Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Things Gleaned From the AP

Several months ago the newest edition of the AP style guide landed on my desk at work. For anyone who doesn't know it's a quintessential resource for writers. It helps keep track of the millions of specific, counter intuitive rules journalists follow. It's a way to ensure continuity. Grammar geeks like myself dig books like this. And because it's used by the writers and editors who produce a lot of what we all read, it's interesting to see what makes the list. What terms are so important or so often questioned that they need to be included in the book everyone consults when copyediting their work? Which is why I noticed that the 2011 edition of the style guide includes--for the first time--a section dedicated to food.

Separate sections have existed for years for business and sports writers, but there has not been a dedicated section for food writers, restaurant reviewers, etc. It could be a sign that food has crossed into the realm where it's equated with sports as an acceptable hobby (read: obsession). Of course, arguably that status was achieved years ago and the AP is just now catching up. Regardless, I found the words and terms that were included in the guide an interesting, if at times bewildering read.

In no particular order they are:
  • Balogna is undefinable. Described only as "lunch meat," it is a terrifyingly vague definition, especially when compared with prosciutto, "a salt-cured Italian ham, served thinly sliced."
  • You want to be labeled a gourmet, not a gourmand (someone who likes good food, who tends to eat to excess, aka a glutton). A gourmet is "a person who likes fine food and is an excellent judge of food and drink."
  • Corn dog is 2 words.
  • You can call it a colander, but strainer is "preferred." (Preferred by whom the book does not specify.)
  • Carnaroli is an Italian rice similar to arborio, both used to make risotto. (Personally I'd say carnaroli is superior, but let's not split hairs. I'm just impressed it made it onto the list at all.)
  • There is NO apostrophe in farmers market. Unless of course a singular farmer owns the market in question.
  • The term frankfurter is still apparently used. (Really?!?)
  • Filet-O-Fish earned its own entry. (!)
  • Filet mignon, that super tender beef cut, is usually 1-2 inches thick and cooked by a brief searing, then finished in the oven or under a broiler. The definition is that specific. 
  • Crock-Pot is a brand, not an appliance. Unless it says those words on it what you have is a slow cooker. (other brand vs. object entries include: Fluff vs. marshmallow spread and zip-close bag vs. Ziploc. However, that thing you put hot beverages in can be a thermos or a Thermos.)
  • Dr Pepper does not have punctuation in it. (Dr not Dr.)
  • Note: French dressing, french fries, French toast. Capitalization counts. The "french" in french fries refers to the cut, not the country of origin. (Freedom fries do not rate an entry.)
  • Grits make the cut. Polenta does not.
  • Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a delicacy in Mexico. It's flavor is smoky-sweet. (Is this a term that comes up a lot?)
  • It's Jamaica rum, not Jamaican.
  • Ketchup, not catsup.
  • Locavore is in there. (ugh!)
  • Kool-Aid is still apparently considered food.
  • Mustard=the condiment. Dry mustard=the powder. Specificity counts.
  • Red onions are also apparently called Italian onions. (Who knew.)
  • Skillet is preferred to frying pan.
Don't you all feel more prepared now?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On The Perils of Working Outside

DC’s 80 degree spring weather has arrived, and with it the temptation to throw over all productive activities in favor of drowsy, lazy afternoons outside. 

Today I arrived at a compromise: utilizing the shade provided by the tree behind my apartment I have discovered a way to both work near enough to my internet connection to actually do work and work outside while still seeing my computer screen. Big win.

What I did not count on was the temptation this beautiful day would provide to anyone with a penchant for cooking outdoors over fire. The smells of herds of DC grills all heating up steak is driving me mad.
Even the last of my latest cheese splurge wasn’t enough to satiate the grill induced hunger. 

What is it about meals cooked over fires? They are almost always perfection. And the first few of the season are downright inspirational. 

I guess I shouldn’t complain, my house was the house of grill temptation on Easter when MN grilled a butterflied leg of lamb for a tasty twist on Easter tradition. It was delicious. As was the new brussel sprout treatment I discovered (hint: it involves bacon and lemon and can be found here). 

I’ll just have to settle for the knowledge that grilling season has begun and we have two full months of grilling fun before DC gets too hot to cook in. And since I can see a wood fired Argentinian style grill and a massive oil drum smoker from my current perch, it shouldn't be too long now.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food for Thought

I read an article over the weekend that provoked some questions about what we should value in food. The article’s three-way conversation (between two chefs and one well known author and television personality) came down in the end to a debate over ingredients or technique as paramount. 

Unsurprisingly given the cutting edge techniques employed by one of the chefs, he argued strongly that the tendency to exalt the ingredients over the chef is leading to mediocrity. It is a mistake to focus on just ingredients, he suggested. He asserted that if one is paying a certain amount of money to eat in a certain caliber of restaurant one should assume the ingredients are going to be high quality but what makes a meal rise above mediocrity is what the chef does. That the cooking is what counts. 

I so see the point. It’s bound to come up in every creative outlet in some form. In writing: if you have a good subject matter for a stellar story, how much is attributable to the word gifts of the author? If a photograph depicts something beautiful, how much value is placed on the eye of the person behind the lense? Etc. etc.  In essence he seemed to be arguing that quality cooking is about what the creative artist (here the chef) does with the raw materials he or she is given. 

Which is true. Except it obliterates some sad realities about our current food system. Leave aside for a moment that whether or not we “should” be able to assume a certain quality of taste in ingredients in a certain class of restaurant, I don’t think we always can do that. And leave aside for a minute that the kind of food this particular chef cooks is to the food most of us eat as haute courture is to jeans and a t-shirt. 

I’m not entirely sure where I come down in this particular argument. Being someone who both enjoys supporting local farms and purveyors and someone who is frustrated and infuriated by the trendy lemming-like rush to “farm-to-table” concepts, I get the frustration. Simply sourcing hard to find heirloom ingredients for a restaurant does not a five-star dining experience make. But at the same time, democratizing the awareness that foods grown, cultivated and bred in certain ways improves both the quality of those foods and their impact on the world seems like a positive step.

Friday, January 13, 2012

This Little Pig

At lunch today at a local restaurant I had a visceral reminder of how much food culture has shifted since I grew up the child of 60's-era hippies (as previously referenced and illustrated here, I mean really look at that hair! the lapels!), primarily in the figure of the enormous half pig carried through the dining room and plunked on the counter of the open kitchen. I was psyched, but suffice to say my semi-back to the land parental units gave us a childhood that wasn't entirely mainstream. Wonderful, yes. Mainstream? Not so much.

The fact that we ate eggs from our own chickens and raised pigs and a cow to eat isn't really your usual 1980s childhood tale. Granted, in rural Vermont where I grew up it was. Southern Vermont is steeped in rural familiarity with small farming enterprises; rural areas held on to those memories of where our food came from long after it became a styrofoam wrapped commodity in most places.

But for mainstream U.S. society food became something that seemed to sprout out of thin air in the refrigerated case at the supermarket. That divide was very clear to me in the decade since I left Vermont for urban areas. Apparently it was unusual that we had a cow, incidentally named Roast Beef (RB for short-a tag my father and I each steadfastly blame on the other). Unusual also were the chickens. And the pigs. The flock of very mean geese. The rabbits. The pheasants. The occasional goat. Horses, bantam hens (smaller than the regular ones), araucana chickens (they lay smaller, pastel eggs), homing pigeons. And a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding, but only about the partridge. The rest were real.

It's not exactly a scene from Family Ties or the Cosby Family. And yet today I watched diners calmly eat their lunch in a vaguely upscale trendy restaurant inches away from a chef butchering half of a very large pig. The first thing that came off was the head. Out came the iPhones, but aside from that she could have been slicing lemons for the bar. Okay, they were a little more interested than if she was just cutting citrus, but you see my point. It's pretty hard to ignore that your brussel sprouts sauteed in bacon (which were fantastic btw) aren't connected to the 400 pound pig being carved up before you.

Or is it? Part of me wants to say, bravo. We've normalized the food chain again. But the cynic in me has to ask, have we really? Or are we just fetishizing our food and turning it into dinner theater? To be fair the restaurant didn't seem to be deliberately putting on a show. It was well after the lunch rush and the concept of the place is that all its kitchens are wide open. There really isn't anywhere else to do basic prep, even if it does involve carving up a pig. I just hope those diners watching also take the time to gain transparency into the food they buy, eat and cook at home.