Cups and lids.

Coffee-Survey-Gear-Patrol-City-Bakery-768x591

First there was this beautifully photographed survey, to remind me how singular the City Bakery coffee cup is, how brilliant an artifact of caffeine consumption. These cups can be so loaded with meaning that it was important enough for Christina and me to spring for the iconic “We Are Happy To Serve You” cups for drinks served at our own wedding.

And then there is its obliging companion: the plastic gateway that tends to be the drinker’s interface with the cup. Cups are all style – branded vessels in standard sizes, differentiated by color and typography. But lids are functionally different humble masterpieces in a way that cups almost never dare to be. Lids are circular wireframes, down to microcopy (CAUTION CONTENTS HOT).

What half-awake studies of user experience design we could have, starting at $1.

Related: I really would like one of these silkscreen prints by Christoph Niemann.

kaffee_siebdruck03sm-498x498

Tender is the chicken.

This may not be the critical/nostalgic text on chicken tenders we need, but it’s the one we deserve.

Like a diatribe on the Happy Meal extracted from True Detective, it’s not hard to imagine some of Helen Rosner’s passages drawled by a latter-day Matthew McConaughey:

Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland. It’s a circle. A cloudless sky. An unmarked page. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s glorious, and it usually comes with fries.

It’s true that ribeyes and oysters and even pizza and tacos share a soothing simplicity, but nothing is more nothing than a chicken tender.

Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe.

I am not ashamed to say that I indulge in chicken tenders, though I disagree with Rosner’s dismissal of panko as a breading ingredient and her disdain for dipping sauces. At home, I dredge my chicken in a mix of flour and panko, and I serve them topped with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and a dipping sauce of equal parts Huy Fong sriracha sauce and Heinz ketchup. I’ll often eat them with white rice but find their ideal complement in a scoop of Hawaiian mac salad or a homemade Cæsar salad. It’s all very fancy, to be sure.

My recipe aside, the essay itself is sublime. Much like a plate of chicken tenders, I personally find it pretty satisfying (fully aware that others don’t), but I’m never quite sure if it’s meant to be taken totally seriously. The tone of its prose and its publication in Guernica lend the dish a heretofore unknown gravity, though it’s not unearned: perhaps the most confounding assertion in the piece is that chicken tenders only reached ubiquity in the 1990s. The very idea of breaded-and-fried chicken tenderloins seems so elemental to my palette that it astounds me to think that Auguste Escoffier’s codification of mother sauces predates it by at least three generations.

At a wedding Christina and I attended last year, as we dined on what we now recognize as the standard “wedding meal” – a mixed green salad, a pretty-if-unsatisfying course of protein, and a buckshot-patterned buffet of desserts (ordered by stationery several months in advance) – one of the children at the next table was served a plate of chicken tenders with a pile of fries. Rosner knows exactly how we felt in that moment:

Their ubiquity on kids’ menus isn’t a mark against their perfection, but rather proof of it: the kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live. Pizza, hot dogs, spaghetti. But king of all perfect foods is the chicken tender.

Ubiquitous yellow band.

ESUOH ELFFAW

Had I never lived in the Mid-Atlantic, I would’ve never developed a proper appreciation for Waffle House.

While I’ve eaten there several times – the last time between Christina’s shift and mine behind the wheel of a rented cargo truck on the morning we moved her stuff from Virginia to New York – I certainly don’t carry a torch for their food.

Instead, I find myself pretty consistently in awe of other parts of their business model. Their plate marking system is a remarkably economic form of workflow management. The Waffle House index is a real FEMA scale for evaluating the severity of damage from a natural disaster.

And today, I picked up this piece in the Atlantic CityLab on their iconic architecture, interior design, and typography – and how a new location on Canal Street in New Orleans is slated to diverge from it by replacing the “ubiquitous yellow band” with “a ‘bistro courtyard’ encircled by a wrought-iron fence,” “stucco and brownish brick on the outside, and a gate next to the parking lot.”

Michael Bierut’s riffs on the design of public transit logos (also a great read) also apply to my qualms about Waffle House’s new visual direction:

I would say that consistency is more important than cleverness. Consistency is actually really hard to achieve. Cleverness is a cheap commodity.

