on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

IMG_8828I occasionally check in on a big online local food group’s discussion threads.  As they are wont to do, the discussions flare up and people get offended at others’ opinions, especially if they are seen as damaging to local establishments or exhibiting socioeconomic privilege or unacceptable politics or perceived “snobbery.”  These places provide local jobs, the outcry goes, we should support them no matter what!  Keep any negative opinions to yourself or go whisper it personally to the manager!  Not all of us eat caviar and champagne every day!


As consumers who vote with our dollars in a local economy that is still heavily dependent on word-of-mouth and habit, we should be actively and publicly and vociferously supporting the good restaurants, and actively and loudly calling out the bad ones on their badness. But to do so without namecalling or resorting to empty cheerleading for your “team” (as we do in this one-team town) is crucial.

So here’s my advice.  Be reasonable in your food critiques.

1)  Use the skills you should have learned in your college or high school English composition class: explain how and why you believe what you do, and provide evidence that supports your case.*

Without exception, the good places are places with chefs who are intimately involved with a dynamic menu and have great palates, creative and innovative spirits, and a need to be in the kitchen and serve the unwashed masses.  In almost every single case I can think of, that means supporting a local restaurant in Eugene that relies on local products, local distribution, and sustainable ethics insofar as the price point can maintain it.  And there are plenty of good ones to support.

There are also plenty of bad ones.  Yes, there are the ones meant to be lower cost, and there’s a place for that.  The portions may be huge for so-called “value,” and the food isn’t seasoned well, if it is even what you ordered.  To take one example, I ordered a burger at a mom-n-pop place the other night, and they still messed up the order after I heard no less than FIVE repetitions of what I wanted (from me twice, the server once, and the cooks on the line twice, plus it was written on the ticket).

But I was hungry and the kitchen was slammed and it was getting dark and I was on my bike, so I just said fine, I’ll scrape off the barbecue sauce and ignore the cheese and just eat this mountain of breaded-and-too-salty french fries from a freezer bag. I’m also not going to go on Yelp and whine about it, since I wasn’t expecting much and I got less but it turns out the ticket was written poorly and I chose not to have the order re-fired.  There was no safety issue and no one was out of line.  If I go again (and that’s a big if), I’ll just make sure the order is right.  I ain’t fussed.

But I am (is?) fussed when a restaurant whose soul is like the burger joint tries to pass itself off as an expensive locavore joint.  Using industrial frozen crap in a bag, not getting orders right, sacrificing local produce and quality ingredients to increase the slim profit margin, and struggling along with an absentee owner or executive chef and cooks who don’t taste the food or know what combinations work and little training for the front of the house, but still calling the menu locally sourced and fresh and the restaurant high-end.  I’ll pay $9 to suffer all that plus a high school server who is busier making eyes at the bartender than writing down an order properly, but I won’t pay $39.

And neither should you.

2)  The key for a good review is a customer who knows the difference.  Learn how to cook.  Yeah, I know you’re busy.  But education is always a sacrifice, and your body/family/farmers/planet will thank you for it.  You can choose to eat most of your meals out at cheap places if you aren’t rich.  I’d argue it’s better to save your money and use it on better places less frequently, but clearly I don’t take my own advice, as you see from the anecdote above. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the difference with your eyes and mouth between cheap, mass-produced food and good food.

Don’t patronize the places that serve you cheap food and provide cheap service for expensive prices AND, contrariwise, don’t expect places that serve you high quality food and provide good service to give you massive, gluttonous portions and act like you’re both in a chain restaurant in the mall.

And when places underwhelm you for the prices they’re charging for the quality (note again: quality not quantity since you’re not eating from a trough) of food, call them out when they do.  The reason why some of our crappy overpriced local restaurants are still in business is because (a) most people don’t know how good our fresh local food can be because they’re used to eating mass-produced products; (b) very few people who know about food say anything because they’re in the business and afraid of offending someone they may be working for someday; and (c) we live in a town where inertia helps us along and no one likes conflict or sounding too opinionated.

3)  Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re trained as Americans, as Westerners, and as Oregonians to “have it your way.”  We value individual choices so strongly it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own little bubble when we’re judging others.  So be reasonable with your tastes when you’re critiquing a local restaurant.

To return to my hamburger example, I know I am idiosyncratic with burgers.  The burger depicted above is how I like my burgers:  a crusty toasted roll, extra dill pickles dripping their dill juice into the meat, and more ketchup than burger so the whole thing is falling apart.  I even dip it in more ketchup.  Without a doubt, folks will find this completely gross and a BBQ cheeseburger far more preferable.  Where’s the special sauce?  Or Jesus, at least add some mayo and lettuce!

But no.  I just so happen to have odd tastes in burgers.  And I know this.  So you’ll rarely see me commenting on burger joints or even ordering a burger in mixed company, especially at a nice restaurant.  I know this and account for it:  I act like a 5-year-old with burgers and get surly when stuff like nasty yellow mustard or a raw onion touches my ketchuppicklefest, because my burger training was at fast food joints.  Now, of course, I make my own ketchup and pickles and eat beef ground to my specification from a local cow and form the patties myself, so I’m even worse than your average McDonald’s hamburger type.

In short, I am a hamburger douchebag.  I know this.  I protect others from the madness.  There’s probably even some residual shame in this that makes me do stuff like scrape off barbecue sauce on a misfire than insist I have my order the way I wanted it; who knows.

Do you act like a douchebag with your food tastes?  Complaining about a restaurant’s menu based on your own idiosyncratic needs is not reasonable.  If you’re gluten-free, for example, why are you in a bakery?  Can’t abide greasy food?  Get outta the pizza joint.  You only eat burgers and nothing else?  Heaven help you.  The seasonality of local ingredients, higher labor, and chef’s vision in more expensive places dictates that you can’t always have it your way.  That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you choose to go to a good restaurant.  If the menu is huge and offers concessions for every fathomable dietary restriction du jour, it’s going to come out in quality elsewhere.  So respect the genre of the restaurant you’re critiquing if you want to promote your own agenda, or better yet, be reasonable about your expectations.

One can be opinionated and reasonable.  Really.  I’ve seen it work.  I think it’s working now, actually, because in the past seven years I’ve seen drastic and wonderful changes in the Eugene dining scene, changes for the better.  And it isn’t because people blindly supported local establishments and kept their opinions to themselves.  Local restaurants are reading comments and listening to their customers.  You’ll be a respected critic if you state your opinions from an intelligent and understanding position, and back up your impressions with proof. You’ll still probably be attacked and called names, but that reflects on the commenter, not you.

* Why yes, I am an English professor by trade.  How can you tell?

bread 101

IMG_7058IMG_6695Am I souring on traditional discipline-focused college curricula?  No, but this spring I *am* teaching a tremendously fun course through COLT on literature, food and society (as discussed here), and I’m also part of an innovative team-taught course that partners the Natural Sciences with the Humanities, all in the name of a loaf of bread.

Yes, University of Oregon HC441: “Bread 101” investigates the science and culture of bread!

We’re all souring together as we create experiments with sourdough starters and bake bread based on historic recipes.  These “lab” activities will be contextualized in lectures and readings on topics like genetics, energetics, microbiology, history, ethics, and cultural studies.  We’ll be hosting University of Washington wheat geneticist and anti-GMO activist, Dr. Steve Jones, as a visiting speaker; visiting Camas Country Mill and Noisette bakery for a sourdough taste-off; learning about Willamette Valley wheat production with local food activist Dan Armstrong; and studying primary sources on bread baking and propaganda in an upcoming exhibit on historic cookbooks, “Recipe: The Kitchen and Laboratory: 1400-2000,” opening April 22 in Knight Library Special Collections. (I’m co-curating this with HC Prof. and Historian of Science Vera Keller — more info soon.)

IMG_7013 IMG_6023IMG_6897The course is unusual not only because it’s deeply local and geared to increase burgeoning interest in a Food Studies program at UO, but also because of its innovative curriculum that uses Humanities-based lines of inquiry and writing assignments to augment science literacy. Many Food Studies classes are taught from a Social Science or Nutrition perspective by a single instructor, so we felt the course could model new approaches for systemic collaboration across the Sci/Hum divide and offer value to this emerging discipline.

The course is being taught by Judith Eisen (Biology, Institute of Neuroscience, and Director of the Science Literacy Program), Elly Vandegrift (Biology and Associate Director of the SLP), Karen Guillemin (Biology and Director of the Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals Center for Systems Biology), Miriam Deutsch (Physics and Oregon Center for Optics), and yours truly, Jennifer Burns Bright (Comparative Literature and English).

We’d be really happy to discuss the course or related matters with those interested in interviews. Media contacts, please email me at wellsuited@gmail.com.

