Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Children as Activists, Meat Pie Mums, and Other Scary But Possibly Necessary Things

As the weather becomes balmy and the markets start to fill up with younger crowds as schools finish up for the year, I thought it would be appropriate to share this story with you about a group of Wisconsin 4th graders who organized a formal protest of the food available in their cafeteria, intending to skip recess and prepare what, in their eyes, was a "better" meal. This effort was, of course, squashed immediately by bureaucracy, alleged food safety issues and a mean ol' assistant superintendent, but the message was there, and with some sustained effort, will be pursued. The story itself is from Slow Food USA, and despite some of my gripes with them, I think it brings to light some of the issues with a huge source of our kids' food--the school lunchroom. Now, I'm about the furthest thing away from a parent as one can get, but I still feel pretty strongly that not only are eating habits and diet-related health issues somewhat developed in school lunch rooms, but also that exposure to myriad tastes, flavors and textures at an early age is crucial to developing young palates. And even if this doesn't exactly translate into your toddler enjoying the most pungent of French cheeses or cracking open a can of Surströmming fortnightly, it does seem to create an awareness of what's out there. I remember being pretty horrified by most of the school lunches available when I was a kid. Luckily, my mom usually made me a lunch, and though it never really expanded on the PB&J/apple type of thing, I can be glad that I wasn't "eating" those bubbly burgers made of Grade F meat or the damp fish sticks on a regular basis. I suppose more importantly, having a bagged lunch from home made me realize that, in theory, I had a choice in what I was eating, and there wasn't just the one hot lunch option.
Again, not having children, I can't speak to what kids are eating these days with complete accuracy. I can say, however, that what I see available in the store and advertised can be downright appalling, in nutrition, packaging waste and even flavor profiles. An Oscar Meyer "Lunchables Turkey and American Cracker Stackers", providing a mere 3.8oz of food, puts 18g of fat (8g of which are saturated) and 840mg of sodium into your kid, not to mention a boatload of preservatives and ingredients such as "Pasteurized Prepared American Cheese Product", all in a box containing a plastic sealed-plastic tray that a parent need only buy and then hand over to a kid, in a similar fashion as the guy we used to ask to buy beer outside the gas station when we were underage. A 2oz Snickers bar, on the other hand, while offering much of the same ingredient non-purity, comes with a single simple wrapper and offers the same plump child 14g of fat, 5 of these saturated, and a mere 140 mg of sodium (note: this isn’t a plea to feed kids Snickers, because the real crime here is the 30g of sugar).
But fear not, this is not going to be a statistic-filled rant against processed food; I think I’ll leave the statistics out and just rant. Because when it comes down to it, the food our kids are eating as a whole is really what matters here, and it doesn’t take a nutritionist to tell you that Doritos aren't a proper breakfast or that something like a pasta salad with grilled vegetables is not only delicious and desirable (especially when whimsical shapes of pasta are used, depending on age, of course), but way healthier than that Lunchable described above.
But what to do with the issue of habit, choice, and peer pressure? Food marketed towards children is impossible to ignore; even if you or I as adults can avoid it, it'll reach the processed foods #1 lobbyist: our children. This sort of peer pressure-type force is one of my big fears of parenthood. I mean, as an adult, I can, for the most part, take the barbs for having no TV; I can listen to the boring and repetitive jokes about not having a cell phone; I can hear all the "snob" comments in the world for avoiding McDonalds and not having an opinion on whether or not Coke or Pepsi is better. But how does a child handle this? Does my decision to not make Lucky Charms and the deceptively named Fruit by the Foot available to my child expose him or her to repeated pummelings by the Nelson Muntz's of the world? Will they be labeled "the hippie kids" and will this stigma be a problem for them? I have no idea, and until I'm a parent, there's no way to know how I'd react to this. I'd like to open this up to readers with children--please comment on this and give your views, because it seems to me to be a pretty relevant issue.
