Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tell me, I pray thee, where they feed their flocks

I hesitate to criticize, because I want them to succeed, but Derrick's report on Heritage Foods chez Chez Panisse got me thinking again. I have already mentioned the $15/lb. cherries, which, I'm sure Derrick will agree, were not terribly good this year. They sell some other things at 4x the cost of buying direct from the producer. By comparison, their meat prices are fair.

What really bothers me is the wisdom of overnighting cherries, much less hog quarters across the country. How is this in any way sustainable? There was an interesting article in Food Policy this spring that -- crudely -- estimated the environmental benefits of buying local at twice those of buying organic. And this was for the UK, so they're talking about diesel, not jet fuel. I've always found it a bit, shall we say, inconsistent, that C.P. flies in all that produce from the Chinos, who won't even answer their phone because they want you to buy local. And Rancho Santa Fe is a lot closer than the Berkshires.

And then there's the frozen issue. Let's just say that Chez Panisse's ability to source fresh grassfed beef was the prerequisite to them abandoning cornfed altogether. (One of the good things about Heritage is that they let you time your order so that it arrives fresh).

I understand that the coat has many colors, which sometimes clash, and that preserving these heritage breeds is particularly important. But let's stop pretending that local, organic, and sustainable are all the same and we can live happily ever after. Or at least the rich can.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

the butterfly collector

Today I have been collecting exotic bugs with Photoshop CS2. You can too: all you need is a NEF file, an AD share, and OS 10.3.9's save dialog:

Exception:  EXC_BAD_ACCESS (0x0001)
Codes: KERN_PROTECTION_FAILURE (0x0002) at 0x000000a1


Luckily, the pasta machine seems to have drained all my rage for the month, or I'd also be adding to my collection of Kevin Brown holes in the wall.*

In other words, I am trying to WORK here people, with my COMPUTOR, and I don't care about the stupid internets.

Except for this heartwarming picture of Yankee pride. No, not those 'roids, Sheff!

*For those of you who have managed to forget the '80s, the chorus of A.R. Kane's "Butterfly Collector":

I want to keep you (x infinity)
I want to KILL YOU.

In fact, there may have been no other part to the song than that chorus. Anyway, I get it in my head quite frequently during certain stages of the corporate upgrade cycle.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


One of the revolutionary aspects of this revolutionary new medium is the revolutionary way people can interact with each other, without the mediation of the evil mainstream media, on whom we all depended in the horrible past to represent our important and well-informed "perspectives", order coffee, and wipe our asses. When Al Gore invented the revolutionary futuristic future we live in, we got to wipe our own asses, and each others', without interference from the man. This is called "comments", which I don't have, but I will now interact with those of other people.

Derrick somewhere noted that arrugula is increasingly called rocket, and wondered why. First of all, it is the English word for Eruca sativa (like many of our food words, from the French [roquette], not italian), dating to at least the sixteenth century:

1530 PALSGR. 263/2 Rocket an herbe, rocquette. 1548 TURNER Names Herbs (E.D.S.) 36 The other kynde called in latin Eruca syluestris is communely called in englishe Rokket, it hath a yealowe floure. 1578 LYTE Dodoens 622 Rockat flowreth cheefely in Iune and Iuly. 1605 TIMME Quersit. Pref. p. vi, Like bad and unskilful herborists, to sowe rocket and to weede endive. 1693 EVELYN De la Quint. Compl. Gard. II. 200 Rocket is one of our Sallet Furnitures, which is sown in the Spring as most of the others are. Its Leaf is pretty like that of Radishes.
Note the last author, whose Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, readily available, will school you about what is, and isn't, exotic. It was also, according to Karen Hess, commonly planted in Colonial gardens through the eighteenth century.

Of course, that is not why people are suddenly using the word again. The explanation for that is that Alice Waters has been calling it rocket since the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (she, after all, made its acquaintance in France) and approximately 90% of the restaurants on the west coast (and not a few on the other) are but a few degrees of separation therefrom.

