Articles in People

Beth Howard is embarking on a round-the-world journey, extending the theme of making and sharing pie with others to make the world a better, happier place. Credit: Kathryn Gamble

In times of tragedy, discord or disruption, there is often no more powerful message between neighbors than a shared casserole, a baked banana bread or a well-timed gift of cookies. But a new breed of food entrepreneurs are taking their empathy and altruism global, using food as a catalyst for projects that are changing the world. The idea of being a good neighbor just got a little bigger.

Beth Howard, Ms. American Pie

Beth Howard bakes pies.

Baking pies helped Beth Howard deal with grief, and now she bakes to help others. Credit: Copyright 2014 Race Point Publishing

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Beth Howard traveled with more than 60 volunteers to hand out free apple pie in front of the town’s square. Howard, who had been teaching people to make pie for the past decade, had been selling pies out of a stand in front of her home inside the historic American Gothic house in Elton, Iowa, as she grieved the sudden death of her husband. Howard’s memoir, “Making Piece,” chronicled how pie helped her heal.

Now, after the release of her second book, “Ms. American Pie,” Howard is set to take her belief that pie can solve anything global through her World Piece Project. “The idea of pie is not distinctly American,” she said. “Empanadas, samosas — all cultures have some form of filled dough, and everywhere this universal, simple, comforting food is meant to be shared.” Howard will be flying around the world and talking to the world’s best pie makers about nostalgia, love and the feeling of time spent caring for others’ happiness.

Adam Aronovitz and Alissa Bilfield of the Cookbook Project

Cookbook Project

Alissa Bilfield and Adam Aronovitz started the nonprofit Cookbook Project to combat culinary illiteracy in schools. Credit: Copyright The Cookbook Project

Adam Aronovitz was working in Boston’s public schools when he got a firsthand look of the effect of diet on children’s ability to learn. If no one at home knew how to cook, he posited, how could children be expected to eat healthy foods? He and co-founder Alissa Bilfield started the nonprofit Cookbook Project to combat the root causes of culinary illiteracy, starting by training school staff with online courses so that they would become food literacy educators, with the goal of teaching children the ways of the kitchen.

“We have a pretty lofty goal,” Aronovitz said. “We want every child to have access to food literacy.” The program, which is seeing its first successes in Boston, where 56 staff at four schools are now trained, is going global. “We see the same issues cropping up with kids abroad,” Aronovitz said. “Even in Hanoi, kids are saying their favorite foods are pizza and friend chicken.”

John Tucker of Dave’s Killer Bread

John Tucker of Dave's Killer Bread

John Tucker of Dave’s Killer Bread, left, consults with Jacob Skidmore, continuous improvement director. Tucker’s company gives former prisoners another chance by helping them find employment. Credit: Copyright Dave’s Killer Bread

John Tucker was president of Eugene, Oregon-based So Delicious, a dairy-free food company, when he got the chance to join Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon company known for its social activism and GMO-free, whole grain breads. Now, along with a new campaign to take the brand national, Tucker is creating a network of Second Chance employers and sharing knowledge from the company’s years of experience working with former inmates.

One out of every three employees at Dave’s Killer Bread spent time incarcerated in the American penal system. “Former inmates want to be successful in life and are looking for someone who will give them a chance,” Tucker said. The company is currently creating a playbook to share with a network of other businesses, detailing the best practices it has developed to help inmates make the transition back to society. He hopes the playbook will help potential Second Chance employers get past the stigma and presumed risk of hiring former inmates and to allow these businesses to see them as people with potential. “There really is greatness in all of us, and though some of us are called leaders, all of us need to learn how to be leaders in life,” Tucker said.

Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate

Shawn Askinosie in Tanzania.

Shawn Askinosie’s company feeds 1,600 students in Tanzania with no need for donations. Credit: Copyright Daudi Msseemmaa

Defense lawyer Shawn Askinosie was knee-deep in a grueling murder case defending a client pleading an insanity defense when he realized something had to change. “I had given the law and the courtroom some great years of my life, but I knew it was time to move on,” Askinosie said.

In the five years thereafter, the Missouri-based entrepreneur traveled to Ecuador, Honduras, the Philippines and Tanzania, developing the direct trade relationships that would form the backbone of his company, Askinosie Chocolate.

Today, Askinosie, the only chocolate company in the world doing direct trade with every cocoa-producing continent, employs 15 people, including two of his children. He returns profits to these same farmers in a program he calls “A Stake in the Outcome.” His company feeds 1,600 students in Tanzania with no need for donations. Closer to home, the company’s Chocolate University works in collaboration with Drury University to teach underprivileged children in Springfield, Missouri, about the wider world and the business of producing artisanal chocolate. “Our hope is they will all, in their own way, experience this adventure as a catalyst for their future,” Askinosie said. “We hope it gives them a dimension and a catalyst to whatever career they choose.”

