The Potlikker Papers.

John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute at the University of Mississippi that is dedicated to the study and exploration of southern American culinary traditions, a valuable resource that, among other things, works to keep knowledge of the region’s cuisine from dying out in our era of homogenization and processed food. That background gave me a high expectation for his book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, but it’s not the book I thought I was getting. It may deliver on the promise of its subtitle, but there’s so much emphasis here on the modern south that the prehistory of it, the hundred-plus years before the civil rights movement that inform so much of southern cuisine even today, gets lost in the shuffle.

Southern cuisine itself is more of a catch-all term than a specific style of cooking – there are multiple regional cuisines from the American south, including two, Creole and Cajun, distinct ones just within the state of Louisiana. White and black southerners bring their own traditions, although many foods associated with white or all southerners likely originated as African-American foods. The culinary appropriations, the origins of what we now consider traditional or classical southern cuisine, the subtitutions out of need that became standard … these are the stories I expected to read and want to hear as someone who likes to eat and cook many dishes that at least have some basis in the rich, vegetable-heavy dishes of the south.

That’s not this book, at least; Edge starts in the 1950s and spends nearly all of the book discussing the evolution of southern cuisine from the 1970s forward, bouncing around celebrity chefs (Emeril gets a lot of page time, as does the late Paul Prudhomme) and artisanal farmers (Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, is a well-deserved star of that part of the book), but talking less about history and more about modern figures. The best part of The Potlikker Papers by far is the first section, Freedom Struggles (1950s-1970s), which talks about southern food in the context of the civil rights movement – the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch-counter sit-ins, the importance of individual black chefs like Georgia Gilmore, the way white politicians borrowed or fabricated narratives to suit their policy aims, and more. This is a complete story, probably enough to fill an entire volume – how food enabled African-Americans to fight for equal rights and establish economic independence in a white-dominated society that sought to subjugate them by every available method.

After that section, however, Edge’s narrative falls apart and the book devolves into a series of unconnected profiles and vignettes that were neither engaging nor particularly illustrative of anything about modern southern cooking. A chapter on barbecue, for example, that focuses primarily on North Carolina doesn’t tell me much about Q as a cuisine or the region itself (which has a complicated and recently damaging history with hog farming). The final chapter, on the rising influence of Latin American immigrants and chefs on southern cooking, feels tacked on and cursory. If southern cuisine is one big tradition, Edge doesn’t manage to unify it here, and if it’s merely the phylum for a host of individual orders and families, he doesn’t provide the connective thread beyond mere geography. I had high hopes for The Potlikker Papers, but after the first section on the civil rights era, it told me nothing I didn’t already know.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 through Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise.

The Gluten Lie.

Alan Levinovitz is, by day, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University, focusing “primarily on the relationship between religion and literature, with particular attention to classical Chinese thought and comparative ethics,” according to his official bio. Yet he stepped way out of his lane in the best possible way with his 2015 book The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What We Eat, which dissects the history of fad diets and the misunderstandings or blatant falsehoods behind claims that foods like flour, sugar, and salt are “toxins” or otherwise harmful.

The gluten lie of the title is the first major food myth Levinovitz tackles, in part because it is so pervasive right now. While some people suffer from a real autoimmune disease triggered by ingesting gluten, known as celiac or celiac sprue, thousands of others have given up gluten for dubious reasons, including the belief in “gluten sensitivity,” a medical condition for the existence of which there is scant evidence. Gluten is not inherently harmful, but it’s blamed for all sorts of current health evils, from obesity to autism to heart disease to cancer to the quack favorite, “leaky gut syndrome,” which isn’t even real. Numerous books excoriating gluten, including Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, have become bestsellers based on questionable or nonexistent science, taking advantage of a gullible public eager for quick fixes and explanations for their health woes. (Here’s the answer no one wants to hear: obesity, autism, heart disease, and perhaps even cancer are at least partially explained by genetics, and there isn’t much you can do to alter that part of your system.)

Levinovitz starts out by giving the history of glutenphobia and the very real celiac disease, explaining along the way how some doctors refused to accept proof that gluten was the cause of celiacs’ illness, generally because it interfered with their profits. He details the criminal behavior of Walter Kempner, whose name is still easily found on Duke’s campus because his “rice diet” was popular even among celebrities, but who operated a de facto cult, convincing women to be his sex slaves and whipping other patients who didn’t adhere to the diet’s strict limits (around 1200 calories/day). He also covers Dr. Sidney Haas, who believed bananas had some magical cure for celiac disease, so that his patients would get better – until they later ate wheat again. Today’s charlatans may not be so violent or obstinate, but they are profiting off the science ignorance of the public by convincing people that one ingredient is making them sick, offering a quick-fix rather than the more difficult treatment of a healthful, balanced, calorie-limited diet and regular exercise. It’s much easier to just blame the bread.

