New (to me) Way of Cooking

Field corn turning from green to brown.

(Editor’s Note: First of a multi-post series comparing traditional and improvisational cuisines)

I am doing a noggin analysis of how we cook.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the symbiotic relationship between traditional cuisines and improvisational cuisines found in American kitchens like ours. It’s complicated.

Last week, while dropping off a shipment of kale to friends at the city’s public library, I picked up half a dozen community cook books on the used book cart for a small donation. Included was Carolina Cookery, the front page of which asserted, “Dishes tried and true; Dishes old and new.” Published by the Equipment Committee of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Mullins, S.C., the plastic-bound tome lists five women editors, all of them using their presumed husband’s names. This cook book is an example of what I would call “traditional cuisine.”

Based on four-digit telephone numbers in the advertisements, Carolina Cookery was published before World War II. It includes recipes like Mammy’s Pan Cakes, an old Mammy’s recipe submitted by Mrs. Hughes Schoolfield; Hop’n John, requiring one pound hogshead, one pound black-eyed peas and one half pound rice, submitted by Bishop B. Anderson in the section titled “Men in Aprons;” and Sweet Potato Bread from Georgiana, who was Mrs. L.M. Roger’s cook. Mullins was incorporated in 1872 in a tobacco-growing region that today hosts the South Carolina Tobacco Museum.

What I haven’t yet said is the influence of chattel slavery runs throughout the book even if the authors are careful to exclude any but the most indirect mentions of it. Reading it immediately after finishing Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South brought that element of the recipes and narrative to the fore. It’s why I picked this South Carolina volume from the two dozen available on the used book cart.

Black cooks working in white households, referenced in Carolina Cookery, is a legacy that continued into my memory. During a visit to Sangamon County, Illinois I dined at a home with such an arrangement. I felt uncomfortable about the vestige of slavery then and today it would be outrageous for a salary man without further means to be able to afford a part-time cook. In the United States, hiring girls and middle-aged women for house work is a common form of lowly paid work. At a young age my grandmother left the farm and worked as a house servant and cook in the Minnesota Twin-Cities. She continued to work for wealthy clients into my teen years. Maybe I should get over it but there was more to the experience than a woman finding work she knew how to do. It is a form of economic white privilege I today find repugnant.

What do I mean by an “improvisational cuisine?”

It’s what I’m doing, and also how many Americans organize their cuisine. For me that means creating a food ecology from which I pull in elements of our kitchen garden, the farms where I work, and area markets to prepare meals based on what’s readily available. Occasionally I purchase items on-line or via snail mail when I want something that’s not available locally. Recently I bought bags of dried Mexican-grown Guajillo chilies and Mexican oregano on-line. It is a never-ending process that produces, as Tamar Adler called it, “an everlasting meal.”

At home, we are lacto-ovo-vegetarian which requires and fosters a constant dialogue about nutrition, cooking, ingredients, flavors and diet. Being vegetarian strips away most traditional dishes. Occasionally we mimic meat dishes with the growing number of manufactured meat substitutes. If we make a pie chart of our diet, those meat substitutes would occupy a tiny slice.

Improvisational cuisine draws from the broader society. For example, Mother was one of the first white women I knew who prepared tacos in her kitchen. When she did, I invited some of my friends to share them. In retrospect, a contributing reason she took up this dish was the introduction of tortillas into our local grocery store before the advent of “Mexican food” sections like one finds at a supermarket today. It was another chance to use many ingredients normally found in her pantry to make something different and special.

I make tacos today, typically for breakfast, and they are more improvisational than Mother’s were, but use some of the same techniques. I buy raw flour tortillas to cook as I need them and make my own with corn Masa. The tortilla is a delivery system for a pan-fried amalgam of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, and protein topped with salsa or hot sauce, fresh tomatoes in season, and a form of soft cheese. It is a recognizable dish even though the ingredients vary from day to day.

Exploring the symbiosis between traditional and improvisational cuisine is a popular topic when talking to friends and neighbors about cooking. There is more to explore.

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Politics 2019

Apple Harvest 2019

Lest my silence be interpreted as acceptance of the 45th president and his administration’s actions in the run up to the 2016 election and during his tenure as president, let me make it clear.

Donald J. Trump should be removed from office as soon as is practical.

I don’t know if the current news about his work to get Ukraine to “do him a favor” will prove to be impeachable. What is certain is if it isn’t, he will do or has done something else that is.

The man has taken a wrecking ball to society and our government and I don’t believe our lives will be the same post-Trump. We’ll make the best of it when Democrats inevitably return to power, although some of the damage is permanent. Removal from office can’t come soon enough.

It isn’t just the president. He has the backing of moneyed interests to accomplish the agenda they want and have wanted since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in office. The president is not skilled enough to come up with such a detailed, well-coordinated agenda on his own. He continues to be the yes-man for all that right-wing conservatives have asked in return for helping him rise to power.

The road back to power is difficult for reasonable people, including Democrats. Most I know seek out common sense in what the president is attempting to do. There is no sense to it. What we find is the incoherent raving of a man subject to right-wing power beyond his control. To make sense of it is also to unintentionally make a case for his actions when there seldom is one, at least one perceptible from the media circus.

There has been so much news this month I haven’t been able to keep up. I remember feeling this when Watergate began to break. I’ll do now what I did then: Let sh*t fall for a while and hope reporters and elected officials do their work. The main question I have is whether Congress will produce meaningful Articles of Impeachment from the coming Ukraine investigations. I hope so but it’s not assured and the president will fight them as best he can.

The pace of breaking news prevents me from processing it before the next brick falls. What else can I do?

What will convince enough people to remove the president from office? How will dissatisfaction with his performance register on the national agenda? What can rank and file voters do to raise meaningful awareness of this pressing need?

I don’t have answers yet, but behind my food and politics posts, I’ll be working on them.

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Okra Summer

Okra Seeds

This year I grew okra for the first time.

It was an experimental change from store-bought to growing my own. I use okra mainly for gumbo and after this gardening season I have plenty sliced and in the freezer.

Okra is easy to grow and the plant produces for a long time. I now understand why so many people, especially those with limited financial resources, use it as a basic vegetable.

It’s not the most popular vegetable in Iowa.

I acquired the seeds at the home, farm and auto supply store in a batch of end of season packets left in a cart in the employee break room. If the seeds hadn’t been free, I would not likely have grown the vegetable. The excess pods produce plenty of seeds for next year. If I grow it again, I’ll plant just a few of them.

The reason I make gumbo at all is from watching cooking shows on public television, then on Food Network. Justin Wilson and Emeril Lagasse were most influential, but neither of them uses okra in the gumbo recipes at the links. Here is the recipe I developed after a number of years of exposure to these chefs.

Paul’s Vegetarian Gumbo

Make a roux with four tablespoons each unsalted butter and all purpose flour. Cook to the blonde stage.

Cook 10 ounces vegetarian sausage, sliced on the bias, separately in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Drain and reserve.

Add one cup each diced celery, onion and bell pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent. Add finely chopped garlic to taste (Use spring garlic when available). Add a thinly sliced hot pepper if you have one from the garden (Serrano and Jalapeno are my favorites).

Add one quart of vegetable broth, one pint of diced tomatoes and one cup sliced okra. Bring it to a boil and turn down the heat.

Season with 1 teaspoon curry powder, ground red pepper, or cayenne. Add prepared hot sauce to taste.

Add one cup chopped fresh parsley plus the sausage and heat thoroughly until the broth thickens.

Serve on its own or with rice.

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Apple Harvest 2019

Apple tree viewed from top of a ladder.

The view from atop the ladder was pretty good.

Monday I began harvesting Red Delicious apples from a tree planted on Earth Day 1995. This tree outlasted three others planted the same day.

Tuesday I completed a 350 pound donation to Local Harvest CSA, which has been my go-to outlet when there is an apple abundance. I kept three crates for the kitchen and many apples remain on the tree. Naturally, the best apples are furthest up and hardest to get. They don’t seem to be dropping like Earliblaze did so there is a chance to pick more… a lot more.

The question is always the same: what to do with the abundance? In the past I felt it important to use every apple possible. As a result of such compulsive cookery the pantry is well stocked with canned apple sauce and apple butter. I may can a batch of seven quarts of applesauce this year to refresh the stock rotation, but don’t really need it. With my current concerns about blood glucose levels, applesauce isn’t a go-to option for dessert even if I enjoy it.

Baked goods is an option. 2019 is busier than most years in politics so there are plenty of outlets for apple crisp, applesauce cakes and apple pies, including the county party’s annual fall fundraising barbecue. I can’t make it to the barbecue because of my work schedule but I’ll send in desserts for 24 or 36 people. I’ll also send an apple crisp to the Elizabeth Warren office in the county seat. We don’t eat much in this category, but at least one apple crisp will be for us as well as a celebratory applesauce cake.

This year I plan to dry more apples than usual. As a snack, dried apples are very sweet and something different. I have an old Ronco dehydrator purchased for a buck at a yard sale. It can dry a batch in a day or two.

I offered free apples to neighbors on our private Facebook page. I’ll fill any orders that come in on Friday. I’ll share with folks in town if they ask.

The bumper crop makes me wish we had a cider press. I’ll produce about two gallons of apple juice for additional apple cider vinegar making, but that work with a household juicer is too labor intensive to process all the apples. Maybe I can process a batch of seven quarts of sweet cider for special occasions.

When Johnny Appleseed planted his orchards, he did it for hard cider for settlers. My fermentation is to the vinegar stage, and for now I stay away from the hard stuff. That is, unless a gallon jug sits in the ice box too long and begins conversion of sugar to alcohol on its own. I’ll drink that. I’ve gotten to a place where I prepare our salad dressings using vinegar made in our pantry.

Living an apple life is pretty good. Maybe as good as it gets. It is work — the joyful kind. Thus far I’m nimble enough to scale the ladder and take in in the view for a moment before picking fruit. Apples are a way of dealing with life’s problems and an opportunity for self-improvement. I believe I’ll plant more trees next spring.

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Rainy Weekend of Apples and Michael Twitty

Freshly picked Honeygold, Bert’s Special, Crimson Crisp, Jonagold, Daybreak Fuji and Alvin Gilliam’s Seedling apples.

My Saturday and Sunday shifts at the orchard were cancelled because of almost continuous thunderstorms during the weekend.

I’ll miss the income, although will get by.

Saturday I canned the next batch of tomatoes. With the pantry containing 24 quarts of whole and diced, 24 quarts of tomato water and 48 pints of whole and diced, there should be enough to last all of 2020 and then some. I didn’t mention the quart bags of tomato sauce in the freezer… or the four dozen fresh on the counter… or the next wave ready for harvest. We’re good on tomatoes.

Sunday was a punk day. To get out of the house and take my daily exercise I returned to the orchard and picked the apples in the photo… in the rain… wearing the wax jacket I bought in Stratford, Ontario during one of our summer trips when our daughter was in high school. The wax jacket worked as far as keeping the rain off goes. The plastic lining made it too hot for humans by the time I returned to the sales barn to pay for my apples. I lost count of how many varieties of apples I tried thus far this season, maybe two dozen. The Robinette and Alvin Gilliam’s Seedling were astoundingly flavorful. It would be tough for me to return to supermarket apples.

Every once in a while we are reminded of how little we actually know about our daily lives. While it rained I made it halfway through Michael W. Twitty’s book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. It is one of few books I know like it. Twitty presents expository words about his genetic history and how that influenced the culture of slavery from a culinary perspective. He brings together something worth studying if interested at all in the local food movement.

There is a lot in the book. Although I don’t consume much meat and no fish or seafood, I’ve been thinking about my approach to growing and cooking since I started the book. Twitty provides new insight into the idea of a kitchen garden and using food that’s found or produced locally. There is a lot of discussion of greens, the liquid they are cooked in, and staples like corn, rice and root vegetables. I consider my own culinary practices and it’s a hodge-podge of dishes, techniques and ingredients rather than something coherent as Twitty recounts.

Culinary times have changed since the 17th and 18th century through increased urbanization. If everyone that lives in the nearby cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City trekked out to the country to forage nuts, wild plants, fish and game on a subsistence basis, the land would soon be stripped clean. That’s not to mention land in private ownership with prime foraging areas and posted no trespassing signs. In that sense, only a small percentage of the population can return to that lifestyle. When the oceans are over-fished, and marine ecosystems are collapsing there is no reason to consume more fish and seafood. When poring over a menu that contains sushi, I shake my head and end up explaining to diners at my table why it shouldn’t be consumed. It doesn’t always go over well.

At the same time there is an ecology of food. If the cultural elements have changed, the instinctual behavior hasn’t. There’s a lot to learn and think about in The Cooking Gene. That’s part of why we read books.

Next I need another walk near the lake or through the orchard to let the ideas ferment. Only then will I see whether it is fleeting enthusiasm or something from which to make structural changes in my kitchen garden.

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Summer Presidential Candidate Weekend

Elizabeth Warren not speaking for a moment at sunset. Iowa City, Iowa, Sept. 19, 2019

Even a grumpy Gus takes in the hoopla of the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating process going on in Iowa this weekend.

Ann Selzer’s Iowa poll, released last night, shows the top tier of candidates has been reduced to two: Elizabeth Warren with 22 percent, and Joe Biden with 20 percent. Warren’s lead is within the four percent margin of error for the poll.

The next nearest competitors begin with Bernie Sanders at 11 percent and results rapidly descended from there. If these results persist, and I believe they will, the two tickets out of Iowa, arguably the most important ones, belong to people who are definitely Democrats, and could be supported by rank and file.

The reason I get grumpy about Iowa presidential politics is it’s the rank and file that matter most. Despite thousands who traveled to the Polk County Democrats fall steak fry, and largely felt positive about our prospects in the general election, most rank and file Democrats don’t attend these sorts of political events.

A study of my precinct election results reminds me President Obama just barely won his 2012 re-election campaign here, and Donald Trump won in 2016. In 2018, Fred Hubbell beat Kim Reynolds by a handful of votes. I don’t know if this is a swing district or one that is steadily turning more Republican. While I work toward the former, it may be the latter and I’m just in denial.

To put the weekend — with its multiple forums, town halls and the big speeches by 17 presidential candidates at the steak fry — in context, there was enough news for rank and file to be aware of the activities. Hopefully there is or will be engagement in the selection process.

Elizabeth Warren’s rise to Iowa poll leader is due to the smart and challenging work of a campaign organization led by Janice Rottenberg. Rottenberg led the effort that gave Hillary Clinton the nod in Iowa in a close 2016 race. Her experience is paying dividends for Warren. My interaction with Rottenberg has been limited, but she is the type of person who makes the campaign interesting, engaging and sometimes fun. She knows how to “dream big, work hard and win.” Her campaign staff and volunteers have been enthusiastic, smart and accommodating whenever I encountered them. They listen.

I heard Warren speak in public twice this cycle. A key reason she is gaining traction in Iowa is her ability to frame the campaign as one of people first in a way that is meaningful. She is an excellent speaker with an engaging personal story to tell, one that includes her fight against corruption in politics and her plan to fix it if elected president. Because she has been in the public eye at least since 2012 when she was elected to fill Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, we know she is as good as her word.

Warren stayed after her speech in Iowa City on Thursday to meet with individual voters and take a photo with anyone who wanted one. That meant an evening with voters (and staff) that continued until 11 p.m. This type of personal campaigning has been hard to do for presidential candidates spread thin over the four early states and the immediately following Super Tuesday ones. The only other candidate I’ve seen stay around like this to shake hands is Joe Biden. A personal connection with voters contributes to Warren and Biden leading in yesterday’s poll.

On the last day of summer I feel good about backing Elizabeth Warren in the February Iowa caucus. Because of her smart work and persistence, she seems increasingly likely to win the most convention delegates. With yesterday’s poll it seems clear she will get one of the tickets out of Iowa.

My comment from Facebook account: “IMO a single poll doesn’t mean much this far out, even if it is Ann Selzer. As I mentioned in my post, Warren’s lead is within the poll’s margin of error. It is accurate to say Sanders has slipped, not only in the polls. He began with a very strong list of 2016 supporters (~ 70,000, I heard), some of whom have become refugees to other candidates, including Warren, Buttigieg and likely others of which I don’t have visibility. I don’t see him picking up new support. I am skeptical of the “different kind of campaign” because when I discuss with Pete organizers and supporters, I don’t see much different about it. I will say Buttigieg’s supporters are very enthusiastic. As I said in my post, I’m more interested in rank and file Democrats than in people who engage in all the forums, speeches and events of this past weekend. What they do will determine the two or three tickets out of Iowa in February.

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Main Season Apples and Cookery

Left to right: Kidd’s Orange Red, Frostbite, Arlet, Robinette apples

We’re in the main season at the apple orchard.

We survived the madness of Honeycrisp weekend and can settle into some really great fruit like the four varieties of apples in the photo.

The Robinette was complexly flavored and super-delicious. That’s no apple joke.

The last two days of summer bring a lot of work. There are tomatoes to process, apples to pick, and a garden plot to prepare for garlic planting in a couple of weeks. The lawn is ready for grass collection once it dries out from the rain. Today thunderstorms are forecast so my shift at the orchard is doubtful. Outside work at home is also a bit dicey. Once the orchard shift is decided, I’ll plan the rest of the day.

Yesterday I took a quart or so of the small potatoes, cleaned and trimmed them, and put them into the slow cooker. I added carrots, onions, celery, some vegetable broth and a generous quart of tomato water to cover. By the time I returned from my shift at the orchard, it was ready to eat and so good. There are leftovers, including plenty of broth with which to start another batch of something.

I’ve been taste-testing Red Delicious apples for almost a month. The starchiness has passed and they are turning sweet. Not ready, yet close enough to start talking about containers in which to put the 350 pounds to be donated to a CSA. After that I have plenty of takers for what I don’t use in our kitchen. I plan two gallons of apple cider vinegar, a couple of gallon bags of dried apples for snacks, and a dessert for the county political party barbecue coming up next month. Will store as many as will fit in the ice box for later fresh eating. This variety is staying on the tree well, so there should be plenty.

Politics is taking more of my time. Yesterday I did a walk-through with the Solon School District to see if a facility would work for the February precinct caucus. It will. On Thursday I attended a town hall meeting with Elizabeth Warren in the county seat. The report was she stayed until 11 p.m. to meet everyone who wanted to meet her individually. Yesterday I introduced our newest Warren organizer to our local coffee shop and provided a couple of upcoming events to get on her radar. While I work on weekends until the end of apple season, the 2020 election is already ramping up.

We make a choice in life: engage in what’s good in society and work to make it better, or withdraw into our own family and lock the door against intrusions. When we enter the main season, it’s less of a choice. If we don’t work to make our lives better, there’s no one else who will.

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