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

Video Killed the Radio Cheese

We keep wondering: After more than a decade, has the Internet finally run out of stuff? Apparently not. The English firm West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers has ginned up some innovative, low-impact new video content … by aiming a webcam at a rack of its aging cheddar cheeses.

According to Reuters, nearly 50,000 people—presumably driven by a mad passion for aged dairy products—have already clicked through to watch mold grow on cheese in real time.

“It puts watching paint dry in the shade,” a company spokeswoman ambiguously told Reuters, implying that watching cheese age is either much duller than watching paint dry, or somewhat more interesting. “If you happen to tune in at the right time you will even get to see them being turned,” she added, her voice dropping to a husky, seductive whisper.

This, of course, sets the stage for other webcams. Who wants to watch whiskey age? That sounds kind of appealing. Or wheat get harvested? Or pigs turning magically from living creatures into delicious sausages?

Sky’s the limit, guys!

Who’s Been Eating My Porridge?

Who’s Been Eating My Porridge?

How to raid your housemates' stash, and bust them tactfully when they raid yours. READ MORE

Food and Fuel Duke It Out

The recent boom in the ethanol market has contributed to a drastic jump in the price of corn, The New York Times’ editorial page points out (registration required)—and that means everyone is going to feel the pinch. As the writers explain,

It’s tempting to assume that the effect of sharply higher prices is confined primarily to the agricultural sector. But where corn is concerned, we are all part of the agricultural sector. The historical cheapness of corn has driven it into nearly every aspect of our economy, in the form, most familiarly, of corn syrup. The low price of corn over the past half-century lies at the very foundation of America’s historically (and unrealistically) low food prices.

The growing demand for ethanol means that the nation is now trying to gratify its “two major appetites” (“cheap food and cheap gas”) with just one crop. Finding new sources of ethanol will take a while, the authors write, so the only solution for now is to reduce those appetites.

Telling people they should be paying more for chow is probably good advice from an environmental standpoint, but not exactly palatable to many consumers or to the food industry. That may be why the online trade mag FoodNavigator takes a different approach to the food-versus-fuel problem, arguing that the impending ethanol-feedstock shortage is “good news for developing nations in the south, who will be able to find new markets for products such as sugar cane and palm oil.” In addition, FoodNav’s editor says,

Agriculture has always adapted to the changing needs of humans, and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be true now…. Perhaps legislative action is needed to reduce the immediate cost pressures on the food industry…. But the point is that if agriculture has the potential to provide both our energy and nutrition needs, then we must face this opportunity positively. We need to review agriculture’s role in the 21st century. We need to assess how significant developments in seed technology, agricultural know-how and supply chain efficiency will help to meet growing global demand.

Wow, and I thought the Times’ advice to “reduce our appetites” sounded vague.

Generally Speaking

It’s a safe bet that if you didn’t get around to reading The New York Times’ Sunday magazine until dinner, you probably read it with a spring roll in one hand and a rice-strewn table of white Chinese food cartons in front of you. In a story titled “Hunan Resources,” aimed at edifying takeout chowers, a British food writer unveils the secret behind General Tso’s Chicken, staple of apartment-lobby menus everywhere (registration required).

Curious about the dish’s origins, Dunlop took the direct route: She went to China and asked. Only thing was, no one she met there had ever heard of it. And its flavor profile—mixing a sweet-sour sauce with hot peppers and chunks of fried chicken—isn’t native to Hunan cuisine, which favors oily and spicy over tart and sweet. But Dunlop kept digging, and finally she turned up Peng Chang-kuei, a former Nationalist Party banquet chef, who claimed to have invented the dish in the 1950s during a post-Mao exile in Taiwan.

When he arrived in 1973 to open Peng’s in New York City, he was one of several Hunanese chefs who sparked a craze for the new cuisine. New Yorkers, and soon the rest of the country, couldn’t get enough of this new hot and spicy cooking—after, of course, it had been sweetened up and tamped down for American palates. General Tso’s biggest fan? Henry Kissinger.

Still, with such popularity at stake, finding the definitive creation story can be a little tricky. This Washington Post story from 2002 reiterates the Peng story but adds a new twist: Michael Tong, owner of the Shun Lee Palace empire of Hunan and Szechuan restaurants, claims the dish for his own. According to Tong, the dish was created in the ‘70s by Tong’s former partner, T. T. Wang, who also put his stamp on orange crispy beef and Lake Tung Ting shrimp.

New Leave Law Making Restaurateurs Sick

San Francisco is the first U.S. city to be required to offer sick leave to restaurant employees, by a law that goes into effect this week. Get ready for prices to rise.

Approved by voters last November, the law requires city employers to provide sick leave to full- and part-time employees, at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. In an industry where paid leave is nearly unheard of and operating margins are often slim, restaurant owners are worried about the implications.

