Real Food, Chef, and Stream of Consciousness Food Thoughts

I’m currently reading Larry Olmsted’s Real Food, Fake Food. It’s an eye-opening expose along the lines of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but with an emphasis on informing us of how much of the food we buy is actually fake. By that, I am not referring to the prepackaged, sugar-laden, man-made food that we all know is the antithesis of real, nutritious food.

No, Olmsted aims to reveal that a large percentage food we purchase at premium prices precisely because it is real food, is actually fake. Fake as in not at all what we think we’re buying. Grass fed beef that isn’t from cows which were grass fed. Maine lobster –most seafood, really- that isn’t, Kobe beef that can’t legally be that, and Parmesan cheese laced with wood pulp.

“All of the Kobe beef sold in this country, by chefs famous and anonymous, in ten-dollar sliders or three-hundred-dollar steaks, was fake, all of it, end of story. Every single restaurant and store purporting to sell Kobe beef—or any Japanese beef—was lying, including some of the country’s best-known chefs.”

Kobe beef isn’t a dish I have any particular interest in. In fact, a lot of the more high end food issues Olmsted delved into were less than riveting for me. Tuna, however, is a different animal; literally:

Consumers ordering white tuna get a completely different animal, no kind of tuna at all, 94 percent of the time. Your odds of getting served real white tuna in a restaurant are about the same as hitting zero/double zero on a Vegas roulette wheel, which is to say, not good.

I have a bit more to read before I finish the book, but seeing as my most diligent efforts still haven’t made me a bona fide book blogger, I’m following my instincts and writing about it now. It’s been so surprising in many respects that I am looking forward to doing some research of my own to validate Olmsted’s claims. I rarely take the findings of book authors at face value without corroboration.

Food and cooking is a huge part of our family dynamic. We cook a lot, and we take a lot of interest in cooking real food. Breakfast for us is as likely to contain kale or Brussels sprouts as eggs, as we make try to pack nutrition and real food into every meal. Quality ingredients are important when we cook, which is something we all do, from my husband to our youngest child. Reading that our food supply is more tainted than I already knew is a bit unnerving.

Nevertheless, we have to eat, and we all need to eat the best food we can afford. So we do what we can, give thanks for what is before us and trust that we’re getting what we need from the food we eat. Food is also an opportunity for feasts, fellowship, and fun, contrary to what some people would have us believe.

A few nights ago, I decided to watch the 2014 film Chef, starring Jon Favreau. I was in the mood for a movie, and I was in the mood to watch someone else cook. Since Chef is one of my favorite movies and I haven’t watched it in a couple of years, I gave it a re-watch. I can barely stay awake late to watch anything anymore. When I’m up late, it’s because I’m doing something other than sitting passively, so it took me two nights to watch it.

Sidebar: This is not a family friendly film. There is no sex and no violence, but there is rough language, which is the reason for its MPAA rating. I worked in a restaurant for four years of my young adult life and know that such language is common in a restaurant kitchen. When coupled with the fact that I am not sensitive enough to that kind of thing, it barely bothered me. However, not everyone is as jaded as I am, so consider this your cinematic content advisory.

There are lots of great food and cooking scenes in the film, but my favorite is the scene where the lead character makes his son a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwiches were my specialty when I was dating my husband, and I made them for him pretty regularly. The care and attention the chef gives to such a simple dish highlights how food feeds us in ways far beyond taste buds and physical sustenance.

Incidentally, neither my husband nor I have eaten a grilled cheese sandwich in a very long time.

Until next time, fellow bibliophiles!

More Short Stories and Mid-year Roundup.

Where did the time go? It’s the first day of the third quarter of 2019. I have a birthday coming up very soon, even though it feels as if I just celebrated one. Preparation for the upcoming school year is well underway, and even though we’re still 16 months away from our country’s next major election, we received a political call at our a few nights ago. The mother’s encouragement trusim about long days and short years rings quite true today as I consider how quickly time  seems to be flying by.

Short stories worth a look:

In preparation for the new school year when our kids will be studying British literature (last year was American literature), I had the great pleasure of meeting with several women much smarter than me for a time of literature appreciation. We read short stories by British authors.

One of the best things about short stories (I’m certain I’m repeating something I’ve said before), is that they can be read quickly. Because of that, even those  who have limited amounts of time for leisure reading can read great literature which transmits time tested values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Others, such as the first one I will highlight, are just a light and fun good time, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.

  • Jeeves Takes Charge, by P.G. Wodehouse (read at link), is a story published in 1916 by the renowned British humorist. Wodehouse is one of my go-to writers when I want to read something that is not only funny, but intelligently so. This story is the one in which we meet the indomitable valet Jeeves for the first time. As the story suggests, he takes charge from the moment Bertie Wooster, the young heir, hires him into his employ.
  • The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read at link) first appeared in a magazine in 1891, and is one of many Sherlock Holmes short stories. A red-headed client appears with a fantastically bizarre and mysterious tale which has left him confused. Holmes, using his masterfully astute gift of deduction, figures out that what appears on the surface to be nothing more than a curious story is actually the beginnings of an elaborate criminal heist.
  • The Blue Cross, by G.K. Chesterton is the first of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Of the three stories I read this weekend, this was by far my favorite. Up until this point, I hadn’t read any of the Father Brown stories, but that is about to change. This story, filled with equal bits of mystery, humor, and profound -without being preachy- insights into the nature of man and nature itself, enveloped me from the first. I am very glad to be entering the world Chesterton’s fictional works, albeit a little late.

Mid-year roundup:

  • I took a minute to tally up the book reviews I’ve posted to date this year and I’ve written a grand total of 20. That isn’t many, especially when you consider that four of those were chapter installments of the Feminine Mystique throughout January.
  • In what counts as a pretty big departure from how I’ve handled this blog over the preceding three years, I’ve also written 21 discussion posts, covering everything from education to book trends,  genres and characters, and even a couple on current cultural trends. As I expected, when I began to add more of those kinds of posts, the conversations here were more animated and robust. I appreciated hearing all of your thoughts on the various topics. So thank you.

My favorite books of the year so far:

  • My favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is one that I haven’t reviewed here yet. I haven’t reviewed it for two reasons. The first is that I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that it took what seemed like forever to read it. I often needed to set it aside and let the ideas marinate for a few days. Now, I want to re-read it and I have a friend reading it along with me so I hope to have a review up in August. At that point, I’ll divulge the title. I do have other favorites which I’ll break down by fiction and nonfiction.
  • My favorite fiction book for the first half of this year was A Girl of the Liberlost. The beauty, language, and deep relational insights of this book have stayed with me.
  • My favorite nonfiction books of the year tied for first place. The first is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I find that I am still challenged by everything about this book. It is a magnum opus for the digital age. My second favorite nonfiction book to date at mid-year is Beauty Destroys the Beast, by my friend Amy Fleming. Yes, it’s a favorite because she’s my friend. More than that however, it’s a favorite because it speaks to a subject that I actually care about, and I agree with what she has to say about it.

Looking ahead to the second half of this year:

  • I am currently reading a few books, including a novel by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse whose short story I reviewed above. In addition, I have three non fiction books in queue. However:
  • School starts around the middle to end of August, and we still have a lot of prepping to do for that.  At that time, my entire reading queue may be overtaken by British literature, so don’t be surprised if all the book reviews here are books by British authors -except for books I’ve already read but not yet reviewed.
  • What we refer to as “birthday season” in our family has meant we’ve been partying like it’s 1999 since May, partying overtime in June, and won’t really let up until the beginning September when all the of seven birthdays in our immediate family are wrapped up. I’ve eaten too much cake. Speaking of which, here’s one I made for one of my girls upon special request:

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This dark chocolate cake, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache drizzle and Reese’s peanut butter cups on top was very good! It was also so rich that no one (guests and family alike) could finish an entire slice. I think that’s the sign of a good dessert; you only need a little of it to be sated. We’re on a sugar moratorium around here to recover, making exceptions for, and only for, each of our respective birthdays.

Summer in Florida is oppressively hot, but we’re still managing to have great fun because, why not? I still can’t believe that we’re half way through 2019!

How’s your year been so far? Read any good books lately?

 

 

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

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Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat. Published in April, 2017. 480 pages.

It seems to me that the eve of the American holiday which centers almost exclusively on the idea of giving thanks for our food is the perfect occasion to review the best seller Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Because I have a laundry list of food related items on my checklist at this very moment, I’ll keep this short and sweet. This is an excellent book for novice cooks, because it lays out the best ways to use what Samin refers to as the four elements of cooking which, once understood, makes creating great food an attainable goal; even without a recipe to follow:

“Season food with the proper amount of salt at the proper moment; choose the optimal medium of fat to convey the flavor of your ingredients; balance and animate those ingredients with acid; apply the right type and quantity of heat for the proper amount of time—do all this and you will turn out vibrant and beautiful food, with or without a recipe.”

There wasn’t much here that I hadn’t figured out to some degree over my nearly 25 years as a wife and home cook. Nevertheless, I still learned a few tricks from this book. More than teaching me anything, it gave voice and cohesive expression to elements of cooking which I already knew and was using in my own cooking. I also really enjoyed the scientific approach and explanations of how certain elements, such as salt, interact with foods to produce the desired flavor:

The distribution of salt throughout food can be explained by osmosis and diffusion, two chemical processes powered by nature’s tendency to seek equilibrium, or the balanced concentration of solutes such as minerals and sugars on either side of a semipermeable membrane (or holey cell wall).

The combination of these scientific notes and the enthusiastic exuberance Samin expresses with respect to food and cooking, made for a very entertaining book. It’s worth a read.

And if you happen to have Netflix, the four episode series by the same name (Salt, Fat Acid, Heat), is well worth a look.

We are a cooking family making many memories and original concoctions in our kitchen. Because of that, we loved watching this show and concluded that Samin Nosrat is the kind of foodie we would all love to be friends with: One who actually cooks!

Have a blessed and enjoyable Thanksgiving. Laugh, cook, eat and enjoy your families.

5 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

A Square Meal, pt. 2

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A Square Meal: A Culinary History of The Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Published 2016. 336 pages.

Read part 1 of this review here.

So…what did people actually eat during the Great Depression?

In reality, a lot of people ate just fine. There were plenty of hungry souls, but the one drawback of this book is that without a working knowledge and full picture of the period,  you’d come away thinking that just about everyone in America was starving. Not everyone was, but as I noted in the first installment of this review, the hungry were caught in the middle of a political tug of war which spilled over into the rest of the country, changed the way the populace viewed economic security, and catapulted FDR into the White House.

The Depression, for both the destitute and those who feared destitution knocking at their door any day, ushered in a culture of extreme attention to thrift. This thrifty attitude was served up on plates of the employed and unemployed alike. Because the home economists and nutrition specialists who worked for the government wanted to make those living on relief as uncomfortable as possible with the prospect, the food allotments were bare bones and bland, as were the recipes they introduced to families as a way to stretch their food.

Recipes that would make most of us turn up our noses in disgust were prepared and received with thanks by people little else to choose from. Even then, according to Coe and Zeigleman, there were times when the lack of calories and necessary nutrients caused even them to complain of the substandard nature of the food they received. They made do dishes such as Ritz mock apple pie, where the buttery crackers serve as a stand-in for the apples:

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 3/4 cups water

Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie

36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups)

Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix sugar and cream of tartar in medium saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Bring to boil on high heat; simmer on low 15 minutes. Stir in zest and juice; cool 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of pastry on lightly floured surface to 11-inch circle; place in 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in crust. Pour sugar syrup over crumbs; top with butter and cinnamon.

3. Roll out remaining pastry to 10-inch circle; place over pie. Seal and flute edge. Cut several slits in top crust to permit steam to escape. Place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.

The casserole made its debut during the Depression, but it wasn’t the tasty, cheesy, seasoned dish most Americans love in some way, shape or form. No. It was more along the lines of this ditty cooked up from the mind the well-intentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce (from Ranker.com):

Made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce of milk, flour, salt, and butter, the first step is to cook the spaghetti for a sadistic 25 minutes, which in a sane world means Step #2 is to order the biggest pizza Domino’s will make. But this is the Great Depression we’re talking about, so the idea is to get the noodles mushy so they pair nicely with the boiled-to-death carrots and the pennies worth of creamy sauce. The result? A “vehicle for nutrition and nutrients” that probably made people want to eat their old Flapper hats instead.

The most unusual food stuff I came across while reading this book was the word “milkorno”, which I later learned was a mixture of milk, corn meal and salt that home cooks could use in various ways to stretch and pad their meals adding both a filling experience and superior nutrition. From Ranker:

Mad scientists at Cornell University in 1933 invented a gruel called Milkorno, a mix of powdered skim milk, corn meal, and salt, to help families in need “stretch budgets without sacrificing nourishment,” promising “Meals For a Family of 5 For $5 a Week.” The name comes from combining “milk” and “corn” with the surprised “Oh!” that guests of Eleanor Roosevelt probably made when she explained what she tricked them into eating at the White House later that same year.

There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato.

The recipe which sent me on my search for the content and origins of this “superfood” can be found on page 183 of A Square Meal: Chop Suey with Milkorno:

2 pounds lean pork cut into cubes

2 cups sliced celery

2 cups sliced onions

3 or 4 cups cooked milkorno

salt and pepper to taste

Saute pork; add the seasonings and 1/2 cup water and simmer until tender. About 1/2 hour before the meat is tender add the celery and onions. If desired the gravy may be thickened by adding 2 tablespoons of flour to each cup of liquid. Pour this mixture over hot cooked milkorno, and serve.

