Entries from July 2011 ↓

Scratching for an argument

I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore

the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.

It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.

Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.

It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.

My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).

It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.

Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”

Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.

Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.

None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.

I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?

Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.

To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)

My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.

My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi :) I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?

My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.

I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?

Kimchi

I made a work trip to Melbourne last month, and was lucky enough to share a home-cooked meal with Gill and Lucy - a beautiful and grounding way to begin a week of restaurant dinners. As a little present, I took them each a jar of kimchi. Lucy gobbled hers up straight away, and asked for the recipe, which you’ll find at the end of this post.

I first decided to make kimchi after buying David Chang’s Momofuku, a cheffy cookbook that for once lived up to the hype. I’m not often prone to food and food celebrity crazes, but the #momofukurage campaign started by would-be diners at Chang’s first Sydney appearance suckered me in and I’m glad I succumbed.

I’d been interested in Korean food for a while, having picked up Chang Sun-young’s A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes at the “fill a bag for $10″ stage of the Lifeline Bookfair one year. It’s a great introductory book written by a woman whose sons have emigrated to America. It gently leads you through some fundamentals of both Korean home cooking … and what it might be like to have a Korean Mother-in-Law. From the epilogue, “Tales of my mother in law”:

I think she has written this cookbook for me instead of chiding me for my failures. It is her gentle way of teaching the family tradition and cooking to her sons and daughters in law who live far apart from her. I must confess that Mother’s particularities in cooking caused me quite a bit of stress. I thought she was obsessed with food and complained that her attitude was breaking the balance among food, clothing and shelter for our family. I vowed that I would not be like her, but unbeknownst to myself, I must have been brainwashed because I find myself thinking of cooking ever more often. My suspicion is confirmed by my friends who comment on my cooking, saying “like mother-in-law, like daughter-in-law”.

As you’d expect, Chang Sun-young has some pretty firm ideas about kimchi, including:

  • a woman’s cookery and hostessing skills can safely be judged by tasting her kimchi
  • it is a sign of a lack of care to buy kimchi
  • leave your kimchi on the bench for a day or two to start ripening – refrigerating it before it has had a chance to start fermenting will make it unpalatable and “frost-bitten”

Her recipe involves brining the chopped cabbages before salting and combining with the other ingredients, which include ginger, garlic, green onions, red pepper powder and finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp. She notes that a more traditional method involves using cabbages that are halved or quartered and rubbing the other ingredients between the leaves, and that if you’re putting up winter kimchi in pottery urns buried in the backyard, that’s the way you should do it.

If you are contemplating such a backyard full of kimchi , Michael J Pettid’s scholarly but readable Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History has an account of the traditional autumn p’umasi where families would gather to process the 100 – 150 heads of cabbage that were the minimum needed to see each through a long winter of little or no fresh vegetables in pre-modern Korea. If you’re interested in fermentation in general, Sandor Katz’s site is a brilliant place to start, and his book Wild Fermentation has a vegetarian kimchi recipe.

Like most homely and centuries-old foodstuffs, you can take considerably more leeway than a Korean Mother-in-law might allow when you make your own; Chang for instance has adapted his mother’s recipe by starting the fermentation in the fridge and using more sugar. He describes the level of fermentation that takes him to his kimchi happy place:

There’s a point, after about two weeks, where the bacteria that are fermenting the kimchi start producing CO2 and the kimchi takes on a prickly mouthfeel, like the feeling of letting the bubbles in a soft drink pop on your tongue.

Gill was a little alarmed that her jar of kimchi had started bubbling so she should be in a good position to describe that for us!

As a rule I make a mixed kimchi using a variety of vegetables. There is ALWAYS some in the house, or Owen gives me wounded looks when he can’t have his favourite cheddar, kimchi and kewpie mayonnaise sandwiches. When I was making some to take to Melbourne, I found a note on the fridge that said “All kimchi is to remain in Canberra. No kimchi is to be taken to Melbourne”. It is quite addictive, and a little each day does seem to do good things to your insides. Once you’ve made it, you can find lots of delicious things to do with it at Ellie’s site.

crazybrave’s kimchi, adapted from David Chang’s recipe

Tips on ingredients:

It’s really important to use a Korean red pepper/chilli powder, which can be much harder to obtain than Chinese versions. Canberrans can go to the Korean grocery where Impact Comics used to be downstairs in Garema Place, which is the only store where I’ve found it here – even Asiana in the Canberra Centre, otherwise excellent for Korean ingredients, only seems to have the Chinese version.

Most of the other ingredients I use are from the Food Co-op and I’m convinced that minimally refined salt and sugar make a difference. I use a very mineral-rich but carbon-unfriendly damp grey Celtic sea salt and rapadura sugar.

I haven’t been able to find the jarred salted shrimp that Chang recommends, so often throw in a dash of stinky Vietnamese fish sauce, mam nem. It and the seaweed I add are enough to get the level of brininess to my taste. And I use a Korean light soy sauce because the Taiwanese sauces I otherwise use seem a bit heavy in kimchi.

First step:

  • 1 head of wombok, or any other nice cabbage you fancy, chopped in one inch pieces
  • 2 long daikon, sliced thinly into medallions with a mandolin

Toss vegetables with 2 tablespoons salt and 2 tablespoons sugar and leave in a covered container in a cool place overnight. You may wish to move all your sheets and towels to convert your linen press into a fermenting cupboard, but then again you may not.

Second step:

In the biggest bowl you own, or a clean bucket, combine:

  • 20 minced cloves of garlic (less at this time of year when garlic is out of season)
  • a finger length piece of ginger, minced
  • 1/2 cup Korean chilli powder (kochukaru)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce (I use Megachef)
  • 1/4 cup Korean light soy sauce (usukuchi)
  • a splash of mam nem

Add water until there is movement in the mix, but stop before it gets too thin. Then add:

  • 1/2 cup of green onions cut in 2 cm pieces
  • 2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into medallions with a mandoline (I peel mine with a wavy Thai peeler for kicks)
  • a handful of hijiki or another thinly sliced sea vegetable such as arame

Third step:

Drain cabbage and daikon, and add to the mix. Pack into clean jars. Leave in the linen closet overnight, and then refrigerate.

Eat with everything.

Welcome Tammi Jonas and Motorhome Mama Cookin’

Now one of my dearest and closest friends, @tammois and I met on the twitterz and have since cemented our friendship around many tables and fires, cookbooks, meals and bottles of wine. Tammi and the rest of her brood, The Jonai, are at present on a magnificent three month Rebel Farm Tour of her homeland, the USA, in the world’s coolest RockVan.

You can follow their journey at her blog Tammi Tasting Terroir, on Crikey’s Back in a Bit travel blog and on twitter but this here is what Mama’s been cookin’ up on the road …

A question food folk love to both ask and answer – ‘what can’t you live without in the kitchen?’ – is one that most of us rarely have cause to put to the test. But flying across the Pacific with nothing but a suitcase of clothes to drive across America in a ’77 GMC motorhome provides the perfect opportunity.

I knew there’d have to be cast iron, a good knife, a wooden chopping board and either a mortar & pestle or a hand blender. The hand blender won in deference to space considerations (I can hardly claim it was the weight given all the cast iron…). A mixing bowl or two, a large-ish pot, some wooden spoons and a whisk pretty much rounds out the essentials.

We picked up a cast iron griddle and a frypan for a song at the thrift shops of Front Royal, Virginia, where I also scored a hand blender for $5, and complete sets of utensils, cups and plates for a few dollars. Due to the small stove, I leaped at a narrow, tall stainless steel pot on sale for $15 new at Target, and a large, new, wooden chopping board with a non-slip mat underneath from Camping World that’s designed to sit atop RV stoves to save space and stop the rings from clattering on the road.

A good knife eluded me for over a week – we’d bought a Wüsthof paring knife at Bed, Bath & Beyond hoping it would tide us over until I found a quality Japanese high-carbon steel chef’s knife. I quickly lost patience and knuckles chopping garlic with this woefully inadequate tool, but we’d scoured all the ‘home’ or ‘kitchen’ shops we could find, all of which were of the large, generic franchise sort, and found only Wusthofs and Globals and something branded by one of those ‘pretty women who cook on tv’ whose names I can never remember. And then we stumbled across Country Knives.

We were just past Intercourse, Pennsylvania on a tiny byway (340) after exploring Amish country when the sign appeared. There was no town nearby, and the sign appeared to be at the front of somebody’s home. I figured there would be a charming but useless collection of ‘country craft’ knives – perhaps with carefully whittled handles for the grey-nomad types to admire and purchase only to continue to despair at cooking as they’ve never known the joys of a good knife. I was utterly mistaken.

Inside was a wonderland of knives – some 8000 the owner told us – everything from hunting knives and throwing stars to high-quality chef’s knives. Bingo. The beautifully curved 10” Shun Classic twinkled at me from behind the glass. Just to be circumspect, I handled three or four, but it was love at first sight, and it was with intense pleasure that I handed over my credit card to make the Shun mine. It hasn’t disappointed, as I’ve chopped my way down the Appalachians, rhythmically maintaining an otherwise scattered sense of self from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.

A secondhand 4-quart cast iron pot with a lid was even more difficult to secure, and without it, there’s no hope of making bread in the RockVan’s small oven whose designer clearly mistook ‘distribute’ heat for ‘localise intensely at the bottom middle’. We picked up a simple heat dissipator for a few cents at one of the many Habitat for Humanity’s Restores we’ve frequented, which should make basic baking more successful, but bread’s a fussier beast, so cast iron was required.

Yet again, patience paid off, and I found what I needed at a Lodge Cast Iron factory outlet outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Since the recession, Lodge made a decision to put pots and pans with minor defects out on ‘seconds’ shelves rather than re-melting them for another attempt at perfection. Thanks to this reportedly popular new policy, I scored my pot for $26 rather than the usual $60, all because it has two nearly invisible little concave bubbles in the bottom.

So now that I’ve waxed fetishistically on about knives and cast iron, surely you’re wondering what I’ve cooked with it?

Those who know my penchant for making sourdough damper when we camp might have wondered whether I’ve baked yet. For one, I miss Fran, my sourdough starter whose daughters I left with family in Oz in hopes of returning to her in September. Next, there is the issue of the small oven that seems to think it’s an inverse griller. Finally, it’s been so freaking hot there’s no way I wanted to put the oven on! However, having found my cast iron pot and lid finally, I’ll make my first RockVan loaves soon … whether in the oven or on the stovetop will depend on the mercury.

The ready availability of quality tortillas and dearth of decent bread across small-town America has resulted rather logically in a surfeit of Mexican cooking in the RockVan. Of course it’s ‘Tex-Mex’, and frequently inspired by what we’re finding in the taquerías to be found in even the most seemingly ‘white bread’ towns. It’s also inspired by the brilliant variety of chilies found everywhere (even – gasp – in Walmart!), anaheims, poblanos, jalapeños, habaneros, and serranos to name some of the most common. And don’t be fooled by some of their capsicum-like appearance – most are very bloody hot – as I discovered during an out-of-mind experience three bites into ‘testing’ the hotness of one type.

And so burritos de frijoles negros, tacos de carne asada, quesadillas, enchiladas de pollo, and many bastardisations of all of the above have been our lunch and dinner staples, plus the odd breakfast burrito here and there.

Still, it turns out even the bean-lovin’ Jonai cannot survive on tortillas alone, and so I’ve experimented with drop biscuits both on the griddle and in the oven. It’s surprising how well they work on the griddle, though it’s tricky to keep them from burning on the outside while ensuring the middle isn’t doughy. Then having learned about hoecakes, which are a sort of cornmeal pancake/biscuit, I’ve been working on a technique with thinner biscuits for the stovetop. I’ve also rather enjoyed making these southern staples for my aunts and uncles, all of whom grew up on them, but are pleasantly surprised to find that their ‘Australian’ niece makes them ‘like Mama did’, even though they themselves now make pop-out biscuits.

Free-range eggs are often found for sale along the roadside – usually for $2 or $3 a dozen – and so eggs, biscuits and gravy are a popular brekky. I broke in the hand blender with a classic ‘tammindaise’ the day we did happen to have bakery bread and after planting our little herb garden in the kitchen window.

The ever-present truck-wheel fire ring grill at all the state parks has meant some barbecuing as well – ‘grass-fed beef’ is pretty easy to come by, as is free-range chicken. Vegetarian options range from the black-bean Mexican favourites to tofu burgers and an old standby, a Sri Lankan style mustard eggplant curry. We even made a Limburger and avocado pasta one night, and although the stinky-socks smell of the cheese challenged the brood, they gobbled it all up.

One night, just for a lark, we cooked some turkey dogs for the kids, and Stuart even taught the kids the ‘bend the can’ trick to cook some creamed corn on the grill, which they universally despised, I’m happy to report.

When Oscar spiked a fever, it was roast capsicum and garlic soup on the menu, and when he recovered and requested fried chicken, I proved it’s possible even in the little RockVan.

When I stumbled across fresh pita breads at the Central Markets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we had to have kebabs, and here in the South, we seem to have coleslaw with nearly every meal.

The opportunity to cook in ‘real’ kitchens while visiting family and friends has been a lovely respite from the RockVan’s confines and a great way to say ‘thanks for having us’. I’m surprised that nobody has blinked an eye as I stride in with not just ingredients but my kick-arse knife as well.

Texas lies ahead, so our Mexican fetish should crank up a few notches when I pick up tortilla presses for me and the wonderful Zoe, our gracious host here on PDP. But first, we’ll be traveling through Cajun country in southern Louisiana, where I hope to learn the mysteries of Gumbo, Jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. If you want to see how that goes, be sure to tune back in for the next instalment of Motorhome Mama Cookin’. ;-)

 


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