I am linked on Wikipedia…

… but probably not for long. Even for an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Eternal Recurrence is not considered a credible “source” (complete with scary finger quotes) for information about credit card roulette. Go, blog!

That makes two topics you can’t find reliable info about on Wikipedia. The other being chickens. But every other topic in the universe is just fine.

More meals you can’t have

Commenting on the previous post, Jeff says:

Good post. I find it interesting that the writer didn’t call for a removal of regulations on meat processing, just a reinvention of those regulations in order to incorporate different methods of keeping meat bacteria-free. Do you agree with this, or do you believe that the maintenance of any food-processing regulations will continue to hamstring (heh) chefs like Hoffman?

If you follow the trackback from The Agitator, Radley waxes a bit more philosophical on a libertarian approach to food safety regulation in restaurants. For the most part I agree with him, especially regarding how private certification would be more tolerant of alternative practices.

I actually think branding of restaurants, especially of chains, would play a greater role in promoting food safety than certifying agencies would. One bad news story is enough to ruin a restaurant’s reputation and scare off potential customers. That said, I’m not totally convinced that private certification would perform better than government inspection in all cases. Low profile establishments that cater primarily to transient customers — such as by a hotel, airport, highway, or tourist spot — might find it worth their while to skimp on safety. Long-term customer loss wouldn’t be a problem and liability for sickness could be difficult to prove in court.

A hardcore libertarian would probably reply that customers could look in the window for the seal of a certifying agency they trust, but why would they? If the private certification system is working well, food safety should be far in the back of customers’ minds, just as it is now under government regulation.

On the other hand, it’s unfair to compare an imagined, imperfect free market system to an imagined, perfect government system. Doubtless lots of restaurants currently get away with things that are technically “unsafe.” I suspect that some of them are among the dives I enjoy eating at.

One also has to account for the unseen costs of regulation. Excessive government rules raise the costs of opening and maintaining a business. How many entrepreneurs are thwarted by these costs, their unique offerings never making it to market?

In general, I’m more willing to tolerate regulation where transparency is low. There is enough lack of transparency as to what goes on in the kitchens of restaurants that I don’t consider the comparative merits of private versus government food safety regulation a pressing issue. What I do consider important is that restaurants and customers have the right to opt out of standard regulations. Traditional arts, like the dry meat curing in the previous post, ought to be allowed. Innovative cooking, such as the sous vide technique NYC inspectors attacked last year, should also be legal. The same with the raw milk cheeses Americans are currently unable to buy. Rather than trying to craft alternative regulations, I’d be content with a simple menu disclaimer alerting customers that the practices of the restaurant are not in accordance with standard regulations. Menu warnings don’t prevent diners from ordering rare meats and sushi, so I doubt they’d do any harm in these cases, either. Of course, it would be best if regulators were just more open to artisinal and innovative practices.

Lest all this sound like the whinings of an elitist libertarian foodie, be sure to check out today’s WaPo article headlined “Freshly baked handouts forbidden in Fairfax.” Regulators there are cracking down on do-gooding churches and home cooks who make homemade meals for the area’s homeless. Since those kitchens aren’t inspected by the Health Department and up to code, it’s illegal for them to serve food to the public. Homeless folks seeking shelter this Christmas in Fairfax may not get a good meal, but at least they’ll know their food was prepared in a facilty with a stainless steel three compartment sink.

[Thanks to Chad for the link.]

The Thanksgiving meal you can’t have

It’s Thanksgiving, the time to give thanks for and enjoy the fruits of the land. Perhaps, like me, you’re not much of a turkey person. Maybe you’d like to sit down with some American farm raised, expertly crafted sausage or salumi instead. Too bad, friend. In this country you just can’t do it.

Yesterday’s New York Time’s features an op-ed by chef Peter Hoffman about how the USDA is strangling artisinal meat production, forcing industrial standards on time-tested curing techniques that have been preserving meat safely and deliciously for thousands of years.

If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?

I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.

This is astonishing, because since Neolithic times, people have safely cured and preserved meats without refrigeration. Europeans have turned curing into an art, and the best processors are revered craftsmen who earn national medals of honor. Salt, time and a good dose of fresh air are the only additions needed to produce salsicce, culatello and 24-month-old prosciutto or serrano — foods that Americans smuggle home from Europe in their luggage…

What we need is to invert the logic now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

[Via TMN. Cross-posted on EatFoo.]

First taste: Buzz

Monday was the grand opening of Buzz, the new coffee shop in Alexandria from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and I dropped in with a few friends to check the place out. They were still putting the finishing touches on the bright decor and waiting for the local bureaucracy to send them their liquor license, but otherwise the place was set up and running very smoothly for a first night.

As noted before, Buzz is serving Illy coffee, which is a little disappointing. To their credit, the espresso I ordered came out sweeter than I expected, but it didn’t have a whole lot of body and the taste faded pretty quickly. The Americano I had with dessert was pretty neutral, as was my friend’s latte. Not bad, all in all, but they could have been better. And given this company’s history of excellence with beer and wine, they should have been.

For the curious, Buzz is using a Mazzer-style grinder and a machine I’ve never seen before, a UNIC Rumba. It’s an automatic. I didn’t talk to the baristas much, but from what I could see it doesn’t look like there’s a die hard coffee person in charge of training. The staff obviously isn’t going to be perfect on day one, but the place seemed to have a very restaurant approach to espresso preparation. Simple things that would improve quality, like wiping out portafilters and grinding to order, weren’t being done.

In contrast, when I visited sister restaurant Rustico very close to opening, it was obvious the staff knew a lot about beer. Our waiter was able to make recommendations about what he’d tried on the menu, and if he couldn’t answer a question there was a very good chance the bartender could. If there’s anyone with similar coffee expertise at Buzz, their presence wasn’t in evidence.

OK, but what about the desserts? This is probably the area where Buzz will live or die. I opted for a very tasty chocolate cupcake, topped with icing and delicious chocolate shavings. Other people at our table had a chocolate bombe with passion fruit filling and an espresso creme brulee. The desserts are definitely tempting enough that I’ll come back sometime for more. If you like sweets, you’ll like Buzz.

I think Buzz will be a good place to stop in for dessert after dinner at Rustico or for breakfast if one lives in the area. If the limited seating doesn’t fill up too quickly, it could also be a good spot for the laptop crowd; Northern Virginia could certainly use a late night wi-fi and coffee spot. But when I want good espresso drinks, I’m going to stick to Murky by day and Open City by night.

Like many others in the culinary world, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group seems to think that while beer and wine require expertise, coffee is easy. The truth is exactly opposite. While one can become endlessly knowledgeable about beer and wine, actually serving them is simple. Don’t get cork in the glass, don’t pour the beer too quickly, and you’ve got it down. Coffee, on the other hand, is hard. If the beans are old, the equipment is off, or the preparation is flawed, the drink’s not going to live up to its full potential. Will Buzz?

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]

Coffee is libertarian!

In Lawrence, KS, coffee fought valiantly to subvert politics as stained ballots gummed up ballot scanners. Politics won in the end, as it always does, but hooray for coffee for making the effort.

[Via Dave, my Smelling the Coffee co-blogger.]

Election roundup

So I work in a coffee shop and play indie music over the sound system. Does that mean everyone in Georgetown gets to assume that I, too, am a self-righteous liberal gleefully celebrating yesterday’s election results? I could be a Republican.

But, of course, I did enjoy seeing the GOP get whomped. I’m just not excited about the winners. The Onion sums up the bad news best with the apt headline, “Politicians Sweep Midterm Elections.” Even for “small l” libertarians like me, that’s the rub of every Election Day.

And what of the “big L” Libertarians? Bob Smither ended up making a good showing in Texas, though an effective ad campaign by Republican write-in candidate Sekula-Gibbs bumped her up to second place behind Lampson. Smither took almost 19% for the remainder of DeLay’s unexpired term and just 6% for the coming full term. Apparently, lots of Texas voters didn’t bother to vote for both positions on the ballots, making the final percentages widely divergent.

Nineteen percent is huge for a Libertarian. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that such an opportunity — no Republican on the ballot, conservative district, reputable LP candidate — will ever be repeated. If a Libertarian can’t win even with all that in his favor, there’s not much hope for achieving significant results with a third party approach.

Yesterday’s election results are clearly a rejection of the current Republican Party, but it’s hard to read much more into them. The fate of various ballot initiatives is perhaps more interesting. Check out iLiberty’s handy state-by-state guide to proposals involving nanny state issues. Summary: gays and tobacco smokers did poorly. Marijuana smokers made some marginal gains making enforcement less of a police priority, but actual liberalization of the drug laws will have to wait.

Final cheers go to Oklahoma voters for choosing to repeal an Election Day day ban on alcohol sales. I’ll drink to that!

[Update 11/9/06: Barzelay says:

I’m surprised that you make no mention of the many eminent domain ballot initiatives banning takings to be given to private owners, all of which (I think) passed.

I overlooked the eminent domain issues, but he's right. Yesterday was a great success in the fight against eminent domain abuse. Initiatives in nine states. Two failed, though IJ's Castle Coalition notes that would have been very weak limitations anyway. Get the full story from IJ here.]

[Another update 11/9/06: The LP can at least make a plausible spoiler claim or two, for whatever that's worth. Via Mungowits.]

Two drinks with ginger

Long time, no blog. To make up for my lack of updates, here’s two new drink recipes for you. I hope you like ginger!

Ginger lime-cello: One of my first posts at EatFoo documented my attempt at making homemade limoncello. The experiment was so tasty I decided to branch out a few weeks later with something a little more complex. Lime and ginger struck me as a potentially good flavor combination for making an infused liquor. Stored in the freezer, the resulting drink is great as a before bed sipper. A tart lime taste leads the way, with a hint of ginger following after. It makes a great variation on traditional limoncello.

I followed the same process as before to make the drink, but as a half recipe. I infused the zests of ten limes in half the bottle of vodka for two weeks and half a ginger root, sliced, in the other half for about five days. Then I strained everything out, combined the bottles, and added simple syrup. That’s all there is to it.

The Winter Warmer: The name normally refers to a style of beer, but I think it’s fitting for a drink that my friend David and I came up with on a slow day at Open City. It’s ginger ale steamed up hot on the espresso machine with Earl Grey tea steeped into it. At OC we were limited to Canada Dry, which was OK, but not great. At my new job with Baked and Wired I was able to try it again with high quality Reed’s Ginger Brew. That made all the difference.

The drink sounds weird, but people who’ve tried have been very pleased. The spiciness of the ginger ale and the strong flavor of the tea have a way of lingering in the back of the throat, making it a delightfully warming drink on a cold winter day. This one’s getting put on the menu.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 11/08/06.]

Ben’s blog contest

My friend Ben is holding an informal blog contest, prize yet to be determined:

The contest: Funniest blog post by someone you know. I’m not looking for the work of professional humorists. It has to be written by someone you know personally. What posts written by friends have left you on the floor helpless with laughter?

As much as I enjoy reading blogs, it’s prompts like this that make me realize how forgettable most posts are. Only two from friends spring to mind. Zhubin’s tale of redeeming himself with a homeless guy selling Street Sense is one. (His post about his family not being on time for weddings is great, too, but Ben already nominated it.) The other is Chad’s story about the time he and I ran into stupid university regulations trying to bring beer to a Vanderbilt event. Permalinks are broken on his page right now, so scroll down to “Rites and Rules.” [Link fixed 11/7/06.]

Since Ben opened the floor to self-nominations, I’ll throw in one of my own posts. The Mystery of the Five Inch Bull Balls was a bizarre departure from this blog’s usual content that remains one of my favorites to this day. The comments on it are very odd, too. And thanks to this one entry, variations on the phrase “large testicles” remain some of the top search results bringing visitors to my site.

Did I really have to go back to 2004 to find a funny post? This blog has gone badly downhill. Taco Boy, The Hemingway Star, weird fish, and speculative science haven’t reared their heads in a long time. I need to work on making the site eclectic again.

Coffee slingin’

Working in the restaurant and coffee business you meet all kinds of people. Some have become good friends, most of them are pretty nice, and I’ve been lucky so far that the few crazy ones I’ve met have been of the gentle variety. That finally changed yesterday.

Our shop is divided by a big wall that separates the bar area from the seating lounge, so when I’m working I can’t see what’s going on back there. Inside the lounge there’s one big table that’s slightly wobbly and meant to be shared plus a smaller table attached to the back wall. (It’s not much seating, but we’re expanding soon.)

Here’s the scene. There’s one lady sitting at the big table with a 20 oz. coffee. A man and a woman, both very nice first time customers, are in the bar area ordering double espressos (yay!). They receive them and walked back into the lounge.

Less than a minute later I hear a chair falling to the ground and the two women yelling at each other, at least one of them swearing and telling the other never to show her face here again. Before I can round the corner to see what’s going on the woman with the coffee storms back into the bar area, soaking wet. She grabs some napkins to wipe coffee off herself and tells me to have the owner call her. Then she exits.

I walk into the lounge to find coffee everywhere — on the table, the floor, the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, the wall, the artwork, even the other customers, who are looking very stunned. I ask them what the heck just happened.

Apparently, as they were sitting down they jostled the table slightly. The woman with the coffee told them to be careful. The other woman responded that some wobbling was inevitable on that table and that if she was really worried about it she might want to try the other one. Not the best response, but true nonetheless. Coffee woman took this as sarcasm and things escalated from there. Somehow it all ended with her proving her point that it would be bad if her coffee spilled by picking up her cup and throwing its contents onto everything in the room, herself included.

To her credit, she proved her point exceedingly well.

The other two customers declined to call the police and, though angry at first, were laughing by the time they left. They said they’ll be back again. Within half an hour everything was back to normal. But if one looks closely at the white walls in the lounge, some faded coffee stains remain as a reminder of the tale.

[Cross-posted on Smelling the Coffee.]

Buzzkill

The buildup: I’d joked with a barista friend once that we needed to convince the owners of Rustico and Tallula to open a coffee shop. The former has one of the best beer lists in the DC area and the latter is great for wine. Both serve delicious cuisine and have fun, warm atmospheres. Big budgets, too. Who better to create an awesome coffee shop?

So I guess I should have put one and one together when I noticed the coffee house under construction next door to Rustico a few months ago. As Amanda at Metrocurean reports:

Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the parent company of Evening Star Café, Vermilion, Tallula and Rustico, will open Buzz, a 35-seat bakery, coffee house and dessert lounge located at 901 Slaters Lane in Alexandria’s Potomac Plaza. Pastry chef Lisa Scruggs will oversee the menu, which will offer cupcakes, housemade doughnuts, and pies and cakes in two sizes (eight inch and mini four inch). Also in the plans: “drinkable desserts,” including at least 20 wines by the glass, digestifs and after-dinner cocktails, and savory items like a brioche muffin filled with eggs, bacon and cheese. Hours will run from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

Sweet! Exciting news. Northern Virginia needs a late night coffee place and I’m sure the pastries and desserts will be wonderful. But the big question for me is, how is the coffee going to taste? If the owners apply the same refined selectiveness to beans as they’ve done for wine and beer, Buzz could become the new coffee house standard in the DC area for getting everything right. Or they could take the route of so many other high end restaurants and treat coffee as a neglected afterthought.

The letdown: As I was in the neighborhood for a meeting tonight anyway, I decided to drop by and check the place out. Finally some of the brown paper had been stripped from the windows and two big banners explained a bit about Buzz. One banner was about the pastry chefs, who sound very talented. I can’t wait to try out their stuff. The second banner was about the coffee.

It’s Illy.

Yikes! I mean, Illy’s good enough, but that’s such a missed opportunity for this place. Coffee is a perishable good; freshness matters. Illy advertises that its packing methods can preserve coffee for over two years. But why deal with that when there are so many outstanding American roasters who can deliver within a day or two after roasting? Roasters who make espresso blends of remarkable complexity and sweetness along with a wide variety of truly excellent single origin coffees. Serving just Illy at Buzz would be like serving just Stella Artois at Rustico. It’s ok, but why stop there when there’s so much more to be experienced in the world of coffee?

Buzz could have instead gone with a high-quality roaster based in the US. Counter Culture is the obvious choice, but if they’re already too popular in DC, Intelligientsia, Batdorf and Bronson, Zoka, Terroir, or any of the other big names in American specialty coffee would be good options. Any one of them could provide Buzz with a great espresso blend, interesting single origins to serve as drip coffee or paired with desserts in a French press, and consulation on how to prepare everything correctly. Or Buzz could have offered seasonal selections from a variety of providers, offering a constantly rotating glimpse of the best specialty coffee has to offer. Instead they’re giving us something blah and boring, the same brew served at every other restaurant in the United States.

It all comes down to the common view of coffee in the culinary world as something simple and easy. “It’s only coffee.” If the brains behind Buzz had tried some fresh, properly prepared American blends next to Illy, I really doubt they would have made the choice they did.

I’m still glad to see Buzz opening. I’ll go occasionally because it’s in Virginia, open late, wi-fi enabled, and offers what I expect will be great desserts and pastries. And it’s conveniently close to Rustico. I bet it’s close to perfection. But I don’t think I’ll ever be excited about the coffee.

Perhaps the tea will be good?