ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Worldwatch report highlights the lopsided discussion on Africa and food

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Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia for a project for Worldwatch. State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, released Wednesday, focuses on many projects that were highly effective in both feeding people and raising incomes in Africa. Much of this work was chronicled on Nourishing the Planet blog, as researcher Danielle Nierenberg logged thousands of miles criss-crossing the continent meeting with farmers, researchers, NGOs and government officials. 

It was a refreshing perspective because so much of the discussion about agriculture in Africa focuses on production. Plant more. Increase yield. Improve seed technology. But there is really no silver bullet when it comes to food production and access and the relentless focus on technology ends up being lopsided and incomplete -- as I saw in Zambia.

image from nation  produces more than enough food, much of it by small-scale farmers without tractors, irrigation or any form of transportation. But this excess food ends up rotting in warehouses and causes price crashes when it hits the market -- good for buyers but dismal for small-scale farmers who depend on these sales for their meagre income. Even so, some areas of the country still suffer from malnutrition and shortages. Why? There are many reasons, inadequate roads and supply networks among them, since it isn't always easy to get the food from areas where it is surplus to areas where it is in short supply. In this reality, hi-tech seeds are the least of the nation's problems. And yet, on op-ed pages, that often seems to be the focus of discussion.

How come we hardly see op-eds on what paved roads, improved sanitation, more efficient distribution networks, soil conservation and a reduction in food waste might do for world hunger? Fifteen percent of the grain harvest is wasted in poorer countries, according to a researcher quoted in this report.  Even cutting that in half would amount to an enormous yield gain. The Worldwatch report attempts to jump-start this discussion by addressing these issues. I sought to do the same in my chapter:

The Missing Links: Going Beyond Production

When people talk about African agriculture, food surpluses are not usually the focus of discussion. Invariably, the more familiar topics are famine, starvation, deforestation, and the vast inability of a continent to feed itself, which is brought home by the latest food crisis.

That’s why the headlines in Lusaka, Zambia, in May 2010, were so surprising, announcing a stunning bumper crop of maize. On the back of fertilizer subsidies and propitious rains, production by the nation’s 800,000 maize farmers had rocketed 48 percent to the highest level in 22 years. This boom came after a 31-percent rise the previous year. Now speculation was mounting about a crash in maize prices, especially during the dry June-August period. “A tidal wave of maize will be hitting the market,” predicted Rob Munro, a senior market development advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Lusaka.

In the cities, the focus was on the price of mealie meal, the porridge-like staple made from ground maize, and whether millers would pass on savings or fatten their profit margins. The government was fretting about what to do with all this food. Zambia had a 600,000-ton surplus from the 2009 harvest, some of which was still sitting in warehouses. And now on top of that, it would reap a 1.1 million–ton surplus for 2010. Exports were uncertain, because of sporadic trade restrictions. Plus, the crop was uncompetitive with South African maize, the low-cost producer in the region.

Zambia was growing so much food that the food itself had become an issue. Yet, it was also an unequivocal success. Zambian farmers had produced more than enough maize and done so without genetically modified crops or even, for the most part, irrigation and mechanized farm equipment. But further development raised a number of questions: If farmers actually modernized and improved their yields, would the surplus be even greater, dwarfing any political ability to deal with this bounty? And why were people still facing chronic hunger and childhood stunting in a country where the food was in oversupply?

The rest of the chapter addresses this issue, but it was clear from even my short stay in Zambia that a lack of agro-technology was not the most pressing issue faced by the nation's farmers. From those I talked with, it hardly seemed on the radar screen in terms of what needed to be addressed. Ignoring technology can be disastrous, but focusing on it out of context, and without regard to a host of related concerns, can be just as perilous since it suggests that food insecurity can be solved with a silver bullet. Only problem is silver bullets can't be eaten. 

- Samuel Fromartz

Heading to Berlin

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As part of my book research, I am heading to Berlin for 10 days. I'll spend part of the time in a bakery trying to learn about rye and whole grain breads. If anyone out there has any suggestions for must-see, must-eat, must-do things in Berlin during this frigid month let me know. I hope to be posting at least some pictures on the blog. (The one above is just after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989). 


What do you do with a whole Salmon?


Washington SeaSA, my little venture buying sustainable seafood direct from fishermen for a group of about 10 families in DC, is now in year two. Latest on the menu: sockeye salmon from Bill Webber, who fishes the flats off the Copper River in Alaska. This followed an  oyster shucking party, with the farm-raised bivalves from Rappahannock Oyster Co. They were excellent.

I first met Bill last year, when I made the trek up to Alaska to see the fishery. It didn't take me long to ask Bill if he'd ship direct to us and he said he would, as long as we met his 50 pound minimum. Which is why I corralled up my friends. It wasn't a hard sell. 

Bill sends us whole fish, headed and gutted. He also bleeds the fish on his boat, which he argues makes for a much fresher fish. Blood begins to decay once the fish dies and that in turn degrades the flesh, so if you remove the blood -- with a special pressure tube he developed -- you can slow down the clock. He then ships the fish to us in a chilled pack and I drive out to Alaska Airlines' cargo dock to pick it up.

Now, when you buy salmon in the store, you only get the fillet. Getting the whole fish is a different story. I fillet the salmon on our kitchen counter (with an excellent sashimi knife I got from Japan). Aside from the fillet, I'm left with the rich belly meat, which is the bacon of salmon and is excellent fried in a pan. (What can I say, pork belly, salmon belly, it's all good). Then there's the carcass which usually has about a pound of meat on it. These "waste products" amount to a lot of food.

So what do you do them? 

With our last fish, I made stock, layering sliced onions and thin fennel stalks and drizzling them with olive oil. Then I placed the 2-1/2 pound liberally salted carcass on top, covering and then sweating the fish on a low flame for 20 minutes. I then added water and a cup of dry white wine to cover, simmering it for another 20 minutes. Finally, I took it off the heat and let the fish sit for an hour to release its essence. This follows Rick Moonen's method in Fish Without a Doubt: The Cook's Essential Companion, which is now my go-to fish book. Like many chefs he does not recommend using salmon for stock, which is a shame.  Salmon stock is bursting with flavor and isn't oily. But it helps if it's very fresh.

Once the stock cooled, I strained it, and then removed the meat from the bones, ending up with a big container of salmon delicately flavored by the fennel. I ate salmon salad sandwiches for several days, though you could also make salmon croquettes, as another friend did with the remnants of her stock.

Since we had eaten our fill of fresh salmon over a couple of days, I took a remaining fillet and cut thin paillards --  angled cuts 1/4 inch thick -- a wonderful technique I also got from Moonen's book. I salted them, wrapped them up in plastic wrap and froze them (a typical Japanese home-cooking method). These can be taken out and cooked immediately in a toaster oven or in a broiler. They cook in about 4-5 minutes if frozen, or about a minute on each side if defrosted or fresh. So it's a really fast dinner.

With the stock on hand, I was thinking paella but was short a few ingredients. I went ahead anyway since I wanted to use the stock.

I sauteed a fennel bulb, an onion, half a red pepper, 2 slices of bacon, a clove of chopped garlic and an Italian sausage I had laying around. When the veggies were soft and the meat brown, I added just over a cup of arborio rice and sauteed it for a minute. Then I poured in a cup of simmering stock, with a generous pinch of saffron, stirring now and then. As the stock was absorbed by the rice, I added more. What I wouldn't have done for a dozen mussels or clams!

Halfway through, I oiled up three of the frozen paillards and put them in the broiler. They sizzled while the paella continued to cook in the stock.

With everything nearly done, I sauteed a bunch of rainbow chard and garlic from the garden and out came the dinner -- a thoroughly satisfying plate of pseudo-paella, broiled salmon and sauteed chard.

Using the whole fish is a bit of work, or rather it takes time to prepare. But once you have the fish, you realize all the possibilities at hand. Now, if I could just get salmon roe in Bill's next shipment.

Addendum: Here's another tip. Fire up your grill. Cut the stalks off a fennel bulb. Rub a fillet with olive oil and season it with salt . When the fire has burned down to medium heat, lay the stalks over the grill and lay the fish on top. You'll have fennel perfumed salmon. The salmon should flake when done, but still be visibly moist inside. Remove from the fennel, then drizzle more olive oil, lemon and/or fresh oregano on the fish and serve.

- Samuel Fromartz

Behind the Taste and Health Quotient of Whole Grains

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Image: Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, source Washington Post.

Truth be told, I was a little worried by the recipe testing I did for my story, "Whole New Ballgame for Whole Grains," in the WaPo. I was baking out of Kim Boyce's recently published Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours, which represents a kind of culinary watershed in whole grain baking, because she takes a dozen underused grains from amaranth to teff in entirely new directions. 

But Boyce, a former pastry chef at Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles, does not shy away from butter. Now I like butter, but in baking muffins, scones, pancakes and waffles steadily for about three weeks, I was eating a lot of the stuff. (Yes, it adds incomparable flavor to baked goods). I was also eating more sugar than I usually do, though Boyce relies on dark sweeteners like brown sugar and unsulphured molasses, though does not shy away from white sugar when needed. Here's the nutritional information for the rather large-size whole wheat chocolate chip cookie pictured above: 240 calories, 7 grams saturated fat. And yes, it tastes phenomenal.

Cookie So does this defeat one of the oft-stated purposes of whole grains, which is to boost the health quotient in your diet? As we know, whole grains add fiber, minerals, antioxidents and vitamins, most of which are lost in refined white flour.

I have two thoughts about this. Yes, the added saturated fat and sweeteners do reduce the health  of the baked good. On the other hand, they do end up higher on the health spectrum than a baked good made with white flour, butter and white sugar. And this is especially true of baked goods that you buy in the store, which I often find are far more loaded with sugar than these recipes

But, more importantly, consider the purpose of Boyce's exercise. She wasn't aiming to make a health cookie. As I wrote in the article, "Although purists might bristle at her use of white flour, butter and sugar, it's important to remember that Boyce is not aiming for low-fat and sugar-free. She is aiming for taste: a new kind of taste arising from these under-used grains." And that emphasis on taste may open the uninitiated to the flavors of these grains.

The bottom line -- these pastries are delicious, the kind of thing you'd make on the weekend or a special occasion. The carrot muffin would be a slam dunk on Mother's Day, for example. But there are healthier ways to get whole grains, through porridges and breads that  Boyce also dabbles with in the book. Another direction, try the risottos or salads or stews that Lorna Sass has in Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way. It also includes good basic information on cooking whole grains. 

I consume whole grains largely through breads, made with a mix of flours, water, salt and yeast or sourdough starter. But I often make barley risotto (high in soluble fiber) and usually have cooked whole grains in the refrigerator that can be easily added to a salad. I'm also starting to experiment with sprouted whole grains. And I'll be posting on a spelt pizza dough recipe so check back soon.

By the way, I was also thrilled that my friend Barry Estabrook (aka Politics of the Plate) was right next to me in the food section. He just won a well-deserved Beard Award for his story on slavery in Florida's tomato fields

- Samuel Fromartz

On Sale Now!!! Mark Bittman iPhone App, and Such a Deal!

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 This is hard to pass up -- the Mark Bittman ouvre, How to Cook Everything, which is $21 and change over at Amazon, for the bargain basement price of $1.99 in an iPhone app -- that is, if you've already spent hundreds on the iPhone itself.

Mark Bittman? There's an App for That - Slashfood .

How to get our Bittman fix? Let us count the ways: There's his New York Times "Minimalist" column, of course; his expert contributions at; his health and fitness articles for Runner's World and Men's Health; and, lest one forget, his 1044-page tome How to Cook Everything. I happen to own that $35 behemoth myself; I thumb through it compulsively, getting Bittman's take on everything from scrambled eggs to bouillabaisse. But now the book's contents can be downloaded to your iPhone -- for less than two bucks.

Culinate, the smart food site, is apparently behind the app. What a great idea. I can't wait for more.

Oh, wait there already is more. Michael Ruhlman has an iPhone app too, based on his book Ratio. It helps you calculate ingredients in "all fundamental culinary preparations."

Now, Rodale, where are the organic gardening apps? J.I. Rodale would have been all over this. 

- Samuel Fromartz

A View from Up North - The Town That Food Saved

Barry Estabrook over at Politics of the Plate has a post on a new book -- one I'm eager to read. 

The words “local, seasonal, sustainable” have been repeated so often and with so little thought that they have become soothing background noise, feel-good mood-music for any socially conscious eater worth his or her naturally obtained organic sea salt. So it’s refreshing to encounter a book that treats the subject intelligently.

Was it Holden Caulfield who said that the measure of a good book was one that makes you want to call up the author on the phone?Reading Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved impelled me to pay a visit to the author at his home, a raggedy farmstead at the end of a rutted, muddy, unmarked lane tucked among the folds and hollows of north-central Vermont.

Review: "Deeply Rooted" by Lisa Hamilton


For farmers, summer is probably the worst time to recommend a book. Working in the fields, they barely have time to eat, let alone read. But for people who kick back in the summer, this is the best time.

And if, like me, you're curious about farmers' lives, I can think of no better place to start than with Lisa Hamilton's Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint). I know the author; her work has appeared on this blog, which is why it would have been awkward to write about her book had it not been so engaging.

Hamilton's been writing about farming for a decade now, traveling throughout this country and overseas. Her work has appeared in magazines like Orion, Gastronomica and Harper's as well as more specialized venues. She's not a farmer, but an astute observer who seems to have an asset so lacking these days – the patience to sit still, observe and listen and then put it all down on the page beautifully. She's also a photographer (here's a slideshow related to the book), which may account for the rich portraits in this book.

But if you had to ask me what the book was about, I wouldn't say it's about farming. What the book really is about is the relationship that farmers have with the land, their families and the communities in which they live.

While so many books focus on growers who populate farmers' markets near big cities, Hamilton wisely spends time with folks deep in the shrinking rural pockets of this country -- those whom we don't get to see that often.

The three narratives in the book center on an organic dairy farmer in Texas, a livestock rancher in New Mexico and a grain and seed farmer in North Dakota. Like most farmers, all are outspoken and  independent but being "unconventional" adds another layer of complexity. What hooked me was her uncanny ability to capture these farmers' struggles hoeing a different – and more challenging -- path. She writes in the introduction:

These were the ones trimmed off long ago, or at least by the industry's prescription, should have been. As we sit and talk, the topics are sometimes technical, often political or economic, and always, ultimately, philosophical. And personal. If we start with a discussion of soil microbiology or a comparison of turkey breeds, inevitably we end up in family, history, ecology, faith, beauty, morality, and the fate of the world to come. For them, all these things are linked.

Harry Lewis, a black farmer, is one of the handful of remaining dairy farmers in Sulphur Springs, Texas. His family's local roots go back to the post-Civil War era, when former slaves migrated to the area. To stay viable, he's largely eschewed all the investments and fixes thrust to him except for one – to go organic. He follows this path because it works for the scale of his farm and is in line with the way he was already farming.

When Hamilton notices young calves still with their mothers, Lewis explains: "The mothers take care of the calves better than we can. I mean, we could bottle-feed them, but that's more labor on our part."

"From the beginning," Hamilton writes, "the Lewis farm has run on the mathematics of frugality — that's what has kept this business afloat for more than fifty years. As much as possible it runs on what's available for free: grass, rain, family members."

Lewis could have sold out like other neighbors, but feels the pull of the land and a way of life. As a young man, he left for the city only to return – his relationship with this ground too strong to easily sever.

The second profile focuses on a New Mexico rancher, Virgil Trujillo, who truth be told is a rancher without a ranch. He is trying to maintain a place for cattle on land that has gotten increasingly pricy and divorced from its near four-century role as grazing land.

Trujillo's certainly a maverick in Abiquiu, one of seven families still working a 16,708 acre-parcel that the King of Spain granted to the settlers in the area in 1754. He's a descendent of the original deed holders but is having a tough time of it.

While he dreams of expanding the ranch and working on it full time, he depends on a salaried job at a religious retreat. You can't help but feel that no matter how committed, no matter how strong his tie to this place, he's swimming against history. He may be the last in a long line of ranchers, or perhaps against the odds will live his dream.

The last profile is the most optimistic, focusing on the Podoll family in La Moure, North Dakota. David Podoll set out in the 1974 to prove organic agriculture wrong, but in the process he became convinced it was right. He now grows organic grains on the farm – wheat, tricale, millet -- as well as organic vegetable seeds, selected at the kitchen table according to what tastes best.

He prefers to get close to the soil, to smell it, too see it. He bemoans “brute-force agriculture” where farmers rely on numbers with nary a thought to the soil – or to the changing climate, which has already altered the dynamics of his farm.

“Farmers today with the big machinery go from one half-section to another without ever getting out of the cab, without ever smelling or feeling the soil, or even getting it on their boots,” he says.

For these kind of farmers in a deep and permanent relationship with the land, such distance is impossible. As Podoll tells Hamilton, what he’s doing isn’t about “organic” or “sustainable” farming, it’s about farming that endures. Really, it's about relationships that endure -- relationships that ultimately feed us all.

- Samuel Fromartz

Reflections on Best Baguette in Washington D.C.


By Samuel Fromartz

Once in awhile, when you put a lot of work into a task and actually get a decent result -- well, you get to gloat, at least for a few minutes. So excuse me while I do so, because my humble, home-made baguettes just topped every bakery in Washington, D.C., in a blind tasting competition.

On the one hand, this result was unexpected. I mean, I’m a writer by profession. I’ve always been a writer, well, almost always. But I love to cook too, and at times have become passionate about it. I’m also drawn to crafts, and to crafts people; whether the craft is putting words together or making a whole grain sourdough loaf.

But in distinction to writing, baking has been a private endeavor. It was just something I did to break the tension, when my arms tensed up from typing too much, or when I just wanted to leave the computer screen and do something with my hands -- to make something tactile.

This grew into a regular practice. Starting many years ago, I stopped buying bread, because I made enough. A few loaves a week, we’d eat one and another would go into the freezer. I became adept at sourdough, using the natural yeast present everywhere. It was like conjuring something out of thin air.

My motivation was simple. I just wanted good fresh bread. Who can argue with that? It wasn’t a business. There was no market to worry about, no bosses or rent, nothing. Just baking pure and simple without any distraction because I had absolutely no larger intention. It was pure craft.

The parameters of the task were clear and challenging. You have just four ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt. So often, we think of all the stuff or things we need to do something -- the equipment, the newest gizmo. And I did buy a few things, like bench scrapers and a couche (a linen cloth to support the shape of baguettes) and a baking stone to try and mimic the conditions of a hearth oven. But that was pretty much it, not much more than $100 over, what, a decade? Plus the ingredients, like flour, seeds, walnuts - or whatever else I choose to put in the loaves.

Then, there was the baguette itself, which is deceptively simple and hard to master. There’s the soft, slightly sweet crumb, the uneven and slightly chewy and bubbly interior, the crisp crust, delicately toasted in sections, and the aesthetic appearance, which comes from the slashes running down the top of the loaf.

When I began baking, this was the first bread I tried to make. It was an absolute failure, too dense, tasting of yeast and lacking  a crisp exterior. I tried many times to make it, then just gave up. Decided it couldn’t be done at home. I went on to bake other loaves and over the years learned a lot more. I could have condensed this process had I even taken a few baking classes, but I didn’t. I learned from cookbooks and developed the technique on my own (since baking is more about technique than a recipe -- again the craft of it).

But the allure of the perfect baguette was always there, so I’d go back to it now and again, but never approached what I thought even a half decent loaf should be.

The breakthrough first came maybe two years ago with a sourdough baguette, which I let rise in the refrigerator overnight. I was somewhat surprised by the results, since I had finally achieved the interior bubbly structure I sought. So for a while I stuck with those loaves, thinking they were pretty close to what I wanted.

But then I thought, to really be a baguette, the loaf should be lighter. With the aid of a Peter Reinhart recipe, I made a loaf without any sourdough. It had the bubbly structure, but I felt the taste wasn’t quite on par with sourdough. He also used bread flour, which I felt it was too strong, leaving the interior crumb too chewy, so I switched to all purpose flour -- a misnomer because it really tells you nothing about what you're using. The actual flours I bake with -- King Arthur Unbleached Organic All Purpose Flour or Whole Foods 365 Organic All Purpose Flour -- were ideal because they are both made with hard winter wheat suited to artisan loaves.

The final breakthrough came by reading a description of the baguettes made by two of the most influential bakers in France, Eric Kayser and Dominique Saibron, in historian Steven Kaplan’s book Good Bread Is Back: A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It. Both bakers added sourdough to their baguettes in minor amounts along with yeast, and though Kaplan’s book is a contemporary historical narrative, he gives just enough information about the technique to craft a recipe. And more importantly, he talks about why bakers apply certain techniques, which can be more valuable than any recipe. Kaplan, by the way, is the world's foremost historian of French bread.

Then, in the midst of the recession, I got the unlikely opportunity to travel to France for a new start-up magazine, Afar. They liked my idea of working in a boulangerie -- something I had always dreamed about (and describe more fully in the article which appears this summer). I ended up at boulangerie Arnaud Delmontel in the 9th in Paris working beside Thomas Chardon, a young baker who took me through all the tasks of baguette making. We made a couple of hundred loaves each morning, repeating the techniques so that they become an extension of your body. It was exhausting but highly gratifying, and could be applied to the home kitchen. I also had the great fortune to spend a morning with Prof. Kaplan discussing bread.

When I returned, I just redoubled the work and began to get consistent results -- ones I was finally happy with.

So why did my baguettes win?

In France, my baguettes would have been decent, nothing to write home about especially in comparison to what is available. But because they take a full day to rise, they are also superior to loaves mixed and baked within a couple of hours. And that describes many of the loaves in the DC competition -- approaching the idea of the airy, white, bland bread that also widely swept France but has been roundly rejected by a new generation of artisans.

A key insight for me came when Loic Feillet, the baker and owner of Panorama in Alexandria, Va. -- who actually trained with Kayser in France -- mentioned that he offered a true baguette, but his wholesale customers revolted. He could not convince them that his loaf, made with with a hint of sourdough, was superior. So in essence, he dumbed it down to their idea of what a baguette should be.

The lowest common denominator may do wonders for a business, but it has never been the path to greatness. Working in my kitchen, I never had to worry about that. My only customer was the ideal loaf that I had tasted on occasion and had in my head. All I had to worry about was to do better next time.

So what’s next? A hearty rye perhaps ... it doesn’t matter. The point is to keep my hands moving, connected to my mind and to that ideal of taste I have. To keep the craft alive.

The winning baguette recipe is here. Happy baking!

Lisa Hamilton's Lens on Farming

Nice essay at by Lisa Hamilton on writing her book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (excerpt follows):

I've learned that, to write about farmers, one must ... slowdown to that rhythm of repetition. The writer must sit in the combine as it chugs along in concentric circles, taking hours to close in on the center of the field, only to pick up, move to the next field, and do it all over again. Being witness means a willingness to pass the same barn or tree or fencepost two dozen times and continually try to learn something new about it.

In a sense, it is the same process by which the best farmers survive. Their success comes not from knowing all the answers already nor from demanding them of the land, but rather from simply being a witness to the world around them. They must resist the dulled vision that comes with familiarity, and instead see the world with enough depth to notice its smallest changes.

Department of Good Reads - Sandra Tsing Loh's Class Warfare

Instead of linking to news items for the sake of stuffing your mind with more and MORE information, I'm going to start occasional links to what I think are particularly good reads (whatever the subject). After all, I know cooks and farmers who are aspiring writers ... and many writers who are aspiring farmers and cooks.

Sandra Tsing Loh is neither, but what the heck. Last night I was lying in bed laughing out load about her piece "Class Dismissed" in The Atlantic. She's a performance artist who does NPR rants and has a book, Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! (interview here) that trusted sources (OK, my wife) tells me is hilarious. It's on my list. Here's the lede of her Atlantic piece:

Some 25 years have passed since the publication of Paul Fussell’s naughty treat, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,and I think this quarter-century mark merits the raising of either a yachting pennant, an American flag, or a wind sock with the Budweiser logo (corresponding to Fussell’s demarcations of Upper Class, Middle Class, and Prole). For readers who somehow missed this snide, martini-dry American classic, do have your assistant Tessa run out and get it immediately (Upper), or at least be sure to worriedly skim this magazine summary over a low-fat bagel (Middle), because Fussell’s bibelot-rich tropes still resonate... (read more)

Is Organic and Local "so 2008"?

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Organic and Local is so 2008—or at least that’s the case that journalist and “The End of Food” author Paul Roberts makes in Mother Jones this month. The gist of his argument: because the food system’s problems are so deep, the food movement needs to mature beyond its one-dimensional, at times robotic devotion to Organic and Local and instead adopt a broader range of solutions.

He offers the example of Fred Fleming, a noted Washington wheat farmer whose masterful no-till system has greatly reduced erosion from his land. Fleming remains outside the foodie circle because his system depends on using herbicide, but Roberts argues that he is just the sort of farmer we should be embracing.  Roberts does make an important point: agriculture faces many more issues than whether or not farmers use pesticides; to boot, all of those issues are currently being compounded by climate change.

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute recently made a related point underscoring the threat we face from soil erosion. He argues that the most damaging climate-change-related weather events we’re seeing are not hurricanes hitting the Eastern seaboard, but heavy rainfall and floods in the Midwest. In Jackson’s view, even the destruction wreaked by Katrina did not compare to the long-term loss we suffer from having millions of tons of farmland topsoil washed away in floods, as happened last March and April. I can imagine Roberts chiming in to say that if using some Roundup would hold that soil in place, the tradeoff would be worthwhile. It’s hard to disagree with that. 

But after hearing Roberts make his case live at Organicology in February, I would argue that he’s too near-sighted with his remedy. Rather than embrace farmers’ lesser-of-many-evils practices within the existing system, we need to overhaul the system itself. As it is, farmers are expected to be purely economic beings that fit into the free market alongside mortgage securities; the true solution instead lies in seeing them as the ecological caretakers we so desperately need them to be.

Think of it roughly like the National Parks: Years ago, we as a nation recognized the need for large areas of land to be taken out of the real estate market for the express purpose of maintaining them according to a different set of priorities; we saw that wild lands served the public good, and that not protecting them was to our detriment. Well, now we’ve reached the same situation with our working lands, as the constant pressure of the market system has led them to a threatened existence.

I’m not suggesting we buy up farmland and make it government property, but rather that we recognize farmers and ranchers as a kind of public servant. To begin with, replace the Farm Bill’s provisions for subsidies and incentives for commodity production with a true support system of financing, education, and farmer-centered research and market development; that could enable growers to switch their focus from bank notices to caring for their lands long-term. In time, probably most would gravitate to ecological methods such as the organic no-till farming system that Rodale has been developing for the past decade. 

Some, though, might choose herbicide-dependent no-till as the suture that would hold their land in place. In that lies the greatest challenge of supporting farmers: trusting that given the proper tools, they know and will do what’s best for the land. I believe that trust is where Roberts’ argument was leading, even if it didn’t quite reach that conclusion in the MoJo article. If so, it’s a step in the right direction.

Northern California-based writer/photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on food and agriculture. Her book "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness" (Counterpoint) comes out in May. 

Food for Thought: Holiday Book Picks

Uncertain Peril
Clare Hope Cummings
"It comes down to this: whoever controls the future of seeds controls the future of life on earth.” Claire Hope Cummings isn’t afraid to snap her readers to attention with statements like that, but between wallops her writing is thoughtful, nuanced and carefully argued. She presents two books in one: first, a twisted history of how agricultural seeds have gone from public to private, particularly through genetic engineering; second, a hopeful vision for the future inspired by what Cummings sees as the central character of seeds—generosity. Uncertain Peril is a thorough primer on seed-related issues, but its excellent research and unusual narratives makes it a good read even for a seasoned farmer activist. - Lisa M. Hamilton

Closing the Food Gap
Mark Winne
You've heard the gripe: sustainable foods aren't accessible. But that doesn't mean they can't be. Mark Winne worked on getting good, healthy, local food into poor communities for decades and offers a sobering primer in this book. He doesn't just offer in-the-trenches stories of setting up farmers markets and food banks but of dealing with the political, economic and cultural impediments of feeding low-income communities. One solution inHartford: simply altering a bus route so poor residents could get to a decent grocery store. Another in Philadelphia: building out independent inner city grocery stores. In other words, solutions exist. They just aren't off-the-shelf. 

The Mad Farmer Poems
Wendell Berry
The lines in Wendell Berry’s latest book braid together the author’s many voices—wry satirist, defiant agrarian, gentle naturalist. Together these short poems aim to address, somehow, a world he finds both perilous and filled with beauty. “That is the glimmering vein/of our sanity,” he writes, “dividing us/from the start: land under us/to steady us when we stood,/free men in the great communion/of the free. The vision keeps/lighting in my mind, a window/on the horizon in the dark.” - LMH

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper
Fuchsia Dunlop
I came upon this book, subtitled “a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China,” after cooking with Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent cookbooks on Sichuan and Hunan. A Brit foodie with a serious Jones for Chinese cuisine, specifically street food, she finagled her way into cooking school in Sichuan. From there to the far flung kitchens she visited, she honed her craft and immersed herself in a culture. Two caveats about this engaging book: first, you must love Chinese food, real versions of which are rare in the U.S. Secondly, you need a strong stomach for things we wouldn’t eat but which she eagerly pops in her mouth. If those are met, I see no better way to learn about the phenomenon that is China rising than through her food. - SF

Pet Food Politics
Marion Nestle
You're pet food isn't only pet food. It's intimately connected with the human food chain, as Marion Nestle shows in this short, incisive read. She weaves together the various strands of the melamine pet food disaster in 2007 and shows how the weak links in the (pet) food chain put our food at risk. If you're a pet owner who wants a primer on the incident, this is your book. If you're concerned about pet food that isn't just fed to pets -- well, this book is for you too. - SF

American Farmer
Paul Mobley and Katrina Fried 
This hulking, oversize book is a bear to get off the coffee table and into your lap, but it's worth it. The more than 150 portraits of farmers and farm families from throughout the United States are gorgeous, saturated with color and character. Organic-minded foodies might be disappointed to find it focuses on more conventional farmers, but that's the book's strength: it offers a sympathetic yet honest portrait of the whole spectrum of American farmers, not just the ones who make it to the pages of the dining section. - LMH


Fish Without A Doubt
Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore
No food is more intimidating to cook than fish, which is why people tend to save it for restaurants. That's a shame because it's actually one of the most versatile and fastest-cooking proteins around. Still, if sea creatures intimidate you, Moonen is your man. He balances challenging recipes with work-a-day meals in this lovely book, with a big emphasis on tips: that is, how to buy, store and work with fish. (The big winner in my book: paillards, or thin slices, of wild salmon seared on a cast iron grill in a minute or two. My five-year-old gobbles them up.) Another bonus is that every fish in this book is sustainable, and with so many options there's really no reason to eat anything else. In short, this book is an indespensible kitchen companion. - SF

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics
Ina Garten
Everyone has their go-to cookbooks. Well worn and batter-splattered, with recipes you eventually know-by-heart. Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Cookbook is one of mine. That’s why I was genuinely excited about her new Back to Basics. Garten’s all about flavor. Her take on simple still means elegant enough for company, but stress-free for me. Not so confident in the kitchen? This cookbook is one you can lean on, offering tips from how to garnish to an FAQ in the back answering questions on raw eggs and kosher salt. - Clare Leschin-Hoar

Renewing America's Food Traditions
Edited by Gary Paul Nabhan
Gary Paul Nabhan has been on a mission of connecting food to place, and in this gorgeous book zeros in on vanishing heritage foods. Organized around region, he offers foods from a once rich and diverse culinary landscape. The stories about these folk and Indian foods make for good reading, and while the recipes sound exotic, they were once as common as corn chips are today. A few that caught my fancy: "Broken crab and Choppee okra stew," "Crow bison cattail stew," "Cape Cod cranberry scones," and "Choctaw persimmon pudding" -- the latter, an immediate possibility since the fruit is now in season. - SF

Fresh & Honest
Peter Davis
In this book, local-foods champion Peter Davis celebrates the growers who’ve been supplying his Cambridge, MA-based restaurant for years. While some of the recipes are ambitious for a home cook, plenty are satisfying and winter-hardy like the maple stout-marinated beef brisket or the gingerbread cake with fresh cream.  - CLH

Christmas Cookies
Lisa Zwirn
Sam already knows I’m baking-impaired and cookie swaps give me anxiety. That’s why I’m enjoying Lisa Zwirn’s new cookbook Christmas Cookies. Fifty choices aren’t overwhelming and range from lemon squares (my favorite) to chocolate peppermint cookies. - CLH