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Craig Camp

Attacking Italian Restaurants

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The arrival of 300,000-plus Italians postwar helped to transform Toronto from a dreary, puritanical place with bad food to a much more fun loving place with quite a lot of good food.

You're right - and it's not only Italian immigrants. We really like Toronto - and Canada in general. (Although it was kind of sad when there was that financial scandal involving Toronto theater - forget the name of the person responsible for it). Each winter it seems that half of Canada comes to Florida to get out of the cold - and just about every summer we reciprocate with a trip to get out of the heat.

Last summer it was time to go to Vancouver - but Toronto is in line for this year or next. What restaurants do you recommend these days (especially Italian since this is a thread about Italian restaurants)? Robyn

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A few places you may want to check out in Toronto--Noce, Romagna Mia, Giorana's Really Really Nice Restaurant. Maybe Grano as well.


Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

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Date of French restaurants: Yes, as the royals of Europe traveled, they needed places to stay, and hotels were invented. Guests were served food, commonly in the dining rooms of their hotel suites. Then it was natural to have a central restaurant for the hotel instead. As I recall the dates, Escoffier and Ritz came along about the time the hotel restaurants were opening.

Date of Italian-American restaurants: While in college in Columbus, Ohio the 1930s, my father ate at family run Italian restaurants run by Italian immigrants, e.g., with the mother in the kitchen. Gee: So, they came from Italy knowing only home cooking and not knowing about restaurants and successfully got into the restaurant business on their own? Enterprising of them. And common.

Date of Chinese restaurants: As I understand it, in China, most of the real art of Chinese cooking is practiced only in restaurants. Given the age of Chinese civilization, I have a difficult time guessing that restaurants in China started only after the Western or French examples. Are there any more details on dates of restaurants in China?

One reason French, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants do well in the US: The food is good, and the competition from food that is native and unique to the US is not very strong. Yes, we have maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes. Can anyone name 9 more as good?

Yes, the US has been very slow to take flavor in food seriously. One result is that, essentially, there is too little in demand from customers and too little in supplies from vendors for an Italian restaurant in the US to serve food as good as in Italy.

Here is some 'participant observation' of why the US has been so slow to take flavor in food seriously: My wife's father served in WWII and at the end of the war decided to be a farmer on his 88 acres of his father's farm of about 440 acres in NE Indiana. The father with 440 acres was the first farmer to farm that land, likely starting about 1900. So, we have a farmer that went to NE Indiana about 1900, got 440 acres, and started farming. Clearly we're talking about a guy a very, very long way from influences of white truffles, porcini mushrooms, special varieties of tomatoes, hundreds of varieties of cheese and wine with exquisitely developed flavors, etc., likely all of which had long been common in Italy by 1900. Really, this farmer was just working himself 18+ hours a day just getting the basic work done to grow the row crops, handle the livestock, put up the buildings, etc. One guy on 440 acres without an internal combustion engine or electric power was a very busy hard working guy. Compared with most farmers in Italy, the 440 acres was likely more land, and generally more productive per acre for corn and wheat, but the surrounding culture -- 'cultural capital' -- for flavor in food was far behind.

By the time my wife's father started farming after WWII, there was electric power, internal combustion engines for tractors, other farm machinery, trucks, and cars, telephones, good paved roads, good public schools, decent medical care, and good supplies of building materials, home furnishings, ready made clothing, etc. But, there was still nearly no progress in cultural capital for flavor in food, certainly nothing that would permit accurate reproductions of food in Italy or even approximations of the level of quality.

In the 1950s, he worked with the local USDA Extension Agent and learned that suddenly it was possible to be much more productive in raising chickens. There were three reasons: (1) Better breeding. (2) Better understanding of nutrition. (3) Antibiotics. So, suddenly it was possible to raise a flock of 40,000 chickens all indoors. Time and feed from egg to market were cut enormously. The chickens were fat, meaty, and healthy. Soon he was clearing $5000 a month on his 88 acres.

By 1964, that chicken business was no longer very good. It was more efficient to raise chickens in the South where chicken houses needed much less heat in the winter and where soy beans for feed were plentiful. So, he mostly left the chicken business, tried turkeys and hogs, and then mostly just grew corn, wheat, or soy beans and got a desk job in the local town.

When I talked with him for hours starting in 1966, he was a walking encyclopedia on details of raising chickens. Soon I was reading and cooking from

Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking', Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1967.

and, with his daughter, eating in the best restaurants around DC, including ones with all French menus that served wines from the Cote d'Or, getting French wines and cheese in Georgetown, etc.

So, I was getting interested in flavor in food and asked him about flavor in chickens. He was offended. He quickly asserted that he didn't have any idea about flavor. His goal was just to raise a healthy meaty chicken at low cost -- he was good at it, and did, in flocks of 40,000 at a time.

