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The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.
I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.
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“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”
I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.
Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.
Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.
Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.
Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:
- Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
- Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
- Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
- If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
- Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.
Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.
Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.
Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.
It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.
My new home is full of surprises.
Courtesy of Matt Cohen
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)
4 cups bittercress
1-2 tablespoons tamari
1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.
3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.
4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.
5. Add tamari to taste.
6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.
Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz
We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.
One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.
Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.
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She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.
They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.
That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.
Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.
She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.
A magnet for controversy
She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”
Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.
Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.
She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.
Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press
“Learning to cook changed my life,” said Kelvin Fernandez, a Dominican New Yorker and graduate of Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organization that prepares public high school kids for college and careers in the hospitality industry. “I followed a girl into a high school cooking class and ended up finding my passion,” Fernandez said.
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Fernandez cooked for C-CAP’s 16th annual gala recently, which drew more than 800 guests for a grand tasting benefit scholarship fundraiser. The event raised more than $1 million for scholarships, most of which will help underserved students.
As he put the finishing touches on his signature dish, Fernandez said, “Tonight, everything must be perfect. We are ready and we worked very hard. But in a way, my journey is just beginning.” Fernandez is the new executive chef at Blend on the Water, New York’s hottest new Latino restaurant.
A national nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by cookbook author and educator Richard Grausman, C-CAP has awarded students $40 million in scholarships and donated more than $3 million worth of supplies and equipment to classrooms. C-CAP operates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Arizona.
The recent culinary showcase featured an all-star roster of New York chefs and restaurateurs including Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, Bryce Shuman, Drew Nieporent, Alexander Smalls, Joseph “JJ” Johnson and Banks White.
C-CAP alumni in New York include Mame Sow, The Cecil and Minton’s executive pastry chef; Thiago Silva, who is also known as the baker to the stars of the General and the EMM Group; and Sean Quinn, executive chef at Chadwick’s. Everyone turned out to raise scholarship funds but most important to work alongside and mentor 60 C-CAP students. This gala was their first step into the big leagues.
Most C-CAP students are from communities where few students can afford culinary training or are aware of culinary career opportunities. An event that promotes diversity in the culinary-hospitality industry is very timely; statistics show the industry is diversifying.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms a 3% increase in black chefs and head cooks from 2012 to 2013, according to a PBS report. It is important to note, though, that minority chefs still face challenges from traditional social and racial hierarchies in professional kitchens.
Going from table to table, some of the event old-timers gave unsolicited pointers. “Check out the Peking duck over there! There are two different quail egg dishes tonight!” Some of the other luxurious food samples included Samuelsson’s signature chicken donut, Mame Sow’s pineapple upside-down cake, and Daniel Boulud and Brian Loiacono’s braised veal shank.
C-CAP ‘set me on an amazing path’
“Once you’re a C-CAP graduate you are always part of the C-CAP family,” said founder Richard Grausman in his greetings to the packed room at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers. The live auction, which raised $80,000, was highlighted by bidding wars on private dinners cooked by celebrity chefs.
“The annual benefit is critical in supporting C-CAP’s mission of providing scholarships, education and career opportunities to at-risk youth who are interested in pursuing careers in the restaurant and food service industry,” said Susan Robbins, C-CAP’s president. “For more than 20 years, we have been transforming lives for thousands of qualified students across the country, from culinary education in high schools to career placement assistance upon graduation. We continue to manage the largest independent culinary scholarship program in the nation and, to date, have awarded over $40 million.”
Carlton McCoy, one of the youngest Master Sommeliers in the world, and only the second African American to hold the title, credited C-CAP with introducing him to his career.
“My story is known to most of you. I was a high school student in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I was mugged twice and lived in constant danger,” McCoy said. “My family had no exposure to fine wines or fine dining. Luckily, my high school had a C-CAP program. So, I am especially proud and honored to be with you tonight. Mr. Grausman’s program set me on an amazing path.”
Honoree Michael White is the chef/owner of Altamarea Group, which includes Marea, Ai Fiori, Al Molo, The Butterfly, Chop Shop and Osteria Morini. He praised C-CAP’s mission to reach underserved students.
“The success that I enjoy was not done alone. I received lots of advice along the way from industry insiders. So, I accept this award with a message to everyone to pay it forward and mentor someone.”
Filling a culinary education gap
C-CAP developed its culinary education program just as many public schools were discontinuing old-style home economics programs. Those school kitchen cupboards were bare and many were torn out to make room for computer labs. It was the height of “cookless” kitchens and microwave ovens.
But Grausman aimed to save culinary arts in the classroom. Using his cookbook “French Classics Made Easy,” (previously published as “At Home with the French Classics”) as the basis for the curriculum, he developed the first culinary enrichment program in the New York City Public Schools, said Joyce Appelman, C-CAP communications director who has worked with Grausman from the beginning.
The program continues to feature teacher development, student job training and alumni resources. A new initiative offers pro bono legal services to help students negotiate contracts and establish their own restaurants.
C-CAP is credited with holding the first cooking competition long before TV’s Food Network existed. At this annual event, students must memorize, prepare and present classic French dishes before a panel of judges in order to receive their scholarships.
Top photo: At the C-CAP fundraiser, left to right, President Susan Robbins, C-CAP alum chef Brandon Bryan and chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit, C-CAP founder Richard Grausman. Credit: Sylvia Wong Lewis
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 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