Category: Food and Drink

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

The New Top Chef

During the pandemic a pasta restaurant launched on UberEats in Paris. Cala quickly attracted a top 1% rating for it’s high quality to price ratio. Only now has it been revealed that the chef is a robot.

“We wanted to make sure that the quality of the product was what was really driving customers to come to a restaurant,” says Ylan Richard, who founded Cala in 2019, when he was 19 . “No one knew there was a robot behind the restaurant on the platforms.”

The economics are interesting.

Most restaurants spend roughly 30% of their costs on food; 30% on labour and 30% on real estate (rent, maintenance, electricity, heating and cleaning.)

In Cala’s restaurant, the kitchen is entirely removed and replaced by the robot, which measures 3m2 — significantly reducing the space needed. The restaurant also doesn’t have any seating.

The robot also allows Cala to produce many more meals per hour per square metre than other restaurants.

“With three metres squared, we can serve 1.2k meals an hour,” says Richard. “A traditional McDonald’s restaurant is 125m2, and usually they can serve 550 meals an hour.”

The robot means Cala saves 60% on real estate costs, which it says it puts into spending more on the cost of food ingredients, allowing it, Richard says, to deliver higher quality meals at a better price.

More generally, one can see top chefs producing recipes that are then scaled not just to restaurants but also to home robot preparation services. Meals would be produced by a subscription service (“We have 10,000 recipes from the greatest chefs on every continent.”). Restaurants would compete even more on ambience.

Organic Disaster

Sri Lanka’s President abruptly banned chemical fertilizers earlier this year in a bid to become 100% organic. The ban has resulted in reduced production and soaring prices that, together with declining tourism and the pandemic, have created an economic crisis.

According to major Sri Lankan tea conglomerate Herman Gunaratne, one of 46 experts picked by President Rajapaksa to spearhead the organic shift, the move’s consequences for the country are unimaginable.

“The ban has drawn the tea industry into complete disarray… If we go completely organic, we will lose 50 per cent of the crop, (but) we are not going to get 50 per cent higher prices,” he reportedly said.

…Former central bank deputy governor W.A. Wijewardena reportedly termed the organic plan as a “dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs”. He said Sri Lanka’s food security had been “compromised” and without foreign currency, it’s “worsening day by day”.

An island-wide survey of farmers found out that 90 per cent use chemicals for farming and 85 per cent expected sizable reductions in their harvest if disallowed to use fertilisers. Moreover, the survey said that only 20 per cent farmers had the knowledge to transition to completely organic production.

It also found that 44 per cent farmers are experiencing a decline in harvests, and 85 per cent are expecting a fall in the future.

The survey also revealed that many key crops in Sri Lanka depend on heavy use of chemical input for cultivation, with the highest dependency in paddy at 94 per cent, followed by tea and rubber at 89 per cent each.

With the shift from chemical to organic cultivation, Sri Lanka needs a large domestic production of organic fertilisers and biofertilisers. However, the situation is very bleak.

The government has responded to the soaring prices not by reversing its decree but in the usual way by imposing price controls, attacking “hoarders” and seizing stocks of agricultural commodities like sugar.

Organic farming has its place but it takes a lot of human capital to make it work and overall it results in lower yield and thus more land used. Nor is organic farming less polluting per unit of output. See this piece from the Annual Review of Resource Economics.

Organic agriculture is often perceived as more sustainable than conventional farming. We review the literature on this topic from a global perspective. In terms of environmental and climate change effects, organic farming is less polluting than conventional farming when measured per unit of land but not when measured per unit of output. Organic farming, which currently accounts for only 1% of global agricultural land, is lower yielding on average. Due to higher knowledge requirements, observed yield gaps might further increase if a larger number of farmers would switch to organic practices. Widespread upscaling of organic agriculture would cause additional loss of natural habitats and also entail output price increases, making food less affordable for poor consumers in developing countries. Organic farming is not the paradigm for sustainable agriculture and food security, but smart combinations of organic and conventional methods could contribute toward sustainable productivity increases in global agriculture.

*Smashing the Liquor Machine*

The subtitle is A Global History of Prohibition, and the author is Mark Lawrence Schrad.  I blurbed the book with this:

The best book on Prohibition, period. It is a revelation on the causes and nature of the Prohibition movement, and takes a properly international perspective, considering colonies and indigenous peoples as well. You will never look at Prohibition the same way again.

Highly recommended, you can buy it here.

