Cuba Day Six: Back to Havana, by way of the secret garden of Pelegrin

Settling in on our minibus for the trip back to Havana, I see on our itinerary that our next stop is “Project of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production Pelegrín.” I figure that we will see another organic farm like the ones we’ve visited over the last few days. So wrong!

Here’s our driver Nafal relaxing on one side of the front porch of the Pelegrín house, and a shot of the even more exuberant other side. More going on here than agriculture! But before we explore the other surprises of Pelegrín, let’s take a look at the gardens.

The raised beds of vegetables contained by borders of roof tiles show us once more that the production of beautiful food can itself be beautiful. Close by, we find a coconut tree weighted with fruit. Would you like to try it? Oh, yes! Suddenly somebody is up the tree, and the next thing we know, a machete is out, a hard nut has been topped for each of us, and we are sipping coconut water—the slightly cloudy thin liquid from the center of the fruit, with its fresh herbal fragrance—right from the shell. Here’s Alex enjoying his. 

We return to the central cluster of walkways, two-story thatched cabanas, patios, and workshops. The creator of patio Pelegrín has helpfully provided  signs to help us explore the compound: dance, literature, debate, music, theater—a network of workshops, nested on this small property, for local residents to cultivate their artistic and intellectual  interests.

Here is a group of “elderly” women (most of them appear younger than I am) practicing the craft of constructing handbags; I wish that I had gotten a picture of their product, and even more I wish that I had bought one!—They were extremely well-constructed and stylish.

The creator of these delights (he would insist that it was a local community effort) is Mario Pelegrín Pozo, painter, ceramic artist, and cultural promoter, shown here with one of his own works (purchased by one of us, I should add!).

We lingered in the gallery with its paintings, ceramics,  and handmade furniture. See that painting over Raj’s shoulder?—it will soon be hanging over my desk! (I’ll tell you more about Raj in a future post, but for now,  check out Generation Food Project, his current movie project with Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams.) We relaxed over a cup of coffee in the café literario. We wandered around the grounds taking in the maze of artworks and thatched structures. I wish I could spend more time with you exploring the birdcages and rabbit pens, the grain mill, the visiting hawk who hangs out on the front porch,  the fountain, the well, the rescued alligator in his hog-wire cage (big!—soon to be picked up for a return trip to the wild). But it is time for lunch!

And what a lunch. It will be a while, here at home, before I can really enjoy an avocado, or a mango, or a banana; the exotic warm aroma and rich flesh of the just-picked fruit still has me seduced!

As it happened, it was also Melanie’s twenty-third birthday, so her dad Peter staged a little celebration for her. (The family is Greek; Melanie is a vegan chef, and Peter is a contractor who specializes in building diners. What a great pair to travel with!—The morning that I was sick, Peter brought a nice breakfast to my room to tide me over while the group was off on a tobacco farm; he waved off my thanks with “I’m a good mother.”)

After our morning’s dalliance in this magical place, we aren’t easy to organize, but eventually Zoe and Jesús get us back on the bus headed for Havana, where we meet with Juan José León from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sr. León is a crisp antidote to our morning’s artistic meanderings; a small farmer turned revolutionary, he has a long memory and a ready command of facts and figures. He sketched in for us, through the eyes of the farmers, the tumultuous early days of the Revolution in 1959.

The agrarian reform laws of 1959 nationalized and redistributed large land holdings—those owned by Cubans (including the Castro family, by the way)  as well as those owned by foreign individuals and companies—but allowed each owner to keep 400 hectares of land. (The seizure of property owned by American citizens led the U.S. in 1960 to impose the embargo on Cuba that continues to this day.) Small farmers were allotted the land they were working, up to 67 hectares. (Why 67?—It turns out that there’s a measurement larger than a hectare, a “caballeria,” which consists of about 13.4 hectares. So, five “caballerias” equals 67 hectares.) Also, over 100,000 other families received at least one hectare (2.5 acres) or more. About 60% of the nationalized land remained in state hands and about 40% was redistributed to land-owners and small farmers.

But, he said, the large land-owners didn’t take advantage of the 400 hectares they were allotted, and instead of farming, conspired against the Revolution. So in 1963 the state nationalized those 400-hectare plots as well; 80% of this land was held by the government and 20%  was distributed directly to farmers. The state organized the lands it retained into the large state farms that we have heard of before, worked by farmers as employees of the state. (After the fall of the Soviet Union, these farms would be broken up into the UBPCs like Alamar that we visited on the first day, which hold their lands “in usufruct”—basically, a long-term lease—from the state.) Of the farmers who became land owners, some chose to consolidate their lands with others to form a cooperative. (In this case, they gave up individual ownership by selling the land to the cooperative and becoming a share-holder in the coop.) Other farmers retained ownership of their land but formed cooperatives to work together on the logistics of farming (like El Paraíso that we visited on day five). The “revolutionary process” of land distribution continues; new laws passed in 2008 created a means to redistribute unused or poorly administered land. A farmer or coop can now get a 13-hectare grant of such land (more or less a “caballeria”), and can ask for even more, up to 40 hectares.

But how do these people sell their crops? Sr. León explained that the state purchases 100% of “trade” crops like tobacco, cacao beans, and coffee. In addition, farmers are required to sell 80% of certain categories of produce to the state, but can sell the remaining 20% on the free market. The restricted categories cover 21 products:  among tubers, for instance, malangas, sweet potatoes, yams, and potatoes; in vegetables, onions, garlic, pepper, cucumber, and tomatoes; in fruits, mango, guava, citrus, papaya, and pineapple; in grains, rice, corn, and garbanzos; and in dairy, milk. There’s a lot on this list! (The state’s 80% of these products covers what Sr. León calls “social consumption”—the needs of hospitals, schools, day-care centers, old-folks homes, etc.) For products not on the list, farmers can freely sell whatever they produce. Also, farmers can contract to sell directly to tourist operations like hotels.

But it turns out that small-scale urban agriculture operates outside this system. (Lots of exceptions!—It appears that Cuba is trying any number of different models these days.) Growers who live within a 10-kilometer radius of a city can freely sell 100% of their produce. Tomorrow we will visit a bursting handful of gardens like these.

We have had a long day!—But we have one more stop before we head back to the hotel: the Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” For fifteen years now, the couple (Vilda trained as a chemist in animal nutrition, Pepe as a mechanical engineer) has been working tirelessly to teach Cubans how to preserve food.

Remember that, when the Soviet Union disintegrated starting in 1989, within two years Cuba had lost its main trading partner and 80% of its trade—trade that included much of the Cuban food supply. Vilda gave us a vivid picture of the impact of this loss on the Cuban dinner table. The calorie intake of the average Cuban adult fell from about 3,000 calories a day down to 1,800 a day. Protein intake dropped from 90 grams a day to 45. During this harsh period, Vilda and Pepe drew on their backgrounds in nutrition and engineering to learn how to preserve food for themselves, and then decided to share what they had learned in their own kitchen.

They use natural techniques and methods that work in ordinary Cuban kitchens—solar drying and dehydration, fermentation and pickling in vinegar, pasteurization. They developed a simple sterile sealer for bottles and jars from “found” materials that can by copied easily (easily, at least, by the endlessly resourceful Cuban people). They developed tasty recipes and offered classes for housewives, kids, and food producers. Over time, they attracted funding from national and international NGOs and other sources to help them scale up their operation.

Their outreach combines face-to-face approaches with extensive media efforts. Volunteer “promotores” take the participatory training and then fan out into the community to show their neighbors the techniques; children come into their “test kitchen” for classes once a month, learning hands-on how to prepare healthful meals and preserve produce from their family gardens. Vilda and Pepe also have created something of a media empire—they have a weekly half-hour radio show and a publishing house that distributes their books and multimedia products. They now reach 15,000 people face-to-face, and over radio and TV, about 1.5 million people per year. Their services are free; the media sales help fund the organization.

Their efforts allow farmers to add value to their produce and enable people to enjoy seasonal foods like fruits across the year. And remember that Cuba lies in the middle of “hurricane alley”—in 2008, for instance, they had two hurricanes within two days that destroyed over 750,000 pounds of the food supply. Thanks to Vilda and Pepe, many Cubans can now rely on a small  pantry of preserved fruits and vegetables to help them through such crises. To learn more about their work, visit Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” (It’s in Spanish; use “translate this page” in Google search).

Cuba Day Five: Paradise, and the question of owning land

The fate of Day Four: If you have been following my trip to Cuba, you may be wondering what happened to Day Four. I spent it at hotel Rancho San Vicente in beautiful Viñales, in bed nursing a terrible cold! But during one of my few forays out of my room, I did manage to confirm a point made by our excellent guide Jesús as we drove west into the mountains of the province of Pinar del Río. Although the land-line telephone system extends throughout the province, the electric grid does not; much of the province is powered by solar panels. Here’s the array that keeps the lights on at our hotel. (Now back to bed.)

So!—Day Five.

Today we visted El Paraíso (“paradise” in English), a family farm terraced along a hillside overlooking a valley checkered with pastures and more farms. Here Wilfredo, the head of the family, welcomes us, translated by our trusty Jesús.  (I didn’t get Wilfredo’s last name, unfortunately.) You may remember that a few days ago we visited Alamar UBPC (“basic unit of cooperative production,” a farm on state-owned land run by a cooperative of workers). El Paraíso on the other hand is a privately owned family farm, organized with others like it in a private “credit and service cooperative” (the acronym in Spanish is CCS). CCS farms have grown to represent about 17% of all Cuban farms. El Paraíso is also a Finca Agroecologica education center and demonstration farm.

The terraces stepping down the hillside, bordered and contained by hand-stacked stones, are silent testimony to the time and labor that it takes to draw these orderly ranks of crops out of the land. Here we see a row of habichuelas, a long flat green bean; the interplanting in this field includes scallions, squash, and several other vegetables, as well as bright flowers (to attract pests away from the crops). Drip irrigation keeps the crops healthy with as little water as possible (no mean feat in this very hot climate).

The son-in-law of the family, Tony, took a moment on our tour to show us some of the older tools still in use on the farm. The sugar-cane shredder, constructed from bits and pieces from a tractor and a couple of other sources, reduces the knife-edged sugar-cane leaves to pulp and channels off the juice. The coffee-bean husker (a ubiquitous tool in Cuba, it turns out) breaks up the outer husk to release the coffee bean. (At one point Jesús—a formidable dancer—showed us a dance move based on the action of pounding the coffee beans with the pestle of the husker. Where was my camera!) And Tony showed us how to operate the hand-mill, used to grind corn and other grains. These tools, like the terrace rockeries and the thatched roofs of the cabanas and outbuildings, show me once again how the Cubans manage to create both grace and utility out of just the materials they have on hand.

After a delicious lunch on the farm, we headed off to the headquarters of the Moncada UBPC, where we talked to Rafael Barrios, the head of production for the farm. It was pouring rain once again!—Here we see some members of the cooperative, using probably the most efficient modes of transportation for the weather.

Unlike the Alamar UBPC that we visited earlier, with its diverse crops of vegetables and herbs, the main crops for external trade here at Moncada are the traditional ones of tobacco and coffee. Of its 204 hectares, 42 are devoted to coffee and 42 to tobacco; 64 hectares are devoted to “self-consumption”—essentially, gardens for the families of the 86 associates who make up the coop membership—and the rest is left in uncultivated woodlands, where they raise animals. In addition to selling under contract to the government, they can sell some of their products to people outside the coop, and sometimes family members supplement the family income with jobs in the town.

Sr. Barrios helped us understand better what it was like for the farm workers to go from employee to coop member. Like Alamar, the Moncada UBPC began in 1993 with the breakup of a large state-owned farm, and the workers on that farm became the associates of the UBPC. Moncada also holds its lands in usufruct (essentially, a long lease) from the state. The biggest challenge in the transition, he said, was that before, the government answered for everything, but afterwards the workers had to organize themselves and manage their own operation. With the right to own, if not the land itself, the means of production as well as the fruits of their labors, Sr. Barrios said, the workers now feel like true owners. As part of their annually negotiated contract with the government, the coop buys a “technological package” that includes everything (down to machetes!) needed to develop the crops, and crop insurance as well. Over the course of the year they keep track of costs and production levels, and after the harvest, more productive members get a larger share of the sales proceeds.  The farm has done well and is always growing.

I admire the energy and intelligence of everybody we’ve met at the UBPCs—but the Texan in me balks. Am I hearing whispers from one of my stubborn peasant forebears? Do I have a primal fear of being turfed out of my hut by some inscrutable landlord?—I would want to own my land. Thus I was glad to discover that the Cuban system, among its several models, has a place for private family-owned farms like El Paraíso.

On our way back to the hotel at the end of the day, we stopped briefly in Viñales, where I caught this classic car parked in s street-scape of lovely rain-washed colors!

Cuba Day Three: Biosphere and the lotus eater of Las Terrazas

Today we set out west of Havana to Las Terrazas to visit the Biosphere, a UNESCO biological reserve. What beautiful countryside! We arrived at the eco-station just in time to be pelted by rain, but we were able to ignore it with the help of a drink, some Afro-Cuban music, and a fact-filled introduction to the reserve.

The Biosphere consists of 25,000 hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres) in three nested zones—a nucleus of natural reserve (no people!), surrounded by an ecologically managed buffer zone, in turn surrounded by protected zone of managed resources including family farms. In the nucleus, the reserve boasts 900 different species of plants, 131 species of birds (50% of them migratory), 32 species of reptiles, and thousands and thousands of species of insects. Only large mammals and other fauna are considered under-populated by the standards of bio-diversity; 75% of them are bats. (At sunset that evening, I passed up the opportunity, which I gather comes up daily, to watch a swarm of bats sweep out of the caves near our hotel for their nightly feeding. I was coming down with a cold; I faded, I’m sorry to say.)

The scientists at the reserve are working to repair ecological damage done over centuries.  In the colonial period, coffee growers stripped the area of its forests to develop their vast fincas; now the scientists are replanting with over 130 species of native trees and other vegetation. They also have fish farms that support 21 different species, 13 of them native to the region and two found only in the reserve.

They also are working to build agro-biodiversity. The farmers in the reserve live in the village of Las Terrazas (constructed for them when the reserve was created) and have farm plots in the surrounding hills.  They contribute seeds from their crops to a strictly controlled seed bank and exchange seeds both among themselves and with farmers in other regions. The scientists keep track of the farmers who are growing indigenous crops following traditional techniques and make sure to collect seeds from them. The seed bank ensures that these crops can be planted year after year, and provides resources to help repair the crop damage done by hurricanes and other natural disasters that lash Cuba.

Once again, we found that these agro-ecological practices had a human heart and social mission. The project “Mi plato y yo” (“My recipe and myself”) collects recipes, often handed down from grandparents to grandchildren, of indigenous foods prepared in traditional ways. The published collections tell the stories both of the dishes and of the cooks who contributed them—a great way to celebrate the traditions of Cuban food preparation and tempt cooks to try the techniques of these elders in their own kitchens.

Time for lunch!—We wound our way through the village to Eco-Restaurant El Romero, “gourmet of the Cuban ecological cuisine.” This improbable gem is the brainchild of Tito Nuñez Gudás, vegetarian chef, forager, and food artist (seen here against a backdrop of the wetlands and fields where he forages many ingredients for his menu). We started with pickled lotus root, fresh and delicate. Following that, we had soup (several different kinds for each table; mine was a lovely brothy vegetable soup, and others had cold pumpkin soup or black bean soup). Our main-course plates were a buffet unto themselves—a torta, herbed brown rice, a taco, several kinds of vegetables, all artfully plated (my notes are a collection of superlatives barely readable through splashes and smears of the meal itself). We ended on a high note with a chocolate pudding served in a little leaf boat. We puzzled over what gave it its depth and complexity but ended up having to ask:  some pumpkin, some peanuts. How did they do that?—It was the best chocolate ever!

All of this carefully prepared and beautifully presented food emerged from the small kitchen in the corner with its fresh herbs and shelves of handmade condiments, where the chef and servers handily choreographed our meal. But where did Tito find vegetarian chefs of this caliber?—Locally, of course, trained under his careful eye. Describing the first reaction of his pork-loving Cuban community to meals made only of plants, he laughed as he pushed his hands away from himself in the universal gesture of refusal. But now he works with the schools to explain the fare and trains students as interns to learn the preparations. Changing the diet of his community, one leaf at a time!

Note: There won’t be a “Cuba day four;” the cold I felt coming on today arrived copiously by night-time, and I spent the whole next day—our first in the beautiful mountain town of Viñales—in bed in a Claritan-induced smog. What did I miss?—Primarily a trip to a tobacco farm, which of everything we had on the agenda interested me the least (my swampy ex-smoker lungs would not have been amused). So, on to day five!

Cuba Day Two: From commodity crops to local sustainable farming

Today we started off at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (the acronym for the name in Spanish is FANJ), an NGO with a very broad agenda related to culture and the environment. Nuñez Jimenez, who created FANJ in 1994 at the age of 71, was both a revolutionary (here he is with Che Guevara and Che’s daughter) and a professor of geology, a scientist with an international reputation. And, like Darwin, Shackleton, and others before him, he was a scientist-adventurer—In 1987-88, he set off with a group to cross South America to Cuba by canoe, following the Amazon River east and the Orinoco north, then across the treacherous open waters of the Caribbean to landfall in Cuba. Our guide Handy (I didn’t get his last name) showed us the very canoe that he paddled, as well as a map of his (arduous!) route. (He was then 64 years old. I am now 64 years old. Would it be sullen of me to point out that I most likely couldn’t paddle a canoe across the street?)

At any rate, after Handy’s tour of the foundation museum and library, we met with Maria Caridad Cruz, coordinator of the FANJ Program for Local Sustainable Development. Yesterday we had learned about Cuba’s early commitment to commodity crops (sugar, coffee, tobacco), the collapse of those markets, and the emergence of other models like farming cooperatives. Walking through the fields of the UBPC Alamar, we had seen one example of smaller-scale, highly diversified farming. Now Maria sketched out for us the whole  FANJ vision of what food production in Cuba could become.

At the most local level, FANJ helps people learn how to grow family gardens. And with 75% of Cuba’s people now living in urban areas, many without a plot of land for a garden, FANJ also shows people how to build gardens on their rooftops. The gardeners aspire to follow the ideals of organic gardening and permaculture: close the circle. They collect rainwater in cisterns, filter “gray water” from their sinks and showers, re-use building materials, recycle and compost, use small animals (chickens, rabbits) and animal waste, and (in the most thorough-going cases) use dry toilets and convert human waste to usable garden fertilizer. (Seriously. More on this later.)

These family gardens produce vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, fruits, and flowers —and produce them prodigiously!  FANJ also offers a program about how to sell their excess produce. And FANJ supports seed exchanges, both for family gardeners and for larger-scale farmers.

FANJ’s programs are small but growing. They now have 25 functioning groups in seven (out of Cuba’s 15) provinces, and they have 120 promoters (“promodores”) around the country, getting into the smaller communities with their mission and programs.

But a word about the mission. Yes, they want the Cuban people to grow food to enrich their diets and supplement their incomes. But they have a broader social mission: to develop active citizens who are working together to solve problems at the local level.  They aim to involve whole families (farming has historically been a male occupation), and to encourage people to have a lively Interchange about their practices, their problems and solutions, and their dreams. I will return to this theme later; I came to realize by the end of my trip that it was really the cornerstone of what I was learning in Cuba.

Next we visited the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) where we talked to Fernando Funes, the Coordinator of Agro-ecological Projects. Fernando took us on a personal journey through the landscape that we had been visiting. At first his agricultural education had been very specialized, in the spirit of the Green Revolution; he studied pastures and cattle exclusively. Then the blow fell:  the USSR collapsed. He likes statistics; he mentioned that during the early part of the Special Period, 100,000 cattle died. He added that he himself lost 25 pounds. (This is not a large man.) People felt the raw fear of not being able to feed their families.

At that point, people began to adopt early forms of agro-ecological techniques. They kept poultry, pigs, and honeybees; they applied biological fertilizers and manures, used nematodes, minimized fuel usage, and more. They incorporated small animals into their food system, using plant byproducts to feed the animals and animal byproducts to feed the plants. He led the way in incorporating forestry systems and pasture systems into overall food production, use of inter-crop planting, and so on. At the beginning of the process, he told us, it took eight units of energy to produce one unit of food; by the third year, it took only three units of energy to produce four units of food.

The process of revising the system continues; he told us that under the new guidelines developed under Raul Castro, people can now claim unused or fallow land to farm under the “usufruct” system (basically, long-term leases from the state). But he pointed out that Cuba still imports at least 50% of its food. (Some of our informants put the figure at 80%.)

We will revisit many of these themes, and see wonderful examples of these processes at work, over our remaining days. But we also took some time in the afternoon to savor beautiful Havana! We first walked through the Plaza de Armas, with its graceful spaces. Then, on the way to the Plaza de la Catedral, we passed a building that was unfinished, but its blank concrete facade had been brought to life by a mural of the society of Old Havana. And finally we visited the plaza of the cathedral, with its beautiful facade speaking of the centuries of Spanish life that had unfolded here.

But we weren’t done for the day!—We had the evening free, so we decided to have dinner at a paladar, a privately-owned restaurant typically located in the owner’s family home. We found one nearby (somehow; not my doing, certainly) and just showed up (no reservations). (Sidebar: my greatest regret is that I didn’t get any good photos of the ’50’s American cars, startlingly well-preserved, that we saw everywhere—though I have to add, mixed in with Priuses, BMWs, and other contemporary models. Well, there will be a next trip.)  But what a treat the paladar turned out to be!! We ate extremely well; turtle, shrimp, chicken, mango, black beans and rice, and more. Once again, Cuban cuisine proved to be very flavorful but not spicy-hot, carefully prepared and served in generous (very generous!) portions. Presiding over our meal is trip coordinator Zoe Brent of Food First. (Thank you, Zoe, for helping us discover this wonderful place to eat!)

 

 

Learning from Cuba: Agro-ecology, urban farming, and making do

Hemingway, Fidel, Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, Venceremos, Marielitos, Elián—the threads of so many stories of Cuba are woven through the fabric of my own life! I was just eleven years old, catching my first glimpse of a world wider than Kingsville, Texas, when on New Year’s Day 1959 Batista fled the country and Castro’s revolutionary forces took over. And now, more than a half-century later, I have finally visited beautiful Cuba. My tour, a joint offering from Food First, Global Exchange/Reality Tours, and Amistur, focused on Cuba’s developing agro-ecological food system. I learned so much!—Over the next few posts I’d like to take you with me to the foundations, farms, neighborhoods, and small enterprises that we visited, and introduce you to some of the Cubans whose labors are building the system.

Day One: Sunday July 8th

Actually, Day One was supposed to be Saturday July 7th, but we spent it in the Cancun airport waiting for our Cubana flight; we finally go to our Havana hotel at about 5:00 Sunday morning. So we dumped our early Sunday-morning plans and slept in.

But we re-grouped around 11:00 and set off for UBPC Alamar, in the suburbs of Havana. A “UBPC” is a “basic unit of cooperative production,” one of several organizational structures of farms in Cuba. The story of the origins of the UBPCs brings together a number of themes that will come up again and again as we learn about Cuban agriculture. The story, like so many others here, is a story of cataclysm and recovery. Up until 1989, Cuban farming was organized into large state-owned agro-industrial “green revolution”  farms that relied on expensive heavy machinery and large amounts of imported chemical fertilizers to produce mono-crops of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. By far the largest trading partner?—The Soviet Union. But in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, and so did Cuban agriculture. Once again (as it had after the 1961 US blockade began), Cuba lost 80% of its trade, including the market for its crops and the imports of food that had fed the populace. Thus began the “Special Period” (still continuing today) in which agriculture (among other sectors) underwent radical change. In one such change, beginning in 1993, a number of large state farms were broken up and turned over to cooperatives made up of the farm-workers who had been wage-earners on the land before—thus the birth of the UBPCs. The land itself was granted in “usufruct” (essentially, a long-term lease of the state-owned land). Sustainable agriculture began to be understood as a matter of national security, and organic and agro-ecological techniques began to be adopted.

At UBPC Alamar, Miguel Salcines, president of the cooperative, walked us through the good-sized farm with its lush vegetable and herb crops striping the rust-red soil. Here he is explaining their use of irrigation and covered structures (—for shade, rather than for raising the temperature, as we use them here in Seattle; I’m here to tell you that they do not need to raise the temperature. At all. Whew.). By the way, pretty much our entire group is in this photo; there were just  nine of us, plus our tour coordinator Zoe and our guide/translator Jesús.

Among the other sustainable practices in use at Alamar are interplanting (here of lettuces and green onions), drip irrigation, integrated pest control, and vermiculture (using worms to turn cow manure into organic matter for compost)And they aren’t trifling with that operation either; they produce about one ton per day of organic matter, and sell what they don’t use.

The cooperative plans to grow; the farmers hold shares in the organization based on the length of time they have been members, and profits are distributed per share. The group votes on policies and practices, and Sr. Salcines told us that their decisions can’t be overruled by outsiders. They also have a community mission; they do educational  tours and workshops for the local schools.

We ended our tour with a delicious meal served alfresco on the farm:  fresh plantains, mangos, squash soup, black beans, malanga (a potato-like tuber), fresh juice, and more. We also saw one of our first instances of the Cuban “make it do” mentality—old bus windows pressed into service in an outbuilding on the farm.

Back in town in the afternoon, we took a little walking tour of the Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Remember that the Spanish were thriving in Cuba as early as the first years of the 16th Century; Havana’s streets and plazas are as elegant and baroque and wasted as only five complex centuries can make them. But throughout the twists and turns of our walk, it seemed to me that Cuban wit and creativity winked at us from all sides. What had we learned so far about Cuba? Here at the end of our first day, I couldn’t say; I found myself distrustful of my own delight in what I was seeing. Was our experience being managed? Certainly. Were the people we were meeting open and analytical and willing to question their own practices? Yes. The one thing I was sure of was that I needed to learn more.

Spudnik! Growing 21st-century potatoes

Lots of ways to grow potatoes!  I grow potatoes in a barrel, and to harvest them I turn the barrel over and scrabble around for them in the dirt-pile. Last year, a class from the Seattle Culinary Academy grew potatoes in mounded rows at La Conner Flats, and harvested them with a hoe. Poor old van Gogh’s peasants trudged along behind an ox, planting potatoes one by one in a long furrow. and probably harvested them with a hoe too.

Forget the ox. Forget the barrel and the hoe. A few weeks back, I went on a farm tour in Skagit Valley that included a stop at Knutzen Farms, where Kraig Knutzen, a fifth-generation direct descendent of the original farm family, showed us how to get serious about growing potatoes. (My phone was dead!—so I didn’t get a photo. But let’s see if I can conjure up a picture for you.)

On the edge of a large plowed field behind Kraig’s barn, two huge machines idled. The smaller one began to rumble as it lobbed an avalanche of seed potatoes (potatoes cut into pieces, each piece with an eye) into the bed of the bigger machine.  The bigger machine, bristling with tanks and barrels and arms around its bed, loomed above the field on huge tires. Once it had a load of seed potatoes on board, a farmworker climbed into its cab, fired it up, and then, as it lumbered into action, tilted its steering wheel up and sat back with a laptop!—His driving job was done; the real navigator was a satellite a mile or so overhead that was chatting with an innocuous-looking yellow tripod farther down along the edge of the field.

This rig reads the minutest contours of the field; it can align the edge of each pass across the field within an inch of the previous pass. It not only plants the seed potatoes with precision, it also measures out the exact (and exactly minimal) application of dry or liquid fertilizer needed for each inch of the field. And it stores all of this data in a huge file so that the inputs can be compared to the harvest, and year can be compared to year. Kraig says they “just pull this big data set into Google Docs and monitor how it’s going over time.”

But wait, is this industrial overkill? How does this kind of mechanized precision agriculture fit into a vision of a sustainably managed family farm? Kraig had plenty to say on the subject. He pointed out that this technology enables them to get the maximum use out of the land with minimum inputs of fertilizer or other treatments. Combined with other strategies like integrated pest management, use of amendments that aren’t residual in the soil season over season, elaborate crop rotation schemes, and so on, the technology is one more tool that enables the Knutzens to fulfill their generation-to-generation mission to be wise stewards of their land. It also helps the farm to be commercially viable, so that the family can look forward to farming their land for the very long run.

The Skagit Valley farmers that I have met are a fascinating lot—on the one hand innovative  entrepreneurs, on the other thoughtful conservators of their farming landscape. Over the coming months, I hope to introduce you to many more of them!—Stay tuned!

April 14th! Skagit farm-fresh dinner on a field of tulips

Every April, the Tulip Festival draws pretty much the entire population of Seattle north to the Skagit Valley to marvel at the giant ribbons and patches of red, pink, yellow, and orange that quilt the valley’s fields as the flowers come into bloom. The article about the festival in the paper yesterday offered an “If you go” sampler of other attractions to take in while you’re there, but left out one of the best–the “Celebrate Skagit–Dinner on the Farm” on Saturday April 14th. Don’t miss it!–There are only a few seats left!

Have you heard of the “Outstanding in the Field” dinners, with their landmark long tables stretching across a farmer’s field? The Celebrate Skagit dinner draws on the same inspiration, but let’s face it, nobody in the Northwest is going to sign up to eat dinner in a sodden April field!–This dinner will be held in the Sam Hill Barn near Mount Vernon, a 1927 Washington State Heritage barn on property that was one of the first bulb-growing fields in the valley. (Note!–The barn pictured above is not the Sam Hill Barn! It is just one of the beautiful faded structures that linger among the tulip fields.)

