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Considerations on the sin of gluttony

Visits to Miso Izakaya's new ramen lunch and Bell Street Burritos



Matt Hinton rocked from foot to foot while he read aloud from his iPhone. We were at his restaurant, Bell Street Burritos, newly located in the Irwin Street Market. He opened there last week after losing the lease on his location in West Midtown.

Hinton, a theologian and Sacred Harp musician, went into the burrito business after losing his teaching gigs at Morehouse and Spelman colleges in 2009.

He was reading to me from a C. S. Lewis novel after I asked him about gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The book, The Screwtape Letters, contains satirical correspondence in which a senior devil mentors a newbie in the art of temptation. That includes using food to bait people into gluttony.

I've been thinking about gluttony for decades. I remember in the '80s going to a foodie dinner in Houston and watching everyone at the table shovel food in their mouths, some eating so much so rapidly that I felt like I was sitting before a row of front-loading washing machines whose doors were ajar. The only conversation at the table was about food. Surely, I thought, this was gluttony, a sin that Dante wrote lands you in the Third Circle of hell where you eat filthy slime for eternity.

That dinner occurred before I started writing about food myself. I've repeated the experience numerous times. Over the last 30 years of food writing, it's not unusual for me to think about the moral and ethical implications of eating to excess. If I believed in hell, I'll be there.

The section of The Screwtape Letters on gluttony makes a surprising point, Hinton noted. Besides excess consumption, there is also what Lewis calls the gluttony of delicacy. The senior demon cites an old woman who asks only for a cup of tea and toast each morning. But she is so demanding about the way they are prepared, she lives in a world of constant discontent, losing cooks, servants, and friends. Her little breakfast trumps love and friendship. Hello, hell.

That seems a perfect description of us foodies — never fully pleased, ruminating aloud about our constant search for a perfect chicken beak or foot, the just-right pho, the fried chicken that fully regresses one to the pleasure of childhood. This obsession often matters more than environmental harm and cruelty to animals. It refuses to connect sight of the homeless to the breathtakingly expensive restaurant we're driving to. Sustainable farming, the organic, locally raised farm animals that go to slaughter without the horrific terror of factory farming — such practices alleviate guilt.

Lewis also writes that the particular seduction of men into gluttony depends on appealing to their vanity. He was writing in 1941 and this certainly also applies to women, too, in our time:

"They ought to be made to think themselves very knowing about food, to pique themselves on having found the only restaurant in the town where steaks are really 'properly' cooked. What begins as vanity can then be gradually turned into habit."

Then, Lewis says, "the denial of any one indulgence " annoys him to the extent that, over time, he is vulnerable to the demon's agenda of abolishing the man's sense of "charity, justice, and obedience."

Hinton laughed. "Nobody has ever asked me about gluttony, but I think the way gluttony makes you disregard others, like the poor, is the most important loss when it's called a deadly sin."

I turned to my burrito, my favorite in the city. You choose your fillings and mine holds shrimp, pinto beans, a small amount of rice, roasted green chilies and lots of slightly sour green sauce. It's the same burrito I ordered at Tortillas, the Ponce de Leon favorite that closed in 2003 after 19 years in business. Hinton's agenda with Bell Street Burritos, which he began as a home delivery service, is to reproduce Tortillas' recipes. He has done that quite well.

For many of us, it's the florid nostalgia for Tortillas' grunge, rock musicians who worked there and cheap food that call us to Bell Street. But, as every critic has written, what makes the burritos worthy of gluttony — of excess or delicacy — is the pintos. Everything about them beats the competition. I worry that the new location is close to my home and open evenings as well as lunchtime. It offers both the gluttony of excess and delicacy. I could eat them every day and inevitably compare not just the food, but my life itself, to the time of Tortillas. 

If anything inspires the gluttony of delicacy, it's the new lunchtime ramen at Miso Izakaya. Chef-owner Guy Wong has re-created a ramen shop in the true tradition of Japan. That means there are only about 16 seats — all in the bar area — and the ramen may well run out before closing at 2 p.m. So far, the wait doesn't appear to be excruciating. I showed up just after opening at 11:30 a.m. and waited no longer than 10 minutes.

Wong has partnered with Mihoko Obunai, the former chef-owner of Repast, to offer the noodles. It's just about impossible to operate a full-time restaurant and spend the 36 hours necessary to make the soup broth. Two ramens were available and I later learned both indeed sold out before the 2 p.m. closing.

The only way to describe the tonkotsu I ordered is "exquisite." It instantly turned me into a ramen glutton. The shimmering, almost creamy broth, made with pork bones, was so dense with flavor I drained every drop from the bowl. It was afloat with corn kernels that provided bursts of sweetness while hidden ginger provided tangy zest. There was half a soft-boiled egg, wood ear mushrooms, and chunks of amazingly tender pork belly. And, of course, the silky house-made noodles themselves.

Ramen is a Japanese obsession with a worldwide following. It's a bowl of warmth especially popular in cold months. Like those gluttonous American men congratulating themselves for finding the perfect steak, you'll be at risk of going to hell for turning your back on the rest of life after an $11 bowl of Wong's ramen. But gluttony feels so good. And we all know, anyway, that if hell exists at all, it's here on Earth. Sin away.

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