Articles in Soapbox

Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots Credit: Sunny Young

Some volleys in the battle to make school food healthier can sting.

“I was told after removing chicken nuggets from the menu that I was taking all the fun out of school lunch, which was a pretty harsh thing to be told,” said Sunny Young, Program Manager of Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative to improve the nutrition of cafeteria meals and educate students and their families in Oxford, Miss., about better food choices.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

But, Young said, “We make decisions based on the welfare of our children.”

Young spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement, citing dire statistics demonstrating a critical need for better food choices.

Forty percent of Mississippi’s children are overweight or obese, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity is linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological problems.

“In order to change these really scary statistics, we need a paradigm shift in the way that we think about food and the way we eat food,” Young said.

She cited reasons for hope. A recent evaluation of Good Food for Oxford Schools, conducted jointly by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies and the university’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, showed that the program is having an impact.

“What we’re doing is working,” she said.  “It’s changing eating habits,” at school and at home.

The program has a three-pronged approach, working in the cafeteria, the classroom and the community.  In school cafeterias, she said, “We are transforming what the kids are seeing on their trays,” with menus featuring more fresh, local food.  The proportion of the cafeteria menu cooked from scratch grew from 30% to 75% during the 2013-14 school year.

That startling increase came from replacing overly processed items with whole food — for instance, replacing those sacrosanct chicken nuggets with baked chicken. Newly trained staff also replaced frozen foods with items such as pot pies and stir-fried foods. They tapped into recipes from TheLunchBox.org, a site started by Chef Ann Cooper, a longtime advocate for healthier school food (and Young’s boss before she came to Oxford).

The “Harvest of the Month” program in the cafeterias helps promote the use of more local food, with the added incentive of a sticker for younger kids who try something new.

But, she noted, “You can’t just put this food in front of kids and expect that they’re going to love it and eat it.”

That’s where the classroom lessons come in:

“We get them to touch and feel foods, Young said. “We bring in the farmer. We bring in chefs. They do cooking demos in the classroom. We really allow students to experience the joy of food.”

The district’s middle and high schools now have salad bars, and Young’s goal is to get them in elementary schools during the current school year.

The older kids’ incentives: more control over their schools’ food choices.

“Stickers and dressing up like a carrot doesn’t work so well,” Young said of the middle and high school crowd. “So what we’ve done is empower the students themselves.”

Young launched food clubs in the district’s middle and high school, where students cook, eat and learn together. The club also provides suggestions to improve cafeteria menus.

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

School gardens are also part of the program, and will be expanded this year thanks to an AmeriCorps-affiliated FoodCorps member now working with the program. Young is working to get schools to incorporate the gardens into the curriculum, but the gardens are already having an impact.  She noted that when a group of third-graders was asked last year to draw a carrot, all the students involved in the school garden program drew it growing underground, unlike the other children who simply drew carrots without any context.

Community steps up

The third piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools’ work is in the community. The program works with farmers markets and organizes community events, such as a Gospel Choir Showcase that featured choirs singing on the Oxford town square interspersed with messages about Good Food for Oxford Schools and food samples from the improved school menu.

Young’s goal for the school year is to expand the program to reach more kids and families.  She was recently named state co-lead for Mississippi for the National Farm to School Network.

She’s now working to connect programs across the state that are doing similar work, and is organizing a Farm to Cafeteria conference for later in the school year.

“The people of Mississippi have embraced this project,” Young said.  “Good food can change everything.

Main photo: Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots. Credit: Sunny Young

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

Teach a kid to grow a carrot, or a cucumber, or even a cauliflower, and chances are that child will want to eat it. This common-sense notion is backed up by many studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from those who interact with kids in family and school gardens.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed 11 garden-based nutrition studies and found that adolescents who participated in these programs increased their fruits and vegetables consumption. The results of one study, in which children spent 12 weeks working in a garden taste testing the produce and using it to make their own snacks, found that 98% of kids said they liked the taste tests; 96% liked working in the garden; and 91% enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables. One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use “seed-to-table” activities to help teach kids about healthy eating.

