Battling Tomato Diseases in Texas

In a lifetime of gardening in central Texas, I don’t recall such a wet spring and summer. The tomatoes have loved all the rain, but so have the fungus and molds and other tomato killers. Not only are my tomatoes getting attacked while still on the vine, healthy looking tomatoes develop weird mold patches a day or two after I bring them inside. A couple of days ago I started washing them in a weak vinegar solution as soon as  I bring them in. Here’s hoping it works.

In Defense of Public School Lunches

Italian School Lunch

A slideshow of school lunches around the world popped up on my Facebook feed recently. You know the one. It juxtaposes fresh, delicious lunches from around the world featuring artfully arranged rare beef, grilled fish, dewey fresh fruit, wedges of artisan cheese, baby greens, and crusty breads with lunches in the US.

For the US school lunch we see a pound of grayish chicken nuggets, peas, a pile of mashed potatoes, fruit cocktail, and a chocolate cookie.

School Lunches Around The World

“Disgusting!” cried all my vegan, foodie, Unschooling friends. “Processed food! Sugar! Fat! Huge portions!”

School Lunch, Somewhere in the US

Yup, it does look pretty disgusting, and those others, especially the Italian one, made my mouth water.

But first, let’s just note that those images were put together by Sweetgreen, a company leading the charge to privatize school lunches. And those images are highly staged.

You can find less staged versions here, which make the contrast seem a little more complicated. For example, the French example here shows a huge pile of French Fries with a side of mussels. That’s a traditional and delicious French meal to be sure, but not exactly the same as grilled fish on a pile of baby greens.

School Lunch, France

But still, no one is in love with American school lunches. I’m not in love with them either but I want to argue here that neither privatizing them nor shaking up the menu will solve the problem.

But first, what exactly is the problem with school lunches? I don’t want to brag but I’m a bit of a school lunch expert.I have two kids in public school and I eat lunch with one or the other at least once a week. For over a month, I ate lunch with my son every damn day. I pack a homemade lunch for my son, also every damn day, but my daughter prefers the glamour of buying her lunch.

Of course school lunches vary by district (though the slide show put out by Sweetgreen only shows one example) but this is what the kids in my district are actually being served:

  • A portion of protein about half the size of the one in the picture, usually something like a fish sandwich, hamburger, veggie burger, or chicken nuggets. Nothing to write home about but the portion size seems appropriate to me.
  • A whole grain roll or bread. Often this is the bun that goes on the hamburger, fish burger, chicken burger, etc.
  • A cooked veggie and two raw veggies.
  • 1% white or skim chocolate milk.
  • 2 fruits
  • No cookies! In fact, we’re not even supposed to send sweets in their home-made lunches.

Here is the actual menu from yesterday:

  • Choice of hamburger, garden burger, or broccoli quiche
  • Roasted potato wedges
  • Riviera blend vegetables
  • Garden salad
  • Crunchy veggie dippers
  • Fresh fruit
  • Whole wheat breadsticks

Our district is committed to low fat, so that means the milk is 1% or skim, cheese is rarely served, there is no dressing for the salad, and the veggies are steamed.

But here is what I discovered from eating lunch with my kids: nobody is eating anyway. You can put all the fresh, crunchy vegetables you like in front of those kids and they will not eat them. They will drink the chocolate milk and maybe eat a few of the chicken nuggets or a bite of the hamburger but that is about it. They will eat ketchup, though. Lots of ketchup. Seriously, I see kids eating ketchup with a spoon like some kind of chilled soup.

Even the kids who bring their lunches from home don’t eat at school, mine included. They are more interested in goofing around with their friends. Believe me, it breaks my heart to throw away my son’s carefully prepared, tasty, homemade lunch every day, but I’m not the only one doing it.

The reason, I think, is painfully clear. We have trained our kids to prefer food that looks like junk food — mac and cheese, fish sticks, hamburgers, pizza. Even so called healthy versions of those foods still look and mostly taste, like junk food. And we are big, self-defeating hypocrites to expect school districts to be able to convince our kids to eat raw veggie sticks at school if we can’t even do it at home.

School lunches are the main meals for a lot of kids in this country. And even for those who, like my kids, can look forward to a nutritious snack and dinner every single night, school lunches are the fuel they depend on five days a week. So concerns about them are real and important. But what we have is not simply a school lunch problem. It’s a culture problem.

A Very Frugal Soap Recipe

Involving a Short History of Soap, San Antonio, Joske’s Department Store, World War II Rationing, Proctor and Gamble, and My Grandmother

My Grandmother Padilla was an intense and thrifty woman. When she hemmed a skirt, she carefully saved the thread from the old hem to reuse for the new one. Until I was a teenager she used a washboard and tub for her whites because she didn’t think the washing machine got them clean enough. She starched and ironed the heavy denim and twill my grandfather wore to his work as a stonemason. Each day he left the house as sharp and pressed as a banker and each day he came home covered in dust and clumps of cement. Continue reading

Watermelon Rind Pickles

Truck Cropping, Huey Long, Southern Poverty, and a Recipe

I once took my dad to Pioneer Farms, a living history museum in Austin. We were touring a one room 19th century settlers cabin with a dirt floor and cedar log walls chinked with mud when he said, “I grew up on cabins a lot like this, you know.”

I looked around the cabin. We barely cleared the low ceilings. The only furnishings were a table, two split-log benches, and a bed smaller than my five year old’s. Near a wood stove, a few implements hung on the wall — a pot, an ax, some metal things I couldn’t identify.

My dad was born in rural Louisiana, in 1929, the fourth of six children. I tried to picture them all living in that one room.

“They weren’t this nice, of course,” he said.

Ba doom doom!

That was the thing about my dad. His childhood was so Faulkneresque, equal parts horror-show and hardscrabble Southern poverty, that his stories often sounded like parts of an old-fashioned stand-up routine. But though he was not self-pitying, he was not joking either. He liked to not that he was born at the official start of the Great Depression, but his family had been starving for years before that. His mother was from a family of stern Methodists and her father and brothers were ministers. She went to school with Huey Long. My dad didn’t talk about his father much, except to say that he hated farming, though it was his living. Dad’s early life was one of unremitting hunger punctuated by fits of violence from his raging, alcoholic father. He didn’t have electricity until he was fifteen. He never saw a dentist until he joined the Air Force. A rural nurse visited twice a year to give the children in his family deworming treatments.

Share cropping was common then, but his parents were truck-croppers.

“Share croppers got a better deal then we did,” he said.

Ba Da Boom!

Truck croppers were a form of migrant labor. They worked a farm in return for a place to live and a portion of the crop. After the crop was harvested, they loaded their share onto their trucks to sell at market and moved on. I once saw a list made by my dad’s sister of all the places they had lived — two or three in one year sometimes. It’s no wonder he  worked so hard to hang on to out little dirt farm in the Texas Hill Country. After his childhood, he was determined to never move again.

In addition to working a farmer’s field, my grandmother planted a kitchen garden wherever they lived and usually just managed to harvest a single crop before they had to move on. Dad told me she always canned furiously, trying to preserve every single last thing before they had to leave a house. After she was finished canning the good stuff — whole figs in syrup, tomatoes, blackberry jam — she likes to pickle and make jellies of the leftover bits of this and that. Her specialties included corncob and peach peel jelly, and watermelon rind pickles. The family survived mostly on boiled greens and cornbread with dripping, so this monotonous diet was enlivened by my grandmother’s pickles and jellies.

Every once and a while, I like to make a batch of watermelon rind pickles and think of my grandmother, loading and unloading her few possessions un the family truck, along with herself and my grandfather and all six children. I don’t know what they owned. Maybe they had a bed, a table, a few chairs, a dresser, a box of mementos, some bundles of clothing and dishes. I imagine her packing her jars of preserves carefully, wedging then between the clothes, maybe. And I imagine her hoping that the jars arrive unbroken to the the next house where she will plant her next garden.

My recipe for watermelon pickles is pretty standard and comes from the 1972 Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Community Cookbook, that I got from my mom. I just do three things differently. First, I add peppercorns to the syrup. I also add a handful of pickling spices, a myrtle leaf, and a fresh jalapeño to each jar, to intensify the flavor and add a little heat.

Watermelon Rind Pickles

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds watermelon rind
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 1 pint white vinegar
  • 1/2 c pickling salt
  • 1 pint water
  • a stick of cinnamon
  • about 20 whole cloves and 20 whole peppercorns
  • myrtle leaves
  • fresh jalapeños

To Salt the Rind

Cut rind into 3/4 inch pieces. Sprinkle with pickling salt, toss, and leave overnight in the refrigerator.

To Prepare the Pickles

Rinse the salted rinds twice. Bring water, vinegar, sugar, and 5 or 6 cloves and peppercorns to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add rinds and return the mixture to a boil. Reduce to low boil and cook until the rind is translucent. Add a handful of spices, a myrtle leaf, and a jalapeño to each canning jar. Fill canning jars with rinds and syrup. Process in hot water bath for five minutes, following standard canning proceedures.

How To Cook A Live Goose

Aspiration, Pain, and Pleasure in an Eighteenth Century Recipe

Nobody really wants to torture animals anymore. We want our eggs free-range, our meat grass-fed, and our milk cruelty-free. We’re pretty much over cockfights and bull baiting. And our make-up better not be tested on animals.

Certainly, some people are indifferentto the living conditions of the animals they eat. And many can’t afford anything except for factory-farmed food. Agri-business and food processors try increase or protect their profits though often cruel practices. But for the most part, we don’t seek to torture animals these days.

That wasn’t always the case, though.

If you love reading old cookbooks (and who doesn’t) you might have come across the idea that eighteenth century folks thought that meat was healthier and tastier if animals suffered right before dying. Cooks and good huswives were instructed to beat an animal to death with a large cudgel, or to skin it alive, or in one spectacularly extreme recipe, to cook it while it was still alive.

In The Cooke’s Oracle, Dr. William Kirchiner related the following recipe.

Take a GOOSE or a DUCK, or some such lively creature, (but a goose is best of all for this purpose,) pull off all her feathers, only the head and neck must be spared: then make a fire round about her, not too close to her, that the smoke do not choke her, and that the fire may not burn her too soon; nor too far off, that she may not escape free: within the circle of the fire let there be set small cups and pots full of water, wherein salt and honey are mingled: and let there be set also chargers full of sodden apples, cut into small pieces in the dish. The goose must be all larded, and basted over with butter, to make her the more fit to be eaten, and may roast the better: put then fire about her, but do not make too much haste, when as you see her begin to roast; for by walking about, and flying here and there, being cooped in by the fire that stops her way out, the unwearied goose is kept in; she will fall to drink the water to quench her thirst and cool her heart, and all her body, and the apple-sauce will make her dung, and cleanse and empty her. And when she roasteth, and consumes inwardly, always wet her head and heart with a wet sponge; and when you see her giddy with running, and begin to stumble, her heart wants moisture, and she is roasted enough. Take her up, set her before your guests, and she will cry as you cut off any part from her, and will be almost eaten up before she be dead; it is mighty pleasant to behold!!

There is so much going on here that it bears paraphrasing:

First, the cook plucks the goose, except for the head and neck, and then covers its bare skin in a thick layer of butter. Then the cook builds a circular fire and places cups of salted honey water (eighteenth century Gatorade!) and applesauce inside it. Next, the still-living goose is placed inside the fire, where the writer claims, the goose will run around, sipping water, eating applesauce, voiding its bowels, until finally, it collapses, exhausted, heart still beating, flesh cooked to perfection. Finally, the cook brings it to the table where it cries, as it is carved and eaten.

The experience will be, the writer says, “pleasant to behold.”

I first came across this account more than ten years ago when I was studying the history of cookery at the University of Texas. I’ve told the story of this poor goose at more cocktail parties than I can count. Each time, the details were sufficiently grotesque to hold the attention of seasoned academics, well plied with booze.

The focus, for academics, was on the way pleasure and pain worked in this account. That is, although supposedly, eighteenth century wisdom would have the meat itself actually be better, tastier, and more healthful if the animal had experienced pain before death, this recipe seems to imply that part of the pleasure came from the diner actually witnessing the animals’ pain.

What I don’t recall any of the academics questioning was whether this account represented an actual practice. And that is worth considering.

So let us imagine an eighteenth century huswife, in the well-equipped kitchen of a large house, attempting to cook a live goose, as instructed by Dr. William Kirchiner.

The first matter was to pluck the live goose and then cover it in butter. Anyone who has ever met a live goose knows that geese are strong, fast, and aggressive. But if the cook were fast and strong, and had an equally fast, strong kitchen assistant, she could have trussed it tightly with some kind of rope and then managed these first steps without more than perhaps a bite and a bruise or two.

I suppose that is possible.

And I suppose it is possible that the cook hopped over the circular fire with the bound, buttered, struggling, slippery goose in her arms, released it from its trusses, and then hopped back out of the fire. With any luck, she did not trip on the dishes of water and applesauce that she had laid out for the goose, or catch her skirts on fire. Fireplaces in the eighteenth century could be huge and rather open, especially in the kitchens of large houses. And the geese were probably smaller, and the people stronger and more inured to pain.

So let’s just say that the cook survived the first part of the recipe without major injury.

The cook then had to hope that the goose, surrounded by fire, plucked, covered in butter, in a state of panic and terror, would pause to sip water and eat applesauce.

It seems unlikely, yet suppose it happened.

Then, we are told, the applesauce should have caused the goose to void its bowels uncontrollably, all the while running about until it exhausts itself and falls down. That event signaled to the cook that the goose’s flesh was cooked.

Quickly, before the gooses heart stopped, the cook had to leap over the fire, lift the bird clear, plate it, take it to the table and carve its flesh so that guests could enjoy its plaintive, last cries while eating its crisp skin.

Try to picture that. The goose’s skin must necessarily be covered in ash from the fire and, not to put to fine a point on it, its own shit. Because there is no way that goose was not stepping in shit and ash while it was running around exhausting itself. And there was no way that anyone could clean off the bird’s skin without hosing it down.

Do we suppose that the guests then ate this shit and ash covered bird all the while delighting in its cries of pain?

No. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, at any time, actually produced this dish. It seems not just impossible, but impossibly weird.

And that’s the thing about other peoples’ food. It’s weird. By weird, I don’t mean objectively weird but relatively weird. What other people eat is weird relative to what you (or I) eat.

And that’s one thing that makes cookbooks so fascinating. Food and eating are universal but also, deeply specific to time, place, class, and so on.

And here’s something that’s pretty universal to cookbooks and domestic texts. There are often, not to put too fine a point on it, full of shit. Or to put it in another way, cookbooks are often as often aspirational as they are practical. That is, people buy cookbooks for all sorts of reasons besides wanting to know how to cook. They want to see what other, fancier people eat. They collect cookbooks, as objects to be displayed. They use them to daydream about that big dinner party they might someday give and definitely impress all their friends.

And it is likely that this recipe was just that: an aspirational recipe that a good huswife could mull over, imagining that someday she could really, really impress her friends.