Bizarre Logorrheic Nap

I occasionally watch Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I occasionally am entertained. Additionally, I occasionally learn something. And lately I am noticing that occasionally I am really bugged. It is only after watching a marathon of the show that the latter occurs. Mr. Zimmern is obviously thoroughly knowledgeable about traveling and world cuisines. He is entertaining too. I gotta admit, the guy gets to see and experience some amazing stuff that I would love to do and he is blessed with a job that allows him to travel and experience life in ways that few of us will ever get to enjoy. But like all of us, he has his quirks.

In a recent episode starring Miami, it got to the point I finally became annoyed and more importantly realized why. Being a chef by trade, I can really understand where he is coming from on how he tries to explain the intricacies of bleeding edge cuisine to the layman. He was in his element at Azul restaurant enjoying a multi-course fare prepared by Chef Huff. Mr. Huff knows his stuff (no I didn’t set out to make that funny when I typed it). Huff’s fusion of West Coast and Miami cuisine was amazing in the tiny snippet we got to see. Granted, what we saw of Azul was a monthly underground culinary high-wire act for Miami foodies. Huff was getting to do what few chefs get to do; basically play in a sandbox of the world’s best ingredients and serve it to the few people who can really appreciate and enjoy it all within the bubble of fantastic PR. A tiny sampling of the dinner was a course of sea urchin with a sorbet of monstera fruit and hibiscus with fresh wasabi. While monstera deliciosa can be a decorative Floridian vine, it’s corn-shaped fruit (which in an unripened state contains toxic levels of oxalic acid) has a pineappley texture and a taste that’s been described as everything from apples to jackfruits, bananas, cotton candy, and pineapple. If that wasn’t enough, another course was the forest floor risotto, which was a bowl of risotto sitting atop a larger bowl of heated moss, stone, herbs and dried mushrooms. The risotto itself was made with basil-fed snails, chanterelles, nasturtium leaves, salicornia (a salty herb known as samphire or sea beans) and topped with a soft cooked egg. Hot tea was then poured onto the stones and moss to give the aroma of a forest. Truly remarkable and I wished I could have been there.

As I was saying, this is Mr. Zimmern’s element. His compulsive logorrhea (excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness) of adjectives like smoky, floral, savory, nutty, creamy, gelatinous, silky, contrasting, succulent, gooey, buttery and earthy were right at home in Chef Huff’s dinner extraordinaire and it made sense since it was the only way to describe this culinary three ring spectacle.

Cue eye rolling. What get’s me is Zimmern’s propensity for this logorrhea I spoke of. He can’t help himself. In the same Miami episode, he visited the tiny unremarkable Nicaraguan eatery of Raspados Loly in Sweetwater, Florida. The food here looked just as tasty as Azul but in a completely different way. It was simple. The contrast between Azul and Loly to put it mildly, was staggering. I have always held that the simplest food is the hardest to do well; vanilla ice cream, a plain cheese burger, a glazed doughnut. By the lines of people waiting to eat at Raspados Loly, it was obvious they were doing simple food extremely well. Simple is the operative word here and why Mr. Andrew is now driving me nuts every episode. It all started with the dulce de leche raspado. Ah the dulce de leche raspado.

Dulce de leche is one of the most beloved sweets in Central America. Argentina and Uruguay are still arguing over it’s origination and other countries claim the mythic yummy stuff as their own as well. Quite simply, it translates to milk candy, candy made of milk or milk jam. It’s basically milk and sugar, although everyone puts their own slant on it with different ingredients, slowly cooked until it becomes thick. Consistencies vary from fudgy to creamy to dry and crumbled. Loly’s desert takes their own version and drizzles the thick caramel like dulce de leche over alternately layered chunks of pound cake and shaved ice in a small cup. Simple. In the Miami episode we watched them make a few for the horde of waiting people on a warm day and it looked delicious but certainly unpretentious.

As the smiling, wide-eyed and certainly sugar crazed owners, employees and customers gulped the stuff down we got to see Andrew Zimmern go into his long winded list of adjectives, again. Again? Seriously? It was such an uncomplicated, straightforward and lovingly crafted confection. It didn’t need to be called nutty nougaty creamy savory sweet icy crunchy velvety and … I’m just grimacing while typing all these nonsense words to describe something you can just sit back and enjoy on a hot summer day.

