Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tracking E. Coli With Technology

Ever wonder how the CDC traced the sources of the recent E. Coli outbreaks—one in spinach and another at Taco Bell? Computerworld has an article about the software the government used. Tracking DNA fingerprints sounds like an episode of Numb3rs, but our real abilities are almost as impressive as the fictional feats of mathematics from the TV show.

via Slashdot


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wired Rattles Its Sabers

Wired offers advice on sabering Champagne bottles—slicing off the top of the bottle, cork and glass and all. Too bad Wired couldn't find any actual sabering adepts to teach the flamboyant move. I can name a few people in the Bay Area who are experts at the technique, and I've done it once or twice (with mixed results). Instead, the technology magazine consulted one person at K & L Wines who has "seen the move in a movie" and then the author links to YouTube video demonstrations, which are fun to watch if you've never seen someone saber a bottle before.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Your Advice: Hare Salon

I'm getting some hare next week as research for an article. But I'm not really sure how to cook it. I have tons of recipes for rabbit; hare is outside my normal repertoire. Most say that it's a different beast in the oven than its domestic cousin.

So once again I turn to you, my knowledgeable readers. I assume I should braise the tougher meat, but that's only a guess. I'd like to do the meat justice, so any ideas are welcome. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


Noka Over The Coals

I've never heard of Dallas confectioner Noka, but I found this wordy analysis of their high-priced candies to be an amusing read. The unidentified writer notes that the hefty price tag pays for simple confections made with common chocolate. Nothing in the ten-page article will surprise anyone who knows the basics of chocolate-making, but it's still worth a skim to see how the writer attacks their prices and their claims.

via boing boing and Jack


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Freshest Fish?

I don't know if chefs forage for seafood outside the world's first undersea restaurant, but wouldn't that be a great show for the tony dining room?

The restaurant serves the Hilton in the Maldives, and it's sort of a reverse aquarium: You don't surround the fish; they surround you.

via Wired's Table of Malcontents blog.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Not About Food: Becoming a Better Writer

I invest a lot of time and effort into my culinary knowledge. Most of you know this, because this site chronicles the self-education I've pursued for the last few years—from competent cook to opinionated gourmet, from occasional wine drinker to wine educator.

But in the last two years I've also focused on becoming a better writer. Perfect writing may be an impossible dream for me, but I nonetheless dream it every day. Compare this entry to my early posts and I hope you'll see a difference. Some of you have written to me and asked for advice on enhancing your own writing skills, and I decided to put my private answers into this public forum. These thoughts come from my own experience; add your suggestions in the comments so that we can all benefit from the knowledge.

You need internal motivation to effect change in your writing. Careful writing is hard work, and there's no promise of fame and glory for competent wordsmiths. Indeed, given the large number of sloppy writers with legions of fawning fans, I might predict the opposite. I can only offer personal satisfaction, a lifetime of annoyed spasms whenever you see obvious mistakes and slipshod grammar, and a background irritation about published text that would be a notch better with one pass of red ink.

Get a Second Opinion
Find someone who knows how to write and will give you an honest opinion of your work. Everyone likes praise and flattery, but if a friend always says, "This is really great," you won't learn anything. A good editor—not all of them qualify—fills this role, but so does a writing group where the members speak freely, pointing out the good and bad in each other's work. Thoughtful editors don't just move and cut words. They tell you when you need to flesh out one topic or whittle down another. They identify problems in tone and style. They see the problems you don't. They represent all the readers who will have the same questions and reactions when they read your piece. Negative comments sting, but they make you a better writer.

Shape Your Text
Understand that "writing well" means "rewriting a lot." I edit and revise countless times before I submit any text, whether it's a full-length feature, a blog entry, or a 100-word assignment. The only exception to this rule is a post for my casual blog OWEE, where I edit and revise just once or twice.

When I rewrite, I focus on clarity above all else. Text should communicate. If your readers can't figure out what you're saying, you've let them down. A word-geek friend of mine sent around a line from an ad for a show called Wine Country: "Why beer might just go better with chocolate than wine." I couldn't have constructed a better example of a muddled sentence. The show wants to point out that beer may trump wine as a partner for chocolate, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they meant that beer and chocolate works better as a pairing than beer and wine. (As an aside, this blanket statement annoys me—some beers go well with chocolate but so do some wines.)

