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Food writing has become such an immensely popular activity that is attracting hordes of enthusiasts. This is ironic, for in days gone by female journalists who may have wanted to write about politics or finance were instead relegated to the low-status feature pages of their newspapers and told to write about hats and shoes or casseroles and puddings. But before I go on, I must mention the obvious — that I, too, am among the many who write an online food column, so I have a pretty good idea why writing about food has its appeals.
You can write or blog from anywhere
Food writing has taken on a cachet, an activity perceived as glamorous and exciting by both men and women, and while jobs in newspapers dwindle for all writers, anyone with a computer can set up shop as a food blogger. Even a cursory glance at the Internet’s food sites will confirm that professional writers and amateurs alike are beavering away, writing and photographing what they are eating, where they ate it, and providing information, opinions and recipes for the world to see.
To add to this traffic, food writing classes and workshops are springing up, guaranteeing that even more people will be food blogging in the future.
There is a lot to say about food
Writers are finding that food has enormous scope that includes writing about fresh produce, travel, nutrition, agriculture, recipes, restaurant reviews, personal anecdotes and more. So, for instance, sensualists can describe the texture and flavor of an ingredient or dish, an effective approach when writing about an unfamiliar food.
Traveling, eating and writing — an enticing combination
This is why writers comb the earth in search of a new place and cuisine to write about that is not already saturated with food writing.
To be able to travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who fancy being sent on expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world in order to eat, write about the food, and then get paid for it. Alas, those jobs are hard to find.
Eating for health is a hot topic
Another big topic is healthy eating, a subject that used to be of interest only to professional nutritionists and dieticians whose writing ran the risk of being repetitive and boring.
But these days, with so much conflicting information around about food and health, what to eat has become controversial and relevant, and writers are adding their voices to such disagreements. Some, for instance, are convinced that avoiding gluten is good for us and others go further by insisting that the avoidance of all grains entirely will make us feel better and lose weight. At the same time, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health informs us that eating more whole grains is associated with up to 15% lower mortality — particularly from cardiovascular disease. Such controversies are fodder for food writers interested in diet and health.
Big public policy issues such as sustainable agriculture, genetically engineered seed and the humane treatment of livestock are juicy topics for writers, as are the more intimate and nostalgic stories about what Grandma used to cook, the sort of reminiscence that routinely shows up at holidays.
Eating invites the personal
Everyone eats, and that may explain why so many identify as experts on food and want to express themselves through writing about it. Indeed, a whole literary genre, the food memoir, has sprung up whereas before, M.F.K. Fisher pretty much had a monopoly on this territory. The risk in this kind of writing is that fascination with one’s own food memories will not necessarily pique the interest of others, unless the writing is superb and the perspective as offbeat as Fisher’s tended to be.
Food in culture and history is fascinating
Another huge approach to food writing is to treat food as a lens that allows writers to comment on a period in history or on the culture at large. For instance, I am interested in the social roles assigned to men and women at a given time, so I notice who does what, and in the case of food, who cooks, who eats and who serves.
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Everyone knows that men were traditionally the professional chefs working in restaurants and hotels while women used to do all of the everyday home cooking. But this arrangement has changed because of a shift in American culture. With wives these days holding down full-time jobs, sometimes as professional chefs, home cooking — what used to be seen as a task fit only for women or for sissies — has now become an acceptable activity for regular dudes.
Similar observations are being explored by graduate students turning out Ph.D. dissertations that put food at the center of their research. Although the audience for academic writing is limited, popular writing, especially when it shows up on the Internet, can reach millions. Our hope, of course, is that the number of readers will increase and keep pace with the mounting numbers of food writers looking for an audience.
Main photo: To travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who dream of expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal
When I told my partner that I was writing a book about pork, she asked: “Does this mean I’m going to have to give up bacon?”
I spent two years trying to answer that question. I visited a pig farmer who raised 150,000 animals annually in warehouse-like confinement barns, and a Mennonite who raised a few dozen on open pasture. I spent an afternoon in a slaughterhouse that killed and processed 20,000 hogs a day, and spent a day at a boutique abattoir that handled 30, and I spoke to dozens of people in 12 states whose lives had been affected by Big Pig.
“Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat”
By Barry Estabrook, W.W. Norton, 2015, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
My partner and I still eat bacon, but not if it comes from a factory farm. Here’s why:
I knew that pigs were smart, but I had no idea how smart — much more intelligent than man’s best friends. Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old humans. Experimental pigs can be taught to play computer games. Hogs can adjust thermostats to keep their pens at comfy temperatures. Pigs have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. I will never forget the chilling sight of 1,500 sows in a low, dark barn in crates that were so small that they could not turn around.
I stood on a bridge over the Middle Raccoon River in central Iowa and watched vast floes of brownish foam drift on the current. They were the result of liquid hog manure that had been washed by rains into the river. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for a half million citizens of Des Moines, who have to pay $1 million a year just to remove agricultural pollutants from their water. The same water flows into the Mississippi, contributing to a Connecticut-sized oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where no fish can survive.
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In North Carolina, the once-pristine Neuse River, now polluted from hog farms, experiences regular die-offs with billions of fish turning belly up in putrid masses. American Rivers, an environmental group, lists the Neuse as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
Hog farms also pollute the air. I sat with Elsie Herring in her small frame home in eastern North Carolina as she described not being able to mow the lawn, hang laundry or even sit outside on a summer’s evening because of the stench that (literally) rains down from a neighboring pig operation. And this is no quaintly rural whiff of manure. Sophisticated air monitoring equipment set up by Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed that Herring and her neighbors were inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They experience difficulty breathing and have developed high blood pressure.
For 13 years, Ortencia Rios worked at a pork-packing plant. She was an exemplary employee. But after her hands gave out, her shoulder rotator cuff tore, and she developed carpel tunnel syndrome — all because of the job — the company told her there was no work for her, according to Rios. During the past 30 years, the wages of slaughterhouse workers have gone into free fall, dropping by 40 percent. The rate of injury has soared. Human Rights Watch declared that the United States is “failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry workers.”
In 2004, Everly Macario’s 18-month-old son died a painful death after being infected by bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors administered. There’s a good chance that the germs that killed the toddler evolved on a pig farm. Four out of five hogs raised in the United States are fed constant low levels of antibiotics — to prevent, not cure infections — a perfect recipe for bacteria to develop resistance.
When Jim Schrier, who worked as a USDA inspector at a 10,000-animal-a-day pork slaughterhouse in Iowa, began to report unsanitary conditions such as carcasses with hair and feces on them or with cancerous tumors and pus-filled abscesses, Schrier said he was promptly “reassigned” to a slaughterhouse two hours away from his home — an impossible commute. The USDA’s own inspector general reported that there is a reduced assurance that government inspectors effectively identify “pork that should not enter the food supply.”
One bite of a chop from a pastured, heritage pig is enough to convince. Like January tomatoes, most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of its gastronomic qualities. Good pork costs more than factory stuff, but enjoying great meat while not supporting an industry guilty of more than its share of travesties is well worth the price. But be warned: Once you try real pork, you probably won’t go back to the other white meat.
Main photo: Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock
April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.
“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”
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Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.
The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.
She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:
“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”
I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”
I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.
Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:
“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”
Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.
She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:
“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”
His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”
If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.
Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis
For the second time in two weeks, the California wine industry is under fire. First, it was a class-action lawsuit aimed at inexpensive wines with moderately elevated levels of arsenic. Now, it’s cooties. And they’ve been spotted in the proverbial good stuff.
Cooties — formally Cutius terrebilis, a childhood condition associated with social dysfunction, formerly believed to be something people grow out of naturally by the time they are teenagers — have apparently been detected in a broad cross-section of California wines.
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Curiously, the cooties-bearing wines are not connected by their region of origin or varietal makeup, but rather by their rating on the so-called 100-point scale, popularized during the 20th century but inexplicably still finding traction in lesser-evolved pockets of the U.S. wine scene today.