Sounds yummy!

From our vantage point, 80 years in the future where food is plentiful, we have access to more variety and flavors of food any era, and more nutrition information than we ever needed, it’s easy to look at these recipes and see them as disgusting culinary gruel. These foods however, served to fill a specific need at a specific point in history. They also, whatever their limitations, illustrate an ability to adapt and make due under far less than ideal circumstances, a skill sorely lacking in today’s Western culture.

For those insights among others, I highly recommend A Square Meal. It exposes the reader to a lot of information and history that has been lost to all but the most avid history buff who would bother to seek it out. It’s not a perfect book, but it does manage to be both engaging and educational without bludgeoning the reader with the authors ideology. That latter alone makes it worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

El’s Rabbit Trail: Spring Harvest Edition.

Middle springtime down here means summer fruits are ripe for the picking, so this past week we spent a fair amount of time out picking fresh fruits. We started with blueberries:

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After picking far more of those than intended when we started out (the kiddos forget that these berries ain’t free!), we moved on to strawberries:

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Later in the week, we ended the first round of our spring harvest fun by picking peaches:

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Not willing to let farm fresh-from-the-tree-peaches go to waste, I promptly got on with making a peach cobbler to top off Sunday dinner. Diet? What diet?

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#backonthewagonmonday

Look for my review of Miss Maitland, Private Secretary on Wednesday. Until then…

Happy Monday, all!

 

 

The Cooking Gene

cooking gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty. Published in August 2017. 464 pages.

I picked up this book having never heard of it before seeing it on the shelf of my local lbrary. It is not my custom to look to the NYT lists or book review pages to decide what I am going to read. Apparently this book was on it, but I didn’t know that. If I see something and it looks interesting, I pick it up.This one looked interesting.

I am the black daughter born of a Cajun father who married a Georigia peach. Does it get any more Southern than that? As a woman of deep Southern roots who loves to cook and has raised young women who also -uncharacteristically for Millenials- love to cook, this book called out to me.

Because I also love Southern cooking and cooking Southern food, it did not disappoint. The wealth of culinary history about Southern food, the people, and the regions was amazing. Even when there were snippets and sections of the book that I found a little too politial for my conservative leaning apolitical tastes, they were far outshined and overshadowed by the beauty that encompassed the overall treasure that I found this book to be.

The American South is a complex place with a fascinating and convoluted history that reveals itself in its food as much as anything else. Twitty does a masterful job of articulating that in this quote from his book:

“The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been. The Old South is a place of groaning tables across the tracks from want. It’s a place where arguments over how barbecue is prepared or chicken is served or whether sugar is used to sweeten cornbread can function as culinary shibboleths. It is a place in the mind where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman. We just know that somehow the table aches from the weight of so much . . . that we prop it up with our knees and excuses to keep it from falling.”

He speaks truth, as I know I have been asked on numerous occasions by women of Southern heritage but different ethnic makeup, how I cook my grits, my fried chicken, etc. Southern food is a thing all its own while also being several different things as well, depending on whence you hail. I have always known this from childhood eating my dad’s gumbo, and crawfish etoufee, which almost no other Southern region has perfected. And neither have I.

The ways that first generation slaves -whether house servants or field slaves- learned to make familiar dishes out of new and often unfamiliar ingredients was a particularly interesting read, and  Twitty’s travels to the regions where the “cargo” for the Transatlantic slave trade was gathered offered wonderful insights into the ancestral diets of the people who came from those parts of Africa.

Some of the most fascinating excursions to take with the author were his journeys embarked on as a result of the genetic and documented research he compiled from his own family tree. His was a family, unlike so many black families in the South, that kept good written histories and passed them down. I married into a family that has a much better documented history than my family of origin, so I am well acquainted with the differences and how they express themselves in our knowledge of who we are and what we tell our children.

Overall, this was a very good book. My Christian sensibilities were not offended by the author’s occasional trips down memory lane where he discussed his coming out to his family or his other thoughts on being a black, gay, Jewish man. In a lesser book, more sloppily executed or overtly politically motivated, I would have been annoyed.

This author, however, has a clear and unmistakable love for food, its origins, its intersections with the way we view life and family, and how it shapes the places we have been and the places we go. In short, he was able to communicate his passion and vision in a way that was admirable and transcended all the rest of it. The American South was what it was, and it is impossible to study the roots of Southern culinary richness while avoiding the circumstances that brought together the people who shaped it.

Grade: A