Needless to say, ever since my discovery of Zimmern’s long-winded pseudo intellectual descriptors of every food item he eats, I cannot stop being annoyed by it. What was once interesting and endearing about the show is now an overused schtick. Don’t get me wrong, I do really want to hear what those balut, pastillas or tlacoyos taste like when made well and I love seeing the local flavors and cultures for sure. And I can only imagine that Bizarre Foods viewers are on the intelligent side, so it’s even more disappointing to see him pandering to the what might be the lowest common denominator who doesn’t understand anything about food or cuisines by constantly over describing everything. Obviously the whole idea of the show is telling us poor unlucky souls about the foods and cultures that he sees, but c’mon. There’s no denying that what was once taboo like sushi and frog’s legs is pretty tame fare nowadays. And while I do believe there is a trend among gastrophiles to push the boundaries more and more as we become a world culture, and certainly Mr. Zimmern was at the front of that movement, Bizarre Foods is becoming an unintentional cliched parody of itself.

Where once I used to stop at Bizarre Foods while channel surfing, more and more frequently I end up changing it after the dreaded descriptors start. I wouldn’t care at all that Zimmern was regurgitating his own stuff if I never liked the show to begin with. It’s only my enjoyment of the past shows that has caused me to turn my nose up now. Okay, maybe I’m being tough on Andrew. Okay, I can admit it. I can admit I’m in the minority who already knows something about food. I can admit most people don’t cook ever and don’t know what ice or pound cake is and we need to know exactly what those common things are like with as many descriptors as possible so we can understand them. Oh wait…

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You Are What You Don’t Know…

Combing through old blogs, reviews and new articles and admittedly being at a loss for what to go with this week (and being a bit lazy), I am deciding to re-Facebook a comment I made to my friend a few days ago. We were discussing what is in the food you eat that you think you know but really don’t. This friend coincidentally sells nutrition products (marketed as weight loss to be honest) and stands by them regardless of any reasoning not to. I only offered my comment after it was solicited (after reading it, ask yourself if you really think I’d write all that if it wasn’t?). They are quick to tell me that their products don’t contain castoreum (a natural vanilla flavor made from anal glads of beavers) or any corn molecules but they have no idea, to be honest. It’s all just a higher up telling them that their company is acting in the highest moral sense and then my friend passes it along verbatim (maybe ad nauseam?) to the customers. After reading this, they responded that “their products don’t contain corn,” like it was memorized. Seriously, who honestly knows a product doesn’t contain corn molecules? Really?

What follows fits the articles here nicely. My aim has always been to cook food I enjoy, but followed by getting people to think for themselves (especially regarding food). I won’t be dogmatic past that and will just post…

“You said you were interested to hear, soooo here goes…

Okay so I’m just gonna take a simple vitamin as an example. While some supplements are far worse, this one is pretty simple by comparison and it’s something we all use. Vitamin C has been heralded as the cure to everything from cancer to the common cold. Since you said “supplements” (this is a broad category and Vitamin C fits the definition) and I said “some”, this reply meets the requirement for relevancy to your original reply. Since we are not talking about the sprayed-on vitamins that companies use to boost the vitamin content to meet the old RDA standards – vitamins that are removed and broken down as a result of the heating and extruding process in nearly all processed foods, but supplements – I have to add a few things. One is that those same vitamins that most people take as supplements ARE the same as the aerosolized vitamins made in labs. The second, is that these processes have been going on a long time for many of the “supplements” we all take since the late 1800’s thanks to our two friends Christiaan Eijkman and Casimir Funk (I didn’t make those two guys names up, I swear).

Okay so vitamin C. We think of cherries and oranges right? The actual truth is most Vitamin C on our store shelves are made from genetically modified food AND OR synthesized and produced from noxious petrochemicals. This is undoubtedly a result of our society’s belief (but hopefully changing) that you can eat bad and take supplements to overcome the deficiencies (the answer is to eat right from the beginning, but I am digressing again and that’s another rant). Most Vitamin C on store shelves is made from corn. Yes Virginia, that GMO corn, but that’s another blog yet again.

Most vitamins are, not surprisingly, made in China. Most US plants that used to produce vitamins have either moved or gone out of business. The only vitamin plant remaining in the US is a DSM beta-carotene plant in Freeport, Texas. Yes, that’s the Freeport many of us know as a chemical super center. The fact that the DSM vitamin plant pumps out as many toxins as it’s Roche neighbor goes unnoticed when it’s other Freeport neighbors are Dow, BASF and Conoco Philips. It’s not surprising to note that many of the world’s vitamin plants can be traced back to chemical companies like Monsanto, Conoco Philips and Dow.

