Conflicting priorities often force us to make compromises.
Being the local-food snob that I am, I’ve often said things like, “I wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s if I were starving.” But the truth is, if I really were starving, I’d eat the huckleberries from a pile of bear shit, much less a Big Mac. My aesthetic, moral and ecological sensibilities, all of which are deeply offended by industrially produced food, would be temporarily suspended so I could live to snob another day.
My Bhutanese friend, a snow leopard researcher I’ll call TW, has faced a similar dilemma since arriving in Missoula. While not experiencing physiological starvation, his situation could be considered cultural starvation.
The Bhutanese love their ema datse, a simple and potent combination of hot chilis and cheese. Back home, the cheese of choice is made from the whey left over after milk is churned into butter. This cheese cooks down into a smooth and creamy sauce that combines with the peppers in a way that makes TW and his people very happy.
The local problem is that most American cheeses don’t work for ema datse because after cooking, most cheeses quickly re-congeal. Congealed cheese in one’s ema datse is something like the Bhutanese equivalent of soggy French fries—otherwise known as not fit for consumption.
The only American cheese that seems to work is that most all-American of cheeses, Kraft Singles. Under heat, Kraft Singles will melt into a sort of Cheese Whiz, and stay that way.
TW generally shares my opinion that such overly processed factory schwag doesn’t qualify as food. Bhutan is a small place, where small family-run farms are the norm and factory farms are unheard of. But while TW believes in the importance of local food, he can’t compromise on the consistency of his ema datse.
So far, TW has found only one cheese that comes close to Kraft Singles. “It can be done with feta,” he acknowledges, “but it’s very difficult.”
Prohibitively difficult, it would seem, judging from the size of his stash of Kraft Singles.
Last week we went camping. For our dinners, I brought a dehydrated mix of elk sausage, kale, onions, carrots and zucchini, all homegrown or hunted. I reconstituted this mix in vegetable stock, cooked it into a stew, and served it with rice.
TW, meanwhile, brought dried chili peppers, Kraft Singles and an onion, which he combined into ema datse. My stew, while made from high-quality and local ingredients, was nonetheless only okay. But eaten alongside TW’s ema datse, the flavors combined beautifully.
Unfortunately, by the last night we had run out of ema datse supplies and had to survive on just my stew. We didn’t starve, but aesthetically we suffered. I missed that ema datse, Kraft Singles and all! I returned to civilization determined to find a way to make ema datse out of better, local ingredients. While skeptical, TW pledged his support for this endeavor.
I began making inquiries to expert foodies who might have insight into the Cheese Whiz riddle. Justin Alterowitz, of Hob Nob fame, invoked Kraft Macaroni & Cheese as an example of the creamy, un-coagulated state of cheese that we sought, and speculated that said cheese powder doesn’t coagulate because the powder has been freeze-dried.
It’s a fascinating idea, but since I don’t have the technology to freeze-dry my cheese, perhaps not so practical. For a brief, elated moment, though, I thought I had an elegant solution to the riddle: Use the cheese packets from Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for ema datse.
Then I realized this would be basically the same as using Kraft Singles. So I gave TW the flavor packet from a box of Annie’s organic macaroni and cheese. Unfortunately, he reported, it too failed.
My next idea was that perhaps one could achieve the desired effect by combining cheeses. After a few failed attempts, I abandoned this line of inquiry due to the overwhelming number of possibilities.
Finally, driving north across the New Mexico desert last week, I had a vision: grate some cheese into small pieces and then boil it in water until it breaks down to a homogeneous creamy sauce, and use that. When I got to Colorado I bought some dried chilis (down south, it’s spelled “chile”), some grated romano and some sharp cheddar—a combination I suspected might be the inspiration for the flavor of Kraft Singles.
At a picnic table by the river in Pagosa Springs, I made a pot of rice on my camp stove. Then I boiled some water and added my two cheeses, and simmered until I had my creamy sauce.
Then, in my third and final pan, I heated a mixture of oil and water, to which I added my dried chiles, sliced onion and salt. When the peppers began softening, I added my homemade Cheese Whiz.
There was no coagulation.
While there is still work to be done in terms of which cheese or combination of cheeses does the trick in terms of authentic flavor, I think it’s safe to say that the riddle of the Cheese Whiz has been cracked.
Ask Ari LeVaux: Playing chicken with city council
Q: Dear Ari,
Thanks for your support of chickens in Missoula.
This survey (http://www.missoula-neighborhoods.org/Survey.htm) is really short and quick to take. The results will be reviewed by City Council before a public hearing on urban chickens, which will be held Aug. 27 at 7 pm at Council Chambers on Pine Street, next to Sean Kelly’s.
We need supporters of local food sustainability to show up and comment.
Thanks for any help you can give getting this message broadcast.
A: Dear John,
Thanks for the tip. I for one will be there on Aug. 27 helping to remind our elected officials (there are one or two on the council strongly opposed to it) of how much support there is for urban chickens (small flocks of well-behaved and contained hens, that is; no roosters).
Judging from the amount of mail I’ve received on this issue, there is plenty of support for the proposed pro-chicken ordinance. But we can’t drop the ball on this until we’ve sealed the deal and passed the ordinance. So please Missoula, even if you don’t have chickens, your voice still counts. A vote for chickens is a vote for sustainability, livability, and fun. That’s right, fun. (You should see my frizzy-feathered bantam named Gerry Curl.)
And, inevitably, kids love chickens and learn a lot through interacting with them. So if you live in a ward whose representative is anti-chicken, you can and should ask them, “Why do you hate children?”
And then you should ask them: “What threats do chickens pose to our community that dogs and cats don’t also pose?”
And then remind them that they are, after all, elected officials. It’s quite possible that Missoulians want their chickens more than they want their uptight child- and chicken-hating city councilors.