What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But a few years ago, high from the fumes of finishing my dissertation and still waiting idly for my defense date to come, I binge watched the television reality show Cake Boss and became convinced that I needed to write an article about it.

Several weeks later, I had a publishable article, or so I thought. After a couple of revise and resubmits I lost interest in the thing, and my fleeting career in cultural studies ended just as it began. But I was thinking of it recently, in the context of how the twin narratives of the mythological American dream and white identity have worked discursively in supporting Trump’s ascendance.

Continue reading “What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?”

Veganism and the Limits of Quotation Food

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we know that the monster is in fact the hero, because he speaks with such eloquence about the cruelty of man. Cast out into a world alone with a visage that afforded him no chance of finding companionship, he fosters a hatred for his creator, but its a hatred informed by a noble sense of suffering and a keen sense of imagination for a world in which justice and kindness might be ubiquitous. Is it any wonder then that the monster is vegan? Should we be surprised when Frankenstein’s monster tells his creator, “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment”?

The way vegan food is discussed today, one would be surprised to find Shelley writing such a notion two centuries ago. A confluence of histories, of discourses, have converged to present the fiction that vegan food is novel, new, and nascent. In one sense, vegan food is undoubtedly a social construct. That is, in the nineteenth century Shelley didn’t conceive of eating nuts and berries as being already constitutive of a particular category of ethically oriented food consumption. Yet I want to talk a bit about how vegan food is “constructed” in a different sense; it is constructed to be analogous to food itself; it is constructed as food façade. Continue reading “Veganism and the Limits of Quotation Food”

My Daily Bread – Part II

Read the first part here.

If I had to speculate as to why the gluten-free trend has become so popular, despite all evidence pointing to a lack of a connection between health and gluten consumption, I think I would posit that the phenomena allows the food industry to — please excuse me — have its cake and eat it too.

One segment of the population that goes gluten free ends up eating less processed food in general, and less refined grains and sugars in particular. And that’s great. The label “gluten free,” as arbitrary as this may actually be, has become a means by which people make better consumption choices. Both the food industry — which has gone all in by creating and investing in the market segment that is “gluten free” — as well as the consumer win.

Another segment of the population that goes gluten free is drawn, with less beneficial effect, to the wealth of novel products that have been produced for this new niche market. And arguably unlike other food trends, this one lends itself well to packaged and hyper-processed foods. All manufacturers need to do is replace the wheat flour with anything ground up that will hold together given enough xantham gum (whatever that is). This segment of the population might not escape the onset of metabolic syndrome, but they too, like the first segment of those gone gluten free, feel attended to as the savvy consumers they are.

That’s all rather glib of me, and of course, a very small population has a very good reason to avoid gluten. But to be fair, I take the same stance towards vegan food. I practice eating only plant-based foods myself, but I abhor the degree to which consumers fall for the luster of vegan food products as if their manufacturers see buyers as fellow comrades in a morally righteous battle instead of understanding what manufacturers actually see: a market segment on which they might capitalize. The food business has become good at killing all kinds of animals, both human and non-human, and a food politics is only legitimate, in my view, if it takes these aspects into account.

The praxis of those politics must include eating food that tastes good, and that’s where my bread comes in. Now that you’ve got a starter, making good bread just requires a little planning ahead. I make my wild yeast breads a bit differently than other folks; in short, I use a very small piece of starter instead of large one. The benefit is that I don’t have to throw out a big chunk of starter every week. And the process works just as well with starter that hasn’t been fed in a day as it does with starter that hasn’t been fed in two weeks. The drawback is that it takes about 24 hours to go from making bread dough to baking it. But that’s not really a drawback, since you can go about your business during those 24 hours.

The following is about the simplest way to bake bread using old-school methods. A warning though: this bread might look funny, but that’s only because we’ve all developed funny notions over the past century and a half about what “real” bread looks like.

24 Hours Before You Want to Bake Bread

This need not be exactly 24 hours, it could be really be 20 hours, or 27 hours. In a large bowl, mix up 500g whole wheat flour, 8g kosher/coarse salt, 400g water, and 5g starter. Mix it up with your hand, squeezing and mashing it until it forms a rough, wet, batter-like dough. If you’re mashing for a minute and there’s still flour at the bottom of the container, add a little more water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dry flour is gone.

(If you don’t have a digital scale, use about 4 cups whole wheat flour, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 cups water, and about a teaspoon of starter. As always, don’t worry too much about getting exact measurements.)

Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a lid, and leave out at room temperature for about a day.

30 Minutes Before You Want to Bake Bread

Preheat your oven to 450F and if you have a pizza stone, make sure its in your oven. Even if you’re not making pizza or cooking directly on the stone, having it in the oven makes everything bake more evenly.

Oil a loaf pan lightly with olive oil. Or grab a baking sheet and lightly oil it. Or throw down some parchment paper on the baking sheet. Or use a silicone mat if you have one.

Sprinkle some flour down on your countertop — get a good layer down — and then scoop out your dough onto the counter. Get a little flour on your hands, and then fold each of the four ends of dough over itself. (In other words, grab the left side and fold it right, and then grab the right side and fold it left, then grab the top side and fold it down, and then grab the bottom side and fold it up.) This just tightens up the gluten and makes the dough easier to handle.

Now you should be able easily lift any part of the dough and fold it towards the middle. Do this with each of the four sides as before so that the dough gets tighter and begins to resemble an oblong spheroid, if not an actual ball. If you lift it up and turn it upside down, you’ll see that the bottom side — which is now facing up — looks nice and smooth.

At any point that you’re folding the dough, if things get sticky, just sprinkle a little more flour on the counter, your hands, and/or the dough.

So now, you can place the dough on the baking sheet or in the loaf pan. Note that if you’re not using a loaf pan, the lump of dough will flatten and spread out before it gets put in the oven. Most people like to put the nice side looking side up, but others do the opposite, it’s up to you. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour and cover it with a tea towel or plastic wrap.

Let the dough rest for 30 minutes while the oven preheats. (You want a nice long preheat time so the oven builds up “thermal mass.”)

Baking Time

With a sharp chef’s knife, make 3 or 4 parallel cuts in the dough, about 1/2 inch deep. This works best if you make quick deliberate cuts and don’t worry too much about their depth. Or you can skip this step entirely. (You might get what bakers call a blow out but the bread will taste just as good, I promise.) Put the bread in the oven.

After 30 minutes, rotate the pan. 10 minutes later, start checking it every 10 minutes. When it’s done, it should have at least one or two dark brown spots. It should come easily off of the pan when its done, and if you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should feel kind of as if it were hollow. It’s hard to over bake bread, so don’t worry too much about leaving it in if you’re unsure.

Let the bread cool for at least an hour. If you don’t wait it’s not the end of the world, but the inside of the bread is still cooking in a way, even though it’s left the oven. When you cut into it too soon, the knife will get gummy and it will be harder to slice.

My Daily Bread – Part I

What can I say, I’m a bread baking geek. I cultivate my own starter. I use words like “couche” and “brotform” and “levain.”

People often ask me how I find time to bake my own bread, or how they can learn how to do it too. The truth is, it’s all pretty easy. But it’s also true that bread books over-complicate the process and make it seem intimidating. It’s taken me some time to learn enough to know that although you can spend years trying to perfect your bread baking skills, it’s also a damn near impossible process to screw up.

After all, haven’t people been baking bread since the time of ancient Egypt? If they could do it without spending hundreds of dollars on Le Creuset hardware and recipe books written by insufferable San Franciscans (I kid!), can’t we do it too?

I thought I might share some tips for my friends who are interested in learning how to bake bread, but I can’t help first make a detour, and mention that as with anything else, we can learn much about the current cultural-political-epicurean bread landscape by historicizing it. There are some very good books about the history of bread out there, and probably chief among them is White Bread by Aaron Bobrow Strain. I believe Michael Pollan has written about the history of bread in one or two of his books as well.

Here are the bullet points:

1. All bread used to be sourdough bread. When bread is fermented naturally, using “wild yeast,” bakers call that sourdough. Industrial yeast was isolated about 150 years ago. Sourdough bread tastes better and is probably better for you. But when bread became big business, factories turned to industrial yeast because it produces more consistent, homogenous results and because it allows for a vast reduction in production time.

2. Most bread used to be whole grain. Before the industrial revolution, bread was ground by mill stones. Then, if a baker wanted to make white bread, he or she would have to sift the bran manually. This was expensive, and so only rich people ate white bread. (This is why the rich were said to be “refined,” because they ate refined grains. It’s also why they were obese.) After the industrial revolution, large industrial mills used iron rollers, which ejected the bran automatically, and made white bread easier to make. As a bonus, in the early 20th century, corporations could now hold up their pure white breads as an alternative to the “un-pure” dark breads made by the allegedly dirty and non-white peoples arriving from Eastern Europe.

3. People didn’t always knead bread. It’s a twentieth century phenomenon that is most likely contingent on the shorter fermentation times and drier doughs that became the norm with industrialization. Traditionally, bakers wouldn’t have to knead because when dough naturally ferments with wild yeast, the gluten formation happens naturally. But kneading may also have become popular because it was a conspicuous form of gendered household labor that became normalized at mid-century.

4. Bread didn’t always have weird conditioners and chemicals in it. Bread dough is wet, sticky, and alive, and these are three things that machines don’t really like. So as bread production became industrialized, these things were added for their benefit and not yours.

It may be that these bullet points, especially the first two, explain how bread became a kind of villain in contemporary nutrition discourse. Modern practices may make gluten harder to digest for some people, and refined grains are almost definitely responsible for a whole host of health problems. But I assure you, that unless you have celiac disease, a rare but serious condition, there is nothing wrong with eating gluten or bread. Especially if you make it my way.

Okay, on to the bread baking, almost. First you need to cultivate a starter. It takes about a week, but you only need to do this once.

Sourdough starter

You’ll need a place to store your starter. I recommend using a little tupperware container, something that will hold about two cups. A little bowl is fine too.

Mix 50 grams of whole wheat flour with 40 grams of cool or cold water. Stir and and smush it together with your hand. Cover it with the tupperware lid or plastic wrap, but if you’re using a lid, don’t snap it on, just place it on top. (You don’t really want air to get in, but you want gas to be able to escape.) Leave at room temperature overnight.

NB: Don’t worry too much about exact measurements. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, try doing 2T of water and 4T of ww flour.

Day 2: Throw out all but 20 grams of the starter. Then, add 25 grams more of the whole wheat flour, and 20 grams more of cool or cold water, and mix it up with your hand. Again, cover loosely and leave at room temperature.

If you’re measuring by volume, try doing 2T of starter, 2T of water, and 4T of ww flour.

Days 3-6: Repeat what you did on day 2. By day 3 or 4, it should start to smell more sour and get a little bubbly. If a dark liquid forms, that’s totally normal and fine, you can just smush or stir it back in.

Day 7: By now you’ve got a starter. You can keep it in the fridge, that way you don’t need to feed it every day. When you keep it in the fridge, you want to put the lid on tight. This is because when its refrigerated, dough doesn’t really produce gases. But if the lid is loose, you run the risk of the dry refrigerator air dehydrating your dough. Remember: at room temperature, cover loosely. In the fridge, cover tightly.

Feeding the starter

If you keep the starter in the fridge, you still want to take it out and feed it once a week, or once every couple of weeks at least. Just take it out of the fridge, throw out all but 20 grams, add 25 grams of whole wheat flour, 20 grams of water, and smush with your hand. Let it sit out 5 to 8 hours (or overnight), covered loosely, before covering tightly and placing back in the fridge.

Next week we bake!