Eating and Writing

"Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, this is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used."

-- Wendell Berry, from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

It's a Pie Thing

Pie Lovers United in Ypsilanti, Michigan on Saturday, September 1, 2007!


If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must create the universe. 

-- E.O. Wilson


If there is a sensory pleasure better than wrapping your mouth around sweet, warm fruit swaddled in a crisp pastry crust, it hasn't been invented yet.  And if there is a gesture than conveys more caring than  a freshly baked pie in front of an expectant table of family and friends, it can't compete.  Human history's greatest psycho-social achievement is simply: pie.


Pie is as individual as the person who bakes it. Are you a shortening, oil, lard or all-butter crust person? I have switched from Grandma's Crisco crust to my all-butter recipe.

The choice you make says something about you. Do you prefer sweet or tart or savory? A gooey nut, custard base or fruit filling?  Fruit fresh  from the vine, bush or tree please. 

Is meringue on top a good choice or whipped cream or naked as the day it was born? Anything on top is an excellent choice.  Would you bring a store-bought pie to Thanksgiving dinner or rather be burned at the stake than allow such blasphemy?  Store-bought pie is Blasphemy - why do you even ask?

Pie for Strength

"By the turn of the century, it was not unusual for an American to eat a slice of pie daily. In 1902 when an Englishman suggested this was gluttony and that, perhaps two slices a week would be plenty the New York Times responded thusly: 

'It is utterly insufficient...as anyone who knows the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy must admit. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents mark the calendar of the changing seasons. PIE IS THE FOOD OF THE HEROIC. No pie-eating people can ever be vanquished.'"


    - American Pie, Pascale le Draoulee

Soylent Green: Why Go on a Slow Food Farm Tour?

    Steve Toth at The Blueberry Patch

Soylent Green. That has to be what they're selling in grocery stores now. Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat says there are more than 30,000 different products in any good-sized grocery. Our ridiculous laws about information on food packaging mean that as a consumer you can't really know what exactly is inside. It might well be Soylent Green.  You should look and try to find out.  Where do Doritos come from and what exactly are the origins of the things that grew to make them? Except for the produce aisle (where you can be pretty sure that almost nothing was grown in your area), it seems like everything comes in a package filled with corn syrup, or it comes from China, or it is covered in plastic wrap completely indiscernible from its original form. There is something wrong with the picture when what's behind the scenes at the grocery is not a farm but a giant corporate and transportation machine whose only goal is resource extraction to make a giant profit. And there is something very wrong when that giant machine prevents you from knowing where your food comes from and how it was treated along the way to your grocery cart.  Since ground truth about why is hidden, ask  "Who benefits?"

Meditation on a Tomato

Tomatoes, corn, basil. The summer trifecta.  The real summer ephemerals.  Daily happiness for about 1 or 2 months, then gone for another year.  Everyone has the experience of looking forward to and waiting for your own county's tomatoes and corn to be ripe - because they are the best. Wherever you are, the ones from the farmstand down the road are the best in the entire country. Period.  They just are. 


What I wonder about us as Americans, is why we're so easily pacified with inferior substitutes for  keen pleasures like these?  Why do we accept woody corn from the supermarket in February?  And by extension, why is watching tv an adequate substitute for having a daily experience, even if it's sitting outside talking to the neighbors that pass by?   Are we so brainwashed that it we can't identify what's meaningful about making a real meal for people we care about? I have to think that there is something about food that is more primal than the other parts of our brains that the advertising agencies can enter at will. 

Press On

"Press on: Nothing can take the place of persistence. 

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."


 -- Calvin Coolidge

Eating Local in Ann Arbor - Redux

A few weeks ago at the end of April, we tried the  Eat Local Challenge  to see if my husband and I could eat food produced locally, within the $144 weekly budget of the average American 2-income family. I started out by making a list of what's available locally in Michigan in April and then  arranged those ingredients into dishes and meals that we would make.  On the menu were things like Leek and Potato Soup, Eggs and Sausage, Lamb Stew, Spinach Quiche with Bacon, Roasted Root Veggies, and Rhubarb Pie!


