If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Caroline and Janelle@3rd Ward

Toto, I don't think we're in Manhattan anymore.

I spent this past Sunday on a Brooklyn adventure. I rarely venture into the outer boroughs, but this is mostly an issue of time rather than of misguided snobbery.

We started out in East Williamsburg at the Huckleberry Bar, which was probably the bougie-est-looking thing in that neighborhood by a long mile. They were having a Maker's Mark sponsored "Whiskey and Milkshakes" event. The concept is this: show up and be waited on hand and foot by people making you free hot dogs and hamburgers, bringing you pitchers of ice water, and blending up delicious delicious free milkshakes spiked with free bourbon.


This would never happen in Manhattan. Not BR*, not if Goldman Sachs gave everyone a sack of dubloons, not ever.


The magnanimity in the air was so infectious, I actually went across the street and bought a block of American cheese and a jar of sliced pickles for the party, just so people could have free cheeseburgers with pickles rather than free hamburgers without. For this, I was dubbed both "Cheesegirl" and "The Johnny Applecheese." That's legacy, baby.

As it turns out, whiskey milkshakes are delicious! Caroline pointed out it was like eggnog, but better. Icy, creamy, and just enough kick to make it interesting. I'm never going virgin again.

Next, we went over to 3rd Ward in Bushwick for the much-hyped pig roast. I am going to sound really square for saying this, but WHOA, BUSHWICK! Creepy warehouses! Desolation! And very punny art projects!

Get it? It's park! Inside a trailer!

See the plants coming out of the top? "Someone should make it their mission to bone in there," I said. Two minutes later, the caretaker appeared and said, "I catch teenagers making out in there all the time."

This pretty much sums up my impression of Bushwick.

Naturally, we did a Derelicte photoshoot.

You may have heard already that the pig roast itself was a shitshow. 'Twas indeed. The space wasn't really structured well to have so many people go after one thing, so the line for pork tacos meandered inside and outside, around fire escapes and radiators.

Not the best space for hundreds and hundreds of people.

This is what we were all waiting for.

Truth be told, I would not have died for these tacos. The pig itself was glorious, but this assembly-line mass-production enterprise did not instill faith that its death was being treated justly. The tacos looked skimpy, the sides rote. What I really wanted to eat was an ear. The pig's ears looked gloriously browned, crispy, rich with fat, gelatin, and cartilage. Done well, ears are second only to the belly on the deliciousness scale of piggy anatomy.

"You forget that animals have ribs," said a hipster to his girlfriend.

Eventually, we grew tired, hot, bored, and sober. We decided to give up the cause and find some other taco joint. As we were leaving, I felt a last surge of determination. I stuck my head out the window, beckoned one of the knife-wielders over, and asked him if pretty please could I, may have one of the ears?

He smiled, disappeared, and returned five seconds later bearing a whole glorious pig ear, which he presented to me with a speech in Japanese, which he is not. I guess even hipsters can be woefully ignorant. Still, because he was so nice, I just smiled and said thank you - in English.

I am pretty proud of myself at this point.

Did I mention there were hundreds of people there? And that a pig only has two ears?

God, that ear was delicious. Greasily preoccupied for the next twenty minutes, even after giving some drunk guy a bite, I hardly cared when it started hailing and we had to take up siege inside. When the storm passed, Bushwick actually looked pretty good:

Janelle's photo captures the elegant wreckage well, I think.

The takeaway: Brooklyn is full of free shit. Would buy again.

Before Recession

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Greatest Moment

I stumbled upon this photo today in a gallery over at The Village Voice.

Copyright Nate "Igor" Smith

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Editing With Ray@Ushiwakamaru

I worried that I'd met my gustatory match with Ray when he informed me of our plans for the evening over email: bowling, lobster rolls at Pearl Oyster Bar, and then omakase at Ushiwakamaru. All this in response to a mere "Hey, let's grab a lobster roll after work." This was a man with a plan, and the plan was decadent enough to scandalize even me.

Over bowling, I learned that Ray is an architect with some grand schemes. He described his dream of opening a shop someday that would combine "design and delicious," and elaborated on concepts that went completely over my head. I nodded and smiled while trying to guess at exactly what his store would sell (or would it even sell anything?)

