The Savaging of the Hinterlands

So I guess there’s a new little business opening up in Sellwood. It’s supposed to be a little grocery store called Moreland Farmer’s Pantry. They want to offer what sounds like a first-rate selection of Oregon-grown meats and produce and sundries. But one co-owner of this business has a problem: she’s an idiot.

See, Chauncy Linn Brice Childs (or whatever the fuck she goes by now) did not understand that a Facebook page needs to be secured to keep it from the public eye. And Chauncy is a Mormon Libertarian. Ooooh! Bad move Chauncy! Now everybody saw how you said that the gays are trying to rend our social fabric by getting married. And that you think that businesses should have the right to refuse service to people based on their gayness. Game over, Chauncy.

You can imagine the uproar that followed when this incredibly annoying video (“My children walk past this business to go to school in the morning… sigh“) by one Sean O’Riordan surfaced, detailing Mrs. Child’s bigoted little views. The internet’s ablaze with, oh you know, you got your conservative fucktards on the one side—”Ya’ll ain’t so tolerant after all!” —and your liberal scream machine on the other— “Injustice anywhere…!,” and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Naturally, Portland is in full-on boycott mode. Flames are being fanned by two local blowhards: Byron Beck (of “IDGAF if you enjoy what I write in Willamette Week—I suffer, you suffer!” fame,) and Nick Zukin (of “How Dare You Refuse to Rave About my Pastrami?” fame). Beck wants us right-thinking people (and I assure you, I am right- thinking) to boycott not only the Farmer’s pantry, but any suppliers who refuse to pull their products, and Zukin’s Mi Mero Mole to boot. This is because Zukin has, in his blustering way, jumped to the woman’s defense. Zukin also apparently thinks that businesses should have the legal right to discriminate. Apparently, he never heard about segregation.

That’s a lot of boycott, even for Portland, especially over such an inconsequential voice in the marriage equality wars. I’ve read a lot of, “I will take my business to an establishment that is more in line with my values” talk, and I find it nearly as naive as posting your crazy on Facebook and thinking that’s the end of it.

I get out to the country. I try to buy stuff directly from the people who live out there, and I don’t talk about anything but the products we’re dealing in. I buy lumber directly from a guy with a small mill in Skamania. He does a good thing in that he turns his neighbor’s unwanted trees, and some on his own small lot, into nice, trim-quality lumber. You think I ask him about his views on gay marriage or Obamacare? When I talk to the avowed Christian in Junction City about buying a pasture-finished cow from his sustainably-managed ranch, you think I grill him about his views on abortion? You think I ask a pig farmer whether the government should spend more on the social safety net?

You don’t need to venture out to the country to see this, you can observe from the quiet safety of your liberal bastion. Read almost anything by that great figure of agricultural sustainability (in the egalitarian-environmentalist model,) Joel Salatin. That guy is a serious libertarian, social-conservative, right-wingnut. Should we hold that against his farm? Who else has done more to prove that a low-tech farming model can be environmentally and economically sustainable? Maybe we take what we like, and tell him to keep the rest.

“Well, how’s that cisgender, hetero, white, male privilege working out for you?” Not so fucking hot, really, especially since it deligitimizes my opinion. But here’s the thing, how’s it working out for the businesses whose values “align” with yours? Does New Seasons Market offer a homophobe-free beef? A pro-choice broccoli? No, they do not. And the people who raise this stuff are not necessarily, as many like to think, just like those cute little hippies down at the farmer’s market with overalls and dimples. Lots of them are just regular, old-school, Christian, conservative farmers. New Seasons Market, Whole Foods, et al. are big companies with marketing savvy and a carefully cultivated public persona. They do business, not politics, with their suppliers. I have no idea what the premium supermarkets really “stand for,” outside of a premium supermarket experience.

Actually, I have an idea as to what Endeavour Capital, which owns a 69% stake in NSM stands for, since employees of the private equity firm collectively gave $233,000 to Republican candidates and committees in the 2011-2012 election cycle, including $117,000 to the biggest mormon of them all, Mittens Romney. They gave $0 to Democratic candidates. In the current cycle they gave a little to Wyden and Merkley, but mostly they gave to the National Republican Congressional  Committee. Perhaps they hired a token Democrat to soften their image.

I dunno, should I support the behemoth with a squeaky-clean image, but whose big money goes to a bunch of conservative businessmen? Or should I join in the tirade against the small-potatoes dingbat whose idea of “sustainable agriculture” sounds, at first blush, to be pretty close to mine? Because when I shop at NSM or Whole Foods, I look around and think, most of this shit is a greenwash. Sorry, “local produce” doesn’t include California’s Central Valley (would that the whole country had a Central Valley to co-opt!) 90 days on a feedlot is still a long time on a feedlot, and says nothing about the pasture management techniques of the ranchers. “Vegetarian-fed” chickens? Chickens aren’t vegetarian.”Free Range” hardly means anything at all. “Hormone free pork?” Federal laws prohibit the use of hormones in pork. Hey, how’d all these pigs get broken bones and bruises in a humane slaughterhouse? (That last was my personal observation in the NSM meat department.) Not to mention the the way that the supermarket business model warehouses and yokes what traditionally would have been (and still are in Europe) independent businesses run by skilled craftspeople and their trainees. So yeah, the place is problematic.

I know, “Hitler loved animals, asshole!” But we’re really not talking about Hitler, are we? We’re not talking about the Third Reich. We’re not even talking about Kansas City. We’re talking about Portland, Oregon. Chauncy Childs is not just a dying breed, she’s a fish in a barrel. Blam! Blam! Not to mention that this gay marriage thing is hardly the craziest shit she’s spouted (oh, open that link at the peril of your own wits.) The lady is battier than she is dangerous.

If the Moreland Farmer’s Pantry were a discriminatory business, then legal action would be appropriate. If Mrs. Childs were publicly engaging in anti-gay speech in the neighborhood, then I could see the concern on the part of Mr. O’Riordan et al. Walking by a business owned by a quiet homophobe (well, a homophobe that’s learning to be quiet) isn’t going to inculcate O’Riordan’s children with homophobia any more than the using the Firefox browser will (although drinking Rockstar energy beverages is likely a different story.) The speech that Mrs. Childs seems to be trying to put forward concerns alternative agriculture, local economies, bridging the rural/urban divide and so forth. Yeah, good luck with that.

Most troubling of all: what does this boycott hope to achieve? It is difficult to understand how it will change people’s views on gay marriage. If anything, it seems to entrench camps by putting conservatives on the offensive, and increasing their paranoiac sense of victimhood, and reinforcing liberals’ sense of moral righteousness. Perhaps it is meant to force the so-so’s on the sidelines to pick a side, or get savaged. I’m not on the sidelines, I think marriage equality will be a great thing for individuals, and society as a whole. But am I an enemy of marriage equality if I choose to buy a gallon of milk from Moreland Farmer’s Pantry? I’d like to think not.

The rural hinterlands of Oregon are changing, albeit slowly, but screaming at everyone who comes to Portland in a rural frame of mind surely does little, less than nothing really, to accelerate that change.

   

 

Cookware as a Class Signifier

Everyone knows that nonstick cookware is junk. Literally disposable. I guess some people think they’ve invested big money in a nonstick cookware set, and it’s gonna last forever. Have fun with that. The rest of us are going to learn about metals and seasoning, spend less on our cookware, and be ready to educate them when their Williams Sonoma nonstick cookware set gets as scratched as the wood floors in a whorehouse, and turns into a stick skillet.

Here’s the heart of the thing: How much should you spend on cookware? Obviously, that depends on how much you have to spend. If, like me, you’re struggling into a second low-paying career, you don’t want to just head down to Sur La Table and blurt, “gee whiz guys, what does Thomas Keller use in his kitchen?” Because let’s face it, no matter how much cash you throw at it, you’re never gonna be Thomas Keller anyway. Mediocre home cooks who throw lots of money at their cookware and cutlery remind me of those wanna-be rednecks whose $40,000 Ford F250 super duty pickup trucks have seen less action than my little Suzuki four banger.

So I’m gonna let you in on these secrets and hope that my upper crust readership doesn’t get gentrification all over the restaurant supply store. Vollrath’s Tribute line 8″ skillet is tri-ply (steel-aluminum-steel) and retails for $67.50 on their site. The same pan from All-Clad is $95. You cook at home. The Vollrath is gonna stand up to whatever you can throw at it. It sees more abuse in a week in a professional setting than it might see in a lifetime at your house. The pan comes with or without heat-resistant (up to 450° F) silicone handle.

Matfer-Bourgeat is a French company that I’d always associated with mandolin slicers, but they make great black steel skillets too (In the course of writing this I also learned about DeBuyer brand, much nicer-looking than Matfer, but about twice the price.) Black steel, a type of carbon steel, is the French analog to cast iron. Now, you know I don’t fetishize the French, but a black steel skillet has a certain suavity that cast iron lacks. Cast iron has it’s place in my kitchen, no doubt. Oftentimes I want that heft, but they’re hard to pick up, they take a long time to heat up, hold the heat for a really long time, and always have straight edges. I hate straight edges, you can’t flip anything, and they don’t allow the moisture to dissipate as quickly. On the other hand, if you need to fry some chicken or hush puppies, or sear a steak over your crappy gas range, just leave that Frenchy on the shelf, he don’t know nothing about that.

Vollrath makes some carbon steel skillets too, I don’t recommend them. I made the mistake of thinking they’re the same, and they are not. The Matfer is a little heavier, and a little more compact. The Vollrath, like many of the professional brands, is slightly lighter, and its handle is absurdly long for home cooking. A thinner steel is fine for pros who are cooking over serious heat, and want the skillet to heat and cool quickly. Long handles make for easy retrieval of  skillets that have been pushed to the back of cavernous ovens. These are not problems faced by the home cook. Instead, the home cook often faces a lack of heat and a lack of space, so weight and compact size are assets.

You know about seasoning. Maybe you have a cast iron skillet or something. Maybe it’s even well-seasoned. Maybe it’s not. Maybe you’re staying at a vacation rental they got nothing to cook with short of a couple of old, scratched-up, stick skillets and a rusty old wok. That’s where we were, and we wanted to fry eggs.

To make matter worse, the place didn’t have a decent steel scrubber. No problem. Get the pan hot and scrub it out with some oil and salt. If you have a good, sharp scrubber or some steel wool, you could use that. The point isn’t to get the surface all gleaming and clean, just to get it smooth. Rust, flaking bits of previous seasoning, and stuck on food, including the “shadow” that beans and/or rice sometimes leave on the inside of cookware, need to go. Ideally, you don’t use soap, but water is fine. Best of all is to scrub it hot with some oil and coarse salt, sometimes that don’t cut it though. If the pan is a real mess with stuck on food and uneven layers of charred seasoning, burn it. Either put it over a high flame, or in the oven on the cleaning cycle until everything turns to carbon and flakes away.