Gluten isn’t the only enemy Levinovitz exonerates; the new food nemesis is sugar, and he describes the war on sucrose and fructose, along with the past wars on fat and salt, none of which was really based in sound science. (The research on sugar is nascent compared to that on the other fields, for political reasons as much as scientific ones, so I’m not quite ready to give sugar a complete acquittal yet – but he’s right that evidence against it is overstated.) The idea that salt is dangerous still persists across a broad swath of the population, especially those my age and older, because it was everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s, from warnings about salt intake to the prevalence of “salternative” products like NoSalt (which contains potassium chloride, safe in low doses but lethal in moderate ones) or Mrs. Dash (salt-free spice blends). The truth is that sodium is necessary for most people – salt is the only rock we eat, and we eat it because we need it – and only dangerous for a narrow subset of the population, like folks with high blood pressure, Meniere’s disease, or other rare disorders around the body’s homeostasis of sodium. It’s unlikely that you’re eating too much salt, and if you cook most of your food rather than eating out or buying it already prepared, it’s unthinkable.

The low-fat craze, which is also still with us albeit at a lower level of intensity, is based on some outdated science and a history of corporate interference and corruption that led to government condemnation of fat in its dietary recommendations. (Don’t eat what the USDA tells you to eat.) Again, your body needs fat; in fact, you may crave it. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 for proteins or carbohydrates. Humans evolved in environments of scarcity, and fat, typically animal fat, was the most calorie-dense food source available. Such cravings may be ‘hardwired’ in our genes – that is, humans carrying genes that rewarded them for eating fats and sugars fared better in natural selection, and thus craving those foods may now be innate.

The word “natural” in there draws special ire from Levinovitz, as most modern diet fads revolve around some misunderstanding of what a “natural” diet means. Some people simply assume anything artificial is bad, as if your body knows whether a molecule you consume was created in a forest or in a lab. The same applies to the fear of GMO foods. Paleo diets are based on a poor understanding of how early man lived and ate, demonizing foods that can be healthful (whole grains) just because Thag the Caveman no eat them. Others claim you should avoid dairy because it’s not “natural” to consume the milks produced by other species. Levinovitz goes after hucksters like the Food Babe and Joseph Mercola, who demonize harmless ingredients with scary names (and, in Mercola’s case, vaccines and real medicines) to convince you to buy their books and supplements.

Science-ignorance is rampant in our society; I find copious examples every week for my links roundup, and it particularly bothers me when it comes to our governments setting policies that put people’s health and lives at risk. The Gluten Lie aims a little lower; if anything, Levinovitz’s main goal seems to be protecting your wallet, and perhaps your taste buds, from falling prey to groupthink and con artists who’ll peddle what you want to hear in exchange for some of your money. If you want to lose weight, reduce your caloric intake. If you have other health problems, talk to your doctor. But don’t deny yourself the glory of Neapolitan pizza or fresh pasta just because someone on your internet told you that gluten was evil.

Pig Tales.

Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat didn’t make me a vegetarian or cause me to stop eating pork, but it has certainly reinforced a lot of things I was already doing to try to avoid contributing to our food-industrial complex. Estabrook exposes some of the worst practices in the pork industry, including inhumane treatment of pigs, widespread doping of animals with antibiotics, and terrible pollution that ruins surrounding neighborhoods. Estabrook’s point is that animal husbandry doesn’t have to be that way, but he doesn’t quite get around to saying that this would involve Americans accepting that meat shouldn’t be cheap.

Pig Tales is structured in a predictable way: here’s the setup, here are all the bad practices (some awful, some merely objectionable), here’s the cost of the modern meat-production complex, here are a few folks doing it the right way. It’s certainly effective, and Estabrook is a skilled storyteller. You can’t read about the horrible conditions in which factory-farmed pigs are raised – in cages where they can barely move, sitting in their own excretions, covered in sores – without at least wondering if there’s a better way (unless you’re a sociopath, I guess). I thought his descriptions of local efforts to combat pork-factory pollution were even more compelling because they illuminated a side of the industry that’s much less well-known; raising pigs indoors is a dirty job, and produces a lot of waste that pollutes local air, water, and soil, with much of it dumped into artificial “lagoons” that overflow when there’s a substantial rain. Estabrook talks to local activists and groups fighting the pernicious aspects of pork production – labor abuses and environmental degradation – and uncovers how certain states, notably North Carolina and Iowa, have bent over backwards to favor corporate agriculture over the rights of residents to things like clean air and water or safe housing. (North Carolina especially seems to have debased itself for Big Pig, hardly a surprise given how badly gerrymandered their state is.)

