I hate medicine.
Then again who doesn’t? Medicine, like K-Mart, sucks. When I was a kid it seemed like I was sick constantly, no surprise if you grow up chin deep in Minnesota winters. Mom sends you outside to play, and five months of the year it is 3 degrees and you are “playing” in three feet of snow. The price you end up paying is that you end up practically living on cough syrup.
I hated cough syrup. I mean I really hated it. My grandpa Lec was a delightful guy, but the one thing he did that annoyed crap out of me was how he teased me for my distaste for cough syrup. I’d gag. I’d sip. I’d screw up my face and stomp my feet. I’d beg for leniency, a stay of execution. Apparently this was all very funny, as it entertained my Grandpa no end. Thank god the Droid had not yet been invented or he would have recorded my antics and posted them to youtube, with the result being a viral sensation rivaling David After Dentist.
So you can only imagine the nose-hair curling horror I experienced the other day while watching television. It was just another Saturday morning and I had settled down with a steaming bowl of breakfast ramen noodles, a 10 cent Top Ramen package doctored with fresh infused ginger, onion, jalapeno slices, cilantro and a generous squirt of sriracha. Settling in to watch the next episode of Men of a Certain Age, I found out the show was canceled. WTH?!
Surfing for something else acceptable to watch like a fishing show or Brazilian Butt Workout, I somehow got stuck on a PBS food show by one Dr. Amen. Now, if there is anything I like more than a food show (Giada Everyday? You bet!) it’s an evangelical preacherman. There’s nothing like vintage Jimmy Swaggart. A mashup of those genres seemed as though it might hold some promise. Amen Brother!
Not so fast. Turns out Dr. Amen has nothing at all to do with peddling Jezzus. He is a neurologist/nutritionist who has come up with a Brain Diet, i.e. he advocates a way of eating that is good for your brain.
OK, my bowl of doctored ramen notwithstanding, I am down with this brain eating. In fact, the diet he was pre/de-scribing sounded a lot like that what I eat on any given day. Lean (OK, lean-ish) protein, whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts. In short, food that looks like real food.
But then he went and did it. If you have kids in the room, this would be a good time to cover their ears.
“Food,” he said, “should be thought of as medicine.”
Gaaaaaahhhh. Kubrick-esque images of over-sized tablespoons of Robitusin being jammed down my throat flooded my cerebral cortex. A perfectly fine diet plan and there he goes ruining it with perhaps the worst marketing line invented in the history of Madison Avenue.
Of course when it comes to prescribing diets, this should come as no surprise. Even my idol Anthony Bourdain gets it wrong in this regard. Tony recently went on-line with the notion of making a healthy diet somehow a matter of patriotism, that we won’t be able to defend our borders if we are too fat. Say wha? That dog won’t hunt Tony.
Look, it doesn’t take a marketing genius or behavioral scientist to see that Americans (and ever-increasing populations around the globe) resist logical appeals to eat a healthy diet. While this issue seems to confound policy-makers and nutritionists alike, the reason is simple: when it comes to food, our stomach over rules logic. Nobody wants to be told what to do, much less eat. When somebody tells you to approach food “like medicine” or that it’s somehow a matter of patriotic duty, people are just going to run away. It is a basic tenet of human consciousness.
So, as Tolstoy said, What must we do? As for me, I take a look at people that do have healthy and sustainable diets and steal from them. What do they have in common? Two things jump out at me. Generations of caloric scarcity that have forced them to be creative and imaginative for one. Applying the basic powers of the artistic sensibility to gastronomy is a no-brainer. Second, all these cultures celebrate food. Ever seen a Spaniard eat lunch? Believe me, there’s a reason they take a four hour siesta. Lunch in Spain is at once exhausting and invigorating. That and I think there is sex involved. Boy, do I love Spain.
Even in this country we used to eat with much more creativity, intention and imagination – as recently as dates even in my memory. Burgers came from a real butcher and the grill in the backyard, not a through a window at an ersatz amusement park populated by a fake clown. You didn’t buy potato salad from a tub at SuperMegaFoods, your Mom made it (mine makes it best). Grandma made her own cookies and put up her own jam from the raspberry bushes in the backyard. Grandpa churned ice-cream. Families ate together every day and the TV got turned off. At least, that’s what happened at my house.
