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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Respect the Sandwich!

In Food on September 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

The cartoony side-scroller video game Castle Crashers has, obviously, several upgrades. Magic, weapons, mounts, familiars- all the kinds of things that you’d expect to find in a fantasy video game. However, the most powerful item in the game has nothing to do with magic, maces, or fantasy creatures. The item in Castle Crashers that transforms your 2D knights into hulked-out monstrosities is none other than a humble sandwich. After partaking of meat, cheese, veggies and bread the tiny characters transform into massive machines of badass destruction, able to slam through enemies and obstacles with quickness and ease.

This is entirely appropriate, as sandwiches are magical. They are amazing, fantastic, wonderful creations, and they don’t get the respect they deserve. A good sandwich is every bit the amazing food-based experience as anything else that is given the term “fine dining.”

Sandwiches, to put it simply, are not simple, though we think of them as such. They are, in fact, a collection of several variables, all of which could go very wrong or very right. They are bread, meat, vegetables, cheese, condiments, and sundry other edibles. They are made of not one, not two, and oftentimes not just three items. And a sandwich must get all of those things right if it wishes to succeed.

For example, I got a bratwurst from a food cart that shall go unnamed. The meat itself was excellent. Very excellent, actually. The toppings were all very good- an amalgamation of onions, garlic, and mustard. The tart and carmelized toppings mingled pleasingly with the meat. The bun, though? The bun was awful. It was the kind of sad, bland bun that one would find wrapped in clear plastic at Safeway. It was stunning in its unremarkableness, and utterly spoiled the experience. The meat and veggies and mustard were all good, but that single stumble sank the whole enterprise.

By contrast, I recently had a banh mi at Double Dragon that expertly jumped through each and every hoop. The meat was cooked just right, and the shredded vegetables and hot sauce cooperated excellently with the pork belly. The bread had a certain crunch to it that was toasty without being too crumbly, and the whole thing was moist but not to the point of sloppiness. On every metric, the sandwich succeeded, and finished it with a feeling of satisfaction and admiration.

Sandwiches are not to be dismissed. They are not to be scoffed at or derided as mere bar or deli fare. Sandwiches can instantly satisfy one’s craving for carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and sundry flavor notes.  Respect the sandwich. Admire the sandwich. Love the sandwich. Within it lies skill and beauty, a layered concoction greater than the sum of its parts, each one an edible example of e pluribus unum.

A Thing I Just Wrote: Why Meat Can be Ethical

In Animals, Food, Writing on March 27, 2012 at 10:26 am

I sat down to be productive today, and got distracted by this thing from the New York Times, a short essay contest asking readers to articulate why it’s ethical to eat meat. Being an omnivore, I decided to crack out some of the old debate team skills, and lay out a semi-convincing reason as to why I like putting the dead bodies of other vertebrates in my mouth. I don’t love this little essay, but stuff like this is why, for a brief time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

This was my submission:

It is ethical to eat animals. It can be ethical to kill animals. It is not ethical, however, to make animals suffer. An action is unethical only if it causes others to suffer. If eating meat can be done without suffering, then eating meat may be done ethically.

If you’re eating an animal, the act of eating it is not causing it to suffer. It is, in fact, dead, and as such cannot feel any pain or other negative feelings. The act of consumption imparts no sensation whatsoever to the animal involved.

There is nothing about eating animals that necessitates animals suffering during their lifetimes. It is true that domesticated animals can be raised in appalling conditions. However, it is also true that domesticated animals can be raised in agreeable conditions. Nothing about the act of meat consumption inherently and necessarily means that said animal had a lifetime of suffering. Therefore, eating meat cannot be inherently linked to a lifetime of suffering on the animal’s part.

So, the animal feels no suffering after death (one of the perks of being dead) and is not necessarily consigned to a lifetime of suffering. The vast period of time both before the animal’s death and after it can easily be (and often are) suffering-free. That leaves us only with the moment of death.

Death can obviously be painful and entail suffering on the part of the animal. However, suffering can be disassociated from the animal’s death. Animals cannot anticipate as humans do. They do not know they are going to die, and domesticated animals are not capable of experiencing stress or anticipating their own end. Therefore, they do not experience any suffering associated with dread, fear, stress, or emotions that humans do. Because mental suffering is a nonissue, that leaves only physical suffering.

If an animal is killed quickly and cleanly enough (and we have the means to do precisely that) then it will die instantly and not linger in any kind of physical pain. What’s more, a quick, painless death can relieve an animal from physical suffering later. An animal killed instantly will never suffer because of disease, a decaying body, or violence from wild predators. It will never hobble on arthritic limbs, know the ravages of aged lungs, or be ripped apart by wolves. Living within an ethical domestic environment can allow the animal to in fact experience less total suffering over the course of its existence than it otherwise would.

