By Samuel Fromartz
Shortly after I heard from my mother that our close friend, the novelist Sol Yurick, had died at age 87, the obits began appearing. I was glad that Sol, the first serious writer I knew and a strong influence on me as a teenager, was getting recognition. But I was also chagrined that the obits almost exclusively focused on The Warriors, a work he wrote in 1965 about warring New York gangs based loosely on Xenophon’sAnabasis that went on to became a movie and cult hit. Sure, it was a fast read and his most popular work, filled with his requisite cast of rogues, misanthropes, disaffected youth and innocents but the gang bang work hardly defined Sol, who liked to remind people that he wrote it in all of three weeks. His more substantive novels that made a stir in the ‘60s and ‘70s—The Bag, Fertig, and his short story collection, Someone Just Like You—and his later works such as An Island Death, Richard A. and extended nonfiction essay, Metatron, were hardly considered though they defined Sol far more than the Warriors.
Taking Someone Just Like You down from my bookshelf after years of neglect, I’m impressed by the writing, though it’s hard for me to separate the work from the man. I can’t really judge his literary merit against the backdrop of the ‘60s. I’ll leave that to the Ph.Ds. I can just appreciate the words, like the opening of the short story, “The Annealing”:
She lived from day to day and didn’t much care which day it was. If she laughed once or twice, laughed big that day, she had it made. If she cried more than she laughed, she knew it wasn’t her day. Sometimes it wasn’t her day, not really, for weeks on end. Sometimes, with that liquor sloshing around in her, it was her day, her night, her everytime.
This is the sordid tale of a woman with five kids caught up in the welfare bureaucracy who becomes the victim of a state-employed psychiatrist. It’s related to his longer work, The Bag, which he felt was his best novel, and from the first words displays a richness that came from close observation. The only contemporary I can think of that’s mining a similar vein, with a dogged eye and compassion for the powerless, is the non-fiction writer Katherine Boo. Sol, though, was a trenchant critic of society, of capitalism, and of the ideology that underpinned it, and he often let his rage show. As the novelist Brian Morton wrote in The Nation back in 1983: “Yurick has always been fascinated by the myths that mask relations of power and prevent a dominated population from understanding its condition. His novels are filled with deluded true believers, passionate adherents of ideologies that leave them incapable of seeing what’s in front of their eyes.”
Fertig, which caught the eye of actor Alec Baldwin, was also made into a movie, “The Confession.” The book tells the story of a father whose son died because of medical neglect in the ER. Driven to despair and then rage, Fertig turns on the doctors and administrators to eke out his revenge. But the movie twisted the story, which was really too bad, because Sol was three or four decades ahead with this tale of an out-of-control medical system that could cause a person to snap.
If Sol targeted malevolent institutions, he also had no patience for poseurs, especially the literati, who traded on their name and access. In a scathing February 7, 1966 Nation review of Truman Capote’s celebrated novel In Cold Blood, he skewered the myth that Capote had created a new “art form” with the non-fiction novel. “Like the newspaper approach,” he wrote, “the poverty of Capote’s ‘new’ art form is appalling, the shallowness stupefying…. A work of art should, presumably, continue to shape our easy acceptance of the world, make us see in new ways, create new metaphors with which to view the world; new art should go beyond engineered reality.”
By the 1980s, he had largely left fiction writing behind. His interests focused on history, metaphysics, cybernetics, genetics, mythology and the information economy, bringing this into a long theoretical work, Burning, that took him a decade to write and ran to more than 1,000 pages, as I recall. I heard a lot about it while I was away at college, but never read it. “Parts of it were brilliant,” said Ron Hunnings, a close friend of Sol’s (and my brother-in-law) who often met him in Village cafes. Sol spun off a portion into Metatron, but the bulk of it never was published, and I think that took a toll on his psyche. Part of this may have been due to the wide scope and density of his thinking, which could not be compartmentalized. As his friend, Robert Shapiro, a computer scientist, told me, “Sol had a totally different take on things. Whether it was Marxism, Darwinism, Greek mythology, or Jewish mysticism, he was always interconnecting things at so many different levels.”
