Articles in Environment

A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

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Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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An Indonesion delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.

Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.

Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.

It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.

Terra Madre unites people from across the globe

During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.

Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.

This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.

The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.

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The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) booth serves as a part of the Indian Slow Food Delegation. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”

He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.

The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.

Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.

“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).

Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.

Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.

“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”

Gardens benefit families and communities

The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”

At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.

“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”

Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.

“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.

“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.

“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”

The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

Illustration of the "one woman, one chicken coop" concept.  Credit: Carla Capalbo

Illustration of the “one woman, one chicken coop” concept. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.

“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.

Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”

He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.

Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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.

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.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

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.

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

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Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.

“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)

Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods

The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.

ZESTER LINKS


This is the latest in a series on the importance of biodiversity.

More on corn:

Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.

For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:

» "Masa Offers the Kernel of a Culture" by Julie Moskin

» "Retreat to Subsistence" from The Nation

» "Risking Corn, Risking Culture" by Hope Cummings

» Sin Maiz No Hay Pais


More from Zester Daily:

» Holiday tamales: A mail-order review

» Summer-perfect corn

» Mexico’s best mercado

» With a wealth of nutrients, acorns vital for Indians

Activists, farmers, academics, scientists and multiple non-governmental organizations know this is only a momentary victory. They argue the transgenic corn debate is a symbol of many unfair practices. Farmers, for example, want fair-trade reform so local white corn varieties are not more expensive to grow than imported yellow corn. They want to continue growing their preferred criollo corn varieties for the sake of taste and culture. Local farmers argue they are experts at growing and testing numerous corn varieties in multiple microclimates; they are fully aware that distant specialists belittle their traditional ecological knowledge. Finally, farmers and their families do not want to migrate, or work in maquiladoras, factories in Mexico run by foreign companies and exporting products to the country of that company. They want to remain on the land, in their homes, and make a livable wage.

Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.

So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.

Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.

Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”

A gift that grows

Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.

Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.

Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.

Finding warmth in Ireland

Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.

About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.

When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.

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Contributor Deborah Madison's wine-warming system while in Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.

Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.

Christmas in Dublin

By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.

By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.

Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

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An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Beijing has been a hotbed of culinary activity since at least as far back as imperial days when localities would dispatch their best chefs to cook up regional delicacies for the emperor there. Creativity and diversity in food shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Beijing is city of more than 20 million people.

These days, food-related activities are increasingly focused on building awareness around sustainability, DIY culture and farm-to-fork conscientiousness. Nothing reflects this greater than the early October Beijing Design Week.

This year, organizers added Food Loop, a sustainable food festival within Design Week, to what had previously focused exclusively on visual arts, architecture, interior design and issues related to urban planning.

Based out of 751 D-Park, which is a section of the well-known 798 arts district but with elevated walkways and stairwells winding up into old factory structures, Food Loop’s sustainable food exhibits included a demonstration of urban farming and workshops about beekeeping, desktop aquaponics and pickling.

Panel discussions and a self-harvesting vegetable market were complemented by a vegan pop-up restaurant run by Chef Laura Fanelli. Fanelli is the founder and former head chef at the Veggie Table, a vegan restaurant on the popular Wudaoying hutong within the historic neighborhood of Beijing’s second ring road.

At the Food Loop, overlooking a postmodern conjunction of old factory buildings, contemporary art galleries and sculptural installations, Fanelli served dishes including a meat-free version of the classic Beijing noodle dish zhajiangmian. Traditionally, wheat noodles are topped with a (usually pork-based) bean sauce and garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions as well as julienned carrots and cucumbers, resulting in a smoky, satisfying dish somewhat like spaghetti Bolognese. In Fanelli’s version, tofu bits and soybeans were added to the mix, and soy protein takes the place of pork in the sauce.

Floating aquaponics in China

Sick of food safety scandals and mystery meats — most recently, rat meat being passed off as lamb — Beijing is not only experiencing something of a vegetarian and vegan renaissance, it is also seeing a boom in home-based food-growing projects. A local aquaponics association has begun offering regular DIY classes on setting up desktop aquaponics systems, which was offered by Food Loop during design week.

Food Loop

A view of the organic vegetable and herb market at Beijing’s Food Loop event, atop the sky bridge in the industrial complex of D-Park. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

I’ve purchased one aquaponics kit and once the weather turns too cold to grow food on my rented plot of land outside of the city, this is one way I hope to continue to feed myself, at the very least supplying my own herbs in a way that I’m confident is chemical free.

On the higher end of the spectrum was the dining, video and design installation called “Meating Amy.” A partnership between Chef Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud and design firm Jellymon, it took participants through the story of a pig raised in Yunnan, before it was slaughtered for consumption. Then a meal using parts of a pig from that same farm was served, and parts of the pig were also converted into small material items that helped to create a food cart. The goal, in part, was to reinforce the connection between what we eat and where it comes from.

Sustainable food trends reach Beijing

Beijing and its culinary scene continue to evolve. There is booming creativity in cooking here and the local community is focused on exploring alternatives and advances beyond the current food status quo. The same trends that we see in New York City, Paris or Singapore are also emerging here, with unique expressions that are particular to Beijing’s challenges and needs.

