Articles in Soapbox

Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington

So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.

Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.

The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.

But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.

Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.

Don’t assume small, local farms are organic

Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.

We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.

At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.

Converting conventional farms one at a time

Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?

Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington

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Carolyn Phillips

Not too long ago, I was treated to an authentic Shanghainese dinner by the great cookbook author Florence Lin. We dined at a restaurant in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, a place that shall remain unnamed for reasons that will soon become obvious.

After we sat down, Mrs. Lin chatted quietly with the chef, and in a few moments we had Nanjing saltwater duck, braised gluten and a warm and perfectly balanced smoked fish appetizer arrayed in front of us. We were soon diving into a tender and flavorful braised pork shank with its creamy skin, fish with pine nuts and flash-fried pea sprouts that were bathed in nothing but fresh oil, a sprinkle of salt and fat bulbs of browned garlic. Dainty desserts followed, an assortment of little handmade gifts presented to us with smiles and hot tea.

It was a revelation. But contrast this with the dinner I was served there a few months back without a famous person beside me to impress the chef: a lukewarm and decidedly inauthentic bowl of hot-and-sour soup, fatty and flavorless pork in aspic and an insipid plate of poached tilapia coated with a gummy sauce. After this sorry repast in the near-empty restaurant, the understandably idle chef came by to complain about how tough business was.

In a way, I understood. After all, it used to be that Americans were satisfied with pseudo Chinese food. But our growing population of wealthy Asian immigrants, coupled with the heightened sophistication of American diners, has changed up the game. Pseudo just doesn’t cut it anymore. As famed restaurateur and author Cecilia Chiang noted recently to me, there is simply no good place (meaning Chinese, of course) to eat around here –  meaning that if these retrograde places wish to survive, they will have to step up to the challenge.

Chinese restaurants shouldn’t be all over the map

China’s culinary traditions are the best in the world, but you would never know it from what passes for the lion’s share of American “Chinese food.” Part of the problems is that too many restaurants serve dishes that are literally all over the map of China, as can be seen in the enormous menus they often foist on their customers; sometimes even Japanese and Thai dishes get thrown into the mix for no good reason. As a result, everything is available and little of it is worth eating, and the kitchen therefore has to depend upon canned foods and an enormous stockpile of ingredients that eventually spoils, even if stashed in the deep freeze. The owner then tries to cut even more corners to mitigate his losses, and an already ugly cycle gets even uglier.

Contrast this with the way you get to eat in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong: Almost every place, from palatial restaurants to the tiniest mom-and-pop stalls, focuses on a distinct provincial cuisine — and sometimes even a single dish — and because of that, the foods are fresh, tasty, honest and absolutely authentic.

On the off chance that some hometown specialties or seasonal delights are offered here in the States, they are often hidden in the Chinese menu or scribbled as afterthoughts on the wall with no English translations. After all, the thinking goes, why bother with customers who won’t be interested anyway?

But the truth is that on eGullet, Chow and other online epicurean gatherings, as well as in knowledgeable restaurant reviews and on Yelp, whoops of delight are heard and long lines suddenly form whenever a terrific Chinese place opens up, while mediocre eateries are treated with the contempt they deserve. There is therefore no longer any room in this urbane digital age for laziness or condescension.

Follow this 12-point guide

As a dedicated worshiper of great Chinese cuisine, I hereby nail the following 12-point thesis on the front door of that hopeless East Bay restaurant in hopes of an epicurean Reformation:

