The U.P.

Back in the day, copper mines and fur trappers dotted the landscape of Michigan’s upper peninsula, in big and small ways, and soon the barons from Chicago and Detroit headed kind of north to holiday.

I’m packing bags and a cooler: Walleye, grass fed skirt from Missouri, Icelandic salmon, pasta from Abruzzi, Amish chickens, ramps, the first asparagus of the season, etc.  The etc. being a run to Zingerman’s this A.M.: Bagels, rye, challah, pastrami, corned beef, etc.

They say it’s a 7-8 hour drive, including a 6 mile bridge across the lake.

 

A-2, Day-5

Dr. Gupta, of CNN, regaled the crowd at Michigan’s commencement yesterday, and the frozen crowd, braving 41 F degree temperature and winds that felt like the cold when a freezer door is opened and you have stepped out of a shower, made do.  One speaker, playing on the rallying cry, “Go Blue,” said it was more of a day when people, “turned blue,” which made perfect sense until I saw a black woman scowl after it was said.

Dr. Gupta peppered his speech with references to favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner places in Ann Arbor, and it was clear, once again, how food restores memories to us.  It’s difficult to remember her face, let’s say, until you recall that it was the morning after, on line at Zingerman’s, that you held her hand and her remembered the grip.

Between the speech and the house party, I headed over to TJ’s to buy food to cook for thirty.  We’re talking four+ pounds of turkey black bean chili and four pounds or so of oven braised pork loin in milk and onions.  The former recipe is an adaptation of my Grandma Lil’s from South Carolina; she used pork jowls, I use canola, but it was essentially all black all the time, roadhouse food for the late night musicians who gathered at her place after a show.  The latter dish is culled from my Uncle Salvatore, who alleged roots in Liguria, but, let’s face it, was Sicilian through and through.  It’s a classic Italian no-brainer: Cut the loins in half to fit into a pan.  Pan sear them to get  a crust.  Salt and pepper.  Place in baking dish.  Cover with a chopped onion.  Cover with milk.  Roast at 350 for 45 minutes.  Slice and serve, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Both dishes took a total of 20 minutes prep, 45 minutes of time braising or stovetop, and fed 30.

The party itself featured killer chicken, spicy and not so spicy from “Big” Dave C, amazing cheese and potatoes, and the best cherry, apple, and pure rhubarb pies I have ever, and I do mean ever, have tasted.

Between the speech and party, I went to Kerrytown and bought gorgeous Walleye at Monahan’s, looked over OK choice beef at Sparrow’s (pass), and went to Whole Foods to stock up on beautiful Michigan ramps and the first asparagus of the season, Icelandic salmon, and two Amish chickens, for under $10 each, from northern Michigan.

At the register, the SYT (sweet young thing) asked me how to cook ramps.  On the way home, at a CVS, ASYT (another sweet young thing) asked, after seeing my driver’s license for a credit card purchase, if I was moving to Ann Arbor.

“Yes,” I said, “yes, yes, yes, yes.”

 

 

Do Fries Go With That Shake?

As Zen Master George Clinton immortalized that phrase in the bridge of one of his sonnets put to funk, one must wonder, day in and day out.

More specifically, I think we can all agree that race and class, with sexuality nipping at their heels, are the paramount issues of any social gathering.  Who has the authority?  What is that authority based on?  Is it: Who inherited the rights to the coconut tree?

Who makes the rules?  The person with the pen and paper factories?

So, that said, when we write and think about food and limit the conversation to palate, are we in  danger of becoming wankers?  Who wanks among us?

One of the strongest statements regarding food and human rights came from another Zen Master: Bob Dylan.  When he sang: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm No More,” wasn’t that weaving agriculture into the Civil Rights movement?

So for all this talk about sustainability and organic products–ask any small purveyor about the impact of these marketing terms on their business–we might add broader context by including more pertinent matters like race, class, and sexuality.

There I said it.

Going back to organic for the moment: Here’s a good example of the point of the term.  Stonyfield, a huge company, is organic.  That’s good, right?  But why?  Why especially when they were sold to Danon a few years back and have products that simply don’t taste as good as the much smaller Butterworks.  Here’s what’s really happening: Companies are taking over terms to corner the market and ultimately increase the prices.

