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Lost Arts

Rediscovering the art of making your own food products

By Marina Wolf

THE GERMAN Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany, takes up an entire seven-floor building. Included in the facilities are a library, archives for researchers, and a collection of more than 10,000 objects relating to the cultural, social, and technological history of bread. But you'll have to step outside if you want a loaf of bread. As the website for the Deutsches Brotmuseum is careful to note, "No bread is collected, as it is not a museum object but daily fresh food."

So simply put, but to mainstream Americans, "daily fresh food" might as well be a museum object. Our food is fast or junk, usually both. Our shopping carts fill up with powders, cans, and redi-pak pouches. Our meals are seasoned with extracts, essences, or just "natural flavorings." Our bread takes about two minutes to acquire (and tastes every second of it). The ancients would hardly recognize as sustenance some of America's most notable contributions to gastronomy: Velveeta, California olives, wine in a box.

When you consider that in some parts of France and Italy bread starter is still passed down like an heirloom; that there are barrels of balsamic vinegar in Italian attics that have been around for hundreds of years; that even in America, not 100 years ago, wines were a basement operation, brewed up in careful batches by a very attentive uncle . . . well, it becomes clear that in America the food arts have been if not altogether lost, then seriously misplaced.

The reasons for the transformation in our food production are many, not the least being technology and the Industrial Revolution. Just like the clothes washer, frozen-food technology and safe canning processing meant a giant leap forward for women. They could shrug themselves free of many of the household arts that once were their sole and entire provenance. But since food arts, unlike fine arts, have ceased to be studied in school or written down, these skills and processes have fallen by the wayside.

THE LAST 20 OR 30 YEARS have seen a groundswell of cooks and writers who are revisiting these ways and making them new again. The latest addition to the genre: Lynn Alley's Lost Arts (coming out from Ten Speed Press on April 15). This lively, eclectic little volume isn't actually new, but an enlarged version of the book that originally came out in 1995 (Alley added wine and jam to the short list of what makes the most sense to make from scratch). The sustained interest in foods that are homegrown, homebrewed, homemade--everything, in short, that runs counter to middle-American foodways--suggests that there are still people willing to look for those lost arts.

Lynn Alley started her search in the late '60s and early '70s, when she attended college in Berkeley. A new generation had gathered there, hungry for revolution in food as in everything else. "It was so wonderful," Alley recalls in a breathless voice. "It was all around us. There was Peet's Coffee and the Cheese Board [a gourmet cheese shop and bakery] and amazing produce stores. And Alice Waters' restaurant [Chez Panisse] opened just around the corner. We'd never been exposed to that kind of food, but we knew it was something very special."

The young Alley, stirred by the possibilities of this fresh, real food, dug up her yard and planted vegetables. Her first experiment with culinary herbs--a rosemary bush in a pot--died from overwatering, but Alley continued undaunted. Now she grows herbs in the back of her suburban condo in San Diego County and makes cheese in the guest bathroom. For a while she even kept chickens in her backyard. Far from objecting, she says, her neighbors covered for her. "A few well-placed eggs will do wonders."

Alley's focus has since expanded to encompass a cornucopia of good food from ancient oral traditions. Lost Arts contains pointers on curing olives, grinding mustard, infusing vinegars, and milling wheat for bread. She's gathered the recipes--more guidelines, in keeping with the continuance of the oral "a handful of this and that" tradition--from handwritten notes, old source books, and friends of the family.

The traditions come from all around the Mediterranean, but they share more than a shoreline. For starters, these foods all take time to reach their full flavor. It isn't really active time; for the most part the cook just needs to mix the ingredients and let gravity, time, and the naturally occurring yeasts do their work.

Still, the premise behind Lost Arts is a radical one in a land where time is money, and therefore time is a commodity that we never have enough of. Then along comes Alley and her like, with breads that take hours to rise and cheese curds that must drain overnight--never mind olives that will take months to leach away their bitterness and wine that might not reach its peak for a year or two. Who has time for that?

"Well, make the time or don't do it," retorts Alley sternly. "That's part of the whole charm of it, setting aside some time to come into close contact with the earth and real ingredients. We have to pick and choose what we make time for."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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