Estabrook also describes the breakdown in our food inspection system, largely because it has fallen too far under the sway of the industrial food producers themselves. He highlights the story of one USDA inspector who was reassigned to a job farther from his house, ostensibly to get him to quit, because the factory owners didn’t like that he was doing his job. Pig Tales was published in 2015, six-plus years into a Democratic administration that, in theory and practice, was more open to regulations than the previous one, and I can only imagine that this is going to get worse given the Trump admin’s war on science within the executive branch. The USDA is a long-running disaster anyway, pushing “nutrition standards” that rely as much on industry input as on actual science (to say nothing of the uncertainty around the science of nutrition), but the fact that it’s understaffed for the mission of ensuring the safety of our food supply only exacerbates the problem. That’s one agency I’d like to see scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, with a focus on food safety. Estabrook only gets at one of the agency’s problems, but he refers heavily to this 2013 report on swine slaughter plants that found widespread, egregious violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act … with no real consequences for the manufacturers.

Pig Tales isn’t all bad news for pork eaters, however, as Estabrook visits multiple farmers who are doing something right – many who’ve eschewed antibiotic use, others who don’t use cages or only use them right around birthing, and still more who raise smaller herds as part of an integrated agricultural setup. His stories all give some threads of hope, but I think Estabrook should have emphasized the “cheap meat” problem more: Americans expect meat to be inexpensive, because it has been so for so many years now, but the retail price of factory-farmed meat does not accurately reflect the negative externalities that arise from its production. He hints at the subject, but I could have used a concluding chapter here that pointed out what I think is obvious: If pork producers were regulated correctly, meaning that they adhere to food-safety standards and pay for damage they cause to their environments, pork would become more expensive because no one would be able to produce it cheaply enough to turn a profit at current commodity prices. And I’m not sure anyone is ready for a world where some consumers are priced out of some or all types of red meat. That’s a legal and ethical concern that Estabrook doesn’t broach.

The author makes it very clear that he believes there is such a thing as sustainable, ethically-raised, environmentally responsible pork production, and he’s probably right – but it won’t be available to everybody. Raising meat that doesn’t damage the environment, put us at risk of foodborne illnesses, accelerate antibiotic resistance, or mistreat the animals is expensive. It takes a lot of land, as with responsible beef production (although the economics of sustainable beef are worse), and more labor per animal. I don’t think I learned anything from Pig Tales that I didn’t already know about pork, but I did learn about how state and local governments have abdicated their responsibilities to protect their citizens, and that has only further driven me to consume less meat and, when I do consume it, to try to ensure it comes from responsible farmers. Perhaps if more consumers make those choices, the market will shift even in the absence of government regulation – but if meat is suddenly a luxury good, is it really sustainable at all?

Next up: My reviews are a few books behind, but I’ve finished Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night and Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (just $2 on Kindle) and moved on to Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.

Grocery.

If you’re here, you almost certainly know I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s work, whether it’s his narrative non-fiction books like The Making of a Chef or his indispensable cookbooks like Ruhlman’s Twenty, Ratio, or Egg. He’s also become a potent voice in the drive to get American consumers, who know more about food than ever before but seem to cook it less for themselves, to reconnect with the sources of their food for the good of our health and our planet. He brings those concerns to his non-fiction work for the first time in his newest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, a work that simultaneously a paean to the American grocery store and a lament over the importance that processed foods play in our diet (and, perhaps, many of our first-world health problems).

Ruhlman does this by revisiting a regional grocery chain from his youth, Heinen’s, which has survived as an independent business when national chains have been snapped up by multinationals. Heinen’s is still run by the grandchildren of its founder, but they take a progressive view of the business and have shown agility larger chains haven’t by being quick to offer organic produce, prepared foods, and craft beers to consumers. The overarching structure of Grocery begins with a brief history of the grocery store – I remember A&P, but had no idea it was once the biggest company in the world – an then takes us department by department, explaining not just what’s in them but how the food (or not-food) gets to the store and how the markets profit off them.

Heinen’s early forays into non-traditional areas for grocers mirrors the industry’s movement as a whole, sometimes foreshadowing changes (like prepared foods, which accounts for between 4 and 8 percent of sales for each Heinen’s store) elsewhere, sometimes lagging, as with organics. Ruhlman specifically cites the changes wrought by Whole Foods, which, depending on your point of view, either found unserved demand for organic items and higher-quality ingredients or created that demand by offering the goods and marketing themselves well; and Wal-mart, which became the country’s main food retailer the day they sold their first box of Cheerios. The industry-wide shifts have allowed medium-sized chains to add value by offering specialty products, like the Lava Lakes lamb Heinen’s offers (with Ruhlman enduring an interesting adventure on the sheep farm to tell us about it) or some artisanal cheeses from makers who could never service a large national account.

Ruhlman’s always at his best when he’s writing first-person accounts, and that’s true even here, as he spends days with various Heinen’s executives and suppliers, as well as going shopping with one of his personal doctors, Dr. Sukol, who has very strong opinions on what is and is not food. That particular chapter is one of several that points out just how much sugar is in processed foods – more on that phrase in a moment – and how eating these “not food” products, in Dr. Sukol’s eyes, may be compromising our health. She says something that has become a sort of mantra for Ruhlman – that food is not “healthy;” we are “healthy,” and food can be nutritious or it can be harmful to our health (or, I’d add, sometimes both). Some of her opinions are based in sound science and others on working hypotheses (e.g., that glyphosate residues harm our intestinal microbiomes, because that chemical targets the shikimate pathway found in microbial metabolism but not in humans). She buys organic to avoid glyphosate and antibiotics, but doesn’t believe GM foods are harmful in and of themselves. She also says something is not food if you look at the ingredients and couldn’t buy them all individually in a grocery store; by that definition, to pick one example, almond milk is not food, even though the unsweetened version is nutritious and is a godsend to people who can’t drink milk.

Heinen’s also employs a full-time doctor to oversee its “wellness” section, and in my view this is where the author could have cast a more skeptical eye, because this “Dr. Todd” sells a lot of bullshit. He’s light on the science, throwing appeals to nature at Ruhlman in between advocacy of useless supplements like turmeric (the tricky chemistry of which means it does nothing useful in the body despite positive results in the test tube). Heinen’s, like all grocery stores – including Whole Foods – makes millions off selling bottled panaceas, nearly all of which do nothing and get by the consumer with vague promises of “promoting” health but no scientific evidence that they do anything at all. Ruhlman does indeed mention their uselessness and his own skepticism of a supplement-based diet, but I would probably have been thrown out of Heinen’s for pointing out all of the woo that Dr. Todd was spinning.

I enjoy when Ruhlman lets a little snark penetrate his thoughtful tone, like when he was behind a shopper at the grocery store who was buying fat-free “half and half,” a product that, ontologically speaking, cannot exist. It’s okay to disdain such abominable food choices – but Ruhlman emphasizes that corporate marketing has contributed to consumer confusion over what’s good for us and even what certain products might contain. (The entire discussion reminded me of bread vendors who made high-fiber breads by adding wood pulp, which almost certainly wasn’t what consumers thought they were consuming.) And the media have contributed to this by jumping on single studies that appear to identify single culprits for all our food-related health woes, first fat, then cholesterol (poor eggs), then salt, and now – although this one may have some legs – sugar, which appears in products under a variety of pseudonyms, including evaporated cane juice, dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, or tapioca syrup. They’re all sugar, and by separating them out in the ingredients, manufacturers can avoid telling you that the #1 component of a product is sugar.

Grocery tends to stick to the very common and widely accepted distinction of processed foods, what Ruhlman describes as being in the center of the store, and the other foods, like meat, dairy, and produce, that are found around the store’s perimeter. (If you’ve heard the advice to shop the edges of the grocery store, those are the departments where you’ll spend your cash.) And I may be overly pedantic on this, but almost everything we eat is processed somehow. Take yogurt: First, it’s processed by bacteria, fermenting milk into yogurt. And second, it’s further processed by man, at least to put it in plastic, but often to add sweeteners, fruits, sometimes gels or gums, and other ingredients. (True Greek yogurt is strained of whey and lacks additional thickeners, but many brands sell “Greek” yogurt that is thickened with pectin or other agents.) The meat you buy at the butcher counter is processed too – a process Ruhlman details, explaining how more of the butchering is done at central locations today rather than in-store as it was a few decades ago. Very little of what we eat is truly “unprocessed.” And there are processed foods in the middle of the store that are quite nutritious – oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, alternative milks (if unsweetened), maybe even dark chocolate. So don’t tell people to avoid “processed foods,” but tell them, as this book encourages, to read the labels and try to understand what you’re buying.

