Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The French Way

home1_0Last in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – The chance to spend a few weeks in France this summer provided both the time and the detachment to reflect – on politics, the U.S. relationship with, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “old Europe,” history, art and, of course, food and the enjoyment of a good lunch or a fine dinner. The richly appointed bistrot Benoit on the Rue Saint Martin in the heart of Paris – the photo is of the main dining room – is one of my favorites.

My conclusion after happily eating and drinking my way across Paris: the French way of dining in a nice restaurant is superior in most ways to the same type of experience in the United States and there are at least six reasons for my belief and they have nothing to do with the quality of the food, which is almost universally great.

1) The noise level in a French restaurant rarely, if ever, leaves your head throbbing. Typically the tables in a French restaurant are very close together, even uncomfortably close by U.S. standards, but the conversation at the adjourning table hardly ever leaves that table. For some time the New York Times has been noting in its restaurant reviews the “noise level” of New York establishments. I cringe when I read one that says “obnoxious” or “deafening.” Admittedly, I’m getting older and don’t tolerate all that background noise as well as I once did, but frankly it’s never a problem in a French restaurant. Among other things, in France you’ll seldom hear the obligatory background music soundtrack that is a feature of many U.S. restaurants. As a consequence the noise level is restrained, civilized and accommodating of a conversation with your meal. No shouting is necessary. I like that.

2) I also like the fact that a French waiter or waitress doesn’t consider a total stranger a long lost friend of the family. You’ll never hear in Paris – “Hi, I’m Phillippe and I’ll be your waiter…” Rather you’re treated as a customer. The approach is friendly, accommodating, professional, but with no hint of phoney intimacy. The table top chit-chat with a waiter, unless you want to engage, is limited to offering a menu, taking a drink and food order and then leaving you alone. I flinch at the U.S. restaurant tradition that now seems to demand that the waitress immediately ask “how is your dinner?” I frequently have to swallow my first bite before I can answer. I increasingly find myself wanting to say: “Give me a couple of minutes to taste everything and I’ll let you know.” The French wait staff will return and ask if everything is to your liking, but they’ll do so only after you’ve had a decent interval to sample and consider. They then disappear and let you eat and talk. I like that.

3) Wine is a big part of a nice dinner for many people these days in the United States and also in France. Two things the French do with wine is superior in my considered opinion to the American approach. I have watched uncomfortably many, many times in a nice U.S. establishment as a waitress removes the foil from a wine bottle and then attempts to cork screw open the bottle while holding the darn thing suspended in mid air. I want to say: “Sit the bottle down on the table and remove the cork like you would at home.” When did it become illegal to sit a wine bottle on the table and use the natural leverage that provides to extract the cork? It’s not illegal in France. A French waiter will also leave you to pour the wine for your table after the first glass. I like that. In the U.S. too many waiters seem to hover and refill your glass after every sip. Maybe the theory is to get you to race through the bottle and order another, but after observing the French method I’m going to start asserting myself and telling U.S. waiters – nicely – to let me pour. That way I control the pace and the waiter can have more time to go ask someone else if “everything is fine” with their meal.

4) It’s my observation that most men eat a meal more quickly than women. In a U.S. restaurant this frequently has the waiter saying to the men, “still working on that?” Actually, no I’m not, but keep your mitts off the plate. It would be more polite, not to mention that it might slow down the generally over-fast pace of male eating, if all the plates stayed on the table until the last – and slowest – eater is finished. That’s the way they do it in France and I like it.

5) In a French restaurant you always – always – need to ask for the bill. The waiter will simply not produce the accounting of financial damages until you are ready to pay. This, too, is a good practice. I choose to believe that the gesture of asking for the bill – L’addition s’il vous plait? – is an acknowledgement by the waiter and the restaurant that you can have all day and half the night if you want to enjoy the meal experience. You’ll be asked whether you want a dessert or a coffee, but even if the answer is “no” you’ll still be in charge of exactly when you want to leave the French restaurant. During a long lunch at another great Paris bistrot we enjoyed watching two elderly gents, good friends obviously, talk and laugh and eat and drink their way through a very long lunch. The waiter never lurked nearby, but was always there when something was needed. The two old guys, slapping each other on the back, eventually left, but not before pausing near the door to bid adieu to their waiter and the guy in the dark suit who is a fixture in many French restaurants. I don’t know what these dark suit fellows really do, but they certainly smile a great deal and generally make you feel welcome and well taken care of. The old guys had a grand time at lunch and they left when they were ready. No one even subtly suggested it was time for them to head for the door. It’s even considered rude to present the bill before you ask for the bill.

