Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Living Foods

Micro-farming holds new meaning in the kitchen where bacteria, yeast, and plants are encouraged to take root.

Since Kevin stopped eating gluten, I’ve stopped making my own bread, but I used to be in the habit of raising colonies of bread yeast, just to the point where they must have thought they had built quite the civilization, and then popping their whole world into a piping hot oven until it was crisp and steaming through.

A couple days ago, I made yogurt in the crock pot. I do this every ten days or so, when we run low on milk. I make sure to reserve enough yogurt to culture the next batch before heating, then cooling half a gallon to a gallon of milk in the crock pot in preparation for enculturation. I add yogurt to the warm milk and wrap the crock up warmly in a towel, allowing the colonies of bacteria to grow, and thickening the milk overnight to the consistency of pudding.

I keep compost and let organisms have their way with it, assuming they all know better than I do how to turn my kitchen waste back into soil. There is, in fact, a magical heap of rich black dirt in my back yard that used to be banana peels, cabbage cores, and other vegetable detritus.

A few years ago, I made ginger beer using the recipe in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. I’m getting ready to do this again, because it’s hot out and I’m craving this beer. It’s mildly alcoholic and very spicy. It takes about a month to make, and begins by setting out a mash of ginger, sugar, and water to culture. Wild yeast from the air will find it and turn it into something else. The first few times I did this, it worked like a charm, so when it didn’t come out right a time after, I could tell from the dearth of signs of life: no bubbles, no good odor, and the color turned gray and dark.

I still fail at my micro-farming on occasion. A jar of beans intended for sprouts will moulder, instead, and have to be thrown away. On rare mornings, I unwrap the crock pot and the cultured milk has not thickened. Kitchen-sized is just about the level of agriculture I can manage: a cup of sprouts, a heap of compost. I have farm shares, but no garden in my tiny yard; not yet. For now I’m happy to divert compostables from the garbage stream, even without having a use for soil enrichment. I only have time to indulge so many of my obsessions at once.

Every once in a while I am caught by surprise by my own cooking, and am reminded of the several steps I mastered to be able to create this dish that I used to have to go out to get any version of. It happened last night as I ate the last serving of sprouted, spicy chickpeas with rice and kale and yogurt for dinner. It is a good example of what I consider comfort food today: we’ve been eating this spicy chickpea dish for years and know that it always tastes best after it’s been in the fridge for several days, letting the spices sink in. As I ate it last night, it was spiced and cooked to my taste, nourishing to my own idiosyncratic and exacting standards, and made fresh from local ingredients. I brought the kale home from the farm, sprouted the peas, roasted the cumin seeds, cultured the milk, steamed the rice. I know it takes exactly 40 minutes to get perfect brown basmati rice from one particular saucepan and precise measures of grain and water. I’ve got the yogurt down to a science, too. All combined, it is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clarke would approve.

Photo credit: little blue hen/flickr

Friday, April 6, 2012

Meat and potatoes

Meat and potatoes have gotten a bad rap over the years, and they don’t deserve it. I’ve changed how I source and prepare my food so that I can be sure it’s good, healthy food, all the way to its source. Your meat and potatoes are probably going to kill you, but it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Frying potatoes in freshly rendered suet
Let’s start with the potatoes. How do you take your spuds: pre-fried and then individually quick frozen? Pre-fried, frozen, and then refried? Mash from a box? Unless you’re buying organic, chances are your convenience potatoes are grown with an eye for convenience to the supply chain rather than nutrition and flavor. Conventional agricultural practice requires so many toxic pesticides that potatoes are on the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list of vegetables you should never buy from conventional growers. Who does buy from conventional growers are the commercial producers of potato products: the companies that sell you frozen fast food French fries, hash browns, potato chips and other industrial potato products. And it’s not just the cheap meals that are made with conventional potatoes: just about every restaurant uses conventional produce and frozen convenience foods. Whether you’re washing down drive-thru hash browns with coffee, having a bag of chips with your sandwich, or order a baked potato with your steak dinner, the potato is likely to have been conventionally grown in a monoculture of Russet Burbanks that are sprayed with poisons, as well as being genetically modified to make their own pest killing chemicals.

Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Then there’s the frying oil. If you’re old enough and were raised within a few miles of a McDonald’s, you can remember what potatoes fried in beef fat smell like. According to “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, for decades McDonald’s used a mixture of mostly beef fat with some cottonseed oil to fry their famous shoestring potatoes. In 1990, they switched to pure vegetable oil, although they still add “natural flavor” from “an animal source” to their French fries to evoke that beefy flavor and odor. Vegetable oil might be a step up from shortening, which really will kill you, but it’s still several steps back from the healthiest frying choice: their original, beef fat.

People have only started using large amounts of vegetable oils recently. In antiquity, we ate oils from fruits like the olive, which are evidently oily to the casual observer, and can be pressed by hand. The kinds of vegetable oils used today in great quantities, like canola and cottonseed, are extracted from tiny, hard seeds using pressure and heat, changing the chemical structure of the oil and generally making it rancid. Rancid oils are carcinogens. Wellness Mama’s blog post on why you should never eat vegetable oil or margarine includes a flow chart the describes the process of manufacturing vegetable oil. Margarine is typically made from hydrogenated vegetable oil (like Crisco) and has had its fats warped in such a way that they are recognized as harmful: New York City banned trans fats in city restaurants in 2008.

Dr. Mercola points out that Crisco was originally developed for candlemaking, but when that industry declined in favor of electric light, they began marketing it as a healthy alternative to saturated animal fats. Suet has also been used in candlemaking. It is very firm and waxy, and once rendered, is snowy white in color. Old-school cooks in the South and elsewhere swear by rendered animal fats for the flakiest pie crusts and light, crispy fried fish.

Two hundred years ago in Ireland, a family could support itself in good health on an acre of potatoes and a milk cow. Potatoes are a nutritious food, not only energy dense, but full of potassium, vitamin A, protein, and fiber. Raw dairy supplied more protein and other vitamins, as well as the saturated fat essential to life. 

Traditionally raised and prepared pork ribs, collards, and fried potatoes
A hundred years ago, people ate virtually no vegetable oils, and the average American ate about 18 pounds of butter a year. Today, people eat half that amount of butter, but have added 70 pounds of vegetable fat a year to their diets.

The idealized diet in the West now looks like a meal you can buy at McDonald’s: a small amount of lean flesh from grain fed animals (like a chicken breast or beef patty), and the rest of the diet being made up of high-density vegetable fat, like cooking oil, and carbohydrates from vegetable sources, either naturally dense or made so with refining: the white flour bun, soda, and fries. This is a long way from a buttered roasted potato, as it was commonly eaten and enjoyed two hundred years ago, in every regard: ratios, sources, methods, the length and complexity of the chain from soil and sun to dinner plate.

This week, I made a dinner of French fries fried in freshly rendered beef fat, and slow-cooked pork ribs, with a side of slaw. The next night, I ate the leftovers with some garlicky collard greens. The fried potatoes were surprisingly light, not greasy, and the scent reminded me of how fries used to taste when I was a kid. The ribs, from a locally raised pig that foraged, were strong in pig flavor and muscle fiber, not mushy like grain fed pork can be after slow cooking. The meat was delicious and tender and pulled away from the bone cleanly.

This weekend, having ground beef, bacon, mushrooms, Cheddar, suet, and potatoes all on hand, I will probably make a gluten-free equivalent of the fast food classic: a beef burger with all the fixings, and a large serving of French fries. The meat isn’t going to kill us, any more than the fat will, because we’re supposed to eat animals that lived naturally. The ground beef and tallow both came from a grass-fed bull. I might eat some kale with it, but I don’t need to add greens to redeem this meal. Food made the right way, all the way back to its origins in the Earth, will nourish, and I can trust my senses to tell me when I’ve had enough of any part of it. A restaurant meal can end in bloat and regret, but this never seems to happen when I make it myself from scratch.

A meal of conventionally raised meat and potatoes can look identical to one prepared with the right ingredients. Thanks to the flavor industry, you may even be fooled into thinking they taste very similar. Yet the two meals can be different in every important and measurable way, from its genetics, to the health of the organisms when they were alive, to its current chemical composition and nutritional profile. These differences extend to including whether the two meals in question---one produced traditionally, the other, produced industrially---will feed you or poison you, and in what measure they will satisfy and nourish, or discomfort and deplete.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Industrial Imperialism: Exporting the Flavor of America

In Japan, children are taught about healthy eating from early school age, in a unit called shokuiko, or “food education.” Last year it was reported that McDonald’s, home of the Happy Meal, now produces food education materials used in schools in Japan. According to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, family physician and health blogger, the American fast food giant is hoping that Japanese school children “will associate McDonald's branding of their healthy eating classes, and hence McDonald's as a whole, with healthy eating.”

McDonald’s is selling the values and flavor of the West: America’s most important export. In China, McDonald’s presents its food as being of the highest quality. Given the recent history of food recalls from China due to tainting and corruption, (would you buy organic from China?) it would be ironic, if not for all of the victims who are taken in by the commercial food producers’ claims.

There have always been dangers inherent in food. We must eat or we die, but eating the wrong thing, once, can be a fatal mistake. Worse is when we eat something continuously, sensing no harm, only to find out that the dangers accumulate over time with few or no symptoms. Smoking a cigarette won’t kill you. Smoking a pack a day for ten years won’t even kill you. But we know that cigarettes contain dangerous toxins, and that people who smoke for decades are much more likely to develop certain diseases. Saccharine, Red #5, and other famously toxic food additives didn’t taste like poison to fans of Tab and the old red M&Ms.

Products with known health dangers, like tobacco cigarettes and infant formula, were once far more popular in the US than they are today. In the 1970s, more than half of adults smoked cigarettes. Breastfeeding, once the only choice for feeding infants, came to be regarded as practically unnatural once infant formula became widely available. A new cultural wave of breastfeeding awareness and celebration has been breaking against that corporate front for more than a generation.

Since then, both of these products have been more aggressively marketed in other countries, where the common wisdom had not yet developed against these new dangers. Rising middle classes, like the ones in India and China, want what has been so successfully sold to the middle classes who existed before them. A Big Mac and a Marlboro is the flavor of America. Even infants can suckle at rubber teats full of chemicals, and their mothers convinced that this is better. 

Don’t look down your nose at them: we were convinced to do exactly the same things, here. Look at pictures from the 1970s and be reminded of how, in the course of an American century, cigarette smoking went from uncommon to ubiquitous and back to uncommon again.

Today, a similar war is being pitched against fast food. New York City bans trans fats, and San Francisco bans Happy Meals. Yet, most people still eat fast food in this country, still wash it down with carcinogenic beverages. (Again, are you surprised?) 

They’re clamoring for them, say the multinationals who sell poison, cheap and tasty. The people want caramel color made using ammonia and that causes leukemia. If they didn’t want it, they’d buy something else.

Are you buying it?

Photo credit: nelo_hotsuma

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Paula Deen Is Not Your Mom

Paula Deen, food entertainer, has recently revealed her relationship to Victroza, a diabetes drug

“Honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor. You have to be responsible for yourself.”---Paula Deen

“Let your medicine be your food and your food be your medicine.” ---Hippocrates

Caveat emptor---let the buyer beware---is Paula Deen’s warning regarding her portrayal of Southern cuisine.

Deen’s food entertainment empire began with her restaurant in the city of Savannah, Georgia, where she lives, and has grown to include TV shows, cookbooks, endorsements, and product lines. Fans of celebrity chefs like Deen are encouraged to consider the similarities between cooking at home and cooking for a living. But home cooks have different concerns from restaurant chefs. A home cook’s main or only job isn’t making dinner, but home cooks feel responsible for the health of the people they cook for, not just their enjoyment of the meal.

If you are lucky, there is at least one person in the world who cares about your health enough to cook for you accordingly. Make no mistake: Paula Deen is not that person. She is not your cook, not your doctor, and unless your name is Jamie or Bobby Deen, she’s not your mom. She is an entertainer, and her media empire now extends to speaking on behalf of Victroza, a drug she takes to manage her diabetic condition.

Paula Deen has recently admitted that she has insulin resistance, or type 2 diabetes. In The Washington Post, Jane Black describes Deen’s condition as “eminently avoidable” and “usually brought on by a combination of unhealthy eating, excess weight, high blood pressure and a couch-potato lifestyle.” A more nuanced explanation is available courtesy of Dr. Stephan Guyanet, a science blogger who breaks out the following factors causing insulin resistance in a series on his website: excess energy, or calories in the diet over those expended, inflammation, your brain, micronutrient status and the macronutrient composition of your diet.

Paula Deen’s image as a Southern cook is distinct from how she conducts her private life. As she has said repeatedly, the food she cooks as part of her public persona is for entertainment purposes. We can judge whether the food she prepares on TV is the basis of a healthy diet---and many have criticized her offerings---but we can’t say what part bacon and butter had in causing Deen’s medical condition.

If you cook from a Southern tradition, you probably don’t cook exactly like Paula Deen, either. There are regional and class differences among home cooks, as well as a range of personal tastes. Compare Deen’s food to the French-inspired Southern menu of Frank Stitt’s restaurant in Birmingham, or for a different kind of French influence on Southern food, the spice and humor of the late, great Cajun Cook, Justin Wilson. There are clear African influences in Southern food, from collards and sweet potatoes, so like African yams, to the pit barbecue. While the exported images of Southern food may more often fit the mold of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles than of The Pink Teacup, there are cuisines that are recognizably Southern that are less energy dense, have less vegetable fat, fewer processed ingredients, and more vegetables, than is imagined by people whose image of Southern cuisine is based entirely on media, rather than on personal experience in the homes of Southern cooks.

Tamar Adler, in her essay on Paula Deen and balance in the diet, celebrates another home cook whose approach to “normal” Southern home cooking is of a sort I recognize from my years in rural Florida, with green beans and plenty of pork. She writes about Edna Lewis who, in her country cookbook, described hearty breakfasts followed by lunches of greens.

Rural Southerners learned to cook what flourished in the South, to feed people who did hard physical labor under grueling conditions. These cuisines survived for generations because they met the needs of the people eating it. It tastes good, can be prepared from available ingredients and time, and sustains health. Some of it was dense fare, but part of a home cook’s responsibility is to serve an array of good, fresh foods in proportions that can be eaten in good health by all members of the family: sedentary, active, young, and old. While our idea of what is “real” may translate to what has survived most unchanged by time, all of these cuisines, including Deen’s, are authentic Southern cuisine. The challenge is in discerning what of the new should be embraced, and what of the old discarded, if anything.

We all used to eat traditional diets, but today, our culture changes so quickly, and people move away from where they grew up, so the foods we used to eat are no longer available, and in addition to that, our needs have changed. Most of us do less physical work, and contend with more environmental stress and pollution, than our forebears. Modern people are always having to find new ways to feed ourselves, based on what is available in our changed environments. One way we do that is by looking around at what other people are eating.

Cooking programs like Deen’s are a part of that landscape, but like other marketing images, they mislead us into consuming much more food than is healthy, and into eating foods that are highly rewarding--hyperpalatable foods full of sugar, salt, and fat--rather than the natural range of flavors we were designed to discern and enjoy.

Deen is not a good example of Southern cooking, or of comfort food, or of home cooking, because she doesn’t demonstrate how to make healthy meals that are inexpensive and simple to prepare. She doesn’t use local ingredients except incidentally, or traditional methods or equipment. The food she prepares and sells is all-American, based on nationally available commercial products, and soothing (read: numbing) in its hyperpalatable way, but not healthy.

While we may hope to learn something from them, the expectations we bring to cooking shows may poorly match what is provided. Entertainment cooking programs don’t teach you how to choose or prepare ingredients for cooking, and the cost of ingredients, waste, seasonal availability, and geography are not considerations. The show’s producers compress the perceived prep and cooking time to fit the show. They may take advantage of your ignorance as a viewer, and misrepresent a regional cuisine with which you are unfamiliar.

Here in western Massachusetts in January, the “Winter Warmers” episode of Paula’s Home Cooking sounded most appealing as an introduction to her program. Paula cooks from a home that, in exterior shots on the show, has a palm tree waving from the front yard and green grass growing; in other words, nothing like the view from my window, of bare tree branches and snow on the ground: land that could use a “warmer.” In this episode, she makes a seafood gratin, a fried veal cutlet over spinach, and an apple cookie bar dessert. She never mentions where any of her ingredients come from: the shrimp and scallops, the spinach, the apples, and everything else, must all just come from a Savannah supermarket, indistinguishable from a supermarket in Akron or Phoenix, and where these ingredients are always available, year-round.

The meal, while fairly rich, is also very expensive to produce, but not inventive in its use of unusual or expensive ingredients. Her ingredients are alternately inordinately expensive, or cheap and nutritionally weak. In the gratin, she covers flavorful, expensive scallops and shrimp with a cheese sauce. Even conventionally raised veal is very expensive and can be hard to find, but she fries that up in butter cracker crumbs. These might taste good, but Deen’s dishes are examples of gilding the lily, not hearty country fare. This isn’t what people in the South eat in their kitchens after climbing off a tractor: this is what Brooklyn hipsters wearing ironic John Deere caps eat in comfort food diners.  

The ingredients are all prepped in advance: the shrimp are peeled and deveined, the apples peeled, cored, and sliced. This isn’t unusual, but it is a missed opportunity, if the cooking show star has some basic skills to demonstrate. Martin Yan has made a long career of cutting up chickens at lightning speed and mincing onions faster than the eye can follow, with his signature cleaver. When Deen finally handles a raw ingredient, her onion chopping is crude and she reams a lemon, seeds and all, right into her finished dish.

Deen’s meal ends with the production of a dessert bar made of cheap, energy dense, commercial products, including at least one--Philadelphia Cream Cheese--that Deen is paid to promote. The dishes in this episode appear to be easy to produce, and look like they would taste good, but not amazing, and not good enough to compensate for their poor nutrient value, the cost of the ingredients, or the time it would take to prepare. While the end of the “Cajun Cook” always left me feeling a little hungry for Wilson’s dinner---and he ended every show seated at dinner with a glass of wine---imagining eating Deen’s “Winter Warmers” makes me feel queasy. My body tells me that eating whole meals like this every day would make me very sick, indeed.

Even if a strong causal link could be made between Gooey Butter Cake Bars and type 2 diabetes, Deen’s body is not a matter of public health, and her choices regarding diet, exercise, and medication are none of our business. Dr. Hyman warns that Victroza could be the next Avandia: a popular diabetes drug that caused heart attacks. Victroza is not only potentially dangerous, but is also an expensive drug, too, as Nestle points out. Yet while Deen promotes her medication of choice, she also tries to play the class card by saying that we can’t all afford to eat prime rib. Of course, Deen can afford to eat whatever she wants, but that was never the point.

Carol Plotkin writes in "Paula Deen and the Fallacy of Moderation", “To say ‘all things in moderation’ to me seems like an excuse to maintain the status quo, which arguably is average.” If the average diet is an unhealthy one, leading to an epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases, there’s no reason any of us should emulate what we see on TV. Deen and similar food entertainers are not, or should not be, a goal toward which home cooks strive.

There are class reasons why the average experience for most people in the South is to be overweight and to develop type 2 diabetes. Not Southern cooking, but stress, food deserts, and poverty, are to blame for the poor health of people living in the American Southeast. Tamar Adler says we risk demonizing butter, bacon, comfort food, or Southern cuisine when we rush to demonize Paula Deen. Deen’s cooking “is not a good representation of comfort food,” Adler writes. “It confuses too much for a good, delicious, soulful amount.” The line of Paula Deen desserts available at Walmart is not an oasis of Southern hospitality; it’s one of the mirages of the food desert.