This Guy

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Native son to the American Deep South - now living in Portland, OR. Lover of people, sustainability, justice, culture, writing, history, cuisine and coffee.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Blooming Palate [How the World Grows]

One of the great things about living in Oregon, among many things, is the freshness and variety of local veggies, fruits and meat.

My palate has most definitely been challenged and has changed since living here in the best of ways.
Perhaps it is my infatuation with cooking shows and the lives of chefs that I find so intriguing -- the people that devote their lives and stresses to making the best thing possible.

Food is a big part of who I am. My southern drawl comes out more when I talk about food. [Especially fried chicken, but that's for another day.]
I generally enjoy a good meal - but especially find appreciation in a home cooked meal. Those require love, attention and time. They require putting thought into what the other person or persons would enjoy. That means a lot to me.

I love to watch others eat - I love to watch others enjoy what they're eating. I think I got that from my Gran. Usually, as we would start eating dinner, she would look around at the table and say, "Is it good yet?" As we would always nod an agreeing, "Oh yeah, it always is..."
Food is universal. It speaks a clear language - one that curls the eyebrows to begin that disgruntled look that eventually ends in a satisfying grin. I love it.

Food speaks deeply into the history of who we are.

When we share a meal with others, we share our soul and our stories. You learned to cook from someone, or you at least watched - there is story in that. What was comforting about the way your mom or dad cooked? We all know our mommas make the best of everything.

I used to hate onions. Now, I love them. Especially those of the red variety. They're not so good for breath, but in taste and moderation, can accentuate the flavor of whatever it seems to accompany.
I'm learning to love tomatoes. I still have a hard time fully enjoying the amount of water and mush it tends to bring to my palate - though they are some of the most beautiful and wonderful things ever to grow out of dirt. (Not to mention, somewhat easy to grow in a small backyard garden or in pots, as we have in the recent past. I believe it's now time to plant those suckers...get to it!)

Mushrooms..hmm...well, I'm workin' on em'. :)

I have a few cousins that refuse to eat lots of food. One being cheese...the other mayonnaise - understandably, mayonnaise but it is a wonderful thing. (Of course, in moderation...hah.) And also, some of the best Mayo in the world is Blue Plate and I believe that's only a southern thing.

I would hope that we continually be adventurous with what we choose to consume. Start out small, and work your way into ordering the most bizarre item on the menu.

My hopes for all this ramblin', is to somehow approach the idea that food is universally celebrated. In seeing how the poor invite you to their table and cook the most heartwarming and amazing meals you have ever eaten. It has to taste good -- there is love and dignity in it -- these lessons are a gift to us. When you eat on the smallest of budgets, you want it to taste good and you want to benefit from it in the best ways possible.

The world has so much to offer.
Our tables bring us community -

let us fill their seats with beating hearts, and empty stomachs.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food and Justice for All [Like Sheep through Genetically Modified Pastures]

I sit here overwhelmed with the vast amount of knowledge that confirms just how messed up our food system really is.

Documentaries full of data and stats tell us that our bad food culture stems directly from fast food culture. From fast food culture stems loads of other things - a convenience culture at best. Supermarkets and megastores destroying local farms and economies.

We know these things - and I can't stress enough how important it is to follow through.
We vote everyday with what we buy. It is a consumer driven market. The folks in the big buildings know that their income and well-being comes from our crippling ability to be bought off with cheap prices and modified food items.

I don't think food is supposed to be cheap. I think we all should be paid more - if that makes sense. Here in Portland, it works. I believe it works because you have a population that truly loves its city. We want what's best for our farmers because we actually see their faces - we see their farms - we see their families. There is love in this food.
We are also equally aware that corporations like Monsanto brings farmers to their knees if they decide not to use their products. It's a filthy, filthy system and it simply breaks my heart.

When it comes to food - smaller is better. I wish to see more specialty stores - butcheries, fruit and vegetable markets, etc. What I love to see is people who have devoted their lives to making the best of their product, not someone else's.
This is why, when you go to Thailand, India, Spain, France, etc - the food culture is brilliant - even for the poor. It's affordable - I mean, it has to be. You can eat for .25cents on the side of the road and it's good. food. It's local and keeps it affordable.

I haven't been to Thailand, Spain or France - but I do know there are lots of things about their food culture that is inspiring. (Like the rest of the world, minus the good ole' USA) Small markets, butcheries, bakeries - things made fresh and when they run out...they run out.

I would love to buy things from people who put their name and pride into something. Like, this is MY cured meat, MY bread - I kneaded and baked this bread with my bare hands at 2am - it's the best bread you'll ever eat. I think to myself how wonderful a system such as this would be and how well it works in Portland. Especially in the summertime.

I wish other parts of this nation would adopt some of these practices, if possible. I understand how convenient Wal-Mart is -- but there is a reason their prices are so low. Food should not be this cheap. Someone is being cheated and exploited and we are eating our way into a culture that everyone will come to despise.

As I make the occasional run to Costco (basically Sam's Club) for my work, I am met by folks eating at the little cafes (or whatever they call em'). We simply shovel food into our mouths and leave - without even regarding what we just ate - other than the fact that it was hot, salty's food.
But we surely don't appreciate it...other than the fact that its cheap and it fills us up.

I say this understanding that we all can't afford good, fresh food - but what I am trying to say is that we should. We SHOULD demand fresh vegetables, fruits and humane products. Instead of buying canned green beans, buy fresh green beans. I used to hate fresh green beans because all I had ever eaten was canned. Of course, I also don't have three hungry kids to feed and I understand having to cook and buy this food takes time...but I believe it's worth it. It's worth it to show our kids how to eat well and more importantly, how to cook.

I spend more on food these days - not because I have the money to, but because I feel better eating more locally sourced food. I look for more cage free options when coming to eggs and chicken. Read the labels - chicken breasts aren't supposed to be that big - they are merely pumped full of hormones and water solutions. Good chicken should taste a little gamey and will probably shrink a lot more when you cook it - at least, that's what I've come to find.

It's these little decisions that will change the way we live. If we, as consumers, demand better ingredients, these companies will have to change.
We have missed keeping them accountable - and this idea goes for most things that are wrongheaded (as Dr. Perkins would say...) Our government hasn't been held accountable and in return, we have been lied to and led like sheep through genetically modified pastures...

As the saying goes, "Think Global. Act Local" It rings true in our hearts that we, as lovers of humanity, make sure we are treating each other well...thinking local and eating local.
Whether this means eating in season so we don't have to buy foods that are grown in warehouses - or simply boycotting sugar companies until they change their business practices.

These choices are in our hands.

We are far more powerful than they'll ever imagine.
Everyone deserves good food. Everyone deserves a fair wage and fair treatment.

Let us listen to the Earth.
Let us listen to each other.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mardi Gras Revisits the PNW

One of the first times I visited Hannah in Portland was about this time a good two years ago.

I told her I wanted to cook for her friends.
I felt like maybe it was one of the best ways to win over their hearts - considering I'm a somewhat quiet guy, food often speaks louder.

I made them fried chicken, jambalaya and some kind of garlic/mozzarella french bread combo. You can't really go wrong with cheese, garlic and bread. Nope, ya just can't.

My first impression was that they were a little cautious. They were Hannah's best friends and I was the boy she met in India who had decided to come to see her. This food was my only alibi at the time.
I felt like though, I had offended them with how I make my fried chicken. [Though all was in good humour - I still hope.]

I soak it in a typical egg wash, that of just milk and a couple of beaten eggs. More often up here, you meet vegetarians. I respect that lifestyle, but get a little nervous when the pompous attitudes come out. [I tend to side with Anthony Bourdain's logic on vegetarians... :P] They were quite disturbed of the fact that I soaked chicken in milk and egg before frying. If anyone knows anything about frying, it is to have a good egg wash. It helps the batter stick and makes the breading extra crispy.

Needless to say, I have a huge respect for vegetarians. I believe they are the voice of reason in a country of over-consuming meat eaters, unfortunately at times, like myself.

But, this was about feeding their hearts. Fried chicken is a labor of love, I often say. You get messy, along with everything you touch. Your fingers are caked with flour and you have to turn everything on with your forearms, as if you were going into surgery.

The chicken had been fried and jambalaya fluffed and perfect - people were fed and all seemed satisfied. I believe I changed 'many an opinion' that day...

so the tradition continues...

Last year, I created our 1st Annual Mardi Gras Ball. It's an excuse to eat lots of comfort foods, dress up nice and act well, somewhat sophisticated. I had only been in Oregon for a few weeks and thought it would be a great time to get everyone together and to again, let the food speak louder than I could.
This time, I added fried pickles, hushpuppies and that infamous crab boiled pot of potatoes, corn, sausage, onions and garlic.

It was simply brilliant, though I was exhausted as it was my second day of work learning my new job and I had tripped over the washing machine and busted my ass. "Nothin' but my pride", I said..."Nothin' but my pride.."

This year, we up'ed it once more as we entered Mardi Gras season.
Hell, the Saints had won the Super Bowl and we had more than enough reasons to celebrate my Beloved South.

I cooked up all the usual from the prior year, but added to it Veggie Gumbo. I had argued with Hannah that it wasn't gumbo unless there were crab legs and shrimp heads stickin' out - but she wouldn't budge [not that we could have afforded it anyways, hah...]

I set out to cook my roux - which is a basic gravy involving about one part flour to two parts vegetable oil. I had never made a roux before, so after 45 minutes of stirring it to a medium-brown, I decided to let it be. I dropped in the holy trinity [which is celery, onion, and bell pepper] and was introduced to an inverted deep frying lesson when the veggies went in with an uproar of a sound. I was quite frightened, but it turned out okay. I started cooking it at 10:30pm and finished at about 1:30 in the morning. Again, a labor of love.

I love introducing Northwest folks to Southern culture...for all it's worth. "What's Zapps?" or "Abita...hmm" - and let me say, Oregonians are freaks (in a good way) about their beer. Not that Abita can hang with Portland microbreweries, but I'd say Abita is in a class all of its own.
That's the good thing about Abita - you can drink it with spicy food. It's a perfect creole couple.

Friends walked around, holding their bellies -- gravy induced rice dishes meeting deep fried goodness was the perfect combination to an almost drunken fullness.
Again, it's the food of the poor folks like so much. Greens, rice and leftover bits. Deep fried flour and chicken. Veggies cooked into submission along with everything else in the same pot. There's nothin' like it.

In all of this, is my Southern pride. To know and understand that this food is my culture and in my blood has allowed me to make some great relationships. Everyone leaves full, satisfied and ready to go to bed.

I believe the way to most people is through their bellies...

and after all, this food speaks loud and true to who I am...

a native son to the American South.

Monday, February 8, 2010

la cuisine de vacances [inspired by my sister]

The Holiday Cuisine - Every family does it different and I just happen to think my family does it best. [But, everyone's family does it best, so it doesn't really matter what I think.]

Usually, one does not celebrate Easter any differently, but for my family, it was crawfish.
Oh yes. Crawfish.
Kin to the lobster, though lobsters aren't nearly as fun to eat and don't have nearly as much character, in my opinion.

You don't see folks suckin' the head of a lobster or dumping a huge steaming pot of..lobsters with potatoes, corn, garlic, onions and sausage. just don't see it, and it's a downright shame.

We as Southerners are blessed with the crawfish - though as a new found resident of Oregon, I end up missing them because well damnit, it's Oregon! [Though we have the massive availability of fresh goodies and is seemingly incomparable. Still, we don't have crawfish, but one or two in a creek.]

I used to see them crawfish build their dirt skyscrapers in our front yard when we wouldn't get rain for a while...because that's what crawfish do. When it doesn't rain, they use the wet mud to build their uh, "nesting holes". It keeps them from dying and the last thing we need on our hands is dead crawfish - they're expensive enough as it is.

I remember crawfish at Easter vividly. Sitting on MeMaw and PawPaw's hot southern Louisiana porch [after taking a barrage of Easter Sunday photos wearing our best..] with Maybelle's sweet tea and Phil's violently red cocktail sauce that consisted mostly of horseradish, lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, ketchup and...other things. Always tested by Pawpaw's index finger, we knew when it was ready to eat when he smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and said, "Dat's good boy..."

The adults could eat them in 5lb intervals, where we kids would work hard just to eat the tiniest bit of meat from its tail. But, as you grow older and become a more experienced crawfish eater, you soon determine how much crawfish you can eat by the pound. Depending on your style - you suck the head to get all those good juices out of em'. Some do it everytime...others every third or fourth time...depending on how much heat you could take. Others don't do it at all, and that's perfectly okay.

Another funny thing my sister brought to my attention was our Stuffing situation. My mom makes the best stuffing, but I know your mom does too...or your grandma or grandpa. Hey that's fine. But this mom is my mom and she makes the best of everything. (Especially children and...stuffed bell peppers...)
My Memaw always makes her stuffing with boiled eggs. It's silly but she has her reasons. She just never wanted to put raw eggs in her stuffing before she baked it. Though, it would obviously cook through, she just couldn't bring herself to do it. It's probably second on my stuffing list.

