Recommended Reading

I’ve been working on Halloween costumes this weekend (one – the knight – down, one – a Little House on the Prairie ensemble – to go ), hence the lack of recipes and posts, but I must confess that I’m also currently engrossed in not one, but two books by Michael Pollan:

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

I read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as soon as it came out in paperback, having heard him speak on NPR about an article of his in the New York Times Magazine that was written during the research for the book. It became the book I couldn’t stop talking about with anyone who would listen and the book I gave as Christmas presents to many people that year. Last year it was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I again patiently waited for to come out in paperback. (And just this past weekend at the farmer’s market I finally spied those gorgeous beans the hands on the cover are cradling!)

I was going back and forth about buying Pollan’s most recent book, In Defense of Food, (trying to cut down on “stuff” for an impending move, trying to save a tree or two, trying to support the public library…) but when I saw this video on YouTube (warning: it’s an hour long, but well worth the listen when you have the time), I decided it was going to be a keeper, so might as well buy it although it’s only out in hardcover.

I was particularly tickled by his statement in the video that many readers have come to him to say that their dilemma about what to eat for their own health and for the health of the planet was only exacerbated, not alleviated by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He decided to write In Defense of Food as an antidote, particularly since several readers told him they couldn’t finish Omnivore (the last thing an author wants to hear!) because they felt as though one food after another was going to become off limits. In a similar vein, a dear friend of mine confided that her husband was NOT pleased that I had gotten her to branch out into nonfiction by giving her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Apparently his life has changed drastically in the past 5 months…. Frankly I’m surprised that he still allows her to see me!

Second Nature is one of Pollan’s first books and in it you can already see him negotiating the space between nature and culture, notably their intersection, not the boundary line that so many choose to draw between them: in the garden, he finds that these two forces needn’t be antagonistic, but rather that they can and must exist in symbiosis. As a mother, I think his findings apply to the gardens that are our children’s minds and bodies as well – there are certainly enough people ready to do battle over nature versus nurture on those territories! So to some degree it’s probably not surprising that I devour parenting books at the same rate as I’ve been reading books on intentional eating – whether that means locally, organically, or as a vegan I leave up to you. The important point is that it’s an intentional act.

I’ve also been participating in a parenting discussion at a friend’s church this month, and it’s made me think even more about what we provide to fill our children’s minds and bodies, whether we are talking about meaningful stories (as opposed to the “junk food” television most often offers) or healthful food. No matter what your spiritual/religious inclinations are, you probably have a canon of stories you pass on in the expectation (or at least the hope!) that your children will adopt them – some stories may even be about dietary restrictions. So why not a canon for a healthy physical life as well as a fulfilling spiritual one? Not that these books are something you’ll read aloud to the kids, but many contain passages or even entire that even small children can relate to, albeit on a different level than an adult does so. I’m thinking about Kingsolver’s daughter’s trials and tribulations regarding raising chickens, Pollan finding a watermelon in the yard and realizing that it came from a seed he’d spit out, etc.

So here’s my vote for the intentional eater’s bible – a pentateuch for starters: Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally (Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon)and Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Nina Planck) could form the Pentateuch of the intentional eater’s bible. (Pollan can play Moses, but I’m happy to see more women representend in this one!)

I’d be delighted to hear your suggestions for inclusion….

Gaia Girls Unite!

I just finished reading Lee WellesThe Way of Water, which is the second book in her series The Gaia Girls (book one is called Enter the Earth). The series is written for the 9-12-year-old girl crowd (boys will appreciate the action-packed pages as well), but having bought the first two books for my daughter, I figured I ought to at least read it to know what I’m feeding her mind. So there’s your connection to why I’m blogging on this, rather than producing another recipe today – feeding a mind is like feeding a body: garbage in, garbage out is a scenario I want to avoid with my kids! And interestingly enough, both books touch on the question of what constitutes wholesome food.

WOW!!! The books are well-written, a mix of fantasy and reality, and with a beautiful message: You as a child have the power – the power to listen and to hear the earth, to understand the pain she’s in, how the suffering came about, and to be part of the solution. (Warning: spoilers ahead – skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know!) In Enter the Earth, Lizzy saves her upstate New York community from selling out to a CAFO. In The Way of Water, Miho protects the whales and dolphins from being rounded up and slaughtered in the annual oikomi hunt.

I read these books on the bus during my commute to work, and I have to say it was hard not to laugh and weep out loud as I followed their heroines on their journeys to discovering that power must be used wisely and for the greater good.

“Fiction with a mission” can be a disaster, but Lee Welles not only pulls it off with style – without them even noticing, she teaches children about caring for the earth in our every action – conscious living, whether we’re working, playing, learning, or eating!

