The CHOW Blog rss

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

Spiritual Hunger

The Los Angeles Times has a fun piece that explores why images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary keep popping up in people’s baked goods. While I personally think the answer may have something to do with the Maillard reaction, the piece doesn’t go into the chemistry; unsurprisingly, the reason is psychological—a phenomenon called pareidolia, in which people perceive patterns where none are intended.

The exciting thing about the article is the specifics, a great summary of the last three decades of holy sightings in food and people’s reaction to them. There’s the candy-factory worker who found the Madonna in a stray blob of chocolate: “I can’t describe the feeling; the emotions make me cry,” she said. And then there’s the “famous Jesus tortilla of New Mexico,” which is said to have set “the world standard for claims of miracle sightings”—it received so many visitors that its owner “quit her job as a maid to become full-time attendant to the shrine of the tortilla built in her home.”

How do religious officials react to these sightings, you may ask?

‘The church encourages Christians to see the face of Christ in the homeless, the poor, the destitute and the immigrant—not in a plate of pasta,’ said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. ‘Imagine showing up on your judgment day in front of God, and he says, “Where did you see me? Did you see me in the poor and the immigrant and the homeless?” And you say, “Well, no, but I did see you in a piece of chocolate once.” Doesn’t sound so good, does it?’

Touché, Mr. Tamberg, touché. On the other hand, the fact that some of the highest-profile sightings lately have been in food rather than in other objects—and that, as the LAT reports, “followers of Islam have said they’ve seen the Arabic script for ‘Allah’ or ‘Muhammad’ on fish scales, chicken eggs, lambs and beans”—is really fascinating. Do humans just have a natural tendency toward deifying food?

Death by Chocolate Robot

The current Doctor Who sci-fi series, starring David Tennant as the Doctor, is going strong both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. It’s one of the most popular shows at Television Without Pity and can trace its hearty roots back to 1963, when the first series aired in the UK.

Every Doctor Who fan—even those of us who were fans during the curly-headed Tom Baker years—is familiar with the evil robot race, the Daleks. Bent on ultimate domination of the universe, Daleks are ruthless, merciless, and deadly. According to their Wikipedia entry:

[The Daleks] have become synonymous with Doctor Who and their behaviour and catchphrases are part of British popular culture. ‘Hiding behind the sofa whenever the Daleks appear’ has even been cited as an essential element of British cultural identity, along with Bovril and afternoon tea.

Furthermore, the Daleks are particularly famous for repeating their stilted catchword, “Ex-ter-min-ate!” until you are chilled to your human core. So, are you with me so far? Daleks: evil, robotic, killers. But also? Tasty.

Chocablog presents us with a fabulous Dalek chocolate cake recipe called “Extermination by Chocolate.” Would you believe there’s even an entire Flickr group solely devoted to Dalek Cakes? It’s true.

Who knew that eventual robot world domination could be so decadent?

Mapping the Mustache

Mapping the Mustache

CHOW's milk taste test. READ MORE

Springtime for Hitler and Gingerbread

Just in time for Hanukkah, an Ohio artist has created an art exhibit composed of Nazi gingerbread men. Not surprisingly, the exhibit was booted out of its hardware-store-window display area after passersby observed that it was more conducive to Kristallnacht than good old-fashioned American holiday spirit.

As someone whose mother’s grandparents were literally driven out of Odessa by rampaging Cossacks (who reportedly chased Great Aunt Fanny through the garden on horseback on more than one occasion), I’m squarely in the demographic that should be offended.

However, the problem with the exhibit isn’t that its shocking content provokes outrage and passionate discourse. The problem is that virtually everything invoking Nazis at this point is a cultural and artistic nonstarter. This sort of phone-it-in controversy is why they invented Godwin’s Law.

Now, when somebody gets around to making gay far-right wing evangelical pastor gingerbread men, shoot me an email.

New York’s Got Nothin’

In an engaging review of the new pizza place that has New York City food writers all agush, Gothamist’s Hungry Cabbie laments the sorry state of New York pizza. It’s not that he doesn’t like the pies at white-hot Lucali as much as the next guy—he does. “It is undeniably tasty pizza,” the HC writes. The problem, he says, is what all this love for Lucali says about the city’s ‘za scene:

A brand new place opens and within hours, there is a long wait just to get through the door. And every food writer in the city jumps on the story. This shouldn’t be a story. Lucali’s is good—very good—but I wish it had gotten a little lost in a crowd of great pizza places. However, there just isn’t much of a crowd of great pizza places.

He argues that “New York pizza” as a legendary foodstuff has gone way downhill, to the point that it has nothing on other cities’ best-known specialties:

Go to Grenada and every falafel you find will be absolutely amazing. Go to Chicago and every hot dog you eat will make your heart skip a beat (or stop beating entirely). Go to Napoli and every pizza will be perfect.

Is he right? Do these kinds of well-worn cliches about cities and their food really hold true? I live in New York and definitely understand where the HC is coming from on the pizza front, but I don’t know if I believe that the legendary foods in any city are uniformly good (my one hot dog experience in Chicago wasn’t very memorable, anyway). Where there’s legend there are tourists, and where there are tourists there’s a breeding ground for mediocre food at exorbitant prices, no?

Brazilian Buffetification (but Great Bacon)

Framingham, Massachusetts

Back to the center of the universe, Magic Oven. I need to explain that Brazilian bakeries don’t just make sweets. They do plenty of pastries, cakes, breads, and puddings, but also salgadinhos (little salty hors d’oeuvres), sandwiches, and juices.

First, here are some dramatic photos of a pao de queijo (cheese roll), as promised in report 42:

It’s important to arrive early, when things are fresh. I wish you could taste this crisp risole de frango, filled with gobs of cheesy creamy chickeny goodness:

Nice discovery: a bright yellow pudding called mingau de milho verde, made from green corn. It’s irresistible, but that’s true of most Brazilian puddings.

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I had such a great experience in the Cheese Shop of Wellesley (61 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts; 781-237-0916), a.k.a. Wasik’s Cheese Shop, a short ride from Framingham. Stupendous selection; true-believing, generous-taste-offering, raucously funny counter people; and lots of cool non-cheese food items.

They gave me, as a virgin customer, a jar of their luxurious, cheese-friendly Yankee Chutney, which contains sugar, peaches, vinegar, raisins, red pepper, apples, lemon juice, spices, onion, and salt.

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I had to return to Sichuan Gourmet (see last report) and try more things. This time I brought along a friend who’s a native Mandarin speaker. Hear his patient but futile attempts to improve my pronunciation as we await our dishes: MP3.

Here’s what we had:


Chengdu spicy dumpling.


Steamed bacon with fresh garlic spicy sauce.


Bacon detail.


Cold spicy diced rabbit (on the bone).


Gangou dry fish fillet (a special).

The dumpling was primo, and the bacon was beyond primo, showing exquisite knifework.

The deal here is that there is one master chef (also co-owner, I believe) dividing his time between two locations (the other one is at (502 Boston Road, Billerica, Massachusetts; 978-670-7339). His touch is unmistakable—he did the knifework on the bacon, he preps the Szechuan made-ahead cold items, like beef tendon. His touch is also palpable in simple items produced according to formula, like dan dan noodles. But if you order dishes made in the moment with lots of on-the-fly decision making, you are at the mercy of a busy kitchen full of chefs of varying quality. The rabbit was a bit dull, and the fish fillet was downright icky. I ordered the cumin lamb a second time tonight, and it lacked je ne sais quoi.

So the thing to do is stick with cold Szechuan items and simpler prepared stuff, and work to develop enough of a relationship with the restaurant that you can find out where the top chef is at any given time … and try to persuade him to cook your meal. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but possible. It’s the work one does to get the best from any good Chinese restaurant, where each order can be like a round of wok roulette.

I’ve looked up the place on Chowhound, and see that opinions vary wildly. It’s clearly a result of chef roulette (plus some folks who are unaccustomed to the wildly oily/spicy nature of real Szechuan food).

+ + +

Meanwhile, nothing but disappointment on the Brazil front. In previous visits, just about every Brazilian eatery in town looked, smelled, and/or tasted really good. This time, it’s all changed. There are no more little homey places. Everything’s turning to shiny buffets. Which, come to think of it, is a progression I’ve noticed before in Brazilian immigrant communities. Talented, caring chefs struggle to make a living putting out quality, but the average Brazilian immigrant seems most interested in filling up cheaply. Sadly, this seems the case in Framingham, which is all of a sudden rife with buffets churning out flairless food.

I kept asking around, walking around, driving around, trying to uncover a holdout or two. But really, this is all it’s about now: a bunch of very similar buffets. Typical was the last one I hit, Casa Brasil:

As usual with buffets, eating here was a highly impersonal experience, with diners moping slowly from tray to tray, drab worker bees replenishing, and a gruff counterman taking the money. There’s little warmth, and the Brazilians (both customers and workers) seem withered like old hothouse flowers. Disconnected from their beautiful home, they file, zombielike, through plastic buffets, which are quite busy three meals per day.

Preparing to leave town, I rail against the downturn in Brazilian food quality in this podcast: MP3.

Age and Beauty

Age and Beauty

With mature wines bought at auction, you can have it both ways. READ MORE

For the Baby Gourmet on Your Gift List

Looking for a gift for that aspiring foodie toddler in your life? Forget building blocks. Give a wooden sushi slicing set in its own bento box—ginger, wasabi, and shoyu included!

That’s what McAuliflower, the blogger behind Brownie Points, is doing. She’s found an adorable sushi set, featuring chopsticks tipped in Velcro to help Baby pick up those tempting pices of nigiri. Reader comments on her blog post seem to point to a lot of grown-up foodies who wouldn’t mind receiving a gift like this (click over to see it; it’s beyond cute).

The set is available at online store Oliebollen (fittingly named after the Dutch holiday donut), which offers “essentials for perfectly childish living.” In addition to the sushi set, they have a Bistro Cooking Utensils Set, a Cupcake Baking Set, and—my favorite—the Deluxe Pastry Chef Set, which includes a wooden pastry board, rolling pin, porcelain pie plate, pastry cutter, and pastry brush. It’s for all those Pierre Hermés of the kindergarten set.

For the bookish foodie, there is a series of board books called A World of Snacks. Let’s Nosh introduces Jewish comfort foods—bagles, knishes, and latkes. The First Book of Sushi lays down the basics of nigiri, oshi, and maki. Yum Yum Dim Sum is a buffet of pork buns and dumplings. A Little Bit of Soul Food serves up fried chicken, collards, and mac and cheese.

But for the true child gourmet, there is the Truffle Snuffle Game. Here the players don a pig nose and go sniffing for truffles. Each turn is timed, and there is a prize for sniffing out the golden truffle.

Clearly Candy Land is passé these days.

What’s the Difference Between Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate?

What’s the Difference Between Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate?

They're just labels. READ MORE

Don’t Call It a Deli

Don’t Call It a Deli

An interview with the young heirs of Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters. READ MORE