Saturday, January 24, 2009

Otter Creek Foodshed

Since I've been back in Middlebury not much has come out of my food writer's pen. But here's something I've been working on, about eating local in the Otter Creek Foodshed, and what it's like to be a local and a "Midd Kid" at the same time. You'll need a Docs account to see it, because unfortunately Google doesn't allow us to publish PDFs from Docs. Get on that, Google.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Before I worked for the Food Project, I was on the crew at Burlington, Vermont's Healthy City Youth Farm. This awesome vlog post by 7Days's Eva Sollberger epitomizes this place, and the youth urban ag movement in general. Those who don't share fondness for the faces in this film will be drawn in nonetheless, I'm sure. Look out for forthcoming video content from Bean / Cod on the summer of 2008 in Lynn!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Airborne / Earthbound

And sitting in the eye of this updraft, transmission node between sky and earth, the rolling-suitcased crowd moving bluetoothed and Blackberried, making a show of frictionlessness. But I'm surrounded by ungainly weight, earth-freight dragging at my sleek ascent. The baggage-checkers are looking with suspicion, I'm sure, at the array of small packages full of fragrant things, paste, seeds, vinegars, and a brace of glistening knives for the reduction of all to digestible mince. All this I fold carefully into my clothes, sowing my suitcase's clean-smelling body with inward hidden pouches of strong scent. Who knows what the drug-sniffing dogs will think. Certainly not: this is a man in denial, dragging his feet awkwardly through this life of frictionlessness and constant motion. His life makes him slide all around the world like a blown milkweed, but he can't resist hanging onto the literal dirt of where he comes from. Look, he's got a bag of fresh unwashed garlic heads, reeking of loam.

Outside the glass walls cars slide along in reptilian calm, their insides refrigerated and unperturbed by the heat, or by the raging fires under their hoods. The sky hurting white, hard sunlight, the hum of engines thickening the walls of an invisible greenhouse arcing above the earth. I sip cool water, suck in the internet through the air, and wait.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Farmers' Markets

Under the invisible subway griminess, my hands are caked yellow-green with the thick sweat of tomatoes, whose rangy legs I've been breaking methodically, all day long. The Green Line flashes by, a more predictable, less elusive shade, no dusting in its paint of oily purple-black or pollen-gold. People's eyes dart over my hands, then away. Farm-maintenance days are always dirty, while harvest and market days are cleaner. I am vain about the dirt; I like looking at it on the subway, and like when other people look at it, and pretend not to. On the manicured, docile T, I give in a little to narcissism, and to a bit of glib internal poeticizing of the hard, communal, unheroic work I do.

Tomorrow the youth crews will swing full crates freighted with leaf and seedpod from hand to hand, into the back of out rattletrap red van, which I'll drive to market. As I start the engine a ragged cheer will rise, and in the rearview's jittery glass I'll see two young folk congratulate each other with a many-staged handshake, the sort of manual hip-hop dance they are perpetually inventing, slap-draw back-reverse-jerk-snap. They've created one to accompany an oft-dropped meme: the Pop-Lock-n-Drop-It handshake. Pop: the two fists connect, oriented so that two imaginary clutched batons would point perpendicular to the ground. Lock: knuckles touching, the wrists torque in opposite directions, so batons are horizontal. And Drop It: the fingers open, and phantom batons clatter side by side on the blacktop.

At the market I'll roll a curb, ignoring horns. Pilot the low-rolling vegetable boat though a sluggishly parting sea of tiny Latina children, whose mothers and big sisters herd them aside as they see the van. And ease between the tents, aged Russians more unresponsive to their immanent crushing than the toddlers, their dim but shrewd eyes fixed, myopic, on the spot where beets, dill, garlic and honey will soon appear. I lumber through the breach, the neighbor's hanging flowerpots brushing the hull. Then the human wake closing, and rising to lap and surge against the stand. The market coordinator staving them back, so the doors can open and the desired fruits be piled on the plastic folding tables. Much yelling and gesturing as the hell-bent old women descend on their favored ingredients like a creaking army of bees, their chatter in an acrobatic syllabary we can no more decipher or pronounce than the stinger-waving jive of apiaries. At least we can speak broken Spanish to the stream of Guatemalan and Salvadorian mothers who drift over to our stand from the Latino farmers next door, their bags stuffed with maize leaves for tamales. On a good day, we have a native speaker with us; otherwise we deploy our few words and stitch them together with the broad loops of gesture.

