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.