When I edit a sentence, I ask myself if every word has a clear meaning. I check my pronouns to make sure any reader could figure out the nouns they replace. Consider the sentence "Jane wanted to meet up with Sue, but she couldn't fit it into her schedule." Whom does "she" refer to? What does "it" replace? I push my main point to the front or end of a sentence where the reader will notice it. I try to keep all related words together in a sentence and all related sentences together in a paragraph, tricks I learned from Ed. I give specific examples if I think I've made too broad a statement and try to use the most specific word for a given context. "Lassie jumped through a metal hoop" works better than "The dog jumped through an obstacle."

I also strive for brevity, which often coincides with clarity. I smile when I figure out a two-syllable word with the same meaning as a four-syllable word in my text. I thrill when I cut words from a sentence. I give a mental cheer when I remove a sentence from a paragraph. Don't get attached to your words; nix them when they're pointless. As you edit, examine each word and phrase and ask what it adds to the text. Some critics suggest you cut all your adverbs, which I find too pat a rule. Many writers lean on adverbs, and the constant "-ly" sound wears on a reader, but they do have a place in the English language.

I try to add color, or flair, to my writing, though I'm not great at spotting drab text. David Kamp, of The United States of Arugula, and Rowan Jacobsen, from The Art of Eating, both have a controlled flamboyance in their writing that I look to for inspiration. My original draft of the Vinovation article mentioned natural yeast "drifting through the vineyard like morning fog," which my editors liked but didn't fit after we cut that debate from the piece. We left in my description of microoxygenation: "bubbles that tiptoe through the adjoining stainless-steel vat."

Books I Like - Writing Philosophy
When I set out to improve my writing, I couldn't articulate what I meant by "good writing." I knew it when I saw it—reading sits high above food and wine in my pantheon of hobbies—but I couldn't always explain why one sentence worked and another didn't. Fortunately, thoughtful writers like to write, and many have published books that will teach you to identify and explain these very concepts.

On Writing Well - William Zinsser
One editor described this to me as "the bible for modern nonfiction writing," and I'm sure other Zinsser devotees would agree. He writes in a warm, humorous style and gives example after example to illustrate his points. He covers writing in general but also focuses on specific nonfiction genres: sports writing, criticism, and more.

Writing Fiction - Janet Burroway
Don't let the title fool you. A story is a story even when the characters are real people and the events actually happened. Burroway discusses plot, character development, dialogue, and every major element of fiction writing. After reading through her book, I spotted and admired those elements in nonfiction pieces as well as the short stories I was reading at the time.

The Art And Craft Of Feature Writing - William Blundell
It's about time for me to re-read this book, based on Blundell's time as a feature writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal. He discusses every facet of features, from coming up with ideas to structuring your text for the best effect. Read it once, read it twice, read it often.

Books I Like (And One Podcast) - Mechanics
Art requires craft: Painters need to mix colors, woodworkers need to understand wood grain, and writers need to use proper grammar. You probably can't memorize all the rules, but once again, books come to the rescue. Got a question? Look it up.

Grammar Girl
About once a week, the Grammar Girl podcast presents a five-minute episode that clarifies some confusing grammar point, whether it's the difference between "affect" and "effect" or the reason for the unusual predicate in "Joy to the World, the Lord is come." I discovered the show a few months ago, and I've since downloaded all the back episodes. I just wish that new episodes came out more often.

The Chicago Manual Of Style
Style guides give all the usage rules that the authors thought to include. For my bacon toffee post, I used the Chicago Manual of Style to determine if I should write "1970's" or "1970s" (the latter). I get the sense that choosing a style guide is the writer's equivalent of the text editor battles among programmers, but I allied myself with the Chicago camp the same way I became an Emacs user: It was the first one I got to know. I own the competing AP Style Guide, but I always go to the big orange book first.

The Elements of Style - Strunk & White
If you think I'm a curmudgeon, try flipping through this tiny treatise. E.B. White touched up his university writing instructor's guide for students, and the result is a blistering assault on lazy writers that rings true decades later.

Books I Like - Inspiration
Writing is like any art, a swamp of disappointment and frustration lit up by will-o'-the-wisps of success and idealism. You need inspiration and hope, and these books provide it.

