A tortilla is just a piadina

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.

“If you want to drive a Ferrari, you can’t pay for a Fiat”

Simmering below the surface, of course, was a debate that undermined the whole enterprise: whether you need to be Italian to cook Italian best. I won’t ID the chef who said, offstage: “You cannot make poetry in a language not your own.” My contention that the best way to nurture Italian cuisine in the world is to keep it vibrant at home sounded pretty trite even to me, but that later led to a fascinating discussion on the effect immigration is having on Italian food in the “homeland.” I heard a persuasive argument that the country had made a mistake after its birthrate dropped to near zero in letting foreigners move in because those newcomers don’t assimilate; they “cling to their curries” and shun the holy trinity of pork, wine and cheese for either religious or cultural reasons. But then I heard an even more persuasive argument that these newcomers don’t go on to open restaurants catering to their fellow resettlers but only places with menus the market will reward: Italian. (No one seemed happy to hear what Albanians have done, especially to pizza, in NYC.) Rolling out of Parma, though, I think I got the last word. Why are restaurants in Rome so horrible? The parents who run them cannot persuade their children to take over, so they hire immigrants in the kitchen who just aren’t trained. I stepped out of the car feeling strangely uplifted. The problem is universal. . .

Fish sticks denuded

And I always hate to say anything positive, but “Soul Kitchen” is not just an exceptional movie but can be seen at IFC, which has the best popcorn in town. It’s about a chef and food and a restaurant but about so much more. At a time when America is looking rather grim, this makes you feel more hopeful for the world. It’s a multi-culti place, and hot gazpacho has no place in it.

Let ’em eat SpaghettiOs

Big news in the cheese world is that a huge batch of mozzarella was seized by the cops in Italy after someone noticed it turned blue once the plastic was ripped off. No story I read answered the obvious question: Why is Italy importing mozzarella from Germany? What, China is closed?

Mojitos by IV

NPR buried the lede in its piece on Cuban cuisine, the usual the-eating-is-bad-because-they’re-poor drone. After noting that you can get closer to the real deal in this country, whoever the essayist was quoted Maricel Presilla. Who made the excellent point that the cuisine is actually in danger of disappearing. Thanks to our insane embargo over the last half-century, each new generation of cooks loses more understanding of what it is and what it means. Ingredients have almost literally disappeared, so they “take shortcuts and use substitutes.” Heckuva job, America. Good thing the rest of the world is enlightened and can support the tourism industry while the allegedly freest people are not allowed to travel and taste for themselves. Cooks in the hotels and paladars (not paladores) are keeping the ropa vieja alive.

Raifort. It’s very special. . .

Apparently I’m one of the few unexcited about the new iPhone app that will translate menus, although I could use its utility on some overwritten ones around town if indeed I had a real mobile. The best part of travel, beyond the memories you bank in your mental 401K, is learning. And deciphering a menu is the gateway to language in most countries where you would pack a pricey toy, at least in the West. The rituals of dinner are actually primitive lessons: You absorb the courtesy basics and the essentials (water, wine, check). But the bigger argument against instant understanding is that you lose the magic in the translation. Whenever we’re handed English menus in Italy or France, I ask for the real one; otherwise the most seductive dish sounds like “spaghetti with mushroom sauce” or “beef stew.” One of our most enjoyable moments at table came in a very elegant restaurant in Milan where no one spoke English and the waiter brought the chef out to explain what a beef dish was — he translated by showing us where it came from on his own body (the shoulder), which was a sight for my retirement fund. Anything like that is worth the risk of accidentally ordering cavallo or cervelle.

Snug as a slug in organic pea shoots

One of the many old gray legends is how an idiot on the Op-Ed desk once declined an Elie Wiesel piece on the ground that “we don’t need to hear any more about the Holocaust.” He wound up quaffing on the side, so I kinda doubt the editor who got suckered into the indictment of “free-range” pigs is going to suffer anywhere near the ignominy he/she deserves. But I at least hope in his sty of sties he/she does wonder how a piece so contradictory of all things reasonable ever saw print. Given that even the bureaucrats, not to mention the Big O, have already dropped the S word when they talk about flu, the factory farms that create such ecological havoc still rule the roost (not a mixed metaphor when you remember bird flu). But really, why would any legitimate publication ever have printed a rant damning pigs raised the way nature intended them to be? Rather than snidely blogging about a blogger code of ethics, the Chilean Payback Journal might want to take a look at its own rules. Otherwise, next we’ll be reading that industrial spinach is safer than locally grown because the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out of real earth.

