Technology Can Take Care of Itself!

For an assignment in college, I wrote a review of Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, a readable and informative, if stylistically flawed, argument for the application of the eponymous French notion to American soil. Borrowing from the format of Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Jacobsen walks us through a selection of American foods and agricultural products (Avocados from Michoacan, Yakima Valley apples, Puget sound oysters…Puget Sound?! Get the fuck out of here with that polluted backwater; Willapa bay or die!) and explains the geological, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and whatever other logical contributes to the product’s individual distinction. It really is a good piece of pop-scientific nonfiction, kind of my favorite genre.

Anyway, this professor, a published writer of some popular nonfiction in the science vein, took exception to this passage in my piece:

The facts, concepts and philosophies woven throughout the book defend Jacobsen’s baldly staked positions on various contemporary culinary controversies. Jacobsen states his distaste for “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of contemporary culinary culture that employs the methods of the laboratory in the kitchen, early in the book: “I have no interest in this food” (15). It’s a popular position to take, but Jacobsen illuminates his position with a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages outside of Montreal where the focus is on Cuisine Sauvage: cooking with the produce of forest and fallow. The proprietor, Francois Brouillard would, “when he was five dehydrate grasshoppers on the woodstove, steal his mother’s rolling pin, and crush them to make a crust for the fish he’d caught in the river” (119). The techniques are inventive, creative, totally original, but low-tech and therefore, accessible. Jacobsen takes a swipe at Hervé This, the “father of molecular gastronomy” for “taking paint sprayers to innocent pieces of goat cheese” (124). Perhaps Jacobsen would find more to love about This if he’d read chapter 59 of Molecular Gastonomy in which he explains the empirical truths behind le terroir in cheese-making (203).

Regardless, Jacobsen’s culinary worldview is more aligned with that of Nancy Hinton, Brouillard’s wife and chef de cuisine, who has been creating a new type of cuisine completely outside of the conventional paradigm using not high-tech gadgetry or food-as-theatre pyrotechnics, but an artist’s intuition. Specifically, she and Brouillard forage their own ingredients to create such oddities as Cattail stock, desert courses seasoned with dried mushrooms, and pureés enriched with pigweed.

This is not to say that Jacobsen sees no place for manipulation or scientific inquiry in the realm of culinary arts, indeed his introductory explanation of the chemistry of taste makes clear that he appreciates an empirical approach, but that the “molecular gastronomic” approach to cooking follows in a certain tradition. Jacobsen traces that tradition to Antoine Carême “France’s ‘King of Chefs and Chef of Kings’” (14). The problem with this type of cooking, not to suggest that the world would be richer or more equal without it, is that it relies on a heavy battery of specialized equipment to produce highly manipulated and deconstructed food whose object is not necessarily to be satisfying or even delicious, but rarified. It takes power away from the ingredients themselves, and the common people who might be inspired by them, and invests it wholly in the engineer, or chef, or technician.

Now aside from noting how much better of a writer I was in college, you can see where I take Jacobsen’s side in the molecular gastronomy vs. traditional technique “debate,” while still granting that these molecular gastronomists might have something to teach us about the raw ingredient. Actually, I added that little sentence defending Hervé This after I got back the first draft from my professor on which he had scrawled “anti-intellectual” (in the context of a sentence) in regards to this passage. Yes, my professor suggested that criticism of techno-cuisine is tantamount to a thoughtless, knuckle-dragging, celebration of ignorance.

Obviously, this sticks in my craw (and a craw is not a claw, or a paw, or the space between your cat’s paw and claw like it sounds— it’s a bird’s esophageal digestive organ, the crop, the throat) and informs a lot of what I write and think about today. From my piece on letterpress, to my interviews with woodworkers using traditional techniques and materials to build restaurant wood surfaces, to my crazed ranting about Soylent, I’m fascinated with the tension between the traditional and the technological, the hand-crafted vs. the computer engineered, the analog and the binary. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a clear “choice” to be made between these “poles”, or even that there is a polar dichotomy to choose between. But I’m sure you can intuit what I’m getting at here, if you really want to, that is.

My professor, like a lot of modern people, conflates a slew of independent concepts into a monolith called Intellect, or Science, or Progress, or something like that, and it pisses me the fuck off. First, if we can’t decouple science from technology, then to criticize a technology is to criticize the science that makes the technology possible. Case in point: Genetically modified crops. Scientific American and other scientific publications have been on a hot tear in defense of GMO’s. And I understand their concern since a lot of people who are critical of GMO’s see the entire technology as not just fundamentally flawed, but actually evil. These opponents throw the technology and the science together into the same large bag and set it ideologically aflame, while the science and technology establishment stand at the top of the mount and thunder down: “You Fools! I give you fire, and you drown it as thoughtlessly as you would a kitten!” This is unproductive since, in my opinion, the technology has primarily been deployed as a wealth generation machine for agribusiness, but holds promise for medicine and agriculture on a warming planet (disease resistance, drought resistance, etc….) However, we can’t really control what the technology is used for once it’s deployed; the market (and to a lesser extent the unelected bureaucracy) makes those decisions for us. So I say, label it. If the genetics are sufficiently novel to get market protection in the form of a patent, then they are sufficiently novel to handle market scrutiny. These are big kid genetics. Not because I think BT soybeans are poisonous or something, but because that’s the only control any of us can hope to have over the deployment of new technologies which purportedly exist to serve us, but which are actually deployed to make us serve their real masters: the people with the capital to build and own them. (And yes, I realize that these technologies are older than cell phones at this point, but agribusiness has been fighting these efforts tooth and nail for decades now.)

See what I did there? I used principals derived from a wide body of human study and interest to make a decision regarding the regulation of a technology, without attacking the science behind the technology. Nifty huh?

But what about that molecular gastronomy? That stuff, by definition, exists to serve people tasty food, right? Sure, it’s just harmless experimentation, “playing with food” as it were. But what much of it really does is to trade skills for equipment. For example: Water circulators (and this is not a knock on you guys who have them. I love you guys! Thanks for reading!) pretty much cook the food for you. Seal the food in an airtight pouch with a vacuum-sealing machine, set the circulator for the temperature of optimal doneness, drop it in, and forgettaboutit. Sure beats spending years sweating over the stove learning to cook the product at the exact right temperature (as determined by how quickly it burns your hand), how long to rest after cooking and in what medium, and how to determine doneness by sight and touch. All that skill, all that accumulated intuition, gets reduced to a button. I feel the same way about Traegers. Still, your Traeger brisket generally looks like a pasty white-boy approximation of what a Kansas City pitmaster moving meat around on pikes in a room-size brick oven turns out. It tastes good, sure. But, (and this is where I digress into all sorts of squishy, subjective feelings and stuff) it lacks soul. And soul, as far as I’m concerned, resides entirely in the burnt ends.  

As for the rest of it, it confounds criticism. It stands so far apart from what we recognize as food that it becomes impossible to place value judgements on it. I cannot say whether this lichen-smoke puff or nitro-frozen olive oil slick is well executed because, what the fuck am I going to judge it against? And that’s fine, because if these foods stick around long enough to become established parts of mainstream cuisine, we’ll eventually establish benchmarks to judge them by. (“Oh, this seaweed and uni foam has way too much…mass. It coats the palate almost like… sustenance.”) And when these foams and nitro-freezes and vapors and ethers become as common as french fries, were all gonna need some new cooking equipment. And bigger kitchens. Because nearly every new technology comes on as a harmless little amusement or a productivity-enhancing tool, quickly progresses to indispensable for the responsible worker-citizen, and eventually slays everyone who doesn’t adopt it. Technology is an insinuating little bully like that, so stop treating it like a sacrosanct institution: Technology will smite all it’s enemies in due time. Technology can take care of itself.


Pickle (Oh the Absurdity)

The reign of missiles continues unabated in the “world’s biggest military prison,” the Gaza strip. Meanwhile, over here in “the world’s biggest crybaby nursery,” Portland, Oregon, I have nothing more menacing to cry about than the acetic acid assault being wrought upon my palate by amateur pickle makers.

And what an assault it is. It’s not like I have my back to the sea, restricted access to fresh water, and a years-long trade blockade that prevents me access to all but the most basic of necessities, but would it kill these guys to read a fucking book or two on the subject? Here in Portland, we can get a copy of Katherine Plageman’s Fine Preserving, or Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling without having it smuggled through an underground tunnel originating in the only contiguous, non-hostile, foreign power (CLOSED). Even in Gaza though, I’m sure someone could round up a tattered old copy of Hertzberg, Vaughan and Greene’s Putting Food By that hasn’t been torn asunder by decades of armed conflict.   

Yes guys, fresh water! You know that dreadfully bland stuff that flows freely from every functioning tap in the city? You use it to flush the toilet? It’s not as if our only source is a rapidly disappearing aquifer that becomes more polluted every passing year by saline and sewage seepage, since that trade blockade prevents us from importing the materials and supplies we’d need to treat our waste water. And you can cook with it! You can use it to cut the acidity of the vinegar so that it’s a little less harsh, a little less abrasive to the palate. We have this ridiculously cheap and abundant luxury, so I’m not sure why you don’t take advantage of it.

You know what else is cheap and abundant here? Sugar. I know it seems sickeningly decadent to sweeten our food when life is already so sweetly devoid of privation. But pickles cry out for sugar. Like Tellason Jeans, or the knock knock bomb drop, sweet pickles are a fucking classic. (Oh wait, neither of those things are as classic as sweet pickles!) So I want you to go consult that Plageman, and learn how things were preserved before the relish tray became a hair shirt for the consciously comfortable.

And lets not forget that, even though we have a reliable supply of electricity, pickles are still a method of preservation, and taste better when given some time to settle into the brine. I never could understand the point of eating pickled versions of products that are fresh in season now. It’s not as if there’s a high likelihood that our cracked skulls will be pouring blood into the streets tomorrow—we can wait a little to crack those jars open.

To review: Water, sugar, recipes, time. But there’s one more thing: taste! Put one of those in your mouth. Drink a spoonful of that brine. Do you actually want to try it again? Or does the thought of it make you cringe a little? Because that’s how I feel with most of these pickle plates. One bite and I got Pickle Traumatic Stress Disorder, such is the sweetness of safety. But we’re building a culture here! Let’s make sure it’s one worth fighting for, should the need arise.


Oursin, continued

DPSCamera_0315In fact, Jean brought us a case of wine, vegetables from his garden, and possibly some steaks. I made us all dinner on the patio and I don’t remember what all it included, but it did include a big salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, which Jean refused to eat. He didn’t eat salad.

We learned that he hunted boar and raised vegetables and grapes, and his family made wine. He was vehemently anti-money. “Here we don’t need money; we already have everything we need,” as he liked to say. He apparently lived in the US for a stretch, as a professor I think Doug said, and his opinion of it was summed thusly: “In the United States people always ask: ‘what do you do for a living’ and I think, what kind of a question is that? But I say, ‘I breathe, that’s what I do for a living.'”

He showed us where the hidden beach was, through the forest behind the little resort, and we found even more wandering around on our own. Corsica is full of tiny little beaches, and every one is different: one was in a little bay and had coarse tan sand like small pebbles. One was rocky and wooded practically up to the shoreline. One had white sand that cattle slept upon. But the best beach of all was long and broad and white, and the water was safe to swim in. Near this beach was where the oursin were found.DPSCamera_0294

Jean kept telling us about the oursin, and we kept asking, until one day he came by with the supplies: a bag of baguettes, some bottles of his family’s rosé, a couple of rib steaks, a rubber bucket, another bucket with a clear bottom, and a three-tined hook at the end of a long wooden handle. We walked from the little resort down a rutted dirt road toward the “secret” beach. It just so happened that a bunch of young German tourists, who had recently (and annoyingly) arrived in a bus, were also walking down the road to the beach (not such a secret anymore). We hung back to let them all pass, and Jean swung his fork at their backs and cursed and muttered under his breath, something like: “you stay the fuck away from my fucking spot!”

We took a little trail off to the side of the road which led steeply through a scrubby forest to a little clearing where a grate rested on a fire ring of small boulders. Just a few steps from here was a little cove where the water was relatively calm, and perfectly clear. Standing at the edge it dropped off immediately to two or three feet. The bottom was covered with spiny urchins stuck to the innumerable small boulders strewn across the bottom.

DPSCamera_0297Jean took his shoes and camo off, put on a wetsuit, and waded out with the clear bottom bucket, the other bucket, and the hook. It looked easy. He just looked through the bucket and used the hook to scoop the oursin from the rocks before plopping them into the other bucket. After he scooped a few, I wanted try it. So I waded out in my sneakers and Jean handed over the tools. I located an urchin, took a step toward it, and slipped on the rock underfoot. My sneaker followed the incline till it met the adjacent rock, and the urchin stuck to its side.

“Give me that back. You have to be careful!,” Jean scolded me, and he shooed me out of the water.

Back to the shore I limped, defeated. I pulled off my shoe, and there were about a half dozen spines stuck, fortunately, in the callous on the side of my foot, just behind my big toe. Jean finished up and came back with a haul that makes the little uni plate at the sushi restaurant look downright mean-spirited.

DPSCamera_0300“You have to take those out of there, or it will get” he searched for the word, “infected.”

I got most of them out, but the others were just stuck. Jean eventually changed his mind and said it would probably be fine and sent us to gather some wood for the grill. Soon we had a little blaze of tinder going.

“You’re the chef, right?” Jean asked me.


“Yeah, I can cook.”

“Cook these steaks then.”

“You have any salt?” I asked.

“How could I forget the salt?,” Jean opined.

“That’s okay, we can just splash some wine on ’em.”

“Maybe that will be good,” Jean agreed hopefully.

DPSCamera_0306In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just dip them in the sea a couple of times. Still, they were pretty good: French beef, cooked rare over Corsican brush, splashed with a little acidic rosé.

Meanwhile, Jean took a pair of garden shears and started lopping the tops off the oursin. He didn’t use a glove either. When he had  opened a few he showed us: tear off a piece of baguette, take an oursin in hand, and scoop the insides. Shove the whole thing in your mouth.

The inside of an oursin plucked straight from the sea is not just the bright orange dollop you get on top of a sushi roll; it’s a bunch of that stuff (gonads—would that our gonads were such a large part of our bodies!) sauced with a liquid slightly thicker than seawater flecked with green confetti. My experience in restaurants had been that you rinse all that gross shit out of there and eat the sweet orange meat. So I started to do that.

“What are you doing?,” Tonton Jean asked.

“I don’t like the green stuff,” I said.



Tonton Jean scooped his urchin, held up the chunk of dripping baguette, and said, “salad, Mike,” before stuffing it in his face. So I started eating them that way too. It was fine so long as you took a drink of rosé directly after.

After we ate and drank all the steak and wine, as much oursin as we could hold, with just enough baguette to scoop, sitting on the rocks, in that spot of  tree shade protecting us from the fierce Mediterranean sun, everyone felt very tired. Jean succumbed to that early-rising hunter’s instinct, put his hat over his face, his sweater next to a tree trunk, and laid down to nap. The rest of us were still too excited by the vitality of the experience. We sat and watched that cool blue water ripple over the beds of purple oursin, speechless with beauty.



Flip Flops purchased in Ajaccio, France for appr. 7 euro, in 2006.

I have long been under the impression that Facebook is a nothing more than a thinly disguised way to waste time. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need ways to waste time.

But I’m not just wasting time; I’m actually honing my status update to a razor’s edge. Facebook isn’t all dictatorial like Twitter, but people don’t want to read a manifesto on there. People want brevity, concision, acronyms. And just the other day (like three months ago) it finally paid off.

I follow (or like, or whatever the fuck) Saveur magazine, and they shared a contest being held by Lonely Planet’s social media czars— Share a story, in 50 words or less, about your most memorable culinary travel experience. So I wrote:

In Corsica we hooked purple sea urchins from crystal water and, sitting in the shade of the scrubby shore pines, lopped off their tops. We scooped their buttery, briny flesh with chunks of baguette and washed it down with Tanto Jean’s rose. Then we slept on the sand.

And, despite the fact that I don’t know how to spell “tonton” (a term of endearment that nominally means “uncle”), I won an autographed copy of Fork in the Road, a collection of  short travel narratives written by some famous food writers, edited by James Oseland of Saveur magazine, and published by Lonely Planet. Gael Greene signed it, other than that I cannot discern.

I considered reviewing the book here, but I sent a pitch off to Saveur some weeks ago and I’m sure they’re busily poring over this blog right now, hungry for my every word, and that review might dampen my chances of being immortalized in their pages (Thanks for the book guys!). But how we came to be eating oursin on that beach involved a stroke of luck so singular and improbable that it seems, in retrospect, like it may not have actually happened.

Years ago, while we were getting to know Europe, our good friend Doug, through whom we first met, was getting to know his Corsican roots. So he picked us up from the ferry in Ajaccio in a rented Peugeot. We drove the Peugeot around the island for a couple of days, and Doug accidentally filled the diesel car with gasoline, stranding us for a night as we waited for a mechanic to come on duty who could drain the tank. When we finally got the car back to the rental agency, Tonton Jean razzed Doug for “putting water in the car,” then harassed the rental agency to refund the portion of Doug’s money that they charged for the late return. At first they refused, but Tonton Jean, cursing and seething, said some things in French that apparently led them to reconsider.

He drove a little Citroen truckette, which is kind of a cross between a pickup truck and a van. There are no seats in the low-clearance bed, like in a pickup truck, but the canopy is integral to the body, and the bed and cab are contiguous, as in a van. Leona sat in the passenger seat, while Doug and I sat in back, atop the wheel wells.

“So, I think these guys wanted to go camping,” Doug started. Indeed, we had been trudging an overabundance of largely useless camping gear across over-civilized Europe. Corsica, we saw, had deep forests, inaccessible mountains and ravines, and wide swaths of semi-desert coast.

“Camping,” Jean said, as if he were just turning the word over in his mind.

“Yeah, I think they were hoping you might know of someplace.”

Jean pulled a pack of Marlboro full flavored’s from his shirt pocket, put one in his mouth, and offered one to Leona.


She accepted, smiling.

“We smoke. These guys,” Jean tilted his chin toward the back, “they don’t smoke.”

Then they both laughed.

So we just sat as Jean drove through Sartene, where he lived, then back out onto roads wending through forests, up and down hills. We weren’t actually ready to camp at that very moment. We didn’t even have any toilet paper. A parking lot improbably appeared in the wilderness. How very European!


“Yes, camping,” we dumbly nodded, bewildered, and maybe a little frightened. The Corse are known for their fierce determination to protect their island’s character from foreign uglification, and this guy wears camo daily. He’s old and slender, but grizzled and tough as the Corsican boars he apparently hunted in his ample free time. I was pretty ridiculous with my oversize backpack and cheap flip flops. From the parking lot all we could see was a brick wall, partially obscured by trees and brush.

He led us down a narrow concrete path behind the building, then took a left down a path toward the front. We stepped out onto a large terra cotta patio, and took in a view of the forested hills rolling down to the turquoise sea maybe a mile away, and a little terra cotta fireplace in the wall to one side of the patio. Jean pulled out a key.

“Camping,” he announced, before leading us into the sliding glass entrance, startling a cleaning lady. He showed us the kitchen and two bedrooms, one on the main floor and a larger one upstairs.

Still bewildered, Leona started, “We can’t afford this….”

“You don’t need money. This guy owes me a favor,” was Jean’s first lesson for us.

We did need food. We mentioned this to him, and he seemed not to have noticed.

So after we unburdened ourselves, we piled back into the Citroen and headed down toward the sea. Just around the bend we came to a little vacation town. It was the off season, so most things were closed, but Jean pulled up to a little restaurant that was still open. We got a pizza and some wine. Jean ordered Pastis, which he seemed to live on. Another day, I asked him if he ever drank water, and he pointed to the little water decanter served with the Pastis, for mixing. We got another bottle of wine to take back with us. We tried to pay, but the proprietor threw his hands up, and took a step back. Jean urged us to put it away, and not offer anymore.

Heading back in the clear, coastal twilight, Jean explained that around here, favors were currency, as they placed demands on the receiver.

“But tomorrow, we’ll show him. I’ll bring a whole case of wine!”

To be continued…