Saturday, October 31, 2009

America Eats

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA - the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define

The growing interest in local food systems combined with the economic downturn makes for a good climate for books about American food of the Depression period. The rationing of World War II was followed by the transfer of wartime technologies for food preservation to the general marketplace, changing American food forever from a patchwork of regional cuisines to a national diet based on chain restaurants, frozen and canned food and, above all, homogeneity. The Depression period, for all the limitations that poverty brought to the tables of most Americans, can seem now like the last hurrah of real food.

So it’s a great time for the release of two new books about WPA food writing, a nearly-forgotten part of the great cultural projects of the New Deal. Though writers and editors were engaged to create a national guide to American food, the project was never completed and the writing produced never published, until this year. I haven’t read Mark Kulansky’s book The Food of Younger Land, which outlines the history of the project and then includes selections from the archive, focusing on writing from major authors like Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. Pat Willards’s America Eats: On the Road with the WPA takes a somewhat different approach, interlacing excerpts from the original WPA pieces with her own reporting from church dinners, harvest festivals, and other food-centered gatherings that have continued from WPA days.

This is a somewhat disorderly, frustrating book, which may result from the sheer variety of material Willard includes. The writing that was done for the WPA project spanned a range of styles, from journalistic reports to sentimental sketches to fictionalized accounts. The quality of the writing is a varied as the style. Among the best Willard included are a sensitive short story from Iola Thomas of the Iowa office about a threshers’ dinner and a description of the conch-eaters of the Florida Keys by Stetson Kennedy. Some of the other selections tend toward the twee, in some cases condescending to the subjects to a degree that is deeply off-putting.

Willard’s prose is clean and straightforward and her interest in American food and cultural tradition seems genuine. Some of the limitations of the book seem a direct result of the limitations of the primary material. Some regions were neglected in the original project; many arbitrary decisions were made about which immigrant foods were to be included and which were not “American enough;” cities other than New York were completely neglected. Willard, in following in the footsteps of the project, is forced into some of the same limitations, and she acknowledges them. But perhaps the greatest limitation, one which Willard references only briefly, is the focus on food events, rather than broader food traditions. We hear about the fairs and festivals, church suppers, political dinners and funeral feasts, but not about daily home cooking or, for that matter, professional cooking done in small eateries. This would not be a problem if Willard didn’t try to make larger claims for the meaning of the decline of these events in terms of larger culinary and social history. When trying to discuss these issues, particularly in the final chapter, Willard is weak, making poorly-supported assertions and moving on quickly without any depth of analysis. She lacks the subtle sensitivity for regional food evidence by a writer like John Thorne and the scholarly comprehensiveness of someone like Waverly Root. But she has skill at drawing a scene. I very much enjoyed her portrait of the Basque Sheepherders Ball, the funeral feast of the Choctaw Indians, and the Mexican coaches of South Sixth Avenue in Tucson.

In trying to find and report upon the closest equivalents to events described in the original WPA pieces, Willard also fails to look at newly developing food traditions. The resurgence in interest in local foods has lead to new celebrations of regional specialties. In my part of the country, there are maple syrup days, cheese festivals, harvest fairs and homebrewer competitions that may be recent in origin (some dating to the first “back to the earth” gatherings of the seventies, others part of the most recent local food revival), but are nonetheless authentic inheritors of the spirit of those festivals of the 1930s, social events truly centered on a shared love of good food. By ignoring new traditions, Willard paints an incomplete picture of the current state of American food and its place in community life.

Overall, the book may not provide a lot of insight into the changes in America’s food culture, but it is enjoyable as a kind of scrapbook of American food celebrations of the Depression and today.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Quick post - quick side dish

I don't even have a picture. But I wanted to remember a side dish I pulled together the other night, because I found myself wishing there were more of it left over, even though at the time it didn't seem particularly special. Maybe it's not, but it's good nonetheless, and easy and fast and made up of stuff I almost always have on hand. The proportions here are approximate, I didn't measure:

Carrot-Orange Salad
About 3 cups of shredded carrots
One heaping tablespoon of mayo
One heaping tablespoon Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 canned mandarin oranges, drained well
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

Blend mayo, yogurt, juice and cumin powder. If you are serving right away and don't plan to have leftovers, just mix in the rest of the ingredients. If you want a salad that will stand up, you should salt the carrots lightly and let them sit for at least a half-hour. Then come back, rinse off the salt and squeeze the carrots until they give up some of their excess juice. That way, they won't give off juice while sitting in the dressing, making it watery. Also, if you only have regular, thinner yogurt, you might cut back on the orange juice to just a 1/2 tablespoon.

The cumin gives a nice smoky edge to the simple carrot-orange sweetness, and of course there's the creamy-tangy aspect to the dressing. This is a very easy-going salad that would complement many other dishes. You could, of course, use segmented oranges instead of mandarin, but that's adding time and effort. And personally, canned mandarin oranges are a guilty pleasure, a weakness of mine. They're also good for the husband with Crohn's, since all the fibrous stuff is removed completely.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On a food imagery kick

And I'm loving these posters, the United Plates of America, each one depicting a particular state map as a food item. Check out Massachusetts as calamari, Vermont as a carrot and (just to expand our horizons here), Michigan as bacon and eggs.

