It’s likely everyone is familiar with the statement by Voltaire, “Common sense is not so common.” From our personal experiences I know that you, like me, have found this to be true. People are not born with common sense; they acquire it through life experience. I would present a theory that there are few environments…
I really do try to avoid getting tangled up in bureaucratic or politically influenced issues since they are so difficult to change. However, when food integrity, quality and traditions are involved, my patience starts to wear thin. Traditions are so important to a culture and essential when trying to preserve the experience of foods that are representative of that culture.
In recent years it seems that these traditions have been attacked relentlessly and in some cases even legislated out of existence. Some may be challenged because of cost, others for environmental reasons and now and then because someone reveals definitive research that disputes the need for these traditions. What is most important, from my perspective, is that we should be working harder to protect traditions even when research may demonstrate a lack of support for the traditions basis. Why should we protect some process even if it is not needed? Some things simply cannot be proven right or wrong just because of research. Some things are a mystery and quite often, cannot be adequately explained. Other times there is evidence through experience that a traditional process does, in fact, make a unique difference.
Most chefs will, as an example, prefer cooking with gas rather than electricity for a variety of reasons. The most significant is that food tastes better when cooked with an open flame. Can this be scientifically validated – maybe not entirely, yet it is, for most cooks, the definitive rule. Certain wines benefit enormously from aging in oak barrels. Aside from the wonderful undertones of flavor, many of the tannins present in wines that help with bottle aging are drawn from the barrels used during cask fermentation. Artisan breads need to be turned on wooden tables and are improved when they proof on that same wood. Lionel Poilane used many original tools and specific environments for mixing, proofing and baking his breads that in turn were uniquely his. Most would agree that Poilane breads were the best in the world.
So, where am I going with all of this? It is certainly critical that any operation that grows, processes, produces and/or packages food product for consumption be designed with guest health and safety as a top priority. At the same time we can and do throw out traditions far too quickly without having a true understanding of what is at work. What is amazing is that at the same time we embrace modern science, chemistry in particular, with little question and assume that modern science can always make everything better. The Public Health Service and local Departments of Health would love to mandate that every food production facility be surgically clean as a precaution that will protect the general public. Temperature is the friend of food preservation and when refrigeration is not feasible then science is used to add complementary preservation methods that incorporate chemicals and chemical processes. Farms claim they cannot function on a large scale without fertilizers and insecticides so science promotes modifying the genetic makeup of the seeds that farmers use so that excessive amounts of fertilizer and insecticide are not absorbed at a rate beyond what is considered “safe”. All of this is deemed acceptable and preferred over some of the traditions that were in effect for generations and still used in some parts of the world considered not as “advanced”.
Here we are, living at a time when food has never been more exciting, where a food culture in America has been emerging to become as significant as those of European countries, where people have never been more engaged with the quality and source of their food and where more people have chosen to dedicate their careers to food production and preparation than any other time in history. What fascinates people is not just the flavors and technique of cooking, but the culture that food is an integral part of.
The FDA has recently decided to enforce a nebulous standard for cheese making that will radically change the face of a wonderful, exciting, growing artisan cheese industry in the United States. Purportedly due to fears of Listeria, the FDA will no longer allow artisanal cheese makers to ripen (affinage) their cheese on wooden planks. This may not sound like a big deal, however, if you are a cheese maker it changes the whole process of making a great cheese.
“Cheese has been aged on rough wooden planks made from locally harvested spruce for over a thousand years. Rooted in ancestral tradition and sustainable local practices. The use of planks is now scientifically proven to preserve the life of the micro flora in and on the cheese, which are necessary for the formation of the rind and for the cheese’s specificity of flavors.”
The assumption is that artisan cheese makers are not capable of operating a safe cheese ripening process using traditional methods that have significantly more time and exposure to the process than the FDA.
I am not a cheese maker, nor do I profess to fully understand the process by which some of the most extraordinary cheeses are made, ripened and prepared for us to enjoy – what I do know is how passionate, meticulous, talented and serious these cheese makers are about their product. It would seem to me that the easy way is not always the right way. It is easy to simply legislate tradition out of a process when it would likely be more historically prudent to work with cheese makers in the process of refining the inspection process that helps these food artists protect and improve their traditional methods.
Once we begin to simply accept new mandates and not question others like the use of GMO’s, chemical fertilizers, irradiation of fruits and vegetables, insecticides and excessive use of antibiotics then it is only a matter of time before our food supply becomes generic, uninteresting and maybe even harmful in the long-run.
If we don’t question this new FDA mandate then we must begin to accept that beautiful cheeses like aged goat, blue vein cheese, farm cheeses like the French Epoisses and Morbier will either disappear from the shelves of our stores or evolve into something that is less exciting and uninspired.
If we don’t question this FDA mandate then what will be next? Will organic farming become taboo in the eyes of the USDA? Will a government agency decide that the process of grape fermentation that includes natural yeasts in the air; the use of oak barrels for aging and chalk caves with generations of mold is unsafe and inappropriate? Will artisanal bread bakers find themselves unable to nurture the natural yeasts used in sour dough starters because these organic microbes are living and somewhat unpredictable? If we don’t protect those traditional processes that have been passed down from generation to generation yet accept the introduction of chemistry as a “safer” substitute, what will food growing, processing and preparation look like in fifty years?
Some may say that I am ill informed and simply do not truly understand. I will admit a level of ignorance, but will stand firm on my belief in traditions. Culture is important and the way we handle food and appreciate how our ancestors respected it is a very significant part of that culture.
I have visited, talked with, observed and built a deep appreciation for artisans. Artisan farmers, cheese makers, bread bakers, wine makers and brewers have been and continue to be the backbone of the food movement in America. They have made all of us pay attention to the source of ingredients, the way to preserve and prepare food that enhances natural flavors, aware of how important good food is to our health and well being and have made cooking in America a passionate calling for thousands of young cooks and chefs. They deserve our support and understanding.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com
PHOTO IS OF THE AFFINAGE CELLARS AT JASPER HILL IN GREENSBORO, VERMONT. A photo from Farming Magazine
Once you brush away all of the superficial things that we accumulate in life and begin to prioritize those that are important it is remarkable to see that everyone shares the same list. It all boils down to family, faith, health, companionship, meaningful work, how we treat others and how they treat us and those things that allow us to continue to survive: food, water, basic shelter and clothing. Unfortunately, people tend to get caught up in those things that feed our desires outside of the foundations of a good life. This article will focus on one common denominator that addresses nearly every one of those foundations and can even stretch to encompass a few desires outside of the basics in life. That common denominator is food.
There is little doubt that we all face demons every day. People can easily get caught up in our differences whether they be political, territorial, religious beliefs, relationship disagreements, or even work related friction and as we see by watching the news, these differences can become the center of our attention. If there is anything that we can agree on – it is a good plate of food. So, how important is food beyond the basic need for sustenance? Let’s take a look at the role that food can and does play in life.
A baby is born and the first thing that he or she does is cry. What does the baby cry for? Is it attention, affection, discomfort or fright? Those who have watched the miracle of birth will quickly note that it is hunger that draws the first sound from a new born. There is an association that a baby quickly develops: “I cry and I get fed.” Food becomes a comforting crutch in life that we carry with us forever. We may not cry for food as we get older, but we realize that food is a friend when it is sometimes hard to find one. When we are happy –we eat. When we are sad – we eat. When we are lonely – we eat. When we are stressed – we eat. Food is comforting, it is fulfilling, it is a reward when we need it and a memory of people and things that we have encountered through our lives. Food is important.
We now know, although not everyone practices it, that “we are what we eat.” Selecting the right foods and preparing them well is the most significant contributor to a healthy body. Many of the health issues that plague mankind are preventable if we would only follow some simple rules of selection and preparation. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity are, to a large extent, preventable if we understand how important food is.
The once cherished “family table” was a time to sit down as a symbol of reverence for tradition and a time to share in each other’s day. The family table was a time to celebrate the small things and to comfort each other when our day takes a negative turn. The meal was a time to pass down the values of the family and to teach each other how to live, respect and cherish each other. The common denominator was a plate of food that was prepared with love, care and a sense of obligation to those things that keep a family strong. We have strayed from this over the years with the advent of a microwave oven society and the ease with which fast food and convenience items take over the traditions of old.
We do (thanks from everyone in the restaurant business) lean on restaurants now for much of that attention to tradition. Restaurants are a place where we can celebrate birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, first dates, breakups, business deals and even the lives of those who pass away. In all cases, it is good food that serves as that common denominator. We break bread to remember and even to forget. Food is a powerful catalyst that ties two ends together no matter how far apart they seem initially.
When it comes to appreciating great food there is no language barrier. The experience surrounding dining can and does go way beyond that typical biological family. State dinners sponsored by governments are used to create a common ground for discussion, compromise, support and understanding. No matter how deep the differences are between two people or even entire countries, we can always appreciate a great meal. This simple foundational need and pleasure can become the basis by which differences are put aside, maybe long enough for there to surface a spark of understanding and agreement. Food is important.
There are so many examples of the power of food as a communication tool – examples that each of us knows and holds close to our hearts. Here are a few:
One of the most difficult jobs on earth is farming. I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit farmers in the wine regions of France, California, Oregon and Washington State. During harvest, workers are pressed with the need to pick the grapes when they reach the correct sugar content and do so during a very short window of time. It is backbreaking work requiring those involved to bend at the waist, snipping bunches of grapes from the vine from row to row for many hours at a time. With the sun beating on their backs, hands that are rough and cut from the vine knife used and grapes weighing down on their frame it becomes work that would surely be considered intolerable by many. At the end of the day in most vineyards, something magical happens. The crew will sit down together to a meal prepared by the vineyard, break bread, clink glasses filled with the vineyards wine, laugh and truly enjoy telling stories about how many aches and pains they have. The next morning the process starts all over again. Food is a powerful and magical substance.
Restaurant work is, simply put, hard. Ten or twelve hours on your feet, the pressure of the clock, lifting, chopping and dicing, heat that is intense enough to cook a person, burns, cuts and aching muscles – this is the life of a cook. Service staff must attend to every detail in the dining room: polishing glasses and flatware, making sure that their station is impeccably clean, memorizing the art of the kitchen and the complement of wine and focusing on a state of mind that exudes service excellence and in some cases tolerance of unruly guests. At 4:30 in most restaurants all of this stops for 20 minutes or so while both sides of the swinging door get together for staff meal. When done correctly, this stress reliever goes way beyond nourishment. It is a time to talk, to share, to set aside tension, take a breath, laugh and set your mind at ease for the onslaught of business just around the corner. For the moment, everyone is equal around the plate. Food is incredibly important.
Each professional cook that I know has experienced that epiphany in life – that moment when a certain food, or food event has allowed them to pause and say: “wow, this is something that I want to dedicate my career and a good portion of my life to.” It is that first oyster with warm salty ocean brine that says “it doesn’t get any fresher than this;” it may be that hand picked heirloom tomato that is still warm from the July sun and eaten as one would an apple or sliced and simply drizzled with good olive oil and a pinch of sea salt that turns an average person into an explorer of food experiences; or it might be the first time that they enjoy a meal prepared by a serious chef who knows how to delicately handle those foods and take them to a new level of significance. In all cases, the power of food can move a person from a desire to find a career to defining a “calling in life.” Food is important.
Food allows us to maintain traditions and celebrate them with others, it allows us to pass down a gift of a treasured family recipe that becomes part of the family’s heritage, it is the one thing that we can freely give to others with a smile and a sense of understanding and appreciation.
I remember many years ago visiting with a woman restaurateur in Saranac Lake, New York who owned a business called the Blue Gentian. It was a neighborhood restaurant of great renown. People would line up around the block to wait for a table and enjoy her “blue plate specials,” as they were called. Nothing elaborate: roast chicken, meat loaf, and even a few casserole dishes. I asked her one-day what her secret ingredient was. She pointed to an empty jar in her kitchen and said that that was it. When I looked puzzled she said that the ingredient was love of people, love of life, and appreciation of others. This was what tasted so good at her tables. Food is important.
Over the past few Sunday’s I have watched the new Anthony Bourdain series on CNN called: Parts Unknown. No matter what you think about Tony, the series is brilliant because it shows the human bonds that are formed around food. It is a personal show that opens your eyes to other cultures and traditions and the honest purity of the human spirit once you focus on the foundations of life. He demonstrates both directly and indirectly that food is important.
Chefs, and cooks (both domestic and professional) have extremely important jobs. If we could just peel away the superficial stuff that gets in the way of life and just learn to “break bread” and appreciate our differences, we might be able to enjoy the human condition a bit more.
Photo by: Kristin Parker – Kristin Parker Photography
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
Follow this blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com
“A baby is born, it cries, it is fed, it is content.” (In the Shadow of Cooks: iUniverse Publishers) So…the baby cries and cries until it’s body aches from the effort. When the baby is finally fed, it feels better. The connection is quickly made that to feel better the body needs food. This goes…