Articles in People

Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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Liz Crain is author of the

When Liz Crain moved to Portland, Ore., in 2002, the food scene there was just starting to foment. In 2004, after meeting illustrator Brian Froud at a Powell’s Books event, she decided to see where her own passion took her. Crain quit her day job and committed to food writing. She began amassing bylines in the Portland Tribune, Willamette Week, Northwest Palate and the AOL City Guide.

A decade later, Crain is the author of the second edition of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” the seminal guide on Portland food culture out this month from Hawthorne Books. Known for her aversion to being wined and dined by PR folks, she also co-authored “Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.”

Crain spoke to Zester Daily contributor Emily Grosvenor about the new “Food Lover’s Guide,” now in its updated second edition, and the constantly evolving food scene in one of America’s most exciting food cities.

This food guide is really different in how it is structured. Why did you take this approach?

Portland food culture is so unique. A book about it should be as well. I like all sorts of food writing, but my favorite focuses on the people and processes behind food and drink. I want to learn the how-to and get an eye into the culture of it. “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” celebrates local producers and purveyors — butchers, distillers, coffee roasters etc.  — with a lot of details about how their fine foods are cultivated and/or crafted. Throughout the book you’ll find Q&As with folks in the Portland food scene that I admire, behind-the-scenes stories about their businesses and essays on everything from making your own local fruit wine and crabbing on the coast to harvesting eel-like lamprey at Willamette Falls.

The first edition of your “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” came out in 2010. What has changed on the Portland food scene in the years in between?

So much. There’s more of just about everything. Sure, there have been closures but many, many more openings. There were a few years when I lived in Portland, from roughly 2005 to 2008, when I felt like I really had a handle on the food scene and that I’d been to most places worth their salt. These days, pretty much on a weekly basis I’ll hear about a food/drink spot that someone loves that I’ve never been to or maybe even heard of that’s been open for months.

Alcohol production is going crazy here. There are so many new distilleries, breweries, hard cideries, urban wineries. There are also a lot more urban homesteading businesses or businesses catering more to that: chicken keeping, beekeeping, goat keeping, canning, pickling and preserving. I dig it. I have a large vegetable garden, make my own wine, cider, miso and more. I don’t have chickens, but I’m really glad that my neighbors do.

Tell me about a classic day in the life of a Portland foodie.

I’ll tell you about a summer weekend this past June. My friends’ daughter, Elise, was about to graduate from Portland State University and her folks visiting from out-of-town made a reservation at Pok Pok to celebrate. The 12 of us sat upstairs at the private outdoor balcony table as the sun set. It was a magical night of passing plates of Pok Pok’s crazy tasty wings, clay pot prawns, spicy flank steak salad, and sharing sips of the house drinking vinegars (Thai basil, pineapple, raspberry) and cocktails and listening to Elise talk sweetly about her post-graduation plans.

The next night I got together with friends for our third “cook the Toro Bravo book” dinner. I made plum wine sangria with plum wine that I make every year, based on Toro’s white wine sangria recipe, and grilled corn with cilantro pesto. Others made Toro’s sautéed halibut cheeks, sautéed spinach with pine nuts and golden raisins, hazelnut ice cream and much more. We cooked, ate, laughed, listened to the cookbook soundtrack and had an all-around great time as we do.

On Sunday my friend Erin and I hacked away at my Little Shop of Horrors backyard — a vine in a neighboring yard takes over my backyard every spring/summer. Afterward we cleaned up and made salame rolls with preserved lemon, Castelvetrano olives and pickled peppers folded into the cream cheese to take to The Last Hoot — a huge potlucky music-filled day and night with all kinds of tasty homemade food and drink. All of that in one weekend. Portland life is so very sweet.

Food carts have made such a big impact on Portland’s contribution to the national food conversation. But media coverage seems to have peaked on the subject. Can you reflect for a moment on what the food cart scene looks like at this moment?

