Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: October, 2009

If Your Grocer Doesn’t Sell Pork Neck Bones, You’re Probably Not Poor Enough (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

This was the opening line to an email my uncle sent a few years ago after his move to West Virginia, the second poorest state in the country after Mississippi.  At the time, I laughed.  I’d never seen pork neck bones in any grocery store I’d ever been to.  I didn’t even know you could eat pork neck bones.

Then I moved to New York.  And not only am I poor, but everyone around me is poor too (unemployed artists and musicians to the left, the projects to the right).  So on my first visit to Bravo, my local grocery store, I was intrigued to find that the bizarre cuts of meat outweighed the “normal” selection.  Pig tails and feet, turkey necks, chicken gizzards, pork belly, goat meat, beef honeycomb tripe, cow feet, oxtails, beef liver, and pork neck.  Remembering that long forgotten email and being of a curious bent, I decided to make pork neck my first foray into adventurous cooking.

I wish I could tell you it was a more bizarre experience than it was.  But pork neck is, well, decidedly normal after you’ve cooked it for two hours.  The meat is incredibly tender and rich after having soaked in notes of brown sugar, cayenne, and salty broth.  I made a regular Southern meal out of it with fried okra and cornmeal griddle cakes, and with pork neck stew spooned on a hot griddle cake—I felt much wealthier than I was.

All this has gotten me thinking about food stigmas, what it means to eat “poor,” and how food often undergoes the same sort of gentrification a neighborhood might.  Take grits, for example.  Grits are unpretentious.  They are plentiful, inexpensive, and staple-worthy.  Yet you can go to a five-star restaurant and order grits for $40 or $50.  Those better be some damn good grits.  You could argue that grits might not be the best example to use, since grits are beloved in the South by various socioeconomic groups.  This is true.  So on the one hand, there’s the process of taking an inexpensive, widely-available food, elevating its humble status by putting a big price tag on it, and selling it as a commodity.

The other type of food gentrification involves “discovering” an out of vogue food item, putting a big price tag on it, and selling it as a commodity (why am I thinking of Columbus?).  I remember reading an article a few years ago about pork belly (one of the meat products my Bravo sells), which talked about how this overlooked cut was a hoggy jewel.  Now, when you Google pork belly, you get recipes for things like “Pork Belly with Caviar,” whose lead-in reads, “What could be better tha[n] deliciously fatty pork belly and salty, elegant caviar?”  What, indeed.

We may think we choose the foods we eat based on taste or desire, but the motivation behind our dining selections is often socioeconomically imposed.  If my grocery store, which sells organic chicken breasts, doesn’t sell pork neck, I won’t choose to eat pork neck, and if my grocery store doesn’t sell organic chicken breasts, well, that eliminates a choice as well.  So what makes food “poor” or “passé”?  Clearly, it’s not taste, as evidenced by my pork neck stew.  Maybe it’s bone or bits, appearance, texture.  Or maybe it’s just price.

Poor Richard’s Pork Barrel Politics

Following is the only slightly modified recipe from my uncle’s original email.

1 – 1 ½ pounds pork neck bones (depending on your skillet size)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped green onions
1 bouillon cube
1 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp salt (more to taste)
1/2 tsp or liberal amount ground black pepper
Dash red pepper
1/2 tsp (or more) brown sugar
2 bay leaves
6 cups water

Wash about pork neck bones under running water and brown them in olive oil over medium-high heat, turning frequently.  When browned add green onions, bouillon cube, thyme, salt, pepper, red curry, brown sugar, bay leaves, and water.  Cover with a lid and simmer for 2 hours.  Stir occasionally and add water as necessary.  When meat is tender, remove from bone.

Bringing It Together in a Four-Foot Kitchen (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

On my silence, let me say this:  moving boxes, painting walls, working 8-hour days, and scouring a city for an extension cord or two is time consuming.  I’ve barely been eating, much less writing about eating.  Rice with ketchup was about as gourmet as it got.  (Moment of silence for the sadly defunct Gourmet.)  But all that is changing.  I’m moved.  My walls are orange.  My clothes are hanging.  My desk is bigger than it’s ever been.  I am ready to go buy groceries.

Well.  I was ready to buy groceries.  And then I realized that I don’t know where to buy food in New York City.  Think about that for a second.  One of the biggest, most delicious cities in the country.  And there’s not a normal grocery store for miles.  Sure, there’s Whole Foods, if you want to spend $8 on an eggplant grown in a local, sustainably organic hydroponic cave.  Or Trader Joe’s if you want a fist sized, shrink-wrapped head of lettuce you can only buy after waiting in a twenty minute line.  There are specialty shops in midtown and unmarked bulk bags in Chinatown, ethnically-themed markets and bulgar-tempeh-tofu kingdoms, but all I really wanted was a comprehensive grocery store that wasn’t going to break the bank at item number three.