Top photo: An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

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Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

“So where’s your sushi from?” I asked politely, still sweating the effects of Fukushima on fish from the Pacific Ocean.

“From Japan,” said the waiter.

Well, duh, what should I have expected? We were in a Japanese restaurant.

For more than a year now, scientists studying the effects of the March 2011 deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disastrous breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have suspected that the plant may still be leaking. Levels of radioactivity in the waters and fish around the plant have not been declining, as would be expected. Recently, amid reports of surging radiation levels, Japan finally owned up: The plant has probably been leaking for the past two years, acknowledged Japan’s chief nuclear regulator.

So should we, sitting comfortably across the Pacific, be worried about consuming Pacific fish?

Nicholas Fisher, a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, has been studying radioactivity and metals in marine life for more than three decades. He’s part of the research team examining Fukushima’s effects on the seas.

Last year he reported small amounts of Fukushima’s cesium in Pacific bluefin tuna caught off California’s coast in summer 2011. Those tuna had spent their early days during that momentous spring off Japan’s Pacific shores, then migrated across the ocean, as some species do.

Last month he published another study saying the amounts of cesium are nothing to worry about. “The biological effects of any contaminant are generally dependent on the dose received,” he wrote. And the dosages of cesium in those 2011 tuna and attendant risks are extremely low, he said — too low to detect any damage and declining in fish caught in 2012. In fact, he’s more concerned about mercury in tuna than radioactivity.

Fisher compares the dosage of cesium you’d get from eating a 200-gram portion of that tuna to the naturally occurring radioactive potassium in one banana: The banana would give you a dose 20 times higher. When’s the last time you had a CT scan? That dosage is at least 1,000 times more — depending on the scan, up to 10,000 times more — than the amount an average American seafood consumer would get eating that contaminated tuna for an entire year, he said.

But what about the fish being exported from Japan?

Seafood from Japan monitored

To its credit, Japan lowered its levels of acceptable cesium in the wake of the disaster from 500 to 100 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. limit is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram, and the Canadian limit is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Japan has been testing fish and posting results on the Internet. Some clear patterns are emerging:

— Some freshwater fish (landlocked salmon, for example) have higher levels of cesium, which is not surprising. Cesium mimics sodium and potassium. both of which are abundant and naturally occurring in the sea, meaning they would displace cesium uptake.

— And some of the ocean’s bottom feeders are showing levels above limits, which again is not surprising. Contaminants are getting trapped in sediments near the Fukushima nuclear plant, experts say, providing a continuous source of food for marine life that feed along the bottom near the shoreline.

The fish that feed in this area include many familiar species: cod, haddock, grouper, bass, halibut, flounder, sole, snapper, shellfish, monkfish, turbot, sturgeon, shark, eel and greenling, which was once a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Last February, a greenling caught near the plant registered the highest level of contamination yet, which is 7,400 times the amount of radioactive cesium that Japan deems acceptable.

Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep contaminated fish off the market. Immediately after the incident, its fishermen voluntarily agreed to a ban on most commercial fishing off Fukushima prefecture. (The ban did not include fishing for skipjack tuna and some mackerel, all caught far enough offshore that it didn’t seem to worry the decision makers. They’ve been inspecting samples of those species, they say.)

Japan uses a testing program

Today, a few of those restrictions have been lifted. You can now buy Fukushima octopus and snow crab, for example. And the country relies on a testing program that’s managed by the prefectures and depends on the fisherman’s voluntary compliance.  The prefectures regularly test samples for cesium, which builds up in muscle (and irregularly test for strontium, which accumulates in bone), at least weekly,  often daily, explained a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Canada. If a fish contains cesium above limits, the fisherman is responsible for keeping that species off the market. That responsibility means they must not sell any fish of that species in that day’s catch.

If a species from a particular area continues to show contamination, the central government can step in and ban fishing for that species in that area of the prefecture, as it has done in several instances. Then, if testing over multiple places within that area shows results consistently below limits, the feds can lift the ban.

Take Japan’s Pacific cod. Today, it’s banned in Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture but can still be snagged elsewhere and sold. At one point, it was prohibited in three other prefectures because its contamination levels were above limits, but the ban’s no longer in force. Do fish know prefectural boundaries?

Global efforts to track contamination

In North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canadian counterparts no longer single out imports from Japan for inspection like they did after the incident but they do still monitor radiation in all foods, spokespeople said. The FDA has also issued an order authorizing agents to seize certain foods from certain prefectures that Japan’s central government has already banned from exporting due to high contamination levels. Recently, the American Medical Assn. passed a resolution urging the FDA to monitor seafood carefully, and a group of physician organizations instrumental in that resolution, led by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Erica Frank, are calling on U.S. and Canadian authorities to be vigilant.

So could Pacific cod that had been feeding in those contaminated sediments make it to your faraway platter? Possibly, assuming it swam a few miles from Fukushima and through a few loopholes. If you indulged on a little sushi, would there be enough cesium to do harm?

Fisher’s now starting to study the levels of radioactivity in those coastal bottom feeders along with the possibility of radiation in other migratory species.

Being a worrywart, I ordered the mushrooms. But should I have asked where they came from? Sure enough, fungi feast on cesium, too.

Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

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