Sort of a rant but not really

April 01, 2011

I'm no fool, and neither are you...

Oh, you guys ...

I had not one, but TWO April Fool's Day stunts in the works.  TWO, I tell ya.

They were/are phenomenally hilarious. (but I'm not telling you what they were)

For reasons I cannot go into, I had to pull the plug on both due to circumstances (of the other participants) beyond my control, and a production timeline that was hampered by unforseen travel mishaps and scheduling hiccups.  It just wasn't meant to be.

Then, literally minutes after the pranks fell apart, it looked like something even better was going to shake out -- a major, national broadcast media outlet was supposed to come to my house yesterday to cook with me and do a feature story that would run over the weekend.  So, it wouldn't have made sense for a prank post to be up anyway, and instead, it would have been a really fun news story with a great accompanying post.

And THEN, that got the very-last-minute kibosh because of breaking news elsewhere in the world (::: shakes fist at Qaddafi :::), so here I am.  Prankless.  Postless.

Photo 19

So, what can we do today?

Here's an idea: how 'bout you let me gloat for one minute about something nice Richard Blais said about me in his Washington Post live chat yesterday, and I'll make it worth your while.

Check this out:

Picture 1

I SQUEEEEEEED out loud, passed out and died, then came back to life and died again. And now, I've come back to life again to squuueeeee some more.  So, so, so, so nice of him.  Bee-tee-dubs, if you're interested in the end-of-Top-Chef-season video chat I did with WaPo food editor Joe Yonan and deputy editor Bonnie Benwick yesterday that's here.

Okay, so now let's make the rest of this post all about you.  You, you, YOU!!

Remember when I was raising money for Share Our Strength, and I danced along to the Michael Jackson Wii game?  Wellllll, the good folks at Ubisoft saw the video, got in touch to tell me they loved it, and sent two copies of The Michael Jackson Experience (for Wii) to give away to YOU!  It's a really fun game, with all of MJ's great tunes from the 70s and 80s, and the only thing more fun than playing it is watching other people play it.

I've also got three brand spankin' new copies of Grant Achatz' memoir Life, on the Line that need to find permanent homes with some of you.

So that's five -- count 'em -- FIVE things I'm gonna give away over the next few days to make up for the fact that I am a prankless April Fool.

How can you win?



Say hi.

Tell me a joke.

Sing me a song.

Write a haiku.

Tell me how your day is.

What are you doing this weekend?

How's the weather?

Who's going to win the White House in 2012?

Are you as angry about Mad Men being delayed as I am?

Say something, anything in the comments. 

But really, if you've been hanging out here for awhile and haven't ever commented, we'd all love a hey and hello.

This giveaway is open to everyone, so let 'er rip.  I'll probably wrap it all up on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, when I hope to have a new food post up.  Gotta do something with all the chicken skin and truffles I've got lying around, now that a certain Libyan leader is HOGGING ALL MY PRESS COVERAGE.

Have at it in the comments -- go!

And, if you'd like to relive some April Fools moments, here's a trip down Memory Lane:

Alinea at Home, on the Road!

Alinea at Home Extra: BIG NEWS!!!

French Laundry at Home Forced to Close: Final Post


September 14, 2010

I jinxed myself. I should know better.

In my last post, I wrote:

It's the end of August.

Congress is out of session.

My phone isn't ringing.

My email is (mostly) quiet.

This is the last chance for some downtime before the holidays, so I'm going to take full advantage of it.

See you after Labor Day...

If I may, I'd like to edit/amend the above:

It's the end of August. [True.  It was the end of August.]

Congress is out of session. [This is/was also true.]

My phone isn't ringing. [See?  This is where I went wrong.  I never should have typed this.]

My email is (mostly) quiet. [Never should have written this either. I AM SUCH A MORON.]

This is the last chance for some downtime before the holidays, so I'm going to take full advantage of it. [AAAAAAAAHAAHAHHAHAHAAHAHA!!]

See you after Labor Day... [Uh, yeah. Labor Day 2011.]

That post went up at 6:05 p.m., August 21.

I spent all day Sunday, August 22 canning and preserving food for this article in The Washington Post.  I also mowed and pulled weeds in the garden to fend off a location scout for The New Sanford & Son.  That evening, I relaxed on the front porch with a glass of wine and some leftovers from my birthday dinner a few nights before, thinking to myself these next two weeks are gonna be AWESOME.

And the next day, August 23, all hell broke loose for two of my clients and I've been working 18-hour days ever since.  That's not an exaggeration.  Quite literally, I wake up at 7 and start work and do not finish work until I go to bed around midnight or 1 a.m.  I sometimes put listen-only conference calls on mute and speakerphone while I am in the shower.  The phone does not stop ringing (there are reporters around the world interested in one of the issues I'm working on now and the concept of time zones doesn't always work when you're on deadline), the email does not stop coming in, and things are changing and developing minute-by-minute such that I have had to leave the grocery store three separate times, empty-handed, to handle a work crisis... never mind the dinners with friends and lunches with other clients I've had to cancel. [Not to mention the fact that it's taken me eight days to get this post up on the site.]  Deep breath...

I know.  Poor, poor me.  First-world problems and all.

This is all to say that, factoring in some travel and a two-week work project in California, I have not cooked since July 20 -- not for myself, and not for anyone else.  AND IT'S DRIVING ME BONKERS.

I don't have any food in the house -- it would only spoil.

I have eaten approximately 6,498,127 gluten-free Larabars.

I have gone through 4 boxes of Rice Chex.

The guys at my local Indian restaurant see my number on caller ID and answer the phone saying, "Hello Carol, we will see you in 15 minutes."

So you can imagine how the lack of any sort of balanced diet is contributing to my already sky-high stress levels.  I'm a real joy to be around.

I open the Alinea cookbook nearly every other day, and just as I start to make a shopping list and figure out a timeline for making one of the recipes, the phone rings or my email explodes with another judicial action, federal appeal, Congressional statement, or reporter looking for some background. 

I love my job, and I am incredibly passionate about the issues I work on.

But I need to chop something.  Badly.

March 29, 2010

Open Discussion: Photography, video, blogging as documentation... what's okay, when, and why?

Yesterday, Grant Achatz tweeted about something he posted in the forum on Alinea-Mosaic:

Picture 1

I clicked on his link, and read what he wrote on the Alinea-Mosaic forum, which is re-posted below (the link to his post and ensuing comments is here):

Documenting ...well me. When photo and videography becomes a bit much.

I appreciate that people are so into food, and excited about eating at Alinea, to the point where it drives them to record it. Obviously these “foodies” are a large segment of our cliental, and the very people that help propel the awareness of food and dining. I certainly admit that the popularity of web based reviews and information has helped Alinea achieve a certain level of popularity, and ultimately some level of success has to be attributed to this. In fact, since the beginning we have embraced the web, often contributing to food blogs with things like the egullet project before the restaurant was even open. With the proliferation of food blogs and the almost competitive nature of the posters to delve further into detail with their reporting, coupled with the ease of capturing images and video with our phones, we have seen a very high rise in photo and videography in the restaurant.

Documenting the food is one thing. I understand taking a photo in the kitchen with the chef after the meal to frame and hang in your office, perhaps of a particular course that you want to remember because it was so amazing, so you can remember the presentation, or even the manipulation of an ingredient in way you have never seen before. Taking it to the next level many people take pictures of every course and some even take photos of the wines as well. I don’t necessarily mind this, but I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritizing the documentation. Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost. A month ago a front of the house team member served the Hot Potato –Cold Potato to a blogger that was taking photos with a camera resting on a tripod. The server did their normal spiel, telling the guest the dish was intended to be consumed right away so the sensation of temperature contrast could be experienced. Instead they took a few minutes to move the course around on the table to find the right light, snapped several images, and then undoubtedly enjoyed….Warm Potato –Warm Potato. Not to mention the time that is added to the experience. Three extra minutes to take a photo is not much, but if you are eating 30 courses, you just added an hour and a half to your dinner.

