Of the many things I’m grateful for in my choice of mate-for-life, apart from the obvious one of her having lost her senses long enough to sign up with me for the long haul, certainly one of the biggest has to be that she has no interest in the pervasive tropes that in our culture define what romance is supposed to be, the flood of which recently crested and now mercifully is subsiding, leaving behind the debris of foil deprived of its chocolate, clam-shell containers pining for their strawberries, rose petals fallen from their stems, discarded cards (puzzle: how can a card be discarded?), and, no doubt, much less mentionable, but possibly more memorable, refuse. Having grown past my wooing years, this flood is something I watch as a disaster on the evening news that poses no immediate threat to my own existence, but that, like climate change, is a human-made catastrophe that brings good to no one in the long run. Aside from the obvious – you know, the crass capitalistic exploitation of the most basic of human desires and needs, the perpetuation of exploitatitve gender roles that mostly set their performers up for failure and disappointment, etc. – the real Valentine’s Day travesty is the abuse of food. I have no objection to the idea of romancing with food per se, but when a meal becomes a test of how well you are conforming to norms of seduction or relationship management, how much can you care about how it tastes, smells and looks? How many sublime dishes go unappreciated because they are forced to be a part of an event in which they are only a symbol of someone’s desire to prove seriousness of intent or endurance of commitment by making the right reservation on the right day for the right time? I say, if you must observe the holiday, cook something simple and delicious and offer it to your beloved or would-be-beloved as your own (or gratefully accept what that person has cooked for you, if you are fortunate enough to have it offered). Better yet, forget Valentine’s Day altogether and cook for and with love every day. Save the good meals out for when the meal itself is the occasion. And in both cases, follow Dan Savage’s advice to have whatever other fun is on the menu early and your meal late; that way you can eat yourself into catatonic bliss with the only demand afterwards to be to sleep long and well, unworried by the basil in your teeth and the sauce on your shirt .
Good ol’ George Washington. Ambitious young soldier, revolutionary general, first president who, à la the Roman general-cum-(elected) dictator Cincinnatus, nobly gave up power to return to his farm, we venerate him as the father of our country – and not without reason, for just about everything good and terrible about us and our history is embodied in this one man.
Washington, both the city and the man, and this tension between the good that America represents and the exploitation and blood in which it is grounded, are much on my mind, today especially, for we’ve recently returned from a 10-day family trip, just over half of which was spent in our nation’s capital. While in D.C. it was a challenge to feel any sense of pride in our nation’s alleged greatness: too many kids wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and t-shirts; an otherwise excellent exhibit in the Smithsonian’s American history museum on the wars of our past problematically titled “The Price of Freedom,” as if those who removed and slaughtered the native peoples, or who fought in any number of the many unnecessary wars that the U.S. has been involved in, were, simply by having worn the uniform, heroes of liberty; a visit to the Supreme Court building made in the fog of depression of the latest rulings and followed by the even gloomier news of Kennedy’s retirement; even the zoo was a downer, as nearly every exhibit told us of the vulnerable or endangered status of its inhabitant, and the valley the zoo is in was itself clogged with invasive species – all of which reflects the ecological catastrophes of American-led global corporate capitalism.
The highlight of the trip, however, and what gave me some sliver of hope for our collective political and ecological future, was a trip to George Washington’s estate, Mt. Vernon. Its manor house perhaps stands as a metaphor for the nation it represents: built with wood covered in sand to make it look like stone, it gives the appearance of permanence, but it’s an appearance that cracks easily and takes constant effort to maintain.
The house was the least interesting part, however, even knowing the conversations among famous men that took place there. For moving out from it, the grounds turn out not to be just manicured creations for the aesthetic delight of the inhabitants and visitors, but a stunning example of what we would now call sustainable agriculture (with one not insignificant caveat, to which I’ll return). It turns out that our founding father was a man who knew his shit, literally. Washington saw the degradation of land that growing tobacco as a cash crop was leading to, and he envisioned a different agricultural future for the country, one based on food production, constant renewal of the soil, and wise use of the land. On his own properties, he implemented and further developed techniques from Europe’s 18th century “new husbandry” movement, central to which was the use of manure, both delivered straight from the source by animals grazing on land being rested from crop-growing, and indirectly through compost from the barns.
Other forms of compost were used too, as were fish heads and tails from the large-scale harvesting of the piscine inhabitants of the Potomac, who provided, we were told, about two-thirds of the annual revenue of the estate. (A D.C. guidebook we bought says the estate’s distillery was the main profit source, but this may reflect different periods in the development of the Mount, or a stretching of the truth to appeal to our current craft booze-besotted times.)
