The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

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A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Help, I’m out of yeast!

Anyone who knows me know that I bake––in case the posts about ancient bread and slew of baked goods on Instagram didn’t give me a way. The recent pandemic has inspired many people, and quite possibly everyone, to start baking, creating a shock to the flour supply chain and sold many stores entirely out of yeast. I have primarily baked using a sourdough starter for a few years now, but since I have had several conversations with people in the past two days, I thought I would collect that advice here.

Commercially-available yeast, at least in the United States, is most common either as active-dry or instant yeast (active dry technically needs proofing to activate the yeast, instant has more living cultures straight from the packet), in a shelf-stable dry version developed by Fleischmann’s during World War Two. Both types are baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) harvested from a strain first isolated in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur and protected from other yeasts and bacteria like lactobacillus that occur naturally in the environment in order to produce a regular, reliable product.

The creation of commercial yeast makes baking easy, but people have been baking without it for thousands of years, so there are plenty of options for anyone who wants to keep baking. Here are four tried and true replacements for commercial yeast:

1. Make unleavened flatbreads. Passover might have just passed, but you can make matzah anytime, and the best soft varieties are just an an unleavened flatbread. Similarly, you could go with Indian Roti or flour tortillas pretty easily.

2. Make soda bread. Yesterday I declared beer bread a waste of good beer, but every once in a while it goes very well with some honey or maple butter, and there is a whole world of soda breads that you can try. These breads using baking powder and/or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as its leavening agent. Too much of the leavening agent can leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and most simply aren’t to my taste, but they are an easy workaround if you don’t have yeast. Try this one for a cheddar cheese enriched soda bread from King Arthur Flour.

3. Harvest yeast from raisins. Seriously. A few years back I came across a story about a baker in France recreating the bread distributed to French soldiers during World War One. His scratch yeast came from raisins, which makes sense given both ancient precedent (Pliny the Elder mentions creating levain from millet kneaded with grape must, NH 18.26) and that the original baker’s yeast was identified on the skin of grapes. This technique is easily recreated at home; I promise that your bread will not taste like raisins unless you actually add raisins to the dough, at which point you are on your own.

4. Just make a sourdough starter. As Instagram culture and social media in general fuels all manner of anxieties surrounding people’s body and lifestyles, so too does it drive attitudes around sourdough. There are hundreds of videos about making the rustic Tartine country loaf. I know, I’ve watched them, and I still regularly fail to create the perfect loaf. My oven sucks, I don’t have the ideal dutch oven, I am notoriously ambivalent to precisely-weighing my ingredients* and yet my sourdough starters (I actually have two) still make spectacular breads without a hint of commercial yeast. My easy go-to bread is a simple sandwich loaf enriched with just a little bit of sugar and milk.

*This only holds true for breads; cookies and cakes require much more precision.

In short, the idea that you have to be “ready” for a sourdough starter is a myth, and with a little bit of care to adjust for different ratio of flour to water you can make any recipe. I’ve been known to tag Instagram posts with #sourdougheverything.

(To do this, prime the starter with water and flour to get it going ahead of time, and then add this to the recipe, adding extra flour a little at a time to reach the right dough consistency. The amount of flour will vary based on a number of factors, including how wet your starter is, how much of it you use, and the type of flour you’re using. You will need to allow more time, up to 1.5 or 2x, depending on the temperature and the starter’s activity, over what the recipe calls for with commercial yeast.)

Much as with harvesting yeast from the skin of grapes, natural leavening has been around for millenia, cultivating strains of yeast from the environment and the flour itself. The process is actually very easy––all you need is time. There are numerous guides available online and if you’re worried about harmful bacteria, use one with citrus which inhibits the growth of those strains until the good stuff can take over (grapefruit juice is the most common; I used lime).

Once the starter gets going, it is actually quite easy to maintain. I have been using two sets of the same strain cultivated in my kitchen for year, sometimes going as long as a few weeks between feedings. I keep my starters in Tupperware in the fridge taking out a small portion and building it up in preparation for each bake. When the base gets low, usually about once a week at my rate, I refresh it using a 1 cup of water and roughly 1.5 cups of flour and letting it feed for a few hours until it becomes fluffy and doubles or so in volume before it goes back into the fridge. Here are more detailed instructions.

I might be a sourdough heretic in some respects, and my instructions do not bring the starter quite to its most active the way that the instructions that call for three or four feedings in the day or so right before baking, but it is an easy way to manage a starter without discarding any of it.

Happy baking!

Beware of Pity

The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it. Then followed an attempt to put things right; but if you try to repair a watch in too much of a hurry, you’re likely as not to put the whole works out of order.

It is 1913 and 1914 and Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller of the Imperial Uhlans is stationed at a sleepy provincial garrison. Hofmiller is well-mannered and supported by an aunt who insisted he join the cavalry, but, unlike his fellow officers, he is not from a family of money. It comes as a shock, therefore, when a local lord, von Kekesfalva, requests his presence at a dinner party. Hofmiller goes as though in a dream, meeting important people and dancing the night away. Realizing at some point that he has not yet danced with Edith, his host’s daughter, he seeks her out and in his most cultured manner extends an invitation. Only then does he realize his gaffe: Edith cannot walk.

Embarrassed, Hofmiller compounds his shame by fleeting the party. In the clear light of day he decides that he must make amends, sending flowers and a note that entangles him further in the Kekesfalva drama and unwittingly initiates a courtship with the daughter.

Rarely does a novel’s title double as its thesis statement. Hofmiller’s tragic flaw is his sense of honor and propriety that leads him to want to dance with the host’s daughter, which leads to his simple attempt to make amends, which leads to his taking pity on Edith, which initiates his cascading series of social crises. Thus, according to Zweig, his pity proves his undoing as he has neither the callousness to extricate himself from the situation nor the calculated instinct to take full advantage of it.

“Our decisions are to a much great extend dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.”

This simple conceit of Beware of Pity makes much of the plot eminently predictable. It was abundantly clear from the jump that the climax would involve an ill-fated marriage proposal, with the only question being whether they would follow through on it. But, like with Zweig’s other novels, its strength lies in the psychological depth that he builds into the characters, such that the conflict emerges from the life breathed into their emotional relationships and competing agendas.

Beware of Pity read like an allegory about the decay in Austria in the year immediately before World War One. There was peace, stability, and people like the doctor treating Edith trying to do what they can, but also runaway inequality and a wealthy class represented a crippled young woman and her sad, sick father who is revealed to be a fraud. All of this makes for an compellingly ornate novel––Zweig cannot be accused of being spare in his description––but also one rife with problems that cannot simply be excused as a product of its time (the late 1930s).

Take Kekesfalva’s background. Lajos von Kekesfalva, we learn, was in fact born Leopold Kanitz in a poor Jewish village along the the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, only to work his way up in society, “magyarizing” his name and pinching every penny until a chance inheritance gave him an opening to marry the naive and unsuspecting heiress, gaining title and fortune in one stroke. The genuine affection Kekesfalva has for his daughter seems to speak well for his relationship for his wife, but that doesn’t excuse that our generous and gregarious aristocrat is revealed to be an unscrupulous Jew painted using the antisemitic colors of the day.

I had a similar reaction to the disability plot, even beyond a possible interpretation of it as punishment for Kekesfalva, even though that actual condition sounded to my minimally-informed ear like polio. It was hard not to empathize with Edith’s resolve to be independent, but that only goes so far toward ameliorating that the novel is built around the idea that her disability was something to be pitied. This spilled over into believable aspects of the relationship––e.g. Hofmiller infantilizing Edith while considering her mobile cousin as a potential sexual partner––that introduced further complications.

The problem with Beware of Pity, as well as other Zweig novels, is that the same features that make it so compellingly readable––especially the way it luxuriates in the emotional lives of its main characters––magnify, and sometimes even introduce, its problems. I liked Beware of Pity, all told, and it is in a lot of ways a more complete novel than The Post Office Girl, which I actually liked better, but there were too many issues baked into its structure for me to consider it a masterpiece.

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I have developed quite a backlog of books recently, having finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I plan to write about some of these, but am starting to doubt that I will get to them all. Next up, I just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

In the Land of Green Plums

“At the time I still believed that in a world without guards people would walk differently from the way we do in our country. Where people are allowed to think and write differently, I thought, they will also walk differently.”

I pick the books I read somewhat haphazardly by what sounds interesting at a given moment, but sometimes relax by researching new books to read. Sometimes this is easy––checking to see what favorite authors have published recently––other searches take more creativity, particularly in order to widen the range of voices I read books by. In one search late last year for non-English-language fiction about totalitarian regimes written by women I found The Queue, which I wrote about earlier, and this one, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums.

Set at the height of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign of terror in Romania, The Land of Green Plums is a gripping, ethereal tale centered on the story of an unnamed young woman trying to survive in a land dominated by criminals and thieves. The story opens in a girls’ dormitory where the residents improvise mascara out of spit and soot, dream of nylons, and trade sexual favors for organ meat of slaughtered animals. And then Lola, a young girl who dreamed of studying Russian at university, hangs herself in the closet.

Life continues. At school the narrator makes friends with three men, Edgar, Kurt, and Georg, all German-speaking Romanians with whom she dreams about a better life, writing poetry and talking about freedom. All the while they expect to be arrested. The end of school scatters across the country, but they agree to write and institute a code––a hair in the seal of the envelope and particular phrases meant to reassure that they are alright and detect the Securitate reading their missives. Of course, having three male friends complicates the narrator’s life since it leads to gossip that she sleeps with all of them.

In this period after school, Müller puts a name and face to the society tormenting the narrator (Captain Pjele) and builds out a cast of the oppressed, particularly in the form of her friend Tereza. Pjele repeatedly torments the narrator, and subjects her to all manner of abuses and degradations, and she wants nothing more than to vandalize his home. He continues to terrorize her even after her departure, sending death threats to her new residence in Germany. Tereza, by contrast, is a victim of society who befriends the narrator on Pjele’s order and doesn’t feel capable of escaping even as a tumor grows unchecked on her underarm.

I found the plot of The Land of Green Plums like trying to follow a half-remembered dream, but the its greatest strength is its beauty. Müller’s prose is hauntingly beautiful whether depicting the frustrations of oppression or, especially, when capturing a fleeting moment of tranquility despite it all:

“Here no one was a guest, they were all just refugees from a meaningless afternoon.”

Although not explicitly autobiographical, the narrator’s life loosely follows Müller’s experience living in and escaping from Ceaușescu’s Romania, which imbues The Land of Green Plums with the gross indignities and the tiny joys that continue to exist within under such a regime. Trauma is laced throughout the novel, but so too are hope, fear, petty jealousies, and even guilt.

And yet, my response to the book was in the end mixed. I liked The Land of Green Plums, but reading it was like falling into a fugue state almost as though it was magical realism. Elements of this disassociation contributed to why individual scenes will stay with me even while the book as a whole may not.

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Through a month of online teaching, my state of mind is more “existential dread” than “bored.” My employment transitioned online, creating a load of new work, but it is set to end in about a month. Meanwhile, fallout from COVID-19 has canceled multiple jobs that I had either interviewed or applied for and dried up the prospects of continuing in the positions I have been teaching, even as a short-term bridge.

Despite all this, I have still been reading, recently finishing Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I hope to review some or all of these in the near future.