Food stuff this year
I busted my butt to get this in before too much of 2007 passed (I submitted it in the wee hours of 1/2/07), but it turns out I forgot to hit the all-important little button that says “post.” Isn’t there an expression about yesterday’s news being today’s fish wrapper? (That expression makes a lot more sense in England where people wrap fish’n’chips in newspaper …) Here, belatedly, is my 2006 summary, ready to be recycled for your cyber-fishwrapping needs.
My personal best and worst food-related stuff of 2006:
Best and Worst Food-related Experience (all in one)
I went with some friends and their kids to watch fishermen unloading their catch at a pier on Cape Cod last July. The sun was shining and seals were swimming around the dock waiting for fish to fall in the water. We stayed long enough to watch three boats bring in their catch. The downside, however, was seeing that every single bin of fish (they had already been sorted by type into separate bins) was full of species known to be overfished. Chefs and consumers create and maintain the demand for these fish; fisherfolk meet that demand. This has to change. Everyone involved, from cooks and restaurant patrons to fishermen and legislators, will have to educate and rededicate themselves to preserving the stocks that remain, and work to maintain the health of the oceans generally.
And, a related story: The Death of Gerry Studds
Gerry Studds, a congressman who worked to protect the health of the oceans — and for whom the Gerry Studds Stellwagon Bank National Maritime Sanctuary is named — died in October. He was the first openly gay national politician and much admired on Cape Cod and throughout Massachusetts. (In researching Studds’ life, I also discovered that he had a relative named Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts, for whom the expression gerrymandering was named. Who knew?)
Best organic food product that was new to me this year:
Magliano Organic Rose Syrup. This is truly an indulgence — it’s not cheap and, sadly, it’s not local. It is, however, completely amazing drizzled over panna cotta or gelato or mixed with seltzer water to make rose soda. I’m guessing it would be delicious in champagne. It isn’t available all year round, so keep your eyes peeled for it. You can buy non-organic rose syrup in Middle Eastern grocery stores all year long.
Most interestingly organized new cookbook that makes you want to start cooking from it immediately:
Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Anna Sortun. I love this cookbook, not only because of the contents (recipes inspired by the time that Anna spent in Turkey), but also because of the way it is arranged — by spice, rather than by type of dish. Ever since I moved to the Boston area and started shopping in Armenian grocery stores, I’ve been hooked on flavors like those found in Za’atar, a mix of sumac, thyme leaves, sesame seeds, and salt. This book contains several recipes that use these flavors, as well as many other intriguing combinations. I gave it to a friend for Christmas and she and I were salivating just flipping through it. You may be saying to yourself, “That’s nice but what does this have to do with sustainable agriculture?” Well, Anna’s married to an organic farmer, so needless to say, her cooking reflects concern for the land and for superior fresh, local ingredients, as evidenced in the food she serves at her Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant, Oleana.
Best cookbook featuring recipes pulled out of the dump:
Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters: More than 100 Years of Recipes Discovered from Family Cookbooks, Original Journals, Scraps of Paper, and Grandmother’s Kitchen. I had the pleasure of meeting the Brass Sisters, Sheila and Marilynn, when they came to speak at a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Boston. They talked about their lifelong passion for rescuing recipes that had been collected by people who wrote them down in longhand on cards, in books, and even on scraps of paper. Some of the recipes featured in the book come from people the sisters know, some are anonymous, and some were quite literally pulled out of a dump in Maine. As a kid, I used to buy old metal index card files (usually with sharp, rusty corners — thank god for tetanus shots!) at yard sales so I could look at the recipes inside them, so this was right up my alley.
The recipes in the book are organized by the type of event at which they might be served — a tea party, a coffee klatch, or a formal dinner — and tested over and over again. One of the topics Michael Pollan addresses in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the fact that there’s no one single culinary tradition in the U.S., and that’s certainly true. It’s nice to have, therefore, this collection of time-tested recipes, beautifully presented and well explained.
Best two-year-old book about local food production that I finally got around to reading:
Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, by Steve Almond (yes, the same Steve Almond who quit his job at Boston College last spring because they invited Condoleezza Rice to speak at commencement). Candyfreak is a book about candy bars. “Oh, Roz!” I can hear my friends say as they shake their heads, “only you would include a book about candy bars in a list for an environmentally minded website.”
But hear me out — his book chronicles the experience of many small, family-owned, local candy producers as they try (and sometimes fail) to meet the challenges of competing with huge corporations and dealing with rising costs, including exorbitant slotting fees (money a manufacturer pays a store to give its products a place on the store’s shelves). He also writes in a detailed and engaging way about food processing. If you haven’t spent a lot of time hanging around food-processing facilities, it’s a pretty good introduction to the humbling scale and otherworldly sensation of walking through a processing plant. The book is completely hilarious and at times heartbreakingly poignant, as families come to the realization that they may be facing the end of a business that has spanned several generations.
Many other small family-owned businesses, food-related or not, face the same issues. I don’t know of any other book that chronicles these challenges so carefully, and that is why I include it on this list.
I should mention for purposes of journalistic integrity that Steve is an acquaintance of mine, and I have read and enjoyed My Life in Heavy Metal, one of his books of short stories. I can also attest firsthand to the fact that he is an excellent and judicious DJ. You can also read his thoughts on the environmental dilemma of cloth diapers vs. disposable (he is a new dad) at his blog and, what the hell, check out his music zine.
If you have strong feelings about a particular candy, write about it on Steve’s testimonial page.
Most serendipitous event:
Finding lemon balm growing in December at Eva Sommaripa’s organic herb farm. I was feeling like a bit of an idiot giving my recipe for lobster salad with lemon balm and tomato dressing in December (though I reasoned people living in warmer climes or growing herbs indoors would be able to use it). I went down there in December and made dinner with some of Eva’s fantastic produce (fresh salad greens, fresh kale, Macomber turnips).
Eva asked me if there were any herbs I wanted. “Well,” I said in a doubtful voice, “you don’t have any fresh lemon balm do you?” “Come see,” she said and led me to an entire row of lemon balm, green and going strong. (This was, of course, the hottest December on record for Massachusetts. I guess that helped. Thanks, global warming!) That was my personal Christmas culinary miracle, and a good place to end my food-related list.
Non-food-related but still important (to me) environmental stuff of 2006:
Best energy-saving laundry innovation:
I’d seen those spike-covered dryer balls that look like baby blue plastic medieval weapons (Playskool’s “Medieval Mace for Lil’ Crusaders”) in stores and in catalogs, but I had always been wary of putting anything plastic in a warm dryer. I finally broke down, and, rolling my eyes at my own folly, threw a set in. Voi la! They really do substantially reduce the time it takes to dry things. (Apparently they separate the wet clothes from one another, making it easier for the hot air to get in between them.)
If you’re going to write and tell me I should be hanging my clothes out to dry in the backyard, I have two things to say:
- I wholeheartedly agree with you, and if a Certain Person (you know who you are) would come help me set up a clothesline the way he said he would back in ’04, that would be that.
- Sometimes it rains for weeks on end here (see Spring ’06). When that happens there’s just no point hanging anything out to "dry.” Yet the need for clean underwear persists.
Best compendium of words describing geographic formations:
Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. Lopez is one of my favorite writers. He holds a special place in my personal short story pantheon, having written two — two! — of my top four favorite short stories: “Letters of Heaven” and “The Mappist,” both in his book Light Action in the Caribbean. (For those keeping score at home, the other two are “The Anarchist’s Convention” by John Sayles — you can buy a tape of Jerry Stiller reading it aloud — and “Why I Live at the P.O.,” by Eudora Welty. It’s the story that inspired the guy who created the email program “Eudora” to name it after Ms. Welty.)
Lopez is also well known as a naturalist and nature writer. I’m sure many of you have read his books and essays. I highly recommend Crow and Weasel, a fable he wrote (beautifully illustrated by Tom Pohrt) about two young friends who set out to go further North than anyone in their community ever has. I’ve read it again and again and never tired of the adventure, wisdom, and beauty.
To put together Home Ground, Lopez and his coeditor invited poets and writers to create descriptions of geographical terms and phrases, and to illustrate them with quotations from literature. Reading it made me feel more knowledgeable about the earth and more closely tied to the land. Powell’s describes it this way:
At the heart of this expansive work is a community of writers in service to their country, emphasizing a language that suggests the vastness and mystery that lie beyond our everyday words.
But these words were (and in some places still are) everyday words: it’s just that most of us have forgotten them. It’s a big, heavy, expensive book, but completely worth it. Think of it as a tour guide/phrase book for the earth itself.
Most embarrassing dream about recycling (’06):
One of the members of my writing group had decided a novel on which he’d worked long and hard was going nowhere. It couldn’t be fixed, no matter how much more writing and rewriting he did. We were standing in front of a fire and, distraught, without warning, he threw the thick manuscript in. I dove after it, yelling, “Those pages can still be printed on the other side!” That’s when I woke up.
Happy New Year. Here’s to a delicious and diverting but environmentally sound 2007.