Lessons (first published 10/07)

November 28, 2009

The lessons I’ve learned at Wancket’s Art of Karate are neither new, nor epiphanic.  The study of Shorei Ryu has been for me the commitment to a lifestyle which reinforces many of the positive lessons previously revealed.  I’ve been reminded of the lessons that I try to teach my cooks: that a thing worth doing is worth doing well, that greatness is the result of doing all of the little things well, and that success is primarily the result of hard work.

Being a member of a class has given me the opportunity to reinforce the lesson that one can indeed lead by example.  It allowed me to work quietly, but diligently in an effort to raise the level of those around me.  And then, after Sensei asked me to join the ranks of the instructors, it allowed me to more vocally encourage my fellow students, and to share with them the philosophy of my work ethic.  The added responsibility that comes with teaching Shorei Ryu has also forced me to more carefully examine my goals.  Rather than simply working to make myself a better martial artist and hoping to quietly lead by example, I’ve tried to work toward making all of Wancket’s students better martial artists (and it may be presumptuous to believe better people – let’s just hope that is the natural byproduct).  Teaching, as anyone who has done it knows, also forces me to continually improve my technique.  Leading by example in front of a class is certainly more of a challenge than leading from the middle of the group.

I’ve also been reminded that a shared goal, such as Jake and I have had, makes the effort both less difficult and more rewarding.  Jake has been my teacher and helper from the beginning.  I have been Jake’s teacher as well, only infrequently teaching him technique, but more often trying to instill the value of patience, practice and hard work.  We have spent many hours together, bonding in pursuit of a common goal in a very special way which without karate would not have been possible.  And when we hit obstacles or plateaus, we found ways to rise above them together.

These lessons do not reveal themselves in a vacuum, and we cannot contrive meaning where no meaning exists.  We learn our lessons from our teachers, and we intuit the meaning that our teachers ascribe.  Eastern philosophy tells us that when we are ready to learn, our teacher will be revealed to us.  It is an honor to be a student of Sensei Suzanne Wancket-Yue.


Teach Our Children Well

June 25, 2009

In my June 7th post, entitled Communion, I explored the connection between our actions and our values.  We can all agree that we value our children, value the health, happiness, education, and general well-being of our children, but do we always act in ways that reflect those values?  In the US, nearly 32 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, and one-in-three born since 2000 are at risk of developing diabetes in his or her lifetime.  Those are staggering statistics with a direct correlation to the way we eat.  In the decade from the 1980s to the 1990s, the number of calories Americans consumed in snack foods doubled, and this trend has continued since.  Despite all of the evidence linking the consumption of salt, sugar, and fat with increased rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, our consumption of fast food continues to increase as well.  The fact that we humans crave salt, sugar, and fat is a perverse evolutionary trick.  It’s easy to indulge these cravings, but let’s not be fooled; we’re not indulging our kids, we are indeed making them sick.

On Tuesday June 23rd, Slow Food USA launched Time For Lunch, a national campaign designed to encourage Congress to provide America’s children with real food at school.  In the official press release, Josh Viertel, president, Slow Food USA stated, “The way we feed our kids is a reflection of our values.  We cannot, in good conscience, continue to make our kids sick by feeding them cheap byproducts of an industrial food system.  It is time to give our kids real food:  food that tastes good, is good for them, is good for the people who grow and prepare it, and is good for the planet.”

Serving real food in our schools is good for our children and the proper purview of the legislature.  Let’s encourage our representatives to do the right thing for our kids by ignoring the special interest groups whose interest is maintaining the status quo.  The link between proper nutrition and learning is undisputed, but while providing better food and better nutrition education to our children is a positive step, we must also be willing to live this example in our homes.

Many of us have come to believe that we’re too busy, too stressed-out, and too financially stretched to plan 2-3 healthy meals a day, 7 days a week, shop for them, prepare them, clean up after them, etc.  But we owe it to our children to model healthy eating habits at home.  It could mean the difference between living a long, healthy life, and a life spent managing diet related diseases through pharmacology.  And living on a convenience food diet sets up its own destructive cycle: craving salt, sugar, and fat, dining on empty calories, feeling the “fast food high” as our blood sugar spikes, then feeling heavy, bloated, and fatigued as our blood sugar crashes, followed by renewed cravings and just enough energy to make it back to the drive-through.  So, how do we break the cycle?  The longest lived societies on earth have the simple prescription – more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer animal fats.  If adopting such a diet seems daunting, start slowly:

–        Try cutting out one fast food meal a week.