6) Finally, there is the tipping, or lack thereof. Generally speaking there is no tipping in France. The cost of service is built into the bill. There is no need for the mental math required in a U.S. restaurant to calculate 15 or 20 percent of the total check and then add it on as a tip. Waiters are paid a salary in France, unlike many in the U.S. who depend on a share of tips to contribute to their total compensation. If you receive particularly good service a modest tip won’t be rejected, but it’s not expected. The expectation is that you’ll get attentive, professional service – and I almost unfailing did – and that the service goes with the meal. Another reason to like the French system.

French politics are messy and about as dysfunctional as our own. The country has deep and profound issues relating to immigration and minorities. Antisemitism remains an ugly feature of the far right in French politics. I doubt whether French worker productivity would compare well with ours. France has it’s problems, as we do. But when it comes to the restaurant experience the French have that down cold.

Hold on there – I’ll pour the wine and, no, you can’t have my plate just yet.

 

Ah, but the strawberries…

Rue MouffetardSixth in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – I have been thinking about – and eating – strawberries.

I bought my strawberries last weekend from a fruit stall along the Rue Mouffetard, an ancient street in the Latin Quarter of Paris that is almost totally about food with a little wine thrown in. I may have had better strawberries, some bought from Oregon growers are pretty great, but as strawberries go mine serve as not only a delicious dessert, but as a metaphor of sorts for all food in food lovers France.

You would want to walk the Rue Mouffetard even if the place weren’t a food mecca. The cobblestones echo with history. The street was once a Roman road, it’s that old. The old and lovely church at the foot of the mostly pedestrian street, Saint Medard’s, plays a role in Victor Hugo’s great story of the 1832 revolution – Les Miserable.

Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce and George Orwell all lived and wrote in the neighborhood. Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of life in Paris – A Moveable Feast – opens in the little square where the Rue Mouffetard becomes the Rue de Cardinal Lemonie. Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, had an apartment just down the street. A plaque today marks the spot. All these literary lights certainly ate here as well and Joyce no doubt found the white Swiss wine he fancied. I’m more a burgundy fan myself and my new favorite wine shop half way up the street has a superb selection both affordable and, well, not so affordable.

But, I digress. Back to strawberries. Don’t marry a girl, it is said, who desires strawberries in January. Strawberries in January are unnatural things. They are natural in June. Strawberries also don’t travel well. They are best closest to were they were grown and when they are picked when ripe. Real strawberries are not the size of a small soccer ball. They are small and delicate, not firm and armored. The United States produces a quarter of the world’s strawberries and almost of them would go begging on the Rue Mouffetard where they know their strawberries.

The strawberries I have been enjoying weren’t even the most upmarket berries on the street. Those were expensive, as in ouch expensive, and they were handled by a young man in a long apron with the same careful touch he might have shown the Hope Diamond or the delicate hand of a pretty girl. He examined each little orb with intense care and only the best were arranged in perfect rows in a basket and then sold no doubt to a serious minded French cook of a certain age who will expect her fraise to be just so. My strawberries were not so good, I suspect, as these carefully arranged jewels in their little box. Mine were in a basket in the usual way you see those massive berries with the white centers that we find all year around in the United States. But the French berry – upscale or down market – actually tastes like a strawberry, sweet, just a little tartness and then the juice is released. Ah.

Along the Rue Mouffetard in Paris 

Rue MoufftardThe French, I believe, have a different relationship with food than most Americans. It’s a cultural, historical thing. The influence of American fast food is steadily creeping over the food transom here and the government is attempting to create more disclosure around food that is mass produced and shipped to restaurants to be re-heated and served as if it where produced on the premises. Still, the small neighborhood cafe seems to thrive. The fresh food and vegetable markets sprout up in a dozen neighborhoods in the city. You can get good food here everywhere, great food many places and outstanding food in a lot of places.

Some of the best restaurants in Paris, like good restaurants everywhere, have committed to trying to use the freshest, best ingredients. They are giving awards to those who reach and maintain such standards. The celebrated chef Alain Ducasse – I feasted at his historic and outstanding 100 year old bistrot Benoit today – singles out particular food producers for recognition. And the emphasis on freshness and quality makes a huge difference in the dining experience and also a big difference when you have ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables that you can use at home.

The farmer’s market movement in the United States has a European cousin in the food markets of this richly agricultural nation.

Charles de Gaulle famously asked, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” It’s a funny question, but also profound. The best cheese market on the Rue Mouffetard, by my count, only offered about 150 varieties and not a vacuum packed piece of cheddar in the bunch.

Perhaps de Gaulle, a fellow who knew something about being an individual, was merely acknowledging the obvious with his great question about governing and cheese. With all the effort to protect the French language and culture, and given the political turmoil here over increased immigration, not to mention the country’s dark brushes now and in the past with anti-Semitism, a place that offers so many choices in its food – and considers that a matter of national honor – is going to be a fractured, testy, intensely complicated place where everyone has an opinion, particularly at lunch time.

To quote Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny – “Ah, but the strawberries…”

Eat them – all you can – if you come to Paris in June and linger over lunch like the locals do. Sure the productivity here isn’t up to American standards, but a two hour lunch once in a while with time for conversation, a little contemplation, some laughter and discussion won’t kill the economy or you. More likely it will do you good. In any event, the French would tell you that they work late. After that lunch you need some time to get ready for dinner.

 

Perfecto

Osteria

Third in a series from Europe…

[Siena] – I have found my perfect restaurant.

I have been fortunate to visit Siena – I think perhaps Italy’s most manageable and possibly most charming city – on three different occasions. The first time, 15 years ago, we just stumbled on Osteria Le Logge by accident. The second time we searched out the intimate little restaurant on a tiny, pedestrian-only street just off the magnificent Piazza del Campo. This week I felt like a regular.

The genial fellow in charge worked hard to accommodate a party of six without a reservation, while Siena crawled with visitors. A big party of American bicyclists seemed more intent on joking with each other than on soaking up the atmosphere. Still the pasta must have loaded them up for the next hill climb. As for me, I wanted to enjoy my return trip to the perfect restaurant.

As the photo accurately indicates, the place is marinating in old style, understated class. Lots of wood, old wine bottles, white table clothes and a sense that Francis Ford Coppola might walk in and take the table in the corner. You can wear your biking shorts here, but linen trousers and a pair of Italian loafers would be more in keeping with the style. Four huge floor to ceiling doors open up the small dining room to the street and a half dozen tables, under the umbrellas that are mandatory during a warm June day in Siena, spill out onto the cobbled stones. Even if the food wasn’t superb, which it is, the setting would help stoke any appetite.

Too often Americans treat lunch as an after thought. Grab a quick sandwich at your desk. Go for a noon time run and skip lunch altogether. Worst of all too many lunch from a too processed, too fat-laden fast food joint where they pick up the chicken-Mcsomething at the drive through window. Little wonder why too many Americans are seriously overweight and tragically lacking in appreciation for the fine art of really enjoying a meal with other people who make a choice to take time and smell the vino blanco and the fresh bread.

Unfortunately, Italians apparently are catching up with us in the “blow off lunch and eat something out of a plastic container,” but thankfully there are still many places like Osteria De Logge where an Italian – and an American – can pause, relax, consider and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – a good meal in a handsome setting.

The menu is hand written in Italian, as it should be, and indicates that the kitchen is very much in tune with the ingredients of the season. The wine list is extensive and heavy on, of course, Chianti from up the road and Montalcino from a bit further south. The waitress is business-like, her English excellent and her understanding even better. She patiently explained what was what, something she must do a hundred times a day. I opted for the tagliatelle, but I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any item on the menu and been a very happy fellow.

If you agree with Stephen Colbert that “there is nothing American tourists like better than the things they can get at home” Osteria Le Logge is not your place. Oh, you can find superb restaurants anywhere in the world – particularly in the United States – but Europeans, and perhaps particularly the Italians, have a certain respect for a meal as both a time of sustenance, but also a time for relaxation, companionship and conversation.

In the wonderful 1996 film Big Night two Italian brothers are trying to make a go of their struggling restaurant. That settle on an audacious public relations plan to create a great meal to serve when the bandleader Louis Prima is scheduled to visit the restaurant. The resulting publicity will save the day, or perhaps not.

The older brother is a talented chef who insists on creating his food by the book. He refuses to serve two pasta dishes to the same customer. The younger brother is the practical businessman who seeks to always please the customer and, if necessary, tradition be damned. At one point the businessman brother suggests they drop the risotto since it is expensive and time consuming to create in the style that the chef insists upon. Fine, the chef brother says, we’ll substitute hot dogs that will please the customers.

