essays

 Martha's rose window

A little about Martha Wyss-Gerber, who passed away in the early dawn of December 26th.

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First of all, thank you so much to all of you who shared your food memories for our 4th Anniversary event. You made us laugh out loud, you made us chuckle, and you brought tears to our eyes. If we could we would have given the prize to everyone! But we only have one book in our budget...so, after a weekend of arguing back and forth, we finally selected one jewel out of a whole boxful of treasures: Mitch's entry, I Ate Love.

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My post about losing 30 pounds using bento lunches as a tool is featured as a guest article on CalorieLab, a great weight loss related news site.

For people who've clicked through here from there, welcome! If you take the time to look around, you might wonder why this woman is saying she's on a weight loss plan (notice the avoidance of the word 'diet') while writing about things like braised pork belly and spaghetti Bolognese. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of articles about my plans and thoughts for losing weight, but the one that stuck to me the most these many months later is the one about reconciling my food obsession with trying to lose weight.

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The sister site to Just Hungry got discovered by several sites overnight (while I was not at the computer, as always happens in such cases) and the traffic went up about 100 x, mainly thanks to it being on the del.icio.us popular page for a while. I haven't even 'officially' launched it in my mind, since I am occasionally breaking it by fiddling with the engine (Drupal, for the technically inclined) in the background, but it's very gratifying to know that people are interested in the subject. I think it must be timely.

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Forgive me for neglecting Just Hungry a bit this week - I've been spending all of my free waking time in Knightsbridge. I did want to follow up on the thoughtful comments left on my post about eating local in winter, in areas without 4-season growing conditions. Perhaps because I've been immersed in the 14th century has helped, but I'm increasingly intrigued by the idea of trying to experience how it would have been like to survive the winter in an age when fresh foods were not shipped in from far parts.

So I am going to try it out for at least a week in a few weeks - I think the end of January/beginning of February would be a good time. I don't think I will go back as far as the Middle Ages, but something prior to the 19th century anyway - prior to fast trading ships as well as the advent of refrigeration. (I'm not sure if I will aim for pre-canning days as well). I'm also a bit undecided as to if I'll try to emulate how it would have been in Switzerland, or something more generic, as well as what class in society I'd put myself (since rich people would have eaten a lot better then poor people, of course). When I've done more research into this I'll post what I'm going to do.

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Celebrity chefs have been around for some time now, but they seem to have exploded all over the place in the last decade, mainly through food related TV shows.

The restaurant food world is becoming similar to the world of fashion. There are the actual restaurants, most of which are too expensive for the majority of the population - people without generous expense accounts or oodles of money - other than for a rare treat. These are the couture studios (as in real couture, not 'couture' as it's used to describe anything that's not a plain t-shirt these days) of the food world. Then you have all the merchandising, from cookbooks to dodgy cookware to frozen dinners bearing a chef's name. Those are the perfumes and bags and H & M special-designer label lines of the food world.

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Fall (or autumn) is really a wonderful time for local produce in temperate climates. The grapes in our garden are crying out to be picked every day, we still have a couple of late zucchini, and the markets are overflowing with winter squash, heirloom apples, pears, and more. In a couple of months though most of that will be gone, and we'll be very limited in what we can eat that's grown locally. Unless it comes from greenhouses of course, and, while there may be exceptions commercial greenhouses aren't usually that energy efficient.

I am a moderate in most things, including eating, so am not a dedicated locavore. If I were though, and I did not live in a four-season growing area like most of California, my winter choices would be severely limited.

If we truly ate like our ancestors, who were limited to locally grown foodstuffs, we'd be eating a lot of preserved foods in the winter months. A lot of those foods have disappeared from modern pantries, but a few do survive: jams, pickles, preserves; dried or salted meats like sausages and hams and corned beef; salt cod. (In Japan there are lots of salt-cured and dried foodstuffs ranging from fish to seaweed to vegetables.) Two of the best examples are both cabbage based: sauerkraut, and kimchee. The lactic-acid fermented cabbage retains quite a lot of its nutrition, and probably kept legions of people from dying of malnutrition.

I'd really like to see those dedicated, evangelical locavores to try living on a diet based on these traditional preserved foods in the winter months, because that would show a true dedication to the cause. No cheating on tropical imported fruits. I'm thinking of trying it out on a short term basis (like a week) myself, just to see if it's possible.

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In the last few years, there seems to have been a resurgence in the interest in macrobiotics in Japan. At least it does seem so judging from the magazine articles and cookbooks devoted to the subject.

If you're unfamiliar with macrobiotics, it's a form of almost-veganism (macrobiotics does allow for some fish) with quite idiosyncratic theories. It originated in Japan, was exported to the West, and gained popularity in some circles, especially the ones devoted to alternative lifestyles (like hippies and such). There's a tendency in Japan to get overly impressed by anything (or anyone) in Japanese culture that gets popular in other countries, which I think accounts for at least part of the renewed popularity of macrobiotics - or makurobi as it's abbreviated to - there. The macrobiotic diet has a lot of similarities to the traditional, or pre-WWII, diet, but isn't quite the same. It's also not the same as sho-jin cooking - elegant vegan cuisine that was originated by Zen Buddhist monks.

I've been generally trying to increase my repertoire of vegetable and grain based dishes this year (though I'm not a vegetarian), so I've done quite a lot of research into makurobi these past few months. There are plenty of very appetizing looking cookbooks coming out regularly, and I've collected quite a stack of them.

Yet it's quite unlikely that I'll be turning into a full-fledged macrobiotic convert any time soon. The main reason is that I can't fully buy into one of the central philosophies of the religion - I mean, theory - that of yin and yang foods. Basically the theory is that all foods have yin (dark or cold) and yang (light or warm) energies, and we are better off eating close to the center of the yin and yang scale. Foods that are at the center are generally things like whole grains, beans and other pulses, root vegetables (but not potatoes), and so on. Since macrobiotics did originate in Japan, brown rice is the king of grains.

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Periodically I like to step back a bit and take a look at why this site exists, and what it's about. The current masthead says it's about Japanese cooking (especially for people who do not live in Japan or a region with easy access to Japanese ingredients), expat food issues in general, and healthy cooking.

But what I'm really about when it comes to food is real food, and that's what this site is about. I don't claim to be a purist who never lets an artificial food pass my lips - I do live in the real world. But in general, fake food just does not taste right to me.

I like real fruits and vegetables. I like meat from animals or birds who lived a happy life when they were alive, and eggs that come from contented hens. I like cheese that has been produced in time tested, traditional ways rather than the kind that differs little from the plastic that's wrapped around them. I prefer fish that swam around freely.

Not just because they are 'good for me' or 'good for the environment' or 'better for trade' or whatever, though these can be - and often are - side benefits. I like real food because it tastes better. I'm selfish that way.

Now I realize that 'real food' does not taste better to everyone. Our tastebuds are conditioned by habits and environment, and a lot of people eat tons of fake food all the time. I used to do that too, especially in my teens and 20s . As I've gotten older though, I've grown away from that. Given a choice between a fresh, ripe peach and peach flavored candy, I'll take the real peach every time.

Real food takes a commitment in terms of priorities. Time is one thing you have to allocate in many cases. Money is too, unfortunately. To me and to my family, these commitments are worthwhile.

Welcome to Just Hungry, where we prefer real food.

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Keep reading I like real food →

There were not one but two Op-Ed articles in the New York Times yesterday about sushi. Two! It always amazes me how fast sushi has become mainstream in the U.S. in particular and 'the West' in general, but I guess this is some sort of proof.

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Keep reading Fear of Sushi →

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