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Archive for February, 2007

The Pastie in Question

Some spell it pastie, some spell it pasty; they’re all delicious in my eyes. I made mine technicolor with the rather untraditional addition of beets: I had one in the back of the fridge that needed using. Just thought I’d share.

In more crimson-colored news, take a look at my new favorite local food (at least my favorite that can survive the winter):

Pomegranate seeds in Michigan? Of course not, silly! It’s red popcorn! This is why I love my co-op. Oh, and by the way, it’s pretty tasty.

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Slow Food vs. slow food

This might be long, as this post has been a long time in the making. Apologies in advance.

This week I’ve been helping Barb, my MSU boss, prepare for the Choices Conference (irritating pdf link – consider yourself warned) next week. Choices is a food-related conference geared toward dietitians, nutritionists, and health educators in Michigan. It used to be an annual conference, but some years ago it died off. Barb has helped to resurrect it with a new focus on local, organic, sustainable foods. This is its second year, in its newest incarnation. The theme this year is slow food.

If you’ve spent much of any time around dietitians, nutritionists, or health educators, you may know that local, organic, sustainable and slow really have no place in their vocabulary (I speak in generalizations, forgive me). Last year, when the conference had a considerably broader (but still food-systems based) focus, I had the arduous task of transcribing the hundreds of evaluation forms that conference-goers had filled out for each of the many many speakers. I noticed a pretty frustrating pattern: most of the respondents really hated hearing about local food. Hated it. Several of them mentioned that the speakers advocating a locally based food system were “behind the times” and “too idealistic.” No one was convinced by the organic farmers, or by the chef who did a cooking demonstration during lunch with local, seasonal foods. Clearly, the audience was not ready for the message. This is why I’m a bit nervous about this year’s conference. If they don’t like local, how can we ever expect them to like slow?

I have pretty complex feeling about slow food in general. Scratch that. I have complex feelings about Slow Food – not the food itself, but the movement/organization. I’m not the first to say it, but I just can’t swallow Slow Food’s elitism. I feel like I’m going to be pounced on for this one, so let me qualify it: slow food – that is, the act of enjoying food and food culture, appreciating terroir, and making such things a central part of your life and community – absolutely does not have to be elitist. I’m reminded of that during farmers’ market season: my market is located in a fairly low-income neighborhood with a large population of recent immigrants. It’s a small market, but incredibly vibrant and filled with people who, while they may not have a lot of money to spend on it, really love their food, love talking about it, touching it, knowing where it comes from.

For those who do have the means to support Slow Food, that’s great. I can’t afford a $60 membership to a club that will make me feel guilty if I can’t afford to buy (or don’t have access to) the foods on the Ark of Taste. Sorry. If you can afford it, it’s a noble cause and I applaud you.

It reminds me very much of the feeling I had upon finishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I loved it, and I love Michael Pollan. I was so so happy that his book was getting the attention that it deserved. But the conclusions he came to dissatisfied me. His central question throughout the book was: what can we as Americans eat that it respectful of our bodies, of animals, of the environment? His answer: if have enough money and access, you can buy pasture-raised beef, or take a few days off of work to forage for mushrooms, age your own cured meats and balsamic vinegar and eat like a sustainable, respectful king. He had nothing at all to say for those without such means except for a cursory Sucks To Be Them. As one of Them, I was more than a little put off, just as I am more than a little put off by Slow Food.

I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here – Slow Food does good things and raises really important issues, particularly relating to biodiversity. But they are limiting themselves by giving slow food the appearance of snobbishness. Here’s an example.

On Tuesday, two days before the Choices Conference, Slow Food Red Cedar will host its first Slow Food Dinner as a fundraiser for the conference. The menu looks like this:

Course One
Organic Local sweet Corn Polenta, Cannellini Bean Mushroom Ragout,
Pancetta wilted baby greens, Detroit Asiago Cracker, Crème fraiche
Course Two
MSU Campus grown Butternut Squash Bisque, Caramelized Pecans, Maple Sour Cream
Course Three
Herb marinated grilled Organic Chicken Breast topped with Grand Traverse Cherry Bails Sauce, Minnesota Wild Rice Pilaf, Asparagus and Bell Pepper
Course Four
Michigan Apple Pithivier, Organic Pear Espuma, Beet Sugar Caramel,
Fair Trade Coffee Zabaglione

For Lansing, this is a Fancy Ass Meal. Advertisements for this dinner went up a couple of weeks ago, and several friends of mine expressed serious interest in going. Except they couldn’t. Because the dinner costs $45 a person. That’s the most expensive meal in Lansing, so you know. And my friends are, generally speaking, in more dire financial straits than I am (which isn’t saying much, given the pitiful state of my bank account). They’re either students or paying off student loans, living in shitty apartments with too many roommates to keep costs down. But they still wanted to go. Badly.

