2008: Food Community in Pictures

On New Year's Eve I spent some time re-living the closing year by going through my photos.  So many good things in food have happened this year that I struggled to pick one photo from each month to represent the best intersection of food and community. For these "best of" moments, I felt the struggle Jan Longone describes in deciding among many best beloved cookbooks to represent themes in her culinary exhibit on women's empowerment. And like her, difficult as it was, choose I did. The women publishing charity cookbooks didn't know their contributions would eventually culminate in the vote and later, women astronauts, but the ripples from many small acts helped create a world for women unimagined then. Similarly, I think, these little examples of food and community point toward a greater good, perhaps the world as it should be.

January: Although we haven't heard from Christine in a while, her Lady Food Bloggers tea back on a wintry January day started a warm and wonderful group, now almost 30 strong, of Michigan Lady Food Bloggers meeting, cooking, and supporting each other through food.  Christine's gift of "vinegar mother" started me down an unexpected path of fermenting and culturing food, toward which I have already pointed others also on a fermenting journey. 

February: Looking for vestiges of our agricultural roots is getting to be a habit whenever we go somewhere.  What's amazing is that in these days of year-round raspberries, those agricultural roots still exist even on islands like Anegada, a coral atoll in the archipelago between Florida and South America, 28 feet above sea level, completely dependent on long-distance industrial food.  We met Henny in her huge garden where she picked tomatoes and sweet red peppers for us.  It spun my head around to eat a real summer tomato in February, just as juicy and sweet as my own tomatoes in August. Along with tomatoes, she grows all kinds of traditional greens, peppers, and berries I had never heard of.  And makes delicious sea-grape jam. With a half dozen goats running around behind the garden, she said her next venture is going to be making goat cheese.

March: I spent an afternoon squeezed in a corner of the tiny kitchen watching how they make that incredible crust at my all-time favorite pizza place: Silvio's Organic Pizza. Three times a day, Silvio makes fresh dough that he forms into about 30 floury white dough babies.  After a couple of hours spent reclining on their blankets, they're ready to be made into pizza crust. Lots of local and organic ingredients go into the pizza dough and toppings (organic flour, spinach from Tantre, goat cheese from Zingerman's, fennel from Needle Lane, etc.). In addition to the fact that they are always super nice in the restaurant, they've also done a bunch of good things for the community: In October,  they gave away 2 free tickets to Italy to celebrate their third anniversary in Ann Arbor; in September they participated in the HomeGrown Festival, winning the Most Local Award; in August they drove their pizzas and warming ovens to Brooklyn, MI to provide food for the excellent Holler Fest music festival....just a few things that I happen to know about. 

April: A mild and blue-sky day for a visit to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthworks Farm in Detroit. Before the asparagus had poked its head out of the ground and watching the bees just beginning to stumble out of the hive, I spent several hours talking with farm manager Patrick Crouch about his work.  Five years ago he had been considering a similar job in New York City. But the warmth and the passionate commitment of the people he met in Detroit won his heart. Crouch now supervises a dozen beehives, 4 greenhouses, and several huge gardens that supply the soup kitchen on Meldrum Street. Earthworks Farm focuses some of its main efforts on food justice and community food security by working in collaboration with the Garden Resource Program and its Grown in Detroit market project. In fact, Detroit's entire homegrown approach to food security begins in the 96' long Earthworks hoophouse, where, stacked in every conceivable space, Crouch and his volunteer assistants start the seeds for over 100,000 vegetable transplants that will be donated to hundreds of Detroit area community and school gardeners. According to the Earthworks website:  "Addressing the roots of food system injustice is a crucial part of empowering our guests and neighbors to take action against poverty and hunger. We believe that a working farm is an ideal setting for modeling a socially just response to hunger."

