“If life contains a finite number of meals, and a meal contains a finite number of bites, you can only take so many bites before you’re full and/or dead,” Dan Pashman says in his new tome, Eat More Better: How to Make Every Bite More Delicious. “A bite is a precious resource. It pains me to think of all the thoughtless eating that takes place across the world each day. So many mouthfuls meld together into one big, blah bolus we’ll never get back. But let us not grieve for the bites that could have been. Let us instead look ahead, to those that are yet to be.”
Pashman has spent a lifetime eating and analyzing. As host and creator of WNYC’s James Beard-nominated podcast The Sporkful, he’s managed to make a living out of his passion, obsessively analyzing every single bite. He also hosts the Cooking Channel’s Web series Good to Know and You’re Eating it Wrong and contributes to NPR, Slate, Buzzfeed, and KCRW in Los Angeles.
In his new textbook-like work, Pashman combines a mix of science, philosophy, and humor to edify readers about the importance of conscious eating — not in the meditative form, but in the deliberative sense. He illustrates how every meal is a chance to find “Perfect Deliciousness.”
Last night, we caught up with Pashman to discuss the best way to compose everyday food items (hint: you’ve been eating sandwiches the wrong way your entire life), what you can tell about someone on a first date, from the way they eat, and how to best define a “foodie.”
The book really goes into detail on the ways in which food should be consumed. Do you have a favorite tip that you’ve discovered?
The one that is most universal is the one I call the “Proximity Effect.” It’s basically the idea that when you put any bite of food into your mouth, whatever part of that bite that is in closest proximity to your tongue will be accentuated. I do a demonstration with Oreo cookies, where you take one bite of the Oreo the regular way, and you think about the ratio of cookie to frosting as you eat it; to me, it’s not enough frosting. I want more frosting flavor. If you unscrew it (you remember that old trick?) and put the frosting on top and two cookies beneath it, flip it over, put it in your mouth so the frosting goes straight onto your tongue, you’ll taste a lot more frosting. That sounds absurdly simple, it’s almost comic. I like the tips that are comic in their simplicity. The Proximity Effect also explains the cheeseburger with cheese on the bottom. I recommend that people put cheese on the bottom of the cheeseburger, because it brings it closer to your tongue, it accentuates cheesy goodness. Or, like, when you’re eating a salad and you stab the components with a fork; you want to stab in ascending order or priority. Whatever ends up on the tip of your fork ends up right on your tongue. Most salads are built upside-down, because if you have the greens on the bottom (the greens can be really good, but you don’t get a salad for the greens), you come for the stuff on top. So when you stab down, you get the greens on the tip of your fork and that flavor is accentuated.That’s why I recommend people build an inverted salad. Slice all your vegetables, put them on the bottom, and then cover them with greens. You stab the fork straight down and you end up with the perfect bite.
How did you come up with all of these strategies?
I kind of have an obsessive personality. I think a lot about a lot of really mundane things. Some of the things in the book are things that I’ve been thinking about, and probably ranting about, for many, many years. Friends of mine who’ve known me a long time long ago got tired of hearing about these things — they can’t believe I’ve turned this into a job. The other stuff is just thinking really hard about something and not taking anything for granted. You know, like, question every single aspect of the eating process, and you’ll be surprised how many discoveries you can make. Question every aspect and understand that a bite is a precious resource; you only get so many. That’s why it’s important to try to improve every bite, even if you’re struggling with modest means. Improve doesn’t mean make it fancier, it doesn’t mean spend more money, it just means think a little bit more about how you can make that bite more delicious.
Which eating suggestion or technique has garnered the strongest response?
I think the vertical plating for the grilled cheese is one people have really responded to. That’s like, if you take a grilled cheese hot off the griddle, and put it flat on the plate. What happens to the bottom side? It gets kind of soggy. So if you place it vertically on its side, like two little mountaintops, then air gets all around, no condensation, and you get crisp maintained on all sides of the bread. And this is true for any crispy sandwich and it really applies to any crispy food. Like, you don’t ever want fried chicken served in a big pile, because you get condensation and you lose crisp. So the vertical sandwich plating for grilled cheese is something people have been responding to a lot, and tweeting to me.
You describe a method for making sandwiches, called the “Silver Lining of Greens.” Can you explain that?
That’s really all about friction on the inside of your sandwich. What’s the most tragic thing that could happen when you bite into a delicious sandwich? Everything falls out. There’s a couple ways you could prevent that, and one is with the Silver Lining of Greens.Typically, in a sandwich, people will put all the greens on top, right? You get the pile of lettuce on top. I recommend, instead of a big pile of greens on the top, you have very thin layers of greens throughout. And that helps to absorb moisture and create friction between layers, especially slippery layers, like tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados. Those are very perilous ingredients in a sandwich. So the Silver Lining of Greens is you line the different layers with just one thin layer of greens, and that way you get friction, you get a more stable sandwich. You could also use a thin layer of greens to line the bread to reduce bread soggage.
Does that work with all greens? Which ones work best?
The kinds of greens that work best are the greens that are dry. Frisée works really well, spinach, arugula. You don’t want a whole leaf of lettuce in there, because you don’t want the spine. The spine is just like a track that will invite motion. And you don’t want shredded lettuce, because it just turns mealy when it’s exposed to too much moisture. You want a lettuce with some body, that can stand up to something — greens that will fight back.
You talk about a concept you call “Perfect Deliciousness.” What is that to you?
Perfect Deliciousness is a Platonic ideal. It’s the sum total of all the sensory pleasures that you can receive from consuming the perfect bite. And because it’s a Platonic ideal, you’re probably never going to get there. But I exhort people in the book and in The Sporkful podcast to always strive for that Platonic ideal. And as long as you’re striving for it, I think you are doing your due diligence as an eater. It’s not about finding it. It’s about the journey.
You dole out dating advice in the book. What are the most important pointers for eating and dating?
It depends on the point you’re at in the relationship. On a first date — I go through it in the book, like the different ways you can share food. You can tell a lot about a person based on how they share food. This is actually something I’m going to get into on The Sporkful podcast soon; I’m going to have Dan Savage on to discuss relationship eating. How a person shares their food is also an indication of how they are going to share themselves. If you’re out to dinner and you’re like, “I want to try what you have, you can try what I have,” and someone is like, “No, sorry. I’m just going to eat what I have, and you’re just going to eat what you have,” I think that’s a deal-breaker. Like, c’mon, that person just has some real issues with boundaries. That person is not going to let you in. That person has walls up. I’ll share food with anyone, and I’ll share food off anyone’s plate. I did this episode where I went to Hot Doug’s in Chicago. I interviewed people in line, then I went inside and ate, then I came out and they were still in line, because you have to wait two hours there. And I just gave them my leftovers there that I brought out, and they just started eating my food. It was a very funny moment. I also think that there are some people on a first date who will possibly get turned off by someone who is very forward in their food-sharing, like the kind of person who wants to feed you the bite off the fork. Some people will be like, “Whoa, whoa, we just met.” I feel like, get over it. This person is passionate, they’re into you, embrace it.
You say the book is for eaters, not foodies. How do you define a foodie?
I’m not against foodies per se, but I do think that term denotes a certain amount of pretension. I think a foodie is pretentious, very concerned with the pissing contest of what restaurant they’ve been to, and who’s been to what restaurant. Like they collect restaurants like birders collect birds — they’re trophies. That’s not something I’m into. If you have a great restaurant that you’re into, that you want to tell me about, that’s great. I want to hear about it, and I want to try to go. But there’s a certain kind of person who’s like, “Oh. Well, have you been to this place? We went the other week. So-and-so wasn’t in the kitchen.” I don’t know the names of any chefs except the most famous chefs. I don’t know who is the chef at which restaurant. And I don’t follow the politics of — this chef left this restaurant to go to this other restaurant. It’s just not something that I’m that into.
In the book, you feature a recipe for a Girl Scout Cookie cheesecake. Where did you get the idea for it?
My friend Emily is the one who came up with that. Her name is Emily Konn, her company is called Vail Custom Cakes, she’s on Facebook and Twitter. She makes the most amazing cheesecake I’ve ever had, and so I asked her to design the Girl Scout Cookie cheesecake for the book. She did. I just feel like Girl Scout Cookies are fractured. I feel like there’s a lack of cohesiveness. I don’t like that they have two different sets of names. It’s a regional thing; if you’ve only lived in certain areas, you might not know. But in some areas of the country the Girl Scout Cookies have different names; only the Thin Mints are the same, among the best-known cookies. That I find a little bit worrisome, and there are all these different flavors. The Girl Scouts promote unity, so I wanted to bring together as many Girl Scout Cookies as I could, into one food. And also, frankly, I just wanted an excuse to put Emily’s cheesecake recipe in my book, because it’s so good and I wanted to share it with the world. So I was like, “This seems like a good reason to make her give me her recipe.”
Girl Scout Cookie Unity Cheesecake
You will need:
8 tablespoons (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted
1 box Do-si-dos/Peanut Butter Sandwiches
1 sleeve Thin Mints
1 sleeve Trefoils/Shortbreads
1 box Samoas/Caramel deLites
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350˚. Grind all cookies except Samoas in a food processor or blender, or put in a sealable plastic bag and crush with a mallet or rolling pin into a fine meal.
2. Mix with butter by hand and press into a 10-inch springform pan. Make sure cookies are evenly distributed along the bottom and up the sides of the pan.
3. Bake in oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately layer Samoas on crust so chocolate melts slightly and helps cookies stick to the crust. Let crust cool at room temperature for 15 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator and chill completely (about 1 hour).
CHEF’S NOTE: This recipe accounts for at least two cookies being eaten out of each box during the cooking process.
You will need:
24 ounces cream cheese
²⁄3 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 box Tagalongs/Peanut Butter Patties, cut into quarters
1. Soften cream cheese until it’s very mixable. You can even microwave it briefly on defrost until it starts to soften.
2. Place cream cheese and sugar in a bowl. Use a mixer on medium-high speed (with a paddle attachment if you have it) to beat the cream cheese and sugar together until cream cheese is smooth. Scrape sides of bowl. With mixer on medium speed, add eggs one at a time. When all eggs are added, continue to mix until thoroughly combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl twice. With mixer running on medium, gradually pour in heavy cream. Mix until just combined. (Do not overmix. If it starts to look thick like whipped cream, you overmixed.) Optional extra step: Strain it through a fine-meshed strainer to remove lumps. This gives you more margin for error if you messed up your mixing.
3. Pour mixture into cooled crust. Tap pan on counter to dislodge air pockets.
Drop the Tagalongs evenly into the batter.
4. Prepare a water bath in a pan big enough to hold your cake. Crush aluminum foil together to create an S that will hold up the cake above the water level. Place cake on top of foil and make sure it’s stable. Place in oven and pour water in pan just until it reaches the bottom of pan. If you go above the foil your crust will get soggy.
5. Bake for 15 minutes at 350˚, then lower temperature to 250˚ and continue to bake for another 60 to 90 minutes or until it’s firm and only the center of the cheesecake looks a little wet and wobbly (but not cracking). Let stand on rack on counter for a half hour, then
refrigerate for four hours or overnight.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.