Illustration by Stephen Webster
New York Times
Today's New York Times Dining section has a striking front page. What is most striking to most I imagine is not the small cilantro article on the lower right, but the hyperbole of a pastrami sandwich that overwhelms the page.
I've been thinking a lot about juxtaposition recently (always) and while Harold McGee's excellent article provides so much fodder to dive into here in this blog, fodder that I'm excited to dive into in the near future, while I have the eyes and possibly attention of more than I'm used to, it's the pastrami sandiwch that juxtaposes cilantro hate neuroscience/anthropology that I'm concerned with today.
Beginning January of this year, I've adopted a vegan diet that I keep at a strictness of oh, say 98%--due dilligence applied, the occasional doubt of trace amounts of dairy infrequently ignored. I'm not here or anywhere else to try to convince anyone they should do the same, but I think I have an interesting and less-obnoxious-than-most take on it.
The Times asks "Can This Sandwich Be Saved?" in its headline (Julia Moskin asks in her headline). A better question, I argue, is "Should This Sandwich Be saved?"
The article is about the slow but consistent decline of the Jewish deli (the number of them, the success of them, the perceived quality and authenticity of them) and the corresponding ascension of the not-Jewish deli (which is not to say gentile deli--some not-Jewish delis are Jewish delis, just not Jewish delis of yore). It profiles several mostly younger chefs and restaurant owners who are bringing things like "sustainability," creativity, and vegetables (that aren't coated in mayonnaise) to delis.
On the one hand, while I value tradition, knowing what you're going to get when you go into a place, a kind of place, on the other hand I believe in progress, that what worked yesterday at least might not work so well today. As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in his excellent book Eating Animals--which I read to rev myself up for veganism 3.0 (I've dabbled before for years at a time)--no one, and I can't speak to this personally not being Jewish and all, but especially no one from such a strong cutltural and culinary tradition as the Jewish one, wants to see tradition die, even if there are not so great maybe ethical or other considerations that might not make them the best practices to uphold.
My argument here isn't whether or not certain traditions should be upheld. Certainly you can uphold their spirit and modify their specifics--this has always been so. But it gets complicated when one tries to determine what is the vital essence of this tradtion--what part of it needs to be preserved. Which is why religion is so flawed--who gets to decide that essence?; but that's another post.
My argument here is that making things better or more progressive, here through sustainable butchering practices (in house, local, grass-fed), and flavor and creativity and all these ostensibly wonderful things, can sometimes obscure that they are really much farther from that than being good enough. That is, sure grass-fed pastrami is better than its factory farmed equivalent, but is it good enough. Maybe it is good enough for you and maybe it is good enough for a lot of people (everyone knows the whole slaughter process and everything is still really awful, right?) and that it should or shouldn't be still isn't my argument (exactly).
My argument is that these progressive means of producing meat and dairy and eggs and other foods while obviously good in some ways may be detrimental in that 1) they make well-meaning liberals and people who otherwise give a damn feel like they're doing enough, that things are moving forward enough to 2) eat these things (maybe not so bad) and 3) (the real problem) eat the old-guard counterparts of these foods more often than the sustainable version because 99% of meat and eggs are still facotry farmed. Basically, the very margainal market (supply, not demand) that exists for organic, local, sustainable, not factory farmed animal products seems larger than it is and because many seek out the good versions when they can, are used to eating these things at all, they will inevitably eat these things in their factory-farmed-mixed-pig-part-ball-park-frank-at-the-Yankees-game variety too, right? In fact, many if not most end up eating this kind of food (think cubed chicken in that make your own salad New Yorkers) more often than the good kind, because the good kind is out there.
And I'm not here to judge that. Food writing for years I ate my share of all these things--foie gras, Yankees hot dogs, Shake Shack burgers, Heritage Pork chops, etc--and I'm not on a mission to change anyone's mind about anything. But I'm interested in spotting flawed logic and unwarranted self-congratulation and while I really hope that Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt of Saul's Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley and chefs like them continue to create a better product, maybe at least some of us should also be thinking of creative ways of not eating this stuff at all.
Despite all this, you can say one good thing about delis categorically--I've never seen cilantro in a single one.
Also, I think the New York Times should give me a vegan and/or cilantro hate food column. Just a thought.