At another point, Primo, the exacting chef, presents one of his dishes to a girl that he has a crush on and offers a truism: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Exactly.

As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Big Night,”It is about food not as a subject but as a language–the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.” Exactly.

Put on some Louie Prima, open another bottle, smile and talk and laugh. Eat in the good life that comes when good food serves as the catalyst for good living. Find your own perfect restaurant – I found mine in Siena – and savor the memory of a visit. Then start planning to return.

Buon appetito!

 

McGovern

I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.

McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.

My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.

Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.

George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.

Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950′s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.

Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.

The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.

By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.

George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.

 

 

 

Argentina

argentinaThe Wandering Gene

In his marvelous book, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin speculates whether some folks are born with a gene that causes them to wander the earth in search of adventure. Or perhaps the wandering gene simply pushes a deeply felt human desire to visit new places to see and experience new things, different cultures and interesting sights.

I’m not sure I was born with the wandering gene, but thankfully I have been able to do a far amount of wandering during my life and have become more and more comfortable with the surprise and delight that is generally available when one travels. Of course, there are always travel hassles. The South American immigration system, for instance, could be right out of a Marx Brothers movie. Lots of fellows with tired eyes and bored expressions stamping, stamping and stamping thousands of forms. I’d be able to travel more if I could corner the rubber stamp concession for these guys. They must be glad they aren’t the fellows who have to file all those forms.

Even with the minor hassles, I’m often surprised by folks who travel and complain that the new and unusual places they visit “aren’t like home.” Isn’t that the point of wandering? Let’s go see something that isn’t like home. Argentina isn’t like home.

I have a couple more observations about the land of the Pampas, the subtropical rain forest, the glaciers and penguins before fully re-entering the “real” world and permanently forming those enduring memories of a place seen and experienced, even for a short time.

Today – yes, I’ve sampled them all – the four Argentine food groups – meat, wine, dessert and dulce de leche. Tomorrow, what would a visit to Argentina be for a political junkie without some thoughts on Evita.

But first, every wanderer has to eat.

The Four Basics:

Meat: To say that Argentine beef is excellent would be to damn with faint praise. This is not a country for vegetarians. If you like your beef, you’ll like Argentina. Grass-fed, lean, almost always grilled over a wood fire, the cuts are massive, tender and full of flavor. At one of the best Buenos Aires parrillas, La Brigada, in the San Telmo neighborhood of the capitol, the waiter separated the meat from our T-bone (the most massive T-bone I’ve ever seen) with a folk and a spoon. It was that tender.

Wine: Argentine wines have been enjoying a lot of buzz recently and based upon a very unscientific, but tasteful, sample we have not even begun to enjoy or appreciate the full impact of the country’s quality wine. The wine is high quality and value priced. You can spend a lot on a bottle, but you can buy extraordinarily good Argentine wine from the Mendoza region, for example, for $10 or $12 bucks. Perfect with that T-bone.

Dessert: Lots of ice cream in every conceivable flavor and wonderful pastry form the backbone – or waistline – of Argentine desserts. The ice cream rivals the best Italian and it seems to be available on every street corner.

Dulce de leche: At first blush, we’d call this stuff caramel sauce, but in Argentina it is more like a national obsession. The silky dulce de leche fills the center of cookies, is served with pancakes, accompanies breakfast toast and seems to be applied to just about everything.

The food and wine would be almost enough to justify a visit to this vast place that has a vague sense of having one foot in the 19th Century and the other stepping tentatively into the 21st. Buenos Aires has often been described as the “Paris of South America,” and parts of the city, with its French-inspired architecture, wide boulevards and enormous parks, could pass for Paris. But, Buenos Aires is also its shanty towns and street people, a world-class city with world-class problems of poverty and pollution. It is a place that seems not quite up to meeting its potential, but compared to Paris the Argentine capitol is a new outpost on the frontier. This is a young country, younger than our own and full of possibility and challenge.

The Chatwin book, first published in Britain in 1977, and now a Penguin Classic, has been a welcome companion in Argentina. It is a mix of travel writing, personal observation, fascinating history and perhaps just a little story telling. The book centers on Patagonia, but begins in Buenos Aires. Here is an early line: “The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild – five names taken at random from among the R’s – told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains.”

How could you not wander to such a place and think always of returning.