Articles in Community
Alexander Smalls, the Harlem-based restaurateur known for his African diaspora-inspired menus, is a celebrity chef at the forefront of culture-blended cuisine.
There’s Afro/Asian/American Oxtail Dumplings With Green Apple Curry Sauce. Piri Piri Prawns With Yam Flapjacks. And Cinnamon-Scented Fried Guinea Hen.
“My ancestors left amazing food trails to follow,” said Smalls, a self-described “Southern boy” and globe-trotting former opera singer. “Our menu is a journey through Africa, India, South America, Europe, China, South Carolina, Native American villages and back, with lots of side tracks in France and England and beyond.”
More from Zester Daily:
An uncommon cuisine
High-end diners who enter his restaurant know they will encounter something unique. In New York, diners have their choice of fancy places that serve them foam, gel and tweezer foods.
“Then you find a place like The Cecil,” reported Esquire magazine, “and you wake up.”
Smalls is a native of the coastal South Carolina region known as Low Country, and he honed his culinary skills with classical training in Italy and France. How would someone with that varying background approach holiday fare? On New Year’s Eve, he will start the night off with champagne and oysters and then launch into another food realm based in Low Country. Traditional is his preference.
“Back home, my father made smothered shrimp in crab gravy over grits. That dish will always be synonymous with celebration to me,” said Smalls, often referred to as the father of Southern revival cooking as author of “Grace the Table: Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival.”
“Growing up, I lived for Sunday dinners and started thinking about it on Wednesday: Southern fried chicken, fried okra, creamed corn, gravy, pole beans cooked with ham hocks and Geechee rice,” said the restaurateur who, along with New York businessman Richard Parsons, owns both The Cecil and Minton’s on the same block in Harlem. He also was owner of the legendary, now-closed restaurants Café Beulah and Sweet Ophelia’s.
Food that makes you want to sing — from a singer
“I toured the world as an opera singer and learned world-class cuisine firsthand while on the road,” said Smalls, a chef to stars, including Wynton Marsalis, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones and Toni Morrison. “European food is very influenced by Africa — like American food — and only recently are we seeing recognition for our contribution to world cuisine.”
Smalls’ entire menu is a variation on the African diaspora theme. Those who love okra, yams, plantains, beans, rice and greens will be greeted with multiple choices.
His Piri Piri Prawns dish originated as a chicken stew. But he revised the flavor profile by using sautéed prawns instead. Piri-piri, a Bantu word for pepper, is a spicy dish with roots in both Africa and Portugal. It was created in Angola when Portuguese settlers arrived with chili peppers. This dish is also popular in South Africa, Smalls said.
His yassa turkey is a spin on a Senegalese dish, and his turkey stuffed with jollof rice is another example of a West African blend on an American theme.
His Southern roots remain strong
But his rolls are true Southern belles.
“I will only use White Lily flour for my rolls,” Smalls said of the powdery light flour milled from soft winter wheat produced by White Lily since 1883.
To help him achieve the global breadth of the African diaspora cuisine, Smalls enlisted the young, classically trained Chef de Cuisine Joseph “JJ” Johnson, whose first culinary instructors were his grandmother from Barbados and his Puerto Rican mother.
The expanse of their experiences appears in their holiday dishes, with recipes to some of them included below.
Said Smalls: “I’m happy to help celebrate our style of American cuisine as we ring in the New Year.”
Oxtail Dumplings With Green Apple Curry Sauce
Prep time: 1 1/2 hours
Cook time: 2 1/2 hours
Total time: 4 hours
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
For the braised oxtails:
10 (3-inch cut) oxtails
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
2 onions, rough chopped
3 carrots, rough chopped
1 bunch celery, rough chopped
4 quarts veal stock
2 quarts chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 whole oranges, quartered
1 jalapeño with seeds
3 cinnamon sticks
6 sprigs of thyme
1/2 bunch parsley
For the oxtail dumplings:
2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
3 heads of cabbage, shredded
1 quart shallots, minced
5 to 6 Bird’s Eye chilies, finely chopped
1 cup ginger, minced
8 quarts oxtail meat, braised and shredded
4 scallions, chopped
4 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons curry powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
For the green apple curry sauce:
2 pounds of butter
3 tablespoons curry powder
3 tablespoons turmeric
10 heads of garlic
3 Granny Smith apples
1 stalk lemongrass
2 large pieces of ginger, unpeeled
6 cans coconut milk
Sachet of 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 piece star anise and 1 bay leaf
3 limes, juiced
Salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Season oxtails with salt and pepper.
