Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Eating for Beginners

Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
Melanie Rehak (2010, Houghton Mifflin; 2011, Mariner Books)

   A decade or so ago, Melanie Rehak was spectacularly well placed to look into the pleasures and politics of food, because her Brooklyn home was in walking distance of a restaurant called Applewood. (Actually, the owners spell it 'applewood', in an ostentatious display of humility, and so does Rehak, but I'll spare you.) Applewood, founded in 2004 by David and Laura Shea, is committed to local, seasonal, organic food - but sometimes you can't have all three at once. The Sheas, who have two small children, make a sensible division of the considerable labor. Laura is front of the house, and David is the lead chef. Applewood's ethos also includes a certain egalitarianism in the kitchen–cooks are expected to think creatively about the food in front of them.

   Rehak signs on as an apprentice cook. Her skills are not bad in her own kitchen, but sixty meals a night, coordinating with five or six other people, is a different matter altogether. A new menu every night, depending on what the suppliers have had available, multiplies the difficulty. In addition to techniques of chopping and plating, Rehak starts to learn what the chefs are thinking about when they stand in the walk-in cooler, imagining meals.

   She extends her research by spending a few days with the vegetable farmers, who work a long day to fulfill the orders they've had from the city. On another farm upstate, she gets practice milking goats, and disassembles a pig. By way of completing the cycle, she gets a ride with the truckers who bring the food into New York City. She goes out on a fishing boat, thinking about regulation and fishing stocks. Time and chance happen to them all: extremes of weather, insects, regulations, traffic; but all of these people work extremely hard (as does Rehak when she gets a chance to pitch in) and they make it happen, day after day.

   The picky kid of the title is Rehak's toddler, Jules, who starts in on solid food by rejecting most of it. He won't eat hot dogs, chicken, or fish. Or ice cream, or noodles, or toast. Rehak is concerned. Does anyone ever grow to adulthood eating only yogurt and bananas? Are there really kids who hate toast? Well, Jules is just wired differently. He likes "intensely flavored foods that would ordinarily be found on side table at adult gatherings–dry roasted nuts, hummus with carrots, red pepper strips, pita chips, unbelievably sour cornichon pickles, and...pickled cocktail onions."

   There are plenty of books about farms out there, and plenty about kitchens. Rehak has read plenty of them: not only James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, but Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Guided by her work at Applewood, she works her way through the issues that balance the health of the planet and the need to feed her family tonight. She'll buy California produce so her son can have vegetables he'll eat, but she'll spend two extra bucks for milk without hormones.

   This is what it comes down to: "I knew it wouldn't always be possible to be choosy–at restaurants or out on the road. There are times when you just have to eat, and if one of those times turned out to be the moment when Jules first decided to try any kind of meat, I wasn't going to stop him no matter where it came from–but I also knew what I was going to choose when I could."

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