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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How to recognize a superfood

Now that we potentially all have attention spans less than that of a goldfish – can’t believe you’re still reading this! – it is apparently more important than ever that we distill information down into small, digestible bits. One way we do this is by labeling everything, especially food. This is so we can recognize it, so we can boast about it, so we can post a photo of it, so we can pay more for it. So we can say, Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just eating my superfood salad over here. Goji berries, acai, spirulina, wheatgrass…the list of trendy branded superfoods goes on and on.

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Purple foods are rich in anthocyanins, a specific type of antioxidant.

Western society, particularly America, has some serious food issues. We are collectively overfed and undernourished. We all know that obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases are on the rise, and yet still we consume on average more than twice the calories we need in a day. We’re overwhelmed by choice and information and the constant barrage of marketing thrown at us every second. We’re no longer able to think for ourselves.

“We are a society obsessed with the potential harmful effects of eating, according to the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, renowned for his theories on the role that fear and disgust play in modern food culture. Overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of foods in our groceries, and flooded with competing health claims, we can’t help but make instinctive food-purchase decisions, subject to the whims of the latest trends and health scares. No wonder that, when confronted with ambiguities in health-based marketing claims, we fill in the gaps with inaccurate inferences, as the Cornell University economist Brian Wansink found in a 2006 study. Food companies bragging about supposed health benefits, such as low calorie count or low cholesterol, create what the influential study dubbed a “health halo,” a vague but positive glow that temporarily relieves our food-centered anxieties—at least long enough to get through checkout.”

-Michael Fitzgerald, Pacific Standard, May 26, 2017

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Cooking in cast iron

In my holiday-themed classes, I talk about how I’d rather have two or three really stellar, delicious dishes at a meal than an extensive buffet of mediocrity. I feel the same way about cookware and knives: that is, I’d rather have a few sturdy, durable pieces that perform perfectly and can take a beating, rather than dozens of cheap, flimsy pans or knives that bend, warp, break or just plain fail. Cooking well isn’t only about starting with the best ingredients, but having the tools (and the skills) to turn those ingredients into something remarkable.

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See how well-loved they are? I use mine every single day.

I love classic cast iron cookware. I love its heft, its lived-in appearance, its ability to retain heat. I love that it can be passed down through generations, and it only gets better. I love that it’s not shiny, not new, not a throwaway item. I love that it looks like something I should be using over a rickety camp stove to make a fry-up for hungry cowboys out on a cattle drive. I love that there is something of quality still manufactured in the United States. I love that cast iron asks you to cook well and simply and honestly.

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You can roast peppers to smoky, tender perfection!

Cast iron cookware has been in use around the world for over two thousand years, and there’s a reason for that: nothing retains heat better while still holding its form. Before we became such a disposable society, cookware like this was valued for its durability and its effectiveness, especially when slow simmering tough cuts of meat. Cast iron goes from stove to oven, and it can be used to make anything: flavorful stews, crispy yet tender cornbread, smoky, filling beans. And nothing – I mean nothing – sears a steak like cast iron. Ask any cowboy.

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You can create the most amazing garlic confit!

In the first half of the 20th century, cast iron cookware was ubiquitous in America. Then – coincidentally, right about the time we started turning to processed “convenience” foods – cast iron fell out of favor. It was too heavy. Too unwieldy. Impractical for TV dinners. Not suitable for microwaving soup. Couldn’t be put in the dishwasher. And so, most of the American companies went out of business. Today, Lodge is the only major manufacturer in the U.S., although a couple of smaller, “artisan” brands like Finex have appeared recently.

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You can make one-pan meals!

I got rid of my grandmother’s cast iron pans at a garage sale years ago. Freshly minted from an uppity French culinary school, I thought cast iron was too down home, too low-class, too American for my lofty European cooking skills. What misplaced arrogance; to this day, I regret selling those pans. Thankfully, N found a ten-inch skillet for me at a church rummage sale, and I picked up my comal, a flat, round griddle traditionally used for making fresh tortillas, at a thrift store. My other two are classic Lodge, a Dutch oven and a grill pan. They’re all pieces I love cooking with.

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You can put a little char on your tomatoes!