Seed libraries

One easy way for families and schools to get the seeds for seed-to-table learning is through “seed libraries” — places where people can peruse many varieties of tomato, cucumber, green bean, and other seeds, and then “check out” seeds they want to grow. At the end of the growing season, the person saves some seed, and returns it to the seed library. As more and more people have begun growing some of their own food, seed libraries have sprung up all over the U.S., with about 300 currently operating.

Recently, though, the culture of growing good food and community ran up against the culture of bureaucracy, control and fear as the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shut down a seed bank at a public library in Mechanicsburg. Seed sharing, it turns out, is seen by some as dangerous. Barbara Cross, a Cumberland County commissioner, was quoted as saying that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” and “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge.”

To which many of us would say, “Amen, sister!”

sowing seeds

A farmer holds native prairie plant seeds at Spence Farm in Fairbury, Ill. Credit: Terra Brockman

Growing your own

One way to maintain and protect food sources is to know the source of your food, and what better way than to grow it from seed and prepare the fresh vegetables yourself. At a time when obesity and chronic diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing, we need more seed libraries and more people ready and willing to engage in civil di-seed-obedience, if necessary, to fight overzealous bureaucrats and to ensure that people have the opportunity to grow their own food.

Here are a few ways to do that:

Find a seed library near you, or start your own: There are a number of websites to  help. If you are concerned about the legalities, there is good information from the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s webpage, Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.

Get some seeds and sow ‘em: Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools. Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan.

Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting: Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start a school garden. You may also want to talk to cafeteria managers and principals to get their suggestions and buy-in. For inspiration, check out the Edible Schoolyard or Seeds of Solidarity programs. The groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:

• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org

• Collective School Garden Network

Slow Food USA’s School Garden Guide

 Main photo: A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser

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An aerial shot of Matthew Moore's replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore Credit: Matthew Moore

If you knew it took 160 days to grow a carrot, would it change the way you think about eating one?

That’s the question that artist and farmer Matthew Moore set out to answer with a series of time-lapse videos of plants growing from seed to harvest. “If you went to the supermarket, bought a head of lettuce and you were able to see the life cycle of that plant in a few seconds or a few minutes, it might change the way you think about that food,” he said.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Art, Moore said, “can put us into a state that words can’t describe — it completely simplifies everything.”

Moore talked about the importance of art in making people think about food at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See embedded video below.)

In his poignant and emotional talk, Moore said that his story began when he realized that although he is the fourth generation on his family’s farm outside of Phoenix, “I’m also the last to farm this land” because of the massive amount of development going on in the region.

“When I returned to run the family business in the beginning of the last housing boom I just inherently knew that I had to document this process,” he said.

He began by artfully showing the impact of suburban sprawl on the land. In one picture-perfect example, he created a replica of a suburban lot map in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat.

“What art is so good at is asking questions,” he said. “The question I had was: Why does this make sense? Why is this the best, the highest use of this ground?”

Matthew Moore's floor plan embedded in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore embeds a floor plan in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

He began to make his time-lapse videos on the theory that most people don’t understand what goes into growing the produce they eat, and that if they did, they might approach the supermarket with a different perspective.

Time-lapse messages

The time-lapse films were shown in a Utah supermarket as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. When consumers approached a selected vegetable, an LCD screen displayed that plant’s entire life cycle, set to music. And, Moore said, people watched. “We realized that it works,” he said. “I did all these conceptual projects, and all I had to do was let the plant tell the story.”

Moore is part of a larger movement using art to encourage people to think more about their food, at a time when consumer interest in food, and how it’s produced, is rising. Many artists are engaged in this work. Stefani Bardin used pills, designed to record video and sound from the gastrointestinal tract, to examine the effects of eating natural versus processed food; the resulting video has been watched more than 3 million times. Tattfoo Tan has developed a range of specialized paint colors matched to the colors of fruits and vegetables, known as the Nature Matching System. He’s used the system to create, among other things, a place mat that has been sold at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Photographer Henry Hargreaves created physical maps using iconic foods of countries for his Food Maps series.

Moore founded a nonprofit, the Digital Farm Collective, inspired by what he describes as “the increasing disconnect between consumers and the source of their food.” The DFC’s mission is to broaden the understanding of how food grows and preserve growing practices by telling the story of cultivated crops using video and digital media in schools and public spaces.

The DFC has sent cameras around the world, asking farmers to create time-lapse videos similar to those Moore has made. Interviews with farmers and practical data about produce as it grows from seed to harvest are also incorporated. This content is available in the DFC’s “Living Library.”

The DFC shares its work through two other programs. The first, Seedlings, provides curricula for schools to get kids engaged in gardening. “Through that we learn how better to communicate and inspire the next generation of growers and consumers,” Moore said. The second, Lifecycles, works to exhibit the DFC’s content in public spaces. For example, the group’s work was part of an exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California this year.

The goal, Moore said, is to inspire and educate. “Consumers play a role in food advocacy every time they go to the grocery store,” he said. “We have to understand the global implications of every choice that we make.

“And all I know is words won’t cut it sometimes,” he added. “Sometimes we need more.”

Main photo: An aerial shot of Matthew Moore’s replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

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Myanmar's salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

We first discovered the food of Myanmar as armchair cooks intrigued by a cuisine, described by Mi Mi Khaing in “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” as “the best of Chinese and Indian cooking, but with a distinctive flair all its own.” After repeated trips to Myanmar, however, we would explain Burmese food differently: Indian lacking spice, Thai without fiery chili, similar to Chinese only via its stir fries, or perhaps a shared Yunnan influence with skewered and grilled pub fare. In other words, it’s unlike any other and deliciously unique.

For 20 years we traveled throughout Myanmar, later hosting food tours there, and eventually made a home in Asia. And we’ve never looked back.

We’ve tasted and tested almost every Burmese dish imaginable, supping with regional and capital cooks and learning in the most humble kitchens and 5-star sculleries alike.

Myanmar’s cuisine is a perfect fit for Americans. Granted, chili aficionados here will claim that hot flavors are passionately loved by all, but the general American palate seems drawn to the comforting, non-assertive tastes of Burmese dishes. There, the chili is long and mild, closer to a paprika, akin to the capsicums used in neighboring Yunnan province. Curcumin-rich Alleppey turmeric is a principal spice, while masala is the exception rather than the rule. And simple ground star anise acts as the “curry” seasoning for pork. Even salads — with the notable exception of Burmese Lemon Salad and renowned Pickled Tea Leaf La Phet — are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Vegetables and salads are commonly bound and melded with either besan (chickpea) flour or ground peanuts — depending on the regional crop.

The flavor of Burmese recipes are easy to recreate by merely — and gently — slow-frying onion, garlic and ginger in oil, then using the resulting emollient as a ubiquitous flavoring essence —  both in curries and salads. Better yet, ingredients are easy to find in the United States, more so if there’s an Indian grocery in your neighborhood.

From armchair to actual traveler, our quest for authentic Burmese cookery continues. We find it as exciting as exploring the country’s awe-inspiring sites — from ancient Bagan to imperial Mandalay, to the temples and caves and floating islands of Inle Lake. The image of awakening to the golden rock, Kyeik Hti Yoe, sitting above the clouds will always linger in our minds, as will the vision of the volcanic plug, Mount Popa, with its golden temples crowning the top like a fairyland. But we equally savor memories of the simple peppery stocks of the country’s Rakhine seafood stew.

Why Myanmar? Why Burmese?

Although Burma is the name commonly used by Anglo-Westerners, Myanmar is the term used by locals. “Burma” and “Burman” reflects the Bamar ethnic majority, not its other cultural groups. However, our recently released The Burma Cookbook celebrates all this nation’s diversity — historic and ethnic. We chose the title not as a political statement, but because our cookbook includes dishes of colonial Burma, as well as contemporary Myanmar. So you’ll  find a recipe for Lobster Thermidor served at The Strand hotel for more than a century, but also a biryani rice that reflects the country’s Indian heritage, along with a “bachelor” chicken curry that can be traced back to larrikin lads absconding with a farmyard chicken and herbs grasped from a neighbor’s garden.

Main photo: Myanmar’s salads are infinitely less forceful than in neighboring Thailand. Credit: © Morrison Polkinghorne

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Max Potter's

Aubert de Villaine is a rare wine character. The gatekeeper to the most celebrated wines in Burgundy — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — de Villaine works in the service of his vines. His wealth and power are obscured by frayed tweed jackets and mud-caked boots.

When you meet him, there is no hint of the haughtiness typical of lesser lights in the wine world. Neither is there the equally off-putting salesman’s instant friendship. A private man, de Villaine maintains a surprisingly low profile for someone with his influence.

Knowing this, I am all the more astonished by the intimacy of the story Maximillian Potter tells in “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine.” Potter’s unprecedented access to the great vigneron and the people closest to him imbues the book with the spirit of its two main characters, bringing both de Villaine and his vineyards to life as no one has.

This is a thriller, complete with a blackhearted criminal and a scheme so frighteningly sinister it is nearly unbelievable. Unable to put it down, I read it in one sitting.

Lesson in the ‘Shadows’

Potter deftly delivers everything you need to know about winemaking, the French Revolution, de Villaine’s family, the birth of the American wine movement and Burgundy’s history to keep you turning the pages to learn more. When you close the book, you will want to pull a cork as an act of homage and celebration.

My favorite chapters focus on de Villaine’s ancestor, Louis-François de Bourbon, who began the family wine dynasty in the pre-revolutionary intrigue of the court of King Louis XV. From that vantage point, Potter pulls the threads with which he weaves the modern drama that took place in the dark of night on the hillside of La Romanée-Conti vineyard.

In my home, I have two giant bookcases filled with wine books, at least 200 volumes. As a wine writer, I have at least perused nearly every wine book written in the last couple of decades. I keep the ones with information I might need in the course of my work.

“Shadows in the Vineyard” goes on a separate bookshelf, one reserved for books I’ve enjoyed and want to either read again or pass along to friends. This is a book for anyone who loves a well-told tale. It also might turn you into a wine lover.

I worked with Potter at Premiere magazine when he was a fresh-from-college assistant to the editor. He went on to become an award-winning journalist, writing for Philadelphia and GQ and working as an editor at 5280: The Denver Magazine, Men’s Health and Details. He is now a senior media consultant to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The dogged journalist with an open heart I met 20 years ago is in evidence on every page of this, his first book. It is a feat he accomplishes without once getting in the way of the story he tells. Bravo, Max.

Main photo composite:

Maximillian Potter. Credit: Jeff Panis

Book cover: Credit: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food —  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

Third Street

Third Street
Picture 1 of 7

Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, checking her cellphone, in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

Just as fashionistas flock to the runways every season, culinary passionistas swarm the annual Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City for a staggering display of edibles from around the world. Everything from beet yogurt to  white truffle brie to bourbon pickles to duck bacon — what used to be called “gourmet,” now, “specialty food” — is represented and this year’s spectacular was the largest on record, with more than 2,700 exhibitors from more than 49 countries sprawled over 369,000 square feet at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

I hoped it meant that quality food products were on the rise, but after working my way through the exhibits, I wondered whether we’re any closer to that than we were more than 30 years ago when Mimi Sheraton ruffled feathers by writing in the New York Times, “a good 75% of what was passed off as fancy last week at the Coliseum could just as easily be labeled junk.”

