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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Out of the Crate

Recently, we wrote about the controversy brewing in Sonoma County, California, over the use of gestation crates for pregnant and nursing sows. The rectangular cages, which are so narrow that the sows can’t turn around, have been dubbed inhumane by many animal-rights groups. They’ve already been banned in Florida and Arizona (two states, it must be noted, with very little actual pig farming within their boundaries), and will be outlawed in the European Union by 2013.

Now, according to The Washington Post, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has promised to phase out the use of the crates during the next ten years. With a company as huge as Smithfield, only another corporate supergiant can make a difference. In this case, it was McDonald’s that leaned on the Virginia-based pork producer to make their farming practice—and thus the PR for the buyers of their ham and bacon—a little sweeter.

Maybe Smithfield is finally stepping up its corporate responsibility, after being dogged over the past few years with million-dollar lawsuits from environmental groups and governmental agencies for, among other things, violating the Clean Water Act by dumping hog waste into nearby waterways.

In a press release issued the same day as the Smithfield declaration, the Humane Society of the United States praised the decision and pushed for the rest of the pork industry to follow suit over the next five years.

Gastrosexuality

In a post that launched some interesting discussion on Serious Eats, Adam Roberts of Amateur Gourmet asks, “Does Cooking Make You Gay?”

The basis for this question is Roberts’s observation that Easy-Bake Ovens weren’t marketed to boys when he was growing up (though now it’s a different story, as one commenter points out). “A little boy watching a commercial for an Easy-Bake Oven should roll his eyes or make a fart noise with his mouth to assert his masculinity,” Roberts muses. He describes how it wasn’t until he came out of the closet in college that he felt able to express his “newfound enthusiasm for artisanal cheese, cold-pressed olive oil, and Niçoise olives,” but accurately notes that the testosterone-driven world of professional chefs is a different story. The distinction, he says, is between men who cook at home and those who wield their knives in restaurant kitchens.

But many male commenters take issue with this breakdown, and some of their responses are ultimately more thoughtful than Roberts’s original post. As one asks,

Why do you relate ‘gay’ with being effeminate? Your headline should read ‘Does Cooking Make Men Feminine?’ That’s the real subject here…. What is wrong with being feminine? Historically, we as society treat women as inferior to men. Sexism. It exists in the kitchen because it exists in society. Even with all the celebrity female chefs (who are oftentimes exploited for their ‘sex appeal’), there exists a ‘stainless steel’ ceiling for women in the restaurant world. That would be a more apropos topic.

Roberts does raise the good point that there is probably only one openly gay man among the legions of Food Network and Bravo chefs (Ted Allen). And in other media outlets, gay male chefs like Pichet Ong of NYC’s Spice Market have discussed the prejudice that still exists in the kitchen. But another commenter points out that there are many more “out” lesbian chefs than gay men in the food world—or, in the joking parlance of some foodophiles, the “Dyke Food Mafia” (whose members include big-name chefs Cat Cora, Traci Des Jardins, Elizabeth Falkner, and Gabrielle Hamilton).

I haven’t read any profiles or reports of openly lesbian chefs discussing how their sexuality has changed their experience in the restaurant world—though many say that their sex (female) certainly is a rarity among chefs. What role do you think gender and sexual orientation plays in kitchens, both at home and in restaurants?

Top Spoiler

Oh dear, oh dear! We’re at the bitter end of a Top Chef season that has already been dogged by assaults, allegations of conspiracy, and general bad behavior, and now it would appear that Food & Wine is the next one to make damn sure that the second season of Top Chef will live in infamy.

Some sort of glitch—carelessness? subconscious desire to screw the viewers out of the incredibly dubious pleasure of watching the final episode of the season?—caused an article revealing the winner of the show to be posted on Food & Wine’s website.

Of course, when you go to the link now, you get a 404 error. However, it was too little, too late for spoiler seekers and probably a few innocent bystanders. It’s not totally clear how long the premature piece was allowed to languish in full glory on Food & Wine’s site—anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours—but after the link was posted at Television Without Pity, the piece was yanked swiftly. It would be remiss of me not to remind you (or tell you for the first time) that Gail Simmons, one of the Top Chef judges, holds a position at Food & Wine.

Since it was already gone by the time I made my usual rounds on those discussion boards, helpful TWoPpers emailed me the full story and, yeah, Food & Wine made a boo-boo.

Of course, since I have no desire to drag you wonderful people out there in the dark down the destructive path to Spoilerdom, I am not going to tell you what the piece said. However, Eater will. Click through at your own risk.

The Zagat Facade

Slate’s Bryan Curtis went out to dinner with Tim and Nina Zagat, and—brace yourself—it was awesome! It turns out that producing one of the most influential restaurant guidebooks in the country gives you all kinds of crazy access to delicious food, and you get treated like the major commercial factors that you are. (Or, as Curtis so eloquently puts it, surveying New York restaurants with the Zagats “is a bit like sailing the coast of South America with Ferdinand Magellan.”)

The problem with the story is that it’s a pretty poor value. After reading through it, you don’t really feel as though you know the Zagats any better than you did at the outset, nor do you know more about New York restaurants, how the Zagat guide really works, or just about anything else. Tim and Nina begin—and remain—opaquely pleasant throughout.

Very little light is shed upon their personal feelings or palettes, both of which were much more thoroughly explored in a controversial old episode of Iron Chef. Fans might remember the episode where the Zagats popped up as guest judges—they seemed to be viscerally and inappropriately craving a hamburger (or at least a good old-fashioned flank steak) instead of the wacky delicacies cooked up by chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Bobby Flay during their Rock Crab Battle.

The fascinating point about the Zagat guide, however, is how irrelevant the Zagats’ personal palettes are to the guides’ success. In fact, this wisdom-of-the-mob thing is a point that Curtis makes near the back end of his story, if rather quietly. Because it suggests that a more interesting article would have dining out with some of the multitudes of faceless diners whose clipped little comments (the “hearty vegetarian fare” will fill you up but “won’t empty your wallet”) actually make the Zagat empire thrive.

Virtual Vacations, Food-Blogging Style

For those of us chained to our desks this month and longing for a midwinter escape, the Internet has provided the second-best thing: Travel vicariously with your favorite food bloggers as they nibble their way around the world, sampling the wares in foreign markets, tasting the goods at cafés and street stalls. It’s not quite the same, I’ll grant you that, but in the midst of a rainy January day, it may be the next-best thing.

Fancy a trip to Vietnam? Two bloggers are reporting back from Asian travels. Amy, of Cooking with Amy, writes about markets, lotus tea, and the national dish of pho. Jen, from Life Begins at 30, is also in Vietnam, and her photos are not to be missed. They are a visual treat for the desk-bound and might just make you start planning your next trip.

On the other side of the world, Ivonne, of Creampuffs in Venice, has been telling stories of her tour of Berlin, Prague, and Vienna last month—along with recipes from each city. Those craving a dose of Christmas markets, glühwein, and vánocka, a delicious braided egg bread studded with dried fruit, should look no further.

Or, for the spontaneous, join Kate, of Pie in the Sky, as she tosses all worldly belongings into a storage unit and sets off for a tour of Europe. First stop is Paris, with a continuation through the south of France, Spain, and Ireland.

Someone, anyone—sign me up!

Gated Community: Will someone shut these celebrities up?

I apologize in advance for the crassness of some of these repeated epithets.

Mel Gibson had his anti-Semitic I-Own-Half-of-Malibu-Gate; Michael Richards had Something-That-Rhymes-with-Tigger-Gate; Isaiah Washington had ChokeGate, which unfortunately turned into FaggotGate in the flush of Grey’s Anatomy’s Golden Globes win; and now Rachael Ray might have OprahGate.

In a story titled “Racial Ray,” TMZ reports that their sources told them about a 2005 dinner Rachael Ray had at Houston’s Restaurant in the Century City mall, during which Ray acted quite unlike her shiny, happy self.

Not only does the TMZ story claim that Ray drank “a minimum of four glasses” of red wine and that she was rude about the food, but it also claims that Ray attacked Oprah (and other celebrities) to her friends. While there’s probably not much out of the ordinary with someone on Team Aniston calling Brad Pitt a “pussy boy” and Angelina Jolie a “skanky, backdoor, c*nt,” it was a stupid move to start insulting Oprah. Especially since at the time of the dinner, Ray was in the process of selling her daytime talk show to Harpo Productions.

TMZ says:

We’re told Ray became ‘extremely loud and aggressive,’ and began dissing Oprah. Sources say she told the group about a portrait of Oprah that sits in the lobby of Harpo Productions in Chicago. It’s from the movie ‘Beloved’ and shows Winfrey’s back, enhanced with scars. She’s also wearing a skirt from the slavery era.

Back at the table, sources say Ray launched into attack mode: ‘Why is she wearing slave drag? She obviously has problems being black.’

Rachael Ray’s director of publicity admits the dinner took place but denies that Ray said anything of that sort about Oprah or “a celebrity couple she has never even met.” The director of publicity went on to say that other people sitting at the table with Ray—without prompting, apparently —also denied hearing Ray say any such things about her future sugar mommy.

I’ve watched enough of Rachael Ray’s Inside Dish on the Food Network to see that Rachael likes her wine and that she can get quite loud and obnoxious when she’s really liking it. However, I can’t help but wonder why these witnesses to Rachael’s in vino veristupid are just coming forward now. Why not in December 2005 when the dinner originally took place? Why not when the deal between Ray and Harpo was announced? It’s curious.

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Peanut Butter Burgers, French Fry Titans, and Bye-Bye “Streak”

Halifax, Nova Scotia

I’m staying at the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront, a terrific and underpriced new hotel with surprisingly good room service and a fun, lively bar. Best of all, it’s right on the waterfront, an irresistible part of Halifax. One can amble for hours among pleasant shops along a scenic harbor rife with tugboats and hardworking mariners.

Take a virtual walk down Halifax’s waterfront with Jeff Pinney (and hear about a very good Nova Scotian wine as well as an explanation of The Nature of Reality) via this podcast: MP3.

This shot of shimmery tugboats is the sole example of a failed attempt at impressionistic photography:

My favorite waterfront food shop is Botticelli Mercato Italiano (1477 Lower Water Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-7466), which makes excellent gelato. Pear tastes like you’re eating a cold, creamy pear, and pistachio is the essence of toasty pistachio. Both a bit too sweet, but I quibble: Experience GelatoCam: Movie.

You’ll notice that as I shot the video, I was struck dumb by the sight of brownies. Sure enough, they were amazing, with as long a flavor fade as anything I’ve ever eaten:

The big don’t-miss weekly waterfront event is the Saturday morning farmer’s market. I somehow managed to miss it (hotel bed too comfy).

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I’ve never seen a city with such an intensely focused french fry culture. The scene hinges on big tater-spewing fry trucks parked in front of a statue of Winston Churchill.

Bud the Spud pretty much owns fried potatoes in this town. Bud, an artiste held in much awed esteem by the populace (slightly less so his brother, Bill the Spud), only deigns to fry in optimal weather. It was a bit drizzly during my stay, so Monster Fries, a lesser truck that pops in strictly at the whim of the almighty Bud, was my sole choice.

Monster Fries’ product was damned good, making me dreamily wonder what tuberous majesty Bud’s blessed pommes frites might have offered.

Halifax french fry trucks are actually big business: Truck, permit, equipment, and parking space cost umpteen thousand dollars, I’m told.

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In my last report I described the no-frills Ardmore Tea Room as “no-nonsense.” But that place was downright jolly compared with the Midtown Tavern and Grill (1684 Grafton Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-422-5213), a time capsule where giant waiters with forearms like fireplugs stalk the floor, slamming down tankards of beer and growling hardily at their fellow roughneck customers. I felt like a little girl suddenly beamed from some Hello Kitty boutique to the movie set for The Gangs of Nova Scotia.



Behold, the Nova Scotian boiled dinner.

Was the food good? That’s totally beside the point. Any landmark this characterful, evocative, and steeped in long tradition is inherently perfect. One must calibrate to such places.

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One of the callers in to yesterday’s radio show tipped me to great home fries. South End Diner (1128 Barrington Street, Halifax: 902-429-6439), a sweet, calm white-tiled mom-and-pop parlor from another era, is a bastion of care. The from-scratch cooking is glacially painstaking; it took forever for our puny order to arrive, and we were the only customers. The methodical, stoic chef simply doesn’t do shortcuts. Similar care seems to have gone into the amazing collection of decorative plates, which occupy virtually every inch of wall space.

South End keeps their home fries close to the vest—you can’t simply ask for them. They must be requested with earnestness; the request will be mulled over and, if you’re lucky, approved.

I was moved by these little stones of staunchly unseasoned hand-cut potato, diligently parboiled and then fried in fresh oil. The opportunity to eat things like this, impossible to find at home, is the very reason for traveling. All photos in these reports enlarge when clicked, but we’ll blow this one way up so that you can ponder the subtle depths of these spuds:

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Sweet Jane’s (5431 Doyle Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-0168) is famous for New York–style cupcakes. Did you know there even were New York–style cupcakes? I sure didn’t—though, come to think of it, growing up on Long Island I was never aware of a duck connection. Anyway, New York cupcakes seem to be a standard item up here.


Regionality aside, they were fine cupcakes, with tangy frosting.

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The appeal of Darrell’s peanut butter burger, one of the city’s most titillating culinary oddities, can be explained via one word: satay. As Southeast Asians long ago discovered, peanut sauce and meat work together beautifully. I doubt that Darrell and company were aiming for satay, however. This is what cultural anthropologists might call “parallel innovation.”

The restaurant’s full name is My Other Brother Darrell’s (5576 Fenwick Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-492-2344), and they’ve won all sorts of local awards for this culinary achievement.

Just down the block, Tarboosh (5566 Fenwick Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-405-4000), a new Lebanese place, looked good, and a few quick bites confirmed quality. These guys actually make foul madamas from scratch (rather than with canned favas), which is way beyond the call of duty.

And around the corner, Gingerbread Haus Bakery (1138 Queen Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-425-4333) broke my streak. I thought it looked great from outside, I thought it looked great from inside, and, infinitely confident about its grandeur, I ordered box after box of cookies, pastries, breads, and treats … none of which was the slightest bit remarkable.

Would you have been fooled, too? Have a look:

I wasn’t so upset about my streak, seized as I was by crashing disappointment over those luscious-looking chocolate elephant ears, adorable gingerbread men, lovely cakes, crusty loaves, and hand-dipped spritz cookies. Streak, shmeak; after being spoiled by all the great strawberry shortcake and pie in Maine, I need some decent baked goods, dammit!

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The Wooden Monkey is a sort of vegetarian place (serving lots of meat), offering nominally healthy fare (made with tons of oil). I stopped by on a tip to try their seitan sandwich, which was way more satisfying than its name would indicate.

This spicy sandwich went well with good, strong ginger beer made by Propeller, a local microbrewery.

I don’t know about those “baked” french fries (greasier than fried), though:

... and the blueberry pie was downright disturbing:

Its crust seemed to contain some health food oil (and no salt at all). More trans fats, please!

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The Chow Not Eaten: Halifax Leftovers

A grab bag of tips, spottings, and other leftovers … caveat eater!

Certainly Cinnamon

Smith’s Bakery

Nameless bakery in Dartmouth Ferry 2 mins. from the King of Donair branch near the ferry terminal.

Lamb sandwich in front of Pete’s Frootique.

Jamieson’s in Cole Harbour for really good food in the sprawl.

Chickenburger (“unique and trashily addictive”).

John’s Lunch (“you will not believe the pile of clams”).

Habbibi’s (Jeff’s find for great Lebanese in the middle of an industrial park).

Alexander’s Pizza.

Bitar’s Pizza & Grill in Elmsdale (just outside Halifax), for great pizza.

O’Carroll’s (“great bar”).

Sushi Bang.