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.

Wood Fire Oven

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I'm reading The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens in an attempt to come to grips with whether or not I'm going to be able to swing having a wood fire oven in my back yard. The downside of my back yard is that it is tiny and that most of it is several feet below the back door. I have a wood deck that is conveniently floor-height, but I have some concerns about placing a wood fire oven next to the deck.

Three of the big decisions that you have to make when picking out what sort of oven you're going to have are:

  1. How much are you going to cook at one time?
  2. Is this oven primarily for pizza or for bread?
  3. How often are you going to cook in it?

There's no oven that will easily support all of the range of options posed by the questions above without causing you to either waste a lot of money on wood, waste a lot of time heating the oven, destroy your oven after a few years, and/or give you an inferior product when you're done with it.

The more mass you give an oven, the longer it will take to heat, but the longer that the heat will last. For an oven you're going to use every day, you want a lot of mass, because it will hold much of the heat overnight. This means you have to use less fuel heating it up the next morning.

On the other hand, the same massive oven, used only a few times a week, would be a terrible pain, because it would take a tremendous amount of wood each time to heat it up, and you'll wait around forever for it to happen. Depending on the materials you've chosen, you may cause extra damage to the oven by causing the repeated expansion and contraction of something that was prepared to spend its life mostly expanded.

I can't imagine a better guide through these options than The Bread Builders. It's a fascinating read, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about the design and construction of this oven. Who knows, one day I may even build one. Wouldn't that be exciting?

Broiling pizza at home

BoingBoing, via Kottke, points us to this ooooold article from Serious Eats back in March of 2007 that explores broiling pizza at home using, of all things, Domino's pizza dough. From the initial conversation with Domino's through the process of finding the right way get the oven up to temperature. I won't give away any of the details, but I wonder if one could make a good bread oven using a similar technique. I mean, I'd rather have the wood-fire oven in the backyard, but if I can't quite swing that, then why not do a kitchen hack or two?