Liebster Award and Nominations

I’ve been nominated for a Liebster Blog Award by Humphrey at FinderDog — thank you, Humphrey! FinderDog is the wonderfully narrated story of Humphrey’s “quest to solve the mysteries of my past and of the world, and to do my part to make sure that the iniquitous cannot triumph over the righteous and the good.”

As part of receiving this blog award, I am posting the rules for the award and three of my favorite blogs. I’ve been looking at several, some of which you can see in my blog roll. There are a lot of wonderful words and images in these blogs.

Here are the award rules:

1. Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
2. Reveal your top three-five picks for the award (with fewer than 200 followers) and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog. (see below)
3. Post the award on your blog.
4. Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogosphere – other bloggers.
5. And, best of all – have fun and spread the karma.

Here are some blogs I have been enjoying and think are deserving of this award (in no particular order):

1. Adrianna of “A Cozy Kitchen.” A lot of wonderful recipes with a great design. What’s not to love about jalapeno bacon stuffed mushrooms?

2. Karina of “Gluten Free Goddess.” After getting diagnosed with celiac, this was one of the first places I found with recipes I enjoyed.

3. Jonathan of “Wasted Food.” Jonathan writes on important food policy issues, focusing particularly on…well, wasted food.

Thanks again, Humphrey!

Apologies

If you’re reading this, you know that my posting has been somewhat lacking in the last few weeks. Please meet the reason why: 

This is Murphy. He is a 15-pound Brittany puppy/ball of craziness. He plays hard and naps harder. Consequently, I spend much of my time running with him, playing with him, training him, and otherwise keeping him busy and, when he’s napping, trying to get everything else in my life done.

As with many things in life, dog ownership makes me think in different ways about — what else? Food. When talking to our dog trainer, she gave us a stack of papers on dog food and proper puppy nutrition. The rescue that Murphy came from asked that he be fed food with no grain fillers such as wheat and corn, and the trainer gave us materials on “how to read nutrition labels.” Lucky me — thanks to my celiac, I’m already a pro at reading food labels. As Marion Nestle says in an interview on the subject, pet food ingredient lists are just as confusing as those for human food. Just as many unknown or unusual ingredients but, unlike in human food, I don’t know what Murphy needs. I know that meat is good for him, but what about “beef lungs” and other weird meat parts? Is the sausage with turkey and spinach and cranberries better than the smellier one with duck and potato?

Either way, I’ll be thinking even more about food as I restock Murphy’s treats this week.

Coming up shortly: a review of/thoughts on Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud

Words and Food

I thought that it was time I explained a little more about the inspiration behind my blog’s title — aside from the most literal interpretation (I write about food…using words). I was an English major in college and went to grad school for English, so why the sudden turn to food? What can my training in English possibly give me in this very different field?

As it turns out, I learn more and more that what my professors in undergrad told me was true: English does help with anything and everything, because anything and everything is ultimately, in one way or another, about language. Cooks, food policy-makers, and members of the food industry all use words to make food do what they want it to do, and be what they want it to be. The first time I began thinking about the cross-pollination between my degree in English and my interest in food was in reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In discussing the state of America’s food industry and the plight of the modern consumer (in both senses of the word), Pollan uses the word “legible” six times. While a completely commonplace word in some contexts, the meaning of “legible” seems a bit out of place when discussing food and agriculture: “Clear enough to be read or distinguished.” In Pollan’s usage, “ecological relationship[s],” landscapes, and food labels can all have varying degrees of legibility. 

The English major in me perked up. So it’s all about reading, you say? For Pollan, legibility means clearly readable connections between what we grow or raise, what we see in supermarkets, and what we eat. That applies to both where the food is grown and where it ends up — behind food labels. How easy are food labels and ingredients lists to understand? This is a question asked in an increasing number of debates centering around the clarity of food labels.

Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, deconstructs the careful word choices of food policy makers.Take, for example, the crucial difference between “eat less” and “choose,” as in “eat less meat” vs. “choose leaner meats.” “Eat less,” industry officials maintain, will always have negative connotations of avoidance and “bad” foods, while “choose” has a more positive, proactive connotation. Such a little difference, yet the source of such heated debate.

In fact, there are so many times that I’m grateful for my English major that I’m surprised that a Google search for “English major + food” only results in sites offering advice on how to feed oneself on an English major’s budget. Our experience of food is always filtered through words, so it only makes sense that careful word choices affect what food we eat and why.

Cooking for the Fearful

I was blessed with parents who were supportive of all my cooking experiments. Particularly vivid in my mind is one recipe for “spice soup” that, I’m sure, is also quite memorable to them. If you ask very nicely, I could be persuaded to share this piece of culinary gold with all of you…

Okay, here goes. Find a pot. Fill it with water. Add a generous handful of every spice you can reach from the spice cabinet with your little ten-year-old arm. Bring pot to a boil. Finally, serve to a pair of inexplicably supportive parents that are not upset that you’ve wasted expensive groceries on inedible spice-water.

All of this is to say that I’ve had some spectacular cooking failures. However, I think these failures offer something valuable — the courage to realize that not everything works out, and that it’s not the end of the world. With that in mind, I’ve decided to start a series that I’ll return to every so often on the blog — Cooking for the Fearful. “Fearful” here covers a lot of things — fearful of not knowing what you’re doing, fearful of screwing up, fearful of what all those knobs do on your stove…I’m not saying I have all the answers — but I do enjoy talking about the questions!

The series’ inaugural post is dedicated to cheating. To those items that we always keep in the house because they require little to no assembly, and yet are healthier than popcorn and Swedish Fish (hey, I’ve been there. Grad school’s rough.) A caveat before I begin: these are not official endorsements. None of these companies know me or are paying me (although they are welcome to do so).

First, and the center of probably too many meals, is the Al Fresco chicken sausage.

We keep a few different flavors on hand at all times. You can have them cooked whole or chopped into bits and mixed into pasta or other meals. They’re lower in sodium than other processed sausages, and contain no mystery ingredients. I like them because it’s an already portioned out bit of protein (I usually have one sausage) and they already have a whole lot of flavor. Here are some ways we’ve used them:

– The spinach and feta kind chopped up in pasta with marinara sauce

– The roasted garlic kind whole, on top of roasted vegetables

– The chipotle chorizo variety chopped up and put in butternut squash soup

– And most recently…the jalapeno kind whole, in a hot dog bun, topped with cooked onions and guacamole

Next in the pantry was a find that came as the result of a taco night with some friends. I needed taco seasoning that was gluten free, my boyfriend needed low-sodium, and my friend needed a kind with no MSG. After a fairly long label-reading session…success. Frontera Taco Skillet Sauces. I’d always been a pretty staunch supporter of the packets of orange powder that made tacos taste magical (that’s read, “salty”), but now, there’s no turning back. Frontera is made with, once again, recognizable ingredients. Oh, and its delicious. There are a few different varieties (my favorite is this blue one, Chipotle Garlic), and they make tacos feel like a healthier, more satisfying meal than when the meat glowed orange. It works basically the same as the powder though — just thoroughly brown whatever meat you’re using, drain the fat, and add the sauce. Gloriously easy.

Last on the list (for now), is another staple of our disproportionately Mexican diet. Premade guacamole. Also known as loveliness in a pouch. I’m a fairly recent guacamole convert, having finally rid myself of the vestiges of my childhood distaste for things green and mushy, so when I found some in the supermarket, I had to try some. Oh my. There are a few different varieties that I like, but whatever you do, make sure it’s actually guacamole and not “guacamole flavored dip,” which is basically dairy, mystery ingredients, and green coloring. Like the previous items, premade guacamole lets me make a fairly healthy dinner out of what was a not-promising venture into the kitchen. It often comes in two small pouches, so it doesn’t start to go brown until each one is opened, which means there are ready-to-eat veggies just waiting for you in the fridge! We have it in tacos, as a dip for nachos, and, as mentioned above, on top of jalapeno sausages. Avocados are super healthy for you, so even when we’re just scrounging with a nacho dinner, the guacamole is amazing and makes me feel better for having something green on the plate.

Any other items like these that you keep on hand? Questions or comments on how to use them? Post a comment!

Learning about the Beijing Big Mac

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a grad student and I spent most all of my time reading. It got pretty exhausting, actually, and when I graduated with my MA, it was with a certain degree of relief. Over the past five months, I’ve enjoyed reading what I want to, and at my own pace.

But when I started reading The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (you know, for funsies), the grad student in me swooned. I had missed the sound of (good) academic writing, the flow of a well-crafted argument, the sound of obnoxiously academic phrases like “cultural symbolism.” Once a grad student, always a grad student, I suppose.

As I was reading Yunxiang Yan’s “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing,” I came across an argument that complicated my previous way of thinking (something any good essay should do, as I try to explain to my students). I grew up in a family that treated McDonald’s as a treat, a special occasion. Consequently, it was never a part of our regular eating habits, and the fast food chain fell off my radar completely once I was diagnosed with celiac. Once I started reading about the chain’s treatment of its workers other issues, I was positive: I didn’t like what the company stood for and was up to. Its probably a knee-jerk reaction at this point. McDonald’s = bad.

Everything has a context, though, and McDonald’s Chinese context has some darkness to it. James Watson, author of “China’s Big Mac Attack” in the same anthology, argues that “McDonald’s appeals to China’s new elites because its food is safe, clean, and reliable.” These essays do a good job of explaining the nature of the native Chinese restaurants that represent McDonald’s competitors — from high-end, traditional restaurants to work unit’s shitang, or cafeterias. The cultural structure and role of these shitang mean that they’re less concerned with customer service and cleanliness than American-based restaurants such as McDonald’s. Compared to these, McDonald’s is a clean and quiet space with employees dedicated to pleasing customers.

This appreciation for McDonald’s is not only about its smiling employees. The problems Chinese restaurant patrons face with the threat of dirty kitchens and adulterated foods make McDonald’s ills seem relatively insignificant. With the threat of melamine and other adulterants in food, and the inconvenience of unreliable and unfriendly service, the almost boring predictability of McDonald’s must come as a welcome respite.

I still believe McDonald’s causes more problems than it solves, but its role in different cultures can’t be broken down into simple categories of good and bad.

 

For a useful article on Chinese food adulteration, see: http://www.merinews.com/article/food-adulteration-becoming-common-in-china/144900.shtml

For a good, brief blog post explaining the danwei system that includes the canteen or shitang, see: http://thelifelibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/09/work-unit.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruits of My Labor

After a summer of carefully watering my garden and defending it from the entire deer population of the Hudson Valley, I’ve had something to show for my efforts. I would have had one (1) tomato, but just before it started to turn red, a deer decided that it couldn’t wait for it to ripen either and ate it as well as about half the tomato plant.

My chili plant, on the other hand, must have smelled very unpleasant to deer noses and thus was allowed to produce seven beautiful big chili peppers.

Peppers!

My cucumbers, on the other hand, produced some small, strange bush cukes.

Strange, alien cucumber

It looks like the cucumbers wanted to grow around the crate I used to support the plant, just like the tendrils on the cucumber plant itself. Any words of wisdom from those with more gardening experience than I? What kind of cucumber do I have here? Anyway, this year’s garden has been a learning experience. I look forward to planning next year’s garden and plotting anti-deer maneuvers.

The Crazy Plant Lady

Maybe it’s something in the air in the Hudson Valley. Just about as soon as the boy and I moved here, I started a garden. While not totally out of character, the urge came on quite powerfully. Our porch is, fortuitously, made for container gardening, with a trough built into the brick railing. On move-in day, the trough’s only residents were some very happy looking weeds.

Now, meet the garden:

  

Chile peppers                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Tomatoes

 

 

 

 

That was towards the middle of June, shortly after we’d moved in. Now, my plants look like this. Cue…giant bush cucumber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These plants make me inexplicably happy. I fuss over them like a parent or, as per this post’s title, the crazy plant lady that my parents probably refer to me as. With no job for this summer and a lot of free time during the day, I often mosy onto the porch probably twice every day. This is only slightly justified by the fact that it has been over 90 degrees for what feels like the majority of our time here so far, so they do need more watering than usual.

And then.

In the wee hours of the morning, as Sean and I are slumbering peacefully…disaster strikes. A deer, attracted by the smell of a well-tended garden, mistakes my plants for a salad bar.

Stems.

The joys of gardening, eh? I’m just sayin’, I hear venison goes really well with cucumbers.