My Four Best Road Meals of 2011

Just another strip mall—that, and so much more.

I travel quite a bit for my job. Honestly, long hours in airports and hotels weigh on me, as do the rigors of the conference room and the speaker's lectern. Sigh. Salvation lies in city streets, where I go hounding for good, relatively inexpensivce chow. In no particular order, here are my most memorable road meals of 2011.

Lou Wine Bar
724 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA

It's really just another strip mall amid a galaxy of them in L.A. It offers a laundromat, a Thai massage parlor, a discount store, a burger joint, a "nail spa," … and what might be the greatest wine bar in America. OK, so not every strip mall in L.A. has a Lou Wine Bar. But they should! Lou delivers what you want from a wine bar: low lighting, zero pretension among the waitstaff, the murmur of animated conversation, "small plates" containing big flavors, and, most importantly, a terrific list of off-the-beaten-path bottles. Lou is a temple of what has become known as "natural wine"—wine made without the homogenizing manipulations of industrial technology (here's the house manifesto). Both the menu and the wine list change frequently. The food savors of the Santa Monica farmers market; and the wines offer flavors as idiosyncratic and welcome as a great bar in a nondescript strip mall. I remember well a particularly gruelling day in L.A. last February; Lou made it all better that night with a glass of Cabernet Franc from France's hallowed Loire Valley and a plate of wicked-fresh arugula with glorious cheese and charcuterie.

Northern Spy
511 East 12th Street
New York, New York

I have but six words for this intimate, farm-focused restaurant tucked into the East Village: lamb burger with duck-fat fries. Order it next time you're skulking around Manhattan at lunchtime and feeling dented. Or go for the raw-kale salad featuring a market basket's worth of veggies and a couple of baked eggs. Either will set you right—as will will the terrific list of regional brews.

Green Table
75 9th Ave (Chelsea Market)
New York, NY

The name sounds earnest and a little precious, but the food at this small Chelsea Market restaurant is anything but. Any doubters will be silenced by the "GT Burger," which plays perfectly cooked organic beef against the sting of house-made kimchi. The local-seafood cevichRight up my alley. Right up my alley. e is also terrific, as is, come to think of it, everything else I've tried. Bonus: Right outside of Green Table in Chelsea Market, there's an outpost of 9th Street Espresso, one of the city's shrines to great coffee.

Green Goddess
307 Exchange Alley
New Orleans, LA.

In New Orleans, it's no secret that people sometimes get stuck in a bar and end up having too many Sazeracs. Not that I have any such first-hand experience! But I do know where to go the morning after. Step gingerly through the French Quarter and find the quiet alley graced by Green Goddess. When I did so, they sat my friends and I at an outdoor table and poured us cups of coffee so strong we had to nurse them through an entire leisurely brunch (not our standard practice). Then they started bringing out amazing and even radical food. First up: sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with a mat of molten manchego cheese and then caramelized sugar: a bizarre and scrumptious spin on crème brûlée. Then French toast, stuffed with sauteed apples and  finished exactly the same way as the tomatoes. All to myself, I had the ultimate hangover platter (strictly for research purposes): two fried eggs with strips of fried pork belly, all sitting on a bed of collards. And my friend had the greatest Cuban sandwich I've ever had a bite of. All the while, the gentle autumn sun of the greatest US city fell upon us, and all was well.

Responding to the same FDA cave-in to the meat industry I flagged earlier today, Mark Bittman points to a damning study I missed when it came out in April.

In it (press release; full text), researchers gathered 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey from supermarkets in five US cities and tested them for staph aureus, a common food-poisoning bacteria that causes everything from from minor skin infections to serious diseases like pneumonia, endocarditis and sepsis.

The results: 47 percent of the samples contained the staph; and of those, fully half were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. This suggests that a quarter of the meat in US supermarket shelves are tainted with multi-drug-resistant strains of this potentially deadly pathogen.

On Dec. 22, while even the nerdiest observers were thinking more about Christmas plans than food-safety policy, the FDA snuck a holiday gift to the meat industry into the Federal Register. The agency announced it had essentially given up any pretense of regulating antibiotic abuse on factory farms, at least for the time being.

Wired's diligent Maryn McKenna has the background. She reports that way back in 1977—when livestock farming was much less industrialized than it is today—the FDA announced its intention to limit use of key antibiotics on animal farms. The reason: By that time, it was already obvious that routine use of these drugs would generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens that endanger humans.