At any rate, much has been made about a certain celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, who has done much work in the way of changing the food in lunchrooms in the U.K. Despite my British friend's enchanting description of Mr. Oliver as "a bit of a ponce", I've always admired his approach to food--treating it as lightly as possible and letting it be what it is, and not using something that you'd need to hide characteristics of through heavy sauces or harsh cooking, not to mention his making it so accessible to people who normally might be intimidated by cooking. You know, kind of like the plus-sized dead chef in the great Ratatouille (which is, incidentally, the most realistic food/restaurant/kitchen movie I've ever seen, despite, or maybe because of, the rats); everyone can cook, many just don't know it or think it. At any rate, his work has met certain success, as well as a fair share of criticism. Some found his methods to be too jarring, harsh, and not gradual enough, while some mothers, dubbed the "meat pie mums" actually went to their children's schools when Oliver's programs removed the availability of chips (or crisps, depending on your origins), pop (or soda, depending on your origins) and the like from schools, selling their dear children meat pies, burgers and what not through the fences outside of the school in a freedom of choice act that surely would make the most ardent human rights activist shed a comrade's tear.
Anyway, I'd argue that a big part of getting kids into things other than hamburgers and pizza is feeding them things other than hamburgers and pizza. I'm not convinced that offering healthy food to kids who don't instantly like it is what's making them picky; rather this finickiness is a symptom of the children not having the vocabulary of the palate to deal with these flavors. I was lucky enough to meet a couple with a 16-month old baby; this kid was smelling and tasting everything, and why? Because his parents were putting vegetables and fruits in front of him and encouraging him to. I was cutting a shallot; he picked up a little piece, made a little sniffing face, and said "onion"! This little guy is a step ahead of most of the adults I know. There are, to be sure, respectable arguments that genetics play a large role in what a child likes or dislikes; though I'm not completely sold on that being the full and complete reason for picky eaters, and I believe that exposure to more at an early age (in pretty much every category) makes for a human being with the reference points to enjoy a richer life as an adult. And as for the argument that good food costs more--something that I believe stores like Whole Foods propagate--I refer to a great quote that a former soon-to-be employer said. And that is that the value of a five dollar bill changes greatly depending on where you spend it. For instance, that fiver can probably come close to getting one person one interestingly named Extra Value Meal at McDonalds. The same money can get a bag of lentils, some rice, and a good amount of veg--enough to feed a family of 4. I guarantee it. I promise you. And need something to do/a reason to turn the tv off and spend some time together? Cook that meal together. That meal suddenly becomes loaded with meaning and the value mentioned above (An aside--I once bought some fava beans at the restaurant, about ten pounds, and proceeded to instruct all servers to pick the beans anytime they were in the kitchen--this worked two wonders: suddenly, many of the servers I'd been trying to drive out of the kitchen for months were nowhere to be seen; the ones who remained picked the beans, and instead of complaining, everyone passed along stories of how it reminded them of doing the same thing with their grandmothers, or some great story similar to that). An amazingly encouraging sign is the acceptance, by some farmers' markets, of food stamps. Also, I've read of some food banks adding more fresh vegetables and fruits to their offerings.
I realize this post is full of opinion, so I welcome as much contribution to it as possible in the comments section. It's an important topic, and as such shouldn't be dominated by a guy with no children save for the bacteria in his yogurt, yeast in his bread, and cats dominating his couch, with no sense of how one talks to a child and greets young children with a handshake and a "Hello, how are you?" So write in and let me know what you think.
Meanwhile, let's all go out, find a piece of food we don't know much about, and share it with someone we care about. Let's expand our culinary vocabulary and share it with each other. Oh, and let's have a pie-off.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Great Pie-Off, or, Potluck, Round II

I was enjoying the company of some friends and some malted hops recently when we started talking about pies and different variations thereof. Debate ensued about crust and filling, the optimal fruit to be used, and how much certain parties could consume at once. Gladly, we came to a consensus on two things: we'd all like to avoid an incident as documented in Stand By Me, and we'd like to keep the event, despite it's name, non-competitive. I mean, aren't we all winners at an event where the main goal is to eat pie?

I suggested we also throw in homemade ice cream; some wiseguy suggested barbecue (a friend with an airtight recipe vault's father makes the best sauce I've had in awhile) and someone else threw in mac and cheese. Well, whatever the optional add-ons, I'd like to make it center around pie, and I'd like you to come. It's as good as summer now, so I'm thinking at Lake Michigan somewhere some sunny afternoon. Bring a pie and a fork; leave the castor oil and raw eggs at home. Email me at hughamano@yahoo.com if you love pie and would like to come. And since we're not sanctioned by the Global Pie Eater's Committee, the only judgement passed will be measured by empty pie tins.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Green City Market, or, Movies I'm Kind of Embarrased to Know This Much About

Rejoice! Green City Market has finally come to the point at which it will stand all summer, and if that’s not a good sign for Chicagoans still bitten by the long, hard winter we just came through, perhaps frostbite has settled in and a trip to the equator is called for. Sure, the market has been going on all winter in the Nature Museum, but as much as we love the baked goods and cheese and squash that provided, we looked ahead to the market in warmer weather: the grass and the smells of the grill and the crepe stand; the greens and asparagus and that guy who plays that thing involving drumstick-like sticks (great description, I know) with little balls on the end striking metal wires tightly strung across a board standing, slightly slanted, on a podium-like surface at about waist level that makes music that, when mixed with the sounds of milling feet and murmuring crowds makes me feel as though I am in Endor or Middle Earth or a nice garden like the one I imagined that friendly British worm in the movie Labyrinth would have taken Jennifer Connelly to, to meet his wife had she accepted his offer of tea. Digressions aside, can someone explain to me what this instrument is called?
MOVING ON, we’re all psyched that the market is back. And it’s not full yet, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? After all, we’re in the Midwest, and as I wrote in my rant about CSA’s, the idea is that we support the farmers in their earnest efforts to cultivate what is cultivate-able here in the areas surrounding Chicago. Which means no tomatoes for awhile. Ramps are going to be gone soon. And strawberries will only happen for a certain bit. So I encourage everyone, whether you’re in Chicago or not, to visit a local market of some sort (a great thing I experienced while visiting the small towns of Iowa were these little baskets of assorted garden vegetables people would leave out on their lawns or in their driveways or wherever, along with a little lockbox and a sign that said something like “50 cents each” and you’d take a cucumber and a tomato and drop a buck in the little box) and talk to these people and get familiar with what is growing, when it’s growing, and why. Get to know the troubles they’re having (a ton of rain, for instance, has prevented one farmer friend from planting very much yet) and the successes on the way (another friend had maybe five or six items this week; by mid-summer they will have one of the biggest stands in Lincoln Park).
As for me, this week I picked up six gorgeous duck eggs, all varying in size and color (that’s right, blue and brown and white, and there may have even been a little straw on them still, too), a couple big handfuls of great, new asparagus, still purple around the crests (what better meal is there than asparagus cooked in butter, topped with a couple of poached eggs, sea salt and a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano?), and some incredibly flavorful spinach, fertilized by the hard work of the farmer’s army of earthworms (I love earthworms and their ability to make a ton happen in the world of growth--and this is coming from a guy who is absolutely terrified of worms). Oh, and cat grass. Can’t forget the cat grass whenever I’m down there. Otherwise, what would my guys have to throw back up ten minutes after eating it?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Unemployment and The Human Response

First of all, sorry for the delay since my last post. Being unemployed is hard work once the weather gets real nice like it's been in Chicago. At any rate, I aim to write sooner than soon, but for right now, I wanted to go against my usual philosophy of not posting recipes and, well, post a recipe in response to requests I've gotten about the piece that aired on NBC last night (click on the "Watch Video" picture on the left-hand side; my piece comes in at about the 1:25 mark). In the segment, I explained how some good grub can be had for cheap, much like in the Sun-Times article, shopping through the wonderful HarvesTime Foods and deciding to make a quick, easy, and relevantly cheap Eggplant Pasta with Feta Cheese and Dandelion Greens. Of course, you can make the pasta yourself at home, but for the segment we bought some dried pasta, which works fine. Anyway, without further ado, the recipe:

Eggplant Pasta with Feta Cheese and Dandelion Greens
Hugh Amano
Makes 4 servings

2T + 3T olive oil
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 28oz can whole peeled tomatoes
1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced into 1" cubes
1 big handful dandelion greens, chopped (about 1/3 to 1/2 bunch, any bitter green will work)
3oz +1oz feta cheese, crumbled
salt and pepper to taste
1# spaghetti

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. In medium saucepan, heat 2T olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and carrot and sweat until tender, about 10 minutes. Add a splash of water and adjust heat if vegetables begin to burn. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes longer. Add tomatoes and bring to a slow simmer. Cook over low heat for 10-15 minutes, or until all ingredients are soft and blending together. Cool slightly and puree. Set aside.

Heat 3T olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add eggplant. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until softening. Add greens and continue to cook for 3 more minutes, adding a splash of water if needed to prevent burning. Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in boiling water. Add tomato sauce to eggplant and greens and combine. Remove from heat and stir in 3oz feta cheese. Toss with cooked and drained pasta and plate equally onto four plates, garnishing with remaining cheese.

And there you have it. Quick and simple and easy and delicious and cheap. Nice Mediterranean flavors with the eggplant and tomato and feta; olives wouldn't be bad on this, either. Eat it with a big jug of wine and slab of bread, and you'll be all set. Not the most complex thing out there--but hey, don't we all need a little simple comfort these days?