I mentioned to him that some restaurants might pay high prices for, say, pheasants and that, therefore, he might consider raising pheasants. He wondered why higher prices for pheasants that likely have much less meat per dollar of cost and per pound of bird than his chickens. I mentioned flavor. He was offended. The whole idea that flavor should be a consideration was offensive -- unproductive, silly, effete, etc.

When I had first met his daughter, I had quickly taken her often to the best restaurants in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town with relatively cosmopolitan culture -- including a world class music school, a long list of professors from Europe, and students from all over the world -- and, for the US, relatively good restaurants. So, as soon as we got to the farm, she reciprocated by taking me to the best local restaurant -- the Spanish Hot Dog place. Here you drove up to a gravel area and walked to a window and placed an order. The result was a hot dog on a hot dog bun topped with essentially salsa. For a hot dog, it was okay. But, that was the local version of a four star restaurant, both in concept and actuality.

Note: It is not a matter of intelligence. Both her parents had had excellent records in college. And she was Phi Beta Kappa, 'Summa Cum Laude', and Woodrow Wilson, which is not just good for Indiana but world class academic excellence. Also, she was, in a word, brilliant. For all that is desirable about good flavor, actually it is NOT necessary for intelligence (i.e., can have brilliant children fed only very bland food), but intelligence can help in working with flavors: When we were exploring wines from the Cote d'Or, she could remember and compare flavors across years, one Nuit St. George two years before to one Chambertin in front of us then. Astounding.

Actually, in the 1950s, he sponsored a couple from Latvia. The man from Latvia was a great guy and a very hard worker but from the working classes and, likely, not conversant in French wines, etc., but the woman was from the upper classes and an excellent cook of Central European foods. Her pastry tray looked like something from a shop in Vienna. Her idea of what to do with a chuck roast was to make a stock out of it and then grind the meat, mix with minced salt pork and onions, and make dumplings -- which were terrific. Still, such influences were essentially like water off a duck's back there in the Indiana farm country.

So, as of about 1970 in the farming parts of NE Indiana, it was common to know essentially nothing, and, really, care less, about food flavors as pursued so strongly in Europe (China, India, etc.). In simple terms, a main reason was that the parents of the people farming then arrived in the area about 1900 when there was essentially no contact with the outside world, where there were a lot of acres per farmer, and where the farmers worked very hard just on basic productivity and ignored everything else.

There is also a second big reason that has to do with timing: My father grew up in dairy farm country in western New York State. He explained that there were local cheese factories dotted all over the countryside with a slightly different cheese from each little factory. The reason: There was only horse power for transportation and little in refrigeration so that the farmers needed to get the milk to a cheese factory in a big hurry -- so, there were enough cheese factories for each farmer to be close to one. So, so far, likely the situation looked much like Europe, but that situation lasted, mostly, for only a few decades, and a few decades is not long enough for a really solid industry of unique cheeses to develop. The situation ended due to good roads and refrigerated trucks that permitted many fewer large cheese factories run by nationwide brands -- Kraft, Borden, etc. So, there got to be Kraft cheese. That was one. Then there was Borden cheese. That was two. There were also a few more. And that was it.

There seems to be a third influence: It is clear from the discussions that commonly in Italy, one can do their shopping at a 'market'. So, I suspect that here the producers come to town and set up their stalls, and customers visit the stalls, talk directly with the farmer or someone in the family, and select the products. So, commonly the customer will know the name of the farmer. Then, the farmer has a unique 'brand'. So, the farmer is no longer selling generic least cost per pound chicken of no particular flavor. Instead, a farmer with a better tasting chicken can get known for that chicken and get happy repeat customers.

Why not in the US? Well, likely those markets in Italy went back hundreds of years while the US, a very young country, got nationwide supermarket chains before the farmers markets could let the farmers get any local 'brand' identity. The supermarket chains sold only generic chicken -- a farmer with a better tasting chicken that cost $0.10 a pound more to produce just lost $0.10 a pound. Losing $0.10 a pound on 40,000 chickens a few times will make anyone give up on working for better 'flavor'!

Sure, at any time, there in Indiana, some farmer could bring special quality products to some farmers market and start to build a local brand and reputation for special quality. But, with the supermarkets already well established -- with spotlessly clean floors, well managed staff, nice carts, nice parking lot, courteous teenagers to carry groceries to the car (common in Indiana) -- such an effort in a farmers market is an uphill battle where the customers are not yet thinking very hard about flavor and getting critical mass will be tough, REALLY tough.

The accepted local social norms will hold that all the 'best' people buy their groceries in the best local family run supermarket, which is a center of local gossip, and only 'strange' people -- esthetes, foreigners, and people that smoke funny stuff -- bother to wander on wood chips among buzzing insects in a farmers market.

