What I’ve Learned (and what I haven’t)   Leave a comment

I’ve learned a lot about cooking and food this year; however, this newly acquired knowledge has not necessarily made me happier. I’m not the first person to observe the fact that knowledge is a double-edged sword: some forms of knowledge hearten, others disturb. Often, a new idea raises as many questions as it answers. That’s certainly been the case for me this year.

So, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The industrial food chain has altered the American diet in myriad consequential ways.
  • All manner of grains are good, but many of the grains that are good are not available in my grocery store.
  • There is something deeply satisfying about eating good, well-prepared food, something that transcends the momentary pleasures prompted by the consumption of fast, cheap foods.
  • Americans are no longer seasonal eaters; in fact, as a culture, we have lost the knowledge of what types of produce are in season.
  • There is a burgeoning awareness of and appreciation for alternative food sources like food co-ops, Community Supported Agriculture, farmers’ markets, and local food markets.
  • This awareness of and appreciation for alternative food sources is, however, often a function of socioeconomic status. That is, appreciation seems to be commensurate to income and education.
  • Organic food is not necessarily environmentally or nutritionally better.
  • Eating local is best, but it demands a personal culinary revolution that I am not entirely enthusiastic about making.
  • Chestnuts are delicious but demanding.

And here are some questions:

  • What, exactly, is “American food?” I wrestled with this issue when I considered the subtitle of this blog (Reflections on American Cooking and Culture). Since then, I’ve gone back several times and deleted it and revised it, but I keep going back to it. Why the vacillation? Well, is what I do “American” cooking? Not always; never exactly. But as an American, what else could I be cooking? A recent book by the chef Marcus Samuelsson, The New American Table highlights the point. Samuelsson — born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and now an American citizen, whose last book was on African cuisine– features recipes like tempura crab salad with tamarind-soy vinaigrette and beef curry with avocado and plantains. Are these American meals? A review of the cookbook at eatmedaily raises these questions and offers one intriguing, overarching query: “If Everything’s American, Does American Matter?’ For that matter, “If Everything’s ____, does ______ matter?” (Fill in nationality)
  • Which, of course, leads to this question: do national/cultural culinary distinctions matter in an increasingly globalized world? Should they?
  • Do we truly lack a stable food culture as writers like Michael Pollan argue? After reading the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my three-year-old daughter, I’m not so sure. The first and second books nicely describe a fairly healthy food culture: lots of meat in the Winter, lots of vegetables in the Summer, dried grains all year-long.
  • Until, of course, those grains run out, as they do in the sixth book in that series, The Long Winter, leading to a very lean and difficult time for the Ingalls family. This raises a question: are periods of scarcity a natural part of the human diet? Should we fast sometimes to regulate the body? To drop excess weight? Is this healthy? Is this reasonable in our modern lives?
  • Regardless of whether or not Americans have ever had a stable food culture, we have certainly forgotten all about it now. But what can we/should we do about this?
  • Circling back to an earlier issue, what is the relationship between the immigrant food culture that Samuelsson features in his cookbook and an otherwise absent American food culture?
  • Is the burgeoning interest in and appreciation for alternative food sources a fad?
  • To what extent will the economic downturn impact alternative food sources? We’ve already heard about the difficult times faced by organic dairy farmers. What other organic victims will there be before the economy measurably improves?
  • Related: given the fact that processed and fast food is cheap and widely available while fresh, organic food is expensive and more of a challenge to get (it’s much easier to stop in at Walmart and get everything than it is to make several stops at specialty stores), how is it possible for all Americans to eat healthy whole foods?
  • How I can make my kitchen as socially, environmentally responsible as I can without sacrificing too much pleasure and enjoyment? Can I still drink French wine, eat Greek olives, and order farro on-line without feeling like a boorish, carbon-hungry hypocrite?
  • Is true seasonal eating compatible with a modern (busy) lifestyle?
  • How can I eat seasonally without culinary over thinking?

You see? Many more questions than answers.

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