Archive for September, 2011

This may be sacrilegious, but one of the things I think about when I think about 9/11 is the beginning of austerity. It was, after all, the End of the 1990s: the end of the bubble economy and the relatively peaceful period between the end of the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror. And the end — in the long run and for the middle class — of the illusion that prosperity could go on forever. How could it when during that one gilded decade, the national debt increased by 75% and the stock market grew more than threefold? Something had to give, and it was us, along with our mortgages, our retirement savings, and our daily bread. Here’s Neil Irwin in the Washington Post on January 2, 2010:

The past decade was the worst for the U.S. economy in modern times, a sharp reversal from a long period of prosperity that is leading economists and policymakers to fundamentally rethink the underpinnings of the nation’s growth. It was, according to a wide range of data, a lost decade for American workers. The decade began in a moment of triumphalism — there was a current of thought among economists in 1999 that recessions were a thing of the past. By the end, there were two, bookends to a debt-driven expansion that was neither robust nor sustainable.

Mother Jones puts it rather more starkly in It’s the Inequality, Stupid, a collection of charts illustrating what has happened to the distribution of wealth in the United States. I’m not going to rant — and I never for one second forget that my family and I are among the most fortunate on the planet insofar as we have a roof over our heads and enough to eat — but let’s just acknowledge that the rich have gotten waaaaaay richer of late and the poor a lot poorer.

So on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01, when we mourn the terrible loss of life and celebrate the heroes, I’d like to connect a few more dots and ask us all to never forget that our response to 9/11 has included trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the steady abridgment of domestic civil liberties. And that in the course of this past decade, we have arrived at a point where more than 50 million Americans live in food insecure households

Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed in May of 2001. Ten years later, she took a look at what has happened to “those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the people who clean hotel rooms, work in warehouses, wash dishes in restaurants, care for the very young and very old, and keep the shelves stocked in our stores. The short answer is that things have gotten much worse, especially since the economic downturn that began in 2008.”

Food is another expenditure that has proved vulnerable to hard times, with the rural poor turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates. And for those who like their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wisconsin, a 52-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he was supplementing his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed, baked and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver was doing a brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating with vinegar and spices.

Anyhoo … Slow Food USA has launched what they call the $5 Challenge. Since their slogan is “Supporting Good, Clean and Fair Food,” we can be confident that the results will not include raccoon carcasses.

Today, in response to a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, people eating more fast food than home-cooked meals, and increasing rates of diet-related disease, Slow Food USA launched The $5 Challenge campaign. The organization, a national non-profit working for good, clean and fair food for all, is encouraging people across the country to cook slow food that costs no more than five dollars per person. Slow food – the opposite of fast food – is food that is good for those who eat it, good for farmers and workers, and good for the planet.

The main event is on September 17, when you’re invited to take back the ‘value meal’ by getting together with family, friends and neighbors for a slow food meal that costs no more than $5 per person. My son Sam, age 22, newly self-sufficient and a master at taking back the value meal, says this is too easy. He buys easy-to-prepare, high protein food in bulk — rice, beans, peanut butter, oatmeal. Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to eat as his table day after day, but he’s young and interested in other things and can put together a reasonably wholesome 2,000 calories for $5.

In the interests of something a bit more delectable, the wonderful ladies at Food 52 have pulled together 12 tasty recipes to help us meet the $5 Challenge. As they say, “Cheap never looked so classy.” Here we have Bean Salad with Pancetta from Amanda Hesser:

And here, Linguine with Sardines, Fennel and Tomato by the lovely Jennifer Hess, of Last Night’s Dinner, who is still awaiting the birth of little Sproggy. Don’t get me started on the impact of college tuition on my food budget.

And what, you ask, was that photo of the golden, nut-topped pie at the beginning of this post? That, my friends, is my own creation of which I am insufferably proud. Consisting of roasted winter squash and a few things I had around the house, it most certainly meets the $5 criterion. I made it last night for dinner at Lorna’s, and it was so astonishingly delicious — and connected to so many story threads –that it’s going to get it’s own post. You’ll just have to stay tuned.

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Due to not spending enough time in the car, which is where I get my radio, I managed to miss the fact that it’s All You Can Eat Week on WHYY’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross.

I’m not crazy about the feeling of being a couple of beats behind. Like when I’m navigating with the help of my iPhone’s GPS, and the little blue dot on the map is just far enough behind where I actually am on the road that by the time the dot gets to the place where I’m supposed to turn, I’ve already past it. Or several beats: like when my daughter, as a sassy teen, in response to my cliched “Do you think I was born yesterday?” replied (without missing a beat) “No, I think you were born a long time ago.”

I love food because it’s timeless; it doesn’t matter when we were born. Timing does matter with cooking, and one can get anxious about getting that right, but for those of us blessed with food security, a cooking disaster is often hilarious and never the end of the world. On this, The Week After AYCE Week, we still have food and we can still talk about it.

Moreover, with Fresh Air, one can go back and capture the airwaves online and I urge you to listen to some of these, as they’re utterly fascinating and informative. You will learn, for example, why New York Times food writer Mark Bittman leaves steak uncovered in the refrigerator for days, so by the time he’s ready to grill it, it looks disgustingly dried out and crusty — but turns out delicious. (I have a pair of strip steaks getting old in the frig right now.) Also, in Kitchen Science: The Dinner is in the Details, Russ Parsons will tell you why onions make us cry:

In the water in the onion there are these little vacuoles — they’re little pockets of different chemicals. When you cut an onion, all those vacuoles are disrupted, the chemicals empty out, and they begin to combine with each other. You get these chemical reactions. … After the fifth or sixth generation of combining and recombining, the result is a kind of a sulfur gas, and, actually, it’s not clear at this point whether the sulfuric gas goes up your nose or goes directly to the eye. But either way, it irritates you and it makes your eyes tear as a result of that. And the great thing is that the chemical name for those chemicals are lacrimators from the Latin word for tear, lacrima.

So: just a few beats behind AYCE Week and in the spirit of overindulgence, this post is a piled-high buffet of some of my favorite food-related things, including a couple of the Fresh Air interviews, as well as blogs I follow and books I’m reading.

For an appetizer, there’s Sex, Death & Oysters, by Robb Walsh, “a half-shell lover’s world tour.” If the title itself isn’t enough to lure you in, let me just say (though I’m not sure what this means) that Walsh has been called “the Indiana Jones of food writers.” The book records a five-year, worldwide gastronomic exploration of the most beloved and feared of all seafoods.

Two juicy blogs will also serve as apps insofar as food porn gets one going. TasteSpotting is a “community driven visual potluck,” “a photo collection of recipes, cooking, baking, kitchen adventures, food industry and media news” and “the largest online dinner party you’ll ever see.” Similarly, foodgawker is “a photo gallery that allows you to visually search and discover new recipes, techniques and ingredients to inspire your culinary adventures.”

From TasteSpotting, via The Well-Seasoned Cook: Corn, White Bean & Squash Blossom Chowder – An end-of-summer transitional soup infused with musky herbs.

For our main course, an abundance of commentary about food, cooking and eating. That we make such a big deal out of something as basic as eating is reflective both of our civilization–our delight in creating delicious and beautiful things to eat–and the degree to which we are alienated from it. On this latter topic there’s no one better than Michael Pollan. In Defense of Food challenges the nutrient-by-nutrient approach — what Pollan calls nutritionism — and proposes an alternative:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

At a respectful distance on our table is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Richard Wrangham’s proposes a new theory of human evolution he calls “the cooking hypothesis.” Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Wrangham argues, because we learned to tame fire and cook — which increases the amount of energy our bodies can get from food, which in turn gives our digestive tract a break from processing raw food and allows our brains to grow.

Interesting, but less fun than loading up one’s plate with Julia Child on France, Fat and Food on the Floor. In this Terry Gross interview, originally broadcast on November 14, 1989, Julia recalls being hooked on French cooking from the very first bite. She made it her life and spent the rest of her career guiding American amateurs like moi through the intricacies of French cuisine.

In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say.

 Food52 is an industrial-strength blog that calls itself “a social hub for people who love food.” Creators Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubs provide scads of wonderful, searchable recipes as well as video tutorials on such things as how to make almond butter. (You put roasted almonds in the food processor, push the button and let them clatter around in the bowl until you think the motor is going to break. The nuts turn into a fine, pebbly sand–but not buttery–and you begin to wonder. Keep going and in another minute or two, like magic, the oils in the nuts will give up their resistance and the whole thing will turn into almond butter.) Food52 teasers:

We want to share our AYCE buffet with friends, of course, so let us join Last Night’s Dinner, another favorite blog though very different in tone and approach. LND is “a blog about what we’re eating. The focus is on dinners, which are mostly cooked at home.” Written by Jennifer Hess, it’s very personal and down to earth, with lovely close-up photos wrapped around stories not just about what she and her husband had for dinner last night but why she chose that meal, what happened when she went shopping for the ingredients, or grew them in her garden, and what their soon-to-be-born son will think of his first taste of spring peas. Reading LND like having a very creative, articulate next door neighbor with a lot to teach and the generosity to let you witness her young life unfolding.

Ready for dessert? Here’s my own rendering of Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark, which I found one hungry afternoon on Food52. And here, from foodgawker via Verses from my Kitchen: A shortcrust pastry shell filled with custard and seasonal fruits.

Sigh. I’m ready to relax with a good book: this will be our cheese course. In Eat, Memory, Amanda Hessler (of the New York Times and Food52) has assembled the food-inspired recollections of several leading playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets and journalists. Tom Perrotta explains how his long list of food aversions almost landed him in an East German prison. And poet Billy Collins muses over his relationship with a fish he once ate.

What’s your story?

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