Thursday, October 1, 2009

Iron Chef

The Alton Brown lecture we went to last night was great! He was hilarious, spoke for more than an hour and then took dozens and dozens of questions. (Favorite kitchen tool? Panini press, but not for paninis. How does he know all that science stuff? He studies. Which cooks does he admire most? Anyone who, at the end of a long day, makes dinner for their family.)

Because he was speaking at a university where students study science all the time, instead of focusing his talk on the science of food, he decided to tell the students the things that he wished someone had told him when he was in college.
Well, just the things about food.

Here are those 12 things (I took notes):

Beware Chinese chili.
Why do we import cans of chili from a nation where almost no one eats it or knows how to make it? Because it's cheap. He said a nation that puts a priority on cheap above all else when it comes to food deserves exploding cans of chili.
You put food in your body- it's a pretty intimate thing- whether or not it is good should matter.
Cheap should not be the first priority- quality should be. Especially because you can make it better and cheaper if you make it yourself.

Chickens don't have fingers.
He told a story about taking his then 4 year old daughter out to dinner and letting her order the "half chicken" on the menu. When it arrived she looked alarmed and puzzled and said, "Wait, chicken comes from chickens?!?"
He told another story about his then 7 year old daughter and some friends complaining that they never "just get to have chicken fingers" at his house. After months, if not years, of hearing this he announced to the girls that they would be having chicken fingers for dinner, and went to the Chinese butcher to get ingredients.
After he served them "chicken feet three ways", told them that this is what "chicken fingers" are made of, and sent them home, he got calls from parents of children (some that weren't even there for the feast) complaining that their daughters had given up not only chicken fingers, but chicken.
The point is that we are far too detached from where our food comes from, especially our meat, so much so that we are training our kids to eat food that does not even exist.

Eat more pretty colors.
pretty self explanatory. colorful things are good for you, white things are not.

Nothing you buy is as good as anything you cook and no one can cook better than someone who loves you.
"Ronald McDonald is not your dad." If you buy something off the shelf or in a package it has been altered to suit the needs of the shelf not you.
He also talked about the nutritive value of love. That when someone who cares for you cooks for you, the food is better for you- even if it's your mother in law's terrible pork chops. (that was his example not mine. My mother in law is a good cook and I don't even eat meat.)

Words like "Lite", "reduced" or "____ free!" were invented by men in suits that don't care about you.
Those words or phrases were designed to make you think you can do things you can't. You cannot eat a whole box of cookies and not get fat. If you want a cookie, have a fat filled gooey one, but only have one.
Somewhere along the way in this country we decided that crappy was ok, as long as we could have a lot of it. (That last part applies to so many things from tv shows to housing it's a bit depressing.)

Never mix strawberries and watermelon.
Strawberries are ripe in early spring, watermelon in late summer. If you are eating them together something is wrong. (although that drink looks good. And you could use frozen strawberries. :) )
We've gotten so used to eating food that is out of season, that has been picked completely unripe and shipped from across the world that we have forgotten what food tastes like and so we are not demanding about it. We should be more demanding about it.

Eat more little fishies.
Fish is good for you. Little fish are better for you, and eating more of them and less of the big ones would be better for the oceans.

Fresh and raw are not the same thing.
This one was the one I most needed to hear, especially because as the result of last night's frost I have about 40 pounds of produce from the garden to store up for winter and I am having a hard time getting up the motivation.
Decades ago, chefs, many from California, started promoting the idea that fresh food is good food- which is true. But since many of them lived in California where much of our nation's food is grown, fresh came to be synonymous with raw- which is not true.
Fresh means the condition most like when the thing was alive. Broccoli that is flash frozen an hour after picking is far fresher than broccoli that is thrown a box, trucked from across the country and sits on the shelf at the grocery store for days.
As soon as something is picked it starts to rot, the sooner that rotting process is stopped, the fresher it is.
Frozen food is good. Canned food is good. (As soon as I finish writing this post I am going to get to work freezing and canning. sigh.)

No government can keep our food safe.
He wasn't being anti government or anti regulation, but he pointed out that the FDA and USDA are charged with overseeing hundreds of thousands of food products, millions and millions of tons of food from all over the world, drugs, cosmetics etc, etc, etc and that making sure all of it is perfectly safe is just impossible.
We have to take some responsibility for keeping our own food safe, not by washing it obsessively, over cooking it or skipping the raw cookie dough (he was adamant that we should eat the cookie dough because it's good) but by knowing where our food comes from and holding growers, manufacturers and grocery stores accountable for selling bad food. Give business to people who produce and sell good, safe food. Drive those that don't out of business.

Grow something. Anything.
He said that one of the reasons people are so panicked about the economy right now is that we have lost any ability to take care of ourselves.
When times got tough, poor people used to be able to grow food. These days that's far more difficult, not just because most people live in urban and suburban areas where land is scarce, but because we've lost the know how to do it.
He said that it is our duty to learn some self reliance.
(I am going to try and also keep this one in mind later today because after I make gallons of tomato sauce I have to go and tend to my frost bitten garden.)

Try and be a little thankful.
He quoted Cervantes saying, "Hunger is the best sauce." but added that gratitude is just as important. I sum it up this way: Gratitude is like salt- it takes away bitterness.
So, no matter what you believe in, even if you are the one who grew it and cooked it, say thank you before a meal, because you didn't make the sun shine. And if you are not the one who grew it or cooked it, even if it wasn't the best thing you've ever eaten, s0me one did, so say thank you after one.

Always serve the good beer first.
(Ok, so that's only barely a picture of beer, but I really like Paul Newman.)

Alton Brown image here, chili image here, chicken feet image here, strawberry watermelon cocktail here, sardines here, Thanksgiving here, beer here, rest of the images by me.


Amy said...

Fabulous post! It makes me feel like I was at the lecture. I just finished eating something made by someone who loves me. Nothing compares to that level of deliciousity and satisfaction!

the southern hostess said...

Love all of this info! Alton is the best.

Amy@OldSweetSong said...

Wow - great post!

Julie Roth said...

Fabulous post, Abigail! Thanks for that. Now I'm off to cook up our green beans for Eva's school pot-luck :) xoxo Julie

chiara said...

agreed, great post!

Did you read Animal, Mineral, Vegetable yet?

abigail said...

I wish I wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Or at least lived like I could have.

Kristin said...

What an amazing post! I need to do better about trying to eat more colors of the rainbow.

Sam said...

Hunger is the best sauce - so true! I love his advice and stories here - a very wise man!! Great post!

Linda said...

Thanks for taking the time to share that, complete with pictures. I have learned so much from my garden this year. I can hardly wait till next season.

alissa said...

these are awesome lessons -what a great post. i want to print it and keep in on the fridge

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

So glad you took notes! I agre about the chili ha ha! We just made some of our own in a crockpot yesterday--in our new effort to quit the canned. Eat more pretty colors indeed!

PS About Paul Newman. My brother and dad had the chance to meet him since Paul's best friend's wife works with them. My brother shook Mr. Newman's hand and nearly passed out :) He also got a copy of the eulogy after he passed. So sad. Amazing man.

Miami Beach Villa Rentals said...

So good of you to take notes. I love Alton, and he sure made some good points. Makes me grateful that I love cooking and have people I can cook for, and also food to be cooked.

meemsnyc said...

I love Alton Brown.