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A place for fast food. December 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, I rushed home after a busy day of visits and errands. My mission, should I choose to accept it: to make a hot, delicious supper for six people in less than an hour. To say that this was stressful is an understatement, but I was undaunted: I knew I could do it, thanks to modern technology.

Armed with cans of black beans and crushed tomatoes, and several bags of various salad combinations, supper was a snap: Saute several diced onions and green peppers in olive oil with black mustardseed, cumin, oregano, lemon pepper, and Trocomare; toss in a huge can or two of black beans and a big can of crushed tomatoes; add some veggie stock and hot fresh salsa (two of my other favorite grocery convenience foods) and a big splash of lemon juice (I like bottled Key lemon juice); stir, mash, stir, and allow to mellow on low heat. Meanwhile, mix bags of Romaine lettuce and baby greens, add a chopped orange bell pepper, crumbled feta cheese, pepitas, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and scallions. Our friend Carolyn provided salad dressings and hot cornbread, and her brother Rudy brought wine. We brought sour cream and shredded cheese (yet another convenience food) for the soup, and before we knew it, the six of us were sitting down to a delicious dinner.

There are many arguments against prepared foods, and one of them is price. If you’re on a budget like us, spending big bucks for convenience is usually just plain stupid. We have friends who wouldn’t dream of buying canned beans when they could soak a bag of dried beans overnight and cook them for pennies a serving. We have friends we’ve never seen open a bag of prepared salad mix.

I say, keep your eyes open. I patronize a local grocery that often puts greens on sale for 99 cents a package (down from $3.99, and still perfectly fresh). Often, I’ve bought organic baby arugula, baby spinach, and many a salad mix for 99 cents when a head of chemically-grown iceberg lettuce was going for over two dollars. The same store has a “three for $5.99” section where I’ve bought packages of locally-grown apples, pears, tomatoes, green beans, sweet onions, mushrooms, garlic, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and many another yummy veggie or fruit for a fraction of the price in other stores. They often have big discounts on canned beans, tomato products, and dried pasta, as does another local grocery, so I compare and stock up.

I do consider myself a from-scratch cook. I use basic ingredients, not mixes. I don’t buy fast-food meals from drive-by stores like Mickey D’s or KFC. But I feel no shame about using canned, frozen, and dried whole foods when they’re reasonably priced and save me time.

All this came to mind when I received an e-mail with an attachment for an article called “In Praise of Fast Food” by Rachel Laudan in The Gastronomica Reader, excerpted by The Utne Reader (http://www.utne.com/). Ms. Laudan’s reasons for supporting fast food are different from mine—I suggest you read her article and draw your own conclusions—but the article strongly brought to light the dichotomy between today’s slow-food locavores and the rest of us.

I mention this simply because I often think of the past in terms of creating convenience without guilt. Which is to say, everyone viewed time-saving and shelf life as untarnished positive developments before modern storage, shipping, and globalization made fresh food universally available year-round.

Think back with me to this era of seasonal abundance and seasonal scarcity for a moment. Imagine the thrill of canning or freezing food so it would keep until you needed it! Imagine pickling or preserving food so you could eat it out of season! Imagine making luscious white bread and using white sugar without even a clue about calories or health issues! Imagine buying butter from the store instead of having to churn your own! Imagine  the joy of welcoming new developments without ever once thinking, “Is this bad for me?”

To me, this period—roughly from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s—was The Age of Innocence. The age where we could enjoy food without worrying about its consequences on our health, simply because, with the sole exceptions of gout and obesity, no one had a clue that food was other than healthful. If it tasted good, it was good, end of story.

I can see housewives rejoicing over white flour that didn’t quickly go rancid like whole-grain flours (in the pre-refrigeration era), eggs and dairy products delivered fresh to your door or sitting chilled and conveniently packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery, canned and frozen foods that stayed good practically forever so you could stock your pantry and freezer and just grab what you needed. I can see them celebrating cake mixes, tea bags, bagged bread, sugar and salt that stayed granular rather than clumping, dried herbs and spices. I can see it all.

Ms. Laudan points out in “In Praise of Fast Food” that the glory days of fresh, seasonal, from-scratch eating were only glorious for the wealthy, who could afford to buy all the food that the peasants produced, leaving them to try to get by on scraps and shavings. She didn’t add, but I will, that in bad years, even the wealthy went hungry as a result of crop failures, and everyone else pretty much starved.

And we’re not just talking about the Middle Ages here. Much as I loved Little Women as a girl—it was probably my favorite book—I was shocked and haunted by the March family’s obvious hunger and lack of even common necessities during the brutal winter that opens the book. Pre-convenience foods, the larder often was empty.

To me, eating locally produced produce and foods that support our neighbors and our local economy seems an appropriate and moral thing to do from every perspective. After all, if someone in my area wanted an expert editing job, I’d certainly appreciate it if they came to me rather than outsourcing their work to New York or L.A. In turn, I could put the money they paid me into other local enterprises, and with everyone’s cooperation, our little community might become more self-sustaining.

But I agree with Ms. Laudan that it’s a luxury, just as my being a vegetarian is a luxury, made possible by an abundance of delicious produce, dairy products, and grains provided daily to our grocery stores by modern technology. I can take the moral high road only because my choice is supported by an abundance of resources, from farmers’ markets and organic CSAs to health-food stores and groceries that stock local products.

Were it not for them, I would be forced to resort to the full range of my omnivore inheritance or starve: eating the squirrels in our trees as well as the nuts that fall from them, raising chickens to butcher instead of coddling them through their long lives and gratefully enjoying their eggs, roaming the countryside in search of edible roots, herbs, shoots, berries, mushrooms, and greens to supplement what I could raise at home. Trying to barter eggs, preserves, salsa, or spaghetti sauce for enough of local farmers’ wheat and corn to provide our friend Ben and me with bread and the chickens with feed. Praying that someone nearby would grow dried beans to take the rest of us through the year, and that the dairy farmers could give us milk, butter, and cheese in return for money or barter.

And what if you didn’t live in farm country like we do? What if you didn’t own a grain mill, yogurt-maker, butter churn, or canning equipment? What if you didn’t have the time to use them if you did own them, because you had a family and (at least one) full-time job? 

No, you’ll never see me in a Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, or Taco Bell, or spot our little red VW Golf in the drive-up line. But yes, I am grateful every day for the fresh, pre-bagged, canned, frozen, juiced, and ground products that make it possible to cook delicious, healthy meals every time without spending all day, every day, trying to make it happen.

          ‘Til next time,



Eat your kudzu. October 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I get a free daily Utne Reader online installment, and one of last week’s featured headlines was “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em.”* Sure enough, the article was about an idea I’ve long espoused: eating invasive species before they eat our landscapes and gardens. In this case, it was about how Chicago chefs were attempting to turn the Asian carp, which is threatening to invade the Great Lakes, into a delicacy.

Being a gardener and a vegetarian, this of course brought to mind that other Asian invader: kudzu. Kudzu is native to Japan, where it did no harm to anybody until some American idiot decided that the stuff was fast-growing, indestructible, and no-maintenance, so it would be the perfect food for cows. Unfortunately, he failed to test kudzu for cow palatability before importing and unleashing the stuff.

Turns out, cows won’t touch it. But its other sterling qualities are true in spades: It’s indestructible, requires no irrigation or fertilizer, and spreads like wildfire. It’s been covering and killing huge swaths of native Southern trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals ever since. If you took a nap out of doors in kudzu country, it would cover you. Our friend Ben and I live in terror of global warming’s bringing kudzu up here to Pennsylvania. We already have our hands full with poison ivy, thank you.

Cows might not eat kudzu, but I had to wonder about the Japanese themselves. Like all island people, they’ve found uses for pretty much everything that grows on their land and in the seas that surrounded them. Surely there’s a Japanese dish or two that features kudzu?

Heading to my cookbook collection, I pulled down Japanese Foods That Heal by John and Jan Belleme (Tuttle Publishing, 2007). The chapters are organized by ingredient, so I figured if kudzu was there, I’d find it right away. Kudzu… kudzu… hmmm. No kudzu, but there was a chapter called “Kuzu: The Wonder Root.”

Sure enough: Kuzu in Japan is kudzu down in Dixie. And my hunch was correct. I quote: “In its native land, kuzu has always enjoyed an excellent reputation. Asians seem to have no problem using kuzu as fast as it grows. Since ancient times, the leaves and roots have been used for food. The strong fibrous stems have been used as thread to weave fabrics and baskets. But it is kuzu cuisine that has become a fine art in Japan. The purest white kuzu root powder is sought out by high-quality confection manufacturers and chefs of fine restaurants.”

Here in the States, according to the authors, kuzu root and root powder has gained a following among people who eat a macrobiotic diet. There’s even a whole book devoted to it, The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide (William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Avery, 1985).

What does kuzu/kudzu root heal, you ask? Damage from alcoholism, alcoholism itself, colds and flu, muscle stiffness. poor circulation, intestinal problems, stomach cramps, heart disease, osteoporosis, sudden deafness… the list appears to be endless. But don’t assume you can just head to the back forty and dig up a few kudzu roots for dinner. Here’s a hint as to why kudzu is unstoppable over here, now covering 7 million acres: Each root can weigh more than 200 pounds! And it takes three months for factories in Japan to convert them into edible starch through a complex process.

As a result, aficionados in the U.S. have to head for the local health-food store or Asian market to buy imported kuzu-root starch, and pay through the nose for it, to boot. But it’s worth it, and not just for the health benefits, according to the Bellemes: “Kuzu is unsurpassed as a thickening agent. It produces sparkling, translucent sauces, adds a shiny gloss to soups, and provides a smooth texture with no starchy or interfering taste. Vegetables and fish that have been dusted with kuzu powder and then deep-fried have a light, crisp coating… it is ideal in desserts like kantens and puddings, and it is the perfect ingredient in icings, shortcake toppings and pie fillings.”

So there you have it. Maybe somebody will take the hint and set up a kuzu factory down South. But meanwhile, I wondered, what about all those leaves? Could they be a palate-pleasing spinach substitute? That’s something anyone could harvest and prepare themselves, wildcrafting at its finest, since there’s certainly no danger of overharvesting! The Bellemes had no advice to offer, so I headed to my good friend Google, which was fortunately much more forthcoming.

Want to try a little kudzu tonight? Check out the recipes at Angela Gillaspie’s SouthernAngel.com (www.southernangel.com). She has recipes for Rolled Kudzu Leaves (rather like stuffed cabbage leaves), Kudzu Quiche, Deep-Fried Kudzu Leaves, Kudzu Tea, and even Kudzu Blossom Jelly. The quiche looked especially good. Angela says that only the young leaves (about 2 inches long) are edible—the older leaves are too tough and fibrous—and that they taste like green beans.

Kudzu Kabin Designs (www.nancybasket.com) of Walhalla, South Carolina has an even more delicious recipe for Kudzu Quiche, as well as recipes for Kudzu Candy, Kudzu Flower Jelly, and Fruit Juice Jelled Desserts, from a source cited as 101 Uses of Kudzu. You can also buy kudzu paper, kudzu art cards, kudzu-stem baskets, even kudzu soap on this site! As a bonus, Nancy notes, your kudzu purchases are “guaranteed never to grow again.” 

Then there’s the Blythewood Kudzu Festival site (www.kudzufest.net).** Their motto is “It’s here and it’s free—why not put it to good use?” My feeling exactly. In addition to jelly, candy, etc., this site provides recipes for Pork Tenderloin with Kudzu Salsa (the salsa uses the stems) and Kudzu-Rice Quiche, and tells you how to dry and store the leaves (use the dried leaves in breads and pasta sauces, as well as candy), and make and store “juice” from the blossoms for future jellymaking. It even provides nutritional info for the recipes!

The festival itself—now in its 35th year—includes a kudzu leaf-eating contest (one winner consumed 10 pounds, 6 ounces of what appeared to be raw kudzu leaves) and a Kudzu Sandwich Tent (selling kudzu salad, a kudzu sandwich, potatoe [sic]-flavored kudzu chips, and French-fried kudzu stems. The tent lists its hours of operation, but adds this word to the wise: “(or until kudzu is gone).” There’s even an alternative kudzu-themed food stand, the Kudzu Food VineLine, featuring a BBQ kudzu sandwich, kudzu burger, hot kudzu dog, kudzu salad (small), boiled kudzu stems, more potatoe-flavored kudzu chips, baked kudzu leaf tips, and iced kudzu tea. Sadly, no recipes were given for the kudzu salads or sandwiches, but there was a recipe provided for the boiled kudzu stems that has to be read to be believed. (In fact, the whole site has to be seen to be believed, or not believed, as the case might be. But it sure is fun!)

So, if you live down in kudzu country, make yourself a quiche, weave a few baskets, or try your hand at paper- or soap-making. If I had kudzu here, I’d try sauteeing the tender leaves with garlic and olive oil. If you can’t beat it, eat it!

         ‘Til next time,


* Utne Reader, October 20, 2010.

** No location for Blythewood was given on the website.

Animal “shortening”? Say it ain’t so! June 18, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was just scrolling through my e-mail and saw that The Utne Reader had sent its newsletter with the headline “Twinkie Ingredients Demystified.” Now, who could resist a headline like that? Certainly not yours truly. I may not indulge in Twinkies these days, but they occupied near-cult status throughout my childhood.

Scanning the page, I saw that the article was by a guy who’d decided to photograph all the ingredients in Twinkies. I clicked the link, expecting to be grossed out by a bunch of chemicals. Little did I know! Sadly, Utne only showed six of the photos; you had to go to the guy’s website to see them all. But that sixth photo stopped me in my tracks. The caption said “Animal Shortening.” And it looked like Crisco… or lard.

Animal shortening?!! Good God have mercy, what kind of euphemism will they think of next?!! Rushing to Google, I found that indeed, “animal shortening” was defined as lard, beef drippings, or rendered suet. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, the whole point of shortening was that it wasn’t lard. Either you used lard, or you used shortening (in our house, Crisco), which was made from vegetable oil. And never the twain shall meet.

As a passionate vegetarian, I have not been so shocked by any food-related revelation since they started putting gelatin in yogurt and candy (I had to give up Altoids and marshmallow creme, aka fluff, sob). Animal shortening?!! That’s lard, people. Let’s call a pig a pig. All I could think of was eating in a restaurant in San Antonio years ago and ordering refried beans. The horrified waiter told me I didn’t want to order that: “It contains the L-word.” “Pardon me?” “You know… lard.”   

Eeeewwww, lard. To think that Twinkies contain the L-word, too. Unfortunately, I just returned from the grocery and am not about to turn around and race back out just to look at the ingredients list on the back of a box of Twinkies. But I’ll check it out next time I’m there. I’m very curious to see if they list “animal shortening” or just “shortening.”

If I find that it just says “shortening,” I may start rampaging through the aisles. Hey, I can always plead the Twinkie Defense.

                 ‘Til next time,