Archive for April 2010

Meatless Monday ~ Feeding Our Beasts   Leave a comment

One of the great joys of my life thus far has been feeding my child. After a rocky start, I was able to nurse Mimi for the first year of her life. While there were many, many times when that process was painful, tedious, or inconvenient, it was nevertheless a miraculous experience, a period marked by a feeling of intense physical closeness to my child that I long for today. I can remember looking into her contented face as she nursed and being so often struck by a sense of real accomplishment and even power. Here was something I could do well for her — something nourishing and essential, something ancient and mysterious. (I was also often amazed by her tenacity and strength as she nursed, but that’s another story.)

When the time came for Mimi to eat solid food, I was excited to make simple pureés for her — mostly organic, usually seasonal. An early favorite was a combination of plain yogurt and fresh mango that we playfully called “mango-dango.” Throughout this next phase of eating, I spent many happy afternoons steaming and pureéing Asian pears, green peas, Pink Lady apples, even quince. I roasted and mashed eggplant and sweet potatoes. I smashed bananas, strawberries, and peaches as well as red beans, lentils, and boiled edamame. Later, when her pretty little teeth appeared, I steamed green beans, broccoli, and carrots, cut them up, and served them with hummus. I fed her salty bacon and smoked salmon, quinoa and couscous. I topped baked potatoes with pesto, a practice that eventually became mandatory. One happy memory is of my six-month old daughter, to the surprise and delight of my mother-in-law, greedily gobbling up a plateful of steamed asparagus at a favorite restaurant in Michigan. We ordered some extra and she polished that off as well. Even the waitress was impressed.

Mimi has always been a fairly adventurous eater. She will eat almost anything that she sees her parents eat. When she was tiny, the only foods that she refused outright were infant cereals, commercial baby food, and, well, avocados. We all have our culinary quirks.

But that quirkiness works both ways. She has long had a passion for kalamata olives. When she was just over a year old, she shared them for first time with our friend Laura at a dinner party, Laura biting off tiny pieces and feeding them to Mimi as if she were a baby bird. She’s loved them ever since. Even now, I have to hide the olive jar in the fridge or my child will insist upon having an “olive snack.”

Before Mimi was born, I resolved that she would not be a picky eater, as so many children are. I was keenly aware that the odds were against us. I’m not sure when this happened, but at some point in American history, someone decided that children don’t like to eat the same foods as their parents and, moreover, that “adult” food was not even really appropriate for kids. Of course, a whole new market opened up to accommodate this trend: children’s food. These foods are marked by uniformity and infantile product names — “Go-Gurt,” “Captain Crunch,” ”Snackables,” “Spaghetti-O’s.” None of it is any good.

This trend logically expanded into American restaurants. Just try to find one that does not have a separate set of dishes prepared for children. I’m not the first person to point out the fact that the phenomena known as the “Children’s Menu” reinforces the idea that kids need to eat their own special food. The problem is that this food is never particularly special. I suppose it makes some sense to offer smaller portions of food to children, who usually don’t eat very much anyway. However, most children’s menus dumb down food, providing only a handful of blandly predictable items: grilled cheese, hot dogs, pizza, macaroni & cheese, chicken fingers — sometimes a hamburger and always french fries. It’s generally impossible to determine what kind of restaurant you are in by surveying the children’s menu. In the US, I’ve been to Indian restaurants that serve hot-dogs; French restaurants that offer hamburgers; Italian restaurants that feature chicken fingers. (Isn’t it interesting that restaurants in India, France, and Italy seldom have children’s menus? Kids eat what their parents do, just less of it.)

Thus, tastes and habits are created. Presented with an array of “appropriate” foods, kids pick up their forks and they eat. But not adult food. No, thank you. Children always strive to meet our expectations — even when those expectations are impossibly low.

Interestingly, it is possible that food preferences become instilled even earlier than toddlerhood. Some researchers theorize that amniotic fluid — that watery substance that nurtures and protects the aquatic fetus during gestation — changes flavor depending upon what a mother eats. The flavor of breast milk varies similarly. Taste, then, might be developed prenatally, at least initially, and probably long before solid foods are introduced. If true, then children’s food manufacturers have already tailored the tastes of at least one generation of American eaters. It occurs to me that the menus of several major American food chains support this theory. How different are the adult and children’s menus at Applebee’s?

Back when I was pregnant and nursing, I was especially concerned with eating as many different things as I could so that Mimi’s palate would be as varied as possible. I liked to imagine Mimi, tucked away inside of me, wondering what new flavor experience would come next. I made sure to eat a lot of broccoli, hoping to raise a lover of that unfairly maligned vegetable. It seems to have worked. Mimi likes her little trees.

Now that she’s older, Mimi will often ask me what’s for dinner and then, when she finds out what we’re having, she asks a follow-up question: “Do I love that?” Usually, I’m able to assure her that she does love whatever it is that we’re having, but I’m not a fool. I’ll know that eventually, there will be some resistance. At some point, she’s likely to wonder why she eats foods that other kids do not. Worse, she’ll wonder why we never feed her the special foods for kids that so many of her friends get to eat. From a child’s point of view, if there are special foods and menus in stores and restaurants, there must also be special foods and menus at home.

And, usually, there are.

But not at our house, at least not preprocessed “special” foods. We’ve tried to protect Mimi from the tyranny of low expectations. In restaurants, she either shares with us or we request a small plate of something from the regular menu. Decent restaurants will usually cooperate. It’s easier at home. Except when she was very small, she has always eaten what we do. Even her baby meals bore a strong resemblance whatever Jim and I were eating for dinner — softer versions of the family meal. One of the first dishes that we all enjoyed together was Megadarra, a wonderful lentil and rice dish from the Middle East. Topped with yogurt, carmelized onions, and a small salad of cucumbers, tomato, and mint, the dish is complex without being confusing. It is meatless, healthy, delicious, and visually appealing. Minus the salad, it’s a perfect first “real” meal for a small child. There’s nothing to choke on and it can be rendered appropriately mushy with the addition of extra yogurt. The lentils are earthy and the basmati rice and onions, together with the cinnamon and allspice, provide a nice bit of sweetness. I served it to Mimi first without the salad and, later, with the salad on the side so she could gobble up the small pieces with her fingers. Now, she eats the dish exactly as we do and just as happily.

It’s an old standard at our house, one that satisfies both young and old alike.

Megadarra

2 white onions, thinly sliced

1 tbs. butter

3 tbs. olive oil, divided

1 white onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

3/4 cup brown lentils

4 cups water

1/2 cup basmati rice

1 English cucumber, diced

2 tomatoes, seeded and diced

1 cup 2% Greek yogurt

1/2 cup mint leave, roughly chopped

salt & pepper

First, caramelize the onions. In a large frying pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and onions and saute until the onions are soft and brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large Dutch oven, heat remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until soft. Add garlic and continue to saute until fragrant. Add allspice, cinnamon, and cumin. Stir constantly for one minute. Add water and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes until the lentil begin to get soft, stirring occasionally. Add rice and more water (if necessary) to cover). Bring back to a boil and simmer, covered, for another 20 minutes, until the rice is soft and the water has evaporated. Stir only as needed.

Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper, stirring very gently. Serve the lentils in bowl topped with onions, cucumber, tomato, mint, and yogurt.

Radish   Leave a comment

After a brief absence, here’s a small post in honor of Earth Day. My composition students gave presentations for extra credit today. The theme of the class is the Science and Technology of Green Living. All semester we’ve studied photo-voltaic panels, hydrogen fuel cells, horizon scanning, and LEED certification standards. For Earth Day, we decided to step away from science and technology and focus solely on “Green Living.” For a potential 5 points worth of credit (applied to the paper of their choice), they could perform one of the following activities and give a 5 minute presentation explaining the connection between their activity and one of the themes of the course. They could:

  • Cook and eat a “healthy” meal with friends
  • Give up meat for a month (I made the assignment one month ago so they had some time)
  • Grow an edible plant from seeds
  • Go on an environmentally responsible fishing trip
  • Raise livestock in their dorm

That last one was a joke, but someone took me seriously. I wonder how many week-old chickens have seen the inside of this building? Well, now, at least four. By the way, she didn’t literally raise livestock in her dorm; her family has a small farm.

Most of the students who participated cooked a “healthy” meal, although their idea of what is healthy is not exactly the same as mine. A couple of them used meat substitutes to make spaghetti or sloppy-joes. EEEKKK! One student gave up meat but doesn’t think that she will change her diet in the longterm, even though she learned that she could reduce her carbon consumption by 5 tons per year if she continues to go “meatless.”  Her friends think she’s crazy to go without meat for even a month.

When I gave the assignment, Jim worried that my students would present me with 5 tons of radishes since I made the mistake of telling them how easy they are to grow. Alas, that didn’t happen. Only one student succeeded in growing produce from seed. She did bring in some radishes, but only two (and seedlings at that). That’s okay — Mimi and I are growing radishes in our container garden and are looking forward to having a “radish party” when the crop comes in, sometime next month.

Of the students who participated, all will receive the full five points except for the young woman who went fishing, caught a fish, and then let the poor beast die without cleaning or cooking it. Talk about missing the point! I’m tempted to give her zero points, but I suppose I’ll throw one at her for the effort. I’d rather throw the fish.

For my part, I’ve joined a state-wide CSA and will receive my first box of produce on Tuesday. I’m very excited to see what GrowAlabama sends. I’ll cross my fingers for radishes.

Happy Earth Day!

Posted April 22, 2010 by snpulling in Earth Day

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Food & Politics   2 comments

A recent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker explains the French movement known as Le Fooding, which is concerned with wresting French cuisine from its traditional home on the political right and relocating it to a more politically neutral locale. Basically, the movement seeks to de-snobbify French cuisine. Typical of Gopnik, it is an excellent piece of work, the kind of thing that makes me wonder why I’ve let my subscription to the New Yorker lapse. Crazy…

Everything Gopnik writes is ridiculously well-researched, well-written, and insightful, but for me one of the most salient points that he makes in this piece is not about the French, but something he says about Americans (and Brits). To make the point about how difficult it is to draw parallels between French eating habits and political orientation, Gopnik contrasts the French with Americans and Brits. He writes:

In America and England, you are what you think about eating. Tell me where you stand on Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden and (with the exception of a handful of “Crunchy Cons” and another handful of grumpy left-wing nostalgists for whiskey and cigarettes) I can tell what the rest of your politics are. People who are in favor of a new approach to food—even if that approach involves a return to heritage breeds and discarded farming methods—are in favor of a new approach to social life.

When I first read this, I thought he was spot on, but then I started to think of really quite a few people that I know who are exceptions to Gopnik’s generalization: that is, conservatives who are in favor of progressive farming methods and liberals who just don’t care. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms comes to mind as an example of the former. Perhaps he’s one of the “crunchy cons” that Gopnik cites as exceptions to his rule, but I’ve encountered enough folks like Salatin around here to seriously question the assumption that those who are agriculturally progressive are also socially progressive. I’ve made embarrassingly wrong assumptions about enough people based on how they think about food that I’ve learned not to do it anymore. Not all organic farmers love Barack Obama as much as I do.

It’s true that I live in one of the reddest states in the nation — Alabama — so I encounter more than my fair share of conservatives. However, it seems to me that food might be an area of discourse that cuts across political divisions. Or, possibly, this “new approach to food” has become so trendy that is now divorced from its ideological origins. Both liberals and conservatives shop at Whole Foods, don’t they?

The American food movement has done something more than to unearth traditional farming methods and to educate Americans on the dangers of pesticides. It has also introduced us to heritage breeds of turkeys, pigs, and cattle. It has presented us with lacinato kale, bright-lights chard, and broccoli rabe. In short, it has unearthed new (and sometimes old) products and new markets. Now that we know they’re there, we want to eat these delicious, nutritious greens and succulent pork bellies. And we don’t want to be bothered by harmful chemicals or rumors about the unsavory goings-on on the “kill floor.”

It’s worth remembering that stories are powerful marketing tools. They sell products. The American food movement has given us, along with heirloom tomatoes, stories of little old ladies carefully saving their seeds from year to year and passing them down from generation to generation. It’s given us tales of bachelor organic farmers carrying contraband San Marzano tomato seeds back from Sicily in the waistbands of their underwear. Such narratives are compelling, so compelling that we literally buy them.

Of course, that’s not a bad thing … not at all. I just think it’s imporant to understand what’s going on. And, as much as I admire Gopnik, I think he’s wrong — or at least not quite right — to claim that we Americans “are what we think about food.” Maybe we were nine years or so ago, but we aren’t any more. Our eating habits are not necessarily aligned with political orientation. In that way, maybe we’re just a little bit like the French, not something you can often say about Americans.

One claim that does seem to be true, however, is that “we are what we can afford to spend on food.” That is, folks with a bit of discretionary income can afford to eat well — however you want to define that — and they do. Folks who live from hand-to-mouth eat that way. Some Americans simply cannot afford to be interested in “good” food.

Environmentally responsible and nutritionally sensible foods should not be financially prohibitive. They should not be exclusive. However, American agricultural policy does nothing to correct this imbalance. Even under a president who is socially progressive (and married to a person who is passionate about organic food), the farm subsidies that structure food prices still do not go to small-scale farmers. They go large-scale, industrial farmers, farmers who produce large volume crops that wind up being processed into mostly unhealthy products. Until that changes, organic produce — like the produce grown in Mrs. Obama’s much-lauded White House garden — and ethically raised livestock wil be purchased mostly by the privileged few. And there is something seriously wrong with that.

Posted April 3, 2010 by snpulling in Politics

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