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Without Reservations

All in the call

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS I won’t sleep in a dead man’s bed, but I will use his razor to shave my sweater.

“She walks like a little farmer,” Hedgehog’s gram told Hedgehog while I was not in the room.

Gram, recently widowed, is in a nursing home in Bloomsburg, PA. We visited every day at least once a day while we were there. We brought her fudge from the fair. We brought her caramel corn, corn, “penny candy,” and a pork sandwich. I did her nails.

Then we went back out to the fair and got her another pork sandwich. Above and beyond the call of grandfilial duty-in-law, I know, but if you saw what they were feeding her for lunch! . . . A sorry looking disk of “Swiss steak,” plop of instant mashed potatoes, and chopped beets that reeked of can.

I’m not bragging. Anyone with half a heart in their chest would have sprinted at the sight of such unsavoriness out into the world for something real. Well, Hedgehog and I have at least two full hearts in our combined chests. Ergo: two pork sandwiches for Gram.

Of course, they don’t call them pork sandwiches in Central Pennsylvania. They are “barbecue.” You can indeed get real barbecue at the Bloomsburg Fair, but those vendors come up from Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and other delicious Points South, trailing their pitched-black smokers. The locals tend to shun these in favor of May’s steam-table-cue: either pulled pork, chipped ham, or shredded chicken on an enriched white bun with sweet relish. And the pork one is awesome, by the way, in spite of its apparent lack of relationship to smoke, or even fire.

But being that as it May’s, the Bloomsburg Fair is my new favorite thing. For the food alone. In a small town where what’s-for-dinner is not always necessarily exciting, I got to get down and greasy with my new favorite hot sausage sandwich, Pennsylvania Dutch chicken-and-waffles, venison jerky, not-bad jambalaya, bad Mongolian barbecue, great American barbecue, smoked turkey legs, wedding soup, potato pancakes, pierogies, hot-off-the-press apple cider, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, and, of course, funnel cakes.

For four days, the closest we came to anything healthy was fire-roasted sweet corn dipped in butter. The only other way to get vegetables was deep fried. Speaking of which, there was a deep fried Oreo in there somewhere, although I promise I only had one bite — oh, and a deep-fried Snickers bar wrapped in bacon.

That comes with its own whole other story, but I’m not going to tell it because it’s time for:

CHEAP SPORTS (Bloomsburg Fair Edition)

by Hedgehog

On the topic of the replacement refs’ absurd botching of that “Fail Mary” last Monday Night Football: What about the bad pass interference call that set up Green Bay’s TD on the drive previous? The Packers may have been robbed, but it was robbing Peter to pay Paul, way I seen it. Reap what you sow, Green Bay. Not to mention get what you pay for, NFL.

Speaking of questionable calls: the fiddle contest Tuesday night at the fair. The last fiddler was going to obviously take first place because she was an adorable sixth grader who played “Danny Boy” like she had a lilt and washed with Irish Spring. Which would drop the amiable fella with two originals and a twangy rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” down to Silver. We all agreed: she would win, but he would deserve to.

Sure enough, the cutie took first, but second went to some young buck we didn’t even figure to place. Highway robbery! It was the talk of the entire midway for about a minute. Then, once the formality of the extra point (or in this case, all-star jam of “Orange Blossom Special”) was dispensed with, we all browsed the master pumpkin carver’s work in the farm museum, and it started to seem like a bad dream.

Welcome back, “real” refs!

Cheap Eats continued

Other things we ate included chicken and dumplings (which they call chicken pot pie), and peach pie (which they call peach dumplings). Well, what do you expect from the land where green bell peppers are mangoes, and mangoes are — what, where did you get that?

The reasons I walk like a little farmer, Gram, are twofold. One, I am bow-legged. I don’t know why. I only rode a horse once in my life. And, two, I am a little farmer.

 

With or without you

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› paulr@sfbg.com


The ancients had many different gods, though none (that we know of) in charge of restaurant reservations. But they were certainly familiar with fickle and tempestuous deities, and I can’t imagine any god of restaurant reservations being any other way. Despite the heavy infestation of computers into most of our lives, restaurant reservations retain a certain crapshoot, the-gods-must-be-crazy quality. No doubt the lord of restaurant reservations finds this amusing. Whether you’re using OpenTable or trusting to a reservationist on the telephone, you cross your fingers and click your heels together three times, hoping for a wink and a smile from fate and wondering what might happen if someone, somewhere along these finely spun threads of arrangement, screws up.

A prime candidate for the reservation screw-up is the person making the reservation. This is the diner’s equivalent of "pilot error" in airplane crashes. Recently I booked a table at a restaurant through OpenTable, and everything went beautifully until the day before, when the reservationist called to confirm the table … for the wrong day. I would have been pleased to be furious, but the mistake was totally and utterly mine — and an obvious one to boot. I could have averted aggravation and embarrassment if I’d bothered to read the confirmation e-mail sent after I’d booked the table. But gods need their laughs, too.

Not many days later, I booked a table at a less grand but well-regarded neighborhood place, using the trusty old phone and talking to an actual person on the other end. The actual person asked me to confirm my area code, and I took this as evidence that attention was being paid, the right buttons being pushed, and so on. At the appointed hour, we turned up at the host’s station to find that, so far as the restaurant was concerned, we did not exist; the reservation system was managed on a fancy computer, but we weren’t in it. Did I hear a giggle from somewhere overhead?

The lost reservation is an excruciating social moment. The restaurant bungled, yet there is no proof, and you still hope they can find a place for you. If you indulge in a self-righteous huff, you are headed for the nearest taqueria, while making apologies to your companions and praying to the taqueria god. What was that god’s name again?

Food and the city

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When we talk about "regional" cuisines or cooking, we often find ourselves talking about some quarter of Italy. For centuries, Italy was a politically fragmented land — a jigsaw puzzle of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, serene republics, and city-states — and did not become a modern nation-state until the 19th century.

Yet what politics could not achieve, food could. As John Dickie demonstrates in his engrossing Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (Free Press, $26), trade among the peninsula’s cities in the late Middle Ages became the foundation for the distinctive cuisine we know today as Italian. Cooking in the Italian cities was more similar than not, Dickie suggests, and it was immeasurably better than what was to be found in the impoverished countryside, where peasants were practically boiling weeds for soup. In our time, a love of rustic Italian cooking is just one of many food fetishes — mostly harmless, but maybe not quite, since under the guise of lauding a rural bounty and style that never really existed, it subtly reinforces an American prejudice against cities. We already have Jeffersonian myths about our own countryside — as a redoubt of wisdom, rectitude, health, and happiness — that reach back beyond the founding of the republic.

We have myths about our cities too, but most are of the if-only variety. Urban utopians — the people who think cities would be little paradises if only we could rid them of homeless people or cars or Republicans or loud partiers — would do well to consider Dickie’s portraiture of Italy’s cities across eight centuries. Like all cities, always and everywhere, they are full of dirt, noise, and disease — as well as cruelty, wealth, vanity, status consumption, insecurity, and vicious politicking. They are nasty and exciting, as we would expect from any sort of social experiment that concentrates large numbers of human beings in a small space.

The lesson of cities, then, is that they are marketplaces not only of goods and services, but of ideas. They are messy with conflict among innumerable worlds and subworlds. And much of that conflict is pointless or even counterproductive — but not all of it. Sometimes a random spark will catch and burn brightly, and then we all say huzzah, or buon appetito.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

A tale of two burgers

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The road goes ever on and on, often past fast-food stands. A two-hour toddle from LAX to the Coachella Valley took us across the belly of the beast, South Central Los Angeles, where traffic is as horrible as rumor has it despite the $4-per-gallon gasoline prices thoughtfully delivered by Bush & Co. When gas is $40 a gallon, I wondered (by Labor Day?), will it make a difference? The consensus view in the cabin of Zippy, our Wonder Dodge, was No. When I gunned Zippy’s brave little four-cylinder engine, I heard the sound of someone with a hand mixer whipping egg whites into a meringue under the hood.

Fast food may be a distinctively American evil, but I retain an affection for the southland’s Del Taco chain nonetheless, mostly because of the fish tacos, which are excellent. Why, then, did I order a cheeseburger when we pulled over for a spell to let a surge of road fatigue (perhaps tending toward rage) subside? Was the 99-cent price a factor? Even in fast-food places, you get what you pay for; the Del Taco burger is about 95 percent bun — the Bun Burger! — with a layer of grim gray beef, about the thickness of bresaolo, tucked deep inside, cowering under a slice of pickle.

You get what you pay for, I should say, except if you are eating at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in midtown Manhattan, as we were a few weeks ago. There, the burger costs $32 — that’s dollars, not cents — and is made from ground sirloin and presented on a parmesan bun with some foie gras. Notwithstanding all this splendor, the burger was dry. We consoled ourselves with an ice cream sundae, which turned out to be $16. New York has plainly identified dollar-bearers as losers and is casting its lot with visitors from euro-land. To people whose currency is actually worth something, Manhattan prices wouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary.

If the Boulud-burger was a bust, the restaurant’s choucroute was marvelous. (DB Bistro Moderne’s chef is Alsatian and gets to put on a small show Monday evenings.) Choucroute — let alone good choucroute — is a dish you rarely see on restaurant menus, and at $34 it gives incomparably better value than the burger. I am not, however, hoping that a 99-cent version shows up at Del Taco.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Chefs that go crunch

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Watching people cook provides its share of voyeuristic pleasures while also, in theory, offering bits of edification. It’s far easier to learn how to make a dish by watching somebody else make it than by tip-toeing your way through a recipe’s thicket of words, and this is true whether you’re watching in person or via television. In the 1980s I was a faithful viewer of Jacques Pépin’s cooking shows on public TV, and I still use several recipes he demonstrated offhandedly.

But those were the old days, when the point of putting chefs on the tube was to transmit knowledge, skills, and confidence to the viewing public. Today’s chef shows are quite different. Recently I spent a long, not-quite-voluntary interval watching several episodes of Bravo’s "Top Chef," and was reminded not so much — or really, not at all — of Jacques Pépin but of "The Real World" and "Survivor." The themes are pressure, ruthlessness, panic, and triumph, leavened with desire. Ancient Rome had its gladiators, and we have this. And is this, I wondered, any way to treat food and the people who make it? You scorch your broccolini and are voted off the island by a celebrity tribunal to the strains of Wagnerian doom music? And what about your crush on one of the judges, not to mention some of the other tasty chefs? Emotional confusion and torment must make for high ratings, if "Top Chef" is any indication. Still, I’m not sure they conduce to a better world, or even a better-fed world.

It isn’t surprising that cooking has become an occasion for competition in America. We turn all subjects, no matter how inappropriate — even poetry! — into competition. We hallow competition and competitive people, particularly when televised, and don’t seem to recognize that civilization is, at its core, a cooperative venture. Competition is no better than a necessary, well-regulated evil in a civilized regime, and the unthinking American exaltation of it is, possibly, part of the reason we are a warrior society rather than a civilized one.

What happens to the dismissed? I wondered. Do they fall on their knives, one by one, alone and unmourned, off camera? Or do the survivors conspire to cook the lost a send-off meal, in which food is a gesture of love rather than a commodity?

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Fly, read, eat!

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Even the best-laid dietary plans can go awry when dieters make pilgrimages. Air travel in America entails many gaudy food horrors, from cold and grudging $8 airport sandwiches (even if sold under such reassuring signage as that of Il Fornaio and Firewood Café) to the minuscule packages of Lorna Doones the flight attendants fling at you, as though they are warders in a dingy, 19th-century French prison and you are a prisoner consigned to the deepest dungeon, which happens to be airborne. I have been reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo — a superb potboiler — but the book is too fat to carry comfortably on a plane. Air travelers must give priority to survival rations, not the fate of the honorable Edmond Dantès.

Although the wastefulness of American life is everywhere visible, it is nowhere more apparent than in the infrastructure of people-moving and people-storage: at airports, on planes, in hotels. Even the most miserly crumbs and dribbles are carefully packaged in cellophane or foil, presented with too many napkins and swizzle sticks, or sealed in plastic bottles under plastic caps. Later, the prison guards move up and down the center aisle, holding open their trash bags while we chuck it all in there: recyclables, compostables, authentic trash.

Do the airlines and airport cafés sort through the waste stream? I found myself wondering as I obediently tossed my leavings into the sack, including a spent copy of Artforum magazine. While so much of the waste is generated unnecessarily, so much that is justifiable could be composted or should be compostable. Food-stained paper is an easy case, of course. But what about the bad novels being hawked to a captive and famished public desperate for diversion while their stomachs grumble and their flights are delayed or cancelled? All books are compostable in theory, but why can’t airport books be printed on some kind of cornstarch paper, so they could be flushed down the toilet when we’ve finished them or found them unreadable?

Better yet, make them edible! Print them on paper engineered from polenta, and use flavored soy inks (gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar?) so that when we give up trying to read them, we can just take a bite. A kind of literary Doritos. But not Monte Cristo, of course. That would have to be a nacho platter, party size.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Thrill of the kill

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› paulr@sfbg.com


WITHOUT RESERVATIONS In our age of euphemism, it is shocking and/or refreshing to find a cookbook author using the word "kill" when talking about where meat comes from. The author is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall, and the book is The River Cottage Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $35). Fearnley-Whittingsall is English, as we can guess from his hyphenated surname (a "double barrel," as my single-barrel English friend calls the complexly-designated), and the English perhaps suffer less from euphemism disease than we do. We suffer rather severely. People no longer die in America; they "pass" — "pass away" is apparently too vivid now — or "transition," which isn’t even a proper verb.

But when Fearnley-Whittingsall has a pig killed to make some bacon, blood sausage, and charcuterie, we hear about it in blunt terms. On occasion he eases off the throttle slightly, switching to "slaughter" from "kill," but this might just be to keep things interesting. Soon enough we are back to the k-word. One appreciates the candor, of course, and the unvarnished elaborations, which culminate in the author’s declaration that he "didn’t find it all that distressing" when he delivered his first pair of home-raised pigs to a local slaughterhouse and waited about 20 minutes until the animals were "done."

"I went home," he writes, "with a bag of innards, a bucket of blood, and a clear conscience." Jolly good!

Among the planet’s carnivores, we’re easily the most effective and, at the same time, the only ones subject to pangs of conscience about our food-related violence. Hence the supermarket culture of shrink-wrapping, which protects ordinary individuals from having to consider the brutality that results in their pork chops. Fearnley-Whittingsall quite rightly suggests that people who enjoy eating meat should raise and kill a food animal at least once. Still, there are those who would never have the heart to do this. Are these people lily-livered softies, or can we identify, in their reluctance, signs of an evolutionary shift, an awareness that animal consciousness is kin to our own?

It’s hardly unnatural for humans to kill and eat animals, but it’s more of a luxury now, and one of the bloodier ones. Of course, cultured meat, when it finally comes, will make clear consciences more widely available to flesh-eaters, and The River Cottage Cookbook might need a revision.

Jam of lords, lords of jam

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Blenheim, as those of us who feel the occasional twitch upon the thread of Anglophilia will recall, is the ancestral home of the dukes of Marlborough as well as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, a figure much admired by, though not at all resembling, le George W. Bush. Blenheim is also a type of apricot, and Blenheim apricots were indeed grown on the grounds of Blenheim Palace in the 19th century; in due course the fruit, taking its way ever westward, arrived in California. You can occasionally find Blenheims at farmers markets; in addition, if you like or even love jam, they can be found in the jam produced by welovejam.com, a tiny San Francisco concern that until recently was making its entire production of apricot jam from the fruit of a single Blenheim tree in the Santa Clara valley.

The Blenheim, despite its grand pedigree, has recently fallen on parlous times. Its fruit is smaller and slower to ripen than other varieties of apricot and, in my experience, can have a greenish tinge when bought fresh. ("Let them ripen for three or four days," I was told when I bought some last year. I did, and several rotted, which was rather irritating at $4 per pound.) These delicate qualities, while redolent of Old World charm and languor, do suggest that the fruit is at least as well-served being made into jam as harvested, shipped, and sold fresh in our mechanized agricultural economy. As with canned tomatoes, the right sort of processing — loving processing — can show Blenheims at their best.

The duo behind WLJ, Eric Haeberli and Phineas Hoang, don’t use the word "love" lightly. Their entire enterprise (whose roots are traceable to some impromptu jam-making in 2002) is about passion, not money, from the saving of a particular type of apricot to the packaging of everything they make (including barbecue sauce and superlative biscotti) in containers that are either recyclable or, in the case of their cellophane sacks, compostable.

At the moment, WLJ looks a little the way Recchiuti Confections did a few years ago: it’s a tiny and unlikely freckle on the face of the food business. But (as the young Alfie so gloomily observed in Annie Hall) the universe is expanding, and WLJ’s products (available through the Web site) could soon be coming to Bi-Rite — and from there, who knows?

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

The water cure

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The recently launched campaign against bottled water in restaurants — Food and Water Watch’s "Take Back the Tap" program (www.takebackthetap.org) — makes a number of sensible points, most of which have to do with the drastic wastefulness of bottled water. Bottled water has to be bottled, typically in plastic vessels (whose manufacture uses 17.6 million barrels of oil a year in the United States alone, according to FWW); those bottles then have to be shipped — more fossil fuel used, who knows how much? — and disposed of once they’re empty. Recycling is a noble ideal, but FWW says 86 percent of our plastic water bottles end up in landfills. Many of the rest can be found in urban gutters, along with the dead leaves.

But this is only part of the story. Of course bottled water is a socioeconomic affectation in this country; it’s an aping of a European practice that isn’t completely irrational in the old country, where there is a long tradition of waterborne illness and where many large cities still take their municipal water supplies from heavily used rivers. If you’ve ever drunk a glass of tap in Berlin, you know it’s not Evian.

These exigencies don’t apply here. But we’ve certainly been told, through relentless advertising, that bottled water is chic and somehow more healthful. Bottled water can be branded, and branding is a powerful instrument of class identity, whereas tap water is a public resource, practically free, and didn’t Ronald Reagan convince us a generation ago that if it was public it was probably bad? Even if municipal water doesn’t give you cholera, it won’t confer social standing on you either, not the way a bottle of Voss will.

Tap water in this basic sense is part of the commonweal, the public square, which free-market evangelists have spent several decades trying to cut up and sell off to private interests. Doubtless there are those who would charge us for breathing if they could figure out how. This is why choosing tap over bottled in a public setting is a statement of political as well as environmental awareness. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to drink it anymore!

Suggestion to restaurants: don’t even tell patrons you have bottled water, if you do. Treat it like tobacco: legal but neither preferred nor promoted. Maybe those who insist on bottled water should be obliged to join the smokers outside.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

The republic of fennel

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› paulr@sfbg.com

Fennel, like certain politicians one could name, has its pestilential, never-say-die quality: you see it growing all over the city, its feathery green plumage waving from street-tree wells or creeping up faded walls. It’s the kind of plant that could survive a nuclear holocaust, the kind of survivor the writer Jonathan Schell must have had in mind when he described a nuked United States as "a republic of insects and grass" at the outset of The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, 1982). He might have been optimistic about the republic part.

When we think of fennel, to be fair, we’re probably not thinking of nuclear war, indestructible weeds, rotted republics, or even Hillary Clinton. We’re most likely thinking about the plant’s seeds, which, when dried, are a staple of the Italian kitchen and of some of the wondrous spice blends of the Indian subcontinent. But the fennel plant has roots too, pale bulbs you find in abundance at farmers markets around this time of year. The bulbs have the feel and texture of celery root and offer a licorice flavor much milder than that of the seeds, so for these reasons fennel root, sliced or shaved, is often proposed as an alternative in recipes that call for celery.

Since celery root is the last word in necessary-but-not-sufficient foodstuffs, it’s easy not to bother substituting something else for it, and I never did — and so I never had much use for fennel root. I always had celery root on hand, and that was enough. Then, in January, a friend served slices of roasted fennel root as a before-dinner nibble. The earth shifted slightly under my feet.

Roasting, it must be said, brings out the best in many uncooperative vegetables. It deepens and softens and adds a smoky sweetness. Beets, cauliflower, asparagus — all benefit from this treatment; fennel root too.

Most of the prep work involves trimming the root end and the feathery rigging. Slice the trimmed bulbs lengthwise, about a quarter-inch thick. Rinse away any dirt, and don’t worry if the slices fall apart some. Have an oven preheated to 450 degrees. Put the fennel in a single layer on a roasting pan or cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and some dried thyme, and roast about 12 minutes, turning the pieces halfway through. Drizzle with a little more oil and serve.

A small beef

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WITHOUT RESERVATIONS In my years of traversing the Divisadero Summit, that land of cloud-minders at the very crest of Pacific Heights, I have sometimes wondered who actually lives in all the pretty houses. Well, Danielle Steele, of course, and her bevy of automobiles, which she seems to collect the way Imelda Marcos once collected shoes. But I don’t quite know which palace is hers, nor am I sure which belongs to the writer Robert Mailer Anderson and his Oracle heiress wife. Maybe I’m on the wrong street altogether. But I can tell you that the Japanese Consulate is up there, at the corner of Divis and Vallejo, in a beautiful Italianate mansion, and I know this because I was there a few days ago for a high-end cookout that filled the terrace with charcoal perfume and the large foyer with the faintly briny scent of a whole sea bream on display.

The point of the cookout was to remind the local food cognoscenti that Japan, like Europe, has its venerated, slow food-style traditions, and while sea bream makes lovely sushi, no Japanese foodstuff is more venerated than wagyu, the famous, and famously expensive, beef. Slabs of raw wagyu — the real stuff, not the US-produced knockoff kind — were on display beside the reddish sea bream, but they gave off no odor; the beefy smells were coming from the charcoal grills outside, where slivers of the meat were being barbecued while the hungry mob waited.

But you could have your wagyu raw, too, if you preferred: arranged atop a little rice ball as a form of beef sushi. Either way, you tasted the intense fattiness of the meat. "Marbling" — strata of fat within the muscle itself — is the term often used to describe this effect, but wagyu seems to be beyond marbled. The muscle and fat aren’t easily distinguishable. Naturally, small portions are in order, since wagyu is to ordinary beef what cognac is to wine. It’s concentrated and potent, and a tiny amount is plenty. You don’t eat wagyu, you savor it.

In America, where beef is king and is generally scarfed in large quantities, selling this proposition could be tricky, but the subtle culinary wisdoms of Japan do advise us that slow versus fast food is just one axis of a multipolar conflict. Instead of big food, how about … small food?

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

White made right

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Although "white" carries generally favorable connotations in our race-haunted society, the spell breaks at the gates of the wine kingdom. When Californians mention wines they like, the wines are almost always red ones — and more often than not, cabernets sauvignons. White wines? What are those?

To an extent, this bias can be explained by the great and unexpected success of (red) California wines at the famous Paris blind tasting of 1976, in which French judges ended up preferring the New World wines. But the vestigial glow of this triumph doesn’t explain why so many young people I know, many of them recently converted from beer to wine, already equate "wine" with red wine. Are red wines inherently superior?

Part of the issue could have to do with the fact that white wines are by nature more naked and skeletal than their red cousins. Their flaws tend to show, and they don’t have rich color or fruit-bomb radiance to distract us from noticing them. Another and more pertinent factor is the lackluster quality of so much California white wine. Many of the best whites still come from difficult little swatches of Europe (rainy Galicia, stony Sardinia, chilly Burgundy, the chalky Loire Valley), while our homegrown grapes, having lived the high life in rich soil and warm sunshine, too often produce wines that are flabby and flubbery (in the case of chardonnay) or aggressively grassy (in the case of sauvignon blanc).

Of course, I overgeneralize — but with intent. There are good white wines of California provenance to be found, and it’s fun to try to find them. You might have met despair while locked in the bathroom at a party, spitting up yet another overcooked chardonnay, but you will be all the more grateful when you take your first silvery sip of Navarro’s dry riesling, or Dry Creek’s utterly Loire-like chenin blanc — or if you are bound and determined to find a good California chardonnay, the unoaked chardonnay from Clos LaChance. The winery is slightly off the beaten path, in the foothills south of San Jose, and the wine is nearly Burgundian in its well-managed acidity (like a sharp knife with a sumptuous handle), crisp apple-y character, and wondrous lack of buttery bloat. If you’ve gagged on your last slug ever of party chardonnay, a gentle tipple of this stuff should settle you down nicely.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

New soup for you!

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Day is done, gone the sun, and let’s have soup. The sun is lingering a little longer these days, but winter still abides in the garden, it remains damp and chilly inside, and if nothing else, we can warm our hands in the steam that rises from our bowls of soup.

Like all repertoires, the soup repertoire is in need of constant tending. You prune the ones that don’t quite work or show signs of reduced drawing power while being alert to new prospects. Much as I love butternut squash soup, for instance (and its near relation, kabocha squash soup), I’ve stricken it from the list, in part because of domestic unrest and in part because a great many restaurant kitchens turn out some version of it between November and March, and this creates an overkill issue.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of additions. The good soupist craves ideas, and when, for instance, a neighbor told of an excellent broccoli-leek soup she brought home one day from the Bi-Rite deli, the soupist’s ears pricked right up. Broccoli-leek? Could this be just a version of potato-leek with broccoli added? The soupist can’t speak for the Bi-Rite kitchen, but potato-leek with broccoli added does make a lovely, cream-of-broccoli-like soup, except with no cream.

Procedure: Clean a large leek by trimming the root end, removing the green leaves, thinly slicing the white bulb, and separating and cleaning the rings in a large bowl of water. Heat some sweet butter or vegetable oil in a soup pan, add the leek rings (with a pinch of salt), and soften, stirring occasionally. Don’t let the leek turn brown. Add a head of broccoli, rinsed and coarsely chopped, along with a large russet potato, peeled and cubed. Add about four or five cups water or stock — chicken stock is excellent but not vegan — bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. Puree with an immersion wand or in a blender, add some ground or cracked black pepper, and salt to taste.

A nice springtime variation is to substitute green, or fresh, garlic (now showing up at farmers markets) for the leek. You will need three or four green garlic stalks, since they’re much slenderer than leeks. These soups cool very appealingly, even down to room temperature, but if your hands are blue, serve them hot.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

From Umbria, with brio

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As a member of the lentil-involved community, I was honored and elated to be presented with a small sack of organic Umbrian lentils at a recent Slow Food shindig for organic Umbrian farmers. (Organic Umbrian Agriculture: World Tour ’08.) The lentils, from a producer called Terra Colombaia ("pigeon coop"), were uncooked, of course; cooking not included. I would have to handle that part myself, and I welcomed the chance, which would come later, once I’d gotten home. Meantime, I practiced saying lenticchie — the Italian word for lentils, and a jollier word than ours it is — with the jolly Umbrian farmers seated all around me at Acme Chophouse. I asked them if they liked America, and they smiled and nodded knowingly without quite saying yes. I know this drill; it’s the universal language for "We hate Bush!" But hope, somehow, abides. In that spirit, the subject of Hillary was steered clear of.

The lentils, liberated from their plastic sack, proved to be a motley if lovable crew, smaller than the Umbrian lentils I’ve long been accustomed to seeing at the market, and far more varied in color. The dominant shade in both iterations is a mocha brown, but in the commercial version I usually buy (from Emilio Bartolini, an Umbrian concern known mainly for olive oils), that shade is deep and consistent. The organic lentils, by contrast, have reds, browns, grays, and greens lurking in the mix; it’s like a legume version of M&Ms. Also, the organic lentils are smaller, about the size of their hard green Puy cousins from France to the north. Size matters in American cosmology, and small is a sin in more ways than I can decently mention, but in lentilology, small is an advantage, since small Umbrian lentils cook more quickly than the bigger ones — a boon for the harried cook. Slow food … fast! And even quick-cooking Umbrian lentils are resistant to turning mushy; this is a boon for everyone, except people trying to make dal, and they should be using those reddish orange Indian lentils anyway.

Several of the Umbrian farmers spoke surprisingly good English, and when that didn’t suffice, there were enough Spanish, German, and French words at the table to fill the gaps. Still, we all thrilled to lenticchie — not quite a rousing chorus, but close.

Paul Reidinger

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Requiem for a lemon

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The city slicker’s agricultural portfolio tends to run toward seasonings and emendations — rosemary, for instance, which has plenty of street smarts and is drought resistant too. Yours truly has for years managed a tiny estate of such bit players, including the aforementioned rosemary (a weedlike presence at the rear of the garden), along with bay and Kaffir lime bushes. The one crop that might qualify as cash is the Meyer lemon.

The infrequency of the (dwarf) Meyer lemon tree’s deigning to fruit has long added piquancy to those moments when it does, usually every other year. This year was to be one such moment; the flowers were heavy last summer, the immature fruit abundant all through the autumn, and by Christmastime a wealth of golden globes hung like ornaments from the tree’s branches. Tree is an absurd word to describe a shapeless shrub about three feet tall that drags its knuckles on the ground, but when such a plant produces three or four dozen fruit in one of its fecund moods, one is inclined to be forgiving.

Such plans I had for those lemons! Crème caramels were envisioned, also tarts, estate-bottled limoncello, and wonderful salad dressings. All in good time. Let the lemons remain safe on the tree; I would simply gather them as needed so they would not languish on the counter or in the refrigerator like supermarket produce. The city-slicker farmer, you see, has no conception of pests, and tales of whole harvests lost to plagues of locusts belong to the pages of the Bible or John Steinbeck novels.

So it was with a sense of horror and disbelief that I gazed out the window at my lemony riches a few days ago, at the end of weeks of obscuring rain, and saw that those riches were gone. Had they been stolen? Organic Meyer lemons would fetch a pretty penny at markets. But no: a close examination revealed the lemons had been eaten on the spot; the ground was scattered with shavings of rind. Templeton, the gregarious rat from Charlotte’s Web, bragged that he would eat anything — but lemons? Do skunks eat lemons? Raccoons? All the neighbors’ lemons similarly vanished.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may was the advice of the English poet Robert Herrick, and even if your rosebuds are lemons, this remains a wise strategy.

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On the waterfront: an epic

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The city of night on a night of rain still offers its spectacles, and one of them must be the Bay Bridge as viewed from Epic Roasthouse, the brand-new restaurant (starring Pat Kuleto and Jan Birnbaum) that, with its sibling, Waterbar, sits on the narrow strip of land between the Embarcadero and the water. The bridge soars through the mists overhead, like the arc of a rainbow, and one has the sense of inspecting it — peeking at its underbelly, as if at a used car that might or might not be leaking coolant.

Not even a generation ago this neighborhood was entombed by an overhead freeway, and when Boulevard opened in the Audiffred Building just a few blocks away in 1993, the Embarcadero consisted mostly of granulated, ghost-town asphalt. But the visionaries could see what was bound to happen — what indeed was already happening, slowly but inexorably, because of the 1989 earthquake — and in that crumbled pavement a farmers market took root. Eventually it found a home in the resurrected Ferry Building, while on other plots of land liberated from elevated-freeway strangulation, hotels and parks and housing developments sprouted; restaurants too. What was an urban wilderland is now a glossy district both commercial and residential, a crown for the city, with a couple of gaudy new jewels.

Like all view restaurants, Epic Roasthouse is bound to attract tourists, both out-of-towners and suburbanites, but it also stands to develop a city constituency. Although parking in the area is hellish, Muni’s T line stops just steps away, and meanwhile, the blocks immediately behind the waterfront are filling up with residential towers, which will soon fill up with people of means who will be able to walk over to the Embarcadero for dinner.

With all due respect to the bicycle lobbies, the great city pleasure is walking — and the great luxury of our time is also walking, since it frees us from the tyranny of machines, at least if we’re not listening to an iPod or yakking into a cell phone as we stroll. Walking to or from work? Priceless! Walking to or from Epic Roasthouse? Also priceless, with appetite kindled on the inbound leg and calories usefully spent on the other.

Paul Reidinger

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Sugar and spice

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In response to a recent column about quick reconstructive surgery for oversalted dishes (add some sugar!), a reader wrote with the news that it’s also possible to salvage dishes made inedible by too much chili heat. The procedure is simple: peel a raw potato, preferably a russet (starchy is better than waxy here), put it in the afflicted dish, and cook until it shows signs of disintegrating. Remove the still-whole spud, cross fingers, and serve.

Thanks to Gabriel Bereny for this intel, which apparently he got from his wife and her mother. My only question: where were you 23 years ago, when I was making so-called Chinese chili from a recipe in the Chicago Tribune, a reputable newspaper, and the directions called for a quarter cup of cayenne pepper, which did seem like quite a bit, but I put it in anyway because that’s what it said to do? The result was what I came to call, in later years — when time had softened the episode’s more severe edges — Chernobyl chili. I ate the Chernobyl chili, I suppose to prove that it could be eaten, but I glowed in the dark for days afterward. And that wasn’t the worst of it: for our guest, who scorched her lips with her first tentative taste, I whipped up some hasty pasta. I still have the Chinese chili recipe, but I have corrected what even my neophyte eye should have seen as an obvious typo; a quarter cup is now a quarter teaspoon. There is a meaningful difference.

Starch’s value as a culinary fire retardant extends beyond the potato. If you find you’ve taken a bit of something too incendiary for your comfort, you can find relief in plain starch: a mouthful of white rice, for instance, or unadorned bread. Boiled white rice is standard-issue with some of the world’s spicier cuisines, including those from India and Korea.

And a final word in defense of sugar as a savory player: add a pinch of it the next time you make a vinaigrette (I use the darkest brown sugar I can find) and note the pleasant balancing of salty, sour, and sweet. You can make a pretty good vinaigrette with some Dijon mustard, a quality vinegar (balsamic, red wine, rice), and some good extra-virgin olive oil, but good becomes great by adding just the tiniest hint of sweet.

Paul Reidinger

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Green winter

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When I was in college, I was pleased to discover that spring in these parts began to make itself felt in February. The sun strengthened, the air grew mild — at least if it wasn’t raining — and people lay out to sunbathe. All this was very different from my native northern clime, in which winter nastiness often lasted well into April. April baseball games were sometimes snowed out, and May snow wasn’t unheard-of.

A warming world might soon be giving us reasons to rethink our understandings of the seasons, and perhaps Winnipeg will become a haven for snowbirds, but some of us have already made certain psychological adjustments. Spring for me — for instance — no longer means sunbathers in February but strawberries, asparagus, and artichokes, and while we await these delicacies, it’s the end of January, the Meyer lemon bush in the drippy garden is heavy with globes the color of summer sunshine, and markets are full of tubers and greens.

There are so many sorts of greens, arrayed in such abundance at farmers market stalls, that one feels a certain anxiety in choosing one kind but not another. Mixed baby salad greens are an almost automatic choice, since all they need is a splash of vinaigrette. Only slightly less demanding are baby spinach leaves, which can be wilted with some pine nuts, garlic, and currants to make a swift and classic Sicilian side dish. Romaine? You can make Caesar salads from it (and from its immature version, little gems), but I also found it turning up, braised, in a friend’s exquisite posole last week. I must make posole, I thought — a kind of chili made with hominy instead of beans — and I might or might not put romaine leaves in it, but I will try it with chickpeas.

Speaking, yet again, of legumes: lentil soup is a good place to stash all sorts of greens. I’ve put chard in there, and arugula, and even dandelion greens, though they have a bitterness that must be carefully handled. Dandelion greens work better in a pasta sauce, with garlic, chile flakes, sausage (poultry or soy if you like), some crushed black peppercorns, and a good grating of Parmesan or Romano cheese. The greens’ assertiveness matches up better with these comparably strong flavors. By the time you’ve cleaned your plate, it could be February, and strawberries for dessert.

Paul Reidinger

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Nursing the ratchet effect

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If good cooking is about improvisation and flexibility, it’s also about certain rigid rules. One of these is the culinary version of the ratchet effect: once you add certain ingredients, you can’t unadd them. The only path open to you is forward. There can be no retreat. Cayenne pepper is the classic example. Once it goes in, it’s in, and if you put in too much, you’re stuck. Either you issue the necessary warning to the people who will be served your 10-alarm chili, or you empty the pot into the compost bin and start anew, taking special care with any high-heat elements.

Salt is similarly impossible to extract once it’s gone in, and oversalted food is commonplace in the wondrous realm of prepared and packaged items. Saltiness, in fact, is often the preeminent characteristic of ready-to-eat foods plucked from the grocery shelves, just as overweening sugariness is so often the only flavor you can detect in commercially prepared desserts. Recently I gave a friend recovering from minor surgery an attractive jar of tomato-basil soup from Lucini, a purveyor of various Italian delicacies. One of the soup’s virtues was that all you had to do was heat it up in a pot and eat it — a simple enough procedure even for someone not feeling well. A few days later the call came: the soup was good, but too salty. I apologized on behalf of Lucini, noted what a common shortcoming this is, and then proposed an easy remedy. For saltiness, unlike chili heat, can be masked. You can’t get rid of it, but you can cover it up, the same way you might paint over hideous wallpaper.

The tools are simple: sugar and acid, whether from lemon or lime juice or, in a pinch, white vinegar. Sugar and acid are most effective as a duo, since each helps balance oversaltiness from a distinct angle. But you can use just one and still succeed. Sugar is a little gentler, while acid adds a zing that distracts from saltiness at least as much as balancing it. I just add little pinches of sugar to a too-salty dish, stirring them in, until harmony is restored. Then, maybe, for good measure, a discreet dribble of lemon juice. Follow-up question: could judicious salting rescue a too-sweet dessert?

Paul Reidinger

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When the lights go off

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While snow chasers — not to be confused with chub chasers — spent much of last week zooming to the mountains in pursuit of virgin powder, the rest of us coped with such storm-related inconveniences as no electricity for hours at a time, from dusk to dawn and beyond. I went to brew myself some consoling tea, only to be reminded, when the burner under the kettle would not catch, that while the stove is a gas stove, its ignition elements are electronic. These small but indispensable bits of gadgetry had gone into involuntary hibernation, as had the ignition element for the furnace (ergo: no heat), along with the modem, the router, and the cordless telephone. I lit some candles, but I couldn’t brew tea with them.

By nightfall, I felt as if I were on the set of a Brother Cadfael mystery. Naturally, we went out to dinner. Alice Waters once described how she cooked an entire meal in a fireplace in some remote but charming inn; I would like to go her one better, by describing how, lacking even a fireplace, I cooked an entire dinner over a Shabbat candelabra (and used a fully lit menorah for searing), but I can’t, because I couldn’t. Instead it was off to a cheery Italian place in the neighborhood, with iffy bread, butter pats wrapped in foil (does any get recycled?), overlarge servings, and a stiffer-than-expected bill. Had the Google riche discovered this once-homey spot? Had their electricity failed too? Why didn’t they just stay in their luxury buses?

Privately, one was galled to find the power on and lights burning brightly just a few blocks away. One then screamed, somewhat less privately, at the utility’s automated complaint line, with its endlessly shifting stories of what had happened and ever-changing predictions of when it would end, and the automated voice’s chirpy implacability in response to one’s frothings. These days the best customer service appears to be robotic customer service that induces despair and causes the unserved to hang up and go away.

The temperature in an unheated San Francisco house in mid-January soon falls into the middle 50s, which — lo! — is a good temperature to serve red wine at. I cracked open a bottle of holiday-basket Concannon cab and bathed my tender larynx. Let there be light. And at last, past my bedtime, there was.

Remember the main

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Our end-of-’07 road tour, with a Where have you gone Nancy Pelosi? theme (to be sung to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson") took me to two states I’d never been to before, Idaho and Montana. In the former, no Larry Craig sightings, but we did keep out of REIs. In the latter, mammoth main courses in restaurants, about which more presently. As for the states-visited list, it is sizable if not mammoth, with Texas and Florida still in the penalty box. There I expect they shall remain. Daniel Walker Howe’s excellent (if mammoth) What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford, 904 pages, $35) contains a fine account of the exertions required on our part to wrest Texas from Mexico, and as a reader luxuriating in hindsight, I found myself thinking: this was not wise.

The main course has been taking a hosing lately, and it isn’t hard to see why. If you think these dishes are too big here — and they are — you’re likely to split a seam at what’s being served beyond the Bay Area bubble, out there in our beloved red states. The situation is like a culinary version of grade inflation; side dishes are sizable enough to be appetizers, while appetizers are big enough to be main courses, and main courses are basically indescribable. Immense. At the Lodge at Whitefish Lake one evening we naively opened with a Mediterranean flat bread, a kind of pizza with olives, feta, and tomatoes and a ramekin of hummus on the side, before moving on to soup and salad, and then the main event.

Why, I thought too late, did I order pot roast after all that? The pot roast was excellent, but was it necessary to include two six-ounce slabs of beef, along with mashed potatoes?

