Thursday, March 31, 2022

What’s cooking in my kitchen and happening in the world

In my kitchen in March, I tried quite a few new recipes for various vegetable dishes, and I want to share them with the other bloggers who participate in Sherry’s blog event called “In My Kitchen.” I’m always happy to see what others have written about their kitchens — but also saddened by a few spoilers who link posts that have no kitchen content, nothing but a recipe, an old blog post, or even just an ordinary post about some unrelated topic. It’s too bad when they do this at Sherry’s blog event or other blog events. Many of the committed participants -- whom I feel are my friends on almost every continent -- share new things they have acquired for their kitchens, which is always fun. So here is a wrap-up of what's been happening in my kitchen, and what I've been thinking about.

Trying New Recipes

Raw carrot salad with dates and almonds. (Recipe here)

Steamed Brussels sprouts: to be cooled & tossed with parmesan and pecorino cheese 
 and dried fruits and nuts. Recipe from combined sources online.

Aloo Gobi: the “dry” version without tomato sauce.
A classic made with cauliflower, potatoes, and Indian spices.

Squash made from a recipe in my Ethiopian cookbook.

Red beans to go with brown rice. A vegetarian version of the Louisiana dish.
I started with a recipe, but used canned beans and smoked paprika in place of
ingredients suggested (source).

Dressing: kefir, mayonnaise, chopped green onion, crushed garlic, dill, fines herbes, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt, black pepper
Veggies: fresh green bean, frozen peas, and to be added: leaf lettuce

Old Favorites

Shakshouka: the tomato sauce is simmering, the eggs ready to be poached.

Artichokes waiting to be steamed and eaten with melted butter.
Small Campari tomatoes are a winter treat!

Salmon patties, which I made from frozen salmon filets.
My mother's recipe, but she used canned salmon.

Len made a few batches of bread.

Outside my Kitchen

On my week of travel in March: I watched this vendor making tortillas on a tortilla press at the Charlottesville Art Park.

Food Thoughts about the War Zone

Everyone expected the war to end in March, but it goes on and on, increasing the suffering of the citizens of Mariupol, Kyiv, Kharkiv. Kherson, Chernihiv, Mykolaiv, and numerous other cities. Haunting images of bombed-out apartment towers, ruined cultural institutions, subway stations turned into bomb shelters, and makeshift graves appear in newspapers day after day, along with reports that supplies of food and safe drinking water are becoming scarce or nonexistent. 

Bread distribution in a subway station in Kharkiv. (source: UN)
One of many brutal Russian actions was killing people in a bread line.

Each day there is a new total for the number of Ukrainians displaced by the war. Endless streams of refugees are arriving in the surrounding countries with almost nothing of their former lives. The refugee total beyond the borders of Ukraine is now more than 4 million! People throughout the affected areas, aid organizations, and local and foreign governments are struggling to provide basic food and shelter to displaced residents, to people stranded in the devastated areas, and to those that have fled across the borders. 

World Central Kitchen, for example, was founded by the chef José Andrés, and is one of many organization providing meals to Ukrainian refugees. World Central Kitchen was recognized for success with previous disaster relief efforts; for example, they were among the most helpful after the hurricane in Puerto Rico a few years ago. They have set up a kitchen just over the Ukrainian border with Poland where large numbers of refugees are fleeing to try to find safety from the invasion.

World Central Kitchen operating in Poland in March.

Hunger and heroism are hand in hand throughout the devastated areas. Here is a description from mid-March of the efforts of one Ukrainian corporation, attempting to deal with the food shortages in cities that are being attacked:

"MHP, the sixth-largest poultry exporter in the world and said to be the biggest food company still operating in Ukraine, is giving away as many as 330 tons of chicken every day to feed thousands of civilians in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol under attack by Russian forces led by President Vladimir Putin. The courage comes in getting the food safely to destinations, bypassing blown-up bridges, maneuvering checkpoints, avoiding bombed-out terrain—and death. There’s no telling how many Ukrainians are living in desperate circumstances, without heat or sustenance, but reports of apartment buildings and hospitals ablaze in residential neighborhoods are frequent."  
“'It’s a humanitarian crisis,' said John Rich, chair of MHP, an Australian who’s running the company from safer ground in Slovenia. 'People in bombed-out areas have no access to anything.' 
"Thousands of drivers in Ukraine are embarking on what Rich called suicide missions to bring vans full of chicken to people who’ve gone days without food. Many of the drivers are new employees who turned to MHP after the closing of other companies, including MHP’s competitors.” (Source: Forbes)

