Mother nature ain’t got nothing on Monsanto. Monsanto, an agricultural biotech mega-corporation with seemingly insurmountable political muscle, holds a virtual stranglehold on the U.S. food supply (including 90% of the GMO – genetically modified organism/food market). The corporation is ostensibly pro-farmer, if you look at the slogans and sunny wholesome photography on its website – however, it has also waged a massive legal war on these same farmers. Monsanto is reported to have filed nearly 150 patent infringement lawsuits against farmers and settled out of court with seven hundred more. Monsanto holds patents on genetically modified seeds, which have been altered to address many of the difficulties in growing them, and it makes a tidy profit selling these seeds. The thing about seeds is, of course, that when they grow successfully, they produce more seeds, and Monsanto cannot control at least this aspect of the natural order (without making a useless product). Unable to wrest control of the natural order, they have turned to the next best thing – the U.S. judicial system.
There are (at least) three ways that unsuspecting farmers can find themselves dragged into federal court to defend a patent infringement lawsuit against Monsanto’s army of lawyers. In the words of Paulie Cicero: Plant a crop with Monsanto seed, save the seeds from the new crop and plant those next year? “Fuck you, pay me.” Monsanto seeds scattered onto your fields from a neighboring farm? “Fuck you, pay me.” Try to plant the second-hand seeds you bought from a grain elevator? “Fuck you, pay me.”
Of course, to carry out this sort of litigation strategy, one must keep a watchful eye on potential plaintiffs (farmers). Vanity Fair has reported that:
As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities.
Which brings me to the subject du jour which is not, as one might expect, a rant against Monsanto’s aggressive business practices, but rather a brief recap of recent relevant events in the legal world.
Vernon Bowman is a soybean farmer and a good customer of Monsanto. He bought Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds to plant his primary soybean crop. “Roundup Ready” seeds have been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide/weed-killer “Roundup,” and Monsanto holds patents on them. Needing seeds for a secondary, lower-yield soybean planting, Bowman bought less-expensive “commodity” seeds from a grain elevator. These seeds were a combination of seeds from various farmers, which also contained “Roundup Ready” seeds. After Bowman planted these seeds, he was sued by Monsanto for its infringing its patents because he planted “Roundup Ready” seeds that he did not buy from Monsanto. His case wound its way through the federal court system, and ended up before the Supreme Court, which handed down its decision on May 13, 2013 (Bowman v. Monsanto Co.).
The central issue in the case concerned the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” which generally protects an authorized purchaser from a claim of infringing a patent by using or reselling the product. If Albert holds a patent on Product X and sells it to Bob, his exclusive right to control the use or sale of the patent is exhausted upon the sale, and Bob may then legally use or resell Product X. Bowman argued that the right to “use” the seed included the right to plant the seed as well as its progeny, since that is how seeds are “used.” The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, holding essentially that a farmer may plant seeds he buys directly, but may not plant any subsequent newly grown seeds.
This result vindicates Monsanto’s legal stance and puts farmers back into the position they were in before the decision, which is to say not a great one, where they are constantly under suspicion/investigation and at risk of being hauled into federal court based on circumstances they may not even be aware of. The Court’s decision seems to result, at least in part, from its concern that if patent exhaustion applied, Monsanto would lose significant ground to the secondary seed market and lose its incentive to innovate.
A skeptic could conclude that Monsanto has adopted a business strategy of destroying (or threatening to destroy) the livelihood of many of America’s farmers to strengthen its monopoly by killing off the secondary market for its seeds. Monsanto would doubtless reply that the number of farmers affected is extremely small, and that on balance, they do a lot more good for farmers than harm. Monsanto’s lawsuits will doubtless continue. One can only hope that measures will be taken to account for situations where farmers end up with patented seeds growing on their land through no fault of their own (e.g., through contamination from nearby fields).
Big Food has decided there’s money to be made in selling bowls of ramen to the masses. It’s surprising it has taken this long, since ramen is basically just a bowl of water and noodles (with maybe a few veggies and things, additional charge), and presumably has a very high profit margin. Ramen has long been the go-to staple for people trying to subsist on an extremely limited budget – a dollar or two can provide many days of salty ramen slurping. Now, of course, we’re talking about fancy ramen (rather, “traditional” ramen) in this case – not your college dorm ramen, but rather the kind of ramen that world-famous chefs looking for that corporate paycheck have painstakingly designed and tweaked. The kind of ramen that won’t be sold for 29 cents a pack, but rather $8-10 dollars a bowl, presumably.
