Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ice Cream !

For the first time, Miriam and Alice used their own money (allowance) to buy ice cream.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Dinner

We had a marvelous Polish traditional Christmas dinner cooked by our friends Michal and Anuska. The first course was whitefish in aspic with pierogis filled with cabbage:
Second: borscht, which tasted just like my mother's but included dumplings.
Third: stuffed salmon with vegetables.

Dessert: pierogis stuffed with plum butter served with fruit compote and poppy seed pudding with wheat berries, nuts and dried fruit.

Alice, Miriam, and Nicholas enjoyed their favorite kids' meal -- mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, thanks to the perfect hospitality of our hosts. Alice eats:
Miriam eats:

Nicholas eats:

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kuerle fragrant pears in the Curious Cook

News For Curious Cooks: Kuerle fragrant pears

Again McGee has combined good news about food -- a type of pears being introduced to Americans -- with lots of scientific data about what makes them taste and smell the way they do. He summarizes: "Kuerle pear was developed more than a thousand years ago, and has been valued for its 'super white' flesh, elongated shape, jade green skin, and special fragrance. Substantial quantities are now exported."

I hope I'll find some the next time I shop at Whole Foods. The picture was the only one I found with a google image search.

A Christmas Mystery

In today's Guardian online is an article about Christmas Dinner: evidently an English Christmas dinner: "Top chefs' tips for Christmas -- How do you keep turkey moist? Can sprouts be interesting? We ask British chefs for their festive secrets."

The accompanying photo (shown as it appeared on the Guardian link to the article) includes a few of that most British of vegetables: the brussels sprout, as does the question about whether such a vegetable can be "interesting." I have had a few English Christmas dinners and have always been curious about what I saw as an obsession with Christmas brussels sprouts. They obviously MUST have them on the menu, but they also are very wary of them.

Some of the advice from the various chefs about making them "interesting":

  • "People usually hate brussel sprouts so we cut them into quarters and separate each leaf, which we then blanch. To finish we throw the leaves into a hot wok with a bit of bacon and you get this really green and vibrant dish."
  • "Frozen sprouts are the best."
  • "You can even plan what to do with leftovers to prevent wastage - ... why not make some bubble and squeak fritters? You can use pretty much any leftovers - leeks, onions, brussel sprouts, bacon, cabbage, a couple of chestnuts, anything really."
I'm lost in confusion. If they actually do hate brussels sprouts, think that frozen are better than fresh, and need to get rid of the leftovers, why are these vegetables a given on the Christmas menu?

As the New Yorker used to say: There will always be an England.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Brown Sugar

After several recent conversations about brown sugar, I was happy to see a discussion about sugars today in a New York Times article about cane syrup and its use in southern baked goods and other treats: Secret of Holiday Treats (by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, Dec. 13, 2006, New York Times). I also checked McGee's On Food and Cooking, out of curiosity to get a better understanding about what makes all these different sugars have such interesting flavors and textures.

My first conversation was with my friend Erin in Prague, for whom I put in the recipe for blondies. I have been aware for a long time that in standard European grocery sources, one does not find American-style brown sugar. Erin says she makes it out of
sugar and Czech molasses. Maybe she learned from McGee: "Brown sugar is soft and clingy because its molasses film -- whose glucose and fructose are more hygroscopic than sucrose -- contains about 35 times as much water as ordinary white sugar." The process for making brown sugar that he describes is more complex than Erin's simple mixing. McGee says brown sugar results from: "adding special syrups that have undergone the ideal amount of browning to refined, redissolved sucrose," followed by further processing that leaves a molasses coating. But for small-scale use her version evidently works -- I hope she makes some blondies and chocolate chip cookies!

In conversations with other friends, I have discussed the differences between the soft, clingy American brown sugar and the more crystalline varieties of "raw" sugar found elsewhere, such as Demarara sugar in England, turbinado sugar in the Caribbean, and cassonade or sucre roux in France. As we ate a delicious flan, we discussed the more classic method of making the brown syrup -- actually carmelizing sugar in a pan -- as opposed to the less risky short cut of melting brown sugar.

The process description in the NYT article today claimed that all brown sugars were originally a direct by-product of one of the repeated steps of centrifuging and boiling down syrup in the process of making white crystalline sugar. To quote:
Brown sugars now come in a range of flavors: Demerara, turbinado and raw sugars are like the “first pressing” of the sugar: they are first to rise to the top during processing and have the lightest molasses flavor. Muscovado, a loamy, crumbly dark brown sugar, has the most. Most commercial brown sugars are not naturally brown from cane solids, but are a late-stage mixture of refined white sugar and molasses.
This confirms what I've heard in the past: that various brown sugars occurred during the refining process. When sugar refining was done on a smaller scale, for various reasons the less-fully-refined sugars were used, though less valued. Eventually sugar refining became totally industrial, and suddenly the brown sugars, once considered crude, became valued for the greater variety of flavors. And a new process was invented to produce these versions in a consistent, efficient way. Like bitter greens and potatoes, a food of poor rural people is elevated to a different status.

Monday, December 11, 2006


In the not-so-distant future, all but traces of transfat will be banned in almost every food establishment in New York. The goal is safer eating, especially for those who frequent fast food and chain restaurants. For us non-newyorkers non-professional cooks, the issue of transfat avoidance is just as serious.

The most severe impact of the ban seems to be on bakers, who need to figure out the question: what's the best fat for making pies. I've already been in several conversations about this question, as home cooks -- maybe more than restaurants -- don't want to jeopardize the health of their customers even if it's legally permitted.

The campaign against cholesterol has already condemned pastry made with the old-old favorites lard or butter. For the large number of pie makers who have already quit using animal fat the choice has always been Crisco. Now we're discussing -- what's the next best? Experts are experimenting, and I await sage answers from writers like Harold McGee.

A start on resolving this issue is in today's NY Times:

In Trans Fat Ban, a Challenge Fit for a Chef

Update: the same subject, covered in the Washington Post concludes: "Not long ago, there were a couple dozen ways to risk your life in New York City. Death by rugelach, unfortunately, will no longer be one of them." (Unclogged Arteries, and Eateries, December 17, 2006)

See also Starbucks Cuts Trans Fats in Half of U.S. Stores (January 2, 2007)

AND Trans Fats Have Left the Diner (January 3, 2007)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The "New Cookery"

In today's Guardian the cooks/food writers Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee made a statement on "the new cookery." Their points:
  1. They are guided by "excellence, openness, and integrity"
  2. They value and build on tradition
  3. They also embrace innovation: "new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas" -- but not novelty for its own sake
  4. They believe that "cooking can affect people in profound ways, and that a spirit of collaboration and sharing is essential to true progress in developing this potential."
Very interesting. Absolutely nothing anyone could disagree with in the summary statements or as far as I can tell in the elaborations of each point. A second article explains that they are rejecting the mechanical approach to "molecular gastronomy" and going back to basics.

