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Something Delicious, Part Ten: Class War Fare

Have you been spending time in an Occupy encampment lately? It’s getting chilly out there. I’m making a big pot of stuffed cabbage, more or less my grandmother’s recipe. Come on over for a bowlful. It’ll warm you right up. Let’s schmooze a bit while it’s cooking.

Class warfare: the locution of the month here in the USA. Where did it come from? Most famously, the first line of Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Read Geoffrey Nunberg’s excellent account of how the original German Klassenkampfen ["class struggles"] morphed into the bloodier notion of class warfare, and how it’s been deployed ever since.)

It is fascinating (and slightly surreal) to hear the word “class” bandied about as much as it lately has been in this country. In fact, whenever the word “class” rings out in our national conversation, you know something new is afoot, because mostly, we pretend it doesn’t exist.

You see, the Red Scare of the 1950s had a cleansing effect on political discourse, in just the sense that carbolic acid is cleansing. Using the word “class” in reference to social position was taken as proof of communism, which was tantamount to worshipping the devil. So we dropped it. Ever since, there’s been a single authorized use for the phrase “class warfare”: as a club for the right to beat back any implication that democracy is damaged when entitlement to shape public policy comes bundled with economic power and privilege.

Quick: what class are you?

Was it hard to answer quickly? Depending on who’s counting, upwards of three-quarters of Americans respond “middle class.” That’s a quadruple-stuffed Oreo of a number. You don’t have to be Einstein to recognize that it doesn’t add up: how do we reconcile three-quarters of the populace placing themselves in the middle with the growing polarization of wealth—more with more at the top, more with less at the bottom—documented in the latest Congressional Budget Office income-distribution report? It makes the categories seem fairly clear, stipulating that in the decade from 1997-2007, income grew by:

275 percent for the top 1 percent of households,
65 percent for the next 19 percent,
Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and
18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

Yet clearly, for most of us, defining class isn’t about the numbers, but about identification. There’s fudging on both ends: many whose incomes fall near or below the official poverty level dub themselves “middle class” because the only alternative they know is “lower class,” and who wants to be that? Many people who’d generally be considered wealthy like to slot themselves into the middle class to avoid the taint of ostentation or the vulnerability that attaches to possessing what others deem far too much.

In the place of other cultures’ discourse of class, we in the USA have various categories of discomfort. I came up in the kind of left-leaning, union-oriented household comfortable with the category “working class.” Had she overheard my parents and their friends debating politics while she rolled cabbage leaves around seasoned meat to make stuffed cabbage (as I am doing right now), that phrase would have given my grandmother no pause. But today it describes my origins and my sympathies, not my current position, which is planted in that mobile, fluid, uneconomic category the Russians called “intelligentsia,” which can sometimes elide into “bohemians,” “artists and intellectuals,” maybe even “counterculture” (although any of those is asking for an argument). Here in the USA, class is a quandary and a sore point and mostly, a lump of undigested assumptions swept under the carpet to avoid disrupting decorum.

Just so, in our current domestic debate, class isn’t being deployed to make a strictly economic point. Instead, it scoops up a whole set of attitudes. Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who has a say and who doesn’t? My friend Tim Lavalli nicely makes the point that many people of wealth contribute positively, as philanthropists and in other ways. And the converse, of course, is also true: there are people without much money or social position whose conduct injures and exploits others. To really understand the subject, we need a much more complete and nuanced conversation about the injuries and opportunities class entails. I wrote about it at length almost a year ago, ending this way:

We are having a conversation about class in this country, and everyone’s voice is needed, to ring out and to be heard. We are having a conversation about class in this country, requiring us to clear away our assumptions about who is authorized to speak, requiring us to listen with our bodies, emotions, intellects, and spirits. My story is part of that conversation. You can tell a story as inspiration, as disguise, as boasting, as confession. You can tell a story to awaken conscience, enlarge awareness and empathy, nurture choice in the place of compulsion, expand liberty and justice for all. I used to see little reason to tell mine, but that is changing now.

One of the things that interests me the most about class is how fluently it morphs through cultural change, bobbing along on the Zeitgeist like a beach ball on the tide. Among Europeans and their descendants, a woman’s pale complexion once symbolized the good fortune to avoid laboring in the sun. When factories took working-class women indoors, a tan became the sign of leisure to lie by the pool, basking.

The same with food. At one time, soft white bread was a luxury item on account of the highly milled and refined flour it required. Now, the people I see buying plastic-wrapped loaves of white bread are saving money on lunchbox sandwiches, and those with the cash to spare buy whole-grain artisan bread for their tables. Peasant food regularly morphs into haute cuisine: back in the day, crawfish were considered declassé by Louisianans with higher pretensions. Duck confit tacos. There’s a legend that 19th century King Ferdinand of Sicily had to sneak out of the palace to taste pizza, as the queen had banned it at court, too plebeian. I wonder what she’d make of the Beverly Hills restaurant that won L.A. Weekly recognition for “best truffle pizza”?

Stuffed cabbage is peasant food for certain, designed to stretch a little meat into a tasty dish using affordable and easy-to-grow vegetables. There are versions of it across Europe and the Middle East, and many counterparts in other cultures. Although I doubt a trendy paper will hold a contest for the best version, if there were one, this might win.

It smells done. Let’s eat. It will certainly fortify you for another round of class warfare, however you define it.

Stuffed Cabbage

1 large or two medium heads green cabbage
2 pounds lean ground beef (or substitute all or half ground turkey)
2 eggs
1/2 cup raw rice
2 peeled and trimmed onions
2 peeled and trimmed carrots
2-3 teaspoons salt, divided
juice of two lemons
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large can tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
2 bay leaves
water

This dish is easiest to make with a food processor: Cut the onions and carrots into pieces and pulse them until coarsely chopped in the work bowl fitted with the steel blade. Add the eggs and salt to the vegetables, and pulse until the whole is well mixed. (If you don’t have a food processor, grate the onion and carrot coarsely, then add the eggs and 1 teaspoon salt and proceed.) Put the ground meat into a bowl, add the vegetable and egg mixture and the rice, and mix with your hands until the ingredients are well-distributed. Don’t over-mix, which will make the meat too dense.

Put a pot of water to boil large enough to hold the entire head of cabbage. Core the cabbage and put it into the boiling water. After a minute or two, begin to pry outside leaves away from the cabbage with tongs or a large fork, and lift them out of the pot to drain in a colander. Keep doing this until you’ve removed all the leaves that are at least as big as a small hand. Then remove the tiny head of inside leaves, drain, and chop coarsely. Repeat with the second head of cabbage if you are using two.

Lay the coarsely chopped leaves on the bottom of a pot big enough to hold at least two layers of cabbage rolls. Take a bit of the meat mixture in your hand and roll it into a slightly elongated ball. Depending on the size of the cabbage leaf you are stuffing, the size of the ball should vary from a walnut to a tangerine. Hold the cabbage leaf with the concave side toward you and place the ball of meat mixture at the thickest part of the leaf. Fold the thickest part up to cover the ball, then fold the sides in to enclose the stuffing, and roll the package toward the thinnest part of the leaf. Place the roll, seam side down, atop the cabbage in the pot. Continue placing cabbage rolls until you have filled the entire pot one layer deep; then make a second layer with the remaining rolls.

Purée the tomatoes with the lemon juice and sugar (start with less if you want, then adjust to taste), adding a 1 teaspoon salt and a 1/4 teaspoon pepper to the mixture. Pour over the cabbage rolls. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to push gently down between the rolls to make pathways for the liquid. Add water just to reach the tops of the rolls. Bring the pot to a boil on top of the stove, then reduce the heat so the liquid simmers for about 30 minutes. Then place the pot in a preheated 350˚ oven for one hour. Baste every 20 minutes using a bulb baster to bring the liquid from the bottom of the pot up to the top. After an hour, taste the liquid and adjust by adding more lemon juice, sugar, or salt if needed. Bake 15 minutes longer, uncovered, to slightly brown the tops. Taste one of the middle rolls to see if they are done; the meat should be evenly cooked and the rice soft. This should make about 18 pieces.

Substitutions: I’m not eating grains these days, so for the rice above, I substitute a pound of grated zucchini, sauteed in a little oil till dry and lightly browned, then added to the meat when you would have added the rice. If you are vegetarian, I’ve gotten good results with Yves Meatless Ground Round substituted one-for-one for the meat.

Whether we call it peasant food or haute cuisine, we all eat to live, starting and ending the same way.

I don’t care how rich you are
I don’t care what you’re worth
When it all comes down
You’ve got to go back to Mother Earth

In many ways, Tracy Nelson’s version of Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth” is definitive for me, but this is from Jimi Hendrix’s last performance, so I can’t resist.