Epicuriosa Has Moved

…to a new URL! I will still be writing about food, health, sustainability and cooking at my new website, marianacotlear.com. If you’re a current e-mail subscriber of this blog, I’ll take care of signing you up over there. If you’re not a current subscriber, what are you waiting for? 

As always, you can also follow me on Twitter or e-mail me if you want to chat. See you at the new digs! 

- Mariana

March 17, 2013 at 11:38 pm Leave a comment

My Best Food Moment of 2012

A Heart-Shaped Pizza in Naples

A Heart-Shaped Pizza in Naples

Given the galaxy of experiences a year can bring, digging around for a superlative moment is a bit of a silly pursuit, and not something I normally do. But here’s one particular story that rises to the top of my memory bank this year. It’s an example of how serendipity and food can interfere with the mundane to produce the sublime.

I was in Turkey, first, though that’s not where this takes place. A friend’s wedding had brought me to Istanbul, where I had been fortunate to visit once before. Originally, my post-wedding plans were to spend a week traveling around the south of Turkey with a hodgepodge of friends’ friends. But poor weather and misaligned travel objectives (ok, my overarching desire to drink coffee in the sun, eat delicious things and generally avoid several 12-hour bus rides) pushed me to look for an alternative. I was close to cutting the trip short and flying home, frankly. But the night before we were supposed to leave Istanbul, a random search of flights revealed a round trip to Naples for an unmissably cheap price. Italy it was!

The friends I polled in the brief hours between this decision and my arrival in Italy were nearly unanimous in their recommendations: Skip Naples, they said. It’s ugly. It’s dangerous. There’s nothing to see. Take the train straight to Rome and Capri.

So I followed their advice. Except for a brief pause in Naples. A pause for lunch.

Having bussed from the Napoli airport to its train station, I lugged my roller bag through the terminal. I had one hour before my train. I had just landed in Italy. More specifically, in Naples. I wasn’t going to grab a train station sandwich.

Past confused travelers looking for sightseeing tours, I wound my way to the informazioni.  In my best “Italian” accented Spanish, I tried to convey what I was looking for. I have an hour. I need to find a delicious pizza. 

Slowly the man understood my insistent request. A smile crept over his face. I should send you to Da Michele. But you do not have time. He started scribbling on a piece of paper. There is a place, here, two blocks from the station. They will make you a great pizza. I know the chef. Give him this paper, and he will treat you well. 

It’s hard to know whether to follow a recommendation like this in a town as well-touristed as Naples. Savvy travelers are taught to be wary of kickbacks and any establishments near hubs like train stations. But I got a good feeling from this man, and I didn’t have much of a choice. My time to eat was running out.

My roller bag and I took a bumpy ride the two blocks to the place where this restaurant was supposed to be, past a mishmash of signs for buffalo mozzarella and unsavory-looking characters. It was hard to find. I got frazzled. I took a wrong turn. I lost time.

By the time I found the place I had lost the nerve to relay a message to the chef and just sat down. Platters of fresh looking antipasti were staring me in the face and I was hungry. A waiter smiled at me with curiosity as he poured water. I didn’t see any tourists. To my left, two well-appointed businessmen shared plates of tomatoes and raw fennel with parmesan. I’ll have that, I told my waiter. Then I’ll have a pizza.

When my antipasti arrived, the businessmen leaned over and smiled and gestured. You copied us!

They asked where I was from and why I was taking pictures of food.

New York! Another patron in the restaurant exclaimed, I have family there!

My lonely lunch as a solo traveler had turned into jovial restaurant-wide banter in fragmented Italian, Spanish, and English. I couldn’t tell if I was in on the joke or I was the joke, but I didn’t care.

Meanwhile, my businessmen friends got deep into a conversation with the waiter and called over the chef, conspiratorially. I cleaned my plate of the olive oil-drenched vegetables and sat back in satisfaction.

Are you ready for your pizza?  The waiter smiled at me.  I was.

The pizza came.

The pizza was shaped like a heart.

The pizza was shaped like a heart. I had been on Italian soil for less than two hours and a restaurant full of new friends who I would never see again delivered me a pizza in the shape of a heart.

Maybe the pizza was the best I ever had. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the flavor of pure happiness was all that mattered in that moment. That’s the moment that got frozen in time.

I don’t think I stopped smiling for the rest of that day. Certainly not as I left the restaurant and said goodbye to my new friends. Not as I thanked and re-thanked the train station information man who sent me there. Not as I boarded a train to Rome. And definitely, definitely not as my seat mate introduced himself: Ciao, I’m Armando. I study sustainable wine making in Pisa. Where are you going? 

January 4, 2013 at 11:51 am 2 comments

Dear Beyonce, Please Change Your Tune

Beyonce Pushes Pepsi in new deal.

