The Fois Gras Debate

Goose

California passed a fois gras Ban in 2004, which goes into effect on July 1. Naturally, a lot of chefs think this is a bad idea. Given the types of people I follow on Twitter, I heard about the reaction to the ban before the ban itself. So what's the deal?

The people against fois gras point to the force-feeding of a goose, which gives a goose more food than it needs, so that its liver will become fattier. Okay, we are a humane society who doesn't want to hurt animals unnecessarily. It's hard to argue that point. Except that the chefs are pointing out that a vast majority of poultry and meat in the US market are being raised in horrific circumstances, such as animals living their lives covered in their own filth and unable to move around, but that's perfectly legal and much more wrong than the fois. And there we have the interesting bit.

Neither group wants to hurt animals. We all have our own tolerance for the harm to animals vs. the need/desire for food. On the vegan side, there is no tolerance for harm to animals. For everyone else, there is a compromise. The most important factors in that compromise will likely indicate which side of the fois gras ban any given person will fall on.

For the legislators, the desire is to ensure that as many people as possible get a chance to buy meat at a low price.* For the chefs, the goal is to make the sacrifice of any given animal mean as much as possible, so they will focus on things that make the quality and taste of the meat as good as possible. Legislators see the compromise as something for the greater good, and chefs see the compromise as one of respect for the animal.

Personally, I side with the chefs. I understand the legislators' desires, but I think that we are sincerely unbalanced in our approach to how much meat we need to eat at any given meal, and the shear number of animals that are harmed by industrial farming far outweighs the few geese that are force fed. Even if force feeding were as bad as many of the practices of the large-scale poultry, beef, and pork raising industries, which I am not conceding, there are so few geese/ducks that are affected that maybe we should consider looking at a problem with larger reach first.

Of course, the reach is part of the issue. A change to, say, the practices of the mainstream chicken ranches would affect not only all the chickens, but all of the people who buy chickens, which means that it's fraught with peril, both to the people they would affect as well as the people who might vote for them. After all, being the legislator who tripled the price of chicken isn't going to make you a popular person when the next voting cycle comes around. A ban on fois gras makes it clear that you are for animal rights without doing anything that will affect enough people who would vote against you, so it's fairly safe.

Image of the goose copyright AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by anemoneprojectors (back soon??!).

*- Of course, there may be an underlying reason for that desire, such as a company or industry with that goal has given the legislator a fat sack of cash, and the legislator really likes cash. However, the underlying reason is not the focus here.

Soylent Gelatin

Soylent gelatin

PopSci.com reports in a headline calculated to get a lot of interest that "Next-Generation Gelatin Could be Derived from Humans Instead of Animals." For those who know how gelatin is made, the image that pops up is disturbing, indeed. After all, gelatin is generally derived by slowly cooking out the connective tissue from collagen-heavy parts of animals or, to put too fine a point on it, they boil down hooves of animals. So immediately one thinks of a pot filled with hands and feet or something equally ridiculous. After all, hands aren't particularly collagen-rich. It'd take far too many hands.

So, when you get past the headline into the article, you find that what's happening is that scientists have found one or more handy gene sequences that creates collagen, and they've grafted these genes onto the DNA of yeast, which can just pump out the collagen as long as there's food to eat and nobody tries to make bread or beer out of them.

So now we're at the interesting bits. Gene sequences are the same in a bunch of different species. Humans share a tremendous amount of DNA with mice, for example. The sequences used may or may not be available in other animals, and possible even the sequences exist in animals that we eat. So, if someone spent the money to discover that these sequences exists in not only humans but cows as well, is this less disgusting?

From the scientists perspective, genes are becoming better understood and more usable. After all, DNA is for creating proteins. DNA unzips to create RNA, and RNA bonds with molecules in the cell to generate a protein. Here's a video that describes the process:

In a really large system, like a person or a bacterium, it's hard to understand everything that is going on because there are so many things happening at once, and they're all linked. But for making proteins, it's relatively simple, as these things go. So scientists aren't necessarily super-concerned about where they found the genes, because they're just making proteins. If you were cloning dinosaurs and wanted to mix in some frog DNA, then you'd have more to worry about because the system is so complex you might get velociraptors that can change sex and have babies that will kill everyone in the theme park or something.

The end product is still going to have to be tested to ensure it's non-toxic and nutritionally similar to conventionally-derived gelatin before it's ever sold as something that could be ingested. It's still pretty weird, though, so I expect that we will not see this in food products initially. You're not going to get to choose between the regular Jell-O and the non-human Jell-O, at least to start with. Instead, it'll likely go into medical applications first, where there's already so many crazy science-things going on that one more weird application isn't going to make much of a difference. A few years later, once that's settled in and become normal, they'll start rolling out the Gummi people.

A Year From Scratch

A year and a few months ago, Ben Snitkoff asked on twitter if anyone would be interested in working with him on a new food project. I had some time and was interested in something new to do, and so I volunteered. After a few months of planning, we launched A Year From Scratch.

The basic idea of A Year From Scratch was for each of us to create a recipe each week. These recipes were to be things that you would normally think of as store-bought, but which could be made at home. Usually, these things could be made easily from home. Last week, we wrapped up the year, with 104 recipes and 11 podcasts.

The project isn't over yet. Sure, the year is done, but that doesn't mean we won't have anything else to say on the subject of homemade, From Scratch goodness. So we've renamed the site A Life From Scratch, and it will be undergoing some other transformations as time goes on. We don't expect all of the new content to be recipes, and we certainly don't expect to make a recipe each per week. But we like the idea, and we're going to keep up with it.

For me, A Year From Scratch accomplished two goals: one, it got me focused on making some of the dishes that I've been wanting to make but just hadn't gotten to; two, it got me working on writing about cooking recipes. Writing recipes is, in many ways, harder than writing about food, food trends, and the science of food. Even if the recipes aren't all mine, or aren't mine at all, documenting the process of cooking a specific dish is something that I'd only do rarely. So it got me out of my comfort zone, which is good. You can't get better unless you also do things you feel like you don't want to do.

So, are there any things in your life you think might be good to do but you don't really feel like doing? It might be a good time to get those done. And you don't necessarily have to take a year to do them.

Incidentally, here's a list of all of the A Year From Scratch recipes and podcasts, and here's the link to my specific entries if you want to peruse those.

Assistance

I wanted to let everyone know that I have a wonderful new assistant named Genna. She writes the blog One Palate, Many Plates, and she also had a cooking project blog The Best I Ever Had. She will be helping my test recipes, and will probably do some Community Management, perhaps some research, and whatever else makes sense. Everyone should please say, "Hello," and make her feel welcome.

Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week

This is going to be a somewhat long post, with some background and philosophy and the like, but the end message is important and worth stating up front:

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the important bit.

I started blogging about food because I wanted to try to teach other people to cook. This wasn't an entirely altruistic decision; the blog started as a school project, so I had good reason to start writing. Also, I know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else, and I really wanted to learn a lot more about food and cooking. Still, ultimately, I wanted to teach, and I wanted to inspire.

As with many people, I've watched a lot of cooking shows on the  Food Network, PBS, and wherever else they happen to pop up. Except Fit TV; I avoid those cooking shows. Most of them are what are often referred to as "Pour and Stir" shows, when the host has a bunch of ingredients, dumps them into a pot, stirs them together, and a dish is made. Food Network had gotten a reputation as a Food Porn channel because the shows were all flash and little substance; they got people interested in the food, but rarely would someone make food or learn much from the process.

The major counter-example to this is Good Eats. It is no surprise to anyone that I am an Alton Brown fan, and that he was one of the major influences of what I've done here on The Food Geek and elsewhere. His show is much more effective at getting people to cook and understand what is going on in the food.

Still, with cooking shows on television, and even recipe books and, yes, blogs, these can all be a passive experience. You can watch them or read them, and you can admire them, but in the end, you don't have to do anything with them. They can be as real to you books or TV shows or blogs about vampires, whether sparkly or not.

Back before mass media and worldwide niche media, we learned to cook by learning, whether from a relative or in a professional setting. Learning in a professional setting still exists, but I think we've lost a lot of the personal teaching and learning that comes from sitting with Grandma while she bakes a pie. That's a shame.

There are some things that are a lot better learned in real life than from a distance. My favorite example is the feel of dough, whether noodle or bread or gnocchi or pie. If you can feel, just once, what a dough feels like when it's really ready to be turned into its final product, then you know so much more than you can get from the best description in a book.

Now, many of you reading this have probably learned a lot from relatives or friends, which is great. But I know people, and I suspect you do as well, who believe that they cannot cook, and maybe feel that they could never learn. They may not have had the interest or the opportunities to learn, and there is so much food so easily available that need no more work than driving up to a window or putting into a microwave in order to be sustenance.

So I want to change that, and I'd like you to help me. The start of this is something I am calling "Teach Your Neighbor to Cook Week." It's a gift that you give to one or two people, in order to help them learn to make something that they couldn't make before, and maybe something that they were afraid to try.

On the week of September 20th, I would like for any of you with a blog who enjoys cooking to find someone (a friend, family member, or someone in your community) and teach them how to cook something, then post about it. You can do the teaching at any point, but post about it on the week of September 20th. If you don't have a blog or other publishing platform, and you'd still like to join in, please do find someone to teach. You can post about it in the comments or just skip that step; the teaching is the most important bit.

If you are one of those people who believes you can't cook, then try the opposite: find someone to teach you how to make something. Maybe it's a secret family recipe, maybe it's something your friend served when you went over to dinner the other night. Learn, and then tell us how the process went.

Things that would be great to see in the write-ups for the experience are what you taught or learned, if you had any trouble finding a student or teacher, how you prepared for the process, what went right, what went wrong, and what you would do differently if you did it again.

For the person I teach, it will be a completely free experience. If you are short of means, then maybe the student could bring supplies, but even if you are a professional cooking instructor, avoid charging for the lesson. This will be much more meaningful as a gift than as a commercial exchange.

If you have any questions, ask here or on Twitter. I'll update this post with any questions and their respective answers as I can.

A Year From Scratch

Earlier this year, one of my friends from Twitter, Ben Snitkoff, wanted to start a new food website, and before starting that site he wanted a collaborator. This was to be a site about making one dish each week that we in the modern American culture have started to think of as purchased, when once upon a time it was made, at home, with base ingredients. In short, he wanted to make A Year From Scratch.

Well, clearly I had to join in on this. One of my favorite things to make are foods that seem like they can only be purchased in the store. Sure, sometimes it's just as tasty to get a store-bought item, but even if you don't make it From Scratch all the time, knowing that you can is often as important as actually doing it. It gives you the choice of when to buy and when to make. If you can't make it From Scratch, then you only have the choice of buying. And who knows when the world's going to and and keep you from being able to buy your favorite sauce?

Of course, feeling good and useful in the event of an apocalypse isn't the only reason to learn how to make food From Scratch. When you make it yourself, you have the ability to customize what you're making. Want it spicier? Add more pepper. Need it more flakey, less tender? Go for it.

Not only that, but there's the increasingly important knowledge of what, exactly, is put into your food. Maybe you'll go completely organic, or maybe you'll go with your favorite brand of flour, or maybe you'll stick with local and seasonal ingredients. Again, you have the choice and the ability, which, in my mind, is much better than having neither.

So please, check out A Year From Scratch. Two posts each week. Ben's are on Tuesdays, and mine are on Thursdays (unless I mess up the auto-post thing again). So far we've explored how to make:

Croutons

Home Roasted Coffee Beans

Pudding Mix

Apple Cider Biscuits

Guacamole

 

Good Food Interviews The Food Geek

I was on the Los Angeles NPR affiliate KCRW show Good Food this weekend talking about the differences between cast iron and stainless steel, and following up on the article I did for Fine Cooking about cast iron nutrition.

For the record, I am a big fan of cast iron.

As these things go, the interview on air only covered about half of what we discussed. We completely missed the explanation of how stainless steel remains stainless, and I didn't get to tell you about the scientific study where the villagers receiving pans from scientists sold those pans instead of using them.

good_food.png

But such is the way of radio, which is, incidentally, plenty of good fun to do. Go, listen to the episode, and enjoy.

Evil Mad Science Wednesday: Asteroids (the edible kind)

Another bit of brilliance from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, who I clearly have a crush on. Take some chocolate graham crackers that you can make, cut them into clever shapes, do a little piping, and give homage to one of the classiciest of classic video games.

Asteroids (the edible kind):

complete - 1

Pew Pew Pew!!! Nom Nom Nom!!!

complete - 4

 

 

Gems you can find in the post: the recipe for the graham crackers and how to make your own cookie cutters. They ended up cutting these by hand (well, knife), but they could have made custom cookie cutters if they had wanted to.

(Via Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.)

This week on Fine Cooking: Basil and Lettuce 2-for-1

I have not-one-but-two articles on my Kitchen Mysteries with The Food Geek at Fine Cooking (dot) Com. Woo! The first is my print article from issue 100, in which I discuss the the proper storage and treatment of leafy greens. The illustration by Aude Van Ryn are fantastic, incidentally. The second is my usual weekly column discussing using basil in cooked food, from a technique standpoint as well as a pointer (familiar to longtime readers) for finding out what foods pair well with others.