–        Reduce the portions of animal protein by half, and make up the volume with whole grains (brown rice and barley are easy to make, and much less expensive than meat).

–        Replace ice cream and candy treats with fresh fruit

–        Make soda an occasional treat

–        Drink more water

We can also set the example of civic engagement by clicking on this link (http://slowfoodusa.org/timeforlunch) and signing the petition for updating the federal school lunch program.  Then, write to your members of Congress, who are currently working on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (of which the federal school lunch program is part), and ask them to include the following items in the new legislation:

–        Increase Funding for School Meals – the current Act provides $2.57 per meal per student, of which less than $1.00 goes to ingredients.

–        Provide incentives for schools to offer healthier foods.

–        Increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

–        Improve nutrition standards for school meals so they align with the most recent dietary guidelines.

–        Establish standards for food sold in schools outside of the school meal programs (which therefore fly under the federal radar) such as that sold at snack bars and cafeteria a la carte lines.

–        Get rid of the junk food and soda pop vending machines.

–        Raise awareness and engagement among school leaders, parents, and community on the implementation of wellness policies at a school level, and provide technical assistance in making the policies reality.

–        Provide resources to facilitate delivery of nutrition education programs, including those focused on school gardens and farm-to-school initiatives.

Please feel free to copy and paste this list when writing your representatives.

Please also feel free to ask for menu and recipe advice.

Recommended Reading

June 20, 2009

I had been planning to write this weekend, but after reading an essay by Wendell Berry, I was struck mute.  The prof   http://pjprof@blogspot.com/  would tell you that more than a few jazz pianists found new instruments after hearing Art Tatum reinvent jazz piano.  Those of us who write about food, the politics, aesthetics, and ethics of food might consider a similar shift after reading “The Pleasures of Eating”, the essay first published in Mr. Berry’s 1990 book What Are People For?.  It’s not the first time I’ve thought, “I wish I’d written that” – it won’t be the last time.  I discovered the essay in the book Food & Faith, justice, joy and daily bread, a collection of essays edited and compiled by Michael Schut, published in 2002 by Earth Ministry.  You can also find it at http://www.ecoliteracy.org/publications/rsl/wendell-berry.html


June 7, 2009

Since the closing of Mix, more well meaning people than I can keep track of have said, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” to which I invariably respond, “For us to jump out of.”  Those who know me are never surprised by a smartass remark or by an irreverent one (And really, assigning gender to the creator of all things is just plain passé.).  I’ve lost not only my restaurant and my building, but also my dream of creating a place in my community that was about more than the food, service, and atmosphere, a place that would inspire sharing, participation, and fellowship.  I had also lost what may be the only opportunity to work with my wife, Joan, the hardest working and smartest business partner I will ever have.  No cliché can cover all of that.  Trite sentiment aside, I have, of course, been confronting the question of what’s next, and trying to frame that question inside the greater contextual question of what do I value.

 What we value is what defines us.  The trouble is that defining what we value is not that simple.  Any dictionary search or online query will invariably discover ten or more definitions, and variations of those definitions within as many disciplines.  There is the objective, quantifiable form, such as in mathematics, the relative, as in music, and then there is the subjective aesthetic form, with all of its permutations in which the term “value” is by necessity followed by the word “judgment”.  And then we have Economics, the alchemist’s art of applying mathematical models to interpret and predict emotional behavior.  What we value is often reflected in how we spend our money.

 I value frugality (with the fervor of a recent convert) and I value my health.  Many Americans would read that statement with empathy, understanding that it is difficult these days to hold both values, untroubled by the perverse circumstance that creates such conflict. In her introduction to The New Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, Carol Flinders reflects on this conflict, saying, “Life really does militate against home-cooked wholesome meals-just as it does against friendships, marriage, parenting, and almost everything else that makes life worth living.”  She wrote that in 1976.  This year the students from the Bancroft Elementary School in Washington DC planted the White House Kitchen Garden, an organic garden on the grounds of the White House.  It is my sincere hope that this simple act of preparing soil and planting seeds will have a profound affect on these young children.  Miriam Therese MacGillis, co-founder of Genesis Farm has written, “It has become clear to me that the concept of food itself is key to the transformation of our ecological crisis.”  She explains further, “When we understand that food is not a metaphor for spiritual nourishment, but is itself spiritual, then we eat food with a spiritual attitude and taste and are nourished by the Divine directly.

 I have never defined the “value” of food in terms of calories per dollar.  I won’t be rifling the sofa cushions for the loose change to buy an 89 cent volcano taco or any of the many other “value menu” offerings.  I have long valued organic farming, choosing organic products in the market when they are available, and practicing organic gardening at home.  My friends will tell you that I am a vigilant proponent of organic coffee.  These choices impact not only my health and the health of my family, but also the health of our planet.  I choose to cook real food, unprocessed, free of chemicals, from the earth.  I cook,  guided by an overarching value that is based both on aesthetic considerations (delicious, beautifully presented), as well as a philosophy of stewardship which requires that if I take from the earth’s bounty, if I take the life of another creature, that I regard it as a sacred gift, worthy of honor.

 That I can no longer cook for you at Mix makes me sad.  That door has closed.  What’s next is not yet revealed, but I am looking forward, and I am indeed grateful for all of the kind words, however inadequate words (yours and mine) may be.  I value the shared experience of Mix, however brief, the friendships that have been made, and those that have been brought closer as a result of that endeavor.  I value the time I’ve had to explore my renewed sense of spirituality (a window opened?).  I leave you with this “Table Prayer”.

There is no such thing as “my” bread.  All bread is ours and is given to me, to others through me, and to me through others.  For not only bread, but all things necessary for sustenance in this life are given on loan to us with others, and because of others and to others through us.

Meister Eckhart

Remembrances of Meals Past

June 1, 2009

As a chef, I am frequently asked about my favorite food or favorite meal.  One version of the question supposes a last meal scenario.  Another, marginally more upbeat form has me exiled to a magical desert island with an unlimited supply of one favorite dish.  I have thus far refused to play nice.  Rather, as a renowned glutton (we prefer the term gastronome), I usually offer a response something like: I love a meal of roasted lamb and fresh peas in the springtime, Maryland soft-shell crabs in June, Jersey tomatoes and blueberries,  flounder, weakfish (sea trout), and sea bass in summer, butternut squash (usually in the form of ravioli), cranberry chutney, roasted Belle Rouge Chickens from Kentucky for Thanksgiving, Prime Rib roast with thyme, roasted root vegetables, and gratineed potatoes for Christmas.  I say that I would eat lobster in Maine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that I could travel the vast expanse of Texas in search of the best barbecue or chicken fried steak (Salt Lick and Bluebonnet Café, BTW), and that I would prefer, if you don’t mind, to be in Memphis in May.  I explain that if it’s Mardi Gras, I want etouffee,  gumbo, veal grillades, and the company of my friend Bob Theriot, if Cinqo de Mayo, tamales, tacos de cabra, and sopes with the Moran family.

I will always remember the meal at Terra in St. Helena with the gang from School for American Chefs, the meal shared with Steve Misbin at Postrio the same year, the meal that Paul Bartollota prepared for me dining alone at Spiaggia after a long day at the NRA show, the brilliant meal Tim McKee devised for Joan’s birthday the year she got her braces and couldn’t chew, and the tasting menu shared with our Minnesota friends and our 9 year old Jake at Aquavit.  And so you don’t think me elitist, I also love Philly cheesesteaks and Chicago dogs.  I love hoagies in Atlantic City and real burgers wherever I find them.  I remember them all, the food and the company.  I remember my first Pat’s Steak the way others remember a first lover (thank you Vince).  My favorite Chinese meal will forever be Chef Wang’s Szechuan Wok, Cherry Hill, NJ, June 19, 1982, my wedding night.  Every meal is transitory; a great meal is transcendent.  Great food is as much about time and place as it is about superior skill.  There is no dish that could meet the expectation of a last meal, and no dish that would not be savored on that island.

The other day my mom asked if there was anything special she could make when we visit in July.  I asked her to make her sumptuous deviled crabs, thick sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, roasted potatoes, and blueberry crumb pie.  Oh, those deviled crabs- impossibly thin, crisp outer shell, breaded in stages to contain the jumbo lumps of blue crab meat in a delicately seasoned white sauce- a recipe she learned to make from Ronnie Svaard in Cape May, NJ, a recipe so tedious, time consuming, and demanding of both patience and finesse, that I will not post it here for fear of less than memorable results.  I learned to cook watching my mom, believing that scratch cooking was all there was, and knowing beyond doubt that food is love.