Articles in Advocates
Just as Solomon Northup’s story has moved audiences who’ve seen the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” the narrative of his wife Anne offers a rare window into a meaningful period of culinary history.
Food historians and chefs celebrated this significant period during a recent lecture, tour and dinner at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the New York City estate where Anne worked for the Eliza Jumel during her husband’s bondage.
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In “12 Years a Slave,” we learned that Anne Northup was headed to a cooking job for a few weeks when her husband was kidnapped in 1841. Not until about a month after Solomon went missing did Anne find out her husband was kidnapped. The couple’s local white Northup family first informed her of the abduction.
So, we can only imagine how distraught Anne and the children felt when they decided to move in with Madame Eliza Jumel, the flamboyant second wife of Vice President Aaron Burr. They apparently lived and worked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights off and on for three years.
Free black woman’s role in food history
Before moving to New York City, the two women met at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, a playground for the rich and famous. Anne lived and worked at the historic hotel and, according to several sources, was a “highly regarded chef and kitchen manager,” said Jane Lancaster, Brown University visiting history professor and event lecturer.
“Madame Jumel’s rags-to-riches story — having been born in a mixed-race brothel and raised in a work house — might explain the two women’s relationship,” Lancaster said. “It probably was more of an employee-employer bond than friendship. We are not sure if Madame paid Anne well or if it was barter. Nonetheless, Madame Jumel informally “adopted” Anne’s children as companions for her own, as referenced in madame’s scandalous divorce papers.
“Free blacks were not always paid on the same scale as whites and that might explain why Anne took on so many cooking jobs through her 50-year career. The stereotyped black female cook and washerwoman did exist in the north among jobs for free blacks. But Anne was strictly a cook of some status. Good cooks were seriously valued in those days,” Lancaster said.
A nearly lost food history
During the 1820s, printed menus were rare and few restaurants existed. The hospitality industry was in its infancy. Hotels, inns, lodges and private homes offered simple to elaborate meals.
“Anne Northup was an ambassador of sorts of a very unique America menu, a northern Creole cookery style,” said event curator Tonya Hopkins of The Food Griot.
“Anne was a master chef in the purest form. She was knowledgeable about farming, butchering, harvesting, chemistry, timing, temperatures. You really had to be physically strong, smart and authoritative and have your senses about you to manage a colonial kitchen — a hearth, a cooktop and a staff. Everything was made from scratch — stock, brine, pickles, sauces, corn meal, dried herbs, salad dressing and more.
“She apprenticed from a young age at the Eagle Tavern and worked strictly as a cook and kitchen manager at Eagles Tavern, Cheryl’s Coffee House, United States Hotel and for the rich and not so famous,” Hopkins said as she led a tour of the mansion’s kitchen where Anne cooked.
We rarely discuss northern Creolization of American cuisine, but Anne’s story created an opportunity to consider this history. It served as a reminder that American cuisine was always fusion cooking.
“Northern American food is really the result of a double Creolization. The first Creolization, or mixture, happened in the Caribbean by the fusion of Africans, Asian, European, Spanish and indigenous foodways. The second phase happened in the Northern states with free blacks (infused with Caribbean ancestry), First Nation people, English, Dutch, German, French and others,” said Hopkins, a food historian.
The predecessor of soul food
Anne was a free African-American of mixed heritage, but surprisingly not literate. There were no photos of her. Research revealed her signature was an X mark. Her recipes, sadly, were not recorded. These recipes would predate the oldest known African-American cookbook by Abby Fisher of 1881.
“Anne cooked in 1825. What makes her story interesting is how we think of the African American influence on American cuisine. She predates what we call soul food, which is Southern, rooted in slavery. Anne is Northern, free and cooked with ingredients that predate soul food by decades,” Hopkins said.
The program’s menu was an imagined Anne Northup colonial high-end dinner.
The meal featured Indian meal cake, a corn bread and molasses-style cake; pepperpot soup, a Caribbean soup made with oxtail stock, baby turnip greens, allspice, taro and Scotch bonnet pepper; dandelion salad with balsamic and bacon dressing; Madeira homemade ham, which is brined-marinated in Madeira, sugar, salt, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, orange zest and juice; roast chicken with heirloom applesauce gravy; mashed potatoes; and glazed baby turnips. Dessert was jumble, a spice and rose-water cookie. Red and white wines and coffee were also served.
