Just yesterday, I went on a longish rant about the imminent threat posed by referring to a concoction of peppers, cheese, vodka, seltzer, and Sprite as a "martini." Even printed in America's News Paper Style Supplement of Record, a single cocktail available at a single LES restaurant might not threaten the semiotic conventions that allow us to communicate, and in particular, know what we are putting in our mouths. As previously reported, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association is petitioning the FDA to change what "is" is when it comes to chocolate.* This story popped back up in the news when M&M/Mars pledged to continue making its chocolate bars out of, uh chocolate. Good for them, but its sort of alarming when the CEO of a chocolate company has to say "changing the definition of what chocolate is would be a mistake," because it implies that the industry, or industry in general has the power to make such changes. While we all worry about the counterfeit and tainted goods coming out of China, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the semiotic prestidigitation going on right here in the US of A. *The CMA followup press release suggests that they know they are doing wrong.
There are few things as tiresome as a cocktail pedant. The Geneva Convention guarantees that every human being is entitled to enjoy a Manhattan free from a harangue about the variety of bitters used in the preparation. Martini pedants are a particularly irritating subspecies, what with the endless ways of saying how dry they want it. Yes, Ian Fleming's Bond would turn up his nose at the appletini, but if it helps paralegals get rooty with the Kim C*ttrall wannabees, who's complaining?
That said, there is a point beyond which revisions of a given recipe, food or cocktail, are not simply violations of good taste, but assaults on the semiotic conventions that make language work. A "Chicken Caesar" is a bad idea, but it at least involves cognizance of what a Caesar is. Serving baby carrots and aoili and calling it a "hearty summer Caesar" is an attack on the idea that words have referents. The Little Giant Peppadew Martini falls into this second category. The peppadew seems like a lateral move from the olive, but whatever. Food and food journalism would wither without being able to say things like "peppadew is the new chipotle," and if the peppadew is, indeed, like, so hot right now, why not put it in a drink?
Stuffing cheese into the condiment you are using as martini garnish seems like a bad idea, as it's hard to see how contact with the vodka would not produce a whey-like slick on the surface of the cocktail. Where the whole thing goes off the rails is in the final instruction: "Shake well, strain into a 6-ounce martini glass and top off with equal parts lemon-lime soda and seltzer." This is no longer a recognizable mutation of the martini, but a vodka & soda / vodka and sprite with a cheese-stuffed pepper. It may be a collision between what you tried to get your date to drink at your junior prom and chiles rellenos in a glass, but it sure as shit is not a martini. Language - pwned once again by T:!
While the Cod literally and figuratively digests phase one of the BosWash Corridor tour, some notes on meals not eaten. Family obligations found me at Om* -- not the kind of place I generally gravitate to, but the staff and the drinks were excellent. I'd eaten, but the food has been getting much more love than you'd expect from a place that serves Asian fusion so I flipped through the menu. There looked to be some good stuff going on, but also a
I asked about it, and the bartender praised the execution of the individual elements, but could not help me either on the rationale for the dish, or the presence of asparagus and potato. I've bitched before about the abuse of the term "deconstructed" in the food world, but this surpasses the usual lazy thinking to embrace an indifference to what a Caesar is. Based on the rest of the menu, it seemed as if they ought to have known better.
There may be something in the water in the 02138, as across the street, UpStairs on the Square has a similar issue. I've had pretty decent meals at UpStairs, and was curious to see the summer menu, which included
"Urban" is one of the more puzzling words that pops up in restaurant names. Either it is a baffling misrepresentation, as with the "Urban Cafe" in Hartford, VT, or it is a redundant assertion of fact -- see "Righteous Urban BBQ"* There was, though I doubt it survives, a bring-the-chilaquiles-to-the-hipsters place in Chicago called Hilary's Urban Eatery. Given its location near the intersection of Ashland and Division, insisting on urbanness hardly seemed necessary. More generally, "urban" seems to have two rather different usages. It is a more polite way to say "inner city," which is itself a more polite way to say "black," viz "students from urban high schools." On the other hand, it also seems to pop up as a synonym for "hip," or "sophisticated," usually among the same folks who term restaurants with mismatched saltshakers "funky." They may mean "urbane," though applying that to a restaurant makes it sound as if they would be serving Roast Loin of David Niven with Monocle Sauce.
