• Friday, March 02, 2007

    Peddling Flesh and Pushing Limits

    An Amusing Chapter in the Book of Food & Culture

    Our Lust for Food Celebrity

    I hate to rely on anything as trite as “boys will be boys,” but c’mon guys, you’re not giving me much else to work with here. Maybe it’s the meat. Maybe it’s the testosterone. Maybe it’s the ferocious lure of the public spotlight. We all seem to have developed a prurient interest in food and food celebrities. We’re panting after chefs like hormonal kids after rock stars, hanging on every word as if they’re demi-gods. Wearing their clownish clogs, (I know, I know they’re comfortable), buying their imperfect cookbooks. We seem to have an insatiable hunger for chef gossip, celebrity chef sightings, and chef-branded equipment. They couldn’t be happier. Perhaps we have ourselves to blame.

    Look to any field and you’ll find boys at the top engaged in public duels. Politicians. Musicians. It’s a classic zero-sum game, as ancient as it is impervious to change or improvement. Religions, philosophers, governments, wives, mothers…all fruitlessly aim toward higher goals undaunted by the considerable evidence of the futility of their efforts. But that’s a story for another day, another Feminist Studies class, another 50 minutes on the couch.

    Today we’re talking about food. This of course, changes nothing. Apparently, watching Anthony Bourdain eat a pig’s poop-shoot isn’t enough for our jaded tastes anymore. He’s now hawking a new show for some guy focused entirely on eating weird and gross stuff. Presumably, weirder and grosser than what we’ve already seen Bourdain eat. Hold on to your gullets, boys and girls, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

    And the next fight on the ticket is…
    Bruni v. Chodorow. Whatever the reasons, it does seem that boys cannot resist a good, public pissing contest. Witness (New York Times food writer) versus (restauranteur). Bad review answered by full page New York Times response/rant. It seems it might never end.

    The latest round has Frank Bruni breathless and ecstatic over Robert’s Penthouse Steaks. Yes, that Penthouse. Who knew they did restaurants?

    Bruni’s review, which is much more favorable than his review of Chodorow’s Kobe Club, is sure to send Chodorow into a fit of apoplexy. Never mind the difference between Kobe beef and prime. Bruni gives a steakhouse with strippers a star? Yes. Yes he does.

    In his Penthouse review, you have to struggle to find food references. Between all the comments on seductive flesh, overexposed bosom, wine and toes (not kidding), girls that can’t spell their own names (asked if Brianna spells her name with one “n” or two, she admits she “hadn’t really thought about it”), offers of table-side massage; food notes are kind of hard to find. Ultimately, Bruni does manage to talk about the food. And he likes it. He likes it more than he liked Chodorow’s Kobe Club. Oy. You just know this will be trouble.

    My sense is that the distractions, beautiful as they may be, are distractions from what sounds like pretty good steakhouse fare. “Perfectly charred, dry aged steaks.” “Crisp onion rings.” “Naughty Brussels sprouts.” The guy peddling the flesh here, the chef that is, worked at Guy Savoy in Paris and Daniel in New York. This isn’t Hooters with an attitude; we’ve got some credentials in the kitchen, no matter what else is on the floor. Still, it’s a steakhouse with fairly standard, if well- executed, steakhouse fare, with the addition of strippers. Yet Bruni is “ecstatic”? Why do I hear “I just bought it for the articles.” And “I just went there for the steaks.”

    Sauce for the goose, and what about the gander?
    The notion of really good steak, combined with a (presumably) high-end strip club, got me wondering. Will we see a great steakhouse /strip-club for women? One with male entertainment? After all, Bruni lists several steakhouse stand-bys and notes their deficiencies, as compared to his meal at Robert’s. The shortcomings noted having nothing to do with the lack of tableside massage or “buttery nipple” desserts.

    Would women, like me, who might have enjoyed Peter Luger's, want to go to Robert’s for superior food? I’m not sure. Is there an option, such as a Chippendale’s Grill? Don’t think so. Will there be? I doubt it.

    At a certain juncture in our lives, many women figured out that we already had the lives of the men our mothers wanted us to marry. We had good jobs, took interesting vacations, we drove fun cars. We had our own humidors. We celebrated professional accomplishments and personal victories with our girlfriends, at good steakhouses.

    We chose the steakhouses that treated us with respect. We ignored those that treated us like incomplete parties not to be seated. We noted the ones that seated women in Siberia. You know, the tables near the kitchen, the restroom, with the server in training. There are women reading this and nodding – I’ll bet my last single malt on that. We have preferences borne of experience, dry- vs. wet-aged. We know who has better hash browns. Who has better oysters. Which bartenders make better drinks and where we’ll have the dinner we want, service we expect and will pay for.

    I have to say, even if the steaks at Robert’s Penthouse are better than Peter Luger’s, I don’t think I’ll be scurrying to Robert’s just yet. I don’t really want “Mahogany” angling for a lap dance while I peruse the wine list. I just can’t envision a parallel venue opening any time soon. I admit, I haven’t polled my dry-aged-steak-loving, martini- and Manhattan-drinking, grown-up girlfriends yet. But running through the list in my head, I just don’t see it. I can’t think of very many of us who want stud muffins shaking their stuff in our faces or over our well-marbled rib-eyes.

    It’s not that we don’t have healthy appetites for all the things we’re talking about here. Trust me on that score. I just don’t see women combining the two, simultaneously, for dinner. I would be surprised if I got a maelstrom of mail to the contrary. If I’m wrong, bring it on.

    My science fails me, but experience tells me something
    The sociologist, psychologist and feminist in me all come up short. There’s no neat, easy answer to this question. Do women lust for meat and men less than men lust for meat and women? I don’t think so. Would we engage in public pissing contests over Kobe versus prime dry-aged, girl on the side? I don’t see it. I feel as if I should be able to offer some insight here, but I’m drawing a big fat doughnut.

    One thing I feel is absolutely predictable. Sooner or later things will swing back by some measure. The boys push the gross-out, food-as-proving-ground boundary further out. At some point, a countervailing impulse will draw it back. I only hope not too far. As with humor, philosophy, art, food has the power to tap into truly deep, universal truths. If we go along for the ride, we have much as individuals, and societies to learn.

    In the meantime, the games of chicken get played out, sometimes in the absurd venue of television and food blogs. I may not gain insights from the Bruni-Chodorow match, but I might be stretched or challenged by a good food and travel show. Maybe. Better by actual travel and eating.

    Another of the recent macho food writing contests offers fantasy Food Network star cage fight match-ups. I confess to suggesting a ticket featuring the girls from Ab Fab taking on a pair of food celebs who’d be drunk under the table in no time. Maybe the more intriguing duel would be someone like weird food guy versus safe mother figure. A kind of foodie version of Godzilla v. Bambi.

    All the scary food challenges might send anyone running for the Hamptons and the comfort of Ina’s kitchen. With all the carbs, fat, soft-lighting, her soft laugh and ample bosom – one can imagine even neurotic, insomniac, rail-thin chefs being lulled into blissful safe sleep or at least food coma. Ina, can I get some truffle butter on top of that steak? Another bellini, please?

    Maybe after all our limit-testing and bluster, we just want a good, enjoyable meal. Maybe one that stretches our horizon a bit, but doesn’t require us to get vaccinations or use antibacterial gel.

    Tony, Mahogany, Brianna: I ask you, what’s wrong with that?

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