Articles by Author
Stories abound about farmers of color in the United States and their historic ties to the land. Current-day farmers carry nuanced stories about why their ancestors left and why they feel compelled to return: Is it spiritual, out of need, political or pleasure?
FARMERS OF COLOR
A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible
Gone are the post-Civil War days when some forsook farming to northern cities and industrial jobs. The descendants of the enslaved understood farm work as degrading and severe, something to be shunned at all costs.
Instead today’s farmers of color are reclaiming and revitalizing their historical ties to the land, a land full of riches their ancestors, distant and near, built.
Sandra Simone, of voice and vetch
Sandra Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Sandra.
Frankie Lee Michael, on native southern pecans
A part-time pecan farmer, Frankie Lee Michael carries on his father’s business of providing automated pecan shelling to local pecan farmers in Mississippi. Lee, of Native American heritage, shares his perspective on pecans, desserts, the environment and the changing climate in this short film clip.
Rashid Nuri, on urban agriculture
Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well has a long career in government and private sector. In this short film clip, Nuri describes why all people should have a right to healthy food, urban or rural, and he shares how he and his community are doing it in the heart of downtown Atlanta.
Main image: Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan
A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.
Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?
The mothers of Mother Earth
Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”
There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.
FARMERS OF COLOR
A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible
Part 2: Female farmers of color
Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos
Going organic, in color
Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.
“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”
Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.
Female farm operators statistics
Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators. They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.
Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch
Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Simone tell her story.
Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop
“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.
Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.
The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.
Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.
Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt
Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”
More from Zester Daily:
“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.
An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”
Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.
Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.
Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan
The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.
FARMERS OF COLOR
A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible
Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.
Part 2: Female farmers of color.
Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.
With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.
More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.
Data on farmers of color in the United States
In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.
More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.
Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.
Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.
Historical exclusion of farmers
Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.
The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.
To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.
Reparations and the white environmental movement
Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.
More from Zester Daily:
In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors“ in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.
And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.
Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.
Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan
Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.
“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.
Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)
Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods
The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.
More on corn:
Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.
For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:
More from Zester Daily:
Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.
So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.
Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.
Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.
Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”
A gift that grows
Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.
Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Indigenous foods and animals are the backbone of North America and the global food culture. Native Foodways magazine is a new publication that gives voice to the rich diversity and resilience of native people. Young and old are reviving their lost biocultural, agricultural and culinary traditions, one meal at a time. They are paving a way for all to eat, live and grow in the world sustainably. It’s time to listen.
About 5,000 copies of Native Foodways are distributed free to native wellness programs and communities. The magazine is published by Tohono O’odham Community Action, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona. An additional 2,000 are available for retail sale.
More from Zester Daily:
The organization Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT, created a Regional Map of North America’s Place-Based Food that redraws the continent’s borders. North America transforms into a series of distinct food nations: Clambake, Maple Syrup, Wild Rice, Corn Bread & BBQ, Gator, Bison, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Abalone, Salmon and Moose. The creators sing us back visually to the continent’s native legacy. They revitalize our memory and reimagine our notions of borders and boundaries. It reminds us, we North American citizens, of the region’s indigenous food foundations. With the visual map embedded, we suddenly see the people, the foods and the cultures that came before us.
Indigenous foods of the Americas make up 60% of the global food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These foods include mainly corn and potatoes but also chilies, beans, squashes, tomatoes, pineapples, avocados, manioc, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, wild rice, cranberries, maple sugar, chewing gum, turkey and the beloved clambake.
Yet worldwide biodiversity loss continues with no change in rate and with an increase in the factors that increase loss, according to Science in 2010. North America is no exception. The mountains, canyons and deserts of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico form one of the richest biologically diverse regions. The area is home to more than 40 distinct indigenous communities alone, and within those communities reside important agrobiodiversity knowledge systems. It is not surprising that with the destruction of cultural knowledge also comes the loss of biodiversity and ecological knowledge. Today these declines are only exacerbated by climate change.
Luckily, descendants of native farmers and the culinary carriers who nourished the first settlers up to the present are actively revitalizing their foods, and not just for Thanksgiving. According to Mary Paganelli Votto, founder and editorial director of Native Foodways, “Too often, the focus in the mainstream media is on the health problems in native communities. Native Foodways focuses on the positive efforts taking place to address these issues and seeks to share practical and useful information and to inspire.”
First up, Native Foodways spotlights two chefs
I spoke with two chefs featured in the summer 2013 edition of Native Foodways Magazine: Lois Ellen Frank and Nephi Craig. Frank is a culinary anthropologist with master’s and doctorate degrees. Along with Walter Whitewater, she runs Santa Fe, N.M.-based Red Mesa Cuisine. She is of Kaiwo ancestry on her mother’s side and Sephardic on her father’s side. Her book, “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” received the James Beard award in the Americana category. It was the first Native American work to win the award.
Frank left cooking school and became a commercial photographer for eight years in Los Angeles. Her thought was, “Why study cooking in an institution that championed one cuisine over the rest of the globe, let alone disregarded indigenous cuisines?” But she returned to her passion and the kitchen, this time on her own terms. “I need to work in diverse native communities across the country, especially with those suffering from diabetes. I cannot run a restaurant when I travel so much, an absent chef is just not productive,” Frank says of why she runs a catering business instead of a restaurant.
Her catering kitchen is filled with women. Native and non-natives, they find her. “It is only since the 1980s that a shift in the gender balance began in the kitchen.” Put plainly, when women are not in the kitchen, you lose. “In my kitchen, in our circle, we call in the ancestors to guide us. We do not just feed; we provide sustenance. We are powerful vehicles of cooking and techniques. And then we take the ancient foods, and we embody their knowledge, and present them in a contemporary form.”
Like Frank, but of a younger generation, Chef Craig invokes the circle. The four directions represent different and equally important aspects of the kitchen. “We work in a circular fashion instead of from the top down. We veer away from fear- and intimidation-cooking in the kitchen.” Craig added, “We work like ants, or in the Apache way, we activate ‘Ant Power’ where we are all equally strong and each is essential to the creation of the whole, that is the imagery we choose to use.” Craig, 33, is the executive chef at White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort and the founder of The Native American Culinary Association. His core crew of eight is half men and half women, half elder and half younger and all native Apache. The elders in the crew distinctly remember the old hierarchical ways of running the back of the kitchen. Now, though, Craig proudly says he is actively “decolonizing culinary themes and the kitchen brigade by using the circle, White Mountain Apache values and qualities of leadership.”
In each instance, these pioneers of native cuisines are constructing a space to cook and create on their own terms. And they are up against not just a competitive environment but also historical odds. In the midst of fighting to use local, regional, indigenous foods sustainably, they work in and among populations that have had their education, cultures and lands stolen. Yet they plow forward with the confidence that they possess great cultural richness. Amid these obstacles, they symbolize grace, hope and possibility of inclusion for all at the big table. I know I want more.
Top photo: Chef Nephi Craig’s culinary crew includes, from left, Stephanie Dosela, Nancy James, Juwon Hendricks, Vina Reidhead, Herman Skidmore, Craig, Randall Cosen, Tamara Gatewood and Vincent Way. Credit: Courtesy of Nephi Craig
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Canning, preserving and putting up the summer fruits and vegetables are in full swing. In September, we turn to salty, sugary, slightly oily and extra spicy brinjal achar, or eggplant pickle. It’s a nice contrast after we preserved tangy pickled onions in August and sweet apricot chutney in July.
Eggplant a favorite in many cultures
Aubergine and brinjal are just some of the names for the common eggplant, Solanum melongena. A part of the Solanaceae family — the deadly nightshades — in which tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and tobaccos reside, eggplants have seduced cooks and eaters alike in nearly every culture.
More from Zester Daily
The alchemical seduction of eggplant is so complete that Imam bayildi, or “the Imam fainted,” is the name bestowed upon a popular Turkish dish with eggplant at its center. Besotted with its exquisite taste, the Imam literally swooned from the intensity and beauty of flavors, with tomatoes and onions intensifying the dish’s effect.
South Asians know how to cook and preserve this versatile fruit. They roast it, stuff it, sauté it, fry it, preserve it — and hope to protect it. (For a quick look into the controversy that has trailed genetically modified eggplant, check out the sidebar below the following recipe.)
Brinjal achar enhances any non-spiced meal. As a child, I gobbled this pickle by the tablespoon with plain rice or chapatti or with a bit of yogurt. Don’t be intimidated by the number of ingredients; just make your list and find your spices. If you want complex flavors and multiple layers revealed to your senses, then jump right in.
This takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete and will yield about 12 ounces.
1 cup sesame, mustard or olive oil (Sesame oil is nutty and mustard oil is strong and pungent; olive oil has a more neutral flavor.)
3 ounces whole dry red chilies; heat varies, so adjust according to taste
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
1 pound Asian eggplants (small, purple-white striated) long variety (Ping tong, for example), chopped into small pieces with the skin intact
3 to 5 cloves of garlic
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
¼ cup water
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
4 tablespoons salt
½ cup to 1 cup sugar, depending on desired sweetness
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
Blender or food processor
2 large pans to roast spices and sauté garlic-ginger paste and eggplant
Three 4-ounce Mason jars
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan and roast the dry chilies on medium-high heat, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and cool.
2. In the same oil, add cumin, black mustard and fenugreek seeds and roast while stirring, 2 to 4 minutes, on medium-high heat until mustard seeds start to pop and fenugreek seeds turn brown. Remove and cool. Use this pan with remaining oil for Step 6.
3. Place cooled roasted chilies and seeds in a spice grinder and grind. Save for Step 8.
4. In another pan, place 1 to 2 tablespoons oil on medium high heat, add chopped eggplant and stir occasionally until eggplant reduces to about half the amount, 15 to 20 minutes.
5. In a blender or food processor, add garlic and ginger with a bit of water to make a paste. Use the same blender in Step 7.
6. In the same pan that you roasted the spices, add a teaspoon of oil and the garlic-ginger paste and sauté until brown, 7 to 10 minutes.
7. In the blender, add vinegar, tamarind and salt and blend.
8. To the sautéed eggplant, add roasted and ground spices, garlic-ginger paste and remaining oil. Stir for 5 minutes.
9. To the above mixture, add the mixture of vinegar, tamarind and salt and stir completely.
10. Finally, add sugar, turmeric and fennel seeds, continue to stir and simmer to reduce water content and until oil separates out again.
11. While hot, place in canning jars, cover and let cool.
12. Once cool, place the jars in the refrigerator, where they should keep for up to three months.
* * *
Genetically modified eggplant
The rich biodiversity of eggplants in South Asia was challenged in India in 2010 with a request to introduce a genetically modified Bt brinjal variety. Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., or Mahyco, is the Indian subsidiary of U.S. biotech company Monsanto, which developed the Bt brinjal. With wide and vociferous protests occurring throughout brinjal-producing states in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal until further appraisal of its safety. Minister Jairam Ramesh cited the following concerns as summarized in The Hindu:
- Lack of a clear consensus among the scientific community
- Opposition from 10 state governments, especially from the major brinjal-producing states
- Questions raised about the safety and testing process
- Lack of an independent biotechnology regulatory authority
- Negative public sentiment and fears among consumers
- Lack of a global precedent
On the other side of the debate, advocates say Bt brinjal will boost production, reduce pesticide use and support distressed farmers. Environmental activists such as Vandana Shiva of seed keeper group Navdanya have cited holes in these arguments for supporting the introduction of genetically modified organisms. Upon declaring the moratorium, Shiva elaborated on the criteria for evaluating GMO crops before introduction, the most important being the strengthening of seed and food sovereignty on a national scale. For more on how the Indian government is addressing the introduction of other genetically modified crops, read this article in The Economic Times.
Top photo: Brinjal achar is made from eggplant and a variety of spices. Credit: Sarah Khan