While slow travel has been around since the beginning of humanity, the movement itself stemmed from the Slow Food Movement, which started as a protest over fast food in Italy. The way we interact with food, especially food that takes time, is parallel to how we experience slow travel. Memories of sights, sounds and especially smells that simply cannot be absorbed quickly are formed.
AM talked with Debby Johnson and Tuck Oden about their favorite “slow” recipes, their thoughts about cooking and overall, how they think food and the preservation of cultures are tied together.
AM: What is your favorite recipe that takes some time to make and what is your favorite family recipe?
Debby: My favorite recipe that takes some time to make is Boeuf A La Mode, and I just made it this weekend. I first had this dish when we were grad students. My in-laws gave us money for our first (paper) anniversary and we went to a French restaurant down the street.
I can still remember the smell of the wine and cognac mingling with the beef as the dish arrived. It’s no wonder I remember the smell of the wine. The Julia Child version (which is what I make) calls for 5 cups of wine and ¼ cup of cognac. It really does pretty much take all day to make, but most of the time the rump roast is marinating (for five to six hours) in a mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) with all that wine and cognac and some thyme. Then it gets seared with bacon or ham hocks and then cooked slowly for two to three hours until it is melt in the mouth delicious.
The smell fills the kitchen, maybe the full house. There is no way I can smell this without having fond memories of all the other times I’ve made it, in Cambridge, Michigan, Chicago, D.C. and here. Sometimes I just make it for the family, other times I’ve had it for dinner parties. I’ve never made it without loving every bite and having fond memories of conversations from long ago. It’s a soul-warming dish.
My favorite family recipe is really family traditions, either making and baking challah with the family (which we’re doing this Sunday) or making/baking Christmas cookies. The challah reminds me of my Nonny Rose (my mom’s mom); the cookies bring back fond memories of my mother-in-law, who was a terrific baker.
Tuck: When I was young, the flavor of celebration was Indian cuisine, specifically Ajanta, an Oklahoma City establishment. Birthdays, last days of school or straight A’s meant ice cream for most kids. For me, it meant the Tandoori Mixed Grill, a fajita-style sizzling skillet loaded with steaming tandoori chicken, seekh kabob and shrimp on a bed of onions and peppers. Those colorful, intoxicating flavors still taunt me with both their complexity and obscurity.
AM: I learned recently that you (Tuck) cure your own bacon – (holy yum) – how did you get started doing that and what do you like about it?
Tuck: When I find things I enjoy, I always want to try doing it myself. It’s why I’ve spent nearly 20 years pursuing those Indian flavors. It’s why I play guitar, bass, piano and mandolin, learning the songs of my heroes. It’s why I make my own lunch meat, create things out of wood and try to write short stories.
So, when I discovered that I already had everything I needed to make my own bacon, I had to give it a shot. There isn’t much to it. It begins with pork belly. I used to get mine at the Super Cao Nguyen Asian supermarket. Last time around I found it at Costco, with the bonus of it being skinned. I’ve sliced my hands open several times trying to slice the skin off pork belly. It’s tricky because when using a very sharp knife, your own skin feels deceptively similar to the pork skin. Then there’s blood everywhere. Not an ingredient in bacon.
You cut the pork belly into large but manageable chunks and put it into Ziplock bags with the cure. It’s a mix of sugar, salt, pink salt and spices. I use a lot of black pepper, Aleppo pepper, coffee grounds, bay leaf and fresh thyme from the garden.
The pork belly stays in the bags with the cure, getting turned daily, for about a week. Then it gets rinsed, coated in honey and more pepper and smoked up to 150° (so it’s technically cooked). After that, you let it cool, slice and package it. And it’s damn good. If you ever find yourself with a package of my bacon, it’s because you’ve done something very special.
Another “slow” thing I enjoy immensely is sous vide cooking. This is a device which looks like an immersion blender. It goes in a pot or other container of water, circulating the water, heating it to a very precise temperature and keeping it there.
Instead of applying high heat (say a 350° oven or 600° grill grates) to the outside of food until it reaches the internal temperature you’re looking for, you just package up your meat or vegetables in an airtight bag, put it in the water set to that internal temperature goal and it reaches that temperature throughout. You could even leave it there for a few extra hours without much of a noticeable difference. Then you finish it – throw it on the grill, sear in a pan, roast in the oven, whatever – so the outside has the texture and look you want.
It takes some time, but many things require time. Beer. Wine. Liquor. Cheese. And most importantly, ideas. They all require fermentation, time for chemistry to break down different components and experiment with building them back up in new ways.
Unfortunately, people and circumstances around us tend to dictate that these things happen faster. They underestimate the importance and value of the time that goes into them. They demand instant gratification, and they’ll probably get it. But it will be only that, instant. It will not be lasting.
When you don’t the time it takes to slow down, you get Velveeta.
AM: How do you think food/cooking and the preservation of culture are tied together?
Debby: It’s creating memories and preserving culture on many levels. Passing on traditions. Thanksgiving, Passover, Christmas dinner, normal family meals. Generations cooking together, sharing, eating, drinking, laughing, enjoying the moment and each other.
AM: Why are food traditions valuable in your opinion?
Debby: Food traditions are like all traditions: they make us realize we are part of a greater chain of humanity. That’s why I like making my 100-year-old challah recipe or my Nonny’s thin pancakes or turkey and all the trimmings at Thanksgiving. It’s knowing you are connected with others now, and with others who have come before you.
AM: We’ve discussed in the past that some of the best and oldest recipes take the longest time to make (breads, gumbos, curries, etc.) – why do you think that’s true?
Debby: Some of it’s societal. Not that long ago, people (at least some people) had more time. In 1960, 38% of women were in the labor force; today 57% are. It’s a lot easier to take all day to make something if you are home all day to make it.
AM: In some literature, it says that the Slow Food movement believes that food is tied to many other aspects of life: culture, politics, etc. Do you think that is true? Why?
Tuck: Definitely. You are what you eat. And food has always been a reflection of our surroundings, at least it was until infrastructure, distribution and restaurant chains made it possible to have whatever you want whenever you want.
Which, interestingly enough, is still a reflection of our culture, politics, society, etc. We demand instant gratification. I want what I want when I want it in the way I want it and everyone else be damned. And I’ll get it too, in my own, isolated silo of life. It’s true of my food. It’s true of the political messages I consume. True of my music, my movies, shows, religion or lack thereof, everything.