This had its costs. Morton says in his review of Metatron: “At times all this makes-for forbidding reading. At times, too, Yurick ascends into regions of abstraction where I can’t follow … I lose him in the mists.” He wasn’t alone. We all had a hard time, because Sol’s writing—and thinking—was at times akin to free-jazz improvisation, the Ornette Coleman of the non-fiction essay. When it worked, it really worked. But sometimes you just had to give the musician time to find his way.
Because of his wide swath of interests, it would be inaccurate to peg him as a Marxist or anything else—sitting at his oak kitchen table on Garfield Place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the ever-present pot of coffee on the stove, the three cats lounging on the parquet floor, the hand-rolled cigarette-making machine nearby, he railed against the powers that be, whether political, bureaucratic, literary, military-industrial, scientific or misguided leftist. In the past few years, he reserved a few choice digs for the pragmatic Obama. In this respect, he was closer to Groucho than Karl Marx: he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member (PEN was the exception). I even recall one time, when The Nation failed to cut him a check in a timely manner, he exclaimed—“the gonifs!” To which his wife Adrienne would inevitably say, “Oh, Sol, stop it.” He would just smirk.
But the lack of money was a perennial problem and I saw it close hand, for years, especially as Park Slope gentrified and rents got out of reach. The family actually moved into my mother’s house on the Flatbush side of the Prospect Park, when she left for Japan on a Fulbright fellowship. From there, they moved again to a brownstone on Lincoln Road, helped out by close friends who bought the house and rented it to them. Sol’s living example of the writing life was a cautionary tale, so when I chose to do “something with writing” post-grad school, I sought a job on a reporting beat that I knew would always attract a pay check: business. Plus, I had an inherent interest in economic arcana (maybe that was influenced by Sol, too). When I later turned to food and agriculture, Sol had a lot to say, though it was often on the Biblical and historical echoes to contemporary agro-ecological concerns.
During this prolonged period of infrequently published work, The Warriors kept popping up, with the attendant out-of-the-blue interview requests, but despite the delight he got in its cult status, it did not mean a lot more to him. He often referred to it as a “pot boiler,” and sell it did. The book was amazing, really. After the movie brought the novel back to light in 1979, it was reissued time and again; then there were the video games based on it, as well as action figures, memorabilia, comic book, fan web site and still another planned remake of the movie. Over this past Thanksgiving, Sol mentioned that a British production company had optioned it for a musical. The Warriors on stage with singers and dancers! He would have liked to make the London premier, but it was probably all well and good: it would just be another opportunity to rail at a remake. Aside from the Warrior royalties, which trickled in for four decades, Adrienne supported them and then family money finally came their way. After years of just making ends meet, they no longer had to worry about the bills.
I sensed that he mellowed in his final years. Was it his close family and friends, an especially animated grandson? He still raged at the machine, but the deep bitterness, the sting, seemed gone. Mostly I remember him enjoying his bagels and lox on Sunday morning, or the lucious Grand Marnier mousse his daughter Susanna made without fail for Thanksgiving dinner. He ate three or four of those rich desserts at the last gathering. “And why not?” he’d say. Why not, indeed. He had his way until the end. He still spit out the outrageous statement, never one to shirk from intellectual shock value. And while he talked about his writing, it had been years since he had published anything. I sensed that he had lost interest in the whole process of editors and publishing companies, though he still shared his work with friends.
Last year, he sent me an unfinished piece, “A Meditation on the Theories of Accounting,” which revisited his critique of In Cold Blood, putting the murder story of the farm family in the much wider context of, to grossly simplify, industrial agriculture. The essay, like much of his work, doubled back on itself and has digression upon digression. I recognize the ideas, and the approach: he’s trying to change the context of In Cold Blood to illuminate it; to see how by using a wider lens he can reinterpret “fact.”
Perhaps that’s what I’m trying to do too, having read the obits. He had thought a lot about storytelling, so wouldn’t be surprised. In 2011, he wrote this in an unpublished piece:
Zig zag, that’s how memory-retrieval works. Significant events get distorted when looked at through time’s and ideologies’ truth-bending lenses, like light traveling through curved space. Indeed nothing is straight in our universe, other than the idealistic paths of logic and mathematics. And while traumatic events become etched in the very synaptic spaces, events of no significance also remain. And dreams – eruptions from the mysterious realm of the unconscious which, as Freud would have it, knows everything – become mixed with scenes from books read, films, paintings, etc., compounded into a soup that includes excerpts from history, as well as religious and secular mythologies. Add to this that no story – technology notwithstanding – can be told again in exactly the same way. For each time we return to a memorable moment, be it individual or collective, or a mix, we are in a different context and this alters the story.
One of the last photos I have of him is sitting on the couch with a three-year-old niece, who had decided that Sol was now her best friend. They made an unlikely pair. Sol, with his deep, dark eye sockets and serious mien. Elina, with her kind, innocent smile. Before going to bed that day, Elina asked her parents to make sure they invited Sol to her birthday party. We all got a chuckle out of that because she didn’t mention anyone else. Though he promised to come, Sol died too soon. Maybe she saw something in him so many others missed.
This is an interesting video about memories of bread from people in various countries. I know I have mine.
The first two years, I planted my seeds in late May or early June and then transplanted the plants to the garden a few weeks later. All would go well. The vines would spread on the ground, the flowers would appear, the bees would show up to help pollinate the plants, and then I'd see tiny fruit. The fruit would get bigger and bigger -- and then, I'd leave for vacation in August.
Once, I picked the fruit while still green hoping that it would ripen fully on the trip. It tasted awful. But when I left the fruit to ripen on the vine, the melons were usually half eaten by the time I returned. After all, these melons were extremely fragrant. If I were a rodent prowling the neighborhood, I'd want a bite too.
This year, I took a different approach. I planted the seeds in early April, and transplanted the seedlings in May, under row cover for warmth. I began to get fruit by June. By July, when DC was basking in 100-plus temperatures, everything was humming.
Then I went to extreme measures. I bought a solar powered owl, which I propped up on a stake. The owl's head turns periodically (it actually freaked out my wife, who went to the garden and didn't know about the owl. She jumped when its head turned). So far I've had no pest damage. While this owl made for a helluva an expensive melon, I am enjoying my lucious, juicy and delicious fruit. And I bet it will work for my tomatoes too.
- Samuel Fromartz
I want to highlight a couple of stories we recently produced at the Food & Environment Reporting Network (@FERNnews on Twitter), where I serve as editor in chief. I'm pointing them out because I'm particularly proud of these stories and they took some time to come to fruition.
The first, which appeared last week in a joint investigation with ABC News was reported by Maryn McKenna, a brilliant science journalist who focuses on nasty microbes (check out her recent book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA). This past spring, she told me she had come across a number of studies that genetically linked the microbes in antibiotic-resistant bladder infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in chicken. I immediately sensed there was a good story here, because bladder infections affect, as the story points out, one-in-seven women.
What was new, Maryn told me, was that the number of antibiotic resistant infections appeared to be rising, at least based on anecdotal medical evidence, since they are not officially tracked. Secondly, there was this curious link to the microbes in chicken, which develop resistance because chicken are fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness. (For a more in-depth look at this issue, read Maryn's story FERN produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.)
Although the researchers had, in effect, genetically fingerprinted the bacteria, the question arose whether chicken causes the infections. The researchers assert that chicken are a likely and important source of these highly resistant infections, although as Maryn points out, establishing that in a scientific experiment would be unethical because it would risk infecting healthy subjects with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The chicken council also issued a press release questioning the link and we quoted these scientists in the Atlantic item mentioned above.
The second story, "Whose Side Is the Farm Bureau On?", which ran at The Nation, concerned the big agricultural lobby (and insurance firm) known as the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau puts itself forward as the voice of family farmers but reporter Ian Shearn, a Pulitizer Prize winner, focused on a case in Missouri that showed how the bureau actually operates. When giant CAFOs were polluting the waters around small farms, not only did the bureau support the CAFOs, but it pushed for state legislation that would limit civil suits against such operations. Those suits were being filed by small farmers.
Unlike Maryn's health story, Ian's focused on farmers, but the link between both of them were the practices of concentrated animal operations. While these operations produce plentiful and inexpensive food, they have costs that ripple through society -- whether in being the likely source of recurrent bladder infections commonly suffered by women or in the pollution suffered by Missouri farmers. In short, these stories put a cost on cheap food.
- Samuel Fromartz
Here's the video from the joint investigation between FERN and ABC News.
One of the toughest things about the 1,080 page Farm Bill is to write about it in a way that's accessible to readers, since the policy touches everything from agriculture to food stamps. Rather than cover the whole thing, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, where I serve as editor, decided to focus on one element: crop insurance.
The piece by Stett Holbrook, running on msnbc.com, begins:
Here’s a deal few businesses would refuse: Buy an insurance policy to protect against losses – even falling prices -- and the government will foot most of the bill.
That’s how crop insurance works.
The program doesn’t just help out farmers, however. The federal government also subsidizes the insurance companies that write the policies. If their losses grow too big, taxpayers will help cover those costs.
In the farm bill now making its way through the Senate, crop insurance will cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion a year.
Never heard of it? This isn't your mother's car insurance, nor the home policy you have to cover disasters. No, this is a program that insures that farmers make the revenue they expect from crop sales. It's hard to imagine anything else like it in the business world, which is why one fund manager who buys farmland in the U.S. was quoted as saying in the Financial Times:
"I don’t know of any other business where you can insure 90 per cent of your P and L (profit and loss),” said an adviser to large farmland investors. “There’s a lot more understanding in the institutional world about this than you might think”.
In other words, investors are buying up farmland in part because the government makes sure they won't lose money. For details on how the program works -- and how crop insurance companies make money even when disasters strike -- read the rest of the article on msnbc.
For those who missed it when it came out in the premier issue of Afar, the magazine has now posted my article on baking baguettes with the winner of the Grand Prix de la Baguette de la Ville de Paris. (This then led to a baguette competition back home and my winning recipe -- which can be demanding). Here's how the article, Time to Rise, opens:
In Paris, the 9th arrondissement is popular, hip even, dotted with wine shops, boutiques, and boulangeries, but still has the close-knit feel of a residential neighborhood. The streets are lined with old apartment buildings that seem to lean onto the sidewalks. Inside intimate bistros on these quiet, narrow lanes, maître d’s chat with locals as they arrive. One Sunday afternoon last winter, when I visited, the streets were crowded with couples and families out for a leisurely stroll. By 3 a.m. the next day, however, Rue des Martyrs, a main artery in the district, was empty, the stores dark except for a slit of light coming out of the side entrance of the Boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel. Everyone was still asleep. Everyone, that is, except for the bakers—whose ranks I was about to join.
Over the centuries, how many bakers have walked Paris’s dark avenues at night, heading to the fournils—baking rooms—to provide the city’s daily bread? In the 18th and 19th centuries, les geindres (the groaners) began before midnight, each laboring over hundreds of pounds of dough that they kneaded by hand and baked in basement wood-fired ovens. The poorest slept by the hearth, inhaling flour and often suffering from tuberculosis. Yet many did their jobs superbly, faithful to the demanding task of coaxing bread out of levain, or sourdough—a process that took days. As I walked toward the bakery that morning, I felt as if I were following in the footsteps of ghosts.... (read the rest)
- Samuel Fromartz
Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering.
Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway."
This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it.
Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce a pound of fillet mignon -- a 3% conversion rate of the calories in feed. (He specified that he was talking about muscle meat, not the leftover parts of the animal that are rendered.) What happens to the other 97% of the calories? It is wasted by this grossly inefficient calorie producer -- the cow. Only 15% of the the Midwest's grains are consumed by humans. "We throw away five-sixths of what we grow," he said. This isn't a rap on farmers, for they are doing precisely what the market or government signals them to do and are quite good at it. The question Folely was raising was whether the entire aparatus is the best way to produce calories for growing populations on a finate amount of land.
Now, I have, on occassion, enjoyed a good steak, but if was clear from his presentation that if the world feasted on steak, as growing numbers of people are doing, there would not be much of a world left. (He also noted that this equation would be different for a cow raised on pasture, since forage grasses cannot be directly consumed by humans. The measurements were less dire for dairy, eggs and poultry which are more efficient at converting feed to calories.)
While farmers and researchers focus on improving yield, the entire equation is actually stacked against the efficient use of land because the process in the end is so wasteful. He noted that 10 percent of the world's cropland is in GMOs and yet even those yields have stagnated. And since these crops grow animal feed (corn and soybeans) and fiber (cotton), "they're not feeding the world's poor," he said.
Water is another wasted resource, with the differences in efficiency between Israel and India differing by 100-fold. Recall that highly efficient modern drip irrigation was developed in Israel because water is such a scarce resource.
Foley also noted that organic farming still represented a minute fraction of agricultural production, and suggested a middle way in which organic methods would be used but augmented by targeted use of chemical inputs, not unlike taking medicine when you're sick. The better path is to stay healthy, only relying on medicine when needed. He likened the modern model of agriculture to a constant IV drip, an apt metaphore considering the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.
"I want organic to be the default farming method if we can pull it off," he said, but he noted that no one has a monopoly on the discussion. Useful solutions will have to come from both conventional and organic methods (which I've seen in the adaptation of organic methods by conventional farmers because they can be cheap and effective).
The bigger issue, though, is that forests are being razed to grow crops, especially in Brazil and Indonesia. This burning of forests is by far the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that agriculture emits -- and agriculture alone accounts for 30-40% of greenhouse gasses. Transport of food doesn't even come close. If this land is then used to grow soybeans, as it is in Brazil, these dramatic emissions are created in order to feed this inefficient livestock machine, which is another potent contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
So what might be a better use of land?
"Potatoes," said Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and its sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (I highly recommend both books) in another talk. Not only do potatoes produce more food calories per acre than wheat and corn, but unlike most of the corn crop, potatoes are also eaten by humans. That made me wonder whether diets could change enough to alter the current food paradigm. In the following slides, in which Mann laid out the globalization of food trade 400 years ago, it was clear they already had. Potatoes originating in Peru were the direct cause of Europe's early 19th century population boom, the Irish potato famine notwithstanding. The sweet potato even reached China, where it is now widely eaten. Staple diets, in other words, can and do change.
If Foley, though, was implicitly pointing to a more vegetarian diet, he did not explain how we would get there. That he gave us only two decades to fix the current dire state also left me scratching my head about how such rapid change could be achieved. I doubt whether people with the money will forgo a steak for a potato (they tend to want both), unless there is a dramatic reworking of incentives. But it was clear from Foley's talk that those sorts of cultural changes -- rather than simple agricultural science aimed at boosting yield -- will need to be part of the equation. "The choice is between the world we've had and the world that should be," he said. But he left open the question of how we will actually get there.
- Samuel Fromartz
Here's what it's like to catch a Yellowfin tuna on a bamboo pole off Ascension island in the South Atlantic. Most fish, of course, are not caught this way. (The tuna strikes just after minute 2 in the video, but watch the whole thing, you'll get the build up).
When measuring the productivity of farming, yield -- or output per acre of land -- is the metric that is often trotted out. And when this measure is used, organic farming usually falls short since it can’t match the yields of conventional agriculture. From there, it’s a short jump to conclude, as my friend Marc Gunther does, that organic methods will take more land to produce an equivalent amount of food, especially when population is increasing. The upshot, “organic food is not as green as you think.”
The problem with this argument is not that the yield calculations are wrong. The problem is that yield studies are inappropriate by themselves in measuring what’s “sustainable,” in determining what might “feed the world,” and which methods actually end up using more land in a particular situation. That’s because farming does not occur in a vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success.
Consider that the conventional farming methods that achieve higher yield require costly fossil fuel inputs in fertilizers and pesticides (the environmental impacts of which fall outside of yield studies), that they require highly mechanized tools that replace labor, and may rely on intensive irrigation from increasingly scarce water resources. Measured against the methods in most of the world -- 80% of the world’s workers are still farmers -- I have no doubt that the highly intensive model would produce a higher yield. But are those methods available or even appropriate to farmers in areas where food is most scarce and population growth the highest?
In some cases, those methods have proved disastrous, beause the technnology can’t be easily transposed from Iowa to Africa. One person who has looked closely at the issue, and who is also a conventional farmer in Illinois, the philantropist Howard Buffett, writes (pdf):
Commercial investment often focuses on increasing crop yields while governments emphasize expanded trade. The ultimate key to food security, however, is affordability and access to the proper food—neither approach has effectively addressed these issues in developing countries. The current situation mandates looking beyond crop productivity.
A narrow focus has dictated global agricultural policy over the past 30 years—it has failed, leaving millions hungry. Productivity in one part of the world cannot address land tenure, infrastructure, governance, investment protocol, culture, human capacity, research and development, gender disparity and a myriad other regional issues. Decisions and investments specific to individual countries—not the yields of another country half a world away—will always be the primary drivers of food security. (Emphasis added).
As others have pointed out -- including the authors of the Nature study on which Gunther's post was based -- yield studies ignore two other imporant parameters: farmer livelihood and environmental impact, or the downstream effect of agriculture. If intensive agriculture pushes farmers off the land or leaves them indebted, what does that mean to livelihood? Of course, higher yields may produce more farm income -- except in situations where it does not.
I would add another consideration: that is, how appropriate and accessible are farming methods, especially when considering feeding the world. If the methods that produce the highest yield in Iowa are irrelevant in Zambia, does measuring relative yield even make sense?
As just one small example, deforestation in Africa is a huge issue, since more land is cleared to plant crops. But as soil is depleted, fertilizers are used in ever larger amounts, contributing to even more intensive mining of the soil, loss of fertility and the burning of forests in the race for continued yields. In this situation, the question of which yield is higher, organic or conventional, is not even relevant. The question how can you achieve the highest yield without denuding the soil given methods that are accessible. Organic methods -- such as crop rotations, adding compost to the soil and even non-organic ones, such as judicious use of fertilizer -- might be best. But how does this fit into the what’s-the-highest-yield debate? It doesn’t, which shows the limitations of the question, even when considering the impact of farming on land use.
Indeed, this sole focus on yield takes on an almost religious ferver that drives attention from other issues that might raise yield far higher, such as addressing pre- and post-harvest food waste, which cuts productivity by up to 40%. Crack that nut and you will achieve more gains in efficiency and productivity than any improvement in farming could ever hope to offer -- and with technology that's currently available (think decent grain storage facilities, roads and transport). Yield by iself is too often relied upon as the sole yardstick to determine whether farming is "sustainable," will "feed the world," and is, in fact, green. To base decisions on that metric alone is myopic.
Recently, writing about ancient grains, I serendipitously got an email from Mary-Howell Martens offering to hook me up with some of the grains she and her husband Klaas grow in New York for Lakeview Organic Grain. Rather than shipping the wheat, they brought it to the winter meeting of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in State College, where my friend Bernie Prince (the now celebrated co-founder of FreshFarm Market) put it in her trunk and brought it to Capitol Hill. Now that's what I call networking.
There were bags of whole oats, spelt, a red winter wheat and a beautiful white wheat, some heritage corn, toasted green spelt, known as frikeh, used in savory dishes from the Middle East (great post on it here by Anissa Helou), and then the ancient grain closely associated with the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, emmer wheat.
Now emmer is genetically distinct from bread wheat and was the ancient forerunner of durum, used to make pasta and semolina flour. It's more commonly called farro and makes a wonderful risotto, as do many whole grains.
The grains sat around in a big mason jar for awhile, a bit intimidating, since I had to grind it, but then I went to work with a stone mill I recently bought. I made a simple flat bread, using this recipe (I mean, it can hardly be called a recipe since it is simply flour, oil, water and salt) and then a method where you cook it on a cast iron griddle (about 30 seconds a side), then put it directly, and I mean directly, on the flame. Wheat may puff up into a ball when you do so, but emmer is weaker in terms of its gluten structure, so it only puffed up in places. Now charring here and there, because you keep turning and flipping it on the flame, I spread a bit of butter over it -- and that was lunch with somes beans and salad.
Then, inspired by the work of another baker over at the blog Stir the Pots, I tried making the bread. (His emmer came from Cayuga Pure Organics but is probably the same as mine). This was a difficult enterprise for the dough lacked what bakers call "tolerance," which is a very different concept from the even-handed and thoughtful qualities we associate with the word. For bakers, tolerance means the ability of the dough to rise and hold its shape, which in turn reflects the quality of gluten proteins in the flour. When gluten is weak, the acids in sourdough sometimes help the loaf to strengthen and hold its shape, but no such luck this time. The dough, which was also too moist (frankly, I was winging it), kept spreading out. Not wanting to make another flat bread, I instead loosely shaped the dough and plopped it in a loaf pan. The second piece of dough was even less amenable to shaping, so I simply mixed in an equal amount of white flour and water, so that I had a dough that was half emmer, half white. That worked out and resulted in the loaf pictured above.
Though the 100% emmer loaf (not pictured) was a bit tight in the crumb, it was also quite soft. Both loaves also had a remarkable taste, which as I thought about it, reminded me of smoldering oak bark, or roasting acorns, but without the bitter overtones you sometimes find in whole wheat. The flavor stuck on the tongue long after I had eaten the bread and was also much more pronounced than in the flat bread I made, which I'd attribute to the emmer sourdough leaven I used. The lactobacillus culture brought out the flavor of the grain, which was delicious. No wonder if was so popular 10,000 years ago.
- Samuel Fromartz
Here's the lead-in to a brief interview about the Food & Environment Reporting Network at CJR:
Even as interest in all things food-related skyrockets, space devoted to serious food issues continues to lose out to the gastroporn of hot restaurants and hotter chefs. So last year, a group of fed-up food writers launched the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit that funds investigative journalism on matters of food, agriculture, and environmental health. Its first piece, on New Mexico’s dairy industry, was published last fall in High Country News; a second story, published on msnbc.com in January, explained how a drug designed to keep pigs lean is hurting US pork exports. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke with Sam Fromartz, FERN’s editor in chief.
I will see him again next week when he's competing in Paris, where he's baking with Team USA in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. Here's the opening of the story I wrote about him on Gilt Taste, which begins:
The world of baking seems to attract free spirits, but Mike Zakowski—who calls himself The Bejkr—stands out even among them. Few bakers, even the most committed artisans, mix their dough by hand, because of the demands of production. Nor do they work in a converted shipping container plopped in their backyard. Nor do they often bake with a wood fire, because the heat and oven can be as fickle to master as the bread itself. Zakowski does all of this. And then he drives to the farmers’ market in Sonoma, smoke billowing out of an oven hitched on the back of his vintage delivery truck with bright green hub caps.
