The Adult Marshmallow

I lived in Hawaii for almost a year with a bunch of raw foodists. Even as extreme as a completely raw food diet might seem, these folks were a step beyond that. They ascribed to a diet based on instinctive eating, a mish-mash of science, pseudo-science, counter-culture philosophy, evolutionary story telling, and an interesting phenomenon. My story here pertains to those last two bits.

According to the instinctive eating lore, cavemen who recently mastered control of fire would share meals with the clan while sitting around the flames. They hunted and gathered a range of foods from roots to meat, but always ate them raw. Then one day Og accidentally dropped his potato in the fire. Maybe he had done it before, maybe it was the first time, but this time he let sit in the fire for an hour at 425 degrees before using a stick to roll it back out. Prehistoric bliss. Hard and bitter could be traded in for soft and tasty. Humans had become cooks.

The problem, according to this mythology, is that cooking changes the chemical composition of the foodstuff. But human digestive systems did not evolve to metabolize these different forms. The result: disease. Yes, the root of disease is cooked food. It is a wonder that we made it this far.

The solution: eat only raw food. The instinctive eating premise is similar to other Palaeolithic misunderstandings; however, there is a bit of a twist. The instinctive eating proscription is to eat only one food at a time but only the food your body wants.

Wait… what??? How?

Through smell and “stops.”

After a few weeks of eating only raw food, ostensibly “cleansing” the body of those nasty toxins from cooked food, one’s sense of smell and taste changes. I can attest to this experience as I spent 6 months eating nothing but the absurd abundance of Hawaiian exotic foods (like the mamey sapote, pictured at the top of this Taste page). To eat instinctively, smell your options. There, it was most often coconuts, avocados, papayas, mangos, and bananas, though occasionally meat, macadamias, sapotes, jackfruit, eggfruit, pineapple, mangosteens, and durian. Given the same level of ripeness, at any given meal, some would smell deliciously fantastic and others meh. So, start eating one that smells good. But then, there would be a bite – it could be the second or the 14th, but it always happened – that no longer tasted good. That is a “stop” – an indication that your body has had enough of that. Time to move on to another food that smells good or stop eating altogether.

I don’t really buy the explanations or the lore, but the phenomenon of stops is uncanny.

Nonetheless, last night I had an Og moment, an accident of a particular array of foodstuffs and a not-entirely-legal firepit in my yard. There is a gray area of the local statute about fires – it is ok if you are cooking over it. So, I have a bag of marshmallows that I have had for almost 3 years now. I trucked it out last night and put them next to the bbq fork in case the police were called.

But I would never subject my guests to marshmallows for dessert. That would be an insulting follow up to the cucumber, tomato (5 varieties), basil (3 varieties) salad made entirely from my garden and the bbq chicken thighs seasoned lightly with salt, pepper, and garam marsala.

No, I had bought a flat of black figs to sit in the middle of a cheese plate. We nostalgically recounted our marshmallow experiences with, like most adults I know, some disdain. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the stars, maybe it was the ghost of Og, but I was inspired suddenly by an idea. I split open a fig from stem to base, put a thin slice of cheese on top, and skewered it with the fork. A few minutes in the fire and it was bliss.

We each tried variations to perfect the process, and I believe the trick is to get some top-down broil action so that the cheese melts at a rate that fits the softening of the fig. We tried cantilevering a log so that it had a hot exposed bottom, and that seemed to help. Adding a slice of tin foil on top also concentrated the heat.

And so, I am sharing this invention – figmallows? Fig Smores? Feesers? Not just sharing - starting a movement! No longer do we have to suffer through long nights around a fire with only a processed sugar ball. We can be civilized. Adults. Enjoying a bit of fig, slow roasted, with a bit of goat cheese or Gorgonzola or even chocolate, all while mesmerized by the dancing light in the coals and the stories told around the pit.

It will smell good. I think you should eat it.

In Defence of Chicken Thighs

I live in a town that was originally populated by people enamoured with the status quo. Many current citizens are retired and also long more for the past than for the future. The university here, where I work, has been accused of being “on the cutting edge of tradition” as well. So it is no surprise that this town has food issues.

The plethora of sushi places to serve the students notwithstanding, there are some foods that are difficult to find. I have given up on trying to find sorbet; I started making my own. Despite one entrepreneur’s great success in starting 6 high quality Cambodian restaurants, the Chinese food here is inedible.  What gets labelled as spicy is barely seasoned with black pepper.

But the biggest frustration I have is with chicken thighs, as this is clearly a breast town.

I have had to beg my butcher – a butcher! – to carry thighs on a regular basis. To be fair, he did have them for a while but stopped because no one bought them.  The grocery stores seem to have thighs once a week, but which day is a mystery. No one is ever out of breasts.

So here I present my defence of chicken thighs. I am probably screaming in a vacuum, but the urge to scream is stronger than my desire to avoid futility.

1. Hands down, all chefs (but not all cooks) know that thighs are superior to breasts. They are more succulent and just plum taste better.

2. Why do they taste better? Myoglobin. The breast is an unused muscle, just hanging off the front of a chicken’s body like a home plate umpire. Thighs work hard, extra hard with all of that weight to carry, and so have the extra ingredient myoglobin found in any meat that comes from muscle that has performed its function. Even duck breasts are tasty because of myoglobin. In fact, when people say something tastes like chicken, they mean chicken thighs, they mean myoglobin.

3. Because we have bred grotesque breast monsters, whole roasting chicken ruins the thighs. The time and temperature needed to cook through the tasteless rubbery mass of breast far exceeds what is optimal for the thighs. I tried looking for chickens that may have been bred for thighs instead of breasts, but could not find any. Instead, what I found was the Vietnamese Dong Tao chicken, also known as a dragon chicken, which has grotesque, massive legs and is so rare that buying just one is about $1250 US dollars. Not going to find that one any time soon at my butcher store.

4. The ascendancy of breasts can be tied to the long-standing fear of red meat. But decades of science has not borne out the low protein, low fat diet. The food pyramid is upside down. Humans manifest diseases from an absence of protein and fats in their diet, yet there is no disease that emerges from a carbohydrate deficiency. We simply don’t need them. But that is another post. The point here is that the argument for breasts as healthier is based on the attempt to limit fat intake. Thighs have slightly more fat than breasts, so the diet-conscious choice promoted for years has been breasts. Chalk is low fat too and tastes just as good as chicken breast.

So begins my crusade. I am calling for a rebellion, a movement to increase demand for chicken thighs and eschew chicken breasts. When your hosts offer chicken breast at their table, decline and chew on your napkin instead. When your waiter describes the special that has chicken breast, wrinkle your nose in disgust. When your grocery store has no thighs, ask for them, every time. If we can breed away ability for plants to reproduce, clone sheep, and grow a human ear on a rat then we can breed chickens that have a greater proportion of tasty meat.