I’ve been dying to read, for a long time now, someone who can sum up my “yes, no, and maybe” feelings about the claims being made around organic food. Michael Pollan is good in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, but I wanted to read someone break down the complicated pieces of food politics in a way that wasn’t anti-organic but was skeptical of some of the more outrageous claims made—ones I’ve regretfully fallen for in the past (such as “organics are more nutritious”).
I think I found a really informative piece of work in Michael Specter’s excellent book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. He tackles a lot of different subjects in this book, including alternative medicine and what the meaning of the Vioxx recall was, but he also has a great article on food politics. He avoids the trap of being a mindless cheerleader for organic produce, but also the trap of being a cynic who swears there is no usefulness to eating local, eating organic, etc.
My feeling about a lot of organic food is that the marketing is cynical and exploitative. Few people buy organic because they’re concerned about reducing their carbon footprint so much as because they think it’s healthier, and the marketing exploits that. It’s an opinion that I’ve come to believe is informed by the fact that a lot of people haven’t really done much organic gardening or reading about gardening. One thing, for instance, I’ve learned about people who don’t garden and their perceptions about organic gardening is they think it’s all about the pesticides, when if you actually do it, you learn that it’s way more about the fertilizer—certain fertilizers grow your plants faster, but that makes them taste less great and those fertilizers use fossil fuels. I’m all for not using pesticides when you can avoid it, because they run off into the water and create collective health and environmental issues.
But the main point is that people are motivated so much by selfishness. You won’t get as far marketing organics in terms of “reduce your carbon footprint” or “care about the health of the people using the drinking water in the farm area”, as saying, “This food is more wholesome, and so are you for eating it.” Which is why people will happily buy organics trucked in from halfway across the world, sort of defeating the point of not using fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Or they’ll conflate “organic” with a vague notion of “natural” and fear genetically modified produce because it’s not “natural”, even though all foods we eat were modified by human intervention.
Specter tackles all these issues in a fearless style, arguing both that eating organic for environmental and taste reasons is fine, if you can afford it, but it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that most people don’t have access to enough healthy food, period, no matter whether it’s grown organically or not. (He also lays to rest the claim that organics are filling in some nutritional void in Americans’ lives. We just need to eat more vegetables, period—the differences between organics and non-organics are slight to non-existent on those terms.) And that eating beef, no matter how “organic”, is still wasteful—you can reduce your carbon footprint more by skipping meat and dairy one day a week than going localvore. And the post-industrial world’s hostility towards genetic modification is practically criminal, it’s so stupid and hurtful. A lot of GMOs exude their own pesticides, which would actually reduce the need for expensive and environmentally harmful interventions on large scale crops.
Anyway, it was a good read and I highly recommend it. The lesson is that none of this is simple, and policies around food should be based on impact and outcome, not feel-good nonsense. But also that stuff that feels good isn’t always wrong. For instance, supporting local farmers feels good, and it does help reduce the amount of trucking around being done to get veggies to you, and it helps those farmers stay afloat. It also means, as I’ve learned, that you expand your vegetable repertoire and therefore have less need to have your veggies flown in from halfway around the world in order to eat enough of them.
So, on to this week’s cooking.
I came home to discover that my intended lunch (mac and cheese, my total processed food guilty pleasure, dressed up with green peas and tomatoes) wasn’t going to work out, because I had no mac and cheese in the pantry. In a pinch, I took some of my homemade bread, fried an egg, and ate that as a sandwich with some tomato and a little cheese. I steamed a head of broccoli and ate that, too. Through this process, I was able to evade caving in an eating pizza.
1) Had cauliflower again, which runs against a small problem, which is that Marc is a bit iffy on cauliflower. So, I decided it was a perfect option for making soup. There’s a recipe for cauliflower cream soup in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, with a tweak to it to make it Indian flavored by adding cumin and using yogurt instead of cream. I also threw in potatoes to beef it up a little, and because there was more veggies in it, I used more broth and yogurt. I also added some parsley, since I had so much. Basically, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, salt & pepper. Cook it until everything is soft, add wine, cook a little more, add veggie broth, cook for l5 minutes. Let it cool, and the puree it in the food processor. Mix in yogurt, and then you can store it.
2) Toasted some homemade bread, and spread a lavendar and honey goat cheese and what was leftover of the beet spread from the picnic. Heated a couple bowls of the cauliflower soup. It was even better for having a few hours in the fridge.
Time: Making the soup was about 20 minutes of cooking time, but it took an hour because of the cooling. Putting it all together was about 15 minutes, max.
Soundtrack: Talking Heads
Thought I’d go simple and use up some of the veggies with a quick fajita job. I cut up a bell pepper, an onion, a seeded jalapeno, and the zucchini, and cooked it with cumin, chili powder, salt, and pepper. Then I added a Goya seasoning packet with some white wine. I cooked black beans and served it with tortillas, salsa, tomatoes, and a little of Bittman’s simple yogurt sauce. Sorry I forgot to take a picture. I was clearly rushing.
Time: 15 minutes.
1) I considered a recipe that involved cubing and cooking the butternut squash, but my hand still hurt from the earlier smashing, so instead I roasted it. I then scooped it out and put it in the food processor with some pesto, hit buzz, and had pureed pesto squash. Simple.
2) Everything was oven-oriented, which is just as well, because our apartment was cold and this helped make it less so. I also made buttermilk biscuits, to be cooked at the same time as the butternut squash.
3) I modified a Bittman recipe for white bean gratin, basically used canned tomatoes and green onions instead of fresh tomatoes and white onions. This saved me a little time browning everything on the stove, but more importantly, meant I didn’t have to go get ingredients I didn’t have on hand. I mixed up white beans, oregano, canned tomatoes, paprika, garlic, and green onion, poured it in a baking dish, put some bread crumbs and parmesan on topic, and then cooked it for 50 minutes at 400.
Time: I did everything in the wrong order, but if you do it right (put the gratin and butternut squash in at once, make the biscuit dough and shape the biscuits while it’s cooking, preheat the oven to 450 while you puree the squash, then put the biscuits in for 9 minutes), it should take about an hour and change.
I took some of the cabbage and three of the apples and made a cabbage and apple soup, using one of Bittman’s recipes. I foolishly didn’t take the time to make anything else—busy day—so I just stored it and we ordered dinner in.
Later that night, I decided to make some bread dough. I put it in the fridge and then took it out in the morning to let it rise properly.
2) Sliced up the eggplant, and pan-fried the slices with some herbs.
3) Reheated the soup.
4) Made sandwiches with the eggplant, some tomato, the homemade bread, and some goat cheese.
Time: An hour, with the pre-heating and the baking. Actual cooking time was about 15 minutes.