If you have any cast iron, take good care of it and it will take care of you for decades. Once it’s seasoned, meaning that you’ve basically created a nonstick surface through a combination of cooking fat and heat, never, ever use soap or any other chemical cleaner on it. Don’t immerse it in water, either. I typically just wipe my pans with a dry paper towel, if necessary, but if you’ve got stuck-on bits, you can heat the pan with a bit of water until they loosen, then scrape them out with a spatula. Really tough messes can be tackled with coarse kosher salt and a scouring pad. You can’t scratch them, can’t break them, don’t have to use any fancy utensils. They are indispensable workhorses.

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And the most essential thing you can cook in your cast iron Dutch oven…

Cast iron’s greatest advantage, of course, is also its greatest downfall: their weight means they retain heat beautifully, so they get hot and stay hot, and they’re heavy. Treat them carefully and respectfully. Use both hands when lifting; never try to “one-hand” a cast iron pan. When you remove the pan from the oven and set it back on the stove or other protected surface, do as restaurant chefs do and make sure you leave your kitchen towels on the pan to remind everyone (including you) that it’s hot. Large pans that have been heating for a while may take a couple of hours to cool down, so have a safe place to put them where no one will burn themselves. Don’t leave water in the pan, either, as they can rust, though if you find an unloved, rusty specimen, you can always remove the rust with salt and reseason the pan.

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…is quite simply the best bread you’ll ever taste.

Want to build your own cast iron collection? Start here, and thanks for buying American. Their stuff is top-notch and remarkably well-priced. Visit thrift stores and garage sales and flea markets (maybe you’ll find my grandmother’s pans?) but stay away from anything called an “antique store.” Little-known fact: antique is actually French for “overpriced stuff bought cheaply in a thrift store and aggressively marked up.” Cast iron’s resurgent popularity in recent years means anything even vaguely vintage can cost a fortune.

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And while we’re on the topic of the French and expensive things, this stuff is cast iron too, but with an enamel coating. It’s gorgeous, comes in an array of coordinating colors so the kitchen at your Provencal château can match the Parisian pied-a-terre and it’s priced for really rich people. Tread carefully with these: they’re beautiful and colorful, but you can scratch that enamel without too much effort, and not all of the knobs and handles are designed for high heat. These definitely require a bit more attention, and a lot more money.

Go cook, friends. And save me some cornbread.

 

Things that are great!

Friends, let’s start this week with an optimistic post (for once). How about a quick round-up of things that are great right now?

 

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A small family farm in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The Washington Post reports that a growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm:

“For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.”

Granted, the movement is small, but it is in fact a movement. And it’s moving in the right direction. There are numerous barriers, to be certain, but this is progress.

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How can you not love this munchkin?

Not only are young people going back to the land, but more women are making more incredible cheese than ever. Led by such trailblazing pioneers as Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery and Mary Keehn from Cypress Grove, handcrafted cheese in this country – primarily made from goat milk, but sheep and cow, too – is truly enjoying its second wave:

“A commonly cited fantasy Plan B among urban paper-pushing professionals, the artisanal-cheese business has surged in recent years, with more than 900 specialty cheese makers in the United States, according to the American Cheese Society, a nonprofit trade organization in Denver. The A.C.S. does not keep data on gender, said its executive director, Nora Weiser, but compared with the bro-centric field of craft beer, where female brewers have struggled to get respect and recognition despite significant contributions, cheese making is a relative haven.”

While “American cheese” has long been a joke in the rest of the world, it is definitely no longer a joke – it’s remarkable. And delicious. Go buy some.

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Greenhouse tomatoes in Japan.

In other positive news, vertical farming is finally coming into its own, pushed by high-dollar investments from people like Jeff Bezos, who clearly know a thing or two about running a business. Vertical farming is exactly what it sounds like: growing food in towers, with carefully controlled irrigation, lighting and temperature systems. While farmland continues to be gobbled up at staggering rates, vertical farming, which has been trialed successfully in repurposed shipping containers and other unusual places, might provide a local food alternative, especially in densely populated urban areas. There is still a lot of work to be done, but innovative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs are constantly revamping traditional farming rules. And we will need this sort of innovation, as both global temperature and global population climbs ever higher.

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I’m not putting a picture of soda on this blog. Drink water. (This is Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.)

And for our final Great Thing today, how about this: soda consumption in the United States has dropped again, for the twelfth consecutive year. This statistic is proof that anti-sugar publicity campaigns and soda taxes are working, at least in some areas. While we’re still drinking about forty gallons per person, per year on average (!!!), those numbers are trending down. And that is definitely a Great Thing.

 

 

 

Enough

Back in the Ye Olden Days, N and I worked on boats. One of these boats – the one we met on – was a scuba diving liveaboard that plied the waters between St. Maarten and St. Kitts, in the Netherlands Antilles. Much of our history together, along with thousands of other people, was erased earlier this year with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The island we knew so well doesn’t exist any longer.

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Every year, they promise the PERFECT Thanksgiving. And every year, we buy it.

On this particular dive boat, there were as many as eighteen guests and eight crew. I cooked, and N guided dives. And because provisioning in the Caribbean is never easy, the weekly menu was set by the home office, and it was the same, week in and week out. We had Taco Night, and a barbecue, and because most of our guests were American, every Thursday was a full Thanksgiving spread. Because – trust me – there is nothing you want to eat more in the middle of a humid Caribbean July than the heaviest meal known to man. Every. Single. Thursday.

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We’re so rich in this country that we will give you a free turkey!

I’ve cooked well more than fifty full Thanksgiving meals in my time on this planet thus far, and I’d like to state here and now that I am done. Unsurprisingly, N cannot stand the meal either. I’ve talked about this before in my classes – how much I really, really loathe this season – but this year, it’s worse than ever. I simply cannot embrace the excess. The waste. The sheer, utter, obscene overconsumption just for the sake of pointless tradition.

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Over two hundred million pounds of food will be thrown away on or shortly after Thanksgiving. The USDA conservatively estimates that over one-third of all turkeys raised for this one day will be thrown out, uneaten. These animals lived a horrible life and died for nothing. This is the season both for abundance and for waste, when we’re both begged to donate to hundreds of needy charities yet told at every turn that we need to buy more, eat more, consume more. I can no longer support America’s most gluttonous holiday: we’re the only country in the world that celebrates Thanksgiving, and we do so with such little regard for the shocking overconsumption that we promote to the rest of the world. And then there’s the day after Thanksgiving.

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Because nothing says “giving thanks” like buying a bolt-action rifle on Black Friday.

A holiday devoted to proudly eating oneself into a “turkey coma,” followed by camping out so we can buy ever-larger televisions or the latest iPhone? Or a new gun? What is there to celebrate, honestly? While this holiday may have actually originated as a rightful celebration of having enough, now it’s about having more. More of everything. More food, specifically the dishes we just “have to have at the table.” You know, Aunt Mildred’s casserole that everyone secretly hates but it’s tradition. And so it sits there, congealing, and is quietly thrown out at the end of the evening because no one, no one wants to take it home. Or the two meat main courses, because everyone really needs both ham and turkey. And everyone really needs eight different side dishes. And everyone really needs three desserts. And everyone really needs to throw all this excess food away on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving because, quite frankly, everyone is f*ing tired of looking at it.

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How about this year, we declare it enough. We have enough. Enough food. Enough electronics. Enough guns. Enough unused things in our house collecting dust. How about this year we agree to eat less, to buy less, to not feel sick at ten o’clock at night while we’re camping out at Bed Bath & Beyond. How about this year, we don’t worry about what do with all those leftovers because we just cooked enough. How about this year, we just decide that what we have is enough. And how about we leave it at that.

On bread (and gluten)

It is not hyperbole to state that wheat is the reason human civilization exists today. As always, Michael Pollan says it best:

“Compared with earlier and simpler methods humans have devised for turning plants and animals into foods – the roasted chunk of meat, say, or pot of stew, either of which an individual or small group can pull off – a loaf of bread implies a whole civilization. It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant and even microbial labor. In addition to an agriculture and a culture of milling and baking, the loaf of bread depends on a nonhuman culture as well: it won’t rise without the active contribution of some highly specialized living creatures besides the baker, the miller and the farmer. Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.”

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Nom nom nom.

That last sentence says it all: it’s ordinary, it’s extraordinary, and it’s a mystery, even when you do it every day. Is it any wonder people refer to baking bread as a religion?

