Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Viva la Cucina!

I have started very small war on dependency, and my battles are fought in the kitchen. One of the broader ranging ramifications of the culture of dependency we have seen arise in the western world is the loss of skills. For example, with the advent of computers, we appear to have seen a sharp decline in penmanship. My ability with a hand held writing implement is surely not as graceful as that of either of my grandfathers, one of whom was possessed of a beautiful flowing script, the other a clean and architectural print. Court notes are now captured on audio recording and speech recognition equipment, rather than recorded by a well-trained stenographer, in that positions' own private language.

Language is only one very minor example. In the realm of mathematics, calculators have replaced the human brain for even the most basic of math. I agree that calculators are a supremely useful instrument, allowing the user to handle complex numbers with ease and saving time, energy, and scratch paper the world over, but simple addition? I occasionally astound people by performing multiplication or division in my head, but I assure you I am no Genius (actually, several of you will probably assure both me and each other of that fact). I simply retain some minor skill for organizing figures in my head.

Skill loss is not limited to intellectual activity. With the compartmentalizing of tasks, the loss becomes endemic to our society. Working on ones car is another example. At the dawn of the automobile era, one learned to operate and repair their personal vehicle. If it broke down a long way from town, one either had to effect field expedient repairs or take to one's heels and return with more expertise. As vehicles (always a complex system) began to grow more complicated, mechanics became a very important sector of society. These were men (yes, and women) who learned a complex skill set, and could be employed in the repair and upkeep of one's automobile. The burden of skill was no longer universal. Over time, complexity began to skyrocket, and the possession of a universal skillset was no longer feasible. Mechanics began to move into specialties. One now had a transmission shop, an engine shop, a lube shop, auto body shop, etc. Even within the trade there was now a loss of skill. Eventually, computers became so prevalent that diagnostics were performed like magic, and pieces of the industry began to disappear completely. Components are no longer repaired, they are replaced, in increasingly larger sub-assemblies.

In Carpentry, much the same thing. Once, a carpenter had to know every aspect of construction, from the digging to the roofing. Later, the industry started to separate into fields. Excavators dig the hole, concrete boys pour the foundation. The framers that throw the walls are not always the same ones that stand the roof, increasingly not even the same ones that throw down the floor. When the roof is on, call the shinglers, when the house is tight, get the sparkies and tinners, plumbers and rockers, mudders, trim guys, carpetlayers. Very very few of us can cross the trades with any hope of success.

Hundreds of years ago, men with primitive hand tools cut and joined the supports for roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Now, few framers know how to properly cut in rafters. Pre-made trusses delivered to the job site are the basis for our roof system, and man, they better be right, cause I'm not sure how to fix them. We need an engineer for that. We no longer possess the knowledge and the skillsets that our grandparents took for granted.

This, by way of introduction, brings us back to the kitchen. Food, as we all are aware, is one of the most basic and irrefutable needs of humanity. In the Microwave Era, how many of us are possessed of the skillset that our Grandmothers used to put a daily meal on the table? I remember my grandmother and, when she had the time, my mother baking bread. Even then, it was a luxury item, something to enjoy, rather than a staple. The simple, ubiquitous loaf of white bread has been available so long that, in living memory, few people in this country can recall when homebaked bread was the rule, rather than the exception. I got a recipe from the Mother Earth News (a crazy hippy magazine, and great fun) about baking bread. Its a simplified recipe, put together by a pastry chef and her chemist husband, that grew into an entire book called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I tried it, and I must admit, the results have been stunning. How many of us have ever made sandwich and thought, 'man, this bread is good!' Bread was always just the carrier. This recipe has replaced Sara Lee in our home. It takes about 20 minutes of active time, every week, to make the dough, and 5 minutes of active time to bake sandwich bread. And its CHEAP!

I figured out one day (with, yes, the help of a calculator) that there are about 24 loaves of bread in a ten pound bag of flour. If you are buying the cheapest possible loaf of bread at the store, that's about $24 worth of bread. A ten pound bag of flour ($6), plus the yeast ($6 gets you about 10 batches, so $4) and salt ($1 or so) comes to $11. That's less than half price for the CHEAPEST bread. When compared to the breads it most resembles, the difference is staggering. Fresh baked artisan style breads (round loaf, french breads, etc) from the bakery department are $4-6 per loaf. That's $96 to $120 worth of bread. For $11. Factor in that it is delicious and that you are not reliant on other people to do the work for you. Tastes even better, doesn't it? Want another example? Beef Jerky...

Beef Jerky is where this whole journey started for me. My brother and I found that when we made jerky out of venison, somehow it disappeared a lot faster than the actual deer meat did. Deer steaks are quite small, and some people are not that fond of the flavor and texture of wild game, but everybody seemed to love the jerky. I decided that, for a hike I did last year in Northern Arizona, jerky would be a good food to have with me. Unfortunately, being that I'm a carpenter in the middle of a housing market decline, I had limited funds with which to purchase it. After finding some recipes and acquiring some curing salt, I began to make jerky with whatever beef roasts were the cheapest at the local supermarket. Rather than paying the $25 per pound (not kidding, those $6 dollar packages of jerky are usually only 3-5 oz) I was buying roasts for $1.57 and the spices last forever! With the finished weight about half of the raw weight, plus the cost of spices and curing salt, I figured I was making jerky for about $5 per pound or less. ONE FIFTH of the cost of purchasing it. I eventually started making my own pastrami, corned beef, and ham, as well. The whole thing came together this weekend when my sister was in town for a visit, and we made sandwiches, on homemade bread, with home cured meats. The only things I didn't make myself were the spices and the condiments. I think my grandmother would be proud of me. Plus, since my fiancee and I have started to buy food in more and more basic states, eliminating the frozen bag dinners and heavily processed foods, we are eating better, the food tastes better, and we have cut our grocery bill by easily 25%.

I've learned to make bread, salami, ham, corned beef, pastrami, jerky, and sauerkraut. I've butchered my own deer, cut my own steaks, made homemade pizza, and canned chicken stock. Maybe I don't save as much money on the corned beef and pastrami as I do on the bread and the jerky, but its fun, satisfying and in-dependent. Both the chicken stock and the sauerkraut taste better than ANY that I've ever purchased at the store. And let me tell you, whether its curing the sauerkraut in the cupboard for three weeks, or opening a jar of homemade chicken stock that's been waiting in the pantry for a month or two, NOTHING teaches confidence like taking that first bite. In-dependence... its Delicious...

Now that's what I call Counter-Culture...