Friday, May 14, 2010

Nutty Crunchy Bread Oven

An outdoor bread oven is my White Whale. I dream of it, I pursue it, but I'm unlikely to ever attain it. Too expensive.

The father of a friend of my daughter got around that by building one. The guy's a plumber and really knew what he was doing. He had a concrete pad laid and then did all the masonry work himself. He even built a form to hold the arced bricks inside the oven in place while the concrete dried. Very, very cool.

So build it yourself, you say. Not. I struggle to put a nail into a board straight. A handyman, I am not.

That said, this so-called "Cob oven" looks intriguing. According to the post, it cost all of $20 to build. Why? Because it's mostly made of mud, straw and empty beer bottles.

I'm tempted to give it a try, but I fear I'd end up like Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The people who built this are part of The Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, an eco-commune in Missouri. They build most everything out of straw bales and mud. A little nutty, crunchy for me.

But I'm being too harsh. Different strokes for different folks. It occurs to me that such communities are the 21st century equivalent of the Amish or other religious communities that earlier in our history chose to cut themselves off from the world and live purer, more spiritual, less materialistic lives. In that sense, they are part of a great American tradition and I salute them. I salute anyone who chooses even in modest ways to live on their own terms, valuing other things over money and material goods.

Plus, the bread and pizza looks fantastic.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Food Movie Pairings

The New York Times food section had a great article yesterday on pairing movies and drinks. I especially loved the Knob Creek bourbon with the film noir classic "Out of the Past," a movie so convoluted that you feel hammered by end whether you're drinking or not. Still a very good movie by the way, Robert Mitchum at his pouty, macho best, slouching his way to doom.

It made me think of pairing food with some of my favorite movies. Here's my cinematic menu:

The Godfather: Homemade marinara and spaghetti and homemade wine with cannolis for dessert. Leave the gun locked up. Enough said because you never ever let anyone outside the family know what you're thinking.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Skewered coconut-encrusted chicken and mead. A silly dish that recalls both the coconuts used to simulate horse hoofs and the African (or European) swallow paired with a medieval alcoholic beverage. For the starch, some type of potato that looks like the mud in honor of the scene where Michael Palin and Terry Jones are playing in the mud (I'm being oppressed! I'm being oppressed! Now you see the violence inherent in the system!).

Pulp Fiction: Sugar pops, milk shake with whiskey and a steak bloody as hell. Love Eric Stolz blithely eating the cereal as Vincent frantically calls for help with the ODing Uma Thurman. And who can forget Jackrabbit Slim's. Vincent is right. A $5 shake needs a shot of whiskey. Drink up Peggy Sue.

Shoot the Piano Player: Steak Frites, red wine, braised beets. A somewhat obscure French movie that I've always loved. A concert pianist haunted by his wife's suicide and his criminal siblings gives up his career to play in dive bars only to fall in love -- with tragic consequences. Like the food, straightforward, delicious and a little bloody.

The Tin Drum: Sardines, crackers and boiled potatoes. The great German novel of World War II and its aftermath, the story of Oskar the dwarf who refuses to grow up in order to escape complicity for the Nazi regime and its crimes. His mother dies from eating too much eel (hence the sardines). She is conceived in a potato field when her German mother hides in her skirts her Polish father who is fleeing the German police. You do the math. You might throw in some wurst and kraut, red or regular, as this is very, very German.

Any ideas or suggestions? Please comment.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's Constant. It's Gorgeous. It's Beautiful.

That was Gemma Matsuyama's response to the New York Times when asked how often she thinks about food.

Gemma is profiled in today's Times. Daughter of a Japanese father and an Italian mother, she grew up here, in Japan and in Italy. Yes, she speaks all three languages. What with both Italians and Japanese being passionate eaters, it's no surprise that she's food-struck.

Gemma's great love: starch, be it bread, pasta or pastry. Right now, she's working as a baker in New York City.

Here's a link to the story. A wonderful piece about someone deeply committed to good food.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Freedom is not Free

Since my last post seems to have received a lot of attention, I'm going to expand a little.

Conservatives love to say "Freedom is not free." When they say that, they are usually referring to military action or service. And they are right. Freedom is not easy. It takes work.

Which brings me back to food. The same people who wax poetically about freedom not being free tend to be vigorous defenders of the worst processed food and most pernicious food marketing. Freedom of speech, enterprise and choice, they say.

But they never mention individual responsibility -- that pesky part about freedom not being free. Sure you have the right to eat whatever you want, but with that right comes the responsibility to make good choices. It's not easy. You have navigate the blizzard of Big Food propaganda. You need to learn to cook so you are not dependent on others for preparation and content of your meals. It's work, but work that brings you freedom.

So wouldn't you think that conservatives and libertarians, who extol the individual above all else, who make a cult of self improvement, would urge people to question, to think, to gather information so they can make informed decisions on what to eat?


In fact, media conservatives and libertarians tend to do the opposite. They urge people to shut down their brains when it comes to food. Trust Big Food. Just eat it.

If you really believe in freedom, you should expect, indeed demand, that people accept the responsibilities that come with it. That means questioning what's in McNuggets and whether they really are good for your children. Sure McDonald's has a right to sell you crap. But as a free individual, you have the responsibility to decide for yourself if you eat it.

I'd love to see Rush shove the Big Mac away from his face long enough to say that.

Monday, May 3, 2010


What is freedom? One of my college professors, after giving a long series of possible answers, concluded by saying that maybe freedom is just another word for noth'n left to lose. Sing it Janice.

I ask this because much of the debate over food and food policy centers on freedom. Conservatives-libertarians say it's "nanny state-ism" for the government to try to get people to eat better. As free individuals, we have the right to eat what we want.

The standard liberal response is that everyone pays the price of poor nutrition in the form of bigger outlays for Medicare and Medicaid and higher private insurance rates, so the government needs to act. They don't completely shy away from the nanny state argument, saying that government has a responsibility to assure the common good.

It seems to me that both these arguments miss that mark. Why? Because personal freedom when it comes to eating has telescoped drastically in the last 20 to 30 years.

You can't exercise freedom without choice and accurate information. The food industrial complex -- with a huge assist from the federal government -- has largely taken away both. Most of what we eat is pre-determined by marketing so slick and pervasive that we don't even perceive it.

Choice? Well how can you have choice when virtually every restaurant in America uses hamburger from the same handful of companies, all of it raised and processed on giant feed lots? It all tastes the same.

As my mother likes to say, you don't know what you like, you like what you know.

Libertarians need to concede that incredibly sophisticated marketing and over-concentration of the food industry undermine individual choice and freedom, problems the government helped create and only it can undo.

Liberals should stop sounding like they want to micromanage people's diets, decreeing what is good and bad, and instead frame their policies as using government to restore food freedom and choice to Americans.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Too Busy to Cook? Bulldust

Well, maybe not dust.

At a recent conference, Mark Ruhlman made an excellent point that he reiterated in a column on the Huffington Post. It's horse hockey (he used much stronger language) to say people "don't have time" to cook. As one of the panelists in the clip says, how much time do people spend a day watching TV? They can't forgo 30 or 45 minutes of boob tube time and devote it to preparing a simple, nutritious and tasty meal?

It's a matter of priorities, as the boring, but dependable husband says in "The Big Chill."

Right on Mark. You Ruhl man.