Category Archives: Seen/Heard

The Best Time of Year: “Heavily Salt the Butter” and other Street-Food-Fest Anecdotes

Every year around this time, I wish I were back in Minnesota. You see, it’s State Fair season, that time of year when typically moderate eaters incrementally ramp up their consumption in anticipation of the Big Day, on which a person is expected to horq snack foods in incomparable quantities.

Fortunately, I’ve found the San Francisco analogue to the great Midwestern snacktogether. For the past three years — since the fest’s inception — I’ve attended the San Francisco Street Food Festival. It’s come a long way since ’09; what then was a huddle of booths has become a sprawling, kimchi-rich gathering. Some estimates place this weekend’s attendance at 80,000.

This year, I invited my friend John to join in the narfing revelry. John, who operates NewTree Cafe, shares kitchen space with a gaggle of food-truck owners, and he knew the gents who gave us watermelon agua frescas and lamb tacos garnished with neon carrot shreds. The tacos were solid, but man: that agua fresca. Not too sweet and with a surprise of muddled mint buried beneath the ice, it was the beverage of my dreams. I’d drink agua fresca every morning, if I could.


Unsurprisingly, these two are the only photos I took all day: ooops! I fell victim to my own laziness and the lack of napkins (didn’t want to get pork belly all over my phone, yo), but don’t be alarmed: most of the comestibles we enjoyed were quite photogenic.

Take, for example, Three Twins’ ice cream sandwich: a thick disc of lemon-cookie ice cream bookended between two ginger wafers, each of which glittered with granulated sugar (or, as Truman Capote wrote about a very different situation, “twinkled like Christmas-tree snow”). Gorgeous, without a doubt, but I was so focused on eating that I failed to make a pictorial representation.

Other dishes weren’t as top-notch. Love & Hummus’ falafel wrap was so-so — the falafel was dry, and the affair had too much bread (harsh words coming from this carb fiend). The ribs we had, origin unknown, were strikingly bland, offering only the faintest back-of-throat heat. If I’m going to eat exceedingly fatty meat from a bone, I want that meat to taste like something.

Then there were the foods both delicious and unphotogenic; I’m thinking here of the Scotch egg, with its deep yellow runny yolk, its encasement of spicy sausage. Tasty, natch, but not so easy on the eyes.

My favorite dish of the day, however, was home-cooked. Late in the afternoon, needing respite from the sun and the hungry hordes, John and I retired to my apartment to drink PBRs in the cool of the living room. Our discussion of the proper way to make scrambled eggs prompted John to prepare some, stuffed though we were. Heating a pan, John added a slab of butter* and salted it. He added no milk to the eggs. I didn’t watch the entire demonstration — I was occupied by cutting toast into toast points — and before I knew it, I was faced with a plate of creamy, pale-yellow curds.

They were so salty and so delicious. I piled them atop the points — Josey’s raisin bread with more of the aforementioned butter — and sighed.

“So you don’t add milk?” I confirmed.

“Nope,” said John, “just heavily salt the butter.”

A few bites later, I acknowledged the obvious: my scrambled eggs are something short of masterful. My toast points, on the other hand, are par excellence.

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*Organic, which I began buying at Ali’s suggestion. Might I just say that organic butter tastes leagues better than its conventional cousin? Doi, for sure, but I needed to put that out there: so long as I’m not living in the poorhouse, I will only ever again buy organic butter.

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The Best Things In Life Are Free

Some of the best things in life are free. Some of the best things also cost money.

This morning, Ali and I were hashing out some details about our upcoming road trip to GALESBURG(!) Ali said she’d pick up a 24-pack of bottled water to bring along.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Back up, moneybags! I’ll use my Nalgene.”

“Don’t even!” Ali replied. “The 24-pack is $2.49.

To which I responded, “$2.49? I spend that much each time I blink!” Then we LOLd for a bit about the thought of money shooting out of my eyes: how I could just quit my job and blink myself toward financial solvency. O, to generate eye money!

Taken on my last trip to Galesburg, which was, believe it or not, in January of ’08. #blasphemy

This conversation got me thinking: about road trippin’, for sure, but also about the issue of food costs relative to geography. Where I live, a single bottle of water can (easily) cost $2.49. (Sidenote: An ex and I once accidentally paid $10 for a bottle of Pellegrino: NOT EVEN JOKING. The watery Manhattan I ordered subsequently did little to alleviate the sticker-shock sting.) Where Sis lives, you can get a week’s worth of water for the same cost.

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost three years, and every time I  visit the Midwest, I’m surprised anew at the outlandishly low food costs there. Yes, the general cost of living is lower there; I just focus on the food. “Five dollars for a hamburger AND fries?” I find myself shrieking. “I’ll eat ALL THE HAMBURGERS!”

MIDWESTERN DINNER! Gotta love it.

I love my Adopted Homeland and can’t envision moving anywhere else, really, but the cost of living here has required me to get serious about savvy shopping. Where before I might let a pint of raspberries sprout fuzz, I now find ways to eat all the berries within a day or two of purchasing them. I use odds & ends of veggies as stir-fry fodder; I don’t eat much meat, except at restaurants. I purposely generate leftovers.

And I do still buy frivolous and expensive and unnecessary foods — just not as often as I hypothetically could. True, I do not need salt & vinegar chips, Pop-Tarts, or beer, but I enjoy these things and like to have them on hand.

Annnnnnnnnnyway, that backstory was a real roundabout way for me to introduce the newest addition to my blogroll: Frugal Feeding. I stumbled upon this blog today, dove in, and loved it. It has all my favorite attributes of a blog: gorgeous, simple photos; a modicum of snark; and recipes featuring peas. (Holla atcha, English peas!) Check it out!

I enjoy shopping — so much so that sometimes I have portraits made in fitting rooms.

As I see it, shopping and cooking frugally* aren’t about deprivation: they’re about using one’s resources wisely. It’s gross to think about, but I used to waste a hell of a lot of food, and why? Well, I didn’t plan meals; I’d let myself be lured in by bright endcaps and pseudosales; and I just like shopping, period. I’m not out of the woods yet, either — just yesterday, I tossed half a package of green beans that were growing shriveled and dark. I’m making progress, though, and taking pleasure in my craftiness.

I’m also taking pleasure in saving money for other things: traveling, records, crazy hair procedures!, all the red lipsticks, etc. etc. amen!

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*And being Just Generally Frugal.

You Better Shop Around

Earlier, I came upon this post on NPR’s The Salt. It oh-so-briefly discusses the grocery shopping habits of Boomers versus Millennials, concluding that the latter group’s habits 1) are kinda random; and 2) don’t bode well for traditional grocery stores.

Why do I post this link when you could easily access it via NPR? Because I want to make a few comments, of course! As a Millennial,* I can confirm the post’s central argument. I, like many kids I know, am hella disloyal to grocery stores. I frequent Safeway because it’s the closest grocer to my house, but if I had a choice I’d avoid it altogether. (Safeway, take note: your look-and-feel is awful.) Often, I buy produce from Casa Lucas, a small, independently run grocery store, and I pick up candy and other sundries from package stores. On the rare occasion that I make it to Target, I’m sure to stock up on dry goods: pastas, canned beans, and CHIPS(!)

Alright, then: I’ve provided enough examples to verify my scattershot shopping habits.

More interesting, perhaps, is a consideration of why my [our?] habits are as they are. Why do I venture to four different stores when I could do a week’s shopping in one fell swoop of a trip? My answer: it’s a blend of cheapness and convenience.

First up: cheapness! I’m always looking to save a buck (when possible) so said buck can be spent on something shiny & exciting. MAC lipsticks: shiny & exciting. Garbanzos: not so much. If I had my way, I’d shop at Whole Foods all the time, tossing triple-creme brie and figs and prosciutto into my basket, all willy-nilly like, but were I to do that I’d go broke in approximately five days.

See this? Shiny & exciting.

Because I am not a lady of fortune, I shop at Whole-Foods alternatives: Trader Joe’s and Safeway. I’m not claiming these stores are on par with WF; they are simply alternatives.

In seeming contraction to my frugality, I also value convenience w/r/t grocery shopping. If I’m tired after work — and, let’s face it: I almost always am — and I need summer squash, there’s no way in hell I’m traveling to Trader Joe’s. I’ll swing by the Safeway at 16th because it’s already on my way home. If I’m craving a candy bar late in the evening, ain’t no way I’m going to schlep to a proper grocer — I’m going to the corner store.

And this is where I get all the candy bars.

Bottom line: I’m not brand loyal. My friends, if I may speak for them, are not brand loyal, at least when it comes to food shoppes. Frequenting one grocery store seems odd and antiquated, but maybe that’s just my Millennial brain/values system at work?  Maybe it’s the product of my geography? Regardless, here are some truths: I’m easily lured by cheese sales, I’m drawn in by grocery stores as near as possible to mine home, and someday — mark my words — I’ll do all my grocery shopping at Whole Foods.

Image sources: [1], [2], [3]

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*At least according to Wikipedia, be-all/end-all source of knowledge.

In the News…

It’s been a good while since I shared some links, but this morning I read two articles (err, one article, one blog post) that captivated my oh-so-fleeting interest. And, in the interest of spreading the wealth, I’mma share these pieces with you!

Over at XOJane, Rebecca Kelley details how she fed her family for a month on a skimpy budget of $129.99(!) Honoring the whims of my inner grad student, I love (love, love) reading about cooking on a budget. Kelley’s account of her Hunger-Games-esque challenge is lighthearted and funny. It’s also a solid reminder that, yes, eating well on a shoestring requires extra effort and planning, but it can be done — and it isn’t as painful as one might think.

Rebecca Kelley: forager extraordinaire! (Photo taken from XOJane.com)

The second piece, written by Andrew Weil for HuffPo, considers the concept of Intermittent Fasting, which is, in effect, just as it sounds. Weil denounces Americans’ tendency to eat small, frequent meals — a practice, he maintains, that encourages constant eating — advocating instead for three squares a day punctuated by the occasional fast.

Full disclosure: I’ve never fasted, but I’m intrigued by the process. Some months ago, I attended an Ayurvedic cleanse workshop, though I’ve yet to, uh, actually go through with the cleanse. Weil’s piece reignited my interest in the topic; I’m gonna scan my Ayurvedic cookbook tonight! Stay tuned for updates on Ayurvedic cleansing: Garky Edition.

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Photo source: [1]

Meditations on Dim Sum

Another too-short weekend! I’m mightily glad the evenings are lighter — all the better for post-dinner strolls, my dear — but I have Strong Negative Feelings about waking up when it’s dark out. Once again, daylight savings has made this unenviable condition a personal reality.

Back to the start, though, the start being Friday night. Hit up Southern Pacific Brewing Company for burgers (I got the Black and Blue, as last time), Brussels Sprouts, and beers — or Manhattans, for those not in a beer-drinking mood. My Manhattan was on the sweeter end of the continuum; not undrinkably sweet, but sweet enough. Lesson learned: stick with beer. The burger and fries — oh, the fries! — were totally solid. The fries, slender and golden, were better than solid. They were impermeably good.

These are homemade Micheladas, created/enjoyed on Saturday night. They're not related to our trip to Southern Pacific except that these are alcoholic drinks, and we consumed alcohol at S.P. #tenuousconnections.

Southern Pacific may feel warehousey (which, duh: it’s in an old warehouse) and be packed with startup bros, but it’s meeting a critical consumer need: the need for good, decently priced food & drinks. Try finding that on Valencia, and ye shall be lost.

Saturday’s adventures took us to the Richmond, that infrequently visited land o’ yore. We’d planned to bike from our houses* to the ocean, stopping on the way back for lunch (ambitious!). As it happens, hunger waylaid us. (Are you surprised? We were not surprised.) We stopped at Good Luck Dim Sum — Alex’s favorite dim-sum joint in the city — for sustenance.

Full Disclosure: When Alex suggested dim sum, I made the “Hmmmmm” noise I make when I’m thinking “HELL NO!” but want to appear more open-minded than I’m actually feeling. Those who know me know this noise. Alex responded, “Wait, do you not want to go because you’re not in the mood for dim sum, or because you’re afraid of it?”

The latter, sadly. Prior to this weekend, I’d had dim sum once — and that was only by accident! I’m skittish about eating foods I can’t identify, foods with gelatinous textures, or foods that may or may not contain shrimp. BUT, in the spirits of Progress/Open-Mindedness/Overcoming Personal Failings, I said, “I’m scared, but let’s do it.” And we did.

What I liked most about this meal was the element of choice. Choice — choosing what I want to eat, how I want that food prepared, the fork I select, where I sit, etc. etc. ad nauseam amen — is one of my favorite parts of cooking and eating, and the choices available at Good Luck were damn impressive. As we waited to order, I gazed into the display case, admiring the tender coconut shreds blanketing the desserts, the golden symmetry of the sesame balls.

Perhaps I should modify that statement: I enjoyed the coupling of choice and excessiveness. I knew when I placed my order that there was no way I’d be eating all that food, but it was uniquely gratifying to carry that orange plastic tray, heaped with food, from the counter to the table, other diners looking on in curiosity or aghastness. The woman behind me in line actually said, referring to Alex’s order, “Oh, I thought that was for the two of you.” WHAT?

“Nope,” I said. Pause. Another pause. Woman looked a little nervous. “We do like to have leftovers,” I finally said.

Alex, looking so dapper and about to dig in.

My favorite bite, to be sure, was the sesame ball. I’m gaga for sesame: seeds, oil, whatever form I can get. It’s difficult for me to write about the ball because I have no basis for comparison, but I’ll say this: the interior bean paste kicked up the depth of flavor in a way that pleased me. Murky red, one shade darker than a kidney bean’s coat, the paste tasted ruddy. It tasted like it looked. Beautiful in contrast to the ball’s light exterior.

On the other end of the enjoyment spectrum was the scallion dumpling, the loser in my Personal Food Judgment Zone. I love scallions, and I love dumplings, so what could go wrong? MANY THINGS. I’ll break it down nice & simple: first, the dumpling’s skin was ueber-gelatinous, a texture that greatly displeased me. Second: the dumpling’s interior had only two visible ingredients: chopped scallions and shrimp (which were not listed in the item description!). Third: Well, I don’t have a third. I’ll just restate that the dumpling contained shrimp.

Scallions rock, but shrimp do not. Sorry, seafood lovers, but shrimp (to me) look like outsized bugs. Someday, I will try one, but that day is going to take weeks — months? Years? — of preparation. As it was, I was unprepared for shrimp and did not eat more than a nibble of the dumpling’s skin, and that was good enough for me.

Man, writing this is making me crave a sesame ball.

Dim sum. It’s not a Garky Tradition yet, but it’s on its way.

In other exciting news unrelated to everything I’ve just mentioned, my mom and sis are heading to town tomorrow (cascading applause!). Yep, We Three Troublemakers will be reunited and ready to nosh. Mom and I are going to bake Sys a special birthday cake, but we’ll undoubtedly sneak out for some treats, too: likely Papalote (sys’ favorite salsa in the city), Boulange (mom loves their breakfastssssss), and, if I have anything to say about it, MISSION PIE. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had one of their scones, and I’m getting itchy for one.

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*Well, from one of our houses, but just imagine us starting from a point directly between our two houses, if that is easier. Which it isn’t, because maybe you don’t know where Alex and I live? To simplify: we set out from Alex’s house.

Semi-Homemade: Thoughts on Convenience

This morning, I came upon Emily Matchar’s Hairpin article The First Sandra Lee: Poppy Cannon and Her Can-Opener Cuisine, and my brain perked up. I thought I was in for a real treat — the rhetorical equivalent of a triple-layer chocolate cake, cemented with layers of buttercream and lovingly scattered with flakes of chocolate. And I was in for a treat, though one by no means as decadent as the one I imagined — more of an intellectual sponge cake, soaked in low-rent rum and sprinkled with the zest of a shriveling orange.

Matchar begins with an introduction to Poppy Cannon: food editor, cookbook author, and lady about town. Cannon was no dolt; she knew good cuisine when she saw it, yet she elected to write about can-opener cooking. Such a decision brought criticism upon Cannon, who didn’t care — after all, she was makin’ money and livin’ the dream. (All together now: money talks and bullshit walks.)

Further into her post, Matchar compares Cannon to modern-day frozen-foods whiz Sandra Lee, who, like her predecessor, has come under heat for her “recipes.” Superficially, at least, the women are similar: both faced adversity as children and longed to get the hell out of Dodge; both profited enormously from their advocacy of quik-n-easy foodstuffs. But there the similarities end. Where Cannon was an innovator, Lee is merely upcycling a decades-old concept, repackaging it in a millennial-friendly manner.

At the time Cannon was writing, convenience foods were a relatively new concept. Canned foods had been around for a while, but TV dinners were viewed (so I’m told) as a miracle product — a way for housewives to provide their husbands with a warm, nourishing meal without spending hours in the kitchen.

Today, of course, heat-and-eat foods aren’t viewed with the same impunity. Reviled as junk and made the target of class-focused arguments, frozen meals and components are the red-headed stepchildren of the food world. Not as nutritionally void as Pringles, Twizzlers, and Pizza Rolls, frozen and canned foods are almost worse off; by asserting themselves as nutritive, they draw more contempt and cynical evaluation than they would otherwise.

But I’m not here to hate on canned foods; I’m here to examine the critical difference between Poppy Cannon and Sandra Lee. Matchar draws comparisons between the women to illustrate her point about convenience-food haters. She quotes chef Michael Ruhlman, who claims that cooking with other people and eating homemade food is “part of what makes us human.” Retorts Matchar, “unlike Ruhlman, both Sandra Lee and Poppy Cannon understood that some full-blooded human beings actually find cooking a giant pain in the ass.”

Which is true — some people do find cooking a major pain in the ass. I’m not one of those people. What Matchar fails to acknowledge is that Sandra Lee doesn’t cater to people who truly find cooking a pain in the ass. Those individuals have available to them a glorious array of fully prepared, fairly nutritious meals; every supermarket has a frozen section filled with fully prepared meals, and more and more markets have salad or hot bars with entrees ready to be eaten. People who actually hate cooking rely on these options. Or they eat at restaurants. Or they wait for others to cook for them.