My Afghan hamburger recipe

It is simple, virtually foolproof, and relies on easy to store ingredients.

1. Cook up some Jasmine rice with lots of turmeric on top while the water is boiling.  That will improve both the flavor and the visuals.

2. Cook some ground hamburger.  Toss in a fair amount of cumin.  For this recipe I find the ground, non-fresh version of cumin better, so its taste does not overwhelm the dish.

3. When the hamburger is two or three minutes away from being done, toss in a whole bunch of raisins.  The end of the cooking will soften and moisten them, but without pulverizing them.  Make sure you are tossing the beef (and raisins) regularly at that point.

4. Put the finished beef on top of the yellow rice, and lather plain, whole fat yogurt on top.  It will be better if you buy your yogurt from an Indian grocery.

5. And put it on a blue plate.  Serve with mineral water.

Voila!

*Cabbage and Caviar: A History of Food in Russia*

That is the title of a new and excellent book by Alison K. Smith.  I have watched other people eat this food for eighteen years, and now I am beginning to understand:

The real shift in the world of Soviet salads, however, came in the Brezhnev era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Then, named prepared salads started to appear, some initially associated with particular places but which soon spread out into the wider culinary world.  The salads often features mayonnaise — not a new ingredient, but one increasingly produced not at home but industrially for sale in shops.  Two of the most famous are layered salads that also featured another not new but newly prominent product: canned fish. ..In salad ‘Mimosa’, canned fish is layered with chopped boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs separated into whites and yolks, cooked carrots and mayonnaise.  Finely chopped hard-boiled yolks make up the top layer, giving the salad its name: the yolks mimic mimosa flowers.  Another salad, seld pod shuboi — literally herring under a fur coat — is similar, but uses herring instead of other canned fish and adds a layer of grated cooked beetroot under the topping of mayonnaise and chopped egg yolk.  The beetroot bleeds into the mayonnaise, making the salad one of the most vibrantly colored parts of the Russian table.

And:

In the Soviet era, the kotlet came to take precedent over whole roast pieces of meat.  It was economical and could be made so as to stretch out a small portion of meat with breadcrumbs or other starch, and it made tougher cuts more palatable.  It was also a challenge.

And:

The preference for mushrooms was extensive, and in a way that struck some as particularly Slavic.

And:

One thing that Russians did not have until relatively recently was cheese — at least, not cheese in the sense of aged or ripened cheese.

I can’t quite utter “recommended,” but the book is really good!

Monterrey notes

Most of all, I was surprised at how beautiful the city setting is — gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by green mountains.

The red Faro del Comercio is the city’s landmark, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

You can visit an excellent old iron works factory.

For “randomly scattered bizarre but interesting sculptures” I give Monterrey an A+.  It is also the best location in Mexico for modernist architecture, as the landmark items in Mexico City are too scattered.  Excellent for brutalist buildings as well.  If you are interested in architecture, Monterrey is a must.

The city’s PPP_adjusted gdp per capita is over 35k, which alone makes it one of the most interesting parts of Mexico.  It also seemed well within acceptable safety margins, just don’t drive the road up to Nuevo Laredo.

My two best meals were at Koli Cucina de Origin (fixed price menu only) and Cara de Vaca (get the green chile tacos).  Overall the city is not top notch for “comida popular,” so go to the mainstream good restaurants.

It is one of the least walkable cities.  Everything is spread out, and the most interesting parts are not typically compact neighborhoods.  There are often highways to cross.

A mere hour away is Saltillo, home of serrapes and capital city of the state of Coahuila.  The outskirts serve up a lot of American fast food, the city center is sleepy and feels like the 1950s.  More generally, there is lots of “horse country” surrounding Monterrey and Saltillo.  It is not uncommon to see cowboy hat and boots.

Not many people visit Monterrey for tourism, but I was very happy to have spent six days there and was never bored.  It should be considered an essential part of one’s “Mexico education.”

How to find the best food in Oaxaca

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

First, if you do it right, most of your best meals will be eaten before 3 p.m., sometimes even before 10 a.m. Most “comida popular,” as it is called, is sold in the earlier parts of the work day, as the evening meal is typically eaten at home with family. Those are the supply chains you wish to catch, because they will have the freshest food and ingredients. Treat your dinner as an afterthought, but plan the earlier part of your day carefully.

Start by getting up fairly early and avoiding the hotel breakfast, which is rarely excellent even in the fanciest places.

The best thing to do is to walk or take a cab to a food market around 8 or 9 a.m. Look for a lone woman selling tamales, and don’t be afraid to ask around for her, since her place in the market will not be so obvious. Everyone in the market, however, will know her station. In Oaxaca, you might try 20 de Noviembre market or Mercado de Abastos, but tamales can be found in other locations as well, sometimes also in the parks or in various neighborhoods, carried around in baskets.

Then order as many tamales as you can; you won’t find it easy to spend more than $5 on your meal. Of particular interest are the tamales de mole, tamales de amarillo (the word means yellow, but they’re actually orange), and the tamales de rana with tomatoes. In addition to the fillings, you can enjoy the thrilling experience of eating corn near the locations where corn was first bred and engineered by indigenous Mexicans before the Spanish conquest. You’ll feel like you’ve never tasted corn before.

…Don’t worry about sanitation; the tamales have been steamed at high temperatures and kept hot, and they are served promptly. They’re typically gone by 10 a.m., a sign of both their quality and their safety.

Recommended, there are further tips at the link, including about the world’s best barbecue, which is in Mexico, not Texas or North Carolina.

Las Gemelas, now the best Mexican food in the DC area

Las Gemelas, 1280 4th st. NE, 202-866-0550.

There are two places here, a restaurant and on the other side of the (small) mall is a tacqueria. The tacqueria is the best Mexican food this region has seen. Real blue corn tortillas, everything else authentic, could be mistaken for excellent real Mexican food in Mexico.  The morning green chile chorizo tacos are the must-get – one of the best dishes in town – but everything is very good.

The restaurant proper has a small number of truly excellent dishes, and a bunch of “quite good” dishes, noting the menu is pretty small. The first time I went the lamb Borrego soup was the knockout, the second time it was off the menu but the pork cheeks enchilada with mole was an A+, again one of the best dishes in town. I quite liked the toast with honey, though it hardly seemed Mexican (not a complaint, just a warning).  If you go to the restaurant, make sure you figure out what you really should be getting.  In addition, the visuals and décor are very nice in both, excellent places to sit and take in the crowd and surroundings.

Overall, this is a major advance for this region’s Mexican dining, and the prices are entirely reasonable.

Chiapas fact of the day

With average daily consumption of 2.2 liters of Coca-Cola, Chiapas leads the world…It’s more than five times higher than the national average…

According to a 2019 study by the Chiapas and Southern Border Multidisciplinary Research Center (Cimsur), residents of the southern state drink an average of 821.25 liters of soda per person per year.

Broken down, the immensity of the quantity seems even more astonishing: every man, woman and child in Chiapas drinks an average of 3,285 — yes, three thousand two hundred and eighty-five – 250-milliliter cups of soda a year, according to the study.

According to the Cimsur study, among the reasons why Coca-Cola and other refrescos are so popular in Chiapas are marketing campaigns in indigenous languages – mainly Mayan – and limited access to clean drinking water.

Here is the full story.

My Conversation with Alexander the Grate

Here is the audio and transcript, recorded outside in SW Washington, D.C.  And no, that is not a typo, he does call himself “Alexander the Grate,” his real name shall remain a secret.  Here is the event summary:

Alexander the Grate has spent 40 years — more than half of his life — living on the streets (and heating grates) of Washington, DC. He prefers the label NFA (No Fixed Address) rather than “homeless,” since in his view we’re all a little bit homeless: even millionaires are just one catastrophe away from losing their mansions. It’s a life that certainly comes with many challenges, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the immense cultural riches of the capital: he and his friends have probably attended more lectures, foreign films, concerts, talks, and tours at local museums than many of its wealthiest denizens. The result is a perspective as unique as the city itself.

Alexander joined Tyler to discuss the little-recognized issue of “toilet insecurity,” how COVID-19 affected his lifestyle, the hierarchy of local shelters, the origins of the cootie game, the difference between being NFA in DC versus other cities, how networking helped him navigate life as a new NFA, how the Capitol Hill Freebie Finders Fellowship got started, why he loves school field trip season, his most memorable freebie food experience, the reason he isn’t enthusiastic about a Universal Basic Income, the economic sword of Damocles he sees hanging over America, how local development is changing DC, his design for a better community shelter, and more.

And:

And:

Recommended, you won’t find many podcast episodes like this one.  It is noteworthy that Alexander has a better and bigger vocabulary than the median CWT guest.  Also, this is one episode where listening and reading are especially different, due to the ambient sounds, Alexander’s comments on the passing trains, and so on — parts are Beckettesque!