I had been meaning to go to New York to catch a wholly different act, an exhibition of the life of Samuel Steward, one of Alfred Kinsey’s primary sources on gay life in the 1950s and the subject of part of my book on mid-century sexuality, so I thought I’d combine an important conference in my field being held in Buffalo and the exhibition all in one trip.
When I saw that the Food Network was hosting its annual Wine & Food Festival in one of the old Chelsea pier warehouses during the exact time I’d be there, I jumped at the chance to go to the Grand Tasting on Sunday.
I’ve also been researching modernist menus — the fascinating clash of cultures in Greenwich Village in the first couple decades of the twentieth century — and post-modernist menus, in particular the way mainstream American media views the 21st century consumer. And what better way (if you can bear the high price) to contrast old and new American media than a Food Network event in the old meatpacking district? Above, that’s me standing on the old Cunard Lines dock (Pier 54) where the Carpathia docked with its unintended cargo, the Titanic survivors. And the apples in a pile? That’s the plan for Pier 57’s future.
No, the Big Apple didn’t do its apples justice. I eschewed the pile of refrigerated container apples and the supermarket ‘Red Delicious’ apples in the FN display. Red Delicious in fall, really? I like to think one jumped ship out of embarrassment.
So while the Occupy Wall Streeters were assembling, I occupied the Grand Tasting, a benefit for local food organizations. There’s always something a bit off about mixing philanthropy and feasts to me, but they are always a quick and easy way to survey the territory.
We received lime green bags with a baffling range of swag in it — everything from sour gummy candy to a regular-sized box of pasta to a pack of red chili flakes to a Nutella-like spread made from those Biscoff cookies Delta gives out on their flights. And Nutella. With wooden spoons and olive oil packets and concentrated chicken stock and a packet of electrolyte powder for good measure. More Biscoff cookies were distributed at the Delta booth, which occupied the space from which I’m photographing above.
I’ll confess, I’m not really a Food Network fan. I used to be. I could happily watch Molto Mario all day long. In fact, in my early days of graduate school, I would use Mario as a study break. He managed to be both patronizingly didactic and still entertaining– he’d drive home the same point over and over again: undercook the pasta; add it to the sauce; don’t drown it; save the pasta water; and spoke at such a fast clip you could never quite follow the Italian names of dishes or regional variations he was introducing. It was a cooking show you actually needed to pay attention to.
And what a delight. You were there to eat what he wanted to give you and listen to what he wanted to tell you. If anything, you could take a bit of schadenfreude in knowing you were at least as smart as his guests, who perched over the counter and asked him questions (Mario, but what is puttanesca? Mario, could you use any winter squash instead of summer squash? Mario, is it called bench flour because it’s made out of benches?)
Food Network, you’ve come a long way, baby.
There were two stages, something I discovered embarrassingly late, after going to see several celebrity chefs that mysteriously seemed not to show up. But I did get to see everyone I came to see: Masaharo Morimoto (O he of Iron Chef Japan fame!), who made a rather gruesome (and I am sure amazing) marinated raw crab dish that featured chopped up live crabs that quivered and shook their legs in their soy bath throughout the rest of the presentation (above)…
…and Anthony Bourdain, who had advertised that he was going to speak about being a sell-out. The first sentence of his conversation with the Destinations Magazine editor was “I am a whore,” but instead of being tiresome about it, he was actually quite entertaining and managed to convince people otherwise. He spoke about the growing political side of his TV show on the Travel Channel, and didn’t mince words about the sponsoring network of the festival. (He gained points with me when he said Molto Mario was the best FN show ever.) He discussed the resistance of various regimes to filming people in their countries. The Egyptian government, for example, steadfastedly refused to let Bourdain’s crew film regular Egyptians eating their daily breakfast of ful. Hmmm, what media privileges one type of eating over another in the U.S.? And why? It’s something we might want to keep in mind when we think about a day like today, Food Day, in the U.S.
I also saw…
…a few people I didn’t want to see, like the Deen brothers, getting prompted by their mom in the first row, and Anne Burrell (above), whose picture says it all. Seriously, can’t we just focus on good cooking?
That seemed to be the question of the day, and perhaps the focus of my research. When one deals with any media (this blog included) one needs to be wary of the message of its creators and sponsors. Running through the world of food is a slight distaste for eaters — a distrust, a disdain. Most cooking shows not-so-subtly play on class anxieties and the brouhaha related to the American diet, but couched in rhetoric that carefully masks the corporate sponsorships needed to fund cooking shows and magazine. Not much we can do about the latter, I suppose, but it would be nice to not feel so dumbed down and manipulated into buying into every last trend.
Luckily, there was enough good food in the tasting that I didn’t feel completely annoyed by the media and the stand-offish servers (I’d be stand-offish too, if I had to prepare ten gazillion bites and explain them each time I served them). I tried a couple of great wines, and there were unexpected surprises, like the Lucid absinthe booth, where the owner of the company kindly fixed me up a fresh glass. The best bites of the festival for me were:
A delicious and simple gazpacho from Cordoba, served by Salinas restaurant. It differs from the usual by the addition of jamón, hard-boiled egg, and almonds. Yum. The leaf is Talde’s version of the Thai salad miang kum, in this case a shiso leaf that one wraps around a single peanut, a tiny chunk of lime, bacon tamarind caramel, candied chili, and dried shrimp.
Worst bite was a drink: cake vodka. And not one but TWO vendors hawking it to the wedding market. I can’t imagine anything more vile.
In the center aisle of the festival was a very popular set of booths offering bites made with processed food, like these cones of Campbell’s soup (tomato?) with what looks like grilled cheese sandwiches. People ate it up, literally.
I was pleased and surprised to see oysters in one booth. Here they were served ceviche-style with some plantain chips. Indeed, there were quite a few delicious seafood dishes, including a pickled mackerel with a persimmon purée and celeriac salad from August Restaurant that I had to try several times, wonderful house-smoked salmon bites from a German place whose name escapes me, and Aureole’s ruby shrimp with a micro salad and coconut broth.
Also surprisingly, the West Coast obsession with variety meats and charcuterie wasn’t really represented well. There was one booth (above) with pig face, and a few sausages here and there, and a completely non-distinct but high-concept pickle booth (whiskey sour pickles that tasted like regular pickles, for example). Someone had a portable sous-vide, and braised short ribs and this-and-that sliders were popular.
But you know what I liked best in New York, in a city full of choices like this?
Yep, a slice of cheese pizza, eaten after doing research in the morning at NYU on a blustery day at a run-of-the-mill pizzeria in Greenwich Village. Even after eating as much as I could for several days AND missing out on Babbo down the street because it’s closed for lunch, that’s amore. Thanks, New York!