Dr. Isiah B. Wright — who holds degrees in medicine, enology, viticulture, psychology and statistics — revealed his research yesterday at a news conference where he also announced he is not initiating a class-action suit. Wright explained that the presence of cooties is fortunately limited to wines that have been rated 90 points or higher, and is not as pernicious or contagious as it can be in elementary schools and summer camps.
Symptoms of cooties
Symptoms of cooties transmission from wine to humans are subtle, and mostly psychological rather than systemic. “Given that said ratings are purported to provide guidance, and in turn confidence, in the drinker, the 90-point wines are particularly risky,” Wright continued. “Exposure to too many could leave imbibers with subconscious anxiety, a creeping doubt, if you will, that their own taste in wine is merely pedestrian.”
He went on to explain that, unfortunately, 90-point wines are “about 9 cents a dozen these days,” and thanks to complicity of online and traditional retailers too lazy or too unsure of their own palates to review wines themselves, these ratings have proliferated to the point where exposure is difficult to avoid.
Of course, cooties in humans under the age of 10 are fairly easily treated; once cooties are contracted on the playground, a four-finger squeeze applied within one day by a merciful peer does the trick. In adults, Wright said he knows of two treatments: “The first thing people can do, as a prophylactic measure, is to immediately reject the usage of any wine ratings outside their original habitat, i.e., in the pages of magazines that no one actually reads anyway. This is quite easy, actually. Wine ratings derived almost exclusively by middle-aged men sampling 20 wines at a pop ‘blind’ and without a crumb of food — who would consider their advice useful in real life, where people, food and context are in play?”
The second, he explained, is even simpler: “Pour yourself some wine of the masses — a crisp dry rosé, a humble Prosecco, a refreshing sangria. Go tap a box wine, pound some Pinot Grigio or share a magnum of Merlot. And then — are you listening? — add some food. Adds 10 points to every wine, every time” — especially on April 1.
Main photo: California’s wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio
Part of what makes eating together so pleasurable, in any language or culture, is the conversation. But when London-based photographer Chris Terry was in Niger photographing an ordinary family enjoying a spaghetti dinner, he was surprised that no one spoke.
“It’s a great privilege to have food to eat,” explained the grandmother, the head of the household. “It’s not the moment to chat and say silly things.”
The spaghetti had been paid for with vouchers from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Under the program, Terry had been invited into the family’s home to document what has become the photo exhibit, “The Family Meal: What Brings Us Together.”
Terry photographed families receiving WFP assistance as they made and ate meals in five countries — Chad, Niger, Myanmar, Jordan and Ecuador — where hunger has become entrenched because of disasters and conflicts largely forgotten by the rest of the world. Chad and Niger have suffered the worst drought in 50 years; Myanmar families have been uprooted because of ethnic conflict; and Syrian and Colombian refugees have fled into Jordan and Ecuador, respectively, to escape violence in their own countries.
The exhibit opened in November at Gare du Midi in Brussels, Belgium, and has since appeared at airports in Madrid and Lisbon and at the Symposium on the History of Food at the University of Amsterdam. Now at Dublin’s airport and online, it also highlights five family recipes, including Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador. Future shows are scheduled for the Milan Expo 2015 in May-November; the Sustainable Food Summit in Amsterdam June 4-5; and Strokestown’s Irish National Famine Museum in June-August. You also can check the exhibit schedule.
Evin Joyce of WFP’s Brussels office came up with the Family Meal idea 18 months ago to promote the group’s message with positive, personal images from around the globe. Eating together is a ritual we all have in common, he explained. Gathering, preparing, cooking and sharing food, as a family, are activities humans have done for millennia.
Transporting food by plane, train, truck, barge and yak
Every year food from the WFP travels through often rough, hostile terrains to reach more than 90 million beneficiaries in 75 countries, via plane, train, truck, river barge, camel and yak. The idea of the family meal is especially poignant this past year. For the first time, the WFP faced five high-level crises simultaneously: South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Syria and Iraq conflicts, and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak.
During the exhibit’s appearance at the European Parliament in late February, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said that the Family Meal photos “give a face to those we serve.”
The photos also give us a peek into the lives and meal traditions of families struggling in ways many of us cannot image. But to my surprise, many of the images made me feel, not pity, but delight — even a bit of envy, because we who do not suffer from hunger sometimes claim we are “too busy” for family meals.
The photos capture the intimacy and joy of eating together, no matter how desperate the circumstances. Food not only nourishes us; sharing it lifts our spirits. The homemade dishes shown are colorful and inviting, made with staples such as rice and sorghum flour, and enlivened with the flavors, textures and colors of achiote powder, yucca and pomegranate seeds. The food was often prepared over open fires, in family or communal kitchens. Families ate together, indoors and out, seated on cushions on the floor, on the ground or at tables crowded with relatives.
The winners of a recent Family Meal photo competition, judged by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and photographer Terry, were also announced during the launch at the Parliament. In one photo, a family in the Philippines shares a meal by candlelight because of power outages that still occur after a devastating typhoon in 2012. As Terry commented, the image “draws the viewer in, emphasizing the human need to gather around light, and company, when sharing a meal.”
Guests at the Parliament launch were offered samples of the five featured recipes. We commented on all the spicy and varied flavors as we guessed at the ingredients. I was particularly delighted with the texture of the yucca root in the “Sweaty Chicken” dish. The yucca flower is the official “state flower” of my home state of New Mexico, but I had never tasted yucca root before.
For Syrian refugee Abu Sayid, who lives with his family in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, preparing and eating traditional recipes with his family keeps alive his memories of home. During Terry’s photo shoot, he helped his wife prepare two staple Syrian dishes: kubbeh (bulgur wheat balls stuffed with mincemeat and onions) and shishbarak dumplings (thin dough with mincemeat filling cooked in a yogurt stew).
“WFP vouchers allow us to get any food we need from stores around here [the refugee camp],” Abu Sayid said in a WFP interview as he sealed a kubbeh ball and his wife started frying the first batch of dumplings. “In Syria, we like to laugh and joke during a meal. It makes the food more enjoyable.”
In Myanmar, the WFP’s Joyce asked one family why they eat together? “It gives us a sense of unity,” one of them replied. Food is our priority, another woman told him. “As long as we housewives have a bag of rice, the rest can sort itself out.”
Joyce also noticed that women put a lot of effort into preparing and flavoring meals, no matter how basic the ingredients. And like mothers everywhere, they sometimes had to remind their children, “Eat your vegetables.”
Pollo Sudado (Sweaty Chicken) from Ecuador
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 25 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 45 minutes
Yield: About 8
1 whole chicken
3 cloves of garlic
1 big tomato
Coriander, salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of achiote powder (annatto)
1. Rinse the whole chicken and chop it into pieces, taking off the legs, breast and wings.
2. Chop the onions and garlic and fry them with oil over a high flame in a large pan.
3. Add the tomato and let it simmer a bit.
4. Add the chicken and then lower the flame.
5. Add the coriander, salt, pepper and achiote powder.
6. Add a little water, cover the pot and leave it to simmer for 20 minutes.
Pollo Sudado should be served with rice and yucca, which should be peeled, chopped and boiled with salt for 20 minutes. ¡Buen Provecho!
Main photo: Together with his father, siblings and cousins, this refugee in Ecuador gets a taste of his Colombian home thanks to his aunt’s cooking. Credit: Chris Terry
Being stuck in the house because of monumental snowstorms is nothing new for me because I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that has buried the Boston area where I now live — eight to 10 feet accumulated in successive storms, accompanied by freezing temperatures.
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Communities have created “snow farms,” formerly empty spaces where truckloads of snow from streets and sidewalks is dumped. We have been warned to clear our roofs to avoid cave-ins and have been bombarded with tips to do that safely. If we were unable to rake off snowy roofs, one suggestion was that we stuff a pair of pantyhose with noncorrosive ice melt and fling it onto the roof. But when seen from a distance, wouldn’t this get-up look like half of a murdered female body? I don’t want to think about it. Instead, I rush to crowded grocery stores between storms and stock up on food I don’t really need.
This siege mentality put me in mind of the horror of real sieges such as Leningrad in World War II when the Germans put the city under blockade and starved the citizenry. People were reduced to catching and eating domestic animals, digging up and devouring tulip bulbs from public gardens, and licking off wallpaper paste from walls. In contrast, what I am going through — a fear of running out of canned tomatoes in case I want lasagna — is a minor, if not decadent, concern. Nevertheless, off I go to the supermarket to stock up, and along with my neighbors fill my cart just as fast as store employees refill the shelves.
Stocked for any situation
I should say at the outset that I have three freezers that are always stocked with meat, bread and rolls, vegetables and cooked dishes such as thick soups and meat rolled in cabbage, our favorite winter dish. The truth is I probably could eat well for a couple of months if the snowstorms continued and made shopping impossible. Losing power concerns me, but I do have a wood-burning fireplace and would be able to grill steaks and chops and oversee a weenie roast complete with s’mores. When a friend asked me what I would do if power went out and my freezers stopped working I said, “Why I would bury all the food in a snowbank,” and we certainly have plenty of those.
Where the fear of scarcity takes us
Although I am well-supplied, I rush to the supermarket to stock up on what I think I must have if I am housebound. I first load up on staples. When I see the store’s supply of bread is depleted, I go to the baking department and, to my surprise, see that most of the flour is momentarily gone too. I stock up on other staples, buying half-and-half for coffee and a favorite brand of plain yogurt for my usual breakfast of yogurt parfaits. Getting more coffee is not a problem because I buy large quantities online, but I do pick up grapes as well as a crate of clementines, which have been especially good this year. I cannot help but notice how much food is available. Grocery workers are everywhere, replenishing the shelves with abundant supplies. I fill my cart with canned goods — salmon, tuna fish, sardines, whatever can be eaten straight from the can, for you never know.
I decide to go after goods I don’t normally buy, feel-good luxuries such as a Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy and plenty of candy, my junk food of choice. I only need the suggestion of hardship to think I deserve chocolate-covered peanuts or licorice from Australia. I look at other people’s carts and see huge jugs of bottled water and wonder whether some think that municipal water supplies will be endangered. I also see carts full of pretzels and chips, which I suppose serve as compensatory junk food. At home I struggle to find room on pantry shelves for recent purchases, then do the equivalent of window shopping by looking at favorite online food sites.
Perspective amid the snow
At the back of my mind is the realization of just how lucky I am to be living in a country where only 6% of the household budget is spent on food, unlike poorer countries of the world where 40% to 50% must be spent, and 15% in the more prosperous European countries, as professor Anne McCants pointed out in a paper delivered at the MIT symposium “Consuming Food, Producing Culture.” I become aware that shopping for food and anything else has become a pleasant, and often, idle pastime. And when I think about my recent stocking-up foray to the grocery store, I recall how the aisles were cluttered not only with frantic shoppers but also with store clerks restocking shelves with massive loads of food, and I think again of the siege in Leningrad where people died of starvation. That it occurred in the winter is the only thing my Boston experience shares with that real siege. In all other respects I have it good, especially since I won’t have to think about how to cook the family cat and how that would taste.
Pantry Pea and Carrot Soup
Adapted from a recipe in “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer. I like this version because it is fast and because I usually have the ingredients on hand. Plus, it is really good.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 55 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced 1/8-inch thick
6 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)
1 cup green split peas
Salt and pepper
1. Using a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, garlic and celery for 5 minutes.
2. Add cumin and carrots and cook 2 minutes.
3. Add stock, bring to a boil and add split peas.
4. Simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until peas are very tender
5. Purée 2 cups of soup mixture in a food processor or blender and return to rest of the soup in the pot.
6. Taste for salt and pepper.
Main photo: The more the snow falls, the less is available on supermarket shelves as customers panic and buy out stores. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber
Along a neon strip of Hollywood Boulevard, sandwiched between the Cabo Cantina and a male strip joint called the Hollywood Men, the Musso & Frank Grill does not catch your eye until you step inside. The room is packed with wooden booths, red leather banquettes and white tablecloths. The original wallpaper, a restful art deco mural of woodland and pastures, has faded to gentle browns and beige.