Why do I wish for something more controversial?

See - Top chefs' manifesto on good cooking & I'm just serious about food

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Library

Across the street from my elementary school was the Public Library. Around the library was a beautiful garden with two ornamental ponds where small water lillies grew. One pond was up the hill a little from the other, and some stairs were in between the ponds. In spring and summer the gardens had pretty flowers.

In the winter, the ponds often had a thin layer ice on them. Under the ice was dark-colored water, so the grown-ups always said we shouldn't walk on the ice. Someone I knew did walk on the ice and fall in once. Luckily the ponds were only a little more than knee-deep, but the person who fell in had a very cold walk home.

Sometimes on the way home from school we went the long way and walked through the library's gardens. Sometimes we went into the library to get some books to read. The children's department of the library was on the lower floor, and the grownup department was upstairs. If you were going to the children's department you went in a special door on the side. Grownups went in the front door, on the other side from the gardens. Inside the library, behind a lot of bookcases, was an inside stairway. In the middle of each floor was a big wooden counter. A librarian sat in the middle of that, and when you picked out some books, you went to this librarian and checked out the books by writing your name on a card. The librarian put the card in a little box and stamped a due-date on a paper inside the book. In libraries now, a computer remembers who has which books, but when I was a child, computers were not yet used for these kinds of work. Everything was done by hand.

In summer, I had to go back to the library really often. When you checked out a book you could keep it for around two weeks, but I would get four books and start reading as soon as I got home. Once I got three Nancy Drew mysteries, and read them all in one afternoon, so I had to go back the very next day. In summer I went to the library every few days. In winter when I had school work, the books might last me the whole two weeks.

Many of the books about the Land of Oz were available in the library. I remember one book where the Scarecrow dug a really deep hole, fell in, and went all the way to China. This was what kids thought would happen if you dug a very deep hole, but of course that is not really how the world works at all, only how things happen in imaginary stories.

I did like the Oz books. After the first author, L.Frank Baum's books, many other authors wrote more books about Dorothy, Glinda the Good, Ozma, the Scarecrow, and all the other characters. I remember one story about a creature called the Gump, which was made of two sofas and a mounted deer or moose head, which was able to fly and carry passengers. Dorothy and her friends rode on the sofas and traveled to somewhere they needed to go.

Magical things happened in Oz, and the characters were usually lucky and guessed what they had to do. Once there was a very bad man, and Dorothy (or another character) realized that if she threw an egg at him, he couldn't do bad things any more. It was similar to how Dorothy threw water on the Wicked Witch, or had her house land on the other Witch. Dorothy always came out ok.

Besides the Oz books and the Nancy Drew mysteries, the library had lots and lots of other books, and I enjoyed getting them out and reading them. Not far from the library were the City Hall and the Police and Fire Stations, but I do not remember ever going to any of those places.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


A German tradition for the holidays is Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

They come from the bakers called
Lebkuchen-Schmidt GmbH. Packages of variously-flavored soft and crisp cookies are gift-packaged in beautiful tin boxes with a variety of designs on them. Lebkuchen in English means gingerbread, but it's the gingerbread of the gods! My friend Marianna just sent us a box of them. Evelyn and Tom also get them. What luxury!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New from the Curious Cook!

Harold McGee is author of On Food and Cooking and other wonderful books about what happens when you cook. He explains the inner workings of mayonnaise, rising dough, foaming egg whites, and answers almost every cooking-chemistry question you can think of. It's a wonderful reference book to have at hand. I've enjoyed it for years.

Now for the really great news. Today McGee began a column in the New York Times:

The Curious Cook : When Science Sniffs Around the Kitchen.

This first offering described some interesting effects that occur when cooking garlic. McGee has a blog as well, which today offered additional technical details about the chemistry of garlic:

News For Curious Cooks: Curious Cook in the New York Times: Colorful garlic

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Food Drives

I learned something important about the needs of a food drive in a discussion last night. A doctor who works at a clinic for recipients of donated food gave us an important insight.

"Tell people to bring canned fruit and green vegetables," she said. "My patients have trouble getting enough fruit and vegetables. Bring canned green beans, canned fruit or even raisins. Everyone brings cans of pasta -- they get too much pasta."

This made me realize: in my own shopping, I buy canned tomatoes, corn, tuna, beans, and soup. But always fresh greens and fresh fruit. Giving my preferred canned goods to a food drive is insensitive to the needs of the needy. I can buy fresh produce because I'm lucky to have enough time, enough money, and a kitchen where I can keep things fresh. I'm a little embarrassed because for the pre-Thanksgiving food drives, I specifically bought what I thought was good-quality canned soup. But of course it's a starchy product, and now I know better.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Arugula. Borage. Chicory. Dandelion greens. Curly endive. Belgian endive. Mustard greens. Rapini. Radicchio. Salad frisée. Sorrel.

Said the L.A.Times recently: "at this time of year, bitter greens are calling from nearly every other stall or stand at the farmers market or the grocery store; they're a boon of winter. Until fairly recently, bitter greens have been popular in this country only in the South, but more of them have become more widely available, though their names still can be confusing." The article describes (with recipes) the delicate and interesting flavors that can be achieved through various uses of bitter greens, using techniques from the American South, Italy, and the Carribean. ("The sweet side of bitter greens" by Beth Fortune, November 29, 2006)

The heritage of wild greens traces to just about every rural culture. Like the poor farmers in the South and the Italian peasants, rural people all over used to make use of whatever grew to supplement the few foods of poverty. Say the words "green vegetable" and most people will guess that you're worrying about vitamins. Poor people who had only coarse bread or porridge knew they needed variety. They picked whatever they could eat -- from fiddle-head ferns in New England to sorrel for borscht in Russia, especially in spring when the few shoots were the only edible choice.

