Articles in Soapbox
With ubiquitous food porn and hyped health headlines, 2015 was the year of sizzle over substance. At Oldways, a 25-year-old nonprofit celebrating cultural food traditions, we predict 2016 will reverse that formula with these six food trends for the new year that will affect what we put on our plates.
Our appetite for healthy food continues to grow
The movement toward healthier food choices continues to gain momentum. A recent Euromonitor survey projects global sales of healthy food products will hit $1 trillion by 2017, almost doubling the figure from 2007. It’s no wonder as consumers are now exposed to, and educated about, food choices practically everywhere: restaurants, grocery stores, TV food shows and schools. Based on Nielsen data, with nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, this provides significant incentive and opportunity for manufacturers developing new products.
Sustainable diets move to the center plate
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Food literacy finally catches hold
The term “food literacy” is gaining currency. Thanks to the 75 million members of the experiential millennial generation, and technology, the youngest American adults connect good health with knowing where their food comes from and who produces it. As Eve Turow, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum,” said in an interview in The Atlantic, “food is also allowing us to access the globe, so we can find out what harissa is made with and how to prepare something with it, in two seconds on our phones.” This extends to appreciation for personal food traditions and a desire to reconnect with the culture of one’s ancestors. That’s good news, as heritage is an ever more powerful motivator for healthier eating, inspiring home cooking, which saves an average of 200 calories per meal.
Supermarkets are the new health hubs
According to the Food Marketing Institute, a food retail trade group, Americans make 1.5 trips to the grocery store each week. That far outstrips visits to health care providers. To help customers make balanced food choices, supermarkets like Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Giant Eagle are hiring registered dietitians in their stores. These RDs will bring good health to consumers (and financial health to the grocery business) by demonstrating how to move healthier choices from shelf to table.
Raw milk cheese is hot
More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses (think Le Gruyère AOP, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort, Grafton Village Cheddar, and Pont-l’Évêque, a favorite of Prince Charles) and purchase them regularly, according to the Oldways Cheese Coalition 2015 Raw Milk Cheese Consumption and Attitudes Survey.
However, the FDA is looking carefully at unpasteurized cheese, and new regulations could limit availability of traditional cheeses in the United States. Still, 90 percent of U.S. cheese lovers believe they should be able to choose raw milk cheeses. This may be the impetus to give these products, created through the old ways of cheese making, the attention they deserve.
Increased consensus on what to eat
A study in the Journal of Health Communication showed contradictory nutrition news creates consumer confusion, leading people to doubt health and nutrition recommendations. But that may change.
With the imminent release of the updated Dietary Guidelines, along with movements such as Oldways Common Ground — launched with a gathering of 75 top nutrition scientists, medical experts and media members to reach consensus on what Americans should be eating — and the True Health Initiative, started by Yale University Prevention Research Center’s founding director David Katz, which enlists hundreds of experts to spread evidence-based truths about lifestyle as medicine, clarity will begin to trump confusion.
Main photo: Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways
When it comes to Hanukkah, are you of the latke persuasion or are you in the fried pastry camp: sufganiyot, buñuelos, zengoula?
"The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen"
By Amelia Saltsman,
Sterling Epicure, 2015, 320 pages
Before we jump in, I should tell you that Hanukkah is my favorite holiday. And that I’m the daughter of an Iraqi father and a Romanian mother, whose families immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s. My parents met in the Israeli army, came to Los Angeles a few months before I was born to further their education and stayed.
You should also know that I’m devoted to the farmers who grow my food. All of which make fertile ground for what comes next. As the young child of busy students, my affection for Hanukkah didn’t stem from elaborate presents, large parties or even alluring aromas from the kitchen. Far from extended family and time-honored traditions, we drew to the glowing candles of the Hanukkah menorah (hanukiyah) as though to a cozy fireplace. The sense of warmth and togetherness fed my soul long before I could have articulated the concept. Little did I know that I was tapping into Hanukkah’s very heart.
A child’s favorite holiday
Much of the Hanukkah story is common Sunday school stuff. The Festival of Lights, a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, commemorates the triumph of Judah and his band of Maccabees over Syrian-Greek rule and forced assimilation, the rededication of the temple and the miraculous bit of oil that lasted eight days, which is why we eat fried foods.
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So far, so familiar. But here’s the thing: Hanukkah begins on the dark moon closest to the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the pre-electric world would have most craved light and warmth. With autumn crops tucked away and the rebirth of spring far off, a festival of light to cheer a dark winter would have been just the ticket. Aha! The seasonal touchstone is the absence of growing things, the hiatus that drives us all indoors. However did I channel that at the age of 6? Funny how one’s life passions are present before we ever understand their implications. For me, this little marvel is on a par with the eight days of oil. (For the record, Hanukkah is thought to be a reenactment of Sukkot for the fighters who had missed the autumn harvest pilgrimage festival.)
Doughnuts and latkes
My Hanukkah food memories from those years are pretty sketchy, other than the Israeli holiday favorite, sufganiyot (doughnuts) that my father would bring home from the bakery where he worked evenings after class.
Latkes entered the scene when I was 9 and my sister was a baby. My mother received a gift of Sara Kasden’s “Love and Knishes,” a popular Jewish cookbook filled with Yiddish schtick. Although Hanukkah latkes are a European Jewish (Ashkenazic) custom to symbolize the oil, my mom considered them a New World treat and embraced them with gusto.
Kasden’s book defined our latke approach: thin, crisp and made from grated — not pureed — potatoes as the secret to great potato pancakes instead of ones that are raw, burnt and greasy all at the same time (a sort of negative miracle of its own). Over the years, three generations (my mother, me, my children) have perfected our skills into a zen-like rhythm, three abreast at the stove, to produce enough delicious latkes to satisfy our now-large family gatherings. (More hot tips: heat oil — no more than 1/4 inch deep — over medium heat, get oil hot enough that batter sizzles on contact, keep latkes thin — one generous tablespoonful of batter flattened with a spoon makes a three-inch pancake.)
A grandmother’s legacy
It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered another Hanukkah miracle: my Iraqi grandmother’s recipe for zengoula — crisp fried funnel cakes drenched in simple syrup. The coiled pastries are a centuries-old favorite in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (where they are called jalebi), and were adopted by Iraqi Jews for Hanukkah.
The Sephardic treats are addictive, each crunchy bite shattering to a burst of sweet syrup. How had I missed the fun all these years? Although our family began transatlantic visits back and forth in 1961 and I had vivid memories of the dishes my Safta Rachel cooked for us, this one had escaped me.
But my cousin Elan Garonzik remembered them. Whenever our Safta visited his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before heading west to us, Elan took careful notes as he cooked with our grandmother and still has his handwritten zengoula notes from the 1960s. I needed his help to work up a proper recipe.
Relearning a recipe
As luck, or miracle, would have it, I visited Elan, now a New Yorker, when the Museum of Jewish Heritage was showing “Iraqi Jewish Archives.” The exhibit depicts the discovery by a U.S. army team of thousands of books, Torah fragments, shopping lists and other ephemera that tell the 2,500-year story of Jews in Iraq, instead of the WMD they were seeking in that Baghdad basement. Go figure.
Elan and I whisked up the simple batter, set it to proof and headed to the museum. We wandered the exhibit, gazing at photos of youngsters who reminded us of his mother and my father. We came around a corner to a display about Hanukkah, which described local holiday customs including zengoula, the only dish mentioned in the show. It was, as they say in Yiddish, beshert (meant to be).
Today, we’re four generations celebrating together. Over eight days, our latkes, zengoula and sufganiyot pay tribute to “free to be you and me” diversity and remind us that it is indeed about the oil — not too much and hot enough. And in the spirit of our forefathers, we bask in the warmth of candlelight as we embrace a “minor” holiday to its fullest measure.
Zengoula With Lemon Syrup: Iraqi funnel cakes (Pareve)
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 6 to 24 hours to proof
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Traditionally soaked in sugar syrup, zengoula are infinitely more wonderful when infused with a tangy lemon syrup. It takes only a few minutes to whisk together the forgiving batter the night before you want to serve zengoula, and the pastries can be fried early in the day you want to serve them. You will need to begin this recipe at least six hours before you want to serve zengoula.
For the dough:
1 1⁄8 teaspoons (half package) active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water (100 to 110 degrees)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the syrup:
2 to 3 lemons
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 quarts mild oil for frying, such as grapeseed, sunflower or avocado
To make the dough:
1. In a small bowl, stir together the yeast and 1/4 cup of the warm water and let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles, about 10 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, using a fork, stir together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of the warm water and the yeast mixture. Slowly stir in enough of the remaining 1/2 cup warm water until the dough is lump-free and the consistency of thick pancake batter.
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until doubled in bulk, at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
To make the lemon syrup:
Using a five-hole zester, remove the zest from 1 of the lemons in long strands. Halve and squeeze enough lemons to yield 1/3 cup juice. In a small pot, stir together the lemon juice and zest, water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely dissolved and clear, about 1 minute. Pour into a pie pan and let cool. (The syrup can be made 1 day ahead, covered and refrigerated.)
To make the fritters:
1. Scrape the dough into a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag or large pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain pastry tip and set the bag in a bowl for support. Let the dough stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
2. Pour the oil to a depth of 3 1/2 inches into a 4- or 5-quart pot, wok or electric fryer and heat to 375°F. If using a plastic bag for the dough, snip 1/4 inch off one of the bottom corners, cutting on the diagonal, to create a piping tip. Roll the top of the pastry bag closed to move the batter toward the opening.
3. Pipe a bit of the batter into the hot oil. The oil should bubble around the batter immediately. If it doesn’t, continue heating. Pipe the dough into the hot oil, creating 3- to 4-inch coils or squiggles. Be careful not to crowd the pan. Fry the dough, turning once at the halfway point, until bubbled, golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes total.
4. Use a slotted spoon to fish the fritters out of the oil, drain them briefly on a towel-lined plate, and then drop them into the syrup for a moment or two, turning them to coat evenly. Lift them out of the syrup and transfer them to a tray in a single layer to cool. Repeat with remaining batter, skimming any loose bits of dough from the hot oil between batches to prevent burning.
5. The cooled pastries can be piled on a platter. Pour any remaining syrup over the top. The fritters taste best served the same day they are made, although they will hold their crispness overnight. Store loosely covered at room temperature.
Adapted with permission from “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” © 2015 by Amelia Saltsman, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Main photo: Zengoula are infinitely more wonderful when infused with a tangy lemon syrup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Staci Valentine; reprinted with permission from “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen”
Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.
A tale of two Grenaches
At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.
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Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.
But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).
The world’s grape
Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.
It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).
Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.
So what happened in California?
The bad old days
Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.
As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.
And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.
Why now, for Grenache?
Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climate should be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.
The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.
Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.
And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.
Clones to the rescue
At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.
We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.
Celebrating Grenache’s present
How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.
Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone.
The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website.
Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.
A bright future for Grenache
What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)
In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.
The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.
Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.
Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard
My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.
But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.
The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
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These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.
Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.
The importance of cod
By Darra Goldstein
Ten Speed Press, 2015
Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.
For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.
Population is threatened
The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.
The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.
Preservation is vital
Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.
Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.
Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. The regular sights and sounds of the street unfold: sirens blasting, students playing in a courtyard, construction workers hammering away, and the homeless and hungry lining up outside the Lowell Transitional Living Center.
Adjacent to the shelter, tucked into a previously vacant lot, is a scene uncommon in most urban areas. Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread is harvesting arugula, kale, radishes and strawberries to create a fresh salad later in the day with our students. As a member of FoodCorps, I’m helping. People often stop to inquire about our small but productive urban garden oasis. The quick response is, “We’re growing food in Lowell for our community and schools.” But that is just scratching the surface of what we do.
Lowell is a uniquely diverse city. The birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell is also home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the country. We continue to welcome refugee families into our community while also recognizing our historic roots.
While Lowell celebrates the cultural identities that make up the fabric of our city, the challenges our families face regarding food access and finding food that is culturally relevant are real and urgent. More than 40% of Lowell residents are unable to find culturally appropriate food near their homes, and more than one in three neighborhood stores do not sell any produce at all, according to the Lowell Community Food Assessment. Moreover, nearly 80% of Lowell students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 36% of our students are overweight or obese, according to a report, The Status of Childhood Weight in Massachusetts.
Beginning with one garden
In 2011, Mill City Grows’ founders Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson started working with the idea that Lowell could be a place known for its innovative approach to food production and food justice. Mill City Grows (MCG) launched with the creation of a community garden hidden away in an abandoned park.
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The success of that garden created buy-in at multiple levels within the community — from residents to city officials to schools. Soon, the Lowell Public School district was requesting assistance from MCG to build school gardens and provide programming for students across the city. The demand for school gardens is high in Lowell as gardens continue to prove how powerful they are in tackling childhood hunger locally.
The grassroots efforts that MCG embraces are successful. What began as a single community garden has grown into four community gardens located across Lowell, two urban farms, eight school gardens and a Mobile Farmers Market that makes eight stops around the city.
