Everyone seems to be up in arms these days over the health and safety of genetically tinkered-with food -- GMOs, as they've been labeled by the euphemism-happy public, for "genetically modified organisms." Or "Franken-food," as they've been dubbed by slightly more creative Luddites. Apparently people are convinced that Evil Mega-Agri-Corporations are out to poison the whole world by playing God and messing with those "fundamental building blocks of life" that we all learned about in grade-school science class. In the genetics section, we found out from Mrs. Kowie (or whoever was your equivalent of the blockheaded, broad-shouldered, bespectacled science teacher I had) that DNA was the stuff that made each of us a precious little snowflake. And from a lot of bad movies, we learned what the consequences were when you mucked around with it: You ended up with mutants, zombies and hideous armies of space monsters hell-bent on destroying the master who made them. Today those same concerns are being played out on a strange scale with mad scientists slaving away in their labs, trying to make disease-resistant wheat and vitamin-enriched grains of rice rather than super-intelligent space monkeys.
But I'm steering clear of this genetic food fight. Why? Well, to start with, I'm all in favor of science. I'm a sci-fi geek from way back (not so much that I have a Starfleet uniform and a pair of Spock ears hidden in my closet or anything, but I read a lot and can debate from a well-informed position which was the better version of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the theatrical or director's cut) and get a little literary wood anytime I hear about genetic engineering, cloning, space travel and the like. Second, genetically modifying foods is -- in essence -- little more than a microscope-and-lab-coat version of the cross-pollination that farmers have been fiddling with since the human animal first started raising crops for food. And even after tens of thousands of years of fiddling, no one has made Robo-corn with titanium stalks and electrified husks to keep the predators away, and no one (yet) is creating any sort of "super food," in which all your day's dietary requirements are contained in an apple or a kumquat. And if someone did, would that be so bad? There are a lot of starving people in this world who could probably really use a super kumquat.
What some scientists are doing is scrambling genes from long-grain white rice with dandelion genes to make so-called Golden Rice -- a hardy, yellowish rice capable of producing vitamin A, which, until now, rice was never able to provide. And in Colorado, Meristem Therapeutics, a French company, was recently given permission by the state to plant biopharmaceutical corn -- genetically altered to produce a protein used to treat digestive problems -- at an undisclosed location in Phillips County. It didn't do so this year, because by the time Colorado officials signed off on the project, planting season was over. But it will. In Boulder, around 500 acres of county-owned open space were used in 2002 for a test of pollen drift and the feasibility of planting GMO crops close to non-GM fields. I understand why this might inspire fear in some people, because the idea of genetically modified anything touches on delicate territory in the human psyche. But consider this: That last batch of tomatoes you bought at the megalomart were picked green and ripened in a fog of ethylene gas. And those French fries you gobbled down last night? Full of acrylamide, a potentially carcinogenic chemical created between food sugars at high temperatures. In the long run, I worry less about some ag-school graduate students trying to cross-breed a honeydew and a cantaloupe, and more about what Ronald McDonald might be doing to my Big Mac while I'm waiting in the drive-thru.
I'm much more concerned about the kind of food imprinting that influences people's tastes in a non-science-y way. Just as a musician brought up on a steady diet of Mahler, Bach and Wagner might be said to be genetically predisposed toward grim, heavy-handed, Teutonic orchestral compositions, or an artist who lived surrounded by the splashy, weird modernism of Picasso and Georges Braque may acquire a proclivity for cubism and LSD, so, too, will kids brought up around certain foods become slowly but surely accustomed to the tastes, textures and flavor patterns introduced to them in their youth.
To me, this is the genetics of taste: a learned, postnatal organization of the brain around certain sense-memories that, once etched in, are tough to scrub out. And this is one of my biggest beefs with the fast-food, fast-casual, casual-upscale and big-food chain-restaurant explosion: I fear there's a whole generation of potential food lovers whose first taste of an "Alfredo sauce" will be an out-of-the-bag puddle of cheez goo served alongside the breadsticks at the Olive Garden.
This is dangerous, because millions of people will actually think that Alfredo sauce is supposed to taste like parmesan-flavored spackle. Will believe that there's actually a part of a pig called a "riblet." Will see nothing wrong with eating lasagna out of a can. This is the kind of genetics that scares me -- that altering of the palate by a steady diet of crap. I spent years of my childhood thinking there actually was some guy named General Tso who lived (probably a long time ago) on nothing but really spicy chicken, because heavily Americanized Chinese was the most ethnic food available in my family's little corner of upstate New York. I figured Chinese people were pretty lucky because they got to eat sweet-and-sour pork and fortune cookies every night of their lives, whereas I was lucky if I got them twice a year. And to this day, when I sit down in a Chinese restaurant, the first bite I take bounces off my flavor memories of gooey shrimp in lobster sauce, cotton-candy-sweet lemon chicken, and mysterious egg drop soup.