A variety of writers describe how the Italians, particularly poor rural people, gathered greens and herbs. Camporesi, a writer who has some interesting insights into both good times and bad says: "Greens were normally consumed in great quantity," in his book called The Magic Harvest, "especially field chicory dressed with vinegar and bacon, boiled or fried field poppies, sizercia in salad with bitter vetch . . ., omelets with onions, leeks, chicory, beetroot and field poppies." (p. 9) He goes on to explain that the eggs for the omelets were in short supply, and the impoverished families used them very sparingly. Waverley Root, a writer with more emphasis on fine cuisine, describes a Ligurian dish of deep-fried wild plants: "chopped sage, wisteria petals, the hairy leaves of borage, edible roots, salsify stalks, squash flowers and mushrooms. ... most such ingredients are intended to flavor the batter rather than to be eaten for their own sake." (The Food of Italy, p. 375)

Leaves of wild plants such as nasturtium, mint, borage, arugula, and sorrel, and flowers of new fennel, rosemary, and violet, could all be turned into attractive salad material, according to Anna Del Conte's Gastronomy of Italy: “In the past such plants were among the principal foods of the poor who, out of sheer need, had learned how to recognize and cook them. . . . Nowadays, good cooks have again come to recognize the culinary value of these simple unpretentious plants.” ( p. 104) Another food writer, Montanari, explores the distinctions between peasant and noble foods as well, saying that "bulbs and roots (leeks, onions, turnips) were left to the peasants, as were the 'lower' and more common greens. Fruit from trees instead was suited to the aristocrat." (The Culture of Food, p. 90)

In the south of France, people gather "herbs de provence" — rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, savory, parsley, lavender, laurel leaves, and other native species; fresh or dried they flavor salads, stews, and soups. If you ever accompany a French person who knows how to gather these herbs, you'll remember the bright sun, vivid blue sky, and marvelous perfume of the scrubby, rather plain-colored thyme and rosemary. Perhaps your host will throw a handful into the fire over which meat is roasting, or use them in a fish that's been brought from the Mediterranean that morning. Quickly, you'll learn why modern chefs expound the virtues of this type of cooking. But centuries ago, these native herbs were valued far less than prized exotic spices such as ginger and pepper, which were imported by tortuous routes from the East Indies.

In the book Honey from a Weed, Patricia Gray includes an entire section called "Edible Weeds," which begins "Edwardian Englishmen laughed at French governesses for picking wild chervil, dandelions, and sorrel in spring for salads, for cutting nettle-heads for soup." She describes the necessary economies of the families in Italian villages and countryside where she lived, and how they value the plants that can be gathered freely. Her experience includes similar foods during long stays in Greek islands. She mentions having found that similar edible plants were used in the Middle Ages in Germany and Poland. Her general view is that the greater and greater cost of organic and wild foods is making what used to be the food of the poor into "outrageous luxuries." (pp. 188, 325)

In ancient China, too, peasants were aware of all the edible plants in their environment; like the European and American rural people, they kept a living tradition of which normally spurned plants, particularly wild ones, could be used when crops failed. In the Han period, thousands of years ago, poor people normally ate garlic, scallions, beans and water, taro, or dried grain, but turned to soy to relieve the effects of famine, according to various articles in the anthology Food in Chinese Culture.

I find it fascinating that the foods of poverty, once little valued because they lacked the substance to satisfy real hunger, are now valued precisely because of their low calorie count. Again, I contemplate our wealth and our lack of consciousness of this wealth.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Soup and Potatoes

The Soup website came up in a google search because I wanted to find an old Yiddish song my father told us about once: "Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes. Thursday and Friday potatoes. But on the Sabbath for a change a potato kugel, Sunday once again potatoes. Oi, bread and potatoes, meat with potatoes, lunch and supper - potatoes, still and again, ..."

In my father's childhood, potatoes were about the only form of nutrition in a time of near starvation -- maybe a little bread was also sometimes on the table. "Fish potatoes" meant potatoes cooked in water that had once been used for cooking fish. A potato kugel was mainly potatoes too, but for the Sabbath, maybe there was a little egg and onion to flavor it. If you made kugel, you shared one or two eggs around the entire family.

When World War I started, as my father always told us, his mother made sort of a wall out of potatoes in a room of their house. She bought the potatoes in the fall so that the family wouldn't starve during the winter. Others with less foresight weren't so lucky.

In the village, everyone was hungry in war or peace time: but they still had a sense of humor. So we have the song about the long week of nothing to eat but potatoes. Day after day, nothing but potatoes. Bitter but funny.

When we were children, somehow my father still didn't think a meal was quite complete unless there were some boiled potatoes and some bread to eat with our meat and vegetables. We never really understood what he was describing: hunger. Maybe we still don't. He hoped we never would.

For the entire potato song in transliterated Yiddish as well as another great old Yiddish song about how the Tsar eats potatoes take a look at this page: SoupTale: YIDDISH POTATO SONGS. See if you don't think the whole Soup website -- -- somehow captures the old Web Spirit. I think it's been around since the Web was young, and I think I have run into it before.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Two Classics

Recently, I made totally classic brownies -- here's a photo of the ones that are still in the freezer. I also make totally classic blondies from time to time. Both are irresistible to eat when still hot: don't burn your tongue on the melted chocolate!

By request, here are the recipes, both fairly easy and quick.

Classic Brownies
From Baker’s Chocolate package 2006

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
1-½ sticks butter (3/4 cup)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour
up to 1 cup chopped nuts (optional – you could also use dried cranberries or cherries)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly grease 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

1) Microwave Method: Melt chocolate and butter in microwave for 2 mins. on high in mixing bowl large enough for all ingredients. Stir to complete melting of chocolate. Cool if necessary to avoid cooking the eggs during step 2.
1) No Microwave Method: Melt chocolate and butter in top of double boiler, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool to avoid cooking the eggs in step 2. If you used a large enough double boiler, proceed. Otherwise, scrape chocolate into larger mixing bowl and continue.

2) Fully stir sugar into chocolate mixture. Mix eggs & vanilla together and add to batter. Stir in flour. Also add nuts to batter if you like the nuts spread througout the brownies (see next instruction).

3) Spread batter in pan. Alternate use of nuts: spread the nuts on top and pat slightly into batter if you like the nuts on top.

4) Bake for 30 minutes. Tester will not be clean: it will have a few sticky crumbs. Do not overbake. Cool for 15-20 minutes and cut in squares. Loosen from pan. Remove when cool.

Classic Blondies
(also known as Butterscotch Brownies)

1 stick butter
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 and 1/3 cup mixed fruit, chocolate, and nuts. Use any nuts, chocolate chips, chopped chocolate, chopped dried apricots, dried cherries, chopped candied ginger, or any other dried fruit in a combination that appeals to you.

Grease an 8" or 9" square pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1) Melt butter and brown sugar in saucepan or microwave. Cool so it won't cook the egg in next step.

