Sunday, November 30, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Sado-Masochistic Tendencies: Ivo Furman

With the gaze of a cavalryman leading a charge, the gentleman walks up to the entrance of the curry house and holds the door for the lady behind him. Together they quickly stride towards the first person of authority they meet, the waiter, and ask for a table for two. The waiter makes a sweeping gesture towards one of the available tables in the establishment. With quick, staccato looks to one another, the couple decide to accept the offer and sit down. With the arrival of the menus, the process is complete for the experience about happen, by the end of which the couple will leave the restaurant having bonded over the experience of spice.

I've always been curious about why people like spicy food. As a matter of fact, I wonder why I like to order spicy food. It, after all, creates a rather painful sensory experience that runs quite contrary to what we actually desire at a restaurant. Often, people eat away from home for reasons of sociability and pleasure; either as displays of power or affection. Yet we still order spicy food. And we all enjoy it much more when in the company of others, especially if the other decides to partake in this act of pain. In my opinion, spice adds a particular dimension of bonding to cuisine. Like ancient warriors that would mutilate themselves in bonding displays of sexuality and power, we do the same thing in the restaurant. The desire to collectively experience pain brings us closer together. Although pain in itself is a subjective experience, the collective act unifies the experience as a shared act of consciousness. So as the couple bluster over their curries, what they are doing in fact is taking part a ritual of bonding through displays of power and sexuality.

How are these two key terms of power and sexuality unconsciously realized in the ritual? The desire to give and receive pain, the power to allow the other to experience pain in a controlled environment is surely the underlying theme of the ritual. By allowing one to experience pain, you empower the other; with the imposed hierarchy collapsing, the power relation is dynamic and fluid at the dinner table.

Now take a step back and reread the last few sentences. They sound more like a description out of an S&M manual rather than the description of a night out at the restaurant. How is it that a marginalized sexual practice has the same denotations as the scene described? Society seeks to marginalize particular sexual impulses; by labelling particular practices as dangerous, subversive and immoral it seeks to isolate and localize these experiences. Yet these desires exist within the repressed psychology of the individual. Therefore through localization, particular institutions and practices cater to the satisfaction of such impulses in individuals. The sexual impulse is "safely" played out within the context of the middle class restaurant. Needless to note is how the impulse is commoditised in an economic exchange. We have to pay to satisfy our power and curry cravings.

Once again I have run out of space, but what I tried to unpack today was how the ordinary or the accepted usually contains elements that quite marginal. What is normalized is usually done so to hide away the subversive. However, both always exist in conjecture with each other as in fact both are just signs to represent a social act.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Recipe: Chestnut Gelato

Finally, it's chestnut season.  This means that it's also time to get creative with this simple and amazing nut.  Hot chestnuts are one of the great universal pleasures harkening the arrival of winter but unfortunately the once omnipresent roasting chestnut have fallen out of vogue.  For those of you who never have had a chestnut they are best when eaten warm, having been fresh roasted or boiled.  Peeling off the thick, brown skin reveals an off-white tender, nutty, sweet flesh that has a subtle and amazing flavor.  Chestnuts can be added to any number of dishes, such as ravioli filling, for example.  

Today, though, I decided to make chestnut gelato with the Missouri chestnuts my Mom brought home.  

The recipe is very simple, provided you have an ice-cream maker.  I suppose one could hand-churn the ice-cream but it's a tiring process - this would work as old-fashioned freezer-frozen ice cream as well.  This recipe is adapted from Gelato: Italian Ice Creams, Sorbetti and Granite by Pamela Sheldon Johns.

You will need:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla pod (I used Madagascar Vanilla from Penzey's Spices)
2/3 cups sugar
1 cup chestnut purée
4 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream

Boil chestnuts in slightly salty water until they are tender (cut one in half to test how soft it is - shouldn't yield too much resistance when you bite into it).  Heat milk and cream until it just starts to froth, turn down heat, scrape the vanilla seeds into the milk and add the bean pod into the milk - make sure to stir the whole time to avoid burning the bottom of the pot/ scalding the milk.  Let the milk stand for 30 minutes.  

Cream the yolks and sugar.  Combine chestnuts with the wet ingredients and mix until smooth and fully integrated.  Reheat the milk, remove the vanilla bean pods, and SLOWLY combine the milk with the yolk-sugar-chestnut mixture.  Careful not to add it too quickly or you will cook the egg!  Once combined you're pretty much ready to go.  Chill the ice cream thoroughly and proceed making it in your ice-cream-making contraption!

I tasted mine finally today, after "forgetting" to bring it to thanksgiving dinner and it was truly great!

Keep tuned for the next ice cream recipe where I'll be playing around with Star Anise!


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Whisky Spiritual: Ivo Furman

Globalize THIS
Amongst things I find spiritually uplifting (like listening to Otis Taylor or hearing the muezzin at 5am) I'd say that single malts hold particular importance to me.

Meaning the "water of life" in Gaelic, "uisge-beatha" is a drink that is produced from a variety of grains including, barley, rye and corn. Of concern to us in this article is Scottish whisky, which is made out of a distilled mixture of barley and water. Quite like wine, the taste of single malt whisky depends on the terroir, or location, in which it was distilled. There are four main regions in Scotland, each with a particular style: Speyside, Highland, Islay and Lowlands. As a general rule of thumb, Islay single malts usually have a "peatier" smoky taste to them while Speyside is known for smooth, clean tastes. While the Highlands and the Lowlands both are more geographical definitions rather than particular styles, the Island subregion of Highland whisky is known for its salty "sea" taste.

So enough of my cocktail party trivia; why is it that I find whisky to be spiritual? To begin with, whisky is one of the few drinks that capture the essence of geographical area, every sip conveys the rugged and harsh Scottish homeland. It is honest, unlike most other hard liquors that attempt to standardize the drinking experience (look at the claims of rum, vodka & gin in providing a 'pure experience'), scotch brings along the 'emotional baggage' of its origins. It is a rural personna, proud of its origins and displays this in every turn and sip. I've always liked things with personality, attitude and I'd say that scotch does both with swagger and panache.

Turning our gaze on the global economy, I'd say that the current trends would be of localization and generalization. This is the same with food and alcohol. As international demand for certain products increase, the producers often have to standardize the experience of the product. This often leads a brand creating a concept for the entire market of products. For example, in Turkey, people will often say "Bacardi" while refering to rum products. This is a double edged sword, as it creates associations with brands and not products. This in turn standardizes consumer expectations of these particular products.

Taking a look at all the major alcohol markets will confirm my observations; vodka becomes "Smirnoff", gin becomes "Gordons" and rum becomes "Bacardi". When put togather, I find it strange that all three almost connote the same values of sophistication, hedonism and wealth. Yet it is strange that all these drinks were traditionally considered working class at the turn of the century. It is the case of the noveau riche trying to hide his wretched origins in a cosmopolitan environment.
Major source of Scotland's spirit exports.

On the other hand, certain markets have had an "inward" turn of localization. Whisky is certainly the forerunner of this trend. Until the late 1980s, whisky was under the monopoly of blended scotches such as Johnny Walker, JB and Chivas Regal. Such whiskies blend single malts from various regions to create a uniform tasting experience. With the advent of globalization, peripheral distilleries in Scotland (just look up Talisker distillery on the web and you'll understand what I mean) began finding markets for their own localized style of scotch previously isolated from the rest of the world. It is no great suprise that the market share of blended scotch has been steadly declining with the rise of single malts. So hence the second trend of products offers a "local" experience, which is essentially devoid of the connotations present in global brands. The image of the farmer, the peasant speaking in his local dialect is the image conjured up in such products.

In conclusion, no, I do not feel like an anti-globalist revolutionary when sipping on some single malt. The rise of the single malts depends on globalization just as other brands do. However, what single malt whisky offers is a metaphor for a more positive attitude on globalization, where the local can be democratically introduced to the international populace.