Long after the first rush, we usually see Destiny and her mom, or another favorite customer, Elena. Bleach-blonde and talkative in a front-porch rocking-chair manner, a thinning but still salty Greek accent overlays her fluent English, which gropes only occasionally for an obscure culinary term. She tells the intern stuffing her bag with spinach about making her own fila dough for spanakopita, beckoning periodically to encourage more spinach. She comes as much to talk as shop, and never leaves the stand without a detailed discussion of recipes, her family, and food philosophy.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bean and cod at last

Oh I come from the city of Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Cabots speak only to Lulls
And the lulls speak only to God.

The doggerel sticks with me from some childhood afternoon when my mother recited it to my uncomprehending but eager ears, which stashed the euphony away, but missed the saltiness of my mother's mockery, the history of her husband's blueblooded Bostonian heritage (long a laughing and occasional crying matter for her). This note surfaced later, and how I am living here where ancestors whose stories (and wealth) have receded in the mists of East Coast Standard Time.
One month here and I am settling a score with my titles. Bean and cod has heretofore eluded me. Not that cooking them will plug me into some hidden vault of ancestral memory--I have slim intent to season according to tradition--but the hours spent reading recipes, talking to locals and stomping around town hunting down ingredients will be an affair of meditation on my strange and common position as a postmodern person afloat amid fractured and remixed heritages, a global sea of taste and story.
So I take the Green to Lechmere and walk west on Cambridge Street. Somewhere in that sector, there's fresh cod for cheap. Or so says the internet.
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On the train, musing: the America of the future, as I imagine it at home in Vermont, seems, at least on this section of the T, a plausible, dawning reality. A nation of jalepeno and fried plantain as much as of bean and cod, of curry and Pho as much as of burgers (from Hamburg) and fries (French). (New York pizza is just as much pizza as Sicilian, a maker of rigorously Italian pizzas once told me, to his credit. ) This America is on the train, looking like the world: dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a few pale northerners curious for their primary coloring: blue eyes, yellow hair, red blush and sunburn. Speaking dozens of languages, having forgotten hundreds. Like the Italian my grandfather un-forgot, in the last years of his life, sitting across a folding wood-grain laminate table from a woman named Rosa, in Cardinal Hills retirement home, his wife gone, his house sold, but the grammar, the whole crystalline structure of the language, still somehow intact. Cooking for me, and for many of us, is an act of remembering things we never learned. Especially for Euro-Americans who have forgotten that we come from somewhere, that our skin has a shade, is not simply blank, that our names trace us back to a position on the globe. But while remembering the old countries, one should know that traditions never stop forming, and everyone makes them, even people who have forgotten their ethnicity, like proper Bostonians, the bean and cod eaters. So my "traditional" Boston meal is just another way of tapping other people's memories, or dipping back into the salty ocean of my ancestry and scooping something forgotten back into my identity in the clamorous present.


The fishmarket is smaller than I expected. Somehow the enthusing of dozens of Chowhounds and Yelpers enlarges a place. Smell of fish, arresting but not rank. Neat, unadorned coolers, single deli counter. I ask after the fabled codfish. 13.99, and I ask if there are any scraps from the cutting. "Frozen, we have some. Cut up the fish yesterday. We keep it around for fishcakes, but you're welcome to it." Showing me to the freezer, and tied-off plastic bag. I tell him I'm going down the street to comparison shop, but will probably be back and thanks for his understanding. New Deal doesn't have enough scraps, but they do an small but very well-curated selection of nori paper, seasoned bread crumbs in house-packaged bags, each labelled with price by weight. Baskets of citrus fruit. And a small shelf of olive oil and Modenan vinegar, all selected with hand-written, laminated tasting notes tacked to the painted wood of the shelf. Selected for seafood pairings, all of them. Nothing irrelevant, a full price range, and nothing that is not honestly described in the careful handwriting. Maybe 10 feet of shelf, in all. I buy the breadcrumbs, after wandering around dazed, fingering and reading things. And walk back east, to where the Courthouse guy chastises me lightly with his tone for believing there might be any competition. I smile. Buy the fish.


And as the Lechmere's "brick barn" (as a passing local directed me) rises to view again, I spot Francisco's wife among the much-taller Salvadorian black corn. She recognizes me. We chat briefly about the maize, the tomatoes. We don't exchange names. I never see them again.


