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Archives for Eating Well

Fighting What You Eat: The Diet Cong

Apr
24
2009

I have a client, a wealthy woman in her 60s, who has celiac disease. This means gluten – a primary protein in anything involving wheat flour as well as a few other foods – makes her ill by disrupting her intestine’s ability to process not just gluten but anything she eats. It’s a serious disease although its effects are mild in some people. I cater three or four dinner parties for her every summer and those meals must not only be gluten-free but indistinguishably gluten free. In other words, it should never occur to anyone eating it – even a nutritionist – that the meal specifically avoids bread, pasta, couscous (a form of pasta), cakes, and similar dishes. She has good cause for being suspicious of food.

At one time I had another client who claimed she was allergic to MSG, but she relished dishes including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, steaks, and mushrooms – all of which have relatively-high levels of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG). She was clearly mistaken about her “allergy,” but she avoided Chinese restaurants.

I’ve had many clients who were on weight-loss diets such as South Beach, Ornish, and Mediterranean. I’ve done high protein/low-carb, carb-intensive/low fat, and mostly veggies with lots of olive oil. As a rule I charge clients more for cooking to a diet book because of the extra effort involved in adhering to an essentially arbitrary set of rules. I’ve never been asked to do a bacon or butter diet, but that’s my dream – I might offer a discount in that case.

I’ve been on several diets myself including some of the famous ones and lost 50 pounds once and 80 pounds twice. My conclusion is that most of them are either hog-wash or they’re thinly disguised versions of the standard advice: eat less and exercise more. If you want pasta, eat pasta, but less of it. If you want bacon, eat bacon, but don’t eat it often. Think of your body as a machine and adapt your energy input to your energy output. This is basic science, verified over 100s of years. But the current funky diet “theory” isn’t even “theory” in the scientific sense – it’s a guess based on hopeful correlations, if that.

Matching caloric input to output always works and it’s generally healthy if you’re careful to eat a balanced diet. But it requires discipline – not only while you’re losing weight but after you’ve lost it. It’s that last bit that’s the real kicker.

After striving for six months or a year to lose weight and succeeding you’re naturally going to begin eating more – after all, you don’t want to keep losing weight. But to relax the discipline just some is incredibly hard. That first brownie in six months tastes even better than you remembered and stopping at Burger King this once won’t hurt. Which is why the standard advice is best: don’t try to lose weight, change your fundamental eating habits.

Yeah. Right. But we eat the way we do because it gives us pleasure and it does so because we’ve evolved to derive pleasure from eating: all animals have. We have taste buds so we can distinguish good food from bad food. Specifically we have chemical receptors on our tongues that detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory flavors (the savory taste, by the way is – literally – MSG). Tastes combined with our sense of smell provide us with a highly nuanced means of finding calories and nutrients while avoiding poisons. This evolution continues. At one time most humans lost the ability to digest lactose by the time they were two or three years old and, today, most Asians still lack this ability. But beginning about 10,000 years ago some groups of humans began evolving the ability to digest lactose on into adulthood so most Caucasians like milk – and cheese! – and most Asians don’t.

Then there’s the whole issue of socialization, some of which is cultural and some of which is individual. For example, at one time the Japanese referred to Koreans as “garlic-eaters,” a term of opprobriation because the Japanese didn’t think civilized people ate garlic. On a personal level, some people think I’m nuts for liking Humboldt Fog, a butt-ugly but fairly mild cheese. However, my parents taught me there are 1,000s of excellent cheeses all worth trying while others never offered their kids anything more complex than Kraft Singles.

That’s why most diet ideas are at best nonsense and at worst harmful; we’ve evolved biologically, culturally, and personally to like food and particularly to like those foods with the highest number of calories so for many of us, losing weight is hard and keeping it off is far harder. We’re fighting a guerilla war against our own bodies and if our bodies win the war our bodies lose the war.

We would like to think that simply exercising our will is sufficient just as our government thought that simply bringing greater resources to bear against the Viet Cong was sufficient and would win that war. But just as the Viet Cong owned and understood the territory in Vietnam, our biology owns and understands our bodies – our willpower is a Johnny-come-lately in this contest. Which is why I’m not sure the diet war is any more winnable than that more traditional conflict 60 years ago was.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Outside the Food-Shed

Apr
17
2009

I’m a great fan and promoter of eating food produced locally: something called eating in the “food-shed.” A food-shed isn’t one of the wooden buildings that I helped my father build while growing up on a farm, it’s more akin to a watershed, which refers water flowing through a specific geographic area to on its way to the ocean. “Food-shed” is a bit more arbitrary in that it’s usually defined as a set of geographical coordinates (say, everything within a 100- or 200-mile radius of a given home) as opposed to a natural topographic feature.

