Articles in Community
In times of tragedy, discord or disruption, there is often no more powerful message between neighbors than a shared casserole, a baked banana bread or a well-timed gift of cookies. But a new breed of food entrepreneurs are taking their empathy and altruism global, using food as a catalyst for projects that are changing the world. The idea of being a good neighbor just got a little bigger.
Beth Howard, Ms. American Pie
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Beth Howard traveled with more than 60 volunteers to hand out free apple pie in front of the town’s square. Howard, who had been teaching people to make pie for the past decade, had been selling pies out of a stand in front of her home inside the historic American Gothic house in Elton, Iowa, as she grieved the sudden death of her husband. Howard’s memoir, “Making Piece,” chronicled how pie helped her heal.
Now, after the release of her second book, “Ms. American Pie,” Howard is set to take her belief that pie can solve anything global through her World Piece Project. “The idea of pie is not distinctly American,” she said. “Empanadas, samosas — all cultures have some form of filled dough, and everywhere this universal, simple, comforting food is meant to be shared.” Howard will be flying around the world and talking to the world’s best pie makers about nostalgia, love and the feeling of time spent caring for others’ happiness.
Adam Aronovitz and Alissa Bilfield of the Cookbook Project
Adam Aronovitz was working in Boston’s public schools when he got a firsthand look of the effect of diet on children’s ability to learn. If no one at home knew how to cook, he posited, how could children be expected to eat healthy foods? He and co-founder Alissa Bilfield started the nonprofit Cookbook Project to combat the root causes of culinary illiteracy, starting by training school staff with online courses so that they would become food literacy educators, with the goal of teaching children the ways of the kitchen.
“We have a pretty lofty goal,” Aronovitz said. “We want every child to have access to food literacy.” The program, which is seeing its first successes in Boston, where 56 staff at four schools are now trained, is going global. “We see the same issues cropping up with kids abroad,” Aronovitz said. “Even in Hanoi, kids are saying their favorite foods are pizza and friend chicken.”
John Tucker of Dave’s Killer Bread
John Tucker was president of Eugene, Oregon-based So Delicious, a dairy-free food company, when he got the chance to join Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon company known for its social activism and GMO-free, whole grain breads. Now, along with a new campaign to take the brand national, Tucker is creating a network of Second Chance employers and sharing knowledge from the company’s years of experience working with former inmates.
One out of every three employees at Dave’s Killer Bread spent time incarcerated in the American penal system. “Former inmates want to be successful in life and are looking for someone who will give them a chance,” Tucker said. The company is currently creating a playbook to share with a network of other businesses, detailing the best practices it has developed to help inmates make the transition back to society. He hopes the playbook will help potential Second Chance employers get past the stigma and presumed risk of hiring former inmates and to allow these businesses to see them as people with potential. “There really is greatness in all of us, and though some of us are called leaders, all of us need to learn how to be leaders in life,” Tucker said.
Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate
Defense lawyer Shawn Askinosie was knee-deep in a grueling murder case defending a client pleading an insanity defense when he realized something had to change. “I had given the law and the courtroom some great years of my life, but I knew it was time to move on,” Askinosie said.
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In the five years thereafter, the Missouri-based entrepreneur traveled to Ecuador, Honduras, the Philippines and Tanzania, developing the direct trade relationships that would form the backbone of his company, Askinosie Chocolate.
Today, Askinosie, the only chocolate company in the world doing direct trade with every cocoa-producing continent, employs 15 people, including two of his children. He returns profits to these same farmers in a program he calls “A Stake in the Outcome.” His company feeds 1,600 students in Tanzania with no need for donations. Closer to home, the company’s Chocolate University works in collaboration with Drury University to teach underprivileged children in Springfield, Missouri, about the wider world and the business of producing artisanal chocolate. “Our hope is they will all, in their own way, experience this adventure as a catalyst for their future,” Askinosie said. “We hope it gives them a dimension and a catalyst to whatever career they choose.”
Jennie Dundas and Alexis Gallivan of Blue Marble Ice Cream
For Jennie Dundas and Alexis Gallivan, ice cream tastes even better if the practice of creating it helps the world. In 2007, they launched Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn, New York, using cream sourced from pasture-raised cows. They developed a line of what they call elemental flavors, selecting ingredients carefully and making classic flavors in addition to offbeat varieties such as Mexican Chocolate and Pumpkin.
