Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dinner with Dilemma

Even though it's this week, I'm still dwelling in last week because it was so good. Two nights of just-the-two-of-us beautiful on Tuesday and Thursday were followed by the latest dinner party on Friday. (I love being able to say that last part. Sigh.) This time the menu was Vietnamese because the birthday boy among the invitees was in the mood for pho.

After a little research, the menu looked something like this:

Ga Thit Vien
Pho Bo
Che Chuoi
Coffee, Vietnamese style

Translated, that means:
Chicken Meatballs
Beef Noodle Bowl
Coconut Tapioca Soup
Coffee, Vietnamese style

The meatball recipe I found on the Food and Wine website, and the coconut tapioca soup version that I used came from Cooking Light. I located reliable instructions for the pho (pronounced phu, in case you didn't know yet) at Steamy Kitchen, complete with photos and puns. Birthday boy was in charge of the coffee because he actually owns the tiny little drip makers required to do it up right. (I'm all for investing in fun new food supplies, but since I don't drink coffee, that was one investment that I didn't intend to make.)

Let's dispense with the results. The chicken meatballs were well received, perhaps because they were somewhat familiar. They had the usual Asian party of flavors going on in one dish and each bite. Cilantro, mint, lemongrass, shallot, fish sauce--and more--were all mixing it up merrily in each little bundle of protein. The sriracha sauce was the fireworks, adding both color and heat.

The coconut tapioca soup (actually somewhere between soup and pudding) went over well, too. My husband did liken the tapioca pearls to fish eyes, but the flavor was acceptable to everyone. Well, everyone except my recovering-picky-britches son, who did bravely taste before donating his serving to one of our reliably adventurous eaters. We all agreed that the diced fresh pineapple I added to the traditional banana and toasted sesame seed topping was welcome.

Now let's back up to the middle, the main dish, the source of a mini-rant to come. Prepare yourselves.

I was all set to do pho the old fashioned way. The dish is basically a self assembled bowl of noodles, beef, and condiments bathed in a good, spiced beef stock, which I was prepared, nay delighted, to make. I've never made beef stock at home. In fact, I don't remember making it at school even. I wanted to make beef stock, straight from the bones and all.

And therein lay my last-minute problem--bones. I failed to imagine that it would be impossible in my area to find bones for stock, but it was. I called my usual grocery store's meat department and was told that most everything comes in prepacked. They had no bones. Nor would any other grocery store in the area, the nice man on the phone assured me. Then I called the slaughter house where the father-in-law has his beef processed. The lady on the phone there said that all bones went into the "bone barrel," whatever that is. They could sell me no bones. A retail meat company in the nearest small city over an hour away offered stock bones, but I had no opportunity left to make the trip to purchase them. Obviously I wouldn't be making my own stock after all.

I should have known. Somewhere in all this digging up bones effort (Sorry. Couldn't resist!), I remembered what I'd read about meat processing regulations in this country. I can't recall all the details, but I do remember that they don't make much sense. Regulations that were conceived to protect the consumer have now become so burdensome to would-be meat retailers that what the consumer is now almost protected from is buying beef or bones from anyone but an outfit large enough to navigate the complex rules and permit procedures to both process and sell it, i.e, agri-business and corporate giants.

Are you ready for the big, irritating irony that struck me while I was on the phone with the local meat processor? I live in a county full of beef farmers (one of them my own father-in-law) and two slaughter houses (one of them less than a mile away), but I can't buy five pounds of knuckle and leg bones to make stock! There's something wrong and illogical about that situation.

But that, my friends, is the mainstream food supply status quo in our country. Production and consumption are effectively divorced for most of us. If I go to the grocery store here in my town, the beef sold there probably came from who-knows-where, even though beef cattle dot almost every pasture you see right here. The local orchard languishes unattended while we buy apples from Washington state or even another country.

I'm not going to carry on all day, and I don't pretend to have all the answers to the food problems. What I will do is admit my own culpability. While brave souls all over the country are trying to reconnect producers and consumers via farmers markets, Consumer Supported Agriculture programs, and other local market endeavors, I'm still conveniently popping into the chain grocery store every week. This bone business has reminded me that I'm still part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I know of a farm in the county in which I work and do the bulk of my shopping that produces humanely and sustainably raised pork, chicken, and eggs, but I don't go out of my way to go there. There's a farmers market program, but I don't show up. Even with all the disturbing information I've encountered about food production in America, I have not yet reached my "That's it!" point. Clearly, I've got to change if I want anyone or anything else to do so.

Luckily, the purchased beef broth I was forced to use for my pho tasted quite good once it was doctored with charred onion and ginger and a vigorous spice sachet. The birthday boy--the only one who had eaten pho before--pronounced it satisfactory. But I would still have rather made my own. If that's ever going to happen, I'll have to travel to the city regularly (irony again) or become part of the local food rebels who are looking for safe, reasonable, homegrown solutions.

Which one is it going to be?

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