This particular producer is currently struggling to maintain production in the agricultural areas of Ukraine, where the invasion has not destroyed the infrastructure. The spring planting season begins now, and they are trying to establish a way to keep going, and to continue exporting food, despite the war.  Details about their struggles give some insight into how the war is affecting the areas outside Ukrainian cities. (Source: Bloomberg)

The disruption of Ukrainian agriculture is a looming threat to global food supplies, as Ukraine is a major international agricultural supplier; however the immediate threat of hunger and even starvation is an unthinkable part of the life of large numbers of people in Ukraine right now, and my kitchen thoughts turn to them.

Ukrainian grain-processing plant as photographed last year. (source)

Blog post © 2022 mae sander.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

What is Cuisine?

"Underlying the rich symbolic universe that food and eating always represent... there is the animal reality of our living existence. It is not separate from our humanity, but is an integral part of it. Only because most of us eat plentifully and frequently and have not known intense hunger may we sometimes too easily forget the astonishing, and at times even terrifying, importance of food and eating. ... A principal source of human suffering in the modern world is still – and has for so long been – hunger. ... Food is something we think about, talk about, conceptualize. But we more than abstract it and desire it – we really must consume it to stay alive." (Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, p. 4-5)

Sidney W. Mintz (November 16, 1922 – December 27, 2015) wrote many books and articles on the anthropology of food and cooking. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past is a collection of his essays published in 1996, and mainly written in the 1990s. These essays cover a number of subjects, but I want to look at just one: the attempt to explore the many meanings of the word cuisine and to ask the question: Is there such a thing as American Cuisine? Mintz’s answer is NO.

The word cuisine, Mintz points out, can be used many ways; one can talk about "national cuisines, regional cuisines, haute cuisine, and the possiblity of a society having no cuisine." He sees its use in the United States as mostly taking on "an ethnic or national character: French cuisine, Indian cuisine, Thai cuisine, Chinese cuisine." In fact, he says: "the only real cuisines are regional because of the enduring distinctiveness of local ingredients." Signature foods in various cuisines stand for something more than themselves, being related to "cooking methods and ingredients typical of certain locales, and perhaps only obtainable there. Such foods are intimately linked to the local economy." (p. 94-95)

Grande cuisine and haute cuisine are distinct from regional cuisines, but closely related. These extensions reflect the emergence of capital cities, courts, and the presence of powerful and privileged elites, and the chefs who served them, and of cookbooks that recorded them. "I mean to argue here," says Mintz, "that what makes a cuisine is not a set of recipes aggregated in a book, or a series of particular foods associated with a particular setting, but something more. I think a cuisine requires a population that eats that cuisine with sufficient frequency to consider themselves experts on it. They all believe... that they know what it consists of, how it is made, and how it should taste. In short, a genuine cuisine has common social roots; it is the food of a community – albeit often a very large community." (p. 96)

Things become more complicated the more Mintz looks at them. In some societies, the same foods are eaten by all economic and social levels, though of course at the level that each person or family can afford. In other societies, different social levels eat different things; this situation sometimes results in haute cuisine for the privileged, but the term haute cuisine, Mintz says, means more than just that. The high cost of haute cuisine results from the use of expensive ingredients and/or intense amounts of skilled labor in preparing them. Eventually, haute cuisine also becomes associated with restaurant food, but above all, it represents a social distinction among those who appreciate and value it.

To me, Mintz's many explanations of cuisine are very interesting, and offer useful insights. His chapter titled "Eating American" applies these ideas to American food. "When it comes to food, grasping our particularity as a nation requires us to get some sense of where our history differs from that of other countries, especially European countries," he points out, and cites the very large size of the US, and its recent domination by immigrants, especially from Europe, as well as the displacement of the native population. The mobility of Americans is another factor in his discussion. He seems to see this mobility as countering the fact that different regions of the country during its early history had widely varying foods available to the people's diet, as well as the differing customs of immigrants from many places.