In the decades since, the agency has ruminated and mulled, appointed committees and consulted experts, all the while delaying making a final decision on the matter. Meanwhile, the meat industry built a multibillion-dollar business based on stuffing animals by the thousands into tight spaces amid their own waste. To keep them alive and growing to slaughter amid such conditions, feedlot operators give their animals daily doses of antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that factory animal farms now burn through fully 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the United States.

Bill Gates and Howard Buffett, being honored by the World Food Program in Washington in October

Howard Buffett—son of billionaire investor Warren—is a fascinating character. He is the hands-on owner and operator of a large-scale industrial corn farm in the Midwest and has been nominated by his father to take over chairmanship of insurance giant Berkshire Hathaway upon the aging magnate's eventual retirement. He has also emerged as a leading philanthropist on the topic of agriculture in the Global South.

As a gift-giver, Buffett the younger has come into conflict with Bill Gates, whose well-heeled Gates Foundation makes him the leading philanthropist on the topic of agriculture in the Global South. Gates, too, has a strong tie to Warren Buffet. He is said to be like a son to the the famed investor; and when Warren Buffett decided to give away the great bulk of his fortune, he handed a cool $31 billion to Gates' foundation.

But in a riveting segment of last week's 60 Minutes, Howard Buffett delivered a blunt critique of Gates' high-tech approach to improving food security in the Global South. He said that the Gates Foundation was essentially trying to recreate US-style industrial agriculture in Africa, an approach that he himself had tried early in his philanthropic career. "I don't think it worked," he said. "We need to quit thinking about trying to do it like we do it in America," Buffett added.

Earlier in the segment, he championed low-tech, inexpensive methods for increasing farm productivity—a stark contrast to the high-tech seeds and pricey synthetic fertilizers favored by Gates. Buffett emphasizes that Gates' efforts in African ag aren't "all wrong" and adds that Gates is the "smartest guy in the world, next to my dad." But his disagreement with the Microsoft founder over agriculture is clear.

The emerging Gates/Howard Buffett rift on agricultural development has a special resonance for me. I'm a long-time critic of the Gates approach; and back in August, I wrote a post about Howard Buffett, with a headline that screamed, "Warren Buffett's Son Is Super-Wrong About Africa."

My argument was actually more subtle than that (I didn't write the headline). I acknowledged that Buffett fils was sincere and knowledgeable about improving the lot of African farmers, but I questioned his contention—laid out on Huffington Post—that Africa would achieve food security when its farmers scaled up enough to "sell to companies that operate in their country, like ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Maseca [the Mexican corn flour giant part-owned by ADM], or Tiger brands."

Not so fast, I argued. Such a path would likely lead to the pauperization of most African farmers. I stand by my argument. But I no longer think Buffett's remark about ADM and Cargill really represents his work.

The bottle of "extra virgin" olive oil on your kitchen shelf? It's probably not extra virgin, defined as cold-pressed and otherwise unrefined. And it might not even be 100 percent olive oil.

That's the conclusion of Tom Mueller's new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Mueller first took on the subject in his 2008 New Yorker article, "Slippery Business," painting the European olive oil business as a shadowy underworld populated by crooks, liars, and hucksters—some of them occupying corner offices at transnational food firms. One EU investigator tells him that dealing counterfeit olive oil brings "profits comparable to cocaine," with "none of the risks." 

Berkeleyside blog sums up Mueller's findings:

Since neither the FDA nor the Italian equivalent really regulate the market, unscrupulous producers have developed numerous ways to adulterate extra virgin olive oil, according to Mueller. They cut olive oil with hazelnut or sunflower oil. They take musty oil made from rotting olives, deodorize it to remove the bad smell, and then add a bit of extra virgin oil to make it smell authentic. Then they slap fancy labels on glass bottles and sell it as extra virgin olive oil.

Berkeleyside points to a recent University of California-Davis study that adds weight to Mueller's claims. Researchers found that 69 percent of imported extra virgin olive oils sampled from California supermarkets failed to meet requirements to merit that label. Interestingly, 90 percent of the California-produced samples did. I guess the California olive oil industry is too young and immature to realize the benefits of fraud; the Europeans have been adulterating olive oil since Roman times, Mueller reports. 

Cozy, but maybe not so great for the ocean.

In its 2008 heyday, the blog Stuff White People Like took aim at the ubiquity of "outdoor performance clothes"—people's penchant for marching down city streets and suburban strip malls dressed as if they were slogging the Appalachian Trail.

It turns out, our devotion to outdoor wear might be more than just a crime against fashion. It might also be a crime against the outdoors itself—or at least, that vast swath of it that's covered by ocean.

Over on Grist, Clare Leschin-Hoar brings the bad news. She points to a recent study showing that "nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash and, unfortunately, those tiny plastic bits are making their way into the ocean."

Just how prevalent are they? In a recent Science study, researchers took sand from 18 beaches over six continents, Clare Leschin-Hoar reports. The results?

Every beach tested contained microplastics (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller). Of the samples collected, nearly 80 percent were polyester or acrylic, though without further research, it's impossible to know exactly which type of clothing—whether it's your stretchy yoga pants or that super-soft fleece blanket—is causing the most problems.

Worse still, "polyester is heavier than water," Leschin-Hoar reports; so it sinks to the ocean bottom, an area that teems with little creatures that gobble everything in sight before eaten by bigger creatures—and the "microplastics" then bioaccumulate up the food chain, quite possibly to your plate.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical that mimics estrogen. Even in tiny doses it has been linked to cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids.

It's really the sort of thing you want to keep well clear of your food. Unhappily, in addition to being vile stuff for humans, it also has properties that make it quite attractive for manufactures of food packaging. As Mother Jones has noted before ("Waiter, There's BPA in My Soup"), it's in the lining of virtually every can in the supermarket, from baby food to beer to Coca-Cola to chicken soup. Even some organic brands use it in their canned tomatoes.

And yes, it moves from those cans into our bodies (see here,  here and here). 

The FDA—the agency charged with overseeing the safety of the food supply—for years bucked a growing weight of scientific evidence and declared it safe. Then, in January 2010, the agency shifted course, declaring it had "some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children." In a report released in May of this year, FDA scientists tested "commonly consumed" canned foods from supermarket shelves, just to make sure BPA was really leeching from the can linings into the food (as ample previous reseaerch had already confirmed). The results: 71 of 78 samples had "detectable" levels.

All the while, the agency has avoided making a decision on the question of whether or not to ban the chemical, and millions of Americans continue to be exposed to it daily. Why the delay? Given the weight of evidence indicting BPA, I can only conclude that the chemical-industry lobby, rallying to protect a lucrative market, has convinced the agency to sit on its hands.

This week, hounded by a lawsuit from the Natural Resource Defense Council, the FDA has announced it will make a final decision on BPA by March 31, 2012. I wish we could expect the Obama administration to take the side of science and public health here. But given what we know about industry influence over regulatory decisions in this administration⇀and after seeing what happened with the FDA's decision over the "morning-after pill"⇀the chemical industry may well have this one in the can, along with its BPA. 

A corn rootworm: You call it Smartstax, I call it breakfast.

Back in August—as I reported here—something strange began to happen in isolated Iowa corn fields: Otherwise healthy corn plants were falling over, their roots devastated by a ravenous insect called the corn rootworm.

The weird part wasn't pest outbreaks in vast corn fields; farmers know that when you plant a huge amount of land with a single crop, you're also providing a friendly habitat for insects that like to eat that crop. The odd part was that the fields were planted with seed engineered by Monsanto precisely to kill the corn rootworm. Monsanto's product—known as Bt corn—had failed; rootworms were developing resistance to it.

At the time, the EPA—which is responsible for registering pesticide-containing crops like Monsanto's—maintained an icy silence on the matter. But last week, the agency released a report (PDF) that, in calm bureaucratese, rebuked Monsanto for its "inadequate" system for monitoring. It's one of those delectable reports written not by political appointees or higher-ups, but rather by staff scientists reporting what they see. The document offers a fascinating glimpse into the way the agency conducts business with Monsanto.

The report confirmed that resistant rootworms had risen up in four states (Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska) and suspected in three others (Colorado, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). Now, everyone—Monsanto, the EPA, ag scientists—have known all along that resistance was a danger with Monsanto's rootworm-targeting Bt corn. To avoid resistance, the EPA decreed back in 2003 that farmers using the product had to plant a "refuge" crop of non-Bt corn alongside their Bt corn, so that rootworms that had developed Bt resistance would mate with peers that had not been exposed to it, diluting the resistant trait and keeping it under control.

The question was, how large a refuge? Monsanto, hot to move as much product as possible, wanted to keep it small. In this post from early September, I laid out the whole tangled history of how back in 2003, Monsanto strong-armed the EPA into accepting a 20 percent refuge requirement, even after an independent scientific panel convened by the agency had recommended a 50 percent buffer. In a Nature article from the time, available here, scientists involved in the panel express rage at the EPA's cave-in.

With this document, the agency is tacitly acknowledging that its independent advisory panel was right, and Monsanto was wrong. What happens now? The Center for Food Safety's Bill Freese points to research from University of Illinois crop scientist Michael Gray suggesting that in some Illinois farm counties, 40 percent of farmers lack access to high-quality non-Bt corn seed. That same problem likely affects farmers throughout the corn belt. Just as farmers have responded to the collapse of Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-killing technology by dousing their fields with "herbicide cocktails," we'll likely see farmers respond to superinsects with increased doses of toxic insecticides. Beyond that, here are the two takeaways of the EPA's recent bombshell.

When I was in high school in Texas in the early 1980s continuing into my college years, I worked first as a busboy/dishwasher, then grill cook, at a classic steakhouse. You know the kind: low lighting, lots of red everywhere. Indeed, busboys wore red jackets, white shirts, and black bowties; cooks had to adorn their white uniforms with an annoying red scarf.

The place was part of a small Texas chain that had begun in the '30s. When I started in 1980, employees with more than six months of seniority were automatically enrolled in a profit-sharing plan. After a year, you got a decent health-insurance policy. The company even ran a credit union that paid decent interest on savings and financed cars and homes for employees. People who worked hard and excelled got steady raises. For long-time cooks, work there charted a path to the middle class.

But at a certain point, the founding owner died and his stepchildren took over. Simultaneously, the Reagan '80s came into full flower. Slowly, all of those perks disappeared. Wages froze for current employees, and dropped for new ones. Older, high-paid cooks were given the option to accept wage cuts or be fired. Long-time employees began to struggle to maintain their lifestyles.

I was a college-bound kid earning cash on the side, so the changes didn't affect me much personally. But it was an embittering experience to see people who had become like family to me be treated like dirt. In the end, the draconian changes didn't do much for the company's bottom line—it has long since collapsed, and exists now only in rump form.

Part of me swore off cookbooks years ago. I used to dive into them, creating feasts that started with huge shopping lists and ended in towers of dirty dishes. No regrets—it was a great way to learn to cook and get some tangible, edible education about the culture of faraway lands.

I actually still love that sort of thing. But I don't have time for it anymore; my cooking has become streamlined and simple, driven not by some vision of, say, authentic Moroccan cuisine, but rather by what's coming off the farm, what basics—grains, beans, oils, spices, etc.—are in the pantry, and what meat I can get from neighboring farmers for the occasional splurge.

If I have largely turned away from cookbooks, though, they have not done me the same favor. One of the perks of writing about a topic is receiving via mail a steady stream of "review copies" of books on the subject. One kind of food book is the cookbook—and once a month or so, unsolicited new ones arrive, usually hotly promoting some aspect of "green" or "sustainable" cooking. I confess that until recently, most of those books, worthy as they are, bored me. I don't need to "green my kitchen," or be harangued to buy local and eat lower on the food chain.

But this year, I started receiving what I consider a new genre of cookbooks, put out by inspired writer-cooks whose lives are deeply embedded in their own foodsheds—a condition they take as a given, without hitting you over the head with it—and who share my fixation on simple, seasonal, high-flavor cooking. I learned they can can teach me new tricks without wrecking the kitchen or sending me scurrying to the grocery store for special ingredients. For the first time in years, I found myself digging into cookbooks for ideas and inspiration—and falling in love with them all over again.

In addition to being highly practical and in tune with the way I cook now, these new-wave cookbooks are all lovingly put-together artifacts—things you want to hold, pore over, and return to, in a way that no website or app can simulate. Here, in no particular order, are the cookbooks that have won me over this year, in spite of myself.

River Cottage Everyday
By Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall

Fearnley-Whitingstall, who runs the runs River Cottage farm/restaurant in the UK, made his authorial rep with a celebrated tome on meat (which I confess I've never cracked). In this one, vegetables take center plate, giving meat just a single (okay, quite brilliant) chapter. As suggested by the title, what Fearnley-Whitingstall is doing here is laying out a blueprint for fitting home cooking into a busy life. So we get chapters like "Making breakfast," "Weekday lunch (box)," and "Thrifty meat." Thrift, indeed, is a theme running throughout—for a superb fish soup, for example, he has you "buy an inexpensive fresh fish, get the fishmonger to fillet it for you, and use the head, fish, and bones to make a flavorful stock."

But the mood is whimsical, not earnest, brightened by the delightful photography of Simon Wheeler and Fearnley-Whitingstall's droll prose. And every recipe I've tried—from "Roast carrots with butter, cumin, and orange" to "Easy rich chocolate cake"—has been both dead simple and a winner. It is, in short, the most charming and irresistible cookbook I've come across in ages.

