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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Boston's Food Festival Is Better Than Your City's

Earlier this month, Slate's Andrew Simmons published a "food festival takedown" claiming that "These modern-day bacchanals showcase the worst features of American life." Slate went so far as to give the article the provacative click-bait header "Why You Should Never, Ever Go to a Food Festival."

Andrew, I would like to cordially invite you to come to next year's Boston Local Food Festival. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The Slate piece mentions festivals in Los Angeles full of rude people blatantly cutting in line, eating and drinking to excess, and generally looking out for number one at the expense of their fellow attendees. Now, while I'd love to make this about how people on the East coast are inherently better than people on the West coast, I doubt that this is what's really going on.

What is going on at the festivals Simmons experienced is a desperate attempt to get your money's worth. He makes multiple references to how overpriced food festivals are; one example he gives is of an event for which the tickets cost $75. His experience was that many attendees, intoxicated by some sort of frantic extreme coupon-er mindset and possessed by a need to game the system, pushed and shoved their way to as much food as possible, whether they actually enjoyed it or not.

Boston Local Food Festival, by contrast, is a free event whose individual vendors charge for their wares. Like any large event it is, of course, prone to some crowding and short tempers of people in line, which, as my friend Kathryn put it, encourages you to, if anything, eat too little. Unlike the orgy that Simmons describes, the price tag on each individual sampling coupled with the unwieldy lines to get your hands on it, serve as a deterrent to overindulgence, and an encouragement to seriously consider which foods you want to try.

A second feature that sets our experiences of food festivals apart is the alcohol. Simmons sites drunkenness as fueling people's gluttonous, rude, and overall inappropriate, unattractive behavior. Here in Puritan New England, that's not an issue. This year's Boston Local Food Festival took place outside, on public property, and on a Sunday no less! I'm sure there were a college student or two wandering around with flasks in their pockets, but other than that, it was a dry event, with most people too busy keeping their hands on strollers and dog leashes to hold an extra bottle anyway. (Although at Boston Local Food Festival's sister event, Local Craft Brewfest, you do pay in advance for as much beer as you can get your hands on in a limited amount of time, and I've never seen that effect people's politeness, but...maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough.)

Practical considerations aside, Simmons raises some interesting, if less easy to pinpoint, problems with the food festivals he has seen. He says that,

"Some food festivals trumpet sustainability as a pillar of their mission, but...while biodegradable forks made from potato starch are popular, at the end of the day, napkins, plates, and discarded food billow out of garbage cans. Piles of trash sprout wherever attendees feel like starting them. Just because the heritage-breed pigs everyone's tucking into were raised on chestnuts, doesn't mean that the event is somehow expanding the crowd's understanding of food systems."

First of all, let me address the fact that a herd of overly cheerful volunteers were standing by the garbage cans making sure that recyclables and compostables got thrown away in their proper place. I didn't stay until the very end of the festival, but I highly doubt it devolved into the piles-of-trash dystopia Simmons describes. With that out of the way, I guess we really need to talk about how much "good" events like this actually do.

It feels nice to spend an afternoon supporting local farms and keeping your leftovers out of landfills, but as the local, sustainable, organic, other greeen buzzwords movement gets trendier and trendier, its risk of defeating its own purpose grows. Slapping a "no GMOs" bumper sticker on your Prius will not solve all the problems in the world. If you're obnoxious enough about it, it might even send people away from your cause. But I feel pretty confident that this afternoon's festival didn't do anything to make the world a worse place. Not everyone who attended is going to immediately swear off the industrial food system and start growing everything their family eats. But all those plates really did end up in the compost pile, and I have to believe that if the festival hadn't taken place, plenty of those same people would have eaten a fast food lunch whose packaging ended up in a dumpster, so isn't that a small but tangible help right there?

Going further still, at BLFF, I found out about restaurants, publications, and organizations I didn't previously know about. There's no way I'm the only one. Of course one afternoon isn't going to shift Boston's eating habits in a significant way, but everyone who was there came away with a very slightly augmented list of options about where and how to eat. They don't have to take advantage of them every day in order for it to be a step in the right direction.
Was the afternoon a little too crowded? A little too self-righteous? Yes. Of course. But I still found it easy to enjoy myself, and to learn something. So Andrew Simmons, and anyone else who's had a bad experience at a food festival, come out to Boston next September and I'll show you how to do it right.
James picking out some oysters from Chatham, MA
Local chefs compete to make the better fish dish at the Seafood Throwdown

Kathryn and I enjoy some ice from Bart's in Greenfiled, MA
The day was a little nippy for running through the fountain, but it was still fun to watch.
Melissa and Kathryn eating jerk chicken from a local vendor on the grass.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Moving Diet: Outbound


A college town in late August is no place for civilized people to be. For one thing, it's infested with students. The returning kind are bad enough; all they do is crowd your favorite restaurants. But the new ones are even worse. With heavy suitcases and nervous parents in tow, they seem to make a habit of stopping at the most inconvenient point in the middle of the sidewalk. Everyone who has enough money and good sense has fled to the beach, leaving those of us left to fend off the incoming freshman all the more alone.

