Your lawn is a poisonous wasteland just waiting to kill your children.

A while back, I was in the hardware store waiting in line to pay. A man came in panicking.

“There’s mushrooms in my lawn! What do you have to kill them?” he wanted to know.

Why in the ever living fuck would you want to kill the mushrooms in your lawn, mr. yuppie? Too much variety in your life? 

The clerk had the same question.

“They, they… they’re ruining the lawn. And…my kids, they might eat them!”

The mushrooms might eat your kids? Doubtful. Oh, the kids might eat the mushrooms. True, they could die. So, I guess you gotta decide where you need to stop childproofing, and start being vigilant. In any case… 

“There’s really not much you can do. I mean we sell fungicide, but it won’t kill the fungus under the soil. You might as well just pick them. They’ll grow back, and then you can pick them again.”

Or, or, or… I have an idea. You could show your kids the mushrooms and say, “See these, kids? They might be poisonous. Daddy doesn’t really know everything, and doesn’t know what you might be getting into at any given point in time, so please don’t eat things that I haven’t given you permission to eat, because you could die. And I really don’t want you to die because I love you kids more than I ever knew I could love anything.” 

“So, you’re saying there’s nothing at all I can do? I mean, these things are ruining my lawn.”

“Well, some people say that lime will get rid of them. But I don’t know if that really works. You could try.”

“Okay, I’ll try that.”

Isn’t it great to be able to purchase something to alleviate every “problem” you imagine you might have, no matter how asinine the concern, and how unenthusiastically it’s recommended?  

Now I have a gastronomically fearless toddler, so I kind of sympathize (that’s actually a pretty strong word) with mr. yuppie. I’ve been taking my kid foraging since she was fresh out the womb, so she went through a phase where every green herb was here for her delectation. We got poisonous plants in the landscape: azaleas, daffodils, iris, arum, euphorbia and on and on. Everybody around here lets pokeweed grow in their yard, dropping big, juicy, purple berries, but this guy is worried about mushrooms.

This othering of fungi (kingdomism?) really makes no sense at all when you consider that we’re more closely related to fungi than plants, but maybe that’s inevitable. We hate those most fiercely in whom we can see ourselves most clearly. Certainly, the “difference” between us and our fungal kin is more a social construction than an empirical truth. While there are certainly a few lawn mushrooms that would wage a holy war on your liver and kidneys, most are (probably) harmless. Mycologists don’t really know if most mushrooms are edible or not, because they’re too small to have ever interested anyone in their value as food.

So I thought I would do an interview with a mycologist or two and get at the truth about the risks of Pacific Northwestern lawn mushrooms, make up a little mini-guide for a sidebar, and turn that into a story. They have a few pieces rife with misinformation and useless blathering on the local daily’s website about lawn mushrooms, so I thought I could write something more accurate, clear, and informative for their venerable pages. The media contact at the Oregon Mycological Society, however, directed my request for interview subjects not to a taxonomist, but to a toxicologist, who immediately shot down my idea as almost criminally reprehensible.

Her reply began thus: “I am sorry but I don’t have time either to deal with this kind of question now. I am not in favor of letting mushrooms grow in lawns where children and dogs have access to them.” Whoa lady! So like, if I see a demon mushroom, what should I do about it?” Set the ground aflame? Hire an excavator to remove the topsoil?

So until next year, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned. But look!: the (hilariously quirky) mycologist Michael Kuo already wrote the fucking thing for me! So, organize that backyard foray/keying session, bourgeois masses! Mycophilia is as dirty as it sounds.

(Not) the Coolest

 

Am I not that fun? Am I just a debbie :-( because the idea of a cooler with an integrated stereo, charging station, and blender doesn’t sound that cool? Because my idea of a fun cooler is one that keeps food cold, with ice, for a really long time? You know what I think would be super fun? Quality hinges! A stainless compression latch! A lid gasket! Durable construction! Not running to the store 36 hours into the camping trip because the ice all melted! Not hearing a goddamn sorority party at the campground! The sounds of birds and running water, rather than Skrillex shrieking from someone’s shitty itunes lineup! Cold beer and a whiskey on ice, rather than a fake-ass margarita made with sour mix, blue caracao, Coach perfume, and a little acetone.

I can’t even keep my stereotypes straight with this fucking thing. Who does it appeal to? Sorority sisters or tech-brofessionals? Besides gender (and having a job), is there even a difference between those?

Margaritas. I think maybe the way you make (or take) a margarita is the difference. So tech-brofessionals, feel free to repurpose that blender motor as a percussion instrument when you get all buzzed up on Hoptimus Prime double IPAs (and shaken Partida margaritas, por supuesto) and decide to pretend you’re actually up there on stage with Skrillex like a backup DJ. Only you’re actually just having a tailgate party in the Subie in the parking lot, after the soccer game.

Here, play these both at the same time:

 

 

You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. Maybe this won’t be so bad.

Shrimplike

 

20140823_220053

Russula xerampelina, “the shrimp mushroom,” is a plump, brittle fruit with a viscid cap whose color variation is captured by the species’ poetic surname which means, “the color of dried vine leaves.” Rosy, to red-brown, to just plain brown, its gills are white, and its stem often (but not always!) has a telltale “blush” of pink.