If everyone in America read Grocery, it would cause a cataclysmic shift in our food system. There would still be a market for Oreos and Frosted Flakes, for fast food and donuts and bad coffee, but the book points out how consumer demand can reshape the food production chain, and how retailers can reshape neighborhoods in turn by bringing better food choices to “food deserts,” underserved populations without easy access to quality food. It’s a potent call to action, as well-written as you’d expect from the author of Soul of a Chef, that should change your approach to feeding yourself and your family.

Too Many Cooks.

I have new Insider posts up on the Wade Miley-Carson Smith trade and the Hisashi Iwakuma contract. My latest boardgame review over at Paste covers 7 Wonders Duel, the new two-player game that uses the theme and some mechanics from the outstanding original 7 Wonders.

I don’t normally post on books in series, since part of any series’ appeal is the familiarity you get from title to title, but Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, the fifth of what would eventually be his thirty-three novels starring the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe and his milk-swigging sidekick Archie Goodwin. (I’ve now read thirteen of them, plus four books of short stories or novellas.) But this book merited some comment for two reasons, or perhaps two and a half if you consider the new meaning of the book’s title:

The story itself is one of the few that has Wolfe leave his famous brownstone, from which he solves most of the cases that come to him, usually in a climactic scene where all of the suspects gather in his parlor for the Big Reveal. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Goodwin travel to a spa/resort in West Virginia for the festivities of the Quinze Maîtres, a collection of chefs (fifteen in name, with only twelve attending due to the deaths of three since the previous meeting) from around the world who gather every five years for enormous meals, presentations on food, and, in this case, murder. When one of the twelve is killed during a tasting experiment he’s running, Wolfe first has to clear the chef who invited him to the shindig, and eventually solves the murder when the killer takes a shot at Wolfe himself.

Wolfe’s view of the world always involves food and drink (usually cold beer), as he employs a full-time chef, Fritz, and cooks frequently himself, but Stout outdoes himself in the descriptions of the dinners the Maîtres enjoy, as well as the sauce printemps that’s used in the tasting test during which the murder occurs. I found it fascinating to see how different haute cuisine – or, I guess, what Stout considered haute cuisine – looked in 1938, when the book was published, from what it has become now. The sumptuous meals in Too Many Cooks are almost entirely derived from French cuisine, directly or through some translation on the American side of the ocean, with nothing from outside of Europe, and the overemphasis on animal proteins is almost embarrassing to an educated eater today. The test in question is clever, although I wonder how feasible it would be in practice: One chef prepares the same sauce nine different ways, each time omitting one critical ingredient, and the other chefs must taste each sauce once and fill out a card indicating which batch was missing which ingredient. The test is tangential to the main plot, more red herring than essential element, but I also inferred that Stout was having a little fun with his fascination with food.

On the flip side, however, of all of the Nero Wolfe works I’ve read, I don’t think any used the n-word as frequently as Too Many Cooks does, even though most of the time it’s used it comes from the mouth of one of the southern whites in the book – such as the redneck local sheriff who shows up to investigate the murder. This prompted a question in my mind that I’ll pose to the group. In general, I don’t support the idea of bowdlerizing older works of art – film, literature, etc. – to remove language that was in the common vernacular of the time but has since become objectionable or effectively prohibited. This is how people talked and acted, and removing those words or actions (such as the awful blackface scene in Holiday Inn) not only reduces the works’ historical accuracy but has the possibly unintended effect of allowing us to pretend that this crap never happened. At the resort in Too Many Cooks, the kitchen staff members are mostly black, and everyone but Wolfe refers to them in derogatory terms, liberally sprinkled with that odious epithet. In reality, you could clean this text up, removing most of those uses of the term and replacing with less offensive words that still express the racism of the speakers, without materially impacting the text. Failing to replace those words makes the book much less enjoyable to read, and I would guess many if not most African-American readers today would find it unreadable. (Don’t even get me started on Gone With the Wind.) So what would you prefer: Leave these works as they are, as I believe we should, as testaments to our history, or “edit” them to be more culturally sensitive?

Next up: Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts.

Saturday five, 9/12/15.

My one Insider piece from this week included my own scouting notes on prospects Jeff Hoffman, Spencer Adams, Gleyber Torres, and Brad Markey.