Of course, I would really have loved these if each state were represented by one of its more characteristic foodstuffs, but still very cool.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Haymarket: Strategies for a Recession

I grew up in the suburbs, not in Boston, so I didn't go to the Haymarket until I was about ten or twelve or so. But I knew about it, because my father's job would take him into the city some days, and if he were there on a Friday or Saturday, he would come home with bags and bags of produce. I always loved fruit, so this was a treat, because he would buy things he didn't buy at the regular supermarket, like plums and cherries and black grapes.

The first time I saw the place in person made quite an impression, though. In high school I participated in a writing contest, and for the creative portion I submitted a piece about feeling agoraphobic at the market. It's still a rather disorienting place to be: far more people than space; sometimes overwhelming smells, particularly on hot days; lots of shouting. But it's been a big part of my food-buying life since I moved to the city, and I have great affection for its somewhat rough charms.

For those of you who don't know about Haymarket, let's first clarify what it is not. It's not a farmers' market. The guys who sell produce there are certainly not farmers. It might better be described a sort of outdoor fruit and vegetable outlet store, a last chance discount center for overstocked, aging produce.

The Haymarket has a long history, having started in the 1830s as an area of produce vendors selling from horsecarts. Now the vendors set up tents in U-shaped area about two city blocks long on Fridays and Saturday and sell produce they buy at the Chelsea wholesale market on the cheap before the new shipments come in for the new week. The prices are unbelievable. The quality is, to say the least, mixed.

Culturally, shopping the Haymarket is a authentic Boston experience. The vendors are mostly from Italian families who have owned their stands for generations. A few Asian families have gotten in on the act, too, which is nice. The clientele is far more diverse. There are lots of old Italian women from the North End, students on budgets, slow-walking tourists getting in everyone's way, and many, many recent immigrants from all over. I once heard a vendor tell his buddy, in a thick Boston accent, that he could name vegetables and count to ten in 15 languages. He didn't mention the number of languages he could swear in, but I bet it was impressive. The vendors can be rude or at least brusque, but if you smile and are polite, generally they're fine, and they might just call you sweetheart, which I always like.

But what about the goods? I go to Haymarket primarily when there are no local options (dead of winter), so I would be buying supermarket produce anyway, or when I need stuff that isn't possible to get locally, like limes and pineapples. This miserable, rainy, busy, exhausting pregnant summer, though, I've been going far more often. I'm not the only one. It's been crazy-crowded at the market since last fall, when the recession started to really hit a lot of people hard. But if you're going to get the most out of it, I suggest a few strategies:

1) Go early in the morning - preferrably on Friday, but early Saturday is better than late. The produce won't have sat out in the sun all day, so it will be fresher, and there won't be so many of the aforementioned slow-moving tourists.

2) Bring your own bags. Don't be a jerk and bring a shopping cart. Everyone will hate you. Just bring a bunch of tote bags, because you will buy more than you mean to, and carrying a bunch of heavy bags on your shoulder will be more comfortable than carrying a bunch of heavy bags in your hands. If you can find someone to come with you, do it - then you can get a watermelon.

3) Don't touch the produce unless the vendor tells you it's okay. Some things you can just pick up, like a pineapple or the top bunch of leeks. But the soft, delicate stuff, which unfortunately is just the stuff you would probably want to pick out yourself, is strictly off-limits. Is this a tactic to pawn off crappy produce on you? Yes, sometimes. But it's also reasonable - if every customer was allow to paw through the displays picking the perfect figs or tomatoes, everything would be bruised within an hour.

4) Expect rot. Have I mentioned that you will be paying a pittance? I used to say that you had to expect to throw away about 1/3 of what you bought here. Now, I would say I throw away less than a 1/4 (see strategy 6 - what to buy), but I still go through the bags when I get home and immediately toss anything that looks bad - one bad apple and all that. Also, if you're buying something that's likely to be delicate, plan on using it that day - don't even think about buying raspberries on Friday for a dessert Monday.

5) Take a walk through the market first. Sometimes only one vendor will have something you want, sometimes prices vary from stand to stand, quality almost always does. Walk through, then buy on your way back.

6) There are things you should buy here, and things you should not.

Great choices:

Limes. Standardly 8 or 10 for a dollar, usually in great shape. Lately they've been selling whole boxes for $2.50 - I'm guessing that's about 50 limes worth. If you're feeling ambitious, it would be smart to buy, juice and freeze in ice cube trays.

Lemons. Not quite as cheap or reliable as limes, but still cheaper than the supermarket.

Cherries and plums. My dad's favorites are very cheap here compared to supermarkets, and generally the quality is good, although sometimes the plums can be soft. I have been buying two two-pound bags of Bing cherries each week for about a month now, and have yet to get a bag that wasn't close to perfect, every last cherry. I will switch off to local plums once I see them at the farmers' market, but until then I'm stocking up here.

Bananas. My husband has all sorts of medical limitations on his fruit consumption, but he can have all the bananas he wants. I got a lovely bunch of about ten large bananas for a dollar this weekend.

Watermelon. Another fruit that can be hard to find at the farmers' market, and I have a hard time getting through summer without it. The little "personal-sized" ones have more edible area than you might think, because the rind is so thin, and they're easy to carry home.

Ginger. No local option, always cheap here and almost always of good quality.

Some things are generally okay and well-priced, so if your other choice is the supermarket, not a farmers' market, no reason not to save money on fennel, peppers, leeks, carrots, cabbage and other fairly long-storing basics.

Be careful, but consider looking for:

Tropical and Asian fruits and vegetables. The range of tropical fruits and vegetables has definitely increased in recent years, but the quality is questionable. Pineapples are usually a good bet, but a week ago, every pineapple I saw was rotten to the core (which was why they were selling for 50 cents). Sometimes you can get great mangoes; sometimes the mangoes look good, but inside they're rotten. But they generally have two types of papaya, and often you can find lychees, jicama, ripe platains and other things you might not be able to get at your standard supermarket.

Figs in season. I love figs, but only the most doting and devoted Portugese and Italian gardeners are able to nurse a tree through a New England winter. In supermarkets, the price is prohibitive, but figs at the Haymarket can be very reasonable. They can also be moldy, especially if you buy a little pint pack. Pick a weekend when you'll have company on Saturday, and go for broke with a whole case for 7 or 8 dollars. Eat them immediately.

Herbs. Generally, I would rather pick up dill, parsley, mint and so on at the farmers' market, but in the off-season, herbs are much cheaper at Haymarket.

Proceed with caution - or maybe just skip altogether:

Berries. I often give in for convenience if I'm there already, but the raspberries and blackberries will always be rotten. Strawberries are a mixed bag, but they will taste like supermarket strawberries even on the best of days. Blueberries are okay, and hard to come by at the farmers' market, probably your best bet.

Garlic. All they ever seem to have are those six-packs of garlic in the net bags. The garlic is always either dried or sprouting. Don't bother.

Bags of salad greens. Look, these are of questionable safety from the supermarket, let alone from a tent that sits in the sun for hours. It can be quite exciting to see a pillow-sized $3 bag of organic mesclun mix at Haymarket, where once organics were unknown, but the bottom half of the bag will be black mush. In season, you can get far better salad greens at the farmers' market. Off-season, the supermarket is still a better choice.

Pears. I don't really eat pears out of season; they just don't have the perfume and flavor of a real pear (rarely do I eat apples out of season, either, though sometimes I cook with them). The widely available commercial pears tend to rot from the inside out, making appearances deceiving. Get your pears from an orchard in the fall, and then forget about them until next year, or splurge on Harry and David of you're rich (and if so, why are you reading this?)

Potatoes. I don't know why the potatoes are so often bad. But they are. Again, farmers' market first, then supermarket.

Good luck. In this economy, we all need all the help we can get. A cheap bag of limes is a nice place to start.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New Orleans, again

So my husband and I took a sort of belated long honeymoon (as compared to the short honeymoon we took after the wedding) to New Orleans. Basically, this was a huge excuse to ignore my pregnancy diet for a week and eat marvelously unhealthy things. Note I didn't go off the wagon completely - some fruit smoothies, cereal, and salads here and there kept me in vitamins and fiber, and I drank oceans of water, pulling my eyes away from the cocktail lists with a defeated whimper.

Notes and observations:

I never get tired of beignets. I could eat them every day. Of course, I would be enormous.

The best fried chicken I ever tasted was at Coop's. I have to work on my fried chicken technique.

Even the places that seem crappy are pretty good. At one point we needed to find a place to sit and eat in mid-afternoon, just because I got suddenly terribly hungry, the way the pregnant do, and it was hot, and I needed to sit down. We walked into the first restaurant we saw. It looked okay, but probably a bit touristy. Whatever- I had a fabulous plate of crawfish cakes and my husband had a huge and delicious muffuletta. The worst place we ate was a pub near the hotel, where we stopped for just a bite mid-afternoon, late enough that we were concerned about ruining dinner. We ordered three side dishes: mac and cheese, alligator sausage and jambalaya. The mac and cheese was pretty bad, the jambalaya just okay, and the alligator sausage pretty good. But the fellow served everyone out, making a plate each for my husband and myself, and after I downed two or three glasses of soda water, he brought me one in a to-go cup to take with me - without my asking.

I often find it's the little things I eat that stick in my mind the most, more than the meals. There was a woman selling fresh-squeezed fruit juices at the farmer's market - non-standard flavors, like watermelon lime. Mine was delicious.

Club soda with two types of bitters is better than club soda with only one. New England lacks bitters options.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is still a work in progress and comes off as a bit thin and probably underfunded. That said, it's got a lot of potential and it makes for an entertaining and very affordable hour or so.

My dream job would be curating a museum like that for New England.

Mandina's has the best fried oysters I've tasted.

