Monday, June 23, 2008

Food Thinking, the beginning--

Back when I tried to unscramble my thinking on why and how I eat animals, I ended with a promise to explore the way I eat more generally. I've read more than one book published recently on the recent history of food and eating (Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, Animal Vegetable Miracle, In Defense of Food, Common Ground: Essays by Wendell Barry), and still have some more I want to read that go way back to the English guy who termed the phrase "Organic Farming" around the turn of the last century, when fertilizer was first being developed and introduced into agriculture on a mass scale (with some pretty startling socioeconomic effects on rural areas, but more on that later). I think the British guy's name is Sir Albert Howard, but I could be wrong--I know he's a Sir, which I love to visualize as a suit of armor on a man riding a tractor out to field.

So that's where I'm coming from in terms of books. In terms of life, a few years back, living in Southern California, I discovered Farmer's Markets. They were cheap, close, and the fruits and vegetables were not only abundant but tasted way better than what I found at the supermarket. I didn't make the choice to "go local" ever in my life; nor did I consciously go out of my way to learn to cook so I'd be less wasteful or reduce my carbon footprint or whatever. My family on my dad's side owns a restaurant my now dead grandfather started, so I grew up around kitchens and then, when we moved way from the town in Maine where the restaurant was, my dad taught me how to use a knife. Then when I graduated from college my folks gave me a set of knives on my own, and now I have a framed picture of gramps hanging on the wall of our (tiny) kitchen in Brooklyn. Along the way I cooked in college, my senior year, when I had an apartment of my own and thus broke free of the chains of the dining hall. I couldn't WAIT to start cooking, then when I moved to california to go to grad. school I lived with a bunch of yahoo volleyball jocks whose major dinner decision consisted of jack in the box, in and out, or el pollo loco, I cooked for one in the pots and pans I homsteaded out there on a u-haul truck stuffed with what was left of my youth, and out back of which I towed a 1986 toyota tercel station wagon that was rust-colored where it wasn't rusted out.

Once in california I not only discovered farmer's markets but Mexicans as well. And, more particularly to our story here, Mexican food. Mexican food is the best thing in the universe. And I wanted to learn how to cook it. That's when I went "local" in a very basic way: I learned what the people native to the area made, because their food tasted good in a desert surrounding by swaying palms and suburbia and swimming pools when it was 110 degrees out and you could barely breathe from the oven you sat sweating in. Again, there was very little in the way of studying, or forethought here. I just did what felt right and what I liked to do anyway and went with it. I followed my taste buds, and I didn't eat out a lot because I didn't like fast food all that much (though I fucking grew UP on McDonald's and Wendy's and Whopper Jr.'s and Taco Bell and little Caesar's bread sticks that were my dinner on breaks from my shift at Wal-Mart, because Little Caesar's was next door in the strip mall). There is absolutely nothing about me that I can positively point to that led me to the current food fanaticism in which I currently dwell, but I will say that once I moved to NYC, food did become a political event.

I get here, I look around, and there's a "Movement" going on--everywhere I looked people were barking in capital letter phrases about Go Local. The Farmer's market became a veritable boundary marker for the avant-garde foodie liberal. I thought foodie was what Cookie Monster called anything that wasn't a cookie. I thought it was a dumb word, and I thought all this shouting and busybodying and goading people into political positions based on where they bought their food was even dumber. It seemed irrelevant to me. And the volume was too loud and preachy. I didn't wanna be an avant-garde foodie liberal.

Then I lived here for a little while, and realized I had no choice. No matter how poorly my clothes matched, or if I forgot to wear deodorant, or I double plastic bagged my scallions, I was "one of those" whether I wanted to be or not. This was an important lesson New York taught me: if you don't define your position, someone's gonna come along and label you for you. Fawk. I was not pleased, but I was hooked on the market--I couldn't go back to asparagus from Mexico. It tasted like ass to me, even if i could get it (from Peru) in December. What good is convenience if it tastes like overcooked broccoli if the broccoli had been lying in a compost heap for three weeks? I can still remember bringing home in California a cucumber in June or July or something and John eating it at dinner with something I barbecued, and him having a revelation, and telling me that he never knew a cucumber was supposed to /taste/ like something, that it even /had/ a taste. I was gratified and saddened at exactly the same time.

So here I was, in New York, awash and drowning in others' catchphrase and assumptions for me. I decided, if I'm swirling in the whirlpool, I might as well dive as deep as I can, straight down the middle. Gimme the friggin vortex, I thought. This had been my approach for pretty much everything else in this city, and it had worked (really well, in fact) so far. (in retrospect i think this is what defines this place, what defines whether or not you'll "make it"--it all has to do with reactions and unrequested unsettlings. LIke it or not, this place will happen to you if you live here, and how you respond has everything to do with whether or not you'll like your existence in this place or loathe every breathing second of it.) When it came to politicking food, and the swarms of annoying old ladies asking for the difference in starch content of la ratte fingerlings vs. russian banana fingerlings (THESE are my compatriots in the struggle against food tyranny??! Gimme a frigging break--NO ONE is gonna sign on to this 'movement' and go to a farmer's market if they to squeeze elbows with the likes of these people, or wait in line waiting to pay behind some shrill soccer mom wailing about WHY do they spray the swiss chard and NOT the spinach, and are the chickens organic OR free-range, and WHY don't you tell us on your sign?? "Is this milk pasteurized? My sister-in-law's two year old son almost died from salmonella because of raw milk she insisted on giving him. You swear this is pasteurized?"

I wonder sometimes whether this country will ever solve a problem without first turning into a total nutjob about it, chock full of ill informed dogmas and judgments and rigid definitions of "them" and what "they" aren't doing. Keerist.

But, yeah, I wanted to be understanding, so I read the books that Olivia got for me outta the library. And I read, and read, and read. And what I read freaked me the fuck out. I silently said thank you to all the crazy bluehairs and strange bulgarian women with funny accents wondering how to eat rhubarb, faithfully gathering a pound or two in their arms despite their trepidation; I built a small and silent shrine in my skull to these people, for helping me, for motivating me toward these books and the beginnings of my self-education on the systems in place regarding food production and distribution, the so-called agribusiness, of the last thirty odd years or so. I've learned all about the history of the nutrient, ever since George McGovern's revision of the first National Food Guidelines ever issued, following heavy leaning and threatening memos from American beef and poultry councils, from a recommendation to eat less meats to reduce heart disease to an advisory to "lower the intake of saturated fat". Since then we've demonized every chemical and compound from carbohydrates to omega-sixes, and isolated and pounded supplements of garlic extract, fish oil, gingko biloba, st. john's wort, niacin, as well as the since fallen from grace but once coveted essence of oat bran suppository, the only one of its kind and the alleged most effective away to immediately absorb the benefits of that wonder ingredienet, the mighty, the cracklin', the oat bran (yeah, i made that last part up, but not by much).

The more I learn the more I tailor what I've instinctively done all along, once I could make up my own mind when it came to food choices. Basically, cook for yourself, know where your food comes from, master either a particular kind of cuisine (I ditched mexican because it was too localized and the mexican restaurants did it better, and instead hitched my wagon to Italian. Little known dirty secret about California: despite having some of the best restaurants in the cosmos, they didn't have great Italian where I lived. So I decided to fill the void myself) or figure out what grows best in your particular climate and either fine a supplier for it or grow it yourself, or some combination of all of these. It's up to the individual to look around, see how and where they live, and what they have time for, and do what fits best. But for me, I decided I wanted to make sure I had an hour to make dinner if I wanted to (and I want to), and that I had another hour to enjoy it with whoever was around in my household (the more the better, most of the time), and, finally, that this time of enjoyment would be purely food and people and conversation and wine or beer or whiskey or whatever you're drinkin--the important thing was it was gonna happen around a table, without any distraction from devices.

This is how I eat. I eat slow, I eat with relish, and I eat with an ear, eye, nose, and feel for fresh ingredients (this was the thing I learned about Italian cooking: that its heart may be tomatoes but its soul is really whatever grows best where you live, and what you can most immediately get fresh from the ground, sea, or stable. Italian flavors are immediate, unfussy (for the most part), and bright. They are the essence of the thing you are serving, without all the mishmash of layering and cooked down reductions and all that. At most you splash in some wine to deglaze and five minutes later you serve whatever's int he pan with some pasta. And whatever's in the pan is most likely whatever is growing the tastiest that week, that day, that hour. The quicker you get it and pop it in your mouth, the more Italian it's gonna taste. Which, again, is another convenient way my approach to eating dovetailed with the now green or politically correct one: Italian cooking is inherently seasonal. You don't eat bolognese sauce in july and you don't eat insalata caprese in january. It's just wrong, and besides, where the shit you gonna get tomatoes from that time of year, Guam?). Plus i eat with people, as much as I can, and I eat more different KINDS of things that whopping overhwelming portions of any one thing (1/2 lb. double whopper with bacon, anyone? How about a porterhouse with a side of, uh, sprig of kale?)

This leads me to my first distillation into a rule, what may actually be the ONLY rule, I follow, in the sense that it's the only guideline I consciously follow and can succinctly state:

Eat less, pay more.

Now, that's completely ass backwards from the American food habits currently in place for I would bet 99% of the folks out there, but it's my rule, and I'm stickin to it. And explaining what I mean by it in the next installment. For now go ahead and marinate on that, and if you happen to drift by a ticket to France that you can get into your possession for free, grab it, and go, and come back and tell me about how THEY eat, as that'll help flesh all this out. But for now, I gotta bolt--stay tuned for explanatory events detailed with no particular allegiance to reason, logic, or good sense.

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