It's About the Food
By Chef Kurt Michael Friese
Food For Thought
When deciding what to have for lunch yesterday, what factors influenced your decision? Perhaps you considered the convenience of a take-out meal from that place that was on the way to your next class. Conceivably you got a beef & bean burrito from one of the downtown area's multitude of "convenience stores." Maybe your sugar fixation required a Coke and Kit-Kat bar from a vending machine. Or did you perchance go home and make your own lunch?
We make this decision every day, and like other everyday decisions, this one is usually given less consideration than the morning choice between boxers or briefs. These choices become reflex, they become habit. Habitual behavior is a tough thing to change. That is why it's called habitual. I do not suggest that fast food is addictive (though who knows?). Like many addictive pastimes such as smoking and drinking, though, there is an impact that fast food has on our culture that is just as insidious as second-hand smoke or drunken driving. It isn?t just you who lives with your decision to get that #4 Value Meal and super-size it. Indulge me for a moment while I explain how.
I took my first job in what would eventually become a career in food service 25 years ago at a greasy hole-in-the-wall pizza joint in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Scrubbing dishes for minimum wage wasn?t glamorous, but it put gas in my '67 T-Bird and I got to hang out with my friends. I knew nothing and cared even less about the trends in American food consumption that had started 50 years earlier, but they were really beginning to take hold at that time. Just 4 years earlier McDonald's had installed its first drive-thru in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and by the time I could drive and deliver pizzas, they were in half of the McDonald's restaurants in the country (nearly 3000). A lot of my tip money went toward those famous fries.
A few years and several jobs later, Bachelor's degree in hand, I decided that cooking was really the only thing I knew how to do at which I could make a living (legally, anyway). While my friends went off to fancy east coast graduate schools, I went off to a highly touted east coast culinary school. It was there that a long transitional process began. The more I learned about how to make good food, the more I began to notice what ingredients were required in the recipe for quality.
The first ingredient is freshness. This does not simply mean fresh as in "not spoiled." It means that a tomato picked off the vine right outside the restaurant?s kitchen the same August day that it is served with a little olive oil and basil is going to taste a lot better than the Mexican tomato picked green in January and gas-ripened in train cars on the way to Chicago. It also has the coincidental benefit of requiring far less energy to produce it.
The next ingredient is tradition. New, innovative cuisine has swept the U.S. over the last 50 years based on the efforts of visionaries like James Beard, Julia Child and Alice Waters. In the last 15 years, people like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California have helped make the U.S. the home of the best restaurants in the world. All of them base everything they do on real, classical foundations.
Most importantly, this recipe for quality requires love. Love and respect not just for the preparation of the dish, but for the source of the ingredients, the farmers that produced the them, and the people who are going to enjoy that meal. If you cook without passion, the best ingredients will not help you.
Everyone knows that a meal made form scratch tastes better than one from a can, but very few people stop to think why. Similarly, everyone believes that the canned meal will cost less and be faster, less trouble, more convenient. Convenience is overrated. Anything easy, one old Ohioan once said, "ain't worth a damn." When you stop to consider the true, hidden cost of cheap food the impact can be startling.
Back to that super-sized #4 Value Meal. When you buy that burger with the jumbo fries and colossal cola, you set a long chain of events into motion. The kid who sold it to you will hold that job for an average of seven months, having been trained in a very tightly controlled system that has a stated goal of eventually creating a restaurant that requires zero training. Coerced overtime for no additional pay is the norm. Benefits are rare and rewards are few.
The meat in the burger can come from as many as 400 different cows that are fed an energy intensive diet of corn, hormones and antibiotics. It was processed by a meat-plant worker who is part of an industry where 1 in 3 workers are injured to the point of hospitalization every year. It was then flash-frozen in giant freezers at -20ºf., packaged and shipped an average of 1800 miles on a truck burning Iraqi oil before another unskilled fast food worker placed it on a griddle. The potatoes in those fries undergo a similar journey. As for your drink, study of the impact of Coca-Colonialism on the world would require a dissertation.
Learning all this not only has kept me out of fast food restaurants for years, but also has led me to the discovery of an international educational and eco-gastronomic organization called Slow Food. 6 years ago I helped found a local chapter of Slow Food, called a Convivium. for the last four years we were partly responsible for the Field to Family Festival that celebrated the local farmers and their connection to you. For our principled stand in favor of old-world, artisinal foods and local, sustainable agriculture, we are often labeled "elitist." This really pins my ears back. Far from being elitist, we are trying to bring these great foods, once reserved only for the ruling class, to the masses who are forced to eat junk by a global corporate complex that mistakes frenzy for efficiency.
It is this group's goal to show you how, as Slow Food's Manifesto says, "A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of fast life," with "guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment." Far from an ordinary cooking group, slowfood.gather.com will show you how to improve your life and the world around you by thinking globally and eating locally.