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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Ellen Shapiro

  1. May I ask all of your ages?

    I only mention it because I have no memory of a time when food writing was so snobbish. To me, right now too much of the food writing I see is self-consciously populist, which is also the case with too much travel writing. John Thorne is sui generis, but his pale imitators are just a drag.

  2. I'm definitely never speaking to you again. But for anybody else who happens to be reading along, I'll say that the clam pie (white, no sauce, no mozzarella) is the only pie that is arguably best at Pepe's. All other pies are better at Sally's!

    Back to other subjects, though my moratorium on speaking to Robb ever again may make discussion difficult, I think it bears emphasizing that breaking bread with strangers is the quickest way to cultural interchange. This is doubly true for Westerners who have, on account of the bad behavior of a few, acquired the reputation for being closed-minded picky eaters. To sit down and try the food of another culture, particularly in a home or other group setting, is the best way to establish "street cred" in a strange place. It opens other doors. I hope all those who focus so much on food (I am thinking of several writers not on this panel) also come to realize that food is not just an end in itself, it is also a means to a larger end: understanding.

  3. To the philosopher in the proverbial ivory tower, it's easy to say "all taste is learned except maybe sweet and fat." But to bring this back to the food-and-travel aspect of Robb's book, I think that most everyone who has traveled a lot and paid attention will agree that people are fundamentally the same everywhere, even in the really remote places where there are no McDonald's and no Baywatch. I can't accept that this is all randomly learned, regardless of the appealing simple logic of such a position.

    It's true that wherever you go there are unusual foods that people eat. But those tend to be the exceptions everywhere. They may be what come across as most memorable in one sense, but in many trips to Southeast Asia -- including living with a family there for awhile -- I can't say Durians figured prominently into my life. They were around, they were strange, but I'd eat three (or four, or nine) meals a day and most of them had nothing to do with extremes of eating.

  4. I don't think Russ was calling Robb a thrill seeker, but rather was saying Robb is not a thrill seeker for the purpose of thrill seeking itself (Russ, am I putting words in your mouth?). And in the instances where, to a non-food-obsessed individual it may appear that he is thrill seeking, there is a joie-de-vivre to his quest that gives it motives beyond pure one-upsmanship and machismo.

    That being said, much of taste may be learned, but as John Whiting intimates I've never been anywhere in the world where they didn't like sweets. I can't recall a single instance of a human being saying to me "Yuck! I hate sweets! Get those sweets away from me! No, really, don't get anywhere near me with those!"

    I'm a very conservative eater or at least I feel that way given the crowd I run with. For 12 years I was a vegetarian and now I'd classify myself as a "recovering vegetarian." When I eat scary stuff in someone's hut in Yennevelt*, it's not because it thrills me to eat scary stuff -- it's because it thrills me to bridge a cultural gap and to learn about other countries food is an important mechanism for each.

    I also think one has to delineate among dosages when talking about flavors such as capsicum. No chili-head am I, but I nonetheless enjoy the fire of chilies in moderation because when used by an expert cook they provide a kind of balance against sweetness. These basic rules of balance, opposition, and moderation, combined with the universal love of sweets that I've observed, lead me to think there are some fundamental elements of human taste that transcend culture and learning. I am not yet ready to embrace the purely relativistic view. And none of this means I reject Dr. Rozin's thrill-seeking theory. I just don't think it can be viewed as a comprehensive explanation. Can somebody e-mail him? Maybe he can comment here. I am only considering his theories by secondary sources. Maybe there is a lot more nuance.

    Of course I'm not a food writer, to the extent such a category exists. I'm a travel writer, and occasionally the subject of my writing is food. I think food writers tend to be crazier than travel writers, at least when it comes to tastes in food. Most food writers, on the other hand, would likely be too squeamish to join me for the kind of travel I do. Then again, I’m not traveling for the thrill of the being able to say “been there, done that” (I really hate that) and it seems to me that Robb isn’t either. His passion for food takes him to some pretty odd and out of the way places to eat some things I have no interest in eating myself but it appears to be in the spirit of a quest -- of “getting to the bottom of this” -- rather than a passion for one-upsmanship.

    *Yiddish: Yennevelt is the imaginary nowheresville at the end of the Earth.

  5. I think Robb has created a new book category: the passionate fresser’s* armchair eat-a-logue -- if you want to keep up, don’t forget to bring your own fork, knife, and spoon. As a person who loves both food and far-flung travel, the essays in Are You Really Going To Eat That? drew me like a Texan to a fruitcake.

    But the same way a suburban walker with no intention of ever attempting the summit of Mt. Everest may read and be riveted by Into Thin Air, so will the food enthusiast (armchair or active) be sucked in by Mr. Walsh’s historical, cultural, and social food adventures.

    My zeal for travel stems from the passion to learn about other cultures first-hand. Though Robb sometimes portrays his quests for food as a bit overboard and obsessive -- and while he gets a laugh from me every time -- I think there’s far more underlying seriousness to his research than he lets on (and for good reason; he doesn’t want to be teaching an anthropology class). I have found that very often some of my best learning, bonding, and friendships have been developed in the kitchen, whether in a hut on Mt. Kilimanjaro, a ger in Mongolia, or a tea house in the Himalayas. To me, food is the common denominator -- it crosses all cultural lines and, even without words, you can communicate with someone from a culture entirely foreign to your own with a few simple gestures, a smile . . . and a clean plate. Robb’s essays -- whether he’s writing about the history of sopa de guias in Oaxaca, seafood in Chile, or even Pizza in Buenos Aires -- are a journey to the heart of these cultures. And they get better and better as the book progresses.

    And by the way, Sally’s is the premier pizza destination -- for his treasonous patronage of Pepe’s I am seriously considering never speaking to Robb again.


    *Yiddish: a fresser is someone who eats with great enthusiasm.

  6. As I understand it the concept has changed slightly from the original. A little less "do it yourself". Is this correct?

    We went there on opening night and the menu was elaborately overloaded with choices . . . even the sauces and condiments were alacarte. Now the concept is expressed in fewer choices . . . sauces and condiments are part of the dish but sides are still alacarte and the cooking style is still minimalist. Is that a change in the concept? Maybe not. A change in the menu, yes.

    Call me a philistine but count me among the people who can't quite get over the hurdle of paying a billion dollars for such basic food. Yet I love those mushrooms.

  7. The nice thing about booze on a backpacking trip is that anything tastes good after a day of hiking!

    There's no need to worry about bottles. You can transfer any liquor to a nalgene bottle.

    The only weight consideration is alcohol content really. Higher proof is more efficient assuming alcohol is the goal (as opposed to flavor).

    One easy thing is to go to a liquor store that has a good selection of "nip" bottles (aka miniatures, airplane bottles, 5cl/50ml bottles). You'd be surprised at some of the good stuff (single malts, decent cognac) that comes in this size and many of the bottles are plastic. They're great because they fit in the nooks and crannies of your pack (put in a sandwich-size ziploc just in case!) and you can have a different one every day.

  8. I wonder if it could be argued that the evolution of modern orthodox kashruth into a set of rules that reads like the tax laws is really the natural outgrowth of trends in the food supply. A hundred years ago most food was still being provided through very few steps in distribution from farm to table. There wasn't much processing. The need for supervision especially in insular communities would have been low. Today, food routinely travels thousands of miles through multiple processing plants and distribution points before it reaches the consumer. We have no idea who grew or produced what we buy in the supermarket. Thus in order to keep up with this fundamental change, there needed to be a fundamental change in the way supervision was conducted.

    That theory would not cover the revival of esoteric in-home regulations, but it would help to explain the general change that Wesza was talking about regarding supervision.

  9. Hi Vickie. I was thinking about space food and space travel, thanks to your Q&A, and it occurred to me that even though space food sounds like a very futuristic venture the reality is that the facilities for preparing and eating food in space right now are the opposite of futuristic: they're really quite primitive.

    I've just been traveling, as I do most every year, in the Himalayas, and I was wondering: does NASA's space-food team study the techniques that pre-industrial peoples like those in Nepal, Tibet, parts of Africa and South America, and Mongolia use to preserve food without refrigeration for long periods of time? It would seem that the old ways of curing, drying, smoking, and otherwise manipulating food to be stable might have applicability in space. Just a thought, if you'd care to comment.

  10. To those of us who grew up in Conservative Jewish families (please note that Conservative Judaism is the largest denomination within American Judaism), most of the above rules would not be considered relevant.

    In any religion, the absolutist and fundamentalist arguments and approaches have the most internal consistency and often appear to outsiders as the most worthy of respect. But my observance of Judaism has always been about honoring and continuing the traditions of my people and my religion while also being fully engaged in ecumenical society. To do that requires I believe some adaptation and evolution of the Biblical and Talmudic rules. This is basically where Conservative and Orthodox Judaism part company.

    In any event, there are almost no foodie obstacles whatsoever to a Conservative Jew who wants to follow moderate Conservative Jewish kashruth practices. There are some things and combinations that can't be eaten, and that's it. And most everybody, even foodies, have things and combinations they won't eat. For those who want to follow the types of rules as above, there are greater obstacles to being a foodie. They can still be foodies but they will start with significant inherent disadvantages, like the Jamaican bobsled team.

    I see I may be going agains the direction I was trying to give above, so let me clarify that I'm mostly trying to say the OU is defining one denomination's rules for kashruth, and not the largest denomination's rules, which are much more flexible. So when it comes to talking about definitions of kashruth, I think it is relevant to keep that in mind.

  11. The Hearth Website characterizes the cuisine... "Our food is rooted in the classical cooking of Tuscany, presented in a fresh, modern way."

    Also... "Another common thread will be the use of true Italian cooking techniques (predominantly soffrito, a classic Italian flavoring-base of slow-cooked vegetables and olive oil), which are often sacrificed in modern restaurants in favor of easy fixes and culinary shortcuts. There will also be homemade pastas and risottos available, as well as some classic Italian combinations: lamb shoulder with borlotti beans and escarole and roasted cod with baccala mantecato."

    Had I not read any of that I'd have called it New American, though. I think I still would!

  12. Don't like 'em, don't like 'em, don't like 'em! Too sweet, too low chocolate percentage, not good enough cocoa.

    Okay, well, I'll eat Godiva if they're around. Ironically, I'll eat lots of them even though I don't like them very much. :) But I think I read somewhere that they dumbed Godiva down for the American market and that it's basically Hershey's-level chocolate. I have a friend who sometimes gives me chocolates from La Maison du Chocolat. Next time I get some Stan I'm going to give you a few.

  13. Let us know! I would love to get some.

    Do you think Bernachon are really the best still? I used to think so and have not had side by side comparison opportunities but I think La Maison du Chocolat may be as good and also Torres is local so no wear and tear from shipping. The last Bernachon ones I tasted though, which were hand-carried back, weren't as good as I remembered.

  14. Thanks, Pan. I too would like us to be careful to steer this conversation away from its potentially incendiary religious component and keep it focused on the basic question of whether kashruth observance makes foodieness (this is a word?) impossible.

    To refine the question, I think it should really be: "What are the challenges to foodies presented by observing different levels of kashruth?"

  15. I grew up in a kosher foodie family, but with the resurgence and vocal dominance of "modern orthodoxy" the practices we thought of as kosher would not pass muster by the strict definitions. We were conservative Jews and observed some traditions but not others. For example we would eat in restaurants we just wouldn't eat forbidden ingredients. Obviously it is easy to be a foodie under such circumstances. You're just a foodie who doesn't eat certain things. But when you lock yourself out of all restaurants other than kosher ones, and you radically limit your purchasing of and exposure to the larger world of food you are going to have major challenges. At that point your best bet is to move to Israel!

  16. Took my brother, the knife collector, to this store the other day. It was the first time we had been there. What an amazing place! The selection of Japanese knives is mind-boggling.

    The best thing is there are always chefs hanging around to talk to. I'm not good with chef faces, but I think we talked to Marco from Hearth for awhile. Or maybe just his evil twin. The sales help isn't all that helpful but they sort of try. They have a great catalog that has lots of information in it about metallurgy and sharpening as well as a lot of knives. And you can stand around the store and watch a cool knife-sharpening video that's dubbed in English.

    Also they had on sale and probably still to a lot of nice Japanese plates, cups, and other small ceramic things. I got some excellent aquamarine rectangular plates for eight bucks each.

    Thanks to The Art of Eating's Mitchell Davis for recommending Korin in the most recent issue of this "food letter."

    Korin Japanese Trading Corp.

    57 Warren Street

    New York, New York 10007

    800-626-2172 toll free, U.S. only

    Showroom Hours:

    10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Weekdays and every

    2nd and 4th Saturday of the month

    212-587-7021, 7025, 7026 phone

    212-587-7027 fax


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