Articles by L. John Harris
I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the New York Times this summer about the controversial Polish ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. I was just arriving in London, en route to Paris, and thought to myself, “Isn’t this what happened in the 1930s when Hitler came to power and began dismantling Jewish culture in Europe?”
As described in Dan Bilefsky’s article, “Polish Jews Fight Ban on Religious Slaughter of Animals,” the warring factions in the dispute compose the oddest collection of bedfellows one can imagine. At least in the 1930s you had relatively clear-cut sides in Poland: fascists vs. Jews.
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Defending religious ritual slaughter that uses a special razor-sharp knife for the task, you have, according to Bilefsky’s article, Polish Jews and Muslims (halal slaughter is similar to kosher) teamed up with the Catholic church — in fact, Pope Francis himself is involved. Hard to imagine the West’s three major, and often feuding, religions getting together on the same side of anything.
Supporting the ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the name of so-called “humane slaughter” — using a special “captive bolt” gun that stuns the animal into unconsciousness before slaughter — you have Polish animal welfare advocates, assorted leftists and right-wing nationalists (read neo-fascists). This latter group is, of course, happy to see Jews and other minorities in Poland lose out again.
Here’s the wrinkle: Ritual slaughter in Europe is legally exempt from the requirement of pre-slaughter stunning. The exemption, agreed to by the European Union in 1979, acknowledges the human right of religious minorities to carry out animal slaughter according to ancient traditions.
So the ban in Poland actually violates a legal exemption that appears to trump Poland’s ban. A pending ruling from Poland’s highest constitutional court will seek to resolve this dispute. In the meantime, the two sides are fighting it out in the court of public opinion, if not in the streets of Warsaw.
Déjà vu all over again
After reading the Times’ piece and an update on the ban in the Wall Street Journal, I began looking more deeply into the question of humane animal slaughter and its complex and eerie history.
In the early 1930s, efforts were made in Europe, especially in Germany to restrict ritual slaughter, at least ostensibly, in the name of animal welfare. In Great Britain, The Slaughter of Animals Act of 1933 required the electrical stunning of animals before slaughter. The exemption for religious slaughter that existed at that time was challenged by fascists, including British veterinarian Arnold S. Leese. In his 1938 paper “The Legalised Cruelty of Shechita: The Jewish Method of Cattle-Slaughter,” Leese states:
The Aryan or Christian has decided that his cattle shall be stunned first so that they will not feel the anguish of the cut and the awful struggle against death which follows it. The Jew and the Mahomedan claim and receive exemption by British law from following the Briton’s example.
Leese goes on to say that in a future fascist Britain, the exemption would be overturned.
The anguish of the cut
Going further back in history, one is reminded that the invention of the guillotine was considered humane in its day, a revolutionary technology designed to limit suffering in beheadings. The French Revolution’s bloody Terror was “revolutionary” in more ways than one.
And a razor-sharp metal knife must have been considered revolutionary (and humane) in ancient times. In Jewish dietary code, it is required that the blade of the shochet’s knife (the chalef) be extremely sharp and long enough to sever both carotid arteries with one smooth and decisive cut, thus causing near instantaneous unconsciousness, or “insensibility” as science likes to describe the loss of awareness (and pain) of animals being slaughtered.
Temple Grandin to the rescue
In all the recent coverage of the Polish ban on ritual slaughter, the one perspective curiously missing is that of science. Science is not my usual default position, but in this case, it’s the essential “objective” dimension in the debate over animal welfare and pain-free slaughter.
Who better, then, to provide the science than Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority on humane slaughter and, it must be noted, an unrepentant meat eater. Her personal story, including her triumph over autism, is well-known by now, following the recent release of the film “Temple Grandin.”
Grandin’s disability seems to be her virtue: objectivity. Typical of autism, Grandin has had difficulties with social interaction with humans, but her empathy for animals is uncanny and poignant. For much of her life, she hugged cows, not humans.
While her idiosyncratic personality may raise some eyebrows, no one can challenge Grandin’s credentials as a scientist — she has revolutionized the meat processing industry with her cattle management systems that keep the animals as comfortable as possible as they approach the inevitable. Her innovations are based on the insight that happy (stress-free) animals and pain-free slaughter guarantees better tasting meat for the consumer and more profits for the meat industry.
So when Grandin studied properly managed traditional ritual slaughter and compared it to modern technological slaughter she came to the following conclusion in a 1994 paper, “Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists”:
Kosher slaughter performed with the long, straight, razor-sharp knife does not appear to be painful … One can conclude that it is probably less distressful than poorly performed captive-bolt or electrical stunning methods, which release large amounts of epinephrine …
Elsewhere she has noted that properly handled cattle appear not to be aware during ritual slaughter that their throats have been cut. Grandin appears to be constitutionally incapable of anthropomorphism.
