California gardeners are puzzling about how to begin their growing season under the threat of looming drought. 99% plus of the state in "extreme drought" according to the National Drought Mitigation Center . . . and I didn't even know there was such a thing! A good bit of the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley are experiencing "exceptional drought," meaning that as far as anyone knows from tree ring studies and historical records, it's never been this dry before.
So do we plant fewer plants in expectation of troubled wells and municipal rationing? Get more serious about drip irrigation and other techniques for conserving water? Revisit the possibility of recycling underworked indoor water, called greywater, from the shower, bath, lavatory, and kitchen sink?
Do we give up our precious flower garden?
Here's my plan: help my plantings to be as productive as they can be by giving them their vitamins and minerals with glacial rock dust (available at my nursery, and probably yours too). I keep reminding myself not to plant more than one zucchini, one tomato, and two pepper plants.
Farmers Market season starts soon around here. It's exciting to have weathered another winter (even one as rain-deficient as this last was) and see the Springtime begin to burgeon with green.
On a recent trip to the library looking for something new, I picked up Michael Pollan's newest book, Cooked. I thought my friendly librarian, who knows me well, looked at me strangely. Was she thinking, That's an unlikely title for a raw food chef to pick up.
The book surprised me from start to finish with wise insights, historical revelations, humor, and Yes, some recipes. Pollan is best known for his Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he writes at length about the ethics of food -- he is as appalled by what we call the "Standard American Diet" and the industrialization of food as we are. In Cooked, he approaches the subject of eating from an interesting angle, by researching the whys and wherefores of food preparation and spending time in the kitchen with the four classical elements -- Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each section in the book is devoted to his time in the kitchen, with a single food theme for each element:
Section One -- Fire (meat) The classic Bar B Que
Fire has its classic culinary birth around an open flame bar-b-que pit
Section Two -- Water (braising and one pot meals)
Water, those one pot meals we all come to enjoy and the art of classic braising
Section Three -- Air (bread baking)
Air, that element of rising dough and bread making
Section Four -- Earth (fermentation)
Earth and the microbes of fermentation that transform what nature offers into culinary magic.
Pollan travels to work with some of the world's most expert practitioners of each of his theme techniques, and writes about how to recreate, as well as we can, them in our own kitchens. His stories do a great job of showing us how the personalities of these masters and their chosen methods are suited to each other.
I was born in the South, and grew up on Texas bar-b-que, so the first section, Fire, was a walk down memory lane. A bit of a stretch for me to take in with his discussion of whole hog pit bar-b-ques, cracklins, and all that stuff that's now vaguely nauseating to me as a dedicated vegan. Even so, I was fondly reminded of those growing up days with the entire family around the pit for hours, kids playing, adults talking, pies coming out of the kitchen . . .and then bar-b-que from the grill. Pollan catches perfectly the way the pit masters and their art bring their communities together over an open flame. When Michael brought his discussions around to the sustainability of 'farm to table' lifestyles, I recognized the similarities that connect all of us 'foodies.' A few of the best pit masters are beginning to realize that ethical treatment for the animals they cook -- pasturing and grass-feeding end up tasting much better than the commercial CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) products of modern day agribusiness. With tobacco farming losing its appeal down South, many former tobacco farmers are now raising healthy hogs on small family farms to feed this local culinary specialty.
In the second section, Water, Pollan makes a study of braising -- those one-pot meals so many of us enjoy. Especially in the dark days of winter, I crave a good soup. Since husband Mike and I are not 100% raw, I do cook, and soup is my usual go to dish. In this section, Pollan delves into our modern over-busy work schedules, and how that translates to less time in the kitchen. I was amused to read that the marketers -- already you know there's a problem -- have a new definition for 'cooking': we are 'cooking' if we 'do' one thing (besides rip open the package) to prepare a meal. For example; popping a pizza in the microwave is NOT cooking, but lathering bread with mustard and layering on pre-sliced meats and cheese IS. In my book, that's an absurd definition, but apparently it fits the way many of us live. Devoting so much time to work, commuting, multi-tasking, and the rest has robbed us not only of the most nutritious foods but also of quality time spent with family members in the kitchen and around the dining table. Here's a scary factoid that Pollan offers about the popularity of the microwave. In 1978, 8% of American households had one; today 90% of us do. And did you know you can buy frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to thaw in that microwave? Check those center aisles of your megamart, because these "food-like substances" may be on sale this week.
