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Small fries with your hamberder

You’ve seen the photo. Donald Trump, with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looming over him, posing for a photo op in the White House, its polished mahogany tables piled high with fast food. A buffet of the best to offer from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. Hamburgers and fries, their oils and fats cooling and congealing as they sit on their silver serving trays. All for the Clemson University football team, invited to the White House to celebrate its national championship.

And this is what they get. Big Macs. Or “hamberders,” as Trump called them in a tweet. One of the players said he thought it was a joke when he heard they would be served fast food during their visit to the White House. Another was caught on tape murmuring, “Our nutritionist must be having a fit.”

Also this week, My Friend Mike posted a link to a story on Rochester’s culinary signature, The Garbage Plate. Yet another story, written with a wink and a snicker, about the city’s alleged love affair with a plate piled with various combos of macaroni salad, home fries, baked beans, meat sauce, diced onions and hamburger patties or hots. Doused liberally with mustard or Frank’s hot sauce.

It’s not elitist to dismiss the Big Mac and the Garbage Plate as lesser cuisine. They have their purpose: At the 3 a.m. intersection of desperation and alcohol. But this otherwise overwhelming American infatuation with mediocrity is alarming. Why do we set the bar laughably low, yet still manage to trip over it?

In restaurants, supermarkets and banks, I see Americans wearing sweatpants. Not expensive-looking workout clothes, but baggy sweatpants with stains on them. I see people drinking cheap wine and smoking cigars rolled in tarpaper. People reading Fifty Shades of Grey and lining up for Adam Sandler movies. Garth Brooks bleating from rolled-down truck windows.

We can do better. Tapas 177, Rocco and Cure, those are restaurants worth seeking out. Rochester will get its first restaurant led by a Michelin-star chef when Richard Reddington opens Redd at the former 2 Vine in April. It’s not about the pretense. It’s about the search for excellence. The Cowboy Candy taco at The Silver Iguana on Winton Road. I’ll take a breakfast sandwich straight off the grill at Scott’s or Zimmerman’s at the Rochester Public Market over the Denny’s Lumberjack Slam.

How did we get here, to a point where we accept the uninspired? Look at Trump, with his Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and cold fries. He is a loud, arrogant, mean, ignorant, poor-spelling hypocritical lying man-child of entitlement. Racist, sexist, xenophobic and corrupt beyond measure. Creating policies that separate immigrants from their children, endorsing what Vladimir Putin tells him rather than believing his own intelligence agencies, shutting down the government that he’s supposed to manage. Going to war with the two institutions that threaten to expose him, the justice department and the media. Closing his eyes and ears to science and fact. Refusing to take responsibility for his own actions. It’s a Garbage Plate of public policy. You want small fries with that hamberder? Cooked up by the most hideous of Ugly Americans.

Is it the unanswerable question of what came first, the Kentucky Fried Chicken or the egg? Not really. If we had held ourselves to a higher standard yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess today.

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Lidia Bastianich and the rich life of food and culture

Of course Lidia Bastianich shared the secret of authentic risotto while answering a question from the audience. What did you expect? “It’s all about technique,” she explained, making it clear that stirring the simmering grains, like throwing a knuckleball, is not about arm strength.

But the evening also stirred some much-deeper issues. Help for veterans. And compassion for immigrants.

Public Broadcasting Service’s Madonna of Italian cooking shows was in Rochester over the weekend, primarily for a talk Sunday night at Hochstein Performance Hall. And the night before, a benefit for WXXI. There was dinner, naturally, although she wasn’t asked to step behind the stove for this one. Instead, she talked about a series of shows she’s done for PBS, Homegrown Heroes, that connects veterans with the food industry. In a short clip from the show, one of the vets defined the central idea as, “There really isn’t anything more powerful than growing food.” Think about that for a moment. Here are men and women who have come from places where American-made bombs are falling on busloads of school children. That happened in Yemen in August. If you witnessed something like that, wouldn’t it break your soul? For these soldiers, returning from wars that no one can explain, the healing might come from digging into the earth, producing instead of destroying.

Bastianich was also here to talk about her new book, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food. “I came to the United States as a refugee, 12 years old,” she said. She was born in Italy, but following World War II the region where she lived was transferred to Yugoslavia with the formation of that nation, and her family found itself living under a communist regime. “My father was jailed by communists as a capitalist because he owned a couple of trucks,” she said. When Bastianich, her mother and brother were allowed to temporarily re-cross the border into Italy, her father was forced to stay behind, as a hostage ensuring they would return. But Bastianich’s father escaped Yugoslavia and they settled into a refugee camp. Until 1958, when they came here after President Eisenhower opened immigration to people fleeing communism.