I deeply appreciate the waitress there sending us up the block to Brocato's for ice cream, even when I was clearly going to order dessert at Mandina's until she recommended the gelato. That's putting customer service above self-interest, a rare virtue.

I had a scoop each of pistachio and gianduja. Awesome.

The bread is the secret to the po-boy's superiority over the standard sub.

The bacon brownie is interesting and good, but not exactly as delicious as I want it to be. But the Thai chili chocolate chess pie is, indeed, all that. AS were the smoked scallops.

It's hard to eat as much as you want when it's humid and over 90 degrees. That may be what keeps people in New Orleans from all being morbidly obese - no one can bring themselves to eat before sundown.

Also, tourism can get in the way of eating. Sometimes the things you want to see and the things you want to eat are not located right next to each other. This presents an unfortunate dilemma.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Someone noticed!

Headline in today's New York Times:

Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers

Yup. And they've been doing it more and more for years. Basically, food companies think that there's nothing inherently wrong with selling something that is contaminated as long as they tell you to cook the heck out of it first. And if you don't, that's your problem. It's just too bad that meat cooked as long as necessary to make it "safe" is tough and flavorless. Sorry that homemade mayonnaise is a completely different animal from the stuff in the jar - you'd better not make the good stuff, because we're just assuming you're planning to hard-boil those eggs into safety, so we're going to keep raising chickens in their own feces. It's all on you! Foolish consumer, not using your thermometer - didn't we tell you to always use a thermometer? I'm trying to imagine how one would use a thermometer on, say, the half-inch thick preformed hamburger patties so many people seem to throw on the grill. The New York Times wasn't even able to get the chicken pot pies they were testing to the right temperature without burning them.

I can tell you that from my explorations of the academic literature on food safety, the presumption that food safety is primarily a consumer preparation issue and not a production issue runs very, very deep. So deep, in fact, that I am just pleased as punch that the Times was actually able to see it; it is rare to see past the things we take for granted. But maybe, just maybe, after the salmonella in peanut butter and the contaminated pet food from China and the swine flu and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the contaminated tomatoes-whoops-we-mean-jalapenos, people are starting to realize that our food system is not really working. It's about time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Overall, pregnancy?

Not conducive to exciting culinary adventures. First there's the nausea. Fortunately, that has faded in the second trimester, but the exhaustion that makes tossing a salad seem like awful lot of work? That's still with me. So meals have been rather uninspired of late.

Instead, I'm reading about food. One of my favorite things about the end of the school year has always been regaining the freedom to read what I wish. Even in my current program - I enjoy the readings, I even want to read more about what I'm studying, but there's no time. Onward to the next week's lecture, the next assignment. Then, finals are over, and the books I've stacked up through the cold months can be browsed at my leisure. When I was a kid, I would go to the library and get armloads; now I've already got armloads in the house. But the exquisite pleasure of literary liberty remains.

I started off with the surprisingly good Apples to Oysters:

I've read more books than I like to admit that profile farmers and farms. Sadly, they're usually pretty boring. The earnestness tends to be exhausting, for one thing, and the farms tend to be boringly similar - organic, diverse, direct sales at farmers' markets, the sort of farms that interest the sort of people that buy these books. But Webb focuses on a diverse group of specific products - apples, oysters, scallops, ice wine, seaweed, and pastured pork, among others - grown in alternative ways by seriously dedicated farmers/fishermen/vintners/etc. in Canada. The profile of each business gives a good introduction to both the dominant method of production and the alternative the producer has chosen. She understands well how production choices lead to every other decision that follows, from marketing to lifestyle. There are damn good reasons more people don't try to buck the established food system. But we should be grateful for those who do, because these are the foods that retain a flavor of place. One thing I've enjoyed about buying food from local producers has been the absolute pride they show in their products, and that sense of investment comes through in the words of those Webb interviews.

Webb grew up on a family farm that has begun the common process of disintegration, and she reveals the details of her family's story throughout the book, revealing another aspect of the story of agriculture and fisheries in Canada. She's less sentimental, however, than Jane Brox, whose three books about her family's farm in Massachusetts have become classics of the genre. Webb might simultaneously be more optimistic than Brox, too. Her exploration of alternative farms seems to have left her hopeful that at least some part of the future may lie there. Maybe - if people are willing to pay more for better quality food that is produced in a sustainable way. I cross my fingers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tired of the snark

Michelle Obama sets an example for the country in planting a garden on the White House lawn, and what do we hear? Nothing but snark. First the people complaining that she was overdressed for the occasion. I saw comments on news article about the garden that complained that the chickens and the laundry line had to be coming next, because the trash had move in. Nice. (I bought a laundry line last year, and I would love chickens. So color me trashy.) Of course, on the other side, one of the women on Slate's XX Factor had to complain that growing your own food was elitist. (Tell it to the Italian, Latino, Asian and Portugese immigrants in Somerville, MA, who stuff every inch of their tiny yards with eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and greens, and grow grapes in hand-built arbors over their driveways - they wouldn't waste their money on pansies at Walmart's. Annuals, no less! Her "most people" is so clearly "the suburbanites that live around me.") Slate is on a roll with this one - today, they've added an article about how expensive gardening is - that tomato is NOT free! It's not even cheap!

