blood is in the air

Recent reading: Ken Albala’s blood sausage and blood pie and Hank Shaw’s blood pasta.

I’ve been eating a lot of blood oranges as has my young daughter, who is less dainty about it and thus necessarily gives rise to jokes in my presence. I am looking forward to being home and having access to whole animals to eat again, with all their funny bits intact. It has been a question with me as to how much gore to show on this blog. While tact and good taste argue that perhaps one should avoid the impression of gratuitousness (so easily reached when the subject is gore), the counter argument is that taking apart animals, is, well, fascinating. Such a funny thing, how killing animals developed into a taboo. My father remembers the style in which his mother used to dispatch chickens, which to me sounds almost flamboyant—and which I am shy to post here. (And she was one of my more genteel ancestors—went to finishing school in Gulfport Mississippi during the Great Depression.) It was just something that was done.

Dunno. Nothing to fear from me for the moment. I am accidentally living part time in a vegetarian religious community and seem to get most of my protein from peanut butter between meals. There may be a post in me forthcoming, on peanut butter and rice cake subsistence.

they would [maple] sugar but for so much boiling

“Some time in February, we scaffolded up our fur and skins, and moved about ten miles in search of a [maple] sugar camp or a suitable place to make sugar. . . . We had no large kettles with us this year, and the squaws made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”

–James Smith, in his An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, of 1799. I found it in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984).

McGee goes on to note that “Despite the last sentence, this early version of freeze-drying would not of itself have turned the sap brown and developed the rich flavors we associate with maple syrup; these are the result of browning reactions that require high temperatures. In all likelihood, the nightly frosts were used to reduce the sap to volumes more easily handled in clay pots.”

This isn’t accurate, the bit about caramelization, incidentally, as any neophyte sugarer who has tried to make dark grade B syrup out of Fancy grade sap can tell you—and I can verify, from experience, that indeed freeze-concentrated sap does darken of its own accord. But as he says, freezing will only take sap so far, no matter how cold it is on however many successive sugaring nights, and the effect ultimately of this freeze-drying is only to reduce the volume of liquid that must be boiled to a more manageable level, for cooking in clay pots or indoor kitchens alike, or (as could be much more widely done that it is at present), to reduce fuel consumption for professional operations considerably.

In a primitive fashion this is still done, small producers who still use buckets typically discarding the ice that forms in the top of their buckets every morning, but the technique, I think, will bear refining. I suggest also broad and shallow pans, perhaps sleds, if you have them, and are on the cheap, as I am. I’ve also fantasized about putting such pans in a greenhouse, to freeze at night and evaporate by solar energy by day. Dunno. Might be worth trying, for the types who might try it.

The syrup itself, freeze concentrated and before you boil it, is, besides being quite thin, a little more fresh and tree-ee tasting. I’m sure a market could be developed for it, raw syrup or somesuch. Naturally, I plan to ferment it one of these years.

But the question of volume, how one must boil off forty gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup, and how this can have a way of steaming the wallpaper down in your kitchen if done too quickly, to say nothing of the fuel usage—is a key impediment to the home sugarer. Still, using this method or no, I recommend home sugaring, even if only from one or two trees. A quart of syrup boiled off slowly on the wood stove is free, and will hurt nothing.

Apologies for overlap with the previous post.

in San Francisco

Accidentally, I’ve wound up in San Francisco for the winter. Olives are dropping from trees on the streets, and I’ve been saving some for bringing home, and growing the pits into houseplants. I’ve read you can expect a crop from an olive tree in a pot, but even so the foliage is beautiful.

Also, the plum trees are in bloom. My grandmother-in-law, for some 45 years a student of Zen, told me the other day that in Japan plum blossoms are a symbol of bravery, on account of that they are the first fruit to bloom in the spring, and thus the most likely to lose its crop to frost. I like that, thinking of them as brave, rather than stupid which is what some farmers I know have called them.

The apples here are boring compared to what I’m used to in the east, but then with demand sucking them up so fast this year, the apples left in the east this time of year, at least in Vermont, are pretty boring too. More disappointing, the citrus available here, that I’ve seen so far, has not knocked my socks off. And I came too late for persimmons. But the new-harvest olive oil is in, and a joy.

Restaurants are pissing me off, as typically too precious or pretentious or expensive, often all three. I am beginning to turn against this new foodism, as readers know. But here it’s as bad as anywhere.

On the other hand, wine and cheese availability, considering only that which I can afford, is stunning, and there are shops that hurt my heart to be in, to be surrounded by such plenty, with the expectation of being able to enjoy some of it. I am currently drinking the best bottle of wine I’ve probably had in six months, a Fronton from Chateau Flotis, the second bottle I’ve bought in the city, and I spent on it $12. Gorgeous.

But I’m missing West Virginia. While I can buy fifteen varieties of mushrooms here quite easily, I’d rather learn to pick them in the woods myself for free. And make cheese, and cure meats, and ferment cider, and everything else I do and want to do, and can do there, without being a rich man. And eat no worse than a rich man. Except, of course, for wine. Achilles heel of us here at the antipasto.

