Tag Archives: Baking

In the Land of the Blind….

Getting Food Smart, II

The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova  immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.

While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.

Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.

This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.

People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.

Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)

Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.

I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.

Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.

I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.)  At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.

Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.

I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.

With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.

The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.

My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.

It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.

So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.

I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.

Leave a comment

Guns and Cupcakes.

Two of the this week’s historical events:

  1. The NRA has shared their solution for the country’s exploding shooting death toll: If every sane man, woman and adolescent in the country is armed, nobody will get shot. – We shall create a permanent internecine American Cold War with our schools, malls, sports arenas and public squares guarded by armed minimum wage employees and
  2. Mattel, the Barbie and GI Joe people, have announced the dawn of a gender neutral Easy Bake Oven. Talk about serendipitous events!

The NRA has once again shown that not being part of the solution to this issue makes them the problem – while Mattel’s open minded reasoning makes it a solution to many things.

Having a dog in this fight,– more a purse poodle than a pit bull – I have strong feelings about the gun issue, the greatest of them being perplexity at the level of cowardice and denial in our elected representatives. In the fifty years since my own mad shooter experience nothing has been done, apparently because a front for various gun makers has members of Congress on both sides firmly by the short hairs.

I am equally perplexed that otherwise seemingly intelligent people subscribe to “Arm the Schools” and concealed carry  philosophies  based on their beliefs that the cow is now over the cliff and we have to deal with the situation we have rather than the situation we want (reasonable gun control). There are by now, they maintain, too many guns in circulation for Congress and the country at large to turn back the ballistic tide, so we need to turn our schools into armed fortresses and  pack heat ourselves.

As Joe Biden would say, Malarkey. If Australia and Britain were able to call in guns and ammo, so can we, Congress can regulate extreme and excessive firearms and limit ammunition. Early discussions of potential gun laws discuss measures like reporting gun sales exceeding one a week and ammunition purchase of over 500 or 100 rounds. 500 rounds??  I am still using the last half of the 500 Q-Tips I bought in 1986 – Why are our lawmakers still thinking bulk when it comes to weaponry?  It’s high time for congress to grow a spine.

The weapons in circulation? There is no non-self-interested reason for Congress not to recall “assault” weapons. The argument that people would not turn them in holds only if insufficient incentives are included, which brings us to Mattel.

Easy Bake oven in girlie colors.

A Mattel Easy Bake Oven in exchange for every returned gun would be poetically just in view of Mattel’s contribution to our gun culture.  Mattel’s Thommy Burst automatic machine guns were to today’s old guard gun nuts what Easy Bake Ovens were to their sisters. . Reports of every teenage ninja murderer note that only boys engage in school shootings. Girls don’t do this. Well, big surprise. Who the Hell do you think got the Easy Bake ovens and who got little plastic Rambo dolls?

If the Jimmies and Donnies of the world had been taught the Zen of baking rather than the manly rush of emptying a clip into the “enemy” (a disturbingly vague concept), there’d be a lot more muffins and a lot fewer head stones.

Toy rifle sold today.

 

Think this through with me for a moment: Would you rather have your home smell of gunpowder or warm chocolate cookies? Not sure? Take the test. Rate from 1 to 10, where one equals I detest them and 10 means great:

 

Muffins      1        2             3             4             5             6             7             8             9             10

Massacres  1       2             3             4             5             6             7             8             9             10

No contest, what? Cupcakes are bound to trump corpses on the popularity scale every time.

Sure, shooting off two hundred rounds at a paper target gets rid of pent up aggression (so does shooting a few dozen mall visitors), but wait until the survivalists and avid shooters try knocking the gluten silly in a couple of pounds of bread dough – true catharsis without having to wear hearing protection.

With or without the Easy Bake for gun exchange, here my two Christmas letters to the gun bearing and legislating communities.

Dear gun freak, you don’t need 100 rounds to fell a doe (or you really should not be out there in the woods – you’re dangerous) and there is no excuse for your stash of AR-15’s and “Action Pistols”.

As for your second Amendment right – it stands until the point at which it conflicts with my right to life. Is it an American tradition? Remember cock fighting and dog fights? They’re traditions.

Dear Congress Member:  As tragic as it is that all of the “Good Guys with (automatic) Guns” are going to have to find another pastime just because the “tiny minority” of “Bad Guys with Guns” are ruining it for everyone, your mandate is composed of a far greater and less vocal population of Good Guys without guns, many of them as we have been sadly reminded children. You duty is to answer to that majority with effective, realistic legislation – not watered down proposals which would allow gun owners to purchase 52 guns a year unchecked or hundreds of rounds of ammo because going to the gun store is such a nuisance. It is time to ban weaponry designed to kill more than one deer (or neighbor) at a time.

Make muffins, not mayhem.

Leave a comment

The Bread Game

Food as sport divides up fairly tidily into two categories, contact and spectator, with a bit of media, a few big talkers around the fringes and vast secondary economies cashing in on every aspect of the game.

The active mode, growing, brewing, cooking, canning and baking, has experienced a surge under the current food movements, which have catapulted millions of Americans into their gardens and kitchens much as the back to the earth and self sufficiency communities of the seventies sent young hippies into growing and baking communes.  Of course the-bus dwelling, pot-growing Hippies didn’t have Arclinea kitchens and Whole Foods markets, and their clumpy all grain breads and biodynamic grain gruels were usually barely edible, but the sentiments of the two factions are similar.

The current culinary moral imperative – know your food, calculate your water footprint, save the planet – traces its roots straight back to the children of thee summer of love, and that’s a pity, because it misses the point of the downright fun of playing with your food. Dogma is a poor reason for embarking on the creative process that ends up with golden loaves of bread and shelves of Mason jars filled with jewel toned jams.

Swiss Zopf

The spectacular thing about home production for me is that it doesn’t require justification or social motivation. It’s fun – a joyous, sensual, self affirming process starting with a flat of berries, a dead fish or a bag of flour and progressing through a series of motions and senses to a completed, delicious, lovely edible item you can either share with your friends or hoard for yourself.

My favorite food for play is bread. I inherited the knack for it from my mother and aunt, the McClintock sisters, who may have begun making it out of the frugal fiats of their Scott’s heritage, but were skilled enough to create identities for themselves from their successes, Maxine (my mother) winning the Pillsbury bakeoff from which she brought home a pile of swag which included the newest GE stove, a mink stole and a mixer, and Jimmie, who baked her way to the top of her Tidewater society, getting up at 5:00 am daily to pour herself a pint of beer and set up the starter for the day’s bread and food. The smell of rising yeast and fresh loaves was and is for me synonymous with home.

Unlike pastry, bread is not a science. It is an instinct, hedonistic, atavistic and Dionysian. It draws on living things and earth, yeast, bacteria and the gluten strands, which thank the baker for brutalizing the cells of the grain by forming chains to hold water and air.  American breads are – or were – mid things between bread and pastry. By the time I reached adulthood, you had to go overseas to experience the infinite possibilities of leavened grain.

Fifteen years after the war I had the good fortune to land in Europe with the limitless offerings of regional bakeries not yet impacted by the gargantuan food corporations which would eventually decimate them when European women began to demand convenience and price without realizing the quality it would cost them in their foods.  Master bakers still ruled, and the preferred shops were easily identifiable by the lines of disciplined shoppers stretching out onto the sidewalk.

In Germany, where I landed, there were  “Semmel” – hard crusted, soft centered breakfast rolls with a pinwheel on top, which cost me a few clothing sizes – and “vollkorn”, dense, black-brown, moist breads baked with entire grains and berries. Smeared with pate or white cheese sprinkled with herbs, it was dinner.  The German word for dinner is not “Abendbrot” or “evening bread” by chance. Each town or village had its own signature baked goods, and every other country – France, Sweden, Austria added to the wealth.

A few years later I found myself in Switzerland with my own kitchen and mixer with a mill/grinding attachment. Since our back yard was bounded by a hundred or so acres of wheat, barley or depending the season, corn, baking was a given. Every housewife knew how, had her own recipes and tips, and everyone wanted to share.  On holidays we baked with the kids. Our kitchens and homes smelled like fresh loaves. Bread was a social connection, a metaphor and a health food.  That was twenty years ago, and it could not last.

About a year back I got bit by the baking bug again at Rainbow Grocery. I had gone for something else, but one minute I was standing in front of bins of hard wheat and soft wheat, rye, graham, 00 and high/low gluten flour, and the next I was at checkout with $20 worth of different flour varieties.

They shouldn’t say that something you stop doing and then start again is “like riding a bicycle.” They should say “It’s like making bread.”  Once you learn, you never forget the right feel of the dough, the look of the surface and even the sound of the dough slapping against the butcher block.  It’s hard for me to understand how I went for so many years without the ceremony of cutting off the hot heel of the oven hot loaf and smearing it with butter.

A lovely friend, whose previous incarnation was as a baker and celebrated pastry chef, says there’s an old village (that’s redundant – there are no new villages) in the Canton of Vallais outside of Geneva, where the local bakery gives weeklong baking courses for making the original breads of the region. It would be in autumn. Maybe I’ll go.

In the meantime I have a sweet dried apricot rye that brings happiness from the moment the yeast bubbles to the last end crust of the double loaf.   I’m in the game again, just for the pleasure of it.

 

3 Comments