Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Larder Legwork.

As 1999 wound down, I heard an interview with a food historian on NPR. He brought tidings of a shift away from the field ration, shelf life model so beloved by the industry since World War Two. In its place is a return to the values of the late 19th century when American gastronomy was lively, inventive and avid for flavor.
I see the signs of this vivacity on my own larder stocking excursions and hasten to embrace it. While many browsers still linger in the land of TV dinner simulacra with its budget biting markup, the cohort of slow food base ingredient fans is steadily growing.
The droll shelf life fixation era was a cold war spin off. The whole nation became a garrison on eternal war footing and the civilians got to share in this by chow offerings that were a dressed up counterpart to trench food.
MFK Fisher has a wonderful segment in one of her essays from the period where she describes the essences of various cuisines, olive oil in Italian food, butter in French food or sour cream in Russian food.
For American food the best essence she could find was the flavor of the can.
Real cuisines lingered through this trench food era in backwaters, urban and rural. Urban ethnic garrisons held together well in the cities and clung to flavorful food ways with an understandable reluctance to trade the wealth for the poverty of mass market pottage.
Vivacious food folkways remained in all regions of the nations sparsely settled farm and forest lands. Country folk were often too poor or too remote from the supply chain to abandon their beloved cobblers, chowders, squirrel pies and stews.
The Supermarkets of my Cold War youth were monuments in every detail to drab industry notions of ways to belie our palate instincts for manufacturers’ expedience. The bleak cellophane pack tomatoes are a common example. Suburban supers were particularly devoid of any choices beyond the pale of imagined wasp blandness. Matzo dough or kosher salt were fairly exotic and rare, let alone endive.
Chef Boyardee and La Choy stood in as withered booby prize parodies of actual Italian and Chinese food and there were insipid red sauces from Prince.
The Supermarkets of my dotage veer wildly toward bewildering choice overload edging toward preposterous with wasabi Doritos and ‘interactive’ breakfast cereals featuring sugar crap edible jello toys that burst into the matrix when the milk is added.
At least our modern diversity based versions c an induce a sense of wonder or a touch of delight if we but allow it.
My Seattle larder management routines varied depending on whether my venue was a supermarket or a bevy of ethnic shops.
If a supermarket was involved, usually the upscale and misnamed “Thriftway” or sometimes the downscale and sloppy “Albertsons”, I’d mainly browse the outer perimeter where the real food is and steer clear of most aisles where the packaged stuff is. I avoid ‘brands’ for the most part and save on the marketing department tariff by favoring generic.
I start with the produce zones to grab Portobello or smaller version Crimini ‘shrooms, maybe some mustard or collard greens for red bean stews, broccoli heads, and the various Alea family members, garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions or onions. I’d keep an eye out for seasonal things like garlic flowers.
Then it’s a short jaunt to coffee where I’d pass on the pretentious Millstone stuff and favor that old classic, 8 O’Clock, ground to espresso fineness. Sometimes I’ll snag a chunk of Stilton en route.
The dairy zone follows where I’d get whatever butter is cheapest, sour cream, parmesan shreds and some kind of cooking cheddar or jack. Washington dairy prices are high and local practice favors coloring all cheddar with annatto to give it that unreal orange color. The Tillamook brand is terrible and acts like latex caulking compound when heated so I’d get the better, cheaper “Western Family” versions.
The meat zone beckons and I generally rummage among the economy pork and beef cuts because they have more flavor in addition to lower cost. Then I’ll check chicken quarters and see what sort of deli ends or bacon rinds are about. The west favors thicker bacon cuts and a bag of ends can be wonderfully cheap.
Steaks are now cut to reduce fat and end up tasting like beefy cardboard. The stuff now called ‘Chuck’ is actually the fat marbled form that pleased the old timers. For pork I like country ribs for the broiler, butts for the bean and rice projects and the occasional shoulder for a long roast.
This covers the periphery and then a run through a few aisles gets me pasta, usually linguini and egg noodles or whatever is on sale. The canned beans are nearby and I range through pintos, pinquito’s, cannelloni’s or turtle beans in cans
I seek out canned hash, smoked mussels and whim bits and a condiment mix that includes balsamic or cider vinegar, cheap barbecue sauces and mustard. Canned and packaged items are treated as base ingredients for ‘elevating’. The addition of fresh ingredients in many variations provides the distinctness and quality that’s missing in the off-the-shelf form.
Some gaudy pastry is added for sweet tooth appeasement and seafood selection is haphazard, usually the farmed oysters as the broader fin fish industry is an increasing eco-blight with collapsed stocks, damage from fish farming and so forth.
I also rarely bought Washington labeled products as they tend to involve a price hike without any corresponding quality.
There are a few interesting variations in selection when I visit Asian and Mexican markets. For one thing, they have a 30% price reduction on comparable items such as chicken quarters so they increasingly get the main share of my larder budget.
They also have many useful and fascinating processed goods such as unusual mushrooms or deep fried tofu and lack the aggressive brand hype of American stuff. The best Asian markets are run by Vietnamese and another part of the fun is knowing that I’m helping immigrants get ahead in their adopted home instead of contributing to the disturbing volatility and dislocation rising from shareholder value. I’m no fan of the equity markets or cost adds for marketing and advertising departments.
The Asian markets also offer unusual things like fresh turmeric roots and the ingredients for Southeast Asian pad Thai style wet curries. And they are a jolly lot who like to give me amazing calendars when Tet New Year is at hand.
They mainly lack cheese so that still brings me to supermarkets. Mexican markets have interesting indigenous cheeses like Casa Fresca and a complementary array of herbs, chilies and spices as well as unusual onions. They also have interesting ways of cutting beef, accordion style, that’s perfect for texas style barbecues.
The past decade has also seen an exponential increase in small cottage industry foodmakers of every description including heirloom food revivals. All are more appealing and probably more profitable at ttheir scale of operations than the giant ugly conglomerates.