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.

30 comments

  1. wow! I think this may be the best written blog post i’ve seen around in a long time. I have to say i totally agree with what you said, i think knowing the history of your food, especially meat, can definitely improve on your enjoyment of the end result.

    I normally cant stand coleslaw (mainly due to the mayonnaise) but this and the ribs look wonderful

  2. Adam, I agree. I love reading the food stories in cookbooks, it gives so much more personality to the recipes to know how they actually came about – some have the most unusual origins. And when I make them in my own kitchen I’m giving the food my very own story too! Great post :)

  3. i actually drooled onto my pants reading this. thanks a lot, amateur gourmet! now i have to do laundry AND eat expensive coleslaw!

  4. Lovely, lovely post, Adam. The ribs look mouthwatering and, oh, how I love slaw!

    I had to laugh at flowers tickling your eyes with their colors! Nice!

  5. I agree. Although, it is more common to hear and tell these unwanted, pretentious, status-booster stories. Click the link to see my take on this issue: http://www.mostlyaboutfood.com/028MAF035A.html

    There’s another very recognizable element in your post, Adam: namely, increasing income will inevitably lead to foods and wines that one just would not have considered investing in just a couple of years ago… :o)

  6. Great post.

    I would argue, however, that another name for “story” is marketing.

  7. So true. Does it also help that food you can find a story for or make a story for involves one that you put a lot of heart into. It’s important to tell the story because the meal was good, not just to make the meal good so you can tell a really good story. Really, really, toatlly awesome blog post. Best in a long time.

  8. Thank you for your storied ribs.

    I totally agree with you and I think that it’s a completely different moment when you get a story at a restaurant versus something you make yourself. The more rustic the food the more cool it is to think about where the food came from. It’s such a cool thing to craft a meal around a philosophy and have it not be raw vegan.

    P.S. This is my favorite blog, keep writing!

  9. OK…so you’re concerned that your pigs are happy before slaughter, but you BUY a new garbage can rather than washing the dirty and perfectly functional one you have.

    Logic, please?

  10. I cannot stand “stories” on a menu; a BLT should not take three lines of text to describe.

    But I like to make my own kitchen stories. Way to go.

  11. What a wonderful read. A welcome reminder that I am on the right track (going where I do not know)while I learn to cook Southern for a year. So many stories to hear and to tell!!!! On another note; the meal looks incredible. I think it looks Southern. If I can confirm this. I will fix it for dinner tonight.

  12. Wonderful and insightful post-as Americans, we are often so far removed from any kind of connection to our food’s origins-that’s why the story costs so much-and people are willing to pay. Those who pay for the story value the pleasure quality food brings, which should be accessible to everyone. The problem is that lots of people don’t know or don’t care. And sadly, quality for everyone is just not a sustainable reality. The reason the Flying Pigs can survive is because someone pays $25 for it-with all the expenses a small farmer has for raising quality pork. But I agree that the story adds a lot-better than-I bought this plastic wrapped pork shoulder at Super X Mart.

  13. Excellent post AG. I love how you’ve come around to embracing expensive food as important and perhaps even necessary. Especially in terms of meats, it really does seem key to pay the extra $$$ to help support progressive practices. I recently saw “Hugh’s Chicken Run” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh's_Chicken_Run) and I can honestly say I will never buy non-free range chicken again, ever.

    Keep up the great writing Adam.

    ps: Jennifer, many would argue that a pig is a sentient creature who we, as humans, owe a decent life to when possible. A trash can, many would also argue, is not.

  14. TBTAM beat me to the one-liner about this post. Looks like you are gunning for another food blog POTY award, AG. Speaking of pigs, another food blogger I love to follow, Chubby Hubby, just described ham from Spain in a way that made me run out to the store to find some.

  15. I am so very thrilled to see that you have realized the importance of buying locally and eating sustainably and that you are spreading the message of Alice Waters. I have to admit, I have been alarmed in the past by some of your meat buying episodes a la Key Foods….but Flying Pigs Farms I applaud. Good for you for promoting them, because they deserve it!

    I look forward to trying the recipe.

    And by the way, if you want to drink local too you should check out Vintage New York in Soho (where I work and sell NY wines) or a new NY wine store called Bridge Urban Winery in Williamsburg.

  16. I made this ribs recipe on Tuesday night and it was wonderful! Why don’t I eat ribs every week? I might have to, since I have no clue what else to use that pomegranate molasses for. Thanks for posting it!

  17. I made this ribs recipe on Tuesday night and it was wonderful! Why don’t I eat ribs every week? I might have to, since I have no clue what else to use that pomegranate molasses for. Thanks for posting it!

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