Most people associate the fall season with flavors, smells, and colors: apple cider, gold and crimson leaves, smoke … and thanks to Starbucks, “pumpkin spice.” A pumpkin spice latte bonanza is sweeping Starbucks coffee shops, and everywhere else a #PSL hashtag exists. The drink’s popularity has spurred on a variety of other pumpkin spice manifestations–including doughnuts, bagels, and pancakes, according to Forbes.
“Flavor trends” aren’t new–we saw recent examples in the “red velvet” and “cronut” fads. But part of pumpkin spice’s popularity seems to stem from its seasonal character: while other flavor trends lose their glamour with time, pumpkin spice has a recurring, seasonal appeal. It disappears from Starbucks’ menu around the Christmas season, and by the time summer again fades into fall, people are hankering for the drink.
The pumpkin spice ingredients—cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice—have always existed in our kitchen. This season’s #PSL craze seems to have awakened notable enthusiasm, but it is by no means an original concoction. While it’s possible that global pumpkin spice domination is new, it could also represent a revival of an old aesthetic pleasure: pumpkin pie has been around for hundreds of years. According to the Kitchen Project, “pumpion” pies and pastries originated in the 16th century. Their website shares an excerpted recipe from The Accomplisht Cook, a 1685 recipe book:
Take a pound of pumpion and slice it, a handful of thyme, a little rosemary, and sweet marjoram stripped off the stalks, chop them small, then take cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and a few cloves all beaten, also ten eggs, and beat them, then mix and beat them all together, with as much sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froise, after it is fried, let it stand till it is cold, then fill your pie with this manner. Take sliced apples sliced thin round ways, and lay a layer of the froise, and a layer of apples with currants betwixt the layers. While your pie is sitted, put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it. When the pie is baked, take six yolks of eggs, some white-wine or verjuyce, and make a caudle of this, but not too thick, but cut up the lid, put it in, and stir them well together whilst the eggs and pumpion be not perceived, and so serve it up.
Note the inclusion of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves–all regular contributors to “pumpkin spice.” An early American version of “pompkin” pie included nutmeg, ginger, molasses, and allspice. Since pumpkin is a fall fruit, such desserts would have been made around harvest time. These spices, so nicely paired with pumpkin, would also become associated with the season. Because other fall and winter desserts like apple pie and gingerbread share many of the same spices, they have earned a unique autumnal appeal.
Perhaps humans (specifically those who experience the fall season and harvest) have always been a tad crazy about pumpkin spice–as well as apple pie, cider, maple syrup, gingerbread, and the whole host of cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice-spiked foods that thread their way through the autumn season. One wonders whether the smoky, crisp fall air whets our appetites for these cozy, sweet flavors–or whether those flavors enhance our enjoyment of the season. Did the pilgrims make “pompkin” pie on that first Thanksgiving? The history of seasonal synesthesia seems to deserve a study of its own. Are people just as crazy about fresh strawberries and mint in the spring?
I must confess that pumpkin spice lattes seem a sad substitution for the spice-laden desserts of kitchens past–that pumpkin pie with flaky crust, the apple cider steaming with richness, rich gingerbread melting in your mouth. But I am, after all, an avid from-scratch baking aficionado (as well as a curmudgeonly conservative), and often denigrate the value of efficiency. A pumpkin spice latte can be procured in five minutes, at little personal disadvantage, only a couple blocks from most corporate offices. Pies and homemade ciders are often costly, time-consuming endeavors.
That said, as you hashtag your #PSLs and satisfy your cinnamon cravings, don’t forget the particular potency of fall flavors and their rich history. As Claudio Rivera noted in an amusing satirical blog post at the Overhead Compartment, “you might pause for a moment before Instagramming that frothy Venti soy latte like a mindless dolt to reflect on the small role that you’re playing in the rich tapestry of history.”
When reading about war zones, it is easy to envision an endless battlefield, with uninterrupted explosions and turmoil. But Atlantic writer Cathy Huyghe pointed out Friday that, even in the midst of Syria’s turmoil, life goes on for many. Her story on Syrian winemakers highlighted the way people hold to hope in the midst of fear and death.
