June 20, 2013
Mold in the kitchen has an overwhelmingly negative public image. There’s nothing like opening the fridge and seeing fuzzy welts on your long-forgotten leftovers, and that momentary pang of dread as you feel that you’ve committed some cardinal sin in your housekeeping. (Or maybe I’m just a neurotic.) But fact is that mold spores are everywhere, and given a moist environment, said spores are able to thrive. In many cases, molds are are an easy visual signal that you are in the presence of food that is rotting and is best left un-ingested.
Nevertheless, some molds are perfectly fit for consumption, if not desired to produce fine dining fare. Part of the trick is knowing how to tell the difference between good molds and the molds that will do you some harm. The other part is to overcome some of your reservations try some of the following foods that benefit from a little fungus. (However, it should be noted that if you see mold growing on the following after the point of purchase, you should consider said foodstuff unsafe. The USDA has a handy cheat sheet if you need a refresher course on how to handle fungi in the kitchen [PDF].)
Cheese: Certain cheeses rely on bacteria and mold for their unique flavors and textures. Usually introduced during the finishing phase of the cheese-making process, once applied to the surface, molds penetrate the cheese and breaks down lactic acid, which in turn softens the fats and proteins therein. Strains of penicillium—the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics—are frequently used. In soft cheeses, Penicillium candidum is what produces the characteristic hard, outer rind as well as the garlicky and earthly flavors those cheeses are known for. Without the mold, brie would be a sour and rubbery cheese, but a little fungus allows the cheese to take on its signature soft, creamy texture. Blue cheeses benefit from Penicillium roqueforti, which provides those cheeses with their hallmark blue veins and bold flavors.
Wine: In the realm of viticulture, rotting is a good thing if induced by the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Under the right climate conditions—dry, sunny days followed humid nights—the fungus’ growth and metabolism induced a “noble rot” in the fruit. Once infected, the grapes dehydrate and shrivel on the vine, increasing the concentration of sugar therein and providing the fruit with honey-like flavors. Vintners have been intentionally infecting—or “botrytizing”—grapes since at least the mid-1500s and these moldy grapes are used to produce some of Germany’s Rieslings, France’s Sauternes and Hungary’s Aszù wines. In incredibly rare cases, however, this mold can also harm people by causing “winemaker’s lung,” a hypersensitive pneumonitis where a person’s lungs become inflamed upon inhalation.
Salami: Health regulations here in the United States have placed some tight restrictions on the manufacture and sale of moldy meats. By and large, this is a good thing. But mold plays a vital role in how European butchers make dry-cured sausage. Here, the desired mold is penicillium, the same genus of fungi used to create antibiotics. When encouraged to grow on the outer casing, the penicillium serves several functions: by occupying all the physical real estate on the sausage, it prevents bad molds from developing; by consuming oxygen it inhibits oxidation of the meat and lastly it protects the fat from going rancid. Although it’s a centuries-old process, finding meats cured in this style are increasingly difficult to find here in this country. (In 2006, health inspectors destroyed the handmade, dry-cured meats at New York’s Il Buco restaurant. The USDA stipulates that meats should be cured in a refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder in order to stave off microbial growth. The “contraband” meat was stored at a little above room temperature.) So if you want to try the real stuff, you can try finding a place that imports dry-cured sausage, or you can make good salami an excuse for a trip overseas.
Corn Smut: Corn is susceptible to the pathogen Ustilago maydis, commonly known as “corn smut,” which infects the kernels and causes bulbous, gray tumors to grow. In this country, corn smut growth is a sign of diseased crops and is something to be eradicated. South America, however, has long regarded the fungus—known there as huitlacoche, Mayan for “excrement of the gods”—as a delicacy. When processed, it’s a slimy, black substance that can be used as an ingredient in Mesoamerican cuisine or as a standalone quesedilla filling. The appearance and colorful nicknames have made it hard for huitlacoche to break its niche market status, although some chefs are trying to do some re-branding by using more plate-positive terms like “corn mushrooms” or “corn truffles.” But there also seem to be some nutritional benefits to eating this fungal slush: a 2010 study showed that huitlacoche is rich in beta-glucens, the same cholesterol-reducing fiber found in oatmeal. And flavor? It’s been described as a cross between corn and mushrooms, earthy and fungal. But there are a few factors that get in the way of widespread huitlacoche production. In addition to being known exclusively in
South American Mexican cuisine, the fungus is highly perishable, making it difficult to get from field to market. And while canned versions are available, the flavor doesn’t compare to the fresh product. Furthermore, if you’re not expressly looking to cultivate this fungus, it can be highly destructive. In addition to decreasing total corn yield, infected ears need to be immediately removed lest mold spores go airborne and effect adjacent plants.