Its flavor is indeed, if one is suggestible and strains their imagination, a little shellfishy. But the common epithet is typically thought to refer to the aroma: shrimplike. As it matures and raises its pileus to expose it’s lamellae, that aroma becomes detectable and finally penetrating. But by then it’s too late.

A similar-looking poisonous species, R. emetica, and the mere fact that it is gilled, deters novices. But that aroma, combined with the sweet and mild, rather than painfully radishy and acrid, flavor are the sure and faithful qualities that set them apart. Yes, it really does come down to aroma and flavor.

“Should I really put something in my mouth whose name means ‘the sickener’ in order to discern the edible from the poisonous, gangster?”

It depends on your level of commitment, doesn’t it? Do you want to be a perpetual dilletante, always nibbling around the edges, but in the end just fodder for the hoard of heavily-armed outcasts and survivalists who will surely seize control of the industrial food supply when our foreign policy fiascos and internal political and tribal strife result in an eternal river of poor leadership complemented by general civil unrest? Or do you want to be an intimate of the sauvage banquet?

Michael Kuo, a mycologist who maintains the mushroom identification site mushroomexpert.com, wrote, in 2005, a little diatribe where he insists that the scent of R. xerampelina is not at all crustacean, but vaginal.  Because men have been responsible for so much of the mycological taxonomy that we still use today, Kuo argues, “spermatic” eventually became an acceptable olfactory descriptor, while “vaginal” is still not. Then he goes on to ask: what does sperm smell like anyway?

Do some mushrooms indeed smell like sperm, or is that just wishful thinking? Losing myself in reflection, a memory surfaces: a wastebasket filled with wads of facial, bath, whatever tissue, and a gray scent, the scent of decaying fungus. Adolescence. Before we gained the privacy and good sense to flush those things. So perhaps semen smells vaguely fungal, and not the other way around.

Kuo admits, however, that we not only have the genus Phallus, which is indeed disgustingly phallic, but the species Amanita vaginata which, like most amanitas, does indeed emerge from a protective sheath. Perhaps not coincidentally, Amanita vaginata is commonly known (to get really off-topic) as the “grisette.” In 18th and 19th century France and England, the word referred to a coquettish, working-class woman with intellectual aspirations. Grisettes traded on their charms, physical and intellectual, to gain access to the Bohemian intelligentsia. The fungal fruit that gracefully emerges from a cocoon-like volva is brown to grey, slender for the genus, and strikingly poised. It is the most conspicuous edible of a genus that includes several lethally poisonous (and equally, if more strikingly, beautiful) species.

Back to the subject at hand: If we agree with Kuo about the aroma, what do we do with this vaginal-smelling mushroom? The preeminent expert for West coast mycological taxonomy, David Arora begins thus: “edible and unforgettable–it is one of the least appreciated of our edible fungi…. The young, nutty caps are caps are superb stuffed with grated cheese, chives, walnuts, and parsley and then broiled.” The irrepressible mycophile goes on to exclaim that, unlike their brethren, “they are rarely riddled with maggots!” I would have loved to go all-in with the xerampelina like that, but until now I’d only ever encountered one or two at an outing which hadn’t been host to a writhing mass of diptera grubs (which insect family has the longest phallus, in relation to body size, of any animal). Those I’d always mixed in with the others, the boletus, the cantharellus, sulfureum, pleurotus, armillaria, the mushrooms for commoners—not to be confused with the common mushrooms—in some ramshackle melange: risotto, burritos, spaghetti con funghi. I didn’t yet know about xerampelina‘s singularity, it’s subtle sophistication. It’s popularity with the the diptera flies should have been all the recommendation I needed, but they’re flies.

So basically my wife didn’t trust them (me) enough to allow me to serve them as the main feast, as I (we) now feel they so richly deserve. She didn’t know that I’d been feeding them to her all along in small quantities all along, combined with the more familiar species. But I wonder: how long must one go on not sickening (or killing) someone before they trust you without question, unhesitatingly, absolument? How long before we can eat a grisette, in other words?  I don’t know, but I started with some ham and xerampelina crepes:

I made some chestnut crepes with this recipe that is accredited to Martha Stewart, and we”ll just leave that here:

1 1/2 C sifted chestnut flour
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 C milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Mix the first four ingredients in the order listed. Whisk in one tablespoon melted butter. The rest of the butter is to grease the pan a little before each crepe. Or you could just do what I did: put all the butter into the batter, grease the pan before your first crepe, and be done with it. I will say that this recipe is a little unsatisfactory, as it’s really for desert crepes. I’d like a more floury, less eggy crepe next time.

Then I made mornay sauce. Recipes are so fucking boring. Here’s a recipe written by dear old Craig Claiborne, probably taught to him by Pierre Franey. So, like Pierre, we use gruyere instead of cheddar (and this recipe makes about twice as much as I did).

I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in butter, with a sprinkle of salt and some thinly julienned red chilies. Chilies with mushrooms is, I think, an Oregon thing. Witness the treatment of mushrooms at so many classic Oregon establishments—Higgins, Joel Palmer House, Columbian Cafe…

Then I put the mushrooms into the mornay:

 

Shrimp Mushroom Mornay

Shrimp mushroom Mornay

The rest is self explanatory:20140825_19280620140825_192418 20140825_192427 20140825_194241

 

The dabbling of mornay over the top is to keep them moist while they bake, uncovered, at 450F until the ends brown a bit and they are heated through, 15-20 minutes.

