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Cast your vote: Tony Bourdain or Paula Deen. August 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. There’s a food fight going on between celebrity chefs/TV icons Anthony Bourdain (author of cookbooks, travel/food books, and tell-alls, including the bestseller Kitchen Confidential, former chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City, host of the Travel Channel’s hit show “No Reservations”) and Paula Deen (chef/owner of the Lady & Sons in Savannah, GA, author of bestselling cookbooks and a tear-jerking bio, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’, and supposedly the most beloved chef on television, combining the appeal of Oprah and the latter-day Liz Taylor).

Bourdain is perhaps best known for not sparing the expletives in his tell-it-like- I-see-it commentary. But Paula is no genteel Southern flower, either. So when Tony called her “the most dangerous person in America” (“Plus, her food sucks”) and accused her deep-fried, high-fat cuisine of contributing to America’s obesity epidemic, she fired right back, telling him to “get a life” and asking if someone had peed in his breakfast cereal.

I have to give Paula props on this one, much as I love Tony. Now that he’s given up cigarettes, cocaine, heroin and etc., I’m not sure how he manages to remain so thin (ADHD, bipolar disorder, a rigorous exercise routine?!), but his on-screen diet of endless fatty pig parts and alcohol would hardly contribute to anybody’s health. Most people who took his food regime as an example would weigh 5,000 pounds and be courting diabetes, heart disease, and God only knows what else. He’s certainly not the one to point a finger at the queen of deep-fat frying.

But I digress. Returning this post to its true point, my question for all of you is this: If you could have Paula Deen or Tony Bourdain prepare a meal for you, then sit down and enjoy it with you and talk to you about whatever you wanted to discuss, who would you want to eat with? I know my choice. I want to know your choice. Please let me know! 

          ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

Goodbye, Gourmet; bon voyage, Bon Appetit. December 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. In a time when chefs are stars, when millions of people tune in to cooking shows for entertainment, not instruction, when cooking magazines outnumber sports magazines on store racks, it’s hard to believe that America’s two flagship cooking magazines are struggling—and, apparently, failing—to survive.

Gourmet, the first American food and wine magazine, sent out its last issue in October 2009 after 68 years of publication (founded 1941). And now Bon Appetit, founded in 1956, is suffering a sea change. Owner Conde Nast is moving the publication from L.A. to New York and replacing the entire staff, as I discovered when reading the Letter from the Editor in the January 2011 issue this morning.

Why would two such venerable publications, which have survived far longer than most of their readers and contributors have been alive, which (in the case of Gourmet) even survived war rationing, be failing when interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high?

Call me cynical if you must, but I’m guessing it’s because these magazines weren’t celebrity-based. Not that editors Ruth Reichl (Gourmet) and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appetit) didn’t have their own followings; I’m sure they did and do. But their names aren’t valuable commercial commodities like, say, Paula Deen’s or Rachael Ray’s or Martha Stewart’s. Their faces weren’t plastered on the front of every issue. The magazines were about food, not about personalities. Both magazines began life in their own right, not as spinoffs of TV shows.

Not that I’m criticizing Paula, Rachael or Martha for their success. They all worked harder than practically anyone but Oprah to get and stay where they are. I wouldn’t give my life and privacy away like that for love or money, and since they did, surely they deserve their good fortune. I’m just surprised that celebrity chefs like Emeril have managed to resist the siren call of a magazine named for them.

But no answer is quite that simple. Plenty of other food and cooking magazines are still in publication, and they aren’t helmed by TV stars. What they do have that neither Gourmet nor Bon Appetit did, however, is either a tight, special-interest focus—vegetarian or vegan cooking or artisanal cheeses or Italian cuisine or what have you—or a practical focus on getting fast, cheap, homestyle food on the table (Taste of Home, slow-cooker meals, 30-minute meals, etc.).

