17 July 2010


Photo of Nobu Adilman, Christopher Martin, and Micah Donovan (left to right) from Frecklednest.blogspot.com.

Photo illustrating the pasta machine constructed from a car jack from www.foodjammers.com.

Until this summer, one could say with confidence that the ultimate contemporary American media icon of the "food nerd"--a super-foodie dedicated to acquiring culinary knowledge impressive to average foodies--was TV Food Network's Alton Brown. His cooking show, Good Eats, amazed us with this non-chef's grasp of food science. We were also wowed by the imagination and wit of set demos and costumes he used to make gastronomy and food anthropology entertaining.

His simultaneously lowbrow and eruditely ethnographic Feasting on Asphalt added a further dimension to the Brown persona. This miniseries followed Brown's cross-country biker ride through the landscapes, architectures, and dishes of myriad roadhouses, donut shops, and diners. Riding and maintaining a motorcycle, joking with his crewmates, and taking one road accident in stride made him seem no ordinary nerd with ordinary nerd limitations. His ruggedness and social skills made him transcendent, a real-life superhero.

As of May 31, Brown has company. The Food Network's offspring, The Cooking Channel, has spawned its own, next-generation, foodie meta-nerds. Meet Micah Donovan, Christopher Martin, and Nobu Adilman (pictured above)--simply known by the name of their show, Food Jammers.

If you simply watch their show and don't investigate the jammers' backgrounds (they're all artists, according to bios on the show's website), you wouldn't know what their occupations or training consisted of. They seem capable of everything. In one episode, they made their own sodas in a fleet of flavors. Are they cooks? Food scientists? Their precise commentary throughout the show about flavor profiles and their subtle adjustment of recipes showed command of flavor science and aesthetics. They also constructed the soda dispensers themselves--from scratch, like the sodas--and fashioned awesome themed handles that represented each flavor. Wow! Are they carpenters? Engineers? Artists? They dress like artists who are in graduate school. Or musicians. The title Food Jammers suggests they are some sort of band. Their hair styles suggest they are bringing the old look of Beck back.

The Food Jammers are Alton Brown on overdrive...and in triplicate. All three are equally knowledgeable, handy, and creative. But, unlike Brown, they are also all clued in to historical youthful pop culture and street culture and capable of campy plays on these. Yes, Brown got into Americana (Feasting on Asphalt), but this generation has a more street-fashion-conscious flavor.

Theirs is a new twist on the food-nerd persona. Two things have merged that used to be separate: youth- or street-culture cool and hardcore food nerdism. The ultimate convergence of this was the Food Jammers episode in which the guys constructed a "low-rider birthday cake" that involved not only making a top-notch cake by bakers' standards but also, inside and under the cake, functioning hydraulics. In addition to food knowledge, carpentry and engineering skills, a sense of multicultural and retro-cultural awareness manifested.

I suppose the combination of youthful meta-cool and food nerdism is the inevitable result of the popularization of foodism, its increasing penetration of Americans and their young via the multiplying food media and exposure to greater numbers of foodie parents. The evidence is everywhere on social networking sites, where ever younger people are "geeking out" on food.

The Cooking Channel folks undoubtedly have a grasp on this growing demo. The very existence of the channel is testament to Food Network's popularization as well as its increasing potential to turn off younger audiences post-2006 with its heightened emphasis on Paula Deen-style caricatures of middle-aged homey home cooks. The Cooking Channel steers clear of this. The majority of programs feature younger hosts with pre-children lifestyles or shows with older hosts shown not alongside children or families.

Market researchers must have also discovered that some young people are even more hardcore food geeks than their parents. Many of the new shows--including Food Jammers, Cook Like an Iron Chef, Drink Up, and Food Crafters--feature in-depth ingredient information and younger food experts dishing it out. Drink Up has introduced me to a new crop of mixologists and sommeliers who must be described as scholarly. This is not noteworthy in itself. What's new is the stylistic dissonance. Fresh faced, dressed in circa-1900s or steam-punk vintage, and discoursing on liquors with all the seriousness you imagine of an economics professor, I feel I'm in a malfunctioning time machine. I've landed where past and future, old and young, got scrambled.

I must be enjoying this place, though. I'm watching. Alton Brown, TVFN...you started it. And I think my inner food nerd likes it.

Copyright 2010 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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16 April 2010


Packaging of chocolate marshmallows at Whole Foods, April 2010. Photo by author.
Menu item at The Foundry on Melrose, April 2010. Photo by author.

Lately, in the food industry, one might think there are many new hired hands. Literally. Labels on food products and menu items in restaurants--no matter the price point--are using descriptors such as "hand rolled," "hand cut," "hand crafted." Crafty hands, we should think, are everywhere plying our pizzas, french fries, pastas, and breads, where once, as I recall, they had limited themselves to "tossing" salads. While there is record unemployment for the body's other parts, demand for hands seems high.

This micro-trend of today's hyper-trendy food world is yet another manifestation of a recurring cultural mood. Nostalgia for an imagined "simple life" tends to grip people when the technologically-driven modern and postmodern worlds alienate us and stress us out. The hands cutting our french fries and rolling our pastas are the hands, we imagine, of a pre-modern hero. It is a romanticized craftsman, pictured living among and working to serve a small, reciprocal community; and working in tandem with the rhythms of the local earth.

Every group who has mourned humans' disconnection from nature and from small communities has tended to resuscitate this figure in some way. The organic and Slow Food movements that some worship today are the latest variant of the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement that rejected the exploitative modern factory, whose symbol was the machine, for the supposedly dignified and joyous labor of handicraft. When we work with our hands, William Morris had argued, we become whole again.

While these movements have legitimate substance to offer, their romanticization of handicraft has always been mystifyingly vague. Part of the problem is exacerbated in the latest food-labeling trend--the emphasis on hands. Is handwork always good? What kind of handwork is good? Doesn't it matter whose hands do the work, and whose brain is directing whose hands in the process? Is my typing on this computer a form of handicraft, or must I be doing something pre-modern with my hands? If so, it is not involvement of hands that matters, but rather certain types of work. And what, exactly, counts as a machine? Isn't something as simple as a knife a sort of machine? Do we have a problem with that? Where do we draw the line, and why? Might the focus on hands be misleading and beside the point of working productively, ethically, and happily?

The food labels I'm seeing lately aren't meant to answer any of those questions. The postmodern marketing folks and those who have learned from them want to be mystifying. Consider the language loopholes: Couldn't a "handcrafted" marshmallow go, at some point, through a piece of machinery? And doesn't "hand rolled" pasta really suggest that only the "rolling" of pasta was done by hand, leaving the bulk of pasta making unaccounted for? Can't "rolling" simply refer to arranging pasta on the plate in a rolled shape? Though evocative of a simpler time, this language has all the self-serving obfuscation of "Made in the U.S.A." This now, technically, can mean that the product so labeled was merely assembled here.

The marketing talent and graphic designers who are busy "brain crafting" this imagery know their consumers' reptilian minds all too well. If we don't question the labels, we will reliably do what we tend to do: conjure visions of the rhythmically natural lives of artisans at the mere sight of "handcrafted" on a product's label and the serifs of its "ye olde" typography.

Never mind whose hands work for whom, whose hands are in whose pockets, and what's changing hands in the process.

Copyright 2010 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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19 February 2010


Exterior of Avec, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Counter seating at Avec, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Exterior of Graham Elliot, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

Detail of Graham Elliot dining room, Chicago. Photo by author, February 2010.

In "Pass the Salt...and a Megaphone" (Wall Street Journal, 3 February 2010), Katy McLaughlin noted a 2000s trend in fine-dining restaurants: increasing noise. According to McLaughlin, "Upscale restaurants have done away with carpeting, heavy curtains, tablecloths, and plush banquettes gradually over the decade, and then at a faster pace during the recession, saying such touches telegraph a fine-dining message out of sync with today's cost-conscious, informal diner. Those features, though, were also sound absorbing." The critic goes on to explain that, in addition to reducing sound buffers, restaurants have made sure to add louder noise makers. Everything from open kitchens to bars to energetic, sometimes downright deafening, music has upped the noise level in places with hard surfaces for floors, walls, and tables. Attempts to talk over the din just heighten the din.

The Chicago restaurant Graham Elliot (2008-), pictured above, could be a poster child for McLaughlin's article. Basically, it is a loft. It is all exposed brick walls and ceiling ducts. These elements are complemented throughout by hard tables and floors. When I visited, on 13 February, the soundtrack of 1980s pop was loud enough to be heard over a packed and talkative crowd. The epitome of restaurants on the new-and-notable list, deservedly so for its top-notch and creative cuisine, Graham Elliot is also a sonic tinderbox.

To McLaughlin's observations about noise, I would add one more. The concurrent trends at culinarily ambitious restaurants toward communal tables and/or counter seating are subsets and exacerbators of the tendency toward loudness. Restaurants such as Avec (2003-), pictured above, and The Publican (2008-) in Chicago, the Momofuku restaurants (2006-) in New York, and The Bazaar by Jose Andres (2008-) in Los Angeles not only feature hard floors, walls, and tables; and, in most cases, also lively music. They compound these features by seating arrangements that encourage conviviality among strangers and friends alike.

In her article, McLaughlin resuscitates a truism in restaurant design: that noise level in restaurants is a predictor of client age. The higher the decibels, the younger the crowd. I'd put a finer point on this claim. Loudness is not only something, as McLaughlin suggests, that young folks can withstand. It is something they are prone to liking.

Environmental loudness is de-inhibiting in ways conducive to young people's needs. The young, particularly the single, tend to want to meet new people when they go out more than older people do, so environments encouraging socially outgoing behavior, a signal of which is the sound level, facilitate mingling. Due perhaps to their higher energy level, young people are more likely to want to be loud than older folks, and an environment in which high decibels are tolerated or even encouraged might make a young person feel comfortable behaving spontaneously. There is more auditory "room" for them to move around in. The less constricting sound space acts as a behavioral cue.

McLaughlin claims that this newer--and younger--fine diner desires a more informal dining experience. This much agrees with my own observations above about the young consumer. Where I part ways with McLaughlin, however, is with her claim that the same diner is "cost-conscious." While there could be some truth to this, I believe McLaughlin is largely conflating the diner with the restaurateur. With entrees in the thirty-dollar range at many of these restaurants, the cost of a night out at any one of them can be comparable to the white-table-cloth places. But to be able to charge thirty-something for an entree without the overhead of laundering linens and deep-cleaning carpets night after night is of greatest financial advantage to the restaurateur.

Perhaps, then, the young customer is not the only one being heard in this din. Loud and clear!

(P.S. The "pot roast," using beef cheeks, and the deconstructed-reconceptualized "carrot cake" at Graham Elliot were so incredibly divine, and the service so knowledgeable and nice, I would cross any sonic barrier to eat there again.)

Copyright 2010 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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01 January 2010

COOKING ON Jersey Shore

Photo from http://www.mtv.com/shows/jersey_shore/series.jhtml.

Do the self-proclaimed "Guidos" and "Guidettes" (unconsciously) resist MTV's youth-culture mold? And could the kitchen be the site of their resistance?

Jersey Shore has been no exception to the MTV rule of homogenizing youth cultures. As with Real World, the network's original youth-based reality show, MTV's story lines for Jersey Shore revolve around the same-old-same-olds of partying, hookups, and relationship drama.

The idea that MTV is homogenizing youth cultures with a show that highlights the stylistic uniqueness of Guidos and Guidettes--their lingo, their hair style and dress, and their cave-man extremes of sexual dichotomy and male-female protectiveness--may seem counterintuitive. Isn't the show really all about the uniqueness of this Italian-American subculture that spends its party vacations on the Jersey Shore? Superficially, yes. But, in dramatic terms, the Jersey Shore housemates are reading from the same old MTV script.

If, however, you read between the plot lines, and pay attention to what the camera is capturing while trying to focus elsewhere, you will notice the alternative, unintended, and perhaps more organic, script.

Whenever the housemates are in the kitchen, and we are supposed to be following their conversations about partying, hookups, and relationship drama, all of them, male and female, without fanfare, without self-consciousness, are...what? Cooking. Yes, and they each help. And they do it frequently. Someone might be chopping veggies while Mike (AKA "The Situation") lowers a casserole filled with veggies and what I once thought looked like uncased sausage into the oven. Despite whatever else may be polarizing their characters on the show, they are there, in that kitchen, prepping food together. I can't get a fix on what they're making. MTV is not following it. This isn't Food Network, I know.

It is a striking sideshow. Communal cooking among housemates is not a regular behavior on MTV's other youth-based reality shows. In a context where the most vain, volatile, and fleeting aspects of youth take center stage, this peripheral activity impresses. It suggests a transcendence of youth, a possession of inter-generational skills. It indicates more profound cultural content. That the housemates' sense of kitchen duty seems automatic, their cooperation routine, further endears me to them.

Aside from a couple of episodes, such as the one in which "The Situation" made an especially elaborate steak-and-lobster feast for his housemates, and then complained bitterly that the girls didn't help him--unusual, I suppose?--MTV ignores the housemates' cooking culture. Cooking comes naturally to them, though, so the network can't edit it out completely. To all you Guidos and Guidettes, keep on cooking! And please tell me what "The Situation" put into that oven.

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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