Friday, January 16, 2009

"In defense of food", Micheal Pollan lecture, meat philosophy

I had two contacts with Micheal Pollan earlier this week; one on the radio, and one as a member of the audience for his lecture on 1-12-2009. The subject of the lecture was essentially the contents of his most recent book, "in defense of food".

I read and enjoyed two of his previous books, "the botany of desire" and "the omnivores dilemma", and attended the lecture without reading the latest, but I did buy a copy (signed, of course) at the lecture, and have just finished reading it.

Micheal was being interviewed on KUOW (the local NPR affiliate) and said a variety of things, one of which was that we should both build farmers market buildings in the center city areas that are "devoid of produce" and in addition to food stamps we should provide vouchers that can be used at farmers markets, my understanding of his reasoning being that if you provide a place, and a market, that the farmers will come.

I called in and made the point that if you have a limited budget, you'll probably buy the most calories you can for your money -- calories in your stomach are what make you feel full. So merely providing a voucher wouldn't do the job. You'd buy the pre-made pastries at the farmers market, not the lettuce.

Lecture was interesting, but...
Go to the lecture if you have not read "In defense of food". If you have, you'll have a distinct sense of deja vu -- much of the lecture is verbatim passages from the book, and he reads parts of the book as part of his lecture -- which begs the point of having a live speaker, in my opinion. Micheal, if you read this, I want to hear more than your book. I want you to talk about what you did put into the book, and what you did not, and the reasoning. "Inside in defense of food", not "the author reads in defense of food".

Having read his book there are several things that I agree with. He makes the point that fat, particularly animal fat, seems to be less harmful than artificially manipulated fat. Hydrogenated vegetable oils seem to be worse than butter. As a cook I've used butter, and cream, and lard, in my cooking for years. Not because I knew it to be "good", or "bad", but because I like the taste and texture (and in some cases) the challenge of using them.

Lard is truly wonderful
Lard in particular is one fat that has entered my diet since I've started raising pigs. It makes the best pie crust. It fries the tastiest potatoes. It does wonders for refried beans, and it, like any other food, can cause you to gain weight if you eat a lot of it.

Many different diets
Mr. Pollan makes the point that human societies have subsisted for tens of thousands of years on very different diets -- the Inuit on seal blubber and meat nearly alone -- the central american cultures on complex carbohydrates like corn and beans nearly alone -- and so on. So his point, and I agree, is that no particular diet is "worse" or "better" or "right" -- there are many choices.

Meat as a condiment
With meat, I've taken the stand that it's a condiment, or a flavor, not the main ingredient. So my tacos have transitioned from being mostly meat, to having more other things (tomatoes, onions, chiles, spices, cilantro, lettuce), and it seems to suit me better. I changed that because I now consider meat a fairly... precious? rare? hard-won? something to be treasured. Good meat is like good cheese. A little bit is a treat. enough so you know how it tastes and what it adds to your meal.

Cuisine as technology
Mr Pollan makes the point in his book that you shouldn't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. I think that's a good point, but I'll take it one step further. Your grandmother, and every generation before her, had a cuisine that worked for them; a set of dishes that were prepared, a method of preparation, and a way of eating foods that were common to them. Hot peppers, so prevalent in cuisines from warmer climates, both preserved the food and made it taste better. Herbs have a medicinal value in many cultures.

Your own cultural dish
So here's my challenge to you. Take some time and figure out what one of your ancestors ate; your mother, your grandmother, or as far back as you can. Learn the basics of making that particular dish. Ask questions, take some time. Make it 3 times in one day. Feed them all to the dog. I've done that. When you're done, and you can successfully create your own cultural dish there's a connection to your past, and to your future, and if you share it, to the people around you that cannot be reached in any other way.

I'd love people to list out their own cultural dishes here. I can be something simple or complex, and it can be connected to your ethnicity or not. I'm english/irish, but my personal culture is rooted in the american southwest because my father and grandfather operated mines in chihuahua and the copper canyon areas of Mexico and in the Tuscon area of Arizona.


Enjay said...

In that case, my traditional family dish would be the potluck casserole.

Rani said...

We raise pastured pork, and one of our favorite cultural dishes is slow cooked pork shoulder, or Pulled Pork. It's great with gravy made from the pan drippings, or shredded and used in tacos, or cubed and used in our version of chili verde, and the most tasty would be barbeque pork sandwiches where the meat is shredded and then simmered in a southern barbeque sauce with plenty of vinegar and pepper in the sauce.

Bruce King said...

Pork shoulder is one of the tastiest parts of the pig. It gets turned into sausage many times, but it's a great dish all by itself.