In praise of Mark Bittman, and of the vegetarian approach

Pardon the slight preachiness that this post of mine will inevitably contain, but I think it’s as important a ‘this is a core part of my view of life’ post as any I’ve written so far, and one which I hope will be of use to others!

For some time now I’ve been singing the praises of Mark Bittman thanks to a chance encounter with his book How to Cook Everything, which good friend Stripey lent me a couple of years back when I was beginning to properly cook more at home in earnest — she’s recently reclaimed it and picked up a new copy for me, which was terribly kind of her. It’s a simply excellent text, because in its straightforward and wide-ranging way it establishes basics for a starting cook, covers a lot of different dishes and — very importantly — implicitly and explicitly encourages you to consider variety. It’s not a rule book to cooking things exactly right; instead it’s a protean text wherein you get those basics down precisely because you can then experiment. It’s comparable to Alton Brown‘s work — and both of course have their TV shows and general media profile — in that both are enthusiastic, encouraging and ultimately geared towards the at-home experimenter who wants to step up a bit, knowing that there’s a professional level that may never be properly achieved, but that one can still do a lot with what one has.

Bittman’s latest work is even more geared for myself and I’m strongly considering picking it up — How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, specifically designed for the cook and consumer, as Bittman describes himself, who is not vegetarian him- or herself, but wishes to cook vegetarian in general as a matter of course. It’s essentially what I’ve tried to do for the most part ever since switching over to the CSA program via South Coast Farms and the Avanti Cafe, because to my mind it’s the most logical thing to do. It’s good to know that I can prepare up any number of vegetarian or vegan meals as needed, and in terms of personal health as well as consideration for guests or friends at pot-luck parties or the like, it strikes me as the soundest way forward. I very rarely if ever cook meat at home, and I am more than content with that. (Also, it’s very handy to know that you only ever use your cooking implements for non-meat purposes — no need to maintain a separate set!)

Bittman’s written a regular column for the NY Times over the moons and yesterday published an absolutely crackerjack entry, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” which I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. It’s a summation of various concerns and conclusions rather than anything strikingly new, but he’s using the bully pulpit well to call attention to any number of issues on a very wide level, from international economics to animal rights, to drive home what I feel is an extremely important observation — namely, that meat consumption can and should be reduced in general.

It’s important to note that this is a measured approach rather than an absolute one — if you are a vegetarian or vegan and feel that any meat consumption is unjustifiable for moral or other reasons, you will find that this approach goes nowhere near far enough, so that should be kept in mind. On the flipside, though, if you’re thinking that Bittman’s is some sort of granola-hippie rant, it’s high time you left those sterotypes behind you — they are LONG past expired, believe me. I fully believe that Bittman is in the right place at the right time here, and it’s a pleasure to hear him speak so cogently on the point. To draw out a couple of key paragraphs:

Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources .

Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?

In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won’t be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” asked Mr. Pollan.

Really, all I have to add at this point is that I find that cooking at home and eating in a predominantly but not universally vegetarian way is something that I see as eminently logical. The confluence of opportunities and options that have recently resulted in the trends of past years — everything from appreciating local foods and growing patterns for what they are to understanding that the options for new combinations of flavors, tastes and foods are limited only by one’s imagination — is no less powerful than that which I’m also talking about this week in the realm of music in the digital world.

And I say this while also acknowledging that I do still eat meat, but not on a regular basis and certainly not three times a day. If anything I have it at lunch, when I am at work, but I do not do so every day by any stretch of the imagination, and if I do have a heavier meal for lunch, I look to having a much lighter one at dinner. This just makes a certain logical sense. Arguably, the fact that I am having meat when eating at outside sources rather than controlling my preparation of it myself is its own concern, so I try and balance that out when I can — but again, many times I do not have meat as part of the meal at all. Will I ever give up eating meat entirely? Quite honestly, I do not think so, but neither do I rule it out. Ultimately time will tell.

I do not say this is a requirement for all to pursue — to insist is not my way. But I can’t see any reason not to encourage this for those who wish to try it, to consider your options and take chances where affordable and possible. It seems to me that the only thing I have lost in going this route is, in fact, weight — 25 pounds less than where I was two years ago. You can darn well believe I feel better all around for that reason alone.

Chard with currants and pine nuts

Had a lot of chard I needed to cook up so this recipe seemed promising. I had currants instead of raisins, as the recipe suggests, and no marjoram, but tarragon provided a nice taste in contrast. A small bit of bread and a glass of chardonnay filled it out nicely!

* 3 bunches Swiss chard, red preferable
* 3 tablespoons olive oil
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme
* 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
* 1/4 cup raisins
* 1/4 cup pine nuts
* to taste, salt
* to taste, pepper

1. Put the raisins in a small bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them soak until you are ready to add them to the dish.

2. Clean the chard: Fill a sink or a large pot with cold water and swirl the leaves around gently to allow the soil to sink to the bottom. Drain them in a large collander stem-end up.

3. Trim the chard by cutting away the green from the stems. Trim the stems, discarding the dry ends. Cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Cut the green parts coarsely into about 1-1/2 inch wide strips.

4. Put the butter and oil in a large saute pan and melt over a low heat.

5. While the butter is melting, use a small frying pan to toast the pine nuts. Heat the pan over a medium heat. Add the nuts, and toast, stirring frequently until they begin to brown slightly. Turn off the heat under the pan.

6. When the pan with the oil is heated, add the thyme and marjoram. Stir and add the chard promptly. The chard is very bulky until it cooks down. I use tongs at first to turn it over in the pan and thoroughly mix the oil and herbs through the chard.

7. As soon as the chard is down to a manageable volume, add the drained raisins. Turn the heat very low and cover for just a few minutes until the chard wilts completely.

8. Taste the chard, and add salt and pepper as desired. Immediately prior to serving, stir in the pine nuts, or serve them on the side.

Unpacking my digital library — first thoughts

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in a rather tedious but necessary task. One by one — by one — all those hundreds (and there are hundreds) of CDRs and DVDRs that I’ve accumulated over the years, all pretty much stuffed to the gills of mp3s and similar files I’ve ripped and the like, are being read and their contents shifted over to my new hard drive. It’s something I’ve just long wanted to do, and now the time is here to do it — arguably very, very late in the process, of course.

Looking back on that 136 list of mine from almost nine years back now, I’m both amused and gratified by my combination of naivete and relative insight:

While the hype regarding mp3s and so forth has mostly remained that during the latter part of the decade – from a strictly capitalist point of view, the market is promising but still very small, and limited by infrastructure and other technical issues – ten years will see this change radically. Enough initial toes-dipped-in-water scenarios have occurred, wherein increasingly bigger name acts have made songs available for free download to entice album purchases and, far more importantly, for download of a song for direct purchase independent of an album. While this is on the face of it little more than an extension of the basic philosophy of vinyl [and CD, etc.] singles, it’s not that hard to extend this situation wherein a musician can eschew formal ‘album’ releases in favor of simply uploading newer songs as they are recorded to a central location. From there, purchasers can take what they want, make their own mixes from an extensive back catalog, select some songs but not others from the newest batch, and so forth. No doubt discussion and planning for such a possible variety of approaches is going on right now, and will only accelerate.

Studying where this is all right and wrong would take forever, though I am intrigued how long it took for something like the In Rainbows situation — very vaguely forecasted here — to finally come about. In essence, it took that long for the market to be ready for it, and by ‘the market’ I mean everyone involved in it, from band to consumers and back again; it’s not that Radiohead were per se revolutionary — as was made clear over the past few months, they were perfect fine with the standard model so long as it was something they would be on better terms with than they were with EMI. In essence, it was a process of culmination at work — an act with a high enough profile to be able to publicize a certain approach just by idly announcing it on their website.

But that’s speculation on a different matter than what I’m doing right now, which involves — as I demi-romantically like to see it — freeing up all these files that have been sitting around, waiting to be listened to but for the most part just sitting around. Now, most of them will remain unheard in their new home as well — there just isn’t enough time in the day — but being able to call up random songs is always very entertaining. And this itself is not a new thing at all — these past few years, as assumptions about music have radically changed, so too have the methods of consumption.

Tackling another bit from my essay:

The album model is not set in stone, but a creation of the technologies and limitations available in the mid-century: how much you could fit on any one side of a vinyl slab, the attendant size of the product and need to create art or design works of that size, and so forth. As much as vinyl fetishists kicked against the compact disc dominance of the last two decades, CDs at least fit a familiar listening model still. The rise of this new model, which like every other musical medium will get increasingly cheaper and with wider access for both purchasing and actual creation of music, is a much different kettle of fish. Uniform ‘releases’ may become increasingly irrelevant when two different consumers judge the same batch of songs from an artist and select only those which please them, and therefore only keep those. If one person’s Album X is different from another’s, and both are notably different [in amounts of songs, running order, whatever] from ‘the Album X sessions’ database all tracks were downloaded from, the potential implications for both albums as an artifact and the methods in which recorded music collections are criticized will play out for years to come.