On Saturday I went to the Farmer's Market, Sparrow, and the Co-op to spend my treasure and bring home our local foods. The list of what I was able to buy that came from within 100 miles of our house at the end of a snowy April included: rhubarb (this was an unexpected bonus!), 1 small bag each of tarragon and mint, leeks, potatoes, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, bread, bacon, chicken breasts, onions, pork sausage, lamb, spinach, baby salad greens. And, I drove 50 miles to  Westwind Milling in Argentine, MI just south of Flint to buy flour and cornmeal that had been organically grown on their 160 acre farm.  

I spent a total of $53 that Saturday at the Farmer's Market, the People's Food Co-op and Sparrow Meat Market. And then another $36 at Westwind Milling for another batch of groceries. On Friday we celebrated our local food community by splurging on a Michigan wine and cheese tasting with friends (though some of these were not technically local since the wines were from the Peninsula Cellars near Traverse City).  A delicious Semi-dry Riesling and their Old School Red blew the budget a bit, at $12.99 each from Everyday Wines, but they were worth it!  After spending another $15 on Michigan cheese, we were still $14 away from the total budget of $144. We learned it is possible, even in Michigan in April, to eat a diet of mainly locally produced food with room for even a couple of treats. 

The hardest part of the Eat Local Challenge: finding out what's produced locally near our Ann Arbor home. The easiest part of the Eat Local Challenge: making a tasty meal out of great Michigan foods. 

Michigan Dairy - Of Artisanal Cheeses

Yes, Virginia, there is a Michigan Artisanal Cheese. And surprise - according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan is the 8th largest producer of cow's milk in the country, with 300,000 cows producing 5.7 billion pounds of milk.  While everyone in Michigan probably knows about Pinconning cheese produced on a massive scale and sold in hard orange vacuum packed bricks, less well-known is that Michigan also has a few small scale cheesemakers turning out some very unique regional specialties. Some of these special cheeses include an amazing nutty and firm Raclette from Leelanau County and John Loomis' incredible goat cheeses at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. 


Although the world of cheese contains hundreds of varieties, Morgan and York's fabulous cheese class teaches that they all fall into 6 main types of cheese "recipes." These categories are: 1) Fresh (like Fromage Frais or Mascarpone), 2) Soft (like Chevre or Mozzarella), 3) Washed rind (Munster, Epoisses), 4) Cooked curd (Comte, Gruyere), 5) Blue (Gorgonzola, Stilton), and 6) Hard (Cheddar, Piave).  Each individual cheese is its own little ecosystem, with both good bacteria acting to create many of the nuanced flavors and forms of the cheese. And bad bacteria that can be kept in check with the cleanliness of the cheesemaking process and the health of the good bacteria. Interestingly, there is a Michigan made cheese in each of the main categories of cheese except blue. 

Because cheese is milk, concentrated 5-10 times in the process of cooking, pressing, and aging, the quality, treatment and taste of the milk that makes the cheese is crucial to the ultimate fullness and flavor of the finished cheese. 

One of the main debates in Michigan and elsewhere around artisanal cheese is the "raw v. pasteurized" milk war.  Many myths surround the raw v. pasteurized debate, but it only makes sense (and thousands of years before pasteurization prove) that well-produced and carefully handled milk, whether raw or pasteurized, is what makes great cheese. Any cheese can be contaminated either in the making or in the post production phase if sanitary procedures are not followed. Time magazine recently ran an article about raw milk farmers in Michigan - some people believe that the large dairy interests in the state are working to drive out smaller farmers supplying even highest quality raw milk.  Although pasteurized milk cheese is also excellent, a war on raw milk cannot benefit cheese lovers. 

Whether made with raw or pasteurized milk, one of the reasons that there are not more Michigan artisanal cheeses is the problem that a small cheesemaker has with getting a consistent supply of really superior milk. While 30 years ago there were over 12,500 dairy farms in Michigan, in 2005 there were but 2800. And only a few of those (mostly small family-owned farms) producing the quality of milk needed for great cheese. Some that produce milk good enough to turn into excellent cheese are:

  • Calder Dairy  - in Carleton, MI supplying milk, butter, cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and still offering home delivery.
  • Grassfields Farm - in Coopersville, MI makes Raw Milk Gouda, Edam and Leyden cheeses along with their own special Polkton Corners cheese.
  • Cook's Farm Dairy  - in Ortonville, MI also makes their own ice cream which they sell on site. 

