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.
Manet at the Carnegie was one day in PA, Heinz at the Heinz the next. The history museum in Pittsburgh is officially named for the former senator and is not funded by the corporation, but it features a display of the company’s history and products that is both engaging and advertisementy. Note the name of the restaurant in the picture. There must be a hatch somewhere back there.
And check out the products one used to be able to buy:
(By the way, for the record I’m with those who believe that Heinz ketchup cannot be surpassed. Artisanal and homemade ketchups, however much the rage, and however much I applaud the artisanal and homemade in most aspects of life, are, at best, hot sauce with no heat, unmarried marinara, condiments to be condemned.)
I wrote most of this a couple of days before the election when, like most, I was pretty sure we’d be seeing a President Clinton. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. What was expected to be a time of post-election Republican-party soul-searching and regrouping has turned into the opposite, as people begin to take seriously the question of how the Democratic Party has lost the support of working class voters (a nice piece on this here). This post isn’t directly diagnostic in that regard, but it does resonate with that problem, and so I offer it as my own small contribution to thinking about what direction progressive ideas should be moving in as we figure out how to operate in Trumpworld.
In the Bill Clinton years, as George Packer describes in a piece last month on Hillary in the New Yorker, the idea took root in the Democratic Party that being progressive meant getting people out of the working class, rather than simply making the conditions of the working class better (through better pay, safer workplaces, protection of collective bargaining rights, etc.). In other words, Democrats came to believe that the mission of social policy should be to give non-elites access to what elites have, and so in effect to transform them into elites. And they thought the primary way to do this was to educate them more. This has been the reigning ideology of the Obama administration too. College is for career; the future is one for educated workers. This is not the same as, but it resonates with, the conservative drive to purge the “liberal” from the liberal arts and see higher ed in purely careerist, job-oriented terms. The mission of the university has thus come to be very widely seen as the economic transformation of the working class.
As a professor at a regional state university, my job is basically to carry out this mission. And every day I question it.
Last Wednesday evening, Chef Brian Polcyn, co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the now nearly biblical volumes on curing meat Salumi and Charcuterie, as well as being a well-known restaurateur, cooking instructor, and now wide-ranging food entrepreneur, gave a 4+ hour demo class in the theater kitchen at KVCC’s fabulous new culinary school building. In the space of 4 hours Polcyn broke down two sides of pork, one in the American way, where with the aid of a bone saw you get five primal cuts (shoulder [butt], picnic ham, center-cut loin, belly, and ham), the other in the traditional Italian method, which follows muscle seams and so doesn’t require a saw, and is designed to maximize cuts for dry curing. The biggest difference is in the front half of the pig, for the Italian method cuts the ribs further down the back in order to preserve the long neck muscle (coppa) as a cut to be cured whole, instead of leaving it as part of the shoulder to be roasted, ground, or whatever. Both methods remove the tenderloin (filetto), which is on the inside of the backbone, and both allow recovery of fat from different places, organs, tongue, jowl, ears, and tail (although Polcyn didn’t talk about the tail), as well as bits of trim that can be ground for sausage, terrines, etc.
In the hands of an expert like Polcyn, the American method takes about four minutes, the Italian method ten times that – and you really have to know what you’re doing. (The economics are obvious from the point of view of a meat processor. That’s why, if you lack a good local butcher, as, sadly, we still do in Kalamazoo, you can’t get some of the specialty cuts for curing that are common on the continent.) From all this Polcyn prepared bacon, pancetta, and guanciale, all of which are still in a fridge at KVCC in their initial salt-cure phase (no doubt under heavy security). He also prepared, with cooking help from KVCC chefs, spuma (lard from the belly fat whipped into a mousse-like consistency with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with the cracklings that came out of the lard rendering), a terrine of ground pork and seared pork tenderloin, and a porchetta-like dish whose name I missed which involved butterflying the meat cut from the pigs head, seasoning it, laying the ears and tongue on it (for some reason there were two tongues), rolling it, and braising it.
Seeing a master at work was a treat, but there were lots of takeaways for home curers like me and my friend Joan, who was there with me, and with whom I’ve been making sausage and salami for more than a year. Maybe the biggest thing was just seeing the lack of slavishness to the recipes. The books give the impression that precision is essential in terms of proportion of meats to salt and seasonings. Now, Polcyn has decades of experience, so when he has, say, a slab of belly in front of him, he’ll be able to judge by hand and eye many things that it’s still best for us to measure. But even so, it was clear that there was some wiggle room. Forgot to season the jowl for guanciale? Just scrape some of the seasoning of the belly that’s being made into pancetta. Need the right amount of fat in your sausage? Judge the fattiness of the meat by eye and don’t add extra if it looks good. And so on. Preparation of the recipes seemed more like cooking than baking.
More concretely, there are two things that I learned that I think will have the most effect on our ground-meat products (which have, to date, never been less than delicious). (a) Don’t substitute belly or leaf fat for back fat in salami. The back fat is harder and renders less easily, so it will remain in the sausage as it cures or cooks. We’ve had somewhat crumbly salami, I think because we substituted one of the soft fats, which weeped out as the salami hung. We used the soft fat because it was what we had on hand, and it seemed wasteful to go buy other fat, but now we know better. (b) It’s OK to mix the ground meat and fat by hand to get the primary bind (the goopy meat mess that gets stuffed into the casings). Following the books, we’d been hesitant to do that, because we were worried about the heat from our hands warming the meat too much. Joan asked about this though, and Chef Polcyn not only said it’s fine (provided you don’t overdo it), but showed a good test for when you’ve mixed enough: if you hold your hand up and the meat stuck to it doesn’t fall down for ten seconds, it’s sticky enough.
The evening ended with a nice meal cooked up by various supporting chefs from KVCC, including some of the dishes mentioned above, as well as fillets of (uncured) coppa, and a range of tasty non-pork offerings. The spuma was a little intense for me, I have to say, but I think it would make a great touch to appetizers that have some sweetness and acidity to balance its fattiness. The other pork dishes were great.
The pig, by the way, came from a Mangalitsa pig raised by Mike de Schaaf at 1936 Meadowbrook Farm in Benton Harbor. Mangalitsas are a very fatty, furry heritage breed from Hungary — click the link to see the pigs. I’ve got a (trotter-less) ham from one of them hanging in my basement, along with one from a Berkshire-Duroc cross (if I remember right) from Dave Warkentein of Young Earth Farm in Decatur (see my ProZooto post about my first ham made with his pork). I’ve made bacon from pigs from them both too, which is an order of magnitude better even than bacon made from the same pigs done by their processors. Now if only we could get a good butcher in Kalamazoo, I could get a nice coppa to work with!
I had to log some hours in the car on Saturday in what was a very unsustainable way to procure sustainably raised veal. I did a little online digging before I left in order to find some food-related podcasts to listen to, and I discovered two that were fabulous and fantastic: Radio Cherry Bombe and Gravy. Radio Cherry Bombe is done by two of the women behind Cherry Bombe, an indie food magazine about women in the food industry. It features interviews by Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu of all kinds of interesting food-world people (mostly women, though in the 50th episode “boys” including the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi are featured). Great guests, smart and funny conversation, and insight into lots of areas of the food industry.
Gravy is put out by Southern Foodways Alliance, which is an amazing resource for anyone interested in Southern food and culture. (My folks are from the northern edge of the South, so I have some ancestral ties that I like to think explain my love of greens, beans, and chicken.) The episodes are more professional than Radio Cherry Bombe, the kind of thing you could find on long-form NPR or PRI shows, and are very thoughtful and informative. As is inevitable when talking about Southern food and agriculture, lots of the shows deal with issues concerning race, and they do (I think) a great job at showing how to have a smart conversation about something most of us have a hard time talking about. They’re accessible, but sophisticated enough for classroom use too. I’ll draw on Gravy when I teach my intro philosophy course in the fall on ethical and political-philosophical issues connected to food.
I also listened to a couple episodes of Taste of the Past, with culinary historian Linda Pelaccio. Good guests, but she isn’t as fluent behind the mic as other interviewers, so the conversations always felt a little awkward.Still worth listening to though.
Would love to hear other suggestions of good food and ag podcasts!
(For Part I, click here.)
About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.
Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.
Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.
While on sabbatical I’m taking a couple of classes in KVCC’s new sustainable culinary arts program – to what end, I don’t yet know, but it’s such a great idea for a program I thought it was worth exploring. Rachel Bair’s Sustainable Food Systems course just wrapped up, and, though I’ve taught a bit about the topic in an environmental philosophy class I offer, I couldn’t be more glad that I took it. For one thing, it was good to see what an intro-level course looks like from the students’ side of the room! But, more importantly, there were all sorts of things I learned more about than I knew before (e.g., migrant farm labor in Michigan, consolidation in the meat industry, how food assistance reflects issues in the larger economy), and I met some really passionate and interesting people.
There’s a kind of dark upside to taking this course though. Continue reading “The Dark Upside to Education”