Gimme five!

You know me–when it comes to holidays, I’m pretty far over on the Bah Humbug end of the continuum. But I’ve had a great year, and Thanksgiving is coming! So I’d like to invite five of you over to my house on Wednesday the 23rd from 4:30-6:30 to help me prep part of a turkey dinner for the Plymouth Housing Group‘s holiday celebration.

PHG is a fantastic Seattle outfit that “transforms lives by providing permanent, supportive homes to chronically-homeless people.” They’ve got twelve different buildings serving hundreds of people; learn more about them on their website. Every Thanksgiving, dozens of volunteers pitch in to cook up and deliver dishes for their Thanksgiving spread. Last time I made sweet-potato casserole (pretty good, I must say), but this year I want you to help me amp it up! Let’s go for turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes and giblet gravy. (With maybe a green-bean casserole? Cranberry dressing? What’s your specialty?)

Come on over on Wednesday to help me with the chopping and dicing and peeling and measuring and mixing! (I’ll cook it up in time to deliver it hot and ready to eat on Thursday morning.) For your troubles, I’ll provide drinks and munchies for you, and all the ingredients for the dishes we prep.

Why just five of you?–My house is small, and I want all of the chopping and dicing to be done on food, not people! So sign up early (by replying to this post, or twitter, or facebook, or however we usually get together)–first come, first served!

Not in the Seattle area?–Find a group to cook for in your own town, and (if the time zones are good) we can set up a Google Hang-out to chat while we work.

You know you’re leaving work early on Wednesday anyway; why not carve out a couple of hours to come by and help? We’ll have a great time and help brighten up the day for some other folks as well. I can’t wait to see who wants to play!

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“Local” isn’t enough

“Mind the ‘local’ trap,” Branden Born warned. But wait, I thought “local” was good!?! Last Thursday, in the debut talk in a Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, Born challenged us to get clear about what we really want from our food system.

He points out that the food industry has been nimble in capturing the words we use to describe what we want our food to be: “natural,” “organic” . . . and, yes, “local.” In the face of this country’s huge losses of agricultural land, rapid urbanization, and corporatization of the food system, we no longer know what our food looks like, where it comes from, or how it actually gets from plot to plate. We don’t know who grows it or who processes it for our consumption. But we have a sneaking feeling that we have put ourselves in the hands of people who just may have interests other than feeding us well! He quotes Wendell Berry, the animating spirit of the lecture series:  as urban dwellers, we now share the fears of “people who understand what it means to be landless.”

When we say we want to eat locally, in Born’s view, we point to a whole range of more fundamental ideas that we value (and he encourages us to discuss values, not scale). Food safety. Food equity. Access to healthy food. Democratization of the food system. Connection to the earth. Given our current urban environment and food supply-chain system, these values are in fact in trouble. But Born points out a range of alternative choices that we can begin to make to create a “new urbanity”around food.

For instance, if we value community engagement over food production efficiency, we might join an urban ag activity like Seattle’s p-patch system.  Go here to see a group working  in the High Point Garden (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch/)–one of 75 community gardens in the city. These gardens don’t just provide food and a sense of community for the people who work them; last year, p-patch gardeners donated almost 21,000 lbs. of fresh produce to local food banks and feeding programs. (Full disclosure: I put myself on the waiting list for my neighborhood p-patch last year; I hope to get a plot before I’m too old to work it. I mean, I’d better hurry!)

Or, we might go with urban development that scales up our sense of what urban gardening can be; vertical gardens can cover the side of your house (see http://www.cleanspirited.com/blog/?p=336) or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see http://inhabitat.com/files/ecolab-lead01.jpg), designed around a community garden and featuring numerous other “green design” elements–energy systems, ventilation, etc.

Or, we might focus on urban community-development activities. Born described a number of fascinating programs. To offer just one example, the Clean Greens program runs a community garden east of Seattle in Carnation (read: likely to get some actual sun) to grow and deliver “clean, healthy, and fair produce for everyone at affordable prices” (http://www.cleangreensfarm.com/), especially families in need in Seattle’s Central District. They also have a thriving educational program focused on healthy eating habits and food justice.

Eye-opening talk! You can find much more on these topics on Born’s website, http://faculty.washington.edu/bborn/.

Branden Born is a professor in UW’s Dept. of Urban Design and Planning. His talk, “Bringing the Urban Back into the Food System–Questions of Culture & Technology,” was the first in a five-talk series from Seattle Arts & Lectures, “Following Wendell: The Culture & Politics of Sustenance,” http://www.lectures.org/season/sal_u.php?id=298. I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!

Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out: http://www.sozoplanet.com)

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.

Can that be right?

Tonight I made one of my favorite cheap-and-easy dinners–fettucini with an uncooked sauce made of chunky peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes, and chives. Mix it up, dump the hot pasta on top and toss. Add a salad of lettuce leaves with vinaigrette. Eat!

Earlier today in a New York Times op-ed piece, I had stumbled upon a startling comparison of the amount of money people in various countries spend on food consumed at home. Americans invest a total of 6.8% of their household spending on this kind of food. Compare this to the figure for Algeria, where they spend 43.8%! Or Morocco, 40.3%; Egypt, 38.3%; Tunisia, 35.8%.

So I went off to the Web to see what I could find out about spending on food in countries that look more like the US. According to Eurostat, in the European Union as a whole, people spend about about 12.7% of their household income on food and non-alcoholic beverages.  But it varied widely from country to country; in Romania the figure was 44.2 %, compared to 9.3% for Luxembourg. So, the richer you are, the smaller the share of your income that you spend on food. But even among the world’s richest countries, nobody spends as little as Americans do.

A few days ago, also in the New York Times, Mark Bittman described our American diet as “unhealthful and unsafe.” You get what you pay for? Well, yes, but that’s not close to all of it.

When I was growing up in a small town in Texas, my family ate well, but plainly, and the atmospherics were that paying too much attention to what was on your plate was . . . unseemly. Effete. More or less in the same category as not knowing how to change a tire. My mother was quick to adopt innovations like canned ham and Potato Buds. We were sturdy people, by God, and we would eat sturdy food, without fuss.

Lately, like many others, I have been discovering the pleasures of the garden, the kitchen, and the table. As I think more about food, I want to prepare it with fresher ingredients, fewer additives, and more humanely produced animal products. I want to buy my food from local producers down the road or across the way. Inevitably, these choices are driving up my food bill. But never, ever will the percentage of money I spend on food reach the stratospheric levels of around 40% of all my expenditures.

Food is the great irreducible. You can put off expenditures on clothes; you can do without a car; you can move in with family or friends. But if you don’t eat, you won’t live. And the picture is fast coming into focus that more and more people around the world are struggling to put food on their tables.

I don’t know how to resolve these conflicts. I can eat lower on the food chain, and be healthier for it. I can seek out organizations devoted to building global food security when I decide how to allocate my giving. But it looks like we are going to have to attack this problem on a much larger, more coordinated scale, and soon. Look for future updates as I dig into what is being done, close to home as well as globally.

(The 2/5/11 New York Times article I began with, “The Kindling of Change” by Charles Blow, pulled together a number of  statistics suggesting the roots of the protests spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. Mark Bittman’s article, “A Food Manifesto for the Future,” appeared Wednesday 2/2 as a kickoff piece for his new column. You can find him at nytimes.com/opinionator.)

Eggs

The other morning for breakfast I had a poached egg on a toasted, buttered English muffin. Simple—just kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper on top. I love the way the yolk slowly flows into the muffin’s buttery honeycomb of air-bubbles. Perfect.

It was a lazy morning, and as I assembled my ingredients, I found myself reading the labeling on my new carton of eggs:  “Naturally Preferred, cage free, grain fed.” And from inside the carton:  “Naturally Preferred eggs are the product of our cage-free operation and vegetarian feed based on grains and soy beans. The hens live in open ‘community houses’ where they have feed, water, nests, roosting poles and plenty of area to exercise. Hen’s diet consists of grain-protein seed and vegetable derivatives, with no animal or fish/shellfish by-products. There are no antibiotics or hormones added.” So far so good, I’m thinking.

These eggs, it said, are distributed by Inter-American Products, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. There’s also a reference to a Texas license number.  Ohio? Texas? I’m in Washington State! So, I decided to try to map out the trip that my egg took from the hen to the muffin.

The website of the distributor of Naturally Preferred eggs is also listed on the carton (www.interamericanproducts.com) so I clicked around on the site.  The company is a division of the Kroger Company (which makes sense, because a few years ago Kroger acquired QFC, where I bought my eggs). It a nation-wide corporation that specializes in producing “house brand” grocery products for food retailers and wholesalers–“quality corporate brands, start to finish, coast to coast.”

There is a surprising amount of information about the sources of the products the company sells (classified into bakery, dairy, and grocery), including an interactive map showing the locations and names of their 36 plants. There are two in the Northwest: Swan Island Dairy in Portland, OR and Clackamas Bakery in Clackamas, OR. But no mention of eggs.

The site also offers an email link for customer comments, so I emailed them asking where their hens live and where the eggs are sorted and shipped.  I got an auto-reply from Kroger.com saying that I could expect a reply within two business days. It has been a week now and no reply, so I’ll email them a link to this posting to remind them to get back to me.

I also asked the manager of the QFC store where I bought the eggs. He said he didn’t know where the eggs came from exactly, but gave me a reasonable explanation of the overall operation. For the house brands of eggs (there are several, targeting different markets—like “organics consumers,” which would be me), he believes that Kroger constantly looks for the best sources (for price, quality, market-defined characteristics) and at any time might be sourcing eggs from a shifting subset of providers. He took my name and phone number and said he’d see if he could find out more, but so far he hasn’t called me back.

So at this point, I’m asking myself a couple of questions. Where are these eggs actually from? And why didn’t I buy eggs from “cage-free” hens that live right here in Washington?  I still don’t know where these eggs came from, but I do know (already knew) that the same grocery store where I bought them also carries similar locally-produced eggs. This time, without any thought, I just picked up a different brand in a carton carrying the same keywords that I select for.

But now that I have gotten pretty deeply into this question of eggs, I’m asking myself why I select for those keywords.  What is it about cage-free, grain-fed hens that I think will produce a better egg? And what difference does it make where the hen is laying that egg?

The first question is easier to answer. I’ve read reports over the last few years about conditions on chicken farms, and I don’t need to pause too long to conclude that birds that have had their beaks cut off or that can’t stand up or turn around in their cages are not happy birds. Chickens aren’t philosophy majors, but no creature needs to be tortured so that I can eat an egg (or a chicken leg, for that matter).  But even if you take a completely eater-centric view, surely there is enough evidence that stress makes organisms produce toxins—and toxins don’t sound particularly healthy or appetizing. Along the same lines, given the press around mad-cow disease over the last decade or so, I’m not really interested in eating a product from a chicken that was fed ground up animal parts.

So now I have an egg from a happy, well-fed hen. Why do I care where it came from? Yes, I buy locally grown food and artisanal food products—but I also eat bananas. I drink tea.  Why not eat Cincinnati eggs? Really, the reason probably has as much to do with people as it does with products. Yes, I believe that organically, locally grown foods taste better. But I also admire the people who produce them. I want them to thrive! I want to go see their operation, watch them work, and learn from them. Their knowledge and passion and skill teach me to delight in what I eat.

There’s another issue lurking in all this, and it is price. On the day I talked to the QFC manager about his eggs, I also checked prices. A carton of the local Washington organic eggs costs $5.29; the house (non-organic) QFC brand was $2.99—on sale for $.099! For a person on a budget feeding a family, surely that is a no-brainer.  Around the same time, I ran into an article in my local paper that mentioned that there are seven egg producers in Washington (larger commercial operations, I’m assuming, outside of small farms that sell at farmers’ markets and so on), and together they have about 6.5 million hens. But only about 5% of them are considered cage-free. Surely this is true in part because cage-free hen operations are much more expensive to run. I have no answers on the question of price; it’s an issue that I suspect I will return to often. Can’t we find ways for everybody to eat well at an affordable cost?

If I ever hear from Inter-American Products or the QFC manager, I’ll update this article. On the other issues, I welcome your thoughts!