When the T spits me out at Kenmore, I duck below the street again to visit the Wine Gallery for beer pairing advice. I get that (Hoegaarden to compliment the light herbal and citrus flavors in the cod cakes and white bean salad), and I report back on yesterday's cod buying advice. The proprietors and I have established a chatting friendship over my persistent beer questions. "My parents were fishermen," the proprietress told me before my fish-buying trip. "I grew up around boats and fish. Fourth of July... well, we'd always make fish cakes. Cod. Cod cakes were the tradition." The best fish market burned down some years back, she tells me, but directs me up to New Deal and Courthouse, though these were closed on the actual Fourth. So after balking at Trader Joe's Alaskan frozen cod, I out the meal off for a day and get the fish from nearer waters.


The meal turns out rather well. Tarragon, cilantro and dill are chopped go from fat bunches to piles of confetti. The canellinis come out of cold soak into boiling water, are drained and doused in olive oil. Not as ripely apt as those in New Deal's curated case, but servicable. Everything is light, lemony, intensely herbal, and perfect with the Hoegaarden's loose, flowery sheaves of wheat, orange peel, and coriander. Consumed on the roof beneath the flashing Citgo sign, and in the park by the Charles, the history of the dish was eclipsed by the bracing ephermerality of these flavors. Within days, almost all the ingredients will wilt, rot, fade into blandness or rank.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Logo culture mythos meme

My employer, the Food Project, has recently removed its name from the front of its crew teeshirts, leaving only a cream logo on forest green. A walk through Cambridge on a Wednesday afternoon demonstrated the surprising power of this image to evoke...

Communism: Emerging from the T. Adjusting to the light of Davis Square's afternoon. "Whooooa, Dooood!" Greenpeace on a sky blue polo shirt. Hobbit-head. Patchy facial hair. "Sick shirt, dude. Is that like, whoa, Greenpeace... cool stuff" Gesturing between our two shirts, inchoate expression of some perceived kinship they signify between this youth and me, which he apparently feels quite strongly. I'm still blinking, trying to figure out which corner of Davis I'm on, where I need to turn for the farmers' market. He has a folder. I don't want any more .org emails. "Hey do you know where--" "Dude, lemme see the back of your shirt. Whoa, is that, like, communist or something? I wanna join a commune. Yeah, brothah! He's shaking my hand. At this point I'm so interested I stop trying to get out of the interaction. "Well, we're an urban agriculture project. We hire youth--farms in the city--and, hey, actually would you happen to know where the farmers' market's at?" "Oh, yeah, dude, it's like just down that street--awesome--man!" Shaking my hand again. Sending me on my way. No listserve.

Environmentalism: Half a block further on. "There you are! Environmentalist, right?" As if it's my name, and we've spoken on the phone but never met. Or I'm holding a sign at the train station. The blue polo on a young woman this time. Eye makeup. We talk about Greenpeace's climate positions. They didn't support Lieberman-Warner, and she's so unselfconcious and obnoxiously eager that I sign up. I start to go into my beefs with the word "environmentalist," but again get too interested in what sort of person would pick this for a job, and why the glyph on my shirt triggered her like the PIN number unlocking some kind of numinous cultural capital. I let her talk, and take my name and debit numbers.

Tree Hugging: And after ten paces there's another one. "Greetings! Fellow treehugger!" Again pointing at the shirt. "I just signed up with you. Got a farmers' market to go to." "Oh... cool!" stepping out of the middle of the sidewalk, letting me pass. I've said the password, and I'm not sure if it was "already signed up" or "farmers' market".

Johnny Appleseed: I go into the T on the wrong side at Central Square. Have to re-swipe to change directions. And of course the system thinks I've just handed the pass back to a friend over the turnstile, and won't let me pass. Card already used, bold Helvetica on the LCD. I go back to streetlevel, and sit on a bench to wait. The man is overweight and grizzled under a stained and scuffed cap. He nods and smiles as I sit. "Your shirt," he says. "It reminds me of Johnny Appleseed." Just like that.
By now, I'm planning my call to the logo's designers: "You seem to have done a remarkably good job. This thing is evoking, like, mythic American heroes and stuff." And starting conversations with strangers right and left in this city of no eye contact, creating some kind of hole in the mesh of symbols coded to hyper-specific groups, and resonating in ways its designers never could have intended.
"I thought it was an apple at first," the man adds. "But now I see it's a pepper. Do you work on a farm?" And soon he's telling me about Western Massachusetts, the town where Johnny Appleseed began his journey, where this man grew up. And about Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, how to live there on the cheap, eating fresh fish and riding one's bicycle everywhere. He's only marginally interested in what I tell him about what the shirt originally meant, and I let him range far in the associations it occasions in him. By the time the train is ready to accept my pass again, he's rambled like Johnny through dozens of far-flung meadows of his memory.

Organic: The woman is manning the turnstile when I re-enter the T. "Hey, is that shirt, like, organic farming, or...?" She's not sure how to form grammar around the association the image creates, but seems compelled to vocalize it anyway. I launch into a Food Project sound byte, triggered by her smile and the jumbled keyword tag-cloud she addresses me with. Like the Greenpeace grunts, I activate at the password, the friendly smoke signal. The day of our Lynn farmers' market is her day off, the day she gets to spend above ground. "I'm coming and I'm bringing all my aunts and uncles," she tells me as we part. I walk away smiling at no one, astonished and delighted.

Now playing: Mirah/Ginger Takahashi - Oh! September
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ontological control: Fiction polices reality in Lynn

Destiny is dressed all in black, with Hannah Montana as a glare-pink stencil face blazing across her shirt. "After this, I'm totally on break," she says. Her skinny arms pushing a rake through the topsoil her mom's wheelbarrowing into the new beds. Break over, Destiny pulls a scraggly pot-bound tomato plant from the plastic tray. I ask her if she knows how to transplant it. "Oh, yeah, like this." Deftly loosening the root-ball, tucking it into the ground. Destiny gives the soil a cosmetic smooth, says "I know" when Mom reminds her to pack it down around the roots.
Her mother, in the shade of the van's tailgate: "It's the same with me: I'm a city-country person like you, Robert. My parents had a farm, horses. It's hard. I'm, like, you know that neighbor who inspires everyone else to plant something. Yeah, that's always me. I'm just digging in the littlest space and planting things. So when I heard about this I'm like Yeah! Sign me up."


Behind the empty lot, piles of construction trash rise like hump-backed, flotsam-crusted sea monsters surfacing from the hot blacktop. A dessicated bus drags its wheelless rear, its windows smashed, its siding hammered and twisted into Gehry-esque wing-shapes. A pickup, a mere shell of rust, rides one of the waves of trash.
"They must think Lynn is one giant dumpster," Destiny's mother is saying. "Everywhere they go, they just leave trash, trash, trash."
The film is called "Surrogates." This heaving trashscape is how the makers have envisioned the city, fifty years into the future. Spandexed humanoid robots have walked the streets for weeks prior to my arrival on the North Shore. One of the many storefronts advertising used electronics bought, and a slew of oft-questionable computer services, became a robot upgrade shop. We hear this from one of the earnest onlookers who clog the streetcorners as fictitious motorcycles scream through the streets, chased by choppers and obstructing the business district for days on end. For 20 minutes, we are trapped inside Flava'z, the local tag-themed scoop shop, while the chase unwinds and rewinds, the background traffic backing into place, then rolling when the camera rolls, and repeating, as bike and cop cars weave and screech through it. The business district is a gaping hole in reality, the fictitious violently keeping the quotidian at bay, with microphoned guards and cooperative local cops herding pedestrians and traffic, so that the future-dystopian theme feels not entirely distant.


On the Harvard bridge at sunset, later, an old friend and I spin our own fantasies of the future. Full of Syrah, soft tacos, and our long history of fantasizing together. Ours has always been the friendship of eager young boys. "Man, I been watching the news lately," he's saying. "It's all going down. I'm telling you. Well, going up actually. The gas prices, the sea level..."
The world's been ending for thousands of years. No reason it should stop now.
But with the wine and his high spirits, and the sailboats like snippets of wings on the sunset-bruised Charles, I play along, and I believe what I'm imagining. "There'll be rooftop gardens," I'm saying. "You'll look down on the city and no cars will be moving. All the fuel's used up. Everyone's an immigrant, come here from worse places in the South. People are selling things on the empty highways. Food's growing everywhere. You can't hear an engine or an automated voice. Just shouts in a hundred languages."

Now playing: M.I.A. - Bird Flu
via FoxyTunes