Aug 31 2014

My Periods

I recently posted a series of photographs on Instagram and Facebook. They were all pictures of me — some self-portraits and some taken by other people — from 1979 to 2000. I called them “retroselfies” and categorized each as being from a certain “period” of my life. I posted one a day for about two weeks.

I’m reposting the images here, on the Blork Blog, as an act of reclamation of ownership, since I don’t feel like I fully own what I post in the walled gardens of Zuckerberg.

So here, for my own sense of reclamation, and for the two or three of you who are not using Instagram and Facebook, is the series of photographs I call “My Periods” (hashtag #retroselfie).

My Periods (1979-2000)

(Not in chronological order.)

Me, in my centrefold period. (Corner Brook, Newfoundland. 1979.)

Corner Brooke, Newfoundland

.

Me, in my radio period. (St. Francis Xavier University, 1986.)

Antigonish, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my “dark and stormy night” period. (Montreal, 1988.)

Montreal, Quebec

.

Me, in my top-hat period. (Nova Scotia, 1980.)

Halifax, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my folk period. (University College of Cape Breton, 1982.)

Sydney, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Hemingway period. (Montreal, 1990.)

Montreal, Quebec

(It was suggested in the comments that this was more “Corey Hart” than “Hemingway.”)

.

Me, in my “Into the Wild” period. (Nova Scotia, 1984.)

Antigonish Landing, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Slacker period. (Cape Breton, 1979.)

Gabarus, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Pablo Escobar period. (Otavalo, Ecuador, 2000.)

Otavalo, Ecuado

.

Me, in my sweater period. (Glenfinnan, Scotland, 1993.)

Glenfinnan, Scotland

(Loyal readers might recognize this photo from this blog post, and this related one.)

.

Me, in my Early Steve Jobs period. (Montreal, 1991.)

Montreal, Quebec

Note: there was no “Later Steve Jobs” period. (It was suggested in the comments that this was more “John Lennon” than “Steve Jobs.”)

.

Me, in my Tri-X period. (Prague, Czech Republic, 1995.)

Prague, Czech Republic

.

And in conclusion, me in my WTF period. (Montreal, 1989.)

Montreal, Quebec

Categorized under Moi,Photography,Travel

3 comments

Jan 26 2014

Reading List: Books I Read in 2013

As per tradition, here’s a list of books I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2013), listed alphabetically by author:

  • Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Regeneration, by Pat Barker
  • The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker
  • Days; A Tangier Diary, by Paul Bowles
  • Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden †
  • The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, by T. E. Carhart
  • Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  • Earth and High Heaven, by Gwethalyn Graham
  • Cockroach, by Rawi Hage
  • A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay †
  • Berlin, City of Stones, by Jason Lutes (graphic novel)
  • The Way the Crow Flies, by Anne-Marie MacDonald †
  • Roll Up the Rim, by Leo MacKay Jr.
  • Black Betty, by Walter Mosley
  • The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley
  • Burmese Days, by George Orwell * †
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell * †
  • Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross
  • Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson †

* e-book
† Particularly notable

Some Notes

21 titles, which is an improvement over 2012’s 17 and continues the trend upwards since my low of nine in 2011. It would seem that commuting correlates strongly with my reading; since I started these lists in 2003 I’ve been a pretty regular commuter, spending anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes a day on buses and subways. That changed in 2011, when my pattern was, shall we say, “disrupted” by a layoff in June of that year. That layoff turned out to be the best thing that’s happened to me career-wise and sanity-wise in a long time. However, I did not commute for the entire second half of 2011 (I either happily did not work, or I worked from home), and thus, I didn’t read many more books that year.

Since early 2012 I’ve been commuting again, although not as regularly, as I work from home six or seven days a month. Correspondingly, the book reading has gone back up. I sometimes worry that if I ever become a permanent home-worker (or, actually retire) that I’ll stop reading books altogether. It doesn’t seem possible, but the evidence is there.

In 2013 I made a point of choosing more books by women. I generally abhor reading to a schedule or according to any requirements other than “hey, this looks good,” but loyal readers will recall that every year I comment on how my reading of male writers outnumbers female writers by a very large margin. It’s never a conscious choice, it just works out that way.

