Friday, May 30, 2014

Can Chefs Change the World?

Yesterday I wrote up the book The Third Plate by Dan Barber. He presents an interesting argument that if chefs change their menus and use a wider range of foods, then home cooks will follow and this change can make a real difference. To summarize yesterday's post, Barber believes that chefs can by example improve the way people use resources. He states that consumption of all the products of organic farms and fisheries (including the less-popular rotation crops, the less-popular cuts of beef and chicken, and the less-desirable fish) instead of wasting them would lead to a more effective set of changes than he's seen result from "farm-to-table" dining and small-scale agriculture.

I didn't comment on why -- though I find his ideas compelling -- I don't think he's right. That's what I want to say now.

First, I am entirely unconvinced that the influence of chefs at upscale New York restaurants have any significant potential impact on the behavior of more than a few people outside their rich, self-absorbed, picky customers. I live in the midwest and I think I can say that New York chefs' impact extends at most to a very few chefs here, whose products don't influence what people buy or eat every day. I doubt that even the people who often eat in these refined places change their daily diet or home cooking (if they do any) as a result of eating there. It's way too much work!

Changing the overall American diet even a tiny bit is an incredible ambition. If you don't believe me, read the news of the debate in Congress this week about backing out the few changes that  have been made to the school lunch program! Try this: "The Campaign for Junk Food" by Michelle Obama or this: "The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed an agriculture budget bill that ... would allow schools to opt out of White House nutritional guidelines passed in 2012."

Second, I'm unconvinced that -- outside of trendy restaurants -- people are willing to eat food that's harder to cook, harder to chew, and harder to get used to. If you don't believe me, read one of the many books about how the food processing industry creates food that appeals to our primal tastes. For example, Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler, or one of many other books on that topic.

Finally, Barber seems really out-of-touch with the organic food industry as it presents itself to American consumers. He seems to think that the New York chefs are on the forefront. I think it's more likely that people are aware of (say) the Safeway house brand of organic food. Or with produce from Whole Foods Markets. Organic agriculture is already a mainstream trend; however, the label "organic" is defined by the government, and no longer represents small-scale agriculture anything like what Barber is talking about. This is a very complicated set of issues, which I don't want to belabor. I just feel  he's not in touch with any significant segment of consumers. He's out of touch with other things too, but I think I've made my point.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Third Plate"

Recently I read an excerpt -- "What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong"-- from The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I found this New York Times piece so compelling that I immediately bought the Kindle edition of the just-published book. Barber challenges commonly held assumptions about organic, sustainable, and alternative agriculture. He suggests that recent changes to the way people eat are superficial and not likely to last in an effective way.

"In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers’ market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food," he writes. Because of this waste, he says, a few changed attitudes can't rescue the deeply flawed system of mainly big farms in America today. While many writers have made this point before, the problems that he points out seem unusual and very insightful.

"Feeding Time" from the Blue Hill Farm website
Barber, who is chef and co-owner of the well-known and highly admired Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants in New York, emphasizes the role of the chef in creating demand for foods and in inspiring food trends. He asks: can chefs inspire people to eat local foods and thus "reshape landscapes and drive lasting change?" His answer: "More than a decade into the movement, the promise has fallen short. For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised."

Why? Crop rotation -- traditionally growing legumes and other restorative plants on the land where wheat is grown instead of using chemical fertilizer -- is a fundamental part of growing organic wheat, but it's much less productive of wheat than large-scale farming. Chefs and home cooks want organic wheat, but they don't want the other products of crop rotations, especially not at high organic prices. This means organic farming of wheat isn't becoming very sustainable -- not enough payback to farmers. Surpluses of alternate crops are wasted or turned into less-profitable animal feed.

There are a number of other parts to this argument, but the bottom line is that chefs and the home cooks they influence have not accepted the implications or the long-term needs of organic agriculture: they still shop and cook as if they were buying from Big Agriculture. He has a lot to say about wheat and how it fits into both Big Agriculture and smaller sustainable practices in past, present, and future American farming. In the book he also points out how the meat-raising industry has adapted to modern times: "A farm raising only chickens would have been as unique and unlikely a hundred years ago as a multispecies animal farm like Stone Barns is today," he writes. And he gives a brief history of how chicken became such a commodity: mass-produced and harmful to the land, to the workers, and even to the chickens. (p. 146)

The Third Plate presents parallel descriptions of problems with growing wheat, with raising livestock, and with deep-sea fishing and fish farming. He believes that chefs create unsustainable demand by featuring not only boutique-raised wheat but also by featuring the best cuts of meat -- "the seven-ounce slab of protein on your dinner plate" -- and the meatiest and most tender fish species in preference to smaller uglier by-catch. Just as chefs and home cooks reject the non-wheat crops in crop rotation they also leave less attractive beef parts to be tossed in the garbage. Industrial fishing boats waste a high proportion of edible fish that are brought up in their huge destructive nets, keeping only what sells best. Poultry processors consign non-white chicken parts to be made into cheap exports. Much food that could be eaten by humans ends up feeding pets or other livestock, or is simply trashed. All kinds of ill effects and bad incentives are inherent in the situation, especially considering that fish supplies in the ocean are nearly wiped out.

Barber also goes into detail about the higher quality and better taste of foods from smaller-scale farms, and how tastiness has been lost as food production became large-scale and cheaper. He describes a number of kitchen experiments that he and his coworkers have done to make less popular foods into something truly delicious, including developing recipes for offal and baking methods for whole-grain bread and brioche.

Throughout the book, Barber highlights the need to use all the products of crop rotation, animal raising, or fishing, and attempts to show how this might be done. "Our job," he writes, "isn't just to support the farmer; it's really to support the land that supports the farmer. That's a larger distinction than it sounds like. Even the most sustainably minded farmers grow crops and raise meats in proportion to what we demand. And what we demand generally throws off the balance of what the land can reasonably provide." (p. 181)

From the Times excerpt: "Perhaps the problem with the farm-to-table movement is implicit in its name. Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system — a grocery-aisle mentality — when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. Flavor can be our guide to reshaping our diets, and our landscapes, from the ground up."

Unfortunately I didn't find the book to be as compelling, on the whole, as the excerpt. It has too many long-winded anecdotes about farmers and fishermen, especially several such encounters in Spain where Barber seems not-quite-able to explain how the examples apply to the American situation. He gives far more detail about these practitioners of very particularized small-scale agriculture than I find necessary to convince his readers about his central points. (Though I did like the portrayals of some of the experimental seed makers in the last chapter about seed development.) Even worse are his also-long accounts of interactions with famous fellow chefs and with food writers. I felt that these amounted to a kind of snobbish name-dropping. He's a chef, and he defends his view that chefs lead American consumers in many of their food choices. I'm not fully convinced.

Much in the book, as in the excerpt, is very thought provoking, but it's very tedious to read through all the vast material about Spanish farms and restaurants, famous chefs, and aqua-culture that become his object-lessons. This makes me sad because my normal response to such portraits is to be enthusiastic. I enjoyed much of the book, but also found it hard to get through all of it.

Update:  Why I'm not convinced despite finding the book compelling: "Can Chefs Change the World?"

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Miriam's Birthday Party

Miriam's 13th Birthday Dinner, May 25, 2014


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Peacock Pie, Oysters, and Grasshopper Tacos