I love this argument, because it just shows how much people take for granted. This woman actually argued that you might need a $3,000 irrigation system to keep your plants watered during your two-week vacation. Honey, I make a good living, and I haven't had a two week vacation since I graduated college. And some people have these things called "neighbors" or "friends" who might be willing to give your plants a water, assuming there's no rain during the two weeks you're lucky enough to be in Boca. Or on Lake Winnipesaukee, whatever.

Sure, you have to spend money on a garden. First, you need a hoe, a spade, a hand trowel, a pair of gloves, and ideally a pair of clippers, plus a hose. Of course, these things will last you approximately the rest of your life if you take care of them (except the gardening gloves, you will have to replace those - that's going to run you SEVERAL dollars). And none is exactly expensive - we're talking a whopping $50 investment here, total, assuming you can't buy them used at a garage sale or something. Then there's seed. I bought a lot of seed this year. Pinetree Garden Seeds sells smaller packages than most companies, so you can get more variety for less money. I went crazy and spent almost 15 dollars. I have enough seed to last a few years, even if I don't save seed from the plants, which, of course, I could. People have done been doing that as long as they've been growing things on purpose. Just don't buy hybrids, and you're good.

Okay, so now you're out $50 for tools and $15 for seed. What else? A fence? Sure, in some areas where deer and so on are a serious problem, this is a legitimate expense. But in many urban and suburban areas, a fence is hardly required. Some people have one anyone, for the sake of the kids, the dog, the property line, and so on. But a lot of the other stuff people bring up when they want to emphasize the price of gardening is bunk. Really. It's the habit of thinking about everything in terms of shopping. Pots? Not necessary. Pretty, but there are many, many containers that can serve as plant holders. Check your basement, the curb on trash day, the town dump. Starter pots? Even stupider. Try the yogurt containers in your recycling bin, or the paper cup you were going to throw out. Fertilizer? Compost is free. Coffee grounds are really good. Mulch? Please don't buy mulch. The best mulch around is rotted ground leaves - if you have or can borrow a lawnmower, you can push it back and forth over the leaves a few times, then put a nice thick layer over the garden in the fall. Straw is pretty cheap, if you're buying mulch. And pesticides? Please. My grandparents had a fantastic garden. The two big "pesticides" they used were 1) soapy water in a spray bottle for aphids and 2) little cardboard rings they taped around the bottom of the tomato plants. The best pesticide is the right plant in the right place, plus a good dose of not caring if one crop doesn't work out this year. Plant a lot of things, and you'll figure out what works for your soil and sun conditions. Oh, and you know where you can learn about gardening? Free at the library or on the internet.

I know not everyone can have a garden. I've been a renter my whole life, and I've only been able to have a garden in two of my many, many apartments. But this whole "gardening is for elite yuppie types" is just crazy. I have a friend who is a painter. For years and years he lived illegally in his studio, showering at the Y next door. He had a plot in a community garden and grew his own produce in summer. He made pickles in his girlfriend's kitchen and was able to eat some food from his garden all winter. There is no way that man was an elitist - and there was no way that garden didn't save him money. I have a friend with four kids who buys no vegetables at the store from late June to early October. Her garden explodes with great produce - and she doesn't spend money on pesticides. In addition to the produce that fed them, and us, through the summer season, my grandparents had a deep-freeze full of beans and peas and carrots. Freezing is not some arcane art; mostly you dunk vegetable in boiling water for a minute, then you, well, freeze them. I can't imagine how much all of that produce would have cost them. And as for the argument that "your time is money"? Bull. Your time is only money if someone is going to pay you for it. If you run home early from your hourly wage job to work in your garden, your garden costs money. If you work in the garden instead of watching TV, your time hasn't cost you anything. If you work in the garden instead of going to a gym, your garden saved you money.

Sometimes I think people just enjoy being contrarian. Screw 'em, Michelle - I love the garden. Gardening is for people who want some self-sufficiency. A garden will give you good food, good exercise, and a respect for the work farmers do. A garden gets you outside where you can meet the neighbors. A garden gives children an opportunity to learn some biology and some patience - and most kids will eat carrots they grew themselves. A garden gives you an increased connection to the seasons and the weather that can be deeply meaningful in a culture where we are so terribly divorced from the natural world. Gardens are good. The White House garden is a nice example for the American people. Let's drop the snark, okay?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Okay, I'm eight.

But I find it hilarious that among the products involved in the FDA peanut recall are: Chicken Coop Poop, Cow Patties, Cow Pies, Deer Droppings, Bear Scat, Prairie Dog Pebbles, and Moose Droppings. I knew this whole trend of naming little chocolate candies after excrement was a bad idea.

Fry your leftovers

Croquettes used to get fair representation in cookbooks. Chicken or turkey croquettes were a standard, ham was pretty common, and then there were the starch-based croquettes - rice, pasta and so on. (Except that back then, pasta was called macaroni.)

The primary driver for making croquettes was using up leftovers, something older cookbooks understood to be an elemental aspect of homecooking. Today's cookbooks are aimed less at people who intend to produce most or all of their meals at home and more at people who indulge in a cooking hobby on the weekends, while buying readymade meals or eating out during the week. Why plan for leftovers?

But as the economy declines, we will be returning to leftovers, whether we like it or not. Of course, reheating is fine for lots of things - no need to fuss with a leftover soup or chili, that's just getting better with age. But some things lose their appeal on the second or third showing.

Making croquettes is easy and the end product is delicious. But everything has its drawbacks - frying your leftovers does not improve your meal's nutritional profile. Moderation is key, and a small serving of croquettes can make a decent meal in themselves with just a nice leafy green salad or bowl of light soup on the side. Have fruit for dessert, and you can afford a little pan-frying.

The basic method for making croquettes is to mix up a rather thick white sauce (simple form - butter, flour, milk or stock), and use that to bind together the chopped meat, vegetables, rice or what have you. Odds and ends can be mixed in if you like (a bit of ham, cheese, some fresh parsley, scallion, that little bit of corn that wasn't finished up at dinner) just chop everything fairly small. Chill the mix until cold, then form into small balls or patties or oblongs and roll in bread crumbs. Chill again for at least an hour, and then fry until lightly browned. I don't deep-fry, I just put about half an inch of olive oil (not extra-virgin) in a cast iron skillet, and have at it.

If your base material is already fairly moist, like a risotto, you don't actually need the white sauce. An egg may be enough binder. Do use the bread crumbs, though, which will keep things from sticking to the pan.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Farmers and poets

An interesting question from the Guardian: where are the farmer-poets today? I think the simple answer is that there aren't many. (Wendell Berry, of course, but who else?) There are few poets in the world, and now there are few farmers, too. And I doubt many of the people running concentrated animal feed operations are waxing poetic at the end of the day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A new CSA

Community Supported Agriculture programs have really taken off in the past few years, at least in the Boston area. Where once there were just a few CSAs to choose from, now there are many. Some require labor, others deliver. Some offer just vegetables, some vegetable and fruit, some even include dairy or meat. In fact, there are all-meat CSAs. There are winter CSAs. And now, there's even a yarn CSA.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Food tourism

I have to confess something fairly shameful for a foodnik - I'm not all that excited about restaurants. Of course, I like a nice meal out, particularly the sort of meal that takes a lot of work at home. If I'm going to eat out, I want multiple courses, wine, dessert, coffee. I want to spend a couple hours eating things that need last-minute preparations while I sit lazily on my duff and let someone else do the dishes. And, let's face it, I can't touch the best food in a really good restaurant.

But generally, I can't afford that sort of meal out. And middle-of-the-road restaurants are a much more hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes I get lucky and find a dish that I might remember for years. But more often, I just think about how much it would have costs to make the stuff at home - or, if I'm in a different mood, think how glad I am that I don't have to cooks and damn the money. But overall I'm a home cook, and I'm more interested in home cooking than restaurant cooking - how people do it, what they eat, and so on. I'm more likely to buy books for home cooks from 1910 than I am to buy a restaurant cookbook.

So when I travel, what I really want are ingredients. I want to find out that there's some sort of local dried bean or locally grown and ground flour or what have you. I want markets and smokehouses and farm stands, even bakeries, but not necessarily restaurants (although of course I want those, too, just not as lustfully). But I find this information much harder to come by. If you want to find a high-end restaurant or the best dive in town, there are websites for that, but it's very hard to find out about food shopping (except for the high-end chocolates places that always seem to get a mention in shopping guides). Anyway, off to Montreal this weekend. There at least I know to head to Jean Talon, and we'll see where else I end up. Probably in a pub by a fireplace and nowhere else - it's supposed to be -20.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Not the most offensive choice of the Bush years by a long shot

but still, damn, are the new White House china patterns ugly.

What is it with the White House china? They seem to update the patterns every twenty years or so, which means Jackie Kennedy left no record of her impeccable taste, and Hillary didn't have a go either. Of course Nancy went with the big bold red set - rather nice, actually, if you could just get rid of the gold seal in the center of the plate. Lady Bird picked out something really oddly frilly and old-ladyish for a state dinner. The eagle on those plates could pass for a barn swallow, and one half-expects some sort of garden-inspired inspirational phrase to be written around the outside edge: maybe "Thyme for God, thyme for prayer." Roosevelt's plates are very dignified and understated, the seal small located, for once, at the top on the plate, which seems better than covered with gravy in the center.

ERRATA: Turns out, as Michael comments below, the Clintons DID pick a china. I put together a news report that mentioned that not every first lady does get new china with that page I linked to above and assumed that the page showed all the presidential china. It did not.
Hillary's choice is here. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about that pattern. It's interesting, which is a plus. I hate the White House image in the middle of the plate - as may be obvious, I'm not exactly crazy about stuff in the middle of the plate. And using an image of the White House itself seems awfully literal. But the rest of the pattern, that softly colored but elaborate design on the rim, seems, again, non-presidential. It's more tasteful than LadyBird's choice, but seems to err in the same direction. I would love to see this plate (minus the White House) on a long mahogany dining table set with white linen at a big elegant old inn on the coast of Maine. State dinner, not so much.

And did you know (I did not!) that china was long the exception to the rule that only American-made furnishings were to be used in the White House. American china was just considered too obviously inferior. Then Lenox came along, and Wilson used their china, the first American-made china to be used in the White House. They've produced china patterns for six presidents.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Oh, and that other resolution

Like seemingly every other person on the planet, I'm also resolving to lose weight. Sigh. I resolve this every year. Usually I do lose a bit of weight, exercise more, eat better/eat less, and then I get busy or it gets hot out (I wilt in the heat), and suddenly I notice it's been a fe3w months since I actually exercised, and oh, yeah, I've put those ten pounds back on.

Really, it's not good.

I don't "diet" - not what the nutritionists mean by diet anyway. I don't hold myself to a strictly limited calorie level or cut out whole categories of food or anything. I take the right steps, the reasonable, moderate, lifestyle-altering steps everyone talks about as the good and proper way to make long-term changes to your weight. I do, and then somehow I don't, and I'm back where I started. Or I keep them, and it doesn't matter any more. Ah, yes, I remember well the switch years ago to lower fat milk, or last summer when I stopped putting sugar on my oatmeal or in my coffee, or when I switched to lean, grass-fed beef. Those seemed like important steps at the time, and I lost weight each time. But now I'm as heavy as I ever was.

Also, losing weight? SO much harder than it used to be. Once upon a time, I could lose weight be deciding to, essentially. I would decide, and make a few changes to my eating patterns, move a little more, and off the weight would come. Now, every pound has to be hard-won, and then it's lost so easily. Or hard-lost and then won so easily.

When I happen to be home during the daytime and I'm feeling sick or down, I indulge in British makeover television. My favorite is How Clean Is Your House? You get a little gawking at the horror of how other people live, a few useful cleaning tips, then a very satisfying reveal that shows how much a space can be improved without buying anything new except some cleaning supplies (mostly natural, too - I love those gals).* The weight-loss version - You Are What You Eat - cuts a little too close to the bone to be entirely enjoyable. I don't think I could ever live in the grime-encrusted homes the HCIYH ladies fix up, but I fear I am entirely capable of falling into a depression so deep I eat myself huge. (I'm probably not, but I fear it, perhaps because I feel like I have less control over my weight than over my home.) Anyway, what I find terribly depressing about that show is that some of these people are not REALLY that much bigger than I am. They are bigger, some much bigger, but some not tremendously. And yet they eat so much worse than I do it isn't funny. They drink oceans of soda, feast several time a day on fish and chips, never touch a vegetable or a piece of fruit, down multiple chocolate bars every day. I drink water more than anything else; I love fruit and vegetables; I start every workday with a bowl of oatmeal with dried cranberries and non-fat milk. Sure, I use cream in my coffee, I have a sweet tooth - but I'm talking about a few M&Ms from the reception desk, not 1/2 pound of chocolate a day. If I ate like they do, I would be dead.

Of course, that might be why the people like me who eat like that aren't on TV. They're all dead.

At any rate, new year, time to renew the health objectives. Move more. Eat less. Here we go again. Sigh.

*Best HCIYH tip ever - meat tenderizer mixed into a paste with a little water and left overnight on your casserole dish will take off that nasty brown discoloration that never seems to come off Pyrex. I had to buy meat tenderizer to test this out, but it really works.

Food-Related New Year's Resolutions

Oh, how I love to resolve. I've got some serious all-American self-improvement tendencies, coupled with a dose of old-school Catholic self-deprivation-is-good-for-the-soul. I like to give things up for a while - television, coffee, alcohol, food (not really, but I've fasted a few times), non-local food (I did the Eat Local Challenge three years ago after reading Gary Paul Nabhan's book, before I knew that there were other crazy folks out there doing the same thing) and even once, reading. I lasted a whole week without reading anything (except the automatic reading of signs and so forth) and it was pretty much the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

So, new year. New resolutions.

Except that I've begun to believe that negative resolutions - no this, no that- are the least effective. I think the Eat Local Challenge, for instance, would be more popular if it were promoted as a challenge to eat as many different local foods as possible, rather than a challenge to eliminate as many non-local foods as possible. Resolving to do without something completely can shake you up, improve your awareness of how much a habit has infiltrated your life. But resolving to do something actively usually has longer-term benefits. Adding something to your life, that's the way to go.

I'm pretty sure I starting making stock regularly as part of a resolution a few years back. That was a positive change that improved my cooking, saved my money, and decreased my sodium intake (while possibly increasing my calcium - I put a little acid in the water to help leach the calcium from the bones).

So, what this year? Vegetables, I think. I want to pay more attention to my vegetables. I like vegetables, but I tend to give them less attention then I should. I roast 'em, or steam and lemon juice 'em, or braise 'em, and that's about as far as it goes. Sure, I'll stuff a pepper now and again, I'll make a sweet potato gratin, but do I lavish the attention on the nutritious darlings I do on the meat or even the starch? No, I don't.

Now, one of the issues here is the limitations of my companion in eating. The husband is not exactly going to make the cover of Vegetarian Life. He doesn't like a number of vegetables - some based on what I suspect is hearsay (beets), some on experience (dark cooked greens). There are others he just can't eat because of his Crohn's, including all the cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, broccoli, etc. That said, he probably eats more vegetables than most Americans, so I should really count my blessings. And he does try new things in small amounts, which is nice - he now likes fennel, which is great, and he didn't mind celeriac or parsnips. But my basic vegetable list looks like this:

Peppers (green or red)
Sweet potatoes
Winter squash
Raw baby spinach (in small quantities, because of the Crohn's he can't have a lot of anything raw)
Parsley (which I throw in everything, since it's one of the only dark leafy green things he eats)
Maybe parsnips, celeriac, green beans, peas or artichokes (if prepared well and not in large quantities)

Throw in some dairy and a couple boxes of cereal, and that's most of my shopping basket most weeks. I consider radishes, avocado, fennel and cucumber optional, and I buy winter squash and sweet potato in rotation, but the parsley, carrots, peppers, onions, and mushrooms are there every week, like milk and eggs. I'm getting so I can't look at a red pepper.

Really, it's not a bad list, though it's missing some of my favorites - zucchini, beets, kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, cauliflower, cabbage. I'm just tired of the sameness of it all. But it's a new year, and I am aiming at positivity. It can be a good thing to have limitations. I shall be forced into creativity. Or at least, into really using the resources of my gazillion and one cookbooks. This year, I am going to find out how many ways a person can prepare a sweet potato. And, as a small, secondary resolution, I am going to try to put a little more effort into making some vegetables just for myself. It's hard to get up the energy to decide to do more peeling, chopping, etc., particularly when I already have a vegetable ready for dinner. But for my own good health, I should really be revisiting my old friend kale.

Happy new year.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I hope

I hope when it gets to this point, the starving graphic designers given employment by the government in the new "plant a garden for survival" campaign have as much style and verve as the artists who created these:

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Let's talk about something else - how 'bout some yummy prison food?

Prison is not supposed to be fun. I get that. I'm not saying that convicted rapists and murderers and the like should be dining on filet mignon while poor children don't have enough to eat. Obviously. But really, you can tell a lot about a country's priorities by the conditions in its prisons. And when it comes to food, the conditions in our prisons are dismal at best. The CDC lists cases of foodborne illness on its website, and a disconcerting number of them occur in prisons. Some of the reasons for this are obvious - poor quality food, large numbers of people to feed, close living quarters that can lead to contamination. But, as this fascinating article from Cyrus Naim at Harvard explains, one of the problems is responsibility and accountability - to be brief, it's no one's and there's none.

Consider this:
The current law of prison food is primarily a product of prison law, rather than of food law. That is, while there is some self-regulation, oversight occurs primarily through inmate litigation alleging violations of Constitutional provisions, such as the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, or often First Amendment freedom of religion claims demanding prisons supply inmates with food following their specific religious requirements.

Under current standards, this means that sanitation or nutrition conditions cannot be held unlawful under the Eighth Amendment unless two tests are met. First, the conditions must be objectively cruel and unusual, defined as violating “contemporary standards of decency.” Second, a subjective test is applied, looking to the minds of the prison administrators. Since only cruel and unusual punishment is unconstitutional, the Court reasoned that only those conditions that are known by those responsible would be unlawful. The precise standard is that inmates must prove prison officials were “deliberately indifferent” to the specific problems in the case. Both tests must be met before any conditions will be found to violate the Eighth Amendment.

He goes on to mention that "occasionally" food in prison is regulated under general food laws that apply to any place that food is served. However, inspection is generally internal and so is the responsibility for repairing any problems - no inspectors are coming around to check on anything. So basically, unless the food gets so bad that prisoners actually claim Eighth Amendment violations, anything goes.

Really, preventing food poisoning and ensuring nutritional adequacy of meals does not seem to constitute "coddling" of prisoners. One would think it wouldn't be hard to get to a basic agreement on that, but prison issues are pretty much completely ignored in the political discourse, while food issues are only beginning to really break through. So as a issue, I suspect prison food reform lies somewhere below, I don't know, conquering lint, on the nation's priorities.

But of course, there are always a few idealists willing to take on the most hopeless of causes. Prison gardens have starting springing up across the country, initiatives in which prisoners work for their own keep (an idea even the staunchest law-and-order type can approve of), while learning gardening and culinary skills. There's one at San Quentin, another in Maryland (pdf), and someone has even written a guide to starting such programs. Those of us who believe, however naively, that working the land can start to heal a broken person, must find hope in such efforts. Some preliminary studies also indicate that aggressive behavior in inmates can be linked to nutritional deficiencies and decreased with appropriate supplements and better food. Improving prison food may not just be the moral thing to do, but the practical one as well.