Food Tastes Better When It Has a Good Story

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We ask many things of our food. We ask that our food is clearly identifiable (anything strange and murky immediately turns us off); we ask that our food is reasonably healthy–even if that means laying a redemptive tomato on a greasy, heart-crushing 5-pound burger. We ask that our food is prepared in a clean kitchen, we ask that our food is served hot, or at least reasonably warm. We ask that our food is tasty, that it is filling, that it has good value ($20 for two scallops does not a happy customer make). Mostly, we ask that our food fills that very primal need for gastronomical satisfaction. What we don’t often ask is for our food to have a story.

What did you have for lunch today? Where did you get it? Ok, you got it from the sandwich shop, or you made it yourself, but what went in it? And where did that come from? What’s its story?

The plate you see in the above photo has a fantastic story. If I told you it’s just ribs and coleslaw, that might be enough for you–in fact, that’d be enough for most people. When I was growing up, a special treat was a trip to Bobby Rubino’s (A Place for Ribs) where the ribs and coleslaw were plentiful (and relatively cheap) and anyone who asked, “Do these ribs have a story?” would be socked on the head. I’m sure the ribs at Bobby Rubino’s have a story, it’s just not a story you’d want to know. But the story of the plate above is a story that should make you happy. Let me tell it to you.

The story begins at the Union Square Farmer’s Market this past Saturday.

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The first notes of spring were sounding sweetly in the air (**PRETENTIOUS WRITING ALERT**) as wisps of pollen swept past my nose and flowers tickled my eyes with their color:

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I wandered around, a bit unsure of what I was looking for but glad to be out and about on such a nice day. And then a sign called to me, the sign from Flying Pigs Farm:

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I’d purchased a pork shoulder from there last summer and was delighted with the results (if not exactly the price). But things have changed for me; after attending the child obesity seminar in South Beach (see video) I was particularly moved by Alice Waters’ insistence that “good food SHOULD cost more money.” Diana, my friend, also hammers this point: meat shouldn’t be cheap. By the very nature of what it is–a living thing that you’ve killed and are consuming–there should be a reasonable price for that. A $1 hamburger at McDonald’s is not a reasonable price. $24 for a pork shoulder, which seemed exorbitant at the time, now makes much more sense especially when you learn the STORY of the pigs that produced said pork shoulder.

The pigs at Flying Pigs Farm are rare heritage breeds–Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots and Tamworths–and the pigs are fed a wholesome diet of grains, vegetables, fruits, grass and plants that grow on land. More importantly, the pigs are free to roam “outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine” in a clean environment, living sustainably with the land. As Flying Pigs Farm says on its own brochure: “Eating meat is a privilege. We respect and appreciate animals that provide us with food and treat them accordingly. This level of care limits the size of our farm, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

When you pay $24 for a Flying Pigs pork shoulder, you’re not just paying for meat, you’re paying for the STORY. That’s what this post is about: knowing the story of your food. Eating pork from Flying Pigs Farm is an exercise in conscionable eating. It makes you part of a narrative with a happy beginning, middle and end–assuming you agree that eating meat is morally acceptable. And assuming that you do agree, I’d wager you’d much rather be part of this narrative than the alternative narrative: a narrative of mass-market meat that constitutes the large majority of meat served worldwide.

Food tastes better when it has a good story; and so, knowing the narrative of a Flying Pigs Farm pig, I turned my eye on this lovely Saturday afternoon to the Pork Spare Ribs.

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“How many people will this feed?” I asked the woman behind the counter.

“Two very hungry people,” she said. “Or three not-so-hungry people.”

“Perfect,” I thought, since I knew I’d be cooking for just Craig and myself. I brought the ribs home and looked up a recipe online. I found one on Epicurious for Sweet and Spicy Chipotle-Glazed Ribs (click here). Then I ran to the store and bought canned chipotles, red currant jelly and pomegranate molasses.

I placed the ribs on a rack, coated them with salt and pepper and preheated the oven:

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I made the glaze:

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And then coated the ribs:

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Into the oven they went and while they cooked (basting them every 15 minutes) I decided to make coleslaw with a cabbage I also bought at the farmer’s market. Here it is at the market:

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(I sort of fell for that sign: I quickly read it as $1 for the cabbage, not per pound. The cabbage weighed over 5 pounds, so it was a pretty expensive cabbage. But, again, food SHOULD cost more money–sayeth Alice Waters.)

Here it is in my kitchen:

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The recipe I used for coleslaw came from the Gourmet cookbook. I wanted a vinegary coleslaw, not a mayonaissey coleslaw, similar to the kind they serve with the pork at Al Di La (see here). So the recipe is simple: you shred the cabbage (I used the grating mechanism on my food processor), then toss with white wine vinegar (about 7 Tbs), add salt and pepper and then, in olive oil (maybe 1/2 a cup?) you toast caraway seeds and mustard seeds:

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Toss it all together with some thinly sliced red onion:

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And take the ribs out of the oven:

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Before we sit down to eat, though, how about some wine?

Did I just grab a cheap bottle from my corner wine shop where more people line up for lotto tickets than Savignon Blanc? No, my wine has a story too. This is the bottle:

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It’s a Clot du Prieur–a mix of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. It’s from the Languedoc region of France and I have no idea what any of that means, but the story is that after buying the pork and the cabbage I wanted to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond on 6th Ave. to buy a new garbage can for our kitchen (the current one is filthy). On the way, I discovered this store, Bottlerocket:

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According to the Zagat sign posted in the window, it’s the #2 wine store in all of New York. After going in, I have to say: it’s a pretty amazing store. It’s friendly, unintimidating and the tables are organized in witty ways (wines that pair well with chicken, for example). I asked the woman there for some help and I told her what we were having for dinner–pork and coleslaw–and she recommended one wine but then said, “What I’d really recommend is this” (the bottle you see above). “I LOVE this wine.”

The wine (which cost $22, normally way out of my wine price range) had a story too that came included with the bottle (she printed it out and put it in the bag).

“Only rock-climbing Jean Orliac could look at a sharp, craggy slope 200 meters up a sun-burnt mountain and say, ‘Yeah, that’s where I want to make my wine.’ By slowly fermenting in cool cement and aging partially in used Bordeaux barrels, he is able to create wines of great depth. A deft balance of rugged terroir and supple, earthy fruit.”

How’s that for a story?

And speaking of story, this meal had stories out the wazoo: the trip to the farmer’s market, the happy heritage breed pigs, the $6 cabbage, the wine from a sun-burnt mountain discovered accidentally on the way to buying a garbage can. Did all those stories pay off?

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Absolutely. The meat, on top of the zesty glaze, had real, incredible flavor. A certain gaminess, a piginess that would make your average pork product taste like styrofoam. The cabbage was wonderfully crisp and fresh-tasting, a perfect foil to the fatty ribs. And the wine–oh, the wine. This woman wasn’t kidding: it was worth the extra price. There was such depth of flavor, like a black prism reflecting reds and purples and blues. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wanted a red wine for a special occasion.

In conclusion, very few people use STORY as a means to create a meal. They think: “What’ll be fast? What’ll be cheap? What’ll be easy?” They don’t think: “How will this narrative please my guests?” because, frankly, that’s a rather impractical way to think.

It’s also pretentious. Nothing is worse than going to a restaurant and having the waiter say, “Our special soup tonight is a pumpkin soup from organically grown pumpkins that were tended by a 47-year old blind monkey named Susan who loves ‘The Golden Girls’ and Christmas carols.” You wish your seat had an “eject” button during moments like that.

Story isn’t something to hammer into your guests, it isn’t something to tout as a status symbol (“I harvested this salt myself on a salt-harvesting trip to France”), it’s just something to think about when you eat. The better the story, the better the food will taste–just read Dan Barber’s story about his almond carrots. He sprinkled almond dust over carrot crops for nine weeks hoping that they’d infuse the carrots with an almond flavor. By the time he harvested, he’d told so many people about the almond carrots that he was mortified when, tasting one of the carrots for the first time (while an eager dining room of guests awaited their presentation) they had no almond flavor. He quickly faked it with almond oil–drizzling it over the salads and shooting them out to the eager customers.

The guests raved and gushed over this carrots grown with almond dust. That is the power of story. “We sold 66 almond-carrot salads,” Barber writes. “Exhausting the entire day’s harvest to great fanfare.”

The power of story is such that you can wield it in a million different ways–enhancing an average-looking plate of spaghetti and meatballs with the information “this is my grandmother’s signature recipe” or serving the meal on plates given to you by the Pope. Use story like salt–sprinkle judiciously and watch how it changes the experience of a meal.

Story isn’t as essential as salt, but it is a fool-proof way to make a dining experience more robust. Food tastes better when it has a good story.

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