So, the act of eating does not cause suffering. The act of raising animals does not inherently entail suffering. The act of killing an animal can be performed without suffering. Therefore, humans may consume animals in an ethical fashion. If those prerequisites can be met, then eating meat may be done entirely ethically.

Advice to People Who Own Cafes: Do Not Be Creepy

In Crazy People, Food, Social Conventions on February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Earlier today I had a bad cafe experience. Bad to the point that I will almost certainly never walk into the given establishment again. I had an appointment in SE Portland this afternoon and was biking down SE 52nd, an area that I am unfamiliar with. I noticed that I had some time to kill, and thought that I would spend perhaps half an hour in a coffee shop, doing coffee shop things. Namely, sipping coffee and reading news. That was all I wanted. A nice place with coffee and wi-fi. This, I thought, was a simple and straightforward thing to ask for. I walked into the first place I saw, an establishment that shall remain unnamed but did advertise as a cafe on its exterior signage.

A man who was certainly past middle age but definitely not elderly greeted me. “Hello!” he said. I looked around for something like a point of sale, bar, counter, or other place where orders could be transacted. There was none. Various refrigerated display cases abounded, but most things weren’t labeled.

“Hungry?” said the man. I wasn’t really.

“Can I get a cup of coffee?”

“Sure! You want something else? We got lots of food.”


“We got meatloaf!”

At this point I really should have held my ground and just stuck with the coffee. However, perhaps because it was sort of close to lunch, my resolution broke and I asked if they had any sandwiches. “Sure,” said the guy, “I can make you a sandwich.” He went on to extol the virtues of their offerings, declaring it to be the “best food in Portland.” I know he did not mean it literally. He merely meant to say “our food is good.” However, I found the remark to be rather naive and kind of arrogant.

The man eventually gave me a ham sandwich the size of my head. I stared at it, and wondered how the hell I’d been so irresolute to order something I didn’t actually want. I began to eat the sandwich. I cursed my lack of steadfastness, and resigned myself to lunch consumption. (To be fair, it was a very good sandwich, though by no means among the best in Portland.)

Then, things got weird. The sandwich guy, instead of walking away and letting me eat the sandwich, sip coffee, and read news in peace, sat down at my table.

“So,” said the man, “what’s your name?”

I was kind of stunned. Suddenly, I was eating a lunch I didn’t really want and had a completely unsolicited dining partner. Over the course of my sandwich-consumption, the man asked me what my job was, what part of town I lived in, what it was like being a bicyclist, and sundry follow-up questions. He also asked me if I wanted to play chess. At the end of it he said “You come back now!” and I left. It was like he’d tried to adopt me as his new BFF, just because I’d walked into his place

I know that he was trying to be friendly. However, it was still very disconcerting. I don’t think that things like my name and profession are particularly private, (this website, after all, has my name on it) but the man earlier today violated a few unspoken rules about what happens in a place like a cafe, bar, or restaurant. To wit:

Don’t aggressively upsell customers. Upselling (“would you like fries with that?”) is fine.  Aggressively upselling, though, is alienating. While it did work in this instance (I bought a sandwich) can harm you overall with repeat business. For instance, I don’t want to go back- I didn’t like being strongarmed into sandwich-acquisition.

Respect the personal bubble. Given that I work as a tour guide, I’m pretty much extroverted and friendly on a professional basis. I enjoy it, but it means that I get socially drained on a fairly frequently, and often need to recharge with a bit of solitude and noninteraction. I was on my way to an activity that was going to be somewhat socially taxing, so I wanted to take some time to collect myself before having to activate the social subroutines. Coffee shops are usually a great place to do this- you can chill out in a nifty space while sipping a tasty beverage. The man in question, though, did not respect my social cues- I was hunched over my phone, reading news, and not interacting with my environment. Most people can detect when a person is in their own headspace, and respect it. This guy didn’t, and it felt highly weird and kind of inappropriately squicky.

Personal questions, out of the proper context, are weird. This is the big one. In the context of ordering food and drink small-talk, banter, and the like is all fine. While tour-guiding, I banter incessantly with people (“Where are you from” works as fantastic conversation fuel, as the vast majority of people I see are tourists) and if a barista, bartender or other service person is completely silent, then that comes across as cold. However, buying something does not mean that a given service person should suddenly quiz you about who you are, your occupation, your proclivities, or what your deal is. (This goes both ways, too. Never hit on your barista. It’s weird.)

If a customer is a regular, that’s probably another matter. I don’t mind having actual conversations with my local bartender because I actually know who he is, see him all the time, and have an established thing going. Chatting with regulars is a pretty organic and nice thing to do, because in that instance the relationship is something that has a fair amount of bedrock and social interaction is actually earned. What happened to me this afternoon, though, was just kind of creepy and space-violating.

So, yeah. Service people: don’t interrogate your customers. I’m not your new special friend. Sometimes, all I want is coffee. Go away and let me read the news.

Ordering Tea in Bars: My Month of Boozelessness

In Food, Self Improvement on January 31, 2012 at 3:42 pm

It’s the last day of January. Tomorrow evening I’m planning on going to a pub trivia night, and I might order a beer. It will be the first alcohol that I’ve imbibed since New Year’s Eve.

Like almost everyone else in the Western world, I woke up groggy and hungover on January first, wondering why the hell I’d decided to punish my internal organs with so much damn booze. There were also a few times in December when, after going to some holiday party or another, woke up hungover. I’m now thirty-one years old and thought, virtually every time that this happened, “I’m too old for this shit.”

So, in kind of a moment of pique on New Year’s Day, I announced to Facebook that I would give up booze for a month. I thought it would be an interesting experiment, and, looking back on the experience, I’m glad I did it. It was sort of weird to do- I like to think of myself as something of an experience collector, and generally look down on vegans, nondrinkers, and other abstainers. However, after giving up alcohol for a month, I kind of get it. A few things I’ve learned:

-Unless you’re physically addicted to alcohol, giving it up is very, very easy. I don’t drink soda, so beer is often just the thing I’m sipping on when I’m in a restaurant or social situation, and in Portland, there’s always an interesting or novel new beer to try. However, sipping and such is more about the social ritual, and tea or mocktails (yes, I actually ordered a mocktail at one point, and was mildly embarrassed to do so) also accomplish the same task. The drink in your hand can be anything. Beer has just been what I default to.

-The hardest thing about giving up booze isn’t missing booze, it’s refusing people’s generosity. Last night a friend offered me a shot of saffron vodka that I refused. Earlier this month I was at someone’s home, got offered a beer, and said no. Declining people’s attempts to be generous and nice is more difficult than not drinking.

-Giving up booze is a great way to lose weight. I put on a few pounds in December, but those are pretty much gone now. Cutting beer out of my diet entirely nixed a substantial amount of caloric intake.

-It’s also an excellent way to save money, but that’s pretty obvious. The biggest thing I learned from this little exercise in self-denial, though was:

-Abstinence is easy. Moderation is hard. I think I can now understand the mindset of people who ascribe to ideologies like religion or the Atkins Diet where given things are entirely proscribed. If you simply walk around with the mindset “such-and-such is forbidden,” then you don’t have to do any difficult thinking or exercise any judgement. You simply don’t indulge, and that’s that. Moderation (which I try to strive for in pretty much all things) is much more difficult, in that you actually have to assess ever situation and then do a bunch of possibly difficult thinking and deciding. Abstinence, though, relieves you of responsibility. The abstinent person does not have to think or decide or judge. They simply have to follow. Making myself simply obey was very simple, and made me kind of appreciate (in a perverse way) why people choose to bind themselves to a specific dogma.

But, anyway, it was a nice experiment, and I’m guessing that tomorrow evening I’ll probably try a nice non-threatening stout or porter. Beer, after all, is too wonderful and delicious to give up entirely. However, it was nice to take a bit of a break.

The Sad Futility of Fake Voodoo Doughnuts

In Food, Portland on September 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm

A while ago I was in a Fred Meyer and saw this:

(Sarah snapped that, by the way- she has a magical picture-snapping phone, and I have a camera-less Blackberry.)

It’s fairly obvious what that’s supposed to be- the staff at the Freddy’s bakery clearly wanted to emulate the pastry style of one of Portland’s best-known pastry destinations, Voodoo Doughnut. Voodoo, of course, is known for lots of disparate  things such as cocoa puffs and Gummi worms on doughnuts. The Freddy’s Froot Loops donut is basically an exact replica of Voodoo’s Loop-laden offerings. It’s a cute strategy, but will fail for the following two reasons:

1: It’s utterly devoid of authenticity. The above-pictured doughnut reeks of painful and pale imitation. It’s the Transmorphers of the pastry world.

2: People don’t really go to Voodoo Doughnut for the doughnuts.

During my day job as a Portland tour guide, I get to see lots of people ask about Voodoo Doughnut. They tend to ask where it is or what it’s all about- seldom do they ask if the doughnuts are any good. They also aren’t deterred by the line that often forms around the shop. If anything, the line seems to amaze people and pique their interest in the shop. If lots of people are waiting, after all, it has to be worth it.

