The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Who Cares About Fake Italian Food? Italy Does and You Should, Too

Italia sta guardando!

Next time you throw together a spaghetti dinner at home, be aware that Italy is watching. And they are not pleased.

The Italian Trade Commission is in una sudore on the topic of counterfeit Italian food products, especially in North America, where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are among the most egregious offenders in the consumption of fake Italian food. Trade Commissioner Pasquale Bova unequivocally states, “If you're not buying Italian, you're not eating Italian.”

He's right.......and he's wrong.

The main reason Italy is so exercised over the issue is economic. A number of papers (like this one: have been published on the subject, so I'm not going to go on for pages and pages about it. Suffice it to say that agribusiness is big business in Italy. It is a staple of the Italian economy, and imitation Italian food products take a big bite out of the economic pie. In the same way that those fake Gucci handbags sold at American flea markets affect the profits of the real fashion house, the fake Parmesan cheese sold in American supermarkets affects the bottom line for the producers of the real thing.

Then there's the more hard to define cultural effect. Not only is food a big part of the Italian economy, it is also an essential element of Italian culture. And officials like Bova are rightly concerned about the “dumbing down” of the palate that occurs as a result of the consumption of knock-off ingredients. Once you get used to cheap, crappy “Italian” food, your appreciation for the real thing diminishes. I know people who find real Italian food to have overwhelming flavors because they are so accustomed to eating imitation Italian garbage.

Over the course of time and through generations of experience, consumers have been led to believe, and correctly so, that “Italian” is synonymous with “quality.” Whether it be artisan meats and cheeses, exceptional produce and pasta, or superior oils and vinegars, the “Italian” imprimatur guarantees a high level of performance that people come to expect. And that is precisely how purveyors of inferior products prey upon consumer confidence. They understand that nobody has ever gone broke pandering to the consumer's desire for a bargain, so they take advantage of Italian branding to make their cheap junk appealing to cost conscious buyers. They accomplish this in three ways: packaging iconography, name branding, and sloganeering.

To the average shopper, anything wrapped in green, white, and red says “Italy.” Cheap manufacturers know that and they capitalize on it. They stick the colors of the Italian flag on everything and hope that you won't notice the product was made in Poughkeepsie rather than in Parma. Images of gondoliers, the Colosseum, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa help sell the effect.

Most Italian words end in a vowel. Some have unique suffixes like “ini,” “oni” and “etta.” So all knock-off producers have to do to get you to think their product is authentic is to stick a vowel or an Italian-sounding suffix on a word and – tah-dah! Instant Italian identification. “Freschetta” pizza comes immediately to mind. Not only is this not real Italian, it's not even even good made up Italian. They pronounce it “fresh-etta.” If it were a real Italian word, it would be pronounced “freh-SKEHT-tah.” Then you have those Italian-sounding surnames. Throw an a,e,i, or o on almost any name and you can make it sound Italian. “Smithini,” anyone? To paraphrase Shakespeare, “What's in a name? That which we call Italian by any Italian name could still be fake.” And, bless her heart, “Mama” can sell almost anything. All-a you gotta do is-a put-a pica-ture of-a Mama on-a da label an-a you gonna sell-a lotsa spaghetti sauce-a.

Then there are Italian words and phrases – or at least those that are supposed to sound Italian or be Italian inspired. Put something like “Mamma Mia” on your box and you've got a surefire sale. Or “like Mama used to make.” Or “Old World Quality.” Or “real Italian taste.” Another is “Italian-style.” Watch out for that one. You can even use real Italian words on your imitation stuff. One of my favorites is “Autentico.” How much more authentic can you get?

The Italian Trade Commission has set up a website at There's a great video there spoofing a fake brand of pasta sauce called “Authentissimo.” It's got a green, white, and red label and it's being made by an Italian-looking grandmother in an Italian-looking kitchen. But “Nonna” pulls her gray wig off at the end to reveal she is just an actress on a set. The website is aimed primarily at the Canadian market, but the message is good across the board (or the border.)

It's not difficult to identify real Italian products. They say “Made In Italy” on them. Some have the initials D.O.P. and/or a little red seal indicating that they are Denominazione d'Origine Protetta, meaning they are from a specific controlled, protected area in Italy. By Italian law (Decreto-legge 25 settembre 2009, n. 135), only foods that are entirely produced in Italy may use the designation “Made In Italy” on their labels. This differs significantly from other designations such as “Product of Italy” or “Packed in Italy,” wherein the only requirement is that something Italian be involved somewhere in the process. The tomatoes, for example, could be from Spain and the jars from Lithuania, but as long as they were brought together in a factory in Italy, they can be called “Product of Italy.”

