Friday, September 23, 2011

An interview with BETTY FUSSELL, renowned journalist and author of books about American food and culture.

Betty Harper Fussell writes big, virtually encyclopedic books about food like The Story of Corn, an in-depth study of the plant as a crop, religion and culture. Among her other 10 books are I Hear America Cooking: The Cooks, Regions and Recipes of American Regional Cuisine,  Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, and My Kitchen Wars, a portrait of her decades-long marriage to literary critic and military historian Paul Fussell – and its breakdown. My Kitchen Wars became a successful off-Broadway play.

Q: Thanks, Betty, for sharing your thoughts about New Orleans and food culture.  We’ve spent some time together in New Orleans.  You’ve been coming here for a long time – what are some of your favorite New Orleans restaurants and foods?  What restaurant do you most miss?  And what is your favorite dish at Jazz Fest?
A: My number one favorite—the one and only DOOKY CHASE’S [2301 Orleans Ave—5 blocks from the former Ruth’s Chris flagship], with the incomparable, unconquerable Miz Leah.  After that, you just go crazy trying to name all the places you love. But let’s have a go: The Ruby Slipper [200 Magazine Street ] for breakfast; Crescent Pie & Sausage Co. [4400 Banks Street] for a midmorning snack; Bourbon House for a shot and a plate of pre-lunch oysters; drop into Cochon for a po’boy; then a big bowl at The Old Coffeepot gumbo shop [714 Saint Peter Street]; then maybe CafĂ© Amelie [912 Royal Street] for a Satsuma cocktail; and is it too late to go on to brunch at Commander’s Palace [1403 Washington Avenue]? Or should I start lining up for Galatoire’s [209 Bourbon] for an early dinner or call Miz Jessica to see if she’s going to be at her table? Or call Miz Daphne to see if she’s dining at any of Emeril’s restaurant collection? Or just run over to Mandina’s or….or….or…. Camelia Grill [626 S Carrollton Ave] or Casamento’s [4330 Magazine St]? It’s not even midnight, where shall we go for Sazeracs and jazz?  Wait a minute, I forgot Jazz Fest. But Miz Poppy didn’t forget that shaker of daquiris to drink while we stand in line for soft-shell crab po’boys and beer. 

Q: I once heard a New Yorker’s response to Galatoire’s:  in New York everyone would have an eye cast over their shoulder to see who was to be seen and who was seeing them, while in New Orleans the mind stays steadfastly at the table, on the food and on the conversation.  (Of course the conversation is probably about the last great meal or the next).  How do you compare the experience of New York and New Orleans tables? 
A: It costs more in New York. Eight million people on a rock, go figure. New York is about cost.  Not food. Rather, there’s nothing in the way of food that you can’t buy in NY, you just have to pay for it. A $500 meal for one at Per Se is about the money. Of course the food is fabulous, but that’s not why most of the diners who are there are there.  Every bite of food has to brought in to the Rock, by car, boat, truck, train, plane. That’s going to cost you before you’ve even lifted your fork. New York is a port, like New Orleans, but it doesn’t take a social scientist to see they‘re not comparable in any way, except that both ports attracted a lot of different kinds of immigrants who brought with them a lot of different kinds of tastes.  Vive la diffèrence.

Q: My memoir owes an epigraph to you: “Steak for all of us immigrants means America.”  In Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef and in The Story of Corn you are interested not just in the history of food but also in the mythic, almost spiritual experience of food.  Is there anything special about New Orleanians’ spiritual or mythic relationship to food? We do after all worship the fatted calf (le boeuf gras) on Mardi Gras.
A: Heavens to Betsy, New Orleans is entirely a mythic experience, a spiritual boom-box. It’s the only place I know where music is the heartbeat, the footbeat, the gutbeat of everyday life every single day, not just on feast days. That’s why I try to come every year to the French Quarter Festival, when every street corner has a trumpet and a tap dancer and the zydeco tent is booming dawn to dusk with bigbellied oldies twirling their partners. That Festival, the last free one in America, just condenses what’s already there. In New Orleans music is not just the food of love, music is FOOD and food, music. Ask anyone.

Q: Raising Steaks is in part about what went wrong with American beef.  What’s going right and where can we get some of the best beef available today?  Do you seek out dry-aged beef for your table?  Corn- or grass-fed? Do you seek out the little producers who sell at farmers markets? (I hear you are old friends with Justin at the Crescent City Farmers Market — is there a story there?) Do you order over the internet? 
A: Yes, yes and yes. Wet-aged is an oxymoron designed by commodity meat producers to prolong shelf-life etc. through an airless CryoVac seal. Dry-aged requires air (oxygen) to change the enzymes slowly and transform layers of taste. Dry-aged is about FLAVOR. The industrial meat boys hate dry-aging because the beef loses weight while it ages, demanding time and space. Not just grass-fed but grass-finished is the key to genuine pastured, cared-for beef (and other red-meat animals). Grass all the way – check out the American Grassfed Association.

Of course that means, in an industrially-scaled context, small guys who sell either at farmers markets or online direct or sometimes, now, to a national specialty chain like Whole Foods. Will Harris in Georgia sells his grass-finished processed on-site cattle to the southern region of Whole Foods. Before my local farmers market at Union Square in Manhattan began to sell beef, I bought a lot online. As the green movement picked up speed across the land, even fancy but still family-owned butcher shops like Lobel’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side have added an online distribution. At Union Square’s Greenmarket, I can now buy really good beef from a number of Hudson Valley ranchers –– and more are on their way.

Go Green, says I, echoing Justin Pitts at Crescent City Farmers Market. I met him first at an annual Heritage Breed (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) conference in the pinewoods of northern Florida, where I also met my first Pineywoods cattle. Justin is an outstanding overall –  and overalled – icon of all that is good in the care and feeding of heritage breeds. As for stories, I hope Justin is recording them at this very moment for posterity.

Q: My mother didn’t often say it in public, but in her own account, the best steak she ever had was on her honeymoon in Buenos Aires.  Yet, in Mark Schatzker’s Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, we hear that even Argentina is following our lead in ruining beef with corn feeding and massive dosages of antibiotics in overcrowded feedlots. If you could get on a plane tomorrow and were carrying a big appetite (and fat pocketbook), where would you go for a great steak?
A: Drat it, I’ve never got to Argentina. Always wanted to tango in Buenos Aires and run up north to a finca and flirt with the gauchos. I think Argentina has now become the number one global exporter of beef, and such volume almost automatically means commodity-breed cows finished on corn in big feedlots and processed in big volume for distribution. I cry for you, Argentina. And even more for Brazil, who’s moving ahead fast in cutting down the Amazonian rainforest to plant corn to feed to cattle and other livestock. The US has done a great job of exporting its industrial model to the rest of the world. Was that a good idea?  New Orleans with its oil spill knows the cost of that model more directly than most of us. 

I think your mama’s honeymoon in Buenos Aires was a long time ago and I’ve no doubt her steak dinner carried the rhythms of the tango. Today, for myself, I think I’d just hop across the East River to Peter Luger’s in Williamsburg, for a big porterhouse for two, served on wooden tables to the sound of big families with lots of kids clamoring for more. I would go alone and ask for a doggy bag for the bone.

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