Eventually, the word will get out about better products from known local producers, each with essentially their own brand and selling direct from producer to consumer. So, for pheasants, fine, but have to come to Joe's Pheasant Farm stall only on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

Then, the farming regions of the US will try raising the best fruits, vegetables, poultry, etc. they can, and the quality can quickly become world class. If really good Italian tomato sauce needs tomatoes with special acid, sugar, texture, flavor, etc., then farmers, seed suppliers, plant breeders, etc. can get to work and, for each relevant farming area, provide a suitable variety.

It can explode.

One bottleneck is getting the information out to the customers, information about how good a tomato, a piece of cheese, an onion, some olive oil, some basil, can really be.

Here the Internet and eGullet can circumvent the TV and book publishing media run by fiction devotees with scorn, contempt, and cynicism and high inertia for anything new, and the customers can get the information, patronize the farmers markets, and start a revolution. It will be more fun to have the family work on such better eating than watching network TV 'prime time' entertainment's great wasteland.


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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One reason French, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants do well in the US: The food is good, and the competition from food that is native and unique to the US is not very strong. Yes, we have maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes. Can anyone name 9 more as good?

I'll start this list, and perhaps others will assist me:

Alaskan salmon, Lousiana crawfish, wild rice, some native shellfish (scallops, clams), turkey, Maine lobsters I suppose, and since I suppose the French and Italians consider tomatoes native by this time we can include the highest quality of U.S. beef as native. Undoubtedly, when some kind of local herbs are added to this list, we'll get to 9. How should we consider native produce like potatoes, squash, corn, and tomatoes?


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Blue crabs. If Italy had an unlimited supply in its waters (which would necessarily include soft-shells in season), it would (once again?) rule the civilized world!


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Project:

Thanks for such a thoughtful and wise examination of the agricultural mindset over time.

I'm probably two generations past you, and my grandparents generation was the last to farm for a living. Even in Princeton, NJ, where that farm is, the 'plain is better than fancy' ideal was prevalent amongst my family. There was less indifference to flavor, however. Something quite the opposite, as a matter of fact-- after they stopped doing the dairy themselves in the early 1970's, only milk from one particular commercial source was good enough. Store bought eggs were never good enough, and the chickens outlasted the human inhabitants of the place. Vegetables not grown in the garden were avoided like the plague.

There were flavors that were decidedly unwelcome, however... strong flavors were out... no garlic, no strong cheeses, no cured meats other than salt pork... I think there was some vestigial ethnic preference there as well, since the thanksgiving menu bore quite a resemblance to menus consumed by Dutch immingrants hundreds of years before. (And this side of the family were of Dutch extraction and had been in America for a few hundred years...)

The commonality I see between your story and my experiences is the headstrong insistence that they knew best and anyone who disagreed about matters of taste was wrong.


Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Pan, Bill Klapp:

You mentioned "Alaskan salmon, Lousiana crawfish, wild rice, some native shellfish (scallops, clams), turkey, Maine lobsters" and "blue crabs". Right.

Yes, the US was pristine, the waters were full of fish and shellfish, the fields and forests were full of game, berries, and herbs, the skies were full of birds, and then the Europeans came and tried to 'improve' the place!

In my "Yes, we have maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes. Can anyone name 9 more as good?" I was being a bit facetious. Also, I was thinking of 'dishes' and not just ingredients.

Of course, we could consider all the fish and shellfish and all the ways to cook it: Broil the fish and soft shell crabs, boil the rest, and serve one of two ways: (1) butter with lemon juice and (2) lemon juice with butter. Immediately people from Louisiana will mention all the incredible things that they do with fish and shellfish, and I will mention that Cajuns were bringing French ideas!

cdh:

Thanks.

Yes, for explanations for the lack of interest in flavor, we could bring in the 'Protestant work ethic', Puritanical austerity, etc. My explanation is simpler: They just worked so hard that it was considered frivolous and wasteful to concentrate on flavor. I am sure that there were kitchens that did pursue flavors, but as a whole in that hard working and rather isolated culture, interest in flavor just didn't get 'critical mass'.

Your family was from a farming area near Princeton, and my father was from one in western New York -- in both cases, somehow, likely essentially from being further east and less isolated, there was more interest in flavor.


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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My grandparents were dairy farmers in Illinois. I never saw anyone work harder in their lives. However they ate very well with much of what they ate coming from their own land. My grandmother was a classic frugal farmer and I don't think she ever bought anything she could not raise or grow herself. The food that she prepared was packed with flavor and freshness. My mouth still waters when I remember her fried chicken with cream gravy or her incredible fruit pies with a crust from lard she rendered herself. She did not make fussy food, but she made food that was absolutely delicious because of the the quality of ingredients that she used and the loving care she treated those ingredients with in her kitchen. They may not have had much money, but they ate well - better I dare say than wealthier people in the city.

