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Robb Walsh

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  1. I didn't write about it. I heard the story from another journalist. Alex asked him not to write about it for fear of further reprisals. But the story turned up in US newspapers anyway.
  2. I wonder if any of you have any thoughts in this vein on the first person/third person debate raging in some food writing circles. Third person comes naturally to journalists. But to me, third person sounds stiff and snobbish in a review. I know the NYT insists on it, but they also call the musician Meatloaf, Mr. Meatloaf. How do you have a conversation with your dining partner in third person, I mean who are they talking to? And how do you describe subjective tastes? "For this reviewer's palate, the salsa was insufficiently piquant." I was reprimanded by one of the judges in the Association of Food Journalists competition this year for writing reviews in first person. "RESPECT YOUR READER, DON'T WRITE IN FIRST PERSON!" read the note sent back to me with the low score on my reviews. Which was kinda odd, since Bill Daley, the prez of the organization is a reviewer who writes in first person. When I asked him about it, Daley commented that more and more reviewers are writing first person, but there are still a few old school holdouts who can't stand it. Do you folks see the trend toward first person as part of a movement toward a more informal style of food writing? Or bad journalism?
  3. Alex Twyman finally won the right to sell his coffee. But his son was shot the same day in a drive-by shooting. Thanks to the courage of Alex, you can now buy estate Blue Mountain coffee direct from growers. Google "estate Blue Mountain coffee" and you will find several to choose from. I like the cabrito at Hidalguense on Saturday.
  4. Alsace is provincial, Paris is cosmopolitan. You can get choucroute, or any French food in Paris. But the choucroute in Alsace is better that the choucroute in Paris. Likewise, the oysters in Brittany, the confit in the Perigord, the bouillabaisse in Provence. And so it is with Texas. Russ Parsons objects to my observation that we are stronger in folk cuisines than haute cuisine in Texas, but that's the way I see it. Barbecue, Tex-Mex, Cajun and Southern are our native provincial foods. (It is said that there are more Cajuns in Houston than in Louisiana.) New York doesn't come close in any of these categories. Of course, Houston has also become extremely multicultural in the last ten years. But I hesitate to use the word "cosmopolitan" which seems to connote upscale and European. There aren't any top French chefs opening restaurants in Houston. (Unless you count Jean George Vongerichten). But there is a lot of imported stuff. Houston's Latin American food scene is rivaled only by LA. And the Asian and Middle Eastern scene is coming on strong. The Islamic community in Houston is second in size only to Detroit. There are currently 130,000 Indians and Pakistanis, 50,000 Chinese and 45.000 Vietnamese in Houston. And all of them seem to be awesome cooks. Personally, I prefer the French countryside to Paris. And while I love to visit New York, there is a lot to like about the provinces.
  5. I will make the decision when somebody offers me an ortolan. Likewise, what do you say when somebody offers you a plate of out of season game that they just poached? It's wrong. But wild duck gumbo seems to taste better when the duck is out of season. (I tell myself they got it out of the freezer.) The lure of the forbidden is powerful. As for the force feeding, I have visited a foie gras farm at feeding time. They were ducks rather than geese. When the farmer sat down in the chair, the ducks began jostling each other, trying to be first in line to get force fed. Suffice to say, the ducks don't seem to have any problem with it.
  6. The audiences are much the same. And, if I am not mistaken, the Austin Chronicle and the Houston Press have almost exactly the same print run (around 120,000). But since Houston is five times bigger than Austin, the folks that regularly read the Houston Press constitute a smaller percentage of the overall population.
  7. As I explain in the introduction of Are You Really Going to Eat That? writing for the Austin Chronicle was a wonderful experience for me. I reviewed restaurants there for about five years from 1990 to 1995. I am still connected with the Chronicle as the head judge of the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, now in its 14th year. How much does the Chron influence Austin diners? It's a better question for Austin restaurant workers. Did it help me in my career? Absolutely.
  8. Luckily, I don't think I have been spotted very often. On the two occasions I know was busted, I reported in my review that my cover had been blown. If you are strictly anonymous, you basically have two choices, tell the reader that the restaurant figured out who you were, or don't write the review. Of course, there were many other times when the restaurant probably suspected something was up. But I read a hilarious story somewhere about a restaurant owner in NY who was positive William Grimes was coming to his restaurant. The guy ordered lots of different stuff and tasted everybody else's food--they just knew he was a reviewer. So they bent over backwards to give him good service without letting on. But it turned out they were wrong. He was just another guy. I am willing to bet that happens a lot. But there are a lot of reviewers who freely admit that they don't care if they are spotted. Some call the restaurant and tell them they are coming. What do you think about anonymity?
