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More wines of Chile -- 2009 Morande gran reserva pinot noir

Date: Thu, Nov 8, 2012

Isn't that just like a fine pinot noir: gamy, smoky, fruity, and almost cola-like. Delicious, even a week after opening, with my simple evening snack of crackers and what I call my "boring cheese" (fresh mozzarella).

And now, dear things, I must ask you -- were you elated by the election news, or numbed by it? Here is the best quote I have found, from the best article I read about it. The article is titled "Our Terrifying Message," and the author is David French. He is here talking about the statist, government-will-take-care-of-me outlook which triumphed Tuesday night, "relentlessly reinforced in a news and pop-culture bubble that conservatives simply aren’t penetrating."
Within this liberal bubble, it is simply conventional wisdom that conservatives not only don’t care about those less fortunate but that we will even promote human suffering if it means higher profit margins and more cash in our pockets.
True. You'll hear this wisdom tossed off happily, without thinking, by any number of people in any number of situations. I think they like to think of it as speaking truth to power.

Well. Dear things, I can assure you. I have no wish to promote human suffering.

Now enjoy your crackers and your boring cheese, and your lovely pinot noir.
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To be released tomorrow:The Curious World of Wine by Richard Vine

Date: Mon, Nov 5, 2012

It's a delightful book, filled with amusing, easily digestible snippets of information arranged in easily digestible double column print. So many wine-themed books these days seem to be such wordy epics nevertheless done on a very small, very personal scale: how I felt when the famed winemaker first showed me the soil composition at Screaming Eagle, while the sun rose behind the trees and flooded the valley, etc. This book is much more relaxed and much more fun. And it is the perfect place to look up quickly the anecdotes or names you have heard of, but don't quite remember where -- the wine called Lacryma Christi, the California wine pioneer named Haraszthy.

Dr. Vine's (how perfect a name) English usage is occasionally shaky, but perhaps that is only because he writes too fast about too much, and mostly mellifluously, to stop and proofread. As for instance, "At the tender age of fifteen, Richard Plantagenet became the duke of Aquitaine, granting him [sic] a vast region ...." " ... a retribution that continues their scorn" was another. "Well-healed" for well-heeled may only be a typo.

(Wasn't it Lin Yutang who said the discovery of small errors in printed matter was one of the joys of life, and that sensible editors would put errors in for the sake of their readers' pleasure?)

Anyway. Highly recommended.

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Braised pork shoulder à la Morrison Wood

Date: Sun, Nov 4, 2012

Morrison Wood used to be a food writer for the Chicago Tribune in the 1940s and '50s, writing a column, syndicated elsewhere, called "For Men Only." If you turn to a handy link from google newspapers you can see exactly the way his column looked, buried on page 19 of the Toledo Blade (and I don't doubt it looked the same in a good many other papers on a good many other days) -- say on March 2, 1948. Letting your eye roam the rest of that page you'll notice -- my, but the news two generations ago was very closely printed. And it was so full of interesting side information. Household help writers still knew what fuller's earth was. They suggested mixing it with sour milk to make a paste to remove ink stains from clothes. Right beside that you will find one Elsie Robinson, à propos of nothing, remembering the San Francisco earthquake and saying it wasn't all bad. "Earthquakes aren't always a bad force -- they level ground but have similar effect on society," her piece's headline announced. And as luck would have it for us foodies, on this very day in the Blade's "Talk of This 'n' That" feature, Kay Quealy reported that "a milling company" was going to introduce to the world the first "completely new-type cake in 100 years, combining the best qualities of butter and angel food cakes." It was to be called "chiffon" cake. Miss or Mrs. Quealy was quite right. A California insurance salesman named (incredibly) Harry Baker had just sold his cake recipe to General Mills, after keeping it a profound secret at smart Los Angeles dinner parties since the 1920s.

What with Mr. Baker and his cake, and Morrison Wood and his "For Men Only" recipes, and my own notes on Lime Pie and Swiss Almond-Carrot Cake from Glenn Quilty's Food for Men (1954) -- we must ask, was this perhaps an era when the cookery-publishing industry particularly liked the theme of cooking for men? Perhaps so. A little exploration of Google Books will turn up a neat summary from Jessamyn Neuhaus' Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking (2003), subtitled -- oh dear -- Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. She says:
From 1946 to 1960 at least thirteen cookbooks intended for men appeared in the United States, including Brick Gordon's 1947 The Groom Boils and Stews, Fletcher Pratt and Robeson Bailey's A Man and His Meals also published in 1947, Glenn Quilty's 1954 Food for Men, and Robert Loeb's Wolf in Chef's Clothing, first published in 1950 .... Morrison Wood collected recipes from his travels in a 1949 cookbook entitled With a Jug of Wine.
Thirteen frankly masculine cookbooks in fourteen years of American publishing does not seem an oppressive number. Anyway, our Mr. Wood went on to write two more books, More Recipes with a Jug of Wine (1961) and Through Europe with a Jug of Wine (1962). This is the source we will use today.