And then there's the Moving. If you're lucky, the biggest inconvenience you're slapped with is helping a friend, or maybe getting your car towed because you failed to notice that your usual parking spot is a temporary moving truck zone. If your number is up, though, you'll be getting a new roommate, or, worst of all, moving yourself.

I moved into a new apartment a week ago today, and for what seemed like eternity before that, I had been eating in a state of limbo, not wanting to replenish my stock of cooking oil, baking soda, or, as the move got close, even staples like bread and milk. As a result, August saw more than its share of takeout and frozen meals, of lonely peanut butter sandwiches and half-hearted dinners created around unfamiliar grains that had been waiting patiently in the pantry for a year.

A lot more than I'm proud of was wasted, as well. On cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer, I filled a trash bag with orphaned condiments no one remembered buying. Add that to the telltale cardboard boxes and disassembled furniture that accompany every move, and the whole situation was pretty depressing.

I had, of course, meant to time everything perfectly, running out of the last of my perishables on the day I left, going to Target for cute, practical containers to transport some of the keep-worthy dry goods like spices and specialty flours. I was going to be so good at it that people would want to know my secret. I would publish the most helpful and well-written of how-to blog posts, but those kinds of plans never work out, and so you guys get this instead.

The one thing I did right, the one thing that went according to plan, were the cookies. Similar to the last batch of Christmas cookies I make every year, these were a desperate attempt to get rid of that last half cup of dried cranberries and opened bar of dark chocolate. There was nothing that didn't go into them. I won't post a detailed recipe here. Instead, I'll link to Toll House's classic chocolate chip cookie recipe which, in my opinion, should be the jumping off point for any cookie experiment, and I'll mention the two accidents that made this one of the best-received batches of cookies I've ever hoisted off on other people: The first is that I didn't have quite enough butter, so I subbed a little bit a coconut oil. For baking and frying alike, coconut oil seems to really give a dish a richness and subtle extra flavor that pleases a crowd. The second is that, in the interest of consolidating containers, I had already put what was left of the cashew meal into the bag of whole wheat flour. I've been using a mix of whole wheat and nut flours in all my baking for awhile now, and it was long past time that I saved myself a measuring cup and some mental math (not to mention the sifting!). Nut flours give baked goods a more complex, satisfying flavor, not to mention the health benefits of upping the protein while minimizing the processed carbs.

How does your diet suffer when your living situation gets unstable? Have you had better success timing out the pantry than I did? Any favorite recipes that arose from using up the dregs of your stock?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Farmers Market Week: Tales from the Farm

In honor of National Farmers Market week, I'm posting this creative nonfiction piece I wrote a few years ago.

The smell of fresh tomatoes hits me like a sudden slap. No matter how much time I spend handling these fruits, their smell never blends in with the world and makes my senses immune to it the way the smell of a close friend's house sometimes will. As I reach into the bed of my beloved little pick-up truck to grab the day's first tray, the smell rushes through my body and I know I'm about to sell a product you simply won't find at the supermarket. I bring the tray out to one of the folding tables and go back to the truck for more.
Cucumbers in a wicker basket, green beans in a wooden box, a bushel of potatoes: half Yukon Gold and half Red Bliss, and a carton of yellow squash so freshly picked their skins are still prickly. Then the paper bags, cash box, and scale. Now I'm ready.
My two tables are set up under a small white tent at the far end of the market. Under the matching white tent to my left, Maura and Rachel from Temple Gardens in Fairfield are taking boxes of corn and Swiss chard and collard greens from their truck. On my right, Mark is attaching a banner to his tent that proclaims Smith's in Montville to be "Connecticut's Oldest Certified Organic Farm". I find a bit of chalk in the cash box, and write on my chalkboard "Stony Lane Farm, Route 1, Durham. All Produce Grown Sustainably", displaying it in front of one of the bushel baskets.
Saturday is my favorite market day. For one thing, it's the biggest and the busiest. The business makes the day go by quickly. The vendors are in good spirits because their sales are up, and the customers are in good spirits because it's Saturday. These are the people who delight in getting up and out by nine o'clock to be sure the get the best produce.  It's refreshing to see, in the heart of the city, people helping each other select the freshest loaf of bread, the juiciest plums, the zucchini of the deepest green. The same regulars come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they are different people then, and the city is a different city. On weekdays these people are on their lunch breaks or in the midst of tedious errands, in a rush to grab something for that night's dinner before scurrying back to their offices and soccer practices and dentist appointments.

I see Ben bringing the breakfast tray: the other wonderful part of Saturday.  It's nothing special really, just some pastries donated by a local bakery, but they make all the difference to people who have been hard at work since before the sun came up. As far down the line as I am today, I know my chances of there being a chocolate one left by the time Ben gets here are slim, but I cross my fingers anyway.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Grass Fed

A lot of people are surprised to find out that Corn Free July extends down the food chain. Avoiding not only corn syrup and corn starch, but corn fed animals products, seems to give the project increased weight. It's in part the realization of how much mainstream food is off limits, but I think it's equally a question of why this next level is important to me, and what possessed me to take it this far.

The truth is, I don't really see the animal products clause as a different level. The corn that feeds the cow in your burger is the same corn that sweetens your Coke. In terms of its effect on the system, I wouldn't say that one is less harmful than the other. They just take different branches. In the big mess that is industrial agriculture, there isn't much of a difference here.

Last week I talked a little bit about how hard it is to nail down exactly where your food came from and how it was processed, amid all the marketing and catch phrase labels that almost never mean what they want you to think they do.

A fully sustainable ecosystem means taking every piece of the equation into account. Which brings me to what exactly it is that the term "grass-fed" embodies. Certainly for cows it has a tangible purpose. Cows eat grass because cow stomachs are very good at processing grass. Cow stomachs are not, however, particularly good at processing corn and other grains, which is part of the reason that the factory farming system is so unhealthy for the animals it raises.

With other animals that Americans commonly eat, the rules are a little bit different. Corn is perfectly nutritious for a pig, say, or a chicken. For Corn Free July purposes, factory farmed meat of all kinds are off limits, technically because the same type of commodity corn from large, subsidized farms makes up a larger part of their diet than it does for animals raised on smaller farms. What it really comes down to is pasture. Animals raised on pasture, with access to forage and room to move around and find food at their leisure, along with whatever supplemental feed the farmer opts to give them, corn or otherwise, are, in my opinion, healthy food choices.

Which brings us back to that pesky word "sustainable." Along with "organic," "natural," "free-range," and maybe even "non-GMO," "sustainable" has become a catch-all meaning something good that, if pressed, we might not actually be able to define.

In order for something to be literally "sustainable," all it has to do is work on a large scale for a long time. Our current corn-dependent food system is unsustainable because the money and the fossil fuels that prop it up could go away at any moment. But the alternative organic system is unsustainable because it requires all that pasture. There's are good reasons CAFOs came into existence, and one of them is that the demand for meat is greater than the land available for pasture.

So if we're going to create a food system that is truly sustainable, we're going to have to cut way back on our consumption of meat. Which isn't bad news at all, even for meat lovers. A food system based on meat that is guaranteed to be high in quality, even if it's more expensive or less readily available, shouldn't really impact our lives all that much if we know how to use it well, and how to enjoy going without it. Here are a few of my favorite recipes that don't happen to include meat.

Dijon Portobello Steaks from V-Lish
Three Bean Sweet Potato Chili from La Casa de Sweets
Grilled Ale Portobello Mushroom Burger from The Adirondack Chick
Quinoa Salad with Black Beans and Mango from The Veganomicon
Grown-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Just a Taste

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Corn Free July 2014: What Labels Tell Us

I was looking for ricotta cheese because I wanted to make stuffed shells.

I was at Savenor's Market in Cambridge, perusing their eclectic dairy case, trying not to keep the door open for too long as I took out one product after another, carefully reading all the fine print. I settled on a brand I didn't recognize: Mozzarella House from Peabody, Massachusetts.

The label said things like "local" and "organic" and "not treated with rBST,", but nowhere did it actually say "grass-fed," "pasture-raised," or anything specific about the farming practices used. In fact, it was difficult to tell whether the actual milk was local, or just the end product.

When I got home I dug around a little on their website, and was assured that the milk is in fact local, and since there aren't any CAFOs in New England that I know of, I can pretty safely infer that it's grass fed cheese we're dealing with. But why isn't this kind of label a priority? Grass-fed beef is something of a trend right now, and so it's pretty easy to find that out, but when it comes to dairy products, the farming practices don't seem to matter.