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC: a new painting,
"Still Life with Peacock Pie" by Pieter Claesz (1627)
We visited the National Gallery yesterday, and I paid special attention to the food. The peacock pie with the peacock attached was a typical presentation in that era. Reminded me of the "Stargazy Pie" (left) that my friend Sheila had on a cruise around England and Cornwall recently! It was decorated with little upward-facing fish heads, thus "stargazy" and was made by a Cornish chef. Seems to me an interesting echo of the foods of the Renaissance and a bit after, when pies were decorated with feathers or whatever, like the Peacock Pie!
More food at the National Gallery. Closeups from the following --
"Governors of the Kloveniersdoelen" by Bartholomeus van der Helst, (1655)
"Dishes with Oysters, Fruit and Wine" by Osias Beert the Elder (1620/1625),
Flemish Tapestry (1525/1550),
"Still Life with Asparagus and Red Currants" by Adriaen Coorte (1696)
Our lunch at a nearby restaurant named Oyamel: tableside guacamole, an artistic version of huevos rancheros,
a "gazpacho" made of cubes of fruit, jicama, and cucumber, and most dramatic, Miriam and Alice's
grasshopper tacos. Ultra modern food? Or echoes of some time long ago?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Poulet Canaille

French cookbook author and medical researcher Edouard Pomiane (1875-1964), as I've written, published his first cookbook shortly after World War I, became one of the first radio journalists to have a food show, and continued to publish books on cooking throughout his life.

He also appears to have been the first to publish a recipe for chicken with many cloves of garlic -- though his version calls for 30 cloves for one chicken, not the 40 cloves later made widely popular by James Beard and others in the 1970s. (I've been unable to determine the exact history of this recipe in popular American cooking, but it seems to have appeared in Beard's American Cookery in 1972.)

Continuing my project to try some of Pomiane's recipes, I decided to make his version, titled "Poulet Canaille" -- a recipe name that he also seems to have invented, though I can't be sure. I have two books that contain the recipe: in English, Cooking with Pomiane, and in French, À Table Avec Édouard De Pomiane, a collection edited by Ginette Mathiot.

Both versions use identical ingredients and methods, based on Pomiane's radio broadcast transcripts, but the presentation of material is quite different. Cooking with Pomiane includes his brief history of garlic since "the beginnings of Western civilization," as it was used by the builders of the pyramids and eaten by the ancient Hebrews. Mathiot's version gives the recipe in the first person, beginning by mentioning that one should buy a chicken already plucked, not bother with this step oneself.

Here is some documentation of my efforts:

Preparing ingredients for Pomiane's Poulet Canaille: his list:
1 cut-up chicken, 10 chopped shallots, 30 unpeeled garlic cloves,
olive oil and butter for browning the chicken, 1 glass of white wine.
(I used 2 chickens and increased the other ingredients.)
Browning the shallots after the chicken is browned:
I don't have a stove-top casserole big enough for 2 chickens,
as the original recipe suggests,
so I used oven dishes and baked the dish for 40 minutes instead.
Poulet Canaille, ready to eat
Pomiane says:
"Everyone receives a portion of chicken and 6 cloves of browned garlic. 
"Eat some chicken and then put a clove of garlic into your mouth. 
"Bite it and the inside will slip out. It is exquisite. Spit the skin discreetly onto your fork and slip it onto the rim of your plate. You can repeat this pleasure five times more, sipping as you do so a very dry white wine." (Cooking with Pomiane, p. 145-146)

The main course: Poulet Canaille, asparagus, roast potatoes, white wine --
it was really impressively delicious! After the main course I served
green salad (just lettuce & vinaigrette), which is the French/Pomiane style.
A note on the recipe's name: Simone Beck in Simca's Cuisine includes a menu called "Un dîner canaille pour joyeux amis/An earthy dinner for high-spirited friends." She explains: "The word canaille means something with a very highly developed, very pronounced flavor. For example, there is a seasoning for oysters, called canaille, that is only vinegar and raw shallots sprinkled over the oysters. The word has another connotation, and in this sense it is perhaps best translated by the British expression 'racy' -- a little fast, a little spicy, a little 'low.'" (Simca, p. 144-145)

Another Update, August, 2017: In Luc Sante's book The Other Paris a chapter is titled "La Canaille" which is an uncomplimentary term for the lower classes, derived from the Latin word for dog. A song popular in 1865 was titled "La canaille." (Sante, p. 76)

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Worst Kitchen in Literature

There must have been dozens of paperbacks of
Down and Out in Paris and London
Last night my literary book club discussed Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. My culinary book club, a different group of people, discussed it a couple of years ago.

