Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Local Dinners

A couple months ago, back when I was kicking around ideas for this blog, I went on vacation with my family in Maine. Two dinners we ate at two very different restaurants point to ways the local foods movement is currently being carried out in new and old ways.  

1.  Flatbread Company, Somerville, MA

This former candlepin bowling alley, now pizza restaurant/candlepin bowling alley was described to us by our friend as "Hipster pizza with bowling.  But really good!"  The refurbished space was bright, inviting, and decorated with fanciful drawings on chalkboards that listed the names and locations of farms that supplied key pizza ingredients such as goat cheese and "nitrates free pepperoni."  The ingredients for pizza were super-fresh since they hadn't travelled far, and we could find the place where they originated, most in Massachusetts, a few in Vermont and New Hampshire, but few ingredients besides the olive oil that came from more than 100 miles away.  

Restaurants that showcase local ingredients are the exception rather than the norm in most places, but a pizza restaurant seems like a smart way to begin.  There aren't too many ingredients for pizza--though the menu did feature a number of local cheeses and free-range, chemical free meats.  And pizza is something most everyone enjoys, so it's hard to claim that this type of local foods eatery is only for an elite class who can afford such things.  There were, however, hipsters drinking microbrews. But such is to be expected in Davis Square.

It made me envision a day when ingredients' origins might be listed on a menu much the way calorie counts are required to be on fast food and other menus.  Visiting McDonald's or Denny's or the local bistro we could see how much of the meal came from California, Chile, or Argentina or our own back yards and make more informed choices.

2.  Shaw's Fish and Lobster Wharf, New Harbor, ME

I have been going to Shaw's since I was a kid and it was called Small's.  It's located in the small fishing town of New Harbor, a working fish and lobster village wrapped around a small inlet up the coast from Pemaquid Point.  From the deck you can look out to Muscongus bay and see Monhegan Island, a view I never get tired of revisiting.

When we went to dinner here with some friends who were visiting us for a few days, our 5 year old had his first taste of lobster.  "What are you eating?" he had asked our friend L.  "I'm having a lobster," she said.  "I want lobster," he immediately replied.  We explained that he could have a lobster roll, but it would be too tricky to eat a whole lobster himself since you have to break open the shell.  Neither my wife nor I eat shellfish, but Boog had tried shrimp before and liked it and wanted his own lobster.  When our friend's lobster came, bright red, resplendent with claws and antennae stretched out, Boog was fascinated.  He'd only experienced lobster in the grocery store tank where he'd waved hello to the creatures crawling on top of one another, claws sealed by yellow rubber bands.

"He doesn't talk," Boog remarked as L. took apart the lobster claws.  He seemed genuinely puzzled that the animal wasn't alive anymore. "Can you eat the eyes?' he said, poking a black eyeball.

"Actually, you can," our friend said. "It's bitter, so not a lot of people eat it, but it's edible.  I was in Japan recently and my Japanese friend ate a whole lobster--head, eyes, brains, guts, everything."  

Earlier that day we had watched lobstermen in the harbor pulling traps.  "Do you remember those guys we saw getting the lobster out of the water?" we ask Boog.  "Well, that lobster you're eating came right out of the water down there."  What better time and place, I thought, to begin a local foods education than at Shaws?  

There were no organic ingredients at Shaws, and there was certainly beef, chicken, and other ingredients that did not come from Maine on the menu. But mostly people come to Shaws for an intensely local experience--to breathe in this salt air, sit on this one deck, and eat the local lobster, fish, and some of  the best chowder on the Maine coast.  It's this kind of local foods restaurant based around a product that can be found best in that one place that suggests a different kind of local eating experience.  One where there may be many kinds of people--locals, tourists, families, though fewer hipsters--and no need for a chalkboard listing the origins of the main ingredients.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dinner Fatigue

I read an article recently in the Times about decision fatigue that shed some light on my nightly dinner dilemma.  

You see, Dr. Sweety and I up until now have relied on take out meals for--I wouldn't say most of our meals, but perhaps greater than half many weeks.  When I was working there came a time around 5:00 when I was home from work, we'd done our daily spills, and one of us asked the inevitable question--what do you want for dinner?

"I asked you first," Dr. Sweety would sometimes say when I responded "What do you want?"

We'd throw out a few suggestions of things we could cook, but inevitably, we were missing some key ingredient for a cooked meal like good bread for croutons or paninis, ground beef, or our vegetables had turned into green goo at the bottom of the crisper drawer.  (I sometimes felt my vegetable buying at the store was a matter of extreme optimism, a belief like Gatsby's green light that this week I'd reach out and grasp the zucchini or stir fry those green onions.  But more often then not I ended up tossing them into an overstuffed garbage bag of half-empty styrofoam cartons of chicken strips, penne drowned in a red bath, and now-limp fries).  So cooking was oftentimes out if we hadn't planned ahead.  And don't get me wrong, we did make a point of trying to plan some meals ahead, but through one thing or another plans always seemed to get scrapped.  So the inevitable question was more like, "What take out should we have for dinner?"  

Which brings us to decision fatigue.  Perhaps we were so worn down by a day of making choices--teachers and parents have to make a lot of decisions each day when managing a class or interacting with a baby--that our willpower to decide to cook was worn down and we took the easier path.  This exhaustion of the will was manifested too when we tried to decide which takeout to get.

It wasn't that we lacked choices like we did in New Mexico.  There, we could get pizza from Pizza Hut, burritos from one or two cafes, ho-hum Chinese food, but not much else.  In Delmar we had all manner of take out options, only we still spent many evenings so tired it was hard to choose which one we wanted.  Nothing seemed terribly exciting or mouth-watering.  Inevitably we'd complete the circle from pizza to Greek food, to Japanese, to pasta, to burgers, sometimes going with Chinese, sometimes not, and then back to the inevitable pizza, wood fired or New York style--with some of our own meals thrown in for good measure.  Were restaurant dinners better or worse than TV dinners?  Maybe we were just poor planners and could have benefitted from a slow cooker or more one-pot recipes.  Whatever our problem was, we found it hard to kick.  

Last summer we even pledged to cook every night (well, we would allow for the occasional pizza or Chinese takeout meal), eat all organic food, and use those vegetables when they were fresh from the farmer's market.  But through one circumstance and another we didn't make it.  Blame it on the baby, we said.  Blame it on my job search.  If we go with Kingsolver's argument, perhaps we were caught in food culture that says anything goes.  She writes, "Here in the U.S. we seem puzzled by those who refrain from gluttony in the presence of a glut."  Kinsolver bemoans Americans' lack of identity in our food, comparing us with Italians who eat Italian food, Japanese who eat Japanese food ingrained with links to locally available items.  She wonders, "Will North Americans ever have a food culture of our own?  Can we find or make up a set of rituals, recipes, ethics, and buying habits that will let us love our food and eat it too?" I want to believe we do have a food culture in America--or many food cultures considering the diverse regions of our country.  I was a little surprised since having lived in Tucson for many years, Kingsolver doesn't give more credit to regions like the Southwest where chilis, frybread, tortillas, and beans and rice, and sopapillas, to name just a few of the best items are integral to daily life.  But perhaps having it all is also a facet of American food culture--one that gets blown out of proportion at palaces of gluttony such as the Cheesecake Factory, but an element of what we as Americans have come to expect day to day as well.

Talking with Dr. Sweety the other night about our dinner dilemma, she brought up another possibility.  

"It wasn't decision fatigue," she said.  "It was just fatigue fatigue."  And that was true too, and possibly the biggest obstacle many of us face in embracing a nobler, local, more truly American culture of eating.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Already I have to amend my list. It would appear that I have run out of August before I even started to write about Kingsolver's "Year Of" memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Since I'm excited to read Josh Foer's book next, I will just have to go back and forth a bit--as I said, the rules are one book a month, but I can be flexible.

I came across an interesting article in the Science section of the Times the other day by John Tierney regarding some of the ideas behind the local foods movement. In discussing Charles C. Mann's book 1493, he points out that all of what we eat today--and even how we grow it--has been affected permanently by the "Columbian exchange," the passage of foods, materials, animals, and microorganisms around the world through trade and travel, so that all those who claim to be "eating local" by growing chili peppers, tomatoes, all manner of fruits and vegetables are really eating a globalized diet, formed over many centuries of back and forth shuttling. Towards the end of the article, Tierney points out that although Mann is a proud locavore, eating produce mostly from his own garden and local farms, he recognizes the need for a system of inexpensive food production to feed world populations. Being a locavore is more of an aesthetic choice, he claims.

Eaters like Barbara Kingsolver would disagree. Her project is not simply to eat what is grown locally, but to grow most of her food herself on her family farm in Virginia.  If Thoreau went to the woods to live free of the debt he saw others around him mired in, those as he put it, "always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another's brass, for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying, and buried by this other's brass,"Kingsolver turns to farming to escape a kind of food debt which most of us are currently paying in America.  Kingsolver explains this debt: (at times in somewhat preachy terms, this reader thought) the system of monoculture factory farms, grocery stores packed with processed foods dependent on the corn and soy produced by factory farms, the mistreatment and misbreeding of animals, the issues raised by genetically modified crops, and many other increasingly scary facets of our modern style of eating.

Ironically, Thoreau does all he can to avoid farming, letting his corn languish while his neighbors slave away, but Kingsolver sees her choice of how to eat as one that will free her and her family from the agro-industrial pipeline and perhaps serve as a model for others.  She says, "When we walked as a nation away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial.  Now, it's fair to say, the majority of us don't want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints."  We don't even understand how our money goes mostly to food processors, distributors, and marketers, Kingsolver continues, when we get our weekly groceries from the supermarket.  Kingsolver says she wishes to know where her food comes from, "to get our food so close to home, we'd know the person who grew it.  Often that turned out to be us. . ." She wants to see how much dirt she can get on her hands, and by the end, they are quite covered with dirt and animal blood and feathers and the delicious produce these bring towards the end of her year of farming and eating.  Even those urban readers, Kingsolver argues, who unable to garden and grow much of their own food, could benefit from an understanding where our food comes from, and how to get to know our meals better.  After all, she adds, we are the ones who finally eat them.

In my eating I'm all for avoiding food debt in the form of miles travelled by my broccoli and bananas, chemicals sprayed on peaches and apples, and genetically modified "Frankenfood," but I think I am still much more like the urban eater who would like to have available most everything in most any season, as much as I enjoy a local peach or a freshly picked ear of corn.  I've contemplated growing a more extensive garden, but have never found quite the right time.

There may be something to the argument that the local foods movement is essentially an elitist or reserved-for-elites kind of project.  It shouldn't be, and I've even seen at some farmers markets stalls with squash and fresh salad greens grown by urban teenagers, but this still seems to be the rare exception, not the norm.  Perhaps books like Kingsolver's can start to change these perceptions, as she hopes to do, but more work must be done.