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A Mindful Task


We didn’t have winter in Tennessee this year. I don’t know whether I didn’t get the memo or wasn’t invited to the meeting, but I’m sure I wasn’t consulted on the matter because I like winter and would have forcefully opposed skipping it. In fact, winter is one of the nice things about East Tennessee – although decidedly not charming.
It’s typically an ugly season – drab and drear with the bones of the hardwood forests displayed on the hillsides and the fields a sallow yellow color. It usually rains a good bit but, making up for the downside, in the past we could rely some really cold days and even a bit of snow. Just enough winter to make you long for spring and perfect weather for the soups and stews and braises that bring solace on cold nights when the wind drives rain against the windows sounding like a thousand snare drummers gone mad.
The lack of fresh local vegetables is made up for with the satisfaction of potato chowders, roasted beets, butternut soup, and sautéed winter greens. Winter is a great season for eating and one I eagerly anticipate each fall.
Nevertheless, by the time March rolls around I’m tired of the heavy winter fare and in turn anticipating the first spring lettuces, rhubarb, and asparagus. However, in Knoxville those treats are still a few weeks down the road and so, as far as I’m concerned, March is the real culinary winter.
This year it’s worse. The warm weather stole much of the savor from my usual winter meals and despite the warmth it’s still too early for truly fresh produce. I approach the kitchen with dread and a sense of hopelessness having nearly exhausted my ability to find exciting and interesting dishes. I’ve turned to making sausages and baking bread, to corning beef and simmering stock. And in these ancient tasks I’ve found small, often unexpected, delights.
Yesterday I warmed a couple of slices of home-corned, beef brisket in the microwave for lunch. That was all I planned to eat, I didn’t even feel like the effort of making a sandwich. But as the meat warmed and its fragrance escaped the oven and the fat popped and crackled I reached for a loaf of Cuban bread I’d made a couple of days before. I cut off a couple of slices and added them to the plate along with a dollop of brown mustard. Using my fingers, I tore off a chunk of meat and a small hunk of bread, dipped them in the mustard, and found heaven. The rich, slightly sweet flavor of the bread toning down the too-salty corned beef and the mustard adding just the right touch of syncopation. Finishing the food, I licked the fat and gelatin from my fingers.

It certainly wouldn’t have been as good if the corned beef and bread had been store-bought, but it still would have been far better than a burger or chicken pieces/parts bought at a fast food joint; Far better than something from the frozen section of the grocery store. Good food needn’t be a chore to prepare nor need it be expensive, but you do have to pay attention. Samuel Johnson wrote, “I look upon it that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.” Eating well is a mindful task.
I received a few dozen e-mails about last week’s column (“Absurdum ad Infinitum“) on California’s proposed trans-fat bans as well as on my earlier column “Food Police.” Most of the responses agreed with most of my points, but a few didn’t. One of those supporting a ban was from an articulate college student in California, Cat Warren, who managed to cover most of the objections in a single short post. She wrote:

“I’m not well educated on the subject [of trans-fats] but from what I’ve heard there exists a preponderance of evidence supporting the idea that trans-fats do some pretty awful things to your insides. Are there more important issues right now? Probably. Is a ban really necessary? I think so. A ban won’t be enforced on an individual level, but it will make corporations stop selling food that is more deleterious than alternatives, and that will mean a lot for many people who are too poor to get good healthcare or good nutrition. Obesity is a big problem right now.”

From my research, there is good evidence that trans-fats are bad for you, but it’s early in the research cycle. At one time there was a preponderance of evidence that all fats were bad for you. Now the evidence is strong that unsaturated fats (in reasonable quantities) are good for you and, more recently, that even saturated fats (in small amounts) may be important to good nutrition. Nevertheless, I strongly support informing consumers that they’re eating trans-fats as well as all other fats.
But as I noted in the article they’re found in most animal products — including, probably, human breast milk. They also are created when fats are heated to high temperatures — so even using an oil that doesn’t contain trans-fats for making french fries wouldn’t eliminate them from the fries.
A local ban, at the level of NYC, Philadelphia, or even California won’t prevent corporations from using trans-fats except in their local operations. Remember the Dolly Madison Cakes I mentioned in last week’s column?
And although obesity is a big problem (I presume the pun was accidental), changing the fat french fries are cooked in won’t have any affect on the calories and so no effect on obesity.
The solution is education (which begins with information) and, in the case of the poor, better nutrition programs. But prohibition, in this case, isn’t a solution. Instead, prohibition is at best a mindless, knee-jerk reaction – and at worst it’s a cynical effort to appear to do something while not addressing the fundamental problems.

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