Across the table a cooler head prevailed, and a more modest main course was ordered: shrimp diablo on a bed of multicolored orzo. And the cooler head wisely didn’t even eat all of it. For various bad reasons ("Live, live all you can!" Henry James wrote. "It’s a mistake not to!" Plus, you’re on vacation!), I ate all of mine, in addition to nibbling at the orzo, and wondered if I would live.

We can’t blame restaurants for serving (and charging for) 4,000-calorie plates when there are people dopey enough to eat them. Memo to dopey self: Think small. Remember your stomach. Choose life.

Paul Reidinger

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Eat the faith

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Michael Pollan’s just-published book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin Press, $21.95 cloth), has a placental look: its monumental predecessor, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006), appeared not even two years ago, and at about 200 pages the new volume is slight. But don’t be deceived: Defense isn’t an afterthought. It makes up in passionate intensity what it lacks in heft, and, page for page, it contains more intellectual and moral nutrition than practically any other book I’m aware of.

If Omnivore was a large conceit, Defense is a potent essay whose subject is, finally, the ways in which food science has misled us into various foolish wars: against fat, against carbs, and on behalf of supplements, to name just a few. With each battle, we eaters of the so-called Western diet — that scientifically produced and not very healthy amalgam of refined flour and sugar, industrially manipulated fats, and grudging sprinkles of monocultural vegetables, fruits, and meats — drift further away from our evolutionary moorings and must depend on yet more science (this time medical) to help right the balance. Great fortunes have already been made in the selling of lousy food to a captive and credulous population that then must pay out another fortune in health care bills. Nice work if you can get it.

Defense certainly rends the veil of infallibility in which contemporary science tends to cloak itself, and in doing so it raises the question of what we mean by "science." The word’s pop meaning is clear enough and involves microscopes, centrifuges, supercomputers, and a presidium of authorities in white lab coats. But the word’s Latin root means "to know," and Defense convincingly establishes that knowledge is not the exclusive purview of the lab-coat people. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio," Hamlet instructs us, and they won’t all surrender their secrets to Horatio’s fancy gadgetry. We put ourselves at risk, in fact, when under the rubric of science we set aside millennia of human discoveries and understandings of the world — when we stop eating what we’ve long eaten, for instance, and open a bag of manufactured quasi food, like Doritos.

Science should be about skepticism, not faith, and perhaps in laboratories it still is. But these days, when it enters the public domain it morphs into something elsesomething suspiciously like dogma.

Paul Reidinger

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Why I am not a foodie

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As the year dwindles and we start to see our breath in the evening cold, we don our scarves and indulge in little sentimentalities and considerable amounts of alcohol. Also, it’s time to clean out the e-mail box. Now or never. I find a note, half buried in a drift of messages slowly composting into cybermulch, announcing a new foodie Web site, www.foodiebytes.com, which is there to assist you when you crave a particular dish and need to locate a restaurant that serves it. You just type in the name of the dish, and the Web site quickly returns a list of nearby places where you can find it and at what price. A Google Maps or MapQuest feature seems inevitable.

Even sheathed in a pun — an obvious one at that — the word foodie provokes a shiver, and I am a wearer of scarves. Some of my best friends are, or I suspect them of being, foodies; it is important to distinguish between the self-confessed types and the latents and cryptos. We are able to converse about food, these foodies and I, often to our mutual pleasure and benefit, but I am not one of them, and they know it.

Through some quirk of temperament, I am not able to go ice-skating over the smooth surfaces of foodie Web sites that cater to people’s cravings. It is my fate instead, as a wonderer and a ponderer, to find myself needing to know the history of a particular dish or technique. And how did it get here? And can I do it, or something like it, at home? All of this is part of my experience of buying, cooking, and eating food.

Food separated from the past, from the ligaments and other connective tissues of culture and custom — food flattened to one dimension — loses much of its power to nourish our souls, our whole human selves, in much the same way that nutrients packed into pills don’t do us the same kind of good as nutrients eaten as part of the foods in which they naturally occur.

We live in a culture that exalts monomania, pops pills for every ailment, and tirelessly resists the past, and in such a context a foodie obsession (got a craving? get a fix!) is hardly unusual. But like most other forms of monomania, it isn’t necessarily all that interesting either.

Feeding the food brainiac

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Amid the agonies and anxieties of last-minute holiday shopping can be found at least one sure stocking stuffer, provided your list includes a food brainiac (with a Christmas stocking). You’ll know one when you meet one; a large clue will be a passionate interest in not merely recipes and restaurants but also the cultural story they help tell.

And what is that sure thing, in a world where many a gift goes astray like a bad JDAM? A book, of course, since the reports of print’s death have been greatly exaggerated and the food brainiac loves books. One of the better food brainiac–friendly books available is Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World (University of California Press, $24.95), whose subtitle, A Concise History with 174 Recipes, suggests that we aren’t talking about a volume with a companion Saturday-morning, how-to-cook-it series on public television.

No, Zaouali’s book dwells more on the history than the recipes, which are interesting though possibly too vague to be of much use in the contemporary, anal-retentive kitchen. Even a reasonably competent home cook is likely to be uneasy about such instructions as "put some red meat cut into small pieces in a pot with some water. When it is cooked, strain it and brown it in fat" (from a recipe for rutabiyya, or meat with dates).

But even if your brainiac never boils a dollop of honey in a splash of vinegar (medieval Islamic cooking being rich in sweet-sour effects), pleasurable sustenance can be had from the book’s many fascinating historical nuggets: the migratory route of couscous from North Africa through Sicily into Tuscany, for instance, or the Moorish roots (culinary and linguistic) of the dish the Spanish call escabeche, or the religious importance to Muslims of eating meat (other than pork) with most meals. As Zaouali puts it, "One may wonder whether a vegetarian could be admitted to the community of believers."

Of transcendent interest is not the bequest of medieval Islamic cooks to their modern heirs in both the Middle East and Europe but their own debt to the Romans, many of whose ingredients and flavor patterns they adopted and continued. The Roman gastronome Apicius, who lived at the time of Christ, is especially relevant here. For details, consult your stocking.