Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dining and the Sex Trade: A Comparative Dichotomy

There's a reason that food and sex are intertwined in many aspects of our popular culture. There have been recent studies that suggest that food, cooking, and dining become sort of a proxy for the sex that gradually disappears from life as we age. The new, sleek, soft-focus, high-production value programming on The Food Network and its spin-offs reinforce this correlation. Is this a product of greater affluence and ennui? As food becomes "in" and "sexy" and therefore reaches a wider audience, is it imperative that the brainy food-nerd cooking shows and books of the past, when such programming was relegated to weekend mornings on PBS and a tiny corner of the bookstore, be replaced by the immediate gratification of Rachel Ray's apple bottom and Sandra Lee and Giada DeLaurentiis' respective racks? Not to mention Paula Deen's cockslaps of butter and Tyler Florence's panty-dropping chin dimple, all greeting us from the entire cooking wing at Barnes and Noble.

Let's look at this further.

Eating and fucking are, on a good day, total mind-body experiences that transcend their respective immediate physical gratifications. And while we're often able to fulfill our gustatory and sexual needs by ourselves to great effect (dinner for one and self-love being two of life's greatest pleasures) the addition of others can often increase the enjoyment--and in many instances make things more complicated and awkward.

And of course with all things sexual and gustatory, even numbers are better.

But perhaps the most distinctive similarity between eating and sex is how we take the activities out of the privacy of our homes and into the public world--that we're willing to utilize the services of professionals to meet the needs that we're fully capable of fulfilling on our own.

(As a side note, we use the word "fulfill" in describing our food and sexual needs I think because of its prominent compounding of "full" and "fill," two words eminently appropriate for both eating and fucking.)

For the purpose of this writing, the "sex trade" is a fairly broad term not limited to strippers, porno, dildos, and whores. I'm talking about sex-positive sex shops, mens' and womens' magazines of all kinds, sex advice columns and columnists, lingerie, swimwear, boxer briefs, plastic surgery, Abercrombie & Fitch (we sell abs!)--any business that capitalizes in whole or part upon the human preoccupation with increasing the pleasure and frequency of sexual activity. Because let's face it, we can talk all we want about these commodities increasing our self-esteem, but that increase in self-esteem ultimately comes entirely from being viewed as a more sexually attractive animal. It's cool. Roll with it.

Let's examine why we (often eagerly) seek out to exchange our hard-earned symbolic representations of our assets for food and tail.

1. It's more convenient. An acquaintance of mine is a dominatix. She once had a client pay her to put her foot into his butt. Her entire be-latexed foot into his prepared bottom. Let's say you're an otherwise normal, healthy individual with a stable home life and good job, but every now and then you need a foot in your butt. What's easier, trying to explain to your partner your desire to have a foot in your butt, or going out a few times a year, shelling out some money and discretely indulging in your secret pleasure?

I love good sauces, like a good mole or slow-simmered Indian entree, but when I feel like indulging in one of these dishes it's easier to shell out the money at a good Mexican or Indian restaurant then attempt to seek out the dozens of spices and slow-cook my food for twelve hours.

While it might be rewarding to learn to cook chana masala on your own and it might be rewarding to share your foot-in-butt fetish with your committed partner, unless your cravings for either occur on a daily basis it's probably simpler and more comfortable to leave it in the hands of professionals. Enjoy those simple, comfortable workhorse dishes at home with loved ones. And hell, definitely be adventurous with your non-remunerated partners--try out that rare artisan ingredient or exciting new bundt pan with the same titillating eagerness as a new vibrator or kama sutra position. But if you find yourself deviating into the aforementioned foot-in-butt and beyond, probably best to take that to the dungeon.

A corollary: unless you're a drug-addled rock star you probably don't want to be married to a coked-up stripper but unless you live in a Mormon cave (and even then....) you've probably enjoyed a lap dance from one. It's easy, refreshing, and probably won't result in having your bank account cleaned out and your kids grow up to be junior development executives for basic cable, things that would no doubt happen were you to marry the stripper.

Lastly--just throwing this out there--you don't pay a prostitute for sex, you pay for him or her to leave afterward. See? Convenience!

2. It's cleaner. Building on that previous idea, it could be said that we don't go out to eat for the food, we go out to eat to have somebody else clean up afterward. This is why rich people have man-servants. Rich people are inherently more noble and shouldn't have to get their hands dirty.