 

 

Benzaldehyde’s a Bitch

You ever heard of this benzaldehyde? I’d never heard of it until recently when I decided to discover exactly what it was that I hated about almond extract, cherry Coke, and Oregon myrtle (aka California bay). That’s what it is.

According to this guy, the benzaldehyde is formed as one of the breakdown products of amygdalin and amygdalin’s arch enemy—amygdalin hydrolase. Amygdalin hydrolase catalyzes the reaction that turns amygdalin into sucrose, cyanide, and benzaldehyde. Cyanide.

When an animal like you or me crunches into a bitter almond, or a peach, cherry, or apricot nut, the two chemicals are brought together so that the “bitterness” of benzaldehyde warns us that what we are about to eat, might kill us. If we don’t heed that warning, the cyanide may indeed kill us. This means that if you enjoy bitter almond flavor, I perversely have a greater sense of self-preservation than you. We didn’t see that coming.

My boy over at that other blog says that for this reason artificial almond flavor is superior to natural, since natural almond extract actually contains some cyanide while artificial is pure benzaldehyde. I don’t really care. It all tastes of death to me.

Technology Can Take Care of Itself!

For an assignment in college, I wrote a review of Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, a readable and informative, if stylistically flawed, argument for the application of the eponymous French notion to American soil. Borrowing from the format of Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Jacobsen walks us through a selection of American foods and agricultural products (Avocados from Michoacan, Yakima Valley apples, Puget sound oysters…Puget Sound?! Get the fuck out of here with that polluted backwater; Willapa bay or die!) and explains the geological, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and whatever other logical contributes to the product’s individual distinction. It really is a good piece of pop-scientific nonfiction, kind of my favorite genre.

Anyway, this professor, a published writer of some popular nonfiction in the science vein, took exception to this passage in my piece:

The facts, concepts and philosophies woven throughout the book defend Jacobsen’s baldly staked positions on various contemporary culinary controversies. Jacobsen states his distaste for “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of contemporary culinary culture that employs the methods of the laboratory in the kitchen, early in the book: “I have no interest in this food” (15). It’s a popular position to take, but Jacobsen illuminates his position with a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages outside of Montreal where the focus is on Cuisine Sauvage: cooking with the produce of forest and fallow. The proprietor, Francois Brouillard would, “when he was five dehydrate grasshoppers on the woodstove, steal his mother’s rolling pin, and crush them to make a crust for the fish he’d caught in the river” (119). The techniques are inventive, creative, totally original, but low-tech and therefore, accessible. Jacobsen takes a swipe at Hervé This, the “father of molecular gastronomy” for “taking paint sprayers to innocent pieces of goat cheese” (124). Perhaps Jacobsen would find more to love about This if he’d read chapter 59 of Molecular Gastonomy in which he explains the empirical truths behind le terroir in cheese-making (203).

Regardless, Jacobsen’s culinary worldview is more aligned with that of Nancy Hinton, Brouillard’s wife and chef de cuisine, who has been creating a new type of cuisine completely outside of the conventional paradigm using not high-tech gadgetry or food-as-theatre pyrotechnics, but an artist’s intuition. Specifically, she and Brouillard forage their own ingredients to create such oddities as Cattail stock, desert courses seasoned with dried mushrooms, and pureés enriched with pigweed.

This is not to say that Jacobsen sees no place for manipulation or scientific inquiry in the realm of culinary arts, indeed his introductory explanation of the chemistry of taste makes clear that he appreciates an empirical approach, but that the “molecular gastronomic” approach to cooking follows in a certain tradition. Jacobsen traces that tradition to Antoine Carême “France’s ‘King of Chefs and Chef of Kings’” (14). The problem with this type of cooking, not to suggest that the world would be richer or more equal without it, is that it relies on a heavy battery of specialized equipment to produce highly manipulated and deconstructed food whose object is not necessarily to be satisfying or even delicious, but rarified. It takes power away from the ingredients themselves, and the common people who might be inspired by them, and invests it wholly in the engineer, or chef, or technician.

Now aside from noting how much better of a writer I was in college, you can see where I take Jacobsen’s side in the molecular gastronomy vs. traditional technique “debate,” while still granting that these molecular gastronomists might have something to teach us about the raw ingredient. Actually, I added that little sentence defending Hervé This after I got back the first draft from my professor on which he had scrawled “anti-intellectual” (in the context of a sentence) in regards to this passage. Yes, my professor suggested that criticism of techno-cuisine is tantamount to a thoughtless, knuckle-dragging, celebration of ignorance.

Obviously, this sticks in my craw (and a craw is not a claw, or a paw, or the space between your cat’s paw and claw like it sounds— it’s a bird’s esophageal digestive organ, the crop, the throat) and informs a lot of what I write and think about today. From my piece on letterpress, to my interviews with woodworkers using traditional techniques and materials to build restaurant wood surfaces, to my crazed ranting about Soylent, I’m fascinated with the tension between the traditional and the technological, the hand-crafted vs. the computer engineered, the analog and the binary. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a clear “choice” to be made between these “poles”, or even that there is a polar dichotomy to choose between. But I’m sure you can intuit what I’m getting at here, if you really want to, that is.

