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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

almonds-face-packsIt’s been a while, I know. My monkey mind gets interested in other things — like making pictures from other pictures, playing with my adorable little dog, and ghost writing for famous dessert mavens —  and my own food writing dries up like parts of California. Meanwhile, I worry about almonds, and apparently I’m not the only one. All I can say is, and not for the first time, is thank God for Mark Bittman. His post in today’s New York Times follows, but first, a recipe for ABC Butter, which is about fifty times better than almond butter.

ABC Butter — Equal parts raw almonds, raw cashews, and raw Brazil nuts. You probably want to start with one cup each, to avoid overtaxing your food processor. Throw all the nuts in the hopper, cover your ears, and process until the clatter dies down and the nuts turn into a grainy paste. This will take several minutes and will test your faith in me and in your food processor, but trust me: it will all come together. I like to drizzle in a tablespoon or so of almond oil, to make it a little creamier. Decant into jars and have at it.

 

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Fear of Almonds

Mark Bittman, New York Times Contributing Op-Ed Writer

June 3, 2015

I can’t tell you how many times in the last month someone has come up to me and said something like, “Do you think I should stop eating almonds?” or “I really miss almond butter, but I just can’t bring myself to buy it anymore.”

It’s typical: We focus on a minuscule part (almonds) of a huge problem (water use in California) and see it as the key to fixing everything: If only we stopped eating almonds, the drought would end! (If only we stopped eating “carbs,” we wouldn’t be overweight.) But there are parts of the state where growing almonds makes sense. Using dry farming techniques that take advantage of residual moisture in the soil and rainfall, there is some ideal almond country in California.

Almonds are not the enemy, and the water-use problem is not going to be fixed by Americans cutting back on them. [italics mine] Or, for that matter, on the other fruits and vegetables (“Oh my God, do you know how much water it takes to grow an avocado?”) of which we don’t eat enough. It’s going to be fixed by more rational policies; by figuring out what makes sense to produce in California and what doesn’t; by at least a partial return to regional agriculture; and — get ready for this — by more expensive food.

Nor is this elitist: More expensive food is more rationally priced food in a world where we stop cheating on environmental and labor costs. Spending under 10 percent of our income on food makes no sense, and yet that’s average for people in this country.bittman-circular-thumbLarge-v4

We can afford to pay the actual price of our food, a noticeable but slight difference for most of us. And if you worry about the effect of fairly priced food on those Americans who experience food insecurity, then join me in working to raise their wages, or in fighting for better subsidies for real food.

Whether driven by market forces or government regulation or — as is virtually guaranteed — by a combination of the two, water prices are going to go up. This is especially true in California, where some water is free or nearly so, and therefore is predictably going scarce. A more accurate term than “drought” might be “a shortage of water caused by misuse.”

Since agriculture uses something like 80 percent of the water in the state, as water becomes scarcer — and as we acknowledge that, and behave as if it’s scarcer — it’s going to become more expensive. And because such a significant fraction of our food is produced in California, problems for California agriculture are problems for all of us.

You can’t grow food without water, so planting crops that can thrive with less means that production of food that needs lots will shift to places with a more bountiful supply. We may import some foods to try to make up the difference, but it’s likely that the prices of those foods will rise also.

Just as using less water for food (“more crop per drop”) is imperative — as many prevailing irrigation techniques waste water — using less California land for agriculture is an option. Further, using the remaining viable agricultural land for foods that we should be eating more of makes perfect sense. How do we get to that place?

What would benefit the general population in the short term? Certainly not an avoidance of almonds, which are about as healthy and “natural” a food as most of us eat. What would rational water use look like? Or, more to the point, what might happen in California, and what might its impact be elsewhere?

Next up is more expensive water, and in many cases a marked increase in the price of foods that use the most: Meat and dairy, by far the thirstiest agricultural products because they’re so high up on the food chain. (Plants such as spinach and almonds “eat” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, minerals from soil, and water; livestock drink water directly, but also eat grains, oilseeds and forage that require lots of water to grow.)

factory_farmFor a variety of reasons, beef prices have steadily increased in recent years, and consumption has steadily dropped. Dairy is a bit more complicated, but Americans continue to drink less milk. Neither of these products is intrinsically “bad,” although production techniques involving animal concentration camps and industrial processing make them less desirable. The point is that as water prices increase, the prices of these products are also likely to rise. Given that California currently produces about a fifth of the country’s milk supply, and a great deal of beef, that’s going to have a profound impact.