*Here the "Urban" may be the only term that is not disputed.
In the wake of the Vigneron contretemps, I've already gotten a couple emails this morning referring to the Pearl Oyster/Ed's Lobster dustup. Rebecca Charles, Pearl's owner, is suing a former employee for opening a place that is too similar to hers. I am not a lawyer, and am not familiar with intellectual property law, but it is hard for me to see exactly how the color of the wainscoating is something in which a distinct proprietary right inheres. If the places are as similar as the article, which seems pretty firmly in the Pearl corner, asserts, it is lame, but I would argue lame rather than morally wrong. There is no attempt to deceive, as would be the operative concern if this were a realm where the idea of plagiarism applied. If Charles wins, it opens up a whole can of worms -- no more mullet for the singer in Quarterflash, no more bowl cuts for the Monkees. From here, it looks like a case of bitch stole my look, which I do not think is illegal. Yet.
Steve Cuzzo, food critic for the print flagship of the Murdochocracy* takes time out to rail against something I am fond of railing against, which is the idea that a culinary education teaches you how to separate signifiers and signifieds -- in other words, serve what you like, call it what you like, and caveat emptor:
It is worth noting that there are several kinds of bullshit going on here. 1) There are words deployed inaccurately because they sound cool, like "risotto." 2) There are words that become magnets for imprecision like Caesar Salad. (See as always, Heidi Pollock's Might essay on the devolution of this term.) But these two habits of mind clear the way for the third, which is out-and-out untruths. Unfortunately, more of these lies are becoming laws, as in the Camembert story in DI/DO last week, and the recent push to expand the list of non-organic organics, fomented by clownshoes like John Foraker, CEO of Annie's Homegrown:
The mind fucking reels, but whatevs. I guess "possibly marginally better for you than Kraft" did not test well as the new slogan, so they are sticking with the organic shtick. But I digress. Tha Cuoz also details a completely different semantic breakdown:
If you are expecting something else, and complain about a sandwich, that's the diner's fault for not asking. This question of "assuming too much knowledge on the customer's part" is tricky It don't get much more "French-colonial"than Viet cold cuts on a baguette, and it would seem reasonable to presume patrons would know that. However, presuming too little knowledge on the part of diners can be fatal. If the menu at Esquina had one of those little charts that says Burrito: Pronounced Buh-ree-toe - a flour tortilla, etc.... the effect would be ruined. I'll leave the Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing to one side, but the question of what must be explained/translated and what must not is an interesting one. Who is obliged to explain what to whom? Certainly, if this denizen ordred an egg cream, she would be expected to know it contained neither. But does a ribs joint need to explain to New Yorkers that salad can mean many many things, some of which involve Jell-O, rather than mizuna?
*The NYT article is worth reading -- it's like one of those crazy rants about the various conspiracies to control the media, except it's true.
**Confidential to Parents -- if your kids think cheese is orange, you've fucked up.
I am constitutionally unable to watch Top Chef, or much TV at all, for that matter. So I don't care too much about plagiarism scandals because they involve former Top Chef contestants. I do care about plagiarism,* and I do care about the language, which is why it's worth pointing out that Marcel Vigneron is not a plagiarist. An asshat, quite possibly, but not a plagiarist. The OED defines plagiarism as
"The action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one's own; literary theft."
The second part is key. In order to plagiarize, one cannot simply appropriate another person's idea, but must also make a fraudulent representation as to the origin of the idea. Quarterflash, for instance, owes a good deal to Pat Benatar. Similarly, Guadalcanal Diary and R.E.M. You may well feel that Quarterflash and Guadalcanal Diary do not number among the great artists of the twentieth century, because their styles are derivative, but unless they tour as R.E.M. with special guest Pat Benatar, they are not committing any sort of crime.** From reading the Wired feature, I can't see where Vigneron makes any assertion that the ideas are entirely his. Similarly, in a recent multimedia feature on falafel, Bittman does not make any assertion that he invented falafel.*** What, then, is the difference between falafel and "yolk of carrot-cardamom purée ringed by a white of hardened coconut milk, garnished with carrot and cauilflower foams"? The tradition of falafel is more
established than of "cyber eggs," but if we had to invent a totally original dish for each meal we cook, we would starve. But that's ok. If you order a Caesar salad, truite au bleu, or a Denver omelet, you expect the cook's interpretation of a preexisting idiom. To expect otherwise would be like leaving a Sinatra concert disappointed because he did not sing original material.
I'm belaboring this point precisely because it is so obvious that it is easy to miss. I suspect it is the molecular gastronomy that gets things twisted. There are fields, like print, where presenting the work to the public implies that it is original, or at least the author's work. As we've seen above, there are fields, like food, where there is no such presumption of originality. Vigneron is a cook. If the staff at WD-50 wants to beef about plagiarism, this beef depends on a presumption that the rules are inherently different for them, or perhaps for molecular gastronomy, than for all of the other chefs in the world. Grub St. gets it right when it says that Vigneron "rips off" Dufresne. I am no fan of Vigneron, but what he does, appropriating and adapting a dish, is no different from what we've been doing as a species since we discovered fire. Vigneron is biting Wylie's style, sure, but he is not a plagiarist. In a culture where plagiarism seems to be more and more commonplace (see above) it's worth remembering what it is, and what it ain't.
*Here's what it says on the syllabus of every course I teach:
In its essence, a
university is a marketplace of ideas. Plagiarism is the theft of ideas. It is a
crime against everything a university stands for. Plagiarists will automatically
receive a grade of “F” for the semester and be subject to additional sanctions,
including expulsion. In any case of plagiarism in this class, I will
energetically pursue the most stringent penalty possible. If you have a
question about the appropriate use of sources, ask me. It is far better to turn
in an assignment late than to risk your future at [this university].
**It's actually not clear to me that plagiarism is a crime unless copyright is violated. So Cartman may be off the hook. Also, you know Jesus & Mary Chain would be on this bill.
***Evidently, asking who invented falafel can be a real conversation starter on the eastern Mediterranean.
I like baby cows almost as much as baby goats, of which more soon. I think it is nice that baby cows get to have better lives than they used to before they become veal. At the same time, there is an interesting semiotic battle going on here. In short what is veal? The OED has simply "the flesh of a calf as an article of diet,"and our friends at Wikipedia mention that none other than Julia Child asserted that non-formula-fed calves should be sold as "calf" instead of "veal."
Those changes on the farm have led to corollary changes in the
kitchen — a culinary serendipity that is just beginning to be
recognized. Veal from calves fed sufficient grass or grain as well as
milk has real character and flavor. For anyone who knows only the bland
old-fashioned veal, it is as if a brand-new ingredient has been
discovered. Tasting this new veal is not unlike biting into your first
heirloom tomato from the garden after a lifetime of eating supermarket
tomatoes bred for durability.
More humane, and tastier? What's not to like? Well, the new veal requires a new understanding of what veal is. If it is supposed to be white, mild and tender, and is now pink, beefy and chewy, is it still veal? Not according to some:
This is an unusual turn of affairs. As I am fond of arguing, the overlooked danger of the fast food industry is semiotic. Time and again the industry cheerfully demolishes the links between signifiied signifier we have been taught to cherish. In a world where meaning has no meaning, bad things can happen. I cannot say that the croissan'wich was sufficient to elect our current president, but the discursive climate that permits the croissan'wich to flourish is. But here, we have the bad guys, the crate veal apologists, defending the traditional semiotic value of veal. I think the move away from crate veal is salutary, but I worry about the linguistic precedent it sets.