In other words she cooked like an Italian.

I would disagree that the poor quality of American food today is based on the past. In one generation the time and care my grandmother invested in her cooking disappeared in a rush to convenience foods. One hundred years ago the United States was rich in wonderful, distinctive home/country cooking. The last 50 years has seen the devastation of that tradition in a wave of fast food and chain restaurants like TGIF. While I remember my grandmother's fried chicken kids today will remember KFC.

Today we are trying to reclaim this rich cooking tradition and that is why places like eGullet exist.

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There are no fewer than four Italian restaurants in Paris which Michelin has judged worthy of one star each: the Gualtiero Marchesi clone at the Hôtel de Lotti, Carpaccio at the Royal-Monceau, Sormani and Il Cortile. Any opinions on the true culinary merits of these?

There has to be some message in this about Michelin-- In all of Rome, there are only 8 one-star restaurants (all Italian). It somehow seems peculiar that Paris would have 4 Italian 1-star, and Rome only 8. I think the Michelin system is definitely skewed toward French-style restaurants, and restaurants in France overall.

I would never use a French guide as the arbiter of Italian restaurants. I understand that some English restaurateurs aren't happy with the Michelin system either.

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Craig Camp:

"In other words she cooked like an Italian.

I would disagree that the poor quality of American food today is based on the past. In one generation the time and care my grandmother invested in her cooking disappeared in a rush to convenience foods. One hundred years ago the United States was rich in wonderful, distinctive home/country cooking. The last 50 years has seen the devastation of that tradition in a wave of fast food and chain restaurants like TGIF. While I remember my grandmother's fried chicken kids today will remember KFC.

Today we are trying to reclaim this rich cooking tradition and that is why places like eGullet exist."

No way would I suggest anything but the best for the fried chicken of your grandmother in Illinois!

Mostly my comments have to be for generalities because clearly many US farmers 100 years ago had terrific gardens and a river of fresh produce from their garden into their kitchen. And traditional methods of raising fowl, cattle, hogs would solve some of the worst of the problems with modern US supermarket commodity versions of such meats.

Yes, 100 years ago, the US still had rich supplies of game, and at times L. Diat at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City was asked to prepare game brought to the hotel by guests; the game was the result of the guests' hunting. Would have been a good time to have been in New York City (assuming could have afforded a table at the Ritz-Carlton!).

But I read the comments on Italian cooking in this thread differently: With my reading, Italy was and still is far ahead of what was common (speaking in generalities) or even what was reasonably doable in the US 100 years ago.

A key reason is your "One hundred years ago the United States was rich in wonderful, distinctive home/country cooking." which, however, just didn't have the decades or centuries or the geographical density for critical mass that had been common for decades or centuries in Italy.

Take cheese: First-cut, people made cheese just to preserve milk. Soon, people notice that a huge range of flavors is possible. First-cut, mostly these flavors are YUCKY, but, in time, with a LOT of selection and refinement, we can get Chiberta, Port du Salut, Parmesan, Emmenthaler, etc. Once some cheesemaker discovers some good version, it might take some decades for that version to get a collection of devotees, critical mass, etc. My father's experience was that in 1900 this process was underway in the US but got truncated by the uniformity of the nationwide cheese companies.

Similarly for wine: No way would I say anything but the best for the wines of the New York Finger Lakes region, the islands of Lake Erie, Long Island, or California, but it took decades for them to get to where they are at present. You know much better than nearly anyone how long it took to get Barolo, Chianti, Valpolicella, Chambertin, Meursault, etc. -- years, decades, centuries?

Take morels: I had an uncle that was terrific at gathering the things. Sometimes he sent big supplies! Gather them in the fields? Yes. Do really good things with them in the kitchen? No! I included them in a cream-based deglazing sauce for roasted chicken, and I learned this from French cooking. For French cooking, my uncle and his wife just didn't get very well exposed, and they certainly weren't in a position to reinvent classic techniques, or comparably good techniques, from French or Italian cooking for themselves.

In the US in 1900, there wasn't time: There wasn't time enough in the day to get very far inventing things as good as Parmesan or Barolo. And there wasn't time -- the decades -- in place for the culture to invent such things. There wasn't time to find the best parings of vegetable varieties and 'terroir' as in Italy and so emphasized in this thread. There wasn't time enough to develop really good tomatoes for really good sauce for really good pizza, with really good crust, in special pizza ovens, with really good topping of cheese, meats, and vegetables or anything comparable. Instead, in the US, mostly flour was flour.

A recent TV travel show covered present Berlin and showed a pastry shop with a long display of great variety. Bet you can find many comparable shops in Italy. Gee, in the US, in a few big cities we get some pastry shops and otherwise we get doughnuts, each day millions and millions of doughnuts. Pastry making is taught at the CIA, at Cornell, etc., but mostly US customers are content with doughnuts.

For the current -- poor -- state of US cooking (a generality), I do blame "the past" in the US. The really 'good stuff' just didn't have time to get developed, accepted, treasured, established. Thus, we -- in the US -- were and are suckers for hundreds of supermarket 'Italian' food products that are poor as imitations of good Italian food or as good food in any sense. E.g., they still sell that sawdust they call 'Parmesan cheese' don't they?

For some decades, the standard high end US restaurant appetizer was shrimp cocktail. Sure, it could be good, especially since US shrimp can be excellent. But from Italian cooking I learned about an 'antipasto' that might have shrimp but also could have a huge variety of other meats, cheeses, vegetables, sauces, etc. Learning from that example, when my wife and I were giving dinner parties, we eagerly shopped for whatever might be interesting and covered a large tray. Guests were surprised and thrilled. In the US for decades a standard salad was lettuce with some dressing. The lettuce might be a wedge of head lettuce, and the dressing might be, say, half bottled (US) French and Thousand Island. From Italy, we learn that a 'salad' can have a wide variety of leafy vegetables and a wide variety of other vegetables, meats, cheeses, seasonings. capers, anchovies, varieties of vinegar, varieties of olive oil, etc. -- the variety, inventiveness, creativity, flavors, excellence are unbounded.

Once in the Midwest, I was told not to use wine vinegar in the salad dressing because of 'wine' in the label and that I should use distilled white vinegar instead. At least they didn't insist that I replace the olive oil with motor oil!

Nearly any dry Italian cheese I buy and grate is magnificent, and the best of it is one of the "few good old time flavors left to enjoy", one of the crown jewels of civilization, and in the US our version is sawdust!


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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Yes, 100 years ago, the US still had rich supplies of game,

To the contrary, there is generally more game today than there was 100 years ago. Market hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped out the waterfowl flocks. There are more duck and geese today than there were at the turn of the 20th century. Also, the deer herds were depleted as well. I think we all understand that there is plenty of deer today, they are a traffic hazard. Also, the wild turkey was nearly extinct. Today, there are hunt-able populations of wild turkeys in most every state in the continental US. I think bobwhite quail is one of the only game birds I can think of where the populations are down in many states, mostly do to fescue (provides no cover for the birds).

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This thread has taken an interesting direction-- looks to me like the culprit for the state of US cookery and food production today may not be a direct result of a disdain for flavor as exemplified by Project's "don't use wine vinegar because of the wine" anecdote, which (I hope) can be characterized as an outlying fringe belief.

Looks to me like the culprit is more the interplay between our native frugality (particularly in the generation that lived through the depression) and the gross commoditization of agricultural products that sprang from it.

Think about it a little- when maximizing the edible yield of a crop it is counterproductive to differentiate between the "really good" specimens and the "barely edible" ones. Mix them all together, and you've got a whole bunch of a commodity, for which the market will pay a particular price on a particular date (and is often contractually bound to do so... futures and options, y'know.) Farmers are caught up in just such a system, which leads to such things as agribusiness churning out freight train loads of commodity grade produce. And that is the majority of what the market produces. And they produce it cheaply. And we like cheap stuff, after all, don't we?

The farmers of whom Project speaks didn't have the time to develop pride in (and market recognition of) making a really good example of some particular thing... rather pride (and profit) sprang from productivity... I can still remember the framed certificate from the 50's still hanging on the wall proclaiming my farming relatives members of the 100 Bushel Club... presented by some NJ agricultural bureaucracy, I think... recognition for quantity, rather than quality. I've never been to anything like the "state fairs" that exist in the popular psyche, so I don't know how the blue ribbons are awarded... anybody know whether it is quantity (size of item, profusion of item) or quality ( flavor of item, or look of item) that is the judgment criterion?

Today the market (exemplified by those reading this thread) is getting to a point where decommoditization of produce is viewed as a good thing by consumers with good palates. We know to go to farmers markets and look for the good stuff, rather than go to the supermarket and get the commodities. Further decommoditization will surely follow, but we must absorb the costs of it if it is going snowball. Are we willing to swallow the costs of the "barely edibles" that we were spared when we buy the good stuff? Agribusiness would be a great market if they could find marketable uses for the barely edibles, while letting the good stuff out unadulterated. (Question: What do the Italians do with their low end produce? Assumption being that their level of quality of ingredients is higher... there must be a low end... what happens to it?) And, of course, discriminating between the good stuff and the rest is more work, which somebody is going to have to do... which will, to some extent, add to costs.

Just as chefs go outside the entrenched supply lines to get superior produce, we have to as well... for the moment... I wonder the commoditization of produce will remain, but become more granular, with gradations of quality readily available. To some extent this might already exist, insofar as some stores have much better quality of produce than others... but I wonder if this is a result of gradiations of quality as such available through their suppliers, or if it is a result of the care they take of their stuff after they get it.


Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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mnebergall:

"To the contrary, there is generally more game today than there was 100 years ago. Market hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped out the waterfowl flocks. There are more duck and geese today than there were at the turn of the 20th century. Also, the deer herds were depleted as well. I think we all understand that there is plenty of deer today, they are a traffic hazard. Also, the wild turkey was nearly extinct. Today, there are hunt-able populations of wild turkeys in most every state in the continental US. I think bobwhite quail is one of the only game birds I can think of where the populations are down in many states, mostly do to fescue (provides no cover for the birds)."

Well, I see some evidence that you are correct, but "generally" I still wonder: For wild turkey, there are two flocks in my neighborhood. Letting the grass in the backyard grow to seed brings the turkey flocks to my house. Deer and red foxes are common in my neighborhood, and overpopulation is a problem for deer in my county (Dutchess, NY, US). My backyard has the happiest, biggest, fattest ground hog ever seen. Last time I cut the grass, he was way up on his hind legs enormously enjoying some foliage at the edge and ran only as I got within about 20 feet. Somewhere around here is at least one skunk. There are plenty of possums and some raccoons. There are lots of rabbits and squirrels. I don't have a chance of identifying even 5% of all the birds. If I leave out some leftover chicken skin, the crows get the message and act soon enough. Occasionally there are ring neck pheasants, likely escaped from a local pheasant farm.

Lived on Quaker Hill in NY, and that area was farmed and then abandoned for farming. Then the trees took over. So, for some decades, it's just been nature to be free. So, from snowmelt to snowfall, each week brought a new crop of flowers, insects, and birds. The variety of birds was staggering. There were lots of bats to eat the insects. Deer would stand on our back porch, just in front of our kitchen window, and turn to eat the grasses on the hill.

In much of NY, the land is hilly and rocky, quite poor for farming. For housing, much of the land can't be used and, thus, is left to return to patches of woods. Then, many birds, small mammals, some upland birds, deer can thrive.

Clearly the easy way to afford to live and have a family in Westchester County, NY is to die and return as a Canadian Goose!

For ducks -- really, migratory water fowl -- when we were in Memphis we often went to the Ducks Unlimited meetings and learned what they were doing about helping habitat in Canada and stopping commercial hunting in Mexico.

It may be that some 'organic' farming practices will let some wildlife do better on farm land.

US lakes and rivers have made great progress in the last few decades. Apparently the most severe remaining pollution problems in the lakes and rivers are PCBs and mercury. People boating on Lake Erie remember when the bow waves looked muddy and the boats got layers of scum, and now the bow waves sparkle and the boats stay clean.

Yes, 100 years ago there was a lot of commercial hunting and fishing.

Still, my father found hunting for migratory water fowl and upland birds and fresh water fishing much better in the 1920s and 1930s than in the 1950s through 1970s. When he grew up, hunting and fishing were good, productive activities. For me, I haven't pulled a trigger or wet a line in decades.

When I lived round DC in the 1970s, it was common to lament the loss of fish, shellfish, and migratory water fowl on Chesapeake Bay. The old claims were that during the fall on the Chesapeake Bay, the migratory water fowl on the Atlantic Flyway would darken the skys and form huge rafts on the water. When I lived in Memphis, similarly on the Mississippi Flyway. I doubt that that is the case now, and it may still have been the case in 1900.

Curiously, it appears that, as intensive agriculture destroyed so much of the habitat, some of the wildlife discovered that they could do better in some of the (less dense, more forested) suburbs than in farming areas!

Yesterday I caught a Martha program: She did a program on a bakery in NJ, Coach Farm in Columbia County, NY, an orchard of Asian pears, and a fig farm in CA. The bakery looked terrific: They have a new 14,000 square foot place that makes tons of handmade (really) breads a day. The program suggested that the staff of a dozen or so was getting some emotional highs all day handling puffy fragrant yeast dough and smelling the aromas of the yeast, baking, etc. But, sounds like they are making some first class handmade breads. Martha was in ecstasy handling the dough and seemed quite good at it right away. I had missed how significant Coach has become: They have about 700 acres (rough guess from memory -- didn't take notes) and 1000 goats and are the largest US supplier of handmade goat cheese. Their Alpine goats energetically run and jump and are a riot. The pears and figs are special varieties and are picked and packed by hand one at a time, and the packing treats the fruit like eggs.

Coach explained that they learned their cheese making from a French woman that just had a few goats and made cheese at home. Likely by now Coach has made the work quite practiced and polished, and they age some of their cheese and flavor some of their fresh cheese with herbs, pepper corns, etc. Can't say they aren't sufficiently 'traditional', but well within tradition there may be room for many more variations.

Martha's cameras showed the fig farmer bringing his crop to a farmer's market where he met the customers one by one, many of whom were quite eager, and sometimes got hugs and kisses from the quality of his figs. We're taking some REALLY special figs! So, this fig farmer has followed the path of farmers and markets in Italy. So, at times, it can work in the US. Although he was just one fig farmer, his figs looked terrific -- he might compete well with anyone around the Mediterranean!

Between his fig trees he has some other crops including some Rosemary -- he has a LOT of really TALL Rosemary!

With that bread and cheese, some of those pears and figs, could put together some world class flavors. With one rustic rye loaf, Martha pigged out with thin slices with soft butter! Martha suggested half a fig (perfectly ripe, soft, sweet, fragrant), a leaf of basil, and a piece of cheese. Gee, what wine with that? Pears over ice cream for dessert, maybe with some Asti Spumanti?

cdh:

"I've never been to anything like the 'state fairs' that exist in the popular psyche, so I don't know how the blue ribbons are awarded... anybody know whether it is quantity (size of item, profusion of item) or quality ( flavor of item, or look of item) that is the judgment criterion?"

Well, the classic state fair competition was the mince meat pie judging in the movie 'State Fair', but that was just a movie! That movie, with Jeanne Crain, also had a great image of a pretty girl, but that was just a movie, too!

As the county fair was coming, my wife's father took his daughter out to the chicken houses and picked out 20 or so baby chicks. These the daughter was to raise as her entries to the chicken competition at the fair. The daughter took these chicks aside and completed the raising. I don't know if she just gave them the usual feed for the other 40,000 chickens in that flock or used a special mix with an excess of, say, fish meal (Chilean anchovies?) known to do phenomenal things for growth! A day or so before the competition, the father picked one or two of the best of the 20 chickens, and those made the trip to the fair. The daughter often won! Mostly the judges just wanted a really healthy chicken. However, having been raised outdoors, 'free range', walking through tall grass pecking at seeds and insects wasn't part of it!

For your remarks on quality in farmer's markets, the subjects on Martha's program are likely good examples: The bakery and Coach Farm just produce their products and ship the results. Sure, if some loaf of bread just doesn't look right, then it may end up as input to the bread crumb sideline or as lunch for the staff. For Coach's cheese, I suspect that the process is so well refined that very little needs to be 'rejected'. For the pears and figs, these are selected and picked by hand. So, likely lots of the fruit that doesn't ripen quite correctly, that doesn't look just right, that gets damaged by birds or insects, etc. just doesn't make it to the farmer's market. So, with pears and figs, there is a lot of selection but not much in 'second quality' product to bring to market. The bad fruit may get sold for livestock feed, plowed under, or some such.

When my wife's father was raising flocks of 40,000 chickens, part of the work each day was walking through the chicken houses and picking up the chickens that had died the previous 24 hours. A tractor was used to dig a trench for the dead chickens. At the farm, the chickens that were sold looked healthy, lively, the appropriate size, etc.

For some of your comments on commodities, I have a friend that used to kill 5000 hogs a day. Of course, live hogs, as well as pork bellies, are traded commodities. One of his standard complaints the pork industry 'yellow sheet' publication that 'reported' on prices per pound. There has been a change in the pork industry -- it really did convert to leaner meat. But, otherwise, yes, from the farmer, kill and cut operator, and butcher case, it's a 'commodity' product.

The usual solution to such a thing is to establish a brand, to sell branded meat in the meat case. There is movement in this direction.

If we want really good food, then we can get it. eGullet is likely helping. That Martha could put on programs with the same theme is encouraging.

In many businesses, there is a pattern that goes: "Of course we could do better, but you have to understand, our customers are idiots. We have tried special products, and we just discovered yet again -- our customers are idiots. Sure, we know how to do better; the problem's not us; the problem's our customers. Did I mention, our customers are idiots?"


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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It should be noted that a plurality of U.S. immigrants came from nations and regions without the cooking tradition of France and Northern Italy: The British Isles, Scandinavia (think the Great Plains) and Germany. Further, I would argue that immigrants of other backgrounds, whose contributions to the American dining scene are more celebrated than those of my Irish forbears -- including Chinese, Southern Italians, Poles, Jews -- tended to settle in urban areas, perhaps because they arrived too late to take advantage of the Homestead Act and the cheap land earlier immigrants found, perhaps because they had been uirban laborers in the Old Country.

The upshot of all this being that the early links of the food chain were disproportionately in the hands of people likely to think practically about their food. They were thinking about how to maximize grain and hog production, not whether they could raise pheasant (which they had likely never eaten), or plant basil, which they might never have even heard of.


Edited by Busboy (log)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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The usual solution to such a thing is to establish a brand, to sell branded meat in the meat case.

I'd like to remember that the most successful brands for high quality, distinctive food and ingredients are identifyers of origin.


Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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The usual solution to such a thing is to establish a brand, to sell branded meat in the meat case.

I'd like to remember that the most successful brands for high quality, distinctive food and ingredients are identifyers of origin.

In europe, yes, identifiers of origin do serve that purpose. Much less so in America. The only geographic identifiers for produce that I can think of are close to meaningless--

Florida Oranges-- this does not imply any particular distinctive quality to me...

Jersey Tomatoes-- Maybe I'm spoiled, but the tomatoes in my Pennsylvania garden are just as good... either are better than the commodity products in the supermarket, but tomatoes are universally reviled when they're out of season.

Vidalia Onions-- OK, this does mean something, as does the Maui Sweet identifer and the Texas numbered sweet onion...

Washington Apples? Says nothing to me about their quality.

Those are about all the geographic identifiers for produce in the US that I can think of. I can't think of any sort of produce I'd think to hunt by its origin. There is no way to tell where most produce comes from unless you buy it from a farmer at a farmers' market who actually grows what he sells (not universal).


Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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In europe, yes, identifiers of origin do serve that purpose.

Actually, the concept is rather universal and worldwide. For example, quality of produce associated with a certain origin is well known in China or India. Maybe it's not legified everywhere, but I suspect it exists in almost every country/region with a somewhat developed cuisine.

If we agree on the need of decommodization and branding to establish a economical base to develop superior products, then I think the question is should be serioulsy considered: can such a concept be adapted to the US as well (as it happened with wine) and how? And if not: what are the alternatives?


Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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Examples of what I had in mind for "brands" include:

Coach Farm goat cheese -- Columbia County, NY, US.

Donnybrook Dairy Farm, NY. Gotten some super good heavy whipping cream from them.

Quattro's Game Farm, Dutchess County. Have gotten stewing chickens there and used them to make stock. Partly that use was a waste because the chickens were better than just for stock and could have been roasted, etc.

The farms on Martha earlier this week selling special figs and special Asian pears.

Most producers that sell in farmer's markets and known by name -- their personal name can serve effectively as a 'brand' even if they do not paint the name of their business on their packing crates, etc.


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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I believe that part of the reason "American" food is so bland is because it was the Dutch/German/English decendants of pioneers writing our mass-produced cookbooks for so long. I'm thinking of Fanny Farmer, in whose earlier editions, garlic never appeared. Even Rombauer's "Joy Of Cooking" in a 1961 edition has the maker of spaghetti sauce "Cut a garlic clove in half and run the cut side around the bowl" or, "Skewer the garlic cloves on a broomstick and place in the sauce while simmering - -but be sure to remove them!"

Oh, yikes!


I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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If we agree on the need of decommodization and branding to establish a economical base to develop superior products, then I think the question is should be serioulsy considered: can such a concept be adapted to the US as well (as it happened with wine) and how? And if not: what are the alternatives?

We're in agreement... however the fundamentals of geography are not on our side. The commoditized produce has been specifically bred so that it can be grown centrally and shipped widely. The US is a BIG place...

A branding campaign would have to be local. To be successful a local grower of something would have to establish a reputation sufficient to get the market to demand that the supermarkets carry this particular item. They would then have to be capable of producing in quantity at the same level of quality. And of turning down orders from places that are too far away, etc.

With centralized corporate buying for supermarkets, I don't see that happening often, sadly. Economies of scale have an undeniable appeal. IT is a pity that quality vegetables are limited to farmers markets and the one or two days a week they're open... and, of course, one's own garden.


Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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however the fundamentals of geography are not on our side. 

I'm also very scepitcal about my proposal.

We should not forget that many "originated" products (especially cheese and similar) have their roots in consortial producers. I suspect that's something not very colimating with American economic structures.


Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I believe that part of the reason "American" food is so bland is because it was the Dutch/German/English decendants of pioneers writing our mass-produced cookbooks for so long. I'm thinking of Fanny Farmer, in whose earlier editions, garlic never appeared. Even Rombauer's "Joy Of Cooking" in a 1961 edition has the maker of spaghetti sauce "Cut a garlic clove in half and run the cut side around the bowl" or, "Skewer the garlic cloves on a broomstick and place in the sauce while simmering - -but be sure to remove them!"

Oh, yikes!

Rombauer may have been timid, or she may have been authentic. Most of the Italians I have talked to* use garlic very sparingly, certainly nowhere near the way it's used in the average Italian-American restaurant.

I had the good fortune to have a young Torinese cook prepare dinner in my kitchen last year, and he didn't leave a clove of garlic in a single dish. Where he used it he sauteed it in the oil briefly, then removed it.

*mostly from the North, admittedly. The South may well be different.

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