2) Add egg and vanilla. Sift in flour. Stir well. Add nuts and fruit to batter and stir well. Or wait and spread them on top of batter in pan in step 3. Chocolate chips or chunks definitely work better if added to top of batter, without stirring, after it is in the pan.

3) Spread mixture in greased pan. Add remaining chocolate/fruit/nuts. Just press it in a little. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Tester will not be completely clean when they are done.

4) Cut brownies into squares after cooling 20 minutes. Loosen from pan. Remove when cool.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Roasted Potatoes

Roasted potatoes can be a Thanksgiving dish, which this year, they were. They are good with any roast, though. At some grocery stores "fingerling" potatoes have been available recently. Arny bought the ones for our Thanksgiving dinner at Costco. A week earlier, I bought some at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. If the fingerling fad doesn't last, I'll go back to making them with smallish redskins or Yukon Golds.

I roasted the potatoes with olive oil, salt, and peeled garlic cloves in a 9 x 13 inch pan. In another pan, I roasted sweet potatoes (peeled and cut in thirds) with quartered onions and olive oil. I put just enough oil to coat each potato and a little water, and roast them in a single layer (though they can be touching each other).

The temperature can be anything from 350 to 425 degrees, though at higher temps you have to watch them more carefully. The time is flexible, too -- up to around an hour and a half at the lower temperature. And if you are in a hurry you can pre-cook them in a microwave. Just be sure that they are fork-tender.

In sum, you can roast these vegetables with whatever else is in the oven, or as we did, cook them prior to making the too-large turkey. They are good hot or at room temperature. A totally forgiving recipe!

To see what else we ate for Thanksgiving Dinner at Arny and Tracy's, see "Thanksgiving Day" on my story blog.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Our great fortune: an abundance of food

Perhaps thinking about food and its pleasures is in itself selfish, when so many people on our planet are not well fed. Hunger has been a constant experience throughout history, while delight in food may have appeared only with settled agriculture. Agriculture created surpluses, which allowed such delight. But periodically the crops failed, and the farmers suffered the same fate as their nomadic ancestors in similar circumstances.

In starting a food blog I want to think as well about how people have coped in the past when famine struck. Grain in the form of bread, porridge, or even beer was often the mainstay of the diet of people who lived on the land. Although farms produced diverse food, the most valued and tasty nourishment may have frequently fed only the privileged.

European peasants had long-standing practical methods for making some facsimile of bread during grain-harvest failures and other disasters: "When the dark days of famine came, the [Italian] peasants tried to make bread with an infinite variety of materials. In practice almost anything could be used to prepare a rude surrogate: darnel or tares, licorice, erba del vetro (a rough grass commonly sown in fallow fields, used as animal feed), roots, thistles, various leaves, scorzonera, hawthorn, etc." Other famine breads could be made from acorns, chestnut flour, grass, bran, and other less desirable foodstuffs such as pear-tree or apple-tree sawdust or animal fodder. Children in those days would sing: "The master gets the grain, the peasant gets the straw." (Camporesi, The Magic Harvest, pp. 23-4 and 95)

When their crops failed, English farmers may "have eaten the bark from trees and grass from the fields. . . . the French peasantry, in their extremity, ate unripe grain, roots, grass, and the intestines and blood of animals that had been slaughtered as food for the better-off." (Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 8)

In 1585-6, French peasants were "forced to eat acorns, wild roots, bracken, marc and grape seeds dried in the oven and ground into flour -- not to mention pine bark and the bark of other trees, walnut and almond shells, broken tiles and bricks mixed with a few handfuls of barley, oats or bran flour." They also ate "bread made from a mixture of couch grass and sheep's entrails." Even in good times, peasants would practice eating bark and other inedibles to ensure that they could still survive in case of famine. (Mennell, All Manner of Food, p. 26 and MacClancy, Consuming Culture, p. 44; the source for the "practice famine" is Eugen Weber)

One very famous famine drove roughly half the Irish nation to America about 150 years ago. The potato crop, sole nutrition of poor rural families, became infected and inedible. Irish farms produced a variety of other agricultural products, but these were not the right or the property of the poor, who died in shocking numbers. Hogs and grain were being sent to England, where politicians invoked a free market. Was not each individual responsible for his own welfare or his family's.

Are we better than that now?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Some books I want to read or cook from

Introduction to Mae's Food Blog

I have been interspersing posts about food with posts about other subjects. The result was somewhat confusing, I began to think.

Now this new blog is exclusively for food posts, and I have moved all my previous food posts to this blog. I have preserved all the dates, though a very small number of comments have disappeared.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Texas Red

The other night I made a big pot of Texas Red chili, which we've been eating one bowl at a time, garnished with various things like corn chips, salsa, chopped tomato, chopped avocado, a bit of cheese. The photo shows what's left in the refrigerator after we've eaten two meals worth.

Here's the background and the recipe, as my friend Erin requests.

As favors to those who came to their wedding, Alec and Ellen gave us little jars of chili powder and a recipe, which has evolved since I've been making it for us. I've made it in France, and also in Israel. Sometimes, Alec and Ellen bring us more chili powder, but have also shared the spice-blend recipe, which is included after the main recipe. I vary the spice mixture and the recipe a little every time I make chili, which I have reflected below. Alec and Ellen might not approve of the variations or of the garnishes!

Ellen and Alec's "Texas Red" Chili
2 to 3 lb. lean beef cubes: trim off fat if necessary
2 chopped onions
3 cloves chopped garlic
Several fresh chopped chilies (such as jalapenos) or 1 can Old El Paso chopped chili peppers
1 to 4 tablespoons of chili spice (recipe follows — blend of spice is essential)
8 oz tomato sauce and 8 oz water
1 lb can of tomatoes, cut in pieces

Brown onion and garlic. Add fresh peppers (if using fresh). Remove from pan. Add beef and brown. Drain excess fat. Return meat to pan. (Add canned peppers.) Add spice, then tomato sauce, water, and tomatoes. Simmer several hours on top of stove or in 275 degree oven, until meat is soft.

One heresy is to add a can of corn, a can of black beans, and/or a can of red beans towards the end of cooking. I'm not enough of a heretic to make the beans or corn dominate the chili. That would be a different recipe.

Chili Spice Blend

In a mortar or spice grinder blend 1 crumbled bay leaf with 1 tablespoon of each of the following spices: Whole Cumin, Dried Oregano, Chili Powder. Optionally add 1 tablespoon each of onion flakes, parsley flakes, and dried basil. Add at least 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, dried hot pepper, or hot pepper flakes.

Note: If you are going to use the mixture right away, you can smash the fresh garlic in the mortar with the other spices. This dish should be made fairly hot, but you control the heat by how many fresh chilies, how hot they are, and how much cayenne pepper or even habanero peppers you put in the spice blend. You can make your chili hotter or milder by changing the balance of hot pepper to other kinds, and by knowing the heat of the spices you use. If you like it VERY mild, use Hungarian hot paprika instead of cayenne. It has a similar flavor but is less intense.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Food Reading

I have recently read one book and one article on food that seem interestingly related. The book is:
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp

The article is:

The rise of food television.
by Bill Buford
[UPDATE, 2014: current link is ]

Here is the key sentence, quoted by Buford. The former president of the Food Network explains its success: “Television values. That’s all. We introduced television values and started running the business like a normal network.”

Buford expands: Giada De Laurentiis, Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay and the other giants all produce shows that conform to these values. Former favorites Mario Batali and Sarah Moulton no longer shape up: they are just too interested in... food. "The two essential premises of '30 Minute Meals' —no one knows how to cook and everyone is in a hurry—now inform most instructional cooking shows."

And he concludes: "Forty-five years after the publication of 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking,' food television is finally and definitively not Julia Child. ... Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw."

Kamp's United States of Arugula is a bit more wide-ranging, as one would expect. He begins by tracing American interest in gourmet food, with his focus on famous food writers and personalities, especially James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and a few others. The early chapters of the book make a good case that these and a number of restauranteurs in New York inspired a high level of interest among Americans all over the country. Half gossip, half pop culture -- his early chapters portray a really interesting set of events and trends up until around 1985.

Marketing trends, which he also covers, make fascinating reading. He describes establishments such as Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, Celestial Seasonings, Whole Foods, even mentioning Zingerman's here in Ann Arbor (Zing's rates only a single reference not even appearing the index). He moves on with Alice Waters and many chefs that trained in Chez Panisse, including Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe.

Unfortunately after about 1985, he loses focus. Getting interested in feuds and rivalries, details of restaurant openings and decor, and a few very local venues, he forgets about what might have been happening outside a few big cities. Immense detail on Wolfgang Puck and the LA scene, a summary of Las Vegas as a showplace and money maker for high fliers, and depressing details about the decline of Craig Claiborne regrettably don't keep up the interesting pace and zoomed-in analysis of the earlier chapters.

And at the end: weakness. The brief discussion of the Food Network seems pretty pathetic compared to Buford's New Yorker article. He seems afraid to delve into Ruth Reichl and her accomplishments and influence -- though he frequently quotes her when he needs her data. His lame references to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and to Alice Waters' activism don't show even a faint grasp of the big issues of how food is raised or what concerned people are trying to do about it.

While I enjoyed much of The US of Arugula -- especially the early gossipy chapters, where his good-natured portrayals of flamboyant personalities were often really successful -- in the long run, I felt as if he promised a lot more than he delivered. Is America a "gourmet nation" ? Does he really tell us the answer to that question? Has he really looked at anywhere but New York, Berkeley, and Los Angeles? Does he really know what we are eating? No, no, no, and no.

Monday, October 30, 2006

New Bookcase in the Kitchen

At last: cookbooks near the kitchen desk!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Oatmeal Pancakes

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats or other whole grain like buckwheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 eggs
1 to 2 tsp. vegetable oil or melted butter
1 cup skim or regular milk (or milk + yogurt)
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
1/3 c. fruit -- choose grated apple, raisins, dried apricots, dried cherries, and/or dried cranberries

Mix dry ingredients together. Add eggs, milk, and fruit. Allow batter to rest for about an hour (if possible). Ladle batter onto a hot, buttered griddle. Cook until bubbles rise on the raw side. Watch griddle temperature so that the first side does not burn. When bubbly on raw side and brown on cooked side, flip pancakes and cook second side till brown. If you are making a large quantity, keep them in the oven at 170 degrees until ready to serve.

The quantity above serves 2 to 3 people. For 6 people, I made a triple batch. You can vary the amount and type of fruit to your taste, you can add sugar, and you can vary the whole-grain component to change the texture.

I also put a pancake story on the story blog.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pumpkins and Gourds

All over the Americas, the Indians grew pumpkins and gourds, and everyone knows that they introduced the early European immigrants to the New World squash family. This photo is from the Farmer's Market in Los Alamos, NM in 2004.

Pumpkins and gourds come in many forms, some hybrid or selected to be decorative, some to be useful as containers or musical instruments, some to make good food. The pumpkin that I cooked yesterday was sold as a "pie pumpkin" though I used it in a centerpiece with decorative gourds for a while. This year, I've noticed a lot of very bumpy, pimply gourds in the decorative bins, as well as the usual edible varieties: acorn squash, summer squash, and so on.

For my taste, pumpkin is much more appealing when it's used in a savory or spicy dish than in sweets like pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, or pumpkin cheesecake. Often when traveling, I've looked for interesting recipes for pumpkin soups or stews. In the south of France, there's a traditional recipe for a beef stew with rice and pumpkin. In Italy, pumpkin ravioli. Every Carribean island has a variety of pumpkin soup, some with pork or bacon, some vegetarian. South American cuisine also has many such recipes. I once saw pumpkin soup advertised on a restaurant placard in Canberra, Australia, and have seen it on fall menus throughout the US.

Yesterday, I made a sort of hybrid soup, using what I had on hand in the house: bacon, onion, red pepper, and a few green beans. After trying varieties over the years -- from a chile-flavored soup full of meat and vegetable chunks to a smooth puree of pumpkin, orange, and ginger -- I enjoyed going off on my own tangent.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pumpkin Soup

On my story blog, I've been writing about pumpkins for Halloween (as well as about pumpkinheads, costumes, parades and trick-or-treaters). So tonight I took one of the pumpkins that's been decorating the house and I made pumpkin soup. Here it is:

I made it from this pumpkin:

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fuzzy Logic in the Fast Food Fight

Today's New York Times has an article about an initiative to use zoning laws to decrease the number of fast food restaurants in New York City. The article summarizes various efforts in California and elsewhere that have already done so. Pros and Cons of a Zoning Diet: Fighting Obesity by Limiting Fast-Food Restaurants (September 24). Here is a summary of reasons that some zoners give for their prohibition or limitation: "fast food ... establishments create traffic and pollution problems, contribute to truancy, tarnish the aesthetics of the area or drive mom-and-pop restaurants out of business."

WAIT A MINUTE, I SAY -- Mom and pop restaurants aren't an automatic improvement over fast food! Small diners may be trendy but what's the evidence that they are less likely to be frequented by truant children, to have better quality or lower calorie food, or that they are aesthetically pleasing?

