Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Home Again, Fermenting

I just returned home after eight days visiting friends and family on the Other Coast, and as I set about making dinner with the root vegetables that survived my absence, it hit me how much I had missed my own kitchen. I suddenly felt so much more grounded, chopping onions and hearing them sizzle as I dropped them, handful by handful, into the frying pan. I certainly can't deny the luxury of being cooked for and fed (thanks, Mom), but I am nonetheless relieved to be back among my battered pots and scarred cutting boards.

The upshot, however, of the holiday festivities, was that I came into possession of several wonderful books about food, among them Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Life-Cultured Foods. I already knew of Katz via his website,

and am excited to have a hard copy to take into the kitchen with me. I'm currently tending to a sourdough starter and a "bug" for ginger beer.

Recipes aside, what I appreciate most about Katz's work is the eloquence with which he articulates the relationship between eating and activism, while making a case for exploring fermentation:

"Resistance takes place on many planes. Occasionally it can be dramatic and public, but most of the decisions we are faced with are mundane and private. What to eat is a choice that we make several times a day, if we are lucky. The cumulative choices we make about food have profound implications.

Food offers us many opportunities to resist the culture of mass marketing and commodification. Though consumer action can take many creative and powerful forms, we do not have to be reduced to the role of consumers selecting from seductive convenience items. We can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators. Food has historically been one of our most direct links to the life forces of the Earth. Bountiful harvests have always been occasions for celebration and the appreciation of the divine . . .

. . . Not everyone can be a farmer. But that's not the only way to cultivate a connection to the Earth and buck the trend toward global market uniformity and standardization. One small but tangible way to resist the homogenization of culture is to involve yourself in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures. Rediscover and reinterpret the vast array of fermentation techniques used by our ancestors. Build your body's cultural ecology as you engage and honor the life forces all around you." (Katz, 27).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cheap Eats

Once again, making my way through Jill Richardson's Recipe for America (see previous post) I came across the distressing story of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old "undocumented" Mexican migrant worker, now the youngest farm worker in the U.S. to die from heat exhaustion. It was May of 2008, and Jimenez worked harvesting grapes in California. Jimenez collapsed after working for nearly 10 hours in 95 degree heat, receiving only one water break during that time (a direct violation of CA state law). Her employer delayed bringing Jimenez to the hospital, and by the time they did, she arrived in a coma, dying two days later.

Tellingly, it was not Jimenez's death that disturbed me most, so much as the knowledge of her employer: West Coast Grape Farming, a subsidiary of California's Bronco Wine Company which produces the ever-popular-among-broke-2o-somethings wine Charles Shaw, or "Two-Buck Chuck".

I came across this anecdote not a few days after a long conversation with Rob, the farmer I've been working for, about the grocery store Trader Joe's. I've long held a mild grudge against Trader Joe's for their questionable marketing of ethnic foods (labels reading "Trader Ming's," "Trader Giotto's, etc). But Rob's critique of the store was much deeper: he objects to how successfully Trader Joe's perpetuates the idea that good food can, and should be, cheap. Indeed, I've been privy to many a championing of Trader Joe's for their ability to anticipate the needs and appetites of their customers, their delicious pre-prepared meals, and above all, their rock-bottom prices for often organic foods. Rob argued that the cost of food should reflect what it costs to grow it, harvest it, and get it to market (which, for a small, diversified organic grower is a lot more than the costs for large-scale industrial producers). The lower the prices for food at places like Trader Joe's, the less likely consumers will be to spring for Rob's delicious vegetables (usually $2.00/lb), eggs ($6.50/doz.), or free-range chickens ($7.00/lb).

As one of those aforementioned, underemployed 20-somethings, I disagreed with Rob's argument. Lots of folks simply can't afford farmer's market or co-op prices for all-organic food.
There's no way around that fact. But what is slowly beginning to shift my perspective (maybe I could spend a larger chunk of my weekly checks on food) is stories like that of Maria Jimenez. Trader Joe's food isn't just cheap. It's cheap for a reason: the companies they contract with, like Bronco Wine, whether organic or not, rely on exploitable, cheap labor. In other words, and I am certainly not the first to say this, there are costs to our cheap food that we do not see (at least not yet).

