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Heritage

Extended family gatherings were infrequent when I was young. But when my cousins, my brother, and I did see each other, a game of touch football was in order. Our college-going uncle served as quarterback for both teams, and most plays involved a pass towards the end zone. If we were playing behind my great-grandparents’ home, that end zone represented far more than a 6-point score. It signified the fears of a nation during the Cold War, embodied in a family fallout shelter.

bomb_shelters_handbook

Redefining ‘end zone’ for 40 years.

The few times we braved the rickety stairs in, we were engulfed in the musty smell of old mattresses and cobwebs. The walls were lined with shelves, each of them filled with faded canned foods. It all looked so mysterious and forbidden, and thankfully became an unnecessary relic.

Resonating through that dark family foxhole was the fact that they canned all those foods themselves, in good old heritage-rich Mason jars. Home-grown sustenance, preserved for the family to nourish them through fear.

Portions of this preservation ethic continued into my teen years, as my mom canned food from a variety of small family plots. Yet the majority of the food in our home was prepared and packaged under corporate aegis. We practiced backyard husbandry in the very suburb that supplanted my father’s boyhood rural home. For a while, an ancient Ford tractor stood in our garage, as my father meticulously restored it, hoping for a field to plow. These contrasts created in me nostalgia for things that never existed all in one place, fragments of heritage, disconnected parts of a massive body of knowledge.

Cultural heritage is a rich but delicate thing, with family heritage being even more so. It contains cultural components like music, folklore, biases, and philosophy. It contains physical elements, ancestral hand-me-downs like grandfather’s fiddle, photo albums, furniture, and old mixers. It extends tradition across generations.

Heritage’s delicacy lies in the fact that our memories are such temporary holding spaces. My personal memories cannot exceed my lifetime—so I cannot remember the legacy directly. I must depend upon family folklore—which can be shattered through local or worldwide disturbances, such as a Great Depression or a Cold War. Sometimes it just fades from neglect.

Given the tumultuous nature of the past century, I was born into a ruin: Artifacts existed, but they were broken or separated from their normal use. Traditional ways had succumbed to emergency measures. In the relief of waning emergencies, convenience had a strong appeal. The heritage went on hiatus.

Home-canned Beets

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Non-irradiated, perfect for enjoying with others above ground.

In a sense, the home-grown and family-preserved sustenance was held captive by the fallout shelter. I had to decide which was of permanent value and which was pervasive but temporary fear.

The fear relates to many elements: compromised security, lost independence, increase in hunger, forgotten family, and a state of want.

Permanence relates to these same elements, at a level significantly higher yet nonetheless grounding: the sanctity of life, compassion, fairness, progress, and even creative deviance from the norm.

The common message is to listen to the fear: Build the bunker, stock it, and lock it.

But the less common message holds more power: The bunker is not part of your heritage. The heritage is in those jars. Everyone in the bunker gets to eat. Everyone comes out alive.

At some point in my own never-ending enlightenment, I realized that I would have to recreate who I was as an eater. My consumption had to keep pace with me as I became a more ethically-focused person. The traditions I might have been given in an uninterrupted stream across two centuries were sadly in disrepair. This meant that I had to recreate my heritage also. In my favor, I could build upon timeless values drawn from my family’s lived-in experiences. The remnants that I inherited—compassion, a sense of fairness, and self-reliance—were now mine to interpret in the New World. I had the honor and duty to craft them into a legacy for moving forward.

Heritage is what we are immersed in. It’s an ambient life-giving support system that stabilizes us as we progress. But it is not only ours: it belongs to those coming after us. By building wisely, with foresight and an expansive vision, we are bequeathing a better world for those yet to live.

We’ll have more to discuss at the New York City Vegetarian Food Festival, March 2, 2014. See you there.

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

What do you do when you’ve made more cornbread than you can eat? Okay, that’s not quite the situation. I can eat a lot of cornbread, thanks to my heritage. But I did have some that was getting a bit stale, and I needed to reaffirm its importance. Hence, this Sofrito Cornbread Strata.

Seriously full of flavor, it’s like creamy polenta encased in crunchy crusty cornbread. It is absolutely center-of-the-plate material, so build the rest of the meal around it. For my meal, I added some black beans, charred broccoli, and a roasted red pepper cream sauce. Pico de gallo or another Mexican-style salsa would also be great companions.

Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros

Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros

Here’s the recipe. Some helpful notes follow. Enjoy!

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups cornbread, broken into crouton-sized bits
3 cups sweet potato, roasted, peeled, and diced
2 Poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and diced
1 1/3 cups unsalted vegetable stock or water

1. Heat oven to 350°.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Sauté until they release their liquid.

3. Add sofrito and salt. Mix well. Remove from heat.

4. Place the cornbread into a large mixing bowl. Add the mushroom and sofrito mixture.

5. Add the sweet potato and the poblano. Pour in 1/2 of the stock. Mix well.

6. Check the mixture for saturation. It should be evenly moist, with no excess stock in the bottom of the bowl. Add more stock if necessary and mix well.

7. Press the mixture into several lightly-oiled cake rings (mine are 3.5 dia x 2.25 deep), and place them on a lined baking sheet. Alternatively, you can put the entire mixture into a single lightly-oiled casserole dish. (If you’re using cake rings, you can place some of the vegetables around the edges so that they are visible when you remove the rings. This adds to the visual appeal of the dish.)

8. Bake uncovered at 350° for 30 minutes. If using rings, remove them at this point and broil for 5 more minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

Helpful Notes By design, strata and their sweeter kin, bread puddings, make use of leftover bread that’s become stale. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a fresh batch of cornbread for this dish. There are a few other advance prep items in this recipe in addition to cornbread. They can all be made a day or two ahead of time, so that putting together the strata is a cinch. So, before beginning the recipe itself:

  • Make cornbread (use your favorite recipe)
  • Roast sweet potato
  • Make sofrito (see recipe below)
  • Roast Poblano chile (see process below)
  • Make vegetable stock (follow link for great tips—this is so easy!)

You can easily pop the sweet potato in the oven while your cornbread is baking.

The sofrito recipe yields 2 cups, only 1 of which you’ll need for the strata. Use the other cup to flavor rice (add to ½ cup rice while cooking) or beans (add to 2 cups beans after they have been cooked.)

Sofrito

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto seed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground chile (cayenne, chipotle, or ancho), optional
1/4 cup cilantro, or parsley, minced

1. Gently warm oil in sauté pan.

2. Add onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes.

3. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for an additional 5 or 10 minutes.

4. Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Yield: 2 cups

Roasting Poblano Chiles: Turn your oven’s broiler on high. Place the chile in a pan under the broiler. Turn the chile every few minutes until it is entirely blackened and blistered. Place it in a plastic bag or a bowl with a cover. As the chile sweats, the peel will loosen. After about 20 minutes, you can easily remove all the peel. Resist the urge to rinse it, as doing so will wash away much of the flavorful oils. If you hit a stubborn spot where the peel won’t come off, don’t stress over it. It will be fine. Roasting can also be done on the stovetop if you have a gas stove. (This is actually closer to ‘authentic.’) Simply place the chile directly on the burner and turn on the fire. Rotate frequently as above, until the chile is fully blackened and blistered. Follow the same steps for sweating and peeling.

“Kind:” Extraordinary work from poet Gretchen Primack

Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack

Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack

Certain things are ineffable. There are moments when we cannot dig deep enough into our storehouse of words and grasp the proper one. We cannot attach enough inflection. We are unable to swaddle our message in sufficient emotion. Our attempts at expression clatter out of our mouths like Mason jars down a basement stairway.

And then there is Gretchen Primack.

In her present poetry collection, Kind, she tackles not only the things that are difficult for humans to express, but also those things that our fellow beings cannot express: the two-way horror of a killing floor; the nightmare of workers in a slaughter factory; the despair of a mother whose young are repeatedly taken from her: her children’s fate and hers are one and the same: to feed the appetites of another species, systematically, facelessly, in tangible daily scenarios that confound comprehension. Is this cruelty truly reality?

But she sees not only cruelty. As the title suggests, she sees quick visions of kindness. Her husband, working against fate and expected outcomes, tries to save two orphaned fledglings. He is unsuccessful, of course, as we all would be. But he succeeds in portraying the valiant kindness that we all must have, fighting against all expectations and naysayers and critics, pursuing that which we genetically know is right. Isn’t it what every sane, compassionate, kind individual should do?

We should all be thus, not letting anticipated outcomes limit our actions. We should be passionately, obstinately, vehemently kind, in matters simple and complex.

But her kindness doesn’t end with her engaging spin on a common homestead tale. She extends it to her canine companion, who, being a dog, must be a dog. Upon encountering the lifeless body of a fallen fawn, Gretchen allows her friend to follow her nature; Gretchen herself will continue up the trail alone. It is a visceral and beautiful moment when most of us would waver. But her kindness is vast, varied, and wise.

Scribing the continuous chain from holocaust to circus to sable to egg to human privilege, her insistence is also vast. These images, these actions, these feelings, this consciousness—they are all the same. Read her entry entitled “Chain;” then read Rilke’s “The Panther;” then read Neruda’s “Ode to the Black Panther.” How many voices are in this chorus? And why do we still hear disharmonious tones?

Graceful being that she is, Gretchen also shares bits of joy with us: her garden, wild berries, heroic roosters, the fleeting—if tainted—happiness found in a picnic. Weighing the percentages of joy’s presence, we have much work to do. Her deftly demanding poems show us that too much shared and sacred life is left in the balance. With a poet’s grace she takes leave, encouraging us to cipher the equations and calculate our responses.

Crafting Non-attachment

The restaurant business is largely about ego. As a venue or chef builds an identity, egos become inordinately inflated. The maintenance of an ego requires the subjection of other egos. Subjection can be voluntary, or it can be coerced. Voluntary subjection often involves admiration and fawning. Coerced subjection is an uneasy thing, always ripe for rebellion.

Taking the position of Executive Chef requires that one have highly developed skills of coercion, for admiration comes in small numbers. One must be ready to squash any person, or group of persons, who wish to overthrow the regime. There are plenty of other egos on the rise.

I simply don’t have the interest in such matters. The time dedicated to cultivating an ego is better spent marveling at how things work: I mix my doughs. I let them rise as they will. I bake them. I let them go.

The ‘letting go’ part actually happens during the entire process. I bring together the elements. They work together as though I am not present. They develop towards their natural outcome. I am their servant more than their master. I can manipulate fermentation, but I certainly don’t own it.

As they work, I acknowledge that it is not me doing the work. It’s the yeast. The wheat. The water. The salt.

A craftsman will know just when and precisely how to interfere with working elements. And more importantly, a craftsman will know when not to interfere. Music works without a single person playing a guitar. Plants grow when we get out of their way—and they have shown that if we interfere too much, they will cease to nourish us.

Pride of craftsmanship is not equivalent to arrogance. Arrogance must speak loudly, of its own volition, about its own attributes. A craftsman can remain silent and let his work speak. This is how I wish to direct my energy. There is much more grace in it. It is a worthy goal to pursue: the heart of poetry, the core of craft, the essence of artisanship. It is the art of non-attachment.

Edible Craft

My donning of the bread-baker’s apron was not just a clever escape from an increasingly unethical predicament. More than that, it was a return to simplicity, to usefulness, to deeper and more satisfying meaning.

Bulgur Oat Loaves.

Bulgur Oat Loaves.

One of the reasons I changed careers a decade ago–from overpaid hi-tech exec to wage-earning food worker—was because I wanted to have a trade that I could take anywhere and perform at any time. To do something useful, something beneficial and immediate.  To have the option of moving off to some small town somewhere and just making food. The art of cooking is the most useful of arts, the most beneficial of crafts, and is certainly immediate in its application. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s gotta eat.”

Working now as a bread baker, I find myself even more connected to craft. It’s one of the oldest of the culinary arts, with a legacy of sustenance that almost predates history. And yet, with all of its longevity, it hasn’t become obsolete or passé. It is as vital to our enjoyment—if not to our sustenance—as it has always been. Its current renaissance as popular craft, with so many small-batch bakeries popping up and everyone talking about “artisan bread,” illuminates a core characteristic of bread baking: it is still an art form of challenging mastery.

The elements of flour, water, salt, and yeast each possess their own inertia, and will do what they are going to do. As a bread baker, my job is to work in concert with their impulses, to act or react at the proper time for developing the best flavor and texture for the bread. It’s a well-scripted art and an improvisational art simultaneously. I accept that I will always be a neophyte.

A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads

A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads

While I work to achieve a base level of competence, however, the pieces I make are still useful. They don’t pile up like so many unfinished canvasses or studio tapes. I don’t have incomplete projects lying around, or lopsided vases or an archive of poorly-lit negatives. What I have is still useful and sustaining. My test pieces, however unhappy I am with them, are still enjoyable with a spread of jam or tapenade.

Most of all, my hands are busy with honest business. I make my pieces with pride and identity, knowing that they will be enjoyed. The ones I make next week will be enjoyed even more. Upon each is the indelible print of my hands.

Beyond fulfilling the need for nutritional sustenance, bread supplies a greater assemblage of nutrients for an artist: anticipation for the outcome, desire for ongoing exploration, the promise of long-term mastery, and active learning for a lifetime. Everyone needs a good slice of that for dinner.

Kobayashi Maru on Wry

I want to pick up the thought I left at the end of the previous entry. The idea that I appeared as my own ‘deus ex machina,’ and rescued myself from a situation that was ethically compromising.

I’ve been in this type of compromising situation before. It was at the core of my flight from high tech into cooking several years ago. In fact, my entire life at that point was in violation of my own ethics. So I walked into my own headquarters and announced my departure. I resigned from the life I was living, and set out to determine my own terms.

It’s a classic Kobayashi Maru test, the famous Star Trek scenario which presented an iron-clad no-win situation. Every cadet at Starfleet Academy was required to pass this test as a show of character. Obsessed with beating the system, Kirk hacked the computer and rewrote the program.

In rewriting the program, or redefining the terms of engagement, we must proceed fearlessly. We must have a clear concept of who we truly are, for we are defying those that have a semblance of authority over us. It can be career-threatening, it can limit our life choices, it can end other relationships. It can put a strain on everything—especially our self-worth.

But at its core, it is about reclaiming one’s self-worth. Sometimes you must risk losing it in order to win it back. (It lends itself to all manner of trite ‘motivational speaker’ pronouncements, as you can see.)

By informing my employer that I no longer wished to serve in my executive capacity, I left the institution without a leader. Further, informing them that I would assume bread-baking duties was quite presumptuous, a heady dose of hubris.

It’s a stroke of self-actualized Tao recursion–the perfect way to manage any no-win program.

Deus ex machina

There are these moments of realization.

Some come swiftly: Sitting in your hermitage above Mendocino, staring at the Pacific arc, vision folds in upon itself and reveals that you have finally reached the starting gate.

Some come slowly: As you work through your daily routine, minding the store in meticulous detail, the list of things awry becomes a bit too lengthy. The resistance has a fierce tenacity. You breathe a resigned sigh. Of course this is where it’s going.

The identification of a pathogen hinges upon perspective.

I reviewed my notes. I recalled conversations. I added 2 and two. I checked the temperature and barometric pressure. I realized that my workplace was in complete opposition to my personal momentum. I needed to move in a direction that was harmonious with my own integrity. I needed to present myself as working in full concert with my beliefs—especially since I share those beliefs with others. And especially since I really truly fervently believe my beliefs.

I have a view of the world that I wish to inhabit. It is idealistic, it is realistic in small proportions only. I don’t expect the world to ever be what I want it to be. But this is a far remove from supporting a pathogen which is working against my own view.

I did truly come to view my employer’s institution as a pathogen, a causer of disease. From the support of industrial agriculture and therefore industrial toxicity at every level of food production, to the endorsement—implicit and explicit—of unfair labor practices to the absence of commitment to a better way of doing all things, they are indeed a pathogen, empowering other pathogens, in cultivating a sick world.

However, there is another perspective.

I was the pathogen, threatening the health of their institution. And they would take the necessary measures to limit the damage I could do within their system.

It was a slowly developing realization, but the moment of clarity was crystalline. Pathogen that I was, I needed to prolong my stay, to end the possibility of two-way harm, to maintain my functionality while preparing for my own (self-induced) expulsion.

Summon the deus ex machina, garbed not as Euripides might have him, but as a simple gentleman baker. Nietzsche may sneer, but only from jealousy.

 

Effecting a Coup

In the past few weeks, I effected—and was affected by—a coup d’etat. I was both the usurper and the usurped. I survived victoriously.

I want to spend a few entries on this, to explore what happened and why, and how the benefits will likely far exceed my own expectations.

