Review: "Julie and Julia"

Julia Child lived a most fascinating life. She was the wife of a diplomat and got to travel the world, eventually finding herself in Paris. She fell in love with the cuisine, and the rest is history. About a decade after her arrival in Paris, she was back in the US and preparing for the publication of her now-seminal cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". Shortly thereafter, Public Television gave her a cooking show, and she brought French cuisine into suburban kitchens across America.

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Reflections on National Hunger Month

September is National Hunger Month, and many of us have been reflecting on the state of food availability in this country. While ironically this month Congress cut $40 million from the federal food stamps program, the CEO of Panera joined many others in attempting to live off the per-person food stamps allocation of about $4.50 a day. News about inaccuracies in expiration dates on perishable foods prompted the creation of a new venture in Massachusetts to round up these items, determine their actual remaining shelf life, and resell them at discount prices.

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A Truly Reluctant Cook

A few weeks back, during my brief re-engagement with cooking, my counterpart asked me why I wanted to cook anyway. I'm not particularly good at it, I don't make a full effort at it, so why do I bother? I spoke a bit about how good it feels at the end of a long, hard day to come home and smell dinner in progress. I love that he consistently prepares dinner for me. It makes me feel valued and loved. So, when his workload increased, I wanted to give some of that back to him.

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So I've tried gourmet grilled cheese, gourmet cupcakes and a variety of gourmet food truck lunches over the past month and it's left me wondering what we actually mean when we say something is gourmet. It used to conjure up images of rare and exotic ingredients combined with some sort of alchemy to create something truly extraordinary. Now you can get your gourmet ingredients at the grocery store. (Tomatoes being the one truly gourmet item if you find any that actually taste like tomatoes and not like cardboard.)

With an increased availability of a wider variety of raw ingredients from other countries and cultures, what makes something gourmet? Is it still reserved for those items that are truly rare and exotic, like truffles? Can it really be applied to a grilled cheese sandwich if it's made from brie if you can now buy brie at the Wal-Mart? Or has it simply become another marketing term that really no longer has any meaning?

The standard dictionary definition still alludes to exotic ingredients and skillful preparation. That being said, here is this week's gourmet cupcake from


- made from scratch with real sugar, real butter and real vanilla. Don't get me wrong - it's a damn good cupcake and I throw dietary caution to the wind every Friday for one of these. I can't help but get the feeling that what makes these gourmet is the fact that they are skillfully  made from scratch with real raw ingredients. As Americans in general (if not me in particular) are willing to get more and more of their meals out of boxes, cans and drive-through windows and accept food that has been reheated in a microwave as part of a sit-down restaurant experience, maybe actual cooking is becoming a lost and rare art, exotic, alchemic, and gourmet.

This week's gourmet experience

Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite!

As Thursday was Bastille Day, I felt obliged to visit my local wine bar and raise a toast to Liberte. A small gathering of co-workers assembled at Vino Rosina for wine and light fare. We sampled two varieties of white wine listed on the Happy Hour menu.

Now here is where I am supposed to provide the details of the wines, but at this point all I know for certain is the first one had too much bite and the second one, while sweeter, was the overall winner. The aroma was light and fruity, and the top note was similar to a good Pinot Grigio. There were very few other undertones, and the finish was clean and final with no lingering after taste. This was a very simple wine, and after a fairly gruelling week, none of us seemed up for any additional complexity.

An off-hand reference to how my Libertarianism is perceived led to an enthusiastic toast of "Let them eat cake", and our Bastille Day observance was officially in full swing.

The best commemoration of Bastille Day was observed by a former classmate in Madison of French decent, and someone I knew through an on-campus job we both worked at before he left to study abroad. He spent a year in France and when he returned, he had lost 30 pounds, gained some cultural awareness, and launched the first Bastille Day Bad Wine and Cheese Party.

Located at the top of the hill on East Gorham (Madison alum know the hill I mean), he and his friends had rented a house with a large front porch and an almost perfect view of Lake Mendota. I arrived with a mutual friend shortly after sun set before things got into full swing. Like all house parties, invitation was word of mouth. Admittance, however, was another thing altogether. To get in, you had to present an acceptable item of bad wine or cheese. And by acceptable, it was meant completely unacceptable - Night Train, Ripple, Mad Dog in the full rainbow of flavors - all set out on a folding table for partiers to consume at their own risk. A bottle of NyQuil was accepted. And Velveeta, CheezWhiz, EasyCheese in the aerosol dispenser. Any presented items considered too high brow - like a gallon of Ernest and Julio Gallo's Best - meant admission denied.

Truly this was the best concept party ever. We got silly. We drank the Night Train. We mixed the Ripple with shitty champagne. We sprayed the EasyCheese at each other. We danced and sang and embraced each other without care or concern as if we would all be friends for the rest of our lives. And when it was time to go home, our host cut the music and replaced it with a scratchy rendition of the French National Anthem. We all sang along for the first several playings, but he continued to play it repeatedly until the novelty wore off and we all cleared out.

On a campus know for its parties, that one - held over the summer when the population of Madison drops by several thousand - was the best party I attended, and one of the few I can remember. I don't know how many more Bad Wine and Cheese parties there were after that. I lost my connection to the host through a falling out with our mutual friend that now seems childish and wasteful in retrospect. I started focusing on finishing college and trying to figure out what would come next. We all still ran into each other on campus, separated by the inevitable pre-graduation drift.

But every Bastille Day, I remember that night and how perfect it was. The summer seemed the only moment in time, and graduation a lifetime away. But I also remember the people and what a wonderful crowd I was running with that summer.

How Did We Survive Before The Boston Market?

Emily Rosenbaum over at the Ms. Magazine blog had something interesting to say about food this week. In this week's post, she writes about how the convenience food industry has managed to convince the American public that cooking from scratch is a monumental task. She indicates that it took them a whole generation to do this, but that they have done it nonetheless. How did they manage that? She discusses the creation of an artificial market for pre-packaged meals that is based on the myth that you cannot get dinner together in 30 minutes or less and  that "processed food freed women from the kitchen, allowing them to join the workforce." Ms. Rosenbaum dissects this in more detail in her blog, and I encourage you to follow the link above and read for yourself.

The end result of people eating less real, home made food is exactly what we have been seeing over the last decade - increases in obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and the acceptance of snacking as a way of life. Convenience foods lack the basic nutrition of the raw ingredients that are used to actually make a meal yourself. Because these foods are not nutritionally sound, they do not satisfy, and soon we must eat again. And again. And again.

The other big problem with convenience foods is how they are flavored. Because any raw ingredients used in these pre-packaged meals has been cooked beyond recognition, additional flavoring has to be added. Over the last few decades, this flavoring has evolved from simply trying to make the food taste the way it should to the creation "hyper flavors". In his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, former Commissioner of the FDA Dr. David Kessler discusses how these hyper flavors change and condition our palates. Various flavors are layered to touch specific senses in a particular way to induce a craving for those flavors even if they do not actually taste like food. My mother discusses this layering concept in her commentary on Dr. Kessler's book here.

As we become convinced that we do not have time or energy to cook for ourselves and increase our reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods and take-out, are we raising a generation that is not only over-weight and under-nourished, but also doesn't know what actual food tastes like? In addition to the increased risk of disease and lower life expectancy, what does our long-term survival look like if we have forgotten how to fend for ourselves?