Sometimes the New York Times annoys me.
Yesterday—in case you missed it—the Dining and Wine section featured a “D.I.Y. Cooking Handbook.” For most of the day, at least until nuclear fears and March Madness pushed it down the page, the story held a coveted spot just to the left of the videos. Click through, and you encountered an invitation to make your own mustard, vinegar, kimchi, and even Nutella. But do not fear, apartment dwellers! The author assured readers that the recipes are not seasonal and that they would require neither canning nor freezing. “Before getting underway,” Julia Moskin writes, ” it’s not necessary to understand lactic fermentation, or to learn the difference between bacon and pancetta.”
ARRRRGH. Where to begin. Let’s start with this. Has the author tried freezing kale, which she mentions as a particularly terrifying activity? I’m wondering which part of blanching vegetables and sticking them in plastic bags is so complicated, especially compared to, say, making tesa, a kind of cold-cured pork belly? And how do you reconcile the line that “You can’t get more local than your own kitchen” (from the introduction) with recipes that involve hazelnuts and chocolate? Are there secret cocoa plantations hidden in the wilds of Long Island? And what’s with the random swipe at Charcutepalooza’s February challenge?
I was trying to figure out what, exactly, ticked me off about this article. To begin with, I have a knee-jerk reaction against reporting that presents knowledge as bad. As an editor, it makes no sense to me that the Times will front complicated diagrams of nuclear reactors, but somehow decide that explanations of canning, lactofermentation, and freezing (?!!) are beyond its readers. The piece was also sort of randomly researched. The bibliography includes some useful links, like the National Center for Home Food Preservation, Hank Shaw’s Hunter Angler Gardner Cook, Kate Payne’s The Hip Girls’ Guide to Homemaking, and Charcutepalooza (at which I seem to be 1 for 3, but that’s another story). But no Food in Jars? Seriously? And what about Punk Domestics, your one-stop-shop for kitchen DIY? No Canvolution? No smaller-but-just-as-brilliant blogs, like Hitchhiking to Heaven?
I recognize that I’m partially annoyed that the New York Times does not recognize the brilliance of my hard-working canning friends, without whom there would be no canning phenomenon to merit a backlash against. I’m biased. Fair enough.
But I think this is about something deeper. For me, this article highlighted the fundamental divide in the DIY food community between artisan production and resourcefulness. On the one hand, you’ve got what I would call the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement (or perhaps Moment)? These are the folks bringing you $9 pickles. It’s a movement fueled by a desire to achieve freedom from corporate producers and industrial food. (These are values I share, by the way.) It is not, however, a movement that’s about simplicity or locality. As the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement moves toward self-parody, it seems more and more like its proponents are suggesting that you continue to eat the stuff that you get at high-end restaurants and specialty groceries—but instead of purchasing them, they suggest that you learn to make them yourself. And this, my friends, is how you end up making your own maple vinegar.
The most avid proponents of local food preservation, on the other hand, push austerity and making do. How long can you push the harvest? What’s the maximum distance of your food shed? Do you find that blueberries in March are better dehydrated, frozen, or canned? Sometimes you sacrifice quality for the satisfaction of knowing where your food comes from. Rather than something to be worked around, seasonality is the point. In spring you plan and plant; in summer you eat from your garden; in fall you harvest and preserve; in winter you eat from your stores. It’s alternatively exhausting, exhilarating, and monotonous. And this, my friends, is how you end up eating frozen kale salads in March.
Don’t confuse DIY with food preservation. There’s something to be said for each. While I happen to find frozen kale delicious, I wouldn’t eat nearly so much of it if it didn’t keep so well. It’s not very exciting, and I doubt that I’m going to see it offered up in my local boutique grocery anytime soon. It is, however, extraordinarily dependable, and cheap. So, I’ll stick with it. At the same time, I recognize the joys to be had from homemade artisanal products made with specialty or imported ingredients. As I type this, I’m sipping organic coffee imported from Costa Rica, sweetened with sugar from God-only-knows where. My coffee would be even better accompanied by a fancy homemade cracker topped with homemade Nutella—maybe I’ll try my hand at it next week.
All of which is to say that maybe the DIY Cooking Handbook isn’t necessarily so awful. It’s just not talking to me. I’m trying to take this as a reminder that I want my own posts to be as inviting to those of you coming at this from the artisanal side as this piece was originally off-putting to me. And I offer my solemn promise that knowing how lactofermentation works won’t make your kimchi taste any more sour (unless you like it that way).
But enough of my grumpiness. What did you think? How’s that tomato chili jam?