Are there subjects that are off-limits at your dinner table? One of the age-old debates in the western world is the separation of church and state, and certainly politics and religion tend to be heated debates at the best of times. But you could argue that the convivial nature of the table might be the best place to settle the toughest battles.
I read an interesting article in the New York Times this week about the dilemma some chefs are having with situations in their restaurants. There was a chef who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. A woman at another restaurant was asked to stop breast-feeding her baby in the dining room. Then there was the chef who wanted to prevent diners from wearing guns... you can imagine all of these are rather inflammatory issues for many people. When you are feeding strangers at your table, is it appropriate to make them abide by your rules?
Granted, this article is from the United States, and they tend to see more extremes than we do. (For example, the issue of wearing a gun in a restaurant is not something we need to worry about here.) There are many topics that can be included though, such as allergies and dietary restrictions and nutritional information, or family versus adult establishments. These in addition to political issues can be enough to upset your digestion.
Some people are activists and taking a stand is important to them. Alice Waters is known for her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, that began a movement recognizing the farmers that supplied ingredients for the menu dishes. She is also known worldwide for her work with Slow Food and The Edible Schoolyard Project, teaching children about the importance of food. Many other chefs and owners prefer to stick to the food and not voice their opinions; as diners, we will go to their place or not as we see fit.
Does it matter to you if a restaurant represents a particular opinion? If there are numerous options, will it make a difference if we support one place or another?
There is a lot to be said for supporting like-minded businesses, and offering numerous options is one of the luxuries we have in our part of the world. If I don't like a certain kind of food, I don't go to a restaurant that serves that kind of food. Isn't it just as easy to support the places that have an environment in which I'm comfortable, instead of complaining about the ones I wouldn't enjoy anyway? I guess my point is that if we can look at this from a "cup half full" perspective, then maybe chefs and restaurant owners can look at it from a "room half full" perspective too. They can serve the people who do come in, and not worry about the ones who don't. The old expression, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" seems to work in the same way here, only politics are hotter than any kitchen, it seems.
Here's to a happy meal, with no dinner conversation that spoils your digestion :)
How much are you willing to spend on good food? I don't mean a quick stop for a snack or something at a drive-thru, I mean a tasty piece of fresh-caught fish, or the best cherries you can get in the summer, or a handmade treat like a pastry or piece of pie? Often I hear the discussion on food prices centering around the best deals, and I wonder how much we value good fresh food.
I realize this can be a touchy subject that has many elements...
- Should we have to pay more for organic food? Is it worth more? Do you even care if you eat organic? What is the difference?
- If we want to buy strawberries in winter, should we expect to pay the same price as in summer? Are we willing to pay the price they cost to be shipped from somewhere else or grown specially in a greenhouse?
- Do you think the price of a handmade chocolate chip cookie at an artisan bakery should be the same price as the mass-produced chocolate chip cookie at a chain store? Which one would you buy?
Sometimes people will say, "Oh, I could make that myself". It's true, we could make coffee at home, but look how many people pull into the drive-thrus at Timmy's and Starbucks? Time is worth something and preparing things also has to be factored into the equation. I know that I can save money if I don't stop at the drive-thru or make my lunch instead of buying it, but there are times when it's more worthwhile for me to let someone else take care of it.
What about prepared food? Let me ask you, would you pay more for your Mom's homemade cookies than for a run-of-the-mill cookie from anywhere? I have to say I would, not only because it tastes better but also because I love and respect the time my Mom puts into making them, and the way she cooks some just the way I like them - crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
When we go out for a meal, sometimes we like something simple and inexpensive - maybe a morning pastry at Sandrine's or a poutine at Okanagan Street Food or forno pizza and a beer at Smack Dab. Other times we like to treat ourselves, and go to maybe, Ricardo's or Raudz or Poppadoms. Each experience is different, which is part of the charm; all of them are delicious and we always feel like we have been well looked after by the staff. Not having to worry about any of the set up or clean up makes a meal more relaxing, don't you think?
I'm not trying to say that we should all become food snobs and only eat organic food or dine at the "best" restaurants. (I put best in quotations because I do believe there is a best greasy spoon cafe the same as there is a best fine dining restaurant.) I do think it's important to keep our food in context though, and I am a firm believer that supporting the little local guys is a great way to keep the variety alive.
Whatever food you are eating, I wish you good tastes :)
(when I said I was writing about cookies this week, my husband had to add a wee something...)
Chef Martin says:
Fresh cookies are awesome... so making them at home is a no brainer. Even at the best pastry shops sometimes they will bake cookies for two days, or bake the cookies then freeze them, so not always as fresh as yours at home. A fresh cookie is so good, warm, crunchy, chewy, not too sweet, not greasy. I love cookies!!
If you feel like baking, here's a recipe I like that Kristin bakes at home: Frog Commissary Cookies
I have been looking at the garden seed catalogues trying to plan out what we will grow this year in our wonderful garden, but it seems every year the dilemma of deciding becomes more difficult. It is bad enough I have to choose between beets and turnips or decide whether the extra space at the back is best for potatoes or squash – now I have to choose what colour I like my vegetables to be! (For those interested, the beet versus turnip debate is actually no contest, as the Chef does not like turnips enough, no matter what colour they are.)
I know we live in a world where technology allows for life to go at the speed of light, and traditions and old ways are meant to be expanded and revamped, but really, do we need to change the colour of our vegetables? Where does it stop??
Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about Mother Nature’s variations, like green and yellow beans. A little bit of variety is a good thing – the spice of life and all that. However, in the first place, what is the point in having a funny-colored veggie if it doesn’t stay that colour when you cook it and in the second place, if the colour is only skin deep, does that even count? Aren’t we supposed to consider what is inside?? Perhaps this is a sign that we should only eat food uncooked and unpeeled. (Certain trend-watchers would say this is a topic for another column!)
Part of me is intrigued by these fantastic foods. There is a Roald Dahl aspect to the idea of a garden that has an imagination of its own, like the Giant Peach or Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. You have to choose wisely to maximize your exotic efforts, as often it seems to take extra energy for the plant to produce a more unique product. Sometimes the Chef just smiles and shakes his head, but I enjoy the taste of lemon cukes and green zebra tomatoes. He did use some of our weird and wonderful tomatoes in his menus last summer, and he liked the striped Chioggia beets we planted. However, purple dragon carrots were most impressive in name, and orange cauliflower was just more difficult to grow than the white variety. Creativity is required when appreciating Mother Nature, though, and what would a garden be without a little experimentation?
I should add that carrots actually were purple to start with, and only became orange more for marketing reasons (wouldn't you know it!). They originally were grown for their seeds and leaves, as many of their relatives are still - dill, cumin and fennel are all in the same family of plants. They are recorded as being purple in the 10th century in the Middle East and Europe, and it wasn't until the 17th century in the Netherlands that orange carrots appeared in quantity. Breeding of different colours and varieties has occurred to make carrots sweeter and less woody as some root vegetables can be, but the orange colour was more appealing to markets in the western world - settlers took orange carrots to England and America in the 17th century and the rest of course, is history.
I guess at the end of the day (or the summer) I should just marvel at it all – even the green vegetables that grow quietly in their rows. I suppose having a colourful garden plot is another way to salute individuality… and besides, can someone who, as a girl, liked to wear red and pink striped socks with her favourite purple jumper really judge what colour a carrot should be?
Chef Martin says:
I really like being able to choose vegetables from our own garden for cooking, and I enjoy visiting the farmer’s market when it is in season, too. I don’t specifically look for weird or exotic foods, but they are fun to use from time to time. One of my contributions to the garden was some golden raspberry canes, and I don’t mind saying, they are very tasty!
I don’t mind yellow kiwis either. Actually, in the last few months I have used broccolini for many high end dinners I have done for people. The comments were nice, as many people had never tried broccolini before. It’s not a very complex vegetable: it’s a cross between broccoli and rapini (which is also known as broccoli raab). It’s long and skinny and tastes similar to Gai Lan, a Chinese green vegetable. (It takes very little time to cook, so watch it carefully.)
I don’t really mind what they cross vegetables with as long as it is another natural vegetable and not part of the genetically reproduced stuff that we hear about on the science network. Although, if the children of farmers don’t decide to take over our food chain as farmers themselves, who is going to feed us veggies in 30 years from now? Maybe genetic veggies will be the only choice left. Over the years, Hot Houses have created the perfect tomato, always the same color, the same size and the taste is also often the same… BLAND as hell! So this year, I will chose to plant heirloom tomatoes just like last year. Go visit Veseys Seeds or West Coast Seeds for good seeds online or ask at your nursery to help you choose what's best for your plot.
Support your farmers and promote good eating! Check out a great new page on Facebook called Soil Mate that has a collection of local farmers, markets and all that good stuff.
This week I'm letting the Chef go first, since he's so keen to share. My theme this week is to take a break from the busy schedule when school is in and try to cook a meal with your kids!
Last week I gave a cooking class to a bunch of 10 kids, aged 7 to 11 years old. I introduced them to some exotic fruits and vegetables, and had them taste these foods raw and cooked. Then for kids in the class that could see on top of the stove, I also had them learn the basic skills to make the perfect omelet. Did you know not as many kids hate Brussels sprouts as you think?!
I had a blast and I would like to tell all the parents out there, you should do the same during spring break. Any day is great, actually, but during the break usually there is a bit more time to spend together. Older children can also show younger siblings. Your children need to be introduced to different foods if you want them to be able to fend for themselves once they leave the family nest. Start as early as possible and force them to experience the kitchen. Yes, I use the word force because some kids need to be pushed until they do. Force them to touch food, cook food, and of course they have to taste everything too. It is also a great idea to have them read labels of what they eat to realize what’s in it. So many kids have health problems, weight problems, attention problems and energy problems. You are what you eat, so teach them to eat better and when they leave your house they will have the skills necessary to give themselves the proper nutrition they need to become our next world leaders.
If anything, do it for the same reason as I did - I just want to be able to have a great meal when I go visit her when she is living on her own. I started teaching my daughter at 7 years old so she had lots of time to practice! Yes, it’s a selfish reason, but she eats well and knew how to cook basic meals at age 17. She is 20 now, and just sent me photos of a rack of lamb she cooked for her boyfriend.
I hope I can help illustrate the Chef’s point, as I can tell you that many of my memories of Spring Break as a child did involve cooking. We didn’t go away when I was little, so entertaining ourselves in the kitchen was one of the ways we could make our own fun. Even when I got older and we did go on a ski holiday, I remember being in a condo that had a kitchen and making fun meals like gourmet pizzas and chili. It is memories like these that turned me into the Foodie I am today!
We need to be reminded on a regular basis that we are connected to the rest of the world, and what we do (or don’t do) makes a difference. One of the most basic ways we can do that is with our food. It is a product of our planet, and our culture. It is the history and the future all wrapped up in nice little packages. Doesn’t that sound a bit like our children? Such precious cargo, we need to remember to take good care of every single bit of it. Children need to know that every moment in their lives have the potential to make a difference so they can take all those moments in and value each one. So should it be with the food they eat.
I don’t mean to sound preachy, but since everything is connected, doesn’t it make sense that we should have good habits about how we fuel ourselves? And since we are a species that can enjoy an experience, should we not make the most of those experiences? We have to eat, so why not enjoy the process? If children learn to think about enjoying and respecting their food, then it naturally becomes a part of their lives, enriching them not just with nutrients but also with memories.
Please try to spend some extra time with your food this week or maybe try a new food this weekend that you see at the grocery store. If you don’t have kids to challenge you, see if you can think like a kid and make your food fun! There are plenty of recipes on my Happy Gourmand blog, and on the Chef Instead website.
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Spring ahead! Mar 8
- Red carpets and champagne Mar 1
- Sounds, smells and tastes Feb 22
- De-stress at dinner...meals on vacation Feb 15
- Why does food taste better on holidays? Feb 8
- Fun foods from A to Z Feb 1
- Chicken soup, orange juice and hot tea Jan 25
- In the heat of the moment Jan 18
- Let's hear it for comfort food! Jan 11
- Keep the spirit alive Dec 28
- The Christmas Table Dec 21
- It's a wonderful life Dec 14
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