Monday, July 20, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Grilled Mushrooms and Local Foodways

Another of those recipes for cooking and eating lower on the food chain than many of us in developed nations are accustomed to doing, with ingredients available locally in many areas. I don’t pretend that there’s anything unique about this recipe. In fact, it may well be a version of others popular in circles where people are trying to stop eating meat, and looking for a substitute that, in some respects, duplicates the texture and taste of a meat dish.

It’s a summer dish for Steve and me, one we cook often when fresh local mushrooms are available through the food co-op from which we buy the bulk of our weekly groceries. We take a pound or so of fresh, cleaned mushrooms (unsliced, with stems still attached to caps), and place them in a bowl with a generous amount of olive oil (perhaps a third cup), two teaspoons of salt, some fresh-chopped herbs (we like marjoram or thyme), some fresh-ground black pepper, half an onion finely chopped, and three large toes of garlic crushed. Mix all well and let it sit to marinate about half a day at room temperature, stirring every now and again to keep the ingredients mixed.

As meal time approaches, place the mushrooms on a hot grill, scooping as much of the onion as possible onto them. Grill a moment or two on one side, turn and grill on the other, and serve hot from the grill with French bread, fresh sliced tomatoes, and cheese. We sometimes shave parmesan on top of the mushrooms, and add a handful of chopped parsley. Or we slice fresh mozzarella and eat that on top of the sliced tomatoes with a bit of chopped basil and the mushrooms on the side.

The bread comes in handy to soak up the juice the mushrooms will leave in the bottom of the bowl in which they’re served. With a glass of crisp cool white wine, it’s hard to find a better meal on a hot summer day.

Food and the consequences of the choices we make as we buy, cook, and eat it have been on my mind lately, because I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (NY: HarperCollins, 2007), recounting her family’s attempt to live for a year only from the food they could grow on their small farm in southwest Virginia and buy locally. This is a powerful statement about eating locally, and about the shocking disruption in local food cultures that we came to take for granted in the latter half of the 20th century, a disruption hard to reverse now, because we’ve all become so enmeshed in the petrochemical-driven process of mass producing our food that it’s an uphill battle to buy local, organically produced food. Or even to understand what eating locally means, as the knowledge that went with locally produced and locally consumed foods vanishes.

That aspect of Kingsolver’s work particularly grabs my attention. As I’ve noted when I occasionally publish one of these eating-to-save-the-planet postings, one reason I’m sharing some of my own food tips is because I’ve become convinced that a whole generation of young folks have come to maturity in the United States, who have almost no knowledge, even of the most rudimentary sort, of how food appears on their table, of what is healthy to cook and to eat, and of what is typical of their region (and therefore likely to be freshest and less destructive to the planet to buy and eat).

I’m not sure how we’ve lost that knowledge. But I’m convinced we have done so. All kinds of experiences suggest this to me. Again and again, when I shop in local grocery stores, I find the young folks operating the cash register don’t even know what many vegetables are—not exotic ones, but ordinary local ones. They’ll peer at the parsley or potatoes and ask me to help them identify the item on the list of price codes.

Or I’ll read food blogs, even ones by local younger folks who are supposed to be authorities about food, and find that what I know about my culture’s way of cooking and eating simply because I grew up in a world in which that knowledge was all around me has vanished, for younger folks. One of our promising young local food writers encountered the traditional end-of-summer relish chow-chow not too long ago, for instance, and had no idea at all what it was. Or even how to spell it. When she described it on her blog, as an exotic new find (but my family hardly ever ate a meal without a dish of it on the table), she called it cha-cha.

This food writer and many others of her generation routinely praise breads or hushpuppies in local restaurants when these are soft and sweet—an anathema to the culture in which I grew up, which insisted that soft, sweet breads are a dessert, not something of any interest as an accompaniment to good, fresh, well-cooked vegetables. Ditto for sugary salad dressings, which plain mystified us. Who in his right mind would want a salad to taste sweet?

The distinction between traditional Southern fried chicken—which is pan-fried—and what passes for Southern fried chicken in most restaurants is lost on many younger Southerners, even those interested in food, because they have never encountered the real thing. Their standard for judging fried chicken is what they find in chains that purport to offer old-fashioned fried chicken, but which deep-fry the chicken because it’s quick and easy, compared to the traditional cooking method, which produces fried chicken of a quality vastly superior to anything you can produce by deep-frying.

It frightens me that so much essential knowledge is being lost so quickly—essential not only to transmitting a culture and its values and local knowledge, but essential to the health of the planet as well. When we do not understand how food is produced, what grows locally, what is real and what is bogus, we are powerless to make wise choices about what to choose to eat, what is healthy for us to eat, what preserves the planet when we choose to buy and to eat it.

When we lose the folk wisdom of our local culture regarding food, we become sitting ducks for those who want to sell us “good” and “real” and “organic” food, food that is every bit as bogus as anything we might buy in a box with the label of a major food producer and a long list of chemical additives.

As Barbara Kingsolver notes,

Food culture in the United States has long been cast as the property of a privileged class. It is nothing of the kind. Culture is the property of a species. . . . Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty. These are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. . . .

A food culture is not something that gets sold to people. It arises out of a place, a soil, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging.

What Kingsolver is saying seems self-evident to me, because I grew up in a local culture in which the attitude to food and to eating that she’s describing was taken for granted. We ate what was there to eat. We ate what was around us. We ate what the land around us produced.

We chose those products not because someone told us they were organic or right to eat, in preference to products shipped from California or Florida. We chose them because they tasted better—because they were what our grandparents and their parents had produced and eaten, and knew how to cook to maximize their flavor and to feed large, hungry families.

Long before eating locally and organically became part of the consumer jargon of many Americans, my family and almost all the families we knew around us bought as much food as possible at farmers’ markets, particularly during the summer—because it was incomparably better than any of the pale, insipid, shipped-in items we could buy in any grocery store.

The farmers producing that food weren’t deliberately organic. They had no idea that they were assisting the environment by using manure rather than chemical fertilizers to fertilize their crops. They manured their fields and tilled composting materials into them because it was cheaper to do this, cheaper than buying chemical fertilizers. And it was time-honored; it was they way their parents had grown food. It had worked for generations. Why alter what works well, what uses resources on hand as economically as possible?

I know that all this was true in the world in which I grew up, because my grandparents all had siblings still living on farms. We visited them often, coming away with huge hampers of fresh food. We helped them work and watched how they farmed, knowing as we did so that we were observing a way of life that was quickly vanishing as the agricultural industry forced these small family farms out of business.

Without knowing it or even consciously intending to do so, my parents and grandparents taught us to value, to know, and to understand our local food and how it was prepared. In summer, my mother, her mother, and my mother’s sisters went to farmers’ markets several times a week, always taking us children along, and, without self-consciously seeking to do so, they schooled us in buying and eating well. And in the definite rules they applied as they shopped.

Where does this corn come from? Mississippi? Arkansas? What county? Did you grow it? When did you pick it? Questions like that were necessary because we selected corn in summertime with one goal in mind: to fry it.

Fried corn is a traditional local dish now almost impossible to make, for one very simple reason. The main ingredient—field corn picked only hours before it is fried—is almost impossible to find. Only fresh-picked corn, full of what we called the milk of the corn, will suffice. Without it, you cannot get the corn to do what fried corn has to do—to form a thick custard, when it’s mixed with melted butter, a bit of milk, a good bit of black pepper, and then slowly fried in a black-iron skillet in bacon drippings until the bottom is a rich brown and the interior a distillation of the corn's milk and kernels that is the very essence of corn.

Note the absence of sugar from this recipe. The thought of adding sugar to fried corn horrified my family. We heard of people doing that, just as we heard of people putting sugar in cornbread. But we shook our heads when we heard those incomprehensible rumors. Who on earth would want corn to be sweet? The point of any corn dish, fried corn above all, was that it taste like corn, not like a dessert.

And for that, only green field corn could suffice, not the cloying sweet garden variety sold in grocery stores and hybridized to taste like candy. The ingredients were so important to my mother that, when the local farmers’ markets didn’t have fresh field corn, she would simply stop along the side of the road at some of the farms around our town and ask a farmer if he would mind picking and selling some of his corn. Which she’d then rush home, cut from the cob, and fry. You had to fry corn after it had just been picked. It wouldn't fry otherwise, because the milk of the kernels would have begun to dry up and to turn to starch.

This is how we ate. It wasn’t some self-conscious organic way of eating. It was how we ate, because it was how we had always eaten. It was how our parents grew up eating. It was how our relatives in the country, who supplied us with abundant fresh vegetables, fruit, the occasional fresh-butchered chicken and turkey, butter, and so on ate. We ate what was there to be eaten, what we knew tasted good, cooked in ways that, we knew from lore handed on generation after generation, maximized the flavor of each dish.

Without intending to do so for health or ethical reasons, we also ate a quasi-vegetarian diet—again, because that was how we had always eaten. There was a logic to our local foodways that has become apparent to me only as I have grown up and thought about them. Meat was not the center of many of our meals, particularly in summer, because fresh-butchered meat does not keep well in the torrid climate of the American South.

Cured pork was the meat of choice because, salted and/or smoked, it does keep well. Beef was a rarity (and remained a rarity in my own childhood, because my mother tended to cook as she had been taught to cook) because it was not easy to preserve once it had been butchered. I can recall my grandmother telling me that, when her father butchered a beef, he would send quarters of it around to neighbors and relatives, who did the same when they butchered, so that everyone in the community might have a taste of beef now and again—but not on a daily basis. The beef was eaten quickly, before it could go bad, and relished by the large farm families that could easily eat a quarter of a beef in a few days.

Chicken was a Sunday and holiday dish. To fry a chicken required that a family dispense with one of its valuable laying hens, something that a family could not do on a daily basis without depleting its supply of a very important nutrient and ingredient of many dishes, eggs.

So pork, cured pork that lasts even through hot summers, became the meat of choice for Southern tables, and then merely as an accompaniment to the many vegetables it seasoned—a condiment rather than a main dish, as Jefferson observed. The stars of the table, especially in summer, were things we had, and had in abundance: field peas, crowders and purple hulls, cooked with a few pods of okra on top of the pot to enrich the pot liquor; squash, sliced and fried or smothered down to a puree with onions, black pepper, and butter; greens (turnip, mustard, collards, or all mixed), simmered slowly for a long time with a bit of pork and pods of red pepper, to be eaten with cornbread; eggplant, sliced, battered with cornmeal, and then fried, or cooked into a casserole of scalloped eggplant with tomatoes, cornbread crumbs, onions, milk, butter, and cheese; okra, fried, cooked whole, or sliced and cooked with onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes, a dish we called gumbo; meaty, savory pole beans cooked down with new potatoes; and, of course, fried corn.

Many of our summer meals consisted of a menu something like that, with large platters of what we called salad to accompany the cooked vegetables. Uninformed food historians have argued that salad did not appear on Southern tables until recently. That’s simply not true. What is true is that we did not eat lettuce often in the summer, though we did eat green salads frequently in spring. We did not eat lettuce in summer for one simple reason: lettuce bolted and stopped growing in Southern gardens by the middle of May.

At which point other salad items began to produce in abundance in our gardens, and were eaten with great relish as an accompaniment to our vegetables. Every “farmer’s dinner” we ate in summer (that’s what we called the array of fresh vegetables I’ve just enumerated) included a large platter of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and cantaloupe, to be eaten with the vegetables.

And with all of this—an essential ingredient—cornbread. There were Rules that must never be broken regarding its preparation. I’ve noted one of these: sugar was anathema, something ill-educated people in other areas of the country added to their strange, cake-like cornbread, but not people who valued corn and the taste of bread made from it.

And the meal to be used must be from white corn and not yellow. White corn simply tasted better. And when the cornmeal, spoon of flour, buttermilk, egg, salt, melted dripping, and pinch of soda had been added and quickly stirred together, the batter must be turned into a black iron skillet with yet more dripping melted in it, smoking hot, to form a thick brown crust on the outside of the cornbread.

And when this had been slipped into the oven and baked, the pone—as we called the finished product—needed immediately to be turned out of the pan and the lighter top side placed back into the hot skillet, to keep the brown crust from growing soft and to brown the top before the pone was served. The point of all this fanfare was to produce a delicious, quickly made bread designed to point up the flavors of fresh vegetables, and to serve—en famille but never when eating out at someone else’s house—as a savory crumbled base for the field peas and greens, a base that soaked up their glorious pot liquor and allowed every drop to be eaten.

That's how we ate when I was growing up, and my generation may well have been the last generation to eat this way, to value these particular foods, to cook them as they had long been cooked by Southerners. Some of the ingredients are simply no longer available. One of the alarming points Kingsolver makes is that the variety of American food is rapidly being diminished, as the many local varieties of different fruits and vegetables once available in most areas are being replaced with single varieties produced on factory farms in places like California and Florida, varieties chosen not for their taste but their ability to ship well for long distances.

These foodways are vanishing as well because no one seems intent on teaching them to the next generation. We've been taught to look down on our local cuisine, to regard it as a sign of social inferiority. Why eat beans when meat is available? We've been taught—astonishingly—that our time-honored foodways arose merely out of poverty, that we fried food because we didn't know any better (not because frying maximized the flavor and didn't heat the kitchen on hot summer days), that our food was laden with cholesterol because of its use of bacon drippings, that it was monotonous and vegetable-deprived.

I've read claims that Americans didn't discover eggplant until well into the 20th century, and that they did so then because Italian immigrants introduced it to us—a claim that would have amused my grandmother, whose recipe drawer was full of recipes for this vegetable she loved above all, which her parents and grandparents had grown, which I've found listed among vegetables in garden diaries of her family in eastern North Carolina in the early 1800s.

To the contrary, and despite ill-informed claims that our traditional foodways were unhealthy, we used to eat a diet vastly superior to any of the supposedly more healthy ones now being foisted off on us by those with a commercial interest in selling their expensive shipped-in food to us. The bacon drippings and meat used to flavor the vast array of fresh vegetables we ate merely supplemented those vegetables. We did not eat anywhere near the amount of meat most of us eat nowadays, even with our lavish use of drippings as seasoning, or our penchant for frying many of our vegetables.

We ate well, and what we ate was not merely tasty, but healthy. As do people, ordinary people, people without fancy culinary degrees or training, in community after community around the world, when they eat what is grown locally, and cook that local food in time-honored ways. Our preference for home-grown food cooked in home-centered ways, and for vegetables rather than large servings of meat, may have had something to do with the poverty that dogged our region from the Civil War through the Depression.

But it had to do with more than that. Even when our culture was materially poor, it was rich in at least one respect: we recognized and relished good food, and we took care about the ingredients available to our tables. Every family I knew, rich or poor, black or white, ate the way I'm describing, more or less, when I was growing up. Most affluent families had black cooks who cooked what has come to be known as soul food for those families, but what was essentially the Southern cuisine about which I'm writing.

It's a pity we've been taught not to value what is clearly so valuable in many of our local communities. It's shameful that we've been made to think that rich culinary traditions are a sign of poverty and ignorance rather than of cultural vitality. When one looks at what is being offered us in the place of those local foodways, one has to wonder about the trade off. It's not the field peas and cornbread, or even the fried okra, that is making a generation of Southerners obese. It's frozen pizza and cold drinks full of corn syrup and fast-food french fries that are accomplishing that.

It grieves me to see the loss of so much wisdom so quickly, in our culture. We may soon find ourselves bereft of many local foods and many time-honored ways of cooking, if we don't wake up soon and demand better, in this land of such abundance but such rapidly diminishing choices, as we try to locate foodstuffs that are healthy and good.