And then I thought – maybe I’m being a little too suburban right now.  Maybe this is the chance for my foodie self to show some mettle.  So I’ll buy the giant log of goat cheese for $5 at Trader Joe’s and my Illy espresso at Whole Foods.  And I’ll buy my rice and nutmeg in Chinatown and my meat from the store down the street called “Meat.”  I mean, it just takes time to grocery shop.  And it’s not like I have to finish unpacking any boxes or commute to work or do the dishes.  It’s just time.

And then I thought – stop complaining.  Start cooking.

In honor of my new neighborhood, I decided to make a chicken mole.  The Bushwick/East Williamsburg area where I live is a low-income, half Hispanic/half Hipster neighborhood where the closest grocery store to the right sells organic celery root juice for $5 a bottle and the closest grocery store to the left has bars on the door.  Bravo is an exciting little store – you have to dig through the Oreos and Ramen, but there are tons of great things I’d never find in my suburban grocery – like chicken feet, cow’s feet, pig’s ears, cans of octopus in olive oil, corn husks, coconut water, and the entire line of Goya products.

I kept the pork neck in mind for later, but picked up a jar of mole (a thick chocolate chile sauce), some onions, and cilantro to add to the spices I had at home.  Thinking that my kitchen’s inaugural meal had to be shared, I called my neighbor to see if she’d want to help me cook.  Being a like-minded spirit when it comes to eating, she hopped over from her apartment two doors down bearing a bag of tortillas, incidentally also from Bravo.

The kitchen was certainly small, especially for two bustling people, but soon the smell of onions, cumin, and coriander turned cramped into cozy.  We glanced at a recipe for chicken mole I’d found, but ended up playing it by ear with amounts and procedure.  Some garlic would be good?  Ok.  More salt?  Ok.

I unpacked a half-gone bottle of Captain left over from those wild college days, and we drank sips of chilled rum out of vintage green tumblers while we added dashes of this and that to the skillet, and the sounds of chicken sizzling in oil mingled with the footsteps in the apartment overhead, a drum, a plane taking off from JFK.

“This is how you’re supposed to heat tortillas,” Anette said as she threw them over the gas burner on the stove.  “I lived with a Mexican.”

I chopped cilantro and cut up a few limes as we tasted our mole.  It was good – and had a nice, lingering heat, but it was lacking a little punch on the tip of the tongue.  I rummaged through my spices, figuring that out of the hundreds of random bags and bottles I’d find something suitable.  Remembering an excellent sausage pasta I’d made earlier that was both sweet and spicy, I added a liberal dash of Berbere spice and honey.  Berbere is an Ethiopian spice mix which usually contains chile peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain, and my honey was from the Tennessee mountains.  And on top of that, I’m German-American and my cooking partner is from Norway.  That, my friends, is New York in a nutshell.

I probably don’t need to say so, but our mole was good.  We each had two tortillas stuffed with warm, freshly cooked rice, the spicy, sweet, rich chicken mole, lime, and cilantro.  As Anette said on her way to a second round, “I’m so full, but that is so delicious, I don’t even care.”

So my kitchen is christened.  My skillets and spatulas have a home, the brie has its place in the corner of the fridge as does the flour, and all the knives have gotten a good sharpening.  I live with people who like to eat and like to cook.  They might still sigh when they trip over that big box in front of the door – but I’ll just give them a taco and tell them it’ll all be cleaned up soon.

Inaugural Chicken Mole

The inspiration for this mole came from the May 09 issue of Bon Appétit.  But since we didn’t measure anything, I’ll just sort of lay out the groundwork for this recipe – feel free to make it your own.  Ended up getting about 9 burritos out of this guy.

2 chicken breasts
Vegetable oil
1 bouillon cube
Orange juice
1 yellow onion
Handful ground almonds
2 cloves garlic
1 jar Dona Maria mole
Handful golden raisins
One-ish tablespoon of honey
Dash of berbere spice
White rice
Flour tortillas

Sauté chicken in oil until cooked through and nicely browned.  Meanwhile, bring about one cup (maybe even one and a half cups) water, bouillon cube, and orange juice to a boil – add chicken and simmer.  In a skillet, sauté onions until translucent.  Add almonds, garlic, cumin, and coriander.  Remove chicken from broth and shred it finely.  Add broth and jar of mole to the skillet with the onions and mix it up until the consistency is thick but fluid.  Think less wet cement and more mud puddle (is this a bad comparison for food?).  Here’s where you get to exercise intuition, since you’ll have to add a combination of broth (so don’t add all the broth at once) and olive oil to the skillet to get the right consistency.  Anyway.  When the consistency’s right, add the raisins, oregano, honey, berbere, and salt.  Guess I should have mentioned that all this time, you should be making some rice.  Throw your tortillas over the burner for a few seconds and then top them with rice, mole, lime, and chopped cilantro.