Elsewhere, La D. wanted a recipe for enchiladas suizas that did not, God forbid, include tomatoes. I was going to type in the recipe from Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican, but that would take too long. This one will do, except for the inexplicable omission that the tortillas are never enchiladas (i.e., dipped in the salsa verde). This can happen before or after they are fried; judging from the originals, I would dip, then fry. Also bizarre is the author's belief that they are so called because they were made by actual Swiss immigrants. In fact, Swiss is merely an eponym for dairy; to enjoy the true dairy orgy that is the point of the dish, I recommend souring your own cream in lieu of the commercially available crema (which is fine).

Surprisingly authentic, though, is her suggestion of Manchego, confirmed in the Diccionario enciclopédico de la gastronomía mexicana, which also adds sesame seeds.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

rage against the machine

I haven't eaten pesto, much less made it, in years. The ubiquity of it, or of pathetic simulacra thereof, made even the regal smell of basil revolting. What a relief then when La D.'s trumpeting of trofie suddenly sounded good.

Because, however, I am the kind of person who thinks "trofie sound good," and then makes mandili di saea, i.e., an idiot, I proceeded to make mandili di saea instead. For those of you not conversant in Ligurian, that means "silk hankies." And for those of you not accustomed to making pasta, the word silk means "too hard for you to make."

Now, I have always preferred to roll out fresh pasta by hand -- not, surprisingly, because of snobbishness, but because I find it easier. But the recipe (eventually tracked down in the Saveur Italian book) demanded a machine, for the obvious reason that no non-nonna is going to turn flour to silk with a rolling pin.

Here's one thing I learned: read the bag of flour before you make something with it. It might be useful to know, for example, that you are trying to make pasta with "ultimate high-performer bread flour." Also: do not start making silk-anything pasta at 7PM.

At 9 I figured dinner would be ready around 1. Attempting to pass the 7 setting on the machine shredded the pasta into a crinkly ribbon that bore an unfortunate resemblance to a pair of crotchless panties passed through a wood chipper. Not, note, edible panties. [7, by the way, is approximately as thin as mortals can get pasta by hand. The whole point of the excercise was to reach the elusive 9]. Since I am, despite the above, a decent cook in addition to being an idiot, I knew that I could salvage maybe three-quarters of the dough. The problem was time. And also rage. Towering, incoherent rage.

I'll spare you further description of the ugly scene. Suffice it to say that sweat and flour don't mix, unless you like making yourself into an impotent little vol-au-vent. After hurling curses and a few relatively small objects around the kitchen and nearly auto-amputating my right foot when I dropped the offending machine on the floor, I swallowed my self-respect and reached for the De Ceccho.

Yes, dear reader, I made pesto from scratch and applied it to penne rigate. You can, I understand, never forgive me for such a vulgar combination. The moral of the story, though, is that it wasn't really that bad. Because the the pesto (which, under normal circumstances, I would have been slightly ashamed to have made in a Catalan ceramic mortar instead of Carrara marble) was fucking delicious.

It took less than 10 minutes to make once the basil was washed. You must make it. In a mortar. It cannot be abused -- only Ligurians should be allowed to eat pesto more than monthly -- but you will not believe how easy and fast and delicious it is.

I recommend serving it on trofie.

catching up with... the Cod

Holy shit, I haven't "blogged" for two weeks. Neither here nor there except insofar as I failed to weigh in on the Cod's Desert Island Cookbooks. Depending, of course, on said island's latitude and degree of desertification, one would be advised to bring along the two Euell Gibbons classics Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop. Cornucopia II would also be wise, not to mention, I'm afraid, Man Eating Bugs. And the appropriate Alan Davidson Seafood of... of course.

As La D. suggested, Larousse Gastronomique would probably be the most useful companion assuming one had access to sufficient ingredients.

But if I had to choose a single food related book to read while starving to death, it would of course be Honey from a Weed, by the Larousse's first English translator, the great Patience Gray. A practical selection, as a good part of it is devoted to starving on the island of Naxos. But more importantly, it is something one could read daily, with pleasure and awe and without boredom, while awaiting death.

Elsewhere, I realize you east coasters are just reacquinting yourselves with strawberries, but peaches out west are (just) now edible, and the Chron notes a few new varieties. All I can say is that subacid stonefruit can fellate my sh2 corncob. I wouldn't feed either to a dog.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

moral economies of scale

The latest report on designer meat sends the Cod off the deep end:

The article embodies the fundamental problems with efforts to reform agriculture in the US, but chooses to ignore them. Pork chops at $11/lb are not a revolution, but perhaps a cause for one. Maybe not quite to the barricades material, but there is a difference between a grotesquely wealthy subset of Manhattanites choosing to pay a premium for tastier and healthier meat, and addressing systemic concerns about where meat comes from.

I have to admit I had a similar freakout a few weeks ago when presented with the opportunity to have organic cherries air-freighted to me for the low, low cost of $15/lb. The best part was that I had just turned down the very same famous farm's cherries at the farmer's market (at the already ridiculous price of $6/lb.), because they weren't very good. (Not their fault: it's been a bad year for cherries). Sure enough, the solicitation concluded

Thank you for supporting the revolution!

Returning to the matter at hand, the usual response is that mass-produced meat already costs at least $11/lb., but the "true cost" is externalized into ag. subsidies, health care costs, environmental damage, etc. Michael Pollan's ongoing corn project is probably the best work in this vein.

Just because the argument is true doesn't make it any more palatable than the twin conversation killers:

But food is too cheap (Alice Waters).

You shouldn't eat so much (Carlo Petrini).

Both true, but irrelevant (and enraging). I was talking to my dad about slaughterhouses last night, and I wonder if labor isn't a better way to approach the problem.

The low price of meat in this country has been made possible by concentration in the slaughter/meatpacking industry. This is not a simple story of consolidation conquering abstract "transaction costs" with their inexorable economies of scale. Aside from price-fixing in the various meat markets (and a real measure of technological progress over the last century), the savings have been achieved by de-skilling the labor involved.

[This process is familiar to any consumer who has tried to procure something more complicated than a boneless breast at the supermarket, the response to which is usually a mute gesticulation at the shrink-wrapped product, unless you are lucky enough to find someone old enough to know something.]

On the production end, the usual Taylorist/Fordist principles of industrialization are applied to the dismemberment/evisceration of the animal -- or rather of huge quantities of animals, moving down the line 300 an hour. Because of the already dehumanizing nature of the job, we are talking about more than the familiar loss of dignity -- and a living wage -- commanded by a once honorable trade. There is something visceral, pardon the word, about the horrors suffered by contemporary slaughterhouse workers. Even the most desperate illegal immigrants refuse to do it, and the labor has to be imported from ever poorer and more remote villages, where semi-indentured servitude at Wal-Mart wages still seems like a good idea.

This is where your meat comes from, and though Americans have always been happy to ignore how their sausages are made, not to mention the travails of labor, I can't help but believe that this process so fundamentally violates every principle of their cherished American dream that they can be persuaded to do something about it.

The problem for the crusaders, however noble, is that their goal seems like a world in which we all pay $11/lb. for pork chops, instead of one in which less unspeakable pork chops cost $5/lb. or whatever fake price you're paying for them out in the heartland. (Ignore for now the fact that we're all already paying $11/lb. without knowing it). But if all of our energy (and tax dollars) were expended on making agriculture more humane and sustainable instead of less so, we would probably come out ahead.

Read about your meat in the articles by Eric Schlosser and Karen Olsson collected here.

Tangentially related, but since it is Wednesday: before you go off on how easy it is to eat local in California, Olivia Wu's article whatever its flaws, explains why this is not so. And gluttons for punishment can listen to the Sibyl herself tonight at 11 EST.

If you insist: Hey, a special Farmers Market issue! What a revolutionary new idea!

©2002-2005 by the author