“It was a very humbling and rewarding experience to re-create a meal based on one that would have been prepared by Anne Northrup,” Chef Heather Watkins Jones said.
“Converting the historic recipes to our more modern cooking techniques had its challenging moments,” she added, “but the experience I feel can only make me a better cook and culinary professional.”
Jones said students from the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education who helped prepare the meal were eager to learn about the period dishes. “Getting the next generation of culinary professionals involved in projects such as this one will ensure that legacies like that of Anne Northup’s will continued to be studied and passed on,” Jones said. Participants said they enjoyed experiencing the history as revealed through the meal.
“The evening combined two of my favorite things: history and eating,” said Elizabeth Mahon of Harlem. “I felt connected to the past, not just learning about Ann but also eating food she might have prepared for the families and establishments that she worked for.”
Top photo: The dining room is set for an Anne Northup-inspired meal at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Credit: Courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion
As a forager who lives in a place with a definite off-season, I still manage to fill the winter months with wild food-related activities. Looking out the window of my Colorado office this month, the landscape alternates between snowy white and stricken brown. Today, the wind blew with such force that I found my trash can having a tea party with its friends two blocks from home. There just aren’t many wild edibles that I could forage right now aside from conifer needles.
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Sure, I can pick handfuls of cold-hardy greens in the dwindling months of autumn and again when spring leisurely awakens. But the meat of my foraging season occurs between April and September, when plants grow with such urgency here at high altitude that I spend nearly all of my free time picking and processing at a numbing pace. During the foraging off-season, I’m still able to accomplish much as a wild foods enthusiast since it is the perfect time for study and planning.
When the wild plants are bountifully growing, I’m careful to preserve them for the winter. I dry big tins full of nettles and linden flowers. The freezer fills up with blanched greens, and the shelves get lined with stonecrop pickles and elder cordial. Rows of half-gallon jars filled with dried porcini are my pride and joy.
Foragers taking stock and studying botany
My goal is to eat from wild foods as much as possible for the entire year, especially from abundant and invasive weeds. Come late winter, I’m able to analyze my stocks. I take careful notes on which plants I’d like to harvest more in the coming year, and also which recipes or foods aren’t being eaten with enthusiasm. This helps me adhere to the second rule of foraging (the first being never eat a food you’ve not identified), never take more than you can use.
This year, I’ve found that I didn’t pick nearly enough linden flowers to support my love of linden tea. Because linden mostly grows as an ornamental locally, there will be no problem with harvesting more next year. On the other hand, I seem to be the only one who eats the wild mustard kimchi, so I will plan for a smaller batch come spring, even though the plant is an invasive and can be picked freely.
Perhaps the greatest luxury that down time affords me as a forager is the ability to study. I check enormous stacks of books from the library, everything from foraging guides to cookbooks, and novels, too. Seeing the words and projects of others fills my sails with inspiration and sends me off in new directions of exploration.
Winter is my best opportunity to dive headlong into the study of botany. I came to foraging through a love of food, so studying botany with seriousness after falling in love with wild plants is a bit backward. I wish I’d known more about botany from the outset. Being able to recognize similar characteristics among plant families and unlocking the meaning of Latin binomials opens the world of foraging and makes learning new plants infinitely easier.
Studying botany needn’t been intimidating. I highly recommend starting with a book called “Botany in a Day,” by Thomas Elpel. While you may not be able to learn it in a day, any tidbit you can learn about how to accurately describe plants can be very helpful. Being able to determine something as basic as whether the leaves on a plant are opposite or alternate gives you a huge head start in identification.
One of my favorite challenges of the off-season is going for walks and trying to identify dried brown plant remains, and trees without leaves. It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant when it is in flower, it is much more challenging to identify its dried skeleton. But if you can do so, it may help you scout a new location. The same goes for being abile to identify a tree by bark and bud alone. A fellow forager memorized all of his local trees in the summer, and in the winter, he’d practice identifying them by bark alone, calling out their names as he passed them on bike.
