Savory Waffle with Vegetable Tempura and Spiced Plum Sauce

Peace Meal Supper Club #2: Ghost Festival

This Supper Club theme was announced 10 days before my father passed away. It was a strange stroke of coincidence. The themes inherent in the Ghost Festival have been prominent in the relationship between us for the past 15 years, and as he left this life my sense of loss was mixed with a rich awareness of gratitude.

Contributions to my life include a deeply rooted love for food—not just eating it, but planting it and nurturing it into an abundant crop. He loved to cook also, and was always keen to experimentation. He shared his favorite dishes with great generosity. Other things he gave me were by demonstration: a sharp mechanical mind, facility in a wide range of crafts, a creative eye for solutions, and most of all, an attitude that a person can do what they determine to do, whether it be play fiddle or rebuild an old tractor. His ingenuity far exceeded his unadorned high school education.

He had a remarkable ability to forgive anything and reconcile with anyone—and that is a truly inspiring contribution to my life. Our road to reconciliation was winding and rocky, and navigating it required a few death-defying leaps from one cliff to the next. However, we completed the course and found ourselves becoming good friends late in his life. With each step, we confronted the problems directly and forgave liberally. The release of wrongs was not only between him and me; it helped him resolve wrongs committed against him by his own ancestors. He became a happier person as a result of all this hard work.

As we reconciled, and I could see with clarity, I began to appreciate the sacrifices he made for his family. He wanted the best for us and, given the limitations in which he lived, he achieved that goal. He was kind to our friends, welcoming to all, and would do anything he could for a person once he trusted them.

Clarity of conscience was an unspeakable gift in his final day. I was able to tell him, without qualification, that he was a good man, and that it was okay for him to go. Though I feel his absence, there is no sadness or regret. Our relationship, in spite of the odds, was a good one.

One last gift I’ll mention: he had a truly bizarre sense of humor, dressed up in a cloak of morbidity. As his health was failing, he knew he’d never be able to visit me here in New York. He enjoyed my cooking, however, and would have loved to be here at this meal. Perhaps he found yet another creative solution to a problem. Welcome to supper, Dad.

The menu, fore and aft, follows below.

 

Peace Meal Supper Club #2: Ghost Festival

Inspired by August celebrations in Japan and China, in which people honor the spirits of their ancestors. This menu reaches beyond the limitations of geography and direct descent.

Course 1:

Futomaki rolls ~ Pickled vegetables

With this traditional offering, we signify our ancestors’ contributions to our present well-being.

Course 2:

Scallion waffle ~ Vegetable tempura ~ Spiced plum sauce

Life is intrinsically savory and sweet. In reconciling both, we achieve sustaining harmony.

Course 3:

Panang tempeh roulade ~ Shiitakes braised with lemongrass ~ Red curry

Our abundance lies bundled in our unselfish service to others.

Course 4:

Seared plums ~ Five spice ice cream ~ Limoncello reduction

Delight is fostered by a clear conscience.

 

(The following appears on the reverse side of the menu.)

The Ghost Festival in China and the Bon Festival in Japan have their roots in the apocryphal Ullambana Sutra. In this text, Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana perceives his mother in torment in hell, so he asks the Buddha how he might release her. He is instructed to make food offerings to a group of monks as they return from a forest retreat. He does so, and sees that his mother is released. He cannot keep himself from dancing with great joy.

Both festivals contain echoes of the Confucian virtue of filial piety, which focuses on the honoring of parents, reconciliation, generosity, and continuance of the family’s good name. The spirit of these practices reaches beyond ideology and national celebration.

~ 1 ~

Our ancestors’ contributions to our lives are fundamental to our identity. We then act in agreement with or rejection of this identity. When we extend our concept of ancestors to include past social progressives, animal advocates, and environmental activists, we sense the depth of our debt to all who have worked for the well-being of all living things. We also gain a greater understanding of our work’s depth and vitality. Keeping our ancestors close in memory allows us to benefit from their inertia. They are the momentous breeze at our threshold.

~ 2 ~

Reconciliation is crucial for achieving sustained harmony. Forgiveness is a key component of reconciling, as it signifies letting go. It frees up all the backward-looking energy and makes it available for moving forward. All whom we’ve wronged or been wronged by—ancestors, forerunners, animals, future generations—benefit from reconciliation with us, for they also have their energy focused on moving forward.

In a similar vein, activists and artists live in a state of dissatisfaction; it drives our desire for change. But we must be able to transcend our struggle in order to maintain balance. We must acknowledge the progress that we are making—even if we are far from our desired goal. Quite possibly, those who preceded us were also unhappy with the progress they made, yet we celebrate their achievements and hope to be as effective.

~ 3 ~

Our abundance lies bundled in our unselfish service to others. Without doubt, we have received, and likewise we should give. Every act of kindness, every step towards liberation, brings us the increasing benefits of full liberation. In the story of Maudgalyayana above, he gave to others so that his mother could be free from suffering. With a generous heart he extended the circle of good will. As a result, the greater reward was his.

~ 4 ~

Delight is fostered by a clear conscience: this is the moral of the story of Maudgalyayana. Once he performed service to others in honor of his mother, he began to see all the sacrifices she had made for him. His conscience—seemingly clouded with ingratitude–was cleared by his action. Learning the merits of a giving heart, he danced joyfully.

Demonstrating goodness to others is a form of honor towards those who have gone before, for it perpetuates their goodness to us. Such continuity of effort enables us to making deeper and longer-lasting changes in the world around us.

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Peace Meal Supper Club #1: Liberation

I was very proud to send out an announcement last week to close friends, activist associates, and new acquaintances. It regarded the debut of Peace Meal Supper Club, an intimate evening of fine food and progressive discussion, focused on strengthening ourselves as agents for positive change. It’s a private event, held in the home I share with my partner, The Stapler.  She serves as hostess while I keep the pans hopping on the stove.

The event is simple in concept, like salon-meets-dinner-party. I design a menu centered upon a theme. The diners, while enjoying the meal, freely explore the theme through their dinner conversation.

Peace Meal Supper Club is the physical manifestation of an idea—that food and harmony and social justice and animal rights and environmental responsibility and all other good things can coexist around a single dinner table. It’s the idea that we can all be nourished sufficiently and satisfactorily at the same time, with no harm being done to anyone living. It’s a big idea, so it’s going to take a lot of good food. And a lot of progressive discussion.

These two focal points will manifest in their most natural ways.

The food will be exploratory, fusion-inspired, organic, always vegan. Through the dinner’s four courses, I will highlight ethnic commonalities in the use of techniques and spices, hopefully illustrating our global communion.

The discussion, provided by the diners with only subtle suggestion from me via the menu, will be, like all good discussions, free form, widely ranging, self-governing and civil. But the theme will be clearly on the table, with each course reminding the diners that there is a purpose to our being here.

That leaves only the outcome–which will also be free form and widely ranging. Everyone will respond in their own way, but they will be better informed and perhaps more focused after having come to Supper Club.

The theme for the first one is Liberation—a fitting theme for the month of July, in which so many nations celebrate their liberation from other powers. Sometimes we can understand an idea better through contrast. While it would be easy to say USA vs. China, for example, that is indeed too simplistic. It is much more informative to look at those living amidst liberty yet having their own denied. For example, men incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp; Leonard Peltier—and indeed all indigenous Americans; Mexican nationals working in American agricultural fields; and animals held against their will, used for human food.

While preparing for the debut of Peace Meal Supper Club, I’ve revisited old notes and memories. Scribbles of culinary ideas take shape easily, and with a certain plating flair the result will suffice to break the conversational ice. What’s hard is trying to encapsulate all the intellectual ideas. Showing visual contrast on a plate is easy with color and space; on the palate, I can play with bitter or sweet flavors. But how does one show ideological disparity in a main course?

While I try to figure that out artistically, I will sow seeds with words. Let the diners’ discussion bloom into the fruit of change.

With that in mind, here’s the menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #1: Liberation.

Course 1:

Vegetables Stir-Fried with Afghan Spices ~ Red Chile Aioli ~ Naan

In honor of the 149 hostages presently held in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, and the 630 that preceded them

Course 2:

Wild Rice Pilaf ~ Smoked Butternut Skewer ~ Maple Currant Glaze

With respect to Leonard Peltier, US political prisoner since 1977, and to his people, without liberty since 1877

Course 3:

Mushroom Picadillo Tamales ~ Mole Amarillo ~ Roasted Fingerlings

For the 5 million Mexican and American farmworkers excluded from US labor protections

Course 4:

Vanilla Crème Brulee ~ Cherry Chutney ~ Cardamom Cookie

In memory of the billions of animals used annually by the US industrial agricultural system

(On the reverse side of the menu I will offer diners an opportunity to go deeper into the theme via relevant books, websites, and films. The backside of the Liberation menu, therefore, contains the following.)

