The Year of Food

So, I’m not making any resolutions this year.  I have in the past kept a few resolutions, but inevitably, I can’t make half of them and reassess when the school year begins.  I have four million things going on anyway–a book project, a new class to teach, articles to write, a 60-mile walk to prepare for.  I don’t think I need to set any more goals.

But, I am continuing to think about food.  I watched Food, Inc. over the break, which just added to my frustration about the food industry.  I also read Cleaving by Julie Powell and watched Julie and Julia.  And Mr. Geeky gave me a fondue pot and cooking lessons and I bought myself yet another cookbook with a gift certificate.  So food is on my brain.  I’m continuing to try to buy food responsibly, locally and organically.  But, it is difficult.  The meat producers that come to Farmer’s Market in the spring and summer allow preordering and delivery in the winter.  But, because I wasn’t paying attention, I missed this weekend’s dropoff and will have to wait until the 20th to get more.  I’m paying a visit to a local butcher this week in hopes of finding grass-fed meat.  It would be more convenient than the once or twice a month deliveries.  And, of course, no veggies or fruits are really in season right now, so at least in the winter, I’m probably breaking a few rules.

The cookbook I got is Cooking Light‘s Dinner Tonight collection, which are recipes for complete meals that are generally a bit healthier than what most of us tend to eat.  I used to have a subscription, but let it lapse and have since been visiting their web site regularly.  But I do like having a book to work from as I learn new recipes.  Usually, when I get a new cookbook, I just flip through it and pick out a few things to make.  But I wanted to be more adventurous than that, not shying away from things that I wouldn’t normally be drawn to.  So I went to a random number generator and generated a few numbers that referenced pages in the book and decided to make those recipes for the next couple of days.  Last night’s recipe was Potato, Leek and Corn Chowder, which I served with garlic breadsticks and a salad.  It was quite tasty and perfect for a cold winter’s night.  The recipe calls for fresh corn, which is impossible to find this time of year, so I went with frozen instead.  I suspect fresh corn would make this a super yummy dish, so perhaps I’ll reprieve it in the summer.  On deck for later this week is a couscous meal and stuffed red peppers.  Yes, there will be posts, and maybe even pictures.

I also want to try to eat out more, but that requires more planning and of course, more money, so I’m still thinking about that.  But there will definitely be more writing about food.  I’m nothing if not eccentric in my topics!

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On the food front

I’m continuing my obsession with trying to eat better, and it’s been challenging, but not impossible. I’m not worrying too much about produce for the moment. I’m buying most from the farmer’s market, but have picked up bananas and avocados, which are obviously not local. The kids and the husband are giving me some grief about this whole project, but since I’m the one who buys and prepares the food around here, they’re stuck with it. As I mentioned before, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve been able to pick up at my local store. But there are still some things that are hard to find. Cereal, for example.

Last week, I bought the store’s organic brand, which met all my real food criteria. Today the first morning anyone ate it, and no one likes it. I’m not really a cereal person, so if I have to forgo cereal, I’m good with that. But the kids and the hubby, they live on cereal. Almost all of it has crap in it, mostly sugar. Luckily, my kids have never been into sugary cereal. We have binged on occasion on Frosted Flakes, but literally, that’s like once a year. I grew up on Sugar Corn Pops myself, but can’t stand it now. It’s like having dessert for breakfast. Bleh. So I broke down and bought Multigrain Cheerios, which happens to be their favorite and aside from some monoglycerides, have natural ingredients. (In case you’re wondering, monoglycerides are emulsifiers commonly used in baked goods to add volume and smoothness.)

So I’ve added another rule to my list. We have to like it. The whole point is to enjoy eating, and by all accounts, it’s healthier to enjoy what you’re eating and to enjoy it in the company of others.

A rule Pollan mentions that I didn’t bring up before is not to buy food with announcements about how healthy it is for you and most cereal has those: things like “made with whole grain” and “heart healthy.” And now there are about to more such labels, according to this article (hat tip: Mike Smith at The reason to ignore such claims on the front of packaging is that front of packaging labeling is not well regulated and the guidelines are set primarily by the food industry itself rather than a completely disinterested group of people. The food industry doesn’t always have consumers’ best health interests in mind. That Fruit Loops can get a “Smart Choice” label should tell you something.

Finding real food

I’ve just returned from my post-vacation grocery run. I wanted to follow my new rules, and actually, it wasn’t that hard in many cases, thanks to my store’s new brands. Sadly, the web site gives little information about them, but I checked labels dutifully, and many of them really do only have natural ingredients. I especially liked the Via Roma brand. The sauces have tomatoes and garlic and spices, a little sugar. Ragu, for the record, lists sugar as its first or second ingredient (haven’t bought it in years, so I can’t remember exactly). It’s not Ragu, but I do remember a brand with a lot of sugar in it. When I finally read the ingredients, I quit buying it.

What I’d like to see is grass-fed beef and reasonably-priced organic poultry. I’ve never found grass-fed beef, and the organic poultry has been removed, replaced with Green Way poultry, which says nothing about how the chickens were raised, so I didn’t buy it.

As a bonus, I only spent $80. But I did only buy about half of what I normally do. We’ll see if it lasts.

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On reading about food

Day 61: Making QuicheImage by lorda via Flickr

Last week, I devoured three books about food. First, Julia Child’s My Life in France; second, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food; and third, Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. All were delightful in their own way. It was a bit jarring to go from Child’s autobiography to Pollan’s description of the crap we Americans will put in our body. I have mentioned here before how I love cooking and eating, so going through these three books was soul satisfying, though not quite as soul satisfying as cooking and eating a good meal.

Child’s book was a good book to start the vacation with. I’m sure her autobiography paints a specific picture of her, but the picture I got was of a woman who loved life and lived every moment with gusto. Whether she chose cooking or flower arranging, I think she would have thrown herself in full force. I very much enjoyed her descriptions of Paris. Her apartment was mere blocks from the hotel we stayed in ourselves and a stone’s throw from Mr. Geeky’s conference. I recognized streets she described and even some market areas. It was a nice reminder of our own time in Paris. But more than that, her descriptions of food and wine and the joy she expressed in sharing meals with friends and family were really wonderful. She makes it sound as if her whole life was spent eating and drinking and laughing with friends. She doesn’t, of course, as she also talks about working on the book and subsequently the tv show. Her energy for both is amazing and inspiring.

Pollan’s book is, in many ways, a tribute to the kind of cooking and eating Child espouses. Even Child laments the processed food she finds upon returning to America. I especially liked Pollan’s rules for eating toward the end of the book. They’re simple and easy to follow. I immediately applied them to buying a loaf of bread, though the fewest ingredients I could find in any loaf was 7 (Pollan recommends no more than 5), but I could pronounce all of them. He admits that eating as he recommends is likely to be more expensive and says that it’s a shame that that’s the case. He says, though, that if you can afford it, you should eat organic and local and non-processed food as much as possible. Though it doesn’t get much ink, he also talks about enjoying food and seeing it as something to be experienced with friends (a la Julia Child) rather than as simply fuel. It’s nice to be given license to ignore the low-fat, low-carb crap the food industry throws at us. I’m just gonna eat food from now on. And apparently, not worry about saving money on it. If there’s one thing I do wish he and others would work on is figuring out how to get rid of some of the subsidies that are making it so cheap for companies to make really bad food (and food that is bad for us), because until it’s cheap for everyone to eat real food, we’re going to see more health problems and only the relatively wealthy will avoid them.

Finally, Powell’s book was a fun read, more fun than I thought it would be, and I suppose, because I love Meryl Streep, I might have to see the movie as well. I never read Powell’s blog, though I know some of you out there did and liked it and were disappointed with the book. The whole project does seem a little gimmicky, which is what, apparently, Julia Child claims it is. But in the book, but apparently not in the movie, this upsets Powell immensely, as she sees the project as giving her life meaning, as a way of finding out who she is and escaping the anonymity of her corporate job. Which is, sort of, what Child was doing in France. She had, by this point, identified with Child in a way without really quite realizing and still trying to maintain some distance, so having her project labeled as a stunt by the very person she identified with had to be a blow.

Unlike the other two books, Powell’s book is not really about food, though there are many descriptions of cooking food and eating food, that’s not what it’s about. It’s more about soul searching, about the ups and downs of life. You can sort of argue the same thing of Child’s book, that her book is also about finding oneself, trying to separate oneself from the masses. But Child’s book is less individualistic than Powell’s and less about ego and success. Not that Child doesn’t have some ego in her, but she seems to recognize more than Powell does, that her friends and family have contributed to her life in significant ways. That may be her age (Child was in her late 80s when the book was being written) or it may be the times. Child’s lesson, taking heart in your family and friends seems more important somehow in the end. Powell does recognize this in the end and she does take joy (her word) in some of what’s happened in the course of her project, but that somehow it doesn’t quite match Julia’s life–not yet, anyway.

All three books left me with renewed gusto to cook more and eat well and maybe invite friends over to share it all with.

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The Decline of Cooking

Day 5: Baking breadImage by lorda via Flickr

Michael Pollan has a wonderful article in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the coincidental decline of cooking and rise of cooking shows. I have written about the pleasures of cooking a few times before. I really enjoy doing it and I love the results as well. Although I take Pollan’s point that most people don’t learn how to cook from shows like Paula Dean’s, I think people who have rudimentary cooking skills do learn something. I have learned things about ingredients, about what flavors might go well together, new preparation techniques, and more. I also take Pollan’s point that there’s a lot of focus on consumption rather than production of food, but I have also seen a strong relationship between those who cook and those who appreciate good food even in the consumption of food. And that seems to be a bidirectional relationship. People who consume a good meal are often inspired to create similar kinds of meals at home and those who create good food at home expect good food when they eat out. Although I’ve been known to eat at a fast food place on the road (almost only when traveling), when we eat out, we tend to choose restaurants that serve good food, often food I won’t prepare at home (Thai and Indian are common choices as is sushi). When my kids were younger, we would eat at places like Applebee’s and Chili’s, but I really don’t like these places now. People I know that don’t cook have no problem with places like these and consider them treats next to the canned and frozen products they prepare at home.

I credit some of my food snobbery, of course, to my parents. My mother had learned how to cook Southern food from her mother and added more sophisticated food to her repetoire as she began entertaining law partners and clients. She could cook butter beans, lady peas and fried chicken one day and oysters bienville and rock cornish game hens the next. The one restaurant in town was owned and operated by a couple who spent every other weekend in New York. They insisted on prime beef, fresh ingredients and were always trying new dishes. We frequented the place as it was good for my father’s career and because both he and my mother enjoyed a good meal. At the age of 13, my parents took me to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia for a full 7-course meal. And though I’ve never had one since, I’ve never forgotten the elegance of it. Each dish was small and elegant, from the Vichyssoise to the nuts. I sometimes gave my mother a hard time for her fussiness over appearances, but I was always appreciative of her fussiness over food as I learned so much from it.

Although Pollan complains that many of the shows that are highlighted in the afternoon (when sahm’s are around to “learn” from them) focus on premade ingredients and shortcuts, many of the other shows, some of which are hugely popular, spend a lot of time talking about fresh ingredients. I watched a Good Eats episode the other day where Alton Brown insisted that we use fresh grated coconut in coconut cake rather than the stuff you could buy in plastic at the store. So maybe some of that will, or is, rubbing off on people. Maybe they will see the meals that the chefs prepare on Top Chef and want to make something close to that on their own. Those shows do provide many of the recipes on their web sites and the web more generally has a ton of available recipe sites. There’s no need to rifle through cookbooks (though I have many) to find the perfect chicken recipe. Some of my favorites are Cooking Light’s site and

I hope it is rubbing off, because Pollan’s last point about the connection between not cooking and obesity is one that makes sense to me. Americans aren’t cooking as much as they used to, in large part because the food industry has given us foods that don’t need to be cooked and are laden with fat, sugar, and salt, which we are naturally disposed to crave. And not cooking is a key predictor of obesity rates:

The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.

There are a lot of reasons for the decline in cooking–from a food industry pushing convience food on us to an increase in work hours and commute time. But I hope that one thing that the cooking shows can convey besides the food itself, but the real joy that cooking can be.

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Frustrated by food

Let’s talk about food. For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing my best to buy food responsibly, meaning buying plenty of local food, organic food, basically food that is good for me and good for the environment. That goal has been supported by the opening of a farmer’s market near me. And the food there is reasonably priced as well as locally and organically grown. But the market is only open on Wednesday afternoons and I’m a meat eater. Those two things are making my life difficult. I can get meat at the market. One farmer provides chicken and pork. Another has buffalo. But, it is pricey. Though less pricey than the grocery store. On my last trip to the grocery store, I wandered through the meat section looking for farm-raised, free-range, organically fed meat products. No beef or pork fit this category. Only chicken and duck. Purdue chicken and the store brand both cost between 1 and 2 dollars a pound, depending on the cut. The organic poultry? 3-4 dollars a pound. Now, I could potentially swallow that cost, but people on a serious budget? No way. And I see people in the store all the time with coupons and with the weekly circular only buying stuff that’s on sale. Smart financially, but not necessarily healthier.

Organic fruits and vegetables have a similar markup. Luckily, I can get most of them at the market. But I had a debate with myself about buying avocados. I love them, but they are in no way local. I overheard someone at the store complaining about how she couldn’t tell where the vegetables had come from or how they were grown. You don’t hear that much around here.

One of the proposed items in the health care reform bill is a tax on soda, which even Democrats oppose. The problem is soda is not that cheap already. And healthier options such as juice are even pricier. I don’t think the government can figure out a way to force people to eat better. I think most people shop based on what they like and what they can afford. And healthy options (not to mention sustainable ones) are usually out of their price range. Not everyone has access to a farmer’s market and not all grocery stores even carry organically grown products. The time it takes to prepare a healthy meal is fodder for another post, but for many people, time constraints really drive their food purchases.

I’m going to keep trying to be mindful of my food purchases, but I’m frustrated by how difficult it is to make good choices.

Poor people have poor ways

This is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard and one my father-in-law said to us a lot when we were in grad school. There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Half-Changed World about the cost of food and how low-income people are buying more Spam and other not-so-healthy options. I have written about health, food, and class twice before. Yes, it’s true many of us do not have the survival skills of our grandparents. I can make my own pasta and bread, but I don’t like to mostly because I lack equipment, time, and space to do so. Of course, I’ve been spoiled by watching food shows. My grandmother’s kitchen was 2/3 the size of mine and she made everything from scratch. I think mostly it’s a matter of establishing certain habits. We have a good farmer’s market, but I forget to go. Many of the CSA’s are $700/yr or thereabouts, which is a bargain really, but if you’re poor, you don’t usually have that kind of money and don’t know what to do with half that food anyway. And growing my own? Well, I have a postage stamp of a yard, which I’ve joked about growing potatoes and cabbages in and then guarding those with a gun, but really, I don’t know much about growing either. I’ve done it. I could do it, but could we really save a lot by doing that?

I spend on average $150/week on groceries. I buy a fair amount of produce, but I do use a lot of shortcuts–frozen veggies, pre-made dough, the occasional frozen entree or side dish–and I buy meat. But I could live without it if I had to. These days, I tend to see what’s on sale and then think about what kinds of things I could make from it. Ground beef was two for one last week. That made a spaghetti meal and tacos. And it wasn’t the lean meat either. And that’s the thing–and what I said 3 years ago too–the good stuff is expensive. You can complain all you want about poor people not knowing how to prepare healthy meals, but when you’re just looking at the bottom line, you’re likely not to pay as much attention to the nutrition labels.

Mistakes were made

The title is one of my favorite Bush quotes. I love passive voice. It lets us get away with all kinds of things. One of my professors, when explaining passive voice used the example of going out to dinner with his brother. When it came time to pay, his brother said, “My wallet was left in the car.” As if the wallet decided to stay in the car.

So, this evening mistakes were made. Tonight’s meal, Pork Roast with Three-Mushroom Ragout, was quite tasty despite the mistakes. First mistake, should have deboned the roast. Okay, before that, I should have checked the recipe more carefully to see that I needed only 1.75 pounds of meat and not the 6.5 pounds I ended up with. And I could have had the butcher debone it. What I need it one of these. But, I managed to cut a third of the roast off with a little help from Mr. Geeky. I froze the other two thirds and will do something else with it. Second mistake, wrong kind of crushed tomatoes. Got the kind with Italian Seasoning. Didn’t seem to matter that much, though. Third mistake, no cremini mushrooms. Fourth, no sundried tomatoes without oil. This is what I mean about ingredients. If the store I frequent doesn’t have these things, I’m not running all over creation to find them. I just added a few more shitaki and button mushrooms and lived with oil soaked tomatoes. Didn’t seem to affect it much. Fifth mistake. The timer didn’t set correctly (i.e. I failed to push the “start” button) and so, my noodles cooked a little longer than they should have. Still the meal was good and I would definitely eat it again.

The lessons? 1) Read the recipe carefully before going shopping. 2) Make do with what you have.

First Healthy Meal of the Year

Like many others, I’m hoping to get back to some healthier habits in the new year. To help with that, I went through the Cooking Light website and found some recipes I thought would work. They have a handy shopping list too, so that you can send your recipe to the shopping list and voila! instalist. Tonight’s meal was this broccoli and cheese soup. I also made a small salad. I think bread would have been a good addition as the meal didn’t feel quite filling enough. I’m always hestitant to have bread since I want to eat a lot of it and usually dripping with butter. The soup itself was really tasty, almost buttery. Even Geeky Girl claimed to like it a little, though she did eventually resort to a peanut butter sandwich. I cheated a little and used the full fat version of Velveeta because I couldn’t find the light version. That’s one thing that I always have to think about when choosing recipes–will I be able to find the ingredients? The stores around here are generally well stocked and there are plenty of specialty stores around as well, but I’m not one to galavant around town finding specialty ingredients for a regular meal. I did actually have my first conversation with a butcher that wasn’t just “I need two of those.” I’m actually thinking about finding a good butcher nearby (apologies to the vegetarians in the audience). I’m also thinking of joining a CSA, something I wanted to do last year, but thought of it too late in the season. I’m hoping for an adventurous food year!

Food for thought–literally

New York Times magazine features several articles related to food in America. The first one that caught my eye confirms my own personal theory that if you enjoy what you eat, you won’t gain weight. It also discusses the idea of Americans eating different food each generation rather than sticking to a culturally determined cuisine. This idea plays into a friend of mine’s theory that you should eat the food of your ancestors. In his case, things like cabbage and potatoes. For me, beef and lamb. I have never felt guilt over food. Lots of other things, but not food. But then again, I am lucky to not have to worry about my weight. I just think about losing 5 pounds and it happens. My favorite evening out is to go eat a good meal with a good bottle of wine. I’ll eat just about anything, though I’m partial to Indian and Thai food–since I can’t make them easily at home.

The other article is about food on the campaign trail, the common foods eaten on the road as a way of proving your American enough to be president. Here in PA, we had a little battle of the cheesesteak vs. Primanti Brothers sandwich. I have a friend who hails from my home state, Tennessee, and we argue over Kansas City vs. Memphis style barbeque. Food can be just as partisan as health care plans–which you’re gonna need after your cheesesteak.