  • For the love of Buddha, cook with pride from a specific area of China.
  • List these dishes in English with no excuses.
  • Do not assume that Americans will not like certain ingredients. Just like Chinese diners, some of us will and some of us won’t, but offer them anyway.
  • Use good-quality peanut or vegetable oil in your cooking, and always use fresh oil for stir-fries. That means that instead of sneaking old oil into your dishes to save a few pennies, you should sell the gunk in your deep-fat fryers to recyclers. Honestly, this stuff tastes disgusting and is very unhealthy.
  • No more MSG or “chicken essence” bouillon in the food. We can taste that too and it reeks of apathy. Instead, use good stock to amp up the flavor.
  • Give us fresh or frozen bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, not canned. Toss out the tinned mushrooms, baby corn and other cheapo garbage, and stop clogging every dish with cornstarch. You don’t cook that way in China, so why do it here?
  • Buy good quality meats and seafood; if cost is a problem, put a little less in a dish or increase your prices a bit, but please feed us well.
  • Offer meatless dishes that are just as tasty as the other items; China has a rich tradition of vegetarian cuisines, so there is no reason not to make them available.
  • Please explain things to your customers. Tell us what is in each dish if we ask. If your waitstaff does not speak English, have the ingredients and description on a list you can show us.
  • Become obsessive about cleaning up the kitchen, bathrooms, dining areas and around the perimeter.
  • While you are at it, put in ambient lighting, consider redecorating, get rid of the cardboard boxes everywhere and invest in some nice background music. This shows pride of place and makes your customers feel welcome.
  • Treat non-Chinese and Chinese customers with equal respect. Courtesy means as much to us as good food, and you will see our happy (and hungry) faces again and again.

Top photo: Author Carolyn Phillips. Credit: J.H. Huang

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Glasses of red and white wine. Credit: iStockphoto

Discrimination is a strange thing. On the one hand, no one likes being its victim, and hardly anyone confesses to being its practitioner. On the other, connoisseurs and critics discriminate all the time. That’s because the primary Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb “to discriminate” is “to make or constitute a difference … to distinguish [or] differentiate.”

We generally consider discrimination to be a bad thing when we think the standard being used is inadequate for the distinction in question. For instance, we disapprove of employers using skin color, ethnic origin or gender as a basis for hiring (or not hiring) someone. At the same time, though, we value discrimination — indeed, we rely upon it — when we judge the standard to be legitimate. We do so, for example, when we trust a critic to help us decide whether to read a particular book or watch a particular movie. Much the same happens with food and drink.

A website like Zester Daily helps us choose what to eat and drink. It thus is chock-full of discrimination, as privileging one object (say, Mennonite tomatoes, to cite a delightful recent article by Susan Lutz) over another (cold storage tomatoes) is itself an act of discrimination.

Even though I live fairly close to Lancaster, Pa., the heart of Mennonite country, I have not tasted the tomatoes that Susan loves so much. And although I enjoy cooking and (even more) eating, I cannot honestly say that my food standards are sufficiently well defined to allow for more than personal judgments. But as a professional wine writer, I rely on certain non-personal criteria to distinguish between a good and a bad wine, or between an exceptional and an average one.

Unfortunately, few of my wine writing colleagues seem to think that specifying standards is important. Perhaps because serious wine criticism is relatively new, it lags far behind criticism in other areas — in the arts, for example, in literature and, yes, in food. Wine writing lacks a rich history; we have no Brillat-Savarin, Grimod de la Reynière or M. F. K. Fisher to inspire us. And although we are fortunate to be able to read the work of some superb stylists (Gerald Asher, for example, and Hugh Johnson), contemporary critics tend to offer little more than sterile scores, numbers that suggest objectivity but in actuality do little more than mask subjective opinions.

Pick up any introductory guide to wine and you almost always will read that you should ignore the critics and trust your own judgment — nonsensical advice, since people wouldn’t buy such guides if they already felt confident in their ability to judge. The world of wine is getting bigger and more complicated every year. It desperately needs what the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume called a well-defined “standard of taste.”

Any such standard has to be based upon what actually is in the bottle. It also must reflect an awareness of the past, the wines that can serve as benchmarks or models for current ones made with specific grape varieties or coming from specific regions. As Hume, who was thinking about both aesthetic and gustatory taste, wrote, we cannot ignore “the consent and experience of nations and ages.”

Wine lover’s standards

So what criteria other than “it tastes good to me” or “it got 95 points” can we use to discriminate between a truly fine wine and an ordinary one? Let me suggest five:

1. Balance. A top wine works as a whole, with no single element (e.g., acidity, tannin, sugar, etc.) dominating over the others. When those elements are in balance, the whole becomes harmonious.

2. Depth. The same wine also needs to have substance and presence.  Even if it’s light-bodied, it demands that you pay attention to it.

3. Length. The best wines invariably have long, lingering flavors and so leave lasting impressions. You can taste them long after you have swallowed them.

4. Complexity. A great wine never leaves a single impression. It instead is multilayered, conveying many different flavors and sensations.

5. Typicity. Finally, a truly fine wine will taste as it should taste, meaning that it will be true to its many origins — the varieties with which it is made, the place where those grapes were grown, even the vision that inspired it.

There may well be other criteria to include in any standard of taste for wine lovers, and a full understanding of these five certainly calls for more than the simplistic explanations I have provided here. But at least for me, this is a good start, an initial step toward more informed, honest criticism. That’s because I’m convinced the world of wine today needs more discrimination, not less.

Top photo: Glasses of red and white wine. Credit: iStockphoto

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Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier

It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.

Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.

This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.

“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?

As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.

Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier

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Chef Nephi Craig's culinary crew includes, from left, Stephanie Dosela, Nancy James, Juwon Hendricks, Vina Reidhead, Herman Skidmore, Craig, Randall Cosen, Tamara Gatewood and Vincent Way. Credit: Courtesy of Nephi Craig

Indigenous foods and animals are the backbone of North America and the global food culture. Native Foodways magazine is a new publication that gives voice to the rich diversity and resilience of native people. Young and old are reviving their lost biocultural, agricultural and culinary traditions, one meal at a time. They are paving a way for all to eat, live and grow in the world sustainably. It’s time to listen.

NATIVE FOODWAYS


About 5,000 copies of Native Foodways are distributed free to native wellness programs and communities. The magazine is published by Tohono O’odham Community Action, a nonprofit  dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. An additional 2,000 are available for retail sale.

» For more information on Native Foodways magazine or to purchase a copy, check out this link.


More from Zester Daily:

» Acorns helped sustain indigenous groups

» What to do with squash

» Five types of Pacific salmon you need to know

» It’s easy to eat local for Thanksgiving

The organization Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT, created a Regional Map of North America’s Place-Based Food that redraws the continent’s borders. North America transforms into a series of distinct food nations: Clambake, Maple Syrup, Wild Rice, Corn Bread & BBQ, Gator, Bison, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Abalone, Salmon and Moose. The creators sing us back visually to the continent’s native legacy. They revitalize our memory and reimagine our notions of borders and boundaries. It reminds us, we North American citizens, of the region’s indigenous food foundations. With the visual map embedded, we suddenly see the people, the foods and the cultures that came before us.

Indigenous foods of the Americas make up 60% of the global food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These foods include mainly corn and potatoes but also chilies, beans, squashes, tomatoes, pineapples, avocados, manioc, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, wild rice, cranberries, maple sugar, chewing gum, turkey and the beloved clambake.

Yet worldwide biodiversity loss continues with no change in rate and with an increase in the factors that increase loss, according to Science in 2010. North America is no exception. The mountains, canyons and deserts of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico form one of the richest biologically diverse regions. The area is home to more than 40 distinct indigenous communities alone, and within those communities reside important agrobiodiversity knowledge systems. It is not surprising that with the destruction of cultural knowledge also comes the loss of biodiversity and ecological knowledge. Today these declines are only exacerbated by climate change.

Luckily, descendants of native farmers and the culinary carriers who nourished the first settlers up to the present are actively revitalizing their foods, and not just for Thanksgiving. According to Mary Paganelli Votto, founder and editorial director of Native Foodways, “Too often, the focus in the mainstream media is on the health problems in native communities. Native Foodways focuses on the positive efforts taking place to address these issues and seeks to share practical and useful information and to inspire.”