Klawchats have returned! They’ll be here on the dish from now on, as ESPN has ended all Sportsnation chats. The first one was on Thursday.

And now, the links…saturdayfive

  • Marlins beat writer Juan Rodriguez is fighting brain cancer, and some of his friends have set up a fund to help support his family.
  • Every Day Should Be Saturday says pay the players, dammit, through a personal essay about what it’s like to be broke.
  • Hand-pulled oyster with activated artichoke, anyone? The man behind the Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator talked to the Village Voice about his creation.
  • The passing of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has led to some touching tributes, including Atul Gawande’s in memoriam piece, which also mentions their shared love of the excellent dystopian short story “The Machine Stops,” available for a buck for your Kindle through that link. It’s never mentioned in discussions of E.M. Forster’s works, but I’d take that over A Passage to India any day.
  • BBC’s Assignment radio program looks at Paraguay’s preteen pregnancy problem, exploring why schoolgirls there are so vulnerable to abuse.
  • Digg interviewed the Food Lab’s Kenji Lopez-Alt ahead of the release of his first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, later this month.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe but I was intrigued enough to share it: Sichuan-spiced dry-brined turkey. Dry brining doesn’t require a giant bucket as a wet brine does, and the recipe calls for spatchcocking (stop laughing) the bird for more even cooking of the white and dark meats.
  • New York has a rare positive story on climate change, arguing that we’ve finally gotten serious about slowing it. One major reason, in the author’s opinion, is the threat of a Republican candidate winning in 2016, as that party steadfastly denies the science on climate change in embarrassing fashion.
  • How did lobster become so commoditized that it’s now on the McDonald’s menu? The New Yorker provides an “unnatural” history of the McLobster, looking at advances in lobster fishery that resemble other types of animal husbandry.
  • If you want to know why baseball is becoming whiter, there’s a simple explanation: youth sports are too damn expensive.
  • Celebrity chef Kerry Simon died this week at age 60 of multiple system atrophy. I first saw Simon on TV maybe fifteen years ago, on a Food Network show where he went to some off-Strip places in Vegas where he said the real chefs would go to eat. One of those places: Firefly, now one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas.

Saturday five, 9/5/15.

I had two Insider pieces this week, one on hypothetical postseason award ballots and one on notable September callups, and then someone else I didn’t expect to see came up after the latter was posted so why do I even do anything.

Klawchats at ESPN.com are indeed dead, as are all chats there, but I think I’ve found a solution that will let me resume the chats here after Labor Day. I’m looking for a little help with a script to clean up the transcripts so I can post them after the fact for everyone to read, so if you’re handy with perl, Python, or the like, please let me know. I’ll keep doing Periscopes, but they don’t work for everyone, including my deaf readers, so I want to make sure I use both media going forward.

My review of the second edition of the boardgame Evolution plus its Flight expansion is up at Paste. You can buy the game for $48 on amazon.

And now, the links…

  • How “Big Egg” has used underhanded and possibly illegal tactics, with the help of the USDA, to try to sabotage Hampton Creek’s vegan mayonnaise. It’s incredibly sleazy.
  • Andrew Zimmern talks about the future of food, from synthetic food replacements to insects as a sustainable protein source.
  • Scientists have discovered a naturally-occurring protein that would help slow the melting of ice cream. I see a problem with this, though: Ice cream tastes better when it’s at the brink of melting, because our taste buds don’t detect flavors in cold or frozen foods that well. That’s why ice cream has to be high in sugar – otherwise it wouldn’t taste sweet.
  • A Chinese writer talks about how the “gross” immigrant food of her upbringing has been culturally appropriated as “trendy.”
  • The programmer adapting the board game Brass into app form has started a blog about the process.
  • Chef Rick Bayless – yep, that’s Skip’s brother – writes about his dismay over the unbanning of GMO corn in Mexico, using culinary and cultural arguments rather than (un)scientific ones.
  • An experiment among Israeli schoolteachers found unconscious gender bias in math grading, bias that affected those kids’ choices as they advanced to higher grades. I know some of you get on me for discussing bias (racism, sexism, etc.) where it isn’t immediately evident, but these issues still exist, especially racism within the white-dominated baseball industry, even though it’s rarely explicit any more.
  • Alton Brown talks to the New York Times about his attitudes about our attitudes about food.
  • A paid anti-GMO shill for the organic agriculture industry was “severed” from Washington State University. Particularly notable are the undisclosed conflicts of interest, the same violation of which the anti-GMO side is accusing Kevin Folta.
  • Why is Missouri executing one death-row prisoner a month?
  • Vaccine denier Dr. Bob Sears – whose license to practice medicine still hasn’t been stripped, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom – is continuing to push his looney-toon, law-breaking agenda on gullible parents.

Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Andrew Lawler’s brand-new book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization doesn’t quite measure up to the bravado of its subtitle – it’s neither epic nor is it a saga – but it is full of fascinating anecdotes on the history and near-future of the bird that is the most important source of animal protein in the world.

Lawler’s story repeatedly takes us back to the modern domesticated chicken’s (Gallus gallus domesticus) ancestral roots in south and southeast Asia, where its distant relative, the red jungle fowl, still lives in remote areas but is under threat from deforestation and human predation. The story of its evolution – yep, I said it – into the tame, flavorless, fast-growing and productive egg-laying creatures we consume today is the strongest narrative thread in the book, as Lawler traces the bird’s move across land and sea, through several crazes of breeding and development, into an industrial revolution that have made chicken popular and cheap. Along the way, however, it’s lost most of its taste and been bred into a bird that suffers greatly during its short life, often unable to stand under the weight of its enormous breasts (stop snickering), as its musculoskeletal system doesn’t grow fast enough to support it by the time it’s shipped off for slaughter.

While the history of the bird was interesting, it’s Lawler’s notes on the present state of the chicken and the issues in the near future of poultry farming that formed the book’s most compelling passages. In a chapter that reminded me of Vice’s tremendous mini-documentary on foie gras, Lawler visits a traditional French chicken farm where the birds are raised as they were a century and a half ago, resulting in meat that’s much more flavorful and tender, but at a much higher cost. That ties into interwoven discussions (little in the book is linear) about animal rights and what might constitute cruelty to birds that appear to be much more intelligent than we typically assume; Lawler writes, “Chickens are excluded from US laws regulating humane treatment of animals raised as food, and there are no international regulations,” although he mentions that the EU bans battery cages and refuses to import US-grown poultry for health and safety reasons.

These digressions lead to the most horrifying aspect of the book – Lawler’s descriptions of the conditions of factory-farmed chicken, and how recent changes may not even be as positive as they seem on the surface. Dr. Janice Siegford at the Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science says that her preliminary research indicates that “cage-free” may not be that much better for the birds than the old-style battery cages that (rightly) earned the ire of animal-rights activists. Cage-free birds are typically reared indoors, in giant aviaries that still keep the birds out of direct sunlight and away from their natural diet, all in the name of encouraging them to lay as many eggs as possible before they wear out after a year or so. Research into hen behavior in various settings seems to point to enhanced cages that grant more room to each bird while still giving them some of the privacy they seem to want while avoiding the violent behavior often exhibited by chickens in close quarters, even in the open environment of the aviary. (Irony alert: Michigan banned homeowners from raising chickens or any livestock in their yards. Gotta protect Big Egg, I guess.)

Lawler’s focus on telling the story leads to some unfortunate choices and mistakes along the way. He gives physical descriptions of the various experts, farmers, and executives he meets – I can’t think of anything less relevant to this story than a description of a professor’s haircut – but then refers to an unnamed paper by “two academics.” He botches an amusing tangent on the myth of the basilisk, which was supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (not a biological impossibility, as he later explains), by placing the creature’s appearance in the wrong Harry Potter book, and later misplaces Mali in sub-Saharan Africa when more than half the country is within that desert. The details themselves are unimportant to the whole narrative, but it’s a distraction that, when I’m reading any non-fiction book, makes me worry there are other mistakes I won’t catch.

In all fairness to Lawler, I wonder to what extent a narrative was pushed on him by his editors, as these food-history books don’t typically lend themselves well to that kind of structure; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt were both very well-received by critics and food-industry folk, but neither has anything resembling a narrative. Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has an actual narrative – the fight between man and fungus – but he had the benefit of working with one of the few foodstuffs that has no genetic diversity whatsoever. Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi is one of the best food books I’ve ever read, but he wove a separate narrative of a session at a sushi-chef school around his story, allowing him to tie together chapters on different fish or sushi-making traditions that otherwise would have been separate essays connected only by theme. Lawler’s book stands up much better in that light, as a series of diverse commentaries and histories connected by a common subject without a unifying thread. It probably doesn’t need one, given how important the chicken and its eggs are to feeding the world, and if anything Lawler could probably write a Pollan-esque sequel expanding on the last few chapters on the future of poultry farming, explaining where that part of the industry needs to go to remain productive while improving the welfare of the birds themselves.

