On Food: Growing and Eating and Hobbits

David Russell Mosley

the-hobbit215-594x309

Lent
25 February 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Writing to you about food, and not about fasting, feels a bit odd during this Lenten season. However, it is always important to remember that Christianity is primarily a feasting religion which fasts to remind us that we depend on God, not food, for our existence. Nevertheless, today I have read two excellent articles on food that I thought I would share with you, with a little commentary.

The first article I read today came from The American Conservative, an excellent news and opinion source, in my personal opinion. Here author Gracy Olmstead writes an article entitled “Why Cooking Matters.” Olmstead is looking primarily at the work of author Michael Pollan––author of such works as The Omnivores Dilemma and Cooked––to see what importance cooking, even spending much of our time in the cultivation (or hunting) and preparation of the food we eat. For Pollan it is not only good but necessary that we begin to return to older methods of food cultivation and preparation. Failure to do so will result in loss of traditions which will in turn lead to loss of a proper connection to the land.

There are are critics of Pollan, however. Olmstead notes that of New York Times’s Neil Genzlinger who argues that Pollan’s views are too gentrified, unavailable to poor. Olmstead responds that the problem has less to do with this not being available to the poor for financial reasons “but, rather, because we’ve largely lost the skills associated with this work.” Now here I do think Olmstead and Pollan are overlooking the fact that much of this may not be available to those who have to work three full-time jobs just to make ends meet. Rather than the handwringing of Genzlinger, however, I would argue that this is reason enough to fight for political changes to make it easier for the poor among us to have access to good, healthy food and the means to cultivate and prepare it. This may also require re-education and new habits to be formed. We have been so habituated to the processed that for many the organic tastes bad. It took me a long time to love the flavor of organic vegetables or even grass fed beef. Nevertheless, I think these things worth our time.

The second article I read was an older article from The Distributist Review by Robert Hutchinson entitled, “How to Eat like a Hobbit.” Hutchinson begins by reminding us of the importance of food in Tolkien’s work. Hutchinson notes, that, “there is more eating than fighting in The Lord of the Rings.” And many are often either driven mad, or to laughter, by how often Bilbo is pining after bacon and his larder in The Hobbit. Hutchinson notes that unlike our industrialized farming of today, hobbits and the other free folk of Middle-earth benefit from what can only be called organic small farms (albeit there were no pesticides in the third age so to call the farms organic is certainly anachronistic on my part). Not everyone was a farmer, but what farmers there were were the primary source of food in the local economies. This Hutchinson sees as a good, and I agree.

Hutchinson then transitions his article from hobbits to our own situation. He notes that even when we see numerous brands on the grocery store shelves many, if not all, of them come from the same farms, are packaged in the same factories, and are distributed by the same distributors. “[B]y some estimates,” Hutchinson writes, “just four companies now produce 90% of the food consumed in the United States: Cargill, Tyson Foods, General Mills and Kraft.” This is not a good, says Hutchinson. This leads to bad growing practices, to a desire for uniformity which causes sellers and growers to use artificial means to keep their food “looking nice” when they hit grocery store shelves. Hutchinson, however, is not content simply to detail the woes, but offers real solutions we can take as individuals, families, and local communities. I will reproduce those in full here:

“1. Go organic. Whenever possible, begin buying organic food, especially when it comes to meat and dairy products. Organic products are more expensive so every family and individual has to adjust their purchases for their own economic situation. Many people believe that, for health reasons, switching to organic, free-range meats and dairy is more important than organic vegetables because of the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in meat and dairy.

2. Buy local only. Almost every town and city in North America and Europe hosts farmer’s markets where the few remaining family and small farms come to sell locally grown produce. There are now also hundreds of websites where you can quickly and easily identify stores in your area that sell locally grown produce.

3. Eat in season. This is the hardest step of all to take. That’s because globalization means that consumers in prosperous nations have gotten used to eating whatever they want, whenever they want it, regardless of the season. But again, convenience comes at a high cost: the fruits you buy in January are picked unripe and artificially ripened with ethylene gas or calcium carbide (yum, yum!). Buying foods in season, however, has the effect of encouraging a far more diverse diet than would otherwise be the case: apricots in April, cherries in May, blueberries and raspberries in June.

