Monday, February 24, 2014

Sowing the roots of destiny...

Yes, the title is supposed to sound like an adventure from Call of Cuthuluh or even a video game like Assassin's Creed.  It is what it sounds like; this year I wish to continue in the footsteps of my family line, which was lost for a generation.  About four hundred years ago, my family name was attached to a family of farmers: 'Bauer' is German for 'farmer'.  The story which I have been told time and time again, is that sometime between the 16 and 1700's, a farmer of my family line did something important or invaluable for the lord of the land.  That gesture moved that farmer from an ordinary farmer to a farmer that had a coat of arms and more land.  If you were a farmer with more land, you could become a better farmer and thus the line really took off as farming became something more of just a hobby or a job, but a destiny.

So, farming was farming and in the 1800's, an ancestor of mine came over to America, through Ellis Island.  The family, settled in what is now the area of Corondelet, St. Louis. It was there that in the 1854 census of the city, showed that my family of Anton Bauer and his wife and kids had $1,600 worth of farm property.   That would be about $44K in today's money.  I don't have family records of how much land was theirs and what was on it, but I can show that the son of Anton Bauer, did not have a farm.  What I could see is that at some point, Anton Bauer sold the farm, probably to help incorporate the city of Corondelet.  From then it looks like some of his family had moved to what was then Mathis, Missouri and set up a farm there, where Bauer Road is off of Tesson Ferry, in St. Louis.  There are records of some of the family also setting up a bakery in St. Louis.  It looks like the ones who did the farming, kept up with the farming and eventually produced a son, my grandfather, that would carry on the farming tradition, as it moved into a more modern age.  My grandfather grew up on a farm and then went off to fight, in World War 2.  In the war, he was a field nurse, working in horrible conditions to heal our troops and save lives.  When he came back, he used the G.I. bill to go to school and get a degree in Biology where he then got a job at Monsanto as a chemical engineer.

Like swords to plowshares, the first thing, after marrying, that my grandfather did when he had his new job, was to erect a huge garden in his backyard.  Their two story flat, on Virginia Avenue, St. Louis, had a large backyard, divided in two by a sidewalk down the middle to the back of the house.  My grandfather took one whole side of the yard, probably an area of 10 feet by 20 feet, and constructed a giant garden. I remembered that he created not just a simple garden, but a huge one, in that amount of space.  He constructed a wooden frame around the garden space, which rested on a 2 foot tall wall of stacked bricks.  The wooden frame, was a giant rectangle, enabling him to have a 8 foot ceiling.  The rectangle was covered in chicken wire, to help prevent the birds out and the brick wall kept small animals out.  He even constructed a screen door, for entry and exit.  It was a remarkable build for one person.  I remembered looking up and seeing green beans and squash growing down from the ceiling and plants growing all over on the ground with a red brick walkway through everything. I was always thinking that the garden was the coolest thing I had ever seen one person have and it is amazing what you can do with no zoning laws.

Now, my father, being more of the modern times, didn't have a huge garden when he got married and raised a family; including me.  He kept the yard looking like a yard for his 4 boys to play in.  What he did use, was a small 2 foot by 8 foot strip of land on one side of the back stairs and a 2 foot by 4 foot spot on the other side of the stairs.  This is the best he had to work with and he wanting to continue in the farming tradition, did so by doing simple items and even some items in larger pots.  I remembered that my father grew broccoli, carrots and mint.  He grew tomatoes and peppers and even sunflowers.  I remembered getting good vegetables from that tiny garden.

