Marxist Strawberries

I’ve been thinking idly about Marx of late, and I’ve also been fantasizing about being the next Food Network star. I do realize that talk of Marxist strawberries pretty much guarantees that I will never get close to being on the Food (or any other) Network, but, hey, that was already true.

So one of the basic tenets of Marx is that of alienation (this Wikipedia piece is a pretty good overview, and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 also lays it out pretty well, if I remember correctly): we are alienated from the products of our labor, because we have no say in how a product is produced; we are alienated from the act of producing, because we receive wages or a salary rather than the profits of our labor; and we are alienated from ourselves (and from each other) because we lack the control of our lives necessary to become fully realized/actualized human beings. (We can discuss this more if anyone actually cares.)

One of the shorthand ways of thinking of this, in my opinion, is that we come to think of ourselves not as whole human beings, with mutually interdependent connections with each other, but as cogs, as pieces of an economic/industrial machine. We have jobs, not so much because we want a job qua job, but because we must have money–we have to sell our labor in order to buy food and shelter (and health care/insurance). Sometimes we can find jobs we like, many of us aren’t “workers” in the manufacturing sense (not least because those jobs are overseas now), but all of us need money to live, and few of us make anything that we sell–or, better, barter–directly.

Another part of alienation, though, is being disconnected from our food. Processed, industrial, food-like substances are the most extreme version of this, but a more insidious version is the notion that we can get whatever foods we want no matter the season and whatever the cost. (Obviously this does not apply for people who aren’t exactly sure where their next meals, or their kids’ next meals, will be obtained, but that’s a connection for another day.) What we get when we buy foods that are out of season in the area where we live is often an approximation of the food. The two foods that most exemplify this for me are tomatoes and strawberries. Tomatoes kind of don’t count, though–tomatoes can be preserved in ways that make them available year-round, so long as you don’t try to eat a fresh tomato out of season. Out-of-season fresh tomatoes are an abomination: pink and mealy and flavorless.

I wandered through a farmers’ market last Sunday, and one of the vendors had strawberries; I bought four pints, and I ate them every day this week, and I was in heaven. (I also got a pint in last night’s farm share, and I expect they’ll be just as heavenly.) They were red all the way through, and the strawberry aroma was intoxicating. My lunch each day was a big pile (as in nearly a pound) of strawberries with a touch of balsamic vinegar, a touch of honey, and a bit of feta cheese, all mixed together. The markets and the farm share will have strawberries for maybe another couple of weeks–by early July they’ll be gone–and that’s the end of strawberry season for the year. Of course I could (and sometimes do) buy them from the grocery store, and sometimes those are even half-decent, but they really don’t come close to the bliss of fresh, ripe, local strawberries. Some years, when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I buy a flat of strawberries and freeze them; that’s not going to happen this year, most likely.

I try to keep the memory of the season’s strawberries in mind when I’m shopping the rest of the year–I know, from experience, that the berries on the rack won’t taste anywhere near as good as what I’m eating now. They will be . . . strawberry-esque. They’ll be missing that heady perfume, and that perfect texture, and, no matter how red they look on the outside, they’ll be white on the inside, and maybe a little hard and mealy, because they’ve been grown to ship well, not to taste good.

That said, the farm share the past month has been mostly greens of one kind or another: lettuce, chard, Asian greens. This week there’s also mizuna (a bitter green) and parsley, and some spinach. And strawberries–did I mention the strawberries? I’ve been trying to find enough things to put on the lettuce to make actual meals out of it, so there’s broccoli and broccoli rabe in the fridge at the moment, to be steamed and added to the mix, and I got some onions and garlic to make a dressing, and some avocados, because they’re awesome, but those things aren’t available locally yet, so to claim I’m eating “locally” would be a misnomer.

And, for that matter, avocados are never “local” here in the midwest. So does that mean if I eat avocados I’m alienated from my food? If it does, then I’m going to stick with alienation. Seriously, though, you can see how complicated this gets. It’s relatively easy to see the extremes–industrial food-like substances in shiny packaging, versus whatever you can grow yourself–but there’s a whole lot of room in the middle, and figuring how to negotiate that space in a way that makes sense for you and your family is hard work, especially when the same people who make the industrial food-like substances find ways to package and advertise their product to disguise its industrial nature.

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Crackers and Cookies and Ranting, Oh My!

So. The crackers. The flavor really is the best so far, in very subtle ways, but the dough was MUCH harder to handle: it didn’t roll out nicely (it kind of fell apart), and it was way too sticky. I think the problem was likely the sugar content, which might have affected the way the moisture in the dough worked, and an additional problem might have been the barley flakes; they don’t have much gluten in them, which means any dough is going to be lacking in tensile strength if the barley content is too high. This, however, demonstrates what happens when you change too many factors at once: I don’t really know whether it was the pumpkin seed praline or the barley that caused the handling difficulties. On the flip side, given that I want both ingredients in the mix, I will more likely just try to adjust from here rather than removing one ingredient and seeing what happens.

It is by no means a scientific approach; hell, it’s not even a methodical approach. The results are very tasty, though, so I don’t much care. It’s one thing to end up with something that sucks–you don’t know which of your changes caused the suckage–but if something is imperfect in one dimension (ease of production) but still tastes good, it’s no big tragedy to work your way through the suckage.

The cookies are awesome, just to complete the report on the weekend’s efforts. I doubt I’ll be able to reproduce them (although I did try to take a few notes after the fact), but even getting in the neighborhood will work just fine.

That brings me to another point: while reproducibility can be desireable–very desireable, actually–it’s not the only virtue, outside of a production environment. As I noted below, if you’re serving food in a restaurant, or if you’re making products in a bakery–if you’re selling your product–you want your customers to be confident about the quality and the flavor and every other damn thing. They’re purchasing an experience in some ways–a flavor experience, if you will–and they want that experience every time.

Truth be told, there are times when I want to reproduce something, too–lots of times. There are any number of recipes I use frequently, sometimes even making the exact same changes, because I know I’ll get the results I have in mind when I do that. There are also techniques–e.g., for canning or storing food–that need to be followed for food-safety reasons, and getting lax in those dimensions could kill you. In a less dire frame of mind, I do not by any means want to discourage anyone from using recipes or techniques that produce the results you want every time.

However, I wonder if the availability of predictable results in the food we purchase to consume also makes us think that we really do have to always use a recipe, or always do something the same way. That approach also means we end up with little scraps of unused bits–a handful of leftovers, a scrap of some ingredient–and no clear way to use the stuff. The leftovers get thrown out; the ingredient is left to disintegrate, or we go buy more, just to use up the old stuff.

The cookies are a perfect example. They had some malted milk sugar in them. I had bought malted milk powder from KAF, and I like the flavor, but the product basically hardened into a lump in my cabinet. I tried grating it, which worked, but only very very slowly, and I tried chopping it, which didn’t really work at all. I tried hammering it, which sort of worked, but ended up sending bits of solidified malted milk powder flying around the kitchen, sticking to the floor, which wasn’t what I had in mind. They suggested I microwave it to soften it, which I did, but I still ended up with chunks, and it would re-solidify. I have picked away at it, with the above methods, and still had a lump of it.

So Sunday I microwaved it (a bit too long) and then quickly chopped it while it was soft. I chopped it on top of the chopped chocolate for the recipe, so it melted the chocolate and combined with it, mostly, while still keeping mini lumps of malted milk stuff intact. It was perfect for the cookies, and I think I have another lump in the cabinet, though I doubt I’ll buy it again. Well, maybe.

The point is, the product was tasty–i.e., good in one dimension–but a pain to store, i.e., problematic in a different dimension. I found a way to use it that took advantage of its good dimension and meant that I didn’t have to throw it away, which is awesome, but what I ended up doing may not be reproducible, as it was largely a method aimed at using up a product that was problematic in the aforementioned storage dimension. Leftovers are similar: sometimes I’ll have a little something left over from some other meal or use, and I’ll just throw it into whatever I’m making, just so it doesn’t go to waste.

At heart, these efforts are really contrary to both the idea of recipes and the idea of mass-produced food, both of which conspire, in both good and bad ways, to get us to desire consistency and sameness in what we eat. The good end of that spectrum is having some spectacular dish, in a restaurant, say, and taking a friend back a month later and the dish is still spectacular and still tastes more or less the same. The bad end of the spectrum encompasses fast “food” (which is really just industrial fuel, but that’s a different rant)–but I would argue that the bad end of the spectrum is also our own belief that we have to follow recipes exactly and what we produce at home should taste the way the recipe intends or taste the same way every time, no matter what the availability of ingredients happens to be.

Speaking of the availability of ingredients, this week’s farm share will include onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, tomato juice, AND a jar of tomatoes. I now have way too many tomatoes in jars, so one of this weekend’s projects needs to include using tomatoes. I don’t have any ideas yet, but I’ll work on that.