The last remaining Vitamin C plant was located in New Jersey and closed it’s doors iin 2005. Located a just a few miles from a high school, the Roche vitamin plant, which was brewing different chemicals and emitting large amounts of hazardous air pollutants like methanol, chloroform and toluene, was fined by the EPA and State of New Jersey. After being implicated in a vitamin price fixing scheme, Roche became unattractive to investors and was ultimately sold to DSM and the US void was then subsequently filled by the Chinese. Although China has been implicated in many scandals regarding food processing in recent years, with the exception of the 2007 melamine scandal, China has not been  implicated in any incidents regarding vitamins to my knowledge.

Deep inside the food processing world, you will find that most Vitamin C is made from the fermentation of corn. Corn fermentation is the less expensive form of the outdated vitamin chemical synthesis, which in itself is the thing chemical engineers dream of like the rest of us dream of unicorns and cotton candy. The process has about 10 steps which included other sub-steps. This, in and of itself, is not absurd considering the amount of processing that goes on in most of the civilized world’s industrialized food.

The process begins without any actual corn, corn syrup, corn kernels or even ears of corn or husks. Instead, it starts with sorbitol, a a sugar alcohol made commercially by using enzymes and a hydrogenation process to rearrange corn molecules. Although the fermentation does not pollute the air as bad as it’s chemical synthesis brother, it has been shown to cause water pollution in certain studies. Once the sorbitol s made, the chemical fermentation starts with adding bacteria and after more molecular rearranging, makes sorbose. Sorbose is then mixed with a GM bacteria to make 2-ketogluconic acid, which is then treated with hydrochloric acid to make basic ascorbic acid. After that, it’s purified, filtered and milled into a fine white powder which is then transported to be sprayed into your food as an additive or compressed into Vitamin C capsules among other things. It is important to note that Vitamin C is not used only as a “vitamin”, but food and chemical companies like to use it for it’s preservative qualities as well as other reasons.

While the GMO angle is being argued, the fact that almost all Vitamin C comes from GMO corn is an ongoing issue as well. Your own reading can turn up several volumes on that discussion alone. Also, my newest reading about the effects and benefits from Buffered Vitamin C versus Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C suggests that the highly processed (though far cheaper) Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C may be far less healthy than previously thought. Some people even suggest that the Ascorbic Acid Vitamin C version is nearly worthless in many ways as a health supplement and isn’t really even Vitamin C at all.

While I posted ONLY about Vitamin C, the same is true (and worse in some cases) about most supplements (vitamins, herbs and minerals). Recently a study was conducted about supplements from overseas. They found that most all supplements tested DID NOT contain the advertised product but contained cheap fillers such as soybean, rice and wheat. While my background is is food and nutrition, I never post this stuff to get people to believe what I believe – I only want people to research, read and learn for themselves instead of just listening to what some person or body of people tell them.

As with any food, I always say hey, maybe things like hydrochloric and 2-ketogluconic acid and growth hormones aren’t categorically hurting you, but they certainly aren’t unquestioningly helping you. I apologize for any spelling errors and have not included footnotes, but I was in a hurry. Sources: UMMC, OCA, M. Warner ISBN 978-1-4516-6673-1 PP 74-96, BMC Medicine 2013, 11:222  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-222, et al.”

That’s it really, except for some good-natured back and forth. Interesting to note that their totally serious response was (I’m not kidding) “I’ll have to get back to you on this, after I ask the someone else.” Sigh.

From Squirrel to World

The 1961 edition of the go to encyclopedia of food for serious cooks, Larousse Gastronomique, included a recipe for squirrel and it was considered pretty normal. Maybe not yawnworthy, but normal. Imagine the disbelief of those chefs and food vamps if they could be transported into our high tech 24-7 world of insta television food media. The housewives of the depression era roasted rodent for a Sunday dinner and yet we consider it normal to see chefs on television boasting of everything from bread courses and duck eggs to deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with flavored salts. It’s not so hard to see that it’s all relative.

Food as a whole is a relative thing. Much of it matters not whether it’s rodent salad or truffle ice cream, only whether it’s pleasing to the person eating it. Every time I think about this subject or I am asked what food I like to cook, I come to the same conclusion; it’s the food dummy. It’s all about ingredients. From Beijing to Los Angeles, it just doesn’t matter. We can go on and even argue about what cuisine we prefer or what comfort food makes us feel good when we’re under the weather, but without the enjoyment of the person eating it, it’s all Lutefisk.

As I travel around the world sampling everything from home cooked meals to upscale restaurants to wedding parties, I notice that same thing. A chicken fried steak in Wichita Kansas, fish and chips in Dublin Ireland, or organic vegetables in Boulder, Colorado are all the same in one fundamental way; It tastes good. Restaurants live and breathe to serve the customer. Whether that’s by making the customers happy, earning a profit or the owners and staff simply loving what they do (hopefully it’s all of the above but frequently it’s not), it is ultimately to please the customer. Any restaurant that doesn’t meet this criteria has low customer standards or hasn’t got long to live. O.K., maybe the owner has LOTS of money to just keep the place open for egotistical reasons and that happens too. Restaurant owners and chefs can be a can be an egotistical nightmare. But on a whole, people leaving the front door have to be happy for a restaurant to stay open. Even housewives cooking for dinner guests will get a polite “no, thank you” if something is not worth returning for.

This all brings me to my main point; A good meal can be found anywhere. It can be prepared by anyone. I’ve worked and eaten in more than a few restaurants, hotels, and friends and relatives dining rooms, and with the above named exception, it’s been true every time. I am however surprised often enough at what the local area considers good food since often my personal favorites aren’t on the menu. It’s a pesky thing to see a dining room full of people and dirty tables with elephant sized portions. But I can usually sit down and be objective. I may personally never like why the corporate billion dollar food chains sustain the customer base they do with all our growing knowledge of food and nutrition, but as a businessman and professional taster I understand how it works.

A chef at Spago once told me something I have always remembered and it explains some of the fast food nation status we enjoy (or loathe depending on your point of view). He explained that we go to fast food restaurants (I won’t mention names) because it’s reliable. When we go get that value meal burger and fries, we know the next time we order the exact same thing from the same restaurant that it will be exactly like the last. When we enjoy that salty crunch of a french fry or that juicy cheeseburger we know that the next time it will be just like we remembered it. Corporations have engineered it that way and thrive on it. It’s why we go back again and again. Burger King to the French Laundry it’s the same; we go because it tastes good.

As a chef and food writer among other things, I know that you have to understand where you are to judge anything. Good is good and bad is bad. Ruth Reichl wouldn’t go to Mogadishu and expect New York fare, much less write a column bad mouthing a restaurant because it wasn’t a swanky restaurant. It absolutely matters where you are and you have to remove this filter of “everything here is bad because I’m from *insert your big city name here*” if you have one and see everything with an eye to understanding that idea of “good is good”. I admit I was once a snooty chef as my friends liked to call me. I only understood that great cooking was one thing – the absolute best ingredients you could possibly get prepared by someone who had a far-beyond-superior knowledge of the cuisine. The end. But now I see it for what it is and although truffle risotto is still a comfort food for me, I see now that whether it’s squirrels or 24 hour a day reality food media world, it’s all really the same.

We don’t have to live in Los Angeles or Paris to enjoy good food. Sure, Paris has some great butter and cheeses, (and well, a lot of other foods actually) but you can find good, well prepared food anywhere and small towns are no different. You can always bet that the local establishments cater to their market. It’s how they stay in business. I will never expect to dine at a great vegan restaurant in Shreveport or expect Daniel Boulud to open a bistro in Jerome. But there are great meals to be enjoyed anywhere you live. If you expect foie gras with spiced blackberries and quince everywhere you go, you will be disappointed. But if you understand the idea of anything being possible and give it a chance, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Sure, the portion size may change greatly, the food may be healthier (hey who doesn’t love a good Tommy’s chili cheese burger, right?), and the kitchen might be messier but it doesn’t matter (I’ll get to the health inspectors in another article, I promise). When you put that first bite into your mouth and it tickles your taste buds and it makes you smile inside, that’s what matters. From a Hershey’s chocolate bar that reminds you of the first time you bought one with your hard earned allowance on a summer day to a crunchy medium rare duck breast with oranges that takes you back to a cool evening in Singapore when you fell in love with your wife, you know one thing.

They got it right.