Lettuce Eat Kale Has a New Home

April 14, 2010

Welcome to the new home of Lettuce Eat Kale. As with any move, there are a few annoying administrative details that require action:

  • If you normally subscribe to this blog via email, you’ll need to sign up again. Ditto if you receive LEK posts through your RSS feed. Please take a minute now to do that. Click on those handy dandy little buttons in the sidebar on the right for that very purpose. If you haven’t taken either of these steps in the past, I recommend you pick one of these options now so you don’t miss a post.
  • Not yet following my pithy snippets on Twitter (and why not)? Please click to follow my tweets for bite-sized info on food subjects and stories.

This move was a long-time coming. Change is hard. Lettuce Eat Kale was perfectly at home over at WordPress.com for its first year. But it was time to enjoy the benefits that come with a blog’s own URL and do some sprucing up both in the front and back of the house. For behind-the-scenes assistance, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Stephanie Stiavetti, a self-described freelance food & lifestyle maven. Stephanie also knows loads about all that techno stuff — with acronyms like HTML and SEO — that I barely have a handle on. She was not phased that the actual blog migration, planned in advance for last weekend, was in progress while I was in the E.R. (Post-op infection, highly unrecommended:( This WordPress wiz just went about the business of shifting everything, we texted between treatments, and she even offered to swing by with something appetizing and edible, which the hospital couldn’t provide. Cheers, Steph. Thanks as well to my friend Felicity Crush for her fresh take on my blog banner — along with all manner of kindnesses, especially over the past month. She tells me that astrologically-speaking I’ve chosen an auspicious day to launch a revamped LEK, since there’s a new moon in Aries. Who knew my timing was so good? Some tweaks still to come before we’re comfortably settled in this space. I’ve been warned that techno glitches following a blog shift, like post-operative infections, are a common occurrence. So please let me know if you have any challenges navigating the site. And thanks, in advance, for your patience as we clean the house of any bugs. Finally, I have to ask: What do you think? Chime in with your thoughts on the new digs.


Darra Goldstein’s Global Gastronomical Tour

April 7, 2010

I was having a little pity party last week. I was the host and only guest.

Minor surgery left me laid up. So I spent another Spring Break having a staycation; plans for a road trip got nixed at the 11th hour when it was clear that the recovery was going to take a little longer than expected.

(You know when you’re on a hiking trail and the sign says: Allow four hours for this walk. And you think: “I’ll do it in two hours tops.” That was my mind-set on post-op healing estimates. Turns out, where incisions and anesthesia are concerned, such an approach isn’t recommended. You only set yourself up for disappointment.)

How to get myself out of misery mode? A lecture at the University of California, Berkeley by Gastronomica editor in chief Darra Goldstein was just the ticket I needed to transport me away from my aches and pains and into the world of food and ideas.

Goldstein, in town to attend a couple of Gastronomica-related events timed for the publication’s 10th anniversary, was new to me, as was the journal she founded.

Published quarterly by UC Press, the elegant (and exxy, at $13 a pop) magazine melds food and culture in an eclectic mix of scholarly essays, fiction, poetry, and arresting visuals.

This latest issue includes a provocative piece on the dearth of great women chefs, a forum on food porn, photos of pristine Portuguese pastries, a discussion of chocolate and terroir, a story on Sudenese cuisine, a moving memoir about one man’s mother and her white diet, and an essay on poet Sylvia Plath’s passion for food. And there’s still more.

Gastronomica is a place, says Goldstein, to examine both the deeper and darker sides of food, and use food for thought to provoke readers to seriously contemplate what goes on their plate. But it’s not heavy handed: Goldstein knows how to play and have fun with her food too.

In the past the journal has covered parrot-eating in the Renaissance, the cultural ramifications of the Atkins diet, genetically modified foods in Zambia, the ethics of eating apes, and the eating habits of hefty sumo wrestlers in Japan. Quirky, even eccentric, stuff.

When Goldstein isn’t polishing manuscripts she teaches Russian history at Williams College in Massachusetts. She’s lived in Russia, studied in Helsinki, and traveled all over the globe pursuing her professorial and personal inquiry into food. Oh, and she’s written four cookbooks, won awards, and researched the culinary origins of cutlery, too.

My colleague Dianne Jacobs, who first brought this discussion to my attention, says she wants to BE Darra Goldstein. (You can find her take on the talk here, pink bathrobe and all. Pink? Not what I would have pictured.)

I’d settle with having Darra as a brilliant best friend. Over the course of a couple of hours she covered a lot of ground, geographically and intellectually, regarding food, culture, and identity, in conversation with sociology professor Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.

What I loved most, and helped me see beyond my own front door, was Goldstein’s take on topics where I felt sure I knew what she was going to say and yet, each and every time, she surprised me.

A half-dozen highlights:

  • Eating at the table, something both vital and universal to all of us regardless of color, creed, or religion, would seem a simple way to forge friendly ties among uneasy ethnic communities. Right? Not necessarily so, given Goldstein’s experience editing Culinary Cultures of Europe, which features writers from 45 countries weighing in on how food might encourage tolerance and diversity, coupled with her hands-on involvement in Israel on a meal-making project designed to promote tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians. Who knew that the origins of the falafel — a delicious fast food sold the world over — could be so complex and foment so much distrust? Is this chickpea patty an Arab or Israeli creation? As Goldstein tells it, what one person may see as culinary adoption or assimilation another may view as cultural appropriation.
  • Watching McDonald’s set up shop in developing nations is always bad, yes? Hold that preconceived notion, cautions Goldstein. In Russia before Macca’s showed up restaurant culture was dirty, dismal, virtually non-existent, and the service was surly. The much-maligned American conglomerate created farms to supply their Soviet burger joints. It was good for the economy. Russians flocked to the Golden Arches for decent food, served in a friendly, clean, and efficient fashion. Not long after, national pride saw Russia spawn some fast food shacks of their own.
  • Everyone should jump on the locavore bandwagon, natch? Local food sourcing is a fine flag for Californians to fly, given our super long growing season, but Goldstein lives in the New England Berkshires. If she chose the close-to-home-only route she’d be living on rutabagas and turnips all winter long.
  • Globally, the locavore movement can have a devastating impact on economies dependent on agricultural exports. Take Georgia, a nation the food scholar knows well, since she lived there for several years. When Russia placed a ban on Georgian food imports the Georgian GNP dropped a devastating 75 percent, Goldstein says. Further, she argues, locavorism can be seen as an extreme form of fear-driven reverse NIMBYism, and speaks to Americans’ compulsion for safety and security around what they eat, along with other aspects of life.
  • The famous French saying, tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are, penned by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825, may sound trite today, but there’s truth to it as well. Choosing vegetarianism is often an individual’s first significant assertion of independence, offers Goldstein by way of example. (So my mum was right. But what will my son do come adolescence: Start eating steak?)
  • In terms of cultural connections, language is lost long before the last vestiges of food ways are forgotten in an ethnic group, so closely is eating tied to identity.

There was talk, too, of Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on the French phenomenon Le Fooding, which Gopnik didn’t seem to understand so it was a bit lost on me (I read the article post event). Still, it was a fascinating peek into the French food world’s psyche nonetheless.

Also a nod to Corby Kummer’s story in The Atlantic, The Great Grocery Smackdown, which asks whether — gasp! — Walmart and not Whole Foods can save the small farm and make Americans healthy. Can you guess what conclusions he comes to?

Quite a lot to digest during a scant two hours, over lunch, no less.

I left the event with a full belly and brain, grateful to live in this Gown Town, and thankful to Goldstein for taking me on an international, educational, epicurean tour, just five minutes from home.

Photo of Darra Goldstein by Kevin Kennefick

Seven Reasons Why the Time is Ripe for School Lunch Reform

April 5, 2010

Could school lunch get the universal overhaul it needs — not unlike, say, health care — and some time soon? You betcha, says Janet Poppendieck, author of the recently published Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. (Read a review at Civil Eats.)

At a midday panel held at the California Endowment Conference Center in downtown Oakland, hosted by California Food Policy Advocates, and attended by anti-hunger activists and school food folk, Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College, City University of New York, outlined why there’s no time like the present for reform in the lunch room.

Not surprisingly, given the hour and agenda, lunch was on the menu. School lunch to be exact, courtesy of chefs from Newark Unified School District Nutrition Services. (School food staff, including the all-important drivers, showed up to feed the crowd on their Spring Break. I’m assuming they were paid for their efforts. Still, giving up a day off  to cater an event is impressive.)

And, in case you were wondering, I noshed on a perfectly edible meal of bow-tie pasta with marinara sauce made from scratch, a panini sandwich on sourdough with commodity cheese and school-made pesto, salad bar offerings, and fresh, cut fruit.

Well fed, we moved on to the matter at hand. The accessible academic walked us through her “7 Cs” — bite-size talking points illustrating why school lunch is ripe for reform:

1. Convergence of agendas: Concerns about hunger, nutrition, obesity, health, and the environment are merging in the public arena.

2. Conditions of urgency: Obesity among children is on the rise, lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes are skyrocketing among the young, yet more kids are going hungry. Concerns about carbon emissions, loss of farm land, and global warming are all going up, up, up.

3. Credibility: The recession gives school lunch renegades street cred. Everyone knows someone who has lost a job. Unemployment increases demand for emergency food services. More people know about so-called food deserts, or lack of healthy food in low-income communities.

4. Consciousness: Awareness of hunger, food insecurity, and the impact of lifestyle choices on what we eat and how it’s produced, is growing.

5. Company: Lots of fellow travelers on the better school food beat are coming together to break bread on this issue. Advocates for school food reform, health and medical associations, even seemingly unlikely allies like the Department of Defense, are joining forces at the cafeteria table.

(Poppenieck notes that a group of retired admirals and generals active in Mission Readiness recently wrote a report on the impact of the obesity epidemic from a national security perspective. The irony here: The current school lunch program owes its existence to a push, in large part, from military leaders seeking to beef up school nutrition because many young men were so undernourished during World War II they were unable to serve in the Armed Forces.)

And, of course, the big gun herself FLOTUS, otherwise known as Michelle Obama, is on board.

6. Citizens: Concerned adults are demanding that food improve in the school cafeteria.  We’re talking millions of angry moms and dads.

7. Critics: People like Jamie Oliver, who bopped across The Pond to shake up the school lunch menu in West Virginia, and the anonymous teacher blogging at Fed Up With Lunch, who documents the sorry state of food at one Midwestern school every day, are raising awareness and presenting alternatives to what’s on offer now.

Poppendieck is a proponent, as her book title suggests, for doing away with the current three-tier payment system (free, reduced, and full fare) for school lunch across America. But she’s no starry-eyed idealist.

She knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch; her best guess is that a wholly subsidized program would cost the U.S. government an additional $12 billion a year. Depending on your perspective, that’s an awful lot of cash, or a drop in the bucket compared to what the country spends to go to war.

To paraphrase Jamie O in a recent Food Revolution episode: “It’s all about the money.” Dominic Machi, director of Child Nutrition Services for Newark Unified, would agree. So would many others.

The discussion sparked lots of chatter about the status of school lunch reform in Congress and the nutritional requirements of school food. Some got down to details in snappy fashion. But with all due respect, policy wonks can waffle on about legislative agendas, government data, and nutritional guidelines until your eyes glaze over.

The youngest panel member Beebe Sanders, a junior at Berkeley High School, kept things real and fresh. This girl has wisdom beyond her years and gives me hope that maybe we’ll see a national shift in what kids eat at school in my lifetime, as long as we adults don’t mess it up.

Beebe Sanders hit the bull’s-eye with the suggestion that nutrition education needs to take place in schools — in the classroom — to change childrens’ attitudes about school food, which can carry a stigma, even with the youngest eaters, as bad food for poor people.

Jamie Oliver long ago figured out you need to get the kids to buy in, as have numerous school food fixers before him.

“We need to change the mind-set about how kids feel about school food and why they think it’s uncool to eat it,” says Sanders, who works with Farm Fresh Choice, a local effort to get food to impoverished, hungry people.

“Kids just don’t like the idea of eating at school —  cafeteria food is just not that pleasing, let’s face it — so they go off campus and buy fast food,” she adds. “Schools need to explain to students why eating healthy school food is a good thing.”

Do you agree? Is it the money, the mind-set, a combo of the two, or something else entirely that needs addressing before all our kids get to sit down at school with a tray of food that’s nice, nourishing, and doesn’t have nuggets in its name?

Lettuce Eat Kale Celebrates First Birthday

March 31, 2010

Humor me here, dear readers, as I take a moment to look back on a year of lettuceeatkale.

Can you believe 12 months have passed — give or take a day or so  — since my first post?

LEK has gone from birth to barely sitting up, to crawling and walking. No night terrors along the way. Just one post shy of 100 and over 1,000 comments.

Slowly but steadily I’m building an audience for my musings on school foodkids and cooking, urban homesteads and growing greens.

As well as posts on food in books, films, politics, on the street, and in our homes. Food foraging, food justice, frugal food folk — all here as well. And giveaways too. And a bunch of other stuff.

Fittingly, yesterday I saw my traffic reach it’s highest numbers yet. I suspect my post on Jamie Oliver might have had something to do with that. Timely and all. My pieces on choosy chowhounds and lunchbox suggestions have been popular. So was my defense of Alice Waters against unfair attacks in The Atlantic.

But sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to which blog offerings attract a following. Musings on granola, favorite food films, and how to be a good dinner guest generated a wave of interest. Go figure. (‘Fessing up to food indiscretions, on the other hand, people eat that stuff up.)

I’ve had fun writing about my friends, making new ones in the food and blogging world, and meeting food folk doing worthy, interesting, and downright groovy things.

Since I started this online experiment I’ve been asked to contribute to the food politics blog Civil Eats and the hyper-local site Berkeleyside.

I’ve received kudos for posts on persimmons, growing the next generation of chefs, and professionals who pursue their culinary passions after hours, among other subjects, over at Food News Journal.

The New York Times Bay Area Blog even had nice things to say about me.

Enough horn tooting. I’m sure some of my posts have missed the mark but let’s not talk about those today.

Today, we celebrate. You can start singing now.

Coming this year for Lettuce Eat Kale:

  • My own hosted site. Honestly. Truly. Any day now. Just you wait and see. You’ll be the first to know I promise.
  • A Lettuce Eat Kale Facebook Fan Page (Mostly so my professional friends don’t have to wade through photos of my kid to get to the food stuff.)
  • A six-figure book deal, movie contract, and my own reality TV show. Doubtful. Just making sure you were paying attention.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like to hear (I think) what you have to say about this site. Why you come here, what you’re looking for, what you like, what’s missing, or what you want to see more of.

Not fishing for compliments here (though I’ll happily, and hopefully graciously, accept them) just want to spend some time mulling over how my baby might look a year from here, with a little help from my friends.

Blowing out the candle now…

What’s On Your Plate? Food for Thought for All Ages

March 31, 2010

While we’re on the subject of kids, school, and food this week, here’s a shout out for a film I’m going to have to find room for on my top ten food documentaries list.

What’s On Your Plate? features two New York City middle school students, Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle, taking viewers on a food tour that’s as entertaining as it is educational as they set out on a mission to figure out where their meals come from.

The 76-minute film is part of the current Whole Foods Let’s Retake Our Plates film series and has run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. Click here for screenings and watch a trailer here.

This doco is directed by veteran social justice film-maker Catherine Gund, mom to one of the budding food activists. The dynamic diet-conscious duo spend a year in front of the camera as they explore their place in the food chain, and ask questions about where the food they eat comes from, how it’s grown, and how far it travels from the farm to their fork.

Pitching this flick to a Hollywood agent you’d sum it up as two urban Nancy Drews meets Food, Inc., as The Atlantic did.

The girl guides talk to friends, family, food activists, farmers, food sellers — and each other — as they investigate issues around health, environment, nutrition, food security, and access. The interviews with politicians and public school food officials are classic. The break beat poet is fresh and funky.

It’s packed with so many teachable moments in bite-sized bits that I suspect it will engage many kids in a conversation about eating. And the tone is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. We learn Sadie has genetically-linked high cholesterol controlled by diet, and that Safiyah’s family is vegetarian.

On a recent tour of a middle school in my neck of the woods, I saw a sign for a class called “What’s On Your Plate?” and I wonder if it’s based on the film’s 64-page companion curriculum guide on school food, health and access, and local food. (It’s spring break in Berkeley this week, so I can’t confirm).

I hope so. What’s On Your Plate? is a terrific teaching tool, told in the cadence of 11-year-old kids. Pretty savvy and sophisticated multi-racial city kids with deep connections on the food front. But kids nonetheless. Concepts like high fructose corn syrup get equal billing with a popular edible food-like product known as Funyuns.

The film works best when we meet people the tweens find organically. Like the folks who front the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in their area, the Latino Angel family farmers, who struggle to make a living on the land in upstate New York, and the school dad who had a heart attack that proved a wake-up call for his family’s eating habits.

I was less jazzed to see the typical talking heads of the good food movement. But I’m a somewhat jaded adult and many kids won’t know Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, both of whom, to be fair, bring important ideas to the table.

The film ends, fittingly, with a wrap party where food plays a central role. There’s even cute animation and cool music too.

Less scary than Food, Inc., less sensational than Food Revolution, and less sad than both these edible exposes, What’s On Your Plate? does what children have always done best. It offers hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Who knew you could grow raspberries in a window box in Manhattan?  You can! The kids even help the Angel family organize a CSA to fund the farm. Clearly, the youngest generation of edible entrepreneurs can bring about change in their communities.

A good choice for family movie night, I’m looking forward to watching it with my own 11 year old. I know he’s going to love that school science experiment involving marshmallows, walnuts, and those Funyuns.

Playful, positive, personal, and political without being preachy, What’s On Your Plate? is worth watching. So kudos to the kids and the movie-making mom, who made a wise decision to let the children tell the story.

Photos: Courtesy Aubin Pictures

Jamie Oliver: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?

March 29, 2010

It’s time to talk about the Limey lad’s Appalachian invasion.

Unless you’ve had your head in a school lunch garbage bin for the last week surely you know Brit wonder boy Jamie Oliver has landed on American shores to save our children from the food we feed them.

The kind of food mind, the mopped-topped megastar tells us, that is killing our kids — or at least leading them to an early grave.

In case you missed him on Oprah, Letterman, or Hockenberry, Jamie jetted into Huntington, West Virginia, to film Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for ABC. (You can catch the first two episodes on Hulu.)

The six-part series is a hybrid of two similar programs Oliver fronted in England, Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food, the former resulted in sweeping school lunch reform, though even the mastermind himself admits it’s not yet a resounding success.

Stylistically the shows couldn’t be more different, if reflective of their respective cultures. Think British public television documentary versus American network TV reality pap. Food Revolution is produced by American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest.

Why West Virginia? Two years ago Huntington got gonged as the country’s unhealthiest area, courtesy of CDC data. That means fattest. Let’s not sugar coat things, most obese, and sickest on such measures as heart disease and diabetes. But Huntington is just the first stop in Oliver’s national nutrition mission. He wants nothing short of radical reform on Americans’ plates.

The celebrity chef favors fresh food from scratch or stripping food down to its bare essentials, as he likes to say, (hence his Naked Chef nickname), versus reheated edible food products. (Did you see the footage of the packaged “mashed potato pearls” served at school? Scary stuff.)

His premise is, as you might expect, a simple one. If you teach people to cook a handful of dishes, you’ll get them hooked on healthy eating.

Locals chafe at the TED prize award-winner‘s campaign for change. The cultural disconnects are cringe worthy. The thirtysomething refers to the middle-aged school cafeteria staff as “lunch ladies,”  “darlin'” and “sweetheart”. Jamie is gobsmacked that school kids eat pizza for breakfast. For breakfast! And aren’t given knives and forks to eat their food at lunch. Those American barbarians!

Here’s what I know: The show is entertaining, if scripted, garnered good ratings, and generated big buzz. It’s prime fodder on foodie listservs, such as the Association for the Study of Food and Society‘s, where one academic wag likened canned and processed food to masturbation. (“It’s easy, convenient and gets the job done….but I’m guessing most people, given the opportunity, would prefer the messy, complicated, time-consuming, delightful option of the real thing.”)

But I digress. Stripped of its sensationalism, Food Revolution is simply sad. There’s the pastor flicking through photos of townsfolk he’s buried prematurely due to dietary decisions. There’s the super-sized family fueled only on fat-fryer food. There are school kids who eat chicken nuggets for lunch AND dinner and can’t identify ANY fresh vegetables when Jamie quizzes them in class.

Here’s what I’m not sure of: Once Oliver wings his way home to his own family, will his food revolution make any difference to those he set out to help Stateside? Or will things stay the same here while the self-described hyperactive, dyslexic chef jumps to his next pet project under the umbrella of his multimillion dollar international food emporium?

Here’s what I want to find out: What do American school food advocates such as, oh, I don’t know, Michelle Obama, Alice Waters, and Ann Cooper, for starters, think about a foreigner getting his hands dirty in the American school food debate?

Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network noted in a recent Civil Eats story that absent from Food Revolution to date is any acknowledgment of the homegrown edible educational experiments happening around the country. Responding to such criticism, the program’s producers have encouraged viewers to share video of local food heroes here.

Few can argue with the fact that Jamie is cooking up trouble at a critical time.  Congress is considering legislation to toughen rules that regulate school lunch and increase funding for better food. The First Lady just launched her Let’s Move initiative. A school teacher in middle America is garnering gobs of interest for her blog documenting the horrors of U.S. school lunch.

Jamie Oliver reminds me a bit of another successful British TV export. Bob the Builder anyone? Parents may recall the plucky truck driver’s catchphrase: Can we do it? Yes we can!

So, what say you readers: Can the cheeky British chef take on American agribusiness behemoths whose food products fill school freezers across this great land and tackle Byzantine government bureaucracy that threatens to stymie school lunch reform — not to mention address most Americans’ undying love affair with fast food?

Will Jamie Oliver win the Battle of the Bulge?

And can the school food revolution be televised?

Stay tuned.

A Culinary Confession

March 23, 2010

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called — duh — Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.) Speaking of denial: No pics of meat in this post! The hypocrisy continues.

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on this blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent Civil Eats story, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

How to Host a Dinner Party so Everyone Enjoys It

March 17, 2010

Who knew that a post on a drunken dinner guest would garner so much attention — and elicit both hilarious horror stories and great tips?

Several readers, including regular Ruth Pennebaker, suggested that a host has responsibilities as well to ensure an enjoyable evening for all.

Below, find advice gleaned from regular dinner-party throwers, etiquette experts, and personal experience.

(Note: It’s never a good idea to put your hand in the blender while it’s still running, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in to make the pesto before the guests arrive.  Even if these guests are family, trained nurses, don’t mind staunching the blood flow, or checking to see if stitches are needed. I still have the scar as a memento from this night when I was, indeed, the high-maintenance host.)

Think of these suggestions as hints from Henry, not Heloise. And, as always, feel free to add your own. Here’s to stress-free entertaining.

1. Relax. Easier said than done, my anxious self knows, but no one really wants to spend an evening with a friend who is freaking out about what’s going wrong in the kitchen. Truth be told, it’s the pleasure of your good company — undistracted and attentive — your posse crave, not so much what you’ve got cooking.

2. Give the guest list careful consideration. Do we even need to go there? (See post on this subject for details.) I so appreciate Sean Timberlake’s sound advice on this score. Here’s what the man who writes a food blog called Hedonia, for heaven’s sake, and frequently flings open his doors to diners, has to say about a good guest mix:

For a dinner party of 8, we generally include one couple from our regular rotation (our “anchors,” we call them) who can help set a tone of familiarity; a second couple with whom we’ve socialized but perhaps not entertained frequently; and a final couple who are relative if not total newcomers, but whom we feel would be a good match. And we insist that couples not sit next to each other. This makes for a fun dynamic.

I would add: Think beyond couples; singletons like to eat too. And pay attention to balance. A dinner party consisting of work buddies talking shop all night may not induce yawning, but too many friends prattling on about one aspect of your life can get a wee bit tedious for those who don’t share your passion for stamp collecting. I’m just saying.

3. Plan ahead. Give some thought to menu, guests dietary constraints, shopping, and house tidying a day or two before your dinner. Then you can spend the day of focused on prepping and cooking, thus having a better chance of achieving #1 status. Commonsense, yes, but how many of us have waited until the last minute to figure out what to make, realized an ingredient isn’t on hand at the 11th hour, or recoiled in horror at what’s growing in the loo and run off in search of the toilet brush right before the guests are due to arrive?

4. Keep kitchen time to a minimum. That’s especially true if this room is cut off from the rest of your home and there’s nowhere for guests to hang out and chat with you while you whip up a souffle or whatever you’ve got going on.  Of course, completely ignore this advice if the whole point of your dinner party is to cook together with friends. In such cases, I appreciate having a job (anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an obsessive veggie chopper), if the host is the kind of casual soul who’s comfortable with her guests helping out.

5. Think simple. I’m the type who likes to prep and cook as much as I can before anyone even sets foot in my door. I like order, quiet, and concentration when I’m cooking. It helps me reach that #1 state. If you’re the sort who can whip up an eight-course meal while yakking away with your pals without getting flustered, good for you. And where’s my invite? For the rest of us, a couple of courses, one-pot dishes, even accepting an offer from a guest to bring salad or dessert is perfectly acceptable.

6. Save the experiments for later. As a general guide, a dinner party is usually not the time or place to try a new recipe. It can be hard to aspire to that #1 state when you start flirting with disaster with an unfamiliar dish. Know what I’m saying? Anyone?

7. Pace yourself. Learn from the pesto incident. Give yourself ample time to cook. Leave yourself a window in which to shower, dress, or even take a minute to chill before the doorbell rings. You don’t want to be worn out when your guests arrive.

8. Designate a wing (wo)man. No host need go it alone.  Solicit your partner or a fellow guest (save this task for close friends).  Check in ahead of time so this person knows it’s his/her job to freshen drinks, clear clutter, include an introvert in the banter, or whatever else you think you’ll need help with over the course of the evening.

9. Set the tone. Introduce guests, offer drinks and nibbles, and get the conversation started. Once things start flowing you can attend to last-minute details.  Hosts who fret about the food or the red wine stains on the white carpet don’t put guests at ease. Remember, it’s just stuff.

10. Have fun. No one wants tension over the table. The best thing you can do to ensure everyone has an enjoyable evening is to have fun yourself. Be your gracious, good self and people will have a good time, which, after all, is what throwing a dinner party is all about.

Professionals by Day Pursue Culinary Arts by Night

March 12, 2010

This is the first in a series of occasional posts profiling people with regular day gigs who pursue their culinary passions after hours.

This week, two Bay Area men who hold down demanding day jobs and craft high-end sweet treats in their down time.

Meet Anand Chokkalingam, UC Berkeley professor by day and chocolatier by night.

This cancer epidemiologist pursues his passion for high-end confections in his off hours and puts his scientific sensibilities to sweet use by hand-crafting artisanal chocolates with top-notch ingredients. He says the skills he brings to his day job — scientific rigor, preciseness, attention to detail — also stand him in good stead in his chocolate-making operation.

Anand is a Sanskrit word that refers to a state of pure joy and divine bliss, which is an apt description of Anand Confections.

Parlaying a fondness for making sweets into a chocolate following that started by word-of-mouth, Anand’s small-batch business got a boost last December when Town & Country paired one of his exotic candies with a tawny port.

This writer discovered his inspired offerings at a recent bakesale benefit for Haiti. Anand enjoys playing with flavors from his Indian heritage, which give his concoctions their signature tastes, such as cardamom and saffron, and Darjeeling tea.

He cites legendary local chocolatiers Michael Recchiuti of San Francisco and Alice Medrich of Berkeley as early influences on his own creations.

Anand, 37, concedes it’s tough to find extra time to devote to his nascent chocolate business. A father of two young children, early on his wife set ground rules around how many hours he could spend in the kitchen to protect both his health and family time. These included not working past 1 a.m. more than three times a month during high production times, such as in December’s busy holiday period, when he made some 5,000 pieces, each one cut by hand. They sold out.

And it’s also a family affair: His youngest daughter is a taste tester; his school-age child likes to help in the production process. His wife helps with all aspects of the business. Family and friends lend a hand during peak production times. Sometimes, like prior to Valentine’s Day this year, traditionally a chocolate makers prime retail period, life and work intervened and scaling up production just wasn’t possible.

Anand is mulling over what business model could work well with his current life. He’s toying with the idea of a chocolate club, similar to a wine club, shipping his tasty tidbits to subscribers every month or two. That way he could have some control over the hours he devotes to his chocolate obsession, experiment with new flavors, and continue to enjoy his craft. Currently his confections are available online.

“I love working with my hands and the sense of order I feel creating chocolates,” he says. “My desire to create sweets trumps everything else in the kitchen.”

Read more about Anand in my Berkeley Bites column today over at Berkeleyside.

During a routine business day Michael Winnike works long hours as a paralegal specializing in patent law for top San Francisco firm Fenwick and West.  Off the clock, the 26-year-old churns out goat milk caramels under the Happy Goat label.

These unique goodies with all natural ingredients were a big hit at the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and can be found in upscale confectionery stores around the Bay Area and beyond. Happy Goat caramels are also available online.

“I fell in love with goat milk as a confectionery ingredient. It elevates a simple treat into something more complex and savory,” says Michael, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and describes himself as the founder and chief executive goat of his fledgling business.

Another self-taught sweet chef, he began focusing on his cooking hobby about three years ago after falling for a friend’s sheep milk truffles. He started gearing up on the goat milk caramel front about a year ago.

Michael and his partner Kyle Pickering (he calls himself a strategy dork by day and director of marketing, media, and, ah, braaaaanding by later that day) have outsourced the making of their tangy treats to keep up with demand. But Michael still presides over the batches of bubbling caramel to ensure quality control. By year’s end he says he hopes the caramels will be available in 100 stores nationwide.

Michael admits that being single and unencumbered helps with his second job, as he’s free to keep his own schedule with little time for extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon for him to quit his “day job” around 10 p.m. and then work in the kitchen until 2 a.m. on Happy Goat business.

He doesn’t hide his budding after-hours business from his employer as he’s careful to make sure one doesn’t interfere with the other.  And he reaps the rewards of making tempting morsels at his workplace. “Sure, it can be tiring, but I get a lot of pleasure out of creating these delicious indulgences — and my coworkers love them.”

[Photo Anand Chokkalingam: Radha Seshagiri. Photo Anand Confections: Guy Poole. Photo Goat Milk Caramels: Courtesy of Happy Goat.]

Dinner Guests: What Makes a Good One?

March 10, 2010

Regular readers of this space may recall that my New Year’s resolution was to host more dinner parties. Heck, host a dinner party. Check.

We’re talking a casual soiree with an interesting mix of adults around a table dining, wining, conversing, laughing, and generally having a convivial time of it.

That was the idea. Let’s just say that it didn’t prove to be the reality for my first attempt at dinner party fun in 2010 and leave it at that, okay?

How boring. Let’s not.  Where to begin? It started with a health scare, cold feet, a dropped dessert, a man shortage, and angst on my end when I realized I’d be feeding three really good cooks, one of whom showed up almost an hour late (to be fair she did call), thus seriously messing with the meal timing.

So by the time all my guests arrived I was just grateful that this group of women made it to my house.  And I had a hunch they’d all like each other and hoped they’d overlook any deficiencies on the food front and we’d all just have a good time.

My mistake. The latecomer asked if she could bring a friend. Feeling generous and in the spirit of growing community I said yes.

Here’s the kicker, and there’s no way to sugar coat it: The ring-in showed up absolutely hammered. Who does that?

We’re not talking tipsy and chatty, we’re talking unable to see straight, about to pass out in the plate, please-don’t-throw-up-at-my-dinner-table kind of plastered.

It was uncomfortable and awkward, with my confused friends wondering why I would invite such an inebriated soul to my home for dinner.

I’d like to say I went all Miss Manners and ignored the situation. That would be a lie. I had a brief, terse exchange in the kitchen with my friend who’d brought the offending guest. I said something compassionate and understanding like: “What the %##& were you thinking?”

After devouring almost all the hand-made toffees (but who’s counting?), burping several times at the table (truthfully, yes), and announcing she didn’t feel well (oh, no!), my friend had the good sense to skedaddle out the door with her woozy, boozy buddy in tow. (To be fair, she apologized repeatedly the next day for her friend’s inappropriate behavior.)

Their departure was followed by a sigh of relief, much giggling, and, natch, a discussion about what had just transpired.

Here’s what we learned from the experience: More than food, music, and mood lighting the most important ingredient to a successful dinner party is the guest list.

I’m not the only one in my circle who has had misadventures at the table. At a recent dinner hosted by a friend we’d both tried to redirect conversation when a couple who were a tad boorish talked about themselves a little too much.

While such mishaps make for good blog fodder, we’d all like to avoid such scenarios again.

So my friend and I started mulling over what makes a good guest — aside from arriving without too much alcohol on board.

Here’s our list:

1. RSVP. Do let your host know in plenty of time that you’re delighted to attend her dinner party. Not responding makes meal planning tricky and can hurt feelings.

2. Arrive on time. That means not too early and not too late. As a guide, if you’re asked to come at 7, then, ah, 7 is good. Later than 7:15 and you should call. Earlier than 6:50 expect to find your host scurrying around in her skivvies doing final prep and be prepared to fix your own drink and amuse yourself for a few minutes.

3. Bring a hostess gift. And choose something that doesn’t make work for the hostess. Wine, chocolates, homemade preserves, are all lovely. Flowers are also fine but offer to arrange them, as my friend did, while your host is busy with the business of looking after her guests. Or drop them off the next day as a thank you gift.

4. Offer to help. Dinner parties = lots of dishes so be prepared to pitch in. But do take no for an answer from folk who like to control clean up in their own kitchen.

5. Explain dietary restrictions in advance. Even if your host forgets to ask she’d much prefer to know ahead of time if you’re a lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegan, who shuns root vegetables and has a nut allergy. Honestly. She really, really, really wants to know this stuff before she plans her menu.

6. Take a polite bite. Unless you’re going to go into anaphylactic shock, be at odds with your god, or suffer an immediate, unpleasant reaction to what’s put in front of you, then your job is to try what the host may have spent hours making for the night. Or at least cut it up and move things around the plate. You don’t have to eat it all but you may actually find that those veggies you thought were disgusting — say, mushrooms or brussels sprouts — can taste divine when cooked well.

7. Come with an appetite. If you have an event in advance or after that precludes your partaking in the meal, take a raincheck for a time when you can eat what your host has gone to time and effort to prepare.

8. Avoid critiquing the chow. Trust me on this one: The cook will know only too well if the potstickers are a tad burned, the rice a little on the crunchy side, the soup overspiced…you get the idea…find something complimentary to say like “I love butternut squash,” and move on.

9. Show your best self. Plan on having fun. Hold up your end of the dinner-time banter, avoid too much work talk, don’t dominate the discussion, and include everyone around the table, especially shy types who may need some encouragement to join in.

10. Give thanks. A gracious thank you at the end of the night is the least a guest can do. A follow-up phone call, note, or email is extra nice, especially if you mention something specific about the evening that you found enjoyable.

Now it’s your turn: Do you agree with this list? What would you add or subtract? Bonus points for sharing stories, good, bad, or downright ugly. Oh, and if you have words of wisdom about what makes for a good dinner party guest mix, bring ’em on.