The Lunar New Year, or Tet as my peeps call it, brings with it many favorite dishes. Fatty pork and sugar dominate the holiday table, harking back to a time when ingredients fat and sweet were much more difficult to obtain, precious to use, and delightfully rare to enjoy.
While I can now buy a 10-pound bag of sugar and an equal amount of meat for less money than a couple of movie tickets, the most traditional new year’s dishes are still special for one resource that does remain valuable: time.
If you’re reading David Sax’s recent book, Save the Deli, or follow his blog or moan, as many do, about the general state of the Jewish delicatessen, then you know that it’s a pivotal time in this most hallowed bastion of comfort food.
For years, locavores and vegetarians, calorie-counting suburbanites and couscous-loving Sephardim and even heeb-hopping hipsters have been bringing their own favorite dishes to the Jewish table. You might not know this upon stepping into a deli, where piles of salty, fatty meat and schmaltz in the chopped liver and never-ending free pickles every day of the year define good eating. It’s supposed to be a carefree zone where all the generations and sects can enjoy some chicken soup in relative peace.
Just a mile from the skyscrapers of downtown Pasadena lies a tiny plot of land that has become the heart of an urban homesteading movement. The raised beds of the Dervaes family farm cover 1/10 of an acre. Imagine the area from a football field’s goal line to the very first 10-yard mark, or if you’re an average suburban homeowner, scan your backyard. Now, imagine harvesting 3 tons of organic food from this short span of soil every year.
Robert McFall’s documentary, Homegrown, is an intimate family portrait that reveals both the visionary inspiration and the resolute dedication required to grow one’s own food. For Jules and his adult children, Justin, Anais, and Jordanne, the Dervaes farm began as an experiment to see how much of their own food they could grow. A natural extension of the father’s experience during the back-to-the-land heyday of the 60s and 70s, their gardens soon led to living off-the-grid. They catch rainwater and recycle grey water, keep animals for manure and collect oil from nearby restaurants to produce their own biofuel. They order hand-cranked appliances from Amish catalogs. They put up their own green beans and illuminate their home with a self-reliant mix of olive oil lamps, biodiesel lamps, homemade candles, daylighting and the occasional fluorescent bulb.
Everyday cooking means taking lots of shortcuts. For the most flavor with the shortest amount of time in the kitchen, especially when you’ve splurged or gone out of your way to buy good ingredients, it’s a delicate balance between paying attention to the details and just trying to get dinner on the table.
We’ve all done it — cooked tomatoes with their peels and seeds, served pureed soup unstrained, fried the potatoes just once, not twice. It’s healthier, right?
These last two weekends in the Bay Area have been a celebration of the best and the biggest of food on the go. La Cocina and Eat Real both showed that there are indeed thousands of people willing to stand in long lines in the full heat of summer to try any tasty treat served from a bicycle or cart, tent or renovated taco truck.
But it was a bit like eating Thanksgiving dinner, my cousin’s 12-course wedding banquet and my mom’s new year’s brunch all in the same week. The specialness of each blurred together, and the meaning of each was lost in the flurry of food.
If we would like to see the creativity of those festivals extended to the other 362 days of the year, we now need to divert some of our gustatory energy to ensuring systemic support of microenterprise. Yes, I know, public policy and economic reform is not nearly as sexy as a coconut-basil popsicle. And, yes, talking about immigration and community development is such a downer. Tweeting is way more fun than writing letters to our city supervisors.