Hippie Food

I’ve avoided buying organic foods for years. The reason is partially inherent cheapness on my part. Organic foods often end up being more expensive (sometimes twice as much) at the local grocery store.

That doesn’t stop me from liking the idea of organic foods.

I certainly can’t argue with people who think that industrial agriculture has some major problems. I think specifically of e. coli outbreaks, mad cow disease, the nasty conditions food animals face, and the overuse of pesticides.

Lately (by which I mean the last two years), Kristen and I have started buying locally grown meat and vegetables when possible.

West Michigan Cooperative:West Michigan Coop is an organization that distributes locally grown meats and produce. Meat seems to be the main focus, but they sell seasonal fruits and vegetables as well. It works on an invitation only basis. You give them your name and when they have an opening, they give you an account on their website. Using that account, you can order anything they have available from a variety of local farms. You then pick up your orders at a local warehouse on the monthly distribution date.

Oddly enough, if you visit the site on the day that I’m writing this, you’ll find a mass of php errors and sql code. I’ve volunteered to work on the site if they need help. They haven’t called.

Trillium Haven:A local organic farm started by people I know through my church. Basically, you buy a membership in the fall. Then in the summer through the late fall you receive fresh produce. We have a half share. A full share would be too much food.

I’ve been introduced to a lot of vegetables that I’d never have used otherwise through Trillium Haven. Leeks. Celeriac. Swiss chard. A wide variety of heirloom tomatoes

It’s good stuff.

Incidentally, they also grow vegetables that you’ve heard of.

“The Spirit of Soul Food” with Jaye and Jim Beeler

So here’s a strange juxtaposition: A few weeks ago, I attended the ninth annual Summit on Racism. The next day I attended a cooking seminar entitled, “The Spirit of Soul Food.”

Summit on Racism is a little bit of a downer. It’s not supposed to be. It tries to be positive and goal oriented as opposed to concentrating exclusively on what’s wrong with the world. Still, the only reason anybody is there is that our society treats some people badly for no good reason. You can’t expect to come out of something like that cheering.

“The Spirit of Soul Food” by contrast is more of a celebration of the style of cooking that came out of the combination of North American environment, slavery, and African culinary sensibilities.

What sort of food do you learn how to make? Many different sorts of food. A key point is that the food you learn how to make is the sort of food that people make at home everyday. Thus you get things like meatloaf, pork chops in gravy, and macaroni and cheese. There were also a lot of interesting vegetable side dishes (greens) and desserts (sweet potato pie, for example).

Oddly enough, it served to reconnect me with the cooking I grew up with as much as it did Soul Food. Since teaching myself to cook, I’ve spent most of my time cooking Indian, Mediterranean (Italian, Greek, Provencal French, Lebanese), and Southeast Asian (Thai, Malay) food. Occasionally, I also cook a few favorites from my childhood, but not all that many. My kids have seen a lot more basmati rice than grilled cheese sandwiches.

Soul Food doesn’t use curries as often as it does garlic or onion powder. It uses Campbell’s Soup (cream of mushroom) in more than a few recipes. The recipe for macaroni and cheese actually required me to buy Velveeta for the first time in my life.

It’s worth noting that “Soul Food” isn’t a homogeneous entity. It varies by region. In Louisiana, it includes red beans and rice. In places near the ocean, it includes crab cakes. Bearing in mind that Jaye and her father Jim originally come from Kentucky, this particular seminar included a recipe for Kentucky Bourbon Pie (bourbon comes from Kentucky). I tried the pie. It’s good.

Those of us who wanted to could also try a sip of the bourbon. It’s powerful stuff.

The instructors: Jim Beeler is a (semi-retired) self taught cook who worked in restaurants for his professional life. Jaye Beeler is the food editor for the Grand Rapids Press (my local paper). Even beyond learning about Soul Food, the family dynamics were entertaining.

During the seminar, each person was responsible to cook one dish. Despite not liking macaroni and cheese, I chose that one. Why? Mostly because my kids do like it. I thought it might be interesting to know how to make Mac and Cheese from scratch and flavor it with actual cheese as opposed to from a box flavored with Mystery Cheese Powder.

It turned out pretty well. I’ve made it at home since then and my family seems to like it (with the exception of one of my daughters who simply doesn’t like cheese). The same is generally true of the other dishes from the seminar. I’ve been trying to make one or two a week.

Next year they were talking about doing a slightly different seminar–a Soul Food brunch. I’d go.

Weight, Vitamins, and the First World War

Recently I’ve been reading non-fiction books about the daily lives of people in various eras previous to our own. It’s research for my novel. It is interesting in and of itself, but as much as I’m interested in earlier periods, I’m only covering the Victorian era to the present for the simple reason that that’s as early as I have to go to get details related to the story right.

Currently I’m reading a book called Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression by David E. Kyvig.

It covers some topics that I hadn’t expected to think about. For example, I had been aware that in the Victorian era, the standard of beauty was different. Heaviness was a sign of health. The actress Lillian Russell tipped the scales at 200 pounds and was generally regarded to be beautiful.

I’d wondered how American beliefs about weight happened to change.

From reading Kyvig’s book, it seems to be two major things. First off, it represents a change in the understanding of what good nutrition was. During the Victorian era and before, it was hard enough to get enough food much less to worry about what exactly it would be. Thus, when people had the money to get the food they wanted, the typical American meal was starches and meats.

In the Victorian Era in particular, French food became popular. Later on though, people became more aware of vitamins and the fact that what you ate was as important as the fact that you got full. Thus, they started eating more fruit (more citrus…) and vegetables (particularly green vegetables) while eating less starches (like potatoes) and less red meat. As a result, US citizens grew in height while eating 5% less calories.

In addition to the positive pull of a better understanding of food one also had the negative push of World War I. During the first World War, the government had to ration food. It took advantage of people’s growing understanding of nutrition to encourage people to eat less, actively promoting the idea of being thinner while simultaneously being more healthy.

The reason they did this, of course, was to be able to send more food overseas.

Where once men had been encouraged to be plump as a demonstration of how well off they were, the doughboy became the ideal for men while the flapper became the ideal for women.

An interesting wrinkle in this is that even the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s changed to reflect the new ideals. Where the Victorian era’s clothes were multi-layered, the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s had less layers, creating a slimmer figure. Interestingly, this was also the period where cosmetics began to be commonly used.

So anyway, I could ramble on a bit longer, but I won’t. I do find it an interesting topic though. Expect further commentary on past eras as the mood strikes me.

Chipotle Salsa

Good Idea: Making chipotle salsa (which can be very hot) with fresh vegetables and freezing it so that you can use it later in the year.

Bad Idea: Getting a tupperware container of said salsa out of the freezer at 11 at night and proceeding to eat 3/4’s of it.

I can still feel it in my stomach. It hurts.

My Kids Refuse Foods from a Wider Variety of Cultures Than Most Kids

I’m cooking Chicken Pad Thai. I do that every so often. Both my wife and I like it and I’ve finally managed to move it into the category of “Dishes That I Don’t Screw Up.”

Here’s an interchange between myself and one of my daughters:

To set the scene:
I have just put fish sauce into the mass of noodles, chicken, eggs, tamarind water, and preserved radishes.

Daughter: It smells like poop!
My wife: It does not smell like poop.
Me: It’s fish sauce. It smells like fermented fish.
An Aside: I actually think it smells like unwashed feet.
Daughter: It smells like your butt!
Another Daughter (pointing to the wok): I don’t like that!

Don’t Eat With Your Fingers

I’m eating supper with my family. Specifically, I’m eating Ethiopian food which was surprisingly edible despite the fact that this food had never been touched by actual Ethiopians. I had made it myself.

One of my kids ate the Ethiopian food. She was doing it more or less correctly too. Correctly in this case means that she was ripping off pieces of the injera (a sourdough flatbread) and wrapping it around the chicken or using it to scoop up/absorb the sauce.

My other daughter was eating Campbell’s Double Noodle Chicken soup since she had let it be known that there was no way that she was going to touch anything we were eating.

Midway through the meal I noticed that she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to.

“Becca,” I said (holding a piece of injera dripping with sauce and chicken), “Don’t eat with your fingers.”

Strangely, it didn’t work.

Wine and Curried Kofta

In an effort to be clear about this, I should note that this is not a post about having wine with kofta. It’s actually two different things.

First off, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that I got a comment on my earliest post about Kristen’s winemaking. Apparently it is possible to make drinkable beet wine.

Who knew?

Curried Kofta
Tonight I made an interesting meal. I got it out of a cookbook on Middle-Eastern and African cooking. Essentially it was meatballs (kofta) in sauce with rice. In detail, however, it was a little odder.

Among professional cooks, I’m told, fusion cooking (mixing the techniques and flavors of two or more cuisines) is controversial. There’s some degree of division between those who want to make meals in the style of the culture that created them verses those who want to combine to make entirely new things.

Though not a professional cook, I’m inclined on a theoretical level to favor the experimenters, but I’m more interested in eating what the traditionalists make.

That being said, I think that all cuisines could be considered fusion. Certainly, the dish I made tonight was.

Despite being Middle-Eastern, Arabic cooking, it used spices that I associate more with India. I’m thinking specifically of turmeric, cardamom, garam masala (a spice mix from northern India), and another sort of curry powder.

The sauce of the dish was composed of a combination of beef broth, tomato, and yogurt. Once the curry powder was added in and the whole mess simmered for a while, it was much more like something from India than the Middle East.

It would be interesting to know the history of the dish, but the cookbook didn’t go into it.

Some of you might be wondering how my kids reacted to it. I can’t say for sure since I was called away to do technical support, but my wife tells me that one daughter ate only the rice (not a surprise). The other daughter, however, gobbled down seven meatballs and stopped eating only because a friend came over to play.

P.S. It just occurred to me that I’ve now written a post on what I had for supper tonight. Does that mean that I’m officially out of ideas?

Wine and Stuff

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember a post about making wine.

In it I imagined the horrors likely to result if Kristen actually followed through on her idea of making wine as a hobby. I’m more enthusiastic about the idea now.  This is largely because the wines have been drinkable–good, in fact.

So far Kristen has made:
Concord Grape Wine: We have concord grapes growing in our backyard. Thus, this was inevitable. Oddly enough, the year that she decided to make wine for the first time, we had a mysteriously small number of grapes, forcing her to buy the majority from the store. Last year, we had more grapes than we needed (by far). Thus, I’ll be able to taste wine from our own grapes for the first time in a few months.

Spiced Apple Wine: This one turned out a little oddly. Made from a mix of apples picked at Crane’s Orchard near Fennville, it had a hard time beginning to ferment. When it did finally start fermenting, it really went. It had a slightly sour flavor, a high alchohol content, bubbles in the glass, and the cork popped like it was coming out of a champagne bottle.

Sweet Mead:
As someone who read Norse mythology as a kid, I always wondered what mead was and what it tasted like. It turns out that there are various types of mead and that its pretty easy to make. With grapes after all, you’ve got to crush the things. With mead, you just have to pour honey out of a jar. Personally, this has been my favorite so far.

Coming up this year:
Strawberry wine
Concord grape wine
Peach brandy
Metheglyn (possibly): It’s mead, but with spices.