Category Archives: culture

Childhood Vices & Flaming Hot Spices: Why Nothing Compares to H O T Cheetos

Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…

This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first facebook.com referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:

 

In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.

For Youth By Youth?

Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of Billboard.com cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it’s apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:

I haven’t had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.

I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.

Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos

Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:

I can’t wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.

Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.

Anyone else initially mistake the rabbit on the RAWK font package for some kind of lobster/alien hybrid? Or was that just me?

I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.

All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.

*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless.

Junk Food and Autonomy

“Junk” foods are often portrayed as childish. They appeal to the most basic human taste preferences: sweet, salty, and fatty. Of course adults like those things too, and many adults eat junk food. But I’m sure Rembert Browne isn’t the only one for whom the idea of Hot Cheetos & a lemonade Brisk induced a kind of nostalgia. Or perhaps reminded you of whatever occupied a comparable place in your childhood. For Jesse Taylor on The Raw Story, it was shortbread cookies:

My favorite childhood snacks were those little daisy-shaped shortbread cookies with holes in the middle, because I could only get them at my babysitter’s house. They fit on your fingers like rings, and the game was to always see how much you could eat before the cookie fell apart and off your fingers. Objectively, they were crappy, and when I found them years later and bought them for myself for the first time, I ate an entire package of them, slipped over my pinkie, because my other fingers were too big. They were sweet, and excessive, but they were mine.

oddly, I don't remember having any sort of color/flavor preference, or maybe that's not so odd given that I'm not sure you'd be able to distinguish in a blind taste testMy equivalent is probably Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts, which a friend and I discovered in the general store at the evangelical Baptist camp where we spent two weeks during the summer after sixth grade.** Like Taylor’s shortbread cookies, Giant Sweet Tarts were exciting primarily because they were novel. We’d never encountered them before. There was also a sort of art to eating them because they were too big to fit comfortably in your mouth, but were also too hard to bite into. The advertized “chewiness” really referred to a sort of vague pliability in the center that really only became chewy with the application of heat and moisture. The method I came to prefer involved softening them between my palms and then breaking them into quarters by folding them until they snapped, which required a sort of slow, consistent pressure. It didn’t always work perfectly, which was part of the appeal—there was a technique that had to be honed. The challenge of getting the pieces to break into clean, equal portions was as much of a reason to eat them as the intense sour-sweetness.

Sometime after returning from camp, the 7-Eleven in our neighborhood started carrying them and we were so stoked. It wasn’t really because they tasted better than any of the other dozens of varieties of vaguely fruity sour candies—which are basically all the same—but by that point, Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts had become our thing. They were part of our identity, and made us feel distinct from the kids whose preferences ran towards Starbursts or MnMs (yawn!) or that one person in every class who actually liked old person candies like Good ‘n Plenty and Jordan Almonds. And, of course, they also distinguished us from our parents, who seemed wholly indifferent to candy of any kind and snack foods in general. In retrospect, my dad did eat potato chips, trail mix with MnMs, and ice cream, all of which my mom purchased regularly along with all the other groceries. Those may have hit all the same salty, sweet, fatty tastes but because those were normalized as just food, they didn’t seem special or appealing. They could not be distinctly mine.

I think what HC&T evokes isn’t so much any particular tastes people might associate with childhood—peanut butter & jelly sandwiches or Kraft macaroni and cheese might be better suited for that. Instead, as Browne and Taylor both argue, the song is about a kind of autonomy. Both writers claim that’s best expressed by the lines about how they purchased the snacks at the corner store*** with their own money:

riding around with my allowance
s
o nobody can stop me

hot cheetos & takis, thats my favorite snack
bought ’em with my own money i don’t give ’em back

But I’m not sure that’s as crucial as the way the snacks serve as a symbol of distinction from your parents and affiliation with your peers. Browne says that what makes getting money as a kid so sweet is that “YOU HAD EARNED IT BY RAKING THE LEAVES,” but there’s no reference in the song to earning the money. Instead, just two lines after the lyrics about riding around with his allowance, Nasir says,

my mom hit the ATM, cuz she know i need them

Mom provides the cash and may even drive them to the store, but she also represents the familial center that eating Hot Cheetos is a kind of escape from, or an authority to be rebelled against (politely):

my mama said "have u had enough?"
i looked and i said "no ma’am"

mama said "slow down, boy u bout to blow"
but i’m fi’nna get more, u should drive me to the store

The fact that they can get the snacks with their own money does matter—but probably only because that means Mom couldn’t stop you from eating them. You’re going to find a way to get them. The most she can do is suggest you take it easy. Eating them anyway is a relatively small and innocent act of defiance, a way of identifying with your friends instead of your parents and performing a kind of independence and identity with salience for your social world.

**We were convinced by her church youth group leader that it would be an awesome experience and ignored crucial details in the promotional pamphlet that probably should have made us suspicious, like the fact that girls were not allowed to wear shorts that hit above the knee and there were daily church services (which turned out to be plural) listed along with the 18-hole disc golf course and ropes course and team-building activities (which turned out to include competitive scripture memorization) that promised to keep us occupied.

***For some reason, the Village Voice writer seems to think it might come as a surprise to some readers that Minnesota has corner stores: “18. The universality of all of this. Do you think of Minneapolis as a place where there are lots of corner stores? Do you think of Minnesota as a hotbed for Atlanta-reminiscent rap? These are kids showing you both things are, in one small way, true.” Which, what? Does anyone honestly think corner stores are a purely coastal phenomenon?