The concept of a food-shed was created to promote the idea of eating locally, and as I said, I think this is a good idea. Local food is usually fresher and so it tastes better. Growers don’t have the incentive to pick under-ripe fruit or veggies to give them more leeway in shipping and so time-to-market is minimized. The ultimate in local eating at this time of year visiting a pick-your-own strawberry or asparagus farm, coming home, and eating the fruits (or stalks) of your harvest for supper that night. The difference in flavor between asparagus picked and cooked immediately and asparagus cooked a day later is an order of magnitude.

Then there’s the industrialization issue. Producing animals and vegetables on an industrial scale requires some use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Probably not to the degree Big-Ag uses them, but some. Small, local production requires much less external input because harvesting is hands-on – the farmer inspects each fruit or vegetable to at least some degree. It’s less demanding of soil nutrients because crop/animal rotation is feasible.

For lack of a better work, I really have a “belief” in the importance of agriculture as a personal instead of an industrial endeavor. I like the idea of rewarding people who’s names I know by buying from them and by telling them what I did with those Cherokee Purple tomatoes or that Maine Musk canteloupe. We both, buyer and seller, benefit from that genuinely personal exchange of value for value. Commerce can and often should involve far more than handing over greenbacks for green beans.

However, in planning my Easter dinner this year I called MarxFoods in New Jersey and asked them to send me an evaluation package of their Wild Produce Sampler that is harvested in the rain forests of Oregon and Washington. Not exactly local. But, I’ve had contacts with MarxFoods before and I think they are believers in offering something special to their customers – I went outside my food-shed to get something special. It’s not unlike me buying shrimp here in land-locked Knoxville.

Frankly, the idea occurred to me because I had a hankering for some fiddlehead ferns. I’ve had fiddleheads before when I lived near their native habitat and almost liked them, I wanted to try a new approach to flavoring them. The sampler includes stinging nettles and miner’s lettuce so it offered an opportunity to try some new things as well as revisiting an old one.

The wild veggies were shipped overnight and arrived absolutely fresh. The next day I fixed them as a feature of my Spring/Easter dinner. One of my guests had eaten fiddleheads and nettles before but the other four guests were eating something brand new. When I cleaned up on Monday morning there were a few leaves of miner’s lettuce on a couple of plates – a true complement. If the people you’re feeding say the food is good it’s one thing but when the plates look like they were licked clean, you know they meant it.

The Kenny Rogers song goes, “Know when to hold them, know when to fold them.” When it comes to cooking, know when to stay close to home, and when to step outside of your food shed and munch on the wild side.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:03 AM | Permalink

DIY – Making Lard That Lasts

Apr
6
2009

My stomach is rumbling. Well, not really rumbling so much as gurgling, burbling, growling, and I could swear it just made a barking kind of noise. (Frankly, the barking has me a bit worried.) You see, my house is innundated with the smell of porcine protein and fat – and has been since 9:00 this morning, five hours ago. It’s got about two hours to go.

I’m rendering lard.

Once or twice a year I get some pork fat, render it down, and freeze it. Then come fall I can make an apple pie crust worthy of the effort of making the crust from scratch, or fry to-die-for chicken for a summer picnic, or roast some fresh green beans that will make your mouth sing.

But in the process I get a few puzzled looks. The first time I approached Laurel Creek farms owner Tracy Monday about getting some pork fat was weirder than I expected. I’d been buying from Tracy for awhile and this was right after I’d bought Charcuterie and learned that the best lard, something I’d made once before, is made from what’s called “leaf fat,” the fat found around the pig’s kidneys.

First, the idea that I wanted to buy pork fat was weird to Tracy. This was about five years ago and the concept of making one’s own lard or sausage was still unusual here in Knoxville (it probably still is for most people). Also, he had no idea what leaf fat was and given that I’d never seen it I had trouble describing it to him. I eventually ended up with about a pound of fat that, if I remember correctly, rendered down to about a cup of lard.

