Monday, July 27, 2009

Locavoracity: Morning at Night

Seeing as I didn't pick up any meat at the market today, and seeing as it's been a long time since I've gone shopping for food in general, I was stuck thinking the whole trip back on what I'd actually be eating tonight.

Since the only protein I picked up was the half-carton of eggs I decided to have breakfast for dinner. While most of this meal was made from the market I did allow myself to use whatever I already had in my pantry/cupboard/refrigerator.

Local ingredients:

  • 1 tomato

  • 1 potato

  • half an onion

  • 1 egg

Non-local ingredients:

  • salt

  • ground pepper

  • vegetable oil

  • dried basil

  • 2 pepperoncinis

I really could have gone for some fresh basil at the market but a) I'm going to be almost exclusively eating out this weekend due to a friend's bachelor party celebration and I figured much of it would go to waste and b) I didn't see it until I was already paying. I got the pepperoncinis last week when I was craving some shitty pizza and ordered Papa John's.

My meal ended up looking like this (I'm not much for presentation):
First I boiled a potato a bit to soften it up and then cut it into chunks and fried them with half an onion, salt and pepper, and some dried basil to finish. Then I diced about 3/4 of a tomato, a couple slices of onion and the pepperoncinis, and pulsed them in a food processor to make a salsa, slicing the last quarter of the tomato to eat fresh. The egg I simply fried over-easy.

The tomatoes were incredibly juicy and sweet in both slices and salsa and, though I didn't expect much from them compared to their Idaho-born brethren I usually eat, even the potatoes just tasted more... like potatoes. The flavors in the vegetables were much richer than their grocery store look-alikes. The egg – which I didn't even season – might have been the best fried egg I've ever eaten. In the pan the white didn't run as much as an egg normally does when I crack it, and firmed up quickly and evenly. Even when eaten in a bite with the salsa and the potatoes the "egg flavor" still managed to shine. I seriously don't think I want to buy grocery eggs ever again.

I knew to expect a difference in quality but the upgrade in quality was (and is) quite shocking to me since this was really quite a simple meal.

Can't wait to see what I come up with tomorrow.

Locavoracity: Beginnings

At the beginning of what is a seemingly an ongoing ode to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma I previous blogged about how the book was making me re-evaluate how I looked at food and where it came from. I began to contemplate eating more local food, outside of the industrial food chain. Today I decided to put my money and mouth where my blog was and after work I stopped at the Union Square Green Market to pick up some dinner. Working about a block away from Union Square Park this was hardly my first foray to the market, but previous trips usually revolved around a muffin for breakfast or a fococcia for lunch. This time I was out shopping for kitchen staples.

Browsing through several of the many produce stands, I was quite taken by how large and, well, natural everything looked. I got some promising looking onions and some tasty, deep red tomatoes. Some white potatoes soon followed and as I was walking by another stall I was snagged by some carrots perfectly sized for snacking or roasting. I was a scared off from the mushrooms (shiitake, umbrella, button, etc...) by the price, but thinking about it now one pound is a LOT of mushrooms and I probably could have gotten several without breaking the bank.

Next to this stall I spotted some free-range chicken eggs, and though I passed on the grass-fed ground beef I'll probably be back for some of that on Wednesday.

Sadly, I didn't find any whole chickens as my original plan was to roast a chicken with vegetables and eat for the week.

Total cost of this trip was around $15 netting me these goods:

I'll continue to blog as I add to my local-fueled cupboard and as I turn these foodstuffs into meals.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Following Up on the Dilemma (Spoiler Alert)

As previously blogged I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma recently, finishing the book on the subway last night. It will take me a while to unpack everything present therein, but right now I'll just say the book finished just as good as it began.

For those that are unfamiliar with the work, the basic narrative arc of the book revolves around Michael Pollan, the book's author, cooking four meals from four different food chains: industrial, industrial organic, pastoral organic and hunter/gatherer. This is not just about the cooking, however, as Pollan investigates the full length of each chain of food from its beginnings all the way to the table - in the case of industrial, from the factory farms and Iowa corn fields to a McDonalds value meal.

I've been feeling a pull toward the locavoricious for a while now, and let's just say this book has been a large Jungle-esque push in that direction. Since the Union Square green market is about five minutes from my office I really have no excuse and actually plan to hit that up in the next couple of days (if not today.) It'll also be neat to start eating a bit more seasonally.

Pollan doesn't restrict his musings to the sustainability of eating, however, and at several times through the course of his work he reflects on the state of food in human society in general. Particularly striking to me were the passages in the fourth section about the degradation of the American eating experience because of a lack of a real food tradition. Pollan posits that since America has been an amalgam of various different cultures since its inception it has never had a chance to really create a food culture that it strictly "American", and this has left us open to businesses (fast/processed food companies) and fad diet books (for the love of god, people, carbs are good for you!) to create them for us. This is to our detriment, Pollan writes, because these food mores that other cultures have grown over the course of centuries are part of what keeps them healthy.

Lime, for instance, when sprinkled over beans helps to release more of the beans' natural nutrients which is why so much Mexican food begins with that simple garnish. Additionally, fermented soy (soy sauce) reacts with simple carbohydrates (rice) to maximize the nutritional benefits from both ingredients. Perhaps most striking is the French ability to drink red wine, infuse their food with butter and heavy cream, and still be healthier than Americans - a fact much attributed to the French habits of not snacking and letting meals stretch out for 1-2 hours. Pollan writes:

In the absence of any lasting consensus about what and how and where and when to eat, the omnivore's dilemma has returned to America with an almost atavistic force. This situation suits the food industry just fine, of course. The more anxious we are about eating, the more vulnerable we are to the seductions of the marketer and the expert's advice.

Leading from this he illustrates the (in my mind tragic) degradation of the family dinner:

A vice president of marketing at General Mills once painted for me a picture of the state of the American family dinner, courtesy of video cameras that the company's consulting anthropologists paid families to let them install in the ceiling above the kitchen and dining room tables. Mom, perhaps feeling sentimental about the dinners of her childhood, still prepares a dish and a salad that she usually winds up eating by herself. Meanwhile, the kids, and Dad, too, if he's around, each fix something different for themselves, because Dad's on a low-carb diet, the teenager's become a vegetarian, and the eight-ear-old is on a strict ration of pizza that the shrink says it's best to indulge (lest she develop eating disorders later in life).

As someone who ate dinner with his whole family practically every night, I find this shocking. Even as a 16 year-old with a job that often required me to eat out on my break, I usually was home at least four days a week for a meal in which we all shared. The commonality of a meal is a topic Pollan discusses several times in the book, describing it (accurately in my opinion) as one of the greatest functions of a meal - filling not only the nutritional but also the social needs of the human animal.

Keep an eye out in subsequent posts, but I'm beginning to have an idea for monthly or bi-weekly rotating "family dinners" in which a select group (and only this group, for the sake of not having the group balloon into unmanageable numbers) of family/friends would take turns hosting meals. This wouldn't be a pot luck, per se, as at these you often get overlapping courses (too many proteins, not enough sides, etc) and due to the number of entrees generally often also eat more than recommended - being uncomfortably full is actually bad for your metabolism. This is still (clearly) a rough idea, but it would also give the hosts an opportunity to express themselves through food for a night and, hey, group dinners are always fun.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

D.C. (and Brooklyn) for the Record

July has so far been an incredibly record-filled month. To recount in reverse chronological order, this past weekend I went to D.C. to visit a couple friends and, as we always do when we hang out, we hit a bunch of record shops. Four stores were on the bill within five blocks of each other in a sort of power triangle in Dupont/Adam's Morgan: Som Records, Red Onion, Crooked Beat, and Smash Records.

All very good stores with very different moods. Som was underground in a very literal sense as you had to walk down some stairs to get in, and once there we were greeted by possibly the smallest space we'd visit all day. A listen station - which I always like to see at used records stores, but which aren't always present - was set up at the front, 45s were decoratively pinned up on the red-painted walls and not a CD was to be found in the whole place. As Evan and Adam rooted through, pulling out various albums I thought I was going to manage to get out of there without buying anything, though I was sorely tempted to pick up a copy of the first Marginal Man record. Asian fronted 80s D.C. hardcore was not alluring enough, however. As the two of them were cashing out I thumbed through one last crate... and came across two irresistible finds in The Queen is Dead and Blood on the Tracks. For $16 total I couldn't pass them up and so I left the Som a few dollars lighter, but a couple awesome records heavier.

After dropping our loot of at the car we walked over - after a brief stop for beer and a snack - to Red Onion. A better lit place, Red Onion also had shelves of used books lining the walls. Not on the search for literature, the three of us dove into the stacks with Evan finding, among other things, an incredibly clean-looking copy of the fantastic It Takes a Nation.... Trying to really limit myself, I ended up passing on a brand new copy of Give Up but was halted when I found a new copy of the remastered (ugh, I know) Rites of Spring (aka End on End).

I actually managed to get out of Crooked Beat without buying anything as the store seemed expensive to me though the selection was decent. It's a good store, but probably my least favorite of the four we visited.

Smash Records was actually a kind of strange place. It was very much going for a punk/metal vibe and seemed, at first, like a sort of independently owned Hot Topic - a vibe reinforced by the clothes for sale including bullet casing belts and Doc Martens. The selection and pricing were good though, and it was probably the most rock-oriented store we'd been to. It featured a dedicated metal section though classic stuff was still represented as well. I didn't think I would buy much/anything as this was the final store, and yet I couldn't leave without picking up One Beat, Power, Corruption & Lies and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Going back a couple of weeks to when the Flotation Walls were in town my friend Ryan and I hit up a record store in Brooklyn (and I selfishly won't be getting any more specific than that.) The store had no name, was down a flight of stairs in a basement, and was run by one of the nicest guys I'd ever met running a record store. The handwritten sign by the stairs indicated the store specialized in jazz, soul, funk and disco and my Johnny Mathis, The Miracles, Benny Goodman, Gladys Knight, and James Brown/Africa Bambaataa purchases backed that up. It's seriously a fantastic store, and has put my bank account balance in serious jeopardy just by existing.

It's been a fairly record-filled week and I'll probably have to let my wallet recover a bit before digging again.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Green is Your Travel?

Ever wondered just how much carbon you're saving by carpooling? Or if train travel is really that efficient compared to air? Well wonder no more, as the good folks over at Low Impact Living have written a detailed breakdown of an ingenius little Web site called Trip Footprint.

With this little tool you can calculate the carbon cost of long distance travel comparing trains, cars, hybrid cars, and planes (to various airports.) You can even adjust the calculation by how many people are traveling in your party.

This is a pretty neat toy, though I do have some problems with their calculations. Without looking directly at the site's math, it seems that (for rail travel) they aren't prorating correctly. It looks like a simple factor of multiplying a base carbon rate by the number of travelers and this neglects the weight of the train itself, which is constant no matter how many passengers are on board. Further, even if your traveling party is five - the highest number you can select on the site - the amount of carbon used in train travel will depend on how many other people are on the train (which is probably more than five). Air travel on this calculator seems to have the same pitfall.

In all, this is a neat idea that might give a visual representation of the efficiency of various modes of travel... or it might mean absolutely nothing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Deep Thoughts During the Commute?

I was just linked to a pretty hilariously apt xkcd comic:

xkcd comic

Now generally this is not true of me as my thoughts during my commute are usually something like "uuughhhhaeeeaagh". Lately, however, my pre- and post-work ruminations have taken a decidedly more intellectual turn as I've been reading Michael Pollan's excellent Omnivore's Dilemma.

Pollan brings up a lot of incredibly interesting issues as he delves into American agribusiness and eating habits. At about a third of the way through I'm already starting to rethink my buying patterns and have been introduced to some pretty startling realities about the American farming industry. I've known for a while the Monsanto has been exercising undue power in Congress to get legal support for its genetically modified crops, but never had an inkling how wasteful and destructive my meals could be. I've been trying to cut down on beef ever since I found out that factory farmed beef was the single most inefficient meat known to man, with each cow yearly eating enough food to feed a family of four. But now knowing that the way we farm our vast swaths of cornfields in the plains states (whose produce appears in pretty much every bit of processed food we eat, by the way) is actually rendering the soil infertile and poisoning our river water (while at the same time utilizing ridiculous amounts of petroleum per pound of food compared to more natural farming methods) has me investigating ingredient labels and eschewing things with artificial sweeteners.

I'm not even halfway through the book and I'm two steps away from joining a food co-op.

So, to make a long story short....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Flotation Walls in NYC (last week)

Several years ago at Ohio State I was fortunate to befriend one Ryan Stolte-Sawa. Aside from meeting a great person and making a great friend, this was incredibly beneficial as she is currently a multi-instrumentalist in the Columbus four-piece Flotation Walls. When the Walls rolled through New York (and through my apartment) on their east coast tour I was able to catch both their acoustic set at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg and their regular, electrified, set at the Lit Lounge in the East Village, and let me tell you I was quite impressed. I was already a fan of their record, Nature, but really had no idea how much larger and fuller their live show could possibly be.

The acoustic show possessed a sort of austere grandeur projecting a far larger presence than should have been possible in such a small space with no amplification. They brought an elegance and refinement in addition to the warmth and familiarity that usually comes with live acoustic music. "Sperm and Egg", "Worms" and "Kids Look at the Waves" as well as a couple of my favorites from the album in "Body", and "Willis the Fireman".

After the fantastic set at Pete's on Sunday the 5th I had my doubts that the Lit show on the 7th would impress (further) but I was certainly wrong. Plugged in, the band's sound is enormous, dramatic and, well, electric and I have to admit I looked on with no small amount of fraternal pride as Ryan switched back and forth between keys/synth, violin and guitar. The Walls played the same set they did at Pete's which made for an interesting contrast with the patrons of each show saying the one they saw must have been completely superior to the other - the bartender at Pete's went so far as to suggest the band completely drop the electric set, though he'd never heard it.

For your enjoyment, watch some iPhone footage of "Body" at Pete's

and "Worms" at Lit

I highly recommend this band, not because I have a friend in it but because it is exceptionally good. The group is full of highly skilled players executing terrific arrangements with energy and flair. All of them are also good people and I imagine there are few better bands to have crashing on your floor for a few days.

More tracks available on the band's Myspace. These four will be touring throughout the summer and into the fall so be sure to check them out if they are anywhere near you (all both of you that read this blog).