Free market solutions to obesity

Matt Ridley discusses free-market solutions to obesity. One section caught my attention:



In due course, the obesity problem will be solved, I suspect. The ultra-rich have already solved it. Most of them are very thin these days, quite unlike in ancient times. That's because they can afford the solutions that work for them, from low-carb diets to personal trainers.


If economic growth continues to spread, as it has over the past two centuries, most people will be ultra-rich by today's standards within two generations, and slim figures will also spread. Still, it would be nice to find a way for people to lose weight without having to wait for them to get rich first.



The signifiers of wealth evolve over time. In some countries a tan is a signal of wealth because it means you can afford to vacation where there's sun. But in Asia a dark complexion was often a signal that you were in a lower socioeconomic class and forced to work out in the sun all day, for example in farming or construction, so a pale complexion was socially desirable.


In places of food scarcity, obesity can be a sign of wealth. However, in the U.S. today, it's the reverse: the wealthy can afford to hack the diet and lifestyle issues that lead to obesity in poorer socioeconomic groups.


Eataly

Design Observer visits the Manhattan incarnation of Torino's Eataly food emporium and finds the American version lacking in the charm of the original.


Without having visited either Eataly, I still wonder how much of this isn't just a function of the human crush of Manhattan. Instead of just blaming the New York Eataly for being crowded and less charming, the more interesting question to ponder is how the Manhattan Eataly could have been designed to handle the higher population density of its new context.


Football is Socialism, and other stuff

Clearing out some random links from last year, my lowest blog output year in history. Writing is a muscle, I'm committed to working it more this year (as well as my literal muscles, whose atrophy is more visible).


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Football is Socialism [The Awl]



The vainglory of the alpha wide receivers—demanding the damn ball, willfully ignorant of how much has to go right for the ball to reach them—is so ridiculous precisely because it doesn't admit the obvious and incredible difficulty inherent in all this. Consider: a player misses a block and things get screwed up. The quarterback overthrows or underthrows and things get screwed up. The coach misreads the defensive scheme and sends in the wrong play, and things get screwed up. Everything has to go right for even the simplest play to work. Even on a play where the raw ingredients are individual genius—perfect throw, brilliant catch—there's a ton of prosaic, self-sacrificing stuff that has to happen before all the fun stuff. This is the socialistic part, the real grace in the game that makes the stupid, atomized dude-ism of those commercials look that much dumber. You can't watch a football game and not understand this—that nothing succeeds unless everything and everyone succeeds, that no one wins unless everyone wins.



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Don't fret, liberals. A divided government is more productive. Jonathan Rauch has explained his theory on this before and summarizes it again in this NYTimes op-ed.



In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass.



Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker challenges Rauch's assertion.



The data cover from 1952 only through 2004. But there’s no reason for the pattern to have changed wildly since then. The percentage of voters opting for divided government ranges between 10 and 30 per cent.


Which is to say that between 70 and 90 per cent of voters do not prefer divided government. Some prefer united Republican Party government. Others prefer united Democratic Party government. All, presumably, would prefer having part of the government controlled by the party they support to having all of the government controlled by the party they oppose. But that hardly means they think that divided government is somehow desirable in and of itself.



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The good news is that a young child who doesn't seem to be aging may hold the secret to immortality. The bad news is that it may involve being a mental infant for the rest of your life.


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What is the best "hair of the dog"? One vote here for the Bloody Mary.


(Doctors in my family vouch for the science behind "hair of the dog." I thought it was just an excuse conjured by alcoholics.)


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One of the most important but less-cited technologies that has fundamentally altered the game of tennis: copoly strings. It's one of the major reasons the net game is so rare today as copoly strings make previously impossible passing shots easier to pull off. I miss the higher variety in playing styles in modern tennis.


Michelin Guide SF 2011: a new 3-star restaurant

The Restaurant at Meadowood joins French Laundry as the newest Michelin 3-star restaurant in the Bay Area, the only two outside of NY. That's the answer to one of the six storylines the SF Chronicle highlighted for this year's release of the guide.


The updated list of Bay Area restaurant starholders is below.


 


3 Star Restaurants (***):


French Laundry


Restaurant at Meadowood


 


2 Star Restaurants (**):


Coi


Cyrus


Manresa


 


1 Star Restaurants (*):


Acquerello


Alexander’s Steakhouse


Ame


Applewood


Auberge du Soleil


Aziza


Baume


Bouchon


Boulevard


Campton Place


Chez TJ


Commis


Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton


Dio Deka


Etoile


Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant


Fleur de Lys


Frances


Gary Danko


La Folie


La Toque


Luce


Madera


Madrona Manor


Masa’s


Mirepoix


Murray Circle


One Market


Plumed Horse


Quince


Redd


Saison


Sante


Solbar


Spruce


Terra


Ubuntu


Village Pub


Wakuriya


A day in the kitchen at French Laundry

Sophie Brickman works a night in the kitchen of French Laundry and writes about her experience.


 



Reservationists Google all customers who make a reservation, which is why you might get a candle in your dessert even if you don't tell anyone it's your birthday, or a glass of Champagne to celebrate that merger. Extras are all in an effort to keep a diner's experience as exciting as possible.