What’s on the menu? To start, Skagit Valley yields a prodigious crop of potatoes, and some of them may show up on your plate, but others will arrive in a glass!–Skagit Yukon Golds, distilled into vodka,  will anchor a signature cocktail created by Skip Rock Distillers for this event. For the meal itself, chef Michael Miller is creating appetizers and a four-course dinner from the diverse harvests of the valley–seafood, meat, cheese, grains, produce, berries, and more. And Hellam’s Vineyard of La Conner will be selecting Washington wine pairings for the dinner.

The dinner will be elegant, but don’t show up in black tie! The event will take place rain or shine, and remember, you’ll be on a farm–the website recommends galoshes, jeans, and jackets.

The event sponsors, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF), have gone all out on this event to showcase the products of the lavishly fertile Skagit Valley, on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley. The proceeds of the dinner (which costs $100 per person) will support their critically important work of sustaining the viability of Skagit Valley agriculture. I hope I’ll see you there! (But if I don’t, stay tuned–I’m going to write it up here to tempt you into signing up for the July edition!)

Rex the Rabbit (Cacciatore)

This week I once again found myself with that restless urge to cook up something new. Rummaging around in my freezer, I pulled out a package from my Lefever Holbrook Ranch meat delivery: “rabbit ‘Rex’ 2.5 lbs.” Poor old Rex!–I may have scratched his ears back in September when I visited Paulette and her kids on the ranch. Rex wasn’t his name, of course–it was his breed, developed in France in the early 20th century. And now that I think about it, the rabbit I met in Goldendale did have a Gallic air about him, holding me with his dark gaze as I stroked his plush velvet coat.

The whole rabbit family on Paulette’s ranch is pretty cosmopolitan; here’s Madison with one of the babies (“kits”), whose mother was a New Zealand (in spite of its name, first bred in Mexico, also around the early 20th century) and whose father was our friend Rex. (You’d recognize a New Zealand–a big fluffy albino white rabbit with ears that blush pink.) Since rabbits raised for meat are often harvested at two months old, and I got my order from the ranch at the end of November, I’m now thinking that my Rex was actually Rex fils, one of these September kits.

With Rex now defrosting on my kitchen counter, I feel an unexpected pang. I know the usual things about him that I want to know about the food that I eat: where he came from, who raised him, how he was raised. But this time I know him.

Why am I a carnivore? Like you, I’ve read any number of articles about the need to eat lower on the food chain–much less meat and more fruits, grains, and vegetables. For one thing, it’s easier on the environment; it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, and methane gas from farm animals accounts for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Also, we’d show some shred of solidarity with the other seven billion of us on the planet–we can’t all eat this way, so maybe none of us should. And then of course it’s easier on the animals!

But eating meat runs deep. When I was growing up in South Texas, we had meat at almost every meal. Ham and bacon. Plenty of beef–pot roast, steaks, hamburger in all of its chameleon forms. Chicken, the noble yard bird!–I remember helping my grandmother slaughter and clean them for Sunday supper.

We got some of this meat by hunting. I went a few times, but my father and brothers went every year. My dad had an old Scout (precursor to the now ubiquitous SUV!) welded and bolted into a hunting machine–braces for standing up to scan across the mesquite brush for quarry, gun racks, a ball-mount tow-hitch to pull his beat-up old jeep behind them. In early fall, before the break of day, they would load up the bird dogs and head out to their lease to hunt quail and white-wing dove. In November, they went off for long weekends to the hunting camp, getting up early every day to hike out to their stand and sit silently for hours watching for a deer to emerge from the dawn shadows and mist.

If they got their shot, on the way back home they would stop at Gafford’s grocery store to leave the dressed animal in a rented freezer locker. It was a tradition in our family that my dad would share his deer with a Mexican woman who worked with him, and then a few days before Christmas, she and her family would bring us venison tamales!–Dozens and dozens of them. To this day, when I am home for the holidays we have chili and tamales for our Christmas Eve meal.

So eating meat, for many of us, is part of who we are, where we came from, how we savor the earth’s bounty together. Do we need to become vegetarians or even vegans? I can imagine getting there (or at least getting close) some day, but for now I just try to choose and prepare my food as thoughtfully as I can.

So, I’m still a carnivore, though I hope a more minimal and mindful one. And today I braised poor Rex alla Cacciatora (hunter style). He was delicious!

Rabbit Stew (recipe from the New York Times, January 4th, 2012)

  • 1 whole rabbit (2 1/2 to 3 lbs.)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • flour, for dusting
  • 2 cups onions, finely diced
  • 2 cups leeks, finely diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled dry porcini mushrooms, soaked in warm water to soften drained and finely chopped (save the liquid to add to the sauce)
  • 8 oz. cremini or portobello mushrooms, thickly sliced (I used portobellos)
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup unsalted chicken broth
  1. 1. Cut up the rabbit; the directions were complicated, but basically you want more or less the same pieces you’d get with a chicken–a breast (you can split it into two pieces), two front legs, a back, and two back legs (possibly split into two pieces each–thigh and drumstick, more or less).
  2. Heat 1/4 inch olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep, wide heavy skillet over medium heat. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then dust lightly with flour. Lightly brown the rabbit for about 3 minutes o both sides, working in batches. Drain on kitchen towels, then transfer to a baking dish in one layer. Heat over to 375 degrees.
  3. Pour off the used oil, wipe out the pan and add 2 tablespoons fresh oil. Heat to medium-high, add the onions and cook till soft, about 5 minutes. Add the leek, garlic, rosemary and mushrooms. Season generously with salt and pepper; add red pepper flakes to taste. Cook for 2 minutes more, stirring.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes and wine, and let the mixture reduce for 1 minute. Add the broth and mushroom liquid, bring to a simmer, taste and adjust the seasoning (but remember that the red pepper flakes will get hotter).
  5. Ladle the mixture evenly over the rabbit. Cover the dish, and bake for 1 hour. Let it rest 10 minutes before serving.

I ate my first serving on a bed of fettucini. Tomorrow I might serve it on rice. Or potatoes? Or just a big slice of beautiful rustic bread.

Cooking Anne Hilton’s Christmas chapbook

My friend Anne made a chapbook of vegetarian recipes for her mother’s Christmas present this year, and I was lucky enough to get a copy too! Entirely handcrafted, “from paper cutting and ink mixing to typesetting and the actual printing,” this little chapbook took me back to my first glimpse, in some dimly remembered college course, of the complicated construction of early letterpress books. Preparing the paper and ink, assembling the type into forms for each page and color, making each impression– every single stage calls for huge care and precision.. And no trivial task, either, to get from a flat sheet of paper to a folded booklet! (Try it! Using these pictures as a guide, take a sheet of printer paper, mark off one side into eight sections, and fold yourself a copy of Anne’s book.)  Anne tells me that the whole project took more than 100 hours of work.

The project also weaves together threads of the story of Anne and her mother; Anne explains that “while I was living in Korea, my mother sent me a book of vegetarian recipes for Christmas one year that she had written by hand. I still have and use that book, so I wanted to return the favor.” What could make a better gift?  The Korean character on the over of the chapbook means “good fortune, luck, or happiness;” Through her craftsmanship, I think Anne has made a little bit of all three–certainly luck for me!

Turning through the booklet, I noticed a recipe for “seitan” and green bean curry. Seitan?–Never heard of it. (At what point will I stop running into new ingredients?) Seitan, it turns out, is seasoned wheat protein–essentially, a very dense reduction of wheat gluten. (Not for everybody, obviously.) Look for it in the same case as tofu. Some people consider it “meat-like;” I bought a version called “chicken-style.” (I used to scoff at vegetarians who ate “pretend meat”–think veggie-burgers–but the more I learn about the costs of diets like my own Texas-size carnivore fare, the more inclined I am to explore alternatives. If a plant food can satisfy a meat craving, so much the better!)

This recipe came from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, one of numerous excellent cookbooks put out by the famous Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, NY. I went ahead and bought the book, but you can also find the recipe online (for instance in Google Books).

Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (~2 cups)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh chile, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
  • 4 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces (~3 to 3 1/2 cups)
  • 1 pound seitan, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 3/4 cup water
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • toasted unsalted cashew nuts

This dish is essentially a stir-fry; you want to have all these ingredients ready to go, so that you can work rapidly. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok and add the onions and garlic. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes before adding the chile or cayenne, garam masala, and cumin. Stirring, sauté for another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the green beans, then the seitan, and mix well. Stir in the tomatoes, coconut milk, and water. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the beans are firm-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve topped with toasted cashews for a nice contrast in texture. It came out very nicely! Instead of rice, I cooked farro to go with the curry. Farro (also called emmer) is also a new food for me, although I gather that it is an ancient grain, even collected in the wild by pre-agrarian people as long as 17,000 years ago. My farro, though, was grown by Lentz Spelt Farms from Foundation Seed in arid eastern Washington, in Marlin over by Moses Lake.

This is not a demanding dish to prepare! But as I cooked, I thought about Anne’s mother writing down recipes for her to cook in Korea, and about eighteen hippies in Ithaca, NY forming a collective back in 1973 in to celebrate vegetarian fare, and about Washington farmers carrying forward the life of an ancient grain, and about Anne spending 100 hours crafting her chapbook. And as I serve dinner, I break into a grin: “we made this!”

(By the way, Anne also has a food blog!–be sure to visit her!)

Tilth’s demo garden: Life in the sustainable garden

Standing in a garden on a warm sunny day, watching cream-colored butterflies flutter among the tidy plots of vegetables, listening to the buzz and whir of hover-flies and bees, I wasn’t really thinking of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” But I was touring Seattle Tilth’s demonstration garden, and tour leader Amy Ockerlander was just then telling us about watching a centipede cut up a cabbage worm and eat it. How can you raise the odds that you’ll have a hungry centipede patrolling your garden patch? We were there to see how Tilth harnesses natural processes to grow healthy vegetables in sustainable ways.

Big message number one was start with mulch. (That’s Amy by the huge pile of it.) Especially in a climate like ours, where it rains all winter long and then in summer (usually!) rains hardly at all, mulch soaks up moisture, keeps nutrients from being washed away, and suppresses weeds that fight your veg for nutrients. Plus it provides a happy home for critters like centipedes, spiders, and other helpful killers. You can also protect your soil by putting down a layer of feed bags (especially effective over the winter here to keep soil dry-ish). This is Seattle, so of course we go for coffee-bean bags!

Mulch was only one “layer” strategy we talked about. Those cream-colored butterflies?–As they flutter prettily from plant to plant they are laying hundreds of dot-sized eggs on your cabbage-family plants that hatch into voracious bright green cabbage worms. One way to mess them up is to put in a physical barrier–cover the plants with row cover, a light cloth sheet that keeps the butterflies from sticking their eggs to the leaves.

In following the “layer” strategy, you don’t always have to put the layer on top. In “hugelkultur,” the raised garden bed starts with a layer of rotting wood (chips, twigs, sticks, branches . . .) at the bottom. Then you mound the soil on top. Think of the wood as a “nurse log” for your plant, sponging up water and nutrients that otherwise would leach away.

To thrive, your garden also needs pollinator insects like mason bees. The Tilth gardeners have constructed mason bee “blocks,” little bee condominiums, under the eaves of the building, so that the bees can over-winter and re-populate year after year. And to attract pollinators, the garden has flowering ornamentals planted among the vegetables.

Some plants naturally thrive when planted together, like the “three sisters” in Mexican farming: corn, squash, and beans. (Normally, the corn would be close to eight feet tall!–but here in Seattle, it’s lucky to hit five feet.) The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb up, and the squash shades the roots of the other “sisters.”

Big message number two was keep your resources where you use them. They use a rain garden to manage the rainfall runoff from the building–about 20,000 gallons of it in a typical year! (This is water that isn‘t going into the sewer system, to be processed and then bought back from the city to water the garden. That’s a long round trip to water that veg patch over there!) Pipes capture the water and feed it to a narrow trickle of rock-lined stream bed that delivers it to a  bowl-shaped depression about five feet across. The thick plantings hold it there until it soaks out to the surrounding area. They also use compost “digesters” to break down plant trimmings into nutrients that leak out of the bottom into the surrounding soil to be taken up by the next-door-neighbor plants.