First, the basic facts: I resigned my position as Executive Chef at an Asheville institution. The reasons were numerous, and all centered upon ethics. I can’t identify a single shared ethic between the owners and me, and I found myself in an uncomfortable dilemma: either compromise my own ethics and continue to represent the café, or resign. Accepting Shakespeare’s encouragement to be true to myself, I chose the latter. It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

Ethics are a serious matter, and so often we find ourselves in situations that violate ours. My patience with such scenarios has dwindled to zero, and though it poses financial risk, I am content with my chosen solution.

Now for the punch line: I didn’t just resign. I repurposed myself to the role of bread baker. I abdicated the command post so that I could be a worker. It’s a change that I am proud of. I vacated a compromising position, and took on a role that allows me, daily, to look at the products of my honest day’s work. I go home a little tired from the physical movement, feeling in my muscles the accumulation of lifting and kneading. I spend my work hours in meditative craftsmanship. I go home and sleep an honest round of sleep.

Like Moses leaving the Pharaoh’s palace to join his people in the brickyards, I feel at home among the workers in the kitchen. We are kindred. I have always identified with them, for in my DNA I am one of them. I am happy as I rediscover the joy of making food, of using my hands, of smelling fresh bread as it develops through so many stages.

I see it from so many kaleidoscopic angles. Each image illuminates the coup, providing greater depth to both the action and the reaction, confirming the gut feel that I have done the right thing.

More to come.

Plate-Based Activism Preview

In ten days I’ll be presenting at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival. It’s an honor to be invited…not to mention a great responsibility to uphold.

I’ll be speaking about activism, but not in the form of leafleting, nor paying people to watch a factory-farm video. There’ll be no call to march, no organizing of a picket. These are all very powerful activities, and each brings its share of progress.

What I’ll be talking about is a very individual, almost private, form of activism, asking each person to focus on their dining plate. I call it Plate-Based Activism, and it’s as simple as this: It’s pledging that one will only put goodness on his or her plate.

“Goodness” can be defined in myriad ways. Nourishment, kindness, compassion, goodwill, influence, progressiveness, absence of harm…and I mean all of these. Wrap all the above in deliciousness, and it’s a win all around.

Given the present state of agriculture—whether growing and harvesting of plants or of animals—“goodness,” to me, points to a very concrete manifestation: The plate should contain organic plant-based food.

Plate-based activism is the key to beating Monsanto. It is the way to win the war against GMOs. It leads to a decisive victory over the factory farming of animals. These causes are nothing new. However, we often overlook the rampant disenfranchisement of American agricultural workers, which is at the core of the industrial machine. (See my previous post, below.) Plate-based activism can lead to victory there, too.

It’s not a difficult thing. The most challenging aspect is awareness—but this is a deep-rooted trait among alternative and subversive cultures. The other test comes at the market, when we make our purchases. Often we compromise due to economics. And this is when the multi-national agro-industrial corporations win. This is when goodness loses.

Think of it as a bus boycott: Do not pay the fare—even if it is cheap and the bus is a convenient form of conveyance—in hopes that the system will change. Do not be intimidated at the size of the system, nor ashamed at the smallness of the fare. Exert your economic power. If only for the sake of your own conscience.

It’s a form of saying ‘grace’ at meals: Look at your plate, take inventory of the goodness that you are propagating, acknowledge the absence of wrong-doing, and believe that all can be well.

For those of you who can attend, I’ll be presenting at 11:05 on Saturday, March 2. I’ll expand on all the above points, offer sources of information, and hopefully provide momentum for all of our personal progress.

Post-traditionalist Pecan Tart

Pecan Pie

Pecan Pie

I am included in this article (Mountain Xpress, Asheville, NC) about cooking for the holidays. My ideas have a strong connection to my upbringing, but as with all things, I’ve applied my own arbitrary updates.

With the article is my recipe for a pecan tart. I hope you enjoy it!

 

Pecan Tart

Yields one 10-inch tart
1 10-inch pie crust, pre-baked
2 1/2 cups pecan halves
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup rice syrup
1 cup soy milk
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. sea salt
3 tbsp. flax meal
1/4 cup arrowroot, dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast pecans in oven for 15 minutes.

In heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine maple syrup, rice syrup, soy milk, vanilla, and sea salt. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer for 10 more minutes, stirring often.

Vigorously whisk in the ground flax meal and dissolved arrowroot.

In large bowl, combine syrup mixture with pecans, and stir thoroughly. Pour into pie crust.

Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until bubbly and browned. Let cool thoroughly before slicing.