For Food or Fuel

May 7th, 2007


One of the most interesting food stories that I’ve heard in recent weeks relates to the cost of milk in New York state. Milk here went up 60 cents from the beginning of the year to $3.54. The rising dairy farming costs are being blamed on competition for cattle feed from ethanol producers. It foreshadows a nightmare scenario: the world’s poor versus the rich world’s cars.

My short stay in Ireland a year ago was especially eye-opening. People there were talking very seriously about carbon footprints, organic foods, local production, plastic taxes, and food miles. Here, we have a different discourse. Academics get smeared as “cultural relativists,” especially those where I sit in anthropology. However, the real relativism is in a media that covers every event, except US military policy, with the same some-say-yes-others-say-no logic. Only very recently, and in the face of popular criticism have the media dropped the form in discussion of global warming to acknowledge that this is scientific fact. Still, a tacit hierarchy of priorities makes the 60 cent hike in milk a lot less interesting to the media than the same increase in petroleum. I can’t help thinking that this is a very weird moment in the United States, and how we all might look back on 2007 a decade hence.

For Earth Day, Lets Go Back to the Caves.

April 22nd, 2007

Carlos is filling in since I’m in finals and have been totally awol. -Will

Carlos in Cave 5
Carlos in Cave 5

During the last three months, I have spent a lot of time underground, washing, patting, brushing, and doing a lot of heavy lifting. I spent two days out of every week damp and cold, breathing spores, with no natural light. My job was to clean, but not disinfect. I “grew” mold, swept away mites, and farmed yeast. I was training to be a cheese-affineur.

My days were divided between tending over forty cheeses in the four caves that Murray’s keeps under the streets of Greenwich Village, and unloading, unpacking and arranging about a thousand pounds of cheeses that pass monthly through these caves.

Murray’s Cheese in New York City has an incredible (and highly competitive) training program to learn the art of cheese affinage. I was lucky enough to be allowed into the caves and learn about new American treasures, as well as good old French, Spanish and Swiss staples.

I learned the optimal temperatures, humidity levels necessary to prevent cheeses from breaking; I grew to sense the moment for turning cheeses and the smell of a well-ventilated cave. This all helps me now to better choose from the counters and appreciate the hard work behind a $16/lbs Appenzeller. It also helps me to appreciate the flavor developed through meticulous care from the cheesemaker and affineur, as opposed to the chemical punch of plasticky orange cheddar. Without sounding like a snob–and to encourage people to try more cheeses, different pairings, and consume it all the time–I’ll tell you something about my interest in cheese.

My interest in cheese started back in Boston. Since then, this passion has taken me to a rural goat farm off the interstate in Queretaro, Mexico — and to the once dangerous border of counties Cavan and Fermanagh in Ireland.

Cheese making, affinage, and mongering were once as important trades, as were curing meats, oyster pickling, or making marmalade. All now seem like elite food fabrication methods, in an era of Kraft singles, Smuckers and Oscar Meyer baloney. Cheese at its most basic principle started as a way to save excess milk from the spring and summer months, for consumption during the fall and winter. As conservation of food products, it helped ensure survival of families during the cold months, and could even be used as a kind of currency to trade for other services and products.

The increasing demand for food products in the industrialized world has lead into the commoditization of production methods to yield the greatest amount of product in the smallest amount of time, all in factories with high-energy usage. All this sacrifices flavor and obscures the hardships of those involved in the production process. Further distancing urbanites from rural places, the process is now starting to seem unsustainable.

It is now believed that due to climate change the Swiss Alpine glaciers will disappear in the next 20 to 30 years. This in turn affects the lush pastures of the Schachen region, threatening the future production of Emmentaler. So, eat cheese, make bread, and at the same time, you’ll care more for our shared environment.

Fat, Fatter, Fattest

February 11th, 2007


Last week, there was a talk at NYU about Omega 3 fat, held in the food studies department. I was curious but not especially interested, I have to admit. I expected a new fad food theory. I rarely pay much attention to dietary/nutritional breakthroughs. The science tends to be hyped, and superceded within months of its announcement. In the end it was the department’s reputation for well-catered seminars that won me over. I’m glad I did, because this was a bit different. The question of how the body responds and digests these fats dug at a larger problem of food production in the industrialized system–and of basic concepts of nutrition. As it turns out, Susan Allport, the author gives a riveting and persuasive presentation with all the energy and enthusiasm of Al Gore… (not an insult: see An Inconvenient Truth).

