Articles in Opinions

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The days following a holiday are always a bit of a downer. And all too often it’s just a matter of time before the importance of the occasion becomes a distant memory as we return to the status quo of living our everyday lives.

Wait, you didn’t know Friday, October 24, was a holiday?

OK, perhaps not a holiday exactly, but for food geeks like me it was a day where houses were filled with brightly colored fruit and vegetable balloons and salubrious meals were followed by delicious-but-still-nutritious desserts. Food Day was created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to raise awareness about the story of food from farm to table and back to soil to encourage dietary changes that support health, community, and the environment.

Why what you eat matters

In my own world, though, October 24 is just another day to do what I always do: teach people about why what you eat matters, farm to fork. I first began making the connections between what I ate and how it affected our planet and its peoples almost 20 years ago, learning from a professor who had been teaching “nutrition ecology” for decades. Learning to think beyond myself when it came to food was an “Aha!” moment for me. It has had an indelible effect on everything I’ve ever done in my career as a nutrition scientist.

As you probably already know, nutrition is a science focused on how food impacts health and disease, which is in essence biochemistry and physiology. Fundamentally, nutrition is based in the biological sciences, hence rooted to an individual. The concept of “nutrition ecology” was first coined in the early 1980s and remains unfamiliar to most people (including most nutritionists, by the way, since thinking outside the body is not standard practice for them, either). In essence, nutrition ecology expands how we think about food beyond health, a paradigm that includes the impact of our food choices on the environment, economy and society as a whole.

In other words, when it comes to what you eat, it’s not just about you.

Of course, diet impacts your own health, weight and risk of disease: 80% of chronic diseases are essentially preventable through modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, and better food choices will lead to a longer life filled with more active years. If you’re not yet paying close enough attention to your own well-being, now’s a great time to think about the kinds of changes you can make to improve your own health. Yet the spirit of Food Day truly becomes alive when we step outside ourselves and deeply consider why what we eat matters — apart from our own bodies. How food is grown and what resources are used to produce it, including feed, land, water, fuel, fertilizers and soil; who grows it, and how fairly she or he is treated and remunerated; how it gets to you and how much it costs; and how food is disposed and/or wasted — should you be lucky enough to live in a place where surplus exists — all matter.

Sound like a tall order to consider all of that next time you’re making a meal?

Sustainable eating

It’s true that the road to healthy and sustainable eating is rife with complexities. Yet if you’re not up for a semester-long course in farm to fork eating, like the kinds of classes I teach, the good news is that cutting back on animal foods like beef, pork, lamb, and poultry (especially processed products) and increasing your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes will go a long way toward improving your health as well as the environment, due to the much smaller carbon- and water-footprint of plant-based diets. And that simple change, if enough people do it, can lead to many other large-scale positive effects elsewhere in the food system.

Sure, there’s a lot more you can do aside from consuming less meat, and Food Day is a terrific opportunity to educate yourself about critical food issues from farming to food waste, chemicals to climate change. And, as long as you ensure your sources are science-based, there are myriad places to help you put into practice the principles of nutrition ecology.

P.K. Newby

P.K. Newby

But Food Day is just one day, and now it’s over — and, if we’re being honest, most people probably didn’t even know about it, anyway. And that’s OK because, let’s face it, every day is food day, really. Not only do we need food to live, but food is an integral part of our cultural identity and, for many, a source of joy and connection to ourselves, others, and the planet we share. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, food is practically the whole story every time. Far more important than celebrating a day that quickly lapses into the past is to make your food choices matter in the present every time you shop, cook, eat and drink. With each bite, you have the opportunity to invest not only in your own health, but to cast a vote about the kind of world we want to live in, together.

I hope there will be a time when we don’t need a special day to remind us.

Main photo: The Copley Square farmers market in Boston. Credit: P.K. Newby

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With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author's Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

When I first opened the doors to my restaurant Tanoreen 15 years ago, I had a clear intention: offer my diners a peek into the Middle Eastern cuisine I knew beyond falafel and hummus. I also wanted to share a rich, nuanced culinary world that — contrary to popular belief — was more slow food than fast food.

