Articles in Soapbox
The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”
This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.
Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.
Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?
Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.
Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:
At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.
Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil
The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.
I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.
Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)
Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.
One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!
Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog
Is it possible that an exotic date-filled confection offers insights into the secret origins of Christianity? Well, while it remains a fringe theory, researchers have suggested that during Jesus Christ’s so-called “Lost Years” — between the ages of 12 and 30 — he may have traveled east along the Silk Road, studying Zoroastrianism in Persia and then immersing himself in Buddhism and Hinduism in India. These spiritual practices would become the bedrock of his teachings upon his return to Israel.
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Implausible, you say? Perhaps. But if you’re looking for clues, you’re less likely to find them in decaying documents or a secret trove of relics than in a delicious Iranian pastry known as koloocheh, the round, doughy delicacy that I discovered while browsing the aisles of my favorite Iranian market in Irvine, Calif. Like a cross between the Fig Newton and the German Jewish Purim pastry hamantaschen, koloocheh have the distinctly Eastern twist of sugary dates, perfumed rose water and cardamom. Intrigued, I decided to re-create them for my Persian cookbook.
Cookie as Cultural Connector
Little did I know when I started to research koloocheh that they would reveal a bridge between diverse peoples and vast distances stretching back millennia. As it turns out, similar filled round cakes form a part of the holiday traditions of virtually all cultures whose paths have crossed the ancient Silk Road trade routes. In India, fried gujia pastries with coconut, dried fruit, and nuts, are eaten during Holi, the Hindu festival of colors that marks the start of spring. Further east, in China, the mid-autumn harvest festival ushers in the season of moon cakes, pastries pressed in elaborate molds and stuffed with fillings both sweet and savory. Heading west, in Eastern Europe, the yeasted buns known as kolachy or kalacs hold jam, poppy seeds and walnut fillings, and are meticulously prepared at Easter. Round, stuffed sweets are also an iconic part of Slavic cooking, where the name kolache is derived from the Old Slavonic word kolo, for “circle” or “wheel.”
To the south of Iran, in the Arabic world, ma’amoul are formed in intricately patterned wooden molds, then stuffed with dates and walnuts. Ma’amoul are eaten by Muslims at Eid, Christians at Easter, and Lebanese and Egyptian Jews at Purim, while their fried, honey-soaked counterparts, known as makroud in Tunisia, are a part of North African Eid celebrations. There is evidence of similar filled confections as far back as Sumer, now modern-day Iraq, one of the ancient world’s most sophisticated civilizations.
Silk Road Influence
If Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims all celebrate holy days with similar foods, it hardly seems outrageous to suggest that their spiritual rituals might also share a common foundation. Indeed, this is why koloocheh goes to the very heart of what my book, “The New Persian Kitchen,” is all about: how the Silk Road’s rich synthesis of ideas formed the unique culinary treasure that is Iranian food. It became crucial to me that a recipe for koloocheh, such an emblematic sweet, be a standout among the book’s recipes.
After several different approaches, I finally created a cookie that was simple to make and beautiful to behold. The key lay in making a buttery dough rendered flexible with the addition of an egg. Formed into disks, the dough is topped with a spoonful of date-walnut filling, then pinched closed and molded into a puck shape. A sprinkling of walnuts serves as decoration, and any imperfections are covered by a snowy layer of powdered sugar. The cookies are flaky and moist, not too sweet, and ideal with a cup of hot tea, which is how they would typically be served in Iran.
My cookie conundrum served as a lesson about the role recipes play in human evolution. They are mobile nuggets of knowledge reshaped by their adopted cultures and eras, living documents of history. I don’t know if koloocheh came to Iran via the east or the west, and I don’t know if Jesus took Buddhist ideas back with him from India to Israel. But it’s clear that the diverse societies along the Silk Road strongly influenced one another, and I need only look as far as koloocheh to see — and taste — the truth of that theory. Just think: Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East have been reimagining and integrating each other’s ideas since before the time of either Buddhism or Christianity. The ancient conversation continues as recipes evolve in the New World.
