January 14, 2013
Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, “Are we a nation of soul food junkies?” The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” premiering tonight on PBS.
The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food’s history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant’s early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother’s collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That’s how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family’s cultural culinary traditions but it’s also a big part of my “family.” If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you’ll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it’s persisted and is so popular?
Well, it’s a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It’s hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what’s going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
Where does some of the resistance to change come from?
I think the sentiment that a lot of people have is that this is the food that my grandmother ate, that my great-grandfather ate, and my great-great-grandfather ate, and if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me, and why should I change something that has been in my family for generations?
How were you able to make the change?
Through education and awareness. There was this woman I was interested in dating years ago, when I first graduated from college. So I invited her over to my apartment and I wanted to impress her so I decided to cook her some fried chicken. I learned how to cook fried chicken from my mother.
She came over and I had the chicken seasoned up and ready to put into this huge vat of grease that had been cooking and boiling for awhile. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Are you going to put that chicken inside that grease?”
That was the first time that anyone had sort of challenged that. To me it was normal to cook fried chicken. Her mother was a nutritionist and so she grew up in a household where she was very educated about health and nutrition. So she said, this is not healthy. I had never been challenged before, she was someone I was interested in, so from that day forward I started to really reconsider how I was preparing my chicken.
When she challenged you, did you take it personally at first?
I think I was a little embarrassed. It was like she knew something that I didn’t know, and she was sort of rejecting something that was really important to me, so I felt a little embarrassed, a little bit ashamed. But I wasn’t offended by it. It was almost like, “Wow, this person knows something that I don’t, so let me listen to what she has to say about it,” and that’s pretty much how I took it.
How would you describe your relationship with soul food today?
I do eat foods that are a part of the soul food tradition but I just eat them very differently than how I ate them growing up. I drink kale smoothies in the morning. If I go to a soul food restaurant, I’ll have a vegetarian plate. I’ll typically stay away from the meats and the poultry.
The film looks beyond soul food to the issue of food deserts and presents a lot of people in those communities organizing gardens and farmers markets and other programs. Were you left feeling hopeful or frustrated?
I’m very hopeful. There are people around the country doing great things around food justice and educating people who don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables on how they can eat better and have access to foods right in their neighborhoods…I think that we’re in the midst of a movement right now.
How are people reacting to the film?
I think the film is really resonating with people, especially among African American people because this is the first film that I know of that speaks directly to an African American audience in ways that Food, Inc., Supersize Me, King Corn, The Future of Food, Forks over Knives and other films don’t necessarily speak to people of color. So this is really making people talk.
November 5, 2012
In 1983, Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Magazine, received a letter from an irate grandmother unhappy with his presentation of recipes and cooking. “You don’t cook from your heart,” she wrote. Kimball responded in the affirmative. “Yes,” he said, “I cook from my head.”
That approach helped Kimball, a slim man never without his bow tie and glasses, build an empire of inquisitive, science-based cooking with his magazine now named Cook’s Illustrated and PBS shows America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Based out of a 2,500-square-foot kitchen outside of Boston, the magazine and television programs offer a tirelessly scrupulous approach to solving the kitchen’s persistent problems: Why does food taste better hot (science)? Does marinating really tenderize meat (no)? How do you get extra fluffy rice (rinse in water)? Kimball says, “The objective is to figure out why bad things happen to good recipes.” Accompanied by his even more fastidious science advisor, Guy Crosby–”working with Guy is like working with a Talmudic scholar”– Kimball tests dozens of different methods for each recipe, all so you don’t have to.
Which is fortunate, because as it turns out, “The science of cooking is actually much more complicated than particle physics or anything else that I’ve discovered,” according to Kimball.
In a world of stylized cooking shows with frequent exclamations of “Yum-o!” Kimball, 61, would appear out of synch. To him, cooking with your heart is as useless an expression as cooking with your pancreas. His delights are in trial and error, mastering the how and why. Stubbornly rigorous, Kimball is still far from a perfectionist. He says, “You never see Martha Stewart start a show saying, ‘This cakes looks terrible!’” But Kimball regularly includes failed recipes on his shows to show how common it is and how easy to overcome.
In the recently released book, The Science of Good Cooking, Kimball and company (he works with a staff of more than three dozen) guide the reader through 50 concepts of cooking and more than 400 tested recipes. Perhaps a little more ambitious than physicist Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the 50 concepts touch on everything from temperature to tools as a way to enhance not just the recipes in the book, but any dish you attempt in the kitchen.
Some of the tips offered and mysteries explained:
Don’t marinate meat, brine it: Counterintuitive but scientifically proven; salt makes meat juicy. According to the pros, “Salting poultry allows us to reap the benefits of brining as it breaks down proteins and helps to retain moisture within the meat.” The process even makes the skin crispier. Win-win. This is because, when the salt is first applied, through the process of osmosis, water is drawn out of the meat to the surface. But over time as the salt migrates inward, the expelled moisture returns as well, drawing water from the skin to plump the meat and dry the skin. Mouth watering yet? The same actually goes for dried beans, which should be brined instead of soaked. The pros recommend kosher salt but not all kosher salt is the same. “Because of its more open crystal structure, a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal actually contains less salt then a teaspoon of Morton kosher salt.” The book offers this handy conversion: 3 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal=2 1/4 teaspoons Morton.
Serve warm dishes at 98.5 degrees: Scientists, concerned with culinary satisfaction as they are, discovered tiny proteins in our taste buds that allow our sense of taste to be heightened with increased temperature (obviously to a degree, burning your tongue does not enhance flavor). The seemingly optimal temperature is somewhere around 98.5 degrees, depending on the food. Plus, “Much of our perception of flavor comes from aroma,” and, as the book points out, heated molecules are in an excited state more likely to reach our waiting noses. As a caveat, since some dishes are meant to be served cold (revenge not mentioned), the writers say you should flavor cold dishes more aggressively with seasoning.
Rest dough to cut down kneading time: “Kneading is the most enjoyable part of the breadmaking process,” the writers admit. But, they warn, over-kneading is a common sin that leaves the bread with less flavor and poor texture. You’ll know you’ve arrived at this sad place when your dough goes from a “wheaty tan” to a “grayish white.” The text explains that the point of kneading is to break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets. But overknead, especially with electric mixers and you introduce both heat and air into your dough. The trick: autolyse, a technique first developed in the 1970s. Essentially all you have to do is rest your dough before kneading. The rest process actually takes care of some of the kneading work for you as enzymes go to work breaking down the mess of coiled protein to prepare for those nice gluten sheets later to come. According to the book, “Doughs that were given the 20-minute respite took an average of about five minutes less kneading.”
Fry foods between 325 and 375 using a mix of old and new oil: Nothing is worse than soggy fried chicken. Likewise, nothing is better than perfectly crisp fried chicken. The difference may be a matter of degrees. Most food is fried somewhere between 325 and 375 degrees (French fries, for example, are perfectly crisped at 325 degrees). It’s important to maintain this temperature (one of the reasons you fry in small amounts because dumping a large quantity of food into the pan lowers the overall temperature, warn the writers). Dropping a piece of battered shrimp into hot oil causes the surface moisture to escape in a burst of steam. That allows oil to move in. Too hot and too much moisture is lost meaning too much oil moves in, making the food greasy. But just right and the oil crisps the surface while allowing the meat to cook as well. And as a super secret way to make your food even crisper and more golden, the book recommends saving a cup of used oil to mix with fresh oil. Turns out, oil goes through five different stages while frying (beginning with “break-in” and “fresh” and ending with “degrading” and “runaway”) and right in the middle is the “optimum” oil. Mixing helps you avoid the first batch flop many of us have experienced.
Add milk to scrambled eggs, frozen butter to omelets: If you want scrambled eggs, most of us know to throw in a bit of milk or butter while scrambling. That’s because the lipids in the dairy coat the proteins in the egg (11 percent in the whites and 16 percent in the yolks) and slow down the process of coagulation, a.k.a. when the proteins are denatured and unfurl, releasing much of the water in the mixture. Adding fat helps keep some moisture in and fluff up the final product. But the same does not go for omelets. “While scrambled eggs should be fluffy, an omelet is more compact,” the authors write. While milk works for scrambled eggs, it can add to much moisture to an omelet. The chefs recommend frozen bits of butter instead, which melt more slowly and disperse more evenly. And it turns out you can go ahead and salt the eggs before you even cook them up. Because salt affects the electrical charge on the proteins, it weakens the bonds between them, preventing overcoagulation. Bring that up at your next brunch.
