Monday, June 3, 2019

Thursday, May 30, 2019

RIP Wimpy's

https://www.newsobserver.com/living/article230706389.html

Be a Conduit for the Ingredient II

On October 26 2016, I made an enigmatic post with a title only, "Be a Conduit for the Ingredient".   Nearly three years later, I think I am ready to expand on that.

"The common, recurring image of our present moment: a person sitting in a parked car, with the engine and the air conditioning running, using a smartphone, drinking a soda and/or eating fast food."


This was the first line written and read aloud in August 2017 by Adam Sobsey (link) in reference to everything he did not want our pop-up supper project (it was the anti-pop-up in many ways), Manifest, to be.  In the modern consumerist model of gastronomy, everything is disposable.  As a longtime bartender at Nana's of Durham, Adam saw the magnitude of food waste, not just in the uneaten things from diners' plates, but the peelings, scraps, and tops that were discarded, the plastic packaging, the cardboard, the gasoline used by the vendor trucks, etc.  At its best, each ingredient speaks with the clarity of a bell through the dish.  At its worst, it is a muddle of a McDonald's cheeseburger that is engineered by a massive agribusiness system to deliver sugar, salt, and hormones, not to mention a post-meal stomachache.

Like the economy of the aphorism in the post title, a carrot has a spiritual life that we can either evoke or deaden through food preparation.  When I think of respect for the ingredient, I think of Alice Water's rediscovery of the majesty of the garden salad in the 1970's.  Lettuces and greens have a fragility and tenderness, not to mention bitterness, that is alive in a way very few people get to eat or appreciate.  Like a spiritual medium, we can all become mediums for what an ingredient is saying if we slow down, listen, extend our palates, and finally, taste.

Trust the Chef

Our landlord is Self-Help Credit Union, and our rental point of contact is a gentleman who has been with Self-Help for years named Malcolm.  He knew Frank, the ex-owner, and has seen all the changes to the Bakery since I took over ownership.  Early on in my tenure, he told me that I didn't need to do a lot of things well, I just needed to do one thing very well every day.  His model was a small cafe in Greensboro, NC where the daily special was called, "Trust the Chef".  I can appreciate that.  As a result, soon after speaking with Malcolm, we instituted two weekly sandwich specials that rotated (now we usually run four).  This way, there is some weekly variety, but enough of a condensed menu such that the customer knows that the ingredients are turning over quickly and the items are not staling or expiring in a steam pan for days.  This ethos also animated the cooking of the Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant, Spring, where American Daniel Rose came to prominence in a small 18-seat restaurant that used an affordable prix fixe menu that changed daily with the green market offerings.  Listen to his work patterns and philiosophy here.  Later, as Adam Sobsey and I developed the 10 Commandments of Manifest, our pop-up supper, prix fixe was central to both food cost control and also affordability for the guests (our ticket price was never greater than $25).

There are other advantages to prix fixe as well.  When a guest selects their food, their agency in that decision is often mediated by the choices they have, good or bad.  When the restaurateur selects through prix fixe, they are implicitly saying, "let me take care of you, I know what you'll like, and I will give you the best of what I found today at the market or what I dreamed about last night."  There is a modicum of hospitality at work which serves to ensconce the guest in a cocoon of intentionality on the part of the chef, much as when you arrive at a friend's house for dinner you expect to eat what he or she has to offer, without a thought to making a special request or ordering from a menu.  In fact, the idea of the modern restaurant with a menu is actually a relatively recent bourgeois invention dating back to France of the 18th century.  We must not forget this, and must furthermore trust good chefs and restaurants when they select the menu for us because behind that plate of food is in fact thought, beauty, and if we're lucky, maybe even a little art.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies - Old Bill

"He was a big eater. Customarily, just before locking up for the night, he would grill himself a three-pound T-bone, placing it on a coal shovel and holding it over a bed of oak coals in the back-room fireplace. He liked to fit a whole onion into the hollowed-out heel of a loaf of French bread and eat it as if it were an apple. He had an extraordinary appetite for onions, the stronger the better, and said that “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies” was the motto of his saloon."