There may be a blessing in disguise here, though to see it we have to put affordability aside for a moment. As the price of industrially produced dairy and beef goes up, foods produced more traditionally and in regions where water is not so scarce will become relatively less expensive.

In short, the playing field will level out for more sustainable production methods. If we can make dairy production more profitable in the Northeast and see more grass-fed beef ranging throughout the rest of the country, we’ll have a higher-quality product and we’ll undoubtedly eat less of it.

That will relieve some of the pressure on California water, and allow the state to do what it does best: Raise fruits and vegetables, of which we should be eating more. Yes, including almonds.

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I thought I invented ABC Butter, but no. I’m not sure The Jolly Beetroot did either, but she has a lovely blog and I hope she doesn’t mind my reusing her photo. Perhaps my fondness has Australian roots.

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Thank goodness for Mark Bittman and his large media platform. He can reach multitudes with his sensible, Yes-You-Can messages about eating well in a crazy world. Bittman recently offered up a two-step guide embedded in an essay about food policy, reprinted in full below because it seems we can’t hear it often enough. Because people still get bent out of shape when they learn you follow a plant-based diet. Suddenly everyone is a nutritionist, qualified (and entitled) to scold you about not getting enough protein, calcium, calories, whatever. They get skittish about inviting you to dinner at their house, as if you were contagious or an alien much too difficult to please. Thus, I am grateful to those with the power to normalize — and make easily accessible — what seems to me a perfectly normal way to eat. Michael Pollan, of course, has honed it to koan-like elegance. Yes you can.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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contibutors-bittman-thumbLarge-v2SAN FRANCISCO — To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.

We shouldn’t discount small farms and businesses, nor should we ignore relatively minor officials like the mayor of El Monte, Calif., who tried (and failed) to establish a soda tax to benefit public health. We do not always know where real change will come from, and certainly smaller operations may be more innovative and show us the way.

But for the most part we know where real change doesn’t come from: Big Food, the corporations that supply most of the food and stuff masquerading as food that’s sold in supermarkets, as fast food and in casual dining chains; and government, especially the federal government, which is beholden to and entranced by big business. Nothing new here.

imgresThere often seem to be more happy exceptions in industry than in government. If you look at the relatively new companies that have blazed a path for the food industry, you see, among others, Whole Foods and Chipotle. One demonstrated that supermarkets could sell better ingredients; the other opened the door to non-junkie fast food.

Neither is above criticism, and it’s possible both will be surpassed within a few years by newcomers with fresher and better ways of doing things. Still, it’s comforting to know that at least somewhere in the corners of this food system, market competition is giving opportunities to clever and even well-intentioned people to figure out how to make real money by actually providing the public with better food.

imgres-1I’m especially impressed with the way Whole Foods is innovating in the arena of labeling, gradually extending its own internal labeling system from fish to meats and now to fruits and vegetables. (As I said, though, they’re hardly above criticism.) Marketing is of course part of it, but shoppers who want to talk back to the supply chain by knowing where their food comes from don’t otherwise have a way to do that. If Whole Foods gives them what they want, then despite the “Whole Paycheck” nickname (and there’s some evidence that Whole Foods is starting to compete on price as well), those who can get there and afford it will favor it. This is progress, doing well by doing at least some good, and that can’t be said about most corporations involved in food. See, for example, the too-little-too-late attempt at transparency by McDonald’s.

We can’t rely on even well-intentioned souls in industry, but given the ball-dropping entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare — the federal government — we have little choice. The legislative branch isn’t worth discussing, and leadership from the executive branch has been disappointing. Two issues could have been improved definitively in the last six years — the marketing of junk to kids and the existence of antibiotics in our food supply — and President Obama has accomplished little in either case. However stymied he may have been, we are looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed much, the exception being the improved but still hotly contested school food programs supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.usda-organic-scary

Even worse are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the last of which refuses to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animal production despite knowing that a ban is possible and desirable. It’s also dawdling on mandating an improved nutrition label on packaged food, probably because of industry taking “interest.”

