No More Big Macs In the White House

More food news, what we're eating and drinking, reading and linking...

I spent Wednesday watching Democracy, for what felt like the first time in four years. We have a new administration, and I pray soon a more unified country. Better food in the White House, no doubt! And no more Diet Coke. The red button is gone.

Food “health” claims…

I’ve long ranted about people’s fear of foods that are bad for you but aren’t—bacon (especially if you cure it yourself), butter, eggs—and food and supplements that are supposed to be good for you but are really just marketing ploys (fish oil pills, no-added-nitrite bacon). Even the words we use confuse us, such as the now almost meaningless adjective “healthy.”

So I was glad to see Jane Brody, in the NYTimes, add coconut oil to the list, taking on specious claims about the benefits of this particular fat, which isn’t even an oil—unless you count butter and lard as oil–as it’s white and solid. (Notice the the words again, here “oil,” swaying our views. You’d never see “coconut lard” on a celebrity superfoods list. And if you haven’t watched Lewis Black’s hilarious takedown of the term soy milk, you must.)

Coconut oil is widely touted as a superfood, with little to no evidence of any effects whatsoever. Brody notes that it is more saturated than butter, has more calories than butter (which is 15% water), and is twice as expensive.

I’ve bought and used coconut oil and it’s great to cook with, if you want to impart a coconutty flavor, such as Thai curry. But I would never cook, say eggs with it.

Adding to the complexity of food and our health is the fact that the same food can affect people differently.

I interviewed the nutrition authority Marion Nestle (whom Brody consulted), and she had this interesting information about eggs affecting our cholesterol I’d never heard before. As I wrote in Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America:

Independent studies are mixed, Nestle said, in large part because how eggs affect you depends on how high your cholesterol is to begin with. For people with high cholesterol, eggs don’t affect their cholesterol, she said. For people with low cholesterol, eggs tend to raise it.

I’ve been saying this for years and will keep saying it. Cook your own food. Think for yourself.

Letter from a NYC chef…

My friend, Laurence Edelman, is the chef and co-owner, of The Left Bank, a lovely restaurant in the West Village. I’ve been worried about all the restaurants but have also been impressed by the fortitude (follow chef Angie Mar on Instagram to see how her Beatrice is transforming.

I’ve been out of the city for a while and asked Laurence for an update. He wrote:

I have a flair for comparing my insides with someone else’s outsides.  It’s something I have to watch out for. So walking around the neighborhood on a Tuesday night and seeing twenty people at another restaurant, when there are fifteen at Left Bank, makes me think that everybody else must be doing better than we are. Never mind that last Tuesday, our fortunes were reversed; and never mind that twenty customers aren’t enough to sustain a restaurant in the West Village anyway.  

If I could see their books, and manage their staff; if I had to pay their rent, I’d have a different take on the subject. We’re all trying to build open-air businesses for a New York winter, and it seems an unlikely task. It’s a misnomer to say that the economy was paused. In reality, at least for restaurants, only income has been paused. The other column in our P&L continues to add up at rates determined in the fantastic past. But help is on the way? The trick is to get through the winter, because a renaissance is coming, and from that will spring a tailwind pushing us along for the next fifteen years.  

So do we continue to bash through this pandemic and find ourselves at the end with a Left Bank, exactly as it was before? Or shall we cut the tether to our comfortable old ways that make us feel safe? Cutting that tether would free us, and perhaps this is the time to envision things in a new way. With that tailwind will come opportunity that I may only experience once in this lifetime.  I’m trying to balance between keeping the wheels from falling off, and expanding my view of what I can do with myself and the restaurant.  It’s very disorienting, but I know, this is the place where in the past, I have found growth.”

I love the idea of a tailwind and a restaurant renaissance when we’re on the other side of the pandemic.

I hope everyone out there is supporting the restaurants in your neighborhood. If you want them to be there this summer, your support this winter is critical. If you’re in the Village, Laurence makes some of the best roast chicken in town. Last night Ann, Annabelle and I ordered the awesome fried chicken from one of our favorites in Providence, New Rivers and chef Beau Vestal.

What we’re cooking …

Those delicious short ribs pictured at the top for one. It’s a traditional braise: sear the floured meat, add some form of liquid, and cook covered in a 300˚F oven for hours and hours. (Secret ingredient: honey.) And they’re so, so satisfying in so maany ways. Make them and notice how the mood of the house calms once those aromas start happening. Here’s my recipe, and the reason why smells of cooking are so powerful.

Ann found a great recipe in the NYTimes for what is a fantastic version of black bean soup. It’s fantastic because it’s from Steve Sando, creator of Rancho Gordo beans, the best source of legumes in the country. Highly recommend both his beans and this soup! (Read this excellent profile of Steve in The New Yorker if you don’t know about him.) No soaking of the beans is required! Many people say there’s no reason to pre-soak your beans, Sando says. “Such as the entire country of Mexico.”

Here’s another excellent recipe that I’ve been enjoying with my morning coffee all week, a Swedish almond cake (it’s from the excellent Dorie Greenspan). Ann went to pick up some eggs (the beautiful ones pictured above) from Drake Patten of Hurricane Hill Farm in Cranston, RI, and she brought Drake (who’s Scandanavian) half of the almond cake. Drake posted the following on Instagram.

“When friends you can’t see in person provide the best possible stand-in, you get out Mormor’s coffee pot. #eftermiddagskaffe [afternoon coffee] #hygge

How food brings us together, even pandemic distanced.

