Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place

Posted on March 8, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant | Tags: , , , , , |

My father pointed out that I came home with a bag of leftovers every day on my trip home to Northern California. “You seem a little bit obsessed with Mexican food, Hal B,” he said.

Big Art was correct. My Mexican binge was totally by design. I made a point to have a meal at a local Cal-Mex restaurant each day I was home, and I also made it a point to order more food than I needed; pozole, two tacos, a burrito all ended up wrapped and saved for a late-night snack. I stopped at a (pre-trendy) taco truck ON MY WAY to lunch–I could see the restaurant from the street where my hands were dripping with chile verde. My belly bulged on the flight home.

I think it’s terrific that, in this period of globalization, regional specialty food still plays prominently on the palate. Although there is a remarkable pizza maker just outside of Pittsburgh (and another delightful one just down the block from me), New York still haunts my dreams. Good BBQ is simply smoke, spice, and meat, and a exceptionally enjoyable one has just opened in Pittsburgh. Yet, the truly transcendent joints are the ones that perfume the air south of the Mason-Dixon line. And, for me, Mexican food is best from a strip mall/truck/hole-in-the-wall in California.

Why? People argue it’s the water that makes a New York pizza special. However, “imported” water, though not commonplace, feeds dough outside of New York. The pizza isn’t any better because of it.

A lot of this has to do with the food you “grew up” on. I have a deep preference for East Coast Angle-Chinese food; the greasy kind with iconic dishes. I judge by wonton soup and chicken & broccoli. My brother, who was 3 years younger when we left New York, has the opposite reaction. He prefers the authentic* Chinese food of the Pacific Coast. Less grease, thinner wontons, more seafood. This isn’t limited to childhood memory, either–though childhood influence in generally the strongest.

Specific geography can play a part in flavoring food. The first oysters I had were grown in the cold-water of Tamales Bay. Small, briny, deep mineral flavor. They FLOORED me. I figured I’d love all oysters after that, but that wasn’t at all true. The large, warm-water Gulf oyster didn’t make me dance inside. I learned that the size and flavor of an oyster are directly affected by the ecology of the local waters and the breeds that can grow in it.

I also think a lot of this has to do with the food-culture of the place. There was a recent New York Times article written by a vegetarian complaining about the lack of vegetarian food in Kansas City. He made some valid points, but he missed the big one–it’s a beef town. He went on to complain about the lack of “ethnic” restaurants in the city, ignoring the fact that Kansas City hasn’t been a historic center of multi-ethnic immigration. Does he think that “ethnic” should be ubiquitous? What a dink.

I’m fascinated between the connection between food and place. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue to explore. I hope you will, too. Share your stories.

*Authenticity is a complex concept, so I won’t spent too much time on it here. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that it’s generally agreed that the Chinese food in San Francisco is characterized as “more authentic” than the food on the East Coast because it’s more directly connected to the foodways of China. There are holes to be poked in this argument–not to mention the fact that I’m totally lumping a heterogenous culture into one cuisine called “Chinese food”–but that’s the basic idea. 

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Food, Community, and $35 For the Week: Wrap-Up

Posted on November 26, 2011. Filed under: challenge, community, favorite, hodgepodge | Tags: , , , , , |

I did it. With just $35* to spend, I was able to eat (mostly) wholesome food for a week. There were times, especially in the beginning, when it was challenging–but there wasn’t a point when I felt like I had to throw in the towel and grab can of chicken.

So challenge completed. But is it sustainable?

A recap for those who haven’t been following along so far: Sherrie Flick,Cory Van Horn, and I decided to see if we each last a week on a $35 food budget. This is a pretty significant challenge in itself–I could easily spend $35 a day on food. Eating Good Food was the other part of the challenge; we could probably make this happen by eating processed junk and Dollar Menu offerings, but could we do it if we limited ourselves to whole foods? I realized before the project started that I wouldn’t be able to do it alone, so I planned a series of tasks that would combine community connections with my culinary skills, this would earn me a “free” meal. It worked out more or less as planned, and, no surprise, I also learned a thing or two along the way.

People were terrifically generous. While working at GoodTaste! Pittsburgh, a friend gave me a jar of homemade maple apple butter. At a potluck the next night, the hosts tried to give me…all the leftovers. My ladyfriend brought a ham for me to cook (see earlier entry for a breakdown on the Great Ham Controversy). Other tried to give me random bits of this and that, and several suggested they just leave food for me somewhere so that I could “discover” it. I drew a pretty firm line in the sand and stuck with it–I wasn’t looking for handouts, that would have been too easy. The apple butter was accepted because this friend would undoubtably give apple butter to someone who needed it (who am I kidding, she would fill your freezer with home-cooked meals if you needed it). I took some food home from the potluck, but nothing more than a guest would normally take. As much as I wanted to chow down on ham for the rest of the week, just about all of it went into the freezer (some of it might come out of the freezer today). And no meals were “discovered.” If I were truly in this situation, I would have leaned on my friends more. I’m really luck to have connected with a community in Pittsburgh that values the importance of a good meal, and is always willing to share. Apparently, I’ve also fallen in line with a bunch of rule breakers insist I take their food for free. What a bunch of rebels.

Volunteering was a big part of the project–you can read more about my experiences in the day-by-day recaps. Connecting with people who don’t have a choice about the food they eat totally put things in perspective; I was complaining about being hungry, and then I met people who are actually hungry. This turned the project into something much more personal. I took on the idea on on lark, as an experiment. The same day I volunteered at the soup kitchen, I dropped a huge pot of beans on the ground. Normally, I’d be pissed off that I had so much cleaning up to do (I’m clumsy, I drop things). When it happened this time, I was devastated that I was losing so much food, and so much good food too. The food was irreplaceable–I’d used precious bits of ham and onion to flavor the beans, there were none left for the next batch. The fact that I seriously considered keeping beans that had fallen on my not-so-clean kitchen floor was really telling.

I cooked. A lot. I cook a lot in general, but this was extreme. There is no possibility of dining out (at least dining out on wholesome food) on a $35 per week budget. Everything has to be made from scratch. All in all, I enjoyed my time in the kitchen–I mean, cooking is such a big part about what I do, so why wouldn’t I? But I did notice my creativity started to wane toward the end of the week. At first, I was trying to use this as opportunity to be as creative as possible, but by the end of the week I just wanted to get fed. Perhaps this was a because I realized that the project was taking up more and more of my time. I wanted to be true to the nature of the experiment, but I also didn’t want to miss a deadline/fail any of my classes. So instead of diligently planning out meals that combined flavor/nutrients/sunshine, I made a variety of soup. Good soup, delicious soup, soup from scratch–but still soup.

To my surprise, snack time turned out to be a much bigger challenge than mealtime. I didn’t realize how mindlessly I snacked until I had to be mindful of everything I ate. Suddenly an apple or a banana was a precious commodity. It was a difficult adjustment during the first few days. I would casually wander over to the kitchen, and then realize that I couldn’t actually eat anything. At first this made me feel more hungry than I really was, but eventually I learned to ignore it (OK, perhaps I learned to live with it–I still wanted to snack).

There are plenty of reasons to critique this project.

The first is that I (and my partners in writing) are part of a leisure/creative/academic class, and therefore have the opportunity to explore this. Agreed. We are. And frankly I’m glad we are. The creative part of society has been constantly demonized, and I think that’s a bunch of crap. My response to this is perhaps one of the biggest problems in our food system isn’t the food system itself (is a MASSIVE problem, don’t get me wrong), it’s that as a country we’re on a downward spiral to catch up with the lowest common denominator. The fact that so many people don’t have time to cook isn’t just a reflection on privilege, it’s a kick in society’s face. We should all have time to cook (or pursue a hobby, play a sport, read a book, etc), we shouldn’t have to run to McDingDong’s because we’re so worked to the bone that all we want to do is get home and watch other people cook on TV. It’s sad.

It also called into question my belief that people should pay more for their food. I have the luxury of being able to purchase humanely raised meat; that’s expensive. I’ve often said that it should be expensive because farmers and farm workers should be able to earn a decent living without being forced to treat animals like commodities. But if it remains expensive, how can a person with only $35 for the week eat humanly raised meat then? Some would argue that we shouldn’t be eating meat at all. Fair enough, but I disagree. We should be eating less meat (and avoiding factory meat), but I don’t believe we should be eating no meat. That’s a totally different subject for a post, isn’t it? The point is that this week forced me to question where the balance is between supporting farmers and farm workers, and being able to afford Good Food. Perhaps we need to be spending less money on other things? Growing gardens? Working communally?

Another critique: This is a bit of a whimsical exercise, and we weren’t really in the same position as people on fixed incomes. Agreed, and at times it made me feel terribly silly about doing this project. Who am I to think that my participation in this is somehow important? This was an exercise, and it’s not going to change the world. But like we said at the beginning, it wasn’t designed to be perfect. It was, however, a terrific learning experience. I am still thinking about every food choice I make. I’m going to go back to the soup kitchen next week. It’s challenged me to rethink ideas and ideals. So perfect? Not at all. Worthwhile? I’d say so.

Some people felt my methodology of using my culinary skills and community connections to “earn” meals was a cop-out. I disagree. While I don’t think bartering my time would be practical over the long term, I do think it was worthwhile. I was able to connect with people who needed help in some way, and I think that’s a pretty good thing indeed.

So is a $35 weekly food budget sustainable? No, not for me. It can be done, and of course there are people who don’t have a choice. Perhaps during the summer it would have been an easier project since my garden would be in full swing–that wasn’t an option right now (though I will be sure to grow & save more next year). In some ways, I actually ate better throughout the week; more vegetables and whole grains than I normally would, I cut down on my meat consumption (and only purchased meat raised in a way I philosophically agree with), and reduced my overall calorie intakte (sad Hal, no snacks). But in the end, I love food way too much to have to decide between a piece of cheese and a slice of beef. I’m grateful that I don’t have to make that choice right now. I’m also mindful that we as a society need to work to build a food system that ensures everybody has access to wholesome meals.

*Technically I had $45 to spend. When we set the ground rules, we decided coupons were allowed. I cashed in a Living Social Deal that allowed me to spend $20 at Whole Foods for only $10. As the week went on, I started to feel like I was gaming the system; Whole Foods doesn’t have coupons like this on a regular basis. So I decided to try to stick as close to the original $35 as possible. I came close, and probably would have done it if I didn’t make a few choices (I’m looking at you, cheese) on my original Whole Foods trip.

For more on the project, please visit:
Sherrie Flick’s Sentences and Food
Cory Van Horne’s Culinary Cory
Both of them are fantastic writers, and I found their collaboration on the project as worthwhile as the project itself.

To read about my day-to-day experiences, go to:
The Preview
Days One and Two
The Great Ham Controversy
Volunteering, Losing My Beans

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Food, Community, and $35 For the Week: Days Four and Five, Helping. Day Six, Rain Out.

Posted on November 12, 2011. Filed under: challenge, community, favorite, Uncategorized, video | Tags: , , , , , |

My earlier complaints about hunger seem very silly now.

On Day Four, I volunteered at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen. This is the experience that will resonate the most with me from this project. During my graduate studies, I’ve taken classes on food access and talked at length about privilege, status, elitism, and all that good stuff. All of this was educational, but none of it impressed me as much as seeing people waiting outside the soup kitchen for a free meal. The biggest rush happened right at the start, but there was also a steady stream of people for the entire two hour lunch service. What stuck me most was the atmosphere of the soup kitchen–it wasn’t an unhappy place. Perhaps it had something to do with the unseasonably beautiful November day, but I don’t think so. There was a sense of community there. I’m not trying to paint a picture of unicorns and moonbeams–it was still a soup kitchen, and there were certainly a significant amount of people who seemed to be in a very challenging place in their lives. But it also wasn’t as bleak as I’d thought it was going to be, and it seemed like most of the people there were just in need of a little bit of help and kindness to get them through the day. Don’t get me started on the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” business; sometimes it takes someone to feed you a hot meal to help put things back together.

One of the things that really struck me was that at least half the volunteers used to (or still) rely on the kitchen for a meal. Conservatives like to frame the impoverished as lazy scammers, always looking for their next free handout from the government. That wasn’t the impression I got at all. No one seemed happy about taking something for nothing. One woman, who used to be homeless but now had a job, told me she “needed to come back here and help, because they gave so much to me when I needed it the most.”

And what a meal it was. We have this image of soup kitchens as places of horrible food, but, at least in this case, it was different. The chef takes a ton of pride in feeding people. He prepared a hearty dish of tortellini, ground beef, carrots, and potatoes. The dish was topped with cheese. It was wonderful. Served alongside green beans, salad, and fresh fruit. Nobody left hungry. It was the best meal I’ve had so far.

I’m really glad the Jubilee Kitchen is doing what it’s doing. Without a doubt, I’ll be back to help serve lunch. You should help, too.

Later that night, perhaps the UniverseKarmaSpiritbearWhatever needed to reinforce the notion that my food woes were simply self-constructed food woes: I Dropped The Beans. Words of advice: cooking beans late at night after a long day isn’t a brilliant idea. I didn’t have much of a choice, since my meal plan for the next day called for beans. So–beans I cooked. And oh, they were glorious beans. Flavored with leftover ham and smoke, texture perfect. After I dropped them I even considered picking them up from my kitchen floor. Nobody would know, right? OK. I did pick them up from my kitchen floor. They have since been sent to the compost bin, but I really was on the verge of eating them. Even though I’m aware this project is a self-constructed situation that has a firm end date, losing the beans because of a moment of clumsiness was a remarkably sad experience. I was on the phone at the time, and was totally unable to finish the conversation; all I could think about was how I lost three meal’s worth of food. I hope I’m never in a position where I have to eat beans that I scraped up from my kitchen floor.

On Day Five I volunteered at the Environmental Charter School. My friend runs the lunch program there, and she’s always in need of assistance. So off I went. We picked up a hot meal of mac ‘n cheese (with and without shrimp) from the cafe at Phipps Conservatory, because the school itself doesn’t have a kitchen. There are a few things to unpack from the last sentence. First: mac ‘n cheese with SHRIMP?! What a strange combination. Many of the kids thought so, too. More importantly: NO KITCHEN!?

Fun fact: Many schools in the United States no longer have their own kitchens–they rely on pre-packaged meals. ECH is an example of making the best out of a bad situation; the school works with local restaurants to serve nutritious meals made from quality ingredients. Most other schools in this situation aren’t so lucky. It’s a sad sad sad thing (that’s getting better, but there is still a long way to go).

It’s possible I might be in danger of losing jobs before I even get them. The Environmental Charter School has its own food critic, Riley. This kid is good!

On Day Six, the plan was to do a chef’s demo at a local farmers’ market. It didn’t happen. A combination of crappy weather and the market losing half its space to preparations for “Light Up Night” caused the demo to be cancelled. Sad news, it would have been quite fun. But no big deal–I am on budget and ready to see this through.

I’ve been cooking. Lots of cooking. I thought I spent a good amount of time in the kitchen to begin with, but nothing compared to the amount of time I’ve spent this week. Everything is cooked from scratch. The decision to eschew processed foods (well…alright, I did have a Top Ramen snack last night!) isn’t just a financial decision, it’s also an investment in time.

I made a wonderful puree of roasted Blue Hubbard squash (from our Eden Hall garden!), carrots, and turnips. I used a little bit of butter (accounted for), the broth from boiling the carrots and turnips, and seasoned with salt and garam masala. It was wonderful! I bought a wee bit of ground beef (.27lbs for $1.35) and put half of it into a soup made with the last of my carrots, turnip greens (bonus! there were still turnip greens in my garden!!!), onion, celery, tomato, and barley. It was remarkably satisfying. I also made a breakfast sandwich from two of my eggs and a tiny bit of my mozzarella. It felt nice to finally break into my cheese stash.