First up, Native Foodways spotlights two chefs

I spoke with two chefs featured in the summer 2013 edition of Native Foodways Magazine: Lois Ellen Frank and Nephi Craig. Frank is a culinary anthropologist with master’s and doctorate degrees. Along with Walter Whitewater, she runs Santa Fe, N.M.-based Red Mesa Cuisine. She is of Kaiwo ancestry on her mother’s side and Sephardic on her father’s side. Her book, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” received the James Beard award in the Americana category. It was the first Native American work to win the award.

Frank left cooking school and became a commercial photographer for eight years in Los Angeles. Her thought was, “Why study cooking in an institution that championed one cuisine over the rest of the globe, let alone disregarded indigenous cuisines?” But she returned to her passion and the kitchen, this time on her own terms. “I need to work in diverse native communities across the country, especially with those suffering from diabetes. I cannot run a restaurant when I travel so much, an absent chef is just not productive,” Frank says of why she runs a catering business instead of a restaurant.

Her catering kitchen is filled with women. Native and non-natives, they find her. “It is only since the 1980s that a shift in the gender balance began in the kitchen.” Put plainly, when women are not in the kitchen, you lose. “In my kitchen, in our circle, we call in the ancestors to guide us. We do not just feed; we provide sustenance. We are powerful vehicles of cooking and techniques. And then we take the ancient foods, and we embody their knowledge, and present them in a contemporary form.”

Like Frank, but of a younger generation, Chef Craig invokes the circle. The four directions represent different and equally important aspects of the kitchen. “We work in a circular fashion instead of from the top down. We veer away from fear- and intimidation-cooking in the kitchen.” Craig added, “We work like ants, or in the Apache way, we activate ‘Ant Power’ where we are all equally strong and each is essential to the creation of the whole, that is the imagery we choose to use.” Craig, 33, is the executive chef at White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort and the founder of The Native American Culinary Association. His core crew of eight is half men and half women, half elder and half younger and all native Apache. The elders in the crew distinctly remember the old hierarchical ways of running the back of the kitchen. Now, though, Craig proudly says he is actively “decolonizing culinary themes and the kitchen brigade by using the circle, White Mountain Apache values and qualities of leadership.”

In each instance, these pioneers of native cuisines are constructing a space to cook and create on their own terms. And they are up against not just a competitive environment but also historical odds. In the midst of fighting to use local, regional, indigenous foods sustainably, they work in and among populations that have had their education, cultures and lands stolen. Yet they plow forward with the confidence that they possess great cultural richness. Amid these obstacles, they symbolize grace, hope and possibility of inclusion for all at the big table. I know I want more.

Top photo: Chef Nephi Craig’s culinary crew includes, from left, Stephanie Dosela, Nancy James, Juwon Hendricks, Vina Reidhead, Herman Skidmore, Craig, Randall Cosen, Tamara Gatewood and Vincent Way. Credit: Courtesy of Nephi Craig

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author, passed away Sept. 29. That evening, as I prepared a simple tomato sauce for dinner, I realized I routinely hear her husky voice in my head whenever I stir a pot of risotto or sauce a pasta (“careful, not too much!”).

Known simply as Marcella, she was the acknowledged game-changer on how Americans think about Italian food, the first to give us careful recipes for such classical dishes as tortelloni di biete (Swiss chard) and artichokes Roman-style. Long after her fame settled about her like a mantle, journalists began to focus instead on her prickly, brusque, curmudgeonly personality — choose your adjective, they’ve all been applied — her smoking, and her preference for Gentleman Jack whiskey.

A first encounter

I came to know a different Marcella. Our friendship began with my fortuitous purchase of fresh scallops with their roe attached. I’d been hired as the food stylist/media escort for Marcella’s Los Angeles book tour for “Marcella Cucina.”

A flurry of faxes from the office of culinary publicist Lisa Ekus (full disclosure, now my agent)  preceded the Hazans’ arrival: Be sure to hold her book face-out at the airport gate. Don’t even think about taking them to an Italian restaurant. They like Chinese food and American hot dogs. I was suitably unnerved.

Marcella was brusque all right. She acknowledged me with a nod and a grunt, slid into the back seat, and proceeded to speak only to her husband, Victor, and only in Italian. At our first stop, Marcella met with the food editor, and Victor hovered as I readied shrimp and scallop salad with orange sections for the shoot. In the recipe’s headnote, Marcella waxed poetic about using scallops with their roe attached but lamented their nonexistence in the United States. Enter the aforementioned scallops. First lesson: Close reading of an author’s work, especially the extra matter, garners undying gratitude. At the end of that first day, I was invited up to their suite to get better acquainted with the inseparable team.

A love of home cooking

That I was a home cook and eager student endeared me to the Hazans. Marcella’s life’s work was the Italian family meal, and she saw in me a kindred spirit she could entrust to liaise between her food and restaurant cookery. Second lesson: Home cooking is the backbone of family life, il sacro desco (the sacred table), and a career-worthy subject.

The Hazans and I kept in touch, and two years later I was hired to assist Marcella at a series of cooking demonstrations at the Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. My job was to keep her food from getting “cheffed up” by the pros preparing the finished meals. I can just imagine what then-resident-chefs Gary Jenanyan and Sarah Scott must have thought about the need for a “food translator.”

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Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

At “home” in the Mondavi’s luxurious three-bedroom guest house, with a fire going against the November rain, the Hazans and I became an ersatz family. Over morning coffee and cigarettes (hers), Marcella told me stories about their early years together, dished about the celebrities she taught, and talked about the dynamics of teaching. It was essentially a rehearsal for her memoir, “Amarcord.”

We scavenged ingredients from the winery larder to make home-cooked comfort food: stovetop veal tenderloin; tomato salad; and an Italian sort of Potatoes Anna, lush with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Marcella cooked generously and fearlessly over high heat. There were splatters everywhere, but the resulting sauce for the veal was a deeply flavored rich brown, the potatoes were roasted to crisped perfection. Instead of adding notches to my culinary belt with lavish meals at the French Laundry, I had a one-on-one kitchen tutorial with one of the great teachers of our time.

At home in Florida

I saw Marcella at her most relaxed when I visited the Hazans at their condominium in Longboat Key, Fla. As though she was still a young girl in her native Cesanatico, she’d whistle to me from her first-floor balcony as I approached from the white-sand beach. She laughed easily, flirted with waiters, enjoyed living near son Giuliano and his family. Of course, leaving Venice meant having to buy shrink-wrapped food at Florida supermarkets instead of fresh, live ingredients along the Rialto. I heard a lot about that too.

The Hazans taught me to be on the lookout for the simplest site-specific gustatory pleasures when I traveled to Italy — the incomparably fresh mozzarella di bufala in Naples, the aroma of white truffles in Alba — and how those trump the air-shipped versions we get here, a sensibility I apply to my writing on seasonal, local foods. Ever the teachers, they were happy to impart their knowledge to a willing student who would pass it along.

If I could give Marcella something in return for all these lessons, it would be this: She sometimes felt discouraged that Americans’ obsession with food porn had become the new barrier to honest cooking. I’d like her to know how much she really did change our culinary landscape.

Top photo: Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

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Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris

I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.

As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.

Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.

Demonizing sugar

Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.

It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.

Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.

Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.

Preserving with sugar

One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.

In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.

Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.

I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.

Apple Butter

Yields 2 pints

Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. Unlike the other fruit butters in this book ["Saving the Season"], this one does not have the apples puréed at any point in the cooking. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.

During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.

Ingredients

5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart

½ gallon unfiltered apple cider

2 allspice berries

20 fresh gratings of cinnamon

10 fresh gratings of nutmeg

Directions

1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.

3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.

Excerpted from “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Top photo: Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris

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Brad Jones (left) and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wisc.. Credit: Sarah Makoski

I set out this summer curious as to how our food is produced and in search of the people producing it. Armed with a little money generously donated to our cause and a whole lot of enthusiasm, my colleague Chris Maggiolo and I traveled 15,000 miles in more than 100 days to investigate the food system. Living in the back of our 20-year-old 20-foot van, we spent time in nearly every state in continental America.

In that time, we worked with just about every kind of artisanal food producer you can imagine (nearly 80 in all). We harvested oysters in Rhode Island and made tortillas in Portland, Ore. We foraged herbs for bitters in the mountains of Colorado and spent the day shrimping off the coast of Houston. We chopped and we cured; we brewed and we baked. We met those enthusiastic to tell their story while others were more laconic. We met fifth-generation farmers who’ve barely managed to hold on to patrimonial land while green-thumbed others have taken to agriculture for the very first time. We met producers with a profound social or sustainability mission and others who simply wanted to eat or feed their family better.

Think beyond the grocery store shelves

We were fortunate to experience a goat being born in central Virginia and took part in a pig slaughter in Oregon. These are profoundly emotional experiences in their own respective way — the alpha and omega of life. It’s easy to forget the seemingly obvious fact that our food comes not from shelves at the store but is the result of a natural life cycle that includes death and rebirth and that extends to distant (though hopefully not too distant) farms and fields. In the case of meat, this means living breathing animals whose death was necessary to bring our sustenance.

Appreciating this fact is to consume more critically, and for my part, perhaps not to eliminate meat consumption altogether but to certainly take measures to ensure that the meat I do eat is responsibly raised and humanely slaughtered. Once you’ve experienced the profundity of the cycle firsthand, to do otherwise would be incongruous. I want to take steps to be a little more intentional. I encourage you to do the same, and it can start with the simple act of consuming meat.

Though we may hold romantic notions of “craft,” it isn’t always what it’s made out to be. This pertains to food production in the general sense (“artisanal” bread at Subway comes to mind, the largest fast food chain in the world) but it is especially true, and especially well veiled, in terms of alcohol. For instance, many of the top spirits brands are owned by the same monolithic parent companies.

They buy neutral grain spirits from large distilleries in Indiana. Sometimes they age them elsewhere. Sometimes they run them through another still. Sometimes they just slap on rustic label to give an aura of hand-crafted authenticity.  This isn’t to say these spirits are necessarily worse for being produced in this manner but it is to reiterate the importance of looking behind the label. We are experiencing a revival of truly small-batch artisanal spirits throughout America. I encourage you to seek out something made with local grains, by local people, feeding into local economies. All stand to benefit, your taste buds included.

Meet your makers

Relationships matter. This applies to people, to places, and to products. Never have I been more aware how critical it is to meet a farmer at the local farmers market. Ask questions. For instance, “What exactly are garlic scapes?” And ask for advice. “How would I use them?” These individuals are proud of what they do, and their labors of love shine through in conversation. It’s a contagious sort of enthusiasm. What’s more, I encourage you to create not just a relationship of mutual benefit but of one actual friendship. We live in an age that feels quite solitary at times. We can begin to build resilient communities in the most natural way possible, by sharing sentiments.

Get out to the farm. If I learned nothing else from our adventure across America it’s that experience is the best educator. I can read how cheese is made a hundred times but just one opportunity to milk a sheep before dawn, to culture curds in a vat and to taste from wheels in odorous caves designed for aging, cheese comes alive with a significance entirely new. This stands for farmers and brewers and bakers (and the rest) as well as cheesemakers.

Be curious

In the end, I simply encourage you to be curious. Ask thoughtful questions and search for meaningful answers. Don’t take things at face value. Experiment! Pick up a couple pots and soil and grow your own herbs. Try (and fail) to make cheese. Try (and fail) to bake bread. Get your hands dirty. You’ll feel not only a tangible and edible sense of accomplishment but you’ll have acquired a measure of self-reliant contentment. The next time you’re in the grocery, you’ll be better informed because you asked and answered these questions. You’ll appreciate your food, and those who made it, in whole new way. You’ll demand more from the food system. And with the help of artisans across America, you’ll continue to see it change.

Top photo: Brad Jones, left, and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wis. Credit: Sarah Makoski

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