At that time, hummus was not served at cocktail parties with carrot sticks, people didn’t know what tahini was or how to use it. Freekah (smoked wheat) was not proclaimed a “super food” and za’atar and sumac were not the trendiest spices in the land. But to me, these foods were things we consumed and used daily. They were part of the tradition of food in the Middle East that was then unknown in America. I am quite pleased that the Mediterranean diet has become so popular. It’s healthy, fresh and in my opinion, delectable.

But let’s be honest. Most of the popular Middle Eastern dishes that have worked their way through the food chain were, until recently, “fast food” such as supermarket shish kabob carts and hummus party trays. Middle Eastern food is about much more than dips and sandwiches. The spice mixes and the use of fresh vegetables, lean meats, grains and olive oil are all cornerstones.

Our meals, when I was growing up and with my own children, were and remain an active meditation. It’s not “on the go” but rather celebrating slow-cooked food, togetherness, conversation and phones off!

Unlike baking, cooking is not formulaic, even though recipes can feel that way sometimes. I always say two people can make the same recipe, and it will taste completely different. There is a soulfulness in this kind of cooking.

It’s an inner, almost empathetic connection to the people you’re cooking for. The focus is on what really tastes good, and not just on your tongue. It’s also in the emotions and memories triggered as your guests eat the meal you’ve prepared.

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Similarly my cookbook, “Olives, Lemons & Za’atar,” comes from that same premise. I want to celebrate the variety of recipes, which are not at all difficult, along with the traditions and memories that come with Middle Eastern food.

Memories of such meals stand like flag posts throughout my life: the first meal I cooked for my husband (stuffed artichoke hearts), our traditional Christmas dinner (roast leg of lamb), my daughter’s favorite breakfast food as a child (potatoes and eggs) and traditional wedding mezzes.

I learned all this from my mother, a schoolteacher and home cook. Technically speaking, she was a genius chef. But her real strength as a cook lay in her ability to make meals that were an extension of her love for her family and guests — of which there were many! Her meals created an environment of warmth, safety, comfort and a total blast for the senses. It was hypnotic, with all your synapses triggered simultaneously.

A snapshot of a favorite meal: a warm winter stew of slow-braised cauliflower and fragrant spiced lamb, served alongside warm rice pilaf and toasted vermicelli noodles, fresh tomato salad with shaved radish and herbs from her garden. There were heaping plates of olives, warm fresh Arabic bread, long thin hot peppers to crunch on. And small plates of hummus and labne, served before the meal but later banished to the outer corners of a table almost wiped clean. Two parents, five children and almost always a guest or two — because if you cook for seven, you are cooking for 10.

Ghada, as we called it, was a refuge. The biggest meal of the day, served in the late afternoon, with dinner usually later and much lighter.

In today’s world, we may seem more connected, but really we’re more disconnected than ever. People click away on their smartphones on the train, walking down the street, at the gym and, yes, at the dinner table.

As a chef, I try to create a cozy bubble-like environment in my restaurant, just as I did in my own home as a mother and wife. Middle Eastern food creates that mood, using dishes that invite connection. A great meal is a conduit to togetherness.

Brussels Sprouts With Panko

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

Corn oil for frying

4 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, cut in half

1 cup Thick Tahini Sauce (see recipe below)

1 cup lowfat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

Pinch sea salt

Directions

1. Pour ¼ to ½ inch corn oil in a large skillet and place over a high heat until hot. To test the temperature, slip half a Brussels sprout into the pan; if it makes a popping sound, the oil is hot enough.

2. Working in batches, fry the Brussels sprouts, turning occasionally, until they are browned all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sprouts to a paper towel–lined plate to drain.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the Thick Tahini Sauce, yogurt and pomegranate molasses in a medium bowl. Set aside.

4. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high until hot. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

5. Add the panko and stir constantly until the crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

6. Stir in the salt and remove the bread crumbs from the heat. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool.

7. Place the Brussels sprouts in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce and top with the panko crumbs. Serve immediately.

Notes

Brussels sprouts were not part of the Palestinian kitchen when I was growing up. I discovered them here in the States and very eagerly tried to push them on my children. To that end, I did what any good mother would do — I pumped up their flavor by adding a little tahini sauce and sweet pomegranate molasses. It worked!

In fact these Brussels sprouts were so delicious that they made it onto the original Tanoreen menu and I’ve never taken them off.

Thick Tahini Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 2½ cups

Ingredients

1½ cups tahini (sesame paste)

3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

Juice of 5 lemons or to taste (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon sea salt

Chopped parsley for garnish

Directions

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt and process on low speed for 2 minutes or until thoroughly incorporated.
2. Turn the speed to high and blend until the tahini mixture begins to whiten.
3. Gradually add up to ½ cup water until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.
4. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and garnish with the parsley. Leftover tahini sauce can be stored, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks.

Notes

Tahini sauce is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern kitchens. It is the condiment. There is hardly a dish that isn’t enhanced by it. At Tanoreen, I mix it into salad dressings and drizzle it into cauliflower casseroles. My daughter? She dips French fries into it! Learn to make this and you will have a simple, delicious, versatile sauce to add to your repertoire.

Main photo: With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author’s Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

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Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

farm1

farm1
Picture 1 of 3

Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

farm3

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm5

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm4

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm6

Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Conversations with more than 50 distillers over the last two years have changed me. No, I haven’t had a liver transplant; I’ve undergone an adjective-ectomy.

I’ve spent most of the last 25 years writing and editing, and a little less of that time drinking, so it’s not surprising that a word has taken on outsized importance. It’s a word I would like to see banished from all discussion of spirits. And that word is … “smooth.”

Hold on one stinkin’ minute, I can hear you thinking, isn’t that the (Johnnie Walker) Gold standard? The sine quaff non of distillers everywhere? As a matter of fact, no. And if you’re looking for smoothness in your glass you’ve been sold a bill of goods.


Before embarking on the research for my recently released book on craft distillers, I would not have questioned the assertion that smooth was the height of perfection. Ah, for a simpler time.

Dan Farber, co-owner of the world-class brandy producer Osocalis, in Soquel, Calif., is one of the best makers and agers of brown spirits in the country. As such he’s at the top of a very small group. It’s a group, just by the way, that does not include very many bourbon producers since most are somewhat indifferent to the making.

The big guys use an industrial process, and what ends up in a $20 bottle may well have started out as the very same liquid as, say, a bottle of one of the delicious but overpriced and impossible to find Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. As for the aging, when you’ve got a seven-story high, football-field size warehouse full of bourbon, odds are that a few of those barrels will be sublime. Small producers do not have these luxuries, so they have to take a more careful, hands-on approach.

Farber characterizes smoothness as a “trivial thing” and “entry-level stuff.” What’s he’s going for — and the proof of his success can be found in everything he makes, but particularly his XO brandy — is brown spirits that have “the flavor of the beast that they came from, yet also have all these new things.”

Those new things come from aging. And while we’re on the subject of banishing words and sloppy thinking from the booze world, if someone says they’re able to speed up aging by using small barrels, run the other way. Sure, you can get more wood character more quickly, but why would you want to?

“Smooth” is not just Distilling 101; it’s also the path away from complexity. Milk is smooth. Aged spirits should be complex.

Are Farber’s brandies harsh? By no means. But when they’re in your mouth, and for many minutes after, nerve cells are firing in all directions. I defy anyone to take a sip of any Osocalis product and have nothing more interesting to say about it than “smooth.”


Jake Norris is an original partner in Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, one of the first and best small, independent American whiskey producers. (He left Stranahan’s shortly after Proximo, the owners of Jose Cuervo and other brands, bought the company.) He’s now at Laws Whiskey House, the most promising new whiskey distillery in the country. The fear Norris expressed to me, about a year into production, was that his whiskey was too smooth.

“The danger might be that it’s almost too balanced. In the beginning,” he said, “it was overly smooth and I was afraid it was going to lose character, so I [adjusted the distillation] so you get that slight astringent suck on the tongue. It’s got a little bit of teeth so it can sit in the barrels longer, meaning two to five years. If all of this is done properly, it can go to possibly six or eight years, maybe more. I don’t know if I would try that.”

Not every small, independent spirits producer (and very few of those who make aged brown spirits) is making stuff as good as Osocalis or Laws. Almost none can afford to use large barrels and wait until time and good wood have worked their magic. What every one of them can do is tell you honestly what they’re trying to do and how they’re going about it.

If they say their whiskey is smooth, however, feel free to explain to them that that’s exactly how you like your shaves, babies’ bottoms and gravy. But not what’s in your glass.

Main photo: “American Spirit” author James Rodewald wants to change how we talk about booze. Credit: Marella Consolini

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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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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Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots Credit: Sunny Young

Some volleys in the battle to make school food healthier can sting.

“I was told after removing chicken nuggets from the menu that I was taking all the fun out of school lunch, which was a pretty harsh thing to be told,” said Sunny Young, Program Manager of Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative to improve the nutrition of cafeteria meals and educate students and their families in Oxford, Miss., about better food choices.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

But, Young said, “We make decisions based on the welfare of our children.”

Young spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement, citing dire statistics demonstrating a critical need for better food choices.

Forty percent of Mississippi’s children are overweight or obese, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity is linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological problems.

“In order to change these really scary statistics, we need a paradigm shift in the way that we think about food and the way we eat food,” Young said.

She cited reasons for hope. A recent evaluation of Good Food for Oxford Schools, conducted jointly by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies and the university’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, showed that the program is having an impact.

“What we’re doing is working,” she said.  “It’s changing eating habits,” at school and at home.

The program has a three-pronged approach, working in the cafeteria, the classroom and the community.  In school cafeterias, she said, “We are transforming what the kids are seeing on their trays,” with menus featuring more fresh, local food.  The proportion of the cafeteria menu cooked from scratch grew from 30% to 75% during the 2013-14 school year.

That startling increase came from replacing overly processed items with whole food — for instance, replacing those sacrosanct chicken nuggets with baked chicken. Newly trained staff also replaced frozen foods with items such as pot pies and stir-fried foods. They tapped into recipes from TheLunchBox.org, a site started by Chef Ann Cooper, a longtime advocate for healthier school food (and Young’s boss before she came to Oxford).

The “Harvest of the Month” program in the cafeterias helps promote the use of more local food, with the added incentive of a sticker for younger kids who try something new.

But, she noted, “You can’t just put this food in front of kids and expect that they’re going to love it and eat it.”

That’s where the classroom lessons come in:

“We get them to touch and feel foods, Young said. “We bring in the farmer. We bring in chefs. They do cooking demos in the classroom. We really allow students to experience the joy of food.”

The district’s middle and high schools now have salad bars, and Young’s goal is to get them in elementary schools during the current school year.

The older kids’ incentives: more control over their schools’ food choices.

“Stickers and dressing up like a carrot doesn’t work so well,” Young said of the middle and high school crowd. “So what we’ve done is empower the students themselves.”

Young launched food clubs in the district’s middle and high school, where students cook, eat and learn together. The club also provides suggestions to improve cafeteria menus.

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

School gardens are also part of the program, and will be expanded this year thanks to an AmeriCorps-affiliated FoodCorps member now working with the program. Young is working to get schools to incorporate the gardens into the curriculum, but the gardens are already having an impact.  She noted that when a group of third-graders was asked last year to draw a carrot, all the students involved in the school garden program drew it growing underground, unlike the other children who simply drew carrots without any context.

Community steps up

The third piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools’ work is in the community. The program works with farmers markets and organizes community events, such as a Gospel Choir Showcase that featured choirs singing on the Oxford town square interspersed with messages about Good Food for Oxford Schools and food samples from the improved school menu.

Young’s goal for the school year is to expand the program to reach more kids and families.  She was recently named state co-lead for Mississippi for the National Farm to School Network.

She’s now working to connect programs across the state that are doing similar work, and is organizing a Farm to Cafeteria conference for later in the school year.

“The people of Mississippi have embraced this project,” Young said.  “Good food can change everything.

Main photo: Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots. Credit: Sunny Young

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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