A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

Mamushka by Olia Hercules

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 Earlier this year I published my review of Mamushka, a new book about Ukrainian food by Olia Hercules on the Spy books pages. Since then the book has garnered much praise and some nominations for food writing prizes, deservedly so, and I couldn’t bear to not celebrate such a wonderful piece of food writing on my site. So, here it is and if you haven’t already bought your copy, what are you waiting for? 

I don’t know about you but I get tired of endless *new* cookbooks which claim to be a fresh take on Italian/French/Spanish/Deep South food and by dint of a only few ingredient substitutions, are championed as culinary ground breakers. I am also tired of the self aggrandising proclamations by new kids on the block about their burgers/hotdogs/dim sum/bone broth/permutations of fried chicken and pulled meat when they have clearly carried out little research into the history and gastro-geography of their chosen foods.  Food as fashion is a pretty unpalatable concept when half the world seems to lack basic nourishment and some of the difficulties faced by the homeland of Olia Hercules throws this whole issue into even starker relief. Her book, Mamushka is refreshing because she writes about her food culture in an authentic, personal and respectful manner and as I read it, her stories remind me of memories from my own past.

When I was around twelve, my grandparents street in East Anglia gained a new Ukraine neighbour. He sometimes wept when he spoke of his homeland. He’d spend many hours in his gabled shed filled with swallow roosts where he dried the pungent tobacco that grew poorly in our unsuitable climate, eyes wet and fingers stained a deep russet from the leaves that hung in clusters from the rafters. These rustled each time the shed door slid open on its runners, adding to the cacaphony as swallows screeched in and out. My neighbour had escaped after being warned that he was being ‘watched’ (He never explained to me exactly what the implications were but I had an imagination) and he suffered great fear and hardship as he made his way towards the west. I think he knew he would never see his parents, grandparents and extended family again. He would have been so pleased to see the food of his youth so warmly commanded to the page, food he tried to cook for himself but having been well looked after by Ukrainian matriarchs, he struggled to replicate it and struggled even more in the retelling.

Olia Hercules is Ukrainian and was born in Kakhovka, just two hours drive from the Crimean border although her book celebrates the rich cultural diversity of her family with its Siberian, Moldovan, Jewish, Uzbekistani and Ossetian roots. There is ( in her words) a “messy geopolitical mosaic” which at times caused her family to have to negotiate food shortages and conflict but above all, her book and writing bears a richness that transcends those geopolitical boundaries. Mamushka celebrates foodstuffs and recipes that come from lands that may or may not have always been politically friendly with her mother country. This, to me, is emblematic of the generosity and welcome that infuses her cooking.

Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham
Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham

The south of the Ukraine is only two hours away from the Turkish border which totally trashes many peoples ideas of her homeland which, as she states, centre upon permutations of cold/bleak/vast/grey. We read of giant succulent tomatoes with pink, sugary juices, of picking great hanks of sorrel, the bosky ceps from Belarus, sour cream like silk and drinks made from the berries of buckthorn. There are endless days of sun where thirst is slaked by a syrup made from strawberries and rhubarb and their hunger appeased by jam made from watermelon skins. These watermelons are farmed in her home region, Kherson, and grow to humongous size, aided by the heat of the Ukrainian summer. Funnily enough, when I read Alison Uttley’s incredibly British accounts of her own childhood cuisine, forged as it was from the fields, woods and hedgerows of the Derbyshire countryside and from centuries of local farming lore, I am reminded of Olia because the cordials and syrups in Mamushka are very similar.

Some of Olia’s recipes reflect her countries proximity to Russia and the gastronomic exchange that exists between the two, even when other relationships are strained. There are familiar dishes, popular in Russia, such as borsch and a handful of salads which are also made from beetroot but they all have their own Ukrainian spin- they are definitely different from their Russian cousins. One version of beetroot soup brines the root vegetable first and the salad made from beets also includes prunes. There’s a more substantial wintery borsch with a depth charge from a stock made from oxtail or beef short rib and, to keep it truly authentic, one should also make it with salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic.

Armenian pickles.
Armenian pickles.

The Ukrainian cook really gets the importance of sour as a way of cutting the soft fattiness of meats and broths and a reminder that life contains moments that aren’t always sweet- a kind of riff on the ‘bitter tears’ of Jewish Passover although this may be my take and not theirs. There’s a sorrel broth that has melting rich duck at its heart, adds in beet leaves for earthiness and is finished with the sorrel left au natural, uncooked to keep its verdant brightness both in flavour and appearance. There’s fermented tomatoes, used green, and served fizzy (because this is another important and underused oral sensation), with winter casseroles. I have already made the chilli and garlic cucumbers which use those stubbly and prickly cucumbers as opposed to our slender, less tactile versions. Made with all the good things- sugar, cider vinegar, chile, garlic, salt- they are perfect on their own and I can’t get enough of them although I’d also serve them with Suffolk black bacon or a fatty coil of lamb breast. Finally, Olia includes a recipe for proper fermented sour gherkins which I’ve bookmarked to make when my new crop is ready on the allotment. They are perfumed with horseradish leaves and use sour cherry leaves to keep them crunchy and fresh. I also have a sour cherry tree which embraces my allotment shed with reddish brown striated branches, so I am ready to go.

The garlic bread is magnificent. Pillowy or like a ‘pampushka’ as the Ukrainians refer to a gorgeously plump and sumptuously fleshed woman, it uses 20g of wet or regular garlic to produce an almost brioche level of unctuousness. Slightly less lush in size but no slouch in the taste stakes. Moldovan breads are flavoured with cheese (feta) and sorrel to produce a summery bread with an edge. These have a fizzy, sour backbone from the kefir dough which has bicarb, white wine vinegar and sugar bolstering it.

Unlike Olia’s family I don’t have goats but I do have goats cheese and her potato cakes have this added (unusually). I also chucked in some grated courgette alongside her carrot and onion and they worked beautifully. Served with blackberry sauce, these are Ukrainian trad and now become Anglo-Irish-Spanish-Huguenot trad in our house.

Sensibly there are glut recipes: a plum, raisin and rum conserve; a gooseberry and strawberry jam; a cornel cherry jam and those jars of pickles. There are loads of meaty, ricey things to eat them with and Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb makes a virtue of the crispy underside of the rice. It is served on top of the meat. Their Caucasus chicken is served with walnuts and prunes and the liver of the chicken is added to buckwheat and crispy shallots to make a kasha based meal.

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There might have been a credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine during the early 80’s but Olia’s family didn’t stint on puddings and cakes either. Choose from crumbly Ukrainian biscotti dimpled with pecans or walnuts; a towering Napolean cake made from layers of crumbly pastry and creme patissiere; curly wasp nest buns which are a little like the American monkeybread and a pretty honey cake with a creme fraiche rim balanced with the sweetness of honey comb. There’s also an intriguing loaf shaped cheesecake.

To be honest, Mamushka’s melding of the sweet, the savoury and the sour means that the western convention of courses following each other as day is chased by the night seems very old fashioned. Olia is not prescriptive and this book is a tempting suggestion as to what you might eat and when, interspersed with lovely family stories and explanations of customs. I look forward to more.

Olia can also be found on twitter -@oliasgastronomy.