“That Pernicious Liquor” – A Gin Primer

Cocktails and spirits often have history and lore connecting them to stories of cure-alls, snake oils and digestive aids. Most are false (or at least the claims made at the time were false), but a few were true, and perhaps the spirit with the strongest connection to medicinal purposes is Gin.

Unlike many distilled spirits, Gin’s invention can be pinpointed to a specific time and person. While most people think of Gin as an English drink, is was actually invented by a German professor of medicine, Franz de la Boë (a.k.a. Franciscus Sylvius), who lived and worked in Holland all his life. He was seeking to create an elixir for digestive problems based on the stomach-soothing properties he’d found in juniper berries.

Juniper is a broad category of at least 40 different evergreens that can range from small shrubs to 60-foot trees. Their “cones” are so small and tightly-packed that they resemble hard berries, and are commonly called juniper berries on your grocers spice shelf.

Professor de la Boë was onto something, and called his concoction “Genever,” which is simply the Dutch word for “juniper.” It became popular first as a medicine, then as a leisurely sipper. Soldiers returning from the 30 Years War imported to England. During the war they’d regularly been given rations of Genever to fight off the cold, thus the expression “Dutch Courage.” But what the good professor called “Genever” bore little resemblance to what we now call Gin. His was somewhat thick, cloudy and intense. You can still find a few Genevers on the market, and the hipster crowd is starting to make some on the coasts.

One company goes all the way back, operating a distillery even before Sylvius created his juniper concoction. Established in 1575, Lucas Bols is the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand, and grew to become a key part of the infamous Dutch East Indies Corporation, using that powerhouse to obtain aromatics from all over the world. In 1664, Lucas Bols began distilling Genever – a triple distillate of rye, wheat and corn (what the Dutch call moutwijn or “malt wine”), loosely based on Sylvius’ original recipe.

Today the same company makes an enormous variety of flavored spirits, and operates Europe’s largest bartender training school, turning out 3000 mixologists per year.

When legendary barman Jerry Thomas, a.k.a. “The Perfessor,” penned what is the first compendium of cocktail recipes, under the magnificent title of Bartenders Guide Containing Receipts for Mixing All Kinds of Punch, Eggnog, Juleps, Smashs, Cobblers, Cocktails, Sangarees, Mulls, Toddies, Slings, Sours, Flips, and 200 Other Fancy Drinks, one in four of the drinks contained therein called for Genever. Today the original Dutch style is hard to find outside of Holland.

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Summertime is Pork Chop Time

Forget dog days, here come the pig days of summer – a time when your fancies turn to thoughts of thick, succulent Iowa chops sizzling and spattering over hardwood coals, surrounded by best-on-the-planet sweet corn, roasted fingerling potatoes and a frosty mug of the finest local brew.

At least, if you’re not thinking that way you might want to reconsider.  We are approaching the heart of the season here in Iowa, a time when there are more delicious things to eat rolling off farms around eastern Iowa than any other time of the year.  Besides sweet corn and the first potatoes, you’ll find soon hearty greens, cucumbers, zucchini, some berries, and the initial hopeful appearances of the tomatoes (more on them next time).  So this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a meal that is all local.

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Remembering My Father

Many people had asked me for the transcript of the story I told at my father’s memorial last month.  This weekend marks the first Father’s Day I will face without him, so it seemed like an appropriate time.  I offer it here as delivered.

 

George Friese (Left), 1936-2015

My father was an attorney, but he was really a frustrated poet.  He used to make us memorize certain poems, so that now, 40 years later, I can still tell you how many men were in the Light Brigade and what was theirs to do.  My sister can tell you what James Whitcomb Riley says will happen if you don’t “mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear.”

One of his favorites was Song of Hiawatha, and he’d recite it to us, trying to get us to memorize the Longfellow even though he regularly forgot various parts. “Dark behind them rose the forest – rose the something-something forest.”

It is appropriate then perhaps that he sent me to a summer camp that was named for a character buried so deep in the epic that most have never heard of him.

“From the master of life descending, I, the friend of man, Mondamin, come to warn you and instruct you, how by struggle and by labor, you shall gain what you have prayed for. Rise up from your bed of branches, rise, o youth, and wrestle with me!” [Read more →]

I Am The Man: Pondering My Own Privilege

 

I am The Man.

I do not mean that in the “I’m the best, I’m the coolest” sense of the phrase.

I am The Man.

I mean that in the sense of the implication it has taken these last few decades.

I am The Man. I am The System. I am The Dominant Paradigm.

I did not build the system, did not create the dominant paradigm, but to try to claim that I am not of it – that I do not benefit from it – is to shut my eyes to self-evident truth. None of us became who we are on our own. We – all of us – are who we are specifically because of the words and deeds of everyone who came before us. Not just our families, but strangers too. Not just the heroes, but the villains too.

The world I inhabit was already deep in the throes of often-violent self-examination when I was born into white middle-class suburbia five decades ago. It had been 100 years since the end of the Civil War, but that war had never really ended, it simply moved behind a curtain. Our innate human suspicion of the “different” had controlled all civilization up to that point, and there was no reason to think that a few hundred thousand more dead people would change that. And it didn’t. [Read more →]

The Brilliant #AmtrakResidency

Like (seemingly) every single writer and aspiring writer in the US, I was jumping up and down and scaring my pets when I heard about the idea of Amtrak offering “residencies” to writers. As both a writer and a rider, not to mention bona fide train geek, this seemed like one of those Celestine Moments, the confluence of two great loves in my life.

A touch of background: A couple of writers were conversing about how/when/where they like to write. They were doing this via the service that is both blessing and bane to all writers: Twitter (perhaps you’ve heard of it). They agreed that they both liked to write while commuting on the train, and one mentioned that Amtrak should offer a “residency.” The folks who run the feed at @Amtrak took notice and took them up on it, offering a couple of free rides. The result was viral mayhem for anyone who fancies themselves able to string together a noun and a verb. [Read more →]

How to Deep Fry A Turkey

In the eleven years between the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution, quite a few arguments took place regarding the future of the nascent nation.  One of the lesser ones was over the naming of a National Bird.  Writing to his daughter on the subject of his choice for the symbol in 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey is peculiar to ours.”  I’ve often wondered if there would have been an effect on our national character had Mr. Franklin gotten his way.

Nonetheless, thanks to America’s best holiday, the turkey has earned an honored place in our traditions at the table.  Though I speak from no personal experience, I suspect that turkey is also far tastier than the handsome soaring scavenger that is our national bird.

Each year around this time, home cooks across the country get uptight about their Thanksgiving meal, most commonly afraid that they will over- (or under-) cook their bird.  I’ll help you with that in a moment, but first I should point out that as with any cooking, the better the ingredients you begin with, the better the dish you end up with.

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My Take on the Ped Mall “Problem”

Since the City Council recently took up consideration of an ordinance regarding what the press has called “growing complaints about inappropriate behavior downtown” by people who are very broadly referred-to as “homeless,” a number of people have been asking my opinion on the matter.  This is likely because of my dual role as a downtown business owner and executive chef at Iowa City’s only homeless shelter.

At Shelter House, my task has been to build what I call a “micro-apprenticeship” program.  Since part of our mission is to feed the clients that Shelter House serves, we have the opportunity to use those meals as teachable moments, and give a few of the clients the opportunity to learn the rudimentary skills necessary to gain entry-level employment in the foodservice industry.

Because of this work, I’ve come to know well several of the people who are “in the trenches” in the fight to end homelessness, as well as quite a few homeless men, women, and children.  I’ve come to learn many of the facts behind homelessness in Iowa City and beyond.  I’ve come to understand a few of the factors that drive it, and a few of the factors that can help to end it.

There are many misinformed people who believe that the ten or twenty “homeless” citizens that frequently loiter on the Ped Mall are just lazy bums.  It’s an easy conclusion to come to if you are the tireless self-employed shopkeeper working 90 hours a week to keep your business afloat in tenuous times while a vagrant snoozes on a bench outside your window.  But when you look past the symptoms and focus on causes, the solutions become more complicated than passing rules that ban sleeping in flower beds or pushing shopping carts past the splash pad.  Those are mere Band-Aid solutions, and treating a symptom that way may hide it, but it won’t cure it. [Read more →]

An Instruction Manual for Fixing the Food System

For years people and organizations from Frances Moore Lappé to Slow Food have sought to repair and restore our broken food system, making noticeable but still negligible progress.  Surely more people today are aware that there’s a problem, and admitting that is the first step, as they say.

