Friday, December 9, 2011

poertyscience December

 poetrysciencetalks:a monthly salon where I serve a meal  before an evening's talk and try to make the menu reflect the presentation.
                                Chapter One: planning the meal.
     December’s pst was about the Singularity, an idea that a time is coming when machines will become both self-conscious, and more intelligent than humans. To some, this seems great, a kind of techno-rapture. I fall in another camp, but still, it was great creating a menu to match this talk presented by an Associate Professor in Applied Computer Network Administration who has a strong interest in ecstatic practices and mystical eschatology!
     First food thoughts jumped to a cartoonish Rosie the robot/George Jetson technology. I had fleeting visions of robotic pacojets and centrifuges’ or “Soylant Green” nutrient pills, but thoughts about using fancy machines to make fancy futuristic foods dissipated like so much liquid nitrogen.  After all, cooking is technology, and some theorize our use of this technology early-on is what distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. The marriage of food and fire is our very essence, so using technology to cook, no matter how futuristic the machines, seems actually, antiquated.
     Second thoughts were helped along by madcap email discussions with my son, the neuroscientist, and my niece who is writing her dissertation about something I don’t quite grasp but it has to do with technology and sustainability. We discussed computers as tools that handle complexity. Computers figure-out complex things we mostly can’t, even if our human minds created the programs to set the figuring in motion. I started thinking about “complex” flavors. Pesto, say, is not complex, even though it's a blend of flavors. Your mouth can pull apart how the elements complement each other. Curries on the other hand, are complex. We can distinguish characteristics (i.e. hot or sweet) but most of us can’t tell exactly what’s in the blend.  
     Computers expand (according to my niece) but also limit (according to my son) how we think because the algorithms organize our access to information. This brought to mind hyperlinks, and how they lead you on a journey, and how flavors too, migrate and change. Tasting flavors also leads you on a journey.
     The menu I settled upon offered platters of “base” foods, which I shaped into 1’s and 0’s to represent computer code. Some of the shapes were formed with cookie cutters (technology) and some occurred naturally.

Delicata squash 0’s and tofu 1’s to represent computer code.
The base foods were plain, flavored only with salt and pepper. There was also a big bowl of Basmati rice.

I began searching for recipes online, but push comes to shove, books offered better and more in-depth information. Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffery, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, Nancie McDermott, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, all champions!

I did find a Japanese curry recipe here: though I doctored the recipe as I was interested in making sauce for the 1’s and 0’s, not stew.
                                                                     An interlude:
                            (It was lovely, so lovely eating a meal of sauce.)
                             Luscious, spicy Thai Green curry with coconut milk, fresh herbs,
                                                           and diced eggplant.
Malaysian pineapple curry thickened and sweetened with fresh pineapple puree.
Pungent North Indian buttermilk curry, with curry leaves and black mustard seeds.
The curry from Martinique used ground yellow mustard
 and had diced ripe mango and sweet potato. 
Japanese curry used Worcestershire, potatoes, carrots, peas and S&B.
Warm and rich, Japanese curry is a mash-up of cultures; Indian spices thickened by European roux.

Each guest filled their plates according to interest and preference. Google however, "fills our plates" for us by ordering the information in any given query we might have. I suppose it might be similar to taste preferences- based on our particular history... but what if you're in the mood for something new? How would Google know? 

chapter two: (and then there was dessert.)
Cookies: text files stored on your hard-drive, and also sweet treats. 
I thought sandwich cookies might represent our relationship with technology, 
but perusing the web I came upon this recipe for Fig Newtons:
 Fig Newton architecture seemed more apt; rich dough enclosing a fruitful center. Also, and this may seem off topic but bear with me, Fig Newtons were my sister’s favorite cookie. It was my sister who introduced me to poetryscience and every month when I  cook for the salon I think about her. She passed away from colon cancer three years ago. When I rolled the dough for the cookies I was filled with longing for her.

     Another aspect of the Singularity is that when it comes, humans may be able to merge consciousness with the machine’s “super-consciousness,” freeing us from the frailties of our bodies while preserving our minds. This is not wholly far-fetched, just the other day the New York Times had an article on bioengineering that spoke about the possibility in the not too distant future of storing digital information insides human cells.  
Maybe such a process could be reversed: instead of our becoming 
cyborgs, machines could become humanized?
     During the presentation the speaker asked us to think about how we’d like this merging of mind and machine? The thought horrifies me, but got me thinking about my sister again. She loved science fiction, and the idea of a Cyborgian Society. As she was dying, she found tremendous comfort thinking her consciousness would merge into some kind of universal energy force. I wondered how I’d feel having access to her now, via computer, and then it hit me like a flash! I do have my sister, now and forever, in the taste of a cookie.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

tasting a bit of history at The Festival of Ideas...

     Last spring, Communal Table (my food/art business) set up shop for a day of tasting and story telling at the Festival of Ideas For a New City on New York City's lower east side. Communal Table invited people to "taste the neighborhood" and set out bread and dips that typified the cooking of the various people that have lived and thrived for generations in this thronging, historic neighborhood.
     We offered oniony "schmaltz," to represent Eastern Europeans, (albeit a version made with olive oil instead of chicken fat to please Vegan, Vegetarian, Halal and Hipster denizens who abound in the neighborhood today.) Also spicy Chinese chili oil, and a pan-Latino Sofrito which had Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Spaniards debating all day long about the origin of this flavorful combo of peppers, onions and herbs.
     As people dipped and tasted, we asked them to "listen" as the flavors in their mouth told their brain a story about history and culture, and to be aware how each taste told a completely different story. Even if they professed ignorance of history, or knowledge about the city’s waves of immigration, or of Chinese cooking practices; we promised the flavors would tell them stories. It was a simple exercise; tasting and listening, and it seemed to move people. I watched people’s faces as they let the flavors speak, and saw that wonderful “aha!” moment when their taste buds explained a little piece of cultural history.    
     After the tasting, we invited folks to share recipes or list ingredients that described their own stories. These were written on colorful cards that we hung on a clothesline for other passersby to read and comment on. My favorite was from a young girl who explained that her mother’s Korean and her father’s Norwegian- so her diet is split between rice and potatoes. Her parents, she said, are divorced now and her father’s girlfriend is from the Caribbean, so she had no trouble identifying the Sofrito.        
     Throughout the day, people asked for my sofrito recipe, which made me feel proud. Yow! One guy almost cried, telling me he’d recently lost his mother and hadn’t tasted that flavor since she’d died. I’m first generation Eastern European, Jewish, and my people never ate such a delicious, spicy, lively concoction, so I couldn't call a grandmother or an Auntie for a recipe. Instead I researched cookbooks and the web, and made a mash-up version that included tomato, which is not traditional for Puerto Ricans, but is common in the Dominican Republic. I blended the raw ingredients into a fairly smooth puree, which I sautéed in oil that was colored and flavored with achiote seeds. Usually, Sofrito is used as a seasoning, dolled-out by spoonfuls to flavor beans or stew, but for the Festival of Ideas I made it strong and extra soupy, all the better for dipping.
Cross Cultural Sofrito for The Festival of Ideas
1 large Spanish onion
1 green & 2 red peppers (most recipes call for more green than red but I don’t like green peppers) plus 2 jalapeños (all the peppers seeded!)
2-3 plum tomatoes,
4-5-6+ cloves of garlic,
1/2 c. pimento stuffed Manzanilla olives,
1 tablespoon capers,
A big handful of fresh cilantro,
a couple of sprigs of parsley (stems and all)
salt and pepper.
Blend first 5 ingredients in a food processor, then coarsely chop and add: olives, capers and herbs.
Sauté in ½ c. annatto oil* for 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add a splash of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and some water to thin to a good “dip” consistency.

*to make annato oil: warm a teaspoon of achiote seeds in 1/2 c. olive oil until the oil turns golden orange. Discard the seeds, but save the oil.