Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fat Babies

There is a narrative of poverty about the Dominican Republic, perpetuated by people like Angelina Jolie that most people accept as par for the course in “developing countries”. I do not dispute that people here are poor, and to be sure, there are people here, like everywhere, who live in conditions of grinding poverty and desperation. I would also add that a lot of those living in poverty here are Haitians, whose struggle for existence is exacerbated by lack of documentation and unreliable work visas. But, poverty has many faces. One of them is dignity. Another is perseverance. Another is the strength of women and families.

I questioned my own assumptions about poverty and this place when I first came in 2007. I saw things in the rural areas that surprised me—well-fed animals, neatly swept yards, freshly painted houses and lacy curtains waving in the windows. But it was the fat babies that really turned my head—then and now. Everywhere we go, we see fat babies waddling around, and it makes me really happy for lots of reasons. One reason is that infant mortality is usually a result of malnutrition, and this is also related to maternal malnutrition. The fact that we see a lot of fat babies suggests that both mothers and babies are getting enough food—which is usually not the case in poor populations.

I puzzled about this for a bit, and wondered if maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, or rather, just had my head turned by cute babies, until I ran across a very interesting statistic. Almost a quarter of the world’s children under five years old are underweight. The average percentage for the Caribbean and Latin American region is 8%. The percentage for the DR is 5%. So I was right, babies here—are at least statistically fatter than they are elsewhere. But why? The DR is slightly below the world average in terms of income (using purchasing power parity as a measure), as has an average annual income per person of around $8000, vs $10,000 for the world average. This on par with the rest of the region, which have (in some cases astonishingly) higher numbers of underweight children (15% for Ecuador). The DR also has the same income per capita as Thailand, but they have rates of underweight children closer to the world average (20%). If it’s not income, then what is it?

I would like to suggest that it is because women are the main breadwinners and heads of household here. I know this is paradoxical, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It is well documented that female headed households are generally poorer than male-headed households. But what I see here is that female-headed households have complex relations with other women in female-headed households, and that a reciprocal social economy revolves around children that prioritizes sharing resources, including food. For example, in our guesthouse, our housemother, AnaJulia is a single mother and she regularly babysits (for no money) for her sisters, sisters-in-law and other female neighbors while they work or go to school. She also regularly feeds a large extended family every time they visit. Roosters and rum (the provenance of masculinity) do not compete for resources in these households, and women in the DR regularly forsake relationships with men because they have failed to support their children. Tellingly, the countries with the highest levels of underweight children (Bangladesh, Yemen, Ethiopia) are also those countries where women have the least amount of autonomy, mobility and control over their bodies.

I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, and I probably won’t pursue the question any further than this. I’m just happy to see fat babies, and I hope to keep seeing them for a long time to come. I’m also happy to see the ways in which people cope and prioritize in the face of scarce resources, and turn the narratives of poverty and hopelessness into narratives of dignity, resourcefulness and strength.

Casabe Cottage Industry

The high point of today was a trip to a home-scale casabe factory. Casabe, which is made from yuca (also known as cassava or manioc) is a staple food in the Dominican Republic. Moncion happens to the be the casabe capital of the DR--maybe even the universe. There are several large scale factories here, but we drive by a home-scale factory at least twice a day. Today, we decided to stop and see how they do it. Yuca originated in the Caribbean, and has since spread throughout the world, via colonialism. It takes a long time to grow (18 months), and resembles a small tree. The root is waxy and brown and tastes a bit like a potato when boiled. Casabe is made from the crushed yuca root.

There are several stages of washing, crushing, straining, pulverizing, sifting, etc. before it becomes a kind of lumpy powder. This dried powder is spread inside cast iron rings on a wood fired griddle and roasted until it gets crispy. More yuca root powder is added, and the casabe is turned to cook on the other side. When done (a process that takes a few minutes) the casabe is stacked, cut (with a bandsaw!) and wrapped for sale.

Mechi, the woman who owns this factory, sells her product mostly on the "Road to Moncion" but also in Mao (the closest large town). She was delighted to share her very fine product with us and sent us home with a couple freshly wrapped packs for the equivalent of a couple dollars. The price of food continues to rise due to CAFTA-DR (Central American Free Trade Agreement), the consequent increase of food imports and the decline in the viability of food production in Dominican Republic. As we are finding out, the rising food prices are causing a tremendous amount of anxiety among poorly paid banana workers.

I hope that small-scale, home-based production of indigenous and locally-produced and consumed foods can remain viable in a rapidly changing economic situation. Indeed, given what we are finding out about the impact of globalization here, it may be the only kind of enterprise that does. Or dare I say, should...

Friday, December 3, 2010

On Chickens and Roads

Chickens are a rather important (and at times fairly irritating) part of the social economy here in Moncion. Right now, as I sit in my "office" on the porch of our guesthouse, I am watching the neighbor train his roosters for fighting. This involves a practice fight (traqueo) between his various roosters and consequent selection of a few who are taken away. My guess is that a cock fight is in the works for this evening or weekend. There is a constant din of crowing throughout the town of Moncion, and the sound of it pulses across the valley all day and most of the night. As we inadvertently determined via an interview recording a rooster crows every five seconds in our neighborhood.

The roosters of Moncion only take time off from crowing between the hours of 7 pm and 3 am, which is now when I sleep. There must be thousands of roosters here, which is an indication of the role cockfighting plays in the entertainment "industry" here. It's a blood "sport" during which roosters often fight to the death (and then are eaten by the crowd), and it has huge social significance for the construction of masculinity here and in the wider Caribbean region.

But...if you think the roosters have a terrible fate, consider the fates of the hens. The Dominican Republic has adopted much of the North's industrial models of farming, and just up the road there are several chicken houses. Whether they are layers or broilers is not clear, but what is clear from menus and our meals in the guesthouse, is that eggs and chickens are a staple food for Dominicans. What is also clear is that these chickens live short, miserable lives crammed into cages just so we eaters can have cheap food, and those farmers can make money. (Incidentally, livestock farmers have the nicest houses in Moncion).

After our housemother AnaJulia made Erin and I (industrially produced) eggs for breakfast five days in a row, we began to worry about our health and the impact of our "choice" to eat these eggs. And so we took matters in our own hands. One day, I saw a woman on the beautiful "Road to Moncion" (a book I will write someday) selling small, brown eggs in the shade of a small stand. I am not kidding when I say I slammed on the brakes, almost got us flattened by a truck and backed into a tree just to get me some of those eggs. Turns out the hens are housed in wooden cages, but out in the open air, and they probably live lives a lot like the hens in my own backyard. The hens belong to the "sister of Emelita" and the eggs they produce are for sale along with sweets, cake and casabe most days of the week.

Even though AnaJulia has three sweet hens and a Foghorn Leghorn rooster in her backyard, she still buys the white eggs in the colmados (small local groceries). We weren't sure how she would receive our donation, and haven't explored the issue yet, but I suspect that she thinks we want the industrial products. We have slowly and gently been steering her towards the idea that we actually *like* to eat local fruits and vegetables. (We both have been having green vegetable fantasies...). This seems to mystify her for the most part, but she does her best to please us, no matter how weird our tastes might seem.

While the roosters and the layers of Moncion have uncertain and often horrible fates, the "wild chickens" of Moncion lead lives that most chickens would envy. They are literally everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and colors. They bring back fond memories of my own little Banty chickens, and it makes me happy to see livestock freed from the bonds of human desires for profit, pleasure and captivity.

So to answer the age old question, why did the chicken cross the road? Because, here in Moncion, it could.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. Any holiday premised entirely on cooking and eating is my kind of party. But, after encountering indigenous people and the remnants of their civilizations, all over the world (Adivasi in India, Anishinabe in Minnesota and Taino in the Caribbean) who have been pushed off their land by colonizing populations, I have lost my appetite for this particular celebration. In the runup to the holidays in the U.S., it’s easy to overlook the foundations of this holiday, and the tragic aftermath of western contact in the Americas.

Being in the Dominican Republic over this holiday, and having just left White Earth Indian Reservation, I was more than usually conscious of the impact of European contact and settlement in the western hemisphere. Colombus landed here first, and his brother, Bartholomew got the loot (slaves, land, gold, etc) for the Spanish crown. The Taino, not having immunity to European crowd diseases died in waves of epidemics. Those that did not die immediately were drafted as laborers for the colonies and were worked to death. African slaves were imported to work the sugar cane, and the children of Spanish plantation owners and African slaves now compose the population of most of the D.R. The only Caribbean island with any remaining native population of Taino is the island of Dominica—which is now an eco-reserve for tourists and the setting of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

This Thanksgiving, Erin and I were staying in the house of AnaJulia and her daughter AnaMaria. Their house is our home base for banana farmer interviews in the region. For obvious reasons, Thanksgiving is not celebrated here, and given that we missed our families, we asked Dona Julia to cook us a special (vegetarian) meal to be shared in the afternoon. She knocked herself out! We had two kinds of rice (yellow and white), the typical Dominican tomato-based bean stew, fried sweet plantains, stewed eggplant, stewed squash (tayote), potato salad, green salad and fresh fruit. The whole meal was traditional Dominican food--minus the meat—which is a huge part of almost every meal here. Dona Julia joked that she bought every vegetable available in Moncion for us. We ate really well, and we felt pretty lucky.

We also felt pretty inspired. Next Thanksgiving, instead of gorging ourselves on food from factory farms in a macabre facsimile of the imagined and distorted origins of this holiday (see Eating Animals, by Jonathon Safran Foer), why don’t we honor the memory and legacy of indigenous people, and their agri-cultures in a conscious way by incorporating wild foods and local foods into our Thanksgiving meals and share these meals with a wider community? Why don’t we dedicate Black Friday as a day of service to rectifying the legacies of colonialism instead of a day of indulgence? Why don’t we organize ourselves to help return land to the landless in whatever way we can? We cannot make up for the sins of our forebears, but we can definitely stop being part of the problem. Start making plans now!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Intercropping Magnet

I have a new theory--well two--that I need to test. (With more travel obviously...) So, either more people than I think practice permaculture, or I am somehow magically spirited to places where people practice this. I am going to go with the latter, no matter how incongruous that might be, and hope that all evidence of the first theory means really good things for the world.

Erin and I arrived in the Dominican Republic yesterday afternoon and after a ridiculous amount of rigmarole getting a rental car, set off for our guesthouse in the mountains in Moncion. We didn't make it there because the sun set pretty fast, as it does in the tropics, and going on five hours of sleep, I decided I would rather sleep than drive in the pitch black up a winding mountain road to a place I had no idea how to reach.

We stayed in Mao--a town named for a Taino chief, not the commie--in a giant hotel with three karaoke bars--blaring at us from all directions. Fortunately our blackout curtains kept out the sound--and the sun. When we woke up (after miraculously getting some sleep) Erin opened the balcony door to the dazzling morning sunshine. Both of us--being accustomed to the weak sun of the high latitudes recently, were physically thrown back by the intensity of the tropical light. Erin shut the door, and said "Let me try that again--more slowly this time".

After thawing ourselves in the sun like a couple of landlocked, high latitude cats for a gorgeous half hour, we set off for our guesthouse. We were mighty glad we stayed the night in Mao because the views up the mountain road were outrageously beautiful. Moncion is kind of a sleepy town with fresh, sweet air and a fair amount of chicken and donkey traffic. (Don't get me wrong--there is still merengue music belting out 24-7). Our guesthouse--Casa De Las Anas--is down a bumpy dirt alley and is nestled in a forest of fruit trees.

I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing on my round of the gardens this afternoon--oranges, avocadoes, cassava, bananas, cherries, mangoes, plantains, sugarcane, chinole and other ornamental and food crop plants I don't recognize were all growing in happy intercropped profusion in this little tiny space in the middle of the city. The oranges we ate for lunch came right from the tree in the yard and they were like nothing I had ever eaten before.

Noel, our guide--a very mature boy for his age, told us that the soil was very good, and produced very nice fruits. I am looking forward to a few more weeks of being treated to such nice fruits--grown in a sustainable way, for household consumption. I have seen this everywhere I have been in the last many months and I know that we can all do this! Anywhere!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Urban Permaculture Art

My permaculture peeps in Athens are meeting next Monday to talk about the role of art and murals in social change. Thought of you guys today! Here's some inspiration!

Walnut Way Forward

I have a serious amount of blogging to do, and I will catch up, but here’s a short update. I have a few weeks between leaving Minnesota and going to the Dominican Republic. In the interests of money and time, I decided against going back to Europe (turned down an opportunity to go to Terra Madre, agggggghhhh—what WAS I thinking?) and decided for staying in the United States and taking a tour of food sovereignty movements in my own backyard. There are a whole slew of urban gardens, sustainability initiatives and fabulous farms between Minnesota and Georgia, and I’m hitting as many as I can!

Yesterday, I left Minneapolis (after a fabulous local breakfast at butter cafĂ©) and drove to Milwaukee to visit some of the urban agriculture projects of which I have long been a fan. Colleague and friend, Nik Heynen, hooked me up with Walnut Way, which is a non-profit urban renewal project in a previously vibrant community, but until very recently a red lined, drug and prostitution haven on the border between two police districts. This neighborhood was a no man’s land until Sharon Adams came back to town and straightened a thing or two out.

The project started with community meetings to identify pressing needs. Among other things, there was a dire need for storm water runoff management. This is not the first time that I’ve heard of waste management as a pressing priority in poor, urban neighborhoods, but the global scope of this local need was really striking. The runoff of contaminated water affects this neighborhood, the regional watershed, the Great Lakes ecosystem, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. Sharon, and her partner Larry, researched the best way to do this, and among other things, including cisterns and rain barrels, started “rain gardens”.

Rain gardens are shallow wells built into the yards of the neighborhood residents that literally siphon rain water off roofs via downspouts, into small—virtually unnoticeable--wildflower gardens. A second need in the community was restoring the neighborhood continuity with housing in the community’s numerous vacant lots. The neighborhood, once a vibrant African-American community in Milwaukee’s jazz scene was redlined, disinvested and abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s. The detruction and removal of hundred year old houses left the community with a blighted landscape and no prospects for renewal. Except for a planned freeway through the heart of it, which was later abandoned. Thank god.

The city sold the vacant lots for a $1 to encourage building in the neighborhood. There are now home to peach trees, raspberry bushes and raised beds for vegetables. The majority of the produce is sold in the not for profit “Fondy Market” and the remainder is distributed throughout the community. The project has since expanded, with a very large grant by real estate tycoon Joe Zilber via the Zilber family foundation, to the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, to the north of Walnut Way.

A few kids down the street, like kids all over the world, wanted me to take their picture (I love this so much), and then proceeded to take me on a tour of their neighborhood. They, like their mom and her sister, are recipients of the food grown in Walnut Way gardens and are growing up in better housing, a more cohesive community (everyone knows everybody) with healthier bodies and with opportunities for meaningful work in their neighborhood, that was unheard of ten years ago.

The gifts of gardens keep on giving.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(Almost) Losing Seneca Pink Lady

This morning, I discovered why the mice have been so noisy in the night in my cabin in the woods. They have steadily and industriously stripped the seeds off the cobs of the Seneca Pink Lady corn and stored them in various places, including my suitcase. I have been cursing them nightly for their noisy projects, but Lord Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant head who removed obstacles and rides on the back of a rat, daily stays the hand of execution. My firm belief in the sanctity of life tells me that there is nothing more senseless than me destroying the life that carried on before I got here, and will remain carrying on long after I am gone. Little did I know that in my magnanimity, I was feeding them endangered heirloom corn!

I discovered this to my horror, this morning. As I picked out some clothes to wear, three kernels of pink corn rolled out of them. I ran, half naked, to the kitchen, and saw the now completely naked cobs of corn. I was already processing a tremendous amount of painful present and past emotional damage in my isolation here, and I don’t think devastated could really cover how I felt at this complete failure of my responsibility to these seeds. Trying to put on a brave face, I held the three remaining kernels in my hand and told myself it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And how was I going to grow corn in my backyard anyway. Forget about it.

I then realized that I was feeling that the mice had taken everything from me and left me with nothing. This seems to be the story of my life, and a better allegory could not be made for my present emotional state. Through my tears, however, I realized that they had taken what they needed, and left me with what I needed. With great care and diligence, I could plant these three survivors and bring the corn back to plenty. Just like I had everything I needed to bring back—with great care and diligence--my own emotional life to plenty. I carefully wrapped the seeds and stored them in a safe place, promising that when I finally had the chance, I would plant them out and grow them (along with other endangered heirlooms) on the Trauger farm.

Feeling better, I finished dressing. As I dug through my clothes, I discovered dozens and dozens more kernels that had been carefully removed from the cob and laboriously carried to the bedroom and stored in the safe place that just happened to be my suitcase. Life is strange and wonderful when you just let it live. My furry friends had packed my share for me.

With hope and joy, you can turn anything around, and when you carry on, you will very likely find a lot more than you thought you had. I said a little prayer of thanks to Ganesh. And to those little noisy mice for taking care of themselves, and for taking care of me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Walleye supper

The walleye supper is an institution in the Northwoods. Walleye pike is a much prized and delicious fish found in Minnesota’s many lakes. Churches, fraternal organizations and other associations of civil society regularly hold a walleye fry as a way to gather people together and more often than not, as a fund raiser to send kids to camp, or to help raise money for someone’s emergency medical bills. People brake for walleye. Tonight, after a weekend of superlative connection with my family, including a blissful several hours with my beautiful, charming and talented nieces--I am not biased-- I hosted my own walleye supper in my incredible cabin in the woods.

I have been staying here for a few weeks, and it is a virtual paradise. In spite of a rather significant mouse/bat/squirrel problem, this cabin has been my refuge and sanctuary. There is no internet and no cell signal, so I find myself with a surfeit of hours with which to occupy myself. I manage by reading—and have managed to do more reading in the past two weeks than in the last two years. I also find a luxurious amount of time to cook. My nieces, Taylor and Alexis, and I spent a long time last night talking about the joys and pleasures of cooking. As Taylor put it-with complete sincerity—“I like to cook. And eat afterward”. I feel like I have found the sisters I have never had.

So tonight, after we all went our separate ways—they back to work and college in the Twin Cities—and me to my cabin in the woods, I decided to make a very special dinner for myself. I took my cue from Alexis, who now has a “big girl” 9-5 job, and who spends her entire evening after work shopping, cooking, sharing and cleaning up after a delicious meal made from fresh, organic, and local ingredients. It must be genetic. She also spent a year with a vegetarian family Paris, so she knows something about how to cook righteously.

I went to the grocery store this afternoon, and as we had discussed, following Michael Pollan’s, rule # whatever, in Food Rules, I stuck to the edges of the grocery store. I spent a lot of time in the organic produce section, and as I wheeled over to the dairy section, I happened to pass the meat counter. I have been craving walleye for a week or so, ever since Tony mentioned taking me out to “net” walleye. The native population in Minnesota has rights to net rather than line fish on the lakes. (Having spent more than a few completely hateful hours trying to catch a fish on a hook, I can totally get behind netting as a way to get your year’s worth of walleye in the freezer). Natives cannot, however, sell any of their harvest.

Since I couldn’t buy it, I volunteered my time in exchange for a few filets. This fishing expedition never came to fruition for various reasons, so I was stuck with a walleye craving and no fish in the freezer. I found that the local grocery store (for which my brother worked about 30 years ago) was stocking some walleye filets from Canada. A meal of fish, rice and greens, materialized in my head, and I went for it, in spite of all kinds of reasons not to go for it, including not having the faintest idea where it came from in Canada, under what conditions it was caught, and for whom the $9/pound benefited. But I had rice, and it needed walleye all of a sudden.

A few weeks ago, I went to a drum ceremony on the reservation in Naytauwash. This ceremony constitutes its own blog post, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about it now. In short, a “big” drum which was gifted to the Ojibwe by the Lakota is brought out to the community and is played. The reasons for bringing out the drum are vast and complex, and I will do my best to explain this elsewhere. As part of the day, the women who guard the drum (ogichidakwe) distribute gifts of welcome to all those present and I was the incredibly lucky recipient of a pound of manoomin—wild rice. Wild rice constitutes its own blog post as well, and I have been remiss. Mea culpa. More later on that…

Wild rice grows in the lakes in the Upper Midwest and Cananda and is one of the staple grains for the Anishinabeg people distributed throughout these territories. The gift of rice was humbling in the extreme, and I passed on half of it to an elder who spoke with me at length about food sovereignty. The remainder sits in my kitchen waiting for a beautiful moment like tonight.

I have been helping to put the Farm-to-School gardens to bed for the winter and there is a surplus of broccoli in one of them. The big heads have been harvested already, but the tiny side shoots sweetened by the recent frost have been finding their way into my harvest basket on more than one occasion. Tonight, I panfried the walleye in a little salt, pepper and coriander and topped it with cremini mushrooms sauteed in garlic and oregano. If I knew more, I would be eating wild mushrooms, and if I lived here, that oregano would have come from my backyard not a farm somewhere fortunately not too far from here. The garlic came from a garden I visited somewhere on this journey. A big pile of the rice and an even bigger pile of broccoli shoots and greens topped off a plate full enough for two.

As I have said before on more than one occasion, eating in your local foodshed requires knowing when, where and from whom to get your food. In this case, everything I put on my plate was available locally, and all of it was, or could have been, obtained without money, in exchange for showing up and participating. In less than a month of showing up here, I have all of this already in place. It can be done anywhere, at anytime, by anybody who brings a spirit of reverence, cooperation and dedication.

Show up. Participate. Enjoy!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Keeping My Mouth Shut

Yesterday, I figured out why I have had writers' block and I am only taking pictures of swans and fall foliage. By some fantastic stroke of luck, I have been taken under the tutelage of a White Earth man, who has introduced me to some important animate nouns including ininatig, manoomin and asema, brought me to elders and shared with me the drum ceremonies of White Earth. I'm not at all sure I understand any of this in any deep way and I certainly don't know enough to say anything about it. I do know after a month of being here, that food, tradition and spirituality are all intimately linked, and that food sovereignty does not exist outside of spiritual and cultural sovereignty. But, until I know more than that, I'm keeping my ears and my heart open and my mouth firmly shut.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dinner with the Other Amy T.

I've been so out of it, that I've actually had not one-but TWO-dinners cooked by the other Amy T since I last posted to this thing. The other Amy T and I went to grade school together, and when she got all growed up she turned out to be a chef--and I got to be a lucky guest at dinner-twice in the last week. You can check out her blog here: http://www.sourtoothjournal.blogspot.com/

So the first time I had dinner with Amy T and her husband Aaron, and her small son Hank, was the day I stopped being homeless. Amy and I had (re)connected (over food, of course) on Facebook and since I was up in the area where we grew up and where she now lives and works teaching cooking clases, I kind of invited myself over for dinner one night. That night Amy made homemade pasta and we drank a lot of wine and chatted late into the night in their beautiful cabin on a river in the deep woods. I was relating my housing woes, and well, as luck would have it, there is a beautiful cabin sitting empty on the property next to theirs (owned by an artist friend of theirs from Brooklyn). Would I like to stay there? How quickly can I say yes?

They are going to have to throw me out. Or I will start paying rent. One or the other. I'm not leaving.

To sweeten this sweet deal even more, Amy invited me over for dinner again. (I really like how this is going.) She made chicken cacciatore from chickens they had just purchased from George and Mary's Best Darn Chicken 'Round in Frazee, Minnesota. I swear I am not making up, elaborating on or in any way hyperbolizing the name of their business. It was also the biggest darn chicken 'round--weighing in around 8 pounds a piece. She cooked up some broccoli from Hmong farmers in Minneapolis--blanched and pan fried in butter and garlic. Same with the potatoes from her garden--Yellow Fins, also blanched and roasted in olive oil til they were crunchy, tasty perfection. And she also slow cooked some chicken breasts in brown butter and herbs until that was mouthwatering. But the piece de resistance--for me--had to be the chicken of the woods mushroom that she roasted up in the oven.

Right now, I am regretting deeply the fact that I left my camera back at my cabin. I should have known better--but a girl respects another girls blog, eh? This was the biggest darn mushroom I've ever seen and it was so beautiful, sitting with warm earthy tones in the soft light of the kitchen. Words cannot really describe the incredible taste--it was like a big beefy morel--unlike anything I've ever eaten. I have seen these guys out in the woods--but never dared to eat them.

How's that for growing, cooking and eating outside the system!? Right outta them woods!

Writer's Block

Not sure what's up with me lately--haven't been taking pictures, haven't been writing, haven't been doing much but thinking. I think this is a good thing, but I regret some missed photo ops and some creative thoughts that got away before I caught them on paper. I think it's a combination of a lot of things--one of which was being semi-homeless for a week or two. I was bouncing around a bit from home to home, feeling a lot like Goldilocks. But I think I've settled on the perfect spot for the rest of my time here-a gorgeous art studio cum "pond-home" on the edge of a bog on the edge of the woods, on the edge of the prairie. Maybe I've just been a bit lost in the beauty of it all.

My companions are a rafter of turkeys, a convocation of eagles and a whiteness of swans. I stumbled across this great good fortune through the generosity of old friends, after a series of unfortunate events involving mice in my bed and other obstacles to sleep. This new place also does not have internet which is turning out to be a durn good thing. Finally figured out why I can't ever get any reading done. So, I've been walking, reading, thinking, communing with nature--thinking about all the things I really don't need in life. And now, hopefully I'm back to writing. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, I might have to spill a lot of ink to share with you the events of the last two weeks. It's been pretty amazing. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I guess I come by this food stuff honestly. I just spent the weekend with my family in Northern Minnesota. Most of that time was spent with my mom, who I am pretty sure killed herself to put food on the table when I was kid. She worked in Bagley, Minnesota as a public health nurse for almost all of our time in the big woods of this great country. She got up at 5:30 am to milk our goats and feed our chickens and my horses. Then she drove an hour to work after getting my brother and I on the school bus for our hour long ride to school. She came home late at night and fed all the animals and cooked us dinner and made my lunch, helped me with my homework and put us to bed. We ate almost all our food from our land and she worked full time to support us.

When did she have time for herself?

This weekend she and I drove around the White Earth Indian Reservation, where I am currently "stationed" and checked out the local food scene. This included a trip to Winona LaDuke's farm where we picked raspberries and I photo-documented the local guys parching the rice from this year's harvest. Then we went to see Daryl--who grows a lot of food for the White Earth Land Recovery Project's "Farm to School" program at Pine Point Elementary School. He fed us apples from his orchard and sent us home with two ice cream pails of apples for 4 bucks.

Mom and I spent the night near Itasca State Park and went out looking for the Wild Food Summit on White Earth in the morning. We missed them cuz they were already out harvesting by the time we got there. We tried to make up for this by going to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge for a hike. We came across a mycologist there giving a lecture to his students on wild mushrooms, and found out about what we missed with the White Earth folks. We went for a hike anyway and saw all the beautiful mushrooms in the woods, enjoying their last hurrah before the winter.

We saw a beautiful family of trumpeter swans, and seeing them made me think about the beauty of family and the bonds of love that transcend everything. In spite of all the miles between us, we manage to stick together and give each other a lot of love. That's more important than anything else, and I feel so blessed by all the sacrifices and the wisdom my mom has shared with me. Thank you. Love you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saving Seneca Pink Lady

So, I’m up at White Earth, settling in and finding myself doing a lot of grant-writing. Putting a lot of resources into grant-seeking seems to be the fate of most non-profits, I’m afraid. It makes sense from a financial point of view, especially for farms and food-oriented enterprises. There isn’t a lot of money to be made on producing or distributing food. There are reasons for this—most of which I don’t agree with—such as cheap food policies that make food plentiful and mostly bad for us, and which drive farmers to bankruptcy when the costs of production are greater than the market price. This also tends to keep would-be farmers from even trying out the project of agriculture at all. These structural constraints leave a few farmers with big operations producing a few crops that are engineered to be big yielders that need to be babied with a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These crops are then turned into value-added products such as high-fructose corn syrup (soon to be relabeled “corn sugar”). Yeah that would be the mostly bad for us (and them) part.

In the meantime, thousands of varieties of food crops which have been locally developed over centuries to provide good food for small communities of growers and eaters have been lost in the push towards monocultures of high-yielding hybrids and GMOs.

Seneca Pink Lady is one such variety.

So, I was minding my own business the other day, toiling in the money mine, almost ready to call it a day and think about supper, when Winona came home with five garbage bags full of corn. Clear the table, she said, this corn needs to be husked and braided tonight. Facing 300 ears of corn at 8 pm, suddenly made me very interested in budgets, narratives and justifications. But there was no way out of this one, and once I fully understood the project, I was very turned on to the idea.

Winona had been given a few ears of a variety of pink and red colored corn (as opposed to white, yellow and blue) that is grown for cornmeal by a First Nations tribe in New York. She made an executive decision (as executive directors of non-profits get to do) to grow it out as the White Earth Land Recovery Project’s special corn variety. It’s not hard to understand the value of doing this. It’s not only visually beautiful to behold, it’s also like looking at a living museum. And, these three hundred or so ears of corn are some of the only remaining seeds of this corn ON THE PLANET. I was a little awestruck. And made haste to clear the table.

That evening we sat around and chatted late into the night while we “undressed” (as Winona put it) the ladies. The traditional way of drying the corn kernels for use as food, and for preserving the seeds for the next year’s crop is to braid the corn husks so that it could be hung up. The husks needed to be peeled back, with the silks and any underdeveloped tops removed. As I delicately peeled back the husks to reveal the speckled magenta kernels, I felt like I was handling jewels. The corn was fat, smooth and glistened with the luster of health and life.

The corn had been grown out by a local farmer (in a lot of horseshit, according to Winona) and it was remarkably robust and completely free of worms and mold. That would be because it was adapted over centuries to growing in northern climates. Duh. All it needs is some old fashioned fertilizer. No pesticides and no genetic engineering to turn a few ears of corn into tens of thousands of seeds. It is not a minor miracle, and was impressed all over again with the ingenuity intelligence and eye for beauty of our ancestors who took a wild plant called teosinte and turned it into this amazing food. More on this here: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_images.jsp?cntn_id=104207&org=BIO

The next morning I, and another volunteer, Erica from the Shinnecock tribe on Long Island, braided up the pink ladies and hung them up to dry in a room in the upstairs of Winona’s cabin. It felt like a sacred ritual, and in many ways it was. It was a tribute to the wisdom of the past and a pledge to work toward the preservation of life for the future. If that isn’t a ritual worth doing, I don’t know what is.

Grow, Cook, Love

A lot of people have been joking around that my Grow, Cook, Eat tour is emulating the book/film sensation Eat, Pray, Love. Even though I know yall are teasing me, I’m still pretty flattered. Difference is, I’m not interested in putting love at the end of this thing. Love is woven into every moment of all these gatherings around growing, cooking and sharing of food. The best part of this leg of my trip has been a return to love—with friends and family in Minnesota. I understand a lot better now how I came to be where I am, and why I care about the things I care about. And why I’m on this journey in the first place. It’s a real blessing to land here—in this place so close and so far away from home—in the middle of my journey. It’s a reminder and an inspiration.

My mom and my sister-in-law both indulged my invasion of their kitchen on my way here, and I only barged my way in because I saw local food sitting there in the kitchen that needed to be cooked and eaten. And in both cases it wasn’t food that was purchased in the local farmers’ market or CSA or anything anywhere near that. They—or their family members—grew it themselves. I come by this honestly, I guess.

After hanging out here on Round Lake and invading Winona LaDuke’s kitchen for a few weeks, my best friend for over thirty years, Becky, alerted me to a Harvest Festival in Duluth. I brake for harvest. So, I packed up a weekend bag and drove over to one of my favorite places in the world. I think the festival was just an excuse though--we just ended up flying kites on the lakeshore with the kids instead of doing much with the festival. And the real highlight was reconnecting with my kindred spirit, her kind and wise husband and their bright, inquisitive and beautiful children.

And we shared two completely locally produced meals together. When I arrived the first night, the chicken Becky and Brad has grown that summer was already on the grill, the roasted veggies (potatoes, onions and carrots) from the garden (complete with whole heads of roasted garlic!) were sweetening up in the oven and the sweet corn was waiting to be shucked and boiled. It was my kind of place, alright. Becky has had a dream realized this year when she started a small CSA. She has been dreaming about farming for many years and this year she sold three and half shares, and fed her own family on a small but ambitious garden. I am so proud of her!

And happy too—especially when I get to enjoy the fruits of her labor. I am promised pork chops when I come back next month.

The next morning we took the kids and headed over to a local dairy and pulled raw milk right outta the bulk tank. Take that Georgia and your raw milk paranoia. This is how real people get real milk. (Unless of course you are in India and you actually milk the buffalo yourself). The smell in the milk house transported both Becky and I back to our childhoods when we would go over to our neighbor (and her relative) to get raw milk from his bulk tank. I was especially proud of her as she poured the milk into beer growlers. When you can’t get beer, get milk.

When we got home, Nik, Becky’s son, who has some very special gifts when it comes to food, discovered that I had a box of Indian spices in the back of my car. I don’t go anywhere without my kitchen anymore, and out of sheer laziness these hadn’t made it into Winona’s kitchen yet. This provoked a keen interest in Nik to sample, smell and taste what could be done with them. I couldn’t have been happier to oblige. I offered to cook up a “full Indian dinner” for them and made a potato and kale dish and a tomato cheese dish. We all went out to Becky’s garden and harvested everything we needed for dinner. An hour later we were enjoying the fruits of her summer labor. The paneer was a special joy to make out of the fresh raw milk, and it was a crowd pleaser for sure.

Before we ate, we gathered around the table and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the special gifts of being with each other and for the food that we had been given so graciously by the land.

Love. Pray. Love. Eat. Love. Repeat.