It’s still unclear how the Polish brouhaha (moohaha?) will be resolved in the courts, though a decision is expected soon. The forces arrayed in this story are ideological and emotional and tied to very old prejudices. But I’d like to think that Grandin’s approach, call it scientific empathy, will contribute once and for all to an end to these provocative bans on ritual slaughter and, at the same time, lead to increasingly well-managed ritual slaughter practices that guarantee animals the best of both worlds, here and in transition to the other.
Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris
Even an unrepentant meat eater like myself takes pause before the gory spectacle of tauromachia, the so-called art of bullfighting. Not that I’ve attended an actual Spanish corrida de toros, but I’ve recently seen Francesco Rosi’s painfully graphic 1965 film, “The Moment of Truth.” The “truth” of Spain’s traditional blood sport doesn’t get any more in your face than in Rosi’s classic tale of an aspiring young matador filmed on location at a huge bullring in Barcelona with a 300mm zoom lens used for soccer matches.
Animal rights advocates must have thrilled to the news in 2010 that bullfighting was being outlawed in Catalonia. From their perspective, a slaughterhouse bullet to an unsuspecting bovine brain is far more palatable than a matador’s sword “artistically” delivered between the shoulder blades to the heart of a charging one-ton toro.
After seeing Rosi’s film, I wished I could ask a bull: Would he prefer a painless but oblivious exit to one with suffering and style, or as bullfighting aficionados might say, con arte (with art)? As for me, I’d want to go con arte.
Bottom line, in either scenario the bull will be killed, butchered, cooked and eaten. Frankly, I’ve never considered bullfighting from a gastronomic perspective. I can now see, however, that the matador’s art form represents, in some sense at least, the first stage of an ancient life cycle ritual that ends, one way or another, at the dinner table.
A Spanish butcher in Berkeley
For all I knew, before Anzonini del Puerto arrived on the Berkeley scene in the late 1970s, the bloodied hulks dragged from bullrings were buried with cultural, if not military, honors. Anzonini, a legendary flamenco performer, butcher and cook from Andalusia (one of his nicknames was “butcher of bulls”) disabused me of my naïve disconnect.
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As a young man, Anzonini, born Manuel Bermúdez Junquera in 1917, worked at his family’s carnicería (butcher shop) in Puerto de Santa María, near Jerez in southern Spain. Among his tasks was to help cart bulls from the ring and prepare the meat for sale. The family shop was located near the town’s majestic Plaza de Toros. Legend has it that Anzonini could break down an entire bull and be back at the bullring in time to see the next fight.
When Anzonini arrived in Berkeley to visit a group of young flamenco students who had seen him sing and dance in southern Spain, they were ecstatic. These would-be performers worshipped Anzonini not only for his magnetic arte on stage, but also for his gifts in the kitchen. All of which were on full display the night I met Anzonini at a small fiesta held in his honor.
The evening was special for everyone involved: Anzonini’s fans and those, like myself, who were witnessing and tasting his special talents for the first time. As for Anzonini that night, well, he fell in love. The object of his coup de coeur (I know no Spanish language equivalent) was my fellow Cheese Board co-worker and founder of the now legendary Swallow Café at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, the late Patricia Darrow.
Anzonini’s favorite matador
Moving into Darrow’s small Gourmet Ghetto bungalow, Anzonini was soon presiding over local fiestas; performing, cooking and sharing stories about Spain with his adoring minions. I became one of Anzonini’s minions, and he bestowed upon me my flamenco name: Juan Ajo.
One story, recorded in Darrow’s unfinished manuscript about Anzonini and his food, expressed his deep connection to the Spanish corrida, not merely its beefy spoils. His favorite matador was Curro Romero who was, according to Anzonini, usually terrible, unintentionally comedic and often cowardly. But on some occasions Curro surpassed himself and his fellow toreros with technical and stylistic genius.
Darrow quotes one of Anzonini’s quips about Curro’s unique presence in the ring:
Running away [from the bull] Curro has more arte than all the rest … That’s how I dance; twenty times badly and one time with arte.
Anzonini obviously saw himself in Curro, at least in terms of performance. But in the kitchen there was never any doubt about Anzonini’s brilliance, and the dishes we tasted over the years were invariably delicioso.
Cocina con arte
Anzonini’s tasty contributions to Berkeley’s gastronomic gestalt in the late 1970s and early ’80s are seldom referenced today. That his sausages, especially his chorizo, inspired important California chefs such as sausage king Bruce Aidells (see the scene in Les Blank’s 1980 film “Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers” where they make chorizo together), and were a popular item for sale at Chef Victoria Wise’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, is passed over in most published accounts of Berkeley’s revolutionary food scene.
Nevertheless, Anzonini and his cooking live on in the memories and stomachs of those who shared those exciting years with him in Berkeley. The aroma coming off his beefy Puchero, a classic Spanish soup simmering on my stove as I write this, is a ticket back to those delicious days when Anzonini del Puerto, butcher of bulls, served his inimitable cocina con arte.
Serves 10 to 12
One of Anzonini’s most celebrated dishes is a delicately seasoned soup/stew prepared with a variety of fatty meats; in this version, oxtails, short ribs and shank. He kept containers of the broth frozen in the refrigerator and would bring it to friends when they were sick. The dish can be served separately as a Sopa de Picadillo with chopped egg, ham and mint followed by a meat course accompanied by small potatoes cooked in the broth.
For the broth:
6 to 8 quarts cold water
6 to 8 pounds beef (oxtails, short ribs, shank)
¾ pound salt pork
2 large tomatoes, quartered
2 large onions, quartered
1 large green bell pepper, sliced
2 to 4 bay leaves
8 to 10 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
2 dozen small boiling potatoes
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 cup diced ham, preferably Spanish
Fresh mint leaves
Bread brushed with olive oil and toasted
lemon slices (optional)
1. The day before serving, bring all ingredients for the broth to a boil and skim off impurities. Continue cooking at a slow boil for 2 to 3 hours, until meat falls off the bones. Refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, remove the fat layer that has solidified on top of the broth. Then heat the meat and broth and correct for salt. Remove the meats from the broth and discard the loose bones. Keep meat warm.
3. Boil potatoes in the broth until soft. Keep warm.
4. To serve, place a few teaspoons of chopped egg and diced ham in shallow soup bowls. Pour in the hot broth. Garnish with a mint leaf and serve with toasted bread. (Anzonini would fry the bread in olive oil.)
5. For the meat course, place meat back in remaining broth to heat through — a few minutes in simmering broth should do. Then serve the meat on plates with the potatoes. Hot broth can be placed on the table in gravy boats.
Note: Anzonini also served this broth in glasses with a slice of lemon and a mint leaf.
Top graphic: Gastro-graphical ISO street sign #4. Credit: L. John Harris
I can spot them in my North Berkeley neighborhood a mile away: Clumps of mostly middle-aged and conservatively-dressed tourists circling around youngish, mostly female, clipboard-toting tour guides and nibbling on tasty treats in front of popular foodie shops and iconic cafes and restaurants. Like flocks of hungry pigeons around bags of bird seed.
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These gourmet tasting tours, led by what one tour company calls “epicurean concierges,” are sprouting up all over America and the impact on the broader culture — national and international — is mushrooming. Witness the virtual takeover of CNN by Anthony Bourdain and his far-flung gourmet adventures in the recent series “Parts Unknown.” Bourdain did not invent American gastro-tourism, but he’s exporting it to every corner of the planet.
Globally, the zest for food-centric tourism is, at least marginally, all to the good for underdeveloped Asian, African and Latin American countries and Europe’s struggling southern tier economies hungry for tourist dollars and euros.
Locally, the phenomenon is coming to a neighborhood near you. In fact, it’s already here. Just about every major American city I’ve checked offers gourmet walking or bus tours now, combining tastes of neighborhood specialties with narratives about local history and architecture.
In my neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area, a company called Viator leads tasting tours of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and North Beach for $69 a ticket. Another tour company, Edible Excursions, has $75 apiece tours of Japantown and The Mission in San Francisco, and the trendy Temescal corridor in Oakland. But it was the $75 tasting tour in my own Berkeley hood, dubbed now the Gourmet Ghetto, that I could not resist.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
The online itinerary for my tour offered taste treats at some of the last surviving ghetto establishments that helped launch the California cuisine revolution and its foundational mantra “fresh, local, seasonal” in the 1960s and ’70s — including a coffee tasting at the original Peet’s Coffee & Tea shop and a cheese sampler at the worker-owned Cheese Board.
Although iconic Chez Panisse, the ghetto’s and California cuisine’s mother ship, does not participate in the ghetto’s tours, other veteran and newbie establishments do, including Poulet (roast chicken bites), Saul’s Deli (mini pastrami sandwiches), the Cheese Board’s Pizza Collective (pizza slices) and the recently opened Local Butcher Shop (charcuterie tastes). Gone but not forgotten in the ghetto’s historical narrative are Victoria Wise’s legendary Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie and Alice Medrich’s celebrated Cocolat.
The Gourmet Ghetto’s 800-pound historical elephant
If the obvious draw of these tours is food tasting, it seems to me that the narrative behind the food — in this case, the stories of the ghetto’s offbeat community and its radical “simple food” philosophy — is the true content of the tours. Or should be. I wondered whether my guide would agree?
Yes and no. Her facts were certainly accurate and the stories reasonably nuanced, as nuanced as one might expect from someone who wasn’t even born when the ghetto’s identity was being shaped. But there was an 800-pound historical elephant in the ghetto, something our guide didn’t know or didn’t think important to comment on — the fact that the very name “Gourmet Ghetto,” now the city-endorsed designation for our neighborhood, started out as a joke.
