Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Vegetable Butcher of Eataly

This tropical weather in Rio is making me think of the snowy times back in February when I went to New York for my birthday (star sign Aquarius, thanks for asking). I stayed with my Italian friend Valeria, and of course we both had to poke our curious noses into Mario Batali's Italian grocery extravaganza, Eataly, which opened last fall. Located in the nondescript, in-between territory of Midtown, this food, um, emporium? hall? mall? spreads its assortment of bread, cheese, meat, and produce counters, plus dining zones over 50,000 ample square feet. Like Batali himself, Eataly is an overgrown Americanized version of Italian culinary culture. The heady rows of pasta and panettone glittering under bright spotlights reminded me a little of Wal-Mart even if the packaging of the products retained a classic Italian elegance.

Signorina Valeria at the doors to Eataly

I introduced Valeria to one of her country's most delectable cheeses, Sottocenere, a creamy cow's milk cheese laced with black truffle and whose herbed ashen crust provides its name, "sotto cenere" meaning "under ash." Then we went on to prowl the produce section.

The fruit and veggies were all very well-lit, all very pretty, considering the barren wintry landscape outside, though a lot of it came from Florida and California (there was a smattering of Hudson Valley farms represented). I also found a satisfying variety of weird vegetables and fruit, including red watercress, finger limes, and an admirable mushroom section.

At last, we came to the main attraction, the curiosity that had summoned me to this realm called Eataly in the first place: The Vegetable Butcher.

Someone please tell me why they are put scare quotes
around "Vegetable Butcher." Is it all an ironic joke?

Like the Wizard of Oz, the Vegetable Butcher is a symbolic figure that goes beyond the identity of merely one person, the green mantle having been handed off to various wielders of the bloodless knife since the inauguration of the position last September. The whole concept of this in-store vegetable mascot, a hearty carver of edible plant matter there to slice, delight, instruct, and dice, sprouted to life over late-night glasses of fine wine in the back of a swanky restaurant, as New York creation myths often seem to go. Impresario Mario was chatting up conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell, niece of Studio 54's Steve but more importantly for us connoisseurs of the alimentary fringe, a conjurer of food as art and art as food. Her show Icons, which was a dinner at the Brooklyn Museum of Art's fundraising gala last year, included Fontina cheese casts of her own head suspended upside down to melt (under heat guns) onto stacked snack crackers, carrots to be plucked and munched from a seed bed in the shape of artist Vito Acconci's body, grotesquely decadent meat and vegetable spreads, and for dessert: a 20-foot-tall pinata of Andy Warhol's head, which was bashed in to release rivers of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Yodels, Sno Balls, Suzy Q’s, and Ho Ho’s. Yum!

cheese head pre-melt...
What if the hors d'oeuvre were the oeuvre d'art?

a chipped pyramid (these & more here)

Jennifer Rubell with cleaver & cucuzza squash
(source: New York Post)
But  let us return to the vegetable matter at hand... Rubell's idea as the inaugural Vegetable Butcher was to be part educator, part expediter, making people's lives easier and their culinary risks less daunting by informing them about the more unusual vegetables, suggesting possible combinations, and chopping them up at no extra charge. In assorted interviews, Rubell shows herself to be a weird vegetable kindred spirit:

“I like to expand the vegetable kingdom for people.”

“I’m just like a bartender. But the advice customers seek from me is about what to do with vegetables, and to introduce them to unfamiliar ones like cardoons and celery root.” 

Read about the story here, here, and here.

By the time I arrived on the scene, Rubell had already split for stranger pastures, but Valeria and I were able to spend some quality time over sliced celeriac dressed in olive oil, lemon, and salt with the gracious Milan, that day's Vegetable Butcher.

Valeria grills the Vegetable Butcher, Milan (also her hometown)

Responding good-naturedly to my barrage of questions as he selected a hefty celery root for his demonstration, Milan observed that baby artichokes seemed to be the most frequently butchered vagetable at his station (people not knowing how to deal with the thorns and the fuzz, it seems), followed by winter squash. "A lady once asked me to basically scalp a pumpkin for her," he said, while I gasped in shock at the barbarousness of the request, before realizing that that's what we do to all our tough-skinned Cucurbitae, though we call our actions by other names. Truly scandalous, however, was the customer that once had him mince something like forty garlic cloves (I didn't note down the exact number, but it was something ridiculous).

I tried to drag some juicy dirt from him on his job, but the most I could get was that he's bothered by the excess plastic packaging used to box up the sliced veggies and that he's against slicing up mushrooms too far in advance, thus degrading their integrity into a slimy mycological travesty. My main disappointment was that they hadn't come up with any signature vegetable butcher "cuts" with diagrams like the ones you see of cows. But perhaps we of the vegetable community can reflect more on this question and provide further ferment for innovation in vegetable preparation.

As we were talking, a woman came up to have her cauliflower dissected, and Milan sliced it to order ("How small do you want it? Florets?") while she shared with us her preference for pureed cauliflower over mashed potatoes because of its lighter texture. Then we all considered how celery root, also a bit more delicate than the potato, might add a complementary tone to the cauliflower.

Here is Milan's celeriac demonstration, in which I learned that celeriac/celery root can be eaten raw (duh, I know, but I did not know). Please do try this at home. Also, that person who sounds like a total valley girl giving useless color commentary is NOT me.


eek said...

Thanks for the in-depth reporting. Pestering food carvers – mid-carve – with questions is something I aspire to do with charm.

And finger limes?!? Cheesehead art!?!

It's enough suppress my SF vs. NY commentary on cityfolks needing (and abusing) a vegetable butcher.

I suppose I should just think this is good. If it gets one person to put some celeriac on their plate, bravo. But people should chop their own garlic, and like it!

kale daikon said...

I know, carving up vegetables is half my pleasure in them. Though maybe I would ask the butcher to scalp a turban squash for me if it looked really intractable.