I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked. I haven’t read any of his books other than the Omnivore’s Dilemma, but from the first page, I felt like I was spending time with an old friend. If you haven’t read anything by Pollan, do. He will teach you things that will change your life and make you laugh while doing so. In Cooked, Pollan learns how to cook. (Duh.) He divides the book into sections about cooking with fire, water, earth and air.
As he learns about cooking with each element, I feel like I’m learning a little alongside him. Learning about what exactly happens when you are salting or browning a piece of meat. Pollan is takes concepts that I kind of know, or often do, and explains them clearly. For example:
If you begin by sauteing a mince of diced onions, carrots, and celery in olive oil (and perhaps some garlic, fennel, or parsley), you’ve made a soffritto, the signature of an Italian dish. However, a “sofrito”-when spelled with one “f” and one “t”- is a dice of onions, garlic, and tomato in place of celery, and identifies the dish as Spanish. (Cajun cooking begins with a dice of nions, garlic, and bell pepper- “the holy trinity.”) If a recipe calls for a base of diced spring onions, garlic, and ginger, you’ve left the West entirely and made what is sometimes called an “Asian mirepoix,” the foundation of many dishes in the Far east… Even if we’re unfamiliar with these terms or techniques, the aroma of these chopped up plant bases instantly tells us where in the world we are, culinarily speaking. (Pollan, 127)
So while walking home today I was thinking about how to use up the ingredients we have in the house and still eat something exciting. Onions, carrots, potatoes, noodles….. Not exciting. I wasn’t getting anywhere until I came back to that onion. I’ve been been reading about the onion for days. The onion is the base for most flavor profiles around the world. So instead of thinking about what the end product was going to look like, a pile of roast veggies, or a soup, I thought about what kind of flavor I could make with my onion. A woody stub of ginger and some garlic that were hiding in the bottom of the fruit bowl brought me to asian, which reminded me that we have Pak Choy in the garden of winter greens that Zach has been cultivating. Bam! Instead of settling on a random pile of ingredients that need to be eaten, I had an awesome stir fry. It just took thinking about it from a different angle, which is what Mr. Michael Pollan helped me do tonight.
A good book keeps me thinking even when I’m not reading it. It improves real life. And this good book made dinner better. That’s a winner!
What makes something your favorite?
For me, it is comfortable, delicious, snuggly, perfect. I want to hug it and be best friends with it and I need nothing else. A chubby cat, my Ithaca Rock Climbing Club sweatshirt, a cupcake from Sugar Sweet Sunshine, dad’s coffee, a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, or a good book will do the trick. The sweatshirt is self explainable, but I want to focus on the good book part. My version of a good book is somewhere in the realm of modern fiction: The World According To Garp, Bonfire of the Vanities, or The Art of Fielding. A piece written by an intelligent person that is not flashy or arrogant, but subtly genius, with characters that make perfect sense set in plot that is neither obvious nor contrived (Jodi Picoult, I’m looking at you).
But of course, if I indulged in favorites all the time, I’d wind up obese, covered in cat hair, laying in bed amongst the cupcake crumbs, with permanently stained teeth. You can’t live on favorites alone.
I was for awhile, reading mostly modern fiction. When I am the boss, that’s what I pick and I am totally the boss of my kindle. Since we have been traveling though, I have also taken to raiding the bookshelf wherever we are staying. This provides me with someone else’s selection of books, ones that I would not usually choose myself, and also balances out the cost of buying books. As a result of this practice, I’ve met Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and been inspired by his River Cottage cookbooks, discovered the we decided to be farmers, but have no idea what we are doing genre, and also attempted to broaden my horizons by reading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. While Portrait of a Lady wasn’t enjoyable through and through and it was often tiresome trying to figure out what James was saying through his flowery language, it worked my brain. I learned a few things about gender roles in the 1800s and by page 400 actually found myself enjoying the story. It was not a favorite, but a really valuable activity. And it makes coming back to your favorite genre all that more enjoyable. I just picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and by the second page, knew that it is going to be a favorite. It tasted like cupcakes after a week of bran cereal, but I needed that bran cereal.
My suggestion is two fold: go read something that is good for you, then pick up something from your favorite genre. Here are a few that I’ve really enjoyed this year:
The World According to Garp, John Irving
A hilarious and heart wrenching novel. My favorite book ever.
A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain
Disclaimer: Bourdain is a total bro and this is more food porn than literature. He boozes and eats his way around the world and will make you want to do the same. I read this book with a notepad next to me: Spain To Do: San Sebastian tapas bar crawl.
Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff
An iconic New Zealand novel about a Maori family living in government housing. Ficticious, but felt very much like the struggles that my students in the Bronx faced. Interesting to see what those problems look like in another culture.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbaugh
Set on a college campus in upstate Michigan, Chad Harbaugh’s writing is spot on. His characters became my friends and the book may as well have read itself to me.
Life, on the Line, Grant Achatz
A celeb chef memoir + cancer survival story that is the best of both worlds. Written by chef and investor, both of whom are quite competent writers.
A few years ago, reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma flipped my world-view on its head. It showed me that many of the problems we face as a society (health and energy, notably) can be solved by more responsible agriculture. As that book began my path toward eating more naturally, The One-Straw Revolution (1978) hammered it home. If you care about food, farming, or achieving a sustainable society, it’s truly revolutionary.
Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a proponent of “do-nothing” farming. That’s a bit of a misnomer, as his methods still involve lots of work, but he certainly did a lot less than the average farmer. Distilled, his philosophy is: let plants grow as they do in nature. He advocated four main principles:
- No cultivation. This means no tilling or disturbing the natural structure of the soil.
- No prepared compost or chemical fertilizer. This comes with a few qualifications, but essentially it’s: keep the level of fertilization in the soil balanced.
- No weeding by tilling or herbicides. “Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community.” Though he does admit that weeds should be controlled through other means – ground cover, mostly.
- No dependance on chemicals. Duh.
So some of his ideas are radical even for the crunchiest of alternative farms. After having seen the beautiful vegetables that thoughtfully prepared compost produces, I’m having trouble reconciling the idea of giving up that black gold. But his explanation makes sense: when you add or subtract anything from soil, you’re upsetting the natural balance. Weeds will grow better in compost too!
The book is mainly about food and farming, but delves into some interesting facets of his own brand of eastern philosophy. Some tasty nuggets:
I do not like the word “work.” Human beings are the only animals that have to work, and I think this is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is.
High five, Fukuoka-san! I can certainly get on board that train.
Of course, the “food mandala” above will vary based on where you are in the world, and I’m sure you’ve heard the “eat seasonally” refrain, but boy-howdy does it help to see it laid out like this. The meals practically jump off the page, don’t they? I’ll take some of this, with a little of that, and voilá! Here’s a balanced, seasonal, and healthy meal. I’ll pass on the pig fish though.
By realizing “no-mind” without becoming lost in the subtleties of form, accepting the color of the colorless as color, right diet begins.
Ok, that one is a little kooky, but I included it to give you an idea of what you’re in for. Most of the book is totally normal, practical advice and evidence about farming, but at the end he goes off the rails a bit, getting occasionally touchy-feely and frequently soup-spoon obtuse. I didn’t want you to read through the book and think I was about to join a commune in Nepal. Fear not, I still wear nylon.
So this is all very nice, but hardly revolutionary. Well, the best is yet to come. You’ve heard the old adage: “you can have it cheap, good, or fast: pick two.” The same applies to local, organic, and cheap, but you’re usually allowed only one. Imagine if you could have all three! It would absolutely be revolutionary, as Fukuoka insists.
But, how? He contends that because his principles are easier and cheaper than more intensive organic farming (remember, “do-nothing”), he can match or beat the prices of the good ole boys using nasty chemicals and petrol-guzzling combines. All of a sudden, we can have cheap, local and organic!
Nothing will change consumer’s habits faster than hitting them where they feel it most: the wallet. When the modern organic grower realizes this, they will truly have a toehold in the marketplace.
The One-Straw Revolution made me think long and hard about some principles I’d taken as fact and offered solutions to some major hurdles of modern organic agriculture. If you’re game for a similar adventure, pick up a copy today.
Some memories are more vivid than others. It’s as if time slows down and everything becomes clearer. Usually these are big things: first kisses, going skydiving, seeing your kid do some inane crap for the first time. And then there are smaller things. These are things that you’d never guess would become a lasting memory – just normal parts of another normal day, but for some reason they stuck. For me, one of those is when I picked up Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding.
It was Christmas 2010. I was at Christina’s parents’ home in Baltimore, sick as a dog. This was the second major holiday in a row I’d spent there, and I’d been ill for both of them. I’m pretty sure they thought I was faking it to avoid going to church.
I was curled up on the couch in blankets, trying to keep the bitter cold wind that shook the window panes from penetrating my shivering bones, unable to move. There were a stack of books within arm’s reach, one of which happened to be Vagabonding. I read it without moving off that couch. My mind wandered to far-off destinations and cutting the cord from a domestic lifestyle.
It’s a slim volume that can be read in an afternoon, but will inspire you for a lifetime. It’s, without a doubt, the most influential book I’ve read on overcoming the obstacles that I thought were preventing me from long-term world travel. It’s the reason I’m here today, writing from New Zealand, a month into a two-year trip. If you’re interested in doing something like this, pick up your copy today.