Kitchen Orphans and Kryptonite

In my head, I am working on a book with the working title Kitchen Orphans.

The book is not about parents, or the absence there of, during meals or within the kitchen. Parenting styles are largely dictated by the environment (i.e. culture) and picking on them is like pointing out the sweat beading up on someone living in the desert. Besides, even if the family meal is in decline, it still exists and a recent study of over 16,000 people shows only a small parental impact on eating behaviors.

It is our food that has been orphaned.

Almost literally for most of our meats, where young animals are often separated almost immediately from their mothers. And figuratively for many other products; corn, tomatoes, soy, wheat, beets and so on are all processed away from their basic biology into something its kinfolk wouldn’t even recognize.

And when they appear in our kitchens, they might as well be orphans – at least in our minds. Most people my age have no idea what most foods looked like in its pre-processed stage, let alone youth. I only just learned what young peppercorns look like, and I have eaten black pepper at least once a day for roughly 30 years.

We also have little to no comprehension of family trees. Recent discoveries of the relationships between coriander and cilantro, broccoli and cabbage, even buttermilk and butter, have each blown my mind. On a subconscious level, food seems to materialize out of nothing and is therefore oddly foreign and irreparably different than Us.

I have a friend who, while not an orphan, was adopted as an infant. His adoptive parents were open about his adoption from the beginning, but had no information about his birth parents.

Kevin found this scenario thrilling. Growing up, he felt he had arrived on the planet from the ether. He was invincible. Otherworldly.

Like Superman.

In his late 20s, his birth mother hired a private detective to find him. The day the detective was successful, Kevin plummeted to earth.

His mother ended up being a delightful and fun-loving woman, much like Kevin. That wasn’t the problem. The kryptonite took another form. He suddenly felt inextricably linked to his biology, to this woman and to a network of boisterous blood relatives – many of which looked and acted like him. He went from being unique and invincible to part of a diverse but unified, supportive but vulnerable, network of family members.

This was a burden he was still growing into when we parted paths, so I don’t know if he would still say he preferred the fantasy of omnipotence to the messy reality. I like to think he does not.

We entertain similar fantasies about the superpowers of Food.

Our little food orphans appear on our plates and supermarket shelves like capsules from outer space. We plea to them, save us! The bad guys, in this case, include Cancer, Loneliness, Heart Disease, Snug Pants, Anxiety, Boredom, Love Handles, Skinny Arms, Sadness, Lethargy and lastly, Hunger.

But food is no superhero.

It is part of a network. Part of one big family.

Most domesticated plant and animal species would not survive without our care. Conversely, we obviously depend on their nurturance. Humans, plants and animals are all parts of a diverse but unified, supportive but vulnerable, network of family members.

None of us is magic. None is invincible. We are all – plants, animals (including homo sapiens), bacteria and fungi – simply celebrating one meal at a time.


A round up of NYT mornings

Despite its scandals, I am pretty committed to the New York Times. We have coffee together almost every morning and our conversations range from trite to serious, disturbing or inspiring. We rarely squabble, although if we do it is most likely Tuesday, when the often ill-reported health page comes out. Lately, I’ve been adoring their coverage of food trends… Below are my favorite NYT stories of the week.

1) Meet your meat
May I introduce you to tomorrow's dinner? A trend among U. S. butchers is apparently rising, not (just) from locavore demand, but immigrant tradition.

Best tidbits:
“I want to see it [the health of the animals, the slaughter] with my own eyes,” said Shamsul Rahman, 65, who is originally from Bangladesh and was buying 11 chickens.

“We’re used to going into the grocery store and there’s not even a butcher counter, just a bunch of foam trays with a lot of anonymous blobs of meat in them.” -- Tom Mylan, who carves up cows in front of customers at Marlow & Daughters, a butcher shop and locavore’s temple in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

And hearty thanks goes to writer Anne Barnard for sneaking in this slaughterhouse observation: Nearby, an energetic goat placed its hooves on an iron rail and craned its neck toward a photographer like a supermodel flirting with the camera. “He wants to make a connection with you,” Mr. [Muhammed] Ali [of Jamaica Archer Live Poultry slaughterhouse] said.


2) Since you already know that, despite my affinity, I am not a locavore, I’ll blatantly promote this editorial on the importance of international trade

In a nutshell:
“One of the sure ways to prolong the global recession is to create even more barriers to global trade.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/opinion/26tue1.html?th&emc=th -

3) The resurgence of canning, or, what to do when you go hog wild in the farmers market.

Sample taste:
Preserving food cannot be considered new and trendy, no matter how vigorously it’s rubbed with organic rosemary sprigs… [However] in today’s swirl of food issues (local, seasonal, organic, industrial), home preserving can also be viewed as a quasi-political act. “Preserving is an extension of the values that made you shop in the farmers’ market in the first place,” Ms. Eugenia Bone said who has just published a canning cookbook titled “Well-Preserved” (Clarkson Potter).


4) The struggles of the economy being felt on small organic producers first

Pull quote:
“They say it’s heaven for the small farmer, but the small farmer is the one screaming the loudest right now,” said Aaron Bell, a Maine dairy farmer.


5) An op-ed about baobab, an exotic superfood, and how to ecologically manage its growing popularity

Wins the prize for best closing:
In Saint-Exupéry’s story, the planet the Little Prince lives on is too small to support the baobab. This is hardly our situation, but the Little Prince still has some useful advice for us: Taking care of your planet, he says, “is very tedious work, but very easy.”

Baobab fruit in its early stages


Eat this, conservation movement!

The options available to the average hunter-gather apparently put the Cheesecake Factory’s treatise to shame.

After examining fine details in the teeth of our ancestors, anthropologists recently adjusted their reading of the early menu available to humankind. In contrast to the caveman diets preached by fad gurus – with their focus on a few weeds and rare surpluses of fruit and meat – what actually made early man’s table so healthy was the broad range of foods.

A diverse diet has long been associated with greater disease resistance and, according to ecologist Vadana Shiva, humans have gobbled up over 80,000 different plant species. When I compare that with the modern menu, I can’t help but become green with envy.

Today, three-quarters of all human food intake comes from just eight plants, mostly genetically-modified corn and soy. Worse, we are losing varieties within species every year.

The best way to save them, paradoxically, is to eat them.

Heirloom plants and heritage animals can be found in many farmer markets, on-line and some specialty stores. And with names like Striped Toga Eggplant, Christmas Lima Beans and Red Wattle Hog, they are sure to get the imagination salivating.

photo copyright


Top Ten (Eleven?) Foods to Buy Organic

The price of organic food has been getting a lot of coverage recently, from sustainability food conferences to major national magazines like the Atlantic, Cooking Light and Gourmet. The messages all spiral from two central questions: 1) how to eat healthily when the economy -- and our wallets -- are in lean times and 2) the injustice of having nothing but wing-dings, Necco wafers and fried chicken available in most poor neighborhoods. More farmer markets will help with the latter.

As for the former, below are the top ten things, according to the Environmental Working Group, you should keep buying organic. Thin edible (or non-existent) skins is the common thread. Personally, I would add meat to the list. It is more expensive than conventionally raised, but you get so much more nutrition out of it. I buy and use half the amount I was used to and fill up the rest of the plate with veggies. Trust me, we never leave the table hungry.

10 worst offenders for pesticides:

Grapes (imported)
Sweet bell peppers

picture copyright


Forget Asparagus and Ramps. The Real Treat of the Season is Ready

Asparagus, ramps and peppercress may have short seasons. But spring is about the rebirth of life; what says that better than an egg?

And yes, eggs have a season. The eggs in the farmer markets right now are not just any eggs. They are not the placid ones we all hid in baked goods over the holiday season.

These are blooming, confident, orangey-yolked EGGS.

Once the mercury began to rise a few months ago, free-ranged hens everywhere started spending more time outdoors, sampling their own local fare. And now they are laying golden orbs, advertising the good life.

The best eggs I’ve had so far came from Grazin’Angus Acres.* Yeah, the guys with the great steaks. They do the rotating pasture thing, where the chickens, er, ‘pick up’ after the cows. (Apparently cow manure attracts the yummiest, and most-nutrient packed, bugs.)

The yolks are the color of a Maxwell Parish sunset. If you can resist the temptation to use them for artwork, they will reward you in the kitchen.

Easy Crustless Quiche

You can prepare this two days ahead, store it uncooked and covered in the fridge and bake right before serving. (Yes, that means you can wake up to quiche on Sunday morning, without having to do any chopping, cracking or mixing. Just put it in the oven, sip your coffee and then reap the rewards of Friday’s efforts.)

1-1 ½ cup sautéed vegetables (anything you want; if you have been hit with spring fever, try a mix of baby spring greens and the white portion of green garlic)
¾ -1 cup shredded cheese (again, whatever you want**)

4 eggs
1 ½ cup half and half (you know my favorite local dairy is MilkThistle.)
2-3 tablespoons minced rosemary
salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spread the vegetables on the bottom of a 9 inch pie pan. Top with cheese. Whisk the eggs, dairy and seasonings in a separate bowl until well blended. Pour over vegetables and cheese. Bake for about 40 minutes or until quiche sets.

Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving. Also yummy at room temp.

* Grazin’ Angus Acres sets up shop at Union Square every Friday and Saturday. On Sundays, they are at Carroll Gardens and the Museum of Natural History at 77th and Columbus.)

** I used the Rupert cheese from Bardwell Farm (West Pawlet, VT) to rave reviews. Bardwell sells at Fort Greene and Greenpoint farmer markets every Saturday; Carroll Gardens and Tompkins Square Park every Sunday.

photo via Dreamstime


The Pied Piper of Young Farmers

I’ve become fascinated about the psychology behind the local food movement. What is being tapped here? What need is being fulfilled? Seconds after I met young agrarian and documentarian Severine von Tscharner Fleming (who thankfully prefers going by her first name), I knew she epitomizes one aspect of the movement. I hope to profile her in the coming weeks. Consider the below Q & A a sneak peak.

NewYorkFoodVine: You were raised by two urban studies professors. How did you end up with your own farm in rural Columbia County, NY and directing The Greenhorns, a documentary about young farmers?

Severine: After college at Berkeley, I worked in farms in the United States and abroad. I began calling my fellow young farmers “Greenhorns” and slowly realized we are a full-fledged movement. We and others are voting for sustainable food with their lives.

NYFV: What do you think is drawing people to be farmers?

Severine: We are tired of working for the Man! That, and farming is totally addicting.

NYFV: When will the documentary be finished?

Severine: By November, when we will start showing the film in schools, complete with bicycle-power-popped popcorn. We will also be selling copies at farmers’ markets.

NYFV: Do you have blockbuster dreams?

Severine: The website and trailer are already getting hundreds of hits each day. But no. My fellow filmmakers and I are trying to avoid the big corporate sell out. However,Whole Foods wants to offer the DVD in their stores and I think that’s okay.

NYFV: How are you making a film on a farmer’s budget?

Severine: In addition to donations and fundraisers like goat-spit BBQs, we are getting support from the U.S. Farm Bill and XtraCycle.

NYFV: XtraCyle is a sponsor and the film’s blogsite is entitled The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles… What is this bicycle connection?

Severine: Bicycling puts your heart in a particular body space with the earth. It is a radicalizing experience, one that can also be felt while farming. Both are completely engrossing in a deeply physical way.

NYFV: Once the documentary is released, will you focus exclusively on your farm?

Severine: The documentary is just one part of our overall mission. We are recruiting young farmers to be part of a large supportive network. I want all Greenhorns to know they aren’t alone, help them be successful – and inspire others to join us.

picture by Philip Lange


College Food Circle

Go K-State! Coeds there are planning on eating their own waste products this fall.

Here’s the first line of the press release: “Food waste generated at Kansas State University dining centers may end up back on students' plates…”

-- After being turned into compost, of course, and used to fertilize a student farm. My favorite moment in the short video is when Ben Champion, K-State's director of sustainability, beams with pleasure about how the gathered compost “is digesting itself.”

picture of generic cafeteria by Stephen Corburn


Why I am Not a Locavore

First, I will admit, roughly 80% of my diet comes from local farms and I have significant respect for the movement. But I still bristle when I referred to as a locavore.

It is often said that most fad diets are about going without – usually some food group (meat, starch…) or some nutrient (fat, cholesterol, carb…). Similarly, most food movements are essentially about going without – a certain group of people. It is separating one’s self, defining one’s self against society, usually by subtly declaring “I am better/holier/healthier than thou” because my diet is vegan, low-fat, low-maintenance or can fit into really tiny carbon heels.

This tactic is not new. Many fledgling religions have used food to define themselves as separate and to discourage intermingling with outsiders. Take the Muslim month-long fast at Ramadan. Trust me: it is hard to have a conversation, let alone make friends during this time. Similarly, kosher laws help keep the Jewish community tight knit and Catholics go so far as to gather each Sunday to nibble on their Lord.

Being a cultivore
is the exact opposite. They do not want to be separate.

Cultivores want to reach out, get messy and explore without reservation. A cultivore is curious about community, his own and others, and knows that the best way to learn is to examine what they put into their mouths.

I’ve long wished I could get away with the traditional Tibetan greeting. When Tibetans greet people – especially strangers – they opening their mouths wide and stick out their tongues. It is a way of saying, check out my insides! My mouth, tongue and stomach will show you my entire past, my history, my indulgences and sacrifices. I am showing it all to you, so you can be assured you are safe with me…

When we open our mouths, we become open in other ways too. Sharing and exploring food is a way of gaining insight about a person (or a culture) by trying to experience what they experience.

While it can be life-affirming to explore our nearest and dearest, if we focus exclusively on our own backyards, we might as well stick our heads in the soil.

A cultivore wants to know his immediate community intimately, but also nourishes curiosity in broader society, the continent and the world at large. A banana is worth its carbon if while eating it you mentally escape to Equador. A piece of yak jerky can convey more about what life is like in the Himalayas, than can a pristine photo of Mount Everest. And, I will confess, diving into my very first bag of mass-produced pork rinds, while wandering Bed-Stuy, was nothing less than a mind-opening experience.

In short, I worry about the isolationist stance of being a die-hard locavore. At this point in history, the spice of the globe is ignored at our own peril. And I, for one, would rather learn more about Pakistan through its curries than their bombs.

picture by Tono Balaguer, via Dreamstime


Locavores Bemoan Their Own Success

An article in the NYT today reports, big food manufacturers, such as FritoLay, are beginning to ‘co-opt’ the locavore food movement. They suddenly have the gall to, say, make Florida’s potato chips from Florida’s potatoes.

Many locavores are ready to throw pitchforks at them.

I don’t get it. FritoLay’s new local bent is unlikely to make me snuggle up with a large bag of Ruffles, but I think this is something to celebrate.

Sure, it does not resonate with the Eat Local Spirit. I agree with the reaction of blogger and chef Jessica Prentice (who coined the term locavore in 2005):

“The local foods movement is about an ethic of food that values reviving small scale, ecological, place-based, and relationship-based food systems… Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about.”

But what’s wrong with junk food being local?

picture by Dmitry Maslov


Born Again Greens

All the winter greens have been sprayed by the fountain of youth. They are showing up in the market sporting tender curves and babysoft complexions. Beware, however, of their apparent innocence; they have also become more childish temperamentally. The tough kale and mustard greens of winter have become almost as sensitive as the eternal big baby, Spinach. Cook quickly and expect to serve a lot less volume than you wash.

Although the texture has changed, the flavors have not become overly delicate. This new favorite side dish, for example, demands the mouth’s immediate attention. So serve with a main dish that can stand up to it, such as grilled chicken, pork or beef.

Spanked Baby Mustard
Serves 2 as a side dish

2 Tbs olive oil
½ Tbs dry fennel seeds
½ Tbs dry cumin seeds
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 cups baby mustard greens, any tough stems removed
• If leaves are large, chop coarsely

Heat oil over medium heat. Crush seeds roughly in bowl, to release their locked-in flavors. (Not every seed needs to be cracked open.) Add seeds to oil and roast until beginning to brown. Bring temperature down to low and add onions. When onions have softened, stir in garlic. Slowly cook onion mixture until is deep brown. Stir in baby mustard greens and sauté until wilted.

picture by Liubirong via Dreamstime


Chef Chops

All week I have been watching meals be made by amateurs, who were trying to copy the movements of a food pro. (Think kindergarteners imitating a prima ballerina.)

However, during the intensive class at the Institute for Culinary Education, I think I ended up learning more from my fellow students than I did from the teacher. Not that Chef Anita Jacobson, who has more than 20 years of professional experience, was not a wonderful teacher. On the contrary, she was knowledgeable, empathetic and kind. It’s that she, alone, was familiar; I have watched her type on more food shows than I care to admit.

But seeing her amidst roughly fifteen amateurs put her talent in stark relief.

A true chef, I realized, has no fear of food. She or he handles ingredients roughly, shaking and telling them what is expected in no uncertain terms. While us students timidly poked the lamb loin and gingerly stroked a stalk of fresh sage, Jacobson grabbed, flipped, twirled, bunched and butchered – sometimes without even looking.

Sure, that is partly the result of practice. But it is also due to an advanced, sought after, and empathetic relationship with food. She understood, say, the chemistry of kale and how it differed from spinach, if not in scientific terms, on an intuitive level – the same way you and I know what to expect from a good friend.

(That said, she trusted ingredients much more than many of the school’s ovens.)

While she was grabbing a potato and bluntly asking how it was feeling today – and realizing it was sick from some invisible tinge of color – we students were shyly trying to get up the nerve to ask the oregano if we could sit next to it. (What if we don’t get along??)

I think that even if I was to bring Chef Jacobson some exotic vegetable or fruit she had never seen, she would handle it the same way. She may spend more time actually looking at a durian but I am sure she would gruffly grab even its thorny shell, intimately sniff its pungency and ultimately hack it open in one swift chop. Much different than the timid, finger-torn sawing I did the first time I opened one myself. (Ruining all sense of ventilation for my poor roommates.)

Come to think of it, most of the farmers and farmer helpers in the market are very casual with their products, too. They don’t attempt to hide blemishes, loving each as is. Nothing is handled squeamishly or hierarchically; pig ears and turkey necks are passed with the same hearty respect as an oversized butternut squash. And nothing is delicate; even the baby greens are deftly harvested from their potted soil as we hungry consumers watch.

Perhaps that is why I feel irrationally flattered when I get to go home with the most beautiful stalk of oyster mushrooms or the most evergreen bag of pea sprouts. Each piece of food is the farmer’s close friend. And they are, of course, happy to introduce us.

Photo by Dyscoh via Dreamstime


CAFO Source of Flu Pandemic

Raj Patel confirmed this theory yesterday at the Brooklyn Food Conference. The author of Stuffed and Starved had just returned from a trip to Mexico; he reported that 60 percent of the people living around Smithfield’s enormous pig “concentrated animal feeding operation" (CAFO) came down with mysterious flu-like symptoms three weeks before US media was oink-ing about the sickness.

photo by Tatjana Krstic