Sunday, April 24, 2005

Going to McDonalds for a salad is like going to a whorehouse for a hug

My planned piece this week on the joys of the profiterole was dashed when Atlas, the French bistro in my hood, switched to their spring-themed, profiterole-less menu. So, instead, let's take a moment to study perhaps the pinnacle of our modern industrial-food society: the McDonalds french fry.

When served piping fresh and properly salted, no hand cut pom fritte, no beskinned steak fry, no potato in the world is the equal of the McD fry. While the list of ingredients would probably make your head spin, the fries emerge as simplicity itself: a crunch, salt, heat and starch combo that melds into one solid, joyous flavor. But eat them fast: in mere minutes they go from little snips ‘o pleasure to portable paste sticks. It’s okay to burn the tongue a little.

The burgers at McDonalds are disturbing. Their chicken nuggets, palatable. But the fries, oh the fries! They are the Platonic ideal, the icon of fried potato. Dip them in a chocolate shake if you dare; I prefer one of McDonalds high-test orange drinks myself. Get a large fries, and laugh at the giant Americaness of it all: the fucker takes two hands to hold, and it's full of golden glory sticks. U! S! A! U! S! A!

In general, I agree that fast food is a problem, delivering too many calories to too many of us. I've read Fast Food Nation and seen Super Size Me. My argument against fast food is that convenience isn't worth the damage bad food does to you, but real pleasure is. Maybe McDonalds is killing the rainforests, enlarding our children and forcing bland sameness onto our landscapes. But they gave us their french fries. Can't we call it even?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It's free ice cream day.

The reason I say above that I'm only going to update every Monday is that I really want most of these posts to be full-fledged essays. But, when Free Ice Cream Day at Ben and Jerry's rolls around, you gotta say something. So, I'm going to quote myself from an old issue of the Riverfront Times:

"Let's make some ice cream. Get some heavy cream, some whole milk, some sugar and whatever else you crave (we like to throw in some chopped-up Cherry Mashes). Don't measure anything out, just mix it together in whatever ratios feel right. Dump it in an ice cream maker, let it run until it looks like ice cream and then stop. You will not mess up. It will be delicious. It takes a lot more willpower, time and ingredients (with names like carrageenin and locust bean gum) to make bad ice cream than it does to make good. But to make great ice cream is the hardest of all. That takes patience, subtlety and the understanding that every ingredient, including the air that is whipped in during the freezing process, matters."

I'll get more in-depth on ice cream on another, hotter day. But God bless a country that has free ice cream day.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Red Hot Riplets and the Nature of Heat

A true story from some years back. The setting: some nameless McDonalds on some highway somewhere in America. I approach the counter, a sandwich with one bite out of it in my hand.

"Um, I ordered the spicy chicken sandwich."

"That's it."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"Oh, okay. Thanks."

People have talked for years about all the silly and sad ways that our litigious society has sucked the sap and vigor out of the American character. Playgrounds are soft and soulless, there's nary a high dive to be found and fireworks give nothing but little colored farts now. But for someone who lives on the gluttonous edge of life, there is little sadder than what has happened to the word "spicy" (places that won't serve rare steaks ... oh, but that's another post).

Oh, how many times have I had to convince a Thai waiter that I can handle what they serve? How many little flame logos next to a menu item have augured nothing more than a light dusting of paprika? If the word "wet" had been abused as much as the word "spicy," restaurants would serve glasses of gruel with your meal.

For those of us who hunger for heat, a tiny twinge on the back of the tongue will not do. We want our mouths to become the forge from which we can be formed anew. We want sizzling virtual pain, the agony box from Dune that tests your human nature.

"But how can you taste your food when it's like that?" people ask. Does hot wax on your chest make your genitals numb? Spice transcends flavor; if anything it is closest to the Japanese concept of "umami," a whole mouth taste. But it goes beyond that as well. Because when the sweat breaks out on the upper lip and the pain doesn't subside between bites, true seekers of the flame understand that heat is a drug.

All good foods are, of course, but spicy foods do have a literal drug in them: capsaicin, an alkaloid that fools the brain into thinking there is a chemical burn. And it makes you sweat and buzzes your metabolism. It's an upper. And that's what we're looking for when we look for heat.

Which brings us, finally, to Red Hot Riplets. Riplets, the finest packaged food to come out of St. Louis, are exactly what they advertise: red frickin' hot. My girlfriend can't eat them any more since one went down the wrong pipe, bringing on a coughing fit and mental trauma. These chips, blessedly, aren't "kettle cooked" or "dashed with sea salt" or any of the other horrible things that people have done to try to fancy up potato chips. They are chemical wastelands, rippled and radioactively hot, like the world of the Road Warrior. They are fantastic.

Last year, the chips got a more visible champion in the visage of Murphy Lee, one of the St. Lunatics. Murph's debut album had a tune called "Red Hot Riplets," including the chorus "I need some Kool-Aid/ With my Red Hot Riplets." St. Louis leads the nation in Kool-Aid consumption. Is there any wonder?

But, to my grief, Red Hot Riplets have yet to break out of the local chip market. In fact, you can't even find them in most suburban grocery stores around here. So, I'm eating them while I can, enjoying each orange-fingered powdery goddamn moment of it.

I'm going to Heaven

I promise a full post tomorrow morning (on the joys of heat and Red Hot Riplets), but up late and boning up on my future home, New York City. So I did a Google search on New York Pizza and got over four million hits.

Mama, I'm coming home.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A sinner's manifesto

I had the great pleasure this weekend of attending the Chicago wedding of Matte and Shelley Elkins. I had looked forward to seeing old college friends again. A little older, a little fatter (well, I'm fatter, anyway ... they seem to have all gotten thinner, the bastards) but still we clicked into old familiarity, picking up old inside jokes like we'd last told them yesterday. But as much as I was anticipating the reunion, it was only with slightly less fervor that I waited for the after-wedding meal.

The Elkins, God bless them, know how to eat. Too often, wedding food mistakes highfalutin words and a little presentation for flavor (in fact, you could say the same thing for most trendy restaurants in America). But the Elkins/Holmes wedding had Alabama fried chicken with batter so thick it could have been tempura, roast Iowa pork, corn bread, clouds of mashed potato, shot-sized milkshakes ... real food, the kind of meal you'd ask for as a last request. After we ate until drunk with blood sugar I snuck out back to grab a smoke, where I met up with a Cuban American from Miami named Eugene. And as we puffed, we talked about the meal, reliving it. "I'm Cuban," he said, then confessed how much he'd enjoyed the sweet and spicy pork, adding "no way I thought these people would be able to cook pork as good as we do."

Then the conversation got interesting, as Eugene explained to me how his family roasts whole pigs: they pick their own swine at the slaughterhouse, where it is shaved and gutted. Then they roast the whole beast in a Chinese Box covered in coals. The skin is coated with more oil than a teenage tan junkie, and with the same effect: "The skin gets crispy as a cracker," Eugene said. "Everybody eats it first." They eat the rest of the pig, too: Eugene and his father even crack open the skull and spread the pasty brain on crackers.

And even though my stomach pressed against the buttons of my shirt, even though I'd just eaten for hours, my mouth was watering again. It was as if I'd popped in a porno after fantastic sex.

Food and sex have been compared to each other so often it’s passed beyond cliché into truism. They are the two realms where basic existence and pleasure completely intertwine. There aren't many people obsessed with breathing, and no one's body drives them to attend ballet. But sex in America is so open and boring these days that food has surpassed it as the final sin: Paris Hilton happily films herself rutting, but not stuffing herself with chocolate. Now that AIDS cocktails are coming up, AIDS isn't quite as scary as it used to be, but lard-encrusted eight-year-olds terrify and titillate us.

But we are obese not because of the great, sinful foods that fill you with animal lust. No, America is fat because we eat like a teenage boy masturbates, compulsively and badly. The empty Doritos bags in our trash cans are the stiff sweat socks of our pathetic onanism.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In the same way that that thirteen year old will hopefully one day learn that sex is more than a tickle and a squirt, we too must remember that truly sinful food is worth the added weight, worth the extra plaque in the arteries. There are two diets that cannot be tolerated: one in which you eat whatever junk floats your way, and the other which is so strict that you would just ask for salad at the Elkins' wedding or Eugene's pig roast. One won't let you live long; the other doesn't let you live at all.

This blog is dedicated to the worthwhile sin of eating, the pleasures so fine that the risks are embraced. It will not be an every-day blog; just as the type of eating it celebrates cannot be an everyday thing. As a side note, I'll be taking potshots at the type of stupid cooking that pervades America's restaurants right now, the type referenced above that places novelty over flavor. To return, as we so often will, to the sexual metaphor: if we were all pressured to keep finding new sexual acts each time we copulated, the results would be perverse, ridiculous and unsatisfying. Just like fine dining is today. This blog is for those of us who know that no mushroom foam or cilantro granita can ever replace the old simple pleasures. This blog is for fried chicken, sushi, ice cream and rare steaks. Butter, crusty breads and sausage marinara. Chocolate, steamed shrimp and crispy duck.

Oh Christ, I'm hungry again.