And I made Baked Penne! Yes, that is a link to a video of me showing you how to make this dish. Watch the video, make the dish. Anyway, I’d been hoarding my mozzarella, and had enough money left to afford a tiny bit of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I used some of my frozen tomato sauce, the last of my home-grown garlic, and had an amazing dinner.

I’m totally going to do this. And I’m eating pretty well, too.

Total Additional Money Spent: $3.50
$1.35 for beef, $0.30 for Top Ramen, $1.50 for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, $0.35 for pasta.
Money left for the week: $9.13

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Helping Out

Posted on July 18, 2011. Filed under: favorite, hodgepodge, travel | Tags: , , , , , |

A farm is alive. The land and the animals still need attention even if the people that are supposed to attend to it are missing. An entire growing season, a livelihood, can be ruined because of unexpected circumstances. But things can be saved when a community comes together to lend a hand.

The farm is about two hours from Pittsburgh. It’s on a beautiful piece of land in a beautiful piece of the country. There are chickens and goats and dogs roaming land speckled with bundles of hay and rows of corn. It’s the very picture that the massive monoculture agrofarms want to you to think about when you think of farmland, except in this case it’s actually the real deal.

But the farm was in danger of being overrun with weeds. One of the people who owns the farm is ill. Those that were left hadn’t the time or manpower to take care of everything. So a bunch of us took off from Pittsburgh, and drove through the rolling countryside, gloves and weeding tools in hand, ready to help. We spent several hours in the hot July sun pulling unwanted plants from the ground. I was in the cornfield, on hands and knees, clearing land so the late-planted rows of corn had a chance to grow.

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve paid a lot of lip-service to the theory that you have to physically work the land in order to really understand why it’s important to pay higher prices to farmers that choose to grow their crops sustainably. It’s not that I didn’t actually think that true; I respect farmers, I believe they are entitled to be paid a fair price for their work…but, I never physically understood the toil of farm work until last weekend. A farm field is a hot hot place in the middle of July. Weeding is taxing on the body. So is harvesting crops in the heat of a summer day. Anyone who chooses to do this for a living deserves our respect.

But this isn’t a story about me getting out of the kitchen/library and onto a cornfield. This is a story about people coming together to help other people in need. Phrases like “dust yourself off and get back on the horse,” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” are often given as advice when someone is down. And it’s true, you do need to get up and get back in the game. But sometimes you have to put the word out, ask for help, and hopefully some friends & strangers will pitch in. It’s a wonderful thing. At the end of the day, the farm’s fields were a bit better off than they were before we arrived. There is still work to be done (the work never ends during growing season), and if they asked, I’m sure we’d all be happy to make the drive again.

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Posted on March 19, 2010. Filed under: healthy, hodgepodge, Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

I made a pancetta, egg, and cheese omelet this morning. My brain is generally a bit fuzzy in the A.M., and I ended up using less pancetta and cheese than I normally would have. The omelet was still good, but it wasn’t nearly as belly-rubbing as it would have been with more stuffing. I thought, “well, at least I can have a bigger dinner now, since there weren’t as many calories in my breakfast”.

Why did I think that? What’s the point in being half satisfied? We aim our concern in the wrong direction sometimes. “Oh, I’ll just have half a slice of bread, I’m watching my carbs”. Personally, I’d rather have the full slice of bread. It makes my belly happy. It makes my soul happy. Would having half a slice of bread still give me enough food satisfaction in ratio to the calories saved? I doubt it.

I still had an omelet with pancetta and cheese, even if there wasn’t as much cheese as I’d normally put in. How many less calories were there, really? Probably not enough to make a difference. So when you cook something on the decadent side, go ahead and enjoy yourself. Don’t snip snap here and there because you’re overly stressed about calorie count. Just cook something less calorie dense (but still delicious) the next time.

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