Tonight I spent more time taking photographs of my dinner preparation than I took eating my meal. On the spur of the moment, I was inspired to grab the camera, take advantage of the late afternoon sunlight, and snap photos of the raw ingredients and prepared dinner of tilapia with lemon, onion and fennel steamed on the grill, grilled baby new potatoes, and a tomato salad with fresh basil and minced garlic. After I ate the meal and quaffed a bottle of Cathedral Square Brewery Belgian-Style Abbey Ale (quite delicious, by the way) from Weston, MO, I thought, “Oh geez, have I become one of those people?”
If you’ve ever visually grazed at a food blog, then you know the type of person that artfully arranges food to perfectly capture the colors and freshness of their seasonal locally sourced and/or made-from-scratch dish. They are the type of person that will describe the food with just the right balance of first-person charm, fresh-scrubbed enthusiasm, wide-eyed wonder and adjectives to make the reader hungry before they reach the punctuation at the end of the sentence. That food blogger will consume time to upload photos, type text, compose layout, edit and publish a post that documents and shares their experience. Yes, that type of person.
I know people that have posted their culinary and/or food acquisition adventures to some extent, myself included. And I have subscribed to or browsed a fair number of food-related blogs as a detached form of food voyeurism. From my friend Molly’s blog My CSA Adventure (http://mycsaadventure.wordpress.com), where she visually records food received from her weekly CSA and documents meals prepared with the produce, to the spot-on Thai home cooking blog She Simmers (http://www.shesimmers.com/), where blogger Leela writes thoroughly and definitively about Thai cuisine in honor of her deceased mother who was a cookbook addict, I’ve seen all manner of high-end and off-the-cuff blogging about food, beer, desserts, gourmet cooking and ethnic foods ad nauseum.
So why add to the proliferation of food blogs already out there? Is it really that significant that I document what I buy and gather, grow and prepare, eat and savor? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but it’s not what I really set out to do with this website. What really inspired the thought behind this blog post was examining my low-key urge to document my food and preparation in the first place. It’s quite a non-Slow Food thing to do. [Disclosure: I’m a board member of the Slow Food Kansas City convivium] Photographing the baby potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, and fennel from my garden removed me from the experience. Arranging raw filets of tilapia, slices of lemon, pieces of onion and other ingredients to be more photogenic in the fading afternoon light transformed the food I was about to cook and eat into objects. The action was antithetical to my cooking, a distraction from my communion with food.
Without camera or video, I can concentrate my senses on the food before me. I pay attention and respond to the scent molecules emanating from basil picked fresh from the herb garden and the crushed garlic clove that perfumes my fingertips. The scent of tomatoes picked by my hand from the garden triggers memories. All five of my senses are engaged as I think about flavor, aroma, texture and presentation of my food from start to finish. Trust me, it’s not meant to sound like a holy or orgasmic experience merely an attentive one. Often, I liken cooking to composing music although I have never done the latter. Sometimes I think of the many elements of food as notes and attempt to compose flavors with a careful balance of tones, harmony, and even rhythm over the course of several dishes.
Photographs, video and the emphasis on how I am going to describe and portray what I’m doing as I’m doing it changes the nature of the beast. It’s the problem of the observer changing the outcome of a quantum physics experiment because of the observation itself. Perhaps that sounds elevated and remote as a comparison, but the nature of food blogging can feel remote. Not always but sometimes. After all, many reasons exist to document a person’s relationship to food whether it is a heartfelt tribute to a relative or a fun experiment to note what’s for dinner.
I sat outside on the deck and ate my dinner in the slowly fading heat of a summer day. I drank a new-found beer made just north of Kansas City. I smiled at my dogs while they sat patiently at my side, hoping against hope that they too might savor a bite of steamed tilapia dressed lightly with olive oil, fennel, thyme, salt and pepper. Not a chance. I noted how two-thirds of the food on my plate came from the modest garden in the backyard that has suffered like a prisoner of war in relentless heat. But I didn’t feel high and mighty about that self-sufficiency. Ever so briefly, I contemplated that my local food was complemented by olive oil from Italy, tilapia likely raised in a fish farm in Argentina and clearly packaged by a company in Seattle, Washington; subsequently, the state of origin for the cherries I ate for dessert.
These many thoughts and more coursed through my brain during and after my meal, especially once I decided to set aside the camera. That’s not to say I won’t take more photographs of food, resort to writing about food like a lurid romance novel or invest spare time in the future to read and ogle some food blogs. After all, I suppose I did set up a website for just this purpose – to record thoughts, words and images about food and other subjects. Also, I get paid to write about food for publication in a way that attracts and retains readers, sultry adjectives and all.
We live in a golden age, at least most of us do. We have access to food near and far that we don’t have to pay exorbitant prices for unless we choose to do so at an online boutique, specialty store or restaurant. We use social media to spread our mediated experiences like dandelion seeds dispersed across a digital landscape to land, germinate, take root, grow and replicate elsewhere. We have the luxury of ingesting so much data about us and what we put into our bodies (food and information) through words and photographs and videos and song and illustrations and…you get the idea. Yet, this Golden Age of Here and There and Being Connected to Everywhere isn’t golden because of the abundance, the impossible accumulation of and access to data, or the sheer mind-boggling means of connecting to each other even while remaining physically apart.
The value of our Golden Age, the currency that you and I possess, derives from scarcity. How little time we have. What will we do with it?
I’d like to spend more time cooking, eating and spending time with family and friends. And maybe I’ll write about it once in a while.
I have deep respect for chefs that know what they are doing and can execute great food whether it’s in a restaurant kitchen tricked out with top grade equipment or in the tiny kitchen of someone’s home. Chefs Dave Crum (chef-about-town, formerly with bluestem) and Patrick Ryan (Port Fonda) pictured above in the latter situation prepared an amazing five-course meal in late June 2011. The meal was orchestrated in the home of Tony Glamcevski, event and tour manager at Green Dirt Farm (read about my visit), and artist/curator Marcus Cain for a dinner honoring Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando.
I plan to write more extensively about Rancho Gordo and its heirloom beans, corn, grains, and chiles in another post. For now, I’m sharing this moment of two chefs in action. The pots and equipment crammed on the counters only hint at the hours of preparation and cooking involved in this meal.
Besides my admiration for these chefs, who both bust tail to make spectacular food in this city, I like the patterns in the frame that subtly convey the inherent activity. Dave’s red-and-white vertical striped apron, Patrick’s plaid shirt, the tattooed stars on the forearm and the grid pattern of earthy brick combine into a visual jam. Hints of red (how many can you count?) pop up throughout the kitchen. Red is associated with cultural symbolism – danger, fire, love, blood. Here, red is part of a sensory palette that doesn’t begin to hint at the flavors and aromas held in those pots and pans.
A kitchen is kinetic. It’s designed for action. Some think of that action as work. I consider the kitchen as a theater for action and performance, a studio for art, a lab for experimentation, a hearth for camaraderie and love, an altar to worship life in the form of food and drink. This photo captures that energy, passion and reverence in the late afternoon glow of calm expertise. Amen.
What happens when arrogance arrives in the Show-Me State? In the case of Arrogant Bastard Ale hailing from Stone Brewing Co. based in San Diego, I decided to see if the attitude lived up to the beer’s haughty characterization. By rights as a state resident, I demand proof and satisfaction (read: Show me!) that a hoppy ale from the West Coast deserves the kind of name reserved for clientele with a mouth fueled by far too many drinks.
Further, I needed ample reason to temporarily abandon allegiance to the hometown pride and joy, Boulevard Brewery (est. 1989), and its extensive lineup of fine quality beer. My DNA has nourished on the lemony goodness of Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat since the beer arrived on the market. So, when Missouri became the 35th state to distribute beer from Stone Brewing – heralded by a roll-out of events in late April 2011 in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia – I succumbed to curiosity and decided to taste the beer.
Quickly, here’s a bit of back story. Stone Brewing, founded in 1996, produced 115,000 barrels of beer last year. They brew nine beers year-round ranging from a pale ale to a smoked porter and the aforementioned Arrogant Bastard Ale in addition to a wide selection of seasonal and limited edition releases. By comparison, Boulevard produces 150,000 barrels of craft beer annually with a total production capacity for over 600,000 barrels. Besides Unfiltered Wheat and Pale Ale as its mainstays, Boulevard regularly rolls out seasonal treats and the popular Smokestack Series (Tank 7 is a personal favorite), Both companies have developed both a sizable capacity and expertise for producing beer that is distributed and savored in multiple states. However, size and quantity isn’t everything. Otherwise, beer drinkers across the nation would still be chugging bottles and cans of Bud Lite and other mass-produced beers.
Stone Brewing prides itself on distinctive taste to back up its ballsy name for an ale. After popping the bottle cap, I poured Arrogant Bastard Ale into a pint glass and allowed the head to settle into a thick froth. This American strong ale is 7.2% alcohol by volume so it packs a punch. The initial aroma has spice notes and a hoppy bravado that reminded me of India Pale Ale. The beer itself has a medium body and dark caramel color. The taste is clean and sharp with the lively flavor from the hops that finishes with a crisp bite.
Feeling experimental and craving a lighter ale for a hot weekend afternoon, I filled a pint glass with one-third cup of Simply Lemonade and topped it off with Arrogant Bastard. My intent was to mix a shandy, a lighter beer typically cut with ginger ale, ginger beer, or lemonade, for a refreshing summer drink. Once I came closer to a 50/50 ratio, the Bastard wasn’t so arrogant after all. The ale mellowed in strength and flavor. I dubbed it Simply Arrogant, being far more pleasant to drink in the heat of the day without making my head woozy.
Later, I tried the Smoked Porter from Stone Brewing. I enjoy dark, heavy beers including porters and stouts on occasion. This modestly named beer capped off its pour into a pint glass with a frothy head. The froth was slightly creamy and reminiscent of a root beer float in color. The beer was nothing like soda pop. The porter washed down smoothly with notes of caramel and chocolate following a vanguard of faint smoke. I nibbled on a piece of extra dark chocolate which complemented the subtle chocolate flavor of the beer. Bold, sophisticated, confident – quite a beer. In fact, one of the better smoked porters I’ve had in years.
I recommend both of these craft beers from Stone Brewing not only for drinking, but also for cooking.
Again, inspiration struck. I wandered into the kitchen with about one cup of the porter left in the pint glass. A beef and vegetable stew was slowly simmering in a pot on the stove. I had already tossed in cubes of round steak, hunks of diced onion and celery, and liberal doses of salt, granulated garlic, fresh ground black pepper, and gumbo filé, dried and ground sassafras leaves used to thicken and flavor gumbo and stews.
After eating salad with garden fresh lettuce, strawberries, asparagus, and other seasonal foods of spring, I craved something heartier, something meaty and manly and foreboding. I dumped in the last of the smoked porter. I tossed in two handfuls of wild rice and two whole cloves of garlic. The stew turned dark and mysterious in color. I wanted it to look like a bog. I strolled out to the herb garden, gathered a handful of rosemary, thyme, oregano, and chives, made a bouquet garni, and plunged it into the bubbling water. I let it simmer and ignored the pot for thirty minutes.
Recipes are folly for men and women alike. Some people swear by them. I do not. A recipe is a road map, an imposed set of directions and measurements and indicators to systematically outline a process and guide you to a destination. But a road map is not the landscape. Nor is a recipe the final dish. (I am prone to detours; therefore, I’m apt to get lost.) I wander, follow my instincts and senses, calculate the balance of saltiness and herbs, add a dash as needed, slowly building layers of flavor from base to background to the forefront of what my appetite craves, what my culinary imagination wants to realize in a bowl.
I slid a spoon into the broth, sipped, slurped, winced at the heat and basked in the flavors combining from parts into a synthesis of organic expression. Instead of whisking in flour to thicken the stew, I added a handful of leftover jasmine rice. I spotted three pieces of grilled chicken in a container and retrieved them from the refrigerator. I separated meat from bone, peeled away charred skin, and knew that the smoke from the meat would commune with the porter. This alchemy will be not be repeated in a recipe, cookbook, or food television show. For balance, I extracted frozen Roma tomato chunks, grilled red, yellow, and green bell pepper, and slippery slices of grilled onion saved from a long-forgotten cookout. I added the vegetables to the meats, rice, and fragrant broth. The result was a concoction, a thick stew that was not quite gumbo, a manly amalgamation of exalted flavor and texture compressed from primal elements fit for a god.
Sounds kind of arrogant, huh? Shuddup and pass me an Unfiltered Wheat. Cheers.
In late June, I visited Conception Farm, located in east central downtown at 2701 E. 43rd Street, as part of the 2011 Urban Farm Tour. This farm is connected to the New Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. The vegetables are grown around the perimeter of an asphalt court. The young farmers utilize what little space they have in effective and innovative ways. Gradually, they are removing asphalt from parking lots to increase growing space, researching ways to grow food in these small spaces and farming using unconventional resources and techniques including solar incubators and reused tires for building planters and garden beds. Bobby Wright, community member and farmer, says “We hope to work alongside our neighbors with a mission of promoting peace, reconciliation, and love.”
The abundance and vitality of the squash, amaranth (an ancient grain with purple leaves), tomatoes, herbs and other produce was impressive and inspiring. Nature is relentless. Given sunshine, water, decent soil and time, plants will grow with or in spite of the efforts of people. Seeing this urban farm reminded me how much can be grown in a small space and in turn feed so many people. The time spent to prepare the soil, plant the vegetables and tend to the garden brings community members together in a meaningful way. This farm is more than conception; it represents good intentions transformed by action into realization.