What a dark book! Orwell's Hotel X in Paris, where he worked 17 hours a day as a dishwasher and a servant of the lowest other employees, must be the filthiest, most inhumane, and least appetizing kitchen workplace depicted in all the books I've read. It was awful despite a sense of honor among the workers and despite being among the dozen most expensive such establishments in the city. We talked about this and many other issues.

The sheer misery of working in the extreme heat and abusive atmosphere was the part that Orwell really wanted to convey. He had to walk and run 15 miles a day and was under terrible pressure to complete many tasks quickly -- he calls it order in chaos. Workers with slightly more authority routinely cursed and abused their inferiors, though outside of work they may have been friendly or even helpful. Jobs were terribly scarce, so one had to perform accordingly.

Orwell's intention clearly was also to reveal the enormous gap in conditions between the front and back of the house. In the dining room, patrons ate in luxury and assumed their food was of the highest quality, while in the kitchens, clean-up areas, pantries, and cold storage Orwell knew filth, vermin, and extreme carelessness, and "fearful noise and disorder during the rush hours." (p.75)

Orwell distinguishes between the boulot -- obligation to duty felt by the workers -- and the way they did nothing extra:
"The dirt in the Hotel X ... was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches.... The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognized cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brasswork regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case we had no time for it." (p. 79)
He embellishes the story with anecdotes from other high-end Paris restaurants of that era, around 1928. Bugs. Rats. Roast chickens dropped on garbage-strewn floors, but still to be served by formally dressed waiters. Horrible odors. Inspectors who dip their unwashed fingers in the sauce, clean the rim of the plate with spit, etc.

The second half of the book is about real destitution in and near London, where Orwell had no job and lived in terrible conditions, much worse than his Paris life. In sum it's a fascinating account of poverty and desperation, a huge contrast to the usual stories of that era in Paris.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New Toy

At right: my new Breville compact oven. At left and further forward so it looks bigger: my more-than-thirty-year-old Black and Decker Toast-R-Oven. Soon after I bought this now-antique appliance, Black and Decker sold their small appliance division to GE, so most people think of this model as a GE Toast-R-Oven. Amazon and Consumer Reports all love Breville ovens with all their features and complexity. However, in user reviews ordinary people often mention how much they would like to just replace their old GE. I would have done that too, but nobody makes a super-simple device with just an on-off switch and a dial for how dark you like your toast. So here we are.

My new oven at this moment is still in its preliminary heating cycle to remove noxious coatings from the heating elements, so I can't yet give any reaction. I must admit that the very fat user manual makes it sound like you need at least elementary programming skills to master the toast, bagel, pizza, cookie, broiling, and other settings within the Breville. Not to mention the "frozen" button and the "Farenheit-Celsius" button. I am brave and will soon be the master of all I survey, at least in my own kitchen.

BTW: the top heating element on the Toast-R-Oven stopped working or I would have kept it forever.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy Mother's Day

My Great-Grandmother,
painted by my mother
Thinking of the long line of mothers in every family, and how they influence us over the generations.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Pithouses at Mesa Verde

Grindstone from 6th or 7th century, Mesa Verde pithouse

Pithouse at Mesa Top Loop, Mesa Verde National Park
Now that we're back home from our long trip west, I have time to think about the beauty of the ruins we saw in Mesa Verde. I can wonder and learn more about the history of these ancient people who lived in this difficult country from around the 6th to the 13th century and then moved on. Above all, I can remember my experiences of visiting their early pithouses on the tops of the mesas and their amazing cliff dwellings in the alcoves under the cliffs. I tried to learn what the early people ate, as well as many other things about their lives and their material culture.

On the morning of the day we spent in Mesa Verde, we followed the Mesa Top Loop, stopping at every opportunity to see the dramatic overlooks down into the canyons and to see the archaeological sites of very early pithouses, the dwellings of the first Pueblo people to arrive in the area.

