Archive for ‘Eating-Drinking’

September 25th, 2016

Temps Perdu

I have this lovely set of rose-colored glasseware that I inherited from my grandparents. Twelve glasses in each of three sizes–for water, wine, and cordials–plus a similar number of small dessert bowls. They’re likely Bohemian and could be late-19th century in origin. All I know is: they were always there.

As with many people’s inherited objects, these glasses have a totemic power for me. They remind of special family events, Seder foremost among them, when I would help my grandmother set the table. Even as a young kid, she trusted me to carefully extract each glass from the cabinet, a responsibility I cherished.

rose-colored-glassesBut these glasses also remind me of something more basic and differently nostalgic: of a lifestyle that I can remember, and one that also feels long gone.

My grandparents used these glasses on other occasions, such as dinner parties with good friends or out-of-town guests. They were one set among a range of such objects, like the hand-etched pint glasses from Abercrombie & Fitch (yes, that A&F, in its original incarnation) from which my grandfather would drink his Tuborg at lunch. Or the white, porcelain, claw-footed “chocolate cups”: delicate little items that the average person might mistake for demitasse instead.

I suppose these are “housewares,” a word that feels so average in comparison to the objects themselves. As does “china,” or “stemware”: all things one can purchase at many retailers, or add to your wedding registry, etc.

But what I miss is making the time to use these objects, rather than leaving them sitting on a shelf. I miss the sense of style my grandparents had, in which as much care was taken with the table as the food that went on it. The sense of investment in these objects, which had to be treated delicately, but also used. And the making of time, perhaps the most important thing of all: the time to cook three course meals, to sit and leisurely eat and enjoy company, and the time to clean-up, too.

My parents cling to this, and I appreciate it. I aspire to it: to finding making the time, to taking things out of cabinets and off of shelves, to setting them gently on the table, to appreciating their beauty and fragility, and to enjoying their functionality surrounded by people whose lives enrich mine, and with whom I can make new memories with objects from a time that otherwise feels lost.

April 25th, 2013

Conservation Hobgoblins

Taking steps that reduce the negative impact each of us has on the earth–being environmentally sensitive–is unambiguously good. While some of us are surely more virtuous than others (as in most things), I often feel as though the questions and answers around environmental sensitivity are not as clear-cut as all that. Getting into discussions about it (such as with my mother) pulls out the Hobgoblins of Logic and makes me wish that some combination of environmentalists, scientists, economists, and database engineers (I’m looking at you, Wolfram|Alpha) would get together a create a computational database to help resolve certain tricky questions.

What are those tricky questions? Well, here are a few, divided by category:

Power conservation:

If you live in Texas, Ohio, Indiana or Pennsylvania, is a plug-in electric car worse for the environment than a hybrid-electric model that charges its battery from a gas-powered engine? Those four states are among the top users of coal for electricity generation–and the emissions from coal are worse than those from gasoline. (North Carolina and Georgia should also be on this list, since two of the three largest coal-powered power plants are in those two states.) So perhaps it is better not to increase electricity demands in those states by charging your “clean”, “zero emissions” vehicle with coal-powered electricity?

Meanwhile, all those electric cars use special lithium ion batteries. Those are technically recyclable… but the costs (and energy) involved seem disproportionate to the value, which means it’s less likely to happen. So the question is: if you buy a hybrid or all-electric car, but use it in ways that diminish the life of the battery (such as letting the car sit unused for extended periods of time), is it still better for the environment? Is a 50% reduction in battery life a fair trade-off for burning fewer fossil fuels?

And speaking of transportation challenges: The “locavore” movement sure does sound appealing. And for a city slicker it’s especially appealing, because the idea that one can get fresh food from farms just a short distance away, well: this has to be better, right? Better food, better for the environment? Except that there’s all these arguments and some evidence showing that maybe that isn’t true: that an old farm using an old (less fuel-efficient, less efficiently-packed) truck coming from traffic-congested nearby areas might use more energy than a modern transportation network that ships food by plane or train long distances with great efficiency. So, which is it, local or not? And how are we supposed to know, product by product?

Water conservation:

If you live in the water-deprived Southwestern United States, and you go to the grocery store, is it better to buy the bags of greens that have been pre-washed or the greens you bring home and wash yourselves? Assuming the plastic levels are equal (since you would likely bag your unwashed greens before taking them home), what is the environmental impact difference, factoring in water and power usage?

A variant of this question is relevant here in the water-plentiful New York. Last year, some of the greens and other vegetables we received from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to which we belonged were so fresh-from-the-farm dirty that it took significant time under the sink to clean them. (The CSA in this case is a group that buys organic produce from some farms in Long Island; those farms bring their goods directly to a central distribution point in the neighborhood.) Is it generally better to buy these vegetables even if it takes more water to wash them, then to buy the more industrially produced organic–but pre-washed–greens at the grocery?

We are devoted to reusable containers for food storage. We buy good quality ones that can be reused many, many times, and we rarely microwave them (so they tend to last longer). So even though it seems more virtuous to use these than, say, a ziploc bag … can I take it for granted that the water required to wash them is a better use of resources than throwing out the bag? And what kind of recycling processes do we need to have in place before that equation may not be true?

Pesticides, etc.:

It’s easy to scare the bejeezus out of people about pesticides in food. (“Thanks,” Environmental Working Group!) How about telling us more info about the pesticide residues? If I peel the apple, does that get rid of it? If the strawberries are well-washed, does that get rid of it? Or are we talking about leached-into-the-food residue here? How would you balance the organics-cost-more vs. needing-to-feed-a-family dynamic?

Let’s assume that money is actually an issue. If buying organic groceries reduces my available funds for charitable donations by 15%–charity that might be given to help the hungry–is this still worth the trade-off? That is, is the environmental impact of organic produce so powerful that it can have that kind of offset?

I could probably go on. (And on.) Is the question about charitable gifts a red herring? Possibly. But overall these are very real problems–for which we are mostly unequipped to come up with genuinely logical answers. If environmentalism is to succeed–I mean, to really succeed in reshaping behavior in the modern world–someone is going to have to tackle these and other questions, probably state by state and city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Personalized environmental audits: the wave of the future.

August 20th, 2010

Kalter Kaffee

If a breakfast or lunch with my grandmother would slowly drag on (as was sometimes the case in her dotage and our relaxed times together), she would often say “kalter Kaffee macht schön.” A rough translation might be “Drink coffee cold and never look old,” and while I don’t think either of us thought it was true, we’d finish our coffee anyway and move on to the next thing.

Plain cold coffee does not have much appeal—cold when it was once hot—but intentionally cold coffee certainly can be delicious, and one look at the prices for an “iced” coffee from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or other chains will tell you it’s clearly a money-maker. I prefer (when possible) to make it myself—and have spent time this summer playing with variations on the theme.

Strictly speaking, this experimentation started in 2007, when a friend sent me an article from the New York Times about cold brewing coffee. I tried that method a few times, and found it less than satisfying; it made for cold coffee, but not really very good cold coffee. I tried again in 2009, after reading Jerry Baldwin’s posts (first and second) on The Atlantic‘s food blog; Baldwin, who was involved with both Peet’s and Starbucks, certainly knows about coffee. Professional advice notwithstanding, I discovered two things: he’s right that there is a flavor difference to be had by brewing hot coffee and cooling it, yet I also found it did get bitter, sometimes unpredictably. I wanted more reliability than this.

This summer, I believe I found the answer, and it rests (not surprisingly) in blending different ideas and approaches together, without much more complexity to the process. The first change I made is to the type of coffee. For normal, hot brewed coffee, I use a dark French roast, and I wondered if this was the source of the bitter taste. In playing around with the process for cold coffee, I decided to try a lighter bean, and switched to a Mocha Java bean mix (specifically, Zabar’s Mocha Style). When brewed, it forms a lovely, cappuccino-like head on top, and has an aroma slightly reminiscent of chocolate.

Then I decided—no doubt to Baldwin’s horror—to do both hot and cold brewing. I use a press pot, with the appropriate amount of coffee for the total I expect to make, but only 25% of the total volume of water. I heat the water to near-boiling, pour it in, and let it steep for five or six minutes. Then I add the remainder of the water—yes, with the coffee still in the pot—and cover it, and put it in the refrigerator overnight. I press the pot in the morning (or whenever I’m ready to drink it). This seems to have the desired effect, perhaps by cooling down the brewing process for some semblance of the “cold brewing” desired, but with enough initial heat to open up the full flavor of the coffee.

Give it a try!  It’s certainly cheaper than the store-made version, and you have greater control over how you sweeten or lighten it.  My grandmother was never much for the American fetish for cold beverages, but I suspect she would have approved nonetheless.