Because the quality of the milk and way in which the cheese is made matter so much to the final product, it pays to know your cheesemaker.  And your dairy farmer.  And your cheesemonger cannot be forgotten. At a Michigan Cheese Tasting in April, 2007 sponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley,  four Michigan cheesemakers were featured, and close to a dozen different cheeses. 

Grassfields Farms makes their Gouda and Edam in Coopersville, Michigan. With 125 cows in their dairy, they are set to be certified organic this summer. The cheesemaker is a fourth generation farmer who has been making cheese for five years.  You can buy Grassfields Gouda at the People's Food Coop  on Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor.

Traffic Jam and Snug makes Asiago and a Hickory Smoked Colby once a month. The cheesemaker also makes the beer at this local Detroit brewery and creamery.  They are making only a batch of cheese a month.  Traffic Jam and Snug is in Detroit. 

Leelanau Cheese Company at Black Star Farms makes a special Raclette. In Sutton's Bay, Michigan, Black Star focuses on making European style cheese and specializes in Raclette with pasteurized milk from Martin Farm Dairy. You may have to go up north to find this one. 

Zingerman’s Creamery and master cheesemaker John Loomis specialize in fresh goat and cow's milk cheese using milk from a goat milk cooperative and from Calder dairy. They make 2 different cheeses every day which are available at Zingerman's businesses including the Deli, the Creamery, the Roadhouse. And also at the Farmer's Market on Saturdays.  

To learn more about cheeses in general, some excellent places to start include:

Morgan and York, offering a 3-session class on the regions, making, and taste of the world's cheeses in their fabulous Cheese Discovery Tour.

Zingerman's has many tasting events, often including cheese. The wonderful Zingerman's Creamery offers more than a dozen housemade cheeses with tours of the Creamery every Sunday.

Don't forget: June is National Dairy Month.  Michigan cheeses are amazingly good and they want to be eaten. The law of supply and demand decrees that the more Michigan cheese we eat, the more choice and variety the cheesemakers will give us.   

June 2007

Harbinger of Spring - The Farmer's Market

There is joy in Muddville when the first robins materialize, the first crocus blooms and the first spring offerings appear at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market. For those of us who spend the cold months hibernating inside, swaddled in woolens, and finding solace in pots of hot soup, Market days in early spring are the grace for our penance.


Ann Arbor residents have been buying fresh from the farm at the Farmer’s Market for almost 90 years. When it started in 1919 it was situated in front of the courthouse and moved 20 years later to its current location – a former lumber yard. A WPA project built the current roof structures.

In summer there are over 100 vendors on a Saturday morning. Market days on Wednesday and Saturday start before the sun comes up and last until mid-afternoon. 

Although it’s now early April and snow is dusting the ground, we’ve had enough warmish weather that there are tender greens on offer – spinach, baby lettuces, mache – from local organic farms Brine's Farm and Tantré Farm who were planting in their hoophouses when real snow was on the ground. Eating spinach, lightly sautéed with garlic, or the baby lettuce mix with a drizzle of vinaigrette is like getting the little power burst in a video game. 

There is a redevelopment planned for the market that intends to solve some of the current problems with the space. The Market Commission's Master Plan was  approved by City Council in 2006. See the draft they have posted of the revised Master Plan diagram. 

Jessica Black, the Market Manager, responded to an email inquiry with this information about the changes that have already happened and the ones that are still coming (note the possibility of solar energy!): 

"The Market Master Plan is still in the beginning stages as far as implementation is concerned.  In January 2006, City Council approved the market master plan for the farmers market.  Since then the market office, breezeway and market bathrooms have been updated and renovated.  Construction and upgrading on the existing sheds, new pavilion and parking lot will start this fall and continue through the winter.  A resolution to hire Beckett and Raeder as project managers will go to city council this month - I am not sure of the exact date.  Once they are on board, more meetings for city staff, market commission and city council will likely take place.  The city's energy office has applied for a solar energy grant (separate from the master plan) which would provide photovoltaic cells at the market.  This grant will be awarded in May 2007 and must be implemented within 12 months. I am very excited for the upcoming 1-2 years at the market!"

It gave me the goofy grin of the food-obsessed last week when I bought a dozen parti-colored eggs from a lady who raises different breeds of chickens and calls her hens “happy girls.” When I used the pastel colored eggs later to bake a birthday cake, I noticed how thick and firm the shells were and how the little membrane at the larger end was still in place. The yolks were the color of the orange setting sun. 

In summer, there is no finer place to be than at Market in the morning when the sun peeps over the horizon, slanting down on heaps of fat tomatoes, the perfume of spicy basil wafting, and armloads of fiesta colored zinnias lining the walkways.  Is there a better way to eat local, seasonal, and often sustainably grown food than what you find at the Farmer's Market?  The fact that you're supporting local farmers puts your money where your mouth is. 

Building the Beloved Food Community

“Slow Food" is a phrase that gets a quizzical glance from most of the people I mention it to. It has a kind of oxymoronic ring to it but, like Global Warming, it's just a simple way of referring to a multi-faceted idea. The Italian founder, Carlo Petrini, says “The Slow Food principles are that food must be good, clean and fair."  To me it means something both my reptilian brain and my evolved brain can grab onto: it's delicious and delicious in a number of ways that make a difference. 

Yes, food can be delicious and sustainable. If we consider the impact of our choices, food can make us better connected to the place where we live and to the people we care about. We go to France and Italy and Thailand and Vietnam for the chance to taste things that are food equivalents of Notre Dame and the Sistine Chapel and Angkor Wat -  each a fractal  and summation of the thousand years of history that has produced this amazing culture. 

Unless we are students of history, we miss the fact that seemingly simple things, like the eponymous croissant, have an evolutionary trajectory. And that there is a reason why it is the specialty of the region. How many people know that eating this buttery crisp pastry represents devouring the Islamic crescent, commemorating a Frankish victory at Tours over 1200 years ago? Somehow knowing that gives pleasure that feeds a part of me that is not in my mouth. 

It’s the desire not to miss that continuously evolving pleasure that leads me to consider that where we live in this little corner of the Great Lake State, we have things that are created with as much care and are just as specialized to our own region as the croissant is to France.  And that if you look, you can still find people who feel as deeply about the connection of food and place and community in Michigan as you can in France. 

An event like Building the Beloved Food Community connects those dots.  There is actually a local food community.  If we feed it, it can feed us.  On both the physical and metaphysical levels.   

Each of the panelists at the BTBFC event was someone you’d like to get to know better.  Nicola Noble, a no-nonsense petite brunette you could easily imagine in hip-high wellies, explained how 60 years ago when Calder started, there were over 100 dairies in Southeast Michigan. Now there are only about 5. Calder has over 150 cows that they milk twice a day, fed from food they grow on their farm. The farm is open for visits every day, and they still deliver milk in glass bottles – get this – to your house – if you live anywhere in the Carleton area. See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.calderdairy.com/">Calder Dairy</a>
Phone: 313-381-8858
<P>
John Loomis, tall and rangy with red, capable hands makes perhaps a dozen mostly soft and fresh cheeses by hand from Calder milk, and from local goat’s milk also,  for Zingerman’s. He learned to make cheese in Europe, but wanted to come back here to "build unique regional character with local products."  John’s cheeses are made in a traditional slow-er way that focuses on development of flavor as the ultimate goal.  And I must say, they are as tasty as the best cheeses I’ve had anywhere else. The Little Dragon goat cheese flavored with tarragon is incredible. See:
<a target="new" href="http://zingermanscreamery.com/content/pages/home.php/">Zingerman's Creamery</a> and
<a target="new" href="http://www.cheesemonthclub.com/pastnewsletters/vol6no3.htm">Creamery Newsletter</a>.
Phone: 734.929.0500
<P>
With her lovely long gray hair and apple-cheeked smile, Annie Elder is clearly the grande dame of the local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scene.  Annie Elder and Paul Bantle’s Community Farm is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  They grow food for about 180 families, using biodynamic agriculture.  This method "seeks to work with the life-giving forces of nature" according to its founder, Rudolph Steiner.  Unlike some other CSAs, Community Farm requires a commitment of labor to help with the work of the farm from its members. This has to make the food taste even better. See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.communityfarmofaa.org/">Community Farm of Ann Arbor</A>
Phone: 734.433.0261

The speaker whose topic generated the most excitement was probably Ashley Atkinson. Call me age-ist, but I don’t think she was over 25 years old and runs a huge project in the Detroit Garden Resource Program Collaborative, part of the Greening of Detroit initiative.  I could scarcely believe what I was hearing – that in Detroit there are over 1200 families and school groups growing vegetables on over 30 acres of inner city land.  Based on a model of "cluster groups" they connect gardeners to each other and to additional resources. They have training programs and tool sharing, they have a newsletter, work meetings, free plants and seeds, and an incredible amount of community involvement and collaboration among local urban farming initiatives.  This was amazing to hear about and to see photos of real live people doing this! See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.detroitagriculture.org/garden_resource_program.htm">Garden Resource Program Collaborative</a> of Detroit.

After the panel and once these local heroes finished answering questions, we got to taste some of the food they produce. Most people don’t think they can taste the distinctions between something like factory-farm produced milk in a plastic jug versus "single origin" milk in a glass bottle. But challenge that assumption! The difference is there in the sweetness and purity of the taste and it’s just as plain as day when you put them side by side.  

Once we’re paying attention to feeding something beyond our tastebuds, the difference is especially apparent. My evolved brain thinks about what I want to put into my body and my family’s bodies, and what kind of business and ethics I want to support in our community. The true cost of cheaper goods is rarely apparent to my inner penny-pincher.  Like many people I know, I’m slowly waking up to the reality that with food, things that are theoretically cheaper rarely remain cheaper if true cost is taken into account. 

But on this MLK Day, I wake up to a different possibility. In the Beloved Food Community we know where our food comes from and support the friends and neighbors who produce it.  It is more than a dream. It’s already a reality and it can grow into what we dream it could be.  In the immortal words of Dr. King, "I have a dream" and my dream is for a future where food feeds us body and soul. 

Greens - Leaves of Not Grass

In meditating upon the nature of edible leaves, the thought bubble above my head says that these early spinach leaves (like everything else) are recycled from everything and everyone. The idea that I am eating a small part of everything that has ever been on the earth and perhaps of every person who has ever been here too is a thought too deep and profound to sustain. My thought bubble happily floats back up to figuring out what's for dinner, if it's only greens that we're eating rather than the totality of creation. 


Part of the pleasure of a dinner including greens is knowing that you can still find them growing wild (often as weeds) and in reading about their part in our culinary history and heritage.


"People have been eating salads since the time of classical Greece. Tudor salads were edible art, with primroses, violets, and marigolds in among the greens. When William Byrd promoted the Virginia colony, he listed salad makings as three kinds of lettuce, two of garlic, several of cabbage and cucumbers, radishes, and many suitable herbs.

Farmer's Market in June - Tantré Today

Our first box of Tantré vegetables arrived today. We will be tingeing green from eating many, many leaves.  Including: beet, radish, turnip, bok choy, arugula, spinach, spicy, and 2 kinds of lettuce. There is about a laundry tub full of greens to wash. My favorite technique: fill a clean sink with cool water, remove any roots, inedible stems, or particularly dirty bits, submerge.  Rinse greens then repeat, refilling sink with clean water. The repeat step is important. I hate the crunch of sand in my food!  The prepared cook will find it wise to put cleaned greens through the salad spinner if not cooking immediately.  Otherwise, the time-pressed cook will find clean green slime a few days hence.


Our first Tantré meal will be Asian-inspired grilled chicken (from Bob Sparrow of course) salad with spicy greens, picked radishes and turnips, and a peanut ginger dressing. Perhaps with some noodles and mint for excitemint.


And since I bought strawberries, I'd like to make a lemon-lavender poundcake to go under them for dessert.  


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