A Celebration of Craft

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

The highlight of the National Heirloom Expo, for me, was running into three people who epitomize the value of dedication to a craft.

I’ve found that such craftspersons keep no secrets and are more than happy talk about techniques and tips. They are also, according to Matthew Crawford, an antidote to our culture’s narcissism. Crawford says, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.

The trio of craftspersons I ran into at the expo included a baker, a tomato farmer and a nursery owner. They share common qualities: humility, openness and an attention to detail.

The baker is Dave Miller who I helped bring to LA to teach a series of classes. Miller specializes in whole grain breads made from freshly milled local grain. Most “whole grain” loaves baked in this country are actually white flour with food coloring, sugar and a small amount of stale whole grain flour. Miller can turn wet, sticky whole grain lumps into perfectly formed, airy loaves with one deft flick of the wrist. He has the skill to build an empire the size of La Brea Bakery but is happy working at a smaller scale selling loaves at the Chico farmer’s market once a week. I think he’s the most talented baker in the U.S.

I also ran into tomato farmer and breeder Fred Hempel who was a guest on episode 79 of our podcast. Like Miller, Hempel has a humility that goes along with a sincere engagement with the natural world. Like Miller he’s more than happy to discuss his craft.

A third person I met at the festival is Alice Doyle, owner of Log House Plants a wholesale nursery in Eugene Oregon. In her lecture she went alphabetically through a list of edible plants she thought were interesting. By the end of the hour, I think she reached the letter “J.” I wished we could have had a few more hours to get to “Z.” And this is another quality of the craftsperson, a selfless enthusiasm that can turn a list of vegetables into something way more interesting than what passes for entertainment in our culture. I’ll see if I can get Doyle on the podcast.

We are, I think, entering a dangerous new age of extreme narcissism fueled, in part, by Silicon Valley tech bros who have figured out a business model based on self-affirmation. We need more people like Miller, Hempel and Doyle.

Pictures from the National Heirloom Expo

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Via Root Simple in Instagram, some pics from the 7th Annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa. I’ll do some more in-depth posting later in the week, but a few short takeaways from my sixth trip to the expo: yes, you can grow paw paws and chestnuts in California, dahlias are amazing and we sure need more biodiversity in our supermarkets. And, to Kelly’s dismay, I came back with a cutting from one of Luther Burbank’s spineless prickly pear cactus varieties (that aren’t really spineless and caused a scandal in 1907).

#lutherburbank #pricklypear and spineless!

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#bittermelon

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

Who knew that you can grow paw paws in California?

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

A post shared by Erik Knutzen (@rootsimple) on

103 Ugly Little Greens with Mia Wasilevich

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Listen to “103 Ugly Little Greens with Mia Wasilevich” on Spreaker.

Our guest this week is chef and forager Mia Wasilevich. Mia is the founder of Transitional Gastronomy and teaches culinary workshops, wild-food identification and food styling. She was a featured consultant on “Master Chef” and “Top Chef.” She is also the author of a brand new book, “Ugly Little Greens: Gourmet Dishes Crafted from Foraged Ingredients.” During the show we discuss:

  • How she got started cooking.
  • Mia’s new book Ugly Little Greens.
  • Eating invasives.
  • Working with mustard.
  • Elderflower ghee.
  • Nettle aid.
  • Mallow.
  • Currants.
  • Working with acorns.
  • Lambsquarters.
  • Meal planning.
  • Fish sauce.
  • James Townsend and Two Fat Ladies.
  • Mia’s website Transitional Gastronomy.
  • Cottonwood Urban Farm.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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More on How to Make Clear Ice

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When I crafted a casual blog post on how to make clear ice, on Monday, I had no idea that I was stepping into one of the most divisive topics in contemporary bartending.

Thankfully booze journalist Camper English has done my work for me and carefully tested every clear ice making method and documented the results in painstaking detail on his entertaining and enlightening blog Alcademics. The winning method he suggests is the one I wrote about: freezing ice in a cooler (also known as “directional freezing”). The distilled water and hot water methods don’t work, according to English.

I also learned that the enigmatic David Rees (author of a book on sharpening pencils!), and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, did a whole National Geographic special on ice that includes a segment on making clear ice.

And did you know that clear ice sometimes happens naturally? Behold this viral YouTube hit, “Walking on beautiful clean ice in Slovakian Mountains:”

Lastly, I want to leave you with one of the most satisfying videos I’ve ever watched, Tokyo bartender Hidetsugu Ueno carving ice into diamond shapes (note the use of what I think is a soba noodle knife for the initial ice cutting):

Having a bad day? Just watch that video ten times and you’ll calm right down.

And a correction to my original post: it is both air bubbles and impurities that cause cloudy ice, not just minerals in the water.

How to Make Clear Ice

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Life is way too short to endure substandard cocktails. While reasonable people can bemoan the pretentiousness of the present hipster, bearded, chef-driven, artisinal, epoch we find ourselves in at the moment, let me just say I don’t miss what passed for cocktails in my youth. Here’s how mixology math used to work in the dark ages: Maguerita=tequila+sweet and sour mix.  Old fashion=whisky+sweet and sour mix. Mai Tai=rum+sweet and sour mix.

What the cocktail sages of Brooklyn and Silver Lake have taught us is that ingredients matter. Take, for instance, the ice.

What if you could make ice as glorious as a pristine iceberg spotted on a bright and sunny arctic summer day? Isn’t a cocktail as much an experience for the eyes as well as the tongue? Thankfully it’s easy to make clear ice free of cloudy impurities. Here’s how you do it:

1. Take a small cooler and fill it almost to the top with water and stick the cooler in the freezer. Leave the top of the cooler off. The insulation in the cooler will cause the water to freeze from the top down. The minerals and impurities in the water that cause cloudy ice will settle to the bottom of the cooler. Later, you will harvest the pristine, clear ice off the top. I filled my cooler with tap water that I filtered with a counter top water filter. A side note on water filters–our tap water tastes better when filtered–depending on where you live you may not need to filter it.

2. Around 24 hours later take the cooler out of the freezer, run some water over the ice (to help release the ice) and turn the cooler upside down. You should have around two inches of ice on the top of the cooler and a lot of unfrozen water on the bottom which will pour out all over your counter and floor (watch out for this!). The water is a good thing. You don’t want to freeze the whole block as you will have to separate the clear ice from the cloudy ice.

3. If all goes as planned you’ll be left with a block of clear ice. To cut the ice into cubes, score the ice with a bread knife and give the top of the knife a tap with a rubber mallet. I like to make large cubes for mixing old fashions but you can cut the ice into any size you like. Put the cut cubes in a bag in the freezer.

4. Invite your friends over for some high-end cocktails.

One tip: try not to jostle the cooler in the freezer. If you do you might end up with some irregularities that will make it more difficult to cut the ice block into neat cubes.

There’s a thin margin between the gutter and the stars when it comes to cocktails and an extra step such as simple as chilling the glass or flaming the orange twist can make a huge difference. Something as simple as clear ice can elevate a drink from mediocrity into cocktail glory.

For more details, watch the Cocktail Chemist explain how to make clear ice in both blocks, rectangles and spheres:

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