A Taste of Adulthood

irritasty!So why do the Y.N.RichKids express their culinary independence through flaming hot snack foods? I suspect it has something to do with the related facts that spiciness is an acquired taste and spicy foods can induce a potentially-addictive endorphin release. Unlike snack foods that are really all about sweetness, saltiness and/or fat, which are tastes that even babies like, Hot Cheetos & Takis are a slightly more mature snack.

Although some cultures (past and present) include spiciness in their set of basic tastes, it’s actually a tactile sensation—we don’t really taste culinary heat, we feel it. The same is true of the cooling sensation of mint. Both are detected by the trigeminal nerve, which also relays information about texture and temperature to the brain and causes migraine headaches, which may be why spicy foods can be a migraine trigger. Food developer Barbara Stuckey refers to spiciness as an irritaste because capsaicin, the active ingredient in chiles, is an irritant, which is to say it causes pain.

Babies universally reject the irritaste of capsaicin, even if they’re born to chili-loving parents in chili-loving cultures. Actually, in some of those cultures, applying chili paste to the nipple is a traditional  part of weaning practice because no babies like it and all of them learn pretty quickly that Mom’s breast has mysteriously become a source of intolerable pain rather than sweet nourishment. With repeated exposure and social pressure, some kids may begin to accept spicy foods as young as four. Others take much longer, and many never do.

This is basically the same process we go through with bitter, astringent, and pungent foods and drinks—including coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, stinky cheese, and many kinds of pickles. Most people don’t like those things as kids and even adults tend to find them unpleasant the first (or second or third) times they try them. But all of those things offer rewards—both chemical and cultural—and as people come to associate those rewards with the initially-offensive stimuli (both consciously and subconsciously), their experience of them changes. The flavors and sensations become tolerable or, in many cases, pleasurable.

For example, many people just starting to drink coffee add sweetener and milk to cut the bitterness. As they come to associate the aroma and taste of coffee with the desirable effects of caffeine and/or sugar, most come to like the aroma and some come to appreciate the bitter Robert Parker's palate has seemingly shifted over the years to favor more robust & alcoholic red wines, which favors particular wine-producing regions like Californiataste. A few will transition from sweet and milky to black.

Similarly, most people acclimate themselves to alcohol gradually, starting with lighter beers, white wine, and sweet cocktails. With enough exposure, many find that they like stronger beers, more alcoholic red wines, and maybe even hard liquor neat. In general, the most initially-offensive, hardest to acquire tastes get associated with maturity, sophistication, and power—and also addiction, danger, and vice. They’re also gendered. White wine and sweet cocktails are feminine while male homebrewers often seem to be in a perpetual pissing match about just how hoppy, bitter, and alcoholic they can make their beer.

Individual differences in the degree of initial aversion to these stimuli, willingness to endure repeated exposure to them, and the extent of eventual acclimation (or addiction) vary based on genetics, social and cultural influences, and personality factors. Some people have a much stronger reaction to bitter tastes in general (which may or may not be related to aversions to specific flavor molecules like whatever makes cilantro taste like soap to 15% of the population). Some people are more susceptible to the chemical rewards of caffeine, nicotine, and/or alcohol. Some people are more strongly motivated by the social rewards of liking “sophisticated” foods.

But Nothing Can Compare to them H O T Cheetos (except possibly Takis)

However, even among “adult” tastes, the ability to tolerate and enjoy spiciness is peculiar in that it seems to be unique to humans. You can get omnivores like rats addicted to alcohol and other drugs. And rats will tolerate spicy food, but even rats that have been acclimated to capsaicin still prefer the chow sans heat if given a choice. In trying to explain the human affection for capsaicin-induced pain, psychologist Paul Rozin discovered that undergrads who like spicy food are also more likely to enjoy roller coasters. He theorized that some people enjoy “benign masochism,” or biologically-aversive stimuli in a safe setting. So maybe what spicy food represents is the experience of pain and danger that humans can enjoy if we know it won’t really hurt us. But that’s not so exciting to a rat, who gets no social cred for being a daredevil and would probably experience a death-defying simulation like a roller coaster as actual mortal danger, not a super fun experience worth standing in line for many hours.

All of that—the associations with adulthood and danger, the appeal of being a kind of culinary daredevil, the mildly-addictive endorphin hit from capsaicin-induced pain—gets layered on top of the chemical reward pathways that any snacks containing carbohydrates and salt and fat and MSG would trigger. I imagine that’s why they’re Frito Lay’s best-seller, why the Y.N.RichKids like them better than skittles starburst fritos and doritos, and part of the reason the song went viral.

A Slightly Weird Post-Script

Apparently Hot Cheetos (not unlike all spicy foods), may sometimes cause gastrointestinal distress.  An El Paso-area TV news station reported earlier this year on a teenage girl who was hospitalized and treated for an ulcer supposedly related to her consumption of spicy snacks, and there are some anecdotal reports of ER nurses looking for the telltale signs of red-dusted fingers when kids between the ages of 5-15 are admitted with stomach pain (ht: Mike Rubin).

