This was also my first trip overseas with my MacBook, so I could Tweet from afar. And one of the first noted that I had seen no cupcakes in Italy, but that the muffin tops were fucking everywhere. Shortly after hitting send on that, I passed a bakery with a line out the door for its frosted belly bombs. Milan may be, as my friend there noted, as much Italy as New York is America. But Saint Danny could clean up with Shake Shacks there.
One chef made the trip so worthwhile I’ll name the name: Angela Hartnett from London. Asked whether being a woman holds you back in the restaurant business, she was the first I’ve ever heard to say it actually “works to your advantage.” She was, after all, on the bill with Japanese chefs at this event: “It’s a bonus to be a woman.” And not in Old Europe, either — in England she did not to have to be a heritage hire, in line behind her dad as Helene Darroze and Elena Arzak were. Her best observation, though? On what makes her craziest: “People with allergies: nuts, wheat, dairy. You’re gonna die. A little bit of garlic is not going to make it faster.”
Lavaplatti sounds so much nicer than dishwasher. Prosecco and sparkling Malvasia and even Lambrusco are all-bloat, no-buzz wines — why do they even try to team any of them with food? Plates at buffets should always have a loophole to attach a wineglass. Al dente pasta is better for the digestion. Aperitivo apparently no longer means free food, only overpriced drinks. But the dread coperto seems to be going extinct. “I want to kill the guy who invented truffle oil.” Never dis a steak as donkey; the latter is actually very tender meat, or so I hear. A la Russe meant everyone sitting together to eat; a la Francaise signified a buffet, which was prevalent until the 19th century, when printed menus began. Or so I read. In a library. Afterword on the best restaurant in town: “You can’t eat the name.” And a maxim to remember: “Only the living have difficulties.”
As I know I’ve blathered, one of the many lessons from my exciting 15 days lying in a Turin hospital five years ago is that travel is the ultimate 401K, one that never goes down in value. You can almost thrive on almost palpable memories. Which is why I felt not a twinge on missing out on Fergus frenzy. My consort and I once ate nose to tail and I can still feel how queasy we were the next morning. It wasn’t food poisoning, but it was far from pleasant, even with a super-sleek London hotel bathroom at our disposal. And it took me back to my first trip to Europe, to Cornwall in 1986, when the great writer working with Bob advised us that you can eat well in England if you eat breakfast three times a day. It wasn’t true even then. So if Rick Stein came to town . . . Oh. Right. None of the kool kidz would even know who he is.
One brilliant element among many in “Food, Inc.” was the segment of Eric Schlosser biting into a burger with fries. That kind of too-up-close-and-personal scene usually makes me gag (I’d almost rather watch food come out the other end), but it sent a message for the rest of the 90-some minutes: No one is saying you have to give up the freedom food. You just have to give a damn where it comes from. Which I hope finally ends the argument I have had with friends who think I’m ridiculous for resisting whole roast chicken for $10 in a restaurant when I pay more than that for a raw one for my consort and cat. If you calculate 30 percent food costs, you’re talking feet up, feathers in manure.
My second favorite scene was the one of Joel Salatin interviewed as his pigs porked out. After all that had come before, it slowly sinks in that he is lounging next to pigs, and no one is wearing a mask or gagging for air. Raised right, even the filthiest animals are bearable. Which of course got me thinking about a long-ago trip to Paris, one of my consort’s unlamented corporate boondoggles, when the boss’s wife commented on the second or third day: “It smells different in the bathroom here.” No shit. Garbage in, garbage out. I’m not going to romanticize the French, but a country with street markets and seasons and small farms is on the right track. With luck, even its growing love affair with le fast food will not end tragically. The villains can still reform.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but how much could you skim if you rounded up every bar tab a few cents over the course of a very busy night? I had time to kill before Laurie Anderson’s underwhelming “Homeland” in the dread TWC and could not face the dreary little standup bar outside the theater, so I trekked to one of the fine dining establishments thoughtfully provided by the mall’s developer. The place was packed, and it ain’t cheap (two Americas, did someone say?) But I snagged a barstool, ordered an $11 prosecco and asked for the check right away so I could bolt at will. This was one of those bars that charge tax, and I was amused to see that brought the tab to $11.92 but the total to $12 even. And I could see why that would be better for everyone: looped patrons don’t have to grope for pennies; bartender minimizes the risk of undertipping by the types who like to round up in case Amex can’t do the math. But looking around at how jammed just the bar was, I started adding things up myself. An extra $8 an hour could pay for a cab home.
But I’m not complaining because the place delivered what you would expect every enterprise in the “hospitality industry” should. The hosts were beyond welcoming, the bartender was both efficient and engaging, even the busboys and waiter I passed on the way to the bathroom all helpfully pointed the way. Contrast that with the jerk at the door of PicNic latish on Saturday afternoon when a friend and I wanted to have a caffeinated beverage at one of the sidewalk tables, of which exactly three were occupied at that latish hour, all under a dark and depressing scaffolding. This guy said we could only sit at the noisy bar because “we’re saving tables outside for brunch.” I admit I was rude, blurting, “Looks like you’re doing a fine business with that.” We went three blocks south to Regional, where the hostess immediately showed us to a table, we got our caffeinated beverages (plus a basket of brunch breads we tried to decline) and they got a 50 percent tip. But I will never understand why restaurants would rather wait for potential customers than cater to the people standing right in front of them, money virtually in hand. If they were perusing the personals, they’d die old maids.
I’ll leave it to the heavyweights to decide whether a chef has to be Italian to cook Italian in Italy (we already know the answer in America: Molto No). The bigger question in that thin-as-blogging-kills story is whether Parma is, even arguably, the best food city in Italy. I have never heard that, even in two eating expeditions to the very town, and would lay my own euros on Torino, which, as a friend always says, makes the Tuscans look like peasants. But then the annoyances just keep coming in the big birdcage liner in town. Was that a food story or a yogurt advertorial? And when you run a piece on the travails of fast food pizza chains, you might want to illustrate it with something out of Domino’s rather than with a shot of glorious pizzas at an independent joint in Chicago. It’s as bad as a photo of people in shorts under a “December sales are down at Coach” headline. Nickel stock might be good for the bottom line. For credibility, not so much.
My friend the aristocrat who has traded homelands after 20-some years says she feels “like I left a banana republic for a Feydeau play.” Even the cheese eaters, though, would never be so silly as to think food stamps should be left out of a “stimulus package” for an economy devastated by greed. After all, what is the one thing you can do with government coupons? Spend them. At the very least our own surrender monkeys could have added wine stamps for the middle class.
One more reason to regret letting a dry drunk rule: He mucks up the money and now, as the Italian Wine Guy notes, we soon won’t be able to afford booze from Eutopia — the Calvados will cost more than the heritage turkey. As he’s proving with vetoes, the Chimp knows the price of everything domestic and the value of nothing international.
Once again, I have to thank Islamochrist that crooks and liars installed the first CEO president (or was he supposed to be the first MBA?) I went to buy another nearly quart-size jar of Maille’s Dijon mustard and it cost $1.50 more than the last one, just a few months ago. Talk about feeling like an American in Paris. Now we can’t even get a taste of Eutopia without paying a premium, and it’s only gonna get worse. We’ll be priced out of extraordinary olive oil, Parmigiano, balsamic vinegar, great olives, Maldon salt, Calvados — everything, come to think of it, that King George has never experienced for all his money and opportunity. Merde, as they say — even the stoned wheat crackers from Canada are going to cost like Carr’s. I’m all for eating locally, but I never thought it would be rammed down my throat by a government that couldn’t shoot straight.