A growing garden program
To sustain this movement and continue deepening its scope, Slater and Sisson realized that they needed to reach out to a national organization to help build their capacity. In 2014, MCG became a FoodCorps service site to support the expanding school garden program in the Lowell Public Schools system, which is expected to grow from eight to 12 schools next year.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of leaders working to bring children closer to “real food.” As the FoodCorps service member for MCG this year, I have worked with nearly 2,000 Lowell students from grades preK-12 and built three school gardens.
Looking for long-term change
This past September, we created a free farmers market outside one of our schools, sponsored by a local hospital. For eight weeks, we provided beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, apples and tomatoes to hundreds of families, along with information about how to cook with these ingredients. Every week we heard about how grateful families were and how they discovered that their children actually like fruits and vegetables. This fall, we will launch family cooking classes and introduce children and their families to simple and delicious recipes that utilize fresh seasonal vegetables available from their garden plots or our Mobile Market.
The partnership between FoodCorps and Mill City Grows is the recipe for long-term change impacting childhood hunger and food sovereignty in Lowell. The movement that MCG started and FoodCorps is strengthening is integral to increasing food security for our families. The pieces are there for Lowell to be the food-secure community Mill City Grows envisioned it could be four years ago. With FoodCorps, we are starting to put those pieces together.
FoodCorps Service Member Christopher Horne won the 2015 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for his service site, Mill City Grows, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps and a diverse array of private and public donors. FoodCorps’ host in Massachusetts, The Food Project, works with local partners in Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Gloucester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and Chicopee. Find out more about The Food Project and the FoodCorps team in Massachusetts at https://foodcorps.org/where-we-work/massachusetts
Main photo: Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps
Food writing has become such an immensely popular activity that is attracting hordes of enthusiasts. This is ironic, for in days gone by female journalists who may have wanted to write about politics or finance were instead relegated to the low-status feature pages of their newspapers and told to write about hats and shoes or casseroles and puddings. But before I go on, I must mention the obvious — that I, too, am among the many who write an online food column, so I have a pretty good idea why writing about food has its appeals.
You can write or blog from anywhere
Food writing has taken on a cachet, an activity perceived as glamorous and exciting by both men and women, and while jobs in newspapers dwindle for all writers, anyone with a computer can set up shop as a food blogger. Even a cursory glance at the Internet’s food sites will confirm that professional writers and amateurs alike are beavering away, writing and photographing what they are eating, where they ate it, and providing information, opinions and recipes for the world to see.
To add to this traffic, food writing classes and workshops are springing up, guaranteeing that even more people will be food blogging in the future.
There is a lot to say about food
Writers are finding that food has enormous scope that includes writing about fresh produce, travel, nutrition, agriculture, recipes, restaurant reviews, personal anecdotes and more. So, for instance, sensualists can describe the texture and flavor of an ingredient or dish, an effective approach when writing about an unfamiliar food.
Traveling, eating and writing — an enticing combination
This is why writers comb the earth in search of a new place and cuisine to write about that is not already saturated with food writing.
To be able to travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who fancy being sent on expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world in order to eat, write about the food, and then get paid for it. Alas, those jobs are hard to find.
Eating for health is a hot topic
Another big topic is healthy eating, a subject that used to be of interest only to professional nutritionists and dieticians whose writing ran the risk of being repetitive and boring.
But these days, with so much conflicting information around about food and health, what to eat has become controversial and relevant, and writers are adding their voices to such disagreements. Some, for instance, are convinced that avoiding gluten is good for us and others go further by insisting that the avoidance of all grains entirely will make us feel better and lose weight. At the same time, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health informs us that eating more whole grains is associated with up to 15% lower mortality — particularly from cardiovascular disease. Such controversies are fodder for food writers interested in diet and health.
Big public policy issues such as sustainable agriculture, genetically engineered seed and the humane treatment of livestock are juicy topics for writers, as are the more intimate and nostalgic stories about what Grandma used to cook, the sort of reminiscence that routinely shows up at holidays.
Eating invites the personal
Everyone eats, and that may explain why so many identify as experts on food and want to express themselves through writing about it. Indeed, a whole literary genre, the food memoir, has sprung up whereas before, M.F.K. Fisher pretty much had a monopoly on this territory. The risk in this kind of writing is that fascination with one’s own food memories will not necessarily pique the interest of others, unless the writing is superb and the perspective as offbeat as Fisher’s tended to be.
Food in culture and history is fascinating
Another huge approach to food writing is to treat food as a lens that allows writers to comment on a period in history or on the culture at large. For instance, I am interested in the social roles assigned to men and women at a given time, so I notice who does what, and in the case of food, who cooks, who eats and who serves.
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Everyone knows that men were traditionally the professional chefs working in restaurants and hotels while women used to do all of the everyday home cooking. But this arrangement has changed because of a shift in American culture. With wives these days holding down full-time jobs, sometimes as professional chefs, home cooking — what used to be seen as a task fit only for women or for sissies — has now become an acceptable activity for regular dudes.
Similar observations are being explored by graduate students turning out Ph.D. dissertations that put food at the center of their research. Although the audience for academic writing is limited, popular writing, especially when it shows up on the Internet, can reach millions. Our hope, of course, is that the number of readers will increase and keep pace with the mounting numbers of food writers looking for an audience.
Main photo: To travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who dream of expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal
When I told my partner that I was writing a book about pork, she asked: “Does this mean I’m going to have to give up bacon?”
I spent two years trying to answer that question. I visited a pig farmer who raised 150,000 animals annually in warehouse-like confinement barns, and a Mennonite who raised a few dozen on open pasture. I spent an afternoon in a slaughterhouse that killed and processed 20,000 hogs a day, and spent a day at a boutique abattoir that handled 30, and I spoke to dozens of people in 12 states whose lives had been affected by Big Pig.
“Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat”
By Barry Estabrook, W.W. Norton, 2015, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
My partner and I still eat bacon, but not if it comes from a factory farm. Here’s why:
I knew that pigs were smart, but I had no idea how smart — much more intelligent than man’s best friends. Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old humans. Experimental pigs can be taught to play computer games. Hogs can adjust thermostats to keep their pens at comfy temperatures. Pigs have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. I will never forget the chilling sight of 1,500 sows in a low, dark barn in crates that were so small that they could not turn around.
I stood on a bridge over the Middle Raccoon River in central Iowa and watched vast floes of brownish foam drift on the current. They were the result of liquid hog manure that had been washed by rains into the river. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for a half million citizens of Des Moines, who have to pay $1 million a year just to remove agricultural pollutants from their water. The same water flows into the Mississippi, contributing to a Connecticut-sized oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where no fish can survive.
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In North Carolina, the once-pristine Neuse River, now polluted from hog farms, experiences regular die-offs with billions of fish turning belly up in putrid masses. American Rivers, an environmental group, lists the Neuse as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
Hog farms also pollute the air. I sat with Elsie Herring in her small frame home in eastern North Carolina as she described not being able to mow the lawn, hang laundry or even sit outside on a summer’s evening because of the stench that (literally) rains down from a neighboring pig operation. And this is no quaintly rural whiff of manure. Sophisticated air monitoring equipment set up by Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed that Herring and her neighbors were inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They experience difficulty breathing and have developed high blood pressure.
For 13 years, Ortencia Rios worked at a pork-packing plant. She was an exemplary employee. But after her hands gave out, her shoulder rotator cuff tore, and she developed carpel tunnel syndrome — all because of the job — the company told her there was no work for her, according to Rios. During the past 30 years, the wages of slaughterhouse workers have gone into free fall, dropping by 40 percent. The rate of injury has soared. Human Rights Watch declared that the United States is “failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry workers.”
In 2004, Everly Macario’s 18-month-old son died a painful death after being infected by bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors administered. There’s a good chance that the germs that killed the toddler evolved on a pig farm. Four out of five hogs raised in the United States are fed constant low levels of antibiotics — to prevent, not cure infections — a perfect recipe for bacteria to develop resistance.
When Jim Schrier, who worked as a USDA inspector at a 10,000-animal-a-day pork slaughterhouse in Iowa, began to report unsanitary conditions such as carcasses with hair and feces on them or with cancerous tumors and pus-filled abscesses, Schrier said he was promptly “reassigned” to a slaughterhouse two hours away from his home — an impossible commute. The USDA’s own inspector general reported that there is a reduced assurance that government inspectors effectively identify “pork that should not enter the food supply.”
One bite of a chop from a pastured, heritage pig is enough to convince. Like January tomatoes, most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of its gastronomic qualities. Good pork costs more than factory stuff, but enjoying great meat while not supporting an industry guilty of more than its share of travesties is well worth the price. But be warned: Once you try real pork, you probably won’t go back to the other white meat.
Main photo: Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock
April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.
“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”
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Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.
The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.
She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:
“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”
I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”
I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.
Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:
“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”
Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.
She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:
“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”
His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”
If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.
Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis