Category Archives: Food Fads

Escape from canned spaghetti: How breaking local saved the world.

I lived an involuntarily local existence for ten of the twenty or so years in Switzerland.

It is the kind of food experience mourned  by tediously delusional dreamers who have not participated in  it – with a pervading nostalgia for a photo-shopped emotional landscape of happy cows and crofts and the simple elegance and purity of an age they feel  we should never have left behind.

This was the good part: Fresh eggs from the farm, carried home in saved flour bags. Half a pig and  half a calf butchered by the local butcher and divided under his supervision to be put in the freezer.  Mache and fabulous winter salads in season, berries, stone fruit leeks and tender beans straight from the field or orchard. Fresh  pressed apple juice on frosty late summer mornings and air filtered ten gallon bottles to dispense apple juice throughout the winter.  Real veal. A fresh chicken every time we ran  one over on the road home. Otherwise on order.  Fresh cream. Wood oven baked Meringue. Bread made in a hollow of the dying coals of an oven fired at 5:00 am.. A really great still which produced Kirsch that burned with a pure blue flame. Sides of raw smoked bacon to cut off in little tiles whenever you wanted. Landjaeger, square sausages. Emmentaller. Fondue. Raclette. Venison or wild boar any time somebody ran into one on the steep road into the village. Dole wine sitting in front of a roaring fire and looking out over the snow white fields towards the black forest.

This was the rough part: Initially almost no citrus, and then at a price. Non raw milk needed to be ordered a week in advance. No avocados. Long winters. Eight or so months living on roots and cabbage.  Two to three weeks of hot, sticky canning during the season in addition to a full time job. Having to break down the calf and the pig in a cold cellar until your fingers ached and the blood stung in the scratches on  your hands. Seafood restricted to fish sticks (inland country). A local market with the worst of frozen foods. Canned beans. Canned peas. Canned asparagus. Leberkaese.  Horse flies. Tough beef.  Canned spaghetti. Tape worms (fortunately  none of them ours).  Grit and dirt in everything from leeks to peas.  The fine smell of animal and human fertilizer sprayed over snow in winter (so it would soak in gradually) and the times when some fool farmer sprayed it on ice instead, so it entered the water system. Going down to the town with old milk cans for water until the system cleared. Dead hedgehog stuck in the dryer vent for weeks. Canned milk when we couldn’t get it fresh. Raw milk that tasted of nothing but udder and barn. Cowbells at 2:00 am.

So we cheated: We crossed the border for white asparagus. We drove all the way up to Germany to get into the American PX for beef. Of course it wasn’t cheating then, because we didn’t know we should eat local. Except for smuggling everything past customs. Fortunately Swiss customs guards never looked too closely at cars with two women and either screaming or sleeping babies in the back seats, stuffed in between the boxes of Post Exchange pampers ( not yet available in Switzerland) with American beef and plunder stuffed in between.

The day Migros finally opened  a supermarket within a 30 minute drive, I joined all the women from the surrounding villages, lining up for hours to buy  Spanish oranges and Israeli avocados, lemons, $40 a pound American steak and French wines and cheese. Migros is the anathema of contemporary sustainability standards:  Seasonal be damned, big box and discount with a massive variety of everything including a full service cheese department that would put any cheese shop in the US to shame.  The supermarket had a counter of the best of European varieties that extended from the front to the back, a full butcher shop and fresh seafood. We loved it. I still love the place, as food politically incorrect as it may be.

My forty minute commute from the school where I chaired the English department passed along a frontage road by the freight rail tracks. Things in Switzerland tend to be pristine and perfect, but beside the narrow road was  an unmarked, roughhewn wood structure, like a temporary construction office, from which I had noticed people  emerging with shopping bags. When I needed milk too close to the 5:30 local shop closing time,  I decided to see if I could buy some there.

Inside the shotgun structure was whitewashed with myriad cheeses, produce, and salumi displayed at the front in upturned produce crates stacked to form a crude counter. Prosciuto and dried vines dripping wrinkled up tomatoes hung from the rafters, and oil, pasta, sweets and canned goods were stacked on simple pine shelves at the back.

The apparent owner was speaking rapid fire Italian to  three or four men in splotchy overalls, probably guest laborers from the nearby chemical plants, and a couple of older women in black, grabbing things from the shelves, measuring out olives, rice, and cornmeal into brown paper bags. She ignored me.

I stood fixed to the floor, staring at the exotic foods and not understanding a word.

In a pause I  managed to say “Scusi,” which I had heard at the butcher shop, and pointed to a cheese, holding out my hands to show the size of a piece I would like. She cut it and signaled another, apparently praising it, cut a little piece for me to taste. I took a hunk of that, too.

A man emerged from the back of the store, exchanged a few words with the woman, then turned to me  and said forcefully, “Parmiggiano Raggiano della Prima Qualita”, my first real Italian phrase, pointing to the wheel. “Very good,” he said in German. I nodded and was given a piece.  I signaled the tomatoes and then the prosciutto and was given a vine and a number of slices on waxed paper. They handed me pasta, olive oil. He kept saying “Very Good”. I kept nodding.

I was in a daze. What they proposed with hand signals,  unintelligible Italian and a the man’s Swiss German vocabulary of perhaps twenty words.  I bought. The  other customers had purchased a hundred grams of salumi or mortadella, a box of cookies and perhaps a brick of ice cream. I spent about a tenth of a month’s salary, filling the back of our tree frog  green 4cv hatchback with boxes of food. We parted friends.

Initially my husband was not pleased.  We had what I then would have best described as cold cuts for dinner with Italian cookies for dessert. He came around. The next night we had fresh pasta.

I told my neighbors and my best friend, Ruth, who grew up in Tecino, across the border from Italy.  She showed me what to do with the polenta and the tomatoes – I did not know. She went down that week, then told her friends.

I told my colleagues at work about the market. The chemistry teacher began bringing the more adventurous offerings for after class breaks. Swiss schools then were civilized, and we  had white wine and food in the two long pauses. We started an antipasti pool.

The store became more crowded. I signed up for Italian lessons.

We left local in the rear view mirror and never looked back.

In those years the Swiss didn’t think much of the Italians, the Greeks or the Spanish, probably because most of them were guest labor permitted to remain in the country as long as there were jobs the Swiss wouldn’t do. Too many Swiss thought them dirty, lazy, stupid and mostly dishonest and treated them accordingly.They called them cinquen after the card game the men played in the pubs at night, a word vaguely equivalent to WOP (which interestingly enough means “With Out Papers”) and accused them of any crime or mishap in the area. Some Swiss claimed that the Italians would dilute pure Swiss blood and Swiss culture. That may sound vaguely familiar.

I had little opinion, except that I knew from my experience with our old house manager, Leo Delvasto, who worked by day as a mechanic, that they were neither lazy nor dirty, and surely not dishonest. Leo’s wife, Marinella, had moped our stairway every time one of the high rise tenants passed, outswissing the Swiss, and lured me into their apartment to pour tiny cups of strong coffee with boxed cookies every time I passed on the stairs. I liked Marina and Leo.

There  is hardly a Swiss today who would own to ever having looked down on the Italians. The children of the grease monkeys became doctors and business men. My old neighbor Leo DelVasto has retired after owning the most prestigious Ferrari dealership in Northern Switzerland. Today everyone wants to speak, eat, and furnish their homes Italian. I think I always did.

I suspect, without denying the immigrants their due for hard work and intelligence, that  my hut of a store and others like it throughout Switzerland helped pave their way.  Pasta diplomacy. The shop, I have been told,  has since moved to the center of the town and is breathtakingly  expensive today. Well, good for them, although I would have wished it had stayed right where and just as it was, and that I could go back any time I got to Basel.  It was one of those wonderful experiences you appreciate at the moment, but perhaps not quite enough.

The Swiss Italian culinary rapprochement and the resulting endless fun of eating those wonderful,  strange foods we now all take for granted, discovering new tastes and flavors is the absolute opposite of the current locavore belief system, which places provincial prejudices above the vast offerings of the world beyond tribe, village, state or country – a silly little idea based on the false algorithm of Local = Better.

Excluding any and all distant enterprises or agriculture from commerce comes down to protectionism. Exclusively supporting your local farmer or fisherman in all fairness would implicate in the extreme that your local farmer or fisherman should not invade others’ commercial territory, Minnesota would have no oranges and Phoenix no blueberries. Whether or not that economy would function if resuscitated is a mute point, as the global economy has long crossed the Rubicon. Talk about spoilsport.

Local is not a synonym for good food and global is not an irresponsible choice. The opposite of good is inauthentic, over processed, stale, warehouse ripened, bad. Not foreign. Not imported. Not produced out of state. Everything is local somewhere.  But that’s just my opinion, and those who hold eating local a necessity won’t be influenced by it. How sad for them. We apostates will enjoy the bananas, Grana Pedano and  Epoisses they disdain. The injustice will remain that we will enjoy not only the best of what is grown here but supplement it with what the rest of the world produces. Back yard honey or maple syrup – the choice is ours. Pity the poor locavore. Viva Italia. Viva Helvetia.Viva il Mondo.

 

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Fire vs Raw

Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad

The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by  Richard Wrangham,  primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“.  Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our  species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.

With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.

Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community.  Others, however, didn’t get the memo.

During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,”  suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?

The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data  was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.

The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened,  Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,”   I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,”  and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”

I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy,  but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s  book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball.  Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with  Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of  the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.

Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,”  is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta  have fire.”  Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,”  said potential candidate.  The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”

The trio of arguments against raw food  –  safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F).  The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters.  As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?

Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty.  The usual promotional tricks surely worked;  Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in  her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public.   The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.

One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the  country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the  new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling  prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.

The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.

Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed.  At the height of the “living food” revolution,  any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.

Some of us scratched our heads.

The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend  is further  puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets.  Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?

Like other food fads,  the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity.  We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.

A claim was that cooked foods fostered  allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.

As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.

The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from.  As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous.  It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out.  The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.

The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..

So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.

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