Taco Tuesday

Taken from the Taqueria Zorro website.

I’ve learned a lot of things living on the East coast.  Things like when a Mexican joint hangs a “Taco Tuesday!!!” sign sponsored by Bud Lite, you’re probably taking a gamble on quality.

Last night I took that gamble.  After grabbing a few great beers at the Rogue Public House, I stopped in a narrow little place called Taqueria Zorro.  I ate my tacos in a virtually empty room, plastered with beer posters, neon paint, and streamers.  Tupac droned.  The one other diner – a tough, all-business looking guy – had no actual food in front of him, but sat in the corner, periodically picking his head up from the book he was reading to smile and nod at me.

With this unfamiliar and disconcerting backdrop, I had unquestionably one of the top 3 tacos of my life.  Grilled chicken on homemade corn tortillas with plenty of fresh salsa verde.  I ate ’em quick, though, and made sure not to make eye contact with the reader on the way out.

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The New Food Architects

Let’s say you’re a professional designer and you’ve just been hired for a major project.  Your task is to improve an extremely common and simple object.  Something every person you know already owns, uses, and likes.   Something like a chair.

You might start slowly, by thinking about the function of a chair.  “Well, I guess to be sat on,” you’d say.  Okay, well they pretty much all get that right.

So you brainstorm a little more.  What other things could it do?  You’d probably decide to add some cool features like heating pads, or vibrating cushions, or surround sound.  It’ll obviously need a USB port somewhere.  And you’d for sure make it beautiful, with the best materials you could find (double points if they’re locally sourced).  Then, after you finished, you’d take a step back from your masterpiece and you’d say to yourself, “I did it.  I improved the chair.”

But you’d be wrong.

The chair

Last night I watched an incredible documentary on Charles and Ray Eames, an architect and a painter who, in the early 1940s, redesigned the chair.  What was so awesome to me was how they approached the project.  Unlike this post’s straw-man premise, the couple didn’t think about how cool their chair could be, but how far it could reach.  For the project – and for their entire career – their motto was simple: “The best for the most for the least”.  The chair they ultimately designed was beautiful, comfortable, and cheap.  True to their goal, it was so widely purchased that the Eameses almost singlehandedly ushered in a revolution in American design.

The jump from the Eames chair to a revolution in food may not be obvious, but its there.  The food world is lucky enough to be full of talented architects like Charles Eams, all itching to redesign the stale system.  Still, it seems like too many of them are focused on growing food upward, rather than outward.

Consider that over the past 20 years, US sales of organics foods have grown from $1 billion to over $26 billion.  That’s a huge success for the industry.  Yet over the same period of time, US obesity has tripled from 11.6% to 33.8%.  One in three American adults is obese.  In other words, the foodie rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer.

Graphically, I imagine the landscape looks something like this.

Basically, for those with the means and the interest to eat well, the world is increasingly bursting with options…which is great.  I mean, check out how many people are eating awesome stuff.  But the graph clearly doesn’t paint a perfect picture.  And for architects looking to make a change, I figure there are two main ways to do it.

Option 1: Lower the Awesome Food Threshold

These architects are the ones engineering 20 calories out of the skinny Frappuccino, or adding extra fiber to your whole-wheat ice cream sandwiches.  By introducing cooler and cooler food options into the market, they incrementally raise the right side of the graph.  Some of the innovations may be a bit redundant, but as a designer, pushing the upper frontier is a pretty fun place to be.

But how many people do these innovations actually help?

Considering the dismal state of our nation’s health (including the limited access to healthy foods in many parts of the country), the work of these designers may lose some of its mystique.  What the food world needs is more architects like Charles and Ray Eames, people bent on making the best for the most for the least.  In that case, the future of food might look more like…

Option 2: Improve the Base Eating Conditions

…this.  It may not be as sexy, but the most needed innovations won’t happen on local farms or in artisan kitchens.  They’ll happen with frozen produce and over cramped apartment stoves.  Focusing energy on the left side of the curve will allow a huge number of people to view food differently, improving their health and their lives in the process.

Luckily, there are brilliant architects out there working on just this.  They’re people like Mark Bittman, who proves that fast food is no cheaper, no more convenient, and no more delicious than a meal prepared at home.  Or Jamie Oliver, who’s using his celebrity status to budge federally funded school lunches.  Or my recent professor, Dr. Brian Wansink, whose research cares more about the size of the plate than what’s on it.

But I guess the bigger point is that there’s still a lot more to do.  The systems thinking needed to restructure the way Americans eat is a massive undertaking, and demands the collective effort of an army of geniuses, dreamers, and leaders.  There’s no shortage of these people out there right now – they just need to adjust their focus to the left side of that graph.

Watching this documentary didn’t teach me a thing about food, but it got me thinking about the process of change itself.  Revolution doesn’t just happen, it’s designed.  Big picture stuff.  I feel it coming, and can’t wait to bust out of school and really join this new class of food architects – bringing the best for the most for the least.

The F-Word

I have been reading an awful lot about Foodies lately.

An assignment for school has me analyzing 25 online food articles.  Some are written by true “gastronomes” (Item: Did France’s Le Fooding movement just snub Guy Savoy?!) while others take a grittier approach (Silk moth caterpillers = good eating!).    Despite their differences, one characteristic has been painfully universal: it’s all sort of embarrassing.