Next up: Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.

My weekly Klawchat transcript is up. I have filed a 2015 draft top 30 ranking, but it’s not up yet.

Harold Dieterle is probably familiar to most of you as the winner of the first season of Top Chef back in 2005, when he was just 28 years old. (I suddenly feel lazy and underachieving.) He’s also a rabid baseball fan, and a fellow Long Islander, so we have followed each other on Twitter for some time and talked both sports and food. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his first cookbook, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, which just came out earlier this month.

The volume is really two books in one: a standard cookbook of recipes, most of which are on the intermediate to expert level, due to techniques or harder-to-obtain ingredients (I’d love to try goat neck, but I’m not even sure where to start to ask for it); and a reference work that really does look like a chef’s “notebook,” which thoughts on how to pick out or use various ingredients from the common to the exotic (I don’t think I’ve ever seen another cookbook discuss huckleberries), and brief sketches of dishes involving each one. Given the size of my collection and the number of recipes here that involve shellfish – to which my wife is allergic – I’ve found the notebook part much more valuable and interesting than the recipes.

I did try a few recipes as I do for any cookbook I review, with mixed results. The pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin was a hit – how could it not be? – as was the side salad of shaved Asian pear and endive with a simple lemon juice/EVOO vinaigrette. My daughter, no fan of salads in general or bitter vegetables in particular, loved it, and has since consumed an Asian pear a day (not a cheap habit, but at least it’s a healthful snack). Getting the pancetta thin enough to wrap the pork was difficult, and I needed more than the 2 ounces of pancetta per tenderloin to get good coverage. The recipe’s rutabaga puree didn’t work out well for me; I had no problem cooking the root vegetable, but needed half to three-quarters of the dairy called for to get the right texture. Some of that is on me for not thinking about adding a little liquid at a time, and some is on the book for measuring everything in volume but not weight. (I’m an absolute stickler on this subject now; I have two scales in my kitchen and I am damn sure going to use them.)

His asparagus gnudi (a hand-shaped pasta made with ricotta in the dough) were outstanding, although anything that dairy-heavy is tricky for my lactose-hating metabolic system … but he also includes a recipe for making your own ricotta, which might allow me to make a form less antagonistic to my stomach, or even to make something fun like goat’s milk ricotta. The recipe called for rolling out the gnudi to 1 1/2 inches thick, but I believe that’s a typo and should be 3/4” instead. The best part of the gnudi recipe was the Parmiggiano-Reggiano broth, made with rinds you can save from the cheese you use or you can buy (for too much money, really) at any decent supermarket or cheese chop); I strained out what was left and had it the next day as a starter soup with some grilled bread. His lemon gnocchi, a side recipe to be served with swordfish confit, worked well as long as I cooked the potato a lot longer than the time the recipe called for – it has you roasting it in the skin, but I might cube and steam it instead to get there faster, even though that preserves more moisture.

I have yet to tackle the dessert section – I need company for that kind of undertaking – but there’s a warm flourless chocolate and peanut butter soufflé cake with coffee crème Anglaise in here, and five varieties of scratch doughnuts, including vanilla, nutella, and foie gras mousse-filled versions.

The notebook pages live throughout the book, next to a recipe that calls for a particular ingredient or technique, at which point Dieterle goes on what reads like a length digression about, say, huckleberries, farro, saffron, goat cheese, sausage (with recipes for five different kinds), or duck fat. It’s like downloading from a chef’s brain – as if you sent in a query that said “tell me what I can do with watermelon” and you get back five recipes, some obvious, some less so (watermelon and jícama chimichurri). He tells you how to make that Parmiggiano broth and four things to do with it. He tells you how to candy, brandy, or pickle cherries. Sunchokes, a vegetable I love and yet never think of cooking, get an entry that describes them and gives four suggestions. He even follows the S’mores recipe with instructions for making your own marshmallows (although it calls for “liquid glucose,” so I’m on the prowl for that too).

The recipes do require a higher skill level than most other cookbooks aimed at the mass market, and you’ve got to be near a major city or a great set of farmers to find all of the ingredients. If you have some experience in the kitchen, however, there’s nothing in here that I found out of reach, and coming up with substitutions or just doing part of one recipe and part of another isn’t hard. It’s an invaluable resource as a reference and idea generator, the way I feel about The Flavor Bible (a book without recipes, listing what ingredients pair well with what other ingredients), another book I turn to repeatedly when I want inspiration more than I want instruction. So if you need me, I’ll be at Whole Foods looking for sunchokes.