Filling notebooks with adapted recipes for foraged ingredients
The final piece of my off-season puzzle is brainstorming recipes. Often, in the heat of summer, I’m too busy teaching or processing large batches of wild foods to spend as much time as I’d prefer coming up with new recipes. In winter, I take the time to really consider my favorite ingredients, and how best to highlight their unique flavors. I have a notebook divided into four sections, one for each season. When I come up with a recipe idea, I write down the basic concept, and note where the idea originated. That way, come harvest time, when my attention is elsewhere, I’m able to open up to the appropriate season and see a list of recipe ideas, ready to go. I take the greatest amount of inspiration from my friends. Some of my closest friends right now are Persian, Mexican and Indian, and I can see the flavors they’ve introduced to me seeping into my own recipes. I love to look at a traditional recipe, as made by a friend, and spin it in my imagination with local wild ingredients.
It used to be that winter made me sad. Especially in the digital age, when I could see the harvests of people living in places where there is something to forage all year long. I’ve come to learn that my own off-season can be productive, even if I’m not able to harvest plants. I’m able to take inventory of my pantry, study botany and brainstorm recipes for the coming year, none of which I have time to do when the plants are exploding with the growth of summer.
Top photo: Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty
The noise (and well-deserved) flap over Time magazine’s recent cover story “The 13 Gods of Food” — a list that crowns exactly zero female chefs — is wonderfully opportune. I am thrilled by the zesty outrage it has sparked! A group of us in Boston has been on a mission since last spring to highlight the too-quiet media coverage of women who cook professionally.
Last May, Food & Wine magazine featured a double-truck poster ad for its annual Food & Wine Classic. It was a panoramic view of the Rockies with an elbow-to-elbow row of the usual suspects and grinning male gods of food. Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and director of special projects for Food & Wine, looked gorgeous and had one wrist’s worth of room. Presumably, Simmons was in the poster to show gender balance.
Boston chef and icon Jody Adams of Rialto privately emailed many of us “that it literally felt like a punch to her stomach” when she saw the ad. “After all these years, still?” she wrote in frustration.
Soon after, I came across an article in the July/August issue of Departures called “Cooks’ Night Out” that featured chic, duded-up male chefs spending 72 hours on the town. The article featured a sidebar interview with TV chef Bobby Flay that was markedly dismissive of female chefs. Ever since, an energized group of Boston women in the food world has been thinking about how to use these testosterone-fueled slights as a teachable moment to change the media perception — and therefore the public view — of what a chef looks like. (Hint: It ain’t all tattoos and muscles, though many women in the kitchen sport both.)
The gender gap is real — and it plays out in the media
In more than a decade of covering local and national chefs for Stuff magazine and the Boston Phoenix, writing hundreds of profiles and columns, I learned a few things about the difference between men and women who cook professionally. I’d guess that my coverage was 75 percent men and 25 percent women, and occasionally I took a little editorial heat for “overemphasizing” local women.
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At the time, Boston had many more male chef-owners and executive chefs than female. That is still true today. But as a feminist, I used my humble perch to give ink to women whenever I could. How else to build profile and change perception?
Here’s why men get more ink: It’s easier to write about them. Men make better copy. Men are more willing to say outrageous and eminently quotable things. Shock value is highly prized when a journalist has a story deadline to meet. Men pose more provocatively and more humorously in front of photographers.
When you interview women, many talk about their awesome, amazing teams and their mentors. Male chefs talk more about themselves. For a writer, this is helpful. It is always easier to write about a hero or star than the loyal teammates. Men are better at claiming credit for good work done. Women, who’ve done equally good work in the kitchen, are more humble and self-revealing. As an interviewer, you have to work a little harder to get a woman to say something funny or edgy. But honestly, you don’t have to work that hard if you’re patient and warm. The difference boils down to a classic sexist stereotype: the cocky male vs. the collaborative female, the badass male chef vs. the uber-competent female one.
No one quibbles about male chefs getting recognized for their talents — good is good. But there is plenty of room at the table for the hardworking and very talented women as well. Women make equally good copy.
And we are serious about this teachable moment thing. In October, women in chefs jackets wielding baguettes like bayonets held a Women in Whites flash mob in Boston’s Copley Square during the Let’s Talk About Food Festival. The goal was to highlight the sheer number of women in the culinary profession in Boston.
