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.