Billions and billions and billions

If he only had a brain, the Chimp would hire the geniuses who came up with the latest campaign for the wannabe Big Mac. The Gurgling Cod slammed it first, but the ads seem to be working: They’re getting roundly thrashed and trashed everywhere when once they would have instantly faded into oblivion. After all the rainforests are gone, in the next year or so, people will still be marveling that something so offensive could have ever have been produced in a wired world. Now that I’ve vented, though, I’m unfortunately starting to visualize updates of old commercials: Which twin has the Toni, re-shot in the Amazon. Or how about Mikey likes it, in Haiti, maybe? Of course the real offense is the “food” itself, and its cheap allure is not going to end even if “foodies” holler till the cows fall down for someone enlightened as Agriculture secretary. Big Food is a formidable force. And exporting the crap notions only makes things worse — even my latest e-offer from the Molto of India is a set of cookbooks for diabetics. Earl Butz doesn’t have to worry about a legacy. It’s trouble with a capital D.

And you say GFY

Random funnies I’ve overheard lately: Hustling up Eighth Avenue and late for lunch, I passed a heavyset sweating woman pushing a dolly stacked with Sid Wainer boxes and thought how odd that was on that street, dominated as it is by fast food crapola. Just as I got in front of her and her cellphone, I heard: “Where the fuck is DB Bistro Modern?” (Short “I” in Bistro, too.) I didn’t have the heart to point out that she was a long way from maison. And then there was the fill-in elevator operator in our building who was trained to put shareholders first, leaving no deliveryman unattended. He had a full complement of privileged residents and one Asian guy with a steaming aromatic bag in hand when I got on. After the fourth stop to pick up more people, the bag man started screaming in Chinese (I guess). And the Hispanic kid just responded: “I hear what you’re saying, but I can’t leave you alone.” Floor after floor, fury in Chinese was countered by calm in English. He was good. And then he was gone. Clearly, frustration is a universal language.  

More, please, Orwell

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but the one mission actually accomplished in the last seven years has been the vanquishing of the English language. I actually heard a newscaster referring to “food insecurity” among the cyclone and earthquake victims. When raging hunger escalates to rampant starvation, will it be “calorie deprivation” on the BBC?

French for picnic

One of the best parts of traveling with a consort whose job guaranteed him local fixers was learning that most of what the “experts” back here in the homeland had to say was total horse shit. Some dilettante would meet an expatriate in Rome and make a pronouncement that food writer after food writer would pick up and regurgitate until there was no arguing about the proper carbonara, even though guanciale has only recently entered the culi-vocabulary. Starting with my first trip to Europe, to Cornwall for a week in 1986, I have been repeatedly astonished at how many myths can be busted just by meeting real people in real places where they don’t know from T&L&F&W&Cookbooks Inc. And so I let my dander up only slightly on receiving a strange letter from an importer who wanted to set me straight on the origin of the name of a certain varietal I had written about in a moment of expense-covering weakness. Before traveling to the source, I had read the same sentence — verbatim — in about 35 locations on the series of tubes. But when I got to the region and started talking to the people who have grown the grapes and produced the wine for a gazillion years, not a single person had ever heard of it. Instead, they all offered their own root, one that seemed weird but sounded right in the vineyards. And what was the response to my carefully phrased response to the strange letter? “Next time, ask me. I’m an expert.” I guess that’s the polite way of saying, “Americans! Fuck, yeah!” It’s the last bleat of insular supremacy.

FDA to the China courtesy phone

As the oceans die and fish prices go up, I’m noticing a fascinating phenomenon in environmental reporting on the food supply. Call it “look down in comfort.” The NYT story on how Jamaicans are poisoning their main river to catch shrimp and fish faster was certainly disturbing, but it had that ignoble-savages tone to it, that “see, they’re so shortsighted they don’t even understand the evil they do and it certainly doesn’t affect us.” Meanwhile, who knows how many millions of gallons of antibacterial crap are flushed into the water supply in this country every day. Somehow I don’t think a little Airborne is going to save us, either. Especially when you hear that Topps, the beef producer shut down after lethal shit was found in the meat, is now selling off the contents of its many freezers for pennies a pound. Somewhere a Bubba is going to ingest a burger and the feces it rode in on and never know what greed hit him. All while the high-minded journalists are worrying about what’s rotten in the third world. . . .

Wok of Spam

I could almost see the collective shudder when the WSJ ran its story on rats as the other white meat in Vietnam these days. But the video-documented revelation that a California slaughterhouse has been torturing downer animals to get them up and moving past federal inspectors and into school lunches in this country somehow just warranted another cheap what-are-you-gonna-do? shrug. The same “America, fuck, yeah!” attitude also permeated the NYTimes story on feeding athletes at the Beijing Olympics. If a patriotically obese chef were not brought in to oversee the cooking, the poor fragile flowers might have to eat icky stuff. Maybe even chicken bloated on steroids, something they surely could not get at home in the land of the hyper-conscientious, overly endowed FDA (you know, in the country where workers are, for some reason, getting sick blowing brains out of hogs’ heads?) Ironically, Fred Ferretti got his 15 seconds to have what was clearly a long-simmering say on the same day that bizarre piece ran. Mistaking chop suey for anything in one of the world’s top three cuisines is the least of the sins he could have cited. And why do I assume ground-up cows and pigs will always be on the menu for the champions of the world?