I offered up my own simmering idea in response: the Trader Joe's of Chinese supermarkets. Branded products, well-edited shelves, tags that give the nutritional information and usage tips for lesser-known imports, dynamic selections.

Like this, except my shit would be real, and thus would not resort to cheap tricks like cheesy Chinese characters and ching chong font. Image courtesy of Asian Dumpling Tips

"That's it," Ray said, "Eat Shop would have curated products. It would give you the best fucking things you could experience. Which could be anything. I want to do an essay on soda, an essay on ramen, an essay on dining room chairs."
"Like a gallery, then. Each essay being the exhibit of the week." I was starting to see it.
"Yeah. The soda thing, for example: I want to put together a case of sodas of different colors, from different countries. You would buy a case and take it home and experience this essay on soda."
"Would you cool things with the space, too? Demos and samples and events and such?"
"Oh, definitely. I'll have some kind of newsletter for events, build a following of people who are into food and design."
"Like a Third Place. I was reading an article recently on the rebuilding of New Orleans' restaurants after Katrina, and it talked about the concept of a Third Place and how the existence of communities attached to these old restaurants really helped in reviving these places. Everyone sort of pitched in to rebuild. It's an idea that's gotten lost in cities like New York, where restaurants are something you try once rather than go back to over and over again. But I want to build a community around a restaurant. I have this one idea - if gambling weren't illegal, I'd turn my future restaurant into a mah jong parlor at night."
"Zoe, I think we have very similar viewpoints. This is going to be good."

When we got to Pearl's, Ray set about composing our meal. His eye wandered over the fried oysters, the littlenecks, the lobster roll, the salt-crusted shrimp...

"We may have to edit our appetites," I reminded him.
"You're right, you're right." So we scaled back to the seed of the evening, the lobster roll. With some fried oysters for good measure. I didn't take pictures because I was too busy scarfing lobster. By the way, those matchstick fries at Pearl's are killer. If you ate whole cans of French's potato sticks for snack as a kid, these are the fries for you. (But who does that? Weirdo.)

Photo by The Hungry Novelist

"So what's the coolest thing you've ever done?" I asked Ray.
"Like, project-wise?"
"Yeah. Anything creative."
"I haven't done it yet. I hope I haven't done it yet."

It was uncanny to discover we admired some of the same things, only he found more specific inspiration in their museum-like qualities: Tsukiji fish market (in a sense, the Eat Shop of the sea), Ferran Adria (another man who has made a career of exploring "delicious and design").

"What other essays could you do?" I wondered aloud.
"It could be anything, really. Chairs, tables. Toaster ovens."
"Could you do meat on a stick?"
"Senior year of college, I wanted to apply for a Watson Fellowship to study meat on a stick in different cultures. I'm really into the convergent evolution of cuisine. I wanted to study how meat on a stick came about in so many different places. Convenience? Mobility? Ease of cooking? Et cetera."
"So did you do it?"
"Actually, I changed it to flatbreads, because I thought that sounded more academic than 'meat on a stick.' Still pretty interesting, though. Flatbreads have such important functions in meals. Like Ethiopian injera, for example, which is used like a tablecloth. But I didn't get the grant - they gave it to the kid who wanted to play Ultimate Frisbee around the world."
"Aw, that sucks. But yeah, you could totally have an essay on flatbreads. Or meat on a stick."

This was clearly one food buddy where I wouldn't have to worry about asking or being asked boring questions.

We finished up at Pearl's and walked to our next course at Ushiwakamaru.

"I really like the chef here," Ray explained, "He definitely has a point of view. He uses a lot of heavier, oilier fish that you can't find at a lot of other places. You won't see much white fish or salmon or stuff like that." By then, I was understanding that for Ray, everything has curatorial possibility.

I ordered the bakudan before we started our omakase tour, because the bakudan at Matsugen had been so damn good.

My friends, this bakudan made Matsugen's look like a puny, precious, affectation.

Looks small, but it was actually quite a generous portion.

When I described the ingredients (uni, salmon roe, seaweed, toro, wasabi, natto, scallions, flying fish roe...) to a friend the next day, he said, "It sounds like the sea threw up in a bowl." It totally looked like puke, too, once you mixed it up and it got all gooey. But I could eat this seagurgitation all day.