And where there’s big money at stake, litigation is soon to follow. In this case, Kyle Connoughton, former head chef of London’s “The Fat Duck” (“Best Restaurant in the World 2006 – 2007), is suing Chipotle, and its CEO Steven Ells, claiming Ells fraudulently induced (i.e. tricked) him into taking a job with Chipotle, and became unjustly enriched by the work Connoughton performed on “ramen concepts” pursuant to this employment.
To understand the basis for this claim, one must look to Mr. Ells’ (alleged) prior ramen dealings. Connoughton’s complaint alleges that Chipotle worked with chef David Chang (yes, the Momofuku guy) on a “ramen concept” around 2008, subject to a non-disclosure agreement signed by Ells. The complaint alleges that this work was never authorized by Chang for use in any restaurant. It further alleges that Ells and Chang could not agree on what Chang should be paid for his work and involvement with the concept, and that Ells thereupon insisted that Chang tear up the non-disclosure agreement, which he refused to do. Chipotle executives allegedly believe that Chang will sue Chipotle once it begins opening its “ramen concept” stores. When Connoughton confronted Ells about his dealings with Chang, Ells told him to forget about it and proceed with the “concept,” but soon thereafter fired him on the grounds that he “no longer had confidence in the ramen concept.”
So you may be wondering – where is the legal claim in all this? Connoughton essentially is asserting that Ells’ failure to disclose Chang’s involvement was fraudulent and that he never would have taken the job if he had known the history, because it would have forced him to violate the non-disclosure agreement and would have given him the reputation of having stolen the ramen idea from Chang. He is seeking to recover the equity in the company that he lost when he was fired, the loss of other opportunities he could have taken if he had turned down the Chipotle job, as well as the value of the work that he performed for Chipotle while employed there.
I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the viability of Connoughton’s lawsuit. My own observation is that these circumstances likely present a cautionary tale for those chefs who seek to climb into bed with heavyweight corporate partners. I am sympathetic to why they choose to do so – if they have a viable brand, they should make the most out of it while they still can, there is no shame in securing the financial well-being of themselves and their family. That being said, they are advised to watch their ass.
Finally, if you have been wondering what a “ramen concept” is, this should give you an idea. “Shophouse” is a Chipotle-owned joint in DC which, according to Connoughton, is based on the work initially done by Chang. Chang has played his cards close to his vest regarding this whole affair (as his lawyers have properly advised him) – however, the legal wars over these “ramen concepts” may soon heat up further, so stay tuned.
Apparently Chang et al. are not the first to come up with a “ramen concept.” See below for an alternative concept published on the interwebs. I’m not sure quite what the concept entails but perhaps you the reader will have some insights. Patent pending.
New York Magazine, ever on the prowl for a new urban trend or lifestyle to expose to its audience of affluent ex-Manhattanites, offers up a lifestyle piece this week on a “youth culture phenomenon” being perpetuated by what are best referred to as “Yuffies” (Young Urban Food-obsessives) (The term is mine, not the magazine’s, so please direct your disgust at me). Specifically, they profile a Ms. Diane Chang. As New York Magazine describes Ms. Chang and this “phenomenon”:
Diane Chang is a prime specimen of the new breed of restaurant-goer. The species is obsessive and omnivorous. Although they lean toward cheap ethnic food and revile pretension, they do not ultimately discriminate by price point or cuisine . . . . They abhor restaurant clichés (Carnegie Deli, Peter Luger) and studiously avoid chains (Olive Garden, McDonald’s) but are not above the occasional ironic trip to either. They consume food media—blogs, books, Top Chef and other “quality” TV shows but definitely not Food Network—like so many veal sweetbreads . . . . They talk about food and restaurants incessantly, and their social lives are organized around them. Some are serious home cooks who seek to duplicate the feats of their chef-heroes in their own kitchens; others barely use a stove. Above all, they are avowed culinary agnostics whose central motivation is simply to hunt down and enjoy the next most delicious meal, all the better if no one else has yet heard of it.
Ms. Chang seemingly defines herself by what she is not – she is not a hipster, not a foodie, not a yelper. “I just like what I like,” she says. Fair enough. The article seems mainly focused on how her tastes seem calculated to support a certain agenda – i.e, obscure, unfamiliar, unappreciated food is good, while mainstream, well-known food, even if widely appreciated, is lacking. A lunch at Momofuku Ko and dinner at Blue Hill are dismissed negatively, while Ms. Chang’s iPhone screensaver proudly displays a pig’s foot dish “from a tiny food stall in Taipei.”