"Minimum" VIPs might be people who have visited many times - they receive a few extra courses in addition to the regular menu. Maximum VIPs, Hollingsworth said, "might be a chef coming in, or someone who is well regarded in their industry, someone we have a relationship with." If the kitchen has the time, these special guests get a completely off-the-menu menu, created that day especially for them. Julia Roberts had been in recently and stood in the kitchen waving at the television set to the cooks at Per Se, none of whom looked up. I asked Hollingsworth if she got an off-the-menu menu. "She was VIP, but not off the menu," he said, adding cryptically, "That was because of the party size."



 


I visited the kitchen of French Laundry after my one and only dinner there late last summer. We were among the last diners that night, and the kitchen was already nearly empty and immaculate, counters gleaming, everything put away, ready for the next day's endeavors.


So much depends on the second bottle

Alan Richman offers advice on how to choose the second bottle of wine at dinner.



I have a friend who believes the first bottle establishes your credibility as a wine person, whereas the second is about relaxation and enjoyment. I disagree. To me, the second bottle is the one that counts. The first douses thirst. The second descends, vaporizes, enriches, inflates. It must be better than the first, and only after it's admired can you relax.



But I was amused by his thoughts on the bottles beyond that as well.



The third? Irrelevant. By then, if it's just the two of you and you're drinking that much, it's love. If you're at a table of four, the topic of wine will have been supplanted by baseball or the stock market, subjects more easily understood. The fourth bottle, if there is one, should always be big, red, and inexpensive, because by then nobody will know what the hell he's drinking.



Ludo's Ham Soup

I ate at the fourth incarnation of Chef Ludo Lefebvre's pop-up restaurant LudoBites (named like software simply as LudoBites 4.0) exactly four times (no one on Yelp checked in more, and by my last visit Ludo was greeting me with raised eyebrows and a "You again Eugène?!").


The web has given pop-ups a bad name, but Chef Ludo just might salvage the word. Food trucks were all the rage in the last two years in LA, but I'll take pop-up restaurants over a food truck any day of the week if it's of the same caliber as the LudoBites experience: no corkage fee, a rotating menu of original dishes, and the feeling of taking in something temporary, never to be recreated. The four meals I had there with four different groups of people were among the most fun culinary outings I've had, not just in LA, but anywhere.


Ludo may come off as a whiny snob on Top Chef Masters, but the few times I've met him he's never been anything less than friendly and amusing. I'll never forget my last visit, when he stopped by our table to chat, spotted something out the restaurant's glass door entrance, and then turned as pale as a ghost sprinted back into the kitchen with a brief "I must go!" Jonathan Gold strolled into the restaurant ten seconds later and all was clear. When Jonathan Gold comes for his fried chicken, all else recedes.


One of the highlights of the LudoBites 4.0 menu was his foie gras croque monsieur, the foie gras sandwiched between two pieces of bread dyed black with squid ink. But my personal favorite was Chef Ludo's ham soup (recipe), one of the all-time great soups of my lifetime (and I am something of a soup junkie). All you need to know about the recipe is that it begins thus:



11 tablespoons (scant 1 1/2 sticks) butter, divided



The Restaurateur

The NY incarnation of Eater got a preview of Roger Sherman's documentary about Danny Meyer titled The Restaurateur.


Sherman was fortunate that his documentary spanned one of the more interesting resurrections of Meyer's career, the turnaround of Eleven Madison Park from a two star to a four star restaurant. At the core of that was the difficult decision to replace chef Kerry Heffernan with Daniel Humm.


Heffernan was the chef there when I lived in NYC, and I ate at Eleven Madison Park twice. It had the usual polished service of a Danny Meyer restaurant, but the food didn't have the wow factor that foodies demand.


The last time I was in NYC, I was surprised to hear a friend who was a very particular diner suggest Eleven Madison park for a dinner. I didn't realize the chef had changed and that Bruni had given the new incarnation four stars.


NY Eater quotes Meyer:



The New York Times gets a new restaurant critic Frank Bruni, and he gives it yet another two star review and it was crushing. It started to dawn on me that something was really going to have to change. I love Kerry. Every time he did a big party people said it was the best party they had ever gone to. So I asked if he would become the opening chef for Hudson Yards, our catering company. That gave me the chance to say it's not a brasserie. It is a gorgeous, stately, grand restaurant. And what we really need to do is to go out and find somebody who's cooking is the right piece of art for this frame.



Transformation is difficult, especially for successful incumbents. Next time I'm in NYC, I will have to pay another visit to Eleven Madison Park, which cracked the S. Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants list for the first time this year, sneaking into the last slot.


Only in this day and age, only here

I heard Chef Ludo Lefebvre was going to be at Akasha tonight via his Twitter account. I booked a reservation via OpenTable. At dinner, I saw Jonathan Gold, who I recognized from a food fair a year or so ago where he was a celebrity guest. After our meal, we met Chef Ludo, who we recognized from his stint on Top Chef and who I'd seen working in a food truck at a street food truck festival from a month or so ago. We chatted with him about the marathon he ran yesterday, which I'd heard about via, yes, his Twitter account.


Celebrity chefs, celebrity food critics. It's a story that only makes sense in this moment, this place.



What to learn from customers

Is El Bulli closing permanently after 2011, or reopening after two years as an institute, or has Chef Ferran Adrià even planned that far in advance? Stories are all over the place, including speculation over how such a coveted reservation (estimates range from 300,000 to 2 million for how many people apply for one of the 8,000 annual seats) could lead to a restaurant losing half a million euros a year (a fact reported in a handful of articles).


In this synposis of an HBS case on El Bulli, Adrià offers a hint as to his restaurant's financial situation when he says, "I should charge 600 euros [for a meal at elBulli] but I do not cook for millionaires. I cook for sensitive people."


The article ends with HBS professor Michael Norton noting, "Adrià says he doesn't listen to customers, yet his customers are some of the most satisfied in the world. That's an interesting riddle to consider."


That's not actually puzzling. At Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos used to say that you can't build a product just by listening to customers. They're good at telling you what they don't like, but not so good at telling you what they want. As an entrepreneur you have to innovate on their behalf. We knew at Amazon that perhaps the most significant barrier to buying online was shipping charges. Customers would tell you again and again that they hated to pay shipping fees, even when they were offset by not having to pay sales tax. But they couldn't tell us what solution we could offer since shipping is not free.


That's where Amazon innovated on behalf of the consumer, first in the form of Super Saver Shipping, then in the form of Amazon Prime. We traded in some of the gross margin efficiencies of the business model to subsidize shipping and offset it with revenue volume from the increased orders that resulted from removing the massive psychological hurdle of shipping costs.


The case also highlights the distinction between understanding and listening to customers. "Adrià's idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know," Norton observes. "If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I'll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can't listen to the customer."

LA: the best place in the world to eat now?

So says Jonathan Gold [hat tip to Alex].


Manhattan may boast the highest concentration of high-end restaurants in the world, and Singapore hawker centers may pack more joy into each square inch, but Los Angeles is the best place in the world to eat at the moment, a frieze of fine dining overlaying a huge patchwork of immigrant communities big enough and self-sustaining enough to produce exactly the food that they want to eat. The famous insularity of Angelenos, our attraction to the pleasures available in our own backyards, may be bad for the civic culture, but the anti–melting pot is excellent for cuisine.

Food: the new rock n' roll

Jonathan Gold writes that right under our noses (mouths?), food became the new rock n' roll:



While nobody was paying attention, food quietly assumed the place in youth culture that used to be occupied by rock 'n' roll -- individual, fierce and intensely political, communal yet congenial to aesthetic extremes: embracing veganism or learning to butcher a cow; eating tofu or head cheese, bean sprouts or pigs' ears. I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing about another celebrity potato farmer or rock-star butcher, about 15-year-old cheddar or 150-year-old Madeira. And I am not alone.



Perhaps that explains the food truck fever in LA, which has grown into an epidemic. There are so many food trucks with Twitter feeds that online aggregation sites for tracking their locations have evolved into attempts to aggregate physically in space. Whereas once the food trucks would bring your meal to you, now we're being roped into chasing our food? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.


For something unique, which Chef Roy's Korean tacos for Kogi were, a trek to seek out a food truck can be a culinary adventure. Kogi shot to fame from amidst the more workman-like pool of Mexican taco trucks which had been roaming LA for years before, but Kogi's rags-to-riches story (featured in NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and the NYTimes) and its use of Twitter to summon crowds like the PIed Piper (if you tweet it, they will come), seemed to launch a rush for curbside real estate. When I stepped out of work one afternoon to try out a grilled cheese truck that happened to stop down the street from our office, I ended up on the evening news on CBS. Construction workers who've been eating from taco trucks for years would have been appalled.


There are now trucks serving food that is both expensive and undistinguished ($9 cheesesteak?!), passing along none of the overhead savings from operating out of the back of a truck.


If a truck pulls up nearby your office and offers an alternative to the usual several lunch spots you're confined to, that's one thing, but if you hop in your car and drive out to a mobile food truck and pay premium prices to eat normal or even mediocre food out of a paper tray while standing on a street corner, you're getting robbed, both literally and figuratively.


The food truck bubble, as with others before it, will burst, taking down many a meal on wheels. If it isn't landlocked restaurants lobbying local officials to crack down on their mobile competition, it will be just plain fatigue. After all, this is a town where you can pay about $5 and get a really solid burger, fries, and drink, not to mention a table to sit at and enjoy the LA sun. Yes, In-N-Out is the Springsteen of this new rock n' roll.



Cooking for Thanksgiving

I finally uploaded some photos from Thanksgiving. Here's Karen showing off the heritage turkey that we roasted and that I wrote about before. It's the best tasting thing I prepared all year.


Our turkey


Cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a huge group just doesn't seem possible for one person in a home kitchen. I couldn't have done it without the help of my sister Karen, my sous-chef/commis. For our creamed corn pudding she grated about two dozen corn cobs with a box grater. That's heroic.


My sous chef



Bits

The stretches between my posts here are lengthening. Perhaps the best way to ease back into things is in the new year is in bits and pieces. Repetition of small victories, perhaps it's the rough sketch of a resolution?



  • The single best thing I tasted over Christmas break in New York was the Crispy Frogs Legs appetizer at Veritas. The legs were encased in a crunchy, stringy crust and served with butternut squash gnocchi, pork belly, chanterelle mushroom, parsley coulis, and parmesan foam. Spectacular, one reason being that it combined the three primary food textures: crisp/crunchy, meaty, and soft.

  • I learned about the three primary food textures from a book I read over break: Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition. It took me a day of intermittent reading to plow through it on my Kindle. It appealed to me by combining many of my interests: food/cooking, contest/competition I've never heard of (shall we call that the Bloodsport factor?), obsessive people (Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, among dozens of others), long odds/underdog story (can the Americans finally medal at Bocuse d'Or, long dominated by the French and, surprisingly, the Norwegians?), a true story, and heavy doses of conflict. My only complaint is that the author Andrew Friedman telegraphs the outcome by interspersing hindsight quotes from many of the key players. You can do that in a way that doesn't give away the ending; any modern reality TV show that sprinkles in post-event interviews has to deal with the problem. If you read reviews of the print edition, the spoiler issue is worse; the photos in the center of the book depict the ultimate winners. That amateurish mistake aside, I still recommend the book. The world's leading chefs are all borderline psychotic and reading about their obsessive natures put in the mood to cook sous vide and scrub my kitchen to a sparkle.

  • Back to Veritas, they are known for their world class wine list (PDF). Martin stopped by and treated us a bottle of the 1995 Eisele Araujo Cabernet. That's not a bottle of wine one drinks every day, the price tag will incinerate your credit card, so many thanks, Martin. It was a true California cabernet fruit bomb. If you are an oenophile in search of a good meal in NYC, Veritas belongs on your shortlist.

  • I have a MOMA membership so I was able to bypass the massive line outside and walk right into the Tim Burton exhibit. But there was no avoiding the mob inside, and even had it been empty, it would have failed to hold my interest, consisting mostly of old sketches. You have to be a fanatic of someone's work to want to see their early sketches. I appreciate reading about people's processes, but I mostly enjoy seeing their final products. It's like watching deleted scenes on a DVD, you rarely find one you want to undelete.

  • Obama should hire Bruce Schneier to be our nation's security czar. I love his term "security theater," and his summary of U.S. aviation security in light of the Nigerian terrorist plot on the flight to Detroit will sound maddeningly sensible to every air traveler standing in their socks in a U.S. airport this holiday season.


I wasn't looking at my watch last night and so my passage into the new year slipped right by. And we're off.



Thank-full

I had just landed in Chicago for Thanksgiving and was strolling through the O'Hare concourse towards baggage claim when my phone rang. It was my sister Karen's fiance Kevin.


"You know how Karen was going to pick you up from the airport?" he asked. "She can't. She's been in a car accident."


He sounded calm which reassured me, especially since he'd already spoken to her. But then he told me their Prius was in bad shape. My gait quickened even though I had nowhere to go. She might be fine physically, but mentally an accident of that severity had to be a shock.


I called my other sister Joannie to fill her in on the situation, and after an hour or so of phone tag, one car was dispatched to get Karen from the place where they'd towed her car, another to get me from the airport.


When we finally all gathered back at Joannie's, the story had been reported and rereported multiple times, the truth coming together like pieces of a puzzle. Two guys in a sedan had the right rear corner of her Prius, sending her into a spin that ended at the center median of the highway. The sedan, meanwhile, somehow ended up flipped on its side on the other side of highway, on the shoulder.


As Karen got out of the car to gather herself and as various people stopped to help, the two guys somehow made it out of their vehicle. One of the two stumbled a few steps and vomited all over himself. The two of them were drunk.


The police took the two men to the hospital to draw blood, but they'd already failed the onsite sobriety test. The legal system will, I assume, deal with them. But in the meantime, I felt firsthand the anger of those hurt by the stupidity of those who get behind the wheel of three to four thousand pound machines under the influence of alcohol. There is nothing courageous or admirable about someone who manages to drive from point A to point B drunk; it's merely dumb luck.


It's also luck that helped Karen get out of the accident unharmed, save for a stiff neck and bruised knee. My flight arrived late, and so traffic on the 90/94 was light, so no cars were close behind that might have run into her during or immediately after her spinout.


The story has a happier ending as most of our family spent the rest of the week together celebrating Thanksgiving. We didn't dwell on the subject of her accident, especially the hypotheticals. To do so would seem morbid, and I sensed a need for us all to move on lest we cede the happiness of the entire holiday weekend to those two drunken idiots.


This was my first time in charge of preparing a Thanksgiving meal. I did a lot of research on how to prepare a turkey having had many a dry and unappetizing bird in Novembers past. My first big decision was to go with a heritage turkey over the breed commonly found at the grocery store, the Broad-Breasted White. Though they cost more, up to $10 a pound, heritage turkeys are known for their higher proportion of dark meat and a more guilt-free narrative: they tend to be raised on organic feed, on small farms where they're allowed to roam freely. If it lived up to the taste, then paying around $160 for a turkey that would feed the entire group on this once-a-year holiday would be worth it.


