Thursday, July 31, 2008

Amsterdam: Pannenkoeken Madness

There are many reasons to visit Amsterdam: serene canal views and public parks, historical landmarks like the Anne Frank House, museums housing unrivaled collections of Van Goghs and Rembrandts, infinitely friendly locals.  

But there is a certain image of tourists who come to Amsterdam, and, as a recent weekend trip to the Dutch capital taught me, there is more than a grain of truth in the stereotype.  Many young American and Western European backpackers come to Amsterdam for only one thing:  the pancakes.

It’s not uncommon along certain stretches of the Singel, the city’s main thoroughfare, to  catch the scent of frying batter wafting up from one of many pancake houses.  Easily recognizable by the word “pannenkoeken” written on a window or awning, these restaurants lure visitors with the promise of cheap, unrestricted hotcakes.  Establishments like the famed and always crowded Pancake Bakery, which blares reggae music in a dark, underground main room decked with pancake paraphernalia, count on a steady clientele of pleasure-seeking tourists. 

Diners can choose between the traditional thin plate-sized flapjack and the silver-dollar fatties known as poffertjes.  Toppings range from pungent and savory (cheese, mushrooms or tuna) to aromatic and sweet (apples, raisins or stewed cherries).  Ice cream is almost always on hand for smoothness, and many restaurants also offer a choice between clean-tasting white flour and a headier whole-wheat blend.  Tables at  Amsterdam pancake houses are invariably stocked with a basket of syrup (stroop to locals), powdered sugar, and ready-rolled forks and knives—tools not unfamiliar to experienced pancake eaters.

While locals take a blasé attitude toward the ready availability of pancakes in Amsterdam, many Americans, who have never before indulged in pancakes outside the privacy of their homes, are unable to approach Amsterdam’s ubiquitous pancake scene with moderation.  Those who have only ever experienced the weak, inconsistent American blend known as Bisquick don’t know their own limits when it comes to inordinately sticky Dutch pannenkoeken.  Many pancake house patrons, giddy from the sheer volume of pancakes available to be consumed in the open, dissolve into giggles as easily as the powdered sugar dissolving into maple syrup on their plates. It is also not uncommon in Amsterdam to see Americans staggering around flower markets or stretched out on boats displaying all the obvious signs of a sugar coma: glassy eyes, a slack jaw, disorientation, sleepiness.

Of course, a wise tourist can safely indulge in pancakes without letting them take over a trip to Amsterdam.  The key is to keep in mind the wide variety of cultural experiences that the city has to offer.  And I hear the cannabis is quite good, too. 

Image © Eric Gevaert |

Monday, July 28, 2008

L'Ecailler du Bistrot

One of the few French pop songs I truly like is Vincent Delerm’s Tes parents.”  In it, the singer envisions how his girlfriend’s parents might be and describes a few different familial scenarios, each more horrifying than the last.  The happy ending is that Vincent is willing to put up with a lot—slideshows of vacation photos, slobbering dogs, opera music—to make things to work out with his lady.  Je suis prêt à faire des concessions...manger des huîtres au Reveillon,” he sings (“I’m ready to make some oysters on Christmas Eve”).

My first glance at the dozen raw Belon No. 5 oysters staring glossily up at me from a bed of root-like seaweed last Friday night made me understand why Delerm might think of eating oysters as making a concession.  I was eating one of my last meals in Paris (and, if all goes according to plan, one of my last meals as an omnivore) at L’Ecailler du Bistrot.  I had been tipped that this seafood restaurant on rue Paul Bert served oysters farmed in  Southern Brittany that were not to miss. 

I had never encountered an oyster up close, and the ones in front of me looked like slimy alien mushrooms.  Once I worked up the nerve to disengage one from the grip of its shell and put it into my mouth, its flavor was a shock of pure salinity—nothing I’ve ever eaten has tasted so much like the ocean.  I didn’t think that I really wanted to eat all twelve if each was going to feel like the equivalent of an unintentional swallow of seawater.

I went for a second, though, and a third, and these had a pleasantly sweet dimension that the first had lacked.  By the time I got to the sixth, I had hit my oyster stride and was letting them slide down with pleasure.  With a spritz of lemon, the flavor improved even more, and I began to enjoy the slick pop of unsuctioning each animal from its shell with my miniature fork.  By the time I swallowed the last I was feeling a nice clean buzz, as though I had downed a black espresso or other mild stimulant.

If my dozen Belons got me high, my main dish, homard frites, brought me back to earth.  No meat I’ve eaten has looked so much like the animal it once was as the half-lobster curled pathetically on my plate, its legs limp and easily snapped off, smothered in rich hollandaise sauce.  I thought of a short, charming essay Sam Sifton recently wrote for The New York Times Magazine about how to cook and eat lobster for “a weekend of simple excess.”  The author urges, “Don’t consider the lobster.”

So, as is par for the course for me these days, I stopped considering the lobster.  Unfortunately, actually consuming the lobster took a bit more effort.  The waiter had given me two shiny, cryptic tools—a cracker and a pick—in addition to my fork and knife, but I had no idea how to use them.  I ate the delicious, loosened bits of flesh that were easily extracted with my fork, then I turned my two mystery utensils about in my hands, occasionally grasping a section of the lobster’s red shell with the cracker and poking at the flesh with the pick.  The yellow hollandaise sauce was starting to  smear.

Eventually, the two men on a dinner date next to me could no longer pretend to ignore the increasing volume of the utensils clacking at their neighboring table.  With some kind instruction on their part, I managed to extract and devour all the butter-tasting lobster meat I could find.  Still, the claw remained intact.

I think that the middle-aged couples who made up the majority of L’Ecailler du Bistrot’s clientele were staring at me as the waiter (who maintained a stoic look on his face that made me think that this was not his first intervention between a lobster and a diner) finally cracked open the lobster’s claw for me and told me how to pull out the meat.  I can’t be sure, since I was keeping my eyes on my plate.   It was the most embarrassed I’ve been in a restaurant in recent memory. 

But my sheepishness was worth every bite of the lobster, which lived up to Sifton’s description:  “sweet and buttery, packed with protein, succulent, rich as bosses.”  (The evenly golden frites served in a trough-like plate as an accompaniment to the lobster weren’t bad either.)

While my companion went to the restroom in between the main course and dessert (a rich fondant au chocolat that was twice as good as it had any right to be in a seafood restaurant) an elderly man with a lumpy face at the table adjacent to ours asked me a question mostly in English:  “Was that your first homard?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then you’ll eat it again,” he declared.

“Maybe,” I said, laughing. He told me not to be afraid of dismembering it with my hands. 

I had a fleeting vision of what it might be like to eat lobster without embarrassment in an idyllic American setting, perhaps during a weekend of simple excess at the beach with friends.  Then I had a thought of what it might be like to eat oysters on Christmas Eve, when they’re plump and really in season.  And I wondered what kind of concessions I was willing to make.

Image © E-person |

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dear Cojean Letter

Dear Cojean,

I don't want this to be awkward, but I thought I owed it to you to tell you why I haven't been to see you in a while.

First, let me say that I really enjoyed all the time we spent together. You remember those few months when I would leave work every day around 1:30 PM to come to your place just around the corner. I used to bounce through your doors with a smile on my face, looking forward to the sight of your refrigerator cases chockablock with colorful salads—and let's be honest, Cojean, even though you served other things, our relationship was always about the salads.  Do you remember the lentil and bulgur one? Just thinking about that herb dressing still sends shivers up my spine.

But then you changed—or at least your menu did. I'll never understand why you stopped serving the lentil-bulgur salad, and I'm not even going to try. But all the combinations you tried replacing it with—mozzarella, pea and basil; carrot, mushroom and smoked tofu; ratatouille and poached egg—just didn't do it for me.

And when you started serving buckets of bland, watery yogurt with fruit on top for €7? That's when I knew things had to change.

There's no easy way to say this, but I've started seeing another lunchtime takeout restaurant. It's called Lemoni. It reminds me of you sometimes, even though its heritage is Greek, not French. Like you, Lemoni offers creative salads and cold plates, mostly vegetarian, based on organic ingredients. I like its “Bollywood” salad, with curried orzo and lentils; I love its mezze dish, with baba ganoush, gigante beans in tomato sauce, and stuffed grape leaves.

But salads aren't the only thing I like about Lemoni.  Lemoni keeps me on my toes—every day it surprises me with four different entrées. At first I didn’t like the ascetic looks of the “zen” grilled vegetables—zucchini, eggplant, sweet potatoes, potatoes and asparagus with lentils—but it was flavorful enough to turn me into an enthusiast. And while you were always stingy with your gratins, Cojean, Lemoni would give me a creamy, comforting vegetable gratin every day if I asked for it. 

And the yogurt! Lemoni sells real Greek yogurt, the kind I haven’t had in months, thick and creamy, the palest shade of white. It makes me realize that I’ll never be happy with any other yogurt, and especially not yours.

Sure, Lemoni's not as suave as you. It lacks your style, your grace, your marketing. It can be clumsy, too:  using a heavy hand with the salt shaker for its barley-lentil salad, undercooking a few slices of zucchini in its gratins, not adding enough sugar to its homemade rice pudding. I didn’t fall for Lemoni as hard or as quickly as I did for you.

But Lemoni doesn't take advantage of me the way you used to. Lemoni gives me a full meal—salad, entrée, dessert—in truly generous portions for less than €10. When I think about how I used to pay you upwards of €15 for meals that didn’t always satisfy me, I start to wonder why I didn’t leave you earlier.

You’re a great restaurant, Cojean, and I don't think things are permanently over between us. I won't be able to stay away from your açai smoothies and warm artichoke-parmesan sandwiches forever. Someday, when I'm earning more than a stipend, when the exchange rate is better, I can see something happening between us.

But for now, Lemoni is the right café for me. And I have no doubt in my mind that you'll do fine without me.


Thursday, July 24, 2008


I really appreciate the comments people have made on Bitten and other online forums about my writing and my project, and (without stooping to pettiness, I hope) I'd like to respond to some of the interesting criticisms I've seen.

Many took offense at my assertion in my Bitten post that “Taking the life of an animal for food is a morbid, ironic affirmation that we are alive.” I admit that, as Luke put it on Bitten, "that entire paragraph about meat, culture, and tempeh is a bit muddled.” This is in part because, of all the discoveries I've made about meat, this is the one that I find most difficult to articulate. It has much to do with the symbolism of meat, its sacrificial connotations. I find an emotional charge in sharing meat with others that comes from the fact that an animal had to die for our meal - the stakes are higher, as it were, when you're eating steak. Certain vegans replied that they sense a higher bond in sharing a vegetarian meal with other vegetarians, which is certainly valid, but I must admit that tapping into the tradition of eating meat has been more intense and rewarding than I expected. However, this is meant to be an experiential observation, not a moral defense of meat.

I was surprised by the outrage expressed on a forum on the vegan site Post Punk Kitchen, mostly because I think, ideologically, I have more in common with vegans than with meat-eaters. Many objected to what they see as hypocrisy; as mollyjade wrote on Post Punk Kitchen, "The blog is one post after another of 'I ate X, here are all the reasons not to eat X.'" It's a pithy summary, but, in my defense, I've been trying to look at meat from a variety of standpoints - moral, culinary, social, psychological. I prefer to think that the self-contradictions on this blog are a result of the complexity of the issue at hand rather than insincerity on my part.

Over on Bitten, Audrey commented, "Faced 'temporarily' with peer pressure, you've compromised conviction, and animals pay the price." I am sorry that some see this experiment as a compromise or a betrayal. Certain vegetarians see the "exploitation" of animals for food as an absolute wrong, which is their prerogative, even if it's not an opinion I share. I think that more good will come from trying to understand the reasons for which people eat meat than from dismissing them entirely. (And I appreciate the more nuanced view of the Erik Marcus at, though I wouldn't call this experiment a "mistake" so much as a learning experience.)

I've been charged with other offenses, too: naïveté, narcissism, elitism, stupidity. Perhaps some of these accusations are not entirely without basis, but be kind, please: I am relatively young (though I don't think this fact automatically invalidates my opinions, as some seem to think), I am practicing my writing, and I am trying to find an appropriate balance between the personal and the political in what I write. In any case, no one is obligated to read this blog if they find it to be drivel.

There are also comments in such a low register that responding seems futile. (Although to the person on Post Punk Kitchen who called me "an arrogant bisque," I will say: I welcome your corny puns, sir, but I'm probably not the only one who wishes you would leave your casual sexism at home.)

But I'm always up for a discussion of ideas, so thank you to everyone who has responded thoughtfully and eloquently. You've given me a lot to think about, and I hope to sort my thoughts out and write more about it here in the near future. And by all means, let's continue the dialogue.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Slope

Back when I thought I'd never not be a vegetarian, people used to ask me, "Well, why don't you eat only organic, free-range, ethically raised meat?" My answer was that to do so would be to start down a slippery slope. If I justified eating certain kinds of meat, it would then be very easy to start justifying eating other kinds of meat, and finally to start eating meat indiscriminately.

I've tried to avoid this fate since I had my first escargot in May. I've tried to be thoughtful when choosing the animals I eat. I've tried to steer clear of conventional meat. I swore to myself I wouldn't go to McDonald's, and I've kept that promise.

Still, in recent weeks, I've felt myself, well, slipping: some kosher-but-not-organic chicken here, some conventional supermarket bacon there, lots of farmed-salmon sushi in lots of places.

I didn't really realize how far I'd fallen until one day last week, when I made a lunchtime trip to the prepared food section of the Galeries Lafayette, home to a seemingly endless number of enticing culinary displays. I wandered past the couscous stand, the soup bar, the caviar kiosk. My stomach growling and my senses overwhelmed, I eventually chose the dim sum stand and took one of every kind of meat-filled dumpling I saw. Well, why not? I asked myself. I'd never had non-vegetarian dim sum before, and these looked delicious.

Reader, they weren't. The rice flour dough was gluey and gummy, the fillings greasy and rubbery. For the first time in my life, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad Chinese food. Furthermore, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad meat. The chicken was indistinguishable from the pork, which was indistinguishable from the beef. Each dumpling contained a bit of a carcass from a different factory-farmed animal, and each bit of carcass took flavorlessness to new heights.

In short, the whole meal was a terrible, terrible mistake. And while I know that everyone makes mistakes, I'm having trouble getting past this one.

When I was a vegetarian, the worst that happened when I made a mistake was a stomachache, or a hangover, or a burning feeling of embarrassment that would start to fade after a few days. As a meat-eater, I still make the kind of mistakes that lead to these consequences. But now I also make the kind of mistake that, in one go, contributes to the systematic torture and slaughter of several sentient beings.

I feel as though I'm always reading about conscientious omnivores, locavores who personally ensure that every morsel of meat that crosses their lips comes from a beast that was raised ethically and sustainably. But these people—if their existence isn't just an urban myth—have far more moral strength than I do.

The world of meat is tempting and deceitful, and I am far too clumsy, too flawed, to navigate it without occasionally stumbling. And, because the moral price is so high when I do stumble, I think I'll breathe easier when I back away from the slope and return to even ground.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Good Fortune

Mark Bittman has been so kind as to let me write a post for his blog at  If you’re not familiar with Bitten, you should change that—it’s a great source of recipes and culinary musings by Mark and other food writers who know what they’re talking about but don’t take themselves too seriously.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Other Omnivores: Leah

This is the second installment in an occasional series exploring others’ alimentary habits and thoughts about food.

Talented violinist and singer Leah Germer, my sophomore-year roommate at Columbia, is one of the most thoughtful vegetarians I know.  As a precocious five-year-old, she decided to give up meat and convinced her parents and sister to do the same.  The Philadelphia native is still a fervent defender of animal rights, but her respect for animals is tempered by a healthy dose of respect for people and their traditions.  A gracious guest, Leah (whose name is pronounced “lay-uh” rather than “lee-uh”) has been known to have the occasional non-vegetarian meal when visiting the homes of people whose culinary backgrounds draw heavily on meat.  “I’ve never had a hamburger or steak, but when I’m confronted with unusual meat, I’ll sometimes make an exception and try it for the purpose of experiencing culture,” she says. 

The alabaster-skinned beauty is currently finishing up a semester in Berlin, where she enjoys eating banana ice cream, frequenting biergartens, and getting to know the locals. 

Below are Leah’s responses to the “Other Omnivores” questionnaire.

Name:  Leah Germer

Age:  21

Profession:  student

Favorite vegetarian food:  Indian food (is that specific enough?), like Palak Paneer (spiced spinach with Indian cheese), Vegetable Curry, Malai Kofta (dumplings in cream sauce)

Favorite non-vegetarian food:  tuna fish

Food you will never give up:  cheese

Favorite food memory:  Homemade mozzarella cheese I had in Sicily.  It changed flavor four times in my mouth. Also the bear in a mushroom cream sauce that I tasted in Romania, which literally melted in my mouth. 

Biggest food worry:  I'm not sure what kind of "worry" you mean. I worry that things like bananas will disappear from supermarkets because of the energy costs of overseas transport.  That all those international goodies at Zabar’s that make us foodies feel so cosmopolitan are actually a factor in pollution and the deterioration of the environment, as well as the global food crisis. That the vast variety of foods we enjoy every day is costing us, and the planet, a lot.

Would you eat meat grown in a laboratory?  This requires more  thought...leaning toward yes, though.

Favorite Anti-Vegetarian Society of Meat Eaters slogan [Disclosure:  I accidentally didn’t include the link to the AVSME site when I sent my questions to Leah, so she provided an answer based her own experience]:  This isn't exactly anti-vegetarian, but it does display the confusion among carnivores about what we're about: "So, like, I don't get it...if there were a cake, but in the shape of a cow...would you eat it?", or, someone once said something to me to the tune of, "Well, I don't waste my time worrying about the rights of chickens, I worry about the rights of people."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tout burgers, tout le temps

Sometimes it feels as though The New York Times dining section is speaking directly to me, and it's a wonderful feeling.  Take yesterday's "In Paris, Burgers Turn Chic," which rocketed to the top of's "Most Emailed" list almost as quickly as last week's chocolate chip cookie recipe.  This week’s article, and its hauntingly gorgeous accompanying slideshow, left me with just one question:  Which of these haute cuisine burgers should I pursue?  The $56 bacon burger at Le Dali?  The wagyu patty with blackberry ketchup at Black Calvados?  The foie gras-topped sliders at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon?  I do know one thing:  It will not be the shrimp and squid burger at Le Relais du Parc.  I'm obviously not a burger connoisseur, but I have enough of a sense of common decency to know that some things are just wrong.

On Diner's Journal, commenter Kevin responds, "I'd like to see the trend where the Food section stops writing about hamburgers all the time!"  Not I, Kevin.  Not I.

Pertinent Quote from My Inbox

Courtesy of Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day email newsletter:

“Profits, like sausages... are esteemed most by those who know least about what goes into them.” (Alvin Toffler, futurist and author)

Image © George Bailey |

Monday, July 14, 2008

Here a "meuh," there a "meuh," everywhere a "meuh meuh"

The part of Saturday’s post about the noises that pigs make reminded me of the time last year when my French grammar professor, having gone off on a considerable tangent, taught my class the onomatopoeic words for sounds that French farm animals make.  A little Googling turned up this very useful list of animal sounds in various languages.  My favorite French ones, in increasing order of how amusing I find them, are below.  Happy Bastille Day.

Cow:  meuh”

Chicken:  cotcotcodet”

Rooster:  cocorico”

Chick:  piou piou”

Turkey:  glou glou”

Duck:  coin coin”

Pig:  groin groin”

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pork Week's Blind Spot

This week was Pork Week at, and it marks either one of the most brilliant editorial decisions ever made or the beginning of the end for Salon—only time will tell.

The four articles and one video in the series are a frequently self-congratulatory celebration of pork from pastured, organic, preferably acorn-fed animals.  There’s a personal essay about making bacon—as in, starting from the entire stomach of a pig—and what it’s like to “hold an animal’s insides in your hands, big and fresh and smelling of nothing but flesh and fat.”    There are Q&As with celebrity chefs who slam wan pork chops and hail bloody offal.  There’s hand-wringing about the proletarianization of bacon. 

There’s a short video profiling Veritas Farm in New York, where two former Wall Street workers now breed heritage pigs whose meat they sell for $10.50 per pound.  One of the owners, Paul Alward, describes the typical industry method of raising pigs:

Usually, commercially, the mother would be locked into a crate and the babies couldn’t have access.  And the first thing they do when a pig farrows is take the piglets and pull their teeth and dock their tails with a pair of pliers and you clip their back teeth out, cut their tails off, dock their tails, and give them an iron shot...the main reason to dock tails commercially is for cannibalism, and they start chewing each other, and becomes a problem.

Veritas pigs, by contrast, seem to be deliriously happy, if the video is to be believed.  They wander around the farm, their floppy ears falling over their eyes.   They lounge on piles of hay as their owners scratch their bellies.  They roll around in patches of mud, emitting satisfying baritone grunts.  I defy anyone to listen to those grunts without wanting to  go kidnap a Veritas pig and keep it as a companion for the rest of its days, just to be able to listen to the noises it makes (and to rub its ears).

It’s no wonder, given how appealing these creatures are, that the journalists narrating the video devote only one sentence—something about killing the pigs “as humanely as possible”—to the topic of slaughter.  And this is the irony of Pork Week, and of the movement that places such extraordinary value on the provenance of meat:  everyone talks about the welfare of pigs and the glory of getting in touch with innards, but few people talk about the killing. 

But I wonder:  Would it be so easy to laud free-range pork if more people witnessed the slaughter of pigs, “humane” as it might be?  I support the work of farmers who take great strides to ensure their animals’ well-being, and it is glaringly obvious that the pigs at Veritas are infinitely better off than the miserable pigs on factory farms.  But it seems to me that, as much interest as locavores take in the origin and quality of their meat, they are willfully ignoring one crucial part of the process.

On a side note, my favorite new piece of information gleaned from Pork Week is that notorious vegetarian-hater Anthony Bourdain (who has also called vegetarians “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit”) has dubbed “bacon the ‘gateway protein’ for its astounding ability to lure vegetarians back into the carnivorous fold.”   That sounds like a challenge to me, so I bought a package of bacon at Monoprix last night.  I doubt that eating it will make me want to keep eating pork for the rest of my life, but, in case I falter, just show me some of the footage of Veritas pigs frolicking in the mud.  That ought to bring me back to my senses.

Image © Morozova Tatiana |

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mmm, Hair...

I didn’t think that the list of body parts I’d be consuming would include hair, but it seems I was mistaken.  I’ve become addicted to a Lebanese candy known as sha’er banat (“girl’s hair”), a box of which has been sitting on a table within arm’s length of my work computer.  It looks like a haystack (much more than any of the cookies that Americans call haystacks), and it tastes like sugar, slightly burned around the edges, with a hint of pistachio.  Its texture is somewhere between what I would imagine a unicorn mane to be like and the contents of a magnetic sketchpad.  It puts regular cotton candy to shame, and I’ve never been happier to have coworkers who make frequent trips to the Middle East. 

Monday, July 7, 2008

Chicken-Craving Heart of Darkness

When people used to tell me that chicken was their favorite kind of meat, I always inwardly rolled my eyes.  There’s nothing sexy or enigmatic about chicken.  It always seemed so boringly inoffensive to me, so conventional.  I chalked up others’ love for chicken to their predilection for blandness, their lack of gastronomic adventurousness, their underdeveloped palate.

My own first personal encounters with chicken didn’t do much to change my opinion.  Early in my meat-eating days, before my taste buds had really adjusted to the flavor of meat, I ordered a couple of unimpressive chicken Caesar salads.  Their cold strips nestled on beds of lettuce exuded only the faintest savor of meatiness.  Why, I asked myself, would anyone want to eat this Meat Lite?  I continued with my prosciutto and my boudin, convinced that chicken was a waste of my time.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my roommate took me to a sandwich stand a stone’s throw from the ivy-covered walls of the Cimetière de Montparnasse, on the rue d’Odessa side of Café de la Place.  There, we ordered poulet-avocat-tomate sandwiches from a kind-faced man named Joseph, and he set to work with ingredients arranged beautifully in baskets around him.  With a serrated knife, he thinly sliced half of a crimson plum tomato and a quarter of a ripe avocado.  He pulled some of the soft inner mie from a flour-covered pain pavé and stuffed the crust with the tomato and avocado, a big handful of arugula, some dried cranberries, and slices of moist grilled chicken breast.  After adding a slug of olive oil, he pressed the blade of his knife against the ingredients to tuck them in snugly and wrapped the loaf in white paper.

It was the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted.  I'm still thinking about it.  I wish I could eat it every day. 

Luckily for French chickens, I can’t—Café de la Place is 18 Métro stops away from my apartment and 12 from my office, which makes Joseph’s stand a weekend-only destination for me.  But my persistent desire for the sandwich disquiets me.  I was not supposed to like meat so much as to want to eat it all the time.  I particularly did not intend to fall in love with chicken, the meat of the people.  Yet here I am, constantly craving that juicy white meat with glistening brown skin against a backdrop of chewy bread, cool and creamy avocado, grassy arugula, sweet and tart cranberries.  I try to believe that the sandwich would be just as good without the chicken, but, excellent as the other ingredients may be, it’s not true:  The chicken is the very soul of the sandwich, and it is delectable.

So I extend a sincere apology to the chicken-lovers out there whom I prematurely judged:  It would seem that, at heart, I am one of you.  What remains to be seen is whether my craving for the chicken sandwich will outlive my trial period of eating meat.

Friday, July 4, 2008

God Bless American Beef?

I began this project operating under the assumption that European meat was bound to be better than the American kind, but at least a few fellow expatriates beg to differ. My coworker Chris, who hails from Florida but hasn't been in the States for over a year, gets a starry look in his eyes when he starts talking about American beef. "It's juicy, it smells's just so damn good, I don't know why," he says.

I know why, and it puts a damper on my desire to try U.S. beef: American beef tastes distinctive because it comes from corn-fed animals. At the risk of mentioning Michael Pollan far, far too often (although, if we're to be honest, it's probably already too late), the part of The Omnivore's Dilemma that's stuck with me the most is the fact that cows are not built to digest corn. In fact, eating corn makes cows sick, so cattlemen who feed their animals corn also must pump them full of antibiotics to fight digestive trouble. Corn makes young cows grow quickly, and it gives meat a nice marbled texture, but it's certainly not in the best interest of the cow or the consumer.

Still, Americans love their corn-fed beef. A 2002 study showed that consumers are willing to pay 30% more for corn-fed than for grass-fed beef (never mind that corn-fed beef is cheaper to produce, lower in heart-healthy omega-3s, and worse for the environment). My mother tells me that my grandfather, an Oklahoma-raised meat-loving trucker, wanted all his life to try Argentinean grass-fed steak and then was terribly disappointed when he finally did, so attached was he to the flavor of corn-fed beef.

But I can't complain about the taste of the decidedly non-American meat I've eaten. I had a lovely filet de boeuf at critical darling Le Severo earlier this week (and my companion, who just finished a year at culinary school here, proclaimed it the best steak frites he’s had in Paris). I was perfectly satisfied with the meat’s texture: crisp and caramelized on the outside, tender and juicy within. It was tender because filet comes from a part of the body that doesn't get much exercise, not because the cow had gorged on grains. It was also pricey (a well spent 30€), but that's because filet is rare—there's only one psoas muscle per cow. American cattlemen have tried to reproduce the texture and flavor of filet de boeuf in different cuts of meat on the cheap by feeding their cows corn. As a result, Americans have come to see sweet, tender meat as an everyday commodity rather than the luxury that it is.

Lest this post make it sound like I'm knocking an American tradition on the Fourth of July, let me be clear: I love America, and I love eating in America. Far more than stuck-up, self-impressed France, America welcomes and celebrates different food traditions and allows them to develop and intermingle. America also allows for freedom of dietary expression, with more options for vegetarians, vegans, and others who choose to omit certain foods for religious or ethical reasons. What's great about eating in America—much like what's great about living in America—is the diversity and liberty of the experience. I find it hard to believe that a taste of ethically and environmentally questionable corn-fed beef could make me appreciate American alimentary life any more than I already do.

So I wish a very happy birthday to America. But I also hope that, in its 233rd year, the land of the free and the home of the brave might find the bravery to try weaning itself off of corn-fed beef.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Other Omnivores: Tristan

Today I introduce a new feature founded as much on a lack of eventfulness in my own alimentary life—there are only so many new kinds of meat one can try—as on my immoderate preoccupation with what and how people eat.  “Other Omnivores” will take a look at other people’s thoughts about food and at their eating habits and preferences.   My fascination with eating is pretty equal-opportunity, and I’d like to interview eaters of all kinds:  self-described foodies and ingredient illiterates, practiced chefs and kitchen dilettantes, strict vegetarians and unabashed meat-lovers.   Everyone eats, and, as far as I’m concerned, everyone’s personal food preferences are equally valid—so let’s examine some of them.

I begin with my high-school friend Tristan.  It is time to give credit where credit is due:  I would never have dabbled in omnivorousness if he hadn’t given me the idea.  Tristan, who had become a vegetarian at the age of five after eating some bad cheese-filled chicken nuggets, decided abruptly this spring to start eating meat.  The former homecoming king comes from a family of vegetarians, but he says that the choice not to eat meat will be more powerful and meaningful if he makes it as an adult after trying meat for a year or so.  Tristan opened my eyes to the possibility of looking at meat from a different angle, and for this I thank him.

Tristan developed his knowledge of French food and wine waiting tables at Tersiguel’s, one of suburban Maryland’s finest and best-loved restaurants.  Having recently obtained degrees in English and music, he currently resides in New York, where he works at Opera News, lives in an apartment above Teany, and enjoys eating frogs’ legs, oxtail and Kobe beef hamburgers.

Following are Tristan’s responses to the “Other Omnivores” questionnaire.

Name: Tristan Kraft

Age: 22

Profession: assistant editor

Favorite vegetarian food: Morningstar Farms' Grillers

Favorite non-vegetarian food: close tie between pan seared scallops and steak with fries and hollandaise

Food you will never give up: eggs

Favorite food memory: baked ziti on my first trip home from college

Biggest food worry: mad cow disease

Would you eat meat grown in a laboratory? sure, with fries and hollandaise

Favorite Anti-Vegetarian Society of Meat Eaters slogan: obviously "wwjdfb"