But am I in a position to demonize and boycott Trader Joe's? Not really. All I can do is shop conscientiously and buy local when I've got the cash. Until systems change radically and the U.S. government begins subsidizing small-scale, low-impact organic farms, instead of the pesticide-sodden environmentally destructive corn and soybean operations they current do, we will remain caught in this bind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Industrial Agribusiness Eats Us for Lunch

The last few months have afforded me an unprecedented amount of free time, during which I've begun to explore one of my long-standing interests, farming, and delve deeper into the politics of America's food. The stack of books on my desk grows ever higher, and I'm spending more and more time on the internet, reading other activists' blogs. For the first time in a long time, I feel truly invigorated and driven to consume (the puns are endless) as much new information as possible, but also, increasingly overwhelmed.

I've been putting off writing about it because, where do I start?

But here's an interesting tidbit that I felt needs sharing. I'm just finishing the book Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It by Jill Richardson (Ig Publishing, 2009). As a frequent consumer of organic foods and food products, I stopped dead in my tracks when I got to Richardson's section titled "Industrial Ag Invades Organics." I sort of knew that a lot of so-called organic foods were produced by not-so-benevolent megacorporations, but the following list really brings it home:

Organic Brands Parent Company

Boca Foods, Back to Nature ---------------------Kraft

Naked Juice -------------------------------------- Pepsi

Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen -------------------- General Mills

Horizon, Organic Cow of Vermont,
Alta Dena, White Wave/Silk ------------------- Dean

Lightlife, Alexia Foods -------------------------- Conagra

Green & Black's ---------------------------------- Cadbury Schweppes

MorningstarFarms, Natural Touch,
Kashi, Gardenburger, Bear Naked ------------- Kellogg

Odwalla ------------------------------------------- Coca-Cola

Seeds of Change ---------------------------------- M&M Mars

Dagoba -------------------------------------------- Hershey Foods

If this isn't proof that simply "buying organic" does not absolve us as consumers, then I don't know what is.

Meanwhile, one of Obama's most recent acts as president has just come to my attention: the nomination (and subsequent confirmation by the US Senate) of two "Big Ag" types to prominent positions in the USDA and Office of the US Trade Representative, respectively. Roger Beachy, of Monsanto, and Islam Siddiqui, of CropLife America, will surely only tighten the choke-hold of industrial agriculture on Federal food regulation and monitoring.

Read more about it at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All dried out

After weeks of trolling craigslist ads, sending several unrequited inquiries, and ultimately shelling out $25 to a dubious-looking man on break from his clerk duties at a back-alley Cash-and-Carry, I am now the proud owner of a 3-tray Ronco food dehydrator.

Not only does the gleaming appliance add a futuristic cheer to my kitchen, it has also chivalrously opened the door for me to a new world of food preservation. I think I'm still in the "experimentation" phase. The dehydrator came accompanied by an atrociously written, but nonetheless encouraging booklet of instructions and recipes. Included is a chart listing a diverse array of fruits and vegetables, along with corresponding pre-drying treatments (see below) and recommended drying times.

So far, I've had the most luck with bananas. I procured several pounds for free (at the aforementioned Free Market), and first tried slicing the fruit into thin rounds and drying those to brittle chips (about two days in the hopper). The chips were certainly much reduced in weight, but almost painful to bite. I preferred the later method: slicing the pieces a little thicker, and letting them dry just a day and a half. The result: chewy, leathery, sweet goodness.

Also successful: zucchini chips! Sprinkle slices with salt and let dry for two days. The result: crispy, salty, healthy snackness.

Less successful: apricots (not ripe enough to begin with), apples (I need to get my hands on a corer, so as not to waste 25% of the fruit in preparation), and watermelon. This last one occurred under the direction of my housemate, and after four suspenseful days, the pink mass had reduced to a dense, sticky pillow that went rancid before anyone dared try it. I suppose there's a reason the Ronco manual doesn't contain a listing for melon.

What I have yet to master are the pre-drying treatments. Suggested treatments include: steam-blanching (length of time varies), dipping in salt, honey, or lemon juice, or using a sodium- or sulphur-based syrup. The treatments allegedly preserve the color and flavor of the dried food. But let me tell you, I tried dipping those apricots in lemon juice, and they still looked and tasted like wrinkled sh*t. On a recent visit to the neighborhood Safeway, I picked up what looks like a spice jar of magical mystery fruit-preservation powder, and I have yet to try it out, but the branches on my backyard plum trees are cracking from the weight of the ripening fruit, and harvest time will soon be upon us . . .

Meanwhile, future non fruit-related projects might include: dried hummus, chili, and tomato sauce. Or, ooh, guacamole. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Food is a right, not a privilege"

In the world of food activism, there exists a wonderful group called Food Not Bombs. They take shape in chapters across the country, generally geared toward providing food to those without. In high school, I volunteered for a time with the chapter in my hometown. This consisted of hanging out on Saturday mornings at a nearby collective house, cooking a bunch of food, and giving it away at lunchtime to folks in a park downtown. At the time, I got involved primarily because as a 16-year old self-professed communist with blond dreadlocks, those were the people to know. Nowadays, slightly less idealistic, I still put a lot of stock in Food Not Bombs' mission and principles.

The local chapter in Seattle organizes a weekly "Free Food Market," which takes place Sunday afternoons in a public park. Dedicated as they are to providing organic and vegan/vegetarian food, volunteers go around to the city's food co-ops, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's, to collect the food the stores can't or don't think they can sell that week. Drivers arrive at the park, cars and trucks loaded with boxes of produce, canned goods, breads and baked goods, and the occasional crate of dairy products.

People who've come for food help unload the boxes and space them out evenly on the pavement. After announcements from the organizers and pleas to stay afterward and help clean up, someone says go, and it's a free-for-all. Most of the goodies are gone within 10 or 15 minutes; only the most persistent sort through the piles of rotting tomatoes and wilted greens. What little food doesn't find a home gets composted, of course.

I love the "Market" not only because I come home with loaves upon loaves of otherwise expensive, artisan breads (mmm . . . Rosemary), and but also because it offers a weekly chance to engage with the broad spectrum of faces who need and believe in free food.

The "Market" draws an interesting crowd: homeless folks camping out at the nearby community center, families with small children, hungover hipsters. People arrive on foot, in wheelchairs, on bicycles, and in strollers. And everyone seems to know each other. Other than the occasional misogynistic rumbling when it comes to unloading the vehicles ("Are you sure you can handle that one by yourself? It's pretty heavy!" "Here, let me take that from you"), it's quite idyllic.

Waiting in the park on a sunny afternoon, watching folks lounging in the grass, chatting in small groups, or shooting hoops as they wait for the food train, I feel privileged to live where I live, and to know the people I know. And I feel hungry.

Visit Food Not Bombs' national website at

Friday, July 17, 2009

Raising the (granola) bar

I call these "fiber bombs," and they kept me well breakfasted and snack-filled while posted for a week in the back country. The following recipe is a modification of a modification of another recipe; feel free to play with ingredients and amounts.

