Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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The FAQ Series: Salt

We’re starting a new thing over here at Finding Quiet Farm: the FAQ Series. This programming will be based on the most common questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade of teaching cooking classes to thousands of people; hopefully you’ll learn something and improve your own cooking. Let’s kick this show off right with the number-one question I hear: “How can I make my food taste more like restaurant food?”

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The iconic pyramidal crystals of Maldon salt, harvested off the coast of England.

Pose this question to any professional chef, and the answer will be the same: learn how to use salt properly. (Just to quell the suspense, the second most popular question is “What sort of salt should I use?”)

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I don’t find it at all unreasonable that I have more than ten varieties of salt in my kitchen…except I only use two. You don’t need this many.

Learning how to season food properly – and specifically, how to use salt – is what separates mediocre cooks from amazing cooks. Whether in a restaurant or at home, salt is far and away the single most important component after the raw ingredients themselves – you can get by without almost anything else, but nothing (savory, at least) tastes good unless it’s been properly salted. And most sweet things need a little salt too, for balance. (Looking at you, salted caramel.)

Salt is the only rock we eat, and it’s vital to our health. It’s been prized for thousands of years throughout the world; Roman soldiers used to be paid their monthly wages in salt, hence our word salary. Salad, too, originates from salt since the Romans salted their greens. The Bible carries dozens of references, including salt of the earth and pillar of salt. Someone without esteem is not worth their salt. Simply put, it’s essential to our survival.

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The salt flats in Bonaire.

Salt is actually composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride. It’s produced either through mining deep deposits in the earth, or through solar evaporation. Most standard table salt is heavily processed and includes both added iodine (as a public health measure) and anti-caking agents to keep it free-flowing. Sea salt is, as you might expect, evaporated from seawater; fleur de sel is the crunchy, delicate top layer of sea salt and is typically used as a finishing salt. There are no health benefits to sea salt, despite a marketing campaign designed to make you think otherwise, but chefs don’t like the intensely chemical taste of iodized salt. We also use so much of it that we can’t spend our entire budget on fancy sea salts. We love coarse kosher salt.

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So 11 ounces is less than 48 ounces but the bottle costs $12.95 and the box costs $2.99? I sense a swindle.

The term kosher just means that the crystals are larger and therefore more effective in drawing blood out of meat after it’s been slaughtered, in keeping with kosher tradition. Chefs love it because we use our fingertips to pick it up; most of us have those measurements so carefully calibrated that we’re more accurate than a set of teaspoons. All you need in your kitchen is a box of coarse kosher salt, poured into a small dish and set near the stove, plus a finishing salt like Maldon, whose large pyramidal crystals offer a satisfying crunch and burst of flavor when used properly on top of caramels or fresh ricotta with peaches on crostini or a beautifully seared steak. Don’t ever waste your finishing salt in pasta water or in baking recipes, and don’t ever pay $12.95 for the branded bottle on the left when the box on the right is the exact same thing, contains more than four times as much and costs $2.99.

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It’s the only rock we eat…and it’s gorgeous. And delicious. And necessary.

Like our newfound obsession with the mysterious gluten, however, we’ve gotten our relationship with salt all wrong. The American Heart Association and other major medical organizations have shouted for years that Americans consume way too much salt and that it is a leading cause of high blood pressure, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. The Mayo Clinic claims the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, while the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams or less.

We avoid using salt the few times we do cook at home – that’s the salt we can control – because we’re so scared of it, and as a result our food is bland and tasteless. So we go out, or buy premade foods, because they taste better. Unfortunately, we get the vast majority of our salt (and our sugar) from these processed foods, including the ones we don’t even think about: sliced bread. Salad dressing. Bottled spaghetti sauce. Pastries. And obviously, any fast food will be loaded with salt. A single Egg McMuffin contains over 700 milligrams of salt – good luck staying under that 1,500 milligram mark if you eat fast food. Salt is a flavor enhancer, but more importantly for the processed food industry, it’s a preservative.

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I’ve taught numerous cooking classes where I’ve added salt to a dish and acknowledged gasps of horror at the quantity I’m using. Please, trust me on this: if you are eating most of your meals at home, cooked from fresh, healthy, whole foods and not from boxes and packets, and if you avoid processed foods like bottled salad dressings, take-out pizza, commercial lunch meats and cheap sliced sandwich bread, you don’t need to worry about adding salt when you cook. You’re already way ahead of the game.

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You only need two salts: one for finishing, on the left, and one for everything else, on the right. Oh, and read that book.

How can you become more proficient about using salt? Taste your food. Taste it before you add salt, and after. Slice a fresh summer tomato and eat it without any salt. Now take another slice, sprinkle it with crunchy Maldon, and taste it again. Cut a steak in half, and cook it exactly the same, but use salt on one portion and not on the other. Your pasta water should taste like the sea, according to Italian grandmothers everywhere, and you should never cook beans or rice or vegetables or grains in unsalted water. Seasoning should be done in layers, as you build a dish, rather than just dumping a bunch of salt on at the end. Taste and taste again. Salt should never make food taste salty, it should make food taste more like itself; it’s designed to enhance food, not to overwhelm it. Restaurant food tastes delicious – and ideally not salty – because those amounts are carefully calibrated.  And because chefs have spent years learning how to season.

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Learning to cook well at home is a process, as I’ve mentioned many times. And learning to season is part of that process, just like learning your own palate. Remember those famous words: “salt to taste.” So go get a box of kosher salt, and start using it. With your fingertips, please.

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Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.

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Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

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It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

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Four FishPaul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat RacketChristopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

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Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin

 

Interlude: Indian book club

(Forgive our extended absence, friends; we’re in rural India and Internet access is sporadic at best, and we need a really strong connection to upload photos. How about a suggested reading list to keep you busy until we return?)

Prior to a five-month trip, some people might well worry about how many pairs of shoes they can bring, or whether their hairdryer will fit in their backpack. Me? I stress about books.

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I am aware, dear reader, that there apparently exist magical devices powered entirely by witchcraft that allow one to carry dozens – nay, thousands! – of books on a tiny little computer. I, however, am an avowed Luddite and therefore refuse to succumb to the temptation of this modern silliness. I like books. Actual books. I like paper and covers and words printed on a page and I find e-readers inordinately difficult to, well, read. And I love reading so much that I don’t want anything to detract from my enjoyment. Plus, traveling in underdeveloped countries means on-demand electricity isn’t always a given, so what am I supposed to read once my e-reader fails? At least I have a battery-powered flashlight with which to read my paper books. And a lighter after that, although it’s admittedly a bit risky.

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So, I pack books. Lots of books…like ten, which takes up a seriously ridiculous amount of space in my backpack. And I pack with the expectation that those ten will maybe set me up for the first couple of months of travel but I’ll certainly be able to swap books out along the way…if in fact there is anyone else in the world who still reads books on paper. When we traveled New Zealand by campervan, I was thrilled to find that almost every campground we visited had a great book swap.

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This photo was taken in a used book store in Phnom Penh and not in our house, although the quantity isn’t far off. Also I haven’t labeled the shelves…yet.

In preparation for the trip, I scoured the hundreds of books I have at home to find some that were in some way relevant to where we’d be traveling. I read mainly modern fiction, but am pretty open-minded in my literary tastes and will read just about anything that crosses my path. I grabbed a couple on Japan, couldn’t find anything set in New Zealand, struggled with southeast Asia, and hit the mother lode with India. India-themed fiction has become quite popular in the past twenty years or so, and I already owned a good sampling.

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Without further ado and in no particular order, brief reviews of the selections chosen for my ongoing one-member Indian book club!

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

This book had been recommended to me repeatedly for years, and though it’s been on my bookshelf for some time I never got around to reading it. I grabbed it for this trip and am so glad I did. Shantaram is lengthy and twisty and convoluted and involves about ten thousand different characters, and yet the story grabs your heart and won’t let go. Bombay (now Mumbai) is its own vivid character in this book, and although Shantaram‘s claim as an accurate autobiography (is there such a thing?) has been repeatedly disputed, it absolutely holds up as a novel. I’m still thinking about this one months later, especially since we visited some of the book’s key locales while in Mumbai.

What Young India Wants, Chetan Bhagat

An unexpected find at a book exchange at our Mumbai hotel and by far the best book I read on India while in India. This book is intentionally simplistic: it’s a collection of very short non-fiction pieces by an Indian author who is essentially begging the youth of India to stand up and care about their country. India is without question the most complicated, difficult place I’ve ever traveled, and I’ll admit that I was often infuriated here. This book helped me to understand some of the country’s issues better, and I can only hope that young Indians are paying attention.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Tarquin Hall

Light, fluffy Indian detective fiction, in the vein of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. This is gentle social satire and although perhaps not particularly insightful, it gives a good feel for the scents, sights and – most importantly – the unrelenting heat of Delhi.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

There is nothing light and fluffy about this book. It is a stunning debut novel that took the author four years to finish, and it’s dense, layered, challenging and brutal. It won the Booker Prize…in my opinion, that committee loves books like this. Not an easy read; this one is firmly in the difficult-but-beautiful category.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Also a Booker Prize winner. I read this towards the end of our first week in India on a lengthy bus/train trip between Darjeeling and Varanasi, deep in the throes of severe culture shock. While the book’s first-person depiction of the sordid underbelly of India’s servant-to-master relationship intrigued me, I couldn’t get past the infuriating, hopeless, complicated frustrations of the country – mostly because we were experiencing them in real life one after another. And that was because I hadn’t yet learned how to see India for India, rather than what I expected India to be. I suspect if I read this book again, I’ll have a different opinion.

The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar

This is the story of two Indian women: a middle-class Parsi in an abusive marriage and her servant, who lives in a slum. At its heart, it’s a tale of class and status and the roles we’re born into, but it’s also about how women are treated as disposable property in much of the world (most definitely in India). I should have loved it, honestly, but it left me completely cold. I didn’t care about the characters and found the overwrought writing tedious. This book definitely didn’t represent the color and warmth of India for me.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

In the U.S., at least, Rushdie is most famous for his controversial 1988 book The Satanic Verses and for introducing Americans to the concept of fatwa, which in his case was a Khomeini-issued death sentence that earned him British police protection after numerous failed assassination attempts. Midnight’s Children was released in 1981 and won Best of the Booker twice, which is pretty remarkable. Like all Booker Prize winners I’ve read (see above – maybe the committee really likes books set in India?), this one is complex and messy and confusing – like India itself – and just a huge, broad tale of a man and his beloved country. Midnight’s Children is considered magical realism, and Rushdie’s writing style took a bit for me to get into – I had to work at this one more than I usually do when reading. (It would help greatly to have a working knowledge of Indian history since Partition to assist in reading this book; I didn’t and it was more difficult because of that.) Ultimately, a complicated love letter to a complicated country.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Not Indian-themed, obviously, but I’ve read it numerous times and have taken – and given away – copies on all of my big trips. If you’re reading this in an airport or other public venue, I can almost guarantee you’ll be approached by someone who wants to discuss it, which has happened to me on more than one occasion. Really, there isn’t anything else to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. It is a love-it-or-hate-it manifesto and it’s about a thousand pages. Please don’t cheat and watch the film.

On the to-read list for when we return: The Things They Carried and A Rumor of War. I’ve realized how little I know about the Vietnam War, and visiting Vietnam has made me exceptionally curious to learn more.

Have any book recommendations? I would love to hear them, so please share!

P.S. If you’re an avid reader (and live in the U.S. – sorry) and you’re not a member of this site? Get there now.