So for 2013 I made an exception and I purposely chose more women writers than usual. Ten of the 21 titles were written by women (representing ten male writers to nine female writers).

I can’t report any huge revelations. I am not converted or reformed; I’m just a guy who read some good books by women last year. That said, three of the five writers of the six books that I marked as particularly notable were women, indicating that my apparent bias is at least passive. And if you ignore Orwell for a moment (gasp!), as he is pretty much assured of a “particularly notable” position in any given year, then three of the four “particularly notable” books were written by women.

Perhaps the most notable book on the list is Anne-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies. I’ve had a hardcover copy on my shelf since 2003 but I could never bring myself to start reading it, partly because her previous novel, Fall on Your Knees, remains one of my favourite of all time so I needed some distance to temper my expectations. But there’s also the matter of it being a whopping 722 pages long. I don’t do well with long novels. But given my intentions to read more women this year, and given the tenth anniversary of me buying the book, it was time.

It was worth the wait, and the long slog. MacDonald’s skill in evoking a time and place is astonishing. They way she nails the details of how a nine-year-old thinks, in that nine-year-old’s voice, is almost spooky. (Example.) That said, it wasn’t perfect even though it’s my most notable read of the year.

I found myself thinking that the editor might have been too enamoured with her charge and was incapable of cutting some excess. There were many long sections of the book, one at the beginning (arguably the entire first 40 pages) and several in the second part of the book (set some 20 years after the first part), that just didn’t belong. Those passages were nicely written, but they did nothing to further the story or to help us know or understand the characters in any meaningful way. We know we’re heading towards a collision with the ghosts of the events in the first part of the book, so we just want to get there. Yes, we want to see how the characters and the situation have changed, but we don’t need dozens of pages of this middle-ground material. I found it frustrating; it took me out of the book, sending me down tangential pathways I wasn’t interested in, and I burned impatiently through them until we got back to where I wanted to be. Now I’m no book editor, but in my opinion, The Way the Crow Flies would have been as good as Fall On Your Knees had the editor trimmed out a good 100 pages of those tangents. Regardless, the rest of it was so good that this flaw didn’t knock the book off of my “best of the year” pedestal.

Another interesting note on the 2013 list is that two of the books, Roll Up The Rim, by Leo MacKay Jr., and Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross, were written by old friends from my days at St. F. X. University. Both rattling good reads, and both are recommended.

Overall, it was a very good reading year. Only one graphic novel, which is down from my usual two or three. Only two of the titles were e-books, which might be worthy of another conversation another day. Mind you, I said the same thing a year ago when I posted my 2011 reading list.

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

Categorized under Annual Reading List,Books,Writing

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Oct 02 2013

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai Chicken Burgers, Improved by Blork

I found Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai-style chicken burgers recipe in Chatelaine magazine (May 2013) and it became something of a summer favourite for us this year.

The recipe comes from her It’s All Good cookbook, but it’s been reprinted all over the web, from Paltrow’s own Goop.com web site to various other magazine’s sites and 1001 blogs. It’s always reproduced exactly the same way (although there is at least one variation in the ingredients), which is a problem for me because I don’t like the way the method is described. This is normal for me as I virtually never like the way recipes are written. I alway re-write them when I’m transcribing them for my personal recipe book, and this one is no different.

The “improved” recipe below includes a few small ingredient changes (based on personal preference) and a greatly improved description of how to put it all together, including important information about how to deal with the very goopy nature of the meat before cooking. (I don’t know if I have the right to present the recipe here, especially if it is modified, but given that it’s already everywhere, and I’m giving attribution, and Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be a nice person, I’m going on the assumption it’s OK.)

I serve these burgers with lettuce and lime-pepper mayonnaise, which you can whip up in about 45 seconds using jarred mayo. The patties themselves pack so much flavour that it doesn’t seem right to pile on a bunch of extra things. These are best served as simply as possible.

