Articles in People

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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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Otramanera's fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

Fine dining in Cuba might sound like an oxymoron. For decades, wisdom has been that restaurants on the impoverished island were mediocre at best, and that a good meal was hard to find. This was true as recently as a couple of years ago. But, even before the island nation’s relations with the United States thawed, the gastronomic scene had been changing, and chefs have made huge strides in offering a wider range of quality restaurant options.

The Cuban government, in the desperate years after the Soviet Union pulled its support from the island, sanctioned the private ownership of small restaurants called paladares, which means “palate.” Situated in homes, these humble kitchens, limited to a few tables, provided simple criollo — traditional Cuban — food. The scarcity of all but the most simple meats, rice and beans, and a strict policy that forbade the offering of seafood kept them from competing with government-owned establishments.

In 2012, however, the state relaxed the rules and paladares have moved up to the next level. While simple mom-and-pop places abound, a new crop of elegant venues for creative chef cooking have begun to challenge the island’s reputation for culinary blandness.

One of the first in this vein was La Guarida, located in the apartment in which the renowned film “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. Several dining rooms, filled with kitchy knickknacks and movie memorabilia bustle with locals and foreigners. The menu, which includes a small wine list, strives for international creativity but doesn’t always hit all the marks. Still, La Guarida opened to doors to wider possibilities.

Then Le Chansonnier arrived. Set in a late 19th-century mansion in Vedado, it was restored by chef and owner Héctor Higuera Martínez (who has since moved on to Atalier). The dazzling décor was decidedly postmodern. The small, astutely chosen menu featured duck, lamb and fish, all of whose sources were nearby and local by necessity. Patrons included government bigwigs, foreign visitors, journalists and a handful of locals with enough disposable income to afford the relatively steep prices.

Others followed in rapid succession. The ultra cool El Cocinero is perched on the roof of an extinct factory that houses a complex of galleries and boutiques. Casa Pilar oozes sophistication.

Doña Eutimia specializes in artfully prepared traditional dishes, as does Mamá Inés and Nao. O’Reilly 304 does home-style cooking in a laid-back boho setting, ’60s rock creating a funky and fun ambience.

Otramanera steps up dining in Havana

Most recently, in August of 2014, Otramanera, perhaps presenting the best cooking to date, was inaugurated. It’s set in a sleek ’50s ranch-style house, its chef trained in Catalonia.

But all of the chefs interviewed pointed out the daily uphill battle they face trying to keep stock of the most basic ingredients, as well as deal with less than expertly trained staff.

While perhaps it’s early to proclaim the birth of the “Nueva Cocina Cubana,” it seems clear that the dining scene in Cuba is in the midst of a revolution of its own.

Main photo: Otramanera’s dishes, prepared by chef Dayron Ávila, include fresh sardine fillets dressed in a fruity papaya salsa augmented with a cilantro purée and crowned with edible flowers. Credit: Copyright Nicolas Gilman

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The staff at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rhinegeist Brewery

Craft beer now outsells Budweiser in the U.S. With two to three craft breweries opening every day across America, every region of the country now has craft bragging rights. The top-selling new craft beers come from breweries located in some unexpected small towns and cities. Find the one closest to you. Source: IRI-tracked supermarket sales.

The reporting for this story is part of a Zester Media project on craft beer, spirits and cider. Look for our book — “Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery or Cidery” — due out from Entrepreneur Books in June. It will be available on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.


More from Zester Daily:

» American brewing steams along with crafts

» 12 beers that make you want to pack your bags

» The local malt issue that can change craft brewing

» Great American Festival finds: 9 craft beers you shouldn’t miss

Main photo: The staff at Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rhinegeist Brewery

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Helen also worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.” Credit: U.S. Food Administration

The history of nutrition often heralds Wilbur Olin Atwater as the Father of American Nutrition, but he had a daughter, Helen Woodard Atwater, who made her own mark on the world of food, though few know her name.

Nutritionist and author Helen Atwater

Helen Atwater has been called “an editor extraordinaire, a leader of leaders, and a model for the 21st century.” Credit:  Copyright American Assn. of Family and Consumer Sciences records, No. 6578. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Born in 1876, Helen’s girlhood unfolded alongside her father’s research in nutrition and agriculture. While the primary family home was in Middletown, Connecticut, the Atwaters spent time abroad in Germany and France, as Atwater conducted research and learned new techniques developed by European scientists. Such colleagues often visited the Atwater home. One can imagine a young Helen curiously listening in on Atwater’s conversations about the energy value of food, economic consumption,and good health. She grew up as Atwater headed the Office of Experiment Stations at Wesleyan University. There he conducted experiments with the calorimeter, identifying the number of calories within foods, as well as the specific number provided by each macronutrient: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Despite her interest in nutrition, Helen did not pursue its study in college, as it was a rarity for women to attend university in the late 19th century, let alone major in the sciences. One of the most esteemed leaders of the domestic science movement, Ellen Richards, was the first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She gained entrance in 1870 as a “special student,” a status that demarcated and demoted her within the classroom for her sex. In fact, when Helen pursued higher education in the 1890s, only 2.2% of U.S. women aged 18 to 21 years attended college. Perhaps for such reasons, Helen pursued a degree not in science, but in modern languages at Smith College, an institution of note to foodies; Julia Child would graduate from Smith with a degree in history in 1934. Helen, on the other hand, progressed through her studies quickly, graduating in three years in 1897.

At a time when few women were engaged in scientific research, Helen began work after graduation as an editorial and research assistant with her father in his laboratory. She supported his research efforts, while also gaining experience and a professional network, which bolstered her own career aspirations. Combining her editorial skills and her growing nutrition knowledge, Helen assisted her father in preparing the first popular presentation of his research: “Principles of Nutrition and the Nutritive Value of Food,” published in 1902 in Farmers’ Bulletin No. 142. On her own, she also published “Bread: The Principles of Bread Making” in 1900 and “Poultry As Food” in 1903.

After Wilbur Atwater suffered a career-ending stroke in 1904, Helen not only cared for him with her mother, but also served as a conduit to his research. During this time, Helen recounted to a relative “the agonizing days when for three years she sat outside her father’s bedroom door making up stories about his experiments at the laboratory to assure him all was going well.” Atwater died in 1907. Helen was 28 years old.

Going forward on her own

After her father’s death, Helen took charge of his papers and later joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Home Economics as a writer and editor, where she worked until 1923. Employing her writing abilities, editing skills, and knowledge in nutrition and home economics, she contributed to a variety of projects during her tenure. She developed materials for both nutrition professionals and the lay public. For example, in 1915 she published “Honey and Its Uses in the Home” (1915) with Caroline Hunt, which discussed honey’s chemical composition, nutritive value and economic cost. It also recounted extensive experiments on the relationship between honey, sugar, and sweetness and includes dozens of recipes. In 1917, she and Hunt co-published “How to Select Foods,” one of the first official American food guides, which guided early federal nutrition policy. Helen also worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.”

Beyond her contributions within the USDA, Helen also served as the first full-time editor of the Journal of Home Economics. Pint-sized at just taller than 5 feet, Helen brought experience, energy and good humor to her work on the journal and within the American Home Economics Assn., where she worked for 18 years, from 1923 to 1941. She published, edited and oversaw countless newsletters, articles, pamphlets and guides, continually seeking to inform the public on nutrition science and how it could influence everyday life. She also promoted home economics as an educational and career path for women, sharing her experiences and offering advice. She served on multiple government and organizational boards and groups in the U.S. and abroad before she retired. She died in 1947 at the age of 71.

Dr. Melissa Wilmarth has researched the life and achievements of Helen Atwater, concluding: “She was an editor extraordinaire, a leader of leaders, and a model for the 21st century.”

March is Women’s History Month and National Nutrition Month, an apt time to reflect on Helen Atwater’s contributions to women’s experiences in higher education, scientific research, and government work — perhaps while also trying her honey cake.

Yellow Honey Cake

This recipe is reproduced as it appeared in “Honey and Its Uses in the Home,” published in 1915 by Helen Atwater and Caroline Hunt in the United States Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon cloves

1/2 cup sugar

2 egg yolks

2/3 cup honey

Directions

1. Sift together the flour and the spices.

2. Mix the sugar and egg yolks, add the honey and then the flour gradually.

3. Roll out thin, moisten the surface with egg white, and mark into small squares.

4. Bake in a moderate oven (about 350 F).

Main caption: Helen Atwater worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.” Credit: Copyright U.S. Food Administration

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Chef Antonio Marchello

Today chefs are superstars. Reality TV idols, prima donnas on various food channels, authors of best-selling books, online food gurus, guests of honor of important culinary events … you name it.

But what seem to be most exciting to the public are TV chefs battling against each other. Sure, such shows are entertaining, but what about chefs who can be maestros at their art and communicate without having to feed our thirst for “blood”?

Last summer, I traveled through Europe and I had the pleasure of meeting five chefs who do not need to cook in a boxing ring to be exciting. Each of them communicated in their own style. Meet them, and join the tour.

CChef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Chef Linas Samenas taking orders. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

The independent

Let’s start with Lithuania’s splendid capital: Vilnius. Chef Linas Samenas could not have chosen a better location to express his culinary inspiration than the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Uzupis, a new area cherished by artists and avant-garde people. It is a city within a city, with its own constitution — somewhat serious, often ironic — written on the walls of Paupio Street.

His tiny restaurant, the eponymous Linas Samenas, is open for lunch only, and its menu changes daily. Samenas is on top of everything: He grows all products in his farm, entertains you about his specialties, takes orders, cooks, coordinates assistants and serves the dish at your table with a glass of delicate berzu (birch water). I tried his delicious saltibarsciai, beet root soup with sour cream.

A great chef can run the show solo without being selfish and pretentious.

Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Showtime at Vincents: Chef Martins Ritins cooking the duck. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

I went to Riga’s exclusive Vincents Restaurant, where I ordered a beef tartare as an appetizer. Chef Martins Ritins approached to my table, carrying a paper bag.

“I apologize,” Ritins said. “The beef tonight wasn’t recommendable. Fortunately, there is a fine deli close by, and I got some canned tartare. I hope you like it.”

Well, it was just a funny hoax: The can was actually made and labeled for Vincents and once I opened it, I found one of the freshest tartares I have ever eaten, topped with a quail egg.

After this opening number, the chef was ready for the drama. He brought out a metal squeezer, so similar to a Middle Ages torture machine. On the plate was a red wine-marinated and slowly roasted baby duck. A muscular assistant started the squeezing, with no mercy for the bird’s carcass. The duck was served in tender slices with the extracted natural juices copiously irrigating the meat.

The process, emulating the famous “canard au sang” of the prestigious and rather stuffy La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, here got a standing ovation from the audience.

A great chef can keep a sense of humor while running the show.

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Chef Konstantin Filippou. Copyright Courtesy Konstantin Filippou

Vienna’s discovery

The imperial city surprised me with the discovery of Konstantin Filippou, a no-showman chef who leaves the fame to his creations.

There is choreography between waiters and assistants that somehow reminds me of a ballet. The dish delivery is like a religious ritual, from the kitchen to the waiter to the maître d’ who finally lays the plate on the table. Food presentation and ceramics are amazing. Art is in the plate, somehow referring to a Picasso or a Kandinsky.

The taste? Imagine minimalism meets adventure, in total freedom. Lamb tongue with chanterelles, artichokes and orange. Konstantin seems to be very reserved. He doesn’t like to be interviewed, and rarely gets out from the kitchen.

A chef can appear as a creative genius and remain humble.

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

Chef Pirmas Dublis. Copyright Courtesy 1Dublis

On stage

Back to Vilnius. Dinner at 1Dublis.

This is a trendy restaurant where Chef Pirmas Dublis operates in the open kitchen that looks like a puppet theater where the assistants carefully finish the plates cooked in the adjacent kitchen. The ritual is captivating.

Dublis is supervising the action with a perfect harmony of movements and constantly checking the food preparation reflected in the mirror over the kitchen counter. He loves to join the table just seconds before the dish is served and explains the origins of ingredients and the technique he uses. With only 25 seats, intimacy and attention to details are highly valued. In my opinion the biggest hit was the fish stock, crayfish and brown butter.

A chef can offer a show and not be a show-off.

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015

Chef Antonio Marchello’s spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, Sorrento lemon and pecorino cheese. Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca

Milan: Antonio, cameras with a mission

Meet the entertaining chef Antonio Marchello, former TV comedian, writer and excellent connoisseur of Italian cuisine, traditional and innovative.

Antonio hosts “Social Kitchen,” a one-hour online show that airs live on Tuesdays (vegan dishes only) and Wednesdays (anything else). Antonio goes online at 8 p.m. Italian time and prepares the dish interacting with fans and amateurs who follow him from home. At 9 p.m. the dish is ready. A quick selfie is sent to the Social Kitchen Facebook page with an invitation of “tutti a tavola!” (everybody eat now!) to enjoy the meal.

I visited him during the show and I tried the spaghetti with Gubbio saffron, pecorino cheese and a zest of Sorrento lemon. Simply divine.

“I love to learn and to teach,” says Antonio. “I hate those commercial cooking shows, but I found the way to compromise and still fulfill my inspiration.”

A chef can have a show online and prefer sharing over fighting.

Main photo: Chef Antonio Marchello. Credit: Copyright Rosanna Curi

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