These days Tracy knows what leaf fat is and his commercial customers get most of it. So I make do with trimmings which make fine lard and are completely suitable for sausage. But the odd looks don’t really stop. When I picked this lard up at Tracy’s new retail outlet the poor young tattooed clerk was as puzzled as Tracy had been years ago.

Why make lard? I can cruise into the nearest Latin American mercado and buy a pound or a gallon of Armour Manteca. That’s what the wife of the guy mowing my condo’s lawn does and then she uses it to make gorditas just like her grandmother’s and the tamales her husband swears by. But that lard is processed; it’s adulterated with preservatives and partially hydrogenated to make it shelf-stable. It’s nowhere near as good as lard can be.

Today’s rendering will produce about four cups of which I’ve promised two to friends. The remainder I’ll use mostly in the four or five pie crusts I make a year. I’ll likely roast potatoes in some of this rendered lard and sauté greens in some more. Try brushing a chicken with lard and then roasting it – beats butter by miles. With potatoes (and anything else you might deep fry) add a quarter cup or lard to the oil for a richer flavor. And spread a bit of melted lard on a grilled cheese sandwich instead of butter for an obscenely good treat.

Making lard isn’t hard, but it takes a strong stomach. You begin by cutting the fat up into 3/4-inch square chunks – more or less. This should fill your pot by about two thirds- figure a four quart pot for four pounds of fat. Then add an inch of water and place the pot over a burner on low.

For the first couple of hours, as the fat stews in the water, the odor is funky. It doesn’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. This is the easy part. After a couple of hours the water has all evaporated and the fat is melting in fat and it starts smelling good. Crazy good. Mouth-watering good. Chew your arm off good. It’s torture. You sit there, trying to ignore that wonderful pork aroma so that some evening you can make a wonderfully flakey, richly flavored shells for Cornish pasties or make Maine Fries that even John Thorne would relish.

And you start thinking, “I should add some salt to that,” or, “A few sprigs of rosemary would be perfect,” or, “Maybe a few juniper berries would help.” In short you start wanting to cook. But you’re not cooking, you’re producing an ingredient. Anything you do now will come back to haunt you in later pie crusts, french fries, or turnip greens.

The lard isn’t a painting, it’s the white gesso on a canvas – the foundation the painting relies upon – and if you color to the white the final painting will suffer.

Lard

4 pounds pork fat, cut into 1/2 – 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups water

Pour water into a 4 quart soup/stock pot. Add fat. Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 hours until fat browns. (Note: Water will evaporate, don’t replenish.) Filter through cheese cloth, cool and freeze. Keeps 6 – 9 months in freezer.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Rain in Spain

Mar
30
2009

About this time ten years ago I had little stickers all over my house giving the Spanish word for various things such as lamps, tables, and the toilet. By far, though, the preponderance of stickers were in the kitchen labeling such things as pasta, canned tomatoes, pork chops, and shrimp. Each evening I’d spend some time reading travel books and making notes on places to see. I was going to be in Spain for two weeks, celebrating my parent’s 50th anniversary, and I planned to absorb every ounce of the experience – and the food.

Click for larger image.My sister, parents, and I flew over on the same plane, but my sister was in coach, I was in business, and my parents were in first class so we didn’t really get together until we reached Madrid. On arrival we picked up a rental van, checked into a hotel, and crashed. We didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night, so supper was an impromptu picnic of cheese, bread, sausage, fruit, and wine that we bought at a market and ate sitting on the beds in my parent’s room

The next day we drove south to the villa we’d rented on a mountainside overlooking the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean – arriving some eight hours later in a pouring rain. For supper that night I made a tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet) and baked some baby artichokes. We ate them in front of a fire in the sitting room. We had set two of the food themes for our visit – picnics and home cooking using brilliantly fresh and flavorful Spanish foods and recipes.

To our great surprise and delight, the kitchen in the villa was adequately equipped with cooking gear. Even better, the villa boasted an herb garden – rosemary, marjoram, mint, chives, sage – and a pair of lemon trees. We all took turns making lunches and dinners on the days we didn’t go out exploring. A few days later one of my brothers and his wife joined us, and several friends of my parents came for a few days here and there. Everyone had a chance to cook and we had some amazing, creative meals.

On the days we played tourist we usually had a picnic lunch in an olive or cork grove, or near a ruined castle, or at the base of a coastal watch tower. Dinner (and sometimes lunch) we’d eat at a restaurant. These restaurant meals were almost never fancy, we’d just stop into roadside tavernas when we got hungry, but they were often astoundingly good.