Best American Essays
(Note: If you clamber far enough up my company's corporate hierarchy, I work for the publisher of this and the other Best American books.)
Whenever I see the newest edition of Best American Essays, I buy it and bump it to the top of my bottomless reading queue. Essays are my favorite nonfiction genre, and the annual collection never fails to provide samples that intrigue, inspire, and instruct. The 2006 collection has an essay entitled "Why I Write" that regrounded my goals as a writer. I toyed with submitting some work to the James Beard Awards this year, but this essay pushed me back over the fence.

Bird By Bird - Anne Lamott
At some point, every would-be writer gets a copy of this book. Lamott talks about the reality of writing: It's hard work, the rewards are scant, and constant hopes mean constant disappointment. But few activities are more rewarding on a personal level. Knowing that a well-regarded novelist goes through all the same pain as I somehow makes it easier for me to bear.

The Writing Life
If Anne Lamott's musings aren't enough, this book collects essays from 50 writers who have contributed to the Washington Post's Book World. Each author gives insight into the weird world of writing. Ups, downs, lefts, rights, overs, and unders all find their way into this book.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Bacon Toffee?

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Let me say right now that bacon toffee is not some new Derrick weirdness. Toponia Miller, co-owner of Fatted Calf, thinks it dates back at least to the 1970s. If that's true, we food lovers need to rescue this retro snack from oblivion. We've repopulated heritage turkeys and polished the passé from fondue; we can bring this candy back from the brink.

We can and we should. The unusual combination contrasts butterscotch sweetness with smoky saltiness and chewy texture with tooth-shattering caramel. It is a piece of heaven.

If you read The Ethicurean, you probably saw Bonnie's rhapsodic post about this same topic. Our convergence is no coincidence: She and I attended the same party. At an event overflowing with palate-popping delicacies, from paella-stuffed squid to olive-brine pickled eggs, the bacon toffee might have snagged more comments and satisfied lip-smacking than any other dish.

Doralice of Healdsburg's Cheese Shop, who brought the toffee but skedaddled before we descended on it, posted a full recipe in the comments on Bonnie's post. You could just follow that recipe, but where's the fun in that? I wanted to play with the idea and try to improve it. Toponia said that she once had a version with cayenne mixed in to the toffee, and it's not hard to spring from that flavoring to other spices such as pepper, allspice, or cloves.

But I had a different idea. Foreign Cinema offers a brunch item of bacon cooked in brown sugar, and the combination inspired me to swap brown sugar for white in the toffee recipe. I hoped the molasses in the brown sugar would add complexity to the candy.

And if I could change the sugar, why not fiddle with the fat? Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking explains that the milk solids in the butter provide the toffee taste, but the fat controls the texture. I interpreted that to mean that you can change one fat for another, but you sacrifice some of the typical flavor. I decided that 1Tb bacon grease mixed in with 7 Tb of butter would carry a subtle porky quality throughout the candy, not just in the bacon bits.

The results were not as dramatic as I expected. Melissa preferred the normal recipe to my pimped-out version because the light toffee and dark bacon made a sharper contrast to the eyes and tongue. My darker toffee had a more homogenous earthy flavor.

When she suggested that I add the brown sugar at the end, as a mix-in, I realized that I had used the brown sugar for the molasses character, and I could cut out the middle man by squirting molasses over the top of the sticky mass after I poured it onto the Silpat. This did add a subtle smokiness and the bacon-toffee contrast remained intact. Our friend meriko suggested crisping the bacon in brown sugar and adding that combination to the toffee, a variant I'll try soon.

I don't know what I would serve with this candy. A good stout came to mind, but I wonder if a Tokaji Aszú or Madeira would work, if you wanted to stay with wine.

Basic Toffee Technique (should scale well)
I use the proportions I learned in a candy-making class, but any good toffee recipe will work. And that sticky pot may look impossible to clean, so here's a tip: Fill the pot with water, and boil it until the caramel is all melted.

Do your mise en place. For normal toffee, break up nuts or chocolate chunks. For bacon toffee, crisp 5 pieces of bacon, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate, and chop into small squares; put molasses into a squirt bottle. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat liner.

Combine 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup water, a pinch of salt, and 4 oz (1 stick) butter. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often. You don't need to worry about in-the-pot crystallization, because the butter's fat will introduce flaws that prevent the quick-as-a-blink switch from liquid to solid that sneaks up on the casual sugar cook. Continue to stir until the mixture reaches a temperature of 285°. Take off heat, stir in mix-ins, and pour onto the lined baking sheet. Spread the mixture quickly until it's about 1/4 in. thick all around. Squirt molasses over top in a decorative pattern. Set aside to cool for 2 hours.

Fold a paper towel into quarters and place it on a part of the toffee blob. Rap lightly with a hammer. Repeat at other parts of the toffee. You should see cracks forming throughout the candy. Run a spatula under the candy, and it should break apart into shards. Store the fragments in an airtight container at room temperature.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Lenn's New York Wine Club

Originally uploaded by Lenn Thompson.

New York's wine regions have received good press, but it can be difficult to find the wines outside that state. Our friend Lenn, who champions the Empire State's wine regions in print and from his blog LENNDEVOURS, has started a wine club to showcase interesting New York wines. Each month he'll choose two wines, and the Green Grape Wine Company will send them to your door. Lenn's palate and interests should produce some great choices.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Menu For Hope III: Some Simple Math

If you're one of the few people who read this food blog and no others, then you may have missed the announcement for this year's edition of Menu For Hope, an annual raffle organized by Pim in which bloggers and other notables contribute prizes to a giant raffle. People around the world buy "tickets" for the prizes they want in the form of donations. Each ticket costs $10, and all the proceeds go straight to a charitable organization, this year the UN World Food Programme.

You should see the phenomenal list of prizes that bloggers have donated. If I called out the best ones, this would turn into a post that's long even for me. Just go look and admire and buy a ticket or 40. (My donation is all the prizes, sort of, since I'm writing the program that will parse out the tickets and do the actual raffle. And no, I don't take bribes, unless they're really nice.)

Most of the bloggers mentioning the event have appealed to the kind and charitable streak in all our readers. I will appeal to your greed.

Consider this: Menu For Hope has raised twice as much money as it did last year. But because the ticket price has doubled, that means that there have been just as many tickets sold. Fine.

But there are many more prizes this year. That means your odds of winning something are better than they were last year. Many of the prizes have low ticket counts, so you can increase your odds even more. You just have to go buy a ticket. Or 40.

You have until Friday to place your bids. Go look at the prizes and make your donations.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Don't Cry For Me...

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
Because I shed plenty of tears of my own when I wrote about onions for my SFist column.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Regina Schrambling on Olive Garden

If you have never found your way to Regina Schrambling's gastropoda, you're missing one of the best sources for pointed commentary on the food world, with not-so-occasional swipes at the current Presidential administration. She wields a skewer like an expert swordsperson, and nothing escapes her gaze.

It's a good thing I wasn't drinking my water as I read her commentary on Olive Garden; I might have shorted out my laptop.

Figuring out what caused the food poisoning at Olive Garden may be even trickier than it has been for Taco Bell. Investigators are asking diners to bring in both their doggie bags and their stool samples. The mystery is how they will be able to tell the difference.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Glace-A-Tron 6000

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Our new ice cream maker has an official model number, the Cuisinart ICE-50BC. But I started calling it the Glace-A-Tron 6000 after I unwrapped the hulking, stainless-steel appliance, a birthday present from my mom. I first played with this semi-industrial ice cream machine at meriko's house, where we made two ice creams on Thanksgiving morning; she in turn bought it based on David's recommendation.

The Glace-A-Tron 6000 features an internal refrigerator unit that cools the quart-sized container in situ. You don't need ice or rock salt. You don't need freezer space to pre-chill your bucket. You don't need 24 hours to refreeze the bucket between batches of ice cream and sorbet. The next time we have a dinner party, I plan to make a Frozen Trio dessert of some form, just because I can.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

The Glace-A-Tron 6000 is not the frozen dessert's answer to a bread machine, a one-button start-and-forget factory. You must still assemble the ice cream base on the stove top. You must still freeze the ice cream after you remove it from the Glace-A-Tron. Do you need to cool the base before you place it into the cold embrace of the Glace-A-Tron? I don't know. Melissa, bless her heart, has urged me to experiment. A lot. I might put sorbet into the refrigerator before churning it; the transition from very cold to frozen produces smaller crystals, and thus a smoother texture, than when you move from room temperature to frozen. But I made salted caramel ice cream—a near-repeat of the version that meriko and I assembled—by pouring 185° custard into the Glace-A-Tron, and it came out very well, though it took just over an hour to freeze to the right consistency. Perhaps the fatty custard staves off large ice crystals?

