Cone-traversy on 24th Street


Louis-Philibert Debucourt’s “Frascati” (1807) shows a scene from the Parisian glacerie.

The St. Francis Fountain, as we all know, has been operating on 24th street in San Francisco’s Mission District for a very long time.  The self-described “old-fashioned confectionery” says it opened in 1918, and claims to be the oldest operating ice cream counter the City.  Its longstanding 1940′s interior was renovated about ten years ago: a Formica soda-bar with red vinyl upholstered swivel stools, period clocks and neon, banquettes, a burgers-and-shakes menu, and a stern attitude about the proper use of an ice cream cone.

Last weekend I went to the St. Francis with a friend and visitor to the City who, to protect from scandal, we will call “V”;  She is a petit, attractive woman of means, known in some quarters of the sports world.  We were accompanied by a gay couple (“D” and “L”, if you must know), and their two-year-old son to whom we will to not even pseudonymously refer due to his age and the delicate situation I will now describe.

We seated ourselves, all in a row, at the long Formica counter, manned (and yes, it was an all-male staff save one rather bewildered-looking lady scooper) by smartly-dressed young hipsters clothed in the lean styles and mustaches the 1960s.  I ordered a single scoop of Mitchell’s coconut ice cream in a cup.  V. asked for a small vanilla cone.  The lady-scooper, new-on-the-job, took our orders. D., and L. were served in turn, followed by their young son, who (fortunately, as you will note) opted for a dish rather than a cone.

Food can be taken quite seriously in San Francisco.  The manager of the St. Francis rushed from the kitchen to confront V.  You could hear him struggle to remain civil as he spoke.  “Cones are not served at the counter.”  He cast an accusing look at the lady scooper (who had actually prepared the cone), and then at V. for entrapping the staff. “The cone,” he recited, in a tone one might reserve for the Book of Matthew, “is by tradition a carrying device for take-out ice-cream.” We were invited to consider these also-unthinkable analogies: “serving hamburgers at the tables in paper bags”, “sodas in to-go cups”, “a waiter bringing ketchup packets.”

Our lady scooper had slunk away by now (no doubt to face more dire analogies later).  The manager approached us, arms extended, in an apparent attempt to gain control of the cone.   V. was unswayed: “I can have the scoop in a bowl, with the cone on top. Like a hat.”  As she spoke, she moved the cone close to her chest, then motioned — perhaps, batted — the manager away. She fixed her gaze on him. “I like the cone,” she said.  There would be no more discussion.


The St. Francis Fountain on 24th Street in San Francisco

And so the bowl came, amid grumbled disclaimers from the manager.  In went the ice cream cone, inverted, and so, partially defused.  “This is a one-time event!” muttered the manager.  He had lost control of the shop(pe), and he knew it.  Helpness now, he addressed the female staffer:  “If the owner were here, he would say the very same thing.”

V., victorious, possessing both cone and bowl, surveyed the crowd.  But her fellow diners seemed to side with the manager.  There were murmurs and mutual glances among the crowd.  V. turned her back on them, picked up the spoon, and ate.

The St. Francis Fountain’s stock is in it’s purity of tradition.  It’s a play that often employs a heavy dose of kitch.  Schtick, even.  The old-time appeal is an unsubtle respite from food innovation, and its relentless stress of choice.

Just one block away, a competing ice cream shop trades in exotic futures.  The transgressive mecca for foodies is called Humphrey-Slocum, after the main characters in 1980′s BBC television series “Are You Being Served?”.  The counter looks like that of a dry cleaner, as it may well have been recently.  From a barren mini-storefront they serves up flavors like FlufferNutter, Thai chili lIme, “Jesus Juice,” and, of course, several combinations of bacon.  Each weeks’ flavors shock anew on Twitter, Facebook, and, as we are in San Francisco, Google Plus.  The food press lights up with regular commentary and adoration.

It’s a stand-off on 24th Street.  The Saint Francis staring down Slocum’s “ice cream with attitude.”  Simple chocolate and strawberry against “Skull splitter,” “Pink grapefruit tarragon,” and “Strawberry Candied Jalapeño”.  The scooper is, say, a pink-haired man who favors Comme Des Garçons.  Because it is an affront to transgressivism, “vanilla” at Humphey-Slocum is spelled as the neologized obscenity “v*nill@” so it can appear on the menu.


Detail from “Frascati”

The prevailing factors for our recent choice of The St. Francis were ambiance and — literally and figuratively — vanilla.  Being told what we can and can’t do there achieved its goal, to underscore the traditional authenticity of the experience.

But inappropriateness of a sit-down cone appears to be the flip side of Humphrey-Slocum’s drag show.   The very first ice cream cones evolved in France from flat wafer-like waffles, similar to the modern Italian pizzelle, that were eventually side-rolled into a “cornucopia” to contain both savory and sweet foods.   Food historians Robert J. Weir and (wife) Caroline Liddell, who have written several books around the history of ice cream, have produced the earliest documented use of the ice cream cone: circa 1807 at a fashionable café in Paris, back when Napoleon I was king of France.  In the print the couple uncovered, a elegant woman  (who looks rather similar to V.) is shown seated at a table licking an ice cream cone.   There is no bowl or spoon in sight.

Something Fishy in “Organic” Valley

Organic Valley is an odd place.  The “pastured” cows share the figurative pasture they so happily roam with sardines, anchovies, tilapia, and no small amount of processing equipment.  All these animals – and the human masterminds behind this concoction – cooperate to produce a white composite liquid that can sit unopened in the refrigerator for 70 days without spoiling.  The folks in Organic Valley, and, inexplicably, the US government, call this stuff “organic milk.”

According to the producers, the so-called milk is rich in Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA).  Some small part of this stuff comes from the cows, most of it comes from the fish.  The question of course, is that even if we accept that we want additional amounts of these purported nutrients, wouldn’t it make more sense to just eat some actual (and more natural) seafood at some later time in the day?

Too Approachable?

A guilty pleasure: “Cocobon” California red at $6/bottle

Yes, I have other wines at home.  Wines that have high ratings from magazines like the Quarterly Review of Wines, and Wine Spectator.   So why have I been opening this $6/bottle Trader Joes — and enjoying it so much?

It’s because I’m not just a wine spectator, I also like to drink the stuff.  And I like other people to drink with me and enjoy the wine as well.

Wine-people will charitably call a bottle like this “approachable”.  What they are really saying, in code, is that the wine is uninteresting, and, if you like it, perhaps you are too.

But products (it really is a mass-market product)  like Cocobon are just too drinkable to dismiss.  The scent of the wine is quite pleasant and even slightly sweet, but certainly not cloying — just inviting.  The taste is very simple, also pleasant, and it goes with everything. And  I mean everything — from peanut butter to steak to shellfish.  Cocobon not trying to do much, but it does a nice job of tasting good, and not interfering with the food.

For many, this is more than enough.  And if you don’t know who will be drinking it with you, it’s a safe and good bet.  The wine doesn’t even bother divulging what grapes are used.  Merlot?  Grenache? Cabernet?  Who cares?

“There’s probably not more than 20¢ worth of wine in that bottle.”  A very wine-savvy friend is skeptical of wines like Cocobon. “It’s no doubt drinkable, but it’s like bad TV.  It doesn’t take you anywhere.”

Cocobon may simply take those who enjoy it back to Trader Joe’s for more.  As such drinkable mass-market wines gain in popularity, more interesting wines, whose alien scents and tannic tastes challenge us (or excite us, depending who you are), may lose market share — and cabinet space — to the $6 products.

An animated octopus dish

As part of this week’s Cheap Eats column in The Boston Globe, I visited New England’s new and only franchise of the South Korean restaurant chain Bon Chon.They serve a clever take on the familiar Japanese octopus dumplings called takoyaki(たこ焼き):  Serve immediately so they are very hot, and cover them with thin, wide strips of cured bonito that undulate in the rising heat like, well, tentacles.

“Takoyaki is served with papery ribbons of bonito (dried, smoked skipjack tuna) that look lifelike as they writhe and wriggle over hot, fried octopus dumplings.”  [full article]

Sizes start at large: Lattes, muffins, waistlines

Baked "goods" at Barnes & Noble in Penllyn, PA

Baked “goods” at Barnes & Noble in Penllyn, PA

Some weeks ago, I was talking with a well-known Catalan chef who was visiting the United States, Boston to be more specific.  She had a few observations on American food.  “The muffins are enormous.  They are as big as a fist!  Who needs to eat the much?”  she laughed.  I laughed too.  Of all the things to notice about American food, by a rather famous chef no less.  Ha ha!  I chuckled the next time I visited a Starbucks (I usually frequent more rarified bakeries in Boston).

Ask for a "small" latte, get 16 ounces.

Ask for a “small” latte, get 16 ounces.

Here outside of Philadelphia, in the mall-lined exurbs, where you have no choice, its no longer seems so funny.  It’s upsetting.   A muffin, a slice of cake, a cookie at any of the chain cafés (Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, even Panera) is huge.  All the cookies at the Barnes and Noble café are at least 5 inches across and weigh about a quarter-pound.   There are no small options, and the prices are very low.

The side effect here is that even local cafés and bakeries must respond by producing equally large items, or face habituated customers who feel shortchanged.

Yes, I do know this subject has been covered.  To continue:  Starbucks admits on its web site that one of its 4.5-inch cookies, sweetened with “anhydrous dextrose”, contains half our total daily tolerance for saturated fat, and more sugar than 8oz of Mountain Dew.  And that’s if you believe a given cookie is only 84 grams, the “serving size” on which the disclosed figures are based.  I’ll need to conduct a cookie weigh-in on my home digital scale soon.

The people here are, by and large, quite fat.  The Wall-E lifestyle of driving to malls, to everywhere really, and washing down a huge, flavorless cookie, or a massive muffin, with a “tall” latte (there is no small) produces a visible statistical effect.

Golden Beet Salad with Pickled Red Onion and Parsley

In February, I wrote up a recipe for the Boston Globe for pork belly tacos with rooibos-pickled red onion.  That recipe’s creator is a young chef named Austin Banach who works in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.  Several factors have contributed to turning the those excellent pickled onions into a fantastic beet salad.

  1. Whole Foods now has excellent golden beets all the time.  They are one of my favorite vegetables.
  2. All this talk about a “bacon bubble” is making me worry that it soon will be not-fashionable to make pork belly.  We could be in a “pork belly bubble” (which would at least have some alliteration) whose burst is imminent, so I am making pork belly tonight, while we still have time.
  3. The salad has sweet, salty, and acid elements that are great with the roasted pork belly.  The crisp (onion), firm (golden beets), and varied textures of the roasted pork belly (crispy, meaty) are perfect alongside the salad, or rolled with it in a toasted flour tortilla.

The pork belly is made as described in the original recipe.  Serve it with crusty Italian bread, and the salad below.

Golden Beet Salad with Pickled Red Onion and Parsley

  • 4 large golden beets
  • 1 red onion, sliced and quartered
  • 1/2 cup Japanese rice wine vinegar (the sweetened and salted kind)
  • 1 teabag, rooibos or other red-colored fruity tea
  • olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C)
  2. Cut the stems off the golden beets, rub them with olive oil, and roast them in the oven, , cut-end down, on a cookie sheet for 80 minutes (or until a knife easily pokes through).
  3. Set the golden beets aside to cool.  (They can even be made the day before)
  4. Mix three tablespoons boiling water with the vinegar and the tea bag.  Let steep 5 minutes and remove the teabag
  5. Place the onions in a medium sized bowl, pour in the tea mixture, and mix to coat/soak all the onions.  Chill the result (in the fridge or freezer).
  6. Peel and slice the beets into pieces a bit larger than bite size. In a large bowl, mix the chilled onion mixture, chopped parsley, and sliced beets.
  7. Toss gently and pour into the serving bowl.  Serve warm.

Serves 5

With roasted pork belly in a toasted tortilla

Screen shot 2011-05-19 at 7.24.59 PM

Dutch Oven Chicken with Thai Chilies and Garlic

This chicken dish is brilliantly spicy, but not at all overpowering. The taste complexity seems impossible from just 5 ingredients.  And it’s easy to make.

The ingredients

The results

The secret here is to de-seed the Thai chilies before you chop them.  With seeds left in, the quantity of chilies used would be unbearably hot.  The red flesh of the Thai chili has a less forceful and more complex heat that works well with garlic and black pepper.  The Dominican Republic has become a major exporter of these (and other) fresh chilies, and of many exotic Asian vegetables.

  • 2 pounds (1 kg) chicken thighs, peppered and lightly salted.  (bone in, skin on preferred)
  • 12 fresh Thai chilies, de-seeded and roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup (200 ml) dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup (50 ml) olive oil
  • 1 cup (200 ml) vegetable stock
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  1. In a wide cast iron dutch oven, heat 1/4 cup olive oil (medium flame) and place the chicken in one layer, skin side up.
  2. Let the chicken cook in this position until brown, about 8 minutes over a medium flame.
  3. Turn the chicken, and brown the skin side, about 8 minutes.  Take care not to scorch the chicken (or burn the oil) on a too-high flame.  Also, do not crowd the pan.  If necessary, brown the chicken in batches.
  4. When all the chicken has been browned,  remove it from the pan, set aside, and turn off the heat completely.
  5. Immediately add the chilies and garlic to the hot oil  in the pan.  The cast iron will be hot enough to nicely cook the garlic and chili in about 4 minutes without burning.  Stir occasionally.
  6. After 4-5 minutes, turn the flame back on, at medium-high, and deglaze the pan with a cup of white wine.  Boil for 2-3 minutes so the alcohol can evaporate off.  Some may enjoy adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice here to brighten the flavors a bit.
  7. Put all the chicken in the pan, skin side up, and pour in the vegetable stock.  Cook on medium-high heat for 12 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half.
  8. Serve in a wide bowl, with generous spoonfuls of the sauce.

Demystifying the Blossom: Squash & Zucchini

Zucchini blossoms (soaked in cold water for an hour)

Food reader, you have no doubt been enticed by the delicate and intricate recipes — and their accompanying carefully-styled photos — for squash blossoms that involve stuffing them, breading them, and other impossible tasks that will cause anyone to never prepare squash blossoms again.

Stuffing the blossom is an activity best reserved for brain surgeons and those suffering from various obsessive-compulsive disorders.  The blossom tears apart easily as you try to stuff it, and easier still in the pan.  Those enticed to bread the blossoms and fry them will enjoy the result as much as anything that’s breaded and fried, but the delicate taste is diminished.

Just sauté them for a couple minutes in a bit of olive oil and butter, salt and pepper.  The result is beautiful, the taste is vegetable-floral and delicate, and the texture will be firm.

Sadly, you may never even get to try.  Even at farmers markets, vendors don’t want to sell them. “They wilt less than a day after they’re picked.  No one will buy wilted blossoms,” says my neighborhood farm-to-overpriced-market owner.  Yes, they may look wilted when you buy them.  Just soak them in cold water for an hour, and they miraculously revive (see photo, above). The same applies for the blossoms of zucchini plants (whose vines produce blossoms in even greater abundance).

I’ve prepared some food-porn, complete with a bit of over-saturated color, to emphasize the point.  Below, the versatile and supple blossoms are shown solo, and lavished on a pork roast.   White wine of course.

with pork roast

blossom-as-hero shot

The Pretense of Burdick’s

I got to Hi-Rise Bakery in Harvard Square minutes late. It was closing – closed actually – so I will have to get inferior coffee at that pretentious fool-shack next door called Burdicks.

Tiny tables of Harvard hangers-on presenting themselves in plein gourmandise for tiny cubes of single-source and overpriced chocolates served on a porcelain square. So much geometry, so little taste.

My “pavé glacé” square of dark choclate is neither frozen or frosted, it’s just in French. And why must such places dust everything with powders? (cocoa in this case, and the croissants are inexplicably showered with confectioners sugar).

The windbag clientele needs to inhale a lot, and so they are choking/coughing, in turns, as the dusted mouthfuls get each of them one by one.

Where vegetables are unhealthy?

make vegetables delectable?

Local tomatoes are in season here in New England.  Summer, of course, is the time to enjoy fresh, local produce of all sorts wherever you may be.  Except in Hidden Valley.

The folks at HV Food Products, makers of Hidden Valley Ranch dressings, say (in a barrage of TV commercials on the Food Network) that your vegetables aren’t “delectable” unless you slather them with sugar, MSG, and a raft a flavor enhancers and oily fats.

The company’s new campaign has the actress Jenny Garth explaining why fresh, in-season vegetables need all this, and healthy dose of calcium disodium EDTA preservative to keep them that way for — months.

Remote food

Dining car at the Food Shark

The dining car at the Food Shark (image from the Food Shark).

Marfa is difficult to get to. Fortunately, you can eat quite happily once you get there. The two are connected, though the explanation requires a little patience on your part.

Way out in the high desert of Texas, Marfa is several hours of fast driving from the nearest major airport. I flew into El Paso and, on a tip from a jazz trombonist who knows his food, provisioned myself with some quite good green chile tamales from Pepe’s (just off Hwy 10) before leaving town and heading north north-west. The next three hours were filled with desert, big-rig trucks, Spanish-language radio, and the judicious use of cruise control.

Judd, the minimal
Before he passed away in 1994, the sculptor Donald Judd established a constellation of studios, living spaces, and art installation spaces in Marfa. He’d passed through the town years before as an enlistee in the US Army and been struck by its remoteness from everything else. As a successful artist showing mostly in New York and other major urban centers, Judd’s Marfa experiment began as an attempt to create art that would, by virtue of its isolation and placement, force the viewer to experience it mindful of its location and context. Judd’s largest works are installed here, at the Chinati Foundation which he established in a decommissioned military base on the edge of town.

One of the 15 untitled works in concrete

One of the 15 untitled works in concrete on the Chinati Foundation’s grounds.

As you drive into the town center on Hwy 67, you pass the southwest corner of the Chinati Foundation’s property. Here, sixty enormous concrete boxes arrayed in fifteen clusters of three to five boxes along a kilometer-long north-south axis. The boxes are of the same external dimensions but each cluster’s boxes have different faces left open.

One hundred works in mill aluminum

A few of the hundred works in mill aluminum.

Behind the concrete works, in two retrofitted hangers, sit a hundred boxes fabricated of mill aluminum to the same external dimensions but with internal volumes permuted a hundred different ways. Both installations invite the viewer to explore the mutability and variety of light, shadow, and space.

Judd’s was a rigorous aesthetic of consistency and consideration in the making and doing of things. Those who were attracted to Judd’s Marfa shared or developed something of that same rigor. This is not to say that Marfa isn’t an art town, because it is. It just happens to be an art town that has only a minimal tolerance for fluff and tchotchkes.

Marfa food
And so we come to the food. Does the spirit of a place permeate its food, like a sort of genius loci? In Marfa, as in other places, maybe it does. For a town with a small population and only a handful of eateries, it was a happy surprise to find as many good places to eat as I did. Two in particular felt like they’d absorbed the spirit of place: simple but not simplistic, complex but not complicated, carefully considered.


The Food Shark

The Food Shark at Ballroom Marfa (image from the Food Shark).

Food truck eating
The Food Shark is a food truck that shows up Mondays through Fridays under a canopy next to the railway line running through downtown Marfa. Krista Steinhauer and Adam Bork bought the truck for a small sum and keep costs down by prepping in a kitchen they built in their duplex. They recently installed a dining car—it’s a refurbished schoolbus parked right next to the Food Shark and the railroad track—to accommodate those who find the large tables designed by Judd too exposed to the elements. This is a quirky operation.

Food Shark food is simple and to the point. It’s not trying to be something it isn’t. It is what it is. Here’s an example. One of the best sandwiches I’ve eaten in a long time was a Food Shark reuben (a special that day): pastrami on dense toasted rye, with sauerkraut, swiss, and Russian dressing, served with dilled potato salad. As a list of components, this reuben sounds just like any other. As a gestalt, perfectly made and full of balanced yet distinct flavours, warm in your hand and incredibly unpretentious, it has a weightiness that makes you go quiet, eat it instantly, and then think about it for a long time. On reuben day, the town was empty and flooded in desert sun, and a windstorm was blowing eddies of sand and tumbleweeds about.


Dinner service at Cochineal

Dinner service at Cochineal

Calm under pressure
I stayed in Marfa for only a few days before heading north-east to Austin. The last night I was in town, I went to Cochineal to see what most people told me was the upper end of the local restaurant scene. Just a few years old and three years in the making, Cochineal’s kitchen staff is tiny and consists entirely of Marfa natives trained by proprietors Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara (previously of Etats-Unis in New York). There’s been no turnover in the kitchen in the two years they’ve been open. I sat close to the pass and watched the sous-chefs working in the open kitchen through dinner. The dining room filled up up quickly and orders began to filter in faster and faster, but the kitchen action remained precise, quiet, coordinated, and (most pleasingly of all) unfailingly polite. Making the food well was as important as making the food good.

And the food was good. It was really good, and didn’t call attention to itself with fancy pyrotechnics. Handmade pasta dressed with oil, anchovies, tomatoes, and capers, then showered with grated Parmesan was simultaneously tender and delicate, robust and meaty. A veal chop was grilled a textbook medium-rare, served with with black olives, crisp pan-roasted potatoes and parsley. Warm date pudding both dense and light at the same time, and mildly sweet with the complex flavour of molasses and dried fruit; the pile of gently-whipped, nearly unsweetened cream alongside was exactly what the pudding wanted. [pullquote]The food had a clarity rare in an age afflicted with fads: it was carried by classic flavor combinations and superb execution. With a crisp, cold Sapporo, this joined my short list of nearly-perfect meals.[/pullquote]

Spirit of place
So, back to the question: Is Donald Judd’s Marfa connected to the Food Shark and Cochineal? My take: Yes. They all share the quality that comes from careful consideration and believing that the act of making of a thing can be as important to do well as the thing itself. Here in the thin desert air, under wide skies and far from the rest of the world, Marfa’s food and art seem quite at home with each other.