Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The Wisdom of Our Culture"

This year will be my first Thanksgiving as a food blogger.  It's a little intimidating to write about a national holiday centering around food, especially since so many more well-known bloggers have already published their Thanksgiving posts, featuring recipes I would never think of.  So, like a good English major, after staring at a blank screen for half an hour rejecting idea after idea that seemed brilliant until I tried to put it into words, I went to my favorite bibliographic source for inspiration.

The great sage and imminent foodie himself,  Mr. Michael Pollan, has recently published an updated version of his book Food Rules, with illustrations by Maira Kalman, who also illustrated the 2005 version of William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style.  To the now-well-known mantra "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants." Pollan has added suggestions sent in by readers who learned them from their parents and grandparents.  As Pollan said on his interview with Good Morning America, these new rules contain "the wisdom of our culture."  This is a hopeful message in and of itself, since from reading the news it sometimes seems as though we don't even have a unified culture, let alone a wise one.

The rule that I want to focus on this Thanksgiving is "No Labels on the Table."  This rule states that even if you are just eating pizza from Domino's, or Chinese takeout, it will taste better if you first sit at an actual table, and second, take the food out of its packaging and put it in the plates and bowls that remind you that you're in your home where you can feel relaxed and enjoy your meal.

I will be celebrating this Thanksgiving at my great-aunt's house.  As she has done for the past several years, I expect that she will buy the boxed Thanksgiving Dinner option from Stop & Shop, complete with pre-cooked turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and pie.  In a way this feels like cheating, of course.  A way to cut down on the amount of preparation time required for the meal, and a way to avoid thinking about the specific ingredients it contains and where they came from. (High fructose corn syrup in that gravy?  I betcha there is!)

But Aunt Lena always presents the food in her own serving dishes, and banishes the Stop & Shop box to the kitchen, where a full two rooms separate it from the dining table.  That's because the beauty of any Thanksgiving dinner is that no matter where you eat it or what level of preparation goes into it, through sheer alchemy, it manages to look and taste like a home-cooked meal when it's served with a bit of care and a personal touch; whether that means bone china, a new and festive tablecloth, or just hiding the box.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Food Can Make You Thin?

This week's guest author is my mother, Judith Manzoni Ward, who taught me to love writing and very local food.  Click here to annoy her with a Facebook friend request.


As the daughter of post-Depression hunter/gatherer/farmers, I knew “unprocessed” to just mean food as usual: wild game in the fall and winter made good company for the root cellar’s carrots, onions, potatoes, and an occasional turnip. Canned garden tomatoes provided color. Ham and bacon and pork chops were the products of my grandfather’s farm; roast chicken and eggs were from our own backyard.  It was interesting, in a gruesome way, (especially with snow on the ground,) to witness “chickens running around with their heads cut off,” but a steady diet of it made me long for the antiseptic packages neatly stacked in the refrigerators and cupboards in the homes of my playmates. 

Was that long-ago diet, which was forced upon me by necessity, healthy? Probably.  Boring and embarrassing?  Absolutely!  Was I fat?  Nope!
Luckily, public school gave me a more realistic view of the outside world’s eating habits.  Being fat wasn’t a big deal then anyway…everybody was too interested in being part of progress, part of the big changes that were unfolding. No self-respecting U.S. child of the 50’s wanted to be caught dead  without cream-filled cupcakes, marshmallow fluff, bagged chips of odd shapes and odder colors, packaged cookies, luncheon meats, or, of course…Coke.    TV dinners?  Yeah!  Canned ravioli?  Wow!  Hot dogs ‘n’ beans?  Yippee!  We were the post-war prosperity kids; hunting, gathering, and dirt farming were way out of style; we were building our bodies strong in 12 easier ways…with Wonder bread!  It was soft as cotton candy, substantial as a puff of smoke from the factories that created it.  We all wanted a piece of that action; it went with the machine age.  It tasted good, it was fast; it got our mothers out of the kitchen and into the stores to buy stuff.   Those times of innocence and hopeful good will, however, turned and delivered a good slap to our fluff-smeared cheeks; it gave birth to cravings that could be satisfied only with massive quantities of what we demanded: cheap tasty food, with emphasis on the “tasty.”  Nobody was sicker than I was of the bland flavor of shriveled root cellar carrots on a cold February day. We wanted our food to be “out of this world”  like the Jet Age we lived in.  America, along with its boundless energy and big-hearted generosity, was also a land of limitless opportunism where moderation had always been a dirty word. Our cravings opened the door of opportunity to King Corn and his cohorts: chemicals and mass-produced foodstuffs. Before we knew it, corn sweeteners, corn starch, and countless chemical compounds started to pop up in the oddest places, like in toothpaste, spaghetti sauce, and canned soup.  The great generation that had given the world antibiotics, Salk and Sabin vaccines, and all but eliminated TB, polio, and whooping cough, accidentally ushered in rampant asthma, chronic fatigue, and physical fatness.

People say it’s all in the genes, whether we’re fat or not, but anybody, no matter how slim, can work up a layer of flab without much effort.  All it takes is a diet of tasty junk.  Less than a year ago, I finally admitted to myself that I was jelly-like, and also didn’t feel so hot.  Having just passed my 66th birthday didn’t help.  There was more to it, though: achy joints, back pain, crankiness, zero patience, constant sinus infections, icky thoughts.  A wise and enterprising chiropractor took me on as a patient, along with three of my teaching colleagues, who all felt as washed-out as I did.  His night job is nutritionist, and he put us all on a food diet.   This was definitely not a bad idea.  Since none of us seemed chubby, he never mentioned weight loss; he just emphasized feeling well.  All we had to do was give up junk.  Junk included most wheat products, corn products (surprise, surprise!) and that old devil sugar.  He never said “unprocessed,” but he made up for it by using “fresh” and “organic” as often as possible.  Within weeks, life started being fun again.  Trips to the grocery store became adventures, farmers’ markets were heaven, and pick-your-own farms the finest of amusements. 
Decades-old memories of gathering took on a rosy glow.  I stuffed my face with real food, a lot of it from bush to mouth, with no package in between.  Wonder of wonders, eleven pounds of flab melted. All this from one summer’s eating!  My teacher pals have experienced similar results; all of us, far beyond the initial blush of youth, feel well and look healthy. That pale pinched look, so often seen on faces of dieters over 40, seems to have bypassed all of us.  Observers can’t be quite sure of why we look different, but one of my students put an honest spin on it when she commented last week,  “you don’t look so old today!”  How’s that for a compliment? Happy eating!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Soup Weather

Doesn't it always take you by surprise, that first Fall day when you realize that your jacket doesn't seem quite warm enough anymore, and you almost wish you were wearing gloves?  Every Autumn this sensation seems to come out of nowhere, as if I haven't been bundling up for the winter year in and year out my entire life.

This year, I’m afraid, the cold is going to be more of a nuisance than usual.  Since moving to the city, I’m spending a lot less time in my car, and a lot more time walking, or at the very least, standing outside waiting for buses.  The cold, the dark, the snow, they’re all going to be especially wretched to deal with this winter.  But one thing that cold weather has going for it is the food.  Hot tea, hot chocolate, hot toffee nut lattes, not to mention all the various incarnations of holiday feasts.  The enjoyment of nice warm nourishment really gets augmented when the temperature drops.

Which brings me to one of the underrated simple pleasures of cold weather: soup.  Soup takes just a few minutes to heat up, and can be served as a first course with a fancy dinner, or taken to work in a Tupperware and eaten for lunch with a small sandwich or salad.  You can make a big pot of soup one afternoon and have a ready-to-go meal whenever you want it for the rest of the week, almost like those ever-convenient microwavable dinners of which I was so fond before I started paying too much attention to ingredients lists and what they really mean.

Until recently, finding broth had been an impediment for me in making soup.  Store-bought broths tend to have all kinds of sweeteners and generally unpronounceable additives in them.  Plus, they feel like cheating in a way, don’t you think?  If you’re going to make soup from scratch, go all the way. 

My roommate gave me the suggestion that I make my own vegetable broth with scraps from vegetables I already have.  Apparently this is very common practice, and it’s so easy that it just doesn’t make any sense not to do it. When I was making a stir-fry one night, I took stock of the odds and ends that I was going to throw away:  the top, bottom, and outer skin of an onion, a couple of green pepper stems, carrot peels, and the like.  Instead of throwing these away, I put them in a plastic bag and put the plastic bag into the freezer.

When I was ready to make soup, I simply put the veggie ends in a pot of hot water and simmered for about a half hour.  The result was a delicious smelling and rich colored broth, which I strained to get rid of the solid vegetable pieces, and used as the base for my soup.

My personal favorite part of this is how much sense it makes.  I mean seriously.  Why spend money on something you had all along?  Soup broth at worst has unhealthy preservatives, colorings and sweeteners in it, and even at best it's simply a waste of money and packaging once you realize how unbelievably simple it is to make your own vegetable stock.

The real reason this idea appeals to me, though, is that I hate throwing food away.  Where I grew up, we had woods all around, and any scraps left over from dinner went out to the woods to either be food for the raccoons, or to turn into next spring’s compost.  One of the adjustments I’ve had to make as a city-dweller is throwing things away that, in a rational world have no business being thrown away.  Make-your-own vegetable stock is a great way to get a second use out of materials that would otherwise go into a landfill, and at the same time have a healthier, more nourishing meal and save money.