 

 

 

A-2, Day-3

It’s a “Groundhog Day” kind of existence I have carved out for myself in Ann Arbor.  OK, the harrowing ride out here wore me out so that the next day I was still woozy, but within 48 hours I was back on my feet.

It’s three miles of running, a long walk with the two big, black dogs, and a quiet, solo breakfast at Zingerman’s: Bagel or croissant, that’s the challenge, and it’s left like that.  A huge, bottomless cup of coffee, delicious and hot and black, like a girl I once knew, and I am OKEEDOKEE.

The rest of the day it’s back and forth between the dogs and wonderful, unpretentious places like Frita Batida and Blimpy’s.  The former has the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten.  The latter has amazing burgers and a scene that’s really great fun.

This is a product driven town.  Good food, few cocktails, and good beer, just not plenty of it.  People go to eat and not just to alter consciousness.

The mix of locals and profs, students and no-goodniks, hardcore D and farm girls?  It’s oh so pleasant.

 

A-2, Day 2

It’s another glorious day in Ann Arbor, where white picket fences exist alongside abandoned homes and students mingle freely with people whose vocation it is to clean up after them.

As is true, I’m learning slowly, the markets here are even better than the businesses that cook the food.  Trackleman’s must have the best smoked salmon outside of Zabar’s and Russ and Daughters.  Zingerman’s is a true center for beautiful artisanal, well sourced products and, Ari’s credo, price be damned if the food is good.  We are talking beautiful breads, bagels, smoked fish, and an impressive, focused array of meats and cheeses, many from the US of A, including product from Alan Benton!

On the restaurant end: Le Dog, in town?  Terrific, filling soups, though a tad salty, are a great way to stave off cold.  Just down the street?  Osteria Mani, my new home away from home.  On South Main?  Raven’s and Jolly Pumpkin.  And nearby?  The Grange, Logan’s, and Pacific Rim.

This is one interesting food town, big for its britches, where the emphasis is on the plate rather than on the person doing the expediting or cooking.

Funny how good food can taste when the chef puts his or her ego aside and permits the flavors to take center stage.

A-2

Funny how simplicity trumps complexity always.  In Ann Arbor (A2), you have Osteria Mani, a tip-top, shipshape trattoria-style place where the pizzas and pastas are crazy delicious and a well-trained staff that is all about service.  Not naming cities, but wouldn’t it be swell if chefs in the Hub of the Universe simply cooked good food rather than stroke egos via the plate.  Sheesh!

And then, this very morning, at the friendliest food store on earth, Zingerman’s, it was possible to enjoy good, strong coffee, a very fine bagel, and lox-cream cheese spread.  Yes, the prices there were ballpark 50% higher than what one pays in cities where there is competition for food as good as this, but it’s a treat, isn’t it?  And for sure the tastes were deep.

 

Another Day of Sustainability: Seasick!

Big news today in the NYT: a great front page story by Abby Goodnough on Whole Foods (WF), and how the union-busting company–not a single store has a union–has found a sacred mission in refusing to buy fish it considers poor in sustainability.  What they mean here is that certain fish are said to be overfished and the idea is that by not selling these fish, WF is saving the planet.

Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/us/to-new-england-fishermen-another-bothersome-barrier.html?hpw.

Banned from sale in the stores will be gray sole and skate.  Atlantic cod will “only be sold, if it is not caught by trawlers, which drag nets across the ocean floor, a much-used method (in New England).”

There’s only one catch, so to speak: Fishermen, many already operating on a shoestring, already dependent on seasons, weather, and hard working crews, will suffer more economic strain.

Why is that sustainable?  Where is the evidence that fishing skate and grey sole will wipe them out?  Is there no thought given to the fishermen?  Aren’t their lives part of the question of economic sustainability?

Or is WF simply trying to dictate the terms of the price and also to cash in on a marketing ploy?

WF gets its info on sustainability and fish from, “ratings set by theBlue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and theMonterey Bay Aquarium in California. They are based on factors including how abundant a species is, how quickly it reproduces and whether the catch method damages its habitat.”

The BOI is using data to predict future trends.  It’s a cool idea, but it’s numbers based and lacks statistical validity, in my opinion.  We don’t know what will happen in the future, do we?  (The banks tried this and it contributed to the crisis in 9/08: Predicting growth based on previous performance.  It’s specious logic.)

And who says that WF has the answer?  “Jim Ford, who said he sold 700,000 pounds of fish to Whole Foods over the past year, declared, “It’s a marketing ploy, that’s all.” Mr. Ford said he would now sell to the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain instead.”

Here’s a different view expressed in the article: “’We have the strictest management regime in the world,’” said David Goethel, a fisherman from Hampton, N.H. and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. ‘So using the word ‘sustainable,’ maybe it looks good in your advertising. But, without being too harsh, it means absolutely nothing.’”

Of course, DG is correct.  The hypocrisy of WF lecturing to fishermen while keeping unions out that might sustain its workers?  A distraction.

You want to be really sustainable?  Buy only from unionized grocery stores where employees have authority equal to management on heath care, planning, and…what fish to buy.

Union Worker On Strike

Very fishy!

 

 

 

Back to Sustainability

A flurry of letters to the editor in today’s NYT about sustainability.  Readers point out correctly that the most sustainable thing to do, vis a vis the environment, is to stop eating animals.  Where that leaves the protein starved poor is a different question, but I hear that this will be addressed in Robin Williams’s next film, “Hello, Mumbai!”  In this forthcoming movie, Williams plays a Peace Corps volunteer working in the slums of Mumbai.  Confronted by rail thin children and sickly, dying people in their thirties, Williams must come to terms with his vegetarian lifestyle.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that people change!  (Hint: The kids learn to love Dr. Pritikin’s soy burgers and Williams goes nuts for lamb!)

On a related note: The farmers, fisherman, truckers, purveyors, restaurateurs, dishwashers, servers, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters put out of work by the sustainable switch to TVL (The Vegan Lifestyle) learn to take up sewing and handicrafts.  It’ll be a return to the Thirties when the WPA (Work Project Administration) lifted up America only moments before handing everyone weapons.  Films will be made, books will be written about our new era: Sustainable America!

I will say this: Obviously, obviously, not killing animals is a good thing.  I think eating meat is kind of a downer.  But the economic ramifications of the switchover is a huge facet of sustainability, and it’s hardly ever ever ever talked about.  You could say it’s the elephant in the room.

Dinner or our new friend, Tiny?

Elephant, Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe

Eating in the Age of Anxiety

As if earlier ages were not times of anxiety.  In fact, there are for many more than before, fewer realities to be anxious about these days.  That said, life’s a killer, every which way, and Batali had it right when he said, quoting the Italian adage: “No one grows old at the table.”

These thoughts came flying at me after reading Frank Bruni’s great op-ed today about obesity in America.  FB believes that the problem is the inevitable outcome of some kinds of agribusiness conspiracy.  Um, OK, but still it’s thought provoking.

Later, in the same NYT, a good piece in the Science section describing the benefits and challenges of BV (Becoming Vegan).  Right at the gate, the author notes that it’s a great diet for those with a private chef, but an uphill battle for the rest of us.  Personally, my favorite foods are vegetables, mushrooms, legumes, and fish so, except for the latter, I’m in the same boat.  More specifically, I stopped ordering meat about four years ago in restaurants, except for burgers about six times a year, and stick to veg apps and pastas.

And Kajitsu in the East Village?  Well, duh and double duh: The best Shojin restaurant in the good ol’ US of A!  But you knew that.

Here’s the thing: People eat large quantities because it’s easy and satisfying, and the consequences are not immediately evident.  If the Pavlovian thing were present: Bing, shock, as in high fat meat, heart attack or HBP (high blood pressure) or diabetes, maybe behavior would change.

Meanwhile, do fries go with that shake?

 

Sustainability?

Sustainability is one of those goofy, feel good words that means nothing in the sense that it’s so loosey-goosey a term that its definition varies from one person to the next and it has few contexts.  A terrific op-ed in today’s NYT drives that point home: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?_r=1&ref=opinion.

Here’s the thing: A dairy scientist told me years ago that standardization or industrialization created needed uniformity in products so that reliably they tasted as desired each time.  Efficiency in responsible industry leads to less waste and good wages.  Etc.

The world’s largest sustainable business is Walmart.  A farmer in Idaho who believes in sustainability may not believe in the health care of his workers.  The largest government project promoting sustainability was the idea of creating huge agricultural swaths in the Ukraine and Poland; that was Albert Speer’s vision.

The issues should be economic as well as a belief in marketing terms…