Top photo: Louisa Shafia (in front of a monitor also featuring her). Credit: James Rotondi
Simplicity is ubiquitous: if you — like I — get sucked down the gorgeous wormhole that is Pinterest, you know what I mean. Click on the DESIGN tab, and there they are: hundreds of rooms painted a dull monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. A single, long Forsythia branch stands imperfectly perfect in a chipped wabi-sabi bud vase, which is set upon an ancient pine side table chinked with time. Click on the FASHION tab: passels of tranquil, doe-eyed models dressed in dull, monochromatic gray/beige/ecru. They’re wearing loose-fitting overcoats, and modern and expensive versions of their grandfathers’ 1930s cordovan wingtips. Click on the FOOD tab: chipped, matte-finished Heath coffee bowls in gray/beige/ecru hues, filled with variations of the same thing — grains, beans, usually some kale, a drizzle of olive oil, a tangle of lemon zest — and set down on askew cream-and-red dishtowels that have seen endless washings and line-dryings. The image, or any number of versions of it, has been re-pinned a thousand times which, in Pinterest parlance, is a really good thing.
Oh, the simplicity, a work-harried friend wistfully whined to me one morning while we were on the train, commuting two hours to our Manhattan jobs from rural Connecticut. I really want to live and eat like that, she added, looking over my shoulder at my iPad — simply and quietly.
Of course you do, I told her. And so do I.
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And, apparently, so does everyone else these days, so much so that a new crop of magnificently-produced, nearly wordless, expensive magazines — maga-Tumblrs, really — has arrived on the scene, promising vicarious calm, conviviality and aspirational serenity of the sort that Thoreau went to the woods to find 159 years ago. Instagram-softened images of meaningful dinner parties abound; young flannel-shirted men in their 20s — Smith Brothers look-alikes — smoke vintage Meerschaum pipes as they gaze across placid ponds at tire swings swaying in the distance while their ladies thoughtfully pour local herb-infused gimlets into authentic 1930s Ball canning jars. You read the sparse text. You swoon. You study. You wonder if these people have day jobs.
The message is clear: You – yeah you, with the three kids in daycare and the divorce, getting off the IRT and running into Starbucks for your McVenti before hunkering down in your cubicle under those fluorescent lights for eight hours while the jackass next to you yammers on his cell phone about the great sex he had last night — you, too, can live a simple life.
That is, if you work hard enough at it.
If you wear the right authentic clothes and drink the right authentic drinks out of the right authentic vessels. If your food is unfettered and unfussy and thoughtfully produced and served in the right coffee bowls of the right color, and was perhaps procured from the right CSA or the right farmers market.
For those of us who have suffered through the fashion of anxious, nervous food — inauthentic, tall, overwrought — such simple, gastronomical style is exactly what we’ve been breathlessly waiting for. But has the style of living and eating this way, with its gorgeous prepackaged rusticity and come-hither appeal, just become exigent fetish? Are our attempts to be “simple” so self-conscious and superficial that the benefits of real simplicity, peace, mindfulness, thrift are lost? Will being simple — eating simply, living simply — go the way of the Pet Rock?
Trends are a direct reflection of our ever-changing cultural and socio-emotional needs. In the greed-is-good 1980s, everything was big — shoulder pads, hig hair — and the contrived food of the time, unnatural vertical and architectural, was an extension of that style. In late 1988, I was served an elaborate, human fist-sized chocolate piano at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. A scaled-down replica of a Steinway baby grand, it had eighty-eight black and white chocolate keys, and strings fashioned from spun sugar. After the grim 1970s, life was suddenly all about the frantic quest for the elaborate and ornate, and the food on our plates reflected it. In the 1990s, everyone declared themselves a home-schooled chef — the Food Network went on the air in 1993 — and we all went out to buy kitchen blowtorches and home foamers and timbale molds. After 9/11, we craved peace and conviviality, and the next big thing was comfort food. The sale of crockpots and Creuset casseroles took off like they’d been shot from a cannon.
So what created this fraught mandate for the ancient saucepan — dented to perfection — that we spend hours searching for at Goodwill? Why the farmhouse tables laden with elemental dishes and the longing gazes serene as stone? Desperation for simplicity and authenticity smacks of a sort of psychic exhaustion, and the stark realization that living and eating in a complicated overdone way will take a toll on our souls. It compels us with an almost furious hysteria to return to preconceived notions of what’s real, even if what’s real is nothing more than an often fetishized metaphor for ever-elusive safety, and a commodified yearning to bind our frayed connection to equanimity and control.
In a world of constant digital connectedness, of nebulous relationships and jobs that disappear before our eyes, of an often fraudulent and dangerous food system, where we feed our children pink slime and anyone can slap a green label on their over-processed product and pretend it’s organic, we’ll pay anything we can to get simplicity, or some semblance of it back.
But if simplicity really is just a fetish, what will happen when the fetish fades and the trend is over? What will we eat and how will we live?
Top photo: Elissa Altman. Credit: © Susan Turner
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 50% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
According to the USDA, as of 2007 (the latest date for such statistics) the average age of principal farm operators was 57 years old and there are relatively few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 18 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 334 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
I pause, unsure how my question will be received. “Have you had kale chips?”
That was the first time I posed the question to a patient in a medical exam room. With more than a decade of practicing internal medicine under my belt, I had never felt particularly inspired or successful in counseling my patients about their weight. Then I attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL), an annual medical conference at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., a gathering aimed at training doctors in nutrition and cooking. Within weeks upon my return, I was “prescribing” my first recipe.
Like many of my patients in the San Francisco Bay Area, John, who is in his late 40s, is overweight. He has never been successfully motivated to slim down because no “diet” has ever worked for him. When I bring up his chart and show him his body mass index (BMI), he says, ”I’m fat, but nothing I try ever works.”
Chipping away at the weight issue
“What do you eat on an average day?” I ask. “Do you eat fruits and vegetables?” John says he loves vegetables and loves to cook. He even volunteers at a local farmers market. But he has a weakness: “Chips,” he says. “I can’t stop eating chips.” John’s idea of chips is the potato variety, soaked in fat, fried and overly salted. I suggest he try kale chips and give him a simple recipe (see below). I tell him he can eat as many as he likes.
A month later, John has lost 5 pounds and is perceptibly happier and more confident. “Doc,” he says, “No doctor has ever given me a recipe before. Those kale chips are so good! Thank you.”
Granted, obese patients need more than a recipe for kale chips to find their way to a healthy weight, but a simple nutritious and non-fattening recipe is a first step and a great incentivizer. By giving John a fantastic-tasting substitute for his beloved chips rather than forbidding him to eat one of his favorite treats, I was able to convey that a different way of eating would allow him to enjoy snacks while feeling healthier and losing weight along the way.
Healthy recipe Rx
When doctors discuss food, it’s usually in the context of nutrition rather than flavor, as in: “You’ve really got to cut back on the junk food.” Well, patients know that, they just may not know what to replace their junk food with. What if doctors began giving out simple recipes for healthful, whole-food alternatives before they handed out prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering medication? Or gave a prescription for exercise and a decadent tasting fruit-based dessert to help control blood pressure?
Traditionally, medical schools do not include coursework in nutrition or, certainly, in cooking, and insurance companies are unlikely to reimburse for nutritional counseling. It’s much faster and easier to write a prescription for a drug, and because it may require no change in lifestyle or self-discipline on the part of patients, they may prefer a pill as well. And if the doctors themselves aren’t the best role models, due to long work hours and the same poor dietary and exercise habits she is asking her patients to rectify, they may not have credibility behind their message.
How do we change this? First, doctors must learn about nutrition and healthy cooking. Showing patients how to shop and cook, and giving them actual recipes should be the next step doctors take. This would instigate a cultural shift and require advocating for insurance coverage, but the change would improve the nation’s health and save health-care dollars in the long run.
Cooking for the cure
Dr. David Eisenberg, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is devoted to this idea. He founded Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives with the goal of turning physicians into foot soldiers in the war against obesity and other nutrition-related diseases. Over a four-day course each March, doctors swap scalpels for chef’s knives, and white coats for aprons, as they attend cooking demonstrations and get hands-on in the kitchen. They leave the conference with a changed perspective and a renewed zeal to talk prevention.
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An HKHL alumnus, Dr. John Principe, completely restructured his Chicago-area practice and now has a teaching kitchen. Principe, who says that he had been “burnt to a crisp by the methods of conventional medicine,” credits Eisenberg and HKHL for saving his career. “The ability to empower people to take control of their health through the simple tools of a knife, fire and water is amazing,” he says. “It’s primitive but essential!”
A sprinkling of other programs around the country are also taking the initiative in teaching doctors how to cook. Dr. Robert Graham, associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, runs a six-week program to instruct medical residents in nutrition, weight management and exercise. Students take cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. The University of Massachusetts Medical School offers cooking classes tailored to physicians’ medical specialties, and Tulane University’s Medical School and Johnson and Wales University recently established the first Culinary Medicine collaboration, with the goal of pairing physicians and chefs.
So picture this: At your next checkup, you’ll be weighed in, get your blood pressure checked, and your latest cholesterol and blood sugar numbers. Then your doctor will hand you her favorite kale chip recipe or one that turns frozen bananas into ice cream. It seems far-fetched now, but it would make medical and fiscal sense to make such a scenario a reality in the immediate future.
Dr. Shiue’s Kale Chips
1 head kale, washed and completely dried
a few pinches of salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash whole kale leaves, shake out or dry in a salad spinner, then place on a rack to dry thoroughly. Depending on your temperature and humidity conditions, this can take an hour or several hours. Alternatively, dry thoroughly with towels.
2. Preheat oven to 275 F.
3. Once kale leaves are completely dried, tear leaves off the fibrous central stem into bite-size (potato chip sized) pieces and place onto two baking sheets in a single layer with some space around each leaf.
4. Sprinkle on salt and drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per baking sheet. Toss with tongs to evenly distribute salt and oil.
5. Place prepared kale leaves into the preheated oven, and bake for 20 minutes, turning over leaves halfway through baking.
Variations: Experiment with tasty seasonings, including cayenne pepper with a squeeze of lime juice, Bragg Nutritional Yeast and nori furikake.
Top photo: Baked kale chips. Credit: iStockphoto
OK, maybe it’s because I’m a little under the weather as I write this but, dagnabbit I am more than a little bent right now.
What can it take, for the love of Mike, to get a decent, well-priced glass of wine at a restaurant? Time after time, meal after meal, I bring a bottle of wine with me to dinner, seeing as I am in the business. But I always take a look at the list, just in case there is a cool, reasonably-priced by-the-glass option to kick-start the evening. Alas, more often than not, I’m rippin’ out my bottle straight away and gladly paying the $25 corkage fee, realizing I might have to pay that twice knowing the crew I run around with.
How hard can it be? Why do restaurants consistently charge $10 (or more) a glass for a bottle that costs $6 (or less) wholesale? I understand the concept of getting your cost back on the first pour, but c’mon, this is getting silly.
Since I am a wine seller, life for me will go on. I have enough wine street smarts to navigate lists and find something decent or bust out my own bottle if it’s not happening. My concern, however, is for that group of wine drinkers that we fine wine merchants (and, we hope, progressive restaurateurs), are trying to transition over from Two (and a half) Buck Chuck and Yellowtail to another level of wine, one that, while not much more expensive ($10 to $12 a bottle retail instead of $2.49 or $8) delivers another dimension of flavor and styles.
If restaurants are going to be content with trying to squeeze as many dollars as they can out of a bottle, we will soon lose touch with this new wave of wine drinkers. We won’t be able to bridge the gap and continue to nurture their palates if these people are forced to pay $12 for a glass of mediocre “coastal” Cabernet, when they could be paying $6 for a fabulous Old Vine Grenache from Spain, or Picpoul from the Languedoc. At $12 for an OK glass of Cabernet, I would be reaching for beer provided I didn’t have that wine in my bag.
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And that’s the point. Merchants and restaurateurs have to work together to foster and educate this new generation of wine lovers. There are numerous studies showing that millennials are very curious about wine but, like many folks nowadays, do not have serious money burning a hole in their pockets. That said, these consumers are also curious about craft brews, so they often have a unique, artisan drinking experience for less — simply because there is some kind of archaic formula in place dictating the minimum price for a glass of wine.
What if restaurants charged $6 (the price of a 12-ounce beer, for the most part) for an interesting glass of wine? Not wicker basket Chianti, not corporate Cabernet, not private label Chardonnay sourced from Fresno, but a real, authentic, genuine bottle of wine that could open eyes. Would they lose money or sell more wine? Would they gain customers because they were offering cool wines at great prices? Granted, more restaurants have expanded their wine lists to include many offerings south of $50 a bottle. But let’s be honest, that was born out of necessity based on the economy, and was hardly a peace offering to those of us who couldn’t find a bottle less than $75 just a few short years ago. Why couldn’t restaurants apply that same philosophy to their by-the-glass programs?
Smaller dining establishment, more wine for a fair price
Trust me when I say the corporate wine world wants to keep everything just the way it is. There is a wealth of boring cheap wine tied into the spirits business. This wine is essentially sold for nothing to engage restaurants to purchase bar liquors from these large wine/spirits conglomerates. One thing I’ve noticed is that when the dining establishment is smaller, and has no spirits, the wine selection tends to be stronger. Coincidence? I think not. The “big boys” want the restaurants to do one-stop shopping since, to them, wine is merely a greaser to sell more gin. The problem is, more than a few restaurants are all too happy to comply.
I say to those restaurants, “fight the power!” and don’t let the man keep you down. Take a chance, engage your customers, and show them the world of wine is more than whatever the distributor is closing out that month. Find interesting, food-friendly wines and sell the wine for a fair price. I’ll help you out. Email me, or look at our list of sub-$10 wines on our website. Before you know it, I think your customers may be having a revelatory moment like Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk”: “Well if this is out there just think how much more is out there!”
Top photo: Kyle Meyer. Credit: Mina Bahadarakhann
Let’s take a poll. If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind? From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.
As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.
Everyone should learn to preserve their own food
Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.
When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.
In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families. The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.
In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable
Benefits of preserving your own food
Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.
Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.
Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.
Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.
Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food. (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.) It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.
Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett
I wonder how many Americans realize their importance in the world of wine. The United States has recently overtaken France and Italy to become the globe’s biggest market, drinking a full 13% of all the wine produced on the planet, more than any other nation. While wine drinking has been declining rapidly in the European countries that make so much of it — France, Italy and Spain — we are amazed at how rapidly and firmly a wine culture has been established in the U.S.
In cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, you can hardly move for wine tastings, wine bars, wine courses and people who are parlaying their interest in wine into building collections, visiting urban wineries and taking wine tours. But even in the vastness of America between the coasts, wine has been catching on. We looked up wine events in Des Moines, for example, and were delighted to find at least one a month. What we like about this development is that these new wine lovers, many of them relatively young, are working out their own preferences rather than being spoon-fed a series of ratings.
ZESTER DAILY GIVEAWAY
Americans are among top wine producers
But it is not just as a consumer that the U.S. now leads the world. Americans overtook Argentina in the 1990s to become by far the most important wine producer outside Europe, with the total amount of American wine produced gaining on the amount made in France, Italy and Spain. The shifting balance is due in some part to a determined program to rip out surplus, low quality vineyards in the EU.
Robert Mondavi was always convinced that California could make wines that were the equal of Europe’s best. That point was made long ago, but what thrills us is that American interest is so great that wine is now being made in every state in the Union. Hawaii and Alaska have their own wines, and North Dakota has eight bonded wineries. We long ago recognized that California, Washington and Oregon could make great wine, but now is the time to check out what we call The Other 47.
Rieslings in the Midwest
The curious American wine lover would be well advised to investigate the less-celebrated steely Rieslings of northwestern Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York. In blind tastings of Rieslings from throughout the world, their offerings have been ranked among the finest. But perhaps the best Viogniers, Petit Mansengs and Bordeaux blends of Virginia would be an appropriate starting point for an exploration of American wine in view of Thomas Jefferson’s early efforts on his Monticello estate to turn Americans into a nation of wine drinkers. (It was the local phylloxera louse that scuppered his early plantings of the European vinifera vines, by far the most dominant vines in wine production.)
In some of the more inhospitable sites for grape vines, where the climate is too cold and the growing season too short to support European Vitis vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grape breeders, particularly in Minnesota, have been developing cold-hardy hybrids that ripen their fruit relatively early and produce fully mature grapes that can be vinified into seriously good table and dessert wines. Look for La Crescent and Brianna whites, and Frontenac and Marquette reds. Older French-American hybrids, with names such as Baco Noir, Cayuga, Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, remain important grape sources in the most challenging terroirs in the Midwest.
More options in the South and Northeast
In wet, humid Southern states, native Muscadine vines, which have adapted to the conditions, produce musky-sweet aromas and flavors that can be an acquired taste for some, but are embraced by others who have grown up drinking them. In New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the native Concord grape used so widely for juice, jelly and grapey wines such as Manischewitz, can taste pretty extraordinary to a palate not raised on Cabernet and Chardonnay. However, some American vine varieties — the Norton grape of Virginia and Missouri comes quickly to mind — can produce admirable wines without the rankness associated with Concord, wines that should appeal to any lover of fruity reds with character.
Then again, there are wineries in the U.S. that ship in grapes from sunnier climes (often California), and vinify and bottle them under their own labels. Despite movements across the country calling for only locally grown grapes to go into locally produced wines, importing West Coast fruit keeps many a winery tasting room financially afloat.
And in some parts of the country — Alaska, North and South Dakota in particular — vintners make their living selling wines made from vegetables and non-grape fruits. Pumpkins, rhubarb, berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, just about any produce that has natural sugar, can be fermented into wine. Many of them taste surprisingly good.
We feel strongly that the dramatic increase in quality of wines made in The Other 47 deserves more recognition. Be adventurous in your wine choices.
Photo: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. Credit: Michael Wright Studio