By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Category: food

Muzzle follow-up: RFK Jr. loses his appeal over Warren’s criticism of his COVID book

Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

A federal appeals court has sided with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her battle with Amazon over a book that promoted falsehoods about COVID-19. Presidential candidate and noted conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who contributed to the book, sued Warren on First Amendment grounds, but Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub — who keeps an eye on the courts so that I don’t have to — reports that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that Warren has the same right to criticize Amazon as anyone else.

🗽The New England Muzzles🗽

Last July, I gave Warren a New England Muzzle Award, arguing that though she did indeed have the right to criticize Amazon, a statement she issued targeting Amazon’s algorithmic promotion of books such as “The Truth about COVID-19,” for which Kennedy wrote the introduction, suggested that she was threatening to use her position as a prominent elected official to seek regulation of Amazon’s business practices. In a press release issued in 2021, Warren criticized a “pattern and practice of misbehavior” that “suggests that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products — an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers.”

Prominent civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate told The Boston Globe that Kennedy and his fellow plaintiffs had a strong case, saying, “You’d think that a former Harvard law professor would know better.”

But a federal district court disagreed, and now the appeals court has disagreed as well. From the appeals court’s decision:

Elizabeth Warren, as a single Senator, has no unilateral power to penalize Amazon for promoting “The Truth About COVID-19.” This absence of authority influences how a reasonable person would read her letter. A similar letter might be inherently coercive if sent by a prosecutor with the power to bring charges against the recipient…. The letter could be viewed as more threatening if it were penned by an executive official with unilateral power that could be wielded in an unfair way if the recipient did not acquiesce…. But as one member of a legislature who is removed from the relevant levers of power, Senator Warren would more naturally be viewed as relying on her persuasive authority rather than on the coercive power of the government to take action against Amazon.

Although it was admittedly a stretch to argue that Warren’s statement amounted to a threat rather than mere criticism of Amazon’s business practices, she could have followed up by holding hearings and filing legislation that would, for instance, ban the use of algorithmic promotion of books that indulge in falsehoods. We have enough book-banning going on in the country, thanks to Ron DeSantis and his ilk, without having one of our leading progressive senators taking part. Given that Warren did not actually seek to follow up her words with actions, though, I’ll concede that the courts got it right.

Those updated TV dinners aren’t as terrible as you might think. Especially with wine.

My friend David Yamada, a Suffolk Law School professor whose Facebook posts about weird food nostalgia are wonderful and life-affirming, recently published one about Swanson TV dinners. We ate those occasionally when I was a kid, and I enjoyed them. The fried chicken glistened in grease. The dessert — sometimes a hot apple thingie, sometimes a brownie — beckoned in its little tray. I vowed to try one if I could find it and write about the experience.

Who knows what delights await?

Well, they don’t make them quite the same way anymore. Swanson was absorbed into Campbell some years ago. On a recent trip to Stop & Shop, I managed to find a few Campbell Hungry-Man boneless fried chicken dinners. They don’t call them TV dinners these days, probably because people eat them while staring at their phones. Anyway, I picked up three. My wife, daughter and I tried them Friday evening.

That’s a lot of ingredients.

There are 790 calories, which isn’t too bad, I suppose. But there are also 38 grams of fat and 1,400 milligrams of sodium; the latter is 61% of what is supposed to be your maximum for the entire day. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough salt in your diet, I would definitely recommend one of these. In addition to two boneless chicken patties you get corn, mashed potato (“savory,” which I guess is Campbell-speak for salty) and a brownie that looks very much like what I remember from my childhood.

Peel back the plastic over the brownie, cut a slit over the chicken, and it’s ready for the oven.

In deference to the microwave crowd, the tin trays are gone. But I went old-school, putting them in the oven for 50 minutes. The result was not terrible, which may not sound like much of a recommendation, but it was somewhere toward the high end of my expectations. The picture on the box showed everything moved to a plate, so I did the same, the better to separate the chicken from the mashed potatoes that were beneath it.

Nicely plated and ready to eat. Note: butter not included.

Sadly, the chicken tasted highly processed, which it was. Those old TV dinners might not have been anything great, but they included real chicken, with bones and everything. But who wants to deal with bones when you’re scrolling through Instagram? The corn and potatoes were tasteless, but the brownie was pretty good. I was alone in that opinion, which meant that I got to eat two and half of them.

Paired with a Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes and we had — well, some very good wine. I can’t recommend what we ate, but we survived, and it easily could have been worse.

New Haven apizza is a world apart. But which legendary restaurant is the best?

I recently wrote about my visit to Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, the only one of the city’s three legendary pizza places I hadn’t been to. Well, last week I was back in New Haven — and I decided to revisit Frank Pepe’s and Modern Apizza so I could compare them without having to rely on years-old memories.

Pepe’s is the original. In my previous visits, I’d ordered what I usually order: a tomato-and-cheese pizza with sausage and mushrooms. It was good, but not as good as Modern’s. But my son convinced me that I was doing Pepe’s wrong, because the true Pepe’s experience is the white clam pizza. Well, I like clams and I like pizza, so even though I wasn’t crazy about the idea of putting the two together, it seemed like a reasonable proposition.

I started off with a Caesar salad that would have been quite good if it hadn’t been practically floating in dressing. There were two choices of red wine; I ordered the Chianti, which was more than serviceable, and waited for my pizza. I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. The thin New Haven-style crust only had a little bit of cheese on it, which I’m guessing is the way it was supposed to be. It was as crispy as it was chewy. On top was a generous helping of minced clams and garlic.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who would have raved about it, but I was less than impressed. At least I can now say that I’ve had Pepe’s signature dish. But if I ever go back, I’ll order something else.

Just the very act of stepping into Modern Apizza was thrilling. I hadn’t been there in about seven years, and the anticipation was almost more than I could bear. Modern has a more expansive wine list than Pepe’s or Sally’s. I ordered a glass of Merlot. My waitress convinced me that the Caesar salad was enough for at least two people, so I ordered a garden salad that was drowning in Italian dressing. Not great.

But then the pizza arrived — a perfect combination of tomato sauce (not too much), a blend of cheeses, ground sausage and lots of mushrooms. It was pizza perfection, and it brought me back to my first visit about 10 years ago, when I sat outside on a hot July night. Recently I watched the documentary “Pizza, A Love Story,” and learned that non-natives tend to gravitate to Modern because they use more cheese than Pepe’s or Sally’s. That seems right to me.

That’s not the only way that Modern, which is close to the downtown, does things a little differently from its Wooster Square competitors. Pepe’s and Sally’s use coal-fired ovens; Modern uses oil. I don’t know that it makes any difference. All three make magnificent pizzas, thin, charred on the bottom, and unlike anything available elsewhere.

A lot of people will tell you that New Haven pizza is the best in the world. I don’t know about that. It is amazingly good. But we have wonderful pizza in Medford and environs as well; it’s just different. Sadly, I have no reason to go back to New Haven anytime soon. But when I do, I’ll head straight for Modern Apizza.

Completing my Holy Trinity of New Haven apizza landmarks with a trip to Sally’s

Now that’s apizza!

As any pizza aficionado knows, New Haven is home to the Holy Trinity of a certain type of pizza known as apizza (pronounced “a-beetz”) — thin and cooked very quickly in an ultra-hot oven, usually with charring on the bottom. Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s are in the Italian neighborhood of Wooster Square. The Modern is closer to downtown.

Despite traveling to New Haven for reporting trips on a number of occasions over the years, for some reason I had never made it to Sally’s. Well, I rectified that last Tuesday evening. I showed up around 7:30 and was told I’d have to wait about 20 minutes, which attests to the restaurant’s popularity. But then someone left, and I was seated almost immediately.

I began with a Caesar salad that arrived in a to-go package, which struck me as odd. I mean, I was right there. The dressing had not been mixed in, and it was so thick that I couldn’t really pour it — rather, it fell in glops on the romaine. The cheese was powdered rather than shaved. It wasn’t a bad salad, but I’ve had much better.

Next: The main event. I had asked for a small sausage and mushroom, but the order somehow got bollixed up and I ended up with a “medium,” which was surely enough for three people. It was an appealing-looking pie in the New Haven tradition, more oval than round, with lots of ground sausage to make up for the relative dearth of mushrooms. And it was delicious, thin and bursting with flavor.

My only criticism is personal — I like my pizza with a lot of cheese and not too much tomato sauce. What I got was a lot less cheesy than I would have liked. According to the Wiktionary, though, New Haven-style apizza is supposed to have “only a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese,” which means that Sally’s delivered the goods. By contrast, my memory of the Modern is that they’re generous with the cheese, which I recall as a zesty blend. I hope to go back in a few weeks.

My “medium” Sally’s pizza was so huge that I would have risked serious gastric distress if I’d eaten more than half. The server seemed stricken when I told him that I couldn’t take it with me since I was traveling by train. Sadly, I watched him take it away. In the interest of writing a complete review (gluttony was not the issue; oh no, not all), I ordered a cannoli pie for dessert. Like the Caesar salad, it was served in a to-go container. Unlike the salad, it was perfect.

I also ordered a glass of Sally’s red wine, served in a water glass. It was fine if unmemorable.

Overall, I’d say my trip to Sally’s was a success — although with the Modern and Pepe’s nearby, I doubt I’ll be back. The Modern remains my favorite, even though they use an oil-fired oven, unlike the coal ovens at Pepe’s and Sally’s. It almost seems like cheating, though it makes no difference to the pizza.

We’re lucky to have some great pizza places in Medford and Arlington, so I don’t feel especially deprived by not being able to go to the Modern every week. But New Haven apizza is truly something special.

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Fifty years later, a return trip to Middleborough for the town’s best pizza

When I was a kid growing up in Middleborough, we didn’t eat pizza for supper — it was a treat, not a meal. Every so often my parents would get hungry while we were watching TV. That’s when my father would order a pizza from the Central Cafe and pick it up. We’d each have a slice or two.

According to just about everyone, the Central had the best pizza in Middleborough. We would always order the linguica — a sweet Portuguese sausage, befitting the heavy Portuguese population in Southeast Massachusetts. It would be sliced into disks that curled up in the oven. Believe it or not, I don’t think I even tried pepperoni until I was a teenager. And I guess you’d say it was a bar pizza, which my friend Marc Hurwitz has explained is a pizza whose ingredients go right out to the edge, so there’s no waste. As I understand it, bar pizza is a South Shore thing; Middleborough is south of the South Shore.

By some miracle, the Central is still there. So last Saturday five of us met for their first Central experience, and my first Central pizza in probably 50 years. The menu was far more extensive than it was back in the ’60s, when I’m pretty sure that pizza was the only thing offered. These days, it goes on and on.

I ordered a Caesar salad; it was not a Caesar salad. There was no cheese — but there was a copious amount of bacon on top. Did I say bacon? It was a pretty damn good salad, even if they ought to come up with another name for it. I also got a Harper Lane IPA, which was excellent.

But we’d come for the pizza. My wife and I split a pizza with sliced linguica while my son and his girlfriend split one with ground linguica. (My daughter for some reason ordered spaghetti and meatballs.) It was not exactly as I remembered it, but that’s not to say it wasn’t great. It was. The crust was thicker than I recall, as were the linguica slices, so they stayed flat rather than curling up. I don’t know what kind of cheese they used, but it had a fuller taste than you get with most pizza — a bit like Modern Apizza in New Haven, which might actually have the best pizza in the world.

Anyway, mission accomplished. We hit the local Dairy Queen before heading back to Medford. And I was thrilled to learn that the Central still has fantastic pizza.

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