Archive for the ‘Food Activism’ Category

I make everything from scratch, to avoid ingesting hormones, additives, and preservatives that I consdier pernicious, or at least whose beneficial or pernicious qualities are an open question. Dinners, desserts, soda, sauces and jams, breakfast cereal, trail mix, all sorts of bread. (Still haven’t made my own noodles, because I can’t seem to run out of the ones I have. I’ll get there Susy Morris, I swear.)

At almost 60, I’m a remnant of the last generation that routinely learned to cook at home. While I never stopped making dinner- the stews and soups and roasted chickens- I had largely abandoned baking, picking it back up a few years ago. I started with crackers, then scones, and moved on to pie (yes the crust too, thanks for asking).

It turns out to be like language– while I do rely on recipes, I found baking intuitive for the most part; call it “touch memory” from my childhood. Like smells, it turns out the texture of a proper pie crust, and the correct amount of cookie dough to scoop up, and the shape of a pita are learned skills that lurk in the interstices of your brain until you need them again.

But I didn’t trust myself with bread.

I’ve been through many recipes- the Browneyed Baker, and Mark Bittman and my favorite legacy cookbook. I’ve watched the complex terror that is America’s Test Kitchen’s minute description of how to fail at breadbaking. I followed every step to the letter. I asked my pro-baker buddy for tips. But it wouldn’t rise, and it didn’t look right, and the crumb was too loose or too dense.

The only expert I didn’t consult was that lizard brain of mine, which kept telling me that none of my breads felt right.

A month ago I went to a bread baking demonstration, expecting to find That One Weird Trick That Will Make Your Bread Turn Out Correctly Every Time!

And I did.

The presenter started throwing ingredients into a bowl– warm water, melted butter, yeast, sugar, coffee, salt. He dismissed experts and recipes– “two cups of liquid, some kind of shortening, yeast, flavoring like salt, 4-5 cups of flour. That’s bread. Any kind of bread– flat bread, loaf bread, fancy bread.” Now this sounded more like cooking, and less like that scary, scientific, chemical-reactions, cautiously weighed ingredients mystery that is baking. And I remembered baking bread with my mother; she used to have a cookbook out, but I seldom remember her looking at it. She would just make the bread, and tell me “this is what the dough should feel like when it’s ready to rise, and this is what it feels like when it’s ready to bake.” Here’s how it looks and here’s how it smells.

So I started making bread, instead of reading recipes. The first time I ignored the recipe, I forgot the shortening in a loaf bread. Bread without shortening gives you flat bread, like pita, so you can imagine how nice and dense that loaf was.

But it freed me from the tyranny of perfection– I made edible bread armed only with ingredients and my knowledge. So I made another loaf (and forgot to punch it down– this results in a bread “balloon” in case you’re wondering), but it looked and tasted like bread. I’m on my fifth loaf now, and third successful loaf. Easy, in fact, as pie turned out to be.

Standing at the counter kneeding bread feels not just like, hey, I’m going to have some delicious bread in a few hours. It feels like I’m Eve, or Miriam, or Mrs. Ingalls, or my mother, doing what women do, and have always done.

Making bread.


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One sees these things coming. A venerable locally-owned brand is sold to a national chain, which then abandons it. Boom. Local ownership gone. Safeway, the grocery store chain (or more likely the holding company that owns Safeway), just axed Dominick’s in Chicago. They are closing dozens, for all I know hundreds, of neighborhood stores. I’m hoping that another local chain will reap the windfall, but think it’s more likely we’re going to end up with WalMarts filled with processed foods and a few bruised Chilean apples and e. coli-contaminated salad bags to keep Mrs. Obama and her corporate sponsors happy.

I say No. Here are my demands:

1. Only healthy junk food, with pictures of rain forests and bunnies so I know it’s safe
2. Fresh organic lettuce, sold in plastic bags, preferably pre-cut, because who has time.
3. No dirt– otherwise who KNOWS where that turnip has been
4. Healthy options at MacDonald’s. If you eat a salad with the Big Mac, I’m pretty sure it has fewer calories.
5. Have Maria teach me the proper pronunciation of “habanero” next time she comes to clean
6. All vegetables presented in faux wood bins, with real wicker baskets instead of shopping carts so I can pretend I’m at the Farmers Market, which is full of all these farmers, which can’t be sanitary
7. A special display with 14 different heirloom tomatoes (not 14 types–14 tomatoes) so I can say I’ve seen one. Make sure they cost $7 apiece so I can complain about how organic (sic) is too expensive
8. Candy in the checkout aisle. Because those nuts from Occupy Safeway are blocking access to the candy.
9. Support local farmers! Give them jobs as baggers, since their farms are all mortgaged to the hilt.

Originally posted on the Mahlzeit blog, October 21, 2011.

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At either end of the garden season in Chicago are two large trade shows– the Chicago Flower and Garden show in March, and the Independent Garden Center Show in August.

The Chicago Flower and Garden Show is a public exhibition. Constrained by the need to stand up to crowds numbering 40,000 or more, and a definite tendency to dumb itself down to the broadest possible constituency, it’s characterized by unimaginative plantings, miles and miles of brick walkways, and improbable water features that might conceivably surround some awful McMansion, assuming the types of people who live in McMansions have even the limited imagination (not to mention the cash) needed to install large water features.

The “marketplace,” where you might think to find interesting consumer goods for gardeners, will have the occasional display of airplants, bulbs, and garden gloves, but also, I kid you not, mattresses, wheelie carts, and boom boxes. Despite it being in and theoretically about gardening in Chicago, it has a definite suburban feel.

The Independent Garden Center show is a trade show, not open to the public, featuring goods and fixtures to sell at garden centers. While there are a good number of marvelous vendors of plants, seeds, gloves, tools and the like, there’s also a lot of what I call “landfill”– garden trinkets and tchotchkies that owe more to fad than to necessity.

Neither is really geared to gardeners like me.

Occasionally, the Flower and Garden Show will feature an exhibit like the one Peterson Garden Project did this past year, with a recognizably urban sensibility, and a scale that an actual human being with a normal sized yard and budget might have; or the mini-prairie restoration of a few years ago that showed a “timeline” of how to restore a landscape that has been taken over by exotic invasives.

Seldom will the needs of edible gardening be addressed; even outside the trade shows edible gardening remains the bastard child of the industry– not hip like urban farming, or school-tie respectable like roses or lilies, urban edible gardening doesn’t seem to have the clout or the profile to make it into the world of garden shows.

I like flowers a lot. I’ve devoted half my garden to them. I am proudly a “gardener;” I’m not a farmer, even though I grow food. The scale is a garden scale, a family scale.

Where is the trade show, the shop, the focus, for edible gardeners with a small urban yard, or a balcony? For gardeners like me?

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At Peterson Garden Project we call it Grow2Give. Other organizations have Plant a Row. Other organizations don’t call it anything, they just encourage making donations from your vegetable garden.

Even though I’ve got only myself to feed this year, I’ve planted a full garden, so I’m probably going to be taking donated produce to one of our local food pantries.

Food pantries like more of less.  Don’t bring them a couple heads of lettuce, a bunch of basil, 4 beets, a half pound of green beans, 2 eggplants, 3 peppers and 6 tomatoes. Bring them 20 pounds of kale and 40 tomatoes. They have a lot of people to feed.

Growing and planting are the obvious parts of these kinds of programs. Defining the “giving” is trickier because the program gives the gardener so much as well. I’ve seen it in the faces of the dozens of volunteers who show up in droves every time we have a Grow2Give workday.

Volunteers aren’t just putting plants into the ground; they work hard.  Since Peterson Garden Project started Grow2Give in 2010, hundreds of volunteers at 7 gardens have collectively laid out and filled more than 70 4×6-foot plots. They’ve hauled and leveled 2,500 square yards of mulch. The volunteers have planted hundreds of heirloom tomato plants,  240 corn stalks, thousands of beans and carrots, a couple dozen pumpkin and squash, plus cucumbers, melons, native pollinating plants, and more.

And they feel like they are the ones who have been given the gift.

There are so many reasons to participate in food pantry programs. One volunteer watched a homeless man pick up the mulberries off the sidewalk to eat and was compelled to find a way to volunteer with a food security program.  Another volunteered as a way to fulfill service hours for a traffic violation; he figured working with Grow2Give was a more meaningful thing to do with his time than watching a video for traffic school.

So many volunteers have told me stories about their dismay with our toxic food culture. Several were inspired by Mayor Emanuel’s vow to eliminate food deserts in Chicago.

Even if you’re not part of a regular program like Grow2Give, you can “grow to give,” as well. Think about sharing your bounty. If you’re like me, you’re growing more than you need.

If you garden at a different garden, or in your own backyard, then Plant a Row to donate. Food pantries like produce that is easy to store, like tomatoes, peppers, beans, carrots, turnips, etc.

Grow to give. It gives right back.

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I confess. When Michelle Obama was in Chicago a few months ago, and visited Walgreens, I stood in front of the television yelling at her.

Why was Michelle Obama, of all people, in Chicago-city of neighborhoods, home of the nation’s most diverse ethnic population, in the middle of the richest farmland in the world, and leader of the WW2 Victory Gardens movement-standing in some anonymous Walgreens, praising them for importing tomatoes from Chile.

Why was she not walking down Clark Street in Rogers Park, where there are probably 15 locally-owned mercados featuring produce raised locally, and run by families living in the neighborhood. Why was she not on Devon Avenue in the 40th ward, another strip of vibrant local economy? How about 57th Street in her own neighborhood, and home, until the big boxes shut it down, of the famous 57th Street Food Co-op? In Chicago “food desert” doesn’t mean no grocery stores– statutorily it means no big national chain stores. So you get the absurdity of the Albany Park “food desert” where there are at least 6 full service, locally-owned grocery stores within 5 blocks of the main intersection at Lawrence and Kedzie.

The solution to healthy food systems and urban vitality is not another vast parking lot, where private security will boot your car if you so much as step onto the sidewalk to mail a letter, but small, locally owned grocery stores, with sensible inspection protocols, and family management.

After the ’68 riots, Chicago let its local economies die. Where once there were dozens of family businesses keeping the neighborhoods, especially the African-American neighborhoods alive, a decades-long shibboleth has been sold us, teaching us that “business” happens on Wall Street or LaSalle Street, over-regulating small businesses while letting the big guys get away with murder and the family silver, and selling our own livelihoods back to us in Big Boxes stocked with the fruits of foreign slave labor. We’ve been spoon fed the lie that a “small business” is someone with 5 million dollars in annual sales, and 250 employees. That’s not a “small business.” A small business is the corner store (NOT the 7-11, but the old-fashioned Mr. Gower-type of store), or the local nfp animal rescue, or the neighborhood clinic.

Once “business” is what your grandpa did, in his shop around the corner from his house, or downstairs from his apartment. You worked there on the weekends and after school, learning how to run a business, a business that you would take over, when your grandpa and your pa got too old. We’ve let not one, or two, but now three generations of business acumen just die in service to the supposed “efficiency” and low prices of Walmart and its ilk.

Walgreen’s is not the answer to food deserts or to sustainable economies. Walgreen’s is the problem. Bring back the neighborhood pharmacists, tailors, shoe repairs, appliance repairs, and grocers.

A coalition of local food activists agrees with me. They’ve created the Statement of Local Food Economy (pdf). You can sign the statement, too. Also- World Food Day.

Originally posted on Mahlzeit blog in 2010.

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