Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scratch That

If you read NGNP regularly, then you (hopefully) know that you can count on several constants: 100% gluten-free recipes, brutally honest product and restaurant reviews, and much more often than not, an emphasis on from-scratch cooking. Every now and then, I like to stand on my gluten-free soapbox, food-evangelize a bit, and seek converts to our brand of scratch, gluten-free cooking. With our cookbook out - Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking - we've further cemented our roots in the scratch method of cooking.

Now, as we conceive and develop new recipes for the blog, I find myself unexpectedaly thinking (and worrying)... is this scratch enough? Are we staying true to "our brand?" Am I betraying readers, or my own ethic, if I stray from the from-scratch straight and narrow?

I do firmly believe there are strong benefits to cooking from scratch: absolute control of ingredients, influence of the nutritional content, a more intimate relationship to our food (including what we eat and why), the social process of making food with family or friends (and sharing the tasty product of our labors), etc.

Of course, there's the thorny question of how "scratch" is scratch enough? Unless you're eating a restaurant, where literally everything has been prepared for you, we're all cooking from scratch to one degree or another. It just depends what our respective starting points are... Is a store-bought all-purpose GF flour blend "less scratch" than a custom blend you mix yourself? If you make a sauce or a sorbet with orange juice rather than fresh squeezed oranges, do you lose "scratch points?"

It's easy, sometimes, to let the soapbox grow taller; to begin to paint things into a black and white (you're either "from scratch" or "pre-made, processed food"). Walking down this slippery slope creates a false dichotomy. It risks villifying all "pre-made" foods because they're simply not "from scratch" in our own kitchen. But that's hardly fair.

When you take a step back and think about it, it's interesting to note how staunchly we adhere to scratch cooking, when the "from scratch" ethic doesn't necessarily bleed into other parts of our lives. When my 1999 Jeep Cherokee with 202,000 miles kicks the bucket one of these days, I won't go and build myself a new Jeep from scratch. This winter, I have no plans whatsoever to knit myself a new sweater from scratch. If we one day sell our condo and move into a new place, I can almost certainly tell you that I will not be building a new house from scratch (though I did learn how years ago when I apprenticed with a general contractor...).

These are all examples of times when going the "scratch" route definitely does not pay. Why? Specialization. Other people can do it better than me, more easily, faster, and probably for less money (and at the very least, for much more convenience, which is not a trivial thing). Because they "specialize" in a particular discipline. (Such is one of the underpinnings of well-functioning capitalism...)

For a variety of reasons, though, we're often reluctant to let go and "outsource" our food. We cling to scratch cooking when we happily forego scratch living in other corners of our lives. I think that's partly because there's a much more emotional, cultural, and tradition component to food. We don't want to let go of our food for fear of losing some of those valuable attachments. I think it also comes down to sacrifice. When it comes to a sweater, or a Jeep, or a house, I can almost certainly guarantee that what I can buy will be higher quality than what I can make myself. That's not necessarily true in food. When we relinquish control of the ingredients and process, we may unwillingly sacrifice quality...of the product, of its nutrition, of our own health. Firmly holding on to scratch cooking keeps us in control of those factors.

But what if we find food specialists out there...artisan bakeries, Old World style delis, cheese shops, whatever...that share our values? What if those companies make their products from scratch in the same way I might make them at home? Should they be villified? Of course not! I've had the pleasure of reviewing products from some such companies, and I'm happy to sing praises where praise is warranted.

My take home message is thus: I remain a strong believer in scratch cooking in the house, but that doesn't mean there aren't noteworthy GF foodies and companies out there doing great things with food. They have a place in my kitchen, and yours. GF food isn't always about "us" versus "them," or "scratch" versus "not." GF food is about community (isn't all food?), and it's a real joy to find companies and products that align with your own values. And so I'd encourage you, please comment and let others know about your favorite GF foods, companies, bakeries, etc. But don't make it just a list...let us all know what you love so much about them!

I'll start: I love the rainbow cookies at Shabtai, because they trigger my nostalgia for the bakeries of my youth on Long Island, NY. I love Aleia's and Mariposa bakeries for their natural, familiar ingredients, and the quality of their baked goodies.

- Pete


kellibronski said...

I second the Shabtai rainbow cookies! I am hoping we can get some when we are in NY for the holidays. My other favorite is the almond cookies made by Aleia.

"The Silent Partner" :)

Stephanie said...

There is an amazing restaurant called Fresh Thyme Soup Co in Portland, OR that I go to everytime I'm in town! They change up the menu every week, and always specify what items on the menu are GF. They even make GF cornbread :)
The Great Harvest Bread Company in Seattle makes GF bread too! I don't know about the other locations, but my sister sent me some heavenly french bread for my birthday.
Wish there were more places like that in Utah...
I am all for people who make what I like better than me, and will support them whenever I find them. This is where, I think, living in a bigger city (or maybe just an aware city) can be an advantage. Everytime I go up to Portland to visit my family, I discover new places that cater to the gluten free diet. I've unfortunately only found a couple of places where I live that do the same...so mostly I live and eat "from scratch."
I'm so excited to get your cookbook for Christmas!!

mrsmckracken said...

I can't live without Tinkyada noodles...let's be honest, does ANYONE want to make their own noodles? They taste so close to the real thing. I also love the Dippy Chick's dip mixes. So much flavor, so much love. And lastly, I really love the Kinnikinnick Oreos. Because, truly, you two may be the only ones who could actually make those babies from scratch...

peterbronski said...

Hey Stephanie... Yeah, Portland is a fabulous city. A very good friend from college grew up in the suburbs just outside the city, so I've been there a few times to visit. Absolutely love it! Whereabouts in Utah are you? We were out in Ogden in September. The Wasatch were gorgeous...

Hi Mrs McKracken... I second your praise of Tinkyada. If we're talking lasagna, fettucine, or linguine, I like to make the noodles myself from scratch. But when it comes to macaroni and extruded/pressed pastas - spaghetti, elbow, rotini, etc. - Tinkyada is the way to go! I also really like Schar's spaghetti. I think it's actually better than Tinkyada's spaghetti.

Cheers, Pete

Michelle said...

I've at times found myself on a 'from scratch soapbox', but realized I was bordering on a sort of eating disorder. Skeptical of not only eating out, but also eating at the houses of friends and family. As much as I value from scratch cooking (and a newfound gluten awareness), I've learned to 'have the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference'...great article!