Jennie Dundas and Alexis Gallivan of Blue Marble Ice Cream

Blue Marble Ice Cream

Blue Marble Dreams builds ice cream shops with women in areas recovering from conflict or natural disaster, such as in Rwanda, above, where Marie Louise Ingabire sells ice cream. Credit: Copyright Martin Kharumwa

For Jennie Dundas and Alexis Gallivan, ice cream tastes even better if the practice of creating it helps the world. In 2007, they launched Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn, New York, using cream sourced from pasture-raised cows. They developed a line of what they call elemental flavors, selecting ingredients carefully and making classic flavors in addition to offbeat varieties such as Mexican Chocolate and Pumpkin.

But when a woman from Rwanda contacted them about starting something similar in her community, they saw the potential for how ice cream could change the world. They created Blue Marble Dreams, a nonprofit that builds ice cream shops with women in areas recovering from conflict or natural disaster. Rwandans, still recovering from the 1994 genocide, were having trouble reclaiming their happiness or even feeling like they deserved it, Gallivan said. “They wanted to make a place where people could hang their problems at the door.” In 2010, Blue Marble opened its first shop with Ingoma Nshya, a cooperative of women drummers in Butare, Rwanda.

A second outpost will open in Haiti  this summer. “Most people there [in Rwanda] had never had anything cold in their mouths before,” Galilvan said. “They’ve really fallen in love with it.”

José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen

World-famous chef José Andrés

World-famous chef José Andrés launched World Central Kitchen, now operating eight projects in three countries, including Haiti, above. Credit: Copyright 2013 Egido Sanz

World-famous chef José Andrés, whose seminal D.C. restaurant Jaleo helped usher in the Age of Tapas in the United States, visited Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country and knew he had to find a way to help. So he launched the World Central Kitchen, based on his experience working with a similar nonprofit, the D.C. Central Kitchen.

“He loved the model of helping people help themselves,” says Kevin Holst, communications director. Today, the World Central Kitchen operates eight projects in three countries, all focused on smart solutions to end poverty and hunger. For Palmiste Tampe, a rural mountain village in Haiti, that means installing a community kitchen and garden attached to the school, which is providing fresh vegetables to the town for the first time. The project has increased school enrollment 135 percent.

“With our model, we aren’t just giving rice and leaving,” Holst said. “If you give rice to people who are hungry, the people who were growing rice are out of business.”

Main photo: Beth Howard is embarking on a round-the-world journey, extending the theme of making and sharing pie with others to make the world a better, happier place. Credit: Copyright 2014 Race Point Publishing

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Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Zester Daily’s community of food writers recently put their heads together to create a bucket list of restaurants too wonderful to miss. These are the places where we’ve eaten that we tell our dearest friends they must visit. These are the places that, at journey’s end, make the whole trip worthwhile.

While beautiful settings are often part of the package with these restaurants, the food is the main attraction. That does not mean these dining rooms are all well known outside of their home towns. Our list includes high-toned and down-home restaurants scattered across the country. And we obviously enjoy dining with family and friends. If children are beyond booster seats and moderately well-behaved, they can join your dinner party at nearly all of these restaurants.

We’ve eaten at these places and know the chefs are creating some of America’s best food. As you plot your summer vacation, we hope this list of American eateries will inspire a few dinner detours. Happy travels!

More from Zester Daily:

» Battling chefs? Not these 5 European standouts
» Havana nights: Cuba’s new dining hot spots
» Chefs let British food shine at at Swiss gourmet fest
» Onyx chef’s modern Japanese take on fish

Main photo: Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Abdelatif Reda, 30, engages with one of his regular customers. He has been selling his product since he was 13. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

RABAT, Morocco — Like fans lining up for concert tickets, Abdelatif Reda’s customers patiently wait. If his small cart in Rabat’s old medina is unmanned, its young owner, they speculate, must be out for his afternoon prayer. But he will return, as he does every day after 5 p.m., to sell his homemade cheese.

Age-old market

Abdelatif Reda removes his cheese, which resembles an iced cake, from a basket. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Abdelatif Reda removes his cheese, which resembles an iced cake, from a basket. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Rabat’s medina is a pastel-washed huddle of squat shops and walls running across lines drawn in the 17th century. Here, soap is sold in reused water bottles. Vendors’ blankets display rusty sprawls of lamps, utensils and pots. Residents function on an intimate system of commerce, rotating among their favorite shop owners amid the stutter of moped engines and roil of street life in the medina. And although nearby chains such as Carrefour offer chilled dairy selections, Reda’s cart is, for many, their first choice for cheese.

“Competition is a fact,” said Reda, 30, whose daily inventory fits onto a single rolling cart. “But quality is a question.”

Reda began making cheese when he was 13, learning from his father and older brothers before him. Upholding the family legacy left little time for formal education, so Reda dropped out of school to make cheese full time.

Over the years, his cart has attracted medina regulars and converted supermarket-goers. Some customers travel from as far as away as Casablanca or Meknes, more than an hour away, to try the freshly made cheese, which tastes like a lucky meeting between mozzarella and Greek yogurt.

Cheese is breakfast, teatime treat

Bread, topped with cheese, butter, honey or jam, is a common breakfast and snack option in Morocco. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Bread, topped with cheese, butter, honey or jam, is a common breakfast and snack option in Morocco. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

The Author

Zoë Hue
Zoë Hue is currently studying at New York University Abu Dhabi where she serves as editor-in-chief for the university's publication, The Gazelle. When she has free time outside her pursuit of a literature degree, Zoë dabbles in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.

The Photographer

Eloise Schieferdecker

Eloise Schieferdecker is an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont where she studies documentary photography and video. Eloise grew up in Westchester, New York.

“[Reda’s cheese] is the first thing that I opt for with ghraif [a traditional Moroccan pancake],” said Badrdine Boulaid, 35, who lives in Meknes. “It’s becoming the most important thing served at breakfast and teatime.” The cheese is often paired with toast, olive oil and smears of jam.

Reda refuses to disclose his recipe, though many have asked him to share. He will say only that his process is a complex one, requiring fine manipulation of many different factors such as water temperature, milk quality and even weather.

The cheese comes in quivering white domes, which Reda separates into thick, buttery chunks with quick flicks of his knife. Prices are determined by the final say of Reda’s old metal scale, and customers accept their bags without argument or haggling.

“We prefer certain vendors because we know the source of [their] product,” said Yahya Boutaleb, 24, on his familiarity with the medina’s markets. “We know the produce comes from good farms.”

This familiarity is key to commerce in the medina. Boutaleb’s father, for example, receives a text from his fish vendor whenever a particularly good catch comes in.

It’s all in the name of freshness, which Moroccan chef Alia Al Kasimi describes as a non-negotiable aspect of Moroccan cooking.

A veritable culinary ambassador for her home country, Al Kasimi got her start making cooking videos with her grandmother and posting them on YouTube. Her quick, chirpy how-tos explaining traditional cuisine had an instant fan base with American-Moroccan families.

“If you notice, in Moroccan cuisine, there are not really many spices or ingredients that mask the flavor,” says Kasimi, who has hosted episodes of TV’s “MasterChef” in Morocco. “So the freshness of the ingredients is extremely important.”

Buy fresh, buy local

Using an old-fashioned scale and weights wrapped in paper, Abdelatif Reda makes sure his customers get the right amount of cheese. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Using an old-fashioned scale and weights wrapped in paper, Abdelatif Reda makes sure his customers get the right amount of cheese. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Because of this emphasis on ingredient quality, trust is an important factor in food commerce. “My grandma would go to the market every other day, or every day if she needs to, as if she’s trying to buy what just came out of the earth,” Al Kasimi says. “There’s this pride of how fresh it is.”

Increasingly, this traditional relationship between sellers and buyers has had to compete with well-lit — and air-conditioned — supermarkets within Wal-Mart-style megastores. Unlike the medina’s clumped knot of alleyways and twisty roads, these stores are spacious and organized. The Marjane retail empire is particularly formidable, with  32 branches and 600,394 square feet of space in Morocco.

Al Kasimi says this may be changing the importance that Moroccans place on freshness, adding that while her grandmother feels compelled to stop by the market several times a week, her mother goes just once a week. Al Kasimi admits that her friends in Morocco often prefer the frozen-food aisle at the local grocery store to places like the medina.

Ready to eat

Abdelatif Reda’s cheese is regularly enjoyed by many Moroccans from inside and outside of the medina. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Abdelatif Reda’s cheese is regularly enjoyed by many Moroccans from inside and outside of the medina. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

Reda is fortunate that he doesn’t need to worry about defection. Moroccan cheese like his must be made fresh. And unlike traditional French cheeses, it doesn’t age. It has a tangy quality of newness that goes bad if not gobbled up quickly.

Besides, he says, there is no time to check out the competition when he must spend the first part of his day making his product and the rest of the day selling it. He also insists he will not eat any cheese he has not made himself.

To learn how to make your own fresh Moroccan cheese, watch Al Kasimi’s video and check out her recipe for Moroccan cheese spring rolls.

Zoë Hue and Eloise Schieferdecker spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program. They produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing under-reported stories for top-tier media around the world.

Main photo: Abdelatif Reda engages with one of his regular customers. He has been selling his product since he was 13. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker

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Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of female winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a wine-making career in the valley.

Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily supplemented their meals with the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.

She never thought about grapes or wine.

Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak, who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives.

Learning wine making around the world

Winemaker Shawna Miller in the Luna Vineyards with late-harvest vines. Credit: Copyright David Latt

Winemaker Shawna Miller in the Luna Vineyards with late-harvest vines. Credit: Copyright David Latt

Near Margaret River in Western Australia, they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery where she learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine.

She and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate — terroir — created different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.

Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.

Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels.

Mastering the art and science of wine

A bottle of Luna Vineyards Reserve 2012 Sangiovese, Napa Valley. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

A bottle of Luna Vineyards Reserve 2012 Sangiovese, Napa Valley. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

To become a winemaker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art.

Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker.

Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines.

Luna Vineyards

Vineyard irrigation at Luna Vineyards, Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

Vineyard irrigation at Luna Vineyards, Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.

At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.

As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira.

In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.

Harvest — exciting and nerve-racking

Oak barrels ready to be cleaned at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

Oak barrels ready to be cleaned at Luna Vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “OK, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins.

The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days.

During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so.

At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, then it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira.

Fermenting and then blending

What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality of the grapes matters, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker.

Depending on the style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.

During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.

And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.

At the end of the day, even with all those stresses, Miller counts herself lucky to have found a career she loves, in a valley that produces beautiful wines.

Main photo: Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt

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For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.

“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”

I agree.

Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.

Rita Dove

The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her work "Thomas and Beulah." Credit: Copyright Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah.” Credit: Copyright Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:

“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”

Maya Angelou

I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Maya Angelou died in 2014 at age 86. Credit: Copyright Dwight Carter

Maya Angelou died in 2014 at age 86. Credit: Copyright Dwight Carter

Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.  She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:

“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander delivered President Barack Obama's inauguration poem in 2009. Credit: Copyright Michael Marsland, Yale University

Elizabeth Alexander delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009. Credit: Copyright Michael Marsland, Yale University

I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.

Recently named to the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, Alexander delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009.

Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:

“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”

Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.

Nikki Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement. Credit: Copyright Jan Cohn

Nikki Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement. Credit: Copyright Jan Cohn

She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:

“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”

Langston Hughes

Hughes is one of the most celebrated literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" is best known as "A Raisin in the Sun" -- the title of Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed Broadway play. Credit: Copyright 1952 The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. Credit: Copyright 1952 The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”

If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.

Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis

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Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Ore. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.

He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.

“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”

Listening to the hive

bee tending

After several years working with his hives and learning how to read the bees based on their behaviors
and buzzing, Magista got to the point where he no longer felt like he had to wear the bee suit every time. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.

“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”

These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.

Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.

“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”

Making artisanal honey

Local artisanal honey

The company’s place-based honeys, from light amber to rich, dark caramel, harness the setting where they are created, places such as the Willamette Valley, the city of Portland, hops farms and vineyards. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.

But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.

“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”

Tackling colony collapse disorder

A honeycomb in Oregon.

Most commercial honeys are not pure — they contain corn syrup and other additives and are created with uniformity in mind. Bee Local is more like wine — each hive is a world unto itself, as is each honey created there. Credit: Copyright Nolan Calish

Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.

First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.

Placing hives throughout Oregon

Bee hives are set in Portland.

The settings where hives can thrive are diverse. In Portland alone, Bee Local has 15 locations, including
partnerships with roof-top restaurants and hotels. All of them are secret, to preserve the bees’ privacy. Credit: Copyright Kyle Johnson

But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.

Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.

“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”

Culture of beekeeping

Traditional beekeeping ways are used in Oregon.

In a world where colony collapse disorder is threatening bee populations, Bee Local’s methods invest in traditional ways to ensure bee colonies thrive. The company avails itself of old-school approaches to beekeeping, using no pesticides and keeping hives placed in one location. Credit: Copyright Ryan LeBrun

The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.

“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”

Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.

We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”

The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.

“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”

Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local

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Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard's salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.

Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.

The Author

Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

Martha Landry is a social media intern for Round Earth Media in St. Paul, Minn. She is also a Travel Ambassador for GoOverseas and photo corps member. In the future, Landry hopes to be an environmental journalist.

But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.

It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.

The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.

“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.

To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.

“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.

The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.

The woman behind the book

In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.

Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.

Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.

Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.

Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.

“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”

Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.

The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.

“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”

In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.

Latin American cuisine

When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.

“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”

Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.

She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.

Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.

Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)

Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock

1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*

1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves

1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)

1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)

1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded

1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded

Para Espesar (Thickeners)

Choose one of the following:

2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;

or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;

or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes

1 tablespoon canola oil

Sazón (Seasonings)

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente

1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente

1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente

1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente

1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish


1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.

2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.

3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.

4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.

5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.

6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.

* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.

Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.

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The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.

China Ranch 100 years ago

In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”

The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.

China Ranch today

The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.

Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.

The fruit of family labor

Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.

The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.

Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.

Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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