Aug 25, 201610:25 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Three-Week Onion-Lichen and Fried Chicken for the Masses
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Forager
I started reading an article in the New Yorker recently, but I had to stop after the first few paragraphs. The online version of the article is titled “The Most Exclusive Restaurant in America,” and it began with a series of quotes from a man who cannot possibly be as pretentious as he comes off in the piece. It is not possible for a person to embody everything that everyone hates about “foodies” and remain a human. The top of the list of things people hate about “foodies,” I think, is the sense that they are interested in food only for the novelty and that the “best” restaurant is a restaurant that nobody else can get into.
The guy profiled in the first few paragraphs of this story says things like, “The people I go around with, it’s hard for us to find something that is genuinely unique and new,” and when told the restaurant in question doesn’t take reservations and is booked through 2025, takes it as a challenge, because he “prides [him]self on getting into restaurants.” Maybe it hits a bit close to home because I do pride myself on knowing a thing or two about food, and I will out-smug just about anyone not the subject of an article in the New Yorker. I know that’s faint praise; it’s sort of like saying, “Sure, he’s got a temper, but at least he’s not Stalin.”
(I also pride myself on being favorably compared to Josef Stalin in most regards. “What’s that? I failed to deliver my article on time? Well, sorry, but at least I didn’t starve several million of my countrymen in the pursuit of an idealistic but fatally flawed social program and a megalomaniacal political agenda.” I think I tend to come off pretty well in comparison, at least where the topic is not “who has the best moustache” because that’s a fight I’m not picking, tovarisch).
Anyway, I went back to the piece at the New Yorker with the intent of skewering it here, but then I actually read it and found it pretty interesting. It’s still full of pretention, as befits a story about a chef who forages every non-protein on his menu from his 11-acre property and about whom the author writes, “By watching deer in the woods, he had discovered that the inner barks of certain trees have a salty taste. While chopping wood, he found that a particular lichen takes on an oniony flavor for three weeks a year. He made a cooked powder from it. ‘You’re gonna love it!’” And: “He’ll spend seven hours gathering three-quarters of a pound of clover – enough to fill a steamer trunk. ‘I do it at night, with a headlamp,’ he said.”
“You’re doing it wrong,” is what I’d say to that, because a) why are you spending seven hours picking clover and b) if you are going to pick clover in the first place, why are you doing it at night, with a headlamp? But as sophisticated as I am, I am not perhaps sophisticated enough to appreciate the value of “seven-hour foraged clover” as a single component in a dish that is one of 17 served over five hours.
That is not to say I would not enjoy a meal at Damon Baehrel, which is the name of both the chef and his restaurant, because while I might not appreciate any individual component, it did sound like a pretty amazing experience. I will never find out as the restaurant is allegedly booked through 2025, and I do not have $425 to spend on a single meal regardless.
I do recommend the article to you because once you get past the first 10 or so paragraphs, it opens up and by the end, it’s as fascinating as an article about a guy who has seven different types of “sap” curing in his work-shed can be without also including sex.
In other news, I read ANOTHER article. “Congratulations, you literate bastard!” you may be thinking, but I did not mention it in the hope you would praise me. Rather, I mention it because while not quite as interesting and a hell of a lot less erudite, this article in the Chicago Tribune about the publication of the “secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken (“KFC”) was amusing.
Short version: Reporter interviewing relative of Col. Sanders is inadvertently provided original, handwritten recipe for the “11 herbs and spices” that make up the “secret” recipe for KFC’s fried chicken. According to the article, the “Tribune Kitchen” tested the recipe and found it “finger-lickin’ good.”
I haven’t eaten KFC fried chicken in many years, and I don’t intend to try the recipe published in the Tribune to see if it measures up. Frying chicken is a pain in the ass, at least if you do it right, and I don’t have the true “secret ingredient” used at KFC, Popeyes or any other major fried chicken chain: a pressure-fryer.
One of the more fascinating things, at least to me, about how our food culture has changed over the past 100 years or so is how chicken, and particularly fried chicken, has become so commonplace that it’s considered “fast food.” It was a special meal once because chicken (and frying oil, for that matter) was not cheap and frying chicken is time-consuming and makes a hell of a mess. The pressure-fryer and the commercialization of chicken farming has changed all that, to the point where chicken is one of our least expensive sources of animal-based protein. Hoover probably wouldn’t say “a chicken in every pot” to suggest how he’d spread affluence to everybody. Maybe these days he’d offer “kale in every pot,” or more likely “foraged lichen that tastes like an onion for three weeks out of the year in every pot.”
It’s a crazy world, is all I’m saying, and the insanity appears to be spreading.