My professor, like a lot of modern people, conflates a slew of independent concepts into a monolith called Intellect, or Science, or Progress, or something like that, and it pisses me the fuck off. First, if we can’t decouple science from technology, then to criticize a technology is to criticize the science that makes the technology possible. Case in point: Genetically modified crops. Scientific American and other scientific publications have been on a hot tear in defense of GMO’s. And I understand their concern since a lot of people who are critical of GMO’s see the entire technology as not just fundamentally flawed, but actually evil. These opponents throw the technology and the science together into the same large bag and set it ideologically aflame, while the science and technology establishment stand at the top of the mount and thunder down: “You Fools! I give you fire, and you drown it as thoughtlessly as you would a kitten!” This is unproductive since, in my opinion, the technology has primarily been deployed as a wealth generation machine for agribusiness, but holds promise for medicine and agriculture on a warming planet (disease resistance, drought resistance, etc….) However, we can’t really control what the technology is used for once it’s deployed; the market (and to a lesser extent the unelected bureaucracy) makes those decisions for us. So I say, label it. If the genetics are sufficiently novel to get market protection in the form of a patent, then they are sufficiently novel to handle market scrutiny. These are big kid genetics. Not because I think BT soybeans are poisonous or something, but because that’s the only control any of us can hope to have over the deployment of new technologies which purportedly exist to serve us, but which are actually deployed to make us serve their real masters: the people with the capital to build and own them. (And yes, I realize that these technologies are older than cell phones at this point, but agribusiness has been fighting these efforts tooth and nail for decades now.)

See what I did there? I used principals derived from a wide body of human study and interest to make a decision regarding the regulation of a technology, without attacking the science behind the technology. Nifty huh?

But what about that molecular gastronomy? That stuff, by definition, exists to serve people tasty food, right? Sure, it’s just harmless experimentation, “playing with food” as it were. But what much of it really does is to trade skills for equipment. For example: Water circulators (and this is not a knock on you guys who have them. I love you guys! Thanks for reading!) pretty much cook the food for you. Seal the food in an airtight pouch with a vacuum-sealing machine, set the circulator for the temperature of optimal doneness, drop it in, and forgettaboutit. Sure beats spending years sweating over the stove learning to cook the product at the exact right temperature (as determined by how quickly it burns your hand), how long to rest after cooking and in what medium, and how to determine doneness by sight and touch. All that skill, all that accumulated intuition, gets reduced to a button. I feel the same way about Traegers. Still, your Traeger brisket generally looks like a pasty white-boy approximation of what a Kansas City pitmaster moving meat around on pikes in a room-size brick oven turns out. It tastes good, sure. But, (and this is where I digress into all sorts of squishy, subjective feelings and stuff) it lacks soul. And soul, as far as I’m concerned, resides entirely in the burnt ends.  

As for the rest of it, it confounds criticism. It stands so far apart from what we recognize as food that it becomes impossible to place value judgements on it. I cannot say whether this lichen-smoke puff or nitro-frozen olive oil slick is well executed because, what the fuck am I going to judge it against? And that’s fine, because if these foods stick around long enough to become established parts of mainstream cuisine, we’ll eventually establish benchmarks to judge them by. (“Oh, this seaweed and uni foam has way too much…mass. It coats the palate almost like… sustenance.”) And when these foams and nitro-freezes and vapors and ethers become as common as french fries, were all gonna need some new cooking equipment. And bigger kitchens. Because nearly every new technology comes on as a harmless little amusement or a productivity-enhancing tool, quickly progresses to indispensable for the responsible worker-citizen, and eventually slays everyone who doesn’t adopt it. Technology is an insinuating little bully like that, so stop treating it like a sacrosanct institution: Technology will smite all it’s enemies in due time. Technology can take care of itself.

 

Pickle (Oh the Absurdity)

The reign of missiles continues unabated in the “world’s biggest military prison,” the Gaza strip. Meanwhile, over here in “the world’s biggest crybaby nursery,” Portland, Oregon, I have nothing more menacing to cry about than the acetic acid assault being wrought upon my palate by amateur pickle makers.

And what an assault it is. It’s not like I have my back to the sea, restricted access to fresh water, and a years-long trade blockade that prevents me access to all but the most basic of necessities, but would it kill these guys to read a fucking book or two on the subject? Here in Portland, we can get a copy of Katherine Plageman’s Fine Preserving, or Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling without having it smuggled through an underground tunnel originating in the only contiguous, non-hostile, foreign power (CLOSED). Even in Gaza though, I’m sure someone could round up a tattered old copy of Hertzberg, Vaughan and Greene’s Putting Food By that hasn’t been torn asunder by decades of armed conflict.   

Yes guys, fresh water! You know that dreadfully bland stuff that flows freely from every functioning tap in the city? You use it to flush the toilet? It’s not as if our only source is a rapidly disappearing aquifer that becomes more polluted every passing year by saline and sewage seepage, since that trade blockade prevents us from importing the materials and supplies we’d need to treat our waste water. And you can cook with it! You can use it to cut the acidity of the vinegar so that it’s a little less harsh, a little less abrasive to the palate. We have this ridiculously cheap and abundant luxury, so I’m not sure why you don’t take advantage of it.