Karim Saadé and his family own a vineyard near Latakia, Syria, located on the outskirts of the Al-Ansariyah mountains in northwestern Syria. Because it is outside the towns experiencing heavy fighting, it has been safe from attack thus far. The Saadé family has had difficulty keeping workers, especially as the local currency has collapsed and taken an inflationary toll on wages. Despite these difficulties, Huyghe writes that the winemakers are “planting the seeds, literally, for the future: Derenoncourt pointed out that they’ve just bought fresh rootstock for new vines.” Her story suggests a deep sense of rootedness and loyalty to the land:
Fabrice Guiberteau, a winemaker at Château Kefraya in the fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, can see the border with Syria from his vineyards. Despite the worries of a conflict so close to home, leaving Lebanon would be difficult, he said. ”It’s about having started something and wanting to see it through,” said Guiberteau, who previously made wine in Cognac, France, and Morocco before coming to Lebanon. The Saadé family has recently made new investments in material for Château Bargylus in Syria, he noted. As Karim Saadé says, “Wine ties you to the land, and you cannot just pack up and leave. It’s a signal to yourself and to others.”
The story reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the throes of World War I, American ambulance driver Lieutenant Henry learns to cope and survive. His deepest moments of fellowship, love, and communion usually surface around food and drink: especially wine and cognac. He risks his life on the battlefront just to procure cheese for his comrades’ pasta. The descriptions of wine – “clear red, tannic and lovely” – of eating spaghetti – “lifting the spaghetti on the fork until the loose strands hung clear then lowering it into the mouth, or else using a continuous lift and sucking into the mouth” – are nuanced and vivid. Hemingway breaks with his dry, concise style in order to make such scenes come alive. He shows the human lust to live, to enjoy all the beauties of appetite and existence, to endure in the midst of change. For these characters, the drink is indeed “a signal” of sorts.
New York Times contributors Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez identify a similar “signal” and community-building power in coffee amongst the American military. By World War II, they write, American servicemen consumed 32.5 pounds of coffee per capita, per year. Whether carefully brewed or burnt and bitter, coffee is a soldier’s “constant companion”:
As platoon commanders, we would often share with our platoon sergeants and squad leaders while we gathered around a map and discussed our plans for the day. Whether in the forests of North Carolina, the mountains of California, or the deserts of Afghanistan, the ritual provided a sense of continuity … Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.
Lieutenant Henry and his soldiers fight, retreat, laugh, and philosophize around alcohol. It helps them cope; it comforts them in the midst of sorrow. Even for civilians like the Saadé family, it is their wine – their simple work and community it gives them – that helps them cope with fear of the ominous war. Their wine ties them to the land, and to each other.
New Yorker blogger Bee Wilson explored the narrative form in recipes on Monday. While introducing readers to William Sitwell’s new book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, she demonstrated cookbooks’ ability to read like novels. Her article shows how narrative threads through unexpected facets of human experience.
To that end, here is a list of some diverse manifestations of narrative, starting with Wilson’s own observations:
“Serve your spargus”: Recipes
Wilson believes recipes offer a story arc, a version of reality that appeals to our imagination and our senses. In addition, she writes, “part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.” Recipes have excellent potential for both comedy and tragedy. They contain a fun and interesting history, as well—for instance, Wilson refers to a recipe written by chef La Varenne in 1651, advising cooks to boil their greens and take them out “as little sod as you can, it is the better,” to “set them draining,” and then to “serve your spargus.” Many modern food bloggers capture the experience and narrative of cooking in their recipes and pictures. One example of this is Beth Kirby, blogger at Local Milk: “It features purple asparagus thicker than my thumbs, asparagus so prized I actually had a nightmare about not getting to the market in time to get my paws on them last week. And it, my most precious produce, alongside the hairy, stinging dead nettles. The ancient quinoa. The glorious egg.”
“There lies a baseball”: Sports
Sports stories are some of the most popular and acknowledged narratives. Sports books and movies abound—covering everything from baseball to chess. They give us a narrative replete with struggle and perseverance, protagonists and antagonists, suffering and triumph. A personal favorite example of sports narrative is Gary Smith’s feature “The Ball”:
“It looks like such a simple thing, the ball in the metal box. But if you were to begin to pull it apart to know it at its core, you’d have to unstitch 88 inches of waxed thread sewn in a factory on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano, peel back two swaths of cowhide taken from a tannery in Tennessee, unravel 369 yards of Vermont wool and pare away a layer of rubber applied in Batesville, Miss.—and you still wouldn’t have gotten to its heart.”
“The music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand”: Music
Each piece of well-crafted music has a beginning, climax, and conclusion, connected by strands of conflict and tension, harmony and melody. It usually features themes and interweaving characters. It has a complex and fascinating history. Music reviews like Russell Platt’s “Master Builder” show us the literary elements of musical form:
“The brooding, major-minor opening chord and the ‘wayward’ tune over pizzicato cellos; the herky-jerky rhythms enunciated, en masse, by the winds; the big, brassy, timpani-thwacking, polytonal finale. As Swayne admits, sometimes ‘the music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand.’”
Marvin Horne, a raisin farmer, officially owes the government “at least $650,000 in unpaid fines. And 1.2 million pounds of unpaid raisins, roughly equal to his entire harvest for four years.” In a remarkable feature for the Washington Post, reporter David Fahrenthold explains:
In a given year, the government may decide that farmers are growing more raisins than Americans will want to eat. That would cause supply to outstrip demand. Raisin prices would drop. And raisin farmers might go out of business. To prevent that, the government does something drastic. It takes away a percentage of every farmer’s raisins. Often, without paying for them. These seized raisins are put into a government-controlled “reserve” and kept off U.S. markets. In theory, that lowers the available supply of raisins and thereby increases the price for farmers’ raisin crops. Or, at least, the part of their crops that the government didn’t just take. For years, Horne handed over his raisins to the reserve. Then, in 2002, he refused.
The national raisin reserve was created by the Truman administration. As Fahrenthold writes, Horne’s “life has now become a case study in one of Washington’s bad habits — a tendency never to reexamine old laws once they’re on the books.”
Meanwhile, in the well-publicized throes of sequestration, one Pentagon department is reverting to another staggering, if more straightforward budgetary practice:
While Hagel is asking Congress not to take a knife to next year’s budget, the Department of Defense is actually having a hard time spending all of this year’s money. As Al Kamen at the Washington Post reports, at least one office within the Pentagon is practically begging its employees to “Spend the money! Spend it all! Spend it now!”
Why this desperate, ill-timed spending craze? The federal government, as Kristen Hinman notes, allocates funding on a “use-it-or-lose-it basis.” If the department doesn’t exhaust its budget by September, Congress assumes it can survive with a smaller budget. “So every summer,” she writes, “federal agencies race to spend down their coffers.”
Arcane regulations and egregious government spending (induced by preposterous laws) aren’t new. But as these stories illustrate, the federal budget has consequences — whether it’s a 64-year-old raisin reserve or acquisitive Pentagon employees (suffering a 20 percent pay cut and weekly furloughs). Despite their obvious flaws, mechanisms like the sequester do bring budgetary challenges to the forefront, and show us what we need to fix. At Democracy in America, Will Wilkinson claims that “big, dumb, indiscriminate across-the-board cuts” sometimes reveal urgent problems, or money that isn’t being spent wisely: “Meat cleavers work, and they aren’t in practice so indiscriminate as they may seem to be.”
It might be time to take a meat cleaver to the “Raisin Administration Committee.”
New York chefs are staging a mass exodus, according to an Atlantic story published Monday. What used to be the nation’s “epicenter for all things culinary” is now a shrinking relic of bygone gastronomic glory.
Why are they leaving? Cities like Portland and Austin offer chefs lower rent and fewer business expenses. They have vibrant food cultures without the price tag. NPR’s Jane Black said the going rate for Manhattan cooks is $10 an hour, $12 “if you are lucky.”
But Atlantic reporter Alexander Abad-Santos mentions another motive “underscoring” the chefs’ exodus: namely, New York’s chefs have become locavores, and are looking for better stomping ground.
New York City, despite its urban farming ventures, doesn’t have a flourishing farm culture. For locavore chefs, a city like Portland offers excellent farmer’s markets and greater local resources.
In light of the escalating locavore trend and its effects, reporters are wondering – is eating “locavore” really worth it? What are its drawbacks?
NY Times columnist Stephen Budiansky has some good thoughts on the limits of locavorism. He points out that locavore-ism can become extreme and impractical: “You’ll get no argument from me about the pleasures and advantages to the palate and the spirit of eating what’s local, fresh and in season. But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.”
Abad-Santos points out that locavorism is largely a movement for the affluent. Urbanites “pay top dollar for the food, meaning more profit for chefs who can get those local ingredients cheaper; all of which results in more money in the pockets of these chefs.”
Authors Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu agree: they call locavorism “a niche product for upper-crust consumers.” However, they also note that “good food has to be produced somewhere, and some of that could be in your neighborhood. But don’t make it mandatory, and don’t make a religion out of it… You should stick to what you’re doing best, and then trade with others, and that way everybody will be better off.”
There are some practical advantages to the locavore movement: first, it emphasizes the need for fresh and organic ingredients. All restaurant patrons – locavore or no – appreciate fresh-tasting food.
In addition, locavorism has encouraged healthy trends in America’s food culture. You won’t (or at least shouldn’t) see locavores guzzling down Twinkies with Coke. “Food eaten closer to where it is grown will be fresher and require less processing, making it more nutritious,” said food journalist Michael Pollan in a 2008 letter to the president.
Finally, locavorism helps regionalize our food system. There are numerous advantages to this, when approached practically. Pollan highlights some of these advantages in his letter.
In the case of New York chefs, the locavore exodus seems to be a simple case of supply and demand. Smaller, more farm-centric cities offer chefs better rent, less expenses, and better ingredients. They can try new locavore ventures at a fraction of the cost. It’s a smart business move, and one that Portlanders will appreciate.
India’s first Chipotle-like assembly line burrito chain will open tomorrow, an experiment in cross-cultural fast-casual dining:
Three U.S.-based entrepreneurs on Wednesday are launching the first of a series of burrito restaurants in India. They picked India’s software hub as the location of their first-ever outlet, called “California Burrito.” The menu, which has been tailored to Indian tastes, offers dishes that are spicier than U.S. equivalents and offers a wide choice of vegetarian fillings. They will not be serving any beef or pork, which are taboo for the country’s Hindus and Muslims, respectively. … Drinks include Pink Nimbu Paani, an Indian take on the pink lemonade, which here includes chaat masala, a spice mix.
Saritha Rai has more:
“Bangalore is the perfect test market because it is the America of India. Many multinationals are here, people are well-travelled, but cannot find the food they are used to in the US,” said [Dharam] Khalsa. … The Indian palate is quite ready for Mexican food, [Bert] Mueller said: “It’s roti versus tortilla, chutney versus salsa and dal versus beans.” However, the trial runs suggest there are barriers. Many tasters during the trial un-wrapped the foil of their burritos, and proceeded to separate the rice, vegetables and tortilla. “Indians are not used to eating rice and roti together but we hope Bangalore will be the trendsetter,” said Mueller.
Late last year I grabbed drinks in Georgetown with Mueller, one of the company’s founders (and fellow W&M alum and Virginia Informer editor), just days before they left to start the project. Much was still up in the air then; some of the financing had yet to be worked out, and as the WSJ article mentions, getting licensed and acquiring a bank account in India isn’t easy. Apparently they’ve worked all that out — congrats, Bert!
In the course of progress as it’s defined by Big Government and Big Markets, certain ways of life, however honorable and productive on their terms, are gradually cast aside. For a long time, the family farm — and rural life more broadly — seemed to be on that list.
As Wendell Berry wrote in 2002, this relentless attrition has been both cultural and economic:
The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide — less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”
But hold on?
Chrystia Freeland has a somewhat heartening feature in the Atlantic about a “renaissance” of rural life sparked by booming business for farmers. I say “somewhat” because these are large-scale family farmers — Freeland’s father owns 3,200 acres and rents another 2,400 in Alberta, Canada — who, I would wager, don’t meet the Berry standard of sustainability. Plus there’s the fact that behind this Farm Belt boom are many (shall we say) booming appetites abroad.
“The single most important factor in all of this is the changing diet in the emerging markets,” [agricultural consultant Chris] Erickson told me. “If people there go from earning $2 a day to $3 a day, they aren’t going to buy a Mercedes, but they are going to buy a piece of chicken or a piece of pork.” That translates into surging prices for feed grains like corn, soybeans, wheat, and canola, and surging farm incomes around the world.
While the escape from extreme poverty is certainly nothing to bemoan, one can’t help but suspect that increasing rates of obesity won’t trail too far behind.
Still, I think Freeland’s “rural renaissance,” such as it is, is heartening in this respect: It augers for at least a partial reversal of the long — and, we now know, immiserating — trend toward financialization that I’ve written about previously.
Hedge fund honcho Jim Rogers tells Freeland:
“Throughout history, we’ve had long periods when the financial sectors were in charge,” he said, “but we’ve also had long periods when the people who have produced real goods were in charge — the farmers, the miners … All of you people who got M.B.A.s made mistakes, because the City of London and Wall Street are not going to be great places to be in the next two or three decades. It’s going to be the people who produce real goods.”
In any case, do check out the whole article.
Until about three million years ago the ancestors of Homo sapiens were mostly vegetarians, and they most likely wandered in groups from site to site where fruit, tubers, and other vegetable food could be harvested. Their brains were only slightly larger than those of modern chimpanzees. By no later than half a million years ago, however, groups of the ancestral species Homo erectus were maintaining campsites with controlled fire — the equivalent of nests — from which they foraged and returned with food, including a substantial portion of meat. Their brain size had increased to midsize, between that of chimpanzees and modern Homo sapiens. The trend appears to have begun one to two million years previously, when the earlier prehuman ancestor Homo habilis turned increasingly to meat in its diet. With groups crowded together at a single site, and an advantage added by cooperative nest building and hunting, social intelligence grew, along with the centers of memory and reasoning in the prefrontal cortex.
The debate over “group selectionism” will rage on, but I think this much is beyond dispute: if our ancestors had not consumed meat — and subsequently learned to cook it — our brains would never have gotten big enough to morally reject it.
You probably heard about the study published last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine which links red meat to a substantially increased risk of death from all causes. The story has spread through flurry of news reports and proliferated through Facebook and Twitter feeds everywhere. From the New York Times:
Eating red meat is associated with a sharply increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease, according to a new study, and the more of it you eat, the greater the risk.
… after controlling for [smoking, body mass index,] and other variables, they found that each daily increase of three ounces of red meat was associated with a 12 percent greater risk of dying over all, including a 16 percent greater risk of cardiovascular death and a 10 percent greater risk of cancer death. …
“When you have these numbers in front of you, it’s pretty staggering,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Frank B. Hu, a professor of medicine at Harvard.
Judging from these results, on top of the fact that health authorities have been telling us for decades that red meat is unhealthy, there can’t be any doubt that pulling back on all that pork and beef is a good idea, can there? Read More…
Amid this week’s debate over the meaning of a Vatican department’s call for regulation of the global economy, we should note that there are some Catholics who don’t endorse the status quo or a new global Leviathan — these neo-distributists both find fault with current market arrangements and seek local solutions. This position happens to be on display in a new edition of Commonweal, where TAC contributor John Schwenkler and his Mount St. Mary’s University colleague David Cloutier argue for an “Economy of Care,” and suggest that developing new arrangements might begin with the most basic and important commodity: food.