Learning about recipe development, testing, and writing with Farideh Sadeghin was illuminating and challenging. I’m a recipe follower, not creator. Improvising in the kitchen is still new to me, and my instincts about how to combine flavors are still shaky.
But Farideh’s tempo in the kitchen doesn’t give you time to rely on anything but instincts. In our first assignment–creating a crostini out of a giant hen-of-the-woods mushroom and whatever we had on hand in the kitchen–we had only a few seconds here and there to decide how to prepare the mushroom, what would go with it, and how to serve it. Throughout, we had to time each step and measure/weigh every ingredient we used. The attention to detail appealed to me, but the pace was demanding. Obviously, a test kitchen is going to be quick-moving, and I imagine it’s something you get used to after awhile.
This was also a day for a pig roast. Well, the weather wasn’t the kind I think anyone would choose for a pig roast. We woke to gray skies and fog. Normally from the third-floor window, we can see, not too far away, a high hill covered with trees. With the fog, nada. It was a creeping chill, albeit a welcome one after the heat and mugginess of the previous days. So, we donned sweaters and jackets and sturdy shoes to eat a pig that had been slaughtered the day before and prepared the morning after.
I’m no good at looking at something and estimating its size or weight. Suffice it to say: this was a big pig. About 40 people showed up for the pig roast, and at the end of the party, there was still meat left over. When we arrived, the pig rested in a smoker, about five to six feet long, dripping fat. The animal wrapped in chicken wire to secure it to the spit. I got up close and looked into the animal’s face. The eyes were gone, and hairs still stuck up from its snout. The skin had turned a deep mahogany, and it just looked crisp.
Also on hand were a man and woman with bottles of various ciders. Over the last few years, they’ve been working to make use of apple trees throughout the area that people otherwise ignore, usually right on their property. New York State was once a major producer of apples and ciders, with almost every home and its plot of land supporting an orchard or small stand of apple trees. Collin and I spent some time talking with the man providing samples of truly unique ciders; I regret that we couldn’t find the voice recorders or that I didn’t think to just pull out my phone, or even get his name. Anyway, he told us that the apples they’ve been working with aren’t even varietals. They’re just old trees, which is why the cider made from each batch of apples has a distinctive flavor. One cider we tried was dry and tart, slightly bubbly, and nowhere near as sweet as a Magner’s, say, or a Woodchuck. That was because, he told us, most commercial ciders use dessert or eating apples for their products whereas years ago people grew and cultivated apples specifically for cider. The second cider we tried was fermented simply by capturing yeast from the air. It certainly had a lush bready taste and wasn’t very effervescent, and the aftertaste reminded us of sweet corn.
Sarah wrote a great blog post earlier this week, questioning why she’s writing about food when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed, when black lives are systematically devalued. She views life through food and wrote that the families and children of those men will always associate certain foods and smells with them. I thought of that while I was enthusiastically agreeing with this man about cider apples. What’s really the big deal? I don’t know if I can articulate it now, but I can say that biodiversity is important. If one crop dominates all other strains of that same foodstuff–think wheat or corn–one major pest or disease could wipe it all out, with global consequences. Cider and apples aren’t quite as relied-upon as wheat and corn, but Collin and the Cider Man were sure pissed that most apples sold in New York State come not from New York State but from Washington. Would it be more cost-effective to eat the New York State apples in New York State?
Not only that, I find the idea of each farm or household having their own “estate cider” appealing. It creates a sense of pride and an interest in the land around you. Those are more intangible benefits, but they’re important ones. When you know about the land around you, you’re more likely to be invested in its care and protection. This is probably why I love learning about history so much. I like to know what’s come before. It grounds me, places me in context. I never expected so much from cider.