Staying with the tomato example, San Marzano-grown plum tomatoes are a highly-prized Italian variety produced in a controlled, specified area of Italy. Now check out the labels in your supermarket. Cento markets a couple of different tomatoes under their bright yellow and red labels. One is labeled “San Marzano, Product of Italy,” and bears the word “Certified.” Okay. This product used to say “D.O.P. Certified.” Now it just says “Certified” and the verbiage on the back alludes to an independent third party. The Cento website says the packing plant is located just 22 miles southeast of Naples. Okay. So why did they drop the “D.O.P.” designation? Could be because the manufacturer got tired of paying for it. Anyway, right next to those “San Marzano” tomatoes you'll find cans that say “Italian Peeled Tomatoes,” also labeled “Product of Italy,” and beside those some that say “Italian Style Peeled Tomatoes.” No mention of Italy on that label. All have different price points, the “Certified” ones being the most expensive. Another popular “Italian” tomato brand doesn't actually carry a brand name. The labels are white and they have pictures of plum tomatoes on them. On the pictured tomatoes are the words “San Marzano.” There's a little colored band running around the top and the bottom of the can bearing the Italian words “Pomodori Pelati” or “Pomodori Cubetti” and the English translation “Whole Peeled Tomatoes” or “Diced Tomatoes.” That all sounds Italian, right? Look closer. The fine print at the very bottom of the label reads, “Grown Domestically in the U.S.A.” They are about as Italian as Florence........HENDERSON! I actually grew some San Marzano varietal tomatoes in my garden last year. And my garden is nearer Naples, Florida than it is Naples, Italy. I'm not saying any of these products are bad; they're just not as Italian as they seem. Caveat emptor.

Which leads to the part where I take slight issue with commissario Bova's “if you're not buying Italian, you're not eating Italian” statement. In my book – and many others – the hallmark of Italian cuisine is the ability to take the best, freshest, most seasonal local ingredients and turn them into something delicious. And while I might agree that Italian-made products are the standard and the benchmark, I have to disagree with the sentiment that they are the only way to create wonderful Italian food.

I live in the boonies, boys and girls. There ain't no Prosciutto di Parma or Parmigiano-Reggiano on the shelves at my neighborhood grocery store. Oh, I can sometimes find it in the high-end shops in the “Big City” forty or fifty miles down the road, but for day-to-day shopping and cooking, I might be limited to country ham from Virginia and Parmesan cheese made in Plymouth, Wisconsin. My mozzarella may not be “di bufala,” but there's an artisan cheesemaker at the farmers market who does a pretty good job with cow's milk. And as I said, my San Marzano tomatoes often come from my garden rather than from Campania. Or I may have to use plain old fresh plum tomatoes from the produce market around the corner. Does that mean that I can't turn out some Italian food that would knock commissario Bova's calze off? Not on your life. I buy Italian when I can find it and when I can afford it. The rest of the time I cook like an Italian, and that's far more important, if you ask me.

But not everybody has that ethic where quality is concerned and in that respect, Sig. Bova is completely right. Far too many North Americans are content to grab a can of vaguely cheese-flavored sawdust in a green plastic or cardboard can and call it “Parmesan.” And rather than De Cecco or Barilla or something that has some provable connection to Italy, they'll grab the cheapest store brand pasta they can find on the theory that “spaghetti is spaghetti,” which it decidedly is not. And instead of taking a few minutes to saute some onions in olive oil and stir in some tomatoes and herbs, they opt for the sauce in the jar with the Italian-sounding name. “THAT'S Italian!” the old TV commercials used to say. No. Not even close.

Buy real Italian products whenever and wherever you can. They truly are the best quality and the best representation of the Italian culture. But when you can't buy Italian, cook like an Italian, using fine, fresh, local ingredients. Yes, in both instances it'll cost a little more, but the results will be undeniably worth it. As for the fake Italian products with the fake Italian names, leave them on the shelves to gather fake Italian dust. You and your family deserve better. 

And besides, the ITC is watching.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Has America Done To Memorial Day?

And Does Anybody Really Care?

The party starts on May 25 this year (2015). Hordes of Americans will head for the beaches and the backyards armed with blankets and barbecue grills. There'll be hot dogs and hamburgers aplenty, washed down with great quantities of soft drinks and beer as the country celebrates the “unofficial beginning of summer.”

"Happy Memorial Day" will be on the lips of the clueless. “Honor Our Veterans!” and “Celebrate Memorial Day!” proclaim the ads placed by people who just don't understand. “Sale! Sale! Sale!,” scream the ads placed by people who just don't care as long as they can make a quick buck.

What has America done to Memorial Day? And does anybody really care?

Let's get something straight right up front: you don't ever “celebrate” Memorial Day. Do the idiots who go about “celebrating” even realize what the word “memorial” means? It means somebody died, you damn fools, and you never “celebrate” that. You can commemorate it or you can honor it, but you don't celebrate it. Unless you're the kind who wears paper hats and brings party favors to memorial services and funerals.

Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day. From Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.

Regardless of the exact date or location of its origins, one thing is clear – Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On another point, did you catch those key phrases on the description? “A day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America” and “borne out of …... a desire to honor our dead,” and “designated for the purpose of ….. decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Died,'s not Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day, people. Those are the days we set aside to honor our veterans and our servicemen and women who are living. Memorial Day is for the dead; for those who sacrificed all. Don't cheapen that sacrifice by trying to make Memorial Day “inclusive.” My uncle survived landing at Normandy. Another fought at Saipan. My son has been in the Air Force for more than a decade. I honor them on the appropriate days, Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day. Memorial Day I reserve for the young men from my school days who did not return from Vietnam. For my uncles' buddies whose bodies were left in the fields of Europe or on the sands of some Pacific island. Or the guys of my son's generation dying in the Middle East.

Even wikipedia gets it, stating, “Veterans Day is not to be confused with Memorial Day; Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving.” Celebrate, if you must, our living veterans and service personnel on any or all of the other 364 days of the year, but please set one day aside to commemorate the dead with honor and dignity.

Honor and dignity. “Come to my store and buy a boatload of crap you don't really need in honor of our dead soldiers. It's the American way!” There's no such thing as a “Happy” Memorial Day. Unless you're one of the opportunistic merchants who uses a solemn day of remembrance to make your cash registers ring. Bottom feeders like that are plenty happy, I'm sure. Wonder if any of them would be interested in donating a portion of their profits to a service organization, one that decorates the graves of the fallen? They're making big bucks with their gaudy, flag-waving, faux-patriotic advertisements. Wouldn't it be fair to share a bit with the dead people helping to make them rich? Personally, I won't patronize any establishment's “Memorial Day Blowout” sale. It's disgusting.

Oh, I've got another great idea! Instead of the beach, why don't you pack a picnic lunch and head for a national cemetery? Wouldn't it be fun to slip on your bikini or your speedo, spread a blanket, slather on some sunscreen, and crack a couple of cold ones among the flags fluttering over the graves of the people for whom Memorial Day is really intended? It's their party, after all. Pitiful.

I can't quite figure out whether it's more disgusting, pitiful, or just sad what we've done to Memorial Day over the last hundred years or so. I guess the real push over the edge came about around fifty years ago when Congress in its omniscience decided to strip a number of our traditional holidays of any of their significance by turning them all into excuses for people to have three-day weekends. Washington and Lincoln lost their individual birthdays, Columbus was stripped of his unique day, and Memorial Day became the long, meaningless bacchanal that kicked off the summer season. “Unofficially,” of course. Somehow, Veterans Day survived the onslaught, remaining fixed at the time-honored “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” but Memorial Day got the shaft.

I remember Memorial Day when I was a kid. Back before Congress screwed it over. There was no school on that day, regardless of whether it was a Monday or not. Every flag in town flew at half-staff and there were ceremonies in all the cemeteries laying wreaths, flowers, and flags on the graves of the war dead from the Civil War to Korea. (Vietnam was still waiting in the wings.) We had a parade through the middle of town that ended at the town park, where local officials gathered at the bandshell for sometimes long-winded speeches about sacrifice and bravery. And then a military band struck up the Sousa tunes as the crowd reformed into families around the picnic tables. Yes, there were picnics, but they happened as a result of the day, not in place of it. The dead were honored and commemorated first, then the socializing began. I challenge you to walk up to any group “celebrating” this May 25 and ask them if they had given any thought at all to the people whose deaths allowed them to have their party in peace and prosperity.

Did you know that a “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on December 28, 2000? S.3181, signed by President Clinton, asks that at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day all Americans voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to “Taps.” The impetus behind the resolution supposedly came from the responses of school children who, when asked about the meaning of Memorial Day, replied, “it's the day the pool opens.” So Congress appointed a commission to promote the values of Memorial Day – the day they had so thoroughly screwed up years before – and the resolution was the result.

There is a movement afoot to restore Memorial Day to its original date. You can find out more here: In the face of nearly fifty years of partying at the beach, though, I don't know how much traction such a proposition would get.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have a good time on Memorial Day. The men and women who died in service to our country did not do so with the intention that you sit around and mourn all day. That's not the point. But neither is it a day for crass, greedy, commercialism or for thoughtless celebration. And regardless of how popular the notion has become, it's not a day to honor our veterans. If you are among those participating in such inappropriate behaviors, please stop and give the day its due. And do your best to help educate others as to the true meaning and importance of a day that has unfortunately been co-opted for other purposes.

The great orator Daniel Webster once said, "Although no sculptured marble should rise to their memory, nor engraved stone bear record of their deeds, yet will their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored." And although not as powerful a figure as Webster, Lee Greenwood hit the mark when he wrote, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.”

May you have a meaningful Memorial Day. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Food Words Even Chefs Mispronounce

If You Can't Pronounce It, Don't Cook, Serve, or Order It

There are three shows left on Food Network about which I actually care a fig. I was watching one of them, “Beat Bobby Flay,” the other night and really got my Posties toasted by one of the chefs trying to best Bobby. I don't remember her name and I don't really care because I'll never eat anything she cooks anyway after she violated one of my cardinal rules. Some people have a rule that says “if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it.” Mine's a little different: “If you can't pronounce it, don't cook, serve, or order it.” 

The average person can be forgiven for not saying “croissant” with a perfect French accent when they order one. As long as you don't say “krus-ANT” you get points for trying. But that same latitude never applies to the people making the darn things. People who, theoretically at least, have studied the dishes they are preparing and who know all about them. Especially how to pronounce them! This loser – and she did lose to Bobby – set me climbing the walls and throwing things at the television with her pronunciation of her so-called “signature dish.” It was a croque monsieur, which she BUTCHERED as “crock muh-shur.” 


And after slaughtering the pronunciation, she proceeded to plop fried eggs on top, thereby turning the dish into a croque madame rather than a croque monsieur. I would scream “aaaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhh” again, but you get the idea. Way to inspire confidence, babe. Not only can you not pronounce your "signature" dish properly, you can't make it properly either.

The next night, I was watching some other foodie show – “Chopped,” I think – and cringed at the chef describing his “vinegar-ette.” It's "vihn-ah-GRET", you moron, not "vinegar-ette.” And more stuff went flying at the TV. AAAARRRR.......well, you know what comes next.

Honest to Pete, what are they teaching at culinary school these days? I guess it's because of the decades I spent onstage and behind a microphone, but, dammit, correct pronunciation is important. It doesn't matter how bright you might be otherwise, there is nothing that will make you sound stupider faster than mispronouncing words. Especially words you should know something about. Doctors and nurses speak fluent “medical-ese.” If you're a mechanic, you know how to pronounce every thingamajig and whatchamacallit, right? Shouldn't the same principle apply to being a cook? C'mon!

Now, I'm not going to get into mispronounced Italian food words here – not much, anyway. I've written reams on the subject elsewhere and besides, it just aggravates me too much. No, I'll stick with a few more common examples, words I've heard both cooks and eaters incorrectly employ.

Like the word “anise.” Okay, I get it that some of you may think the proper pronunciation treads too closely to the word for the ol' excretory orifice, but the word, nevertheless, is “AN-iss.” It is not pronounced like the female offspring of your sibling, “a niece.”

Some people call turmeric “the poor man's saffron” because it's very cheap and very, very yellow. Unfortunately, they also call it “TOOM-er-ick.” No. Pronounce the first “r”. “TER-mer-ick.” Even “TER-muh-rick” is okay. Phonetically, sounding a “u” as “oo” is perfectly good Italian. But unfortunately, “turmeric” is “curcuma” in Italian, so that doesn't wash either.

Ah, those fun-loving French! They don't really eat French fries, you know. Well, they sorta do, but they call them “pommes frites.” And if you call them “pohm-FREET” without pronouncing either final “s”, you won't be laughed at down some pointy Gallic nose.

And “bouillon?” Those little cubes of flavoring you use in soups and such? “Boo-YAWN” or “BOO-yawn.” Never “BULL-yun.”

This one will blow your mind. You know that mild Dutch cheese that everybody – especially my wife – likes so much? If you've been pronouncing “Gouda” as “GOO-dah” all these years, guess what? It's actually “HOW-dah.” How da ya like that?

Spanish/Mexican words get their share of horrible pronunciations. “JalapeƱo” is often screwed up to be “ha-lah-PEE-noh” or worse. The little accent over the “n” means something; it means the letter has an “ny” sound, so the word is properly “hah-lah-PEH-nyoh.” And I'm just assuming you know the “j” sounds like an “h” in Spanish, right? Please don't tell me you've ever said “jallapeeno.” 

And if you're among the sayers of “chee-POLE-tay” (chipotle) when you should be saying “chee-POHT-lay,” you know better.

I would like to tell you that pronouncing “guacamole” as “gwahk-ah-MOLE-ee” rather than “hwak-ah-MOH-lay” is okay, but then I'd have to tell you that rendering “bruschetta” as “broo-SHET-uh” instead of “broo-SKEHT-tah” is okay, too, and it most definitely is not.

I know I said I wasn't going to dwell on bad Italian, but I lied. There's no “zone” to get in when you're pronouncing “calzone,” “provolone,” or “mascarpone.” None of those words end in an “own” sound. They all end as “OH-nay.” And, for the love of whatever deity you love, there is no frickin' “r” before the “s” in “mascarpone.” It is emphatically NOT “MARS-kuh-pone.” It is “mahs-kar-POH-nay.” 

And while we're on the topic of extraneous consonants, please take the “x” out of “espresso.” No matter how fast you might want it, it will never be “expresso.”

Gnocchi, tagliatelle, agnolotti, and any other word that has a “gl” or a “gn” in it will confuse the hell out of most non-Italians. That's why the English-speaking world is constantly assailing our ears with “NOH-kee,” “tag-lee-uh-TEL-ee,” and “ag-nuh-LOT-ee.” When the goose bumps go down, I'll explain that “gn” in Italian sounds like the “ny” in the English word “canyon.” So it's “NYOHK-kee” and “ah-nyah-LOHT-tee.” When it comes to the “gli” combination, the “g” is for all intents silent and you just hit the “li”; “tah-lee-ah-TEHL-leh.”

Be advised, there is no second “r” in “sherbet.” Do you see one there? No. So it's “SHUR-bet,” not “SHUR-bert.”

There is, however, a second “a” in “caramel” and it's meant to be used. “KAR-ah-mel” or “KEHR-ah-mel” are both okay. “KAR-mull” is not. And not only is a growing legion of TV chefs trying to sound trendy by using the term “caramelize” for foods it is chemically impossible to caramelize, they are also saying it wrong. They should know better on both counts.

I'm surprised more Greeks haven't throttled people who order “JIE-rohs.” “Gyro” is pronounced “YEE-roh” or even “HEE-roh,” but not “JIE-roh” or, heaven forbid, “GUY-roh.” And not “JEER-oh” either.

I know “salmon” is confusing. I mean, the “l” is right there in the middle of the word. But you don't use it. Throw it away! Pretend it's not there! “SAM-uhn,” not “SAL-munh.” Unless your last name is “Rushdie.”

This one kills me every time. I could just stand back and sell tickets to a performance of people trying to say “Worcestershire.” It's really not that hard. There's a place in Massachusetts (and in England) called “Worcester.” And they pronounce it “Wooster.” And, unlike hobbits, English people do not live in shires – pronounced “shy-ers.” When tacked on at the end of something, they pronounce “shire” as “shur.” So take “Wooster” and combine it with “shur” and – ta-dah – you have “Wooster-shur.” See, wasn't that easy?

The Vietnamese noodle concoction “pho” is really popular in some areas. So it stands to reason that people who cook it, serve it, or eat it should be able to say it, no? It doesn't rhyme with “no.” It's not “foe.” Think of a vulgar four-letter word that starts with “f” and ends in “c-k.” The leave off the “c-k” and you've got the proper pronunciation of “pho.”

Speaking of Asian food, you know that hot sauce that's really hot nowadays? Sriracha? It's really not a noble substance, so it probably shouldn't be called “Sir Racha.” You know the little island nation that used to be Ceylon back when I was in school? Now it's Sri Lanka, and the first part is pronounced “shree.” Apply that principle to the hot sauce and you get “shree-RAH-cha.” Cool, huh?

Next time you order a sundae or a cocktail, ask for a “mah-rah-SKEEN-oh” (maraschino) cherry instead of a “mare-uh-SHEE-noh.” You might get funny looks, but you'll be pronouncing it properly.

I'll throw in “endive” as a trick question. If you say “EN-dive” you are correct – as long as you are talking about the leafy, curly version. If you are faced with the tightly packed, rather torpedo-looking veggie of Belgian origin, then it's an “on-DEEV.”

Oh, and as far as “croissant” goes, it's “kwah-SAHN.”

The problem with all this correctness, of course, is that correct people will think you are a pompous ass putting on airs. But, hey, I'll take the approbation of intelligent people over the opprobrium of intellectually insufficient ones any day. There's a reason they call things that are right “right” and things that are wrong “wrong” and as Anatole France once said, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” That's my stock answer to those who proclaim, “Well, that's the way I was taught to say it,” or “Well, that's how we say it in America.” With apologies to your teachers and to Old Glory, it is still WRONG! And despite what some would have you believe, “common usage” doesn't make it right. To paraphrase Anatole, “if fifty million people say something wrong, it is still wrong.”

Knowledge is power and now you know. You can thank me later for empowering you. I'm easy to find; I'm the one standing on the soapbox labeled “proper pronunciation” putting on airs in my pompous ass costume.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Panera Bread's Banning Preservatives: Shouldn't You?

If It's Bad Enough for Panera, It Should Be Bad Enough For You

Okay, we all know there's been a paradigm shift going on in the fast food world for awhile now. If the king – McDonald's – isn't dead, it's on the critical list as legions of claimants to the throne line up with “healthier” options, whether perceived or actual, on their menus. Among the up and comers kicking Ronald McDonald in the pants and to the curb is Missouri-based Panera Bread. The fast casual chain with a healthier menu comprised of soups, salads, pasta, sandwiches, and bakery items has been on a meteoric rise of late, copping a place on BusinessWeek's list of “Hot Growth Companies,” staking a claim as North America's healthiest fast casual restaurant in the pages of Health magazine, and being rated by Zagat as #1 for Best Healthy Option and Best Salad as well as being noted as one of the most popular restaurants for eating on the go. Ridi, pagliaccio, the writing's on the wall.

So when the news came out the other day that this paragon of healthy eating was excising a long list of ingredients from its menu, I was intrigued. Most intriguing, of course, was what they were doing there in the first place. Turns out Subway wasn't the only “healthy” eatery making its bread with additives used in the production of yoga mats. (Remember that one?) But.......give them a break. They've seen the error of their ways and they are trying to make amends. Kudos for that.

There are some familiar faces on the new “No-No List,” as the restaurant is calling it. Aspartame, caffeine, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are all there along with caramel color, artificial colors, and the aforementioned azodicarbonamide (the yoga mat stuff) that have been making the news of late. But that's just the tip of the chemical iceberg, boys and girls. Check out the whole megillah below, courtesy of Panera Bread.

Now run to your pantry and fridge and see how many things in there have many, if not most, of the same ingredients. Yep. That's what I thought. Don't feel bad. The preservative pushers have made everything on the list so ubiquitous it's nearly impossible for the average person to avoid them. I do my best. For instance, if I can possibly and knowingly avoid HFCS, I do so. And nothing in my kitchen contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose. I don't use bromated flour. I check for partially hydrogenated oils. I avoid caramel coloring when possible and when not possible, I at least limit its consumption. As for the rest of the list? Wow! Good luck with that. If you buy anything in a box, a can, or a frozen package, some of that stuff is going to be in there. And most of it is pretty scary.

Let's start at the top of the list: the sweetener acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K. Also known as "Ace-K," it's a potassium salt that contains methylene chloride. Methylene chloride is a known carcinogen, long term exposure to which can cause nausea, headaches, mood shifts, liver and kidney problems, problems with eyesight and possibly cancer. Ace-K may also contribute to hypoglycemia. And it's probably in that “healthy” protein shake you had this morning. Or in your Diet Coke.

How about calcium proprionate? That's good stuff. They put it in bread and baked goods. It's an anti-fungal agent that helps give store-bought bread a shelf life roughly equivalent to the half-life of a nuclear isotope. Of course, it has the potential to permanently damage your stomach lining by exacerbating gastritis and inducing severe ulcers. Kids love that gummy white bread and all those baked goodies, right? Well, studies have shown that chronic exposure in children might cause behavioral changes such as irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance. These behavioral changes appear to be reversible when the substance is removed from the child’s diet. Oh, and if you're a migraine sufferer, you might be interested to know that calcium proprionate is linked to migraine headaches. Fermented foods, which naturally produce calcium propionate, have historically been linked to headaches. The website FoodReactions warns that if you experience any adverse side effects to other fermented products, you may also experience the same side effects with calcium proprionate.

How do you feel about EDTA? Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (see why they abbreviate it?), also listed on some labels as “disodium EDTA,” is actually a prescription drug used to treat lead poisoning among a host of other things. As a “safe” food additive, EDTA is used to “fortify” grain-based products such as breakfast cereals and cereal bars. It's also used to enhance the color, texture, and flavor of food. Of course, there's the abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, low blood pressure, skin problems, and fever it can cause. Now I'm sure there isn't much of it in the foods we consume, but it should be noted that it is considered unsafe to ingest more than 3 grams of EDTA per day, or to take it for longer than 5 to 7 days. Too much can cause kidney damage, dangerously low calcium levels, and death. EDTA might make heart rhythm problems worse. It might interfere with blood sugar control because it can interact with insulin, making it a poor choice for diabetics. Avoid using EDTA if you have a liver condition or kidney disease. And it might increase the risk of seizure in people with epilepsy or in people who tend to have seizures. Other than that, fuhgeddaboudit. No problem.

I could go on and on – and I usually do – but you've got eyes and fingers: go look it up for yourself. It'll scare the hell out you seeing what the government watchdogs – or is that “lapdogs” – at the USDA and the FDA allow commercial food producers to pump into our stomachs. “GRAS,” they call it; “Generally Regarded As Safe.” The party line is “oh, a little bit of this and a minute amount of that aren't going to hurt you.” And that may be true. But look at how much of “this” and “that” are in everything you put in your mouth. Day in, day out, year after year after year. When does the cumulative effect of all those “minute amounts” start to kick in? I don't know about you, but I prefer to wait until after I'm dead to be embalmed.

Buona fortuna, Panera Bread. I don't know how you plan to eliminate all that stuff from your menu, but I'm glad you're doing it. Maybe you can come over to my house and help me eliminate it from mine. I'm conscientious about such things to the point of being considered a food-Nazi by some and I still find eliminating or even limiting preservatives to be an almost impossible task. That's because I'm really not a food-Nazi. Yes, I try to buy fresh and wholesome foodstuffs as much as possible, but I succumb to the lure of Oreos and soda and potato chips just like everybody else. So unless you're one of the hoity-toity who only eat organic food grown by cloistered monks at a secret compound high in the Rockies or something, chances are you're going to be unwittingly preserved by the nutritionally void dreck foisted upon us by the commercial food industry and its minions. But you can try! Sometimes it works. Look at the so-called “Food Babe” who mounted a successful campaign to get Kraft to remove Yellow Nos. 5 and 6 from their classic macaroni and cheese. And look at all the labels these days that practically scream “NO HFCS!” That happened because people spoke up and said they didn't want HFCS. Money talks and yours will speak volumes when you use it to purchase real food, even if you have to pay a few pennies more for it.

Read the “No-No List” again. Check your labels and start Googling. Then follow Panera's lead and begin removing questionable ingredients from your daily diet. Knowledge is power. The food companies bank on the fact that most people don't even know what ninety percent of the crap listed on the label is. Folks trust that it must be okay because otherwise “the government” wouldn't allow it to be in there. Ri-i-i-i-i-ight! Do your homework and then take the “No-No List” with you when you hit the supermarket. Shop like your life depends on it. Because it does.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

James Beard Honors Allan Benton

Well-Deserved Recognition

You can search the food world over and you'll never find a nicer guy than Allan Benton. He runs a modest little shop in a way off the beaten path place in the hills of East Tennessee. I won't say he doesn't know the meaning of the word “pretension” because he's a smart guy and I'm sure he does. But he doesn't exhibit an ounce of it. He keeps his shoulder to the wheel the same as he has every day since 1973 when he took over an established smokehouse operation started by Albert H. Hicks in 1947 and renamed it “Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.” Ask him and he'll tell you he doesn't do anything special. His business isn't rocket science, he says. “If it was, I surely couldn't do it.” He avers over and over that he “ain't nothin' but an ol' hillbilly.”

Having spent more than forty years in various parts of the South, I know a lot of “ol' hillbillies.” But Allan Benton is the only one I know who has a James Beard award.

After being praised for years by top chefs from coast to coast – including the “Top Chef” himself, Tom Colicchio – the “ol' hillbilly” from Virginia and East Tennessee has been recognized by the renowned James Beard Foundation when they recently inducted him into the annals of “Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.” And it's about time.

Awards from the James Beard Foundation are the culinary equivalents of the Oscars. Only the best of the best are chosen. From, “The James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America is a cadre of the most accomplished food and beverage professionals in the country. Though they represent a diverse cross-section of the food and beverage industry—from chefs to journalists to farmers to business executives to scholars—each has been identified by his or her peers as having displayed remarkable talent and achievement. Every member of the Who’s Who has contributed in some substantial way to America’s constantly evolving culinary scene.” And that last line is Allan Benton in a nutshell.

Allan Benton is a national treasure. As in the old song, Allan was “country when country wasn't cool.” He learned his trade at the hands of his parents and grandparents and he stayed true to those time-honored methods in spite of pressures to modernize, expand, and capitalize. His persistence and dedication to quality paid off handsomely when the rest of the world finally caught on to what he'd known all along.

There were lean times. His hams and bacon sold well enough locally to customers who dropped by his store on Highway 411 North in Madisonville, but he wasn't exactly storming the ramparts of commercial suppliers like Hormel and Oscar Meyer. And, truth be told, he didn't really want to because in order to compete with those national entities, or even with regional bigshots like Valleydale, he would have had to have changed his methods. He could have installed brine injectors and automated slicers and all the other trappings of factory produced ham and bacon, but he chose to stay true to his roots. And in doing so, he positioned himself at the forefront of a movement that hadn't even taken shape yet. Talk about cutting edge!

It took a recent fire in the smokehouse to get Allan to expand a little. But his storefront is still the same as it's been for decades. So is his office, located just to the left of the front door. Sometimes he's in there on the phone. Sometimes he's back in the smokehouse. Sometimes he's on the sales floor chatting with customers who no longer hail just from Madisonville. Oh, the locals are still there, but on any given day, Allan can be found mingling with people from Maine or California or Florida or Texas or maybe Canada. The grocery store chains hound him for the rights to sell his products. He declines. Same reason as always; in order to supply a store like Kroger the way an Oscar Meyer does, Allan would have to pump up the volume by pumping his bacon full of water and preservatives the way Oscar Meyer does. And that ain't gonna happen.

Allan dry cures his bacon. Hand rubs it with salt and brown sugar and sets it aside to cure for a month. Then it's wreathed in thick hickory and applewood smoke before being sliced, hand packaged and vacuum sealed. The result is not your anemic supermarket bacon. Uh-uh. When you bite Allan's bacon, it bites back. Some might consider the unctuous salty-sweet-smokiness an acquired taste, but man, once you acquire it, you'll never go back to bland bacon. The pork Allan processes comes from pasture-raised heritage breed pigs; animals that are never subjected to concrete feed lots and are never pumped full of hormones.

Here's Allan's take; “This is the way bacon was made for years. This is the way it was made years ago. Now we're going quicker. But our goal isn't to make it quicker. It's to make the best bacon we can make."

And it's Allan's dedication to hands-on quality that's put him at the top of the culinary world. Yeah, he could probably be a kajillionaire if he sold out, but he does pretty darn well with the client list he's established over the years. Tom Colicchio, Sean Brock, Hugh Acheson, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, David Chang and a host of kitchen heavyweights from coast to coast and border to border scarf up as much of his premium pork product as they can possibly procure. In fact, Chang calls Allan a “hero” and refers to his pork as “the ultimate old-school product.” John T. Edge, noted writer, commentator, and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance unabashedly calls Benton's “the country's best bacon.”

Allan's mail order business is booming. You want a couple of pounds of bacon? No problem. Order online today and in four to six weeks it'll be delivered to your door. Or you can follow my lead and make an occasional hundred mile detour just to drop by the shop.

And you know what? I'll bet Allan will show me that James Beard award next time I'm in the neighborhood. But he won't have it out on display. That's not his style. He takes quiet pride in his accomplishments. To him it's just about a job well done. That's the way “ol' hillbillies” look at things.

Congratulations, Allan, on yet another well-deserved recognition.

Note: Check out Allan's appearance on the award-winning PBS series “Mind of a Chef.” Look for Season 1: Episode 15 “Smoke” in which chef David Chang “profiles regional barbecue in North Carolina, Texas and Kansas City and the otherworldly smoky bacon from Allen Benton in Tennessee.” It's available on DVD and is also streaming on Netflix. There's also a little YouTube short on Benton's at