November 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


Back to Butter

A long time ago, I read a food blog where a woman made jam from fruit that was ripe the summer she was pregnant and saved a jar for when her baby would be old enough to eat it. I thought it was a nice idea -- precious, but sweet -- and filed it away. But this summer, when I was pregnant myself, canning wasn't really at the top of my priority list. First there was the lingering exhaustion from the first trimester, along with unexpected food aversions. Intense, illogical cravings are such a widely advertised aspect of pregnancy that, while wondering what strange foods I'd wake up clamoring for in the middle of the night, I realized that the opposite had happened: I had to struggle to figure out what I could eat (cereal, grilled cheese, and McDonald's Junior Chicken meals, apparently). The aversions meant I also didn't want to cook anything or look at cookbooks (hence a few spotty months of this column), so I fell out of practice, and when my appetite and energy came back, I felt like I was relearning how to simply make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wasn't quite ready to jump into canning and trusting myself to process jars well enough to feed to a baby a year from then without giving it botulism. But it's apple season now, so suppose I still have time. The idea is still floating around -- precious, but alluring.

Suzanne Cope's Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Foods analyzes why exactly this kind of cooking is so alluring. "Artisanal" has become such an overused term that even Frito-Lay touts artisanal goods. Unlike a term like "local" or "locavore" which can be easily defined, "artisanal" is more nebulous. Why does it persist and why has it become more and more popular? The pastoral connotations and the way it invokes a kind of nostalgia or purity is certainly part of it.

The idea of preserving or making small batches of food originated from necessity and the need to save costs, but now it's more related to things like eating healthfully or sympathy for small businesses and their "human-scale" productions. There are no recipes or tips for making items at home in Small Batch. Instead it uses a series of case studies of producers of pickles, cheese, chocolate, and spirits -- the humans behind the human scale -- to break down what it means to make small batches of edibles while also encompassing the history of the production of these items over time in North America.

Artisanal has also become shorthand to perform political leanings. "Choosing a diet is an easy and obvious way to communicate and symbolize one's worldview," Cope writes. "Yes, at first bite it may taste vaguely like a mass-produced pickle, but it represents more than just an edible to both the consumer and the producer." The section on cheese uses Jericho Hill Farm in Vermont as an example and mentions how its website barely mentions the cheese they're in business to sell. It focuses on the farm instead, the family that owns it and its long legacy of farming. There's almost no need to talk about the cheese because the narrative that comes along with the farm implies that it will be good. Honest. This intermingling of story and commerce can be troublesome, and is what often makes people roll their eyes at using artisanal as a descriptor. You wonder sometimes if you're being suckered into buying something, duped into an advertising strategy. But Cope's book is a gentle reminder that a story does have value: "The price of a jar of artisanal pickles buys one not only the tangy, thoughtfully sourced pickled produce inside, but also the knowledge that the purchase of this product helps to preserve and support the artisan behind the product as well." I don't roll my eyes at that.

Molly Chester and her mother Sandy Schrecengost's Back to Butter: A Traditional Foods Cookbook isn't about preserving, but its focus on "traditional" cooking is directly related to the ethos behind small batch products. It comes with its own familiar narrative where the author started off suffering from various health issues (acid reflux, polycystic ovarian syndrome), and a change in diet helped improve or eliminate them. I get a little wary when dietary changes are deemed responsible for solving medical problems because there's usually more to it than that, so I was glad to see that the book did give a caveat a few pages in that a good doctor is also required.

Back to Butter is a primer for someone who wants to ease into the back-to-the-land style of traditional cooking, and, while it does have its specificities, it's not as comprehensive as say, Alice Waters's Art of Simple Food, which shares the same ethos without being as explicit about it. But if you need a quick checklist, Chester and Schrecengost's "Traditional Foods Pantry" is useful, along with the statement, "Butter is a saturated fat that never should have fallen from grace," which we should all remind ourselves. While the meal-related recipes are fairly unsurprising, it's the basics that are more interesting -- the dairy section, for instance, gives simple, easy to follow instructions for homemade whole milk buttermilk, crème fraiche, kefir. The book ends with a kombucha recipe, naturally, and starts with an introduction from Beck, strangely.

I'm now seven months into pregnancy and fierce cravings still elude me, although at least I'm now completely done with aversions. I have been trying to eat well, and reading a book like Back to Butter is a reminder of sorts that I should be especially aware of what I'm putting into my body, although sometimes it backfires and I feel guilty instead, or stubborn. Should I feel badly, for instance, for all of those first trimester Junior Chicken meals? I don't, but sometimes I do, and this was one of the reasons why I loved Jennifer Steinhauer's Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today), which takes seventy mass-produced cakes, cookies, and candies and breaks the recipes down into items you can make at home. Not necessarily healthy, but with the virtuousness that comes from making something yourself and knowing that you have control over the ingredients.

The book is most successful for those moments when you realize that nostalgia can only take you so far and that just because something was exquisite when you were younger, doesn't necessarily mean your adult taste buds will be as satisfied. Why not try making your own Twix bar or Samoas? When my best friend and I took on the recipe for marshmallow-stuffed Moon Pies for another dear friend's bridal shower, we messed up the chocolate coating, but the end results were still better than what we could've bought, and the memory of making them even better than simply slinking to the corner store. Like Small Batch reinforced, a story can make a difference, especially when it comes to food.