It’s impossible to put into words how much I love good bread. I’d much rather eat bread than just about any dessert. With olive oil, with cheese, perhaps homemade jam or backyard honey, a thick smear of salted butter or just on its own, well-made bread is one of life’s great edible pleasures. Like Mr. Pollan, I particularly adore rustic breads with rugged, crunchy crusts that are thisclose to burned and conceal a “soft, custardy interior.” Many people don’t like this type of bread; they think the outside is cooked too much while the inside isn’t cooked enough. But as we know, one of the many magical pleasures of cooking at home is that you get to make things exactly the way you like them.

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My namesake grandmother’s bread bowl and one of my most treasured possessions.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, when I was stressed and overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done, I wrote a short post about baking bread. I honestly think it’s one of life’s most cathartic activities, and when you’re done with your cheap therapy you’re rewarded with a loaf of homemade bread. What I’m trying to understand nowadays is why we’ve so wholeheartedly rejected a truly time-honored and pleasurable task. It seems unreasonable to mourn bread when there are so many other things to mourn in the world right now, yet over the past decade, very few foods have been as maligned as the humble loaf of bread. More accurately, it’s rare that we collectively have found something to vilify on the scale that we’ve vilified wheat.

Humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years. Wheat represents one-fifth of all the food consumed worldwide, and it’s also the world’s most important source of non-animal protein. Its production surpasses every other grain, including rice and maize, and it can be grown almost everywhere on the planet. Human civilization as we know it would not exist without wheat and all the agricultural settlement that goes along with its production, processing, storage and conversion into digestible foodstuffs.

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Wheat fields in India.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat as well as other grasses such as rye, triticale and barley. Gluten is one of the primary factors responsible for that amazing chew we get in pizza crusts and breads; softer baked goods, like flaky pie crusts and tender cakes, don’t perform well with high-gluten flours. The type of wheat, i.e. soft spring or hard red winter, determines the amount of gluten in the final flour.

Despite its importance, about 20% of the U.S. avoids gluten; numbers are increasing in the UK, Australia and other Western countries as well. Chefs and other food and nutrition professionals have questioned (both covertly and openly) why everyone has suddenly gone gluten-free. A very small percentage of the population – less than 1%, depending on which sources you choose to believe – has celiac disease, which makes digesting gluten difficult. But it is scientifically impossible for one-fifth of the Western world to suddenly, collectively develop the same allergy or intolerance. It simply can’t happen.

What can happen is for everyone to decide that a gluten-free diet is somehow healthier and – by extension – will help one lose weight with very little effort. People who go gluten-free say they feel better, and that may well be true. If you legitimately feel better eating a gluten-free diet, then by all means, please carry on. But I’d unscientifically attribute “feeling better” to avoiding processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and generally being more conscious of your diet, although a gluten-free doughnut is, ultimately, still a doughnut. “Gluten-free” also means profit; sales of gluten-free foods have increased nearly 70% over the past four years, which translates to billions of dollars. The vast majority of gluten-free devotees are middle- to upper-class white women, and savvy food manufacturers know well that there is an enormous amount of money to be made from this market.

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Chocolate stout cake. Yes, please.

Why have we all decided that gluten is making us sick? Some sources believe that GMOs are responsible, although there is no commercially available GMO wheat. (There are, however, escaped volunteer plants in Washington.) Many say it’s because we’ve hybridized our wheat, though we hybridize a lot of plants. And still others claim that it’s because we grind all of the nutrition out of the wheat to produce white flour, which travels better, stays fresher longer and produces the light, fluffy taste and texture that most people prefer. Once the bran and germ are removed and the flour is enriched, they say, we struggle to digest it.

If I had to choose, I’d fall firmly into the third camp, but I simply refuse to acknowledge that good bread is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Western world’s catastrophic increase in diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. Bread isn’t the problem; our entire industrialized, inhumane, chemically-drenched food system is the problem. As usual, though, we’ve chosen one villain to attack because to address the actual issue would be tantamount to admitting that our shockingly profitable agricultural fiefdom – based on cheap corn, soy, and animal protein – isn’t working. We somehow selected gluten, an ingredient most people can’t actually define, and decided that it was to blame for all of our health issues. Plain and simple: I disagree.

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Every single culture in the world has some form of bread.

Ever wondered about what is actually in Wonder Bread? I’ve conveniently assembled the ingredient list here for your consideration: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: calcium carbonate, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide, enzymes, ascorbic acid), vinegar, monocalcium phosphate, yeast extract, modified corn starch, sucrose, sugar, soy lecithin, cholecalciferol (vitamin d3), soy flour, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate (to retard spoilage).

Do you even know what most of these words mean? Can you buy those ingredients (separately) in your local grocery store to assemble your own homemade version of Wonder Bread? The simplest bread made at home contains four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. No commercial yeast, even, if you’re using a wild starter. Review that ingredient list above once more. I don’t deny that we’re pretty sick, but we cannot logically blame gluten.

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

 

Dinner at a gurudwara

We’ve had a number of remarkable experiences in India, but one of our favorites so far has been the evening we spent at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a massive Sikh temple complex in Delhi.

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Male Sikhs are most recognizable by their distinctive turbans.

A gurudwara (or sometimes gurdwara) is a place of worship for Sikhs; the word literally translates as “door to the guru.” Sikhism is a fascinating religion; it’s one of the youngest major religions and has about 28 million adherents worldwide. It originated in India in the 15th century and broke from Hinduism primarily due to its rejection of the caste system.

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The gurudwara in Delhi sees a constant stream of visitors.

As we’ve mentioned, India is an intense place, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed rather quickly here. When your tour guide casually mentions that he’s taking you to dinner at a place that serves fifteen to twenty thousand meals a day, it doesn’t really engender a lot of confidence that the meal will be peaceful or calm. Yet that was exactly how the evening turned out.

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Making chapatis for the communal meal.

Everyone is welcome at a Sikh temple, whether or not you adhere to a specific belief system. All gurudwaras in the world have a langar hall, where vegetarian meals are served free of charge to anyone, sometimes twenty-four hours a day. No money ever changes hands, but it is understood that visitors to a gurudwara will participate in “selfless service” in exchange for their meal, which may mean assisting with cooking, cleaning, serving or any other necessary tasks.

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Chapati dough waiting to be rolled.

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Cooking chapatis on the griddle.

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The Sikh gentleman on the left is supervising the cooking of the chapatis.

For our service, we sat down on the floor to roll out hundreds of chapatis, unleavened wheat flatbreads. It was a lovely experience to join the people already in the kitchen; though we don’t speak Hindi, no explanations were necessary. It was simple enough just to watch what others were doing and follow along.

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Rather a lot of food is produced in this kitchen.

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Vats of delicious dal bubbling away.

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Bags of flour and rice in the temple’s pantry.

In addition to volunteering at the temple, most guests also provide an offering of food to the temple’s pantry. Fifty-pound bags of flour and rice line the walls, along with vegetables, lentils and anything else that can be used in the preparation of thousands of daily meals. All the food is strictly vegetarian, and nothing goes to waste.

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Cleaning the langar between meal shifts.

Around five hundred people eat in shifts in the langar hall; everyone sits on the floor. Guests queue outside in an orderly manner; in a country where patiently waiting in line doesn’t really happen, we were amazed at how smooth and orderly the process was.

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Seating the next round of guests in the hall.

As we filed in, we were given metal trays and shown where to sit. Our guide cautioned us against wasting any food; although you’re welcome to eat as much as you’d like, it is considered hugely disrespectful to take more than you will eat. We enjoyed dal, or spiced lentils, plus a vegetable curry, rice and of course our extremely well-made chapatis.

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Volunteers beginning the meal service.

Because there are always more people waiting to eat, everyone basically starts and finishes around the same time, then the hall is cleaned and readied for the next group. The efficiency and elegance of the entire evening was spectacular. The best part was looking around and knowing that the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between were sitting on the floor together, eating the same food. Truly a highlight of our visit to India.

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Regardless of gender, everyone is required to cover their heads in the temple. Scarves are provided in case you forgot yours.

After the meal, guests leave the hall, wash their hands and feet (as with most temples, shoes are left at the door) and enter the main temple for worship, chanting and fellowship.

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The temple also has a gorgeous reflecting pool.

One of the most interesting parts of our visit happened afterwards, when we were readying to leave. Our group was approached by a young woman with a small child who begged us for money – a very common occurrence in India, particularly for Western tourists. A Sikh immediately saw this and politely but firmly put a stop to it. Our guide explained that since everything is given for free at the temple – food, water, even a safe place to sleep, if necessary – they do not permit any begging on their grounds. This is extremely unusual in India.

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Sikh temples can be found all over the world, and a quick Google search will find one near you. If you have the opportunity, please visit your local gurudwara and spend a bit of time making delicious food in the kitchen, then sit down to enjoy it with friends and strangers alike. It is an experience not to be missed!

Food for thought

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Octopus skewers, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Food – ingredients, preparation, presentation – is something I think about far more than the average person. As I’ve mentioned, at home we almost never eat out, both because I love to cook and because I’m often testing recipes or preparing for a class, so I tend to have an excess of food on hand at any given moment. Food obviously plays a huge role in travel, too, and for me that’s both positive and negative. I love tasting unfamiliar ingredients and trying to appreciate a place through its food culture, but the reality is that more often than not restaurant food is disappointing and overpriced – especially when you’re traveling in heavily touristed areas. I know how much I’m overpaying for it and I hate that feeling of being cheated – paying $75 or more for a “nice” meal, only to leave with a bitter taste. It’s tough, though, especially in a country like Japan where everyday communication is delicate at best and a mess of unforeseen land mines at worst, to know where the locals eat. My answer to that, invariably, is “at home.”

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Prepared food counter, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Other people travel and visit art museums and temples and things. I travel and visit minimarkets and grocery stores, because I think few places tell a country’s story better than where the locals shop for food. I was looking forward to Japan for many reasons, but the food was high on the list. We have a superficial impression of Japanese food in the U.S. – primarily sushi, of course, then perhaps tempura or soba or various tofu dishes. I’m interested not in what people eat when they go out to celebrate a special occasion (do we all eat at The Capital Grille every night? I think not), but what they grab from the store at 5:30 on a Tuesday night after a long day at work.

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Soba noodles with shrimp tempura, Arashiyama.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been really surprised by Japanese food culture, at least what little I’ve seen of it. First and foremost, sugary drinks take a lot of rightful blame as a major source of excess calories in the American diet; we’re now seeing “soda taxes” and other measures designed to curb consumption and hopefully reduce our obesity and diabetes rates. But Japan, which I think many people perceive as one of the healthiest countries in the world (see The Blue Zones) is absolutely covered with drink vending machines. They are everywhere. There are apparently more than 5.5 million machines in this tiny country, while the U.S. has just under 7 million for nearly three times the population and a lot more landmass. While the machines do contain bottled water, they also contain sugared coffee drinks (cold and hot – and that is a miracle in the middle of this damp, frigid winter), sports drinks (the awkwardly-named Pocari Sweat is my favorite), and plenty of other sugary beverages. Clearly, the machines are worth the real estate – so why aren’t the Japanese plunging into a sugar-related health crisis like we are?

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Fried snacks, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

I’ve also been surprised at the amount of refined grains, but that may be because I’m so focused on teaching whole grains at home. Obviously plain white rice is a staple served with every meal; we’re currently on a farm stay and the rice steamer is kept filled with fresh, hot rice for eating at any time of day. But the buns, pastries and breads are all soft, white and sweet – the bread available for our morning toast here is like that super-cheap, super-thick “Texas Toast” we used for French toast as kids. I watched the nine-year-old son eat four pieces slathered with fake butter and jam for his breakfast this morning, and he’s thin as a whippet. So again, I’m observing very high consumption of refined grains – which the body essentially converts to sugar – and yet not observing the expected results.

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One of N’s recent lunches, and the only time yet I’ve seen raw vegetables such as lettuce and tomato.

Meals for us have primarily been inexpensive, filling and warming – plenty of ramen, of course, plus other noodle soup variations, but also curry rice and simple “lunch sets,” which usually include miso soup, various pickles and a main such as chicken and rice (photo above). These too have surprised me with the overall lack of vegetables. While there might be a few small dishes of pickled or fermented vegetables, we’ve only once had any served raw – a fresh carrot and daikon salad here at the farm, with a delicious creamy, tangy dressing. There are never any vegetables in the soups or with the meat and rice, certainly nothing like what we’d think of as traditional stir-fry. That said, the Japanese tend to cook more seasonally than we do, and I suspect we’d see a greater variety of raw vegetables during warmer months than in the middle of bleakest winter.

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Pickled vegetable selection, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

In stores, it’s package after package after package. From a thousand varieties of crunchy salty snacks to pre-made sandwiches to “Hot Pockets” to sushi and sashimi, I’ve noticed very little in the way of fresh ingredients designed for preparing meals at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nowhere to be seen and crazily expensive when found; I bought an apple in downtown Kyoto – one apple – for about $2.50. We’ve walked by a couple of small fruit and veg stands, but literally nothing that would rival your most basic American grocery store produce department with its stunning array of gloriously arranged, perfectly shiny, identically sized out-of-season fruits and vegetables. And yet the farm we’re currently staying on has acres of fruit trees and thousands of apples in cold storage right now, so where are they all going?

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The oddest dessert I’ve ever eaten…jellied fruit and red beans with clear gelatinous cubes underneath. Algae? Gelatin? Space-age packing material? Also it came with what I thought was a sauce and may have actually been hand sanitizer. Not dead yet.

So after nearly two weeks of eating and travelling in Japan, I’m left with a mess of contradictions. The diet appears, at least on the surface, to be as unhealthy as ours in the U.S. And yet the people here, at least from my extremely limited research, don’t seem to be plagued by the same health crises. What can we learn from this?

(P.S. Please know that these observations are only based on a few days here in Japan and are in no way intended to represent some sort of serious large-scale sociological study. If anyone has spent time in Japan and has additional insight to share about the food culture, I’d love to hear it!)

Minimart Challenge: Japan

So I have THE MOST AMAZING IDEA for a competitive cooking show and it goes a little something like this: cheftestants (yes, I hate that word too) are dropped into a random minimart in a random country and they have a specified amount of time and money to spend in said minimart. After they have made their selections, they are whisked away to an Airbnb where they’re obligated to craft their minimart purchases into something delicious. The challenge, of course, is that the Airbnb kitchen will most definitely NOT be stocked with the high-end equipment they’re accustomed to in their shiny professional kitchens. Instead, it will contain the oddest assortment of dull knives, thrift-store cookware and mismatched plates and cutlery. Good luck, cheftestants!

One of the biggest challenges of extended travel for me is not cooking. I’m well aware that most people would wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, but I cook virtually every single meal when we’re at home, including all of the food packed for N’s work lunches. (The irony, of course, is that I’m regularly asked for restaurant recommendations. We never eat out.) While others might relish a break from cooking, I dread it – because, as I teach in all of my classes, when you cook at home you hold sway over exactly what goes into your food. When we’re traveling, especially for a trip as long as this one, I have to relinquish a great deal of control over what we eat – and that doesn’t come easy. It’s not only that I want to know exactly what we’re eating, but also that as a chef I want the opportunity to cook with unusual ingredients that I might never find at home. And also that cooking sets everything right in my world.

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Sites like Airbnb, however, have made travel so much easier, especially if you want the option of staying in a home with kitchen facilities. We’re currently in an Airbnb in Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto, and we have access to a reasonably well-stocked common kitchen. (I’ve certainly cooked in worse.) Today was a bit of a rest day for us, and as we didn’t feel like going out to a restaurant we opted for the minimart up the road.

The result: sesame-soy cucumber salad with crunchy rice crackers, steamed shu mai, bacon and cheese sandwiches and crispy broccoli. All procured for about $17, and that included the wine. It took about 15 minutes to put this meal together. Was it the absolute healthiest? No, but it did include two different vegetables and honestly, there was a lot of rather mysterious unidentifiable fried food that we didn’t buy. My loves, the point is this: not every meal you cook at home is going to be perfect. Sometimes, it might even be a hot minimart mess. But – and this is specifically directed to all those busy parents reading this who think they’re not doing a good enough job – it matters. Cooking matters. So keep it up, because you’re doing great. See you on TV, cheftestants.

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P.S. I’m sorry for the above photo; N was busy setting up the cribbage board. Let’s just put a copyright rule in place: if the photo is good, N took it. If it’s lousy, it’s mine. Avert your eyes accordingly.