I don't like fast food restaurants for the same reasons: quality, lack of low-calorie choices, unattractive surroundings. But I know of LOTS of mom-and-pop restaurants that are worse on all counts -- even potential to create traffic and pollution. When I'm on the road, I pick a fast food chain over an unknown mom-and-pop because I know what I will get.

Why don't the city planners put the real goals directly into the law and judge each place for its quality and so on, fast food or not?

By the way, the article cited a model town that outlawed fast food: Calistoga, a tourist town in the Napa Valley in California where discerning tourists seek the height of food and wine experience. The goal is to improve low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Whatever.

UPDATE: When fattening food is outlawed, will only outlaws be fat?

First, another ban proposed: "The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously yesterday to move forward with plans to prohibit the city’s 20,000 restaurants from serving food that contains more than a minute amount of artificial trans fats." New York City Plans Limits on Restaurants’ Use of Trans Fats, September 27.

AND from the LA Times, a whole article on banning food in classrooms. The article begins: "The days of the birthday cupcake — smothered in a slurry of sticky frosting and with a dash of rainbow sprinkles — may be numbered in schoolhouses across the nation. Fears of childhood obesity have led schools to discourage and sometimes even ban what were once de rigueur grammar-school treats." Some schools have children bring a favorite book to read instead. Some just limit the number of parties with food. Some have specific prohibitions, so kids have to eat carrots. See Sorry, Cupcake, No Class For You by Seema Mehta, September 27.

October 21 -- more bizarre food ban: "THE US has banned Vegemite, even to the point of searching Australians for jars of the spread when they enter the country." See this story from an Australian news website. The reason for the ban: FDA allows folic acid only to enrich bread, not spreads. (Huh?)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cauliflower Soup

At Erin's request, here is some information on how I make cauliflower soup.

1/2 head cauliflower, chopped
1 to 2 cut up onions
Salt, pepper
Oil or butter for frying the onions and other vegs
Flour to thicken the soup. (Starchy potatoes might do it for you.)

Your choice of other vegetables -- some or all:
  • 5 medium potatoes (add at beginning)
  • 1 cup cut up carrots and or celery (add at beginning)
  • 1/2 cup diced red pepper or smaller amt. of hot pepper (add towards the end)
  • creative other choices that you like with cauliflower
Your choice of spice:
  • Indian: mustard seeds, black sesame (kala jeera), fennel, bay leaf, hot peppers.
  • No Indian spices? Use curry powder.
  • European: dill, parsley, cumin or caraway seeds, bay leaf, paprika, or fines herbs (chives, marjoram...)
  • Strange: a teaspoon of Chinese chili-garlic sauce
Your choice of liquid, about 1 quart to start with:
  • milk, stock, or water to cover vegetables
Your choice of garnishes:
  • parsley, fresh dill, diced red onion, fresh cilantro, chopped tomato, sweet or hot peppers, carrot rounds...
  • shredded cheese, sour cream, or yogurt
Stir fry the spices and onions in oil or butter. Add potatoes/carrots/celery and brown slightly. Add cauliflower and stir to coat with flavored oil and other vegetables. Add the liquid (around 4 cups), salt, pepper, and any spices that would not survive frying. Bring to a boil then simmer till vegetables are soft -- add peppers towards the end. Mash some of the vegetables with a potato masher or blend some in blender or food processor, choosing the consistency and amount of whole vegetables that you like. I don't recommend blending everything, but if you want a smooth soup, go ahead.

If the result is not thick enough, dissolve some flour in butter or liquid, stir some hot liquid into the flour mixture (to avoid lumps), then slowly add to soup. Too thick? Add more liquid. Bring soup back to simmer until it is thickened as you like it. Soup can rest at this point for several hours or even overnight. If you are keeping it more than a few hours, it should be refrigerated.

To serve, reheat and garnish hot soup with any or all of the garnishes. Or let diners garnish their own soup. You can also serve this soup cold with sour cream and green herbs.

  • If you used broccoli instead of cauliflower, it would be broccoli soup. I don't think I'd cook broccoli soup with potatoes, but otherwise it would be similar.
  • If you used only potatoes and more onions, you obviously would end up with potato soup.
  • You could use leeks and potatoes -- that would be very carefully washed leeks, chopped in small slices. This is a classic cold soup when blended very smooth.
I believe it was Erdos who said that a mathematican was a device for turning coffee into theorems. This recipe is a method for turning arbitrary vegetables into soup.

Friday, September 15, 2006

They can't do this TO US

E. Coli Outbreak Traced to Spinach -- just when I was considering what was the good side of grocery stores. Will the culprit turn out to be organic bagged spinach? Why not -- e.coli are organic. And what will it be next?

I suppose the argument that all food should be slow, local, hand-produced, and small-scale is relevant: then a food poisoning outbreak would not occur in 8 states at a time. It would be small-scale and local. People could die and we would never know that anything was wrong.

Addendum September 19
Of course I was amazed that indeed, the problem seems to be industrial-organic agriculture, the exact problems outlined in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Particluarly, an AP story today pointed out that safety practices among very large-scale California vegetable grower-packers has been under scrutiny:
"Leafy vegetables are the second leading source of E. coli infections in the United States, behind ground beef, but the government relies primarily on voluntary safety steps by farmers and packagers to prevent outbreaks.

"The cleanliness of fresh produce is drawing new attention amid reports that tainted spinach has been found recently in 21 states, killing at least one person and sickening more than 100 others. A second death was under investigation.

"Some consumer groups believe the government should do more to regulate farming and packaging, including the quality of water used for irrigation, the application of manure and sanitary facilities used by workers." -- AP story: "Tainted spinach sparks calls for more food safety oversight." Posted on CNN: 12:10 p.m. EDT, September 19, 2006

Also, yesterday I read an important explanation of how this could happen, reported in the New York Times. I have been wondering how spinach bags could be contaminated. Here is the crucial statement attributed to an expert in the field:

"The cause of the outbreak is still not clear. It could be irrigation water ... or it could be a processing problem in a factory. In the humid environment of a sealed bag of spinach or salad mix, E. coli can multiply rapidly if the bag is allowed to get too warm... . Some processors expose spinach to chlorine to kill E. coli, which can kill the bacteria on the leaf surface. But if the bacteria are in irrigation water they can enter the plant, and the chlorine will not reach them... ." from Agency Says It Can't Order Spinach Recall by MATTHEW L. WALD and MARIA NEWMAN

One more Addendum, Sept. 20
Here is one more word from the same expert, Dr. David Acheson, in today's New York Times. Evidently, slow and local is getting some recognition:

"Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the F.D.A., said the agency “wants to maintain a simple consumer message’’ and not confuse people by saying which circumstances are appropriate for eating uncooked spinach. But in a telephone conversation he acknowledged that it is less risky to eat locally grown spinach.