The term was coined in the 1970s as a snarky put-down by one of the first clerks at the Cheese Board, the comedian and San Francisco Mime Troupe member Darryl Henriques. Henriques would welcome his cheese-craving customers to the “gourmet ghetto” and rant about the counter-revolutionary explosion of trendy shops that followed the success of Chez Panisse and were “ruining” the neighborhood.
The dark irony of attaching “gourmet” to “ghetto” was not lost on the Cheese Board’s Jewish and left-leaning customers back in the day. Like so many terms associated with revolutions and their leaders in culture and art — lefties and hippies, impressionists and cubists — they often begin as the mocking labels of hostile critics, only to be adopted over time by the mainstream culture. Witness the rise of “foodie” as a replacement for the now overly-quaint “gourmet.”
Getting the stories straight
After my edible excursion I began to notice more and more ghetto tour groups. And I would shamelessly eavesdrop. One guide I overheard in front of the Cheese Board referred to the mission of this mom-and-pop shop when it opened in 1967 as “offering local artisan cheeses.”
Really? There were no local artisan cheeses when the Cheese Board opened. Laura Chenel was perhaps the first true local artisan cheesemaker in Northern California, starting her eponymous Sonoma goat cheese company in 1979.
Recently I caught another tour guide explaining to her group perched outside Saul’s Deli that the co-owner, Peter Levitt, had collaborated with Gourmet Ghetto-spawned Acme Bakery to offer an Old World Jewish rye bread because commercial rye (the ubiquitous New York rye with a cornmeal crust and caraway seeds) had “absolutely no rye flour in it.”
Scandal! Sacre bleu! Oy vey! Rye bread without rye flour.
Well, not really. When I mentioned the comment to Levitt that afternoon, his jaw dropped. “That’s just not true. I’ve never said that.” He proceeded to give me the learned lowdown on commercial rye bread, its low rye flour content and its link to a style of authentic rye bread from Eastern Europe that catered to the “refined” tastes of the rich and to certain preferred culinary applications — a lighter, whiter rye bread with a reduced ratio of rye flour to white flour that I, for one, still prefer, especially with pastrami and corned beef.
The correct narrative here, in our new Michael Pollan-ated world of whole grain consciousness, is that it’s not the quantity of rye flour in various styles of rye bread that counts, but the quality of that rye flour, where it’s grown and how it’s milled and baked. After that, its chacun à son goût.
Hot out of the oven
Who would have thought that young Berkeley lefties, hippies and proto-foodies like myself would create an American food revolution and live long enough to see how the historical narratives would be served forth, sometimes butchered, often manipulated or merely ignored, on popular gourmet tours?
Maybe I should lead my own tours of the Gourmet Ghetto to help keep the narratives honest. I’ll promote my tours by driving around the ghetto in a repurposed Oscar Mayer Wienermobile with a public-address system blaring: “Fresh local history. Get it while it’s hot.”
Top graphic: New ISO gastro-graphical street signs. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics
We are told there are four, five, six, even seven basic nutritional food groups, but there are really only two basic food-consuming groups, at least at the top of today’s fine dining food pyramid: the tasters and the eaters.
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The tasters are driven by consumerism and connoisseurship — they collect culinary experience; and the eaters by hunger and old-world gourmandise — they crave culinary experience. Both lay claim to the gastronomic high ground. And they have gone to war, at least in the media.
Pete Wells of the New York Times, a partisan in the battle, cleverly placed these two feuding foodie factions into a class perspective last fall in his Times article, “Nibbled to Death”:
… the elite who now fill these [tasting menu-only] dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.
Are tasting menus taking us to the cleaners?
Wells appears to have at least made peace with the best of the tasting menu-only restaurants, the ones that have captured most of the Michelin stars across America — like Alinea in Chicago, Atera in New York, Saison in San Francisco and, of course, the mother of all tasting-menu meccas, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.
But Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair (“Tyranny — It’s What’s For Dinner”) is taking no prisoners:
The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.
Thomas Keller’s French Laundry takes much of the brunt of Kummer’s explosive salvos. Kummer’s snarky gibes about the Stalinist tyranny and torture of contemporary tasting menu meals must have gotten Keller’s free-range goat.
In a recent interview in HuffPost San Francisco, Keller responded with careful disdain:
It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living … His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as Michael Bauer pointed out [Inside Scoop SF], you make the choice when you make the reservation.
I’m not sure that Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic cum blogger, has the requisite firepower to go up with Keller mano a mano against Kummer and Wells, but I think on this point the Keller/Bauer team wins the skirmish if not the war.
A French Laundry I could love
Keller also scores big when he comments in the interview that Kummer had not been to The French Laundry since 1997. A more recent visit would have revealed that the 40-course menu Kummer remembers so clearly has shrunk at the Laundry to just 12 courses. Not particularly overwhelming as tasting menus go.
Which is precisely why I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in March for a birthday lunch at The French Laundry. I had had a disappointing meal there in 2010 — you know, the usual complaints: too many dishes, food too fussy, nothing served hot, etc. — but didn’t want to rely on impressions from the past.