Smith, Tim. Making Artisan Cheese: Fifty Fine Cheeses That You Can Make in Your Own Kitchen. Boston: Quayside Publishing Group, 2005.
Jackson, Ronald S. Wine Science: Principles and Applications. Elsevier, Inc. 2008. Burlington: Elsevier, Inc. 2008.
Ruhlman, Michael and Brian Polcyn. Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.
Deutsch, Jonathan. Ed. They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food From Around the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
February 11, 2013
Let’s just say Dominic Episcopo has sunk his teeth into the “meat” of Americana. In his Kickstarter project, “Meat America,” the photographer has paired iconic images from Lincoln to Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with hunks of red-meat art. He spent six years gathering what he describes as uniquely American images for the coffee table book-to-be “manifesto” that hits shelves later this month.
“I was absorbed in this world of meat. When I was at the supermarket or at a restaurant, I thought, ‘What else could that be besides a hot dog?’,” he says. “I go in with drawings into the supermarket—they know me there. Now they run into the back to grab extra steaks for me to look at.”
According to his Kickstarter page, the series “is a state of mind, an eye-opening and artery-closing tour of America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, rebellion and positivity.” A few more examples of things you’ll find in the book: A “Don’t Tred on Meat” flag, a map of the “United Steaks,” and the Liberty Bell.
Food art is no new concept (Arcimboldo comes to mind); whether it’s a fruit sculpture at some swanky gala or an Edible Arrangement sent to a loved one for their birthday, playing with food is a thing Americans like to do. But what makes meat uniquely American? According to a Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009, Americans consume 279.1 pounds of meat per person each year. Australia is a close second with 259.3, but compare that to places like the United Kingdom (185 pounds/ person), Croatia (85.8 pounds/ person) or even Bangladesh (6.8 pounds/ person) and it’s clear: Americans like meat. And we like a lot of it, but what about a big ole’ steak connects the mind to cowboys rounding up cattle on the range? Episcopo says he’s not sure.
“I’m not quite as obsessed with meat as you might think,” Espiscopo says. “But I do think these images speak to a meat fetish thing that is uniquely American.”
He continues, citing his Kickstarter page: “This exhibition celebrates our collective American appetite of insurmountable odds, limitless aspiration, and immeasurable success. Though, some may just see it just as a bunch of states, presidents and American icons shaped out of animal products, which is also fine with me.”
Episcopo received his BFA in photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has lived and worked in the city for the last 25 years as a commercial photographer. Most of his “meat” series was produced in his studio inside of his home—a converted 150-year-old abandoned church—he shares with his wife and three-year-old son.
“A sense of humor in photography is hard to pull off and still be taken seriously,” he says. “Weegee’s got that tongue-in-cheekness to it and Penn’s work influenced my straightforward rendering [of the meat].”
To achieve that simple, untouched look for his meat photos he used cookie cutters and a keen eye for the right cut of steak. For the map of the “United Steaks,” he bought a ribeye, made one cut-in, bent one side to create Florida and the rest he shaped with his hands. The lines from the fat of the slab matter.
For the lettering in examples like “Love and Death” based on the famous Philadelphia statue by Robert Indiana, Episcopo uses deli cuts of ham, roast beef, salami and bologna. The settings and surrounding materials all have meaning and play a roll in telling the image’s story, he says. For “Love and Death” he included what he calls a Philadelphia breakfast: A pretzel, some coffee and the cover of the Daily News—all iconic images for the city.
“I can’t just use a cookie cutter to get a shape of Abe Lincoln,” he says. “I wanted it to look like the steak you bought at the supermarket.” Though Episcopo and his family eats only local, organic and grassfed beef, he says there’s a reason he can’t go organic with his images.
“Organic meat is purple,” he says. “I need a big, ruddy robust piece of meat to get the right idea across.”
He tries to maintain political neutrality with his work, but that doesn’t stop the letters from PETA advocates from coming in, he says. But flack for his flank art hasn’t stifled his creative energy around this endeavor.
“I love when I enter an art show and they ask me the medium,” Episcopo says. “How many people get to say meat or steak? Or ‘Meat is my Muse?’”
While we’re on the subject, a few other examples of “meat art” out there:
- Mark Ryden’s “The Meat Show: Paintings about Children, God and USDA Grade A Beef,” will have you gawking at paintings with Colonel Sanders, Abe Lincoln and a big, juicy steak on the same canvas.
- Though Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov, may not be going for the “Americana” theme with his work, he’s certainly another meat artist worth checking out. Rather than shaping sausages into the state of Texas, his series “Meat Weapons,” evokes a more visceral response featuring full-suited soldiers outfitted in very rare meat-made machine guns and ammo.
- Marije Vogelzang’s “Faked Meat” goes for the meaty look using anything but: Sapicu-wings with dark chocolate, “meat” lollipops, and veggie-made meatballs. The gist: there are a lot of meat substitutes on grocery store shelves.
- A basic search for “meat art” on Pinterest will find you something red and raw to look at (real or not). A personal favorite: This meat-looking mask by artist Bertjan Pot.
- Lest we not forget America’s bacon obsession: This Foulard bacon scarf just may be the perfect Valentine’s Day present for the bacon-loving, love of your life.
June 14, 2012
Food-wise, what will you be doing to fete your father this weekend? This time of year, you start seeing ads promoting grills and all the fun toys that go with them—tongs, brushes, mops, novelty aprons—and an internet search for Father’s Day fare will bring up lots of ideas for how to pull together a meal over an open flame, with the paterfamilias gladly taking the food prep reins. But why do we have this idea that grilling is a guy’s thing?
Globally, it seems that this gendered division of cookery is an American phenomenon. Across cultures, women generally do most of the cooking, period. In some parts of the world—such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Serbia and Mexico—you will see female street vendors selling grilled food. The cost of starting up a barbecue business is nominal: charcoal, a grate and you’re good to go.
Is it a matter of territory? At the first barbecue I attended this season, the guys were quick to declare the patio a “men only” area, which elicited a fair bit of eye rolling from the wives and girlfriends in the bunch. In my family, women generally have rein over indoor cooking spaces, but when it comes to outdoor cooking, it’s the guys’ turf. (And when men try to help out on indoor cooking projects, arguments over their technique will likely ensue.)
Meghan Casserly offered her observations in a 2010 Forbes article. There’s the element of danger—fire! sharp tools!—and the promise of hanging out with other guys. But she also finds that the tendency for men to grill is a construct of the mid-20th century and the rise of suburban living. In the United States, family dynamics and attitudes toward parenting were changing and there was an increasing expectation for fathers to spend their free time with their families instead of with their buddies at the local bar. Why not hang out in the back yard? Weber sweetened the prospect of outdoor cookery in the early 1950s when the company introduced the first backyard grill—basically, a streamlined and easy-to-clean fire pit.
In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Makes Us Human, Richard Wrangham points out that in hunter/gatherer societies, the sexes each seek out different types of food: women forage and handle dishes that require the most preparation, while men go out to find foods that are more difficult to come by—namely, meat. Furthermore, they tend to cook on ceremonial occasions or when there are no women around. “The rule,” Wrangham writes, “that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” His observations don’t directly link men to the grill, but it makes one wonder if guys are just somehow primed to cook that way.
May 30, 2012
The average American eats 195 pounds of meat a year. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s laden with meaning—in terms of human evolution, social habits and modern marketing. Men, on average, consume more meat than women. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the man responsible for the best-selling phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” recently published a study establishing a metaphoric link between masculinity and meat.
He and his colleagues tested subjects on a variety of word-association and other tasks and placed different foods along a spectrum of male-linked to female-linked. On the male end of the spectrum were raw beef, steak, hamburger, veal, rabbit, broiled chicken, eggs (hard-boiled followed by scrambled). Milk, fish, sushi, chocolate, chicken salad and peaches were more toward the feminine side. This division loosely lines up with articles in 23 foreign languages using gendered nouns—as in le boeuf (male) or la salade (female)—but curiously phallic-shaped meats like sausages and frankfurters appeared no more linguistically “masculine” than did, say, ground beef or steak.
The study reports some counterintuitive findings. For example, cooking and food processing tend to be associated with femaleness, except when it comes to medium-rare or well-done steaks, which outrank raw beef or blood in terms of manliness. And if you thought placenta and eggs fell under the feminine category, you’d probably be the exception (although, admittedly, the study did not consider the male approximation, such as testicles or milt). Even more perplexing, the undergraduate men surveyed listed orange juice right up there with medium-rare steak and hamburger.
Really, though, what do these food metaphors have to with anything? Well, according to the Rozin and his co-authors, “If marketers or health advocates want to counteract such powerful associations, they need to address the metaphors that shape consumer attitudes.” This lends a certain credence to the practice of slapping artificial grill marks on a sausage-shaped soy patty, an otherwise potentially emasculating cut of protein—and it offers a compelling a lesson for those attempting to make fake or in-vitro “meats” here to stay. Make them manly, boys.
Photo: “Chorizo (Basque Sausage) and Fried Eggs” by Carl Fleishlauer/Library of Congress
February 2, 2012
Author Ron Rosenbaum recently revisited The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer’s landmark book that offered an extensive look at why and how the Nazi party rose to power. Where Shirer focused on the political and cultural environment, scholar Lizzie Collingham offers a unique perspective of the war years in her new book The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.
“It is perhaps the quiet and unobtrusive nature of death by starvation which explains why so many of those who died of hunger during the Second World War are largely forgotten today,” Collingham writes in her introduction. ”During the Second World War at least 20 million people died just such a terrible death from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases.” Her book addresses how the major powers on both sides of the war handled food issues, and she shows how food was a major factor in the Reich’s war machine.
German soldiers on the front lines were encouraged to live off the land, appropriating goods from civilians along the warpath. “We live well,” one foot soldier wrote during the 1941 invasion of Eastern Europe, “even though we are sometimes cut off from the supply lines. We supply ourselves, sometimes chickens, sometimes geese, sometimes pork cutlets.” This placed the burden of staying fed on the conquered; in essence, the Nazis found a way to export hunger. They also killed people they considered “useless eaters,” including the Polish Jewish population.
On the home front, Germany managed to keep its citizens relatively well fed in part due to the government’s reshaping the nation’s eating habits. Starting in the 1930s, well before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reich officials acclimated civilians to a wartime diet centered on bread and potatoes, encouraging people to forgo meat and butter in favor of fish and margarine.
“But the ultimate Nazi food,” Collingham writes, “was the Eintopf or casserole.” The slow-cooked meal was designed to stretch low-quality cuts of meat and make them more flavorful. And since a single vessel was required to cook it (Eintopf literally translates to “one pot”), it also had the advantage of being fuel-efficient. Families were supposed to prepare the casserole on the first Sunday of the month and donate their savings to the Winter Help Fund, a charity established to assist less-fortunate Germans during the colder months. Even the higher-ups in the Nazi Party would encourage people to hop on the casserole bandwagon, posing for photographs while eating Eintopf along Berlin’s Unter den Linden. ”This transformed the drive for autarky [self-sufficiency] into a social ritual which was supposed to unite and strengthen the Volksgemeinschaft through sacrifice.”
But not even the best propaganda machine can completely convince a nation to sacrifice flavor in the name of national spirit. ”Breakfast and supper at our house usually consisted of bread and marmalade or evil-tasting margarine,” Ursula Mahlendorf recalls in her memoir about her childhood in Nazi Germany. “Dinners were monotonous. Most days we had Eintopf, a casserole of potatoes and various vegetables boiled in bouillon and thickened with flour.”
To learn more about how food figured into how the major powers fought the war, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food will be published in March 2012.