I have eyed these machines before, but I have told myself that I don't make enough ice cream to justify the cost. This is the wrong argument. Once you have a Glace-A-Tron, which is cheaper than similar machines, you start making enough ice cream to warrant the expense, because all you need is a whim and a bit of time on a weeknight evening. Melissa and I each have lists of flavors to try. (Melissa's includes pistachio and mint chip. Mine, butternut squash sorbet and olive oil ice cream.)

That freezer space for the ice cream bucket? I think we'll be filling it up soon—with actual ice cream.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vinovation, The Art of Eating, Issue 73-74

When Ed asked me to research Vinovation for The Art of Eating, I went to my first appointment with an already-formed opinion. Clark Smith's wine consulting company provides a host of services to a huge chunk of the California wine industry, but the press knows him best—and demonizes him the most—for reverse osmosis. This process allows New World vintners to push wine against a filter and extract its alcohol and water, which they add back to create a final product with an "adjusted" alcohol level. Nine months ago, I would have agreed with any wine writer who described it as one manipulation too many.

Three appointments, a host of phone calls, and a small storm of emails later, I've changed my attitude. I'm not for excessive manipulation, but Clark is doing interesting work. In fact, I believe that his empirical knowledge will overturn the curriculum of enology schools around the world. Now, when someone points out that reverse osmosis isn't natural, I ask, "What is?" Critics who vilify Vinovation often don't mention or even notice sterile filtration, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, or cultured yeasts, all of which are commonplace and far from a grape's "natural" inclination. My article, along with Melissa's photos of Smith and his company, appears in the latest issue of Ed's top-flight magazine. My subscription copy arrived today, but I haven't yet seen copies in stores.

I often tell you, and anyone who will listen, to subscribe to AoE, which I consider the best informed, most thoughtful food and wine magazine in America. Even more than normal, I urge you to buy this special double issue, a celebration of the magazine's 20th anniversary. Other articles include Ed Behr's interview with himself about AoE and its philosophy, a baguette piece that I have wanted to read ever since Ed mentioned it to me, a large feature on California olive oil, an ode to mead, a look at black and white truffles, and the usual hodgepodge of book reviews, notes and resources, and letters (including ones from Jack and Kevin).


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Developing a Dish: Foie Gras Confit With Pickled Beets

"Be a little crazy and a lot daring." Jack and Joanne urged us guests to bring a new, untried dish to their holiday party. I took up the implicit challenge and thought about what I might bring to their gourmet feast. I turned over ideas on my walk to work, rejecting each for one reason or another.

Then my mental merry-go-round brought an old memory to the front. Three years ago I saw Alain Sailhac's "Confit of Whole Foie Gras" in Michael Ginor's Foie Gras: A Passion. At the time, I thought it above my skill level, but since then I've gained confit experience and the confidence to work with foie gras. A whole foie gras poached in duck fat struck me as both crazy and daring—at least for any guest trying to dodge a heart attack.

A week before the party, I cured the intact liver for 24 hours. As with any confit, you can add your favorite spices to the cure; I kept it simple with the Basic Dry Cure from Charcuterie, an 8:4:1 blend of kosher salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite. When I did a trial run—opting for the spirit of the invitation's law instead of the letter—the liver oxidized to an unappealing gray. The sodium nitrite added a reddish, meaty tint; it noticeably improved the look of the final dish.

I poached the liver in 2 pints of duck fat kept at 185° Fahrenheit. Seven minutes on one side and four minutes on the other. I told the other guests that you could count the dollars as the liver shrank, its fat becoming one with the cooking fat. I turned off the heat and let the fat drop to 160°, at which point I transferred the quivering liver to a plate and let the cooking fat cool to room temperature. Finally, I moved the liver to a small container—a terrine mold—and poured the liquid fat over it, covering it completely. Then I moved the terrine to the refrigerator, where the liver developed flavor for a week in its solid fat tomb.

I turned my attention to the "something extra" the dish needed. The rich fat in foie gras coats and deadens the palate; an acidic add-on refreshes the taste buds. I made fennel ceviche to pair with the first batch, but the thin arcs were too crunchy. The night before the party, I stumbled upon the pickled beets from Quick Pickles. Boil beets, peel, dice, and cover in a hot syrup of red wine vinegar, brown sugar, and spices.

On the drive up to Jack and Joanne's house, and as the party started, I let the confit come to room temperature. The recipe implies that you should serve the dish cold, but that gives you little but a solid chunk of fat. At room temperature, the foie gras hovers somewhere between liquid and solid, a trembling mass barely contained by its cellular structure. Also, at room temperature it's easier to remove the pure fat you poured over the liver, which can be greasy and unappealing if left clinging to the foie gras. I upended the terrine and poured the duck fat into a bowl.

I cut the confit into small squares, and placed each atop a baguette slice. On to each square of foie gras, I placed a single cube of pickled beet.

I worried that I had assembled too many of these little appetizers. But the guests pounced on the dish and finished off the bites almost before I had cleaned up the aftermath. Even I, my harshest critic, couldn't find any fault with the combination. The earthy sweetness of the beet paired with the meaty liver, and its acidity cut through the rich fat. If I made it one more time, I might lightly toast the thin baguette slices, but this would be a minor edit on an almost-perfect dish.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chocolate Exhibition, San Francisco

I imagine you can rattle off all the good things about chocolate: the earthy, complex taste; the feel-good compounds so popular with women; the antioxidants and other healthy molecules in each bar.

But you might have a harder time describing all the bad things: child labor, impoverished farmers, the fallout of American economic imperialism. An exhibit running through February 17 at Intersection for the Arts promises to document the complex underbelly of the chocolate industry. Artist April Banks draws on her years of research and experience to create an exhibit that will inform you through artwork and stories.

I haven't been yet, but I plan to make time to head over. The chocolate industry embodies many of the issues with globalization and cavalier attitudes in developed countries about the plight of the Third World. I'm intrigued by anything that educates us and gives us the tools to make smart buying decisions. (My SFist colleague Mary went to the opening and wrote about her impressions.)

In addition to the exhibit, Intersection for the Arts will host a number of events and workshops. See the exhibit details for more information.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Fundamentals of Wine II

When I first discovered my passion for wine, I took class after class in UC Berkeley's Wine Studies program. But my favorite was a class then called "Components of Wine," a six-week course on analyzing wine. I took it twice, once as I began to learn about wine, and again more recently. One night we covered flaws and faults. Another we blended Bordeaux varieties together to come up with a master blend. Still another we spent sniffing at vials and wine glasses, trying to identify scents in isolation and mixed with wine.

The class has since been renamed to Fundamentals of Wine II: Sensory Evaluation of Wines and Their Components, and I'm over-the-moon excited to be its instructor in the spring semester. This is a fun class, and I encourage you all to sign up if you can. Enrollment opened today, even though the class starts in April.

I have some big shoes to fill: The class has always been taught by wine expert Rebecca Chapa. But given how much I respect her as a wine educator, you can be sure that her teaching style has influenced my own. Sign up now. Sign up your friends.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Austrian Wines By Catherine

Catherine at Purple Liquid has posted her notes and pictures from my class's third meeting, where we discussed the wines of Austria's Kremstal, Kamptal, and Wachau regions. Sadly, Catherine missed the fourth class (Austria's Thermenregion, Burgenland, and Styria), but I'll let you know when she has the fifth and sixth classes up.


Book Review: Women of the Vine

Women buy more wine than men in the United States, but men dominate the upper echelons of the wine industry. Think of writers, wine makers, and sommeliers in your internal registry. Most of them, no doubt, are men. But you'll add a few women to that list after reading Deborah Brenner's Women of the Vine. The book's 20 profiles make the point that some of the most influential industry leaders are women, and that blatant sexism is a thing of the past. Customers no longer refuse to buy Château Potelle's wines because a woman, Marketta Formeaux, makes them. Restaurant diners no longer pause when a female sommelier walks up to the table, as they did when Andrea Robinson worked at Windows on the World. Enology schools no longer host hiring days and tell women students that the companies won't hire them, as they did when Merry Edwards went to UC Davis. At least, I hope not.

Brenner offers some inspiring portraits, but the choice of subjects mystifies me. Where is Jancis Robinson? Or European wine makers such as Austria's Heidi Schröck, still working in a traditional culture ripe with sexual stereotypes? The book's subtitle mentions "the world of women who make, taste, and enjoy wine," but Brenner seems to think that that world ends at the state boundaries of California. Even so, where is Karen MacNeil, director of the Culinary Institute of America's wine studies program, author of The Wine Bible—which I heard one editor describe as "a genre buster"—and a woman who holds fierce opinions about the treatment that women face in the wine industry? Where is Helen Turley, one of the most sought-after wine consultants in the state? Anyone in California can probably add their own Missing Persons reports. Brenner no doubt faced tough choices about whom to include and whom to cut, but do we need two profiles of women from the Gallo dynasty? I get the sense that Brenner chose women that would be easy for her to meet.

This take-the-easy-road approach also shapes the stories that Brenner chose to tell. These profiles will look good in the publicity packets handed out to future writers, but they lack depth that would give a full portrait of each subject. In a book whose theme is the rise above sexism, Brenner should have questioned Wine Adventure publisher Michele Ostrove as she explained her "for women" audience: "One thing we say is that women share information, whereas men look at it more competitively. It's kind of one-upmanship for them." And then: "They want to know how to go traveling to wine country and where they should go and where they should stay and what place has the best spas." But Brenner lets these sexual-stereotype marketing decisions skim past, even though Wine Adventure's "for women" slant was a last-minute tactic change from an egalitarian "for everyone" approach (a point barely mentioned in the profile). How about asking Stephanie Browne, founder of Divas Uncorked, about the double prejudice heaped on African-American women? How is she treated in restaurants now versus twenty years ago?

And if my inner reader looked for answers that never appeared, my inner editor found more than enough to keep it occupied. "Show, don't tell!" I kept shrieking in my head, the same phrase my own editors have sent back to me on more than one occasion. Of Stephanie Putnam, wine maker for Far Niente, Brenner writes, "Stephanie has always been the take-action type and loves outdoor and physically challenging hobbies." Show her being a take-action type. Use a quote from Putnam about loving wine making because it keeps her outdoors more. Of Merry Edwards, wine maker for her own winery, Brenner notes, "Merry was indignant and rightfully so. The notion that a company would discriminate against an entire gender was outrageous." She follows it with Edwards's own quote about her reaction, which would have sufficed to describe the outrage and would have made her passion and fury more immediate, rather than trailing after a screeching halt in the text.

I think there's an interesting story to be told about women in the wine industry. It would use the industry as a lens into the changes brought about by second-wave feminists throughout the country. It would discuss the way that modern young women take their rights and opportunities for granted. It would discuss the role of women wine makers in European cultures, and how that differs from the American model. It would look at the shift in men's attitudes; what men used to refuse to buy wine made by a woman, and what made them change their mind? It would weave the narratives of these women together to look at the big picture of what happened.

It would not be a series of puff pieces that leave more questions than answers. It would not be Women of the Vine.

This book was sent to me as a review copy.


Friday, December 01, 2006

I learned of the newsletter from The Ethicurean, but I just caught up on the emails the other day. Keith Good pulls key news items off the web and summarizes them in a daily message, providing an ongoing snapshot of the national debate about the state of American farms, which are of course the source of American food.

The newsletter is required reading for anyone who cares about the domestic food supply and the policies that shape it.


Vinegar-making and Rowan Jacobsen on The Restaurant Guys

Rowan Jacobsen took the managing editor position at The Art of Eating about two years ago. He's a good editor, pushing me in different ways than Ed, and he has a colorful writing style that I like. One of his recent articles for the magazine covered umami, the fifth taste that Westerners have just begun to discuss and study in an overt way. The Restaurant Guys had Rowan on their show to discuss the subject. That would be reason enough to listen, but the first 15 minutes focus on vinegar-making, a subject dear to my heart.

Here's the link to the MP3.