Fancy Food’s right and wrong

What is “Fancy Food” anyway? To me, it’s a microcosm of what’s right — and wrong — in today’s food world. On the one hand, we find genuine products from around the world that illustrate the durability of artisanal traditions in the face of a global economy that threatens the very existence of small farmers. On the other hand, the aisles (as mirrored in markets across America) are crammed with novelties inside beautiful jars and packages.

There’s stuff that struts the fashion, like bacon marmalade, smoked chocolate chips and — yet again — kale, a vegetable I like well enough, but not in my muffins. One year, when slipping fruit into everything was trending, it was tomato and raspberry “marinara.” Is nothing sacred? Much doesn’t fit into the category of actual food, and an awful lot of it is revved up with chemical flavorings, steroids for food.

Nevertheless, the show brings to light unique and worthy products that restaurant chefs seize upon — food such as Mugolio, a sweet pine bud syrup redolent with wild Alpine herbs made by a forager from the Trentino Alps, where the locals have been making it for centuries, or wood-roasted Calabrian figs swaddled in their own leaves.

Unless a discriminating retailer brings such ingredients to market after discovering them at the show, jewels like these don’t typically make their way to home cooks who, by using them, could just as easily elevate their food as chefs do. At the show, I always make it a point to catch up with maverick importers such as Rolando Beramendi (Manicaretti), Ari Weinzweig (Zingerman’s) and Beatrice Ughi (Gustiamo), who go off the highways and even off the map to track down exceptional producers.

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Another is Marta Lisi, who discovered the wood-roasted figs and sells them and other artisanal products from Italy’s diverse regions to a few U.S. retailers. I’m a fig aficionado, and I never tasted figs so delectable as these. Headquartered in Sicily, her company, Attavola, distributes her family’s traditional Salento oils as well as a new citrus-olive oil under the label of Piana degli Ulivi. Recently I tasted all of these splendid oils at their estate in Miggiano, Puglia, which has been making olive oil for 750 years. Lisi also runs tasting tours to small “intergenerational” food and wine producers who are off the tourist track.

Discoveries

At Manicaretti’s booth, while dipping a spoon into a jar of Il Colle del Gusto pistachio spread to give me a taste, Beramendi recounted wandering the open market in Rieti, a hilltop city near Rome, and finding a couple selling pistachio and chocolate-hazelnut spreads that looked like Nutella but tasted a lot better. “I told them on the spot that I’d buy everything they made,” he said. Before he knew it, he was back at their farm, sleeves rolled up and helping them to make more. His newest product, ZeroTre, is the first line of organic artisanal vegetable pastinas introduced into this country, the brainchild of an Abruzzese elementary schoolteacher whose family happens to be in the pasta business. It is a product I consider long overdue here, as readers of my column know.

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Gustiamo’s Ughi is as fierce a champion as there could be for the products she hand-picks. She’s been a veritable Joan of Arc for her San Marzano tomato producers, denouncing the big corporations for their fraudulent practice of counterfeiting “San Marzanos” to make us think we’re buying the real thing. Another of her finds, Sant’Eustachio coffee, has had a cult following since it was established in 1938. International celebrities and discriminating locals alike flock to its cafe in Rome, just across from the Italian Senate where the organic and fair trade beans are roasted over a wood fire. Even though the open fires are illegal in Rome, the government never shuts them down. What politician would want to be without his Sant’Eustachio espresso?

Ultimately, “Fancy Food” may seem to symbolize the tastes of an affluent society for new and exotic foods. Yet, in the best of all worlds, it also celebrates the enduring cultures of those whose lives are inextricably tied to the vitality of their soil. The Fancy Food Show, along with other exhibitions such as the International Artisans Show in Florence I attended just two months earlier, provide an invaluable platform for new generations who continue the ancient traditions.

