Lessons on how to live from the NYT food section
Lots of people in this lamentable world are up to no good. In a diabolic cubicle somewhere, someone is busily conjuring up next-generation bomb technology. Somewhere else, a cynic is figuring out where to tap the next huge store of crude oil, to be sold at great profit by an oil company that won’t be responsible for the carbon it releases.
Right now, someone is mindlessly sidling up to a car-dealership counter, about to pay big bucks for a monstrous SUV — perhaps a hokey E85 one. Or plotting some unspeakable — and no doubt quite profitable — betrayal.
Then there’s the folks who get up and go to work and do … what all day? Those mid-level types in giant corporate and government cube farms, not the ones making or executing the evil decisions, but the ones who sit around all day pecking at their keyboards — what is it that they do, again?
Seems insane to me, this vast effort and energy spent going to and fro, all to such ambiguous end.
The obsessives portrayed in Wednesday’s New York Times Dining in/Dining Out section — New York espresso nerds and a mad-genuis Catalan chef — seem much more benign to me. Perhaps we have something to learn from them.
New York is a pretty grim place to get a cup of coffee. Generally, you’ve got your deli swill, and you’ve got your computer-programmed corporate swill. Neither will really do, not even in a pinch.
Luckily, as NYT’s Peter Meehan documents, a tiny vanguard of committed baristas are opening shops there.
They tend to be from Seattle, they tend to set up shop either in the East Village or Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they tend to be heavily tattooed, and they’re all absolutely obsessed with the details of pulling a proper espresso shot.
I’ve been to two of the cafes Meehan profiles: Ninth Street Espresso in the East Village and Gimme Coffee! in Williamsburg. I can testify the espresso shots they’re pulling in those places are breathtaking: dense, concentrated, not bitter at all, full of flavors like chocolate, caramelized sugar: not delivered by some unspeakable flavored syrup, just precisely calibrated steam forced through a precisely calibrated “puck” of ground coffee.
And the guys who pull the shots, well, they’re serious fellows. You might get a bright smile from a Starbucks worker walking the company line, but the guys in NY’s new-wave coffeehouses are too busy frowning at the espresso machine, fussing over the shot, for such niceties.
Here’s the sort of thing Sheehan gleaned from them for his story:
If they can, cafes will adjust the temperature on their machines to match the coffee they’re brewing. Gimme! brews its house blend, Leftist, at 198 degrees. Ninth Street Espresso, which has been featuring beans from the North Carolina cafe Counter Culture Coffee for the past few weeks, has turned up the setting to 203 degrees from 201.5 degrees. Baristas decide on temperatures after cupping (lingo for tasting) a few rounds of a specific coffee brewed at a range of temperatures.
I’m well aware of the environmental and economic ravages our coffee fetish wreaks in the global south. Gregory Dicum, writing in the Spring 2003 Gastronomica (reprinted here) documented them quite well. (Every cup of coffee you drink, he writes, “represents a plot of land a little bigger than [a standard] magazine.”)
Yet if we drink it as mindfully these NY coffee guys demand that we do (and you really wouldn’t want more than two of their shots per day), and if we buy fair trade and organic, than it’s probably a sustainable indulgence. Right?
Meanwhile, over in Spain’s Catalan coast, a chef named Ferran Adria spends his days conjuring new ways to astonish and flummox his patrons. The great Mark Bittman, author of the Times’ weekly “Minimalist” cooking column and many indispensable cookbooks, has a brief profile of Adria in Wednesday’s Times.
In 1997, Michelin awarded Adria’s then-obscure restaurant with a third star, its highest rating. The high-end food world has never been the same again. Transforming unlikely stuff like scallops into foam — a practice now widely imitated — is the least of Adria’s provocations.
Here are some others: a chicken curry in which the chicken is liquid and the curry is solid. “Parmeson snow, served in a stylishly wrapped plastic-foam box — the better to keep it cold — and topped with of all things, muesli with dried fruit.”
“Caviar” — made from olive oil. Properly for a Spaniard, Adria is particularly enamored of the olive as medium. In one dish, he also liquifies olives, puts them through God knows what machine, and transforms them into olive-shaped orbs with a microthin skin — of solidified olive juice.
Adria spends his winters holed up in a Barcelona lab with his brother, “experimenting” with food to create his dishes. Would you rather have this mad man working on, say, the next cluster bomb?
Adria, like NY’s new-wave baristas, is earnestly making art out of what seems at first glance as the mundane, the quotidian. (“Adria doesn’t rely at all on fancy ingredients,” Bittman reports.)
To answer a recent question posed by David Roberts about happiness vs. GDP, if our vast horde of cube dwellers and evildoers began to devote themselves to similar pursuits, we’d have a more benign, and less toxic, society.