In an unjust and fragile world, those creatures with the the big brains and opposable thumbs might –after a few centuries of feast and famine, choose care. Or they might choose new Audis. Electric is fine, so long as it's shiny.
Save for a few insufferably righteous eco-minimalists willing to take the long route, and vegans willing to sacrifice pleasure for righteousness, most folks say something helpless and go to Ikea anyway.
Ethics, like respect, only matters when you don't want to –and are unlikely to– do it.
What people are likely to do is what their friends are doing, and this is how the hipster movement has helped countless artisan roasters, brewers, bakers and bicycle-builders to build viable businesses.
Hipsters are subject to vitriol because they are seen not to be serious about their ethics. But we might consider that once you start drinking good coffee and eating good bread, it's hard to go back. So there is a durability to good taste as a social reform, whereas ethics are always subject to excuses.
A tableful of Italians are congratulating me for microfoam.
I try to raise my voice above the clamor to explain that I would have made it before but I just didn't understand why it would matter when you're using cheap coffee and UHT milk. I'm learning that pride in appearances is more important than other qualities, including flavor.
When I complain about not being able to speak at the table, the host writes to me: "A latte with coffee is different from a cappuccino, even though it is the same milk and the same coffee. Moreover, if it were not so, there would not be the cappuccino that the whole world loves and that the Italians have invented."
I spend the morning fuming about foam.
In San Francisco, a ritual of childhood was visiting Freed Teller & Freed, where I pretended to enjoy the gift of a terribly bitter chocolate-covered bean while my mother's weekly supply of freshly roasted oily "French Roast" beans were packed. This was long before the coffee revolution of micro-roasters and fresh beans swept the country. I didn't find out about milk in coffee until I lived in New Zealand, where the milk is so delicious that cappuccinos are pop culture.
When tragedy struck my life, those cappuccinos became my lifeline. Terrified to go to bed at night, the morning cappuccinos were the only positive thing I could think of. That sole pleasure became the ritual by which I created a new life, alchemizing minutes of pleasure and optimism into intentions printed into my notebooks.
For over a decade, I've been drinking my coffee with milk and it has remained the most important –and non-negotiable, if no longer sole– luxury of my life. I buy from the best coffee roasters wherever I live (although I don't buy their most expensive roasts). I buy the best milk I can find. I have a real burr grinder and a heavily-researched semi-automatic espresso machine (Gaggia Baby). A special heatproof glass pitcher of just the right dimensions for the Gaggia's steam wand. My portable terroir includes a favorite coffee cup, because I can't drink coffee out of the whatever most people have.
My solitary birthday often consists of spending an hour at each of my favorite cafés, investing extravagantly in dreaming the next year to life.
Given all that, it's rather surprising that I have never before considered the question of foam. I have never observed it, distinguished one from another, commented about it. I have never distinguished one foam from another. For my host it's the only thing that counts. For me it's the only thing that doesn't matter. I'm fascinated by how this is possible.
I excused myself from breakfast in hope of helping Valentina make tomato sauce. Not that she showed any sign of needing help. She had already moved a wheelbarrow full of tomatoes into her kitchen. She had moved the massive cast iron burner to the floor. She had settled a 50 liter pot on the burner. She had collected and cleaned 25 empty 1l glass jars. She told me to watch.
I stood, paring knife in hand, for the remaining 30 minutes during which she trimmed the bad spots and white core from the tomatoes. I was not invited to participate. I was allowed to carry the trimmings to the chickenyard. Later I was also allowed, after vigilant instruction, to screw the lids onto the jars.
After a month in the kitchen, I am still restricted to setting the table. Once I was allowed to stir something, but apparently that was a special situation. Foreigners are seen as culinary toddlers. If we knew what to do with tomatoes we wouldn't be taking expensive holidays to Italy, now would we? Clearly they have no idea what people eat in New York and London.
While the landscape is an idyllic postcard, and the farm is appropriately abundant, the kitchen is a shocker. There is not a single good knife and the cutting boards are not used for that. Everything that is cut is cut in the hand, with a cheap plastic-handled steak knife.
But the real shock is that the farm's tomatoes, olive oil, and peaches are served in preparations with the lowest priced pantry goods available, instant panna cotta, industrial mille feuille, UHT bechamel, and the supermarket's generic ricotta.
After the jars are full, I secure my status as culinary lunatic by scraping the caramelized skins from the bottom of the pan. She hears me, and presumptively gestures to the bin; her eyes widen when she realizes I've placed my treasure in a bowl. Later I will mix it 1:1 with butter and a few handfuls of Benedetto Cavalieri from the supply in the trunk of my car – the only pasta for which I'll cheat keto. But I make the mistake of reading the butter.
I don't get it. How is it that Italians who cannot trust people outside the family to trim a tomato, trust supermarket conglomerates to produce their butter?
In fact, every Italian I know shops in corporate supermarkets. They all know that the quality is not what it should be. None of them uses price as the reason (and I'm not sure prices are actually lower in supermarkets). It seems they find it too much trouble to buy from quality sources. (This is probably rooted in the same mysterious urgency as why they feel the need to drive impatiently at 2x the speed limit always.)
For most people, even most Italians, the appearance of the food seems to be enough. They presume the taste, and don't bother to actually taste. Italians persist to laboriously produce a proud image of Italian cuisine, but which simply doesn't taste as [good as] it should because they presume that industrial ingredients are good enough. Certainly good enough for tourists, who are presumed easy to impress with appearance, but even good enough for the family, who, apparently eat pride in Italian gastronomy rather than attending to flavor.
Chef Massimo Bottura is infamous for insulting his diners by serving a meagre 6 tortellini. Explaining and extrapolating his reasons has become an anthropological crusade. Only one aspect of his message is that people need to pay more attention to what they are eating. To taste it again, this time, now, with an open mind. Instead of eating an idea of what it should or should not be.
It seems that Italians, in all their reverence and wisdom about food, need to slow down to make sure it still tastes good.
Do you taste the thing you are eating or do you, like Massimo, taste a memory?
With my main occupation on indefinite hold, I drift from place to place, wondering if any of them are enough. I don't need money but I am hungry for work so I offer my unskilled hands to farmers. I work tomatoes, corn, white figs, wine grapes, and tourists.
My body likes to be exhausted. I abandon my weekly planner.
I find myself making tables, serving and clearing. I remember this particular pleasure. I like the opportunity to create a space. I like the series of tasks. I remember the crisp experience of success. When anyone tries to do my work for me, I bristle. I grip the experience of success like any wage.
Especially when there isn't a financial wage, I'm more attached to the symbolic wages which include success, connection, and service.
Another pleasure of labor is teamwork. Interdependent responsibilities and tasks that require two persons impart a social elation far bigger than the task, and often far more satisfying than the relationship itself. Yet the sweetness of collaboration can be magnified (by deliberately sharing the task) or disrupted (through competition or making irrelevant someone else's work). When my boss diverts the task and deletes my work, I feel loss, followed by rage. Knowing that I have no authority or righteousness to determine anything about someone else's business, I submit. In that submission is alienation, detaching my sense of self from my work, which is not easy. It often takes me half a day to recover.
I am serving the espressi. I like to do this with a tray, preferably a small ornate one holding maximum three cups. With its round edge and a genuflection, I can enter the recipient's space. I insist intimately that they receive and then, sometimes with a smile, I am gone. When there are many to be served I'm sent with a plastic tray. I can survive this indignity if I still serve each person, but the woman I have tragically approached takes charge of serving her entire table. Realizing she has the same desire as me, I incline my head, lower my eyes, and wait for her to finish caretaking.
The next morning as I gleefully prepare a certain guest's particular cappuccino for my little tray the host seizes the milk frother from me. I grip it and struggle before yielding. She, too, wants this moment. I am furious and storm out of the kitchen, abandoning my duties.
Horrified by my dereliction, moreso by its indefensible cause, I spend the day contritely considering what is it that I'm attached to, and why? It's not the first time my fierce attachment to service created conflict, and not the first time I was thoroughly aware that I have better things to do. I recall sneaking into his bathroom to put the new box of aspirin just behind the old, relishing my memory and wile. I was disappointed when he asked me where it was rather than trusting my intelligence and looking where it should be. I was confused when she attached the label of 'servility' to my doing an errand for her.
I must admit that all of last week, three of us raced for the privilege of delivering desserts to guests.
Work, apparently, is far more than labor. It is pride, generosity, connection, an act of intelligence, a courtly dance.
We use the same word for what happens in restaurants and what happens in churches.
I brought zucchini directly from the farm. I had even picked it. Sunshine yellow, striped, and deep emerald. Too abundant in some places I'd lived, too expensive in others.
I sliced them lovingly. We discussed the oven, settled on a skillet. I preemptively sloshed it with the good olive oil, then left him to induction jockey and turned to set the table.
I appreciate home grown chilis, however hot. And I eat herbs like salad. But the bit of chili and the shower of cannistered herbes de provence displaced the delicate zucchini.
My friend Nigel once deconstructed an unconvincing dinner party by explaining that our friends bought the cheapest ingredients they could find and then spent all day trying to add flavor to them.
When I serve preposterously simple things to Italians I explain to them what "nouvelle" and "California" cuisine thinks it learned from the Mediterranean: to let the garden define cuisine, and do less to it in the kitchen.
I can't imagine anything more luxurious than eating within walking distance of a tomato patch. A bowl, a knife, balsamico, basil, oil, salt – all are nice, but not required. More than that strikes me as completely unnecessary. I find most Italian food overcuisinated. There is a sense that you must do a lot to it in order to transform it into cuisine. The cooking overshadows the food.
To me, every authentic ingredient stands on its own. It's not necessary to get your ego involved, you can just eat it.
My friend has just produced another beautiful meal. She improvised it from a landscape of memory, imagination, and the family farm. She sent me to the garden for a sweet chili and to the other kitchen for a sieve. She moved the napkins and glasses closer to the plates so their would be more room for a feast of platters in the middle of the table. She paid someone to iron the tablecloths. She chased every drip from the edge of every plate. When she approached the table, pride in both hands, her smile melted the whole bucket of ice.
Her guests oohed, ahhed, took photos and gushed compliments. We joked that they returned the plates "already clean".
She turned from the table and walked back to the kitchen. It looked, as is to be expected at this point in the service, as if a landslide had passed through. Discarded containers and wrappers and oven dishes and tea towels and serving spoons had been pushed aside for plating. Items pulled from the pantry and not yet returned balanced precariously on hastily gathered bowls from the first course. A lemon, a paring knife, and half a cookie languished next to a coffee, prepared and forgotten in the scramble.
As the guests lingered over spilled sugar, pizza crusts, and wine, we faced the sink.
I longed to drag her aside. To give her a glass of wine and retrieve a plate of the best she had made from a hidden place in the cupboard. But it was not my kitchen. And her way is to do penance for the joy of cooking for people.
She will now hand-wash all the muck from the cooking pans and the guests' dishes.
I would put it all –including the oven pans– directly into the dishwasher, running three loads if necessary, leaving it stacked dirty until the turn came.
Her excuse –and it's a common one– is that the dishwasher won't get things clean, or that the cooking pans take up too much space there, but I think this is an evasion of the celebration. It is a response to the void of having done something well. When no financial instrument is sufficient and there is nothing else to receive, the material at hand for injecting any sensation into that terrible void is to induce suffering with more and worse work.
The drama triangle is a game people play in relationships when they want intimacy but don't know how to create it. They hop around between roles that trigger intensity: victim, persecutor, rescuer.
Victory dripping from her serving spoon, what is she to do? Does anyone really know what she has given them? Does anyone really care? Is the fleeting pleasure of a meal eaten while talking about something else worth the energy of her life? The intensity of congealed fat and scrubbing and dirty water and the smell of industrial cleaners displaces this unanswered yearning.
In the morning, the sink is clean and I put the dishes away. I gather discarded packaging and return supplies to the cupboards, but there's no space to clear the counters. She arrives to make another feast in the intersection of overbuying unstackable heart-shaped bowls and underinvesting in kitchen organization, balances a bowl on the edge of a pan of leftovers, and starts cracking eggs into it. I want to give her a marble pastry table. I hand her the sugar.
Valentina is 78 and almost always smiling. She is a workaholic. As her daughter takes the first bite of dinner, sitting down for the first time all day after serving 30 guests, Valentina is standing behind her chair and asks "what will we cook tomorrow?"
She gets up at 05:00 to make peach or apple crostata for breakfast, then to begin prep for her daughter's 10-course restaurant. Her husband Pierro (83) whose land she married onto, manages the vegetable garden, orchards, and a diverse flock of fowl, chattering to the two small dogs who follow him everywhere. Together they swap out the empty 50l gas tank for a full one, which they maneuver from his truck on a dolly. They don't ask for help with this from their daughter, son-in-law, the staff, or Pierro's namesake grandchild (16). Valentina also joins him every afternoon to herd the geese, turkey, and chickens through the orchards, presumably to clean bugs and fallen fruit. But when he walks into the dining room cuddling his favorite chicken like a baby in his arms, she takes the chicken by the neck and escorts them both out.
She makes cheese, but she only eats dairy when it's in the form of dessert. I asked her if she ever used sap from their fig trees as rennet. She doesn't. She makes her own rennet from a sheep stomach that's been hanging to dry for 4-5 months. This is dry enough to grate, and then she mixes it with egg yolks, olive oil, pepper, cinnamon, and some other herbs. With this she makes a paste to coagulate the cheese.
Pierro's tomatoes are a wonderful tangle of varieties, a fragrant tunnel surrounded by basil, eggplant, peppers, and then by the orchards. For most of their lives, Pierro and Valentina spent peach season picking at 04:00 and then driving to deliver the peaches to local stores, where the customers would stand waiting, refusing to buy other peaches.
Because Valentina speaks a dialect, I can't pick up much of what she says, and she can't manage my neophyte Italian either. I wonder at the knowledge slipping through my fingers, but I can't take my eyes off her face and eyes. In desperation to hold what I can, I make a video of her deftly knocking out gnocchi for 30. "A video of my technique", she repeats credulously, to the family. She already knows I am a lunatic, because I have put candles in the dining room and the family (in ironic respect to the American concept of Italian cuisine) now eats "in the dark".
One Monday morning when the laundress had taken Sunday afternoon off, I thought I could get away with using an unironed tablecloth, but Valentina caught it at 06:30 on first glance as she passed from one kitchen to the other.
I'm sad that I can't capture and learn more. And I'm even more sad because I wonder what her recipes would taste like if her daughter bought good ingredients, instead of the cheapest she can find in the supermarket.
For eggplant parmiggiano, the eggplant has to be cooked twice, first in the farm's olive oil and then in their tomatoes. But industrial parmiggiano is sour and dominates the result. Stuffed zucchini flowers require incredibly delicate work, but the ricotta is industrial, and I've tasted enough ricotta to know the massive variation of quality. The crostata uses eggs and peaches from the farm mixed with cheap flour and UHT milk. The farm's basil is lavished on cheap spaghetti. The sweet onions braided to hang in the shed are roasted with the cheapest available beef – and Italians don't want to talk about it.
I'm helping the daughter with dessert. I hand her each plate. She scoops the cheapest gelato she can find and insists that I clean the edge of every plate. She pays a maid to wash and iron the tablecloths twice a day, but she doesn't want to pay for real food. She makes a custard by hand and then layers it with supermarket puff pastry procured in more than its weight of plastic. I say "I don't understand how you can make this by hand and then mix with something industrial." She says "well I don't want to make puff pastry". Ok, I say, then just mix the custard with peaches. She says "but if I do this the people are so impressed. They feel they are in a pastry shop." So the illusion is worth more to her than the ingredients, or taste.
I watch Valentina eat. She eats like me, grazing on what appeals to her, a handful at a time, selective. I wonder if she knows the difference and doesn't oppose her daughter, or if she too is seduced by the price and ease of industrial ingredients.
I've always liked whittling but I'm usually more fond of the practice than the outcome.
Until recently I used a little pocket knife and sometimes a gouge. This month I've taken it to the next level, thanks to a birthday present of two Swedish whittling knives.
And I've decided to push through the 'meh' barrier*.
We've had some rough weather this winter, so I've found lovely bits of driftwood washed up on the west coast beaches nearby. I look for Rata or Pohutukawa which are both very dense and pink to red in colour. When I went beachcombing with friends recently, they were puzzled by how easily I could tell which bits were suitable.
Of course I've been identifying timbers for decades, which is what I told them, but then I realised that I had an extra advantage. The sunglasses I was wearing were filtering out other colours and making the right driftwood seem hyper-red. What a happy coincidence!
One of the advantages of using driftwood for this project is that if I don't like the outcome, I take it to the beach where I found it and release it back into the wild. Maybe another beachcomber will find it and love it, otherwise it will return to being a gently degrading piece of flotsam.
This is how I've been able to work past the 'meh' barrier - nothing I make is a waste of time or resources. So I make and evaluate, make and evaluate, and I think these three spoons I whittled are beautiful. They have the right combination of colour, texture and form, as well as feel good in the hand.
The other two, which I'm not showing you, will go back to the beach when I go beachcombing again.
* when you spend hours making something, then look at it & are sorely underwhelmed by everything about it.
Do we have superfoods now because most of what we eat isn't food?
I posed this question a few years ago when there were new-to-me exotic fruits around, such as Jaboticaba, labelled as superfoods. I was postulating that superfoods used to be just everyday food, but they've had to be elevated because now we eat other things that we call food and they can't all exist in the same category.
When I say 'other things that we call food' you might think I mean stuff like margarine, cheese-food, anything that contains petroleum and is an unnatural colour, reconstituted potato chips with an ingredient list as long as the container they're in, those things that are a legal defense for indefensible actions... hostess... junk... cakes? and I do, but I also mean fruit and veges, fish and meat.
I bought some carrots, cute little carrots in a bag. I was living in a country that grows less than 1% of their own food so everything comes in a bag from another country. It is also a very hot country, so I put the carrots in the fridge. And promptly forgot about them.
Another kind of superfood...
Three weeks later, I saw them again, and they looked exactly the same as they did when I bought them. (In my defense, I went on holiday. I would usually open the fridge much more often.)
Completely repelled by their long shelf life, but curious to see how long that life would actually be, I shut the vege drawer and left them there. I checked on them weekly, for three more months, until I moved out to go back to NZ. No change at all. Exactly the same.
Unfortunately I had to finish the experiment there, as NZ won't let me bring uncooked veges home on a plane. By this time, I could probably have argued that they weren't vegetables, but it wasn't an experience I wanted to have with our border control people.
Even so - almost FOUR MONTHS!!! No mould, no rot, no growth. How is that possible?
I know I shouted, but I think the lesson here is that even though it looks like a carrot, it might not be a carrot.
How can you tell if food is real food?
In brief, this is how I judge it:
I know where it comes from, even who grew it or made it or fermented it. It was grown in the same environment that I live in. It smells good - a peach smells like floral honey, not damp wood, a capsicum smells like spicy juicy sunshine, not like nothing at all. It might even have some dirt on it. It might be so delicious that bugs have been enticed to nibble on it.
I think we're doing something wrong if the bugs won't touch it. Or if there are no bugs to eat it.
Why does it matter?
There are lots of reasons. You are what you eat - if you eat good food, you'll feel good about it, maybe even happier and healthier. Good food is made with love, and you feel it.
But also, I think it would be quite nice to stop global warming. Healthy food, grown in a regenerative way, is good for us, good for the people who grow it, good for all creatures great, small, and very, very tiny. Apparently, eating that kind of good food will start to fix our environment within 20 years if absolutely everyone does it. To find out more about this, check out the 4 per 1000 website and watch the movie Kiss the Ground. They helped me understand that we really can make a difference, by choosing with our mouths and stomachs and our cash, even if we're not growing anything ourselves.
Kindness & generosity
So many years ago it was last century, me and my then-girlfriend used to go to the organic vege stall every weekend at the Salamanca Markets in Tasmania. Marianna, an exuberant and passionate organic farmer, was the stallholder and would be so welcoming every time she saw us. She might have saved something special for us, and would always pop
something extra into our bags for us to find when we unpacked.
