Of the Earth: Stirring values into a recipe


For the Recorder
Published: 2/12/2019 1:09:08 PM

I read a piece this week about chef Douglas McMaster, who professes and practices zero-waste cooking.

“He buys ingredients directly from farmers, to avoid grocery-store packaging, and returns peels and trimmings in the form of compost, creating what he calls a ‘closed loop,’” writes Han Zhang in The New Yorker. McMaster’s customers, many of whom are already devoted to his cause, happily show up with the reusable utensils they carry around with them — utensils they simply wipe off before using them again.

I am not advocating McMaster’s zero-waste agenda or suggesting that we all tote our dirty dishes around with us (while I must say that McMaster’s confited, smoked and grilled carrots sound exquisite). What McMaster is doing, though, is responding to a set of problems that are very real and undeniable — that plastic is clogging our oceans and invading every corner of our micro-environment; and that the planet is getting warmer by the minute, stoked by our use of fossil fuels, both in transportation and in the manufacture of plastics.

For the McMasters of the world, “local” is not just cool: it poses a critical set of choices.

This reminds me of the debate over the proposed ban on plastic grocery bags. Wherever we stand in that debate — even if we stand with convenience and comfort — we remain confronted with a problem that is huge and painful. And even if we stand with banning bags, we do so in the recognition that it is only a tiny step in dealing with that huge problem.

Again, what choices do we make when faced with a critical reality, and at what cost?

Joel Thomas-Adams of Deerfield raised this issue for me recently. We were at The People’s Pint in Greenfield, hovering over a locally-sourced burger (me) and locally-sourced Thai noodles with tofu (him). Thomas-Adams wondered at the “hyper-piety around the ‘local’ movement that obscures so much waste and pain and death” regarding the animals we slaughter. He wondered when localism becomes just another food-fetish.

Thomas-Adams is one of the most ethical people and full-tilt thinkers I know, and I realized that there was no way I could simply dismiss what he was saying as I ate my hamburger.

“It continues to astonish me,” he wrote to me later, “when otherwise incisive, morally-astute people turn their attention to ‘food’ and to animals, it seems as if someone else has started thinking for them, or not thinking.”

“There is a deeply rooted anxiety here in how we define ourselves as humans,” he continued. “And it is linked directly, profoundly, to our perceived right to enslave and kill and consume what we deem ‘other.’”

I am not a vegan, and I am not pushing veganism — not yet anyway — but I will likely not eat meat or indulge in a lot of plastic packaging from now on, without being aware of the choices that I am making and in the hierarchy of values that I am setting up for myself.

Fifty years ago, the hierarchy of values may have been a little simpler, or so it would seem from the recipe sent in this week by New Salem’s Sharon Tracy, another very astute critical thinker.

Tracy is heir to a collection of cookbooks assembled and illustrated by her mother and aunt — the wives of a military officer and a state department official, respectively, who served all over the world. One of her favorites was produced in 1961 in Dacca, East Pakistan (now Dhaka, Bangladesh). This interesting recipe comes from the Camp Peary Women’s Club cookbook for 1969.

For those who might balk at roasting camels, we might (locally) substitute any large quadrupedal animal. And don’t forget to bring your own utensils.

Camel Pilau

Take a camel and roast it. Then take five sheep and roast them.

Take 15 chickens and clean them. Stuff them loosely with raisins and almonds.

When they’re finished roasting, remove the birds and keep them warm.

Make gravy using all the juices, adding tomato paste. Add a little more water, if desired.

Cook the rice, allowing one cup per person. When it’s cooked, spread the rice on a very large plate. Place the camel in the middle, then the sheep, then the chickens.

The cookbook suggests that camel pilau be accompanied by sesame salad and fresh fruit or sherbet. Note: In case you couldn’t tell, this menu is for a big party!

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.

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