Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shared Experiences Build Bonds

On the surface this blog is certainly a food blog.  Underneath it is really an exploration of family and community.  I just happen to think that it is around food that we form those bonds, those shared experiences that make us community.  But food is by no means the only way.

Walter Cronkite’s autobiography explains a memory of his childhood.  Driving across the fields of his Midwest in the evening all the farmstead homes lit from the inside would all go dark at the same time, give or take a few minutes.  In that day people only had a few TV stations and everyone watched the news at the same time then headed off to sleep.  Even if in separate homes there was a shared experience. When I was a kid we had a few more distractions, but we still experienced what Cronkite describes.  Each October we all watched It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on the same night on one of the broadcast channels.  Each December we all got excited for each of the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Each spring, normally Easter weekend, we could all watch The Wizard of Oz for the only time that year.  In high school all this started to change, not just because we got older, but we also got VCRs.  We could watch these “events” at any time, and it was amazing.

Now we have DVDs (we don’t even have to be kind and rewind), Netflix and other streaming sources, massive choices online for a multitude of distractions for any interest, and satellite TV.  Anything and everything is available to us all the time.  For an information junky this is all amazing.  But what has been lost?

Last week in my family and many others we regained some.  Last Monday night we had Monday Night Football on.  While that’s not rare at all, this night we had it on for a commercial, specifically the new Star Wars trailer. As soon as we saw it we went online to buy tickets for December 17.  The internet slowed to a crawl as millions did the same.  This past weekend we watched The Phantom Menace as part of our build up to part 7.  In Mid-December my entire family will head to the theater, probably a couple times, and just as I did as a kid, we will all escape to a galaxy far, far away and share a communal experience like few we have left.  Whether it’s a sporting event or a massive blockbuster movie, these communal experiences are a tangible part of what ties us to those around us.  Let’s embrace these opportunities to laugh, cry and cheer alongside others.

Now I think I need to go make some Yoda and Millennium Falcon-shaped pancakes.  May the force be with you.      

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Timeless Wonders

“Hey, Mark…can I have these?”  It’s my stepson running down the bread and breakfast aisle at the grocery store.

If you are a parent you’re used to hearing this question in a grocery store or toy store.  In my family this question takes on a different dimension.  My stepson has a number of food allergies, most importantly an allergy to peanuts.  We have to check the ingredients on every processed food; we read labels obsessively.

He’s holding a package of Hostess Cupcakes.  I read the label.  No nuts.  Not processed in a factory with nuts.

“Sure, do you like those?”

“I don’t know…never had ‘em.”

“What!!!!  You’ve never had a Hostess Cupcake!!??  Yes…grab two!  I have to show you how to eat them”

“There’s a special way to eat them?”

Because he has been slowly outgrowing some of his allergies and his tastes are expanding we are often finding new foods to try.  But some foods are simply childhood staples and some of those things just taste best when eaten a certain way (see Oreos).  I am always game for taking up those parental responsibilities of demonstrating proper consumption of guilty pleasures.

“Of course, there’s a best way to eat everything…you know that.  Let’s hurry home and eat these!”

Once home he is too eager to even let me unload groceries.  We head to the kitchen sink.  It’s really the best place to eat a guilty pleasure, right?

We open the twin pack.  I pull out the plastic holder, tip it upside down and the two cupcakes softly land in my hand.  I hand one to him.

“Now hold it right-side up in your left hand and with your right hand peel a little of the top off and twist a little like this.”

I show him.  My top needs a little finessing but in seconds I have the top, the lid if you will, off in the right hand in one piece.  He copies perfectly and looks up at me expectantly, huge grin covering his face.

“Now take a bite.”  

He watches me as I take a bite and the whole things starts to fold in my hand so I stuff it all in my mouth.  He does the same into his much smaller mouth and grins, squeezing waxy frosting through his teeth.  

“Now the surprise.”  

I take a bite of the remaining headless cupcake and expose the creamy white frosting inside.  He takes a bite, starts to giggle and stuffs the rest in his mouth whole.

“How was it?”


10 years old or 45 years old, never lose sight of the simple joys of being a kid eating something yummy for the first time.  Make an old experience new all over again.  We all have such busy lives, full calendars and a heap of demands. Food offers us a unique opportunity, a moment in time if we choose to take it, to pause and escape into some delicious moments of multi-sensory pleasures. Eat on my friends and enjoy.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Eating Local Fish

A few years ago I completed a lifelong coast to coast journey by moving to coastal California (I was born in Massachusetts and have spent many vacations on the Maine coast).  I was so excited to get back to great local seafood.  Living on Monterey Bay I would certainly be surrounded by it. The first time I went to the grocery store I was so excited to see the fish department but found myself looking at little different than in a good Midwestern grocery store.  I tried a couple mom-and-pop fish shops only to find fish from all over the world and relatively little from my own backyard.  Seems just about the only local fish to be found was seasonal salmon, squid and crab.  Occasionally I might find sanddabs.  This just didn’t seem right.  I wandered out on the local piers and found locals catching mackerel and ling cod.  I saw whales and massive flocks of birds when the anchovies and sardines were back.  I saw the proof that there were other fish to eat.  But why is it not in the stores?  Why is there not a simple, little fried fish stand by the beach selling baskets of fish from the ocean out back?

In recent weeks I have come across a few news items pushing Paul Greenberg’s American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, including an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/01/327248504/the-great-fish-swap-how-america-is-downgrading-its-seafood-supply)  He reports that the rest of the world is eating proportionally more seafood than Americans, including a huge proportion of the fish we catch in our waters.  Further, we eat a narrow selection of the fish we catch and import a great deal of some of the very same species from Asian fish farms.  90% of the fish we eat here is imported, even for those of us living close to the sea. Our fishermen are making much more money in foreign markets than they can dream of making at home because Americans simply don’t eat many species.  In particular, we don’t eat fish with strong flavors such as mackerel and sardines.  But these are abundant and inexpensive.  I happen to think they’re also interesting.  In fact, just a few weeks ago I was on the Rio del Mar pier, and people we hauling in mackerel left and right.  I saw a few men with multiple five-gallon buckets filled with mackerel.  Folks, that’s free food for their families – local, seasonal and flavorful.  Nor do we eat fish that don’t cut into neat filets – we are looking for ease of preparation.  But what are we losing?    

There are solutions if we want to change this.  We can search out restaurants that serve local, seasonal fish.  We can join a Community Supported Fishery, the aquatic equivalent of a CSA.  We can check out www.localcatch.org and see what we can find near us.  We can drop by the local mom-and-pops and the grocery stores and ask for species we want to see.  Granted, when I asked at my local grocery chain for sardines I was looked at like I was nuts and was told nobody had ever asked for them.  The local mom-and-pop needed a couple days’ leeway, but assured me they could get them.  You can look up a Trash Fish Dinner sponsored by the Chefs Collaborative.  When you find an interesting species, but enough to share, have some friends over and turn them on to something new.  If you live in the Mississippi, Ohio or Missouri Valleys, ask your local conservation agents about getting your hands on some Asian Flying Carp.  They’re invasive, destructive and make a great fish stew.  Walk into your local restaurants and ask what they serve that’s local and seasonal. 

If we are going to change this, we have to step up and ask for it.  There’s a world of new flavors and textures to try, and doing so will only be good for our local economies and our neighbors.  And our taste buds and appetites.

PS - Just this past Sunday, October 11 CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about Lionfish.  Check it out at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/lionfish-from-malicious-to-delicious/