We shouldn’t need to rely on Whole Foods for good labeling. Yet every day I’m asked, “How do I know that what I’m buying is O.K.?” It seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens.

I get this. I’m a worrier, too, though I tend to expend my neurotic energy on different topics. The overall environment means that you’re pretty much on your own if you try to eat healthfully in spite of the system, and you must take up that battle through a dozen or more decisions each day. But there are two big decisions that can put you on the right path and help you largely steer clear of antibiotics, excess sugar, unwanted chemicals, animal cruelty, and more.

Here then, is your two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy.

1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food.”

2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.

If you add “Cook your own food” to this list, it’s even more powerful, but these two steps alone allow you to reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re consuming; pretty much eliminate GMOs from your diet, lighten your carbon footprint; reduce your chances of becoming ill as a result of your diet; save money; cut way back on sugar, other junk and unnecessary and potentially harmful nonfood additives; and so on.

All without relying on corporate benevolence or the government getting things right. The power lies with you.

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Can’t help myself. Michele channels Lil Jon while reminding us to eat our veggies and vote.

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Yep, this is something different. I’ve been thinking about how to step up the frequency of my posts and my interactions with you, dear reader, perhaps by folding in news and/or commentary that interests me. This post, printed verbatim from The Atlantic, is such an experiment.

3d_hc_savethedate_mergedI have known and admired Jen Doll for many years, starting back in the aughts when we were members of writing group known as the Jane Street Workshop, led by the phenomenal Alexandra Shelley. (Among our illustrious alumni is Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and I can attest that both she and Jen are as smart and kind and important as you would imagine.) imagesJen writes for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, and other with-in pubs, and in May 2014, published her first book, the hilarious and moving, Save The Date, The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.

The following piece caught my eye in a recent issue of The Atlantic, which of course I now read cover to cover. Because my daughter. It reminded me of the fatigue that overcomes me in a pretentious restaurant or grocery store like, say, Whole Foods — and of the glorious meals my husband and I ate at a teeny tiny restaurant called Fuji, on a narrow back street in East Osaka, Japan, where  all it took to get the seven-course meal of the day (for approximately $4.50) was to nod with the politeness of a foreigner with limited language skills, hold up two fingers, and say, “futatsu kudasai,” which means, “two, please.” Thank you, Jen!

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In 1919 the Hotel Pennsylvania, in New York, opened its first restaurant, with offerings notable for their descriptive simplicity: “lamb,” “potatoes: boiled,” and so on. Nearly 100 years later, the Statler Grill, one of the hotel’s current restaurants, offers updated takes, from a “lollipop Colorado lamb chop” to “buttered mashed potatoes (Idaho potatoes with butter & a touch of cream, whipped to perfection).”

You needn’t be a linguist to note changes in the language of menus, but Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious,  flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

Not that the signature elements of a fancy menu are likely to stay exclusive. Food terms—like food trends—have a way of traveling full circle, from rarefied to mainstream to passé and back again. Take the word macaroni, which rich Americans originally borrowed from Italy. In 1900, Jurafsky explains, it was found mainly on high-end menus but “slowly became more and more common,” ending up the purview of all-night diners. Until, that is, top chefs began reclaiming mac and cheese, mixing in delicacies like truffles, or, in the case of Keller’s deconstructed version, lobster.

Already, provenance-oriented menu language is spreading outward from the finer restaurants to the Subways and Applebee’s of the world. The first franchise to take provenance seriously was Chipotle, says the food developer Barb Stuckey. (“They’ve always menued Niman Ranch pork.”) Now some McDonald’s burgers are served not on “buns” but on “artisan rolls,” and TGI Fridays boasts of “vine-ripened tomatoes.”

In turn, high-end food purveyors may head in a different direction. “As this stuff trickles down, the rich need a way to be different again,” says Jurafsky, who notes the burgeoning menu trend of extreme minimalism, seen at the Michelin-starred San Francisco spot Saison, where the set price starts at $248 and the menu comes after the meal, as a souvenir. In some ways, this is “a return to 200 years ago, when you’d say, ‘Give me dinner,’ and they’d just give you what they’d cooked,” Jurafsky says.

