Eating Animals… or Not

I promise not to spend so much time talking about my personal eating habits in the future, but I just listened to this wonderful conversation between Anthony Bourdain, who is the host of my very favorite Travel Channel show, and Jonathan Safran Foer on whether or not we should eat meat.

You can listen to the discussion here, which I HIGHLY recommend.

Basically, Bourdain is about as meat-hungry as you can get- he has stated that it’s his reason for living. And Safran Foer is now making lots and lots of money for his recent book Eating Animals, in which he talks about all the reason he is, and we should become, vegetarians. The thing that made this talk so absolutely wonderful, however, is that there were very few things the two actually disagreed on. For that specific reason, this was one of the most informative talks I’ve heard on the subject. No one was angrily trying to prove that they, and they alone, were right and that their “opponent” was some horrible person. Instead, they talked about the real issue at the heart of all this: that factory farming, which produces 99% of available meat, is a very bad thing.

And I have to say that I almost 100% agree with both of them. They are really just two sides of the same coin. The message that one should take away from this conversation, the message that I think is what might save us, is that feeding ourselves should never be a throw-away, thoughtless moment in our day. It should be something imbued with conscious decision and never taken for granted.

I’m the halfway point between Bourdain’s meat lust and Safran Foer’s vegetarianism. I do lust after beautiful cuts of meat and dream of Spanish jamón, but I will only indulge when I know the provenance of the meat (where and how it was raised) or if, as Bourdain mentions, not eating meat would mean that I missed out on something of cultural significance. Which means that, more often than not, I eat like Safran Foer. But, where Safran Foer sees vegetarianism as his path out of the moral, environmental, and social murk that is industrialized farming, my path is actually to eat MORE meat than I have in years, which requires me to raise it myself. And, naturally, to share it with others.

From another interview with Bourdain, Safran Foer, and famous chef Eric Ripert.

ON EATING MEAT OUT OF POLITENESS OR ON CEREMONY
Safran Foer: “People sometimes say to me, ‘Well, we go to my grandmother’s house on Christmas and she makes this thing,’ and I say, ‘Well, then eat that thing, that’s a great use of food. The McNugget is not a great use of food. And if we can all just agree that we’re only going to eat meat when it matters, that we’re only going to eat meat when we really enjoy it, when we care, when it makes a difference, when it serves any kind of social function, that would be eliminating I think 80 percent of the meat we eat.”

LAST WORD
Bourdain: “I will kill a pig and I will eat it. I will shoot an animal in the head and eat it. But I’m not doing it for fun, and I’m not blind to the circumstances and conditions in which animals are raised. I think there’s a lot of common ground here and we’re going to move, hopefully, toward the side of the angels.”

What’s Cooking: An Ethiopian Dinner

Wednesday night, I decided to try a family experiment. I love “ethnic food,” but my family has a very “American” palette. That’s not to say that they are the stereotypical American’s who love fast food and junk, but they are most comfortable with American and Southern classics. World food for them is usually Tex Mex and MSG laden Chinese. My tastes run to more varied flavors: I love Thai and Indian and Lebanese and Turkish and Moroccan and Spanish and on and on.

One of my favorite meals is Ethiopian wats (spicy stews). Whenever I’m in a good food city, I try to find an Ethiopian restaurant to grab dinner at. I can’t handle the full spice effect, but the milder flavors are just perfect for my taste buds.

I’m always trying to find ways to broaden my family’s tastes, so I figured the best plan of attack was to try my hand at making Ethiopian food myself and force them to eat it! Handy dandy “What’s Cooking” material! For this special dinner I decided to make some of my favorites Ethiopian staples and to make something I’d never had before.

Getting Ready

There are some important vocabulary words to know when discussing Ethiopian food.

  • berbere: A paste, composed of hot spices, used to season many foods.
  • injera: Spongy, fermented bread that tastes similar to sourdough bread and resembles a large flour tortilla or large, thin pancakes
  • wat/wot and alecha: Stews. If a dish has “wat/wot” in its name, it will be made with berbere and be hot, while “alecha” means mild. 

All of the following recipes should feed 6-8 people.

Injera

hecka injera

Injera (Image by artnoose via Flickr)

First up, we had to have the ubiquitous injera. Injera is eaten with almost every meal in Ethiopia (and neighboring Eritrea), but this is not just any bread. It is serving platter, utensil, and meal, all in one.

Injera is typically made with teff flour. Teff is an annual grass, a species of lovegrass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 BC and 1000 BC. According to Wikipedia

Teff (Eragrostis tef)

Teff (Image via Wikipedia)

the grain is gluten-free and has a high concentration of different nutrients, a very high calcium content, and significant levels of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron, barium, and thiamin. Teff is high in protein. It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition (including all 8 essential amino acids for humans) and has lysine levels higher than wheat or barley. Teff is high in carbohydrates and fiber.

Therefore, injera made from teff flour is an excellent nutritional staple and has the added benefit of being quite filling and extremely handy.

Because teff flour is very low in gluten, it isn’t suited to types of bread that rise; instead, it is fried much like crepes or pancakes. Typically, injera dough is left to sit for a few days to allow it to ferment. In this way, it acquires a slightly sour taste similar to sourdough.

Since teff flour is still fairly hard to find outside of Africa (and because I didn’t want to wait a few days while the dough fermented) I used a recipe modified by Ethiopians living in North America. This recipe can be found in Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook.

Mix:

  • 3 cups of self-rising flour
  • 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup of cornmeal or masa harina
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of warm water

Let the mix set in a large bowl, covered, an hour or longer, until the batter rises and becomes stretchy. It can sit as long as 3-6 hours. When ready, stir the batter if liquid has settled on the bottom, then whip in blender, 2 cups of batter at a time, thinning it with 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of water. The batter will be quite thin.

Cook in a nonstick frypan without oil over medium or medium-high heat. Use 1/2 cup of batter per injera for a 12-inch pan or 1/3 cup of batter per injera for a 10-inch pan. Pour the batter into the heated pan and quickly swirl the pan to spread the batter as thin as possible. The batter should be no thicker than 1/8 inch. Do not turn. Injera does not easily stick or burn. It is cooked through when bubbles appear all over the top.

Lay each injera on a clean towel for a minute or two, then stack in a covered dish to keep warm. Finished injera will be thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake.

Alecha

 

Alecha (Image from katyabaxter.com)

Stews form the basis of most of Ethiopian cuisine and alechas are the milder version, usually made with vegetables but they can also contain meat. I made a basic vegetarian alecha to cool our mouths.

In a large saucepan, combine:

  • 2 tablespoons of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped

Sauté until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 3 medium potatoes, chopped in large pieces
  • 2-3 carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon of pepper

Cook about 10 minutes until the potatoes and carrots begin to soften.

Add:

  • 1 pound of cabbage, chopped
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 green chili pepper, seeded and quartered (optional, for extra kick)

Cook until the vegetables are tender. Stir gently to combine, taking care not to mash the vegetables

Sik Sik Wat and Beg Wat

Wat or wet, known as tsebhi in Tigrinya (also ...

Wat (Image via Wikipedia)

The basis of all wats, the spicy stews, is berbere. You must first make your berbere paste, but then you can add the meats you prefer to the berbere base. I simplified the berbere a bit since some of the spices are expensive (and not typically used in my kitchen) and because I was trying to ease the family’s taste buds into submission.

To make a simple, less spicy, berbere, in a heavy saucepan heat on low:

  • 1/4 cup of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 2 large red onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced

Cook gently until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 tablespoon of crushed red pepper (traditional wats call for a LOT more red pepper)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of paprika (this is to maintain the rich red color the berbere looses as you omit red pepper)
  • 3/4 teaspoon of pepper
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • 3/8 teaspoon of cardamom

Simmer for 1-2 minutes. This is your berbere base!

To the berbere, add:

  • 2 pounds of your preferred meat, chopped in approximately ½-inch squares (for Sik Sik Wat, add beef tenderloin, boneless sirloin, or stewing beef; for Beg Wat, add boneless lamb shoulder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Simmer about 30 minutes until the meat is tender and the flavors are well absorbed.

The Meal

Typical Ethiopian platter (Image via Wikipedia)

Typically, Ethiopian food is served communally: injera is placed on a large platter and the food is placed on the injera. Everyone sits around the platter to share the meal. Diners tear off a piece of injera and scoop up food.

Sadly, neither our platters nor our kitchen table are really designed for this type of communal dining, so we did the next best thing: we actually sat at the table as a family and ate, something we rarely get around to these days.

The verdict was that it was still too spicy for most, even though I SERIOUSLY cut back on the pepper. Other than that, everyone really enjoyed it. The alecha was a big hit and everyone actually tried everything (I’m the only one who really likes lamb, so even that was a stretch). They all said they would gladly eat the meal again, with a little less kick of course!

So, yay me! I didn’t ruin any of it. That’s one international cuisine under my belt… which one will be next?

Note: I had to use free license pictures in this post for two main reasons. Firstly, because my camera is currently not working. And secondly, because I spent the better portion of the day on my feet on a hard tile floor slaving over this lovely meal and by the time it was ready I was too tired and hungry to remember to ask my dad to take pictures. Next time I’ll be sure to get some.

What’s Cooking: ummm, typos

Buttermilk Chess Pie.

Image via Wikipedia

So, I decided to make Chess Pie again tonight. (Can you guess that I love it?) I gave the borrowed cookbook that had the recipe in it back to my grandmother, so I hopped on here to grab the recipe from my previous post. I printed the page and bebopped into the kitchen to get to work. And that’s when I realized that something was wrong.

The first red flag was that my recipe called for cornmeal. Cornmeal! In a pie! Sheesh. Apparently I really wasn’t paying attention when I copied that recipe onto the blog, since it should have read cornSTARCH instead of cornMEAL. What a disaster some poor reader would have created had they listened to me.

The second red flag came about by chance really. I glanced at the baking time before I popped it in the oven. What I “saw” was 20-25 minutes. The timer went off at 25 minutes and I went to check the pie. It was hardly cooked at all! So I peeked at my recipe and saw that I had actually typed “20-55 minutes.” Pretty flexible, huh? It was supposed to read 40-55 minutes.

Man, oh man, I need to be MUCH more careful when I type up recipes in the future! Or just be in less of a hurry to eat them so that I have time to proofread.

When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus

I really loved the PBS documentary When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus, which aired last night. There wasn’t much presented that I didn’t already know from Anthropology and Religious Studies classes, but it was a very nice presentation.

I particularly appreciated the fact that they showed the vast influences New World foods had on the Old World: maize, potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys, chocolate, sugar, etc etc.

You can watch the entire show on the PBS website.

What’s Cooking: Risotto

Sometimes food experimenting just creeps up on you. Last night was one of those strange nights when I think I’m way to lazy to cook and then end up happily slaving away in the kitchen for an hour. I don’t really know what possessed me to make a notoriously finicky dish at 8:30pm, but I found myself chopping onions and sautéing rice for my favorite Italian rice dish: risotto.

How it got there

Silk Routes

Most people think of Asia when they think of rice. It’s not an incorrect assumption: scientists do believe that rice originated in Asia and Asians do produce and consume the majority of rice. But Asia is just a single chapter in rice’s story. Along with spices, silk, and porcelain (and many other goods), rice was traded between Asia and the West. The introduction of rice into Europe could have taken different routes:

  1. from Persia to Egypt between the fourth and the first centuries B.C., facilitated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, as his empire united India, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean.
  2. from Greece or Egypt to Spain and Sicily in the eighth century A.D., in connection with the Islamic Moors‘ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).
  3. from Persia to Spain in the eighth century and later to Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries as the result of growing trade networks between Europe and Asia.

However it got there, rice became an important crop in northern Italy’s Po Valley. So important, in fact, that Italy is Europe’s leading rice producer. Rice thrives so well in the Po Valley that first courses of risotto are more common than pasta and are a great way to serve whatever is in season.

Rice is rice, right?

There are hundreds of rice varieties, each with a slightly different purpose. Oryza sativa var. indica (long-grain rices) contain less amylopectin, a water soluble component of starch, making them less sticky than Oryza sativa var. japonica (short-grain rices), which are high in amylopectin. Short-grain rices have less amylose, a component of starch which is non-soluble in water. This all really just means that long-grain rices absorb less water, retaining much of their form and texture, while short-grain rices fluff up and get sticky- the starch that they release forms a creamy coating that lumps the rice together. Long-grain rices are usually boiled or steamed.

Arborio Rice

Italian rices are of the short-grained varieties. The preferred varieties in Italy, especially for risotto, are described as superfino or “the king of rices”. These include Carnaroli and Vialone Nano,  considered to be the best (and most expensive) varieties, and Arborio, the most accessible and most commonly found outside Italy.

Down to the Risotto

Risotto is tricky to perfect. So much of getting it right depends on timing and really understanding how the rice cooks. This makes it somewhat intimidating for new cooks but once it’s in your repertoire, it’s a fantastic way to enjoy cleaning out the fridge- you can add almost anything to a risotto and come out with a spectacular dish.

Risotto Mantecato

For this experiment, I choose to make a very basic Risotto Mantecato (risotto with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano). This preparation will feed 2-3.

  • In a stock pot, bring 3 cups of stock (vegetable or chicken) to a gentle boil
  • In another pot, warm ½ cup of white wine
  • In a large saucepan, gently sauté 1 finely chopped small-medium onion and one crushed garlic clove in 3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil for about 5 minutes
  • Stir in about a cup of superfino rice (I used Arborio) and cook until almost all of the oil is absorbed
  • Add the heated white wine* and cook until almost all of the wine is absorbed
  • Add a quarter of the boiling stock to the rice and simmer, stirring very frequently until almost all of the stock is absorb
  • Stir in the remaining stock gradually, a cup at a time, allowing stock to be absorbed almost completely each time (This should take about 15-18 minutes)
  • When the rice is rich and creamy but still al dente, remove it from the heat and mix in a few tablespoons of cold butter (to taste) and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (to taste)
  • Serve immediately, as the rice will continue to cook in it’s own heat and will become dry

This risotto turned out pretty good. I didn’t have fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano so I resorted to (gasp) the kind in the plastic shaker. I could tell a difference but not enough for it to make the risotto unenjoyable. I can’t wait to make it again, next time with some fresh seafood!

*Cold wine or stock will shock the rice and it won’t cook properly

An Edible History of Humanity

Cover of "An Edible History of Humanity"

Cover of An Edible History of Humanity

As macro studies of agriculture throughout history go, An Edible History of Humanity is engaging and accessible. The author, Tom Standage, does a very good job of showing the numerous connections between agricultural advance, economic shifts, cultural exchange, and populations. The history of various crops- spices, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes- is very informative and, I think, very important.

The problem that I had was that it was ONLY a macro study of food throughout history. Standage chooses to glance over the actual lives of the people within the system he is looking at, which puts him at a great disadvantage when talking about what these systems really mean to humanity and our way forward. In the latter part of the book, he spends a lot of time talking about how the agricultural advances of the “green revolution” freed up the labor force to move into industry, ushering in the Industrial Revolution.

What he ignores, however, is that many, if not most, of those who moved to cities and began factory work did not go willingly and gleefully. They were forced from their land because of falling crop prices, torn from their communities and families, and forced into the factories as their only option of making money. While this did serve to drive industrial economies forward, we cannot ignore the problems that it created as well. Problems such as: increased occupancy in low rent areas leading to desperately unsanitary conditions and a rise in pestilence; increased urban crime; loss of cultural and familial traditions; rise of unsafe and abusive working conditions; not to mention the environmental damages caused by industrialization.

Standage discusses the recent resurgence of Asia in the global economy, attributing it to their more recent “green revolutions,” but he ignores the human impact that this shift has caused, namely the massive waves of “country peasant girls” who are being forced to move to the cities to work in the sex trade or extremely low paying industrial jobs. One of my favorite food documentary shows was Blood, Sweat & Takeaways from the BBC. It looked at the real cost of cheap food, food only made possible by the drive towards industrialization that Standage so admires. Six young British food consumers spent time working alongside Asian farmers, planting and harvesting crops, as well as workers in the industrial food sector, processing tuna and chicken. They had to live off a typical salary and share the homes of the workers. The clip below is from the time they spent in Bangkok, working in the chicken processing plant.

The most glaring problem, for me, is that Standage makes very little effort to conceal his personal point-of-view on the local/organic vs industrial agricultural debate. He seems to be genuinely mistrusting of people who believe that the world CAN survive on a more locally centered food supply. Standage’s arguments about the necessary success of the current industrial model seem very similar to classical social evolution, a social theory that Anthropologists have discarded as reductionist and Western-centric.

Still, I gave it 3 stars, which probably seems strange since I had such problems with the last few chapters. I think it was because the title, to me, suggested more of a look at the people involved when Standage is really talking about the economies involved. I would recommend the first 1/2 of this book as a great overview of the “how” and the “when” of agriculture, but if you are looking for something about the people in the system, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Note: I highly, highly recommend watching all of Blood, Sweat & Takeaways as well as it’s companion show, Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts.

What’s Cooking: Pavlova and Chess Pie

For my first installment of “What’s Cooking” I’m tackling two of my favorite desserts. This is what happens when you are bored on a Monday night and realize you have a fridge full of eggs. First up is Pavlova, a meringue cake from New Zealand and then on to Chess Pie, a Southern favorite.

Pavlova

If you ask a New Zealander (called Kiwis) where Pavlova originated, they will adamantly insist that it’s from New Zealand. If you ask an Australian where Pavlova originated, they will, naturally, insist that it’s from Australia. The one thing they will agree on is that it’s wonderful.

Anna Pavlova, c. 1905

Pavlova is a meringue-based desert that takes its name from Russian ballerina Ánna Pávlova, who is widely regarded as one of the finest classical ballet dancers in history. She toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s, and the dessert is thought to have been made in honor of her visit. Historians now believe that it was first created by a New Zealand chef at a hotel in Wellington, NZ, during Ánna’s stay in the capital. This seems to be supported by the recipe’s appearance in the rural magazine NZ Dairy Exporter Annual in 1929 (a similar recipe, unnamed, was found in Home Cookery for New Zealand in 1926). It is not found in Australia until 1935.

I first had pavlova on a holiday in Rotorua, when I was living in New Zealand in 2005. I attended a cultural night at the Tamiki Village, which is a recreated Maori village where one actually stood. Maori performers demonstrate what life in the village was like, from food preparation to war training. Maori performers put on a beautiful show highlighting traditional songs and dances, including the fierce and wonderful haka.

old picture of a hangi (from Archives New Zealand, Maori Affairs Collection)

After the show, visitors are treated to a fantastic meal, a traditionally prepared hāngi. Hāngi refers to both the method of cooking, which involves a pit oven and hot stones, and to the foods that are prepared. (For a quick guide to preparing hāngi click here.)

The meal was really amazing, but the highlight, for me, was the pavlova. It was this amazingly light and fluffy thing with a hint of crispness- cornstarch and vinegar make the outside of the meringue crispy while the inside remains fluffy and moist like marshmallow cream. It was piled high with fresh whipped cream and covered in kiwis, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and a few mint leaves. It was delightful.

a beautiful pavlova (my pictures were terrible)

I’ve been dreaming of pavlova ever since I left New Zealand but I didn’t have the guts to make it. My fear was that it would be terrible and my lovely memory would be ruined. But, nothing chanced, nothing gained. So I went for it.

My pavlova recipe came from this great cookbook that I got for Christmas last year, Extending the Table: Recipes and Stories from Argentina to Zambia in the spirit of More-with-Less published by the Mennonite Central Committee, but there are tons of easy to find recipes on the internet.

  • Preheat oven to 350°F
  • Beat to soft peaks: 6 egg whites, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Continue beating and slowly add 1 cup of sugar
  • When stiff, beat in: 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 1 teaspoon vinegar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Cut out a 9-inch circle from a brown paper bag. Moisten the bottom of the paper circle with water and lay on a cookie sheet. Pile egg-white mixture on top of the circle, forming a depression in the center. Place in the oven, reduce the temperature to 250°F and bake for 1 hour or until lightly browned. Cool.
  • Slip knife between paper and moist meringue cake bottom. Transfer the cake from the paper to a plate. Serve topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

The results of my pavlova experiment were so-so. I think I undercooked it a bit. Ideally, it will retain the shape it had while you were piling the meringue on the paper, all swirly and magical. Mine was, well, pretty flat. From further internet reading, after the hour of baking the pavlova should be left in the oven while it cools. This makes it virtually impossible to undercook.

the only good picture I got of the pavlova

I also think I need to figure out the volume of egg white in a typical large store-bought egg. Naturally, I made my pavlova with my fresh farm eggs, straight from my chickens’ butts (as a friend would say). The problem with baking with these eggs is that they are all different sizes and shapes. I’m pretty sure I was actually a little low on the egg whites called for in this recipe.

But even with those problems, it was tasty. Not as good as the ones I had in New Zealand, or even Australia, but spectacular for my very first attempt.

Chess Pie

To really understand where Chess Pie comes from you have to delve into how it got its name. That, like all good Southern things, seems to depend on who you talk to and how you view the numerable theories. Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks (also known as Beth Tartan), author of North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, says it is “an old, old tart which may have obtained its name from the town of Chester, England.” Another story that harkens back to the recipe’s English heritage claims that “chess” is an Americanization of the word “cheese,” since the recipe has a close resemblance to the popular English “cheeseless cheesecakes” such as Lemon Curd Pie.

antique pie chest

The particularly Southern theories get even more interesting. One states that “chess” is a corruption of the word “chest,” relating to the term “pie chest,” which was a cabinet where pies were stored, safe from flies. In a similar vein, one theory claims that the name comes from a cook who was asked what she put in the pie, to which she replied “Anything in our chest.” My favorite, though, is the story about the woman who was asked what she was baking. She answered “Oh, jes’ pie.” The ingredients support this etymology, as chess pie is identical to the custard “base” for other custard pies that have an additional dominant flavor, such as pecan pie and chocolate custard pie. “Jes’ Pie” to Chess Pie… it’s a small leap.

I love Chess Pie. It’s so deliciously naughty (healthwise) and about as simple as can be to make. My great-grandmother used to make it a lot when I was a child and my paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother’s daughter-in-law) makes it still today. It’s just one of those Southern family traditions that should never, ever, under any circumstances, die out. Imagine a custardy, pecanless pecan pie. That’s about the only way I can think to describe it. Other than perfect, of course.

The recipe I’m listing here is from Country Classics, Vol II published by Tennessee Farm Bureau Women but, again, there are many available on the internet (this one just happens to be the exact same as the one my great-grandmother used).

  • Combine: 1½ cups sugar, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch, ½ cup melted butter, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Stir in 3 eggs
  • Mix thoroughly
  • Pour into 1 unbaked pie shell
  • Bake at 350°F for 40-55 minutes

my chess pie!

The best thing about this pie, other than the taste, is that there are a million little variations you can do to make a totally different taste. Lemon chess pies are popular, as are meringue topped chess pies (I think that will be my next attempt).

I’m feeling pretty good about my first kitchen experiments. I mean, who doesn’t like to have a house full of baked goods? I’m thinking that the next thing I tackle, which I’m pretty nervous about, is my favorite Ethiopian dish, Doro Wat. I can’t wait!

Whipping Up a New Project

For a lot of people, probably the vast majority world-wide, food holds a special place in our memories. It can be a time machine that, after one smell or taste, transports us back to the people and places and special times of our lives.

Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories are from hog slaughtering time when I, as a 4 or 5-year-old, got to work the hand-crank meat grinder and help make real sausage in real pig intestines. I loved every second of it.

Baking pies or the smell of fresh biscuits always makes me think of my great-grandmother, who was an amazing baker. As a child, I spent so many days with her, collecting eggs from the chickens, picking veggies from the garden, and always being covered in flour from whatever we were baking that afternoon.

Potato soup instantly makes me think back fondly on days I came home from school sick. If I was lucky, my maternal grandmother picked me up and took me to her house, where I spent all day eating homemade potato soup and watching cable. (Cable was an unknown luxury in the boonies where we lived, but my grandparents lived in town.)

Pot roast makes me think of my paternal grandmother, who is one of the best “self-taught” home cooks I’ve ever known. Her pot roast is so fantastically melt-in-your-mouth that it’s been known to make vegetarians weak in the knees. (I used to be a vegetarian, so I know first hand.)

Pork BBQ brings up memories of 2 men: my father and his father. For as long I can remember, my father and grandfather have been making bbq on our GIGANTIC smoker, complete with homemade, secret recipe bbq sauce to go with it.

What you’ll probably notice is that none of these foods items were bought at a store or restaurant, none of them came from the frozen food section. And they are all real foods, lovingly made by the hands of people who I love. It’s corny, but love really is the most important ingredient in food. People who love what they make and love feeding people will always be my favorite cooks.

I want to be one of those cooks. I like cooking and I’m pretty decent at it. But I’m not very creative or adventurous. So I’m setting myself a goal: learn how to cook new things more often. I’ll be starting out simply and with lots of assistance from cookbooks, but the goal is to eventually be much more fearless in the kitchen. I’ll also be delving into the history of the dishes that I’m cooking and their significance in my life.

So, watch for my kitchen experiments in the future which will be labeled “What’s Cooking.”

Feminism and Simple Living

I recently came across the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes. Hayes’ website describes the book as

a book that looks at men and women across the United States who have opted to focus their lives on home and hearth as a political and ecological act; who have chosen to center their lives around family and community not only for personal fulfillment, but as a way to bring about cultural change. It explores what domesticity can look like in an era that has benefited from feminism; where domination and oppression are cast aside, where the choice to stay home is no longer equated with mind-numbing drudgery, economic insecurity, or relentless servitude.

Hayes asserts that radical homemakers

  • redefine wealth in terms of family, community, good food, pleasure, and health
  • reclaim skills lost in the increasing dependence on corporations for our livelihood, including nurturing relationships, setting realistic goals, redefining pleasure, and cultivating courage
  • rebuild society by engaging in civic, artistic, and entrepreneurial activities often in their communities4

Yes, please! I can’t wait to read it. But this post isn’t really about that book. It’s really about what a book like that means in today’s society.

I mentioned the book to some of the wonderful ladies (and gents) over at SufficientSelf.com, a forum that I am extremely pleased to be a part of. Naturally, they put on their thinking caps and went to town researching about the book and the concept. One of these ladies, who I would definitely categorize as a radical homemaker (check out her wonderful blog here), found the article “I’m a Radical Homemaker Failure” by Madeline Holler.

Missing the Point

Holler quit her job to stay home with her daughter.  The family took a significant income cut so that her husband could “fall back on his Ph.D. and start a career in academics, rather than continue earning piles of gold shoveling rocks for Satan.1” In her article, Holler talks about how “spending less instead of earning more nudged [her and her family] toward the Radical Homemakers movement.1” She writes

I hated being left behind. By then, our friends had settled into careers, started families, entered escrow. While they drove new hybrids all over town hunting down backsplashes for new Viking stoves, I was loading up on two-for-one gallons of milk or racing to the zoo before 9 a.m., where I had heard the parking lot attendant would wave me in for free.

In the drop-off line at preschool, tiny mothers climbed like mountain goats into SUVs the size of K2. Our lifestyle came off as quaint or quirky, and these moms sweetly waved down to me in our ’97 Nissan Altima, the difference in altitude fitting.1

I just couldn’t help but feel like this woman was completely missing the point. She and her husband obviously saw that making money wasn’t everything and that it certainly didn’t bring inherent happiness, yet she constantly yearned for the materialistic symbols that society has come to acquaint with success and therefore, however incorrectly, satisfaction. Dreaming of Viking stoves and SUVs? Would she really have found happiness in those things? Um, no. She would have found herself back at a job she obviously didn’t care about and her husband would have been forced to go back to “shoveling rocks for Satan.”

So, radical she is not.

Children: The Best Ally of Masculine Domination

Elisabeth Badinter

Holler references French feminist Elisabeth Badinter and her not-yet-translated book, Le Conflit: la femme et la mère (Conflict: The Woman and the Mother). Badinter has her sights set on what one reporter referred to as “the breastfeeding, pumpkin-peeling, earth motherhood ideologists who [Badinter] believes are a threat to women’s liberation.2” If Badinter is to be believed, children (and a naive desire to be a hands-on parent) have replaced men as the oppressor of women. “Eco-babble” has forced women back into the kitchen and laundry room to be slaves to the whims (not needs) of their children, while the menfolk are left to watch football and revel in their role as breadwinner and head of the family.

The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.3

Badinter argues that all this “back-to-nature” mumbo-jumbo is because women have been burdened with an intolerable guilt if they don’t fit the image of “the perfect mother.” This model of the perfect mother, which Badinter believes is purely contrived, includes breastfeeding, slaving away to make fresh food for baby, constantly washing cloth diapers, never being apart from the child, and giving up all “pleasures” including, but not limited to: a social life, the ability to drink wine and smoke, sex, and all other forms of personal expression and satisfaction.

In a previous book, she even claimed that the maternal instinct doesn’t even exist. She waxes poetic about Frenchwomen (the whole of whom she apparently speaks for) being mediocre mothers who happily birthed children and then farmed them out to nurses so they could continue their own personal lives. “The English tradition of sending children to boarding school from a young age,” she notes, “is like the 18th-century French tradition of sending them to nurses — a way of getting rid of them.2” She equates this with France’s higher birth rate among European countries: 2 children per French woman as compared to 1.3 children per German woman. The difference, according to Badinter, is that almost 100% of German mothers breastfeed, compared to just over half of their French counterparts.2 It’s interesting to note that a higher birth rate is a plus for Badinter.

A Soapbox Moment

So, what exactly am I on about here? Why am I even talking about feminism and child rearing and stove-envy? Well, because I think these women are dangerous examples of exactly what I don’t want to be.

Let’s take Madeline Holler first. She writes that

Not spending money is an incredible amount of work. I had considered — sometimes seriously — canning produce as a way to keep costs down… Just thinking about putting up a winter’s worth of green beans and apricot jam, though, made me want to take a nap.1

Yes, living the simple life takes work: if you want to eat, you’ve got to get out there and plant some seeds, keeping them alive, and harvest. And, if you plan on eating year round, you’ve got to “put some by,” which usually means canning or freezing. The last time I checked however, working at a “regular” job was work too… You’ve got to get up at a certain time and show up and do what’s asked of you and dress appropriately.

And you still have to feed your family and develop interpersonal relationships in your “off time.” Dinner doesn’t just arrive fully formed without any input from you whatsoever- even if all you do is make a phone call and throw the boxes away afterward. Those who work “full-time” are usually so exhausted from “working all day” to actually have quality leisure time. They spend it catching up on sleep, watching television, or doing work they brought home with them. Yeah, super easy and relaxing.

But when you raise and grow your own, every single moment of your day can be family time or personal time or relaxing time. Take a book when you feed the chickens and have a little mid-morning break. Gather with friends and family to process some turkeys and then have a party with great food. Get up early to beat the heat, then spend the hottest part of the day swimming in the watering hole. These “chores,” when done thoughtfully, become excuses to spend time with loved ones and to have a good time. They don’t have to be solitary drudgery.

It seems to me that it is exactly the type of feminism that Badinter subscribes to that has created these women who feel that their only worth can come from working outside the home and acquiring material objects. This feminist culture seeks to view women only as the accumulation of their business accomplishments, rather than embracing the whole image of a woman and her personal journey. A famous female chef is a feminist icon but a woman that cooks for her family is a slave?

As for Elisabeth Badinter… well, her notion of “feminism” is so completely distorted. She falls into that special category of women who think that they own the rights to the term and concept and that you must meet their criteria in order to have anything to say. Exactly what part of “freedom from oppression” did they not understand?

What Badinter fails to grasp is that there is a massive difference between choosing a life of domesticity and having that be the only option society has allowed you. It has always been the choosing that is the most important part. The suffragist movement was about giving women the right to choose to vote, not about forcing women to vote. The sexual revolution was about giving women the right to express their own sexual identities, not about forcing sexual liberation on them. Equality in the workplace was about removing the limitations on women, so that they could fulfill their own potential, not about forcing women into jobs.

And that is exactly what we are seeing in regards to women- smart, educated, free-thinking, and, yes, feminist women- returning to the home to make their lives. These women are choosing to take the power away from the forces that have come to control us, namely corporations. They are embracing the feminist ideology that the most powerful thing you can do, as a person (not just a woman) is to reclaim the power to control your own life.

In her article “Food, Farming … Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense,” Elaine Lipson writes

No matter how we rebalance gender roles, women’s lives and health — and those of their families — are intricately connected to how food is produced. But putting food and feminism in the same sentence can make one wary. Wasn’t that part of the whole liberation plan — to make women less responsible for food? And what’s gender got to do with food choices and food production methods?

To [answer] the second question, I’d say, “Plenty.” Every feminist, woman or man, who embraces equality and diversity and opposes violence and domination, should recognize that the foods we eat, and how they’re grown, matter to our environment and to our lives.5

Here’s the thing: women have always been a part of agriculture. But their roles have been ignored and downplayed. Food is one of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of life and it has traditionally been controlled by men (and now corporations, which are also often controlled by men). All those women who have embraced the “eco-babble” have also pitted themselves against the domination of a basic right- namely, clean, healthy food. They are marching against the overwhelming drum beat of the food monopolies.

And yet, they aren’t content to simply secure their own bit of earth. By refusing to buy into the modern mentality that we must look outside our homes for the fulfillment of basic needs, these women are breaking the iron grip of industry. Those cloth diapers aren’t just saving trees, they are keeping thousands of dollars out of the hands of rich capitalists with their own personal agendas to keep people dependent on “the system”- money that can be spent closer to home. Supporting local, organic foods isn’t just about getting your family fed, it’s about insisting on ethical, safe environments for workers (who have been notoriously crushed in the wheels of the Big Ag machine). Buying a pig to raise in the backyard means supporting a local farming family- a family who might now be able to send their children to college.

I would argue that Badinter’s views on child rearing and family is more of an “ally of masculine dominance” than any woman who chooses to make her life at home. The question that lingers in my mind is “What is the point?” If a person is determined to be unfettered by the burden of raising a child, why have children at all? Could it have been that having a child was what you did because you were “supposed to”? That sounds very much like something other than a woman’s freedom of choice to me. While Badinter looks down her nose at those breastfeeding German mothers who are driving down the birth rate with their new-age touchy-feeliness, it is exactly those German women who seem to have the better grasp on the situation: while almost 100% of German mothers breastfeed, a quarter of German women are choosing not to have children at all, more than twice the number in France.2

The very same “farming out” of children that Badinter has romanticized was not a tool to set women free, it was a way to distance mothers from their children- children that could have taken their focus away from their primary role as attendant to their husband and attentive hostess to guests. Lactating women weren’t supposed to have sex, a situation their husbands must have disliked. Breastfeeding also suppresses ovulation.

Records show that wealthy women customarily gave birth annually while working-class women gave birth at considerably longer intervals, about every three years… In preindustrial England, it was not uncommon for wealthy women to have as many as eighteen children during the first twenty years of their marriages. The near-constant pregnancy experienced by these women was quite debilitating, certainly more incapacitating than breast-feeding would have been. Poor women had far fewer children and were apparently the healthier for it.6

We’re looking at a period where producing heirs was extremely important in carrying on lineages, so a breastfeeding wife, unable to conceive another child for a duration of possibly years, was not a benefit to her husband.

And it, as well as Madeline Holler’s preoccupation with shopping, refuse to take into account the lives of women outside their own financial bracket. Badinter resides in an “imperiously large flat overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens in central Paris,” owns a 10% stake in Publicis, the world’s fourth-biggest advertising agency, and is the wife of a celebrated Justice Minister.2 So, she was born into the financial stability to pursue her womanly freedom, away from the needs of her children. And Madeline Holler’s nightmare is when “[finding] a new shirt to meet up with an editor turned into a soul-crushing ordeal, since [she] shopped nowhere but Target and Old Navy.1” What of the women for whom Target and Old Navy are a luxury? And if children are forcing women back into the stone-ages of feminine emancipation, are the women who are being forced to raise farmed-out babies just collateral damage? This brand of feminism smacks heavily of elitism to me.

A Conclusion: but surely not the only one

So, what is the real answer? This post could go on forever, so perhaps a list is the easiest way.

  1. Simple living is not equal to male dominance. To assume so is to ignore that women have the right to choose their lifestyle and that men and women CAN be partners in a home.
  2. Homemade baby food doesn’t need to be an extra step in one’s life: many mother’s prepare their child’s meals as a part of their own. How hard is it to mash some peas that you’ve already made for yourself?
  3. Birthing at home or without the use of drugs is a decision that women make for various reasons. One of those reasons is because they trust themselves and their bodies to do something that the medical community (remember that it was dominated by MEN) has tried to tell them they aren’t strong enough to bear. They are.
  4. The decision to center one’s live around the home is not necessarily a return to male domination, but rather a reclamation of all the things that really make life good: freedom from (employment) oppression; access to clean, healthy, ETHICAL food; the right to parent as one sees fit; the chance to work together with one’s partner to accomplish good works.
  5. Men can wash cloth diapers as easily as women.

In short, you won’t find me slaving away at a day job to make money (most of it for someone else) while waiting for some corporation to deliver my food to the grocery store and hoping that the baby formula isn’t contaminated with lead.

You’ll find me drowning in tomatoes instead of drowning in work deadlines.

You’ll find me getting up to the sound of a hungry goose instead of the sound of the alarm clock and work bell.

You’ll find me sweating over the oven, making the best bread, instead of sweating over the credit card payments.

And one day, hopefully not so far away, you’ll find a beautiful, happy child, sucking some good old-fashioned mother’s milk from me instead of the modern world sucking the life out of me.

I won’t be a pawn in anyone’s game, especially some self-righteous woman-bashing “feminist.” So, if Badinter and her cronies don’t think I’m a feminist, then maybe I’m ok with that. Maybe me and all those Radical Homemakers are something more. I, for one, like making Mrs. Badinter squirm.

1: “I’m a Radical Homemaker Failure” by Madeline Holler for Salon.com
2: “Is motherhood a form of oppression? Thanks to breastfeeding, organic purees and eco nappies, the baby has become a tyrant, says a bestselling book in France” by Adam Sage for The Times Online
3: “In Defense of the Imperfect Mother” by Steven Erlanger and Maïa de la Baume for The New York Times
4: “Radical Homemaking: A revolution in progress? Are radical homemakers fronting a revolution against corporate America?” by Kimerer LaMothe for PsychologyToday.com
5: “Food, Farming … Feminism? Why Going Organic Makes Good Sense” by Elaine Lipson for Ms. Magazine
6. Wet-nursing on FAQS.com