3.30.2009

Freud + Proust

The weird thing about being at my parents' new apartment (besides the fact that it basically looks like a castle) is that it's in the same building that my piano teacher lived in from 1987-1991, so every time I get in the elevator and there's that particular elevator smell, I feel suddenly like I'm five years old and really, really unprepared for the next half-hour.

3.27.2009

Last Night

Last night I met three of my culinary heroes. One of them kissed me!(Okay, it was on the cheek.) One of them chatted with me like an old friend. One of them told me this fantastic story about her early life as a writer.

The question we should be asking ourselves is this: How much of last night's awesomeness was due to me being a competent journalist who knows where the stories are, and how much was due to the fact that I was wearing a dress that was, essentially, a picture frame for some gazunga cleavage?

3.17.2009

The Death of Print Media is Basically the Protestant Reformation

A few weeks ago, journalist Ken Davis convened the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, which was supposed to be a thoughtful gathering of journo-types, and instead became something of a point-avoiding Twittering clusterfuck about whether or not to save print media, and a tone-deaf discussion of milking money out of blogs. (I was invited, but didn't go.)

In the endless recapping and recapping of recapping that followed, something Mike Gebert said about something Whet Moser said stuck with me (forgive the Franken-quote):

The first [reason that "traditional journalism, in 2009 AD, is boring and kind of uninformative"] is because sometimes, [the bloggers and other writers working for free] are the very experts who, in past days, journalists would have called for a quote. In that case journalism is just another middleman displaced by the internet.
Whenever the notion of middlemen comes up, I look fondly to one of my pet factoids. It's the etymology of the word "vicar," the common term for the presiding clergyman in an Anglican church: the word originates in the Latin vicarius (which also give us "vicarious"), meaning "representative," or one who acts on the behalf of another. A go-between, a literal lieutenant, between God and the masses.

This always struck me as an attractively literal job description, and while it's generally applied only to Anglicanism, it's a term I much prefer to the Catholic "priest" ("elder"). As soon as you start thinking of a priest as a go-between, a lot opens up: his role is to access God's word and prepare it for his congregants, pulling out the important bits, synthesizing disparate elements, interpreting and contextualizing, and spoon-feeding if necessary.

With that in mind, what Mike and Whet discuss about journalists being rendered redundant (say that 3 times fast) by sources taking the press into their own hands makes the ecclesiastic analogy fall on your head like a ton of bricks: After a millennium and a half of relying on the vicarious function of the priesthood, who lived set-apart lives and spoke their own language, in 1517 the Protestant Reformation sprang up with a mighty force. It was, essentially, a revolt against the very notion of the church as a go-between, it was the common person demanding his own direct line to God.

(An interesting little sidenote here is that much of the unrest that preceded Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door and setting off the whole fireworks show was The Papal Schism, in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the true Pope, and in the wake of which the Church as an institution was seen as horrifically corrupt, user-unfriendly, and more concerned with its own hierarchy than with the transmission of the word of God to the people. Cough, cough. In the face of unreliable authority, is it any wonder that people wanted to take the pursuit of religious truth into their own hands?)

It's a sly little coincidence that much of the effectiveness of the Protestant Reformation can be traced to the advent of, wait for it, movable type. It's not just a blogging platform, folks: Gutenberg printed his famous bibles in 1455, and the resulting explosion in literacy (both biblical and common) was instrumental in undermining the necessity of the priesthood — when every man owns his own bible, printed not in Latin but in his own tongue, he can do his own textual analysis, he can draw his own synthesis. Why rely on a rarefied cadre of specially trained go-betweens to tell us exactly what the takeaway is — why not have access to the entire story yourself, and come up with your own opinions?

So we all know how the Protestant Reformation turned out. The Catholic Church's monopoly on Western European religion was completely undone, and after the Thirty Years' War the Treaty of Westphalia laid down the groundwork for what would eventually become the modern notion of Freedom of Religion. The Pope was not happy about this, and called the treaty "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all times," which sounds a lot like what some old dead-tree journalists say about the internet. (But then there's the next line in the Wikipedia entry: "European sovereigns, Catholic and Protestant alike, ignored his verdict." Heh.)

