“Cooking is messy, dirty work. The work involves bare hands, sticky fingers, licks of this and that, whacks on fleshy lumps, hissing lids and miscellaneous smells. It is also dangerous, the basic tools being either very sharp or very hot.”
So wrote Michael Symons, an Australian food historian a dozen years ago when delving into the role that cooks have played in society. His book, A History of Cooks and Cooking (U. of Illinois Press, 1998) is a fabulous summary of just that; cooks and cooking.
In exploring the art of cooking, Symons realizes that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to the craft of the kitchen. Behind closed doors, professional cooks are much more attuned to the natural world than most people are. It is a primal example of how man differs from beast. In fact, James Boswell in 1773 wrote that ‘no beast can cook’ (xii).
We have witnessed primates using tools to make their life easier, so the argument for 237 years is that this craft is what differentiates us from others. The manipulation of natural ingredients, knowing full well what the end product will be, is the gift of cooking to mankind.
Further in the work, Symons writes that “[cooking] is messy because cooks bring the country to the city. They secure the colours of the garden, the smell of soils, the infinities of ocean, the invigoration of breezes…With razor-sharp knife, bludgeoning pestle, sizzling pans, cooks round up ingredients.”
In a nutshell it is the basis, if not the core, of the argument for sustainable agriculture; Farm-to-Table as it were.
We now live in a society where we have become grossly accustomed to pulling meat from foam packages. Even as professional chefs, many of us get our meat neatly packed in plastics bags; swimming in myoglobin (a protein found in muscle cells that resembles blood), but not ‘bloody’ because of its lack of connection to the animal itself.
When cooks see the meat come from the cattle or sheep or chicken, the connection becomes immediate. It becomes at the same time disturbing yet enlightening. Reality can be a real buzz-kill sometimes, but when one wants to get in touch with their roots, be them personal, professional or intellectual, this has to be the starting point for meat eaters. Hunters are accustomed to this connection to the earth, yet it eludes most of us, especially in a society that would rather just not know; ignorance is bliss.
In speaking with friends of mine, chefs in Rehoboth at two great restaurants, it was refreshing to hear of their efforts to reconnect with local farmers. One restaurateur, in fact, just went in on a 35-acre farm to raise his own turkeys, chickens, sheep, pigs, et al for the chop shop. I can’t think of a greater connection to the land than that for a chef.
Another good friend of mine, while not having the farm, is nonetheless supporting local farmers as he has for years, constantly procuring product ranging from meats to eggs to produce. The farmers are happy, the chef is happy, and most importantly the customers are thrilled.
I have found that speaking, or rather writing, about sustainable agriculture lends many readers to believe that this has a place only in high-end dining. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an admirable goal of SA to get fresh product into all restaurants and try to get away from processed foods as a general rule of thumb. There is no formula or need for 100 percent of everything to be fresh. But it’s a starting point.
Working with local farms, you can acquire some fresh chicken and take the wings to make a simple dish. This is great for football or any time that you want a nosh. Spicy chicken wings, with just a touch of Vietnamese influence, are a nice addition to the buffalo and bbq wings that adorn the table.
And when you reread the first sentence you will find that these wings exemplify every statement made by Symons, genius that he is.
spicy chicken wings
1-2# Chicken Wings (depending on appetite)
S&P to taste
Oil for Frying
¼ c. melted butter
¼ c. Sriracha Hot Sauce
2 Tbsp. Ground ginger
2 Tbsp. Vietnamese fish sauce
3 cloves minced garlic
Coat the wings in the spices and roast in a 400F oven until cooked. This does two things; it makes the chicken more tender when fried and it also keeps all of that extra chicken fat from rendering into your frying oil. The latter elongates the life of your fryer oil
Melt the butter and add the Sriracha, fish sauce, ginger and cilantro, well washed and roughly chopped. If you are like me and like it authentic, use stems and leaves, but this will make it much more fragrant. My wife can’t stand it, but I can’t get enough of it, so do this to taste
In the hot fryer oil, fry the wings until they are crispy and then toss in the sauce to coat. Serve with a nice ice-cold beer, lime wedges and some rice if that’s what suits you. For me, this is a sporting snack and I would just serve it as is alongside the Buffalo and BBQ wings.