Monday, March 29, 2010

The New Yorker

The New Yorker has often proved the bane of my existence, but even I have to admit that their November 23, 2009 issue , the double-length Thanksgiving-themed one, was absolutely an engaging and fascinating read (and yes, as my dad has always maintained, beautifully edited).

“Lunch with M.” by John Colapinto absolutely stole my imagination, as it detailed the life and job of an anonymous Michelin Guide reviewer named, for the purposes of the article, Madame M. As a writer and a gourmande, I have always wondered what it would be like to be a restaurant reviewer (it’s something I indulged in when I wrote for Noticias, 2003-6). However, the prestigious Michelin Guide is in a league all its own, and its reviewers are shrouded in secrecy, discouraged from telling even their own families what they actually do and not well-paid (though they aren’t in it for the money, obviously). They eat two meals out a day, usually, and have to immediately go home and write reports for hours on end analyzing every aspect of their meal. Not just anyone can apply; you have to have a degree in cookery or hospitality and understand cooking as a science (which I can’t do, which is why I’m not a good cook). You have to be a taster (as opposed to a super taster and a non-taster). It’s a lonely life in some ways since you are discouraged from eating with anyone else. Obesity is, necessarily, a hazard of the job. Michelin the institution is now without reproach; Bernard Loiseau, the chef and owner of La Côte d’Or, killed himself in 2003 after he lost won of his Michelin Guide stars.

“Spit Cake” by Mimi Sheraton described the baumkuchen and the author’s love affair with it; sniffily she asserts she’s not really into desserts but this one has captured her eye over the years. It’s a tree-cake that supposedly tastes as good as it looks.

“Reds” by Evan Osnos was a fascinating article on Donald St Pierre Snr and his ASC Fine Wines Company, founded in Beijing in 1996, and its role in creating a trend in China for red wines, until recently not drunk there.

Anthony Lane is one of the New Yorker’s film critics and usually I can’t stand him. But I liked his “improvisation” on Eggs. “To the improviser, home from a day’s toil, the eternal conundrum—which came first, the chicken or the egg?—is no debate at all.”

“The Taste Makers” by Raffi Khachadourian acknowledges its debt to Charlie and Chocolate Factory as it follows the chemical experts who make artificial flavorings. Like the Michelin article, it’s not something you think about, and it offers a wonderful glimpse into this strange world. In 2006, for example, Jelly Belly produced ice cream sandwich-flavored jelly beans. People responded to the taste as actually ice cream sandwich when the jelly bean was colored brown with a white inside, rather than when it was just white. Astonishingly, I learned from this article that “Coca Cola is primarily a citrus beverage,” with lemon, orange, and lime oils as well as vanilla, cinnamon, and corn syrup as flavorings. Like the Michelin article, this interviewed a particularly engaging woman in the field (this brilliant woman could taste and identify roughly 20 chemical compounds in a citrus taste-testing in the field).

Calvin Trillin’s article on poutine, a Canadian national joke/national dish, fascinated me as it got me thinking about chip butties and other similar terribly-bad-for-you foods that accompany a night out drinking. I have since consulted a Canadian who corroborated that it is well-known if not omnipresent (it consists of fries—not as thick as chips but not as thin as McDonalds fries—cheese curds and gravy).

“Pilgrim’s Progress” by Jane Kramer really appealed to me because here was a woman obsessed with Thanksgiving dinners and recreating them (sometimes several times a year!) in exotic climes like Paris, Umbria, and Morocco (currently she has cooked Thanksgiving in 7 different countries). It made me think back to the memorable Thanksgivings I have spent in the UK and the one I spent in Albuquerque with some of the international students, trying to give them an authentic Thanksgiving. The only question I had at the end was how this woman could afford to cook so many expensive dishes in such vast quantities all the time.

Even though "Aspic" by Judith Thurman takes place in a garret in a Victorian house in London in the early 1970s, it feels totally foreign to me—what person in their right mind attempts to cook a wedding breakfast for 30 when “there wasn’t a dish on the menu that I had ever even tasted”?
I admire Adam Gopnik’s candid desperation at the piles of cookbooks mocking him as a so-so cook with aspirations to be better, in “What’s the Recipe?”

Food, and our social and personal relationships to it, fascinate me.

And I love the cover: it’s a pumpkin pie! Though I desperately want pumpkin pie every time I look at it.

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