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March, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - March, 2008

Roughing it

Mr. Henry has been roughing it in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, living on Grape Nuts, Eight O’Clock Coffee, bacon, tuna fish, red chard, chips, salsa, and Yeungling Black & Tan.

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To capture the internet he cruised Third Avenue while his laptop Airport searched for a signal. Parked in the breezeway of the Jacksonville Beach Quality Suites, he logged onto the hotel wi-fi and downloaded the Manolosphere. Across the parking lot the Crab Shack loudspeaker bellowed “Baker, party of six! Baker, party of six!” Even from 100 yards the air was thick with frying oil. He wanted to shout, “Bakers, save yourselves! Don’t do it!” but Mr. Henry does not foist his opinions upon innocent beach people.

To his amusement and delight, during his absence spirited contributors duked things out for themselves without intrusive guidance or editorial assistance. It was a barroom brawl from the Old West, a fair fight in which things sorted themselves out to the satisfaction of the many.

Mr. Henry does not like to apologize. He embraces the old show business adage, “Never complain. Never explain.” Now and again, however, he will do so, if only for the pleasure of breaking his own rules.

The kerfuffle over Michael Pollan’s injunction against more than five ingredients was settled satisfactorily. Yes, Pollan does refer to packaged products, not to other recipes, as Mr. Henry should have noted.

The food fight over pizza was such good fun that Mr. Henry is almost sorry to say he is sorry. He should have specified “American pizza,” the take-out kind. A thin-crust pizza with light tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil like Serafina’s in New York or Mrs. Henry’s home-made is one of life’s irresistible temptations.

Likewise for take-out tacos. A fresh fish taco from Baja California is one of the world’s great treats. Here in Florida Mr. Henry has been imagining just such treats by dipping his corn chips into the tuna fish, watching the Atlantic while dreaming of the Pacific. (There must be a name for such ingratitude, no? Or does the beach air simply render you perpetually sulky and less than satisfied?)

Regarding Mr. Henry’s denunciation of Subway, he just does not trust “cold cuts.”(Chachaheels explained most eloquently precisely why you should avoid fast-food sandwich places.) When he eats a roast beef sandwich, he cuts the meat from beef he roasts himself. In a pinch he will eat the fresh baked country ham from Zabar’s, but if he wants to eat genuine salumeria, he doesn’t put it on a sandwich.marktwain.jpg

Inevitably cold cuts are preserved in some nitrate or glutamate that to Mr. Henry’s nose smells like embalming fluid. Eating cold cuts he gets the queasy sensation of having crashed high in the Andes trying to remain ALIVE!

In Roughing It, Mark Twain reports:

“At the Green River station we had breakfast – hot biscuits, fresh antelope steaks, and coffee – the only decent meal we tasted between the United States and Great Salt Lake City, and the only one we were ever really thankful for. Think of the monotonous execrableness of the thirty that went before it, to leave this one simple breakfast looming up in my memory like a shot-tower after all these years gone by!”

Tomorrow Mr. Henry faces the monotonous execrableness of Walt Disney World, and he must face it like a man, not a mouse.

Foodlike substances

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When asked what was her favorite food, Diana Vreeland famously responded “Salad, though I’m not sure it is food.”

Mr. Henry’s friend Bernard, superb home chef and coiner of original observations, declared decades ago that although he was giving the kids pizza one night, “Pizza is not food.”

Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto, declares: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

It’s a book replete with genius:

“Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce.”

“Don’t eat anything that contains more than five ingredients.”

“Eat mostly plants, especially green leaves.”

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And so on until you want to sign the manifesto and wear the button on your lapel, if not for its practical good sense than certainly for its wit.

Of this three-part directive, the trickiest one to follow is “Eat food.” Modern industrialized food markets are cluttered with “foodlike substances” – comestibles that at first bite seem tasty and toothsome but quickly sicken or addict the organism.

As a quick reference for friends and relations, Mr. Henry provides the following inventory of everyday horrors:

pollan_poster_image.pngFoodlike substances
candy
doughnuts
packaged cupcakes
packaged snacks
chips of all varieties
pretzels
American cheese
processed cheese
“spreads”
cheese sticks, twists, etc.
bologna
hot dogs
Spam
McAnything
Pizza Hut, et.al.
KFC
tacos
Subway sandwiches
Cosi focaccia
bottled salad dressings
processed peanut butter
jelly
“snack food”
breakfast bars
pop tarts
sweetened breakfast cereals

Drinklike substances
soda
vitamin water
protein drinks
fruit drinks
Budweiser

The Problem of 35

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At age 35 the male metabolism changes. Between 35 and 40 Mr. Henry gained two pounds per year. At his annual check-up he asked his physician what to do. Dr. K’s immortal reply was “Quit eating!”

Clearly this is sound medical advice, but as in financial, political, and sexual matters, sound advice is difficult to follow.

Today Mr. Henry faces another problem of 35. Blue jeans are manufactured in graduated sizes of 30, 31, 32, 33, and 34-inch waist. After 34 comes 36.

The problem of 35 is that it isn’t there.

Faced with a sinister plot, Mr. Henry’s mind, unlike the darker minds of political reporters, federal prosecutors, and religious fanatics, does not immediately leap to conspiracy for a solution.

Regarding the problem of 35, however, hearsay evidence points to a world-wide conspiracy of skinny fashionistas – black-clad eaters of take-out salads with creamy dressing, spicy tuna rolls, Thai peanut noodles, and cheese-flavored corn chips, all of which are secretly laced with MSG.

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Their collective goal is to prevent gracefully aging men from wearing the one worldwide signature garment of youth – blue jeans that fit.

When walking to the dog run Mr. Henry dons a ancient pair of 34’s unwashed since late 2007. Rips at knees and cuffs are not a deliberate style statement. The fabric is spontaneously shredding and simply will not withstand the rigors of a washing machine.

His replacement 34’s will not yet yield to the fundamental argument, and Mr. Henry refuses on principle to buy a pair of 36’s.

Thus diet dominates life. Like a train wreck, the expanded waistline collides with the blue jeans which in turn degrade personal hygiene and shatter self-respect. Not just the jeans lie in tatters.

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The solution? Mr. Henry’s Dietary Dicta prescribe no carbohydrates at dinner. It seems he must cease playing by winter rules and face 35 days of fasting in the desert, or at least 35 days of fasting without dessert.

Deconstruction

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Last Saturday at Princeton University’s Prospect House, Mr. Henry was fêted to a dinner in honor of the Art Museum’s 125th anniversary exhibition. The entrée was a “deconstructed beef Wellington” – a slice of filet astride a square of puff pastry accompanied by a bordelaise sauce and several toothsome slices of black truffle. The Duke of Wellington was “but a man.” This was more than a beef Wellington, and less.wellington.jpg

It went down easily, not least because right when the Wellington arrived the table chat finally abandoned academic niceties (“Oh, you did your doctorate at Harvard with Cornelius?”) and got down to a heated Hillary vs. Barack slugfest.

To Mr. Henry’s surprise, the graduate students took a dim view of Obama’s popularity among the “young,” a distinction that relegates Mr. Henry to Cro-Magnon status. They insisted on deconstructing Obama’s rhetoric of inclusion until it lay open on the table like flayed game.

Whatever happened to stew, to soup, to edible assemblages honored by tradition and favored by time? Where are the constructions of yesteryear? Why do we feel compelled to deconstruct them today? Can’t we yield to the sure pleasure of a simple enough preparation like beef Wellington, the filet’s aromas and juices neatly captured by its pastry shell?

Or is the real reason for this presumptuousness the practical fact that beef Wellington is difficult to prepare for a room of 120 without drying out the filet?

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Is this “concept entrée” all a caterer’s ruse to make things less likely to screw up in the kitchen?duchampnude-descendng-a-staircase.jpg

Do you take more pleasure seeing things in parts? Do you see foods on the plate as images in motion like Nude Descending a Staircase?

Although foods may be cultural constructs, bearers of identity, markers of clan, and applied art, they are also appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Are foods more fetching, more alluring, more seductive, or more artistic when chopped up into elemental components?

Mr. Henry might appreciate a woman’s garments piece by piece, and he would certainly enjoy deconstructing the ensemble, but he appreciates the whole outfit as the higher achievement, the synthesis of beauty concealed and revealed.

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A woman robed is more seductive than a woman disrobed because it is the rare woman who feels totally at ease in her skin. Her confidence slumps, and so does her posture. Her defenses take over. She needs that little bit of armor to take her into battle.joan_of_arc_miniature_c1450_1500.jpg

And so it is with the deconstructed beef Wellington. The chemistry just isn’t there. The poetry gets lost in the translation.

Where food is concerned, Mr. Henry maintains that deconstruction is something best done with the teeth.