Harold McGee, who I believe hates food, also would dethrone olive oil

As in I would also. Or have, in my own kitchen. I am referring to this new article in the New York Times, in which McGee shows that for the most part, different cooking oils subjected to heat largely taste the same. No point cooking with expensive olive oils, I agree. He says something vague about possible health benefits of polyphenols in olive oil, and something vague about people valuing “provenance,” and something telling about how the label ‘extra virgin’ “doesn’t signify much at all.” This may be true in terms of (raw) flavor, but it does signify that neither heat nor chemicals were used in its extraction—perhaps a factor he lumps under provenance. McGee himself uses Canola as his standard cooking fat, a word better rendered as CANOLA because it is in fact an acronym: CANadian Oil, Low Acid. Derived from inedible rapeseed oil, which makes a fine machine grease, highly invested Canadian farmers found demand plummeting after World War Two and needed a new market—so they bred the egregiously toxic bits out, renamed it something vague and more palatable, and sold it as cheap cooking fat. Incidentally, according to wikipedia, 80% of the crop is now genetically engineered. So much for provenance.

So, if we are in sympathy, you and I, CANOLA is out, and good olive relegated to raw use. And even cheap olive oil—coming, here on the east coast, from a minimum of three thousand miles away—if you value provenancial factors like organicity and cold-pressedness, is not a terribly cheap thing. So, what are the temperate climate cooking oils? The non industrial ones? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking butter, animal fat, walnut and sunflower. Butterworks Farm in Vermont puts out a fine unrefined sunflower, is why I mention the last; probably there are other viable seed oils as well. Generally speaking, though, walnut and sunflower are not currently available, not locally nor cheaply. Butter is fairly expensive, for those of us without cows, and too rich for many uses—so I use it only where it shines. This leaves animal fat. Dirt cheap, versatile, deeply traditional, comes in many flavors—even from different parts of the same animal—it’s shameful how much just about everyone is throwing away.

Here I am again hammering away on one of my favorite topics. I wrote more practically on the subject last year, here. I’ll write more in the future, I’m sure.

the end of my food specialness

It’s been interesting watching this current burgeoning interest in food burgeon (from Old French bourgeonner ‘put out buds,’ from borjon ‘bud,’ based on late Latin burra ‘wool’). Having a hereditary interest in food, and having long lived with a woman with a still greater interest, I’ve had a pretty long view on it. But now there are all these converts kicking around. Fervorous converts. Out here in the sticks, I’ve been able to ignore it, largely, but the other month I visited a Whole Foods in Annapolis and it brought me a little low. It had things I used to have to find in little shops in Montreal. It had things I’d never thought of, made me think a little. My only consolation was that, when I ordered a couple pieces of salami, they had to open new ones because the ones in the display case were stale.

Now, this is not to say that I’m suddenly unconvinced that I’m a better, and certainly more versatile, cook than nearly everyone (cough, cough). But it is a little strange to be suddenly overtaken by so many people in so many fields that, until a couple years ago, I was exceptional for having dabbled in. And that’s my problem here: I’m still dabbling. I’m curious, but mostly I’m practical. I rarely try for perfection. Lazy scion of a mainline church.

Since there is a part of my personality that is wrapped up in having food specialness, I considered stepping up. But it just sounded like a lot of work. So, I’m quitting. Nolo contendere. I let the tide wash over me; I hope it won’t wash back.

But, I’m sick of all the advertising. Feel gooding and politics. I saw a bottle of wine that screamed all the trendy anti-establishment buzzwords the other day, whose makers proudly blurbed about the fact that they were letting themselves remain anonymous. How authentic is that? How sick am I of authenticity? If I were an nth generation something picturesque, at this point, I’d consider hiding the fact. So sick am I of black and white pictures of salt of the earth.

The other day, for the first time, I heard someone use the term “sell out” with regard to food. As in, is it ethical for a small (“DIY”) producer to charge a luxury premium, over costs, for some product, if they can get it. Punk ethos in cooking. Fascinating.

Did a major label just sign my favorite band? That must be it. I went to the woods and Punk Rock died. On the balance it’s a great good thing, I think, and I shouldn’t maybe begrudge all the hard selling. Maybe it will normalize and the buzz will die. I don’t know for sure. It’s a little painful to think about. I’m not convinced.

I’m just going to have to grit my teeth and cook breakfast.

Flaubert to Maupassant on Mental & Moral Hygene

“Too many whores! Too much boating! Too much exercise! Yes, that’s right: a civilized man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe.”

1878, translator and source unknown. Found in the essay “Cruising with Genius” by Graham Robb, NYRB Volume LVI, Number 3 (February 26, 2009).

The best time to kill flies

is early in the morning — when they are still cold.

Alternatively, at half past one you can try and swat them in the air. It makes children laugh.

Not so effective, though.