Food carts are a much talked about part of the Portland food scene, but I honestly don’t eat at them all that often. When I worked downtown for a few years I did because I was really close to the Southwest 10th and Alder pod. There’s so much to choose from there. I go to them now and again and have some favorites (for example, I love Himalayan Food!), but I’m a bit of a crab when it comes to carts. I want street food to be very specific/honed, cheap and fast. Nine dollars for a mediocre sandwich that takes 10 minutes to make? No thank you. That said, there are some very tasty carts and I think that they’re a great incubator. A lot of Portland brick-and-mortar businesses have spawned from them. Brett Burmeister has championed Portland’s food carts for years and he was generous enough to write the food cart chapter in the second edition of my book. Check out his site if you’re hungry to learn more about Portland food cart culture.

What do you see as the most exciting new developments in the Portland food culture this year?

Every year I co-organize the Portland Fermentation Festival, which Ecotrust hosts, with my friends David and George. In 2009, the inaugural fest, a fellow named Nat West, whom my ex-boyfriend tattooed, came up to our table where we were sampling hard cider that we’d made from the Gravensteins in the backyard. He tried it, liked it and then gave us a couple bottles of his hard cider that he’d made in his basement from apples gleaned from around the state and in Washington. It was super yummy, and Nat and I became friends. Fast forward to the present and Nat is now owner of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider.

Nat has put Portland on the map for super tasty and creative hard ciders. We now have an Oregon Cider Week in Portland, Portland Cider Summit, all kinds of other cider appreciation events and goings-on and many new professional cider makers that Nat has paved the way for.

Do you think there is a Portland ethos in how the makers approach food?

I think that most successful Portland food and drink businesses are driven more by passion and curiosity than the bottom line. Of course, you need to turn a dime but profit isn’t the primary drive. I also think that the culinary cross-pollination in this town is outstanding. There are all kinds of events that celebrate food in a wider cultural context that are super unique and fun. Some of my favorites: Disjecta’s Culinaria dinner series, Pickathon, Live Wire + Toro + Tobolowsky dinner, My Voice Music + Toro dinner. Great food and drink doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think it should be celebrated and coupled as much as possible with other meaningful art and culture.

And who do you see as the standout people in town who you think are accomplishing this feat with gusto?

There are just so many, but I’ll choose one: Earnest Migaki of Jorinji Miso, who, in honor of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine, and makes the most delicious local miso. Well, he makes the only local miso and it’s crazy good. He makes traditional misos as well as more unusual ones, such as chickpea and lima bean, all of which are organic and GMO-free, which is not the norm in this country.

I started making miso for myself because of Earnest and I now have 4- and 5-year-old misos that have been getting better/richer/darker every year. Miso is like whiskey — it takes a loooong time to ferment and age so you have to have patience.

Main photo: Liz Crain is author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” now in its second edition. Credit: Faulkner Short

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Anne Willan's

Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.

For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.

The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.

During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.

Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface

Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.

The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.

Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”

Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.

How to purchase

The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.

The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.

Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.

Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.

Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch

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One

The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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A collection of Elizabeth David's cookery books.

Sixty years ago, Elizabeth David’s book “Italian Food” first appeared and transformed the way we Brits, and probably many other foodies worldwide, lived and thought about food.

Back then, in 1954, Britain was a nation emerging from the dreary mediocrity of food rationing, cooking to the lowest common denominator and generally oblivious of anything that might appeal to the senses. Typical recipe collections of the period were driven by the rigid principles of home economy, focusing on how to make the best use of tinned ingredients such as Spam.

We were a nation whose culinary imagination was in serious need of stimulation. This stimulus David supplied in the form of a book enhanced by Renato Guttuso’s powerful black-and-white illustrations. (She had met Guttuso, a Sicilian painter, while visiting the Rialto fish market in Venice.) It was articulated by a strong structure that moved from equipment to ingredients to the different elements of a meal and by contents focused on authenticity, flavor, appearance and regionalism. The book’s digressions into the history and cultural associations of pasta, for example, were unknown in other British cookbooks of the time.

David herself had broken with the conventions of English life, abandoning the debutante circuit and her upper-class background for a role as an actress in an open air theater. She considered a career as a painter before, with brutal honesty, recognizing that she lacked the talent. Apart from a brief marriage in the 1940s, her love life was also unconventional: With one lover, she rather recklessly sailed a small boat from Antibes in France to Sicily in May 1940 as the Second World War gathered momentum. She was surprised and annoyed when they were interned there as spies. Released undaunted, they traveled first to Greece and then, as the German advance accelerated, to Egypt.

When David eventually returned to England, she decided to make a living by writing about cooking, and got a series of articles published in Harper’s Bazaar that eventually turned into her first book, “A Book of Mediterranean Food.” After another book, “French Country Cooking,” her editor commissioned her to write “Italian Food.”

David’s research in Italy, which took up most of 1952, was painstaking and comprehensive. She traveled around the country, staying with friends and their friends. The results of this immersion in Italian culture were that she had a genuine understanding of the many regional cuisines of which “Italian” cooking was composed, and indeed an appreciation of the way in which these regions had only been amalgamated into a unified Italy less than 100 years earlier. She also understood how the country’s varied geography and climate influenced its produce. Hence she could offer a convincing explanation of why you could get an excellent “bistecca di bue” steak in Florence while a region less favoured by nature would produce something far less worthy of appreciation. She understood and explained the cultural and horticultural divides that led to the predominance of pasta in the south and rice and polenta in the north.

Garlic, olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese were among the Italian ingredients that were scarce in the U.K. until Elizabeth David's book came out.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Ingredients such as these were scarce in the U.K. until Elizabeth David’s book came out.
Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

David’s book fell on a willing audience and changed our lives — or at least our parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Although it was not her first, Italian food was at the time more remote and more exotic than the cuisine of France (“A Book of Mediterranean Food” focused mostly on southern France). The book’s illustrations and descriptions inspired a demand for gourmet and imported ingredients outside a few specialty shops in London. We, the authors, remember our parents discussing the necessity of a trip to London to procure the ingredients for one of David’s risotti. The pattern of supply eventually evolved to meet this new demand. Garlic, unheard of outside London in 1954, invaded our greengrocers and eventually the new-fangled supermarkets. Olive oil, once regarded as a treatment for earache to be bought from a chemist, eventually became available by the liter in most good food shops.

The restaurant industry felt David’s influence as well. “Italian” restaurants began to appear whose offerings were more authentic and reflected regional origins.

Focusing on dining details

Finally, David’s concerns with presentation led us to reconsider not only the way we cooked our food, but the way we served it. In the 1960s, David opened a cookware shop where everything met her standards of usefulness and her discerning taste. These standards were so high that the store was unprofitable. She famously refused to stock anything of which she even mildly disapproved: Customers asking for garlic presses were told they were useless items and that they should go away if that was what they wanted. But it was precisely this perfectionism that created the books and articles from which her reputation grew, and made her something of a British national treasure.

David’s literary body of work was not limited to Italian cuisine. She went on to write about French provincial cooking, English baking and other subjects. She racked up many distinctions, including the honorary order of chivalry Commander of the British Empire (CBE), before her death in 1992. But her true legacy was opening the door for Britons to a new world of the senses, and helping them to discover and enjoy food and drink, a pleasure that has only grown in the years since.

Main photo: A collection of Elizabeth David’s cookery books. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

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Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

When I decided to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group last year, I had many reasons — first among them, my weekly share of gorgeous local produce from Free Bird Farm. But I also felt it was important to do what I could to help support an organic family farm and preserve agricultural land in upstate New York. As an environmentalist and food writer, I wanted to put my money where my mouth and pen were.

What surprised me, though, was how much more I gained in return. Beyond the wonderful produce and eggs and an even greater respect for seasonality, farmers and Mother Nature — something that, as the descendant of farmers, I already possessed — my CSA taught me many lessons, mundane and profound. Here are three.

The freezer is your friend

When I unpack my weekly CSA haul, I immediately start picturing all the fabulous dishes I can make from the colorful jewels before me. Nevermind that the recipes I’m imagining usually require an army of kitchen assistants and a willful ignorance of the space-time continuum. I am not easily deterred, and I embark upon my fool’s errand with inordinate enthusiasm, until suddenly it is 10 p.m. and I do not know where my sous chefs are. (Oh, that’s right. I don’t have any.) How then to use up all these wonderful ingredients fast enough to beat the ticking spoilage clock?

When my CSA gave me kale last summer, I put it in the crisper drawer, where it promptly got buried under a deluge of greens. Upon rediscovering it several days later, it looked the way I feel after a long flight, wilted and dehydrated. Then the penny dropped. Hey, that really cold part of my refrigerator exists for a reason. Faced with other, more perishable leftovers in the queue for my next meal, and reservations to eat out the following day, I decided to trim and wash the kale leaves and store them in a freezer bag, where they were retrieved for smoothies the following week.

When the CSA gave me shelling peas, I removed them from their pods, froze them on a baking sheet and transferred them to a bag. Strawberries? Same thing. Parsley, basil and other herbs? I cleaned, chopped and blended them with olive oil, and poured the combination into ice-cube trays. (Warning: Don’t reach for the wrong cubes when you are mixing a gin and tonic.)

Not everything freezes well, but by storing those items that do, you’ll be liberated to focus on the “eat me now” diva ingredients instead. (I’m looking at you, tomatoes.)

How my CSA taught me to stop worrying and love kohlrabi

OK, maybe “love” is too strong a word. Of my relationship with this alien-looking vegetable, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” But when I joined the CSA, I promised myself I would tackle each ingredient at least twice. With kohlrabi, this meant roasting it the first time and slicing it into a type of coleslaw the next. I put forth the same effort for every item that I would not normally gravitate toward, such as radishes, turnips and broccoli.

Kohlrabi from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

Kohlrabi from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

Over the course of the season, I found myself thumbing through long-forgotten cookbooks or going online in search of inspiration. Not every dish that emerged from this exploration was a winner, and I still sometimes trade in the kohlrabi for a different vegetable in the swap box, but as in other facets of life, it’s been edifying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Being part of a CSA forced me out of certain kitchen ruts and helped me to discover delicious recipes — like roasted radishes — that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

When in doubt, tortilla

It’s great to experiment, but some nights all you want is dinner. When a pile of miscellaneous produce leaves me unmotivated, my go-to dish is Spanish tortilla. Though the classic version of this frittata-like omelet calls for potato, onion and eggs, you can build one around almost any vegetable-and-herb combination.

First, sauté your produce in olive oil to your preferred level of doneness. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, and add the sautéed vegetables, making sure to stir immediately so the heat doesn’t cook the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, toss in any herbs you’re using and pour the mixture into a non-stick or well-seasoned skillet. If you want to include cheese — which is not traditional, but tasty nonetheless — add it now.

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Sautéing scallions, red onions and radish greens for a Spanish tortilla. Credit: Sofia Perez

The number of eggs you use will depend on the produce. For greens that release a lot of water (like spinach), add an extra egg to bind the combination. (In general, the mixture should be more liquid than solid, and it’s always safer to err on the side of additional eggs.)

When the top of the tortilla is firm around the edges and you’re able to lift it cleanly with a spatula, place a plate larger than the skillet face down over it. With a potholder on top of the inverted plate, flip the skillet so the tortilla transfers to the plate. (This maneuver will be terrifying the first few times you do it. Trust me, it gets easier. Until you master it, flip it over an easy-to-clean counter in case anything leaks out.) Slide the flipped tortilla back into the pan, cook it on the other side, and– ¡olé! — dinner is served.

But just before you tuck into your meal, there’s one last step: Remember to give thanks for the local farmers who made it possible — in my case, Ken Fruehstorfer and Maryellen Driscoll.

Main photo: Part of the weekly share from the CSA. Credit: Sofia Perez

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A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.

Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”

Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello


Part 1: Aaron Keefer and Thomas Jefferson

Part 2:  Gardeners and chefs converge at Monticello (coming later in September)

Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”

At home in the kitchen and the garden

Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.

Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.

Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”

Peas sprouting in Jefferson's garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Peas sprouting in Jefferson’s garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”

The lesson of Jefferson

Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”

Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.

Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

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