Imagine what this could do for the speed of the drive-through lane.

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I am depressed about Soylent. Maybe it’s the future, in which case I’d like to check out right now. I know it’s not a joke because the New Yorker just gave it 6,000 words, about ten times more than the average parody, and because to my kids, with their ears ever tuned to the media, it’s old news. It is old news, another meal-in-a-bottle, another miracle powder offering a shortcut to longevity, but this time with traction.

In case you haven’t heard, Soylent is a powdered blend purported to contain all the nutrients needed to sustain human life, and it tastes, when mixed with water, like a cross between Cream of Wheat and Metamucil. To quote the website Soylent.me (“Free Your Body”):140512_r25001_p233

Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort.

People are buying and drinking the stuff as we speak. The New Yorker calls it The End of Food, and that’s what really has me in a tailspin. In the beginning, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, three young men were living in a small San Francisco apartment, working on a technology startup that wasn’t going well.

They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas — supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy — but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden.” 

imgresRight off the bat, I’m deep in cognitive dissonance. I understand anxiety about the cost of food, and the tiredness at the end of the day that leaves no room for meal prep. Not everyone enjoys tearing cilantro leaves off the stem one at a time, but resentment that one has to eat at all speaks of an alienation from all I hold sacred.

I also understand that feeding the world’s population is a whopping big problem we’re far from solving. One in six Americans are “food insecure” — millions of hard-working people, children and seniors who can’t always make ends meet and have to choose to go without food. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, upwards of 850 million people worldwide are suffering from chronic hunger. But let’s face it — 850 million people are not going to pony up $70/month for 21 pouches of unpronounceable ingredients.

Meanwhile, the methods we use to produce food on a large scale are ruinous. We spray pesticides on our fruits and vegetables like there’s no tomorrow, and now, according to a new study published in the journal Nature, rising carbon dioxide emissions are making staple food crops less nutritious. As for meat, “the present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable,” understates Robert Martin, Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, “and presents an unprecedented level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise as food.”

Big, big problems, but Soylent?Soylent_green

The product is not, the company hastens to explain, ha ha, made of ground up humans as in the dystopian 1973 film. Scanning for additional word associations, I come up with soy, the tarnished workhorse of vegetable proteins, soil, about which enough said in an eating context, and lent — when Christians give things up. None of this is compelling.

Everybody suggested changing the name, Rhinehart told Widdicome. “Investors, media people, my mom.” But he liked the self-deprecating nature of the name, and the way it poked fun at foodie sensibilities:

“The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright—this is the opposite.”

I’m not the only one in distress. Return of Kings blogger Pill Scout thinks that Rob Rhinehart is An Idiot — “a beta nerd and software developer with a clear bent for transhumanism and science fantasy. Nobody should be eating what he calls food.” Here, precisely, is what he calls food:

Complete-Soylent-Nutrition-Facts

 

 

Soylent, argues Rhinehart, is quick, cheap, nutritious, environmentally friendly (huh?) and “easier than food.” Because, as VICE blogger Monica Heisey explains,


0d778175af2eb31dadaff639b02cab84_vice_670You know what’s a complete waste of time, money, and effort? Eating. I mean, wouldn’t you rather just ingest a tasteless form of sustenance for the rest of your life and never have to go through that tedious rigmarole of opening and eating a premade sandwich or feasting on a pile of fried delicacies ever again?

 

Seriously. I mean, we could probably fit a couple of 27-inch iMacs in the space currently occupied by the dining room table, not to mention the kitchen. We could rent that sucker out. Sex is free, but, good grief, what a lot of time gets wasted getting down to business! Rhinehart tips his hand on that score.

Soylent is definitely a permanent part of my diet. Right now I only eat one or two conventional meals a week, but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often. 

In other words, if he had a life. Can you imagine Thanksgiving with no feast? Birthdays with no cake? Celebrations with no clinking of glasses filled with tasty spirits? What about give us this day our daily bread, even if it is gluten free? What about joy? Delight? Satisfaction?

No, I say. No to Soylent, yes to life.

We are most likely not, those of us within range of this post, suffering from chronic hunger. Due to the accident of our birth, we are among the luckiest people on the planet insofar as we have a roof over our head and enough to eat, so please — because we can — give us this day our crunchy toast, slathered with thick fig jam. Give us our basil, snipped from the potted plant on the windowsill, and the weird-ass durian we hacked open in the driveway for fear of the stench. Give us the harissa-spiced chickpeas with olives and raisins we prepared for the graduation party and the sweet, fresh pear whose juices still drip down our chin in a memory of childhood in Detroit.

Please? And thank you.IMG_5537

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My husband keeps a little notebook in the kitchen drawer in which he records the abundant malapropisms we hear in the course of our days. “It’s a mute point,” for example, “sleep depravity,” and “best to nip it in the butt,” which strikes me as the right thing to do with sleep depravity. My favorite — and the title of this long overdue post — comes from an engineer at Bill’s work who, startled by an unexpected suggestion, furrowed his young brow, clicked his automatic pencil a couple of times and said, “Hmm, that’s food to think about.”photo 3











I’ve been thinking about food more than usual for the past several months, thanks especially to my daughter Alexandra. She is my inspiration in the kitchen and on the interwebs, and will be yours too if you check out her stuff on Instagram and Tumblrphoto 4

For me, it started when Alexandra urged me to watch the documentary film, Forks Over Knives, which “examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” I never have eaten much processed food, but I do like my Loch Duart salmon and brown butter double chocolate chip cookies. I like going out to nice restaurants and over to friends’ houses for dinner, and Thanksgiving feasts with the extended family, and cupcake parties with the neighborhood girls. Also — having lived through (if not subscribed to) the macrobiotic 1960s, the Stillman 1970s, the Scarsdale 1980s, the Atkins 1990s, and the Rachel Rays, Cupcake Wars, Iron Chefs, Paleos, and Diners Drive-Ins and Dives of the oughts and beyond — I feel as if 1) I’ve seen it all, 2) most is nonsense, and 3) life is way to short to be doctrinaire.

 

photo 4That said, I’m a happy convert to a plant-based diet. It may be no more sound than the latest eyewear trend in hippest Brooklyn, but I don’t think so. There’s solid science behind it, including the massive China Study, plus Michael Pollan’s wise counsel to “eat [real] food, mostly plants, not too much.” I prefer the term “plant-based” to “vegan,” though it amounts to the same thing: fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, no meat or dairy. It spares me direct complicity in the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations (aka CAFOs), helps me save on groceries, dramatically improves my digestion, and makes me feel good.

Here’s what breakfast looks like:

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Overnight oats with chocolate, chia and berries, fresh fruit and carrot juice

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Beet-banana smoothie with 4-5 frozen bananas, a good chunk of roasted beet, fresh ginger, blackstrap molasses and water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch:

Veggie sushi, veggie bowl

Spicy sweet potato soup with cashew cream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner:

Tacos with black rice, white beans, salsa, purple cabbage and cilantro with caramelized plantains

 

Mushroom ragu over polenta

 

 

 

 

 

Now tell me that doesn’t look fabulous. There’s a lot more I want to share with you, but as you may have noticed I’ve had some trouble being reliable about blogging. That’s another new leaf to turn over, along with the kale: to write more often. Are you with me?

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Three friends have died within the last six weeks, I think. It could be more. I say this with uncertainty because I’ve only just now stumbled into the news about two of them on Facebook, of all the godforsaken ways to find out, and there’s no way of knowing what else I have missed. The shock of their deaths is compounded by the shock of not having known, and by not having said goodbye.

Willy-nilly, through the tears and regret, I’ve been thinking about the food I shared with these friends–and  how food mirrors life itself. Both are glorious, challenging and diverse beyond measure. Both are ephemeral; here today, gone before you can say itadakimasu.

Carole was mild in manner and coloration, a soft-spoken woman of whom it was wise to assume had the heart of a tiger. I didn’t know her well, or long enough–we met in the crucible that was the Obama campaign of 2008, powering through thousands of phone calls on the strength of a doughnut and a few stale bottles of water–but well enough to recognize in her a radiant being. Her husband had been sick; he was the one we were worried about. The last time I saw her was on a Thursday at Tung Chen Grocery, where she was stocking up on tofu delivered fresh that day along with bahn mi and bánh tro to those who knew it was there. We smiled at our little secret.