Sounds nice. But "airbrushed food porn"? Pornography
is representation, a spectacle rather than an experience. The whole point is that it represents sex the viewer is not personally having, or bodies the viewer cannot touch. Food porn, on the other hand is much more slippery in meaning. There is the peculiar formulation of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the movie popcorn is bad for you people, if memory serves):
Absolutely. Bad stuff, but the only possible relation to porn would be that both porn and Thickburgers are bad. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, which was bad, but it was a day which shall live in infamy, not "naval porn." Larry Barnett, for all his sins, did not commit an act of "umpiring porn." Florida in 2000 was not "electoral porn," and so on. Theoretically, a magazine featuring spreads of unfeasibly large burgers could be "food porn," as it would offer thrills at the same vicarious level as regular pornography, but the problem with Thickburgers is precisely that they are a possible experience, rather than a spectacle -- an experience that will give you diabetes and stop your heart, but an actual experience for all that.
Conversely, Chang is using "food porn" to mean something good, not bad, but also available, at least to some, as an experience, not just as a spectacle. To review, "food porn" is either better or worse than regular food, and has nothing much to do with pornography. Hope this helps. This, on the other hand, may be the exception that proves the rule. (SFW, marginally.)
New-to-me DC blogger Harmany Music wonders about receipts* and copyright. As I prepare to raise this very same question at my day job, and evidentlyunsuccessful in my effort to delineate the difference between PR and journalism, I welcome thoughts on how the concept of authorship applies to receipts. The category of the secret receipt, like Coke or Col. Sanders' eleven herbs and spices** seems worth considering, in that if receipts functioned entirely like copyrightable works, they would not ever need to be secret -- it would be absurd to, say, keep The Corrections secret, out of fear that it would be duplicated -- the whole point of authorship is to allow for copies to be produced, with the stipulation that you have the right to control the process. The end use of a receipt is different, in that it functions more like a printing press than like a book. One can produce an infinite number of, say Lobster Savannahs from one copy of the receipt, so in order to control the production of Lobster Savannahs, one must guard the ingredients, proportion, and process. However, and here is where it gets tricky, copying the receipt does not mean the same end product. Nobu could hand out its black cod with miso receipt in fortune cookies to every diner, but the vagaries of supply, technique and equipment would stack the odds against Nobu diners replicating this dish at home. A few thoughts to conclude:
1) Despite relatively pervasive awareness that much comes in what Pampille calls the coup de main, home cooks continue to fetishize receipts -- again, the best evidence of this comes in the persistence of the secret receipt, common to Coke and KFC, not to mention Mrs. So-and-so, who will not divulge her Oysters So-and-so receipt for the Junior League cookbook. An excellent example of this mentality comes in the Beastie Boys video for Body Movin', an hommage to Diabolik with a plot that revolves around the struggle over a Betty Crocker fondue receipt card -- in the last shot, we see the villain savoring the fondue he has prepared from the purloined receipt.
2) If it is not all about the receipt, what of the enduring popularity of chef/restaurateur cookbooks? Your food is not gonna taste like Mario's or Alice's but folks seem to like these books anyway.
*That is to say, "recipe"; for reasons lost to posterity, and trouble spelling "recipe," the Gurgling Cod style guide specifies the older usage. **Lest we forget, PETA wants you to know that KFC tortures chicks. <Image deleted due to teeming hordes of google fueled onanists with nothing better to wank to than some poor young woman in a yellow bikini outside a KFC. Like Billy Bragg says, safe sex doesn't mean no sex, it just means use your imagination. So keep your Noxema out of my bandwidth.> Hard to pick a favorite here, though if you boil it down to making people fat, and scalding chickens alive vs. causing activists to stand in snow in bikinis, I'll give the nod to the animal rights folks in this matchup. But speaking of the Beastie Boys, authorship, and PETA, what about this?