Issuu on Google+

Above: Yup’ik fishermen harvest keta salmon on Alaska’s Yukon River Delta. ©

2008

Seafood Show on the morning after our king salmon dinner, I stopped at a booth that sold eel and asked what kind of food these farm-raised eel from China were raised on. The answer boggled the mind for all that it said about the global fish trade and the plight of these Eskimos: Alaskan pollock.

Shifting Fortunes kaitlin bell

After I moved to New York a couple of years ago, I entertained myself on long walks by peeking through restaurant windows, a kind of food-inflected people-watching. I liked to size up the patrons, especially my peers, young professionals in their twenties and early thirties whose main social currency involved trading stories over lavish tapas spreads and sangria or Kobe burgers and microbrews. But since last fall’s economic meltdown,

my vicarious dining experiences have taken on a new, gloomy character. I gradually began to notice empty tables on weeknights. A year earlier, I might have dismissed one night’s low attendance as an aberration; now I find myself trying to account for the people who used to fill those seats. On weekends the trendy downtown restaurants are still buzzing with dolled-up young professionals starting their nights out. The crowds are both reassuring and slightly unnerving. Many of these restaurant patrons are still employed as lawyers, bankers, business consultants, and publicists. Others, hanging on to their jobs tenuously, are probably looking for a last hurrah. The rest have no doubt been laid off and are merely pretending nothing has changed. But everything has changed. For the junior Wall Streeters at the epicenter of the economic boom

SU M M E R 2009

photograph by jon rowley

3 GASTRONOMICA

salmon bycatch issue. Although the pollock fishery has the reputation of having an extremely low bycatch rate (about 1 percent), because the fishery is so large—an average of 2.5 billion pounds of these white fish are caught every year—even a very low rate translates into a great deal of king salmon. Both organizations agree that there are many possible methods of redressing the bycatch situation. The pollock industry has been working to develop a salmon extruder, which will allow salmon to escape through the top of the net during the tow. Fishing locations could be put off-limits at sensitive times. Another solution is to close the pollock fishery down for the year after a certain, limited number of salmon have been caught. The Yup’ik are pressing for a limit of thirty-two thousand king salmon a year, the average annual bycatch between 1992 and 2001. So there is hope for these Yup’ik fishermen and women. But they are a small voice, and the pollock fisheries are huge. As I walked around the


SU M M E R 2009

First we go through the metal detector and then we are patted down for junk food.

GASTRONOMICA

4

and bust—the ones laid off in such large numbers early in the downturn—work and fine food went together. My friends and acquaintances reminisce about company-paid dinners with their bosses at Nobu, one-hundred-dollar-a-head catered luncheons for clients, and generous food allowances for working late. Even when the company wasn’t picking up the tab, they thought nothing of eating out most nights, or else ordering in, which in New York involves many more options than just cheap Chinese takeout. At restaurants, some cared less about the food than the scene, but others actually developed a taste for charcuterie and foie gras, even though not so long ago they had been scarfing down fries in the dining hall or making ramen in their dorm kitchens.

Now, people who aren’t used to compromises are compromising. A friend who works at a large international bank and whose bonus was slashed last year now eats out only on weekends. The rest of the time he boils pasta and heats up prepared sauce in his studio apartment or picks up a to-go container of grilled salmon and creamed spinach from Zabar’s. Not severe privations, but a lifestyle shift nonetheless. Another friend, laid off from his job at a hedge fund, settles for tuna sandwiches at lunch. But he and his fiancée, a chef in a magazine test kitchen, haven’t given up eating out altogether; it provides a necessary escape. On Valentine’s Day they went out for gourmet pizza. Until recently, byo restaurants were rare in Manhattan and, among certain of my friends, at least, consid-

ered slightly tacky (this from people who previously had drunk mainly out of kegs!). Suddenly, byo is a revelation and a selling point. Food blogs compile lists of such places, gleefully noting those with no corkage fee. They also list places that give away free pizza with a drink order, the way they once touted Lower Manhattan’s faux speakeasies. Some of the bars used to offer free pizza before the downturn, but this deal now seems less a gimmick than an appealing part of the zeitgeist, like the proliferation of prixfixe menus and “recession specials.” It’s a long way from fourteen-dollar retro cocktails at a reservations-only bar to a pitcher and a free slice, but at least people aren’t drowning their sorrows on an empty stomach. Some compromises will have to wait. Weekend brunch, that great New


joshua david stein

Chances are that a hundred and twenty years from now no one will be toasting Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist and currently inmate number 27593-112 at the Cumberland Correctional Facility in Maryland. On the other hand, Mr. Abramoff didn’t invent a cocktail, wasn’t friends with any poets, and didn’t throw the most culinarily complex dinner parties on Capitol Hill. Late nineteenthcentury gourmand and “King of the Lobbyists” Sam Ward did. And so, last March, culinary historians, septuagenarians, and the press were invited to the National Arts Club on New York City’s Gramercy Park for the Samuel J. Tilden Memorial Dinner Celebrating the Life of Sam Ward. Tickets were $ 125; the courses numbered fourteen. Like Renaissance Faires, culinary reenactments attract a niche group of aficionados. The ideal dinner guest should have a love for strangely prepared salmon and even stranger remarks, be a stickler for historical accuracy, own white-tie eveningwear, and be willing to deploy it on a Monday night. Oh, and he should have the stamina of an ox: Our dinner began at 7:30 and ended well past midnight. Who exactly is this Sam Ward to warrant such a grandiose feast? En

and the wine—Moët et Chandon Grand Crémant Imperial—turned into less pricey bottlings. This is not to say that the meal wasn’t elegant. An opening salvo of oysters yielded quickly to Turban de Saumon, Sauce Crème, a molded salmon dish with an elaborate hatelet rising from the center on which were impaled mushrooms, potato cubes, and a shrimp. Then came roast beef with french fries which, as culinary historian Cathy Kaufman assured us, “were not considered fast food then. They were very luxurious.” Chicken Sauté à la Sam Ward followed: a chicken breast topped with a cream sauce studded with mushrooms and bits of bacon. The chicken—one of Ward’s signature dishes—was accompanied by canned peas, leading to murmurs of concern among those present. Kaufman stemmed our wine-soaked indignation: “In the 1880s canned petit pois might have been the most elegant way of serving them because the idea of having a canned vegetable would have a very new ring to it.” By the time the Roman Punch— a sweet lemon sorbet flavored with champagne and rum—arrived eight courses into the meal, dessert seemed like an ever-retreating mirage. A stolid roasted pheasant and a large romaine salad still stood in our way. Not to mention the Stilton Cheese Soufflé à la Sam Ward, the Walnut Pudding, and the Thousand Layer Cake we would have to plow through before greenhouse grapes, coffee, cognac, and the promise of sleep could be considered. By the time the closing remarks were delivered it was well past midnight, but it wasn’t until much later that I fully began to digest the truth of the maxim that waiting is the greatest part of diplomacy, culinary or otherwise.

SU M M E R 2009

Culinary Diplomacy

bref, Sam Ward was the ultimate schmoozer. Born in 1814 into a fortune— his father was a partner at the banking house of Prince, Ward & King—Ward gallivanted around Europe and dwelt in Paris for a number of years after graduating from Columbia College. In France he sopped up French culinary techniques, attracted friends of great fame and intellect, and acquired tastes well beyond his not exactly meager means. Ward returned to the States in 1837 with an arsenal of anecdotes, a web of celebrity acquaintances, and a gullet full of tastes from the Old World never before seen in the New. In short order, he ran his father’s business to the ground, moved to San Francisco, made a fortune, lost a fortune in a fire, moved back to New York, and, in 1865, appeared in Washington, D.C. There he proved John Adams’s aphorism-cumcatechism that “The shortest road to men’s hearts is down their throats.” According to his obituary in the May 20, 1884 edition of the New York Times, Ward was the “gastronomical pacificator.” At his dinner table, at least, political rivals were in accord. While Ward’s staff prepared turban of salmon and milles-feuilles, he subtly pushed the agenda of his various employers. His dinner guests left full of food but also having imbibed the interests of the railroad men, banks, charter applicants, and patent pretenders who had hired Ward. According to Kathryn Allamong Jacob, a scholar writing a book on Ward, no delicacy was too extravagant for him. For the Culinary Arts Committee of the National Arts Club, however, some were. In many of the courses concessions had to be made to economic concerns. Canvasback ducks and plover became chicken. Potage tortue vert à l’anglaise deturtled itself into Consommé à la Royale,

5 GASTRONOMICA

York yuppie tradition, seems to have retained its appeal. In the Upper East and West sides, Park Slope, and other popular brunching neighborhoods, clusters of slightly hungover-looking twenty-somethings still form lines that wind down the block. It seems that the opportunity to share the previous evening’s exploits—and, lately, to staunch the pain of employment woes with comfort food—is too enticing to relinquish just yet.


Shifting Fortunes