"This is definitely one of the top five bites I've ever had, and I don't even know what the other four are." I declared. I've been thinking about it ever since, and some other contenders for the Top 5 would probably be Peking duck (with wrapper, sauce, fixins'), foie gras, and grilled, bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms. What's the best bite I've ever eaten? I haven't eaten it yet. I hope I haven't eaten it yet.

We then started on the omakase. ("Ten pieces," Ray said to the server, "No...twelve.") I won't bore you with the photos of individual pieces of sushi. Suffice to say that Ray was right - I had a lot of specimens I'd never encountered before, all delicious. The chef won me over early with a huge, deep-fried shrimp head, and y'all know how much I like crustacean goo.

I also took a short video of the chef making sushi. I felt like such a creeper, but I can't help it if I find sushi-making kind of mesmerizing, ok?

Deft hands

"You know, tonight has kind of been like an omakase," I remarked, "With a seafood theme." We talked about other themed outings we could and probably will do: sriracha, performance food (think Benihana, or the smoked oysters at Desnuda), kitsch (pupu platters, Mai Tais, foods with proper names: Clams Casino, Lobster Newberg, Steak Diane, Oysters Rockefeller).

Meals as essays. Essays on meals. If you think by now that we are insufferably pretentious, I can't really blame you.

The takeaway: not having an "off" button when it comes to food is merely gluttonous; combined with not having an "off" button for creative brainstorming, it makes for great eating.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Crab With Me

I scored 9:30pm reservations to Back Forty's weekly crab boil next Tuesday night. The reservation is for six, and I have three two spots left. Interested parties can email me. Preference given to those who wouldn't mind having pictures of their mugs up on this blog.

Seating is communal and the dinner costs $40. For a write up with photos of the carnage, see AlexEatsWorld's blog post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

For all my fellow office drones in Midtown East.

I went to the opening of Mantao Chinese Sandwiches for lunch today. I just couldn't resist after receiving a "friends of Mantao" soft opening invite email with secret 20% discount password. I need to feel special.

But the line was out the door and after waiting 5 or so minutes to place my order, I waited another 25 for my food. So much for feeling special.

"We're a little backed up," the adorable girl working the register was telling everyone, "it'll be 15-20 minutes."

(Before eating anything, I was already utterly charmed by this operation, just because they seemed like a bunch of friends who decided to open a sandwich shop (you can make a lot of assumptions observations in 25 minutes). In another life, where my friends are not studying to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, curators, writers, professors, and rich finance dudes, I can see us doing something like this.)

I got the Original Mantao Pork Bun sandwich and the Short Rib and Kimchi sandwich, although everything on the menu looked yummy.

Short rib and kimchi. Think bulgogi rather than kalbi for the short rib here, but a lesser marination job than either.

Original pork bun. I should be a hand model.

I'm not saying I measured, but they are about 9cm in diameter.

Both were solid, although the pork bun was the clear winner for me. I especially like what they've done with the bun. Mantou bread is traditionally steamed and eaten whole, as an accompaniment to veggie and meat dishes. Northern Chinese sandwiches, on the other hand, are usually made with flat, sesame-adorned, pancake-type breads. This, a steamed mantou toasted with sesame, is a happy, wholesome marriage better than anything that bougie fusion places like Shang have come up with.

I also got the milky black tea, but that was weak - too much milk.

I'll be dragging my coworkers there tomorrow to order the fried egg with Chinese sausage, spicy pork, and spicy mackerel sandwiches. If you decide to go this week, I highly recommend placing a pickup order via telephone and adding 5 minutes to the wait time they quote you.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Catching Up With Amanda@Aldea

Amanda is not actually a stranger, but a friendly acquaintance from college. We recently reconnected over two revelations: we both live in NYC, and we both are obsessed with food.

After lengthy deliberation, we chose Aldea in the thick of its flurry of good reviews, and I'm glad we got in while we still could, before Bruni's two-star stamp last week. Amanda shares my love for dining at bars, which made it easier to get in with no reservation. We posted up and proceeded to run amok over Aldea's slimly edited menu for the next three hours.

Gluttons for the unknown, we went for three of the petiscos rather than charcuterie:

Knollcrest farm egg with bacalao, black olive, and potato

Amanda delivered a big "meh" on this dish, but I thought it was lovely. Not knock-me-off-my-bar-stool amazing, but a deliciously salty, creamy, eggy way to start a meal. A green bean casserole could also tell you how easily won over I am by crispy fried curlicues of things that were once vegetable.

Pickled ramp bulbs and tah soi with crispy pig ears, apple, cumin yogurt

We were again divided by this dish. I think frying - or pan-frying - might be the gateway technique to eating offal, because people have a favorable Pavlovian response to the word "fried." Sure, if you fry a pig's ear, it becomes pleasingly crunchy like a chicharron, but you end up losing the contrast between gelatin and cartilage that I love about pig's ear. The hard, fried texture also jarred with the ramp bulbs. Why not just serve the pig's ear in long slivers like the ramps, like an updated pig's ear salad, and showcase the textural uniqueness of this piggy appendage?

Moving on, before I presume to make any more fixes to the menu.

A shitty picture of our favorite petisco: sea urchin toast with cauliflower cream, sea lettuce, and lime.

There was so much tension in this dish. Sea urchin is great because it stands just to the right of a line separating repulsive and sublime. The cauliflower cream sweetened its sublimity, the sea lettuce accentuated its heritage, and there was a hidden dash of wasabi kicking it for being too soft.

When we weren't busy talking about Pomona or gossiping about our ex-classmates, I was grilling Amanda for the lowdown on Marea, where she works.

"Have any celebrities come in yet?"
"Oh, tons. Thomas Keller, Gael Greene, Adam Platt's been by a few times - I think he'll review us soon. Josh Ozersky and Eric Ripert together."
"Ha, I love how by celebrities you mean NYC food celebrities. Anthony Bourdain show up yet?"
"No, but Thomas Keller really has that sexy older man thing going for him."

Huh. I guess I can kind of see it.

"Is he hot just because he's Thomas Keller?"
"Maybe. Speaking of hot chefs though, I hear the chef here [at Aldea] is hot." (We did not get a glimpse of George Mendes to confirm this hearsay. Unfortunate, because yes, it turns out he is.)
"I feel like chefs are probably the perfect guys for me. Most seem to be youngish, cocky, over-energetic alpha types."
And that's when Amanda recommended that I date someone at Marea whose name and position shall remain unpublished.

Appetizers came next.

Baby cuttlefish in coconut curry soup, herb puree, and squid ink

Amanda thinks this dish was a dud, but I remember I had a favorable impression of it...but that's all I remember. The beautiful colors in this dish were not matched by the too-subtle taste; I think this may be generally true of dishes featuring squid ink.

Shrimp alhinho with garlic, coriander, pimenton, and pressed jus

The bartender convinced us to get this dish, and it was a great call. The "pressed jus" in this dish is basically the dribbly bright orange matter inhabiting shrimp heads. Once, I had this idea of making a terrine from lobster tomalley, and then I found out you're not really supposed to eat it because it's the lobster's toxin-laden liver. Shrimp-head jus is like a well-executed, less crackpotty, more appetizingly-colored version of that idea, and that's why George Mendes has two stars and I have a blog. Asian people and cats know that shrimp heads are the shrimpiest part of a shrimp, and now anyone who eats at Aldea can enjoy that flavorful wonder without actually sucking on a shrimp head.

"So have there been any Bruni sightings yet?" I ask Amanda. It's funny, eating at Aldea at talking about Marea. Judging by the timing of our visit, Bruni could well have eaten at the former on the same night as us, and he would visit the latter shortly thereafter.
"Nope. We are on alert though."
"Gael Greene's recent review wasn't great."
"Yeah, they're not happy with her review. Some parts of it were kind of BS though. She complained that no one came to her table to take her order, but she neglected to mention that she left the restaurant for half an hour to go watch the sunset in Central Park, or something."

I'm going with Amanda on this one, just because it's totally hilarious - and totally easy - to picture Gael Greene doing that.

