Friday, June 09, 2006

pushing my buttons

June 6

I like to think of myself as a pretty mellow, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but then I realize what a petty, nasty little fusspot I can be if you push the wrong buttons.
Among those buttons are bad produce, premium vodka and people who see organic comestibles as a panacea for all the world’s ills.
Nonetheless, I went to the launch of an organic, premium vodka. One reason I went was because I wasn’t doing anything else at the time. The other was because it was at Blue Hill, and I hadn’t had much of chef-owner Dan Barber’s food in a long time, except for an absolutely extraordinary freshly picked radish sprinkled with salt that he served at the annual C-Cap benefit earlier this year. So I knew that at least the produce would be good in the food served at this vodka party.

I had a good time. The food was either bursting with flavor from delicious fruits and vegetables or — as in the case of the arancini topped with melting lardo, or the pork belly on skewers — great without having any fruits and vegetables. Dan Barber’s food is all about using really excellent ingredients and treating them with respect. I have no complaints about that.
And I met the nice owners of Circa Tabac, a downtown tobacco lounge. I’ll have to take my smoking friends there at some point.
The organic premium vodka that was being launched is made from rye, which apparently is desirable in a vodka — one of the PR flaks there said that was what the tsars drank — but hard to do organically.
As I sipped the very good cocktails made from the vodka — I sampled it neat first and found my single shot too boring to finish — I expressed my skepticism about premium vodka to one of the company’s marketers.
I can understand why those who sit around drinking straight vodka might want a premium vodka. I can even understand why the millions of vodka-martini drinkers would have intense brand loyalty. But vodka, by definition, is flavorless. The difference in vodkas has to do with mouth feel and a certain smoothness that can certainly be distinguished if you line up a bunch of shot glasses with different vodkas and taste them side-by-side. But I have yet to be convinced that the type of vodka used in drinks that also include lemonade or cranberry juice or Red Bull makes any difference in the quality of the cocktail.
Au contraire, said the marketing guy, as he would, of course. Since I was not in the mood to demand a taste test then and there, I didn’t press the point. Besides, that’s a very rude thing to do at a party.
Instead, I asked him about the organic qualities of said premium vodka. Did the vodka’s target audience care? He admitted that people really devoted to organic food were mostly disinclined to spend $36 (retail) for a bottle of vodka, and premium vodka aficionados were paying for taste and generally didn’t care if it was organic or not.
I kept trying to avoid one blowhard from northern Westchester county who went on an anti-non-free-range-chicken diatribe and then bad-mouthed corn-fed beef and opposed Wal-Mart’s offering organic stuff and in general kept blathering the smug manifesto of the environmentalist elite.
I believe I’ve made reference previously here to my solid granola credentials, but to reiterate:
My parents are both retired now, but my father worked for public television and my mother was a schoolteacher.
In Denver in the 1970s, when recycling services weren’t yet available, they saved their paper and aluminum and so on and, the one time a month they could schlep it to a nearby collection center and hand it all over to recyclers, they did just that.
I was weaned while wearing cloth diapers, because my mother deemed disposable stuff environmentally unsound.
My parents voted for McGovern.
They own some property in Denver, but they keep rents low so lower-middle class people can afford to live there.
A few years ago they gave up eating mammals for moral reasons.
So I get it. I understand that it’s important to know how the way you live affects the world, and as a food guy I love to eat food made from excellent ingredients.
But I also have noticed that politically correct food doesn’t necessarily taste better (although sometimes it does), and isn’t always what it purports to be.
And I have visited some of those industrial food-processing facilities and have not found them to be the chambers of horror that they’re often described to be. To be fair, I haven’t been to a chicken hatchery yet, but I hope to someday soon.
I think what really bugs me is the vilification of industries that were created for a good purpose. Food became largely industrialized in this century in an attempt to feed the hungry. To a large extent, that mission has been accomplished. Obviously there are still major distribution issues with regard to food, particularly in developing countries, but here at home, too. Nonetheless, the fact that obesity is now the most serious health issue in the developed world is a massive victory over millennia of hunger.
Now we have to address obesity while not forgetting that some people, even in developed countries, still are hungry, and we should avoid environmental damage in the process. I’m not sure how sneering at cheap, nutritious food does that.
So I did finally say with feigned respect for Ms. Blowhard that her consumption exclusively of hand-nurtured animals and produce was fine for her, but it was not an option for most Americans.
Then I tried the premium organic vodka neat for a second time. I couldn’t finish it.

One of the cocktails I had:

The Coriandrum
2 ounces Vodka
1/4 ounce vermouth
Splash of Coriander Nectar (1 cup coriander seeds, 4 cups water, 1 1/4 cups Madhava agave nectar or simple syrup, briefly heated together)
Splash of orange bitters
Lemon twist
Coriander seeds
Add first 4 ingredients to cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled
martini glass. Garnish with a few coriander seeds from the nectar mix and a twist of lemon.

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