Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States, is a giant among giants in the agribusiness world. Recently, it purchased Natural Food Holdings, which owns Niman Ranch, a niche meat producer known for its comparatively impressive welfare and sustainability standards.
News of Niman’s acquisition was generally greeted with the big media equivalent of a shrug, but I think it warrants a stronger, more appropriate reaction: Panic.
“Get in,” said Gunnar Karl Gíslason, pulling up in a Land Rover Defender outside his groundbreaking Reykjavík restaurant, Dill. He wanted to take me to visit a few of the producers who helped put his place on the forefront of a rapidly changing local food scene, but he wouldn’t tell me where we were going.
Before being named head of Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer’s highly touted new restaurant in New York’s Grand Central Station, Gíslason regularly drove around the countryside meeting micro producers. It was essential, he believed, that he understand the nature around him and meet the people directly immersed in it.
In Iceland, the elements have shaped the cuisine in ways that few other countries can compare. Fresh food was rarely available during the winter months. With just a few hours of sunlight each day few plants can grow, and the weather limits hunting and fishing. The cold and lack of drastic weather changes cause life to grow more slowly, infusing plants and shellfish with rich, deep flavors. Many of the old methods of preparing food, formed out of necessity, had the same effect, though sometimes to the point of overkill.
IT’S 4:25 p.m. I make my way through the kitchen, past the prep cooks, up to the locker room on the second floor. Getting dressed takes 10 minutes. That leaves 20 to get “family meal” before the porters break everything down. At 4:55, I’m ready. Lineup is in five minutes — “live at five.” I double-check my uniform, an expensive-looking suit issued by the restaurant, before I join the rest of the wait staff downstairs.
Lineup is our final meeting before service. The managers report on menu changes and our ranking on the world’s top restaurants list. Sometimes they test us. “Where did Chef get his first Michelin star?” “What kind of stone is the floor made of?” But tonight we just taste the new wine. A classic Burgundy: red fruit, rose petal, underripe cherry; med-high acid, soft tannins. It’ll pair well with the pork.
The dining room has four “stations,” each with six or seven tables overseen by a four-person service team — captain, sommelier, server and assistant server. As a captain, I’m in charge of my team. It took me eight months to get promoted to this job; some captains waited for years.
Six food runners also roam the floor, along with three managers. Two expediters — the “expos” — stay in the kitchen to decide when food leaves and where it goes. At most other three-Michelin-star restaurants in New York City, the system is much the same.
It’s already hot when I reach the small port of the Saint-Mandrier peninsula in the department of Var at 9 AM. With no sign of wind and waves barely 12 inches high, it is the perfect weather for tossing the region’s wine into the sea. Or at least it is according to Jérôme Vincent, the director of the Ecole Nationale des Scaphandriers (National School of Divers), who is waiting for me in front of his inflatable boat, ready to embark on the open ocean.
For someone like me who hails from the Southeast of France, Bandol is like holy water. I wouldn’t say it fuels my life, but during the summer when the clock strikes noon and the crickets are singing, it’s a local tradition to open up a bottle of fresh rosé. Hiding a cargo of the stuff in the Mediterranean Sea with a team of divers, on the other hand, is a first for me in oenology.
When my great-grandmother, Retaw “Dandeen” Mccoy, passed away in 2005 at the age of ninety-nine, we gave her a proper Presbyterian funeral in her Western Pennsylvania hometown. Afterward, in the church basement, the ladies of Springdale Presbyterian did what they’ve always done: served a funeral lunch. There were finger sandwiches. There were the big pans of rigatoni you see at just about every Pittsburgh-area gathering. There were cookies.
And then there were the Jell-O salads. Dish after dish of jiggly, shining gelatin molded into rings, braids—even a jellied tuna salad in the shape of a fish. Cherry red with fruit, pistachio green with nuts and marshmallows, a clear lemon yellow studded with vegetables: it was as if we’d stepped backward in time. Dandeen, who raised children and grandchildren in the mid-century glory days of the Jell-O salad, would have loved it.
“What we’ve witnessed in the past 25 or 30 years is just incredible,” says Geoffrey Zakarian about the food and restaurant revolution in America. As one of the country’s most visible and influential restaurateurs, chefs, and food personalities, Zakarian is uniquely qualified to discuss the proliferation of top-notch restaurants and exploding interest in new forms of culinary expression. If our national cuisine was once bland and derivative, he observes, it’s now the global center of experimentation and innovation.
Zakarian is an Iron Chef on Food Network’s Iron Chef America series and he’s a regular judge on the channel’s massively popularChopped, in which contestants whip together a three-course meal using mystery—and usually incongruous—ingredients. (In one typical episode, participants were asked to create an appetizer using watermelon, canned sardines, pepper jack cheese, and zucchini.) His 2006 cookbook, Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table, was a best-seller and last fall’s My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients has been praised for its accessibility and surprising flavors. Zakarian operates no fewer than five restaurants in the New York area, including the highly regarded Lambs Club and the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court. In 2016, he’ll be opening his first place in the nation’s capital, the National in Washington, which will be housed in the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Craig White is a Texan. He’s a pitmaster and an expert in smoked meats, and like many of his breed he can be secretive. White designed his own proprietary smoker that he won’t even let you photograph. But here’s the catch: He’s in Tokyo.
After cutting his teeth at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor and City Market in Luling, White, a mechanical engineer by trade, moved to Japan in 2011 and opened a barbecue restaurant called White Smoke. At first the Japanese weren’t so sure about the whole brisket and ribs thing. But eventually the high-end Texas barbecue spot won over Tokyo. After a fire destroyed the restaurant, White changed his approach, packaging his smoked meats and selling them across the country: Japanese diners now dig in to his ribs, sausage, turkey and more at high-end restaurants across the city and even buy them at (gasp!) Costco.
But of course the deeper problem here is that food is not just food—it’s a piece of a larger structure of economy, ecosystem, and community. And the blossoming prosperity of factory farms is not, in fact, a normal or organic outgrowth of free-market demand: it is an artificial construct, a bloated system sustained bygovernment subsidies, crop insurance, and regulatory supports. This should be made clear by the fact that, even as the locavore/farm-to-fork movement has swelled considerable over the past seven to 10 years, these factory farms are still doing incredibly well.
The federal government bolsters large farms and turns a blind eye to their environmental detriments (detailed at length in the Food and Water Watch report), while dis-incentivizing—and even crippling—smaller farms. As the report puts it, Big Ag corporations foster “an intensely consolidated landscape where a few giant agribusinesses exert tremendous pressure on livestock producers to become larger and more intensive.”
Heavily-subsidized corn becomes cheap feed for malnourished, maltreated cattle, as “misguided farm policy [has] encouraged over-production of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which artificially depressed the price of livestock feed and created an indirect subsidy to factory farm operations.”
Brenham is an orderly place,” my friend Molly told me. She had moved there from Houston a few years ago and was settling into life in what is arguably Texas’s best-loved small town. She gave me the grand tour on a perfect late spring day when the sky was a cloudless blue and the April air was cool, crisp, and pristine.
It is a town built by thrifty, modest German immigrants. The Victorian and Craftsman cottages had been restored with restraint. Flower gardens thrived without the benefit of professional landscapers, and the rainy winter had left the lawns and wild grasses in the fields beyond an almost otherworldly green. Children roamed the oak-shaded parks, joyously free of adult supervision. The clean, broad streets were devoid of big-city blights like hungry strays, impassable traffic, and people yelling into their cellphones.
In fact, Brenham, with a population of around 16,000, peddles nostalgia better than just about any other small town I know. Molly and I wandered around the “Historic Downtown”—caps theirs—poking through Texas ephemera in the antiques stores and visiting the farmers’ market housed in a restored old warehouse; the locally grown produce and homemade jams were set off nicely by dark-wood floorboards and sunlight filtered through old glass panes. We stopped for salads at the Funky Art Cafe, which was suitably so, and peeked in on the homemade pies at Must Be Heaven, which describes itself as a place where “everything from the hand-painted decor to the old-time atmosphere makes everyone slow down and enjoy the day.” Then we headed out to the airport to check out the Southern Flyer Diner, which boasts Brenham’s best burgers and waitresses who dress in fifties ensembles, including but not limited to poodle skirts. Everyone we met seemed really glad to see us—maybe a little more so than usual, even for a small town.
Craft bourbon, like craft beer, is in the midst of a boom: In the past 15 years, the number of distilleries in the U.S. has surged from just a handful to around 600.
Why are Americans buying more bourbon? According to author Reid Mitenbuler, one reason is that we’re being seduced by clever bottles and throwback labels. Along with enticing branding, some of these bottles of “craft bourbon” boast hefty price tags. Take Pappy Van Winkle, a craft bourbon with “family reserve” editions that retail for thousands of dollars.
And yet “the term ‘craft’ is little more than an ambiguous buzzword,” Mitenbuler writes in a new book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. Behind all the craft buzz, Mitenbuler says, are actually just some “carefully cultivated myths” created by an industry on a roll.