This is just a glimpse into the world of America’s Test Kitchen, where they don’t just find the right fry temperature, they find the individual smoke points of every oil (from coconut to peanut to canola). Precise and tested advice mixed with irresistible-sounding recipes for creamy parmesan polenta, crunchy baked pork chops and Boston cream cupcakes makes for a guide both the experienced home cook and the nervous beginner will enjoy.
“We’re not about gourmet food,” says Kimball. “We just want people to cook at home.”
Even Kimball admits, though, that are some kitchen conundrums he can’t solve. When asked if he’d found a way to really engage his own four kids with the science of cooking he said, “The only thing I’ve proved is they only want to cook with marshmallows and chocolate.”
September 5, 2012
The apple, that innocent bud of an Americana autumn, has pulled off one of the greatest cons of all time. As students across the country prepare to greet a new school year and teacher with a polished bit of produce, the apple cements its place in the patriotic foods pantheon despite its dodgy past.
A clever bit of biology, well documented in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, and a tireless cheer campaign of fall orchard visits and doctor-endorsed slogans saved the apple from its bitter beginnings in early America. Though its standing in society today is rivaled only by bald eagles and baseball, the apple’s journey to ubiquity was tumultuous.
Stretching back to the hills of Kazakhstan, early apples were a far cry from today’s sweet, fleshy varieties. As Pollan explains, sweetness is a rarity in nature. Apples benefitted from being bitter and sometimes poisonous because it allowed the seeds to spread unmolested. Because each seed has the genetic content of a radically different tree, the fruit came in countless forms, “from large purplish softballs to knobby green clusters.”
When the apple came to the American colonies, it was still a long way from a sweet treat. Bitter but easy to grow, the produce made excellent hard cider. In a time when water was considered more dangerous than consuming alcohol, hard cider was a daily indulgence. Its distilled cousin, applejack, also became popular, according to documentation from Colonial Williamsburg.
As anyone who grew up in the Ohio River Valley knows, the greatest champion of the fruit was a wandering missionary named John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and beyond bloomed in the wake of his visits. He was opposed to grafting, the practice of inserting “a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree” to reproduce the same type of apples from the first tree, as described by the University of Minnesota.
Without the human intervention, however, apples remained overwhelmingly bitter and when an anti-alcohol fervor swept the nation in the late 19th century, the plant’s fate was in peril. One of the fiercest of opponents, temperance supporter and axe-wielding activist Carrie Nation, went after both growers and bars, leaving a wake of destruction in her path. Nation was arrested 30 times in a ten-year span for vandalism in the name of her movement, according to PBS.
“But with the help of early public relations pioneers crafting slogans such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the plant quickly reinvented itself as a healthy foodstuff,” according to the PBS production of Pollan’s work.
Elizabeth Mary Wright’s 1913 book, Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, recorded the use of apples as part of common kitchen cures. “For example,” she writes, “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread…or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”
Free to produce a socially acceptable fruit, growers raced to develop sweet, edible varieties that would replace the plant’s previous life. Shaking its association with hard cider and reckless imbibing, the apple found a place in one of the most faultless places of American society: the schoolhouse.
Held up as the paragon of moral fastidiousness, teachers, particularly on the frontier, frequently received sustenance from their pupils. “Families whose children attended schools were often responsible for housing and feeding frontier teachers,” according to a PBS special, titled “Frontier House, Frontier Life.” An apple could show appreciation for a teacher sometimes in charge of more than 50 students.
Apples continued to be a favorite way to curry favor even after the practical purpose of feeding teachers disappeared. Bing Crosby’s 1939 “An Apple for the Teacher,” explains the persuasive allure of the fruit. “An apple for the teacher will always do the trick,” sings Crosby, “when you don’t know your lesson in arithmetic.”
By the time American scholar Jan Harold Brunvand published his book, The Study of American Folklore, in 1968, the phrase “apple-polisher” was more or less shorthand for brown-nosing suck-up. With cutting-edge technology in classrooms seen as an academic advantage, many teachers may be asking for a completely different kind of apple: not a Red Delicious or Granny Smith but an iPad.