July 14, 2014

Reading, Writing, and Ruhlman

I like learning and teaching about nutrition.

I love learning and teaching about cooking and good food.

And I really love writing. (Doing it as well as reading other people’s good writing.)

So when I find good writing about cooking and good food, it’s kind of a trifecta of awesomeness. A hat trick of enjoyment and enrichment, if you’ll indulge me in the hockey reference. (Let’s go Pens!)

Confession:  I’m 35 years old and am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. This nutrition gig is pretty neat, and I think it’s important work. That being said, in an alternate universe, I am a prolific and successful novelist. It’s a goal I’m still working toward, although nowhere near as diligently as I should be. Anyway, my point is, if that upper-5-figure advance from Random House or Penguin Books ever comes my way, you’re on your own with this nutrition stuff, kids.

In the meantime, I’m a sucker for good food writing. And since my more science-oriented blog posts are a little limited until I finish the project I’m working on, I thought I’d point you toward one of my favorites, in case you need to kill time at work are interested in the same.

It’s funny for me to talk about food, cooking, and food writing. If you read my intro posts to the series on fuel partitioning, then you know I have an emotionally uncomfortable history with food, and even more so with my own body. (Still working on the latter, truth be told.) I did not have outright disordered eating, but for sure I had a hate-hate relationship with a body that refused to let go of its excess fat stores no matter how hard I tried. Back then, I never would have been able to publically admit how enamored I am with good ingredients, good cookware, and the act and art of cooking. (I have told more than one confidant that if I ever win the lottery, my first stop will be Williams Sonoma.) I would have been way too self-conscious that people were judging “the fat girl.” Of course the fatty likes talking about food…Of course she likes cooking…

But here’s the thing. I’m not the fat girl anymore. I’m not as slender as I’d like to be, and I’ve got a few lumps, bumps, sags, and bags that I wish would go away, but I don’t exactly need to buy two seats on an airplane, either, if ya know what I mean. So at this point, I’m okay with unabashedly sharing my enjoyment of things I love. Isn’t it always good to put positive energy into the universe? (That’s what the nice man in the white coat who hands me my pills every morning says, anyway.)

So yeah. I like talking about food. And cooking. I love farmers' markets. I even love grocery stores when they’re not super-crowded. I love cookbooks. (With pictures, especially. There’s a reason they invented the term “food porn,” right? Personally, I can’t stand cookbooks without pictures. Why bother?)

Why do I love cooking? Well, I love the sensory experience of it. Forget the sight of something delicious being prepared, and forget the awesome aromas that drift from a kitchen when it’s occupied by someone who knows what he or she is doing. There is a music to cooking that is unlike any melody you’ll hear anywhere else. How about the sizzle of a steak set into a pan of hot fat to sear? Or the gentle bubbling of a stew in a Dutch oven over low heat for three hours? And let’s not forget the tap-tap of a solid chef’s knife as the back edge hits against a wood cutting board while someone makes quick work of an onion. Heck, I could even smile at the sound of a garlic clove being smashed by the flat edge of a knife and the papery skin being pulled off. I love O.A.R. as much as the next gal, but cooking provides a kind of music you won’t hear at any concert venue.

And if the sounds weren't enough, you've got the tastes and textures. Cooking and eating is a sensory escape. I've talked before about the unmistakable unctuousness of a soft-boiled egg, where the white is just set and the yolk is still runny, maybe sprinkled with a tiny bit of flaked fleur de sel. And the amazingly delicious wonder to be found in something as simple as a summer salad of arugula, sliced fresh peaches, and goat cheese; or if in autumn, maybe some endive with gorgonzola, sliced pear, and walnuts. How about fresh figs with a thick balsamic glaze? 

(And don’t even get me started on the sensual/sexual experience cooking can be. Maybe some Bocelli playing in the background if you're going for Italian food, or a good blues station if you're doing soul food. Maybe the lights are a little dim, and you and your honey are making something from scratch, sliding past each other to get this or that ingredient, and maybe lingering a little longer than you need to. Forget oysters; cooking is a serious aphrodisiac. But that could be a whole other post. And I don’t want to have to give my site an “adult” rating or anything, so just take my word for it.)

