Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Home Grown

As I prepare to head home to rural Tennessee for Christmas, my thoughts turn to our family farm and the food traditions with which I grew up. Because as a farm girl I was well acquainted with the cycle of birth, life and death so early and so intimately, I’d say it has made me less squeamish than most when it comes to such matters, and it has taught me that it’s possible to develop respect and regard for an animal I know will end up on my plate.

This is the time of year when we’d select one fattened hog and one fattened steer to be butchered, packaged and labeled, then divvied up among the deep freezers of my grandparents, my uncle’s family and my family. This represented the bulk of the meat upon which we’d feed until the next winter.

After all the tidier pieces of meat had been put away, on a cold, cold night, we’d all convene in the smokehouse to make sausage. My mother would sew casings out of old flour sack dishrags (recycling on top of recycling!) and bring them out to the smokehouse, where my father and brother were grinding the hog trimmings with fat and seasonings. Then I, with my tiny hands, would take the squishy ground mixture, redolent of fresh pork, pepper and fennel, and stuff it into the newly-stitched casings. And my uncle would bind the ends with twine and hang the brand-new sausage with the hams to while away the months until it was needed.

I was an adult before I ever bought prepackaged meat in a grocery, or for that matter, cans of tomatoes, green beans, black-eyed peas or relish. Those things had always come out of the deep freezer and the stash in the hall cabinet. And when I finally did start bringing these items home from the grocery, they were never as satisfying as those I’d had a hand in putting up as a child.

This represents a vanishing way of life that organizations like SlowFood are working hard to reacquaint people with. Perhaps it isn’t practical for everyone to raise all their own food, but to the extent that we can, we should try. Even if it’s just a couple of pots of herbs on the kitchen windowsill, every little bit we grow for ourselves reconnects us with our initial bond with the earth from which we came.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Yodeling pickle anyone?

As I troll the offerings at one of my favorite websites, Archie McPhee, I’m astonished by the number of bizarre food-related gifts that are available. Can you imagine receiving any of these things for Christmas: gummy haggis, a yodeling pickle, a t-bone air freshener, or a sushi shower curtain? The bacon products alone boggle the mind: bacon-flavored toothpicks, a bacon wallet, bacon bandaids—that’s bandaids that look like strips of bacon, not bandaids for your bacon—and bacon air freshener for your car. (As if the yodeling pickle wasn’t strange enough, there’s also a remote-controlled, hopping AND yodeling lederhosen. Can you imagine? Surely, everyone needs one of these!)

Why is it that these things have such appeal? What urge is it that causes us want to inflict them on our friends and family? And what do those poor—and probably hungry—workers in third world countries think of these oddities they’re creating for those unfathomable Americans? (And how is it that I can use the word “unfathomable” twice in about week in this blog? It’s unfathomable.)

I’m not going to try to make sense of this right now. Perhaps there’s just no sense to be made. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of having your very own yodeling pickle or gifting someone with a gummy tapeworm or a corndog air freshener, check out Don’t you think sushi pencil toppers would make great stocking stuffers?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

She Ain’t Heavy . . . She’s My Earthling

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, we visited the Griffith Park Observatory and mused over one of the new exhibits in the revamped and expanded facility, one devoted to the individual planets. In each planet’s section, you can read up on its attributes, then step onto a plate in the floor and learn how much you weigh on that particular planet. On Mars, I rang in at a whopping 350 lb. (Aieee! Waaaaay too much Thanksgiving cheer!), while on Mercury, I weighed a waifish 20 lb., and thought perhaps I should rush home and tuck into those Thanksgiving leftovers.

I also observed women who wouldn’t step onto any of the scales because they didn’t want those around them to know what they weighed—not on ANY planet. It didn’t seem to matter that others might not be interested in trying to do the math and convert some stranger’s weight on Neptune into her weight on Earth. Those women weren’t going NEAR the interplanetary scales. Children and men had no problem leaping onto the scales and telling everyone around them how much they weighed all over our solar system.

Don’t worry—I’m not going to rant about how poor self esteem and skewed self image are epidemic in this country’s women (We all know it's: a. true and b. sad). I’m just saying if you’re concerned about your weight, sure, do something about it. But also take a minute to do a little math and find out what you’d weigh on Mercury. Best to keep these things in perspective. Moderation—and cultivating a sense of humor—is the best defense against both weight problems and low self esteem.

And if you exhibit a sense of humor when your jeans split because you have a big butt, you’ll impress people with your attitude!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Nectar of the porcine gods

One of the most prized possessions in my kitchen, right up there with my grandmother’s bowls, my well-seasoned iron skillets and my red, outboard motor-sized KitchenAid mixer, is my coffee can filled with bacon drippings. Both a food AND a condiment, bacon makes everything taste better—even more bacon! And the drippings perform double duty as both a cooking fat and a seasoning. What a way to multitask!

Each time I dig into that can, I reflect on the layers of hardened drippings like I would the rings of a tree. With each layer I scratch through I wonder, what was going on the day I poured in this layer? and this layer? and this layer?

I may not live in the rural South anymore, and I may be a big city girl, hobnobbing with the occasional high-profile chef and food celebrity, but I cling to my can of bacon drippings as an anchor to my cultural and culinary past—and as a way to enjoy a darned fine meal. None of that tofu-based faux bacon stuff. You’ve got to have your standards, right?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Angry tummy, grateful heart

This past week’s Thanksgiving festivities were a bit out of the ordinary for me. I came down with a stomach virus. Whether it was through food poisoning or a random bug floating on the air or perched on the shopping cart handles and ATM buttons, it changed my focus from food to oh-my-god-anything-BUT-food.

So much emphasis is placed on holiday meals, particularly at Thanksgiving, because of that historic first feast we persist in trying to duplicate in our own unique ways. Take away that focus, and what do we have? Plenty of fun, but we have to shift gears. I enjoyed time with my family that was spent doing things other than devoting all our efforts to food-related activities.

Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE heading into the kitchen to “put the big pot in the little one and stew the dishrag,” to quote my grandmother’s peculiar—and unfathomable— expression for cooking for a special occasion. But this time around I realized even more acutely that the people you want to be with most on a holiday are the ones who will take care of you when just don’t feel like celebrating it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Finger-lickin’ extraordinary

It may sound funny, but sometimes it’s easy when you use a fork not to actually notice what you’re eating. Especially when you’re in a hurry—and when the food’s not all that outstanding—it’s easy to employ the shoveling action that ensures you’ll finish your meal quickly and get back to your desk on time. And you may not taste a thing!

But try eating with your fingers, and you experience food quite differently. I don’t mean food like pizza and fried chicken, but cooked food that you’d typically eat with a fork.

Case in point: When you visit an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, you’ll find no utensils at your disposal. Rather, your food will be served atop a large, round piece of injera, a crepe-textured flatbread with a taste reminiscent of sourdough. Made of a grain called teff, injera is a sort of edible utensil. You tear off a piece, drop it onto your food, pick up a bite with the injera and eat the food wrapped in the bread, all in one bite.

A meal consumed in this way is a revelation. There’s something about the absence of familiar table tools that makes you slow down and get closer to your food. The experience is transformed, a much more textural and immediate sensation. You feel, smell and taste it more intimately, and I believe, come away from the meal with a heightened sense of what you've just had.

Looking at this from the reverse, would an Ethiopian who ate using a fork for the first time suddenly be awakened to attributes of the meal never before discerned? Possibly, since there would be only lentils or lamb stew on the fork, with no injera to flavor every bite.

However, for the person who eats injera daily, the fork would be a real setback, for injera is three things: plate, utensil and food. All the fork enables us to do is to be tidy eaters.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pure, stinky bliss . . .

Lately I’ve been pondering the magic of how obnoxious ingredients help produce glorious dishes. Take fish sauce, for instance. It’s made of salted, fermented fish—pretty basic stuff—and it has one of the most potent smells I’ve ever encountered. If you spilled even a bit of it into your carpet you’d probably be forced to either replace the carpet or sell the house!

Some people claim to like the smell of fish sauce. That’s possible, I suppose, since such likes and dislikes are purely subjective. I personally love inhaling deeply in cheese shops, while others will hold their breaths as they dash past the door.

So why would we want a bottle of something so odiferous in our kitchen? Because what it does to a Thai or Vietnamese dish is pure poetry. The effect is similar to what happens when you add a small amount of minced anchovies to a dish: You can’t taste the anchovies, but they give the food a more luscious, well-rounded flavor.

The Italian version of fish sauce is called garum or colatura. Made from anchovies, adding garum rather than minced anchovies to a dish is rather like using vanilla extract when you don’t have a fresh vanilla bean on hand. You get convenience without sacrificing too much flavor.

The genius of fish sauce is its flavor-enhancing potential. You can sneak a few drops into a pasta dish or stir-fry, regardless of whether you’re cooking seafood. It’s not the dominant flavor but rather a supporting note the fish sauce provides. No one will guess that you’ve essentially laced their dinner with essence of fermented fish, but, if you use it judiciously, they’ll just know that magic seems to flow out of your fingers and into their food.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bienvenido & howdy!

“As difficult as herding cats.” That’s the way my husband, Andy, is likely to describe his attempts to nudge me into starting my own blog. As a professional writer and editor, I try to select each word carefully and craft each sentence to flow with a sense of inevitability. So the idea of cranking out daily blog entries is at serious odds with my writerly sensibilities.

I know he’s right, that as a food writer and culinary tour guide—not to mention a citizen of the 21st century—I must have a bigger presence on the web. I need fresh content to keep the search engines seeking me out with the persistence of skeeters at a bikini waxers’ convention. But this blog business runs counter to my nature. So give me time. I promise to make it entertaining and educational for you. Or at least amusing.

For my inaugural blog entry, I want to share my new favorite cam: Hen Cam! As a Tennessee farm girl living in the maddening sprawl of Los Angeles, it gladdens my heart to be able to visit this site at least once a day (okay, I confess, it’s several times a day) and see how those fine gals are doing in rural Massachusetts. Their pecking and canoodling are brought to us courtesy of food writer and chef Terry Golson. Thanks, Terry!