Of course, Eater pounced, extracting ten damning lines from NY Mag’s “insufferable foodie story” and declaring that the article is “ostensibly about how people have turned dining out into an obnoxious status-symbol seeking hobby” and “eye-rollingly maddening.” The comments (both on Eater and the NY Mag article) were not kind either.
Now, it would be easy to pile on,and certainly Ms. Chang made some statements in the article that are hard for me to defend:
She says she disliked M.Wells, last year’s consensus “It” restaurant, partly because of “the fact that everybody loves it, and I just don’t want to believe the hype.”
If you say something like that you are selling yourself out right there, and you lose credibility. But Ms. Chang also speaks some truth. In regard to her quest for obscure dining experiences, she says: “It’s a badge of honor . . . Bragging rights.” As much as I might hate to admit it, its true – having gone to more than my share of obscure restaurants hidden away in Queens and elsewhere, IT’S FUN to be able to brag about it afterwards, boast that you went on this adventure that no one else did. Of course, you have to be honest about it – if the place sucks, you can’t brag to everyone about how good it is.
The truth is, Ms. Chang and I are not so different. I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about if we ever met. Honestly, it sounds like she needs to get around Queens a bit more – Spicy & Tasty is sort of a noob’s Flushing Chinese (not a criticism of the restaurant,which I enjoy greatly), much like Sripraphai is a noob’s Queens Thai (again, no critique – they have taken lots of my money over the years). Likewise, I don’t know my ass from my elbow when it comes to eating in Brooklyn. But I can’t escape the feeling that Ms. Chang did not get a fair shake from this interview, or from Eater. As to their “Top Ten Lines” from the article, I have already discussed the ones that I don’t particularly agree with (e.g., M. Wells, Momofuku Ko). Others I am not so sure about.:
The author describes the “silence” among Ms. Chang’s lunch guests when he revealed his favorite restaurant was Eleven Madison Park, and writes cleverly that “on the food-as-indie-rock matrix, I have just accidentally confessed to loving the Dave Matthews Band.” But his whole issue seems to be entirely internal, there is no indication that his guests care one way or the other.
Second, Eater (via the author) seems to be trying to pin the (purported) opinion of a friend of Ms. Chang’s on her, excerpting the statement that:
Lately, Casey has been championing the theory that mediocre food is better than good, the equivalent of a jaded indie kid extolling the virtues of Barry Manilow.”
“Casey” is James Casey, a friend of hers and some sort of food writer.
Eater again goes after her for “not riding the subway,” quoting the article’s report of her taking a $38 cab ride to go to a Korean BBQ place in Flushing. Now, I’m not sure why anyone who knows better would take a cab to Flushing when it is about 15 minutes away on the 7 Express Train. However, read in context, it is clear that she had a budget to spend on food from NY Mag and the cab fare came out of her budget. Plus, as I mentioned before, it sounds like she is not very familiar with Queens. (Also, it sounds like she took the subway home anyway, I’m not sure $38 would get you there and back.)
Finally, she calls Park Slope “the worst food destination ever.” Now, I have no experience in this area but when I sent the article to J. Burger the first thing she said was “she’s right about Park Slope.” So there you have it.
Anyway, all this to say, the media may have been a bit hard on Ms. Chang. She obviously is very passionate about food and highly opinionated. The author of the article made his decisions about how he would describe their time together, and fashioned his story accordingly. When I first read this article I prepared to pile on but, as I said earlier, Ms. Chang and I are not so different. We obviously care enough about food enough to spend our time eating out, or planning to eat out, or cooking at home, or planning to cook at home, or writing elaborate blog posts when we could just be relaxing and watching Netflix. I can’t support everything she says in the article but neither do I think it quite makes her out to be the “status-symbol seeking” snob that some have labeled her. And I am probably guilty of exercising some of my “bragging rights” in a way that has annoyed people.
Her Tumblr page is quite unassuming, just a simple collection of photos of stuff she’s eaten with some commentary and a link to a “paired” song. Unlike this blog, there are no tirades about restaurants, or culinary trends, or news of the day.
UPDATE: Eater has posted Ms. Chang’s response to her coverage in New York Magazine (and subsequently on Eater). Without further comment on my part, it can be found here for readers interested in pursuing the subject further.
Many moons ago J. Burger posted on “The Last Meal,” where she discussed the meal choices of inmates on death row immediately prior to their execution. A recent feature at Eater asks a similar question, but rather “what would your last meal in New York be?” (assuming that you were moving elsewhere, not that you would soon be executed). I perused the responses with a jaded eye, quick to pounce – for we bloggers must always be vigilant for opportunities for snark.
Some responses were predictable:
Per Se, VIP menu
Le Bernadin or Momofuku.
Some responses were trying way too hard:
This totally depends on where I’m moving to. If I’m moving to Sidney, then I’d forgo hitting up Momofuku one last time. If I was going to Shanghai, Bora Bora, Las Vegas, Scottsdale or The Bahamas, I’d skip Jean Georges. If moving to northern California, I’d be able to resist hitting Per Se before I left. Miami or LA? No need to hit Scarpetta or any other Scott Conant restaurant. And assuming we are just concentrating on NYC (because otherwise my last meal would be at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, of course), it’d have to be something like Torrisi or Hearth or Prune or some other homey/chill place that really has a NYC vibe to it and of course great food and drinks.
Some were inadvertently(?) funny:
Why was my “Balthazar” response immediately rejected?
and then there were some others that intrigued me:
Katz’s – Pastrami on rye, stuffed derma, and knoblewurst. Nothing like Katz’s anywhere in the world. Last meal in NYC couldn’t be anywhere else, for me.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Katz’s or “New York-style delis” generally, but this one seems genuine and perceptive – honestly, you probably won’t find a pastrami on rye like this one outside of New York, so why not go for it? Plus it is a New York institution.
And there was this:
A smörgåsbord along the 7 train line.
Now, first of all, points for using the umlauts. For those of you who are not familiar with Queens, what this refers to is the act of “grazing” all the way down Roosevelt Avenue (over which the elevated 7 Train runs), starting in Corona or Elmhurst and working your way toward Manhattan, through Jackson Heights and Woodside and into Sunnyside and (for the truly dedicated) eventually into Long Island City, on the East River. This route contains street carts, kiosks, store fronts and full-service restaurants serving food from all nations of the world. You could walk this route ten times, eating in every neighborhood, and never go to the same place twice, nor experience even half of all the available options. By virtue of having lived in these neighborhoods for 7 years, I have eaten in many of these places, although I have never done “the crawl.” Overall, an interesting and non-traditional choice, if not somewhat strenuous.
So, I pondered what my “last meal in New York” would be. What I soon realized is that my last meal needed to have particular significance to me, it couldn’t merely reflect what I think would be the “best” meal in the city (i.e., Per Se – VIP menu). Although I have poked some fun at the response that tries too hard, there is a grain of truth in there – somewhere like Per Se really isn’t giving you anything you can’t get outside of New York (like, at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, for example). I appreciated Katz’s and the 7 Train food crawl, but neither were for me (the food crawl mostly because I doubt I am going to want to walk for miles down Roosevelt Avenue as part of my last New York meal. I will probably have spent the last week packing).
For me, it would have to be places I have been again and again, in various stages of my life, and enjoyed each time. My “go-to” places, if you will. I would not regret it at all if my last New York meal were at Corner Bistro, even if I had to wait in line. That line is where a beer tastes best. And, once rewarded with my table, I would devour a Bistro Burger, cooked rare,with fries and more beer. Brings back fond memories of late nights in Manhattan.
Another choice would be the curry noodle soup with vegetable dumplings from Mee Noodle Shop in Hell’s Kitchen (and various locations). Nothing more than a clean and efficient Chinese take-out shop, but when I used to work from home I ordered from them every day at lunchtime. They never messed up my order and they always got it to me in about 7 minutes. For my last dinner I would eat in, order some steamed pork buns to start and wash it all down with a few Tsing Taos.
My final choice would be Tournesol, a cute and traditional French bistro just across the river in Long Island City. My wife and I have been going here for romantic dinners since we moved to Queens seven years ago, and it is always charming and dependable for classic bistro dishes – a rich rib-sticking cassoulet in the winter, delicious bouillabaisse, steak frites, foie gras terrine and the like.
So, after some soul searching, these are my choices for my last New York meal, and I would be happy and satisfied by any of them. Maybe that day will never come, but then it never hurts to reflect on these things and, even if I never eat a meal in this city with knowledge that it will be my last, I have some understanding of what food experiences have been most important to me while living here.
Park Slope is a great place to live — proximity to Prospect Park, beautiful brownstones, good schools, relaxed watering holes, etc. However, it is definitely lacking in good, reasonable restaurants. Sure, you could blow a wad at Al Di La or Blue Ribbon for a great meal, but is that what I plan to do every Wednesday night after work? (Don’t worry. There are those who do.)
While many Park Slopers fancy themselves “foodies” or otherwise knowledgeable about organic-free range-local-artisinal this and that, the reality, based on the eateries in the nabe, is that there are a good number of people paying lots of money night after night for mediocre take out and delivery food. This is especially true for ethnic food. There is no good Indian restaurant. All of the sushi and banh mi joints are run by ethnic Chinese folks, which alone doesn’t discredit the establishments, but do they compare to the real thing? No.
But at last! Some quality Chinese food exists in the ‘hood. Tofu on 7th has been on 7th Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets for a good number of years now. The name speaks to its history of catering to the large number of vegetarians in the area, but don’t let it be a misnomer for its current iteration.
Recently, a new chef has been hired and real Szechuan food can be had from its kitchen. The decor is a bit blah, and I’ve never observed many people eating in. Go for delivery and order off the Szechuan menu (there is an American menu available for all your greasy, overly sweet favorites but just skip it). My favorites so far have been the Ma Po Tofu (with pork), “Kung Pao Style” chicken, tea smoked duck and “Hot Pepper Style” beef. I hope more people discover this joint as I would love for it to stay as is for years to come.
If you work in midtown, you’ve witnessed them steadily rolling into the neighborhood and aggressively staking their claim to white collar lunch dollars. I’m talking about food trucks. Not food carts, which are a different animal entirely, but trucks, which can roll with impunity around the city, appearing at 46th and 6th one day, and in Williamsburgh that evening. Many lavish praise on these trucks – they are “the next big thing,” the dream career for hipsters and oppressed lawyers and bankers alike. People will line up around the block to buy their lunch at these places, then brag about it in their offices. Others deride them as “hipster food trucks,” run by slackers who are making a quick buck off the back of the old school street vendors who have been breaking their back for years to establish their clientele, only to have them stolen by some guy selling waffles off the back of a truck. And yet, they have kept rolling into midtown and all over the City, literally lined up on the sides of the street, dispensing waffles, dumplings, desserts, tacos, falafel and weinerschnitzel. Even truckin’-before-it-was-cool stalwart Mr. Softee has gotten in on the action, sending a veritable fleet of trucks into midtown and offering modern crowd-pleasing flavors like “potato chip chocolate dip” cones.
As shocking as it may seem, this golden age of the food truck has now passed into history. On May 24, New York State Supreme Court Judge Geoffrey D. Wright issued a decision re-affirming a Transportation Department regulation, decades old, which provides that “No vendor, hawker or huckster shall park a vehicle at a metered parking space” to offer “merchandise for sale from the vehicle.” And apparently, the city is now enforcing the regulation, forcing food trucks out of their metered spots, to wander the city aimlessly, uneaten weinerschnitzel growing cold in the back. Indeed, the Police Department has officially announced its intent to enforce the law, not just in midtown but throughout the five boroughs. The end of an era is truly over, as the food trucks languish out of the spotlight, like cretaceous dinosaurs struggling hopelessly in the tar pits that will be their tombs.
Meanwhile, in midtown, life goes on. The line at Moishe’s Falafel Cart went around the block today, and the only sign of food trucks was some sort of pizza truck parked in front of a hydrant and frantically selling slices before New York’s finest showed up. Business was risk at the Biryani Cart, and at Kwik Meal across the street. I did not visit Trini-Paki Boys down the street, but they have some of the most fiercely devoted customers of any cart, so I am sure they were just fine. You see, these carts, as opposed to the trucks, have designated locations on the sidewalk and thus the law does not apply to them. In fact, the cart owners are probably breathing a sigh of relief that their tech-and-media savvy, well-financed and mobile army of competitors has been defeated by the City.
And frankly, while the food trucks have twitter accounts, top of the line equipment, and good publicists, they are, as group, missing something that is the essence of street food: good food at good value. Its not that you can’t get good food from a truck, often it can be good (although just as often, not). But even if it is good, it may be overly expensive. The fact is, there are very few trucks that deliver good food at good value.
If I have to choose between the trucks and the carts, I’ll take the carts, every time.
But for trucks fans, all is not lost. The Parks Department has taken a keen interest in mobile foodstuffs, so NYC parks may soon become a haven for displaced trucks.