Thursday, August 13, 2009

Potato Bin Elegy

Gene, one of the great and beloved mentors of my life in Appalachia, passed away last fall. He taught me to grow things, as well as the art of patience, and exuded a sort of grace and quiet empathy that few old men possess. His eyes never ceased laughing.

Today I was reminded of him in an abrupt and tactile moment in the farmers' market, combing through a bin of dirt-flecked potatoes. Suddenly I saw his gnarled hands instead of mine, picking through another bin of potatoes, wedding ring winking in the half-light of the root cellar. My heart felt full and taut.

I wrote the following when I received news of his death this past October, and thought I might share it with those of you who still check this poor old blog now and then. I hope it conveys the love and gratitude I felt, and will always feel, for this strong, gentle grandfather.

Elegy for Gene

By the time I met you –
A Victorian doll clambering up your ragged
Denim knees, kissing silver stubble –
You did not till the earth,
Wear a soldier’s uniform,
Chop wood for the fire,
Touch your wife.
You did quiet, womanish things –
Picked cherries,
Took scraps out to the dogs,
Read a thousand books.
You wore dusty overalls and bragged about
Her pound cakes –
In fact, when you spoke, it was like a bottle uncorked
And the two of you sang folkwise duets
Lyrically impossible, but such sweet melody:
These were the songs of my childhood,
Raising me up in the soil.

It’s been years since you hoisted me into the cherry trees,
Since you fetched potatoes from the root cellar
Or shaved your own face.
Mostly you’ve slept,
Or half-slept in a medicated haze,
Curled on the couch –
Your face cool, but familiar to my kisses.

The last time I saw you
We sat together at the kitchen table in the farmhouse,
Each with a cool jar of water from the well
Though you didn’t drink yours, or even hold it.
You answered my questions sparely,
And didn’t speak beyond them –
How are you feeling?
And, I love you, I love you, I love you.

Later I peeled your white cotton undershirt
Off the weeping yellow lesions burned into your back –
Melanoma, just removed –
And spread antiseptic balm
With my fingers.
I helped you, gingerly, into a new shirt.
One fourth your years, or nearly,
I am for the first time an adult –
For the first time, permitted these intimate acts.
This is not an embarrassment for you, old father,
But an honor for me –
My fingers in your wounds.

I ate a warm wedge of pound cake
And you rolled your wheelchair back and forth
Over the one creaky floorboard,
A minuscule movement
Driving her to feigned distraction –
Exasperation covering her relief
That your playful self was still inside that gory husk
Just as your age and pain
Concealed your mirth.

The hummingbirds suckled a feeder at the window,
Their hearts in their ruby throats
Thrumming, thrumming
‘til the earth.

October 6, 2008

Friday, May 08, 2009

Global Grocer: Imports, Rarity, and the Case for Origin Labeling

*** Cross-posted from The Green Fork, the official blog of Eat Well - my new place of employment! ***

Like all domestic goddesses born in the midst of the Green Revolution, my mom has a complex grocery shopping technique that has never been never adequately summed up by her explanation, “whatever looks best.” It incorporates all five senses (much to the embarrassment of my twelve-year-old self, when she routinely sniffed the stem-ends of a dozen Costco cantaloupes), and is even synced with the artificial thundershowers in the vegetable section. Dewy, jewel-toned and blemishless, her picture-perfect produce always seemed to have just arrived from some seasonless supermarket Eden.

Which wasn’t far off, if you figure Eden was probably someplace in Mespotamia.

But some ancestral agrarian wisdom – residue of her Tennessee farmgirl past – also nudged her to adhere to the occasional seasonal law: asparagus in spring, summer strawberries, Christmas clementines. These items were dinner table treasures, redolent with rarity…if not always with flavor.

Because it turns out that, according to the new online shopping tool Global Grocer, there’s still a 75% chance that supermarket asparagus was imported from Peru or Mexico, even in springtime. In our supersaturated, season-free food culture, US food imports are rising at dramatic rates (importation of agricultural products has increased 50% since 2004 alone) and decimating domestic family farmers, local economies, the environment, and sometimes our health.

Developed by Food & Water Watch, Global Grocer is an interactive guide to your food and where it might be coming from. Browse the noisy animated aisles, pick your produce item (fresh, frozen or processed), and read the rundown on its origins, including top exporters and the probability that it was imported. Fill up your virtual cart, proceed to checkout, and find out how likely it is that you’ve selected imported fruits and veggies; the array of countries they came from; and how many pounds of jet-setting produce you probably purchase per year.

If these numbers alarm you – and they should – Global Grocer has some advice: shop at outlets that sell local food, and tell your supermarket that you demand country-of-origin labeling.

Though seemingly vestigial in the contemporary supermarket, seasonal impulses like my mom’s could help save small farms and the planet – but only if they’re supported by adequate origin labeling, so shoppers can distinguish between good, local, seasonal food and over-traveled, chemically ripened, unseasonable food.

Any locavore will tell you that embracing rarity, far from being an altruistic sacrifice, is actually a deliciously hedonistic adventure; my mother and I discovered that together – in the garden we learned to grow. But Americans can’t reclaim rarity as a cultural value until we are able make educated decisions about not just what to buy, but where to buy it from – and consequently, when.

Click here to embed the Global Grocer widget on your website.

Not sure what’s in season? Consult Eat Well’s Seasonal Food Map.

Monday, July 07, 2008

New Amsterdam Public Market

Maybe you remember last December, when I posted about a regional, season market that was held, for one day only, at New York City's abandoned fish market at the South Street Seaport? New Amsterdam Public, the non-profit organization that made Wintermarket a great success, was at it again last weekend!

I won't go into too much detail here about New Amsterdam Public (read my Wintermarket post for more details), but the gist of their goal is to establish a permanent indoor market for regional, sustainable food in the Seaport's historic New Market Building and its neighbor, the Tin Building, which have been the loci of South Street's four centuries of public markets, and which have stood empty since 2006, when the Fulton Fish Market moved to the Bronx. The buildings are currently publicly owned, but governmental inertia and the conflicting interests of Pier 17's contracted developer have created complex politics around the goal of retaining those buildings as a public market. Since popular interest drives many decisions regarding public property and services, New Amsterdam has facilitated and hosted three one-day regional food markets as awareness-raising events. The most recent one was last Sunday, and it attracted over sixty vendors and around 7,000 visitors, who strolled through the stalls tasting exquisite cheeses, artisanal breads, glorious summer produce, and jams, pastas, ice creams and honey from all over the region.

Just about everyone covered this event, but I wanted to share a few words on my experience there as a volunteer. My dear friend Annie, who authors the eloquent blog Thoughts on the Table, works for New Amsterdam and coordinated the volunteers; on Sunday morning I found her scrabbling between booths, distributing smocks and organizing enthusiastic. She handed me an apron and directed me to Rick and Helen of Meadowcreek Diary, who were vending a stunning variety of North American raw-milk cheeses. Not strictly local fare, these exceptional cheeses were, I learned, on tour in New York for evaluation for Slow Food's Ark of Taste; the cheese were were selling were what remained of the winners of the Raw Cheese Presidium tasting. I spent a few hours slicing samples and learning to talk cheese - all while nibbling surreptitious bits of Twig Farm Tomme and Rogue River Smokey Blue.

We sold a great deal of cheese, and customers were uniformly happy to be there, excited about local food. Many were amazingly knowledgeable about cheese - what a different experience from your average supermarket, where shoppers pick foods inside cardboard boxes and cashiers can scan a vegetable without even knowing what it is. Across New Amsterdam Market, customers asked complex questions about cultures, pesticides, ingredients, and recommendations for eating, and the vendors knew all the answers and could even speak for the sustainable practices of the growers and producers.

Before I left, I had a few minutes to tour the market myself, tasting and observing community happen - among visitors, among producers, and between producers and consumers. The only thing that makes me happier than food as community is the absolute genius sweet basil and goat cheese ice cream I tried.

Just as I was leaving, the sky blackened and a Seaport-worthy summer monsoon doused the city with fierce buckets. Under cover of the overpass, the market remained mostly dry, and shoppers huddled together and laughed at their flooded feet.

Daring Baker: Danish Braid (for real)

(If you don't know who the Daring Bakers are, read my summary at the beginning of this post.)

The Daring Bakers' June Challenge, a Danish Braid, was a wonderful adventure. As with nearly all DB recipes, this one took time, patience, and a little creativity, but paid back with great pictures, new skills, and above all, hardcore deliciousness.

The braid has two elements: pastry dough and a filling. The pastry recipe provided to the circa fifteen hundred Daring Bakers - originally from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking - I followed to the letter, but bakers were permitted to divine a filling of their choice. Since I'm a sucker for sweetened cream cheese (and I suffered a setback with a failed batch of vanilla pastry cream, which was my other choice), I chose a cream cheese custard filling, which I thought would highlight the unusual flavors in the dough.

The flaky bread of the danish braid is different from other pastry doughs because it it made from yeast (as opposed to, say, pie crust) and uses a block of butter, folded in one "turn" at a time, to create distinct layers - similar to a croissant. This recipe, however, included the unique flavors of orange zest and juice, vanilla, and cardamom, which gave the confection delicious complexity and depth. I added orange and lemon zest to both my filling and icing to unify the tastes and textures.

After combining the ingredients for the dough and allowing it to rest, you roll it into a big rectangle and spread it with a creamy butter-flour mixture, then fold into thirds and chill for half an hour, until the butter is firm. Then the dough is rolled out into a large rectangle again and the rolling-and-folding process is repeated three more times - called "turns" - chilling between each turn; each turn triples the number of layers, so that after a total of four turns, there are 81 layers of pastry dough, separated by layers of butter. Cool, right?

Here is my recipe for the Cream Cheese Custard Filling:

8 ounces softened cream cheese
1/4 cup sugar

1 large egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

I just combined these ingredients in a mixing bowl with a hand mixer, folding in the zest at the end so that it didn't all tangle around the beaters. It was creamy, not too sweet, and the delicate citrus flavors shone though just enough to make it match the pastry dough.

To assemble the danish, the dough is rolled out into a huge rectangle, and the long sides are cut into a fringe of 1/2"x5" strips. The filling is ladled into the center and spread around to fill the length of the danish, then the ends are tucked in and the strips are folded over the filling in an alternating pattern, which creates the braid effect. (One of the hosts, Sass & Veracity, has a great series of pictures of the assembly.)

I made my dough on a Saturday, but I didn't get around to making the whole danish until the following Tuesday; during the interim, the dough was marooned in the fridge, tightly wrapped. Pastry dough freezes well, but bakers do not advise refrigeration for more than 24 hours; I ignored their advice and was pleased to see my dough rise so nicely. In fact, there was so much of it that I made it extra long and was able to trim off some edges during assembly (which is why, I think, my danish came out so geometrically straight and symmetrical). I was ready to scoff at the no-longterm-refrigeration advice publicly, until I noticed how many other participants had made two braids. Two? One was, I felt, challenging enough - why had nearly everyone doubled the recipe? I finally figured out that the dough recipe was meant to be halved, and that perhaps my refrigerated dough had not risen so well as I thought.

After this discovery (which occurred while my braid was in the oven), I was ready for a very dense danish indeed. I kept peering in the oven window to see whether it would leak or morph into a giant super-braid...but it just rose gently, browning in the most perfect way. It even cooked quicker than the recipe stated it would - with twice the dough!

I whipped up a little icing with powdered sugar, water, and citrus zests, and drizzled it over the warm danish, then cut myself a slice.

Absolute heaven. Utterly (and if you know me you'll know I rarely say this) flawless - light, buttery, moist, just the right proportions of pastry to filling (I hate those danishes that don't have enough filling! UGH!), and the citrus and cardamom shone through ever so delicately. I can't think of a better item to serve for tea or brunch - it was so long and elegant, impressive but not impossible, and downright delicious.

I have no idea what will happen if I try and recreate it without the fridge-side downtime. :) Maybe someday I'll let you know... Thanks for another wonderful challenge, Daring Bakers!