Reading


I’ve had food on the brain quite a lot lately—I usually do, in the sense of what to make for dinner, what’s in the pantry, etc., but I’ve begun to make a real effort to be as mindful as possible about the implications of what I eat. This increasing awareness really began back when I lived in Georgia, when I had a flourishing vegetable garden and kept chickens, which enabled me at times to cook rather elaborate meals entirely from the fruits of my tiny little property (I never could bring myself to kill and eat the chickens themselves, but their eggs were out of this world). But then other concerns preoccupied me for a few years, and I started eating industrial, processed foods again.

Since I moved to New York, though, I’ve started really thinking about my food again. Nearly every neighborhood features a decent greenmarket for at least part of the year, numerous farms from 150 miles around offer CSA subscriptions to city dwellers, and food co-ops feature artisanal and organic foods at decent prices. I’ve taken advantage of many of these alternatives to large-scale industrial and processed foods for a number of reasons: health, environment, local/regional business support, and so on.

But my track record was still less than perfect. For the sake of convenience or cost, I would sometimes stop by a regular supermarket on the way home from work and pick up a Perdue chicken breast, a quart of milk, or some Lean Cuisine frozen dinners and shut my eyes and mind against the knowledge of the synthetic faux-foods in my frozen dinner and the unpardonable cruelty and waste of large-scale meat and dairy production.

I am lucky that my living situation for the past two years has made it much easier and cheaper to phase such lapses out of my routine—I live within an easy walk or bike ride of two nice greenmarkets, and there is an excellent organic food co-op just two blocks from my house. And now that I have recently finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and have begun reading In Defense of Food, I am more determined than ever to be a mindful consumer of whole, organic, seasonal, and (as much as possible) local/regional foods. Neither of these books really are saying much that I haven’t heard in bits and pieces elsewhere, but they finished the job of really opening my eyes as wide as possible to the numerous implications and effects of one’s food choices.

I have reconciled myself to the increased cost of better food, because really—do I want to skimp on what I put in my body, my most important investment? Pollan pointed out a fascinating and slightly frightening statistic: in the 1950s, about 1/3 of Americans’ household income was dedicated to food; today, that proportion is about 1/8. The “lower cost” of food is due to the highly industrialized and mechanized nature of food production, not to mention the false economy of subsidized agriculture. So we’re actually still paying a lot for our food; it’s just that the expenditure comes in the form of taxes rather than on our grocery bill. And we’re getting inferior food and environmental ruin in return. So I’ve decided to do my small part to break away from an increasingly unhealthy and unsustainable system.

As I was making these grand pronouncements to Will recently he asked, only half-jokingly, whether that meant we’d be going on a “hippie diet.” In a sense, yes—less meat (though not vegetarian); as few processed/preserved foods as possible; lots of grains and greens. But I love a fancy, pretty meal as much as the next person, so I’ve had a great deal of fun figuring out how to feel good about what I cook and eat without, paradoxically, sucking all the joy out of the process. Tonight’s dinner was a happy example of my new-ish approach to household cuisine. It was roasted pork tenderloin (pastured, hormone- and antibiotic-free, vegetarian, from a small farm in Pennsylvania) with seasonal veggies: organic rutabaga-and-carrot mash with organic butter and heavy cream, and organic kale sautéed in the pork drippings. It was quick (the whole thing took a little less than an hour), healthy, pretty, and delicious:

Meat as "condiment," just like Thomas Jefferson told us!

Meat as "condiment," just like Thomas Jefferson told us!

And this is the new model of eating in my house. Are any of my readers doing something similar?

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Today’s Times had an interesting op-ed piece that I imagine will be much-blogged over the next few days: Typing Without a Clue addresses the crime against literature that is Joe the Plumber’s “memoir,” out this month. In the column, Timothy Egan also takes issue with the rumor that Sarah Palin might receive as much as $7 million for her memoir (which, if she were actually to write it herself, would likely read like a postmodern Dada treatise that would make Jean Arp proud). Despite the entertainment potential of these books, Egan makes a desperate plea:

Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters [my own employer included –ed.], can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.

I’m really torn as to whether books like these deserve to be published. Personally, of course, they offend me on just about every level. On the other hand, though, I have to acknowledge that the fact that such books are possible is, ironically, one of the things that makes America great (while at the same time completely degrading our culture—I’m so conflicted!). So what do you guys think about the Joe Six-Packs/Plumbers/pit bulls/hockey moms of the world getting book deals? Is it the American Dream, or publishing’s endgame?

Like most Americans, I was thrilled (but not weepy; I need to be angry for that) when Barack Obama won the election last week and brought his handsome family out on the stage in Grant Park in their moment of triumph. Also like most Americans, I cringed when I saw Michelle Obama’s dress. Mrs. Obama is a tremendously good-looking woman, but tall, strapping ladies like her need to be verrry careful about what they wear. So imagine my delight when I saw the following picture, snapped today during what was surely a very awkward meeting:

10obama4-600

Stunning! That dress makes her look 8 feet tall (especially next to those stumpy Bushes) and takes about 20 pounds off her frame. She should order one of these in every color.

[This is currently sitting in the drafts folder over at Slushcity, but that site’s editor is away at the moment and therefore won’t be posted for a while, so I figured I’d post it here first.]

Everything but the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain
by John Barlow ( FSG, $25.00 )squeal

Beautiful Sheep: Portraits of Champion Breeds
by Kathryn Dun, photos by Paul Farnham ( Thomas Dunne Books, $19.95 )

Unslushed because: Will knows I love books about food and books that contain pictures of cute animals. He’s probably also hoping I’ll be inspired to produce some slow-cooked pork treats this winter (I am).

Factors not initially considered: How veddy British a pairing this is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On further review: Let’s start with Barlow. His book follows the popular conceit of vowing to do some certain complete thing over the course of a year (eating every edible part of a pig) and then write about his experiences. This concept has yielded countless terrible, pointless blogs and books. This project, however, had several saving graces. First, Barlow has lived in Spain’s northern province of Galicia for, it seems, well over a decade, and is married to a native of the region. So he knows his topic pretty well. Second, despite the incessant self-deprecation in the book (that does wear a little thin), he’s quite an accomplished scholar and writer, and so brings a depth of historical and cultural perspective to the book that balances out the “eew, I just spent an afternoon gnawing pigs’ tails” factor. So I really did end up learning both culinary and general European cultural and political history, which made me feel a little more virtuous about devoting a week to reading a book that’s primarily about eating huge amounts of fatty pork.

Drawbacks? The book would have benefited from a tighter edit. Aside from some truly egregious typos (fancy some jugged hair?), there was quite a lot of unnecessary repetition, such as at least five explanations of what empanadas are. Seriously, John, we know what they are. And the three people who don’t only need to read “round, flat pasties with meat or vegetable stuffing” once. I suspect he just liked typing “pasties” over and over (it is kind of fun). Also, the aforementioned “oh ha ha, I’m such a charmingly bumbling Englishman” did get old in spots. But overall, it’s an excellent read for anyone interested in food lore.

sheep

On to the sheep! This slim coffeetable book is what it is: a series of pictures of champion sheep, mostly ancient and rare breeds, mostly English (with a few Frenchies thrown in there). The left-hand page offers a little history and stats such as height, average weights for rams and ewes, and helpful details such as whether the sheep is polled or not, whether the ewes make good mothers, whether the breed is prized for wool or meat, and so on. The facing page is given over to a startlingly beautiful and expressive portrait of the sheep under discussion. I’d imagine this book has a pretty limited audience, but it’s already given us a couple of evenings of fun discussion.

I’ve never been a germophobe. This isn’t to say that I don’t observe basic hygiene (regular hand-washing, use of hand sanitizer when I can’t get to a sink, covering my mouth when sneezing, etc.), but I also don’t fret too much about coming into contact with public surfaces. Life’s too short to be squeamish, and I seldom get more than the requisite two nose colds per year. I have faith that my immune system will take care of the important stuff. But this photo of what actually happens in the air around a person when he/she coughs might change all that:

This is why you should cover your mouth!

This is why you should cover your mouth!

Maybe it’s the lurid colors, but GROSS. This is now what I’m going to see every time a person coughs. <<shudder>>

And possibly of the entire presidential election:

Calling yourself a maverick is a sure sign that you’re not one.

(from David Sedaris’s essay in this week’s New Yorker)

To watch the vice-presidential debate:

“I’m looking forward to meeting [Biden], too,’’ [Palin] said. “I’ve never met him before, but I’ve been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, second grade.’’

“I have to admit, though, he’s a great debater, and he looks pretty doggone confident, like he’s sure he’s going to win,’’ Ms. Palin, 44, said of Mr. Biden, 65. “But then again, this is the same Senator Biden who said the other day that University of Delaware would trounce the Ohio State Buckeyes. Wrong!”

Bless her poor little beehive.

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