3. In a large Dutch oven, sear oxtails in grape-seed oil over medium heat until browned on both sides. Set aside.
4. Add onions, carrots and celery in the same pan and sauté vegetables for 10 minutes. Once vegetables are tender, add veal stock and chicken stock.
5. Bring to a hard simmer and add bay leaves, lemons, oranges, jalapeño, cinnamon sticks, thyme and parsley.
6. After simmering for 20 minutes, add in oxtails, making sure they are completely covered with liquid. If not, add water. Cover with aluminum foil and place into the oven and cook for 2 1/2 hours, or until tender. When fully cooked, remove braised oxtails from cooking liquid and allow to cool. When cooled, pull meat from oxtails. Skim fat off of cooking liquid, strain and set aside.
7. For the dumplings, in a large saucepan over medium heat, sauté cabbage, shallots and Bird’s eye chilies in the grape-seed oil. Add ginger, the shredded oxtail meat, scallions, turmeric and curry powder and cook for 5 minutes.
8. In a food processor, lightly pulse all ingredients until mix comes together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
9. Place wonton wrapper on a flat surface and brush the corners with egg. Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of the wonton wrapper and fold edges together.
10. When ready to cook, gently place filled wonton wrapper in boiling water and cook for 3 minutes.
11. For the green apple curry sauce, sauté in the butter the curry powder, turmeric, shallots, garlic, apples, lemongrass and ginger. Cook until toasted and golden brown.
12. Add the coconut milk and the sachet. Reduce and finish with the lime juice.
13. Salt, to taste.
14. To serve, spoon warm green apple curry sauce in the bottom of a serving bowl. Place 4 dumplings on top of sauce and serve hot.
Piri Piri Prawns With Yam Flapjacks
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sautéed prawns:
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 cup blended oil (for example, 1/2 canola oil, 1/2 olive oil — not extra virgin olive oil)
3 pounds of shrimp, cleaned and deveined
For the yam flapjacks:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup packed dark palm sugar
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
For the Piri Piri Sauce:
6 Bird’s Eye Chilies
1 small piece of ginger
2 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons canola oil
15 plum tomatoes
1 orange, zested
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. To prepare the sautéed prawns, zest one lemon in bowl.
2. Whisk together with chili flakes, chopped parsley and blended oil.
3. Add in 3 pounds of shrimp and marinate in the refrigerator for one hour.
4. Once marinated, season prawns with kosher salt.
5. Place in hot pan and cook on each side for two minutes.
6. To prepare the flapjacks, preheat oven to 350 F.
7. Roast yams in the oven for one hour. Remove and mash.
8. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together.
9. Heat a non-stick pan on stove and spoon in mix to form medium-sized flapjacks.
10. Cook the flapjacks until they are golden brown on both sides.
11. For the Piri Piri Sauce, roughly chop onions, chilies, ginger and garlic.
12. Sweat the mixture over low heat in the canola oil.
13. Add roughly chopped tomatoes and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the tomatoes are cooked down. Add orange zest and blend together, adding oil slowly to emulsify. After emulsified, season with salt and pepper to taste.
14. To serve, place a medium-size flapjack on the plate. Add four prawns and a tablespoon of the Piri Piri Sauce. Top it off with Apple Ginger Salad (recipe below).
Apple Ginger Salad
1/2 cup black currants
1/4 cup bourbon plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 piece of fresh ginger, julienned
2 green apples, julienned
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 bunch cilantro
1. In a small bowl, soak black currants in bourbon and water until plump.
2. In a medium bowl, toss all remaining ingredients together, except for cilantro, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Adjust sesame oil to your liking.
4. Place on top of prawns and garnish with cilantro leaves.
Main photo: Alexander Smalls, the owner and executive chef at Harlem’s The Cecil. Credit: Daniel Krieger
The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.
Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.
More on Zester Daily:
For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.
He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.
Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.
Never flip a ploye
Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.
Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.
Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.
Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.
The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.
Sharing tips for success
But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.
It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.
As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.
In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.
“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.
Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’
“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.
People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.
Ployes from scratch
This is Father Paul Dumais’ formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 9 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)
Yield: 10 ployes
100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour
100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)
4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt
6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)
340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)
1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.
2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.
3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.
4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.
Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige
What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.
Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.
Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Juliana Birnbaum
& Louis Fox
North Atlantic Books, 368 pages, 2014
The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.
I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.
It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.
“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.
