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Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

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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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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Anastacia Marx de Salcedo has this to say about Annie’s Homegrown Macaroni and Cheese. She also has the best name ever.

In summary: WTF, hipsters? Don’t you read ingredient labels? Are you naive enough to think that “all natural” has any meaning in the food industry? Because, um, it doesn’t. Processed food with happy bunnies on the box is still processed food. Which means it’s probably bad for you. It is not difficult to make killer homemade mac and cheese. I’ve done it drunk at 2 am – that means it must be easy. I don’t care how convenient powdered crap in a box is, it can’t be good for you. I’m fine with ramen noodles – I’ve eaten them many a time. But never have I ever thought that they were in any way wholesome or nutritious.

I think the most insidious thing about nutritionism (again, please go read your Pollan: it’s good for you, and goes down easy) is not that it is reductionist, but that it creates the illusion that the food industry knows more about what’s good for you than you do. Granted, we’re quickly forgetting what to eat, but it’s a circular problem, no? In buying processed, packaged foods, the closest we can come to understanding our diet is reading the fine print on the box, which is not at all the same as making a conscious decision about what ingredients to put into this night’s meal.

Someone on Metafilter left a comment on the Pollan thread talking about their hypothetical one-page diet book called You Fucking Know What You Should Eat. I’m about halfway through Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, and I think she probably could have gotten away with the now-rendered-anonymous-Metafilter-user’s suggestion. Isn’t it all common sense? She starts off with her standard sensible Nestle advice, “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruit and vegetables…go easy on junk foods,” then spends a mighty heavy 600 pages elaborating on it. I feel like this is unnecessary. I like reading about food and nutrition, so I’m fine with paging through this tome. But it must seem daunting to the average consumer, a book entitles What to Eat that is, literally, two inches thick. Am I being naive in thinking that people really do know that, beyond all of the faddish diets and nutrients, processed food isn’t as good for them as fresh food? Am I?

If that’s true, then the solution to our ills lies not so much in nutrition education as it does in decimating food advertising (particularly to children) and eliminating subsidies on processed foods and thier precursors. Not like that will ever happen. But if people are given the opportunity (both economically and psychologically) to reclaim the wealth of nutritional knowledge that resides in their families and communities, I think the health of the country will improve dramatically.

I’ve been getting so much closer to my food the past few years. I sincerely feel that when people do this, they will recognize the difference between Annie’s “Homegrown” crap-in-a-box and something real, something fresh, something they’ve made themselves.

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which of these is not  like the other?

I’m finding myself in the rather unusual situation of being a temp who loves her job. I’m trying not to get too attached to this, because well, it’s temporary, but this is hard for a few reasons: (1) I’ve been working there for the better part of three years, albeit in a different capacity than I am now. (2) This new market vendor study I’m working on is going to be crazy fun. And (3), I kind of wish I were pursuing a career that related in some way to food systems. I also really want to be a librarian. I was just offered a low-level part time position in my local library. I accepted, of course, so I’ll be working 40 hours a week, split among my three jobs. And it’s becoming clearer every day how torn I am between these two directions. So, yeah, I’m trying to not love my job too much, but I know that’s never going to happen.

Anyway, I bring up my love for my job because I think I need to enforce a little professional distance here on this blog. I’d love to talk all about this market vendor survey that I’ll be spending so much time on, but I have a feeling that might not be a great idea in terms od keeping my job. At the very least, I will be asking permission from my boss and the farmers to publish draft versions of farm case studies here, and I think they’ll probably consent to that: it’s really just good publicity for the farmers, and farmers could use more publicity. Beyond that, though, I don’t think I’ll be writing about my day-to-day activities on this project, and as much as I’d love to, I won’t be writing about how frustrating temping at a huge research university can be. Why? Because I’m classy, that’s why. So while I’d love to go on and on about this preliminary market vendor meeting I had today, and how cool it was, I won’t.

In other news, I’ve been reading  cookbooks like it’s my (fourth) job. I’ve always been a very avid reader, partially enforced by the fact that I majored in English, and was “forced” to read 25+ books every semester. However, now that I’ve graduated, I’m finding it really relaxing to read slowly. For once in my life I can take a month to read a really good book (currently: Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), and not feel guilty about taking my time and enjoying it. However, when I go two weeks without completing a book, I start feeling guilty and antsy – something in me loves the act of closing a book and knowing it’s done. I’ve been taking care of that itch mostly by reading lots of graphic novels (new favorite: The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison), which I can plow through in a day with no problem. Recently, though, I’ve started devouring cookbooks. There’s no plot, so I can put them down whenever I want. They’re practical (moreso now that I have time to cook in the evenings). And I just like them. So I picked up three from the library today: Recipes from America’s Small Farms, Simply in Season, and The Sustainable Kitchen. I’m pretty low on ideas for what to cook in the winter that revolves around Michigan produce. Reviews and recipes to follow! I got a bread baking book too, Bread Alone. That has nothing to do with local food (at least until I find a source for local flour), but it’s fun anyway.

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