You know what else is cheap and abundant here? Sugar. I know it seems sickeningly decadent to sweeten our food when life is already so sweetly devoid of privation. But pickles cry out for sugar. Like Tellason Jeans, or the knock knock bomb drop, sweet pickles are a fucking classic. (Oh wait, neither of those things are as classic as sweet pickles!) So I want you to go consult that Plageman, and learn how things were preserved before the relish tray became a hair shirt for the consciously comfortable.

And lets not forget that, even though we have a reliable supply of electricity, pickles are still a method of preservation, and taste better when given some time to settle into the brine. I never could understand the point of eating pickled versions of products that are fresh in season now. It’s not as if there’s a high likelihood that our cracked skulls will be pouring blood into the streets tomorrow—we can wait a little to crack those jars open.

To review: Water, sugar, recipes, time. But there’s one more thing: taste! Put one of those in your mouth. Drink a spoonful of that brine. Do you actually want to try it again? Or does the thought of it make you cringe a little? Because that’s how I feel with most of these pickle plates. One bite and I got Pickle Traumatic Stress Disorder, such is the sweetness of safety. But we’re building a culture here! Let’s make sure it’s one worth fighting for, should the need arise.

 

Oursin, continued

DPSCamera_0315In fact, Jean brought us a case of wine, vegetables from his garden, and possibly some steaks. I made us all dinner on the patio and I don’t remember what all it included, but it did include a big salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, which Jean refused to eat. He didn’t eat salad.

We learned that he hunted boar and raised vegetables and grapes, and his family made wine. He was vehemently anti-money. “Here we don’t need money; we already have everything we need,” as he liked to say. He apparently lived in the US for a stretch, as a professor I think Doug said, and his opinion of it was summed thusly: “In the United States people always ask: ‘what do you do for a living’ and I think, what kind of a question is that? But I say, ‘I breathe, that’s what I do for a living.'”

He showed us where the hidden beach was, through the forest behind the little resort, and we found even more wandering around on our own. Corsica is full of tiny little beaches, and every one is different: one was in a little bay and had coarse tan sand like small pebbles. One was rocky and wooded practically up to the shoreline. One had white sand that cattle slept upon. But the best beach of all was long and broad and white, and the water was safe to swim in. Near this beach was where the oursin were found.DPSCamera_0294

Jean kept telling us about the oursin, and we kept asking, until one day he came by with the supplies: a bag of baguettes, some bottles of his family’s rosé, a couple of rib steaks, a rubber bucket, another bucket with a clear bottom, and a three-tined hook at the end of a long wooden handle. We walked from the little resort down a rutted dirt road toward the “secret” beach. It just so happened that a bunch of young German tourists, who had recently (and annoyingly) arrived in a bus, were also walking down the road to the beach (not such a secret anymore). We hung back to let them all pass, and Jean swung his fork at their backs and cursed and muttered under his breath, something like: “you stay the fuck away from my fucking spot!”

We took a little trail off to the side of the road which led steeply through a scrubby forest to a little clearing where a grate rested on a fire ring of small boulders. Just a few steps from here was a little cove where the water was relatively calm, and perfectly clear. Standing at the edge it dropped off immediately to two or three feet. The bottom was covered with spiny urchins stuck to the innumerable small boulders strewn across the bottom.

DPSCamera_0297Jean took his shoes and camo off, put on a wetsuit, and waded out with the clear bottom bucket, the other bucket, and the hook. It looked easy. He just looked through the bucket and used the hook to scoop the oursin from the rocks before plopping them into the other bucket. After he scooped a few, I wanted try it. So I waded out in my sneakers and Jean handed over the tools. I located an urchin, took a step toward it, and slipped on the rock underfoot. My sneaker followed the incline till it met the adjacent rock, and the urchin stuck to its side.

“Give me that back. You have to be careful!,” Jean scolded me, and he shooed me out of the water.

Back to the shore I limped, defeated. I pulled off my shoe, and there were about a half dozen spines stuck, fortunately, in the callous on the side of my foot, just behind my big toe. Jean finished up and came back with a haul that makes the little uni plate at the sushi restaurant look downright mean-spirited.

DPSCamera_0300“You have to take those out of there, or it will get” he searched for the word, “infected.”

I got most of them out, but the others were just stuck. Jean eventually changed his mind and said it would probably be fine and sent us to gather some wood for the grill. Soon we had a little blaze of tinder going.

“You’re the chef, right?” Jean asked me.

DPSCamera_0305

“Yeah, I can cook.”

“Cook these steaks then.”

“You have any salt?” I asked.

“How could I forget the salt?,” Jean opined.

“That’s okay, we can just splash some wine on ‘em.”

“Maybe that will be good,” Jean agreed hopefully.

DPSCamera_0306In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just dip them in the sea a couple of times. Still, they were pretty good: French beef, cooked rare over Corsican brush, splashed with a little acidic rosé.

Meanwhile, Jean took a pair of garden shears and started lopping the tops off the oursin. He didn’t use a glove either. When he had  opened a few he showed us: tear off a piece of baguette, take an oursin in hand, and scoop the insides. Shove the whole thing in your mouth.

The inside of an oursin plucked straight from the sea is not just the bright orange dollop you get on top of a sushi roll; it’s a bunch of that stuff (gonads—would that our gonads were such a large part of our bodies!) sauced with a liquid slightly thicker than seawater flecked with green confetti. My experience in restaurants had been that you rinse all that gross shit out of there and eat the sweet orange meat. So I started to do that.

“What are you doing?,” Tonton Jean asked.

“I don’t like the green stuff,” I said.

 

DPSCamera_0303

Tonton Jean scooped his urchin, held up the chunk of dripping baguette, and said, “salad, Mike,” before stuffing it in his face. So I started eating them that way too. It was fine so long as you took a drink of rosé directly after.

After we ate and drank all the steak and wine, as much oursin as we could hold, with just enough baguette to scoop, sitting on the rocks, in that spot of  tree shade protecting us from the fierce Mediterranean sun, everyone felt very tired. Jean succumbed to that early-rising hunter’s instinct, put his hat over his face, his sweater next to a tree trunk, and laid down to nap. The rest of us were still too excited by the vitality of the experience. We sat and watched that cool blue water ripple over the beds of purple oursin, speechless with beauty.

Oursin

20140709_111530

Flip Flops purchased in Ajaccio, France for appr. 7 euro, in 2006.

I have long been under the impression that Facebook is a nothing more than a thinly disguised way to waste time. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need ways to waste time.

But I’m not just wasting time; I’m actually honing my status update to a razor’s edge. Facebook isn’t all dictatorial like Twitter, but people don’t want to read a manifesto on there. People want brevity, concision, acronyms. And just the other day (like three months ago) it finally paid off.

I follow (or like, or whatever the fuck) Saveur magazine, and they shared a contest being held by Lonely Planet’s social media czars— Share a story, in 50 words or less, about your most memorable culinary travel experience. So I wrote:

In Corsica we hooked purple sea urchins from crystal water and, sitting in the shade of the scrubby shore pines, lopped off their tops. We scooped their buttery, briny flesh with chunks of baguette and washed it down with Tanto Jean’s rose. Then we slept on the sand.

And, despite the fact that I don’t know how to spell “tonton” (a term of endearment that nominally means “uncle”), I won an autographed copy of Fork in the Road, a collection of  short travel narratives written by some famous food writers, edited by James Oseland of Saveur magazine, and published by Lonely Planet. Gael Greene signed it, other than that I cannot discern.

I considered reviewing the book here, but I sent a pitch off to Saveur some weeks ago and I’m sure they’re busily poring over this blog right now, hungry for my every word, and that review might dampen my chances of being immortalized in their pages (Thanks for the book guys!). But how we came to be eating oursin on that beach involved a stroke of luck so singular and improbable that it seems, in retrospect, like it may not have actually happened.

Years ago, while we were getting to know Europe, our good friend Doug, through whom we first met, was getting to know his Corsican roots. So he picked us up from the ferry in Ajaccio in a rented Peugeot. We drove the Peugeot around the island for a couple of days, and Doug accidentally filled the diesel car with gasoline, stranding us for a night as we waited for a mechanic to come on duty who could drain the tank. When we finally got the car back to the rental agency, Tonton Jean razzed Doug for “putting water in the car,” then harassed the rental agency to refund the portion of Doug’s money that they charged for the late return. At first they refused, but Tonton Jean, cursing and seething, said some things in French that apparently led them to reconsider.

He drove a little Citroen truckette, which is kind of a cross between a pickup truck and a van. There are no seats in the low-clearance bed, like in a pickup truck, but the canopy is integral to the body, and the bed and cab are contiguous, as in a van. Leona sat in the passenger seat, while Doug and I sat in back, atop the wheel wells.

“So, I think these guys wanted to go camping,” Doug started. Indeed, we had been trudging an overabundance of largely useless camping gear across over-civilized Europe. Corsica, we saw, had deep forests, inaccessible mountains and ravines, and wide swaths of semi-desert coast.

“Camping,” Jean said, as if he were just turning the word over in his mind.

“Yeah, I think they were hoping you might know of someplace.”

Jean pulled a pack of Marlboro full flavored’s from his shirt pocket, put one in his mouth, and offered one to Leona.

“Smoke?”

She accepted, smiling.

“We smoke. These guys,” Jean tilted his chin toward the back, “they don’t smoke.”

Then they both laughed.

So we just sat as Jean drove through Sartene, where he lived, then back out onto roads wending through forests, up and down hills. We weren’t actually ready to camp at that very moment. We didn’t even have any toilet paper. A parking lot improbably appeared in the wilderness. How very European!

“Camping?”

“Yes, camping,” we dumbly nodded, bewildered, and maybe a little frightened. The Corse are known for their fierce determination to protect their island’s character from foreign uglification, and this guy wears camo daily. He’s old and slender, but grizzled and tough as the Corsican boars he apparently hunted in his ample free time. I was pretty ridiculous with my oversize backpack and cheap flip flops. From the parking lot all we could see was a brick wall, partially obscured by trees and brush.

He led us down a narrow concrete path behind the building, then took a left down a path toward the front. We stepped out onto a large terra cotta patio, and took in a view of the forested hills rolling down to the turquoise sea maybe a mile away, and a little terra cotta fireplace in the wall to one side of the patio. Jean pulled out a key.

“Camping,” he announced, before leading us into the sliding glass entrance, startling a cleaning lady. He showed us the kitchen and two bedrooms, one on the main floor and a larger one upstairs.

Still bewildered, Leona started, “We can’t afford this….”

“You don’t need money. This guy owes me a favor,” was Jean’s first lesson for us.