The wet:
1/4 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup soy milk

The dry:
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup ground flax meal
3/4 cup rolled oats
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt

The chunky:
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit (chopped small)
1 cup dried + sweetened coconut flakes
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup almond slivers
3/4 cup chocolate chips

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Grease a 9 x 13 pan
- Beat wet ingredients together
- Sift dry ingredients together
- Add the wet to the dry, stir well
- Add the chunky ingredients to the batter, stir well
- Spread batter evenly in the pan
- Bake 30 minutes (until golden brown on the edges - they should still be soft when done)
- Cool, cut into 24 pieces, wrap in foil/wax paper
- Eat them within the next couple days, or freeze them to store for later

Friday, June 26, 2009

Food as Fuel

There's no question that we must eat to live, and so eat we all do. But there's also no question that the time set aside for planning, preparation, and sharing of food is a privilege. Never is this so apparent to me as when I'm working. When I say 'working,' I mean working; I mean 10 hour days on the Mountain, hiking, say 8-10 miles, carrying hand tools, clearing downed trees, setting rocks, building bridges. And what follows these work days? Evenings of eating and eating and not feeling full. Then waking to a pre-dawn alarm with my stomach grumpy, hankering for a bigger breakfast.

And so my diet must change. With half an hour for lunch that often turns into less when the clouds hang low and I've gotta keep moving to stay warm, food choices are weighed according to a simple ratio: # calories consumed/# minutes required to consume. Similarly, the shorter the time lapse between dragging this tired body home and food in my bowl, the better. Needless to say, salads are out. Carrot sticks are a complete waste of time. Meals become simpler, and deliberately larger so I might take leftovers the next day. Carbs and protein, carbs and protein. Rice and black beans. Rice and lentils. Rice and beans wrapped in tortillas, or scooped onto crackers. Pasta with stir-fried veggies and soy protein. Pasta with lentils. Open a can of tuna, or fry an egg, and toss it over some rice. I want to be full, and fast.

Now, I still try to use the dried beans and soak them the night before, and I certainly haven't sunk to that culinary nadir called minute rice. But I do mourn the loss of diversity and creativity in my eating habits. Which begs the question: how do I manage to fuel my body-as-engine while still eating how I want to live?

One key, I think, is planning ahead.

I once met a woman, the busy wife of a missionary doctor, who painstakingly organized her family's meals a month in advance. She purchased all the necessary ingredients and spent one whole weekend cooking and freezing each dish. Every day then, each meal was defrosted and served, according to schedule. Her kitchen consisted of two freezers and a microwave. Patently anathema to any and all spontaneity, I know, but it left her the rest of the month to do as she pleased.

While Mimi's way is not for me, I think, I can certainly take steps in that direction. I'm already adept at making big meals to last half the week. I can make granola. I could . . . dehydrate things!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sale-ing Season

Summer is happening to Seattle. She is a city transformed, ripe with bare skin, generous smiles, and fair-weather fitness enthusiasts. Best of all, people hold yard sales. Yard sales, garage sales, tag sales, rummage sales, estate sales, moving sales, all energetically advertised - signs written in sharpie on neon paper and taped to telephone polls - as "huge," "gigantic," and my favorite, "multi-family."

Probably a holdover from my childhood - many a Saturday morning spent chasing sales around Worcester County - I love yard sales. I find something both comforting and exhilarating in the tables crammed with other folks' junk. Each collection of books, records, board games, china, or tools offers pieces of a narrative about their soon-to-be-former owners. I learn a lot about my neighbors by perusing their recycling. And best of all, I always find something I can't life without.

In the last twenty-four hours, my household has acquired:

an antique coffee grinder - $7

a 1900s 10" drawknife (log peeler) - $18

a hatchet - $5

a swiss army knife - $2

a set of japanese carving tools - $5

a paint-spattered but functional boom box - $5

a copy of Clearcut, an "erotically atmospheric" (Kirkus Reviews) novel about the PNW by Nina Shengold - $1

Strangely, I haven't found what I actually need - a toaster for my kitchen - but I have a good feeling about tomorrow . . .

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Doing it Myself

I found this book of my housemate's lying around: Making Stuff & Doing Things: A Collection of DIY Guides to Doing Just About Everything.

In formats ranging from comic strips to collage, the 250 page anthology offers lessons on such wide-ranging life skills as how to season a cast-iron skillet, how to juggle, how to build a composting toilet, how to keep your piss in a jar and pour it on your garden, and how to build gigantic puppets.

