Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Gastronome's Dilemma

Gastronome. I heard this word and its derivatives countless times in France. In looking for an official translation, the words epicure and foodie surfaced often. When living in a foreign place and learning a foreign language, you find that there are many terms and ideas which are so deeply rooted to the culture, that there is no possible way to communicate a proper translation to someone of a different culture.

Over the course of my stay, I came to understand the meaning of this idea, more than a word, to mean a connoisseur of the general things about quality food. This translation STILL does not do it justice. There is an energy and passion behind food in France that I've only ever experienced in our culture by hunting or gardening.

They have a profound sense of wanting to know the origin of their food. The idea of industrialized food is becoming more mainstream with influences like us, but the vast majority of people find the idea of buying a food out of season or from another country, repulsive.

I can't convey to you how many times I walked by stacks and mounds of tomatoes or oranges in February that no one had touched at the grocery stores. Organic foods are the first to disappear from shelves and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are banned all across Europe.

I really had no idea or information about any of this prior to my departure from the US. My understanding was that buying whole, fresh fruits, grains, etc. were what I was supposed to do if I didn't have a garden.

Meat is a different story. My family has always been a unit of avid hunters, therefore, buying much meat outside of the price to rent a deer lease was rarely done. My host family in France gave me, no, offered me a polite and quiet education about organics.

My second morning living with them, was spent in an open-air market where, in January, winter produce, like chards, meats, cheeses and baked goods were what was available to buy. We moseyed along, buying ewe's cheese that looked, and smelled, like toe-jam, baked biscuits that weren't wrapped or even handled with gloves and lettuces still covered in dirt. I also proceeded to buy a gallette filled with an half-cooked egg and unpasteurized cheese.

To be brutally honest, I would have NEVER done any of those things in the US. The sole reasons for which I was not immediately grossed-out were simply that I was fiercely jet-lagged, completely un-acclimatized and open to every new experience. A few days later, an impromptu soiree brought friends, fresh scallops and raw oysters together for dinner. I scarfed the scallops, but refused the raw oysters, citing that I'd had salmonella in 2008.

All of them stopped and stared at me, as if I had brought back the plague single-handedly and laid it down on their dining room table! The concept of food contamination is so rare, it's almost foreign to them. I explained that I believed I'd gotten it from a certain American fast-food chain during a tomato outbreak and have done everything possible since to never eat fast-food again.  

Another incident was standing in the kitchen with my host mother as she fitfully cursed and went on a rant to my host father. Confused, I asked what happened, and she proceeded to tell me that the people from whom she'd bought some Camembert had given her the wrong one. She'd wanted the one WITHOUT the pasteurized milk and that the taste was completely wrong. She also informed me that cheese made from raw milk is the most beneficial to your digestive system. This is how I mean they gently educated me about organic and local foods.

Later, she showed me the shower, the hair products, invited me to use them, her saponin seeds (she didn't even know the name, since the information on the bag was in German, she just said a friend recommended them and they work, so why does it matter?) and geranium oil that washed our clothes, all of these seemingly "new-fangled" ideas that have been around for centuries all over the world, I was just hearing about. She would smile sheepishly and say, "yeah, this is a little weird, but it's completely bio-degradable" or "yeah, it smells funny, but it's really good for you."

I never questioned her methods and blindly followed to test the results, every time being happily surprised. Which finally rounds me to my point. Upon my arrival back in the States, I began paying attention to my groceries, doing research and becoming informed.

I'll be honest. I went into a panic when I read what I read. I was angry with myself for never having put together the fact that my mother is allergic to practically every refined and manufactured drug and preservative under the Nutritional Facts labels on our foods, that I had chronic auto-immune problems and that my whole family has blood-sugar and thyroid problems.

Exercise is important, as is fresh air and proper water consumption, but food, oh food is the doozy. I've had modern medicine fail me many times, heal me too, but mostly fail. I felt that I couldn't trust doctors, because I'm a numbered chart to them. I felt that I wasn't being protected by my own government, (I advise you to read this CNN poll) then I'd found that the sustenance from which my body derives life-giving energy was also unsafe.

As a gastronome, I had a dilemma.

Miraculously, my research and some happenstance led me to wonderful companies, and I began feeling better. I switched my family to all organic, as local as possible foods and have been so ecstatic with the results. My husband and I had a pow-wow and after explaining my research, he agreed that it's worth the price tag.

 I confess that we are currently living on a very tight budget, but are still able to do it. I plan our meals a week in advance and have been baking and freezing the fruits of my labor, to eliminate the time-crunch of eating the goods before they stale. It not only has taught us to appreciate the food, but also evaluate our hunger at any given moment.

Husband told me this morning, as I was teaching him how to whip up some biscuits, that he woke up earlier and teared-up at the sight of milk in our fridge, because he was so appreciative to have it. I asked what spurred the thought, and he just shook his head and said that he has just been thinking about what it would be like to suddenly go without things like food. The guy makes me think. All the time.

Still, I confess to being a total closet farmer. A dream would be to buy a small piece of used and abused land, rebuild the soil and raise a milk cow and goats, chickens and all of the fruits and veggies under the sun, as well as my family. For now, I'll settle with my growing (no pun intended) herb garden in my living room.


I realize you may be wondering what sparked this fervent soap box. I watched the Academy Award Nominated documentary Food Inc and was nauseated within the first few minutes, but watched the duration. It is my opinion that everyone in this country should watch it and reevaluate their food habits. Reevaluate the amount you spend on food. Understand the cost of your health and the health of nature. Understand the scarcity of quality food in our current system and that our money protects those who are essentially destroying the land, our bodies and the integrity of good farmers.

I know where my budget goes and am proud to say that even though it's tight and small, it makes at least a little difference.


Monday, February 6, 2012

A Cure for Apathy

Today was rough. Among some personal things and school things, I came home after a long, hard jog and quick stretch, expecting to feel better. Physical strain is one of my favorite ways to escape the day, escape my trouble and to concentrate on the burn in my legs and the swift beat of my heart.

Today though, my remedy didn't work. I came home feeling indifferent to the world, and after ingesting about a pound of chocolate, I didn't feel much better. I made a list to quell the overwhelming-ness that was breeding the indifference in my head.

It helped, but after laundry and picking up a few things at the grocery store, I didn't have much to show for the hours I'd been occupied. I sat down at my laptop to watch...anything. Reading wasn't even appealing. At this point, I was tempted to check for fever. I ALWAYS want to read.

I suddenly felt worse than apathetic. I felt lazy AND apathetic. So what did I do? I decided that the Vanilla infused bourbon that's been sitting on my table for 7 weeks needed to be strained and put to good use.

I pushed myself out of my chair, turned up the radio and began banging the edge of the lid of the container holding the liquid against the counter (much to my dog's dismay). Our poor neighbors, who knows what they thought was happening. LOUD NOISES! BARKING DOG! LOUD MUSIC!

I finally got the lid unscrewed and strained the liquid into another container with a spout-thing, to make it easier to transfer the liquid from that, into a funnel, into three glass bottles with droppers. That's a lot of transfer. I didn't think of that-and now my kitchen smells like a distillery.

Regardless, I now had three bottles of young, dark, beautiful, homemade vanilla extract. Granted, one I promised to a friend, but that still left two! What to make?


Recently, my husband and I have been working all hours, trying to avoid the poor house, but it has come to the point where I must get creative, if we are to keep eating healthily and organically.

We honestly have tried to go back to super-store produce, to save money (because frankly, my husband has the appetite of a small militia and our food bill far surpasses any of our other bills, besides rent). This being said, it did not go well. We trashed the few non-organic (probably GMO) apples we bought, and decided that I would hunt for low organic prices, more local markets and make pretty much EVERYTHING from scratch.

I just quit one of my jobs, so that I could have more time to focus on my studies (and my home). This is taking some adjustment time, but I'm grateful for it. In spirit of being a bread-hound and Husband being a protien-disposal, I decided the cheapest and best way to keep us from buying junk food (usually organic, but still processed and expensive) is to keep a continuous supply of easily accessible treats and a large, hardy meat product readily available.

In short, we cooked a huge chicken overnight two nights ago and I decided to bake with fervor tonight.

Husband loves scones. The big, burly man, who, mind you, has been named Samson by our pastor's boy, Tarzan by a friend's husband, Fabio by my mother and Gaston by myself, you can imagine the giggle I get watching him eat the little dainties. No, not eat. Scarf. He scarfed both batches I made last week within a day or two! (I may have helped a bit.)

I've also kept a few batches of buttermilk biscuits in the freezer, to act as my breakfast and accompany our other meals. (Since I lived in France, I haven't been able to shake the habit and need for at least a little bread with every meal.)

Those stockpiles were exhausted yesterday, so I decided scones would be best (and I needed to do something with the over-ripe blueberries in my fridge anyway). The new twist, though, was that I didn't have any buttermilk (hence all of the scones, biscuits and a pan of gingerbread last week).

Insert coy smile HERE.

I enjoy tampering with recipes, if you've read any of my previous posts, you know this (unless it comes to French macarons). Anyway, I decided that I would substitute the buttermilk with cream, an egg, vanilla extract, and a little less butter.

The dough came out a sticky, impossible mess and I fought and played with it, while dancin' and jammin' to Blake Shelton's Honey Bee. Two-steppin' around my kitchen with, what must have looked like a flesh-eating monster, singing and laughing at not being able to get the mess off of my fingers, cured my indifferent attitude.

With my blood pumping, a smile on my face, flour on my apron and producing something with my hands-in true country girl, farmgirl style-I became my happy self again.

I tried to pat out the dough on the floured counter, but ended up dumping about a 1/4 cup of flour on top of the heap, just to hammer it out. I was finally able to at least get blobs of goo onto my parchment-papered baking sheet.

Sticking them in the oven, I was convinced they'd taste like matted flour and Husband would eat them anyway, because in his words, "if you eat it fast enough, it doesn't matter what it tastes like."

Queue my eyes rolling. Genetically disposed super-taster over here.

After about 15 minutes, I could hear the blueberries sputtering and oozing, and decided they were done. After transferring them to the wire rack, I laughed softly, thinking that my earlier attempts were so pretty. They looked like they came from a coffee shop, but then, I tasted one of the new ones.

Oh my goodness, they were fluffy and light and kind of amazing. Happy accidents are so fun!!


Anyway, after thinking about it, every time I have felt a little down or apathetic, and I've baked, I've always come out nice and shiny again, like dusting an oak armoire, I feel renewed.

What do you do to pull yourself out of the dumps?

P.S. I started T'ai Chi and Yoga this week in my stress reduction through movement course and HIGHLY recommend them to anyone with a stressful or busy life.

Blueberry Scones


2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup cream
1 egg
1 teaspoon (about) vanilla extract
Handful dried and fresh blueberries

Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix well. Cut butter into small pieces and use your hands to combine the ingredients. It should look like a yellow meal when you're finished.
In a separate bowl, combine cream, vanilla extract and beaten egg, then add to dry ingredients. Stir in fruit. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Roll dough out and cut into shapes.