You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming

http://chicago.eater.com/archives/2011/11/03/franks-n-dawgs-peking-duck-dawg.php

Just read about this on Eater Chicago.  Going to try on Saturday.

Adapted from Frank O’Hara’s “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” by me.

You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming

Vaguely I hear my stomach rumble in the car of the Red Line El
It gurgles nervously and softly like I do when I’m embarrassed
normally I don’t notice the sound but today I’m hungry
concrete Rimbaud obscurity of hunger which is simple and very definite
ever recurring, yes even after dinner last night, the death of fullness
Leaving Hyde Park itself may destroy you in the pure air
to be further satiated, fed, filled but emptying, exposed to food

With thoughts of dinner last night falling away as an acceleration of rumbles thundering and shaking
aims its aggregating force like the Metro towards a realm of encircling travel
rending the sound of adventure and becoming ultimately local and intimate
repeating the scales of a primal craving which is constantly refreshed by the
endless originality of hot dog makers the air the stumbling quiet of breathing
newly the heavens’ stars all out we are all for the Peking duck hot dogs

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Part-Time President of the Clean Plate Club

A question I get asked a lot is “So, are your parents, like, really into food, too?”

This question doesn’t have a simple answer.  At best, it has a compound answer (since I have two parents).
But I would say neither of my parents has a great love of food.  My mother eats small portions of simple food, usually quite slowly.
My father is often very busy with his work, leading him to eat quickly and indiscriminately.

Neither of them are very invested in food, which is fine.  Food, I think, is another one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it.  Sometimes I think I could be just as interested in video games or coleopterology, but I guess somewhere along the line I chose food.

I wonder sometimes how much people really enjoy food, relative to one another.  I went to an exhibit at the Renaissance society about two weeks ago where the assistant director gave us a tour.  During the tour, he mentioned that he never liked to go to art shows with friends and family.  Just a day earlier, I started thinking about how I’ve stopped going to the movies with my friends and family.  When I was in high school, and especially the summer after high school, going out to eat and watching movies at the cineplex constituted a huge part of social interaction.  Of course, there were kids (especially math/science kids) who liked to go on hikes together and other people (more mainstream math/science kids and the people they were friends with) would go rock climbing.  And there were other people who liked to do other things.  But eating and going to the movies were the two generic, agreeable passive activities people my age would tend toward.  And it made sense for us to do them when we did get together.  Each activity would take up about three hours of time, which is about the length of time you can appropriately multitask and make small talk without running out of things to say.

So, I think my own interest in food really developed the summer after I graduated high school, when there was nothing else to do.  I had a car, no job, a decent amount of money saved up and no shortage of dining companions.  Since food was really the only decision I had to make, I started spending lots of time drawing up lists of things I wanted to try.  Within a few months, I acquired a good  breadth of knowledge of South bay dining options.  Similarly, my goal for last quarter was to gain an introduction to haute cuisine in Chicago.  I decided to retire my project this quarter and focus on something new.  So I decided to try writing.

I did want at some point to clarify that I don’t really think of this as a “food blog” (even though I sometimes refer to it as “my food blog”).  In my mind, it’s really more of an eating blog.  Additionally, I’ve never considered myself (nor have I referred to myself as) a foodie.  I know the term “foodie” isn’t exactly well-defined, but there’s something about it which I find off-putting.  When I hear “foodie”, my mind processes the word as a portmanteau of food and yuppie.  A foodie (to me) is a person who gets overexcited when things like bacon or cupcakes or bacon cupcakes come up in conversation.  I find this sort of reaction is contrary to my understanding of my own relationship with food.  I like to think that I care about food just the right amount, or at least approach it with a basic rationality.  I don’t think food should be treated as an object of worship or subject to fanaticism, but with thoughtfulness, reflection, and moderation.

Coming from me, that last word may have caused some of you to choke on your coffee, but it’s true.  To further clarify, for me, competitive eating and regular eating are two distinct ideas.  It takes a relatively small amount of food to satiate me (small relative to the amount it takes to actually make me full).  I like to eat and I like to compete, but when it comes time to competitively eat I’m all about the sport as opposed to gluttony.  That being said, I’ve never been one to leave portions of uneaten food on my plate (more as a display of frugality and appreciation than overindulging).  But either way, I think a good attitude toward food requires a degree of self control, which is often downplayed or omitted by self-described foodies.  Lately I’ve been realizing that truly enjoying eating requires taking food down from its pedestal and appreciating it for what it is, rather than glorifying and objectifying it.

