On-the-Edge Q & A

Reader Silviu writes:

Reading [your posts on Michael Pollan] leaves me wondering what’s your approach to ingredients and food in general? Do you fit in any particular category (organic, local, etc.)? Do you have some never-touch-that rules? What do you think of sugar and pastry (I mean pastry is mostly not pastry without sugar)? I’d love to read a whole post on this.

Silviu, I try not to touch hot-button questions like this since they often lead to go-nowhere comment field combat, a lot like the trench warfare at Ypres. In the end, after all the shells and noxious gasses have been released, little has been accomplished and nothing has changed. But since you asked I’ll go for it. Briefly.

My core belief is that pastry is no place for killjoys. Diving into a warm piece of blueberry pie with ice cream on top I don’t want anyone asking me if the berries are organic or the cream is pasture-raised. It’s simply not the place for it. Pastry is supposed to be fun and delicious. Politics only give it a medicine-y aftertaste.

I used to quip that the pastry maker is the natural enemy of the oragno-nut, but it kept getting me into trouble so I stopped. What I meant by that was not that I was hostile to anything organic, but that if you’re going to make pastries you’re by definition acting against local/organic orthodoxy. Most of the foundational ingredients of pastry are either highly refined or come from a long way away: sugar, flour, chocolate, flavors, colors, you name it.

Is it possible to make good pastry that’s local and organic? No question that it is. Alice Waters is a good example of someone who makes excellent local, organic sweets. However, and maybe it’s just me, I can never eat one of her desserts without thinking: gosh, this is really good for something that doesn’t have anything delicious in it! I find myself making a mental note that if society ever ends and we descend into a Mad Max-like dog-eat-dog dystopia, I’ll know whose book to use when I get a craving for cobbler.

Do I care about local and/or organic foods in general? I care if they’ll make my spinach tart taste better — and not break the bank in the process. But when it comes to food I’m simply a consumer. I don’t feel the least guilty about that, for if local/organic foods are ever going to succeed on a macro level they’re going to have win not only in the realm of activism, but in the realm of quality, price and convenience. I try harder than most people to secure quality ingredients for the things I make. If the local/organic crowd can’t make it worth my while to drop by their tent in the church parking lot on Saturday morning, I can’t be held responsible. I’ve got a kid that needs to get to soccer practice.

As for never-touch-that rules, I definitely do have some. I once touched the intake manifold of a ’72 AMC Javelin with my ear while helping a high school buddy do a car repair, and brother, you think you know pain. Another time I mistakenly tried to pat the head of an extremely grumpy cat. As far as food rules are concerned, I only have one: eat a variety. All things in moderation is not only time-tested wisdom, it’s being increasingly validated by science. I don’t eat gâteau Basque three meals a day and I don’t recommend that anyone else do it. But it sure is a nice surprise after a light dinner on a Thursday night.

I started this blog because I had a simple aim: to give people the skills to make basic — and maybe some not-so-basic — pastry at home. If people want to apply those skills to making organic pastry, I say great. I’ll help them trouble-shoot their cruelty-free vegan marjolaine if they want, and I’ll be pleased and proud to try a piece when they’re finished with it. I’ll happily do the same with a trifle made of box cakes and pudding mixes. In both instances I might make some wisenheimer side comments about using a pastry cream that has actual eggs in it, then probably go for a second piece.

I get happy whenever anyone tries making a pastry at home. I encourage it because think it’s fun, I think it tastes good and I think it’s healthy. And that’s about all I can some up with on the subject.

OH AND…I will be approving comments on this post, but not moderating them after this afternoon because life is only so long.

25 thoughts on “On-the-Edge Q & A”

  1. As always, Joe, thanks for your honest and realistic take on food. It’s important to be healthy, but in the grand scheme of things, I want my food to supplement my life, and not over-take it by a thousand extra steps in the search of local, organic, vegan, cruelty-free (and still affordable… which is rare) foods. Don’t get me wrong, these things are good for a lot of people. But I don’t want to feel shamed for not caring enough, or having enough time or money, to make the effort. I appreciate your being in my corner!

    1. Hey Ashley!

      Thanks for that! It’s a big wide world of food and there’s room for just about everything in it, except Brussels sprouts which I really can’t stand. Like you I resent being made to feel guilty for what are in the end perfectly reasonable and rational choices given my situation in life. Our food system isn’t perfect, but it’s also miraculous. It’s up to us to use it how we will!


      – Joe

  2. I appreciate your honesty and practicality about food preparation. I also appreciate that there are people out there who go to lengths to bring the current food movements to our attention, even if it’s not something that I might embrace fully for the same reasons you stated. But, it gives all of us something to think about and it gives us options. Knowledge is good! Choice is good! Beets? Not so much.

    1. I hear you on beets, they can be challenging to some, though they’ve been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. The big, circular purple stains that the slices left on your pants when you dropped them was just one of the many attributes that endeared them to me.

      – Joe

  3. ” … if local/organic foods are ever going to succeed on a macro level they’re going to have win not only in the realm of activism, but in the realm of quality, price and convenience.”

    Bingo. Part of the issue for me is the aura of exclusivity that surrounds the whole thing.

    1. Yeah it’s an elite movement, for sure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since elites are influential and are a steady market. But to go beyond that you need to hit regular consumers where they live — in the pocketbook! 😉

      Bragging rights to an organic diet won’t cut it with them, that’s for sure.

      – Joe

      1. I agree to some extent, and yet if you were to see actual GMO labelling, you’d find that a large chunk of the population would be rejecting that – maybe not directly to organic, but into that semi-traditional middle ground.

        Personally, I’ll take organic when I can get it – and the big reason I really aim for that is because I REALLY have an issue with the idea of GMO. Until the labelling catches up, I’ve got to assume that much of the ‘non-organic’ foods have a good chance to be GMOs…

  4. I think it’s great we have choices. I’m a vegetarian and have been for 30 plus years. I’ve been abused at family dinners to the point of avoiding them back when eating outside the mainstream was considered “weird” and “wrong”. It’s nice that I don’t feel like I should apologize for my choice of diet. I have no issues with vegan or carnivore or any other eating choice as long as it isn’t argued the “right” choice for everyone. Just like religion and politics…there are lots of sides and choices and there is nothing wrong with any of them. How they are used as weapons or arguments can be an issue. I like buying organic. I can afford it and I can argue I feel better eating that way if I can do it but I won’t die if I don’t–anymore than I’d die if I ate meat..it’s a choice. And I agree with Joe that if we obsess about it then we don’t enjoy it. Like people on a diet who obsess about every calorie or point instead of enjoying the meal/dessert/whatever. I also agree with Joe that when I do bake with white sugar or refined flour that I find the best quality flour and sugar I can find to make what I make the best it can be. I get told a lot “this is the best cookie I have ever eaten!” I attribute that more to taking the time to pick great ingredients and taking the time to make it from scratch than I do my skills as a baker. Some foods to me are important to buy organic and if possible locally to get the best flavor and quality in what I eat but there is nothing wrong with indulging in something that you enjoy be it a Snickers bar or a bowl of Haagen-Daz ice cream and not “fret about the small stuff” and just enjoy it…every last bite.

    Good blog and good honesty and openness about it all.

    1. Nicely put, Linda. Veggie for 12+ years here, and I always chalk up that ‘abuse’ to people ceding me the ‘moral high ground’ (whether I want it or not). And they often get defensive [“I don’t eat that much meat!”] or confused [“How in the world do you get enough protein?”]… and almost always end with “I could never eat like that.” [pssst – nobody is asking you to]

      Makes me laugh, all the time.

      But, on the other side, are those who wonder how they can make foods that are fun/tasty/satisfying AND veggie… sort of the ‘open source diet’ folks. That’s when the fun begins!

  5. Great post. I really enjoy your blog.

    I hate to say it, but the Odwalla ad that I never saw before, is now popping up at the bottom of my screen.

  6. Hi Joe,

    While I try and eat organic if it’s convenient and cost effective, I couldn’t agree with you more. The best digestive aid is to love what you’re eating. And just to paraphrase Michael Pollan – “Eat cake, quite a lot, mostly chocolate”.

  7. By all means eat whatever you want to eat. Please leave me to eat whatever I want to eat. My time in Africa as a peace corps volunteer showed me how lucky we are to eat at all. It is a luxury to debate what we eat rather than worry about our next meal. P

  8. I agree with all the comments above, eat what your conscience dictates and your pocketbook demands, but make informed decisions and eat a variety of good raw vegetables and fruits.

    We here in the States are seeing an epidemic of obesity wrought by the success of Corporate advertising and the tightening of the thumbscrews by employers demanding more hours working and
    fewer dollars paid to the workers, leaving no one to care for and prepare healthy food to the pillars of our society, the next generation of workers. An apt anology would be your fallen yellow cake, whose cell walls were weakened by the over-zealous whipping of the very substance whose strength and durability the structure depended upon, by a well-meaning yet imperfect hand. (Gotcha!)

    Know that you have exceeded your expectations when you started your blog, my well-meaning, yet imperfect friend, Joe!

    Blueberry crisp, apple pie, blackberry cobbler, and apple dumplings were the extent of what Grandma taught me in the desrt/pastry arena. (Don’t get me started on saurkraut and Brussels sprouts!)

    Now my wife doesn’t allow me in the kitchen in the months leading up to swimsuit season, because I’ll whip up laminated pastry dough, diplomat cream, ganache, and pâté a choux just for fun. And I am at the weight I was when we married out of high school thirty years ago. (she struggles with that)

    All things in moderation!

    1. I’m smarting a little after that second paragraph, Dave, but you do me great honor!

      Thanks for it all!

      – Joe

  9. …and this well-reasoned response must be why I enjoy your blog so much.

    Keep it coming!

  10. I know you are not moderating after those initial responses Joe, but I just had to add ‘thank you’ in capital letters (don’t want to seem like I’m shouting but that’s how I am saying it in my mind).
    Even in India, a third world country, we have that particular elite section which keeps trying to make you feel guilty if you don’t opt for organic, vegan, not GM foods, etc.
    I am all for non cruelty to animals, ethical sourcing of food, and healthy eating, but I like my bread, cake, pastry and desserts too!

    1. Thank you, Theresa!

      I appreciate the comment very much. For indeed it is possible to both eat well and be responsible without conforming to a food ideology.


      – Joe

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