Thursday, August 30, 2012

The American Cheese Society?

You have to pity the poor American Cheese Society. You also have to wonder about Dr. Frank Kosikowski, the Cornell University professor who founded the society back in 1983. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against a society dedicated to supporting “the understanding, appreciation, and promotion of farmstead, artisan, and specialty cheeses produced in the Americas.”

But couldn’t Kosikowski have come up with a better name? The American Cheese Society?

Ask your average American what American cheese is. Ten to one it won’t be the stuff the ACS has in mind—cheeses like Capriole Farmstead’s Julianna, a raw goat milk cheese sprinkled with Herbes de Provence or Cowgirl Creamery’s organic triple-cream Mt Tam.

No. Ask your average American and you’ll get one answer. Kraft Singles. OK. Maybe there’s a second answer. Land O’ Lakes American cheese, sliced at the deli counter. Keep pressing the point and you might even get a third: the spreadable stuff in jars (think Cheez Whiz) or the spray stuff in cans (think Easy Cheese).

Ask the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations what American cheese is and you’ll get a more precise but similarly unartisanal answer: “a type of pasteurized processed cheese.”

More specifically still, according to Article 133, Section 169, paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of the Code, “when cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, Colby cheese, granular cheese, or any mixture of two or more of these is combined with other varieties of cheese in the cheese ingredient, any of such cheeses or such mixture may be designated as ‘American cheese.’” Somehow I doubt whether American cheese—understood in its legal sense—would satisfy the ACS’s dream of “add[ing] diversity to the nation’s diet and preserv[ing] long-standing methods and traditions.” Diversity? You can buy the same packaged slices from New York to California. Long-standing methods and traditions? Only if your idea of long-standing traditions goes no farther back than 1916, when James L. Kraft patented his new method of processing leftover bits of Colby and Cheddar. (By way of comparison, think of this: cheddar cheese has been made since at least the 12th century).

Well, it may not win any awards from the ACS, but American cheese represents half of all the cheese eaten in the United States. In his wildest dreams even Kraft himself couldn’t have imagined what would become of his frugal attempt to reduce waste by shredding refuse cheddar cheese, re-pasteurizing and emulsifying it into “a homogeneous plastic mass” that melts smoothly without separating into ooze and oil, making it the perfect cheese for the millions (billions?) of grilled cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers Americans eat every year. 

But did you know that American cheese isn’t food at all? Not, at least, according to the US Code of Federal Regulations. “Pasteurized process cheese food” refers, not to American cheese, but to a product that, by definition, must consist of at least 51% cheese ingredients (the other 49% consisting of flavorings and additives such as acidity regulators, preservatives, emulsifiers, vitamins and food colorings), a moisture content of less than 44%, and have at least 23% milkfat. And then there’s something called “Pasteurized process cheese spread” which is similar to “pasteurized process cheese food” but has to have a greater moisture content so it can remain spreadable at 70°F. Finally there’s what’s known as “Pasteurized process cheese product” for which no standard of identity has yet been codified—which means that anything can call itself a cheese product and get away with it. 

Calling “cheese food” “cheese” can get you in serious trouble. So can calling a “pasteurized process cheese product” “cheese food,” as Kraft Foods discovered in 2002 when they received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services telling them that their Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Process Cheese Food “are misbranded . . . in that they purport to be or are represented as a food.”

You gotta love it. The cheese eaten by more Americans than any other is only purporting to be food.

Look closely at the packaging next time you’re at the supermarket. Before 2002, what you would have put in your grilled cheese sandwich was sold under the name “American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Food.” After 2002, though, in response to the Department of Health and Human Services’ letter, “food” was dropped from the label. Today what you give your kids for lunch isn’t “food” at all, but “product”: “American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.”

I ask once again: what was Professor Kosikowski thinking of?

Friday, August 17, 2012

On Madde Apples & Swans Egges

Two proverbs for today. The first is attributed to Winston Churchill. “England and America are two countries separated by a common language." 

The second is a traditional Arabic proverb: “A woman who does not know how to prepare eggplant 101 different ways is not yet prepared for marriage.”

Put them together and what do you have? English and American brides-to-be who can’t even decide what to call the vegetable, much less come up with 101 ways to cook it.

Is it an eggplant, as we North Americans like to call it, or an aubergine, as those other English speakers refer to it?

Let’s start with eggplant, since I’m on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a curious name, especially if your default is the large purple variety rather than the smaller white one described in a sixteenth-century Herball, or General Historie of Plants as having “the bignesse of a Swans egge” and which obviously gave the entire species the name we know it by today here in North America.

On the other side of the Atlantic, though, they’re aubergines, which to many Americans might sound more like a shade of nail polish or lipstick than it does something to be cooked for dinner, but the British have long had a penchant for referring to their vegetables by French names. What we call zucchini, they call courgette. Our snow pea is their mangetout. What we know as arugula, they know as rocket, often spelled roquette. (For more on American vs. British vegetable names—not to mention many other instance of our separation by a common language—check out the wonderful blog called, aptly enough, separated by a common language.)

For reasons unknown, North Americans never cozied up to aubergine and I, for one, am glad. I like that the vegetable I cook so often for dinner should have such a funny made-up name, dating only to the 18th century, when someone had the bright idea to put two everyday words together to describe the small white variety. That someone was not, as might be expected, an American, but the English John Abercrombie, author of the 1767 Every Man His Own Gardener. For some reason, however, his neologism took root in the United States rather than in his native country.

I will admit, though, that aubergine wins out in the history-and-circuitous-meanderings-through-ancient-lands-and-languages department. In Sanskrit, it was a vatinganah (which meant, rather unappetizingly, “anti-wind vegetable”), later naturalized by the Persian Empire as badingan. When the Persians conquered Arabia, they brought their badingans with them, where they acquired the Arabic definite article al and were henceforth known as al-badhinjan. When the Arabs, in turn, invaded the Iberian peninsula, their eggplants were soon mispronounced by the Spaniards as berengena. Up in the northern region of Catalonia, the dialect name was an alberginia, which the neighboring French transformed into aubergine, and it is from them that the British appropriated their name for the vegetable.

When it wasn’t being compared to a swan egg, the eggplant was sometimes called a “a Madde or Raging Apple”—probably because it belongs to the deadly nightshade family, which also includes the tomato and potato, by the way. Folk wisdom held that the eggplant would make the eater go mad; hence, “madde apple.” It’s even possible, though not all linguists agree on this, that the Italian name for the vegetable, melanzana, derives from the Latin words mala and insana, in which case, translated literally from the Italian, an eggplant would be an “apple of insanity.”

Here in the United States, however, eggplants have no such psychiatric history but have been plain Jane eggplants, at least since Thomas Jefferson, not only our third president but also a passionate gardener, bemoaned that “I lost by the drought my egg plants” in his 1807 Garden Book and Mary Randolph provided the very first all-American recipes for them in her 1824 The Virginia Housewife, titled, quite simply, “Egg Plant.”

Now for 101 ways to cook it, whether you call it eggplant or aubergine. There’s grilled eggplant slices and baba ghanoush. There’s moussaka and my favorite Szechuan eggplant, spicy with chili paste and garlic (recipe below). There’s caponata, the Sicilian sweet and sour spread of eggplant, tomatoes, olives, and capers, and there’s late-summer Provençale ratatouille. There’s eggplant cooked with a Bengali mixture of cumin, fennel, nigella, fenugreek and black mustard seeds, and there’s the dish that used to be called “Vegetarian Chopped Liver,” a paste of eggplant, onions, and hardboiled eggs. Of course there’s no end of ways to stuff an eggplant and there’s the ubiquitous eggplant parmesan, but, truth be told, if I were an eggplant, being breaded, fried, slathered in tomato sauce, and covered with cheese would be my idea of a fate worse than rotting on the vine.

Even including eggplant parmesan, though, one thing is very clear. When it comes to eggplant cookery, there’s not a single young Arab bride-to-be who couldn’t outleague me in a heartbeat. And there’s something else that’s equally clear. She’d know what to call it.

Spicy Szechuan Eggplant 

Peanut oil, enough to coat the wok or pan
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2” piece fresh ginger, minced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
Eggplant, either 1 large one or several long slender ones (the Chinese or Japanese varieties are best in this dish), cubed, but not peeled
2 tbsp soy sauce
Chili sauce to taste (start with 1 tsp and build up)
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
1 tsp sesame oil
Cilantro, chopped but not too finely

Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a wok or large sauté pan & briefly stir-fry the garlic, ginger, and scallions just until fragrant. Add the eggplant cubes and stir to coat. Add the soy sauce, chili sauce, sugar, and vinegar & stir to coat. Let cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is soft, brown, but not too sludgy. Add the sesame oil and cilantro and stir to coat. Serve hot with rice. This is even better cold the next day, with an extra splash of soy sauce and sesame oil.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How do you like your corn, honey? Sugar'd or Syrupy-Sweet?

Lately it seems you can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without stumbling on something about corn syrup—the high fructose variety, that is. You almost have to pity the poor beleaguered Corn Refiners Association whose petition to the FDA to change the dread name of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to “corn sugar” was recently denied. What a beating the stuff has taken, with luminaries like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle suggesting that it be called “Enzymatically Altered Corn Glucose” or “Corn Glucose and Fructose Syrup.”

Like the rest of the world, I’m all for wholesome and nutritious food and far be it from me to enter the fray currently raging on whether the body is capable of distinguishing between sucrose, glucose, and fructose. I have my own, more humble, interest in the debate over the re-naming of high fructose corn syrup. Why does the Corn Refiners Association think “sugar” sounds more appealing than “syrup”? Is it simply any old name change they want or do they think there’s something particular about “syrup” that’s been hurting sales?

Obviously sugar has a place not only in our cakes and candies, but in our romantic vocabulary as well. Who doesn’t know the old songs “Sugar, ah Honey, Honey, you are my candy girl and you’ve got me wanting you” and “Sugarpie, Honeybunch, you know that I love you”? But when was the last time you heard anyone calling his sweetie “Syrup”? Is it that much harder to croon than “Sugar”—or “Honey,” “Sweetheart,” “Pumpkin,” or “Apple Dumpling”? If you can call the one you love “Pumpkin” or “Apple Dumpling,” then why, for heaven’s sake, not “Syrup”?

Now, few people would say no to Vermont maple syrup on their pancakes or to a glog of chocolate syrup in a tall glass of milk. Cough syrup may not be as appetizing, but if it does the job it’s meant to do, we try our best to swallow it. We have a harder time swallowing syrupy words, though, because we know they’re likely to be exaggerated, less than honest, a bit saccharine, or just not quite right. Sweet-talk is all well and good, but cloyingly sweet sweet-talk is, well, just plain syrupy.

None of this is to say that sugar is exempt from such sour associations. Shakespeare himself warned against poison decked out “with sugar’d words” and what’s a Sugar Daddy—and I don’t mean the candy—but a rich guy who trades expensive gifts for favors of a more corporeal nature? There’s a website called Sugar World that matches up wannabe Sugar Daddies with wannabe Sugar Babies: “Treat your sugar baby right and she will be your arm candy,” it promises prospective clients. I make no comment on the morality of the site; I simply note the words it uses, which, if you ask me, are a bit syrupy.

In this context, I wonder whether a historical coincidence is so very coincidental after all. The 1930’s witnessed the huge popularity of corn syrup—it was in the 30’s that the wife of a Karo Corn Syrup sales executive “discovered a new use for corn syrup. A mixture of corn syrup, sugar, eggs, vanilla and pecans baked in a pie shell produces the now classic Pecan Pie destined to become a world class favorite.” It was also at this time that “Sugar” was first used as a term of endearment. Strange, isn’t it? If Karo Corn Syrup suddenly became the ingredient du jour, why was it “Sugar” that became the preferred nom d’amour?

Perhaps because, as I think it’s safe to say, syrup is a stickier word than sugar, which makes me wonder whether, some eighty years later, the Corn Refiners Association wants to ditch the old familiar name "corn syrup" because it’s been dragged through the mud by nutrition advocates or because they wanted to cash in on some of the honest-to-goodness sweetness of sugar.
So cast your votes. How do you want your corn? Sugar'd or syrupy?