Articles in Opinions
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; I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that 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.
If I ruled the world, or at least the food world, my resolution for 2015 would be to ban all lists. The blooming things are everywhere and have become as ubiquitous as kale and cronuts. Lists upon lists, lists of lists, lists about lists … they seem to self-generate at every opportunity. To paraphrase Lady Macbeth: “Out, damned list! Out, I say!”
This may be biting the hand that feeds me, but I have taken a powerful dislike of lists. I feel ambushed by the wretched things at every turn, corralled by their insistence and sheer nonsense. Call me an old stick-in-the-stew if you like, but lists drive me demented. In the space of a few minutes, I found on my Flipboard account:
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21 Times Katy Perry Dressed as Food (I wish I had made this last one up, but I do have to salute its absurd brilliance.)
I could go on, but at this point, I am in numbers purgatory. When it comes to lists, I have reached my limit. From a piece of fun they have become cliche. They are bullet points that have morphed into dictators. It makes me want to scream and chuck something red and sticky, like a pot of strawberry jam, all over the blameless screen. Is it a herd mentality? Are we gourmet gadarene swine? Or is it simply a kwik ‘n’ easy way to grab the reader’s attention in a saturated info world?
10 is the perfect number for lists
I feel particularly incensed by the growing editorial trend for weird numbers, 23 or 19, say. Is this meant to be quirky and original? Is it thought the strange counting will catch the eye more than the actual subject? No, it is just downright irritating. If you have to have a list — and I have nothing against them per se, as long as they know their place — why not a time-honored, neatly satisfying figure of 3, 5 or 10? Ten is a wonderful number for lists — the countdown is just the right size to hold suspense, retain interest and consider the proposed choices. Anything larger and it becomes meaningless. It diverts attention from the subject at hand: The format is stale and repetitive, and it’s time to call time on the sneaky practice.
The excessive use of lists has gone far beyond its right and proper place: to function as a useful mode of gathering of appropriate data while offering appropriate context and meaning. I am quite sure individual writers or editors do not intend such consequences, and I have no wish to insult any of my esteemed colleagues, but matters are out of control.
The collective use of the format has resulted, to my mind, in a widespread dumbing down of the food-writing genre. Do all our readers really want the easy-to-swallow and painless-to-process implication that the proliferation of lists implies? Why does so much have to be served bite-sized? Is there nothing that cannot be forced into this simplistic journalistic formula? I have just found an article called 41 Holiday Cookies — that is not a list; it is an anthology. I rest my case.
The temptation of lists
From a writer’s point of view, it offers a temptation to be both lazy and inventive. Lists don’t need paragraphs that link fluently or coherently; they don’t demand that topics be carefully unpacked and analyzed. With an arbitrary numbering system a writer can simply concoct some fluffy nonsense that may entertain but neither informs nor educates. It does, however, help fill the feed-me, feed-me bottomless pit of cyberspace. I should know — I have been guilty of both charges.
Alas, in a crowded marketplace there is always a temptation to try and shout loudest to attract the buyer. Hence the equally annoying proliferation of descriptors such as “The Best,” “The Greatest,” “The Easiest,” etc. The result of this style of writing — devaluation of the words. Empty rhetoric. Each example may only be a passing moment of mirth to provide an “easy” read and I may well stand accused of sniffy overreaction, but I still fail to comprehend this insatiable trend for enumeration.
I think I have listed five reasons why I hate lists. But who cares? And who’s counting?
Main illustration: A collage of “listicle” headlines. Clockwise, from upper left: “25 Things You Probably Didn’t Know You Can Freeze!” Credit: missinformationblog.com; “18 Mouthwatering Breakfast Recipes to Try On Your Next Camping Trip,” Credit: Lauren J, diyready.com; “21 Clean Lunches That Can Be Prepared In Under 10 Minutes,” Credit: skinnyms.com; “45 Healthy Recipes For Almost Every New Year’s Resolution Diet,” Credit: Kelly Brown, Buzzfeed.com
We don’t really celebrate the holidays, which means that on more than one occasion I’ve just left the country and enjoyed Christmas in Norway or Mexico or Rome.
But over the past few years, I’ve stayed home and shaped Christmas or New Year’s into an occasion for hosting a big, somewhat irreverent meal bringing together all those who don’t have another plan. It’s always the wackiest and most fun party, because we put together people we probably wouldn’t think to otherwise and it always works: Strangers become friends over the end — or beginning — of the year.
But what I anticipate with pleasure is my other, more personal holiday ritual that revolves around cleaning the kitchen thoroughly and getting it ready for another year of hard work. After all, I cook every day, and my kitchen takes a beating week after week, so I look forward to digging out the crumbs that have materialized in various cracks and crevices, washing the glass on my cupboard doors, tightening the knobs on the doors and bins, thoroughly washing all the parts of the refrigerator.
Cleaning the kitchen cleans the slate for the year ahead
Mind you, I do this other times of the year also, but I always make a special effort at the start of the year to do it all at once. After all, it feels good to start anything with a clean slate.
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Beginning with the refrigerator, I’m always amazed that the same odd things appear year after year — the chile paste that long ago dried out from lack of use; a fairly new can of tomato paste already filmed with fluffy mold (It always happens, which is why a tube with a cap is a better choice); and, always, there’s a jar with just three olives bobbing up and down in brine. Fortunately I don’t amass many condiments — that would be a sure disaster area. As for capers, which I think you might consider a condiment, this year there were two jars, both opened and both fairly full; ditto with horseradish. How does this happen? It’s among the mysteries of life.