They know I work for Barb (who is also helping to host this dinner), and wanted to know, is there a rate for students and low-income individuals? I asked, interested for myself as well. And no, of course not. There is no sliding scale, no reduced rate. They are not interested in the money of poor students or otherwise poor community members. When I asked why, Barb said that the overhead was so high (because they’d hired a very expensive chef, and were holding the dinner at a very expensive venue) that if they charged a reduced rate, they’d end up losing money.

I had a long talk with Barb about this. Much of (most of, really) her work is geared toward providing access to good nutrition to low income families. This conference is geared toward health professionals who work with low income families. Introducing the idea that good food, slow food, is prohibitively expensive by nature, is terrible. Like, inexcusably terrible. I was pretty adamant about what a bad idea this was, even after she told me that I could eat for free if I worked the registration table (just me, though).

So I was incredibly happy when the next day she came into my office to tell me that, while she couldn’t do anything about the pricing of this event so late int he game, she’d decided that future Slow Food Red Cedar events would be held with accessibility in mind, keeping overhead low enough that they could afford a sliding scale for membership and dinners. I was eating a homemade pastie at the time (good old fashioned, takes-a-long-time-to-make-em U.P. miner food, for those who don’t know), made in part with local rutabagas and potatoes. She pointed at it and said, “You know, that’s slow food too. It really doesn’t have to be expensive or intimidating.” It felt really good to know that something I’d been struggling against like that could be changed so easily. The rest of Slow Food could learn from that, I think.

I’ll be attending the dinner on Tuesday – expect pictures and commentary on great food and insufferable snobbishness.

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I’d been thinking recently about how exactly my interest in all-things-food-related came about, and I decided it really had a lot to do with cooking. I really didn’t care about food until after I’d dropped out of college after 1 semester. After that, I started working at a restaurant. There, I started as a prep cook, chopping vegetables and making sauces. I graduated to fry cook shortly thereafter and discovered that I really enjoyed working in a kitchen. At the same time, actually handling the ingredients that went into these meals made me start thinking about where dinner actually comes from – something I’d never had to consider when my mom was making all of my meals. I was struck by the enormous food waste created by the food industry, something that appalled me almost to the point of physical illness.

One morning, while I was busy scrambling five million eggs for the breakfast rush, a woman came through the kitchen door with a dolly stacked with crates of food. The eggs were speckled, the carrots had dirt on them, and her hands were rough and ridged with hard labor. The head cook told me that she was a local farmer who provided the restaurant with eggs and whatever vegetables were in season. All of a sudden, farms became a big deal to me, and I had to know more.

Now, my cooking is a part of my interest in local food issues. Just as with the second-wave feminists, political action is first encited by personal experience. I will never again be able to look at my dinner without thinking about the systems that created it, and its consequences. A step in the right direction.

I was thinking about this today because my friend Lauren just sent me an article from Grist on the revolutionary nature of the cookbook, and the way they have changed the way Americans think about food in all of its permutations. Go read it.

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Ethical Meat

A happy cow at AppleSchram Orchard, not far ouside of Lansing

Cookiecrumb of I’m Mad and I Eat fame brought up a good topic the other day: that of former vegetarians being swayed by humanely-raised-and-processed meats. I’ve seen some of this here in Michigan, though not a lot. I’ve seen more meat eaters switch to ethical meats, however. It raises interesting questions though, and while I’m still vegetarian and plan to stay that way for the foreseeable future, that’s no reason not to take a look at the issue.

I’ve heard it said that sustainable/local is the new organic. I’m fairly convinced that it’s also the new vegetarian too. As more and more people are talking about local, humanely-raised animal products, people who once might have considered vegetarianism are instead starting to buy more pastured products. My mom is a case in point. I’ve been talking to her about food for years, and for years she has told me “if it wasn’t for your dad, I’d probably consider going vegetarian.” She’s the cook in the house, and if she stopped cooking meat, there would be trouble. Sigh.

