Friday, August 31, 2007

Happy Bread: A Response to Pollan's "Unhappy Meals"

I don't mean to beat a dead horse.

I know that it is all the rage to be writing about the ethical implications of food and the choices we make when we eat, and I don't want to just follow in the footsteps of thousands of others. However, as I've written before, I worry that the current awareness about food sources is a fad, and as we all know, fads fade. I worry about this for I believe that awareness about our place in the world is a trend we can't afford to let become passe.

Although I read the article a while ago now, I've been thinking about Michael Pollan's essay, "Unhappy Meals," found in the January 28th issue of The New York Times Magazine. He wraps up this well-constructed argument with nine central points, points to serve as guideposts to eating healthfully and thoughtfully. Mulling over how his claims apply to my life, I thought it might be an interesting approach to consider his nine suggestions and how they work in one person's everyday life. I decided to examine how I do or do not follow his advice, and what changes I can make, if I feel I need to. I thought perhaps reading what an average Joe (er, Joanne) does in his (ahem, her) life might be valuable; it might help dispell the "fad" quality of this ethical eating. Pollan may be hip, but I've never heard said that A Thinking Stomach is even close to hip. In fact, this little site (like its author) may be downright geeky.
"1. Eat Food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
Of course, my very white, very European great-great-grandmothers may not recognize the beauty of a chile or a the splendor of an avocado, two foods that are essential to my regular diet. But, they also wouldn't recognize Red Hot Cheetos or scary-neon nacho "cheese food," both items that I do not categorize as food. Pollan isn't talking about real food here; he's condemning processed food. Like everyone though, I have exceptions to the "processed food is not real food" rule. For me, it is corn dogs.

ECG and I make almost everything we eat unless we eat out. But one of the things that neither of us can make, at least not in the way that recalls my childhood, is corn dogs. When my father would be out of town for a business trip, Mom--left alone with two kids, however many animals and acres we did or didn't have at the time--would use the opportunity to heat up foods that were out of a box and easy. My favorite: corn dogs.

Full of chemicals and frozen, corn dogs may not be a recognizable food to my great-great-grandmothers, but I'll exchange them for the lutefisk fish they ate happily and which does not pass as food in my current world view. I have to allow a few trade-offs, after all.
"2. Avoid even those products that come bearing health claims. They're apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best."
I have never found a processed food that claims to be "low-fat" or "low-carb" that even tastes good to me. I think I'm safe from this argument because there are no processed foods in this house that fall into that category.

In college, I knew a woman who would eat several huge fat-free muffins each morning. After telling me how great and how low in calories they were, she encouraged me to split one with her. No wonder she had to eat several: they tasted like sweet air, and not in a good way. To me, healthy food has to first and foremost be actual food.
"3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number--or that contain high-fructose corn syrup."
I had to look in my pantry and refrigerator to see how I fare in this category. We have the aforementioned corn dogs in the freezer along with several Brazilian and Argentinean treats that serve the same purpose for ECG as corn dogs do for me. I thought the organic ketchup and barbecue sauce we get from Trader Joe's might be loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, but nope, it's real sugar. I looked at the ingredient list on every jar in my refrigerator, and found that with the exception of a very few Asian sauces, none of my jars had lists that contained preservatives or corn syrup. Full of mostly single ingredient jars--olive oil, tuna, coconut milk, and the like--my pantry is a preservative-free zone as well.

Why is this? When I buy condiments--the place in our household where preservatives have the greatest chance of lurking--I rarely look at the ingredients. I try to buy organic, when possible, but other than that, I hadn't really thought about what was in my jarred mayo (because, seriously, I am not going to make homemade mayo each time either of us has the urge for a sandwich).

The truth is I don't shop at traditional supermarkets much at all anymore. What I don't get at the farmers' market comes primarily from Trader Joe's (and for organic meats, Whole Foods). Don't get me wrong, Trader Joe's has some flaws--"organic" apricots shipped from China, to name one--but for the most part, the food is recognizably food. For example, here is the ingredient list from the bottle of ketchup: Organic Tomato Puree, Organic Sugar, Salt, Organic White Vinegar, Organic Onion Powder, Organic Spices.

This, of course, leads to his next point.
"4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible."
Hey single men. Are you looking for interesting, thoughtful single women who may also be foodies (and therefore able to connect you and your stomach to a good meal)? I know where you can find them: the farmers' markets. If I were a) single and b) a heterosexual man, I would spend time trolling in the greenmarkets across the country. The single female hipsters of America have discovered that eating fresh from the market is a good way to go: follow them.

Seriously, in my weekly life, the farmers' market provides a frame. It is something I look forward to every week. At the market, I find the best, most fresh food that is grown only a few miles away, versus thousands. I connect, every week, with the people who grew the food and even build relationships with them. Shopping primarily from the farmers' market forces me to be a creative cook, one who can adjust familiar recipes to what is available seasonally and one who can invent dishes based on what I have. In addition, the seasonal eating that shopping at farmers' markets ensures always provides me with joyful anticipation. At the market this morning, the first pears had arrived. Pears! It's been months since I've had a pear! Now they taste all the better because they are perfectly ripe and in season, and because I haven't been glutted with bad versions of them for months. See, farmers' market shopping is not only good for the planet and your dinner plate, it is plain ol' fun.
"5. Pay more, eat less."
I don't believe that in the long run I spend more money shopping at farmers' markets for produce, eggs, and fish than I would by shopping in a grocery store. When I compare prices, I don't find them to be dissimilar, and when I purchase the quality of produce I receive at my market, I am much less likely to let it go to waste. As well, since I don't buy processed food, my kitchen is stocked with ingredients for meals, which are often, but not always, cheaper then the processed option. The exception, of course, is organic meat. Those blobs of flesh are pricey! But, paying more for them encourages us to eat less of them, and we often find ourselves enjoying a meatless dinner.

Because I have set out to eat as ethically and healthfully (two words that when you set out to do one, may lead you to the other) as possible, I find the pricing helpful. Although my observation is purely non-scientific, it appears that in the realm of organic foods, the higher prices often correspond to larger carbon footprints. Meats, even with an organic label, are still high up the food chain and therefore energy inefficient, and specialty items like gourmet mushrooms or vinegars are often shipped from far away. Their prices remind me to think before buying.
"6. Eat more plants, especially the leaves."
This is a challenge in our house. ECG doesn't like many green foods. He can't help it. He tries, he really does try, but chard, kale, spinach--these foods appeal to him in no way. I love them, but he doesn't, so we try to balance our needs with his tastes. He will eat salads, so we have as large a salad as I can pull together to fill out almost every dinner.

Using lots of herbs (and I do mean lots) is one way that I try to get green in his diet.

Also, I experiment with creative ways of tucking green things in places where they'll be less conspicuous. Getting "leafy" forces me, once again, to be creative.

Finally, when it comes to leafy greens, I have decided that I am not going to sacrifice my need of them for his distaste towards them, so if I can't figure out how to make leafy greens in a way that he'll eat them, I'll make them just for me.
"7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are."
I think this point is the hardest for me to follow. I can eat like the French for a meal, like the Thai for another meal, and like the Italians for a third, but I can't follow a traditional food culture for the majority of the time because my tastes are so diverse. I'm a product of my American culture, after all, one that pulls from all these other cultures.

So, I'm going to define my own food culture: produce-based. It is culled from many ethnic sources, but the primary guide in deciding what I'll make for a meal is the best produce I have available, not the protein source. The produce will guide the protein selection.
"8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden."
For a food and garden geek like myself, this isn't a hard guideline to follow. One of the things that I was reminded of this year, as I set out to build my own kitchen garden after having been garden-less for many years, is how much growing food connects me to the rest of the world. The connection to nature is clear because my meals depend on it. I welcome so many bugs, learning to get over most cases of the heebie-jeebies. For example, I found this molted skin of a praying mantis this week and rejoiced: somewhere in my garden is a praying mantis even larger than this skin and it is getting the bad guys.

And when I pulled out a sad tomato plant earlier this week, unearthing the egg I buried with it when I planted it, I shouted with joyful surprise. Certain it had already decomposed, I was astonished to find it still looking like an egg, but also happy that the earth held signs of me. I put that there. I have changed this soil. I have helped to make this dirt healthier.

"9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet."
ECG and I eat meat. An Argentinean born in Brazil, ECG considers beef an essential food group. When he things meat, he thinks beef, something he craves every day. However, we both understand the implications of beef (he nicknamed the section of Interstate 5 through the Central Valley "Cowschwitz"), and know that we need diversity when it comes to protein. We can find good organic lamb, pork, and chicken, all which we enjoy, but something we're very excited about right now is bison. We've discovered good grassfed organic bison, an animal that though huge, lives much more lightly on the land than a cow. As well, bison can satisfy the beef urge every once in a while. However, as I wrote before, our diet is more and more produce-based, and is occasionally meat-free. We eat eggs often for our protein, as well as cheeses and bean-combinations. We are trying to diversify our protein sources.

In my garden, I'm trying to branch out as well. This week, I placed my seed orders for the winter garden I'll grow in the little plot. I searched out a variety of leafy greens, varieties beyond the lettuces and arugula I usually stick to for salads. I'm trying out turnips, rutabagas, kales, chards, beets and broccolis. I don't have much space, but I can grow small portions of many things. I'll also plant peas and perhaps favas to not only add legumes to our diet in the spring, but nitrogen to the soil. You see, the greater crop diversity I have growing, not only the healthier diet do ECG and I consume, but the healthier my soil is.

If you think of my garden as representative of the agricultural world, the same rule applies: the greater diversity of crops grown, the healthier our nation's soils will be. For farmers to start growing those crops, you need to start eating them.

Oatmeal Buttermilk Bread with Flaxseed
Adapted from The Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook by Leslie Mackie.

When I first saw this recipe, I knew it was a bread for me. I love it. It is a phenomenal sandwich bread, full of flavor, fiber, and Omega-3s. So delicious--tender, moist, and sweetly nutty from the oats, flax and brown sugar--this bread is remarkably easy to make with the help of a stand mixer. It also incorporates multiple species, flax (genus Linum), oats (Avena Sativa), and wheat (genus Triticum), and can easily include a handful of nuts (if you so choose) to add to the genetic diversity and punch up the protein. It is a healthy food, but not one that tastes like "health food," and eating it just makes me happy.

This recipe makes one huge-mama loaf, too big for ECG and me to eat before it goes stale, so we cut it in half, wrap one side well, and place it in the freezer for later in the week.

You will need:
1 1/4 cups rolled organic oats
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup warm water
2 teaspoons dried yeast
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup oil (the variety you choose will beautifully affect the flavor of this already wonderful bread--try walnut or another interesting oil, or let the oat-y goodness steal the show with the clean flavor of canola)
scant 1/2 cup organic brown sugar
1 cup organic whole wheat flour
1/4 cup organic flaxseed meal
3 1/2 cups organic unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
a spray bottle of water
a 9 x 5 x 4 inch loaf pan

To make the bread:
Place the oats in a heavy bowl and cover with the boiling water. Stir to make sure each oat is moistened, and let the bowl sit on the counter for at least ten minutes as the oats absorb the water.

Make sure the dough hook attachment is inserted in your stand mixer. In the bowl of the mixer, pour the warm water, sprinkle in the yeast, and stir to help the yeast dissolve. Let the mixture rest for five minutes. Add the oats, buttermilk, oil, sugar, flours, and salt. Mix on low to combine the ingredients for a minute or two, then increase the speed to medium to knead for 10 minutes. Keep an eye on your mixer so it doesn't dance across the counter and on to the floor. The dough, after 10 minutes of kneading should feel alive and elastic. If it doesn't yet, continue kneading for another minute.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and place a plate on top of it to cover. Let the dough rise in a warm room (in this weather, all rooms are warm) for an hour or until the dough is almost doubled in size.

Using a dough scraper, push the dough out of the bowl and on to a floured surface. Flatten the dough, pressing out the air bubbles and pushing it into a long horizontal rectangle, approximately 12 by 6 inches. Fold the right and left sides (the short ends) towards the middle, then starting with the end closest to you, roll the dough away from you into a log. Let the dough rest on its seam for about five minutes.

Oil the the loaf pan, and place the dough, seam side down inside of it. When I make this bread, this step takes a little finnagling in which I press and pull the bread so that it fits into every corner. You'll most likely find the dough almost completely fills the pan already. Let the dough rise for a half an hour or 45 minutes, so that the dough extends beyond the top of the pan, but has not yet doubled it size.

While the dough is performing its second rise, heat the oven to 385 degrees Fahrenheit. When the dough has risen, spray the top with water. If you feel decorative, sprinkle a few extra oats on the moistened top. Place the pan on a rack one down from the center of the oven (the bread will continue to rise, and you don't want it sticking to the roof of your oven, do you?) and bake for an hour. As you can see in the picture, the bread will become a beautiful brown.

Remove when the bread is a rich medium brown and let cool in the pan for at least a half an hour. Release the bread from the pan (use a knife if it sticks and you need assistance) and let it continue to cool on a wire rack.


Lucy said...

'So, I'm going to define my own food culture: produce-based.'


Look, it is quite the 'thing', writing about the ethics of eating and my fears are similar to yours Christina. I also worry that it is simply a phase, one lead by those who can afford to eat well are already well educated. But your response to the Pollan article is articulate and realistic - nothin' precious going on here - and most importantly, as a gardener you have made a connection that many do not.

Long live the farmers market (so few here...such a small population) and more particularly those farmers. Marvelous people.

Grover20 said...

Lovely post... a timely reminder to reflect on what my household is doing regarding food...

Our veggie markets here in Wellington, NZ aren't exactly what we grew up thinking of as a "farmers market" (we're both from Portland, OR). They don't seem to have much in the way of organics and there are sometimes language barriers between those who are selling and buying which limit the sharing of the story of where the food came from. That said, being on a small island in the middle of nowhere does mean that food being sold at outdoor market prices (typically $1-3 per bunch/item) tends to be semi-local and seasonal.

On the green leefy front, have you tried bok choy. We've lately been cooking it up in soya oil with a dash of water, and once wilted tossing with soy sauce. A few nights ago we took some left over browned ground beef, reheated it with chili & black bean sauce then mixed in some cooked bok choy. A few of our anti-leaf friends really enjoyed it.

I also find wilted spinach cooked up in a frying pan with a bit of water, a bit of salt, and lots of garlic sometimes goes over okay with those who are less enthusiastic about greens than I am:)
keep the recipes coming! they're great - I'd personally love to hear about some of the ways you cook beans - something I'm trying to incorporate more into our weekly meals.

Matron said...

I heartily agree with your comments. I worry about the mental and physical future of the next generation if they don't know about or don't have access to fresh food. I'm not surprised though that they don't like eating veggies given the horrible tasteless rubbish that is sold at supermarkets. Who could resist a tasty, tangy freshly picked ripe tomato?

Truffle said...

A beautifully reasoned response and I agree!

winedeb said...

My hands are clapping for your post! I have not read any of Pollan's books yet, but will. I am reading one now "Real Food - What To Eat And Why" by Nina Planck. She makes alot of the same points that you have.
I too try to garden as best I can in a very TINY space here in Key West and my garden is totaly grown in containers.
I agree with everyone who states "Eat Fresh and Local". A pat on the back to all the organic farmers!

Christina said...

Lucy: Thank you! Can you imagine a world so distant from farmers that the reality of food doesn't even compute? Sometimes, I get glimpses of that world, and since I really don't want to live in it, I try to do what I can to keep it at bay. I appreciate your kind words and admire the work you're doing in your hemisphere. Hooray, indeed, for farmers!

Grover20: Thank you! It is nice to know that your supermarkets are selling real food, food that is grown relatively nearby and certainly by the seasons. I believe, that with some very large exceptions, we could do that here as well, if people were willing to not have everything all the time OR pay exorbitantly for non-seasonal items. It is one thing to occasionally indulge and quite another to expect those luxuries daily. As for bok choy, I love it by ECG not so much. Of course, if I mix it with meat, I'm sure he'll eat it. I'll work on putting together some of my "bean" meals. It's been so hot around here I haven't been making them much so it may be a bit until it cools and I'm thinking about the stove again.

Matron: Thank you so much for stopping by. I know--garden-ripe tomatoes are such treats it is hard to imagine that people wouldn't eat them once they'd had them once.

Truffle: Thanks! Thanks also for coming by.

Winedeb: Thanks for the kudos--I appreciate them. I imagine it is hard in Florida for a couple reasons, space just one of them. Containers can be surprisingly productive; I'd love to hear what you grow.

Wendy said...

Just had a very quick read of this and cannot wait to spend some time reading it properly and thinking carefully about my own food culture this weekend. (If it ever comes...)

Susan said...

This is surely a trend, but as trends go, a decent and honorable one, not like wearing a teacup Yorkie as a fashion accessory in a $2000 handbag. Yes, sadly, even the best trends will fade. All we can hope for is to carve out our little plot of caring and encourage others to do so.

Anonymous said...

as always, great post Christina, but I'm here to totally blow it all for you, have you ever heard of, *ahem* Corn Dog Day?
I have friends that participate in this every year, they send you FREE corn dogs and all the accoutrement and it is a BLAST!!
Sorry to send you on a culinary dog leg, but I felt compelled to share!
Bon appetite!

Christina said...

Wendy: The weekend is almost here. You will survive, you will.

Susan: No $2000 handbags here (or Yorkies, for that matter). I'll stick to the greenie-foodie trend. Thanks for your support.

Ann: Can you hear my heart fluttering from the other side of the continent? Corn Dog Day? Oh, sweet heaven. Thank you for sharing the good news with me!

Wendy said...

Enjoyed sitting down and taking time to read this through. A very realisitic and intelligent response. Was struck by how similar your food culture and attitudes are to mine. The only real difference is the farmers market. We have a very small monthly one in Inverness and there is very little choice.
What is a corn dog, by the way?

Christina said...

Wendy: I'm so glad you've enjoyed it (and hope you're recovering successfully from the hangover--don't you just hate that?). A corn dog is a hot dog dipped in a slightly sweet corn-bread batter then deep fried until it is crunchy-golden on the outside, tender sweet and bready on the next layer in, and juicy-meaty in the middle. With some good mustard, it is heaven on a stick. What's your processed-food weakness, if you have one?

Wendy said...

Fishfingers. Think you call them fishsticks in the US? Had a fishfinger sandwich yesterday, in fact. Great antidote to a hangover! :)

Christina said...

For anyone who noticed: I just made a correction; I replaced gefilte fish with lutefisk. I always get those two words mixed up. Both are dried, salted fish, but lutefisk has the definite disadvantage--who wants to eat a fish soaked in lye?

That may clarify something about my heritage. At least one of my great-grandmothers was a lutefisk eater, not gefilte fish eater.

michael, claudia and sierra said...

well done. truly. i applaud you for taking the time and thought.