Beyonce Pushes Pepsi in new deal.

 

The internet’s been aflutter this week with news of Beyonce’s newly inked $50 million promotional deal with Pepsi. According to the New York Times, the deal is being heralded as a sea change for the ways corporations engage in promotional campaigns with artists. Part of the funds will go to directly invest in Beyonce’s creative projects, to be applied at her discretion. From the Times (emphasis mine):

“Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve,” Beyoncé said in a statement. “As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity.”

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that Beyonce’s partnership with the soda giant reflects “no compromise.” Given the pop star’s relationship with healthy food champion Michelle Obama and her previous work promoting exercise for Let’s Move! (a White House initiative designed to combad childhood obesity), a highly visible deal promoting sugar sweetened beverages seems like a pretty big conflict of interest.

On a personal level, I’m sad. I like Beyonce and admire her seemingly genuine interest in using her pop cultural power for good. I’ve held a longstanding dream (a pipe dream, maybe) that she and husband Jay-Z (who performed at Barack Obama’s final campaign rally) could leverage their enormous influence to lead a media campaign that makes healthy eating cool. Instead, the pop star is lending her cool to a company that contributes to one of the leading causes of childhood obesity.

Several high-profile food policy and public health advocates feel the same way, and they’re taking strides to push back on the deal, or force Beyonce to donate some of the funds to charity. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nutrition advocacy organization, issued a widely-distributed public letter asking Beyonce to reconsider the sponsorship. Here’s an exerpt:

CSPI Letter

Food policy and nutrition expert Marion Nestle also weighed in, calling Beyonce’s Pepsi deal a “slap in the face to Let’s Move!,” while environmentalist Laurie David tweeted “‘Pepsi targets its marketing to African-American kids’ Why does @Beyonce want her fans to get diabetes?”

Ouch. 

I don’t think Beyonce wants her fans to get diabetes, nor do I think she intentionally humiliated the White House. Beyonce has reportedly been working with Pepsi since 2003, and it seems this new deal was a giant, exciting, and lucrative expansion of that partnership. Nevertheless, she and her team failed to look at the broader implications of what this highly visible relationship would now mean in terms of her stated values, her previous work to fight childhood obesity, and the changing tide in the public consciousness about the role of soda in fostering our nation’s greatest threat to public health.

I don’t know what will happen with Beyonce and Pepsi in the aftermath of this criticism. For now, I expect they will come up with some way to incorporate physical activity into the partnership as a way to steer the conversation away from sugar and calorie consumption. Beverage companies have long championed exercise as a way to emphasize a balanced lifestyle and avoid claims that their products promote obesity.

In the long run, however, I expect that pop stars and public figures alike will start to think twice before accepting big money (or any money) from soda companies. This is heartening news: in ten years, a partnership between someone like Beyonce and a company like Pepsi will be unthinkable.

December 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm Leave a comment

Look at the Bacon

What viral videos about junk food can teach us about healthy food marketing

Have you seen this video yet? No? Stop whatever you’re doing, and watch this right now. It’s the best thing on the internet.

Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks it’s catchy: the tune has 3.1 million views in 5 days, for an autotuned remix of an amateur  fast food review. Dayum. You can see the original here, or check out the piano cover, the drum cover, the Friday style cover, and even listen to a full hour of “Oh My Dayum,” cause I know you can’t get enough.

To steal a phrase from my friend J, a community development and healthy food entrepreneur: I know I’m supposed to be mad at this, but I’m NOT. 

How could I be mad? Daym and I, we’re kindred spirits. I know how it feels to be this excited about dinner. Have you ever seen a group of foodies in their natural environment? This is how we talk. We giggle about how good we know the food is going to be before we eat it. We look for the signs that preface that life-changing Dayumm! moment. Like Daym and Jay-Z, if it’s really that good, we might get a little mad at it. It’s all about passion.

But Daym is not just a foodie: the man is a connoisseur, celebrating a standard of excellence other meals should aspire to. He’s thinking carefully about his food and looking for a specific type of craftsmanship. He’s considering taste (perfect amount of salt!), mouthfeel (You bite the fry and the fry bites back!), presentation (look at the bacon!), and packaging (ghetto grocery bag!). (Quality service gets a shout-out too, in the original review).

All this build up is just to tell you how good he KNOWS this meal is going to be before he even takes a bite of the food. He’s creating enough build up to the enjoyment that when he finally says, “Let’s DO This!” you want to cheer for him to eat that burger.

Now, I know why I’m supposed to be mad at this video. Everything about it echoes the fact that we live in a fast food nation: Daym is reviewing a bacon doublecheeseburger with fries (and a soda). He eats his meal — Lunch? Dinner? Unclear. It’s daytime, so can’t be “Third Meal” — alone, on the dashboard of his car.

