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

Experiments in Eating

The New York Times features a fascinating profile of Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, whose work suggests that environmental cues play a big role in how much we eat.

Wansink’s work (the subject of his new book Mindless Eating) suggests that certain cues, such as the size of the container in which food is served or the way it is packaged, can play a critical role in shaping eating habits and affecting weight gain.

Among his many intriguing experiments, which include testing how much soup people will eat out of “bottomless” soup bowls and seeing whether schoolchildren can be duped into eating peas (when they’re called “power peas”), is this one involving movie popcorn:

An appalling example of our mindless approach to eating involved an experiment with tubs of five-day-old popcorn. Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.

Finally, an explanation for why I found myself nearly cracking my teeth on unpopped kernels while watching The Illusionist last week: blame it on Jessica Biel. Damn distraction.

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Beyond Pablum

The San Jose Mercury News (registration required) devotes this week’s food section to the increasingly gourmet world of baby food. Light years away from your average jar of Gerber, these new brands of grub for little chubs use organic produce and mild herbs to make baby food that parents hope will influence their infants toward an intense appreciation of farmer’s markets and away from a life of Kraft mac and cheese.

‘You shape your preferences based on what you’re exposed to,’ said Dr. Elizabeth Shepard, a pediatrician and nutrition specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. ‘Sensory preferences basically start at birth. Everything, every flavor, a child is exposed to puts some kind of impression into their brain.’

Some of these new foods come flash-frozen for brighter colors and fresher flavors; others are delivered to you. Both options are two to three times as expensive as national brands.

Are they worth it? If you love upscale packaged food (and the popularity of stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods points to the fact that many of us do), you’ll want to share your passion with Junior. Or you can go the do-it-yourself route. The Mercury has some tips (registration required) on that, too.

The Llong Goodbye

The October Saveur contains a compelling short essay titled “Truculent but Tender.” It’s about eating a llama.

The premise is simple. Once upon a time, there was a one-year-old llama owned by the mother of one of the writer’s friends. Although he was fuzzy and cute like other llamas, he was also no doubt a total bastard who regularly tipped 8 percent and never refilled the Brita pitcher. The owner therefore took him behind the barn … and made him into delicious llama steaks, llama-stuffed cabbage, and llama lomo saltado! Everybody’s a winner–except, of course, the llama.

At the end of the piece, writer Paul Adams finds himself newly “attuned to the unsuspected culinary potential of novel animals.” This begs the question: What’s next for Adams? Gibbons? Elephants? Seeing-eye dogs?

Stay tuned for a future spine-tingling edition of Saveur wherein Adams’s “friend’s mother” takes care of a handyman and sends Adams back to Brooklyn with a Samsonite wheelie full of man meat.

A Mean Lamb Shwarma

The Concord branch of The Mediterranean makes a totally awesome shwarma, says Chuckles the Clone. They have a standard setup: big meat carousel slowly roasting spiced slabs of lamb, and when you order, they slice some off and finish cooking it over a grill with some sliced tomatoes. Then they scoop it into a hot-sauce-slathered lavash and wrap it in foil, at which time it begins to make its own gravy, and also begins to be eaten by you. You will need about a dozen napkins for this process, plus a few extra to clean your table when finished.

It’s great shwarma, great enough to make the place qualify as a “destination.” Unlike many places, the lamb really tastes like lamb. J T notes that this place used to be a Truly Mediterranean, but ownership changed and quality slipped–now the quality is back up to previous levels, and it’s totally recommended.

The Mediterranean [East Bay]
1847 Willow Pass Rd. Ste. B, Concord
925-825-0608
Locater

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Good Shwarma in the east bay?

Beautiful Pork Mole

The house-made mole at Gallegos is very earthy, a little chocolaty, a little spicy, a little bitter, and a little sweet, says chocolatetartguy. The mole is so good, it takes this place over the line from stop-by-if-you’re-in-the-neighborhood to run-don’t-walk. It’s thick and complex, and gives you something to think deeply about. It’s served on top of a mound of sweet, tender, slightly fatty pork–like carnitas, but not crisped. The beans and rice make a perfect bland foil to the many moods of the insane mole. All that plus a small green salad and the proverbial bag of chips will run you $8. And mole is served every day!

The caldo de res is also nice, beef broth with meat and vegetables served with all kinds of mix-ins, kind of like pho. rworange likes the weird-but-oddly-satisfying raspberry agua fresca.

Gallegos Mexican Food [East Bay]
2309 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
510-841-9710
Locater

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Gallegos Mexican Food–wonderful pork mole
Berkeley–Gallegos Mexican Food – Monday sopa de albondigas

Surprising Fish Taco in Bellport, L.I

Unorthodox but scrumptious fish tacos are a don’t-miss order at Bellport’s newish Sugar Loaf Cafe, says Dave Feldman. Beautifully grilled mahi mahi with cabbage-carrot slaw, dressed with lively carrot-orange vinaigrette and cilantro-lime mayonnaise, is enfolded in soft flour tortillas. Tacos also come with beef, chicken, or shrimp.

It’s not your typical Mexican treatment, but this isn’t a Mexican restaurant. The rest of the menu offers sandwiches, burgers, wraps, soups, salads, and breakfast dishes with Brazilian and Mediterranean accents. Also: baked goods (including pao de queijo, the Brazilian cheese puffs) and a full lineup of espresso and other coffee drinks, brewed from Brazilian beans. “Everything in the cafe is such a joy,” effuses MN716.

For fall and winter, Sugar Loaf is open for breakfast and lunch daily plus early dinner (until 8) on Friday and Saturday.

Sugar Loaf Cafe [Suffolk County]
141 S. Country Rd., between Station Rd. and Woodruff St., Bellport, NY
631-286-5652
Map

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Fish Tacos in Bellport, Long Island

All-Star Contender at Michael Jordan’s

Hounds aren’t quite sold on Michael Jordan’s steaks, but their hamburger is a winner. It’s 12 ounces of well-seasoned ground sirloin, broiled to a nice crust, served on a lightly grilled bun with decent steak fries–pricey at $14.50 but excellent, reports ESNY.

Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse [Grand Central Terminal]
23 Vanderbilt Ave., in Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan
212-655-2300
Locater

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Review of the burger at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse

A Gem in Downtown – No, Not the Jewelry District

Cakewalk, Debra King’s new bakery-cafe downtown, is now serving breakfast and lunch. It’s a gem waiting to be discovered, says joejoe. For lunch, try the tenderloin sandwich, with medium-rare beef in a cracked-pepper and salt crust, plus horseradish cream and cherry-pepper relish. Soba noodles are lighter but still satisfying, and of course there’s dessert–the likes of banana pudding and cheesecake cupcakes with chocolate ganache. In a rush? Get curbside pickup.

Cakewalk [East LA-ish]
1326 E. 1st. St., Los Angeles
323-261-0852
Map

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Another great lunch at Cakewalk