The Capital District's Fussy Foodie
Daniel Berman has opinions about food.
He was born in Boston, raised in Brooklyn Heights, moved to Miami at age 7, attended college in Philly and settled San Francisco. In each place, he immersed himself in the rich stewpot of heterogeneous foodways, cultures and traditions that define each of those epicurean capitals.
But along the way, life happened. He fell in love with a sociologist named Beth, and despite his self-described “obsession with food” she agreed to marry him anyway. They had their first child, Noah, she was offered a tenure-track position at SUNY Albany in 2007. Albany?! Quelle horreur!
And yet. Can’t turn down tenure-track. He journeyed eastward, with concerns, but confidence that surely, the food couldn’t be that bad. Since arriving, Daniel has documented his journey of discovery on the incredibly incisive, funny, insightful Fussy Little Blog, and perhaps more importantly, helped plump up a previously Spartan food community that seemed starved for a uniting force. Even members of the foodie community who bristled at his, shall we say, strongly worded assertions about all things edible, ultimately thrive on the intellectual frisson his defining presence foments.
Our conversation took place at Superior Merchandise Company in Troy, over a meticulously (some might even say, fussily) brewed cup of pour-over coffee. Just the way he likes it.
ECD: Sometimes it takes an outsider to see not only the flaws, but the potential in a place. Tell me what your thoughts were shortly after moving here.
DB: There was definitely a culture shock. Coming from Northern California, the food culture was really centered on what was seasonal and local, available from farms right in the area. And I came out here and saw a lot of farmland, but the menus didn’t reflect that. A lot of menus still didn’t reflect the seasons and didn’t highlight produce from local farms. But still, I knew there was potential – there were so many great farms! I was also finding several great Asian markets, which is always a good sign. But it really took the arrival of Ala Shanghai, a few years into the relocation, before I would say I had hope of finding really great authentic Asian food.
ECD: What inspired you to blog?
DB: It wasn’t clear if we’d be out here for a few years or forever, but after working in advertising for so long and not moving out here with a job lined up, I decided to embrace the opportunity and do what I really wanted to do. Luckily, I was naïve enough to think I could make a real impact on the food culture of the Capital District. I saw what the conversation about food in the media was around food, the restaurants they were promoting and saying good things about. I decided to create another platform for conversation through my blog, to get ideas about what I think good food is that I didn’t see being championed elsewhere.
ECD: How have you tried to encourage a community of foodies here?
I started by just chronicling my constant food explorations on Yelp. I lived and breathed food. There were only a small handful of people writing reviews of food at the time and I tried everything I could at every restaurant I could. I kissed a lot of frogs in the process, but I started discovering some gems too. Like-minded people started noticing my activity, and we slowly found each other on the Internet. There were also a few other prominent local food blogs at the time that predated the FLB. Albany Eats, Celina Bean, Life of My Mouth were a few of the earliest ones I read. And it was a pleasure getting to meet and befriend the people behind the blogs. Sadly, they have all stopped writing, but we're all still friends. I followed All Over Albany closely and read about their first Tournament of Pizza. After reading about the first TOP, I really wanted to play a role in the judging moving forward. After all, I had some very strong and fully articulated feelings about what made for a good slice of pizza. We don’t always agree, but that was part of process that, eight years later, has helped create an extremely vocal, passionate community of foodies in the Capital District.
ECD: How would you characterize the food world here?
DB: One thing that took me a while to figure out, and I resisted, coming from California, is that there are about eight months of winter here. That is going to really shape the food culture. And here, tavern culture is big, across every small town and the larger cities. Everyone has their local and their favorite, and it’s not pretentious, but the loyalty is serious and spans generations. The unifying characteristic across all of the tavern menus is deeply comforting foods. Gigantic plates of pasta, foods drenched in cheese. Then you get the regional specials that outsiders think are weird: mozzarella sticks and raspberry melba dipping sauces, fish fry, mini hot dogs. We also have great donuts up here.
ECD: Speak to me about donuts. I know you have feelings.
DB: No baked donuts! That’s important. OK, so we obviously have some great donuts up here and in the interest of completely understanding the donut phenomenon, I tried every single donut I could find, including the ones from Dunkin’ Donuts and grocery stores for The Best Dozen for All Over Albany. In addition to that, I do The Tour de Donut on the FLB every fall with as many eaters as I can gather. After my research, I came away with some guiding principles. First of all, I tried Dunkin Donuts after sampling more than 100 others, and it was a horrifying experience. I tasted salt, which I may not have noticed if I hadn’t recently honed my donut palate. I looked at the nutrition and saw that Dunkin Donut Glazed Donuts have almost 300 milligrams of sodium in them. The second thing I observed is that apple cider donuts are not interchangeable as some would have you believe, and that temperature won’t save a bad donut. So if it’s hot and it’s bad, it’s still bad. Donuts are simple, but as with many other simple food preparations, everything has to be perfect for it to be good. The oil it’s fried in has to be the right temperature. If the oil is stale, no good! And the texture. The texture comes from the dough. I could go on!
ECD: What most excites you about the future of food up here?
DB: We are moving toward a chef-centric form of eating, which is fairly new up here. And in California and other food hubs, amazing food cultures depend on the chefs. We have some serious creative renegades here who are taking seasonal, local eating to a new level. Look at Chef Rob Handel over at Heather Ridge Farm and the amazing farm-to-table feasts he creates from foraged and just harvested food. Chef Brian Bowden up at Sperry’s. I can just look at a plate and know he created it, because of the artistic way he approaches it. Josh Coletto's pop-up feasts.
Chef Dimitrios at City Beer Hall and his incredible feats with wild game. And this would fall short without mentioning chef Nick at Peck's Arcade and the crew he's assembled who are changing up his from-scratch menu with seasonal ingredients every single week. All of these chefs are gathering followers and fans who will support their flights of fancy.
ECD: What do you love most about the region now that you’ve gotten to know it?
DB: That you could spend a lifetime exploring the hamlets, villages and small towns. The cities are great too, but every one of these little towns has its own distinctive character. I get frustrated sometimes because people still talk about the Capital Region they often discuss it in terms of its proximity to other places – Boston, New York City, Vermont. But there’s so much right here!
ECD: How much has the scene changed since moving here?
DB: The change has been dramatic. There were no grassfed burgers, great coffee places and one of the most highly regarded restaurants highlighted farmed Atlantic salmon like it was a good thing. There was no Trader Joe’s, no Whole Foods and Honest Weight was a tiny place in a back alley off of Central Ave. And there was no Cheese Traveler! Imagine!
FIVE RAPID FIRE
Breakfast Today? Yogurt and granola.
Favorite childhood meal? Flank steak with orzo. My mom turned it into meat candy by marinating it in soy sauce, brown sugar, olive oil, garlic and ginger. It is still my go-to comfort food.
Cake, pie or cookies? Cookies. But they have to be crisp.
Guilty pleasure? Buffalo sauce on everything. And the deep-fried buffalo burger at Swifty’s.
Midnight snack? Apple and walnuts.
Hungry for more? Check out his blog at fussylittleblog.com