Crap Food No Longer The Norm At Museums

getty center foodIt all started with a damn good slice of pound cake at the British Museum in London. Then I wondered why the bowl of corn chowder I devoured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cafeteria, Lickety Split, was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. And by the time I had a plate of mouth-watering chipotle chicken quesadillas at the Getty Museum cafeteria in L.A. several weeks later, I wondered what the hell was going on. Museum cafeteria food is supposed to be overpriced crap, right?

Ordinarily, I hate to get stuck eating at tourist attractions. In December, on an excursion to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for example, I neglected to pack drinks or lunch for my kids and was distressed to find $5.19 fountain drinks (one size only), cups of soup for $7 and a selection of crummy looking sandwiches that cost roughly the same as Burundi’s per capita GDP. This is more or less what I expect from dining establishments at any sort of tourist attraction: a rip off.getty center cafeBut there appears to be a real trend toward good, moderately priced food at a host of art museums I’ve visited over the last year. Aside from the otherworldly chowder, Lickety Split at the Mass MOCA in the Berkshires has tasty burritos, great coffee, microbrews and fresh baked goods. The British Museum has cafés featuring good sandwiches, soups, pies and baked goods. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two gourmet restaurants, a café and a cafeteria, all of which looked appetizing to me on a visit last summer. And the Art Institute of Chicago has a pretty decent cafeteria, a café, plus a fine dining option.

But my favorite museum culinary experiences in the last year came courtesy of the Getty Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Getty has a few dining options, ranging from casual to gourmet, but I was hard pressed to make a selection at their cafeteria, which is loaded with good-looking, healthy food. If the weather is good, as it usually is in L.A., you can sit outside and enjoy a lovely view along with a good, reasonably priced meal (see video below).


cafe calatravaCafé Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers fine dining with a view of Lake Michigan (see photo on the right). The seasonally inspired menu is created to match the museum’s featured exhibits. When we visited in December during the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibit, there was a British theme featuring offerings like ale steamed mussels, ploughman’s lunch, wild boar and sage bangers and mash and Cornish beef and veggie pasties. I had the pasties, which were first rate, and my wife had something called Col. Mustard’s chicken, which came with some tasty dauphinoise potatoes.

I hope the experiences I’ve had at these museums is indeed a trend and the days of having to smuggle food into museums and other tourist attractions are numbered. Let us know if you’ve had good, bad or indifferent dining experiences at museums and other tourist sites around the world.

[Photo credits: Getty Center (sea scallops), Dave Seminara]

Food poisoning! What to watch out for in 2012

food poisoningFor many people–myself included–one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is experiencing how other cultures eat. Even if you’re only traveling as far as the other end of the state, chances are there’s a regional specialty, street food, farmers market, or restaurant that’s a destination in its own right.

Sometimes, however, the pickings are slim, or no matter how delicious the food, the odds are just stacked against you. As Anthony Bourdain put it on a recent episode of his new series, The Layover, “…if there’s not a 50-percent chance of diarrhea, it’s not worth eating.”

Gross, perhaps, but gluttonous travelers know there’s truth in those words. Bourdain happened to be referring to a late-night drunk binge at one of Amsterdam‘s infamous FEBO fast food automats (above), so with that in mind, I present this photographic homage to the things we eat on the road, despite knowing better. Walk softly, and carry a big bottle of Imodium

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[Photo credit: Flickr user .waldec]

Dropping the F-bomb: why “foodie” needs to go away

foodieLife used to be so easy. You ate to live. Then, man discovered fire and realized mastodon tastes a lot better with a nice sear on it. Around 500,000 years later, Homo foodieus evolved, and now it’s impossible to go out to eat without camera flashes going off at the tables around you.

Mercifully, there’s a Foodie Backlash taking root in America, and I feel the time is ripe (Did you see how I tossed two food puns into that sentence? Annoying, isn’t it?) to go public with my loathing for this odious word and the obnoxious behavior that too often goes with it.

I realize I’m setting myself up here. I’m a food journalist. Don’t I perpetuate all of this silliness, getting readers in a lather over the Next Big Food Thing? Don’t I eat at nice restaurants and drink expensive wine? Well, yes. And, no (and to that latter hypothetical question, less often that you’d think in this economy).

