When life feels like flames, throw something on it.
My not-quite-so indifference toward one-touch brewing syndrome. Or what one may call the vending machine theory. Instant results may provide instant gratification, but the quality or lasting effects of such gratification is not warranted nor guaranteed.
Drinking coffee goes beyond the mere end-result. It encompasses the grinding, the tamping, the pre-heating, the crema, the noise. It encompasses the conscience of the experience as an entire matter.
The all-encompassing world may not be much different. One-touch anything provides gratification in an on-demand world, where efficiencies are bolstered at the cost of the conscience of the experience. Results. Results. Now.
We are not a vending machine society.
One day you wake up and realize that the mundane itself is the daily norm. Norms, you find, are composed of the mundane, the repetitive, the on-going.
I often see the perils of scripting a culture based on occasional spectaculars. Fireworks for the people that bewilder the eyes but minds that shudder at the thought of returning to the every-day.
Sensationalism, as a way of selling a food culture, has become, dare I say, sensational. This is done at the cost of accurately portraying the real people and their mundanes. Show the mundanes, because they are the people. Fireworks glitter once, twice a year, but they die down and are forgotten. The kitchen stove that births daily dinners and to-go lunches are daily grinds, are non-spectacles, but they’re there. And they’re the people.
Don’t mind the every-day. Or the mundane.
Stepping into the unknown is an exciting exchange of thought and process. But when lives are at stake – living things, like breathing, growing plants – the weight of that first step is multiplied.
Who would have thought that the very soil beneath one’s feet could feel so foreign. It was there, all along, but it wasn’t there. I wasn’t there. To know.
I don’t know what makes the ground “soil”. I don’t know its needs, its wants. Don’t know if it has its needs or its wants. Who am I to determine its wants, or to ask, anyway.
Who would have known that the earth is so compact, united, in strength and density, against all downward forces put upon by punishing steel and wood. The earth we stand on exudes its strength towards us unknown inhabitants, habitually lost, continuously divided.
To know, I tilled the soil to, supposedly, allow it to breathe. This, I suppose, was because I assumed that it was not breathing all along, long before my time, before my mind, to know, was put to action. I opened two bags of top soil and spread its contents over the tilled land. The soil contains compost, so it says.
Rotten things for sale.
During the design process for Macintosh circuit boards, Steve Jobs said:
“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”
Years later in an interview about the Macintosh, he also said:
“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
Jobs’ perfection for design was apparent not only for the computer itself, but also for the box that would contain it. Even though the box was going to be thrown in the trash after the consumer opened it, Jobs and the Mac team went through dozens of iterations to perfect the packaging.
Inside and out, designed mattered.
I never thought I’d think of that at a pizza joint.
Fewer things in life are as uneventful as pizza boxes. Most are square or are versions of rectangles. Color schemes and patterns are not inherent, only used to distinguish one box from that of a competitor. Even more so than a personal computer, a pizza box almost evaporates after it is opened, an afterthought that rarely ever rivals its contents. College dorm rooms do not judge pizzas by the boxes; it’s what’s inside that counts.
But people do judge books by their covers.
& Pizza’s new box design is not particularly breathtaking. In fact, I prefer the company’s previous version – clear, simple, spacious, yet bold. The shape of the box was oddly addictive, an elongated rectangle that looks as if it should house a keyboard, not a freshly baked gourmet pie. Not only that, they company created an advertising campaign of sorts using its name – “You & Pizza,” “Love & Pizza.”
The new design maintains the rectangular shape, but all else has changed. Retaining its black and white theme, black lines run through jaggedly. Angular yet not intrusive. The “&” symbol is centerfold, yet not as profound, being at the epicenter of the stripe orgy. The great disappointment, however, is the “Dupont South Now Open” advertisement. Where the company’s first box impressed with simplicity, shout outs to a new store are the ultimate blemish. No more clarity, simplicity.
But why am I writing about this box. Why am I daringly quoting Steve Jobs at the head of this piece.
Because someone gave a shit to design a pizza box. Someone decided to put thought into a pizza box, to spend time and resources. Someone cared. About the box.
My reality has not been distorted. For a pizza company, the content – a.k.a. the pizza – matters most, and & Pizza makes tasty pies. But what sets the company apart from a number of would-be competitors is its attention to detail. The willingness to consider the subtleties of the pizza-eating experience is under appreciated. The experience starts in the line, with the menu, with the counter tops, with the stools and chairs. From start to finish, you are eating a brand.
You eat the box as much as the pizza itself.
There is a first for everything. First kiss, first drink, first car. Then there’s the first meal of the new year. Critical. You can laugh, but the first meal of the year can have implications of how a year will (or will not) play out. After the ball drops in NYC, after the cheers, the hugs, it’s chow time. Last year, my choice was cheese steak with fries – very respectable. This year, I went for a classic: Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.
Parking was hell. I considered public parking in a garage, but the shady-hustler-bouncer-like gentleman was asking $20 in cash. No way. I parked a few blocks away and braved through the cold at 3:00 am. In typical New Year’s fashion, U Street was flooded with people. In typical Ben’s Chili Bowl fashion, the place was jam packed. Nothing new, I heard.
The line to the cashier snakes around; it’s Disneyland trauma all over. Only this time, I seem to be the only sober one in the crowd. For good reasons, I always welcome the new year in a sober state. I cannot see the benefit of leaving one year and entering another completely inebriated, unable to remember anything. I would think that is the last thing you would want. Nevertheless, the crowd was drunk, rowdy, jovial, stinky. Who cares, it’s the full Ben’s experience.
In all honesty, I had heard so much about Ben’s prior to my (virgin) visit, that I thought their food was probably overrated, uber-hyped. But three things surprised me for the better. One, the chili is fantastic. Spicy, tangy, smoky, creamy, it was much better than I had expected. Two, the half-smoke. You have to get the half-smoke. The griddle must have been under a spell. Perfectly cooked, crisp snap of the casing, smoky and salty. It was complementary to the spicy chili. Three, the chili cheese fries. You take all the good things I said and pour cheese over it, you get their chili cheese fries. Not going to say much more – it’s just damn good.
What a meal to bring in the new year.
I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.
Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.
In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.
This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.
We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.
Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.
Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.
Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.
What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.
Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.
Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.
But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.
I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”
Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.
Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.
Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)
I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).
When Henry Ford first introduced the Model T automobile, he famously said, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black.” (Or something like that.) Customization, and more importantly individualization, was not in the picture, due to cost considerations and other factors. But there is more to this Model T phenomenon than the extra marginal buck for painting one out of ten cars red instead of black.
Ford gripped an era in which commonality was celebrated above abnormality. It is somewhat ironic that the innovative breakthrough known as the mass assembly line was really nothing more than a rubber stamp mass-producing identical icons. Iconic yet identical.
It worked for Ford. But if he was in the food business in the year 2014, he would have failed, miserably.
& Pizza is an assembly line of sorts, a line long enough on most weekdays that it tails out the front door and down the sidewalks of the District. If your patience awards you, your eyes will be glued to the array of “pre-determined” pizza creations listed on the menu or the mounds of sausage, meatballs, fresh mozzarella, onions, capers, fresh basil (and on and on and on…) at the heart of the assembly line, just before the salamander oven.
There are many things I can say about the quality of the food at & Pizza, but I will say just three things.
First, the dough and crust are excellent. Whatever they’re doing to the dough is working, and even the “multi-grain” option is decent. The dough, which is kneaded on the spot, travels slowly through the heat treatment expo until it emerges on the other side perfectly crispy and soft-chewy at the same time. Thin-crust, all the way.
Second, the spicy tomato sauce is sweaty-good. The tomato sauce makes or breaks any pizza, and & Pizza’s spicy variety is a must-have. You won’t feel the heat during the first couple pieces, but by the third and fourth, sweet fumes will start coming up from deep within, provoking beads of sweat to form on your forehead. And you’ll know you’re enjoying it.
Third, the runny egg. I get excited when I see fried eggs in a burger (okay, so maybe everyone’s doing it now…but it’s still good). The Farmer’s Daughter pizza (pictured in this post) features two eggs, with two options – cooked through or “runny.” I opted for runny, and this is what happened. Crack one egg, place on one end of pizza. Crack another egg, place on the other end of pizza. Send through oven. What comes out are slightly torched yolks, just runny enough to trickle down the pizza like a second sauce bonding with the spicy tomato sauce.
Sure, & Pizza has almost reached hype-status here in the District. It’s not too difficult to see at least a handful of folks walking around with the rectangular black and white box during the lunch hour.
But there’s good reason for this hype. The current culinary clash is (1) I am the star chef, here is my creation, you will eat it and like it and lick my feet, versus (2) here is what we have, how can we put it together for your taste buds.
It will be interesting to see how far this “individualization of food” movement carries. Fresh ingredients, abundance of choices and options, and reasonable price ($8-9 range for most & Pizza creations) are things that power joints like & Pizza. The Henry Fords of food are waning, and in their place, runny eggs will rise.
As they say, it’s “You & Pizza.” Just that.
Things have a source, the originating mother ship that seems to always be there. Whatever the source, one’s proximity to it is often valuable, if not enviable, and no doubt preferable.
Food is no different.
Sushi connoisseurs often tell tall tales of their ability to taste the difference of nigiri sushi by “distance” alone. In other words, nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed at the bar (the source) tastes better than nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed elsewhere, say a table thirty feet away. From the first seconds when the sushi chef molds the rice, smears the wasabi, and places the fish, each bite becomes less perfect as the nigiri ventures further away. After all, Edo-style sushi originated as a commuter’s meal, made in roadside stands, meant to be eaten on the go. Nigiri is only nigiri when the transfer time between sushi chef and patron comprises of a few heartbeats. Proximity is not an option.
Ramen – or any type of hot noodle soup for that matter – is a ticking time bomb. Timing is everything for an immaculate noodle dish. The second the steaming, semi-boiling broth hits the noodles, it begins “decomposing,” rapidly giving in to the spiking temperature and sodium. Noodles, broth, scallions, bean sprouts, nori, and off you go. Sitting right there at the bar is a complete immersion into the ramen experience. Not only does it taste better, but the action – the clanking, shouting, steaming, stirring, flipping – is part of the taste, feeding the eyes before vapors hit the nose or broth envelopes the tongue. Feeds the eyes, feeds the nose, the source does. Proximity is not an option.
According to this recent article in Time, mozzarella cheese has been scientifically proven to be the “best” cheese for pizza. But no matter the quality or type of cheese, it’s no secret that the further the fresh margherita pizza travels from the oven, the less relevant it becomes, falling to an obsolete afterthought that no one remembers. There’s something unique about seeing your pizza go into a Neapolitan oven, to sit at a table with a clear view to said oven, and to gulf down a still-squirming slice while a steady flow of pies go in and out of that oven. The mozzarella and tomato sauce cool to Goldilocks-right as the server takes just the right number of steps from the oven to the table. Proximity is not an option.
Living in this concrete jungle we call city, one often feels distant from a source, known or unknown. Perhaps that explains why one feels liberated – or at home – stepping on grass or running on soil. Concrete layers and cement blocks under the feet may elevate off the ground, both literally and figuratively, but they also strip you from your source, to the point where concrete whispers in your ear that it is your new source, your new home.
The recent “farm-to-table” phenomenon is a meager attempt to restore this sense of proximity to one’s food source. But even at its best, what you’re getting is fresh meat and produce cooked in a restaurant kitchen in the heart of some downtown, miles and miles away from the rancher or farmer that last had contact with what’s on the plate. In essence, farm-to-table is our dear outcry to take a step back to the source, to the soil. It’s our leap towards proximity.
Not all of us can live on a farm and cook our meals right next door. But in the meantime, we can all appreciate the sense of proximity one gets from “fire-to-mouth” dining, whether it’s ramen or pizza. Closer to the fire, closer to the heat, closer to the source. Closer to what makes food, food.