On the contrary, Lee targets people who like the idea of cooking, who view the process as something valuable, but for whatever reason don’t want to engage in the process from start to finish. If Lee’s target demo didn’t care for cooking at all, they’d open a can of Dinty Moore and call it a day. Even the title of Lee’s show (Semi-Homemade) acknowledges the value of a homemade meal. Matchar miscategorizes Lee’s audience and, as a result, weakens her argument.

Cannon, who aimed her book at “working girls,” was writing at a time when women had recently gained the option to enter the workforce. The necessity of balancing work life and domestic tasks was a new one for many women. Not so for Lee’s audience. That is to say, many women (and men) still struggle to balance their work and home lives, but the struggle itself is nothing new.

Lee’s purpose isn’t to alleviate the struggle; it’s to stoke the self-esteem of people who want to make homemade meals but are too lazy. Her recipes occupy a strange doldrummy space: hideously unappetizing, they require a decent — but not an overwhelming — amount of prep. They yield products that are pointillistically “homemade;” get closer to the table and you’ll recognize that that gorgeous pie is really just graham-cracker crumbs topped with cherry sludge and Reddi-Whip. Failing on the levels of nutrition and taste, Lee’s recipes are little more than window dressing.

Maybe Cannon’s are, too, but they’re the window dressing of an earlier era, a time during which such a classification held different cultural associations. Food snobbery has always existed, but its targets were different in 1951 than currently. Matchar’s primary oversight is her failure to acknowledge the very different cultures in which Cannon and Lee worked.

Matchar is right: there are people for whom cooking is a giant pain in the ass. There are also people for whom cooking is a semi pain in the ass, and those people are the followers of Lee.

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Image sources: [1], [2], [3], [4]

Confession: Your Post Makes You Sound Like a Douchelaser

It’s true: I’ve spent my last few posts bitching and moaning about Annoying Things I Have Read, and this is the last such tirade (for now). BUT, when I stumbled on this SFist post, titled Confessions Of A San Francisco Parent: Babies In Restaurants Aren’t A Problem, I couldn’t resist. I am, after all, only human.

I’ll say this up front, lest I sound like a crazy, kid-hating bitch: I don’t hate children. I like children! They wear adorable, baby-sized Ray Bans and sometimes say funny things! Human life! Perpetuation of the species & c!

You know what I hate? Smug parents. Smug people in general, but smug parents in particular. I also have megaqualms with misleading article titles, several of which SS and I have encountered on this very day.

The title of the article post in question led me to believe that the author would defend parents who bring their yawling tots to nice restaurants. “Fucking A,” I thought, “another of those folks,” by which I mean folks who consider their own needs above everyone else’s.* But no: the post falls into another category altogether — that of the ill-formed line of argumentation, the absent thesis, the plague of blah-ness.

Rather than positing that, No, babies in restaurants are not annoying and here’s why, the author admits that babies in restaurants can be annoying:

To our dismay and frustration, at the next table was a little girl. She wasn’t crying or screaming. She was watching Dora the Explorer on full blast on her personal DVD player …We were livid.

The author understands (abstractly, at least) that yes, a crying child can wreck other patrons’ dining experiences. She goes so far as to say, “I understand how disruptive a child in a restaurant can be, especially when you’re paying big bucks…” One point for insight! That the author identifies the problem undermines the other half of her argument: because the crying child isn’t mine, it isn’t a problem.Whoa, whoa, whoa: back up. You’re saying that because you can block out the shrieks of kids (or that you can pretend said shrieks aren’t annoying), those shrieks aren’t a problem? I love this logic! Let’s apply it to other so-called problems:

“You know, I’ve never experienced genocide, so it’s NOT A PROBLEM.”

“My parents were killed when their car was struck by a meth-head driving a conversion van. BUT, because it’s not happening to me in the current moment, it’s NOT A PROBLEM.”

To review: the author admits that, yes, loud children can indeed disrupt a dining experience. She also claims that, unless the loud-ass kids are her own, they aren’t a problem because SHE doesn’t have to deal (“deal”) with them. Never mind those other diners who have to, uh, listen to the kids. D. Hanousek’s post could have been reduced to a single line: “The world revolves around meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

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*And, let’s be honest: parents who bring colicky-ass babies to restaurants are doing exactly that. Whatever the cause — inability or unwillingness to find a babysitter, obsession with one’s offspring, desire to tote one’s kids to All Public Places — the result is the same: other diners’ needs are infringed upon.

Image sources: [1], [2]