In 2006, the United States experienced a spinach scare that didn’t scare us enough as consumers, or we would have a system that gives us transparent traceability from farm to table.
Advocates for strong local food movements, usually cite traceability as an advantage to eating locally. When you know your farmer, you have opportunities to know something about that farmer’s practices and maybe something about the health of the soil in which the harvest grows, or the water with which the plants are irrigated. Here in Wisconsin, you might even share a meal on that farm and realize very keenly that your farmer really does eat off of his or her own land. Thus, your farmer’s interest in safety run as deeply as yours.
Smashing pumpkins. It may be a band name and a vandal’s badge of Halloween infamy, but around this time of year I picture more of a British exclamation, “Smashing! Pumpkins?!” It’s the expression of my proud, mental high-five for making the move from canned pumpkins to fresh, as well as the internal bewilderment over why I didn’t do it earlier.
Pumpkins are so often viewed as ornamental, but they offer us so much more in terms of health benefits between their Vitamin C and beta carotene rich flesh, possible anti-cancer and immune boosting properties, and their seeds which have multiple health benefits. When you turn that beauty into a dessert, you can almost feel giddy about getting your fruit (though we think of it as a vegetable since it isn’t naturally sweet) that way.
Venturing into the Unknown and Suspect
Around the same time, I came across a recipe for Moroccan chicken that called for preserved lemons as an ingredient. A vegan acquaintance raved about these lemons as a staple in her diet in salads, vinaigrettes, and anything else she felt needed some zing.
She made preserved lemons sound like the perfect little black dress, good dressed up or down, with a few different accessories. So I decided to try on some preserved lemons in my life. It marks the pursuit of something new, a shift in moving away from a Midwestern diet to other diets that are lighter or provide more interesting nutrients.
My Egyptian uncle-in-law once picked his California grown lemons off the tree in his yard and pickled them like his mother used to do. He let me try them, and I enjoyed the pleasantly explosion of sweetness vying with sourness in my mouth from one slice of that lemon. It perked me up almost in the same way a good espresso does. The pickling solution was familiar, and so those lemons fell within my comfort zone.
A fully brined lemon though, sounded overpowering and maybe in some ways unhealthy, like a high blood pressure producer. Despite this thought, I put aside that bias in order to learn something about authentic flavors in Moroccan cuisine. I wanted a new staple in my refrigerator ‘wardrobe’ that I could mix and match with more things and feel great about it.
A new problem has surfaced in agribusiness. ConAgra has decided that sweet potatoes are the new potato. And it isn’t good enough. Orange is the new white, I suppose.
There was a time in life when I grew sexy, plump non-GMO tomatoes in the back of my Cambridge, Massachusetts condo. In my urban haven, an oasis of herbs and tomatoes existed to make my solitary Sundays bright with rituals of biting straight into a tomato like an apple. For contrast and salt, I enjoyed shaved parmigiano reggiano drizzled with olive oil to savor between the luscious, juicy bites. These tomatoes were always better than anything I ever bought.
My long office hours as a corporate biotech attorney felt balanced by that small connection with nature in my morning walk around to check on my tomato plants, pressed into the soil and covered with mulch or newspapers to prevent black bottom fungus. Each day, I watered them like a child tipping the watering can further and hoping for immediate growth. I breathed a little deeper and reflected a little longer about the beauty of watching this plant life transform from day to day—deep greens first matched plant stems until the unripe tomatoes turned into a mélange of greens and orange until finally giving way to blaring reds that announced the arrival of August’s ripeness.
I had known for a long time that different companies were using genetic engineering to manipulate plant genes for increased harvests. In culinary school, we read about the science “breakthrough” of splicing a tuna gene into the DNA of tomato plants to protect their fruits from frost. My friend, a leading biotech partner in Boston, and I spoke about food occasionally in the corporate cafeteria. With all that we had learned through our work with biotech companies, neither of us wanted any part of tomatoes with tuna genes.
Philosophically, I’m okay with using technology to help us determine which types of plants of the same species can be cross-bred effectively to produce a stronger plant. If it would happen in nature and technology only helps us select the right plants faster, it seems like technology-based Darwinism. It’s the unnatural being sold as the natural that bothers me. The shaping of life to fit what seems to be an agribusiness need.
A student once taught me how to dress up a deviled egg like a diva. Granted, the deviled eggs her family recipe called for were more likely a light pink. Other versions of this Midwestern favorite hors d’oeuvre call for soaking the whole eggs only long enough to create a pink and white swirl effect.
I say, if you’re going to color the eggs, might as well take the deep dive into fuschia. There’s something unnatural looking about it, but also still alluring. If you’re going to do something different, you need to commit. That’s probably the theme for my life right now.
A letter of gratitude to Jacques Pepin.
As I embark on teaching a French cuisine course for the first time, I want to say “Thank you, Jacques Pepin.” You are the teacher of all teachers when it comes to so many things French, including a great pate à choux.
Your recipes always work, and for that I’m eternally grateful. As my Saucy Guy partner always says, “His recipes are foolproof.” They are perfect for me, a self-declared non-baker, who bakes only what she likes to eat and only as part of a practice in the discipline of measurements and mental clarity. Your recipes always give me confidence and calm reassurances at every stage. The final products always look good enough for any local patisserie.