Articles in Media
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
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
For almost 15 years, I was the food editor of Stuff Magazine, the fun, slightly incorrigible biweekly little sister magazine published by the Boston Phoenix. I loved every minute of it. Writing two pieces for each issue, deadline agita marked most of my Wednesdays. (Some days, it flowed all the way to Friday.) I ended up with a staggering (to me) clip file of 400-plus published pieces. I started out as a pretty good writer, but with the expertise and experience of my editors, I ended up winning national prizes.
When the Phoenix and Stuff combined last fall, I became the contributing editor for food. I began writing about food when it was still just “food” and about chefs when they were mostly known by their first and last names, if at all. There were stories about young chefs and old chefs; how hard it is to open a new restaurant; and why everyone suddenly shifted to small plates all at once. I wrote about Sunday suppers; public health issues; how to deconstruct a lobster roll; how French food came back into favor; distinguishing Salvadoran food from Peruvian and Ecuadorean; kimchee; “Top Chef” and “Chopped”; and the puzzling rise of burger joints. I wrote profiles about dishwashers and oyster shuckers, essays about “professional manners” — hostesses who were rude or oblivious, diners who just want to game the system for a free meal.
There was a time when a new restaurant would open every few months, not once a week, and when the new “hot” place had a chance of staying “hot” until at least the end of the month. When there was other riveting local news besides how soon the local Shake Shack would be serving custard.
Stuff Magazine examined Boston’s food scene in a different way
What Stuff did for the food scene of Boston was to make it safe to succeed, safe to take a chance. Safe to become a star, or not – and just do a really god job of turning out good food 365 days a year. We saw ourselves as allies — not adversaries — of the thousands of hardworking men and women who chose a ridiculous profession where you are only as good as the last meal any single patron has had at your restaurant. In the process, Stuff@Nite became the publication where Boston chefs could tell the truth — to our readers and to each other. And we became the bible for the local food community.
When I came to Stuff, I’d owned and run three restaurants. As a seasoned restaurant person, I knew that the miracle was that good, hot food ever got out of the kitchen on time and per the diner’s order. The opportunities to screw up a meal are multifarious, no matter how talented or attentive the chef. If restaurants were only about preparing good food, it would be a no-brainer job. But restaurants are complex teams of people as tightly interwoven as the rowers on a crew shell. And people are much harder to control than the produce withering in the walk-in. I can still feel the vibe gone wrong when I walk in to a restaurant. Did the chef’s wife leave him only that morning? Is someone at the emergency room? Deported? Is the bartender out on a bender? You can’t tell exactly what, but you intuit the vibrations. So, I saw my job at the magazine as helping readers peek behind the service counter, demystifying the process, understanding the minds and hopes of chefs, the staffs, the investors. And the degree of difficulty inherent in the simple act of making good food at a fair price.
Our mission at Stuff Magazine (formerly called Stuff@Nite) was to write about food and people who were interesting and had interesting life stories or simply the story of working hard, apprenticing well and coming up through the ranks. A kind of judgment-free zone. No reviews, no recipes, no scathing takedowns of Todd English or whoever was the too-big-for-his-britches poster boy of the season. If I had a bad experience at a restaurant, our style was not to Chow it or Yelp it at the universe, but to have a cordial phone chat with the manager or chef about what we experienced and go back in a few weeks. When diners emailed, wrote or called about some terrible injustice at a bistro we had liked, we gently asked that they pick up the phone and give the useful feedback to the chef. Give the chef a chance to make it right.
Note: Chefs are always willing to hear from their customers. They went in to the world of cooking because they like to please and nurture people. In general, modern chefs are people-pleasers, white-collar intellects in a profession with more than its share of blue-collar effort.
What you’ve lost in the closing of the Phoenix and Stuff, which folded in to the Phoenix last summer, is a dedicated outlet with an authentic fondness for good food and the people who create it. There are lots of other avenues to get your local “food fix” now, but each seems to have a hysterical sameness where chefs are either beatified as the “new” best chef, the next food TV star or a community saint or sinner. Or, it’s a place where we’re all panting for the new door to open.
Chefs and the professional support teams that work in restaurants are talented, hardworking men and women. With the demise of the Phoenix and Stuff, you’ve lost a chance to get to know them simply as real people who love to feed you, the no-judgment zone where a chef could read and could feel good about a colleague or competitor’s success.
A thank-you to Stephen Mindich and the entire Boston Phoenix team. You gave Boston’s culinary community a virtual clubhouse. Thanks for keeping the lights on for so long.
Top photo: Magazine covers from the Boston Phoenix, which included Stuff Magazine. Courtesy of Boston Phoenix
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
It started on Facebook. One day my newsfeed was filled with chefs and bartenders asking for votes. It was the end of the year, and one of the food blogs had just posted a raft of entreaties to “Vote for your favorite new restaurant!” and “Vote for the best bartender!” Everyone in the restaurant industry was asking friends to vote. At least those categories were based on food.
But the contest that pushed me over the edge was named “The Hottest Chef.”
Not hot as in “rising star” or “making great food.” No. Hot as in good looking. Hot as in, “This Category Has Nothing To Do With Food.”
I couldn’t believe who was asking for votes. A lot of respected chefs — grown men, mostly — who, in my opinion, could really benefit from putting their noses down and concentrating on their cooking, were asking to be picked as the best looking boy or girl at the food prom.
I was an awkward kid and got over the struggle to be popular at a pretty young age. By the time I was 16 I was working in kitchens with adults, and that provided me with perspective: Cooking is about what you do, not what you look like. Cooking is a craft, and it requires attention and dedication. And just as in any artistic profession, if your goal is fame, you aren’t going to achieve your potential.
For chefs, staying hot requires keeping cool
These lists: Best New Restaurant, Best Restaurant, Best Chef, Hottest Bartender, Best … Hottest … They not only diminish the restaurants and the people working in them, but they cannibalize the authority of the publications that produce them.
ZESTER DAILY GIVEAWAY
The best dining in any city is often at that place that has existed for years. In Portland, Caffe Mingo has been turning out delicious rustic Italian food for over a decade. They hit the mark in a way that only a restaurant that has honed its craft for years can do. They haven’t been on a list in years.
Accolades also interfere with restaurant performance. At my restaurants, Toro Bravo and Tasty N Sons, we have always relied on word of mouth. When we get singled out for what we do, I have a meeting with my staff to prepare for the backlash: diners who will be upset their place has been discovered, diners who will be unhappy with the uptick in wait-times. Of course we have our Restaurant of the Year award on display — it’s in the bathroom.
There are better ways for chefs and restaurants to get attention than to beg their friends to vote for their Hotness online:
- Come out swinging! Put everything you can into the craft and service. The people who fill your seats Monday through Thursday are regulars and industry. If you pay attention to craft, they will keep coming.
- Spend more time thinking about the best tomato, and less time thinking about the best write-up. Don’t ask for coverage before your restaurant is ready for the glare. You can’t seek out the public’s attention and then complain if you get reviewed “too soon” — so wait, get it right, and then reach out.
- Keep your mind-set on Year 6, not Month 6. If you work on the craft at the start, you might get to Year 6. At that point, think about a cookbook (“The Toro Bravo Cookbook” is coming this fall), but in the meantime, keep some of your powder dry so that you can bring in new customers when you aren’t the Next Big Thing.
Photo: Restaurateur John Gorham. Credit: David L Reamer photography
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
* * *
And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian
The most widely-viewed food film of this year is probably one you’ve never heard of. Called “Shejianshang de Zhongguo” in Mandarin — variously translated into “A Bite of China,” “Tasting China,” “Taste of China” or “China on the Tongue” — it deserves your immediate attention. Although it has Mandarin narration and subtitles, the language barrier is slowly lifting thanks to the efforts of Chinese-speaking foodies who crowd-sourced English subtitles. Now you have no excuse not to hunker down this winter and learn about the magic of Chinese cuisine. Salivate at your own risk.
A food TV hit
For a sense of the documentary’s popularity, consider that the week in May that it aired on the national documentary channel China Central Television (CCTV) 9, viewer ratings spiked 30% to new highs for that time period. The film beat the popular drama series that normally aired during that prime-time slot, according to China Daily.
Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, counted 2 million updates in reference to “Bite of China” and China’s behemoth online shopping portal Taobao.com had searches for food on the site double at that time. Five days after the series went on air, nearly 6 million shoppers searched on Taobao for local food specialties mentioned in the documentary, resulting in 7.2 million purchases. Sales of smoked ham produced by a family featured in the film grew 17-fold during that time period. The series has since been licensed and aired on national television in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
‘A Bite of China’ a technical marvel
Filming and editing techniques are astounding: the sounds and sights are captured with such precision and highlighted in so detailed and intimate a manner viewers can’t help but feel as though they are a part of the action. The first episode, “Gifts from Nature,” focuses on matsutake mushrooms (called songrong in Chinese).These are the bounty of an early-morning foraging excursion in Shangri-La, based in Yunnan province, and they sizzle and pop so vivaciously they may as well be atop one’s own frying pan.
“Bite of China” is the country’s first food film made with hi-definition video filming equipment. It took 13 months to shoot starting in March 2011 under the direction of Chen Xiaoqing. The sheer manpower, determination and perseverance it took is evident, requiring three researchers, eight directors, 15 cameramen and three editors to capture footage from 70 locations throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Only that kind of time and effort could have produced such an intimate look into people’s lives, which is what most stands out long after watching the documentary, more so even than the breathtaking landscapes and mouth-watering delicacies depicted. The food purveyors and producers become such larger-than-life characters, they begin to approach idealized archetypes. Viewers learn about the intricate and other-wordly process by which lotus roots are extricated from holes dug several feet deep into desolate muddy swampland. They see up-close the fingers of a little girl learning how to mix flour for noodles with her grandmother in the second episode. These segments give an insight into the intricate history, culture, pride and workmanship that each bite of Chinese cooking can embody and inspire.
Skepticism and criticism
Nevertheless, one must view any work produced by state-run CCTV with a critical eye. The Asia Society blog has a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of the myriad Chinese netizen responses to the series. There is undeniably a strong push to rouse Chinese people’s national pride. China’s reality is often much rockier and inequitable than the idealized, peacefully diverse country portrayed in the film. Environmental issues and urbanization are hardly mentioned, nor is the disenfranchisement of a massive rural population who is actually responsible for growing and gathering the crops required to feed the nation. Episode 3, “Conversion of Inspiration,” focuses on time-tested food-processing techniques like fermentation, curing and steeping. Oddly, it never mentions China’s head-long rush into modernization and industrialization over the past 30 years, which are in part to blame for a haphazard food safety regulatory system and a focus on quantity over quality that permitted recent food safety crises to repeatedly arise.
Second installment on deck
Whether this is your first foray into Chinese cuisine or a return to familiar territory, it’s hard not to fall in love with “Bite of China,” or at least to walk away hungry. I’m excited to watch the second installment of the documentary, set to be released in 2013.
In the meantime, Mandarin speakers can watch the original on CCTV’s website. Otherwise, I was able to find translations of all “Bite of China” episodes on YouTube, though I can’t vouch for their complete accuracy. To view the Chinese version, carefully cut and paste this text into your search browser: 舌尖上的中国，英文字母
Top image: Food documentary “A Bite of China.” Credit: CCTV
I unwrapped the fruitcake today. I had found it at the back of Mom’s refrigerator as my sisters and I cleaned out her house for the new owners. Mom’s experience had been swift and surreal: Diagnosis end of January; passing mid-June. Now an equally surreal discovery: Here was one of her annual holiday fruitcakes — probably made last December — wrapped in foil and sealed in a plastic bag, tucked away like the hidden treasure it all of a sudden had become.
I was so startled to find it that I all I could do was put it into the bag with the other stuff I was taking to my house: A jar of Kretschmer Wheat Germ, Laasco creamed pickled herring, another jar of horseradish, a few other things. All of this so very Mom. All of it more reminders that she was gone.
That was last August. The fruitcake has been in the back of my refrigerator until this afternoon. Maybe it was the rain, maybe it’s because it’s December now, or maybe I just knew that I had procrastinated long enough. If I was going to serve it to the family on Christmas night — as I had planned — then I needed to see exactly what was there.
Unwrapping the last fruitcake
I unzipped the plastic bag and pulled out the foil-wrapped loaf. It was heavy. The foil wrapping was slightly crinkled, as if the fruitcake had already been unwrapped and then rewrapped. One sniff told me that it had: There was the distinct aroma of brandy. That also was so very Mom. She was probably the only one in the family who was enthusiastic about fruitcake, and she knew how to get the most from it — with diligence and care. Not unlike the way she raised the three of us.
So I unwrapped the foil, some of which stuck to the dried cherries on top that were sticky and not as moist as the cake itself. The cake was in very good shape; it’s full of dried fruit and nuts, and very moist and tender to the touch. I really didn’t need to, but I went ahead and used a toothpick to prick more holes in the top. I brushed it gently with a little Cognac, then wrapped it in plastic and a big new piece of foil. Back into “her” plastic bag it went. And back into the recesses of my refrigerator for another few weeks.
I’ve spent most of my life as a food journalist and editor. All of us in this business write frequently about the connection between food, family, tradition and memory, particularly during the holidays. But nothing I’ve written about has affected me as much as the discovery of The Last Fruitcake. And on December 25, if I can bring myself to cut into it, I know that I will savor every bite.
Mom would have wanted me to.
Top photo: Mom, Ina Lieb, celebrating her 90th birthday. Credit: Barbara Fairchild