Photo: Jim Franco

Greetings From the Non Bar-Code People, Michael Pollen, Mother Jones May/June 2006
reprinted in The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

The following is an excerpt from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. For the complete article, go to motherjones.com May/June 2006 issue
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens. I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America.
In Joel’s view, the reformation of our food economy begins with people going to the trouble and expense of buying directly from farmers they know—“relationship marketing,” the approach he urges in his recent book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?
I met several of Polyface’s parishioners on a Thursday in June as they came to collect the fresh chickens they’d reserved. It was a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher, several retirees, a young mom with her towheaded twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. They were paying a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to come get it. But no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled, urban foodies generally thought to comprise the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”
When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.
TO TALK TO THE CUSTOMERS and farmers working together in Joel Salatin’s corner of the country to rebuild a local food chain is to appreciate it is a movement and not merely a market. Or rather it is a novel hybrid, a market-as-movement for at its heart is a new conception of what it means to be a “consumer”—an attempt to redeem that ugly word, with its dismal colorings of selfishness and subtraction. Many of the Polyface customers I met (though by no means all of them) had come to see their decision to buy a chicken from a local farmer rather than from Wal-Mart as a kind of civic act, even a form of protest. A protest of what exactly is harder to pin down, and each person might put it a little differently, but the customers I met at Polyface had gone to some trouble and expense to “opt out”—of the supermarket, of the fast-food nation, and, standing behind that, a globalized industrial agriculture. Their talk of distrusting Wal-Mart, resenting the abuse of animals in farm factories, insisting on knowing who was growing their food, and wanting to keep their food dollars in town—all this suggested that for many of these people spending a little more for a dozen eggs was a decision inflected by a politics, however tentative or inchoate.

Why should food, of all things, be the linchpin of that rebellion? Perhaps because food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity. When José Bové, the French Roquefort farmer and anti-globalization activist, wanted to make his stand against globalization, he used his tractor to smash not a bank or insurance company but a McDonald’s. Indeed, the most powerful protests against globalization to date have revolved around food: I’m thinking of the movement against genetically modified crops, the campaign against patented seeds in India (which a few years ago brought as many as half a million Indians into the streets to protest World Trade Organization intellectual property rules), and Slow Food, the Italian-born international movement that seeks to defend traditional food cultures against the global tide of homogenization.

So much about life in a global economy feels as though it has passed beyond the individual’s control—what happens to our jobs, to the prices at the gas station, to the votes in the legislature. But somehow food still feels a little different. We can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put into our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in. We can, in other words, reject the industrial omelet on offer and decide to eat another. This might not sound like a big deal, but it could be the beginnings of one. Already the desire on the part of consumers to put something different in their bodies has created a $14 billion market in organic food in the United States. That marketplace was built by consumers and farmers working informally together outside the system, with exactly no help from the government.
Shopping in the Organic Supermarket underwrites important values on the farm; shopping locally underwrites a whole set of other values as well. Farms produce a lot more than food; they also produce a kind of landscape and kind of community. Whether Polyface’s customers spend their food dollars here in Swoope or in the Whole Foods in Charlottesville will have a large bearing on whether this lovely valley—this undulating checkerboard of fields and forests—will endure, or whether the total economy will find a “higher use” for it. “Eat your view!” is a bumper sticker often seen in Europe these days; as it implies, the decision to eat locally is an act of land conservation as well, one that is probably a lot more effective (and sustainable) than writing checks to environmental organizations.
“Eat your view!” takes work, however. To participate in a local food economy requires considerably more effort than shopping at the Whole Foods. You won’t find anything microwavable at the farmer’s market or in your weekly box of organic produce from the CSA, and you won’t find a tomato in December. The local food shopper will need to put some work into sourcing his own food—learning who grows the best lamb in his area, or the best sweet corn. And then he will have to become reacquainted with his kitchen. Much of the appeal of the industrial food chain is its convenience; it offers busy people a way to delegate their cooking (and food preservation) to others. At the other end of the industrial food chain that begins in a cornfield in Iowa sits an industrial eater at a table. (Or, increasingly, in a car.) The achievement of the industrial food system over the past half-century has been to transform most of us into precisely that creature.
All of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer but a new kind of eater —one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. One whose sense of taste has ruined him for a Big Mac, and whose sense of place has ruined him for shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart. This is the consumer who understands—or remembers that, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, “eating is an agricultural act.” He might have added it’s a political act as well.

ON MY LAST DAY ON THE FARM, a soft June Friday afternoon, Joel and I sat talking at a picnic table behind the house while a steady stream of customers dropped by to pick up their chickens. I asked him if he believed the industrial food chain would ever be overturned by an informal, improvised movement made up of farmer’s markets, box schemes, metropolitan buying clubs, Slow Foodies, and artisanal meat-processing plants. Even if you count the Organic Supermarket, the entire market for all alternative foods remains but a flea on the colossus of the industrial food economy, with its numberless fast-food outlets and supermarkets backed by infinite horizons of corn and soybeans.      “We don’t have to beat them,” Joel patiently explained. “I’m not even sure we should try. We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation.  All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.“And make no mistake:  it’s happening. The mainstream is splitting into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. It’s a little like Luther nailing his 95 theses up at Wittenberg. Back then it was the printing press that allowed the Protestants to break off and form their own communities; now it’s the Internet, splintering us into tribes that want to go their own way.”

photo from appleblossomcottage.blogspot.com

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

North Americans measure cooking ingredients by volume, rather than weight. For example, most of the world might call for a recipe with "250 g flour" whereas an American recipe might require "1/2 cup flour". I've often wondered about the difference between densely packing that cup of flour for making bread (have you seen our video yet? http://www.viand.net/doughs.html) vs. just filling up the cup and leveling off the top. Now I know that the European's avoid the problem: no matter how densely the flour is compressed, "250 g flour" will be the same amount of flour, no matter what. In practice, though, that US measure of flour seems to work well enough, so maybe the difference doesn't actually matter. As I think back, I recall a friend of mine who was really into the gadgetry of cooking had a scale that could be reset after each item was added. So "3 cups flour" might be added one at a time using the scale to let you know when you had enough and the scaled zeroed out to then be followed by "2 tsp salt" - but now I know, though, that a different recipe would be needed for measuring ingredients. Cups and teaspoons can't be used, only a recipe in grams (or ounces/pounds) would work with that scale!

Wikipedia addresses the "densely packed" flour issue by making mention of Special Instructions commonly found in recipes like "Firmly Packed" or "2 Heaping Cups of Flour" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_weights_and_measures). Or in this case, just watch the bread video mentioned above to see how we do it and in 10 minutes of labor, you'll have the most amazing bread!

Duro's cooking trivia of the day:
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._customary_units), who knew? (ok maybe you did smarty-pants 🙂

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

Peppercorns in hues by Pteri

Black Pepper: French: poivre . German: Pfeffer . Italian: pepe nero
Spanish: pimienta negra . Arabic: filfil . Indian: gol/kala,i, mir(i)ch(i)
Indonesian: merica hitam, meritja . Lao: phik noi . Malay: lada hitam
Thai: prik ki tai

The name pepper comes from the Sanskrit word pippali meaning berry.  It was transliterated as peperi in Greek, piper in Latin, and finally pepper in English, pfeffer in German, and poivre in French.
It is one of the oldest and important spices in the world.  So important was pepper, that in ancient times it was used to pay taxes.  In 410 A.D, when the Huns lay siege of Rome, 3,000 pounds of pepper was demanded as ransom.  At times, it has been valued so highly that a single peppercorn dropped on the floor would be hunted like a lost pearl.  Pepper was much used by the Romans and in the Early Middle Ages became a status symbol of fine cookery.   Black pepper is a native to Malabar, a region on the Western Coast of South India.  It spread from India to Southeast Asia as cuttings brought by Hindu colonists migrating from India to Indonesia and other countries.  Today, most of the black pepper we have in the U.S. comes from Brazil. Ø

 

Both black and white pepper have been used in the East for the treatment of stomach aches, digestive problems and fever for over 4,000 years.  The Chinese used pepper to treat malaria, cholera and dysentery.  Pepper induces perspiration which eventually cools the body, thus acting as a 'febrifuge.'  The monks of India were advised to swallow 7 to 9 grains of pepper a day to give them an endurance boost on their long treks.  Perhaps a similar dosage would be advised for those traversing the LA freeways.

Black pepper is the dried, unripe berry.  Black pepper is the generic term for peppercorns that are picked green, just as they are starting to turn red.  They are fermented briefly, then sun-dried so that the outer skin turns black while the inside remains pale.

White pepper is obtained by removing the outer part of the pericarp of the ripened berries.  The outer coating is softened either by keeping the berries in moist heaps for 2 or 3 days or by keeping them in sacks submerged in running water for 7 to 15 days, depending on the region.  The softened outer coating is then removed by washing and rubbing or by trampling, and the berries are spread in the sun to dry.  Whole white pepper can also be prepared by grinding off the outer coating mechanically.  The flavor is less pungent than that of black pepper.

Green peppercorns are berries that are picked green, then dehydrated, freeze-dried, or liquid-packed. They have a green, "herbal" flavor and a pungency that affects the nose, much like horseradish.  The main sources are Madagascar, India, and Brazil.

Pink pepper, which is not a vinous pepper, comes from the French island of Réunion.  Pink peppercorns have a brittle, papery pink skin enclosing a hard, irregular seed, much smaller than the whole fruit.

Pepper is best purchased whole, as freshly ground pepper is vastly superior to the ready ground powder. Whole peppercorns keep their flavor indefinitely but quickly lose aroma and heat after it has been ground. Some peppercorns have such a subtle aroma that they can’t be determined until they have been ground.

 

Cracked Black Peppercorn Mustard is a quick, easy-to-prepare mustard with a distinctive peppercorn flavor. Its assertive flavor is excellent on dark breads, smoked meats, and makes a perfect coating for steaks or burgers before grilling.
0. 1/4 cup whole yellow mustard seeds
0. 1/4 cup champagne vinegar
0. 1/4 cup hot water
0. 2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black peppercorns
0. 1 teaspoon garlic powder
0. 1/2 teaspoon salt
Place the mustard seeds in a spice mill or coffee grinder and process until finely ground. Combine the mustard and vinegar in a bowl and stir to mix. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes. Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Spoon the mustard in a sterilized jar, cover and refrigerate for 1 week before using. Yield: 1/2 cup

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

many people often say (and, presumably, believe) “i hate to cook alone” or “well i like to cook, but only when i have someone to cook for”…

my comments here are encouraged by an interview in the June 2007 Food&Wine with Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan (co-founder of apartmenttherapy.com), in which she announces an online course in “the emotional benefits of cooking”. i’m grateful that she’s given voice to something i thought was too personal to share. (by personal, i don’t mean private, i just mean too specific to me – not generalizable.)

years ago, working really hard, doing things i had never done before, at the end of the week i found myself yearning to get paid on a deeper level than my paycheck. i wanted to get something back for the soul and vision that i was sharing through my work each week.

i tried hanging out with lots of friends, i tried getting drunk, dating, dressing up, going out to fancy dinner… none of the recommended friday night activities touched it. i still felt deeply unpaid. i do think that a big chunk of that experience has to do with a world of alienating individualism and commodification, but i am not writing about that right now.

i stumbled upon a profound transformation. i decided that nobody else could ever pay me for that work nor heal my wounds. even finding all the wounds, understanding them, and identifying balm was a task probably beyond me.
i realized that i did have the power to listen to myself, to the quietest voice saying “sunshine on my face” or “silver nail polish” or “rocky road ice cream” or “lemon coffee cake”… and i could usually find and deliver those things. simply responding to my tiny, but authentic, desires, made me start to feel met, cared for, and paid.

i’m not sure i’ve ever found anything more loving than cooking for myself. taking the time and effort to prepare exactly what i want, exactly how i want it, to give time to that project, to move slowly, to enjoy the tools, to stir it with my hands if i feel like it, and to give it to myself.

and then there are some foods that i wouldn’t serve to anyone, but that i love, like leftover pasta toasted in the oven until it’s crispy. and there are dinners that don’t count as dinner, but they are exactly what i want, like steak and coffee.
as i moved more this way i noticed something else so significant. as it turns out, the very best food i have eaten is the food that i have made for myself in response to clear, intuitive, desire. no food is fancy or excellent enough to compete with that experience.

satisfaction, as it turns out, is not an objective experience of excellence, but a delicate process of listening and responding, of meeting myself.

i make my fruit tart just for myself, and eat as much as i want.