10 Days of Cookbooks | Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food
Wed Sep 21 2011
Illustration: Christine Berrie
Gobs of new cookbooks have sent Team Eat Out away from restaurants and back into the kitchen. This is the fourth in a ten-day (not necessarily series of blog posts, each of which chronicles a standout fall cookbook release. The first post, Julia Kramer on Momofuku Milk Bar, can be found . The second and third, on Top Pot Hand Forged Doughnuts and Stephanie Izard's Girl in the Kitchen, are [node:14947735 link=here;] and [node:14950843 link=here;].
I've never physically been to San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market. But philosophically, I've been there plenty of times. To work in food in these times is to constantly face a barrage of ideas about sustainability. The words "organic," "local," "responsible" and, of course, "irresponsible" are thrown around like breadcrumbs to ducks. And as food obsessives, we are expected to waddle towards them and eat them up.
Anybody who knows or [node:58993 link=reads;] me is aware that I tire easily of this talk. I am tired—I've been tired—of the oversimplification of complicated issues, and the overcomplication of simple ones. I cringe when I hear smart people say that the one lifestyle change they've made—to eat local, or organic, or fair-trade, or to shop at independent stores—is the answer to the world's problematic food systems. It's not. And the idea that one behavioral modification—even if everybody in the world did it—would fix things is short-sighted, naive and more than a little self-absorbed. My favorite (and by that I of course mean my least-favorite) of these fix-it-all ideas is when I hear that I—that everybody—need to spend more money on my food. When you can ignore local and global issues of poverty and hunger enough to suggest such a ridiculous idea, you really have your head up your ass.
I'm told that Bi-Rite is an expensive place. I believe this, because their website is full of words like "artisanal" and "small-batch." These words are synonyms for "expensive." But they are also often synonyms for "quality" and "delicious," which is why when I look at my paltry journalist's paycheck I often decide to spend some of it at stores like Bi-Rite. I point this out because some people will see hypocrisy in the fact that I shop "sustainably" and "artisanally" (am I the only one who's about to get sick?), or that I very much like Bi-Rite's book (which I swear I'll get to in a moment). But I do not begrudge anybody making choices about their own eating habits, their own money. What I dislike is when these choices are spun as moral acts that will save the world. I'm a silly person, but I'm not silly enough to believe that when I buy a local, artisan jam it is an act of social justice. It's just an act of bourgeois consumerism. I'm comfortable with that.
Being a bourgeois consumer with issues about sustainability chatter, I was unsure I would be able to stomach Bi-Rite's book, [node:14938055 link=Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food;]. I figured it would tread the same ground as many other books out there. And I wondered whether I really needed a guide on how to shop for groceries. But I do need a guide to shopping for groceries, mostly because I find that I too often trust that the fancy stores I shop at would only ever sell me at-peak fruits and vegetables. I hope I'm not revealing Santa Claus when I say that, in fact, poorly picked fruit appears everywhere. Even Whole Foods. So to know how to discern it—a skill that I never learned in school—is kind of priceless.
But what I really responded to in the Bi-Rite book were the recipes. A book about grocery shopping should have recipes that are doable on weeknights, and that's what Bi-Rite provides. I made two of the recipes to bring to a dinner party: Deviled eggs and a chocolate-sour cream bundt cake. The deviled eggs were, if I do say so myself, some of the best I've ever had. The only discernible "twist" to the recipe was that it included finely chopped almonds, which provided a not-unpleasant crunch. But I think it was more about the fat-to-yolk content (it seems high to me), and the aggressive spicing. As for the sour cream cake, it was exactly what you would expect: Soft crumb, comforting flavors. The recipe touts itself as "easy" because it's made without using a mixer. It is an easy recipe, but this is not why (how is mixing by hand easier than using a mixer?). It's easy because it comes together quickly and because you can make it literally three days ahead of time—it only gets better as it sits. The best part of both recipes: The fact that while I made them with "responsible" ingredients, I know that they would taste exactly as delicious if I hadn't.