Cooking for the Revolution: May 1 Diary

Today is May 1, the worker's day -- my daughter and I are taking part in the general strike that's been called by the Occupy Wall Street movement, so no school, no work, no internet, and no chores. Like the dreaming anarchists of the late-19th century, we are spending the day thinking and creating and (I mean, c'mon -- we're only human) getting a little bored. Or, at least, my daughter is. However, the political radicals have not really thought through the whole "no chores" thing: taking care of a cranky and bored eight-year old is actually WORK for someone *cough* me, even if I forgo vacuuming and scrubbing toilets and mending socks. I mean, kid's gotta eat. Where's that collective child care I was promised? Oh yeah. That was Kropotkin, not the weedy dudes in Zucotti Park.

I am a feminist, and my politics (in my best, most self-aware moments) are far left of liberal; however, even if I'm not in the 1% I'm definitely more privileged than most, as are you, most likely, dear reader. I have enough comfort and security that I can sit around writing about food and cooking, and I have enough political awareness that I'm conflicted about it, especially on a day like today. Food, of course, is an overdetermined value in our society -- it is gendered, raced, and (perhaps above all) classed. And if what and how we eat is a matter of privilege and position and background, how we *think* about food, how we *talk* about it, is even more so. To think about food as symbolic -- to think about it in relation to family histories, to friendship, to love, to loss, to desire, to anything beyond pure survival -- is a matter of privilege. To think about it in any way other than as a basic need, and a scarce one at that, makes us better off than about 3 billion people living on this planet (2.925 billion, to be exact).

I live in a part of the world in which food is an "issue": part environmental consciousness, part anti-corporate gesture, part self-care, the impulse to buy locally and organically, by taking part in Community-Supported Agriculture and shopping at farmer's markets, is seen as a way of rejecting a food system in the US that is chemically-dependent, wasteful, unclean, and most of all unhealthy. And of course, big agriculture is all of those things, no doubt. But the fetishization of those things presented as the alternative -- worshipping at the altar of the freshly-picked, peak-of-season, heritage variety tomato grown by the organic agricultural commune that's a 15 minute bicycle ride from your house -- is not a revolution. Neither is butchering your own hand-coddled pig and eating every part of it in a reverential dinner at which you raise a toast to its life and honor its vitality with every course. Keeping your own chickens and eating their eggs is not a revolution. Gathering your own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds and exchanging them with others to start a backyard garden in defiance of Monsanto is not a revolution. While local, sustainable, ethical, and non-corporate approaches to food might be a way of declaring our desire for something better, none of these are short- or medium-term solutions for the huge numbers of people in the world who are starving. Instead, it turns food into another sort of symbol -- we harvest our tomatoes and honor our livestock and cook with reverence as a sign of our politics, rather than an enactment of them.

I spend a lot of time thinking about art. Art, of course, is a lot like food -- it's hard to find the balance between one's love for the aesthetic and one's political imperatives. Hard, but not impossible. Every once in a while an artistic practice emerges in which the two are either held in such a taut balance that neither overshadows the other (nothing worse than politically-blind art or artless politics), or even better, in which one cannot separate one from the other. Perhaps it will be so with food -- a place where pleasure and taste can co-exist (become part of) not only sustainability but true abundance and equity. Every bite I take is a bite someone else doesn't, in this unfair world of ours.

Pasta with Tomato and Tuna Sauce
Serves 4 @ $1.75/serving

Now, here's something to consider: canned tomatoes (all canned foods, really), thanks to the lining on the metal containers, are sources of BPA (Bisphenol-A), a not-nice chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter and can lead to neurological and other disorders in fetuses and young children, among other things. I have found one brand of organic tomatoes (Bionaturae) that at least tests their product regularly and makes public on its website the amount of BPA that leaches from their cans into the tomatoes; almost every other company I've researched side-steps the issue. Pomi tomato products -- which are packaged in tetra-paks rather than cans -- may be a decent alternative, but I haven't been able to confirm. [UPDATE: As of August 2013, Pomi tetra-paks are labeled BPA-free. So yay for that.] I avoid buying fresh tomatoes out of season -- for taste reasons, and for sustainability reasons -- and so the problems with canned tomatoes have been a real bummer. I still use canned, but far less often than I used to, so pasta with tomato sauce is a bit of a luxury for us in the winter.

As for tuna: thanks to lax regulations on industry, mercury levels in seafood have become a huge problem, and as usual governments have been less willing to actually protect food sources by passing and enforcing stricter pollution measures than to ask consumers to self-regulate their consumption so as not to get brain damage. Light tuna (as opposed to white or albacore tuna) has less mercury content, and so is safer to eat on a regular basis than other types. Buy tuna packed in oil; the water-packed light tuna is sort of sad.

12 oz pasta, preferably whole wheat (penne, fusilli, or spaghetti work well)
2 TB olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 crumbled dried red chili or ½ tsp chili flakes (optional)
3 TB flat-leaf parsley, minced, plus more for garnish
salt and freshly ground pepper
1-28 oz can diced tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh
4 oz oil-packed light tuna, drained and broken up into chunks with a fork
1 TB capers (optional)
a few black oil-cured olives, pitted and sliced (optional)

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add 2 tsp salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente, then drain. (If you make the sauce ahead of time, wait to make the pasta until just before eating.)

2. In a small sauté pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. When the garlic sizzles and becomes fragrant, add parsley and chili (if using). Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and cook at a lively simmer for 15 minutes or so until the tomatoes are broken down and have separated from the oil. Add the tuna along with capers and olives, if using, to the sauce.

3. Remove ½ c pasta cooking water from the pot, then drain the pasta. Add pasta to the sauce, along with a small amount of pasta cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce, and toss to combine. Garnish with additional parsley and dig in.

Masoor Dal
Serves 4 @ $1.50/serving

Dal and rice, when eaten together, form a complete protein, and have the advantage of being supremely healthful and cheap and easy. Not surprisingly, this is a dish eaten by everyone, from extremely impoverished to rolling in rupees, in India.

1 c masoor dal (red lentils), picked over
2 TB canola oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 dried red chilies, left whole
6-8 curry leaves OR 2 TB chopped cilantro
1 tsp coriander powder
½ c tomatoes, diced (canned or fresh)
juice of ½ lime

1. In a heavy saucepan, combine masoor dal and 3 c water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; the dal will foam a bit. Skim it, and then turn the heat down to medium-low. Let simmer, partly covered, for about 20 minutes or till soft and fully cooked. Check occasionally – you may have to add up to 1 c more water as it cooks so that you have a thick puree.

2. When dal is cooked, heat canola oil in a small frying pan along with cumin seeds. When seeds are fragrant and have turned one shade darker, add garlic cloves and chilies. If you are using them, throw in the curry leaves. When the garlic has browned a little, add coriander powder and a healthy pinch of salt, and after about 30 seconds add the tomatoes. When these have broken down/reduced a little, scrape the contents of the pan into the cooked dal. Squeeze in the lime juice, taste for salt, and if you’re using cilantro, throw it in now. Serve hot with rice.

Chana Masala
Serves 3 @ $1.75/serving

Like canned tomatoes, canned beans come with the whole BPA problem attached. I have abandoned canned beans when I can help it in favor of cooking and freezing dried beans, which is much cheaper, healthier, and tastes much better. So. Much. Better. Relying on dried beans is one thousand billion times easier if you follow the lead of Indian housewives -- 500 million people can't be wrong -- and buy a pressure cooker. With a pressure cooker, I can take *unsoaked* chana (chickpeas/garbanzo beans) and have them perfectly cooked in 25 minutes on the flame plus another 10 of sitting off the heat. Yes, this is a huge convenience, but it is also a much more energy efficient method of cooking, which is a large part of the reason pressure cookers are used in the developing world and in countries where fuel costs are high. So: faster, tastier, easier, and less fuel. And the modern ones are almost 100% foolproof.

One other tip: one of my aunts taught me to add a tea bag to the pot when boiling the chana for chana masala to add a lovely layer of fragrance and deeper color to the dish.

1 TB canola oil
½ tsp cumin seed
1 onion, finely chopped
3 minced garlic cloves
2 tsp grated ginger
1 chopped green chili
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp garam masala
½ c diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
2.5-3 c cooked chick peas, drained and rinsed (start with 1 c dried)
1 tsp tamarind concentrate (or, if unavailable, extra lime juice)
handful of chopped cilantro
juice of half a lime

1. In a small-ish saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add cumin seeds. When sizzling and fragrant, add onion and sauté until starting to brown. Add garlic, ginger, green chili, and salt, and sauté for an additional minute or two. Add the spice powders. Let the mixture fry for a minute or so, then add tomatoes and a good pinch of salt and let cook down till you have a thick sauce.

2. Add 1 c water and the chickpeas. Add tamarind concentrate, and let the mixture stew over medium heat for about 15 minutes. When cooked, taste for salt and stir in a handful of chopped cilantro. Add lime juice -- a squeeze if you've used tamarind, and up to half a lime's worth if you haven't; it should be tart. Serve hot with flatbreads or warmed pitas.


Michelle :) said…
What I enjoy about you is your ability to be so far left in your political beliefs, yet, still able to discuss those beliefs rationally with others (like myself) who aren't quite as left.
Thank you, Michelle -- I take that as a real compliment. <3
EndlessRiver said…
I always enjoy your posts but think that the simple act of buying local sustainable food is, in its way, revolutionary. Of course, that on its own, will not feed the world, but acting against multinationals and global self-interest certainly will as part of the package. Poor countries are often not short on food but have to sell most of it to service debt to the first world whilst aid payments are syphoned off by corrupt governments.
Poverty is not limited to developing nations either and the lowest 25% of Europeans such as the French and Italians eat nearly as well as the top 25%, both shopping at the same fresh food markets. Similarly, the Latin ghettos of LA often eat better than the rich kids of Beverly Hills because they stick to fresh, local produce. So, buying local may not feed the poor of the world but teaching our kids how to select good fresh produce and use it well and simply will, hopefully, go a long way to reducing obesity, diabetes, and agricultural pollution in the next generation for even the poorest households.
That said, I agree with you that the celebration of food can go a little too far and a few less gratuitous tv chefs would go a long way!
Debt servicing is a real issue, Mr. River (<3), as is the coercion of developing nations to move towards commercial monocultures. But the upshot of that is, for those people most affected by such policies (those in the third world), the possibility of buying local and sustainable foods is reduced, because less land is available for it. And I don't believe that the top and bottom strata of the French and Italians are shopping at the same markets, frankly -- my experience of markets in Paris, say, is that paying the *real* cost of producing food means paying more. (Not to mention that most markets in France at least aren't selling sustainable produce, for the most part.

And, though it's been hard for me to admit (because I want to believe in a world that doesn't rely on it), large scale food production is necessary. I truly believe it. But it HAS TO happen differently, and with less drive to profit and a system of managed shortages.

Yes, absolutely I agree that teaching kids to value the food they eat is necessary and laudable.

I guess what I'm saying is: the first world's embrace of non-multinational food systems will not create a revolution where it needs to happen most, namely where food is scarcest. (Malnutrition and food scarcity is nowhere near, even among the impoverished in the North/West/First World, where it is in developing countries.) We can kick Monsanto out of here by resisting their products, but really their profit is made elsewhere. Countries like India have attempted to resist, but we have to find ways -- perhaps in addition to our own eating habits, perhaps other than our own eating habits -- to support that.
Salted Caramel said…
You learn something new everyday! I didn't know about the tinned food issue...I'm guessing we have the same issue here in the uk? I am guilty for using the cans for chickpeas especially (instant houmus), but I mostly use the tetra pack or glass jar tomatoes if I need tinned because they are smoother plus my mother has always drummed it into me to try not to keep acidic foods in metal pans or containers for too long. I planted way too many tomato plants and so I am thinking that it might be an idea to jar some of them! Also I totally agree about the pressure cooker! My mum brought me back this really cute one from India last year that has that Indian fat bottomed shape. I <3 it for so much stuff. Plus so many more nutrients remain in food because of the faster cooking time. Interesting post!
The nutrients stay in both because of the faster cooking time and also because pressure cooking, by raising the boiling point, means that foods cook without ever boiling -- retaining nutrients.

The UK hasn't banned BPA, though the rest of Europe has, Ms. Caramel.
Laura Larson said…
Chana Masala is one of my all time favorite dishes and I am excited to try the recipe. I am going to invest in the pressure cooker. In preparation for my sabbatical next year, I am planning to can tomatoes in August to cheaply, and safely, store up for winter (and decreased salary.) I will send you some.
. said…
I am not replying to Laura (hi Laura!), just that there is no box here on Firefox except the one you get when you hit "reply" - even signed in with Google didn't work to comment on Safari, so I am trying here in Firefox...

Where does the guilt come from!?! NOT from me! I like how you point out that shopping at farmers markets and raising your own chickens for eggs, etc. is not actually revolutionary. Of course they are just things we all should do and that benefit us. I need to know more about how much food can be produced organically. I really believe the claims that in the whole structure, it is cheaper to produce organic food, but that the large-scale profits are not there when one does. And I wonder how much food is destroyed to keep prices high enough to sustain that profit. I don't want to think that there is something to the idea that we need GMO foods to sustain the global population now, though sometimes I read something like the beta-carotine spliced rice that saves people from blindness and I wonder. My good and terribly brilliant geneticist friend Michael Eisen can almost convince me that GMOs aren't dangerous, just because I trust him, but then why all the organ failure stuff?

It strikes me that the only truly "radical" food related acts are things like sneaking onto factory farms and filming or liberating the animals, or burning GMO crop fields like they did in (afraid to go look because leaving page with new shitty Safari often results in forced reload, ugh) - oh, as they did and do in lots of places, apparently. Stealing the food you need might also be revolutionary. But buying heirloom tomatoes at the Berkeley farmers market while drinking a cappuccino on a Sunday morning with your friends, not so much. Which is not to say that buying the heirloom tomato at the farmer's market isn't what we should all be doing. Really we should all be vegans.

Like you I am wigged out by the BPA. I often fantasize about canning (jarring) my own tomatoes, etc. in season. Why don't they just put tomatoes in glass? I don't even know how they can sell "organic" tomatoes in cans. And lately I have been eating alot of sardines because I am afraid of tuna anymore (nb. i am really a neurotic shopper - I will only buy organic stuff and stuff said not to be dangerous etc. but I am also the person who will eat at the dirtiest most hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place where I have seen roaches and where all the ingredients probably came from a polluted bay in China, because i am so completely inconsistent with my values.)

Now I have wandered away from your blog. I love your blog. I am going to buy a pressure cooker because you provided a link. I have always been afraid of pressure cookers in the same way that I am afraid of propane tanks - I expect things to explode and for me to get shrapnel in my hip, but your picture of people with limited resources all over the world using them gave me peace. Anyway, that's my mustard! Hope I'm not a downer! love, joni.

PS Internets, I just dashed this out. Don't judge my writing.
Laura: Yay for pressure cookers! I find mine so useful, especially given that I'm trying to eat less meat. And the beans (esp chick peas) do really turn out much better.

As for canning tomatoes: when I was growing up, my dad used to grow millions of tomatoes. He would just throw them in a ziploc and into the freezer -- they would freeze solid, like little red snowballs. Then he'd just throw them whole into curries -- they'd thaw into a chunky puree, and the skin would come off in one piece that you could fish out. It's actually a terrific method, and saves a lot of time over canning.

But the glass jars are so pretty...
Ms. ".": I think that certain things are just as cheap to produce organically -- carrots, for example -- and so it makes me furious that all operations don't just switch to organic methods. (OF course, some may be switching but can't call their crops organic for a certain number of years till the soil is free of earlier chemical use). Certainly crops can be grown with fewer chemicals, though. The upside of GMO is that it can reduce petrochem dependence by agricultural industry; the downside is not-yet-known health effects and effects of crop diversity etc., along with (and this is the huge issue for me) the proprietary nature of the industry, which disallows farmers to collect their own seed.

As for the rice: actually, it sounded like a good idea, but it doesn't work. Apparently the b-c runs right through the body and so it's not really delivering anythign but a feel-good non-solution to the problem.

You are the only non-soldier that I know with a fear of shrapnel in the hip. <3
Anonymous said…
This link made me think of your blog.
Thank you for that! I didn't much care for the movie Julia and Julia, but I did like the parts that showed the passion and affection of Julia Child's relationship with her husband. I also love her saying that she was a Republican until she had to move to New York and live on $18/week, and then she became a Democrat.