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 .
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.
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.
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 was at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh today, and I saw Edouard Manet’s “Still LIfe with Brioche.”
I realized that I aspire to pretty much exactly that: a still life, with brioche. Is that too much to ask?
I can’t believe I didn’t know about…the Incompatible Food Triad. “Can you think of three foods where any two of those foods taste good together, but all three combined taste disgusting?”
Wilfrid Sellars, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh (hired, the story goes, because the dean was willing to give him his own office overlooking Forbes Field, where the Pirates then played), came up with the puzzle. I was a grad student at Pitt a decade and a half after Sellars retired (though I did take logic from Neul Belnap, mentioned in the article), but I never heard of it before now.
Now I have something to ponder during my frequent bouts of insomnia. And people wonder about the relevance of philosophy to life in the modern world…
My son’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and he wanted to do a blog post about the dinner.
Oven fries, ready for baking…
Burgers, his second-favorite food (pizza takes #1), ready for smashing on the griddle…
Let’s hope this next year is as much fun as the last! Birthday IX will be here before we know it.