a book review

Not the review exactly I’d write, but no doubt not the book either.

It is about historical digestion. And morality.

here is a blog

I’ve been really into drying flowers lately. Actually, I let them wilt in the vase and then dry them. Lovely.

I fried an egg for my daughter today. The yolk was too mushy, it hurt her, she said. And the white, too crunchy. This is just in case any of you are still reading this for cooking advice: wrong blog, maybe. Not that it was actually crunchy. But she did cry a little.

I have two new subscribers since I last posted. Welcome! We are a sinking ship, but I occasionally still move the furniture.

my bread is good but I hate people

So, naturally, as I wrote that last piece of drivel, I had a loaf in the oven which, as I expected, pretty much proved that my sourdough troubles were over. But I got my whine out, which was good. Ah.

My problem, at least mostly, or my major problem, was not knowing when to consider my dough properly risen: the amount of time can vary hugely when you screw around with all the variables all the time like I do. Having gotten a handle on this, all of my loaves since have been wonderful. And the ones that weren’t, well, had obvious explanations.

In fact I rewrote and nearly here presented that bit of pith I was on about; I would have, except that my theories have gotten ahead of my practice again, and I can’t bear to go on about old practice.

Meanwhile I’ve bought the new Sandor Katz fermentation book, which is a joy. Though hasn’t got a lot to say about bread. But the theory, and the license—a joy, and to be widely recommended.

Anyway, more eventually. Even though I hate food writing. Loathe it. Can barely glance at magazine racks anymore without some amount of inner puke. So, yeah.

sourdough apostasy

I’ve been considering what kind of bread post to post for a long time. For the last year bread has been one of my most serious projects, the only intellectually demanding food project I have been constantly engaged in over that time. Yet readers would not know it. The problem is this: when I start chewing on a food project, from the first day I look for principles, I look to understand the thing that recipes are variations on, and then once I think I have a thing figured out more or less, or at least to a useful level, I often try to put it into pithy little bullet points and publish them here. I have done this with bread—the pith. I have circulated this pith among friends, I have engaged in lengthy hands-off tutorials, and yet, by and large, I’ve been shown up a fraud. The best show of this is what comes from my own kitchen. While I have baked some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten—and not for lack of having eaten widely and well of bread—it’s been a while now since any loaf of mine has come close to that. I get cocky, I think I understand something, and without even being consciously aware of having changed anything, I find that for three weeks I can’t even get my bread to rise properly—takes me three weeks to even figure out what I changed. This has happened, like, five times. So my principles are garbage. Often this is true: I am less enamored of this systematization than I have been, more inclined to take careful notes and view all these things, phenomena, objects, in isolation. Facets, if you will. Recipes, even. A thing is a thing, after all, more than it is an idea.

So, this week I am not going to push bread making on you. For a change. Having really good bread around for the price of flour and fuel has changed the way I eat, has given meaning to the fairly ridiculous term staff of life, even. A really good loaf, you can eat half of it with butter and call it a pretty good dinner—you can eat half a loaf before dinner without even really noticing if you’re not careful. In fact, that may be a passible definition of a good loaf. Most bread sits heavy in my stomach, is suitable for a piece or two as filler. Really good bread is food, is a thing you can live on.

Maybe in another year or two of close study I’ll be nailing it more than once every couple months.

near blog-death

Here is an ugly blog. It contracted something; ugly. Website maintaining friends: take heed and back up. We at foutu, bloodied, busy, vain—we fear this apology and place holder may have to stand in awhile in place of new content. We fear, as often, the temptation to begin again: to thin and file this blog and quit as so long promised this proselytizing snivelling food writing and write affectedly about something else, of less interest. That might be really nice actually.

We’ll see.

a branch of medicine

A friend of mine proposed, last night while eating pulled pork for dinner, that pork may be responsible for bad dreams. Or perhaps it was this particular pig; he had the whole pig in his freezer and had been eating a lot of it lately. Perhaps it was the way it was raised, he thought—but then it was not so badly raised. A little cooped up maybe.

Well, I had bad dreams. Woke up with my head in a rush and my belly in a knot, went down stairs to bake bread and drink coffee and write, a little before four this morning. I don’t blame the pig particularly, though I allow the possibility, but rather the plentiful eating of rich food at a late hour followed by indolence and then sleep. The effect was, after all, entirely predictable.

I am in fact entirely ruled by my stomach. I was a lost man, and deeply suffered, before I was found, and well fed, and eventually married. It was, to be certain, a little embarrassing. To see all that anguish evaporate. My whole portfolio if you will—my case study, my personal history—in the face of a few decent regular meals a day. Really. I’d thought I was doomed.

So saved, and capable again of reasoned action, and of subtle study, I have dedicated a considerable amount of my time to fine tuning my digestion. Yes! like an old man in a novel, I know. I never eat this before noon, and never that after eight—the other not at all, not since whenever. It is an absorbing study. It is, or ought to be, I believe, a branch of medicine.

the beer cellar

Beer drinking habits are hard to break. My father, back in the early seventies, when he went out, drank only Guinness—there was only one bar in town that had it, and it was the only beer in town that wasn’t old-fashioned upper-midwestern lager. Those were dark days. But, it was the early seventies, and home brewing was ramping up, soon to be legal. My father made stout, once a year, in a food grade black plastic 50 gallon barrel. And for twenty years, for the most part, that’s the only beer he drank. Stashed it away in the root cellar, put some age on it, some real age, some of it, (he swears it only ever got better), and quit only when advancing middle age (beer, he says) started to influence his waistline. Unfortunately, this quitting coincided very closely with my own interest in beer, and I never got to taste his as an adult. People say it was the best.

Of course, then it was the early nineties, and the craft beer movement was in full swing. That bar with the Guinness turned out to be owned by another, and considerably more obsessive home brewer, Ray McNeill, for instance, and so I had no shortage of good and diverse beer on which to cut teeth. But still it would be another ten years, almost, before my father would consent to drink aught but dark beers. Habits are stubborn things.

For myself, it took me years, as I outgrew the prejudiced (and slightly precious) palate of my late adolescence, to realize that IPAs were not to be drunk sitting down at table, unless perhaps there was pizza or bar-food on that table. That beer shouldn’t be drunk cold in winter, or for much of fall and spring for that matter. That (a crisp, light) lager has its place—particularly with Mexican food, with which there is nothing on earth better to drink, I am firmly convinced.

As, in my old age, I have started to drink considerably less beer, having finally realized that not every afternoon does a beer really agree with me, so has my desire for that beer to be the right beer increased. And so, this week, finally, I have come around to the idea (very late in coming) that I ought to keep any number of different beers on hand, more beer collectively than I’ve ever kept on hand, really, at exactly the time I am drinking the least beer of my life since age fourteen.

What a pleasing prospect.

Ishmael eats plum pudding

“Plum-pudding is the term bestowed upon certain fragmentary parts of the whale’s flesh, here and there adhering to the blanket of blubber, and often participating to a considerable degree in its unctuousness. It is a most refreshing, convivial, beautiful object to behold. As its name imports, it is of an exceedingly rich, mottled tint, with a bestreaked snowy and golden ground, dotted with spots of the deepest crimson and purple. It is plums of rubies, in pictures of citron. Spite of reason, it is hard to keep yourself from eating it. I confess, that once I stole behind the foremast to try it. It tasted something as I should conceive a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros might have tasted, supposing him to have been killed the first day after the venison season, and that particular venison season contemporary with an unusually fine vintage of the vineyards of Champagne.”

—Moby Dick, chapter 94.

reading: cider-making article in wine terroirs


roasted pork belly

pork belly

I don’t even like to write the word bacon, here. I’ll have bacon nothing, please, or plain with eggs &etc. It can be made at home without difficulty, and keeps in the refrigerator for a good long time. That is about enough said about bacon. Or close enough, rhetorically.

Pork belly, however. The thing bacon is made from. That.

A friend of mine, recently visiting, inventoried my freezer, saw my pork belly. Pure fat, rhetorically, barely struck through with pink—not even struck all the way through, to be clear—the fattiest piece of pork belly I’ve ever handled—gorgeous, perfect—(raised by these friends of mine, incidentally)—how about we roast it, he said.

Roast a pork belly? Interesting, thought I. He took a pound, lacerated it, rubbed it with salt, lavender, (he is a lavender sort of fellow), let it sit. I don’t remember his roasting regimen. It’s not important.

It was exceptional. I mean, memorable. The culinary high point of a high week, culinarily. Nearly spreadable. We ate it on bread, some of it—we ate it as one of several things at a meal. I came back to it throughout the meal. I started the meal with it, and I ended with it.

It was less strange than it might sound, oh timid reader. Bacon in another form, my lamb, except tender, moist, melting.

I believe this will become an annual feast dish in this household.

recipe for groundhog cooked with spicebush

“This is a recipe that my Mother-in-law taught me how to cook ground hog.

Dress and cut it up. Put in pot, then bring to boil.* Break up spicewood branches, and put in pot with meat. Boil until the meat is tender. Remove; then salt and pepper; then roll in flour; put in 1/2 cup shortening, preferably bacon grease. Then put in oven and bake until it is brown.

Mrs. Ennis Ownby”

from Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1957.

*(“boil” is old-talk for simmer.)

correction: traditional uses of spicebush berries

The wife, who knows everything, of course knew a traditional use of spicebush berries that she’d told me once, but I’d clearly forgotten:

They are, apparently, dried, and used in place of allspice.

We have a pint set to drying, and will tell you how it goes.

spicebush-berry beer, autumn olive jelly

Spicebush berries—the reddest things on trees around here, at the moment—have a strong flavor—spicy, you might say—and my wife and I’ve been trying to figure out (intellectually, it ought to be said) for years how best to use them culinarily. There must be a traditional use for them, we imagine, but have never yet done the research to find it out. One reference in an old-timey Appalachian cookbook, I seem to recall, said something about using it to flavor groundhog. Fair enough, I thought, if the groundhog is gamey. Well, we’ve been making soda lately, and the wife says “how bout spicebush berry beer? (soda)” And I say, that sounds awful. I imagined it would be overly high pitched, kind of stomach turning even, and I said so, but she persisted and the stuff is gorgeous. Here is what she did:

Boil a handful or three of ripe red spicebush berries for a while in about a gallon of water, with a fair bit of sugar. Once your broth is strong enough, add some more sugar if it tastes like it wants it, remembering that some sugar will be lost in the fermentation to achieve carbonation. Strain all into a gallon jar or stockpot or crock. Next, optionally, add a small handful of raw spicebush berries—wife did this, but I think, in my opinion, she may have overdone it slightly. As always, I advise to err on the side of underdoing it. Next, put in something yeasty, ideally a cup of some other fermentation you have going. I often use my kombucha for this sort of thing. Next, cover it to keep flies out, stir it a few times a day until it gets bubbly, then put it in bottles and stick them in the refrigerator. Bottles left out in the warm for too long risk explosions.

Another wild berry ripe (just passing, really) we’ve been making much of this season is Autumn Olive. Its speckled, tannic, pink-red berries are my daughter’s favorite fruit, and they’re really very tasty. I’ve fermented them up in wine but they make it cloudy. But, they make an excellent jelly. Seems to have plenty of its own pectin. Interestingly, the juice you cook up out of the berries, rather than being that lovely pink, is grey-brown, but once you add sugar to it it goes grey-pink. Really pretty first rate. My first jelly, to be honest, and soon to be a family tradition.

making the yeast-home, and ginger beer

I’ve taken it upon myself in recent weeks to keep the air and all porous surfaces of my house saturated with diverse cultures of yeast. Without pitching anything laboratory-bred, I’ve been setting up the wild, ambient yeasts with a series of ongoing challenges—ferment this, with the vinegar bacteria already at work on it; ferment that, with the really high original gravity (lots and lots of sugar); ferment the other thing, boiled for an hour with the fine-chopped ginger-root. The result, I hope, is a native yeast-home diverse enough to effectively and creatively ferment about anything. Perhaps. For five years this is more or less what I’ve done, and it’s worked very well (though I still fear to test it on malt-based beer—soon, a one gallon batch), and the only difference now is that I’ve made it into a theory, and relating to it more like a personal relationship, or a life-long partnership, or quite-some cooking project.

That fine-chopped ginger-root, and cane sugar, and a little dark molasses, and some lemon juice (all measured without measuring, to taste and by necessity, as usual, as should you do if ye care to learn aught), is my first attempt at ginger-beer. It is a very young ferment. Once it’d cooled I pitched in it a cup of kombucha I had going as starter (yeast starter culture, more populous in active fermentations than even in the 24/7 fermentation-spewn air of my house). Maybe two days later, after stirring several times a day, a very thick, very viscous, very sharp with ginger and lemon foam formed—and I stirred it again, and tasted it, and the flavors were good, so I bottled it. I bottle such things in flip-top bottles, which I don’t bother to sanitize as these things will be refrigerator-stored and drunk within the next one-two weeks. Once in bottle, I leave at room temperature for another 6-24 hours to carbonate, then remove to refrigerator. Like my kombucha, I may do this constantly—I would for sure, except ginger is an exotic, and expensive, and just doesn’t make much sense, here. So, root beer. Birch beer. I need to find local abundant wild flavorants. Juniper berries, perhaps, which are nearing ripeness. Spice bush. Roots. Need roots.

primacy of the dinner table

Since returning to West Virginia in early April, our best table, a round, four foot diameter blond oak central pedestal antique, typical of my family (my mother, her parents, and myself, at least), has been living in a corner of a difficult room, in an attempt to make that room useful to us. Since April, we’d used it exactly twice (or maybe three times), over the course of one weekend. In its stead, in the kitchen, by a bank of east facing windows, and under a purpose-hung conical glass shaded bulb, we have been eating at a coffee table with a sideboard to keep things out of reach of the baby. I don’t know how this course of affairs continued for so long. It was miserable. Awful. I righted it after seeing the pleasure my young daughter took at her cousin’s highchair—indeed, she is more tractable in her highchair than with her legs on the floor. But having the table in the place of honor, where it belongs—there is a kind of deep rightness to it, like we have righted some perversity which has been quietly poisoning our lives. Perhaps, as I am doing now, set up on that table by these east facing windows, I’ll even write more often. Hell. Who knows.