The short piece on "Urban Foraging" admonishes, "One last quick point: don't blow money on shit you can get for free."

In that spirit, I spent most of the afternoon replacing the cracked and crusty tires on my bike with new (used) ones. A simple task, really, but one that gets more complicated when the old front tire is so crustified onto its wheel that you puncture your inner tube in three places while trying to remove the whole ensemble. And so you attempt to patch the inner tube using superglue and pieces of another old inner tube, resulting in 7 patches and a still-leaky tube, before successfully patching an entirely different tube, putting on the new tire, and reattaching the wheel to the bike. But I saved $5 (the cost of a new tube), and I am now a tire-replacement pro (with superglue all over my hands)!

So I didn't blow any money on the shit I could get for free, but was it worth it? I'll tell you tomorrow morning, if my tires are still full of air when I go to ride the bike.

And more shit I'm getting for free: I have a bag of fresh sprouts hanging in the kitchen (mung, adzuki, garbanzo) and the tomato and basil starts by the window are quickly unfurling toward the light - I can practically see them grow.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

And then we made tortillas

Sometimes all it takes is a slight shift in perspective.

I have a good friend named Pete, who I see now maybe twice, three times a year if I'm lucky. Pete spends his summer working trails up in Denali, and he's responsible for a lot of what I know about the Northwest, and for a lot of why I care.

A couple weeks ago, Pete came over for one last dinner before he left again for Alaska. We planned to make burritos, and I asked him if he could pick up some tortillas on his way over. He replied, why don't we make some? It can't be that hard.

And so we did. It might have been the best burrito I've ever had (thanks, Pete). I'll never buy the packaged ones again.


2 c. unsifted flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. water or more as needed
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. shortening

Combine flour, salt, baking powder. Cut shortening into dry ingredients until it resembles coarse corn meal. Gradually add water, working it into flour until stiff. Let dough rest 5-10 minutes. Divide into 6-8 balls. Roll out on floured surface to 1/16-inch thick, about 6-7 inches diameter. On greased grill on medium-high, cook about 1 minute each side. It is important to immediately place cooked tortilla on warm plate and cover securely to prevent drying out.

What else can I do in my own kitchen that I hadn't thought of before?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Refrigerator Soup: A Framework

My father did most of the cooking in our family. I don't think he liked to, much, but he did. Simple meals: pasta and cauliflower, potatoes and broccoli. There were usually leftovers. And every other week or so, he'd toss them all into a pot and improvise. Refrigerator soup.

Having grown up poor, my father did not like to see food go to waste. Without complaint, he'd lunch on the stale bread and moldy cheese the rest of us would just as soon have discarded. In fact, my parents rarely threw anything away. The drawers in the kitchen overflowed with plastic bags - rinsed and dried again and again - and used twist-ties, refolded aluminum foil, plastic yogurt tubs, fraying dishtowels, paper grocery bags. Glass jars, egg cartons, rags, milk bottles. The basement concealed even more.

I still tease my mother for saving (for years) not one, but two, toasters for when "I moved into my first apartment."

Most people in the U.S. of A. do not live like this. They haven't had to. But the recession continues to take its toll, and I, despite my own unemployed uncertainty, maintain this optimism: that we, as a country, will take stock of our wastefulness and return to a frugal and ingenious way of life. That we will really reduce, reuse, and recycle, but also re-patch, repair, and repeat.

My kitchen, in the drafty 1913 farmhouse I rent, shelters a health plastic bag collection, several shelves of plastic tubs, a cup of rubber bands. A bouquet of canvas grocery bags hangs from the doorknob. The compost bucket grows crusty with each morning's coffee grounds. In the backyard, 50 onion bulbs snake greenly skyward, and the peas have begun to germinate.

They say change begins at home, but even more, I think change begins in the kitchen, with what we eat, and how we prepare it. I hope to explore here how the meals I cook, provide the rough framing - the bones - for living the life I want to live.