I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
It’s spring in Southern California, and our backyard fruit trees have run riot. Golden yellow loquats the size of my child’s fist hang heavily from two trees, and oranges left over from the winter crop spectacularly cover a 30-foot tree shading my daughter’s playhouse. Our yard looks like a postcard trumpeting the glories of Los Angeles suburbia, circa 1923.
But as with any paradise there’s a dark side. This year, the dark side comes from the loquats. I don’t know what to do with them.
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There are so many loquats that our yard has become a hazard. Fully-ripe loquats drop from our trees every five minutes, and as my daughters play in the yard, they grind the soft yellow orbs messily into the lawn and walkway. Still more are up there, some as high as 40 feet, way beyond the reach of our ladder and picking tool. They’ve become a feast for the flocks of squawking, screaming wild parrots in our neighborhood.
These are another holdover from the 1920’s “California is Paradise” meme. Some of the wild parrots are said to be runaways from the estate of Lucky Baldwin, and the creatures tear the loquats to bits, scattering the seeds and skins across our back yard to mix with the rotting ones.
We have two loquat trees that dominate our backyard, each with slightly different variety of fruit. When we first moved to this house, I had no idea what loquats were and wasn’t even sure they were edible. For several weeks we raked them into huge messy piles and shoved them into the recycling bin. But I couldn’t stand to see this bounty left to rot, so I started asking questions about this small, fleshy yellow fruit. I discovered that loquats are not only edible, they’re downright delicious. My youngest daughter became obsessed with loquats when she was just a year old and ate her weight in loquats that first season.
Don’t sweat the seeds
Over the past few years, I have turned our loquats into loquat cobbler, loquat butter and loquat leather, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem with loquats is their incredible seed-to-flesh ratio. Each loquat contains one to six large seeds, which means that you get almost as much seed as you do edible flesh in each loquat.
When I first starting researching loquats, I’d read that the seeds were poisonous. Filled with arsenic, and possibly cyanide. The websites were not clear. But like any paranoid mother, I worried that my children might eat them and fall into a temporary coma, just like an unnamed child I’d read about online. Although we’d been eating loquats for several years without incident, I decided to put my fears to rest once and for all by checking with an expert.
I put in a call to professor Jules Janick, director of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University. He’s not only the co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts,” he is also a kind and understanding voice of reason. Janick told me that loquat seeds are indeed toxic, but then so are the seeds of apples and pears. To put things into perspective, Janick said, “If you ate 3 pounds of them, then it might be a problem.” He also reminded me that the bitterness of the seeds would stop someone from eating them pretty quickly. I realized that my daughter was at far greater risk for choking on a loquat seed than being poisoned by its chemical components.
Backyard loquat adventure
With this in mind, on an April afternoon, I took my loquat-loving youngest daughter to the back yard to begin Loquat Harvest 2013. We planned to fill my daughter’s toy wagon with enough fruit to make loquat leather, but we were quickly distracted by the fun of the collection process. We examined huge spider webs woven between the tree’s broad leaves. We ducked our heads from a torrent of loquat hail that rained down on us as I used our fruit picker to reach an especially high cluster of fruit. But we stopped in our tracks when we discovered a tiny hummingbird’s nest attached to a small wavering branch of our loquat tree. All thoughts of loquat leather disappeared and we marveled at this tiny treasure.
Our loquat tree was not only a source of food for humans and birds alike, it was a home. Our loquat trees now feel like an integral part of our own home, one that we happily share with our feathered friends.
I’m still experimenting with new ways to use the backyard bounty, without creating more work than necessary. The simplest approach is to just eat the fruit straight from the tree, spitting out the seeds, of course. But that’s a LOT of loquats to eat.
Our future is sure to be full of new loquat-laced dishes including loquat jelly, loquat chutney and loquat-chicken tagine. Maybe even a batch of loquat ice cream. But even as my family members stuff themselves with loquats, I think that the bounty of Southern California may simply be too much to keep up with.
I may have to ignore much of the fruit of the loquat this year.
And the real beneficiaries, the screaming, squawking, fat and happy parrots.
