This Armenian Life

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Greater Los Angeles is a collection of not just smaller cities but also exotic populations. Among those cities is Glendale (not so small: it would be the second-most-populous city in New England), a center of the Armenian diaspora and home to one of the world’s largest Armenian populations outside Armenia. Fleeing religious violence in the late 19th century, genocide in the early 20th or the Soviet Union after that, Armenian Californians became integral in the development of the fig, raisin and bulgur businesses.

Edward Khechemyan came to Burbank, which borders on Glendale, in 1991 — the same year Armenia left the U.S.S.R. He was 17 then, and of the move, he says simply, “We didn’t like the Communist system.” His father, who left Iran for Armenia — the home of his ancestors — in 1974, was a chef who dreamed of opening a restaurant, and in 1997, he did just that.

The name of the restaurant, which is on the terminally unhip San Fernando Road right near the Burbank border, has changed twice; it is now called Adana. The food-and-travel writer David Latt, a friend who has never steered me wrong, listed it as among his favorite restaurants when I was picking his brain last year, and we ate there together last fall. It was so good that I’ve visited Adana on each of my four subsequent trips to Los Angeles.

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Posted in Spices, Travel

Strolling in Paris, With Menus in Mind

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 11.27.44 AMParis is, of course, a walker’s city. But which direction to take? And to what destinations? With previously unknown (to me, at least) restaurants as my end points, I started at Notre Dame (essentially the center of town; all time allotments below are from there) and headed in different directions for different lengths of time.

After a few attempts, I found myself drawn toward the Marais and the 11th Arrondissement, where I was eating best. When I walked west, I was disappointed. With one exception, I had to walk north (and usually east) in order to find food that thrilled me.

Here, then, are the four winners.

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Posted in Slow Food, Travel

Everyone Eats There

California’s Central Valley is our greatest food resource. Why are we treating it so badly? 

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I left Los Angeles at 4 in the morning, long before first light, and made it to Bakersfield — the land of oil derricks, lowriders and truck stops with Punjabi food — by 6. Ten minutes later, I was in the land of carrots. 

 You know that huge pile of cello-wrapped carrots in your supermarket? Now imagine that the pile filled the entire supermarket. That’s how many carrots I saw upon my arrival at Bolthouse Farms. Something like 50 industrial trucks were filled to the top with carrots, all ready for processing. Bolthouse, along with another large producer, supplies an estimated 85 percent of the carrots eaten by Americans. There are many ways to put this in perspective, and they’re all pretty mind-blowing: Bolthouse processes six million pounds of carrots a day. If you took its yield from one week and stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth. If you took all the carrots the company grows in a year, they would double the weight of the Empire State Building. 

At Bolthouse’s complex, carrots whirl around on conveyor belts at up to 50 miles an hour en route to their future as juliennes, coins and stubs, or baby carrots, which the company popularized and which aren’t babies. Other carrots become freezer fare, concentrate, salad dressings and beverages. Fiber is separated for tomato sauce and hot dogs. Whatever’s left becomes cattle feed. For the entire article click here.

Posted in Farming, Travel

The Puebla International Mole Festival

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Last week I was lucky enough to get to speak at the International Mole Festival in Puebla, Mexico. Why Mexico? My interview with Mexico City food writer Lesley Téllez (copied below and originally posted here) explains a bit about my relationship with Mexico and its food. Also, be sure not to miss Lesley’s recap of the first day of the festival (look at the pictures and you’ll see why I had to go).

Q: When did you first start traveling to Mexico?
A: I don’t know, 30 years ago. But seriously, really seriously, it’s been five years. In the past five years it’s become a priority.

Q: Why?
A: It should’ve been a priority all along. I saw the error of my ways. Look, you can’t go everywhere. It’s important for me to see as many things as I can see, globally. But my early loves were European and Asian cuisine, and I’d say I was first Eurocentric and then I spent a great deal of time in the late 90s/early 2000s traveling in Asia. I don’t have to apologize for this, but I mistakenly put Mexico not at the top of the list. But it’s worked out fine. It’s still here.

Q: What first captured your attention in Mexico in terms of the food?
A: It’s a really interesting question because the first couple of times I came here, I went to the Yucatán. Without being cruel, I would say that it ’s not — the way Yucatecan cuisine is presented to visitors is not the best. Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that. But I only learned that recently.

I think what really attracted me was street markets and street food in Mexico City. I have friends who’ve been kind enough to schlep me around and show me, probably starting eight or ten years ago.

And I have been nowhere. Let me say, I know more about Poblano food than about anything else, and I don’t know anything about a lot of them. So I’m totally a real beginner.

Q: Yeah, I was originally surprised to see your name on the list of speakers. I’d seen in some of your columns that you’d visited Mexico, but I didn’t know you had such an affinity that you’d actually come here to talk in Puebla.
A: Well. I’d go talk in Bhutan where I’ve never been, because an opportunity to talk to a big audience is an opportunity to talk to a big audience. You just get there early enough to not be an idiot about the food. And I have to say I’m not an idiot about Poblano food.

Q: You repeated yourself in your talk, when you mentioned innovation in Mexican food. You said twice that Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with. Why?
A: Because it’s really good. I mean that’s an easy answer. How are you going to make this food better? By adding soy sauce? By adding more cheese? By what? By turning it into pizza? If someone’s going to tell me I’m having a mole poblano pizza, that’s nice, but let’s not have that be a symbol of Puebla. What’s going to make it better? GMO corn and mass-produced masa is not going to make it better.

Posted in Mexican, Travel

René Redzepi: Prince of Denmark

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Whether Copenhagen’s Noma is the world’s best restaurant doesn’t matter: René Redzepi, its chef, has responded to his well-deserved recognition with the kind of inspiration and energy that guarantee he’ll be around for a while. Redzepi, soon to turn 34, is also a sweet guy running an oddly nonhierarchical kitchen, and talented people from all over the world are flocking to Denmark to work for him.

Meanwhile, well-heeled people from all over the world are flocking to Noma to get a sample of the restaurant’s “new Nordic cuisine.” (“Noma” is a conflation of the Danish words for “Nordic” and “food.”) Much of the food is actually Nordic, though not exclusively so: the pan-seared langoustine with oyster-parsley purée, for example, could be claimed just as legitimately by New Orleans.

Read the rest of this column here

Posted in Slow Food, Travel

Food Blooms in the Desert

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Last month, I stood in the midday sun a few miles north of Anthony, N. M., and Anthony, Tex. — a town divided by the state line created in 1854 — staring out over a 15-acre plot of land that didn’t look like much. In this part of the world, it was once almost as easy to travel from the United States to Mexico and back as it is to go from one Anthony to another. Now the trip can drive you crazy, with long waits and inspections; if you’re undocumented and unlucky, it can kill you.

I’d spent a couple of days touring El Paso and Las Cruces, the cities of El Paso del Norte, as well as the colonias. (These are unincorporated settlements largely inhabited by Mexicans whose ancestors lived here when it was New Spain, joined by more recent immigrants.) Here, I learned that the border isn’t the only thing that’s become complicated around here; food is another.

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Posted in Farming, Travel

The Best Little Tortilla Soup in Texas

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The chili harvest of West Texas, southern New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, begins in late summer and lasts through the first hard frost. You can encounter the smell of chilies roasting anywhere, with the frequency and randomness I associate with leaves burning in New England. I didn’t know this until I went to New Mexico, where I’d traveled for the Hatch Chile Festival, an event every native or long-termer politely advised me to avoid. (“Well, it’s a nice drive,” they’d say, and they were right about that.)

But I didn’t need to go to Hatch — the self-proclaimed chili capital of the world — to find these roasted chilies. At many farms, supermarkets, farmers’ markets and street corners in Las Cruces, people buy green chilies by the mesh sack — 8 pounds, or 20, or 40 — and then pay someone with a gas-powered, hand-cranked, lotto-drum-like steel basket to roast them on the spot. The smell is intoxicating, as the peppers tumble around in the roasters, their seeds popping from the intense heat. It takes just a few minutes to roast 20 pounds.

I didn’t just smell these chilies, of course; I ate them. A lot of them. I had chilies stuffed (rellenos-style), pulverized (in salsa) and chopped with pinto beans (inside burritos). All fantastic.

(Read the rest of this article here.)

Posted in Mexican, Travel

Maine Attraction

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Maine, to the outsider’s view, seems as food-conscious right now as California. (The Winter/Spring issue of Maine Policy Review, devoted to food and with a very cool cover, is 250 pages, some of which are even worth reading.) Of course it’s all whom you talk to, but it sure was easy enough to meet people who wanted to talk food. (And that, as we know, is happening everywhere, increasingly. Good.)

I was encouraged to come up by Ingrid Bengis-Palei, who’s been supplying top chefs in New York and elsewhere with Maine scallops, lobsters, sea urchins and more, for more than 20 years. (She has kept FedEx profitable.) I first encountered her name when Eberhard Müller was chef at Le Bernardin; that, I think, was in 1988. (Eberhard and I went scalloping that winter on Nantucket, not because we were afraid of Maine but because we were after bay scallops, not the huge sea scallops for which Maine is justifiably known.)

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Posted in Farming, Travel

New Farmers in an Unlikely Place

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North Haven, Me.

When Brenna Chase was farming in Connecticut a few years back, new farmers weren’t always welcome by oldsters. The pie, she says, just wasn’t big enough. “But now,” she said to me here, where she now farms, “the feeling is that the pie is getting bigger and that the more people that get into this the better it will be for everyone.”

By “this,” she means sustainable farming (here I use the term interchangeably with “organic” because many ethical farmers can’t afford organic certification), and the poised 33-year-old, who began farming in high school, is representative of young people I’ve met all over the country. These are people whose concern for the environment led to a desire to grow — and eat — better food. And although chefs still get more attention, the new farmers deserve recognition for their bold and often creative directions.

(Read the rest of this article here.)

Posted in Farming, Travel

A Better Sort of Pig

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In May, I went to Iowa, primarily to learn more about so-called conventional agriculture, those thousand-acre farms growing corn and soybeans, planted, tended and harvested largely by machine. (We have plenty of the other type — what’s variously called traditional, or alternative, or non-conventional — in the Northeast.) But thanks to an auspicious combination of topsoil, climate, topography and weather, Iowa is among the best locales for farming in North America, and I saw a wide range of practices.

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(Photo Credit: Quentin Origami via Flickr)

Posted in Farming, Travel