Joseph Mitchell, "The Old House at Home", 1940

Monday, April 29, 2019

Patties

The Jamaican patty was the original inspiration when I first started making our hand pies back in 2009.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUPYFt52FBE

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tragedy in Durham 💥 The Fire This Time

On April 10th, a gas explosion destroyed a downtown block in Durham, killing two men, Kong Lee, owner of Kaffeinate, and Jay Rambeaut, utility worker, and injuring 25.  I ran to the scene as soon as I saw the smoke rising from where I stood on the patio of the Bakery.  I'm not sure why (maybe because I was at the WTC when 9/11 happened?), but I feel this urge to respond to danger when it's presented.  Also, I knew that if there was fire on that block of Duke Street, Kong or his son Raymond or customers might be trapped or hurt.  Kaffeinate had been one of our wholesale pastry customers and friends since they opened two years ago.  Once there, I put on blue latex gloves and helped Erik Nystrom (manager of the blue-shirted Downtown ambassadors of Durham) move several wounded people to safer positions away from the fire and broken glass and helped one injured lady try to get in touch with her mother.  One construction worker in particular was very badly lacerated over his entire body, barely able to walk, head bandaged, crying and shaken while a civilian woman held him close to her body and rocked him for comfort and tried to stop the bleeding.  I later took some videos of the fire, which I posted to the Bakery's Instagram story.  Once paramedics arrived and took control of the injured, I pushed back behind the yellow tape and began walking back to the Bakery, thinking whoever was in Kaffeinate at the time was likely dead.  I gathered our employees together in an office and explained what had happened.  We tried to push on with the day, but it was heavy and surreal.

My videos:



The next day I posted this memoriam to Instagram story and Facebook.


Sarah Krueger from WRAL posted this photo to her Instagram story.


How do you make sense of a bizarre and seemingly random event of massive destruction?  I learned later in the day that April 10th was the 150th anniversary of Durham's founding.  That triggered for me a lot of feelings I have had for some time about the contradictions of living in a city of great wealth and education and also a city of great stratification, poverty, and neglect.  As a recovering PhD candidate, I read historical events the way a literature expert deconstructs a novel or the way a psychoanalyst decodes a mysterious dream.  In this case, watching Mayor Steve Schewel stand helpless with his bowtie and jacket on and his hands in his pockets as the block burned, the meaning was clear as to why this calamitous event might align itself with Durham's sesquicentennial.  How could it be that we live in such a wealthy and prominent city with great academies of learning yet basic human safety net issues have remained unresolved for decades, if not longer.  It is not enough to pin it on the President, or Congress, or the Capitol in Raleigh.  We have a collective responsibility to help the poor, and when we are erecting massive structures and condos, handing out building permits, and stoking the fire of consumer capitalism in Durham, it is irresponsible to not work just as hard, and dedicate as many resources to helping the most needy.  What is the use of a 150th birthday party if only certain demographics get to celebrate?

A friend who had access watched the next day as the multi-million dollar antique Porsche collection stored next to Kaffeinate rolled out, many largely unscathed.  He said something about that didn't sit right with him, that wealth should be rolled out on a red carpet like that while death, injury, and destruction was still smoldering next door.  It hit me like a shot in the chest.  What do we Durhamites prize? Money? Wealth?  Or humanity?

After the explosion, many people donated to the many fundraisers that were set up to help the victims and those affected, expressing pride for the city's resilience under the hashtag #bullcitystrong.  I supported and re-posted these fundraisers on our Facebook.  But like the critics of the billion or so dollars pledged to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral that burned only five days later (another strange coincidence), the question raised is how could there be so much money in the world when so many are without basic services like adequate safety and security, health care, education, food, and housing.

Consumer capitalist society has generated these contradictions of wealth, they are endemic to our society, and they are not likely to go away soon.

What we need right now is leadership.  Steve Schewel is possibly the best mayor Durham has ever had if you were to write a report card on him with regards to his liberal progressive values.  But watching him watch that fire, the man who always has the answer for everything was momentarily flummoxed.  At the 150th kickoff celebration three days later on the 13th, there was a moment of silence, but little else in terms of words that might console us or rally Durham from its mourning.

Tragedy, literal burning, is as symbolic an act as they come.  James Baldwin's book "The Fire Next Time" quotes the following lyric from the gospel spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep":

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!"


He extends this to say that if we fail to resolve the issue of (racial) inequality and injustice, our fate is with that of the condemned.  We have all the tools at our disposal to make these changes.  We just need the collective will.  One would hope that this fire wakes us up.  Or a hurricane.  Or ICE agents detaining innocents.  Or queers being banned from bathrooms.  I remain hopeful and committed to this work despite our blindness. We have a responsibility to a Rawlsian justice where all boats rise in times of plenty, not just the rich and well-connected.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Rather Unique

We just had a customer come in, and this happens all the time, that they say, "Look at all those old machines back there, I love it, and everybody hustling and working.  It's rather unique. What a great space."

