Blue Heron Local Cuisine

Cooking, Eating, and Drinking on the North Shore (and beyond)

Not in My Cookies! July 14, 2008

Filed under: Ethical Eating — blueheronlocal @ 3:37 pm
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(thanks, theperfectpantry.com, for the image!)

(thanks, theperfectpantry.com!)

Flour was a staple of my childhood—huge bags of whole wheat organic bread flour were almost always in the center of the kitchen. It was vital, literally the base of our diet, but also invisible because it was so available and familiar. Unlike the seasonal apples or the labor–intensive black walnuts, flour was a given that required no work and was always there. I didn’t even think about it until well into college, when I had one obsessive vegan in my life, which meant that there were fewer titillating topics at 3 am other than flour + fake butter + tofu (organic & local) + peanut butter (organic) + maple syrup (local) = ethical anti-establishment cookies.

 

What establishment? you ask. Well, to begin with, the industrial food complex, the corporitization of food, agribusiness, consolidation, vertical/horizontal integration, transnational takeovers… To most localvore types, these phrases sound dangerous, cues that our food system has moved far from the place where it was 200, 100, and even 50 years ago. Some of the structural changes have benefited society. More have not. Today I offer a superficial look at a few structural issues seen through my ethical adventures in buying flour.

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Ikerd for Secretary of Agriculture! June 25, 2008

Recent gossip around the food sphere has been littered with proposals for who should be Obama’s secretary of agriculture (oddly enough, no one seems to care about McCain…a question for another day: Do we think he’s losing or that he won’t listen to us?). My favorite is the head of the Analyzing Agriculture from Afar program at Urban University, followed by Jim Hightower, and then John Ikerd.

 

Jim Hightower is a strongly opinionated Texan who would insult lots of people and possibly get a few things done. John Ikerd, on the other hand, is a fascinating philosopher academic, with experience working at the USDA on sustainable production, who might be an effective advocate for sustainable agriculture. I’ve even heard that he is charming and likable, which makes him a more realistic candidate than Hightower.

 

John Ikerd is a strong writer with a background in agricultural economics, and accessible to non-policy wonks like us. A great many of his essays are available online. From the basics of what is sustainable agriculture to what values should underlie rural development, Ikerd’s writing is a readable and inspiring philosophical (and somewhat applicable) primer. Go. Pick one. Read it. Post a few thoughts. Or read my ramblings.

 

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The Demise of Southern Biscuits? June 20, 2008

Filed under: Regional food — blueheronlocal @ 1:17 pm
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There’s nothing better than biscuits straight from the oven. I’ve been known to drive 600 miles for a good biscuit (and, I suppose, some family time). Southerners love to argue about what makes a good biscuit. Bill Neal is one authority (Thanks, prospero’s kitchen!) and here is another. However, most agree that the secret to exceptional biscuits is flour, and more specifically, White Lily flour, which has been milled in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1883.

 

white lily flourBad news for biscuit lovers everywhere. Last year, Smuckers bought White Lily and decided to move milling operations to Illinois. Bakers, southern and otherwise, noticed a difference between the Knoxville-milled flour and the Midwest-milled flour right away. From the New York Times:

Zoellyn Smith, who worked in both quality control and research and development at the Knoxville plant, accurately identified the new product before she began to bake. Sample A, the new product, had “a grayish color” and made a “dense and chewy” cake, while Sample B, the old, made for silky, rather than stiff, dough and a “light and airy” cake.

 

(photo from NYT)

 

There are a few things that make White Lily flour different from other flours. One is, as Fred Sauceman says below, terroir, or loosely, the importance of place.

 

No test was necessary for Fred W. Sauceman, author of a series of books called “The Place Setting: Timeless Tastes of the Mountain South, From Bright Hope to Frog Level,” who said White Lily should stay in Knoxville. “It’s kind of like the use of the word terroir when you’re talking about wine,” he said. “It means something to have been made in the exact same spot for 125 years, and it’s unconscionable not to respect that.” 

Traditionally southern flour was made from the soft red winter wheat that grew in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. This wheat is low in protein, which means it absorbs less liquid than higher-protein northern wheat. This makes the biscuits light and fluffy.

 

I love that we can use the word terroir when discussing flour. If, as the New York Times article suggests, the South became famous for its biscuits and pies rather than yeasted breads because of the soft red winter wheat, then terroir is a strong factor. White Lily flour is culturally, physically, and economically tied to Knoxville and the South.

 

 It may be cheaper for Smuckers to mill White Lily flour in its own northern mills, but along with cheapening production, Smuckers is cheapening the product. Fight for good biscuits. Respect the terroir of your food. Preserve your local food traditions. If you are new to an area, learn its local cuisine, but don’t forget where you come from either.

 

Learn about the food culture around you. Then tell your friends, or better yet, cook for them.

 

-goldlentil