Seven hundred and seventy nine humans have been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp since 2002, most of whom were captured under a US-sponsored bounty system. International treaties, Geneva Conventions, UN statutes, US laws, and human rights principles have been openly flouted in order to continue “politically expedient” detention of men without filing formal charges against them. Rampant denial of rights continues under the present administration, though closure of the camp had been promised. Course 1 highlights the Afghan crossroads of cuisine, culture, and capture.

Learn more:

Leonard Peltier, in prison since 1977 for the alleged murder of two FBI agents, represents the indigenous nations who have been systematically eradicated since the arrival of European settlers. His 1970s advocacy of Lakota sovereignty came in the wake of the “Century of Dishonor,” a period marked by repeated treaty violations on the part of the US. His mixed Lakota and Ojibwe heritage is represented in Course 2.

Learn more:

  • In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen, Viking Penguin, 1983
  • Incident at Oglala, 1992 documentary produced and narrated by Robert Redford
  • Article at Popular Resistance, regarding indigenous sovereignty and human rights, http://bit.ly/1n6RRYg

Perhaps the biggest invisible problem in the US today is the plight of farmworkers. Whether citizens or foreign nationals, they are exempt from key components of US labor law: Child labor in agricultural settings is permitted by the Fair Labor Standards Act; agricultural workers are exposed to unregulated pesticides in the name of research; agricultural workers are exempt from disability and workers’ compensation in many states; overtime hours are not paid. As for ‘legal’ guest workers, former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel declared the guest worker program to be the closest thing he’d ever seen to slavery. For those who are here ‘illegally,’ the problems only deepen. The overwhelming majority of US farmworkers are of Mexican heritage, and Course 3 is in their honor.

Learn more:

Well over 9 billion animals are killed by the US agricultural system annually. They represent only a fraction of those still living in the system, deemed exempt from even the most basic cruelty regulations. Held against their will and hidden from common view, they are exploited for the sake of temporary appetite. Course 4 is offered in tribute to these animals. When they are released, we will be liberated from inhumanity.

Learn more:

Compound Tomato Sauce - Mrs Fisher, 1881

Making Time with Mrs. Fisher

“What hath been done may be done again. Old Arts when they have been long lost, are sometimes recovered again and pass for new inventions.” Jared Eliot, Second Essay on Field Husbandry, 1748

I recently discovered an enlightening artifact of American culinary history, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, published in San Francisco in 1881. The first cookbook published by an African-American woman, it is a bonanza of southern treasures, wonderfully old school in its approach.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

Mrs. Fisher, a freed slave who emigrated from Alabama, became an in-demand caterer and successful entrepreneur in San Francisco. Unable to read or write, she dictated her recipes for this book. Her personality vividly shines throughout the text, and her casual style reveals that she was a true master. It’s also obvious that her food must have been unbelievably delicious. Lucky for us, she wanted us all to learn her methods; she wrote the book “so that [even] a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”

Her all-day flavor development techniques are dazzling to read. Her recipe for Compound Tomato Sauce, included below, requires 24 hours of fermentation before the cooking begins. As for the cooking itself, “let it cook all day.” The richness of the aroma can’t be contained by the pages; reading the recipe, you can almost smell the sauce as it marches towards evening. Waiting for that first taste must have required a religious vow.

With Mrs. Fisher’s recipes, time is the chief ingredient. While egg-replacers and sugar substitutes and gluten-free alternatives and other analogs proliferate today, no true substitute for time has been developed. Rather than resist it, we should surrender: sugars and tissues break down with the application of heat, particularly with low heat over a long duration. An onion cooked for 30 minutes will taste richer—and have a more luxurious mouthfeel—than one cooked for 5 minutes. You can rush the onion if you want to, but you’ll have denied yourself a significant amount of pleasure at the table.

Studies[i] conducted in the UK and the US show drastic reductions in the time we spend cooking our meals, measured over the past 30 to 40 years. Not surprisingly, the time we spend enjoying meals has also plummeted. It makes sense: fast food leads to fast consumption. Rushed cooking leaves little to be savored.

Compound Tomato Sauce - Mrs Fisher, 1881
Compound Tomato Sauce recipe from Mrs. Fisher. I provide it not because I think we will all take the necessary two days to make the sauce. I do hope, however, that her spirit will inspire us all to spend more time crafting our meals, and that her joy will carry over to our tables.

It is complicated territory, once you consider factors such as income level, single-parenthood, number of jobs held simultaneously, and age. But there are also very simple scenarios.

I recently spent a weekend helping a friend at an animal sanctuary. While we were making dinner one evening, an intern passed through the kitchen. Her question was very to-the-point: “How do you cook mushrooms?” Her pace slowed, but she never actually stopped walking as I began my answer. She continued into the living room and opened her laptop.

Her age—early 20s—could be used against her, and we could indict the current generation for their inability to function in a physical, non-digital world. But the problem extends further back.

In Asheville, North Carolina—a foodie town if ever there were one—my next-door neighbor was a true gentle lady of the south. She absolutely loved food, especially the breads that I would share now and then. Upon learning more about my culinary background, she asked if I’d be willing to teach her one thing: how to make gravy. She was in her 70s.

Both of these examples point to something bigger: that the generation before them was missing something, too. And in fact, tracing the history of the American food from 1881—when Mrs. Fisher published her book—until now, it is easy to see us steadily relinquishing traditional foodways as convenience foods pervaded the grocery and markets. We traded our food heritage, rich with so many multicultural influences and an astonishing array of native foods, for extra time to do nothing. We have of course filled that nothing time with a lot of things, with watching television still being the number one time-taker.

The tradeoffs are many, and are well documented: declining health, loss of life skills, disconnection from food traditions and even family heritage. But it’s not the end of the world yet. For while our society was gorging on convenience, plant tissue was still behaving the same way it always had. And it still behaves in the same manner today.

We can reconnect. The cooking principles from 130 years ago are just as functional today, and Mrs. Fisher’s oeuvre stands as a cairn on a trail we can reclaim. The biggest investment asked of us is time, which coincidentally is as plentiful as it was 130 years ago if we unplug a bit.

The payoffs will be substantial, with the reversal of the symptoms mentioned above. But the most immediate return will be deeper enjoyment at the dinner table. This enjoyment is magnified by the experience of discovery, as we learn ancient secrets all over again and savor our burgeoning skills.

Onion Soup
There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in onions. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that is ancient in origin: Onion Soup. From its humble beginnings—poor people’s food in ancient Rome—to its 20th-century vogue, its goodness increases with the amount of time you take to prepare it. There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in these roots. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling. Perhaps this recipe can help you restore your relationship with food.

Onion Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 splash balsamic vinegar or red wine
3 cups vegetable stock, unsalted
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage, or 4 leaves fresh sage
1 bay leaf

1. Warm a heavy-bottomed 2 quart soup pot over low heat.
2. Add the olive oil and the onions. Sprinkle in the salt and pepper.
3. Stir to distribute onions evenly across the bottom of the pot.
4. Leave the onions in the pot on low heat for 2 hours, uncovered. Stir every half hour or so and redistribute.
5. After 2 hours, add the splash of balsamic and stir.
6. Add the vegetable stock, rosemary, sage, and bay leaf.
7. Bring pot to a simmer. Simmer slowly, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
8. Add a little more salt if desired.
9. Ladle into soup cups and serve with a slice of crusty baguette or multigrain bread, toasted.

Yield: 2 servings

Note the absence of sugar or other flavor additives. Sugar is sometimes added to aid in the caramelization process-but as you will see, no help is necessary. And you certainly won’t miss the sweetness–the onions get so sweet on their own that you’ll be tempted to make this a dessert soup.

Also, I have omitted the modern sacrament of cheese au gratin. Apart from all the issues associated with the consumption of animal products, I find that the cheese simply gets in the way of a great soup.

———-
[i]
http://www.forbes.com/sites/tombarlow/2011/04/15/americans-cook-the-least-eat-the-fastest/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3639863/

http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib86.aspx#.U6iQB7FiqTI

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2590578/Cant-cook-wont-cook-Britain-Amount-time-spent-cooking-UK-HALVED-1980s-people-survive-diet-sandwiches.html

falloutsheltersigns 1036x463

Heritage

Extended family gatherings were infrequent when I was young. But when my cousins, my brother, and I did see each other, a game of touch football was in order. Our college-going uncle served as quarterback for both teams, and most plays involved a pass towards the end zone. If we were playing behind my great-grandparents’ home, that end zone represented far more than a 6-point score. It signified the fears of a nation during the Cold War, embodied in a family fallout shelter.

bomb_shelters_handbook
Redefining ‘end zone’ for 40 years.

The few times we braved the rickety stairs in, we were engulfed in the musty smell of old mattresses and cobwebs. The walls were lined with shelves, each of them filled with faded canned foods. It all looked so mysterious and forbidden, and thankfully became an unnecessary relic.

Resonating through that dark family foxhole was the fact that they canned all those foods themselves, in good old heritage-rich Mason jars. Home-grown sustenance, preserved for the family to nourish them through fear.

Portions of this preservation ethic continued into my teen years, as my mom canned food from a variety of small family plots. Yet the majority of the food in our home was prepared and packaged under corporate aegis. We practiced backyard husbandry in the very suburb that supplanted my father’s boyhood rural home. For a while, an ancient Ford tractor stood in our garage, as my father meticulously restored it, hoping for a field to plow. These contrasts created in me nostalgia for things that never existed all in one place, fragments of heritage, disconnected parts of a massive body of knowledge.

Cultural heritage is a rich but delicate thing, with family heritage being even more so. It contains cultural components like music, folklore, biases, and philosophy. It contains physical elements, ancestral hand-me-downs like grandfather’s fiddle, photo albums, furniture, and old mixers. It extends tradition across generations.

Heritage’s delicacy lies in the fact that our memories are such temporary holding spaces. My personal memories cannot exceed my lifetime—so I cannot remember the legacy directly. I must depend upon family folklore—which can be shattered through local or worldwide disturbances, such as a Great Depression or a Cold War. Sometimes it just fades from neglect.

Given the tumultuous nature of the past century, I was born into a ruin: Artifacts existed, but they were broken or separated from their normal use. Traditional ways had succumbed to emergency measures. In the relief of waning emergencies, convenience had a strong appeal. The heritage went on hiatus.

Home-canned Beets
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Non-irradiated, perfect for enjoying with others above ground.

In a sense, the home-grown and family-preserved sustenance was held captive by the fallout shelter. I had to decide which was of permanent value and which was pervasive but temporary fear.

The fear relates to many elements: compromised security, lost independence, increase in hunger, forgotten family, and a state of want.

Permanence relates to these same elements, at a level significantly higher yet nonetheless grounding: the sanctity of life, compassion, fairness, progress, and even creative deviance from the norm.

The common message is to listen to the fear: Build the bunker, stock it, and lock it.

But the less common message holds more power: The bunker is not part of your heritage. The heritage is in those jars. Everyone in the bunker gets to eat. Everyone comes out alive.

At some point in my own never-ending enlightenment, I realized that I would have to recreate who I was as an eater. My consumption had to keep pace with me as I became a more ethically-focused person. The traditions I might have been given in an uninterrupted stream across two centuries were sadly in disrepair. This meant that I had to recreate my heritage also. In my favor, I could build upon timeless values drawn from my family’s lived-in experiences. The remnants that I inherited—compassion, a sense of fairness, and self-reliance—were now mine to interpret in the New World. I had the honor and duty to craft them into a legacy for moving forward.

Heritage is what we are immersed in. It’s an ambient life-giving support system that stabilizes us as we progress. But it is not only ours: it belongs to those coming after us. By building wisely, with foresight and an expansive vision, we are bequeathing a better world for those yet to live.

We’ll have more to discuss at the New York City Vegetarian Food Festival, March 2, 2014. See you there.

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

What do you do when you’ve made more cornbread than you can eat? Okay, that’s not quite the situation. I can eat a lot of cornbread, thanks to my heritage. But I did have some that was getting a bit stale, and I needed to reaffirm its importance. Hence, this Sofrito Cornbread Strata.

Seriously full of flavor, it’s like creamy polenta encased in crunchy crusty cornbread. It is absolutely center-of-the-plate material, so build the rest of the meal around it. For my meal, I added some black beans, charred broccoli, and a roasted red pepper cream sauce. Pico de gallo or another Mexican-style salsa would also be great companions.

Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros
Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros

Here’s the recipe. Some helpful notes follow. Enjoy!

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups cornbread, broken into crouton-sized bits
3 cups sweet potato, roasted, peeled, and diced
2 Poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and diced
1 1/3 cups unsalted vegetable stock or water

1. Heat oven to 350°.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Sauté until they release their liquid.

3. Add sofrito and salt. Mix well. Remove from heat.

4. Place the cornbread into a large mixing bowl. Add the mushroom and sofrito mixture.

5. Add the sweet potato and the poblano. Pour in 1/2 of the stock. Mix well.

6. Check the mixture for saturation. It should be evenly moist, with no excess stock in the bottom of the bowl. Add more stock if necessary and mix well.

7. Press the mixture into several lightly-oiled cake rings (mine are 3.5 dia x 2.25 deep), and place them on a lined baking sheet. Alternatively, you can put the entire mixture into a single lightly-oiled casserole dish. (If you’re using cake rings, you can place some of the vegetables around the edges so that they are visible when you remove the rings. This adds to the visual appeal of the dish.)

8. Bake uncovered at 350° for 30 minutes. If using rings, remove them at this point and broil for 5 more minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

Helpful Notes By design, strata and their sweeter kin, bread puddings, make use of leftover bread that’s become stale. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a fresh batch of cornbread for this dish. There are a few other advance prep items in this recipe in addition to cornbread. They can all be made a day or two ahead of time, so that putting together the strata is a cinch. So, before beginning the recipe itself:

  • Make cornbread (use your favorite recipe)
  • Roast sweet potato
  • Make sofrito (see recipe below)
  • Roast Poblano chile (see process below)
  • Make vegetable stock (follow link for great tips—this is so easy!)

You can easily pop the sweet potato in the oven while your cornbread is baking.

The sofrito recipe yields 2 cups, only 1 of which you’ll need for the strata. Use the other cup to flavor rice (add to ½ cup rice while cooking) or beans (add to 2 cups beans after they have been cooked.)

Sofrito

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto seed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground chile (cayenne, chipotle, or ancho), optional
1/4 cup cilantro, or parsley, minced

1. Gently warm oil in sauté pan.

2. Add onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes.

3. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for an additional 5 or 10 minutes.

4. Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Yield: 2 cups

Roasting Poblano Chiles: Turn your oven’s broiler on high. Place the chile in a pan under the broiler. Turn the chile every few minutes until it is entirely blackened and blistered. Place it in a plastic bag or a bowl with a cover. As the chile sweats, the peel will loosen. After about 20 minutes, you can easily remove all the peel. Resist the urge to rinse it, as doing so will wash away much of the flavorful oils. If you hit a stubborn spot where the peel won’t come off, don’t stress over it. It will be fine. Roasting can also be done on the stovetop if you have a gas stove. (This is actually closer to ‘authentic.’) Simply place the chile directly on the burner and turn on the fire. Rotate frequently as above, until the chile is fully blackened and blistered. Follow the same steps for sweating and peeling.

FDR's Four Freedoms

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Four Freedoms, and Publix

(This essay has now been published by Civil Eats, available here: A Chef Speaks Out on Farm Labor)

On October CIWbig-150x14616, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers received the prestigious Four Freedoms Medal from the Roosevelt Institute. The CIW, a worker-based human rights organization recognized worldwide for its ground-breaking work to end modern-day slavery and other agriculture-based labor abuses, joins a truly remarkable list of laureates, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton.

Rising from the tomato fields near the Florida Everglades—identified by one US Justice Department official as “ground zero for modern slavery”—the Coalition has relentlessly waged David-and-Goliath battles against monolithic food corporations. And they are winning these battles.

As a professional chef, their fight is of central importance to me. Aesthetic factors of taste and quality are the most obvious reasons: most people will agree that workers who are fairly paid will deliver a better product. But more important to me are ethical principles behind the food I prepare: why should anyone feast at the sacrifice of another’s dignity?

And not just dignity, but wellness, sustenance, and personal security are being sacrificed in the fields. We reap a multitude of benefits from their labor, yet their labor brings them poverty-level wages, physical and sexual harassment, dilapidated shelter, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and exemption from many federal labor regulations, including overtime pay. It’s an enormous disparity, and at the center of it all lies a question: shouldn’t we honor those who provide us with our nourishment? As we celebrate amidst overabundance, shouldn’t we work for complete enfranchisement of all workers along the food supply chain?

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is doing just that. In 2010, they established the Fair Food Program to improve worker conditions by asking retailers for only one more penny per pound for tomatoes grown in the southern Florida fields.

The program contains other features, too, such as a human-rights-based Code of Conduct for growers to implement in their fields. This code mandates zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual harassment, provides educational sessions for workers to learn about their rights and responsibilities, and establishes an oversight committee to monitor safety and compliance to the program.

All together, it speaks of respect, dignity, and equality, allowing field workers more access to the basic rights we all enjoy.

However, as national retail chains come to Asheville, we are reminded that there are more battles to fight. Publix Supermarkets, Inc. has announced plans to open a store in Asheville in 2015. For four years, they have refused to participate in the Fair Food Program.

Florida-based Publix is not only the most profitable supermarket in the US, they are also the 8th largest privately owned corporation in the country. In 2012, their retail sales totaled $27.5 billion. Their refusal to improve conditions for the workers who grow their tomatoes, in their home state of Florida, indicates that they are not entirely neighborly.

Contrastingly, eleven major retail chains have signed on to the program: Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Bon Apetit, Sodexo, Burger King, Aramark, and Compass Group. The benefit for the workers has been tremendous, as more than $10 million has been paid to them through the program. But it’s about more than just pay. It’s also about humane standards. And it hits close to home in North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of our country’s leading agricultural states. It is easy to see that the experience of tomato growers in Florida is the experience of tobacco workers in North Carolina. And just as civil rights have always been important in North Carolina, farm worker rights should be important—for they are civil rights.

For me professionally, ethics along the food supply chain have become increasingly important. As I become more aware of injustice in the system, I also learn about companies and organizations who are trying to set things aright. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and those that have joined its Campaign for Fair Food are making major strides towards fairness for all.

Congratulations to the Coalition for this latest honor bestowed upon them by the Roosevelt Institute. They have been commended and awarded by the White House, the State Department, numerous international human rights organizations, and agricultural organizations, and we should award them by purchasing food where their program has been embraced.

We can award them further by sending a strong message to Publix Supermarkets that Asheville citizens will not patron their stores until they join the other national retailers in the Fair Food Program. You will not miss the penny you spend elsewhere, but it will constitute a fortunate bonus for the workers in the field.

“Kind:” Extraordinary work from poet Gretchen Primack

Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack
Kind, poems by Gretchen Primack

Certain things are ineffable. There are moments when we cannot dig deep enough into our storehouse of words and grasp the proper one. We cannot attach enough inflection. We are unable to swaddle our message in sufficient emotion. Our attempts at expression clatter out of our mouths like Mason jars down a basement stairway.

And then there is Gretchen Primack.

In her present poetry collection, Kind, she tackles not only the things that are difficult for humans to express, but also those things that our fellow beings cannot express: the two-way horror of a killing floor; the nightmare of workers in a slaughter factory; the despair of a mother whose young are repeatedly taken from her: her children’s fate and hers are one and the same: to feed the appetites of another species, systematically, facelessly, in tangible daily scenarios that confound comprehension. Is this cruelty truly reality?

But she sees not only cruelty. As the title suggests, she sees quick visions of kindness. Her husband, working against fate and expected outcomes, tries to save two orphaned fledglings. He is unsuccessful, of course, as we all would be. But he succeeds in portraying the valiant kindness that we all must have, fighting against all expectations and naysayers and critics, pursuing that which we genetically know is right. Isn’t it what every sane, compassionate, kind individual should do?

We should all be thus, not letting anticipated outcomes limit our actions. We should be passionately, obstinately, vehemently kind, in matters simple and complex.

But her kindness doesn’t end with her engaging spin on a common homestead tale. She extends it to her canine companion, who, being a dog, must be a dog. Upon encountering the lifeless body of a fallen fawn, Gretchen allows her friend to follow her nature; Gretchen herself will continue up the trail alone. It is a visceral and beautiful moment when most of us would waver. But her kindness is vast, varied, and wise.

Scribing the continuous chain from holocaust to circus to sable to egg to human privilege, her insistence is also vast. These images, these actions, these feelings, this consciousness—they are all the same. Read her entry entitled “Chain;” then read Rilke’s “The Panther;” then read Neruda’s “Ode to the Black Panther.” How many voices are in this chorus? And why do we still hear disharmonious tones?

Graceful being that she is, Gretchen also shares bits of joy with us: her garden, wild berries, heroic roosters, the fleeting—if tainted—happiness found in a picnic. Weighing the percentages of joy’s presence, we have much work to do. Her deftly demanding poems show us that too much shared and sacred life is left in the balance. With a poet’s grace she takes leave, encouraging us to cipher the equations and calculate our responses.

Crafting Non-attachment

The restaurant business is largely about ego. As a venue or chef builds an identity, egos become inordinately inflated. The maintenance of an ego requires the subjection of other egos. Subjection can be voluntary, or it can be coerced. Voluntary subjection often involves admiration and fawning. Coerced subjection is an uneasy thing, always ripe for rebellion.

Taking the position of Executive Chef requires that one have highly developed skills of coercion, for admiration comes in small numbers. One must be ready to squash any person, or group of persons, who wish to overthrow the regime. There are plenty of other egos on the rise.

I simply don’t have the interest in such matters. The time dedicated to cultivating an ego is better spent marveling at how things work: I mix my doughs. I let them rise as they will. I bake them. I let them go.

The ‘letting go’ part actually happens during the entire process. I bring together the elements. They work together as though I am not present. They develop towards their natural outcome. I am their servant more than their master. I can manipulate fermentation, but I certainly don’t own it.

As they work, I acknowledge that it is not me doing the work. It’s the yeast. The wheat. The water. The salt.

A craftsman will know just when and precisely how to interfere with working elements. And more importantly, a craftsman will know when not to interfere. Music works without a single person playing a guitar. Plants grow when we get out of their way—and they have shown that if we interfere too much, they will cease to nourish us.

Pride of craftsmanship is not equivalent to arrogance. Arrogance must speak loudly, of its own volition, about its own attributes. A craftsman can remain silent and let his work speak. This is how I wish to direct my energy. There is much more grace in it. It is a worthy goal to pursue: the heart of poetry, the core of craft, the essence of artisanship. It is the art of non-attachment.

Edible Craft

My donning of the bread-baker’s apron was not just a clever escape from an increasingly unethical predicament. More than that, it was a return to simplicity, to usefulness, to deeper and more satisfying meaning.

Bulgur Oat Loaves.
Bulgur Oat Loaves.

One of the reasons I changed careers a decade ago–from overpaid hi-tech exec to wage-earning food worker—was because I wanted to have a trade that I could take anywhere and perform at any time. To do something useful, something beneficial and immediate.  To have the option of moving off to some small town somewhere and just making food. The art of cooking is the most useful of arts, the most beneficial of crafts, and is certainly immediate in its application. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s gotta eat.”

Working now as a bread baker, I find myself even more connected to craft. It’s one of the oldest of the culinary arts, with a legacy of sustenance that almost predates history. And yet, with all of its longevity, it hasn’t become obsolete or passé. It is as vital to our enjoyment—if not to our sustenance—as it has always been. Its current renaissance as popular craft, with so many small-batch bakeries popping up and everyone talking about “artisan bread,” illuminates a core characteristic of bread baking: it is still an art form of challenging mastery.

The elements of flour, water, salt, and yeast each possess their own inertia, and will do what they are going to do. As a bread baker, my job is to work in concert with their impulses, to act or react at the proper time for developing the best flavor and texture for the bread. It’s a well-scripted art and an improvisational art simultaneously. I accept that I will always be a neophyte.

A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads
A Mix of Artisan Hearth Breads

While I work to achieve a base level of competence, however, the pieces I make are still useful. They don’t pile up like so many unfinished canvasses or studio tapes. I don’t have incomplete projects lying around, or lopsided vases or an archive of poorly-lit negatives. What I have is still useful and sustaining. My test pieces, however unhappy I am with them, are still enjoyable with a spread of jam or tapenade.

Most of all, my hands are busy with honest business. I make my pieces with pride and identity, knowing that they will be enjoyed. The ones I make next week will be enjoyed even more. Upon each is the indelible print of my hands.

Beyond fulfilling the need for nutritional sustenance, bread supplies a greater assemblage of nutrients for an artist: anticipation for the outcome, desire for ongoing exploration, the promise of long-term mastery, and active learning for a lifetime. Everyone needs a good slice of that for dinner.

Kobayashi Maru on Wry

I want to pick up the thought I left at the end of the previous entry. The idea that I appeared as my own ‘deus ex machina,’ and rescued myself from a situation that was ethically compromising.

I’ve been in this type of compromising situation before. It was at the core of my flight from high tech into cooking several years ago. In fact, my entire life at that point was in violation of my own ethics. So I walked into my own headquarters and announced my departure. I resigned from the life I was living, and set out to determine my own terms.

It’s a classic Kobayashi Maru test, the famous Star Trek scenario which presented an iron-clad no-win situation. Every cadet at Starfleet Academy was required to pass this test as a show of character. Obsessed with beating the system, Kirk hacked the computer and rewrote the program.

In rewriting the program, or redefining the terms of engagement, we must proceed fearlessly. We must have a clear concept of who we truly are, for we are defying those that have a semblance of authority over us. It can be career-threatening, it can limit our life choices, it can end other relationships. It can put a strain on everything—especially our self-worth.

But at its core, it is about reclaiming one’s self-worth. Sometimes you must risk losing it in order to win it back. (It lends itself to all manner of trite ‘motivational speaker’ pronouncements, as you can see.)

By informing my employer that I no longer wished to serve in my executive capacity, I left the institution without a leader. Further, informing them that I would assume bread-baking duties was quite presumptuous, a heady dose of hubris.

It’s a stroke of self-actualized Tao recursion–the perfect way to manage any no-win program.