Things I Love: Coffee Fanatics Take Note

January 17, 2016


We’re staying with friends in a house on St. John (the American Virgin Islands). Coffee fanatics, they have some truly arcane equipment. But I’ve kind of fallen in love with this Bonavita electric kettle, which not only heats your water to the perfect temperature, but also has a little timer. So you can pour the water over the coffee and let it bloom for exactly 30 seconds.

I might have to buy one of these when I get home…..


Another Wonderful Old Menu

January 16, 2016

The 1939 New York World’s Fair was like Bourdain’s food hall concept on speed- picture dozens of international food counters, each in a whimsical building more suited to the moon than an old ash dump in Queens. Here’s Poland’s:

polish pavilion 1939

And Italy’s:

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But I’m mainly here to show you this amazing menu from the Iraqi Pavillon’s “Garden of Eden Cafe,” which was part of the Hall of Nations. (Like yesterday’s Chinese menu, this is from the NYPL’s newly-digitized menu holdings.)

Every single dish here features dates, and almost every dish seems like something I’d like to eat. Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 6.43.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-01-15 at 6.43.47 PM

If you’re interested in further reading, Greg Morabito wrote this eye-opening piece about the food at the ’39 New York World’s Fair – and he includes a few more menus. For a surreal video, check out this archival footage of the grounds.




Chinese Food in New York 100 Years Ago

January 15, 2016

Mapo tofu, the classic Sichuan dish that once seemed exotic to New Yorkers is now as ubiquitous as General Tso’s chicken (a sweet and purely American invention best consumed as a crossword clue). America is, at last, brimming with great Chinese food.

But it hasn’t always been like this. I’ve often written about the ways in which immigration laws drive the food we eat. If you want to read about the various changes in Chinese cooking in America, this 1994 review of Tang Pavillion lays it out.

If you don’t feel like reading it all, suffice it to say that until 1966 most Chinese restaurants in America served Cantonese food because most of the early immigrants came from the Pearl River Delta.  They were all men, they weren’t cooks, and they longed for a taste of home. They did their best to recreate familiar dishes but with a few exceptions (Cecilia Chiang‘s The Mandarin being a notable one), most of the food served in American Chinese restaurants did little to reflect the glories of Chinese cuisine.

The New York Public Library recently digitized its menu collection, and I went looking for the oldest Chinese restaurant menu I could find. Fascinating: just look at some of these dishes! Chop suey was invented in this country, but it approximates a method of stir-frying leftover scraps popular in Toy San, in Guangdong Province. Many of these dishes, however, are purely American.

Rice with maple syrup anyone?

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.27.13 AMScreen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.27.22 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.27.30 AM

This is a different Chinatown restaurant, on Mott Street, in a 1907 photograph. I’m struck by both the elegance and diversity of the crowd.. Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.25.21 AM



A Random Thought on Restaurant Criticism

January 14, 2016

Given all the recent noise about a restaurant review (and you know which one I’m talking about), I thought I’d post this little bit from Garlic and Sapphires.

To put it in context, this conversation takes place in the office of the Editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel in the spring of 1993. At the time I was the restaurant critic of The Los Angeles Times, and Max and his deputy, Joe Lelyveld had invited me into their office. The current critic was leaving the job and Max had just asked what I thought of their restaurant section. In an act of madness I told the editors of the most powerful paper in the world that they were doing things wrong.

“Your reviews,” I said, “are very useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. But how many of your readers will go to Lutece this year? A thousand? That leave out more than a million readers. And at a time when people are more interested in food and restaurants than they have ever been in the history of this country, that’s a shame.  You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the people who wish they could.”

I remember Joe looking at Max over my head and saying, “This is interesting. And you know, we’ve heard this argument before. Only it was about books. What she’s really saying is that we’ve been selling restaurants, and that isn’t our business. We should be selling newspapers.”


Dinner in the Tropics

January 13, 2016

FullSizeRender (63)

The picture’s not so beautiful.  The fish, however, was.  When we found a whole red snapper at the fish market here on St. John yesterday, it started speaking to me. The eyes were clear, the skin glossy, the scent clean and briny.

I’d forgotten how easy it is to cook a whole fish. We rubbed the fish inside and out with salt and then stuffed it with all the aromatics we had on hand. Onions, garlic, thyme, parsley all went into the cavity.  Then we massaged the snapper with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and put it in a roasting pan.  I poured a bit of white wine around it, more for the way it would perfume the air than for any practical purpose. Then we put it into a 425 degree oven for about half an hour.

The aroma of wine and herbs mingled with the scent of the sea as the fish cooked in the oven.  It was the most enticing smell.  When I checked the temperature (the fish was about 3 and a half pounds), it was 135 at the thickest part behind the head.  I let it rest for ten minutes, then sprinkled it with lime juice and took it to the table.

So completely delicious.  And no work at all.