Friday, September 30, 2011

Hmong Food Culture

Last spring, I wrote several times about the Global Food for Thought Meal Series that I organized for the GreenHouse environmental learning community. Check out the following posts from the archives to catch up:
I'm continuing with the Series this year, and we have a great line-up: Hmong, Afro-Caribbean, a new and improved Global Vegetarian, West African, and more! 

The first meal featured a focus on Hmong cuisine and food culture, with a fascinating presentation by a Hmong student from the UW, who introduced the student audience members to a range of stories and facts about Hmong people.

Most of the knowledge I have about Hmong culture comes from a book and a film that I highly recommend:
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a book by Anne Fadiman, which explores the cultural clash between a Hmong family living in California, and the American physicians who treat the Hmong daughter's epilepsy.
  • The Split Horn, a film by Taggart Siegel, which follows the life of a Hmong shaman living in Appleton, Wisconsin, documenting how his family is gripped by dramatic cultural transformation as ancient Hmong traditions collide with American lifestyles.
So, although I entered this meal with some knowledge about Hmong history and understandings of health, I knew little about the food.

We ate a soup of plain, pureed squash, taub hau. This was a quintessential Hmong dish--unseasoned and very simple:

But we also ate Pad Kaprao Gai (Stir-Fried Chicken with Thai Basil), and a vegetarian version of it, that were more traditionally Thai dishes, but have become adopted by Hmong cuisine, as the two Southeast Asian cultures have come under each other's influence:

And for dessert, we had the Nab Vam, or the Tri-Color Dessert of Tapioca Pearls. This Hmong dish is also eaten in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and elsewhere, and combines the classic Southeast Asian tapioca with the Western green Jell-O:

Food can show us how cultures have come together and shaped one another, through colonization and mutual influence alike.

More Global Food for Thought Meal reports to come!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

First Grist Post!

In case you've haven't seen it, my first Grist post went up today!

You can read it here: It all began with spam

And I've updated the schedule of the remaining posts, which you can read more about here:
  • Post 1: Thursday, September 29 
  • Post 2: Thursday, October 13
  • Post 3: Friday, October 28
  • Post 4: Monday, November 14
  • Post 5: Thursday, December 1
  • Post 6:  Friday, December 16

Thanks for reading along!

BPA in the news

I spend a lot of time thinking about canned food in the historical sense, so when I see it in present-day news, I find it pretty darn exciting.

The latest issue that has brought canned food into the spotlight--and one that I will likely discuss in the final chapter/epilogue of my dissertation--is Bisphenol-A, or BPA, an endocrine disruptor present in many plastics that has negative impacts on human health. Almost all cans are lined with plastic, to create a better seal and to keep the metal taste from leaching into foods. Unfortunately, what's leaking into the foods instead is BPA from the plastic lining.

When I was at the doctor's office recently, I noticed a poster prominently hanging in the middle of the exam room, which alerted patients to the types of plastics to avoid (those with numbers 3, 6, and 7) because of BPA. It was mostly directed at women who were pregnant, breastfeeding, or feeding small children; and it explicitly suggested that they avoid canned foods.

So, when this headline popped up the other day over at Grist, "Did a government study just prove that BPA is safe?", I was immediately interested.  This article reviews a recent study by the Department of Energy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Center for Toxicological Research [that is, major government agencies] which basically found that "BPA poses no risk whatsoever."

Of course, as the Grist article does a great job of pointing out, there are many flaws with this study, and it is just one single study that is opposed to all the contrary findings of at least a hundred other studies.

But what I find so interesting is the complex relationship among government, science, and industry that is so clear in this study, as well as in all of the work I do on canned food in the early twentieth century. So many questions emerge:
  • What motivated this lead scientist (who otherwise worked on nanotechnology) to take up this study?
  • How will the canning industry or the metal packaging industry seize on this scientific finding to benefit their business? 
  • How do consumers respond to these kinds of findings to modify their own consumption habits? 
  • How does "science" get portrayed as steadfast and infallible, and how do common folks read scientific methods to understand whether a study is trustworthy or not?

All of this is fascinating to me, and I hope to think through these questions more deeply, and to compare their answers to the answers one would find from an earlier era, in order to understand how this complex relationship among government, science, and industry has changed (or not) over the course of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Slow Food Cafe

Today is the grand opening of the Slow Food Cafe on the University of Wisconsin campus! You can find it from 12-2 PM in the basement of the crossing, at 1127 University Avenue.

Today's menu choices:

  • Savory crepes with braised poultry, wild grape redux, and greens. 
  • Sweet and spicy tahini with sliced apple and greens on house-made pitas. 
  • Beefy dumpling soup with aromatic vegetables. 
  • Chilled watermelon gazpacho, with a kick!! 
  • Ice Cream sandwich with shortbread cookies, Sassy Cow ice cream and apricot jam. 
  • Coffee, tea, and seaberry lemonade
I knew this little cafe (or at least the idea of it) when it was but a twinkle in its mother's eye. In fact, our wedding rehearsal dinner was a sort of fundraiser for this very cafe, and we donated the plates from that event to the cause. So, if you show up for lunch today, you can eat off our rehearsal dinner plates--a little piece of history!

Last week, the cafe had a sort of soft opening, and I was able to attend for a delicious lunch featuring local food, including dessert, for only $5!

I got a veggie sandwich with roasted squash, with side salads of beet and wheat berry, and of green been and potato:

And a delicious dessert of rich yogurt with baked granola and fruit:

I especially love the feel of this cafe, with its communal air and its mismatched dishware, which allowed my friend REM to drink water out of a glass that was a jar labeled "Beet Oil Drippings"!

If you're in the Madison area, come out to support the cafe, and then let me know how you liked it!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More on Calories

In last Monday’s post about the Men’s Health review of “healthy” restaurants, I referred to my concern that not everyone realizes “the problems with reductive nutritionism.”  But appropriately, in a comment, JH prompted me to say more about what this means, and to suggest some alternate criteria on which to base measurements of health, if not the calorie count offered by the cited report.

On the one hand, the number of calories you ingest is indeed an important indicator of obesity and its accompanying health problems. On the other hand, counting calories leaves no room for more nuanced understandings of what makes up those calories. For example, though the McDouble may have only 390 calories, about the same number of calories as an 8 ounce avocado, the ingredients of just the bun part of the burger are:

Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid, enzymes), water, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, yeast, soybean oil and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oil, contains 2% or less of the following: salt, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, wheat gluten, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide, soy flour), calcium propionate and sodium propionate (preservatives), soy lecithin.

And we can only imagine how much longer the ingredients list would be once we factor in the meat, cheese, and condiments. So, although the single avocado may be considered equally healthy to the McDouble if we measure by calories only, there is clearly a large difference in the kinds of fats present, the amounts of preservatives with unknown effects, the other nutrients provided, not to mention the level of processing.

Despite the Men’s Health report, more people are beginning to realize that calorie counts mask other important nutritional information. This is perhaps most widely seen through the recent modifications to the Weight Watchers program. It used to only consider calories, such that a piece of fruit and a bag of low-calorie chips might have the same number of points (and each participant was limited to a certain number of points per day). Now, however, they’ve released a new Points Plus program, which tries to take other factors into account and now realizes that “not all calories are created equal,” with some calories being what they call “empty calories.” Now most fruits and vegetables are zero points, meaning you can eat far more of them.  In the words of Weight Watchers founder “We are taking a stand for unprocessed food. We are taking a stand for fruits and vegetables.” Pretty cool.

Michael Pollan, as always, has lots more good things to say about the problem with nutritionism, or the ideology based on the “widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient,” rather than the food as a whole or its context. Read more in his book, In Defense of Food, or in the shorter article on a similar topic, Unhappy Meals.

JH also asked,“What would be at the top of your list of healthy restaurants, and why would the chains mentioned in the article be at the bottom?”

In another comment, Mike addressed this question well, and shared the unfortunate fact that most national chains are by definition unhealthy, because of their commitment to uniformity, which leads them to “pump their food full of preservatives, processed food products, and CAFO meats.” Pretty much all chain restaurants end up serving highly-processed foods, because of shipping and manufacturing imperatives.
I suppose the chains that would seem the most healthy to me would be the ones that focus the most closely on whole foods and simple, mostly-unprocessed ingredients—this gives Chipotle a definite leg up, as well as Sweet Tomatoes and anywhere else with a salad bar that offers vegetables (though they will undoubtedly not be local and organic). 

This, of course, just means that the best restaurants to go to if you’re thinking of your health are not any of the ones that Men’s Health would write about and instead are those more local and more interesting places that aren't constrained by national uniformity (as Megan indicates in her comment). But, yes, eating and cooking at home, where you can control what goes into your food, is most likely going to be the healthiest of all!

Monday, September 26, 2011

College Food Progress

After spending the last few years getting to know the impressive programs at the University of Wisconsin that are promoting knowledge about local food and environmental sustainability among undergraduate students--GreenHouse, F. H. King Student Farm, and Slow Food UW, for example--it is really interesting to see what's going on at other universities.

I had a chance to wander through the campus of my own undergraduate institution, Washington University in St. Louis, to see the progress it had made in those same areas of local food and environmental sustainability. A little overview:

The main eatery on campus, the DUC, was advertising their featured local suppliers, and there were posters for an on-campus eat local challenge: 

Wash U now has its own student farm! This wasn't around when I was there, so it was exciting to get to see and tour The Burning Kumquat Farm, and talk to a few of the students who were working there when we passed through. They told us that they their produce goes to a variety of places: they sell it do Dining Services on campus, the farm members take it home, they sell it at a local farmer's market, and they also sell it to students from a campus farm stand:

On the residential campus, the South 40, the convenience store--which used to sell only packaged foods--now has a sizable produce section! Fruit and vegetables galore.  I wonder how students make use of this raw produce--whether they do a lot of cooking in the dorm kitchens or just eat a lot of it raw in salads? 

All over campus, the signage for waste bins was really interesting. Instead of just "recycling" and "trash" bins, Wash U had labeled all the trash bins as "landfill," to hopefully make students more conscious about where their trash actually ends up. They also had really attractive displays of what kinds of things could go into each container, to make recycling even more of a no-brainer:

And finally, at least in one spot on the South 40, there was an innovative composting program, again with clear signage about what goes into the compost, and what happens to the food waste afterward. I read in the student paper that this is a pilot program that's new this fall, and that they hope to expand it outward to all the eateries on campus.

 It was pretty cool to see all the progress that's been made at Wash U in the 5-6 years since my time there. Very exciting and inspiring!

What kinds of programs have you guys seen at other universities to promote this sort of consciousness among students? Is it working?!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Soon: Response to Calories

If you haven't yet read the thoughtful comments posted in response to my Healthy = Low-Calorie? post, you should do so now!

I have some responses (at least half-formed ones) in the works, but I won't have time to properly write them up until next week. So, until then, go read those comments, mull them over, and share your own thoughts, if you have further ones!

I'll be back next week with more opining, and stories of dining.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Grist Blogging!

Many of you have already heard about this, but I wanted to write here about a new opportunity I've been granted: For the next semester, I'll be blogging for a Food Studies series over at Grist!

If you're not familiar with Grist, it's probably the biggest and coolest environmental e-magazine around. Time magazine referred to it as, "The Colbert Report of climate change, The Daily Show of deforestation, the Oprah of oil dependency--except with real reporting and analytical journalism."

The Food Studies series follows 11 bloggers who are studying food in some capacity at universities around the world, and gives readers a peek into their lives and studies. It should be pretty cool (if I do say so myself).

Here's the series introduction that our editor, Nicola Twilley, wrote: Food Studies, The Edible Curriculum

My first post doesn't go live until next Wednesday 9/28, but I figured I'd give you my writing schedule here, so you can all be sure to follow along, and let me know what you think! (though I'll likely be cross-posting here as well)

Post 1: Thursday, September 29
Post 2: Thursday, October 13
Post 3: Friday, October 28
Post 4: Monday, November 14
Post 5: Thursday, December 1
Post 6:  Friday, December 16

And I'd love any suggestions for posts over there, if there's something in particular you all want to read about, in a different forum.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Perfect Salad

I enjoyed this salad so much, simple as it might have been, that I wanted to share.

It was just delicious.

It all began with the previous day's project of using up food in the fridge that was starting to look a little limp. I began with beets, red peppers, fresh soybeans in the pod (edamame), so many eggs (from the farm), celery, and some potatoes (plus some lettuce and lemon that would later come in handy)

I roasted the beets with a little oil and salt until they caramelized; roasted about half the red peppers, in long strips, separately; boiled the edamame and shelled them; made a big egg salad with most of the eggs, the rest of the red pepper, and the celery; I also just left a couple of eggs hard-boiled and peeled them for later; and I roasted the potatoes in thin slices with salt and a touch of oil.

So all of those contributed to my being able to quickly throw this salad together:

a few leaves of lettuce, torn into pieces
a handful of caramelized roasted beets
a few roasted red pepper strips
a handful of fresh cooked soybeans
one hard-boiled egg, sliced (or a dollop of egg salad)
a bit of cheese, chopped finely
a few almonds, sliced thin

I just combined all these together, squeezed some lemon over it, sprinkled on a little freshly ground pepper and salt, and voila! A magical salad resulted.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bike the Barns

Bike the Barns 2011 has come and gone!

And what an event it was!

This was the fifth year that MACSAC--the Madison Area CSA Coalition--has put on this day of bike-riding and good food to raise money for Partner Shares, a program that makes fresh, local produce available at reduced cost to low-income families in the Madison area.

We've been wanting to do this ride for a few years now, and finally made it this year, with the help of some friends and family who pledged money to help us. Thank you! We raised $200 with your help!

The day began with seeing lots of friends who were riding and volunteering at the start line, at Lake Ripley Park, east of Madison. It made the whole day sunny (at least metaphorically) to have such a warm community with us as we began. We made time for some bike maintenance and a breakfast of fresh pears, melon, and yogurt-waffle-fruit cups:

And then it was time to hop on the bikes to begin the 63 mile route through the Southern Wisconsin countryside!

Less than ten minutes into our ride, the rain began. And it continued, on and on, throughout pretty much the whole day. Cold, wet rain made the ride more difficult than we might've imagined. But we made it through our first 25 miles, strong and happy, ending up at the first stop, High Meadow Farm, where local apples, watermelon, Graze croissants, and Sassy Cow chocolate milk greeted us:

In the far right photo, you can see the water on our glasses, which was a pretty much constant companion throughout the ride: Still, big smiles!

By the time we'd biked another 20 miles to reach the second stop, at Wholesome Harvest, we were pretty exhausted (or, at least, I was!). Although I'd ridden more than this distance before (to Mt. Horeb and back), I'd never encountered such a hilly ride, and my bike and I definitely struggled up a number of hills with the mantra, "Just look down and go." It mostly worked. We ate delicious sandwiches and fresh grain and bean salads (the one on the right was the meat option, which we did not eat):

And felt grateful to all the sponsors and for all the delicious food, provided mostly by the Underground Food Collective's awesome chefs:

But after eating and sitting for a while, and continuing to stare out at the rain, we decided to abbreviate the ride a little bit, and forego the final stop, at Sprouting Acres. Partly, because we'd been there before (read that post here!), and partly because we felt like we had a good ten miles left in us, but might not enjoy a full 18-20 more. So, we took a short-cut back to Lake Ripley Park, following the Radish Route (the shorter bike ride that had happened concurrently) backwards. It was actually really fun to read the map and negotiate our choices together. A challenge met!

We arrived back to Lake Ripley just as the party was starting, in time to catch some good beer, good music, free massages, and more great food from the Underground Food Collective: Bean tacos with a spicy green salsa and a great mexican slaw.

We returned home, immediately changed out of our wet clothes, massaged our shoulders further, and felt so happy and grateful for a day full of exercise, great food, a better sense of our Wisconsin home, an increased appreciation for the countryside, and the wonderful support of our friends, both near and far.

Thanks to everyone who made the day possible!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Healthy = Low-Calorie?

Sometimes, as hard as I try not to, it seems that I forget about the bubble I live in. Turns out, not everyone has a holistic view of health, not everyone values local foods, not everyone realizes the problems with reductive nutritionism.

Well, of course, you might say.

But this video that my father-in-law recently sent me still left me with my mouth hanging wide open:

Report-card time: 5 best, worst restaurants in America

In it, some journalist from Men's Health magazine, David Zinczenko, rates a bunch of "restaurants"* and gives them grades according to how "healthy" they are. Here's what they decide:

McDonald's: B+
Olive Garden: D+
Red Lobster: A-
Chick-Fil-A: A-
Chipotle: C-

The results are ridiculous, and the incredibly narrow criteria they use remind me how much the nutrition paradigm hasn't really moved beyond where it was 20 years ago.

Why does McDonald's get a relatively good score? Well, because of their "McDouble" burger and their oatmeal.  The former has only a few hundred calories, so that means it's healthy. And the's oatmeal, so it's gotta be healthy, right? Let's see what Mark Bittman has to say about that: McDonald's oatmeal has 21 ingredients--most of which are highly processed--and more sugar than a Snickers bar (definitely check out the whole Bittman article by following the link if you have a few minutes).

Zinczenko tells us that Chick-Fil-A is healthy because its chicken club, which includes "the works" with bacon and cheese and chicken, is only 400 calories. But is anyone stopping to ask why a sandwich with white bread and bacon and cheese and chicken is only 400 calories? What else is going into this sandwich to keep it at a "healthy" calorie level?

Come to think of it, no one's asking about what's in any of this food, at least not in terms of ingredients. The only data we have is calories, fat, and sodium--and only really the calories are being given any attention. Have we not move beyond the assumption that low-calorie = healthy? Apparently not.

And of course that means that Chipotle, the one restaurant on the list that doesn't just offer a variety of ways of putting together a bunch of processed ingredients, gets one of the worst scores. Yes, Zinczenko gives a nod to the "fresh quality ingredients and free-range meats" but because the calorie count is high, this is NOT HEALTHY. I agree that Chipotle's serving sizes are too large, but why do we ignore the health of the environment or the health of our animals or un-processed ingredients and lack of preservatives when measuring "health"?

Perhaps what makes me most sad of all is that this report is coming from Men's Health, a magazine which is published by Rodale Press. And although it may mostly produce glossy lifestyle publications today, Rodale Press and its original founder, J.I. Rodale, began the organic gardening movement in America in the 1940s. Rodale was one of the chief proponents of a healthier, chemical-free form of agriculture that paved the way for the relatively mainstream postion of organic agriculture today.** But now we see this corrupted view of health coming from such auspicious beginnings.  Could it have been otherwise?

What do you all think? Am I silly to find this report so shocking? Naive? What is the mainstream message about nutrition in today's media that you all are hearing?

* Of course, all these so-called "restaurants" are actually just chains, and many of them fast-food. 
** If you want to read more, stay tuned for my friend AC's forthcoming dissertation on Rodale!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Apple Cheddar Scones

I am a regular reader of Smitten Kitchen, a lovely cooking blog that you should totally be reading if you aren't already, if only for the gorgeous photos (but also for the light writing voice and the great food!) But although I never miss a post, I've almost never actually made any recipe directly from the site. This is partly because I rarely follow a recipe unless there's a particularly thorny ingredient I need to use up, but also because, although the food on Smitten Kitchen always looks delicious, it looks like food that someone else would make (and that I would happily eat!), but not me.

Today's recipe, apple cheddar scones, is a total case in point. I haven't baked a lot of scones, I don't usually have much extra cheese on hand, and whatever apples I have typically get eaten raw. So, the fact that I came to bake these amazing little scones had only to do with the fact that my friend RM suggested we make them with some of the abundant apples straight off the trees here at the farm. You can thank her (and her husband JF!) for this.

We mostly followed the directions as written, but made a few changes, in the size of apple chunks, the kind of cheese we used, and how much sugar we sprinkled on top.

But these babies came out so wonderful that my guess it'd be hard to ruin them without some major screw-up. Sweet and savory, crumbly and buttery-smooth all at once. I couldn't stop eating these beauties.

Without further ado:

Apple and Cheddar Scones 

5-6 small tart apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2" cubes
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (plus extra for the tops)
1/2 tablespoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2" cubes 
1/2 cup cheese (we used a sharp white cheese)
1/4 cup mixture half-and-half and milk
2 large eggs 

  1. Preheat oven to 375 °F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper, spread apples on it, and bake until they are golden and slightly dry, about 20 minutes. Let them cool in the fridge as you prepare the dough. Leave the oven on. (I really resisted this extra, energy-intensive step, and probably would've skipped it if RM hadn't been around. If anyone tries it without baking, let me know how it goes--perhaps you could cut down a little on the cream/milk to make up for the extra liquid?)
  2. Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together. Set aside. 
  3. Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, along with cooled apple chunks, cheese, milk and one egg. Sprinkle flour mixture over the top and mix on low speed until the dough just comes together, without overmixing.  [Smitten Kitchen's advice if you don't have a mixer: "I'd rub the cold butter into the flour mixture with my fingertips or with a pastry blender, hand-chop the apples coarsely and mix the rest together with a wooden spoon until combined."]
  4.  Flour your counter top, place dough on it, and sprinkle the dough and rolling pin with more flour. Roll out to a 1 1/4-inch thick, 6-inch circle. Cut circle into 6 wedges. 
  5. Transfer the wedges to your baking sheet (we just used the same parchment paper from the apple step), and try to space the scone as widely as possible. 
  6. Beat remaining egg in a small bowl with a pinch of salt. Brush the scones with egg wash and sprinkle them with sugar. (I probably also would've skipped this step, since it didn't make them all that shiny, and there was egg left over). 
  7. Bake until firm and golden, about 30 minutes. Cool for ten minutes, and then indulge, as soon as possible (though ours were still delicious on the second day). Makes 6 large scones.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Variety of Apples

While staying out here on the farm, I've been dealing with a lot of autumn apples. I don't know the particular varieties they have out here, but they range from small and yellow-green and tart to medium-sized, golden red and yellow.

But I got to experience an even wider range of locally-grown heirloom apple varieties over the weekend, at Appleberry Farm, a pick-your-own operation in nearby Cross Plains, WI.  Although they only had two commercial varieties growing on the trees that we could pick ourselves (MacIntosh and Cortland), they had a wide range of heirloom apples inside that you could also buy.

Who knew there were such exciting and delicious apples?! See for yourselves:

There were Duchess of Oldenburg and Chenango Strawberry:

Paula Red and Gravenstein:

Tetofsky and JonaMac:

Ashmeads Kernel ("a treat for the apple connoisseur") and McMahon:

I tried about half of these, and especially liked the Gravenstein, with its juicy, sweet/tart flavor.

And now I have to find time to do something with the rest of the apples I picked! Dried apples? Applesauce? Apple pie? Ooh, I know apple cheddar scones! (back with those tomorrow)

Any apple varieties you all particularly love? Or apple recipes for fall?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Not taking it for granted

And so I write from the quietness and stillness of a central-Wisconsin farm, where the sky is vast and studded with stars; the nearest neighbors are so far we can belt out Engine Driver and Don't Stop Believin', accompanied by a twelve-string guitar, in the middle of the night, with no fear of waking anyone; the chickens must be protected from prowling foxes and raccoons at nightfall; the donkey requires an apple and a chat (or graceful conversation) each morning; and the eggs come in at mid-day, warm and golden.

We find ourselves here because this is the home of one of the professors in Justin's department, who has traveled abroad on vacation for a couple of weeks (to watch his sheepdogs compete in the world championship of sheepherding!). Because the animals need tending to, he has left them (along with his beautiful home) in our care.

Being here, in this place removed from the city and somewhat removed from the buzz of our daily lives, we've reflected a lot on rurality and on what it means to get away. The joys of country life, long so invisible to me, jump out with such clarity.  I grew up in the woods, with acres upon acres of trees all our own, with a big garden, with privacy from neighbors, with forest trails straight to the university that my Papa had carved to serve as his daily commute on foot. And although I loved these aspects of that life, they were also muted by the stunning lack of social and cultural stimulation, by the small-mindedness of a Bible Belt town, and by the lack of a community outside my family.  No matter how much my Papa would say, "But, Anna, look at the sky, look at the trees!" when I complained about being unhappy as a teenager, the rural wonder was something I took for granted.

Now, with that world so far away, and with Madison offering more social stimulation than I can even handle, the beauty and peace that always lay in the background of my childhood becomes all I can think about.

This is all not to say that I'd want to go back to just that life, or that I've forgotten the difficulties of small-town Southern living, just that these quiet moments on the farm remind me how easy it is to overlook the things that come to be seen as givens. It's a reminder to cherish what is so good in our lives, even if it has always been there, even if it is less stark than the difficulties.

Here's to celebrating the good, among the animals and trees and brilliant autumn sunsets!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scenes from the farm

This week, we're farm-sitting at this beautiful place full of rolling hills (and sheep and chickens and donkey and apple trees!) near Blue Mounds, WI. I'll be back to write more about it the rest of this week, but for now some glimpses of the beauty:

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Embarrasment of Riches

I recently came upon something almost too remarkable to be real:

A class at UC-Berkeley co-taught by Michael Pollan and Nikki Henderson, Executive Director of People’s Grocery, with guest lectures by so many people I admire. There's Carlo Petrini (the founder of the international Slow Food movement), Marion Nestle (my favorite nutritionist), Ann Cooper (the Renegade Lunch Lady), Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation), Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse and the queen of seasonal eating), Frances Moore Lappe (author of Diet for a Small Planet), Van Jones (human rights and green jobs advocate), and so many others! Seriously.

The course description reads like this:

"One of the many currents that the opening of Chez Panisse in 1971 helped set in motion is the movement now rising to reform the American food system. The restaurant focused an early light on the social and environmental benefits of farming sustainably and helped spur the growth of organic and local agriculture.  Today, the food movement is a big, lumpy tent under which many different groups are gathering: organic agriculture, school lunch reform, food safety, animal welfare, hunger and food security, farm bill reform, farm-to-school efforts, urban agriculture, food sovereignty, local food economies, etc. As a subject, food is remarkably multi-disciplinary, drawing on everything from economics and agronomy to sociology, anthropology, and the arts. In this course, each week lecturers representing a wide variety of disciplines will explore what their particular area of expertise has to offer the food movement to help it define and achieve its goals. Students will have the opportunity to volunteer for a food-related non-profit organization three hours a week throughout the semester, and to write a short reflective essay synthesizing what they have learned through their volunteer work with what they have learned from the lectures and readings."


And luckiest of all, we get to sit in on this class! That's right! All the lectures are being recorded and broadcast via Berkeley's Youtube channel, here.

Here's the first session from August 30, The Global Food Movement, with CARLO PETRINI and CORBY KUMMER, introduced by Instructor NIKKI HENDERSON. 1.5 hours.

And the second! September 6, Food as Culture, with PETER SELLARS. 1.5 hours.

I know what I'll be doing for the next three hours...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Top 10 Food Films: Aesthetics

Here's my Top 10 list for the best food films that focus on the joy and aesthetics of good food (check about my list of best ethical/political food films). You can watch the trailers below, by clicking on the links [for some reason, I couldn't figure out the embedding today, so links are all I've got!]. And please share others I missed in the comments below!

1. Ratatouille

2. Waitress

 3. Julie and Julia

4. Chocolat

5. Eat Drink Man Woman 

6. Like Water for Chocolate

7. Babette's Feast

8. Tortilla Soup 

 9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

10. Fried Green Tomatoes

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Top 10 Food Films: Politics

Here's my Top 10 list for the best food films that engage with issues of ethics and politics (I'll be back with best foodie/aesthetic films tomorrow). You can watch the trailers below, or follow the title links to the films' webpages to learn more.  And please share others I missed in the comments below!

1. Food Inc.

2. Our Daily Bread

3. What's On Your Plate

4. Real Dirt on Farmer John

5. Super Size Me

6. Queen of the Sun

7. King Corn

8. Dirt! The Movie

9. Fresh

 10. The Future of Food

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Archival gem

This week, I've been putting the finishing touches on two dissertation chapter drafts! It's been a long haul, and it'll be a longer one yet, but progress is progress.

Because this is so on my mind, I figured I'd share a little gem from the archives that didn't actually make it into my Chapter 3, but that is too funny and quirky to ignore entirely.

This is from the files of Ernest C. Dickson, who was a Stanford University scientist who worked on behalf of the canning industry in order to help make ripe olives safe from botulism (after a big outbreak of botulism poisonings in 1919-1920).

In this document, a California state health official went to investigate a case of poisoning that was allegedly caused by eating canned ripe olives.

He talked to the victim and the victim's wife, the grocer, and the doctor who initially diagnosed the illness. The doctor, one Dr. Grosvenor, didn't seem to happy to talk with the state health official:

"He would take to the woods and [they] could never find him!"

Oh, Dr. Grosvenor, thanks for brightening my day of archival readings!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Open-faced Sandwiches

I made these little beauties so long ago, but the idea of them has been alive in my imagination ever since:

It's a very simple idea--the tray of open-faced sandwiches--but it offers such tastiness and opportunity for creativity that it's worth spending some time with.

In this particular incarnation, we have (across from the top row):
  • Hummus with carrot-broccoli stem slaw
    • Spread home-made or store-bought hummus on a piece of bread.  Top with slaw (shredded carrots and broccoli stems--or throw in any shredded veggies you want!--mixed with a little olive oil, apple cider vinegar, salt, and a tiny bit of sugar)
  • Tomato-basil
    • Mix chopped tomatoes (fresh are best, but canned and drained will do in a pinch) with a large quantity of chopped basil. Taste and season lightly with salt and pepper, if needed.
  • Mashed avocado with yellow pepper
    • Mash one avocado with a little salt and lime juice, if you have it on hand. Spread it thickly on a piece of bread, and lay something crunchy, like sliced yellow bell peppers, on top.
All served on fresh-baked bread! (but done the easy way--in the bread machine).

So delicious and versatile! What ideas would you come up with?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Class syllabus

Thanks to some help I got in planning my syllabus (both online and off) for this one-credit course I'm teaching this semester, I've managed to put together a preliminary schedule for the semester. Check it out via Google Docs through the link below, if you're interested:

Creating a Shared Meal syllabus

I'll definitely be writing again about how the class goes, about what kinds of issues our discussions bring up, and about the food that my students (co-learners?!) and I cook together!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Summer Picnic Pesto

End of summer brings a wealth of basil--rich, green, and shiny. Which, of course, spells P-E-S-T-O.

I threw together this little pesto last week, and paired it with some chopped up tomatoes and baguette slices for a start-of-semester picnic. It was a hit.

Just because the other food at this potluck picnic was so beautiful, I want to showcase some of it before sharing my pesto recipe, below.  Zucchini fries, grilled vegetables, three-bean salad:

Bean and greens salad in a yogurt dressing; couscous salad; a mexican salad with veggie crumbles; and delicious baked beans! A feast, to be sure.

This little pesto of mine was made from basil from our garden, and whatever else I had on hand.  Because we didn't have any parmesan in the house, I looked up a recipe in the awesome vegan cookbook, the Veganomicon, and modified it according to available ingredients and my taste. Hope you enjoy it!

Vegan Basil-Cilantro Pesto

3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro
1/3 cup almonds
2 cloves garlic
1.5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8-1/4 cup olive oil
  1. Place all ingredients except oil in a food processor and blend until it forms a thick paste, scraping down sides as needed.  
  2. While food processor runs, slowly add olive oil, until pesto is smooth.
  3. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. In general, I've found it's best to go light on the vinegar, salt, and oil, as it's always easier to add more than to try to remove it.
  4. This makes enough for about one baguette's worth, but pesto freezes easily if you want to double or triple the recipe and put the rest away for a rainy day. One trick lots of people use is to spoon the pesto into ice cube trays, and then pop out the pesto cubes into a ziploc bag, for easier portioning later.