Take that with a grain of Himalayan Pink Sea Salt.  Writing about food is obviously something I really care about.  There are many writers who do good by drawing attention to certain issues, and many more that grow personally from thinking through what they eat (taking into account the the occasional fluff).  But what about the writer who masks gluttony as appreciation?  Or the smug celebrity chef who’s fences keep the public out?  Foodies may be fun, some may be talented, but often, they’re wolves in Curried Lamb’s clothing.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read B.R. Myers’ Atlantic article, The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.  Basically, it’s an informed rant against pretentious food writing.  And while Myers’ argument has no shortage of gross generalizations, it shines a spotlight on a trend that may harm as much as it helps.  Take the following (glorifying) passage from the Best Food Writing anthologies:

I watched tears streak down a friend’s face as he popped expertly cleavered bites of chicken into his mouth … He was red-eyed and breathing fast. “It hurts, it hurts, but it’s so good, but it hurts, and I can’t stop eating!” He slammed a fist down on the table. The beer in his glass sloshed over the sides. “Jesus Christ, I’ve got to stop!”

Enlightening?  Without a doubt.

Deception through Brownies (In the Name of Science)

Pictured: beets, brownies, and bounty.

Apologies for not posting in a while… it’s been pretty busy in Ithaca.  Here’s one of things I’ve been working on that you all might find interesting:

1 of the 2 blogs

For my consumer research class, my classmates and I conducted social experiments on a group of defenseless undergrads.  My study (unsurprisingly) involved food blogs.  Surprisingly, it also involved me baking.

The basic question was this: What will make a food recommendation more effective: if the source has expertise or familiarity?  The design was pretty simple.  First, I made subjects read 1 of 2 fake food blogs.  They were both identical except for 1 thing: the author.  One blog was supposedly “written” by the executive chef of all Wegman’s grocery stores (someone with high expertise) while the other was “written” by a fellow Cornell student (someone with high familiarity).

The blog posts were recipes for 2 different foods: Beet-Apple Sauce and Fudgy Yogurt Brownies.  After subjects were finished reading, I gave them all samples of the food (homemade, of course) and asked them what they thought about them (in a ton of different ways).

The results?  Actually, I have no idea – but I’ve got to code them all by 1:30 tomorrow, so you won’t have to wait long!

P.S. How do you like my new, manic writing style?  When you’ve got no time, you’ve got no time for nonsense.  That’s a fact.

Science in action.

Too Much of a Good Thing: My Fallout with Watermelon

Everyone’s got the “food fallout story”.  You know, the kind that starts with “I used to love oysters” and ends with a fought-off gag reflex and a hollow-eyed “…never again.”  Whatever nightmare sandwiched in between is traumatic enough to turn our most cherished comfort foods completely nauseating.  Total fallout.

Before it all began... we were all so innocent then.

That said, I used to love watermelon.  I’ve actually written about it a few times – from the Watermelon Rule I lived by these past couple summers (“Thou shalt always have it in the fridge”) to my very tasty Watermelon Gazpacho.  It’s delicious, it’s iconic, it’s fun.  I mean, common – it’s watermelon.   

Recently, for better or worse, my love for the stuff went very public.  On behalf of my grad program’s volunteer committee, I threw a “No-holds barred” contest to see who could eat the most watermelon for charity.  It was the Ithaca is Gorging on Watermelon Eating Contest, and it was held smack in the center of downtown Ithaca.  Obviously, my reputation as an eater, as a volunteer, and as a man was on the line, and I entered to win. 

The structure of the contest was simple.  12 competitors, 2 rounds.  The first round was all about speed.  The competitors – broken up into 3 heats – would each eat half a watermelon as fast as they could.  Whoever ate the most at the end of 2 minutes advanced to the final round.  Essentially a slug-match, round 2 gave the three remaining eaters 5 minutes to eat as much as they could force down.  The winner was whoever could do the most damage.  Continue reading

“You know what I want.”

The wecome aesthetic of the LES.

For the first time in a long time, I’m writing from what used to me my captain’s chair: NYC, the Starbucks at Delancey and Allen, seat by the window. I’m in the city for a couple days while on break, and let me tell you it is good to be back. Last night I finally got to hang out with my old roommates at Laura’s new restaurant – Ellabess in Nolita – a very cool place. I ordered “The Capri”, a house cocktail made with vodka, muddled peach and cucumber, St. Germaine, and sparkling wine. It was a total powerhouse… really awesome. Drinking it took me back to my own days behind the bar, specifically to lessons learned from one of my favorite regulars.

the view from the chair

This guy’s name was Alan. Now as a bartender, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of service jobs, you encounter a ton of personalities. Over time, and especially with alcohol, it gets to be pretty obvious which ones float to the top and which ones don’t. Alan didn’t just float – he was like a styrofoam ball. For all intents and purposes, picture country music legend Kenny Rogers (menwholooklikekennyrogers.com). Too Santa Clause-y to be cool? You’d be surprised. When Alan sat down at the bar, owned it. Continue reading

Fresh Look, Fresh Lemonade

Never-before-heard lemonade stand quote: "Marina! Don't forget the garnish!"

A few matters of business:

1) Welcome to the new EatingGoodly.com! You may have noticed there’s a different look in here…the grainy picture of that faceless mustachioed man has been replaced by the crisp, clean lines of Americana-Andy. For those who didn’t know, the owner of that mysterious mustache was my good friend, Sam. I’m sure his presence will be missed by some.  More style updates should be on the way…

2) If you’re waiting with baited breath for Part 3 of the Corn Futures series, hang in there. It’s coming. Promise.

Okay, now about that lemonade…

For those who’ve never been to Ithaca, it’s a bit different up here.  My girlfriend, who went to school up here, explains it well: “You know the whole organic/local movement that’s really big right now?  Ithaca’s pretty much the capital of it – but they don’t even know its in style. It’s a way of life.”  A case in point is that lemonade from above, which came from the first organic lemonade stand I’ve ever come across.

I didn’t ask for organic certification (should I have?), but I did ask permission to photograph Marina and her brother’s operation.  Cool kids, delicious chocolate chip cookie, organic lemonade.  Not a bad day in Ithaca.

Times they are a changing.