As Via Negativa goes into its fourth month, I’ve decided to introduce a new, semi-regular feature: favorite recipes. And I’d like to encourage other bloggers in the “spirit, place and ideas” end of the blogosphere to do the same. Here’s why.
A few weeks back, my cyber-friend and fellow blogger Tom Montag left a comment to the effect of, “There you go again tackling the BIG questions!” Although I’m sure he meant this as a kind of teasing compliment, it set me to wondering (being opposed to hierarchical thinking as I am): just what would constitute a little question? I couldn’t think of any examples. And I began to worry that my love of abstract thinking was turning me into a caricature – something like the Muskrat in the children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll. While Snufkin, Moomintroll and company spend their days making lots of wild, improbable discoveries and having fun, the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading and re-reading a book called On the Uselessness of Everything. He is a grump and a scold, but Moominpappa insists he be treated with the utmost deference. Somewhere along the line the book gets lost, and at the great end-of-summer party, when the Hobgoblin is granting everybody’s wishes, the Muskrat asks for another copy. His wish is granted, but the Hobgoblin’s magic inadvertently alters it just a hair: the new copy is entitled On the Usefulness of Everything. This leaves the Muskrat extremely disgruntled, of course; his youthful critics can barely disguise their glee.
Thinking along these lines, I typed out the following mea culpa:
I ask the big questions because I am too intellectually lazy to study the details. I seek out the exotic and the occult because my own life is a godawful bore. I speak with conviction partly to sound authoritative, and partly to convince myself. Who am I? I don’t have the foggiest notion. What do I do? I bullshit my way though life. It could always be worse. I could be working in advertising or public relations. But as things stand, I have an obvious and compelling reason to want to write at least one true thing. Poetry is the by-product of that Quixotic attempt. Everything else is footnotes.
Harsh, dude! And – like all breast-beating confessions – self-centered and false.
The truth is, I produce essential artworks everyday – not invariably great works, mind you, but undeniably essential. That is to say, I cook. I feed myself and others.
I hasten to add that I am neither a gourmand nor a highly skilled chef. I specialize in a whole grain, vegetarian-except-when-we’re-eating-meat version of what they now call “comfort food.” In Plummer’s Hollow, the stew and the casserole reign supreme. I don’t give a rat’s ass about presentation (though I do appreciate it when eating out) and I’m afraid I eat way too quickly to pay attention to subtle nuances of flavor most of the time. If eating alone, I will distract myself by reading or listening to the radio while I eat. If eating with others, the art of conversation takes precedence. A little more mindfulness around here might be in order.
Actually, the last-named habit may not be entirely negative. Rabelais maintained that great thoughts could only emerge from dialogue, and then only under the influence of good eating and drinking – the typical Renaissance view, according to Bakhtin and Illich. But here too I may be in trouble: 90 percent of the content of this weblog has been written before breakfast!
This morning was an exception, mostly because I slept in until 7:00, then had to start in on laundry before I did anything else. I ate what I eat every morning: two fried eggs, sunny side up, with tarragon. I won’t give the recipe, because everyone reading this probably has equally strong, individualistic preferences for breakfast in general and how to fix their eggs in particular.
Instead, I would like to attempt to give the recipe for another egg product: egg salad sandwiches. My mother whipped up a batch of egg salad just yesterday that was superlative. I asked for the recipe, and found she had followed a decades-old clipping from Woman’s Day magazine, with one or two alterations. However, I want to go a little bit beyond the mere instructions and consider the whole recipe. If I ever write a cookbook (which would probably have to be a collaborative effort with my mom), here’s what the recipes would look like.
HOW TO MAKE A DECENT EGG-SALAD SANDWICH
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! First comes the zoning ordinance that says you can’t raise chickens in your backyard or in your rooftop garden! Well, why the hell not? So step number one in the making of a good egg salad sandwich is to talk to your neighbors. Chances are good that they, too, would like to keep a few hens, maybe a goat or two, not to mention enjoy the right to plant herbs and vegetables instead of grass in their front yards, as the French do. My friend the Sylph rallied the folks in her village and they managed to get the zoning ordinance amended. She now raises chicken. That’s right, just one chicken. She doesn’t eat very many eggs, I guess.
Be willing to compromise: no neighborhood should have to endure crowing roosters or screeching guinea fowl. Guineas have just about the best-tasting flesh of any domesticated bird, but if you value peace and quiet, don’t fall prey to the disingenuous claim that “they make great watch dogs!” Well, they do – if you want to be alerted every time a cricket looks at them cross-eyed. But I digress.
Don’t have a yard? More sophisticated political organizing may be required to start up community gardens. You’ll need local or state government assistance to get land – or else take the risk that some crazed capitalist running-dog mayor like Giuliani will call in the bulldozers and destroy years of work. Community gardens sound to me like a great reason to live in towns and cities, giving folks of different ethnicities, who would otherwise probably never talk to each other, the chance to trade seeds, gardening tips and (of course) recipes. Finding enough area for a small, cooperatively managed chicken coop with a large fenced run might be tricky, however.
There are other options for getting good eggs. You could visit/help start a local food co-op and/or farmer’s market; become a shareholder in a CSA farm, or simply find a local farmer or gardener who raises chickens right.
The important thing is this: the best-tasting eggs come from free-range chickens, period. The difference in taste between factory-raised and free-range or “scratch” eggs is roughly equivalent to the difference in taste between white bread vs. whole wheat, or Miller Lite vs. a microbrewed IPA. Whether or not the chickens are fed organic, non-GMO mash isn’t nearly as important in determining taste. The eggs don’t need to be fertilized. And the color of the shell is irrelevant: yes, Leghorns are the Holsteins of the chicken industry, but they are still bright enough to be able to do what all chickens (and very few humans) will do if given half the chance: balance their own diet. Left to their own devices, chickens like to eat a whole lot of weeds, worms and insects. They also stay healthier if they have an area where they can regularly take dust baths to keep ectoparasites under control, and the less confined they are, the less often they resort to cannibalism.
The yolks of free-range chickens should be bright orange, not the sickly yellow of supermarket eggs. Another thing to look for is shit on the shells. I’m serious. In any given dozen, at least a few eggs should appear fairly filthy. This is desirable because it shows that the eggs haven’t been washed. Chickens produce a thin, invisible film on the outside of the shell that helps extend the shelf life of the egg. As far as I know, it’s impossible to wash the eggs without removing that film – though I suppose the egg factories might have some way of dry-cleaning the eggs.
This brings us to another important ingredient: consumer education. In The One-Straw Revolution (one of this weblog’s foundational texts), Masanobu Fukuoka discusses the difficulty of selling organic fruit: not only will its skin or rind have some blemishes, but a fully ripe mandarin orange, for example, should be slightly shriveled. “Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.”
In a chapter entitled “Commercial Agriculture Will Fail,” Fukuoka discusses eggs and chickens from an economic point-of-view. “I have been thinking lately about white leghorns,” he says. “Because the improved variety of white leghorn lays over 200 days a year, raising them for profit is considered good business. When raised commercially these chickens are cooped up in long rows of small cages not unlike cells in a penitentiary, and through their entire lives their feet are never allowed to touch the ground. Disease is common and the birds are pumped full of antibiotics and fed a formula diet of vitamins and hormones.
“It is said that the local chickens that have been kept since ancient times [in Shikoku], the brown and black shamo and chabo, have only half the egg-laying capacity. As a result these birds have all but disappeared in Japan. I let two hens and one rooster loose to run wild on the mountainside and after one year there were twenty-four. When it seemed that few eggs were being laid, the local birds were busy raising chickens.
“In the first year, the leghorn has a greater egg-laying capacity than the local chickens, but after one year the white leghorn is exhausted and cast aside, whereas the shamo we started with has become ten healthy birds running about beneath the orchard trees [and fertilizing the mandarin oranges] . . .
“Commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals and hormones . . . The farmer who produces . . . eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer.
“Now if it is manufacturing you are talking about, you will have to do some fancy figuring if you want to make a profit. Since the commercial farmer is not making any money, he is like a merchant who cannot handle the abacus. This sort of fellow is regarded as a fool by other people and his profits are soaked up by politicians and salesmen.”
Fukuoka and many other organic farmers, ecologists, and prophets of the new “slow food” movement stress three main points: buy locally, eat seasonally and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. For eggs, that may mean cutting back in the winter, when most breeds (other than leghorns) slow down their laying considerably. I must admit we compromise on this point and buy some commercial eggs during the winter months, due partly to my two-eggs-a-day habit and partly to the pragmatic reality that, absent fresh vegetables, egg-based dishes are an important option for an otherwise fairly bland winter diet.
But eight or nine months of the year we can count on being able to stop once a week and pick up several dozen from a small back-to-the-land-type farmer named Carol. Her house is right off the small highway that also runs past the orchard where we buy much of our fruit, so it’s convenient. She puts out a funky little sign with a painting of a chicken right beside a little table with a picnic cooler on it. You take out as many eggs as you want and put your money (or an IOU if you’re short) in the cash box. Competition is fierce, and Carol’s response has been not to raise prices (bizarrely, she charges less than the supermarket) but to try and prevent her institutional customers from cleaning her out – there are any number of local restaurants who would buy her entire supply every day, but she won’t let them. Last year, as we got more friendly with her, she agreed to let my mother call and leave a message on her answering machine the night before our weekly shopping trip, and to set aside as many dozen as we request. They’ll be wrapped up in a plastic bag, stapled shut with a note often containing some personal message.
The message here is simple: know your farmer!
We raised chickens for many years when I was a kid, and one time I even plowed through a hundred years’ worth of USDA pamphlets on poultry farming for a project in history class. So as you can readily imagine there’s a lot more I could say on this subject. But recipes should be fairly brief, so I’ll confine myself to one final observation before moving on to the other ingredients: expect variation in taste from one egg to another. I think it’s fair to say that the demand for uniformity in taste grows out of – and helps reinforce – the industrial mindset.
I believe strongly that as eaters, as creators, as thinkers and as citizens we must resist mass production in every way possible. If you’re able to get eggs from a farmer like Carol, or to raise your own, you’ll notice an amazing thing: they come in all sizes and several shapes! In the spring, new layers commonly lay eggs with two yolks. Hence the imprecision of this and all true recipes. Hard-boil somewhere between five and eight eggs, preferably not fresh, but aged at least one week. This will make them much easier to shell. Also, be sure to plunge them into cold water immediately after removing them from the heat. Finely chop the shelled eggs using whatever tools and implements you like.
The other fundamental ingredient can take the form of either cream cheese or mayonnaise – preferably the former. The problem with mayonnaise is that to get it really good you have to make it yourself. That’s not at all difficult, but it means you will be eating raw eggs. We used raw eggs regularly, for eggnog as well as for mayonnaise, as long as we raised our own chickens. But with the growing proliferation of salmonella (due to industrial farming techniques, of course) we’ve been unwilling to risk it since, even with Carol’s eggs.
Everything I’ve said about obtaining decent eggs applies to other dairy products as well. Again, we happen to be fortunate in having access to a great local dairy which, while not organic, avoids hormones and other excesses of industrialized farming. Do your best. You’ll need about eight ounces of cream cheese, softened – otherwise use roughly a quarter cup of mayonnaise.
Almost as critical is the addition of one small onion (also approximately 1/4 cup), also finely chopped. A sweet onion or mild leek might seem like a good idea here – try it if you like. But I really feel that the bite of a regular onion gives the best results. I should add that if you have space for a garden, onions are supremely easy to grow from sets. Any container will do – you can grow them in your window sill. I must admit we don’t bother, however, preferring to support the local Amish truck farmers (some of whom even follow organic methods, though they’re not business-savvy enough to advertise the fact). The Amish are exemplary farmers because they put land and community ahead of personal profit (which is not to say they are communists – far from it). When we can’t get eggs from Carol, we’ll try and get them from the local Amish, even thought they’re not from free range chickens. It just makes one feel good to support people who don’t buy insurance, borrow money from banks, fight in wars or hire lawyers, who keep institutions to a minimum and who choose their leaders by lot. And needless to say, one rarely has to worry that something from the Amish was made by mass production techniques.
Salt and black pepper round out the list of essential ingredients. A whole treatise could easily be written about either one, but as I said, I’d like to keep this brief. Iodized salt? Sea salt? Kosher salt? Fresh-ground black pepper? I must admit, the last phrase immediately raises my blood pressure, conjuring up visions of snooty waitresses in absurdly overpriced chain restaurants with terrible food. Rants, however, have no place in a good recipe. Like any essential art, cooking should ennoble rather than degrade, nourish rather than produce indigestion. This sounds old-fashioned – I don’t mean to downplay the occasional usefulness of shock value (but how many “Piss Christs” does the world really need?). I simply feel that, in order to strike a proper balance between process and product, the maker should cultivate a playful attitude, consisting of about one handful each of equanimity and dynamic tension, seasoned with a dash or two of irresponsible pleasure (substitute joy if not available) and accompanied by a sizeable helping of temporal awareness. (Few other arts are as time-limited; if any culinary creation could be said to be immortal, it would have to be through recollection alone.)
In fact, I’ve been thinking recently that the most important ingredient in the creative process and/or product might be simply an enhanced quality of attention. This seems nowhere more true than of the culinary arts, oriented as they are to the daily alteration of consciousness through eating and drinking.
Now for the fun part. My mom’s old Woman’s Day recipe includes, in addition to the foregoing, 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper, 3 tablespoons chili sauce (for which she substitutes a good tomato salsa) and two thirds of a cup of chopped English walnuts. The result, as I said, is delicious. I don’t know if she has tried substituting pecans or black walnuts for all or part of the English walnuts, but that strikes me as one interesting possibility.
Bell peppers are a standard egg salad ingredient. A mix of colors would improve not only the presentation but the taste as well. It’s a surprisingly little known fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe pepper, and hence has not reached optimal sweetness. I suspect that the popularity of green peppers among 20th century cooks was a by-product of their easy availability, related to the invention of the refrigerator car and the consequent destruction of local and regional farmer’s markets. (How many East Coast residents still remember why New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State?)
We use a lot of frozen peppers in the winter. If you’re concerned about taste (which is, of course, a direct index of nutritive value), freezing and drying are in general much better than canning. Bell peppers of all colors are supremely easy to freeze if you have the freezer space. No blanching is required. Simply spread out the strips or bits on cookie trays, stack them up and stick ’em in the freezer for a day or two, then stuff them into ziplock bags.
If you have access to fresh peppers, the additional crispiness will change the character of the egg salad quite a bit. Otherwise, you could try substituting celery for part of the pepper. Or, given fresh peppers, you could take the opposite tack and roast all or part of them. Roasting peppers, garlic, etc. is a Mediterranean technique gaining favor among North American cooks. I’ve tried it, and I can vouch that it certainly does concentrate flavor in a unique way. It’s also fun to pull off the blackened outer skin. (Who knew bell peppers even had skins?) But oven-roasting seems wasteful to me unless: A) you’re using the oven for something else anyway; B) your oven is attached to the woodstove that heats your house (though it’s unlikely you’d be using it much during pepper season); or C) you have a toaster oven. Toaster ovens use quite a bit less electricity than their full-sized cousins.
I hasten to add that I have never tried putting oven-roasted peppers in egg salad, and I have my doubts about how well it would work. I simply raise the possibility. Of course, if you follow my mother’s lead and add some tomato salsa, you can use that as a way to introduce roasted peppers, both hot and sweet – and roasted garlic as well.
In my opinion, one of the keys to good salsa is cilantro, a.k.a. Chinese parsley. I know there are some people who object to the flavor. But I love the stuff and use it as often as possible, either directly or by adding salsa to recipes. I bring this up because some egg salad recipes call for Italian parsley. Why not substitute cilantro? You’ll thank me for it.
Two other possible, exotic ingredients have a Mediterranean provenance: kalamata olives and capers (both finely chopped, of course). We get our olives directly from Turkey, via the husband of the owner of a local natural foods store who is an importer of Turkish carpets. Buying them in bulk like this makes the olives affordable enough to use in many dishes where we might otherwise leave them out: another way to jazz up a boring winter diet! I realize that some high-end supermarkets now include olive bars where one can select from dozens of different varieties. If that’s a priority for you, fine. But wherever possible we try to limit our weekly supermarket shopping to one stop, and to patronize a chain based in central Pennsylvania that relies heavily on PA farmers for its store brands (canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, etc.). We haven’t yet found a better source of capers than the canned Goya brand carried in this supermarket. I should mention that one recipe for egg salad with black olives and capers I’m looking at right now also calls for two teaspoons of prepared mustard.
So much for the egg salad part of the sandwich. Now, what about the bread? I’m afraid that in the interest of brevity I’ll have to leave that side of the equation unsolved for, at least for the time being. Use whatever bread you want. But for my money there’s nothing like egg salad on rye. And a good rye bread is worth a considerable quantity of blood, sweat and tears . . .
With this easy-to-follow recipe, I hope I have redeemed myself a little from the charge of being preoccupied with Big Questions to the detriment of truly useful subjects. Perhaps I have even managed to convince one or two readers that thinking and living need not be mutually exclusive activities. But what does it have to do with the via negativa, ostensible subject of this weblog?
In a word: everything. What could be more mysterious, farther beyond the reach of language than taste? Long gone are the days when scientists thought that flavor could be dissolved into a simple trinity, like light. Food scientists now recognize thousands of unique flavors, each indescribable except through comparisons with other flavors.
Eating, it seems to me, is the ultimate encounter with suchness. “O taste and see . . . “