But something started to happen in the 1960’s. It picked up steam in the 70’s and reached Usain Bolt speed by the 90’s. We not only industrialized the production of food, we mechanized our style of eating. Put the blame on whomever you want – the Evil Empire Food Giants like Monsanto and Cargill and ADM and Syngenta and ConAgra (somebody stop me!) is a plenty good place to start. That these despicable companies and the sinister CEO’s who run them are shitsuckers to the tenth power is indisputable. They are simultaneously fouling our food supply and eviscerating what remains of our natural environs. That they do this cloaked in the guise of trying to “feed the world” is particularly despicable. They are trying to make money and are compromising our very humanity in the process.
These industrial bastards notwithstanding, I (like Pogo) have met the enemy…and it pains me to admit it, but he is us. We, the people are the ones who one-by-one make the decision to get our food handed to us by a clown through a window and eat it in transit while steering with our knees and texting with our toes. Strangely, I find a certain comfort in our individual culpability. If we are sinning one Whopper at a time, then we also retain the power to resurrect our tradition the same way we lost it, one eater at a time.
A concern is that when we make eating a political/corporate issue, when we affix blame to a conglomerate, when we reduce our sustenance to a math equation, a nutri-system, or even worse, as mere medicine to be gagged down with our noses held, we strip the joy and imagination from our most primary element of living. Eating should be nothing less than a religious experience. It should send our collective spirits soaring.
I’m not going to tell you to quit eating at the Clown, to go organic, shop the farmers markets or go full-on locavore. I won’t advocate for Amen, Atkins, Jenny, or any other system. Because face it…like me, you are going to do what you want.
But I will invite you to join the party.
Tempted though I am to prescribe the liturgical structure of a celebratory food culture, I am just barely smart enough to know that doing so would utterly defeat the purpose. The deal is, it’s all about finding it for yourself. In my own experience I need only to invoke the memory of Lechard Carl Johan Idstrom, the aforementioned grandfather. His Food Church involved a heaping, gelatinous platter of reconstituted lye-soaked cod – aka lutefisk. Nothing put me off my feed like this culinary abomination, but Lec loved him some lutefisk. Put a plateful in front of him and he would assume a state of blessed Swedish contentment. Hey, whatever works.
As for me, while I have become gustatory adventurer, I am at heart a country bumpkin. Come Sunday, give me a perfectly roasted chicken – its skin crisped golden brown, seasoned cavity stuffed with aromatic herbs, meat both white and dark still juicy and delicious – and I am a man approaching perfect contentment. There is nothing at all complicated about roasting a chicken – anybody can do it. Still, it’s alarmingly easy to screw the poulet. Lacking intention and/or attention, you can easily end up with gluey skin, wooden breasts and leaden thighs. But done right? A simple bird, priced at 79 cents a pound on sale can be turned into a religious experience.
So, my advice is simply to go for it. Indulge your culinary fantasies and pay attention to your gastronomic intuition. While your brain will often steer you wrong, your stomach seldom fails.
Got some real soul food? Let me hear about it.
Perfect Roast Chicken
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. That’s right, 4-Five-Oh. Crank it up.
Take a whole chicken and let it sit out for about an hour. A cold chicken straight out of the fridge won’t cook evenly. Rinse and dry the cavity and then season liberally with salt and pepper. Loosely stuff the bird with aromatic herbs and veggies, whatever you have on hand – onions, carrots, garlic rosemary, leaks, lemons chunks, celery, it’s all good. Not too tight though, just a loose pack. Make a coiled snake from a long strip of aluminum foil and put it in the bottom of a heavy roasting pan. This will keep the bird off the bottom of the pan and will prevent it from poaching in its own juices.
After stuffing, truss the bird with butcher’s string. This critical step helps keeps the bird compacted and helps to retain juices. Lay a 30 inch length of string over the top of the breast of the bird, cross the string ends in back and bring the ends up around the legs, drawing them together as you tie off the ends. Or, just tuck the wing tips and tie the legs together. Either way, you want a nice compact bird, as opposed to a wanton hen, all spread-eagle. Take about 2 tablespoons of soft butter, rub between clean hands and then massage the butter into the bird while making like a 300 pound East German shot-putter. Season the outside liberally with more salt and pepper.
Put the buttered bird on the coiled aluminum snake and pop it in the hot oven for 20 minutes, at which time the skin should already be turning crisp and golden brown. Turn down the heat to 375 and cook until done another 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the bird. Remove from the oven and let rest at least 10 minutes before carving. Voila, perfect roast chicken.