Amy described the whole sustainable gardening endeavor as “bringing life into the garden.” I loved to hear how cleverly these master gardeners wove together and managed the thrust of life in soil, plants, insects, light, and water to make a healthy, bountiful harvest. But for me, it is also a sustaining pleasure to see the order and grace of their well-tended garden–to sit on a lovely trellis bench and gaze at the garden, to admire a fragrant stand of basil corralled by an artful soldiering of bamboo stakes, to imagine beans scrambling up the string trellis behind the lettuces in their hoop pergolas. I love these minutely tended plots that speak so eloquently about the diligence and hopes of the people who built them!

Down on the (campus!) farm

On-campus at the University of Washington, on a meandering quarter-acre around the Botany Greenhouse, UW students have labored for over seven years to build out a working farm, complete with “beds in buckets,” cold-frames, irrigation system, two bee hives, and four plump chickens with their own custom chicken-tractor. And last but not least, a functioning clay-and-straw pizza oven! (More on that later.)

UW Farm signLast week, Beth Wheat, newly minted UW PhD in Biology (now a postdoc in the Program on the Environment) and the Educational Coordinator for UW Farm, capped off the Seattle Arts & Lectures series “Following Wendell: the culture and politics of sustenance” by giving us a talk and a tour of the operation.

Beth set the stage by pointing out that less than 2% of our population now farms, and the average age of the American farmer is 57. Even here in Washington (an agricultural state, actually, if you leave out Seattle and Boeing), students were showing up in ecology classes with no idea what a growing vegetable looked like–they couldn’t match a carrot with a carrot top. Hence the motivating idea for UW Farm: actively educate citizens for a more sustainable future by teaching students how to grow food.

cold framesSo they started digging away, preparing all the beds and buckets by hand, adding structures like the cold frames shown here, trying out new ideas about growing food. They now layer crimson clover under chard, to fix nitrogen. They consider the salad-making possibilities of their “weeds.”

planting beds in medianThey also really ran with the concept of the parking-strip garden! Here, between a sidewalk and a bike path, they have a series of beds, borders, buckets, and teepees growing everything from herbs to beans.

student Michelle giving us the tour

Helping out with our tour were student farmers Michelle Venetucci Harvey and Julia Reed (Michelle shown here). Both are also active volunteers with the farm–two of the 150 students typically involved at a given time! The farm has a Compost Crew,  it has a Chicken Crew, it has the Dirty Dozen (now 40 students) who meet on Monday mornings at 7:30 (when I was in college, I didn’t know there was a Monday morning at 7:30) to plan the entire operation of the farm for the week. And, for recruiting, rewarding themselves, and educating the public, they have Pizza Bakes once a month!

pizza ovenNo way were we going to miss out on fresh-baked pizza. So everybody got a ball of dough and  rolled out an individual pie, which we dressed up with herbs and veggies from the farm. individual pizza on pizza shovel Here’s mine, fresh out of the oven!

Did I mention the salad ? As you can see, there was plenty!salad greens in a wheelbarrow

And the Prosecco went very well with both!

After years of operating slightly off the administration’s radar, UW Farm is now writing a business plan and working to become as sustainable organizationally as it is agriculturally. They’ve scored an additional (and larger) farm site at the off-campus UW Center for Urban Horticulture, and our remodeled student union building (now about half-finished) will incorporate a demonstration garden of several four-foot-by-ten-foot raised beds. Next up, they need funding to hire some actual paid staff; it’s hard to keep going when your  workforce turns over practically every quarter!

Read more about this fantastic operation here (oh, and don’t overlook the donation button!):  http://students.washington.edu/uwfarm/

Going bananas

This morning I had to face up to the fact that I had ignored my small bunch of bananas about three days too long. Yellow well on the way to brown! So I decided that today was the day to launch my Mindful Munching Campaign. Rule Number One: Do not throw out usable food.

As it happens, just last week I got the Grand Central Baking Book (check it out in What I’m reading).  Page 32:  Banana Nut Bread. Miraculously, I had all the ingredients on hand. (Even buttermilk!–which is going to happen maybe twice a year.)

What I didn’t have was any idea what I was doing. The recipe calls for “banana puree.” So, I’ve got four bad bananas in front of me–how do I convert them to “puree?” Easily, it turns out, once I remembered that I had an appliance with a “puree” setting. So into the blender with them.

Then, the recipe asks me to use a “standard mixer” to combine ingredients. Got one right here?–Actually, yes. I dragged out the KitchenAid mixer that I have used oh three times since I bought it. Great!–It appears to have done the job. At this point, every surface in my kitchen is dusted with flour and spackled with globs of errant batter, but I successfully manage to get two pans of banana nut bread dough into the oven. I was so sure that I would fail that I didn’t take any “process” photos, but the end result was beautiful! And GAAAA it tastes so good!
But will my next batch have to be plantain nut bread? Last January 10th, Mike Peed wrote a New Yorker piece (“We Have No Bananas”) with the discouraging subtitle “Can scientists defeat a devastating blight?” The species of banana that most of us eat is the Cavendish, a cheap, sturdy, nutritious variety that Americans consume at the rate of almost 8 billion pounds per year. Growers embraced the Cavendish, and over the years created a global monoculture–all Cavendishes, all the time.

Enter Tropical Race Four, a nasty fungus that lives in the soil and entirely rots out Cavendish banana plants. According to Peed, since the late 80’s It has spread across Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, the Philippines, and most recently, Australia. We live in a flat world; inevitably, Latin America will be next.

The problem is being attacked by traditional breeding as well as genetic engineering (with all of its attendant health and environmental concerns). But nobody appears to be seriously proposing to challenge the underlying problem: if you plant just one species everywhere, you are asking for it. As James Dale, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, says in Peed’s article, “when you see the narrowing of genetic culture, that’s when you know things are going to die.”

Can we change the complex business model underlying the production and marketing of our foods, so that we can diversify the monocultures that threaten the continuing health of our food sources? I have no idea. What do you think?

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!