A few years ago we had a pestilence of moths — thousands of them — that had an ugly effect: I had to throw out bags of grains and flours with evidence of worms and refrigerate all those that didn’t. So now my refrigerator is super full — of grains, flours, dried fruits, nuts, oils and vegetables, not to forget wine and cheeses, those double jars of capers, milk for coffee and a bottle of some healthful concoction I once vowed to take.
While all this cleaning is ultimately satisfying, it’s also a sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of neglect and lapsed intentions.
The freezer isn’t much better. It’s crammed with big, chunky cuts of grass-fed beef and lamb, more grains, a zillion ice packs that seem too valuable to throw out, dried persimmons and apples and, if I dig down further, packets of frozen tomato sauce and applesauce I need to make note of so they’re used up by the time fresh tomatoes and apples come around again. I try to organize the freezer, but it seems to resist order, as do many dark, out-of-sight places. This is also a good time to check dried herbs and spices in case the life has just gone out of them, in which case, out they go. A January order to Penzeys is not uncommon.
On my many trips to Decorah, Iowa, when I was on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, I used to stop in little towns along the way in search of old blue-glass Ball jars. They’re tall, handsomely shaped and beautiful to look at, so in addition to my cupboard, refrigerator and freezer, there’s also a number of exposed shelves that hold these jars and their contents of dried beans, quinoa, black rice, red lentils and the like.
While wiping the shelves and the jars themselves clean of accumulated dust, it occurred to me that these jars have become a part of my indoor landscape, more specifically, my kitchen landscape, to the point where I don’t see them. They’ve gone from containing food to being a part of the visual background, like books on a shelf, or the trees in the yard, or the similarly attractive shelves of canned tomatoes and jars of jam.
Warm sponge in hand, I realized that at some point there must have come a moment when I ceased to see these jars and their contents, and that’s when I discovered some of these beans and grains had been dwelling there for quite some time. How long I’m not willing to admit, nor do I necessarily know. I suspect the Santa Maria beans are so old even a long stay in my pressure cooker might not be enough to soften them. And they aren’t the only ones.
I’ve noticed that I’m happiest in my kitchen when the cupboard’s shelves are nearly bare, and the refrigerator is practically empty. In short, when there’s not a lot to choose from come time to cook dinner. That’s often when creative juices start to flow, and it’s also when I really do look in the freezer and am happy to find that frozen soup to thaw. It’s also when those jars and their contents suddenly come into view and present themselves as food with appealing possibilities. What about that quinoa salad I haven’t made in years? Or my favorite red lentil soup? Or that unopened package of Rio Zape beans? Take away some of the competition, and suddenly there are myriad possibilities I’ve merely been overlooking.
It’s an argument for less being more, and for taking a break from shopping. Instead, I use what’s there. And it’s a great way to start a New Year — at any time of the year.
Main photo: Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison
Pseudoscience and seductive headlines worked their black magic in 2014, enticing people to follow one misguided food fad after another. However, 2015 holds more promise.
We at Oldways — our nonprofit has spent the last quarter century guiding people to good health through heritage and cultural food traditions — predict that what’s old will be rediscovered in brand new ways. We see five food trends in our kitchens and on our dinner plates for the year ahead:
More from Zester Daily:
1. Whole grains become the new normal
Now that diners have discovered the nutty flavor and toothsome bite of whole grains, they are more willing to move from quinoa to more adventurous options like teff, sorghum and millet. Next up: Look for on-demand milled grains and more varieties of sprouted grains and sprouted grain flours, which will take baking to the next level.
2. African heritage cuisine goes mainstream
Thanks to chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson and Bryant Terry, as well as food historians such as Jessica B. Harris, African heritage cuisine has been elevated to new ranks. Based on whole, fresh plant foods, with a special emphasis on leafy greens, the traditional healthy eating patterns of African heritage, with roots in America, Africa, the Caribbean and South America, are making their way to more and more menus. In turn, more diners are discovering these healthy traditions of Africa. That’s also encouraging home cooks to explore and experiment with dishes like African peanut soup, Hoppin’ John and Jollof rice (also known as benachin).
3. All hail plants!
Interest in plant-based diets has reached an all time high. The trend has grown beyond just replacing meat. Today, vegetables are celebrated with innovative plant-centric plates such as zucchini baba ganoush and cauliflower steaks. In 2015, a number of less well known vegetable varieties will pop up at farmer’s markets, on more menus and on more plates. Look for tat soi and turnip greens as well as new and delicious hybrid vegetables like BrusselKale, a combination of two of America’s favorites.
We will move beyond butternut to an amazing assortment of other squash: kabocha, delicata and sweet dumpling. Root vegetables such as rutabaga, watermelon radishes, purple potatoes and parsnips, also will rule. Even the U.S. government is considering a recommendation to eat more plant foods and less meat in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
4. Will it blend?
Home cooks looking to amp up the flavor are turning to herbs and spices with a twist. Spice blends like Berbere, Baharat, Ras el Hanout and Herbes de Provence (from Ethiopia, the Middle East, North Africa and France respectively) are adding adventure in the kitchen. Cooks are discovering the allure of blending their own spices. And they’re taking cues from top chefs like Ana Sortun of the celebrated Cambridge-based Oleana. Not only do these home blends boost flavor without adding sodium or calories, they enable personalized flavor preferences.
5. Cultural condiments
The arts of preserving and fermenting foods — popular in traditional diets around the world — were originally created simply to extend the life of foods in a world without refrigeration. Today, more home cooks are learning these techniques and padding their pantries with homemade kimchi, craft pickles, sauerkraut and preserved lemons.
Main photo: What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock