My spouse and I co-authored a syndicated vegan cooking column for about five years. Honestly, I felt surprised each time these were printed: instead of writing about food, we often discussed science, literature, philosophy, and parenting. We did include recipes, though – I’m a good cook and will be helping to write the cookbook for our family’s Chicago restaurant.
The recipes are behind a paywall, but if you’re curious, I’ve included a few samples of the column below.
More recently, my spouse and I have transitioned from writing a column that’s ostensibly about food to an advice column specifically about parenting, but fear not: the new column still includes the same silly mix of science, literature, and philosophy!
November 6, 2019
BREAD, WRATH, AND CIVILIZATION
I enjoy making bread. It’s a very forgiving food. You can haphazardly combine ingredients, wait, then bake. Usually the concoction will turn out fine.
You’ll need yeast, flour, salt, and water. During the wait, the yeast flourish, creating long roadways of gluten within the burgeoning loaf. The yeast and I are cooperating. I give them a pleasant place to grow and they’ll turn this flour into something more nutritious.
Then, like a wrathful deity, I crank our oven to 400 degrees. The yeast’s ruins will become my meal: a delicious, desertified wasteland. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
I don’t make bread as often as I’d like to, though. The presence of a fresh-baked loaf turns my children into monsters. They stalk the house groaning the word “bread,” hoping we’ll serve another slice. I sit down to read the paper only to feel small hands clawing at my pants. At any moment a kid might pounce, brandishing a container of Earth Balance butter.
It’s disquieting. All very uncivilized. Which is ironic, because bread has long been a hallmark of civilization. In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, when Odysseus reaches a new island he instructs his crew “to find out what people lived / and ate bread in this land.”
Bread brought civilization because wheat is easy to store. Nobody could levy taxes on pre-historic hunter-gatherers because their foods quickly spoiled. A would-be king couldn’t horde the fruits of others’ labor. Would you eat year-old wild berries that somebody remitted on tax day?
Wheat-growing farmers could be more easily oppressed. Rulers demanded tribute, seed from last year’s crop. And a portion of that unearned haul was used to feed royal artisans and scribes, which led to the society we have today.
Most technologies that reshape the world can be seen as both a blessing or a curse. Cellphones, Facebook, those motor-powered scooters that keep whizzing past me on the sidewalks. I’ve heard that other people like these.
Although bread heralded the birth of civilization, it too was considered a curse. When Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden in the King James translation of Genesis, they are told that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” They’ll no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they must learn to cook.
If only all curses were this scrumptious.
Fresh-baked bread is also surprisingly easy to prepare. We use a method adapted from Jim Lahey’s Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City and popularized in the New York Times.
After the kids go to bed, I find a large bowl and mix the ingredients. I never measure anything … except for the breads pictured in this article – Kirstin forced me to use measuring cups so that we could include recipes. I muttered invectives while I scooped, claiming that our next food article would be about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the physical definition of measurement.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kirstin replied, not looking up from the high schooler’s recommendation letter that she was typing. “Just make sure you write this down.”
Even with measuring cups, gathering and mixing the ingredients takes less than two minutes.
Then I cover the bowl and let it sit. I like to use this time for sleeping. But, who knows? Maybe you have nine hours of Netflix that needs watching.
In the morning, I stir in more flour until the texture looks right. This is slower. I always hope for nine hours of sleep. Usually, the kids wake me after six. Depending on how groggy I feel, I might spend five or ten minutes slackjawed while I stir the dough.
You could need it, if you’re feeling especially industrious, but there’s no need. When you give yeast free reign in extremely wet dough for a whole night, they’ll interlace long strands of gluten with their own exhalations. You want dough to include trapped pockets of air because these will expand in the oven and make your bread light and fluffy.
If you’re making bread on shorter notice, you’ll want to spend a few minutes folding and re-folding the dough. Otherwise, you’ll bake a brick. Kirstin’s father loved to make bread, and he would often give us loaves. These were invariably whole-wheat doorstops. One sat undiminished in our compost bin for weeks – even the raccoons were stymied in their attempt to gnaw it.
Whether you choose to knead bread or simply give it a whole night to rise, most of the time spent making bread is simply letting your dough sit on the countertop. So you could say that this recipe takes an entire day or just 10 minutes, depending on how you count time.
Then bake it. We typically use a Dutch oven, which cradles a loaf in humid air more sensibly than my old method of tossing water into the hot oven. Humidity keeps the outer crust soft, allowing your loaf to expand to its fluffiest. But you can also bake bread in cast-iron pans, on a pizza stone, or on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet. You might shape your dough into a loaf, a pizza, or calzones.
And then, bam! Thirty minutes later, the house smells great. The children start frothing. And soon it’s time to eat.
INCLUDED RECIPES: “Walnut Olive Bread,” “Plain Homemade Bread, and Pizza!”
August 19, 2020
TINKER WITH YOUR FOOD
Over the years, Frank’s parents have given us several sets of Legos. We always smiled, said “Thank you,” and promptly put the Legos up on a high shelf. What were his parents thinking? We had toddlers in our house!
Until, suddenly, we didn’t. This summer the Legos finally came down. It’s been wonderful. Like all kids, ours love to tinker.
Every few minutes now, when I am home, our 4-year-old and I have the following exchange:
“Look at this new ship I made!”
“Uh-huh, it’s beautiful.”
“You didn’t look! You have to look. See, it has six wings, a steering wheel, and eyes.”
And so I stop typing and look up to dutifully admire the array of eyeballs emblazoning the new spaceship.
“Ooh, a mechanical pentaclops. Your father will love to see that.”
And then I get to do another frantic burst of work as our little engineer marches proudly over to her father’s desk.
All of us are engineers, although we don’t always recognize that part of our identities. If I’ve learned anything about teaching, it’s that teaching is inherently engineering. Teachers build something, we implement it with our students, and we fix or replace the parts that don’t work.
I feel very fortunate that Frank and I lived with an inveterate tinkerer when we first moved to Bloomington. Our dear friend Auntie Ferret may run a vegan pizza restaurant in Chicago, but she also builds musical instruments and race cars.
There are occasional drawbacks to our friendship – she woke us with a 1 a.m. phone call recently, asking if we knew any out-of-work veterinarians who might sew up her leg after a power tool mishap – but her enthusiasm for trial-and-error learning has made me a much better teacher.
And she is so much less feral now! We had a fairly easy time coaxing her to visit her local emergency room.
Sometimes our ideas turn out to be terrible. Big deal! That happens to everyone. Engineering is the next step, finding a way to make your idea less bad when you try again. Whether you’re gardening, exercising, sewing, parenting, or refining your personal schedule and workflow, you’re probably doing it all the time.
Cooking is engineering, too. Frank loves to tinker in the kitchen. Recently he purchased a delicious condiment called “chili crisp” at the Bloomington International Market. One evening, after I’d put the kids to bed, I found him sitting at our kitchen table, staring intently at the bottle.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
He shook his head, emerging from his reverie. “I could make this,” he said.
The next evening, just before dinner time, he did.
We all sat down to eat. He spooned some of his sauce over his food, then took a bite.
Sweat began to pour down his face.
“I might’ve made it too spicy,” he mumbled.
But, fear not! He tried again, and again, until he had something that tasted right. Because when a project seems worthwhile, you keep trying until you get it right. That’s true whether we’re engineering in a workshop, in the kitchen, or in schools.
October 14, 2020
POTATOES FIGHT FASCISM
Recently, Frank’s brother came to visit for the weekend.
Our kids love seeing their uncle. Frank was happy to stay up too late playing board games and guitars.
In the morning, Frank took the kids swimming so that his brother could sleep and I could catch up on my grading. Then they returned home and Frank cooked brunch. Among other things, he made a tofu scramble with potatoes.
“I thought you didn’t like potatoes,” his brother said.
“Mmm, they taste kinda boring,” Frank mumbled, “but potatoes fight fascism!”
Unlike Woodie Guthrie’s guitar, though, it turns out that potatoes won’t stop contemporary totalitarianism. Too bad – I was hoping that my spouse had found a way to save the world with french fries. I guess we’ll have to vote instead.
Frank meant that potatoes – unlike rice, wheat, corn, and barley – didn’t spur the rise of oppressive regimes in ancient history. (Yep, we’re still talking about grains and the rise of civilization around here.) Potatoes grow underground, he explained, so it was harder for tax collectors to assess how much to take, and potatoes don’t have to be harvested at the same time – they could be left in the dirt until after the tax collectors left.
“But aren’t you always talking about how much you love taxes?” his brother asked.
“Ancient taxes were different. You know how evolution needs gene duplication events, making excess sequences that are free to be non-productive? It’s like that. Oppressive taxes supported a non-productive ruling class. Cultural evolution was good – I love written language, telephones, and space ships – but it was bleak for the people living through it. Most workers were kept at barely subsistence levels.
“Now, though, our technologies are so efficient that we could all have enough to eat. So I love tax policy. Wealth taxes, carbon taxes, they’re good ways to curb antisocial behavior.”
I found myself wondering whether a “pedantic lecture tax” might curb some antisocial behaviors in my own home, but luckily our children interrupted this particular tirade for me.
“In the LION CONTEST we always have enough to eat,” our youngest said. “And I need ketchup!”
So, potatoes. Now that most of the old kings have been dethroned, it’s perhaps less important that potato fields are difficult to assess. I still think potatoes are delicious, even if I save room for a slice of pumpkin chocolate loaf.
When Frank cooks potatoes, he often covers his frying pan to lightly steam them – this helps make sure they’re actually cooked through. And if they start to dry out, he’ll toss in a quarter cup of vodka then cover the pan again.
“Why vodka?” I asked.
“Lower boiling point. So they’ll actually steam instead of sitting in a puddle of liquid.”
“Is the boiling point that much lower, though?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Or are you just doing it to look cool?”
He gave an impish smile before turning back toward his cutting board.
“Or is it because vodka is made from potatoes?” I guessed again. Because that seemed like the sort of reasoning my spouse would use.
“I wish!” he exclaimed. “I spent half an hour looking for a vodka that was actually made from potatoes! They’re all made from grains now. So I just get the cheapest, since I use it mostly for cleaning anyway. And aftershave.”
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
GIFTS FROM OUR ANCESTORS
Spring is here, and our kids are once again digging up the yard.
“We’re gardening,” they tell us, but sometimes they bury rocks or toys instead of seeds, and even when veritable plant matter goes into the dirt, the kids might dig up that same patch a few days later.
“Wasn’t that your garden?” we ask, only to be told, “Today we’re making mud-men!”
So we’re dubious about the prospects of those kale seeds I gave them. And any time I’ve attempted to grow a little garden, my family’s elderly pitbull seeks out the seedlings and rolls on them until they die.
“You were working on that part of the yard, so this way Uncle Max feels like he’s helping,” Kirstin tells me, laughing a little in a way she hopes I won’t see. “He does it because he loves you.”
But the plants will be dead, and he’ll get mud all over the couch.
I might give up. But my children won’t – they’re sufficiently happy with the process of playing in the dirt that they’ll keep burying seeds.
In the book The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow argue that the origin of agriculture was probably rooted in playful digging like my children’s. Which was jarring: a lifetime of exposure to our prejudiced culture has made me reflexively imagine someone like Thomas Edison or Gregory Mendel assiduously planting seeds, intentionally striving to convert a scruffy grass like teosinte into buxom-kerneled corn.
But that’s almost certainly not what the origin of agriculture was like. Graeber and Wengrow write that “Instead of some male genius realizing his solitary vision, innovation in Neolithic societies was (probably) based on a collective body of knowledge accumulated over centuries, largely by women, in an endless series of apparently humble but in fact enormously significant discoveries.”
In many contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, women and children spend much more time interacting with plants than men do. And it’s easy to imagine ancestral children tromping off to a favorite meadow each morning and burying a few seeds they’d found along the way. Or perhaps an older person carefully weeding around a known medicinal plant to allow its roots to spread. Small, playful actions that took many years to reshape the world.
Of course, we can change our environments more quickly now. If I somehow deluded myself into thinking that our dog would keep out of my garden this year, I could take a trip to the store, buy a few packets of seeds, perhaps a bag of mulch, and assemble a little patch within a day.
Hopefully I’d remember to offer up a few words of thanks to all our ancestors who made this possible for us today.
Even when I’m just cooking (and not growing my own food), I try to remember to offer up a word of thanks to those same ancestors. All the people who must have planted seeds, whether playfully or with intention, in order to raise the cultivars we have today. There are so many delicious things to eat, and our ancestors did so much work to make them. Even with all the tools of contemporary science, I believe we’ve domesticated no new types of nut trees since the end of prehistory.
The recipes we’re sharing today – a recent meal highlighting Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes that led to surprisingly little fussing from my children – should work well if you’re trying to eat more plant-based meals for environmental reasons. Because, in addition to feeling grateful to all our ancestors who helped cultivate delicious vegetables to eat, I’d like to be the sort of ancestor whom other people might feel grateful toward, many years from now.
June 22, 2022
During a recent week in Washington D.C., I was with my children all day, every day while Kirstin attended the ceremony for the Presidential Awards in Math and Science Teaching. The kids and I had a good time, especially considering that my idea of fun tourism entailed our 5- and 8-year-old walking around the city for upwards of six miles a day.
Some of the museums weren’t quite what I hoped for – the plethora of LCD screens can feel overwhelming for members of my household – but the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was a delight, full of dinosaur bones and gemstones.
Visiting these treasures left our youngest feeling especially exhausted, since her brain worked overtime to process all the amazing things she’d seen. By that evening, she was so floppy that I resorted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. She ate hers with her eyes closed.
And she wasn’t the only member of our family who felt tired. I like to imagine that I’m a tolerably good parent, but that much caretaking with few breaks left me weary.
So I was grateful when we returned to Bloomington and my kids attended a week of daycamp at the YMCA run by Chelcey Bostic and her team of intrepid young counselors, who’ve kept hundreds of children healthy and happy at mid-pandemic camps.
I dropped my children off for their first day, hugged each, and found myself thinking of “Mouth Almighty,” a species of Australian fish.
Mouth Almighty is a “mouth brooding” fish – males will scoop up fertilized eggs and keep them safe until they hatch. And a research team recently discovered that some males will protect hatchlings to whom they have no genetic relationship.
We don’t know yet why they do this: whether it’s a mistake; or if they’re trying to display caretaking prowess in order to seem more attractive to potential future mates; or if they simply find pleasure in helping to raise young.
But no matter the reason, I love learning about moments of apparent kindness and collaboration in the natural world.
Similarly, I spent a delightful week re-reading my favorite YA fantasy novel about young people attending a wizard school: Naomi Novik’s “Deadly Education” series. In these books, there’s high-stakes competition among the students because the school itself is out to harm them. But Novik also speculates about what would happen if people in that environment set aside their reflexive competitiveness and worked together. At times, only cooperation can save the world.
For this week’s recipes, we’re sharing a food that’s best made as a team. Dumplings, spring rolls, spanakopita – by yourself, I suppose you could prepare enough of these to feed a gathering, but it’s much more fun to have guests sit down and fold them together. Instead of one person feeling beleaguered, alone in the kitchen, the prep work can become another chance to talk and laugh.
And if you’re feeding children? Well, my kids are always more eager to eat foods that they’ve prepared themselves. This is a trick we learned from their preschool teachers, who taught a whole roomful of students to cook soup. Soon, they were all gleefully eating vegetables that many had previously refused to touch at home. Because, deep down, don’t we all want to feel like we’ve helped?
INCLUDED RECIPES: “Jackfruit Dumplings,” “Simple Soup (for Floating Dumplings)”
August 17, 2022
A BIT OF RESPECT FOR OUR MACHINE OVERLORDS
My first child fell in love with reading at an early age, but for a long while, she was reluctant to write.
Apparently, most children begin in the other order. They’ll enthusiastically scribble on a sheet of paper and claim to have written a grocery list. Or perhaps their markings will be a complicated story that only they can decipher.
Even after learning the canonical letter shapes, writing is easier than reading for many young children. They can concoct phonetic phrases like “I tuk da bal” without having to memorize all of our language’s weird spellings.
But my first child found it difficult to maneuver her pencils or crayons in just the right way. And even after she figured that out, she claimed it was too slow. She might stand next to me and regale me with a long story about cat warriors and ask for me to write it down, but she wouldn’t write it herself.
Since I, too, take a long time to write by hand, I could sympathize.
So I thought she might have more fun if she was typing. And because I thought the process would be more fun if her efforts still produced actual marks on paper, I searched for an old typewriter.
At their elementary school, students mostly type using iPads. Although touchscreens are ingenious devices, they lack the tactile pleasure of a keyboard. And they certainly can’t compare to the noisy, ink-scented tumult of a mechanical typewriter. As soon as I got the typewriter working, both my children hovered at my shoulder, hoping for a turn.
We began to write stories together, trading off every few carriage returns. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by how quickly stories co-written with a 6- and 8-year-old would veer into calamity. I now have a stack of pages featuring adventurers who were beset by poisonous insects, ferocious worms, and vampire lords – and also a charming little interlude in which a wizard offered to teach magic to a group of travelers, then gave them a lesson in arithmetic. The wizard concluded by saying, “Now you can do awesome math!” I believe my 8-year-old wrote that scene.
I’m really happy to have been helped by this machine. My kids had fun writing as soon as we found a way to dodge that first slow, tricky step, although we’ll have to spend more time drawing, since they still need to work on their hand-eye coordination in fun ways.
This experience made me think about how, in the kitchen, analogous shortcuts can make cooking a lot more fun. I don’t personally have a machine to crank out phyllo dough inside my house, but I know that there’s a machine like that out there somewhere, because I can buy pre-packaged rolls of frozen phyllo at the grocery store. The idea of actually rolling out my own paper-thin sheets of pastry sounds arduous enough that there’s no way I’d make baklava or spanakopita from scratch.
Plus, folding spanakopita is another lovely chance to collaborate with children. I’ve enjoyed serving spanakopita at dinner parties with adults, too, since you can set your guests to work folding the little triangles when they arrive. It’s easier to start conversations when people have something to do with their hands, and spanakopita bake quickly once assembled.
So we’re sharing two recipes for foods that I’d never make if I had to do it all by hand. Yes, it’ll be sad when evil AI-driven robots like Skynet conquer the planet, but for today, I’m quite grateful to the machines.
INCLUDED RECIPES: “Less Sticky Baklava,” “Spanakopita”