“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.
Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”
Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.
“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.
Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.
Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.
Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”
This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.
More from Zester Daily:
» ‘Symphony of the Soil’ shines light on what's gone wrong
» Eating local year-round in Alaska is hard, but they did it
» Israel’s desert is growing gourmet food. Pay attention.
» Do dangerous herbicides lurk in our garden dirt?
In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.
The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.
And they taste better too.
Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox
I remember the moment very clearly. I was moderating a panel discussion after a special screening of “Food Inc.” in September 2010. More than 300 people had come for this free weekday screening. The staff at Boston’s Museum of Science, the hosts of the event, had told us to expect maybe 30 or 40 to attend.
During the presentation, a woman stood up and proudly announced she was working on a farm-to-school program with primary school students in Dedham, Mass. A few minutes later, another good soul described her curriculum teaching kids in Cambridge about edible gardens. A third woman offered up her school gardening program in Milton. I paused, and then asked, “Do any of you know each other?” Nope. Nope. Nope.
How was this possible? A distance of less than 20 miles separated the three thriving initiatives, but there was no cross-fertilization, no sharing of successes and strategies. Each one was a good-food activist toiling away in her own private silo.
That’s when I conceived the idea – and more important, the need — for Let’s Talk About Food. So many people, organizations, websites, meet ups and special programs are aimed at mobilizing a shift in our food system, and each one is dutifully tending or protecting its tiny bit of turf.
Let’s Talk About Food based on simple premise
My big idea was pretty simple: Let’s get everyone talking together. Let’s get the myriad initiatives aimed at ensuring better food out of their tidy little silos and into one big tent.
More from Zester Daily:
If we start to work together, stimulating and sharing, connecting with like-minded souls, we can leverage our impact and move a lot faster to our goal — a healthier food system. Whether our individual passion is school food, cooking, animal welfare, sustainability or GMO labeling. Whether we agree with each other or not. Whether we care about the oceans or obesity, food security or food waste, or wonder what the heck happened with the farm bill. We need to be talking to each other, and to the public — the people who buy groceries, hate the food their kids eat at school, and hope they are feeding their family food they can trust.
We need to bring the experts, the advocates and the public into the same conversation. If we don’t, we are just talking to ourselves and a tiny group of like-minded people. To grow a food revolution, we need to go beyond the usual suspects.
I know there’s a problem. We all have egos. All the organizations and individuals who work in the food space feel a little protective and perhaps a little competitive about their turf, but we have to get beyond that. There isn’t one single recipe to change food in America. We need to come at it from every angle, inviting in every sector of society.
So, I started Let’s Talk About Food in 2010. It’s a tiny organization with one employee — me. I’m working for free and wondering what happened to all the smart lessons I learned in business school. I am a lapsed restaurant owner and was a reasonably successful journalist in Boston. I’m nobody special, not particularly well-connected and certainly not rich enough to take on the volunteer post I’d given myself.
You can find out more about the Let’s Talk About Food mission and its events and initiatives at www.letstalkaboutfood.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@LTAFood, #talkfood).
The annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival kicks off with a Vote With Your Fork Rally on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Trinity Church in Boston. The free festival will be held Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Copley Square. Visit the Let's Talk About Food Festival page for more information.
Since starting Let’s Talk About Food, I have curated, with a handful of volunteers, more than 60 public food events in and around Boston, all aimed at bringing experts and the public together. Each event was more successful than the last. We started with that first screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science and marched forward, leveraging the expertise in our own community, forming collaborations with museums, hospitals, science fairs, law schools, public health schools, an aquarium, churches, libraries, and state and city governments. Event by event, step by step, we formed partnerships with local media, such as our presenting sponsorship with the Boston Globe and with our public radio station, with magazines and local nonprofits, so the community knows what we are doing.
We’ve tackled diverse and specific topics, including “What’s Up with Food Allergies?” “How Do We Sustain the Fish and the Fishermen?” GMO labeling, the farm bill, the economics of aquaculture, the ethics of food and food labeling, and we’ve asked important questions: Can New England feed itself? How close can we get to sustainability? We even sparked a group of people who are now collaborating on an action plan for a regional commissary for healthy school food in Massachusetts.
