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pursuing the perfect bite
playing with your food, playing well with others
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
3.5.07
general

We've been talking about Kobe beef for years, but the truth is, up til now, what you could get in the States wasn't Kobe. It's all been "Kobe." It's been "American Kobe" or "Kobe-Style Wagyu", and you couldn't put the real thing in your mouth in America. But now, the ban's been lifted, and Kobe is here. You can taste it.

And how much will you pay for the privilege? Around here, about $25 an ounce.

No, not per steak. Per ounce of a steak. Naturally, there's a 5-ounce minimum. Bringing your cost to $125, for a steak that could generously be described as "on the small side."

The fetishization of food is almost complete. Twenty years ago, did we even know what hummus was? Pancetta? Had you ever eaten pasta that didn't come, already dried, in a box? Did you even call it pasta, or was it all "spaghetti"? Now, you've got people in major cities chatting idly about where best to "source" their 00 flour so they can craft their own fettuccini on the chitarra they bought at Williams-Sonoma, dress it with San Marzano tomatoes (because no other canned tomato is acceptable, and every knows you don't dare consume a tomato out of season), and grate on some Parmiggiano-Reggiano, the undisputed king of cheeses.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. No doubt more so. I love to talk about food. I find it endlessly fascinating. I will pay, yes, $20 for a hamburger, $30 for a plate of pasta, $20/pound for cheese. I won't pay $25 an ounce for Kobe beef, but I know people who will, and have.

I am not here to tell anyone what to eat and what not to eat. That's not what this is about.

The trend is clear. Negotiating a fine-dining menu these days is an exercise in vocabulary. Cardoons. Sunchokes. Speck and shiso, fior de latte and fleur du sel. Along with the fetishization of freshness and the obsessive trend with buying local, it's driven by something else: the push for something new, something different, something exotically familiar. Not just cauliflower, but Romanesco. Not just beets, but Chioggia beets. It's like the Vidalia onion, times a zillion.

Is it a bad trend? No, honestly, I don't think it is. And of course, real world imperatives apply, so it's not like the standard American dinner table is loaded down with Belgian endive dressed in a pomegranate molasses vinaigrette. It's not that we've all been forced to consume ever-more-outrageous things.

It's just that, in certain circles, the pursuit of the perfect bite has gone so far, I think we've lost sight of what it is that makes food so wonderful in the first place.

The best bite is not the one you've waited months to get a reservation for, or the one painstakingly crafted by a publicly renowned chef. It's not the one imported from an artisanal producer in rural Italy or organically grown within a twenty-mile radius of your house. It's not the moist bursting mouthful of breaded pigeon breast served on a branch of smoldering oak leaves, or the slick clinging swallow of foie gras glazed with Sauternes.

The best bite is the one you feed someone you love, to make them smile.

On some level food is, and has to be, a private experience. You and I can look at the same thing, and see it the same; we can listen to the same thing, and hear it the same. I can touch something and describe to you what it feels like, and I can probably give you a pretty good idea. But if both of us take a paper-thin slice of La Quercia proscuitto and lay it out on our respective tongues, and close our mouths to savor that bite, I honestly believe that I am not tasting the same thing you are tasting. We are experiencing it differently. We are having two different experiences, scientifically.

But science is not the whole story. The experience around the food changes the taste. A bite of fresh mozzarella is delicious when I sneak it from my own fridge, seasoned by that furtive joy; it's delicious in a different way when it's part of a reward to myself for losing five pounds, the sweetest softest bite I've had in weeks; and delicious in yet a different way when I slice and serve it with heirloom tomatoes and basil as a surprise for my significant other, because I hate tomatoes, but he doesn't.

Food is romantic, yes, but it's not just the aphrodisiac qualities of good food and wine shared with a romantic partner that I think we should be chasing after. Sharing food with your friends, introducing them to a new restaurant they've never tried. Bringing a taste of new foods home from your next trip to give to someone who didn't get to make the trip with you. Sitting around the table with your family, urging your 17-year-old daughter to try the quinoa even if it "looks weird", then watching her shrug and pronounce it "okay", only to ask two days later, "Are you gonna make any of that quinoa stuff again?"

If any food experience is worth pursuing, it's this one: to share food, and through sharing it, to create a new experience you wouldn't have had otherwise.

No matter what it does, or doesn't, cost.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry

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COMMENTS

juli mccarthy
3.5.07 @ 12:09a

Tracey generously gave me a whole entire scallop off the plate that contained only five, because I'd never had a scallop before, and she had tasted hers and decided they were too good for me to miss.

That's love, people.

alex b
3.5.07 @ 6:21a

I definitely agree that the best bite is one you make for someone. I also think sharing is incredibly important when sitting down to a meal; I never break bread with anyone I don't trust, and preferred dinner companions are friends and family. (Superstitious perhaps, but one I stick to).

These days, I can't say I know enough about food to distinguish a beet regionally, but I love a well-prepared meal. Living in NY has been terrific- its diverse, gourmet, and low-end options have totally expanded my palate. My favorites include both Jack Daniels-marinated lamb shank and $10 orders of Colombian rotisserie chicken with plantains. Oh, I also heartily recommend fried tempura ice cream.

Great column! (Which of course, made my stomach growl).

ken mohnkern
3.5.07 @ 10:33a

My childhood home had no microwave. To reheat food you'd put it in a Revereware pan until you'd scorched it. Cheese was orange and labeled Velveeta. Swiss cheese was the exotic stuff. We took empty gallon jugs to a local farm and filled them with whole, un-homogenized milk. The fat separated to the top (we could measure the fat content with a ruler), so we shook it up before pouring. Vegetables came frozen and were boiled until limp. Sunday dinner after church was usually a pot roast and potatoes from the Crock Pot. Sea food was breaded fish sticks.

Food was for eating. Taste had nothing to do with it. Call it fetishization if you want, but since leaving my childhood home I've learned to enjoy food.

[edited]

michelle von euw
3.5.07 @ 12:06p

I tried my first bite of Kobe beef at Morimoto's in Philly this weekend, and it was good. Not $20/ounce good, but that's just me.

Actually, your column sums up our Morimoto's experience. Someone at our table ordered the $100 tasting menu. He then got the hard sell from the waiter, who insisted that his dining experience would be that much better if he did the $150 version -- same amount of courses, just better ingridients. My friend was pretty firm in his decision, but the waiter kept up the pressure, which was a huge turn off.

jael mchenry
3.5.07 @ 12:18p

Service does hugely affect the restaurant experience -- that's a good example, 'chelle. And then pricing -- things like a $25 upcharge for foie gras can change the equation, taking it from "Does it taste good" to "Does it taste $25 better than another course I could have had"?

Some restaurants are so expensive relative to the quality of their food that I can't imagine people go there for any other reason than to impress each other with how much they can afford.



robert melos
3.5.07 @ 4:29p

Your right about foods tasting different to each individual. In 1981 I was in an auto accident and literally bit my tongue almost off. The doctors had the abilities to reattach my tongue, possibly making it sharper, but for 18 months I lost all sense of taste. After that I discovered I liked smoother tastes, less heat/spicy type of foods. Less salty tastes, more sweeter. My sense of taste seems to have heightened after that experience.

russ carr
3.6.07 @ 6:11p

As much as I love to cook, and to eat, and as much as my palate has matured and expanded over the past 10 years or so, I still have problems reconciling the price I have to pay at a restaurant with the food I'm getting.

As a thank you last year, one of my clients gave me a gift certificate for an all inclusive meal at the toniest restaurant here in STL (coincidentally, the place is named "Tony's") and I still haven't used it. I'd need to go out and buy a sport coat, as I don't believe any of the ones I own fit well enough, or look nice enough, to wear.

And then I ask myself: why? For whom am I getting dressed up? My wife, who will accompany me? Sure, I want to look good for her and she for me, but we can look pretty spiff even sans jacket, tie or dress. For the waitstaff? Pfft. They'll be in black tie, is my guess. For the other diners? Hey, we're all in this together, folks. You're only wearing that because you have to, same as the rest of us.

So who are we dressing for? The braised veal shank on my plate? Will it taste BETTER because I'm eating it while enduring the constrictions of a necktie?

I'm pleased to say that for the best steak dinner that I ever ate, I was dressed no better than business casual at the time. It was at a nondescript strip mall just outside DC. What made it great? Well, the steak was cut and cooked perfectly. I had a killer red to wash it down with. I also had the extreme pleasure of dining with three fellow Intrepidites at the time, a trio who would boost even scooping deviled ham out of a tin with a Ritz cracker to a higher social strata.

Was it pricey? A bit, but far from the most expensive meal I've ever had. I don't think I did more than $40 damage, tip included.

And when I returned home from this trip, I did my level best to duplicate the meal, and you know what? It was almost entirely as good. If I'd had my friends around the table, I'd say it was every bit as good...and that at half the cost.

Pretentious food bores me. I can't say I will ever be so high-falutin' as to be able to tell the difference between a $12 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine. Or from steak from cattle hand-fed by geisha vs. some cow wandering the pastures of Wisconsin. But I do know that I'd rather make mac & cheese with milk, butter and a hunk of Red Leicester than open that appalling blue box. Because I know what's in my recipe, and while it might not include truffle oil or infused ANYTHING, it is delicious in its humble thrift. I shopped for my ingredients, and took the time to craft it, to fuss over it until it was ready to serve. And while I may occasionally collapse into my dinner table chair, so harried and stressed from preparations that I can hardly face this food in front of me, all of that lifts away in an instant when I see the raised forks and smiles of friends and family tucking in.

[edited]

ken mohnkern
3.7.07 @ 10:07a

Have any of you foodies ever heard of Pittsburgh rare?

A client/friend of my wife's took us to Ruth's Chris's Steak's House's or whatever it's called after we hung an antique embroidery in her condo. (You'd love this place. It's right smack downtown, with a view of two of the three rivers. It overlooks both Heinz Field and PNC Park - free Steeler and Pirate games! If you've got binoculars.)

Anyway, a steak cooked Pittsburgh rare is rare inside and scorched all to hell on the outside. It was surprisingly good.

Context: this is the city where salads come on a bed of french fries. And one Pittsburgh landmark serves fries and cole slaw in the sandwich.

[edited]

jael mchenry
3.7.07 @ 10:35a

Ken -- there is a steakhouse in Charleston, South Carolina that cooks their steaks Pittsburgh rare. I thought it was really odd at the time but your note and a quick internet search seems to suggest that it's a pretty well-known style.

Steak is soooooo good.

Russ, I have nothing to add to your awesome post. Few restaurants are all about the food and not at all about the atmosphere, and I guess I see why -- a restaurant meal is a splurge for a lot of people, so they want both the food and the pomp around it, and most restaurants that neglect atmosphere can't compete in the market. But that strip mall steakhouse, which does indeed churn out the best steaks I've had in my life, is a nice exception to the rule.

marki shalloe
3.7.07 @ 3:24p

I am sorry to disagree, but the best bite is not one given to someone else with love. The best bite is one Star Ranch's pulled pork barbecue kept for yo'sef.
(Aside: one Star used to be called Lone Star until they got sued for stealing the name; the owner just crawled up on the roof and kicked the lights out of the L).

[edited]

jael mchenry
3.8.07 @ 10:16a

Marki -- Where is this delicious One Star barbecue located? We're always looking for new bites to try...

russ carr
3.8.07 @ 11:10a

I'm betting it's this place, in the Atlanta area.

marki shalloe
3.8.07 @ 11:13a

Atlanta, on Irby Avenue right next to Henri's Bakery if you need a cookie after, across the street from Pearson's Liquor, which opens at 8:30 a.m. and will knock a dollar off if you pay cash and two dollars off if you buy the large size bourbon. This is my Gethsemane, I go there when people get up in mah grill.

marki shalloe
3.8.07 @ 11:17a

Russ, you win that bet. If you come down this way, I'll buy you a 'cue or two.

ken mohnkern
3.8.07 @ 11:23a

I've got to send my brother, who just moved to Alpharetta, and have him email me a couple orders of pulled pork.

russ carr
3.8.07 @ 11:25a

Bourbon, baked goods and barbecue? Sign me up!

marki shalloe
3.8.07 @ 11:34a

Yup. I am very pretentious, but with deeply Cracker roots, and have been known to wobble in on my stilettos and order a peenoh nWAH with my 'cue. one Star doesn't even blink. It probably isn't peenoh nWAH, but we're both polite about it.

brian anderson
3.9.07 @ 9:29a

I'm just amazed that anyplace called Lone Star (or *one Star) has pulled pork, even in Atlanta, considering that Texas barbecue is all about beef (which isn't to say bad -- it's phenomenal -- just a different style).

Mind you, my only Atlanta barbecue experience is at Daddy D'z, which is pretty freakin' amazing on its own.

ken mohnkern
3.9.07 @ 10:31a

My only Georgia bbq experience was in Augusta. I got a lecture (which I've forgotten) about the differences between all the local barbecue dialects. I bet at least one of them goes well with a Peeno Noo-wahr.

tracey kelley
3.12.07 @ 9:38a

HA! Ken, your childhood dining sounds like mine - read this.

Juli, it was indeed pure love. I have also been known to push sushi at Jael just to hear her say, "Mmm...", Jael Noise #14.

Most of the meals I've eaten this past week have been bland and/or in my hotel room. But I did have family-style food with my sister in an Amish buggy, and a fabulous venison stew dripping over baked mashed potatoes with my friend Sherri.

The food, while delicious, just wouldn't have been the same without the company.

I love food in many ways. But like Russ, I have a hard time paying for it in restaurants. I worked in the industry - I know that $15 plate of pasta only cost $2.35 to make. I also have a hard time ordering one entree at $20, when I can have 3 appetizers and really sample the restaurant's approach, plus have variety, for the same price.

marki shalloe
3.12.07 @ 10:03a

Ah, yes, Brian! Big-State Beef 'cue is a fine thing indeed and is available (methinks) at one Star. I order the pulled pork because of my religious affiliation (Sunday-dinnah-on-the-ground-pigeatah).

[edited]

jael mchenry
3.13.07 @ 1:37p

The noise I make when eating sushi is nothing compared to the noise I was probably making last night when the cheese plate arrived. OH, slippery squishy melty French cheese. Eaten in good company, even better.

A cheese plate is one area where I think paying restaurant prices is the smart choice. Could you buy much larger portions of similar cheeses for the same amount of money in your local cheese shop? Sure, if you're lucky enough to have a good one. But having too much excellent cheese around the house is a bad temptation for me, so I'd rather pay someone $13 for thin slivers of five expertly chosen and presented cheeses, rather than seeing what I could get for that amount at the Whole Foods.

alex b
3.14.07 @ 5:22a

Man, every time I reread this column, I get foodgasmic. I just ate a bag of dark chocolate truffles.

Oh, and sushi is especially good when your soy sauce has a little lemon squeezed in it, along with some wasabi mixed in it.

maigen thomas
3.21.07 @ 7:22p

I love food.



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