Click for larger image.I think the best meal I’ve ever had was in the touristy town of Rhonda where we had lunch at a café hanging over the gorge. I had slow-roasted piglet that took pork to a level I hadn’t even imagined could exist in an equally stunning setting.

The trip wasn’t purely about food. We did make that visit to Rhonda. We also drove up to tour the Alhambra palace one day – a stunning piece of architecture – and visited a cave featuring some of the oldest Paleolithic art in Europe. We saw our share of Roman ruins, great cathedrals, castles, and famous art.

But the part of the trip I enjoyed most were the days we spent at the villa between site-seeing forays. We’d begin such days with a bit of bread, cheese, fruit, and coffee on the patio – each according to his or her own schedule. Then a few of us might make a quick trip down the hillside to the city markets or up the hillside to the village market. If it rained (as it often did) we’d read or play games inside and if it was sunny we’d read or play games lounging by the small swimming pool or on the patio under it’s arbor of grapes looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. Around four on these days we’d open a couple of bottles of wine and put together a collection of tapas and gather on the patio. Eventually someone would start cooking supper, which we’d eat on the patio.

There was almost never any hurry, and although all families have their frictions, ours only became unpleasant when we were packed in the van. And even then a glass of wine and handful of olives at the end of the day did much assuage hurt feelings and remind us that, at least for now, all was right with the world.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Seriously Good And Simple Food

Mar
16
2009

I recently spent some time in the hospital. I’d forgotten just how bad food can be. Among other things I was served scrambled eggs with the texture of soggy cardboard and flavor of feathers, pork loin cooked until it was barely suitable for making shoes, and frozen vegetables seasoned only with water. I lost ten pounds and if I hadn’t persuaded a visitor to smuggle in some salt I would have lost even more.

When you’re passionate about some activity, it’s sometimes easy to focus so much on the “how” that you lose track of the original “why”. These days I choose what I cook to match the needs of catering clients or cooking classes. I also cook to develop article ideas and make decisions based on a dish’s photographic potential. And I eat with a critical tongue: Too much rosemary? Too little pepper? Need something to add brightness? Is the texture right? I get so caught up in the details and craft of cooking that I forget why I began cooking: To eat.

A casserole I made the other night is a good example of this. I needed a new recipe for a web site where I write. It needed to be an inexpensive dish, somewhat low-calorie, easy to make, using leftover meat. I spent around an hour planning the dish (including writing out a starting recipe) then another hour making it, adjusting seasonings, and making notes. While it was cooking I planned the photographs and then I plated it and shot it. Finally I sat down and ate it, again making notes. The casserole was good, which I duly noted.

Too often I eat as a critic. Judging the tastes and smells and textures against existing expectations, prejudices, and history. Too often, my efforts meet these criteria.

I say “too often” because even if a dish – or entire meal – is exceptional in some sort of absolute sense, it’s no better than I expected. Occasionally something does turn out better than expected and that’s both revelatory and great fun. Such events are one of the reasons I cook and judge my cooking (and other’s) so critically. But ironically, the better I get as a cook, the less often I’m pleasantly surprised and these days it often takes such surprises to get my complete attention.

The day after I got home from the hospital I was dying for a good meal. Something quick and simple because I was sore and standing for very long wasn’t in the cards. So I made a sandwich, specifically a panini using thin-sliced country ham, raclette cheese, and sourdough bread – all of which I had on hand. It was a meal with no other purpose than tasting good. And boy did it taste good.

But after a week off from the kitchen (a week notable for its lack of decent food) I was ready to eat purely for enjoyment’s sake. As I picked up my sandwich I noted the grill marks and delightful golden color of the rest of the bread. Biting into it had a satisfying crunch and there was a light note of carbon from the grill marks. The ham was sweet, salty, and almost meltingly tender while the cheese was pungent and unctious. I resisted my urge to wolf the sandwich down and made a point of enjoying each bite. A great meal needn’t be fancy, it only needs to be thoughtful in the choice of ingredients, the preparation, and the dining.

As much as I enjoy developing recipes, preparing them, photographing them, and writing about them, the reason for cooking so is ultimately to eat – and eat well. When I become too caught up in the minutiae, focus too much (and not “just enough”) on good technique or choosing the right olive oil, I lose track of why I set out to become a cook in the first place. It is my intellectual centers, not my pleasure centers, that are in charge of such meals. Fortunately, something usually comes along about then to remind me that the more genuine pleasure isn’t cooking but eating. Especially if, like my sandwich lunch, the food is seriously good.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Cheap Eats

Feb
16
2009

I made fondue a few weeks back. The gruyere and emmentaler cheeses cost $9.00 and $6.00 respectively for a half pound of each. I used a California Sauvignon Blanc at $13.00 a bottle. The bread (a good artisan French loaf from a local bakery) was $4.00. Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) was $8.00 but I only used a bit – call it $2.00. Assorted pickles, olives, and sliced sausages on the side – $5.00. So altogether I spent $39.00 on dinner for a dinner for two. There was a bit of fondue and bread leftover, so let’s assume it was more like $35.00 for two. Not so cheap, but cheaper than the $70.00 the Melting Pot charges – and probably better tasting.

fondueAnd yet, fondue is actually a peasant meal. Herders in the Alps would melt the cheese they made (probably the cheese that wasn’t quite up to commercial quality) over a fire in the wine their neighbors made. Then they’d dip the bread their wives made in the cheese and munch on homemade sausages and pickles. Such a meal wasn’t exactly free. Making cheese, wine, sausage, pickles, and bread all require a great deal of work and skill. But such meals probably didn’t cost the herder a single Swiss centime. Peasant food. Cheap eats.

It strikes me as supremely ironic that some of our most-renowned dishes – dishes you can pay a fortune for in three-star restaurants – are ultimately peasant food. Bouillabaisse, Boeuf Bourguignon, Choucroute and even sushi, like fondue, all began as poor peoples’ foods. But here’s the kicker: These deservedly famous foods began as peasant food because the ingredients, cooking techniques, and cooking equipment were indeed cheap in their place of origin. Bouillbaise is made from the fish that didn’t sell, which is cheap if you’re a fisherman in Marseilles but expensive if you’re a middle manager in Kansas – same with sushi. When you can trade the cheese or sausage you made from your own cows for a bottle of wine from your neighbor’s fields, wine is a cheap ingredient, but not when it has to be shipped in from California or the Rhine Valley.

Cassoulet is another famous French dish that began as peasant food. It includes duck confit, pancetta, and garlic sausage – expensive ingredients where I live. But it’s basically just another bean dish and it’s essence can be captured with a few deft ingredient choices for a fraction of the cost and effort. And for that matter, Boston Baked Beans (or the Southern Barbequed Beans) are home-grown and absolutely delicious local peasant foods. I adore macaroni and cheese, made from scratch with quality ingredients. I made that fondue because I owed a friend a special meal, and I’m too chintzy to take anyone out to dinner. Or for a fraction of the cost of fondue, try Welsh Rabbit. Same idea, another imported peasant food, but using domestic cheese, beer, and toast makes it cheap eats.

Want to go all-American? Make your own burgers – America’s ultimate peasant food. Burgers have moved into upscale restaurants and, if you wish, you could once blow $125 on ground meat on a bun at the Boca Raton Resort. Make your own and it will beat the hell out of any fast food joint. Ground beef, pork, turkey, even lamb are relatively cheap. Add a few spices and herbs and pay attention to what you’re cooking and you can eat a burger worth writing about.

I have the luxury – like agrarian peasants of yore – of working at home so I can devote time to cooking and slow-cooking intensifies flavors and tenderizes tough meat – pot roast is a classic American example. But these days you can buy a slow cooker pretty cheap and cook supper while you’re at work.

The lesson to be learned here: Make the best of what you can afford. Peasant food isn’t about eating fancy, it’s about eating well.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Trouble with Truffles

Jan
26
2009

Editor Chris Nolan recently sent me a link to a contest being conducted by MarxFoods, a gourmet mail-order company specializing in fresh foods. They’re giving away 1/4 pound of fresh truffles – worth about $250. Nolan’s subject heading on the email was, “…while Rome burns?”

As it happens, I was arranging a visit to a truffle farm. Was I fiddling while Rome burned? Nolan’s snark aside, I don’t think so.

Click to enlarge.

The farm/orchard belongs to Dr. Thomas Michaels (Dr. Tom as his customers call him) is a fanatical fool for fungi and, in particular, truffles. He spent most of his professional life as a professor at Oregon State University studying truffles – figuring out how to cultivate this supremely wild and uncooperative (and therefore outrageously expensive) organism. In 1999 he moved to upper East Tennessee (because of it’s climate and soil) to try his hand at making a commercial venture of his obsession.

I learned of Michaels two years ago in a New York Times article and immediately called him, but by then the harvest season, which runs from December through January, was over so we chatted and discussed a visit the following season. For various reasons that trip didn’t pan out, but this year – last Monday in fact – it happened.

I’m a pseudo-chef, a genuine food lover, and someone who is as fascinated by the details of raising a great tomato as by a recipe for Ciopino or the history of the Dutch oven. Who cares if Rome is burning? I arose especially early on Monday morning and drove for two hours through flying snow to freeze my ass off tramping around chasing a bunch of curly-haired dogs who were cuckoo for truffles – or at least the treats their trainer fed them with each success.

Truffles are ugly, knobby little things. Fresh from the soil and covered with mud you might wonder how anyone could imagine eating one. But even fresh from the soil and covered with mud the smell is deeply sensuous – to me they smell like sex. Musty, musky, and deeply desirable. So deeply desirable that in 2007 a Macau casino owner paid $330,000 for a huge 3.3 pound specimen (over $6,000 an ounce). Now, admittedly, the size of the “truf” (as we pseudo-chefs sometimes call them) was the primary reason for the outrageous price, but even a one-ounce French Perigord truffle sells for about $90 an ounce. Outrageous? Perhaps.

But a one-ounce fresh Perigord truffle will make an unmistakable mark on a dish that serves eight people. It’s still an expensive ingredient, but nowhere near as bad as it sounds; a little goes a long way. Dr. Tom’s truffles sell for half that price and, according to the (genuine) chefs I’ve spoken to and who have more experience with this ingredient than I, the Tennessee Truffles are superior to the French variety because they’re only days, instead of a week or more, old.

Does this sound like a sales pitch? In the interest of full disclosure, I did come home with a free truffle, but I was quite willing to buy it. Having tramped around in the snow and having my olfactory nerves assaulted with that miraculous scent every time one of the dogs found a nubbin there was no way I was going to come home without a sample.

In my first column here, “Belly Battles“, I began with Brillat-Savarin’s statement: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” As I noted then, this isn’t the common misquotation which is, “You are what you eat.” Instead Brillat-Savarin is noting that what we eat describes our cultural and personal background, our economic circumstances, and even our religion and philosophy.

I can feed myself six to eight extraordinary meals for $40 and yet I was willing to pay that much money for a single ingredient (albeit for multiple dishes/meals). I do hope to earn some income in articles from the trip, but that’s still speculative. No, the main thing this says about me is that I love exploring food – Rome afire or not. But it also reflects my upper-middle-income/academic background, my general openness to foreign foods, and the lack of any personal religious or philosophical objections to any food. Some may well turn up their noses at the idea of a truffle that’s not logged a few miles on trans-Atlantic flight but, well, those are the same folks who wouldn’t touch domestic caviar either, I’ll bet.

The opportunity to see Dr. Tom’s efforts to make this rarified treat more affordable and available appealed to the populist in me; even firemen have to eat. How could I not go? And by the way, the truffles are awesome.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Ethics of Eating Meat

Jan
12
2009

This is the season for predicting trends for the coming year. Often when these predictions come to pass, they’re more fads than trends but there is one a growing school of thought that you may be vaguely aware of but which I think is at about the point the organic food trend was six years ago: humane meat production.

This trend toward humanely-raised meat tends to get tossed into the whole organic food thing and that’s certainly where its roots were, but I think the motivations for it have diverged and will continue to do so.

Most people choose to eat organically because they consider it a healthier alternative to produce doused with herbicides and grown in soil that’s adulterated with petroleum-based fertilizers. A few also like the fact that “organic” just seems better for the planet. And lot of folks started seeking out organic meat for the same reasons. But even vegetarians don’t form emotional bonds with their broccoli. Meat-eaters, on the other hand, can imagine a bond of some sort with a steer or even a pig. Remember the pot-bellied-pig-as-pet fad a few years back?

This identification with animals means that thoughtful meat-eaters must find a philosophical basis for their choice. In The River Cottage Meat Book, English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to the issue frequently in the book’s 500 pages. My friend, Chef Bob del Grosso (a professional charcutiere) addresses it often in his blog, A Hunger Artist. Our relationship to the meat we cook and eat is becoming more and more a subject of discussion among food professionals and foodies.

When I was growing up my mother would often invite her students from at the University of Tennessee out for a day of horseback riding and dinner. It never failed to freak the new ones out when we’d sit down to a plate of beef stew and compare how tough the meat from Brown Cow was compared to Mayberry. The concept of eating an animal with a name was hard to get past for many of our guests. And back then most of us were closer to our source of meat than most of are today. So how do you justify eating a steak that had a name, or even, as in the case of Mayberry, whose birth you’d been part of?

Some (the less-thoughtful, I would assert) believe we have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Even many non-religious folks embrace this fundamental right to do as they please with non-human species. To me, that’s a phenomenally arrogant attitude – an example of supreme hubris.

My take is that I too am animal, different in ability but not in kind, from cows, sheep, lions, dogs, chimpanzees, and pigs. Cows and sheep evolved to eat grass, lions and dogs to eat cows and sheep, and baboons and pigs to eat grass and cows. I’m no more obligated by any absolute moral stricture to avoid meat than a lion or pig.

But I have different abilities from my fellow animals and two of them appear to be a more general sense of empathy and the capability to apply that empathy to abstract concepts such as ethical behavior.

The cattle we raised and ate when I was growing up lived good lives. They had plenty to eat and plenty of choice (given the opportunity cows will eat spring twigs, sassafras bark, and other things one might not expect). When the time came to butcher an animal it was prodded gently (more or less, cows are big and stubborn) into a truck, hauled to the meat processor, painlessly killed, and converted to steaks, roasts, and hamburger.

Did the cow’s life end early? Compared to what? Animals in the wild constantly face predation and being eaten alive by a lion can’t be much fun. Parasitic disease is far more common among wild animals than domestic animals raised on pasture and winters are brutal. Even though our cattle spent the entire winter outside we never lost one due to weather because they were uniformly healthy and were fed hay all winter. They had a good life and no being knows when it will die.

The majority of animals destined for supermarkets aren’t so lucky. A side effect of breeding lean pigs is a linked gene that promotes aggression – so industrial pigs have their tails unceremoniously cut off as piglets. Industrial chickens have their beaks cut off. Both live on a wire mesh floor that allows their waste to drop through to a holding area – they may not be laying directly in their waste (as industrial cattle do) but they can’t escape it either. A few months ago, in “No Prevention, No Cure” I linked to a video showing sick cows being abused with fire-hoses and forklifts at a commercial processing plant. This is probably more common than many of us would like to think.

Pigs and chickens and cows aren’t human and anthropomorphizing them diminishes rather than enhances their dignity. But they are my fellows on this planet and as such are entitled to respect. And so as part of my New Year’s resolution, I make at 25-mile round trip to buy some meat and plan to continue doing. I’ve seen Tracy Monday’s farm and it reminds me of where I grew up. And if I were one of his cows, I’d be tempted to trade a short good life his farm a longer but miserable existence.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:04 AM | Permalink

Resolved: To Eat, Cook Enjoy With Care

Jan
5
2009

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, for most of us they’re empty promises just waiting to be broken by the second or third week of January. That’s because resolutions are usually negative – especially the food-related resolutions:

I will lose 20 pounds (eat less)
I will cut down on diet Cokes (deny myself that pleasure)
I will eat more healthily (avoid the foods I like best)

ChampagneBah! In modern American culture food is an enemy, it’s something we loath ourselves for enjoying and under a mistakenly puritanical impulse attempt to deny ourselves to somehow become more pure and deserving. I’m not saying we should overdue the ice cream before bed or eat a bag of pork rinds every day. But denying yourself is just begging for failure.

In that spirit, since I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions, I do have a few some food-related things I’d like to do this year – all positive.

Charcuterie: A couple of years ago I devoted some effort to learning to preserve meat, making pork and duck confit, sausages, corning a beef brisket, and so on. It was great fun, I got some marvelous treats from my efforts. I got to share this with friends and family and I learned a hell of a lot. Last year I ended up focused on writing and concentrating on making foods that I thought would interest a larger audience than my efforts to create a lamb sausage recipe. Enough of that! It’s back to the meat market this year and learning to make some dried sausages like salami and Spanish chorizo.

Cheese: I’ve been meaning to learn to make cheese for ages. My ambitions aren’t large, I’m not talking about 2-year-old aged cheddar or raclette. But I have access to cow, goat, and sheep milk – both pasteurized and un-pasteurized. I can make some fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, mascarpone, and farmer’s cheese. The trick to this effort (and the next step in my charcuterie) is getting a wine refrigerator to age the cheese and sausages in since a wine fridge gives control over both temp and humidity, which is essential.

Meat & Beans: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not as conscientious about buying meat from my local farmers as I wish I were. One reason is that, unlike the supermarket, I can’t decide I want a pork shoulder Friday morning and pick one up from Tracy the rancher that afternoon. There’s a convenience factor, in other words. There’s also cost. Meat that was well-cared for before it became meat is more expensive than the stuff at the supermarket. And part of it is I really eat too much meat.

I love meat. But I want to learn to appreciate it more than I do. Getting back into charcuterie is one way of doing that, but so is learning to use meat as a less central ingredient in meals. On the flip side, I’m not a big fan of dried beans, and yet some of my favorite recipes feature beans with a bit of meat for flavoring. So I’m planning to devote more effort to exploring this mixture. And it has the added benefit of being cheap. Win/win/win!

Ice Cream: Like dried beans, I’m not a big ice cream fan. But late last summer I got a Cuisinart ice cream maker on sale, and this summer I’m going to give it a workout. The truth is I do love fruit desserts and I enjoy both sorbets/sherbet and granitas. So I’ll get a copy of Dave Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop and add ice cream to my cooking repertoire. I think that’s a noble ambition.

Food isn’t an enemy – something to be shunned and denied – it’s one of the great pleasures in life. After touch, taste is the most sensual of our senses, a sense closely tied to our pleasure centers. So my goal, this coming year, is to enhance that pleasure not by over-indulging, but by indulging with thought, deliberation, and care.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Christmas Past

Dec
22
2008

It was still dark when I woke up for the third or fourth time that night. I reached under my pillow and pulled out my mother’s little folding travel clock with the fake alligator hide and opened it to view the green-glowing hands and numerals: 4:45 a.m.!

We were under strict instructions to not wake my parents before 5:00, so I lay there. Christmas was hell.

tourtierreA few minutes later my sister came into the room and I got down from my bunk bed. We sat on the floor whispering until it was one minute to 5:00. Then we woke my little brother and headed for my parents’ bedroom.

Dad got up and went to make sure “Santa Clause was here” while we waited impatiently on their bed. He returned with good news and we dashed for the living room.

About 8:00 the folks started making breakfast. Dad made biscuits while Mom made cream and chipped beef (for some reason this was a common Christmas morning breakfast). There was certainly jam to go on the biscuits, and hot chocolate. We may have had cheese grits as well. And then we returned to our toys and books.

Everyone took a nap and then we started getting ready for the party. Mom and Dad always had an open house on Christmas Day and they put out an impressive buffet. There was roast turkey from Christmas Dinner the night before along with two or three mustards, two or three breads and rolls, mayonaise, cheeses, and similar sandwich fixings. Dad had cooked a ham earlier in the week and he sliced that up too. I don’t recall when it began, but for years my job was making sausage balls and there would almost certainly have been spiced nuts, Chex mix, and crudities. Mom filled a large glass bowl with Ambrosia set out the leftover cranberry relish. I seem to recall a Waldorf salad as well.

Then, of course, there was Dad’s eggnog that he began making on Thanksgiving weekend and then finished (by adding the cream) on Christmas day. This was always a major hit. Mom’s Bourbon Cake and Dad’s fruit cake would be crammed onto the now-groaning board somewhere, and about 2:00 people would begin arriving. For the next four to six hours the house would be filled as people arrived and left and the food gradually disappeared.

My parents continued the open house tradition long after we’d grown up and moved away, but eventually it devolved to just family and then sort of petered out.

Although none of my immediate family is religious and the event is now much lower-key than in erstwhile years, we all still celebrate Christmas every year as a time when as many of us as possible gather together and remind ourselves that we’re a family. We still usually have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. This year I’m hosting it and my sister is coming down from Virginia.

I’m planning to serve a Quebecois (French Canadian) savory pie known as a tourtière that is traditionally eaten at Christmas. My mother has quit making the Bourbon Cake, it simply became too much effort for a woman in her late 70s (now 80s), but I took over the tradition and so we’ll have that for dessert.

I also mailed each of my siblings a huge slice of Bourbon Cake. It’s not the same as having all of us gathered for the holiday, for the open houses of my childhood, but at least we’ll all be able to share a taste of our Christmases past on Christmas Day.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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