Do you really want to clean that out of your jacuzzi or wipe that off of your foot? Professionals of all kinds have the experience, tools, cleaning products, brass polish, insurance policies, and changes of clothes to deal with the gustatory and excretory problems that may arise from their lines of work. Because even if you're cooking the simplest pasta dish, you're still going to have some dirty dishes afterward and it's just so much more relaxing to not have to deal with that.

And it's also cleaner for a variety of socio-emotional reasons touched on in the previous entry and that I'll touch on in the following entry.

3. It eliminates personal responsibility. I would argue this is the most significant reason for the seemingly growing popularity of dining and sexing-up outside the home. If we cook food in our own home and it sucks, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. When I talk to people about why they don't cook, fear of failure underlies any reason that they give. And as with anything, if we don't keep reading, studying, learning, and experimenting, we'll never get better. I don't mean the quick-fix open a can and heat "cooking" that you get from Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee, but actual intuitive from-scratch cooking.

If we go out to eat and we don't like the food, we can call it somebody else's fault. If we turn ourselves over to the vicissitudes of dining trends and prepackaged commodities, we eliminate the vitality that personal opinion, culture, region, and taste plays in how we enjoy food. Fear of sexual inadequacy underlies almost every human insecurity so no wonder we like to trust "experts" and "techniques" instead of "our bodies" when it comes to sex and relationships, because then it's the technique's fault and we don't have to actually do anything ourselves.

But If we turn our sex lives over to guidebooks, videos, Carrie Bradshaw, and "hot tips" from Cosmo, we eliminate the personal responsibility of being in tune with our own bodies, tastes, and pleasures. Not to mention it creates the presumption that all men like some degree of anal stimulation, a gross exaggeration perpetrated by womens' magazines. Food magazines also seem to suggest that we as a people are way into tiny "slider"-type sandwiches. This is (or at least should be) a similarly gross exaggeration. That's right loyal readers, gourmet sliders equals a finger on the prostate.

Moving responsibility for sexual fulfillment over to movies, clothing, advertisements, jewelry, and (oh what's this?) food allows us to sidestep the actual problems. We're too fat. We're no longer attractive to or attracted by our partner. We're not good at sex. We come too soon. We're just not sexually compatible with our current partner. We can't cook chicken without it drying out. We don't know how to clean mushrooms. We don't even know where to begin to make a pie crust. So let's go buy a new car. Or a diamond necklace. Or have a couple children. And let's go to Zuni. Or the truffle dinner at Oliveto. Or finally eat at the French Laundry (sort of the dining equivalent of two $10,000 Vegas call girls and a kilo of coke).

But you might find, just maybe, that learning how to cook really well and learning how to fuck really well will enrich your life in ways that can't be made proxy. We're talking about a critical learning experience here though. It takes effort. You need to learn how to do the things you aren't good at, not find versions of things to do that fit better with what you're already able to do. Try. Error. Learn. Get better. What's great about both cooking and fucking is that the processes are a hell of a lot of fun and worth doing a lot.

4. It's fun. And this is what it all comes down to, doesn't it? There are plenty of people who can cook really well and fuck like champs who still love the French Laundry and a good coke orgy.

Plenty of happily married people still love flirting, strip clubs, and pornography because, hell, it's just a lot of fun. They fulfill (there's the word again) needs that, without placing judgment, cannot be met by a home-cooked meal or a home-fucked partner, no matter how good the respective meal or partner. To the same tune, a loving stable partner and a fabulous home-cooked meal fill voids that no Perfect 10 model or twelve-course tasting menu can.

But going out to eat and being treated well in a beautiful space with the added reward of a spectacular meal is a blast. Going to a tastefully appointed gentleman's club to enjoy a beverage and discuss the issues of the day, while beautiful scantily-clad women with daddy issues dance to earn money to open their tanning salon is a lot of fun. They're also our Allah-given rights as Americans.

So I'm saying it's not all doom and gloom. Four star restaurants and hookers are not telltale signs of a collapsing civilization, even if they might be better indicators than gay marriage and teen pregnancy. In fact, I'd argue that going out to eat and the sex industry are not just parts of, but essential to a functional modern democracy--there's a reason that market regulation and liberalization of the sex trade is a hallmark of virtually every developed country in the world and there are very few Michelin-starred restaurants in countries' whose GDP per capita is less then dinner for four at the Ritz-Carlton (cf. sarcasm). They're market-driven animals that fill gaping voids in our aimless, postmodern societies. Of course they also filled gaping voids in our aimless, god-fearing societies of yesteryear too.

Pulitzer Prize nominating committee, this has been humbly submitted for your approval.

Monday, October 22, 2007

HFF Quickie: Peet's Kenya Auction Lot

I'm not really a coffee person, but thanks to a couple of coffee-addicted housemates I've come to appreciate its stimulating effects. Coffee's also definitely gotten me through some long night in a way that tea or even energy drinks don't.

But for the same reason that I rarely drink cocktails in favor of beer and wine is the same reason I limit my daily coffee--instead of the reliably measured doses of alcohol and caffeine in beer and tea respectively I get the unpredictable hits from alcohol and coffee, also respectively. One cup of coffee and I'm still asleep, two and my heart's racing. One manhattan and I'm not even buzzed, two manhattans and I'm calling the maitre'd a pigfucker.

Plus I just think tea tastes better. It's a more interesting, contemplative experience. And I can always knock back a pint of Lipton's if I need to get wired.

But every now and then I'll stumble across a coffee that is really freakin' good. Peet's Kenya Auction Lot is the best I've had in my admittedly limited experience.

I brewed it in a French press, let the coffee sit for a couple minutes, pressed and poured. The cup had an almost espresso-like crema. The coffee is one of the mildest I've had from Peet's but with nice complexity, toasty and bright like light rye bread spread with a thin thin layer of orange marmalade.

And despite its lofty origins as Peet's' select lot from Kenya coffee auctions, the price is in line with most of their beans at $13.95 a pound.

Mild and eminently drinkable with respectable complexity.

Drink it today!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Weird Fish - San Francisco, Ca

Why do we fetishize inexpensiveness, particularly in dining? When most people have a decent sit-down meal of competently prepared food and get out the door for less than $20 it's not enough to go "Well, that was pleasant," but they actually try to assert some gustatory transcendence over their experience that is immeasurably enhanced because they saved a few bucks.

The Chronicle's "Bargain Bites" is full of lots of pleasant unremarkable restaurants of little interest to me. Of the many that I have eaten at, I'll definitely give Vik's Chaat Corner some respect, and I've had a couple rather excellent meals at Udupi Palace, even if I did feel like I sitting on a chair made entirely of staphylococcus bacteria. Zand's is decidedly mediocre--including serving reconstituted hummus. I've seen the boxes. Why Sophia, one of my personal favorite inexpensive spots, never makes this list I don't know. Cactus Taqueria makes me want to kill people, but that's primarily because of the poorly behaved and even more poorly parented children splashing around in the fountain while I'm trying to eat. Saigon Sandwiches is tasty.

Best bargain bites in my book are Lanesplitter Pizza and Daimo's late-night dim sum. Royal Tofu House in Pleasanton is also excellent and wicked cheap. You won't find these on the Chronicle list.

A few nights ago I found myself at one of the Chronicle's new "bargain bites," Weird Fish.

I'd heard nothing but phenomenal things about this fish and vegan restaurant in the Mission. Excellent sides, great fresh fish, really cheap, etc.

After dining there I was left thinking, hm that was pleasant. Although my entree was quite terrible. But we'll get to that.

The restaurant is small and mostly two-tops so our party of five had a while to wait. This place was freakin' packed on a Wednesday night.

Weird Fish's wine list was tiny--a half-dozen each whites and reds--but they were all fairly fun and eclectic selections. Not the usual grocery-store selections that places like this often have. We had an excellent kabinett riesling and a Languedoc rose.

We kicked off with a round of fried appetizers--pickles, "buffalo wings," and green beans.
The pickles were pretty great, crunchy on the outside and salty crisp on the inside. I was even more impressed by the buffalo wings--fried fingers of catfish tossed in a slightly spicy buffalo sauce. That was pretty fun. The green beans had good flavor but were a bit over-battered and soggy at times.

Entree round. Everything I tried from others' plates was tasty. Cornmeal-crusted trout was quite good. Sauteed spinach with dates was great, as was yams mashed with coconut milk. French fries (potato and yam) were pleasant. The fish taco was excellent, but impossible to eat as a taco.

My entree, however, was god-awful. I opted for the "suspicious fish dish," which is a secret special each night. The server will not disclose what it is or much about it in general. Sounded fun.

The dish ended up being sort of a Mediterranean tilapia ensemble. The only pleasant part was the spinach and date side. The fish was crusted in pungent (and stale-tasting) lemon pepper and then buried in an even more tart lemon sauce with salty-salty black olives. It just tasted like tart and salt. Oh and there was a giant mound of white rice in the middle. Yay. Compared to the other entree options on the menu, this was pretty damn boring, ill-thought, and poorly executed. They'll need to step this up if they're going to be known for their "suspicious fish dish" as the Weird Fish website proclaims.