But when a woman from Rwanda contacted them about starting something similar in her community, they saw the potential for how ice cream could change the world. They created Blue Marble Dreams, a nonprofit that builds ice cream shops with women in areas recovering from conflict or natural disaster. Rwandans, still recovering from the 1994 genocide, were having trouble reclaiming their happiness or even feeling like they deserved it, Gallivan said. “They wanted to make a place where people could hang their problems at the door.” In 2010, Blue Marble opened its first shop with Ingoma Nshya, a cooperative of women drummers in Butare, Rwanda.
A second outpost will open in Haiti this summer. “Most people there [in Rwanda] had never had anything cold in their mouths before,” Galilvan said. “They’ve really fallen in love with it.”
José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen
World-famous chef José Andrés, whose seminal D.C. restaurant Jaleo helped usher in the Age of Tapas in the United States, visited Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country and knew he had to find a way to help. So he launched the World Central Kitchen, based on his experience working with a similar nonprofit, the D.C. Central Kitchen.
“He loved the model of helping people help themselves,” says Kevin Holst, communications director. Today, the World Central Kitchen operates eight projects in three countries, all focused on smart solutions to end poverty and hunger. For Palmiste Tampe, a rural mountain village in Haiti, that means installing a community kitchen and garden attached to the school, which is providing fresh vegetables to the town for the first time. The project has increased school enrollment 135 percent.
“With our model, we aren’t just giving rice and leaving,” Holst said. “If you give rice to people who are hungry, the people who were growing rice are out of business.”
Main photo: Beth Howard is embarking on a round-the-world journey, extending the theme of making and sharing pie with others to make the world a better, happier place. Credit: Copyright 2014 Race Point Publishing
There’s this moment that occurs when you’ve been working with bees for a while. Standing there, on top of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, preparing to approach a hive he had established to house more than 30,000 bees, Damian Magista realized he had no need to wear his bee suit.
He had made a lot of mistakes with them in his half decade of hobby beekeeping, like opening the hive too often or accidentally squashing the queen.
“Less is more in beekeeping,” Magista said. “You have to resist the temptation to over-manage your hives.”
Listening to the hive
Magista had learned to really slow down, and listen to them, to decipher their buzzing, to hear changes in their music. He knew that if the scouts they sent out of the hive to greet him started ramming his body, he should back off. He knew when he was welcome.
“I can’t see myself ever knowing everything about them,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can relax into it.”
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These days Magista barely dons his bee suit, but he is doing the opposite of relaxing. As the founder of the innovative neighborhood-to-jar company Bee Local, he has taken his message that all truly exceptional honeys are local to the national stage by introducing the United States to the culinary ambrosia of locally sourced honey. In doing so, he is creating a network of hive systems that support hobby beekeepers and help protect against the colony collapse disorder that has been ravaging the species.
Bee Local began as a hobby, until Magista had one of those pivotal entrepreneurial moments that turn hobbyists into entrepreneurs with a mission. Tasting honey sourced from neighborhoods throughout Portland, he noticed that bees that visited buckwheat produced a honey with dark, smoky, deep molasses overtones. Those that had traveled across Portland’s farm regions made one containing deep blue and blackberry notes with a floral finish. Bees lucky enough to live in the Willamette Valley’s vineyards, hops fields and berry farms made one robust and complex.
“The whole premise of Bee Local was discovering that hives in different locations produce different colors and taste profiles,” Magista said. “Honey is a snapshot of time and place.”
Making artisanal honey
Magista’s goal was to introduce the world to the beauty of the small artisanal honeys from the neighborhoods around Portland, harnessing what was unique about those geographies and allowing bees to express it in honey like wine captures terroir.
But making these small-scale honeys was not going to help Bee Local change the world, nor could it survive as a business, so in August of 2014 Bee Local joined Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts sourced from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which had already established a national retail operation through partnerships with companies such as Williams-Sonoma.
“What we were doing was not scalable,” Magista said. “To take our business to the next level and truly make a wider impact we needed to merge.”
Tackling colony collapse disorder
Now, from a space he shares with Jacobsen’s in Portland’s Eastside Industrial District, a growing home base for artisan makers of all stripe in the city’s nascent food industry, Bee Local is launching an expansion that ties its business prospects on taking on one of the most pressing environmental crises of our time: colony collapse disorder.
First documented in 1869 and named in 2006, the disorder describes the situation in which entire colonies of commercial bees disappear abruptly due to factors such as adverse weather, too many bees in one area, infection, virus, overuse of pesticides or mite infestation. Although most who study it believe it has always existed in bee populations at some degree, CCD has been happening in dramatically higher wavers, sending out ripples for commercial agriculture and affecting food systems around the world. In some cases, beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their colonies.
