Christmas Cookies, 2014 Edition

What kind of Christmas cookies am I making this year?  Lots of them.  That’s what kind.  Thirteen dozen cookies so far, and six dozen left to make.

There aren’t any recipes here.  But this year’s baking bounty includes gingersnaps and orange cardamom shortbread.  The gingersnaps are from Chez Panisse, via David Lebovitz, and are my most favorite gingersnaps in the world.  And the orange-cardamom shortbread is homegrown, available here, and may be my very favorite winter cookies hands down.

Christmas Cookies, 2014 Edition

Bake and enjoy!  I can’t send you all cookies, alas.  But by making them yourselves, you all get the added bonus of rescenting your house with the not-too-saccharine smell of holiday cheer!

Go Vote, 2014 Edition.

Here in the United States, today is voting day.  Today is the day that many states decide on new governors, some on new senators, and all of them on new representatives.  Voting is the most important duty and the greatest privilege of citizenship in the United States.  And the stakes this year cannot be overstated.  So if you have not yet gotten to the polls:  go now!

Go vote, 2014 edition

On the Rhetoric of Lacto-Fermentation Online

If you’re wondering where I’ve been (dear readers!), the answer is otherwise occupied.  The past two weeks have been overflowing with grading, and more grading, and a plethora of projects that spread their tendrils like a delicate blue-cheese penicillium into every crack and crevice of my free time.  At least one of those projects is food related, however, and based on some research I’ve done for it, here is one observation.

There are a few standard rhetorical moves that food bloggers — including myself — make when introducing lacto-fermentation to their audience:

  • The broad call to history and tradition: “This is a technique as old as time itself, that has sustained humanity through its harshest winters when it would otherwise have starved.  I want you to feel — FEEL — that connection, people.”
  • The call to family history: “This is a wholesome food, and I know it’s wholesome because it’s something that my great grandmother would have eaten with relish.”
  • The call to ethnic heritage: “My family is from Lithuania, so when I think of sauerkraut, I think of old men in suspenders, up to their elbows in cabbage, smoking cigars on the porch on Sunday afternoon.”
  • The health claim: “I’m no doctor, I’ll admit, but after eating these peachy fermented green beans for a month, the knot in my back unclenched and my singing voice improved!”
  • The moral claim: “By doing this, we’re saving the environment and sparing our children from a gut bereft of beneficial bacteria.  Won’t somebody please think of the children?”
  • The foodie claim: “Michael Pollan / Sandor Katz / Sally Fallon / whoever else all but demand that we ferment!”
  • The disclaimer: “I know that this sauerkraut looks funky.  But it tastes fun-KAY!”  Or: “I swear guys, lacto-fermentation won’t kill you.”

The thing about all of these moves is that while they have their place and while, in a limited way, they describe some of the reasons we ferment, they are not comprehensive.  It turns out that folks practice lacto-fermentation for all kinds of reasons.  And while health, morality, or tradition may play some role, practical concerns — like the question of what to do when your neighbor gives you a bale of kale — are at least as important. It seems only right that deliciousness and the thrifty thrill of a homemade salty snack often win the day over loftier ideals.

There’s no particular judgment here.  Like I said, I have engaged in many of these rhetorical moves, and I stand by the idea (for example) that lacto-fermentation is worth doing because it connects us to our common humanity.  But I can’t eat common humanity, whereas I’ve got a great big inviting jar of pickled turnips waiting right over there.

Eclair Extravaganza!

These eclairs were pastries of necessity, people.  With almost four dozen eggs haunting my fridge, I really had no choice but to act rashly.  But the thing with making eclairs for no particular occasion is that they can only be done in batches of two dozen.  And with only three or four people to devour them — that’s a high per capita rate of pastry cream.

Eclair Extravaganza!

Eclair Extravaganza!

I cannot — alas — give you a recipe.  It isn’t mine to give.  But if you’re interested, I would highly recommend investing in a copy of Pastry: Savory & Sweet by Michel Roux. It is short, cheap, and has lots of pictures.  But despite those things, I have not seen a better book for making elegant pastries at home.

Pal’s Sudden Service in Greeneville, Tennessee

Pal's Sudden Service in Greeneville, Tennessee

I had no idea that such a thing as a Pal’s Sudden Service existed, but apparently, they sell hamburgers, chili dogs, and sweet tea all over Tennessee.  I did not — alas — get a chance to eat at one of their establishments.  But the delightfully campy exterior of this specimen in Greeneville tickled my sense of Americana.  And when next I’m passing through the neighborhood, if I think I can stomach a dose of fast food, I might just stop.

Walt Whitman, Now in 3D

There is no originality at all in this, but as part of a quick experiment, I’ve taken a stereo card from the 19th century, and turned it into an animated GIF.  I really like the effect.  It looks very much like a photo in three dimensions.  And seeing as how it’s the Fourth of July and all, the stereo card I cut up is both taken by a famous American, and of a famous American.

So without further ado:  Walt Whitman, by Matthew Brady.

Walt Whitman, Now in 3d

The file turned out to be a tiny bit large. And for that I am very, very sorry.

A Patriotic Moment with Melville

To all of you for whom it is relevant — I’d like to wish you a happy Fourth of July. I have no recipe for you (alas!). But I do have a (sort of) food-related quotation from one of my favorite American authors: Herman Melville. Just by way of warning, it is from Typee, his first novel, which indulges in an unfortunate appetite for the exotification of the “savage” other. But Melville is capable of such impressive turns of phrase that it is worth tolerating this shortcoming in order to share in his clear delight in language. So:

Their very name is a frightful one; for the word ‘Typee’ in the Marquesan dialect signifies a lover of human flesh. It is rather singular that the title should have been bestowed upon them exclusively, inasmuch as the natives of all this group are irreclaimable cannibals. The name may, perhaps, have been given to denote the peculiar ferocity of this clan, and to convey a special stigma along with it.

These same Typees enjoy a prodigious notoriety all over the islands. The natives of Nukuheva would frequently recount in pantomime to our ship’s company their terrible feats, and would show the marks of wounds they had received in desperate encounters with them…. It was quite amusing, too, to see with what earnestness they disclaimed all cannibal propensities on their own part, while they denounced their enemies — the Typees — as inveterate gourmandizers of human flesh; but this is a peculiarity to which I shall hereafter have occasion to allude.

I sincerely hope that whatever culinary issues you face today, one of them is not a propensity for the inveterate gourmandizing of human flesh.  But I do hope that the phrase, at least, will stick in your mind.

Have fun!

I’m Talking at the Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery — Tomorrow!

I feel like it’s been events and announcements and self-promotion all around for the past few weeks, and that I’ve been short changing you all on substantial writing about food.

That will change very soon.  Promise.

But in the meantime, if you’re in the Philadelphia area, come out and hear me speak tomorrow night at the Barren Hill Tavern and Brewery in Lafayette Hill — on Germantown pike, not too far from Chestnut Hill.  I’ll be reprising the talk that I gave at Science on Tap in April —  “Culturing Food: History, Health and Fermentation.”  But it will be a new audience, with new questions, and (I hope) some slightly spiffed up visuals.

At any rate, it’s part of an event called Pint of Science — a multi-city, International, three day mini-festival that happens in a bunch of cities.  The people who run the Philadelphia chapter are super sharp.  The other speakers sound fascinating.  And did I mention that there is also going to be beer?

Pint of Science - Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery

Here’s the relevant information:  the Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery is at 646 Germantown Pike; the event goes from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm; mine is the second talk of the night.  And though they seem to want you to RSVP here using Eventbrite, registration is in fact free.

Come on out, have a beer, and have a good time.  And if you do make it, say hello.  I want to meet you!

On the Radio — WHYY’s The Pulse

Update: Here is a link to the complete story, including audio of the broadcast, at WHYY’s

Do you remember last month when I gave that talk about fermentation at Philadelphia’s Science on Tap? What I didn’t tell you then was that Lari Robling, reporter from WHYY — our local NPR station — was in attendance. She interviewed me for a piece she was working on about the current popularity of fermented foods, and she taped a little bit of my lecture.

Well this Friday — May 16 — Lari tells me that the piece will finally air.

On the Radio -- WHYY's The Pulse

If you are in Philadelphia, tune into WHYY’s science and technology program, The Pulse, at 9:00AM on Friday or 10:00AM on Saturday to hear what we had talked about.

Or, if you’re not local, check out this page to see the story online. It should be available at the same time as — or perhaps directly after — the story goes live.

Buff-Crested Bustard, and Friends

No food here, alas.  But I cannot resist posting these photos from yesterday’s trip to the McNeil Avian Center at the Philadelphia Zoo.

This guy’s a buff-crested bustard, and the strangeness of his appearance is outstripped only by the strangeness of the noise he makes.

Buff-Crested Bustard

And this guy — I don’t even know. But he was awfully friendly and liked having his picture taken.

McNeil Avian Center, Philadelphia Zoo

There’s something singularly magical about a zoo experience where there are no barriers between you and the animals. Even if it is limited to just a few birds.