Could Gourmet have survived? Can Bon Appetit weather this latest storm? I doubt it, because both are (or were) supported not by subscriptions but by advertising, so they were (and are) at the mercy of a very fickle revenue source. (In case you’re wondering, yes, indeed they did charge for subscriptions and have large circulation figures. But the revenues from circulation would have been a pittance, almost a bonus, compared to the money supplied by advertisers.) 

Can a cooking magazine rely on subscription revenues rather than advertising? You betcha. But it requires a great deal of finesse, intelligence, and hard work. Examples are the magazines founded by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and (my favorite cooking mag) Cook’s Country. You’ll find nary an ad in either one. But Chris Kimball & co. work very hard to maintain the loyalty of their subscribers, not just in the quality of the magazines but by spinning off annuals, cookbooks, and etc. from both the magazines and their PBS cooking shows. (And, of course, those shows generate a ready-made audience for the magazines and cookbooks.) And, to restate the obvious, subscription-based magazines must have a loyal and passionate subscriber base, which in turn requires a very savvy focus and superb content.

What would my culinary hero, Julia Child, have made of the demise of Gourmet and the shakeup at Bon Appetit, a magazine presumably named in honor of her signature sign-off line from her PBS show, “The French Chef”? I have no idea; maybe somebody out there can tell me. But I’ll bet if Julia were on the air today, she’d have her own magazine, too. And I’d be first in line to subscribe!

             ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Food: The show must go on. August 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I stumbled on a guest post Anthony Bourdain had written for Michael Ruhlman’s blog, in which he analyzed the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of the hosts appearing on Food Network shows at the time he wrote the post in 2007. Of course it was entertaining, and Bourdain’s comments on Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and Paula Deen have to be seen to be appreciated. (“Guest Blogging: A Bourdain Throwdown,” http://blog.ruhlman.com/

The thrust of the post is Bourdain’s lament over “the not-so-subtle shunting aside of the Old School chefs” in favor of the “bobblehead personalities” dominating the network. By “Old School chefs,” I gather that he means chefs who’ve had formal training at a rigorous and recognized cooking school, as both Bourdain and Ruhlman did at the Culinary Institute of America, and then went on to work as professional chefs in high-end, nationally recognized restaurants such as Brasserie Les Halles.

Bourdain contrasts these legitimate chefs with the “culinary nonentities,” aka the superstars of the Food Network, epitomized by Rachael Ray and company, whose faces stare at us everywhere we go, peering from magazine covers and cereal boxes like post-office posters for “America’s Most Wanted.”

But, I find myself thinking, what’s his issue? Real chefs have food to prepare and restaurants to attend to. It’s a miracle that they can find time to write the occasional book and make the occasional guest appearance on a TV show, much less host their own show. And clearly, for the Food Network, “show” is not enough. Their stars appear to be enslaved to them 24/7, pumping out multiple shows, magazines, books, product lines and endorsements, public appearances, and the like as the network transforms them from cooks to celebrities, from human beings to brands.

I mean, think about it: It took Julia Child what, ten years?, to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, as a full-time occupation and with substantial help from her coauthor, Simone Beck. When Julia launched her TV career, it was one show at a time, still her sole occupation, with subsequent books typically emerging from the shows. She wasn’t juggling a career as a professional chef with her television and writing schedule. And I suspect that she still found it to be a lot of challenging work.

I can’t imagine the stress and exhaustion level of a Rachael Ray or Sandra Lee, much less poor Paula Deen, still a restaurateur on top of her Food Network stardom. I can’t imagine that this is how they really wanted to live their lives, if you could call it living. To me, it’s like they’ve inadvertently gotten on a treadmill that never stops, and there’s no way to get off without pitching yourself over the side and into food TV oblivion. Me, I’d pitch. I guess that’s why you don’t see me every night on “Silence Dogood’s Kitchen.”

Tony Bourdain is apparently puzzled by another aspect of the Food Network star system: The fact that their food is so horrible, glorified Cheez-Wiz, canned frosting, deep-fried, grease-laden everything. And the worse, the better, as long as you can make it in a minute from pre-packaged ingredients for cheap. Especially if you can pass it off as homemade or gourmet.

But this is not a new phenomenon in American cooking; it’s been here all along. Most Nineteenth-Century American cookbooks were aimed at helping the busy housewife get the most for her time and money. Poppy Cannon, that icon of sophisticated cooking in the 1950s—who, btw, could not cook at all, it was entirely smoke and mirrors—was most famous for her bestselling opus The Can Opener Cookbook (1951). (If Tony thinks Sandra Lee’s Cheez-Wiz appetizers are horrendous—and they are—he should sample some of the supposedly sophisticated cocktail-hour canapes dreamed up out of tins and jars by Ms. Cannon.)

And then there’s Peg Bracken’s classic and bestselling The I Hate to Cook Book (1960), and the bazillion microwave this!, process that! books that have followed in the wake of each new convenience appliance like the aftershock of an earthquake.

My feeling is this: If somebody wants to learn how to prepare food like a chef, sooner or later, he or she will enroll in a professional cooking school. Nobody expects to learn how to cook like a chef by watching TV, because even the most clueless of humans knows that cooking like a chef is hard. It’s work. It’s not just technique, it’s timing, and it requires tremendous discipline and a prodigious memory. It takes years of rigorous discipline and apprenticeship, and even then, not everybody’s gonna make it. Most people just don’t have what it takes.

On the other hand, we’re trained to view anything that appears on TV—even the most gruesome news reporting—as entertainment, and that’s the way pretty much all TV is presented. It’s why the Rachael Rays and Paula Deens of the world become stars: They’re willing to work hard to make what they do look easy and fun, and work hard to create likeable, memorable personas for themselves.

Pre-Food Network, Martha Stewart set the bar high for the TV cooks who followed, transforming herself from a caterer into an industry. Rachael Ray, and legitimate chefs who’ve made themselves brands and household names like Emeril and Bobby Flay, are following in her wake.

But there’s more to the “gross TV food” phenomenon than entertainment and convenience: Americans genuinely love food that’s dripping with sugar and fat. Just this morning, I read about the popular new fair food, a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger (yes, a grilled Krispy Kreme doughnut with the burger and toppings sandwiched inside), even more of a hit when served with a side of chocolate-coated bacon.

I would have assumed this was a parody, but found too many online references to it, including respectable sources like The Christian Science Monitor, to be able to doubt it, much as I’d have liked to. Here in our friend Ben’s and my adopted home state of scenic PA, deep-fried mac’n’cheese cubes have apparently taken the diner world by storm. And then there’s the notorious Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich that uses two deep-fried chicken breasts instead of a bun. If none of this is gross enough for you, I suggest that you look at a bucket of cheese-laden French fries sometime and try to guess how much grease and how many calories you’d be consuming if you ate the whole thing.

A preference for salt, sugar, and fat is in our genes: It kept our ancestors alive back in the hunter-gatherer day when amassing and retaining calories was the goal of all food consumption. And unfortunately, massive lifestyle changes over a few thousand years haven’t been enough to change our basic instincts. It’s why we’re still fond of alternating chips, popcorn or fries with, say, M&Ms, brownies or ice cream, instead of eating one or the other. It’s one reason we’re all in trouble in the couch-potato era.

And it’s why Paula Deen’s show and recipes draw such large audiences day after day and week after week, even though you know you’d drop dead if that was the way you actually ate: According to your body’s genetic wisdom, comfort food is good food. The sweeter, saltier, and greasier, the better.

Healthy food, macrobiotics, Nouvelle Cuisine, those horrid little pileups of God-knows-what stacked in tiny portions in the middle of a plate drizzled with God-knows-what, devoid of fat, salt, sugar, or anything good: This is bad food, your body tells you. How can you possibly survive on that? It knows you need the “good” stuff to survive, no matter how often your doctor and your waistline are telling you differently. Let the trendsetters eat sushi: You’re going for the barbecue, the chimichangas, the chicken-fried steak, the stuffed pizza with extra cheese, and you’d like a big basket of onion rings and/or fries with that.

