Let Them Eat Arugula

A few days ago, Mark Bittman was known for his brilliant, accessible recipes and his adorably crappy kitchen. Now, he’s suddenly turned into (yet another) full-time “food activist” who churns out legislative suggestions under the heading “A Food Manifesto For The Future”. While some of his ideas, e.g. reduction of corn/soy subsidies, seem reasonable, most of them are unsubstantiated, misleading, and questionable.

Like many of the modern priests of foodie-ism, he rails agains “processed” food. I do not know what that means, and I think he doesn’t, either. If the metric is supposed to be that a lot of technology is necessary to make “processed” food – and if there’s  actual scientific proof that this is a Bad Thing -, then, by all means, let’s throw out the Cheetos. Let’s also throw out cheese, beer, wine and bread, which do not grow on trees (Have you tried making cheese lately? It involves chemistry. If you don’t do it right, you end up with a highly toxic end product). And while we’re at it, let’s throw out all modern plant varieties that were genetically engineered over centuries to suit our needs. There were, for example, no big juicy red apples in paradise, contrary to what some faulty illustrations of the scripture would like you to believe – only malus sieversii, whose taste Michael Pollan, another Born-Again Foodie Priest, describes thusly: “imagine sinking your teeth into a tart potato, or a mushy Brazil nut sheathed in leather (“spitters” is the pomological term of art here), and then tasting one that starts out with high promise on the tongue—now here’s an apple!—only to veer off into a bitterness so profound that it makes the stomach rise even in recollection.” Lots of technology and “processing” was needed to turn the inedible crap Mother Nature usually serves us into Braeburns and Fujis. Whether food is “heavily processed” or not is a red herring. The quest for “natural” food seems to simplify food choices – in reality, it makes them simpler than they are.

The opposite of “processed”, in Bittman’s terms, is “real” or “actual” food. His categories of “processed” and “real” seem to be metaphysical rather than based on physical reality (much like “kosher” and “treif” or “halal” and “haraam”) – only this time, there’s no God upstairs who hands out these food rules and tells us to obey them for his sake. There’s only food itself. “Real” food takes the place of a the spiritual cure, the saviour. I like food as much as the next person, but I find this icky.

On a less philosophical note, Bittman analyzes the failing of government agencies over the last decades and attributes a big chunk of the American problem with food to misguided nutrition advice. Not really a new idea. The only surprising thing is his solution to the problem: More power to (other) government agencies, more nutrition advice and reeducation – let’s just get it right this time.

And that, for him, means advocating for a largely vegetarian diet, because: “It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health (…)” – While this may be true, it is also true that fifty years ago it would have been “difficult” to find a “principled [probably means “mainstream”?] nutrition and health expert” who didn’t believe that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy. The data on the long-term, large scale effects of diet is extremely sketchy. This has not changed over the last 50 years, simply because a behavior as complex as human nutrition is extremely difficult to observe, even more so if we want to apply the usual principles of empirical science. If you don’t believe this, just go ahead and try doing a double-blind randomized longitudinal study of a “plant based diet” in humans (I’m waiting!). Even more sketchy (or non-existent) is the data on effects of large-scale nutritional intervention, like the reeducation programs, subsidies, “truth in labeling” and “legislation curbing relentless marketing” Bittman suggests. They might help. They might cause harm, because they might not have the intended effect, or if the intended effect turns out to be unhealthy after all. Finally, they might cost a lot of taxpayer money and do nothing at all. And this would be bad, because poor nutrition, I believe, is not a result of moral turpitude, stupidity or (to use more friendly, modern reformulations of the same principle) misguided advice and ignorance, but largely caused by a lack of money in the individual. The effects of this lack of money – a.k.a. poverty –  are, by and large, not mitigated by reeducation or telling people to behave differently, but by giving people money or at least not taking it from them to print posters which tell them to feed their kids more broccoli.

Lastly, I have always envied Bittman for his way with words, and for his talent to write short, simple recipes that are surprising, educational and mouthwatering at the same time. His food writing does not need pretty pictures – it speaks for itself. His political writing, on the other hand, is abysmal: “Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.” Man, I wish he would step down from his pulpit and write about food again.


Today's harvest

Europe, you may not rule the world anymore, but you still have culture. Like the famous Bulgarian buttermilk bugs, and all those other microbes that make life worth living, crawling through our world-famous cheeses, wines, beers and independent movies. Note the qualifier:

I walked all the way to Monterey Market and carried you home in my hand-woven shopping basket, in order not to spoil your exquisite OLD WORLD STYLE with américain behaviour. But alas, I was disappointed. The little butter pieces are missing. (Still very refreshing when blended with ripe Mangoes.)

Posted in Fresh Off The Boat, Speis & Trank. Comments Off on Epigone

What to do with Zucchini

They don’t really taste of anything, probably because they are 99% water. You can stuff and bake them. If you forgot to harvest them in their cute stage and they have managed to (within hours!) swell to gigantic proportions, you can still shred them and make mücver or bread. But is it worth it? I say: Just keep them lying around on your kitchen counter, they will come in handy at some point!


Why do so many Americans believe in God? Maybe because they have butternut squash:

Oh yes, butternut.

Butternut squash tastes like butter, nuts, squash, like sugar and spice and everything nice. Should you ever meet a person who does not smile when encountering the radiant yellow and hypnotic smell of a freshly cooked butternut squash, avoid them, for they are surely possessed by an evil demon. Butternut squash is the culinary equivalent of baby bunnies.

Another piece of evidence for a higher being:

Oh, sugar snap peas! (Who comes up with those names – ?) Those crunchy sweet little babies make me want to burn Qur’ans. Um, not really, but you get the idea:

Did you know that…

…Berkeley is the home of the world’s best Pilsner? Local supermarkets also offer Spaten. Strange how stuff that isn’t really that good ends up being an export hit. (See also: San Pellegrino Water)

Posted in Aus Aller Welt, Nobody Beats Berkeley, Speis & Trank. Comments Off on Did you know that…

If life gives you lemons

Lemons are the one item I’m guaranteed to forget when going grocery shopping. Good thing we now have these in our front yard –

They’re actually Meyer Lemons, a cross between normal (sour) lemon and orange.

Natural progression

Our first landlord& -lady here invited us for dinner and served assorted cheeses and bread, fresh bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes, herbs from the garden and olive oil, bavette pasta with oyster mushrooms and parsley, and self-made almond ice cream.

Our second landlord & -lady invited us for dinner and served a hors d’œuvre of watercress-topped english cucumber slices with pimiento cheese and red-and-white radishes with sea salt, pan-fried shrimp, fresh oysters on ice, followed by honey-roasted quail and a salad of fennel, lettuce and radicchio, and finally, a dessert of fresh ripe figs, blackberries, cream and a splash of crème de cassis.

Should we ever rent a third apartment around here, I expect at least a truffle soufflée made from Dodo’s eggs, a big table of tuna á la ikizukuri (don’t forget to hand out the sharp knives!), a juicy steak made from a wagyu bull our landlords have raised themselves, massaged daily with rosemary oil and bottle-fed only with the best irish stout, slaughtered in their own low-stress carpeted slaughter-room, dry-aged for at least 30 days in their own climate-controlled aging room and then, of course, prepared sous-vide, a cup of kopi luwak coffee and finally, a mousse of Chuao cocoa and Devonshire cream, sweetened with their first-born son’s blood. A drop will do!