8 cups seeded loquat halves (approximately 9 to 10 cups of whole, ripe fruit depending on size)
2 cups applesauce (store-bought is fine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Wash loquats and remove any blemishes and remaining brown bits from stem and blossom ends. Be sure to use ripe loquats, which are softer, sweeter and less acidic than unripe loquats.
2. Cut loquats in half. Scoop out the seeds and white membrane inside the pulpy yellow flesh. Don’t bother to peel them.
3. Make two batches of loquat-apple purée by adding 4 cups of loquat halves, 1 cup of applesauce and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into blender or food processor. Process until smooth. (The blender does a slightly better job on breaking down the peels than the food processor, but either will work.) Repeat with second half of ingredients.
4. Place a solid tray liner, usually called a fruit roll sheet or non-stick dehydrator sheet, on top of your dehydrator tray.
5. Spread a layer of loquat-apple purée, about ¼-inch thick, onto the solid tray liner. The fruit leather will have a more uniform thickness if you spread the puree slightly thicker around the edges. Be sure to follow instructions for your dehydrator. Some suggest brushing the tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil to the tray liner before adding fruit purée.
6. Place the tray (or multiple trays if you have them) into the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 F for 4 to 8 hours, until the fruit leather is translucent and can be easily peeled from the tray without falling apart. It may still feel a bit sticky to the touch, especially in the middle.
7. Cut into strips and roll. Keep in a closed container or bag until ready to eat.
Picking loquats. Credit: Susan Lutz
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 45% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
Today more than half of American farmers, roughly 2.2 million individuals, are near or past retirement age and there are few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 28 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 340 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
Over dinner a few nights ago, I was reminded of how delicious Oregon Rieslings can be. My husband and I were sipping this fresh, incredibly bright 2010 Brooks Ara Riesling, which has wonderful orange blossom and honeysuckle aromas, a sophisticated taste mix of juicy pear and herbs, powerful mineral spine and plenty of zingy acidity.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Region: Willamette Valley, Oregon
Grapes: 100% Riesling
Serve with: Dungeness crab, sushi, scallops with lemon, Thai cuisine
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Brooks winery was founded in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1998 by the charismatic, visionary Jimi Brooks, who passed away suddenly in 2004 at the untimely age of 38. He’d made wine at WillaKenzie Estate and Maysara Winery, and practiced organic and biodynamic farming well before many others in Oregon. His own wines have always had a remarkable purity of fruit and are among the most interesting in the state.
Brooks’ son Pascal, now a teenager, inherited the winery, and Jimi’s sister, Jamie Brooks Heuck, took on the role of managing the business until Pascal can take over. That involved acquiring a winery on a hilltop on Eola Hills Road in 2008 that had passed through the hands of several Oregon wine pioneers. The winery’s Eola Hills estate vineyard is 20 acres, but about two-thirds of the grapes come from diverse vineyards in the Willamette Valley.
The name “Ara” is a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere; its name is Latin for “altar,” and the wine is only produced, says the Brooks website, “when the stars are in the right alignment.” They sure were in 2010. The 2006 vintage of Brooks Ara Riesling was served at President Barack Obama’s first state dinner at the White House, honoring Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.
If you find yourself in Oregon wine country on Memorial Day weekend, Brooks is holding an open house on Saturday, Sunday and Monday where you can taste all their stellar 2012 whites and current releases of their Pinot Noirs. Just don’t miss this 2010 Ara Riesling.
Top photo composite:
Pascal Brooks, heir to the Brooks winery.
Label for 2010 Brooks Ara Riesling.
Credits: Courtesy of brookswine.com
When warm weather finally arrives after a wet, chilly winter, I can hardly wait to park myself on the front porch with a glass of wine, especially if it’s a gorgeous pink one. I’m not talking about the sweet swill I drank in college (anyone remember Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink?), but crisp, sophisticated dry rosé wines.
If you’re familiar with the pale pink wines of Southern France, you know about the fresh simplicity of a thirst-quenching rosé. In Northern California, the style is a little more intense in terms of color and flavors. And these days, it’s a bit more serious than in decades past.
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Until recently, nearly all California rosé was made as a sort of byproduct of red wine. Wineries would “bleed off” or siphon some red wine juice from the tank after a short period of contact with the grape skins, which would increase the skin-to-juice ratio of the remaining wine in the tank and give it better color. (Wine gets its color from grape skins, so the more skin contact it gets, the deeper its color will be.) The siphoned pink juice was then used to make rosé. The poetic-sounding name for this process is saignée (pronounced sahn-YAY), the French word for “bleed.”
The challenge with the saignée method is that the grapes used are planted, grown and harvested according to red-wine parameters. Whites are typically harvested earlier in the season than reds, which are left to ripen on the vines for weeks after the whites have been picked and crushed. As the season progresses, the grapes develop a higher sugar content, which can lead to rather intense wines with high levels of alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re setting out to make red Pinot Noir or Syrah, but it’s not ideal if you’re aiming for a refreshing rosé.
Many California wineries (and French ones, too) still use the saignée process, but in the last several years, a growing contingent of vintners has begun making rosé on purpose, rather than as a happy bonus of red wine production.
Saignée wines can be very good in the right hands, but the wines that really wow me are made exclusively with rosé in mind, from start to finish. Because the grapes are farmed for rosé, the wines generally require less tinkering in the cellar to achieve the right balance of sugar/alcohol and acidity. They’re priced a bit higher than the siphoned-juice versions — often $15 or more per bottle — but there’s a wonderful payback in balance, freshness and complexity.
Here are four sophisticated pink wines to savor on the front porch, patio or wherever the season takes you.
- Beckmen Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley (California) Grenache Rosé 2011 ($18): This Santa Barbara County winery makes terrific Rhône-style wines, including this delicious pink Grenache. The wine has a beautiful light salmon color, and a soft aroma of red berries. It also has a refreshing brightness, with strawberry and lime flavors and a tangy finish. Try it with a salad topped with avocado and grilled shrimp.
- Bonny Doon Vineyard Central Coast (California) Vin Gris de Cigare 2012 ($16): This rosé from pink-wine champion Randall Grahm is made with a “less is more” approach. It’s a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault. Pale salmon pink in color, it has subtle aromas of fresh strawberries and peaches. It’s crisp and elegant, with some unexpected roundness midway through. This would be great with a grilled turkey burger, or seared ahi tuna.
- Clayhouse Wines Paso Robles (California) Adobe Pink 2011 ($14): Middleton Family Wines, a solid Paso Robles player, makes this fresh-and-tasty wine. It has a light pink color tinged with salmon, and aromas of strawberries and vanilla. It’s crisp and tangy, with bright citrus and strawberry flavors, kissed with soft vanilla.
- Korbel Brut Rosé (California) NV ($12.99): Sparklers are fantastic warm-weather wines, and this one, made from Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay and Chenin Blanc, is among my go-to pinks. It has a pale salmon color, lively, small bubbles, and flavors of strawberries and black cherries. It’s more on the medium-dry side, but it’s so fresh-tasting and well balanced that you barely notice the sweetness. I’ve seen this wine at retail for less than $10 per bottle — a crazy-good deal.
Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2012 . Credit: Tina Caputo
Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
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Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
For me, nothing marks the passage of time so much as the disappearance of favorite restaurants. The pang for lost restaurants hit me recently when reading from my favorite of Julia Child’s books, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen,” where she comments on a place in Monte Carlo that she and her husband Paul had enjoyed in the post-war period through the 1950s.
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She confesses to “almost weeping over the end-of-an-era elegance of the room, with its string orchestra hidden in a balcony, its marble columns, its gilt encrustations everywhere, its flocks of frock-coated waiters, and its diners in evening dress.” When she returned some years later, the historic restaurant had been replaced by a rooftop eatery lacking in atmosphere. Because she avoided sentimentality and was inclined to focus on the present rather than the past, Julia accepted the loss of that restaurant stoically, saying, “it is useless to cry over lost loves.”
While I admire her for being so philosophical about the disappearance of a memorable eating place, I, on the other hand, tend to mope when my favorite restaurants are gone. I miss those vanished places that held great memories for me or simply were convenient and enjoyable spots where I mingled with friends. Everyone, I guess, feels the loss of favorite places, but for me the bygone restaurants in Harvard Square have had the greatest impact. The ordinary passage of time leads to change, so restaurants close because owners cannot meet the costs of rising rents or they simply retire and move on. Picturesque haunts where students and locals mingled, sometimes for many decades, are often replaced by generic and boring chain restaurants.
When I first started working near Harvard Square, I used to go to a place where for a couple of dollars I could get poached eggs on a muffin (or, in the New England vernacular, “dropped eggs”). They came with corned beef hash and a large cup of coffee. And later in the day one could get corned beef and cabbage (aka “New England boiled dinner”) or liver and onions. The worn-out linoleum floor made clear that this was a humble place for hungry people who might be Harvard students, faculty, staff, or the janitors who eased everyone’s lives. The place couldn’t last and it didn’t.
Gone, but not forgotten
The most recent victim of high rents is the Casablanca Restaurant, for years the Harvard Square go-to place to meet friends for drinks and perhaps a mezze plate loaded with hummus, olives, salads, and slices of flatbread. Its Mediterranean theme was carried out not only by a menu of deep-flavored dishes filled with Middle Eastern spices and olive oil, but on walls filled with murals depicting characters from the much-loved film, “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. That film is shown annually at a local theater, a tradition with a following so cult-like that famous lines in the film are recited in unison by the audience. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” we say along with Bogart when he catches sight of Bergman, with whom he has a past, entering his establishment. These days, former denizens of the Casablanca Restaurant are missing that joint terribly.
The Wurst Haus is another place that had a long history. It was a German restaurant with an extensive beer menu, and as one online wag put it, “The great thing about the Wurst Haus was that everyone could wear a plaid jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, smoke a pipe and not get beat up.” Harvard professors, pseudo-intellectuals and plain old beer-lovers mingled in an atmosphere of dark-paneled walls and sloping floors in the false security that what had been around for decades would always be around. But, in the 1990s, meat-laden and sometimes greasy German food had given way to the lighter menus expected by a more health-conscious public, thus dooming the Wurst Haus.
This change in public taste may explain the disappearance of Jack and Marion’s, a beloved delicatessen in Brookline, Mass., that gave pleasure to many with its huge menu filled with every single Eastern European Jewish dish in existence, not to mention oversized desserts. Though it closed in 1971, people are still talking about it. They shake their heads sadly, and compare it to other delis in the area that have since moved in, but none can measure up to a place that has assumed mythic qualities.
Sentimental for ice cream
Children are also affected by the disappearance of favorite places. Boston-area kids used to go to a place called Chadwick’s, an old-timey ice cream parlor best known for birthday celebrations. Waiters would ring bells, bang drums and sing loudly to honor the birthday boy or girl who would receive free ice cream that day. And apart from its birthday ceremonies, Chadwick’s was known for its “Belly Buster” sundaes, a mammoth bowl filled with 18 scoops of ice cream that would be delivered to your table on a stretcher.
And speaking of long-gone ice cream parlors, I still think about Bailey’s, a combination ice cream parlor and candy store, where sundaes were served in old-fashioned silver dishes set on silver plates. An abundance of hot fudge was poured on so that it would spill onto the plates, putting you into a quandary as to where to first put your spoon. Bailey’s was close to my office, so I could drop by on days when someone had been mean to me and find solace in a hot fudge sundae. In truth, I was known to show up even when everyone had been nice. The demise of Bailey’s is a painful loss, and to console myself I have tried to recreate its hot fudge sauce, attempting several recipes said to be the real thing, and this is the one that works for me.
Hot Fudge Sauce
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup cocoa
¾ cup sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1. Melt chocolate and butter in small saucepan over low heat.
2. Sift cocoa into pan, add sugar and thoroughly mix.
3. Add evaporated milk, vanilla and salt and stir constantly. Sauce will thicken quickly, usually after just 3 minutes of stirring.
If not used immediately, the sauce stores well in the refrigerator and should be warmed up before pouring over ice cream.
Top photo: A sundae with hot fudge sauce recreated from Bailey’s. Credit: Barbara Haber