And even when it's not you and your significant other, but maybe just a group of close friends, some of the nicest real life moments happen in the kitchen when everyone's pitching in, arranging little bites of this and that on simple white plates. The conversation hops and jumps from jobs to kids, from sex to finances, from fears and doubts to hopes and dreams. All while somebody's putting the finishing drizzle of olive oil on a bowl of tapenade, and someone else is arranging the grapes just so on a fruit & cheese platter. The wine and the conversation flow freely, and everyone's part of the experience of building the dishes that will nourish everyone blessed to find themselves at the table. Even with my respect for the Paleo and Primal communities, I have to admit, I love the phrase breaking bread. Because you know what? It has nothing to do with bread. It has to do with the bond that comes from sharing a meal with someone. From putting things into your body and your mind that make you better for having had the experience. Breaking bread with someone implies more than just sitting down at a fast food joint and wolfing down whatever's cheap. It's an experience. An event. (Think Thanksgiving dinner, but with only people you want to be with. People whose company you genuinely enjoy. No family feuds, and no weird looks from creepy Uncle Harry. Just great food, great friends, and no one in any hurry to go anywhere or do anything but sit there and enjoy the shared humanity, preferably with everyone's phone in the other room, turned off.)

Sometimes I fantasize about being head chef at a small inn. A 10-room place up in New England or maybe down in the Shenandoah Valley, where most of what I prepare would be fresh, local, and seasonal. I’d design the menus by going to the market in the morning and seeing what looks good. Will I ever actually do this? Most likely not, but it makes for good daydreaming.

Not long ago, I stumbled across someone who shares my appreciation for the act and art of cooking, and I enjoy his perspective and insights so much that I figured I’d tip you off to his work. Many of you probably already know him; after all, he’s been blogging for a few years now, and he’s certainly not anonymous in the greater culinary world. But for those of you who don’t know this guy, I’ll say in advance, you’re welcome.  ;-)

Ruhlman isn’t “Paleo,” “Primal,” low-carb, or any other particular label. But he is absolutely a proponent of real food, preferably home-cooked, and preferably local and sustainable, with certain exceptions for the sake of deliciousness. And he’s at least Paleo-friendly. (He even let Michelle Tam, of Nom-Nom Paleo, write a guest post, and he’s featured a couple of her recipes, too.) And while he has a bit of a contrary opinion on the gluten-free issue, he’s also posted plenty of gluten-free recipes, not to mention odes to organ meats and other odd bits.

Based on his occasional use of canola oil, sugar, wheat, and other semi-verbotten stuff, you might think Ruhlman isn’t “one of us.” But au contraire, mon ami. I beg to differ!

How could you not feel a guy who’s written books called Charcuterie, Egg, and Schmaltz, belongs firmly in our camp? Sure, he eats bread and sugar. News flash: so do I. Anyway, yeah, a book that sings the praises of schmaltz? Where do I sign? (For those of you who have no idea what schmaltz is, it’s rendered chicken fat, otherwise known as Jewish gold – not to be confused with Jewish penicillin, a.k.a. chicken soup. Does chicken fat have a bunch of omega-6? Sure. But overall, it’s got way more saturated and monounsaturated fat than poly, and I doubt any of the healthy, happy Jewish bubbies who were pinching their great-grandkids’ cheeks well into their nineties spent a lick of time worrying about that anyway. They used schmaltz ‘cuz it’s delicious, and also probably because, if they were kosher, they could use chicken fat in applications where they couldn’t use butter. And better chicken fat than soybean or corn oil, right?)

Why do I like Ruhlman’s work so much? Easy. He covers it all. He talks about using good ingredients; creating and supporting a sustainable food supply; gives a voice to small-scale, pasture-based farmers; and is just a damn freaking good writer when it comes to sharing his love of and the absolute fundamental importance of home cooking; and even other people’s food writing. I especially appreciate his take on food fanaticism and reveling in the simple pleasures of real food, simply prepared, and enjoyed among good company in a pleasant setting.

If I had to describe Ruhlman quickly and succinctly, I’d say he’s got Michael Pollan’s knowledge of and respect for the larger political and economic issues surrounding food, health, and sustainability, but with none of the moralistic and nutritionally misguided hand-wringing about the dangers of red meat and saturated fat, or telling us we should all be eating “mostly plants.” Ruhlman is nothing if not a happy, well-nourished, healthy & joyous looking, and unapologetic omnivore. (His own description of himself reads like this: “a fat-is-good-for-you-eat-more-pork-well-salted proselytizer.” Seriously, now tell me you don’t love this guy…or at least want to have dinner with him – preferably one involving a selection of cured meats, fatty pork, and red wine, possibly with a bit of dark chocolate and a tiny glass of port for dessert.)

What else is Ruhlman good at? How about calling B.S. when necessary? (Such as this post on “no nitrates added.”) He also has a weekly cocktail recipe that he posts (almost) every Friday. When it comes to alcohol, I almost exclusively stick to wine these days, but I still like reading the cocktail posts. For one thing, in case it wasn’t already clear, I just like the guy’s writing. And second, even though I rarely imbibe in an actual cocktail, myself, it makes me smile to think that Ruhlman is continuing the long, storied tradition of a little bottom’s up at the end of a week. Life is short. Why wait until a birthday or anniversary to celebrate? Isn’t it enough of an accomplishment sometimes just to have made it through another work week? Nothing wrong with drinking to that. (Or, you could be like the ad guys on Mad Men, and drink ‘cuz it’s 11am, or 2pm, or a Tuesday morning. Or because you made a big sale. Or didn’t make a big sale.)

The long and short of it, really, is that what Ruhlman says about food and cooking just resonates like crazy with me. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in a total stranger from Cleveland, and whom I know only through his writing and the passion we share for an act that is so simple and humble, yet so joyous and fulfilling, and something that connects us to humankind across hundreds if not thousands of years. From the first caveman who (presumably) accidentally dropped a piece of raw meat onto the fire and discovered cooking, to the aforementioned Jewish bubbies, Italian nonnas, Greek yia-yias, Korean hal-mo-nees, and all the other people who take pleasure in providing food nourishment for body and soul to their loved ones and anyone else who finds themselves seated at the table.

Before we adjourn, here are a few other places I enjoy for good cooking information. They are not Paleo, low-carb, or WAPF-oriented, but they’re great sources for cooking know-how. My biggest beef with them is that while their contributors have unquestionable culinary expertise, and have years of experience and kitchen experimenting to back them up, they are not nutritionists, nor are they experts on sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry, and sometimes they stick to the ol’ conventional wisdom on saturated fat, red meat, lard, and things like that. Not that they exclude any of those, but they’ll always give the standard hat tip to “moderation,” and eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, but having “a little room” for meat. Other than that, when it comes to how to cook, and also which vessels to cook with/in, you can’t beat these.

They’ve got kitchen tips, tricks, and troubleshooting, plus gadget reviews, taste tests, technique demos, and interesting interviews with chefs, authors, restaurant critics, professors, anthropologists, and lots of other people who might have something to say on the topics of food, cooking, eating, and the cultural & historical significance of all of those.
  • The Splendid Table (You can download old episodes from the archive on iTunes, or listen live on Saturday afternoons on your local NPR radio station. Unless you’re like one of my more conservative friends, who claims his radio dial “doesn’t go that far to the left…” *Ba-dump-tsch!*) My only beef with this show is that they give a fair bit of air time to people like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, because they're still somewhat stuck in the red-meat-and-saturated-fat-are-bad-for-you thing. But when it comes to cooking knowledge and culinary inspiration, Lynne Rossetto Kasper knows what she's talking about.
  • America’s Test Kitchen (It’s a radio show [which you can download as a podcast from iTunes], a TV show, and they have an excellent magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, and another TV show/magazine, Cook’s Country. If you are so inclined, check out radio show episode 317 – they interview Richard Wrangham, author of [the other] Catching Fire ­a book about how cooking led to humans’ larger brains and smaller guts [even after our hominid ancestors started eating animal flesh and fat – the act of cooking said flesh and fat had an impact on the large brain/small gut/expensive tissue thing.] Any Paleo/Primals among you will appreciate what he has to say.) One of my favorite things about ATK is that they do a ton of experimenting. They’ll cook a food 6 different ways and identify the strengths and pitfalls of each of them so you don’t have to. They have lots of gadget reviews, taste tests (everything from coffee to frozen french fries), and tons more nifty stuff. And while the hosts of this show might not exactly be singing the praises of tallow and organ meats, they are very much proponents of traditional cooking and preserving history, and I've heard them talk many times about the virtues of real lard, real stock (from bones), real butter, and pretty much just real everything. 
  • Endless Simmer – I’m new to this one and don’t know much about it yet, but for sheer humor (or sometimes horror), I recommend their Top 10 Lists.
  • Leite’s Culinaria – Not even close to Paleo/Primal/LC, but still a source for interesting recipes and writing from people who love food and cooking.

Do you have a favorite go-to person or website for cooking wit and wisdom? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. Now that I think of it, anyone want to start a supper club in the DC/NoVA area? How great would that be? Doesn’t even have to be Paleo or low-carb. I won’t blacklist you for bringing homemade bread, or butter that didn’t come from the most pristine Irish or Icelandic pastures. Just good food, good company, maybe some cheap wine (better cheap wine than cheap company, eh?). 

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Thanks for the suggestions. I've seen Chuck Hughes's shows a few times. He's a cutie. ;) I also really like Michael Chiarello, for the pleasure and enjoyment he radiates when he's cooking simple things for friends. (Probably doesn't hurt that he has his own vineyard in Napa Valley...can't imagine having too many bad days out there.) I don't think he does much writing, though.

  2. So I am Dutch and needed to Google "Dutch oven". When I saw the images, I thought what a weird translation to English.