Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's Worse?

In a quaint, tiny burgh known as Los Angeles, California, a ban on new fast food spots has been put into place in the poverty/obesity stricken (how is that combo possible?) south part of the city. Naturally, debate has arisen as to whether this is a good idea. We here at F.o.t.D. say yes--kind of. A major emulsifying agent in this unholy union of being overweight and poor is, indeed, the big chain fast food restaurants. But it goes much deeper than that. The whole grab-bag of usual villians that, if badmouthed, help one score points with the green-locavore-organic set can be blamed: pop (or soda, depending on your allegiance). Corn. Ronald McDonald. But I think it's important to look further, and see that, sadly, the problem is much more than all of that. It reaches down into the issues of vanishing neighborhoods and communities, and ultimately, the act of sharing a meal being one of the most important things we do each day.

Oakland Taco Trucks

Presumably, this initiative was borne of good intentions. Of course we want people to eat less fast food. To think more about food. To make each meal count. But to ban certain fast food restaurants in certain areas is to put a small bandage on a wound that is bleeding in a lot of places, and will draw attention from the real issues of health and, just as importantly, the growing lack of meaningful meals we eat, moving said attention to issues of bowdlerization, exclusion and profiling.

and Food Trucks
The question “why can Salads ‘r Us move in across the street when Burger Time cannot?” will be asked. It could be argued that the “healthier” chains using food from questionable sources under the guise of salads and wraps (with the option to load on “bacon”, “cheese”, and other food-like products) offer far less to a society than do the clichéd smaller, free standing mom and pop places. I, personally, would take a hot dog from Budacki’s or a slice from Luigi’s over anything whatsoever from the Salad-on-a-Sticks of the world (yes, it exists, and at the Iowa State Fair, of all places).
Thus, maybe this ban is a bit imprudent. Perhaps we need to make more of an effort to invite the places that are, at least in our eyes, better for us in a more whole sense of the word. The cleaner the sources of their food the better--but also, the more you see the same faces in there, the more neighborhood that is built by that hot dog place on the corner, the better for the health of the community itself. Being healthier for our bodies is, of course, a concern; but shouldn’t being healthier for our neighborhoods and souls be as well?

Homemade Sausage in Budapest

Thursday, January 13, 2011

100, and a Plea

Here we are: the 100th post of Food on the Dole. In the past couple of years, many things have changed--unemployment's breath that begat F.o.t.D. has vanished, yet it always threatens to return. A good friend and chef recently lost a job; others talk of their disillusionment with an industry that has become focused on celebrity, competition and so many things other than food, as well as their own insecurities as cooks and chefs. Reviews and blogs become more and more darling, cooks become less and less based in fundamentals.

As we seemingly grow closer and closer to source based food and a return to the basics, I wait, hoping for the revelation that the "foodie" emperor has no clothes. When our sight is so misguided as to decry one of the city's truest artisan producers, as documented in this great article; when good sense departs so as to insist on organic food, even if it is from Peru, at Target, in December; when we scoff at the corner diners who are solely upholding one of the great American culinary traditions of short order cooking, simply because of their appearance, and the fact that they weren't listed as a hot spot in some trendy publication; when we miss the importance of the tamale guy on the corner because he isn't licensed; and yes, when we listen to the very sound voice of reason and forgo that very expensive dinner, ignoring the harebrained impulse to spend next month's rent in order to experience food as translated through one of the very special chefs, we need to reexamine some things. Perhaps that last example is a bit extreme, maybe forgivable. But the others, not a chance.

I therefore issue a plea. That we see food for what it is. I had a chef once who left me with the great quote: "Don't overthink it. It's food today, it's s**t tomorrow." There was no disrespect when he presented this to me--at least none aimed toward the food. His point was this: we've all got the knowledge somewhere inside to cook. We all have the need to cook, or, these days, at least to appreciate good cooking. And this good cooking does not come in the form of over-thought, over-manipulated food. If you were to ask chefs what they eat when they aren't working, the answers would be simple. Eggs, good bread, noodles, ripe fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, charcuterie, braised meats and solid wines would top the list, and would be joined by many other simple foods. In this list, is there anything intimidating? Anything one feels intimidated by? I doubt it. I thus at once blaspheme food, and put it on a pedestal. And I implore each of us to turn away from outside opinion on food, and look inside to what really speaks to us. If only for a moment. Put down the magazine, turn off the tv, cancel your support of Food on the Dole. Listen to what food is saying, even if it is in a different language. Explore the treasures that are so readily available to us. In the city? Go to Chinatown, Little Mexico, Hatian restaurants. In the country? Get some eggs from down the way. Raise a lamb and slaughter it. Plant a garden. Whatever your locale, you've got one up on your cousin in the city/country.

A friend brought me eggs from his parents' farm last week. I was amazed at the variety of color in the shell, it's thickness, the strength and color of the yolk. At the flavor--rich, vibrant, more a feeling and emotion than a taste. And I realized, with embarrassment, this is what an egg is supposed to be. I am so far away from this. So many of us are. Which leads me, if in rambling fashion, to my point: return to food. It is inside us all, this knowledge, this connection. This desire to care about each meal and view it as a pleasure, a privilege--something to make count. To reach out and see what others are eating, whether squatting on the side of the dirt road, or sitting at a white clothed table, and to do so not to gain points in some sort of race to say you've done it--to say you did it first. Do it to reconnect with food. To understand why it matters so much, on so many levels, so purely. This is the mission of Food on the Dole. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Don't You Dare Throw Out That Pork Skin

If you find yourself in possession of excess pork skin, as I did on New Year's Eve, don't get rid of it--make cracklins/fried rinds/Chicharrón! These don't have to be eaten in the traditional Simpsonian way: out of a bag from the gas station. The following steps were adapted from Crazy Hair's advice and made on New Year's Eve to accompany the roast on-the-bone pork belly with a cider/chile glaze and pomegranate seeds. The idea is that you want to get rid of all moisture, including the fat:
  • boil the pork skin for a few hours to render the fat and break down the tough matrix of proteins in the skin;
  • lay the skin with the "outside" up on a rack on a pan in a low, low oven, as low as it goes, with the oven door vented with a spoon or something like that, overnight;
  • scrape as much of the remaining fat and meat from the skin with the back of a knife. You only want skin here!
  • boil for a couple more hours;
  • dry it again;
  • cut it into little chunks;
  • fry the chunks in hot oil;
  • remove from oil to a rack and toss with salt and whatever else you want.
I rained these all over that belly and the crispy crunch gave the unctuous belly some really nice texture, with the pomegranate seeds adding a really nice, bright punch. Mmm...porky.