So I Lied! (Another Shot At Queen Alice)

At the risk of boring the hell out of both of you, here is an interesting and important article about the current hysteria over teaching kids Algebra and Shakespeare through the joys of gardening. I have never understood the allure of this particular method of avoiding real schoolwork, but the author does a wonderful job of explaining it, while skewering Alice Waters — always one of my favorite things.

Alice Waters Can’t Catch A Break…

…mostly because she is a moron when it comes to things other than free-range broccoli grown by New Age hippies on communal land expropriated from THE MAN. But if you don’t think that I am scrupulously impartial, just take a look at this article in National Review Online.* The skewering is wonderful.

More seriously, I think she does this country a disservice by being so stunningly ignorant of the basic laws of economics, and the reality of the world outside of North Berkeley.

*Will, thanks for the link!

My Worst Restaurant Meal

This is a tough one. If I were to be objective about every restaurant meal that I have eaten, I could find something wrong with every joint in the world. From unspeakably dirty bathrooms to rancid butter or short-and-curlies in the soup to slightly overdone steak to fois gras with just a bit too much tartness in the fruit sauce — we all could find something wrong with every meal. But the enjoyment of eating at a restaurant shouldn’t be based solely on the quality of the food or the physical plant. I have many happy memories of great times at restaurants, and some of those memories have absolutely nothing to do with the food. In fact, I am sure I can pick through the cobwebs of my mind and find a few meals about which I can’t remember a single thing that I ate or drank, but I still remember them as grand times.

Of course, there must be another side to this equation. One such example was a meal that I had at The Water Club, but it was Christmas Day, so the restaurant gets a pass on that particular abomination of a dining experience. Still, just imagine a request for a serving spoon for a bowl of whipped potatoes (the meal was semi family-style) ending with the waiter walking past the table and tossing a spoon into the bowl. The spoon disappeared into the potatoes but not before splashing a few of us with some admittedly excellent spuds. And that wasn’t the worst of it. By far, the most horrific part of the evening was the irritating fact that when the food finally came, it was pretty good!

The winner of my unofficial and very personal “Absolute Worst of The Worst” contest has satisfied some stringent requirements. Obviously, the restaurant must be a serious place. I have had plenty of awful meals at diners and greasy spoons and pizza joints, but they are disqualified from the competition because of the unseriousness of the food and the trivial shock to one’s wallet when the meals are less than satisfactory. To be considered for this award, the restaurant must provide some expectation of an excellent meal, excellent service and decor that is a cut above Burger King.

I don’t know how to insert a drum roll, so you will have to imagine it. And the winner is… Chez Panisse Cafe. I love taking shots at Alice Waters just as much as the next guy. I think she is a pompous airhead who has never had a rational thought. Her pontificating about “sustainable agriculture” and “cook the season” and the rest of her Berkeley blather does nothing for the state of food in America. It is easy to cook with perfect, organic, new age, zero-footprint ingredients when you are wealthy, well-connected and have producers falling over themselves to be touted by this aging hippie. It’s another thing entirely when you actually have to work for a living and can’t afford $30 lamb and $5 tomatoes.

But in addition to being a self-important, affected jerk, she can’t run a restaurant. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t know what consistency means. The reviews of her restaurants are always positive, so obviously she is doing something right. But I have been to both the restaurant and the less formal and less expensive cafe a few times, and the meals ranged from abysmal to excellent (end rant).

The perfectly awful evening began with the waiter being snidely critical of our gall. We had the nerve to bring a child to dinner! The child in question was my perfectly behaved nephew, whose manners were infinitely better than those of the the waiter. But he got back at us by spilling a large glass of water onto the table and then didn’t clean it up for a very long time. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but some of the highlights included the following: We had to ask three times for the wine we had ordered; the pizza tasted like someone had spilled cleaning fluid on it; my nephew’s meal was cold; my meal was cold; and my sister’s meal was cold. I tried to attract the attention of the waiters using the usual technique of eye contact. That didn’t work, and neither did the more aggressive method of waving my arm in the air. They would look over and then turn away. Oh, it took 20 minutes to get the check.

Actually, this was a great meal. I love remembering the evening, because at some point, it became a farce, and we were amused, rather than angry or irritated. Had it been a conventionally good meal, I would have forgotten it almost immediately. So, thank you Alice Waters for a great time and some great memories.

Long Distance Eating

Aside from the smart-assed comment at the end, this article, by Joel Stein in Time, is exactly what I think about the whole “eat local” crap that rich chefs (yes, Alice Waters, I’m talking about you) with too much time on their hands have been peddling to unsuspecting foodies for years and, recently, everyone else . I touched on some of these ideas in an earlier post that was actually critical of the global transportation system that can’t get me fresh tomatoes that actually taste like something other than soft baseballs. But Stein’s point is valid, rational, and pretty amusing too.

Where Oh Where Did The Great Tomatoes Go?

Everyone waxes poetic about the glories of family farms, sustainable agriculture, locally grown produce, blah, blah blah. While I am happy for the residents of Manhattan who can afford the $5 peaches at the Union Square Market, I am curious how the less well off among them will be able to eat a healthy diet purchased from hip farm stands and organic pig growers.  The fact is that most people can’t afford to eat the kind of stuff that Alice Waters pontificates about at every opportunity. Luckily, capitalism has created an incredibly efficient food distribution system that gets us our food very quickly and cheaply. Some of it is very good, and some of it? Not so good. Like tomatoes.

When I was working in Northern California I had a colleague who had just been moved to the Bay Area from Bakersfield, in the heart of the Central Valley of California. He and his dad grew tomatoes in the hot, dry weather that they have for oh, 360 days each year. One weekend he went back home and on Monday presented me with about 2 pounds of home grown grape tomatoes and a few beefsteak* tomatoes. I remember thinking that it was a very nice gesture and stuck the bag in my desk, thinking no more about them. When I got home  I fired up the grill and made a vinaigrette for the tomatoes. I thought I would nibble on a few tomatoes until the coals were ready for the real event of the evening; a big steak. I never got to the steak. I never even cooked the steak. I ate an entire bag of grape tomatoes, certainly the best tomatoes I had ever eaten, and maybe one of the best foods! I used the vinaigrette for the first couple but didn’t bother after I had tasted these incredibly sweet, flavorful little bursts of delight. The beefsteaks were just as good for lunch the next day. I picked up a fresh baguette in the morning and sliced the tomatoes onto the bread for amazing sandwiches.

Why can’t I get tomatoes of similar quality at my local supermarket?  Lots of reasons, but mostly the vagaries of modern transportation and farming practices, and the fact that tomatoes are fragile, and the good ones don’t lend themselves to bouncing around in a refrigerated trailer for 60 hours. I am lucky because I have access to farm stands and locally grown stuff during the summer, but I still can’t get anything like what my friend Jim gave me.

Whatever your feelings about corporate farming and, for that matter, capitalism; some fresh fruits and vegetables just can’t be produced for mass consumption without a huge drop-off in quality. And, unfortunately, tomatoes seem to be to best example of this flaw.

*Jim just e-mailed me to tell me that they were not beefsteak (he says they suck!), but Better Boy. According to him they are the best there is! And a short growing season to boot.