If I left the image there—stellar artisan baker in California wine country, selling loaves that feature local ingredients, ancient grains, organic flours and hemp seeds—you would nod. You would get it. But it’s not the whole story, because Zakowski has been attempting another feat: representing the United States in Paris next week at the world cup of baking – the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. In short, the Bejkr is also an Olympian.
- Samuel Fromartz
In what would have been unimaginable even two years ago, a former organic farmer who once headed California's largest organic certification organization was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as head of the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Brian Leahy was assistant director in the California Department of Conservation. He now enters a department that has long been viewed as accommodative to pesticide interests.
I first came across DPR when I wrote about a powerful soil fumigant known as methyl bromide in my book Organic Inc. Looking over publicly available documents, it was clear that the department interpreted its own toxicity findings in a liberal manner in order to let the spraying of this neurotoxin continue. Only subsequent law suits forced it to retreat and revise its fumigation protocal.
But as methyl bromide was phased out under a UN treaty, one of the substances proposed to replace it -- methyl iodide -- was even more toxic. California DPR approved the cancer-causing substance in December 2010 against the concerns of its own scientists and those on an independent panel, prompting a ferocious uproar by environmental and consumer groups.
Whether Leahy's appointment by Brown proves a game-changer on the future of methyl iodide remains to be seen. But it's clear that with the growth of organic farming in the state, what was unimaginable has now come to pass. And California -- at least when it comes to pesticide regulation -- is highly influential nationally.
So it will be very interesting to see how this all plays out.
Leahy, by the way, served as executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) from 2000 to 2004. His appointment requires state senate confirmation.
- Samuel Fromartz
Last week, the non-profit journalism venture where I serve as editor, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, rolled out its second story on a little known livestock drug called ractopamine that has caused more illnesses or deaths than any other livestock drug on the market.
Fed to animals right up to slaughter, traces of the drug have been found in meat, although not at levels the FDA is worried about. But questions about the drug from foreign trade partners concerned about the health effects of the drug have percolated into a trade spat, with the European Union and China, among others, banning the use of the substance. That, in turn, has cut into US exports of meat produced with the drug.
This was just the sort of story our organization was invented to report. First, because hardly anyone outside the livestock industry had heard of it; second, because its use was so widespread in 60-80% of pigs in the U.S. (and also in cattle and turkeys); and third because it was the subject of an international controversy.
This was a months-long investigation, involving documents from the FDA that our reporter -- Helena Bottemiller -- obtained under Freedom of Information Act Requests. Among the documents were the numerous files from the FDA of animal illnesses related to the drug. When I asked to look over these reports, Bottemiller said the combined file was too big to send as an email attachment.
While the story first appeared on msnbc.com, it got picked up on blogs and in papers as far away as Taiwan. Here's a sample of the coverage as summerized in our blog over at the fern.org.
The story has been recommended by a number of other news sources, including The New York Times and CNN, and has inspired reporting in Mother Jones, Grist, Huffington Post, SF Weekly, theTaipei Times and Food Safety News. Reporter Helena Bottemiller appeared on New York Public Radio to discuss the story on Thursday. And we’ve had a good showing via social media: The story has generated 184 comments, been recommended on Facebook over 1,000 times, and shared 971 times through other sources. We’ve had some high profile tweeters share our news, including @RuthReichl (a member of our editorial board); Rep. @LouiseSlaughter, a microbiologist who has authored a bill that ends the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture; and @SlowFoodUSA. In addition, @ProPublica’s #muckreads highlighted the story on its Web site and on Slate.
In the future, FERN will produce more stories to the same high journalistic standards. To remain in the loop, get on our email list over at thefern.org.
- Samuel Fromartz