Sunday, January 21, 2007

I'm Reading: 'Heat,' by Bill Buford

Years ago a friend of mine insisted that I read a New Yorker article on Mario Batali. It was the first piece of any length that I'd read about a food personality; at the time I knew of Batali only as the guy who concocted the 'white prosciutto' the same friend kept bringing up. What the article compellingly described was the larger than life personality that Batali brought to the table. Epic bouts of drinking and eating. Feeding a pig nothing but cream, walnuts, and apples and then serving people the fat from that pig. Showing up at a Giant's game to the delight of east coast male football fans.

It was this article, along with the first few episodes of Iron Chef America that I saw, that put Batali's Babbo at the top of my list during a trip to New York a few years back.

The article's other personality was that of Bill Buford, the guy writing it. What I accepted as a transparent literary device, his parlaying his editorial assignment into a full-time gig as a kitchen slave at Babbo restaurant, turned out to be an earnest re-assessment of the author's priorities and interests. Lasting not only for the duration of his assignment, but to this day.

Heat expands on the terrain of the New Yorker article considerably. Charting Batali's rise from guy working in a pizza shop, to Italy, to food celebrity. Detailing the story of Buford's going pro in the world of food. Each story is a good read, though I preferred the chapters on Batali to those where Buford elaborated on the nature of a food stuff (short ribs, polenta, etc.).

As he starts doing time in the Babbo kitchen, Buford commits innumerable mortifying gaffes - lost in ways diverse and confounding. As a self-described talented amateur, I may be brushing up against the walls of my roomy glass house, but I'm here to tell you that the way you pull short ribs out of a pan of spattering oil is with tongs.

It's impossible to meaningfully address either of the book's dominant narratives without also addressing Italy, which for Buford means (among other places) the small village where he learns the art of butchery. The 27 different cuts of meat that Tuscan's understand to be in the leg of a cow. If this is not the sort of thing that interests you, you may be cheered to know that this section of the book is loaded with examples of Tuscan men --young and old-- creatively referring to each other as types of dickhead.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On the Nature of Consumption

"It is not good to be profligate, lazy and obese, but neither is it good to be a miser, a workaholic, or an anorexic." - Jim Holt, in 'The New, Soft Paternalism', New York Time Magazine
A couple of weeks back I came across an interview with Daniela Edburg over at The Morning News. The thirteen photos in her series Drop Dead Gorgeous are right up my alley. They feature folks that have already been, or are about to be, done in by too much of a good thing.

Leaving aside for now the issue that all of these folks happen to be women, the photos illustrate the considerable downside of an opportunity that a lot of Americans seem to be availing themselves of (60+% of us are apparently overweight). Ever aware of the various wings in my sprawling glass house, this blog makes clear that I avail myself of plenty.

The various types of angst that I subject myself to as a result are familiar territory for folks who write about food, and have been at least since M.F.K. Fisher's Serve it Forth. I have a hard time deciding whether I am more 'intellectually gastronomic on a bicycle' or likely to offer up posts that 'crumple under the weight of well-known names'.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Consumptive Year In Review

I missed the chance to be reflective before we embarked on the New Year. If, as Garrison Keillor offers up in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion,"In Radio you never look back, that's the beauty of it", blogs seem to be all about looking back - but only by hours or days. Still, I'll take a seasonal liberty and point out a few memorable posts.

One last plug for my post on Satsumas. I thought briefly that I might find a wider readership if all my posts had that vibe, and then thought better of it.

I was reminded of the night we made Beef and Chicken Liver Ravioli, in the style of Babbo, when our friend Seth offered up that of all the dinners he'd attended at our digs (even more than paella cooked over an open fire) these ravioli stood out.

A post on the perils of preparing crudo at home. One of these days I'll get to southern coastal Italy, or at least Esca, and see how this really gets done.

Availability for ramps is very limited, and April isn't that far away.

This Market Recap featured the year's first appearance of Sour Cherries. A year-old lively discussion of how and where to score sour cherries is still attracting comments over at Bay Area Bites.

After ten-plus years in the Bay Area, I manage to prepare Cardoons for the first time, in June.

Not gonna say too much about Ceviche Three Times a Day.

The first weekend for Bronx Grapes fell in late August.

Bacon-Dripping Ginger Snaps remain their own reward.

October was a slow month following the birth of our first child. Still I did managed a post on This Summer's Harvest.

Just wouldn't be a year-end recap unless November's entry was our Thanksgiving Kegger.

Along with many Bay Area Food Bloggers, I offered up some thoughts on Bar Crudo and the hard times that had befallen the staff of the restaurant.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Manka's Inverness Lodge Closed by Act of God

Manka's Inverness Lodge was at least temporarily done in by the high winds that swept over the bay area last week. A tree toppled into the building that housed the restaurant and lodge, and apparently ignited a fire as it went.

Our friends Maya and Leo held their rehearsal dinner at Manka's, and while we didn't make the list for that particular meal, they were kind enough to invite us there for dinner a few weeks later. This was during the time when the most notable thing about the restaurant was how local the food was. Nearly all of it caught, raised, hunted, or gathered within 15 miles or so of inverness. Sunday was locals night, where folks who lived nearby could stop in for burgers.

As we waited in the homey space adjacent to the dining room, a large dog milled about with the guests. On the way to our table, we walked past a cake plate topped with a wheel of Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese that looked for all the world like some massive chiffon cake. We ate pig, duck, rabbit, salmon, and deer that night before downing espresso and braving the drive back to Berkeley. Rooms tended to be about 300.00 or more a night after all - I'd looked up the rates on their steadfastly idiosyncratic website (tiling plaid backgrounds and antler them prevailed). Hence, a soft spot.

When we returned for dinner a few months later, we were startled to find that the dog had been replaced by actual front of house people. The cheese wheel was there, but someone had decided that the dining room ambience would be enhanced by if they played Enya very loudly. After being sold a sparkling wine to start and a dessert wine to wrap up, dinner for two came to just over 400.00. The restaurant began to get mentioned more frequently in the national press. Mentions usually included a line or two about the celebrities you might run into there.

I have no ill will for Margaret Grade or Daniel De Long. I've not met either, but the anecdotes of friends who have more than earn them the benefit of the doubt. So, I'm not sure that He struck down upon them with furious vengeance for selling out, I am sure it will be rebuilt. Better, faster, stronger. The current and steadfastly New Age website, replete with loon and running water soundtrack, suggests it. Here's hoping they get the mix right. Find a way to make the money that it takes to make their food, without going (more?) obnoxiously corporate.