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August, 2007 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - August, 2007

Mr. Henry gets religion

Mr. Henry is not a person of faith. For him, ideology is bunk, and religion is über-bunk. Nevertheless, even cynical hounds have to decide what to eat.

The final sentences of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma read:

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few remarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

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At the instant of this writing Mr. Henry is snarfing down blue corn tortilla chips.

Although organic and without trans fats, these are surely more the product of industry than of nature. Reflecting upon his personal feeding habits, he tries not to despair, for he has not forgotten that despair is one of the seven deadly sins, right up there alongside gluttony.

Should we structure our eating around belief systems? Don’t we do that already even if we pretend we don’t? Isn’t what we call culture or tradition in fact a set of rather arbitrary beliefs, many ungrounded in logic or science?

Cuisine marks culture more distinctly than any other lifestyle choice. It’s the most conservative cultural trait. (Japanese-American families keep umeboshi in the fridge no matter what fashions they wear, music they listen to, or ideologies they favor.)

Organic is good. Local is better. Taste should be your guide. The perfect, most harmonious marriage of these virtues, however, is sustainability.

Eating from a farm like Polyface that achieves a balance of beast and field, of nature and nurture, in which each creature and each plant achieves its full biological potential, is the holy grail of sustainability. The land improves, our health improves, the beasts live happy lives (right up to their moment of demise), and the energy to run the place comes almost completely from the sun.


Prince Charles
started talking about these issues years ago. Although in the Diana legend Charles has been cast down as the frosty fogey, the emotional retard, it may come to pass in the long judgement of history that Princess Diana’s media successes will wane and Charles’ push for sustainable development will rise.PrinceCharles.jpg

Now that he has converted, Mr. Henry feels obligated to pursue the virtuous life. As soon as he finishes this marvelous bag of chips, he will begin casting about for information regarding local farms in the New York City area. (Query to the faithful: Must the convert lead an impeccable existence, or merely a good one? Temptation is everywhere. Sustainable farm products are scarce.)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

From time to time Mr. Henry takes the pulse of his foodie friends. He can report that the locavore discussion seems to have hit a national nerve.images.jpg

When national nerves get hit, arguments rarely stay well-tempered and intelligent. He was especially delighted, therefore, to read this brilliant, concise defense of the local food movement from Chachaheels:

I don’t think the “100 mile” limit is meant to be imposed like law. It’s simply to get you to focus on the food that’s produced locally by local farmers who are very likely small independent farmers (or, part of a food growing co-op, or organic or drug free food producers). I’ve seen people talk about “adopting” this food lifestyle and then crying about how you can’t buy Parmigiano reggiano cheese because it comes from Parma Italy, which is thousands of miles away from Canada, where I live. They are missing the point, and it’s an important one.

I live in one of the best areas of arable land in the world, and we have farmers producing all kinds fruits and vegetables, and all manner of meats and dairy and local specialty foods wherever you turn–yet, every summer, when the fields are laden with this produce and local farmers are trying as hard as possible to sell as much as they can so they can keep farming, our supermarkets are stuffed to the rafters with fruit, vegetables, and meats from anywhere else (usually California or South America)–often exactly the same produce that local farmers are producing literally across the street from their aisles.

The “100 mile” rule is to get consumers to think about buying the fresh, ripe, well prepared foods from the people they live near (because shaming the supermarket conglomerates to sell local foods just hasn’t worked in Canada). Not only do you keep your local economy alive, the stuff just tastes so much better and is so much better for you. And you can find out exactly what your neighbour is doing when the food’s produced. Try doing that with some Monsanto-run agricorp in the US whose contracts for sales with the megalomart in your town has to honour well into the next millennium.

Then, buy the parmiggiano reggiano from Parma because even though it comes from half a world away, it’s still made a lot like it was 800 years ago. To make the local stuff taste great!OmnivoresDilemma_med.jpg

This year the novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an entertaining chronicle of one year’s attempt to eat local products. This follows in the wake of Michael Pollan’s brilliant exegesis The Omnivore’s Dilemma. After reading the Omnivore, you can never again look at corn through the same eyes. Our national addiction to corn has transformed not only the American palate and the American waistline but the American landscape itself. Most interesting of all is the connection between fossil fuels and corn production. Nitrate fertilizers necessary for the production of such vast quantities of cheap corn come from oil and gas.