The direct-deposit manuring was itself part of a sophisticated seven year system of crop- and animal-rotation on the lands of the farms that form Mt. Vernon, many of which were bought on the cheap from tobacco farmers who’d moved on for richer soil they could perform their same extractions upon. Learning this I couldn’t help but think of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America on the pressure for the West created by successive depletions of soil by farmers who knew it was easier to move than to care for where they were. Somewhat ironically, given the practices he himself preached and followed, this was a pressure that G.W. benefitted from financially, as he invested in the lands taken from the native peoples of the Ohio Valley and surrounding areas. (This was made clear at a stop at the Fort Pitt museum in Pittsburgh on the way home.)
Reclaiming and rebuilding depleted soils and shifting the focus from tobacco to grains were just part of Washington’s vision for how to farm well by intelligently utilizing what resources were locally available. For instance, he used timber harvested from his estate forests for many purposes, including to make the boats that caught the fish in the Potomac who gave their heads and tails (and probably hearts) to the soil. (The edible parts of the fish were salted and preserved and traded far and wide, with the plantations of the Caribbean, themselves too busy making sugar to fish the rich waters around them, providing one of the primary markets.)
Our First Fertilizer also saw the importance of breeding animals suited to the peculiarities of the place where they were used. Mules, horses, and oxen all had jobs on the farms of the estate, and other cattle, as well as chickens, provided meat, eggs, and dairy for consumption and at least some small amount of trade. We were also told that Washington launched one of the first mule-production operations stateside, which helped the mule to become a work animal of choice for many, and, of course, part of the promised but undelivered compensation during Reconstruction for freed slaves.
But here I get to the caveat I mentioned about the sustainability of all this – animals obviously weren’t the only ones who had jobs on the estate. Washington was able to accomplish his agricultural wizardry because he had at his command three hundred-odd enslaved people. About a third of these were directly owned by him; he famously willed that they were to be set free upon Martha’s death, though she freed them sooner. So, obviously, if we’re to look to the farming systems he borrowed and developed, the innovations he introduced, etc., and see something to praise, we can’t but at the same time feel profound sadness for the people who were forced to labor for Washington’s enrichment and anger towards him and those others who were complicit in their enslavement.
But American patriotism, if is to amount to anything morally respectable (i.e., not just knee-jerk nationalism), has no choice but to take up the impossible Janus-faced stance of lamenting the price paid by so many in the past and building on the good things made possible – and made possible both because they paid that price and because of the vision of those who forced them to do so.
So, in the current moment, in which some widespread desire for a renewed and renewing vision of agriculture is felt, why not look in part to the man whom we for other reasons credit as being the father of our country, but for something other than a model of civic commitment and military success? If we’re going to remain committed to the patriotic vision of him as the military and political founder of our nation, let’s also teach our kids his vision of a sophisticated place-based, systems-oriented agriculture that focuses on renewable resources and the health of the soil. But let’s ask the question he didn’t, of how we can implement such a vision while respecting the humanity of those who do the intensive work it requires.
In other words, American history is full of shit. So let’s compost it.
(For more on the agriculture at Mt. Vernon, see this: https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/pioneer-farm/)
It’s a cold, blustery morning more suited to a month ago, but as they say, if I’ve gotten the expression right, April snow showers bring May snow flowers. Seems like a good morning to post to this much neglected blog of mine. Like the perennials starting to emerge (though today’s conditions may cause them to rethink that), the Buttery-Hatch had died back and was invisible at ground level, but the roots have remained alive, and, if conditions continue to prove favorable, new growth will emerge. For I near completion of a research project that has gotten very long in the tooth and am now slowly managing to bring my academic work in line with my focus here. Thanks to an IU grant, I’ve had some time this semester to do a bunch of reading on topics ranging from the history of taste to the value of skilled craft labor to the cultural assumptions that shape risk regulation, out of which will emerge some new writing and teaching projects that approach food from a philosophical angle. My hope, as of this cold and snowy April the 4th, is to use this space as the greenhouse in which to start these projects, prior to transplanting them out into the less forgiving conditions of academia where they must live if they are to grow to maturity. Once back in the habit of posting, I’ll also include some pics and words about what I eat, ’cause I like to do that, too. So, if you haven’t tuned out, stay tuned!
(The picture is from a trip to Iceland last month, but it nicely captures the feel of today here in SW Michigan.)
The following appeared in this month’s Food Notes, the e-newsletter published by Edible Michiana (http://ediblemichiana.ediblecommunities.com/newsletter-archive).