The last dish I want to mention that was a small revelation this week was Kenji López-Alt’s unusual technique for recreating restaurant-style Lo Mein. It was excellent. He uses a blow torch to add great charred flavor, which proved to be a brilliant idea. Here’s Ann using her new kitchen blowtorch on the cooked linguini:

It really works. When we redo this dish, we plan to double the sauce quantity and add julienned, seared pork! (And ladies and gentlemen, with Valentine’s day coming up and thinking of your beloved, remember the wise words of Julia Child: “I think every woman should have a blow torch.” Just an idea.)

Share Ruhlman's Newsletter

Writing in progress…

My wife, Ann, is in the midst of the final revision of her latest book, Fly Girl, a memoir and cultural history of flight attendants (she wrote her first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, on transAtlantic flights working as a TWA flight attendant).

I love the notes to her right and the timeline she’s created at her left.

For aspiring writers and novelists…

Ann’s a great writing teacher, but the pandemic has drastically curtailed this. Dingle, canceled, Bread Loaf in Sicily canceled, Writer’s in Paradise, reduced to a two-day zoom event. These are both incredibly fun, because of the travel, and productive because of the writing, and we miss them.

To compensate, she’s created Zoom classes on writing with her Goat Hill colleague Hester Kaplan. Info here. And she also produced a series of videos for aspiring novelists called “Craft Talks,” featuring six best-selling novelists, such as Laura Lippman and Andre Dubus III, discussing aspects of the craft of the novel. (Cost is $200, or $34 per hour-long craft talk. Preview here. I’m totally biased, but I think they’re beautifully produced and invaluable if you are determined to write your novel.)

What we’re drinking…

Well, two bottles of bubbles on Wednesday immediately following the swearing in and throughout that historic day!

The Friday cocktail hour featured The Brandy Alexander, a delicious and rich Cognac, creme de cacao, and cream cocktail. We featured it in a live IGTV, with a Q&A.

What we’re reading…

I’m finishing up Charlie Baxter’s excellent The Sun Collective, and eager to get to Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, Ann having found it “laugh out loud funny while also searingly true,” she says.

The comedy follows “a mild-mannered spinster in 1950’s England,” according to the book cover.

Which reminded me that I didn’t know “spinster” was a legal term until my dear friend Lee Jacobs said that that was how she was described on her English marriage certificate. As she was older than 26, she was designted a “spinster.” The word derives from a time when unmarried women were relegated to lower income jobs, such as spinning wool, according to Merriam-Webster.

But there’s some conflicting info that would use the term thornback for a woman over 26, and spinster for an unmarried woman under 26. Thornback is not acknowledged by Merriam-Webster, however.

In the end, though, Lee and her husband Les say that it was a legal term for an unmarried woman regardless of age, no different from bachelor. And they sent me a HuffPo link, backing this up. The legal term was changed to “single” in 2005, not for the sake of women or inherent sexism, but rather owing to “the inclusion of same-sex civil partnerships.”

Other good reads…

From The New Yorker: Lawrence Wright gets virtually the entire magazine for his story on the pandemic and exactly how disastrous our response to it was, isolating three pivotal points that doomed us.

And finally this last piece from The Guardian, unearthed by Roth biographer (and dearest friend), Blake Bailey, a tribute to Philip Roth shortly after his death in May 2018, a variety of writers talk about their favorite books. His early books are most widely beloved. I’m not a fan of his more windy tomes, but loved and highly recommend the much more easily digested Everyman.

As for Roth’s biographer himself, his favorite? He could barely pare it down:

Hm. I particularly love: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer (maybe my favorite), Patrimony, American Pastoral, and Everyman.

Watch for Blake’s book, Philip Roth: The Biography, publishing this April.

What we’re watching…

We’ve at last cut ties with cable, and it’s weirdly exciting. We decided on combining Roku and Hulu + Live TV. We are loving it and saving a bundle. It has allowed Ann to subscribe to Acorn TV which is loaded with the British crime shows she loves. Ann says don’t miss “Deadwater Tell” with David Tenet and “Loch Ness.”

And we were able at last to catch Gunda, the remarkable farm documentary, thanks to the Newport virtual Filmfest. It stars a sow and her piglets, the camera rarely leaving ground level and not a word is spoke throughout. For someone who has been studying the pig for nearly 20 years, I found it mesmerizing. There is a moment not too far into film where you can witness a pig expressing grief.

Other links we’ve loved this week…

In to oragami? Have a look at this Samurai soldier from one sheet of paper.

An instagram video of a kangaroo on an airplane. Emotional support?

Bud Powell plays “Get Happy” in Paris in the late fifties, jazz’s glory years.

And speaking of eggs, Burkhard Bilger writes about egg cookery in Las Vegas. “Egg cooks are worth their weight in gold in this town.” True! (From the the 8/28/2005 issue of The New Yorker.)

Covering canned cheese to toasters, Bon Apétit’s Highly Recommended is a fun column to follow.

I just find this incredibly heartening, the friendship of orangutans and otters.

And who isn’t loving the great Bernie meme zipping through the internet? Here’s the Vermont senator at our wedding lunch at Barbuto a few years ago.

And finally…

I leave you with some beloved Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues,” recorded at Folsom State Prison, outside Sacramento, CA, in 1968.

Share Ruhlman's Newsletter

Buy the book Grocery