Placing hives throughout Oregon
But tackling colony collapse disorder is a bigger-picture project. In the meantime, Bee Local is developing relationships with business owners throughout the Willamette Valley and finding distinct places to place its hives. Over the next year, it will add 150 more hives in places such as Amity Vineyards and the top of the new Renata restaurant, although most of them are located in places inaccessible to the public.
Even as it makes its foothold in Oregon stronger, Bee Local is reaching out to hobby beekeeps in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, N.Y. — markets that embrace unconventional products and where many of its partner chefs reside — to launch its national expansion. What’s good for business, it turns out, will be good for the bees.
“Beekeeping as an art is dying out,” Magista said. “Not enough young beekeepers are coming up to take the place of older generations.”
Culture of beekeeping
The loss of the art of beekeeping comes at great cost to both the culture of beekeeping and the global environment, which has wrestled in the past decade with colony collapse disorder, which happens in commercial beekeeping and big agriculture. When hives die because of environmental factors — for example if they are placed in monocrops, they are moved around too much, or they encounter pesticides — entire hive populations can be wiped out.
“When you remove bees from this environment, they remain healthy,” Magista said. “It’s so simple — treat an organism with respect and it thrives, abuse it and it dies.”
Bee Local works exclusively with hobby beekeepers and places its hives in diverse environments where no pesticides are being sprayed.
We don’t engage in commercial beekeeping,” Magista said. “We don’t use chemicals in our hives, we generally don’t move them around.”
The result are honeys that restaurants and food purveyors and ordering by the gallon and artisanal food lovers recognize as very different from your garden-variety honey in a honey bear bottle.
“What the bees come up with themselves is what’s really exciting,” Magista said. “I can control some variables, but the result is up to nature.”
Main photo: Damian Magista tends to a rooftop hive in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Copyright Bee Local
There may be no better example of a destination watering hole than the one on the site of the abandoned Nellie E Mine outside Parker, Arizona. Ken Wardlow’s Desert Bar is in such a remote location in the Buckskin Mountains that just getting there is an adventure. But it’s no secret to communities up and down the Colorado River from Blythe to Lake Havasu, whose residents party there every Thanksgiving weekend, or to the snowbirds who come from all over the country in January: Pull into the parking lot and you will see license plates from Alaska, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Nebraska. The accents you hear of German gentlemen cooing over showy 1,000 horsepower ATVs will confirm that this place is an open secret among Europeans, too. Then you enter the bar and meet 300 new best friends.
In 1983, Ken Wardlow had three things: a piece of property he had owned since 1975, a liquor license and a great imagination. He built a 12-by-12-foot shack with three walls and called it the Nellie E Saloon. Customers with a thirst for its Wild West aura began coming in droves, and by 1989 the shack had been replaced by a solid structure. It has been growing organically every year since. Now known as the Desert Bar, it’s a three-level complex with tin roofs, multiple seating areas, bars, kitchens, bandstands and a dance floor that you reach by a covered bridge spanning an actual gulch. It has no address other than its coordinates (34 degrees 12.05.14 North, 114 degrees 08.55.87 West), and it relies on its own wells, solar panels and twin cooling towers. In short, it is entirely off the grid.
The Desert Bar’s curiosities don’t end there. It is rarely open — only on weekend afternoons, before sunset, mid-autumn through mid-spring (that is, when the average temperature hovers below 100 F). To reach it, you have to join the line of Jeeps and pickups that creep along five dusty miles of primitive road. (Unless you have a quad, dune buggy, side-by-side or dirt bike, do not accept the challenge of the treacherous back way. Better to enjoy that drama through some daredevil’s head cam on YouTube.) So why is this bar so wildly popular? Well, there’s cold beer and lemonade that’s squeezed to order. There’s perfectly prepared American comfort food like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches to energize you for the journey home. You can indulge your secret longing for a basket of deep-fried pickle spears, or go all the way with the fritto misto of pickles, onion rings, mushrooms, jalapeños and freshly cut fries unfairly known as the “junk basket.” Try it, just the once…
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But in the end it’s the atmosphere, not the menu, that makes all the difference. As the regulars arrive, they grab the shaded table they will occupy until sunset, while the newcomers wander around in awe. Cameras and cellphones capture the abandoned cars and fire trucks strewn around the property, the three bars, and the open-air ladies’ room constructed of rusting metal plates. Women — and, if the coast is clear, the occasional man — linger in here taking photos of the 30-mile view through the glassless picture windows. Hands down, the most-photographed structure is the trompe l’oeil “church.” Constructed from steel plates in 1991, it contains just one room under the three-story, copper-topped steeple, lined in stamped tin with two arched openings. And yes, destination weddings take place there regularly.
The words that customers use over and over to describe The Desert Bar are “fun” and “unique.” For the first-timer, two miles on the bone-rattling road to its door are enough to make you question all the praise. But once you see that steeple up ahead you know it is going to be worth the trip. Fun? Just walk up into the hills behind the bar and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter filling the canyon. Unique? Without a doubt. Guaranteed you have never spent a Sunday Funday in such a hospitable bar surrounded by such inhospitable mountains.
Main photo: Fresh-squeezed lemonade at the Desert Bar in Parker, Arizona. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, brings a plate of falafel balls out of the Alshami restaurant kitchen to a family of five seated at one of the diner’s nine snug stalls. As he walks, he peeks a glance at the door, where Lebanese and Syrian sweets and platters of pudding called muhallabia tempt passersby.
After delivering the falafel, Al Khdraa pats a little boy on the head. A thin smile protrudes from his veneer of five-o’clock shadow as he returns to the cash register. At his perch, he observes the chaos of pedestrians, cars and street vendors on Avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, but keeps diners in his periphery, ready to dash over with extra pita or a napkin.
When Al Khdraa was a boy in Damascus, Syria, long before the war that has engulfed his country, his family operated a cosmetics shop. He went to school, studying English and French and dreaming of potential studies abroad. But as the Syrian civil war escalated in July 2012, Al Khdraa and his family sold their house, car and other belongings. They each packed a bag of clothes and fled by plane to Lebanon.
“It was the only choice we had,” Al Khdraa says.
Morocco is safe landing spot
After 15 days in Beirut, the family flew to Morocco, one of the few countries that would accept them for permanent residency. In the eyes of Syrians, Al Khdraa says, Morocco is the safest landing spot in the Arab world. Morocco granted about 3,600 Syrian refugees legal status last year, according to a government report. These documents must be renewed annually.
Several months after arriving in Rabat, Al Khdraa got a job at Alshami. Wasim Alkhouga, 35, had just opened up the diner, and he quickly recruited a team of mostly Syrian refugees.
“It’s hard to find each other,” Alkhouga says. He recalls his arrival in Rabat two decades ago when his family relocated for work. He was 10 at the time and spent his first year blundering words in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is quite different from his own, he says. In a city that’s receiving dozens of Syrian refugees by the month, Alshami reminds the city’s burgeoning émigré community of home.
From the lunchtime grab-and-go shawarma sandwich for 18 MAD ($1.88), to the light but filling lentil soup ($1.26), to their “famous” falafel ($2.09), the diner attracts Moroccans, Syrians and tourists. Al Khdraa recommends his personal favorite, the mix grill ($6.17), an array of shish, lamb and chicken kebabs.
Syrian falafels are a popular street food
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Although the Egyptians claim to have invented the falafel, the Syrian variety of chickpeas, garlic and spices became a phenomenon, sold by street vendors, fast food chains and restaurants around the world. In what is known as the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan), the croquettes are often served with tahini and pita as a precursor to the main course. During Ramadan, the balls are sometimes eaten for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the fast.
Alkhouga learned falafel fundamentals from his father. There are only a handful of ingredients, but he says patience is everything. The process begins with soaking chickpeas in water for 10 hours and ends with five minutes in boiling vegetable oil. “Don’t touch it,” Alkhouga warns, “or it will shatter.”
Alkhouga applies this singular approach to all food. He takes traditional ingredients to create timeless flavors known throughout the region. Unlike most restaurants, Alshami barbecues the shawarma meat before cooking, Al Khdraa says, pointing to the rotisserie outside. After garnishing, the shawarma is lightly cooked for 25 minutes and served hot. While it’s a steady process, Alshami makes large quantities to accommodate lunchtime demand, so the wait time is insignificant.
As he attends to a steady stream of customers, Al Khdraa says he carries painful memories of his home city 2,400 miles away. He says that he has adapted to Rabat, but longs for the day when he return. Once the violence stops, Alkhouga also says he’d “return in an instant.”
Both realize that day could be years off, but neither forgets the friends and family who stayed in Syria amid death tolls that have averaged about 150 people per day during the course of the four-year civil war, according to the United Nations. Al Khdraa calls home nearly every week and adds, “They say, ‘We made it for this week.’ “
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 5 to 6 servings
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of chickpeas
3/4 to 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams) of garlic cloves
1 tablespoon of salt
Few pinches of parsley
Cumin, pepper, to taste, optional
Soy or corn oil
1. Put chickpeas in water at room temperature for at least 10 hours.
2. Grind up chickpeas in a blender, or preferably an ice crusher.
3. Add seasonings.
4. Place mixture in falafel scooper to form into balls.
5. Set balls into boiling soy or corn oil for five minutes. Temperature at least 320 F.
6. Serve right away with pita bread and tahini sauce.
Main photo: Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007
Ben Bartenstein and Julia Barstow are in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program.
The slogan “Fish Fry Fridays” is a familiar one to Catholics this time of year. On Fridays during Lent, which falls from Feb. 18 to April 4 in 2015, meat is strictly off limits.
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This practice stems from the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday: Because he sacrificed his flesh for the sake of mankind on that day, Catholics (and members of other Christian denominations) are asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The period of sacrifice ends on Easter Sunday, usually with the devouring of a large ham.
While the Lenten season may sound a bit somber, churches have found a way to turn meatless Fridays into community celebrations. They’re called fish fries, and for decades, these events have brought people together in church basements and event rooms, where they enjoy heaping plates of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw.
Friday fish fries are occasionally held on the West Coast and in other U.S. regions, but they’re ubiquitous in the Midwest. When I was a kid in Michigan, my dad brought home take-out fish fry dinners from our church nearly every Friday during Lent. It was something my sister and I looked forward to each year with gluttonous relish (so much for sacrifice). But when I raise the topic with Californian friends who grew up Catholic, I’m met with blank stares. Or undisguised envy.
The epicenter of the Midwest’s fish fry tradition, I’ve come to learn, is St. Louis, Missouri. Fish fries abound in that city, so much so that a local man was inspired to create a website called FridayNightFish.com, devoted to reviewing Lenten fish fries.
The site is run by Stephen Ibendahl (a.k.a. Fish Fry Guy), owner of a St. Louis-area consulting firm that specializes in community and urban planning. Each Friday during Lent, Ibendahl heads out with his family to sample and review a fish fry. After the season ends, he names a Best Fish Fry winner for the year, along with a Fan Favorite.
According to Ibendahl, who has attended at least 50 different fish fries over the years, St. Louis is a fish fry hub because the city’s residents have a strong spirit of community. “It gives parishes and churches a chance to come together,” he said, pointing out that most of the events are run by volunteers. “You’ll see everyone involved in a parish fish fry, from the men frying the fish to teenagers clearing tables.”
What makes a great fish fry? “You have to have great fried cod,” Ibendahl said. “That’s essential.” Tasty sides are a plus, he added, along with special touches such as “real plates” or live music.
Ibendahl’s Best Fish Fry winner for years running is St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis, which hosts its annual “Fabulous Fish Fry” every Friday during Lent. The fry not only features two kinds of fried fish, but homemade sides and desserts, live music and beer. For each weekly fish fry, volunteers prepare meals for about 700 people, including take-out orders. An adult meal costs only $8.
“We prepare fried cod loins, huge fillets of fried catfish and baked cod,” said St. Pius V parishioner Kathy Donahue, who estimates a typical weekly fish order at 350 pounds. “We hand-bread both the cod loins and catfish, and the catfish is breaded with a special mix of regular and Cajun breading to give it a little kick.”
The fish is served with homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, and fresh lemon slices.
To go along with the fish, volunteers make about 100 pounds of potato salad and 40 to 50 pounds of coleslaw each week. There are also “tons” of macaroni and cheese, applesauce and a variety of scratch-made desserts. Dinners are served on real china, not paper plates.
And that’s not all. “A popular draw is our live band Clan Jameson — all parishioners who play Irish music,” Donahue said. “Plus we have a wide assortment of craft and regular beer served by ‘The Precious Bar Maids,’ who are really the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. We also have our very own Frying Nun, a sister of the Precious Blood, who fries our catfish.”
This extravaganza is a far cry from the simple fish fries of my childhood, which featured only fried cod, fries and coleslaw. But that’s the fun of the fish fry — no two are exactly the same.
“When you travel around to different fish fries,” Ibendahl said, “each one is a little different.”
To find a fish fry near you, check out these regional “Fish Fry Finders”:
Main photo: A Friday night fish fry typically includes fried cod, french fries and coleslaw. Credit: Tina Caputo
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.”
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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.
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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.
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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