On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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Why Lobster Isn’t Priced Like Chicken

In 2005, Maine lobster was selling for almost six dollars a pound wholesale. By 2009, it cost just half that, and, in the past couple of summers, huge lobster harvests, believed by some to be a result of global warming, have glutted the market, sending prices tumbling further. This month, lobster off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound. So why hasn’t the price of lobster come down when you’re buying it at your favorite restaurant?

James Surowiecki explains in The New Yorker that lobster isn’t like a commodity, but rather is more like a luxury good. If it were priced like chicken, people would presumably enjoy it less:

Keeping prices high obviously lets restaurants earn more on each dish. But it may also mean that they get less business. So why aren’t we seeing markdowns? Some of the reasons are straightforward, like the inherent uncertainty of prices from year to year: if a bad harvest next summer sent prices soaring, restaurants might find it hard to sell expensive lobster to customers who’d got used to cheap lobster. But the deeper reason is that, economically speaking, lobster is less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors.

Lobster hasn’t always been a high-end product. In Colonial New England, it was a low-class food, in part because it was so abundant: servants, as a condition of their employment, insisted on not being fed lobster more than three times a week. In the nineteenth century, it became generally popular, but then, as overharvesting depleted supplies, it got to be associated with the wealthy (who could afford it). In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.

Another additional point worth highlighting:

Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent.

Finally, having lobster on the menu is a boon for restaurants because its artificially high price makes other dishes on the menu comparatively more affordable. Cited in Surowiecki’s piece is a fascinating paper by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky concerning these context-dependent preferences:

The standard theory of choice-based on value maximization-associates with each option a real value such that, given an offered set, the decision maker chooses the option with the highest value. Despite its simplicity and intuitive appeal, there is a growing body of data that is inconsistent with this theory. In particular, the relative attractiveness of x compared to y often depends on the presence or absence of a third option z, and the “market share” of an option can actually be increased by enlarging the offered set. We review recent empirical findings that are inconsistent with value maximization, and present a context-dependent model that expresses the value of each option as an additive combination of two components: a contingent weighting process that captures the effect of the background context, and a binary comparison process that describes the effect of the local context. The model accounts for observed violations of the standard theory and provides a framework for analyzing context-dependent preferences.

MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.

A Brief History of the Children’s Food Menu

Michele Humes has an interesting post at Slate profiling the brief history of the kid’s menu at restaurants across America:

Depending on where you stand vis-à-vis childrearing, the golden age of youth dining in America either began or ended with the Volstead Act. ​In the century leading up to the dry laws, children rarely ate out. A child had to be relatively well-off in order to dine in public, and a guest at a hotel to boot. (Restaurants not attached to hotels didn’t tend to serve children, reasoning that they got in the way of boozy grown-up fun.) But the lucky boy or girl who could tick these boxes was assured of a pretty good time. When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861 (his two volumes of crotchety travelogue were later published as North America), he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.

Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.

The earliest children’s menus didn’t look so different from the playful ones we know today. The Waldorf-Astoria put Little Jack Horner on the cover of their pink-and-cream booklet; as he brandishes his plummy thumb, a dish runs away with a spoon. But then there was the food—the bland, practically monastic food, appearing all the more austere for the teddy bear picnic taking place overleaf. Here was flaked chicken over boiled rice; here were mixed green vegetables in butter; here was a splat of prune whip. And the one dish that appeared without exception—the chicken nugget of the Jazz Age—was a plain broiled lamb chop.

Read the rest here.

On the Pleasures of Reading Recipes

Bee Wilson, writing in The New Yorker, on the pleasures of reading recipes:

Recipe readers are always talking about how cookbooks are like novels, and there’s a clue here to how we actually read them. Like a short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fiction as literature “concerned with the narration of imaginary events.” This is what recipes are: stories of pretend meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are written in the imperative tense (pick the basil leaves, peel the onion). Yes, you might do that tomorrow, but right now, you are doing something else. As you read, your head drowsily on the pillow, there is no onion, but you watch yourself peel it in your mind’s eye, tugging off the papery skin and noting with satisfaction that you have not damaged the layers underneath.

Wilson writes the piece after reading William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Wilson continues:

My favorite recipe was No. 65, “Creamed Mushrooms,” taken from “The International Jewish Cookbook,” by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum (1919). The recipe itself is for mushrooms simmered in a béchamel sauce with “a gill of cream” added. “Cooked like this,” Greenbaum tells us, “mushrooms have more nutritive value than beef.” Sitwell uses the recipe as a springboard into a discussion of the pop-up toaster (invented by Charles Strite in the same year as Greenbaum’s cookbook), and the “frantic and fiercely fought battles” driving rival patents for toast-making. Finally, he ponders “the Cat and the Buttered Toast Theory.” Buttered toast is notorious for landing buttered-side down. Likewise, it is said that a cat “if dropped, always lands on its feet.” So, Sitwell asks, “what happens if you tie a slice of buttered toast to the cat’s back? When the cat is dropped, will the two opposing forces of butter and feet cause the cat to hover?”

Indeed,

[B]eing asked to read recipes for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations. The vast majority of the recipes we read are hypothetical.

Read the rest here.

Sonkers, Grunts, Slumps, and Crumbles

I had no idea that there were so many variations of pie in the United States until I read this interesting New York Times piece:

A big, deep, soupy mess of warm fruit or soft sweet potato, the sonker was made to feed everyone who happened to be working at the farm on any given summer day. Like the many other players in the loose-knit team of dishes based on cooked fruit and bread, it began as a way to stretch fruit that was perhaps past its glory or make use of economical fillings like wild blackberries.

A big pan of sonker was easy to haul to the church supper or the event in the South known as the “covered dish.” It is less fussy than a traditional round pie, and easier to serve to a crowd.

At this point, the astute reader is probably thinking this sounds like a cobbler with a funny name. But what is a cobbler, really? Is it the freewheeling cousin of the crisp? The Southern answer to the thrifty New England brown Betty? A pan dowdy with integrity? A pie for lazy people?

If you are looking for clarity, I apologize. Unlike a classic pie, which everyone can pretty much agree on, the broader category of baked fruit desserts like cobblers and crisps is at once specific and general. These dishes are so regional that people within the same county will disagree on the proper form, but so accessible and varied in interpretation that no one has a lock. A proper cobbler (or a crisp or a Betty or a sonker) is what you grew up eating.

I’ll take a side of cobbler, sonker down, crumbling my way to food heaven, please.

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Related: Wikipedia’s list of pies, tarts, and flans.

The Invention of the Ice Cream Cone

With summer here, it’s good to reflect on America’s favorite dessert: ice cream. Per this brief New York Times article, the first ice cream cone was popularized (invented?) at the 1904 World’s Fair by a Syrian vendor:

America was on the cusp of an agricultural golden age as the first gas-powered tractors plowed fields and bumper crops spilled out of silos. People who gaped with wonder at the abundance at the fair may well have longed for a way to sample it immediately. According to eyewitness accounts, Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian concessions vendor, invented a way to make that possible: he curled a waffle cookie and transformed it into a receptacle for ice cream. This freed tourists to climb miniature Tyrolean Alps or witness the creation of the earth while slurping ice cream. No plates. No spoons. It was a revelation.

I’ll be making a few visits to Bruster’s ice cream in the next few months, to be sure.

Dinner in the Sky: Hanger Steak is on the Menu

The Wall Street Journal reports on two Belgian entrepreneurs who thought people would pay lavish sums to dangle from a crane and have their meal too:

Their effort began here as a stunt six years ago, when publicist David Ghysels and crane specialist Stefan Kerkhofs seated 22 people around a chef and hoisted everybody 180 feet into the air for a meal. Today, the Dinner in the Sky franchise has tables dangling in more than 40 countries, serving about 1,000 people each month.

Rising to a city near you. As the WSJ suggests, yes, hanger steak is on the menu. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before your trip!

This was an interesting bit:

Expanding into Saudi Arabia posed a problem because of rules against men and women mixing socially. So rather than offering a single table, the company developed a cluster of six four-person tables served by tethered wait staff. The arrangement is now being offered as Lounge in the Sky. Two tables can be removed to make room for musicians or dancers, who perform in tethers similar to parachute harnesses.

On the Hotness of Kale Salad

Along with midriff-baring tops and all things Gatsby, another trend has swept the spring social circuit: kale salads.

I am not making this up; that’s the opening sentence of this New York Times piece on kale salad:

Forget about filet mignon or caviar. The fashionable plat du jour these days is the humble kale salad, which seems to telegraph a certain veggie-chic for the juice-cleanse set.

“For some reason when you go to a restaurant and they have a kale salad on the menu, you automatically accept that it’s a cool spot,” said Chelsea Leyland, a D.J. and downtown fixture. “It’s like playing the right music of the moment. It gives it that stamp of coolness.”

Of course, a meme was quickly spread on Tumblr. OMG Kale Salad.

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(hat tip: @felixsalmon)

Engineering the $325,000 Burger

The idea of creating meat in a laboratory — actual animal tissue, not a substitute made from soybeans or other protein sources — has been around for decades. The arguments in favor of it are many, covering both animal welfare and environmental issues. But now Dr. Mark Post, an engineer in the Netherlands, wants to show the world that meat made in the laboratory may be a reality, thanks to a $325,000 burger his lab finally developed (the unveiling has been delayed):

Dr. Post, one of a handful of researchers in the field, has made strides in developing cultured meat through the use of stem cells — precursor cells that can turn into others that are specific to muscle — and techniques adapted from medical research for growing tissues and organs, a field known as tissue engineering. (Indeed, Dr. Post, a physician, considers himself first and foremost a tissue engineer, and about four-fifths of his time is dedicated to studying how to build blood vessels.)

Yet growing meat in the laboratory has proved difficult and devilishly expensive. Dr. Post, who knows as much about the subject as anybody, has repeatedly postponed the hamburger cook-off, which was originally expected to take place in November. His burger consists of about 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue. Dr. Post, who has conducted some informal taste tests, said that even without any fat, the tissue “tastes reasonably good.” For the London event he plans to add only salt and pepper.

What kind of cells are used in creating this cultured meat?

In his work on cultured meat, Dr. Post uses a type of stem cell called a myosatellite cell, which the body itself uses to repair injured muscle tissue. The cells, which are found in a certain part of muscle tissue, are removed from the cow neck and put in containers with the growth medium. Through much trial and error, the researchers have learned how best to get the cells to grow and divide, doubling repeatedly over about three weeks.

The cells are then poured onto a small dab of gel in a plastic dish. The nutrients in the growth medium are greatly reduced, essentially starving the cells, which forces them to differentiate into muscle cells. “We use the cell’s natural tendency to differentiate,” Dr. Post said. “We don’t do any magic.”

My guess? We are about ten to fifteen years away where cultured meat becomes mainstream.

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Previously: the quarter million pounder with cheese.