I’m actually surprised this hasn’t gotten more media attention, not because it seems likely to be a real cause for concern, but because any potential health risk associated with “junk food,” particularly one that affects children and is associated with urban, non-white, non-rich people is a prime candidate for moral panic. What little coverage it has gotten definitely makes Hot Cheetos seem even more like an illicit drug:

Dalilah was on medication for several months and now she’s doing fine. She even stopped the hot habit, for a while.

"I stayed away from them for a while but then I thought I could start eating them again but then I think about it, ‘No I have to stop,’" Dalilah said. "I guess I always think about what happened in the hospital so I can keep it at a limit."

. . .

"Children don’t know any better,” said Dr. Gomez. “They love the Hot Cheetos. They’re pretty addicting from what I hear. The more you eat, the more irritation you can cause and eventually it can lead to a problem that can lead to hospitalization."

It’s a message Dalilah now shares with other teens.

"I even told some of my friends what I went through but they don’t know unless it happens to them," Dalilah said. "I don’t think anybody would want to go through what I did."

I think that might make better fodder for a follow-up than fruits & vegetables. Personally, I’d love to hear the Y.N.RichKids’ take on Volcano Butt.

Who’s the Real Elitist in the the Anthony Bourdain-Paula Deen Spat?

bourdaindeen

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Anthony Bourdain set the food world aflutter about a week ago when he criticized Paula Deen for encouraging Americans to eat food that’s “killing us” and “sucks.” Here’s the full text of the quote that started the whole thing, which appeared in TV Guide Magazine August 18:

bourdain scarf The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.

It was a stupid, incendiary remark. Spite masquerading as “straight talk” and a shameless attempt (on TV Guide’s part, if not Bourdain’s) to manufacture controversy and attract page views. And hypocritical to boot. The claim that Deen has “unholy connections with evil corporations” is mighty rich coming from a guy who shills for Chase Sapphire. Furthermore, Bourdain himself isn’t exactly shy about eating rich, “fattening” foods on his show or serving them at his restaurant, which offers traditional French brasserie fare, including all the requisite butter, beef, bacon, sausage, foie gras, eggs, cream, white bread and fried potatoes. Check out the clip from No Reservations titled "Bourdain makes a deep-fried discovery," in which he points out that in almost every cuisine and every region, someone has figured out that dipping things in batter and cooking them in hot fat tastes pretty darn good before enjoying some deep-fried crab cakes and walleye. I’m not convinced that butter and fried foods are “killing us” or that either he or Paula Deen has a meaningful impact on how very many Americans eat, but I’m also pretty confused why he thinks her cooking is significantly worse for people’s health than he stuff he tells people it’s OK to eat.

Bourdain eventually backed off the hyperbole of his initial remarks on twitter, clarifying that he didn’t say Deen was the worst person in America, just the cook on the Food Network who’s the worst for America and adding that she’s probably very nice “as a person.” He also groused about how no one ever asks him who the best chefs on the Food Network are, and said the next time someone asks him about the worst ones, he’ll keep his mouth shut.

bourdain twitter

Meanwhile, Deen fired back with a populist appeal. In an interview with The New York Post, she defended her cooking on the grounds that she and the other maligned Food Network hosts feed “regular families” who struggle to put food on the table. She also claimed that she uses her wealth and celebrity for good, pointing out that her “partners” (i.e. the “evil corporations” Bourdain referred to) donate meat to food banks and that the other Food Network hosts also work to help uncontroversial charity targets: the hungry, sick children, and abandoned animals:

scary paula “Anthony Bourdain needs to get a life. You don’t have to like my food, or Rachael’s, Sandra’s and Guy’s. But it’s another thing to attack our character. I wake up every morning happy for where I am in life. It’s not all about the cooking, but the fact that I can contribute by using my influence to help people all over the country. In the last two years, my partners and I have fed more than 10 million hungry people by bringing meat to food banks.”

Basting Bourdain for his apparent lack of charity and his attitude, she said, “My good friends Rachael, Guy and Sandra are the most generous charitable folks I know. They give so much of their time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals. I have no idea what Anthony has done to contribute besides being irritable.

Deen continued, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”

Her attempt to align herself with “regular families” and portray her role as Smithfield’s spokesperson as some kind of charity work is just as ludicrous as Bourdain’s remarks.* She admits she has “no idea” what kind of charitable work Bourdain does or doesn’t do, but certainly implies it’s less than her. And then she mentions expensive foods, as if $650 wine has anything to do with Bourdain’s comments. As Rebecca Marx of the Village Voice pointed out, “Deen is no less a member of the culinary aristocracy than Bourdain—they just belong to country clubs with different rules.”

*Which is not to say that Deen doesn’t do any good work as Smithfield’s spokesperson. Perhaps, like Sandra Lee (another of Bourdain’s targets, although in the TV Guide article he mostly sounds scared of her), she uses her influence as spokesperson to get more food from Smithfield to hungry people. Taking their money and promoting the brand doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with everything they do; perhaps she figures she can do more good that way than by refusing their money on principle. But I also doubt her deal with them is entirely about charity and not at all about personal gain.

Pot, meet Kettle

I’m not convinced the rules they’re following are really so different. Deen and Bourdain have both established their brands and built their celebrity by catering to essentially the same mass desires. First, they trade heavily on the fetishization of “authenticity.” Deen plays up her Savannah roots, performing what essentially amounts to a drag version of genteel Southern whiteness*—an exaggerated drawl and big hair and constant ya’lling and calling everyone “honey.” Bourdain does it by seeking out street food and the off-the-beaten-path restaurants that only the locals know about, or, even better, people who will cook “traditional” foods for him in their homes.

Both of them serve up something that looks and feels “real” in a way that answers the dissatisfactions of global capitalism and the seeming unreality and homogeneity of mass production, multinational corporate brands, slick but empty advertising, artificial flavoring. As Andrew Potter argues in The Authenticity Hoax, the search for the “authentic” is largely a disguised form of status-seeking, and it’s a particular preoccupation of the wealthy, educated classes. As he explains in an interview with WorldHum:

There are certainly authentic experiences—insofar as the authentic is defined as something that’s a refuge from the modern world. But what I try to argue in the book is that the search for the authentic comes at a price. It tends to be quite expensive to find these things. The other side is that it ends up an arms race….

People have sort of authenticity in degrees. For instance, let’s say the absolute fake is going to some Italian restaurant in some fake Venice in Vegas. That’s the absolute fake. Here in Toronto, where I live, you can go down to little Italy and go to an authentic Italian restaurant, probably run by real Italians. And then you could actually go to Venice. And once you’re there, you can either go to the tourist traps they have all set up for tourists, or if you’re really lucky you know a local who will actually make you a dinner in Venice, which you would call the epitome of authenticity. So all these things have varying degrees of authenticity to them and, not coincidentally, they have varying degrees of priciness attached to them.

Secondly, they both celebrate a particular form of illicit gustatory pleasure and culinary excess. Deen’s unabashed love of butter and bacon and Bourdain’s celebration of meat and alcohol offer an antidote to anxieties about eating “right” and the repressed, Puritanical elements of both diet culture and the Organic/vegetarian/macrobiotic/fair-trade/raw/local/sustainable movement.

You can tell it’s about backlash & rebellion, rather than just what Bourdain and Deen happen to genuinely enjoy, because they’re clearly aiming for shock value as much as for deliciousness. When Deen pretends she’s going to drink melted butter (see below) or makes burgers topped with bacon and egg with glazed donuts in place of the bun, she’s deliberately thumbing her nose at the current nutritional establishment that says calorie-dense food and fat, especially saturated fat, is Public Enemy #1.

Bourdain’s whole persona is based on the bad boy reputation he cultivated in his first memoir, which is as much about sex, drugs, and rock and roll as it is about cooking. And he says nasty things about Vegans and Alice Waters and seemingly takes any opportunity to talk about how much he and his daughter like to eat bunnies (not rabbit, mind).**

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.

They both specifically delight in being naughty, in breaking the rules. And people who are similarly fatigued or fed up with dietary rule-making (which fatigue, again, is more prevalent in the wealthy, educated classes who make the rules in the first place) or just hate The Man in general absolutely love them for it, though rarely both of them. They are competing brands, but they work in basically the same way.

*Which is not to say it’s entirely fake or 100% an act. Both Deen’s and Bourdain’s public personas are probably like any of our social selves—socially-constructed identities that aren’t exactly real, but also aren’t exactly fake and change according to context. I doubt either Deen or Bourdain have deliberately concocted every aspect of their personas to appeal to mass audiences in these ways—what’s more likely is that they have achieved success where other aspiring celebrities have not because their personas happen to resonate with current popular desires and fears, which makes them effective entertainers. But that doesn’t mean they’re just being “true to themselves,” whatever that even means. Neither of them is probably 100% the same on and off camera. In some sense, both of them are probably relatively savvy managers of their personas, because they’re extremely valuable brands. I’m sure they think about how their performances, including things they say to TV Guide or The New York Post, will affect how their fans and critics perceive them. And it would be almost inhuman if they didn’t attempt to manipulate the outcome at least a little bit, even if usually in subtle ways like saying “ya’ll” or “fuck” just a little more frequently.

**Oddly, Deen has also talked about eating rabbit—supposedly her grandfather would hunt rabbit and squirrel before going to work in the morning and her grandmother would skin them and cook them for breakfast with grits and biscuits and honey.

Win, Lose, or Draw?

So the answer to the question of who’s the real elitist is probably “both” or “neither.” They’re both playing the same game: enabling the dominant social class to justify status-seeking by playing the role of rebels against the Culinary Establishment. They offer foodies plausible deniability about the pretensions involved in the middle-class preoccupation with food. At the same time, they both celebrate the lowbrow, the un-pretentious, and the debased bodily pleasures of eating and drinking. Neither of them is typically in the business of telling people how they “should” eat, except to the extent that they reinforce particular constructions of “authenticity” and desirability.

I can see why The Atlantic declared the results of the fight to be a “draw.” But I think Deen ultimately gained the advantage. Even people who thought Deen’s comments were stupid seem to agree with her that Bourdain was being a snob. By portraying him as the one with exclusive tastes, reminding people that he’s a professional globe-trotter, and reducing his rebellion to mere irritability, she made Bourdain into the Culinary Establishment. Even if people roll their eyes at the idea that she’s really on the side of the “regular families,” she successfully re-framed the fight. Also from The Atlantic:

What They Say They’re Fighting About: If Paula Deen is "the most dangerous person in America" or some permutation of that charge. Bourdain points to her caloric recipes and mass-appeal. Deen refers to her charity work and Bourdain’s lack thereof.