Desserts were a highlight. The chocolate pecan pie was one of the finest examples of that genre that I've had, and the fried bananas were retarded good.

So Weird Fish had pretty decent food and the overall experience was pleasant. It definitely wasn't remarkably cheap--we ended up spending about $40 a person out the door. Plus. the ingredients that they use are very very inexpensive. Weird Fish's fish are trout, tilapia, and catfish, as well as oysters and squid. With the exception of oysters, those are four of the cheapest fish you can buy. Seriously--we're talking $3-$4 a pound tops (and that's retail) and Weird Fish serves about six ounces or so in their entrees (a pretty standard portion). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Catfish is one of my favorite fish. My point is merely that Weird Fish's inexpensiveness can be largely attributed to the minimal cost of their ingredients. We're not talking $20+ a pound sustainable wild salmon or halibut. Additionally, the produce relies heavily on tubers, spinach, plantains, and green beans, all of which are cheap even in their most rarefied organic incarnations.

So my ultimate criticism? Weird Fish is charging money for something that I can readily do at home for dirt cheap. Trout, cornmeal, and plantains be cheap, yo. Crusting and pan-frying fish is one of the easiest ways to make a tasty dinner. Saute some spinach and mash up a couple yams with some coconut milk and you have a Weird Fish entree.

Unlike going out to a more expensive place and spending $25 on an entree that would cost me pretty close to that to prepare at home once I tracked down the hard-to-find ingredients and made up for the fact that I'd have to buy more than I actually needed, I'm spending $12 at Weird Fish for a meal I can prepare quickly with ingredients that'd cost me $5 at Trader Joe's or Safeway. Does that save me money? Is that really a bargain?

And isn't that what most "bargain bites" provide? Simple food for cheap that you can prepare even more cheaply at home if you had the time and inclination. That's it folks. It's nothing magical. Every now and then you will find that family diner or hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant that is offering something a bit more insightful, but that's rare.

So enjoy your neighborhood spots. It's always nice to have places to go to have a nice tasty dinner that doesn't break the bank. But let's be realistic folks, it's nothing more than that.

Weird Fish
2193 Mission St.
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Reservations: None

Monday, October 08, 2007

HFF Quickie: IKEA Restaurant

The on-site restaurant is a veritable institution in most other countries. Museums, department stores, cultural sites, landmarks, all have places to eat. We're not talking the obligatory snack bar with lukewarm hot dogs, dry chicken breasts, peanuts, and so many frozen bananas that you find in America but an honest sit down cafeteria with a selection of premade entrees and sides and a few cooked or nearly cooked to order dishes.

Why is that? A lot of Berkeley people will tell you that it's because Europeans have a magical connection to food and they value truly eating much more highly than Americans. Berkeley people know that they are better than other Americans because they understand this too. Berkeley people understand why Europeans need fancy food in close proximity to their priceless works of art.

Berkeley people are douche bags.

What a cafeteria does is it keeps visitors on location longer where they'll hopefully spend more money and "make a day of it."

But I'd also argue that cafeterias are simply better because they are awesome. Food kept impeccably styled and warm over steamers and heat lamps has a certain pleasure to it. I think it's because it's cooked boringly by machines instead of poorly by human beings.

Anyway, you can go to IKEA and experience this pleasure.

What did we eat? I had the gravlax platter which was decent, surprisingly unsalty, and fairly flavorless. This was probably due to the lack of curing, the mediocre quality of the salmon, and the frigidly cold temperature at which I pulled it from the reach-in. I also had a side of mac and cheese which was better than most shit out of a box and it was 99 cents. Girlfriend Charlie had the steamed salmon entree which was firm and well-cooked, though the whole dish had a sort of monochromatic character that was discomfiting. Roommate James had the meatball platter with lingonberries. The meatballs were pleasantly there and didn't make us wish that they weren't. Highlights actually were the two desserts, a simple mild almond tart and a thick slice of apple crumb pie. Well-spiced and pleasantly textured.

The IKEA restaurant wasn't particularly good, but it was particularly cheap. And in the world of cafeteria food it was better than most. The restaurant's also freshly remodeled. And did I mention cheap?

It's not worth a stop just for lunch. I mean, this isn't Costco. But if you're letting your soul gradually drip out your anus while you shop for Flergens and Merqins at IKEA, might as well stop in for some meatballs and salmon for less than $10 and call it a party.

IKEA Restaurant gets a reluctant HFF stamp of approval.

IKEA Restaurant
4400 Shellmound St.
2nd Floor
Emeryville, Ca 94608
Open daily 9:30AM-8PM