Killer dish: "Beet and walnut hummus" (my favorite discovery of 2011)
Dish I'm dying to try: "Neck of lamb with lemon and barley"

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch
By Nigel Slater

Here we have another charming and useful book by a British writer, this one from the veteran Observer food columnist Nigel Slater. Slater's shtick—and it's a good one—is that he intensively gardens the 40-by-20-foot lot behind his London townhouse. Somehow, he has managed to write an entire thick book about his rarefied urban-homesteader lifestyle without sounding the least bit self-satisfied or snobbish. Again, the photography is gorgeous—in the elegantly written introduction, don't miss the bird's eye shots of Slater's garden as it progresses from early spring to the dead of winter. Even more so than Fearnley-Whitingstall's, this book is a valentine to produce—meat turns up in some of the recipes, but each one highlights a specific vegetable. And Slater's focus isn't on just the cooking, but also the growing. The chapters take us alphabetically from asparagus to zucchini, with wise and hard-won tips on growing each, followed by a dozen or so recipes, all of them quite practical. The cooking style is Anglo-Mediterranean, in the proud, unfussy tradition of the great postwar UK food writer Elizabeth David. Not long after the book arrived, I caught my roommate, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, leafing through it with a frown. I asked her what was the matter. "This is the book I wanted to write," she said. "Damn it." I suspect a lot of cooking-obsessed growers will feel the same.

Killer dish: "Carrot and cilantro fritters"
Dish I'm dying to try: "A soup of broccoli and bacon"

Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes
By Andrea Reusing

If Slater's book is a love letter to fresh produce, Andrea Reusing has written one to her food shed: North Carolina's highly fertile Piedmont region, with its gently sloping hills that separate the state's mountainous western region (where I live) from the sandy lowlands to the east. Her home base is Chapel Hill/Carrboro, the epicenter of one of the nation's most vibrant small-farm scenes: talented youngsters, back-to-the-landers from the '70s, and traditional smallholders all producing top-flight produce from the region's rich soil and warm climate. In her restaurant Lantern, Reusing takes those raw materials and transforms them into correct and elaborate pan-Asian fare: just the kind of stuff I love to eat in restaurants but am too time-strapped to attempt at home these days. (Full disclosure: Andrea is a friend, and I've had many terrific meals at Lantern). In this book, though, Andrea sheds her chef's toque and shows us how she cooks those same staple ingredients at home with her family: dishes that are simple, fast, and full of flavor. The book is structured seasonally, each chapter containing a mini-profile of a local producer, written in prose as friendly and precise as her cooking. My favorite vignette is the one about her clandestine source for raw milk (which can be legally sold in North Carolina only as animal feed, wink, wink). The story climaxes with a showdown between a food processor and a stand-up mixer over which can turn fresh cream into butter faster and better. Again, the photography is a delight.

Killer dish: "Spinach with melted leeks and cardamom"
Dish I'm dying to try: "Hard-cider braised pork shoulder" (Andrea is an artist of pork)

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts
By Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, and Meredith Erickson

This bizarre and spectacular book isn't like the other on my list—but then again, it's not much like any other book I know of, cooking-related or otherwise. "What the fuck is Joe Beef?," the great New York chef David Chang asks in the book's introduction. He notes that the name evokes "images of Sloppy Joe's, of ground meat in ketchup, and of hairnets." What Joe Beef is, by all accounts, is one of the best restaurants in North America, crammed into a tiny space in an unfashionable Montreal neighborhood. (The restaurant takes its name from a colorful tavern keeper who kept Montreal's working stiffs well-fed and -lubricated a century ago.) The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is a kind of artist's statement for an idiosyncratic and unlikely restaurant. It doesn't follow seasons or ingredients or meal genres, but rather the quirks and obsessions of the Joe Beef's founders. A cookbook only "of sorts," it offers chapters on the history of eating in Montreal, on nostalgia for trains, on booze (sample sentence: "I love red Burgundy wine so much I want to pour it in my eyes"), on building and mastering your own smoker, and on transforming a crack den into a garden worthy of Nigel Slater. Interrupting the Gonzo-style essays and dazzling photos are recipes for straight-ahead, unfussy French food—a little chefy and rarefied-ingredients-based for my current cooking habits, but deeply appealing. I want to try them all. Even more, I want to make my debut at the bar of Joe Beef.

Killer dish: "Cider turnips" (so far, it's the only recipe I've had everything on hand to try)
Dish I'm dying to try: Every single one, but if I had to choose: "Scallops with pulled pork"