What They’re Really Fighting About: Class, privilege, and good food–and whether the first two are connected to the second.

If it’s a fight about health, she loses. If it’s a fight about class, then Bourdain is the snob because he’s the one saying her food is bad, and she’s the rube saying “to each his own.” The best evidence of her success is Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times, whose title is a barb aimed directly at Bourdain: “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Although Bruni agrees with Bourdain that Americans are too fat and laughs at Deen’s attempt at populist identification, he ultimately sides with her and scolds Bourdain for “looking down” on people with less money or less sophisticated tastes:

Put aside her one-with-the-masses pose, ludicrous in light of the millions she has made from television shows, cookbooks, cookware, mattresses and more. She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview….

To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times….

I prefer his TV show, “No Reservations,” a summons to eat adventurously around the world, to any of Deen’s. But these preferences reflect privileges and don’t entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants — the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hourlong waits — to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that.

Bourdain has probably eaten $50 meals far less often than Bruni, the former NYT restaurant critic, but it’s easy to elide Bourdain’s globe-trotting in search of what Potter calls the “epitome of authenticity” with the practice of eating at “ambitious restaurants.” Getting street food in Thailand is certainly as far out of reach for most Americans as the latter. Highlighting the exclusivity of his habits hurts Bourdain’s brand. Suddenly, instead of playing David to the Food Network’s Goliath, he’s Anton Ego and Paula Deen looks more like one of the rats who cooks delicious but humble peasant food.

I’m sure the damage to his reputation hasn’t been significant—his fans love him because he’s kind of a jerk, not in spite of it. But I think his tweet was right: if someone in the media comes calling, asking you to say nasty things about other people, you should probably just shut up.

2010 Year in Review, Part II: The Non-Recipes

2010 nonrecipes collage

A Record of Sticking Places

In September, Lauren Berlant wrote the following description of writing on her blog, Supervalent Thought

Most of the writing we do is actually a performance of stuckness.  It is a record of where we got stuck on a question for long enough to do some research and write out the whole knot until the original passion and curiosity that made us want to try to say something about something got so detailed, buried, encrypted, and diluted that the energetic and risk-taking impulse became sealed and delivered in the form of a defense against thinking any more about it. Along the way, something might have happened to the scene the question stood for:  or not.

At first, I thought of that as something that applied only to “serious” writing—to articles or book chapters that unfold over months or years. But in retrospect, I think it’s actually one of the reasons I started this blog: to have a place to delve (even if only shallowly) into the kinds of questions that were distracting me from writing my dissertation and then seal them up so they’d stop cluttering my thought process. At some point in the process of writing most of the longer, essayish posts, I get sick of the topic and just want to be done with it. So I finish it, and even if I haven’t entirely resolved the question I started with, I feel released from thinking about it at least for a while.

However, the blog hasn’t quite had the intended effect of freeing me up to write the dissertation because, unsurprisingly, getting mentally “free” takes up a lot of the time and energy I ought to be spending on that other, more important “performance of stuckness.” And the whole idea of having a mentally “clean slate” before I deal with my dissertation was probably always a hopeless ambition.

So this part of the retrospective on the year is also a sort of penitent offering to anyone who’s come to appreciate or even maybe expect this kind of content. In the next six months, I need to finish and defend and submit my dissertation. Also, I’m getting married. Between the two, I’m probably not going to have the time to do a lot of longer posts on culture/history/politics. I’m toying with the idea of taking excerpts from the dissertation and editing them into blog-friendly essays on the weekends. But in case I don’t end up having the time to post much of anything substantial for at least the first half of 2011 and that makes you sad, maybe there will be something here that you missed or might be interested in revisiting.

Special Series

Image from Look at this Fucking HipsterHipsters on Food StampsA three-part look at the bogus “trend” piece published last March in Salon about college-educated people using food stamps to buy organic, ethnic, and otherwise non-subsistence-diet foods and what it says about food & social class in America:

Part I: The New Generation of Welfare Queens—A critique of the article that places it in the longer history of concern about how the poor eat

Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?—An analysis of the comments and some of the myths about social class and poverty in America they reflect

Part III: Damned If You Do-ritos and Damned If You Don’t—An attempt to explain the contradictory trends of patronizing vs. romanticizing the poor and how they eat and what kinds of contemporary anxieties the bogus trend of hipsters on food stamps might be a response to

Responses to Food, Inc.—Posts related to the film (and the broader agendas it gave voice to) and how they distort the picture of the American food system and confused their audience.

I never got around to going through the list of suggestions at the end of the film. Perhaps I'll get to it in 2011.Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket—An interrogation of the film’s premise that “looking” at the food system will lead everyone to the same conclusion

Part II: Is the Food More Dangerous?—The film suggests that industrial animal agriculture is responsible for the deadly strain of e coli that killed at least one innocent child, but it turns out that’s not true. Grass-fed cattle have less generic, harmless e coli but the same prevalence of 0157:H7.

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem—Why a food “movement” predicated on spending more or making sacrifices is necessarily limited to the privileged few.

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig—Why not every farm animal can or should be “grass fed,” and the ecological argument for vegetarianism.

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, Part II: Cornphobia—On the epidemic of irrational fears about corn inspired by Michael Pollan’s books and the documentaries he has appeared in.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-AidWhy agave nectar Greenwashing alert.isn’t “natural,” healthy, or (probably) more delicious than other sweeteners.

Part I: Natural, My Foot—Agave nectar isn’t an “ancient sweetener” used by Native Americans, it was invented in the 1990s and involves a process almost identical to the one used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Sweetener—Why agave nectar, with up to 90% fructose, isn’t a healthier substitute for sugar.

Part III: The Mint Julep Taste Test and Calorie Comparison—The results of a comparison between agave and simple syrup-sweetened mint juleps and some number crunching that shows you could theoretically cut a small number of calories by substituting agave for sugar, but not if you use the recommended amount, which is calorically identical.

Why Posting Calorie Counts Won’t WorkCalorie counts are already appearing on menus across the country, and will soon be required for most chains. This series explores why they won’t make Americans thinner or healthier. 

Another thing I didn't mention--many of the calorie counts are being posted as "ranges" that take into account all the forms of customization, which makes the numbers even less useful. What are you supposed to do with the knowledge that a burrito has somewhere between 400-1400 calories?Introduction—A brief run-down of the reasons I don’t think the policy will work as intended.

Part I: The Number Posted is Often Wrong—What you see on the label is not always what you get, and the difference isn’t entirely random. 

Part II: Most People Don’t Know How Many Calories They Burn—The problem of calorie ignorance isn’t one that can be fixed with an educational campaign—people don’t know how many calories they burn because they can’t know, because it changes, especially if they change their diets.

Part III: Calorie-restriction Dieting Doesn’t Work Long Term—A meta-literature review of three decades of research on calorie-restriction weight loss that shows again and again that by far the most common result of dieting is weight loss followed by regain. And an explanation of why the National Weight Loss Control Registry isn’t a representative sample.


Health

Probably my favorite post because writing it helped me get over/through that rough patch.When What I Want Isn’t What I Want: Temptation and Disordered Thinking/Eating—Not about nutrition, but about mental health and how easy it is to fall into into negative thought patterns about food and body image, even if you think you’re “beyond” all that

Salt Headlines That Make the Vein in My Forehead Throb—Irresponsible news media reporting about public health research, and especially comparisons between the relative merits of cutting salt  and quitting smoking, may be hazardous to my health

Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Salt in Any Form—A plea to the restaurateurs of New York to teach Mr. Ortiz a lesson handed down from fairytales about what it would be like to eat food without salt.Unless you are a rabbit or a chicken, cholesterol in your food does not automatically translate to cholesterol in your veins.

Things that Won’t Kill You Volume IV: Saturated Fat, Part II: Cholesterol Myths—No one, not even Ancel Keys, ever thought you should avoid dietary cholesterol. Volumes I: High Fructose Corn Syrup, II: Fruit Juice, III: MSG, and IV: Saturated Fat Part I went up in 2009.

Things That Might Kill You Volume I : Trans-fats—Why you might want to avoid trans fats, including things with “0 grams of trans fats per serving,” which still contain potentially non-trivial amounts.

HFCS Follow-up: What the Rats at Princeton Can and Can’t Tell US—A review of the study claiming rats consuming HFCS gained more weight than rats consuming table sugar

Food Policy & Politics

I'm still sometimes uneasy trying to choose between better-for-the-environment and better-for-animals and often end up buying Omega-3 enriched eggs because so far at least it seems like those eggs might be measurably different and healthier.You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or  more delicious—A review of the evidence for and against specialty eggs, concluding that they might be marginally more humane but come at an environmental cost.

Good Egg Update: Someone’s Keeping Score—Explaining the Cornucopia Institute’s guide to specialty eggs

A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List—Seven things that might improve the U.S. food system

Robots

Who Says Robots Can’t Taste? On Cooking Robots and Electronic Noses—A survey of cooking robots and  anxieties about electronic incursions on the acts of cooking and eating

Ingredient Spotlight

The first three listed below were stand-alone posts without recipes. The others were also collected in the 2010 recipe retrospective, but I thought they might merit inclusion here, too, because they involved some research beyond just looking at a few recipes and cooking something.

I'm still not totally satisfied by what I was able to find--the active chemicals have been identified, but it's still a bit of a mystery how they work the way they do. The Sweet Science of Artichokes—Why they make things taste sweet after you eat them

Morel Time in Michigan—How to identify morels and tell them apart from vague look-a-likes.

Meet the Paw-Paw, aka the Michigan Banana—A tropical fruit for the American midwest, with its very own Johnny Appleseed. 

Two on the Tomato: The Official Verdict in the Fruit v. Vegetable Debate and The Case For Tomatoes as Dessert—On the Supreme Court case that ruled tomatoes a “vegetable,” and why there’s still a debate about them even though there are lots of other “vegetables” that are botanically fruits. And how to use them to substitute for sweeter fruits in dessert recipes.

Cheddar-Garlic Biscuits: In Defense of Garlic Powder—Why garlic powder is so maligned, and a culinary defense.

The saffron crocus--each bloom produces 3 pistils, which must be harvested by hand during the brief window when they bloom, before sunrise because the flowers wilt in the sun. Jonathan Franzen and Joël Robuchon-inpspired Rutabaga Purée—On the root vegetable’s biggest fans (some of whom use it as a curling rock), its many detractors, and its supporting role in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections.

Now in Season: Sour Cherry Pie—What makes sour cherries different from normal pie cherries, and the science of flaky pie crusts.

Deviled Eggs with Saffron Aioli—On the history of deviled eggs and why saffron is so expensive.

Pork Chops with Cider Reduction and Greens—A review of several theories on why pork is so often prepared or paired with apples.

Recipes with History

These were all in the recipe round-up, but again, they have something to offer aside from cooking instruction. New annotations to explain what else you might learn there.

Benedictines and Pimento Cheese Sandwiches for Derby Day—On Miss Jennie Carter Benedict of Louisville,  Kentucky and the shaping of an “American” cuisine for the emerging middle classI'm still tickled by the idea that a reality television show can have a soul.

Jook (Chicken and Rice Porridge)—On the cross-cultural phenomenon of prescribing bone broths and particularly chicken broth-based soups as a healing or restorative food.

Lemon and Herb Chicken Drumsticks—On the history of Labor Day and the relationship between food and holidays

Sourdough-risen Whole Wheat Bagels and the Sweetness of the Old World—On the fetishization of a humble roll with a hole, its origins in the Jewish diaspora and why you don’t have to use “malt extract” to make it authentic (but why some people think you do).

Introducing Ezekiel and How and Why to Make a Sourdough Starter—A brief history of sourdough starters and why so many of them are named “Herman.”

Buckeyes, Shmuckeyes, or if you prefer, Peanut Butter Bon-Bons—How buckeyes became Ohioan and Not, I suspect, bluffin' with her muffin. Ohioans became buckeyes, starring General Ebenzer Sproat and President William Henry Harrison.

Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres—Muffin nationalism explained, and also how muffin became a slang term for women and various parts of their anatomy.

American Pumpernickel—Devil’s Fart Bread! The history of Old World and New World rye breads.

Baguettes, regular or whole wheat—On the history and Frenchification of long, skinny, crusty loaves of bread.

A Sourdough-risen Challah Trinity: Braid, Loaf, Knot—The history of challah from tithing to the temple to European decorative braided breads. 

Homemade Peeps and Chocolate-covered Marshmallow Eggs—On this history of the candy, from the therapeutic uses of the mallow flower to the contemporary, mallow-less confection.

Home-cultivated Yogurt: Part 1 in the “Culture This” Series

teeming with my little pets

If yeast strains had feelings, which are really easy to project onto them once you start giving them names, I suspect my 15-month-old sourdough starter "Ezekiel" would be seriously cheesed about losing out on the first "culture this" series to yogurt. But turning milk into yogurt is (very marginally) easier than turning flour and water into a starter, and life is busy in the fall when you work in education and watch an absurd amount of college football every weekend. Lame excuses, I know.

Why culture?

Lots of people will claim that home-cultured things taste better or are healthier for you, but those are either entirely subjective or up for serious debate. The main reasons I like culturing things are

  1. It’s cheaper. Milk is cheaper than yogurt, so even though you have to start with a little bit of yogurt the first time, even your first batch will cost less than it would to buy the same amount of yogurt someone else cultured. And it’s not like that’s a complicated or labor-intensive process. As Harold McGee noted in his recent NYTimes article on yogurt, the bacteria are doing all the work here. Why pay someone else premium for something that takes no effort or skill to do yourself?
  2. It gives you more control over the process, which is part of why people often end up thinking it tastes better. You get to decide how tart, how thick, how rich, and how voluminous you want your yogurt to be. You can start with soy milk if you prefer soy yogurt or skim milk if you want it to be fat-free. You can strain it if you want something closer to Greek-style yogurt at a tiny fraction of the cost. You are the master of your yogurt kingdom.
  3. It’s like having a science experiment/pet in your kitchen. With both yeast and yogurt cultures, you’re basically cyclically growing more by feeding them and putting them in a hospitable environment. They multiply like crazy, and when you have enough of them to suit your purposes, you crush their little yeasty or bacterial dreams of total world domination by putting them  back in a less hospitable environment. There’s a nurturing appeal, too, which probably seems to conflict with the idea of thwarting their imagined imperial ambitions, but it’s true: I like the sense of ritual and continuity. For yogurt, I like saving the last few tablespoons of every batch for the next one, swaddling the container in towels to keep it warm, and knowing when I eat it that it’s something I fed and grew

Sold? If so, I welcome you to "culture this" part 1:

How to make some milk and a little bit of yogurt into a lot of yogurt

I know it doesn’t sound super impressive when I put it that way, but it’s not super impressive once you’ve done it. If you’re looking to impress, you can call it "Homemade Yogurt" and not really be lying, but this not like a "wild" sourdough starter* where you’re cultivating yeasts in the flour or in the air that will thrive in precisely the conditions you set up in your personal kitchen. If that kind of sourdough is growing from seed, or raising volunteer plants, yogurt is planting a seedling you picked up at the local nursery. Basically every recipe I’ve seen for "homemade yogurt" involves a starter culture. This is also probably why I haven’t named mine—I sort of feel like its proper name is "Mountain High Yogurt," because that’s the brand I started with.

The whole process goes like this: you heat some milk until it steams, you let it cool back down until it’s warm but you can put your finger in it without too much discomfort, you stir in a few tablespoons of yogurt, and then you let it sit for 4-24 hours.

The specifics: eh, that looks like about how much yogurt I want

Step 1: Heat approximately the volume of milk you wish to culture to 180F

I use a ceramic crock I picked up for $2 at a re-use store, and generally just measure out the amount of milk I want by filling the crock up most of the way and then pouring that into a pan. Not super scientific, I know. If you want to make a specific amount of yogurt, measure out that much milk less 1 oz per cup for the yogurt you’ll stir in as a starter. If you’re planning on straining it, use approximately twice as much milk as you want to end up with in yogurt. 

Step 2: Let it cool to 110-120F (takes about 30 min for me, will vary based on the volume and vessel)featuring the waterproof thermometer I got after destroying three non-waterproof ones in about a year

Don’t skip this step, or you’ll kill all the bacteria. I did that the second time I tried this because I thought I remembered how to do it and didn’t need to look it up again and ended up throwing it out, although I probably could have just added more yogurt, but I didn’t have any at the time and this is all sort of contrary to the whole economical argument but the point is, don’t forget to let the milk cool back down. Just like yeast, temperatures over 120F will kill it. Apparently the reason for heating it to 180F  rather than just taking it up to 120F in the first place is that the higher heat changes the whey proteins and, McGee says, "helps create a finer, denser consistency."

 

Step 3: Whisk in approximately 1 oz. yogurt for every cup of milk you’re using

You can use any kind of yogurt with active cultures, and like McGee, I’ve found that the cheaper the yogurt I start with, the better my own stuff turns out. The more expensive unsweetened, organic, or Greek-style yogurts often only have one or two kinds of bacteria in them whereas the cheap stuff generally has a lot more and they’re apparently super active. Sure, those brands also tend to have sweeteners and additives, but all of that will get diluted so much in your end product that they won’t affect the taste much, if at all. Certainly not by batch #2.

McGee recommends 2 T. per quart, but I tend to use a little bit more. The amount of starter culture and length of time you let it sit are what will determine the tartness and consistency, so you can play around with both to figure out your own "perfect" yogurt.

Step 4: Put in an insulated airtight container and seal

This is where the crock with the airtight seal comes in handy, but I imagine plastic wrap and a rubber band would do just as well. Whatever your vessel, you’ll want to wrap it in a few towels. I secure mine with mega rubber bands like so: the kitchen towels du jour involve men in toques and a towel I suspect was "borrowed" from a gym at some point

Step 5: Taste every 4-hrs or so to see how it’s coming along

Try not to stir it, as you want to keep the milk still until it sets, but you can take just a little off the top to see how tart and creamy it is. McGee says four hours will do it, but I’ve had better luck letting it sit 12 or more hours, usually overnight. Earlier than that and I’ve gotten really mild, milky results.

What’s happening as it sits is that lactic acid produced by the bacteria causes the protein and fat in the milk to form a continuous network, which the water gets suspended in (well, except for the part that leaks out or pools on the top, which is whey). Those networks are what make yogurt thick and creamy.

Skim and soy milks will never set up as thick as whole milk, which is what I generally use. Commercial manufacturers often add gelatin or starch, which I imagine you could do at home. Using starch, I would probably start by making a paste of 1-2 T. corn starch or arrowroot powder and an equal amount of milk, and then I’d whisk that into the rest of the milk before heating. Using gelatin, I’d just sprinkle a package or two over the cold milk before heating and let it sit or "bloom" for 5-10 min and then heat as usual, stirring constantly and making sure the gelatin dissolves. I can’t say for sure that would turn out great, but if you’re a soy or non-fat yogurt eater and you want to try making your own at home for cheaper, it might be worth a try.

Step 6: Refrigerate and enjoy

The yogurt will continue to set once in cold storage and the lactic acid production will slow to a halt. Kept cold, it should last for weeks—the acid helps preserve it much longer than fresh milk.

I love it for breakfast sweetened with Grade B maple syrup (which is cheaper, more flavorful, and more nutrient-dense than Grade A) and topped with fruit and granola. I also love it salted and mixed with vegetables and/or herbs as a sauce with fish. And strained, sweetened, and frozen it makes a great dessert.

Optional Step 7: Strain

If you want a thicker, Greek-style yogurt, pour it into a cheesecloth-lined colander or a fine mesh strainer and suspend over a bowl for several hours. The yellowish liquid that drains out is whey, which contains protein and a number of vitamins and minerals. Some athletes drink whey, often sweetened or salted, as a workout-recovery drink (whey powder is also part of many supplements). If you’re not into drinking it straight, you can also use it as some or all of the liquid in most baking recipes. Processed foods sometimes contain whey, so I’m sure food product developers could tell you what difference it makes but so far, I haven’t been able to tell.

*Scare quotes for "wild" because I’ve been convinced by Aaron Bobrow-Strain that even sourdough starters cultivated without the use of packaged yeast or a pre-made starter aren’t really "wild." Much like corn and dogs and modern chickens, yeast and human civilization co-evolved, so even seemingly "wild" strains of s. cerevisiae yeast are the product of agriculture and human-yeast interaction. That said, there ought to be a way of distinguishing between starters that rely on booster yeast or heirloom yeasts and the ones that you grow in your own kitchen to fit your personal rhythms of baking. Apparently Bobrow-Strain has been working on something for publication about baking and yeast ecology with Melanie DuPuis so I’ll try to keep an eye out and post the reference for anyone interested in that sort of thing.