Take Imported Sardines for instance. I haven’t tasted one of those luscious, melting, silvery canned fish, soaked in olive oil, for at least 30 years. They were one of the few edible items at my boarding school. Not everyone liked them, so with luck I would get my neighbor’s portion too. Corned Beef and Cabbage, Musso & Frank’s Tuesday special, was another school regular — made without much beef and a lot of rather stinky cabbage. Musso & Frank’s is far, far better.
I’m also happy to say that Musso & Frank remains a destination for the celebrities who live in the mansions just down the road. Perhaps next visit we’ll ask for the Marilyn Monroe or the Charlie Chaplin table, the one at the front where we could observe the antics of the passersby. Perhaps they were an inspiration for Chaplin’s classic mimes? Meanwhile, our waiter bounds up to the table. “You’re sitting in the Mickey Rooney seat,” he says. “Did you know?”
He is wearing a traditional tailored short jacket in bright red with black lapels, and to my delight, the kitchen uniform is equally traditional, all white of course, with cloth buttons to withstand laundry bleach. The sous chefs sport puffy, Escoffier-style toques, becomingly collapsed to one side, with white pillboxes for the commis, the least-trained members of the team. The chef himself is easily distinguished across the kitchen by his towering starched toque, not a hint of collapse there.
A glance at the menu shows why the kitchen staff is so large. Well more than a hundred dishes are on offer at lunch and dinner. Some, of course, are prepared ahead such as French onion soup and macaroni au gratin, but the vast majority are cooked to order. Boneless garlic chicken has the caution “Please allow 20 minutes.”
Vegetables come separately and you choose your own, be it broccoli with Hollandaise, French fried onion rings, or garlic toast (Why has that almost disappeared — it is so good!). At least a couple of gems such as shrimp Louie date back to the late 1800s. Chicken à la king, that staple of the 1960s fundraising circuit, was mentioned in the New York Times in 1893.
Timeless for a reason
Like Mozart, there’s a reason why these dishes are timeless — they are quite simply the best. Caesar salad was very probably on Musso & Frank’s original menu in 1919. Julia Child remembered eating it when she was a little girl in the early 1920s. Mind you, there can be ulterior reasons for their survival. When I once mentioned lobster thermidor to a French-trained chef, he smiled mischievously. “That’s a dish for Mondays, after the weekend closure. The seafood leftovers go in there so the Cognac and mustard sauce can mask the stale taste.”
No stale food here though; the sautéed scallops, lump crab cakes and grilled meats are spanking fresh. Fried oysters, baked escargots, grilled lamb kidneys, calf’s liver with onions, smoked tongue sandwiches like those my mother made to fortify me on the miserable journeys back to boarding school. All these bring a distant look to my eyes. Half-forgotten flavors, long-treasured treats. When all is said and done, eating well is the best reward!
I haven’t had deep, dark sautéed mushrooms since I lived in Paris in the 1960s. Musso & Frank’s version is “secret.” Nothing is secret in the kitchen, so here’s my version. These mushrooms are delicious with polenta, brown rice, or your favorite steak.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 9 minutes
Total time: 9 to 12 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings
1/2 pound white button mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup Madeira
1/2 cup consommé or veal stock
Squeeze of lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper
1. Trim mushroom stems level with the caps and cut them in quarters.
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until tender and liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the Madeira and simmer until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add the consommé and reduce also by half, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
6. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the lemon juice and Parmesan with a little pepper and continue simmering until they are glazed, about 1 minute.
7. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Main image: Musso & Frank’s lobster thermidor: A classic done right. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
“There’s no hiding the fact that there are two populations, the haves and the have-nots,” said Sanjay Rawal, talking about his provocative documentary “Food Chains.”
Rawal’s film sheds light on those who eat food and those who produce it, and the disparity between what laborers contribute and their often meager living conditions. The documentary has earned rave reviews for its illuminating take on the food industry. Matt Pais of the Chicago news site RedEye called it “an educational and upsetting 81 minutes.” Film Journal International recommended it for “every American who unquestioningly lifts fork to mouth for their three squares a day.”
Rawal is unique in the insight he brings to his subject. For a decade, he ran a tomato genetics company with his father and sold seeds to Florida growers. It’s from this background — his family’s tomatoes are sold at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market — that Rawal draws his story of food, migration and inequality.
Spotlight on farm laborers
“Food Chains” begins in southern Florida, where local tomato pickers formed a human rights organization in 1993. They named their group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers after the town where they live. Like many farm laborers, the workers were paid by the number of pounds they picked, and Rawal gives a front-row seat to their plea for better working conditions and livable wages. According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, workers who were paid by the piece were twice as likely to live below the poverty line as their salaried counterparts.
Although “Food Chains” is grounded in the CIW’s fight against mega-grocer Publix, Rawal packs in stunning footage of farm fields across the country, juxtaposing it with the hardship many laborers endure. In one guilt-checking scene, Rawal takes his cameras to America’s wine capital, Northern California’s posh Napa Valley. Away from images of quaint vineyards and luxurious resorts, he presents farmworkers struggling to put a roof over their heads. The shortage of affordable housing, Rawal said, forces some to cram up to 20 people in a small house.
DeVon Nolen, manager of the West Broadway Farmers Market in Minneapolis, took her children to a “Food Chains” screening at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul, which has a history of promoting cross-cultural filmmaking. Nolen works on an urban agriculture initiative called the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council. “It struck me how disconnected we are from our food source,” she said post-screening. “The only way you can really solve this is to have a local sustainable food system.”
Although today’s consumers appear more concerned than ever with locally produced, pesticide-free and humanely raised foods, Rawal said there’s one question that doesn’t get asked enough: “Who produces my food?”
The group Bread for the World Institute has one answer. It reports that seven out of 10 U.S. farmworkers are foreign born, and roughly half don’t have documents.
Migrant workers around the world
It’s not uncommon for a country’s food production to be supplied by migrant workers. Southern European countries draw millions of farm laborers from North Africa and Eastern Europe. What’s different in the United States is that whereas Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have carried out a combined 15 or more legalization programs since 1985, the U.S. has yet to grant legal protection for many of its most valuable yet underappreciated workers. A recent poll by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 90 percent of female farmworkers in California cited sexual harassment as a major problem. Rawal noted that few challenge their unfair conditions for fear of getting deported.
Such is the food workers’ paradox. The food system depends on them, but they’re beleaguered by being foreign born. “Our immigration policy is to keep our labor costs low,” said lawyer Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director at the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.
In 2011, the CIW launched its Fair Food Program, a plan to double worker wages by instituting penny-per-pound increases on produce. This would cost the average family of four an additional 44 cents a year. Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s and Walmart all signed the contract (Publix has yet to join).
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The little guys are chiming in too. Lisa Kivirist boasts that her bed and breakfast, Inn Serendipity in Browntown, Wisconsin, is “carbon negative,” meaning more carbon dioxide is sequestered than emitted. She is a big fan of the Fair Food Program described in “Food Chains.” “It brings authentic transparency and needed justice to our food system.”
Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko, grow most of the food they serve to guests in their garden. Anything not produced on their property is bought from small-scale local producers or fair trade sources, which designate funds to social, economic and environmental development projects with an emphasis on fair worker wages. In order to be considered fair trade, a company must register with a certifying organization like Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International.
The challenge for those like McKenzie, Nolen and Kivirist is to bring others into the movement. For his part, Rawal urged support of companies that signed on to the Fair Food Program. He also tries to buy local and fair trade foods, and avoids grocery stores whenever possible.
Despite being a farm kid, Rawal never realized until doing his film how much sacrifice goes into his food. “I’m more grateful for my food,” he said. “That’s the first step, as wishy-washy as it seems.”
The documentary “Food Chains,” which premiered in November 2014, is now available on iTunes and Netflix.
Main photo: Farmworkers weed spinach by hand in San Luis Obispo, California. Credit: iStock/NNehring
Ben Bartenstein reported this story for Round Earth Media out of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and is now reporting out of Rabat, Morocco.