Saturday, January 22, 2011

Food artisans create local flavor

Remember that old saying, Keep Austin Weird? A fun and charming recent article in the Washington Post travel section set out to determine whether the city’s weirdness has kept pace with its growth. (You can substitute the word “weird” with distinctive, countercultural or non-corporatized and probably get a more accurate idea of what's at stake.) Austin’s “weirdness protection program” is being copied by other cities that want to do things like keep big chain bookstores away from local independent favorites. Red Wassenich, the local college professor who “uttered the phrase that launched a thousand bumper stickers,” summarizes the current situation in Austin by saying that his main concern is that weirdness requires a cost of living that artists and musicians and other creative types can afford. "Now we have the highest cost of living in Texas," the professor says. "Most weirdos don't have a lot of money."

Attribute its popularity to the lure of the local… local flavor is appealing and it contributes to greater life satisfaction. In the winter issue of Yes! Magazine (Theme: What Happy Families Know: The Good Life? It’s Close to Home) “radical homemaker” Shannon Hayes recounts her own story of trading a high-powered career for a simpler one raising grass-fed meat on her family’s multi-generational ranch (and discovering that the good life costs far less than she anticipated it would.) And in his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben reflects on what it would mean to create an economy that honors emotional, spiritual, social and human values as well as purely financial ones.

There's also a new documentary making the rounds that explores this idea that localizing economies leads to greater happiness. McKibben is one of the modern thinkers and philosophers who make an appearance. Take a moment to watch the trailer at

Liz Rosenbaum believes in creating a local food economy. A former history teacher, this month she started selling homemade soups through a cooperative agreement with Gotta Love It, the new commercial kitchen in Old Colorado City. She’ll be offering a soup-making class at Ranch Foods Direct on Saturday, Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. Call the store at 473-2306 to sign up.

Gotta Love It is working energetically to get several new small businesses like the one Liz is starting off the ground and thriving. They’ve already had 22 individuals sign up as part of their gourmet food cooperative. Hethyr Pletsch — a faithful Ranch Foods Direct customer who has led cooking classes at the store and provided recipes for the newsletter — is now partnering with them in order to streamline and expand her business. Her deliciously creamy homemade ice creams are already being sold in the Gotta Love It retail space and have a wonderfully different texture from commercial versions. (She was also recently featured in an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, “Think you can’t afford a personal chef? Think again.” If you’re by chance someone who doesn’t love to cook or doesn’t have time for it, I’d recommend Hethyr: she is creative, neat, organized, particular about ingredients, and health conscious, but in a common-sense way… all the qualities you want in a person preparing your food.)

Gotta Love It’s been hosting weekend “street fairs” in front of 2521 West Colorado Avenue, inviting people to stop by, sample the products and meet the artisans. What a great way to discover some local food artists, the kind of people who give a community its flavor and make it a one-of-a-kind place to live.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Follow the flavor to healthier food

Krista Tippett, my favorite radio host and producer, composes a weekly public radio program about the spiritual life, broadly defined, and since spiritual matters infuse every aspect of daily living, she occasionally hosts a show about food. Near the end of 2010, she did a program with executive chef and restauranteur Dan Barber (shown right) called "Driven by Flavor," which was broadcast live from the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis.

His over-arching belief is that taking pleasure in flavorful food naturally guides us to healthier eating. I found several tidbits from the program particularly intriguing. While I haven't been eating many winter greens lately, that doesn't mean I haven't been getting my vegetables: root vegetables, that is. Barber shared some fascinating research on how the sweetness of a root like a carrot is actually tied to its nutrient density. Listen to the one-hour program and you'll hear him describe how a carrot, locally grown in the fields surrounding his Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant just upstate from New York City, had a sugar reading that was literally "off the charts," while a supposedly good quality carrot bought at a Whole Foods store didn't even register. Wow. Can there really be that much difference in the nutritional content of something grown in your backyard or local community garden versus what is available down the street on the grocery store shelf? And what does it mean for our health as a society if there is?

He also points out that the intense bursts of cold that shorten the growing season in places like upstate New York (and in Colorado) results in the sweetest, most nutritious root vegetables. With that in mind, he expresses little sympathy for those who feel they just don't have the resources to cook or garden. (As a friend told me last week as we left the YMCA, her new year's resolution is "no excuses.")

Although vegetarianism is seen by many as a superior ethical or moral dietary choice, Barber says he prefers "listening to the ecology" and "not imposing a cuisine on the landscape." While vegetarianism may make sense in a few places with a copious variety of year-round produce, he says most of the country produces abundant forage best utilized and converted to human food via livestock. Respecting that reality is what he calls "being grounded in the proper agriculture."

Finally, he concludes with another fascinating morsel: he is working with a research doctor to study and identify foods that actually have the power to shrink cancer tumors. (They'll also explore whether how these foods are produced changes their efficacy.) In the future, it might become possible to "eat well and starve cancer," as a new kind of treatment that combines the latest research with down-to-earth wisdom.

You can listen to the show on-line but Krista Tippett's webpage on the program also has some fun resources to sort through, including an earlier program featuring Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and reactions from listeners that seem to indicate the beginnings of "eat local" fatigue. Lives are busy, the world is vast, and some worry that in advancing food culture and quality we may go too far in diminishing a trend toward specialization that allows people to focus on what they love and do best. Krista Tippett is devoted to promoting healthy, respectful, thoughtful dialogue between dissenting viewpoints, and her piece offers great food-for-thought as a new year in our "food life" begins.