As a final touch to our little conversation about the nature of whisky, I'd like to recommend two that I hold very dear to my heart. Next time you visit the bar, ask for a 10 year Laphroaig ("beautiful hollow by the broad bay") [15 year is also recommended for this very peaty whisky] or a Auchentoshan Three Wood ("the Christmas pudding of whiskies") and hold a toast for globalization and the wonderful people of Scotland. Cheers.

Ivo Furman

Sunday, November 16, 2008

From a Cemetery on a Hill

Cemeteries have always intrigued me. When I was a small child, my grandmother and I would visit the grave of my great grandmother, located in a small, overgrown patch of land near the Greek-Macedonian border. The hot dry summer grass swayed gently in the wind and on the way home we would pilfer figs from overhanging trees and enjoy their sweet. St. Louis definitely is not Greece, but those early experiences amongst gravestones and family plots spurred an appreciation for the solitude and peacefulness of cemeteries. I was always fascinated by the fact that I was standing on top of a buried body and I would often fantasize about the lives of the interned, looking at the dates of birth and death to try and read clues about how or why these people passed away. 

St. Louis' Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries, located on the North Side, just west of the intersection of N. Kingshighway and W. Florissant, are both exceptional places as far as cemeteries are concerned; after all, nothing particularly exciting happens at cemeteries. A number of impressive heavyweights are interned here, including William Tecumseh Sherman, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), Dred Scott, William S. Burroughs, Adolphus Busch, as well as the mausoleum of the infamous Lemp family. A veritable collection of who's who in St. Louis society.  

The Eternal View
The cemeteries, situated on a hill, command a sweeping view of heavy industry - the landscape below is dominated by warehouses and tractor trailers. St. Louis' wealthiest families are not interned adjacent to this industrial landscape but these cemeteries are also located among some of the most economically blighted neighborhoods I've ever visited. 

While one looks out over the vast landscape of trees, warehouses, electrical lines, and tractor trailers one notices something puzzling about the environment. HARK! What is the divine sweet smell that wafts through the air as one wanders about, admiring mausoleums and obelisks? It is not the sweet smell of death but rather the sweet smell of Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies!

At some point when I was a child, I was lucky enough to visit Interstate Bakeries Corporation factory and have been forever mesmerized by the incredible scents that emanate from the industrial complex. The whirring machinery and conveyors, which send loaves of perfect, factory-made white bread flying by at various stages of production, made an indelible impression on my 6 year old self. This was the equivalent of visiting Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory if only he had chosen yeast and flour over high fructose corn syrup. The scents of these industrially produced baked goods are so strong that a stiff wind carries them miles away. Heaven!

This incongruity between landscapes is highlighted further by this synesthetic experience, which combines the visual with the olfactory. Bucolic rolling hills are ravaged by poverty and manufacturing.  River vistas have given way to industrial landscapes. And the smell of death is truly sweet here. The experience one can have at Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries highlights and epitomizes one's life in St. Louis. Life here is never what it seems to be.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Essay: Modern Eating: Meredith Jones

Once upon a time, when we were little, the strawberries tasted like strawberries. Unfortunately, they were only available for about two months during the early to middle summer. Then, a strange thing occurred: strawberries were suddenly available year-round, but they weren’t strawberries anymore. The flesh was dense and gummy where once it was meatier and juicier; and while the deep red color of a ripe strawberry usually indicated that it was at its sweetest, all of these new, strange strawberries were bright red while none of them tasted like it.

In my neighborhood Whole Foods, the strawberry season is celebrated with the abundance of ripe, perfect, “real” berries from nearby Watsonville, which has the ideal hot growing climate for this fruit. After about eight weeks, they are gone, but replaced by fake strawberries for the rest of the year. This is a poor, poor substitute, suitable not even for baking, as the average recipe is intended for a completely different little beast than that Driscoll berry that arrives at every grocery store nationwide in large, plastic containers.

So what are we to do? In an increasing amount of places, the focus is not whether the food is organic, but whether it is local. We know this, because it was on the cover of Time magazine about two years ago. If the berries are local, one can assume that they taste better, they cost less to transport, and since everything is increasingly organic, they were probably organic to begin with. Now, I live in San Francisco, which is the perfect Slow Food culinary storm for three major reasons: one, it is one of the so-called “bi-coastal” cities, which means it takes its culinary scene ridiculously seriously; two, really good food grows year-round within a 200 mile radius; and three, San Francisco is renowned for its self-righteously “correct” attitudes about such things as politics, social progressivism, health, and the environment.

Thus, the foodie life here is never-ending. With the coming of every July, people get hopping excited about the arrival of squash blossoms (generally stuffed with ricotta and basil, flour battered, and deep fried) as if it were an annual coming of Christ. And every winter, Bay Area restaurants line up to worship the Great White Truffle, sacrificing just obscene amounts of money to truffle dinners complete with appropriately paired wines from Piemonte. It’s the same as with clothes, when every September, Vogue reminds us that it’s coat and sweater time again and we all get our proverbial panties in a twist about pumpkin-colored Lanvin jackets and rush off to the Gap to buy the knockoff.

I suppose there are worse things to treat as a fad than seasonal food. God knows that traditionally, food fads are a boon for the food industry but generally end up with absurd situations. Right now, people in El Paso are able to order salmon to put on top of their Caesar salad, a combination I will never understand. Meanwhile, we are completely out of wild salmon and have to harvest it, inject it with all kinds of dye and hormones just to supply the demand we so stupidly created in the first place. In the case of San Francisco, when squash blossom season is over, it’s over. Time to move on and look forward to the actual squashes, to be puréed and put into filled pastas, to be made into soups, to be brushed with olive oil and roasted and salted. And then when those are done in the middle of winter, it’s put a fork in it already, because they’re done. When seasonal food is in fashion, everyone is sure to quit the season’s big food at the appropriate time. No sense looking like you’re behind the times. Just as you wouldn’t wear woolen tights in May, or keep your Christmas tree up in February. It’s just…not done.

This summer I went out to dinner with my sisters in Saint Louis. We ordered a wild mushroom pastry, which turned out to be this completely insane construction of masses of puff pastry, ten inches high, towering above a strewing of various mushrooms, sage, and entirely too much cream. The poor sauce was almost separated by the time it got to the table, and who could blame it? Those mushrooms were trying to get out. They were speaking to us.

“Look, damn you,” they said, while choking in their sea of dairy lipids, “We are criminis, we are oysters, we are shitakes. We are all mass-cultivated mushrooms, so it’s totally inappropriate that whoever created this menu decided to call us ‘wild’. We don’t have the delicate flavor of wild mushrooms, but if we did, it would be even more of a sin to put us in so much butter and cream. And this sage is some mass-distributed dried crap. The cows who made this milk are from the Midwest, the mushrooms were grown indoors in some Central Valley Californian mushroom multiplex, and the pastry flour is 100% SYSCO brand, milled God-Knows-Where from God-Knows-What. This is the most geographically and seasonally confused bullshit ever!”
Poor mushrooms, but they demonstrate some of the more senseless acts of eating. While San Franciscans are indeed completely silly for their food seasons, they do have a point. (Just don’t tell them that, please. Some of us Midwesterners have to live here.)

Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, I’d like to take a minute to speak for the mushrooms. If it would just occur to every American that, hey, it’s f-ing February, therefore the turkey sandwich simply cannot have tomatoes and butter lettuces on it, then perhaps we’d be doing something about those looming ozone holes and all-time high obesity levels. Until then, gorge on, fellow citizens, gorge on.

Meredith Jones

[Editor's note: Meredith is a St. Louisan in exile. She lives, works, writes, and plays in San Francisco. While she may be gone her spirit remains. Every fifth glint of sunlight reflecting off of the arch is just Meredith winking at us.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

You can take the corn out of the cow but you can't take the corn out of the bourbon

I read an interesting article today about the dependence of fast food on corn and corn subsedies. As I don't have time to write anything of substance today, check it out:

While corn-dependence is pretty obvious, after all it's the US's #1 crop, I can't quite tell how much of this is fear-mongering. Of course, we can all do our part by refusing to purchase products that rely largely on corn (such as products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and factory-farm raised meat). As far as meat is concerned, I could understand supplementing my cows' or chickens' diets with some corn-based feed since it helps them fatten up; however, a diet that is suited to the animal's physiognomy should always take precedent.

Oh, except in the case of foie gras. I think i can look the other way from time to time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: The Bourgeoisie of the Sea or Why I Don't Like Salmon: Ivo Furman

Amongst the plethora of titles for half written articles I've planned for this blog, "why I don't like salmon" struck me as a humorous antidote to spending half a day listening to a health care researcher talk about eroticism and death in hospices. Hence I've decided to stick with the title and deconstruct that jolly and wise creature - the salmon.

So why is it that I despise salmon? If tuna is the chicken of the sea world, then salmon must truly be the T-bone. That startling pink colour sparkling of sophistication combined with that clichéd, omnipresent truism of "and its good for you" makes salmon the most obnoxious personality of the sea world. It itself often tastes bland and often hangs out with the most boring clique of potatoes and boiled veg, but still manages to project an image of middle class sophistication and power.

I realize I'm generalizing and being overtly critical of this humble fish, but it so often strikes me that the people who often dislike anything related to fish will order salmon. Paradoxical as it sounds, salmon seems to hold a certain magical charm over their heads. Then what is the discreet charm of the salmon?

I'd say that the secret of the salmon lies in its presentation. Forget all that balderdash about health concerns and the taste. The categorical presentation of the salmon is what matters. Quite often, salmon is presented as the "steak" or a dry cured cut. Presented as such it often allows the consumer to eat without giving too much consideration to the life of the fish before it landed on your plate.

The fish, complete with the head and tails often make people queasy, much like the fifth quarter of livestock; it creates a dilemma of class. Offal, scales, bones are often projected to be the undesirable, the Other of food. Therefore the presence of these elements in a dish often "ruin" the fetishistic desires associated with the dish. Discarding these elements often turn an undesired dish into one that is palatable. The same works for salmon. The categorical presentation of the dish often allows for non-fish consumers to partake in the ritual of consuming fish. The physical recomposition of the fish to suit the taste of the consumer makes the dish desirable. It stops being a fish and becomes a phantasmagoria of candle lit bourgeoisie restaurants stinking of cologne and wine. Such is the power of consumerism as it shapes the reality within which an object exists and is realized.

Of course, the next question to ask is how is taste defined? Does the context really affect the way consumers like or dislike a product? But I've run out of space for today. So, I'd say let these questions be food for thought. Let salmon, much like the bourgeoisie be the effect and not the object of our philosophical meanderings. After all, this wondrous fish used to be revered as a symbol of wisdom in Scandinavian and Celtic societies.

Ivo Furman

Monday, November 10, 2008

Beyond the Bospherous: Serdar's Shrimp Surprise: Ivo Furman

While writing out an analysis on the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, I starting thinking about the dinner I made last night. I've decided to share with you the recipie that caused that dastardly act of procastrination. It's aptly called "Serdar's Shrimp Suprise"

He prefers lamb's intestines.

1 Large Sea Bass, scaled and gutted
200-250 gr of Shrimp
3-4 large cloves of Garlic
1/2 red chili
handful of fresh parsley
few slices of bread, preferably a bagette
olive oil

Heat the oven to about 150 celsius on turbo heating (the program with a fan on it) [approx. 300 degrees F - convection setting]. Put the cleaned & scaled sea bass on a baking tray covered with aluminium foil. Drizzle oil into the insides of the Sea Bass. Dice the garlic and chili finely. Using half the chilli and garlic, stuff the inside of the sea bass. Take a handful of cleaned shrimp and use it to also stuff the sea bass. Once the inside of the sea bass is almost full put some parsley into the fish. Drizzle some olive oil and butter around the sea bass. Distribute the remaining garlic & chilli around the fish. Distribute remaining shrimp and parsley around the fish. Put the dish in the oven for about 10 mins. Then throw in the bread slices and keep in the oven for another 5 mins. Then take out of oven and enjoy.

Ivo Furman

Cupcakes Out. Salad In.

Cupcakes are out, according to today's New York Times.

While whoopie pies have made cupcakes obsolete, as Liza Shore wrote in her great essay, according to 12 people in New York, they have become obsolete for entirely different reasons. School children across the country are apparently being dissuaded from bringing in unhealthy foods for their classmates to enjoy. One would assume that our right to sell baked goods to fund the 6th grade Halloween dance would be upheld by our great constitution but it looks like someone needs to call the ACLU.

It's like Double Stuf Oreos, but more like a bake sale.

Luckily, no one is raining on my parade since these spectacles are dead to me for three reasons:
1. I'm 25.
2. When I went to public high school, "bake sales" were pre-packaged messes, mere masquerades of Nana's recipe for fudge brownies (or Mandel Bread).
3. I was walking down 72nd street in NY one day and at 5th Ave. students from a tony private school were selling cookies to raise money for some kind of exotic vacation to the Maldives or the zoo or something. The cookies looked very good and i already had 3 in my mouth when I was told that I now owed the 12 year old kid with braces five dollars! Five dollars?!?! I'm pretty sure that cookies and brownies at bake sales when I was growing up cost 50 cents!

But this fascist elimination of the bake sale is ridiculous. What's next? Turnips and rutabagas? Bulgur and wheat germ? When are kids going to splurge a little bit? Can't they stuff their faces twice a year with semi-sweet chocolate, butter, cream, eggs, bleached flour, and, if they're lucky, polysorbate 60. If bake sales were not dead to me, I would not hesitate to make this into a political issue. Cupcakes may be dead but as long as we preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake at 325 for 40 minutes I think we'll make it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

And Now For Something Different: Part 2

Once again, I have been successful in perfectly making another 19th century recipe from the same suite of recipes as my last post. This recipe for a main dinner course should sate even the most finicky eater. From ages 2 to 99 this is the cornerstone of any healthy dinner!

I include it in its entirety including the introduction:

"Our readers will be interested in the following communications from our valued and learned contributor, Professor Bosh, whose labours in the fields of Culinary and Botanical science, are so well known to the world. The first three Articles richly merit to be added to the Domestic cookery of every family; those which follow, claim the attention of all Botanists, and we are happy to be able through Dr. Bosh's kindness to present our readers with illustrations of his discoveries. All the new flowers are found in the valley of Verrikwier, near the lake of Oddgrow, and on the summit of the hill Orfeltugg.


To Make Crumbobblious Cutlets

Procure some strips of beef, and having cut them into the smallest possible slices, proceed to cut them still smaller, eight or perhaps nine times.
When the whole is thus minced, brush it up hastily with a new clothes-brush, and stir round rapidly and capriciously with a salt-spoon or soup-ladle.
Place the whole in a saucepan, and remove it to a sunny place, - say the roof of the house if free from sparrows or other birds, - and leave it there for a week.
At the end of that time add a little lavender, some oil of almonds, and a few herring-bones; and then cover the whole with 4 gallons of clarified crumbobblious sauce, when it will be ready for use.
Cut it into the shape of ordinary cutlets, and serve up in a clean tablecloth or dinner-napkin."

Serves 4.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Family Dining

In my family there has been a long-standing tradition of repeating a little quip that my grandparents' housekeeper, Mabel Hall, used to say after a large meal. I tried googling the phrases but I wasn't able to come up with anything about the origin of this joke:

After sharing a large meal, two women are seated at a table, one of whom is hard of hearing. The younger woman pushes her empty plate away and says, "I ate sufficient!"
The deaf woman looks at across the table and asks, "You went fishing?"
"I ate plenty!" exclaims the younger woman.
The deaf woman replies, "What, you caught twenty?"
The younger woman looks at her companion and says, while shaking her head, "Poor soul!"
"What, you broke your pole!?" answers the deaf woman.

It's not so much funny as it highlights the quirky traditions that families and cultures develop in relationship to dining.