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Right This Way for Something You Can't ReplaceClass Act:  Jacques Pépin Shows Us How it's DonePrisoners Put on a Show:  Pyongyang Restaurant in ShanghaiPoliticians and Food:  Is It Wise to Point at a Pile of Meat with Such Short Fingers?

May 25th, 2016

Plate Truthing

BY Christian Ford

In the art and science of modern mapmaking, technology looms large.  GPS coordinates identify location and elevation, aerial photography and LIDAR capture the shape and detail of the land, photogrammetry can convert a stack of snapshots into 3D models of landforms and structures.  But though all that is more than a little like magic, it has the drawback of being fundamentally disconnected from the reality it is attempting to capture.  Which is why, when all the GPSing and LIDARing and photographing is done, someone needs to go out there and actually touch the earth, to see if the abstraction matches reality.

“Ground truthing” it’s called, and it is the process of introducing your concepts and abstractions to the earth itself.  It’s the point at which the gap between concept and reality becomes inescapable.

Now, it occurs to me that there’s another kind of truthing that happens, the homo sapiens version.  Our inescapable reality happens at mealtime.  Doesn’t matter if you’re the Dalai Lama or the Koch Brothers, it’s eat or die and consequently, it’s the primary human experience, this side of breathing.  It means that everyone one of us has a lot of personal experience with which to grasp the similarities and differences between our reality, and someone else’s.  Food, at a certain level, is truth.

So let’s jump right in and see what happens when you plate truth in politics.  Slate has a small photo essay of candidates engaging with food that’s pretty eye-opening.  And that was before before the infamous Cinquo de Mayo-Taco Bowl-Ex-wife photo that Trump emitted to the world.  If you ever wanted proof that politicians are caricature versions of humans, this is it.

In a different kind of political/food collision, it turns out that there is a popular chain of restaurants that goes by the name of Pyongyang, which also happens to be the name of North Korea’s capitol city.  The restaurant has over one hundred branches, most of them in China, but others scattered over Southeast Asia.  One briefly operated in Amsterdam, a few years back.

The menu is traditional Korean, including such North Korean specialities as ginseng wine and an aphrodisiac ostensibly made from bears.  Prices, interestingly enough, are in US dollars, and are surprisingly high.    Photography is a frowned upon, which makes a little more sense when you discover that the staff is North Korean.  It turns out that they live on site and spend their off and on hours closely watched by a rather unusual branch of the staff, North Korean security agents.  Yes, occasionally escapes are made, in which case the entire operation gets closed down.

This unusual business model is made sense of by the apparent fact that these restau’s are operated by a secret organization with the perfect spy-movie name of “Room 39.”  This outfit, an element so the North Korean government, is believed to be responsible for bringing hard cash into North Korea to support the leadership’s personal agenda.  They do this through a variety of organized crime activities, such as drugs, weapons, trafficking and, running restaurants.  Apparently, no one’s ever told them about the margins of the restaurant business.

A different kind of plate truthing comes to us Jacques Pépin.  Now eighty years old, he’s as much institution as man, having done everything from being personal chef to Charles deGaulle (and two other French presidents) to working up the menu for the original incarnation of Howard Johnson’s, to writing the canonical text of French cuisine, La Technique.  He has also been a judge on Top Chef, which makes Gilad Edelman’s piece on Pépin’s cooking shows (there have been many incarnations) all the more interesting because he points out the fundamental difference between Pépin and the rest of the Food Channel genre — that Pépin is teaching how to cook, which is not the same as teaching recipes.  It’s the difference between being a spectator or a participant.

On this side of the North Atlantic, Philip Green (Sir Philip Green) isn’t a household name, but in the UK he’s the picture in the dictionary abutting the definition of capitalist pig.  The short version is that his good times are based on asset stripping which leaves the little people footing the bill and wondering where their main street businesses went.

Rob Hopkins, anthropologist and founder of the Transition Movement, draws a very interesting contrast between the business as usual exemplified by Green and what happens in Santa Rosa California, where “the best beer in the world” is brewed.  His contention is that in an economy based on generic mass production and virtualization, there are still places where tangible craftsmanship has an inexorable draw — and first among those places are our plates and glasses.  Wouldn’t it be just too good to be true that craft beer can save the world?


Craft Beer by Lars Plougman
Jacques Pépin by Edsel Little
Restaurant Pyongyang by Uri Tours
Stumpy Steaks by Ben Kilgust