If you are what you eat, then my current craze for all things sour doesn’t speak well of me. I can’t get enough kraut and pickles (ferment a batch a week, I say!), and lemons and limes go without saying, but lately what brings order to my soul are the drinks that zing: sour beer, kombucha, dry cider – if it makes me pucker, it’s for me. A bit of luck at the library recently brought Shannon Stronger’s Traditionally Fermented Foods across my path and low pH goodness more fully into my life. The best discovery so far? Kvass. It seems to be more a genre than a specific thing, made from everything from bread to beets and in all sorts of ways (some of which involve wheys), so it’s the perfect ferment for the recipe-allergic tinkerer. I’ve so far focused only on the local fruits of summer: this week, what are probably the last peaches of the year, plus some deep dark plums. Whatever the fruit, I’ve found that one has only to chop it up, cover it with filtered water in a mason jar, add a tablespoon or two of honey to get the party started, and leave it open to the air on your counter for a couple of days (with some cheesecloth to keep out the flies). As the microbial magic unfolds, you’ll see a little foam and fizz start to form at the surface, the taste of honey will fade, and a pleasant tang will emerge. You can drink it at this point, but if you want extra oomph, close it up and give it a another day or three without air – but be sure to burp out the gas regularly so it doesn’t explode! You can filter out the fruit or do as I do and mush it up so you get some pulp with your liquid. Then drink up! You too will find that a sour soul is a contented soul.
Bagged salad greens are a go-to for our weekly salad needs: Green Gardens and Blue Dog are our usual Bank St. sources, each providing a mix of sweet, spicy, and bitter that prove that healthy is delicious. But this time of year, and this year in particular, with the relatively cool couple of weeks we’ve had, our salad bowls fill up with soft-leaved, vibrantly colored head lettuces. A purple beauty bought on Saturday from Chanterelle at Silverbeet Farm didn’t make it past noon, or last long enough to be photographed. I just cored and rinsed it, gave it a quick spin in the Oxo, and devoured it with only a little crunchy coarse-grained sea salt, good olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Heaven. Steve at The Four Acres had a buy-five-get-the-sixth-one-free deal, so we loaded up and have been happy as rabbits ever since, with two salad days still to come (see photo above). We’ll see if the promised heat holds off long enough to let the lettuces reign for another week. If not, well, we lived leafy while we could.
The following appeared in this month’s Food Notes, the e-newsletter published by Edible Michiana. Check out the April issue for another piece by me, and subscribe to see some things I’ll be publishing there in the future, as well as other short stories and news items of regional interest (http://ediblemichiana.ediblecommunities.com/newsletter-archive).
Except for asparagus, the rare spring vegetable that takes to the heat of the pan and oven like a child to the beach, the Michiana markets right now give us their abundance in the form of the cool, the crisp, the pungent, and the bitter. Tables are piled high with leafy green lettuces, spinach, and kale, punctuated by the red and white globes of radish and turnip. Underlining all of this, though, are the alliums: ramps (wild leeks), their more civilized scallion and spring onion friends, the deceptively scallion-like green garlic, and, soon, the curly garlic scapes that come from the farmer’s need to thwart the flower and grow the bulb.
When my wife and I first began really trying to eat from our local markets, it was these alliums that posed the biggest culinary challenge. I had learned from my dad to swirl fat spring onions in lemon juice, salt and oil and eat them raw, and scallions, of course, can be chopped and sprinkled on all sorts of things. But how to really cook with all of these, when nearly every recipe calls for their bigger late-season cousins? It was this question that taught me the surprising importance of analogy in the kitchen: if you substitute like for like, the flavor may differ, but the result will usually be delicious.
So our rule became: in a recipe where onions are, there spring alliums shall be. Swap green garlic for the more familiar bulbed variety, the whites of scallions and ramps for onion. Your sauces, marinades, and sautés may taste a little unfamiliar, but they’ll still be delicious – most of the time. Analogies are, by definition, imperfect, so not everything always works. Spring is about willingness to try something new, though, so this weekend splurge on the scallions, rake up the ramps, and grab the green garlic. There’s still asparagus to soothe you if your experiments go awry.
Sunshine and 60 degrees – not what you associate with London in March, right? It’s not what Londoners expect either, judging from the difficulty in finding sunglasses to replace those I’d deliberately left in my car before I left. But 60 and sunny it was, with a few exceptions, when I co-chaperoned a study abroad trip to the Old Blighty over spring break. My English professor friend (and fellow food-obsessive) Lee was teaching a class on 18th Century London and needed someone to come along with him to make sure none of the fifteen students he was taking tried to go native. Since I dabble in the philosophy of the period and was presumed to be sane and reasonably good company, I got to go along. The students we took were a delight, the weather, as noted, unusually cooperative, and the sights sightworthy (apart from the standard stuff, I particularly recommend the National Observatory in Greenwich and Sir John Soane’s house for anyone making the trip). Students had evenings and a couple of days off from class-related Londoning, and since our travel and lodging was covered, Lee and I decided that we could splurge a little, or, as it turned out, a lot. England used to have a reputation for bland and overcooked food (prepared, if you were rich enough, by your own French chef: vide the wrangling over Anatole in Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels). Now it is known as a hotbed of culinary innovation that seeks also to revive the forgotten meaty riches of British food traditions.
Rarely do I dine fine, but star Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next is currently doing a meal based entirely on the ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, and my classicist uxor would not miss it. So off we went for a night in the big city to meet two Next-veteran friends for a nice Italian dinner. But this was pre-Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus Italian, so nary a tomato or pasta noodle was anywhere to be found. In fact, after a modernist beverage that mimicked an ancient recipe for turning white wine red and red wine white, one of the first flavors to hit our tongues made us think that Next had gotten the wrong empire: garum, a fermented fish sauce, infused fresh bits of greenery and seafood and tasted of modern Southeast Asia, a land far from the reach of any Ceasar. There must be a story as to why this sauce, the ketchup of the ancient world, as my wife put it, faded from use, but in a land of abundant sun and seafood, it makes perfect culinary sense. In the context of the meal, it reminded us that whatever our expectations, the past is a foreign country. What followed was a meal of subtlety and extravagance, the cuisine of an empire. Some dishes were done so as to be as authentic as possible, some (like the red-white drink mentioned) in the inspired-by vein, but all aimed to provide a full sensory experience of the sort Achatz is famous for, and which the Romans themselves – well, the rich ones anyway – were accustomed to.
A sheaf of wheat was a serving vessel next to rose petals on the table that hid another offering; a small round of bread was cooked in a blazing hot, covered brazier right on the table, then portioned into four by drawing tight the strings that tied it as it cooked (see picture); prawn shells were covered in gold and served alongside meat that had been extracted from them and armored with rings of olives; the dishware hinted at the mosaic tiles the Romans loved; music from a plucked single-string instrument hovered in the background.
The menu was in Latin, with some ingredients listed in English, and with numbers for each recipe provided so we could consult the facing-page translation of the cookbook that each table came equipped with. We did this less and less as the meal progressed, in part, no doubt, because that meant movement other than towards the food in front of us. All in all it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime meal, sophisticated and delicious, executed by skilled cooks and delivered by completely unpretentious and friendly servers. Sadly, as with the Roman empire itself, the meal came to an end. Dessert symbolized this with meringue broken like slabs of ruined marble, resting on a collection of ingredients that dissolved on the tongue, leaving behind only traces of flavor to be unearthed and admired in memory.
My dad grew up in Winchester, VA, in the northern bit of the state from whence hail a lot of good apples and Patsy Cline. (My dad’s dad was a food scientist at National Fruit; that meant we got to eat a lot of amazing peaches from dented cans.) Though pretty close to the Mason-Dixon line, and not far from the mid-Atlantic coast, it’s still definitely the South there, or at least was when he was growing up. Now I guess it’s as much a bedroom community for DC as it is a small Southern city. At any rate, hailing from Virginia meant my dad learned early about sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. Occasionally as a kid we’d get country ham, and mostly what I remember is its overwhelming saltiness. I wasn’t a big ham fan then and not the salt fiend I am now, so it seemed pretty gross. I’ve had it once or twice in recent years, but always sliced from a package and never made from non-industrial hogs, so I’ve yet to be impressed by it, but my dad waxes nostalgic over it every time the topic of ham comes up (which is not infrequently in my family). Now that I’m doing a little ham-curing of my own, though, I’ve become intrigued by country ham. Turns out it’s basically cold-smoked prosciutto: it sits in salt in cool temps for a month or so and it gets hung to dry for many months. But between the hell of salt and the heaven of hanging, it wanders as much as an unattached thigh can in the purgatory of wood smoke, until it is finally deemed ready to ascend. Like any good Southern food, regional variants exist: what goes in the initial cure besides salt, the kind of wood for smoking, how long it gets smoked — all differ depending on who’s doing it and where. (A good story about a Kentucky version here.) It tends to be eaten cooked, unlike European dry-cured hams, and in thick-ish slices, which is why mostly what I remember about it is the salt. If you ate prosciutto sliced like ham at Sunday dinner, you’d be overwhelmed by its saltiness too. But most recipes call for cooking country ham it in a way that purges some of the salt content, and it seems that these days some more chef-y types are slicing it thin for charcuterie plates, which sounds pretty good to me. So, I’ve put in an order for another ham from Dave at Young Earth, and provided I can find someone to do the smoking (I don’t think my city neighbors would like hickory smoke belching from my backyard for a month), I hope to have a real country ham like my dad had growing up to give to him for his 80th birthday next winter.