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Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Canon of American Food (part 1)

The big difference that I see between Spanish and American societies is that we are constantly reaching for the next rung on the socio-economic ladder. We are taught to be unsatisfied with what we have. We should have more and better things: a bigger house, a nicer car, better schools for our children, and countless other figments of our consumer imaginations. This isn’t to say that the Spanish are not seeking upward mobility, but they seem content to take in the view from whatever may be their current vantage point. Americans often feel that life will somehow be infinitely better if they can only replace a few durable goods or alter a few hereditary traits. Perhaps we are just showing the symptoms of an accelerated culture, a society Spain will soon become as their own economic future brightens. It may be that American society was more like Spain before we became the world’s leading economic power.

Nowhere is our disaffection with our own lives more evident than in the way we feel about our bodies. If you have ever been to more than one garage sale you know that one constant bit of merchandise will be discarded bit of trendy exercise equipment. What most of these failed body builders don’t seem to realize is that their lack of fitness isn’t because of something they aren’t doing—exercising or dieting—it’s because of what they are doing—basically living completely unhealthy lives. One of the best pieces of exercise equipment ever made are good walking shoes yet walking seems to be an activity that we leave behind in middle class American life. It is almost as if there is a stigma attached to walking; it’s like hanging clothes on a line to dry—it’s just not done these days unless you can’t afford an alternative. Walking is for poor people.

Drive everywhere, park as close to the entrance as possible, pull into the drive-thru, and at the end of the day you reach the safety of your attached three-car garage. It’s as if we define success by how few steps we have to take in our daily lives. It almost seems as if the biggest reason to get rich is that being wealthy means you can take lots of shortcuts in life and get everything done faster. In many cases doing something in a hurry is completely contrary to assuring any sort of quality.

Think of food as an example. What is worse than fast food or industrially prepared food? America’s move into prosperity went hand-in-hand with an acceptance on our part of a diet that is just awful. Frozen, freeze-dried, canned, boxed, prepared, and drive-thru are not good things when it comes to your sustenance. If you don’t have the proper amount of time to prepare food the way it was meant to be then perhaps you should reconsider the rest of your daily schedule—you probably need to cut out a few inessentials in the pages of your day planner. Instead of trying to make enough money so that you can eat in great restaurants for every meal it would be a lot easier to learn how to cook a few things.

Somewhere in the rising tide of American prosperity we seem to have lost anything remotely resembling a national cuisine. With the country’s newfound wealth in the post WWII era we abandoned our kitchens. I wasn’t alive back then but it seems like cooking became something old fashioned and a task not worthy of the middle class. Cooking was from for grandmothers with one foot still planted in the old countries. Whatever culinary traditions we had back then were quickly buried in the rush towards what people thought was modern society. The next generation of American food was ushered in on a TV dinner tray. What did we give up in order to have a frozen Salisbury steak in less than 20 minutes?

We were a country of immigrants with a vast amount of culinary wealth to draw upon. We haven’t lost any of this diversity in food but we have failed to develop a tradition of American cooking, whatever that might be. We have taught our children the American history we feel is necessary to become a responsible citizen but we haven’t inculcated them in just how they should go about their daily lives. If we were to develop some sort of national cuisine I feel that this would improve the bonds between us as American.

I see this as an incalculably large factor in the national character in many countries, especially in the Mediterranean basin. Food plays such an important part in the daily lives of Greeks, Italians, French, and Spanish, to name just four nations. Not only have their long culinary histories played an integral part in shaping their national identities, but the food they eat gives people an identity. This may be true in America among part of the populace, people who cling to their ethnic roots, and there are regions in the country that have very traditional dishes and cuisines, but it isn’t a part of our national character which I think is unfortunate.

“What is do Americans eat?” is a question I am constantly asked—a simple enough question but one that is difficult for Americans to answer; not so for the Spanish, the French, Italians, or Greeks. Their national cuisines are shared by all with no regard for class or social status. Food is their common denominator, their lingua franca, and as important to their feelings of national identity as our stories of the founding fathers. They are defined by what they eat. Their meals frame the structures or their days. The importance of food in their lives would be difficult to overstate. Food can be simple an inexpensive but they see to it that meals are a daily celebration. I see this as one of the biggest differences between out cultures. I also think that the care and respect given to food in these cultures has enriched the lives of the people in ways that it is difficult for Americans to understand.

