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Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, at the Smithsonian Museum

Smithsonian Museum

Unfortunately, book tours offer little – if any – free time. Sometimes you want to check out places that are miles away from your hotel, which are hopeless causes (although not always). But since publishers and venues are flying you around, they’re not footing the bill for a leisurely evening with friends, or with copious time to explore the city. (And I don’t blame them.) So you value every precious second you have. Your best bet is to remain within a close radius of your hotel. If you’re fortunate, you can race to a Japanese restaurant, cafe, or doughnut shop. Other times, you’re happy to lie in a nice bed and watch “The View.”

Smithsonian Museum

For the most part, the weather on my tour was spectacular. And while I can’t take credit for that, still, people thanked me for bringing sunny skies with me, wherever I went. In Seattle, I hit the city during one of the rare thirty days of sunshine (out of 365 days.) But not always. Heading to Miami, just as we were poised to take off on the runway, our plane turned around and headed back to the gate to get more fuel because a hurricane warning in Florida, which might force us to land elsewhere. (We ended up arriving okay, but we circled high above the Miami airport for a couple of hours, waiting for it to reopen.) Yet the next day in Miami, the skies were spectacular.

And for my last city and stop of the tour, I had the pleasure of sitting on a green, grassy lawn at the Washington, D.C. farmers’ market, in the nation’s capital, signing books and chatting to shoppers, who were loading up their baskets with bunches of asparagus, strawberries, and radishes as well as first-of-the-season tomatoes and excellent cheeses.

Since I miraculously ended up with a rare, free afternoon the following day, I hoofed it over to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, to check out Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.

The exhibit highlights how American eating and shopping habits have changed during those five decades, and the museum compiled this retrospective to show the progression and evolution of the changes leading up to what shows up at the American table.

Smithsonian Museum

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L.A.

LA

I’m one of those people who loves Los Angeles. Even rarer, I’m one of those San Franciscans who loves Los Angeles. Each sometimes writes off the other, and the two big cities in California are often at odds with each other. One is serious, grey, and a little foreboding and mysterious. The other sunny and warm, with an upbeat attitude that even after visiting for the umpteenth time, I find refreshing. And it always makes me happy to be in LA.

LA

My first “Aha!” moment on this visit was when I woke up the morning after dinner at République, the stunning restaurant that took over the space of the former Campanile restaurant. I took the elevator up to the breakfast room of my hotel, on the top floor. When the door opened, my eyes took a moment to adjust after being greeted by a sky so bright-blue, I was wondering why I had spent so many years trying to stay warm under the blanket of chilly fog of San Francisco.

So a poolside breakfast it was, a plate of scrambled egg whites with kale, squash, avocados and Sriracha sauce, along with a thermos of coffee, and a terrace view. I was ready to move in.

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Onward…

Stiles BBQ in Austin

One thing vegans and vegetarians don’t have to worry about is going into a “meat coma.” But I do, as I’ve been in one twice during my week in Texas. On a previous trip, my friend Matt (who own Tèo gelato and espresso shop, in Austin – and is a must-stop) whisked me away from the airport and took me straight out to Lockhart, known for its excellent bbq joints. However since my free time was limited to little less than three hours, total, we decided to stay within the city limits of Austin (or at least nearby) and get my bbq fix there.

Stiles BBQ in Austin

Matt told me the two places that were more convenient, since I was pressed for time, and when we drove by Franklin Barbecue and saw what is said to be a three-hour wait (people were, indeed, lined up, sitting in lawn chairs, with coolers of beer), I said, “Keep going…” and we pulled up to Stiles Switch BBQ.

And once inside, I was glad we did. The super-friendly staff at the counter provided yet another Texas-style welcome, spending time telling us about the different kinds of meats, after they found out I lived in Paris. While I appreciated the introduction, I had already honed in one the brisket, the beef ribs, and the pork ribs. All were excellent, but the beef rib was especially good and if that had been my last meal ever, I would have been happy.