My biggest mistake here was of course the assumption of a base album as still being a big priority — it is in some corners, but not as much anymore. My ‘Album X sessions’ idea has played out but only in a very limited sense for a specific audience — for instance, New Pornographers fans, given the release of the ‘Executive Edition’ of Challengers. But the new model — driven of course in large part by Apple, but the Amazon mp3 Store provides a new model in turn — is increasingly becoming the model, tied up as it is with the assumption of entertainment as digitally-driven and downloaded, something that constantly gaining further ground in an overlapping series of waves.

I’ll have some more thoughts tomorrow about all this, and how I’ve been looking at all this process as I rip and transfer and store and finally fully create my new ‘record collection’ as such.

Quiet weekend reflections

After what’s been a hectic few weeks, I’m taking advantage of this weekend to do a lot of very quiet stuff here at the apartment — some writing, some reading, a dinner out tonight with some friends but otherwise keeping low key. So here’s another catchall of thoughts:

  • I haven’t read it all yet but Parag Khanna’s piece in the New York Times considering the end of American hegemony posits a variety of interesting thoughts on the subject, and is well worth considering given both the election and the times. The other night close friend Mackro and myself were having an in-depth phone conversation regarding the state of things in general and while I’m not positive if I brought it up fully, one big factor right now is the fact that in an increasingly economically interdependent world, much is fully beyond national control — ie, it doesn’t really matter who is president to a large degree, it doesn’t matter who’s in Congress. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all, please don’t get me wrong, but everything from increasing tensions on energy demand to technological advances to the economic activity that’s meant to support your lifestyle — and especially if you are fully vested in the ‘system’ somehow, as a working homeowner say, or a small business owner — can only be affected by the US government in piecemeal fashion at best.
  • This said, as the primaries continue to play out, the big question marks at present — who wins today in South Carolina, will Giuliani pull it together in Florida on Tuesday — are of interest, and I have to admit that after my sense of burnout at the start of the month when things finally got under way, the sheer amount of breakneck shifts have made this the most up-in-the-air primary season I think I can ever recall. I’m glad of that, actually, I like seeing this at play, though I think that far too many people on either side assume that only certain figures in both parties are power players, operators and connivers in general. All the candidates are, some just hide it more effectively than others — and they’re all that way because you can’t get to the level they’re at without those talents. This irritates some people, I’ve noticed, and I’m unsure as to why — I assume some sort of lingering belief in the purity of the process from elementary school, who knows though.
  • On the personal front, after a lot of planning and running around and getting it together, I’ve assembled a nicely upgraded computer setup for music in particular — external 1 TB hard drive for a good rate, new speakers, external CD/DVD drive. I think of it as one of those things that’s a practical investment for a critic in particular, since music promotion in general is switching increasingly to online delivery, while music itself is now obviously consumed via this route by so many people worldwide, and the numbers will increase. To borrow from Shakespeare via the Durutti Column, this is a bit of ‘obeying the time,’ but in a way that makes sense rather than relying on immediate flash — I’d been playing a bit of a long game to get to this point affordably and now we’re here. So I’m spending the weekend patiently porting over so many CDs and CDRs and the like to the hard drive, the equivalent of home improvement. It’s all a part of the continuing new year’s resolution to clean up the place a bit, and I’m glad of it!
  • Hope your weekend goes well, hopefully more thoughts later today or tomorrow on There Will Be Blood.

Some more AMG reviews for January

A black bean, sausage and sweet potato soup

The sausage was actually veg sausage via Tofurkey (v. tasty), so there’s that. Anyway, I followed this recipe I randomly found, and it turned out nicely! Made a lot more than just this bowl here, so the rest is chilling in my fridge for later in the week. Salad done from scratch as well. Great meal, highly recommended.

My presentation for Listen Again at Redcat on VNV Nation’s “The Farthest Star”

But first, a photo, taken by my friend Aileen — thanks again! — during my presentation. Blurry but I like blurry! The time in the background indicates how much time I had left.

Me presenting on VNV

And yes yes, all the 420 jokes, very clever. (If you don’t know what I mean by 420 jokes, be glad. Seriously.) Anyway, Redcat is a wonderful venue, the staff were sharp, professional and friendly — that’s Jeff there sitting next to me, keeping an eye on levels and raising and lowering the volume of the song as needed — and the whole experience, as mentioned earlier was grand. Lord knows I was nervous as hell while reading through it, but folks said I handled it all very smoothly. Perception is all!

So, here’s how to recreate the effect — load up VNV Nation’s Myspace page, which at the present time still has “The Farthest Star” as the lead single. As soon as it starts playing, read along in a measured fashion, with appropriate pauses noted. The whole idea of five minutes to present on a song grew out of what Joshua Clover called ‘critical karaoke’ — talking about a song during a song as it plays — so why not karaoke of critical karaoke? If you like.

The text below is as I wrote it, though I made a couple of on the fly changes, which are incorporated as I can recall them. Enjoy!

VNV Nation call themselves futurepop. This is important and I’ll yet explain why. But let’s talk about pop first, the way that this song, “The Farthest Star,” builds and begins with some pure pop drama.

*the beats begin*

The feeling is immediacy, a combination of things that are obvious, from trance, from industrial. It’s a big part of why I love it. So too with Ronan Harris’s voice and wonderfully obvious lyrics.

*Harris sings the first three lines of the song*

The words are almost designed to be written on a 10th-grade-textbook cover in a moment of boredom, to be quoted on a Myspace profile. It’s a combination of so many perfect tropes I still marvel at it, unironically – will to power, rising above yourself, confronting the ‘truth,’ self-motivation as reason for achievement. Harris’s speak-singing was once described by writer Josh Langhoff as the ‘impassive offspring of Neil Tennant and Craig Finn’, and all three of them love their anthems. Langhoff also noted that anthemic touch that makes things monumental in VNV’s best work – establish a pattern, then do something simple but effective to lift it higher. So that’s why the chorus works for me so well.

*Harris sings the chorus in full for the first time*

The imagery of the farthest star appeals to the astronomy buff in me, I admit – the one who watched Cosmos wide eyed as a young boy, listening to Carl Sagan speak on the reach and range of the universe. Electronic music formed the backbone of that series’ soundtrack, appropriately enough, but it was more of the contemplative variety, while elsewhere in my life disco rhythms could be heard all over the radio. So maybe everything about what VNV call futurepop is really just nostalgia, and I’m only reacting to a dead form – but then why were the thousands of people I saw at their show in June so whipped into a frenzy by the band, nearly all of them much younger than me? Why did I keep going back to their Myspace page and listening to this song again, and again, and again? It’s because they do know pop so well, as another dramatic moment like this shows:

*just after the second chorus, the music drops away to a quiet synth part and a soft delivery of a few lines by Harris*

In this moment of sudden restraint, space opens up…and then the future of futurepop comes to me, a sense of the future I dreamed of as an eighties kid, beats and synths and more somehow always looking ahead, driving outward. This song, more than any piece of art last year, reinspired me and reinvigorated me when it came to engaging with life, politics and more, a personal recharge that seeks to reach all the universe even though it never could. That the lyrics reference a ‘we,’ not an ‘I’ or a ‘you,’ may only be a dream of inclusiveness in the end but it’s a fantastic dream. And when the third chorus hits, I’m always left perfectly speechless.

*Harris sings the chorus for the third and final time*

A final teasing out of that astronomical metaphor, the sound swirls out slowly and slowly, trying to reach that end point, and trying to show and sound that there’s a reason to stand by your ideals, your loves, whatever they are. It’s simple, it’s basic, it’s glorious. And it is pop. Thanks very much!

And there you go!

Inside Ciudad in Los Angeles

We all met up at said restaurant before the Listen Again presentation at Redcat, and I got a few shots as I went…and I’m rather proud of how this one turned out! All it takes even with a point and shoot is a flat surface, no flash and a bit of patience.

Wow, last night was great!

I’ll have more to say later — work calls and all — but last night’s event at RedCat was a pleasure and a half, and it was an honor to be part of it and a hell of a privilege to be the final speaker (something that occurred by pure chance, given the chronological order of presentation, which was only settled on a couple of days ago). It really was like the EMP Pop Conference in miniature, with a range of speakers on a very wide range of music, itself only scraping the full surface of what was out there. Met some familiar names and made some new friends, and from the sound of it really got people interested in VNV Nation. I couldn’t have asked for more!

The text of my presentation, plus maybe a photo or two, will be up later tonight.

One last quick reminder about the LA presentation tomorrow

This is the Listen Again event I’m participating in — I think I’ve got my speech down, so crossed fingers for how this will all work out! $8 general admission, from 8:30 to 10 pm, and I’ll be one of the last speakers (possibly the last, not sure!). More on this after it happens!


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