Of the dishes served this time, half were still either not to my liking (the raw-ish room temperature morsel of Hawaiian big-eye tuna was rather flavorless even with its quirky ”everything bagel” crust) or unnecessary (a pretty standard potato salad), and the other half surprisingly good, like exotic culinary jewels glittering with serious flavor.
If those delicious little dishes were repurposed on a prix fixe eating menu (see illustration), and portioned accordingly, it would have been one of the best meals of my life. Imagine an optional menu at The French Laundry that flips the traditional French dégustation menu on its head — more food per plate, fewer plates, same price ($270).
Looking back in hunger
When I decided to enlist in this battle of the tasters and the eaters, I assumed I’d take a few pot shots of my own at tasting-menu tyranny. But truth is I’ve found the media brouhaha overwrought and critically myopic. Would I have held with the Fauves when Cubism ascended to the throne of 20th-century painting? I might have found Cubism too drab and analytical compared to the wild color symphonies of the passing Fauvism; but the glory of art, real art in any medium (even food), is that it’s ultimately, and endlessly, expansive, never reductive.
Foreshadowing our current foodie feuding in his 1976 essay, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, got it spot on, I think, when he identified the two basic kinds of eating in our post-modern, post-consumerist world — peasant vs. bourgeois:
… the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten … Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.
Fifty years from now, I don’t want to sound like one of those 19th-century critics who wrote about Impressionist painting as amateurish and unfinished, if not outright evil. Contemporary tasting menus, for all the technical nonsense and extravagant excess, are far from evil, Stalinist or merely culinary. At their best, these meals are like going to the opera or those large multimedia art installations museums love to exhibit these days — a once-a-year adventure.
On the other hand, eater’s menus that present a simple food aesthetic paying homage to a traditional cooking and eating style (local, seasonal foods prepared well and served without fuss in standard courses to hungry eaters) can in fact bring greater satisfaction, as Berger suggests, than the most brilliantly avant-garde tasting menu spectacles. Cassoulet anyone?
Top graphic credit: L. John Harris with PNR Graphics
Considerations of last meals range from the poignantly real cravings of inmates on death row, to the effete flavor fantasies of famous foodies like Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain reportedly wants only roasted bone marrow with sea salt on toasted baguette slices for his final feast, while most sorry souls facing judgment day in prisons across America request simple comfort foods like burgers, pizza and, most common, fried chicken.
Though I love roasted bone marrow as much as the next guy, my last-meal fantasy falls into the death row inmate’s camp. But what levels all perspectives on final cravings is the blunt reality of death’s humbling universality, immortalized by John Donne in his “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII”:
“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Meaning that we are all, foodies and felons alike, in the same boat, heading for the same port. “No man is an island … ” is another famous line from this same meditation.
Julie Green’s blue plate specials
I began to plan my own last meal after reading about Oregon artist Julie Green, whose series of more than 500 ceramic plates titled “The Last Supper” depicts the meals eaten by death row inmates before their executions. Each of Ms. Green’s white plates features a glazed cobalt blue painting of the documented foods along with the date of the meal (no inmate names appear on the plates). With charming, folkloristic images and an elegant blue-on-white theme reminiscent of Dutch Delftware, the plates are at the same time a bit on the creepy side.
Green’s mission — part aesthetic, part gastronomic, part political — is to continue the series until capital punishment is outlawed in the United States. A noble proposition. But what I find so provocative about her plates — as art — is that while indeed lovely to look at, they are so darkly conceived and, yes, executed. How does one reconcile the pleasure in life of delicious nourishment with the awareness of life’s eventual, sometimes imminent, ending? Ms. Green seems to be saying, in part, that great art, if not great food, can bridge the existentially fraught gap.
Famous last meals
Perhaps the most legendary depiction of a last supper in any art medium is “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. A pretty picture that presents a not-so-pretty story: a radical Jewish rabbi, at a table with his apostles, has threatened Rome’s power in Jerusalem. He is arrested after the meal, tried, convicted and executed. Each of the characters in Leonardo’s mural reacts viscerally to the horror of Jesus’ predicament, and yet the overall effect of the painting is one of harmony via a brilliantly unified single point perspective.
From my cell in Berkeley’s city jail
It must be noted that Jesus’ last meal was consumed before his arrest, trial and conviction, though apparently he foresaw what was coming, as did Judas who betrayed him to the authorities. My own last-meal fantasy, like most last meals served to prisoners post-Calvary, takes place after my conviction, while awaiting execution.
Considering that the scene is set in a local Berkeley jail, my last supper features not just one of my favorite foods, as with Mr. Bourdain and his precious marrow bone, but a whole menu of Berkeley dishes I have enjoyed over the years. All of these are donated gratis, as my fantasy would have it, by some of the East Bay’s finest (and obviously civic-minded) purveyors of fine food.
I wonder how Green would capture my last-meal choices on one of her plates?
