Savouring the City
August 14, 2009, 11:57
Filed under: restaurants, trips | Tags: , , ,

Though I’m usually one to pride myself on doing it all in my kitchen, whether it’s pizza dough or pastry cream, there are some things, I think, that are still best left to the experts. Believe me, I’m not one to shy away from kneading dough or tempering eggs–doing things with my own hands can be so satisfying–but then there’s stumbling sleepily into a bakery first thing in the morning and sitting down to warm, flaky perfection. I’m talking about the pretzel croissant at City Bakery in Manhattan. Crisp, light, wonderfully salty, tender, buttery-sweet, and sesame-coated–the pretzel croissant is all of these things. Just genius. And I’m happy to wait for my next trip to New York City to experience it all again. Why? To be fully appreciated, I think, some things should be savoured in the moment, just as they are. Going home and cutting up cubes of cold butter for croissant dough just wouldn’t be right in this case. It’d be like returning from the MoMA and mixing up some oil paints to try to recreate Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in my living room. Sometimes, celebrating food just means tucking in and enjoying it. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately while on this trip (honourable mentions include the strange but incredible olive oil and sweet corn & blackberry copettas at Otto) , but I promise that I’ll be back in my own kitchen working away soon.


A lost art

By and large, Michael Pollan seems to have it right. What passes for cooking in most households these days has lost its gusto. We’ve forgone peeling, de-seeding, julienning, caramelising, deglazing, and all of that other kitchen toil, for the quick and dirty ‘dump and stir’. Dinner is on the table in less than thirty, all with a couple cranks of the can-opener and a bit of reheating. But how gratifying is that? If you ask me–not very.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve lost a lot for convenience’s sake–instant mashed potatoes don’t exactly shout freshness, microwave pizzas certainly don’t speak much for flavour. And when parents, as Pollan reported recently in the New York Times, are buying frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids’ school lunches, something has got to give.

For most today, food is a lost art. Now, I don’t mean this in a lofty way. Working in the kitchen is akin to carpentry and car repairs–it requires taking basic principles to situation after situation and learning to apply them. It means developing finesse. It’s a practice–one that we’ve all but forgotten.

Towards the end of Pollan’s article, he asks: “Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt?” According to food-marketing researcher Harry Balzer, the prospects are pretty grim: “Not going to happen. Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it…The next American cook is going to be the supermarket.”

I don’t think things have to be this way, and clearly, there are plenty of others who agree (see Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Matt Armendariz for starters). Food need not be a lost art. We just need to get cooking.

So that’s what I’ll be writing about here–about all the things that have been marinating, brûlée-ing, infusing, and roasting in my kitchen, with the hope that others get the urge to pick up a wooden spoon and get to it.