And what about the people in the restaurant that are there to –- eat? Or enjoy an evening out with a significant other, or even having a business dinner? Often we have guest request to move tables in the restaurant because they feel the sound of the shutter, the light produced by the auto focus assist, or the person’s actions are ruining their own experience.

But recently the trend has been to video myself or the front of the house team. This is where I feel the documentation crosses the line. Now that I spend a good amount of time in the dining room with the table-plating concept we are doing guests will often stick the camera in my face as I walk up to the table. I never say no to guests when they ask to take a photo with me, but I always suggest we do it in the kitchen after their meal is finished. This is happening with the servers as well. Voice recorders are being held in front of them while they describe a course or a wine, or video is shot. It is uncomfortable… and frankly rude to do so without asking. This activity seems strange to me, I can’t imagine how celebrities feel. No wonder they punch the paparazzi out when they get the chance.

I re-Tweeted Grant's link (adding "it's about time someone said something") and have been getting some interesting replies via both Twitter and email in which most everyone agrees with what Grant's saying in his post.  A few people disagreed, and one person actually said they thought his post was rude and that because dinner at Alinea is expensive, you should be able to do whatever you want.  Which..... sigh.....  I mean COME ON.  A person can't honestly believe that, can they?  Wow.

Maybe it's just that I'm a wannabe Luddite, but I can't bring myself to take pictures at Alinea, Per Se, The French Laundry... heck, most every restaurant I've ever been to.  I sneak the occasional iPhone photo if I wanna remember how something was plated, or if I want to make my Twitter followers drool along with me over something particularly delicious that's sitting in front of me.  But the thought of bringing a camera into a restaurant -- let alone a tripod or a videocamera (the Share Our Strength videos at Bibiana and Central were my only exception; and, I asked for permission ahead of time, and then also checked with the people dining around us) -- just seems so weird to me.  I mean, if Grant were plating something on the table in front of me, you can be damn skippy I wouldn't want even a tiny Flip video camera between us.  Video can't capture how a chef breathes as he works, how his whole body moves, what his hands look like when he holds a spoon versus an offset spatula, how the staff is attuned to a table's needs, what the food smells like as it's being placed on the table.  These are things that can only augment a diner's experience, if only he or she would allow them to be felt instead of putting up that electronic wall and separating him/herself from what's really going on.

Which led me to thinking about how it feels like the way we document our lives has totally changed, and maybe not for the better.  I'm not sure.  Stay with me here...

Like Grant wrote above, it does seem like more people are photographing their food, taking notes to post to Yelp (which is a whole separate matter, that hackjob of a site), and not paying very much attention to a) the pleasure of eating; and b) the pleasure of the company of their dining companion(s).

I'm not perfect.  Like I said, every now and then I've snapped an iPhone photo of the plate in front of me. There have been a handful of times where I've texted a friend about my meal while at the table enjoying said meal.  But on the whole, my phone stays in my bag while I'm enjoying what I eat (and the company of whomever is eating with me).

So now after reading Grant's post, I'm curious: do you take photos at dinner (whether at home, or out)?  Is it okay to bring a tripod to a restaurant or take multiple photos from multiple angles, possibly disrupting the staff or others' dining experiences, not to mention your own?  Is it okay to videotape your meal, doing running commentary or interviewing others at the table while they're eating?  Is it okay to do any or all of this stuff, which likely results in not getting the full experience of what it's like to eat at a place like Alinea (or any restaurant, for that matter)? Do you feel like you deserve to be able to do it?  Do you think it's rude?  Do you care if people do this?  Does it make you crazy?  Tell me.

This topic of documentation struck a nerve with me because I started thinking about it in the context of food and restaurants, but Grant's post also had me thinking about blogging in general, and wondering how many bloggers -- not just food bloggers, mind you -- think about their life as content.  In some ways, maybe, that's good.  Maybe to be a better writer or even a better human being, some people need to feel the pressure of having something to publish -- whether it's photos, words, video, etc. -- to be able to push themselves to do interesting things.  But then in the same breath I have to wonder if people who blog (or anyone, I guess, really) are really missing out on life -- or, at least, those great unexpected, mind-blowing moments in life -- because they're too busy photographing all the things they see/eat/do/buy/cook, scribbling notes about all the funny things their toddler says, or shoving a videocamera in front of someone's face to try and capture something likely uncapturable?

Then, that led me to ask myself: Have we lost the wonder of having personal experiences?  Does everything anything have to be shared?  And, if experiences are to be shared, how do we decide what they are, and then, how do we share them?  Have we lost the joy in simple, person-to-person storytelling?  Do we need 500 photos in our digital cameras or on our Facebook pages of a night out with the girls, or the dinner we ate in New York, a family vacation, or our kid's soccer game?  Is it not enough anymore to just have really wonderful personal experiences?  Does living a good life now have to be measured in the number of "likes" on Facebook, the amount of email or number of comments on a blog post, the size of your Flickr portfolio?

Do we do it to be in competition with one another -- I ate here and you didn't; my kid did this and yours didn't; I bought this cute red sweater and you didn't; I traveled here and you didn't ?  Is it about self-esteem?  Do people blog because it allows them to put a certain "face" on a life that in real life, they maybe aren't really happy with?  If you blog, tell me why.  If you once did but don't anymore, tell me that, too.  If you take a lot of photos, tell me why.  Do you still hand-write the day's account in a personal journal?  If you document certain things in life, but not others, tell me why... and tell me how.  Tell me what gets shared, and what doesn't.  I would love to know what's going on inside that lovely brain of yours.  I'm completely curious about what you document, and what you just experience.

I'm not a technology hater.  I think you guys know that.  I love that I can stay in touch with my faraway cousins via Facebook.  I like that my mom can see something on my Twitter feed and ask me about it the next time we talk.  I love love love that my nephew and I can make fart noises and sing the ABCs to each other over Skype.  I love that old college friends and former work colleagues find me blogging here when they Google my name.

But as documenting parts of our lives in certain ways can be a tool to help keep people together, has it also contributed to taking us or keeping us further away from ourselves?  And, with particular regard to what Grant wrote about, by documenting the things we do in the ways we do, what are we missing out on?  If these frequent-food-photogs take pictures or video in the way he's describing, do they even taste what they eat?  Can they appreciate how many hours/days went into one bite?  Are they honestly getting their money's worth?  Are they cheating all five of their senses out of one of life's truly pleasurable experiences for the sole purpose of maybe, possibly having someone say, "Hey, that's a neat picture"??  Does someone else's "hey, that's a neat picture" matter more to us than whether or not we loved something ourselves?

If anything, for me Grant's post was a gentle reminder and reaffirmation that I don't want to be the kind of person who sacrifices being present in everyday experiences AND special occasions for the sake of/at the risk of being a distracted or distracting documentarian.

What say you?

January 07, 2010

The Thing a Food Writer Isn't Supposed to Say

I have something to confess: over the past few weeks, I have been so grateful to have the Share Our Strength campaign to focus on and write about, because my food mojo?  Gone, baby.  Gone.  Like J. Lo's dignity.

Below is a photo of what was supposed to be a powder for the Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive dish on page 205.  A vanilla bean powder that used $40 worth of vanilla beans.  DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A POWDER TO YOU?

DSC_0017 (I'm not yelling AT you; I'm yelling NEAR you)

That glob of stuff wasn't even salvageable because in an effort to try and find another way to powderize it, all the tapioca maltodextrin ended up making it taste like a My Little Pony-scented Yankee candle coated in Splenda.

This next photo is a shot of my attempt at adapting the Crab, cashew, parsnip, young coconut dish on page 309, since I can't eat coconut.  I had to use king crab instead of dungeness; I diced parsnips and milk-blanched then roasted them; made candied and spiced cashews, and tossed in some Thai basil, warm chard, wild rice, and an orange-saffron vinaigrette.  On paper it sounded good.  When I tasted as I went along, things were delicious.  But everything together?  SUCKED.  It tasted terrible, was just all wrong, and really, really bad.  I threw the whole thing away.


You might be thinking, oh come on, Carol... these are elements and ingredients from Alinea recipes. You're not a chef.  Don't beat yourself up.  We love when you fail.  It's funny.

I reassuringly said the very same thing to myself, and then worked on a few other ingredients and components of other dishes.  They failed, too.  I didn't even bother to photograph them because there was really nothing to photograph.  I rationalized it by reminding myself that it's just a blog, I'm not a trained chef, and sometimes things just don't go the way I want them to no matter how much I'd like for that to happen.  I'm learning, and I have to keep trying.  But when 7 or 8 things in a row just don't come together despite my fastidiousness?  I was starting to take it personally.

I figured, maybe I just need a week or so away from the Alinea cookbook.  Give myself a break.  I watched a few old Seinfeld episodes and went to bed.  And then, the very next day?  I flipped my morning egg and it landed half in the pan, and half on the floor.  I make eggs nearly every single morning.  I bet in my lifetime I've successfully flipped more than 5,000 eggs, and on the heels of some really frustrating (and expensive) blog-related cock-ups, I'm now screwing up eggs?  THE SIMPLEST THING ON EARTH I KNOW HOW TO COOK AND I CAN'T EVEN DO THAT??!?!?!?!?? 

Oh, but wait... there's more.  

Over the next 48 hours, I:

Burned oatmeal;

Burned toast;

Cut my hand peeling an apple;

Broke the yolk on another flipping (ha!) egg;

Dropped a bottle of wine on the floor, shattering it to bits;

Dropped a 5-pound container of sugar (on my big toe, no less), sending sugar all over the kitchen floor and into the laundry room, which has cork floors, so GOOD TIMES getting granules of sugar out of cork's nooks and crannies;

Broke my butter dish;

Made meatballs that fell apart and tasted like crap;

Blew a fuse running too many appliances at once;

Overcooked some pasta and forgot to salt an entire batch of tomato sauce;

Forgot to put soap in the dishwasher before I ran it on full cycle.  Twice;

Burned a batch of chestnuts in an attempt to roast them over an open fire; and

Poured rancid milk in my coffee.

At first, I decided food was ganging up on me.  Or, maybe there was a full moon.  Or, maybe I was losing my senses of sight and smell and my dexterity as a result of growing up near Three Mile Island.  Then, I had a total Occam's Razor moment and it became really, really clear that the answer was simple: the problem was me.  I just needed to step away from that room of the house for a bit.  Everything I touched was turning to s-h-youknowwhat.

So, I waved a little white dish towel in surrender and decided to let others do the cooking for me. Maybe all I needed was a little inspiration, some good food in my favorite restaurants, some time away from my own kitchen to help get my mojo back.  On Day Two of the letting-other-people-cook-for-me experiment, I was inadvertently glutened.

You guys, I have not had gluten in my system for a very long time.  Within 45 minutes of finishing lunch, I was so very sick.  Hunched over in bed sick.  Clutching my stomach sick.  Running to the bathroom every ten minutes for the next 12 hours sick.  Knowing I was going to feel "off" for the next day or two sick.  Every single pre-diagnosis symptom returned, but was intensified and magnified x 1,000,000,000.  My face flushed, my joints ached, my temples throbbed, my fingers tingled, my insides burned.  

And... I lost it.  I broke down and sobbed, and with snot running and tears flowing and mascara smearing all over my pillows, I called a good friend and said the three words a food writer is never supposed to say: I hate food

[Actually, truth be told, there was a fourth word in there... an angry, angry two-syllable word... in between the "I" and the "hate," and I'm sure you can guess what it was.]

Because at that point, I honestly and truly hated food.  Food could blow me.  Food could go to hell.  In that moment, I never wanted to look at food, shop for food, touch food, eat food, think about food, or write about food.  I know, I know... those of us who write about food are aalllllwwaaayyys supposed to gush and love and emote sunshine, unicorns, and lollipops about every ingredient, every new discovery, showing awe, joy, and reverence for the simple pleasures of sustenance... but I just couldn't do it anymore.

It was bad enough that my cooking mojo was gone, but when my cooking mojo left, I feel like my writing went along with it.  I had a hard time pulling together my recent post about pork, because I'd made it before my luck turned sour in the kitchen, and when it came time to write about that dish (which really was so amazingly delicious; I just wish the blog post could've done it justice), I was so angry at food I could barely string letters together to make words, let alone words to make sentences.

Losing my energy and drive around food was one thing... I knew I could get through that.  But not being able to write AND getting glutened?  That sent me over the edge.  After failing at flipping a stupid over-easy egg, all I wanted was for something to taste good, and to eat well so that I'd be inspired to cook again.  And realizing that something so minuscule, so molecular, so accidental as someone touching something with gluten, then handling my food could make me so sick?  Fiona Apple couldn't have written or sung a song as angry and weary and angsty as I felt.  I was raw.  I felt like I was 13, screaming at my parents, "IT'S NOT FAIR!!! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!!!!   I HATE YOU!!!!!!  WWAAAAHHHHH!!!"

Someday, I'll write about how much it sucks to have celiac.  While I'm relieved to know what made me progressively sick for a few years, I'm not one of those people who can be joyful or thankful about it or always find a silver lining.  I'm pissed and bitter about the things I can no longer eat, and having celiac makes me feel like I'm a pain in the ass everywhere I go.  I have to read every label and ask about every ingredient in restaurants, and make special requests and educate and apologize and answer questions, and it's exhausting. My friends are amazing, because they'll make an entire dinner party gluten-free when I'm on the guest list.  And my chef friends bend over backwards to make me feel welcome (and NORMAL) in their restaurants when I'm there.  But it's by no means easy to be always on the lookout, always hyper-aware, and always hoping that I can get through a meal that someone else cooked without being uncontrollably and embarrassingly sick an hour later. 

So where am I going with all this?

I was thrilled not just to be able to have something other than food and writing to focus on these past few weeks, but I also was bolstered by YOUR support of the cause and of my ridiculous antics to get you guys to donate.  Every comment, every email, every Twitter reply kept me sane during a time when I really thought I had no business writing this blog or anything about food, ever again.  Yes, I know there are bigger problems in the world than my current inability to cook, or write, or eat.  Believe me, I know that.  What I guess I'm saying is it's actually a relief to be able to admit that I said (and meant) the words, "I hate food."  Because I really did.  Being inauthentic serves no one, and I feel like we've got an amazing and smart little community here, and I'm hoping I'm not alone in the losing-your-mojo-and-losing-your-cool-about-it thing.  I sometimes have this weird misconception that I have to be perfect and 100% on my game when it comes to food, and when I'm not, I simply must find the humor in it.  Not this time.  And it felt good to let it all go.

What do you do when you lose your mojo... whether it's in the kitchen (professional or at home), at work, at home, on a project, in a creative endeavor, or anywhere?  Are you patient?  Do you soldier onward? Do you take a break?  Do you rant? Scream?  Cry?  Regroup and move forward?  Ignore it and pretend like nothing's wrong?  Go for a walk?  Blame someone else?  Fake it?  Burrow under a pile of blankets and watch bad TV?  None of the above?  All of the above?

I've spent the past two weeks watching movies, reading books (devouring them, actually), eating things other people have made me, and enjoying a really nice balance of solitude and the company of friends.  I'm slowly working my way back into the kitchen.  I made the scallion-potato cakes from Ad Hoc at Home, and they were good.  Perhaps a roasted chicken is in my near future.  Surely, an Alinea dish is around the corner.  In fact, I've got a post in the works on rendering beef fat, because one of the Alinea recipes calls for it.  And, if I can successfully oversee some fat melting in a pot, then maybe, possibly, perhaps... the mojo is back.

Up Next: Rendering Beef Fat

Read My Previous Post:  The Big Finish

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