Articles in Opinion
I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.
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» In celebration of sugar
As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.
Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.
Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.
It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.
Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.
Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.
Preserving with sugar
One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.
In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.
Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.
I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.
Yields 2 pints
Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. Unlike the other fruit butters in this book ["Saving the Season"], this one does not have the apples puréed at any point in the cooking. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.
During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.
5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart
½ gallon unfiltered apple cider
2 allspice berries
20 fresh gratings of cinnamon
10 fresh gratings of nutmeg
1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.
3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.
Excerpted from “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Top photo: Author Kevin West. Credit: Josh Norris
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner
I set out this summer curious as to how our food is produced and in search of the people producing it. Armed with a little money generously donated to our cause and a whole lot of enthusiasm, my colleague Chris Maggiolo and I traveled 15,000 miles in more than 100 days to investigate the food system. Living in the back of our 20-year-old 20-foot van, we spent time in nearly every state in continental America.
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In that time, we worked with just about every kind of artisanal food producer you can imagine (nearly 80 in all). We harvested oysters in Rhode Island and made tortillas in Portland, Ore. We foraged herbs for bitters in the mountains of Colorado and spent the day shrimping off the coast of Houston. We chopped and we cured; we brewed and we baked. We met those enthusiastic to tell their story while others were more laconic. We met fifth-generation farmers who’ve barely managed to hold on to patrimonial land while green-thumbed others have taken to agriculture for the very first time. We met producers with a profound social or sustainability mission and others who simply wanted to eat or feed their family better.
Think beyond the grocery store shelves
We were fortunate to experience a goat being born in central Virginia and took part in a pig slaughter in Oregon. These are profoundly emotional experiences in their own respective way — the alpha and omega of life. It’s easy to forget the seemingly obvious fact that our food comes not from shelves at the store but is the result of a natural life cycle that includes death and rebirth and that extends to distant (though hopefully not too distant) farms and fields. In the case of meat, this means living breathing animals whose death was necessary to bring our sustenance.
Appreciating this fact is to consume more critically, and for my part, perhaps not to eliminate meat consumption altogether but to certainly take measures to ensure that the meat I do eat is responsibly raised and humanely slaughtered. Once you’ve experienced the profundity of the cycle firsthand, to do otherwise would be incongruous. I want to take steps to be a little more intentional. I encourage you to do the same, and it can start with the simple act of consuming meat.
Though we may hold romantic notions of “craft,” it isn’t always what it’s made out to be. This pertains to food production in the general sense (“artisanal” bread at Subway comes to mind, the largest fast food chain in the world) but it is especially true, and especially well veiled, in terms of alcohol. For instance, many of the top spirits brands are owned by the same monolithic parent companies.
They buy neutral grain spirits from large distilleries in Indiana. Sometimes they age them elsewhere. Sometimes they run them through another still. Sometimes they just slap on rustic label to give an aura of hand-crafted authenticity. This isn’t to say these spirits are necessarily worse for being produced in this manner but it is to reiterate the importance of looking behind the label. We are experiencing a revival of truly small-batch artisanal spirits throughout America. I encourage you to seek out something made with local grains, by local people, feeding into local economies. All stand to benefit, your taste buds included.
Meet your makers
Relationships matter. This applies to people, to places, and to products. Never have I been more aware how critical it is to meet a farmer at the local farmers market. Ask questions. For instance, “What exactly are garlic scapes?” And ask for advice. “How would I use them?” These individuals are proud of what they do, and their labors of love shine through in conversation. It’s a contagious sort of enthusiasm. What’s more, I encourage you to create not just a relationship of mutual benefit but of one actual friendship. We live in an age that feels quite solitary at times. We can begin to build resilient communities in the most natural way possible, by sharing sentiments.
Get out to the farm. If I learned nothing else from our adventure across America it’s that experience is the best educator. I can read how cheese is made a hundred times but just one opportunity to milk a sheep before dawn, to culture curds in a vat and to taste from wheels in odorous caves designed for aging, cheese comes alive with a significance entirely new. This stands for farmers and brewers and bakers (and the rest) as well as cheesemakers.
