Saturday, March 31, 2007

balancing conservation and eco-justice

Today I went to a conference on the state of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. It was the third of four days of programs. Because of other commitments I gave Thursday's and Friday's scientific reports a miss, even though I would have liked to have gone. Tomorrow are the field trips - but tomorrow is also Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week.

The Laguna is our watershed, part of the larger Russian River watershed. It is a system of creeks, vernal pools and flood plains which at the wettest times of the year contain water the River cannot. So it's both a natural flood control area, and six or eight distinct habitat types with an array of threatened and endangered species.

The main channel of the Laguna is just a few miles west of me, between the densely populated parts of west Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Every time I try to engage things Laguna, I find myself entering a world that shares some of my values, but not all, and I find the challenge of suspending my values burdensome.

Today I was pleased to see how folks involved with habitat restoration and developing educational and recreational uses in the Laguna are making an effort to work with other groups in the community, including agriculture. A dairy farmer in the area spoke of his concerns, and his commitment to work with others on the issues.

And that's probably all there is to say about food and the Laguna.

But I can't help thinking that the questions I had and the tensions I was feeling are foundational to talking about any issue where human need and the integrity of the rest of creation are in tension.

First, I was interested in the fact that no one really talked about core values. There were politicians, farmers, first peoples, scientists, at the table - but no one whose primary vocation is to reflect on values, or develop ethical frameworks.

The question I would have liked to asked if I thought anybody was listening was:
Is diversity a core value here?
Because if so, we must talk about diversity in the managed environment of agriculture, as well as the quasi-wild environment; and we need to talk about diversity in the human community, too, including economic diversity, and the erosion of the working class in our communities.

There is no place in the plan for the Laguna for the poor or working class that I could see - though I do need to read the plan in detail. For now I'm talking about attitudes, and what was not said.

I do know that a city council member from Sebastopol complained that his community was poor (with a large down payment and modest income I could not afford to live there 6 years ago), and then talked of closing a camp ground and trailer park which are adversely affecting water quality. I'm sure they are - but nothing was said about what was to become of the folks who live there because that's all they can afford.

The indigenous peoples of California were represented by the head of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. We heard how they will be part of the education programs at the coming Laguna center, and how they look forward to helping protect and bring back native plants that have been important to them. We know that while the local Indians here were first labeled by anthropologists "hunter-gatherers" they actually did a lot to manage wild lands, plants and animals.

Someone finally had the courage to ask, "How does your work with the Laguna restoration square with your plans to build a casino within the watershed (on what is now pasture on the edge of Rohnert Park)." Her response: I'm sure I wasn't invited here to discuss that, but we are going to build green.

A green casino! there's a laugh! Green for money, maybe. No matter what the materials used to build, the impact of the useless activity of gambling tourists will be a disaster.

The fact is, tribes build casinos to have some help of economic sufficiency - or surplus - a way out of the situation we of European descent created for them through land grabs, broken treaties, and government bureaucracy dependency.

If we really cared about the poor, about those who had been hurt by racism and other injustices, we might all be looking at some creative development strategies. Quite cynically, I think in this case it's a matter of the privileged taking the easy path: We can't stop the casino, and it wouldn't be p.c. to do so, so let's play ball with the Graton Rancheria and maybe they'll contribute some money from casino profits to our conservation projects.

All our efforts at environmental protection and sustainability have to be undertaken in a broader social and economic context, informed by an understanding of present and historical injustice.

I think this would be helped along if we would stop using a stewardship model (the one in operation at the meeting today). One speaker, a community leader and sometime pol, said she saw the Laguna work as a model for how humans and the natural world could get along. If we would see ourselves instead as part of the natural world (the reality), a part of creation, we might just realize we can't undertake conservation projects without an eye toward justice for humans, too. We might take a systemic view of economics and ecology, as two inseparable, interdependent spheres of justice seeking.

Issues of food security and sustainability would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

ancient food security

My book group is reading The Last Week by Crossan and Borg. I thought this was going to take me away from the science, environment and food related reading I'd rather be doing, but it brought me right back.

Reading the background on the temple-centered economic system in Jesus' place and time, I was reminded how much of that depended on agriculture. Consolidation of lands in the hands of a few because of debt is not a new thing. Shifting production from diversified basic agriculture to luxury cash crops is not a new thing. Subsistence then would have been barley or other grains, lentils or other legumes and vegetables, while the luxury crops would have been grapes, figs, olives, dates and the like. (Funny - as land prices go up here in Sonoma County its more and more grapes, and more olives.) Because large land holders tried to get away with as little labor as possible, many peasants, now landless, were forced to seek menial work in the cities, beg, or take up a life of crime, and buy their food.

Food security expressed in the language of the prophets:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.... Micah 4:3b-4

Thursday, March 22, 2007

why vegetables seem expensive

All the talk of subsidies on the UC Berkeley panel last evening reminded me of Marion Nestle's response to why people balk at food prices:

"Or perhaps produce seems expensive in comparison to meat. If this is the case, it is not because produce is artificially expensive; it is because meat is artificially cheap. The government subsidizes its cost by supporting farmers who produce feed for animals."

And, as reported last evening, the reimbursable school lunch is chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk, and canned fruit cocktail. There are no subsidies for serving our children fresh vegetables.

What's in a phrase?

Last evening I watched the web cast of a forum on the Farm Bill from UC Berkeley. It was definitely too Berkeley in places. It's an attitude of the privileged left that is every bit as anti-intellectual as the Bush right. Some of the statements some of the panelists made were self-congratulatory hyperbole, with a little food mythology thrown in.

On the other hand, it was good to see a leader among farm workers included.

One remark made by the last speaker was to the point. He mentioned that no one had brought up the matter of food security.

Food security seems to mean something different to each player or group of players in our food system.

To those who work with the poor in our communities, food security means knowing where your next meal is coming from, or knowing that if there is no food in the house, you have the means of getting some.

To the locavore movement, food security means that as oil is depleted and energy costs spiral upward, communities will be able to meet their basic food needs without imports.

Someone commented on my report of the ratio of acres in chardonnay to acres in vegetables in Sonoma County. Mono-cropping is not just an issue on the prairies, or in the global south. Land prices here where I live have pushed a single crop - grapes - to the point of challenging the food security of this rich county with a benign climate.

To some, food security means that the food they purchase, prepare and eat will not poison them. Whether it's spinach from Salinas or industrial cat food, we've seen enough to know that bigger isn't necessarily better in food safety.

At the national level, food security may mean simply can the United States feed itself? or are we relying too much on imported food? If terrorists disabled our ports how would we fare? We know some cities would be hungry in short order if our transportation systems were disabled. Las Vegas comes to mind. There are, of course, different solutions for these scenarios depending on where one is on the political spectrum.

And to ADM and Monsanto "food security" means something else. Like promoting GMOs among the global poor. It's a classic case of perverting language.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

New link

It's almost time to organize the links. The eclectic and eccentric list to the right is getting out of hand. Today I've added a blog on sustainable eating by another Episcopalian. She lives on the other side of the country, but we both went to seminary in Berkeley. Might this be the connection? Check out Cookin' in the 'Cuse.

Eaters or Consumers?

The Community Voice, the newspaper local to Cotati, Rohnert Park and Penngrove just south of me, has a new writer on staff, and she's also an organic gardener. Last week the Voice published a piece by Betti Faust on her passion for eating locally:
It's one of the best short articles I've seen. But I'm wondering about one little thing in it. Why does she refuse to call us consumers?

I guess it's true that I'd rather be thought of as an eater, or even a glutton, than a consumer. But the fact is we are all caught up in this consumer society of ours. Just when we think we may be untangling ourselves, something else sneaks up behind us, reminding us of the waters in which we swim.

I also seem to recall that consumer is an appropriate term for animals in ecology. If you can't make it (photosynthesis), you need to consume it. Wasn't it producers, consumers, decomposers? Undoubtedly an over simplification, but isn't it good to have the humbling reminder that we are dependent on other living things for our very existence? Maybe we need to bring back this more honest use of the term "consumer".

Monday, March 19, 2007

community garden work

I spent some time today at the community garden site, thinking and talking about possibilities. I am helping with a proposal for a small grant to help with initial capital costs. I wonder how many churches there are like this which have spare land, but not the money for an irrigation system, a tool shed, or a garden cart - the kind of modest expenses that could make a project go, bring a community together, and make a real contribution to the quality of folks' food supply?

The more I think about this the more I want to start a movement. You know - be a neo-appleseed of church-based community gardens. But I know that right now I have to focus on what's here and now.

It's a beautiful spot. The property backs on to creek paths, and there's a clear view of some open space. I hate to say it, but even the invasive weeds that are there now are beautiful at this time of year. There are many birds in the neighborhood. There are also gophers, and a listening cat sometimes. Watch for pictures in a few days.

After I worked at the church going over with others the copy for the grant so far, I went to Imwalle's, where I buy my produce, figuring it would be less busy than on the weekend when I'd stopped there. I've mentioned this fourth generation farm stand before - the one place in my zip code where you can buy fruits and vegetables and a few other things reasonably AND know where they come from. I was nosing around to see if they knew any folks who were looking for gardening space. When I was in before there were many folks buying just a few bedding plants, which they also sell, and I assumed I was observing other space limited home gardeners. I didn't get very far with that inquiry, but we had a nice chat about how their business continues to grow, with more and more people looking for fresh, local food all the time. And I've observed that there are quite a mix of folks there when I go. Some I might guess to be old Santa Rosans, plus some who want to be, or should have always been. There is also the occasional affluent foodie. But there seem to be an increasing number of Latinos, and the other day when I was there what seemed to be a group of Japanese school girls.

When I got home, I spent some of my afternoon looking for statistics on food insecurity in Sonoma County. I googled away, but found most of the available statistics seemed to be presented to induce capitalists to do it here, and really did not cover the stats that would help one get a picture of how people with less live in this high priced area. The Redwood Empire Food Bank has done a series of reports every few years, but mostly by surveying those their work serves, so one can see what percent of people seeking food charity are children, for example, but not what percentage of the children in the county experience empty cupboards at home. I suspect the best stats on children have to do with eligibility for subsidized meals at school. But who has the equivalent information about older persons in our communities? We are going to have to gather the stories, and learn as we go where the inequities in our food system in our neighborhood are.

Okay, just for fun, here are my favorite statistics from this afternoon's web crawl:
In Sonoma County agriculture there are as many acres planted in sangiovese grapes as in all the vegetables put together. And there are about 40X as many acres of chardonnay as of vegetables.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Farm Bill Event in Berkeley

Here's an invitation from the California Coalition on Food and Farming.

If you want more info, their web site is posted to the right.

I doubt I will travel to Berkeley for the event, but I will catch the web cast, post the link on the right when it's available, and comment here.

You are invited to: Food Fight: A Teach-in On the 2007 Farm Bill
DATE AND TIME: March 21, 2007, 7pm-9pm
LOCATION: Wheeler Auditorium, UC Berkeley Tickets: $5/Zellerbach Ticket Office 510.642.9988
On Wednesday March 21st, Michael Pollan will moderate a panel discussion of the 2007 farm bill, now being debated in Congress, with guests Ken Cook, director, Environmental Working Group; Ann Cooper, Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley school system; Dan Imhoff, the author of Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill; Carlos Marentes, Director of Sin Fronteras Organizing Project; and George Naylor, Iowa corn farmer and president of the National Family Farms Coalition.
The California Coalition for Food and Farming and the California Food and Justice Coalition will be on hand with information about how you can get involved in our Campaign for a Just and Sustainable Food and Farm Bill.
In case you live outside the area, the event will be webcast and archived here: .

I didn't know they still did teach-ins!!

Consumer news and notes

While I've said many times that more than consumer choices are involved in changing the food system, we are, of course, still consumers of food in one way or another.

This week I ran across an article from the Chicago Tribune about food and nutrition which contains some helpful and some amusing information.,1,6213107.story

(You may have to register to get to this, but I recommend doing so if you like food news and recipes. You can sign up for a weekly e-mail compilation of the best food stories from the Tribune, the L.A. Times and some other papers. I have done this and not gotten unwanted mail because of it.)

My favorite line from this article is in the review of diets at the end. The Sonoma Diet is basically the South Beach Diet with lots of wine.

While I always learn from articles like this, it bothers me that we seem to have three strands of food concerns that rarely work together.

Articles like the one above on nutrition myths approach food from a nutrients only perspective, without much regard to either the pleasure of eating or the justice dimensions of the food supply.

OR, you can read articles about which ingredients are trendy this year, or features on international reviews of cheese, wine, etc., with no regard to the environmental cost or the contribution (or not) to a healthy diet.

Read the beginning of this article on leeks from the L.A. Times - it's so over-written that it could qualify as vegiporn. Still - it does celebrate a vegetable that's in season.,1,2196125.story?coll=la-headlines-food

OR you can read articles about environmental impact, or injustices in food production and distribution, that give only a nod to nutrition and celebration.

Few articles get down and get honest about the intersection of nourishment, celebration, and eco-justice.

Here's an article that tells some truth: Comparing eggs, those from your local farmer's market are probably the best, and $5 a half dozen for free range eggs flown in from New Zealand is ridiculous.,1,263409.story?coll=la-headlines-food

We really need more food writing that covers the subject from many angles.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

the beginning of sow justice?

Well, having made the mistake that "Sow Justice" was about reforming factory farming, and having ranted in a more recent post about commercial lard, I felt the need to post a link to a New York Times opinion piece on Smithfield's decision to uncage their sows. It's "Pig Out" in the list to the right.

In the process I learned that one can create links to articles that work even when they have been removed from free access or archived. Another day, another learning.

Simply removing the cages is not enough. I didn't stop eating meat for sentimental reasons (even if Babe is one of my favorite movies - did you know James Cromwell is a vegan?), but I want to point out that there is a link between cruel practices toward farm animals and major environmental and public health problems. Think about the volume of manure from factory farms. Imagine the next time a resistant virus jumps from swine to humans. Do you still want that industrially farmed ham sandwich?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Food Police

Last week I was reading an article about trans fats (trans fatty acids) which suggested there may be problems with eliminating all trans fats from our diets. The ones we are going after are synthetic trans fats, produced by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils so that they are solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Trans fats also occur naturally in butter, other fatty dairy products, beef and lamb - and there is some suggestion that these natural trans fats may not have the negative effect on "good" cholesterol that the manufactured ones do.

All of this started me thinking about when I first became aware of the food police. Of course, I had been on and off diets since puberty - that's not what I mean. The food police are people who focus on single foods or nutrients or chemical components and condemn them.

In the late eighties I was underemployed, and earning some extra money by temping for the Reno-Sparks convention and visitors' bureau. One of the events we worked was the California Grocers' Association - so, of course our conversation during slow times at the registration booth turned to food. I remember one of my co-workers saying, "I love custard, but it is so BAD." I tried to imagine being condemned to a world where custard did not exist. I tried to imagine childhood without custard, and particularly my childhood without my mother's cup custards with a little maple syrup in the bottom. I tried to imagine life without the other homey desserts based on custard, like squash pie and bread pudding, or without custards for breakfast like french toast and leftover bread pudding. I made up my mind not to listen to the food police.

But they seem to be always with us, at least in our land of plenty, whether to condemn some foods or food components to oblivion, or to promote the nutrient du jour. And rarely if ever do they consider the big picture, taking into account the impact of what we eat on our planet, not just on our own bodies.

Let's consider the fat dilemma.

I know to eat less saturated fat, but I also know you just can't make that occasional pie crust without it. My favorite pie crust combines vegetable shortening (where synthetic trans fats got their start) and butter.

I suppose I could do what a neighbor does and use vegetable oil, but I really don't like the results. And besides, I can't imagine olive oil in a fruit pie crust, and many of the others are made from genetically modified crops.

So I'll hang on to the butter (using the kind without bovine growth hormone from a local dairy) and figure out what to do for the shortening. Actually when shortening prices got higher and higher I just used hard margarine, but that is now the ultimate no-no.

So I began looking for a shortening made from a plant oil that was solid at room temperature naturally, and there are a couple: coconut oil and palm oil. They, of course, are also the plant oils highest in saturated fats. (Lard is actually lower in saturated fats than butter, but even if I did eat meat where's the sustainably grown pork around here from which I could render it? I'm not going near the factory-farmed stuff, laced with preservatives, which you can buy ready made.) But I thought, well, I'll look for some palm oil shortening - after all I am just using it for the occasional pie crust.

But then I learned that most palm oil comes from plantations which are destroying the habitat of orangutans. This is something the food police who want to get rid of trans fats won't tell you - that many commercial establishments and processed food manufacturers are substituting palm shortening from half way around the world. And in the process our dear relatives are being driven close to extinction. Wouldn't it be a shame if the species that so inspired Charles Darwin were wiped out because Americans couldn't live without cheap solid fat?

The only solution I did come up with was some organic shortening from Whole Foods, Spectrum brand, from plantations in Columbia being established as an alternative crop to coca and costing about as much. Actually, I'm kidding here, as I have no idea of the price of cocaine. Better to say this shortening was priced a little higher than a comparable weight of butter.

That's quite a saga for arriving at a politically correct pie.

It seems that rather than focusing on the thou-shalt-not's, we need to spend more time looking at the big picture and the basic goals of a diet that is good for us and good for life which shares our planet. As far as possible eat fresh, local and seasonal. Make sure things that aren't are conscious choices. Choose sustainably grown when you can. Eat as low on the food chain as possible. And follow some manageable guidelines for eating, like the food pyramid. (Yes, I know - it's probably not p.c. - and it doesn't consider planetary health - but it's a whole lot better than it used to be. Check it out if you haven't.)

And once in a while have a little custard or a piece of pie.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Overheard en route

Traveling certainly takes its toll on blogging time. I've been enjoying freedom from a computer when I'm away from home, but I think I am going to have to consider this period a sabbatical, and get a new notebook or something soon.

Yesterday on a flight west from Chicago, I overheard a guy across the aisle say to his seat mate, "I heard 25% of the corn crop this year is gonna be used for ethanol. If that happens the price of meat is gonna go up."

I wanted to lean over and say, "Honey, that's the least of our problems." But I've realized I may be boring folks with lectures on the food system. Somehow getting the conversation around to these issues is much easier when I am actually sharing food with folks, too, not watching them eat m&m's and pringles and drink filtered water from 12 ounce bottles that cost $2.

If we used to have a hard time calling what they served on airplanes food, what in heaven's name do we call it now?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Farm Bill questions

I'm still musing about the Farm Bill, reflecting on the materials I have gathered. I know the current Farm Bill does little to support the directions in which I think we should be going to promote sustainable food security in this country, and even less to foster food sovereignty in countries which we currently aid. But I'm also wondering if the changes advocated by faith groups are going far enough, particularly from the perspective of the big environmental picture. I need to read more and think more.

You might like to, too. The Episcopal Public Policy Network is posting an item on some aspect of the Farm Bill every week during Lent. You can find them here:

It did please me that the statement by the religious working group on the farm bill recognizes the need for a strategy of transition. No matter how deplorable I think industrial farming is, many farmers have felt trapped in a cycle that has that has them beholden to the current subsidy system (and the multi-nationals it supports). Moving out of that dependency mode can't be done abruptly without causing even more damage to farmers and communities.

The link to the Oxfam America resource on the EPPN site seems defective. Try this if you would like to read their platform for the 2007 Farm Bill.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Urban Farming

Can you tell that I once ran a resource center? I'm trying to information I've gathered on interesting food sites. And today I am thinking about community gardens. An RFP for small grants to promote healthy communities arrived in my e-mail in box this afternoon. Over the next few weeks I'll complete the application for our garden at Thanksgiving Lutheran Church. But this reminded me that I wanted to post links to a couple of videos. One on the South Central Farmers
There are more about them on youtube, but this is a place to begin.
And an older one, a Sierra Club program about community gardens in New York City.
The callousness of politicians of all stripes to these urban farming efforts is deplorable.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Footnote on the Minimalist

A few days ago I mentioned Mark Bittman of the NY Times. I recommended his video clips, especially for beginning cooks or for cooks who are trying to get back to basic but not tedious home cooking. Two friends reminded me that the Santa Rosa Press Democrat carries his column. Some of the stories which you have to pay for at the Times site are free at the PD site!

Also, I tried the no knead long rise bread, baked in a dutch oven, which he has been touting. And I forgot that there had been a correction to the recipe. My dough was too wet, but I still got a very tasty loaf, with good structure, and chewy crust. It's amazing the way gluten develops with time alone. Now I know why my grandmother's method for making oatmeal bread (less yeast, overnight rise) yields a less crumby loaf, even with the high proportion of oats. I'm going to mess around with Bittman's recipe, cutting back on the water and substituting some whole wheat. I may also try dividing it into two smaller covered pots. And I may never have to buy a crusty artisan loaf again - unless I'm in a hurry.

Whose genes are these anyhow?

The March 2 Science Friday had a segment on gene patents. It wasn't about GM crops, but medical research, yet I found some of the ideas really helpful.

The expert witness, as it were, was Robin Feldman of Stanford Law School. One of the things she pointed out was that patent law developed to deal with mechanical inventions, not parts of complex living systems. So the law may appear to work for those still caught up in a reductionist approach to science, and its lucrative applications.

But this model for the law doesn't work whether the patented genes be medical or agricultural in their use. There are too many interactions, too many feedback loops, too many ripples.

Feldman also discussed a case where a patent was challenged for purposes of pure science, for university experiments. The court disallowed the use, asserting that a university is, in effect, a business. Other countries have experimental use exceptions, but that doesn't seem to be the case for patented genes in the U.S.

If the law is this slow to change, no wonder most mindsets are, too. We continue to see components of living things as machines (actually, "intelligent design" is committed to this - but that's another whole subject!) and institutions as businesses. I wonder when we will start thinking the other way, and use metaphors from living systems to refer to social institutions and organizations. Of course, people did: Paul certainly did in his appropriation of the body metaphor to refer to the Christian community. And poets have before and since. But we seem stuck with the mechanistic and the economic as the only common currency for thinking about things as wondrous as a gene.

The Science Friday web site has podcasts available, and lots of good things in their archives.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Genuine Change Requires Everybody

Yesterday I went to the Roots of Change program in San Francisco. This was one of a series being held around the state, and as there wasn't one here a number of us from Sonoma County drove into the City and then wrestled with the Friday afternoon traffic on the way home. Thank goodness it was not summer! Just a beautiful late winter day.

I thought from the preliminary notices, and from the use of the tool Attendr, that it was going to be a networking opportunity. No such luck. We got to network with the people at our table, and with those whose name tags we could read at the short break. Mostly it was a presentation on the Roots of Change project, Our Common Vision: A Bright Future for Healthy Communities, Farms, and Food in California.

The Roots of Change folks are looking for people for their stewardship council and leadership network. The work was begun by mostly rich, mostly male, all white folks from my part of the world, and it shows. They seem to want to make more room at the table, but I'm not sure they know how. Fortunately in the open question time (very awkward in a crowded room of more than 100 - for all the expertise in group work in the room the process really stunk) several people raised questions. What does it mean that white folks have developed the values list and now want others to buy in? There were claims that appreciative processes had been used - but it didn't seem like all the stakeholders in California's food system had been appreciated, just some.

Can Slow Food and People's Grocery really make common cause? In theory it looks like they could, but in practice there may be just too much of a cultural and economic gulf - and too much power and privilege among slow foodies which they are unwilling to question or give up.

Some of the same questions came up that were raised at last year's Sustainable Enterprise conference here. In particular, the conflict between those who are tinkering with the existing patterns of capitalism, and those who think we need some serious economic reform, if not a revolution, surfaced. I respect the will of RoC folks to, as one put it, connect social networks with financial networks - but if they don't both experience some serious change I think the project will be a flop.

If it's still all about shopping (oh no, not again) where's the transformative change?

Whatever happens, the RoC folk have lined up a number of foundations to help in their efforts, and they will be making grants, most likely in the areas of urban-rural partnerships; improving the skills and innovative efforts of workers and leaders; and strengthening community-based food systems. It may pay to be in touch with them.

What else did I learn?

A woman at our table is helping farm workers in the Watsonville area who have a vision of being more than farm workers, who have the vision to be farmers and entrepreneurs themselves.

I picked up some information on the platform of the California Coalition for Food and Farming - what they would like to see in the 2007 Farm Bill, and how they are organizing Californians to support a national bill that will help us achieve our goals of security and sustainability here. I plan to stay in touch with this group. Nothing much will happen here without some enabling legislation at the national level. We provide about half of the nation's fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts, and more than half of the organic produce - but the majority of farm subsidies go to a few commodity crops grown on huge farms in middle America. (And it struck me as pitiful that this group has an annual budget of $40,000 - which the RoC folks could probably chip in and double if they were really interested in change. Change for change, anyone? We should have passed the hat right then and there. Instead the speaker was patronized for advocating her cause.)

Finally a scary prediction that I need to check out. Apparently the demand for ethanol is driving a policy that may encourage outsourcing it. That could have an incredible impact on the food security and food sovereignty of other nations. Imagine not using your land to grow food for your people because you are growing fodder for U.S. trucks and autos!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Food News and the lunatic fringe of cooking

Keeping up with the news about the many aspects of food is a demanding job! I do two things that help somewhat. I have a Yahoo! home page that feeds me the New York Times food and dining stories. I also get an e-mail every Thursday from the Tribune newspapers that pulls together the best cooking and wine stories from the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, etc.

Yesterday's NYTimes stories were an interesting bag. There was an article pondering problems at Whole Foods, getting too big, supporting industrial organic, not local producers - all of it didn't seem like news to me. But it was affirming to realize that I am not the only one who goes to Whole Foods only when I absolutely can't find something anywhere else.

A story on Paula Deen, on the occasion of the publication of her memoirs, was somewhat interesting. I have been wondering about the phenomenon on the food channel of increasingly having lowest common denominator home cooks in the ascendancy. I've never watched Paula Deen. I did watch Rachel Ray once. It seems like there are two extremes in television cooks - either so outlandish, out of season, out of my price range that it has to be pure entertainment, not any stimulus to actually get into the kitchen and do something. Oh for the days when Julia Child inspired my mother to try making coq au vin. Or it is so inane I fall asleep as I remember thinking a similar recipe was fun when I was ten and mixes and prefab food were a new thing. What about cooks who consider instant pudding mix or triscuits to be ingredients? Ugh!

I can't resist quoting Debbie Knox, a traditional cook from Greenville, South Carolina cited in the story. "She isn't a southern cook. She's a convenience cook. And deep-fried collard greens just seems like a publicity stunt to me."

The other story which interested me was one on what I think of as chemistry set cooking. Laura Shapiro - an author's whose chronicling of ordinary Americans' and particularly women's ways with food I recommend - wrote an article asking if there were differences between men and women based on their interest in kitchen chemistry. What she was talking about was the trend in the use of chemical enhancements - methyl cellulose and xanthan gum to name two - to create different textures in foods, like foams and gels. You know - the kind of thing Marcel was always doing on Top Chef. (Oh dear, now I've admitted that I DID watch some episodes of that show...) Female chefs, in Shapiro's estimation, are more interested in traditional processes for making real food, though she also opines that it was women, "home economists of the late 19th century" who started the trend toward being more scientific in the kitchen.

But has anybody asked about those chemicals? It occurs to me that they are the same in Paula Deen's pudding mix or Marcel's precious gels and foams. A kind of chemical lunatic fringe where poor folks' convenience cooking meets overpriced chef de cuisine pretension.

If all this makes you tired, and you'd like to help bring back real food, there is something else at the NY Times which I would recommend. Check out their videos for Mark Bittman, the Minimalist. Yesterday in a short clip he demonstrated how to make a loaf of whole wheat quick bread (and took on the "bread" of sunbeams and wonder in the process). Last week he showed how pudding from scratch was almost as quick as instant from a mix - AND you can pronounce the ingredients. He's got a basic recipe for home made vegetarian burgers, as well as lots of meat and fish, and the famous no knead bread recipe. More on that another day. The best thing about all this is that while you can't get old stories from the NYTimes without paying for them, you can get to the videos, [ then enter the minimalist in the search box] and from there to the recipes that go with them. Go figure. Go cook!