Thus far, all of these wise, talented and dedicated people have been navigating by the stars in an endless sea of industrialization and fake food.  Despite hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and essays and dissertations and lectures on the subject, there has been no guidebook, no specific “set of instructions” on how to fix our broken system.  To the rescue comes Phillip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont, with Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable Food Systems, a part of a series sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute called “The Community Resilience Guide Series.”  Other books include one on locally-targeted financial investing and another on creating local energy projects. [Read more →]

Why America Needs a Public Hearth

I was raised in the fast food test-marketing capitol of the United States.  Nearly every major fast food chain and prepared grocery product company tests its new ideas in Columbus, Ohio.  Twenty major fast food companies (they prefer the term “quick service”) are headquartered in the Columbus metropolitan area, including White Castle, Bob Evans, and Wendy’s.

When I was five years old my father took me to the very first Wendy’s on its very first day, after which we crossed Broad Street to visit the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), where I first learned of the importance of science in the production of food.  We wandered the artificial streets of “Yesteryear,” only to turn the corner and see what progress had wrought – from woodstoves and grain mills and hand-baked bread to microwaves, TV dinners and Wonder® Bread, all in the blink of an eye, both figuratively and literally.

At the Agriculture exhibitions both at COSI and the enormous Ohio State Fair (where I would get lost that same year), I began my indoctrination into the world of consumerism.  It was made clear to me that “Better Living Through Chemistry” was not only possible, it was preferable.  Chemical inputs made food grow faster, last longer and taste better.  Companies like DuPont, Dow, and Battelle would promise to solve every problem a farmer or a consumer could face.

One year later Wendy’s would revolutionize fast food.  It was Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, who took Henry Ford’s assembly line to the next level when he began using it to turn out burgers at a furious pace.  But it was Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas who took it full circle, not only using assembly-line precepts in the construction of his “Hot & Juicy” hamburgers, but reconfiguring the old “drive-in” of bobby-sox and poodle skirt days into the drive-thru, which took us the next step closer to feeding our children the same way we fueled our cars.

Fast food was not the only industry that was evolving.  In a curious sociological coincidence of the time, we no longer had to leave our beloved cars to feed ourselves, but the service station gave way to the self-serve pump.  We needn’t expend any more effort than to press on the accelerator to feed our families, but to fuel our cars we then had to leave their confines and do the work we once paid others to do.

Three decades later, we would fuel both our families and our cars with the same ingredient – corn – which grows plentifully in my boyhood home of Ohio, and even more so in my adult home of Iowa, the heart of the agribusiness beast.

Over my half-century of life in America I have witnessed what might one day be referred to as the most rapid and uncontrolled period of social evolution in human history, in which a mind-boggling array of influences conspired in a perfect storm of high technology and rampant, vapid consumerism.  Cause and effect were conflated to a point where it was impossible to tell, most of the time, which was which.  And somewhere in that rigmarole, America made the decision, as a culture, that it was preferable to leave not just food production, but also the actual act of feeding our families up to large, distant corporations.  Our lives were moving so fast that anything that appeared to be a time-saver was immediately adapted as a saving grace.  This so that we could have more time for work, to make more money, so we could buy more of these timesaving products.  Or it was so that we could have more time to spend with our families, which we very rarely actually did, except when in our cars or in front of the television, made feasible with all our perceived extra time

It is at about this point, when I discuss such things with people, that someone will begin to formulate the accusation that I am a Luddite.  The first time it was alleged, I admit, I had to look it up.  It turns out that the original Luddites were early-19th century English garment workers, incensed that their jobs were being taken by machinery and low-skilled labor.  They responded my smashing the new automated looms and often resorted to full-scale battle with the Royal Army.  Today the term is used to label anyone who, according to Wikipedia, is “opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization or new technologies in general.”

I would like to think that the fact that I just referred to Wikipedia, or the fact that I wrote this blogpost on an iMac, might allay any such fears.  But then I find myself going on about the absurd fact that very soon after H. Cecil Booth invented the modern, motorized vacuum cleaner, wall-to-wall carpeting became the home flooring of choice, thus creating the need for more vacuuming.

The same sort of thing has happened to one degree or another, with almost every technological advancement of the last 50 years.  We have luxuriant cars and now must commute further than ever.  Our computers and mobile phones and hi-def televisions have made office work, communications and entertainment nominally faster, cheaper and easier, but we now spend hours upon hours glued to one or the other of them, often even all three, in lieu of real time spent with real people.  We have, in the words of the old original Slow Food Manifesto, fallen victim to “the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

In the meantime America was sold a bill of goods.  We were tricked. Hoodwinked. Hornswoggled. We were deceived, cheated and misled into believing that that most sacred of acts – that of preparing food to sustain our families – was a chore on par with washing windows: something to be avoided if possible, or better yet simply left to others, and then done only very grudgingly and quickly and only if there is no other option at hand.  The simple result is that if we are what we eat (and we are), then most of us are fast, cheap, and easy.  What’s more, if you are what you eat, then who owns your food owns you.

The worst of many bad results of this cultural regression which we were assured was progress was this: we reared an entire generation who never learned how to cook, and today that generation is rearing yet another.

“But no!” I am often reassured. “Look at the size of our grocery stores!  Witness the popularity of the cooking shows on television!”  These are intended as examples of America’s love of cooking.  In reality, they are examples of America’s love of consumption (which you may recall was once a name of a disease).  Those grocery stores of 50 years ago gave way to the supermarkets of 40 years ago, which gave way to the hypermarkets and “big box” stores of today.  The stores get bigger and bigger, but the amount of actual, fresh, wholesome food shrinks in nearly exact inverse proportion.  Variety and quality are sacrificed to the gods of expedient mediocrity.

Meanwhile on our televisions most (though admittedly not all) of the food programming is insipid, gossipy, self-flagellating melodrama of supposed cooking competitors stabbing each other in the backstage with name-brand cutlery.  The rest of it is pure pornography: people who are prettier than the rest of us doing things we’ll likely never do, in places we’ll never visit, and doing it better than any of us could hope to.  But this is America!  We love to consume that too.

Where once the great Julia Child ruled with a soft hand, admonishing us that “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients,” we now have Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, which are far more about judgmental insults and manufactured suspense than cooking.

Real cooking is about none of those things.  It is a very simple craft, yet it can inspire deep passions.  Like architecture it is built on a few basic fundamentals – a foundation if you will – and like architecture, if you have a strong foundation the possibilities are nearly limitless.  After all, the source of the word “foundation” is the Latin fundatio, which is also the root of the French word for soup stock: Fond, which in turn is the very basis of modern Western cuisine.

Cooking is a simple act of love.  It is, in fact, the single most tangible demonstration of our love for our families and our friends.  It deserves appropriate reverence.

How, then, can we recover from our industrialized computerized malaise?  We must rejuvenate the kitchen and table as vital centers of our everyday lives, and we must reconnect food and pleasure with awareness and responsibility.  Here I do not mean merely the upper-middle class McMansion types with their kitchens that cost more than most people’s homes (although in my experience those kitchens usually do not receive anywhere near the actual cooking activity necessary to justify their costs).  No, I mean everyone, and most especially the overworked single moms, the two-parent gotta-get-to-soccer-practice mini-van families, the recent immigrants who feel bewildered in a Walmart Super Center, the college kid with a dorm room hotpot, and the young couples with new babies, who never learned how to cook at their parents’ or grandparents’ apron strings

To do this, we must create legions of cooks, and then inspire them to create still more legions, and so on.  In order to be effective, it must be based on the precepts of what Slow Food calls “Good, Clean, & Fair” food.  “Good” means that it is good tasting, good for you, and good for the environment where it’s grown.  “Clean” means there is nothing in the food that isn’t food (and if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it still isn’t food now).  And “Fair” means that the people who produce the food should be justly compensated for their efforts – from farm to table.

The Public Hearth is an effort to create legions of cooks, starting in farmers markets and church basements, youth clubs and social halls.  It starts with a neighbor sharing grandma’s tamale recipe, sure, but more important than the recipe is the technique, the skills involved.  We must marshal the resources necessary to make everyone know the difference between roast and braise, to be able to choose the best potato for a salad as opposed to a French fry, to make a stock from scratch and feed two people three meals from one chicken.

Also more important is that simple act of sharing, of being with family and friends and passing along knowledge and skills.  That is what builds community.  In Colonial America, and many parts of the world before then, villages would often have a central community oven, where townspeople would bring their dough to be baked, thus saving time and money by sharing the labor and fuel.  They would trade ideas and community news and baking techniques even as they traded loaves of bread.  The Public Hearth was a gathering place where communities grew closer together though the simple act of breaking bread.  And at the risk of too much Latin etymology, it is useful to know that the word “Companion” come from con panis, literally “with bread.”

Let’s get cooking.

~kmf, February, 2013

The Last Word: Poor Man’s Feast by Elissa Altman

poor-mans-feast-cov

 

W.H. Auden once said of legendary food writer MFK Fisher “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.”

This is how I feel about Elissa Altman.

I am far from the first to say so.  Altman was once described as “The illegitimate love child of David Sedaris and MFK Fisher,” which is also quite fitting, since she approaches her craft the way she does her life, with humor and love, and not without some occasional sarcasm.

She wields a sharp wit and an even sharper eye for detail in her new memoir, Poor Man’s Feast – A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking (Chronicle, 2013).  Based on her James Beard Award-winning blog of the same name, which by the way is a must read for anyone who is serious about food, the book takes us on a meandering journey through the last couple of decades of Altman’s food-obsessed life, centered on discovering love and rediscovering simplicity.

It’s not that the stories she relates are new or particularly revelatory.  It’s in how she tells the tales – the instantly relatable language that draws a reader in and makes her your best friend.  Altman’s prose transports you through time ands space and makes you immediately familiar with times and places and dishes you may never have seen.

The reader does not need to know firsthand the SoHo neighborhood of New York to be instantly transported there in the 1980s, “Each street decorated with art illegally painted on city property in the middle of the night, showcasing a frustrated, apoplectic Reagan under the words ‘Silence=Death.’”  One needs never to have set foot in a Dean and DeLuca store to feel the vibe of Altman’s former place of employment, at once alive with a passion for great food and awash in the era’s yuppie snobbishness, and still blissfully unaware that within five years AIDS would take half their male employees.

Far more joyous though is the love story she intertwines with occasional recipes and reminiscences of their origins.  We learn how she found the love of her life, Susan, on an internet dating site, and how one would take the train to visit the other every Sunday as their romance blossomed.  They share a passion for good food, but Susan’s Spartan sensibilities would eventually tame Altman’s lust for flashy, complicated “tall food.”

What Altman knows, and too many food writers forget, is that life is not all soufflés and cinnamon, and too often John Lennon’s lesson that “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” can be brought startlingly back to the forefront of conscience.  When her war-hero father was broadsided by some uninsured teenagers one sunny afternoon, she remembered a trip with him through the terminal at Grand Central Station.  Pointing at the ceiling, the former navy pilot showed his teenage daughter that the designers had messed up – they painted the constellations of the stars backwards.

“‘Does that mean the world is upside down?’ I asked.

“He looked at me hard and put his hand on my shoulder.  ‘Isn’t it?’”

As an aside, it’s bears noting that Altman lives in Newtown, CT, and she was terribly shaken, as were we all, by the tragedy there last winter. In her personal take on the aftermath, an essay she titled “Getting Back into the Kitchen,” she told of watching the customers come and go in her favorite butcher shop, Butcher’s Best, in downtown Newtown. Enthralled by the human capacity to carry on in the wake of unspeakable heartbreak, she watched as even the parents of victims would come to order their holiday roasts and would be given a comforting hand from the owner, Steve Ford.  “I realized what I already knew:” writes Altman, “That feeding people through joy and withering sadness and celebration and despair is the business of life. It defines us. It’s the way we move forward, and the way we mark our days. It’s the way we nourish ourselves, and our hearts, and the hearts of those we love.”

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