Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review: The Art of Fermentation

I recently read three somewhat related books: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Each of the three is sort of a cookbook, and sort of not. That is, they all contain recipes, but there's an awful lot of reading that goes with those recipes in order to understand the what and why. The three books tend to quote one another, and the authors clearly draw on one another's work.

I LOVED Katz's previous book, Wild Fermentation. I've gone crazy over fermentation in my own kitchen. Wild Fermentation is now practically a bible. I can't even loan it out to friends because I use it so much. And I think that I loved it so much that no matter what Katz came up with next, it would be a let down.

The Art of Fermentation is a different beast than Wild Fermentation. It's still Sandor Katz and it's still lots of fermentation. But it has a cleaner, more professional look to it, and it's a thick, hardcover book. Where it excels is in its thoroughness in describing all kinds of fermentation from all over the world. Who ever knew that you could make pickles in rice bran like the Japanese do?? Wow!

In my own kitchen, the section that helped me the most was the one on making miso. Buying good miso is horribly expensive. I'd like to make it. There's a way you can do it that takes a year... or you can do it in a way that takes a month. To make miso, you need something called koji. Buying koji, it turns out, is also stupid expensive. But making koji is affordable. Thanks to Katz's impressive work in The Art of Fermentation, I've got a $3.00 packet of koji cultures that came in the mail yesterday and a large amount of barley to use it with.

That said, I think Wild Fermentation is a better book for fermentation novices. In Wild Fermentation, Katz gives exact recipes. In The Art of Fermentation, he mostly doesn't. He describes how to make each ferment... but for me, as an unsure beginner, that's not enough. I was frustrated that I could read about all of these interesting new fermentation ideas and yet lacked enough information to make them myself. And maybe I don't lack enough information, I just lack confidence. Because it's a horrible feeling to start out fermenting something, knowing that there's a very real chance you're accidentally going to take a bunch of expensive, good food and make it rot.

The one very nice addition he does provide is section in each chapter on solving problems with fermenting, provided in a nice Q&A format. I haven't had a need to use it yet, but no doubt I will.

Another frustration I had with this book is that it's almost simultaneously too much and too little information all at once. He takes on every single type of fermentation known to mankind, it seems, but there's no way that one single book can provide every single detail on huge, complex topics ranging from cheesemaking to winemaking to beer brewing all at once. I can skip on the wine and beer, but I would have appreciated more information on dairy ferments. And no doubt other reads are the exact opposite. It's impossible to be all things to everybody, and the book seems to try and fail.

I think I like the book best if I think of it as a very successful ethnography of fermentation around the world instead of as an instruction manual to use for all things fermentation-related in the kitchen.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Building a Traditional Native American House

This summer, I am helping to build a model Native American village with the Kumeyaay people. I realize that when I say "model," you might think that it will be small. Oh no, this is all full-sized. The traditional Kumeyaay house is called an 'ewaa, and we are building four of them. We began today with the first one, using all locally obtained native plants and stones as our materials plus a little bit of modern help.

The Kumeyaay people traditionally lived in San Diego county and as far south as Baja California. During the year, they moved in an east-west pattern to follow food, water, and good weather. I can't say I blame them. When it gets hellishly hot in the summer, I'd like to head for the cooler weather of the mountains too!

Today, the Kumeyaay are divided into several different bands, each with their own reservation. San Diegans will recognize several different bands - Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan - because they've all got casinos.

The Kumeyaay recently purchased a new property very close to the Sycuan reservation. And it's GORGEOUS. That's where we're building a model village. I believe it will be used for education and for ceremonies.

The land includes a lake. The borders of the lake are lush with cattails and tules. All around the lake are willows, cottonwoods, and perhaps some mulefat. A little further from the lake, you'll find elderberries. And you'll find some invasives too - Peruvian pepper tree, Eucalyptus, tree tobacco. Hopefully those will be removed as they fix up the area.

The lake

Step one was building a staircase between the village site and the lake. The amazing landscape crew at Sycuan did that:

This is where the first house goes

When we arrived today, a circle was drawn where the first house would go. A few guys from the landscape team brought over an auger and began digging the holes needed for the house. This is, um, not a very traditional method. Can you imagine digging 12 two-foot deep holes with nothing but stone, wood, and bone tools?

Digging the holes

Once the men with the auger dug a hole, others poured water in each one to soften the soil and then began digging with shovels.

The landscape crew assembled a large number of long willow branches and a huge pile of cattails before we arrived today. While one group dug the holes, the rest of us trimmed the leaves and smaller branches off of the willow so that we would have the long poles we needed.

Trimming the willow

When the holes were dug and the willow was ready, it was time to start building the house!

We began by assembling four very tall, thin willow branches and testing their ability to bend sufficiently to serve as the frame for the 'ewaa. With that done, two willow poles were set into holes opposite one another and bent until they met in the middle. We needed a very tall man to hold them together in the middle to make sure our house would be tall enough. Once we got the poles in the right position, we used yucca or agave twine to tie them together. Traditionally, the Kumeyaay made their own cordage, of course, but thankfully we didn't have to make our cordage as part of our housebuilding adventure.

The first two poles

As soon as each pole was set in place, we filled up the hole around it with rocks.

A second two poles were set in place, parallel to the first two. We made sure that they were the exact same height before tying them down. The space in between these two arches will serve as the front door.

Next, we made five arches going in the other direction:

The view from the front

With that done, we fitted some willow poles to serve as the door:

Making the door

Next, we began wrapping large willow branches around the house and tying them down with twine. We left the space for the door open in the front. As you can see, it almost looks like a grid. In the end, there were four rings of willow going around the house.

The view from the front door

Woohoo! That part's done! Now, we thatch.

The thatching was done with cattail. I realize this will make little sense but I'll attempt to describe it anyway. You grab a large handful of cattail and make sure that it's all even on the bottom. Lie it against the house and then fold it in half over the horizontal pole. Then pull the top of the cattails forward so that they are all outside the house.

Ahead of time, we had someone wrap large lengths of twine around a stick. That made it easier to handle the twine, wrapping it around the cattails to secure them to the house and pack them tightly together and tight against the house.

If that made no sense, just look at the picture.

The thatching, secured with twine


And, phew... it's done:

Photo credit: Jennifer Beecher

That is, that part is done. As you can see in the photo, it was beginning to get dark. Our time was up for tonight. Next week we'll finish thatching this house and begin construction of the next.

This house is small and cozy, and it would be for a young couple who did not have kids yet. As you can tell, making this house was a lot of work, and it would have been even more work if we did not have metal knives and shovels, trucks to transport the heavy willow poles, and that wonderful, wonderful auger to dig the holes. The Kumeyaay did not stay in one place all year, but this 'ewaa is not the sort of thing you'd want to build every other week. Clearly, they would stay put in the same place for long periods of time, even though they did move seasonally across the many different ecosystems encompassed within their territory (coast, mountains, desert).

More pictures to come when we finish the 'ewaa next week! I hear we'll also build a ramada and a granary.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat is a new book by David Gumpert that will be out on July 4. I have a hunch that it will immediately have a very loyal following among the Weston A. Price crowd.

Gumpert's last book, Raw Milk Revolution, was about raw milk. This new one is about the larger issue of "food rights," no doubt a completely foreign concept to some people. But anyone trying to legally procure and drink raw milk, unless they own their own cow or goat, will understand completely.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights is essentially still all about raw milk, although the issue's a bit wider than that. And it's not framed as a battle solely over raw milk - it just happens that raw milk is the government's favorite thing to crack down on so the fight is usually about raw milk.

The basic issue of the book is "is there such a thing as private food." If you own a cow or a goat, you milk her, you get to drink the milk. If you own a shopping center and anyone from the public can come in and buy food, then you're subject to all of the federal, state, and local rules concerning sanitation, licenses, etc. In many states that means you can't sell raw milk. But what about alternative, private arrangements?

Several private arrangements are detailed in the book. There's the cowshare or herdshare, in which people buy a share of the cow instead of buying the milk. Then they receive milk as their dividends from owning the share of the cow. Often a per-volume fee for the milk is paid to cover the labor of maintaining and milking the animal, not for the milk itself.

Then there are leasing agreements that work like this. Farmer John owns 10 cows. You, me, and 50 friends come together and lease the 10 cows. Then we pay Farmer John for the room and board of his 10 cows that we've leased. We also pay him for the labor of maintaining and milking the animals, but we get the milk because we've leased the cows. Again, labor and overhead fees are often paid based on the volume of milk each person receives.

And related to such arrangements are private buying clubs. These are clubs that often start out with a few members who want a certain type of food and cannot get it within convenient driving distance. In the book, there's a DC-area group purchasing from an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. The folks from DC can't conveniently each drive to the PA farm once a week to pick up their food. Instead, members of a buying club will take turns driving to pick up the food for everyone or they will hire a truck to make deliveries.

Because of the Commerce Clause of the constitution, the federal government can regulate interstate commerce but not commerce within a state. So the federal government says no selling raw milk across state lines, but each individual state has different laws for raw milk. And if your state bans raw milk sales and you want it, you either need to get your own cow or goat, move to a different state, or go to another state to buy milk on a regular basis. And if none of that works for you, then you can set up a buying club and try your luck, as many people have done.

The ultimate question is: Are these private arrangements, in which members often pay membership fees or have some ownership share in the cow, the same - legally - as regular supermarkets. Are they subject to the same rules? And should they be?

Reading the book, which focuses on a handful of different farmers, buying clubs, and their tangles with the law, one comes away with a few different reactions.

First of all, why the hell is the government so intensely focused on a small minority of citizens who want to drink raw milk from farmers they know personally and often from farms they've visited themselves?

Second, why do citizens need to go through such stupid legal gymnastics just to attempt to obtain healthful food?

As we all know, there are real, big, widespread problems in our food supply. There are any number of foods - mostly ones that can be obtained through a drive-thru or a vending machine - that make you sick 100% of the time, even when they aren't contaminated with pathogens. And then there are factory farms that are breeding grounds for pathogens, and slaughterhouses run in ways that virtually ensure that sooner or later, somebody's going to eat some tainted meat, and we can only hope they cook it thoroughly first. The government's focus on the raw milk issue is kind of like their focus on arresting potheads while meanwhile there are rapists on the loose.

What I feel is a weak point of this book is that the individuals that the story is told through are often - and there is no other word for this - weird. Like a guy who legally changed his name to Aajonus Vonderplanitz who eats a diet including large amounts of raw meat.

Of course, in this country, if you want to be weird, you get to be weird. Just so long as you don't hurt anybody else. And if you want to eat weird food, you get to do that too. Or at least, you can so long as you don't want to include raw milk in your diet. Atkins, paleo, South Beach, processed artificial god knows what, all of that's okay, just as long as you don't want to buy raw milk in a state that says you can't. So says the government.

That said, some of the characters are hardly sympathetic. There are some folks profiled in the book who do come across as normal, responsible, well-informed, etc. It's a lot easier to identify with them, and a lot harder to dismiss them.

Perhaps the weirdos come into the story because they are the only ones willing to take on the system so brazenly. (And Vonderplanitz in particular generally thinks that he's got a better understanding of the law than most lawyers, so he's got no fear in, well... he doesn't see it as breaking the law.)

As a journalist, is it Gumpert's job to tell the story as it is, profiling weirdos if weirdos are part of the story? Or as an advocate for food freedom, which I think it's safe to say that he is, is it his place to frame his story in an advantageous light by telling it through characters that readers will better identify with?

The idea of food freedom is important, and it extends beyond raw milk. Other foods mentioned in the book include kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and raw milk cheeses, to name a few. In my own experience, I've met a local artisanal salumi company (now out of business) that was operating under USDA inspections but continually harassed for refusing to use nitrates in their meat. They told me they would present the evidence again and again to the government, proving scientifically how they used moisture levels and salt content to prevent microbial growth without nitrates. The government would take the information, and then come back insisting once again that they use nitrates.

Gumpert shies away from explaining why these contraband foods are safe, healthy, and should be legal. In this book, he sticks to focusing on whether or not we have a right to eat what we want, period. Nevermind how and why. I think the how and why are important and worth delving into to help people understand why it is that the government's being unjust.

Want to know why unwashed eggs don't need to be refrigerated? There's a good explanation for that. And it makes the government look all the more stupid for insisting that eggs for sale must be washed and refrigerated. Especially if the eggs come from a small farm raising pastured chickens, selling to a small group of people who know the farmer personally.

My other quibble with this book was its profiling of Bill Marler, a well-known food safety lawyer. (Full disclosure: I have written for Marler and been paid for my work.) I've met Marler and I like him. I think he's acting in good faith. I don't think many of the regulators are acting in good faith, but I think Marler is. In his job as a food safety lawyer, he sees an awful lot of devastated families and victims of food poisoning. I believe he genuinely cares about them.

Marler and I disagree about raw milk, but we can rationally debate it. Not so with many regulators. (If you look through the government's database of foodborne illness cases, you'll see that one food only is listed in all caps - RAW MILK. You'll also see that most food poisoning cases are never resolved, and some are only linked generally to something like "tacos" without discovering whether it was the meat, the cheese, the salsa, or the lettuce that made the person ill. Their obsession with pointing the finger at raw milk seems paranoid and totalitarian.)

I know David Gumpert took care in writing the section on Marler, but I still felt like it made him come off a bit too much like an ambulance chaser who is after a paycheck. And while Marler's a master of using the internet and various other gimmicks to get his point across (like sending T-shirts to the entire U.S. Senate advocating passage of a food safety bill), I think his goal is justice for the victims he represents and a safer food system. I think he doesn't want to see another family lose a loved one to tainted food.

That said, I think while the Gumpert book is by no means perfect, it highlights an important issue and inspires readers to feel angry and perhaps even take action.

I've always felt that the raw milk issue can be split into two parts: the right of citizens to eat what they want, and the right of citizens to be protected from fraudulent business people who are potentially selling dangerous products. Should you have the right to drink raw milk? Absolutely! Should I have the right to operate a filthy dairy with 50,000 cows up to their udders in manure and distribute their milk across the country under the guise that it is safe and sanitary and even healthful? Nope.

I don't know exactly where the line between those two extremes is drawn, but Gumpert's book and even personal experience make it clear that the government definitely draws it in the wrong spot. Cracking down on dairies that have never made anyone sick, forcing them to throw out their raw milk and not even allowing them to feed the milk to their pigs, or refusing to allow the sale of raw milk if it tests free of pathogens is ridiculous. Conducting sting operations of private buying clubs that have never sickened anyone makes words like "authoritarian" come to mind.

Gumpert doesn't go there, but there is another side to this issue. Why is the government acting like this? GRAIN has a piece called the Great Milk Robbery about a move around the world to promote the capture of more of the dairy market by large conglomerates.

A small farmer selling raw milk, collecting 100% of the retail dollar for that raw milk, denies a megacorporation like Dean Foods the opportunity to profit off of that milk. For the most part, individual small farmers do not have their own dairy processing plants and they cannot legally sell fluid milk or any other "value added" dairy products like yogurt, cheese, or ice cream. They sell their milk to a processor for a pittance and the processor and the rest of the distribution chain cash in on most of the retail price paid for the milk or other dairy products.

Laws made in the name of "food safety" can be important in keeping food safe, but they also serve to keep little guys out of the market. I can't make small batches of sauerkraut in a crock at home and sell it at the farmers' market. I would need to use a commercial kitchen to do that. (Note: CA has a new Cottage Foods law that I could potentially use to produce "low risk" foods at home and sell them.) Locally, friends have avoided such laws by holding "food swaps." I can show up with a dozen jars of kraut and swap them for homemade jam, tomato sauce, etc, with no cash exchanged.

Food safety is important, but we have to question this unintended consequence of restricting the market to the big players in the name of food safety. In the case of raw milk, is the government crackdown entirely due to regulators' insanely distorted view that raw milk is the main food safety problem facing America today, or is it something more sinister related to protecting the market share of large dairy processors? Gumpert's book doesn't go there, but the question has to be asked.

One last comment - I also just read Milk: The Surprising History of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson, which I highly recommend, in addition to the new Gumpert book. That book shows how unsatisfactory the average supermarket milk options actually are, which increases the importance of allowing eaters to access better options directly from farmers if we wish to do so. The demand for raw milk and other value added dairy products not sold in mainstream supermarkets or other channels definitely shows the failure of the market to meet consumer demand.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Recommendation: Wild Fermentation

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a book that came recommended to me for years. And I should have read it years ago. It's surprisingly moving, refreshing, profound, and amazing. Who would expect all that from a cookbook?

Of course, it's more than just a simple cookbook, but even still. Katz is not your average, mainstream guy, and I have a hunch that that's a good thing. After all, an average guy would not undertake crazy fermentation projects like making chicha, the traditional Andean beverage made by chewing corn and spitting it back out prior to fermenting it. (The enzymes in saliva malt the corn, changing the starches into sugars so that the sugars can become a delicious alcoholic drink. And, by the way, there's a spit-free way to make chicha.)

First of all, there's the fermentation aspect of the book - which is complete, covering numerous types of fermentation done around the world, with easy to follow recipes for each one. After reading the book, I'm hardly a master winemaker, although I feel pretty confident that I could make wine if I wanted to (I don't). But I have now made sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, fermented oatmeal, uji (a fermented African millet porridge), and yogurt. I am on take two for sour pickles (the first experiment with them did not go very well) and I just ordered cultures and vegetarian rennet from a cheesemaking supply company listed in the book's appendix. And, while I haven't devoted an entire year to making my own miso (yet), Katz's recipe for miso soup (using store-bought miso) has become a staple for me. (The stuff's so dang expensive that I'm thinking it's time to think about making my own just to start saving money!)

Aside from that, this book is so refreshing simply because the publisher - bless them - let Katz's personality come through raw and unfiltered (though perhaps fermented a bit). A few pages in, as Katz brings up a friend who is transgender and ponders the binary construct of gender in our society before returning to the topic of fermentation, I thought to myself, "Who is the publisher???" Being in the book publishing world myself, I can tell you that most agents and publishers are less interested in whether you can communicate your unique and quirky self to your readers and more interested in making sure your book will sell. Of course, if you can do both, all the better. But Katz's descriptions of friends with names like Nettles and Tom Foolery (a professional clown and juggler) and the way he ties his thoughts on death - his own and his loved ones - to fermentation just amazed me.

Many a publisher would ask him to cut that stuff out for fear of alienating or weirding out the readers. Just pretend to be a "respectable," "normal" person and stick to the subject of fermentation, thank you. But that's not what Katz does and it's a breath of fresh air. This is a real, living, breathing, imperfect, quirky, fantastic, creative, wonderful human being. He even gives out his email address in the book and invites readers to send him their questions about fermentation.

My hunch is that it's because Katz doesn't conform to any number of American social norms that he's delved so deeply into the subject of fermentation, allowing him to write such a spectacular book.

The idea of "wild" fermentation is not just intended as a catchy title. If you perform fermentation like many Americans - at least the few who do any fermentation at all - that often means you attempt to begin with a completely sterile environment as a blank canvas and you add a specific culture or cultures to do the job for you. No doubt any food manufacturer that produces a fermented product also regularly takes samples and analyzes them under a microscope to make sure the right microbes are in there doing the job.

But humankind has done fermentation for millennia and it's only the recent past that we've known anything about microbes at all. Wild fermentation means recruiting wild microbes to do the work for you instead of a little packet of some microbial monoculture. Of course, sometimes that little packet of microbial monoculture is necessary. The yogurt I made this weekend was produced by four specific microbes that I can name.

But often, you can let nature just take it's course. Sauerkraut's an easy way to start, but sourdough bread, vinegar, many fermented porridges can also be made using wild microbes. No corporate-produced, purchased, packaged, marketed items needed. In fact, many recipes are a form of recycling, like the Eastern European drink kvass (made from stale bread) or vinegar made from fruit scraps like pineapple peels and apple cores. Fermentation was a crucial part of life in the days before refrigerators and grocery stores, when families had to preserve their food and local microbes were only too happy to help do it for them.

Katz quotes his friend whose brewing mantra is "Cleanliness, not sterility." This is another important take-away from this book. As an American, it's hard to just sit back and let your food rot - which is what fermentation really is. And yes, I do want a certain type of microbe to colonize and eat my cabbage to make it into sauerkraut, but I can think of an awful lot of other microbes I don't want in there (E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria...).

We live in a country that loves their hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial (endocrine-disrupting) soap. Guess what? Anti-bacterial soap is a good way to make a fermentation experiment go horribly wrong. Cleanliness is a good thing in the kitchen, but the type of sterile environment we've come to think is necessary just won't work when it comes to fermentation. Not when the whole point is setting up a happy environment for a certain type of friendly microbe and then letting it go to town. (I was truly so scared of this the first time I made yogurt that I had my cats taste it first before I dared to try it myself.) Katz makes this point very well, and hopefully his enthusiasm for fermented foods and the microbes that make them will be infectious enough to get readers to change their relationships with bacteria.

If you're unsure about this fantastic book, check it out of the library, or check out Katz's website, which has tons of recipes like this one for sauerkraut. But I'm convinced that you'll decide, like me, that this is one book you need to have on your shelf.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Native American Cooking: Rabbit, Snake, and Woodrat

My Native American cooking class just wrapped up for the semester. In our last two classes, we had meat. Or rather, in the second to last class we didn't have meat and in our last class we did.

San Diego's an interesting environment to try to subsist in. Right now there are prickly pear cactus pads and not a whole lot else out there to eat. Elderberries will be ripe in a few weeks. Wild blackberries are ripe now - and while they are delicious, they are so tiny they almost aren't even worth bothering with. Sage seeds are available now, but I can hardly find any of the most nutritious variety - chia. I suppose one could also dig up mariposa lily bulbs and blue dicks corms. Let's just say I'm glad I'm not actually trying to live off wild foods right now.

Matilija Poppies are blooming now. Despite their nickname "Fried Eggs," you can't eat them. They are only a feast for the eyes.

Matilija Poppies

Mariposa Lily, with an edible bulb. Although it seems to me it would be a crime to kill such a beautiful flower unless you were really starving and had no choice.

Datura wrightii, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, a.k.a. Toloache. Historically used as a hallucinogen during initiation ceremonies of young Kumeyaay men. This is a dangerous drug to attempt, and even under the supervision of experienced elders, some Kumeyaay boys died when taking it. You don't have to ask around too much around here to find someone with a story about someone who tried it and died. Long story short: Definitely not food.

Another look at the Datura flower. Five fused petals, five fused sepals. It's in the Nightshade family.

Without too many edible plants around, our class decided to go hunting. In our second to last class, the instructor took us out to hunt woodrat. Also known as packrat, this tiny animal was a popular treat among the Kumeyaay. I wasn't eager to kill or eat one but I had a strong hunch I wouldn't have to.

In the class, we've got one guy who is a skilled hunter. He didn't come to class that week. The rest of us are novices. Our instructor, a woman, says she used to go out with her brothers when they hunted. But usually among the Kumeyaay, the men were the hunters, not the women. The odds that the bunch of us would be able to catch and kill a wild animal were just not good.

In the case of the woodrat, we actually got off to a decent start. We found the woodrat nest. So far so good.

Large woodrat nest

At this point, our teacher told everyone to grab a stick. One of us would poke into the nest with a stick. Everyone else was to stand ready to whack the woodrat with a stick when it ran out. I opted out of getting a stick and instead offered to take pictures.

We were all standing on one side of the nest when one classmate prodded the nest with a stick. "There he goes!" he exclaimed. The woodrat ran away.

Prodding the nest

Then somebody decided we'd do better if we surrounded the nest so that no matter where the rat ran out, someone could get it. So everyone did that. A few people continued poking into the nest. Nothing came out of the nest.

Finally, everyone admitted defeat. The rat was gone. There weren't more in there. Oops.

On the way back, someone found a Western Black-headed Snake. As you can see, it was pretty adorable. It was about the size of a large earthworm and apparently they don't get too much bigger than that. (No, you don't eat them.)

So that was our unsuccessful hunting expedition.

In our last class, our classmate the hunter finally caught a rabbit with a bow and arrow and he brought it to share - along with a rattlesnake he caught.

The bunny, with some sage leaves

Bunny and snake

I have to say, the snake was so small that I really thought to myself "Why'd you kill it?" There just wasn't going to be enough meat to make the poor little thing worthwhile. But as it cooked, it started looking more and more like a very lean slice of bacon. It got smoky and delicious and it actually tasted quite a bit like bacon too.

There wasn't too much meat on the tiny little thing, but if you just eat the little bones along with the meat, it was OK. And delicious.

The rabbit was more substantial, and rather delicious. There was hardly an ounce of fat on either animal. California Indians living on this meat really would have needed greens, nuts, and seeds to get enough fat in their diets.

A piece of rabbit

I made one last type of native (sort of) food: Mustard. Technically, the black mustard all over Southern California is mostly invasive (there are some native species). But it's all over the place, so why not eat it? Mustard is a distinctly European condiment. Indians from India (not Native Americans) use a lot of mustard seed but they cook it in oil, whereas Europeans grind the seeds and then mix them with cold water. At it's most basic, that's what mustard (the condiment) is.

Mixing ground mustard seed with cold water causes a chemical reaction to take place, leading to the formation of the chemicals that give it a spicy horse-radishy bite. Sources I checked out recommended preparing mustard a day before you plan to use it. The most mild mustard is white mustard (used in American yellow mustards), next is brown mustard (used in Dijon mustards), and spiciest is black mustard. And that's what grows in California.

Of course, besides mustard seed and water, you can add almost anything else to it. At the Mustard Museum (yes, there is one) I tried something crazy like a chocolate caramel mustard. My favorite mustard was a French one from Zingerman's in Michigan that was made with grape must.

Gathering and winnowing enough mustard seeds was a huge pain in the butt. I can't say I recommend doing it. With only a few tablespoons of mustard seeds, I ground them and added cold water. Then I let it sit for about 10 minutes. After that, I added salt, white wine vinegar, and nothing else. Some members of our class loved it. Not me. Too spicy.

So that was it, a full semester of traditional Kumeyaay foods. Now that this class is over, I'm going to miss it like crazy. Fortunately, two more classes start next week: Tools and Pottery. Most of my classmates from the food class are taking Tools together. And I'm going to continue trying out traditional Kumeyaay foods as they become available throughout the rest of the year. One classmate and I are going blackberry picking on Wednesday, and in a few weeks, I'll be all over the elderberries. I'd love to get mesquite beans and pine nuts this summer, although I'm a wuss about hot weather so we'll see if I actually make it out to the desert to collect them. And there's no way I'll miss gathering acorns in November.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures, and I also hope that it's made you think about how a people could have subsisted off of the land where you live, and what they might have done to actively manage the landscape that perhaps we should continue doing today. If you are lucky, there are still Native Americans where you live.

Unfortunately, Native Americans - those that were not killed outright by epidemic disease, war, or even murder - were often forced to leave their homelands. If I wanted to take a class like this in Illinois, where I grew up, I couldn't. My first problem would be the lack of native prairie, which has been almost entirely wiped out. But an even bigger problem is that the Indians native to Illinois are now located in Oklahoma. And they weren't the only ones.

Knowing now how intimately the Kumeyaays' lives are intertwined with the plants, animals, and landscapes of their territory, I cannot imagine the consequences of forcing them to move to a foreign environment many states away. Unlike the Europeans and their descendants who came to this country, establishing farms and bringing their culture with them everywhere, the Kumeyaay's culture cannot just pick up and move like that. Places are sacred. Certain animals are sacred. Lives revolve around an annual rhythm of hunting and gathering that fed and nourished the people, the plants, the animals, and the land. This is not a lifestyle that can just pick up and move. And I doubt any of the other indigenous peoples who were forced to move to Oklahoma so many years ago had cultures that could simply pick up and move either. Forcing Indians to leave their land is more or less equivalent to robbing them of their cultures.

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

At long last, I've gotten my paws on Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. There were 80 holds on it ahead of me at the local library and the publisher ignored my requests for a review copy.

I'm not as over-the-top in love with it as I thought I'd be from the interviews with the author when it came out, but it's still a good book. You can get most of the gist of the book by watching an interview with Moss on Democracy Now! instead of reading it.

The book is VERY similar, however, to David Kessler's book The End of Overeating. It's not a duplicate of that one, per se, but it shares a lot of common ideas and themes. Both are exposes of processed foods that provide insider information directly from the industry. Kessler focuses quite a lot on restaurant fare, like Chilis or Cinnabon, whereas Moss focuses entirely on food eaten at home.

What you'll find is, while food companies are extremely scientific at finding the exact amounts of salt, sugar, and fat that people can't resist and then - mostly through trial and error, given how many new products fail - finding products that fly off the shelves. But what likely happens when they fly off the shelves is that we are opening a bag of chips or a box of cookies and eating it in one sitting. That's something Kessler takes on and Moss doesn't, not just why people like eating foods high in salt, sugar, and fat, but why we physically cannot stop eating them.

The book traces the processed food industry's attempts to first find the exact amount of salt, sugar, and fat to make their foods irresistable, and then their difficulties when they try removing them from the food to create healthier processed food. For the most part, "healthier processed food" doesn't work.

It's different for each item. For sugar, people just love sugar - up to a point. They call that the "bliss point." The perfect amount of sugar to make us keep cramming the food in our mouths without maxing out on too much sugar.

Fat is a more complex topic. Fat provides a "mouthfeel" to food, but it also carries flavor. Low-fat versions of fatty foods don't taste good. But Moss focuses this section on two particular foods - beef and cheese, especially processed versions of both - that are chock full of saturated fat. In my opinion, while this is an important subject, he's missing an awful lot of the nuance related to fat. Because some fats are healthy and even essential.

By focusing on saturated fat as the bad fat, he makes it appear that unsaturated fat is the okay fat. But our country is drowning in omega-6 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats. And the more we eschew saturated fats, the more we turn to omega-6s: safflower, sunflower, soybean, peanut, and corn oils. The overeating of omega-6 fatty acids (compared to omega-3s) are a major driver of heart problems. But omega-3s are not shelf-stable, and omega-6s are. Furthermore, omega-3s are often found in foods that aren't very fatty at all, like leafy greens, or in fish. And while eating fish might be healthy, fish oils can't be used in foods without imparting a fishy flavor. There's a whole chapter missing from this book on how the processed food industry is hooked on omega-6s and why they have such a hard time removing them from their products. Yet, Moss doesn't just ignore this, he even cites safflower oil (which is off the charts in omega-6s) as a healthy oil.

The salt section is more interesting. As anyone who has tried to go off processed foods knows, you can recalibrate your body's sensitivity to salt. Soups that once tasted delicious now taste like a salty brine. But salt isn't just used to make processed food taste good - it's also used to mask bad flavors. One of these flavors is called a "warmed over flavor," and it comes from oxidation from reheated meats. The book compares it to eating cardboard. Yes, salt covers this up - but here's my thought: isn't this bad taste your body's way of telling you "don't eat this?" So covering up that bad flavor is overriding natural cues from your body that you are eating something you shouldn't. And that's no good.

All in all, this book proves better than anything else I've read why "healthy processed food" just doesn't work. Not in the cheap way we want it. You can reduce the salt and avoid the warmed over flavor by using fresh herbs like rosemary. Then you're not just covering up the flavor, you're avoiding the oxidation in the first place. But herbs cost more. Making food slowly and doing it the right way just costs more money.

In my kitchen at home, I make shelf stable processed foods I could buy at the store: jams, pickles, sauces, and salsas. And I do it without chemical additives or insane amounts of salt, sugar, and fat. But the ingredients are expensive, and it takes time to make it. That's not the business these processed food companies are in. And to stay in the cheap, convenient, processed food business, they can't do without - or even with less of - their salt, sugar, and fat.

One question I have that the book doesn't answer is: What triggers satiation? What makes our tummies send us the message "You've had enough, it's time to stop eating." That's the message we oughta get from our food, but we aren't.