Advice, Please

My boss, Barb, is out of town for a week. Being the generous and wonderful woman that she is, she offered me her raw milk share for the week. She’s a member of the Our Farm and Dairy cow share program, and gets her gallon of raw milk delivered directly to our office every Friday. Well, “delivered” is a bit of an overstatement, one that sounds pretty illegal in Michigan. To be more accurate, every week a different share owner picks the milk up from St. Johns and drops it off in a central location – that central location happens to be our office (a lot of the share owners work in my department, no surprise there).

I don’t use a ton of milk during the week, and I was afraid it would go sour before I went through a full gallon, so I’m giving half of it to my friend Lauren. I’d like to do something sort of special with the other half, however, seeing as it’s my first raw milk ever. Some of it will probably go into this week’s batch of yogurt, but can anyone give me a good recipe to showcase this tasty, superfresh milk that I probably won’t get a chance to use again until I have lots more money?


Pierogi Night

Between me and John, I’m the primary cook, and he’s the primary cleaner. This works well for us, and I have no real complaints about the way it works out. But I’ve been pretty stressed out this past week. Our younger cat Plum is unwell, and I’ve been busy stuffing pills down her throat and shuttling her to and from the vet’s for a couple of weeks. I really didn’t feel like cooking last night, and as a result, we didn’t actually eat, which is just about my least favorite thing ever. John offered to cook dinner tonight, to let me relax a little. This is how it works when John offers to cook: he tells me he’ll cook, starts coming up with dinner ideas, and I start getting excited about food. Within 15 minutes, I’ve taken over in the kitchen, not content to be the passive eater. I do love it when John cooks, I’m just not very good at being cooked for. I need to get my hands dirty before I eat.

So tonight John offered to make cabbage and potatoes, good hearty fare that uses up the spare bits we have in the fridge (as an added bonus, the potatoes were from somewhere or other in Michigan, and the cabbage was from MSU’s own student organic farm). This immediately made me think of pierogi (not to be confused with John’s favorite, Russian piroshki), and while he was cutting vegetables, I decided to look up a dough recipe, and joined him in the kitchen. He ended up making a filling with mashed potatoes, shredded cabbage, onions, dill, garlic, and a little bit of swiss cheese. At the same time, I made up the dough, and then we got an assembly line going, me spooning filling into the rounds of dough, John forming them into more respectable-looking dumplings. We thought we’d end up freezing half of them, but we just cooked them all so that we can bring them into lunch tomorrow for leftovers

We never get a chance to cook together, because our kitchen is so small, but I really love it. When I come home, the two things I want to do are cook dinner and spend some time hanging out with John, and it’s nice to know the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

How were the pierogi, then? Fucking amazing. No kidding. We keep the frozen junk around as too-drunk-to-cook-anything-more-complicated food, but now that we’re really not drinking to speak of, this is a new dumpling altogether.

Yet another example of cheap delicious slow food bringing people together.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.