Wild turkey at Mesa Verde
Around the dwellings, we learned, were the fields where the Indians raised corn, beans, and squash. They gathered foods such as calorie-rich pine-nuts from the pinyon pine, and hunted game. They domesticated the local turkeys, and also raised dogs. (I assume that like the peoples of Central America, they ate dog meat).

Archaeologists have discovered numerous channels that the ancient people used to control the many streams of water around their fields; the exact purpose of these water projects is not fully understood.

In their below-ground buildings, which originally had wood-timbered roofs, people slept, ate, stored their grain supplies and other foods in baskets and skin bags, ground grain on grindstones, cooked over a central fire pit, and generally led their lives. Clay drinking vessels, seed pots, and other pottery have been found in the digs. Some interior spaces appear to have been used as meeting places as well as for living.

The many excavations we saw are protected by metal buildings and railings to keep out rain, wind, snow, and tourists. We read many explanatory placards like the one illustrated above, and found the documentation very helpful in learning the history of the people who lived in these pithouses until the late 12th century. At that time, for reasons that are not well-understood, they began to build new dwellings -- cliff houses -- in shallow caves, or alcoves, in the sides of the cliffs. The amazing alcove dwellings, many visible from the Mesa Top Loop overlooks, are of course the most famous aspect of the park.
Mesa Verde pottery from the ancient peoples -- in park museum.
I'll be writing more blog posts about the cliff dwellings and how they were discovered in the late 19th century.
Cliff dwelling from Mesa Top Loop viewpoint.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Mesa Verde to Brighton, Colorado

We left Mesa Verde this morning and drove all day. We're now in a motel in Brighton, Colorado, just outside Denver where we experienced the worst traffic of our whole trip, including both times crossing Los Angeles! Luckily there's a little family-owned taco joint just across an open field from the motel, and we had an absolutely delicious dinner there, so I'm more relaxed than I was just after the drive.

Chile Relleno at Spicy Tacos

"Molcajete Mexicano" at Spicy Tacos, including cactus pads, cheese, chiles,
chicken, steak, and a delicious sauce. 
I thought about how many of the foods we think of as "Mexican" were grown by the ancient Pueblo people that we learned much about in Mesa Verde. I'll be posting many more photos of our visit when we return home.

A grindstone for preparing corn in one of the ancient Pueblo people's cliff dwellings from
the 13th century, and our park-ranger guide to Balcony House in Mesa Verde.
Did they make tortillas like the ones we ate tonight?

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Mesa Verde: Birdwatching While Eating Dinner

This must be the bluebird of happiness! We saw it on the way to dinner at the lodge in Mesa Verde,
where we arrived a bit earlier this afternoon after a day's drive from Flagstaff via Monument Valley
The view out the window of the restaurant was spectacular --
we could watch several bluebirds and other birds from our table.
And every dish was great, starting with this salad.
Len's salad

We shared the mixed grill game dish: quail, elk tenderloin, and boar sausage on hot-pepper mashed potatoes.
We had heard from Carol that there was a wonderful restaurant here: how true!
The dessert tray: we chose cheesecake (left front).
On the way back to our room we saw the final glow of the sunset.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Goodbye to Santa Barbara

Goodbye to Renaud's Patisserie & Bistro...
Goodbye to the Farmers' Market...
Goodbye to little birds who drink where people picnic...
Goodbye to my favorite flowers.
I'm ready to go home, but I'll miss all the beautiful things we have seen and done.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Dinner near the harbor

Santa Barbara harbor where we walked a bit just before dinner ...
... as the sun was about to set, we made our way to Toma restaurant
across the street from the harbor.
Above: duck with pea shoots, lentils, grilled nectarine, peach coulis
Middle: Len about to eat a "tuna cone" and black pasta with shellfish
Bottom: strawberry dessert with mousse, philo casing, strawberry sauce.
We are about to return from Santa Barbara to Michigan. We'll miss it here!

Earlier: a very warm day at the beach.