Through Europe with a Jug of Wine dates not only from the era of manly cookbooks, but from the era when people, stylish people or wealthy people or old-fashioned people or maybe just people who had saved their money and felt like doing it, traveled to Europe on ocean liners and stayed there for a year and a half. The Woods lived a chunk of life straight out of the novel Dodsworth, except I don't think Mrs. Wood -- and she is always Mrs Wood, "Mrs. Wood enjoyed the cheese platter," "Mrs. Wood stayed at the hotel that rainy morning" -- ran off with impoverished young German barons, nor did Mr. Wood get fed up and move in with the beautiful and quiet expatriate widow Edith in her airy stone house in Naples. Dodsworth is also a great movie, by the way, and one of the few in which you will get to see Mary Astor play someone besides the twitchy villainness of The Maltese Falcon.

My favorite lines in the whole cookbook come right away, on the first page of the Introduction, and they reflect just this era of the very long European vacation. It must have been quite a holiday:
After some time in Paris we motored through France down to the Riviera. The weather in France (and all over the northern hemisphere, according to the newspapers) was cold and stormy, so we rented a lovely apartment in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, right on the Mediterranean. We remained there three months, making many trips to the interior of Mediterranean Provence. Next we set out for Italy, and quite thoroughly covered that wonderful country ....
We're glad they did. And we don't mean to sound faintly derisive. The handful of readers who take the trouble nowadays to get an account at Amazon so that they can write unheralded cookbook reviews all rave about Morrison Wood. "Best cookbook I own, and I own 400," etc. This is significant because Woods' recipes are, -- not especially fussy, nor especially unfussy -- not especially quick or especially time-consuming -- not especially unusual or especially plain. What they are is somehow grown-up: they seem to breathe an experience of good food of all sorts and of many places. Naturally. The book is the result of travel. Whether you make the almost-street-food Mozzarella in Carrozza (fried cheese sandwiches) as Romans do, or Pan Am airlines' Tournedos Heloise (steak with foie gras, mushrooms, truffle, and artichoke bottoms -- "a masterpiece"), you will be making some very fine things that professionals placed before paying diners a half century ago, and that a sophisticate like Mr. Woods appreciated. That says a lot.

So at last we come to the recipe for today, from the German months of the good couple's long-ago trip. (Not to be derisive, but how did they tear themselves away from St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat?) "We had a most savory pork chop dish in a little wayside inn on the 'Romantic Road' from Wurzburg to Augsburg," Morrison Wood remembers. "I failed to put down the German name, but it consisted of pork chops, apples, and beer."

When I made it I changed it to pork shoulder (or "Boston butt," if your supermarket calls it that), a fatty, tough cut requiring long stewing, because modern day pork chops are so lean and dry in whatever manner they are cooked. I added cider and garlic, which are perhaps un-German, but which showed up in Gourmet's "Cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions" when I used that for a cross reference. So they seem right.

It's all about the sophisticated detail.

Braised pork shoulder à la Morrison Wood

one 3 to 4 pound pork shoulder, bone in (in my suupermarket, now called a Boston butt)
2 Tablespoons butter or bacon drippings
1 medium onion, diced
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and "rather thickly" sliced
1 and 1/2 cups beer
3/4 cup cider
2 cloves garlic, left whole
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 strip lemon rind (please don't omit this. It's the sort of small, sophisticated detail that Wood revels in, and I thought it made a difference.)

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Heat the butter or bacon drippings in a heavy skillet, and when the fat is hot, put in and brown the pork on all sides. Remove it to a platter, and add and sauté the onion, diced, until it is soft and fragrant. Add the apples, and fry briefly until they begin to soften a little.

Return the pork to the pot, and pour on the beer and cider. Add garlic, cloves, bay leaf, and lemon rind. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in oven. Bake for 3 to 4 hours, until the meat is fork tender.

"Serve from the casserole, and of course the perfect accompaniment is tall glasses of chilled beer."

Or a delectable German riesling?

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2009 Koyle Royale carmenere

Date: Tue, Oct 30, 2012

Green pepper, smoke and -- could it be -- very rich, dark roasted apples?

We wax poetic. Anyway, it is delicious. Another fine sample from last week's Wines of Chile Live blogger tasting. We are almost beginning to think carmenere is our new favorite grape.