“Between this sick leave law and raising the minimum wage, pretty soon the only ones who can afford to do business in the city will be chains,” said Richard Crain, owner of San Francisco’s Village Grill, in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “S.F. Businesses Scramble Over Sick Leave Law.” The minimum wage in San Francisco was recently raised to $9.14, higher than the minimum for the state, and this along with the sick leave law is putting a strain on local businesses.

Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer weighed in on the subject on his blog, Between Meals.

It worries me that these changes may threaten San Francisco’s dominance as one of the best, most affordable dining cities in the world. Regardless of what happens, we’re going to have to get used to paying more.

Peter Romeo, writing for the National Food Service blog, has something to say on the matter as well. Though he admits that restaurant workers preparing food while sick is a danger to patrons, and acknowledges that something needs to be done about it, he is against laws that require a solution.

The trade should push hard now to prevent the Bay City’s set-up from being adopted as a model by other municipalities, counties and possibly even states. The benefit that was mandated there is out of whack with any business sense.

Does he have an alternate solution? Of course not.

36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland

St. John’s, Newfoundland

First of all, it’s pronounced “New-fund-LAND.” The standard mnemonic offered by locals is, “You must underSTAND we’re in NewfoundLAND!” One cannot overstate the importance of not merely stressing that last syllable, but of more or less clobbering it. The key to acceptance by locals is a good, hearty bellowing of that third syllable. I’m not kidding.

These 36 hours were the most intense of the entire tour. The following is a near-operatic timeline of my short but highly charged visit to St. John’s, NewfoundLAND.

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Sunday, 2 p.m.: In from the Airport

I’m stumbling hungrily around the outskirts of St. John. Things are quiet; the season’s clearly died down. Plus it’s a Sunday. Slim pickings.

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3 p.m.: Arrive at the Ship Inn

The Ship Inn (265 Duckworth Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-753-3870) is deserted except for bartender Dave. I really need lunch, but the kitchen’s closed. Not wanting to be rude, I sit down for a quick beer.

After my beer and an interesting chat with Dave—conflating like brush-fire to other patrons who’ve gradually wandered in—I feel compelled to try my first screech, the proud local libation of overproofed, underaged rum. Dave serves it to me with Coke.

I love it. Deeply. And even though I’m not drunk yet, I find myself liking everyone in this bar as much as the screech. Kind, smart, funny people, all.

I drink lots more screech.


Screech on the rocks.

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7 p.m.: In Search of Jigs Dinner

Around dinnertime, conversation at the Ship Inn turns to food, and my new friends decide I need to try a real jigs dinner (vegetables, salt beef, and dumplings or pudding). There’s much argument as to whether someone ought to bring me home and cook for me, or whether I should be taken to a restauarant (and if so, which one). Finally it’s decided that I’ll be taken to a place called Big R.

As always, people don’t know that I’m writing about the trip. This is simply how things go in St. John’s. Perhaps you’re planning your trip right now in another browser window. That’s a smart move.

As we leave the bar, Dave instructs us to be sure to ask when, exactly, the jigs dinner was made.

I pile into a car with people I didn’t know until two hours ago, and we drive miles to a homely diner-ish place right out of 1964.

Following Dave’s advice (Dave is highly respected), we ask the staff at Big R (201 Blackmarsh Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-722-6549) when the jigs dinner was made. The answer: Friday. It’s Sunday. We pile back into the car and drive on. I am astonished that they admitted it.

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8 p.m.: Irving Restaurant

After miles of driving, we arrive at Irving Restaurant (65 Clyde Avenue, Mount Pearl, Newfoundland; 709-745-3403) ... which has just run out of jigs dinner. My companions are disconsolate. I, by contrast, am jubilant. I’m dining not just in a gas station, but in the most ambitious gas station eatery ever.


Notice the dramatic restaurant windows in back.

This place has serious pace, the waitresses are super-nice, and I’m ready for cod tongues, my backup craving, served with mashed potatoes in brown gravy.

I’ve tried cod tongues once in Toronto, but here they come with scrunchions (little pieces of fried rendered pork fat, akin to cracklings). Happily I scrunch, devouring my lovably trashy dish.

We also got some other homely, homey, comforting items, such as split pea soup, dosed with honey and served with touton (pronounced TOW-tun)—fried dough with molasses.

Check out this moundlike turkey dinner with dry stuffing (apparently from a bag of stuffing mix to which no liquid’s been added) and canned vegetables:


The same plate worked down a bit.


... and worked down a bit more (I was humming “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” from The Sound of Music).

For dessert, “fruit of the woods” pie with coffee and wisecracks traded with the kind-hearted, quick-witted waitresses.

You may have heard that in really remote places, animals have no fear of humans. NewfoundLAND feels somehow like that. People talk substantially to each other here. They joke with strangers, even go off-script with easy aplomb. No wonder NewfoundLANDers have acquired a reputation for being “eccentric.” It’s because they have no concept of canned conversation, a lapse that creates fear and confusion for the dronelike. They’re alive. You must go this far north to find thawed humanity.

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10 p.m. to midnight: Barhopping

We hit the famous nightlife nexus of George Street, with its legions of characterful little pubs, which still maintain a faint whiff of the recently departed tourists in the air. A few stragglers come into one pub, demanding to “kiss the puffin,” which is some contrived touristic shtick. The weary bartender dutifully tends to them.

+ + +

Monday, midnight to 1 a.m.: Back to the Ship Inn

I confess to Dave at the Ship Inn that I’d strayed, and beg forgiveness, promising to never drink anywhere else ever again. Dave’s actually off work at this point, drinking at the bar. His colleague converses eruditely about education theory, and avows her aversion to bartendering, her job for many years. Everyone in St. John’s is highly discontent, which is, of course, a downside of aliveness. If I lived in St. John’s, I can’t imagine how I’d ever feel discontent (aside from the Chinese food craving).

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1 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Screech Sleep

Rough …

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10:30 a.m.: Cora’s (chain with a view)

Cora’s is a (small) chain, but it’s a high-quality one. And even within its overstylized decor, there’s local color to spare. What a view!

I order a breakfast of competent poached eggs, intense bacon, ingenuous home fries, and sort of rubbery fruity pancake things. Plus deeply profound toast. I sample only a bite of each thing, preserving appetite for more local pleasures.

This is Cora, the founder (on the right).

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11:30 a.m.: Auntie Crae’s

Auntie Crae’s is the big local gourmet shop and bakery, though, being in NewfoundLAND, it’s got none of the usual pretension. I’m mostly looking for partridge berry pie. They have none today, but I find other interesting things, including an intriguing-looking brand of rooibos tea, The Gathering Place. For more on rooibos, see report #53.

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12:30 p.m.: The Gypsy Tea Room

The Gypsy Tea Room (195 Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-739-4766) is just another romantic Gypsy restaurant where Serbians serve Mediteranean cuisine made from Canadian Maritime ingredients. Only this one’s killer. The shark bites, in an indescribable and surprisingly spicy sauce, are worlds better than Bobby Darin ever imagined. I scarf more than is prudent, despite the long day of eating ahead of me.

Yet I cannot leave this wonderful place without trying something else. “Omakase!” I holler at the chef, who hasn’t the slightest freaking idea what I mean (thankfully, it seems not to be a curse in Serbian). After explanation, he decides to make me escargot in cream sauce.

It’s not usually my kind of dish, but this version is clenchingly fantastic. At my request, the nice waiter turns off the damned Gypsy Kings and puts on some traditional Serbian oro music. I’d like to linger but must move on. It’s been, after all, 12 hours since my last screech.

Here’s the Gypsy Tea Room’s interesting menu:

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1:30 p.m.: The Ship Inn Yet Again

I’m back at Ship inn, where I’d forgotten that Dave had promised to arrange a plate of cod tongues for me. A large plate.

I’m full, but after one bite I melt into primordial hunger. These cod tongues are epochs more advanced than the ones last night. They are probably the best thing I’ve had on the tour. In fact, they might be the best fried thing I’ve ever eaten. The cook is a quiet magician. I offer you, below, many views of the tongues plus their affiliated scrunchions (which go beautifully—and alliteratively!—with screech). You must click on each to expand, and you must stare at each photo. You must book your plane tickets. You must quit your job. You must swear to never eat anywhere but the Ship Inn for the rest of your life.

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2:30 p.m.: Still at the Ship Inn

I’ve finished my dish and am as full as I’ve ever been in my life. But I’m also desperately, pantingly, heart-shatteringly in love, and, like a chicken staring up at a rainstorm until drowned, I can’t conceive of not eating more. The cook serves someone chowder, and I’m jealous enough to strike the recipient dead with a bar stool. I conquer my violent impulse and ask for a cup. Expecting grandeur, I’m nonetheless unprepared. Angels sing, lights shine. Words fail. Just … look.

It’s not much of a photo, I know. You’ll need to meditate on it for a few minutes. But it’s all there. I regret that I can’t describe this chowder. Words fail, and my feelings are just too … personal.

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3:30 to 5 p.m.: ... And Still at Ship Inn

The blessed cook has left, thank goodness, and I’m binge drinking to steady my nerves.

The Ship Inn often has good live bands, but, just my luck, tonight’s “Stitch ‘n Bitch Night.”

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6 p.m.: International Flavours

Having heard an irresistible tip about an Indian restaurant in a private house in a residential neighborhood, I’m climbing intently (and somewhat totteringly) up the hills outside of town, investing a full hour in the search, finally locating International Flavours (4 Quidi Vidi Road, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-738-4636) at the intersection of Signal Hill Road, Quidi Vidi Road, and Duckworth (yes, street names here are awesome). The restaurant is, alas, closed on Mondays.

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6:30 p.m.: Arty Photography

Time out to shoot moody photos of downtown and the harbor.

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7:30 p.m.: Bianca’s

Dave had recommended high-end Bianca’s (171 Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland; 709-726-9016), famous for fillet of caribou, a meat I’ve never tried. I’m certainly not hungry, but I put on my food critic hat (after taking off my alcoholic hat) and head over to Bianca’s for a professional few bites in spite of my lingering painful fullness.

The stuck-up waitress in her little black designer dress seems strangely anachronistic. What with the food, the alcohol, and the disorientation of thousands of miles of traveling, I think for a second that I’ve been transported to Tribeca. She’s very on-script. It’s killing my buzz.

The food’s deft, dramatically plated, expensive. As with virtually all upscale places I’ve visited on this trip, the kitchen affirms its location via regional ingredients and refined shout-outs to tradition. But there’s pretension here, and I just can’t forgive pretension in NewfoundLAND.

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8:30 p.m. to ???: Blurry Drinking and Good-byes

Can’t remember much, aside from emotional good-byes at the Ship Inn. I’ve been in town less than 36 hours.

The next morning I fly out early. But I’ll be back. Halifax native and radio star Heidi Petracek, who hipped me to the Ship Inn and Gypsy Tea Room, predicted that if I liked Halifax, I’d flip over NewfoundLAND. And she was right.

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The Chow Not Eaten: St. John’s Leftovers

Places I didn’t get to:

On Bell Island, the only fish and chips on the island, near the ferry.

The Battery Hotel (100 Signal Hill Road, 709-576-0040) for traditional brunch.

Michel’s Bakery (799 Water Street, 709-579-0670).

... and, not chow, but the essential stop for all tunely needs: Fred’s Music Store (198 Duckworth Street).

Send in the Clones (Stealthily)

Proving itself as big-biz-friendly as ever, the FDA has announced that it has no plans to require labels on cloned-animal products—so if we’re not unknowingly chowing down on racks of Dolly already, we probably will be within the next year. The government has already tentatively declared cloned meat and milk products safe for human consumption but is expected to give its official approval within the next year.

As the AP reports, the organics section of the supermarket will remain a no-clone zone:

Shoppers won’t be completely in the dark. To help them sort through meat and dairy products, one signal is the USDA organic seal, said Caren Wilcox, who heads the Organic Trade Association…. Wilcox said the U.S. Department of Agriculture label means clone-free.

Hmm. Good to know there will be an alternative, but it’s still cold comfort to a GMO skeptic like me. Sure, unlike genetically modified plants, whose pollen can drift into neighboring fields and contaminate organic crops, cloned animals probably aren’t extremely likely to escape and cross-breed with heirloom breeds. But what about baby livestock bought from nonorganic farms and then raised organically (which is allowed under USDA rules, at least for dairy animals, with certain stipulations)? Could eco-minded farmers with the best intentions end up having the wool pulled over their eyes by unscrupulous livestock dealers eager to unload cloned animals? Fraud of this kind is still notoriously hard to detect—just ask purveyors of “wild-caught” fish.

You Say Syrah

You Say Syrah

Australia says Shiraz. But New Zealand? It's Syrah. READ MORE

Beyond Ketchup and Mustard

Beyond Ketchup and Mustard

Our favorite condiments for your spreading, dipping, and dribbling pleasure. READ MORE

The Finer Points of Dining, Brought to You by the Melting Pot

You probably didn’t expect the future of refined dining to emerge from a Melting Pot chain restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. And yet, if you take the News & Observer, a North Carolina daily newspaper, at its word, that’s exactly what you’re looking at.

The Melting Pot (along with other bourgie chains such as the Cheesecake Factory) is drilling the essentials of good waitering and waitressing into its new hires. Some of the commandments for the world’s new elite corps of waitstaff, as articulated by the News & Observer:

1. Don’t point with your finger.

2. Don’t talk too much. It irritates the customers and increases the number of chances for you to look like a buffoon.

3. Know your food. If a customer asks what’s in a particular dish, have a comprehensive answer handy.

4. Raw food is referred to as “uncooked.”

Along with the advent of gas-station cappuccino, the thoughtful training of professional waitrons at places like P. F. Chang’s and TGI Friday’s is a minor but significant sign of civilization slowly oozing forth from New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other bastions of old-school culture. More relevant, it’s a sign that good service is being recognized as an economic asset-– at this point in time, it takes more than yet another version of a giant batter-fried onion to turn a one-time customer into a regular.