While most of you had probably reasoned out these conclusions years ago, these are the food thoughts which have been going through my mind this week.

Happy eating,
L

Since I've received some complaints about my posts being large blocks of texts without any pictures of food to break them up. Dinner from Saturday - Oxtail Pho from Pho 888.


The Best Thing Ever.

=
OhGodOhGodOhGod

Quail Egg Raviolo at from Schwa

Quail egg, ricotta, brown butter, parmigiano-reggiano, white truffle

I can’t think of anything I’ve eaten before or since which has made me feel the same way.  Of course, having read up on Schwa before going, I was anticipating this course as soon as our reservation was confirmed.  But nothing could’ve prepared me.  It was like eating sunshine.

Why do I consider this to be the best eating experience I’ve ever had?

Whether I should or shouldn’t, I turn to food to find contentment and satisfaction.  The single-minded pursuit of finding food is obviously primal at the core, but beyond the basic provision of nourishment, there are several much more complex factors at play.

Finding great food is a detailed process of optimization.  The most obvious factors to consider are price, nutrition, taste, and convenience, but there are many more which I will not enumerate now.  Suffice to say, many of these factors can be left out of the decision making process, but the more they are considered, the more likely the experience is to go from good to great.  All of these factors contribute overall to a happiness quotient, which can then be augmented through reflection and meditation.  Even in writing this post now, I am deriving satisfaction from an experience which occurred in the past.

But at the time of eating, I felt fulfillment and happiness.  As I tasted the raviolo, the luxury of the flavor and texture were intoxicating.  It wasn’t until after I finished that I noticed my dining companions were laughing at me in disbelief.

I’m not sure if it’s vulgar to enjoy food so much (especially in public), but if I can find a way to replicate that raviolo I swear I will never leave my house.


Sandwich Optimization Problem – An Homage to Sandwiches

I love sandwiches.  All kinds of sandwiches.  From tea sandwiches to 3 foot subs, I adore sandwiches.  Sandwiches are the ideal food.  Portable, nutritious, and versatile.  I would eat a sandwich anywhere.

Some of you may be wondering what my all time favorite sandwich is.  While I usually have trouble deciding between food, I have a very clear favorite in this case.  Almost.

The best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.

The second best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was also at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.

Mmm... Oh God.

I wish you could taste this right now.

A bit of background: Yountville is located in the Napa Valley and has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita anywhere in the world.  The town is centered almost entirely around gourmet food and world class spas.  Several of the restaurants in Yountville are headed by the man many consider to be the best living American chef: Thomas Keller.  Bouchon is his bakery.

When I was vacationing there last March with my mother, we shared a turkey sandwich and a portobello sandwich with a beef jus. (Side note: a picnic is the perfect place to share two sandwiches.  I’m a big believer in Diminishing Marginal Return of Food, and I love to sample, so I’d almost always rather eat two halves of two different sandwiches than one whole sandwich.  I think it’s a little strange to do this if you’re eating the sandwich in the same place it was made though.)  Both sandwiches far exceeded my expectations.

To this day, I really can’t say which I liked more.  I remember that lunch as being one of those rare moments in which two halves of the different sandwiches complemented each other in playful conversation.  It was just a great sandwich eating experience, all around.  A perfect Northern Californian spring day with two beautiful sandwiches and a box full of pastries.

Which brings me to my next point: what makes a great sandwich?

Going off of the ideal set by Bouchon, a great sandwich doesn’t need to have a lot of ingredients.  Nor does it need to have a lot of height and heft.  What I liked most about the sandwiches I had at Bouchon was the perfect ratio of ingredients.  Sometimes I feel sandwiches can have too many ingredients with dull flavor.  Sometimes sandwich makers will try to compensate for this by putting a lot of substance between the bread.  That’s not what makes a perfect sandwich though.  (At least, not in my mind.)

