Eat Rutabagas, Not War

Non-vegetarian author and vegetable lover Barbara Kafka
Courtesy of Barbara Kafka

Barbara Kafka, with Christopher Styler
Vegetable Love
Artisan, $35

Bill Niman and Janet Fletcher
The Niman Ranch Cookbook
Ten Speed Press, $35

Like most sentient Americans who eat food, I go through most of my life feeling like a complete failure. Also, an ingrate.

For one thing, I don't eat enough vegetables. Probably I should be eating 10 to 60 servings of vegetables a day: leafy green ones, bright orange ones, and those that are brownish and look like sticks, or rubble, and can commonly be found in co-op deli cases covered with tamari and walnuts at $12 a pound. Wheat berries. Jerusalem artichokes. Yautia. Yes, of course I know that wheat berries aren't actually a vegetable, but they've got the general properties of a vegetable: They're good for you, and I don't eat enough of them.

Like most Americans, I read enough TV in airports to know that emerging studies indicate I am not eating to win. We're all supposed to be eating stuff that would replicate our days as foraging hunter-gatherers, and if broccoli has 400 little nano-micro compounds in it, then Jerusalem artichokes probably do too, and somewhere in there is the one little micro-whoosis my body needs to keep from getting some cancer, or virus, or macular degeneration. What's macular degeneration? It's when you go blind when you're old, and you're less likely to get it when you eat your vegetables. My vegetables. Your vegetables! No backsies.

But let's just be human beings here, as they said back in the 1970s, when vegetables were a platform for cheese, which was a protein and thus heart-healthy. If we're just being human beings then, I can tell you that I am a longtime food pro with enough words in print to strike fear in the hearts of even the most sophisticated sewage treatment facilities, and so many years in restaurant kitchens that the only chocolate mousse recipe I know starts with a two-and-a-half-kilo block of chocolate. But, because I am just being a human being, I can tell you that I am also just another American who has never cooked a Jerusalem artichoke. I have never purchased salsify, taro, callaloo, crosnes, or even that humble local star, the rutabaga.

I think a lot and I write a lot about the importance of eating what grows well and naturally in our northern lands, but when I find burdock growing in the yard, I attack it with the dandelion weeder; I don't nurture it for winter braising. Like most Americans, when it comes to vegetables, I find cupcakes quite soothing.

Meanwhile, of course, there are meats. The totally different problem of meats. Every time I eat out, which is about as often as you blink, every single time I wolf down a carnitas burrito, gobble a burger, or make brilliant yet unappreciated wisecracks about lackluster turkey club sandwiches, I am forced to acknowledge that I am probably, at that very instant, ruining everything.

You know, by eating meat that comes from American industrial agriculture, which does about a hundred million bad things, including, but not limited to: 1) Putting animals in hellhole-like confinement operations where they require antibiotic-saturated feed, thus threatening the effectiveness of popular antibiotics for human use; 2) creating minimum-wage jobs in these hellhole places, jobs that only exploited immigrants will take; 3) driving family farmers who can't compete price-wise out of business, thus decimating our rural economies; 4) encouraging the petrochemical agriculture that kills our soil, allowing it to wash into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to both the endangerment of countless species of birds, bugs, fish, and so forth, and no doubt led, in a roundabout manner, to 5) the destruction of New Orleans. Contemporary American meats: an ethical problem that overwhelms the capacity of the human mind, and irresistibly delicious.

Failure. Guilt. Vegetables. Meat. What's a hopeless, yet hungry, average American to do? You could buy some cookbooks, actually. Because what you just read is in fact the gooniest possible way of introducing what I truly believe were the two best cookbooks of 2005, one which kicks down the barriers to the use of every vegetable you've ever heard of or could ever find (and many more), and another that accomplishes something I never even dreamed possible: allowing you to feel hopeful and inspired about the potential future of Midwestern animal husbandry. Honestly!



Barbara Kafka is one of the grandes dames of American cookery. She was telling people how to roast ducks since before there were ducks, if you know what I mean. She has just come out with a serious encyclopedia called Vegetable Love. Nearly 800 pages long, the book covers every vegetable you've ever heard of, plus many I assume she didn't just make up. (Puntarelle, anyone? Malokhie? Those are a chicory and something okralike, I read.)  

The book is intelligently organized: recipes in the front; plain old definitions, a buying guide, and general buying, cooking, and storage guidelines in the back. This way, if you decide you want to add, say, okra to your cooking repertoire, you can learn right off the bat how to buy the pods; you'll be looking for ones around two inches long, firm, and consistent in color without dark spots, says Kafka, going on to explain when to use them whole (when okra-slime is not wanted) and when to cut into the pod (when you want them to thicken sauces or stews like gumbo).

These are huge issues for anyone thinking of getting involved with a new vegetable. I don't know how else anyone who hasn't cooked beets before would ever know that when you buy them with the tops on, you're supposed to cut them off as soon as you get home. If I ruled the world, every produce department in the country would maintain a copy of this book chained near the vegetable scales. But that will never happen, because then no one would buy past-prime jicama or unripe avocados, because they would know how to identify them. (The avocado trick is pretty nifty, actually: If you can get an avocado stem to wiggle like a loose tooth, it's ripe!)

As much as I love the encyclopedic nature of this book, what made it one of my top cookbooks of the year was the variety of Kafka's recipes. She includes a fair number of super-complicated vegetable recipes aimed at those looking to boost their veg cooking to high art. Indeed, anyone who pulls off the artichokes filled with artichoke soufflé gets my praise in advance: Dang, you're good!

More interesting for the everyday cook is the way the book is stuffed with super-easy side-dish no-brainers, recipes that take just a few ingredients and a few moments, but yield restaurant-level side dishes. Such as oven-braised parsnips with tangerine zest and juice, tamari kale, fennel compote, lemon-glazed carrots, curried cabbage, and about a million more.

For some reason I feel compelled to point out that this isn't a vegetarian cookbook: Many of the recipes call for some dairy, fish, stock, or meat. Which is probably why I like it. I have about six vegetarian vegetable cookbooks I never seem to use because they always ask me to use a seaweed broth or quinoa or something else I'm unlikely to have on hand. Vegetable Love provides you with a way to get more vegetables into your life, keeping your real life fully in mind: your grocery store, your crisper bin, your likely limitations.

How exactly does Kafka know about your personal limitations and your crisper drawer? She's just one of those people who seem to have universal wisdom and knowledge--the pragmatic, no-nonsense, constantly cooking grandmother you wish you had. When I talked to her on the phone about her book, I asked how long it took to write.

"Seven years?" she asked, and I could hear her shrugging over the phone. "A lifetime? I don't know. You know, it's not just you who doesn't know how to cook a Jerusalem artichoke. If you ask most of your friends, they don't know how to do it either. And it's not just your generation. My mother was a very accomplished woman, but she, literally, couldn't boil water without burning herself. A lot of people think, 'Oh, my parents didn't do that, or eat that, so I never will either.' But children often do things their parents didn't do as well as things their parents did do. In fact, you can do things you yourself didn't do last week. I try to write the books that help you become adept at the things you'd like to do."

If one of the things you would like to do is cook and eat more vegetables, here's your Rosetta stone.



The other cookbook that changed my life for the better this year is the book that Bill Niman wrote with Janet Fletcher, called The Niman Ranch Cookbook: From Farm to Table with America's Finest Meats. I know, you're thinking, "That title sounds like one for an unfortunate corporate puff-piece!" Well, ignore the title. In the past decade I have read ad nauseam, and often, in fact, to the point of my own nausea, about American industrial agriculture and the gruesome facts behind the burger, pork chop, and chicken patty. But this is the one and only book I've ever read that gave me any hope about the future of American agriculture.  

First of all, you should know who Bill Niman is. He's a homegrown Minneapolis boy who started life working after school in his parents' meat and grocery store, a little place on Franklin Avenue near Hennepin, where the Patina is now. He grew up, grew lefty, became a teacher, and headed for California. He became a farmer and raised animals in the old Minnesota ways, outdoors, without antibiotics.

He got in on the ground floor of the foodie revolution in San Francisco and became supplier to various super-important California restaurants, like Zuni Café and Chez Panisse. Then he decided to improve the world and, I like to think, drew on our proud old Minnesota farm collective and grange traditions, leavened with a lot of California future-food thinking. Thus he created the most successful humane, environmentally sensitive, and hopeful meat-marketing organization that family farms in this country have ever had, the Niman Ranch.

Only about a third of the pages of The Niman Ranch Cookbook are devoted to recipes. Most of the book is really about the economic and workaday underpinnings of the Niman Ranch, in which Minnesota family farmers, Iowa family farmers, and others sign up to follow a protocol of high environmental standards, humane animal treatment, and high meat quality, and thus are guaranteed a premium price for their product.

If this sounds too good to be true, check out the book for yourself--the things you learn might astonish you. They astonished me. I thought I knew something about how animals were raised, and why. In fact, all I knew was what the contemporary farm industry wants me to know. For instance, I didn't know pigs could winter outdoors, even in cold places like Iowa and Minnesota. I didn't know that they're like whales or ducks, and have huge layers of insulating fat (called "back fat" on pigs) that allows them to do that. I didn't know that the only pigs that can't live outside are the ones who have been inbred for leanness, to meet the marketing demands of "the other white meat."

I didn't know that traditional, pre-WWII farming practices rotated pigs through fields to fertilize them. I didn't know that on their own, pigs are social pack animals, but if you torture them they will start biting all the other pigs they see. I didn't know that pigs on their own will produce two litters a year, but if you torture them you can get two and a half litters. In fact, you could safely say that before I got the Niman Ranch book, I knew only about the torture, and never about the possibilities. The book is equally enlightening on lamb and beef farming, and, as a Midwesterner and a meat eater, once I read the book I felt like I came into my same old world with a whole new understanding.

"We are in an absolutely catastrophic situation in terms of the gaps in understanding of consumers," Bill Niman told me, when I talked to him about the book. "Most people don't even know the questions to ask about their food, which leaves them incredibly vulnerable. Because people like us have created bullet points or catchphrases like 'natural' or 'family farm,' bigger companies have come in and are abusing the terms. There's a lot of 'natural' beef that's been fed urea, a petrochemical fertilizer byproduct. There are cattle being fed chicken feathers, that's 'natural' too.

"When Cargill or Hormel says 'raised on family farms,' does this mean that the family farm is actually independent, is responsible and interested in the well-being of their land? Or is this family farm one of powerless indentured servants? When your pork package says 'free range,' what does that mean? Was it raised in a building, or outdoors? Is the manure handled as a solid, or as a liquid? If it's a liquid, that's a problem."

In Niman's mind, the two questions that consumers need to know to ask are: Where does this meat come from, and how was it raised? His book shows that you don't always have to be in terror of the answers. Incidentally, if you happen to want to start your own version of Niman Ranch, the book explains how to do so, in, to my mind, fascinating detail. I asked Niman why he was so eager to give away the secrets to the kingdom.

"When I look back on my life in the final moment, if I have created a model that can be replicated throughout the country, that will have been the best thing I could have done," he answered. From a Minneapolis corner grocery to God's ear, let us hope.

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