Top illustration credit: “For Whom the Bell Pepper Tolls” by L. John Harris
The Greeks seem well on their way to a fate akin to the Dodo. Or so one gathers from media reports on the southern Eurozone countries known as PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — and the economic free fall that has threatened the survival of the Eurozone.
Of the Eurozone’s southern-tier PIGS, the Greeks are the real tragedians, an Homeric tale of hubris, greed and corruption that has pushed the feta capital of the world to the brink of self-destruction that would make America’s Great Recession look like a picnic.
So how can we help, we who believe in Greece more, perhaps, than the Greeks? We, that is, who grew up loving tzatziki, moussaka, spanakopita and “Zorba the Greek.” I’m thinking gastro-tourism and its twin, agro-tourism. And I’m proposing a new airline, CULINAIR, and we are going to save Greece and the Eurozone one cuisine at a time. Yes, a UFO invasion, waves of 737s filled with Urban Food Obsessives, aka foodies, descending on Greece to plant dollars in the fertile fields of the Peloponnese.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth
One recent headline in the Wall Street Journal puts Greece’s tragedy this way: “For Greeks, Crisis Reverses A Generation of Progress” (Nov. 19, 2012). The article focuses on the stories of several nouveau bourgeois Greeks forced to leave Athens and return to their ancestral villages and family farms and to lives of hard labor and poverty.
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Or, as journalists Gordon Fairclough and Nektaria Stamouli put it in their Journal article, “Families that had clawed their way into the middle class in the decades after World War II are slipping painfully backward.”
Painful, of course, but backward? Sad that Greeks raising goats to make cheese and harvesting olives for oil, two things they do as well as any country in Europe, consider themselves losers. “For many people my age growing up in Athens,” says a former plumber featured in the article, “they wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this.”
“This” refers to milking a goat.
Ironic that these same food-production tasks, laborious and low-paying as they may be, are considered career choices today by young middle-class urbans around the world hungry for a more authentic life connected to the land and the production of first-class culinary products.
Gastro-tourism to the rescue in France
To be sure, the forced return to difficult rural lifestyles by tens of thousands of Greeks is not a particularly happy choice. But what they don’t seem to see is the silver lining that their farming neighbors to the north are discovering: that there is gastro-tourist gold in them thar Eurozone hills. Have these Greeks lost touch with their inner Zorba? He was, after all, a chef, not just a chronic dancer and philandering lush.
Witness, for example, regions like France’s Dordogne where the agriculture sector is being supported by creative refugees from France’s urban middle class. Case in point: The Brusquand farm in this southwest region of France (also known as Perigord) and its four generations of farming women — Isabelle, Ginette, Marie and, now, Charlotte, the 20-something daughter of Isabelle and husband Christophe — who have opened a restaurant that features the special products from their duck and goose farm such as foie gras, patés and confit.
I first heard about the Ferme du Brusquand and its new auberge last fall at the Bay Area’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Premiering was the documentary “After Winter, Spring“ by Judith Lit, an American living part time on a small farm in the region. Over the course of three years, she focused her camera on her neighbors, farmers who have come up against forces that threaten a way of life that has evolved since Neolithic times: encroaching suburbia, industrial farm competition and decreasing subsidies.
The farm’s new restaurant — Auberge de la Ferme du Brusquand — is managed by young Charlotte who has returned home from Paris to join her family. Her father, Christophe, is the chef. Good reviews of the auberge and two new rental cottages on the property have sparked an invasion of UFOs that make it possible now for the older Brusquand women to enjoy the fruits of their labor without the fear of losing the farm.
Crooked labels and crooked books
It may seem naïve to think that a surge of Greek pride in its gastronomic patrimony will help turn around the Greek economy, let alone the Eurozone. Corrupt business practices, fuzzy regulations and even crooked labels on Greece’s upscale gourmet products don’t help matters. And the truth is that Greece’s most popular products, like feta cheese and olive oil, have never caught on outside Greece on the scale of equivalent products produced by European competitors to the north.
According to Bay Area entrepreneur Peter Damm, whose former import-export company, Peloponnese, had moderate success in the U.S. back in the 1980s: “Even superb Greek products from small family farms, such as delicate olive oils and handpicked herbs, couldn’t compete with French and Italian offerings. There was a perception that Greece was just not a refined culture, so these products just couldn’t be good.”
Oink like a pig, WWOOF like a farmer
Despite the perceptual and actual obstacles, it’s possible now to at least consider a turnaround for Greece driven by its menu of classic delights. Worldwide trends in gastro- and agro-tourism may in fact be the key — like farms in France, Great Britain and elsewhere that are making room for authenticity junkies to participate in, or at least watch, the daily routines. Dude farms, it turns out, are cash cows.
Then there’s the international organization known as WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, that puts volunteers to work — really work — all over the world. Imagine young nouveau-poor but land-rich Greeks repurposing their family farms and producing products with the free labor of UFOs dying to get their hands dirty in the name of righteous agriculture and gastronomy.
