Archive for Food

Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

Solve the health care crisis: Eat well

Health insurance premiums continue to rise. Hassles abound for patients and physicians alike. Tens of millions of Americans are uninsured. And these problems are only expected to worsen in coming years. The system is flawed, to be sure. But isn’t the main problem with U.S. healthcare the fact that it’s simply overburdened?

People are sick and getting sicker. In particular, rates of heart disease, Western cancers, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and osteoperosis only seem to keep climbing.

So many doctors these days are treating symptoms rather than causes. Health care reform, to a large extent, seems to be taking the same approach — ignoring the real underlying problem.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of health care is the role of the patient, and the average patient in the U.S. today is making themselves sick by putting garbage into their body, meal after meal, day after day. Issues of personal responsibility aside, overly processed crap is killing us and costing us a fortune in the process.

The food industry peddles addictive substances for enormous profits, then the health care industry strings along its “patients” (read: customers) with a pill for every ill.

Remember that adage you heard a million times growing up? “You are what you eat.” It was overused for a reason: because it’s true.

Remember that other one? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? While it’s a gross simplification, it holds a profound economic truth: They are substitute products for one another.

So here’s the question: Where is the money in educating people, making them healthy and getting them out of “the system”? How do you incentivize health care professionals to steer patients (or potential patients) toward their own substitutes?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? This appears to be one of those situations where regulatory policy would be a fantastic boon for the public interest — if we could reach some semblance of agreement on what the actual problem is.

Unfortunately, there are wildly varying viewpoints on what is “healthy,” and the science often flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, existing educational efforts, such as MyPlate (the new food pyramid), recommend a diet rich in dairy products, which most independent research suggests can be quite harmful. Meanwhile, much of the so-called science is tainted by corporate interests and many of the researchers are guided by personal biases, so it’s difficult to know what to trust.

At the same time, food marketing “facts” and even government regulated nutrition labels are notoriously deceptive. For instance, the label on the front of a can of soup might say it is “98 percent fat free,” but when you turn it around you find that the nutrition label shows it derives 70 percent of its calories from fat. (The FDA and USDA allow companies to calculate fat by weight rather than by calories for front-of-package claims.) The classic example is Pam cooking spray, which says on the front of the can, “Fat Free.” But think about it: What is Pam made out of? Oil, which is 100 percent fat. Dietician and nutritionist Jeff Novick has a brilliant routine about how they get away with this. (It’s definitely worth a watch.)

The water is further muddied by an increasing number of Americans who equate weight loss with health (while they often go hand-in-hand, one does not necessarily imply the other). Long story short, it’s an incredibly complex issue, but one that has extremely far-reaching implications for not only our economic and ecological sustainability, but for the very future of our species.

It’s quite a tangled mess, but if we don’t start teasing it out soon it will only get worse. One way or the other, government probably has a role in that. Obviously I’m not advocating government regulation of what you’re allowed to put in your mouth. I absolutely believe in personal responsibility, but I also happen to think it’s wrong that a company can sell you shit and use taxpayer funded programs to tell you it’s shinola.

Policy doesn’t just fall from the sky. It exists for a reason. Anyone who’s really curious what the “invisible hand” of a completely unfettered market would feed us can get a glimpse of that disturbing reality (and the conditions that led to the establishment of the FDA) by reading Upton Sinclair’s muckraking classic, “The Jungle.” It was written over a hundred years ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant if it was penned just yesterday.

Now pardon me while I get off my soapbox and get back to this 32-oz. cup of Mr. Pibb.

Double-decker slices of life


“Mommy, I went boom in my pants.”

In 1978, my mother retired her well-worn copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and re-married, giving her hand to a professional wrestler who was also a high school football coach and whose mission in life seemed to be to confirm every stereotype anyone had ever heard about New York Italians. Flaws aside, he had an Erik Estrada smile, and so mere months after we’d run into him at a matinee of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” they said their vows in a small backyard ceremony and moved us to the only neighborhood where they could afford a four-bedroom house.

It was a cookie-cutter subdivision aptly and depressingly named Four Winds. Even at a young age, I always imagined it signified that by moving there, your hopes and dreams for the future were officially scattered to the four winds. Our new house was located in  Brandon, Fla., a shitty little cowtown that was a suburb of Tampa, and it was in Brandon that I went on to spend many of what they call your “formative years.” I say this because when I finally left there 10 years later, I felt completely unformed as a human being.

Like many small towns across the country — perhaps the world — it was devoid of culture. We had a two-screen movie theater and a dilapidated bowling alley, but otherwise the landscape was an endless grid of cow pastures and churches and identical housing subdivisions (three of my best friends during this time lived in the exact same house a few blocks from each other). Essentially, it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” only without the killer guitar riff and sweet vocal harmonies. Driving through Brandon in 1978 felt eerily like watching Fred Flintstone run through his house, as the exact same background passed by again and again and again.

Aside from a single McDonald’s and one of the last remaining Burger Chefs (look it up), there was just one restaurant in town. Recently opened, Babe’s was a no-frills pizza parlor with a super-creepy logo featuring a hollow-eyed toddler in a diaper tossing a pizza. Defying decades of marketing wisdom, it quickly became the de facto post-game destination for Little League teams.

For years, every Saturday after soccer, my parents and I — and occasionally my sister — would crowd into black vinyl booths alongside teammates and other parents to munch on Babe’s signature Double-Decker pizza while the kids marveled at the model train cars chugging around the ceiling and the adults held trial for whoever hadn’t mowed their lawn in more than a week.

That was some 25 to 30 years ago.

Tonight, for the first time in ages, I went to Babe’s. I have no idea why. As I was leaving the parking garage at work, I decided I would eat out and Babe’s,  inexplicably, was the first place that popped into my head.

So I drove, roughly 15 miles — past the tuxedo shop I managed in high school, past the strip mall where I got arrested for shoplifting, past the apartment complex where I first kissed a girl, through the intersection where I had my first car accident — and parked in the back, just like we always did back when I was a passenger and the idea of driving a car still seemed like the most glorious freedom in the world. (It is, you guys. It is.)

The twentysomething waitress pointed me to a table in the corner and asked if I’d ever been there before. I smiled, maybe just to myself, and said, “Yes, thanks.” I ordered a medium double-decker with pepperoni, green pepper and black olives, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing I’ve ever ordered at Babe’s in 32 years.

When I was a kid, my stepdad and I would split a double-decker. Four slices each. He usually couldn’t finish his half, but I always did. It was a point of pride for me. I couldn’t outdo him at much of anything, but when it came to eating, I was the king of the castle.

After two slices tonight, I was stuffed. That’s when I posted this:

Twenty-two years ago, I scored 780 out of 800 on the math section of the SAT.

Tonight, I couldn’t figure out why I was so full after just two slices of double-decker pizza.

Moments later, a friend who’d seen the post texted me — coincidentally, she’d gotten the exact same math score. We started discussing SAT performance and I admitted to her that my score on the reading and writing portions (back then, they were called “Verbal”) was embarrassingly low.

Mainly I confessed this because I thought I’d already mentioned it to her before. (Apparently not.) It’s always a difficult thing to explain.

I’m an editor. I’m a writer. I got a liberal arts degree. I chose this path, despite — and probably in spite of — the fact that it led me away from my natural gifts.

“You love a stuggle,” my friend texted. “Correction,” I replied. “I *used* to love a struggle.”

In 10th grade Geometry class, my teacher wrote out an “extra credit” problem on the board — I’m pretty sure it was something about defining the curvature of a projection using a Lie bracket, but it’s hard to remember exactly — and told us that anyone who could come up with the solution would get an A for the semester. I spent the rest of the period scribbling in my notebook and, just before the bell rang, raised my hand with the answer.

When the teacher responded with nothing but a wide-eyed look of shock, a classmate named Scott — the biggest bully at my school, a guy who wasn’t friendly to anyone, a guy who I’d watched break the nose of the second-biggest bully at my school in 6th grade, resulting in a geyser of blood that covered the lunch room floor — turned to me and shouted, “Man! I wish I had your brain!”

These days when the subject of intellect comes up, I often tell people, “I’ve never been smart; I’ve just always worn glasses.” I started saying it to be humble, but over the years I’ve come to believe it.

But you know what? I think I was probably pretty damn smart at one point.

And maybe that’s why it killed me to discover, via the SAT, that I was a profoundly mediocre English student. Maybe that’s why I chose to turn my back on math, which came naturally to me, in favor of language, which seemed to elude me entirely.

Or maybe I just wanted to piss off my dad, the accountant.

Either way, here I am. Forty years old, stuffed full of pizza and working as a mid-level editor at a fading publication in a dying industry. It would be extremely convenient if I still loved a struggle.

When you’re young, running around soccer fields and scarfing down pizza with your family, you just assume that as you get older you’ll also get better.

And once you finally get older, you realize you don’t even know what “better” means.

I’m kinder at 40 than I was at 15. I’m more generous. I’m more autonomous, certainly. More open-minded. More compassionate. Honest. Forgiving. Patient. Sincere. Appreciative.

Does that make me better?

I have no idea. I do know this: I’m nowhere near as smart as I used to be. I’m not as friendly or funny, either. I’m way more tired, and slower of mind and body. I’m almost devoid of energy or enthusiasm. And, also (this is a big one), hope.

Also, I can’t eat nearly as much pizza.

Does that make me worse?

Again, no idea.

Maybe it does. Maybe I peaked at 15. Maybe that was the best I’ll ever be, and the 25 years since have been nothing but a long, slow decline.

But at least I can drive now. And the pizza was fucking phenomenal.

Don’t get too comfortable

Jumbo Slice

Size, as it turns out, does matter.

I just got home from Washington, D.C., where I spent the weekend to attend the bachelor party of a close friend and former colleague. We had ridiculous amounts of fun. I caught up with old friends and made new ones — all of them smart, creative, amibitious and, without exception, wonderful human beings.

I joked yesterday that when I met the groom-to-be about eight years ago, he was “a broken man.” But it wasn’t really a joke. He was miserable then, almost completely lost at sea, with nothing to buoy him but a nagging sense that things had to get better.

Within a year, he took a leap of faith and moved to the capital to take a demanding but potentially rewarding job that he wasn’t fully confident he was cut out for. “I feel like an impostor,” he told me in the early weeks of his new gig. But he stuck with it, because if nothing else it was challenging. It was interesting. Mainly, it was different.

Since then? His professional trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. He has risen with distinction to the very top of his profession. Today he’s an extremely influential man in arguably the most influential city in the world. And, oh yeah: Next weekend, he’ll be married to an impossibly wonderful woman who makes him happier than I’ve ever seen him.

In the wee hours of Saturday night, we were riding home in a cab down 18th street in Adams Morgan when another friend spotted a neon sign that beckoned to him like a siren.

“Jumbo Slice,” it said.

“Stop the car! Let us out here!” he cried, and the driver obeyed. The rest of us were too drunk or half-asleep to question it.

So next thing I know, we’re stumbling through a crowd of drunks toward the promise of gooey cheese and pepperoni and grease running down our arms on a scale that is at least somewhat more “jumbo” than we’re accustomed to.

I’m happy to report the neon sign did not lie.

You don’t really get a sense for it in the photo, but these slices were massive, requiring multiple paper plates to (barely) support their bounty. They were the perfect ending to a night that had celebrated excess. And as we walked slowly back toward home, munching on our Jumbo Slices along the way, the groom-to-be drunkenly related the tale of their evolution.

“Originally they were just, you know, merely huge,” he said. “But then the place down the street started making a bigger slice. So these guys started making theirs a little bigger and then the place down the street bought a whole new oven — a bigger one, so they could make even bigger pies. Naturally, this place had to respond in kind, and so now it just keeps escalating. There’s no telling when it will end, really.”

“It’s like a pizzeria arms race,” one of us said. “A Cold War of kitchen equipment,” someone countered. “We can only hope that one or the other side enters a phase of perestroika and the whole thing ends peacefully,” we added, laughing hysterically between bites.

And that’s when it occurred to me: You really need to be around people who challenge you if you’re ever going to get anywhere.