  9. I am also a fan of mayhaw jelly, but the way.
  10. I'm with you Chad. But... There are many kinds of food writing. Some are inherently more exciting than others. Russ Parsons is one of the best at the most challenging kind of food writing--the food section article. I know, I tried to write a piece about plums once for Cooking Light. It was one of the hardest assignments I've ever had. Try to emote about a plum. Or describe the flavor without being obvious. It's a hell of a lot easier not to be boring when you're writing about a mission to find the world's hottest pepper or to eat durian. But I wouldn't want all food writing to be like that.
  11. Actually, I think the most interesting stuff about gumbo in my book is in the essay titled Pods of the Gods. As I mentioned in the thread about food and travel, in the Condomble religion of Brazil, foods have spiritual uses. The West African name for okra (in one tribe anyway) is ngombo. Okra is the food of the Condomble (Voodoo, Santera) twin spirits of fertility. To summon the help of the twin spirits, a priest (spiritual guide, whatever) would place cooked okra on the subject's head, thus helping her become fertile. On the feast day of the twin spirits, an okra stew called caruru is prepared. No need to belabor what the slimy stew with its many seeds symbolizes. The original Louisiana gumbo of the native Americans was made with file powder, which turns slimy when it gets wet. West Africans arriving in Louisiana made a connection between the stew and their own okra dishes. That's why I suspect that gumbo was once a spiritual food in the Voodoo religion of Louisiana.
  12. Well thanks for the kind words. Fallopian tubes don't sound real appetizing. But neither do pig's intestines (which are very popular in Bejing and are really pretty good) or cow stomach lining (aka menudo, the breakfast of champions). Sometimes all you really need to do is stop thinking about what it used to be and focus on what it has become. But for the record, let's say I have some limits. I can't recall refusing to eat anything, but I want to reserve the right. I saw people eating live cinch bugs at Fonda Don Chon in Mexico City and while they were probably very tasty, they didn't appeal to me much.
  13. I just noticed this discussion which I didn't join in earlier. So let me start off this thread by belatedly answering John's question. John Thorne's rice and peas epiphany in the beginning of Simple Cooking is one of my favorite bits of food writing. Yes there was a specific experience that started me off in the world of cooking. It was a giant pot of mincemeat. But it's not something I have come back to again and again over the years, in fact, I made mincemeat once when I was 16 and never cooked it again. I tell the story in the introduction to Are You Really Going to Eat That? What made the experience enlightening was the search for ingredients. I was using venison instead of beef. And I thought that perhaps the other ingredients should be special too. The recipe called for apple cider and apples. I had just gotten my driver's license and I lived in New England. It was apple season and there were countless varieties of apples for sale by the side of the road. There were also lots of old apple cider mills that made spunky unpasteurized cider, each with a slightly different flavor. I talked to the farmers about what different kinds of apples were used for. And I drank a lake of cider. By the time I made the mincemeat, I had a new awareness of how ingredients affected a recipe. I have let the ingredients drive my cooking ever since. Fresh berries by the side of the road, shrimp right off the shrimp boat, when I see something special, I stop the car. It's a style of cooking one French chef has called the "treasure hunt" cuisine.
  14. Calvin Trillin was the first star in the sky. I didn't know food writing could be that good and that funny until I read him. I remain a major fan. James Beard's American Cookery still amazes me. The man invented American food history. MFK Fisher's essay style has always been an inspiration. I love her bizarre first sentences. Stan Sesser at the San Francisco Chronicle who wasn't a full time food writer, but he had a lot of fun writing about interesting subjects like chile peppers and he showed me a new way to think of newspaper writing. I think Patricia Wells is one of the best newspaper food writers of all time. And I treasure my autographed copies of the Food Lover's Guides to France and Paris. John Thorne's Outlaw Cook and Simple Cooking were major awakenings. I was inspired by his incredible honesty. He called "bullshit" on bad food writing and he named names. Waverly Root's work, which I am still discovering, is inspiring. His encyclopedic book titled, "Food" has come in very handy several times already. I could go on and on.