Does GMO food frighten me? Not a bit. But PF Chang's and Applebee's give me the night sweats. Do I think that a rogue strain of engineered tomatoes will rise up one day and take over the world? No, but I certainly see the day when I take my future children and their friends out to Armando's (201 Milwaukee Street) or New York Pizzeria (4990 Leetsdale in Glendale) for a pizza, and the little rugrats refuse to eat it because it doesn't taste like the rubber bands and cardboard they get from the microwave or the delivery guy. I can envision a time when there are no more truffles, only truffle "essence" made with cheap oil and chemical aromatics; when kids only know raspberries as that blue shit they squirt into their Slurpees; and when not one person in a hundred has any idea what a real, ripe tomato, sun-warm and fresh off the vine, actually tastes like.
More fast talking: While I'm on the evils of fast food, here's a little mcnugget. Denver is one of the cities (along with Chicago and Raleigh, North Carolina) where McDonald's will be testing a new kiosk ordering system where customers can type their orders into a touch-screen computer, which will then transmit them straight to the kitchen. Cool, huh? This will someday replace the old- fashioned system of human contact and speech-based interaction that McDonald's has determined to be counterproductive in today's high-tech economy. The biggest problem with the current system? All those darn people it involves. No matter how hard the corporate trainers try, they just can't get their human employees to perform up to the rigorous standards of, say, robots. Human employees won't labor 24 hours a day, they won't work for free, and they keep wanting things like health insurance and job security and bathroom breaks. But this new system solves half of those problems right away, because customers will no longer be forced to interact with pimply-faced minimum-wage workers in silly costumes asking if they'd like fries with that, and McDonald's franchise owners will no longer have to pay anyone to wear a silly costume and ask if you want fries with that.
The target is to have the kiosks -- which are also capable of translating orders directly into Spanish for kitchens where English is not the language of choice -- in thirteen stores in both Denver and Raleigh just as soon as possible. And as a side note to those restaurant managers: Is there going to be a special section added to the employee manual about the extrication of McNuggets from the cash slot? Just something to think about...
Leftovers: The Parlour space at 846 Broadway will turn into the Minturn Saloon sometime this fall. Three blocks away, Cielo, the upscale Mexican restaurant at 1109 Lincoln Street did manage to open two weeks ago after some major delays in construction and minor troubles with its liquor license ("Bite Me," July 3). And it finally ironed out the last of its problems in time to debut the patio and patio bar last Tuesday -- just in time for those hundred-degree afternoons.
If the heat is too much for you, Red Square Euro Bistro, now open at 1512 Larimer Street, has sixty varieties of chilled vodka on the menu. The brainchild of former Little Russian Cafe manager Steve Ryan, Red Square has many former Little Russian staffers on the floor and Maxim Ionikh in the kitchen.
A fourth outpost for Heidi's Brooklyn Deli is going into a space in the 800 block of Colorado Boulevard, squished right between a Falafel King and the second Swing Thai. And the dismantling of Charlie's Bar (2627 South Parker Road in Aurora), which was crushed in that big March snowstorm, has finally begun. Signs out front promise that a new Charlie's is "coming soon," but I'll bet we see a resurrected Vinyl (1082 Broadway), another victim of that blizzard, before Charlie's returns.
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Also recently among the missing: Tyler Wiard, top dog at the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue). Rumor had it that he simply didn't show up for his shift one day and hadn't been heard from in a week. But since there was another recent rumor floating around the industry not too long ago that I was dead -- a victim of either food poisoning or one too many Coronas -- I figured I'd better do some sleuthing.
Come to find out, Wiard had been absent from his post for about twelve days as of last weekend. But when I talked to Fourth Story general manager Terri Hannifin last Friday, she explained that Wiard was on "vacation," not AWOL. "We didn't know where he was going, and that was a little strange because when you're working so closely with someone, you kind of expect to know everything about their personal life," she said, adding that Wiard's leaving "wasn't necessarily scheduled, exactly, but it was sort of expected."
Apparently, the chef had been working very hard over the past year to keep things running smoothly at the Fourth Story, but with his one-year anniversary in the kitchen coming up, he and the management are in "the process of contract negotiations," according to Hannifin. "Tyler is taking some well-deserved time off, and we're looking forward to having him back."
Right.... In the meantime, Michelle Leslie-Brown is running the show in the back of the house and will do so until the chef-errant returns from his constitutional with a new contract in hand.