Pollan's discussion of the trend towards 'not cooking' and the rise of what he calls 'secondary eating' (time spent eating and drinking as a secondary activity while we do something primary, like multi-tasking) was poignant in its correlation to obesity and our dwindling physical and psychological well-being. Studies in 2003 found that when we don't have to prepare foods at home, we eat more. Even without the likelihood that this prepared food is full of 'comfort ingredients' like fats and sugars, not to mention preservatives and fillers, this could explain the rise of an average 500 calories more daily consumption in the average Americans diet since the 1960s. Another study found a negative correlation between the time a nation spends on food preparation at home, and its national rates of obesity. For you, dear Reader, and most of my friends, the good news for us is that our contrarian trend toward more involvement with food preparation of fresh and living ingredients will put us on par with some of the healthiest nations.
For me, the most memorable quote in the book came from food marketing expert Harry Balzer, who was Pollan's authoritative source for much of the pessimism about the way Americans eat. Asked "What is the best diet?" Balzer unhesitatingly replied, "Cook it yourself. Eat whatever you want as long as you cook it yourself."
Of course I would like to revise that slightly to "Prepare it yourself" since I don't believe cooking is as necessary as many like to think. I am encouraged by the many signs that I see that the trend towards Do It Yourself (DIY) is growing daily. Companies such as Williams-Sonoma, the high-end mega-retailer for every kitchen gadget known now has an entire line of products, the Agrarian line, to serve the DIY segment of their market. I was pleased when Williams-Sonoma called and asked me to provide my More Than a Nut Milk Bag for their "Make your own Almond Milk DIY kit." It's a good sign when large mainstream companies like Willams-Sonoma move towards supporting a quest for knowing what's in the food we eat.
In the third section of Cooked, Air, Pollan delves into a thorough discussion of the Art of Bread, that relies completely on air for perfectly risen dough. Here he explained some things to me about the modern milling of flour that I had always suspected but didn't really know: that modern milling, which strives for a long shelf-life, achieves this by milling out all the nutrition that naturally occurs in the grains. When this was first perfected in the beginning of the 20th Century, and people who got much of their nutrition from bread products started to get beriberi and other nutritional deficiency diseases, the government decreed that they "fortify" their flour by putting some of the nutrients, in a less volatile form, back in.
The renaissance of of artisan bakers is well known in most of the food conscious parts of the US, but there are "food deserts" in whole swaths of the country and in inner cities where "Wonder Bread" is still the staple. One of the most hilarious segments in the book has Pollan working with the "bakers" at the big Wonder Bread bakery in Sacramento. He explains at some length how many of the ingredients that "build strong bodies eight ways" or however many they claim nowadays are NOT in the product to make you thrive; they're there so that the bread can be produced efficiently and stored indefinitely on megamart shelves. It's important for all of us to "leave no food unexamined" in our effort to find healthy eating options. If we buy packaged breads, we need to practice defensive shopping, read the ingredients, and stay away from packaged breads that have ingredients that are not grain. Traditional bread consists of flour made from grain, water, salt, and yeast. Period.
I knew that the fourth section, Earth, would be right in my wheelhouse! Before food was industrialized, fermented foods were an important part of everyone's daily diet. I was happy to find one of my heroes, Sandor Katz, in Pollan's introduction to the subject. I, too, had the privilege of meeting Sandor at the Freestone Fermentation Festival a few years back. (That festival no longer happens, but this one looks promising: Farm to Fermentation.) He is a guru for the people of "Fermentation Nation" and the author of a very popular book -- Wild Fermentation -- a must-read if you are going to undertake fermentation of any kind. The cultural revival of fermented foods is apparent at the market and online in the DIY kits now available for many of the fermented foods you might want to make at home.
Microbial evangelist Sandor was a perfect mentor for Pollan, and their discussion of the 20th century's obsession with germlessness and the resulting war on bacteria (irradiation, pasteurization, and sterilization of foods, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in human health and agribusiness). Our food has become so sterile that we have to consciously re-populate our internal flora with microbes via fermented foods and probiotics to maintain our health. Pollan tells us that anthropologists find some form of fermentation in every culture on our planet, often at the heart of their cuisine. For Germans, it's sauerkraut, for Koreans, kimchi, for the Japanese natto and miso . . . and on and on. In each culture these essentially "rotted" foods are an acquired taste -- remember your first-ever drink of beer?
These cultural differences are something I especially notice about the Balinese, they are VERY clear on who they are in their world -- the natural connection to spirit (their relationship to the gods), their connection within the family structure (each family member has a place and job in the family hierarchy and a changing role to play as everyone in the clan ages), and their connection to nature (the calendar and its phases of the moon that determine all activities: planting, family rituals, and community celebrations). At the center of their belief system is a saying: Human to God, Human to Nature, Human to Human. This isn't just idle word-play; the Balinese work with these three relationships every waking moment. It is very apparent to me that this is the reason why traditional Balinese are so balanced, settled, calm and together as whole beings.
With our morbid fear of bugs and without a truly national cuisine, we American have legislated and excluded fermented foods out of our diets. Even our pickles aren't fermented; they're cured in vinegar that itself isn't so much fermented as chemically acidified. Perhaps because we haven't acquired the taste for fermented foods as children, we tend to find them unappetizing . . . thus cutting out of our diets an important source for renewing the microbiota that we cannot live without. Numerous foods in our daily lives are fermented somewhere in their process, but most of them are then pasteurized to preserve us from "the bugs" -- coffee, chocolate, cheese, soy sauce, salami, prosciutto, vanilla, bread, wine, ketchup, sauerkraut, vinegar, olives, yogurt, and kefir, to name only a few.
Processed foods undermine our health by wrecking the ecology of our gut. The importance of gut health is a big topic, generally misunderstood, with the art of fermentation is at the core. As with cooking, fermentation begins to break down nutrients that would otherwise be hard (or impossible) for our bodies to use. These natural processes change what nature gives us into something highly beneficial to our overall health. If you are interested in learning more about the wonderful world of your internal microbiome, Pollan provides a wonderful, and highly entertaining, overview.
Living in the wine country, I understand the concept of terroir, the (originally French) idea that a given product (like Champagne and Roquefort cheese) is best when it's made on a particular bit of land. Turns out this has a lot to do with the native micro-organisms unique to a place. Here in the Napa Valley, everyone knows it's the land that makes the wine. So it is with fermentation. Learning the art of fermenting foods at home brings you into intimate touch with your own 'terroir' in your kitchen. Local beneficial microbes work tirelessly to create an individual signature that flavors every one of your own fermented creations, and getting to know them is a great adventure. Here's a new recipe, a simple sauerkraut, for you to try. Sandor tells us there are no right or wrong ways to ferment, no solid rules, only guidelines, so enjoy getting your hands into the cabbage and see what creations you can come up with.
I was struck by Pollan's new-found love of yeast and all the possibilities of fermentation. I think this final section was his favorite. His enthusiasm and his description of the father-son projects nicely wove together a compelling story. A considerable part of the Earth section is devoted to the arts of cheese, wine, and beer making. None of these are for the faint of heart, because disaster lurks everywhere . . . but us living food aficionados interested in DIY projects will find this part especially rewarding and helpful.
Whether you are leaning more towards the raw lifestyle and dreaming of a wonderful salad, or braising and barbecuing up a storm, I imagine that you'll agree with Pollan and me, that time spent in the kitchen can be a special time for meditation and the zen art of chopping onions, kneading dough, conversing with your family as you share the prep tasks.
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected. The idea of home culinary preparations whether cooked or not, is magic when we are "Turning the stuff of nature into tasty creations of culture." And as he says "Cooking is all about connection and community" with that final tasty ingredient that brings it all together, love.
At the very end of the book, while he was working with Korean kimchi master Hyeon Hee, Pollan encounters an idea that is profound for omnivores and raw foodies alike, hand taste. By contrast, "tongue taste is the straightforward chemical phenomenon that takes place whenever molecules make contact with taste buds . . . McDonald's has tongue taste." Here in the last paragraph of the book I hope you will catch something of the flavor of the book that I found so exciting and . . . well, nutritious:
I attended the Natural Products Expo early in March, the massive show in Southern California for all things and products who find their way into this 'natural products' world of merchandising, marketing, retailing and purchasing. I thoroughly enjoy walking the aisles and spending time searching out those new products and innovations finding their way into our kitchens. I had the opportunity to meet a wonderful young woman, Julie Feickert. Her company Cultures for Health is all about fermentation and DIY kits. Her website is worth a visit. There you'll find wonderful how to videos and everything you could possibly need to 'make it yourself fermentations' of any kind.
Enjoy these beautiful spring days as we get back outside to play in our gardens and begin our visits with friends and community at the farmers markets. Thank you for reading . . .and remember, Eat your Veggies.
Traveling is one of my greatest passions. Sharing travel with those I love is one of my greatest joys....
I'm back! Back from a delicious trip to Bali, and a restorative sojourn on Maui ......
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