  15. I did an article called the "Ultimate Dinner Date" once. My girlfriend and I visited four Michelin three star restaurants that also had accomadations. We ate dinner then retired to our chambers. Gerard Boyer's joint La Crayere in Reims took the cake. Champagne in the elegant room while we got ready. Dinner of squab stuffed with foie gras and covered in truffle sauce with an old Burgundy, then Cognac back up in the room. But the best food and travel discovery I ever made was the French "Ferme Auberge" system. These are French farms that run restaurants and bed and breakfasts. The restaurant has to serve food produced on the farm. I have eaten at snail farms, dairy farms, duck farms, cattle farms and a foie gras farm. The foie gras farm didn't actually serve foie gras, better yet, they started with garlic soup, then rilletes and Bergerac wine, then duck confit and potatoes cooked in duck fat. Some of these places also have bed and breakfasts. It's tough to organize your trip though because the program is run by the French Agriculture department and they have divided the places into regional booklets. There is no overview. You have to request the booklets by region. But you can see the Ferme Auberge signs on the road whereever you drive in France. Whenever I see one, I pull over and check it out.
  16. I haven't visited London in awhile. I assume it's as multicultural as ever. And of course when I bought my Indian/French pastries this morning, one of the choices of flavors was Chicken Tikka Masala. Perhaps Britain's greatest contribution to world cuisine? I have read with amusement the political debates which use Chicken Tikka Masala as a metaphor for where Britain is going culturally. What can you add to the legends of CTM?
  17. They say that the Swedes have ruined the crawfish market in Louisiana. They pay top dollar for the really big ones. So whereas you used to get a good mix of sizes when you bought five pounds of boiled crawfish, now you get only little ones because the pick out the big ones and sell them to the Swedes. Any idea how Swedish crawfish are prepared, John?
  18. I think it cuts both ways Russ. The book Barbecue America was written by a New Yorker and photographed by a Pacific Northwesterner and they seemed to go out of their way to play up the white trash weirdness of Southerners. Lots of confederate flags and women wearing pig noses. The text has a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom feeling to it: "Watch out for that angry redneck, Roger!! Wow that was a close call." But that doesn't mean Northerners shouldn't write about the South. Calvin Trillin does a pretty good job of it. John Egerton and John T. Edge are both friends and both wonderful writers. But I know both of them would also tell you that some of the best things they're read about the South were written by visiting Northerners. Just as many of the best writers in New York have traditionally been transplanted Southerners. Here's a passage from the essay in Are You Really Going to Eat That? titled, "One Night in Trinidad." "What am I doing here? How can a foreigner pretend to be an expert on Trinidad's cuisine based on the fleeting impressions of a five-day visit? Later on, back at my hotel, I am comforted by another book by V.S. Naipaul. In A Way in the World, Naipaul writes about the foreign travel writers who have come to Trinidad on cruise ships over the years and written accounts of the place based on their overnight stays. I expected Naipaul to lambaste this sort of instamatic expertise as an insult to Trinidadians, but instead he welcomes it. He compares the travel writers to Columbus, who named this island Trinidad (Spanish for "Trinity"), because of three low hills that he spotted while still far out at sea. In the book, Naipaul's character sits on a cliff Columbus named "the galley." From the sea, this cliff evidently resembles a sailing ship, but Naipaul's character can't see the resemblance from his vantage point. He realizes that Columbus saw the island in a way that people who live here can't see it for themselves. Naipaul's point is that sometimes it takes an outsider to see the whole instead of getting lost in the tiny details of everyday life." Diana Kennedy was able to write about Mexican food as a unifed whole, rather than get caught up in the ugly class divisions that forever distort that country's view of itself. She was able to do that only because she was an outsider. Patricia Quintana, a native, still rails against peasant food like burritos and enchiladas and insists that pasta and French cheese are Mexican. She promises that her Mexican food is just as good as European food. That's valid. And God bless her insecure little heart. But I am more interested in the "peasant food" so I don't buy her cookbooks. As for me, I write a lot about Texas food. And although three generations of my family now live in Texas, I graduated from UT, and I have lived here some 25 years, my fellow Texans still consider me an outsider. (As you know, you have to be born here to be a Texan.) The review of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook in the Austin Chronicle began with the words: "Transplanted Yankee, Robb Walsh..." But unlike native Texans, I don't take barbecue and Tex-Mex for granted. I am still awed by it all.
  19. That's funny Ellen, I've eaten ant eggs in Chang Mai myself. I think I mentioned them in the very first lines of the introduction on the book. It was at a Laotian restaurant. The same place I sampled the mang da beetle sauce that smelled like blue cheese. And Russ, I was lucky enough to hit one of those Dungeness crab feasts up in Oregon. It was at a fire house on the coast and they were raising money for something or other. You paid ten bucks and they handed you a wooden hammer. It's true though--when you're lucky enough to write about food for a living, everyday is a memorable food day.
  20. But of course much depends on where your hood is. New Mexico does indeed have a wonderful old culinary culture. But I can see how you would get tired of the sameness after awhile. And what would you do if you lived in Flint, Michigan, a city where I once searched for hours for ANY non-chain restaurant and couldn't find one. New York, Los Angeles and Houston, on the other hand, are enormous multicultural cities where you can never cover it all. (John are you in London?) For example, I went out to get my kids croissants stuffed with Indian curry at an East/West fusion bakery out of Madras called Hot Breads this morning. (My kids call them goat donuts, and they love them.) While I was there, I noticed that a new Halal Chinese restaurant called Halal Wok has opened in the shopping center. Indo-Chinese food is a fusion style that is popular in India and Pakistan. The style and seasoning is Chinese, but there isn't any pork of beef. Chili chicken is the favorite dish. Then on the drive home, I saw a Honduran restaurant I had never noticed before. It is endless. It doesn't make me want to stay home though. Now I want to go to India and find out about these Chinese muslims who supposedly invented the halal Chinese style.
  21. "One of America's big problems is the lack of a common tradition that really holds everybody in the country together at the grassroots level. The so-called "melting pot" has been an uneasy substitute. When you're building culinary traditions from scratch, it's necessary to "keep it simple." American cuisine has received a lot of undue criticism too. Russ carefully described American cuisine "in the second half of the 20th century" as lacking. And there's a good reason for that. As Larry Forgione and James Beard both contended, American cuisine between the late 1800s and the 1930s was spectacular--among the best the world had seen. We entered our culinary dark ages beginning with the Depression. They went on for 50 years. The convenience foods that entered the mainstream after WWII contorted our ideas about cooking and we only started recovering in the 1980s. In fact, I believe Southern cooking fared better through that period than some others. As for White Trash Cooking, it was an okay cookbook with a callous marketing gimmick. I like Edna Lewis's new book. And I hear Matt and Ted Lee are working a big definitive Southern cookbook.
  22. Ellen- Eating shellfish I'd never seen before on a dive boat off the southern coast of Chile was pretty memorable. But I'd say the most moving travel and food experience I've had was going to the Ukrainian culture center in Chicago and having a bunch of old ladies that looked like my grandmother recreate an ethnic Christmas Eve feast that I remembered from my childhood. (As described in "A Ruthenian Christmas Carol," the last essay in Are You Really Going to Eat That?)
  23. John- The Bahia region of Brazil is the place I would most like to spend a year or two eating my way to enlightenment. The essay in Are You Really Going to Eat That? titled "Pods of the Gods" explains why. This area of Brazil is the birthplace of the Condomble religion (which in turn begat Santera, voodoo, and the others). And in this religion, which is actually of West African origins, there are many spirits or loas. And each of these loas has a food that brings out his or her personality. For Catholics, bread and wine are so central to life that the Franciscans had to plant wheat and grapes whereever they went. Likewise, I postulate that okra, known in West Africa as ngombo, was introduced to the Americas not for its nutritional, but for its spiritual importance. At least one ethnobotanist has joined the Condomble religion just to record the uses of the hundreds of herbs they employ. I would love to do the same thing to make a study of the use of spiritual use of foods in the Condomble religion.
  24. Ya'll are making my head hurt. I had to go eat a big plate of beef curry with coconut milk and peanuts after that last exchange. Now I feel better. (Van Loc restaurant on Milam, for any Houstonians in the crowd.) I will let Dr. Paul Rozin's work stand on its own. But I will say that psychologists would be out of a line of work if you couldn't generalize about why people act the way they do. As for the cans. I was thinking about the reverse snobbism thing while I was eating. It reminded me of the essay in the book titled "Folk Art on Bread." The main point of that article being that we do low brow better than high brow where I live. You don't come to Texas to hear classical music, you come here to listen to the blues and Tejano music. Likewise with food--barbecue and Tex-Mex are to haute cuisine what the blues and Tejano conjunto are to classical music. While we have perfectly acceptable high dollar restaurants in Texas (and decent symphonies and operatic singers), that's not where we excel. It's our barbecue shacks and outdated Tex-Mex joints (and juke joints and conjunto gatherings) that blow visitors away. Those are unique in all the world. As John noted, when Jeff Steingarten came to town, I took him to Thelma's and we chowed down on awesome smoked meat on stryofoam plates. And it was a barrel of laughs for all. When I went to see Steingarten, he took me to Jean George Vongerichten's fashion statement in the financial district. We ate foie gras dumplings and drank single malt. And I tried to look cool. That will make a reverse snob out of you. But I am also serious about the pendulum swinging back in a reaction against "foodie-ism." We have seen a lot of retro dishes and cookbooks turning up lately. The crockpot is back in a big way. Russ, tell the truth, didn't you revive the Durkee crispy onion and green bean casserole last Thanksgiving?
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