Festival attracts thousands
Our annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival attracts more than 15,000 people who come together in Boston’s Copley Square for one spectacular day to engage and learn more about food — and have fun in the process. We have a huge demonstration cooking stage where chefs and “expert conversants” are paired, we have an open-air seminar that we call The Endless Table and co-create with the Museum of Science. We have hands-on cooking for kids, an edible garden, an ask-a-nutritionist booth and our Kitchen Conversations project — a mobile recording studio that invites people to come into our cozy kitchen and share a food story or memory. We have chefs, cookbook authors, fishermen, farmers and foodies of every stripe.
We don’t have a single agenda, and we don’t provide any specific answers to the questions we pose. Our goal (and note, in four years we have moved from being a “me” to becoming a “we”) is to get people talking. Our philosophy: Engage the mind, and you spark the change. Because talking about food leads to action about food.
Let’s Talk About Food is based in Boston because that’s where I live, but the idea of a community-wide conversation about food should not be confined to my hometown. Any city in America could have an organization like Let’s Talk About Food. I’d be glad to help you get it started where you live. Like a simple recipe, it’s an idea that is easy to share.
Silos keep grain safe, but they don’t store all the ingredients to make a full meal.
Main photo: Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let’s Talk About Food
Some volleys in the battle to make school food healthier can sting.
“I was told after removing chicken nuggets from the menu that I was taking all the fun out of school lunch, which was a pretty harsh thing to be told,” said Sunny Young, Program Manager of Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative to improve the nutrition of cafeteria meals and educate students and their families in Oxford, Miss., about better food choices.
Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
But, Young said, “We make decisions based on the welfare of our children.”
Young spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement, citing dire statistics demonstrating a critical need for better food choices.
Forty percent of Mississippi’s children are overweight or obese, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity is linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological problems.
“In order to change these really scary statistics, we need a paradigm shift in the way that we think about food and the way we eat food,” Young said.
She cited reasons for hope. A recent evaluation of Good Food for Oxford Schools, conducted jointly by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies and the university’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, showed that the program is having an impact.
“What we’re doing is working,” she said. “It’s changing eating habits,” at school and at home.
The program has a three-pronged approach, working in the cafeteria, the classroom and the community. In school cafeterias, she said, “We are transforming what the kids are seeing on their trays,” with menus featuring more fresh, local food. The proportion of the cafeteria menu cooked from scratch grew from 30% to 75% during the 2013-14 school year.
That startling increase came from replacing overly processed items with whole food — for instance, replacing those sacrosanct chicken nuggets with baked chicken. Newly trained staff also replaced frozen foods with items such as pot pies and stir-fried foods. They tapped into recipes from TheLunchBox.org, a site started by Chef Ann Cooper, a longtime advocate for healthier school food (and Young’s boss before she came to Oxford).
The “Harvest of the Month” program in the cafeterias helps promote the use of more local food, with the added incentive of a sticker for younger kids who try something new.
More from Zester Daily:
But, she noted, “You can’t just put this food in front of kids and expect that they’re going to love it and eat it.”
That’s where the classroom lessons come in:
“We get them to touch and feel foods, Young said. “We bring in the farmer. We bring in chefs. They do cooking demos in the classroom. We really allow students to experience the joy of food.”
The district’s middle and high schools now have salad bars, and Young’s goal is to get them in elementary schools during the current school year.
The older kids’ incentives: more control over their schools’ food choices.
“Stickers and dressing up like a carrot doesn’t work so well,” Young said of the middle and high school crowd. “So what we’ve done is empower the students themselves.”
Young launched food clubs in the district’s middle and high school, where students cook, eat and learn together. The club also provides suggestions to improve cafeteria menus.
School gardens are also part of the program, and will be expanded this year thanks to an AmeriCorps-affiliated FoodCorps member now working with the program. Young is working to get schools to incorporate the gardens into the curriculum, but the gardens are already having an impact. She noted that when a group of third-graders was asked last year to draw a carrot, all the students involved in the school garden program drew it growing underground, unlike the other children who simply drew carrots without any context.
Community steps up
The third piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools’ work is in the community. The program works with farmers markets and organizes community events, such as a Gospel Choir Showcase that featured choirs singing on the Oxford town square interspersed with messages about Good Food for Oxford Schools and food samples from the improved school menu.
Young’s goal for the school year is to expand the program to reach more kids and families. She was recently named state co-lead for Mississippi for the National Farm to School Network.
She’s now working to connect programs across the state that are doing similar work, and is organizing a Farm to Cafeteria conference for later in the school year.
“The people of Mississippi have embraced this project,” Young said. “Good food can change everything.
Main photo: Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots. Credit: Sunny Young
Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
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.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Liz Crain
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
More from Zester Daily:
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