In the end, I simply encourage you to be curious. Ask thoughtful questions and search for meaningful answers. Don’t take things at face value. Experiment! Pick up a couple pots and soil and grow your own herbs. Try (and fail) to make cheese. Try (and fail) to bake bread. Get your hands dirty. You’ll feel not only a tangible and edible sense of accomplishment but you’ll have acquired a measure of self-reliant contentment. The next time you’re in the grocery, you’ll be better informed because you asked and answered these questions. You’ll appreciate your food, and those who made it, in whole new way. You’ll demand more from the food system. And with the help of artisans across America, you’ll continue to see it change.
Top photo: Brad Jones, left, and Chris Maggiolo stirring strawberry preserves at Quince and Apple in Madison, Wis. Credit: Sarah Makoski
As “Symphony of the Soil,” the latest film written by Deborah Koons Garcia, points out, “One can go down thousands of years into the soil. Soil is the water and land having a dialogue. Soil is the interface of biology and geology. Soil is an ecosystem, a living thing. As long as the soil remains healthy, the planet will be healthy.”
The Soul of the Soil
First in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
» Part 3: Menace in the manure: Pesticide creep affects fertilizer. (Will post the week of Sept. 22)
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In the 1970s, Garcia became a vegetarian. She also became a fanatic about good, clean food. She doesn’t eat white sugar, white flour or anything that isn’t organic. As she became educated about real food, she began to think about a film. What resulted were a number of films and then “The Future of Food,” a documentary that, among other things, deals head on with the issue of genetically modified organisms and the world of agriculture.
“Symphony of Soil” does not focus on the agriculture world. It deals with deeper issues that affect the soil. Although the film is an overlay of facts, time-lapse photography, animated water colors and beautiful soothing music, the details are deeply disturbing. Here are some:
In the last 25 years, the biology of soil all over the world has been interrupted by antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides. Whereas soil used to be full of lively diverse microbes, in most places this is no longer the case. In the last 50 years we have destroyed the world’s topsoil. In order to rectify this situation, synthetic fertilizers are used to enrich the degraded soil, which only puts further stress on the soil and increases its vulnerability to pests. This causes farmers to use more pesticides, stronger pesticides and stronger herbicides. One-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.
Seventy percent of our freshwater is used for agriculture irrigation. And that resource is quickly dissipating at an unsustainable rate. Among the chemicals that causes the most concern is aminopyralid.
Taking a toll on health
The medical ramifications of pesticides and herbicides are being studied. Research reveals they may be related to everything from birth defects to cancer.
The good news is that land that has been sprayed with most herbicides that have decreased microorganisms can be improved if it is treated organic compost for two or three years.
Although climate change is affecting every one of us, one of the ways of addressing the issue is by improving our soil. Planting a cover crop after a vegetable crop creates benefits including suppressing weeds and protecting that precious soil from erosion. Long-term cover crops also improve the soil condition. Even short term, cover crops can increase yield and save nitrogen. If the soil is improved, less water is used on crops and what run off there is goes directly to feed all the needy aqua filters.
Compost also improves soil. If the soil is organic and full of microbes, crops planted there produce large yields.
It is also important to feed nature as we feed humanity. When cattle farmers stopped using antibiotics and anti-parasitic drugs on their cows, dung beetles returned to the cows’ paddies. As the beetles did their work, cleaning up after the massive cattle herds, there were fewer weeds and thistles in the field, thus less need for pesticides and herbicides. Properly managed grazing is great for the land.
Spiraling down a 1950s hole
In the 1950s, the conventional wisdom could be summed up as “better living through chemistry.” We are now trying to repair the agricultural damage we did during that decade with “better living through biology.”
With good soil we create a food web of health and good taste.
“Symphony of the Soil” shows us where we have gone wrong and gives us a plan to begin righting those wrongs. In her last film, Garcia gave us a generous and hopeful look at the possible future of our food, and now she gives us that hope with our soil.
After watching this film, we can begin to ask our elected officials important questions such as why herbicides are being used to kill noxious weeds, some of which, like thistles, can actually be used for food. When we have the information we can do our own research.
This is a movie that should be seen. The simplicity with which Garcia handles the explanation of how we can come to the aid of our own soil is wonderful. If each of us takes responsibility for a handful of dirt, we will have enormous movement. The movie gives us another chance to know our food from the ground up.
Top photo: John Reganold in a scene from “Symphony of the Soil.” Credit: Courtesy of Lily Films
It’s mid-August, and my local farmers markets here in New York City are bursting at the seams, groaning under the weight of sweet corn, peaches, carrots, onions and their seasonal brethren in the produce department.
“It’s a buyer’s market!” columnist Mark Bittman recently proclaimed in The New York Times Magazine. Shoppers, myself included, scurry from stall to stall, overfilling bags and lugging home more than they can eat. It’s a terrifically good thing, and I’m heartened to see how many people — especially those who once didn’t give a hoot about food or cooking — are faithfully turning out to support local agriculture.
With the windfall of choices this time of year, it’s a buyer’s market indeed. But recently, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend that makes me wonder whether the sellers at said markets — that is to say, the regional, small farmers we’ve elevated to the status of cultural heroes — aren’t taking a little advantage of their popularity.
See, for a couple of years right after college, I farmed for a living. I worked in a few different places with varying approaches; in each, the quality of the food we grew, and the pride with which we presented it to our customers, was paramount. The farm crew didn’t complain about the backache and rashes we accrued during days spent harvesting 1,000-plus pounds of tomatoes and carefully slicing young zucchini from their prickly stalks. After all, we were in the business of selling food. Good food.
So last summer, when I saw a “special” of flowering basil stalks at Union Square, I thought, this is a joke, right? I, and everyone I worked with, had been taught to pinch the tops off of basil plants before they came close to flowering, harvesting them in such a way so they would continue to produce and so the leaves we put on the stand were full of sweet, pure flavor. If a basil plant had just begun to flower, we’d pinch the buds off, leaving it to put its energy into growing leaves instead of flowers. If the plant were left to keep flowering, we knew the basil leaves would grow bitter.
I was hopeful the basil I saw that day would be marked down, “on sale” as it were, like milk about to expire in the supermarket. I was looking for a sign that said something like, “pinch off flowers, scatter over salads or float in cocktails, and use the leaves for pesto or ice cream.” But no. Instead, the basil was marked up, listed as “special” because of the attractive buds. I twisted my face into a scowl and wrote it off as a one-time error.
Then I saw it again, and worse this time. Flowering kale. Flowering arugula. It was spreading from market to market, farm to farm. Again, the greens were marked as “special,” priced above the “regular” kale, the “run-of-the-mill” arugula. At first, my annoyance had been with the gullibility of shoppers who were purchasing these products, but my frustration quickly turned toward the farm staff. Honest, hard-working, food-loving. Those were some of the words I used to describe the farmers I’ve known. But this? Who knew there would be deceit running rampant in our most wholesome arenas?
Trust is key to making farmers markets effective
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Tips for shopping at farmers markets
1. For prime herbs and greens, look for stalks with broad, unmarred leaves and no flowers or buds. Avoid bolted greens, which often look elongated and have thickened center stalks. They will be bitter in taste.
2. Keep your eye out for flowering herbs and greens. If you can't wrangle a discount on these (you're not getting much bang for your buck, and they certainly shouldn't be marked as "special" or "gourmet"), take them home and use them for their flowers only. The leaves on flowered plants are bound to be too bitter to be true to taste since all the sugars have gone into producing flowers. Herbal flowers can be lovely in salads or cocktails, and flowers of leafy greens are nice as a bitter note on pizzas or in sandwiches.
3. Tomatoes can be tricky. With all the heirloom varieties popping up in farmers markets these days, identifying the varieties of tomatoes can be tough. As a general rule, rounded tomatoes (which tend to be very juicy and full of seeds) are best for raw eating or can be slow-roasted to develop a sweet flavor, while tomatoes that are elongated and tapered are paste tomatoes, which have less liquid and more pulp.
4. Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most helpful cookbook I've come across to date in terms of learning to identify edible plants and herbs by sight and understanding the differences between varieties and various stages of life cycles. Websites and catalogs for seed companies such as Johnny's are also terrifically helpful. Keep a paper catalog on your bookshelf as a reference guide.
On the matter of the first, we took full responsibility. We turned our greens back into the soil when they started to bolt or bud, and diligently topped our basil. Never did bolted spinach or flowering bok choy appear on our stands. It would have been dishonest, we felt, to pawn off a subpar crop on our loyal buyers. Per the second, while we had grown comfortable tossing around terms such as speckled trout (a romaine lettuce) and bull’s blood (a red beet variety), we knew those names wouldn’t mean a thing to our average customer. So we took it upon ourselves to act as translators. When setting up the farm stand, we’d carefully separate varieties, writing their names and descriptions on our board. When people asked, “What do you do with a fairy eggplant?” we gave them suggestions or pointed them toward a favorite cookbook or website for more advice.
We wanted them to be empowered enough to experiment in the kitchen while leaving growing and harvesting the best products possible in our reliable hands. Trust was key. It still is. The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?
Yes, part of the burden of knowledge falls on consumers. Part of it, too, I like to think, falls on the media. Thankfully, a bunch of fine cookbook authors, such as Deborah Madison and Joe Yonan, are answering the call. But farmers have to do their part to aid in transparency. Honest marketing that helps buyers understand the difference between a paste tomato (for cooking) and a beefsteak (for slicing) and why flowered greens are past their prime is imperative if we want people to take interest in, and control of, the food they purchase, cook and eat.
Farmers, give us the best you’ve got, and give it to us straight. You want those buyers to keep on buying? Remember, it turns on trust.
Top photo: These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin
“We need to have an honest dialogue about race.” I’ve heard or read a variation of that statement a lot this summer. I agree that we do need dialogue, but making it happen raises questions. How and when would that conversation take place? How do we get people who are reluctant to talk about race to engage in a dialogue? How do we create a safe space to explore uncomfortable topics? What would reconciliation look like once we’re through talking? I thought L’affaire Paula Deen gave us a good conversation starter on race, but the feeding frenzy served to only reinforce how people already felt about race.
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» When did soul food get too hot to handle?
Still, there was some thoughtful commentary moving us toward a teaching moment about how the South’s cooks and cuisine are emblematic of the region’s conflicted past and complicated future. I have imagined that with a different cultural dynamic that focused more on forgiveness rather than condemnation, Ms. Deen could have played a pivotal role in stimulating a productive, public dialogue. But, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Those of us hungry for a dialogue need not wait. Food is one of the easiest ways to bring people together, and Southern cuisine — with all of its diversity — gives us a great platform to have a racial reconciliation dialogue through food. If you’re game, here’s my four-step plan for forming a cookbook club that facilitates a dialogue on race.
1. Form your group. If you may already belong to a book club, this project would be fairly easy to adopt. Otherwise, you’ll have to form a group and recruit members. There is a lot value to talking about these issues with people you already know, but I encourage you to stretch and invite someone of a different race who you don’t know so well.
2. Select your reading material. I think the most stimulating conversation will come from reading and cooking from two Southern cookbooks — one authored by a white Southerner and the other authored by a black Southerner. Though you are free to choose any cookbooks that you’d like, here are my recommended pairings:
For an interesting contrast in home cooking:
For classic texts on rural Southern cooking:
For a survey of overlapping cuisines:
For a good look at working-class Southern food:
For those who like the greener things in life:
“Vegan Soul Kitchen” by Bryant Terry (2009) and either “Butter Beans to Blackberries” by Ronni Lundy (1999) or “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle (2011). Though the latter two have meat recipes, there’s plenty for vegetarians.
Books that aren’t available online may be at your local library.
3. Plan your meal and the conversation. Ask the participants to make a dish from one of the cookbooks and bring at least one question to get some conversation going. If you’re stuck on how to start, take a look at the One America Dialogue Guide that was published in 1998 under the auspices of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. It has sample questions that should prove helpful.
4. Let’s eat on Aug. 28th! If you can, gather your group to cook, eat and share on Aug. 28, 2013. Why? Because 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” Let’s do it for real and expand the table by making it as inclusive as possible. If this timeframe is too ambitious, have your communal meal as soon as possible.
Talking honestly about race is not easy, but we need to try and we need do it out of love. Let me end by apologizing to any readers who I might have offended with this racial reconciliation idea. Please understand that I am who I am, and I’m all about changing for the better.
Top composite photo:
A sampling of books recommended by Adrian Miller to start the conversation on race.
New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.
I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.
Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.
The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.
I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.
Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?
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Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?
Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.
The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.
Bread makers know the cost of cheap
We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.
We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.
Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.
Sowing outside the grain belt
That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.
There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.
Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?
Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran
Greece’s agony is painful to watch. For those who know and love the country, the long fiscal battering, now in its third year, has often seemed excruciating, most of all, of course, for the Greek people, especially the young, who face a staggering unemployment rate of 54%. But there are ways to help, small perhaps but nonetheless significant. One is to seek out, buy and use some of Greece’s many fine food exports. Extra virgin olive oil should be at the top of that shopping list.
Patriotic Greeks, not content to sit by, are looking for ways to encourage not just economic recovery but the development of a new generation of innovative thinkers, which the country so desperately needs.
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Kefalogiannis is what would be called in France a négociant of fine extra virgin olive oil. He doesn’t actually produce oil himself and has no ancient trees to show off to visitors. Instead, he works with existing producers to promote and market high-quality olive oil and olive products. Gaea is a specialty foods giant, with award-winning olive oils and other olive-based products — such as tapénades and cooking sauces — in its inventory. In the U.S., the products are sold under the “Cat Cora’s Kitchen” brand.
Extra virgin export
Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more. And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production. Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.
The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo). A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.
For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Tapping a young market with Greek olive oil
But Greece’s economy is indeed broken. Faced with a steady drain of exactly the youthful population that should be helping to put Greece back on track, Kefalogiannis has set up a think tank where young Greeks, straight out of high school or university, present business plans for evaluation by a group of expert judges who then select the 10 most likely to succeed. Each of the 10 winners is awarded seed capital amounting to 25,000 euros (about $32,500) plus a low-interest loan from a reliable Greek bank, plus access to Gaea’s broad international distribution network.
The whole project, “Reinspiring Greece from the Youth Up,” is funded through sales of Agrilia, a remarkable single-estate, certified organic olive oil from Antiparos, a tiny Cycladic island in the heart of the Aegean. The oil, which comes mostly from the favorite Greek olive variety koroneiki, is extraordinarily high in polyphenols — 550 mg per kilogram at the time of processing. High polyphenols mean the oil is not only exceptionally healthful, but also that it has a long life, protected by its own polyphenols from the taint of rancidity.
When I heard about the program, I rushed to buy a bottle of the oil through the Greek America Foundation, which sponsors the project.
So what does Antiparos Agrilia Estate oil taste like?
In short, it’s an outstanding oil, beautifully balanced among the three critical points of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. (That last characteristic is an indication of the presence of polyphenols.) I found delicious hints of apple and fresh almond, and a balanced roundness, without the least hint of greasiness or fatty textures.
This is an oil to reserve for garnishing. Dolloped generously over buffalo-milk mozzarella or a fresh goat’s milk cheese or added at the table to a plain bowl of pasta with tomato sauce or a hearty beans-and-greens soup, it will take such simple dishes to heights of elegance. At $38 for a 17-ounce bottle, Agrilia Estate is not cheap, but it’s worth it: It’s worth it to support Aris Kefalogiannis’s generous vision, it’s worth it to celebrate the potential of Greek recovery, and it’s worth it to experience one of Greece’s finest products.
Top photo: Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins