Archive for August, 2009

Book Giveaway: Farm City by Novella Carpenter

August 31, 2009

In conjunction with the Eat Real Festival in Oakland last weekend, urban farm gal Novella Carpenter hosted an all day soiree at Ghost Town/Goat Town Farm, the one depicted in her very funny food memoir released earlier this summer. I swung by the event, which drew a steady crowd, to see what’s growing in the author’s garden (lots), sample some of Grandma’s peach cobbler, and ask Novella to sign a copy of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. (For the uninitiated — and locavores — she’ll be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley this Sunday.)

So, attention all city farmers and wannabe urban homesteaders: There’s a free, autographed Farm City to the person who writes the most entertaining comment about their endeavors growing or raising their own food in the asphalt jungle (or their fantasies about doing the same).

Do you have a tale to tell about a veggie patch planted in the ‘hood that produced nary a thing to eat? Have you devised innovative strategies to keep metro-dwelling predators at bay? Are you contemplating or already raising bees, chickens, goats — or even a cow — in city limits?

Bring it on. Tell us a witty, eye-opening, or inspiring snippet about city farming and I’ll pick a winner by 10 P.M. PST on Monday, September 7, which just happens to be Labor Day. Happy Harvesting.

Update: Thanks to all for creative comments about the joys and challenges of city farming.  It was hard to single out just one entry but the autographed copy of Farm City goes to….Velma for her planted chicken story (scroll below for details). The author herself judged the comp and Novella noted that she chose Velma because she was moved by the childhood innocence of her tale.

Velma: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you. My email is: sarahhenry0509@gmail.com.

Thanks again for playing. And stay tuned for a school food book giveaway later this month.

A Shout Out for the Eat Real Food Festival

August 29, 2009

chef.mimi.eat.real.festival

A roasty toasty day by the bay and foodie folk swarmed Jack London Square in Oakland to sample cheap-yet-chic street eats dished out of food trucks and pedal carts at the Eat Real Festival, an outdoor event where small bites sell for five bucks or less. Thanks, in part, to Twitter, grabbing good food on the go that won’t blow the budget is all the rage in the streets of San Francisco and beyond.

Last week, SF held its own street eats event. This weekend, it’s Oaktown’s turn, led by Anya Fernald, who headed up last year’s Slow Food Nation soiree. In the mix: Farmers, foragers, canners, cooks, chefs, and civilians, who stood in line to sample some of the best of the Bay Area’s mobile food. The mood on the street wasn’t preachy or political but more like a party, with wee ones running through a water fountain, grown ups lounging on the lawn listening to hot licks or, later, watching foodie flicks. And lots of adults sipping local brews out of jam jars as an antidote to the blazing sun.

What’s not to like?

It was a tad too hot for moi to queue for tacos, pizza, or even the Sexy Soup Cart Lady. On a friend’s recommendation, I made a beeline for the sweet treats at Aisu Pop, where handcrafted popsicles in flavors such as kaffir limeade & avocado and honeydew wasabi were moving like hot cakes. Too late: Sold out! Not to worry, I moseyed down to the next ice- cream peddler, where I tasted the subtle charms of sweet corn ice cream before settling on a scoop of Mexican chocolate from the good people at Pepito. Delish. Also refreshing, a Latina pushcart vendor’s watermelon spears doused with lemon juice, salt, and a few shakes of chili for a little kick along with the cool.

pepito.icecream.eat.real.vendors

Cardum Harmon and Cid Williams made a picnic in the shade as they noshed on sustainable barbecue and burgers. Their take: Why not bring the street eats back every week?

cardum&cid.eat.real.festival

Live locally? Swing by Sunday from 10-5. Go hungry. Bring cash. Eat real.

Photos: Sarah Henry

What’s Cooking with Julie & Julia

August 22, 2009

Meryl Streep

There’s been loads of ink spilt on the foodie flick Julie & Julia. Indeed, I may well be the last food writer on the planet to weigh in on the film. If you’ve been out to lunch, this is the movie where Meryl joyously channels Julia Child and Amy Adams has the unenviable task of attempting to match her on screen as Julie Powell, whose claim to fame is her highly successful blog-turned-book Julie & Julia, which chronicles her kitchen adventures as she ploughs through the recipes in Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Lots of snarky stuff bandied about regarding Ms. Powell on the web and elsewhere. I don’t quite get all the meanness and I’m not alone.  Dianne Jacobs neatly sums up all the whining on her blog Will Write for Food. It seems to center on the fact that Julie is neither a chef nor a writer before she embarks on her online project (some may sniff she isn’t either of these things now). Could, um, jealousy be at work here? Just a guess. Regardless, there’s no denying her admittedly gimmicky conceit — and its popularity — helped to bring Julia Child’s story to the screen. Not a bad thing, folks.

Could the talented Ms. Streep have carried a bio-epic on the entertaining Julia Child on her own? You betcha. Would it have put bottoms — and young ones at that — on movie theater seats? Debatable. Regardless, while I agree that it would be great if seriously good food films like Food, Inc. and Food Stamped got the kind of attention this movie has, at the end of the day, it’s a Nora Ephron vehicle people. Relax and enjoy a delicious romp.

Here’s what I’ve been chewing over since leaving the theater: Both these women found themselves through food, pursued their passion for cooking with great gusto, and married this obsession with a burning desire to write. Both showed courage and determination in reaching their goals despite setbacks.  Both did time in boring government gigs and were supported by kind and loving hubbies. Neither of them had children. I wonder if either would have achieved the recognition they earned if they’d had kids in the kitchen.

What do you think? Oh, and there’s one more takeaway message from this movie: Butter is a glorious thing.

White House Farmers’ Market: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

August 21, 2009

Think of the potential for produce everywhere: Barack Obama choosing his favorite potatoes, Michelle bagging tender salad greens, Malia and Sasha squeezing peaches and pluots.

Average Janes and Joes from DC and beyond motivated to buy fresh fruits & veggies for a chance to rub shoulders with the President and his family gathering ingredients for dinner.

The Prez’s announcement yesterday about plans for a White House Farmers’ Market  — check out the informative and frequently fun Obama Foodorama for details — is a bit exciting for anyone passionate about the prospect of folks eating more greens.

What say you?

Image courtesy of Roger Doiron at EattheView

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

August 20, 2009

Uber-funny urban farmer Novella Carpenter has gone from indie garage band status to full-fledged rock star of the urban homestead movement in a matter of months. In part, perhaps, because of zingers likes this one, about the lengths she and her partner go to — including nightly dumpster diving sporting head lamps — to keep two hungry and hefty pigs fed in the city. “If we had had time to think about it,” she says, “we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bitches.”

novella-carpenterPhoto: Sarah Henry

Carpenter, who grows greens and raises livestock on a dead-end street in the ghetto, is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.  For the past decade, the 38-year-old has cultivated land in the city, the last six years on GhostTown Farm, the sunny, squat lot in Oakland, California next to her rundown, coral-colored flat — complete with a back porch covered in goat poop  — where she lives with mechanic boyfriend Bill and a menagerie of her so-called edible pets, including rabbits, chickens, and, on occasion, a turkey or two.

The ‘hood is also dotted with long-shuttered businesses, drug dealers, prostitutes, multiethnic neighbors, and what Carpenter affectionately refers to as “fellow freaks.” She feels right at home there. “The neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy,” she notes in her memoir. “Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk…And I started squat gardening on land I didn’t own.”

A child of back-to-the landers, Carpenter has received stellar reviews, most notably in the New York Times, for chronicling her exploits in the urban jungle. An excerpt from the book — some 15 pages on raising pigs and learning the craft of charcuterie — fills the August food issue of San Francisco magazine. She’s been featured everywhere from mainstream outlets like Time, foodie circles, like Culinate, and eco-green arenas like Grist. Not bad for a first-time author.

A former student of Michael Pollan’s, she regaled an audience at a recent reading in Berkeley with tales of foraging for food for her ravenous pigs (everything from rotting fish heads, frosted cakes, and organic peaches for these well-tended swine), before the hogs eventually wound up as cured meat. “You work your ass off trying to feed your pig really well,” she tells a crowd who eats up her colorful quips. “And then you find yourself thinking: This is going to be good. It’s a little sexy.”

But hers is not some sort of groovy-urban-gal-goes-green shtick. She’s the real deal. On a recent Friday at 7 am she greets me at the door and then diligently goes back to milking her goats.  Once the task is done, she heads outside for a farm tour. She checks in with and feeds her animals and waters her plants by hand. Clearly, tending creatures and crops nourishes her in more ways than one. “I realized that not only did I make the garden, it made me,” she writes in her book. “I ate out of this place every day. I had become this garden–its air, water, soil. If I abandoned the lot, I would abandon myself.”

It’s also clear it takes discipline to be a city farmer. She goes to great lengths to source supplies for her animals (like trips to the local racetrack to pick up alfalfa for her goats). And she takes personal responsibility for killing the animals she eats. She’s surprised that some vegans buy her book — and pleased that people on either side of the omnivore aisle respect her efforts to eat meat with integrity. (Still, I suspect many vegetarians would wince at her descriptions of slaughtering animals, however humanely and humbly she goes about it.)

For those of us who have a hard time growing veggies in the backyard, a big part of her appeal may simply lie in knowing that a modern day urban homesteader like Carpenter is out there doing her thing, day in and day out. She’s a fixture in the ‘hood, along with hookers, dealers, homeless dudes, and kids who stop by to visit the animals. Her Cuban neighbors take care of the farm when she’s away; the Yemeni liquor store owner down the block offers advice on goat husbandry pulled from his earlier life as a goat herder. Talk about community.

I admire Novella’s moxie, and I suspect others do too. I’m not much of a meat eater, but the fact that she buys these farm animals and learns as she goes, in true D.I.Y. fashion, how to raise them and get them on the table for dinner is pretty impressive. Plus, just like me, she really doesn’t like rats, an unfortunate fact of life for an urban farmer.

Novella estimates that about half of her food comes from her farm and she sells some of her animals to fancy pants restaurants that want well-fed, farm fresh meat on the menu. But the girl isn’t raking it in, with animal expenses, vet visits, and seed and feed costs this is a labor of love not a moneymaking venture. The advance for her book, for instance, promptly paid for a milking goat.

So when she’s not tending her farm, Novella divides her time between writing, she’s currently at work on a how-to book for folks intrigued about urban farming, and running a biofuel station, the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, where she’s one of the owner/worker biodiesel divas. It may well be the only fueling station around that holds classes on raising chickens and bees in close quarters.

Her advice to those interested in joining the urban farming bandwagon? Start small, go slow, and grow what you like to eat. Radishes are easy, she points out, but if you don’t love ‘em, why grow ‘em? “The easiest urban farm animal is the bee, since they do most of the work and require little maintenance,” she says. “After that, try chickens; the eggs are amazing and they’re funny to watch.”

Curious to learn more? If you live in the Bay Area, check out Novella on the farm in person on Saturday, August 29, during Oakland’s Eat Real Festival next weekend. She’ll give farm tours, sign books, teach workshops on slaughtering chickens and raising goats, and harvest food to share. Oh, and she has a trio of dwarf goats for sale. Anyone game?

Something Fishy on Your Phone

August 19, 2009

Just back from a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where I was enchanted by The Secret Lives of Seahorses exhibit. Leafy sea dragons, pipehorses, pipefishes, potbelly seahorses — fascinating creatures one and all. Plus it’s the male seahorse who gets pregnant. How about that little factoid to bring a smile to your face?

seafoodwatch-iPhone-app

While there we learned the aquarium has updated its Seafood Watch list. This guide recommends which fish are best to buy, which make good alternatives, and which to avoid because of overfishing or unsustainable practices. So albacore tuna (troll/pole caught) gets the green light, yellowfin (long-line caught) a cautionary yellow, and bluefin tuna a red no. It’s a good little resource when shopping for fish at the market or eating out at a restaurant but, since it’s a paper guide, it often gets left at home.  Mine lives on the fridge, which is of no help when facing fish dinner choices.

That problem has been solved for the pescetarians and omnivores among us. The guide is now available as a free iPhone or iPod touch app. That was welcome news to my techno-savvy son, 11, who is delighted that his mama has emerged from the Dark Ages and now totes a groovy new 3G iPhone. (I’m still figuring out how to use all its features.) Technology trumped politics: My strident vegetarian son begged me to let him add this new application to our growing list.

The mobile guide, also available online and downloadable for other devices, contains a national list, six regional versions, and a sushi name finder. It offers more details than the pocket guide but has a few flaws, as noted in this PC World Review. (I won’t pretend to be an expert, apparently sometimes pertinent info spills off the screen.)

That said, it’s probably better for the planet to leave home with a phone that has the skinny on what salmon is sustainable than not having this information at all on your way to the store.

Speaking of which, what other cooking-related info can be stored on these so-called smartphones (Blackberry users that means you too)? I gather generating grocery lists and finding recipes is possible, though I’ve yet to do either.  Are there any particular foodie apps or phone functions that really help make getting a meal on the table easier that you’d care to share with clueless me?

Find Food Books at Friendly Independent Book Stores

August 9, 2009

Photo: Courtesy of Omnivore Books on Food

Call me old fashioned: I just don’t see myself curling up any time soon with a Kindle. After two beloved bookstores in my neighborhood — Berkeley, a legendary university town no less —  closed up shop this year (Cody’s & Black Oak) I swore off Amazon forever.

So, today, in time perhaps for your vacation reading, a shout out for the independent book store.

Recently, I ‘ve had the pleasure of puttering around Omnivore Books on Food in my former neighborhood in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. The one-time butcher shop is chock full of tempting cookbooks, new, old, rare, and out-of-print. Today, the store hosts Novella Carpenter, discussing Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. I’ve packed this much-lauded memoir to read on a pending trip — when I’m not floating down the Russian River. (So no posts, folks, while I take some time with my son and some friends to explore the real world.)

A couple of weeks ago I ventured inside another SF gem, The Green Arcade, which specializes in eco-conscious works, and includes books on urban homesteading, manifestos on eating well, all manner of writings about the slow food movement, and cookbooks on niche subjects such as gluten-free foods.

Back in my hometown, Mrs. Dalloway’s stocks a nicely curated collection of food and gardening tomes, and hosts events like the recent reading by chef Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrick McFarlin, who talked about what people eat when they eat alone. And Book Passage, both in Corte Madera and the San Francisco Ferry Building, frequently hosts “cooks with books” events. Listening to Molly Wizenberg read from A Homemade Life at one such evening inspired me to finally launch Lettuce Eat Kale a few short months ago.

I do realize that in these economically uncertain times buying new books — hardbacks no less — is a luxury many can’t afford. It’s one of my few, if infrequent, indulgences. I’ve also had great success with bargain finds at the three Pegasus & Pendragon locations in the East Bay. For some reason I get terrific Aussie cookbooks there by the likes of Donna Hay and Bill Granger for a fraction of the price I’d pay in Australia. It’s also a good spot for used paperback food memoirs. Okay, despite the recent closures we’re spoiled rotten for bookstores in the Bay Area. How about your hometown?

I do my bit to share the wealth. I’m hosting a monthly food book giveaway on this very blog. I no longer believe in hanging on to works of fiction I’ve loved just so they can gather dust in my bookshelves. So I pass them on to friends who I think will enjoy them as much as I have. My son and his buddies have started doing something similar, which makes me very happy.

So, folks, is the dead-tree read well on the road to obsolescence or do you think it will survive? is there still a place for shops peddling inked paper in the modern world? Hope springs eternal here: Just this week the news that indie Books Inc. will open not far from the space formerly occupied by Cody’s. Happy summer reading.

Organic Food Fight

August 6, 2009

Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.

fruit-vegetable-mosaicPhoto by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.

Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”

Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?

Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late.  Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.

He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position.  The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”

Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.

What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices.  (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)

Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )

Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.

(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past.  A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)

Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.

Book Giveaway: Hungry Monkey

August 4, 2009

Picky eater. I’m one. I’m raising one. Really dislike the term. Can’t we come up with a better way to describe ourselves? I sometimes say “particular” or “quirky” as an alternative to the cliche “picky.” Any ideas, dear readers?

hungry-monkeyThere’s a free, autographed copy of Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater by Matthew Amster-Burton to the person who, in my humble opinion, comes up with the best alternative term for those who are, um, a tad fussy about what they’ll put on their fork.  I can report that the book’s simple little recipe for cumin-ginger carrot coins is a big hit in my home (and prior to this dish my boy would only eat carrots RAW, like all his veggies.) I know, I should have such problems. Plus, the author is funny, about food, kids, and other stuff — including, well, picky eating. Find reviews on his virtual book tour.

Send me your picky eater replacement phrase and I’ll pick a winner by 10 P.M. PST on Sunday August 9.

There’s a post on the picky eater phenomenon pending — with insights you might find surprising. In the interim, read what my friend Paula Spencer says on the subject this week for Woman’s Day.

Update: Wow! Thanks to all for chiming in — and for some terrific alternatives to the term “picky eater.” I may borrow some of these in my post on the subject. It was tough to choose just one but the autographed copy of Hungry Monkey goes to….Nancy for her choosy chow-hound suggestion. It’s witty, fun, and puts a positive spin on a challenging trait.  Some may see it as an oxymoron, but those with choosy chow-hounds know that they can eat a lot — just not a lot of variety, or they’re particular about how the food is cooked, cut, or plated.

Nancy: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you. I’m heading out of town today, so if I don’t hear from you soonish I’ll post it when I return next week. My email is: sarahhenry0509@gmail.com.

Thanks again for playing. And stay tuned for another cool food book giveaway in September.


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