We did need food. We mentioned this to him, and he seemed not to have noticed.

So after we unburdened ourselves, we piled back into the Citroen and headed down toward the sea. Just around the bend we came to a little vacation town. It was the off season, so most things were closed, but Jean pulled up to a little restaurant that was still open. We got a pizza and some wine. Jean ordered Pastis, which he seemed to live on. Another day, I asked him if he ever drank water, and he pointed to the little water decanter served with the Pastis, for mixing. We got another bottle of wine to take back with us. We tried to pay, but the proprietor threw his hands up, and took a step back. Jean urged us to put it away, and not offer anymore.

Heading back in the clear, coastal twilight, Jean explained that around here, favors were currency, as they placed demands on the receiver.

“But tomorrow, we’ll show him. I’ll bring a whole case of wine!”

To be continued…

Post-Colonial Strawberries.

Frais de bois from my garden. Fragaria vesca I assume.

Frais de bois from my garden. Fragaria vesca I assume.

The strawberry is the undisputed prince of berries. It’s the first to ripen, has the least obtrusive seeds, and it’s red. It’s juice is evenly distributed throughout the flesh, so it’s all tender and, in really good specimens, the tart-sweet balance is precise as a knife. Biting into a strawberry is the closest your mouth will ever come to experiencing the intensity of pleasure that your genitals enjoy.

“Gangster, why you being all dirty about strawberries? It’s making me uncomfortable and everybody knows that food/sex metaphors are totally played anyway.”

Look at those sad little raspberries. They must feel so... inadequate.

Look at those sad little raspberries. They must feel so… inadequate.

It’s not really a metaphor though, is it? And I’m endlessly fascinated by fruit-eating as the consumption of another species reproductive material. Fruits are, as I know you know, the enlarged, fertilized ovaries of the flower. But it turns out that the juicy, delicious part of a strawberry isn’t the fruit at all. It’s a pseudocarp, a false fruit, because the “seeds” on the surface are actually complete fruits.  The fleshy red part is the swollen receptacle on which the ovary containing carpels rest. Still, to my patriarchal, heteronormative worldview, a swollen receptacle sounds damn sexy.

Also, strawberries are genetic freaks, and the various species contain from two (diploid) to ten (decaploid) sets of chromosomes, depending on the species. I’ve already exceeded the limits endowed upon me by freshman elective biology, so I’ll just say that two sets of chromosomes is normal. Something freaky has to happen during reproduction for an organism to get more chromosomal sets, and live.

That said, we can all agree that Oregon strawberries are to California strawberries what sex is to masturbating to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. They look exactly the way they’re expected too. If you stare intently while really straining your imagination they resemble real pleasure, but they’re all size and sheen, and no juice. We need sweetness, tartiness, aroma, some goddamn juice in our berries in Oregon. This isn’t just me waxing poetic here either. I know how you nerds love science, so here you can see a chemical analysis proving that Oregon strawberries are objectively tastier than those from our white trash, nouveau riche, southern kick dog.

Western Oregon enjoys (yes, enjoys!) an ideal strawberry climate. European horticultural strawberries (Fragaria ananassa) were supposedly brought here from Iowa in 1846 and have been a major part of our agricultural landscape ever since. That landscape has diminished steadily since the 1970s. In 1981, Oregon raised over 52 million pounds of strawberries. In 2012 we produced just over 21 million pounds, less than half that quantity. We’re still the third producer nationally, trailing far behind those cheap tricks California and Florida (where else would you find such vapid insipidity packaged and exported for national consumption?) but we only produce about 2% of the total national crop.

“But Gangster, I always buy at least a flat a year during strawberry season. All this buy local ethic has to help the industry somewhat.”

That is a swollen receptacle covered with achenes, seed like fruit.

That is a swollen receptacle covered with achenes, seed like fruit.

No. Most Oregon strawberries aren’t raised for the fresh market. In ’81, almost 47 million pounds went to the processor while strawberry fanatics like us consumed a paltry 4.5 million pounds. In fact, and maybe this will shock you as much as it does me, we consumed only 3.5 million pounds fresh in 2012. The eighties ate more delicious strawberries than us, and that ain’t right. On the other hand, that 3.5 million pounds represents 16% of the total 2012 harvest, while in 1981 Oregonians ate only 8% of the crop fresh from the field. Still, there’re way more people in this state now. Ya’ll have got to step it up.

But the big lesson here is this: We are never gonna locally eat our way to strawberry dominance. Oregon is a processed strawberry producer, and the world basks in our munificence. In fact, Oregonians are the marginal beneficiaries of that processed market. Since processing means that the berries can be picked at the height of ripeness and processed shortly thereafter, Oregon strawberry varieties have been bred for flavor rather than sturdiness. So the continuing flavor superiority of Oregon strawberries is as much a result of the market forces driving the processed versus fresh industry as is the terroir. But the terroir has a fascinating backstory.

Fragaria chiloensis, what we here usually call the coast strawberry, is native to the Pacific fog belt from Alaska to Central California. You could say that Oregon rests in the sweet spot. It’s assumed that migratory birds were responsible for it’s translocation to coastal Chile (and Hawaii), where it was cultivated around the mouth of the bíobío river by the Mapuche and Picunche tribes, who enlarged its pseudocarp through selective breeding, drank it’s fermented juice, and passed it on to the Inca (as a form of obeisance), who carried it upriver for their own gardens (this is not some postcolonial allegory—I am not making this up.) The Spanish, for whom “the large, elite berries were considered a bounty of conquest,” spread the chiloensis strawberry first around the new world before bringing it back to a garden in Marseilles, where it happily acquainted itself with the Fragaria virginiana, which had been brought to Europe from Eastern North America in probably the 17th century. This marriage gave birth to the Fragaria ananassa, the familiar garden strawberry from which (practically?) all modern agricultural varieties are derived. So, in a sense, Oregon represents a sort of homecoming for our botanical patrimony, of which Southern California is a usurper. Indeed, the northernmost range of the California strawberry industry is Monterey Bay, the southern end of the range of our coastal Fragaria.

The agricultural imperialism of California reigns far and wide. Producing 80% of this country’s strawberries, defeating every other strawberry producer in the world in terms of volume, and exporting their own strawberry genetics back to the chiloensis’ far-flung ancestral home. In Chile, California ananassa cultivars, have displaced both European ananassa varieties (introduced in the 19th century) and the native chiloensis varieties, frutillas in the local dialect.

“So what’s the actual problem?”

For you asker, very little. But California has a heavily industrialized system of strawberry production which includes massive greenhouses of clones which have to be trucked up into the mountains near the Oregon border, presumably because they need that sweet kiss of Cascade air to imbue them with the false optimism that will drive them to reproduce in vain under the unrelenting California sun for the rest of their short lives. Fields are fumigated with methyl bromide (technically banned as a large scale fumigant, but used under special EPA exemption by California strawberry growers, because it’s so fucking urgent that we eat bland strawberries all year) and covered with plastic to make sure everything dies, dies, dies, dead. The fields are also “mulched” with plastic to keep down weeds. It’s not that none of these practices are used anywhere else, but they were developed in California, and they are the industrial inputs upon which this whole Driscoll-plastic-box empire rests. This is the industrial strawberry system that is being adopted by large-scale growers the world over. They do all this work, and winter, spring, or summer their strawberries still suck.

Mean Mr. Mustard

When I make a sandwich, I use mustard. Because I actually want to taste it, I don’t just put a little dab or a smear on the bread—I spread it on liberally. Problematically, I live on the west coast of the United States, where mustard is regarded not as the crushed seeds of a weedy, prolific, brassica mixed with vinegar and spices, but as a rare and treasured condiment to be dabbed reverentially on warm lobes of foie gras, or the mediocre charcuterie of some second-rate kitchen manager. Go to the grocery store here and they got 40 or 50 different four-to-six ounce jars of the golden preserve, blended with all manner of exquisite flavorings, like beer! or honey! or chilies! At times I just stand in slack-jawed awe of the alchemical geniuses behind these gilded alloys.

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The ingredient saga of Beaver Brand  Honey Mustard. Like commercial ice cream, it has maybe 15 more ingredients than it should. Flour? What thinking person making mustard thinks, “you know what this needs? Some fucking white flour, that’s what.” You can tell it was likely a food scientist because of the xanthan gum. Food scientists love that shit.

Despite the incredible creativity on display, I cannot figure how combining lowly mustard seeds with a tiny amount of some other cheap commodity justifies over a dollar an ounce. Where I’m from, we buy mustard by the pound, it costs pennies per ounce, and it’s strong. Oh, Oregon has Beaver brand! The working class mustard is featured in the six-pack condiment carriers that bedeck the picnic tables of every public house in the state. It’s so strong! So spicy! It totally sucks. It tastes like sarin gas bubbled through sulfuric acid, thickened with tapioca, and sweetened with HFCS. It has the ingredient list of a bottle of shampoo.

I tried solving this dilemma by making my own mustard, and that worked out okay. But while making mustard is technically pretty simple, crush seeds and mix with liquid and seasoning, it’s impractically labor intensive to do with regular home equipment. Also, the cuisinart and the mortar and pestle are never gonna turn out as nice a mustard as a mill.

I’d been tasting my mustard against the mustards of Portland, and it held up pretty well. As a model, I used the faint memory of the Plochman’s whole grain mustard that they sold in ceramic crocks for a while. I don’t know if I reached that standard, because I can’t find that mustard anymore. I know that it doesn’t hold up well against Edmond Fallot mustard. Fallot is another dollar-an-ounce mustard, but at least it doesn’t suck.

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I highly recommend the mustard on the left. The one on the right is more than serviceable, but is hardly exemplary.

Fortunately I make it back to the Midwest on occasion, where people know a thing or two about mustard.  Last time I went, I brought back two pounds of mustard from the Woeber Mustard company of Springfield, Ohio. Their Sandwich Pal Hot and Spicy Mustard is not excruciatingly hot, but that’s not how I like my mustard. It is sharp and pungent. It enlivens the most desultory of cold cuts or mournful cheese sandwiches. It sings on a sausage! It costs $5 for a pound, at the fancy store. On their site it goes for a mere $2.10+shipping (which is significant if you’re only buying a few bottles).

“What’s the catch?” No catch, my hip coast brethren. It’s not organic. It comes in a plastic squeeze bottle. The ingredients are few and simple: Vinegar, #1 mustard seed, salt, sugar, horseradish and spices. Oh, here’s the catch: you can’t find it here.