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Attavola’s wood-roasted fig ball. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Fancy Food Show product highlights

Benedetto Cavalieri Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from the Salento | From Cavalieri’s own local heritage wheat; bronze die-extruded, intense wheat flavor, ideal elasticity and chewiness | Producer: Benedetto Cavalieri, Puglia, Italy | 1999 sofi award winner, best pasta

Broccolo Friariello di Napoli: friarielli in extra virgin olive oil | As yet undiscovered in the U.S., friarielli is a variety of broccoli rabe that has inspired endless poetry in Naples; preserved in the producer’s own olive oil, to toss with pasta. | Producer: Maida Farm, Campania, Italy

Crunchy Capers: dried capers (new product) | Exceptional floral flavor and big crunch; the best thing you could ever put over deviled eggs. | Producer: Gabriele Lasagni/La Nicchia, Pantelleria, Sicily, Italy | 2014 sofi awards nominee

Faella Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from Gragnano, the original pasta-producing area around Naples | Anelli Rigati, ridged rings” are elusive outside of a few of Italy’s regions; it’s about time they were exported here; great for pasta e fagioli — the beans fall right into the holes. | Producer: Pasta Faella

Gustarosso Pomodoro S. Marzano D.O.P.: The real San Marzano plum tomato, meaty and simply the richest-flavored tomato in the world, grown in the Sarno Valley, near Naples | Producer: Danicoop

Marina Colonna’s Citrus Oils: bergamot, clementine and lemon extra virgin olive oils | The citrus zest is pressed with the estate’s olives, resulting in delicate and fragrant oils that are suitable for finishing and baking. | Producer: Marina Colonna, Molise, Italy

Mostarda: Mixed fruit mostarda | Lombardy’s unique, ancient sweet and pungent fruit preserve, spiked with zingy mustard oil; an essential ingredient in the pumpkin tortelli of Mantova; accompaniment to the region’s famous boiled meat dish, even better with roasts. Producer: Corte Donda, Lombardy, Italy

Mugolio: rare pine cone bud syrup | The Alp’s answer to maple syrup, with complex and delicate wild flower and rosemary essences, used for finishing anything from roasted pork, poultry and game to topping ice cream and panna cotta. | Producer: Eleonora Cunacci/Primitivizia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy

Palloni di Ficchi: wood-roasted fig ball | Just eat it. It’s incredibly good. | Producer: Dolci Pensieri di Calabri, Calabria, Italy | Importer: Attavola

Piana degli Ulivi: extra virgin olive oils | Estate bottled extra virgin olive oils from Cellina di Nardò, and Ogliarola Salentina olives from the Lisi family trees; also, a new, intensely citrus extra virgin olive oil made from pressing one-third lemon fruit with two-thirds olives — for finishing and flavoring. | Producer: Merico Maria Rosa, Puglia

Pomodoro del Piennolo del Vesuvio D.O.P.: These famous organic cluster tomatoes from the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius are an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity; they’re what make Neapolitan pizzas and tomato sauces incomparable. | Producer: Casa Barone, Campania, Italy

Pistacchiosa, Noccioliva, Granellona Brut: pistachio or hazelnut-chocolate spreads (smooth or chunky) made with extra virgin olive oil | Move over Nutella, not only does this stuff taste lightyears better; it’s actually good for you. | Producer: Il Colle del Gusto, Lazio

Sant’Eustachio: Wood-roasted Arabica espresso | With coffee quality on the decline, Italians have resorted to inventing new ways of drinking it — more and more “latte,” “macchiato” and the like. Not so with Sant’Eustachio — they drink this straight up. | Producer: Raimondo and Roberto Ricci, Lazio

TreZero: Organic pastina (new product) | Italy’s baby food, four varieties: zucchini-spinach, pumpkin-carrot-tomato; gluten-free; classic wheat | artisanal process | Producer: Rustichella, Abruzzo, Italy

Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, working on her cellphone in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

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