Posted by Rob Eshman
More than Jews have kept delis, the deli has kept the Jews.
Yes, that’s a direct ripoff of Ahad Ha’am’s famous dictum about the Sabbath.
I didn’t know Heschel, but I bet if I could have gotten him alone over a cup of cold beet borscht at Rattner’s, he would have thought it over, wiped the sour cream from the corner of his mouth, and said, “You know, you may have a point.”
The deli is where we eat, meet, laugh, commiserate, celebrate, feast, deal, cry. Take pulpit and prayer out of a synagogue, add corned beef, and you’d end up with something like a deli. God is, of course, in both.
LA has the country’s, maybe the world’s, best delis. That’s according to David Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” Brents, Langers, Juniors, Factors, Sauls, Izzy’s, Pico Kosher, Nate n Als, Canters— but even with this embarrassment of kishke, business is tough. The venerable Canters on Fairfax depends for its bottom line on the Kibbitz Room bar. There is more profit in selling shots to hipsters at 3 am than in turning out a great lox, eggs and onions. Time, which Heschel said stands still, is Eternal, on the Sabbath, passes delis by.
In his book, Sax described a deli that is trying to keep up with the times, if not change them. Kenny and Zukes is part of Portland, OR’s farm-to-table, handmade, local, sustainable food movement. They pickle their own cucumbers. They cure their own lox. They brine and smoke their own pastrami. They boil and bake their own bagels. The rye, the sauerkraut—all housemade, all from local ingredients.
I had to try it.
And last month, on a family trip to Portland, I finally did.
We got to Kenny and Zuke’s on the last day of a long vacation weekend. It was way up their on our list of must-see Portland sites, along with the Columbia River Gorge and… well, Kenny and Zuke’s Deli. I mean, Rose Gardens? Museums? Every city has those. But there is only one deli in America that is trying to reinvent the deli.
Portland is a city that prays at the alter of local, sustainable, farm-to-table food. At a place called McMenimin’s Edgefield, they roast their own coffee, brew their own beer, grow and bottle their own wine, and distill their own spirits. The next step, I can only imagine, is raising their own customers.
So how was it?
If Kenny and Zuke’s is the future of the deli, then the deli has a very good future. We arrived hungry at 4 pm on a Sunday, and ate our way through a menu that is as well-curated as a think tank web site, and features all the greatest hits, and then some. (Note: Kenny and Zuke’s is not kosher—it’s kosher-style.)
How’s the lox? Thinly cut, hand-sliced sheets, the color of a late summer peach, draped over a chewy, hand-shaped bagel. Capers, onion, bright red tomato and a light, fresh cream cheese. Perfect.
The homemade pastrami, I rushed to Tweet at the time, was peppery and tender, but still no Langers. I immediately heard back via Tweet from Kenny himself that his pastrami is house-cured from natural, local beef. He didn’t have to protest—it was a great sandwich—and kudos for consciousness—but Langers’ pastrami is meat crack— you can’t beat the high.
But in every other category, Kenny and Zuke showed the power of homemade food from great local ingredients. The pickles and the pickled vegetable plate, the fluffy, salty potato knish, one of the world’s lighter kugels, which actually tasted of high quality potatoes, a rich chicken soup with a very light matzo ball, and a rye bread that reminded me of the dense, high loaves we bought fresh at Bea’s, and—oh—the egg creams have a good shock of bitter chocolate and a head like a Portland ale.
The deli is retro and clean, with big windows onto busy Stark Street. But you will not mistake Kenny and Zuke’s for Canter’s or Nate n’ Al’s. The wait staff is young and friendly, and most sport whatever is the city’s minimum legal requirement of piercings and tattoos. We missed the neurotic buzz of worn vinyl booths alive with the song of a thousand kvetches, handlings, wisecracks, and shmoozes. There’s a book of Yiddish curse words on display, but no Yiddish in the air. It seems everything in Portland is local and sustainable except a sizeable Jewish population.
But that’s not Kenny and Zuke’s fault. If anything, they are doing their best to revive old traditions, to build the Jewish equivalent of a baseball field in the hopes that, if you build it, they will nosh.
It inspired me, it excited me. When I returned to LA, I gushed to Al Canter about it. At 80-something, Al still goes in each morning to check the register receipts at Canters on Fairfax.
They make their own pastrami, I said to Al. They cure their own lox.
“You know who else used to do that?” Al said. “We did. But try getting the Health Department to approve barrels full of cured pastrami.”
Maybe LA’s laws have to change to make it easier for a pastrami-curer to come to a restaurant near you. Maybe a new generation has to be willing to take the time, to work out the recipes, to develop the clientele, for such retro-treats.
But local, sustainable, hand-made are not just trends—the next generation demands them, deserves them—along with a place to laugh, eat, shmooze, deal and celebrate—a synagogue without a pulpit, but with many blessings.
You really should follow Foodaism on Twitter @foodaism.
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August 14, 2012 | 11:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Say you want to go home and eat, but you don’t want to go home. You want to eat the kind of food you’d make yourself, if you had the day to buy it, think it over, cook it, invite some friends over and eat it. Careful food, but not daunting. Doable.
As our ingredients improve and our skills sharpen, and as dining out becomes more casual, there is bound to be a kind of chowtime Singularity, when eating at the great new restaurant feels just like eating at home. There’s a whole new style of restaurants that seem to aim just that high—a better class of home cooking. Or, in the case of the Superba Snack Bar, a way better class.
Last night we ate at Superba, which just opened on Rose Ave. in Venice. I took one look at the menu and told my son, “This is the kind of food we’d cook at home.”
“Yeah,” he said, “if you made chicken liver mousse. With balsamic cherries”
I don’t. But the point is I could, and if I did I would use great local chicken, and serve it in a careful mound like a scoop of mocha gelato, with a drizzle of thick, dark balsamic soaked cherries.
Anyway, we didn’t order the mousse, but we did work through most of the menu. It’s carefully curated, divided up by Cold Cuts—homemade charcuterie—“Snacks,” and two larger categories, “From Our Backyards” and “From Our Hands.”
The produce, said our waiter, mostly comes from a single local farm, Eclectic Acres near San Bernardino, that the owners “have a relationship with.”
The animating philosophy is local, sustainable, delicious, community—buzzwords, sure, but when done right, you end up with a neighborhood restaurant that attracts people from miles away.
Superba strikes that balance because it combines the homegrown, deply rooted owner with a chef who has cooked far and wide. Paul Hibler started Pitfire Artisan Pizza – a thoughtful sustainable ersion of a small chain restaurant—and he lives in the hood (like, two blocks from me). “You’re the guy with the artichokes,” he says when he sees me.
Yes, and he’s the guy with the great friggin’ restaurant.
Chef Jason Neroni cooked at Mario Batali’s Lupo, in Manhattan and at El Bulli, neither of which even remotely qualify as a snack bar.
So, neither does the Superba Snack Bar, despite the name The atmosphere is casual, Venice, young—Rose Ave. is Abbot Kinney 15 years ago. But food (and prices) don’t exactly evoke a couple of taquitos and a Coke.
I’ll post photos shortly, but for now the English language will have to suffice. Pan con tomato, olive oil & sea salt ($ 8 ) was better than any we’d had last summer in Spain—two pieces of toasted French bread rubbed with cookd-down tomato pulp and doused with good olive oil.
Fried duck egg, papas bravas, truffle vinaigrette & tuna prosciutto ($14 ) had the Spanish paprika smoke, crisp potatoes and vaporous sheets of tuna prosciutto, which reminded me the ocean was around here somewhere. I really liked the Cauliflower t-bone, basil puree, orange/olive pistou ($14 )— a thick crosswise slice of roasted cauliflower, piled with sweet-tart and earthy flavors. Gather restaurant in Berkeley has something called vegan charcuterie—this would have fit right in.
The centerfold dish was something called Charred watermelon, burrata, candied olives & pickled garlic vinaigrette ($15 ). It sounds fussy: it wasn’t. And Negroni’s candied olives may be the new adult M & M’s.
Superba specializes in housemade (“from Our Hands”) pasta. They were, like I said, like homemade, but superb.
Of them all, the Gnocchi, burrata, braised broccoli necks, vincotto & hazelnut bread crumbs ($18)—just some of the finest gnocchi you’ll eat. When they’re gone, you’ll be sad.
For dessert we had a stone fruit tart and a very very smoky S’mores in a jar. All good, but he had me at gnocchi.
Okay, you cannot do this food at home. Because you didn’t train at El Bulli and Lupo. But you recognize the food—the local good stuff, the simple-seeming preparations—it’s familiar but better than familiar.
Hibler told me his next endeavor is a bakery on Lincoln Blvd. that will deliver fresh bread to the neighborhood on bikes, and offer one or two dishes a day for eating in. He’s forging it out of one of the street’s endless supply of used car lots. His restaurants are good at that—making us feel at home, even when we already live here.
533 Rose Ave.
Venice, CA. 90291
Mon - Thurs: 5:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Fri & Sat: 5:00 pm - 11:30 pm
Sun: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm
Weekday Lunch & Weekend Brunch
You know what would be fun? Following what I eat on Twitter @foodaism.
July 18, 2012 | 5:01 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last week, we launched our newest blog at jewishjournal.com. It’s called “Kosher Bacon.”
Just about everyone who hears the name is offended by it. They assume we’re being cheeky just for the sake of provocation. After all, would we call a funeral blog “Shivah Me Timbers”? Would we call a dating blog “Plenty o’ Shiksas”?
No—but in this case there’s a perfectly good explanation.
A few months ago, I met a chef named Michael Israel for coffee in Culver City. He chose the place—The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa, a small cafe across from Sony Studios where the centerpiece is a huffing, puffing coffee roaster and the family behind the counter manages to turn out one perfect cup after another with exacting standards and zero attitude.
Michael struck me as the same sort of person. In 2005, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Italy, then at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star Per Se in New York City—considered by many the best restaurant in the country.
“It was the best food education I could ever get,” Michael told me. “The standards were so high, and the focus on detail was incredible.”
After several years, Michael, eager to work for himself, decided to move on. He ended up in Los Angeles, where he started a kosher food truck business, M.O. Eggrolls. In many ways, it was a return to his roots. In his native Montreal, evidently, eggrolls, stuffed with a variety of fillings and fried, are the rage.
The truck has been a success. Not only is he offering a convenient fried food—“convenience” and “fried” are practically food groups in America—but Michael’s craftsmanship and high standards ensure that the quality of the eggrolls is far above fast food.
The kosher food truck was Michael’s first step in his journey to reconcile his love of food and cooking with his deepening Jewish observance. Step two has been the blog—that’s what he came to discuss at The Conservatory.
“I’ve struggled,” Michael said, “with these two parts of me.”
There’s the part of him that really cares about great food, about curing his own meat, about sourcing the best-quality ingredients—the part of him that wants to cook and eat and try everything great. The part that knows just what a strip of bacon can do for a coq au vin. And then there’s the part of him that honors his tradition.
In many ways, Michael is the poster child for the next generation of Jewish foodie. For him, kosher is necessary, but it’s not sufficient: Food has to be excellent; it has to make at least a nod toward ethics and sustainability; it has to strive for Per Se, not a temple sisterhood buffet.
Michael is a young father, hardworking and soft-spoken—he doesn’t come across as a snob or an evangelist. And he is not alone. Last week, I attended a Southern barbecue dinner hosted by Pico-Robertson’s Kosher Supper Club. I expected to find a room of elderly Jews complaining about the mediocre food (“And such small portions!”), but instead I found 20- and 30-somethings listening to Best Coast, enjoying excellent kosher versions of grits and shrimp (sea bass) and greens and ham hocks (home-smoked turkey) prepared by chefs Katsuji Tanabe and Daly Thompson. (Tanabe is the Japanese-Mexican owner of MexiKosher on Pico Boulevard. Thompson owns Memphis Bar-BQ Catering and used to own a restaurant called The Pig next to the Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn on La Brea Avenue. It closed.) Like Michael, they are dissatisfied with much of what passes as “gourmet” kosher—they want to show, if only through their dining group—that it could be better.
Michael’s “Kosher Bacon” blog shares that goal.
“I just want people to know they can cook ‘Jewishly’ and celebrate Judaism,” he said. “You don’t have to choose between a good meal and a kosher one.”
In other words, you can find a way to infuse kosher food with the same power, the same umami, the same indispensible, ineluctable attraction … as bacon.
The way Michael plans to do this is by reviewing the more than 300 recipes in Gil Marks’ definitive book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
“My goal,” Michael wrote in his initial entry, “is to cook every recipe in Gil Marks’ brilliant book, with a new approach and an undying respect for everyone who has contributed to Jewish cuisine.
“Discovering ‘Encyclopedia of Jewish Food’ has changed my life as a cook. I have always wanted to explore classic Jewish cuisine and find ways to contribute to its modernization. I am a firm believer that any craftsman, whether carpenter or chef, must understand the classics before trying to create something different. Gil Marks codified historic Jewish recipes. With the help of this text, I am able to study classic Jewish cuisine and begin creating new recipes.”
Lucky us, we get to eat it.
June 27, 2012 | 2:33 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Los Angeles finally has its first fast charger for electric vehicles.
The 480-volt charger is located in the parking lot across from the Toy Factory Lofts downtown, along with a bank of ten 220-volt chargers.
For Nissan Leaf drivers like me—and Tesla drivers like Arnold Schwarzenegger—this means you can plug in and go from 0 to 100 percent charge in 30 minutes. The more common 220 volt chargers take about 8 hours for a full charge, and regular household current takes 14-16 hours.
This is the first fast-charger in Los Angeles, and the ninth in California.
Len Hill and Yuval Bar-Zemer, partners in Linear City development company, installed the chargers at the Toy Factory, a former warehouse built in 1924 by the land development arm of the Atchison and Topeka Railroad. Later it served as a toy factory. In 2004, Linear City, which also developed the Biscuit Company Lofts, converted the space in 121 condos.
The charging stations are one more amenity to a development that includes, “a market, restaurant, gym, art gallery, chocolatier, clothing stores, yoga studio, roof-top pool with infinity viewing deck, cabanas and fireplace, lower roof garden with innovative planting arrangements and a stainless steel barbeque, oversized hallways, a chic lobby enclosing a unique shipping container mail room, and three levels of interior parking.”
I called Bar-Zemer, who told me that he drives a Nissan Leaf, and has been looking for ways to add “green” and convenience to the company’s projects. He enabled residents to install raised bed gardens, as well.
(Foodaism plus: Linear City also owns Church & State restaurant and Little Bear.)
More details: Ecotality installed the chargers, and users must sign up for a Blink card in order to operate them. Right now you can juice up for free, but soon Bar-Zemer told me he expects the cost will be one dollar per hour for the 220v and a flat fee for the 480v.
The Jewish Journal will be doing a longer story on Hill and Bar-Zemer, who ALSO produced the indie comedy “Dorfman,” winner of Best Comedy at the 2012 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.
I’ve had a year of headaches and range anxiety over charging my Leaf, but at least now I know I can get a full, fast charge downtown.
The Toy Loft is at 1855 Industrial Street, Los Angeles 90021
Here’s a list of 480v Nissan Leaf Chargers in California:
1. May 2010, Vacaville, Eaton brand - PGE (public utility) open to public March 2011 only, free then, now private
2. Spring 2011, Cypress, Eaton brand - Mitsubishi (auto manufacturer) open to public, free
3. Fall 2010, Sacramento, AeroVironment brand - Nissan (auto manufacturer), private
4. March 2012, San Bernadino, Eaton brand - 7-11 store (retail public, private capital funds), public, free
5. April 2012, San Diego, JFE brand - SDG&E (public utility) private
6. April 2012, Palo Alto, unknown brand - 350green (retail public, public/private funds) public, fee
7. May 2012, Belmont, Blink brand - Volkswagon Tech Center (private / public funding) free
8. May 2012, San Ramon, Blink brand - (public / private funding) free
9.. June 2012, Los Angeles, Blink brand. Toy Lofts, downtown
June 26, 2012 | 5:56 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
There are so many food web sites. I would say, “Everybody and their mother has a food blog,” but in fact my mother doesn’t. She reads mine.
Few people doubt their own tastebuds. Even the world’s most insecure person knows what he likes to eat. We may doubt we are experts in what we do for a living, in what we know about thew orld, even in things as intimate as sex and love—but we are all experts when it comes to what we like to eat. Hence, Yelp reviews. Hence, food blogs.
Among all the food sites, a handful stand out as using writers who really are expert. Who really research, employ solid journalistic techniques, have a broad and deep range of experience in food, and know their way around the English language.
ZesterDaily.com is the brainchild of former Los Angeles Times wine editor Corie Brown. It will not give you snark and Celebrity Food Sightings and breathless (and often paid-for) reviews of so-called hot new restaurants. It delivers thoughtful, well-researched pieces about food and wine from around the world, by established food writers. And here’s a novel concept: they are well-edited. And here’s a mind-blowing concept: the writers are paid on a revenue sharing basis. Are you listening, Arianna?
That’s right—ZesterDaily.com functions as a kind of syndication service, on the belief that quality is worth a price.
You the reader benefit from this, as the site attracts authoritative food writers like Clifford Wright, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Joan Nathan, Charles Perry and more.
Two weeks ago, Corie asked me to be on some sort of advisory board for ZesterDaily, which as far as I can tell requires me to show up at her house whenever I can, sip some of her husband Chris’ incredible scotch, and eat whatever delicious food she has made. Would that all advisory boards were so demanding.
In the meantime, click over and check out ZesterDaily and its new site design. Make it something you do…daily.
June 7, 2012 | 5:03 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last month I visited the Beverly Hills Farmers Market for the first time. This Sunday, I’m a judge in their annual “Piesta”—a pie making contest combined with a pie -eating contest and other festivities.
I like this market—it’s a good place. I expected, I don’t know, upscale Bev Hills prices and attitude, but instead I found that a bunch of farmers, fruit and farm animals have a way of making the most upscale of places instantly haimish.
That’s Beverly Hills for “homey.”
The BHFM is not crazy-crowded like Santa Monica Farmers Market. It has a much larger selection than many markets—everything you need, in fact—a lot of prepared food stalls, a small petting zoo for the kids, and a mellow feel. Some farmers market transport me—they overwhelm me with a sense of the beauty and abundance of this world; they inspire a kind of walking gratitude, a constant sense of wow and thank you, or, to be more precise, thank You. They aren’t quasi-religious places for me, they are flat-out religious places for me. When I travel, what do I insist on seeing in every city? The synagogue, sure, but also the farmers market (okay, and the fish market, but that’s just me). A sense of holiness infuses both.
And there, smack in the glitzy city of Beverly Hills, you can feel it too.
And, this being Beverly Hills, all that comes with the occasional celebrity sighting.
True story: I was standing at a booth admiring the season’s asparagus when I heard a familiar voice chatting up the vendor. It was Wolfgang Puck. He was alone, dressed in jeans and a fitted purple T-shirt, picking up a few things, tasting and talking. I introduced myself and asked him—yes, I really did—“Do you come here often?” What can I say, I can talk to prime ministers and politicians and celebrities, but I do get a little tongue tied around chefs I admire. He said he does like the market—he’s a regular. Then he went over to taste the balsamic vinegars.
Whether my close friend Wolfgang is there or not, I’m looking forward to returning this Sunday at 11 am for the Piesta (press release and details below). I’m judging along with the L.A. Times’ Jonathan Gold,and KCRW’s Evan Kleiman.
That means I get to eat a lot of great pie made with California fruit on Sunday. And do an extra hour at Circuit Works on Monday…..
See you at the Piesta. Come on by and say hi.
The Press Release:
Pie Bake A’la Beverly Hills & Piesta Return June 10
Event Features Everyone’s Favorite Dessert, Local Fruit & Super Creative Fun for Kids
Save the date! On Sunday, June 10, 2012 the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market hosts its annual Pie Bake A’la Beverly Hills and children’s “Piesta” between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. along the 9300 block of Civic Center Drive (ample free parking available at 450 N. Rexford Drive).
Admission to the festivities is free and the centerpiece of the event is a curated pie contest featuring pies that only use California-fruit. Cash prizes are given for best tasting and most “pieutiful” by a panel of distinguished and food-celebrity judges. World-famous Pie-and-Burger will be pulling its food truck up to the Market and selling various flavors of fresh pie.
The children’s free piesta features creative juggling by Mike (including juggling favorite pie ingredients); a “pieathelon” that includes a flour-sack toss, egg balancing and a Crisco-covered balloon toss; pie making and decorating and sifting for treasures in pastry flour. Pony rides and a petting zoo will also be available for a nominal fee.
No pie event would be complete without a pie eating contest, and Pie Bake A’la Beverly Hills has one for the adults and one just for the kids. Last year the L.A. Times wrote “Forget cupcakes—pies are hot” and the Daily News called pies a new food trend—so come get a slice of the action. Of course, all the regular farmers and prepared foods vendors will be in their usual spots at the Market.
June 7, 2012 | 4:55 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
After I wrote my paean to backyard goats and the noble, friendly character of goats in general, I received something I didn’t expect—universal agreement. Readers came out of the closet/stall/barn to tell me how their hearts, too, have been captured by these animals. My favorite letter came from a professor, a towering scholar who, frankly, would strike me as Least Likely to Harbor A Secret Love of Goats. I haven’t received his permission to use his name, but here’s a good chunk of what he wrote:
I was also in love with a goat. Her name was Euphoria, and she danced every morning when I let her out of her pen, kicking her feet right as her head went left, and vice versa, for about 30 seconds every morning. Then I milked her. She didn’t have to be female. I probably would have loved her if she were a man. It was a great experience to be a goat herd. She lived with me and a menagerie of other animals when I lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains as a maintenance worker trying to keep the Jewish “Camp Swig” from falling down around our ears in the mid-1970s. ... that period at camp was an especially dear period of my life, and Euphoria taught me some of the most important lessons about simplicity that I have every learned – and that stay with me even ‘til today.
Unrelated, I came across this YouTube video on the Internet, of a Pismo Beach goat the dances and surfs with her owner. Her name might as well be Euphoria.
June 6, 2012 | 11:49 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
First, there were four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then we learned of a fifth, umami, whose elusive savory-ness underlies everything from Parmesan to well-aged beef to soy sauce.
But what fascinates me these days is an even more elusive taste, a sixth sense. Call it moral.
The “moral taste” is actually a phrase New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik coined in his book “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.” Think of an Orthodox Jew relishing a piece of brisket not just because it tastes salty and umami, but because he knows it is also glatt kosher. A locavore foodie enjoys the sweetness of a plum even more because she knows it came from a family farm down the street. Moral tastes can, and do, change across cultures and time, but they are as intrinsic to flavor as are salty or sour.
That realization, that food has a moral flavor, has bubbled up from the fringes of the food world to the tables of the finest restaurants to corporate boardrooms and capitol rotundas. Immoral food has become as distasteful as food that is too salty or too sweet. It sticks in our craw.
Take foie gras. The fattened liver of a goose or duck is, of course, very umami, with a touch of saltiness. But because it is produced through force-feeding a fowl by placing a tube down its gullet, an international movement has successfully fought for the abolition of foie gras in numerous countries, and in this state. As of July 1, Californians will no longer be able to produce or sell foie gras.
Most chefs love “fwah,” as they call it. And even if they don’t serve it, they resent being told by non-chefs what they can and can’t serve, and they don’t appreciate being seen as morally deficient for putting foie on their menus. They worry that if the food Taliban start with a foie ban, where will they end? A veal fatwa? A blood sausage herem?
These were some of the concerns I heard recently at a private, after-hours dinner at Mezze restaurant on La Cienega, hosted by Mezze’s chef and manager (and co-owners) Micah Wexler and Mike Kassar. Local chefs and food purveyors sat together at a long table. At the center sat Gary Wexler, the nonprofit marketing guru, who is also Micah’s dad. Between plates of Mezze’s Middle Eastern-inflected food, Gary led a discussion on the moral responsibilities of chefs. It was like a seder — minus the boring parts and with much better food.
Talk quickly focused on the foie ban, with the chefs saying how ludicrous it is that of all the huge issues in the food world — from the crashing of fish stocks to the obesity epidemic — this is what legislators focus on. Several chefs made the argument that foie is a natural phenomenon of birds gluttonously storing up fat reserves for a long migration — the ducks like to be engorged. The problem, Micah said, is chefs are so damn busy, they don’t have time to educate the public, leaving fear-mongers and agenda-drivers in charge.
Midway through the meal, I realized that the tall, rangy, gray-haired guy sitting across from me was not just any guy sitting across from me, but Bill Niman. Niman is a food god. He’s a former hippie who translated his love of land and animals into the $65 million, pasture-raised beef company called Niman Ranch. When corporate overseers pushed him aside, Niman retreated to his Marin coastal ranch to raise goats and heritage turkeys for meat, which he sells under the BN Ranch label.
He is soft-spoken, and — it turns out — Jewish, and, like most people I admire, completely at home in the world of moral ambiguity. Don’t kid yourself, he said; animals do feel pain.
“My goats have friends,” he told me. “They form bonds.”
I told Niman that while I occasionally eat meat, I can’t imagine killing a goat. The two little goats I own have everything Niman described: friends, personality, a love of life. How, I asked, does he wrap his head around goat meat?
“I give them a great life,” he said, “and one bad day.”
I sensed Niman wasn’t as gung ho about fighting the foie ban as the younger chefs at the table. One thing about the moral taste is that it evolves, in society and the individual. But while we may simply lose our taste for sweets, we have to choose what moral flavors to consume or abandon.
The moral taste requires we not be passive, gullet-stuffed swallowers of food. The moral taste requires we wrestle with what we eat. The moral taste asks that you make up your own mind about foie gras, but chew it over first.
Micah and Mike want to make dinner discussions like the one they hosted become regular. No one is closer to the reality of their business than chefs; in a world with six tastes, their menus are moral documents.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, one of the better expressions of the link between what we eat and who we are can be found in the Israeli Supreme Court 2003 decision banning the production and sale of foie gras in Israel.
In calling for a ban on force-feeding, Justice Eliezer Rivlin wrote: “As to myself, I have no doubt in my heart that wild creatures as well as pets have emotions. They are endorsed with soul that experiences the emotions of joy and sorrow, happiness and grief, love and fear. Some of them nurture special feelings toward their friend-enemy: man.
“Not everyone thinks so, but no one denies that even these creatures feel the pain caused to them by physical harm or by violent intrusion into their innards. The justifiers might say that human welfare should fly upwards, even at the cost of trouble to the birds. But this has a price — and the price is diminishing human dignity.”
Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @Foodaism