As the immigrant groups arrived, he points out, they experienced a great deal of pressure to become like the already present populations, and this (I think he meant) prevented true cuisines from developing. The homogeneity of foods that became acceptable, he suggests, did not result in the development of an American cuisine. He lists a lot of American foods (like hot dogs, hamburgers, clam chowders, pizza, and desserts) but says they aren't a cuisine. Further, many regional ingredients, such as local fish, have become scarce or have disappeared. The integrity of fresh local and seasonal foods and of foods reflecting immigrant or introduced cuisines has also degraded, being replaced by "substitutes lacking any resemblance at all to the original." (p. 115)

In sum, Mintz does not see American food as adding up to a common cuisine -- he doesn't see "a community of people who eat it, cook it, have opinions about it, and engage in dialogue involving those opinions." (p. 117) He doesn't see people who take the time to contemplate food in the way he thinks a cuisine requires.

I have several problems with Mintz's dismissal of the idea of American cuisine. Although Mintz elsewhere has cited the major contribution of enslaved Africans to the food ways of the US (it's the substance of Chapter Three, "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom") he seems to forget about this contribution when he talks about the possibility of American cuisine. I find this disturbing. I also find it disturbing that he dismisses so much of the history of American foods, and that he feels that the only unified sense of a meal is Thanksgiving Dinner when effectively the entire country eats the same menu. I thought about Mark Twain's list of American foods that he wrote in 1879. (For this, see Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs). Despite these misgivings, I found the chapters on cuisine, and all the rest of the book very fascinating.

When I was new to reading about culinary subjects, I read Mintz’s most famous work, Sweetness and Power (published 1985). I vastly admired it and still do! He's widely recognized as one of the inventors of the anthropology of food.

Review by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com. © 2022.

Monday, March 28, 2022

What the Dude Drinks Now


A White Russian: a mixture of Vodka, Kaluha, and Cream, popularized by "The Big Lebowski."

Thanks to Vivian Swift (blog post here), this meme started me thinking about a number of things. In case you aren't a fan of the Coen Brothers cult favorite "The Big Lebowski," here's a summary of where this meme is coming from:

"Whatever days in history surrounded the creation of the White Russian of the 1960s, they are obscured by March 6, 1998, the day directors Joel and Ethan Coen unleashed a disheveled, disarranged, and ruggedly disembodied Jeff Bridges upon the world in their film The Big Lebowski. Bridges’ character, known cosmically as “The Dude,” is snapped from his daily routine of day-drinking and night-bowling when he is thrust into a plot of kidnapping and mystery as the result of mistaken identity. The road is not without its tolls, but waiting at the end is liquid sustenance of vodka, Kahlua, and cream, and so The Dude abides." (source)

The war isn't funny at all. Maybe memes like this are an unwarranted distraction from contemplating the horror and immorality of the Russian attacks on Ukraine. Tanks, soldiers, rockets, bombs, artillery and other instruments of war are intentionally targeting civilians, particularly children: unthinkable. Over three million people are now homeless refugees in other countries, over 6 million internally displaced, many dead, and cities turned to rubble. Finding effective ways to donate money to help the Ukrainian victims is challenging, both mentally and emotionally. 

Human suffering on this scale is unbearable to contemplate. Humor, however, is a way to deal with too much reality, and I think we all seek good memes like this to keep going in the face of tragedy. Maybe humor can ease the fear of a wider war employing unconventional chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, but still leave us some energy to do what we can. 

Besides the memes, many responses to Russian brutality involve symbolic actions like dumping vodka down the drain because it used to be a Russian product (but isn't any more) or renaming drinks that actually never had anything to do with Russia. In fact, actual bars are renaming the cocktails called the White Russian and the Black Russian. According to the Washington Post: "In many places, the Moscow Mule is now the Kyiv Mule. In at least one bar, it’s the Snake Island Mule, a reference to the Ukrainian territory where border guards made a defiant last stand against invading troops. ... Symbolism, particularly when it comes to food and drink — key ways that we express our identities — can be powerful."

Contemplating the unthinkable damage: Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
After 32 days of war, the destruction is horrifying. (Source: The Guardian)  
Shared with the bloggers who post at Altered Book Lover
Blog post by mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com. © 2022.