Anyway, I made her read Omnivore’s Dilemma this summer, and she immediately decided that she wanted to find local sustainable and friendly sources for her meat from now on. It fascinated me that she latched onto this so quickly, while the idea of not eating meat was such a struggle for her. I think that for people who have the means to do so (and let’s not kid ourselves: these are considerable means we’re talking about here), eating “humane” animal products is a way of assuaging their guilt without taking a more radical stance.

Now I need to back up, because I’m making claims more antagonistic than I really intended when I sat down to write this. I eat animal products too. As I’ve mentioned before, I was vegan for 4 or 5 years until this past year, when I caved. This caving was not the result of serious thought and consideration. It was because I’d moved in with John, and he didn’t know how to cook vegan food. I didn’t want to end up cooking all of our meals, and I was pretty tempted by eggs and cheese to begin with, so I just started eating it. It wasn’t an ethical choice. And I was eating eggs and cheese from the supermarket, too: organic, mostly, but nowhere near humane. So I’m not speaking from any kind of moral high ground here. I’ve since cleaned up my act a bit, buying local milk and eggs form happy cows and chickens, and I’ve been trying to find more local happy cheeses, but I’m by no means spotless.

When I first stopped eating meat, I did so for a whole host of reasons. For the most part, those reasons have stayed the same for the past 6 years. I’m less focused on animal rights/liberation now, and more on sustainability, but all of my original problems with meat are still intact. Eating meat is inefficient, environmentally unsustainable (at least in the way it’s being done at the moment, and with the current global population) and cruel to animals. The first two issues are addressed fairly well by pastured/ heritage/small-farmed meats. If those were the only issues I had with meat, I’d be eating bacon for breakfast.

I still can’t shake the opinion that eating meat is cruel, no matter how you slice it (forgive me). I believe, pretty firmly, that it is cruel to kill something if you don’t really need to. These pastured, humanely raised meats are certainly much less cruel than factory farmed meats. But they are still cruel in my book, and I try to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

I won’t state any moral absolutes. This issue becomes tricky when I expand the issue beyond my own circumstances. I was reading 100 Mile Diet a while ago, and got to this part:

Alisa and I were near-vegans when we began our Hundred Mile Diet three months ago. Suddenly, everything we could eat or drink at home had to come from local land and waters, and immediately an unexpected ethical question loomed. What the hell are we going to eat for breakfast?

James and Alisa (vegans) decided that they couldn’t eat a local, sustainable diet that didn’t include animal products, even fish. In Vancouver, that’s probably true. And I’m okay with that. As I said, it’s cruel to kill something if you don’t really need to. If the choice is between humanely raised chickens from the farm 10 miles away and Boca burgers, I’ll take the chicken. I’d sill feel a little bit gross about it after all this time not eating meat, but I really think that would be the right decision in that case. Fortunately, Michigan (while cold) grows a whole lot of really great food, much of which is protein- and calorie- dense enough to stand in for meat. If Michigan stops producing beans and grains and the like, and if I don’t have my mini-farm by then, I’ll give it some thought. But for the time being, that’s where I stand on meat.

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On Tofurky

In response to my last post, Poet With a Day Job noted that the phenomenon of “real” food masquerading as “fake” food (itself masquesrading as “real” food) is akin to Tofurky. As a vegetarian, this is one of the most common questions I end up fielding over the dinner table: “Why do you guys eat fake meat? Aren’t you trying to avoid the stuff?” It’s a great question, and I’m guilty of faking it from time to time myself.

I used to eat a lot of processed fake meat (Morningstar, Boca, even Tofurky once), but now that I’m mostly off of processed foods, I don’t really touch the stuff. I don’t touch the stuff because it’s unhealthy and I don’t nkow where it comes from. But I still fake it, eating “real” fake meat that I’ve made myself, rather than “fake” fake meat, which has tons of sodium and preservatives and came out of a box. I make seitan, tempeh bacon, and tempeh sausage, as well as using TVP on occasion (processed, beacuse it’s defatted, but not quite so icky, as it’s only got one ingredient). These are, without a doubt, imitation products. So, where fauxstess cupcakes are “real,” natural food imitating super-processed “fake” food, I eat some ethical foods that are pretending to be (what I consider) unethical foods. And they don’t even taste all that great – I just miss the flavors and textures of death, I guess. They are still natural and heathy, but yes, I’ve been caught in my own web of complaining. Let the stone-throwing commence.

