit the same note: “You, sir, are a wanker. And a total cretin to boot.” If all a publication wants is traffic, it works. But it really is a sad business model for newspapers in an era of unparalleled knowledge and insight. So, not that I’m scornful or anything, the ode to the cookie older than John McCain struck me as suffering from the same motivation. This was the biggest story in the most sophisticated food city in the country? And it made something so easy so much more complicated? People eat the goddamn dough raw. The saddest thing is that I had lunch a couple of days later with a neophyte so neo he didn’t know the Scourge of New Orleans once had a show on the teevee, let alone (barely) who Pierre Franey was, and his reaction was essentially: “Aren’t all newspaper food sections that dumb?” I felt like the combined ghost of Mme X and the Crocodile in thinking: One didn’t used to be. . . .
Is it just me, or is the hometown paper making it seem as if Americans are getting dumber by the second? I couldn’t believe the story on shoppers totally flummoxed by a new design for a milk bottle, and on the front page, no less. (This in a country where adults have had no trouble adapting to diapers.) And then there was the “how to get a crisp crisp” embarrassment. I guess Dad was busy, but my mom’s Betty Crocker cookbook would have been happy to help. Use melted butter in a pie dough and you’re axing for trouble, too. I guess I should just be glad we were not subjected to a disquisition on slumps and grunts and other Panchito connections. Next up: Sherlock grills cheese.
Just some random thoughts: Root beer is truly the bottom of the barrel. But let those who do not run Gucci ads on section fronts, and design whole sections around wine ads, cast the first stone at magazines too cozy with advertisers. Still, old media looks pretty good compared with the two silliest things I saw all week, both on the same food blog. One was a post on produce carts in poor neighborhoods in Manhattan that was illustrated with photo clip art from the tropics (yes, we have pineapples, but also every other fruit). The other was a rant against “sardines” on pizzas. Would those be anchovies on steroids? I’d love to hear the idjit complaining in a restaurant: Waiter, there’s a sardine in my Caesar.
In a similar vein, I was pretty amazed to read the blackening of White Lily’s reputation using such fair-and-balanced evidence. When I think of a blind test, I imagine rules and witnesses and, maybe, ya think?, science? To let two obviously prejudiced bakers have at it in unwatched kitchens strikes me as a bit, shall we say, un-Timesian? The most unsettling part was having a paid spokesperson turn on the new product with no disclosure of whether said spokesperson had any millstone to grind. As often as I think I was born at the right time, I do wonder why I had to sit through so many shitstorms over far more innocuous pieces just a Saran Wrap away. Being an editor in the high-tech chicken coop these days must feel like listening to an endless loop of Bruce Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” — Is there anyone alive out there?
At least I read the whole damn floury mess, a feat I could not replicate with the green, green garlic of confusion. But at least I tried. Most people who brought it up raved about the recipes before admitting they had not read a single word of the babble. So I guess this is an improvement over the British Bosom, who also filed stream-of-consciousness with no proofreading, but did it with recipes as well as “stories.” And sometimes crimes are so egregious they can only be punished with quotations. As the inimitable Trex would say (and did say about someone else): “She’s not so much a writer as a serial killer of ideas.” Stick a stake through her laptop.
So much cyber-ink has been squandered on the most craven comment-seeking story since the crotch-level steak that I hate to even mention it. (Again.) But as the e-dust settles, it’s pretty clear that it was an IQ test, and most respondents failed. Not only are people unable to do the math to cut a yield, they think equipment is a required ingredient. One of the best stories ever in a food magazine was the one on the two most essential tools in the kitchen: Your hands. Now, of course, they’re just used for typing evidence that your head needs feeding.
And not to kick one birdcage liner too hard, but miracle fruit looks to be the Tasmanian devil of food news. I read about those poor creatures and their contagious cancer first in Harper’s, then on the Guardian, then on the front page of the Journal. This “scoop” seems to be traveling in the opposite direction. Coming soon: Artichokes will muck up the taste of your wine! Oh, and that ricotta? I guess chefs must read Metropolitan Home from way back. And the good ones traverse the Greenmarket rather than making Polly-O facsimiles themselves.