Here in New York, they’re banning trans-fat in restaurants. An obvious good move. Any food that has a shelf life of more than a month and isn’t sold as “aged” is probably bad news. Nevertheless, the city’s move points to a general attitude towards food that “Queen of Fats” tries to improve upon. Instead of good and bad foods, Allport makes a strong argument for thinking about diet as a balancing act. This isn’t news, of course, but the science she cites is.

The gist of the theory about Omega fat balance that because of the types of seeds we’re now eating — seeds from which every drop of oil is extracted, we are overdosing on Omega 6. Omega 6’s are not bad fats on their own, in fact they too are necessary. But the bad news is that the same enzyme is used to allow absorption of Omega 3 and 6. Allport gave the example of a revolving door. Even in high numbers, if Omega 3s are being flooded by Omega 6’s, then there’s little chance that they’ll be able to get into the eater’s system.

Omega 3 fats, she says, are the most abundant in the world. And although we may think of them as originating in Salmon, the fact is that the salmon just accumulate them in high, upper-foodchain concentration. They come from a surprising source: green leaves. They are produced by photosynthetic plants. Although they are in relatively low quantities, that’s their ultimate starting point.

Omega 3 is a fast fat, and a smart fat. Used by the body in cell membranes of rapid response muscles like the heart, it is also found where the body needs to be limber–like the retina, as well as in the nervous system. There’s even evidence that animals like hummingbirds have them in their faster-than-the-eye wings. One implication for nutritional theory is that these fats trigger seasonal responses. When it’s winter, animals (including us) are eating seeds, not leaves. Omega 6’s are taken in, the body slows down and energy is conserved. Of course today we can buy avocados in February, tomatoes anytime, grapefruit, mango whatever we want whenever we want, so the seasonal aspect is not longer an issue from the point of view of consumer choice. Also, we eat high fat seeds and seed oil products year round — potentially signaling perpetual hibernation.

The most interesting place this points is to the question of science and food and the industrial agriculture system. Most damning evidence Allport cited was the nutritional analysis of eggs. Those from chickens that scavenge for themselves, hunt and peck free range are rich in Omega 3s. Those that are fed seed and grain… almost none.

The revelation here is that nothing exists as an isolated fact. There are no controlled situations. All of the boundaries that we try to draw around categories (eggs, agriculture, economics, obesity) are all interdependent in ways far more complex than we assume. As with eggs, the industrial agriculture system and the need to feed populations larger than traditional agriculture could sustain led to unforeseen consequences: the impoverishment of the egg. And in understanding this, we are reminded that an egg isn’t just an egg. It’s connected to the life cycle of a chicken. The chicken’s gullet (and by extension, ours) lies at the end of a very long string of economic considerations, subsidies to grain farmers, and decisions all made intentionally. No one ever sat down and decided to alter the egg, but the egg is changed.

  • Here’s a link to recipes that she includes on her website.

  • Here’s the first chapter.
  • Cheese Plate

    January 28th, 2007

    Cheese Plate

    I spent most of the weekend on a bus to DC for a war protest march — a good, wholesome collection of people and brilliant, warm weather. For once, the event received decent shake in the press. The larger papers from the LA Times to the Washington papers reported on it front page above the fold, a good sign. I still am catching up on my reading for school, so instead of being able to compose some complicated post, this is just a cheese plate:

    Carlos has been interning at Murray’s Cheese store in Greenwich Village — an activity that involves setting up, washing up, but in return being able to sit in the class for free. He’s had a great string of good ones: Caviar and vodka, Scotch and cheese, Wine and Cheese, Mountain Cheeses… so, the upshot for me is that what’s been cut but not eaten in class, he brings home. That was dinner tonight: a plate of cheese and a little mini-lesson in each. I thought I’d share that here.

    We went in order of pungency, but in the interest of not jumping around the plate from the photo I’ll start with the most pungent that is front-and-center — and the only cheese Carlos has ever declined to eat… Note that the factual info is all cribbed from Murray’s descriptions — but descriptions are mine.

    Vacherin Fribourgeois from affineur Rold Beeler. A creamy mountain cheese from Switzerland, it is raw cow’s milk Vacherin, aged 7-9 months wrapped in cheese cloth. The class notes say that the vast majority of Swiss dairies have given up production of raw milk Vacherin — and the reason would be obvious if I could figure out Html’s scratch and sniff tag. Grassy is how Murray’s describes it, but really the smell of grass that has moved through the cow’s digestive tract. It is an impressive, regal stink. Want worse? Peel away the sludgy rind to expose the mush to air, and it’s overwhelming. While the rind seemed too much to bear, the cheese itself was creamy — very much so considering that aged cheeses are usually a bit drier — probably a big reason for its aroma.

    Moving counter clockwise (right and up) is the mildest cheese Selles Sur Cher a great goats milk perfect snow-white cheese rolled in ash, it was among the first French cheeses to be given an AOC protection — that set the naming and production regulations. In France and related civilized countries, you can buy it in the raw milk version, which Carlos tells me softer — and amazing. This little puck was a nice cheese, for sure, with a fatty goats milk taste that lined the roof of the mouth, but the bite was a bit elastic.

    In the back, a nice Scottish blue cheese, Strathdon Blue made by Rory Stone from Tain in the highlands of Scotland. Super creamy, but so salty that it had to be spread thinly on bread.

    The next was Tomme du Berger, made with unpasteurized goats’ and sheeps’ milk in Provence. My one obstacle to being able to like any cheese is brine-washed rind cheeses. This one was ripened for two to three months, had a decent taste, but the ammoniated, minerally rind and the spread of that flavor throughout the cheese. It’s too bad, because I think sheep-goat mixture sounds about as good as it gets. Skipping one cheese, the orange rind you see is a similar cheese, Tomme de L’Ariege made in Loubiere in southern France. It’s a raw Alpine goats milk cheese aged for five months in caves. Again, it sounds wonderful on paper, but washing the rind leaves the cheese chemical tasting to my tongue, and obscures the taste of milk.

    The last cheese was a Cave Aged Gruyere. I have a hard time deciding whether my favorite cheese are Swiss or Italian, but this was a good argument for the former. These are raw cows’ milk cheeses aged for about a year. The cheese is firm, fruity, a really nice clean smell, smooth texture dotted with little crunchy crystals of amino acids that develop in well-aged cheese and set off like little sparklers in your mouth. This cheese isn’t the consistent perfection that is found in Appenzellar, but it’s still damn good. Swiss cheeses were traditionally taxed by the item, so instead of convenient carry-out sized pieces, they are made in massive 80 pound wheels. Investing that much in each wheel called for the traditional precision and control over production, as one bad wheel would represent a big loss for a farmer.

    Carlos has a IOM meeting he has to attend later this month, and so I’ll probably switch out with him for the class. I’m totally psyched.

    After a long pause…

    January 14th, 2007

    Fondue parties are cozy fun. No longer are these gay dunking parties reserved for skiers at fabulous resorts. They are now the charming way to entertain guests of all ages for snacks, evening get-togethers, dinner or dessert and coffee. — “Fondue Cooking” 1970.

    Carlos threw me a party for my thirtieth birthday. It was sort of an odd kind of surprise party. When I came home, the house smelled of food — though we were supposed to be going out, the table was rearranged and the chairs were missing. I went to the living room, and instead of an empty room, there were my friends sitting in the dark. Instead of yelling “SURRRPRRISE,” they offered just sort of a quiet, spooky “hey.”

    Thus, I enter my fourth decade. Thirty finds me living in the attic of a converted Baptist rectory in Jersey City, back to the US after two years in the wilderness I really can’t explain. Now I’m in school again, reading and thinking about things on a level that make me feel inadequate. I have been furrowing my brow over life and thinking seriously about what is important, what direction I want take. The gas first ran out on me for the food blog when I was in China. It seemed trivial compared to the threat of bird flu, oil depletion, climate chaos, slum urbanization, and on and on… Except, the gas was running out on a lot of things that made me happy. I miss having a place to puzzle out some of the smaller, pleasurable discoveries that drag you from day to day. Thinking about food was one of those, as I kept coming up against things that were obvious and surprising: fire and food, the daily rejuvenating enthusiasm for filling your stomach.

    Back to cheese: while I was wandering around Eastern China for Fodors, Carlos had a stellar career as cheesemonger paralleling his human rights degree in Ireland. When he left, his shop gave him a trip north to learn cheesemaking and a hundred dollar gift certificate for Murray’s Cheese in New York. His birthday gift to me was two fondue pots found on Ebay: and about 80 bucks worth of cheese in two bright enameled 70s fondue pots. Fire and cheese, and chocolate.

    So, I’m not exactly sure what this blog should be about now that I’m no longer travelling. On the one hand, I am in New York metro area: the most over-examined city in the world. Everyone who eats is a food therapist, a food writer, a restaurant reviewer (just as everyone who takes the subway is a defacto transportation consultant, and walking Google Map). I don’t have the creds. On the street I still don’t know which way is north, and in restaurants I cannot out-eat the professionals. On my new student stipend, I’m doing a lot more eating at home, but enjoying it as much. I’ll try to keep to a topic, but I’m reading all about urbanization, anthropology, and such, so I might break into some other topics too. So, I’m hoping CookingFire can again encourage me to find some excitement from ingredients and meaning in eating.

    Riot Police

    April 30th, 2006

    *Special Weapons and Tactics

    I am delinquent for not updating this blog, I know.

    So, I’m writing with what I’ve been thinking about recently… not food, but Legos.

    I live behind Carrafour, the French grocery chain. While I’m theoretically opposed to chain stores of all kinds, the willing spirit sometimes does succumb to the flesh of the weak. Not to mention that the chain sells has both a good selection of Chinese wine, (another, later post), Dongbei Chunky Peanut butter, Campari at 10 bucks a bottle, and the only multigrain bread available in Nanjing.

    In typical chain-store style, they make you pass through the house wares section before getting to the grocery area. Usually, I resentfully book it past, but I was in a generous mood, and decided I would browse. What I found: Sluban.

    Sluban is a Chinese knockoff brand of Legos. The bricks are the same. The people are the same. Their little yellow-pegged heads snap onto square bodies. But they are the evil cousins; Sluban are fascist police-state Legos.

    I grew up with Legos. I never had GI Joes, He-Man, Atari, Nintendo, or other violent, gender-specific toys. Instead: Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys. I built forts with the primary-colored bricks, and coveted the translucent (rare) jewel legos. My favorite was the blacksmith, an obscure member of the Castle Lego line. He was a hooded, mallet wielding character who appealed to my childhood desire to be a craftsman (watchmaker, bookbinder, medieval-manuscript-illuminating monk, whatever…)

    So the Chinese line of Riot Police Legos took me by surprise. Legos without the standard smiley face expressions, but wrap-around sunglasses and automatic weapons. Legomen patrolling the streets in armored tanks, wielding machine guns, red berets, and chain cutting clippers.

    Although antithetical to the whole idea of my childhood, I intend to buy the store out, as gifts for friends. This… this transformation… somehow captures the spirit of the times in a way that no other souvenir (silk, tea, abaci?) can. Globalization embodied: the Chinese knockoff of a Dutch toy, of American riot police, sold in a French grocery store: an utter distortion of childhood, and a sign that then end, yes, is nigh.

    Listen Hard

    March 24th, 2006

    Every American should listen to this:

    » Habeas Schmabeas. This is by Jack Hitt… my absolute favorite magazine/radio writer.

    Meat and Great

    March 19th, 2006

    Delicacy… this word seems to exist only in reference to Chinese food, a euphemism too laden with contempt, and that’s not what I want to convey in this post. I want instead to express my fascination with the range of meat dishes and meat parts that exist on the Chinese menu. It’s no great news flash that so much of the cultural difference between American and Chinese food lies in these differences, and the most striking lie not only in the different edible animals: cat, dog, turtle, frog; but also in the parts: stomach, feet, head, tongue.

    Americans, despite comprising a nation that eats more meat per capita than anyone in the world, are among the finickiest eaters. To generalize, we are squeamish, which goes a long way to explain why hamburgers and hotdogs are our national favorites. Ground and boneless, they are meat reduced to protein patties and extruded tubes. Come to China, and you find meat in more recognizable animal forms: claws, hands, and a complete anatomy lesson in internal organs.

    Perhaps the biggest difference is in what is considered the best cuts. As a foreign guest, it’s usual to have food foisted upon you. And as a foreign guest, you’re likely to be given extra helpings of the best of the meal: more chicken feet, more gelatinous pork knuckles. The American nibbles at the pasty cold chicken claw… while the host watches on proudly.

    Anyway, I thought I’d just mention some of the interesting meat dishes, and food experiences that I don’t think would be common in the U.S. One of the best meals I’ve had here was at a local restaurant serving up Jiangsu specials. One of the dishes was a huge “lion-head” meatball (the name is just a flourish, it was beef…), sweet and sour, but not in the gloppy, cloying form that “sweet&sour” seems to suggest in English. Anyway, another dish came, presented in a multicolored pot. The host lifts the lid, and inside are translucent, pearly shrimp about the length of a little finger “Zui-Xia,” Drunken Shrimp. Shrimp, spices, and bai-jiu, the wheat liquor famous in China. I am prodded to take the first bite. I plunge my chopsticks in, the dish starts to wriggle, several of the shrimp flop around in the alchohol. I’m guessing this is not Kosher, but it is fresh, and I am game to try most anything. I tweeze one out, and bite into the little shrimp, peel the skin and eat. It was quite good, in fact.

    Central to my self-conception is that I will try anything that’s not endangered and not too cruel a preparation method (come on guys, shrimp don’t even have brains…) I have been shaken by one dish I am not going to try, at least not until I am doused in Baijiu and spices… and that is “Huo Zhu-Zi” living pearls. They are the not-hatched, fully formed chicks still in the egg. Some bones (I am told) and the early bits of feathers, they are pretty fully articulated, as they are sold fried on the side of the street outside my house, little chickens, still curled in egg shapes. I will try to get you some pictures….

    Where am I?

    February 27th, 2006


    Sorry to anyone who has been looking here and not finding me… I have been adjusting to life and language in Nanjing. I am also getting used to snowy days without heating, waking up to see my breath, and getting really excited for any small sign of spring.  And feeling thousands of miles away from everything — not too surprising seeing as I *am* thousands of miles away from all that I had been used to taking for granted. 

    Anyway, my news: I got accepted at NYU for a PhD program in anthropology.  Very exciting.  I will wait to hear from my others, but it was NYU I was most excited about, whose professors seemed the most responsive to my questions as an applicant.  So it looks like that’s the place I’m going to be next year, and the year after that, and the next after that, and so forth.

    I also got an offer to write for a travel guide while I’m here.  They would give me “Eastern China” as a beat — I don’t yet know the payment or details, but it looks good too.  At least it could help offset my increasingly expensive coffee habit.  (A cup of Starbucks ((I never drink that swill at home, but there’s precious little here that competes)) is about the same as a nice dinner).

    I will try to write and continue in this blog.  It’s difficult to get the energy to write in these smokey, loud inernet bars, but next month, I hope to have a connection at home. Meanwhile, I’ve updated some photos.  >>Check them out here< <


    Where I’m Going with CookingFire

    January 19th, 2006

    Spork (Photo: People’s Liberation Army Utility Spork)

    While my friends and co-workers have heard ad nauseum about my plans for an anthropological cookbook over the past two years, I realize that I have only made passing and cryptic mention of it on this site. Below I am including the beginning of a proposal statement:

    To know a rural culture is to understand its food, and to understand today’s China, you must know its countryside. Despite a booming industrial economy, the country remains predominantly agricultural, with over 700 million people living in farming towns and villages. Starting in February 2006, I will collect recipes, stories, and oral histories of food traditions in rural China. Read on…

    Also, check out the pictures on the sidebar. I have added photos from Ireland, and of all the non-food parts of my life. I intend to keep it as a running photo blog from the trip as well. Thanks for reading, -W