"So what have you tried at Marea?"
"Was tasting at least one dish not part of your training?!" How tragic!
"I don't know, we may have been too busy with the opening. I don't think anybody really had time to make sure the hostesses had tried any dishes. I just about die every time another gorgeous pasta dish goes by."
"We should eat there next, then."
"I want to, but I feel a little weird about eating where I work."
"Agreed. How about the staff meals? Are they amazing?"
"Actually, I don't think we've ever had fish at a staff meal. They're good, but they are NOT Marea food. It's very plain, homey stuff. Lots of eggs." Bummer.

Back to Aldea.

Arroz de pato: duck confit, olives, chorizo, duck cracklings

My one complaint about this dish, the best of the evening: why isn't there more of it? I could have pulled a Joey Chestnut on this one. See, Aldea is a food writer's wet dream in that there's so much to describe in every plate of food. Does it make sense that Aldea's food can sometimes seem ruthlessly crafted? While the previous dishes had given us rainbows of ingredients to dissect and ponder, this duck rice made us shut up. It is no less constructed, has no fewer ingredients, than what came before, but for once, the perfect scaffolding is hidden by a very welcome heartyness.

(Was that the most reviewerish sentence I've ever written, or what?)

Too bad we didn't end on that high note. Desserts were a letdown. Amanda had the caramelized brioche with pink peppercorn ice cream.

Even though neither of our palates could pick up on the pink peppercorns, she enjoyed the dish (I am not big on sweet baked goods).

Chilled rhubarb and strawberry soup with passionfruit sorbet

I liked my dessert less. Remember, I don't even like baked goods, yet the soup still tasted like a puddle of coulis in need of pastry. Rhubarb, strawberry, or passionfruit became hard to distinguish as it was all just kind of sweet and sour. Indeed, there was not enough difference - temperature, texture, or taste-wise - between soup and sorbet for the whole sticky pool to be anything but cloying after a few spoonfuls. Enough of my blather; Amanda's succinct summation: liquid Jello.

We stayed a little bit longer, Amanda chatting with the bartender and me with the guy at the next bar stool, whom I've subsequently managed to turn into a date. (The blog is turning out to be a great conversation-starter)

Post-Aldea, Amanda and I have been craving Korean. We have a recommendation from Chef Michael White himself: Won Jo. Maybe that'll be next, while I save up for Marea.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hilariously Topical Typo

From my friend Amanda, who works at Marea:

7:16pm: Bruno is here!
7:28pm: Bruni. Damn iPhone.

(To be honest, I was more excited after getting the first one)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Omnivore's 100: In Which I Am a Killjoy

Bear with me, this one evolved as it was written, and everything I've been thinking scatteredly for months seems to have made it out.

I take issue with this list the way I take issue with most food writing in general: in its pronouncement that "the list includes fine food, strange food, everyday food and even some pretty bad food – but a good omnivore should really try it all," it glides over the fact that "omnivore" apparently means someone who eats at all price points as much as someone who eats at all food pyramid points.

For example, number 84: "Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant."

Food writing, in general, tends to be pretty glib about the socioeconomic impossibility of pleasures such as the above for 99% of the world's population. In taking up Pleasure as the banner of foodie-ism, we are able to overlook everything from cultural theft to local poverty as unfortunate, but ultimately not our problem.

Leave it to the people who write food politics blogs or race blogs or humanitarian blogs, the thought goes, so we can get back to the business of analyzing whether something tastes good. Let hedonistic enjoyment prevail, all else is irrelevant. The world is our banquet.

But I am bothered by taste that exists in a vacuum, sucked from its context. I am not saying we shouldn't eat, and eat everything, it's just that should we not also recognize the privileges of being so entitled? Food is an excellent entry point to examination of ourselves and the world around us, but an element of self-critique has been missing from the current trend.

What is the current trend? The current trend is that frat boy down the hall who went to India and came back with Buddhism and rope sandals. We go out of our way to eat (and write) the most exciting things sourced from both Third World backyards and our own, and we congratulate ourselves on being open-minded.

I hate that kid down the hall, and I find myself turning into him.

But once in a while, something like The Omnivore's 100 comes along, and I end up checking myself even though I was only intending to check off numbers. I find myself looking at the "whole insects" entry and wondering about the people who eat them because they are the cheapest protein available or the only protein available, as my Dad once did. I look at something like "sweetbreads" and wonder when it became so hip, and why only European cuisines can seem to make offal hip. I see McDonald's on there and recognize its place on the list as an ironic cultural marker, not the way of life for people living in urban deserts.

I look at "pho," "aloo gobi," and "chicken tikka masala," and wonder when did other peoples' histories of immigration and adaptation - people who face oppression in America even as their foods are celebrated - become something for me to check off a list and pat myself on the back over.

As foodies and as writers, I think we've done a good job of giving serious thought to important issues like animal rights and America's broken agricultural systems. What I don't see is the same incorporation of critical analysis toward people.

When Yelpers or Chowhounders complain about the lack of great Mexican food in NYC, I want to ask whether they've thought about why that is. Are the people qualified to make great Mexican food priced out by the high overhead costs of opening a restaurant here? What about the great "secret" taco shops hidden in the back of unassuming grocery stores? Can we look at their locations not as a charming quirk - or worse, a badge of authenticity - but as the manifestation of people trying to do business with very few resources?

Foodies often take food a little too seriously. I want foodies to take food even more seriously, but in a different way. Our prevailing attitude toward ethnic food and ethnic communities cannot be like Columbus discovering America. How many times have you heard someone say, "I found the best Indian/Vietnamese/Thai place the other day, I was the only white person there," or, "The only GREAT Chinese restaurants are in Flushing"? If we think something exists solely for our foodie creds, our little pilgrimages, it's inevitable that we develop a hurtfully cavalier attitude toward other people's cultures.

You see, for people of color, food is more than just food. It is often the only representation our histories and cultures have in America; it is our face. So with feelings of pride at seeing our cuisines be accepted come feelings of protectiveness as well. It is hard to abide casual users and casual judgments of our food when our food is known as our identity, whether we like it or not. You may not feel like Chinese tonight, but we can never escape questions like, "so is it true y'all eat dog?" Thus, it is even harder to see casual users enjoy our foods with no strings attached, when we ourselves have been ostracized many a time for our curries and kimchis, which were "weird" and "disgusting" long before wealthy white foodies made them cool.

I guess I am uncomfortable with food writing and going about it as a woman of color. There are plenty of people of color who write food blogs, but I can't help but feel the conversation is still very white. I'd like to hear thoughts on this. Does anyone else have opinions about these things?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Does Anybody In Finance Do Work?*

List of company IPs I've noticed visiting my site during work hours in the past week:

Deutsche Bank
Goldman Sachs
Merrill Lynch
Credit Suisse
Societe Generale
Morgan Stanley
Lehman Brothers**
And a handful of hedge funds that shall remain nameless because I'm not trying to get anyone fired.

But come on, people, you broke the economy already! Get back to work!

*Alternatively, is anyone in finance NOT a foodie?
**You should be ashamed of yourself

Get the Eaters Fresh Food!...My Account of Nathan's Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest 2009

Saturday was fantastic.

I showed up at the W Hotel in Midtown at 8am and found the lobby filled with the greatest competitive eaters in the world. As I stood there clutching my newly-issued jailbait uniform, slightly starstruck by the scene, Juliet Lee came over and asked for a picture! We posed, I stammered something about being a big fan, her husband took a snap, and told me he'd "send a copy to the blog."

Huh? How did he know??

Then, Rick the Manager came over and introduced himself. He is the gentleman behind the previously posted email, and he turned out to be neither sketchy nor interested in my boobs. We chatted, and he explained that an alert had gone off at MLE when I'd started writing about the contest, and that my blog link had gotten emailed around. (Huh. CIA, are you watching?)

Not competing, but still rocking a killer stage look. Oh yeah, Rick's beard is cool too.

Then I spotted Kobayashi and pretty much died. He was sitting in the middle of the room with his entourage, discussing matters of great digestive urgency. Eventually, I summoned up the courage to ask for a picture.

See that smile? That is the smile of a polite man with more important things to do.

I tried to tell him how big a fan I was. He did not speak much English. And then Sonia "The Black Widow" Thomas showed up, completing the Badass Asian Triumvirate of Eating and making me feel like a total fanslut for going up to her and telling her how big of a fan I was.

8am and stunnin'

So then the Eaters and Bunnettes were divided up and loaded onto two separate party buses for the trip to Coney. When I got on the bus, the only seats available were across from Joey Chestnut, who did not look, at that moment, like a man who wanted to talk to a girl in a cheerleader outfit.

But, being the opportunistic blogger that I am, I asked for a picture.

I made the trip from Midtown to Coney Island with Juliet Lee on my left, Joey across the aisle, and Courtney, another Bunnette, to my right. It was entirely surreal.

Juliet was a complete sweetheart. She wanted to know where I was from, how many siblings I have, where I went to school, my major, what my parents do for a living, etc, etc. We discovered that we emigrated from the same city in China (Nanjing) around the same time (early ‘90s). She, a mother of two, even asked if I was friends with my mother when I was a teen, to which I can only hope I replied with a “no” that was emphatic enough to be reassuring.

I, in turn, asked her about the cranberry sauce.

“How did you do it?”

“I am good at the things nobody else prepares for, because I never prepare.” Not that I understand how anyone can ingest 13.23lbs of cranberry sauce with or without preparing.

“That was hard,” she continued, “because it was all liquid. Many times, I thought I was going to throw up. I found a bathroom in the casino afterward and tried to throw up but I couldn’t. You know, I had to go back because they hadn’t announced the winner yet, so I didn’t throw up. It was so sweet, all I want to eat afterward was a pickle. I just wanted something sour in my mouth.”

“It must be easier to do the things like hot dogs or pizza,” I mused, “I can’t even imagine doing something like raw oysters.”

“I did clams! I won clams.”

“How many did you eat?”

“Twenty-three dozen. Plus one more.” Holy crap.

“That must have been so tough. Raw seafood is so hard to digest.” (Holy crap indeed)

“Yeah, the clams were really hard. My stomach didn’t feel so good. I was going to the bathroom every ten minutes for two days. Every ten minutes! The clams weren't very fresh. That's the problem - they have to make so much food, it's just sitting out there.”

TIME OUT. Are you people getting this? This tiny woman is saying, in an impossibly sweet, adorable way, that she had to slay an angry dragon every ten minutes for two days due to eating shellfish that had been festering in pools of melting ice. This sport is DEDICATION.

“Where does it all go?” Courtney chimed in.

If you can fit the baby, you can fit the food!” What a woman.

Courtney said it best - "She is FIERCE!"

Meanwhile, Joey had been sitting across from us, simmering in nerves. Once in while, he'd bubble over and thrash for a few seconds to some inner music. When I watched the competition later, I realized this dance move had a purpose - it's his own variation on the wiggle penguins use to get a big fish down.

Courtney’s curiosity took her there first: “Joey, how do you prepare?”

“I don’t eat for a couple of days.”

“But do you keep your stomach stretched out?”

“I keep it stretched out; I drink a lot of water and milk and stuff.”

“Are you nervous?”

“I am nervous. Last year was close. A lot closer than I was comfortable with.”

“What was the last thing you ate?” I had to know.

“A hot dog. On…Thursday.”

“Are you hungry?”

I don’t really get hungry.” Whoa.

Another bout of head-banging-rocking-out.

"Do you listen to music when you compete?"

"Yes. I always annoy the other contestants because I put a speaker under the table so I can hear my music."

"What kind of music do you listen to?"

"Rock. A lot of Rob Zombie and stuff."

"Do you have a go-to song?"

"Feel So Numb's a good one. 'I feel so good I feel so numb, yeah...'" Appropriate.

At this point I feel I should describe the other occupants on this bus, which included more sedentery-looking competitors by the names of Franco Camerini, Micah Collins, Humble Bob, Gravy Brown, and some others I don't remember. Everyone seemed to know each other.

Humble Bob gets up to pee.

"You all seem to be pretty friendly," I said to Joey.

"Oh yeah, we're all friends. We see each other all the time." Rick The Manager had said earlier that these guys were competitive eaters by day, competitive drinkers by night. Makes sense. "But we all have regular jobs," he continues, "eating's my weekend hobby."

"REALLY?" This was like being told superheroes have regular jobs. "So what's your weekday job?"

"I'm a construction manager." Amazing. He's really a Regular Joe.

"So do you still like eating?"

"Oh yeah, I love food. Know of any good places?" In my excitement upon learning that Joey Chestnut is 1) a foodie, and 2) open to hearing restaurant recommendations, I totally blanked. I may have directed him to the slew of East Village sushi places that do $25 all-you-can-eat, and if that's the case, I'm sincerely sorry to the proprietors of those establishments: I never meant to put you out of business.

"Do you ever do those restaurant eating challenges? You know, if you eat it all, you get it for free?"

"Oh, all the time! I hold records at a lot of those places." He seemed more relaxed now, smiling. I didn't realize until I watched ESPN afterward that he's only 25. A kid, who would otherwise have been just another Joe from California, with an amazing talent. Of course he's proud of having his face up on restaurant walls across America.

And of course he's nervous. This is his third year starring as the unlikely hero in a Red, White, and Blue-spun tale of America vs. Japan, good vs. evil. The only thing more absurd than the storyline would be failing it.

We arrive at Surf and Stillwell and wait in the bus for our next orders. Joey asks someone what the temperature is outside. Eighties and sunny.

"Perfect competition weather," he decrees.

"It must be harder to eat when it's hot and humid out."

"It is. And sometimes, if it's too hot, the dogs sit out there and get leathery." Gross. If anyone out there was wondering whether the taste of hot dog number 59 or 68 is still important, the answer is yes, yes it is, and texture too. Get the Eaters fresh food!

"How many do you think you can eat today?"

"Probably high sixties. I've been doing 60's in practice. My goal is seventy. You'll see the record broken today, absolutely."

There remained only one more question:

"So do you give Kobayashi the stink-eye when you see him?"

"Ha, just a little bit."

"He's been good lately."

"Yeah, he beat me in the Pizza Hut contest last month. He was fast. I never got into my rhythm. But this is my game. This is my game."

It's already gone down in the annals of Youtube and blogs alike, how Joey Chestnut thrashed his way to victory, annihilating 68 dogs and his own previous world record. Less well recorded is how I got splattered with hot dog debris as I stood behind Sonia Thomas, flipping numbers and being the happiest girl on earth. Sonia went on to break the women's record at 41 dogs! You can catch glimpses of my midsection on the ESPN coverage.

It was a hot, dehydrating, exhausting, and often foolish day (just ask anyone who was there and saw us "dance"), but it was worth it so many times over to be there, in the thick of the carnage. And I am so eternally grateful that Juliet and Joey put up with my nosyness and were so nice to me - that bus ride was the best part of the day. And if this post pings any alarms over at MLE: thanks for letting me be there, I had a great time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

And so dies my budding career as the Brooke Hogan of MLE, as doomed and valiant as a match's flame.

Email I got last night:

My stage name is [redacted]. I am looking for Zoe Yang who recently "won" a spot to be a Bunnette at Coney Island this weekend. I am a competitive eater out of Philadelphia who will be in New York City this 4th of July for the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Championship.
If this is you, I was hoping you and I could get together either at the contest or even afterwards at some of the after parties (I'll be at ALL of the hot spots Friday and Saturday nights with the eaters) and I would be able to tell you a few of my ideas that could involve you in the competitive eating world!
Check out my website [redacted]. There's several pictures of Juliet Lee and I and Kobayashi and I hanging out together. I am also on Facebook as [redacted] along with a [redacted] on Facebook.
If you could, can you get back to me soon, because I am leaving for New York on Thursday.
If this is not Zoe Yang, sorry. Maybe you could put me in touch with her!
Thank you,
[Signature redacted]

My response:

Hi [redacted],

You have found the right person, I am Zoe Yang. Did you find me through my blog?

I am looking forward to Nathan's, but I wasn't even aware there were afterparties (and apparently pre-parties?)! I wouldn't mind getting together briefly sometime on Saturday, but I don't really understand what you mean by involving me in the competitive eating world. I didn't really see the Bunnette thing as a crack in the door to a future career with MLE. Also, if your ideas involve big boobs, you don't want me.

See you at the Contest!


No response. He probably heeded my boob disclaimer.