Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Collective Wisdom

I have been reading, no- savoring The Omnivore's Dilemma for a few weeks now, and I brought it along to Portland. It is all about food, an integral part of human life, especially modern American food, something I have a love/apathy relationship with. Having been prepped by watching Food, Inc., I knew that as a nation most of us were walking corn#2people ("you are what you eat!"), that obesity levels are at an unprecedented high, and that conditions in most feedlots are unspeakably unsanitary, cruel, and artfully hidden. The way I have dealt with this thus far is to avoid all processed foods with HFCS, join a boot camp, get produce on occasion at farmers markets, and purchase meat from a local co-op that only stocks what is "natural," "antibiotic-free," "free-range," and whatever other catchphrases they use these days. But we still eat out at restaurants who don't serve food at this standard, because we like eating out. B, especially, delights in trying new foods and enjoying old favorites as if it were a hobby of his. If we limited ourselves to restaurants that sourced only local and organic plants and humanely treated animals, our choices would be limited to a handful of places, mostly on the $$$$ side. We throw our hands up in the air about that.
But should we be cooking and eating in more? Or looking to move to a place with more of those options (like Portland)? I've had more than enough time this year to cook dinner for us each weeknight. I go to the grocery store every other day to get the freshest greens. I don't recall the last time I threw out expired veggies or fruits. (That was a weekly occurrence during my college days, where 4 girls shared a cave of a refrigerator and went to the HEB once a week). It feels good to be able to provide a healthy, hot meal for us. I have even started using the oven again to bake no-knead bread and desserts. The bread-making was spurred by the realization that the $3 rustic loaves we get from Central Market probably aren't that hard to make. And they cost like 12 cents in ingredients. It took exactly 3 tries of dense loaves for me to figure out that I need to let the dough rise twice as long as the recipe stated, so that it would acquire that chewy, airy texture. I also started making these for my local bike mechanic, who has been a valuable resource in fixing up my recently acquired vintage Bridgestone RB-3 road bike. It takes me 8-12 hours of rise time to make a loaf (actual labor time: 15 minutes?), and while I go to my job and do other things during the rise time, it is still an amount of work. It is not very convenient, and part of me would rather continue to buy these from local bakeries, but as my last yoga class taught me to do, I withhold judgment and reflect on the inconvenience. I certainly do not want to succumb to the unhealthy and expensive fast food lifestyle, where everything I consume is processed or pre-made. I see one of my employers going down this path, even though he has started exercising, he doesn't have time to eat, much less make food, because he is an endlessly working small business owner. I look at the Amish/old-timey/survivalist Lehman's catalog and see human-powered food-making machines that aren't really for timesaving. Not that I scorn technology and wish to live life the way they did 100 years ago: short lives with days full of meticulous, backbreaking labor. And yet, it could be more meaningful than the life some people live now. I'm not sure what exactly I'm trying to say; perhaps that I am being made aware of how I need to be here now and seek meaning in seemingly menial and labor-intensive tasks like cooking, baking, cleaning, gardening, and mending.
The subject of this post is inspired by a recent section in the book. That as Americans, we do not have a national cuisine to draw from, and that is why we have a "national eating disorder," says Michael Pollan. We are yanked this way and that way each few years by the newest diet or superfood. I am prey to the hype each time and indignation at this has been building up in me. We do not have the collective wisdom of other cultures, many of whom have been eating the same way for generations. What tastes good is usually also healthy. Think tofu in China, kimchee in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, cured fish in Scandinavia. This is why I feel a more pressing need to learn more traditional dishes from my mom, and explore foods that I have grown up eating and no longer excite my taste buds. This is why I cannot love food magazines like Everyday Food, because the recipes, pretty as they are, have vague influences from other cultures and have been modified to be healthy by the editors. I'm fine with healthy. I just feel unsettled that we have no strong food traditions from which to draw. It may sound like I am against reinvented and modern foods. I am not, but there needs to be a foundation. I don't want my kids growing up eating fish sticks, frozen pizzas, McDonald's, soft drinks, and Cheetos like I did. Besides zero nutrition, there isn't really a story behind those foods. Not one to be proud of and cherish anyway.

Back from the City of Roses, #2

And... we are back from 3.5 days in Portland with B&K. We had a relaxing time with them in transit and also during downtime. Their apt is furnished with mid-modern century Craigslist and Ebay finds, and also (the other) B's geometrical artwork. It was nice to be able to leave the windows uncovered all day and have thin, unobtrusive sunlight stream in. Very atmospheric. The trip was filled with shopping at downtown boutiques (best: Lizard Lounge- like Stag but with women's clothing too), eating at local favorite eateries (highlights: Broder Cafe- delightful Scandinavian cuisine, Little T Bakery- best baguettes, Pambiche- Cuban food made with love), and a generous heaping of walking about. No joke, each day my pups ached something sore after a few hours of wandering, regardless of whether I wore my beat-up Vans Authentics or VFFs. Either my feet muscles are somehow largely underused, or walking shoes do really have a purpose. Our main form of transportation, besides our feet, was the bus, and then the MAX light rail, and then streetcar.
There were a few times I strongly felt the absence of my bike (most exciting way to explore this flattish city, imo), but really, there were not as many bike lanes as I had expected. Also, you must have fenders (full is best) to ride through puddly days, since most people there commute. No wealthy white-collar triathletes or weekend cyclists with carbon bikes here. (Or at least I did not see any). Having such a significant proportion of cyclists made me wonder how the marketplace for used bikes kept up, as most bikes I saw were scuffed up vintage types with original components. And the other B pointed out, there is a continuity between generations who exist in harmony by sharing a deep love for the outdoors. I knew I was in the Pacific Northwest the minute I stepped out of the airport and saw an octagenarian clad in Keens and synthetic rain gear. Awesome.
The particular neighborhood we stayed in was Sunnyside in SE Portland. Apparently not the current hip district (that would be Mississippi Avenue), it boasts blocks and blocks of restored bungalows sprinkled with bars, shops, small apartment complexes, a library, a food cart park, and really good restaurants. Each space is used up, and there are no unsightly weedy fields, bustling major streets, or massive parking lots (except for the Walgreens') that you would find in a state like Texas, where space is not so much a rare commodity. And I saw people outside! On their lawns, mowing or putting up extremely early Christmas decorations, on their porches watching passerbys, or pushing their kids in strollers. The oppressive and long heat wave called summer we bear each year here keeps up cooped up in our houses, cars and other buildings. This is not good conditions for cultivating community at all. Which is why I felt a slight connection to the strangers going about their business outside around me, even as I was only a visitor. The green everywhere was also a welcome and calming sight. Passing by front yards wildly overgrown with native species, I couldn't help but feel excitement at the lush life that seemed to spill out from the land.
B got to do a fair share of checking out mens' shops here, as there are only a few menswear places in Austin of repute. He also picked up about 7 used books (they put them next to new books) during our tour of Powells; I had to literally drag him out of there. And on our way back from brunch in the neighborhood, we drove past Beckel Canvas, the maker of my rugged canvas luggage. We returned a few days later, and I had the pleasure of chatting with Kathy, the 3rd generation owner of the company, and picking up a red toiletry/ necessary bag. The company has been around for 46 years, faithfully making durable, no-frills tents, bags, and accessories. Their bags have seen a gargantuan surge in sales due to the Americana/ made in USA movement- good for them! And their tents? Steady in sales, as they are a favorite equipment of hunters and outdoorsmen who go on weeklong trips. Pretty hardcore.
I also planned a lunch with one of my old roommates who now works for the reputable design firm, Wieden+Kennedy. She took up atop the super modern building, where we enjoyed food truck cookery with a five-story high view of the mountains and trees. Lightly treated thick wooden beams, concrete, and stainless steel made up most of the workplace. Definitely the coolest, most modern office I've ever stepped foot into.
The photo above is from a photobooth in the swanky Ace Hotel. I was putting B's Stumptown coffee down when he scanned the credit card, and realized that the shutter was clicking. It made for a solid narrative though: B is alone. F comes into the picture. B whispers something into F's ear. They fall in love. : )