August 13, 2007

Food on the Brain

I have food on the brain these days. It’s not that I’m hungry, or that I’m on a cooking binge, it’s really more an imaginary food binge: creating imaginary meals or restaurant menus or kitchen gardens, just thinking about growing and cooking nice food. I must have way too much time on my hands. I blame it on the incessant rain that’s ruining my summer break. But maybe I should blame it on Michael Pollan, who’s got me thinking way too much about food and food politics.

I’ve just finished reading Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It’s basically a journalist’s look into what goes into the growing, processing, and cooking of four traditional American meals. The first is a McDonald’s hamburger meal; the second, “industrial organic” chicken and vegetables bought from a Whole Foods outlet; the third, the same meal but bought from a “beyond organic” farmer in the Shenandoah Valley; and the fourth, wild game and fruit hunted and scavenged by the author himself in the Pacific Northwest. Pollan doesn’t just take you into the Iowa corn field or the South Dakota feed lot and to show you what went into that hamburger. He explains how the past hundred years of scientific research, farm subsidy and petrol dependency have radically altered the way we eat -- and not necessarily to our benefit.

Although I’ve long been interested in where my food comes from and how to cook seasonably and locally, this book has me thinking much more seriously about sustainable agriculture. A more holistic approach to food just makes sense, environmentally, humanely, nutritionally – even aesthetically. “Eat Your View” is a popular bumper sticker here in Europe. It means “Eat locally because local farms make life more beautiful.” And it’s true. The German countryside is breathtaking, with rolling patchwork fields of rapes and wheat and vineyards. I’ve never seen countryside like this in America. On the contrary, were I ever to visit a giant American agro-business, I’m sure the view would turn my stomach.

Anyway, I suspect this book will be a huge hit when it’s finally translated into German. The German’s are obsessed with food, the more organic and artisanal the better.(Remember the 8,50-euro organic chicken breasts?) People aren’t afraid to pay the premium for better food. All supermarkets carry a large selection of organic foods – sometimes it’s the only produce you can find. And it’s mostly grown locally, not shipped in from South America or New Zealand. They don’t seem to mind that they can only buy what’s in season: asparagus in May, strawberries in June, plums in July. The farmers’ market here is bustling every other day of the week, 8 months of the year, not just on Saturdays during the summer as in America.

And this attitude isn’t just apparent at the grocery store. The local bookstores stock shelf after shelf of cookbooks, nutritional books, and food picture books (i.e. food porn). They have so many food-related books that they’ve had to divide and subdivide the categories beyond all reason. There’s a meat section, a poultry section, a fish section. There’s a section for Bavarian specialties and another for Franken specialties. (Würzburg is in the heart of Frankonia, which is part of Bavaria.)

Now, I’m no fan of German cuisine – I find it much too fatty and salty, and that’s coming from a Southerner! – but I will give them credit for caring about food. And it’s not just the yuppies and foodies. Here all sorts of people care about food, passionately. Kevin and I are inordinately food of a particular German cooking show called "Das Perfekte Dinner." Every week five new strangers compete for a 3,000-euro prize by taking turns cooking a three-course dinner for each other. Points are given for taste, presentation, originality, even décor. Kevin and I watch it almost every night while eating our own diners, which is rather unfortunate since our pastas and roast chickens always pale in comparison to their elaborate concoctions: palm-heart salad with chicory and fig, shrimp and pumpkin curry, and passion fruit mousse, etc. And these guys aren’t professionals. They’re a policeman from Hamburg, a salesman from Stuttgart, a student from Berlin.

Their knowledge and creativity in the kitchen make me realize how very meager my own skills are. Kevin is a much better cook than I am. He has an innate feel for creating simple, savory meals out of whatever we have on hand. I don’t dare attempt anything without a recipe, a special shopping trip, and at least an hour or two in the kitchen. I’ve spent the last few months just repeating a handful of simple meals until I can do them sans recipe: breaded pork (schnitzel), chicken curry, clam and anchovy spaghetti, coq au vin, etc. but I want to know more, and I want to learn to cook food that is seasonably appropriate, thoughtfully grown, and fresh fresh fresh. So I’m signing up for a series of culinary classes at the community college in Edmonton. I’ve pre-ordered my copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. And I’m deciding which model of worm composter I’ll get once we have a place of our own.

I’m almost so excited about all the things I’ll try when we get back to North America, that I’m neglecting poor Würzburg and the present. So, rather than sit around on my tush any longer, I’m heading down to the farmer’s market for fresh corn and fennel. And I’ll even fork over the 8,50 euro for the bio chicken breasts, because tonight, I’m making "Lemon Chicken Ballotine with ricotta and Fennel Confit." It’s all perfectly in season.

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