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AskTP – July Fly By

July 17, 2014

It’s been over a month since my last reconciliation. That means I’ve been in New Jersey, New York (including a visit to Flushing), Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania (twice). On top of all the travel, I’ve loaded and unloaded a truck filled with my family’s worldly possessions (twice).

Later today it’s Hoffman’s Playland. Before you know it I’ll be in a cabin by a lake in the Poconos. Then it’s some time on the farm, my cousin’s wedding weekend in New Hampshire, and with any luck I’ll be able to find some time for a few days in East Hampton.

Summer is fun, but it’s crazy busy.

No wonder there hasn’t been time to answer all of your questions. And there have been a lot. But I am committed to answering every question that is asked in the comments section of the FLB, just so long as it uses proper punctuation. So without any further ado, let’s get to it.

Burnt My Fingers didn’t take kindly to my thoughts on his Amish white whale:
Tourist trap? Quite the opposite. I have been on the hunt ever since the waitress at Dienner’s said, “if you’re looking for the seven sweets and seven sours, you missed it by 30 years!” I love that kind of a challenge.
Also, you don’t really mean U-Haul, right? You’re using it as a generic term, yes? Please tell me you’re not moving with U-Haul.

Here is a quote from William Woys Weaver on the seven sweets and seven sours,“This tradition was created at a hotel in Montgomery County — it’s not Pennsylvania Dutch at all.” Incidentally, Mr. Weaver is the author of the book As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. So he’s not exactly a lightweight. You can read more here, if you like. |

And I did mean U-Haul. The experience wasn’t without its bumps, but it was fine.

derekthezenchef asked a couple of fundamental questions:
You mentioned in the ABOUT page that you started this blog to help people appreciate and care about really good food. How do you define that? And, how do you measure success or progresses toward that goal?

Good food comes in many shapes and forms. To try and create some clarity around the issue, I wrote the Fussy Manifesto: On Good Food. The important part is that it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. There are bonus points for clean food, but there is more and more clean food that doesn’t quite live up to its promise. So it does get complicated.

Measuring success or progress towards getting people to care about such things locally is a bit of a squishier task. Part of it has to do with keeping a close eye on the local restaurant scene. As more small ethnic restaurants open, and enough eaters are adventurous enough to try new cuisines and keep these establishments in business, I count that in the win column. As old line places like Reel Seafood revamp their menu for a younger crowd and focus on sustainable sourcing, I count that as a win.

But it goes beyond that as well. When DeFazio’s appears on the Best of the Capital Region poll results, that’s a win too. When the Times Union starts writing about new and interesting ethnic restaurants, that’s progress.

There is still work to be done, but the good news is that progress is being made.

Steve Barnes thought that my piece about Mexican Radio could have been stronger:
if you’re going to spend 1,100-plus words making your case for refusing to go simply on principle, why wouldn’t you at least try to get an answer to your question about the meats they use? There’s no indication you did more than check the restaurant’s website. If you’re willing to devote what had to be a minimum of an hour writing this post, why not actually contact the restaurant instead of simply reading the menu online? You say, “I would love to find out that I’m wrong and that Mexican Radio sources ethically raised meat for their beef, chicken and pork.” So why not try to find out?

Some people think this blog is a full time gig for me. It’s not. Mostly the writing happens late at night. This has implications for getting quotations from restaurant owners. More serious pieces I write for other sources get more careful treatment. But thanks to the modern age, there is plenty of research that can be done from the comfort of one’s own home. For the record, I did do more than just read the restaurant’s menu. I read interviews with the owners and found a list of farms from which they buy ingredients. There was nothing on the subject of meat.

One of the great things about the internet is you can put questions out into the ether and the answers come back to you. It’s amazing. Just look what happened recently with my CSA. So far, nobody has come back with any information about Mexican Radio other than the one I expected.

Rob W. is suspicious about Whole Foods and its sustainability claims:
Sure they are. I just wonder, how does selling products made by 60-cent a day prison labor square with this commitment?

All stories have two sides. Here’s a statement from the makers of the goat cheese (that’s sold in Whole Foods) about buying their goat milk from a prison-run goat dairy. It offers compelling counterpoints. The issue of underpaid labor in the food system is huge, and it spans from the undocumented migrant workers in the fields to interns at some of the fanciest restaurants in the world. But to thoroughly discuss the topic intelligently, you’ll need to engage a sociologist.

Katie put a question out into the ether and has been patiently waiting for an answer:
Who makes the best carrot cake around here?

The guy who runs Isn’t It Sweet on New Scotland Ave is convinced that he does. Actually his confidence is so inspiring that I’m inclined to believe it without even taking a bite. But I’m not actually a big carrot cake eater, so I can’t say.

That said, I’m sure if you gave Crisan or Sweet Sue’s enough time, they could make you something extraordinary. If you are looking for something off the shelf, Zachary’s, which opened an outpost on State Street could be a good bet too. I hear it’s where the Governor goes for his cakes. Although given the history his special lady friend has with cakes, his taste may be in doubt. Anyone else?

Burnt My Fingers wants more details on this “clean” beef thing:
Niman Ranch beef is grass fed, grain finished. Your subtext is that grass fed is a vector of “clean” beef. Care to expand on that sometime?

Sure. Steers have four stomachs so they can eat grass. Grass is good for them. They love corn, because it’s like candy to them. And like candy, it makes them fat. Fat is tasty. My buddy chef Noah is Texan. He likes his beef grass fed and grain finished. Maybe it doesn’t have the claimed uber-health benefits of grass fed and finished. But I think food should be about pleasure and not an edible form of medicine (preventative or otherwise).

To me, “clean” beef is raised without any drugs or injections. Yes, steers get sick. Yes, they should be treated. But I’ll pay a premium to keep that once-sick steer off my plate. Segregate him from the herd, thankyouverymuch.

Ideally, I’d like them tested for BSE too. But “clean” beef shouldn’t have that issue, because supplementing feed with chicken waste (which contains chicken feed made from rendered cows) isn’t clean at all. Grass fed and finished simplifies a lot of issues, because a grain based feed can contain a lot of other nasty ingredients. Not that it can’t be done, it just takes extra care and an added level of trust.

Aaron M. has a huge question and a full answer could be several book lengths:
So, the lamb itself may come from a farm 10 miles down the road, but that farm may have also had to use more fertilizer, burn more fossil fuels to run their tractors to get their soil just right, etc. etc., and the things needed to do that likely came from thousands of miles away. Perhaps I’m recounting an example that has hence been shown to be bunk, but given other ‘somethings’ that I’ve seen about small farms and abuses of farm labor, at the very least it raises the question of what is the calculus that we are trying to achieve? If it’s less ecological impact and better working and living conditions for agricultural labor, then a fair evaluation of, say, Australian grass fed beef on an 8,000 boat journey versus 100-mile radius local grass-fed beef needs to consider all of the inputs, not just transportation infrastructure.

You make a fair point. Not all farms are set up to raise grassfed animals. Local isn’t the be all, end all. And it may not always make the most sense from an ecological perspective. But I do think an emphasis on local food is good way to try and keep small to midsized American farmers on their land. But it is also important to find incentives for small farmers to raise food in a more earth friendly way. Encouraging more opportunities for farmers and consumers to interact goes a long way to achieving those ends. But that’s just a starting place. To get bigger systemic change, we have to find some way to bridge the gap between bigger businesses and smaller farms. Chipotle had seemingly been a supporter of that ideology, and it’s disheartening to see them turn to large scale agriculture abroad.

enough already! snuck a question mark into a comment on my post about slave shrimp:
Thanks for this informative, as well as eye-opening, piece. I hope you will be able to do this type of post more often (?). I appreciate this one as well as those you have done in the past.

It’s my pleasure. I’m glad to do my part and will keep an eye out for stories like this in the future.

Lorres has real maple syrup on the mind:
And what about the differences between geographic areas? Are Vermont maple syrups very different than New York syrups, or Connecticut? etc. This begs for more pancakes, er…tasting.

Funny you should mention this, because just last weekend I was with one of my Canadian friends, and she had a library of syrups from across the provinces. She seemed reluctant to serve me the Grade B cooking syrup instead of her more prized (and expensive) clear syrup from Montreal. Maybe one day I can convince her to open up some cans for a Trans-Canadian Tasting.

Masticating Monkey is in one of those later stages of grief:
I found this list to be disheartening, but maybe we should also be disheartened by the lack of good and interesting restaurants opening up in this area in the past year?

How I became an optimist about food in the Capital Region remains a mystery to me. But if there is any silver lining, perhaps its that this year there are already a bunch of really interesting restaurants that have opened. Can’t say yet if any of them are good. But I am excited about giving them a go.

Burnt My Fingers is joking, but yet he demands an answer:
Also, why do we need two categories for Chinese/Japanese/Korean and Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese ? It’s all the same, right? (That was a question.)

Looking at the history of the Times Union poll and the history of ethnic restaurants in the region, these categories make some amount of sense. Even with my limited time in Albany, I recall Ta-Ke. It was yet another Teppanyaki/Hibachi restaurant, but one that also had a Korean menu. Ichiban is an area staple which is a Chinese restaurant with a Japanese name (plus sushi bar). And what East Coast chinese takeout place won’t make you chicken teriyaki? That takes care of the first category.

For years, Albany only had one Vietnamese place, My Linh. And until just recently the only place you could go for Indonesian street food was Yono’s, provided you are willing to pay fine dining prices for those flavors. Thai is a much more robust category, but I imagine people would have been incensed if there was no room for Yono’s or My Linh in the Best of the Capital Region list. So despite their obvious differences, these three cuisines got lumped into the same category.

Chef Paul is sick of all the negativity on Internet comment threads:
I recently read an article about the opening of Whole Foods. What followed was some nasty mud slinging that left me thinking . . . WHY????

People take their grocery stores in this region very seriously.

enough already! wants to give me the diabetes:
How about a tour de croissant aux amandes? Certainly mrs London’s, but there are others, including placid baker. You could also weigh in price vs weight for best value.

Oh dear. I don’t think I could to it. I love Mrs. London’s plain butter croissant, but to take such a light and delicate thing and subject it to the torrent of sugary goo that encrusts her version of croissant aux amandes is simply indecent. That said, I think doing a cross-region croissant tasting could be interesting. But instead of giving bonus points for weight, I’d want to find a way of rewarding those places with the restraint to make croissants appropriately small.

Burnt My Fingers may have been underwhelmed with my post Eleven:
Is this your shortest post ever?

Nope. It’s 141 words. The Fussy Manifesto is a mere 96.

Zena, Goddess of Fire was hoping for treats from New Jersey:
Welcome back. Did you bring us all some of that tomato pie???

Sorry. Tomato pie doesn’t travel well. But Trenton is closer than you may think.

upstatedave is chomping at the bit for improved grain technology:
No GMO wheat, eh? Monsanto has the stuff in the chamber but it is not available yet… But hopefully it comes out soon.

If Monsanto were developing a GE wheat that was drought resistant, by replacing just one gene from barley into the wheat, this would be a much different conversation. But instead, the company is working on patenting seeds that grow wheat immune to its potent herbicide. I find it difficult to get excited about the innovation.

Although should it ever get approved and planted, this could be the crop that finally gets people to care about the labeling of GMOs in their food.

bluecollarcritic is on my side, but the case could be stronger:
So you are ‘hoping’ that a genetically manipulated version of wheat which has the capability of eliminating non-GMO wheat by cross contamination will soon be made available in the US? You do know that GMO crops are undesired and opposed by more than just supposed tin-foil hat conspiracy theory types?

Some people love technology. Other people fear technology. There are very serious scientists who are very concerned with the issue of technological singularity. It could kill us all in as little as 16 years. Which isn’t to say we should take our eyes of the GMO ball. But just because GMOs are undesirable in their current form doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to improve the world. However, I have deep concerns if that potential can ever be truly fulfilled by a for-profit enterprise.

Erin T has also experienced some disappointments with the new Whole Foods:
Consistently, items (produce, baked goods) with the big “local” tag were from Suffolk County, Long Island. A solid 4 hour drive away. If they were items that our region didn’t carry, it’d be one thing, but “local” baked goods from at least 4 hours away?

For what it’s worth I hear the Bake For You items made in the DelSo are doing quite well at Whole Foods.

bluecollarcritic sees a parallel between Grape Nuts and Coca-Cola:
Other than New-Coke, have you seen or know of any other instance where a food manufacturer/supplier of a consumer end product has done a turn-a-bout this quickly with regards to a formulation change with their product?

This quickly? No. But let’s never forget the rush to partially hydrogenated fats in order to reduce cholesterol in packaged foods. Who remembers the good old days when Oreos were made with lard?

Stevo is looking out for me:
Daniel, have you heard about the meal delivery services that deliver fresh ingredients with recipes that you cook yourself?

I have heard about them, but never used them. Glad to hear your experiences were positive.

lakesider is looking for my baba ganoush secrets:
what is considered a “good brand” of tahini? I remember when I lived in NYC 25+ years ago there was a ? brown and beige can with a turbaned gentleman on the front, which was the brand all the falafel trucks were using. Can’t seem to find it in Price Chopper or Hannaford in my area. What do you use?

The one I’m looking for is called Oxygen in the U.S. It trades under a different name in Israel where the tahini is produced. I’ve also had success with Roland’s Israeli tahini. The good stuff is super smooth, rich and nutty. Some brands of tahini can be intensely bitter or even rancid if the jars have been sitting around for a while. The brand you remember is probably Joyva. Cooks Illustrated loves the stuff. Me? I’m not crazy about food that comes in cans.

Burnt My Fingers wonders if there is another reason to avoid propane:
Don’t gas grills give off an obscene amount of greenhouse gases?

The hippies say that charcoal is worse from a greenhouse gas perspective. But it sounds like they would rather you use charcoal with local veggies than propane with burgers and dogs. That meat will cost you dearly in CO2 offsets. Aren’t you glad I’m not a hippy?

buffsoulja wanted to close the loop on my PA pizza adventure:
Did you also find that the old forge white pizza was more similar to cheesy garlic bread then pizza and the Red sauce pizza more similar (especially at Revello’s) to frozen pizza (the childhood memories of Elio’s comes to mind)?
Do you also still contend that The Orchard’s pizza is similar?

Yes. The white really is hard to see as pizza. And Albany Jane cited Elio’s by name as we were eating. Great minds think alike.

After all of that pizza, I can see that I was wrong about The Orchard. The tavern’s 70 year old pizza recipe is clearly different from Old Forge Red. However, I was reading about the third Old Forge style that’s more like a pan fried Sicilian. Maybe that’s closer in style.

It’s clearly going to take more research.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2014 11:20 am

    About that syrup mention, I’m not an expert (though I did spend most of my youth in one of the highest-producing and most-award-winning sap houses in NYS), but at least up to a decade ago, sap and low-grade syrup from New York was being shipped by rail to Vermont and sold as Vermont syrup. So I think going by “province” or state to determine flavor profiles and superiority is intrinsically flawed.

  2. enough already! permalink
    July 17, 2014 5:20 pm

    “enough already! wants to give me diabetes” -not so…
    But how does this compare to cupcake, ice cream, donut, etc. tours?
    Seriously, I was thinking not biggest is best, but a quality comparison, and all things being equal, rating price per unit weight, for example. Sounds like you are not fond of croissants aux amandes.

  3. July 18, 2014 1:29 am

    Thanks for answering so many of my questions while providing so little closure. I am especially haunted by the retort on the seven sweets and seven sours. Seeing as how the Amish don’t read newspapers, it seems unlikely this windbag/denier William Woys Weaver (even his name lacks credibility) could have pulled the wool over the eyes of a large dispersed community. More research is needed, probably by you on one of these many trips to PA.

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