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Beyond Measure 

Locavores know -- cooking is more art than science

There has been a shift In the way Americans think about food over the past two decades, a change in tone. At first, only pinpricks of awareness, then -- as water doesn't become viscous on its way to becoming ice -- a sudden consciousness that we need to change the way we eat. True, this is an awareness mostly limited to the urban, educated middle class. But it is picking up momentum, as the locavore movement edges toward the mainstream.

In Manhattan in the 1960s I often shopped at one of the city markets. They were huge, block-sized places, open-air with a roof. Stalls sold genres like dairy, fish, bread, sausage, poultry and meat, along with vegetables, nearly all of which was produced within 100 miles of the city (they don't call New Jersey "The Garden State" for nothing). The new Safeway "look" (like the one in McKinleyville) clearly is intended to evoke that ambiance, with a high, dark ceiling, and sections set up like stalls. Of course, that's not the concept of locavore -- the company is just marketing the aura.

As I've written previously, Humboldt County is uniquely able to provide local food, and has been doing so in part for years. The Arcata Co-op sustains several farmers through the year, with contracts for lettuces, potatoes and other vegetables. We also have sustainable egg and cheese suppliers, and more recently, organic beef and chicken. These are more expensive than supermarkets, but they also taste better, and offer a moral choice for omnivores. As Stephanie Silvia recently wrote in the Journal, "I'd rather serve less meat and buy it from vendors whose practices resound with my values."

But the move away from seasonal, sustainable food is only one reason for America's culinary decline; another is that we have gotten out of the habit of cooking. I don't mean special meals for company, I mean day-to-day preparing of our own food. We eat processed cereals (yep, granola!), flavored yoghurt and energy bars for breakfast, and defrost more processed food for supper. There are many reasons for this evolution, but one of the most potent is that we don't want to "waste time" cooking.

Throughout America's history, to be slow was to obstruct progress. We saw the future in electricity, in the speed of light, in subatomic particles. We built a culture on the assumption that speed equaled efficiency. Steamboat and locomotive gave way to automobile and airplane, then telegraph to telephone, then the FAX machine, and ultimately the Internet. Speed was Progress. Faster was Better.

But faster food has also come to mean fattier, sweeter, saltier and simple-carb-heavy, stuff that is convenient to buy at a chain store or fast-food drive-through. Thus the rise in obesity and concomitant diseases like Type 2 diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure. Faster also means knowing nothing of the provenance of what we eat, allowing us a blissful disconnect between the slaughterhouse and the chicken nugget.

And we've come to relegate cooking to the category of dismal household chores like cleaning the toilet or vacuuming dust bunnies; we resent the time that could be used for more productive activities. This is part of the frantic pace of modern living. In fact, if there is one place to apply relaxation productively, it would seem to be finding, preparing, and eating wonderful food. Part of the sense of drudgery comes from the image the food industry sells us of convenience-in-a-can, and part from the frustration of getting ready to cook something, only to find the recipe calls for a critical missing ingredient.

Jean Johnson, a cultural historian, has provided a way back into the kitchen, in a delightful new book, Cooking Beyond Measure. Resisting too much historical analysis or passionate advocacy, she teaches more by example, although the reader will find fascinating kernels of wisdom. It is a highly readable book that travels from breakfast to dessert, with bright, colorful photographs and minimal instructions.

Some readers have complained about my own recipes, which give ingredients but not measurements: my chili, for example, or basic stock. Jean shares my approach, using phrases like "enough milk or water to get things whirling" or "enough cornmeal to get a stirrable batter." The idea, after all, is to get people to enjoy simple, effective ways to prepare meals from real food.

So, using examples like Corncakes with Pepperjack,Thai Style Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup, and Eggs with Spring Asparagus and Parmigiano Reggiano, she seduces rather than preaches. "That's what this book is about," she writes, "helping us busy moderns reconnect with the true pleasure of cooking. Encouraging weeknight cooks to leave their measuring cups in the drawer and use what's on hand to make meals from fresh, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables. Meals that are mostly ready in a half-hour and are healthy, affordable and fabulous."

Jean was kind enough to give me a half-hour of her time, and we had a phone conversation that ranged widely. The only problem I had with the book, I said, was that it excluded meat, which is one thing many people can prepare quickly.

She answered that most people buy meat with no knowledge of its source (indeed, I've found that even touted organic brands like Rosie and Rocky chickens are products of factory farms, huge buildings jammed with animals that never see sunlight or eat bugs).

Also, she said, "We speak meat and potatoes very well; so what I centered on was getting vegetables to the center of the plate." (I should note that the book includes fish, shellfish, eggs and cheese, and that the author writes of having enjoyed turkey mole in Puebla. She is not a vegetarian.)

The very foundation of precise measurement of ingredients, she said, is a product of the Boston Cooking School, which was less a culinary institute than a place wealthy Brahmin women sent their Irish immigrant cooks, to be trained to make more genteel dishes. Precision in measurement -- teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, et al. -- was founded on the idea of scientific progress, indeed was called "domestic science." And we have internalized that.

As Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2007), our destination should be this: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables." Jean Johnson's book is a wonderful way to get there.


Cheesy Corn Bake from Cooking Beyond Measure

Puffy corn pudding perfect for harvest, when corn, zucchinis and Anaheim chiles are spilling out of baskets everywhere.

Grate the zucchini and cut the corn from the cob. Fold the vegetables into some eggs whisked with milk, cornmeal masa, turmeric, salt and chile powder. Bake in a medium oven in an oiled dish until set. Garnish with sharp cheddar and serve with roasted Anaheims.

Details: The idea on the eggs is the same as for scrambled; just a spoon of milk or water to help blend when you beat them with a whisk or fork. Then incorporate a little masa at a time until you have something close to a medium gravy.

Leave the cheese until the end to keep it from burning. The bake will be hot enough when you pull it from the oven to melt grated cheese.

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Joseph Byrd

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