What you eat when winter wasn’t winter and summer is coming

Occasionally, summer and winter meet in a pot. This evening, it was the inevitable.

The winter, last winter, was, of course, dismally not wintery at all. Or delightfully so, if you distain shoveling any amount of snow and don’t tend to hunger for rich stews filled with rooty vegetables enjoyed while watching, through a large expanse of window, while reclining on the couch, a snow fall.

I do, and was saddened that I had the occasion to enjoy not one stew in repose last winter. The importance of which is marked by the fact that my couch is poised specifically to encourage reclining while gazing out the large picture window that dominates my front room.

Though it never really happened, winter was still captured, for me, in the flavors of dried herbs from my summer garden. And this year, as summer draws ever near, it seems my cache of stiff brittle rosemary and crumbly oregano, flaky thyme bits  and dried savory, are all still filling their jars.  I haven’t, actually, used any of them much at all because the weather never really let me know it was time to cook things slowly — a process which in fact requires dried herbs to get the flavors right, no matter how déclassé you imagine them to be.

Similarly, for  reasons I won’t go into here other than to say that I, like winter, never happened during those months, I have yet to really dig into the cache of frozen tomatoes and squashes I squirreled away from last summer’s garden.

But April is cresting and May is moving ever near — so I have commenced upon digging through my stored provisions for that which will be fed to the chickens if not tossed in a pot before warm weather, for good and for certain, takes hold.

But you should know, I am not a creative cook. So piecing together thises and thats can be stressful enough that I try to avoid it all together. Yet, I also live without a car. So I miss out the modern urban notion of shooting to the store for a choice ingredient in a recipe I want to try.

These two decidedly disparate ideas must be reconciled when I am hungry and dinner time has arrived.

Which is precisely the inevitability that tends to push my ideas about food and my cooking into an area that honors Albert Eistein — Try not to make a meal of success, but rather try to make a meal of value.

Grabbing frozen hunks of meat and mysterious bags of vegetables, scanning the spice horizon for possibilities, deciding on a cuisine to ground the idea and, with some hope, cooking forth. It is then, really, that I turn into a cook I can admire, if not for culinary brilliance but for frugality and resource and though, naturally in these times, one who leans heavily on The Google Machine.

Which brings me to tonight’s dinner. Following a chilly end-of-April day after a not very cold winter, I happened upon a dish I’ll call Baked/Braised Chicken with Long-stewed Summer Tomatoes and Squash.

I freeze leftover tomatoes whole in the summer. To do it, and you should, just shove them in a zip-top bag and toss the whole of it in the freezer. It captures the flavor like nothing in a jar ever can, if you pardon the pun. They’re best, then, cooked with just a bit of stock and seasoning in a covered pan, slowly, until they are soft, then poured over crusts of bread and doused with parmesan, which I’ll assume is of the good variety. Once the bread has softened, the soupy bite fools you long enough to remember the particular warmth of the summer sun on your face.

The summer squash, shredded, came from a rather aggressive pair of Zephyr squash plants grown last summer. I ended up, after eating squash dishes of every sort, pickling a batch and even giving some away, shredding and bagging piles of it for the freezer in single serving- and appropriate-for-bread-sized packages. It’s a worthy pursuit if one then uses the bagged treasure even occasionally, if not regularly.

Which I did not.

And so now I am stuck searching high and low for what people do with bagged shredded frozen summer squash. Thankfully there is much to choose from but unfortunately most of it is very casserole-like. Casseroles are not for single people; and even for pairs or more, it is really is only a thing you can make one of as you will end up eating it for eons if it is made well.

So, in true squash fashion, I have decided to bake up a few loaves of “zucchini” bread for foisting on a few friends who have done me good in the past and likely haven’t been thanked enough. Zucchini — or rather piles of bagged frozen summer squash — is good for that. Especially when you can accompany the bread with some companion jam that lingers on the pantry shelf reminding you that you clearly didn’t eat jam last winter either.

For this dinner, I tossed the tomatoes in a cast iron cocotte to melt. Then, I added  a bag of squash and half an onion, sliced, which had been languishing in the fridge. A good smattering of the dried herbs, a heavy dose of salt and pepper, and  just a scant half hour on the stove and the tomatoes will still taste of the freshness of summer and a goodly portion of summer squash will melt into the middle distance of taste.

While it cooked, I seared off some chicken legs, which I frustratingly bagged in pairs, though I can only eat one. It is important, when you are single, to fight off the urge to store up goods in portions more than one. I think, when it happens, it is the primal urge to break bread with others taking over one’s better judgement. Which, if it happens, can easily and simply be accommodated by defrosting two of a thing. But once the bag with two is opened, two you shall have, forcing leftovers which you must be clever enough to disguise, lest you eat another of the same.

The chicken legs got nestled into the tomato-squash mixture, covered with a mixture of ham-y bread crumbs and parmesan, and cooked in the oven until the crust was crusty and the legs were done.

It was a dish that bolsters my confidence in my resourceful frugality, which is the thing I most definitely admire most, and was best accompanied by a glass of wine. I ate it while reclining on the couch, to mark, in a way, the passing of a winter that never was.

Skillet Dinner

If you’ve driven through more than three states in a day or so — let alone seven in five days — your arrival home is best celebrated with a skillet dinner. One pot, preferably cast iron which doesn’t even really need to be cleaned in the traditional sense, and as many herbs and other green things as one can find.

Mixed with roughage of any other sort.

It can cure the inertia a body feels after days and days of hurling thru space in a car.

After a recent trip through the south — marked by seven days of fried food, gallons of bourbon and barely a vegetable that wasn’t sweet pickled — I was sluggish enough in every sense of the word to crave a greenalicious skillet dinner.

My preferred method of skillet dinner begins with some kind of whole grain, which I pressure cook in quantity and then store in the freezer in individual servings. That way, it’s easy to dump a packet of cooked goodness into a cast iron pan slicked with butter when one needs to eat more than they need to think.

While the grains, in this case oat groats, were defrosting/sauteeing/crisping, I went to the front of the house and grabbed a stick of rhubarb and the whole of the available parsley — note to self, plant more parsley because really, no one should buy parsley between Mid-March and the first days of December. Or, in some years, later. And at the next available moment after this meal, I will have to buy parsley.

A quick snip of the available chivey selections, a few mint leaves since I always try to add in mint leaves to keep the plant from overtaking the world, and some sprigs of thyme and tarragon rounded out the haul.

The rhubarb got chunked up and added to the oats. Rhubarb is something I treat as an acid more than anything else. It definitely makes it easier to use in season than tackling a whole pie or fussing with some chunky sweet quick jam for pancakes or biscuits. Though I will admit to a now yearly batch of rhubarb pickle and a few ice cube trays of frozen, sugared pulp for sodas.

The herbs got dumped a big bowl of water on my way out the back door. Green garlic, lots of bulky leafy things like chard and arugula, and some cilantro. Unfortunately it is still not the end of the cilantro season and there is still entirely too much. At least the chervil is gone. No one should overplant chervil and cilantro while underplanting parsley. This year, I did.

Then I grabbed the eggs from the hen house. I swear the chickens missed me. Though I can describe why I know. But there was a particularly large egg awaiting, a sure sign of a double yolker — which is a sure sign of something, right?

By the time I got back inside, the skillet was ready for an egg, which I plopped into a bit of a hole I dug into the oat groats. The theory of Toad in the Hole can be applied to many different pans of food. You learn this along with other adaptations of marvelous egg theorems if you have too many chickens in your backyard.

Then I added the backyard garlic and greens and front yard ones in the Vitamix, dripping with water, and added some olive oil, salt, and pepper, I quick buzz on lowish, not too much and it was done. It is important to note that when you make a batch of this kind of green for this kind of purpose, you wanna leave lots of bits whole and chunky. You’ll appreciate the near wholeness of more than some of the greens; it makes the eating feel a little more virtuous, it seems.

By the time that was done, I returned to the skillet and grated some aged Cheddar cheese on top of the egg, covered the whole mess with another skillet that was perched on the stove and waited until the cheese melted. Off heat, top the whole mess with the herby green sludge. (Yes, it is sludge.) I had about a cup’s worth. Maybe more. More is good.

Like every skillet dinner, I ate it all out of the pan, maybe with some hot sauce. Maybe not. That depends on how jagged I feel. How bruised and battered my emotions are from the hotels and bad coffee and erratic snacks that I pretend are meals.

I didn’t add any hot sauce after this trip.

And then the dogs, overtired from days of hyper vigilance while at the kennel, joined me for a twelve-hour dead-to-the-world kind of sleep.

It can be good to be home. But I am not sure I’ll recover until I have another skillet meal and get the laundry done. And maybe sleep another night at home.

Fermentationem Appalacianos Officiales

I have fought with fermentation for years. I can’t make beer, no matter how hard I try and how many brewers I know. Amazing brewers, actually, the best in the country, arguably.

My sauerkraut is a crap shoot — the most success coming when I completely oversalt the batch and my friend Alice uses it to make runzas, adding no salt to her meat mixture.

Don’t get me wrong, I love runzas. They’re funza in the bunza for sure.

But I’d like, frankly, to conquer fermentation. And I am now determined that this is the year I will, finely, tame the wild.

To catch you up, I believe I have tried nearly everything — though not the beautiful German fermenting crocks that are so expensive I wouldn’t be able to afford even a cabbage if I bought one.

There are two essential problems to my fermentation: floaty vegetable bits and moldy ickiness I tend to not want to touch after forgetting to look at the crock for a few days.

But the real crux of my problem, sans the said fermentation crock loveliness (reizender topf, I think), is that my fermentation is always equipment-challenged. Right tool for the right job is great only when you can afford the tool.

Me? I am left cobbling together bits and ideas to make the project actually work for me instead of battle against me.

I know I could scour thrift stores for glass rounds (plates? vintage-y industrial somethings?) to act as weights. I’ve done a little thrifting but really, it is a whole job when it is done well. I have a job, and more than a few projects, that leave me little time to pop into Village Discount every day for a month until, EUREKA!

I know I could commission a starving artist at Lill Street to make me some weights to fit in my pickle crocks. That would take money, though, and ceramic chips frustratingly easily at the moments when you can’t afford it to, so the solution isn’t really long-term. And, frankly, I feel like every time I wash out a crock even they seem just a little more chipped.

Having been HAACP-certified in a past life, ceramic chips freak me out.

Which leads me to plastic. I am just not a big fan of the togetherness of plastic and food. I know, I know, what kind of crazy loonbag … but really, so much food-grade plastic has BPA and virtually everyone but the people who decide what can be in food-grade plastic agrees that BPA is super harmful. So — get your tin foil hat on, folks — sometimes I tend to wonder what the hell else is in the plastic.

And while I am all about freezing in vacuum seal bags and have a good supply of Ziplocks and so on and so forth, I just can’t seem to use plastic when I am asking it to undergo processes that would potentially compromise it’s physical integrity. So, no cooking with in or around plastic. No microwaving (no, folks, microwaving is not cooking though and even still, I don’t microwave much to begin with anyway). And no dunking a plastic bag full of salinated water into a fermenting crock.

And yet, I determined. Because I decided that this was the year I would learn more about using my jars of stuff because Paul Virant finally published his book,  The Preservation Kitchen. I write a bit about that on the “Yard Farm Year” half-aspirational/half-actually accomplished calendar but for the purpose of this blog post I will share that Paul’s book is the bible of how to use stuff you can. So, if you have a pantry full of jam made from every berry known to man, and you know I do, this is the book to get.

So, I got it. And I committed to making everything in it.

And boom, the project, because of the exact moment in time that is today, starts with fermentation.

You see, my secret ramp patch is ready for me today. And Paul’s book not only features pickled ramps (natch and no problem for me since I make ‘em every year) but also fermented ramps. Dammit.

Nothing I want to do less is decide to start a project and then, on the day I am supposed to start, face what feels like probable failure.

Totally not what I am about.

But I am determined. I will do this project.

So, here’s what I am doing: conquering the airlock/mason jar method. (AKA:  Fermentationem Appalacianos Officiales)

The airlock/mason jar method of my dreams employs a “brewer’s” airlock shoved into a large-size carboy gasket that is shoved into the top of a mason jar. For the technical out there, it is a size 13 rubber gasket with a hole drilled in the middle. The beauty — keeps air out, let’s bubbles out, keeps grody moldy bits to a minimum.

There are a lot of people on the internets epoxing an airlock onto plastic mason jar lids with holes drilled in them. But and as you can imagine, I am not really one for having epoxy that close to my food. (Sorry, can’t find link now, but that’s ok since you shouldn’t do this anyway so why do you want to look?)

You can also buy a set-up with special-size rings that keep the airlock tight. But it is pretty pricey, to be sure. (In comparison, five gasket & airlocks packages costs about $20.)

Not to mention the fact that both of those methods seem kinda one-purposing the tools to me. Airlocks and carboy gaskets can be used in beer (!), in soda (!), maybe even I dunno, making soap or something. (!!)

So this year, with this method, I will conquer a basic first step level of fermentation. Later in the season, I am having Nance Klehm over for a class in advanced fermentation with whey and suchlike. (Let me know if you wanna join, it will be six of us. I will be serving runzas, unfortunately and probably.)

Anyway and onward. For now. Ramp pickles and sauerkraut.

The project starts with collecting five nice-size rocks from the backyard and cleaning them really well. The rocks need to fit into the mouth of a small-mouth jar; they’ll sit on top of the ramp tops to keep them submerged. I use black river rock that I used to use as decorative garden elements now seem to be something Grant and I move around every year as we try to decide how to make the yard look somewhat backyardy even though it is rows and rows of vegetables.

The reason for the small-mouth jar is because that is what the number 13 gasket fits into. I don’t know the size that would fit in a wide-mouth and in fact it would be something that the brewer supply store wouldn’t naturally carry anyway. Additionally, the shoulders of the small-mouth jar will be advantagous as one can shove in things that would simultaneously keep the goods down and stop at the curve of the jar. An added layer of protection from floaty bits.  So, small-mouth it is.

Then, go ramping.

As I type this, I have decided that my new ramp tradition will be to gather ramps on Easter Sunday morning. From now on, every Easter, as you don your bonnet, I will grab my trowel and go ramping. I love making my own traditions and they always have something to do with the seasonality of food.

Some people are religious. I am foodigious. (Foo-Dig-You-Us, noting to slur the last two syllables)

This year has been kinda hard to live up to my food seasonality traditions. I mean, who wants to make corned beef for St. Patrick’s when it is 80 out — I was looking for a tomato to eat. Putting in seeds on Imbolc was also horked, since on that day it was 45 or so, not 20. And there was no snow.

It sucks, this year. Though my garden is exploding with food. So, also, it doesn’t suck. Such is the real conundrum of Global Climate Change when you live in a temperate climate.

Back to ramps and Easter. I have realized, actually, that the side benefit of making a ritual of an Easter morning ramping was the realization that Easter morning might be a good time to do something illegal since everyone else will be distracted.

On now, you go hush up.

I take good care of my ramp patch by not over-harvesting. And, I am pretty sure the somewhat ridiculous place where my ramps grow means that likely not too many people, if any, partake of the harvest.

So, yes, it is illegal. But there are gradations of illegal, right?

Most years, I pickle the ends and freeze the greens. The greens I save for creamed ramps and spinach which, in the last few years, has been a part of a Thanksgiving dinner I make for my friends.

Freezing ramp greens is as easy as lining them up on a paper towel and then rolling the paper towel up and shoving the whole thing in a vacuum seal bag. Then, just toss them in the water before the spinach when the time comes.

My pickling recipe varies depending on what I find on the internets. Mostly it is rather sweet. I think a sweet pickle brine is important in a pungent ramp.

This year, as I said, I am dipping into The Preservation Kitchen and following Paul’s recipes for pickling and making ramp sauerkraut and then using those preserved items for recipes in the book.

I am pretty excited (ramp martini and creamed ramps and morels!) but it also means I won’t be adding recipes. Because I think you should go buy the book. If you are a canner, you will most definitely find one of the best canning books around.

What I like about it is that it is useful not just for canning — including some unique recipes and ideas, but it is useful for how to use the item. It’s pretty unique, going far beyond the other great book of its time, Well Preserved. Though I note many canners complained (wrongly!) that Well Preserved had too few canning recipes and too many what to do with the canned goods recipes — yet really, canning is super fun but jars and jars of Italian Plums Aigre Doux can sometimes not be.

So, I am grateful for the book because I am pretty sure I will learn a thing or two about using my canned goods. And hope to at least attempt to share what I made and how I used it here. I’ll mark the posts, as I have done on this one.

So, until the morels are in season and I can cook up Paul’s Rainbow Trout with Creamed Ramps and Morels, I pass along a Happy Easter, Happy Passover and Happy Whatever Else.

One Hundred Meals: building community at America’s table

A few weeks back, a beloved dairy was considering using GMO corn to feed their cows. (They were considering, that’s it. Not doing. Just rolling around the idea of doing. So don’t get all crazy that I bring this up again. I have a reason.)

Anyway, this farm’s milk is the milk I drink every day. The milk I go out of my way to buy. I go out of my way because I believe the dairy to be clean — To be making milk that is just milk, from cows who can be cows and not mini-production facilities here to serve man.

And when I hear the news, well, I felt like my carefully curated world of food was collapsing; when I am able to choose what I eat, I care that deeply about what I choose. Food, frankly, often scares the crap out of me more than it delights me. The landmines of industrial beef I would to face at dinner with friends, the tuna of murky origin that filled the sandwich I bought when I was out of the house and hungry, the whole meal of food I needed to finish when I ate a restaurant where I didn’t — really — know the chef. But I felt he was watching my plates to see what I didn’t finish.

And over time, my phobias have grown with every beef recall, every peanut scare, every news explosion about pink slime or the horrors of “polluted” industrial organic food.  It’s no wonder, really, that I have a blog called “backyarditarian.” I really, mostly, like to just stick to what I grow.

Fast forward to nowish and lo, I am knee deep in a new world.

I’m chatting with folks who are experimenting with half GMO corn in their field this year because the corn borer just might be extra virilent this year, since winter wasn’t winter at all. You know, I can’t blame the guy. Really.

I am in discussions with an industrial dairy man about why I can’t get raw milk. He talks about safety. I respond that hormones don’t feel like an industry concerned about safety. We’re hashing it out.

And I am in a bizarrely frustrating discussion with the guy I now refer to as the Gordon Gekko of Meat. It is, really, the first time I am at close range with the mentality of money and profits that drive industrial agriculture. I’m asking a lot of questions. He doesn’t seem to be answering. I am sure he has something useful to teach me and I’ll keep needling him until he starts fessing up.

All of that is a long way of sharing what I really learned in the last few weeks: We are so busy digging trenches for the war that we are forgetting that food is about community. In the process, we ignore and sidestep the kind of progress that could lead to real change. For all of us.

Because change is going to come from us, banding together. Not faceless corporations spontaneously transforming from greed to good like Ebenezer Scrooge. Not the government, not ever will it be the government, I dare say. It has to be us.

So this is the crazy (I can’t believe he agreed to it) project that we, Grant Kessler and I, are going to mount:

One Hundred Meals:  building community at America’s table

Here’s our idea:

Grant and I are going to embark on a project to explore farms and tables with one hundred meals. Some big meals. Probably some meals that are sorta just snacks because there wasn’t time for much else. All sorts of meals at all sorts of farms and around all sorts of tables.

Part of the name came from the 100-mile trend a few years back — which you either consider a trendy frivolity or a serious attempt to take control of one’s food supply. To me, that is the foodie side of the equation.

The other part of the name comes from the growing season — the give or take 100 days that farmers here in the heart of the country have to grow crops. That’s the farmer side of the equation.

We’d like to tie the two sides together with some integrity and open dialog. So, as we go along, we’ll encourage everyone to share their questions and concerns so we can pass them along. And, since we are a community and not just two people doing this, we hope you’ll chime in often.

There will be hard questions, though I promised Grant that I will attempt to keep my emotions in check. There will be the chance to learn that everyone involved in food, really, is a person with a story and a dream. Since Grant is such a talented photographer, there will be lots of great pictures. And since we both want to explore food outside our comfort zone, there will be lots of stuff that may surprise all of us.

I read a lot about food, food policy, exposés about slaughterhouses and the realities of the USDA. So, yes, I am informed. But if there is one thing I have learned in the last 5 days or so it is that I am really scarily ignorant. We all are —  because our divisions are strong and strident and leave no room to learn.

I guess in our own way, Grant and I are hoping to see if there is a bridge or two we can build, somewhere, if we approach this openly.

So, despite our radicalness or fanatical tendencies or zealotry, we’re both deciding it is time to open up and learn. To find new sources for information and discussion. To listen a bit to the other side and see where they are coming from — and why.

To, well, become more a part of the community, instead of just our community.

I doubt I’ll come out the other side of this project with some GMO seeds in my pocket to plant in my own garden. But maybe I’ll stop hating the guy who decides that, after last “winter,” half a field  of GMO might be the only way he can hope to grow anything. Maybe, too, I’ll develop some compassion for that Ohio pork farmer mom who, of course, deserves an honest hearing of her views.

The 1,000,00 chicken lady. Wow. Well, I can only hope we can at least figure out what makes each other tick, even if, in the end, we agree to disagree. (At the breakfast, I couldn’t even agree to that — to disagreeing with her. In retrospect, I can’t even understand what that meant!)

Because you  know, for most of us, everything we read and every conversation we have tends to support everything we already believe. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, to be right all the time. But, well, maybe finding out where you are wrong can make the new  right that much, well, rightier.

I suppose we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium — an expression of game theory where, in order to win, each person in food needs to make choices that contribute to everyone’s welfare.

After all, food is not a zero sum game. We either all win or, frankly, we are all going to lose.

Just because the canary is alive …

I was, in a textbook sense, very bad today. I pushed a nice Virginia lady to near tears, told a cherubic Ohio mom that what she did was fucking evil and, in an exasperated moment of utter despair, equated the work of a bunch of “family farmers” to the evil doings of Wall Street at it’s worst.

Actually, you should know, I believe what those “family farmers” do is far more reprehensible than Wall Street. The brokers and money changers, they just make you poor. Industrial farmers, the people I talked to today, their work is tearing apart the very health of our society — degrading the animals they raise, polluting the environment and, if you did a little research, you’d learn and take heed, damaging your health.

Oh, and you should know — the “farmers” and “ranchers” that are perpetrating the atrocities of factory farming, they actually believe that what they are doing is right and just.

It’s legal, even.

Just like Wall Street!

Me, I’d rather just get financially raped by Wall Street than have to face the horror that the people on the front line of our food supply are, I dunno, shockingly ignorant? mindbogglingly clueless? utterly inhumane?

So while I was, I admit, audacious in my outrage, what I learned today is that outrage may be our only salvation.

Because these people who produce our food are not listening.

And , er, uhm, well, they are also not really glomming onto the subtleties of our fear — or obvious atrocities of reality.

I was trying to be polite. Trying to be politic. I don’t think I did a very good job. But if you measure my performance against how I actually felt, you would be applying for my sainthood. Because I was that consumed by confusion, twisted into rage, with a side dish of infuriation. I don’t even care if that is not a word.

B.T., by which I mean Before Today, in a biblical “marking time” sense, I didn’t much think about the people who grow our food. Well, that is, I should say the people who grow your food. Pretty much, I know the people who grow mine.

There’s some stuff I pick up at Costco, sure — Marcona almonds, some basic house cheese for the random sandwich or omelet — and I tend to run to the my local food co-op every so often to pick up supplies.

But when I am thinking, mindful — not consumed by the all-consumingness that is an internet startup — I, really, know who grows my food. Even a lot of the stuff I pick up at the co-op.

There’s Marty from Spence Farm. I have a make your own CSA with him and have been to his farm a few times, met the family and even volunteered at a fundraising event he held.

And there’s Seedling Pete. I stayed at his farm one weekend when I needed to get away. It was really lovely, quiet and peaceful, with a small band of farm workers who are part of the farm, not just expendable parts of the harvest.

I get a lot of chickens, and last year’s turkey, from Greg Gunthorp. I actually have not only been to his farm but learned how to catch a “wild” pig while I was there — or at least learned that his pigs live in his woods and when someone orders one, he goes and runs, crazily, through the woods to catch it. Holy Shit! And how holy, really.

Oh, and Mick Klug and Crazy Tomato Mountain guy. I haven’t been to their farms but I know people I trust who have and, well, we all know that Mick is known to throw a punch or two when the nuances and importance of sustainably raised produce is the topic at hand. He’s pretty serious in a way one can only respect.

I buy meat from Rob at Butcher & Larder and sometimes, now, from PQM — they both use farmers and ranchers I have met and whose animal husbandry is exceptionally humane. Before them, I had farmers I trust come sell meat in my home so I could make it available for myself. My friends were grateful for the residual benefit of access to honorably raised meat.

We have to eat meat, I believe; but we also have to do it responsibly.

I try to live by that and get to feeling guilty if I succumb to a package of, say, Niman Ranch sausage. My mother, I think, is at this point afraid to make me a sandwich, for fear I am questioning her motives and intent. I also get pretty woosey about eating meat out if the restaurant I am at doesn’t really follow what I believe are: The Rules.

I am sure by now you think I am a kook. As I look over this post, it certainly reads that way.

But maybe it is just that I tend to read — a lot — about our food supply. And what I read scares the crap out of me.

I don’t retain a lot of facts about it. I don’t have to, really. I am just me, choosing what I want to eat and what I feel is responsible. To be honest, I don’t really have time to get involved with the politics of food beyond posting a few articles on Facebook — which is, I believe, a personal endeavor — or having a conversation with people who, pretty much, already heartily agree with what I think.

I am blessed in that I can construct a life where I don’t, really, have to think much about it. And I realize, well — we are all believing that. It is a delusion. That we don’t have to think much about it. And frankly, that’s why we are where we are. And, friends, where we are is so not cool. In fact, it is horribly, horribly wrong.

B.T., I thought it is important to know your farmer, but, I’ll admit, I never really gave much though as to why. Had you asked me, B.T., I would have mumbled something about community or, possibly, if my mood was dark, something vague but scary and probably involving Monsanto, Whole Foods or another evil empire.

A.T., as in After Today, I realize that if you don’t know your farmer, you are probably eating something grown, raised or harvested — let alone processed — by someone who, really, you should not trust. And I realize that I need to jumpstart my research and remembering. I need to pay more attention to the food community and not just worry about my own food. I need to worry about the food of people who don’t know to worry or, maybe, don’t have time.

Maybe that is to say I need to worry more actively — and proactively.

Because today, I met the farmers and ranchers who grow your food.

And they frightened me to the very core of my being.

Wait, let me back up.

First off, I should tell you that today I had the pleasure of meeting the people at the front lines of producing food — the fine folks of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. I was invited to a breakfast they hosted. A “conversation” they were starting with people like me. (Whomever they thought “me” was.)

Now, it might seem frighteningly elitist of me but I will admit that B.T., I assumed that the people on industrial farms were just a sad lot of people who got stuck in a horrible spiral of debt and oppression by The Man. I did. I felt bad for them. And I think, generally, that was all my psyche could admit was reality. I felt they must have had lives that had gone horribly wrong somewheres. But I didn’t have the means to help them and I could only hope that some day they would come to their senses and just leave.

That’s as far as my thinking could go. Beyond that, a cliff, a place I couldn’t even imagine.

But, and I know you already know this. I was oh so very wrong.

The reality is, and you really should be really scared by this, the people who live on the “family  farms” that house the CAFOs that produce the majority of our food are, in fact, proud of what they do.

I shall pause here for you to gather yourself again. When you are ready, we can go on.

Ready?

OK.

The people who run the CAFOs are proud to raise pigs confined to sunless outbuildings with scientifically controlled environments that strip the animal of all dignity. Proud to stuff a million chickens into their farming operation to “live” in the filth of “dust” (chickenspeak for dried shit flying around as breathable) where they never, actually, ever experience the crazy antics of their inherent chicken-ness. Proud that they’ve harnessed so much technology that they don’t even have to ever feed a pig or pick a weed in the field.

They said, and you can be sure I heard this right, there were “no bugs” in their fields — so forget swatting a fly.

Of course, of course. Progress.

WAIT! What? In what natural world are there no bugs? I mean, I hate bugs but, really, NO BUGS! WHAT THE HELL DID THEY DO TO THE BUGS?

Oh, crap! Yes. Bees. Bees are bugs! And we know what is happening to the bees.

Maybe the bee researchers need to go hang out on some Nebraska monocrop farms and see what’s happening there because, really, it is a mystery to all of us but, and I kid you not, the Nebraska farmer I was sitting with said, no bugs.

(BTW: the people I spoke with today, they’d never heard of the word “monocrop,” even though it was their livelihood. They are that detached.)

But this is the thing you, dear reader, need to understand. It isn’t the pigs stripped of dignity or the chickennessless chickens or even the mysterious lack of bees that is the problem. No, The USFRA exists because these “family farmers,” the ones who don’t ever feed a pig or pick a weed or worry about swatting a fly, they think they are misunderstood.

Which is the only point at which we found common ground. By which to say that I didn’t understand them, before I met them — because I didn’t realize they actually believed in what they were doing.

So, clearly, they are misunderstood.

And they hosted  this breakfast because, well, they want to be understood. They want all of us to think of them as “family farmers” and they realize they are represented, mostly, by comically scary food conglomerates that everyone justifiably hates — the likes of Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson, BPI (aka The Pink Slime-ers).

So, they’re banding together and taking what seem to be the most homespun family types of their ilk on the road. To state their case in the most familyesque way.

“Hi, I am *Peggy Sue and I am a soccer mom from Nebraska. My family, (ZOMG I have six kids!), has been farming for seven generations and I love my farm and what we do everyday in our chicken house!”

“And I am *Scottie Boy and my family is from Oklahoma, we have three kids who love to get dirty, and though my wife says I don’t do anything but eat her brownies I swear I work all day tending to my soybean fields.”

It’s all downright Norman Rockwellian until you find out that what Peggy Sue’s family does is raise a million chickens in enclosed steel structures that deliver scientifically prescribed doses of the cheapest crap that some greedy corporation can mix together and force Peggy Sue to buy so as to make those chickens growand by grow I mean an unchikenly fast hypergrowth — fast enough you’d think they are sprouting out of a comic book.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough to make you question Peggy Sue’s basic level of sanity, she actually feeds that chicken-esque detritus to her grandkids.

I did, I did, I  misunderstood Peggy Sue. I didn’t realize that about her — and her “family farmer” cohorts as well. In my heart, honestly, I didn’t think they ate that shit themselves.

I mean, it is one thing for a mom in a big city far removed from the farm to not have time to pay attention to the poisonous scariness of, say, a Tyson chicken breast, as an example. It is a whole other thing for a woman who lives the horror of factory farming day-to-day to serve that stuff to her own grand kids.

You should know that Peggy Sue assured me that it is all OK because — are you sitting down — “God made animals to be tools for mankind. They aren’t equal to us.” By which she means the horrors of the lives of the animals they are responsible for raising are, well, condoned by the Almighty.

It is hard to imagine but the atheist, me, was technically the Godless half of that conversation. Technically.

It is all, in a word, horrifying.

And not the kind of horrifying you see in a docuwhatever about a despot African warlord with an army of murderous children in bondage. I mean, really. That is horrifying. But, well, it isn’t gonna happen here, right? With the kids that play on your lawn and that, maybe, you’ve gotten to know, right?

No, this is horrifying because these freaky people are sitting across from you eating pancakes, and, well — they are in charge of the food supply.

As I went through the rest of my day, post-breakfast, processing this horror, I vacillated from blind rage to deep sadness to outright fear. I cried in the whirlpool at the club for an hour (a middle aged woman crying in a whirlpool is not a pretty sight), cried in the kitchen at a client’s restaurant (crying at a client is not an awesome idea), and cried on the scooter ride home (crying while driving a scooter in the city is dangerous at best).

I decided at one point these folks were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. At another point I came to realize they were basically an American Khmer Rouge, brainwashed to support a system that believes it is doing the right thing while killing people.

And then I ended up just hopeless.

It seems, at so many turns, that we live in a world where people are so divorced from the very essence of life — compassion — that we now have a food supply that is unfixably twisted and distorted, horrifying and lacking in nutrition — so not what any God anywhere could ever have wanted or dreamed up.

I may not believe in Him but I do think I can claim a general knowledge of His, well, acceptable realities.

So yes, I was, of course, inappropriately outspoken at the breakfast. But how can one not rail against the inhumanity of a million-strong chicken “family farm?” How can you not shame the industrial pig farmer?

It was interesting. The CAFO pig farmer was aghast and catching an F-Bomb, to, it seemed, the point of needing smelling salts for the outrage of it all — I do declare!Preposterous if you consider that she has stomach to get up every morning and face the horrors she inflicts on pigs each day.

The misplaced righteousness of the evildoers. Gets us commie liberals every time.

But you know, maybe, just maybe, I ended up realizing that inappropriate outspokenness is what is needed. Maybe we need to tell these people that what they are doing is, in fact, fucking evil. Because it is.

Because from what I witness this morning — they are too clueless, methinks, to understand nuance. They trot out their homespun families and talk about, oh, how hard it was for grandpa to weed the fields or tend the pigs. They marvel in the technology that manages the carefully calibrated environments these animals live in.

They are frightening. And they are the front line of producing your food.

It is time for you to tell them all to go to hell. When you do, make sure it is loud and proud. And carry some smelling salts. They seem to need it.

*the names have been changed because, to be honest, the whole experience made me so  blind with rage that I didn’t even think about their damn names, all I wanted to do was figure out how to get them out of business.


Addendum: there is a companion conversation that also occurred over on the blog Points and Figures. The blogger, Jeff Carter, is the lead investor, I take it, in Tallgrass Beef and he also is a former board member of Merchantile Exchange (Think: Wall Street for food). I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about his comments and, well, Tallgrass Beef.

Good Luck Peas

First and foremost: Happy New Year to you. I hope this year brings you everything you wished for as well as dreams you never dared imagine. Seriously, I hope it brings me these things to. I could use a reasonable year.

For the record, last night I rang in the new year at Butcher & Larder. I don’t remember ever ringing in the new year with such a wonderful group of people, and I am not just saying that, these folks were fun, funny, wonderful near strangers I randomly decided to join. That said, it was also a particularly delicious evening. We shared course after course of, basically, fat. Whipped, cured, shaved, potted, we had it all. Topped by a chestnut dessert, which I found kinda fitting since chestnuts are probably the most fat-like nut. And while I am  not one for detailing meals in a blog post, I will share that I posted a few highlights on Twitter.

Suffice it to say, I hope I get invited back and make butcher shop dining a New Year’s tradition.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post: the tradition of peas.

I can’t remember any New Year’s tradition from my childhood. In fact, when I started writing this, I called my mom to ask what we did, her response was: “Beats me.” When pressed, her answer expanded to: “We might have gone out every once in a while, I guess. But really, not a whole lot.”

Which is probably why I have spent most of my adult life trying to establish a firm tradition for myself to mark this most auspicious day.

I’ve tried on much: Krug champagne smuggled into the midnight showing of Cape Fear, wearing yellow underwear a la Barbados one New Year’s spent on a cruise ship, reading melted solder with one of Dick Cheney’s former business partners on the Mellinnium, standing in front of a burning hawthorne bush the year I lived in London.

But as I settled into my life, I seemed to have fallen into making an annual breakfast of black eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

Really, this makes no sense. My parents are from Boston and aside from a handful of years in Orange County, I am solidly a Chicagoan. But it is what it is and so this morning, a full-on black-eyed pea breakfast is what I made.

You likely already know that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day is about good luck. To most Americans, the tradition hails from the south. But in reality, despite that honking ham hock that flavors most pots of peas in these parts, eating black eyed peas on New Year’s is a Sephardic tradition, celebrated for the Jewish new year.

So, as a nod to the Sephardi history of my peas, I like to include a pomegranate in my New Year’s Day meal. This year, I tossed that pomegranate into a quick salad of shaved Tuscan kale from the hoop house, parsley and cilantro from the garden itself, because the weather is so crazy it is still thriving, and walnuts.

Basically a version of Mary Klonowski’s Cancer-Curing Miracle Kale Salad, it was dressed with smashed garlic, good olive oil and vinegar. I got into vinegar last year so today, my kale got a syrupy Pepe Nero vinegar. If you haven’t tried making crazy vinegars, I recommend it highly. Honey vinegar, made with a moldy piece of bread, has pretty much become my go-to vinegar for anything and everything.

 But back to the peas.

First off, you should know that I cook dried peas. Black eyed peas are often available fresh but that kinda makes no sense for New Year’s Day. Traditionally planted as a cover crop before the winter wheat, the fresh peas would be available in late summer, early fall (for the clever reader, you’ll note this is around Rosh Hashanah). So, fresh black eyed peas in Chicago in winter, even this crazy winter, is just forced agriculture. So, I use dried.

Black eyed peas are only soaked for 4-6 hours, unlike the convenient bean-soak of overnight,  so it can be a little challenging to get them on the table for breakfast. So, I pressure cook them. If completely crippled by a hang over, one could get them cooked in a pressure cooker in about 10 or so minutes. My process takes me a half hour because I go thru a few extra steps to make sure I have super delish peas.

So, here’s the process: saute onion in (insert any high smoke point but I use coconut) oil, add diced onion and saute. Then add a meaty hunk of cured pork (usually a hock), add about 1/2 cup of water (I really have no idea, I just dump in water, it could be a cup) and pressure cook that for about 10 minutes. Pressure cooking the pork softens it up and makes a tasty jus. Take the pork out of the pan and dice it up into smallish pieces. This way, when you eat your beans, you get little pieces of tasty pork along with them.

This year, the hefty hunk my peas got was from the country ham I cured in my garage last year. For a year a pork leg that had been brined in blackstrap molasses and bourbon rested in a old pillow case tied to the rafters of my garage.

Crazy levels of hillbilly working with that ham.

And probably the crowning point of my culinary life thusfar.

Which I guess says a lot since my culinary life thus far includes cooking for Julia Child. (It was one part of one course, if you must know, not the whole meal).

This ham is making me quite proud.

But I am writing about peas.

After the pork is cooked and diced, add it back to the pan and add in the peas. Add in some water to cover and some flavorings (a tea ball filled with whole cumin, coriander, black pepper and red pepper flakes is a good start) and cook on high for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let the cooker come back to reasonable temperature on it’s own.

Boom, good luck breakfast.

Well, I also made cornbread, using Ruhlman’s Ratio app. There is a book, too, but I find the app to be amazingly helpful since I tend to have my phone nearby and it is small enough to perch it somewhere convenient.

As I started eating, marking the new year with a lovely meal and remembering the year that just past, the sun came out after a rainy/snowy/gray/cold morning walk. I am choosing to decide this is an auspicious sign that the coming year will be peaceful and delicious.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, my breakfast was virtually impossible

No one in America, no matter their politics, thinks the Health Care industry is healthy. So, while I am watching closely how SCOTUS adjudicates “ObamaCare” this session, I won’t add to the debate about whether or not Americans have a right to health care.

But I will point to what I believe is the genesis of our health crisis: business.

America is the only country with a employer-funded health care. It came about during WWII when the government imposed wage freezes that made it impossible for employers to attract workers with better pay. So, companies turned to offering better benefits and created the health care benefit.

The government further encouraged this by making those insurance costs a tax-deductible business expense. Of course, families/individuals purchasing health care on their own could not write off the expense. The seeds of our corporatocracy were sewn early in this country.

There’s a great rundown on the tangled web of crap this situation created in this New York Times article. Although I don’t agree with the article’s conclusions.

Because the writer is still invested in employer-funded health care and believes it can be fixed. These are the ivory tower thoughts of a theoretician who has not stood before a board of directors and explained a craptastic quarter. It is naive to believe that business-entangled health care can work because it relies on the notion that ‘businesses care.’

I believe one of the reasons Americans are all deep in the throes of diabetic/obesity/heart-related pre-death is because our health care system is at the mercy of quarterly reports.

Public companies (including health insurance companies) in America reckon with stockholders every three months. What this means is that companies are forced to focus on three-month goals. A good quarterly report means earnings and earnings mean you keep your job. A string of bad quarterly reports and your job is history.

Really, myopic short-term focus is bad business.

If you are aren’t a public company, you focus on the long-term. You can withstand bad quarters if you know your investments and decisions are going to pay off down the road.

You take care of what you have, your tools and equipment and people, because you know that there are daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and even year-long bumps. Getting sidetracked by one of those bumps can be detrimental to business.

For an example of detrimental, I point here.

These kinds of detrimental situations are the result of short term decisions corporate officers are, really, forced to make. We as a society really can’t blame them because it is the game we set up for them to play. And, yes, this includes the corporate officers of health insurance companies.*

Not to be radical but I believe the stock market has been very bad for American health care. It shifts the focus from richly supporting systems for the long-term to sticking one’s head in the sand and hoping problems don’t occur — what are the chances? — and fixing them when they do. Our medical community can keep people alive a really long time, to be sure, but most seem riddled during that long life by chronic, debilitating (and often preventable) diseases.

The stock market rewards not solving problems but having the gonads to risk the problems won’t come home to roost (of course, if every board member in America had chickens, they would know… The bird always comes home to roost.)

Our food supply, tied up in the hands of a handful of public companies, is under the same quarterly burden. So, the what drives the decisions made about our food supply is profits. This is why low-fat!, low-cholesteral!, sugar-substitute!, trans-fat free!, low sodium! products dominate the market.

Because that is what Americans buy.

And this is what I had previously believed was the whole of our food problems in America. That corporate greed was creating more crap to eat — since it is easier to engineer a Lean Cuisine for higher profit than a plain, old turnip.

But I realized this morning that the real crux of the problem is that the safety of the food supply is now moving in the direction of The American Health Care Paradigm — a system based on the idea that you can cross your fingers, close your eyes and hope disaster doesn’t befall you.

It seems our country is obsessed with ignoring problems and instead, solving the ramifications.

I was sorta slapped in the face with this realization when I read this article about how food miles are making our food supply more insecure.

The saddest excerpt is this:

“But many in the produce industry have come together to try and improve the ability to quickly trace food from field to plate.

This is good business.”

It is now good business to focus on after-the-fact. After the outbreak. After people are sick, maybe even after people die.

I suppose it is good business, of course, because for each individual company, the chances of a Listeria outbreak in their cantaloupe is pretty freaking low. So, cut a corner or two, no one will notice — we’ll make more money!

This is the problem: isn’t good for your health or the health of your kids because you/your kids because, well, at least one person, maybe a handful really, have to get really sick and/or die before the awesome traceability measures are put in place. That one person could be you.

Which is really sick and disturbing.

What bothers me about all this, aside from the sheer stupidity of the strategy, is that we are now shifting our food supply from one that is focused on keeping food safe and healthy in the first place to one that is focused on solving any problems that crop up as quickly as possible.

And that’s just crazy dangerous.

It is sorta the same way we approach Type 2 diabetes: don’t focus on actually healthy eating, focus on making better pills to manage the chronic disease. Actually, I should clarify that, it is an entirely preventable chronic disease.

And, because our health care is so tied up in the stock market, it seems there is no turning back when it comes to our approach to Type 2 diabetes.

And I fear this trend will continue because our supposedly brightest minds are focusing on dealing with ramifications of problems, not solving problems.

Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs for the Pew Health Group, says,

“Clearly the food industry has just changed enormously in the last several decades,” Olson said. “It would be virtually impossible to sit down and eat a meal and eat food that hasn’t come from all over the world.”

Which means my breakfast this morning was a Virtual Miracle!

Eggs from the hens out back cooked in butter made from milk bought from a farm downstate and accompanied by fruit from a farm one state over but still just two hours away. Lunch, BTW, will be chicken from a farmer nearby with vegetables grown in my garden.

Is it easy? No. I work my ass off in the kitchen and the garden to feed just me. I am so tired from all the canning I did this summer that I fear I really need a rest cure like celebrities take when they are “overwhelmed.”

But it isn’t “virtually impossible.”

Last I checked The Pew Charitable Trusts were a hearalded as some of our country’s finest minds. Last I checked they were supposed to be thinking up ways to help us, collectively, as a nation. In fact, in their own words:

The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

And yet, one of their own — the leader of their food programs — isn’t even aware that backyard eggs, local milk and local fruit is even possible.

Which of course is an extreme exaggeration of his point, but my point is this: we don’t need our finest brains figuring out how to solve the horrendous life-threatening problems that occur with a food system as complex as ours.

We need them to figure out how the hell to make the food system less complex.


I am not forgetting Blue Cross/Blue Shield here but because this is a hot button issue that will surely make some people crazy, I will note BCBS is a complicated web of companies/organizations that actually includes publicly-traded companies. Also, many publicly traded companies use the system for the employees and the way those programs are set up pushes the short-term bottom-line focus away from the insurer and onto the client company. Again, good health loses.

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