Koyle Vineyards here; retail, about $27
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Summarizing world literature in two sentences (and having a cocktail)

Date: Mon, Oct 29, 2012

My daughter gave me the idea. She is a great reader of mystery and suspense novels, and she says men consistently write better books in the field than women.

I believe it and I'll go further than that. Here is my thumbnail guide (or is it nutshell?) to all of world literature.

Male author:
"Then Sir Ralph and the Duke chose weapons, and the Duke died of being run through the belly."

Female author:
"Corisande -- called Ree by an eccentric aunt since childhood -- felt strangely upset and sad that morning."

Am I being snappish? Perhaps. The week was rather long and hectic. But just think -- if you know all world lit. in a nutshell, you have all that extra time to go and mix a cocktail. Here are two of my newest:

Havana #2, from the Calvert Party Encyclopedia (1960). A bit sweet, but good.
1 and 1/2 ounces (a jigger) light rum
1 ounce (2 Tablespoons) pineapple juice
1/2 ounce (1 Tablespoon) lemon juice
Shake with ice in a cocktail shaker, and strain into a cocktail glass.

Pink Creole, from Schumann's American Bar. Cream-based drinks do not seem to me to be fortuitous creations. Remember the disappointment of the porto flip. But perhaps you'll have a better experience with this one.
dashes lemon juice
dash grenadine
1/4 ounce (1 and 1/2 teaspoons) cream
2 ounces (a jigger plus a Tablespoon) white rum
Shake well with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain into a cocktail glass.

The rest of the day is yours.

Free image from Tack-o-Rama. Is this the actress who played the cold, bitchy sister in Katharine Hepburn's Holiday (1939)?

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"What a goofy niche!" -- and other random thoughts

Date: Sun, Oct 28, 2012

If no one minds, I will start with the random thoughts. Dear things, I have seen two or three episodes, and I regret to say I am not impressed with the famous Downton Abbey. Apart from the beautiful clothes on beautiful people, and the tart amusing short speeches given Maggie Smith, I see nothing much going on. The four leading women characters seem barely to interact, even though they are meant to be mother and grown daughters. (The actresses' ages seem all wrong, too.) There is no real feeling between the earl and his countess. And what actually happens as the stories play out? The eldest daughter, Mary, ought to marry Matthew but doesn't, and cries when he leaves. Then he comes back and leaves again, and she cries. The nice valet, Mr. Bates, mysteriously and nobly leaves his lordship's service. Then he comes back, and then he nobly leaves again. His fiancée cries. The aforementioned countess and mother of the three grown daughters slips on a bar of soap while miraculously pregnant again, and miscarries. (Why not a banana peel?) Just when some major plot is brewing, servants overhear all the right things and go to the earl with revelations that still the brewing. Chauffeurs confess undying love to the daughters of the house, because "times are changing." Then they leave. The daughters look stunned, and cry. World War I breaks out, and the men go to fight -- well, drink tea -- in incredibly clean and tidy trenches.

And so on. One hates to cavil. But it is small wonder that when Maggie Smith sweeps in with her furs and her hat, and glares that they must all buck up because "Great-Aunt Roberta loaded the guns at Lucknow," -- the show comes alive, and we start to enjoy ourselves.

Speaking of enjoying ourselves, and thoroughly, it seems that one of the sources for Downton Abbey is the fascinating book To Marry an English Lord, first published -- mercy, how time flies -- twenty-three years ago by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (Workman Publishing, New York, 1989). I can be smug about it, since I bought it then and so actually own what is now an out of print copy, complete with beautiful cover art all done in a motif of pink and gray marble edged in bright green. But you must go out and get your own copy too. It is wonderfully entertaining. Buried in the sidebar of page 147 -- and the picture- and anecdote-crammed book does look as though it were designed on-line even in those pre-internet days -- is a menu for a Spring Luncheon on "the Vanderbilts' first yacht, the Alva." On a certain April 2 (in what year? sometime before 1895, by which time the Vanderbilts divorced and the Alva sank off Martha's Vineyard), someone wrote in a quick, loose, but nicely legible hand that lunch would be eggs à la Aurore, lobster, tournedos [very thin-cut tenderloin steak] and marrow, potatoes, spinach, asparagus and "Sce. Hollandaise," chicken and watercress, salad, "crèpes aux confitures [a confection or sweetmeat, Webster says]," cheese, dessert, and café.

It sounds lovely. Only, what -- no wines? Speaking further of enjoying ourselves, thoroughly, do take a look at the book review blog maintained now by Carol Wallace, one of To Marry an English Lord's authors. She calls it Book Group of One ("too cranky for the real thing") and she is at present pounding her way beautifully through all twenty-odd novels of the great Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I must read more than just the first one.

It so happens that on my Kindle I also have a cookbook hailing from about the Downton Abbey/Marry an English Lord era. It's called The Cook's Decameron, and was written by a Mrs.W. G. Waters in 1901. Our authoress here frames her two hundred-plus Italian recipes in a story, by which we understand that ten English friends of an Italian lady, the widowed Marchesa di Sant'Andrea, have all lost the services of their respective cooks at once; and so, commiserating with one another in the Marchesa's London apartments, where they have forgathered to cancel invitations and make new dinner plans, they agree to her idea to bring them to a country retreat for a few weeks and give them cooking lessons. Ten friends cooking for ten days will end up producing at least a hundred recipes. Hence, the nice little tribute to Boccacio's fourteenth-century Decameron.

I wonder whether Mrs. W. G. Waters simply liked this quaint frame for her recipes, or whether in proper Downton Abbey days, an Italian cookbook for English readers was considered outré enough to require some sort of slightly strained literary pedigree. Regardless, she puts two other, practical reasons for her book. She says, first, that Italian cooking should be a welcome change since most English people never eat non-English food unless they travel, in which case they stick to Europe, big hotels, and big cities, and therefore eat only poor imitation French fare. And second, she says the recipes she will present are valuable especially for the use they make of inexpensive but good ingredients, such as variety meats and vegetables. Certainly from The Cook's Decameron you will quickly learn the Italian for sweetbreads (animelle), and calves' brains (cervello), should you wish either to try them or avoid them.

Shall we think about making something fairly easy and familiar, like one of her desserts? This is "No. 212, Crema rappresa (Coffee Cream)." No mollycoddling of her readers for her -- no measured ingredients or to-the-minute instructions. It's 1901, and you and your Cook (Mrs. Waters thanks her own devoted Mrs. Mitchell in the preface) are understood to be already fairly competent. Hop to:
Ingredients: Coffee, cream, eggs, sugar, butter. Bruise five ounces of freshly roasted Mocha coffee, and add it to three-quarters of a pint of boiling cream; cover the saucepan, let it simmer for twenty minutes, then pass through a bit of fine muslin. In the meantime mix the yolks of ten eggs and two whole eggs with eight ounces of castor [superfine] sugar and a glass of cream; add the coffee cream to this and pass the whole through a fine sieve into a buttered mould. Steam in a bain-marie [double boiler] for rather more than an hour, but do not let the water boil; then put the cream on ice for about an hour, and before serving turn it out on a dish and pour some cream flavoured with stick vanilla round it.
Way back, when we titled this post " 'What a goofy niche!' -- and other random thoughts," we said we would start with random thoughts. Now for the goofy niche. Would you believe I had to smile in glassy-eyed perplexity when a customer said just that to me, as he marveled at a new line of wines? They are called the Pairings Collection, and come from the ancient ("depuis 1725") French company Barton & Guestier. The charming labels tell you, I think, all you need to know about what foods might pair nicely with these five new wines. You might, for instance, try this below, to accompany lobster and shrimp.

There is also a "Chops & Burgers" red Bordeaux, a "Salmon & Trout" white Bordeaux, a "Chicken & Turkey" Côtes du Rhône and a "Crackers & Cheese" Beaujolais. "Food pairing just got easier," as the website says. The marketing idea is as clever as can be and the wines are pleasant for the $9.99 price tag. Nevertheless my customer looked twice at the stack of wines in the aisle, seemed to stagger, and then walked toward me, chuckling and shaking his head. "Who would think of that?" he asked, gesturing backwards. He seemed not at all sarcastic but truly at a loss. "What a goofy niche! I mean, in my opinion."

I kept on with the smile and the glassy-eyed stare. He went away. If I were a character played by Maggie Smith I might have thought of something about the guns at Lucknow.
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Wines of Chile -- 2010 Emiliana "Novas" Gran Reserva pinot noir

Date: Fri, Oct 26, 2012

The people who run the twice-yearly Wines of Chile live blogger tasting have been so generous this fall (this spring, in Chile) -- twelve wines sampled instead of a mere eight -- that I think I should offer a bit of time to each. Here we enjoy our fifth of the case, Emiliana's "Novas" pinot noir. Novas, the Latin for new, and the starry theme on the label both refer to the appearance of bright new stars in the heavens, and other wondrous and interesting things. The wine is, quietly, what pinot noirs tend to be: a whiff of smokiness, a taste of olive brine, a mouthful of fresh tart raspberries. Delicious.

I write this in an unusually quiet house. The young folks are out on a zombie safari hayride. I ask you.

Retail, about $14
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Wines of Chile -- 2011 Casa Silva "Cool Coast" sauvignon blanc

Date: Thu, Oct 25, 2012

Pucker up! It's all tart, fresh lemons, and it swirls in the glass like silver ... I'm sorry to say I missed a good deal of the Wines of Chile live blogger tasting last night, because we all got home from work rather late and harassed, and everybody seemed to have pressing stories to tell which outranked affairs in Santiago. Still. The wines have been so very good..

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2009 Cono Sur "20 barrels" pinot noir

Date: Mon, Oct 22, 2012

Once again, we steal a march on the Wines of Chile live blogger tasting, scheduled for this Wednesday October 24th. Another select Chilean wine, another one "knocked out of the park" as they say.

Silky and elegant,
tart tangy raspberries in a little cedar box.

I'm beginning to think there is something to this whole single-vineyard/20 barrels/special care taken/passion/integrity/respect for the land thing.

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2010 (Concha Y Toro) Marques de Casa Concha carmenere

Date: Sun, Oct 21, 2012

In which we take another sneak peek at the next Wines of Chile live blogger tasting, its theme -- "Terroir master class." Of the twelve wines shipped to each blogger participant, this is, or should have been, number 7.

2010 Marques de Casa Concha carmenere

Black, black, wine, as black as chocolate;
spare hints of green pepper and smokiness over a bed of lush, lush, dry fruit.

This -- pardon the repetitions -- is a very, very good wine, dear things. Share it with a friend.

Share it after a nice lunch at a little local restaurant called Mishkenut (Munster, Indiana -- in another life, the chef cooked for Golda Meir and other interesting people in a place in Jerusalem), a restaurant that does wonders with hummus, fried kibbeh, and stuffed grape leaves just for a start. Carry on with a stroll around a small wooded lake under blue sky and a warm autumn sun -- arm in arm with your friend -- while mysterious little gray birds flit about foraging in the yellowing and tawny trees, and the traffic on the expressway rushes by in the near distance, and a fisherman fishes in hip waders. And felicity itself seems to descend for a few moments from the heavens on this small spot. It is all, pardon the repetitions, very, very nice.

Will you insist on our wine's technical specifications? Very well. Formerly one of the half dozen red grapes used in Bordeaux, carmenere has become Chile's favorite grape since being essentially "phased out" of winemaking in its native habitat (Ron and Sharon Herbst, The New Wine Lover's Companion). Do please let us not confuse it with malbec, another ex-Bordeaux red variety that has taken up lodging in South America, in Argentina. Our Marques de Casa Concha is "single-vineyard," just like the San Pedro sauvignon blanc we enjoyed. Hence the "D.O Peumo" on this label, signifying all the grapes have come from one Denominacion de Origen, the vineyard Peumo. Hence also its inclusion (we're bright about these things) in a Wines of Chile live blogger tasting that is themed "Terroir" -- the French term for origins, roots, characteristics of a small place -- "master class." And my what a difference single vineyard sourcing makes to a wine's quality. It's all about where we are now. Thank heaven we're bright about things.
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Return to our Sunday meme: vintage liquor ads

Date: Sun, Sep 19, 2010

From that inexhaustible gold mine, Found in mom's basement. 1958. It's not a hat, it's wallpaper.

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Thinking about organic wine, a little more

Date: Sun, Sep 19, 2010

Thinking about organic wine (in chapters)

What DDT could do, safely, to mosquitoes in tropical Africa, other pesticides do to fungi and nematodes in California's wine country. Safely -- perfectly safely? I don't know. But notice this. No high Namibian or Gabonese official will ever be able to ban 1,3-Dichloropropene for our fields and vineyards as EPA director William Ruckleshaus was able to ban DDT on behalf of all Africa and indeed all the world. Go green as an individual if you like, but as a society we'll take our own risks.

The second plausibility problem with organic food, the whole "health of the planet" thing, is also a problem which fantasy solves. Organicism's Herculean style in the fields, necessary to give us the clean, unbuggy produce we think is normal, actually seems to be worse for our Fragile Home than what is grimly called "monoculture." Both people who admire the practice and those who don't agree: the organic farmer must actually stake out more land and use more fertilizers, water, and labor, exemplified in hand weeding and mulching, for example, than conventional farmers do. The organic farm, pre-industrial for a purpose, has got to spread itself out so that the carrot, D. carota var. sativa, has a chance for a remotely worthwhile yield in the face of all those rules governing "companion plantings" and not harming hungry pests. This is why organic produce is nobly expensive.

To be fair, there are a few scientific papers and research studies advising that organic farming is not that much more inefficient than conventional farming; but this seems to be the best that can be said of it, and the statement still leaves unanswered questions. A year and a half ago the website Hodgeslab, maintained by a biochemist and Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, cited two studies on the matter, a Science article from 2002 and a Cornell University study from 2005. The one averred that organic farming is "80% as efficient" in terms of yield per acre, the other that yields of the two types are "identical" and that energy and water use is actually reduced, and soil quality improved, under an organic regimen. ("This has implications for global warming" -- yes, perhaps, especially if we consider how much energy the organic farm's ballooned labor force will use to get to work, and how much water they'll drink at work, and shower with after work.) Interestingly, the most encouraging of the two reports nevertheless admits that a Gaia-friendly husbandry is useless for cash crops. "Cultural practices" and the need for intensive labor mean the willfully pre-industrial farm is never going to feed post-industrial demographics. It is also not a promising choice for crops plagued by more pests than the studied cereals are: among which, first on the list is grapes.

Whom to believe? Perhaps looking at the organic farm from another angle would help give us useful information. An article about forestry at National Atlas tells us that, of the "nearly" one billion acres of forests covering America when Europeans arrived, we as a nation have cleared, mostly for agriculture, a whopping -- 300 million acres. That two-thirds of what was forest remains so, or has been returned to second growth, while our all too well-fed population has exploded like a 3 liter box of organic wine would seem to prove, absent scholarly studies, what efficiency really looks like. Something to think about, the next time you enjoy an afternoon in a suburban forest preserve. Why is the terrain so flat? Why are there bricks laid out seemingly to no purpose here and there in the dirt trails, and why are there weird, neglected cement structures half buried among the trees? Maybe it was an onion or spinach farm, as our own local woods were, and is no longer needed as such.

I don't doubt that an individual organic farm produces good food. I don't doubt your backyard garden does the same, without your spreading chemicals on it. "Organic farmers do what you would do," Hodgeslab tells us. They start vegetables from seed in greenhouses for example, and grow them until they are strong enough to be planted out, and to out-muscle weeds on their own. Yes, this is what we would do but are no longer obliged to do, because modern industrial farming has freed us all from the need literally to sustain ourselves. We are freed to do other things with life -- itself a type of efficiency -- and we accept what economists call the trade-off of having to wash fruits and vegetables which, granted, may carry a trace of an herbicide or pesticide whose terrors environmentalists have tended to lie about anyway.

The carrot remains the same, and the crux of the matter, the agenda, remains make-believe. Fantasy and, frankly, buzz words can quell doubts about health-of-the-planet issues just as they can about personal safety and pesticide issues. The words always sound so wholesome, so inarguable. The entire environmentalist project is proudly summed up in the simple, good word green. Or consider "sustainable farming" and "reducing carbon footprints." Think it over. The first is a tautology, surely. Mankind learned how to farm some ten thousand years ago. In what sense is it not sustainable? The only people for whom it might not be sustainable would be organic farmers, who hobble themselves with an acting-out of risky, pre-modern practices that American agriculture especially triumphed over, quite some time ago.

And as for the second, well. To take that seriously, you first must swallow hard, shut your eyes, and forget all you've learned lately -- since the publication of organic farming university studies in 2005, certainly -- about scientist-activists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones, ensconced in universities, throwing out inconvenient data negating that joy of their lives and that point of their careers and fame, "global warming." If it seems preposterous that good-souled greens would ever lie about matters so serious, allow me to remind you of the passions of Mr. Ruckleshaus.

Where does wine come into this? (You might think we had forgotten the exploding Brand X organic boxed wine with which we began our story. Not at all.) If organic wine makes the customer happy and gives an added fillip to sales for a while, fine. I simply think it's important to recognize make-believe where we see it, because make-believe is not in all ways harmless. We are dealing here not merely with food and drink and consumer buying patterns, but with a social movement that gives sheltered Westerners an intoxicating new sense of spiritual discipline -- beware, Africa -- but also doesn't take questions well and has long had cruel friends in awfully high places. And that has an unpleasing, and little noticed, attachment to violence.

Artwork by Clara Yos

To be continued....
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Thinking about organic wine (in chapters)

Date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010

I was on the phone with a wholesale wine salesman. "Do you have any more of Brand X on the shelves?" he asked. "Because we're having a problem with it exploding."

This salesman is an ex-actor with a fine "chesty" voice and a fondness for the quick pun, so I was about to try to give him one of my best and reply, "You mean, exploding sales, or just exploding?" Har har. But I didn't get the chance. He went on to say that a few of the boxes -- we are talking about a boxed wine, I should explain, 3 liters per -- had actually made a mess in the trunk of his car and that the same thing was happening elsewhere. At the warehouse, I presume. He did not dwell on details and anyway is working strictly on commission, so tends to be in a hurry to get on to his next, paying gig.

I told him we had none left on the shelves and he was relieved. No one wants customers bringing home wine and having it explode on them. Three liters equals four bottles. That's a big mess.

The problem child in this case is not just a boxed wine but an organic boxed wine. Its packaging proclaims "No Sulfites Added." (NSA is a common acronym.) Unfortunately, it is sulfites you need to counteract the yeasts and benign bacteria that may be present and may continue to work in a wine after it is made and bottled, or boxed. What is happening, therefore, to Brand X is that fermentation is still going on among all the unsulfited life sloshing about in the box. The buildup of gases eventually reaches a critical point. The cellars of Champagne used to be notorious for startling noises and a detritus of glass shards on the floor each spring, as warm weather reached even underground, and bottles of plain chardonnay or pinot noir whose remaining yeasts had been stultified by cold reawakened, re-fermented, and set about making, well, Champagne. Originally this was not what Dom Perignon wanted his wines to do; the bubbles which we now think so delightful were considered a flaw. Little did he know he was also making organic wine. But then, he could hardly help it. He flourished around 1700, when everything was organic, pre-industrial, pre-preservative, pre-pesticide -- pre-safe -- whether anybody liked it or not.

Which brings us to the great question -- I hope we're not shocked --: organic, shmorganic?

In my opinion, yes. It's not just because of the aggravations and failures of methode-champenoise, double magnum boxed wines. It's because organic wine, like organic things in general, logically can only be make-believe. Harmless make-believe, perhaps. But really. Let's think.

It simply makes no sense that a fruit or vegetable grown "organically" is any different, as a product, from one grown conventionally. Surely species don't change, surely an apple or a carrot, or a grape, does not emerge with a totally new color or new and better properties thanks to organic farming. At the end of the day Daucus carota var. sativa, the carrot, remains D. carota var. sativa. The great thing that organic farmers do, it seems, is to avoid pesticides, on the theory that a carrot not sprayed with protective scary chemicals is better for us "and for the planet" than one so treated.

That sounds plausible. When we think of ingesting poisons, we shudder. It seems right that food should come to our table without them. (Incidentally, The Organic Garden by Christine and Michael Lavelle, Hermes House, 2003, recommends, of all things, sulphur as a natural pesticide.) But there are two problems with this nice plausibility, and they are both problems that make-believe solves.

One is that we lack our ancestors' everyday experience with buggy food. Oh, I doubt it happened all the time, but I doubt also that everything from the grocery store was as pristine as we expect now. (Little snapshots of a previous era can be very startling. Katherine Mansfield wrote a memoir called In a German Pension, in which she describes a woman shuddering in revulsion at a gentleman's kind offer to share some fresh spring cherries. "I understand," he soothed her. "Ladies often don't care for cherries. It is the little worms ...." It was 1909.) We seem to think clean, sound fruits and vegetables are normal while pesticides literally cloud the issue, just as we tend to presume healthy children are normal while vaccines are dangerous impositions on the ordained functionings of the body. Not quite. Insect life cycles and larvae are perfectly natural, as are things like diphtheria and polio, and far more serious these last.

Because we think spotless produce is normal and won't tolerate anything less, we open the door to the only task the organic farmer may be permitted to do: he must go to Herculean efforts to make sure he gives us D. carotus var. sativa, while he is yet stripped of all the easy modern tools that have long made the carrot what we want, technically. He has to give us the default carrot, you might say, which is also an emotionally magical carrot, a carrot of pre-industrial escapist fantasy.

The buyer gets the emotional satisfaction of a adhering to a religious discipline, really, along with eating good produce. It seems people will pay for and enjoy that discipline, even when the produce itself can't be organic despite the grower's best efforts: "Even for organically grown fruit and vegetables," advises the site Natural Holistic Health, "it is wise to wash because the farmer in the next field over could have been spraying pesticides that inadvertently entered the organic farmers [sic] crops." So for those who believe, it seems that even D. carotus var paradoxica, the illusion of the illusion of obedience, is what matters.

"Green" consumers (and producers) will probably want to point out now that pesticides, after all, are meant to kill life and so surely it must be better to have no contact with them than any. That sounds right. Still it leaves open the question, what are they, and where?