I can’t wait for book three, Air Apparent….

TGIF – Movie Night!

Looking for a fun Chinese movie (or 2) for the dvd player? Check out pre-Brokeback-Mountain Ang Lee: his Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and The Wedding Banquet both explore “ethnic and sexual conflicts in a Chinese family, with meals as a centerpiece of the film.”(Janet Maslin, New York Times) You’ll see some fantastic banquet-style Chinese cooking – some of it so enticing you’ll want to reach onto the screen and grab a bite!

Restaurants: House of Vege, Lomita

By way of a rather long preface, let me explain how it is we came to try the House of Vege in Lomita:

When we lived in Chicago, we visited Chinatown at least every other week to grocery shop, to get haircuts, and of course to EAT. We tried quite a few places before we found our 2 favorite: Lao Szechuan (used to be Mandarin Chef) and Hing-Kee Phohung Restaurant (technically Vietnamese).

The former is owned and operated by Chef Tony Hu, who studied at the Sichuan Culinary Institute – this seems to make the place an anomaly because many smaller Chinese restaurants tend to be mom-and-pop operations that are started because mom or pop is a great cook, then the rest of the family pitches in at the front or back of the house. Lao Szechuan was an addiction for us in the years BC (before children!) – we went almost weekly and tried many, many things on the menu and loved just about all of them. Lao Szechuan was also the very first place we went after our daughter was born, and she was treated like a star from her first appearance at 6 weeks of age, most of the staff having seen us in the pregnant stage for months beforehand.

After our son was born and the kids were eating “real” food, we fell away from going to Lao Szechuan, partly because they wouldn’t eat spicy food and partly because my husband brought home some Chinese cookbooks (in Chinese) from the grocery we haunted there. We started to cook Chinese at home more and more (it used to be something my husband did on occasion and just out of his memories of his mother’s cooking). Because he hates cooking from a recipe, my husband will still just skim the basic ingredients and methods and then go to it. Being a “foreigner” I usually follow them pretty much to the letter, making adjustments for health reasons by cutting down on fat, omitting MSG, etc. Between us we have developed a pretty broad repertoire of home-cooked Chinese food and even tried our hand at some fancier dishes.

The sad part of the story is that as we cooked Chinese at home more and more, we liked eating Chinese out less and less! We’ll screw up our courage, pick a place we’ve heard about, go eat there, and come home disappointed. We have a running joke at our house that people say to me, “Oh, your husband’s Chinese – you must know the BEST place to get GREAT Chinese food!” And I have to say, “Well, um, yeah – at our house!”

We now live in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, within striking distance of many Chinese restaurants. When I had a similar conversation with a local and complained that we hadn’t really found anything satisfactory in LA’s old Chinatown (downtown) or its new one (the Monterey Park area), she confided that that’s because the best ones are in the South Bay area!

So last night, determined to branch out, we tried House of Vege in Lomita. The restaurant doesn’t appear to have a website, but you can find many, many reviews via a quick Google search.

My own review would run something like this:

I am not a vegetarian, but I do prefer vegetarian food, and I remember many, many vegetarian restaurants from my time in Taiwan. The bizarre thing for us “foreigners” is to walk into a restaurant that claims to be vegetarian and find that the menu lists the usual suspects: kungpao chicken, orange beef, three happiness, fish in brown sauce….  The fact of the matter is that these places use very cleverly made “fake meat” (usually tofu and tempeh) to simulate not only the taste but also the texture and appearance of these protein sources.

House of Vege does a very respectable job of creating “fake” versions of many standard Chinese restaurant dishes.

We ordered a cauliflower and corn soup (daughter’s request) and found it excellent but wondered why there were strips of what looked like carrots and turned out to be tofu – the real carrots that were in there were great!

For our appetizer, we ordered “Peking Duck” and were completely charmed by it: in a true Peking duck restaurant, you would be served a duck as part of several courses – often soup, stirfry, and roasted. The roasted part is probably everyone’s favorite: you get served little pancakes on which you spread plum sauce, add a slice of roast duck, top with its crispy skin and some scallion, wrap it up, and voila – duck taco! At the House of Vege, you get a steamed pancake made of yeast dough (like mantou, but pancake-shaped) spread with a sauce that

We also found the cashew chicken and shrimp/pork/chicken over rice cake to be very good, particularly the fake shrimp. We were very disappointed in the spicy tofu – great tofu, sauce was really lacking and overly cornstarch-thickened. My favorite dish was the lotus root slices with snowpeas and wood-ear.

“The cost of steak”

Taking a quick detour from recipes to discuss (rant about?) ingredients today! When you choose ingredients for your cooking, are you bent on finding a bargain? Do you take into consideration the hidden costs of the ingredients you are happy to get at “bargain” prices (do those prices even exist any more?)?

In the August 23 issue of the LA Times, Paul Roberts (author of The End of Food) pens a sobering, important reminder to us about why beef (and pork and chicken) is so cheap compared to what it used to cost – there are numerous hidden costs: “rivers of sewage, clouds of contaminated dust and nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gases,” not to mention epidemics of E.coli.

But as the downsides of factory farming have grown too large to ignore, we’ve had to admit that our meat is cheap only because we don’t count all the costs: Taxpayers spend $4.1 billion cleaning up livestock sewage leaks and $2.5 billion treating salmonella. All told, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs may be costing taxpayers $38 billion a year — costs that aren’t reflected in the retail price of meat.

Roberts goes on to say that indeed, sustainably farmed meat is not cheap, but there are ways to encourage its production:

Some of that price difference will narrow in the future as meat producers refine a post-CAFO production model; even now, a small hog farm, if efficiently managed, can boast lower per-pig costs than the average mega-farm 10 times its size. The Pew commission argues that if taxpayers are willing to support small and medium producers with incentives such as accelerated tax depreciation and tax credits, the cost to consumers might be further reduced.

In a time of rising consumer prices, everyone wants to save money, but we also need to remember that it was this urge to get the most for the very least that got us into this mess to begin with (don’t even get me started on shoppers who sing WalMart’s praises out of one side of their mouth and out of the other complain that China is sending us shoddy goods)!

Some good news, according to Roberts, is that even the meat companies are beginning to say that there must be a change, a reversion to non-CAFO meat raising methods. (CAFOs are Confined – or Concentrated – Animal Feeding Operations, those huge feed lots where most of our nation’s meat is fattened before slaughter.) Roberts cites a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts – I assume he means the report titled “Putting Meat on the Table” from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. It’s not an easy read, but full of great information. If you’re interested in the conclusions and recommendations of the commission, those begin on p. 61. I for one will watch this reversion or conversion to a “post-CAFO production model” with interest.

Cooking for and nourishing ourselves and our loved ones requires us to start with the highest quality ingredients we can find – remember that each time you pay for an ingredient, you are voting with your pocketbook: when you buy produce from a conventional store, 7-25 cents of that dollar go to the farmer who raised that produce; when you buy direct from a farmer, whether at a market or via a Community Supported Agriculture program, all 100 pennies of that dollar go to that producer and tell him or her: I value YOU and what you do for my family, and I think you should be properly compensated for that work.

In conclusion (rant almost over), I think finding our way back to the pre-CAFO, pre-agribusiness models of eating will be the path to keeping human life sustainable on this planet. Alice Waters, local/slow food maven, says it beautifully and succinctly:

I believe that the destiny of humankind in the 21st century will depend most of all on how people choose to nourish themselves. And if we can educate the senses, and break down the wall of ignorance between farmers and eaters, I am convinced … people will inevitably chooose the sustainable way, which is always the most delicious alternative.

ETA: On the SparkPeople boards this morning I found a link to this video from the Wall Street Journal digital network. So now industrially raised cows are eating potato chips and M&Ms?! Besides that weird little tidbit of information, the video gives a nice intro to the issue of industrial cattle vs. grassfed – worth a look!

“The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World”

As we don’t have watch television, I missed the opening segment of this documentary on the Sundance Channel about a restaurant in Changsha, Hunan, called West Lake – will be fun to see when (if?) it comes out on dvd, particularly since the creators are Chinese and not likely to share the reviewer’s squeamishness about certain ingredients.

If anyone’s seen it, please feel free to post your comments here.

Anyone live in/near Flushing?

This encouraging article front and center in the New York Times this morning, “Let the Meals Begin,” makes me smile – not only is it refreshing to see some positive coverage of China-related content in the American mainstream media (for its antithesis, check out “Before Guests Arrive, Beijing Hides Some Messes,” redeemed only by reader comments that remind the journalist to take a look at what other cities have done before hosting the Olympics), it’s also good to see that the old “pile of fried protein in cornstarch-thickened glop” is being phased out of Chinese food court stands. I particularly love the comment that “soy sauce is so American.”

If anyone lives in or near Flushing and would like to scope out some (or all!) of the mentioned eateries, I welcome you to leave me a comment on this post – happy to offer a guest blogger a place to post some reviews. Your review(s) would be listed under “yummy stuff” for future reference.

The same goes for anyone who has a restaurant review from their own haunts….