In other news, I talked to one of my (MSU) employers about my interest in somehow combining my interests in libraries and information management with my love of food systems work. She got pretty excited, and came up with a million reasons why farmers (and people working to help farmers) are desperately in need of people who know how to synthesize and organize information, and how to create large-scale information networks. Details forthcoming. Maybe I’m not at a crossroads after all.

In other other news, I’ve plotted out a map of all the farms I’ll be visiting in the next month or so for this farmers’ market vendor study. There are 18 of them right now, though a few might be dropping out. I didn’t realize it until I starte putting pushpins on the map, but there seem to be pretty large concentrations of farms around the Saginaw Bay area (lower thumb, for those with a limited sense of Michigan geography) and the Leelenau Peninsula/Traverse Bay area (top joints of the pinky and ring finger), so I might be able to consolidate this into just a few trips if I’m lucky. Expect reports on how much I love farms in the weeks ahead.

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I don’t watch TV. Much. John leaves the soccer channel on from the minute he gets home until he goes to bed, but I generally ignore it. I never turn the TV on or change the channel myself. The only time I ever sit down with the intent of watching television, I’m at John’s parents’ house, watching the Food Network. They’re big time TV-watchers, and they seem to have decided that the Food Network is my Favorite Thing Ever. Not so, but I don’t mind sitting down to it on occasion, so I’m not about to tell them otherwise, lest John’s dad decide to spend all evening watching football with me insted.

Guest blogging at Ruhlman, Anthony Bourdain had more than a few words for certain celebuchefs on the Food Network. I can’t say I disagree with his assessment of them, and I was particularly interested in his spot-on take on the demonic Sandra Lee:

Pure evil. This frightening Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time. She Must Be Stopped. Her death-dealing can-opening ways will cut a swath of destruction through the world if not contained. I would likely be arrested if I suggested on television that any children watching should promptly go to a wooded area with a gun and harm themselves. What’s the difference between that and Sandra suggesting we fill our mouths with Ritz Crackers, jam a can of Cheez Wiz in after and press hard? None that I can see. This is simply irresponsible programming.

Those of you who aren’t as telelvision-phobic as I am have probably known about Sandra Lee for some time. I’ve only seen her show (“Semi-Homemade Cooking” or whatever the hell it’s called) a few times, but it’s absolutely my favorite thing ever. I don’t watch TV for entertainment like most people. I watch it to make fun of whoever’s on the air. And Sandra Lee is an impossibly easy target.

This weekend John and I watched about 5 minutes of Sandra’s monstrosity of a show: she was making something with white chocolate chips and cut fruit. John yelled at the TV “But she’s not even cooking! She’s cutting up garbage and heating it in a pan!” This is true, but that immediately made me think of my own reaction whenever he tells me that I’m a good cook: “Oh, I didn’t really cook anything – I just cut up some veggies and threw them together in a pan.”

IThis all bears some relation to Kate’s post over at Accidental Hedonist on what does or does not qualify as “real” baking. Kate’s post asked readers where the line is between real and sub-real cooking: essentially, whether “semi-homemade” is homemade enough to count. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first read it, but I’ve decided that the line can be drawn by the product of your efforts : do your taste buds, upon coming into contact with whatever-you’ve-pulled-from-the-oven, recognize food, or do they recognize re-heated artificial flavors and preservatives? I can taste (and see) a difference most of the time, and the average person who hasn’t been bombarded by chemicals three meals a day can do so as well. It’s “real” if you’re not trying to fool someone into thinking it is. I suppose that’s what’s so funny about Sandra Lee: she’s not trying to fool anyone! Or maybe she is, but she’ so shameless about it, taking the very aspects of food that I define as bad and fake, and creating an entire cooking show based around them.

All of this leads in another, more confusing direction: “real” foods striving to imitate “fake” ones. I’m talking, of course about vegan twinkies, fauxstess cupcakes, (both made by cooks whose ideals I respect and whose recipes and writing I truly enjoy) and other horrifying creations, food imitating food that imitates food. I know that Jennifer at Vegan Lunchbox has defended the twinkies and other fake-food creations by saying that her son just wants to eat regular kid food. I understand that, and being childless, I’m really in no position to critique that argument. But has cooking become as self-referential as the rest of our culture? It’s time for me to go sit in a corner (or kitchen) and cry.