If you are looking for an example of a lifestyle to emulate you could do a lot worse than the Spanish. I think that one of the biggest factors in how they have perfected middle class existence is the way in which they treat food in their society. Food dictates the rhythm of daily life in Spain from the time they wake up I the morning until they go to bed at night—or early in the morning as the case may be. Meals are an all-inclusive ritual practiced daily by all Spaniards with little regard for class or income. A lot of Americans still view wine as some sort of luxury (unless they oppose it outright on religious grounds). This just isn’t the case in most European countries. In Spain wine is seen more as a birthright than a luxury. There is much more wine to be found at extremely modest prices in Spain than in America. The average Spanish person wouldn’t dream of paying what most Americans spend on a bottle or glass of wine in a restaurant.

Maybe I haven’t been in Spain long enough to know better but it seems like shopping for food is something that can actually be enjoyed here. Instead of just another household chore to suffer through, people here seem to view grocery shopping as a challenge in which they must pit their wits against merchants in order to get the best ingredients at the most favorable price. Where Americans are used to going to a single supermarket for all of their foodstuffs, the Spanish are more likely to shop in big, open-air markets, corner green grocers, neighborhood bakeries, as well as the bigger supermarkets. I don’t think I am unusual in that I tend to shop only for one meal at a time. Either I have something in mind to cook before I leave the hose or I leave the menu open and take a look at what things look good on that particular day.

“What am I going to eat?” is a question we all ask ourselves every single day. As Americans I think that we need to define just what it is we eat. After all, we have some of the best agricultural land in the world and a bountiful supply of some of the best raw ingredients for cooking. We can begin by making a list of the top American dishes which will provide an easy answer when we are questioned by foreigners about our diet. I will only include dishes that can be prepared with ingredients found all over the country and that reflect the natural bounty found in America. These are every day dishes that are inexpensive, delicious, and uniquely our own.

1) Fried Chicken

I always used to say that if I ever lived within a couple of miles of a Popeye’s Fried Chicken I would weigh about 400 pounds (I tip the scales at 350). The same thing goes for Ezelles Chicken in Seattle. That place was always such a pain in the ass to get to that even a lard-ass like me could rarely be bothered to venture up the hill to get some of that glorious, mouth-water, super-savory chicken. I can’t even finish writing this now as just the thought of fried chicken is making me deliriously hungry. Spain isn’t the best place to find fried chicken, I’m afraid.

• 1 broiler/fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• 2 cups low fat buttermilk
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• Flour, for dredging
• Vegetable shortening, for frying

Place chicken pieces into a plastic container and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.
Melt enough shortening (over low heat) to come just 1/8-inch up the side of a 12-inch cast iron skillet or heavy fry pan. Once shortening liquefies raise heat to 325 degrees F. Do not allow oil to go over 325 degrees F.
Drain chicken in a colander. Combine salt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Liberally season chicken with this mixture. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.
Place chicken skin side down into the pan. Put thighs in the center, and breast and legs around the edge of the pan. The oil should come half way up the pan. Cook chicken until golden brown on each side, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side. More importantly, the internal temperature should be right around 180 degrees. (Be careful to monitor shortening temperature every few minutes.)
Drain chicken on a rack over a sheet pan. Don't drain by setting chicken directly on paper towels or brown paper bags.

2) Cajun Red Beans and Rice

I love beans of all kinds. They have been the main staple in my diet over the course of my entire life. They are laughably inexpensive yet full of protein and vitamins. I loved that story from Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat where Danny and the gang steal food for the woman’s children who had previously survived on a diet on beans and tortillas. As soon as they started eating the exotic fare the bums had rustled up for them they began getting ill. I could easily live on beans and tortillas.

I probably feel the same way about cooking beans as Miles Davis did about playing a jazz improvisation: you never do it the same way twice (I think that I just said that I was the Miles Davis of beans?). I use a pressure cooker when I make them now that I have discovered this marvelous invention. Instead of taking several hours I can now make a pot of pintos in 18 minutes.


4 cups red beans
3 quarts water
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
4 bay leaves
1 cup chopped sweet green pepper
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 teaspoons dried thyme - crushed
1 pound andouille sausage - cut into 1/4 in.pieces
1 good ham bone and small chunks of ham
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 stick margarine

Soak beans overnight and rinse.
In a 10 quart pot combine beans, water, ham bone with ham, onion, celery, and bay leaves.
Bring to a boil; reduce heat.
Cover and cook over low heat, for about 1 & 1/2 hours or until beans are tender.
Stir and mash some of the beans against side of pan.
Cut sausage into bite-size chunks and brown in a frying pan. Add garlic, green pepper and a bit more onion to this. Add this to the beans.
Add parsley, thyme, salt, Tabasco, margarine, and pepper.
Cook uncovered, over low heat until creamy, about 30 minutes.
Remove bay leaves.
Serve over white rice (thank god for rice cookers).

To be continued…