Course Description
HC441H: Bread 101
Bright, Eisen, Deutsch, Guillemin, Vandegrift

Bread is a complex medium, looking nothing like the original seed of grain from which it originates. Yet when we mix a few simple ingredients we are able to induce a transformation that results in an edible, highly nourishing, staple food product crucial for sustenance in many cultures. In “Bread 101”, students will explore with a team of faculty from the sciences and humanities the energy requirements, biomedical and biochemical aspects, and local and sociopolitical context of bread production. Students will read and discuss a variety of primary and secondary literature related to wheat production, the microbiological, chemical, and physical processes that transform wheat into bread, the energy cost of this transformation, and cultural implications of bread production. There will be several field trips and guest speakers. Course work will include active discussions, short essays, problem sets, and a presentation.

Module 1 Introduction to Growth, Domestication, Energetics
Module 2 Local Politics of Wheat and Bread
Module 3 Biomedical and Biochemical Implications
Module 4 Social and Cultural History of Wheat and Bread
Module 5 Global Energy Production Related to Wheat and Bread

Photos: My sourdough starter in progress, local grain display at Camas Country Mill, white board exercises on energetics and photosynthesis (with guest Nick Routledge), and a 1937 advertisement for Fleischmann’s yeast cakes (eat two a day for optimal health!).

niblets: wine o’clock edition

1622373_10102361703598911_1610052131_oNow that our dull roots are stirred with spring rain, we yearn for a glass of Oregon wine on a warm evening.  And lo, there are already events that can make it happen.

  • Oregon Wine LAB (488 Lincoln St), the brainchild of former Sweet Cheeks front man Mark Nicholl, offers wines from his new label, William Rose, and other local wineries that don’t have their own tasting rooms.  It’s a great concept and a great space with a long, live-edge bar and vinyl spun on the turntable, made even better by Mark’s rather gifted ability to promote and network among cultural venues.  He’s continually bringing in something new: a range of food carts, live music, vendor fairs, wine classes, wine tastings for professionals, etc., etc.  So here’s the latest:

Working Women’s Wednesdays(HAPPENING NOW!), 4-7 pm.  Light appetizers and prize drawings every 15 minutes. No-host bar.

Chef/Winemaker Dinner, Sat. March 15. The “unshackled cuisine” (love this) of Crystal Platt from Marché paired with William Rose Wines.  Menu here. There are just a few seats left so reserve now: (458) 201-7413 or info@oregonwinelab.com. $75. 6:30 p.m. The first of I hope very many.

  • Oregon Pioneer Wine Dinner Series at Route 5 Wine Bar, with food by Marché.  Absolutely love this idea.  I’m going to the Broadley one tonight, which is sold out, but mark your calendars for Ponzi on April 9, Dom. Drouhin on May 7, and Sokol Blosser on June 4.  Call Route 5 Wine Bar for more details — I suspect some details will change, and their somewhat baffling website doesn’t have these events listed yet.
  • And a whole heck of a lot of really good chef/winemaker dinners at the Steamboat Inn on the outskirts of the Umpqua National Forest.  Yes, it’s a 2-hr. drive, but just look at these pairings from great places all over the state, including our very own Chefs Tobi Sovak and Michael Landsberg from Noisette with Ray Walsh of Capitello Wines on March 22, and Chefs Stephanie Pearl Kimmel and Crystal Platt from Marché with Jason Lett of Eyrie on April 4. Wow!!
  • Or grow your own wine by visiting the Spring Propagation Fair on March 22 and 23 at LCC, and getting FREE SCIONS of grapes and apples and pears.  This year marks the first time I’ve been involved, and I’m so utterly thrilled to have helped cut grape scions at Nick Botner’s amazing farm in Yoncalla, one of the largest experimental and diverse repository for orchard fruits in the world, and reportedly the biggest private one.  That’s his rustic and fruity Marechal Foch wine above, and his farm, below.  Organizer Nick Routledge, whom I managed to capture in the photo below carrying scions, works with Botner and the pear repository up in Corvallis to gather some amazing and rare and resistant varieties.  He offers scions and seeds as part of his activism work on restoring the earth and getting people to grow food locally.  The annual fair also offers plants, a number of free workshops, and root stock grafting resources for a nominal fee.  More information is here.

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farm to table in this glorious fall

IMG_4266Planted garlic for next year, trying to keep my spirits up as the rain started to fall and fall started to reign. We must remember and celebrate the ways we put seeds in the dark earth so they’ll wake with time and water and love.  Because if we forget that, there’s not much point.

I’m going for ‘Keith Red’ and ‘Silver Rose’ again because they were all I wanted.  Keith continues to delight with his big delicious cloves, and Rose is a softneck that lasts longer and still tastes great.  Maybe I’ll remember the onion sets this spring, too!

Also hopeful: great meals this week at downtown Soubise and Grit Kitchen and Wine, a brand new farm-to-table place kittycorner from Ninkasi in the Whiteaker.

IMG_4268 I’m thrilled Soubise is open on Mondays, when most other restaurants in town worth eating at are closed.  It’s a good place for a quiet dinner, hopefully shared with someone who loves food, and it’s a romantic and sophisticated setting.  Perhaps the only one in town.  The combinations, as usual, were fascinating and subtle.  It’s really unlike anything else around, and I mean that to extend far beyond Eugene.  The fall menu is completely accessible and at a lower price point than earlier menus, too.  Definitely a place you can take your parents or a visiting speaker.  Standards like chicken with savory bread pudding and salmon with delicata squash.  Or their handmade smoked pasta with a poached egg and pecorino with green onion purée, above. There are still wonderful surprises, like perfect micro bits of celery leaf and pear on the oysters, and Japanese tamago omelette that provides a perfect sweet little pillow for the strong taste of seared albacore and slight bitterness of lemon cucumber in another small plate.  And ALWAYS order the farm vegetable composed salad, which features an everchanging melange of whatever produce is in season, served with simple buttermilk dressing.


Grit is housed in a little historic cottage and they’ll need to get better signage at some point, so you might miss it, but it’s right on the corner of W. 3rd and Van Buren.  The kitchen is still experimenting and service is a little timid, but it’s fun to watch the chaotic dance as the staff gets to know the space and the flow and the clientele.  It’s all about the local and the warm and comforting: braises, soups, buttery custardy creamy details.  We opted for the prix-fixe four-course meal, with a stellar carrot and fresh turmeric salad, turnip soup with greens, duck over mash and chantrelles, and a fig tarte, above.  Corn chowder with pork jowl was good too; more pork would have been even better.  The charcuterie plate and gizzard confit app looked so good I almost regret I didn’t partake.  Oh well.  Another visit!  I expect this place will just get better and better, and I’m happy to go along on the journey.

fat girls and barn lights, what a lovely way to spend a weekend!

It’s that time again! Ryan and I will be interviewing the team from Eugene’s new bar/café, The Barn Light, and the marvelous Hanne Blank, self-proclaimed “proud fat girl,” exercise enthusiast, and author of The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Join us Sunday at noon on KLCC or livestreaming on the web.

The team from The Barn Light — Dustin, Thomas, and Eric — are here to show downtown Eugene how it’s done.  The bar, located on Willamette across from Kesey Plaza, was designed with a particular attention to detail and quirkiness unusual in Eugene, and the menu for both cocktails and food features bold creations and interpretations of classics that actually taste good (also unusual in Eugene).  I’ll let them tell you more about it.

A79744B13BC94732873E169C918C9681Hanne Blank came to my attention many years ago because she has a strong voice and I’d always look forward to reading her daring, passionate recipes on a now defunct food listserv.  A historian and feminist activist, she has written books on big aspects of sexual history like virginity and heterosexuality, and relationship guides and erotica on big aspects of well, people.  You can see all of her books here.

As an unapologetic fat girl myself, I like her approach to exercise in the book we’ll be discussing on the show.  I’m not a big fan of self-help books, but I gave it a whirl because it was from this delightful writer who loves food and advocates health at every size, and I could really not care less if my ass looks fat in those jeans, and because I’ve been grumpily doing P/T since my car accident in June to rehab my knee.  Quite frankly, I could use an attitude adjustment, and perhaps you can too in this month of resolutions.

Hanne encourages readers to focus less on losing pounds, inches, or sizes, and instead invites us — yes, you; yes, ME! — to spend 100 days with her reaching the goal of a improving particular “body practice,” as she calls them.  In short, focus on one low-commitment act to increase your body’s motion every other day for 100 days.  That’s it.  No starvation, no shaming, just improving one area for a limited time as an experiment. Then you reevaluate and perhaps move on to another goal.

Ok, so what’s mine?  Well, as I said, my knee still hurts quite a bit.  The accident basically destroyed the top of my tibial plateau, and affected the nerves, tendons, and tissues in the immediate area, but also has created problems with numbness in my calf and foot, completely changed my balance and posture, exacerbating hip pain and lower back problems from an earlier injury.  I’m no longer limping except on stairs, which is good news, but I’d like to be limp-free. My goal is to tackle uneven surfaces up and down inclines (walking, biking, trail hiking, climbing stairs) for an hour or so every other day, to improve the strength in my quads and increase flexibility in my knees, ankles, and feet, all currently stiff and owie.  Easy, no?  We’ll see.

Learn more on Food for Thought on KLCC Sunday at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations in Oregon, or live on the web.

crawfish and year-old eggnog: it’s christmas at food for thought!


Never say we didn’t bring you anything unusual!  It’s going to be a fascinating show this week on our merry Food for Thought with Ryan et moi.  Ryan’s booked one of his longtime food heroes, erstwhile New Orleans restaurant critic and food writer Tom Fitzmorris of The New Orleans Menu, who wows us by hosting a food radio show not once a week for an hour like us, but six days a week for three hours daily!

And I’ve finally managed to corral our favorite bartender in the world, Jeffrey Morgenthaler.  Since leaving Eugene’s Bel Ami a handful of years ago, Jeff has met with great success in Portland, managing the bar at Clyde Common and traveling the world looking for new drink combinations.  Still blogging occasionally, he’s been featured in print all over the country for his famous eggnog and his barrel-aged cocktails, and has recently finished his first book and is opening a new venture, too.  Whew!

All this, more on my Amsterdam trip, Ryan’s dispatches from the front lines of Eugene holiday commerce, and more!  Listen in at Food for Thought on KLCC Sunday at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations in Oregon, or live on the web.

By the way, if you’re thinking of the perfect Christmas gift for your local business, consider becoming an underwriter for our show!  We have a slate of wonderful guests in the upcoming weeks, including renowned authors Naomi Duguid, Paula Wolfert, and John T. Edge. For a few hundred bucks, you will get many months of exposure and your shop announced live on the show each week to a targeted group of listeners interested in buying local food.  Best deal in town!  Contact underwriting at klcc@klcc.org or 541-463-6005.

sushi class and special guests on food for thought, eugene’s favorite food show!

A big, warm thank you to all of you who voted for both Culinaria Eugenius and Food for Thought on KLCC, NPR’s local affiliate.  We came in second in both categories this year: best self-published work and best radio show.  I’m particularly proud of the latter, as Food for Thought is a teeny, tiny volunteer-run weekly show, and it went head-to-head with some great radio programs with a much longer run and listener base.

This week on Food for Thought, Ryan and Anni will be discussing beans and other lost arts of hearth and home with historian Ken Albala, author of a new book on said topic.  Ken came to Eugene a few weeks ago to meet with the team working on a new Food Studies program initiative at UO, and we’re eager to hear what he thought!  They’ll also be chatting with the owner of Brail’s, the venerable Eugene breakfast spot.  Listen in today at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations in Oregon, or live on the web.

I’m also very excited to announce that the Lane County Master Food Preservers still have a few spaces left for our casual, inexpensive sushi class this Friday, November 9, 2012.  I’ll be discussing classic sushi techniques, including making pickled ginger and sushi rice for a traditional sushi party, and Ruby Colette and Kelly Makinson will be showing off their skills with a wide range of fillings, from pickled vegetables to California rolls.  You’ll have a chance to try your hand at rolling your own, as well!  Cost: a mere $15, Location: Community of Christ Church, 1485 Gilham Road, Eugene from 6-8:30 p.m.  REGISTER SOON!  DON’T MISS OUT!  To register and see what else we’re teaching this winter, click here for Extension’s class descriptions and registration instructions.

The picture, by the way, is of the chirashizushi and a special, giant clam (mirugai) nigiri eaten by yours truly last week at Eugene’s best sushi restaurant, Kamitori. The restaurant didn’t make the EW best sushi list, and that is just insane.  It’s very difficult to find giant clam because of its rarity, and Chef Masa scored one.  It’s a pleasure to see someone so excited about new finds and doing food right.  He’s one of our city’s best chefs.  If you haven’t been and you treasure fantastic, fresh, traditional sushi at reasonable prices, go now.  Hours for lunch vary but he’s open for dinner most of the week.