Science!

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 fancy nonfiction writer of numerous books on somewhat sciencey subjects 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 what I see as 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 not just the science that makes the technology possible, but science itself. 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 plays the same game: 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. I yelped.

“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.

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“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.

 

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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

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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 Macuche 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.

I F***ing really dig Science (It’s the Boss):

In the past, a lot of vanillin came from the waste from paper mills. Recently, a Japanese scientist, Mayu Yamamoto, found a novel way of making vanillin. She extracted lignin from cow dung and converted that to vanillin. This discovery won her the 2007 Ig Nobel prize for chemistry, the send-up of the real Nobel prize.

 

—Simon Cotton, Chemistry World Magazine

P.S. This apparently represents an improvement in vanillin manufacture. It’s typically made of crude oil. 

The Fine Art of Housewifery

I recently slogged through Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, and it was pretty good. Her voice is academic and a little dry. She does have a real penchant for subtle comic understatement, but this is not the province of the Gangster and it took me about 100 pages to catch on. It’s all about the scientific cookery (or domestic science) movement in America in the mid 19th to early 20th century. The movement aimed to bring housekeeping and cookery up to the level of the more serious male pursuits of science and engineering and so forth. (I see so many parallels between this and modernist cuisine, I think it warrants at least one senior thesis.) This is the women’s movement that brought us Home Economics class.

I took Home Ec. in high school (now they call this “Family and Consumer Science”?!,) and it was absolutely useless. A lot of guys took it since they thought it would be full of females. It was not. I took it because I thought we would learn to cook some fancy-ass 80′s food straight out of the Silver Palate cookbook, then have a second lunch. We did not. We made cinnamon toast. I should have taken Shop.

Based on this experience alone, I agree with Shapiro’s premise that this movement was a bunch of hooey. Then there’s the sad denouement. Apparently the movement really went off the rails towards towards the late 19th century. Or maybe it just reached it’s absurd logical conclusion. The domestic scientists had always imagined themselves as social reformers, then they started telling people how big their butter pats should be (bigger the butter, the slicker the sandwich—that’s what I always say.) They kowtowed to silver-tongued food product salesmen, and shilled their brands at trade shows. The movement’s integration into mainstream academia created a sort of separate-but-equal hierarchy wherein female students were steered away from career track studies and into their domestic counterparts. Imagine, you could have been right there with Marie Curie, discovering radioactive decay, but instead you were tracking the decay of the family’s egg supply.

That ain’t right! Chicks can math too! But here’s the thing—I think Shapiro is a little too hard on these old-timey broads. She holds the leaders of this movement in a sort of comical contempt (and some of their ideas really are pretty funny, they purposefully make menus of all-white food, which they cook and don’t eat,) but housewifery is still hard work.

I don’t know if you know it but, I’m not really a gangster. I’m actually a stay-at-home-dad. A housewife, if you will. I only write at night, when my frivolous scribbling won’t distract from my duties as a housewife and father. But, before you laugh, I just wanna let you know that this shit is hard bro! Hardcore, that is.

I tried to send my wife to the grocery store the other day. I came up with a few ideas for dinners for the week, made up a list of groceries and then said: “Well… I need a roast for roast beef. I don’t know what they’re going to have. If they have a top round, or London broil sale, get a first cut, but have them split it laterally first and take it from the big side. But if they have bottom round, just get the first cut, have them cut into a new one. Sometimes they call it the watermelon cut. Wait, is top sirloin on sale? No, that’s sirloin tip steak, and you’ll need to see if the roast is actually cheaper than the steak at sale price. And it’s hard to get a good cut of. Actually, I’ll just get the meat later this week. Hot dogs? Yeah no, Hebrew National kind of sucks, Country Natural are worse. Maybe I’ll just go to Old Country Sausage later this week. We need some lettuce for salads, but I don’t know what looks good. If they have escarole, and it looks good, get that. If not, get romaine, unless it’s all crappy and dark….” I hadn’t realized, even shopping at the supermarket requires an enormous skill set.

I know, “this isn’t fair Gangster (I mean housewife), you used to work at the meat department cutting meat. You’re like a Gangster (or housewife) of meat! A regular citizen like your long suffering-wife can’t be expected to know all this stuff about buying a roast.” But that’s just the thing, all these old-timey housewives would probably put a butcher through the paces. Take Fanny Farmer for example, I bet that leering old McCreedy took a step back whenever she strode through the doors of his Boston butchery.

What I’m saying is, you gotta cut these ladies some slack. Even when I pour every ounce of my male privilege into it, I struggle to keep the floors clean and get a healthy, delicious meal on the table before 8:00 pm. I got an electric dryer. I have a gas stove and the full force of the US regulatory machine to ensure that my baking soda is, in fact, baking soda. I have been prepared for the role of housewife since I was a little kid and my mama made me help her clean the house and taught me how to fold laundry, then I spent 15 years taking care of myself. These ladies got married straight outta high school to men whose penises they had never even seen—perhaps not even in pictures. I too would like a school to teach me how to. Besides the bland food and the sanctimonious nattering, I’d say the only the mistake the Mary Lincoln’s and the Sarah Tyson Rorer’s of the world made was not educating the young men of Boston in the fine art of housewifery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Savaging of the Hinterlands

So I guess there’s a new little business opening up in Sellwood. It’s supposed to be a little grocery store called Moreland Farmer’s Pantry. They want to offer what sounds like a first-rate selection of Oregon-grown meats and produce and sundries. But one co-owner of this business has a problem: she’s an idiot.

See, Chauncy Linn Brice Childs (or whatever the fuck she goes by now) did not understand that a Facebook page needs to be secured to keep it from the public eye. And Chauncy is a Mormon Libertarian. Ooooh! Bad move Chauncy! Now everybody saw how you said that the gays are trying to rend our social fabric by getting married. And that you think that businesses should have the right to refuse service to people based on their gayness. Game over, Chauncy.

You can imagine the uproar that followed when this incredibly annoying video (“My children walk past this business to go to school in the morning… sigh“) by one Sean O’Riordan surfaced, detailing Mrs. Child’s bigoted little views. The internet’s ablaze with, oh you know, you got your conservative fucktards on the one side—”Ya’ll ain’t so tolerant after all!” —and your liberal scream machine on the other— “Injustice anywhere…!,” and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Naturally, Portland is in full-on boycott mode. Flames are being fanned by two local blowhards: Byron Beck (of “IDGAF if you enjoy what I write in Willamette Week—I suffer, you suffer!” fame,) and Nick Zukin (of “How Dare You Refuse to Rave About my Pastrami?” fame). Beck wants us right-thinking people (and I assure you, I am right- thinking) to boycott not only the Farmer’s pantry, but any suppliers who refuse to pull their products, and Zukin’s Mi Mero Mole to boot. This is because Zukin has, in his blustering way, jumped to the woman’s defense. Zukin also apparently thinks that businesses should have the legal right to discriminate. Apparently, he never heard about segregation.

That’s a lot of boycott, even for Portland, especially over such an inconsequential voice in the marriage equality wars. I’ve read a lot of, “I will take my business to an establishment that is more in line with my values” talk, and I find it nearly as naive as posting your crazy on Facebook and thinking that’s the end of it.

I get out to the country. I try to buy stuff directly from the people who live out there, and I don’t talk about anything but the products we’re dealing in. I buy lumber directly from a guy with a small mill in Skamania. He does a good thing in that he turns his neighbor’s unwanted trees, and some on his own small lot, into nice, trim-quality lumber. You think I ask him about his views on gay marriage or Obamacare? When I talk to the avowed Christian in Junction City about buying a pasture-finished cow from his sustainably-managed ranch, you think I grill him about his views on abortion? You think I ask a pig farmer whether the government should spend more on the social safety net?

You don’t need to venture out to the country to see this, you can observe from the quiet safety of your liberal bastion. Read almost anything by that great figure of agricultural sustainability (in the egalitarian-environmentalist model,) Joel Salatin. That guy is a serious libertarian, social-conservative, right-wingnut. Should we hold that against his farm? Who else has done more to prove that a low-tech farming model can be environmentally and economically sustainable? Maybe we take what we like, and tell him to keep the rest.

“Well, how’s that cisgender, hetero, white, male privilege working out for you?” Not so fucking hot, really, especially since it deligitimizes my opinion. But here’s the thing, how’s it working out for the businesses whose values “align” with yours? Does New Seasons Market offer a homophobe-free beef? A pro-choice broccoli? No, they do not. And the people who raise this stuff are not necessarily, as many like to think, just like those cute little hippies down at the farmer’s market with overalls and dimples. Lots of them are just regular, old-school, Christian, conservative farmers. New Seasons Market, Whole Foods, et al. are big companies with marketing savvy and a carefully cultivated public persona. They do business, not politics, with their suppliers. I have no idea what the premium supermarkets really “stand for,” outside of a premium supermarket experience.

Actually, I have an idea as to what Endeavour Capital, which owns a 69% stake in NSM stands for, since employees of the private equity firm collectively gave $233,000 to Republican candidates and committees in the 2011-2012 election cycle, including $117,000 to the biggest mormon of them all, Mittens Romney. They gave $0 to Democratic candidates. In the current cycle they gave a little to Wyden and Merkley, but mostly they gave to the National Republican Congressional  Committee. Perhaps they hired a token Democrat to soften their image.

I dunno, should I support the behemoth with a squeaky-clean image, but whose big money goes to a bunch of conservative businessmen? Or should I join in the tirade against the small-potatoes dingbat whose idea of “sustainable agriculture” sounds, at first blush, to be pretty close to mine? Because when I shop at NSM or Whole Foods, I look around and think, most of this shit is a greenwash. Sorry, “local produce” doesn’t include California’s Central Valley (would that the whole country had a Central Valley to co-opt!) 90 days on a feedlot is still a long time on a feedlot, and says nothing about the pasture management techniques of the ranchers. “Vegetarian-fed” chickens? Chickens aren’t vegetarian.”Free Range” hardly means anything at all. “Hormone free pork?” Federal laws prohibit the use of hormones in pork. Hey, how’d all these pigs get broken bones and bruises in a humane slaughterhouse? (That last was my personal observation in the NSM meat department.) Not to mention the the way that the supermarket business model warehouses and yokes what traditionally would have been (and still are in Europe) independent businesses run by skilled craftspeople and their trainees. So yeah, the place is problematic.

I know, “Hitler loved animals, asshole!” But we’re really not talking about Hitler, are we? We’re not talking about the Third Reich. We’re not even talking about Kansas City. We’re talking about Portland, Oregon. Chauncy Childs is not just a dying breed, she’s a fish in a barrel. Blam! Blam! Not to mention that this gay marriage thing is hardly the craziest shit she’s spouted (oh, open that link at the peril of your own wits.) The lady is battier than she is dangerous.

If the Moreland Farmer’s Pantry were a discriminatory business, then legal action would be appropriate. If Mrs. Childs were publicly engaging in anti-gay speech in the neighborhood, then I could see the concern on the part of Mr. O’Riordan et al. Walking by a business owned by a quiet homophobe (well, a homophobe that’s learning to be quiet) isn’t going to inculcate O’Riordan’s children with homophobia any more than the using the Firefox browser will (although drinking Rockstar energy beverages is likely a different story.) The speech that Mrs. Childs seems to be trying to put forward concerns alternative agriculture, local economies, bridging the rural/urban divide and so forth. Yeah, good luck with that.

Most troubling of all: what does this boycott hope to achieve? It is difficult to understand how it will change people’s views on gay marriage. If anything, it seems to entrench camps by putting conservatives on the offensive, and increasing their paranoiac sense of victimhood, and reinforcing liberals’ sense of moral righteousness. Perhaps it is meant to force the so-so’s on the sidelines to pick a side, or get savaged. I’m not on the sidelines, I think marriage equality will be a great thing for individuals, and society as a whole. But am I an enemy of marriage equality if I choose to buy a gallon of milk from Moreland Farmer’s Pantry? I’d like to think not.

The rural hinterlands of Oregon are changing, albeit slowly, but screaming at everyone who comes to Portland in a rural frame of mind surely does little, less than nothing really, to accelerate that change.