Save a sheep from itself, eat lamb today.

A favorite of mine in British cuisine are meat pies. Beyond those unfortunate chicken-pot-pies in the frozen section at the grocery store, it’s not something I see very often in the wild. But this time of year, when half my days are rainy and gray and the other half are freezing cold—I want something warm from the oven. So I was surprised to discover that in spite of a number of steak pies, eel and fish pies, and others featuring game and fowl—there wasn’t a classic shepherd’s pie to be found.

And so it was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall to the rescue. My friend Gordon had sent me The River Cottage Year cookbook a few years ago for Christmas—and it’s a great guide to thinking about seasonality in modern Britain. Of course, it didn’t contain a recipe for shepherd’s pie either. But poking around online led me to his mum’s recipe posted on the River Cottage series website. Did Hugh lead me astray? As my friend Elaine noted when eating it, “More things should be cooked in wine.” I did modify it slightly to be cooked in individual portion-sized ramekins.

This first post also gave me insight into one of the things I didn’t think about when starting Tine Life—the trouble of food photography. I’m a graphic designer, I’ve been art directing photo shoots and taking pictures on my vacations (and cats) for years. And I’ve been reading the usual food blog suspects for an equally long time. Sure, for the time being I’m limited by what I can do with natural light in my Pacific Northwest winter kitchen window and a Sony point and shoot camera—but how hard can it be?

Continue reading

Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight—Mark Caro

I won’t get into the finer points of pro and con for foie gras production and the protests against it—other than to express my frustration that animal rights organizations have in this country, gone after the “low hanging fruit” of a luxury food item produced artisanally with a fair amount of care, rather than bringing similar energy to bear against factory farming—which would, to my mind, achieve a larger net result if they made progress.

Caro presents a pretty fair account of the recent back and forth between the food and restaurant industries and animal activists—even attempting to get Temple Grandin to take a side on the issue one way or the other (and she did blurb the book). He is, most certainly, a food journalist—and one that through this book eats a lot of foie, as well as participating in production of foie in France—so he perhaps gives the restaurant industry more of a fair shake than some might feel is warranted.

The larger question he doesn’t try and answer is how much importance should we place on enjoyment when discussing a food’s status as luxury or necessity—which is certainly one of the larger questions hanging over these kinds of foods.

Fish & Quips: Cooking of the British Isles

Originally, the plan was to kick off Tine Life with American Cooking: The Northwest. Living in Seattle and having grown up in Oregon, it seemed a logical beginning. But, as someone more sensible than I pointed out, January and February is a terrible time of year to feature my home region. The Northwest truly shines in the summer or fall.

So what cuisine do you feature in the winter? Scandinavia and Russia were briefly considered before I settled on Cooking of the British Isles. Over the last ten years I’ve visited friends and traveled in the United Kingdom more than any other country, save Canada. Even in those ten years I’ve seen dramatic changes in the quality and availability of fresh and interesting food in Britain.

I’m not pointing out anything new when I say that, historically, British food has had a terrible reputation. What most people don’t think about, is that like in every other food culture, they were constrained by climate, geography and the limited native flora and fauna. British food culture is a reflection of a harsh climate, subsistence-level farming and industry, making do with what you have, and creative ways of preserving food. On the flip side, it’s also a dramatic product of colonial influences, from tea to potatoes to Indian spices. The fingerprints of the far-flung British Empire are everywhere—and so many iconic British foods would not exist if not for centuries of colonial influence.

From my own experience, in the west we’ve forgotten so much in the last fifty years with regard to the fragility of our food supply, our expectations of seasonality and availability, and focusing on simple foods that rely on thoughtful use and reuse of ingredients. I’ve tried to keep those ideas in mind when selecting the recipes to share from Cooking of the British Isles, contrasting them with the recipes of the modern British chef, and asking my British and expat friends to share their ideas and thoughts on modern British cuisine.

What does the month have in store? Thanks to the birthday of Robert Burns falling in January I was able to feature haggis, shepherd’s pie and rumbledethumps are excellent examples of dishes born of repurposing leftovers, and how can you think of Britain without featuring both tea and their excellent cheeses?

And all seriousness aside, the editors of Time Life Foods of the World had some really crazy ideas about what made good food photography. I’m sure this will not be the last book to feature a variety of unique ideas for staging food attractively—and I can’t wait to show you some of that insanity.

This is not a book report.

I’m not a writer. I’m not a researcher or historian. I’m barely even a foodie (some might disagree—I’d use the words “opportunistic eater”).  But I did grow up in a family that encouraged me to try new foods, appreciate flavor, embrace my family food history and, most important to this endeavor, we owned a full set of Time Life’s Foods of the World series.

At various times in the last 10 years I’ve tried to come up with a concept for talking about  food, both eating and creating it, and kept coming against a wall. Whatever I used as my framework needed to be personal as well as broad enough to engage people who weren’t my friends and family—and it needed to incorporate my love for travel and exploration. I’ve shelved dozens of ideas over the years that weren’t the right combination of interesting and flexible, yet focused.

In September my mother asked if I’d like to take her copy of the Foods of the World series off her hands. I spent an evening leafing through the books thinking, “Someone should really do a blog based on this,” but not really realizing that person should be me.  It took a conversation with my friend Suezie a few months later to realize that the books were the answer I’d been missing all these years.

Our trouble begins there.

Sadly, between September and my epiphany, Mom had donated half the set to a local library book sale. Yes, including the spiral recipe books. This has meant, in the intervening time, I’ve been scouring eBay, used booksellers and various places on the internet to rebuild the portion of the collection I’m now lacking—spending far more time doing so than seems sensible.

Tine Life is more than simply cooking my way through a series of books, there are many who have already done that concept well. Some have even become movies starring Meryl Streep. This is not one of those blogs. I hope to use the Time Life Foods of the World series to examine changes to our food systems in the last fifty years, to connect with discussion on food and its place in our lives, learn more about ingredients, and most importantly: to eat with friends. Hopefully I’ll be cooking and sharing a lot of food I’ve not worked with before—and you can count on there being a lot of baking.

Today I sit here with a nearly complete set of books, a cadre of potential guest bloggers, and a head full of ideas on how to talk about food. I hope you’ll all stick around.

Cooking of the British Isles (Time Life “Foods of the World”)—Adrian Bailey et al.

Yes, another one for Tine Life. After feedback from potential contributors—the Northwest is moving to the summer, when things here are actually in season.

Things we have learned from this Time Life book? That they’re apparently fond of haggis on the Isle of Man as well as in Scotland, you should never trust cheesemongers in Dorset, and we should all be eating frumenty for breakfast. This weekend I’m visiting my neighborhood butcher and cheesemonger to see about a couple of ideas I had for related posts. Fingers crossed it works out. The first couple of general housekeeping posts should go up in the next few weeks. Eek!

If any of my UK friends would like to volunteer to guest blog about food and related issues, I’m happy to send you a PDF copy of the book. (Yes, I scanned the entire book. With the way the Royal Mail is behaving at the moment, it was necessary.)

American Cooking: The Northwest (Time Life “Foods of the World”) — Dale Brown et al.

Since they are books and I am reading them, the Time Life series will get recorded here, though all my thoughts on content will end up at the as-yet unnamed blog. General thoughts, and likely this will be the case with all of these books, is that they are definitely a product of their time in how they talk about food, gender roles, and some of the attitudes towards native cultures. None of it shocking. I’m definitely going to get a lot of interesting ideas to keep be going through all of the books—and they are going to serve their purpose as a framework for content well.

First task as a result of this one on the Northwest? I think I need to find myself a local mushroom forager to tag along with one day (Likely this will mean getting in touch with some people from the Puget Sound Mycological Society at the UW).

The Suicide Collectors — David Oppegaard

I love a good post-apocalyptic story. The flap copy makes a comparison to The Children of Men and I can see why. The premise here is that in our near future, some unknown force drives most of the population to commit suicide (called “The Despair”). The story follows a man named Norman and his neighbor in the days and weeks after Norman’s wife commits suicide. Genuinely creepy in places, suffering from superficial characterizations in others, but generally an interesting and swift read. It doesn’t answer a lot of the “Why?” questions, but it’s not really meant to.

After reading this and watching The Walking Dead this fall, I wonder at how I would do at the end of the world. I think it might go either way.

Not a year in review.

I’ve started to do the standard year in review post a few times now and I keep getting stuck in March every time.

This is the year I said goodbye to Amélie after five years, and in that rediscovered a bit of faith in humanity through the love and support of friends and family.

I went to New York on my own for the first time, and took a train from Boston to Baltimore. I saw old friends, some of whom I’d not seen in person for more than ten years.

I saw two coworkers (and friends) leave for other things, found myself mentoring two new team members, and I was promoted to Associate after four years and a bit of working my tail off.

I’ve spent more time reading, and more time discovering how to fit creative projects into my daily routine. I’ve rediscovered old friendships and strengthened new ones.

I made a lot of noise over the last year about all the terrible things going on in my life, but really, I’m doing okay.

Here’s to another okay year in 2011, thank you for being part of 2010.

Watermind — M.M. Buckner

I tried to describe the plot of this to Elaine last night and she laughed at the sheer silliness of it all. In short: sophisticated microchips that began life as part of a Canadian weather monitoring experiment form an artificial intelligence after spending quality time in a Louisiana swamp with a lot of random industrial and hazardous waste. Discovered by a rebellious former chemistry student from MIT (who is running away from her previous life following the death of her father) who was working cleanup in the swamp with her musician boyfriend, hijinks ensue after the so-called “watermind” accidentally (or intentionally, we never really know) kills another cleanup worker.

The rest of the book follows the fight to alternatively contain, study or destroy the entity. Most of the things the characters do make very little sense, or are completely trite, and frankly it all wasn’t much of a “thriller” as advertised in its blurbs and flap copy. Le sigh.

Blackout — Connie Willis

It seems a bit unfair to say anything about Blackout with All Clear still in my library hold queue. The two were intended to be one book, but the sheer length meant they became two books.

The story thus far follows a group of historians from a future Oxford (2060 to be precise) that uses time travel to study the past. Many of the characters have been featured in previous Willis books (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book). In this case, all the historians are examining early days of World War II in England, evacuee children, the first months of the Blitz, the rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk, etc. Something goes wrong with their connection to the future and hijinks ensue.

Unfortunately, Blackout seems to be entirely focused on introducing all of the characters situations and navigating things to set up for All Clear. If I didn’t enjoy Willis’s writing, particularly in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I would have given up early on. And as it is, there’d best be a good payoff in All Clear for how things have been structured.

That said, I have enjoyed the vignettes of life in England in WWII that we’ve seen thus far, obviously we don’t get a lot of these details in American history coverage of the period—and I only know what little I do due to being a bit of an anglophile. It’s too bad most of those little details are entirely inaccurate.