Locavores do it Fresher!

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Throughout human history the best foods have been local.  Regions, cities, towns and villages would have their own specialties with differences in climate and soil creating subtleties in food, often sought after for the rare experience.    The current slow food movement embraced by chefs the world over, also recognizes these subtleties and strives to preserve the culinary heritage of unique indigenous foods.  In addition, the new movement toward creating local small farm suppliers for goods originally from other areas is encouraged.  With globalization, people take their cultures everywhere and their food can follow them in the form of seeds and nearby craftsmanship.    This is not a new story.  The ancient Silk Road was the first historically notable and documented large scale exchange of goods with trade between Asia (India and China) and the Greeks and Romans.  Sugar reached Europe in small quantities as a food for the elite along with spices and cooking technologies.  At the same time in the Americas, corn made its way up from South to North America as well as a robust trade in shells, feathers and other sacred goods, eventually spreading throughout the Americas.  The age of exploration, particularly the 15th and 16th centuries, changed local food forever.

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Spices, seeds and plants crisscrossed the seas and within a few years chiles were common in India, potatoes in Europe and squash, beans and tomatoes all over.  Back in the Americas, olives, pigs, horses and coriander were introduced and often adopted by force.  The pace of change often moved quicker than technology could keep up.  Empires invested heavily in food.  It was the key to economic power.  Sugarcane was planted in the West Indies, Corn in Africa and the southern hemisphere was exploited for the abundance of meat.  Formerly the food of the rich, these foods became available to everyday people and changed the perceptions of diet and health.  The ancient traditions of balancing the diet were based on what was local and indigenous.  With the influx of these former luxury goods, popular culture adapted to include and subsequently rationalize the use.  Indeed, in preserved forms, these foods frequently prevented famine from poor crops, the scourge of local economies which depended on yearly harvests and kind weather.    So we have a double-edged sword.  There is no “best of both worlds” in this story.  It is a story of adaptation and survival, but with a dark side that is driven by the inevitable greed of economic based decisions, which has also resulted in modifying the health of a good portion of the planet.

The phenomenal advances in scientific understanding hardly offset the fact that we have created an epidemic of obesity, an alarming rise in allergic reactions and a society that is blind to what they eat.  Nothing exemplifies this more than the meat industry, which is a systematic mechanism of death to innocent lives as well as a major contributor to the destruction to the environment.  It is quite shocking that the concern for global warming and reduction of the carbon footprint have not addressed this significant impact.  Decisions that affect the health and well being of people are made for economic reasons, instead of looking at what is best for people.  But, this too is not new in our checkered history of toil and struggle.  The question is whether a vision of a bigger picture will prevail.   Let us step out of the darkness and look at the positive opportunities the food system has provided.  More than any other time in human history, any food product one may want is available almost anywhere in the world.  This is an amazing achievement, giving the ability to choose eating what is good for us, to create balance and to eat what we desire.  The choice is now ours and ours alone.

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With the proliferation of local farmers markets, small organic farmers and groceries that buy local, fresh high-quality food is usually right around the corner.  The economic cycle has come full circle to help people realize that quantity does not necessarily equal quality.  In addition, discovering the rich heritage in our culinary traditions adds depth to our food and meaning to life, creating a win-win scenario for local farms and the health of the people around them.    People have also rediscovered gardening and the bounty the earth can provide.

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Not since the Victory Gardens of World War II has growing vegetables and herbs been emphasized, or considered as fashionable.  Putting fingers in the soil and nurturing plants to bear fruit is one of the great unsung pleasures of life and is local food at its best.  I can attest to this and always plant a garden wherever I live or work.  It is a simple activity which bonds us to ancestral heritage along with the life-giving energies from the earth, sun and moon.  Try it, you will like it!

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Georgia on my Mind

Pomegranate is a neighborhood style restaurant at the edge of University Heights.  As a change of pace, we decided to have a dinner out to celebrate the last day of my son Spyros’ visit.  Entering the restaurant, we stepped into another world, chock-full of a spirit and hospitality unique to Russia’s feisty neighbor, Georgia.

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In ancient times, Georgians were the fabled Scythians Herodotus wrote about.  In modern times, most of what we hear about is strife and unfortunate news.  Some of the cultures in the area are renowned for their unusual longevity, such as the Abkazians,who have been victims of recent political power struggles, thus threatening the lifestyle which has made them a rare example on the planet.  But, what we rarely hear about is the strength of the people and the amazing cuisine that makes them that way.  As John Robbins points out in his book Healthy At 100, this cuisine is full of foraged wild greens, mushrooms, roots and tubers, along with seasonal cultivated vegetable crops and preserved foods.

The menu at Pomegranate starts with a warning of the experience to come:

“Once upon a time in the West … on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street, there appeared a Russian-Georgian restaurant.  Our food is robust, for heroes of the table, as our motto amply testifies: “Borscht by the bucket, vodka by the inch.” Our service is “Allegro ma non troppo!” As for parking, it is positively Darwinian:  survival of the fittest.”

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Our experience at the restaurant did not disappoint as the food is flavorful and very generous in portions.  The walls are covered with graffiti by happy customers in languages from around the world.  One can imagine many of those scrawled quips were created under the influence of copious servings of vodka, Georgian beer or the special wines made from indigenous Georgian grapes.  The menu boasted 20 vegetarian items so we started with beautifully prepared vegan borscht, full of zest and a good texture.  Next, we grazed a salad sampler plate with a red cabbage slaw, a carrot slaw, a potato salad, a red bean salad and a green bean salad—all tasty.  We finished with a vegetable stroganoff and an eggplant “ratatouille” called Ajap Sandhali.  Both were outstanding.  Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that made everything so good, reminiscent of the family feasts I would enjoy in Crete with long tables of relatives.  Or, it could have been the feeling of authenticity–that we were in the midst of Georgians, celebrating their culture as participants, not just observers.  Whichever way I recall, it was a memorable dinner, for the food and the people.  I even took the opportunity to scrawl my own message, in honor of my father who loved this place.    On the way out, the owner and waitress both enthusiastically invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner, noting it will be home-style–family, friends and great food.

From About Georgia:

“Georgia is an amazing cluster of cultures, religions, fascinating landscapes and ancient history. The country where everyone can find something to his liking – from snowy peaks to subtropical shores, from deserts to lush forests, from cities to enchanting villages. Ethnic Georgians constitute a majority of the population. The official language is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world. Tbilisi is the capital and by far the largest city.”

“Georgian cuisine uses well familiar products but due to varying proportions of its obligatory ingredients such as walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate grains, barberries and other spices combined with the traditional secrets of the chef ‘s art the common products do acquire a special taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular and unique.”

“The Georgian table is conducted in a wise manner in accordance with the ancient ritual. The head of the table “tamada” is elected as proposed by the host. The tamada must be a man of humour with an ability for improvisation and a philosopher’s wisdom. If there are many guests at the table he appoints assistants who in Georgian are called “tolumbashis”. The tamada’s toasts follow one another in a strict never violated order. The guest is obliged to listen attentively to each toast and appreciate the beauty of style and the purpot of the worlds said. If is not allowed to interrupt the tamada when he is saying the toats. The tamada’s assistants and other guests may only add something to the toast or develop its ideas. If you wish to say a toast, you must by all means have the tamada’s consent or else you will find yourself in an awkward position. This table ritual does not put restraints on the guests but maintains discipline at the table. The feast proceeds among jokes and is accompanied by a dance competition, table songs and music, quotations and aphorisms from the works of poets and writers.”

Food Trends

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Is it possible?   An abundance of high quality food is causing fine dining to change?

Over the last two decades, high-end chefs in America established their reputations around dishes created from rare ingredients and items served at the peak of freshness. In recent history, these two areas of food products have not readily been available to the public. Indeed, to their credit, the very chefs who helped to build networks of local farmers, food purveyors and distributors and who, in turn, expanded their offerings to the general public are responsible for the public demand. Chefs were the rock stars of the dinner table and everyone wanted in on their secrets, or to emulate their craft.

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Today, we have an economic downturn, but this as the only cause of the change of economics in the restaurant industry, albeit a predominant factor. The same formerly rare food products are now becoming readily available and markets have started to feature local, up-to-the-minute fresh foods. For example, just over a decade ago mesclun lettuce was only seen in upscale restaurants, now it is everywhere. The same micro-greens and baby vegetables chefs would wow customers with are sold at major grocery store chains. Casual restaurant concepts around the country serve organic food and these formerly exotic ingredients. Why spend $150 for one dinner, when the same food can found at an upscale bistro-style restaurant for $30 to 50 dollars per person. To add to the dilemma, one can eat like a king much cheaper than this by shopping at local farmers markets and cooking at home. Recipes and techniques are readily available in a matter of minutes on the internet. Food is no longer the lone star, now more than ever, the upscale restaurant has to entertain through service, constructed presentation and themes designed to mentally transport the diner away from the locale they sit in.

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While enjoyable, this is often a distraction that competes with the food. High-end restaurants have been the bastions of the well-to-do with an additional peppering of the middle-class. The foods of the rich and noble have always been looked up to and desired by those not as fortunate. Numerous parallels to this can be studied in the history of culinary endeavors. Thus, culinary economics are cyclical as engineering advances in food manufacturing and agriculture offered food products previously only available to the elite, thus making them available to the general public. Grocery store shelves are full of such storied items; White flour, refined sugar, Strawberries out of season, refined oils and frozen foods are a few examples. As a result, products available are determined by what is purchased, not by what is healthy.

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We advanced ourselves into nutritional depletion and are facing the consequences with such issues as obesity and malnutrition in lower income children. Education is the key to transcending this economic wheel of misfortune. The first steps are simple, starting with reading labels and learning what you are eating. Next is to act on it by shopping local and eating organic foods.  Cooking at home and  growing a garden are the most significant things to do that will educate us about the value of food.

It is not a black and white decision, but a gradual commitment to change. There is no time like the present to take charge of our destiny and good health.

Walking the Neighborhoods

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Every morning we harness our companion Tea-Bird and walk through the neighborhoods of Mission Hills. It is an area that was laid out in the beginning of the 20th century exemplifying the Southern California lifestyle much in the same way as towns such as Pasadena. The railroad connected San Diego to the rest of the country in the 1880’s sparking a boom in tourism and seekers of fortune. Concurrent with the Belle Epoque in Paris, San Diego had its own renaissance before the sobering effect of The Great War. The founders of Mission Hills included names like Marston, Johnson, Nolen and, of course, Kate Sessions, who had landscaped Balboa Park. Kate Sessions’ original nursery, still in operation since 1911, is just down the street from us and is nestled among an eclectic mixture of Arts and Crafts Bungalows, Spanish Revival homes, swaying eucalyptus, towering palms and rushes of bamboo. Many homes contain architecture elements from the 1915 Pan American Exposition which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and started the Spanish Revival movement of home building on a national level. The building boom in Mission Hills coincided with the construction of the Exposition which began in 1911. San Diego was a city of 39,000 and the smallest ever to hold a world’s fair style event.

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The streets of Mission Hills follow the original slopes of the terrain as the founders believed in the Arts and Crafts notion that living spaces should harmonize and work with the earth, not define it. This now historic neighborhood retains much of the original charm, which, in addition to the beautiful architecture, is greatly enhanced by wonderful natural landscaping most of the homeowners take pride in. As we walk down the sidewalks, each yard has fragrant flower, fruit trees, cacti and tender perennials. Common are creeping rosemary and bushy lavender which add savory fragrances as we brush by.

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Beauty is not just the view, but how people live as well. Mission Hills is always full of dog walkers, runners, bike riders, kids and strolling couples, making it a friendly and social environment, greatly enhancing the storybook feel to the neighborhood. Here in San Diego, the sunshine and bright, often cloudless blue sky, are backdrops to the movie-set perfection of the neighborhood. I often marvel at the foresight of the small group of visionaries who designed Mission Hills. While the future is difficult to predict, they created a neighborhood that stands out from the crowd of poorly thought out developments and accomplishes much of their original goal. Every walk we take is different and stimulating, very good for creative thinking.

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The Mission Hills Garden Walk is an annual event which offers the opportunity to see beyond the beauty of curb appeal and catch a glimpse of our neighbors’ lifestyles. We also enjoy meeting people who put their hands in the earth and use it as a canvas for organic expressions. Every home on the tour is unique, but one thing in common are outdoor living spaces, often as an extension of a kitchen, or an entertainment area of its own. Similar to the Mediterranean, the residents of Mission Hills frequently create spaces for casual gatherings centered about food. Alfresco dining and the chatter of company intermingling with fluid songs of mockingbirds are frequently part of the soundscape in Mission Hills. The star house on the tour, designed in the 1920s by William Templeton Johnson, even had a loggia-style bar that opened onto a patio overlooking fountains, a patio and a panoramic vista looking past an infinity pool added by subsequent owners. Houses like this help honor the ritual of food in a social setting. Like drinking from crystal making the beverage taste better, dwellings like this help us to savor both food and company. For the rest of us who cannot afford to live this way, the restaurant industry has thrived on the same principle.

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Ancient Thoughts on Vegetarianism

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“Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavorsome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.”

Pythagoras, 5th century B.C.E.

Culinary Discoveries

Some of the most incredible food experiences happen unexpectedly. Reflecting upon this enforces how important of the element of surprise is in dining. An unexpected flavor, like the time Jacques Pepin had me taste a mustard he had prepared for an event in Royal Oak, Michigan is an example that comes to mind. Mustards can be overpowering, but this one was full of complexity in acid balance, sweetness and pure mustard mixed with subtle notes of wine and tarragon. One small taste propelled me into a creative streak of mustard preparation. From then on, a variety of handcrafted mustards graced the menu of Inn Season Cafe. They even made it to the cadre of holiday gifts, accompaning my home canned relishes, chutneys and massalas.

Frequently, a taste like this will have us going miles out of our way and spending hours trying to recreate it. Taste becomes imbedded in the memory and this is often why we try to find it again by returning to a restaurant, buying a piece of ripe fruit, or trying to prepare a dish remembered from childhood.

A performance artist friend of mine (and cook extraordinaire), Gordon W, would explain it as searching for the perfect combination of flavor and texture which would make “the left eye tear up and slowly run down one’s cheek.” I first knew what Gordon was talking about when he had me taste Mattar Paneer he had learned from a family while living in India. This beautifully crafted dish was made with freshly shelled peas in a gravy-like tamarind-tomato sauce. The hand rolled and spiced fresh cheese diamonds were gently cooked in ghee and marinated with the sauce and peas until they would puff up into bread-like, melt-your-mouth delicacies. It was the essence of high cuisines in India and, as was the case with many of those dishes, etched the memory with exquisite flavors, textures, aromas, visuals and romantic imagery of historic civilizations.

Sometimes a flavor we have in our subconscious memory resurfaces when triggered by an event with no association to the original, but by a combination of elements that give a sudden whiff, color or even angle of light similar to the first dish. This was true the time I tasted some Moroccan briwat cookies brought to me by a vendor in Montreal named Mustapha. He and his wife had a family business selling traditional home-baked Moroccan pastries to restaurants and delis in Montreal. Infused with orange blossom water and hand-formed, these almond cookies immediately triggered memories of my grandmother Anthe’s favorite almond cookies from my childhood.

Anthe’s cookies were the traditional amigdalota, made in Crete from freshly harvested young white almonds. She was able to transform the recipe into one that worked with ingredients available in Canton, Ohio and they were still perfect. Years later in Crete, my Aunt Yorgia made the same cookies for me (from a recipe she learned in 1937) with the proper young white almonds and they were exactly as I remembered them to be.

Needless to say, I purchased those delicious Moroccan pastries for the restaurant. We continued the account the entire year I was in Montreal and the briwats were particularly popular. Tastes and discussions with Mustapha and his wife gave me a window into the magnificent world of Moroccan cookery, as well as reinforcing the depth of influence that Cretan culture played in my childhood.

As someone who is somewhat food obsessed, I continually look to take advantage of culinary experiences which either trigger familiar memories, or add to my knowledge of food. Frequently, those experiences begin a sequence of mental recollections that release forgotten memories, not just of thoughts and perspectives, but tastes, smells, sights, sounds and textures. They become three dimensional imagery which can be recreated in the kitchen. Some of the best culinary discoveries come from within after a little external coaxing.

Pomegranates

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The Hillcrest market is chock-full of bright red pomegranates this season.  As I walk through the colorful market, these provocative fruits stand out like jewels and attract the eye.  They are believed to be one of mankind’s first cultivated crops and were prized throughout history.  Native to the Mediterranean, Anatolia and Himalayan region of India, it is the fabled fruit of the gods in mythology.  Persephone was given six pomegranate arils by Hades, which forced her to return to the underworld each year.  After her mother Demeter protested by not allowing the earth to bear fruit, Zeus came to a compromise allowing Persephone to return each year.  Her departure and welcomed return were the ancient explanation for the seasons, a reason given for annual regeneration of crops and a significant part of the secret rites of the Eleusis Mysteries.  Also, through this story of union between Hades and Persephone, the pomegranate became the symbol of marriage in ancient Greece.  Ancient Egyptians viewed the fruit as a representation of the afterlife.  They drank the juice as a health tonic, used it for dyeing cloth and painted representations on tomb walls.  In Persia, Pomegranate trees were planted in Zoroastrian temple courtyards where the leaves were a symbol of eternal life.  The fruit has also been prominent in an incredibly elegant cuisine which also featured the sweet, sour and savory flavors of dates, saffron and mint. 

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In India, the fruit was as a symbol of favorable influences which evolved from a story where the Buddha was very pleased after he was given a simple gift of one pomegranate.  In Northern Indian cuisine, dried pomegranate seeds, known as anardana, are a common sour flavor used interchangeably with tamarind, lemon and kokum. We find pomegranates commonly used in the Mediterranean cradles of civilization and also mentioned numerous times in the Bible and Torah. Not only has it been a treasured food, but as is commonly true with popular ancient foodstuffs, it is one of the healthiest as well.  Today it is frequently added to lists of “super foods” with profuse amounts of vitamin C and anti-oxidants.

Foods of Greece

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“The incomparable beauty of Greece stimulates all the senses and enriches the spirit.  From the stunning azure of the Ionian and Aegean seas to the herb- and beehive dotted mountains, honey-sweet fruit aromas fill the air , while the twisted trunks of olive trees and the curling vines of the ubiquitous grapes delight the eye.  Colors vibrate.  Air seems fresher, the atmosphere lighter, than in other lands. You can imagine you see Hermes flying gracefully across the cloudless sky on his winged sandals, or the misty-eyed Nereids and Naiads dancing on the blue-green water.  It is impossible to resist the attractiveness of the warm, volatile Greek people or keep from falling in love with their country.”

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“In Greece there is an intimate interaction of people with nature, and hence with food. This interplay is never more obvious than in the Greek markets, where fresh fruits and vegetables are piled high in baskets—a refreshing contrast to the packaged fruits, dehydrated herbs, and frozen, unrecognizable fish seen in markets in the United States.  Invariably, instances of Greek philoxenia (hospitality) surprise tourists.”

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From:  The Food of Greece

By:  Vilma Liacouras Chantiles

Coffee House Culture

While attending to my father’s convalescence and physical therapy, we have had an opportunity to catch up on various stories of family history and the shared passion for understanding our human traditions.  One of the memories he described was his father Dimitri’s coffee house in Canton, Ohio.  Before opening in Canton in 1925, he had run a coffeehouse for the local coal mine in Sunnyside Utah.

Carbon County History

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Burned out by a jealous rival and alarmed by the Castle Gate coal mine explosion that killed many of his friends and acquaintances, he moved the family to Canton to start over.  My father remembers watching Dimitri make the coffee by boiling it in an ibriki (Greek coffee pot), letting it rest and boiling it again—three times altogether.  When he poured the coffee into the demitasse cup, my father would marvel at Dimitri’s mastery of the craft.  Skillfully, he started at the bottom and accurately lifted the pot up about two feet, then down again, filling the cup and never spilling a drop.  The coffee always came out perfect with kaimaki (foam) around the edge.

Coffeehouses had been the Greek version of service clubs, such as Masonic Temples, Elks Lodges, etc.  These became popular in America during the late 19th century as men’s clubs and respites for a patriarchal society.  Brought over from Greece, coffeehouses fit seamlessly into this model and were the center of social activities in Greek communities across the country.  Business was bolstered by fresh immigrants off the boat throughout the beginning of the 20th century.  Coffeehouses were strictly men only establishments and my father remembers going with his mother as a young child to a coffeehouse looking for her husband and to try and get him to come home.  They wouldn’t let her inside which left a powerful memory for a young boy.

Dimitri’s coffeehouse in Canton only lasted a couple of years before he sold it.  Times were changing.  After this my father remembers him going to a coffeehouse to look for someone and there would hardly be anyone in there.  Asking for the person Dimitri would be told “they are married, they’re home.”  Still, Dimitri was brought up on and spent his formidable years in, the coffeehouse culture.  My father remembers him saying “Tha pao y sto kafenion,”  ‘I am going to the coffeehouse” as he walked out the door in the evenings.  In 1946, my father was visiting the Canton home on a break from college, and met one of Dimitri’s old coffeehouse acquaintances who arrived by bus and did not own a car.  It was a bit of leftover history as most of the coffeehouses had been shut down by then.  He remembers the visitor as well educated and knowledgeable, staying as a “guest of the home” all day and all evening.

Society was changing very fast in those days. Coffeehouses were the product of simpler times, when people travelled by foot, interacted in person and lived by the course of the sun.  In a few short years, electricity, telephone, radio, automobiles and a host of supporting contraptions would undermine long established social structures.  The younger generations were looking to the future, the bright promises offered by new technologies and modern lifestyles, unencumbered by the restrictions of previous generations.

Later, as a social worker in Cleveland in the late 1960’s, my father remembers discovering remnants of a Greektown on a downtown side street near the old Erie Street Cemetery.  One coffeehouse was left with a few “coffeehouse bachelors” who would sit there all day reading papers, nursing coffees and discussing events of the day.  When I first moved to Detroit in the late 1970s, there was still one old style coffeehouse in Greektown on Monroe Street with a few patrons who would play cards, read papers and talk emphatically, the same way as past generations.  I also had an opportunity to visit the original counterparts in Greece.  Every village still had one or two establishments where one could hear animated conservations while passing by.  The coffeehouses still provided a forum for free political and social discussion.  (Considering the fact that women were left out qualified the true democratic ideal)  They were diminished in the early 1970s during the reign of the Junta when public venues were often seeded with spies.  After democracy returned, younger generations did not revive the coffeehouse culture as it had been.  In the mid 1980s some coffeehouses were opened for women by women and it was a huge subject in Greek conversations at the time.   Greece was about to join the EU and most (men and women) thought it was a “good thing” or “about time.” For some stubbornly stoic men, it was an assault on tradition and they could not imagine a place where women would not need men!  I heard one woman respond “don’t forget it is the Greek women who have raised the great men of Greece.”  With that said, those men in the conversation were silenced and justifiably so.  Because of these forward thinking women, along with changes in social trends, coffeehouses have had an upswing in popularity. They continue, not as bastions of the old patriarchal society, but as unencumbered community venues for both men and women.  If Dimitri were there today, he would only find small resemblances in coffeehouse life, yet—he undoubtedly would appreciate the Greek spirit that is still alive and well in his Hellenic homeland.