A perfect sandwich is manageable and minimalist, while still expressing a coherent idea.  The turkey sandwich was a riff on the classic turkey-cranberry-cheese sandwich, but the coleslaw-relish added a perfectly balanced bright crunchiness.  No unnecessary pickle-lettuce-tomato (filler).  The portobello was perfect as well.  Crunchy fresh baked bread, mushrooms tender in a way no deli meat could ever be, and swiss cheese adding a perfect gooey richness to each bite.  The jus was unbelievably beefy without being overly salty.  And I would even argue the compactness of the sandwich and manageability of each bite made it easier to focus on the flavors and textural interplay.  With sandwiches, less is more.

I’ve had some good sandwiches in Chicago.  Bari’s makes good italian style subs and focaccia sandwiches with great cheeses and cured meats.  XOCO is a fun place to go (I’ve had the ahogada and cuban, both very good).  I’ve yet to try Grahamwich (I think I’ll give them a try in the next few weeks now that it seems they’ve worked out their kinks.)

As far as sandwich chains go, I’d have to side with Potbelly’s over Jimmy John’s.  I would prefer either to Subway.  They’re all fairly comparable in price, but Subway uses terrible ingredients and sandwich making technique.  Plus, when I go to Subway I feel as though I’m in a public restroom.  Potbelly’s has a better meat to bread ratio overall and their sandwiches produce the most optimal bites (good distribution of ingredients).  I also prefer the menu options at Potbelly’s to JJ’s.

I’m not really sure how to conclude this string of thoughts on sandwiches so I’ll end with this fact:
Americans eat 45 billion sandwiches each year.  (source)


The Highly Anticipated Return of UChiFood

Hey everyone,

It’s been a grueling fourth week but it’s good to be writing about food again.  I think now is as good a time as any to make some formal announcements.

The First:

I’m interested in building a team to attempt this challenge: http://bartolinis.com/85bart.pdf

We’ll compete either this weekend or the next (2/6 or 2/12) and I’m fielding a team of four so there are three spots to fill.
Since I think there are more than three people interested in competing, I’m going to hold a preliminary competition in South Campus Dining Hall later this week.

The Second:

I’m planning on spending Chinese New Year dinner in Chinatown at Lao Sze Chuan.  If anyone is interested in going, they should email me and I will make reservations appropriately.

The Third:

BJ Iron Chef is happening next Saturday!  The theme will be announced at 9:00 AM this Saturday morning.  I will post a description of the competition and the menu we design when it is over.  If you’re in Linn Mathews and interested in participating, I will definitely be there.  Or, just come watch.  But it’s sure to be a lot of fun.  I am going to take this very seriously.

Relevant Rules:

BJ Iron Chef Competition 2011

The BJ Iron Chef competition will take place on Saturday, February 5. The theme will
be announced at 9 a.m. House teams will then shop and cook and bring their tasty
concoctions to Judson Lounge for judging at 5:00 p.m.

Each of the 6 houses of BJ dormitory will be invited to produce 1 team of Iron Chefs.
Houses will be limited to $35 for shopping for preparation of their prodigious meal
platters. Houses will be expected to show receipts both to provide (inconclusive) proof
that they have not exceeded the expenditure limit and in order to be reimbursed by the
beneficent Masters. Houses are not allowed to tap into their funds, even if they have
raised copious amounts of money by selling “ What Would Durkheim Do?” T-shirts on E-
bay.

The theme will be announced on Saturday, February 5, at 9:00 a.m. by email to the
BJ listhost, and the house teams will have to submit a meal of 3 or 4 dishes whose
relevance to the theme they can articulate with suave and pithy U of C eloquence –even
though of course the ultimate proof will be in the pudding (or soufflé)! Possible (though
highly unlikely) themes could be e.g., “ The Culinary Core (With Carrots!),” “ That Kid’ s
Caramelized Onion Comeuppance,” “ We Make It All from Scratch, NOT SCRH.” 2
NEW THIS YEAR: Each team should also prepare three copies of a menu with the
house’ s name and a list of their dishes, which will help the judges remember who is who
and what is what and be edifying for all.