A Note on the Goopy Texture

I confess I use supermarket ground chicken because I don’t have a meat grinder. Perhaps if you do grind your own this note won’t apply. (Hardly anyone on the web has mentioned this issue, and those who do usually add breadcrumbs as a binding agent.) But in my experience it has the texture and stickiness of fairly wet cookie dough after you’ve mixed in the aromatics and spices. This makes it hard to shape into patties, and even if you do, the patty loses its shape when you try to move it from a plate into the pan. There is also a high risk the burger will collapse and fall between the grates if you try to grill the burgers without firming them up in a pan first. The tips below will help you work around this problem:

  • Don’t bother trying to shape the meat into a burger patty before cooking; Instead, just divide it into blobs and use the “smash burger” technique when you drop it into the pan (drop in the blob of meat then quickly smooth it into a patty shape using the back of a greased spoon).
  • I do not recommend direct grilling (people say they do it, and I have done it, but it’s not fun and the burger can easily fall apart). I suggest frying them in a pan, or a combination of starting it in a pan (such as one of those grill-top cast iron pans) and finishing it on the grill. Both options are described in the recipe below.
  • Cooking spray is your friend. Spray the plate on which you place the blobs of portioned meat, and use a spoon that you’ve sprayed for transferring to the pan and smashing (flattening) the patties.

Here are the modifications I made to the original recipe:

  • From 3/4 cup of chopped cilantro to 1/2 cup (loosely packed) because it takes a TON of cilantro to even make 1/2 cup, and it seems like too much to me. (Note that some iterations of this recipe on the web specify 1/2 cup.)
  • One teaspoon of sambal oelek instead of a teaspoon of minced red chile pepper. I always have samal oelek on hand, and I never have a single red chile pepper handy. This is an easy and sensible substitution.
  • One teaspoon of fish sauce instead of two. Fish sauce is extremely salty and we should all be eating less salt.
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt instead of 1/2 teaspoon. See note about salt, above.
  • 1 teaspoon of mirin or agave syrup. This is not in the original recipe, but the magic of Thai food comes with the interplay of spicy, salty, sour, and sweet. This recipe has nothing sweet (except the shallots, and that’s a special kind of sweet). I find that a touch of sweetness helps here, especially since I use sambal oelek, which is a bit vinegary. You can add this or not. Just don’t add too much; a teaspoon, or two maximum.

Blork’s Improved Gwyneth Paltrow Thai Chicken Burgers

Ingredients

  • 450 g (1 lb) ground chicken
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 tsp sambal oelek
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt (optional; the fish sauce 
is already very salty)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp mirin or agave syrup (optional)
  • 2 tbsp grapeseed (or equivalent neutral) oil

Method

  • Mix the garlic, cilantro, shallots, sambal oelek, fish sauce, and salt & pepper in a large bowl. Stir it around until it’s mixed into a slurry.
  • Add the ground chicken and mix. Try not to over-mix it; just stir and turn until it’s reasonably well mixed together.
  • Divide into four (or six if you like them small) blobs on a greased plate.
  • Cook in one of these two ways:

PAN:

– Heat a heavy pan until hot.
– Add the oil then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 5-6 minutes per side (being careful not to over-brown) or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

GRILL:

– Heat the grill fairly high, and put a cast-iron grilling pan on it to heat up to hot.
– Put the oil in the grill pan, then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes per side, flipping when the underside is fairly browned.
– After both sides have browned, transfer to the grill and finish about 2-3 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

Serve on lightly toasted sesame buns with lime-pepper mayonnaise and lettuce.

Lime-pepper mayonnaise:
Mix about 1/3 cup of mayo with the juice of 1/2 a lime and a lot of coarsely ground black pepper.

Download an easy-to-print (one page) version of this recipe.

Categorized under Food and Drink,Recipes

3 comments

Jun 24 2013

On Pat Metheny, Kool-Aid, and Bullshit

Every June, as the Montreal International Jazz Festival approaches, I find myself thinking about Pat Metheny. I’m not a fan. It has nothing to do with Metheny’s immeasurable talent and skills; I just don’t care very much about his medium: jazz guitar.

Back in 1989 I had not even heard of Pat Metheny until it was announced that he’d be headlining that year’s big open-air free megashow. Oh, the city lit up and was abuzz with Pat Metheny! Posters everywhere, articles in all the cultural tabloids and so on. Not a beer was raised in any bar before someone said “are you going to see Pat Metheny?” Not for weeks did friends and acquaintances meet on the street without beginning their salutations with “are you going to see Pat Metheny?”

It was infectious. Overnight, half the city became rabid Pat Metheny fans despite the fact that many people had never heard his music. The sad truth was that – hardcore jazz geeks notwithstanding – most people knew nothing about Pat Metheny other than:

  • He played guitar.
  • He had crazy rock-star hair.
  • He looked badass.

Looks badass from here.
(Photo by Badosa.)

Thus began the drinking of Kool-Aid and the parade of bullshit. By “bullshit” I mean more than the conventional lies and stupidity that we endure daily; I mean a fog of groupthink and blind optimism resulting in a city-wide mass hallucination.

The more people talked about the upcoming show, the more the fog spread and the more people believed they were about to experience the most mind-blowing musical experience of all time. This was long before YouTube and Wikipedia, so we had nothing go by by except those badass pictures and the hype. Oh, the hype!

Then it was show-time. The venue was Ave. McGill-College, with the stage set up near rue Ste-Catherine. 100,000 people clogged the avenue, all the way up to Sherbrooke street and beyond.

It was still daylight when the show began. Having arrived a bit late, my friends and I found some space at the back and settled in for a listen. And it was a listen, since there was nothing to see. The stage was far away and there were no video screens. If I stood up and squinted, I could see a crazy-haired guy way, way over there on the stage with his back to the audience, pondering his six-string as he plucked out mild ditties that sounded like the theme music for daytime talk shows.

On and on it went. A fuzzy-haired guy plinking dork music two football fields away. This wasn’t growling and moaning blues guitar as many people probably thought it would be; it was jazz guitar. It sounded to me like something you’d listen to in your den in 1964 while wearing slippers and smoking a pipe.

Meanwhile, the audience – at least in the back where we were – barely paid attention. People were sitting on the ground, smoking, and chatting. Some were reading. At one point I noticed that the band had taken a break and the filler music didn’t sound any different. I left before it was over.

For the next few days people cautiously remarked on how the show was “awesome” and “amazing,” the way you’d describe some foreign folk dance that you don’t understand. After about a week no one I knew ever mentioned it again.

Coda: this malformed memoir should not be seen as a criticism of Pat Metheny and his music. As I said in the beginning, it’s just not to my taste. Rather, this is a commentary on the nature of megashows, the malleability of groups, and the nature of bullshit as the cement that holds many aspects of our society together. There are a few videos from the show on YouTube (this one is typical, this one gives you a sense of the venue, and this one might even wake you up), and in them you can see that the crowd — at least the ones up front — were clearly enjoying the show. But those are probably the hardcore jazz geeks. It’s my opinion that the 80,000 people behind them had no idea what was going on and were probably wondering when the Muzak was going to stop so the show could begin.

Categorized under Culture,Music,Rant

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Jun 05 2013

Three Strikes, You’re Out!

It’s not the Blork Blog style to use this venue to issue screeds against local businesses, but in the case of Green Café I will make an exception, and the exception is based on the fact that Green Café has failed in three dimensions: food quality, web site, and customer service.

Food Quality

I went to Green Café (the branch on rue Drummond) for the first and only time on May 24, 2013, where I ordered a Niçoise salad to go. Green Café’s Niçoise salad doesn’t much resemble a classic Niçoise salad, but that’s an issue of interpretation, not quality. (Theirs is full of chick peas, has no green beans, and they give you a choice of tuna or grilled chicken.)

I returned to my desk and began to eat. The salad was tasty enough at first, but as I got deeper into the bowl the abundance of vinaigrette began to overwhelm. By the time I got to the bottom it was more like vinaigrette soup than a salad. Way too much!

So I thought I’d do the right thing and let them know that they need to reel in the vinaigrette a bit. After all, good restaurants encourage constructive feedback from customers.

Web Site

I went to their web site. As is sadly typical for restaurants, it’s a Flash-based site. Flash is bad for restaurant web sites for many reasons, including the fact that it fails on most mobile devices – and it’s while you’re mobile that you’re most likely to want to get the coordinates for a restaurant, or see the menu. It’s also a bad idea because it’s very likely no one in the restaurant’s staff or administration can update or change the site. This is the dirty secret of Flash-based web developers; once your hire them you’re usually more or less stuck with them for changes and updates. Regular HTML based sites – or sites that run on WordPress or similar systems – can be updated by virtually anyone with the correct login name and password.

In the case of Green Café, their site was not only Flash-based, but it contained an egregious error that no one seems aware of or is willing to fix. When you click the email link on the “Contact Us” page, where the email address is written in (Flash) text as “info@greencafe.ca,” a new, blank email message opens up with the “To” field automatically populated with their address. This is conventional, but in the case of Green Café, it populates the “To” field with the wrong address!

info@green.ca instead of info@greencafe.ca

I didn’t notice the error. So I wrote the following constructive email message and promptly pressed “Send.”

Hello. Today I had my first Café Green experience; I got a salade nicoise (chicken) from the store on rue Drummond. There was WAY too much vinaigrette on it; about triple as much as what I would expect. This isn’t just me being fussy, the thing was literally drowning in vinaigrette. I couldn’t finish it because it was so soggy.

There’s no need to reply, but please do a quality check at that store and give the preparers a reminder of how much vinaigrette is a normal amount. I’d love to try another Café Green salad one day soon, but if it’s as soggy as this one I won’t go back.

Thanks!

An hour later I got the following email from the Green Party of Canada (emphasis mine):

Don’t worry, Ed, your email went to the Green Party of Canada. We don’t serve Salade Nicoise.

Go to the Green Cafe contact page, and scroll down to where it shows info@greencafe.ca. Click on that link and look at the address on the email.

The domain “green.ca” is the property of the Green Party of Canada and is being used, to our continual petty annoyance, by the “Green Traiteur & Café” in Montreal. We have written to them repeatedly and have never received even an acknowledgement.

As you can see, this is not a new problem. Note that the address error occurs on both the French and English side of Green Café’s web site.

Customer Service

I promptly copied my original message and sent it to the (presumably) correct email address (info@greencafe.ca), with the following paragraph added:

One other thing: the email link on your website is broken. Although it says “info@greencafe.ca,” when you click on it it populates your email “To” field with “info@green.ca,” which goes to the Green Party of Canada. (They were kind enough to write back to me an tell me they had received the above comment. This is a re-send.) The same error occurs on both your French and English “Contact” page.

And then I waited.

Almost two weeks have passed. The error on the web site is still there, and even though I said “there’s no need to reply,” I would expect any decent company to reply as a matter of courtesy. I have not received a reply. I join the Green Party of Canada and doubtless many others in this club of people who receive no reply from Green Café when they try to contact them by email.

Any one of these infractions would be enough to warrant a frown along with the willingness to give another chance. Two of these infractions would prompt a personal boycott. But all three together add up to a frown, a personal boycott, and this public message to anyone who is reading – including, I hope, the management at Green Café.

Strike three, you’re out.

Update (June 2014)

A keen reader has informed me that Green Café has updated their web site. It’s no longer Flash-based, and the email address has been corrected. No word on whether or not they’re still over-dressing their salads.

8 comments

Apr 02 2013

The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud

The San Marzano is the king of the Italian sauce tomatoes. It’s a long, thin, meaty fruit with very little water and seeds. The flavour is sweet, tangy, and less acidic than Roma tomatoes. Anyone who watches food television or who follows celebrity chefs on social media will be familiar with the by-now-unequivocal refrain that “real” cooks only use San Marzano tomatoes in their sauces.

I say bullshit.

There are many varieties of Italian tomatoes, including the aforementioned Roma, and they all have a role to play in la cucina. The qualities that make San Marzanos so special are fairly subtle, and those subtleties diminish as the dish you prepare becomes more complex and the number of ingredients increases.

Given that a can of San Marzano tomatoes is typically two to three times more expensive than a can of similar quality Roma tomatoes, you’re throwing your money away if you’re using them in a complex dishes with many ingredients. Do you think they’re using real barolo at Babbo when they make their famous Brasato al Barolo? No, it’s a $4 domestic merlot (according to Bill Buford, in “Heat”). Does it make any difference? No!

The same applies when you’re making a huge pot of ragù Bolognese or your grandma’s 50-ingredient lasagna. Use the Romas because you’ll never be able to tell the difference.

On the other hand, if you’re making pizza, use a sauce of nothing more than lightly drained and blended (use a hand blender) canned San Marzanos with a bit of salt and olive oil. Don’t pre-cook it; spread it on raw. Compare a simple pizza Margherita made with San Marzanos versus one made with Romas and you will most definitely see the difference. (The Roma one will still be good, but the San Marzano one will be sublime and transcendant.)

Or make a fast and simple pasta dish by cooking down a can of San Marzanos with a bit of garlic. Cook it for less than ten minutes, and during the second half put a bunch of whole basil leaves in there. Then turn off the heat, remove the cooked basil, and tip in some just-cooked penne or other short pasta. Dress with a bit of olive oil, a fresh basil chiffonnade, and a bit of freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese. Again, it would be good with Romas, but it is mind-blowing with San Marzanos.

So the first level of San Marzano fraud is the idea that San Marzanos are necessarily and always better. No. San Marzanos are better when the dish is simple, features the tomato, and the tomato is as unmolested as possible. Otherwise, it makes little difference if you use San Marzanos or some other good Italian tomato.

There’s another level of fraud, and it has to do with the definition of “San Marzano.” Put your thinking hat on, because this gets a bit three-dimensional.

San Marzano” refers to two things; primarily it is a variety of tomato. But it also refers to a specific protected denomination of origin (or in Italian, Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, or D.O.P.). That means it refers to the San Marzano variety of tomatoes that are harvested in August and September in a specific area of Campania, Italy (called, to no one’s surprise, “San Marzano sul Sarno“). In order to receive the D.O.P. stamp, the tomatoes must be:

  1. Of the San Marzano variety;
  2. grown in the San Marzano region;
  3. harvested by hand without mechanization.

Harvesting by hand is intended to ensure that the fruit is only picked when at its peak ripeness, with the not-quite-ripe ones left on the vine for later.

All this D.O.P. fussiness results in:

  • A very high standard of quality control.
  • A significantly higher price.
  • Something for annoying foodies to cling to and use to pass judgement over those who are less familiar with the San Marzano story.
  • A great way for tomato retailers to rip off the marginally informed (those for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

Here’s where it gets tricky. Because the foodie world is flush with all sorts of judgements about San Marzanos and those who do or do not use them, the demand for San Marzano tomatoes has skyrocketed. This includes the demand for domestically grown, non-D.O.P. ones, which are San Marzano in variety only, without the benefit of having been grown in that special volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, and without a guarantee of the quality controls during harvesting. Because of this high demand for the name and low understanding of what it means, a lot of domestic producers charge a premium price for their non-D.O.P. products.

Here in Montreal, most of the San Marzano tomatoes one finds in the stores are, indeed D.O.P., and they typically cost between $3.50 and $5.00 for a 28 ounce/800 gram can (versus anywhere from $1.00 to $1.89 for regular Italian tomatoes). I can understand domestic San Marzanos being a bit more expensive than regular Italian tomatoes, but there’s no way they should be premium priced along with the D.O.P. ones.

These available-in-Quebec “San Marzanos” are not D.O.P. San Marzanos! They generally run about $2 a can, which is a fair price.

In the United States, the most commonly seen brand of “San Marzano” tomatoes are these ones:

The most commonly seen brand of “San Marzanos” in the U.S. They are not D.O.P. so they shouldn’t be priced like D.O.P!

Watch any U.S.-produced TV show or online video where they mention San Marzanos, and that’s the label you’ll likely see. Do a Google image search on “san marzano tomatoes” and that’s the label that appears most frequently.

They are not D.O.P. San Marzanos. They are U.S.-grown, non-D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. No doubt they are good tomatoes, probably better than most. But they are not D.O.P., so they should not be sold at D.O.P. prices. I picked up this can at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena, California recently. The price? $4.39!

In my opinion, this is a rip-off. I won’t go so far as to say “fraud,” because there is no fake D.O.P. stamp on the can, and the label does say “Grown Domestically in the USA.” However, the label more prominently says “POMIDORI PELATI” (or “POMIDORI CUBETTI” for the diced ones), which implies these are Italian tomatoes from Italy. And they are priced as if they were D.O.P. San Marzanos from Italy. Furthermore, the Whole Foods store did not carry any D.O.P San Marzanos, so these non-D.O.P. ones are your only choice if you have “San Marzano” buzzing in your head.

This is a rip-off. I don’t know if they are similarly overpriced in other stores, but it seems that Whole Foods – or perhaps the distributor of the tomatoes – are inflating the price because they know that many people will robotically buy San Marzano tomatoes simply because the foodies tell them to, and they will pay any price for them. It’s sort of a bait-and-switch, except it’s the foodie blogs and foodie television that set the bait, and Whole Foods does the switch (by not even offering true D.O.P. brands).

Compare that to Epicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal, where I can choose from at least seven brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos:

A selection of seven different brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos at Épicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal. Most are under $4.00.

In conclusion:

  • D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes really are better in simply-prepared dishes where the barely-cooked tomato is the main attraction.
  • For long-cooked dishes that contain a lot of ingredients (or strongly flavoured ingredients such as salty and fatty meats), you will likely not see the difference between San Marzano tomatoes and any good quality regular Italian tomatoes.
  • The best quality San Marzanos are from Italy, bearing the D.O.P. stamp. They are more expensive, but worth it for simple dishes (see the first point, above).
  • Non-D.O.P. San Marzanos can be very good, but you shouldn’t pay D.O.P. prices for them. If you’re going to pay D.O.P. prices, then buy D.O.P. tomatoes.

I encourage you to eat more tomatoes, both San Marzano and other varieties, and even non-D.O.P. San Marzanos. But be informed! Bon appetit!

Further reading:

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Mar 23 2013

10 Years of Cassandra Pages

The noise in the blogosphere has long surpassed the signal, which may explain the decline in relevance of the “personal blog.” Where once the platform was largely about personal writing and exploration, blogging now is a vehicle for competitive foodieism, personal branding, and all forms of marketing.

This shift was inevitable, so there’s no point in complaining about it. Fortunately, many personal blogs still soldier on, including this one (although in my case “limp” would be a better choice of verb). Some toil in obscurity, others attract a bit of attention by issuing screeds and rants. And then there’s The Cassandra Pages, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week.

The Cassandra Pages is written by Beth Adams, who I’ve been privileged to know as a friend for much of that ten years. Martine and I met Beth when she and her husband Jon showed up at a YULBlog meeting some time around 2004. (It might have been 2003, or even 2005; I have a terrible sense of time past, a gift I inherited from my father.) She and Jon were engaged in a very slow process of moving to Montreal from their home in Vermont where they’d lived together for 30 years. I was attracted to them immediately, partially because their story was so different from the others at YULBlog, but mostly because of their genuine warmth, intelligence, and curiosity.

Since then I have had the triple pleasure of knowing them as friends, seeing Jon’s photographs, and reading Beth’s blog. Don’t go there for rants or shopping advice. Turn away if you’re only interested in tech noise or social platitudes. The Cassandra Pages is a ten year (and onward) personal writing space for Beth’s experimentation and expression, and for your reading pleasure. It strikes that rare note of being a personal blog – based on a life being lived and the observations made along the way – while remaining approachable and relevant to anyone who cares to read it. As with good memoir writing, it never comes of as being “all about me.” Rather, it’s about us; the “we” that forms when a writer connects with her readers, and readers see truth and thoughtful inquiry in a writer’s impressions.

Congratulations Beth, on 10 years of The Cassandra Pages!

Categorized under Weblogs,Writing

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