Why I Write about Food

January 16, 2010

     “Given the situation in Haiti,” someone wrote me yesterday, “maybe you should stop writing about all the great food you’re eating.”  I’ve been thinking about that, a lot.  And it strikes me that it’s a spurious argument, as dubious as the one that Flanagan woman is using to excoriate Alice for her Edible Schoolyards. 

The Flanagan argument is absurd on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to begin.  But following her logic no one would ever teach children anything but the 3 r’s; there would be no art, no music, no physical education. Her idea, that teaching children how to grow food (and in the process allowing them to pick up good eating habits), deprives children of their right to learn literature, mathematics and philosophy is nonsense; learning is not an either/or proposition. It also ignores the reason that Alice decided to set the schools up in the first place: We know that eating is learned behavior, and that allowing young people to experience the joy of fresh produce can change their lives forever. Flanagan likens working in the garden to stoop labor, which is a bit like comparing cooking dinner for your family to working at a fast food stand.  Her article denigrates everyone who works with his hands.  And although she begins by saying that no Latino would want his child working in a garden, she has the audacity to think she knows what people she has never spoken to are thinking.  At the very least, she might have asked.

The man who wants me to stop writing about food until the Haiti crisis is over (and will it ever be over?) is, of course, on much more solid ground. But it reminds me a bit of my grandparents, who stopped celebrating everything when their youngest daughter died. If she couldn’t be there to join in the fun, there would be no more fun. That’s ridiculous. And the opposite of life-affirming.

We all have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to help the Haitians during this terrible time. But talking about it doesn’t help; we need to take concrete action. And once again, it’s not an either/or situation. There will always be trouble – war, famine, earthquake, illness – somewhere in the world.  We should not close our eyes or our minds to them. We should help in whatever ways we can. But in times of trouble- especially in times of trouble –  it is important to celebrate life. We need to remind ourselves – and others – that it is good to be alive.  If only as a promise that better times are coming. 


Scrounging for Dinner Again

January 4, 2010

The snow came down all day, the wind howled, the drifts mounted around the house.  Three weather advisories warned us not to leave unless absolutely necessary. I stayed put.

But a second day of scrounging through the refrigerator found it considerably barer. Happily I came upon a piece of flank steak in the freezer, a jar of kimchee (how old, I wonder?) and a single sad head of butter lettuce. Visions of Bulgogi danced in my head.

It was, perhaps, my favorite meal all week.  And simple!  Here's a kind of recipe, but use your imagination.

Take 1/2 pound beef of some sort – you could use just about anything – slice it across the grain as thinly as you possibly can, and plunk it into the following marinade.

soy sauce  – 2 tablespoons or so
a couple of cloves of smashed garlic
a small knob of ginger, minced
whites of 2 or 3 scallions, minced
a big spoonful of sugar
a splash of sesame oil

Leave it to soak up the flavors for 15 minutes or so while you separate the leaves from their head of lettuce, put a pot of rice on to cook, and rummage through your cupboards to see if there's anything that you would like to add. You're going to wrap the beef and rice into little lettuce packets, and many accompaniments suggest themselves: Kimchee is a good start, Sriracha sauce is imperative in my mind, sliced cloves of raw garlic would be nice, as would shredded carrots or toasted sesame seeds (should you happen to have some lying around).

Cover the bottom of a large skillet with a sheen of oil, wait until it shimmers and then cook the meat, stirring, for about 4 minutes.  Plunk it onto one platter, the lettuce on another and the rice into a bowl. Set them all onto a table, along with whatever else you've found, and let everyone make his own deliciously savory little wraps. No forks necessary.

This is enough to fortify a couple of people on a cold winter night. Eating it before a roaring fire makes it even better.


Charmed Life

January 3, 2010

On Twitter, someone’s just sighed over my “charmed life.”  But everyone’s life is interesting, and everyone’s life is charmed; it’s merely a matter of editing.

At 4 on new year’s eve the FedEx man called to say that he had a box of perishable goods to deliver, but that he could not get up our road; would I please come meet him? The rendezvous was a 15 minute drive down icy, unplowed, unpaved roads, but the man was waiting with a huge box.  He handed it over with gloved hands, waved a cheery “happy new year,” and zoomed off to start celebrating.

At home I discovered that the box was filled with dozens of Kumamoto, Olympia, and Virginica oysters that Jon Rowley had harvested at Totten Inlet the day before. Modern life: oysters cross an entire continent in under a day.

When we set off for our party a few hours later the wind was howling, the snow swirling, but we drove through the woods utterly unconcerned, oysters snugly tucked in the back of the car.  Do we not have snow tires? Even when we turned onto a completely virgin road in the middle of nowhere, we remained confident.

Halfway up this untracked road the car started to slip. And slide. And finally stall. Attempting to back up, we lost all traction and ended up one inch from a tree. Michael went out to investigage and promptly slid down a hill. Attempting to get up, he fell again. And again.  And again. “Stay in the car,” he called, from somewhere behind me, “it’s a sheer sheet of ice. There’s nothing you can do to can’t help me.”

We were ten minutes from home, and we were in some nightmare version of Milton’s hell, stuck in the ice, probably forever.  They’d find us, frozen, in the morning.

Then we remembered that we had a phone, called friends, were rescued.

By the time we got to the party we were thoroughly wet, incredibly cold and extremely chastened.

As for my charmed life?  I wrote about opening the oysters and serving them on snow.

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