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Career Indecision

I haven’t written in a bit. I honestly thought I might give this blog up as a waste of time, but it seems a handful of people are interested (more than I’d anticipated they would be) in the things I’m writing about. Food is a pretty hot topic these days, as well it should be. So I’m back.

The primary reason for my absence is my new job. I have three now: bookkeeping for MOFFA and temping for this MSU grant project as before, and now 20 hours a week at the Capital Area District Library (CADL), stamping books and boring myself to death. That all adds up to 40 hours a week, and means four things: more mony, less time to goof off and write blog posts at my MSU desk, more stress, and (this is the pertinent one today) the sudden urge to reconsider my career options.

I haven’t really mentioned it yet, but while I love food systems work, and do food systems work, I have not been planning on pursuing it as a career. I want to be a librarian. I’ve recently been accepted into Wayne State’s Library and Information Science masters program, and I’ll be starting in the fall. For the past couple of years I’ve been trying to convince CADL to hire me so that I can get me feet wet and make sure this library business is right for me. Well, I’ve finally been hired as a processing page (the lowest of the low, really), and it kind of blows. A lot. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s really not a position I want to keep for very long.

Now, the fact that I hate low-paying mindless repetitive labor (regardless of the fact that it takes place inside a library) does not mean that I won’t love being a librarian. But I’ve invested so much time in getting employed by CADL that this letdown is bigger than it probably should be. With any luck, in a few months a clerk position will open up, I’ll be working with real people, in the company of real librarians, and I’ll enjoy my job and projected career choice a whole lot more. Until then, however, I’m being plagued (no exaggeration) with these doubts about my ability to be happy as a librarian. This was amplified tenfold last night when John and I visited my parents for dinner.

My dad, knowing me pretty well, had saved the latest copy of the New York Times Magazine to show it to me because he thought I’d like the Pollan article (okay, so he doesn’t know me well enough to know that I read it the minute it came out, but he’s pretty perceptive nonetheless). We talked about it for quite some time, and then started talking about the farmers’ market vendor study I’m working on (it’s going wonderfully, might I add). And he asked me point blank: “I know you want to be a librarian, but have you every thought about getting your masters in the CARRS department instead?”

I really didn’t want him to ask me that question, because it’s been in the back of my head for months. I work for a grad program (the aforementioned CARRS – Community Agriculture Recreation and Resource Studies at MSU) that offers a specialization in Community, Food and Agriculture. I have friends in the program, and I’ve been working on various projects there for about three years now. When people there hear I’m going to grad school, they all assume I’ll be at MSU, in CARRS. Why am I not?

I want a job when I graduate. And I have no idea what I would do with a Community Food and Ag degree. I am geographically limited to the greater Lansing area (or Mid-Michigan in general, if I decide I can handle a commute) because John has already established his career here (not that I mind – I love Lansing and want to stay), and that will really make it difficult to find a job when I’m done with school. It will take a while to find a good position within a library, and it would take even longer to find work in some unspecified area of food systems research.

Also, I’m helping multiple professors prepare the readings for the classes I would be taking if I were admitted into the CARRS masters program, and because of that, I’m doing half of the readings already, for fun. The professors in the department are my employers and co-workers, and we discuss food systems-related issues all day long. There is very little I would learn, I suspect, from the program itself. I’d be buying a degree, essentially. On the other hand, library science and information management are completely new to me, and I love learning new things.

Potential selling points of studying community food and ag? I’d love it, for one. Also, I’d be almost guaranteed acceptance and an assistanceship, as I’ve already been working for half of the CARRS professors for years. It’s not quite a toss up, but it’s enough to make me uneasy. I’ve taken John’s advice and I’m trying not to think about it too hard for right now. I’m going to be reading some of the recommended books for Wayne State’s library school, and talking to friends in the CARRS program about their career options after graduation. I’ll see what feels right.

I think that I will resolve this shortly, and my guess is that library science will win out. But I’m rededicating myself in advance to pursuing food systems writing, researching and reading as my Primary Hobby for a good long time, and this blog, if all goes as planned, will become a big part of that.

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