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.Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
Unlike most folks, I learned to grill meat over wood. I grew up on a small farm in Eastern Tennessee within sight of the Smoky Mountains. Only about half of the 40 acres we owned were cleared, the rest was forest. This meant we had a ready supply of wood for grilling — including that southern king-of-smoke, hickory.
Dad built the grill out of concrete block, which sounds ugly, but the block was “faced” for architectural use and looked more like hewn granite than concrete. The firebox was about 3 x 3 feet square and Dad had an iron grate made to fit that the actual cooking was done on. Even for a family of six, the pit was overkill, but at least once a summer my parents would have a big lawn party and invite 30 or so people, and that’s when the grill came into its own with three or four chickens and half a dozen sirloin steaks (from our own grass-fed cattle) going at once.
But party or family, the fires were built the same way, and one of us kids usually built them (under Dad’s supervision). We’d begin by collecting twigs ranging in size from something the size of a match to larger pieces 1/4 inch or more in diameter. Using these we’d build a teepee with the tiny stuff in the center and progressively larger pieces stacked on the outside. The initial result was a teepee about four inches in diameter and six inches tall.
This was fire-starting as art. The goal was to start the fire with a single kitchen match. If you failed to choose the smallest pieces correctly (if they were too green or moist from lying on the ground) you needed more matches or — sin of sins — newspaper. But one match or several, once the flames were going we’d add larger and larger pieces of wood. Timing and fine motor control became critical as you built the fire up; too much big wood too soon or carelessly added would crush the flaming teepee and you’d have to start over. But not enough wood added soon enough and the fire would burn out on its own before the larger wood ignited.
Within an hour and half, though, you’d have small logs burning away, a bed of coals perfect for grilling over, and a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. Not to mention the atavistic joy that comes to every boy’s heart when something is burning.
To go along with whatever was being grilled we’d often have potato salad, which I loved, or cole slaw, which I ate but never cared much for. As they became available we’d have homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, corn on the cob, green beans, and okra. Homemade ice cream made in one of those old hand-cranked ice cream makers was a fixture, although sometimes Dad would fix his buttermilk/pineapple sherbet. The sherbet would be frozen rock-solid so you had to let it melt to eat it — which pretty much defeated the purpose.
These meals were a fixture of our summer weekends, eaten outside under the trees with two or three dogs keeping an attentive eye out for anything that fell to the ground.
As I grow older I become less inclined to cook fancy dishes composed of long lists of ingredients, difficult techniques, and subtle nuances. Instead, I turn more often than not to simple tastes laid against each other like kindling and fanned into bright crackling flavors.
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