Can we change the Food System?

November 11, 2010

It was a beautiful drive down to Princeton yesterday, the sun illuminating the bright yellow trees lining the road along the way.

And it was a beautiful hall, all carved antique wood, where Marion Nestle, David Kessler and I sat down to discuss the politics of food and health care.

But it was not a beautiful discussion. Interesting, yes. But ultimately depressing. They each began by addressing what they consider the major problem with the current food system. For Marion it is that the government encourages farmers to produce too much food – and then encourages us to eat it. That is the basis of our obesity problem.

David does not dispute that. He agrees with it. But for him the basic problem is that we are literally being addicted to food; that the food companies are creating combinations of fat, sugar and salt that are driving us to overeat. We cannot help ourselves. And so we continue to eat to excess, even when we know we shouldn’t. Even when we don’t want to. As he says, “Everybody in America’s on a diet; everybody’s living in inner torment.”

We are all agreed on these basic facts. The question is, what do we do about it? And that’s where the most depressing part comes in. Because these politically connected people (David, after all, was the FDA commissioner who took on cigarettes), both believe that there are only two paths to political change. Campaign laws must be rewritten to prevent large corporate contributions. And the first amendment must no longer be interpreted as protecting advertising as free speech. Until that happens, political change is not possible.

In other words, change is up to us. They both believe that it is going to take grassroots efforts to change the current system. The upside? They both believe it’s possible. But it’s going to require a lot of work.

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The Best Potato Dish, Ever

November 8, 2010

Regine asked me what I serve with a beef roast. This rich and wonderful gratin is the answer. It’s a tweak on a Jacques Pepin recipe that I absolutely love. It’s great for a party because it can be done ahead of time, and the timing is very forgiving; you can pull it out of the oven and serve it an hour later. It is also a great snack the next day, reheated in the microwave.

Gratin Dauphinois
* 2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
* 3 1/2 cups of milk, cream or a mixture of the two
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* a bit of freshly grated nutmeg
* 3/4 cup coarsely grated Gruyère (or other cheese - any one will do).
Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter a shallow baking dish.
Put the potatoes into pot with the milk or cream, garlic, salt, and pepper

and bring just to a boil. Pour the contents of the pot into the buttered baking dish, grate the nutmeg over the top and sprinkle on the cheese. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is browned and all the liquid has been absorbed by the potatoes. Allow this to stand for 15 minutes (or more) before serving.

  This will serve about 8 people.

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Thoughts on Japan: Flavors of Culture

November 8, 2010

Few of the chefs spoke English. Many had never before been in the United States. One closed his restaurant for the first time. Others came bearing Kyoto water, unwilling to trust the quality of their cuisine to the harder California sort. This was a group that left nothing to chance.

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary conference. But when 46 of Japan’s finest chefs came to the Napa Valley last week, they went a long way towards demonstrating how much we still have to learn about Japanese cuisine.

Highlights? I imagine that each of us took something different away from this conference, which packed an astonishing amount of information into three days. But I’ll tell you what the most memorable moments were for me.

It was a thrill to watch a number of famous kaiseki chefs assembling seasonal plates before our eyes. As they placed each ingredient they told us what they were doing, and why, which was like watching an artist explain each brushstroke as he splashed it across the canvas. The differences were fascinating: For one chef a lobster was the Golden Gate Bridge, for another a mountain. Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, third-generation owner of Kyotol Kitcho stepped onto the stage, where he constructed a dish so delicate, so poetic, so astonishingly beautiful that you instantly understood the difference between very good and great. He is a master. (His new book, incidentally, is gorgeous.)

The biggest crowd-pleaser of the event was Yoshinori Horii, who made soba from green buckwheat as we watched, rapt. His family has been making soba since 1789, and I am dying to go to Tokyo to taste it. Buckwheat has no gluten, but he somehow managed to take this cantankerous material, knead it into dough with nothing but water and a tiny amount of flour, and then roll it into a smooth sheet. The magic moment was when he turned the round sheet into a perfect square with four swift passes of his long rolling pin. Then he folded it up and cut it into fine noodles with a few quick snicks of the knife.

Another great moment? Eating Ivan Ramen. Ivan Orkin is a Long Island boy who has, improbably, opened a ramen shop in Tokyo. His springy noodles have a lively quality that nobody else at the conference could match; I snuck back into line for seconds, and I would have gone for thirds if they had not run out. (For the record, another restaurant I really want to try is Nombe in San Francisco; Nicolaus Balla gave a very fine demonstration – and he makes his own umeboshi.)

But it wasn’t all food – there was also a fair amount of food for thought. Yoshiki Tsuji kicked the conference off with a fascinating look at the history of Japanese cuisine, showing us how it has been affected by the politics of the nation. The most used word at this conference was surely “umami,” which virtually every chef mentioned when he spoke. But when Harold McGee got up to talk, he dropped what was, for me, a bombshell: he believes that umami is only the beginning, and that we will identify many more essential flavors in the next few years. It’s an exciting thought.

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