Domingo was my landlord for five days in 2008, when he gave us his 9th Street storefront for use as a Get Out The Vote office. There were more than a few degrees of separation between the Dominican businessman and this white lady volunteer from the suburbs, but in that 5-day lifetime we became what I can only call soulmates. It didn’t matter that I never knew much about him, nor he of me; we had trust and a tremendous fondness for each other, and that was enough.

He came running into the office on the Sunday before the election, waving his arms and insisting that I come right that minute to the church down the street. Outside the big red doors of St. Paul’s, a woman was telling the exiting parishioners they would be bad Catholics if they voted Democratic. The priest rolled his eyes discreetly heavenward, and Domingo and I handed out Obama stickers to the grateful crowd. On Election Day, while I was busy wrangling hundreds of volunteers, he caused several dozen pork and turkey sandwiches to appear at the office.

Domingo was a deacon at St. Paul’s, and in the years that followed, he introduced me to the tamale stand that pops up between masses and to the fundraising dinners at the parish hall where for $5 you can load up a plate with pulled pork and beans and corn and tostones and flan and coconut cake. I would make a pie or a batch of cookies and drive over to 9th Street, knowing I would find him there at one of his businesses. The last time I saw him I was canvassing near his house, and he invited me and my friend Jess inside to meet his wife. Jess spoke with her in Spanish, I waved, and Domingo showed us around his gorgeous three-story brownstone that in Manhattan would cost $6 million. There were signs of a recent child’s birthday party–crepe paper, deflating balloons. He sent us off with a slab of cake apiece. He had cancer.

And then there was my friend Doc, a brilliant, audacious man who in August lost his struggle with depression. Doc was guy you could connect with on a lot of dimensions–baseball, Unitarian Universalism, Bruce Springsteen, kids. With me and Doc, it was the Red Sox—not that I know anything about baseball, but I am from Boston and my husband is a fan and that was way more than enough for Doc. He showed up at my door one day with a Red Sox jacket he’d found at Goodwill.

We also shared an interest in John Updike, and thanks to Doc’s initiative we spent an evening in Harrisburg, in the august seats of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, listening to Updike explain why James Buchanan was not the worst president of all time. 

But most of all, with me and Doc, it was food. He wasn’t fussy. As with everything else, if it was fun and with friends, he loved it. Doc learned that I had a knack for sushi, and the next thing I knew he had acquired a sushi-making kit and was clamoring for a shopping list and a guest appearance at his house. This was Doc as I knew him—an enthusiast, grabbing hold of an idea, wrapping his arms tight around it, and charging ahead with a fervent devotion that captivated everyone in his path.

I should have worn a kimono; he would have thought that was fabulous, and launched into a narrative Q&A designed to teach the kids something about Japanese fashion of the Heian period. As it was, there was plenty of discussion about just what constitutes sushi (it’s the vinegared rice, not the raw fish); the architecture of it—either rolled on a membrane of dried seaweed, or shaped in the palm to form quail’s egg-sized balls of rice draped with little quilts of fish; the aesthetics, though we made a pretty big mess of the kitchen; and of course, the eating of it, which was also messy.

I didn’t know then that for me and Doc, that was the last supper. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see Carole again after that Thursday at the market, or Domingo after he wrapped up the birthday cake. One doesn’t, usually. Which is why—as I’m learning so very slowly that I have to admit to resistance—every moment we have together is important. 

I am in many ways a bad friend. I get busy and then neglectful. I take it for granted that there will always be another chance to pick up the phone, but there isn’t, always. I am trying to make up for lost time by renewing some of the relationships I’ve let slide–by making amends, by writing to cousins and college friends, by telling my kids more often than usual that I love them more than I can ever say, and by remembering to give thanks for everyone and everything involved in the process of bringing food to my table. Thank you to the cooks and the farmers, the shoppers, clerks and truck drivers, the rain and the sun, the chickens and the broccoli. And thank you to those with whom I have shared a meal. Itadakimasu, yo.

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About that squash pie.

Let me begin by quoting my blogging idol Jennifer Hess, of Last Night’s Dinner, who devotes an entire page to the question, Where are the recipes?

My belief is that cooking is not a science – it’s a craft. And while there are standard ways of executing this technique or that, I simply don’t believe that there is a “right” or “wrong” way of preparing a particular dish.

To this I’d like to add that most people, myself included, are driven more by the need to put food on the table than to chase a recipe around town all day, fetching ingredients that will eventually come together in a Special Dish. I love special dishes, but day in and day out, the real question is, What can I make with things I have around the house?

Hence, the story of the savory squash pie.

It came to pass that I had two winter squash — an acorn from the Giant that was neither here nor there, and an evocative pear-shaped stripey thing from Erica the Veggie Girl that I later determined was a Red Kuri.

And on the passing breeze a mention of savory pie.

An idea thus germinated, off I went to Google in search of recipes, not so much to follow but to inspire. Not so much to define the end product but to paper the countertops while I rummaged around in the frig, the freezer, the pantry for compatible ingredients. I am not a strict constructionist.

An overly alliterative piece called the Sweet & Savory Sides of Squash suggested roasting to bring out the flavor of the squash. Excellent. I hacked open my beauties, dug out their seeds with an ice-cream scoop, and plunked them face down on a cookie sheet. When the recommended 45 minutes stretched to 75 in the course of a Skyping session with my daughter, the squash was rather mushier than I had anticipated but flavorful indeed.

A recipe for Butternut Squash Pie with Hazelnuts from Whole Foods provided a reasonable framework — i.e., basic proportions and an oven temperature — so I printed it out, set it on the counter and took to ignoring the parts I didn’t want. A frozen whole wheat pie crust? Quel horreur, not to mention I didn’t have one. I whipped up a one-crust batch using my basic vodka pie dough recipe, deleting the sugar and substituting cornmeal for 1/2 cup of the flour. I passed on the whole wheat, but feel free; garbanzo or nut flour might be nice too. Mix, chill, roll, freeze, partially bake.

Sauteed onions sounded good, so caramelized was better, sliced very fine. I was happy too that my squash was mush, not the called-for cubes, because my vision of this pie was not the chunky, plaid-shirt kind shown on the website. Neither was it Thanksgiving custard, but somewhere in between — a rough-textured compote, dry enough so a slice would hold its shape, moist but not puddingy. I ran the squash mush through a food mill, using the coarsest disk, then (because it seemed watery) microwaved it for a random 4 minutes.

So far so good. I tossed in the caramelized onion bits, an egg, a big handful of grated cheese (Parmigiano not at hand, I used the assortment of slabs and dried-out heels languishing in the refrigerator door) and a couple of slugs of white wine and olive oil.

And then collided with the complete and total absence of bread in the house. Did I really need a cup of bread crumbs? A reasonable facsimile was found in the freezer in the form of two frozen green corn tamales. Crumbled, in they went.

By now my pie crust was partially (eh, 2/3rds) baked and ready to receive the squash-onion-egg-tamale mixture. Hazelnuts sounded fabulous, but not as the recipe had them, baked in the pie where they were sure to get soft and un-nuttily translucent. This I cannot bear (except in a chestnut stuffing), so instead the nuts got minimally chopped, toasted in a pan and sprinkled on top to much, much better effect, along with scads of coarsely ground pepper. Bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour.

Can you or I replicate it exactly, harmonizing again the corn-husk steamed masa with oak-smoked paprika, onion caramel etc? Probably not. It’s enough 1) that it happened once and was enjoyed by a small, appreciative crowd, and 2) it serves as an example of how to carry on.

How to carry on, for example, when what one has in the house is this Miyazaki-esque batch of parsnips. Answer: cut it into sticks and toss with carrots and whatever other root veggies are lying around (I had a handful of cherry-sized turnips), olive oil, sea salt, a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

It helps to have things around the house that can be brought into service at a moment’s notice, lending a certain je ne sais quoi. I keep a few cans of coconut milk on hand as well as capers, lemons, limes, mustard, garlic, fresh ginger (keeps forever in the freezer), Siracha.

The main thing is to fool around.

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