This got me thinking about labeling in general, and how it can be difficult to wade through the endless sea of information and zero in on what's important to you. Which got me thinking about the debate over GMO labeling.

I used to be very, very in favor of the mandatory labeling of GMOs, simply because I think that consumers should have as much information as possible. But I'm no longer sure that such a law would actually provide real information, any more than labels like "natural" and "organic" and "made with real fruit juice" do. What exactly does genetic modification mean? Is it the same for every product? Does every genetic modification raise the same amount of concern, or are there gray areas? And what are we really avoiding when we choose to steer clear of GMOs?

In eliminating corn this month, of course I'm not actually condemning the plant itself. My fight is with the ways in which corn has been used to damage our food system. The project is also a way to rethink how I get food and to deconstruct what it means to me. When I'm in the grocery store, I don't blindly grab the first bag that boasts "no HFCS;" I read the full list of ingredients. Similarly, no one with a food allergy is going to eat something labeled "free from allergens" without double checking that statement. And of course, by now we've realized that the term "low fat" is really just code for "high sugar."

How much weight do you give to catch phrase food labeling? What do you look for in a food product? Is more labeling a good idea, or should we do away with it altogether and trust the ingredients and their sources to give us the information that we want?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Vegetable Pasta with Crispy Goat Cheese Medallions


"Don't even say the word 'pasta.' It sounds so hopeless, like surrender: 'Pasta would be easy.' Yes, yes it would. Pasta. It doesn't mean anything. It's just a euphemism people invented when they stopped eating spaghetti."

That's a quote from one of my favorite plays. Anthony Hopkins said the line in the movie, but when I read it, the voice I hear belongs to Dan Derks, who played Hopkins' character on stage when we were in college. It's from a bit of dialogue really just meant to warm the audience up to the beginning of the second act. It's a throwaway scene, and not one terribly essential to the plot, but a really good point nonetheless. Pasta is what you make when you're feeling uninspired or faced with an empty fridge. It's the food equivalent of wearing your oldest, rattiest clothes the day before you can no longer put off doing laundry.

So it's good to have a few variations on pasta in your back pocket for those days when it just can't be avoided. This is one I based on a recipe from Eating Well magazine, and one of which I actually look forward to eating the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces pasta (Something bite-sized like bow-tie or elbow works best.)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or other savory herb.
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons breadcrumbs (Its can be hard to find corn-free breadcrumbs. You maybe have to make your own by putting toast through the food processor. Or, if you have an electric spice grinder, crushed raw lentils make an extra-crispy coating.)
  • 4 ounces goat cheese (As far as I know, all goat cheese is pasture raised. They don't have goat factory farms...do they?)
  • 2 tablespoons of your favorite high-heat cooking oil
  • 1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 cups baby spinach
Directions:
  1. Preheat broiler and line a small baking sheet with tin foil.
  2. Cook pasta according to package directions and drain, saving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
  3. Combine breadcrumbs and oregano. Divide goat cheese into 4 equal portions. Shake each into a disk shape. Coat the cheese disks in bread crumb mixture. Place disks on the baking sheet and set aside.
  4. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook until tomatoes release their juice, about 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in the pasta water, spinach, and pasta until well mixed and spinach has warmed.
  6. Broil the goat cheese rounds, watching closely, until light brown and crispy on top, about 2 minutes. Divide pasta mixture into 4 portions and top each with a goat cheese medallion.
Serves 4.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Corn Free July 2014: Strawberry Chocolate Chip Pancakes


My neighbors went strawberry picking last week and were very generous with their haul, sending me back upstairs with a quart of fresh, local berries, so I celebrated my first day of vacation from work with my favorite breakfast indulgence.



Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups flour (I used whole wheat)
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup vegan chocolate chips or (read the ingredients list carefully, but milk is usually the only one to avoid with chocolate chips)
  • 1/4 cup chopped strawberries
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons grass-fed butter
  • pure maple syrup


Directions:
  1. Whisk together flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda until well blended.
  2. Gradually stir in milk, a little at a time, until the mixture is just a little bit doughier than cake batter
  3. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, stir in chocolate chips and then strawberries until just combined.
  4. Pour the batter into the frying pan, making pancakes your desired size.
  5. Flip when the batter starts to bubble, then flip again after about 3 minutes to make sure both sides of golden brown.
  6. Serve hot with maple syrup.