Sunday, September 30, 2012

Musings on the Nature of Food (and Tea)

So I have, as it happens, a relatively nice little kitchen, considering the size and style of my home, and it's certainly something you could describe as being above pay grade. I guess some of you might have thought of that as a given, considering the amount of work I do, and my past experience as a chef, but like most other things, the nature of my kitchen is one of life's little consequences that has to do more with the way in which I hunt for a home than any prowess on my part in choosing this one.
When you have a kitchen that looks like this one, you like to use it, and I generally try to keep my fridge and cupboards stocked, since it staves off the Delivery Devil and my terrifyingly poor spending habits. I spend what some of my peers consider to be a small fortune on food every week (when I'm using my kitchen), but it's still far cheaper than the steady stream of delivery, take-out, and on-the-fly dining that pretty much ruined my September.

The reason why my grocery bills look high is that I tend to get fussy about the groceries I buy, particularly if I have the good fortune not to be hungry when I'm doing it. I find good cuts of the meat I want, buy fresh produce, and keep the herbs, spices, and staples well-stocked. Some of my friends are surprised to learn I make my own bread from scratch (I still have not figured out the right way to use this bread-maker. Admittedly, I also only do this on occasion) or that my only use for instant ramen is that it's the cheapest way to buy the noodles. I've managed to avoid the various forms of powdered boullion in over a year, and while I salt my food rather conspicuously, I still use less salt than most anything I've found packaged.

Not every jam is home made (but it can be) and not every stock or broth is made from scratch (though it's about a 50/50 wash at the moment). Sometimes my makinori zushi came from the store and not my kitchen, but that's rare.

See, my groceries cost a lot because I take food seriously. I scrutinize the labels carefully and take only the foods that fit my increasingly narrow parameters of what I'm really willing to put into my body. Does that mean I never eat hamburger helper, kraft dinner, or McDonalds? No - no more than not being a smoker means I don't have the odd cigar on special occasions, or the fact that I'm not a drunk doesn't mean I don't enjoy occasionally getting sloshed.

I want my food to be what it is - not what marketing committees think it should be to appeal to the widest possible audience. If I want say I want rosee sauce for my pasta, I really mean I want a white-wine veloute seasoned heavily with garlic, oregano, and anise and thickened with the pulp of fresh tomatoes and parmesean cheese. If I say I want a hamburger, I mean I want medium-fat ground beef bound by its own fat and seasoned with salt, pepper on worchester shire, on a bun (flour, water, salt, and yeast), usually dressed with mayonnaise (oil, eggs, salt, and vinegar), lettuce, tomatos, cheese (havarti, usually) and sometimes a little bacon (salt-cured pork, smoked) or sauteed mushrooms. No more than what I said.

While I recognize that most food additives are harmless (like maltodextrin) or at least considered harmless (like corn syrup), I do for the most part prefer to have the real thing. I like, for example, to bake with beat sugar, though I'm trying to find a Canadian source since we grow so damn much of the stuff. My three favourite Root Beers (on which I am quickly becoming something of an expert) are all made with sugar (two with cane, one with beetroot) and without HFCS. They have remarkably more dimension, and are remarkably more satisfying to one's thirst, than either major soft-drink-producer's offering. A cranberry juice whose main ingredient is actually pear is (a)more a virgin cocktail and (b)much less satisfyingly tart.

Now, where the tea comes in is that I still work for a major tea retailer, and I tend to drink a lot of our own product, both at home and at work. I have lots of interesting teas to choose from (98, in fact), and quite a lot of these teas are really very good. Teas and fruits are all grown according to some arcane EU standard I can barely remember the name of but which is much more comprehensive than, for example, the USDA Organic certification.

As it happens, I do have one USDA organic tea. It's grown in Rwanda, so it's out.

Lots of teas, even the flavored ones, are additive-free. More and more, though, the favoured teas are beginning to contain interesting ingredients, like maltodextrin, as a consequence of lowering our own buying standards. The additives are, by and large, ingredients in the production of ingredients we use to make our flavoured teas.

Now, I still drink these teas, since they're still better for me than the steady stream of soda I send flowing down my gullet - but that's like saying I still cut my wrists, because it's better than cutting my throat.

I won't publish a list of the teas with the ingredients I don't approve of, partly because it would be hypocritical to continue to drink them if I did (and I do like them), and partly because it's probably damaging to my career goals with that company. What it won't do is violate the terms of my employment, especially if I leave you with this final piece of advise, which goes for everywhere food is bought and sold.

Always check the ingredients listing.

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