A former roommate had a simple rule about home brewing beer: Drink your mistakes. This was not the easiest rule to live by, but on one occasion he followed his rule and drank most of a 5 gallon batch of pale ale. Another roommate and I helped, a little, but it was a painful task. We found reasons to be busy when he was working on his task. The batch was made according to a recipe but had turned out poorly for reasons still unknown to me.
Coincidentally, he had improvised a recipe for red ale, and the results were fantastic. The red ale was shared with friends and neighbors and disappeared, leaving behind the sour-tasting pale ale. Errant yeast and bacteria floating in the air probably infected the ale.
My roommate drank his failed recipe due to pride, to learn from his mistake, and because economy dictated it. His wife was a graduate student, and he worked in a lab.
The Butter Bitch and I also eat our mistakes, within reason, for similar reasons to my former roommate. Economy is less a factor than it once was, and has been replaced by a motivation not to waste food for the sake of not wasting. I have a bad picture of a messy pie because throwing out the picture would be wasteful. Despite having pie that looked like a Mr. Yuck sticker, we kept and ate the pie — it was delicious, made with fresh strawberries. Some would have thrown out the ugly creation.
Avoiding waste is a relic of past century for the middle and upper classes in the United States. The poor are sometimes over-fed but still under-nourished, a small change from being underfed and under-nourished.
Fast food and an abundant food supply — combined with slick marketing of perfect-looking foods — drove the concept of food from scarce necessity to cheap convenience in less than a century. A new influence has driven food attitudes during the past decade: Competition.
Eat your mistakes
Initially, I was puzzled to receive compliments about my dishes presented on this site. Of course I tried to present dishes that turned out well, since a successful creation helps make cooking enjoyable. Anyone who thinks cooking always is enjoyable or exciting is invited to pound flat and bread three dozen chicken breasts.
We rarely present mistakes on this site, because we want to motivate people to try new foods and explore their local foodscape. We show off the successes much as the cook on a television show displays the pie just out of the oven, to show you how it is done.
Making a mistake is how you learn when no one else is available to show you how things are done. Eating a mistake is one way to reinforce the idea that two flavors do not go together, or that you can make a prettier pie crust, or that your pancake recipe would benefit from the fluffiness provided by another egg white. It helps to have a willing partner to taste your concoctions or advise against clove and banana in the pancake batter (cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dash of clove work well with bananas).
There is a reasonable limit to mistakes, and that is when they taste foul or make people ill. An attempt to replicate chicken in olive, fig, and red wine sauce produced a vile mixture that put me off black olives for six months and syrah for two years. My roommate decided to drink every last drop of his homebrew, including the dead yeast that had pooled in the bottom of the carboy. I do not recommend this, even if his biochemist wife thought it was fine.
Mistakes can kill, and foraging is not a casual occupation
One of the illusions of the industrial food complex is that pasteurized, packaged, processed food is safe. It is possible to sterilize food at a certain stage of preparation, but that does not protect frozen foods from thawing, pasteurized milk from contamination on the way to the carton, or plastic-wrapped foods from infection when they aren’t sealed. Irradiated ground beef may be sterile, but if you remove the package and leave the meat on the counter on a hot summer day, the irradiation is for naught. (I don’t advocate irradiation of food.)
The recent outbreaks of E. Coli traced to spinach have resulted in considerable speculation about the cause of infection. Suggested causes range from manure contamination, cross-contamination from conventional crops in a processing plant, contamination by bagging in the fields, and contamination from irrigation water. The outbreak highlights not just the problems with processed foods but the problems with food itself. Food is necessary to our life, but is potentially lethal if mishandled. The industrial food system exacerbates problems by giving consumers the illusion of food safety. Consumers exacerbate the problem by remaining ignorant about food.
Ignorance is lethal to omnivores. On a recent evening walk in our neighborhood, I saw an attractive bush with red berries and wondered if they were red currants. We had eaten many currants, bought from the forager’s stall at Ballard Market, and I hoped to find wild currants in our neighborhood to forage. Already, I have found apples, blackberries, plums and cherries.
I reached out to examine the berries and realized that they looked slightly different from currants.
“I think that’s nightshade,” observed the Butter Bitch. I pulled back my hand and dismissed the sudden itching in my hand as a psychosomatic reaction. Returning home, I searched the Internet and concluded that the berries probably were nightshade, a poisonous berry that kills only if eaten in large quantities.
I am aware that “red berry” is nature’s way of saying “poison,” and I tell myself that I wouldn’t have eaten any berries — certainly not more than one or two — without verifying their safety. What I did is exactly what consumers of packaged foods, which are “preserved” to be shipped over long distances, do every day. They reach out and grab food, assuming that because it is familiar (packaged) it is safe.
The assumption is a funny extension of the omnivore’s habit. Because we have been told that packaged foods are safe, we assume that they will be safe. The assumption is wrong, just as it was wrong of me to assume that berries growing in my neighborhood would be safe. Building local networks of food production and distribution, and getting to know the producers of our food, are ways that we can remove consumer ignorance about food. The FDA includes helpful advice about kitchen safety that any cook should know — skip the Quiz section and look at the answers and other helpful information.