If it's not abundantly clear here, dead-tree journalism is the Catholic Church, readership is The People (later The Protestants), and bloggers are, well, God. (Okay, okay, to be more specific, "bloggers who are the people who dead-tree journalists would use as sources, i.e. celebrities, experts, politicians, and others" are God.) I can keep drawing analogies, here: The move to tabloid formats and popcult subject matter? Vatican II, a concentrated effort to re-attract former Catholics via such lures as dropping the inaccessible Latin liturgy, i.e. taking a page from Protestantism. Newspapers poaching stories from internet sources without acknowledgment or attribution? Priests molesting little boys. Etc, etc.

Thing is, despite it all, the Catholic Church still exists. If newspapers want that kind of longevity, they can't make the mistakes that the Church did when presented with the downfall of their monopoly. Newspapers won't ever again be the only game in town, and their current tactic of ignoring that fact and pretending that no, actually, yes they are, isn't sustainable. They'll have to change their tune. Their survival as an institution isn't about the feel of paper in your hands, or the fact that your daddy and your daddy's daddy were newspapermen and they ran the presses with their sweat and blood. It's now about playing fair with the blogs, the web journals, and the publicly-accessible primary sources. It's a numbers game — believers or readers, same difference.

3.14.2009

Fashion Crowdsourcing: Hats

Let's say you will be visiting a desert nation sometime in late May, and also let us assume that you are the sort of person who really likes to plan ahead. What sort of hat do you wear?

3.12.2009

The Measure of Success

You know, it's one thing when you throw down a culinary gauntlet.

It's another thing when a real chef actually takes on the challenge.

It's yet another thing entirely when a critic calls the dish that you inspired "a revelation in terms of taste, delicacy, and balance."

Screw my bat mitzvah. This might be the most awesome day of my life.

3.10.2009

Confession

I hate arugula.

3.04.2009

Dinner at Le Bernardin: In Which I am Discriminated Against

(Sorry, this is long.)

I've been sitting on this for a while, not quite sure how to write about it without sounding one part dickish, one part whiny, and one part wrong. But the SF Chronicle's Michael Bauer blogs about it today, so now I feel socially sanctioned.

I read Eric Ripert's cookbook/restaurant-day-in-the-life On the Line a few months ago, and it completely blew my mind. I was obsessed with this book. It's engaging, it's interesting, it's educational, it's joyful — the recipes are beautiful, the photography is beautiful, it paints this very honest picture of real people working at a restaurant. It might be one of my favorite food books of all time, and considering my fleeting attention span, my hyperjudgmental attitude, and my massive collection of culinary literaria, that's definitely saying something. I did not shut up about this book for, like, many weeks, so for Valentine's Day, the inimitable Mr. B decided to take me to Ripert's restaurant, Le Bernardin, for dinner.

It wasn't, of course, actual Valentine's Day. It was the Friday after, safe from the horrible V-Day crowds. I raced home after work and changed from my usual cubicle attire of jeans and ratty t-shirt into a total slickness cocktail dress, high heels, teeny tiny clutch purse. Fancy, dig? So I walk in, Mr. B's not there yet, and present myself to the Maitre d'. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." He looks me up and down, sneers, dismisses. "Yes. Well. You may check your coat." A flick of the hand in the general direction of the coat check and he turns back to his reservation book.

On my coat-checkward pivot, an older gentleman comes in, and presents an identical introduction. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." It's like a parallel universe: "Of course, sir. May I take your coat? Please make yourself comfortable in the lounge. May I have the bartender make you a drink?

(It was at this point in the night-of telling of the story that my roommate interjected "Seriously? At that point I would have just walked out.")

It didn't get better. When Mr. B arrived, we were led to a crappy table next to the kitchen door. Okay, overlookable, all restaurants have crappy tables and someone needs to sit in them. But then the captain comes over and hands us our menus, opened to the dinner menu, which he explains. Then he walks away.

So we call after him — actually, we explain, we were planning on ordering the tasting menu. Is that available? So yes, actually, it turns out it is, and he flips the page and shows it to us. "The tasting menus are $135 and $185 dollars," he takes care to note. Thanks, dude, the price is printed on the page. He starts to walk away again. One more call after his turned back — the sommelier? Could you send him over?

The sommelier, who turns out to be a her, is the only bright spot in our meal. She's delightful, friendly, solicitous, and leads us to two brilliant half-bottles that go perfectly with our eight courses apiece. Each time she returns to check up on us she's smiling, asks us if we're enjoying how the pairings meld with the tuna & foie gras, or the lobster and salsify.

In contrast, upon each return to our table to present a new course, the captain gives a cursory explanation of each dish (one time he actually forgot to tell me what I was about to eat, until I stopped him from walking away [strike three!] and asked for a refresher course on the sauce accompanying the escolar). At no point did he ask how we had enjoyed a previous course, whether everything was to our liking, or — as we rose to go, having been presented with the (ridiculously pricey) check and attended to on that matter by a busboy — thanked us for coming.

I have enough multi-course tasting menus at enough super-fancy restaurants (I know, pity me) to know that sometimes even the best service has an off-day, and I'm forgiving of it. But just as the maitre d' was welcoming and warm to the middle-aged man who walked in thirty seconds after I did, the service captain's back was always being hastily turned to us so that he could attend, friendly and with notable graciousness, to the table to our left. And in front of us. And diagonally to the right. It wasn't an off-day. We were, apparently, off-customers.

Don't get me wrong, the food was good. I'm glad I ate it, though it didn't blow my mind. But it's been a few weeks since this dinner and I'm still finding myself fill up with indignance about the astonishingly dismissive service. To put it in crass terms, we walked in with the intention of spending lots of money — I ordered a $38 drink while waiting for Mr. B, for chrissakes — and tipping like kings. We did, of course (the sommelier and the busboy deserved it, if the maitre d' and captin eminently did not), but in exchange for our patronage and intended largesse we got rewarded with some plates of fish and the sucker treatment.

Look, I don't want to say that it was because we're young that we got such bad service, but oh my god, it was totally because we are young. I'm not really the type to march into a restaurant and declare "Hello, I am a former cookbook editor* who is now a food blogger, i.e. I know my shit, and my dining companion works in finance, i.e. we are not going to cheap out on you. Treat us accordingly." If I did that, I would be an asshole. Because there shouldn't be any "accordingly" treatment for a food pro and a rich dude.

At a restaurant of the caliber and reputation of Le Bernardin there is one of two scenarios for a table: One, they're the kind of person for whom this isn't a break-the-bank experience. They're the "you know, I've really been craving that mackerel at Le B, let's go next week" table. They should get excellent service, because they're the backbone of the restuarant's business.

Two, they're not that type. They're tourists splurging on a special dinner. They're a young couple who've saved up for a couple months to spare no expense on a birthday celebration. Heck, they're a young couple who haven't saved up for a couple months, and will frugally and perhaps embarrassedly order the precisely cheapest things on the menu, because it is a special occasion and they have decided that, credit card debt be damned, they would like to spend that occassion at Le Bernardin. They should get excellent service, because they fucking deserve it.

On the Line deals primarily with back-of-house matters; as its title implies, it doesn't really stray much from the kitchen. And it's entirely possible that the kitchen is the magical (rigorous, regimented, terrifying) place it's painted as in the volume. But the front of house disappointed me so deeply, so emotionally, that I don't ever want to go back. I don't want to recommend it to a friend. I don't even want to open the book again.

*Who worked for the company that publishes Eric Ripert's cookbooks, no less!

3.03.2009

Poverty

This is what it looks like when you log into your bank account after spending a long weekend in Las Vegas behaving like someone you are not, and also your payroll department still hasn't fixed that glitch in their direct deposit.

Sigh.