"'Clearly the risk is significantly reduced if you know the farmer and know his farm,' he said, 'particularly if you are on the East Coast,’ far from the suspected source of the contamination." -- From the brief article "A Stopgap for the Spinach Lover"

WOW, here in the midwest we aren't far enough from California to be safe from the scourge. Those E.coli must really be powerful.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A World of Food

Most of the food writing I look at is one of two things. It's analysis of the overall situation of nutrition, economic issues, and policies about food (see yesterday's post). Or it's cooking and food history. I like Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Cod, Pollan's books and all-too-brief NY Times blog, Marion Nestle, or mid-20th century classics like Waverly Root and Joseph Wechsberg. About a few of my favorite books: I once created an list of food-book favorites: Wine and Food...

I enjoy reading about cooking, and have many favorite cook books and authors from Claudia Roden to Julia Child. Most recent acquisition: a used copy of:
The Czechoslovak Cookbook: Czechoslovakia's best-selling cookbook adapted for American kitchens.  Includes recipes for authentic dishes like Goulash, Apple ... Torte. (Crown Classic Cookbook Series) The Czechoslovak Cookbook: Czechoslovakia's best-selling cookbook adapted for American kitchens. Includes recipes for authentic dishes like Goulash, Apple Strudel, and Pischinger Torte by Joza Brizova. It's been in print almost as long as the first Julia Child books, and reflects the pre-Child philosophy of cookbooks. Namely, it's nothing but recipes. The subtitle is the most descriptive text in the book -- and it appears only on the current dust jacket, not on the 1965 title page. After a 1-page table of contents, we go directly to "Soups and Soup Accompaniments" on page 1, beginning immediately with Beef Soup (White or Brown). I've only been browsing the recipes, but I hope to try some when my current kitchen remodel is done.

There's a third side of the public face of food: celebrities. Interestingly this side of the food picture don't seem to figure in the analysis of the situation of the slow-food writers like Pollan, Marion Nestle, etc.

To see an example: Superchefblog is a blog about famous, nearly famous, and obscenely famous people in the world of popular, extreme, or just top-of-the-line cuisine. Mainly celebrity gossip and news, it really has few ideas about food. As for me, OK, I do like to watch Batali's older cooking show "Multo Mario" on the Food Network at noon when I am eating lunch. But add much more ego, and it makes me uneasy, and this blog is the most groupie-conscious of them all.

PS: A New York Times article dated Sept. 13, 2006, updates the great mystery of Ferran Adrià, the head chef of El Bulli, "the trendsetting restaurant on the Costa Brava." He "who is celebrated for his astonishing and often baffling technical accomplishments, now has disciples and imitators worldwide." In sum, he's the leader and most famous of the chefs whose food no writer has ever made me wish to eat.

The article's author Mark Bittman says: "I was blown away ... — but more often by the technical wizardry than by the flavors." Examples of the high-tech food: "a thin, brittle basket of solidified passion fruit juice, filled with the essence of tangerine, ... Parmesan snow, served in a stylishly wrapped plastic-foam box — the better to keep it cold — and topped with, of all things, muesli with dried fruits; a frozen sugar eggshell filled with crunchy coconut and ice cream flavored with the wood from barrels used to make bourbon..."

The article: Adrià May Be Relaxing, but His Obsessions Are Still Abuzz

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bad Side Good Side

  1. Bad side of globalized fast food: everyone knows the burgers and fries are high in all fat, especially in bad fat; low in fiber and vitamins; and made in a way that's bad for the global environment. Everyone knows the bad side of soft drinks. Good side of American hamburger chains: clean public rest rooms. Don't forget the original good side: when you go to a chain fast-food place anywhere in the world, you know exactly what you will get.

  2. Bad side of grocery stores: over-processed foods are so much cheaper than the good choices. Good side: cheap food means fewer people are starving. In fact, starvation is such a distant memory it's no longer relevant in discussions of most of US culture. Bad side of this: hard to empathize with African famines or to keep a focus on whether we can help. Yet another side of cheap groceries: unions for a while ensured a decent wage for grocery store workers, but this is in jeopardy.

  3. Bad side of supermarket shopping: we hear so much about the over-processed that we often forget the good choices one can make: fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and meat -- some even "natural" or organic. Also reasonably healthy bread and whole oats; even some packaged cereal and so on. Perfectly reasonable consumers get swamped, discouraged and don't see this good side.
    For much more from the other side of the grocery store, here's an unexpected blog: that of the owner of my favorite supermarket, Hiller's in Ann Arbor: Jim Hiller's blog

  4. Bad side of Italian food: pizza has A LOT of calories, too much carbo, fat, too few vegetables even with that good tomato sauce. Similar problems with pasta, ante-pasto... Olive Garden: all you can eat of greasy bread and oily salad? Did you think you were getting the advantages of the old-line Mediterranean diet? If you want them, you have to cook yourself, and if you do, that's the good side.

  5. Bad side of Dairy Queen, Ben & Jerry's, Baskin-Robbins, etc.: no nutritional value.
    Good side: on a summer night, you can sit at a picnic table at our local DQ facing the firehouse and slowly spoon up your Blizzard or lick the softly melting surface of your ice cream cone and you might feel better about world politics or your job or the housing bubble. And the people at the next table, and the people pulling their cars into the lot, and the ones at the table in front might all feel better too.

  6. Bad side of Chinese food: lots of fried things. Think of sweet-and-sour pork -- salt, sugar, MSG. And sometimes even the potentially healthy stir fried foods are really fat-laden. Dim sum: nice high calorie snack. Good side of Chinese food: if you make it yourself, and eat the high-nutritional parts with rice and lots of vegetables, it can be healthy.

  7. Bad side of TV chefs: many set unrealistic expectations or they make food seem like a game. Celebrity for its own sake: what could be good about that? Just make viewers feel bad. But maybe they influence some people to be more interested in the basics of cooking.Who knows?

  8. Bad side of Japanese food: tempura is deep fried; high salt content in many other dishes. Good side: sushi teaches us to eat fish. Bad side of fish: the environmental challenge of overfishing everywhere.

