Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Busted at the Bistro

I had a book signing here in Bellingham a few weeks ago, and a couple days after that, as I was polishing off dinner at the Fountain Bistro near my house and trying not to get salad dressing on the papers I was correcting, my neighbors Bob and Selma stopped by my table. They told me they were shocked, shocked after hearing my talk to see me eating restaurant food instead of staying home to scrub the topsoil off my rutabagas. 

Lucky for me that my profile is low enough so that a bit of teasing from the nice folks two houses down is the extent of my exposure to public expectations. I would hate to be, say, Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollen and have every my every public mouthful scrutinized.
Christmas Eve vegetable plates, in lurid, blurry living color
But speaking of Michael Pollen, one treat of my vacation is to read through 
months-old copies of magazines that I don’t get to during the work weeks. This week I browsed a six-month-old copy of the New York Review of Books, where Michael Pollen has a roundup essay on modern food movements. His thesis is that unlike many movements—say feminism, or Protestantism--which tend to fragment into ever more specialized concerns as time goes on, food campaigners may be finding more mutual connections. I don’t know if he’s right about this, but the essay, which discusses books on hunger in America, vegetarian activists, locavores, government food policy, sustainable farming, and critiques of bureaucracy (and more!), did help me put some ideas together. 

One of them is the economic relationship between American food prices and our health and family life. Pollan writes that on average, we spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food and only half an hour a day preparing it (including cleanup). Those are the lowest numbers in the industrialized world, and they imply enviable quantities of disposable income and time to create great things outside the kitchen. But here’s the web in which those figures are tangled. That cheap food is the stuff that’s made directly or indirectly from heavily subsidized corn and soy—pop, McBurgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes, processed cheese etc. (Fresh vegetable and fruit prices have not stayed proportionally low) And we all know the health consequences of that diet. The money we save on groceries gets spent instead on the medical consequences of our obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and diet-related cancers. Big Agriculture and Big Pharma get bigger yet, while we go broke paying medical bills. 

The French and the Italians--to pick two famous foodie cultures--pay a higher percentage of their incomes on food, spend a lot more time preparing and eating it (though less than they used to), spend a lower percentage of their income on health care, and live longer on average than we do.

But what about the time saved? Convenient food was supposed to liberate women, especially, from drudgery and resentment in the kitchen, and there is a case to be made there. Not every household contains someone who enjoys cooking, and though I love to cook I’m not in the mood three times a day every day. But it’s also true that it takes about as much time to go through the drive-through window as to throw a salad together. If you have the money, you can get food that is both nutritious and convenient. The people who make their livings at the fast-food windows, or processing the chickens that make the McNuggets, or stocking the Quick Mart shelves with Top Ramen, are the ones who can’t afford to buy nutritious quick food and often lack the time and training to cook more economical healthy meals from scratch. This plays into the familiar critique of mainstream feminism, that it is a creation of and for comfortable middle class women. 

And that brings to mind an old poem by Marge Piercy

What's that smell in the kitchen?
All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria: it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they're supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.

Burning dinner may be war, but having the dinner to burn is good fortune. That’s why it’s so important that we link up the issues of food equity and food quality. It’s not enough to have cheap food, if the real costs are our health and environment. It’s not enough to have sources of nutritious and delicious food if only the comfortable can afford it. 

Here's a link to a Bellingham Herald story about increasing access to real food:

If Pollan is right, and I hope he is, we’ll see more Food Bank Farms, more farmers markets taking food stamps and WIC, more community gardens, more gleaning, and more opportunities for people to make a decent living providing good food to their neighbors. 
And speaking of that, I hope Geoff and Anna at Osprey Hill are making a decent living, because they certainly are providing good food. Our Christmas Eve dinner relied heavily on their produce from my CSA box—delicata squash, carrots, and onions in the risotto; onions and garlic stuffed in the pork roast, with parsnips and potatoes cooked alongside; applesauce for those who like it with pork; mixed braised greens. It was all great.

After writing this ramble, and thinking about how I am one of the fortunate few who not only has the resources to grow and buy good food, but also gets to make a little money while promoting it, I decided to make my donation to the food bank automatic and monthly instead of by whim. Join me?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A community of vegetables

Check out the latest issue of the estimable Foothills Gazette for two stories on local food initiatives dear to my heart.

One is a profile of Nooksack Valley High School's use of local produce in its foods classes. (James Ortiz, who is pictured giving his usual intense scrutiny to a tray of potatoes, is one of my students this year.)

The other story talks about community gardens in rural Whatcom County. While at first thought it might seem redundant to have neighborhood garden plots out in the county, when I thought about it I realized that of course not everyone in farm country has ground to plant. Even house renters may not have permission to dig up the back yard for a garden plot, and some yards are too shady to grow vegetables. Many county residents live in apartments, including recent arrivals to this country who have both the skills and the need to grow their own produce.

I had a chance to talk briefly with Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens and Growing Washington when she was at the high school last week. She brought me up to date on Everson's Community Garden, which is thriving in its spot behind the library, producing vegetables for the Food Bank as well as for home tables. I'll go into more detail here when time permits.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Winter Harvest Cookbook Corrections and Comments #1

Here's where I note corrections, comments and updates for Winter Harvest. The plan is to repost the list, with additions, every week or two. 

Sunday Brunch Frittata (page 125)
It should say : 3 tablespoons light oil
Never mind the "cup."

Winter Fruit Bars (page 256)
The bars hold together better if you use quick rolled oats rather than the thicker steel-cut types.
Also, Carolyn--the recipe's creator--says that when she is using fresh fruits such as pears along with dried fruits, she doesn't reconstitute the dried fruit. The liquid from the pears is enough to do the job. And we both agree that these reach are even better the next day, when the layers have had a chance to consolidate. 

And while I'm thinking of Carolyn and her household, the author's photo credit was omitted. It should have gone to her husband, Tim Pilgrim. 

Stirring the Pot

This is my season of book promotion, especially since the winter produce topic and the Christmas shopping season coincide. Thankfully I am still teaching, so I can’t go overboard with time spent smiling and signing and passing out samples. It’s fun in small doses.   

At the Community Farm Store in Duncan
Last week’s dose was on Vancouver Island, where my friend Gale organized events in Ladysmith and Duncan, hunted up the ingredients, turned over her kitchen to our sample making, and drove us through the snow to get to the dates. She also unearthed the batiked banner I had made for a natural foods deli we ran together in Mountain View, California, 38 eventful years ago.

Using the book and talking about it with people also means that the inevitable glitches and errors of any project come to light. Someone in Ladysmith pointed out a typo and Gale and I realized that the winter fruit bars, though variable by nature, could still use some more explicit instructions for accommodating different combinations of fresh and dried fruit. 

At The Worldly Gourmet in Ladysmith. I found the fancy stove intimidating, but the audience was great.

So I am going to start posting Corrections and Comments pages on this blog periodically, and I invite your participation. If you see a typo or an omission, or if something isn’t clear, or if you have created a variation you’d be willing to share, let me know.  The book is selling well and a second printing is not a complete pipe dream, so improvements could be included then. Meantime, I can at least make them available to blog readers. 

Next event: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m.  at Village Books in Bellingham. Samples provided by the great young cooks and their teacher Lois Rienstra at Nooksack Valley High School's Pioneer Catering.