The video my friend was talking about not being mad at, Hot Cheetos and Takis, is another example of a viral video that makes junk food seem cool. Props to those kids for their lyrical skills and creative initiative, but I can’t get on board with little kids talking about how cool it is to ride their bikes to the corner store to get junk food. On the other hand, isn’t the fact that these kids are talking about food at all a sign of its cultural importance? And isn’t that a good thing?

In principle, people in my field would find these pop cultural celebrations of junk food pretty depressing. But I think there’s a silver lining. The joy Daym expresses in his video illustrates how pleasure in food — and true care for its craftsmanship and deliciousness — transcends food genres.

Where Daym succeeds marvelously is in pointing out that not all food is created equal. “This is how bacon is SUPPOSED to be” is an exclamation that implies standards of quality. It also happens to be the exact same thing I say every time I eat a summer tomato or roasted brussels sprouts.

I don’t say it because the tomato is beautiful and I don’t say it because I’m happy I bought those brussesls sprouts from a farmer that grew them responsibly, though I’m proud of those things too. I shout out loud because it tastes fucking amazing. Delicious is delicious.

If we can start there, if we can start with actually thinking about our food from the perspective of taste and quality, then we can get the beyond the idea that people don’t care about what they eat. Junk food is engineered to be “delicious” by pluging into our genetic predisposition to love the fat, sugar and salt compounds that keep us alive in a state of scarcity.

But fruits and vegetables in their most nutritious state are engineered to be delicious by nature — a point that chefs like Dan Barber emphasize when they talk about the need for better farming. Maybe that’s the lens through which we should start portraying vegetables. Of course, there are other problems related to access and cost that need to be addressed. But if we can get to the point where people are talking about eating your vegetables not because they are good for you, but because they taste really really good, then we’ll really have changed the food system.

August 21, 2012 at 9:39 pm 1 comment

Celebrate with Fish

And Think More About Them, Too

My family grew up on the Pacific coast of Peru, so we have a pretty serious love for fresh seafood. Unfortunately, these days, with apocalyptic reports that overfishing will bring us a fish-free ecosystem in the near future, it can be a challenge to navigate responsible consumption of our acquatic friends.

There are some great guides out there; mostly, they say, avoid most really big fish and stick to traditional methods of capture. The specifics, however, can be daunting: a certain fish species caught using certain methods might be A-OK in one part of the world, and entirely NOT OK in another. So though it’s wise to do your best to avoid the fish on the “avoid” list, it’s sometimes hard to get all the information necessary to make the right decision.*

As a result, if you want to feel relatively good about eating good fish and not go bankrupt, you should do it rarely, and you’ll probably have to fork over a pretty penny for the privilege regardless. In my family eating seafood has become a bit of a celebratory indulgence. Luckily, holidays call for just such an indulgence! At least, that’s the rationale I put forth to my mother in an attempt to convince her that we serve  a whole fish baked in a salt crust this Thanksgiving.

Continue Reading for Recipe…

November 26, 2011 at 2:12 am 1 comment

Cranberry Sauce Doesn’t Come From a Can

And It’s Laughably Easy to Make from Scratch

Cranberry SauceHEY YOU, Thanksgiving chef. Yes, you–you know who you are. You’ve been cooking up a storm since Tuesday evening, haven’t you? You’ve been battling with yourself and your loved ones for days: stuffing cooked in the bird, or apart?

Soon enough you’ll be painstakingly roasting that prize turkey, taking its temperature and basting it every 27.5 minutes. Your carefully dotted marshmallows will ooze over the sweet potatoes you roasted, mashed, and whipped. Your green beans will have been steamed and blanched to a remarkable viridian hue. The unbelievable flakiness of your new pie crust (2011’s major innovation?) will win you accolades for years to come.

And yet–after all this effort–minutes before the meal you will reach for that can opener and you’ll plop out the perfunctory cylinder of crimson red gel that is unfacetiously referred to as cranberry sauce.

What is up with that?

Continue Reading for Recipe…

November 24, 2011 at 5:50 am 3 comments

Portable Parfaits

Put Your Breakfast in a Jar


As you may recall, I have had my struggles with breakfast.  It’s such an important meal, yet one that is hugely challenging to do well in our hectic lives.

As someone who values breakfast, but is decidedly not a morning person, I need something that’s as quick and portable as it is healthy and satisfying.  It’s a tall order–and despite my best efforts, I continue to come up short.

Enter the Portable Parfait.

Continue reading for recipe

September 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm 1 comment

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Who is Epicuriosa?

Mariana Cotlear is a foodie and advocate for issues related to food, nutrition, and public health. She hopes to change the nutritional landscape in the U.S. and beyond via public policy and communications campaigns to influence the way people eat and encourage them to establish healthier relationships with food.

All photography is by Mariana, except where otherwise noted.

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