Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Incredible Edible...Pink Slime?

This article talks about three state governors (including my own lamentable Rick Perry) traveling to tour a production facility in order to try and save the businesses that produce 'pink slime', a form of processed lean beef currently in massive public disfavor.  Internet pictures of piles of nasty neon-pink goo, combined with descriptions of product processing, have greatly damaged the prospects of companies that sell this product.  Several of the grocery stores I frequent (Whole Foods, HEB), have put up signs assuring their customers that they do not sell it, because people simply do not want to eat it.

As I read over this article, especially the last half, what I'm really struck by is a profound misunderstanding by some people on how the free market works.

You make a product that is disgusting, but safe for human consumption by legal standards.  People, upon finding out how you make it, stop wanting to eat it and choose to buy other things.  This is, well, how an economy works.  It's your responsibility to change public perceptions or make your product more appealing through marketing or pricing.  It's not government's job to save your business.

All I ask is that the food be labeled as to its contents so that people can decide for themselves what to eat.  No bans, no government protections for industries who claim they can't compete with bad press.  A level, fully informed playing field on which basic capitalism can determine who fails and who thrives, so long as minimum food safety requirements are met (which, in fact, 'pink slime' or 'finely textured lean ground beef' does).   The unpopularity of a product is a sad reality for all businesses:  ask Coke and Pepsi how many products (New Coke, Pepsi Clear...) have failed because people just didn't want them.

In the early 80's, doctors began aggressively insisting patients limit cholesterol, especially eggs.  Egg producers started losing money.  In response, we got the Egg Council and ads for 'the Incredible Edible Egg'.  You'll notice that people are still eating eggs.  By the basketful.  Eggs in cookies, eggs in omelettes, eggs in every conceivable form, and it turns out that they're actually pretty good for us.  Though some producers suffered fiscal setbacks, egg consumption is high and production of both conventional and cage-free eggs is a pretty lucrative business.

What do I remember as being different?  Well, no one called for a ban on eggs and egg products due to their unhealthy nature.  People decided for themselves what to eat, and they voted with their budgets on what industries they wanted to support.  And the egg producers, for the most part, took matters into their own hands.  They created commercials that said, "You know what?  Eggs are fucking delicious.  Get you some."  (I paraphrase sometimes...)

There may have been small subsidies I don't remember, and I'm sure that some elected officials spoke publicly in support of the egg industry.  But complaining that "we can't compete in light of negative public opinion and it's not FAIR," is frankly bullshit.  You're right.  You can't compete because once people know how you produce that cheap food they were enjoying, they lose their taste for it.

The larger statement is, of course, that if more of us knew how and under what circumstances our food was produced, we wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.  For myself, I greatly increased my consumption of local produce and small-farm fruits and vegetables, as well as free range meat produced without hormones or prophylactic antibiotics, and ethically produced seafood, when I started looking closely at my food chain.  Several months out of the year my produce comes from Tecolote Farm in a CSA basket, because it takes away my appetite to consider my spinach being picked by an undocumented migrant worker receiving a few dollars a day and living under deplorable conditions.

Food is about choices.  We have to make good choices if we want to be as healthy as we possibly can.  And when a company produces food that people choose not to eat, it's that company's problem, not my governor's and not mine.

Conservatives are forever telling people that we have to let the market solve all economic ills.  There is no sphere in which I agree more with this than the sphere of food production and consumption.  All I want my government to do is ensure that the labels on my food are correct, and that my food is free of harmful contaminants and produced in a safe manner.  Everything else, the market and I will sort out for ourselves, and neither one of us believes in the idea that anyone (not Cargill, not Monsanto, not ADM or Farmland) is 'too big to fail'.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's a Beautiful World, Charlie Brown

My adult life has been one long striving towards beauty.  Not in the conventional sense, in the sense of making myself more aesthetically appealing or socially palatable.  I'm not one to chase the perfectly sculpted body or the meticulously engineered wardrobe, that enviably well-ordered life.

Instead, I'm speaking of Beauty, of the sense that a moment, a view, an experience is so deliciously right that it's impossible not to revel in it.  Occasionally, I find myself struck dumb by wonder, for no reason I can explain.  A sunset, a friendship, the smell of jasmine through an open window, can completely stop me in my tracks.

As children, we're indulged in our susceptibility to Beauty.  No one faults a child who stares up at her first Christmas tree, eyes perfectly round, in total awe.  Parents smile indulgently and say, "Oh, I wish I still had her enthusiasm!" or "I remember what it felt like to see the world that way..."

Few people ever remember that you still can.  That it's perfectly acceptable, even as a Responsible Adult, to stop, stare, and say, "Wow!"  My morning commute includes a brief downhill drive during which the Austin skyline hangs before me.  Some mornings it's shrouded in fog, some mornings it's pink-glazed glory, and some mornings it's heartbreakingly crisp, every line and window perfectly clear in the morning air.  Perhaps three mornings out of every five, I'm given the chance to acknowledge Beauty, and the days I do so are invariably better days.

For years I've tried to explain Beauty, never quite encompassing it.  For some, it's a matter of proportionality, of things being right and harmonious:  the grace of the bird in flight, the mastery of a well-designed musical piece, the balance of flavors and textures in a dish.  For some, surprise is integral to it.  You come around a curve to be struck unaware by wildflowers stretching as far away as your eyes can see, a riot of unexpected color.  Others require a wildness to embrace Beauty:  the untouched forest, the crash of the sea on rocks, the predatory grace of the tiger.

What it ultimately comes to for me is that Beauty feeds my sense that larger things are at work.  Gods, nature, love, maybe even mathematics, something grand and transcendent and beyond my own full comprehension moves in the world, and Beauty is the mark of its graceful passing.

My response to it used to be a sort of hushed and respectful reverence, observation from a distance, desperately trying not to touch (and thus spoil) the Beauty myself.  I firmly believed that as an imperfect being I could only damage that grace, only mar the surface and ruin it for everyone else.  I have come to a space, though, where I begin to understand how I am part of the Beauty around me.  Now I practice whole-body reverence.  I jump in, I embrace the moment.  I touch, I taste, I completely immerse myself in the experience and weave it around and through my life.  I stick my head in a vat of fresh-roasted coffee beans to exclaim, "Doesn't this smell WONDERFUL?"  I walk on the grass, touch the flowers, dance to the music whether it's being played for my benefit or not.

And I point it out.  See, look, do you see?  Smell this.  Listen to those birds, touch this fabric, eat some of my food, it's wonderful and amazing.  This book, this movie, has moments of perfect Beauty woven through it, you should touch it and let it come into your life.  Here is a picture of where I was, you should go and see it yourself, because it's just incredible and I felt the hands of the gods on my heart there.

It shouldn't surprise me that this makes some people profoundly uncomfortable.

I get that Beauty is not universal, that others won't find the same delight and joy in my world that I do.  They may not care for birdsong or chocolate cake, and so they don't entirely understand what it is I'm getting out of it.  Many of them are finding their own Beauty in their own way, and that's wonderful.  Anyone who reaches out to touch the world as an act of celebration enriches it.  But others seem entirely resistant to the concept itself, to opening any windows or doors through which wonder can enter their lives.  They keep eyes forward and head down, pragmatically experiencing it all as a set of discrete and generally unremarkable facts, happy enough but completely bereft of joy.  They set aside their awe with childhood, and refuse to allow it to upset the schedules on which their lives run.

Occasionally, they make me feel like a terrifying space alien bent on the destruction of all they hold dear.  More often, they treat me as a dangerous and fascinating curiosity, so far outside the experience they've chosen for themselves that they can only observe me with passing bemusement and maybe the expectation that some day I'll 'up' appropriately:  grow up, wise up, straighten up.  I don't really plan to, though.  I mean, it may happen that reveling in Beauty is just a phase, but I hope not.

We need that sense of something larger than ourselves.  Whether it's to feel safe in the knowledge that there are gods watching out for us, to feel empowered by love to do great things, or to set our sights beyond our grasp to conquer a mountain, a problem, or even just self-doubt and fear, we need to be made small on a regular basis by the immense Beauty surrounding us, to be shown our place, to feel that grace passing through our lives and see the footprints it leaves behind.

"He said that in the end it is Beauty
That is gonna save the world, now."
Nick Cave, Nature Boy

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Joy of Simple Food

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading my grandmother’s cookbooks, including a “Joy of Cooking” from the mid-1940’s.  The thing that has struck me, over and over, is the simplicity of the recipes.  Four or five ingredients are combined to produce a tasty dish without a lot of attention or intervention from the cook.  Many do take several hours, but the majority of that time is spent on the simmer or in the oven.  As I look at them, I see how many of them could be made using a crock-pot or a slow oven, using the staples of my own moderately-well-stocked pantry.  So-called ‘convenience foods’ (canned soup, bottled sauces) appear rarely, and are treated as emergency supplements for a short schedule or an unexpected situation when they do.

I contrast this to my experience using online recipe sources and reading food blogs.  I find complex arrangements of ten or fifteen ingredients, at least two of which I invariably don’t have on hand, heavy reliance on prepared foods (for example, premixed Italian salad dressing, bottled marinades, and boxed rice or pasta meals appear frequently in recipes), and restaurant-level presentation.  In most recipes the phrase ‘just before serving’ seems to appear.  “Just before serving, shave curls of extra-dark chocolate (85% cacao) into each bowl...just before serving, garnish with a tablespoon of creme fraiche and a dot of mango salsa...just before serving, arrange chicken medallions over sorrel puree and garnish with jicama matchsticks.”

Is it any wonder that the slow food and whole food movements have been dismissed as elitist and impractical for the insistence that we should cook more and rely less on processed foods?  When people are led to believe that ‘cooking’ requires this or this for everyday meals* (look especially at the ingredient lists, and ask yourself if you have freshly ground white pepper or broccoli rabe on hand...), then of course home cooking looks like a thing only people with time and money do.  Of course that box of Rice-a-Roni makes sense, when contrasted against “Orzo in Mint Salmoriglio Sauce.”

But what if you took that boxed pasta side dish, and weighed it instead against boiling some noodles, frying some onions and garlic and tomatoes in butter or olive oil, and tossing them over the pasta, maybe with a sprinkle of thyme?  Now the comparison looks a little less daunting, no?  But it incorporates fresh produce and contains a bare fraction of the sodium and preservatives, giving you a superior food product -- for the same amount of time and money as that boxed side.

How did we get here?  How did we arrive at a place where someone who doesn’t have the time and money to bake cinnamon-chipotle cupcakes filled with raspberry ganache and topped with a reduced Chambord glaze thinks that Hostess Twinkies are the only other option?  Where did we lose the middle ground of simple, delicious, quality food?  You can blame single parents, you can blame education cuts that took Home Ec out of high schools, you can even blame Monsanto and the corn lobby.  You can definitely cite studies about how many Americans live in ‘food deserts’ without reasonable access to fresh food and quality groceries.  These things all have something to do with it.

Even more though, I think it has to do with a loss of appreciation for the simple, and a break in the passing of family wisdom.  Almost none of my friends learned to cook at home; they’re pretty much all self-taught.  In contrast, most of what I know came from my mother and grandmother, who never ‘taught me to cook’ so much as they ‘kept me in the kitchen, handing me tasks, while they cooked and I learned by example’.  I learned to respect and appreciate the basic taste of the things I was eating, without hiding them in sweet sauces or covering them with strong spices.  

There were still things I didn’t exactly know how to do when I left for college, like hard-boil an egg and roast a turkey, but the skills they gave me meant that I could read a simple recipe or suss out a cooking puzzle (extremely helpful when my CSA basket began delivering me vegetables I’d never seen before).  My grandmother also gave me my first cookbook, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which filled in the gaps admirably -- though it has no recipes for broccoli rabe.

Occasionally, in the produce section, some helpless-looking person of about my age will look at my veggie-filled basket with hopeful eyes.  He’ll gesture at the beets in my basket, and he’ll say, “Um.  Excuse me.  How do you cook those things?  I only ever had the school lunch ones.”  Or she’ll watch me confidently sorting through the turnips and whisper “How do you know which ones to get?”  So I explain that beets can be boiled or roasted, but are best roasted until they get sweet on the outside, or that smaller turnips are more tender and less bitter, or that onions should feel firm and heavy for their size and leeks need a good washing after they’re sliced.

The tips I give them are things like “steam these” or “mash these” or “you can chop up the tops and cook them like spinach.”  Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just the basic means of getting acquainted with the food.  Later, once they have a sense of beets or leeks or even that rakish broccoli rabe, they can explore the different things they want to do with it, but I start them with a basic introduction.

Our relationship with food and eating is badly broken, and everyone has suggestions for fixing it.  I’m no exception:  we must start by exploring that relationship and making it a balance of function and beauty.  By recognising that while we *can* amaze our friends and families with involved preparations, expensive ingredients, and complicated presentation, we’re not obligated to and it doesn’t actually change the love of sharing a meal with them.  Most of all, by being guides for one another back to the sanity of simple food and the joy of eating.

(*Full Disclosure: All the recipe links on this page were found by going to the Food Network page and searching 'quick main dishes' or 'easy side dishes'. They were within the top three results of each search)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Chop Wood, Carry Water, Bake Casserole

My stepbrother lives in a house he and his wife built next door to the farmhouse where he grew up.  Two years ago, his father died in the farmhouse, after a long and terrible fight with cancer.  My stepfather’s last days were spent resting on the sofa in front of his wood-burning stove, tended lovingly by my mother and dedicated hospice nurses.

Each morning that winter, my stepbrother cut and stacked wood outside the back door of the house where he’d grown up.  He came in and built up the fire for his father, putting extra wood within easy reach, making sure the pieces were small enough for the nurses to manage.  He could not stop the cancer, he could not ease the pain, he could not fix the world.

He could keep his father warm and give my mother one less thing to worry about.

We can’t fix this world we live in.  Loved ones die, jobs and homes are lost, wildfires rage out of control.  We can’t quiet the storm, we can’t bring reason to the mob, we can’t stop Time or his sister Death.  If we stop too long to think on our own powerlessness, we’ll be unable to cope.  So, we all do what we can, as we can.  

We are creatures of the aftermath, we humans.  Brisk and pragmatic, we arrive at the scene of devastation with brooms and mops, with axes and hammers, with casseroles and tea.  We fill the dog’s dish, water the houseplants, take a confused child out to the movies for an afternoon.  This is the brave face, the one that says I cannot take on your pain for you, I cannot ease that burden, but I can catch the small things you otherwise might let fall.

It is one of the most basic ways in which we reinforce community, building ties and connections to keep chosen families whole.  It’s our own defiance, our self-assurance that we still have some control over our lives: that one person, armed with a strong back and a broom and a pot of tea, can stand firm in the face of chaos.

There are those among us who shine only when life is at its darkest, and most often to light the path for others.  You won’t see them at the parties, never the center of attention.  You will see them carrying the smoky clothes out of your burned home, and returning with armfuls of clean laundry.  You’ll see their names scratched on the bottoms of casserole pans delivered to a house in mourning, you’ll find them on your doorstep saying, “I heard you might be having a rough time.  Let me buy you dinner.”

As they stand beside you, to join your battles, they’re also fighting theirs:  against apathy, against fear, against whatever moments in the past they could not fix or control.  Scratch a hero, look deeper into a kind spirit, and you’ll often find a broken heart fighting its own demons alongside yours.  Look even beyond that, and you’ll see that we’re all broken in some way or another.  It is when we piece together our own jagged edges and temper the bond with fire and tears, that we create something new, and strong, and beautiful between us.