Me, I’m not about to judge. I pity Rachael and Paula. I love fat, salt, and sugar, even if I deny myself the pleasure of eating them (well, except for salt) most of the time. I hate pretension and pathetic, anorexic food trends, and I hate being a sheep that follows any trend rather than knowing yourself and what makes you happy. Yes, I do enjoy Tony Bourdain’s shows, even though I couldn’t bear to eat what he eats. But hey, it’s entertainment, and Tony’s a great showman. Just like Emeril and Paula Deen.

                   ‘Til next time,

                                 Silence

The downside of Southernness. July 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben considers myself a Southerner at heart, despite living my entire adult life in the scenic middle of nowhere, PA. My father is a native Nashvillian, and has that classic Southern accent, as in “The bay-ah is ovah thay-ah.” (That’s “The bear is over there” for non-Southerners.) My mother was a native of Kentucky, and despite living her adult life in Tennessee, maintained a distinctive Kentucky twang when she spoke. To this day, our friend Ben’s brother speaks in a somewhat more magisterial Southern accent along the lines of our father’s (I’m sure his super-exclusive Southern prep school had something to do with this), and my sister bears the heavy Alabama accent she’s acquired after a lifetime in Montgomery.

But our friend Ben never, ever had a Southern accent. This continues to confuse me to this day. After a lifetime of being mocked by my fellow Southerners for “talking like a Yankee,” and by my fellow Pennsylvanians for “managing to lose the Southern accent,” our friend Ben is no closer to figuring out why I grew up with what’s apparently perceived as an upscale but neutral accent. (When I first moved to PA, people continually accused me of being from England. Speechless at first, it finally dawned on me to say blandly, “No, I’m from the South,” which apparently was considered as exotic as England and brought the whole matter to an end. Until the time that a store clerk piped up with, “The South of England?!” Sheesh.) Our friend Ben has wondered if, as a child growing up with television, I simply adopted a neutral television-announcer accent, but since that was hardly an advantage among my fellow Southerners, it seems unlikely. I still don’t know where my accent came from. And I still wonder.

But to repeat, wherever I am, however I speak, I still consider myself a child of the South. If I didn’t think it would get my windshield bashed in, I’d get one of those bumper stickers that says, “American by birth. Southern by the grace of God.” And yes, I do have a tie-dyed Lynyrd Skynyrd tee-shirt.

However, I’m drifting from the point here, so let’s try to get back to it. Silence Dogood, who as you all know loves cooking more than life, discovered a few choice books for $1 at a library benefit sale last week, including a history of cooking in the Fifties and autobiographies of food gurus Ruth Reichl and Paula Deen. Silence decided to dig into her massive stack of books with Paula Deen’s autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’. She was reading along, updating our friend Ben about the melodrama that was Paula’s life, when she suddenly turned up at my computer with the book and a very serious expression. I asked what was going on now.

Now, Silence and our friend Ben both salute Paula Deen for being just who she is: an overweight, sixty-something, white-haired Southern cook who tells it like she sees it. Bravo, Paula!!! But Silence was deeply disturbed by a sentence in Paula’s autobiography. She declaimed the whole paragraph aloud, beginning with “I never want to get so uppity that I forget who I am and where I came from.” Vintage Paula, right on, hooray. But then, three sentences later: “Food that is rooted in Southern history, food that Stonewall Jackson’s momma might have given him.” Ending the paragraph with “That’s what I want to serve my family and friends.”

Many Civil War historians believe that Stonewall Jackson was the South’s most brilliant general, and that his ludicrous death—shot down by his own troops returning to his camp from a reconnaissance mission—proved the death knell for the South. Our dear friend Rob, a Civil War buff from the North with ancestors in Puritan New England and no inherent Southern sympathy, is convinced that Stonewall Jackson would have won the war for the South had he lived. And that, later, slavery in the Confederate States would have died a natural death much as the British Empire was forced to relinquish its hold over its territories, including India. But of course, then the States would not have remained united, and no great nation would have risen from this soil to play its part on the world stage. General Lee was a great man, but simply not the great general that the eccentric, less charismatic Stonewall Jackson was. General Jackson’s death doomed the Confederacy.

By now, you may be saying okay fine, so what’s your point? Our friend Ben’s point—and Silence’s point in bringing that passage to my attention—is this: How can Southerners continue to be so oblivious, so hurtful?! Paula Deen begins her autobiography by talking about segregation, how she grew up with it but wasn’t aware of it. She apologizes for her oblivion before returning to her life story. All right, we forgive her… until that sentence about Stonewall Jackson.

Our friend Ben and Silence were lucky—segregation was history by the time we were growing up. Woodstock was a movie, psychedelic drugs were illegal, “free love” was a naive, archaic concept like the Beatles, Go-Go Boots and Twiggy. Vietnam? History. Race Riots? History. JFK’s assassination? History. We grew up assuming that integration was a fait accompli. And we probably would never have thought otherwise had our more aware friend, Susan, not pointed out that in her home state, Virginia, the Confederacy was still alive and well.

Say what?!! We’re not talking about the KKK or even rednecks here. Our friend Ben and Silence had visited Virginia many times, staying with our dear friends Cole and Bruce, enjoying the delights of Charlottesville and Front Royal and Monticello, Ash Lawn, and Montpelier. Until Susan’s wake-up call, we hadn’t noticed the Civil War holdovers. Our own native Nashville didn’t have even one. We’d assumed the Civil War was ancient history. But Susan drew our attention to the many Southern generals immortalized in county names, city names, street names, and so on in Virginia. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson figured prominently, as we saw for ourselves the next time we went down there. Yikes!!!

Of course, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves what black Virginians must think when confronted by the names of Southern generals on their schools, counties, and capitals. Not to mention the rest of the South, the Deep South, and our own proud heritage. Oh no, oh no!!! How humiliating. Like Paula Deen, we all have been oblivious. But our friend Susan awakened us.

The next time we headed South, we too saw the Confederate military heroes enshrined all around us. And sheesh, these guys must be people’s ancestors, too, a source of pride for them just as our own Simms and Semmes and Wall and Merritt and Montgomery and Mattingly ancestors are for us. We know Stonewall Jackson was married, but we don’t know if he had any progeny. Is any descendant still alive who’d be thrilled that Paula Deen chose Stonewall Jackson as her example to epitomize Southern cooking? Couldn’t she have chosen a more neutral example?

Our friend Ben and Silence adore old-time Southern cooking. But, no matter where we go in the South, we have a hell of a time finding it. Our best hope is to find a soul food restaurant. It seems to us that white folks just can’t bear to cook good old traditional Southern food, at least not in restaurants or for publication. I guess they think fried chicken, biscuits, corn cakes, cole slaw, real iced tea, grits, and the like is declasse. Silence has looked at endless Southern cookbooks, and found generic “upscale” cooking, except in parody cookbooks like the Sweet Potato Queens’ and Ruby Ann Boxcar’s books. When we go home, we’re desperate for real Southern food, and damned if we ever find it. Heartaches, and nothin’ but!

Our friend Ben and Silence love our Southern heritage. We love Southern cooking. But oh God, we hate the thought of hurting Southern blacks—who after all are as Southern as any of us—by grinding the Southern Confederate generals in their faces. Can’t we be a little more sensitive?! Our friend Ben can’t help but draw an obvious parallel: What if you were Jewish and your hometown had streets, schools, and other public buildings named for Hitler and his minions? Ugh.

Perhaps we Southerners and Southern cooks could make more of an effort to recognize the contribution that Cajun, Native American, African, and other cuisines brought to our unique culinary efforts. And perhaps we could also bring a bit more sensitivity to that acknowledgement.

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