Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Simple Tools, Nature vs. Culture

Sometimes simple tools are the best, and I find that the simpler they are, the more I use them. Usually, I'd rather mash something up in my molcajete than go through the trouble of heaving my cuisinart out of its place in the kitchen cabinet, then disassembling it and cleaning all the parts, only to have to put it back together again and heave it back into its spot in the kitchen cabinet. (I suppose if I had a kitchen counter a mile long, or a professional kitchen, or a wife who did not insist that things be put back in their place, I could just let the Cuisinart sit out somewhere and not do all this heaving.)

Take this potato ricer. I think I bought it for a dollar at a flea market one year when we were vacationing in Maine. (We were actually looking for old cast-iron pots, only to discover--silly us--that old cast-iron pots are now collector's items and fetch a small fortune in the flea markets.) This particular potato ricer is probably older than I am. But unlike most of the tools made these days, it was built to last and it has. It performs one useful function that I know of--turning cooked potatoes into thin little micro-streams of potato--and does it without fail, every time. It washes fairly quickly, folds neatly and just sits in its place in a drawer, waiting for the next batch of potatoes.

Not that I personally advocate a potato ricer for making mashed potatoes. From what I can tell, the world is divided into two camps: people who gag on mashed potatoes that are not as smooth as velvet, with no discernable lumps, bumps or odd bits, and people who just like potatoes and don't care whether they're whole or mashed or squashed or smashed with the skins on or off or loaded up with a bunch of dairy or just infused with a little extra virgin olive oil. I happen to fall into the latter camp: You can serve me potatoes any old way, dressed with a little olive oil and parmesan cheese. I don't mind them lumpy. In fact, I think "perfectly" mashed potatoes--i.e. those made with the ricer--fall into the category of "fussy" food for "fussy" eaters, and normally I wouldn't make these for myself. These particular mashed potatoes are for a client whose preferences I don't know.

And that is what I find most interesting about mashed potatoes, that our cultural default setting is the smooth-as-velvet kind of potatoes, usually with a load of butter (not olive oil) and cream or possibly milk. Add up the ingredients and it is immediately apparent that these kind of potatoes on a macro level are not a healthy food (the butter, the cream), although they may be texturally pleasing on the level of, say, baby food. And on a micro level we are finding that mashed potatoes are a poor choice because the starch contained therein enters the blood stream that much more quickly when the potatoes are pulverized to the point of being atomized, causing spikes in blood sugar, resulting in spikes of insulin, resulting in a spiral of hunger-eating-weight gain and eventually--potentially--diabetes. Am I saying that one little scoop of mashed potatoes with butter or gravy will lead you straight to hell and elevated blood sugar? No, but isn't it interesting that we have a cultural preference for the texturally (and I might add, visually) less interesting and less healthful super-fine mashed potatoes over the just-smashed-and-drizzled-with-olive-oil variety...

Yet it is thus almost everywhere you look. Not just with potatoes. Our biases run in the same direction with virtually all foods. Whole grains, for instance, are still shunned by most. Yet anyone who has tried a loaf of well-made, whole-wheat bread knows it is vastly superior in taste and texture to the ubiquitous white bread. Anyone who has tried steel cut oats, or oat groats, knows they beat the pants off any brand of instant oatmeal for flavor and for chew. And anyone who has tried brown rice knows that is far superior in taste, mouth feel and healthful benefits than your standard white rice. The cultural bias that we cooks are constantly fighting has always been toward the more refined, the smoother, the plainer, the whiter. And that's because this is not a matter of taste or texture or health, people. This is, in its cultural origins, a matter of class. Those who can afford it want their bread white, not brown. Those who can afford it want their rice white, not brown. Whatever it is, they want it polished and refined and bleached. The whiter the better. If nutrition and flavor are lost in the process, so be it...

This made sense to me, and yet it did not, specifically in the area of rice. I have never been a big fan of white rice. My daughter loves white rice smothered with soy sauce. But to me, white rice is just the Asian equivalent of Wonder Bread. It has no flavor. It's too white. It is the culinary equivalent of library paste. I much prefer brown rice, its chew, its nutty flavor, the woodsy aroma of it bubbling slowly in its pot on the stove. So if brown rice is that much better, and white rice would be the rich man's rice, why is white rice the poverty food of Asia? This question lay there on a subliminal level for ever so long, a question for the ages with no answer in sight. Then I experienced a Eureka! moment while reading a small book called The One-Straw Revolution by a Japanese farmer/author named Masanobu Fukuoka.

Fukuoka has become a cult figure through his Zen-master style of no-till, natural farming, or what he calls "farming among the weeds" and "growing vegetables like wild plants." He grows rice in dry fields, exchewing the traditional flooding or paddy culture. He believes that flooding to prevent weeds merely results in weaker plants more vulnerable to pests and disease. Fukuoka advocates no chemicals, no fertilizers, and less work in the fields. He confounds the experts with crop yields equal to or better than those of his neighbors who practice modern methods advocated by the agricultural establishment. Fukuoka argues that foods grown naturally, with less work, should be cheaper than those grown with high investments in machinery and chemicals. All very interesting, especially to an organic gardener such as myself. But the Eureka! moment for me came when Fukuoka turned to the subject of food, flavor, culture and, specifically, the eating of rice.

"Most people today have even become separated from the flavor of rice," Fukuoka writes. "The whole grain is refined and processed, leaving only the tasteless starch. Polished rice lacks the unique fragrance and flavor of whole rice. Consequently, it requires seasonings and must be supplemented with side dishes or covered with sauce. People think, mistakenly, that it does not matter that the food value of the rice is low, as long as vitamin supplements or other foods such as meat or fish supply the missing nutrients."

As far as I'm concerned, hearing this from a very wise Japanese farmer seals the deal on brown rice. But for Fukuoka, there is even more at stake. "When people rejected natural food and took up refined food instead, society set out on a path toward its own destruction," he says. "This is because such food is not the product of true culture. Food is life and life must not step away from nature."

To which I say, Amen brother. And keep your potato ricer in the drawer.


farmgirl said...

Hi Ed,
Congratulations on your new food blog! I found it from the comment you left on mine, Farmgirl Fare. Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Love that you are so involved in teaching kids about real food. In the comment you left on my blog, you asked how I "did it." Not sure what you were referring to. . . You're welcome to email me: farmgirlfare AT gmail DOT com (though it may take me a little while to reply). Best of luck to you with the new blog!

Joe said...

The potato ricer also does an excellent job of squeezing out excess water from frozen spinach!

Ed Bruske said...

Great to know, Joe. Thanks!