For a long time intellectual fashion has persuaded us that those clouds of pesticides are, to mix a metaphor, laid on with a trowel and that our bodies stagger under their accumulating toxicity every day. Natural Holistic Health muses that, when we get sick, who knows but what it won't be from that. "When you or your family members are diagnosed with a chronic illness doctors cant [sic] often pinpoint an exact cause. Is the cause the pesticides from your produce and processed foods? You’ll never really have the answer." Possibly not. But remember that our forebears ate organic everything all their lives, and still died, often shockingly young. (What of? I don't remember, literally. The green movement, like the anti-vaccination movement, feeds off historical amnesia.) In any case talking of illness, do let's re-introduce ourselves to just one of humanity's stern old bunkmates, malaria. The classic example of the safe, effective, tragically and hysterically banned pesticide is DDT. It helps stop malaria, or would do if it were allowed. Michael Crichton writes, in his article "Environmentalism as a religion run amok:"

I can list some facts for you. I know you have not read any of these in the newspaper, because newspapers do not report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen, did not cause birds to die, and never should have been banned. The people who outlawed it knew that it was not toxic and halted its use anyway. The DDT ban has caused the loss of tens of millions of people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced Western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the Third World. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the 20th-century history of America.

From reading Crichton you must conclude it was not merely tragically and hysterically banned, but maliciously banned. Let the little brown people far away die -- God, there must be plenty of Gabonese or whatever already -- while mosquitoes in their backyards live and thrive; we want to feel good about protecting Spaceship Earth, our Fragile Home. It's because we enjoy uninfested food and can expect to live past thirty, all thanks to modern chemical miracles, that we can afford both to forget the people who still do live hideously close to nature, and yet jump through emotionally satisfying hoops to pretend we do, too.

Perhaps you don't care to trust Michael Crichton. Trust, then, the words of the man who banned the godsend chemical, EPA director(1972) William Ruckleshaus. According to an article called "100 things you need to know about DDT" at the site Junkscience.com, as an assistant attorney general he testified to DDT's "exemplary" record of safe use in the ending of malaria, explaining regretfully later to environmentalist leaders that, while in court, he had had to submit his emotions to scientific facts. (He was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund.) He banned it later because his position atop the EPA gave him the power frankly to "make policy" as he liked.

A preliminary P.S.: could the tide be turning? A new documentary on the banning of DDT, 3 Billion and Counting, premieres in Manhattan on Friday, September 17. That's tomorrow.

The Limbourg brothers, the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (October)

Thinking about organic wine, a little more
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Chianti tomatoes

Date: Tue, Sep 14, 2010

This recipe comes to us via an old-fashioned source, not often encountered in these high-tech days of cable TV and satellite cooking shows and a thousand food blogs, all their own feasts of unique and delicious content. It comes to us by word of mouth.

Recently a customer asked for a good chianti to use in cooking. After she had chosen, she opened up and revealed the secret of what to do about all the fresh, homegrown tomatoes with which good gardeners are overrun at this time of year. I listened, blinking in amazement at the simplicity of it, and then as soon as I could, I wrote it all down on whatever came to hand. A paper plate in the employee break room sufficed.

Unhappily, I am not one of those good gardeners blessed with too many homegrown tomatoes, nor do I know anybody who has such a store. (You might think me either laughably or tragically deprived, this being mid-September for heaven's sake. Or maybe both.) My immediate neighbors and I tend to concentrate on highly inedible geraniums and New Guinea impatiens, or in my case, goldenrod. But since you might be pomaceously luckier than me, I share the recipe. Tomato-poor, the beautiful photographs I acknowledge to come from Katie, who lives right here in the same town, cooks, gardens, takes pictures, and shares all -- sumptuously, pomaceously -- on her blog, Katie's Passion Kitchen.

Come to think of it, lush homegrown tomatoes might be better served simply by being harvested, sliced, and eaten as is, rather than soaked and herbed and dried as this recipe outlines. But perhaps you have enough to justify doing it all. Or perhaps the recipe would really shine as a sort of supporting vehicle for store-bought tomatoes, which are not much more than just acceptable, year round. Your choice.

Chianti tomatoes

Slice fresh tomatoes thickly, and soak them to cover 24 hours in chianti. Drain them, and reserve the wine for use in the same way again -- but only one more time, I was told.

Lay the tomato slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle them with herbs -- parsley, basil, and oregano. Place the baking sheet in the oven, set to the lowest temperature possible -- 175 or 200 degrees F. Bake, or rather dry, the tomatoes for 8 to 10 hours, or overnight, until they are leathery but not crisp.

Freeze them in freezer bags for storage, and use them in all kinds of ways throughout the long, gray-brown days of winter: in breads, in soups, in stews, in sauces, in omelettes, in anything.

A sampling of Katie's recent posts for you to enjoy -- and I am happy to assure you, she far outcooks me:

Easy homemade limoncello

Buttermilk waffles with plum compote

Baked eggplant

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