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Essays on Food

“There is no singular culinary category of ‘Jewish food.’ … different Jewish communities in different times and places developed culinary preferences and styles, but these do not coalesce into a universal culinary category. In general, Jewish communities adopted local cuisines and tweaked them to accord with kosher laws. However, there are exceptions. For example, in New York City in the twentieth century, Jewish immigrants from various European countries swapped recipes and developed the menu of the ‘Jewish deli.’” (Feasting and Fasting, p. 143)

Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food is a collection of scholarly essays about history, Biblical passages, Jewish communities from ancient times through the present, influence of food customs from one ethnic group to another, the ethical issues of modern vegetarianism, and many other subjects. I’ll just tell you about one interesting selection from this book. 

“How Ancient Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians Drank Their Wine" by Susan Marks describes the contact between Jews and the other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world, and how it influenced Jewish wine rituals. Interactions, including the conquest of ancient Israel by Rome, lasted for several centuries. There is evidence of much influence  of Greek and Roman thought and customs on evolving Jewish practices, especially after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.

Roman writers such as Plutarch commented on some of the parallel customs of libations, that is, rituals involving pouring out wine, mixing it with water, and then drinking together. Libations were a formal part of a Roman symposium, which was a social occasion also involving a meal and conversations or lectures. There had been a similar form of Temple worship: "Israelite libations may have predated the Temple, while certainly biblical literature reveals the formal inclusion of wine as part of official Temple practice." (p. 178) After the end of Temple worship, Jewish practice of formal meals with ritual wine consumption also developed, and has continued throughout Jewish history to the present. The Passover Seder is one example of such a development.

Rites involving the first wine of the year may have been part of the Temple celebrations, and was definitely part of the fall harvest holiday of Sukkot:

"A contemporaneous witness substantiates the importance of wine for the festival of Sukkot, if not the mixing of wine and water. Plutarch (first to second century CE), an outside observer, connected this festival with both Dionysus and Bacchus, the Greek and Roman gods of wine.”

The conclusion of the author: 

"The ritual actions performed belong to a typical symposiastic meal: the host appointing the one who will lead the blessing, the one chosen then washing in preparation, and finally this leader inviting all to bless. A look at instances of these similarities reveals rabbis engaging the particulars of these Greek and Roman practices and considering the implications of hierarchal order, including the need to push back." (p. 182)

The observation that the Passover Seder has roots in the Roman Symposium is frequently noted, but this article is the most detailed  and interesting historic treatment that I have seen.

Drinking wine at a Passover Seder from the Sarajevo Haggadah, around 1350.
Feasting and Fasting offers a wide variety of approaches to the topics of Jewish food customs and religious laws, from Biblical times onward, beginning in the Garden of Eden with the one fatal prohibition — Don’t eat the apple! While some of the essays are a bit obscure, most of the authors write in a readable, and not terribly academic, style. The book is full of food that’s “good to think.”

Review by mae sander for maefood dot, 2022.

Friday, March 25, 2022

There and Back Again

Maryland: The Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River

Many eagles and other large birds frequent the area near the dam because the fishing is good.

A large flock of Black Vultures were on the grass.
They hardly noticed us.


 Back Home in Ann Arbor: Spring Flowers at Last

Despite the flowers, it's still quite cold and cloudy here.

UPDATE: Who says it’s spring?

Blog post © 2022 mae sander

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Food Prices

-- source: AgWeb

“Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sent the prices of many commodities skyrocketing. And it’s not just oil and gas. From a humanitarian point of view, the soaring price of food, especially wheat, may be an even bigger problem. Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced almost a quarter of the world’s wheat, much of it exported. Both the direct effects of the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia are disrupting that supply; nobody knows how long this disruption may last or how much suffering high food prices will cause around the world, especially in poor countries.” (Paul Krugman, New York Times, March 22, 2022
“Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine was on track for a record year of wheat exports, while Russia's wheat exports were slowing, according to the US Department of Agriculture.” (CNN, March 1, 2022)

Worldwide, consumers are concerned about rising food prices. Several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially, depend extensively on wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and may soon face extreme want, as bread is a major part of their diet. As shown in the graphic above, Ukraine is the source of a large number of key food crops. Although the US grows wheat and most other commodities, food prices are global, so the disastrous disruption in supplies caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine will raise the cost of food here in general. Specific examples are already appearing: for example, a shortage of frozen pizza dough from General Mills is caused by disruptions in wheat supplies. (CNN, March 23, 2022)

Thinking about worldwide food sources inspired me to read the book Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino (published 2021). This book explores a serious problem caused by the fact that food production and distribution is now global — an issue that’s very apparent in the coming scarcity resulting from the war. The focus of Saladino’s book is that not only are a few crops the source of most of the world’s nutrition, these crops have become less and less diverse:

Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine, of which just three – rice, wheat and maize – provide 50 per cent of all calories. Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar (beet and cane) and you have 75 per cent of all the calories that fuel our species. Since the Green Revolution, we eat more refined grains, vegetable oils, sugar and meat, and we depend on foods produced further and further away from the places we live. As thousands of foods have become endangered and extinct, a small number have risen to dominance.” (Dan Saladino, Eating to Extinction, p. 8)

Whether it's a good idea for the world to eat this way, the world's population does depend on just a few crops for nutrition. Saladino's focus is not so much on the shrinking choices in diverse places, where more and more cultural foods are no longer the central part of the diet, but on the loss of biodiversity in both major and minor cultivated species of grain, of vegetables, of fruits, of animals, and even of more obscure foods like cocoa and coffee. 

Each chapter is a specific study of lost or nearly-lost genetic material that may be critical to the future of food: nearly forgotten heirloom crops of local wheat or rice, nearly extinguished breeds of cattle or pigs, decrease in the variety of apples in orchards worldwide, the loss of diverse potato types, and even the search for one last varietal coffee tree or one lost cocoa plant. The fate of fish is also overwhelming: "Since the advent of industrial fishing the decline of some fish species has been truly shocking; Pacific bluefin tuna down 97 per cent from historic levels; and Mediterranean swordfish, 88 per cent. In more recent times, keystone species such as the Pacific sardine have seen populations crash by as much as 95 per cent." (Eating to Extinction p. 187). 

Saladino illustrates the history of foods that are under threat; for example, people everywhere have traditionally relied on grain and legumes as a central element of their diet, but each culture developed and produced the crops that were best suited to their local growing conditions, and have developed ways to prepare these foods that depended on local supplies:

In traditional farming systems, ... the pairing of a cereal with a legume was repeated all over the world. The milpa system of Meso-America, as we’ve seen, put corn with lima and pinto beans; in China, millets grew together with soybeans; in India, millets were planted with mung beans; and in Africa, sorghum went with cowpeas. As well as making soil more productive, this combination of legumes and cereals made a nutritionally richer meal, with more protein and micronutrients than would have been provided by cereal alone. 

This agricultural and nutritional harmony has shaped culinary traditions around the world. The great gastronomic cultures all feature combinations of cereals and pulses. Indian dal bhat pairs millet with lentils; Japanese miso unites soybeans and barley; minestra di farro, a Tuscan stew, marries wheat (emmer) and cannellini beans; Palestinian maftoul mixes bulgur wheat and chickpeas; in Mexico there’s frijoles con tortilla; and West African waakye combines rice and peas. There’s even a modern British food version: baked beans on toast. (Eating to Extinction pp. 104-105). 

Many of the specific varieties of these grains and vegetables are being (or have been) replaced by just one or two types of industrially grown grain and a small number of vegetable types. Saladino's concern for loss of diversity is about the danger of pests, diseases, and climate change to commodity foods. For example, the well-known rot that threatens the supply of bananas: "although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish, a cloned fruit grown in monocultures so vast their scale can only be comprehended from the view of an aeroplane or by satellite." (p. 2). 

While reading, I was very interested in all the examples of preserving diversity in global seed banks, searching for lost varieties of plants, and observing how rare animals are kept from disappearing. I also thought about how so many parts of the world are dependent on imports of staple food, and how a crisis far from their homes, like the war, causes a looming shortage of food for families who can't afford the price increases.

In a recent interview with Benji Jones of Vox, "The extinction crisis that no one's talking about," Dan Saladino summarized many of the key points of Eating to Extinction, and I would recommend reading this article if you don't have the time or inclination to read a long book!

Blog post © 2022 mae sander. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

More street art

On our trip last week, we looked for birds and art almost every day! Here are a few more of the beautiful outdoor art works from Charlottesville and Havre de Grace.

Charlottesville, Virginia: Murals

Havre de Grace, Maryland: Outdoor Art

This incorporates the Maryland flag.

From the state website.

The start of a mural on a wall that extends for almost an entire city block

The other end of the mural showing the boy with the puzzle pieces.

A giant collection of murals on a vacant lot near the Chesapeake Bay.

There are many more at this site, but it's time to stop!

Blog post and photos © 2022 mae_sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.