More events are planned, including using the topic of Changing Women’s Media Profiles as an organizing concept for the 2014 International Les Dames d’Escoffier Convention, to be held in the fall in Boston. Adams is working with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School on the topic too. The momentum has only just begun.
It’s time to change the paradigm about men and women who cook. I thank Time magazine for making it feel even more apt. I am not suggesting professional women become badasses or men more self-revealing. I am suggesting that we who cover the scene have to be more vigilant about not falling into easy stereotypical traps. Some media training for journalists might help.
Top photo: Women from the restaurant industry hold baguettes as swords during a flash mob at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival in October. Credit: Elizabeth Comeau
The road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located about an hour from Tucson, leads deep into the cactus-studded tawny hills of the Sonora Desert. By the time I arrived at the museum for the Native American Culinary Association’s 10th annual Indigenous Food Symposium in early December, my spirit felt energized and ready for the compelling conference that was to come.
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NACA’s founder, Apache chef Nephi Craig, organizes the conference each year for indigenous people to exchange information, foster solidarity and inspire one another to reclaim their marginalized food traditions.
Among the topics at the two-day conference was decolonizing the native food diet. Speakers discussed strategies to revive food traditions that existed before reservations were established and nutritionally vapid commodity foods such as white bread and lard forced out traditional ingredients. Indigenous products such as dried buckwheat cholla cactus buds, saguaro cactus syrup, and brown and white tepary beans were what anthropology Ph.D. candidate Claudia Serrato described as “an effort to decolonize our taste buds and change our taste memories.” She pointed out that 46% of Native children are obese and stressed the importance of introducing indigenous foods to children as a means of nurturing them into adulthood.
A return to indigenous foods
Chefs Walter Whitewater and Lois Ellen Frank, who won a James Beard award for their book “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” discussed using indigenous foods for health and wellness and passing on culinary information to the next generation.
Frank discussed the importance of honoring the “traditional ecological knowledge” that we all possess. Whitewater and Frank teach classes to Native children as a means of preserving and often reigniting that knowledge, which they believe exists innately within the young people but has been blunted by a colonial imperialism.
Merging contemporary technology with ancient wisdom is inevitable, Frank said, and one does not exist without the other. Modern and ancient can exist side by side, she contended.
“It’s OK as chefs and people to be hip and embrace the contemporary as long as an abiding respect and knowledge for ancient wisdom remains,” Frank said.
The lunch break featured indigenous foods prepared by Native chefs from around the country. Attendees feasted upon dishes such as traditional Oaxacan sweet and spicy harvest soup, alder smoked salmon and a quinoa Napa wrap blue corn crepe with butternut squash.
Diet of Native Americans can thrive in the kitchen
“The NACA conference strengthens me and the solidarity I experience at it each year reinforces the message that I am not alone,” said Wisconsin-based chef Arlie Doxtator of the Oneida nation. Craig, Doxtator and Chris Rodriguez discussed the role of Native fathers in the kitchen. It’s time to redefine traditional gender roles — with the man cast as the protector and the woman as nurturer and cook — in many Native communities, they urged.
The role of protector doesn’t need to be disregarded bsut instead should be reconfigured as one of a cook who safeguards his children against the onslaught of diseases, obesity and the loss of indigenous food knowledge, Doxtator noted. Craig encouraged the men in the audience to challenge the traditional paradigms.
The final presentation featured Hopi Native Samantha Antone and two of her colleagues from the Natwani Coalition, who discussed their mission to preserve Hopi farming traditions and restore local food systems. They discussed their seven-year research with Hopi elders and other community members to develop a curriculum documenting traditional Hopi agricultural techniques that’s being adopted in Hopi classrooms.
It was an optimistic anecdote to conclude a conference celebrating indigenous food as a means to sustain, inspire and invigorate the minds, hearts and spirits of Native people.
Top photo: Blue corn bread from the Hopi Food Cooperative in Arizona. Credit: Jody Eddy
Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.
For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.
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I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.
So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.
1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.
2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.
4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.
5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.
6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.
7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.
8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.
9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.
10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?
This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.
I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?
Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock — is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.
Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA
Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.
“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.
Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)
Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods
The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.
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Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.
For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:
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Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.
So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.
Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.
Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.
Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”
A gift that grows
Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.
Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.
The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.
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Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.
After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.
According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.
Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.
Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers
Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.
While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.
The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.
Look for small, local providers
However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.
Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.
And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.
Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye
My family and I recently moved across the country, and I have found myself desperately looking for new sources of locally grown food. The easiest place for a city dweller to find local food is at a farmers market. But a farmers market, at its best, should be more than simply a supermarket with outdoor booths. A good farmers market makes you a participant in an entire system, not just a consumer.
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Food comes from your farmer. So as a newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic, I was determined to find my farmer — at least one — who would hopefully lead me to others in the future.
I began on a Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market on a tiny corner lot at the end of a street full of shops and family-friendly restaurants in the historic port city outside D.C. I tried to remain focused amid the array of tents and booths, steering clear of the glitzy world of bakers, cheesemongers and kimchi purveyors. There was plenty of time for preserved foods later. My mission was clear. I needed raw ingredients, the building blocks of meals.
Then I stumbled upon the stall for Smith Meadows Farm, providing fresh beef, pork, lamb and chicken that were grass-fed and free range. I bought a pound of frozen ground beef, a pack of freshly made chicken empanadas and a book by Smith Meadows’ owner Forrest Pritchard. “Gaining Ground” reveals Pritchard’s struggle to save his family farm by raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.
That evening I made four amazing cheeseburgers with Smith Meadows ground beef, then began to read Pritchard’s book with fascination. When I was done I told my husband, “He’s the guy.” I’d found my first farmer.
I contacted Pritchard through his website and he graciously invited me to tour his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Berryville, Va. He and his family raise hogs, chickens, turkeys, sheep and beef cattle. But it turns out that Pritchard is as passionate about forming connections with customers as he is about farming itself. He is committed to creating and supporting the sustainable economic system of small farms, local markets and concerned participants. Not only had I found my farmer, my farmer could tell me how to find other farmers.
How to find farmers
Our conversation was as free-ranging as the hogs Pritchard tended as we talked. But I’ve distilled his advice into several key tips for those who want to find their farmer.
Most farmers markets have an online vendor list, and from there you can check out the farmers’ websites. Those sites should be able to tell you whether they’re sustainable, organic, pesticide free and/or free range. Ask friends and neighbors where they get their food. Yelp and Angie’s List also will have reviews. The world is wired, even for farmers who usually deal with life’s more tangible elements.
Pose specific questions to the vendors at the farmers market. Ask your livestock farmer, “Is your beef grass finished?” This assures customers that the cattle have never been given any grain. Ask a produce farmer, “What’s at the peak of the season?” Buy the peak produce, and don’t worry too much about prettiness or durability. Some farmers will be responsive, some not, but you’ll be able to tell whether they care about their product. More important, you’ll find out if they care about the same things you do.
Shop for what interests you
There’s no point in eating great food you don’t like. Enough said.
Grow your own food
Plant a garden and ask the farmers at the market for advice. Your local farmer knows better than anyone which plants will grow best in your soil and climate zone. Raise chickens, a pig or even a single steer. There’s no better way to appreciate a farmer than to try to grow food yourself.
Be passionate and have fun
The quest to find your farmer should have a sense of adventure. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Farmers at a market are usually passionate about what they do. They will respond to your own passion.
I’d come away with a list of questions and tips to help me create relationships with the people who help feed my family. In the coming months I plan to seek out more of my local farmers and see what I can learn about our local honey, goats, root vegetables and cider.
Pritchard and I talked about a lot more: grass fed versus grass finished, the difficulty of storing ovoid-shaped foods such as frozen chickens and the surprising economics of ground beef. But throughout my conversation I realized how lucky I was to have found my first farmer. He wants to spread the word about sustainable farming. He’s hard at work on his second book, which combines photographic portraits of sustainable farmers with the farmers’ favorite recipes. He’s committed to promoting small, local food systems that include the buyer and cook as part of that ecosystem.
Pritchard may have more to say about farming than most farmers. Your farmers might not be quite so talkative but they’re probably just as passionate about the food they grow. Meeting your farmers and buying food at a farmers market turns you into one more thread in the web of good food.
If you care about food, you care about where it comes from. So I urge you, find your farmer.
Top photo: Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz