Mother's Day

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It's Mother's Day: the day when most Americans take their first step towards cooking for others. Traditionally, this is when a child decides that Mom, one of the two most important people in their life and probably the one most responsible for feeding you up until this point, is going to get breakfast in bed.

Naturally, breakfast will be a disaster. You've never cooked before, or possibly not unsupervised. Perhaps not since you tried this last year. Maybe it'll be an easy goal of cereal and milk, which may get all soggy while the flowers are plucked from the neighbor's garden and arranged just so. Or maybe you'll have gone with toast, blackened, or possibly something like eggs and bacon, depending on how daring you are and whether you can reach the stove. Presuming the fire alarm doesn't go off, you surprise mom in bed with what is probably high on the worst-tasting meal she's ever eaten, and it's still one of the best things you could have done.

Remember this impulse. Remember that the most important thing you can do for someone you love is to cook them a meal. Keep this urge. Don't only develop the skills to cook well, but use food and cooking as a means of conveying caring and not just as a method of transporting flavor and calories. if you do that, then you will understand the most important thing to know about food.

Cook for someone you love.

Happy Mother's Day.

Decision Making

In many ways, we live in a fantastic world. We have access to information, communication, and food that has never been possible before. We can travel from one side of the globe to the other quickly, or we can do it inexpensively. If we need to find a fact, it takes seconds instead of being a potential multi-week project that you give up on before the answer arrives, if it does.

Of course, there is a cost. There is always a cost. Information from all around is constantly bombarding you. Choices for what to eat are nearly limitless. And, it seems, most of those choices are bad for you, the environment, or your wallet. It hardly seems like a day goes by without someone saying there's a new food you can't eat any more for one reason or another, whether it's political, environmental, or health-related.

There's a funny thing that happens to people when they have to make decisions all the time: they lose the ability to make decisions. Decision making ability is like a bucket filled from a slow tap: it holds quite a bit, but when it's gone, you have to wait a while before you can use it again. How this often manifests in our household is that we both return from work tired from making decisions and solving problems all day, and then we have to decide what to do for dinner. This rarely goes well under these circumstances. We both sit around and moo*, and eventually we decide to do whatever's easiest, which might be ordering a pizza or grabbing some barbecue.

Now, I am all for pizza or barbecue, but during heavy work cycles, we got to the point where the pizza place knew it was us just by our order, and that was certainly disturbing. And it's not as though we are lazy, nor are we incapable of making food (hopefully), but the simple process of deciding what to make was not so simple for us, and so we resorted to not making a decision, but going with defaults.

There are two major ways that decision making can cause you troubles as far as food goes. The first is the scenario described above, where "what to eat right now" is causing trouble. This scenario is common to people who try to make lunch decisions in groups, because it's not only about what you are interested in eating, but there's a huge social component as well, where you take into account what other people are interested in, who ate where recently, who can afford what, what sort of transportation you have, what things you remember are available to eat, and the mood everyone is in right now. This is why Food Courts are popular.

This first problem of decision making is relatively easy to solve. You pick a time when you haven't exhausted your decision-making supply, and you plan how you're going to eat. On a weekend, for example, you plan your meals for the week, including how to use leftovers, and you get as much of the work done on the weekend as possible, so you have minimal work to do to cook for the week. For the lunch situation, you make a list of all restaurants so you're ready just to pick something from that list, or you make a schedule ahead of time, when you're not hungry, giving you a variety of places to go, and anyone who isn't in for that day can just plan to do something different. It's easy, but only if you do it at the right time.

The second way the decision making gives you trouble is in what you are and aren't "allowed" to eat. For allergies, it's pretty cut-and-dried, because you can't eat those things. But if you need to get more fish in your diet, how do you do that sustainably? If you want to eat vegetables, do you want them trucked to you from California, ruining the environment? If you go to the farmer's market, are the people selling from the large stands really able to grow all of that within 75 miles of your city, despite the fact that it will be weeks before the smaller growers have tomatoes, for example? Are eggs good for you today or bad for you? Is this meat from a farmer you can trust, or is it from a mega-processing-plant that's ruining the world, or so your cousin tells you?

Some people can make a hard philosophical choice and, if it's properly limited, stay within that choice. Vegans are a simple example of this, or people who start locavore projects. You outline the very few foods or food categories that you can eat within, and you stick with that. Try to ignore any additional food controversies that come out involving your food, or you may have to re-evaluate (e.g. GM soy). You're not constantly making a decision about what to do, you are simply following The Plan. If you do have to re-evaluate, you do it just every so often as a major exercise, rather than with every meal.

However, if you haven't firmed up your philosophy of what you can and cannot eat, or if you have a philosophy but it's complicated, then you're going to have the hardest time of all. This is the situation I find myself in, where I want to eat food that is both good for me and good for the environment and so on, but I haven't really decided entirely what that all means yet.

This is what the appeal of things like Bittman's Vegan Before Dinnertime plan come in, because it's simple, and about balance: eat nothing that is animal or animal derived before dinner, and after that do whatever you want. That way, when you do decide to eat meat, you don't have to fret about if it should be turkey, because that's not as fattening, or the local beef, because it's grass-fed, or whatever.

So you can certainly do something like that. Or you can make a list, just as with the lunch plan, or things that are "approved to eat", quick, available, inexpensive, healthful, or whatever it is you're going for. It will help you with quick decisions when your bucket is dry.

So, do you have an eating strategy? Is it standard, or one that you made up? Please share with us your ideas in the comments.

*- Somewhere along the line, we decided that a moo was the best sound to make to indicate distress. It's very flexible by way of expressiveness and great fun. I highly recommend.

Internal Consistency

There’s a trait that geeks have. I’d like to think it’s an endearing one, but honestly, I know that it’s not. It even annoys other geeks if left unchecked.

Imagine you are watching a movie with a geek such as myself, and there’s a vehicle in this movie. Someone shoots the vehicle, or it wrecks, or it’s driven off a cliff. What happens? Not only does the car explode, but a note of derision escapes from the geek who is watching the movie with you.

Now, some geeks will leave it there. Some will also mention that the car exploding wouldn’t happen, and some will go into a lengthy explanation about how the gasoline vapor needs to be at a particular concentration of oxygen to gasoline in order to even catch fire, much less explode. Mythbusters may or may not be mentioned at this point.

This happens in all walks of geek life, with whatever the geek happens to know. If it’s a geek who knows the English language well, then there’ll be talk of dangling participles and indirect objects. If it’s a geek who knows physics, it might be about how space ships don’t have any atmosphere to bank on, so Babylon 5 is clearly the most realistic of the space television shows of the 90’s. If it’s a Food Geek, it might be about how searing steak doesn’t seal in the juices.

And that’s where the difficulty comes in. This is not a surface attribute that happens to be common of geeks. It’s fundamental to our nature. Also, it’s really useful, perhaps vital, to the way we explore, explain, and change the world around us.

Any movie, book, sentence, mathematical equation, physics experiment, programming language, or life has a set of rules and conditions. The way the geek mind tries to deal with any of those is to understand what those rules and conditions are and to try to work within them to get them to do what we want.

So if geeks do this, what do non-geeks do? The same sort of thing, but to a lesser extent, and with less reliance on explicitly stated rules. Think about catching a ball that’s been thrown to you. Relatively easy to do, under the right circumstances. Now think about solving the equations necessary to predict the location of a thrown ball. Do we do all that math, some of which wasn’t even invented until a couple of hundred years ago, whenever we catch a ball or throw a spear at a moving target?

In a word: no. In three words: not a chance. No, what we do is we watch a lot of balls being thrown, and we recognize the pattern of the flight of a ball. If we do that enough, we get a feel for how balls work when thrown, and, with just a small section of their flight path viewed, we can do anything from a pretty good job to an amazing job predicting where it will land.

The same thing goes on for just about everything. We are really good at recognizing patterns. We see something happen, we internalize the circumstances, and we make predictions whenever we see those circumstances repeated. It doesn’t matter if those circumstances are realistic, as long as they are familiar. Which brings us back to the exploding car.

Cars have exploded in movies for as long as there have been cars and movies. Probably the first move with a car in it featured the car hitting a tree and exploding, destroying the world. (This is a lie.) So we understand, when watching a movie, that when we see a car take a lot of damage, it’s probably going to blow up. When we get into a wreck in real life, though, we don’t run from the crash as quickly as we can to escape the inevitable explosion. The circumstances are different, and we recognize and adapt to those different circumstances.

So why does the car exploding bother the geek mind? Because, as a general rule, we are always trying to solve problems. When we’re watching a movie, we don’t just wait for the ending to happen, we try to predict the ending. We want to know, before we’re told, how the heroine is going to solve the problem and defeat the antagonist to save the world. In order to do that, we have to know what the rules of the world are.

Of course, it’s nice to be able to use a bunch of extra knowledge as well. If you are a geek who knows physics, then there’s a huge amount of knowledge that could be applied to the movie that will let you figure out how to get out of the cell or stop the train or neutralize the acid blood of the aliens, or whatever. But if the car explodes because it hits a brick wall, then real world physics doesn’t work, and that means that a good portion of your potential solutions might not work, either. And that’s annoying.

Still, it’s a common problem with movies, and one that can be worked around. The big problem is if the rules of the world change from one moment to the next. One moment, a car that gets shot in the fuel tank explodes in a fiery ball of death. A few scenes later, there’s a shootout, and the goons are hiding behind a car, which provides complete immunity from all bullets. The solution is simple: shoot the gas tank, and you will have goon-barbecue before they can even realize what their mistake was. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that the car, in this instance, is not only completely bullet-proof, but it’s non-explody as well.  So a problem that should have been solved isn’t because the rules of the world don’t make sense.

So, finally, let’s get to why this is important for cooking. Jump back up to the end of paragraph 4 where I talk about steak. For the longest time, people seared a steak because, they thought, it sealed in the juices. You would have a juicer, and thus tastier, steak by searing, because none of the juices would escape. That was the rule, we lived by it, and all was good.

The problem is that we know, now, that it’s a lie. Searing a steak does the opposite of sealing in the juices. Searing a steak lets juices escape. Once you know that, it may drive you crazy when people who should know better teach that to others, perhaps on the television or in a book. It’s maddening.

Does it matter? We know that searing is a great idea for meat, because it causes maillard reactions which bring out flavor, and honestly, losing some juices concentrates flavors. Besides, beef has plenty of juice in it. It takes a lot of effort to dry out beef. Some might say that anything that gets people to remember to sear their steaks is worthwhile, even if it’s not entirely for the proper reasons. Those people would be wrong.

Cooking is a set of rules. We don’t know all the rules, but we are trying our best. A lot of cooking instruction boils down to “do this a lot, and you’ll eventually get really good at it,” for the same reason that you eventually get good at catching a thrown ball when you practice enough. Still, you form a picture in your mind of what’s going on in the food when you’re cooking it, and whatever explanation you have can probably be applied to other aspects of cooking as well.

If you know that searing steak seals in juices, and steak is a meat product, then you would be tempted to think that searing pork, chicken, or fish would likewise seal in juices. Those are all meat products, so searing must be great for them. You would be wrong. Trying to sear the fish to keep it moist is like trying to shoot the car that the bad guys are hiding behind; the car should explode, and the fish should be sealed, you just end up with a dry fish and an unexploded car.

In a very large nutshell, this is what I’m trying to do with my food geekery. I’m trying to give people the understanding they need in order to visualize how food and cooking works. To give them the ability to make predictions when they encounter new foods or cooking techniques that they’ve never used, and to have some idea of what will happen when they use them. Having this knowledge doesn’t replace the need for practice and experience, but it should make your practice and experience go a lot farther than if you didn’t have it at all. More importantly, it will hopefully give you the courage to try things that you’ve never tried before, since you’ll have some idea of what’s going to happen and how you’ll deal with it.

Why I Cook

Earlier today, Michael Ruhlman posted a list of the reasons why he cooks, and he encouraged others to do the same on their respective blogs. Here are my reasons:

  • I like being able to make people happy;

  • It reminds me of my mother;

  • When civilization ends, I need at least one marketable skill;

  • "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong;"

  • It makes the house smell really nice;

  • To prove that I can;

  • Food from a can gets old really quickly;

  • Sometimes the only way to get something right is to make it yourself;

  • It would be really embarrassing if people called me a food expert and I couldn't cook;

  • Few things are more satisfying than taking water, flour, salt, and yeast and turning it into bread;

  • Reading a bunch of food theory doesn't stick in my head if I don't lock it down with practice;

  • It justifies the purchase of kitchen tools;

  • It is my husbandly duty;

  • Cooking gives us an insight into traditions, culture, and history. If there are people, then there is food;

  • To encourage others to cook;

  • There's no really good Italian food around here.

What are your reasons for cooking?

Asheville, North Carolina: The Disclaimer

A couple of months ago (good heavens. Months? Sigh.) I was brought out to Asheville, NC for a visit to their local area and to learn all about how they enjoy their food there. I've written a little about it, and a brief mention here, but I haven't gone into much detail yet, because you'll need a disclaimer first. If there was a problem with the trip*, it was that everything was fantastic. That is primarily a problem because I paid for none of it, so I don't have any really good examples of something I didn't like to balance out the reporting. Therefore, it's possible that because the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau footed the bill, I might be biased towards the place, and you should know that. The problem with that line of reasoning is that I get sent to all sorts of places where someone else foots the bill (they like to call them "business trips", and I can be quite miserable on those trips). Free is not where the bias comes in. No, the bias comes in from the knowledge we were given about the area, the people we met in it, and all the great food we tasted. If I could have paid for that exact same trip, I would have been just as enthusiastic. More so, in fact, because I wouldn't have to disclaim it. The disturbing part is that I think I understand the Asheville food scene better than I do the Charlottesville food scene, and I've been in Charlottesville for a decade, the last few years of which as The Food Geek. Clearly, I need to do some more research on my local environment. In any case, disclaimers are made. Ethics are, if not preserved, at least consistent with what I set out for this site. And when I go back later and do all the same things again but paying for it and with my wife, then I will report back to tell you how much 'free' biased me. *-aside from a minor incident involving a tray of mimosas and my pants. Oh, and their attempts to try to kill us with large quantities of food and drink of such high quality that it's hard to refuse. Honestly, if they had pulled off their masks at the end to reveal that they were aliens ("IT'S A COOKBOOK!") and we were to be their tasty treats, I would have merely thought, "Ohhhh. Yeah, that makes sense." Fortunately, that was not the case.

Back In the Day: Coffee Time

Here's a new feature for The Food Geek: Back in the Day. This is where I highlight older posts that haven't been seen in a while because I think they might be interesting. It could be that there's a special relevance, or it could be that something caught my eye about the old post. In this case, I'm bringing up the first multi-part piece I did, Coffee Time. In particular, Coffee Time Part 1 - Introduction and History. Why? Because I think people need to know about how coffee histories all start out. His name is Kaldi. You'll learn the rest. The goats… they are frisky.

Illustrated Tour of Alinea Dinner

Lucy Knisley, whom I will admit to knowing absolutely nothing about aside from this thing I am about to describe to you, has mad a comic about her visit to Alinea. You should go read it, as it is a lovely tour, and then you should do as I want to and make a reservation to go there yourself. If this intrigues you, then you should (shameless Amazon Associates link) by a copy of Alinea, the book.

Who owns that recipe?

In any field involving a creative endeavor, people who make things up have this dream of making money off of it. And ideas, once exposed to the world, are pretty easy to look at and recreate. Physical objects, by and large, require at least as much money to recreate as they did to make in the first place, so people aren't as worried about individuals copying those as people are about individuals copying ideas. This fear manifests itself in cooking in a couple of ways. The first is the "secret family recipe." Passed down from generation to generation, there's some trick that someone came up with that makes a better biscuit, a tastier tart, or a moister muffin, and the only time someone gets to experience it is when they visit you. They'll coo, "Wow, what's in this muffin? It' so moist! Like pudding!" and you'll smile and nod and say, "Secret family recipe." Your guests will nod knowingly and ply you with liquor until you talk or pass out, at which point they'll raid your recipe bin. The second way this manifests itself is when someone in the food creation profession comes up with an idea or a recipe and wants to ensure that they are the only one who does this. In the case of recipe makers, it is often that its copyrighted in a magazine or book, and if you try to republish it or make modifications of it, they threaten you with a lawsuit. In the case of a professional chef, they may come up with some ingredient combination or technique that they don't want other people to copy, so people will be forced to go to their restaurant. Personally, I think all of those manifestations are foolish. The least foolish is the secret family recipe, because you at least have some family traditions locked up in that, and there are potentially emotional issues or family obligations. Perhaps there is also the ability to win year after year at the county fair, and your great-gradmother's ghost would haunt you forever were a rival family to win with your recipe. I can understand that to a point. I don't follow it myself, but I can understand it. For commercial endeavors, it's entirely foolish. Nobody is going to go to your restaurant because you're the only person who is allowed to sous vide bananas and cloves into a pudding. They'll go to your restaurant because you are really good at what you do, and your banana clove pudding is merely a representation of that. For the recipe publishers, there are certain legal rights and limits that you get for recipes. The US Copyright Office has this to say about copyrighting recipes:
Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.
So: The recipe itself is not copyrightable. The words that you use to describe the recipe are. Therefore, if someone includes a little anecdote about how they came about this recipe, or a mnemonic to help you remember the order that the ingredients are put in, or just some Shakespearean phrasing that makes tears well up in the eye whenever you glance over ingredients list, then you can't just copy that and paste it into your web site and expect it to be okay. However, if you grab the ingredients, re-write the directions in your own words, and add your own value to the recipe, you can take from anywhere, as long as you don't take a significant portion of recipes from any given source.* Ideas are better shared than they are stored. Ideas like company. Ideas like new environments. Ideas like to frolic in new brains with other ideas. It's how baby ideas are made. Ideas can't reproduce well alone, so everyone wins if ideas are allowed to be promiscuous. Except maybe Mrs. Ideas, who is a little jealous. Still, it's for the greater good.** How firmly do I believe in this? I have released all of my original work for this site under a Creative Commons License. Specifically: Creative Commons License
The Food Geek by Brian J. Geiger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at /about. If I have a recipe or an article you like, and you want to put it on your site or in your book or read it on your podcast or whatever, go for it. Just be sure to tell people where it came from. More details are on the about page. You might not want to take the pictures, though, as chances are better than even that they are stock and not my own. Sorry. You could ask, though, and I can tell you if they are stock. In any case, don't be afraid to re-purpose recipes. Even if you don't change the ingredients or preparation directions, you can still make them yours with a little work. Mind you, if you don't add any value, it's probably not worth re-purposing, but collecting best-of recipes together is its own value. Also, don't be afraid to give away your ideas. Please visit Creative Commons to learn how you can make a better life for ideas. It will help make a better world for everyone. *- Incidentally, I am not a lawyer. Don't whine at me if you get sued or try to sue me yourself. I'm merely telling you how I approach the idea of copyrighting recipes. **- The greater good.