May: Cathy King hosts Krystn and me for a misty tour of beautiful Frog Holler Organic Farm, where early red and green lettuces sparkle like gems against a brown dress.  The 165 acre property started out as wildlife sanctuary in Brooklyn, MI, deemed "not suitable for farming" when they bought it 36 years ago.  It's now 162 acres of wildlife sanctuary and they grow organic produce on the other 3 acres.  Growing beautiful organic vegetables on the same few acres for almost 40 years - I guess they know something about sustainable agriculture.  After attending one of their fabulous potluck dinners (with the famous Frog Holler Herbal Tea), I wished I was one of their fortunate neighbors. Especially so after I heard Cathy's son Billy King perform at the Slow Food Dinner in the Vineyard.  I was very excited that Frog Holler started a CSA subscription last summer (and they are offering it again for next summer). And after enjoying the incredible music (and food and camping) at Holler Fest 2008, I was thrilled to learn that planning for Holler Fest 2009 is already underway.  Food, music, community....what else is there? 

June: I got to bring Miss A. along as my photographer (that's her photo of the bee) on the assignment to interview Rich Wieske of Green Toe Gardens about his beekeeping and honey-making operations.  We met Rich at Detroit's Catherine Ferguson Academy for the "hive maintenance" session of the 5-part class he does to help new beekeepers just getting started.   Rich was nearly vibrating with excitement when we arrived at the hives in the orchard and he noticed that a swarm had formed in the top branches of a peach tree. This was good news because it meant that the bees were healthy and multiplying (and had not succumbed to Colony Collapse Disorder and disappeared). When Rich is not shaking bees out of tree branches into a new hive box, he's taking care of about 100 hives (60 in the city of Detroit), doing programs for schools and libraries to teach kids that bees pollinate 1/3 of all the foods we eat, and raising queen bees that have been adapted to our climate here in Michigan. 

July: Saturday mornings I wake up impatient to get out the door to the Farmer's Market to see what's in our box of unbelievable food from Tantré Farm.  There are dark days without Tantré from December to May (woe!)  This box in July contained lovely corn, kale, lettuce, fava beans, garlic, cucumbers, parsley, beets, green beans, potatoes, summer squash, chard and other items too tiny to make out from the photo.  I could easily write this entire blog about Tantré alone - it's hard not to write about it too often. While I'm as jaded as the next guy, I'm still constantly in awe of what Richard and Deb do.  On their 60ish (?) acres of land growing the most beautiful produce I've ever seen anywhere they draw together a community of people who are invited in many ways to participate in knowing where that food comes from and how it got to our tables.  I know it's not just me being a sap again since I've heard other people describe the experience of visiting the farm and coming away with an overwhelming sense of well-being and confidence that things are right with the world. On one of the most gorgeous days of last summer we were at Tantré  for their potluck work day for members. Everywhere I turned was snapshot I wanted to replay again and again - a baby boy in tiny overalls, barely walking, joyously filling a bucket with apples in dappled light under the apple tree; a forest of sunflowers against the clear blue sky; little girls screaming with laughter as they flew past the horizon on the tire swing; a line of people in white wide-brimmed hats pulling weeds; the slow, calm buzzing of bees on a sea of pink and white flowers; a picnic table set with iced tea, blueberry muffins, fiesta-colored salads, and pie.....the best of this place, the people, our shared time here - it's enough to make your heart ache. 

August: Slow Food Nation in San Francisco was a celebration and a call to action unlike anything I expected. One part gleeful enjoyment of the gustatory pleasures of our entire national table, one part solemn respect for and acknowledgement of the hearts and hands that feed us, and one part call to arms to put a stop to the Soylent Greening of the country under our current industrial food system.  It was inspiring to see and meet people from so many places across the country who also want food that is good, clean and fair and who are doing something about it. It was a privilege to see Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Vandana Shiva, and Eric Schlosser on the same stage together during the Food for Thought series. I thought it was going to be the Woodstock of the food world, but it was so much more than a mind-blowing weekend sans inhibitions (appealing as that surely was). Once again, this obsession with food, Slow Food in particular, gave me a new frame of reference for appreciating and experiencing what is precious,  an experience of pleasure and connectedness that is available to practically every person in this country wherever they are and whatever they do. 

September: Hot on those heels, it's not really surprising that I came to think of the HomeGrown Festival as our own miniature version of Slow Food Nation.  On a more Lilliputian scale of course, we did many of the same things and had many of the same goals of connecting people with where their food comes from and with the talented and hard-working people who grow, deliver, and cook that food.  With little money and no staff, our all-volunteer crew pulled off a  fine event with the incredibly generous involvement and support of many wonderful chefs, farmers, businesses, and musicians. My favorite parts: Slow's BBQ smoked chicken wings (oh wings, wherefore art thee?);  Project Grow's  heirloom tomato tasting - the finest possible distillation of summer; the mud puddle stompers who showed us the correct response to the day's continuous rain; Silvio's face when he won the Most Local and Sustainable award;  and after it was all over, the feeling of having just pulled off a minor miracle at the beer drinking session at Grizzly Peak afterwards. 

October:  Jan Longone's beautiful exhibit of cookbooks and historical ephemera, "The Old Girl Network: Charity Cookbooks and the Empowerment of Women,"  closed on October 3rd, 2008.  In her talk on September 21st, Jan Longone explained the many ways in which women used the unassuming cookbook as a tool: to raise money, to help each other, to learn new skills, and to further their political goals. I don't think we ever consider the fact that until the 1920s women were up against things like this: 

“No Female Suffrage! The Woman is No Human Being”  - “Attila” (ca. 1867)

“Idiots, lunatics, paupers, felons and women shall not be entitled to vote” -- Constitutional Law of Illinois

Longone says of a quote from the Holiday Gift Cookbook lobbying for women's suffrage  'One of the most poignant pleas is that of Clara Barton, founder of what became the American Red Cross.  “When you were sick and wounded I toiled for you on the battlefield.  Because of my work for you, I ask your aid.  I ask the ballot for myself and my sex.  As I stood by you, I pray you stand by me and mine.” '  See digital versions of many of Jan Longone's favorite cookbooks from the Archive at MSU's  Feeding America website.  

She says her next exhibit will be curated with her husband, Dan Longone, and is entitled "500 Years of Grapes and Wine in America: A Remarkable Story."  From February 16 - May 29, 2009 at the Clements Library.  Mark your calendars for the lecture on the Exhibit by Dan and Jan Longone Sunday, May 10 from 3:00-5:00pm. 

November: For an excited crowd of 30 Slow Food and Old Pine Farm CSA members, Kris Hirth  arranged to have Chef Alex Young prepare a Slow Food-inspired dinner using her Old Pine Farm pastured meats and Tantré Farm's organic produce.  Here's what makes me misty about these kinds of events:  At Tantré Farm, I'm picking up the produce that Richard has donated for the meal.  He pulls a huge garden cart up and literally fills my car with eight enormous boxes of produce. Nothing more can fit. Then he asks if I want a gallon of milk from their cow. 

Fearless Slow Food friend and chef, Krystn Stephens, is in between various family events of the day but takes time to come out to lend her expertise for several hours. Kris Hirth has donated probably 30 pounds of pork, chicken, and beef for the meal and together with her younger son spends several hours with us in the kitchen prepping probably 50 pounds of produce. 

Chef Alex Young, father of three young kids, spends his one day off schlepping all his tools, towels, special spice mixtures, pots, pans and recipes over to the Chelsea Fairgrounds to prepare a fantastic meal highlighting Kris' lean pastured meats and Tantré's gorgeous produce.  After cooking 10 different dishes, he spends an hour or two talking to people, funning with his kids (who have arrived with his wife), and cleaning up.  After the meal, there's still so much produce that everyone who wants it takes some home.   I ask Alex if it's a bummer that being a chef means no one ever invites you to their house for a home-cooked dinner.  He just nods. He and his family are hereby invited to my house. Along with Richard and Deb and Kris.   

December: Can you tell that this is a piece of toast cooking in front of the fire?  Cathy Cwiek, Manager of the Historic Foodways and Domestic Life Programs at the Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, made this piece of toast and it may have been the best thing I ate all year. Cathy is an expert on hearth cooking and the domestic arts of earlier times.   What could an olde time place like Greenfield Village possibly have to contribute to my food world?  Just the direct knowledge that the only ingredients truly required for making a splendid meal are a piece of bread and a fiery ember. 

What have I learned from struggling over this, the world's longest blog post? It seems that for another entire year, often in moments where I'm least expecting it, I am whacked over the head with beauty and constantly humbled by the ingenuity and heart of  generous people as I creep slowly closer toward understanding the meaning and importance of food in our lives. 

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