Soil. Food. Culture.

The culture I have written about here has been about a broad group of Americans, which is not what I originally envisioned for this blog. I have become more and more interested in exploring the diverse groups of people that live in the Twin Cities. Food is a huge way you can explore a culture but I can’t explore culture solely by eating at a restaurant. I need to be more involved with that culture.

Asian culture has had my attention for the last 12 years. With all the books I have read on Asian cooking I will not start to really understand Asian food until I get in the kitchen with an Asian.

In Saint Paul we have a large Hmong population. Hmong culture is very interesting to me and I have slowly been learning more about it for years. I have one of very few Hmong cookbooks. It is a great insight to the Hmong kitchen and culture. I work with three Hmong guys and I love to ask questions about their culture.

One day I had a very nice conversation with a co-worker. He told me a brief history of the Hmong people and their language. I asked this co-worker if there were any Hmong restaurants around. He told me you have to go to the Hmong markets to get real Hmong food.

As a sort of Bizarre Foods challenge, my co-worker asked if I have very eaten stomach. I told him I was very unadventurous when it came to meat and told him I have not. He then told me about a dish called laarb– (I am spelling it the way he told me to.) It’s pronounced: La. It’s made with tripe. I told him we need to go out and have some laarb.

Yesterday he sent me a text saying he would pick my wife and I up some laarb. When I got to work and he had the laarb AND another staple dish of his culture, papaya salad. I gratefully took the gift and told him my wife and I would have a wonderful lunch the next day.

The next day I made some rice and Kristina picked up some egg rolls at the Asian market up the street. I warmed up the laarb to just above room temperature and the papaya salad to room temperature. Kristina dished out a little for us both. I took a cellphone picture of my wife and I with the food and sent it to my co-worker thanking him for the treat.


At this point does it really matter what I thought of it? No it doesn’t- I’ll tell you why. My co-worker gave me this special treat so I could learn more about his culture. I cannot take these national dishes and say anything but good about them- It would be like saying bad things about Hmong culture. I could easily wrap up this post singing the praises of this laarb and papaya salad meal.

With that being said- I feel you deserve the truth. The truth isn’t about Hmong culture or Hmong food. It is about me and how I enjoyed my gift.  I want to view myself as a Anthony Bourdain wanna-be. If he can eat what he eats and tough it out so can I, right? There are a few differences between Tony and I. 1. He is paid well to travel the world eating food. 2. The cook is in his face waiting his reply. 3. There is also a camera in his face and he has a reputation to uphold. I didn’t have the same pressure to chew, swallow and smile politely.

I sat down to my plate of white rice, laarb, papaya salad and a egg roll. Kristina dug right in and I cut a small piece of tripe. I loaded my fork with rice, burying the tripe and put it in my mouth. I tried to chew. I got my teeth around the meat and started to press down until juice started to come out of it. I envisioned the intestines and juices. I ran to the garbage almost barfing all over my kitchen. I couldn’t get it out of my mouth quick enough.

I sat back down to try the papaya salad. I thought, ‘This is just fruit and vegetables, I can do this.’ It didn’t hesitate and put it in my mouth. I chewed and tasted like very hot spice and fish sauce. I ran back to my best friend the garbage can, gagging along the way. I not a big fan of really spicy stuff and I have never liked anything from water. My co-worker did warn me the salad was spicy. With a follow-up that he did not think it was all that spicy.

I sat back down to the table with tears in my eyes from gagging. Kristina was like, “WTF; Mr. ‘It’s an honor to eat this food?’ You’re spitting out the Hmong culture!” I was in shock to my reaction to the food. My wife is a Missionary Kid from Taiwan and she is more tolerant to food then I am. I am a giant wuss! She was able to eat a descent amount without any bad reactions.

When my co-worker asks, I will tell him. ‘My wife and I enjoyed the meal. It wasn’t what we are use to. It was a different texture and spicy.’ I will politely leave out the part with the gagging and the spitting and the garbage can and the rising out my mouth… My co-worker doesn’t know about the blog!

If you are asking, ‘What about the Daniel Fast?’I have a rule where I can break the fast if I am invited to a meal or a special occasion.

The laarb was a gift and an honor to receive. I am very appreciative to my co-worker for showing me more of his culture. Through this I realize things aren’t as easy and cut and dry as they seem. I do hope I can go to a Hmong market with my co-worker to try more Hmong food. If that happens I will be more emotionally prepared to try different foods.


Cooking and Culture

Learning more about our food system and the best ways to support local, sustainable food I have not heard much about preparing food. What do you do with all the good stuff you get from the CSA, farmers market or co-op? It seems like there is more of an emphasis on getting out and purchasing good food than there is on preparing meals for your family.
When you walk into the supermarket you will run into a cooler, not too far from the front door, that has everything your family needs for dinner. This would be something you can throw in the oven or quickly prepare: convenient food. Our culture is drawn to convenience. We want things to be easy, fast and cheap.
When you get food that has basic ingredients it will take longer make a meal. Food from the farmers market or CSA is basic ingredients. Instead of buying a jar of pickles you would be buying the cucumbers, dill and garlic to make the pickles. When you support local food, you are encouraging self-reliance and local food encourages cultural diversity. The pickles that would be made in Minnesota would taste different than the pickles made in other parts of the country. The pickles would not made by multi-billion dollar companies but by residents.
Do most people honestly cook? You can assemble food and heat food up, but do people take what is available to them and prepare a delicious and nutritious meal for their family? Cooking takes time, with our culture can we afford to spend several hours a day preparing meals? Not only once a week but several times a week?
Like I said in my last post I am far from perfect; I am just asking honest questions. People go to the farmers market, to the co-op and participate in CSA’s. That means people have to cook food. You may luck out and be able to go clip some lettuce from you yard and add a few veggies for a meal but on average feeding your family will consume a big part of your day. You need to plan, buy, cook, eat and clean. By coupling cooking and local food you are helping creating a unique culture. To support sustainable food means you need to get your hands dirty and help make meals.

A Simple Step

By January 2010 I was exposed to the Whole Foods Diet and I appreciated the simplicity of it. That is having a diet that would be more similar to someone who lived 150 years ago versus today. A diet with food from a sustainable farm: fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, herbs and medicinal plants. All organic, homemade, grass-fed, free range and humanely treated. A process of a living farm that took knowledge and love to run.

As I got further into the diet I started to realize how I was romancing this image and how much different it is in our culture today. I have been challenged by lots of questions and issues ranging from: industrial organic farms, cage free chickens, medicinal plants, seed saving, food foraging, guerrilla gardening, dumpster diving, Monsanto, cannabis, food market co-ops, local food, supermarkets, animal slaughtering, cultural respect, urban farms, convenient foods, restaurants, raw food and seasonal eating… The list is very long! What I eat is something I am thinking about several times a day. It has been challenging to my values and challenging the reasons I have been eating the traditional American diet.

This is a blog to let out some of that frustration and to help keep me accountable to myself. I am the stereotypical overweight American. With a standard American diet, I will continue to gain weight, gain more heath problems, continue to dislike my weight and I will eventually be overtaken by heart failure. I am looking to take a stand against that part of our culture and to enjoy a long healthy life with my family. I am looking for support and for people to let me know I am not alone.

For the name Rubus-Raspberry, that is what was available from this site. One of my favorite experiences from 2010 was picking raspberries. We have several raspberry plants in our yard I got fruit from. I decided to make a simple jam with the fruit and turbinado sugar but I came up several cups short from what I needed. My oldest daughter and I went to a park here in Saint Paul and foraged several pints of wild black raspberries. We came home and made a large batch of jam, we saved a few jars but we gave most of the jam to our friends and neighbors. It was a learning experience I was privileged to share with my daughter.