Food for Thought…and for Action

After enjoying a truly delicious turkey for the second year in a row (this year’s holiday menu mostly from Food & Wine‘s article about Joanne Chang – although I stopped short of the Peking-duck inspired turkey!), I was amused and amazed to read several friends’ posts on Facebook to the effect that turkey  is most definitely not their favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner – some pass it up for the side dishes, others go as far as to eliminate the bird entirely and have seafood for their feast. Everyone in my family loves turkey, but in previous years, I’ve often entertained the same thoughts about the tasteless, dry turkeys I’ve been served at other people’s homes and also cooked myself. Having learned that the secret to amazing turkey is, as with most other dishes, starting with the best ingredients one can afford (we are lucky enough to be able to purchase local, pastured heritage turkeys that have never been frozen) and knowing how to cook them (brining overnight, adding a layer of herbed butter between the breast and the skin, keeping the stuffing separate from the bird, not overcooking), I can understand these critics’ point of view: if I had to buy a conventionally raised, chemical-injected bird from a grocery store, I’d be just as likely to go vegetarian for Thanksgiving.

But living in Southeast Michigan has made me more conscious than ever of the disparity between most of my neighbors and myself  in Ann Arbor and the low-income residents of nearby areas, both rural and urban. Many low-income people would be thrilled to have one of those turkeys at which we, in our privilege, turn up our noses. And during this time of year, the media does occasionally cover the dark side of the holidays (when, ironically, it is not concerned with promoting the rampant consumerism of Cyber Thursday and Black Friday).  So my enjoyment of delicious, abundant food is always tinged with sadness – am I doing enough to promote much-needed change in the food system simply by buying locally, sustainably grown food? It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there are so many critical issues out there surrounding our food system that won’t be solved by baby steps taken by individuals. Depressing? Maybe. But perhaps a bit inspiring as well. Educating yourself about good food (meaning food that is good for your personal health, the health of the environment, and the health of your community) is the first step – the next is to become active. There are so many ways to get involved with food these days.

Cooking at home

We spent last weekend at a hotel in Lansing, where my son competed in a TaeKwonDo competition. Part of the thrill of a hotel for my kids is tv – we don’t watch it at home (and getting a dose of it on occasion makes me grateful for that – talk about 57 channels and nothing on!) We came across a food channel and were mesmerized for a while. Then my husband said, “Why does it have to be so crazy? What’s the point of making it so quickly? I’ll bet you anything that most of that food tastes awful!”

He’s right – when DID it become necessary to make food complicated and superfast? I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s comment in an interview with Bill Moyers: “We watch cooking shows like crazy on television. We’ve turned cooking into a spectator sport. If you would merely invest the time you spend watching cooking shows in actually cooking, you would find you’ve got plenty of time to put a meal on the table.” Simply turning off the television (and the ipod and the computer and the video games) would give us so much more time to do something as rewarding as cooking from scratch. Or look at it another way – if you must spend hours on the computer, why not let something cook slowly on the stovetop during those hours?

Social justice

It’s true that many low-income consumers choose to purchase calorie-dense yet nutritionally inadequate (i.e. junk) food exactly because it is filling, but when the Wall Street Journal reports that 84% of parents fed their children fast food in any given week, I have to shudder because so many consumers who are NOT considered low-income are falling for the fast food conglomerates’ advertising campaigns.

Much of what I said about the privileged versus the food insecure is put much more eloquently in “Divided We Eat.” While the article speaks somewhat vaguely about solutions to the problem of disparity in access to food, I do appreciate the quote from Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

[T]he answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”

Adding another layer of complexity (that of race) to the issue is Natasha Bowens’ post on Food Justice on Grist.com. Bowens’ article does helpfully mention a number of Detroit organizations to get involved with around the issue.

Supporting your local (food) economy

Senate bill S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act was scheduled for a vote before Thanksgiving, but it’s been stalled, which means that you can still weigh in with your Senators about your feelings on the matter. Of major importance to local food economies is the Tester Hagan Amendment. There is a lot of good information on this in a debate on Grist.com and an easy way to contact your Senators at Food Democracy Now. I hate speaking on the phone to people I don’t know, but these are easy calls to make and won’t require more than a few minutes of your time.

And as we enter the season of holiday shopping, here’s a thought from Treehugger.com as you buy: “There is more to the local movement than just food.”

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Rice Stuffing

Every year, I await the arrival of the Food & Wine November issue with great anticipation – at our house, Thanksgiving never has the same menu two years in a row; instead, I usually try out one of F&W’s menus. This year features an Asian-American inspired theme, and as much as I’d like to try it, I think it may be a bit too experimental for the kids. It did make me reconsider the dressing issue, though: I’m really the only person in the family who loves dressing, so maybe I should consider using rice rather than bread as the base? F&W’s chef, Joanne Chang uses Chinese sausage for her dressing, but I really dislike that product – it’s usually highly processed, full of questionable ingredients and often a lot of MSG – so I set out to create a similar recipe using more whole, close to the source, and local ingredients.

You can certainly vary the ingredients based on what’s fresh and local where you live or to include some luxury items, such as papaya or pineapple.

Glutinous rice is an extremely short-grain rice that cooks up sticky and is often used in sweet dishes – it is often called “sticky rice” or “sweet rice” for these reasons – and is available in white or brown.

I’ve simplified the steps and made the final cooking take place in a steamer, freeing up the oven in case you are making this for Thanksgiving and need the space.

I’ve reduced the recipe amounts to make approximately 4 servings – it’s easily multiplied if you want to use it for a larger gathering.

ingredients:

  • 1/4 c dried sweet cherries or raisins
  • 1 c glutinous rice – I like a mix of white and brown
  • 1 T cooking oil or bacon fat
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 1/4 lb fresh shiitake mushroom caps, cut into 1/4″ dice – you can save the stems for making stock
  • 2 oz ham, cut into 1/4″ dice
  • 1 tart apple, cut into 1/4″ dice
  • 1/4 c Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 T light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 T chopped cilantro

method:

  1. Soak the cherries in water overnight to plump them up, then drain and set aside.
  2. Combine the wine, soy sauce, and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves, then set aside.
  3. Cook the rice according to the Basic Steamed Rice recipe, then allow it to come to room temperature.
  4. Heat a wok over medium-high heat, then add the cooking oil and heat just until it shimmers.
  5. Explode the shallot and scallions just until fragrant, then add the diced mushrooms, stirfrying for approximately 1 m.
  6. Add the ham, apples, and cherries and stir just until heated through.
  7. Combine all the ingredients gently – the easiest way to do this is by wetting your hands with cold water and using them to gently mix the ingredients together.
  8. Grease a glass or ceramic dish, then put the rice mixture inside it.
  9. Steam the rice until heated through, approximately 30-45 m (longer if you’ve multiplied the recipe).

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Seems like it’s all about politics these days – lots of people complaining that they’re seeing red and feeling blue – but what do the election results have to do with food? Check out Tom Philpott on What the midterms mean for federal ag-policy reform?

More news from Philpott about the burgeoning local/organic/sustainable food movement in China, the conclusion of which is a good reminder to any of us hoping to reform the food system, locally and globally:

We should remember that globalization works in multiple ways, not just the corporate-dominated one. Just as U.S. transnationals have forged ties with China’s bureaucrats to open factories there, U.S. organic farmers and food activists should reach out to our Chinese peers. In the task of creating food systems that make sense, we are all in this together.

A good summary of what’s in season (at least in California – we should all be so lucky!) can be found in the LA Times. Well, at least some of the same foods are in season even as far north as Michigan, what with more and more hoop houses going up!

Marion Nestle writes in The Atlantic about the dangers of ultra-processed foods.

And Greenopolis provides some tips on freezing foods to stretch your food dollar.