Pim Techamuanvivit is an old-school restaurateur, a person who knows her cuisine inside out, but she has found an intriguing new way to run a non-European restaurant. Born in Bangkok in the ’70s, into a family where delicious food was cooked and showcased daily, she came to the United States in the early ’90s to study cognitive science, specifically the subject of group collaboration. The skills appear to have set her up perfectly for opening a restaurant.
We could talk about cooking as a function of chemistry and physics. Better to talk about elbow grease. Specifically, a physical theory of everyday cooking, The Time-Work Continuum.
The premise is simple: You start with food, apply a variable equation of time and energy — guided perhaps, by a recipe — and sooner or later you have a meal. To eat sooner, you will have to expend more of your own energy; if you’re willing to wait, then you have the luxury of letting heat serve as the primary energy, transforming the raw ingredients with minimal input from you.
According to this hypothesis, every dish can be plotted along a single X axis, measured by Time at one end and Work at the other. If you wanted to go for fancier science, put time on the X axis and a work on the Y and plot recipes in quadrants. (Meanwhile, I’ll make a sandwich.)
This Sunday’s “People’s Climate March” in New York City could be the biggest demonstration yet for action on climate change. The march is scheduled to coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit, which begins two days later. Despite the advance billing and the official nature of the summit, the march is what matters. The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco.
That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.
There was a time when governments dealt with international threats. Now, as the columnist George Monbiot says, they “propose everything except the obvious solution — legislation.” Rather, they will talk, commission panels, invoke market-based solutions and even offer subsidies to industry, rather than say, for example, “Wealthy nations are reducing emissions globally by 8 to 10 percent per year, beginning now.” By Klein’s estimates, that’s precisely what it will take to avoid catastrophe and that is precisely what we are not going to see.
My father, who died last week at 91, had a complex life that typified that of Jewish men of his generation. But of course when you know someone well, you see just how unusual that life is. Or was.
Murray was born in the Bronx to immigrants from Austria and Romania. (The borders have since shifted — several times.) The family was poor and became more so during the Depression. (“We were happy with a boiled potato and some sour cream,” he’d yell at me when I’d refuse to clean my plate.)
More or less chronologically, my favorite restaurant towns of the last 20 years have been New York, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now, London. It’s been London for a few years, although a quarter-century ago — when the London restaurant scene began to explode — such a statement would have been unthinkable. Back then, I went and looked for eel pie. Back then, my attention was directed toward New York and Paris.
I don’t know what caused London to surge to the front. It may be a genuine appreciation for pedigree ingredients that predates ours and isn’t as precious; Londoners have been celebrating the arrival of asparagus and Jersey potatoes not for the last three years but for centuries. It may be that there is a broader palate: no one thinks twice about putting kidneys or brains or truly wild, highly flavorful grouse on the menu. It may be that London, of course a capital of world finance, is also a more fun city than perhaps any other, as long as you have money. It may be that, relatively speaking, the wine is cheap, mostly French, and therefore usually good even if you don’t know what you’re doing. (With the pound sterling at $1.70, nothing is actually cheap, not even breakfast.)
And it may be that I’m just in love with the place, and have been for 46 years, since I went there as a 17-year-old and, in a light snowstorm in midwinter, visited Covent Garden, then still a year-round outdoor produce market. Even more pathetic, it may be that I speak the language and I love the accent.
Say what you will about the Chinese, but they know how to make wholesale changes, and sometimes those changes are inarguably for the good. As noted in an editorial in The Lancet last week, the life span of the average person in China in 1950 was 40 years; by 2011 it was around 76. (The average life span in the United States in 2011 was 79.)
The causes of this near doubling of life span are no secret: China has developed public health programs that have reduced communicable diseases to a manageable level. This is certainly good news. But it means that people are now dying of noncommunicable diseases, or chronic diseases that are largely preventable. These diseases, most common in wealthier nations, are caused not by malnutrition in the classic sense but by overconsumption of disease-causing foods as well as lack of exercise and environmental dangers.
Because things are moving so fast in China, and because that country can learn from the example of the United States and others, perhaps it can pull off a public-health leapfrog and avoid the West’s fate of a rapid and tragic increase in obesity levels and the diseases with which they’re associated.
Across my desk recently came a reissue of the 1964 classic “The Drinking Man’s Diet,” a cute little volume that maintains that if you drink a bit you’ll lose weight. Counterintuitive, since one of the things we think we know about alcohol is that it provides truly empty calories, which generally speaking cause weight gain (see, for example, soda).
With seven calories per gram, alcohol is way more caloric than sugar and other carbs, all of which contain four, and less so than fat (nine), but those in alcohol are metabolized differently, and some studies have shown that moderate drinkers ingesting the same level of calories as non-drinkers (and heavy drinkers) may gain less weight over time. Moderate levels of alcohol may also protect against heart disease.
Life is complicated, and drinking for health is a lame rationalization, but drinking itself… well, we do it because we like it. Medical discussions about drinking rarely touch on hangovers, an important consequence for serious drinkers, which I’ve had more times than I’d like to think about. (Although I did swear that my most recent hangover would be my last, and given that that was more than six weeks ago, I’d say I’m doing pretty well.) The point is that if we’re reasonably responsible individuals, these are private matters whose consequences are borne by ourselves.
We drink because we want to, not because it’s good for us. Whether you believe that alcohol is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy (a paraphrase of a quote usually attributed to Ben Franklin) or that God has nothing to do with this, it’s clear that alcohol can bring both joy and pain.
Go to picnic hot spots — parks, beaches, outdoor concerts and the like — and see what people are carrying. Mostly, it’s bags of store-bought food, not coolers of home-cooked. While grab-and-go counters of picnicky food are almost universally mediocre and exasperatingly expensive, I do understand the temptation to outsource. The weather is hot, you might not feel like cooking in the first place and, in addition to actually making the food, you have to pack it, transport it and ensure that it’s still edible by the time it reaches its final destination.
The recipes here are built to last, so you don’t have to worry about timing. Not only are they hardy enough to hang out in the fridge for a while, but many also benefit from that resting time, like the classic French “bathed bread” sandwich and salads featuring sturdy ingredients like lentils, green beans, seaweed and chicken.
Read the rest of this column and get the recipes here.
“What,” people ask me, “do you cook when you’re not working?” The answer is pretty consistent: “pasta and fish and a vegetable, or pasta and salad and a vegetable, or salad and fish and a vegetable, or pasta and salad and fish and a vegetable.” There are exceptions, of course, but there’s a comfort level here and it’s been this way for a long time, through different kitchens and domestic arrangements.
Here’s the thing: In my professional life of finding, replicating, sometimes even “creating” recipes, my palate is up for anything. But when the work hat comes off, I fall into old and completely beloved habits.
For most of us, there’s no better place to buy fruits and vegetables than at a farmers’ market. Period. The talk about high prices isn’t entirely unjustified, but it can be countered, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
What’s inarguable is that farmers’ markets offer food of superior quality, help support smaller-scale farmers in an environment that’s more and more difficult for anyone not doing industrial-scale agriculture, and increase the amount of local food available to shoppers. All of this despite still-inadequate recognition and lack of government support.
Then there’s “know your farmer, know your food.” When you buy directly from a farmer, you’re pretty much guaranteed real freshness (we’ve all seen farmers’ market produce last two or three times longer than supermarket produce). You’re supporting a local business — even a neighbor! And you have the opportunity to ask, “How are you growing this food?” Every farmer I’ve spoken to says — not always in a thrilled tone — that the questions from shoppers never stop. But even if a vegetable isn’t “certified organic,” you can still begin to develop your own standards for what makes sense and what doesn’t.
Farmers’ markets are not just markets. They’re educational systems that teach us how food is raised and why that matters.