In Conversation

Although I tend to keep interviews to The Four Questions, I was very excited to interview food historian Ken Albala for this blog because he’s a bit of a folk hero in the food studies world. But apart from his academic pursuits, he’s also an accomplished home cook. He recently published his second book of DIY home recipes and techniques, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home: The Happy Luddite’s Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency, with co-author Rosanna Nafziger Henderson. I asked Ken about this DIY ethos and how he decides to make something himself or go to the store for it.

I keep reading about new books on the domestic life and self-sufficiency, from making one’s own poptarts to pickling everything in the CSA. Where do you think this DIY ethos is coming from?

It’s coming from being fed up with expensive food that doesn’t taste good or is grown or reared unethically, and I think from the longing to make and eat interesting food as a hobby, diversion, pleasure.

Was it difficult to find the ingredients for these recipes? I love the idea of making my own birch beer, but finding sassafras?

Some things were, like the ambergris, but I bought it online. Likewise sassafras. You can get anything online, but better yet forage. The acorns, birch bark, spruce sap, etc. are very easy to find if you look. Most everything wild I found in the city of Stockton. And the organ meats, blood, etc. can easily be found in ethnic grocery stores. Sausage casings, likewise, I buy them online.

Having spent a little time in other countries, I’m always amazed at the regulations our government imposes on things like pasteurized cheese. And yet, people seem to get sick from peanut butter. Do you think there’s a nice balance out there? Or, should we be scared?

The peanut butter and other industrial food scares have to do with scale. One thing goes wrong and thousands get sick. If something goes wrong in your kitchen, you usually notice it. I am a lot more scared of industrial-scale food than things I make myself from whole ingredients. And almost all cases of home poisoning happen from improper canning – people at home trying to replicate industrial processes. We don’t in this book.

What are some condiments you’d never consider buying now that you can make them yourself?

Speaking personally, I’m not dogmatic about this. I like my own mustard, ketchup and mayo a lot, but I still buy them, preferably good ones. I love my own bread, but I still buy great bread. Quality is the index for me, and if I have the time and inclination to do it myself, I do for kicks, but if not, of course I buy it. Likewise wine; my few bottles of wine a year from the backyard aren’t going to go that far. Likewise the few jars of olives from my tree.

What are some condiments that you’ve discovered are totally worth going to the store for?

All of them and none of them. I almost always have a homemade version on hand and some store-bought ones. That goes for jams, soy sauce, Indian pickles, even regular cucumber pickles when I run out. It might be different if I had a farm and a lot of room, but I don’t. So I almost always have both on hand.


6 thoughts on “In Conversation

  1. I’m going to have to check out this book, Molly. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think DIY and food are a natural–and have been continuously outside this country for a long time. Europeans never quite bought into the convenience-is-all ethic, and of course in most cases they already had hands-on traditions of their own. As Americans I think we’re always asking ourselves, what are my traditions? Do I have any? What do I share with the folks who live near me–and what don’t I? Anyway, I think it’s interesting that kids are now discovering homemade, DIY food, just as people of my generation discovered food abroad, Julia Child, etc. Good post. Ken

    • I’m happy you enjoyed this interview. There is at least one other book touting a DIY food lifestyle which came out this year, and I actually won a copy of it off a different blog. I’m embarrassed to admit how disappointed I was with it, which is why I haven’t talked about it here. Albala’s book is quirky because the recipes have a homey feel to them, read: not all directions and recipes are super-precise, but I do love the concept behind the book. And it’s not just a cookbook: there is an entire half devoted to home projects as well.

      As for the Europeans hands-on ethic, Rich and I were very surprised at things like bags of lettuce and all the supermarkets that we saw when we were overseas last year. I had an image in my head about what life was like, and it was shattered by the time we left The Hague.

      On Wed, Nov 28, 2012 at 11:06 AM, Cheap Beets

      • Oh, convenience foods have caught up with the French and Italians (speaking from personal experience), but there coexists (and sometimes intermingles with) other vivid hands-on traditions about which people are truly passionate. I would venture that even the purchaser of bagged lettuce has a strong opinion about, say, the quality of the Edam available at the local farmers market. Also, people pick and choose their battles–or where they want to invest their time. I don’t use a CSA, for example, because too much of the food would go to waste, given everyone’s unpredictable schedules (I can only eat so much by myself), so I might by some bagged spinach, especially if it’s organic and in much better shape than alternatives–and devote my time to making sourdough bread, which anyone in my family can eat anytime. Looking forward to meeting you in the flesh, by the way. Ken

  2. Great discussion, Molly! You must have really enjoyed talking to Ken because you sneaked in an extra fifth question…I have a lot of fun making things that I could readily buy, but it’s nice to hear that sometimes even the experts just go out and buy what they crave!

    • Plus it’s fun to support those who are making the great stuff. We have an amazing artisan bread bakery nearby (Mamadou’s) and I don’t buy from them nearly as much as I would if I didn’t make my own bread, but I appreciate their stuff so much–I feel like in some ways I’m their best and worst customer (but they’d probably put more emphasis on the worst since my appreciation is mostly nonmonetary, but I try to sing their praises).

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