Now, wanting to carry on the tradition, I had two previous tries.  I had been staying in an apartment with a tiny 3x6 balcony and used a few pots to grow mint, hot peppers, and some herbs.  That was it and they grew well.  When I had moved to a house, my gardening activities were all negative.  The subdivision has a rule that you cannot grow anything but flowers in the front as a garden.  That rule came after we grew hot peppers, tomatoes and even Brussels sprouts. So, we moved those to the backyard, which was a bad idea.  Our subdivision was built on a trash landfill.  While digging for our garden we have found everything from soda cans to whole bags of cement.  This place is a mess, as far as gardening is concerned.  Also of note though, nothing grew well in the back and it may have just been because the quality of soil is so bad and because of the full sun and lack of drainage.  When the contractor finished our house, they turned it quickly over to us, without doing any landscaping or grading.  So, we have no drainage at all in our yard and when it rains, we have a small pond in our yard. The yard is flat so when we tried to grow corn and tomatoes, against the house, in raised beds filled with expensive gardening soil, they began to rot and mold.  We didn't get anything from them.  I know that the soil is bad because we had two large rose plants start in the back and when they were not doing well, we moved them to the front and now they are thriving.  I would suggest that there is probably $300 worth of expensive garden soil, tilled into the garden areas in the back yard versus the $2,000 or so worth of work and products that has gone into the front yard.  Before we had kids, my wife and I spent many summer days and nights preparing the ground for plants and herbs so we have something to show for it.

So, this is the year where we get serious.  About a 10 minute drive away, hidden away in behind some farmland, sits a garden spot all set up and ready for use.  This spot, currently on property belonging to my in-laws, will be a testing spot for this year's summer activity: a garden.  We do plan on having a house built near there soon, which means that I hope to follow in the gardening tradition.  This year however, we are taking small steps first.  This year, we are doing sunflowers and tomatoes.  It seems reasonable enough.  What makes this first set up so good, is that if everything works great, I will expand it.  I want to have a garden, a plantation, where my young boys can learn about gardens and fruits and vegetables.  We have a dehydrator and I am pretty good and jams and pickles, so I figure that whatever we grow, I will use half of it as fresh items and the other half as preserving.  I will keep you posted, with pictures as I get them.   

Thursday, February 13, 2014

10 things I am for sure sure about food.

Last Saturday night, as Alton Brown took the stage at the Fox, in St. Louis, he gave us his redone rendition of 10 things he was sure about food.  He complained about the list because he first made it 23 years ago and every day, he thinks of something where he changes it and so, it is never the same list twice.  That list, his ten, have been replaying over and over in my mind as I think of different ones that apply to me and my life.  Some of my 10 things, are the same as one of his and and such, I bet the same as many other chefs around the world.  So, my list, of 10 things that I am for sure sure about food, here we are:

1.  Just a pinch of salt.  Salt is and was always the most important item on Earth.  Wars in Ancient times were fought over salt.  Salt when added to a hot bath can make it hotter before it gets hotter. I know that I have added salt to a humidifier in my children's room, so it can get a hotter point and create steam easier.  When people didn't have salt, or refrigerators, they had to bury their food in the ground, in order to save it.  Salt, allowed people to save and preserve their food without keeping it in a cellar.  Salt is a natural enemy of bacteria.  Salt is used in mouthwashes after dental visits and is even used as an aid in cleaning wounds.  It even was considered to be such a pure thing that Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt in the Bible.  Salt is added to baked goods as it helps to retard the yeast and slow it down.  Salt has a chemical makeup that enables it with the power to pull water.  Chef's add salt to a pan of vegetables in order to pull moisture out and "Sweat" them.  Have you ever salted a driveway before a snow storm?  Have you seen the moisture around each piece of salt?  The salt pulls moisture out of the concrete or blacktop of a driveway.  When salt is added to food, it allows the food to taste more like itself by concentrating the flavor.  This is why salt is added to everything.  Furthermore, salt SHOULD be added to everything.  Remember, just a pinch of salt or even a light sprinkling will do.

2. Taste your food.  You may think or be the best chef in the world, but if you do not taste your food and properly season it (see number 1), then no one will like or even take a second bite of your food.  Taste is often tied to memories and those memories replay when the edible item triggers them.  People would most surely have different memories on whether they had a good hamburger seasoned with salt and pepper versus a bad hamburger that just had ground beef.  Furthermore, a person is more likely to remember when they had that good food that tasted good versus one that tasted bad.  People think of these fond memories and it comforts them: comfort food.  Those nice feelings and memories and most often tied to good tasting food.  No one talks about how they had fond memories of eating hamburgers that tasted like dog food and smelled like manure.  If you prepare any type of food, make sure you taste it at least once.  Anyone, from a professional chef to a home cook needs to know what to change or add to a dish in order to make it the way they want.  If you own a restaurant, make sure that everything you send out is from something you tasted so you know that you are serving only the very best.

3. Food is fun.  Don't let anyone ever tell you that cooking is hard work, alone.  Yes, peeling 20 potatoes and cooking them, ricing them, mixing them with other things to make mashed potatoes is work, but the end result is so much better than the work. Think of it this way: Do you like money?  Does having money enable you to have fun?  Do you work for your money?  Is work fun? (maybe not)  Therefore: the reward from work, lets you have fun.  The same applies to cooking.  No matter how much work you are doing for the food, even if you grow everything and cook it all yourself, it is work.  However, whether it is the joy of tasting and eating or the joy from watching others taste and eat, that work should give you fun.  I like food, I love to eat food.  But even more so, I have fun doing things to food.  I like to try to cook new things and place new combinations together.  I think that is fun.  I like to cook tasty things and give them to people and watch them enjoy the food.  Good food should fill your heart, soul and stomach.  It should make you feel like doing a happy dance.  Food is fun.
4. The best cook in the world is....  When Alton Brown came up on stage to explain a statement, he suggested that "your wife is the best cook in the world".  The idea being that within 6 months of his marriage, he mentioned that his wife might need to add some oregano into some pasta sauce and she was so flustered that she left the kitchen and "didn't come back for 6 months".  Now, while I understand that husbands always tell their wives that they are the best cook in the world, this example doesn't work for me and my wife.  My story is this:  I have been an avid cook, huge fan of cooking, ever since I was a kid.  I was sad when I went to school because they stopped the "home-ec" courses and there wasn't a cooking school to be found in the area.  So, I self taught and learned on my job.  Now, while me wife and I were engaged, she did cook food for me, but when I went to her house, she wasn't allowed to cook, only her mom was.  Now, when we were married, she cooked almost all of the time, as every once in a while I was allowed to cook.  She made a really good pasta sauce and everything she made was honestly really good.  But, when she became pregnant the first time, she obviously didn't cook.  (I personally believe any husband who makes his pregnant wife cook is just being a ;%#.)  So, I took up the reigns and started cooking every night.  I cooked foods for dinner and lunch to take to work.  When my wife had our first child and she was home with him, I still cooked so she could recoop.  Then when she was pregnant again, I kept cooking.  I like to cook and can take criticism about my food if someone doesn't like it or if they do.  That being said, I do believe that the best cook in the world still isn't me.  I think for anyone and all of us, the best cook in the world who is someone who cooks with love.  The last thing you want, as a husband, is the competitiveness by telling your wife that she is the best cook in the world, thus making your mom and mother-in-law and any other females in the family, go complete Cutthroat Kitchen on each other to be better.  

5. Breaking bread is the best welcome ever.  What I mean by that, is that the best way to welcome someone into your family or just your house, is to feed them.  I have been in houses where you enter and stand there, literally, standing around, or sitting around and talking.  I have even been to family events from my past like this.  Nothing lets people relax like the addition of food.  I think the best example of this, is when my family went to Lebanon.  (Going to Ireland was a close second.) In Lebanon, we visited people who were cousins of cousins, didn't speak a lick of English and the only one in our group that spoke Arabic, was my father-in-law, who was from Lebanon.  So, here we are in people's houses, in the middle of no where, not another house as far as the eye can see in either direction and out of no where, someone come sin with a small platter of food.  The hospitality of people in Lebanon simply astounds me.  When Andrew Zimmern goes to Middle East countries on his Bizarre Foods show and you see him go to a random tent in Ethiopia and get treated like a king with a pillow to sit and food to eat, that is how it is in real life.  People know that giving food or at least offering food is a great way to open up and start discussion as well as tell the person who is being offered "I don't know you, but I care enough about your health that you should have a bite," I think.  Think of it as if you ever had one of those grandmothers whom every time you visited would offer you a bite of something or a something to eat.  Always offering in a good natured grandmotherly sort of way.  From as far back as ancient times to stories in the Bible, breaking bread is always something that people do, to bring them together.  Alton Brown suggested that the greatest tool in the kitchen is a kitchen table.  It is that table that brings families together.  I change my statement as such because while a kitchen table is important to bring families together, if you don't have a table, or are without your family, any sharing of food will bring people together.  

6. Organic, gmo, vegan friendly and gluten free are all just names of B.S..  Here are some fun things to know.  First of all, to be labeled by the organic food club, you have to become certified.  That cost will run you anywhere from $200 to over $1,500.  That certification also has to be done every year.  So, you may be a farmer, who has used the same seeds for generations, never used chemical pesticides and even talks nicely to your plants.  But, if you don't pay to be certified, you cannot be organic.  There are many other producers who make food as healthy and even more healthy than "Organic" labeled ones, but they just didn't get the label. The term "GMO" refers to a "genetically modified organism".  The term has lately been considered a derogatory term for Monsanto products.  I have a friend who works at Monsanto and some of the things that he is proud of, that the company has done, is making a seed of rice, that will grow and yield in less water.  What about corn plants that will produce the same amount of corn, no matter the type of climate?  Imagine how famine in the world could disappear.  It isn't a conspiracy, but from what I have seen in science sites, articles and journals, there hasn't been any real proof that a GMO corn kernel, from a GMO grown corn seed and plant, can harm or kill a human being.  If a corn plant has been genetically modified so that it will grow into a mature and vegetable bearing plant with half of the water of a normal one, how will that affect a human?  Will the human be able to drink and survive only on half of the water than a normal person?  Also, in regards to GMO pesticides, most plants have a natural pesticide develop in them, that does harm some insects and not humans.  Vegans are a variety of people of whom I have no understanding.  If you are staying away from ALL animal products because of the harming or injuring of animals, then are you wearing vegan friendly items or using vegan friendly items?  Is your shower soap vegan friendly?  Do you wear or use anything plastic?  Plastic comes from oil, which in turn comes from animals.  What type of car do you drive?  Gasoline comes from animals as well.  Do you wear jewelry?  Is there any shells, elastic or plastic in that as well?  Gluten-free is not an allergy.  There is a real condition where some people who cannot digest Gluten can become sick from it.  But that condition is rare and most likely the people who claim to be gluten free could have something else wrong with them, like diabetes.     

7. Kids will eat what you eat.  My kids do not eat.  We sometimes joke that they grow from photosynthesis.  Yeah, if we go to St. Louis Bread Co. or over to Noodles & Company, they will eat large amounts of food, but it seems everywhere else, that they mostly pick and complain about their food. When I would go out of my way and make extra nutritious things for my wife and she would sit near the kids and eat them, we are always amazed at how my kids will ask if they can have a bite and then sometimes finish off her whole plate.  I never before saw a child so eager to eat some mushrooms or brussel sprouts.  Kids watch what you eat as well.  So, when you give your kids some healthy sandwiches from Quiznos and you are eating a a double quarter-pounder with fries, then they start to wonder why they have to eat healthy and you do not. Like the above example, I have seen that if you want your kids to eat or eat healthy, then you should too.

8. Anyone Can Cook  It not only was the name of a fictional book in the Disney movie :Ratatouille, but it is a motto that I truly believe.  I have seen all manner of people who can cook and you always hear stories about people thrust into situations and then in order to survive, they had to cook.  I think that cooking is the easiest thing to do, now.  When I first started at a restaurant, several years ago, I avoided the cooks line because I was afraid that I was going to screw up something with food.  Well, my manager threw me back there one day to cover a cook who called in and when I started to panic he pulled me aside and showed me a recipe.  We had all of the recipes laminated so they wouldn't get messed up on the line.  He explained it to me straight "you look at what the recipe calls for and put it in and do as it says; an idiot can do it.  Its not rocket science," he said.

So, as simple as it seemed, it just didn't hit until then.  If a recipe calls for a cup of this and 1/8th cup of that, as long as you put the right amounts in, then it will turn out just fine.  That instantly set off a switch and since that day, I have been able to look at about any recipe and make the food.  Because of this, I believe that if you can follow instructions, exactly, you can cook.

9. Always try new foods.  My wife and I have been pushing this ideology since my oldest could eat food.  I grew up in a household in St. Louis which had the same thing for breakfast every day and then the same meal for lunch for school every day and then dinner followed a schedule.  So my mom would cook pot roast for dinner on Monday and then on Tuesday it would be spaghetti and so on, ending with fish sticks on Friday.  It was never real fish and the only idea I ever had of seafood was from Red Lobster.  So, my family, which oddly enough came from a German/Austrian side and a German/Scottish side, didn't do that much in terms of food experimentation or new foods to us, for that matter.  You would probably guess that with those 3 cultures, we would have something new, but no.  My parents were stuck in a cuisine rut and had no interest in trying new foods.  This made it difficult for me, as I was willing to expand my thoughts and palette and I was trying everything I could.  I was trying real seafood, different cultural foods and even strange ingredients.  I tried everything and just like Andrew Zimmern, I will try anything at least twice.  Just as number 7 shows, your kids will be more apt to try new foods, if they watch you try new foods.  If you try something and you do not like it, don't say things like "ewww" or "yuck", because that will give others the predisposition that it is how you describe it; nullifying any want to try it themselves.

10. Foods are holistic.  I took some classes back in 2008, for a degree in Holistic Nutrition.  While it may have seemed like a questionable course and much less a not accredited college, the theory and that little bit of proof and research shows that something that are wrong with us can in fact be treated and cured with food.  It is called holistic nutrition or holistic healing and it is an idea or theory that food can be supplanted for medicine when it comes to healing the body.  Think of the #1 cold remedy: chicken soup.  If you go to a doctor over a cold, they will tell you that there is nothing they can give you.  You can always go to a pharmacy and take some decongestant or ibuprofen or something to help ease pressure if any.  But, people always say to take chicken soup.  The fact is that lately scientists have done the testing and found out that chicken soup, when homemade, is filled with an amino acid that is found in chicken, which helps the body loosen mucus.  Not to mention all of the antioxidants and all sorts of vitamins in the vegetables that are in the soup as well.  What is important to look for and watch, is that every year scientists make a discovery where they find some plant somewhere, which has been shown to help with [blank].  It could be a plant extract that helps treat AIDS or a type of legume that helps fight cancer or something like that.    

So, that is my 10 things.  It took me a week to come up with.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Off to the Science Center to eat bugs

A trip with my kids to the St. Louis Science Center proved something cool: bugs are yummy, except crickets.  They had a special exhibit called Harry's World, which was an exhibit filled with bugs.  It had cockroach races, a house where children pretended to be a Terminix representative and search for bugs, butterflies, and even some edible bugs.  And that was the most important spot.  An entomoligist, every day, prepares bugs for the people to try and taste.  So, I had to give a try.  Even more so, Andrew Zimmern, this is for you.

So, there was a bowl of crickets and two bowls of waxworms.  There was one waxworm that had a spicy hot pepper and Southwest flavor to it.  The other waxworm had a sugar and cinnamon seasoning.

So, my review of the bugs is this: the cinnamon and sugar waxworms tasted just like dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.  I could eat a bowl of them.  As long as they don't get soggy in milk.  The Southwest style waxworms were a bit spicy and the spices worked well also.  As for the crickets, the taste was okay, but a wing got caught in the neck of my throat and reminded me of the same feeling as when you eat popcorn and get a slip of kernel on your throat.  It took me several minutes till I got a drink to wash it down.

Still, the most amazing thing that made this experience even more amazing was doing it with my two boys.  I held out my hand with the Cinnamon and Sugar Waxworms and offered one to both of my kids after trying one.  My oldest, who normally is very grossed out about bugs and slimy things, immediately and without hesitation, reached into my hand, picked one up and ate it.  My other son, who loves things of the macabre, loves bugs and the strange and odd, was afraid to eat the bugs and took a few steps back from me.

I think that experience is likened to that of Andrew Zimmern's first experience with strange food.  I think that kids will do and try anything, provided that a positive role model does the same. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Good Eats LIVE!- sorta

Okay, so maybe it wasn't just like Good Eats, but at least the same funny and interesting Alton Brown was at the Fox on this past ugly and icy Saturday night.  I love the show Good Eats and I have even compared it to my favorite cooking show of all time :The Frugal Gourmet.

My Saturdays were all the same when I was young.  My parents wanted us to go outside and play for the most part of the day.  But at the same time, they allowed us some tv time.  So, what my 3 other brothers and I did, was watch cartoons until the cartoons stopped, around 11:00.  Now, at 11:00 on the local PBS station, there was this show called The Frugal Gourmet hosted by Jeff Smith.  I think the show was actually the first cooking show that Elmo, of Sesame Street, was on.  Now, what you had in the 90's here, was a cooking show where this older man would not only talk about the food he was cooking, but throw in some reasoning as to why things were happening.  He didn't get as much into the science, but at least he gave an explanation of how yeast works and why we make bread that way and so forth.  I remembered it being my favorite show and it certainly was fun to watch Victory Garden right afterwards.

Alton Brown, as the audience got to see him on Saturday night, is exactly like his Good Eats personality.  Like any good teacher, he mixes some real world information into the science and learning part.  His experiments reminded me of items created by Jamie and Adam of Mythbusters.  His up-beat and educational music reminded me of They Might Be Giants as they sing songs about the sun or photosynthesis. His cooking though, reminds me Jeff Smith in his calm and patient manner, with a lot of wit and humor thrown in.

Songs about Caffeine, which is my favorite drug, and pork chops seemed to fit with the giant pizza cooker using 54 lights.  The stories that he used as examples about his life and his family seem to resonate with everyone, or most people or at least me, when it comes to family and children.  And while there was a large portion of the show that was scripted and rehearsed, there was some that was not.  For instance; I have never been to a concert, in any other city, that has ever had a person doing the interpretation into sign language.  When you live in St. Louis and you do St. Louis things, the signer is forgotten or even over-looked because there is one everywhere.  But it appeared that this may have actually been the first time that Alton Brown has ever had one for his show.  As one of his volunteers had put it: "you talk a lot".  As fast and with as much information as Alton Brown gives people, I would feel bad about those who have to sign it. Alton got her to do the sign for 'pole dancer', which I think kept him happy for the night, and even threw him off track once or twice.

I thought the show was great as everything that was explained before the show, did actually happen.  He also suggested that the show was done for him, and not us, and there was some complaining about there being only 2 cooking demonstrations, however since the show was filled with many things, it was a variety show and not just a cooking show.  I liked the show very much and even bought a hat at the end, considering that my other hat, with a red circle and silver fork on the top, is the only chef's hat I had.

I also have to give full marks for bravery, just like the kind that Wesley got after making it through the fire swamp, to Alton Brown.  For not only did he ride on his tour bus through the cold and ice and snow, but he also performed in it.  Albeit, he was inside the Fabulous Fox theater.  But as his show warmed the minds and hearts of the people, outside it only grew more and more like planet Hoth.

So, to Alton Brown, thanks for putting on a great show in St. Louis.