And he continues:

You get distinctiveness by doing anything. Then if you wanted to make it memorable and appropriate, making that point of distinction plausibly mean something is the next step.

That distinction, in the case of Waffle House, probably has a lot to do with this (from this Journal article):

The Waffle House, which spends almost nothing on advertising, has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate.

Though I have not been affected by natural disasters these last ten years, those eleven yellow tiles hovering in the air at the turnpike’s edge have come to mean a lot to me – and it would seem to other people too. It meant (among other things) that on a Saturday morning as I’d had a two-hour nap and Christina’s alertness was fading, we knew where we could stop for a cheap, hot breakfast – two more hours till we arrived in the future.

Photo credit: “ESOUH ELFFAW” by Christina.

Grass-fed.

Whenever I hear the words “grass-fed cheeseburger,” I imagine a cheeseburger, cooked, on a bun, topped with lettuce, tomato, and whatnot, being fed grass.

Kind of like this:

Drawing of a cheeseburger eating grass

Pounder.

Yesterday I learned that an alternate name for a tallboy is a “pounder.” Which as far as I’m concerned is a brilliant (and rare) single-word double entendres.

My first interpretation was that a sixteen-ounce can of beer is an ideal format for “pounding,” or sport drinking. But it is a sixteen-ounce can.

A pounder weighs a pound!

Will letter for lunch.

Totally into the Will Letter for Lunch ethos: “Whatever you want me to write is exactly what you’ll pay.”

It’s a good way to get I’d-never-eat-at-a-restaurant-with-a-menu-set-in-Comic-Sans types like me in the door, for one. For another, I happily support the application of hand-lettering in daily life.

While her work is not stylistically in my zone, I’m especially fond of the layout of “East Coast Oysters” she did for Docklands.

The cronut at room temperature.

Three articles I read this week closely represent each an end of the tripole of my preferred brand of food writing: literary in tone, obsessive about material details, concerned with packaging and its relationship to social experience and individual perception, and occasionally referencing dead Brits in a way that portends doom for humanity.

The Art of Our Necessities: A Cronut Story in The Paris Review glimpses the phenomenon of the cronut through a kind of literary anthropology, using a framework of observations from an early morning in SoHo to write about food fads and what compels people to participate in them, replete with sensual details like the noise of “cardboard hitting the ground,” with references to King Lear, Sex and the City, and contemporary art.

How 500 Years Of Weird Condiment History Designed The Heinz Ketchup Bottle in Fast Company is (despite its awful linkbait-y headline) a thoughtful if digressive digest on the history of tomato ketchup and how contemporary (and western) expectations of this condiment evolved, particularly through the intervention of the Heinz company. Ketchup’s background as a kind of Chinese fish sauce makes the banana ketchup that so many non-Filipinos have found exotic (and so many people with functional retinal cones have found unnaturally red) seem somewhat apropos in a longer chronological context. Also: it’s a non-Newtonian fluid! Ketchup parties!

Take this quote on the cronut (emphasis mine):

There’s a thrill to such a futile enterprise, especially something so famously futile and so crassly specific to this day, age, and city. Other food fads will emerge—as the summer wanes, the ramen burger and doughnut ice cream sandwiches already sport long queues. And then, the moment passes. Other food hybrids, like bagel bites and pigs in a blanket, were probably once wondrous, too. Cronuts may too find their place in the freezer aisle in a few years, but for now, those who wait for hours or pay a laughable amount of money to eat them do it in a state of utter giddiness.

And compare it with this quote on ketchup:

A bottle of Heinz isn’t just a container of ketchup. It’s a design classic because of everything besides the ketchup it manages to bottle up: not just the history of a condiment or an object lesson in non-Newtonian physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent.

I re-read Arcadia a couple weeks ago (for perhaps the dozenth time) and these two articles brought this quote to mind rather quickly:

Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we’re all going to end up at room temperature.

And while Nikkitha Bakshani’s text on cronuts spells out a fate for them not dissimilar from pigs in a blanket* – packaged beveled-text and cartoon characters suburban shoppers can recognize from TV commercials – this outcome is hardly certain.

In the Washington Post’s profile of Goya foods, a Goya executive told a “cautionary tale” about General Mills’ Progresso soup brand that seems salient in the context of the fate of cronuts and other spectacular limited-edition things on the verge of either going supernova or earning a GIF in a Buzzfeed memorial on the other side of the shark:

Progresso in its day, the 1950s and 1960s, was the Goya of Italian food. And now what is Progresso? It’s a soup company. … They were lulled into believing “yes, go through the major chains, don’t have a single focus, we’ll take these items only.” For two or three years, sales were booming, and after that, they started to decline. Then it became a question of the chain saying, “We don’t need all these items, let’s get rid of them.” You lose your authenticity. It becomes, “Well, we don’t really need you anymore, there’s all these other lines. You’re not that special. You’ve lost your reason for being.”

While the cronut may yet ascend to commonplace novelty or be a footnote to the cupcake swell of the mid-to-late ’00s, the story of Progresso/Goya offers a third way: growth through a market niche, especially those niches in new multitudes of hybrid spaces. Goya (and Huy Fong, for another) exploits burgeoning pockets of American hybridity expertly (even if in the latter case, inadvertently), and while its niche springs from ethnic hybridity, the appeal of Ansel’s cronut is arguably rooted in the economic hybridity inherent in high-low aesthetics, dosed with a borderline-fetishistic scarcity (200 per day, 2 per person, 1 flavor per month) relative to demand.

Further, while Bakshani posits “the pulsing question behind Dominique Ansel’s invention is not How did he think of that? It’s Why didn’t anybody else?,” I’d argue that there was probably an economic or technological barrier that Ansel recently felled, perhaps a way of treating the viennoiserie or tweaking known techniques of frying doughnuts.

And the fate for these kinds of rare ideas is almost always diffusion, but there is a difference between the diffusion of an idea – you take croissant dough! but you fry it like a doughnut! – or the diffusion of an actual product: The Cronut™ (it is actually trademarked) with all its inherent supply-chain economy/environment-upending side effects, clean factories, and beautiful packaging, stacked in palettes in Costco freezers, an aisle over from the Heinz tomato ketchup and Goya black beans, somehow no longer special. Perhaps someone decades from now will pass along a story to their colleagues about the ritual that defined the genesis of the cronut in our present day and its long and winding path to ubiquity, perhaps after they have polished off two at an office birthday party, where a lukewarm half-dozen remain on a tray dotted with sticky crumbs on a countertop in an unloved office-park kitchenette.

And with regards to Arcadia: it’s all trivial – cronuts, ketchup, canned goods, 20th-century British drama. It’s what we line up at daybreak for that makes us matter.

*Pandas in a blanket

A variation (dare I say innovation?) on a freezer-section classic developed by Christina and me; this has become our go-to for potlucks. We use the pre-made crescent roll pastry that’s available near the dairy section of most supermarkets but swap out American-style cocktail wieners or hot dogs with Chinese sausage. Dot the inside of the pastry with a sauce we like to call “Communist Grandma” (the art direction explains this). Serve with sriracha ketchup – a sauce of equal parts Huy Fong Sriracha and tomato ketchup – Heinz original or whatever you have on hand.

Stanton & Ludlow.

Stanton & Ludlow, olives & wine.

My host left a bottle of wine on the dining room table with a note to help myself to a glass. I did, and with the tub of olives I claimed from the leftovers of the LAMP party, I sat straight-backed on the foot of the bed facing the window and pulled out my computer. Olives and wine and StreetEasy and NYBits and the noise of the apocalypse and glass bottles filled the air.

Week one in New York is behind me (week two at the new job), and I’m on the Northeast Regional back down to DC. There’ll be perhaps a dozen trips like this by the time I’m done, scores of nights and early mornings spent intuiting apartment floor plans from lousy realtors’ websites by the time I sleep in my own bed in New York City.

Still, I’m heartened. It’s taken only a week of supportive colleagues and a sane client to get most of my confidence back. Wednesday was unintentionally eat-shellfish-and-drink-beer-at-bars-of-establishments-with-punched-tin-ceilings day – mussels at Resto in Murray Hill for lunch, oysters and beer at Upstate in the East Village for dinner. Resto had quenched my craving for Belgian food one weekend a few years ago and I was happy to return to find it still serving a lovely approximation of the bistro fare I’d found so delightful in Brussels.

Upstate, however, particularly impressed me – the proprietor’s care and love of the food (and the pleasure diners take from it) is evident. I swapped names (and cards) with regulars and the barkeep, shared samples and observed the regulars’ ritual of rating the different oysters. I ordered a few Saranac white IPAs, had the last slice of the complimentary whiskey cake in the house. The barkeep endeavored to keep my tiny water glass filled throughout the night (and alternately kept a second tiny glass filled with varying samples from their taps).

At Behavior, as I arrived into a meeting with the creative director early, I caught the end of a discussion about a project the firm is pursuing for a center for Philippine art and scholarship. Naturally intrigued, I followed up about it during lunch today – it’s still in a nebulous place, but the pedigree seems sufficiently prestigious to make it coalesce into a real, bright and shining star.

Apropos nothing, as I pass Trenton, I love love love all weird cocksure urban sloganeering, especially done up in fantastic neon and steel on a goddamn bridge – I hold that it engenders civic pride by binding the town’s diaspora to a memorable epigram. I do imagine across the world, Trenton(-ian?-ite?) strangers meeting for the first time utter what Trenton makes, the world takes as a kind of shibboleth before then arguing jovially about who’ll get the first round of Bud Lights and comparing who they knew from when they were in high school.

So where was I, about strangers in bars? Information architect is one poncy job title. I seem to be getting a lot of mileage about my cooking by recipe vs. technique metaphor. And about the state of Filipino food in America – made for our parents’ generation, chafing dishes of old hits. The long-asked question about how to plate dinuguan I now realize is deprecated by a decade of haute peasant culture/high-low mashups/jeans and high heels, replaced by the question of wine pairing and course order. The creative director is partial to Purple Yam in Sunset Park. Kuma Inn is the most cleverly named but seems to have the least enthusiastic supporters. At Upstate, they raved about Maharlika down the street. I’m going to try the hell out of all of them.

In time – and there’ll be lots of time. I ate well last week – hardly news. For whatever reason, I feel in my element eating at bars. One of the regulars at Upstate was discussing with the proprietor her plan to prepare the cakes for Saturday service – a chamomile panna cotta and a flourless chocolate – as another implored me to return.

I’m going to be in DC for dinner on Saturday – after a day of cherry blossoms and Moomin and The City Dark – but I’m looking forward to returning.

A cheeseburger today.

Not-possible-before-the-20th-century writing usually opens my eyes – especially when the product in question is widely available for around $1 – and this is no exception:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.
Waldo Jaquith

The parallel to “I, Pencil,” The Toaster Project, etc. is unmistakable.

In the case of food, I’ve often called molecular gastronomy the practice of post-ethnic cuisine. Perhaps I should begin carving a niche in my taxonomy for post-industrial dishes, where the modern lettuce-and-tomato-topped interpretation of the ground beef sandwich would take residence with other ethnically-bound but supply-chain-dependent dishes (e.g. the McRib). Maybe Next could take it up as a theme.

Also: I realize this means that Wimpy of Popeye (while looking and sounding quite one-percent) manages to blend two distinctly 20th-century tastes – burgers and credit – in his signature epigram.

Somewhat related: I have dinner plans at Shake Shack tonight.

(via Kottke)

Every letter counts.

The spellcheck on my BlackBerry recognizes none of these words.
2011 June 2, 8:46 pm

As my live-tweeting of last week’s National Spelling Bee finals attests, my misspellings outnumbered my correct guesses by a factor of five, which led me to the realization that I am not a good speller. I am merely adept at avoiding typos.

I don’t doubt now that my childhood prowess as a speller contributed to my present investment in design, typography in particular. Christina observed that modern spelling prowess is a byproduct of a sophisticated pattern-recognition regime: the definition, language of origin, and part of speech hint at each word’s constituent roots, prefixes, suffixes, and conjugations. More precisely, having believed from a young age that every letter counts gave me a strong foundation for a career in careful consideration of the glyphs themselves (and spaces between them).

Among the 13 words I spelled correctly were six of the nine food words: cioppino, andouille, profiterole, teppanyaki, ingberlach, and orgeat. My proficiency here, I realized, is due less to patterns I recognize than actual omnivorousness: I have encountered five of these six spelled out on menus, on my grocery receipts, on plates placed before me, and in dishes I’ve served others. Cioppino, like Italian sinigang. Andouille sausage with brunch at the L.A. farmer’s market. Profiteroles, like deep-fried sugar-powdered zeppelins. Teppanyaki, when I first tried kobe beef. Orgeat, an almond flavoring, was one my coworkers at Third Street Coffee didn’t know how to pronounce, one that no one ever ordered, but it was there whenever I emptied, cleaned, and refilled the syrup cabinet. It was happenstance – not methodical curiosity – that helped me spell 13 of the most befuddling English words that challenged spellers that night.

Which leads me back to the (foregone?) conclusion that the greatest preparation for something like the National Spelling Bee, a design career, and lots of other challenges and ambitions is a kind of applied omnivorousness: the ability to synthesize all the info-plankton we’re sucking through the baleen of our formal educations, Google Reader, and just living in the world into exacting compositions of ambergris, one letter at a time.

My personal challenge has not been finding plankton; it’s been strengthening my baleen filter. Preparing for spelling bees by organizing chunks of letters into languages of origin and parts of speech, to be summoned at a moment’s notice, is good exercise.

Next is getting over my fear of the bell.

Related: NPR’s preview of the 2011 Associated Press food guidelines (via Christina).

Savory jams.

You could say it all started last winter when, in preparation for being cooped up for days, I decided to make a meatloaf recipe that called for soffritto. I learned what it was and how to make it for this meatloaf – two parts red onion, one part carrot, one part celery, diced and caramelized in olive oil to a kind of oblivion. I achieved this in a cast iron skillet kept over low heat for around an hour. It smelled wonderful.

This winter, I made the meatloaf again and a little extra soffritto to have around the apartment. And I learned that it’s not all that different from mirepoix, the ingredients of which can be had prepared from Trader Joe’s, so I’ve started to make soffritto-style mirepoix a regular ingredient in my rotation. And having read a bit about Maillard reactions in McGee’s On Food and Cooking, I realized that onions responded to this method with a brilliant and deep caramelization.

So now then. Because there’s just soffrito-style mirepoix laying about, I’ve added it to my sandwiches, which in combination with mayonnaise has to be among the best condiments I’ve accidentally created*. The oil in the mirepoix drains into the mayonnaise, thinning it to the consistency of a dip, but then recombines with the vegetables to form a kind of indescribably aromatic paste – I imagine different proportions and varieties of mayonnaise would be suitable for different applications.

But this is all lead in for the revelation I had last weekend at Shing’s house on Monday:

Caramelized-onion bacon jam.

Cut up a few slices of bacon, pan fry them to a satisfactory crispness (but not too much). Remove the bacon, leave the fat. Put a finely diced onion in the pan. Flatten it out a bit, add oil if there isn’t enough bacon grease to cover the surface of the pan. Cook on low heat for an hour or so, until the onions are sweet and bronzed. Mix the cooked bacon and onions.

Top everything.

*I also accidentally combined sriracha ketchup and have since deployed it as a regular fried chicken topping.

A quick case study on the dynamics of status messages in Google Talk.

Argument: “Everything tastes better on a stick.”
Counterpoint: “No, everything tastes better wrapped up burrito style.”
Countercounterpoint: “No, everything tastes better mini, regardless of impaled or wrapped.”
Countercountercounterpoint: “No, everything tastes better with bacon, butter, or maple syrup.”

The first point, typed by Roanne in reference to yakitori quail eggs in bacon, was quoted for humor as my GTalk status. No more than a few minutes passed than Christina seized on this, argued the second point, and added that by virtue of the quail eggs being wrapped in bacon, this was in fact a burrito-style food. An hour-ish later, Patrick chimed in that mini foods taste better (Matchbox sliders, please), and (in a telling example of how much overlap there is in this arena) cited “mini burritos” as evidence. James then followed with his assertion, which I admit is the most specious because it refers to specific ingredients instead of a type of preparation and there would certainly be substantial evidence against it in food from other cultures.

Content of the four arguments aside, what I find amazing about them is that they took place in four different conversations with four people of whom only two know each other and that the original argument only had to exist in my GTalk status in order to spur three additional conversations, parrying a varied range of perspectives in the manner of IRC while enjoying the intimacy of a phone call.

More amazing: yakitori quail eggs in bacon are sufficient evidence to support all four points.

Originally published 12 December 2008.