From all the good arguments presented in the discussion, the most convincing one to Mr. Henry, the one that persuades him beyond a reasonable doubt, is taste. Indeed, this is the Omnivore’s and Chachaheels’ conclusion, too.

A recent N.Y. Times op-ed piece about “food miles” neatly skewered the reduction of fossil fuel argument. In England it seems that to eat tender and toothsome New Zealand grass-fed lamb leaves a far lighter carbon footprint than to eat local grain-fed lamb. And, of course, New Zealand lamb is tastier.

The common factor here is taste. In science as in art, the simplest solution is the most elegant. Although local may trump organic, taste trumps both. Eating what tastes good makes plain good sense, an argument any three-year old would understand. In the marriage of science and art that constitutes cuisine, taste should be your unfailing guide.

Mr. Henry is wary of preachers, do-gooders, and moral arguments in the public arena. American puritanism runs deep and wide, always threatening to over-run its shallow banks. Is he paranoid to suspect that in this new food fight old-fashioned protectionist arguments may soon arise, as before, from flag-waving America-firsters?

He is reminded of the 1970’s contretemps about imported automobiles. Small, efficient, well-engineered Japanese imports had begun to steal significant market share from hulking, guzzling, Detroit road hogs. A hapless Chinese immigrant, Vincent Chin, was beaten to death by auto workers who mistakenly believed him to be Japanese.

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Mr. Henry wants to state here and now that he is not willing to lay his life on the line to undermine the monopolies of American agribusiness. Should he buy local products, he will do so quietly and without claims of moral superiority. Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland may now remove Mr. Henry from their list of terror suspects. He snacks on corn chips. He loves the smell of combines in the morning.

Codfishing

Like The Manolo, Mr. Henry has been traveling, holed up in a Cape Cod rental bungalo without internet access.cod fish

He tried to eat locavore. He made a real mental effort. But as a citizen of the world he believes no neighborhood is truly so far removed from his acquaintance that he cannot partake of its proudest fare. And where, he asks, is the local food exit off Interstate-95?

In the spirit of a summer share, therefore, he would like to offer a few travel tips:

On the highway, don’t drink the iced coffee at Starbuck’s. It’s a guaranteed stomach cramp. Try Newman’s Own Organic at MacDonald’s instead. It’s delicious, neither watery nor burned, and costs half as much as the Starbuck’s one.

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As for eating roadside fast food, just don’t. Pack a picnic you can enjoy at the rest stop. Pretend the sound of roaring cars to be Niagara Falls. (Mrs. Henry added a dollop of sour cream to her chicken salad which rounded out the mouth feel and slightly disguised the mayonnaise — altogether a nice picnic choice.)

Don’t go to Cape Cod for codfish, which in every case will be an anodyne, frozen, white fish filet caught months ago far, far away — the very same filet you might get in Peoria or Topeka.

Don’t eat oysters on the half shell in Wellfleet. They are OK, but the clams are far sweeter, especially the littlenecks.
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If stuck shopping at the local superette, a quick and easy barbecue sauce can be made from three parts ketchup and one part worcestershire sauce. Slather it on AFTER the ribs come off the grill. (Please don’t even pretend you’re going to do a dry rub marinade. Be reasonable. It’s summer. In the morning, dinner always seems to be a long way away.)

Boil your corn until underdone, a mere seven or eight minutes. Let it cool and slice it off the cob. Mixed with chopped tomato, celery and cilantro (or whatever pungent fresh herb you can find). Splash it with oil and vinegar and you will have a marvelous crunchy salad on hand for snacks or for meals.

For the best possible dinner, take Little Henry and posse out to the marshes. Let them loose in the shallows with buckets to dig fresh cherrystone clams, littleneck clams, razor clams, and mussels. (Rubber gloves are a good idea because clam shell edges can be sharp.)

Sautéed in a big fry pan with onion and white wine, each variety will cook at a different rate. Pluck them out when they open so as not to render them rubbery. Reduce your sauce a touch and add a dab of thickener to help it grab hold of the pasta. (Mr. Henry likes heavy cream but sour cream works fine, too.) Serve over linguine with a chilled bottle of Sancerre close at hand.