What people want from their Voodoo Doughnut experience is the feeling of having gone there, having waited in line, gotten their doughnuts, and experienced a bit of Portland’s eccentricity. Lots of people visit this city and have a general, unformed idea that it’s kind of weird. They’ve maybe seen that show on IFC, or have heard about things like people keeping chickens in their backyards or riding bikes naked. Lots of folks visit this town and want to plug into the oddness, but don’t know how. They don’t know anyone, and aren’t really sure where to look for weird stuff.

Voodoo Doughnut allows them to do that. It’s a relatively straightforward way for people visiting Portland to immediately participate in weird stuff. Granted, putting bacon on maple bars is not terribly weird compared to, say, reenacting Star Trek episodes, but it’s beyond the normal experience of people who don’t live in cities of appreciable size.

Mind you, I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I’ve got no problems with Voodoo Doughnut as a business, nor as a representative of Portland. While I don’t think they’re doughnuts are going to cause anyone to experience any food-related revelations, their shop is a fun place to go, and I do like it that it’s great that they also perform weddings.

The experience of thinking “Hey, I found some of Portland’s weird stuff!” can’t really be replicated by putting Froot Loops all over a grocery store doughnut. The Fred Meyer bakery whose product is pictured above have tried to replicate something more successful, but they have missed entirely the reason people buy Froot Looped doughnuts in the first place- the experience. They’ve replicated the form and shape, yet missed the spirit.

Awesome Thing: Tea

In Awesome Things, Crazy People, Food, Politics on July 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

Tea is beautiful. It is, without a doubt, my single favorite beverage. Other than water, it is the only thing that I drink every single day. It is more flavorful and stimulating than any sort of juice, not as blunt or intense as coffee, and far more peaceable than anything alcoholic. As much as I love coffee and beer, Portlander that I am, tea is foremost in my affections. The first thing I do in the kitchen is put on the kettle and I inevitably begin my day with at least one cup of the stuff. If I don’t have to go to work I’ll generally down a few cups throughout the day.

It’s the ideal beverage for writing or reading. At the keyboard, I’m usually typing between sips, and while reading a book on my porch I often have a mug close by. I associate tea with literary endeavors, with the inspired creation of words or the calm, solitary appreciation of them.

The words “tea party” have now become utterly synonymous with bombast and nonsense. I find this not only disconcerting, as a tea lover, but also deeply weird. Tea, the most peaceful of beverages, the most contemplative and calm, the kindest and most thoughtful of stimulants, is now a signifier of yowling, yelling yahoos.

Tea does not deserve this. More to the point, tea does not fit this. The contemplative nature of the beverage clashes horribly with right-wing ideologues, with upraised fists and brandished signs. Tea is a learned beverage, the least barbaric and most civilized of all drinkables.

I believe it’s reputation will persevere. Tea, after all, has been with us for millennia, and the maniacs now screaming in its name have existed for less than thousandth of the age of the beverage. Tea will, once again, be known as something calm, rational, civilized, and logical. Until then, my favorite drinkable will take its lumps, not of sugar, but of irrational defamation.

Break That Cycle: Why I Gave Up Pasta

In Food, Self Improvement on May 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I am jonesing badly.

It is an unpleasant feeling. I keep thinking about the object of my desire/addiction, the thing that I want so badly to enter my bloodstream. I’m antsy and I wonder how long this self-denial will last. If it’s for real. I keep thinking how easy it would be to go to my hook-up, how simple a task it would be to trade cash for what a really want, and make all of this energy and anxiety go away. I keep telling myself that I’ll make it a month. Yes. At least a month.

I’m talking, of course, about how I’ve given up pasta.

I love pasta. Noodles are, bar none, my favorite food in the entire world. They are my ultimate, super, desert-island megafood. Ever since I was a little kid and I was making fresh pasta with my mom, I’ve loved the stuff. Loved it. Right now, if I could have my way, a bowl of fettucini alfredo with salmon would show up right in front of me.

But, that’s not going to happen. I’ll admit it- I almost bought the ingredients for fettucini alfredo at the store, and didn’t. I bought some eggs, veggies, and a bottle of wine instead. (With that bottle of wine, at least I’m indulging myself a bit…)

I gave up my very favorite food ever as an exercise both in vanity and self discipline. On one hand, I’d like to get rid of my gut. Having a 36″ waist was not a pleasant truth to face, and, being quite nearly thirty, I need to admit that stuffing myself with carbohydrates and fat (i.e., pasta covered with cheese) has consequences. Time to give up the food that I most often pig out on. So far, I have noticed some results. Hopefully, this will be the one and only time in my life that I fill out my current pants…

The other aspect of it, though, is more ephemeral. It is very useful to give up something that was so normal, so expected. Pasta was what I made for myself when I could not think of anything else to make. It was a default food that required no thinking, no planning, no real cognizance of any sort. Giving up something that was so much a part of my normal schedule has required a great deal of presence of mind.

The result of this is that I’ve thought far more about what I eat than I previously did. I think about the composition of my meals, what I’m actually putting into my body, what is necessary and what is not. I broke a cycle that was not necessarily healthy or useful, and it feels great. I just finished eating chicken and asparagus for dinner, and I know it was sufficient. That knowledge is extremely nice to have, comforting in an immense way.

I don’t generally endorse puritanism or self-denial for it’s own sake, but I do think that testing oneself in small ways is usually a good idea. Seeing how much of something you can do, or take, or go without. Seeing how much of a given thing is necessary or not. Power over others or over situations is all well and good, but it is quite rewarding to feel power over oneself in tiny ways on a regular basis. I gave up pasta. Probably not forever, but I banished my favorite food from my life. The results have been amenable.

While it has a rap for being associated with things like puritans, the military, and religious types, when done right I really do think that self-discipline can benefit people in very non-fucked-up ways.

I’m still jonesing. Hopefully I’ll stick with this.

In Which I Read About Meat

In Food, Writing on November 5, 2009 at 11:19 pm

On Wednesday night, I shared the stage with a hunk of dead cow. This was somewhat unusual for me.

The event, Livestock, was billed as a “literary and literal conversation of killing our dinner,” and was hosted by the Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary School. The highlights of the evening included a demonstration of cow butchery, readings about experiences with meat from three local authors, beef tasting, and and Q&A session with a butcher and various farmers. I was one of the authors, though I felt the term slightly outsized for me.

I saw the submission call and sent in a short essay that I wrote a while ago about seeing eels getting slaughtered in Japan. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted, and was to read my essay aloud, along with two other authors, while the butcher took apart a side of cow before a crowd of wine-sipping onlookers.

When I got to the event (which is in it’s first year) I was sort of nervous. I hadn’t read any of my own work aloud since college, and was trying to psych myself up for it. Seeing who the other two speakers, were, though, kind filled me with equal parts excitement and dread. One was the poetry editor of the Portland Oregonian (who also teaches at PSU) and the other was Emily Chenoweth, an actual published novelist who has written one book under her own name and a number under pseudonyms. Then there was me.

On one hand, I was completely thrilled to be on stage with them. The organizer had decided that my essay was just as nifty as the stuff from the actual, published, credential-bearing people. On the other hand, I felt like I was severely outclassed by the “real” authors, and my heart began beating in earnest, looking for an escape route from my chest. That I was reading last did not help matters, (though I was sort of also thrilled about that).

The crowd filed in, the butcher got the cow flank ready for cutting up, and various plates of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of wine were available for consumption. I was way too nervous to eat or drink anything. The first author, the Oregonian editor, took the stage, and I started listening to what I had to share the stage with.

She was great. She wrote a wonderful, touching short essay about going hunting with her father. This was NPR quality stuff- good stuff that actually jerked a few tears out of the crowd. I was nervous. The novelist was next, and absolutely killed. She was witty, funny, and had the entire audience in stitches while reading about misadventures with bacon. The butcher even had to put down his various knives and take a moment to regain composure. This woman was funny.

I thought to myself “Well, fuck. I’m not touching or funny. I’m just sort of purple-prosey, metaphor-laden and weird.” I think that was the point, though. All of our pieces were very different, and I suspect that the organizer wanted a diversity of styles at the event. When the novelist finished, I stepped up, my heart pounding and…

And calmed down. As soon as I was up there, as soon as I started reading, I was at ease. People, much to my delight, were into it. I read all about witnessing public eel slaughter, about attitudes towards meat in Japan, and about how I ate some kind of odd things while I was there. My mention of eating an entire sparrow got an audible “eww!” from the audience. I was reading my own work, and the crowd was reacting positively to it. I can see how open mic stuff gets addictive.

After I was done, I felt relieved, and the editor said that she really liked what I’d written, and gave me some advice about selling it. I thanked her, and downed a glass of wine. The rest of the evening was an informative Q&A with the butcher and a few farmers about what goes into raising and preparing beef, and different sorts of meat were presented for a tasting.

I stuck around to answer a few questions from people (“Did you really eat a sparrow?” was the most common one, “What’s raw horse meat like?” was the other) and chatted a bit with a chef who’d spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia eating weird stuff. I left the event and abuzz.