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.

   

 

Cookware as a Class Signifier

Everyone knows that nonstick cookware is junk. Literally disposable. I guess some people think they’ve invested big money in a nonstick cookware set, and it’s gonna last forever. Have fun with that. The rest of us are going to learn about metals and seasoning, spend less on our cookware, and be ready to educate them when their Williams Sonoma nonstick cookware set gets as scratched as the wood floors in a whorehouse, and turns into a stick skillet.

Here’s the heart of the thing: How much should you spend on cookware? Obviously, that depends on how much you have to spend. If, like me, you’re struggling into a second low-paying career, you don’t want to just head down to Sur La Table and blurt, “gee whiz guys, what does Thomas Keller use in his kitchen?” Because let’s face it, no matter how much cash you throw at it, you’re never gonna be Thomas Keller anyway. Mediocre home cooks who throw lots of money at their cookware and cutlery remind me of those wanna-be rednecks whose $40,000 Ford F250 super duty pickup trucks have seen less action than my little Suzuki four banger.

So I’m gonna let you in on these secrets and hope that my upper crust readership doesn’t get gentrification all over the restaurant supply store. Vollrath’s Tribute line 8″ skillet is tri-ply (steel-aluminum-steel) and retails for $67.50 on their site. The same pan from All-Clad is $95. You cook at home. The Vollrath is gonna stand up to whatever you can throw at it. It sees more abuse in a week in a professional setting than it might see in a lifetime at your house. The pan comes with or without heat-resistant (up to 450° F) silicone handle.

Matfer-Bourgeat is a French company that I’d always associated with mandolin slicers, but they make great black steel skillets too (In the course of writing this I also learned about DeBuyer brand, much nicer-looking than Matfer, but about twice the price.) Black steel, a type of carbon steel, is the French analog to cast iron. Now, you know I don’t fetishize the French, but a black steel skillet has a certain suavity that cast iron lacks. Cast iron has it’s place in my kitchen, no doubt. Oftentimes I want that heft, but they’re hard to pick up, they take a long time to heat up, hold the heat for a really long time, and always have straight edges. I hate straight edges, you can’t flip anything, and they don’t allow the moisture to dissipate as quickly. On the other hand, if you need to fry some chicken or hush puppies, or sear a steak over your crappy gas range, just leave that Frenchy on the shelf, he don’t know nothing about that.

Vollrath makes some carbon steel skillets too, I don’t recommend them. I made the mistake of thinking they’re the same, and they are not. The Matfer is a little heavier, and a little more compact. The Vollrath, like many of the professional brands, is slightly lighter, and its handle is absurdly long for home cooking. A thinner steel is fine for pros who are cooking over serious heat, and want the skillet to heat and cool quickly. Long handles make for easy retrieval of  skillets that have been pushed to the back of cavernous ovens. These are not problems faced by the home cook. Instead, the home cook often faces a lack of heat and a lack of space, so weight and compact size are assets.

You know about seasoning. Maybe you have a cast iron skillet or something. Maybe it’s even well-seasoned. Maybe it’s not. Maybe you’re staying at a vacation rental they got nothing to cook with short of a couple of old, scratched-up, stick skillets and a rusty old wok. That’s where we were, and we wanted to fry eggs.

To make matter worse, the place didn’t have a decent steel scrubber. No problem. Get the pan hot and scrub it out with some oil and salt. If you have a good, sharp scrubber or some steel wool, you could use that. The point isn’t to get the surface all gleaming and clean, just to get it smooth. Rust, flaking bits of previous seasoning, and stuck on food, including the “shadow” that beans and/or rice sometimes leave on the inside of cookware, need to go. Ideally, you don’t use soap, but water is fine. Best of all is to scrub it hot with some oil and coarse salt, sometimes that don’t cut it though. If the pan is a real mess with stuck on food and uneven layers of charred seasoning, burn it. Either put it over a high flame, or in the oven on the cleaning cycle until everything turns to carbon and flakes away.

Then we just rub some oil on, heat it up, hold it just below the smoke point for as long as we have, and turn it off. Let it sit. When it’s cool, we just rub off the excess oil, heat it up, and fry some eggs like Roy Plunkett‘s our uncle. And that’s it, that’s seasoning. This applies to stainless steel and aluminum too. You want to fry some eggs—

  1. Oil the skillet
  2. Wipe the excess oil
  3. Heat the skillet
  4. Turn it off, just as it wants to start smoking
  5. Let it cool down
  6. Wipe it out
  7. Heat it again with some fresh fat
  8. And now you fry eggs.

Heat  accomplishes two things: it opens the pores of the metal so that they will accept the oil, and it polymerizes the oil. Polymerize is a fancy way of saying “solidify.” So, basically, you just make a solid little layer of oil between the food and those bad old skillet pores. The first seasoning will be the hardest—you might have to do it two of three times to get good coverage.

Here’s a popular blog post from a few years back, it got almost 500 comments!

Basically, the lady recommends baking half a dozen very thin coats of linseed oil onto your cast iron or non-stainless steel cookware. Each coat takes 2 hours in the oven at 500°, after which you turn off the oven and let it sit in there till it’s cool.

I dunno, this sounds like way too much work. And 500° sounds way too hot; I would go for like 350°-375°. At 500° the oil is burning and breaking down. You could practically clean the skillet at 500°. Some commenters said that the seasoning flaked off, and that the lady was a scientific dum-dum. She did go on and on about “toxins” and “free radicals” and such. Still, you get an idea as to what might constitute a “perfectly” seasoned pan. However, I feel that seasoning isn’t a thing you do, it’s way of life. Which sounds like work too, but it really isn’t. You basically have to learn to leave the oil film on things rather than vigorously scrub it away with copious hot water and soap. Occasionally, you need to touch up, especially the dutch oven.

Lots of people think the cast iron dutch oven shouldn’t be used for high acid foods, since the iron reacts with the acid and the seasoning comes off. That is a load of balls. The extra iron will only be good for your frail, vegan constitution. The seasoning does come off, so just season it again. Put some oil on it after you clean it, heat it up, and let it cool down. How hard was that? Hard enough to justify spending $200 extra on a Le Creuset? It’s your money, do what you like. Just don’t think your gonna be a better cook for it.

 

Foodies Welcome

The word “foodie” is atrocious. It makes you sound like you’re infantilizing yourself. I’m a foodie. Well aren’t you a big girl? What do you want to be when you grow up? A food?

It comes from the satirical Official Foodie Handbook published in 1984 by Ann Barr and Paul Levy. It was coined to make fun of people who like food, by people who like food. I’m not sure what to think of that, except that Paul Levy is a bit of a pompous ass, and I’m glad he got savaged by Bourdain.

Then there’s the problem common to all these self-important little dietary descriptors that everybody is so fond of today. And they’re all so obnoxiously cutesy and cuddly and like, totally non-offensive and, forgive me for just saying this but, they make you look like a little egg in a basket. Like a little object, meekly lying there, with the stamp: “USDA Locavore Grade A”  “USDA Choice Vegan” “USDA Foodie certified”. Totes adorbs, right?

Then I saw this:

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And I laughed and laughed and laughed, and I felt vindicated.

Crisp-Tender as a Spring Neophyte

Asparagus season is nigh, which means that I will soon be trembling with fury as food writers and Twitter Personas® alike excitedly alert us to the importance of cooking seasonal vegetables just until “crisp tender” or “al dente,” for nutrient retention, or colonic health or something like that. It must be a health thing because, although you know the Gangster likes salad, I’ve never really gotten the appeal of serving all the vegetables raw. Raw vegetables have their place, but it’s not on my main course.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough I like a plate of briefly poached asparagus, marinated in lemon vinaigrette, or even a salad of asparagus shaved into ribbons, I don’t think the vegetable really shines until grilled until it’s been charred limp and gilded with a blizzard of Parmigiano. Likewise with green beans, broccoli, whole favas, cauliflower, spring onions, garlic scapes, raab, and on and on— cook the fuck out of them. Not until they dissolve into the cooking medium, or catch fire and fall through the grates, but until they’re sweet and yielding. Cooking the vegetables for long enough tempers their bitter, contrarian nature, sweetens their sugars, and renders them permeable to sauce and seasoning. Cooking vegetables civilizes them.IMG_2143

There’s no need to fight with everything you put in your mouth. Our ancestors learned to cook so that they could tame food from an arm’s length.

 

Here’s the way to cook asparagus:

  1. Oil and season it well with salt and pepper.
  2. Put it on a really hot grill. You shouldn’t be able to get your hand closer than two or three inches without pain.
  3. Cook one side till good and dark.
  4. Cook the other side till charred too.
  5. Grate a bunch (a blizzard) of Parmigiano Reggiano on that, preferably with a microplane.
  6. Douse it in olive oil. Foodies will have you believe that you gotta spend an arm and a leg on olive oil. Nay, I get mine from a gallon can.
  7. The ambitious will want to top the asparagus with a sunny-side-up fried egg.