Bastianich married at 19, and she and her husband opened a tiny Italian restaurant in Queens. Within a few years, and changes of restaurants, her reputation grew. And, Bastianich recalled, two legendary chefs, Julia Child and James Beard, came to her, wanting to know the Italian secrets of risotto. She in turn was struck by the potential of public broadcasting, particularly as demonstrated by Child. “The intelligent venue of teaching and sharing,” she says.

Now Bastianich is a food empire. Restaurants and namesake food products, including wine. PBS shows. And, she said, 11 books, although she was wrong: My American Dream is actually her 16th.

Unlike her cook books, this one is a memoir, and it’s her story as an immigrant that she spoke of Saturday. She was an eager immigrant. “I wanted to be an American teenager right away, watching American Bandstand,” she said.

Yet, despite the reward of seeing Dick Clark every week, immigration is a painful process. She compared her early life behind the war-shifting borders in Europe – is she now Austrian, German, Slavic, Italian? – to today’s uncertain homelands. Parents fleeing a hostile government, a child yanked from her childhood. “I didn’t say goodbye to my goats, I didn’t say goodbye to my rabbits,” she said of leaving Italy.

It is no less painful today. “The borders are moving and people are fleeing,” Bastianich said. On our southern border we see refugees from the unstable and dangerous countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Elsewhere on the vast refugee trail, people are trying to leave counties such as Syria and South Sudan. By accident of birth, their opportunity in life is limited. All they want is a shot at what you and I have. But we’re closing the doors.

What are we closing the doors to? A richer life for us all. Bastianich’s family fled communism, yet kept its culture alive. Today’s immigrants, many of whom will never find a safe place, are in danger of seeing their culture disappear. “Food,” Bastianich said, “is a way to transmit who we are.”

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Anthony Bourdain ate a warthog anus like he meant it

It was 2009, and America had dodged a bullet. At least for the moment. Barack Obama was safely in office, having defeated John McCain. But we hadn’t heard the last from his vice-presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. A few hundred people formed a long line at the Henrietta Borders book store, eager to get her autograph on her book, Going Rogue.

On the other side of the city that night, more than a thousand people were in the Auditorium Theater listening to Anthony Bourdain talk about food, dish on his fellow celebrity chefs and dispense wisdom from his world travels. He was erudite, and marvelous.

All of the local media attention was on Palin. Bourdain, who drew a much-larger crowd, one that actually paid to be at his event, drew hardly a mention.

Perhaps people are just smarter than the media.

The news is always bad these days. But the news of Bourdain’s suicide, at age 61, is particularly heavy for this beautiful Friday morning. I didn’t know the guy. And I don’t use the word “fan” often. But I was a fan. I was a fan from the moment I read “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a 1999 story he wrote for The New Yorker about his career working in restaurants: All of the drugs, sex and questionable food practices that almost made you want to work in food services. I read the book that came out of it, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I watched his television show A Cook’s World, and the shows that followed, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Through it all, Bourdain evolved from talking chef to television travel companion. What attracted me to him was his immense curiosity. He wasn’t like one of those overly garrulous Food Network hosts who would eat a warthog anus for a cheap laugh; Bourdain would eat a warthog anus out of respect for the Namibian culture that he was experiencing. Bourdain liked to drink and laugh, and he knew how to tell a story. That night at the Auditorium Theatre, he mocked television chefs such as Guy Fieri, who simply drops in on restaurants to rave about overblown cheeseburgers.

Bourdain walked away from the kitchen to experience the world. He was compassionate, immersing himself in important issues. Immigration was one. I remember one Bourdain show where he pointed out that, if it weren’t for immigrants, the New York City restaurant industry would have to shut down.

There’s a weekly column in The New York Times book review section, “By the Book,” a Q&A for authors. One question that’s always asked is: If you were the host of a dinner party and could invite anyone, living or dead, who would it be? That often prompts me to ask the same question of myself. The list shifts quite a bit. Musicians such as Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams. Or historical figures, Ben Franklin. Thinkers, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. Gadflies, Tom Snyder, the host of the old Tomorrow show. Writers, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Parker or James Baldwin. Sometimes I think of the excellent essayist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who might even have an interesting basketball story to tell.

Bourdain was always on my list, without fail. Living or dead. I guess he’s still on the list.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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