Thursday, February 25, 2010

I Know These Things Are True-ish

A conversation between the author Jonathan Safran Foer and his grandmother, a Polish Jew, about surviving WWII:

"The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me."

"He saved your life."

"I didn't eat it."

"You didn't eat it?"

"It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork."


"What do you mean why?"

"What, because it wasn't kosher?"

"Of course."

"But not even to save your life?"

"If nothing matters, there's nothing to save." 

One of the things I’m really trying to do is to understand, to define actually, my food belief system. I have many thoughts about food ethics, but when it comes to how I purchase and eat food, there lies that ever-present gap between theory and practice. Don’t get me wrong, I have a practically non-existent will, but the fact that I don’t really know what I believe in when it comes to food makes it hard to act in accordance with my beliefs.

I know that organic is good, but local is better.  The organic vs. local debate is one that has caused me much confusion, but as Michael Pollan has pointed out, and I paraphrase, when Coca-Cola decides to make Organic Coke, and they will, it won’t make high fructose corn syrup any better for you. Organic growing is definitely better for consumers and for the planet, but unfortunately it is often used as a quick-and-easy marketing ploy to increase market share and does not in any way account for other manufacturing processes that continue to harm the planet and our health.

I can see, though through a very thick fog, that there are people behind every food item I purchase. There are stockholders who want my money to fuel their own personal agendas, there are entrepreneurs who want my money to build their dreams upon, there are farmers who want my money to keep food on their own tables, and there are illegal workers who want my money in order to survive just one more day. No matter where I buy my food, it comes from these people. They are involved in every red pepper, can of soup, carton of milk, and filet of meat I purchase.

And of course, as an omnivore, there are the animals. I know from reading, but not from experiencing, that 99% of animals that become our food are tortured. Not just through selective breeding and confinement but physically tortured, for fun, by the workers who tend to them. I know that the meat that comes from these animals is processed so poorly that it is full of bacteria, waste, and disease. Just because it doesn’t make us sick every time we eat it, does not make it good for us. These facts make meat less appetizing, for sure, but I have not yet stopped eating it.

More importantly, I understand that these small bits of knowledge do not a belief system make. I know these things, but do I really understand, in a big picture kind of way, what these things mean?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Little Help from My Friends

“Being a good cook takes intelligence, a lot of experience, and the ability to improvise. A sense of adventure is optional.” ~Heidi Dean, potsticker instructor extraordinaire

I have my own cooking personality. It was informed, just as my individual personality was, by my parents. They were both raised in low-income, post-WWII households where cheap food reigned supreme and pre-packaged, pre-made foods were revered for their simplicity. Where the cheapest form of procuring a food item meant making it yourself, I was taught to cook from scratch, i.e. baking cookies, making cakes, cutting and frying whole chickens. Where it was cheaper or less time-consuming to buy it pre-made, I depended on store-bought versions, such as jarred spaghetti sauce and canned soups. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, working at a magazine in Kansas City, that two of my coworkers (and very good friends) taught me the importance of truly caring about my food. Whether that meant exploring new kinds of produce I’d never experienced, making simple dishes with healthy ingredients, or taking the time to understand what’s in the items I’m putting in my body.

While my food IQ has grown tremendously in the past 10 years, there are still some cooking shortcuts that I feel a little vulnerable without. And some styles of cooking that feel strangely foreign to me, because, well, the food’s cultures are also foreign. So, looking to a friend once again to introduce me to uncharted territories, I asked my friend Heidi to teach me how to cook something I was completely unfamiliar with. Heidi’s cooking style is very different from mine because her background is very different than mine. Having traveled all over the world, and having broader ethnic influences in her life, Heidi’s cooking is far more globally inspired and her experience with cooking is more developed.

We decided to spend a day in her kitchen cooking potstickers—completely from scratch. This broached my apprehension toward any recipe containing dough (besides pies and bread, which I have practice at), as well as my avoidance of preparing my own Asian foods. That is one food culture I have never had good experiences with at home (aside from take-out).  

Surprisingly, the entire process was very simple. We made the dough from two parts flour to one part water. The filling was made of equal parts ground pork and cabbage, mixed with scallions, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and brown sugar. (In making the filling, I learned how to prepare fresh ginger, which was previously unknown to me: peel with a vegetable peeler, then cut against the grain.) We created small dough rounds and filled them.

Then we prepared them by shallow-frying them in a pan. They turned out properly cooked, extremely delicious, and also incredibly abundant. We both had plenty of leftovers for later.

What I noticed most about cooking with Heidi was her lack of worry. When I’m following a recipe, I read it all the way through first, then reference it every 5 seconds to make sure I’m following it to the letter. But she knew, without reservation, how to substitute ingredients and when something “just looked right”… or didn’t. And she never once picked up the phone and called her mom for advice. I was highly impressed. You can read Heidi’s much more detailed account of the day at her blog, Messing With Recipes.

More than learning a new recipe, I left with an understanding of how to prepare a new kind of food, one that previously seemed out of my reach. New skills and more confidence in them. Which was the ultimate goal. But I also left thinking about something else—the packaging on the ground pork. The pork came from a farm near St. Louis. Which means that I could, very realistically, see firsthand where my food comes from. I commonly cheer on the “Know Your Food” motto. But now that the opportunity is before me, I’m wondering what that would really mean.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What Makes a "Good" Cook?

"For a gourmand there is no need to produce complicated dishes with fancy names. Prepare for him raw materials of good quality. Transform them as little as possible and accompany them with suitable sauces and you will have produced a meal which is just right."
~Edouard de Pomaine, from "Cooking with Pomaine"

An abundance of packaged meals, frozen dinners, prepared foods, and restaurants on every corner offering cuisines from around the world has produced a society in which people don't need to cook for themselves in order to survive. In fact, today's children are the third generation of Americans who depend on corporations and low-wage workers to feed them.

No matter my thoughts on how my parents taught me to eat (more on that later), the fact is, I learned to cook at a young age. I chopped fresh vegetables, I boiled pasta, I baked cookies and helped decorate cakes. I was taught to enjoy the process of cooking. 

And by today's standards, I would consider myself a decent cook. I have an adventurous palate, I understand why certain foods taste good together, and I can improvise on flavors and textures. But my abilities leave a lot to be desired. I am afraid of certain foods and appliances, so I avoid recipes that require them. I gravitate toward short recipes that call for ingredients I already have in my cabinets and refrigerator. And there are some embarrassingly basic cooking techniques that elude me.

I think everyone has a different idea of what makes a "good" cook. For now – for myself – I define it as being educated in the ways of food. Being confident in the kitchen. Being able to cook virtually any food in a manner that is both delicious and healthy. I'll call it being a good cook with a capital G.

I hope to become a good cook with a capital G by mastering some of the cooking basics that are still foreign to me, expanding my cooking knowledge by learning from those with more experience than I, and branching out to discover new foods.

I have a feeling this is going to get messy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Finding the Good in Food

"I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes; that bonds us to the best bits of life." 
~Jamie Oliver, from his TED lecture

I'm interested in what Jamie Oliver has to say about food. And Michael Pollan. And Jonathan Safran Foer. And Eric Schlosser. And Carlo Petrini. And Julia Child. And Julie Powell. And Novella Carpenter. And Amanda Hesser. The list goes on.

I'm fascinated by food. I not only find it delicious and useful in a fight, it's also mysterious, indulgent, powerful, and highly complex. And like most people, my relationship with food is also very complex. While I enjoy cooking, eating at restaurants, shopping at farmers' markets, and the elusive magic that is baking, I also experience a lot of frustration, annoyance, and confusion when it comes to food. 

I worry about eating too many calories. I'm baffled by the notion of good fats and bad fats. I try, very hard, to "avoid edible food-like substances," as Michael Pollan advises. I'm concerned that my chicken was tortured on its journey to my plate. And that the people who were employed to raise that poor chicken were treated unjustly, too. But I eat it anyway. And I question what (and who) else had to die so that I might enjoy a wholly diverse and convenient food shopping experience. I ponder to what uses my money is put when I choose to purchase one brand of yogurt over another. 

Am I stressing out way too much over dinner? Yeah.

Does that mean I shouldn't think about these things? Of course not.

Having a good relationship with food is difficult. But I believe that, like with all relationships, a little compassion and understanding will get me a long way.

And thus a blog was born...this here blog. So that I might chronicle my adventures in finding the good in food.