We fell on hard times for a while, and stopped going there, because we had to be very frugal. I don't remember noticing how good the organic fruit and veges were when I started eating them, but I definitely noticed how tasteless the supermarket ones were when I went back to them.
Anyway, one day we saw Marianna in the street and, greeting us with her usual warmth and enthusiasm, she asked us why we didn't visit anymore. We both looked away, embarrassed, shuffled our feet a bit and then one of us mumbled a confession. She immediately said, bring the money you can spend, and I will give you your usual amount until things
start looking up for you both again.
No supermarket is going to do that for you.
I planned an afternoon baking cookies with my friend. I wanted to bake small batches, adjusting the dough each time. By the end of this, she was irate: "It took too long!"
"Oh, sorry, did you have something else to do?"
"No, but I don't want to stay in the kitchen any longer than necessary."
"Oh, I thought our plan was to hang out in the kitchen together?"
Clearly my idea of "baking cookies" was socio-spatial, and hers was production oriented.
We debriefed. She had raised three children. The kitchen had been a space of endless toil.
I work long days on self-defined projects interwoven with shopping and snacking. For me the kitchen is a destination for contemplative munching, stirring, and assemblage, a sensual pause between tranches of production.
I understand that people have different histories and emotions attached to different kinds of effort. What I don't understand is what people want to finish laboring in order to do. Swipe through foodporn on instagram? Watch a cooking show on TV?
As I travel through kitchens, I realize that most kitchens are not nice places to be. They are uncomfortable, overwhelmed with clutter, and defined by drudgery.
So here's a brief guide to re-socializing your kitchen and making it one of the most sensuous rooms in your house. In order of priority:
- Comfortable chairs, at least one, preferably three. Comfortable unupholstered chairs exist, but they are rare and unlikely.
- A dishwasher that does not require pre-washing.
- A garbage system that is a pleasure to use and is not visible when sitting in the chairs.
- Marie Kondo it. Get rid of EVERY item that you do not LOVE with great joyfulness. If it's rough in your hands, get a better one. If it's ugly in any way send it away. The ordinary everyday tableware is what you will use the most. It should be the most expensive and pleasing!
- If your refrigerator, drawers, or pantry is overstuffed, reduce the contents by half, knowing well that you still have 10 years of tea and noodles.
Everything you touch and look at there should be part of the feast of delight.
My preferences include:
- Raw wood countertops to create spacious space to directly slice vegetables, roll pastry, and even safe for hot pans (I do use a designated separate board for onions and garlic, so as not to foul the next slice of bread of fruit). Even if you stain or burn wood, it can be sanded unctuous again.
- The sink can be an unpleasant place. One of my friends wipes it after every use, which is a big improvement. I hate wet sponges because they always threaten to be smelly, so I use silicon sponges for hand-washing dishes. I have my favorite hand-soap next to the sink so that I can feel completely refreshed after dirty jobs, although I try not to have any by putting dirty things directly into the dishwasher. I also have a towel designated for clean hands only and another designated for counter cleanup. I always use paper to clean up dairy-based spills on the counters which reduces the chance of bad smells in cleaning cloths.
- No knife blocks, most of those knives never get used. Buy expensive knives that feel like part of your hand, and you only need one or two, a chef's knife (I prefer santoku shape) and a paring knife.
- No plastic. It's ugly.
- Matched, stacking plates, glasses, and cups. So much physical and visual clutter is caused by assorted mismatched tableware. I also prefer white.
- Silver-plate dining cutlery. It's warmer and more beautiful. You can put it in the dishwasher, so long as you get rid of all your stainless to avoid mixing it up, and place all the stainless utensils and cookware at a distance on the upper rack.
- Cast iron, carbon steel, or enameled cookware without plastic handles: easier to clean than stainless steel, can go from stovetop to oven, and nonstick without toxins.
- I try to keep my pantry and fridge as lean as possible so that I can't forget anything that is there. I only buy things that I use regularly and plan to eat soon. If something is missing, that's a chance to go for a walk, or improvise.