Monday, November 30, 2015

The Future: Political Disaster or Climate Change Disaster?

Margaret Atwood's recently published novel is titled The Heart Goes Last. Along with several of her earlier novels, it's about a politically awful future. By coincidence, at the same time I bought Atwood's book, I also chose to read Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, an author who is new to me. Watkins writes in  of a very different horrible society: one where climate change has overwhelmed humanity, and just a few desperate people are barely surviving.

The Heart Goes Last describes a society with no jobs, no hope, and no prospects. Desperation has driven a young couple from their home; at the beginning they are living a marginal life in their car. Extravagant promises of a prosperous and satisfying material life in a fenced-off and walled-in community attract the couple, appealing to their optimism as well as their desire for possessions such as beds with smooth clean sheets and bathrooms with luxuriant towels. The drawback is that once they sign on to this life behind the walls, they spend half their lives in a prison, changing places each month with another couple whom then never see. The husband works in a chicken-producing area, while the wife works in various jobs with an eerie suspiciousness about them.

Although the book as a whole is rather thin, and the ending is rather disappointing, Atwood is up to her usual fascinating way of using trivial details to highlight the characters' situation. They eat pretty ordinary food, but it says something about the twilight nature of their lives.

OK, what do they eat? One day as they work in the prison the meal is: "chicken stew, Brussels sprouts, tapioca pudding." (p. 121).

Another day:
"The lunch is chicken salad. It’s made with chickens raised right here at Positron Prison, in healthy and considerate surroundings, over at the men’s wing; and the lettuce and arugula and radicchio and celery are grown here as well. Though not the celery, now that she thinks of it – that comes in from outside. But the parsley’s grown here. And the spring onions. And the Tiny Tim tomatoes. Despite her lack of appetite she picks away at the salad, because she doesn’t want to look ungrateful. Or, worse, unstable.  
"Here comes the dessert. They’ve set it out on the table at the far end of the room; the women get up in order, row by row, and stand in line for it. Plum crumble... She can’t help thinking it looks like curdled blood, but she draws a marker across that thought, blacks it out. She should try to eat just a bit: it might steady her nerves." (pp. 138-139). 
And in a seduction scene with a very powerful and lecherous man, leading up to the final denouement:
"And here’s the steak in front of her, seared and brown, branded with a crisscross of black, running with hot blood. On the side, three mini-broccolis and two new potatoes. It smells delicious. She’s ravenous, but it would be folly to show it. Tiny, ladylike bites, if any." (p. 224). 
On the whole the book has quite a few Margaret Atwood moments, but doesn't leave me as entranced as did many of her earlier books. (I think I've read them all.) Needless to say, it has much much more than food, but that's what I like to inspect.

Gold Fame Citrus depicts an appalling future for California. Drought and heat have destroyed life as anyone ever knew it. Most of the residents have fled, and the other states have erected barriers to any additional emigration from the devastated landscape.

Again, we meet a couple coping with the altered situation. At first they are squatting in a mansion once owned by a Hollywood starlet. They then drift into a car and eventually, though they separate, live into an old school bus.

The first 110 pages of this novel (Book 1) seem to be a self-contained story, which ends when the couple lose their way in the great dune that is quickly enveloping the Southwest. The remaining 240 pages (Books 2 & 3) at times lose focus as the author describes climate change, the formation of the great dune, the philosophies of the various commune members and many other somewhat rambling events and interactions.

Watkins' food descriptions, among many things, highlight the terrible and constantly deteriorating situation. The most extended description of what was left to eat:
"For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep." (p. 17). 
Life gets worse and worse, the couple are cheated at a terror-inducing fleamarket when they try to buy blueberries. They occasionally find old supermarkets and shopping malls full of former treats and eat them gluttonously. Eventually they flee and end up in a kind of desperation commune in the desert.

The vast number of novels being published about the uncertainties of our future as humans, as a society, and as rational beings is overwhelming. Indeed, I guess we all should wonder what we are going to eat when current life as we know it becomes less and less possible.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Injecting liquid into the turkey before cooking
outdoors on the Weber grill.
Grilling the bird.
Enjoying a fire in the fire pit.

Ready to carve.

Thanksgiving In Progress

Herbs from the garden.
Starting the pie.

Ready for dessert in a few hours.
Stock simmering on the stove.
Pumpkin waiting to be cooked...
... now ready to be stuffed. Background: injector ready to inject basting
liquid into the turkey.
Other preparations about to be done: make and bake cornbread and stuffing for the pumpkin, prepare turkey and Weber grill to make smoked turkey. Cranberry sauce: made yesterday. I love Thanksgiving. Have a great one, everybody.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sarah Josepha Hale and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was celebrated in post-Revolutionary America in various ways, but the key to making it a true national holiday was Lincoln's 1863 proclamation setting aside the third Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. For more information see "Abraham Lincoln and the 'Mother of Thanksgiving'" at the History Channel web page.

Two years ago, I blogged about the novel Northwood, whose author, Sarah Josepha Hale, was a major advocate for creating the Thanksgiving holiday as we celebrate it today -- the "Mother of Thanksgiving" mentioned in the article above. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving Day, with at least some of the traditional dishes that are described below. My post from 2013, repeated:

Northwood, Title Page, Second Edition (Wiki Media)
In the novel Northwood by Sarah Josepha Hale, published in 1827, I was amazed to find a description of Thanksgiving dinner that is so close to what we have today. The major difference is the variety of meat dishes beyond just the turkey. Hale is famous for her advocacy of making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her later non-fiction writings included lots of advice for how the holiday should be celebrated: in other words, we owe her!

But here are her original words:
“But now to my dinner … A long table, formed by placing two of the ordinary size together, was set forth in the parlor, which being the best room, and ornamented with the best furniture, was seldom used, except on important occasions. The finishing of the parlor was in a much better manner than that of any other apartment in the house; the wood work was painted cream color, and the plaster walls ornamented with paper hangings of gay tints and curious devices. … 
 “The furniture of the parlor consisted of a mahogany sideboard and table, a dozen handsome rush-bottomed chairs, a large mirror, the gilt frame covered with green gauze to prevent injury from dust and flies, and on the floor was a substantial, home manufactured carpet, woven in a curious manner and blended with all the colors of the rainbow ... 
 “The table, covered with a damask cloth, vieing in whiteness, and nearly equalling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romelee’s own hand, was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion, and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family. The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of the year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity. 
 “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting. At the foot of the board a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table, the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast. … Plates of pickles, preserves, and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers. A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course, placed there to obviate the necessity of leaving the apartment during the repast. Mr. Romelee keeping no domestic, the family were to wait on themselves, or on each other. There was a huge plumb pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweet meats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer, a beverage Mrs. Romelee prided herself on preparing in perfection. There were no foreign wines or ardent spirits, Squire Romelee being a consistent moralist.” -- Google Book Edition p. 114-117

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor Winter Dinner

Before dinner: uncovering all the potluck dishes.
The theme of the winter potluck of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor was "The Spice of Life." Most people shared one of their favorite dishes, resulting in a great and wonderful variety of tastes. Before we ate, each cook explained briefly what they had prepared and which spices were involved. Lots of different spice blends and ethnic cuisines provided fascinating variety. I really enjoyed sampling Ras-al-Hanout spice blend in a tagine from Morocco, Danish meatballs, Middle-Eastern meatballs, herb-filled quiche, minty chicken squares with garlic mayonnaise, ten-spice lentils, early American pumpkin spice cake, carob brownies, and many other dishes.

Appetizers included Samosas from East Asia and Muhammara
from the Middle East.
Lavendar-Rosemary Shortbread -- fabulous!

Our leader Jan Longone.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Hieronymus Bosch -- Allegory of Gluttony

I recently finished reading the short book Gluttony by Francine Prose (Oxford Press, 2003) -- one of a series of 7 books, of course! Here are my two favorite quotations:
Scholars have demonstrated that in the Middle Ages cyclical famines and periods of relative privation were followed by intervals during which people ate as if there were no tomorrow. Thus, much of the population behaved like gluttons for a short, happy season of the year. At the start of their feasts, the still sober, still hungry revelers would have had a brief glimpse of the road down which they were heading. Or perhaps that was part of the point of the feast, and certainly of the drunkenness involved: to briefly escape the knowledge of the hardness of life in this world and the cruelty of the life to come. Perhaps fear and guilt might even have worked as a spice, seasoning the glutton's meal with abandon and terror. (p. 50)
Franchised in  27 countries, Weight Watchers International draws over a million people each week to its meetings. ... revenues ... $212.5 million... Jenny Craig ... reveunes of $142.9 million in the first six months of 2002.... the cost of a week's stay at The Golden Door, one of the oldest and most venerable health spas... is almost $6,000.  
Given these statistics and considering the fortunes being made from out struggle against gluttony, we can safely assume the cultural emphasis on thinness is based on something more complex and insidious than esthetics or altruism. (p. 78)
I especially enjoyed the description and reproductions of various representations
of gluttony in art, including this and the above images by Hieronymus Bosch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Garlic, Goose Eggs, Greens, and More

Late fall produce at Argus Farm Stop.
More varieties of garlic exist than I ever dreamed of -- and Dick and Diana Dyer grow over 40 of them at the Dyer Family Organic Farm outside Ann Arbor. We heard a great many facts about this wonderful flavor-rich vegetable last Sunday at the Dyers' lecture to the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. Some things we learned about:
  • The genealogy of the garlic family. It's an allium like leeks and onions. I had never realized that garlic was originally native to China, and that members of the garlic family have been cultivated for 10,000 years. Most fascinating: an ancient garlic variety native to the Pacific Northwest suggests that early humans crossing the land bridge to North America brought garlic with them!
  • The annual cycle of garlic products. The year starts with green garlic and garlic scapes in spring, continues with a succession of summer garlic types, and ends with the last heads and the dried braids of garlic available now in late fall.
  • The propagation of garlic. The bulbs planted in farmers' fields are clones from previous crops. The scapes are the garlic plant's effort to make seeds, but few viable seeds are ever produced.
  • The sensory experience of garlic cooking. Uncut garlic should have no aroma, because the chemicals that provide the smell and flavor are locked inside the cells until your knife releases an enzyme and a chemical reaction triggers aroma and flavors. Shorter or longer cooking times produce different results: flavor disperses as time increases.
  • And above all, the best thing about garlic: it tastes so good!
The Dyers' fascination with everything about garlic is infectious, so I was quite interested to try some. So I went to Argus Farm Stop in downtown Ann Arbor, which sells Dyer garlic and many other local foods from local farmers, bakers, dairies, coffee roasters, and other producers. I bought leeks, cranberries, lettuce, duck eggs and -- obviously -- garlic. Some images:

Dyer Farms Garlic at Argus Farm Stop.
Garlic braids from Dyer Farms.
Goose Eggs, $3 each from a local egg producer.
A variety of green salad vegetables, still growing at several farms despite the frosts.
Winter squash from various farms.
As is normal for me, and unlike my exceptional recent post, I did not receive any free gifts or samples from any of the vendors mentioned here. I'm writing about what interests me, which is fresh, local produce!

Monday, November 16, 2015

White Lotus Farms

Basket of sample bread, cheese, and produce from White Lotus Farms.
A few days ago, Miriam Rahl, the Office Manager & Events Coordinator from White Lotus Farms asked if I would like to try some holiday preview samples of their products, including bread from their bakery and cheese from their dairy. I was very pleased to accept her offer, as I'm very interested in trying new local products from the Ann Arbor area.

Bread from the sample basket
The bread we sampled was very fresh and delicious. The whole-grain loaf was slightly sour and had a good crumb. The fruit-nut loaf was dense with cranberries and walnuts, and tasted really good with the goat cheese and cream cheeses included in the sample. Both breads were clearly the result of a long rising time, which of course is a key feature of artisan-made breads. The cheeses are mild and very pleasant tasting. The price list informed me that their prices are quite competitive with comparable artisanal products available locally.

Above: delicata squash ready to roast with onions.
Below: roasted vegetables with rosemary.
I was delighted with the delicata squash and the bunch of rosemary that were included in the sample basket as well, and used them in a dish of roasted vegetables we had that evening. According to the website, there are many other products to try, and I plan to buy and sample more next spring, when good things are in season at the Farmers' Market.

I asked about the bread-baking process, and Miriam wrote:
"A loaf of White Lotus Farms bread takes about 30 hours from mix to bake. Our dough ferments overnight in a clean, moist, temperature-controlled environment so that it can rise naturally. This slower fermentation breaks down starches and proteins in the flour, making the final product much more easily digestible. It also allows airborne micro flora and wild yeast to enrich the bread. ... With the exception of added ingredients like olives or walnuts, all of our breads are made with just flour, water, salt, and starter. Our ingredient list does not require any parenthesis after the word flour to tell you what all is in it. Our breads get their wonderful texture and taste as a result of natural processes rather than additives."
White Lotus goat cheese is made with milk from their own goats, while the cows' milk for their cheese comes from a nearby dairy farm. The cheeses are all made with fresh milk. White Lotus goats, I learned, give milk 10 months a year. Miriam wrote: "Since it is seasonal, we won't have fresh goat cheese for sale from New Years until early Spring.  This is precisely why we have begun making cow's milk cheeses -- so we can continue cheese production, and sales, year round."

From late spring through the fall, White Lotus sells their produce, cheese, and bread at their farm. They sell year-round at the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market -- including fresh produce from green house and hoop houses. For this Thanksgiving and Christmas, they are offering bread, cheese, and other products for order on their website, which can be picked up at two open-house days, November 24 and December 22; they also will be at the last Farmers' Market before Thanksgiving and Christmas (Wednesday, November 25 and Wednesday December 23). For details and pre-ordering, see this page of their website.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Delivering food to those in Need

Mary Schlitt, Food Gatherers' Chief Development Officer,
showing the graph of protein and produce
delivered in Washtenaw County this year.
Food Gatherers, the Ann Arbor area food bank, has a goal of delivering nutritious food including produce and protein. As I have been writing this week, Food Gatherers collects surplus food and also buys food to supply its 150 partners. These partner organizations distribute the food through a variety of end-user programs for people in need. Most of the distribution is done through an ordering system; orders are collected from partner organizations, assembled and boxed at the warehouse, loaded onto the FG trucks, and delivered to the partners. Or partners pick up the orders.

A food pantry is also onsite at the Food Gatherers  (FG) headquarters. Customers at this pantry are not end-recipients but are employees or volunteers at the partner organizations. With lists of foods that their recipients need and want, they visit the FG pantry, select the needed products, and take them back to their organization for use in hot-meal programs or distribution. Besides food, FG distributes personal care items and baby diapers to these organizations. 

The food pantry at FG headquarters. 
Selecting foods: an employee of Avalon Housing. 
Low sodium soups and canned goods are among the most-wanted items for food drives. Other much-wanted foods include
beans, rice, cereal, nut butter, and other low-sodium items such as canned fish, meat, and vegetables.
For a list of Food Gatherers' most wanted items, SEE THIS PAGE. I hope you will donate generously to Food Gatherers or to your local food bank, whether you give food or money!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Gathering Food for People in Need

  • "We fight hunger efficiently. We regard the gifts of food, money and time that we receive as a sacred trust to be administered for the most effective hunger relief possible." -- One of Food Gatherers' Values.
Produce in the warehouse at Food Gatherers' headquarters comes from several sources.
Food Gatherers puts the emphasis on fresh produce for distribution to hungry people in Washtenaw County.
In the FG Warehouse.
A semi truck with produce or packaged foods pulls up around once a week at the dock at 1 Carrot Way, headquarters of Food Gatherers (FG), the Washtenaw County food bank. After the food is unloaded and stored on the warehouse shelves, it becomes available to 150 local FG partners for distribution to people in need.

On my recent visit to FG headquarters and warehouse, Mary Schlitt, FG Chief Development Officer, and John Reed, FG Chief Compliance Officer, provided me with answers to my numerous questions about where the food in the warehouse comes from. The main source of food for FG is donations of rescued food; in addition FG purchases approximately $1 million of food per year.

Feeding America, a privately-funded national food bank, is one source of food and personal care items coming to the warehouse on the weekly semi trucks. Feeding America offers several programs to its 200 partner agencies. FG relies on two of them: the "Produce Match Maker" and the "Choice System." Through these programs, FG can order various products that have been donated by a variety of national manufacturers or other businesses. Feeding America works out the logistics of trucks that may deliver partial truckloads to more than one partner agency. (Another side of the FG-Feeding America partnership is that Feeding America audits the food-handling practices and other aspects of the FG program.)

Ruhlig Farms is an important source of produce purchased
purchased through the MASS system.
Fresh produce from Michigan farms may alternatively be the payload of various trucks arriving at FG. Such orders may be placed through the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System (MASS) and the Food Council of Michigan. These publicly funded organizations share the cost of wholesale first-quality Michigan-grown products 50-50 with FG. Fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, dried beans, meat and other Michigan foods thus become available to FG clients.

Other trucks may deliver a variety of products from other sources. Around 9% of Food Gatherers budget is donated by the USDA, and can be used for purchase of USDA foods and surplus foods, such as canned or packaged juices, fruit, vegetables, beef stew, soup, salmon, raisins, dairy products, and more. A very small amount of aid for high-demand items is also supplied by certain FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) programs. Occasionally, a surprise donation arrives on an unexpected truck from a private donor.

USDA foods in the FG warehouse.
A Food Gatherers' truck at the dock -- the trucks bring in donated food and
distribute food needed by partners: hot meal providers and food pantries.
Most importantly: FG has its own trucks, which arrive at the docks several times a day. They bring donations from local businesses such as supermarkets, bakeries, drug stores, big-box stores, and food drives. A total of 60 to 70% of the food from FG consists of this rescued food from more than 300 different donor sources.

In addition, FG collects and distributes produce grown specially for their customer base. At gardens near the warehouse the Food Gatherers Gathering Farm grows vegetables for their clients. This year, according to the FG website, the farm produced "cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, kale, collard greens, melons, leeks, beets, carrots, radishes, turnips and peas!"

The Faith and Food campaign has encouraged local congregations to start communal gardens and donate a portion of their harvest. Individual gardeners in the area often grow extra produce for FG in a program called Plant a Row for the Hungry. In addition, the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility horticulture program and the Michigan Farm to Food Bank give substantial donations to FG.

In a future post, I'll talk about how FG partners distribute food from the warehouse to their partner organizations and onward to the final consumers. I've already written about one partner: SOS Community Services and their food pantry which is stocked with items from FG (as well as items from their own food drives) -- see my post "Fighting Hunger."

A volunteer with donated bread.