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The Readjustment, and Lockhart Smokehouse BBQ

Lockhart Smokehouse BBQ

It takes me a few days to readjust to life when I come back to the U.S.A. On our last trip, as we stepped off the plane at Dulles, we were confronted with a huge picture of a giant overstuffed sandwich plastered on the wall of a restaurant, which was aptly named, Potbelly. Like the clever titling of The Pretty Kitty salon that I passed the other day in Dallas, whose speciality was Brazilian waxing, I admired the witty double-meaning. (Albeit referring to a place a little farther south.) But I had assumed the only places where a big belly was à la mode were Polynesian places like Guam and Hawaii. Years back, I did an event with a bunch of nice Hawaiians on the Big Island, who invited me to an after-party. Hûi! I’d never seen so much unrestrained indulging in my life. It was funny being at a party where their weren’t many people, but it was very crowded nonetheless because a big belly is a sign of contentment. (Am not sure what a Brazilian waxing is a sign of.)

Lockheart Smokehouse

After arrival in the States, some things I get up-to-speed with right away – customer service, sidewalks not being a constant game of “chicken”, folks politely apologizing if they happen to get in your way, and clean public bathrooms. Other things, like men calling each other “bro”, waiters stopping by every three minutes to see if anything has changed since the last three minutes that they stopped by to ask you if everything is okay, the proliferation of cooking as a competitive activity, and total strangers taking an intense interest in your welfare: My hotel was kind enough to call my room two hours after I’d arrived, after eleven hours of flying, to see if everything was okay. I wanted to say, Well, it was…until you called and woke me up.” But slipping into my polite American mode, I mumbled under my fog of jet lag into the phone, “Everything is okay” instead of saying, “Actually, no, everything is no longer okay. You woke me up and now it’s going to take me seven hours to get back to sleep.”

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Roam Artisan Burgers, Blue Bottle Coffee & Wooden Charcoal Korean Village Barbecue House

Korean soup

Now I know why they call America – The land of the free. I had a trifecta on my first day; The (normally pricey) watch repair place fixed my watch for free, with a “Merry Christmas!” as he walked onto the next customer, the mobile phone company not only gave me a new SIM card so I could talk and tweet away (which isn’t free, unfortunately) but gave Romain one, too, and last night as we were coming home from dinner, we passed by Boudin bakery, where the bakers were up baking loaves of sourdough bread.

The baker, wondering who the weirdos were (which was odd that he was watching us, because we’re certainly not the only weirdos in San Francisco), who were peering in the doorway. We told him we were just looking and I mentioned my other-half was from France, so he handed us a hefty bâtard of San Francisco sourdough. I dunno, maybe after the trip, we kind of looked bedraggled and in need of some nourishment.

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Cotogna Restaurant

beef tenderloin at cotogna cotogna pizza maker

I’m going to get this out of the way right off the bat: I worked with Mike Tusk at Chez Panisse – he was a cook upstairs in the café and I was downstairs in the pastry department, and although I knew he was a good cook, I was blown away the first time I ate at his restaurant, Quince.

Quince restaurant in San Francisco warm ricotta with figs

I went there shortly after it opened, when it was in a residential neighborhood in San Francisco. The kitchen was nice and rather large if I recall, and he explained to me that he was figuring out how to do everything that he wanted to do in that space. I had dinner later that week in the dining room, which is run by his wife, Lindsay, and was really delighted at the wonderful meal I had, especially the pasta dishes.

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Camino Restaurant

marinated lamb leg

When I started working at Chez Panisse way back in 1983, from the moment we opened the doors at 5pm for dinner, the place was packed. I worked in the café upstairs, which opened because the restaurant downstairs had become a little more formal than anticipated and since the original idea for Chez Panisse was to be a casual dining spot, they opened a café with a no-reservations policy.

At the time, Chez Panisse was garnering a lot of publicity across America and everyone wanted to eat there. So a line formed outside of people waiting for that moment, at 5pm, when the host would go downstairs and open the front door to let everybody in.

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Blogher Food ’11, Atlanta

hota sauce

People often ask me how many times I get back to the states. I don’t know why this is such a pressing question but having just gotten off a plane after 1 1/2 days of sitting on plane, where the guy next to me coughed all night* – and he was kind enough to cover his mouth (although each and every time he did, he jabbed me awake with his elbow) – then sitting in a crowded airport bus for nearly two hours in rush hour traffic from de Gaulle at 7am for my final sprint home, I can honestly still say the BlogHer Food conference was well-worth the trip.

The nice thing about the annual BlogHer Food conference is that it’s a good mélange of food folks, from everyday cooks to professional, both of whom happen to have blogs. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where people converge like this on similar footing and it’s fun to chew the fat with young folks under the age of twenty along with folks coaxing bloggers to engage in more adult activities.

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