Sunday, August 16, 2009

do it yourself: a julia child legacy

i went to see julie & julia - the new movie paralleling julia child's process of writing "mastering the art of french cooking" with a young woman's endeavor to blog her way through all 524 recipes in that groundbreaking cookbook. obviously, there were enough parallels to my own life that it seemed imperative to see it on opening night - even though that required a last minute change of theater location after our first attempt sold out.
as i've mentioned before, my own blogging endeavors are inspired by julia child - including the name and sentiment of cultivating domesticity - partly because she was one of the smith women (along with betty friedan and gloria steinam) who shaped my early thinking about gender roles and feminism. i graduated exactly 70 years after julia child, with a different, perhaps more nuanced approach to gender - one that somewhat wrapped around the bend from feeling relegated to the kitchen and home sphere to eventually feeling empowered and inspired by exploring my domestic creativity. enter julia child again.

from what i understand, her cookbook and subsequent long-running cooking show, "the french chef" made cooking meals from scratch at home accessible to women in a revolutionary way. julia's sincere appreciation for good food, her determination and attention to process - to doing things right - from scratch, combined with her own ungainliness and transparent acknowledgment of her own little mistakes and misgivings - she "took the fear out of cooking," and gave women permission to explore and create in the kitchen without needing to be "perfect" at it.
which is precisely what i'm doing in my own kitchen now. i rarely make the same thing twice - just because i love trying new ideas, and because i have a partner who appreciates and encourages my exploration.
michael pollan wrote a really interesting piece in the new york times magazine recently about how people in our country right now are cooking less, and watching cooking shows on t.v. more. the article has a number of fascinating points, i'll share a few of my highlights here:

cooking as a spectator sport
the "cooking" we're watching on t.v. these days is nothing like the cooking on julia child's show. her show was intended to actually teach and encourage you to cook these meals at home - it was filmed in real time, meaning you actually sat with her while water boiled or butter melted and she chatted you up about tips in the kitchen, and while it wasn't aired live, it also wasn't edited, so if she dropped something on the floor (which she did on occasion, but as she informed terri gross of npr in the late eighties, never a chicken, and she would never swig out of a bottle as some have suggested, at least not in public), you saw that too.

whereas cooking shows today are more like sports events than they are instructional. prime time cooking shows are edited for the drama and instant replays of fast-paced chopping and firey flipping, and are so outrageous in their ingredients and staging restraints as to be completely impractical for purposes of actually recreating their dishes. and that's the point. if cooking shows today inspired you to get up off the couch and into your own kitchen, they would be failing at their purpose of keeping you in front of the television.

i don't have time to cook
this is, of course, the number one reason people give for not cooking at home. according to pollan's article, we spend an average of 27 minutes per day cooking (and another 4 cleaning up). (which reminds me that both marty and i noted the absense of any talk of who was doing the dishes during the year julie spent cooking her way through julia's cookbook). this is half the time we spent cooking as a nation when julia child's show came on air. but also, it's half the time it takes to sit down and watch an episode of "top chef," or any other prime time show. so it must not be all about time.
i'd say it's also about being tired at the end of a work day - which i can attest to myself - and about the messages we get from corporate entities who have a vested interest convincing us to let them cook for us.

there's a particularly interesting bit in the article about the inception of pre-made meals in the u.s. market. a lot of innovation was put into creating instant meals for soldiers during wwii, that then (much like the conversion of chemicals in weaponry to their peace-time use as agricultural pesticides) needed a new post-war market. pollan describes how the first boxed cake mixes fell flat after being introduced to the public. women, whether they worked or not, rejected them outright - saying making cake from a box wasn't really "cooking." and they felt like it was dodging their moral obligation to cook for their families. industry did a lot of focus group testing to determine what the lowest common denominator was to still be considered "cooking," and determined that - for cake mix, anyway - breaking an egg would do it. so they removed their instant powdered eggs from the mix and gave women back the autonomy of breaking their own eggs and thus feeling like they were "cooking."

you are what you eat... and a stranger is doing your cooking
another possible casualty of buying into the whole "i don't have time to cook; how 'bout we just eat out" phenomenon is your health. while this may seem intuitive, michael pollan gives an explanation that centers around what he calls "special occasion" foods. because baking a cake from scratch, or frying up french fries for instance, takes so much effort - not to mention clean up time - it's something we didn't choose to do on a daily basis when we were cooking for ourselves. but now you can drive up to the take-out window and get fried foods 3 times a day if you like. and because sugar and fat are exactly the things that leave us happy and wanting more, it's in the best interest of a business not to skimp on those when preparing food for their customers. he, in fact, ends the article with a question posed to this unsentimental food-market researcher, about how we might undo the effects industrially prepared foods are having on our society; he responds:

“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

so let me extend this invitation, in the spirit of julia child's influence and inspiration: do it, and do it from scratch.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

beets = better than bbq chips

a quick note on roasted beets: they're amazing.
i know it's not exactly the season to be talking about beets, and i'll probably have more to say on the subject come fall when there aren't also bounties of heirloom tomatoes, peaches, corn, and all the summer harvest to rave about. but for now, i just have to say i've been roasting beets and adding them to salads and spring rolls and, well just popping them in my mouth whenever no one's looking.

they've got a sort of sweet, salty, smoky flavor, and are so pretty to look at.
marty describes them as "better than barbeque chips," so what more is there to say?
they're very easy, seem relatively healthy, and don't take much time.
basically you slice the beets into 1/4 inch rounds, lay them flat in a single layer on a cookie sheet or baking pan that's been greased with olive oil, dust them with a little salt and pepper if you like, and bake in a hot oven ~400-425 (i've been throwing them in with other things, like baked tofu, lately so my temperature guage hasn't been exact) for a while, maybe 20 mins - check on them periodically and flip them over once they start to brown on the top.

this is the salad i put them on, though they seem to be hidden under the sliced steak, baked tofu, feta, corn, and heirloom tomatoes. like i said, it's a summer bounty.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

hats around the bend

we just got home from oklahoma and it feels like many things are coming full circle. for one, it just occurred to me that this blog is almost a year old. as i was knitting up a new hat for nasra, whose head has outgrown last year's knitted cap, i started thinking about how i was knitting that hat in oklahoma last year, and how it was one of the first posts that appeared on the blog.

i followed this pattern for the hat this time. it's a very simple pattern, but made all the difference in terms of taking out the guesswork in decreasing. i was looking for a project to keep me busy on the plane and use up some of the odds and ends of various yarns i have kicking around the house. i used no. 8 double pointed needles, since that's what i had on hand. as the pattern says, this hat is very stretchy and should accommodate nasra's baby head growth for a while. i can even fit my own head in there, though it doesn't quite look right.

baby's head goes in there.