Cookbook Review: Chinese Feasts + Festivals

Chinese Feasts + Festivalsby S.C. Moey, available in the US via Tuttle, is about very traditional ways of celebrating the festivals of the Chinese calendar. My first thought when I flipped through the book was that I had been transported back to my junior year abroad, which I spent in Taiwan – and I wished I had known this much then about the culture of the country, not just about the language! I can easily recall the sights, sounds, and tastes the author describes, and they would have been much more meaningful had I had a chance to read about them beforehand.

I think those of us who studied in Taiwan in the mid- to late 1980s were exposed to much more traditional Chinese culture than those classmates who studied in the much more recently established language programs in the mainland. Although Communist China, having been “forbidden” to Americans for so many years, seemed much more interesting to many of us, the opportunity to live with a Chinese family was not an option there – students lived in dorms with other Americans, and contact between Chinese students and Americans was still fairly tightly controlled. I feel lucky to have lived with a Chinese family and to have been treated to the feasts S.C. Moey writes about, but with only two years of the language under my belt, even asking the right questions was difficult – much less understanding what the family, who spoke absolutely no English, was trying to convey to me about their holidays – and I was sadly underprepared for this part of my sojourn abroad!

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The in-depth cultural notes are clearly written with a deep love of the author’s own culture – perhaps, I suggested to my husband (who is from China’s Hunan Province), in an effort to preserve some of the cultural heritage that remains in Singapore, Taiwan, and other outlying Chinese-inhabited countries? My memory of Mainland China was one of communist utilitarianism and a desperate rush toward modernization that left much of the traditional culture behind as something outdated and almost shamefully self-indulgent. But my husband mentioned that in the past decade, there has been a movement to reintroduce many of these festivals and feasts, not only in the countryside – where they have stayed somewhat alive despite the government’s attempts from the 1950s on to shut them down as relics of an undesirable era – but also in the cities.

The recipes in the book are well-written and easy to follow, although for a vast majority of the American audience, the thought of buying some ingredients – such as a whole fish that must then be gutted, scaled, etc. – is a bit off-putting! We cook a fair amount of Chinese food at home, and we definitely focus on day-to-day home cooking – although some of the recipes in this book are for dishes meant to be prepared at special times of the year and shared with family and friends who are invited to partake in the festivities, some of them are entirely manageable for weekday dinners, especially with a little forethought when ingredients need to be soaked, etc.

In Part I, the recipes are divided into standard cookbook sections (Vegetables, Meat, Poultry, etc.), but the real riches come at the end of the book: Part II is about specific feast days and the particular foods that are eaten only at those times of the year. Many of these recipes are for items that can be found in Asian markets in advance of those feast days – foods that I never imagined making at home. I’ll admit I haven’t yet attempted moon cakes or salted preserved eggs, but with this book in hand, I may be tempted to try it!

The Vital Ingredients section is excellent, providing simple explanations of commonly used ingredients and – perhaps more importantly – simple substitutions that are readily available, even to those who don’t have access to an Asian grocery store.

The author is also the illustrator, and the folksy pictures show traditional scenes of Chinese festivals being celebrated and dishes being cooked but rarely of the actual dishes for which recipes are given.

I think that in the end, this book will definitely enrich my Chinese cooking classes, and I hope my half Chinese children will spend some time using it to bone up on that half of their heritage! A great purpose for anyone looking to learn more about this part of Chinese culture, particularly those who love to cook and/or teach Chinese language and culture at the elementary and secondary level.

Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All

Happy Mother’s Day! If you are concerned about the sort of world we are leaving our descendants (and what mother or nurturer is not?), today seems to be as good a day as any to commit to making sure that our children and our children’s children inherit a world that includes a healthy, sustainable food system to nurture them.

Where are YOU on your journey toward helping create a more sustainable, more equitable, fairer food system for our future generations: Just starting to think about buying more local food? Seriously into buying local, sustainable food? Involved in food systems change at the community level? Ready to influence the movement on a national scale?

For the past 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working at Fair Food Network as executive assistant to the organization’s founder and president Oran Hesterman. I’ve done my share of the mundane executive assistant tasks, but I’ve also had the pleasure of helping Oran to edit his book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, coming out from PublicAffairs in June.

Regardless of where you are on your food systems journey, I recommend this book as one that gives everyone practical steps to take to move us beyond what’s on our own plates and in our own refrigerators toward what we can do in our neighborhood, our greater community, and our country (and maybe even globally!) to make healthy, fresh food available to everyone now AND into the future.

Ready to get more involved?

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Did you know that Michigan is second only to California in terms of agricultural diversity? Learn more about the opportunity for agriculture to save Michigan’s economy in Eating in Place, a new documentary that explores Michigan’s local food economy.

And to add to the reading list: Animal Factory by journalist David Kirby, recently interviewed in TIME.

GE crops, continued: the National Research Council has released a report on the advantages and disadvantages of genetically engineered crops. While I fall firmly on the side against GMOs, it’s good to see someone presenting both sides of the issue.

Remembering the Silver Palate

In the throes of organizing a 10th (gulp!) birthday party, but couldn’t let the week pass without noting some sad news on the food front: Sheila Lukins, of Silver Palate fame, has died at the age of 66: read about it here. The Silver Palate Cookbook, now available in it’s 25th anniversary edition, was one of my first cookbook purchases and remains a great resource to this day.

I’m inspired…

I’ve been thinking a lot about how moving from SoCal to Michigan is going to change our cooking and eating habits, and all I can think is, the change is going to be HUGE. In Torrance, I shop once a week at the farmers’ market, which takes place right next door and is full of amazing produce all year round. I even get my chicken, beef, bison, fish, and eggs there, so my trips to Trader Joe’s take place every other week or so and are mostly for sandwich bread, milk, butter, and the occasional snack food.

As we organize our move for June, I’m trying to learn all I can about Ann Arbor’s options for CSAs, including those that deal in poultry and meat. (Now welcoming all recommendations!) And although Ann Arbor has a farmers’ market, I suspect it will be harder to get to, harder to find parking, and not quite as stocked year round, although I understand it is open all year.

So I’m looking at the freezer options and hoping to join the many Americans who are (re)turning to processing and preserving their own food. Lucky for me, the New York Times has a piece on canning today – “Preserving Time in a Bottle (or Jar)” – which includes some reading recommendations and other resources. More books to add to my list – it’s a good thing we have a long plane flight ahead of us, as well as lots of hanging out time between leaving one house and moving into another!

SOLE Food and Pollan, Practiced

With the economic slide continuing, it was interesting to see a piece on entitled “Can we afford to eat ethically?” in which Siobahn Phillips writes:

Last month, a report from England found sales of some organic food had fallen up to 31 percent. Ethical food advocates have been worrying about a similar trend in this country since the recession began: Just as the need for better food choices became more widely accepted, our economy fell apart, and consumers who once considered free-range, $5-a-dozen eggs a necessity may start eyeing the caged-hens carton for half that price. A recent National Review column argued that organic food was, in fact, “an expensive luxury item, something bought by those who have the resources.”

Phillips decides to go one step beyond the innumerable experiments that have challenged people to live on a food-stamp budget: she ups the ante by trying to do so using only SOLE food: sustainable, organic, local, and ethical alternatives. Her description of the month’s trials and successes is entertaining, but her conclusion is important:

[O]ur four-week hypothetical did provide a feasible way for my husband and me to eat sustainably long-term: When the month finished — with a magisterial $1.20 left in the cache — we decided to stick with most of our experimental changes. We now eat slightly larger quantities of meat, fruit and cheese, and pepperoni pizza is back in the menu rotation. But apart from that pepperoni (and I’m still looking for an ethical source), I’ve yet to purchase any recurring items that aren’t SOLE-justified, and our grocery bills have stayed lean.

And her piece provides an important piece of the puzzle, mostly in the way of a link to another article, this one by Laura Miller, who writes “How to live what Michael Pollan preaches.” Miller’s piece is basically a review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, but she brings up an extremely important point:

Of all the challenges confronting the “Food Matters” plan for “responsible eating” – agribusiness lobbying and marketing, the low price of subsidized junk food, even evolutionary factors that attract us to high-calorie foods – probably the single most obdurate is the fact that so many contemporary Americans simply don’t know how to cook. By “cook,” I don’t mean being able to concoct an impressive dinner the one night a month you have guests over while otherwise subsisting on nuked Lean Cuisine. Real home cooking means having a good repertoire of reliable, quick, uncomplicated recipes and understanding enough of the underlying principles to improvise when needed. It means knowing how to stock a pantry and plan your menus so that you shop for groceries only once a week. It’s a set of skills manifested as an attitude, something you can acquire only through regular practice, and it’s the one thing that can make a person truly at ease in a kitchen.

I’m a huge proponent of cooking and eating at home: we normally eat 1 meal out per week (that’s out of 21 meals – our children are still at ages where daily attendance at all 3 meals as a family is required) and during the week all 4 of us take packed lunches to school/work. Yet I know that this is made possible in part by my work schedule (I have worked part-time for the past few years and am currently between jobs as we plan our summer relocation to Michigan) and in part because I have had professional training in culinary school. However, I do spend a minimum of time on cooking during the week (too many after-school activities to juggle!) and I did receive a lot of culinary training from my mother and grandmother.

I have not yet read Bittman’s book, but it sounds like the sort of reading that should help others along the road to being “at ease in the kitchen.” And I love and wholly support Miller’s comment that

[l]ike writing, driving, touch typing and balancing a checkbook, basic cooking is a life skill (not an art or hobby) that everybody needs, and it ought to be taught in public schools as a matter of course. The fact that cooking can also be a craft, featuring a certain amount of self-expression, or that contemporary star chefs have been exalted to a degree far exceeding their actual cultural worth, shouldn’t be allowed to obscure that humbler truth.

I had a good laugh at the farmers’ market this past Saturday when our “crepe man” in his fabulous French accent asked my son, “What are you doing for Mommy for Mother’s Day? Are you going to cook her dinner?” “No, I can’t cook.” “But you make her some pasta – that’s easy: you put some water in a pot, put in some salt, add the bag of pasta, et voila!” A moment of silence, then my son said, “You have to boil the water first.” The crepe man laughed delightedly and said, “You see, you know more than I do!” It struck me then that even at 5 & 9, my children do know an awful lot about cooking, which comes from watching their father and me cook on a regular basis, even climbing on the counter to stir the simmering pots and watch the melting butter, and yes, mom, even licking the batter from the beaters – I know, I know, it contains raw eggs.

So back to the kitchen – and this time with the kids in tow – tell them you’re giving them a gift, not rescinding child labor laws. They’ll thank you when they can indeed cook for themselves and live on a budget!

Fast Food Nation: In conclusion…

I’ve been juggling several books and have just now finished Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which I blogged about a while back. I couldn’t resist sharing two powerful quotes found toward the end of the book – something to keep in mind if you tend to hit the fast food joints on the weekend as an “easy out” to making something at home!

First, about the power of the consumer in our fast-food world (and think about how the second paragraph applies to each and every fast food chain you know!):

Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fas food industry are not the bad men. They are businessmen. They will sell free-range-organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit. The usefulness of the market, its effectiveness as a tool, cuts both ways. The real power of the American consumer has not yet been unleashed. The heads of Burger King, KFC, and McDonald’s should feel daunted; they’re outnumbered. There are three of them and almost three hundred million of you. A good boycott, a refusal to buy, can speak much louder than words. Sometimes the most irresistible force is the most mundane.

Pull open the glass door, feel the rush of cool air, walk inside, get in line, and look around you, look at the kids working in the kitchen, at the customers in their seats, at the ads for the latest toys,study the backlit color photographs above the counter, think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, about what is set in motion by every single fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, think about it. Then place your order. Or turn and walk out the door. It’s not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way.

And second, about how fast food will be remembered (sic transit gloria McMundi?) along with a hopeful prescription for the future:

Future historians, I hope, will consider the American fast food industry a relic of the twentieth century – a set of attitudes, systems and beliefs that emerged from postwar southern California, that embodied its limitless faith in technology, that quickly spread across the globe, flourished briefly, and then receded, once its true costs became clear and its thinking became obsolete…. Whatever replaces the fast food industry should be regional, diverse, authentic, unpredictable, sustainable, profitable – and humble. It should know its limits. People can be fed without being fattened or deceived. This new century may bring an impatience with conformity, a refusal to be kept in the dark, less greed, more compassion, less speed, more common sense, a sense of humor about brand essences and loyalties, a view of food as more than just fuel. Things don’t have to be the way they are.