I like to think that through (most of) my work, I promote importance of understanding where food comes from, and urging localized food security. I’m concerned about protecting the environment, public health, and genetic diversity in plants and livestock; conserving natural resources, and finding more humane ways to raise and slaughter livestock.

Does that make me the culinary equivalent of Mother Theresa, or absolve me of my written transgressions that are less pure in culinary intent? Hell no; I can be a hedonist, too. But I’m trying to make a point here. I realize that my bordering-on-obsessive hatred of “foodie” is really about the culture it’s perpetuating. That said, the word itself is infantile, idiotic, and meaningless, and makes me want to poke my eyes out with a larding needle. Can’t people just say they love food?

My biggest issue with foodie as a concept is that it’s detrimental to the remarkable, burgeoning food culture we’ve finally achieved in the United States. In a mere 100 years, we went from agrarian society to culinary wasteland to possessing identifiable food regions. We established a world-class artisan food, sustainable agriculture, and fine dining scene in certain parts of the country.

What went wrong? We paid $200 (for a bottle of estate olive oil), and instead of passing “Go,” we became a cult of food elitists. It’s the antithesis of why many of us got into the food business in the first place. Yes, care about what you eat, but food shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement attached to it.

Do you really need to be on a first name basis with the person who sells you fava beans? It’s a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with local growers but the posturing and farmer name-dropping one-upmanship I’ve witnessed while working at farmers markets in recent years is over the top. Real supporters of sustainable agriculture–of real food–don’t go trolling for discounts or freebies, because they understand just how hard farmers work for a living.

In a perfect world, everyone should have access to fresh, wholesome, local, delicious food, especially children. Thanks to the good work of organizations like the Chez Panisse Foundation and the increasing number of school lunch programs, community gardens, and other food security initiatives across the country, this isn’t an impossible goal for Americans to achieve, nor is tackling our obesity epidemic in a one-two punch.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend disposable income, if you have it, on costly ingredients or dining out. But the fetishizing of food, the pissing contest that is the hallmark of the archetypal foodie is what I cannot abide. This is what’s at the heart of foodieism; the need to belong to a special club, with a language all its own. In our status-obsessed society, we need to separate ourselves from the plebes who think that the Olive Garden is serving “Italian” food.

Eating well (not necessarily synonymous with eating “expensively”) is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and cooking for other people and joining them at the table sustains us in ways that go beyond filling our stomachs. Every food lover (see? doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) has a deep, fundamental reason for why they’re so moved by the act of eating.

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For me, it’s the cultural aspects of food, its intrinsic relationship to travel, as well as the people who grow, forage, raise, catch, and make food on a small, sustainable scale that I find captivating. These are things that I was fortunate enough to experience in childhood, and they made an indelible impression on me, as well as fostered my culinary career.

Good food–be it a ripe peach, a great street taco, or a lavish, multi-course meal–brings me joy. For what it’s worth, however, my parents aren’t “food people.” I grew up on a ranch, but I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables and TV dinners, because my mom had two kids to raise, dislikes cooking, and for her, the ’70′s with its advent of guiltless convenience foods was a godsend.

There’s also the bad manners perpetuated by foodie culture. On what planet is it okay to “just pop into the kitchen” during a packed dinner service to talk to the chef…especially when s/he’s a total stranger? Yet my boyfriend and I witnessed this scenario, while dining at a certain famous restaurant.

After three hours of listening to the ten-top beside us discourse on the merits of Brittany sea salt purchased at the source versus approximately 12 other kinds of hand-harvested salt, we were ready to clobber them. Look, if you want to spend your money on that shit and then have a debate about it, that’s your perogative. Just don’t hold a small, intimate restaurant as captive audience. Few things are more deadly boring than foodies in a feeding frenzy.

We watched their lengthy progression of courses congeal and grow cold as they scurried around the table snapping food porn. At meal’s end, the ringleader hopped up and made her foray into the kitchen. And, because it was a small, intimate restaurant and my boyfriend and I were seated nearby, we heard the following words come out of the mouth of the extremely irate sous chef who blocked her path: “Lady, we’re in the middle of fucking service. Get the hell out of here!”

Cue applause meter.
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Foodies should also remember that while home cooking, traveling, and dining out most certainly give you an education about food, they don’t, in most cases, make you an expert. Yelp serves a purpose, to be sure, but it’s often a means of settling a score or self-promoting. Or, in the case of food blog reviews written by foodies (as opposed to, say, writers with actual journalism and culinary credentials, both) a way to say, “I’m a food writer too!” One food blogger I stumbled across while researching this story had written on a recent post, “I think [foodie] is a very serious title. It’s like calling yourself a writer or an artist. It means you have to have the knowledge, talent and experience to back it up.”

Um, please get over yourself. Knowing about food, winning a Pulitzer, being the greatest chef on earth…at the end of the day, it’s just effing food. Not the cure for cancer or achieving world peace.

I think esteemed food writer and author Amanda Hesser said it best when she was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article last year: “Having more people interested in good food is never a bad thing,” she said, but what she can’t abide is eating dinner with people who “only want to talk about food and every place where they ate, like, doughnuts or something, and where the best doughnuts are secretly found. Knowing a lot about food culture is a good thing. That cataloguing of food experience is becoming tiresome. I’m pro-food experts. I’m just not so sure I want to have dinner with them or have them judge me on the coffee I drink.”

Amen.

[Photo credits: mushroom cloud, Flickr user Juampe López, poster, Flicker user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]

“Best restaurant in the world” El Bulli to close for two years

Dedicated foodies with dreams of dining at El Bulli, long considered to be one of the best (and often the best) restaurants in the world, are in for some disappointment. The mecca of molecular gastronomy will be closing for two years, in 2012 and 2013.

The restaurant, which is located on the Catalan coast of Spain and has received the coveted Michelin 3-star rating, was named the best restaurant in the world for the fourth straight year by Britain’s Restaurant magazine and is considered to be one the places any food-lover must dine at before dying. Chef Ferran Adria assured devoted fans that though El Bulli will close temporarily, it isn’t gone for good. He did say that there may be some major changes in store though. “In 2014, we will serve food somehow. I don’t know if it will be for one guest or 1,000,” he said.

What’s the reason behind the closure? The Guardian cites Adria as saying that the long hours – he regularly puts in 15-hour days – were getting to him. Though Adria has also said before that El Bulli is not a profitable business, due to the limited seatings and the labor required to do each one. Perhaps the new model will be a better moneymaker.

Thinking you can try to get in before El Bulli shuts its doors? Think again. Seatings for 2010 have already sold out, so unless you are extremely well connected, you’re out of luck. Not that you had much chance of getting a seat anyways. The restaurant only serves 50 guests per night, six months out of the year, and according the UK Guardian, more than 2 million people have vied for a mere 8,000 seats over the past few years.

Papa Gino’s: a Massachusetts pizza that defies substitution

Massachusetts can be a strange place. It took forever for the major national chains to work their way into the state. I didn’t see a Target or Wal-Mart in my area until I got out of the army in 1999. Tastes and attitudes tend to be more than a tad provincial, so even the chains are usually local. When I left Boston several years ago, I was able to find replacements for just about everything I enjoyed – and was usually able to upgrade. How could I not? I’d moved to Manhattan, which is famous for having everything … except what it doesn’t: Papa Gino’s.

Papa Gino’s is a New England pizza chain. Most of its restaurants are in Massachusetts, though it has a few outlets in northern Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern New Hampshire. It’s the quintessential local chain – it’s big in the area and virtually unknown everywhere else in the country. So, when I knew someone who was heading up to Massachusetts, I asked him to bring back a few slices, which I ate cold the morning after his return.

To the pizza connoisseur, a slice from Papa Gino’s would probably be a disappointment. It isn’t exotic and lacks the character of its local competitors. Ask a Bostonian if he’d walk to the nearest Papa Gino’s or brave the Callahan Tunnel for a pie at Santarpio’s in East Boston, and he’ll have his car keys in his hand. But, expats view the world through different lenses, and a slice from Papa Gino’s is something we just can’t get – making it all the more valuable.

Eaten cold, a slice from Pap Gino’s is at its finest – unless you’re eating it cold and you have a hangover. It may not be a cure for what ails you, but it’s sure as hell a great diversion.

[Photo by Svadilfari via Flickr]