Thanksgiving and Christmas in Louisiana....we'd have a good three or four different kinds of stuffing. Shrimp. One with/without onions, and sometimes even a crawfish pie. Hallelujah...a crawfish pie. I dare not speak such blasphemy.

Granted, every family has their thing. cider...hard alcohol - ours is strictly the volume and variety.
My sister and I would always have to eat ketchup with our turkey...otherwise, it was just kind of....'eh.'
Until we discovered and successfully pulled off the fried turkey.
We've been marching on ever since then - and I've yet to see the ketchup on the table for a deep fried turkey...

but always....ALWAYS...if there has to be ketchup,

make sure it's Hunts.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Eat: Oyster Bar - Po'boys, Abita & Temper Tantrums

How my heart indulges upon itself the soulful and salty cuisine of the Deep South.

Now, coming from South Mississippi -- I know the difference.
Yeah, there's the chicken fried chicken [that's right, chicken fried chicken], mashed potatoes and gravy with the canned green beans cooked with a few pieces of limp bacon ['cause you gotta get that flavor out of it..]

There is a difference between 'southern cookin' - as I've grown to call it, and 'cajun/creole'. You could safely label both "comfort food", but beyond that, there's a difference, not that it's of any importance.

You eat what your momma cooks. My mom wasn't a huge fan of creole, albeit my dad was and he cooked it good. I think the spice of cooking came from my dad and the heart came from my mom. She cooked to feed her children. Even if that was chicken nuggets with mac n' cheese, she knew it would usually keep us quiet and smilin'.

The reason I suggest this difference rather than leave it be is because when I've traveled up North and to where I live now, many people associate Southern Cookin' with creole and cajun - and granted, that's a huge part of my tradition, but was not nearly what I was fully raised on.

Heck, some of the best restaurants here in Portland are New Orleans themed. One of my favorites being "Eat: Oyster Bar" only a few minutes' drive from where we live - the menu holds rice dishes like seafood gumbo, shrimp etouffee and jambalaya - also, "Hoppin' John", which is black eyed peas, miscellaneous veggies stewed with hambones (oh my guh'ness, Praise Jesus. A thing of beauty!)

But, my favorite dish thus far at Eat is the Debris Po'boy. Basically, it's a big pot roast on bread. A Sunday "after-church" meal in a sandwich. They cook it till it falls off like, well, debris. They soak the shredded roast beef in its melted fat and other 'good fixins'. They serve it on a toasted french bread roll, along with tomatoes, cajun mayo, pickles and cole slaw.
Half the bun is already soggy as it reaches your table with juice from the roast that just rolls down to your elbows forcing you to look like a fool while makin' sure none of that gravy goes to waste.

What to drink with such a meal?
Luckily, Eat serves Abita. That's right - my favorite microbrewery of the South based in Abita Springs, Louisiana. I started getting into beer with Abita's "Purple Haze" - a raspberry wheat beer which has a purple tint, giving it its name.

I'm a firm believer that most music sounds better while drinking Abita Amber - crisp with notes of caramel, like most amber beers. So refreshing.

I haven't always been a fan of Abita's Turbodog - I always saw it as a pretty stout brew until I moved to Oregon and realized they don't serve anything less than...well, really strong.
Now, Turbodog is becoming one of my most favorite brews, straight up. Brewed with Willamette Hops just down the road. A taste that seems to go full circle.

Now, Eat is what it oyster bar - but there's this problem. I'm not a huge fan of oysters...but I'm learning. It's a texture thing for sure, but it doesn't mean they don't do em' good here. Fresh and local. It don't get no better. ;)

When I was a kid, I would throw tantrums about red beans and rice night. Sometimes, it would be okay because mom would buy Popeyes chicken to go with it...and that would suffice.
These days, beans and rice is one of my favorite meals...and I've wanted to turn it into a Monday tradition like it is in New Orleans. Yeah, I like that idea. [As I think to where my crock-pot would be..]

Basically, "Eat" has it goin' on.
Po'boys, fresh oysters, fried pickles and okra with freezin' cold beer. I mean, really?

Just remember to spend the rest of the night drinking water or else you'll wake up in the middle of the night with that infamous salty parched throat.

Goodness Gracious, what joy is found in a good meal, made with good ingredients by good people.

I walk away not only with a full belly, but with a full soul and that my friends, makes all the difference.