The more I think about it, saving Greece and the Eurozone through gastro-tourism is no fantasy. All that Greece and its fellow PIGS need, and all CULINAIR needs, is the capital — culinary, political and financial — to make it happen. Are you listening Angela Merkel and Sir Richard Branson?
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris and PR Graphic Arts
If it’s true that we are what we eat, then did my feasting on poulet rôti in Paris last summer render me more French or more chicken? Based on the sheer volume of roast chicken consumed, I would have to say “more chicken.”
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
Back home in Berkeley, Calif., there is so much really good traditional roast chicken available in restaurants and takeout shops — with French names like Poulet, Café Rouge, Bistro Liaison and Nizza la Bella (“Beautiful Nice”) — that I’m not sure whether my Paris binge was an homage to the gallocentric traditions in France that helped shape my passion for the humble roast, or merely a transatlantic extension of a preexisting culinary condition.
Granted, our farm-raised (poulet fermier) chicken production in the Bay Area (and the U.S. generally) does not yet measure up to France’s Label Rouge poultry program (See French Chicken, Part 1). And we are about 15 years behind European standards for animal welfare, according to advocates I’ve talked to.
But if Paris beats Berkeley in the overall quality of its poultry, not so in the roasting. Parisians seem to be taking their well-bred birds for granted these days, at least in their bistro kitchens if not in their homes and outdoor markets.
A tale of two birdies
At celebrity chef Guy Savoy’s L’Atelier Maître Albert in Paris’ 5th Arrondissement, the handsome wall-sized rotisserie had two enticing birds (from the les Landes region) twirling away on their spit, just waiting for me, right? Wrong.
About 25 minutes after ordering the 22-euro (about $28) Volaille fermière rôtie, my two small so-so-tasting chicken pieces, a small leg and quarter breast, arrived nestled against a typical mound of buttery bistro purée.
Those love birds, still spinning as I left, were apparently all show and no go.
So where had my chicken pieces come from, the stork?
French chicken loves garlic
Equally disappointing was the Provençal-style roast chicken with thyme and whole cloves of garlic touted at La Bastide Odéon in the 6th Arrondisement. The traditional Provençal combination of chicken and garlic was popularized in the U.S. by folks like James Beard with their variations on the classic poulet aux quarante gousse d’ail (chicken with 40 cloves of garlic).
Either Beard was dreaming, or there was a garlic harvest blight in France last summer because my skinless chunks of white meat and a small leg were served with just one clove of garlic! It hadn’t even caramelized into that soft, sweetly nutty puddle of garlic heaven one expects. And what was with the skinless breast meat? Poulet rôti sacrilege!
The best chicken in the world?
Of the many poulet rôtis I gobbled down in Paris bistros, the only real standout was the 85-euro (about $108) whole chicken for two at Chez L’Ami Louis in the 3rd Arrondissement. This is the notoriously high-end, old-school bistro that food critics love to hate — including A.A. Gill who labeled it “the worst restaurant in the world” in his rather hilarious 2010 Vanity Fair thrashing of the place.
Inducement enough for me to go! I’m a bit of a rubbernecking ambulance chaser when it comes to hatchet-job restaurant reviews — I like to see (and taste) the damage for myself. On occasion, like this one, I even write rebuttals.
Not only was L’Ami Louis’ bird (a black-legged Label Rouge “noir” bird from the Challans region) moist and flavorful and its delicate skin crisp, but the bird was graciously served (Gill found the servers at L’Ami Louis “sullen”) in two brilliant courses — white meat first, then dark — both accompanied by ladles of perfect jus. If anything at L’Ami Louis was sullen, it was the limp mound of pommes frites served with the chicken.
Adding to the pleasingly retro pomp at L’Ami Louis, our server had first brought the whole roasted bird to the table for our inspection before carving, like a proud father showing off his newborn.
I have experienced this kind of poultry love ritual — usually reserved for home-roasted turkeys at Thanksgiving — only once before. Counterintuitively, it was at Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steak house, Cut, in Los Angeles, where the server shows off a small, locally-grown and brined poussin before carving and plating. Was I envious of the person at the next table with their $150 Japanese Wagyu rib eye? Well, just a little, though my $38 chicken was plenty good.
All you need is love, love, love
One of the tastiest, and surely the most love-infused roast chickens I had all summer was at the home of my American friend David Jester and his French wife Evy. Our Label Rouge plein air “jaune” bird (yellow skin and feet) purchased from Boucherie Dumont near Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, was raised in the Ain region in eastern France, where celebrity Bresse chickens come from. After 90 minutes in the oven, the coarse salt-rubbed five-pound bird had deliciously crisp skin and juicy, rosemary-scented meat. Evy served the bird with the pan juices and the caramelized carrots, garlic cloves and lemon rind that had roasted alongside the bird for the last hour in the oven. Heaven.
Evy says that the secret of her chicken’s succulent flesh and crisp skin, learned from her mother, is to start the bird out in a cold oven set at 400 degrees F. An interesting technique to be sure, but I can’t agree. Evy’s real secret, I believe, which I think too many Parisian chefs and restaurateurs have sadly forgotten, is that you must — and I say this at the risk of sounding pathetically Berkeley — love poulet rôti, love making it well and love those you are serving to do gastronomic justice to an honored bird, whether in Paris or Berkeley, or anywhere else.
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris
The French take their chicken, like their freedom, very, very seriously. In fact, they appear to equate the two. The national symbol of France dating to the French revolution is the rooster, le coq gaulois. And the most acclaimed chicken in France, prized for its depth of flavor, is still, after centuries of careful breeding, the white-feathered poulet de Bresse, which sports a red coxcomb and blue legs and feet. Patriotism in France is bottom up.
Part 1: Do labels equal liberty for France's best birds?
Part 2: A chicken-tasting tour of Paris.
No surprise, then, that the signature French cigarette brand, Gauloise, features a highly stylized chicken logo on its blue package. The national motto of France — liberté, égalité, fraternité – was printed on that blue package back in the day when the New Wave movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo was often seen on screen with a Gauloise hanging from his full, pouty lips. Well, does a French chicken have lips?
As staple food and cherished symbol of freedom, the humble (sometimes comedic) chicken is at the very foundation of French culture and identity. King Henri IV knew this well when, in the 16th century, he called for a chicken in every peasant’s pot.
I came to appreciate the special place (and price) of chicken in French culture this past summer while eating an awful lot of poulet rôti in Paris bistros and cafés. I plucked roasted chickens from twirling rotisseries at boucheries (butcher shops) and marchés (outdoor markets) all over town. There was a wonderful home-roasted chicken too (see description in Part 2), as one might expect from a culture that gave us the simple but delicious comfort food tradition known as cuisine de bonne femme.
But getting a handle on France’s highly evolved farm-raised poultry industry (poulet fermier) and its exhaustively (and sometimes confusingly) labeled products seems to require an advanced degree in agricultural science, if not French culture and linguistics.
Among the most pampered chickens in France, perched at the pinnacle of France’s poultry hierarchy, are birds élevé en liberté or “raised in liberty.” This term is proudly printed on the colorful labels attached to pricey packages of poultry sold under France’s prestigious Label Rouge certification program.
It’s no accident that the term adopted for France’s premium birds appears first, ahead of both “égalité” and “fraternité,” in its national motto. It took almost the entire 19th century for the revolutionary tripartite motto’s terms and sequence to become fixed. Extending the term liberté to identify and market France’s finest poultry was set in motion in the 1960s when the Label Rouge program was launched.
French chicken a little less free
The liberté-raised birds are allowed to roam outdoors without fences or time restrictions. “Totally free” is another translation for “élevé en liberté.” Accordingly, these birds command the highest prices in French shops, save for organic (bio) poultry and specialty birds like those from the region around Bourg-en-Bresse in the east of France, which are AOC protected and produced, it is claimed, under conditions even more demanding than Label Rouge.
But there is no one-term-fits-all label in France for free-range birds as in the U.S. An existential notch below élevé en liberté chickens are those élevé en plein air, or raised out-of-doors. These plein air chickens (and ducks, geese, turkeys, etc.) are required under the Label Rouge program to have ample time to range outside their coops within a fenced but generous area of no less than 21 square feet per bird. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s more lax standards require only that free-range poultry producers give their birds unspecified and unverified time outdoors with no space requirements. Home, home on the range? Well, at least once in awhile, if they are lucky.
Note that plein air is the same term used to describe the Impressionist landscape painting style of the late 19th century when French oil painting was liberated from the confines and subject matter of academic studio painting. Free-range painters.
From a French existentialist perspective
The freedom- and chicken-loving French may be all about liberty for themselves and their winged comestibles, but no matter how strict and humane the regulations under a certification program like Label Rouge (and several programs in the U.S. that emulate the standards), the chicken in France is far from free, existentially speaking. Modern chickens and all their related galliformes, whether free-range or factory-farmed, are bred, raised, slaughtered, labeled and consumed at the complete whim (and profit) of humans.
As one butcher put it to me when I asked a lot of questions about the chicken I was investing in (a lovely plein air bird raised just outside the Bresse appellation, and at a more palatable price), “If chickens were really free to range they would take off and never return.” I laughed and shot back a gallinaceous variation on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from his existentialist play, “No Exit,” “Yea, hell is other chickens.”
But after all the existential considerations of French poultry and the euphemistic terminology used by compassionate (and clever) carnivores to market it, one still has to cook the bird, and cook it well to fully appreciate its culinary virtues.
In Part 2 of this report, I present critical findings from my chicken-tasting tour of Parisian restaurants, shops, farmers markets and homes. The results may surprise you, as they did me.
Top photo: Chicken labels in a Paris shop window. Credit: L. John Harris