  9. Fine dining fortunately doesn't affect most people, except when they occasionally read an article about it or hear something on TV. I expect the silly fad for making flavors into some kind of industrial-edible foam will trickle down to neighborhood restaurants soon. I've lost my heros like Julia Child (perfectly captured in her posthumously published My Life in France) and like the old time chefs who spent their lives in the kitchen of one restaurant creating excellent dinners, never got rich or very famous.

  10. Bad side of organic food: small-scale demonstrations show that it's good for consumers, for the environment, for farmers. Attempts to produce organic food on a larger scale have gone badly for consumers (labling standards corrupted), for the environment (the organic cows on a large-scale farm don't get a better life), for farm workers (large scale agriculture can exploit them whatever). This is well-documented. For example: The Omnivore's Dilemma and recent food issue in The Nation.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Slow Food

In my story blog, I just wrote about farmers' markets: Farmers' Markets. In an earlier post on this blog: Very Interesting Articles on Food, I referred to The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan discusses the issues of slow and fast food in our society.

Since I wrote that post, I've been thinking about the problems it embodies. For example, so few people have the time to take advantage of an enterprize like the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market. Our trip there (written up in the story blog) was part of a week off of work for Evelyn, who normally just doesn't have time for more than one place to buy food. Her local supermarket has lots of produce, but not organic produce, and not much that's locally grown. And her daily life just doesn't admit the time to make the rounds of every special produce source. I admit that I also rarely take the time to go to the Farmers' Market, preferring the easier acccess of Whole Foods and the local independent source of fruit and veg, the Produce Station.

Evelyn doesn't even have the time to read Pollan's book. So I'm going to explain how I interpret the slow food movement. There are two challenges about local, organic produce. One is that it takes too much time. The other is that for most of the year, here in Michigan and in most of the country, nothing is growing. We could put some cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and less perishable varieties of apples in our root cellars the way that people used to do, but then our winter and early spring diet would be pretty boring. Making jam, fruit preserves, pickles, and so on is an even more drastic time challenge, and leaves open the question of whether you are really retaining/improving quality.

Pollan acknowledges these challenges, but he isn't writing about what it's like to actually feed a family. He's theoretical! Also he's dealing with the commercial issues such as the deterioration of the meaning of the word organic as the government regulates its use and permits the industrial food cartel to misuse it. The word "slow food" is the best I can do right now to refer to the opponents of all industrial, all highly processed food all the time.

Some of the slow food writers are true fanatics. They judge harshly anyone who puts a higher value on other activities than procuring a perfect diet for themselves and their children. I dismiss them immediately, because I want to talk about the reasonable ones.

What issues do I see as important? First, is habit. Evelyn may not have time to buy only organic local fruit and vegetables, but she makes sure that her children are learning to eat produce, to like less-processed foods, and to regard sweets as only an occasional part of their diet. This approach seems to me to be in the spirit of the writers I like.

The second issue that's important is indeed one for activists only. Evelyn is a victim of the fact that grocery stores make the most money in the "center aisles" as Pollan and the others document in detail. The highly processed packaged foods and speedy transportation from farm to local markets throughout the coutry were once a triumph. New packaging and preserving technology and fast transport solved many problems. Among these problems: food that was so far from fresh that it was unsafe, improperly labled foods, intentionally adulterated foods, and challenges of bringing produce to markets in emerging big cities. Originally the food industry was doing people a favor by solving these problems, such as the emergence of trustworthy national brands, but it's now gone too far. As a result, if we want less processed foods we are faced with the same old problems in new form. Organic food may travel less well than produce that's picked unripe and kept too cold or whatever (for more details, it's Pollan all the way).

But lots of the old changes towards standards and speedy delivery to market remain a good thing. Here's an example. Oranges were once rare and special. The groves of Florida and California were developed symbiotically with railroads, and suddenly, in cities in around 1900, one could eat ripe seasonal citrus fruit at reasonable prices. This is still wonderful, if you ask me. Yes, things then got out of hand. The citrus industry around 1950 invented a really industrial process for making frozen orange juice from a combination of old frozen stuff saved up from a number of years' crops to control sugar content without adding sugar. People drank frozen OJ instead of eating fruit. It went all the way to High-C which has what? 15% fruit juice? We now have the choice of the "fresh pack" juice, which at least tastes better. But above all, we can still get oranges, clementines, grapefruits, all in their wonderful thick protective skins. Do I wish they weren't sprayed with insecticide? Sure, but I say what's wrong with eating them anyway if we wash and peel them?

I think there are lots of tales like the citrus fruit one. I think that looking for good fruits and vegetables in the market is possible. And I think that the proponents of slow food are right when they see the problem as collective. It's not our individual choices but what the food industry is doing to many regulatory activities that's really dangerous. Falsifying the word "organic," looking the other way about antibiotics causing drug-resistant strains of germs, subsidising inappropriate foods for school lunches, and other forms of subsidies. This is where I really agree with Pollan, Alice Waters, and the other writers.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Very Interesting Articles on Food

While I'm pretty turned off at some of the Nation's politics these days, I found a really wonderful set of articles on food in the current issue. Especially interesting: One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum. The editor of this set of short pieces is Alice Waters. Contributors: Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Troy Duster, Elizabeth Ransom, Winona LaDuke, Peter Singer, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Carlo Petrini, Eliot Coleman, and Jim Hightower.

All the writers, I would say, agree with Eric Schlosser's statement: "Once you learn how our modern industrial food system has transformed what most Americans eat, you become highly motivated to eat something else."

At one time, I would have considered the following extreme, but now I don't: "Food is destiny, all right; every decision we make about food has personal and global repercussions. By now it is generally conceded that the food we eat could actually be making us sick, but we still haven't acknowledged the full consequences--environmental, political, cultural, social and ethical--of our national diet." So writes Alice Waters in her piece called Slow Food Nation.

And from a more global perspective: "Humanity has eaten more than 80,000 plant species through its evolution. More than 3,000 have been used consistently. However, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of the world's food. With genetic engineering, production has narrowed to three crops: corn, soya, canola. Monocultures are destroying biodiversity, our health and the quality and diversity of food." So writes Dr. Vandana Shiva in the Forum.

All this has great resonance with The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, who is also a contributor to the Nation's Forum. Pollan's book provides meticulous detail about where our food comes from: a strictly artisan's organic meal, a Whole Foods more mass produced organic meal, and a mainstream meal from MacD's. The Nation article on the unfortunate labor practices of big organic farms in California adds another dimension to what I learned from Pollan. (See Felicia Mello's article titled Hard Labor.)

Several other articles on the global food situation are also worth reading, including one by Frances Moore Lappé. So check out this week's issue of

The Nation