Then we just rub some oil on, heat it up, hold it just below the smoke point for as long as we have, and turn it off. Let it sit. When it’s cool, we just rub off the excess oil, heat it up, and fry some eggs like Roy Plunkett‘s our uncle. And that’s it, that’s seasoning. This applies to stainless steel and aluminum too. You want to fry some eggs—

  1. Oil the skillet
  2. Wipe the excess oil
  3. Heat the skillet
  4. Turn it off, just as it wants to start smoking
  5. Let it cool down
  6. Wipe it out
  7. Heat it again with some fresh fat
  8. And now you fry eggs.

Heat  accomplishes two things: it opens the pores of the metal so that they will accept the oil, and it polymerizes the oil. Polymerize is a fancy way of saying “solidify.” So, basically, you just make a solid little layer of oil between the food and those bad old skillet pores. The first seasoning will be the hardest—you might have to do it two of three times to get good coverage.

Here’s a popular blog post from a few years back, it got almost 500 comments!

Basically, the lady recommends baking half a dozen very thin coats of linseed oil onto your cast iron or non-stainless steel cookware. Each coat takes 2 hours in the oven at 500°, after which you turn off the oven and let it sit in there till it’s cool.

I dunno, this sounds like way too much work. And 500° sounds way too hot; I would go for like 350°-375°. At 500° the oil is burning and breaking down. You could practically clean the skillet at 500°. Some commenters said that the seasoning flaked off, and that the lady was a scientific dum-dum. She did go on and on about “toxins” and “free radicals” and such. Still, you get an idea as to what might constitute a “perfectly” seasoned pan. However, I feel that seasoning isn’t a thing you do, it’s way of life. Which sounds like work too, but it really isn’t. You basically have to learn to leave the oil film on things rather than vigorously scrub it away with copious hot water and soap. Occasionally, you need to touch up, especially the dutch oven.

Lots of people think the cast iron dutch oven shouldn’t be used for high acid foods, since the iron reacts with the acid and the seasoning comes off. That is a load of balls. The extra iron will only be good for your frail, vegan constitution. The seasoning does come off, so just season it again. Put some oil on it after you clean it, heat it up, and let it cool down. How hard was that? Hard enough to justify spending $200 extra on a Le Creuset? It’s your money, do what you like. Just don’t think your gonna be a better cook for it.

 

Foodies Welcome

The word “foodie” is atrocious. It makes you sound like you’re infantilizing yourself. I’m a foodie. Well aren’t you a big girl? What do you want to be when you grow up? A food?

It comes from the satirical Official Foodie Handbook published in 1984 by Ann Barr and Paul Levy. It was coined to make fun of people who like food, by people who like food. I’m not sure what to think of that, except that Paul Levy is a bit of a pompous ass, and I’m glad he got savaged by Bourdain.

Then there’s the problem common to all these self-important little dietary descriptors that everybody is so fond of today. And they’re all so obnoxiously cutesy and cuddly and like, totally non-offensive and, forgive me for just saying this but, they make you look like a little egg in a basket. Like a little object, meekly lying there, with the stamp: “USDA Locavore Grade A”  ”USDA Choice Vegan” “USDA Foodie certified”. Totes adorbs, right?

Then I saw this:

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And I laughed and laughed and laughed, and I felt vindicated.

Crisp-Tender as a Spring Neophyte

Asparagus season is nigh, which means that I will soon be trembling with fury as food writers and Twitter Personas® alike excitedly alert us to the importance of cooking seasonal vegetables just until “crisp tender” or “al dente,” for nutrient retention, or colonic health or something like that. It must be a health thing because, although you know the Gangster likes salad, I’ve never really gotten the appeal of serving all the vegetables raw. Raw vegetables have their place, but it’s not on my main course.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough I like a plate of briefly poached asparagus, marinated in lemon vinaigrette, or even a salad of asparagus shaved into ribbons, I don’t think the vegetable really shines until grilled until it’s been charred limp and gilded with a blizzard of Parmigiano. Likewise with green beans, broccoli, whole favas, cauliflower, spring onions, garlic scapes, raab, and on and on— cook the fuck out of them. Not until they dissolve into the cooking medium, or catch fire and fall through the grates, but until they’re sweet and yielding. Cooking the vegetables for long enough tempers their bitter, contrarian nature, sweetens their sugars, and renders them permeable to sauce and seasoning. Cooking vegetables civilizes them.IMG_2143

There’s no need to fight with everything you put in your mouth. Our ancestors learned to cook so that they could tame food from an arm’s length.

 

Here’s the way to cook asparagus:

  1. Oil and season it well with salt and pepper.
  2. Put it on a really hot grill. You shouldn’t be able to get your hand closer than two or three inches without pain.
  3. Cook one side till good and dark.
  4. Cook the other side till charred too.
  5. Grate a bunch (a blizzard) of Parmigiano Reggiano on that, preferably with a microplane.
  6. Douse it in olive oil. Foodies will have you believe that you gotta spend an arm and a leg on olive oil. Nay, I get mine from a gallon can.
  7. The ambitious will want to top the asparagus with a sunny-side-up fried egg.

 

 

Tough Fingers

I hear that blogging is supposed to be short and sweet. Simple things. How about some cooking techniques?

Potatoes, for salad. Everybody fucks this up. I have too. Russet potatoes are the best for potato salad, Cook’s Illustrated says so. Problematically, Russets tend to go from rock hard to barely suitable for mash in seconds, and they all cook at different speeds depending on size, age, number or eyes, whether they’ve been pierced, and how close to the bottom of the pot they are.

The solution: slow. I cooked some Russets the other day, small ones, for almost three hours. I didn’t even let the water simmer after it first came up to boil. It was cool enough that I could put my fingertip into it for a second and a half, possibly two. Are my fingertips tougher than yours? Of course they are, but you can channel that toughness by looking at my Twitter profile.

Method:

  1. Scrub some skin-on Russet potatoes and put them in a big enough pot.
  2. Cover them with cold water.
  3. Salt the ever-loving-fuck out of that cold water. It should, as a dickhead chef once told me, “taste like the sea.”
  4. Bring them to quick a boil.
  5. Turn the heat down immediately, so that the water doesn’t even move.
  6. Check the water after fifteen minutes or so to make sure that it’s at least uncomfortably hot.
  7. Check the potatoes every now and again for doneness (what an ugly-looking word, doneness!), preferably with a pointy chopstick or something that raw potato would really give resistance to.
  8. Drain the potatoes and let them cool just enough to handle, before peeling with a paring knife. You should be able to just slide the knife under the skin and tear it away from the flesh.
  9. Cut the potatoes however you like, then toss them in the acidic element (vinegar, citrus) of your dressing while they’re still warm.

That last step makes the acidity soak deep into the potato so that it doesn’t just taste like potato sitting in a dressing bath.

Clever as fuck.

Boutique Oysters are for Poseurs; Cocktail Sauce is for Heroes

It took me a while to really, truly come around to oysters. To dislike oysters as a fancy restaurant cook is kind of an embarrassment. So I’d eat them, and pretend to really like them, when I was still wrestling with the texture and vitality of raw shellfish.  To manage the revulsion, I happily went along with the proffered wisdom that smaller oysters are better, and that oysters with creamy, plump midsections were to be totally avoided. I even recall shucking oysters at one fancy restaurant and, over the course of a night, tossing a few score into the trash bin in search of only the most “perfect” grey, limpid specimens. Chef eventually told me to not be so overzealous.

I remember the oysters that finally brought me around weren’t delicate little Kusshis or Kumamotos, or any of those other finely manicured, lilliputian things that have been all the rage for years at west-coast fine dining establishments. They were these big, gnarly, barnacle encrusted, long-lipped and shallow-dished Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas) that they sell at practically every seafood shack on the coast around here for seven or eight bucks a dozen. I was driving around with the woman who wasn’t yet my wife and had what I referred to as an “epicurean fantasy” of slurping raw oysters with some cheap lager on one of those rock promontories over the ocean that always seem to have lighthouses perched on the edges. I went to the nearest shack, bought a dozen of the only variety they had, and tried to look real manly and unafraid shucking these huge, mucky things on a park bench with only lemons to dress them with. When I got one of those big and creamies in my mouth and bit down a couple of times I was pleasantly surprised that far from needing to suppress an urge to gag, I chewed a few more times. Cucumbery in texture, briny, sweet, and clean, these ugly oysters were a revelation. She agreed that these changed one’s perception of raw shellfish. We ate a dozen between us, and washed them down with Coors Banquet Beer from the pint cans.

The oysters were from the Willapa Bay, 258 square miles fed primarily by seven rivers (although there are at least 11, probably more) emptying into the Pacific behind the Long Beach Peninsula. The peninsula itself is a 25-mile- long sand spit formed by effluvia poured from the mouth of the Columbia river. Despite the fact that the peninsula is formed from the geologic detritus of the 259,000 square mile Columbia basin, the estuary is considered “pristine” from a pollution standpoint, which seems to be a word that biologists actually use. The oysters reflect that quality. For that reason alone, never mind the cornucopian razor clam harvest to be had on the Pacific side of the peninsula, the area has intrigued me for years.

In the past, we’ve stayed at a couple of spots on the peninsula to dig clams and take in the island-like culture, but we recently spent a few nights in the place that fascinates me most of all: Oysterville. History, biology, geology, aesthetics, gastronomy and politics all come together at the last town on the north end of the peninsula. Founded in 1854 by Robert Hamilton Espy, a logger who found oystering a more lucrative trade, the town rose and fell with the fate of the oysters before the century even turned.

The oysters traded by Espy, and the hordes of treasure seekers who followed him, were tiny native Olympias (Ostrea lurida, formerly Ostrea concaphila) which they simply picked from the bottom of the bay and shipped on to San Francisco to feed the ’49ers (the gold seekers, not the football team). That trade was pretty lucrative, so the oysters disappeared. They imported Atlantic oysters (Crassostrea virginica) for a while in the late 19th and early 20th century to revitalize the fishery, but the east coasters found the hard-drinking life of the west coast an impediment to their reproductive abilities. New seed had to be regularly imported to continue the harvest, and in 1917 the Atlantics all died from a now unknown cause, possibly red tide. In the 1920′s, on the advice of University of Washington biologist Trevor Kincaid, the oystermen of Willapa started importing seed from Japanese Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas) from their native territory. They grew and reproduced well in the bay, and are still the workhorse of not only that estuary, but are possibly the most widely distributed oyster species in the world thanks to intentional introduction into other failed fisheries. 

Willapa bay produces 25% of US oysters (that’s a great documentary; pertinent fact at 00:01:40) and more farmed oysters than anywhere else in the country. Although the vast majority of Willapa Pacific oysters are bound for the fresh-shucked and canned market, there are a few growers who culture their oysters specifically for the fancy restaurant half-shell market. Raising them off the bottom of the bay and tumbling oysters as they grow are two methods of producing the prettier and smaller oysters that most people prefer. Kusshi oysters, for example, are simply Pacific oysters that have been tumbled aggressively to slow their growth and shape up their shells by knocking off the barnacles and fast-growing outer layers of shell. Supposedly, it also makes them creamier. The only Kusshis I ever had, at a convenience store-cum-fancy restaurant on Vancouver island, were skinny, grey, and inconsequential, although the presentation was stunning.

IMG_20140217_165650_152

Willabay store, side view.

There’s only one place in Oysterville to buy oysters (or anything else for that matter): The Willabay Oysterville Sea Farms Store. Right on the bay and adjacent to owner Dan Driscoll’s oyster beds, they carry Dungeness crabs, clams, oysters and some wine and condiments. You can even get a glass of wine and some seafood cocktail, or excellent clam chowder and sit on the back patio overlooking the bay. You’re not likely to find such a fantastic epicurean experience at these prices almost anywhere else.

I was looking forward to sitting down to an enormous platter of extra-smalls (an industry standard defined as from 2.5 to 3 inches from hinge to lip) but they only had smalls (three to four inches) and mediums (four to five inches). Definitely not boutique, but they were a steal at $7 a dozen or $20 for a bag of three dozen. I had the lady pick me out two dozen of the smallest they had. The bigger of those, when shucked, were still more like oyster steaks than precious bites.

I shucked a few and dabbed them with cocktail sauce, and they were as excellent as that first day of oyster bliss. Lots of people think cocktail sauce is low-class and trashy. This is probably because, according to the story I’ve heard, cocktail sauce is an American invention, stemming from the 49ers habit of putting ketchup on their oysters. There seems to be a growing consensus that we should put nothing but mignonette on our oysters. Pish-posh, you can take your little francophilic oysters back into the bistroA red-blooded Gangster enjoys his cheap, sauce-slathered oysters in the sun. 

I make my cocktail sauce from half chili sauce (American kind, not the Thai kind) and half ketchup (of the major brands, Hunt’s is way better than Heinz) mixed with copious lemon juice and horseradish, thinly sliced scallions, worcestershire and Tabasco. Alternatively, I like it in the style of just about every surf-side shack in Mexico: ketchup, Clamato, lime, fine diced onion, cilantro, hot sauce (Tapatio, Yucateca, Valentino in a pinch) and a dash of Maggi Jugo Sazanador. Put a little shredded iceberg lettuce into the bottom of a parfait glass, mix oysters and other shellfish with the sauce and some cubed avocado, and pour that over top. Eat with a long spoon and plenty of saltines, wash down with micheladas. Now you’re living less like an animal and more like a human being.

If you need to know about mignonette, I’d prefer you didn’t have to go out into the rest of the internet and have your mind sullied by those Gallic dogs. So here it goes: two parts decent champagne to one part high-quality champagne vinegar, seasoned with fresh ground pepper, fine diced shallots, some tarragon and chervil. Whatever the sauce, go sparingly.

I also like oysters cooked, and although I’ve tried several oyster stews and oyster loaves and grilled oysters, my favorite way is still fried: dredge in flour, then milk, then bread crumbs. Fry in half butter, half vegetable or rice bran oil (my favorite) only as soon as the butter has finished foaming. Matter of fact, whenever trying to crisp things in butter, that’s the secret to remember: add the pat of butter to the skillet and wait until it stops spitting and foaming before adding the food. All that foaming is the water escaping and water, as you may know, is the enemy of crispness. I like fried oysters with either cocktail sauce (por supuesto) or that other great American seafood sauce: Louis dressing. Louis dressing is approximately one third sour cream, one third mayonaisse, and one third chili sauce seasoned with lemon juice, white wine vinegar, pepper, tabasco and scallions. Alternatively, you can lighten up the texture by replacing part of the fat (sour cream, mayo) with some unsweetened whipped cream. The variations are obviously endless.

All of this American sauce rhapsodizing is beginning to border on jingoism, so let me attack the free market for a while. Willapa bay has been touted by at least one Libertarian think tank as a paradigm of free-market environmentalism at work, since Washington is one of the few states where tidal lands are held privately rather than publicly. Although I’m inclined to believe that ownership of the tide flats does encourage the oystermen to more zealously guard their interests in clean water and sustainable management, Libertarian think tanks conveniently overlook the money that the state government pours into invasive species control, biological research and pollution control. Here’s a quote from the Competitive Enterprise Institute: “Willapa is the cleanest bay in the country, and it is the oystermen who have kept it that way.”

If I had a think tank I might say: “Willapa bay is a biologically perverted estuary, and it was poor management by private interests that drove the Olympia oyster to near extinction,” and that would be equally pertinent, right? It was the state government who set aside reserves in the bay so that the Olympias might recover, although the effort proved insufficient and belated. It was a publicly funded biologist who did the research that led to the introduction of Pacific oysters after private mismanagement destroyed the fishery. Furthermore, it is a dreaded government organization, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, that works to eradicate Spartina grass and oyster drills, invasive species detrimental to oystering and bird populations in the bay. From a strictly ecological point of view, Pacific oysters would perhaps also be defined as invasive. 

Libertarian think tanks often lament the “tragedy of the commons,” and recommend privatization as the solution, but can the entire bay be privatized? Should it be? What about the atmosphere? Because the oyster industry now suffers from the effects of ocean acidification, a direct result of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 

I’m going to geek out a little here, so feel free to skip this next paragraph but I feel that, when dealing with dangerously politically motivated lunatics, it’s important that we know exactly what we’re talking about. So here goes:

Oyster shells are made of Aragonite, a mineral made of the chemical base calcium carbonate. The dissolution of carbon dioxide in water produces some carbonic acid (H2CO3). The two Hydrogen ions (protons, H+) disassociate from the CO3 portion and bind with carbonate ions (CO32-), creating two bicarbonate ions (HCO3-). This renders the carbonate unavailable for binding with calcium to form calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Oyster larvae are born with limited energy resources, from which they must draw to build shells. In an ocean environment with less calcium carbonate, the larvae must work that much harder to form shells, and they fail more often. Oyster hatcheries must increasingly rely on sophisticated testing and equipment in order to obtain (or create) water suitable for oyster production. With the increasing acidification of the oceans, we can expect that it will only become more difficult to obtain suitable seawater for oyster hatcheries.

One potentially positive development is that the native Olympia oyster, which grows more slowly than the Pacific, seems to be less sensitive to ocean acidification and it continues to recover from historical depletion. Perhaps in the future we can expect the commercially rare Olympia to return to commercial prominence as the Pacific becomes less reliable and more expensive to raise.

And although I trash on tiny oysters, I would never trash a native with a name like Olympia. I can’t wait to down several dozen like a real old-school gastronomic hero.  

Bros Don’t do Subtle

In the Pacific Northwest we feel very smug and confident that we make and drink some really amazing beer. Problematically, we often think an aggressive assault to the palate, akin to a fraternity stunt, is an epicurean delight. We could say that American microbrew is the Loony Toons expression of European beer:

You like IPA do ya? WELL HOW ABOUT THIS MONSTER TRIPLE IPA, HOPPED IN 12 STAGES WITH 5000 POUNDS OF UBER AGGRESSIVE NORTHWESTERN HOP VARIETIES RAGING ACROSS YOUR TONGUE LIKE A BLAST OF PINE SOL DOUSING A GANJA FOREST FIRE!?! YOU DON’T LIKE IT? WHY DON’T YOU GO DRINK A COORS LIGHT LIKE A CRYING LITTLE SORORITY SISTER? BECAUSE WE TOTALLY BALANCED IT OUT WITH AN ENTIRE CARGO SHIP OF MALT!

Mmmm, unfermented sugar. My lips are stuck together now. Which is fine, since I’m done drinking.

I don’t know if you ever had a British IPA, but that’s not how it tastes. Likewise with the Belgians.

You like Belgians, huh? WELL WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HOW WE SHOVED A BURNING CLOVE TREE UP THE ASS OF A BANANA PLANTATION, BOILED THAT MOTHERFUCKER UP IN THE WORT WITH 400 POUNDS OF ROCK SUGAR, FERMENTED IT AT 90 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT FOR MAXIMUM ESTER FORMATION, AND PUT A WHOLE NUTMEG NUT IN EACH BOTTLE? PRETTY FUCKING KILLER, HUH?

Maybe, but right now all I can taste is the little pukes that keep coming up in the back of my throat with every sip. I will say, I’d always liked Belgian beer until that banana-clove ester assault from the American Belgians left my palate with PTSD. Now my taste buds invert themselves whenever a hint of that flavor comes along.

I refuse to drink any more American sours, since the few I’ve had have threatened to leave me similarly scarred, and I couldn’t imagine a life with Flemish beer.

Still, I’m in a tough spot. I can’t drink Reinaert every night, English IPA is tough to come by, and even American pale ale is going all EXTREME™. Brewing has gone to the bros, and bros don’t do subtle. Give a bro a canvas, and he will cover that motherfucker, edge to edge, in the loudest colors that come in a can.

But I found a little workaround… a little… what the fuck do you nerds and terrible writers call it… hack. Indeed, a hack! I water it down! With sparkling mineral water like I made in my previous post. Four ounces of sparkling mineral water to 12 ounces beer makes a pint of something that you could drink two or three of without scraping the finish off your palate. I enjoy drinking beer again!

Post Script:

To be clear, there are a few local beers I like straight out of the bottle:

Most everything by Upright, but especially the Engelberg Pils, which is clean and dry, and the #6 rye.

Oakshire’s Line Dry Rye. I like rye, I cannot lie.

Everything by Heater Allen.

And everything, absolutely everything, that Captured by Porches makes. They get it, the fact that you don’t need to color every corner, every square inch of the canvas with the loudest possible color. They leave what’s called negative space, which is where refreshment happens, since it tastes like water.

 

Sympathy for the Restaurant Industry

When I got laid off from a restaurant in an employer retaliation situation some dozen years ago, I decided to get the fuck out of the abusive relationship that is cooking in restaurants. I’ve come back around now and again, a year here, pick up some catering shifts there, get a little action from the old flame, but I cannot take that shit seriously as a profession anymore.

I looked ahead and thought, what’s the fucking point? Will I make more down the road? Yes, of course. Will I make more per hour? Not really. And I came to see the world not in terms of salary increase, but in terms of quality of life increase. And I saw that, in cooking, there is no such thing. My dad still works 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and I am terrified of being that overworked in my 40′s, much less my 50′s. I’ve spent some time like that, but had always considered it a temporary thing. It’s not temporary if you want to be a chef.

I could go into corporate. But why do it at all then? Aren’t we doing this shit for love? Yes. Love. As every young-buck line cook will have you know: “We do this shit for love, man.” That’s good, ’cause we sure as hell ain’t doing it for money. The guy who stacks the proverbial Pepsi products, he works for money, and gets paid more from the start than the vast majority of line cooks make even after a few years on the job. And that’s no fucking lie (I know because I applied for that job.) What is a lie is working for love. Love is the emotion they use to manipulate the young romantic into doing a stressful, dangerous job for shift drinks and pride.

And people do love it, too. I used to dream about turning out plate after plate of perfect food. I had plenty of nightmares too, and sleepless nights when the shift drinks couldn’t erase the thought of the plate that went out poorly. The potentially dissatisfied customer loomed large in my adrenaline-addled mind. The job asks for far too much personal investment for it’s pitiful financial recompense.

Six of the ten worst-paying professions in the United States are in foodservice. A lot of these jobs are in fast food, but many are in full-service restaurants. Line cooks, in the link above, are for some reason classified under “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” So next time you feel all yuppity behind the line at Le Pigeon, or French Laundry for that matter, remember that in the eyes of the US labor department, you are essentially the same as the fry guy. Oh no, the fry guy is on the next page, and he actually makes a little more.

According to Indeed.com, which appears to search the web for job openings and compile and average posted salaries, a line cook in Portland, Oregon averages $17000 a year. That seems a little low to me. I’m gonna guess it’s more like $20000-$25000, gross. This is in a town with one of the lowest vacancy rates in the nation, and rents going through the roof. If you’re single, you ain’t living in a one bedroom, you got roommates, probably a few.

But cooking offers opportunity for advancement!” Yes! So does high school basketball. We only need so many chefs, and far fewer stars.

Lest you think my sympathies lie only with the cook on the line, I ask you to consider the sous chef. Why is he so often such a raging asshole? Because he barely has time to rub one out before he slips on his clogs and goes in there to sweat on his feet for 12 hours with a bunch of idiotic, 20-something knuckleheads. Meanwhile, he takes the brunt of the abuse from the chef. Customer complaint? Where’s my sous chef? Labor or food costs too high? Get that redheaded son of an Italian in my office. The chef meanwhile, how old he looks now, just a few years after opening his own spot. The restaurant industry spares none its ravages.

I know its tough, and the margins are thin, but this business employs too many people (4,438,100 people in foodservice and related professions in 2012) and is beginning to take itself a little too seriously ($73,000 for an associate in culinary arts from New England Culinary?! You are too fucking insane!) to run itself like a scrapyard anymore. It doesn’t even work, as evidenced by the fact that so many restaurants serve such poor food. Do you think it’s just the nature of the business? Would it be acceptable if that were the nature of the aerospace business? Or are restaurants just that much more complex than airplanes and rockets? We know the answer since, whenever somebody fucks up in the restaurant, sous chefs from here to Atlanta shriek the same refrain: “It’s not fucking rocket science!” No, neither is it hairdressing.

Cooking on the line shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage on the way to your higher calling as a celebrity chef, it should be a job you can reasonably expect to hold for some years. It should be treated as a profession. Were the restaurant line considered a place where professionals come to do their very highly regarded work, the food would improve. Instead, it’s seen as a place where the excess energy and aggression of young men can be harvested and channelled into a food production machine. The successful chef is simply one who seamlessly channels that energy. Women in the kitchen certainly help change the culture, imagine the difference if there were more 30 and 40 something lifelong professionals. Imagine how much easier the chef’s job would be. No, people are encouraged to either move up or move out. Again, imagine if they ran the airplane factory that way. Lots of crashes.

Well, that’s one less whiner in the kitchen. Now I can get back to work on becoming the next Mario Batali.”

Sure thing, but first, here’s my suggestions for improving the restaurant industry:

  1. Stop working for free! Just like my new gig, writing, people who work for free — because somehow they don’t need money, or time to sleep — bring down the wages of the entire profession. I don’t expect that to change because, you know, love. But all you kids doing unpaid internships and stages, you are stealing from the people who actually need money to live.
  2. Unionize. “Oh no, he just said the dirty ‘U’ word.” I sure did. I don’t know how that works when you all work for a ton of small shops, but it’s worth figuring out. When I left cooking, I went to work in the meat department at New Seasons, a non-union shop. Still, the mere historical existence of a meat cutter’s and packer’s union brought up the prevailing wage for the whole industry. I should have gone to work for Freddy’s, which is a union shop, but I was pretty content with the $17 an hour I was making by the time I left. I saved money. I bought a car and moved out of the roommate situation, which was a vicious hell. I went to Mexico for a real vacation. I traveled Europe. On and on. Sure, your employers all have your best interests in mind, just like that new intern is going to take great care of your brand new Masamoto high carbon gyuto. Ha!
  3. Change the business model (and “small plates” does not qualify as a new business model.) If you’re thinking of opening a place of your own, you should know that there’s more than two or three ways to serve food and drink. In Europe, if you aren’t busily rushing from gastronomic temple to gastronomic temple like a perfect little aristocrat, you’ll find a lot of types of service. For example, tapas does not mean you sit at a white tablecloth while a black-clad, manicured hipster brings you plate after plate of 15 dollar appetizers. It means you stand at a bar, drinking in front of a spread from which you might choose perhaps a five different items that cost from 1 to 10 Euros a piece. The menú or carte du jour doesn’t mean you pay through the nose for 15 carefully plated courses with a wine pairing, at the end of which you go eat a cheeseburger and drink a beer. It means “this is what we’re serving today” for a reasonable price, with an optional bottle of cheap wine. Creative business models can mean larger margins, and better pay.

Picnic Trip

We all love picnics, this much is sure. Yet the picnic grounds remain vacant. I used to have my share of picnics, when I was single. If you can’t get action on a picnic, maybe the morgue is more your speed.

I have to admit that, after the picnic that hooked my wife seven or eight years ago, I can’t remember but maybe half a dozen small picnics. There’s been plenty of camping food, drinking and snacking while fishing, and hiking to the tops of small mountains to consume sandwiches and chips. But leaving the property with the explicit purpose of consuming food in the great outdoors has gone by the proverbial wayside (pun intended).

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This is a good spot for a picnic. Small mountain looks better from here than on it.

I was recently walking to the top of one of these small mountains, which is when I do all my thinking, and I thought, no one has time to picnic anymore, but everyone still loves picnics; I should start a picnic business! And I thought how lovely it would be to take van-loads of pleasure seekers to beautiful picnic spots, replete with baskets and blankets and beverages and even service, where I could cook beautiful roasts and whole fish and vegetables, outdoors. Real china, glass, cloth napkins and silver would provide the ambience to civilize an appropriately rustic activity, like target shooting, or huckleberry picking. Then I remembered how I don’t really like other people, especially outside the city

A picnic must, absolutely must, include a blanket. Tarp is optional.

A picnic must, absolutely must, include a blanket. Tarp is optional.

So I decided to have my own picnic. After an abortive attempt to walk up a small mountain, and suffering from a protracted acid flashback, we ended up at a spot I’d been eyeing for some years as potentially conducive to aesthetic appreciation. After giving up on removing all the trash from the grill (indeed, through the static of paranoia, the logistics of such an operation were totally beyond me,) I focused on the task at hand: light the coals.

Coals working, I had decisions to make: should I make food at all? Because despite having had only a granola breakfast, I had no interest in food. Besides, how was I going to get my hands clean? Everybody knew my hands were dirty, they had to. Germs. Task at hand. Be cool. Put the sausages on the grill. Use the tongs. Tongs! Yes tongs! You can touch the food with tongs and avoid those dirty hands. Struggle with the grate; which way does this thing work? Fuck. Okay. Sausages on, turn, turn, turn. Sausages done enough. Do I trust these sausages enough to cook them less than black? No. Less-than-busy Romanian butcher shop sells old cheese. But then there’s the salt and nitrates. Thank god. Okay. All good.

Are those sausages... diseased?

Are those sausages… diseased?

Sausages are done; buns are done; mustard, pickles, peppers, horseradish, sauerkraut, all spread out on this nice soppy-wet piece of black plastic the park service has thoughtfully nailed over top of this picnic table. I think I need to dry the water. Brought a towel! That’s good. Sop sop sop. Everything’s sitting there and no one’s eating. Everybody’s staring off into space. Plotting my downfall. Fuck. I don’t know why I’m such a bad person. Okay, be cool.

“Is anyone hungry? The food’s done.”

Mumbling all around.

Man, I am really not into eating right now. I should though, maybe that’s what I need to bring me back down. Oranges! (I’d brought some Satsuma Mandarins.) Wasn’t there something we used to say about tripping and drinking orange juice? Makes you happy right? No, makes you trip harder. Okay fuck that. Looks like I’m going to have to be the first. Take a sausage; put it on a bun; go down the line; load that son-of-a-bitch. I’m eating; I’m gonna eat. What about this sauerkraut? Looks suspect. Definitely full of germs. Get over it; be cool. On goes the sauerkraut.

"This guy is kind of freaking me out."

“This guy is kind of freaking me out.”

Standing in front of the spread, just to say: look guys, it’s all cool. The germs aren’t that bad. I take a bite. Oh, nice Snap! Chew… Chew… Chew. Man, this sausage is pretty stellar. Three, four, five bites. Now they’re coming up. Now everyone will eat. Then it will all be cool again.

And they do, and then it got cool again. Relief. I can speak — without first attempting to consider every possible interpretation of every innocuous utterance. I can move around, naturally! I must of been pretty hungry.

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All cool now. Note the black plastic over the table. Boo on that.

I didn’t really bring enough food. The grill bottom was too littered with cigarette butts to roast the potatoes next to the fire. Brought chips and salsa and bean dip to snack, but with sausages? Please.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a simple picnic, but I fear that this pared-down version of a picnic is becoming the new bar from which all picnics are measured. If I say picnic all I hear back is about some cheese and bread and wine. Almost not really a picnic. That clever little aphorism, “Keep it simple,” effectively relieves us from the duty to challenge ourselves, but the hard truth is that everybody loves a nice spread.

Is what I perceive as the demise of the picnic due to the platitudinous “busy modern life,” or does the busy lifestyle leave time only for activities that drench the nervous system in an intoxicating stew of hormonal secretions, quickly? The picnic lacks the adrenaline- endorphin- dopamine burst that characterizes our new favorite outdoor pastimes. I myself have plenty of things I like to do: Hike, hunt, fish, forage, shoot &c, that stimulate hormone secretion. I notice lots of people mountain bike, windsurf, mountaineer and ski, and I’m sure they eat while doing those things, unless they get by on Clif bars, gel packs and Gatorade. But treating the meal as an aside, and your hunger as an annoyance or, worse still, an enemy to be defeated, is a prescription for an anemic life. People who regard their sexuality like that are usually considered neurotic.

This is aesthetics.

This is aesthetics.

The picnic is more than a meal outside; it is an aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience — I’m pretty sure — is largely seen as an academic pursuit for people who don’t know how to have fun outside of their own minds. I’m not sure if this is a sign of the times, or universal to human existence, but utility rules. Hiking is healthy; fishing provides food and dopamine squirts. Whitewater rafting and mountain biking provide exercise and adrenaline squirts. What does the picnic “provide” that a meal at home does not? A chance to gaze and reflect? So does meditation and Yoga, I hear. But the picnic lacks that misty, exotic cachet, and hence the redeeming social value. It’s also not about self-denial or discipline, which are very in demand amongst the satisfied. Instead, it’s about indulgence and pleasure. It brings the gustatory and olfactory senses to the fore in a situation that would normally privilege sight and sound. It is therefore about total sensory — sensual  — engagement. The picnic doesn’t exercise our legs, or chest, or pituitary glands, or core. It does exercise our aesthetic sensibility. And looking around here, at the world we’re building, we could all use a little exercise there.