The judges will consist of a distinguished panel of 3 hungry yet discerning VIPS
(Andrew Abbott, Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor
in the Department of Sociology and the College; John Boyer, Martin A. Ryerson
Distinguished Service Professor in History and Dean of the College, and Jolie N.
Nahigian, food culture scholar, co-instructor of Anthropology 25305 [“ Anthropology
of Food and Cuisine” ], and former sous-chef at world-famous restaurant, Charlie
Trotter’ s, Chicago). The dishes presented should therefore be large enough and divisible
enough for each judge to get a tantalizing morsel and houses may choose to prepare 3
separate plates containing all their dishes for easy tasting by each of the 3 judges. The
scrumptious scraps will go to the contestants and bystanders (in a manner to be peaceably
determined at the event).

The teams’ creations will be scored according to two basic categories: taste and
creativity. “ Taste” refers to (yes, you guessed it, ever-so-quick BJer!) taste; “ creativity”
refers to the creative process that went into the platter’ s concoction, including its
surprising yet incontrovertible pertinence to the designated theme; attractive or
interesting presentation; and the house teamwork that the platter ideally exudes like
aroma.

The judges will taste each house platter, consult the house menu, listen to the brief house
patter, ask any questions they have, and then retire well-nourished to top-secret Judson
Library to make a speedy yet judicious decision. While the houses eagerly await the
judges’ unerring judgment, they will be sustained by study-break foodstuffs and soothing
background music. The judges will return to announce the first and second-place winners.
Awesome prizes will be distributed. Although in the end, we all know prizes are mere
supplements to The Glory, the true motivating force behind BJ competitions. Everybody
will go home sated and proud to have been part of the SIXTH ANNUAL BJ IRON CHEF
COMPETITION. Yeah!

(rules written by the eminent Josh Scodel.)

I hope to see you all there!

Also, brief food update: although most evenings this week were met with disappointing dinners from the dining hall or pre-packaged shrink-wrapped box, the next week promises to be a great week in food.  I’m planning on having Chinese New Year dinner, dinner at Kuma’s (finally), and probably somewhere interesting and exciting on Saturday.

In  the near future: expect a review of my experience at Z&H last week, a review of my dinner at Les Nomades, a review of dinner at Schwa, and possibly some discussion of the significance of plating (particularly following my involvement in Iron Chef).  Also, an overview of restaurant week and my top picks for lunch and dinner.

As a side note, I will be instituting an open door policy this Thursday for my room starting at 11:00 am to the time I leave for dinner at Chinatown.  Feel free to stop by, say hi, and hang out for a bit.  We can talk about food or other things (if it comes to that).


Surviving on the UChi Dining Plan

This may sound silly, but I almost never have a desire to eat dining hall food.  I know everyone complains about it, but I actually would sometimes rather not eat than eat in the dining hall.  Case in point: last week I ate in the dining hall three times.

It’s not because I’m prissy.  (I’m not.)  Last week I went to Harold’s twice.  There are a lot of days I would rather make the trip to Harold’s and pay $3 for a meal than go to the dining hall for a free dinner.

I don’t eat in the dining hall often because I rarely find satisfaction in dining hall food.  Some of you have heard me say this before, but dining hall food leaves me feeling physically full and spiritually empty.  My extreme indifference toward dining hall food comes from what I acknowledge to be an unorthodox attitude toward food: I eat because I want to find enjoyment and fulfillment, not because I’m hungry.  I can comfortably go more than a day without eating, and I can also eat a good amount of food in one sitting.

I don’t expect anyone to adopt this viewpoint (it’s admittedly not very healthy), but most people can appreciate a good meal.  Food matters to all of us, it’s just an unusually high priority for me.  That being said, I did not start a blog so I could complain about food over a thousand words a day.  I’m actually a very proactive person.

So, some constructive criticism and guidelines for coping with dining hall offerings (this applies mostly to South Campus Dining):

1.  Get eggs for breakfast.  Real eggs, not those powdered military rations they prepare by the tubful.  And don’t be afraid to ask for less oil and other modifications.  Instead of an omelette, I usually ask for a scramble.  This improves the overall texture of the egg, in my opinion.  As always, this is a matter of personal preference.

2.  Biscuits or toast with honey butter and a dash of cinnamon or salt.  Admittedly, not very nutritious.  But I’m usually provided with a sense of home-style comfort.

3.  Pizza with oregano.  And other seasonings, on the right of the pizza bar.  This is available most of the time in the dining hall.

4.  Grilled cheese.  Assemble a grilled cheese at the sandwich bar with bread and cheese of your liking.  Take it to the grill station and patiently wait 10-20 minutes to get someone’s attention.  Ask them nicely to grill your sandwich for you.  Make sure it is cut diagonally.  This actually makes the sandwich taste better, since there are more bites with a preferable crust/non-crust ratio.  (opinion)

5.  Always toast your pita.  One run through the toaster can resuscitate cold, stale pita for a few minutes, giving you enough time to eat it before it turns back to stone.  Two runs can further improve texture and temperature or potentially kill it again.  Choose wisely.

6.  Mix and match different stations.  Make a chicken sandwich out of the breaded chicken breast at the euro station (usually a decent option in its own right).  Add some cheese from the salad bar to your baked potato.  Put some guac in your salad.

There’s also a really simple sauce I make at home you can try: peanut butter + soy sauce + sugar, microwaved.  Some variations include sriracha (rooster hot sauce) and vinegar.  Mix the three ingredients in an approximately 2:2:1 ratio and pour over tofu, noodles, or blanched vegetables.

There are more variants others have come up with.  Some girls microwave spinach and water to boil it.  Spencer tops off soda water with apple juice (I really like this combination.  It’s been my dining hall beverage of choice for some time now.)  What most of these variants have in common is an emphasis on simple, unfussy meals.  I generally find the more work the dining hall puts into developing something new, the more likely it is to be inedible.

Do you know of any good dining hall mods?  Perhaps we can work together to make a more palatable dining experience.


Paying for Food – An Unpleasant Reality for Some

I love food, but I don’t always have money to eat whatever I want.  And I don’t always have someone paying for me.

Growing up in an Asian household, I was trained at a young age to intercept the bill from the waiter when my parents dined with friends.  Kind of like how some animals are trained to retrieve fruit, but more theatrical.  Service at Chinese restaurants (where we often ate with company) is spontaneous and unpredictable.  Toward the end of the meal, my mother would continue to make pleasant conversation while surreptitiously scanning the restaurant for approaching waiters.  She was very good at this.

When the bill finally reached the table, every person above the age of 30 would start their case for why they should pay.  This was actually the climax of the meal.  Eventually, someone would pay and everything would die down.

Things are a little different now that I’m a student.  Settling the bill still a precarious situation, but in a much more understated fashion.

When dining in groups, look for me to curse under my breath when it turns out that more than two people “only have a card.”  I’m not going to go on a rant about this, but to all the people who do this regularly (more than once a month): you knew this was going to happen.  You knew you were going to go out and eat and at the end, the bill would come and you would have to pay for yourself.  Don’t look surprised and helpless as you pull out your VISA/Mastercard.  What did you think was going to happen?

The moral to this: if you are eating in a group and your food costs less than $20, you should pay with cash.

If you are in a group of more than eight people at a restaurant and the totals for each person are fairly comparable (+/- 15% from the average) it might make sense for each person to pay one eighth of the bill to expedite the payment process.  Do not suggest this if you ordered the most expensive item on the menu and four glasses of wine.

If you are in a situation with the potential for one person to cover the bill (like a date) it can be uncomfortable settling the check.  Generally, whoever chooses the restaurant pays unless an alternative plan is expressly communicated otherwise.  It’s okay for the woman to defer to the man, and follow his lead.  If she likes him, she should allow him to pay for dinner and demonstrate her gratitude accordingly (interpret this however you like).  Otherwise, she should make a move to go Dutch and pay for herself, but not insist on this.  Offering once is enough.  Insisting can be rude.  (A disclaimer: I’m a traditionalist.)  Beyond this, the man should not pay every time.  Whether or not he is wealthy, it’s silly to pay for five dates in a row.  Doing this will not make your date like you more.  In fact, if you do this she will probably not take you very seriously.

There’s no rule of thumb, but as always, use taste and judgment.  And if you do end up paying don’t quibble over a few dollars.  Eating out should provide comfort and convenience, not concerns over dwindling funds.

"I Got This"