Sunday, June 12, 2011

The New Geopolitics of Food is Crap

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy is the "food issue" and the lead article is :

The New Geopolitics of Food

From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars.  

I saw this article come across my feed reader and thought it looked interesting.  It was very interesting.  Admittedly, I don't know much about the geopolitics of food systems, but the concept of food systems has been on my mind lately. 

A Little Bit About Where I'm Coming From
We do this thing every so often called 7 Days 100% local challenge.  The goal of the challenge is to move our diet in a more local direction with the goal, for those 7 days, of getting as close to 100% locally sourced food as possible.   A big part of this is discovering what my friend would call an "honest" local meal.  What does it look like to really eat local?  What would be missing from your plate?  What new items would show up?   How is eating local in Portland different than eating local anywhere else?  It's not about making substitutions.  It's about discovering what "here" means.  (Of course, the ultimate in "honest" local food would be only foraged an indigenous items, but I haven't gotten there yet.)

Doing this challenge has also let me to thinking about other issues--mostly what really is the impact of eating local.  If part of the goal of the challenge is to move more people and dollars away from industrialized food and toward local sources, does that really have an impact?  How many people and how many dollars would need to be moved out of Kroger Corporation's pockets and into the local food economy before it could be considered "making a difference"?  According to the 2009 Kroger Fact Book (PDF), Kroger has 2468 super markets representing 36 different brands with over $76 billion dollars in annual sales.  That's freaking huge!  There there is a gigantic industrialized agriculture machine pumping unimaginably large quantities of food products out these stores.  

How in the world can choosing to eat local impact this system?  How can something so big, so entrenched, and with so much money behind it be moved by just by choosing to eat local?  We could do the "our family chooses to eat local" thing, but that just feels too self-righteous for me.  Honestly, I've started to become pessimistic about the whole thing.  

Where the Article Steps In
The New Geopolitics of Food does not brighten my day.  It's a really interesting article that hit home the point that the world of food is really about food for the world.  This is the opposite of local intention.  The article points out how food is used for foreign relations.  We export massive amounts of food to other countries when they are having a bad year.  It also points out how as economic growth and the appetite for meat seems to go hand-in-hand.  China is a specific example.  Meat production is soaring there, and demand is outpacing supply. For anyone concerned about the horrors of industrialized meat production, this represents a very real and growing nightmare.  It also makes a good point about the rising price of food and how foreign governments (mostly in Africa) are leasing their arable land to foreign food companies while their own population starves.  It also points out the we are starting to use grain for fuel as a substitute for fossil fuels. This is putting tremendous pressure on grain production because its using up our "surplus".

Multiple Problems.  Multiple Answers.
The answer the article positions at the end, is to find ways to increase crop yields in a hurry because there is an international food catastrophe on its way.  

The answer, apparently, is not to transition more to local sources.   

Increasing yields also could be a way of supporting more intensive industrialization of the food chain, along with more GMO products.  Overall, this solution is the opposite of what the local food movement cares about.

Also, as food--especially meats and grains--becomes even more of an international bargaining chip, having deep production reserves will be a key component of being a powerful nation, just as oil reserves are now.   Given this reality, it seems unlikely that the government will want to support reducing industrialized food production.  This puts the local food movement fundamentally at odds with the government also.

What to do!  

Is the local food movement really taking everything into consideration?  Is local food philosophically aligned with isolationism?  And is that realistic in today's interconnected world?  

As a  person interested in transitioning away from industrialized food and who believes that the commoditization  of food in general creates lower quality food, damages the environment, and encourages a system ripe for abuse under the guise of increasing "production efficiency", this article causes a lot of thoughts. Unfortunately, not all of them are hopeful.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Start of Summer Pork Barbecue

It was time again for our annual birthday barbecue.  Time for bags of hard wood, pork shoulders, and a little Buckwheat Zydeco. Every year Kim and I have a big get together with our friends to celebrate our birthdays, the start of Summer, and the beginning of barbecue season.  The normal activities ensue--buying bags of hardwood for the smoker, tracking down two Boston Butts, checking how much brown sugar and apple cider vinegar is in the house, scrubbing the back deck, etc.

Central to this party, is the barbecue.  When I say barbecue, I mean pork that is smoked for hours, shredded, simmered in sauce, and served on a bun.  Later in the summer we'll have our annual rib barbecue.  But for our birthday its always pot-luck, and I smoke some pork butts.  Since this is a food blog, let's get right to the goods.  Here's what we made for our party this year:

Pulled Pork Sandwiches
The one in the middle is
the local picnic ham.
This year I'd planned to do something a little different.  Last fall I got a whole pig.  In the process of butchering it, we specifically left one shoulder whole just for this event.  That's a 20 lbs piece of meat!  Normally the shoulder is cut into the Boston Butt and the Picnic Ham, but this time I wanted to keep it all together and do one big, glorious smoke out!  And make this the first year we do 100% local meat in the bbq.

Unfortunately, I didn't plan things well and the shoulder didn't defrost in time.  However, there was a single Picnic Ham that I was able to get defrosted, so we did half local.  The butts came from Costco which is where I normally get them from.  I've looked into other places in town for local meat, but none of them sell whole butts at a price that is reasonable.  Considering we're talking about a 8-10 lbs chuck of flesh, getting 2 or 3of these can get expensive if you are paying $4-$5 per pound for local meat.

Anyway, in my experience, running the smoker around 250 means keeps the cooking time at around an hour a pound to get to an internal temp of 185-190.  So, for an 8 lbs shoulder, you'll need 8 hours of cooking time at 250.  This will produce a nice crust, a quarter to half inch smoke ring, and make the meat soft enough for shredding with forks.

For the pulled pork, I use my own rub which is a modified version of a Memphis style rub I found online.  The print out I have actually says the original rub recipe comes from The Barbecue Bible, but I checked my copy and couldn't find it.

Jason's Pork Rub
Black Pepper
Brown Sugar
Garlic Powder
Dried Oregano
Chipotle Powder

This is my "magic powder" (a la Mike Mills).  I altered the original with the garlic powder, oregano, and chipotle powder to give this rub a touch of herbiness and a little more heat.  The sugar-paprika-pepper combo is pretty normal barbecue flavors and seemed too dry to me, especially for Oregon.  To alter this rub for fish or chicken, just reduce the paprika and black pepper and increase the garlic and oregano.
Don't be shy about laying on the rub.  It will make a nice crust.

The beast at work.

2 butts, a pot of beans, and smoked cabbage (in the tin foil) on the smoker.
The picnic ham ready for shredding.
Once the shoulders have smoked and are all tender and black, I take them out of the smoker and shred them down with forks. This can be a time consuming process, but it really does produce better results that chopping the meat.  Then I simmer the meat for at least 30 minutes in a ketchup vinegar sauce, pretty much following the recipe for North Carolina Pulled Pork from The Barbecue Bible.  I'm not much for barbecue sauce, but the sweet-hot tang of the vinegar sauce combined with the salty-sweet crust of the rubbed pork makes for outstanding pulled pork.

Smoked Cabbage

Last year, while looking for something different, I found a recipe for smoked cabbage in The Legends of Texas Barbecue.  My first thought was "gross." My second thought was "cabbage is cheap".  My third thought was "I'll give it a try if I have room in the smoker".  It was outstanding.  If you haven't had smoked cabbage, I highly recommend it.  Uncle Kermit's Barbecued Cabbage is outstanding and simple.

Cabbages cored and packed with spiced butter.  
Butter (one stick per cabbage)
garlic powder
onion power

Make a spiced butter and pack the entire stick into the core of the cabbage.  The cabbage will groan and seem like it's going to burst from the butter.  Wrap in tin foil and stick it in a smoker for a couple hours.  Cut into wedges and serve.  Wonderful.

Cole Slaw
Normally I don't do cole slaw.  I just don't like it that much.  But this year it seemed like a good idea, just as an experiment.  To match with the vinegar sauced pulled pork, I found a vinegar based cole slaw recipe in Peace, Love and Barbecue.  The Lexington Barbecue Red Slaw recipe was a good match, especially since I added a little too much chipotle pepper to the first batch of pulled pork.  Cole slaw still isn't my favorite thing, but this was about as good as I could ask for.  Note:  make this the night before so it has time to marinate.  Otherwise, it just tastes like cabbage and vinegar.

Potato Salad
Mama Faye's didn't last long!
Kim made potato salad.  She found the simplest recipe and it turned out great.  She looked through several options and then found Mama Faye's Home-Style Potato Salad.  This turned out to be another hit from Peace, Love and Barbecue.  A classic, simple, delicious potato salad.

Beyond that, everything else was provided by the people who showed up. In normal pot-luck style we had all sorts of goodies to choose from and they were all delicious.

Here are some random pictures from the barbecue and some of the people who showed up to help us celebrate our birthday...and eat!
There was a lot of food!
Marsh mellows too!

The real power of barbecue...bringing friends together.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The BBQ Books I Gots on my Shelf

Tomorrow is our annual birthday BBQ, so, of course, today is the run around like a maniac and get ready for the BBQ day.  Part of this running around is figuring out what to cook.  We normally do it pot-luck style and let people bring whatever sides they want (except Blu--he is required to bring deviled eggs).  For our part, Kim normally makes something and I make pulled pork sandwiches.  I'll have more on this tomorrow.  This year I thought I'd also do a cole slaw to go with the sandwiches which sent me digging though my BBQ books to find something great. 

As a preamble to the much anticipated BBQ of the Year post coming in the next couple days, I figured I'd give a run down of the BBQ books that I use in case anyone is interested in getting some books on BBQ.

Now, let's define BBQ (Bar-B-Que) for a minute.  Many people think of Weber grills and charcoal briquettes when they think of summertime, have-your-friends-over bar-b-ques.  This is not what I'm talking about.  Although the rich petroleum aromas of Matchlight briquettes brings back many childhood memories for me, and the explosive rush of lighter fluid is fun, I'm doing something different.

When I'm talking about Barbecue, I'm talking about something that is more like what people think of when they imagine smoking foods.  I'm talking about slow cooking using indirect heat with hardwood logs for hours on end in a big, black metal drum.  Technically, what I'm talking about is called "hot smoking".  Hot smoking is like slow roasting in the oven, but with smoke.  Hot smoking is meant to take tough pieces of meat and melt them down over time.  Normally the temperature is around 225 degrees (f).  I don't want to go on about this, but I just want to be clear about what kind of cooking we're talking about here.

Grilling is direct heat, high temperature, fast cooking.  Grilling is for hamburgers and steaks and bratwursts and legs of lamb, etc.  Grilling is what most people do.  It's gas grills or Webers with charcoal briquettes.

There is another method called "cold smoking" which takes several days, never really gets over 90 degrees (f) and is what you do when you are trying to cure large peices of meat or some types of sausages.  I personally have never cold smoked anything...yet.  Cold smoking is used in some kinds of charcuterie.

Okay, now that we've got the definitions out of the way, let's get on with the books.   I'm leaving out the charcuterie books because those are more in line with "cold smoking" and that is not what I feel like writing about today.

The Barbecue! BibleI'd resisted this book for a long time because of the cheesy title (I've resisted buying the rest of Raichlen's books that came after this one for the same superficial reason).  Actually, this is a really good book.  I have been surprised how often I reference it for ideas on barbecue.  The international nature of this book is interesting, but not my favorite part.  What I really like is that it is that this book is well rounded.  It's the kind of book that you can sit down with and find something.  It is by no means exhaustive (although I think the sauces and rubs chapters are given more room than they need), but what is in here is good and interesting.  That's why I like it.
Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit BossesI have to admit that Texas style barbecue is not my favorite.  Mesquite smoked beef is good, but not my personal favorite.  That being said, this is an outstanding cook book.  It really does try to be a "cook book" in that it features a deep collection of old-school Texas barbecue recipes from masters around the state.  And Robb Walsh is successful at doing what he seems to set out to do--bring forward the down-home roots of Texas barbecue.  He clearly prefer history over awards in this book.  If you're still running the same pit your grand-dad started in 1940, then you've got a good shot at getting into this book.  This book could be called "Roots of Texas Barbecue".  It's a good read

Peace, Love and Barbecue--Recipes, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue
Peace, Love, & Barbecue: Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of BarbecueEasily my favorite BBQ book; this is a unique BBQ book.  There are more stories than recipies in this book.  It's more like a tour around the professional bbq world that just happens to pick up some great recipes along the way.  If you want a specific recipe you have to go to the index, because the chapters are about the bbq world and the pit masters who inhabit it.  Mike Mills clearly knows the BBQ world inside and out.  This is the kind of cooking book that can go from night stand to kitchen counter in the same day.  It's just fun to read.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: An American RoadhouseFrom what I understand Dinosaur Barbecue is a pretty good place to eat if you are in upstate New York.  I wanted the book because I'd found a recipe online a long time ago and it was attributed to Dinosaur Barbecue. The cook book is good.  It has some interesting ideas about meats and sauces.  I like to use this book for some alternate ideas and to see how they mix flavors.  And the pictures are good.
Weber's Charcoal Grilling: The Art of Cooking with Live FireNot really a barbecue book at all, but it's in the same general world of outdoor live fire cooking.  There are some recipes for indirect heat cooking using 2 stage fires, etc., in a Weber grill.  I got this as a gift and have been really surprised at the quality of the recipes.  There are some really interesting ideas with small sauces and grilled meats.  And the photography is beautiful.  Like the Dinosaur Barbecue cookbook, I use this as a secondary reference to see some alternative ideas on flavor pairings.  
Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine WayI was really looking forward to getting this book, and when I got it I was mostly satisfied.  Again, not really a barbecue book, but more a grilling book using seven different ways to set up the fire.  The chef--Francis Mallman--is Argentinian and the book positions itself as a sort of manifesto on Argentinian outdoor cooking.  What this book really excels at is surprising you with some really new ideas on how to grill meats.  The example of cooking an entire cow whole on a giant metal rack raised over a bonfire using cables and pulleys is amazing.  Hardly practical, but amazing.