I’m currently living temporarily in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a state of affairs that has led me to think quite a bit about locality. My dreams, of course, before coming here were to finally make contact with authentic American folkways, and hopefully foodways, to find local diners and farm markets and maybe even meet a grizzled trapper, a la Withnail and I, who would supply me with rabbits or venison or brook trout. Ah, Asad, you idiotic city slicker. The most popular grocery in town is at Wal-Mart, and the diner is Denny’s. (Though the Georgian fast-food chain, Chick-Fil-A, and their superbly simple chicken sandwich (toasted buttered bun, fried chicken cutlet, pickles), leaves me overjoyed. When I get back, I think I’m going to open a Chick-Fil-A on, like, Metropolitan and Lorimer and rake it in.) If anything, the national food distribution system is more entrenched and dominant here in sleepy P-burg, with its forty thousand people, than in New York, where I can choose which season’s milk I want my Parmigiano-Reggiano from DiPalo’s to have been made from, thank you very much. (I like winter, and I am insufferable.) But the experience of extreme difficulty finding any locally, sustainably produced food here in WV has gotten me thinking.
A couple of years back, my aunt was kind enough to invite me to a house she rented in Cape Cod during the summer. Naturally, given my fish obsession, I visited the well-stocked local fish store, excited about the prospect of partaking of the local catch. Yet upon questioning the honest staff about the provenance of their selection, I learned that while some fish was locally caught, much of the fish was shipped in by truck – swordfish from the Carolinas, bluefin tuna via Boston or even New York’s now-defunct Fulton Fish Market, etc. I’d had a similar experience in the charming little English seaside town of Aldeburgh, where there was a great selection of fish trucked in from Billingsgate, London’s wholesale market, resting prettily on ice, or being fried and wrapped in newspaper at the delicious fish-and-chip shop on the high street. (Random aside: I groggily concussed myself one morning there because of the medievally low doorframes.) Somehow, this seemed wrong, even though in London I would happily buy little vongole shipped from the Adriatic, cause that seems like a metropolitan prerogative. I was buying into the pastoral myth of the countryside as the authentic source of food.
So, the fish shops of Wellfleet and Aldeburgh are far better than the fish shops in, say equally picturesque mountain villages, yet the fish they stocked was, for the most part, equally accessible to retailers anywhere. Why the paradox? Expectation creates demand, and people expect fish near the sea, and like to assume it came right out of that sea, and usually don’t ask if it did. So fishmongers do business by the sea, often selling farmed fish like cod and salmon that it’s really hard to catch in the sea nowadays, while local fishermen cannot get distribution locally. Of course, there is wild seafood to be had in Wellfleet and Aldeburgh, it’s just harder to come by in this confusingly globalized day and age. In the case of Cape Cod, strolling down to the beach revealed thousands of native Wellfleet oysters lying around; I’m happy to report that we gathered and ate at least two hundred, and that my little nephew Sam really liked the tiny crab hitchhiking in our bucket. The point, however, is that locality is very difficult to ascertain in our current food system, dominated as it is by supermarkets with global supply systems. Even regional food preferences, where they exist, are largely now maintained for show rather than for the traditional reason that a particular food is in prolific supply in a region, with a few exceptions, such as Maine lobster, Maryland crab and Pacific salmon.
There’s a reason those three items are all, well, seafood. Fish and seafood are the last wild creatures we eat much of. But even farmed food’s origins are increasingly unclear these days, as I was finding here in Parkersburg, where my fantasies of connection with the land were being completely thwarted. By coincidence, the new Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, had just come out. Really three books in one, it recounts three meals in Pollan’s trademark analytical goody two-shoes style, one following a confined steer to McDonald’s, one from an organic farm, and one foraged and hunted by Pollan. The McDonald’s meal comes at the end of a long, and utterly fascinating, description of the dominance of subsidized corn production in the U.S. economy, and how the overabundance of cheap corn threatens to ruin our environment and our very selves. Pollan makes the astute point that industrial monocultures such as the corn, chicken, and beef industries transform the nation’s landscape into a dystopia. Rather than the aesthetically pleasing little system of a Georgic ode, we have instead literally disgusting operations the sight and smell of which must be kept in quarantine out of sight. The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that industrial agriculture requires pollute water tables and turn frogs hermaphroditic. The addiction to feeding cheap corn to cows, a ruminant that evolved to eat grass, means that harmful bacteria such as E.Coli multiply in their stomachs. And finally, the transformation of the rest of that pile of surplus corn into byproducts such as oils, starches, syrups and stabilizers means that most of our cheapest food is just corn byproducts (it occurs to me, with horror: et tu, Chick-Fil-A?). If I was to propose the simplest possible anti-industrial agriculture diet, I’d say: just don’t eat or drink anything with high-fructose corn syrup or vegetable (i.e. corn and soybean) oil.
To my pleasant surprise, however, Pollan’s second meal is a sunny account of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the nearby Shenadoah Valley. Salatin is a hero of the “managed pasture” movement, which entails rotating animals on pasture and allowing the grass to recover, rather than separately inputting synthetic fertilizers, corn, and antibiotics. He pioneered moving chickens in mobile coops after his cows, allowing them to pick grubs and worms out of the cow’s manure, in the process fertilizing the fields, keeping the steer disease-free, and filling their own stomachs. He has created similarly symbiotic relationships between the pigs, rabbits, and sheep on his farms, all of which rotate around the property while never being allowed to exhaust the pasture. Salatin’s beef eat only grass, which according to Pollan makes for a much healthier and beefier beef, which is confirmed by my experience of Argentinian grass-fed beef (which, sadly and absurdly, is as illegal here as Pakistani mangoes and unpasteurized French cheese). And I know for a fact that free-ranging chickens eating a varied diet as Salatin’s do make for much better eating than do your average Purdue broiler. Salatin is a bit of a nutcase (when Pollan asks how people in New York can get access to food like this, Salatin replies, “Why do we need a New York City?”) but his methods are impeccable, and from 100 acres of farm and 450 acres of forest he produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 11,000 chickens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 25,000 pounds of pork, 1000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits annually. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean: we’d need thousands of farms like Polyface to feed people this stuff, and food would be much more expensive.
Although, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good thing for meat, at least, to be a great deal more expensive. Why should we subsidize the cost of disease-ridden meats itself produced from subsidized corn when people spend barely any money on food as it is? Would less meat and less sugar in the American diet be a bad thing? Maybe the worst and most objectionable thing of all, though, about contemporary U.S. foodways is the flavor. Let’s be honest. The U.S.A. has the worst quality produce in the world. An apple or a peach or a strawberry from an average supermarket taste like mildly flavored cellulose. An apple from an orchard, ripe, in October, tastes complex and perfumed; a summer strawberry from an allotment is like an uncloying little sugar bomb; a real ripe peach from, say, Turkey, in summertime is simply absurdly good to eat. Yet here we are in the richest country in the world, etc, etc, etc, and we eat food that’s fit for the table of some Protestant Low Country in which toil and suffering in this world bring redemption only in the next. Unpasteurized cheese, which millions of Europeans eat safely every year, is illegal here out of fear. Yet the FDA would rather irradiate beef, killing its taste entirely, than impose any punishment upon producers whose product is routinely contaminated with lethal fecal matter. How are we screwing up this bad?
I don’t have an answer, other than to say that I’m going to be heading over to Salatin’s to fill a cooler with grass-fed beef and chickens and eggs soon. Pretending to be Argentine, by eating that beef with some chimichurri and some Malbec will be nice. So, I have realized, will eating food that accords with my general philosophy of taste: it’s better to perform labor procuring something that tastes good than trying to redeem something that doesn’t. A subway ride to a good butcher is better cooking than following thirty-six steps from Eric Ripert’s cookbook with watery scallops and woody rosemary. The increasing spiciness of American fast food, I think, is tied to an increasing need to camouflage the blandness and insipidity of the main ingredients. Not that I’m saying spicy food is bad; I’m Pakistani, after all. But excessive concealment is a sign of bad ingredients – I have my mother’s father’s favorite cookbook, from 1920’s India, and the recipes are amazingly simple: korma has chicken, onions, ginger, red pepper, and saffron.
New York is as guilty of overcomplexity as anywhere, with its chattering vogues for senseless combinations and magical thinking about this season’s ingredient, be it lotus bulbs or pork belly. How often do you see pastas or sandwiches that have four or five too many things on them? And how rarely do you see people with the rigor of gastronomes past, with a steady assurance as to what goes with what, in what season? Now we ridicule such inflexibility, residing bravely as we do in the great masala of today, where we have oversweet versions of Thai food served to us by French chefs. Take that, orthodoxies of yesterday!, comes our adolescent cry. Meanwhile, we’ve never eaten the simple, decent reduction from which the lemongrass reduction departs, and have no sense of which rules are being broken. And lest you think that cooking rules are some kind of dead-European-male thing, some sign of domination, remember this: all cuisines are bounded languages in which utterances have a grammar, and Mexicans, Provençals and Indians are equally protective of their regional foodways. There’s much pleasure to be had from intermingling them, but much to be lost by forgetting that people ate certain ways because long experience and settled tradition embody much more knowledge of their food than we have.
I recently tried to convince my sister that no spices whatsoever are needed to enhance a good chicken, and thusly cooked her the dish whose recipe I’m about to give you, along with some by-recipes that come along with buying a whole animal and using it unwastefully. But don’t try it with a factory bird from Giant Eagle, as I did recently, the flesh is mushy and dry simultaneously, and the muscle tone is weird, and the bird just doesn’t taste like anything. So get something good and then don’t do much to it. Try this if I haven’t convinced you. All you need is one good chicken; of course, finding one is harder than it should be.
This dish is a touchstone of simplicity, and won the argument with my sister. I like it with mashed potatoes. I read accounts of roast chickens in food books all the time, and often order it to test a kitchen, the same way you might do with tandoori chicken and naan at a tandoori place. By the way, Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favorite cookbooks, simple and methodologically sound and really indicative of a chef’s whole style, and he recounts some great tales of L’Ami Louis in Paris and their roast poulet de Bresse with fries. Oh man.
One chicken, smallish (free-range essential, organic preferable)
Half a lemon
Pepper (don’t even ask; yes, freshly)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Take the neck and organs out of the chicken’s cavity, reserving for stock, and put the chicken in a roasting pan. Put the lemon half in, cut side “up.” Smear butter all over the chicken, leaving a prodigious amount on the breast. Sprinkle with a lot of salt and pepper.
Put the chicken in the oven and leave it for an hour. Open up and check if it’s getting too browned, if so, turn down to 350. If not, leave and check again in fifteen minutes. Pull the chicken out, and poke a paring knife into the thigh – the juices will come rushing out clear as a bell. You should have a really beautiful bird with burnished dark-golden, crackling skin.
Carve the chicken into pieces (drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast) and remove to platter. If you don’t know how, just do it; you’ll be fine, it’s dead easy. Now pour off the accumulated juices into a small saucepan, spooning off excess oil, and squeezing the lemon half into the mix, and boil for a bit (you can mix in some flour here if you want a thick gravy – I prefer thinner juices as a sauce). Spoon over the chicken, or pass around. Putting these pieces of chicken over mashed potato provides more starch to absorb the reduced chicken jus, which is a great idea. Make it with a good chicken, and I guarantee this recipe.
Roast chicken bones (including what’s on people’s plates – don’t be shy)
Celery stalk, broken in half
Slice of ginger
Clove of garlic
Put it all in a pot, just cover with water, and bring to boil. Skim, turn down, and simmer for two hours. At this point, you’ll have a nice chicken-y stock that beats the pants off any can or cube and you can salt it properly and strain it. But don’t throw away the bones; take the leftover chicken pieces from the stockpot and pick the meat off the bones – there will be a great deal on the back, especially the two little pearly nuggets on the underside. French people have some sexy name for them, and they are good.
THREE CHINESE CHICKEN SOUPS
A good way to use chicken stock and meat; funny and old-fashioned but comforting and nice. Another is to use all the meat for a nice chicken salad. Another is to cook any vegetable in season (asparagus, celeriac, peas, nettles, you name it) in the stock and then puree it, topping with more pepper and a little Parmigiano, if you want. Another is to braise lamb shanks in it with onion and fennel and top them gremolata (minced parsley and garlic, mixed). Another is… well, you get it: it’s good to have some stock around.
Chicken stock with extra chicken meat (see above)
Flake the reserved meat into the pot of stock, which is simmering on the stove. Add a little vinegar and a little soy sauce. Simmer away for a while and then pick one of these three options:
1. Egg Drop: Mix about two tablespoons cornstarch and equal water, then mix into stock, stirring vigorously. Let thickening magic occur for a while. Beat an egg in a bowl, and pour into soup, stirring. You’re done. Serve with thinly sliced superhot little Indian chilies soaked in vinegar in a little bowl.
2. Chicken Corn: Add a couple of ears worth of corn kernels or a can of corn to the stock. Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.
3. Hot and Sour: Add sliced fresh mushrooms, cubed tofu, julienned bamboo shoots, some sliced pork if you have it, extra soy and vinegar, and a mess of white (or black) pepper. Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.
The rest of Dispatches.