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Culinary Fundamentalism


Red meat isn’t bad for you. Now blue-green meat, that’s bad for you. – Tommy Smothers

Saint Patrick’s Day is Saturday the 17th and in addition to the silly business of wearing something green and drinking green beer (if you were really interested in honoring the Emerald Isle you’d drink Guinness, a brew that would respond to the addition of green food coloring by shrugging and refusing to alter it’s color at all.) It’s a day when, in this country, we traditionally eat corned beef – a dish most of us know as rather frighteningly red despite long cooking. This is an American tradition, not Irish.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I love corned beef and cabbage – and also turnips, potatoes, and carrots. My Gaelic heritage is actually Scots and Welsh, not Irish, but nevertheless I make a point of honoring Ireland’s snake hunter in my American way by fixing this dish almost every year. And every year, for the past 10 or so years, I’ve sworn I was going to corn (cure) the beef myself. This year I’m finally doing it.

I won’t bore you with details about the process here, I’ll be posting the recipe for corning next week on my blog, but the fact I’m doing it points to one of the contradictory trends in food.

Our society as a whole seems to be moving away from hand-crafted food. Sandra Lee, reviled not only by Tony Bourdain who describes her as “Pure evil,” but by most people who love cooking, being a primary example. The fact that more and more Americans are eating more and more meals at chain restaurants – culinary assembly lines for the most part – is another key data point in charting the apparent trend toward culinary fornication.

And yet, even Sandra Lee (and the Food Network that’s pimping her) are obvious demonstrations of how concerned American’s are with food. The diet fads that seem to pass like a train loaded with mega-tons of grain from the Midwest headed toward some factory at the end of the line also reflect our focus on food. A preoccupation that cause’s me to wonder if the list of seven deadly sins is redundant in distinguishing between lust and gluttonly. Our society certainly appears to treat both with the same regard: the same Puritan mixture of disgust and envy of those who appear to escape the consequences of these sins.

Just as there are religious fundamentalists and evangelists. There are food fundamentalists and evangelists. Hell, I may be one — witness my homemade corned beef as an effort to find and, in some way, worship at the shrine of Real Food.

This goes far beyond an interest in organic or locally produced food-stuffs. Using local or organic ingredients is similar to dogma, statements of common belief. The true evangelists call to mind James 2:18, “I will show thee my faith by my works,” so I make corned beef and sausages and bread. The fact that these works of my hands are good at worst and insanely great at best is beside the point. I have shown my faith by making the effort.

There are people all over the world doing the same thing — rediscovering the roots of cuisine. To some degree this is a reaction to the base pandering of Sandra Dee, that scary Burger King guy, and the genuine evils of factory farming. But it’s also a sincere, and possibly naïve, effort to find the spiritual underpinnings of what we eat, why we eat it, who we eat it with, and how we eat it. Food is more than fuel.

For instance, Sam Breach, who has a blog named Becks and Posh made ricotta at home. Collin at See, Sip, Taste, Hear has made a video of roasting coffee in a popcorn popper. I know of several people making their own bacon including Derrick Schneider of An Obsession with Food and Brilynn at Jumbo Empanadas. And perhaps most fundamental, my friend, CookieCrumb at I’m Mad and I Eat, actually made her own salt by evaporating sea water.

Yes, all these people are a bit obsessed with food, but the intriguing fact is that there are so many of them making sausage, baking bread, refining soy beans, and even making salt. And these culinary fundamentalists are having an effect on the marketplace, not directly, but by caring passionately and vocally about the food we eat. The very fact of the public debate in Berkley last Tuesday between Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Frank Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods is an indication the foodies (rhymes with Moonies) influence.

So I’m corning my own beef and it doesn’t matter that corned beef is an American tradition. In this country it is intended to honor that famous island and it’s extraordinary culture and as someone of Gaelic ancestry and a food lover, I’ll be making my braised offering to Copia next Saturday evening. If you’d like a recipe, here’s how I do it.

Share  Posted by Kevin Weeks at 4:00 AM | Permalink

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