Rather Unique, AZ

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Consumer Exhaustion

Consumer exhaustion is real.  In the 1980s, television advertising seemed to aggressively interrupt programming and become a true annoyance, but now everything we do appears programmed and marketed.  The emails I get, the banners, the images in my feed, down to how everything is merchandised at the supermarket.  Consumption is an everyday desire now in a way that feels pushed upon us and insidious.  When sending out social media (we have a listserv, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), I'm thinking consciously about contributing to this psychic clutter.  You have to play to get people interested in your products, but it is a fine balance of information with sensitivity to overloading.  There are times I really want to spend no money because I feel so overwhelmed by all the marketing, but then I also feel times where I am drawn to consumption as if it is part of a circadian rhythm.  My whole existence within consumer capitalist culture leaves me with an overall feeling of exhaustion while at the same time I'm decrying the poor to mediocre quality of the goods and services that I often have to choose from.

Uniformity and Process

Consistency is a main virtue of a baker.  Same temp, same size, same shape, same recipe, same result, day in, day out.  I was struck when visiting Biscuitville (my favorite fast food biscuit) that they put in tools or cheats to make their biscuit-making "like homemade" yet as close to idiot-proof and uniform as possible.  First, they have in big numbers "2 12" written on their flour scale, I assume to indicate that the desired weight per batch is two pounds, twelve ounces.  Secondly, they have little nubs on the end of the rolling pin (see below) so that each biscuit is rolled to the correct height (not too squashed, not too tall).  Through training, they actually get pretty good results for a fast food biscuit.  I assume there are other cheats involved, but I haven't signed up to become a biscuit-making employee there as yet.

The bakery is a hubris machine

The bakery is a hubris machine.  If you are feeling prideful, a batch burned or turned or spurned will catch you pants down and expose you.  Mistakes are made, racks are bumped, trays are dropped, and fingers are burned and cut.  If you are careful careful careful maybe you make it through one whole day only to hear that your employee suffered a bad bake or someone forgot the salt.  As a baker, you are never flying too high to the sun.  Those baker celebrities who seem hip and even their mistakes look blessed?  They're imaginary.  They don't bake every day.  Because if they did, they would show you all their fails, trials, and uglies.

What is it about pie

What is it about pie that makes it perfect? My theory is the contrast of textures.  Buttery flaky crust gives way to an oozy sugary sweet filling with chunks of fruit or a velvety custard or eggy chess.  It is that complementarity (or contradiction) that sets up the feeling of expectation and desire that brings us back to pie, whether hot, cold, stale, fresh, or in between.  Essentially, stratification makes for the tension of the pie plot, a textural contrast that bits of crust will clean away the food particles of filling as it washes around your mouth and in between your teeth.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Article on Artisan Baking and Philosophy

Adam Sobsey wrote a nice article in the Indyweek on Alex and Ari (we made a stencil, "Dish", as that is the name of their food issue).  Check it out!

https://indyweek.com/food-and-drink/features/dish-ninth-street-bakery-bread-program-philosophy/
photos by Bob Karp





Rosenfeld's Bagels

Benchwarmer's Bagels has recently opened in Raleigh.  This is an audacious thing.  Bagelries are more likely to be closing rather than opening these days.  Like Melissa Weller of Sadelle's, you need to have a perverse love for bread and a background in the highest echelons of baking, plus significant capitalist backing to open a bagelry in 2019.  They are just too hard to make, too hard to get consistently right, and people expect that they should be cheap despite being labor intensive (Benchwarmer's sells a dozen for $19, and they are bready).  Each bagel at a place like Benchwarmer's is hand rolled, itself a skill that takes months or years to master.  Beyond that, if any of the following criteria are not in a defined range, a "real New Yorker" will insult you (trust me, it's happened to me):

Flavor: Reasonably plain, slightly sweet, with a hint (but no more) of sour.
Texture: Tight crumb, never fluffy, overproofed, or bready.
Crust: Shiny, caramelized, some discernable "crack" upon tearing.
Size: Medium-small
Chew: Toothsome

The archetype for me for an old-school bagel will always be Rosenfeld's Bagels of Newton Center, Mass. It's not the best bagel, and not the flashiest, but as far as they come, it's pretty darn good.  Walking up to the counter, you can see the aged bagel man still using the wood boards in the oven, kettle steaming.  Like Dom DeMarco of DiFara's, he continues to bake bagels for no good reason other than that it breathes life into him through his work.  I told him I was a baker and he told me the secrets to his success:

1. Use All-Trumps Hi-Gluten Flour
2. Include 3% malt syrup by weight of the water in the boil kettle.
3. Develop the gluten (it's going to be a stiff dough, of 48-52% hydration), but don't overmix it.