4. Start your own garden. One reason to start your own garden is because it sensitizes you to what you’re missing by eating only mass-produced industrial food. Anyone who has ever tasted a homegrown heirloom tomato grown on the vine has trouble going back to the tasteless, “pre-ripened,” dyed-red globules sold in most supermarkets. Even if you only have a few green pepper plants sprouting on your balcony in your high-rise apartment, it is a vivid reminder of the Shire and why you should go out of your way to find “Hobbit-grown” foods whenever you can.

5. Join the Urban Chicken movement. Thousands of families in urban and suburban settings have set up small chicken coops in their back yards, sometimes disguised as children’s playhouses. The fun of growing chickens is heightened by getting dozens of “farm fresh,” organically produced, nutritious eggs.

6. Eat less meat. Hobbits are not vegetarians and neither are most human beings. Yet their favourite foods are grown in the wild, particularly mushrooms. Many people are finding that a return to the so-called “paleolithic diet,” the diet of our hunter-gather ancestors, can result in surprising health benefits and even weight loss. This is a diet made up primarily of fruits and vegetables with occasional lean meat dishes.

7. Lobby for labeling. The industrial food lobby, aided by most national governments, has fought tooth and nail against food labelling requirements. The Big Food lobby has been especially fierce in its opposition to labels for Genetically Modified (GM) foods since so many consumer food products today now contain genetically altered plants, such as corn. It is also opposed to mandatory labelling for products that contain growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and so on. That’s because the food industry does not want consumers “voting with their pocketbooks” and choosing organic foods that do not contain these chemical additives.”

While not every individual or family will be able to do all of these at once, I do want to encourage you to do what you can. I said at the beginning that writing about food during Lent felt odd. However, there is at least one upside to writing about this at the tail end of February. For many of us these suggestions will be easier to follow as Spring inches nearer. My wife and I are already planning out our allotment for this season, so we can grow at least some of the food we eat. We are also fortunate to live in an area with many small or at least non-industrialized farms nearby so that as the season begins we can buy fresh, local, and often organic produce, we can even pick our own and jam and can. What is important, however, is that these things are good to do. They are good because they are often healthier options; they are often more economically and environmentally viable options. More importantly, however, they are more Christian options. We are called to be stewards of Creation. What is more, we act as priests for the rest of physical creation at least (I think also for angelic, but that’s another subject for another day). It is our job to offer back our gratitude and our very selves to God as priests offering sacrifices. For this reason we must find more just ways to cultivate and consume our food. The two articles above, if we read them and take them to heart, can help us do precisely that. Cheers.

Sincerely,
David

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The Thing I’ll Miss Most in England: Pubs

David Russell Mosley


St Patrick’s Day 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today being the feast of St Patrick, you might think I’d be doing a post on him, but this year, you would be wrong. You can check out the post I did on him last year, a post Peter Stevens has done this year, and an excellent article on him from here.

Today I am writing about pubs. No, I didn’t choose this topic because today is St Patrick’s Day. Rather, I have been sitting on this topic for quite some time and finally have a free moment to write up my thoughts.

As the academic year progresses and I get closer to finishing my PhD, my children get even closer to make their grand entrance into the outside world, my time in England is beginning to come to a close. People ask me what I’ll miss most when my family and I move back to the United States. There are many things I’ll miss, a pedestrianised culture, the landscape, the climate, the food, but most of all I’ll miss the pubs.

IMG_0994I will admit, I had romanticised pubs before I came here. I thought they were all places with home-cooked meals by plump landladies, fresh pulled ales from the pub-owned brewery, bands playing folk music every evening, and good conversation ruling the day. Imagine my shock when many of the first pubs we went to had televisions, gambling machines, and standardised touristy food to boot. I was even more shocked when I found out several of the pubs in the City Centre of Nottingham doubled as nightclubs in the evening. It was a blow to my romantic picture of England as a place that hadn’t yet succumbed to the greed and vice that often surrounds the American bar scene.

Nevertheless, by the time my birthday had rolled around in our first year I found what would come to be (though not always literally) “my local”.IMG_0996 The Crown Inn isn’t a perfect pub, but it is an excellent one. Alongside excellent decor, they have an excellent real ale selection. But a pub is more than a lack of individualistic distractions and good ale. Pubs, also known as public houses are places of community congregation. They are places to meet with your friends to discuss life over excellent libations. They are places to sit quietly and contemplatively. They are places to have conversations with strangers. In fact, they are excellent places to spread the gospel.

Now I’m sure my friends in America will be able to tell me what the pub/bar scene is like back home. Truth be told, when we moved to England I had only just begun to understand beer and wine and other types of alcohol. In fact, the American craft beer movement gives me quite a lot of hope that perhaps America can begin to shift its understanding of alcohol from something to get you drunk to something you enjoy especially when used for its proper end, conviviality. This isn’t to say England has everything in order, far from it, but the proper British pub is certainly a bastion of hope in a world of cheap, tasteless booze and community-less individualism. And therefore, it is what I will miss the most.

I want to leave you with a poem by G. K. Chesterton another Christian and lover of ale:

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

Baking Bread and the Body of Christ

David Russell Mosley

 

30 October 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to talk to you about something very theological; something so very theological that it often goes right over our heads. Today, I want to talk to you about baking bread.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage Fruit-share project. In that post I focused on the necessity of having a better connection with where our food comes from because this is a better connection with Creation, of which we are a part. Baking bread, in some ways, takes this a step further. While currently I do not bake bread from wheat I’ve grown and ground myself (nor always from organic or locally sourced wheat, though I hope to someday), baking bread is perhaps an essential part of the Christian life.

Bread makes up half of one of the most important events in Christianity. It represents the oneness (as well as diversity) of the Church, which is also to say it represents and becomes for us the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Now, whatever theology of the Eucharist to which you ascribe––I’m personally somewhere between consubstantiation and transubstantiation (that is, I believe Christ is really present, but don’t want to get enmeshed in talking about how)––the Bread still stands for the body of Christ. This means, to some extent, every loaf of bread participates in the Eucharistic bread. Every loaf of bread we eat should remind us of the Loaf in the Lord’s Supper (just as every glass of wine we drink participates in the Cup of the Blood of Christ). To this end, then, baking bread can remind us of the Eucharist which is our thanksgiving for the body and blood of Christ.

Baking bread is a relatively cheap and easy enterprise. The recipe I’m going to give you is from James Morton’s book Brilliant Bread. 17612890 This is a great recipe for beginners, such as myself, and results is delicious and healthy bread. This is just a plain white loaf, so it could be a bit healthier, but believe me, it is infinitely better for you than most store-bought sliced loaves.

Bake Time: 3-3 ½ hours; Time in Kitchen 10-15 minutes.

Ingredients:
500g Strong White Flour (Bread flour)
10g of Salt
7g or 1 sachet of yeast
350g (a little over 11 ounces) of tepid water

In a large bowl add your dry ingredients. Morton recommends rubbing in your salt on one side and your yeast on the other as yeast deactivates salt.

Then add your water and mix until a cohesive dough is formed. I recommend holding on to the bowl with one hand and mixing with the other. It goes quickly and leaves you a clean hand.

Cover with a damp tea towel and rest for 30-40 minutes.

After its rested, wet the fingers of one hand and slide them between the bowl and the dough. Take a portion of the dough and fold it back in on itself. Turn slightly and continue this until you’ve knocked all the air out.

Cover with a damp tea towel and rest for a full hour or until doubled in size.

On a lightly floured surface turn out your dough to begin shaping. Begin by pressing your hand firmly on half the dough while stretching the other half out with the other hand and then folding it back in on it self. Turn slightly and continue until the dough feels tighter. Then turn the dough over and begin shaping into a ball. Do this by cupping each hand and bringing them together under your loaf turning slightly. This helps remove the seam on the bottom. Do this until the seam is gone and the dough is in a nice ball.

Put the dough on a well floured surface to rest for an hour. Also, using a serrated knife or razor blade make a few deep slashes in the bread to allow to expand while baking. During this time prep your oven. Put a baking sheet or rock in the oven and make sure your bread will have plenty of room to rise.

At about forty minutes into your dough’s final rest, pre-heat your oven and baking sheet to 210˚C.

After the oven has had about 20 minutes to pre-heat, put in your dough to bake for about forty minutes or until a nice golden brown.

Once its done, take your loaf out of the oven and let cool before digging in.

IMG_0793

A whole-meal bread I made last week.

And now you have a perfectly good loaf of bread. I find a loaf lasts my wife and I around 4-7 days. The flour costs around 80 pence and, if you just make plain white bread with it, should get you three loaves (considerably cheaper than store-bought). All you need is a few cheap ingredients, and about 3 hours at home (not all of which must be spent in the kitchen) in order to make your own loaf. Give it a try, and reflect on the one Loaf that is, for us, the body of Christ.

 

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

 

River Cottage, Fruit Share, and the Importance of Our Relationship to Creation

David Russell Mosley

19 October 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

One of the many things about which I am really quite passionate is food. Specifically locally grown and reared food. I have to admit upfront, that I still don’t do enough considering my feelings on the subject, but I am trying.

Today we find ourselves in a culture of prepackaged, pre-cooked, reheated, food. We have no idea from whence it comes, who grew it (or reared it in the case of meat). Animals are being filled with steroids and cooped up in spaces far too small for a quality of life that is necessary for truly excellent tasting meat; seeds are being genetically modified and farmers are being sued for trying to use their own harvested, non-modified seeds (under the pretension that some of them might be over the patented, modified variety due to geographic proximity to modified crops). Even churches are giving mostly non-perishable food items in their food banks because its cheap and many people wouldn’t know what to do with fresh vegetables or fruit if you gave them to them.

Our Veg Patch in Early Spring (or Ver)

Our Veg Patch in Early Spring (or Ver)

There are probably a lot of ways to fix these problems. Stricter governmental regulations over food; buying more from local farms (the creation of more family or town owned farms); growing your own food; etc. As Christians, it is our duty to care for Creation, it is, after all, our sister. And I think churches everywhere should doing everything they can to ensure people are cooking and eating food that is good and wholesome for them. One of the ways to do this, however, is to start with the children and get them involved.

On that front, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage has begun a new project called Fruit Share. Several years ago, Hugh began a project called Land Share, connecting people who wanted to grow their own food with people who had land to spare (here in the UK that is). This new project, Fruit Share, has me very excited, albeit unable to do much about aside from get the word out about it. Fruit Share is program to give free fruit trees to British schools to begin small orchards so they can begin supplying their kitchens with fresh fruit. The kids get to help plant and care for the trees, and then enjoy their bounty. I currently have no children in school nor do I work at one, but I want to encourage everyone who does (teachers, parents, School Governors, etc.) to check out the Fruit Share project and sign up their schools. In the not too distant future I hope to do some more posts on the theological implications of growing food and buying and eating locally, but for now I just want this post to be an encouragement to join in the Fruit Share project. I talk all the time about the enchantment of Creation, well Creation can seem disenchanted if we don’t have a better relationship to it, if all we do is rape the land for industrial purposes. Let’s bring the Kingdom of God (insofar as we can this side of the resurrection) to Creation which is groaning for its own redemption.

Here is the link for the Fruit Share website as well as a brief video about it put out by the River Cottage team:

Fruit Share Website

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

In Defence of Beer

David Russell Mosley

English: The Crown Inn Beeston Hardy Hanson pu...

English: The Crown Inn Beeston Hardy Hanson pub (now part of Greene King). The trees to the right were subsequently removed to make way for an apartment block Later became a Free House 1523868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

18 September 2013
The Edge of Elfland
Windermere, Cumbria

Dear Friends and Family,

I’m in the Lake District on holiday with my wife and in-laws. This morning we were watching a morning news program on ITV where a brief story was given about police forces wanting to turn over dealing with drunks to private security companies. People who are drunk would be locked up in privately run cells and left there until they sober up, being charged a fee upon release. I don’t want to go into the politics behind these ideas, but I do want to write briefly about beer.

Britain is well known for its drinking problems, as is Ireland, and the USA. People are drinking large amounts of alcohol trying to get drunk, trying to get sex, trying to escape from their own problems. For whatever their reasons, people drink to excess and cause social and domestic problems. This, I want to argue, is offence to all who truly enjoy alcohol.

I love beer, especially local cask ales; I love wine, especially good dry reds; I love whisky, especially good single-malts. I love alcohol. I love pubs, proper pubs. In Beeston we have two excellent pubs, neither of them have gambling machines, nor televisions. They have musical groups in from time to time, they have darts and board games, one serves excellent food and both have excellent cask ales. They are bastions in a world of night-clubs and dive bars. They are strongholds against a world which goes to two different extremes, binge drinking and abstinence. For those of us who love the various kinds of alcohol for how they taste and the effects a temperate amount of them can have on us find solace in these places where a proper enjoyment of alcohol can be experienced.

G. K. Chesterton wrote an often forgotten novel The Flying Inn wherein a local British community has outlawed all non-government sanctioned inns, taverns, and pubs. A rogue sailor and inn keeper, join forces to combat this abstinence movement, by taking the sign of the Inn and moving from place to place, taking beer with them and exploiting an ambiguity in the law. In a sense, the point of Chesterton’s work is that abstinence from alcohol for all people is not the proper response to issues people can have with alcohol. I would argue, as Chesterton does implicitly, that alcohol, beer particularly, is a great part of Western Civilisation (though fermentation of liquids for consumption is Egyptian in origin). It therefore must, like all things in life, be enjoyed virtuously. Temperance, true temperance, is a middle road, between the extremes.

If you love alcohol as I do, stand with me against the drunks and the militant teetotallers. If others wish to abstain, bully for them, for don’t put that on the rest of us. For those who wish to abuse, well, they need to be taught how to properly consume alcohol and the purposes it serves. It is a social lubricant, it is a delicacy to be enjoyed for its subtleties. It is not for drowning our sorrows, or forgetting our problems, or releasing all our inhibitions. Let us also stand against cheap booze which is created purely for the purpose of allowing people to get smashed on the cheap. We must stand firm for alcohol and against the abuses. Let us stand with Chesterton and others who remind us of all the good uses to which alcohol can be put and against the abusers of this wonderful product of our civilisation. Remember, Christ himself turned water to wine and was called a wine-bibber because of the company he kept and the drinks he drank.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

‘Cottage Economy’ by William Cobbett: Mini Book Review

David Russell Mosley

 https://elflandletters.wordpress.com/

Feast of St Mary Magdalene
22 July 2013
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

In that same post on facebook and twitter I mention here, another thing people asked for was more book reviews. To that end, I have collected some of my book reviews written on goodreads and shelfari and will repost them. I may occasionally expand them and will eventually get to a point where I start writing more reviews for the blog, but for the time being, I hope you enjoy my mini book reviews.

Cottage Economy by William Cobbett:

Portrait of William Cobbett for use on the Wil...

Portrait of William Cobbett for use on the William Cobbett article . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the book Cottage Economy William Cobbett seeks to teach labourers and tradesmen how they can produce much of their own food and drink so they will no longer be dependent on the Government (who taxes them too much) nor their local publicans (who poison them). Somewhat haphazardly, Cobbett goes through all the things he thinks someone with forty rods of land can do for themselves, namely: brew beer instead of tea; bake bread; raise a cow; chickens; pigs; a goat; enough vegetables for the table; bees; and more. The book rounds off with a few recipes from Mrs Cobbett.

What Cobbett lacks in food science he makes up for in passion for being self-sufficient. Cobbett sees tea as atrocious and the tea table fit only to teach boys to lazy and girls to be harlots. He is unaware of the health benefits, but he understands that the time taken to brew tea, in an age before electric kettles, could be put to better use. Cobbett also hates potatoes, but only because he sees them being eaten in place of bread. One could not come away from Cobbett’s Cottage Economy with the tools necessary to live as he describes. The book is too much a product of its time. Nevertheless, this book can inspire us to do more, to be better connected to our food and drink and to work more for our meals. Many of the things Cobbett describes, when done well, are still cheaper when done at home than when we pay others to do them for us. I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in food, brewing, and growing vegetables.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley