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.

Keep going

Today’s life lesson is simple but essential: keep going. Keep going even when things aren’t working out, when your carefully laid plans have imploded, when you feel like an abject failure at pretty much everything. I’m pretending this is a post about how you should keep cooking even when recipes aren’t turning out right, and it is, but it’s also just a reminder that in life you can either crumple to the ground in a heap, or you can keep going.

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These breadsticks look pretty, but they posed a major risk to dental work.

There exists a perception that professional chefs cook everything perfectly all the time, and I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I go through phases where it honestly seems as though nothing in the kitchen works properly. Recipes that should work don’t, recipes that I’ve made hundreds of times without fail suddenly turn out poorly, and nothing tastes right. It would be easy to just storm out of the kitchen.

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This probably boiled over mere seconds after the shot was taken.

Recently, for example, I’ve made three different breadstick recipes with lousy results all three times. I overfed my treasured sourdough starter with whole-wheat flour and increased the acidity so much that it’s like a biological weapon is lurking in my sunroom. In an attempt to use up my pantry stores, I made a Key lime and ginger tart that didn’t set at all, even after six hours in the refrigerator. It tasted delicious, but the presentation was appalling. (There are no photos of this event.)

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Trying to salvage overproofed pizza dough left over from bread class…

But these occasions are precisely the times when you just have to keep going. When you have to work harder to figure out exactly what went wrong, and how you can improve it next time. When you have to acknowledge that not every single thing you cook will be perfect every time, but trust that the learning is in the process. It’s why I recommend keeping a kitchen journal and taking notes on just about every single recipe you make.

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…and it actually worked!

We live in an age of immediate gratification. We expect things to happen instantaneously and perfectly, and we no longer know how to fail. This is an especially challenging concept for home cooks, especially people who come to cooking later on in life. Those of us who started cooking young – with this recipe, most likely – remember mistaking a tablespoon for a teaspoon and producing salty, inedible cookies. We laugh about it now and count it as a learning experience. Yet if we made that same mistake as adults, we’d castigate ourselves for our stupidity and perhaps give up on baking altogether, because we didn’t get it right the first time.

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In cooking, as with just about every worthwhile skill, the devil is in the countless hours of practice. No one starts out as a brilliant chef, just as athletes don’t start out as Olympians. When you’re just beginning in the kitchen, you might be disappointed with the results, but it’s imperative that you keep going. You will learn how to season, how to adjust recipes, how to trust your own palate. You will learn how to prepare food that you like and you’ll gain confidence every single time you cook. You will get better. But in order to do that, you have to keep cooking – and that’s tough, especially when perhaps your efforts aren’t received with enthusiasm by your household. (And if that’s the case? Invite your family into the kitchen and make meal preparation a household activity, so that everyone can share in both the effort and the result.)

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A very simple tofu and bok choy stir-fry with brown rice…and one of my favorite things I’ve cooked recently.

So please, friends, don’t give up. Don’t get weighed down with disappointment over kitchen experiments that aren’t a roaring success. Keep going. Try something new, fail well, make notes about it and get up and do it again. And above all else, please keep cooking.

P.S. I wrote a guest blog on this very topic over at Healthy Baby Fit Mom! Read more here!

P.P.S. Read a brilliant post about the concept of “constructive growth” and being a “tenacious loser” here; thanks to Karen for sending this link!

 

Some honesty

We’ve shared lots of striking images of India, and in this brief post we want to share a few more. Unfortunately, these are striking for all the wrong reasons.

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For everything that we read about India before our visit there – to dress conservatively, to travel in groups, to keep our passports and money close by, to watch our luggage at all times – we never read about this. We had no idea just how unbelievably filthy India actually would be.

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We talked a lot about whether we should share photos like this, and obviously we ultimately decided yes. If everything on the Internet is fake, then we want this site not to be. And when we remember India, some of the most vivid memories we have are of amazing experiences like visiting tea plantations and spice gardens and eating dinner in a Sikh temple with five hundred strangers, but they’re also of the nearly incomprehensible piles of rubbish (and human and animal waste) we stepped around and through and over just about every single place we went.

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To be fair, some parts of India are cleaner than others. We covered nearly 3,000 kilometers in the country over a month, so we do feel as though we’ve visited enough places to form a reasonably educated opinion. Mumbai was lovely, and so was Mysore. But Agra (home of India’s most-visited tourist attraction!) was filthy, and Bundi was – quite frankly – disgusting. What you don’t see in most of the India photos elsewhere on the blog is how frequently N had to crop images or frame things differently to avoid photographing all of the trash.

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There are a lot of things about India that are difficult for Western travelers to comprehend; culture shock was a very real thing for us. More people in India have mobile phones than have access to clean drinking water or toilets; this is an especially dangerous problem for women and girls. The rails of India’s train system have to be replaced, on average, after two years rather than the expected thirty years because the human waste dumped on the tracks corrodes the rails entirely. And in many places, you can’t just throw your trash “away” because there is no “away.” There is no one to come collect it and nowhere to put it even if they did. And if there is a place to dispose of it, people still live there, too. So it most often stays on the streets, and the animals eat it, and the rats come, and it spirals from there.

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Please don’t misinterpret this – we loved our time in India, and we’re so glad we went. And we’re not in any way claiming that solving India’s immensely complex social and cultural issues will be easy, or quick. But travel blogs are full of carefully curated, spectacularly gorgeous photos – and most of the time, ours is, too. This post is designed to provide an honest counterpoint to all that beauty, and to remind ourselves that even in our First World countries, throwing something away isn’t really away, because it doesn’t disappear – it just disappears from our sight. And it’s not typically in a huge pile on the street with animals and people both fighting over it and living in it.