The next question was how to prepare the turkey. I consulted most every foodie I knew about their past experiences, and the number one technique mentioned was brining. I thought I could stop there, but it turns out there are different brining techniques. The one I'd heard of most often involved soaking the turkey in salt water. But then, while I waited for my take-out lunch one day, I saw a front page story in a section of the LA Times on the bar counter about dry brining.


It sounded too good to be true; just salt the turkey a few days in advance. Not only was it less messy than a wet brine, it supposedly produced meat of a superior texture.


The best laid plans were nearly derailed by a FedEx delivery person who couldn't distinguish a one from a zero. I spent all of Tuesday checking FedEx online, and mid-afternoon, I got the note that the turkey had been delivered to the front porch. I wandered outside, around the side of the house, poked in some bushes, looked out on the back deck, behind the garage...no turkey. I called FedEx, they tried to call the driver, but he was gone for the day.


Just as I was ready to call FedEx back to tell them they'd ruined Christmas for a group of orphans, a guy in a grey station wagon pulled up out front and walked out with a box. I was standing out on the front porch with such a look of consternation on my face that he must have put it together all at once.


"Are you Eugene? I found this on my porch when I got home just now."


Whoever you are, guy in grey station wagon, I salute you.


After letting the turkey thaw for a couple hours in a cold water bath (it was still vacuum sealed), I brined it inside and out with a mixture of kosher salt and minced parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, a the Simon Garfunkel of seasonings. I put it in a baking bag and we put it in Joannie's basement fridge, breast-side up. The next day I massaged it and flipped it over, the salt having sucked some of the liquid out of the turkey as I had read it would.


Wednesday we spent the afternoon prepping a few dishes in advance, a batch of creamed corn pudding, garlic mashed potatoes, and the turkey stock. Spices at the grocery store are not sold loose but in plastic containers that always contain too much for any one dish, I used the excess thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley to make a compound butter and stashed it in the fridge to use as a rub on the turkey the next day. Compound butters are handy to have around in the kitchen and a great way to not waste all that spice.


Making stock, like ironing shirts, alternates between soothing ritual and exasperating burden from one minute to the next. I love the meditative pace of the process, the way the scent sneaks up on you as the liquid absorbs some of the character of all that's in it, the turkey giblet, heart, and neck bones, the mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, the sprigs of rosemary and thyme, the parsley and stray chicken parts. But with seven other dishes to worry about, I was tempted, at moments, to reach for canned stock, like a monk tempted by the sins of the material world.


Thankfully I had Karen as my faithful partner chef in crime, and we had enough time to get enough prepared that we could let the stock just simmer while we dined on some Chicago deep dish pizza.


On Thanksgiving Day, I thought about using a turkey bag for roasting, but some articles I'd read suggested that the steaming it would encourage would deprive us of trying a more traditional roasted texture and flavor. My decision was made when we couldn't find the turkey bag we'd set aside.


I contemplated two other methods of adding flavor, one being injection and the other being a rub. Since we didn't have a turkey syringe and I'd made the compound butter the night before, we went with the rub.


Heritage turkeys don't require as high a finishing temperature as regular turkeys as they're free of antibiotics. That brings with it another benefit: a shorter stay in the oven. I gave it about a half hour at 450 degrees to brown the skin, then lowered the temperature to 350 and covered the breast with aluminum foil. One of the chief problems with in preparing turkeys is the fact that the white breast meat tastes best at a lower temperature than the darker leg and thigh meat, thus the selective application of foil. Ultimately, I had to remove the legs and thighs and give them an extra ten to fifteen minutes alone after the rest of the turkey was finished, about two and a half hours later.


Fast forward to the taste test: dear readers, it was good. Damn good. The best turkey I've ever had. Was it the dry brining, or the rub, or the heritage of the turkey? I don't know, but the white meat was moist like a roast chicken, and the dark meat tasted almost like duck. But it was still undeniably a turkey.


A few years back I ordered a turducken for Thanksgiving, and while it was fine, there didn't seem to be any real synergy among the three meats. Stuffing one inside another inside another seemed to offer simply an advantage in carving efficiency, but the flavors simply added up to the sum of the parts, nothing more.


The heritage turkey, with its mix of different meat textures and flavors, seemed to fulfill the vision of what a turducken was trying to be. But whereas the turducken resorts to the culinary equivalent of plastic surgery, the heritage turkey is au naturel, a product of good genes and healthy living.


Thanksgiving day, one soon-to-be-convicted drunk driver was probably pondering a grim future at the hands of the law. Meanwhile, my little sister may have been without her new Prius, but that day she was celebrating Thanksgiving with loved ones over a great turkey she helped prepare. Sometimes the lessons of Thanksgiving come as simple as that.



Why we use cookbooks


The potential miracle of the cookbook was immediately apparent: you start with a feeling of greed, find a list of rules, assemble a bunch of ingredients, and then you have something to be greedy about. You begin with the ache and end with the object, where in most of the life of appetites—courtship, marriage—you start with the object and end with the ache.



That's Adam Gopnik in this a recent New Yorker on why we keep buying, reading, and using cookbooks. Great read.



French Laundry

On the last night of a week and a half vacation I took earlier this summer, a trip that covered Hong Kong, Tokyo, and San Francisco, I ate at The French Laundry. Diners there self-select into a specific crowd. Given the restaurant's reputation as one of the, if not the best, restaurant in the U.S., the difficulty of securing a reservation, the average cost of a meal there (four or five dollar bill icons next to certain restaurant names should be put in quotation marks, this being one of them), and its rather out-of-the-way location, a meal there feels like a pilgrimage.


Years ago I had made about a month's effort to secure a reservation, with no success, and then I forgot about it for a while. Back in that day, French Laundry was not listed on OpenTable.com. Two months before the day you wanted to eat there, you had to submit yourself to 15 minutes of frenzied speed dialing each morning at 10am PT and hope for the best, like trying to get through to Ticketmaster to purchase tickets to a Radiohead concert. Eventually you'd get through, just in time to hear that all tables had been booked. It is perhaps fortunate that two months would elapse before anyone fortunate enough to secure a reservation could actually dine there; in that time, the unpleasant and barbaric reservation scrum would have faded from one's memory rather than taint one's overall experience with the restaurant.


While I was planning my vacation, I saw San Francisco sitting at the end of my itinerary, and I may have been hungry at the time, but the thought of trying to tack on a trip to The French Laundry just popped into my head. I didn't think I'd have any luck securing a reservation given I'd only have one day to try to score a reservation, but lo and behold, I called the very next morning, and a table for 2 opened up for me, albeit at the late hour of 9pm PT. When, a few weeks later, I tried to switch my reservation to a party of 3 (it would be a meal to celebrate my friends Howie and Tram's upcoming wedding), they were able to accommodate me, even apologizing for having to move my reservation up to 7:45pm, a far more desirable time. Viva la recession!


Over the years, I've talked to many people who've eaten at The French Laundry, and I couldn't help factoring their reports into my expectations for the meal. Most had nothing but praise, but the few accounts of disappointment hung out in the back of my mind. I was three parts anticipation, one part anxiety.


Even on a weekday, with San Francisco traffic, it only took about 45 minutes to drive there, across the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the town of Yountville. The GPS told us when we were near, but not knowing what it looked like and given its somewhat understated signage, we drove right past the restaurant the first time.


The French Laundry

French Laundry


We arrived early, just before sunset, and the hostess welcomed us to take a tour of the garden across the street or to spend some time in the garden/patio outside the front door. We did both.


Walking through the garden across the street is a unique experience. I've been on many a kitchen tour, met many a chef, sat at many a table watching sous-chefs and line chefs mid-task, but this was the first time I'd seen the raw ingredients on the vine. While we were strolling and admiring the gorgeous produce, someone from the kitchen came out to pick some ingredients. I'm fairly certain he wasn't sent out just to impress us.


Leeks in the French Laundry garden

Leeks in garden


Howie loves snow pea vines

Howie likes snow peas


Greenhouse

Greenhouse


Back at the patio, we snapped a few photos on various benches, in front of different plants, standing in archways...no matter how our meal turned out, it would be well-documented. Our hostess came out to grab us and ended up offering to snap some photos of the three of us together.


Inside, we were led to our table on the second level. The interior layout recalls an expensive home converted into a restaurant dining space. To one side of us was a group of three older diners. They had the look of foodies about them. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, but it's a way one carries oneself, with the ease of a lifelong Red Sox fan strolling to his seat at Fenway, for example as opposed to the wide-eyed anxiety of a virgin on prom night fumbling with a bra strap, say.


To the other side of us was a table of about eight young male investment bankers in navy suits, a pack of wild dogs with a client's expense account to pillage, the hint of date rape hanging in the air over their table. They were, at that moment, still sober, but I tried my best to turn my chair away from them. More on them later.


We had the choice of two nine-course tasting menus, the chef's or the vegetarian. Both were $240 each, service fees included, with the option to have the foir gras en terrine for an extra $30 on the chef's tasting menu. No disrespect to the vegetarians of the world, but for that price, my meal was going to include some animal flesh. Tram and Howie concurred, and we split up our choices so that we'd have the chance to try both choices for those courses where two items were offered.


I had just begun collecting wine a short while before this meal, and even with my limited knowledge of some of the more famous wines in the U.S., it only took a minute or two for the French Laundry wine list (PDF) to stagger me. Just about every hot boutique winery and big name wine I'd heard of was represented. It's a world-class all-star wine list, the most storied wine list I've ever looked over. The lofty roster had prices to match. High end wines typically don't support more than a 100% markup given the high starting price, and that seemed to be the markup here, but 2X a high price is, well, a higher price. But if you're going to splurge on a meal at French Laundry, digging into their treasure chest of a cellar for a bottle you might not be able to find on the open market is one of the treats.


For those looking to sample a flight of wines, The French Laundry has a great selection of half bottles, of which I picked out two reds, both of which are no longer on the wine list, so quickly does their wine list rotate. The standout to me was a reasonably priced pinot noir from Skewis Winery, the 2006 Bush Vineyard, Russian River Valley. A few weeks after my meal, I ordered a lot of bottles of that gem from Skewis after finding out that it would be their last year of producing the Bush given the passing of the owner of that land. I usually don't enjoy California pinots as they aren't earthy enough for my taste, but this was a beautiful drinking wine, with a long and complex finish.


Here was our menu (many special characters were pillaged from France in its making). I won't linger on every dish, but will call out the standouts afterwards.



"Oyster and Pearls"



"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters

and White Sturgeon Caviar


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Salad of Hand-Rolled "Orecchiette"



Cauliflower Fleurettes, Sweet Peppers, Fava Beans,

Spanish Capers, Marjoram and "Piment d'Espelette"



Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine"



Gros Michel Banana "Génoise," Belgian Endive,

Hazelnuts and Madeira-Vanilla Reduction

($30 supplement)

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Wild Columbia River Sturgeon



Fennel Bulb, Niçoise Olives, Navel Orange, Pine Nuts,

Arugula and Orange-Saffron Gastrique








Tartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna


Tokyo Turnips, Broccolini, Ginkgo Nuts,

Perilla and Salted Plum Coulis







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Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"


Golden Corn, English Peas and Black Truffles from Provence






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Wolfe Ranch White Quail


Spring Onions, Pickled Blueberries,

Red Ribbon Sorrel and "Sauce Dijonnaise"






"Confit de Cœur de Veau"


Pumpernickel "Pain Perdu," Toybox Tomatoes Celery Branch,

Marinated Red Onion and Jidori Hen Egg Emulsion






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Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"


Cèpe Mushrooms, Green Asparagus, Yukon Gold Potato "Rissolée,"

Garlic Pudding and "Sauce Bordelaise"

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"Timanoix"



Ibérico Ham, Toasted Walnuts,

Collard Greens and Blis Maple Syrup



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Nectarine Sorbet



Ginger "Gelée," Puffed Quinoa

and Boysenberry Purée



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"Gâteau Saiant Nizier Au Manjari"



Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Chocolate Cocoa Nibs,

Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet








Lemon Verbena "Vacherin"



Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta, Garden Lemon Verbena Sherbet

and Chilled Silverado Trail Strawberry Consommé



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Mignardises



This is California cuisine, yes, but not the type content to surround two fresh beet halves with five niblets of corn, two asparagus spear heads, and three peas in a miniature tableau and call it a dish. I love fresh ingredients as much as the next gourmand, but in this day and age, when I can visit the same farmer market the local high end restaurant visits for super-fresh produce, the premium I'm willing to pay for such food has shrunk.


Anyone who has perused chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook knows that attempting to conquer any of the recipes therein is no task for the average home chef. It will end up more of a coffee table book for most of its owners: inspiring, yes, but a bit like a weekend warrior reading about Lance Armstrong's workout routines. Me, I'm happy to pay for this type of meal because I won't at any point in the meal wonder if I could prepare that dish myself, let alone at a reasonable cost in terms of time and equipment.


Take, for example, the first official course (the first amuse bouche was unlisted and was the same as the one I had at Per Se, Keller's New York sister to French Laundry: cornets of salmon tartare with red onion crème fraiche), one of Keller's signature dishes, "Pearl and Oysters." Served with a special mother-of-pearl spoon, it's a dish whose preparation is a delicate and complex chemistry experiment. If the end justifies the means, then it's worth it, because the dish is brilliant. I don't have the culinary vocabulary to describe it, but in its flavors and textures it's something wholly unique, a creation all Thomas Keller's.


[Note: It was really dark in the restaurant, I did not want to use flash and bother the other patrons, and so the photos are a bit grainy. I would have preferred to shoot with a bit smaller of an aperture to increase the depth of field, but these pics were the best I could manage.]


"Oysters and Pearls"


The butter-poached Maine lobster "mitts" tends more towards traditional Californian cuisine, but the butter poaching and black truffles added just enough dazzle without distracting from the simplicity of its mix of flavors.


Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts"

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Mitts


Perhaps the most memorable dish of the night was Confit de Cœur de Veau, literally the confit of a veal heart. Rather than serve the heart in one piece, Keller wisely chose to shave it thinly, and it came out arranged like a bouquet of pastrami for the gods. Rich, dense, and unforgettable. I'm not even sure where you could buy a veal heart to work with, so I took my time eating this one.


"Confit de Cœur de Veau"


One last dish to highlight, and that is the Snake River Farms Calotte de Bœuf Grillée. It is one of the best pieces of beef I've ever had in my life. If I were to become a vegetarian for the rest of my life, I'd want to stash the flavor of this beef in my memory to serve as the canonical flavor of beef for the rest of my days.


Snake River Farms also supplies Wolfgang Puck's fantastic LA steakhouse Cut with its American Wagyu, and if you fancy yourself an expert in the preparation of beef you can purchase direct from them. Best of luck if you go that route: 4 10 oz ribeyes will run you $199.


Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"

Snake River Farms


The only thing marring our meal was the company to my left. By this point in our meal, the investment bankers had a few bottles of wine in them. The volume of their voices had turned up, and snippets of conversation from their table drifted over.



"You could tell, just looking at her, she was a little sexpot."


"Oh yeah. If she was a year or two older, what was she, seventeen? My god."


"Hell, even if she wasn't."


[bawdy laughter]



To my relief, the American Psycho crew left by the time our desserts came.


The name of the restaurant comes from the fact that the building was once actually a French laundry. In keeping with that theme, the napkins are held in clothespins when you arrive, the bill comes on a laundry ticket, and the lampshades have ironing icons on them.


French Laundry lampshades

French Laundry lampshades


By the time we finished dessert and nibbled on the mignardises (the little candies and cookies that follow dessert at finer dining establishments, like a post-dessert dessert), I was suitably full. Not sickeningly gorged, but content.


If you drink wine, figure on $300 a person for dinner. After we settled our checks, I mentioned to the waiter that I'd seen the French Laundry kitchen once before, on a plasma TV in the kitchen of Per Se. The two sister restaurants stay connected via webcam. Without my asking, the waiter said once he'd run our credit cards he'd give us a kitchen tour.


The kitchen is not massive, it's smaller than the one at Per Se. By the time we walked in, the kitchen was almost spotless already.


The kitchen

French Laundry kitchen


Two things hanging in the kitchen impressed me. One was a sign over one doorway with the definition of the word "finesse." The other was a clock over a doorway, under which was a sign that read "Sense of Urgency." After having completed our meal, these didn't seem like empty decorations but a fitting summary of two of the qualities that make The French Laundry a world class restaurant.


Finesse

Finesse


Sense of Urgency

Sense of Urgency


And so ended our journey to one of the world's culinary meccas. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and recommend the journey for those who can drop that much for a meal and not regret it. You know who you are.



El Bulli, Dan Brown, et al

Man hits the culinary lottery and gets a reservation at El Bulli, then recounts his meal in comic book form. 30 courses! I felt engorged and exhausted just reading about all the dishes.


***


Bill Maher rants at Huffington Post about the idiocy of Americans in an article titled "New Rule: Smart President ≠ Smart Country." Bryan Caplan would be proud.


At times like this, trying to pass some form of healthcare reform, even a watered-down version because of the difficulty of getting any big change through the conservative institutional roadblock that we call the Senate, one wonders how the government has ever achieved anything on behalf of anyone other than a special interest.


Obama took his argument directly to the people in an Op-Ed in the NYTimes. I'm curious who was the last President of the U.S. to write an Op-Ed in a major American newspaper. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it wasn't the previous occupant of the office.


An interesting sidenote to the whole debate on healthcare reform is the uproar over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing against the health care bill on the table. The Opinionator over the the NYTimes tracks the timeline of the whole brouhaha. If you disagree with Mackey, I don't think boycotting Whole Foods is the solution, but I do think CEO's of companies need to be careful of what they say because it's too convenient to read their comments as representative of the views of Whole Foods as a company, and it's dangerous to ascribe too many coherent policy decisions to a capitalist institution, even one like Whole Foods which many people associate with a progressive lifestyle.


***


Andrew Collins examines the global phenomenon that is Dan Brown, universally reviled by literary critics and other writers but whose next novel The Lost Symbol will command the largest first print run in Random House history at 6.5 million.


I'm not sure it's such a paradox that someone can be a bad writer yet spin a real page-turner. What grabbed me about The Da Vinci Code was the fabricated secret that tied together so many known quantities in history in a clever way, from The Last Supper to Mary Magdalene and everything in between.


The plots of his stories themselves never strike me as plausible or gripping, his characters are two-dimensional (and that may be generous, though perhaps I'm being sexist in finding gorgeous and leggy nuclear physicist Vittoria Vetra of Angels and Demons a bit implausible), nor is his command of the English language that noteworthy. After all, one chapter of The Da Vinci Code concludes with this sentence, one that would have failed me out of my first year fiction writing class in college:



Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.



***


A physicist writes that The Time Traveler's Wife may be the most scientifically accurate movie treatment of time travel ever. No comment on whether the cheesy slow dissolve of Eric Bana each time he travels through time is also consistent with the laws of physics, or whether his expressionless acting is a consequence of too many leaps through time and space.


The article's a good read, though, as I didn't realize that physicists had come to such consensus around these constraints of time travel. I still say The Terminator remains the most brilliant time travel movie because of its stunning revelation that by going back in time to change the future you just create it, illustrated in the movie by the Moebius strip of a plot in which John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mom, only to have Kyle Reese become his father.


In that twist, the movie adheres to one of the principles stated in this article, the so-called "self-consistency problem," that is, "You can't kill your own grandfather."


***


Justice Antonin Scalia and Thomas, the Twiddle Dee and Dum of the Supreme Court, argued in the minority against allowing a prisoner to challenge his murder conviction after many witnesses recanted their testimony and implicated another person as the actual murderer. Scalia, in his dissent (PDF), claims the following:



This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually