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Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.
Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.”
Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).
Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.
The reality behind the hype
By Joyce Goldstein
* * *
By Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise
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Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.
Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).
With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.
Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.
When legends collide
I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.
The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.
A new body experience
To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:
I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.
Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.
And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.
Cuisine bonne femme
If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.
I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”
One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component? Talented and powerful women running the show.
It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.
But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.
Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: 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