Tag Food and Drink

Strawberries and reindeer

From an interstitial essay in a wonderful book of portraits and reportage examining what foods “typical” families from around the world eat in the course of a week.

Cooking is universal among our species. Cooking is even more uniquely characteristic of our species than language. Animals do at least bark, roar, chirp, do at least signal by sound; only we bake, boil, roast and fry….

Few advances comparable in importance to cooking have happened since [its development]. The most important have been more quantitative than qualitative. We began not simply to harvest but to adopt certain palatable plants and animals as aids and conspirators. By 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, we had domesticated all those that have been central to our diets ever sense—barley, wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and so on…. We have domesticated nothing more significant than strawberries and reindeer since.


from “Baked, Boiled, Roasted and Fried,” by Alfred W. Crosby, in Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio’s Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, 2005

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The omnivore’s daughter’s dilemma

A lovely anecdote (culture-making begins at home!) from a great feature about Berkeley Bowl, a produce-rich Northern California supermarket that sounds a bit like all three sections of the Divine Comedy rolled into one.

Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” is a [Berkeley] Bowl regular who calls the store one of his top three places to buy food in the world. Still, he knows there’s easier shopping.

One time, Pollan was picking out a box of cereal for his daughter when a fellow shopper interrupted him. “He said, ‘I’m watching Michael Pollan shop for groceries,’ ” Pollan recalled. “There was this note of disappointment that I was buying Fruity Pebbles. Berkeley is full of hall monitors. It’s a small town, and people are looking into each other’s baskets.”


from “At Berkeley Bowl, the nuts are off the shelf,” by John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, 22 September 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

In praise of street food

an EatingAsia post by Robyn Eckhardt, 27 August 2008

Wherever you go in the world, the food of the street represents the identity of the people. Clues to culture, race, and religion can be found in the local cuisine.

That quote kicks off the Penang-focused show of an Al Jazeera series on street food around the world (heads up courtesy of noodlepie). And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Simply put, you haven’t experienced Penang, not the real Penang, until you’ve eaten on its streets. And the same, I would argue, could be said for any other place in the world that street food still exists.

Street food naysayers miss the point. When it comes to eating on the street it’s not only about the food. (And it’s not about proving your traveling cohones either.) Be open to the whole experience, and a street food meal will give as much insight into a place and a culture as any guidebook intro. Plus, you get to fill your belly at the same time.

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The trayless cafeteria

Evidently if you can take less food, you waste less food. But the wider ripples—from environmental impact to dishwashing methodology to socialization—emerge when the humble cafeteria tray gets taken away.

From the University of California at Santa Cruz to Virginia Tech, cafeteria trays are disappearing, enabling universities and food-service companies to reduce food waste, lower energy costs and make college campuses more environmentally sustainable. The reasoning goes like this: when students are allowed to use trays, they tend to roam around the cafeteria grabbing food with abandon until space on the tray runs out. If you remove their trays, you make it impossible for them to carry a surplus of dishes, and they will make their selections more carefully and be satisfied with less food overall. That saves on food. Further, getting rid of trays means dishwashers have less to wash. That saves on water and energy.


from “The War on College Cafeteria Trays,” by Maya Curry, TIME, 25 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Eating clay in Haiti

On the one hand this is simple—a heartbreaking example of how rising food prices squeeze out the poorest. But something is lost in the cultural translation, I think—or at least, what’s being described is a very culturally specific (and culturally creative) response to local hunger, one involving a complex mini-industry of manufacture and distribution that was around before food costs went up and ushered in a grimmer consumer demand.

At first sight the business resembles a thriving pottery. In a dusty courtyard women mould clay and water into hundreds of little platters and lay them out to harden under the Caribbean sun. The craftsmanship is rough and the finished products are uneven. But customers do not object. This is Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum, and these platters are not to hold food. They are food. Brittle and gritty—and as revolting as they sound—these are “mud cakes”. For years they have been consumed by impoverished pregnant women seeking calcium, a risky and medically unproven supplement, but now the cakes have become a staple for entire families.

It is not for the taste and nutrition—smidgins of salt and margarine do not disguise what is essentially dirt, and the Guardian can testify that the aftertaste lingers – but because they are the cheapest and increasingly only way to fill bellies. “It stops the hunger,” said Marie-Carmelle Baptiste, 35, a producer, eyeing up her stock laid out in rows. She did not embroider their appeal. “You eat them when you have to.”


Originally published at culture-making.com.

A dancer’s disciplines

There’s a wide yet tempting gap between copying or consuming (in this case, passively watching) culture and putting in the practice and discipline to genuinely cultivate and create it.

This is the first portion of the talk I gave in Nashville this past week. I began the talk with a kinetic visual. For 30 seconds I danced in front of everyone. It was a very ridiculous-looking version of modern dance (and, c’mon, that’s a long time to look ridiculous). Then a professionally trained modern dancer (with Stillpoint Dance Theater) danced for 30 seconds. Hers was beautiful. I said, “Folks: exhibit A, exhibit B, this is the summary of my talk.” And with this my talk officially began.

She keeps the disciplines of a dancer. In her words:

“I start with Pilates warm-up in the mornings. I take 2 ballet classes per week and 3 modern dance classes per week along with improvisation and composition. I rehearse approximately 12-15 hours a week with StillPoint. I also use the YMCA 1-2 times per week for extra cardio and weight training. I teach dance as well so I am in the studio creating classes or working on choreography many hours of the day.I have to keep an anti-inflammatory diet in order to keep inflammation down in my body due to minor injuries and the intensity of the rehearsing. This means staying away from sugar, dairy and wheat, and it means eating lots of “superfoods,” such as blueberries, walnuts, and salads. I require more food and sleep whenever we are in an intense rehearsal season.”

I do none of them. She is free. I am not.

She has obeyed the laws of her craft, its “order,” and so earns the right to improvise in a way that reveals the beauty of the craft. I have obeyed none and so earn the right only to look like a fool.

My temptation based on my minimal experience and training is to say: “I caaan’t do it. It’s too hard. You can do it because of course you’re better than I.” In saying this I sanction both my ignorance and my unwillingness to learn about the craft.

Maybe if I simply imitate her movements, I say to myself, then perhaps I can dance like her. But without adopting the disciplines of modern dance I will not become a person for whom the movements and graces of modern dance come “naturally.” I will simply be attempting to behaviorally conform.


from “A Disciplined (disciple) Artist: Part 1,” by David Taylor, Diary of an Arts Pastor, 23 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The meals on the bus go round and round

A great example of making the most of a captive audience (and somewhat lax boarding and vending rules). I recall similar parades (but with beggars and musicians included) on Indian trains and — do I remember right? — New York subways.

In Ecuador, the sources of some of the best bargain eating can’t be marked in a guidebook or circled on a map. In fact, even a well-versed local won’t be able to tell you exactly when and where to find these particular meals. Mostly, you just have to sit back until they find you, which they inevitably do, courtesy of a series of one-person mobile-food-stand entrepreneurs who hop aboard public buses, sell their delicious and amazingly varied wares and hop out until the next group of captive diners rolls by.

These gray-market vendors thrive on the ridership on Ecuador’s efficient and extensive bus system. In Cumandá terminal in Quito, more than 30 competing bus companies vie for customers, shouting impending departures from their ticket windows, so the wait is never long and the price is right. Even at the extranjeros, or foreigners’, price, tickets average $1 per hour of travel (the American dollar has been the official currency since 2000). Besides the music, all buses come with air-conditioning — and a chance to acquaint yourself with local culture and cuisine.

On my recent three-and-a-half-hour bus journey down the Pan-American Highway, the ice-cream man was only one of dozens of people who jumped aboard at various stops as we beat a path southward from the capital city of Quito to the nation’s adventure mecca, Baños, through the valley known as Avenue of the Volcanoes. The vendors hawked everything from herbal cures to watches, but the real one-of-a-kind items were brought aboard by people clutching baskets or coolers, like the helado man. The homemade sweets and snacks they sell, along with the fast food cooked up at stands around markets and bus stations, offered a thorough sampling of regional specialties.


from “Meals and Wheels on Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes,” by Martina Sheehan, New York TImes, 17 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Garbage barges vs. vertical farms

Why cities might not be the best place for large-scale, hi-tech food production — food-miles notwithstanding.

Cities offer a lot of environmental benefits, at least compared to the alternatives. There are many reasons this is so, but they all spring from a fairly basic fact: cities are built for people. Lots of people, densely packed, sharing resources. Innovations that encourage or take advantage of that density are likely to make cities more sustainable. And innovations that undermine density have a lot of work to do to overcome their inherent environmental disadvantages.

New York City, for example, recently released an ambitious plan to slash municipal carbon emissions by almost two million metric tons per year. Fully 16% of total life cycle reductions will come from a new rail and barge network built for the express purpose of hauling garbage. No one will appear on The Colbert Report to plug the new garbage barges, but the system will eliminate five million vehicle miles per year. Less congestion, less noise, less air pollution, and less greenhouse gas emissions. New York’s size and density make this project possible.

Urban vertical farms, on the other hand, fail miserably on this score. Land is one of the primary inputs for agriculture, which is why we don’t expect to see corn growing in lower Manhattan. Such spaces are better reserved for people, mass transit, mass entertainment, and businesses that depend primarily on human capital. 

Our collective confusion on this point seems to be most acute when the topic is food. We intuitively understand that it doesn’t really make sense to manufacture, say, iPods in small factories scattered across hundreds of urban centers, even though iPods are consumed in just about every city in the world. We readily grasp that the economics wouldn’t work out, and we probably even understand that such a scheme wouldn’t help the environment. Efficiency benefits more than just the bottom line.


from “Cities are for People: The Limits of Localism,” by Adam Stein, WorldChanging, 8 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

“The food here is awful!”

Sudhir Venkatesh takes a millionaire on a quest for philanthropic education for a weekend in the Chicago ghettos. The challenge — which really does sound like something out of a youth group “urban plunge” trip — was to give the same $20 seed capital to the millionaire and Curtis, a local squatter, and see how each would use the money to get through the weekend.

By 5 p.m. Curtis had made his first two purchases: frozen chicken wings and a can of beans ($4.75); a T-shirt and pair of socks from a vendor on the street ($2.00).

Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”

Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”

But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”

Curtis laughed. He asked Michael if he’d like some chicken and beans. Michael said, “No thank you,” and sat on the cold linoleum floor. He was silent.

“How much does a banana cost,” Curtis asked Michael. Michael looked embarrassed, unable to answer.

“You don’t know, do you!” Curtis laughed. “See fruit is expensive; raw food is too much for low income people. And we don’t always have a fridge, so you got to keep things in cans. That way it can move with you. And one thing you need to know: low income people always are on the move — not just squatters, all low income folks.”


Originally published at culture-making.com.

Community kitchens in Lima, Peru

This reminds me of the community ovens that I’ve heard about in North Africa and Lebanon, where women make their dough at home and then drop it off to be baked. Though I think the savings there is mostly one of fuel and avoided kitchen heat.

Steam rises into air thick with the scent of garlic as women prepare lunch for 120 of Peru’s neediest.

But this is no charity. Obaldina Quilca and Veronica Zelaya – who are on cooking duty today – are also beneficiaries of one of the estimated 5,000 community kitchens run by women in Peru’s capital, Lima.

The kitchens started in the 1970s and persisted through the ‘80s and ‘90s, through dictatorship, terrorism, and hyperinflation that brought Peru to its knees. And now that global food prices have put basic staples out of reach for families across the region, the kitchens that feed an estimated half million residents of metropolitan Lima every day are again providing a refuge.

But their work goes well beyond survival; the kitchens have become a vehicle for collective action, giving women the self-esteem to denounce government shortcomings and demand change. They have risen as one of the most significant women’s organizations in Latin America, and today are on the forefront of protests demanding solutions to a cost of living that many say is reversing recent progress in reducing poverty.


from “Peru’s women unite in kitchen — and beyond,” by Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor, 28 July 2008 :: via La Plaza

Originally published at culture-making.com.