Sex, drugs, and foie gras: Pain, longing, and desire in food blogging

paolo-and-francescaAbove: “[The Murder of] Paolo and Francesca,” painting by 19th-century Italian artist Carlo Arienti (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Unless you entirely missed out on the Western canon, you have surely read about Paolo and Francesca, the star-crossed lovers who Dante and Virgil encounter in the fifth canto of the Inferno. It’s one of the most widely represented tales throughout Western literature, figurative arts, and music. Just do an image search for “Paolo e Francesca” and you’ll find hundreds of images conceived by some of the greatest artists in the history of humankind.

It’s not hard to understand why women and men have found their story so compelling for hundreds of years. The tragic arc of their lives (real and imagined) was shaped by their own lustful undoing. And we humans simply can’t get enough of that sort of thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paolo and Francesca as I prepare my teaching plan for the seminar in Food and Wine Journalism that I’ll be leading this fall for the Master’s in Food and Wine Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

My colleague Lydia Itoi will be co-teaching the seminar with me: She’ll cover food journalism and writing and I’ll handle food blogging and social media (I met Lydia last month in Palo Alto and I like her a lot).

Scanning and scrolling through some of the most popular food blogs in the world today (you probably don’t need me to tell you which ones), you quickly realize that the stories often most coveted by writers and editors aren’t about food at all. Many of them (although not all) are about the tragic arcs of restaurateurs’ lives and their lustful undoing. In many ways, restaurateurs are the rock stars of a generation ago in the mind of the entertainment-hungry public. The pattern is nearly identical: The meteoric rise, the stress and crisis caused by unmitigated success and excess, and the inevitable downward spiral.

The origins of pain, longing, and [mimetic] desire in food blogging today stretch back to early Greek tragedy and beyond. Yes, this trend in food writing today has also been molded by the rise of reality television. And yes, there are technical, societal, and cultural factors that have contributed to these phenomena as well.

But looking at these currents from an epistemological perspective, I ask myself: How did we get from Betty Crocker’s tips for grilling to Page Six stories about alcohol-fueled orgies at a celebrity chef’s Manhattan restaurant? What role does food culture and food writing play in our ethos — personal and national?

This is just one of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminar. Stay tuned for more…

Click here to learn more about the Master’s in Food and Wine Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

Carbonara, the ultimate hypertext? A post @NPR (and more @UniSG)

From the department of “food for thought”…

best-carbonara-recipeText, extratext, metatext, paratext… None intrigues me more than hypertext.

hypertext, text which does not form a single sequence and which may be read in various orders” (Oxford English Dictionary).

In 1997, critical theorist Gérard Genette, a giant among literary scholars, wrote:

“Our ‘media’ age has seen the proliferation of a type of discourse around texts that was unknown in the classical world and a fortiori in antiquity and the Middle Ages, when text often circulated in an almost raw condition, in the form of manuscripts devoid of any formula of presentation. I say an almost raw condition because the sole fact of transcription — but equally, of oral transmission — brings to the ideality of the text some degree of materialization, graphic or phonic.”

To Genette’s graphic or phonic, may we add gastronomic?

In my view, no culinary legacy embodies Genette’s notion of paratext and its child hypertext more than carbonara. The hypertext and Bloomian misunderstanding surrounding (and drowning out) this text are astounding imho.

I was really thrilled to be quoted as a UniSG professor this week in this excellent post on carbonara for “the salt” on NPR by Deena Prichep.

Carbonara as hangover food? The hypertext just keeps expanding in an infinite enogastronomic universe full of contamination, corruption, and coalescence.

BTW, the enrollment deadline for the Master’s in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UniSG) in Piedmont, Italy is January 18. I’ll be teaching a seminar on English-Language food writing (in English) there this year. Carbonara and its hypertext will be one of the topics we will cover in depth.

Above: carbonara by Tracie P.

The power of food as history and memory…

amatrciana torino turin earthquakeAbove: over the weekend in Turin, 7,000 servings of Amatriciana raised nearly €50,000 for victims of last week’s earthquake in central Italy (image via the popular Italian food blog Scatti di Gusto).

A couple of Italian food blogs (here and here) have posted about celebrity chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo’s op-ed on the front page of La Repubblica today.

There’s no link available online to non-subscribers but I wanted to post an excerpted translation of the piece. Like my Italian colleagues, I was moved by Cannavacciuolo’s take on the power of food and the way Amatriciana has become a symbol of recovery and hope in the wake of last week’s tragedy.

“Disasters destroy communities and they also destroy their symbols,” he wrote.

    They cause schools, hospitals, hotels, and churches to crumble. And once again, the earthquake that struck central Italy seems to have destroyed almost everything.
    But one symbol, however seemingly simple, has been spared: food.
    Today, Amatriciana, a dish that takes its name from one of the towns struck by the seismic event, sends a very powerful message.
    We all know that food is part of our daily lives. But it’s not just nourishment. It’s also history and memory.
    And that’s exactly what Amatriciana is: a simple dish of the people that carries forward the history of those who created it and the traditions of an ancient rural cuisine.

I was also really moved by my friend (and neo-Houstonian) Jeff Kralik’s post today, “Headed to Italy with a Heavy Heart.”

Before he left for a trip to Italy yesterday, he made his family an Amatriciana, which his sons devoured “with aplomb.”

Jeff’s planning to give blood during his stay.

As banal as it may sound to some, the legacy of a place and people lives on through an otherwise simple dish made from the humblest of ingredients. It’s the power of food as history and memory to inspire us…

Riso (or Risotto) al Salto, a recipe

riso risotto al salto recipeOver the weekend on social media, a lot of people asked about the photo above.

It’s a risotto al salto or riso al salto. Literally, it means a flipped or sautéed risotto and basically, it’s what you do with leftover risotto.

On Friday, I had made a risotto alla parmigiana and then on Saturday I made the “flipped” version.

For the risotto alla parmigiana, sauté some finely chopped onion in a broad pan with unsalted butter.

When the onions begin to become translucent, add the desired amount of rice and toast for a few minutes (being sure to stir constantly so that the rice doesn’t burn or stick to the pan).

Then add a few ladlefuls of chicken (or desired) stock and a half glass of white wine. Depending on the saltiness of the stock, add Kosher salt to taste (or not at all; between the stock and the Parmigiano Reggiano, you should have plenty of saltiness already).

Continue adding stock, stirring diligently all the while, until the rice has cooked through, 25-30 minutes depending on the grain.

A few minutes before the dish is ready to serve, fold in generously amounts of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

For the riso al salto, melt butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and then add the leftover risotto. Gently pat and smooth it out until it’s uniformly round and flat in shape.

Brown the rice for 10 minutes or so and when ready to serve, turn it out of the pan by placing a large dish on top of the pan and flipping it over (I’ve seen professional chefs turn it out of the pan simply by flipping it, like an omelette; but it takes a deft hand for that).

Dust with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

On Saturday night, I also made a pesto (below).

It drew some criticism (and some praise) on social media.

“A me spiaza ma quer li i ni é pistü!” wrote StaticStrat on Instagram. “R’pistü ga le trenete der 7, patate e fazoin!”

“I’m sorry but that there ain’t pesto. Pesto is served over trenette” and “with potatoes and green beans” on the side.

A Texas-based chef also lamented that the pesto-to-pasta ratio was weak.

My pesto is by no means traditional. In fact, I make it with Parmigiano Reggiano and not pecorino. But it’s still delicious, I swear!

Seriously, isn’t that what’s so great about Italian gastronomy? It’s a canon and a blueprint that allows for infinite idiosyncratic variations.

Hoping everyone had a culinarily rewarding weekend and wishing everyone a tasty week ahead. Thanks for being here…

pesto recipe

Tony Vallone, an American master and an American original

seafood gazpacho recipeAbove: I snapped this image of a seafood gazpacho a few weeks ago at Tony’s, where I meet with Tony Vallone and photograph his food nearly every week. One of the best things about moving to Texas and starting a life and a family here has been getting to work with him. I love it and cherish his friendship.

Week before last, Houston’s paper of record, the Houston Chronicle, profiled my good friend and client Tony Vallone (above, center) for its “History of Houston” series.

Since I moved to Texas, Tracie and I have shared some unforgettable meals at his restaurant, Tony’s, which he first opened in 1965 long before America’s food and wine renaissance took shape.

I wish I could share the whole article here but it’s behind a subscription wall. The following is a snippet.

Part of Vallone’s genius was to make Houstonians feel that the world was at their feet at a time when the city was increasingly staking its claim on a national and international stage. Nothing was too much trouble, from the freshest Dover sole to hulking knobs of white truffle, or the glistening Beluga caviar that Cullen oil heir Baron Ricky di Portanova would, by special request, theatrically toss into a plate of pasta for his table mates.

Another facet of Vallone’s genius was to make his restaurant fun. Sure, he required male guests to wear tie and jacket. But Vallone would cater to favored guests in all sorts of charmingly goofy ways. When developer Harold Farb requested chicken-fried steak, no problem. Did oilman John Mecom crave chili? Vallone made it for him, and the proletarian dish eventually achieved cult status on Fridays.

Read the rest of the article here (I believe it’s still available to non-subscribers).

In today’s world of gossipy food writing, where news of hirings and firings and openings and closings and an unabated hunger for clicks often seem to trump the coverage of the food itself, we sometimes forget that that the food arts are driven by genuine knowledge, passion, and creativity.

Thanks to my work and friendship with Tony, I get to watch his artistry up close (at our weekly kibitz, as we like to call our meetings). I wish that everyone could share my bird’s-eye view and hear him as he holds court on the finer points of Italian regional cookery, the differences in grades of caviar and truffles, recipes for French sauces and Americana classics… His energy and excitement are so great that his chef, his general manager, and I can barely keep up with his pace. For all the things that I get to taste and learn, our chats and tastings (where I also photograph his food) are one of the things I most look forward to.

He’s an American master and an American original. Yes, he’s cooked for every president from Johnson onward. Yes, you regularly see international celebrities at his restaurant. Yes, oil moguls spend outrageous sums there nightly as they dig deep into Tony’s wine cellar. But for Tony, it’s all about the science and art of cooking.

If you are a foodie and live in Houston or visit here, his cuisine is not to be missed.

For the month of July, Tony is doing a $59 tasting menu that includes wine pairings. It’s a great deal and a great way to experience Tony’s magic. I highly recommend it to you.

Suffer from Jewish Boy Stomach? Eat at Moruno in Los Angeles (and thanks to Sotto team and guests)

david rosoff restaurant los angelesEvery time Sotto brings me to Los Angeles to work on our wine list, general manager Christine Veys and I try to break away to check out one of the new restaurants on LA’s vibrant food scene.

On Tuesday evening, after tasting roughly 30 wines with 6 different sales reps, we headed to my friend David Rosoff’s newly opened Moruno in the West Hollywood Farmer’s Market (a haunt of my youth).

That’s the absolutely delicious albacore tuna conserva in the photo above.

The menu is inspired by Spanish and Middle Eastern cookery and is delivered mostly in small plates and on skewers (as David put it, a moruno is “meat on a stick”).

We had a wide variety of dishes, including the roast butternut squash topped with cashews and sesame seeds, one of the guests’ and staff’s favorites, David said.

And of course, we sampled both the chicken and lamb morunos.

what is a morunoEverything was truly fantastic and it was great to see his energetic team working in the kitchen with such focused skill and decisive sense of mission.

But the thing that really blew me away about the experience was how good I felt the next day (sparing you the details, I’ll presume you know what I mean).

Whenever I travel for my work (and this year, I already have four trips to Italy and visits to New York, Miami, Santa Barbara, Boston, and LA under my belt), one of the greatest challenges I face is the combination of fatigue and distressed digestion (I’ll leave it at that).

best spanish wineEven though Christine and I really dug into our meal with gusto at Moruno, my “day after” was bright and sunny, as it were.

Maybe it was thanks to the superb Grenache Blanc by Cellar Frisach from southern Spain that made the difference. Zinging acidity in this hillside wine from the high lands, vibrant fruit and great balance, with restrained alcohol. I really dug it, especially at just $45 a bottle.

David, from one Jew to another, I LOVE your restaurant. The ultimate mark of a great meal is how you feel the next day and man, I woke up ready to go… as it were…

In other news…

My goodness, what a lovely night at Sotto last night where we launched our new wine list with a guided tasting of five new wines by-the-glass!

I can’t tell you how many times I lead tastings where guests show up only wanting to tell me about how they once visited Gaja.

Last night’s group was one of the best and most fun that I’ve ever tasted with: a very gracious ensemble of wine lovers who asked informed questions and shared thoughtful impressions of the wines. Thank you, everyone, for joining me.

And super heartfelt thanks to Christine for being such a great friend and colleague and for believing in my crazy reboot of our list (which I love).

And I also have to give a shout-out to my Texas family who surprised me by showing up at the tasting unannounced and staying for dinner. It was so fun to connect with them in LA and wonderful to know that I have family that supports me in what I do for a living. What a thrill for me to see Aunt Gladys enjoying my wine selections!

Now it’s time to get my butt back on a plane for Houston and some much needed downtime with Tra and the girls… Thanks for being here.

Bitter herb and salty tears for Prince… wishing everyone a good Passover #hagsameach

passover foodsThe bitter herb and salted water will be especially acidic and savory this year.

Tracie P and I are both reeling from the news that Prince has left this world for a better one.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Z., a friend from Australia who works in the music industry, sent me a video from a private performance by Prince he had attended. What an electric, magical entertainer he was, a triple threat as they used to say…

After everyone else went to bed last night (my mom is in Houston for the holiday), we stayed up and sipped some Venica Pinot Grigio as we watched all the remembrances on CNN and listened to our favorite Prince tracks on our phones.

He gave us so much through his music, energy, activism, and charity. Now he’s gone. It makes both of us so sad.

Tonight we’ll be celebrating the Passover with my mom and Tracie’s parents, Rev. and Mrs. B.

And when we dip our parsley into the water and remember the bitterness and salty tears of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, I will also remember how Prince brought us so much joy and light and sweetness in the daily toil of life. The world isn’t the same without him.

Wishing everyone a happy Passover… hag sameach, yall…

Lick, pray, love: wonderful ice cream at Dolce Neve in Austin

best ice cream austin texasPosting in a hurry today because I’m super slammed with work.

But, dulcis in fundo, how not to end the week on a sweet note after having visited my new favorite ice cream shop, Dolce Neve in Austin?

I loved talking to owners and ice cream-makers Marco Silvestrini from Umbria (below, right) and Leo Ferrarese (left) from Lombardy. I didn’t get to meet Francesca Silvestrini, Marco’s sister. But she’s part of the picture, too.

Super nice people and fantastic, wholesome, artisanal ice cream. All made from scratch and served in traditional Italian style with lots of fun flourishes.

Talking to these guys yesterday while I was in Austin for business, I couldn’t help but think that someone is going to make a “feel-good-movie-of-the-summer” about their arc, from the corporate world to ice cream slingers in America’s quirkiest city. Lick, pray, love…

Thanks for being here and buon weekend a tutti!

dolce neve austin marco silvestrini

A mozzarella backwater in Caianello (Caserta province, Campania)

caianello mozzarellaHonestly, I can’t tell you why the small town of Caianello, about 30 minutes north of Naples on the autostrada heading south from Rome, is an epicenter for artisanal mozzarella production.

All I do know is that Tracie P and I stopped there a few years ago when we traveling in southern Italy with our then one-year-old daughter Georgia P and Tracie was pregnant with Lila Jane.

Tra had a case of hunger pangs and so we literally took the first exit we could find. And it was only by chance that we stumbled on to this mozzarella backwater.

caianello caseificioYesterday, when our group of wine writers made a lunch pitstop there, the lines at the (evidently super famous) Caseificio La Pagliara were just as long as the last time. And so we headed down the road to the Bottega dei Buoni Sapori for simple sandwiches of moreish plastic cheese and delicious bread.

If you ever make the same journey, I highly recommend it.

Today, we’re in Lecce, Puglia where we’ll be heading out to taste with my good friend and client Paolo Cantele at his family’s winery…

A FANTASTIC trattoria in Trastevere (Rome) and a Befana to burn

Notes from the eternal city…

best trattoria trastevere romePosting in a hurry this morning for Rome before our group of writers heads to Salento for wine tasting, eating, and touring for three days.

But just had to share the tip: dinner at Tavernaccia in Trastevere last night was phenomenally good. No website but here’s the Google place page.

Not only did we eat one of the best spaghetti alla gricia I’ve ever had but we also had what we unanimously declared the best roast suckling pig in history.

Excellent wine list with lots of natty Friulian.

Thank you to Hande and Theo for turning us on to this amazing place. Some of us cried… it was that good. And the price was ridiculously affordable.

befana italy burnThis morning, my college-days buddy Steve shared this photo from Prato della Valle in Padua (my old stomping ground).

That’s the Befana, the witch who comes on the night of January 5 each year to bring children presents or lumps of coal. She will be burned later today, sweeping out the old and welcoming the new year.

Here’s the Wiki entry to learn more (really interesting to read up on the tradition’s origins, btw).

That’s all I have time to post this morning. Stay tuned!