Jerusalem: A study in purpose, pleasure, politics, & perspective

Recently I’ve stepped away from the work I was doing as part of the movement for justice in Palestine.  In the meantime, I’ve been nurturing my passion for food- reading, cooking, gardening, organizing cooperative culinary events, and slowly (like really slowly) building this blog.  Thus the publishing of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, provided a provocative opportunity for me to explore the connections on a very real level. And I explore them at great length here. (Reading this in installments might be recommended for those of you who share my short attention span. Sorry. There’s just so much to say).

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I was born in Jerusalem.  I have spoken these words a million times- in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  It pretty much never fails to elicit a response (raised eyebrows and big smile accompanied by an auditory signal of excitement and/or respect, such as “OOOOOH” or “COOOOL”).  Almost anyone I am speaking to has some dramatic association with Jerusalem.

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I was born in the Israeli hospital Hadassah Ein Karem. It was early March and  my mother loves to tell me that the almond trees were blooming while she made her way to give birth to me.

Several years ago, I met a young person in a refugee camp in Bethlehem who told me his family is originally from the Palestinian village of Ayn Karim to which they have not been allowed to return. When I told him that I was born in the Jewish hospital that now stands on part of his village’s lands, he smiled warmly. I cried and tried not to make a spectacle of it.

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Ten years ago I wrote and performed one spoken word piece over and over again in cities across the country. There was no impressive word play, it was not great poetry- it was just simply true and people needed and wanted to hear it from a young American Jew at that time.  Risking deep embarrassment, I revisited the poem as part of an exercise in thinking about Jerusalem and why I might dare to comment on the most recent gorgeous and impeccably put together cookbook from Ottolenghi and Tamimi. I actually have to admit that I stand by the sentiment of my 22-year-old self still and find it relevant as I insert myself into this conversation.  I voiced my connection to the hills of Jerusalem, the shores of the Mediterranean, the closeness of the desert, the clamor of the shuk. I rejected the need to own this powerful place and instead committed to its preservation. I recognized  Israeli attempts at being Western destroying the aesthetics of ancient cities and the customs of Arab Jews and Palestinians being suppressed and redressed for my pleasure.

I was calling out the destruction and cruelty I was witnessing while acknowledging the deep love and familiarity I felt confusingly close beneath the horror whenever I returned there.  I hadn’t stopped craving the parts of the land and culture that I had loved while living there.  I still can go to town on a falafel sandwich wrapped in large warm laffa bread, with hot red pepper sauce, tahini, and hummus oozing out between chunks of fried eggplant and too many pickles to really fit.  I still can be seduced by a tranquil courtyard at night with jasmine blossoms infusing the warm air and lights casting dramatic shadows on the ancient stone buildings and streets…It is not that I am immune to the magic of being somewhere that is SO OLD and has so many cultures, so many histories, so many layers and languages….No- rather, it is exactly that enchantment that makes my heart break seeing the people, languages, foods, buildings, plants, and traditions that enchant me so much being co opted, destroyed, and displaced.

So I’m no stranger to the complex romance of Jerusalem (in Arabic, Al Quds).  Although I actually haven’t been back there in 4 years and haven’t written or talked about this in a while.  I have to admit I feel disconcerted, although not surprised, by the nagging nostalgia that this writing process has awoken in me for a place where olive oil, lots of lemon, fresh almonds plucked from trees, warm soft flat breads, jasmine, and bougainvillea infuse everyday life…because now undermining and surrounding these are demolition, religious control, ethnic cleansing, and other less romantic forces at play.

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Stuffed Eggplant from Jerusalem

The recipes in Jerusalem are, as usual with Ottolenghi, impeccable.  The meals they produce are full of bright, well balanced flavors and colors in just the right proportions.  The photography is gorgeous. It serves a refreshing combination of poetic passion for the food, a deep respect and understanding of special spices and vegetables, thoroughly researched and organized information, and a delightful playfulness.  My love for their approach is exemplified in their reference to eggplant as a “little local celebrity.”

The main problem is a depoliticized celebration of the richness of the city’s heritage and the diversity of the cuisine.   They simply do not address how seriously the communities, places, and food traditions from which the recipes are drawn, are suffering and disappearing because of government policies.  It is not just a matter of bad attitudes or unfortunate frivolous squabbles between neighbors as their introduction would have you believe.

The introduction to Jerusalem states that “the dialogue between Jews and Arabs, and often among Jews themselves, is almost nonexistent. It is sad to note how little daily interaction there is between communities, with people sticking together in closed, homogenous groups.”   They point out that it is a rare occasion that people from different communities there work together. I know that the systems that have been put in place to ensure this segregation have not escaped these native Jerusalemites’ observation so I’m disappointed that they mentioned this reality as if it were just a bewildering cultural phenomenon.  A giant militarized concrete wall literally caging entire communities of Palestinians and more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians in every aspect of life, have created the separation Ottolenghi and Tamimi refer to.  Although they neglect to report these reasons for the segregation, they at least include this small acknowledgement of the power imbalance: “Intolerance and trampling over other people’s basic rights are routine in this city. Currently, the Palestinian minority bears the brunt with no sign of it regaining control over its destiny, while the secular Jews are seeing their way of life being gradually marginalized by a growing Orthodox population.”

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Although Tamimi is listed as an author, the voice of this book reads as predominantly Jewish Israeli.  Albeit a Jewish Israeli perspective that provides much more acknowledgement of Palestinian and Arab culture than the average Jewish publication.  (Which is not saying much given that mainstream Jewish media treats the word “Palestinian” like an evil spell that will magically and immediately erase the state of Israel if uttered). Still, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, this book articulates a Jewish perspective on the history and current culture of Jerusalem.  This can be most clearly seen in the summary of the history of the city, which presents Jewish mythology as factual history while presenting Palestinian historical experiences as mere “claims”.

Notice the effect of the different word choices here: “When King David founded [Jerusalem] as his capital…David was a warrior and chose his capital for strategic reasons”….versus  “some Palestinians claim that they are descendants of the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were deposed by King David.”  The tone of the former is definitive, the tone of the latter is questioning.

If the same treatment was being delivered to Palestinian as well as Jewish viewpoints in this book, the destruction of the second Temple which is referred to as  “painfully etched in Jewish history as the onset of a slow process of decline that would not end until the advent of Zionism,” would have read more like “some Jews claim the decline ended after the advent of Zionism”. This framework would be one within which Israeli Jewish narratives are also acknowledged as fraught and constructed while avoiding the erroneous assumption of a monolithic Jewish view given the broad spectrum of (often troubled) relationships to Zionism and Israel amongst Jews themselves, not to mention Palestinians.

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I find the avoidant attitude assumed towards the question of culinary ownership the most disappointing and frustrating given the careful consideration of the sources and stories behind all of the recipes.  Ottolenghi/Tamimi’s reference to the question of ownership is flippant and dismissive, trying to sidestep an issue that is actually at the heart of any culinary exploration of Jerusalem but that they may fear would affect their large sales if things got too heated perhaps…?

Silwan poster

Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem

Ownership is a real issue in Palestine/Israel- not just a rhetorical question.  Israeli archaeological efforts on historical sites are blatantly aimed at undermining Palestinians’ claim to their own homeland and displacing their communities; and Palestinian farmers are attacked by Israeli settlers while trying to harvest olives from their groves in the fall (while olives and olive branches remain a symbol of peace in Jewish culture)….these are not just silly ego battles, these are life or death struggles for ownership on very serious levels.

It is simply wrong for Ottolenghi and Tamimi to publish a book that begins by saying where these cuisines come from and to whom they belong doesn’t matter. I completely agree with their assertion that the beauty of food is indeed in the “sensuality and pleasure of the moment” but it is also equally found in the stories, wisdom, and customs passed down from generation to generation, connecting us through that sensual moment to all of these past people and times.  Ottolenghi and Tamimi, of all people, should know that.

To say the beauty of food is that it is rooted in the now (which is what they put forth) seems out of line with a true appreciation of culinary art which is, when it comes down to it, about deriving beauty from the balancing relationship between accumulated wisdom and individual innovation.  The thoroughly researched recipes themselves in the pages that follow belie this wishy-washy position they take in the introduction. Throughout the book they acknowledge the impact of history and socioeconomic context on a cuisine. They offer the background on bulgur as a grain that historically has been a rural people’s food while remembering how rice was the affluent urban grain.  They brilliantly observe that the predominance within Jerusalem’s cuisine of laborious preparations involving stuffing things indicates the history of a community that was “time rich and resource poor”.  They acknowledge the influence of Italian cooking on Libyan cuisine via their colonization of that land….and so on and so forth.

Despite this apparent respect for the origins of certain recipes, they oversimplify the debate surrounding hummus.  Attempting to prove that hummus cannot be “owned”, they miss the point entirely. By pointing to the existence of hummus in the traditional cuisine of the Jews of Aleppo they are actually highlighting the core issues on the table- the cooptation of Arab culture (which includes Jews).  Hummus is indeed a longtime staple of Aleppine Jews as well as Palestinians and other Arabs…that is actually not the question.

What hummus is NOT, is a dish that belongs to the modern state of Israel claiming it as its national food while historically marginalizing both the Arab Jews and the Palestinian Arabs who introduced it to the European immigrants who hold most of the positions of power in Israeli society and who dominate the construction of its national identity. The cooptation of hummus and other Arab foods is not really surprising or different than how things go down in any other settler-colonial country.  The recipe: take the desirable music, food, clothing and mix together, discard as many of the undesirable people as possible.

Thinking about all of this right now from my position in Brooklyn, I am interested to see how the current Mediterranean food trend amongst the popular restaurants of New York City plays out.

(delicious!) brunch at Glasserie in Brooklyn, including Middle Eastern ingredients such as merguez, bulghur, za’atar, “flakey bread”, and labneh

In this anti-Arab and Islamaphobic society obsessed with the horror of al Qaeda and making movies about the war against jihadists, apparently shwarma, zaatar, and grilled lamb are allowed past the borders. As long as they are served by white people. But then again, that’s how this country likes its hip hop, ramen, tacos, and Harlem Shake. So its par for the course.

Frame from “Planet of the Arabs” by Jacqueline Reem Salloum

Without discussing the real issues in the place from which these recipes are being adapted, what Ottolenghi and Tamimi are doing is familiarizing Western audiences with these Middle Eastern delights without mobilizing people to preserve the origins of this cuisine they’re celebrating (and making a living off of).  Soleil Ho’s break down of #foodgentrification is powerfully relevant here, as Ho focuses on the issues experienced by the marginalized communities whose foods come into the spotlight of the industry:  “fear of being unable to feed one’s family, of losing access to traditional foods, of being priced out of toxin-free produce, of one’s food being alternately shamed and fetishized depending on commercial whims, of having one’s history repackaged and sold.

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Jerusalem successfully delivers a romanticized image of a place in which the mixing and coexisting that it refers to as such a treasure and obviously generative of amazing food, amongst other cultural creations, is actually under attack by the Israeli government through its relentless ethnic cleansing policies.  Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed and populations criminalized and displaced- Arab Jews and Palestinian Arabs at different times and in different ways.

As we Westerners all enjoy reading the rich recipes and cooking festive meals from the Jerusalem cookbook, this is what is happening in that much romanticized city:

Tayma lives in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli authorities issued many of the Palestinian families living in Silwan with demolition orders for their homes to clear the area for a national park.

Israeli authorities also approved a large tourism center in the heart of the neighborhood, which will include parking, an event hall, a cafeteria, and stores. They’ve handed development of the area to Elad, an Israeli settlement organization.

“All the houses here are under threat of demolition [by Israel] so that the settlers can build a park for their children,” says Tayma. “They want to throw Palestinian families on the streets so that they can build parks for their own children.”

Israeli settlers have moved into Silwan. With the aid of Israeli security forces, they subject the longtime Palestinian residents to daily violent harassment and intimidation.

From Electronic Intifada

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In an interview for Haaretz in January, Ottolenghi and Tamimi acknowledged some of the inequities in their creative/culinary partnership- the underbelly of their beautiful team.  While they were working on the cookbook, Ottolenghi and Tamimi were asked to take part in a BBC documentary to be shot while they visited their shared hometown. Tamimi’s passport had expired during the 9 years he did not return because he was too traumatized by his treatment entering and leaving the country. He experienced humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic discrimination throughout the renewal process and ended up unable to return to his birthplace.

Ottolenghi went without Tamimi and the BBC cameras followed only Ottolenghi around Jerusalem. The fact that Ottolenghi went without Tamimi confuses me, as he articulates in the Haaretz interview a perfect understanding of the underlying issues: “We were born in the same city and in the same year, and our parallel existence is the background to the emergence of our friendship and partnership, and to the book about Jerusalem. A blow like this reminds us that even if everything looks good on the surface, the fact is there is one law for me and another for him”.

It’s actually a crystal clear example of the more meta issues of who gets to transcend boundaries and tell the stories- through whose eyes do we see the city of Jerusalem and the land it is a part of? I have no doubt that Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s partnership has been incredibly fulfilling (and lucrative) for both of them and it is not my place to question the strong bond they represent themselves as having. I have no idea what the decision-making process was for this trip but I do wonder why Ottolenghi didn’t say “NO- I am not going without my co-author and partner in this”. I wonder about how powerful that could have been- for this very high profile Jewish Israeli to take a principled stand against the unequal treatment he and his Palestinian partner were receiving and refuse to cash in on his privilege. This is the kind of action and relatively small sacrifice that we need those who are as secure in their finances and career as Ottolenghi is to make. People with less security and resources make those kinds of sacrifices all of the time.

“It’s like having cold water poured on you,” Tamimi said. “We recently returned from a book-promotion tour in North America. Many of the events were with Jewish communities. We spoke endlessly about Israel, about Jerusalem and about coexistence − and then you get a slap in the face like this.” Exactly! The truth is that you can have a couple of handsome men speaking in English, one Israeli and one Palestinian, serve the colorful cuisine in sexy white linen dining rooms in London and multicultural events in the U.S., and even Jewish communities who are very defensive in the face of any mention of Palestine or Palestinians can digest it because it’s not connected to any real conversation about what’s really happening in Jerusalem. So how do Ottolenghi and Tamimi feel satisfied with their cookbook? No matter how delicious the recipes are when I make them, and no matter how compelling their descriptions are of the ingredients and the stories of the recipes, I am left feeling like there are major ingredients missing. And yes Ottolenghi and Tamimi successfully deliver amazing and delicious food that unfamiliar cooks and eaters will learn from, be inspired by, and develop a love for…but what does the cookbook do to preserve the original cooks and eaters of this cuisine? As such passionate and wise gourmands as Ottolenghi and Tamimi are, they must care more about preserving the original community food traditions than their cookbook implies.

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I’ve come to realize that the passion and depth of emotion I feel connected to food flows from the power of its intersectionality. I believe that Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s excitement about cooking is rooted in a similar awareness of the power of food to connect people- to their own bodies, to creativity, to each other, to history, to the land, the seasons, animals and plants, family stories….Food is the only concrete connection between urban and rural worlds, between city dwelling cooks and eaters and the farmers producing their ingredients.  Cuisine is often the only interaction people have with cultures outside of their own.  Restaurants are the intersection where wealthy people who have the means to eat out, sit under the same roof as some of the poorest laborers working 14 hour days in the kitchens serving them.

SO…we need to respect and channel that power of food and allow the recipes in Jerusalem to be keys in our hands. They can help us connect to the communities from which these bright and bold flavors come- we can SEE the people, not just eat their food. Let the recipes be our guides to learning about what’s actually going on right now in the very real city of Jerusalem.  If we value what the traditions and cultures of that place have brought into the world, let’s support their efforts to preserve themselves.

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To learn about the spices, produce, meats, and meals of the same place in different contexts, I strongly suggest people pick up these two other fellow travelers’ cookbooks:

The Gaza Kitchen: A Culinary Journey Through the Gaza Strip

OLIVES, LEMONS & ZA’ATAR: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking

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jerusalem sunday

by Suheir Hammad

jeru

salem

sun

day

three muezzins call idan

where one’s allah begins another’s

akbar ends inviting the last

to witness mohammad’s prophecies

church bells ring the sky

an ocean shade of blue above

christ’s tomb and the stones

of this city witness man’s weakness

boys run by the torah

strapped to their third eye

ready to rock their prayers

the roofs of this city busy as the streets

the gods of this city crowded and proud

two blind and graying

arab men lead each other through

the old city surer of step than sight

tourists pick olives from the cracks

in the faces of young and graying

women selling mint onions and this

year’s oil slicking the ground

this city is wind

breathe it

sharp

this history is blood

swallow it

warm

this sunday is holy

be it

god

Unlearning Vegetarianism: A Journey To Situational Omnivorousness

Eating is the catalyst and the conduit for so many cultural and social experiences that I hated missing out on as a vegetarian. I was born and raised that way- both of my parents became vegetarian years before I was born and my entire family remains committed vegetarians.  Over the past few years, I have departed from this value system, receiving responses from my sisters and parents ranging from bewilderment to concern.

When I was young, I would say, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat Big Macs and chicken wings!”  (I also, for the record, desperately craved squishy white bread and creamy peanut butter to replace the crumbly whole wheat home baked loaves and oily separated natural peanut butter I was served). Of course once I was autonomous, I was disgusted by the thought of any of it and could not imagine putting those processed dead substances in my body.

When I began actually trying real meat, at first I was frustrated with how little I could handle.  I could taste little bites but was still too weirded out by the texture of flesh in my mouth to eat much of it. Now I am grateful for this sensitivity. I am horrified by the thought of eating unclean, unhealthy animals who were brutalized. However, even ethically raised or harvested animals are still living beings whose lives are being taken and this always has been and will always be a heavy, complicated process – one that I will never engage in casually. So as I have been unlearning my vegetarianism, I have been learning as much as I can about the processes by which animals end up as food- different slaughtering and butchering techniques and traditions, the differences between grass fed and corn fed beef, the ways that unseasonably warm waters on the west coast affect the taste of the oysters, the impact of overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean on sea species central to sushi production…if I was not eating from the ocean I guarantee I would not be as attuned to the crises playing out there. I feel more plugged into the planet now that I eat (some) meat and seafood.  I pay attention more. I feel the affects of what’s going on in our ecosystems and food production systems more than ever before. I also feel more connected to the people of the past in this place I live- Brooklyn, Long Island, the coast of the Atlantic- a place where the indigenous people, and then all of the colonizers and immigrants following them, ate from the ocean because it’s right here!  (If I were still living in Ohio, I would not be as passionate about learning how to eat from the sea responsibly because the responsible thing to do there would be to not eat from it). Feeling more plugged into the planet through consuming meat feels somewhat ironic for me because I know my mother, who is so disturbed by my digression, is vegetarian precisely because of how plugged into the planet she feels.

A proto-omnivorous moment I had years ago took place in the home of a Palestinian farmer family in a village near Jenin. I had been helping their cooperative sell their fair trade olive oil in the States and was being hosted by this family during my first visit since the collaboration began. It was Id and they had just slaughtered a lamb and grilled it, serving it in small dark juicy chunks accompanied by a mouth-watering array of sauces, dips, spice mixes, pickles, yogurt, bread, and veggies. I ate a small amount (I remember exactly 5 pieces but may have projected that number onto the memory in retrospect). It was a space within which my commitment to vegetarianism did not feel as important as gratefully participating in the intimate, generous experience of this family’s celebration. I had been concerned that my stomach would be upset given that it had never had such things in any substantial quantity. I was totally fine.

Years later, I had the privilege of visiting the tiny magical universe of Sutton Island in the Gulf of Maine. My friends kayaked out to the big rock near the dock in front of our house and harvested some mussels. After they cleaned them on the front porch, we made paella with them, throwing them into the large pot, covering it, and as they were coaxed open by the steam, we smelled their oceanic juices seep out and infuse the rice and vegetables.

I knew that if I were to ever try eating mussels that THIS was the moment- mussels harvested by my friends’ hands in a small and sustainable amount, in the cleanest water I had ever been in. And I asked myself if eating a plastic-wrapped processed soy product could in any way, spiritually or nutritionally, feel better than eating these sea creatures freshly plucked from a rock. The answer was no. Thus began my more deliberate mission to expand my food experience to include animals. These were both experiences in which the values and logic of what was right to eat came into focus as more layered and complex than any YES/NO position on meat could encompass.

I tease my mother by calling her a fundamentalist vegetarian because she believes that everyone should be vegetarian all the time. There are no other points to be considered other than avoiding taking unnecessary life as she sees it. And this is a serious question- is it necessary for us to kill and eat animals? (“Us” being urbanized people living in the year 2013). The answer might, on a certain level, be NO. Not technically. But it all comes down to the interconnectedness of all the systems involved in what we eat- it makes it so that it is very difficult, and possibly not ideal, to maintain a pure and singular set of dietary restrictions if one’s aim is to eat most ethically and healthily, for planet and self. One meal might offer the choice between processed soy product and sustainably farmed fish, in which case the fish might be the most ethical and clean way to eat in that situation. In another context, one might have to choose between factory farm chicken and a vegetable dish containing avocado flown half way around the world with fossil fuel guzzling engines. In that situation, the harm and health dichotomy get complicated.  This might be a pick your battles situation, and one in which there’s no guaranteed clear winning position because either way, you are implicated in a losing food production industry. With an industrialized food system relying on so much fossil fuel, plastic, chemicals, and so on, eating vegetarian is not automatically a less harmful choice. It can be- if whole, local, seasonal, sustainably grown and produced foods are the boundaries around one’s eating decisions. But just going for the non-animal option at a restaurant or the grocery store doesn’t guarantee righteousness unfortunately.

Adding a different dimension of decision-making factors, there are contexts in which one is being offered special dishes prepared lovingly by people who are sharing their knowledge, their heritage or their home.  For me, fully experiencing different cultures and communities requires responding to such welcomeness with openness, curiosity, and gratitude. It is the only way to learn. And show respect. There is no room for rigid restrictions that negate the wisdom of a cuisine being presented.  There are dishes that are so central to cultures, classics enjoyed on sometimes obsessive levels by entire countries and larger geographic areas, that I feel must at least be tried.  Otherwise a significant element of a place that I am in will be missed. And I HATE missing out. (This is admittedly the most questionable of my reasons for abandoning vegetarianism personally.)

So I have developed a situational omnivorousness that I do not claim to be righteous but is at least an attempt to live fully and cultivate a multifaceted relationship to food.  I am sure it will continue to evolve, especially as our planet keeps changing and I learn more.

Maine Magic

Sutton Island is a small island just off the coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine. There are only 22 houses on the island and the only way to get there is by boat. Each time I’ve gone there, I feel as if I’ve slipped through a portal into another dimension.Walking in the forest on Sutton, we were bouncing, stepping on soft glowing green lichen and moss covered mounds, breathing in sweet air perfumed by the most delicate blend of sea salt and pine needles.

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 I spend my time there literally not believing my eyes, charmed and overwhelmed by the combination of elegant old money New England families’ summer mansions and the raw and rustic beauty of the rocks, woods, lobstermen’s boats, open skies, and sparkling ocean. To spend time in this watery world is a gift. Cranberry Isles

A gift that I came to share through the love and generosity of my Detroit family. There is a perhaps surprisingly deep historic connection between this awe-inspiring tranquil island off the coast of Maine and the awe-inspiring intense city in the middle of the country. The Cranberry Isles (of which Sutton Island is a part) were granted (in the grand European tradition of giving people land that didn’t belong to them) to the Sieur de Cadillac back in the mid-1600’s, before Cadillac made his way inland to develop Detroit as a trading post. ConversationsInMaine

Centuries later, Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs, started a decades long tradition of spending August on Sutton Island with other visionaries and organizers working to transform society. They published a book sharing the questions and ideas that came out of these gatherings. Since then, our generation has been welcomed there by Shea Howell, the most wise, good-humored, open-hearted, warm, grounded mentor and friend. She shares with us the secrets of the forest, the history of the islands, the stories of the houses. She is our guide to the goodness of this place. Oh Captain, My Captain

After our return to the mainland a few weeks ago, Kymberlie, a dear friend and fierce mama from Maine originally, wrote to all of us who had ventured there together:

“I could not have even imagined what magic that tiny ocean paradise had in store, and I feel like it was such a gift to get to discover it with you.  I’m also really happy about Elliot getting to romp around with all of you awesome grownups.  It’s hard to believe that a week ago we were playing in sea spray at the edge of the continent, eating lobster daily and sunning ourselves with mid-day glasses of rosé in hand.  I’m thinking about how to incorporate a little Sutton Island into my daily life…suggestions?” LittleGilly

Given that we experienced such joy and sense of place through kayaking out to the rock right beyond our shore to gather mussels, boating to the next island over to get lobster directly from the fishermen’s cooperative on their collectively owned dock, walking through the forest foraging chanterelles and cranberries, and strolling through our neighbor’s garden picking herbs, sharing some of the menus and recipes for the meals we made together is one of the most concrete ways we could think of for incorporating the essence of Sutton Island into our daily lives! HarvestingMussels

The reason that we made it all the way out to this dream land on the edge of things, is one of my favorite people on the planet- Mike Medow. He is an infrastructure man, handling the business of pleasure and the work that makes the good work possible.  The entire time we were there, so aware of the precious nourishment we were getting, we were strategizing about how to sustain our connection to this place and widen the circle of people who could come revel in its magic. So we’re beginning by giving everyone a taste. Perhaps in the future, you’ll join us at the table!

The Crew

Here are three recipes for dishes we really enjoyed. I’ve also included the menus for each meal. It’s amazing how much just knowing what we ate and how we ate it can give you a sense of our time on the island! Kymberlie and her brother, Nick, shared some of these photos and Kymberlie helped remember and describe all of the sumptuous feasts.

Fig Manhattan

2 oz Bourbon

1 oz sweet Vermouth

1 teaspoon fig preserves

Shake vigorously with ice in a cocktail shaker (or mason jar if you’re in a rustic cabin like we were). Pour into a rocks glass over a few cubes of ice.

Romesco Sauce

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 roasted red peppers (see below for the process)

2 cloves of garlic

2 tomatoes

2 or 3 tablespoons sherry or white wine vinegar

1/2 cup slivered toasted almonds

a dash of cayenne

1/3 of a baguette or a couple of slices of another kind of bread

fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

I like mine nice and smooth and creamy so I throw all of the ingredients in a strong blender and womp it up. If you want more texture, use a food processor.

To roast the red peppers, place each on the open flame of a gas burner. Use tongs to rotate it until each side is charred and blistering. Then remove them from the heat and place in a tupperware and close the lid to “sweat” them. After about 15 minutes, once cool enough to touch, peel the skin off, slice them open, scrape out the seeds, and then add into the blender.

Wifey Salad

INGREDIENTS

1 bunch of lacinato kale de-stemmed and shredded

3 carrots grated

2 large beets roasted and cubed

2 cups of cooked farro

4 or 5 eggs hardboiled, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds or pepitas

1 block of feta crumbled

DRESSING

1/4 cup of olive oil

1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt

juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

2 or 3 tablespoons of tamari sauce

a few dashes of hot sauce

2 cloves of garlic

a big handful of dill

a big handful of parsley

1 or 2 tablespoons of yellow mustard

1 or 2 tablespoons of honey

salt and pepper to taste

To make the dressing, just throw all of the ingredients in a blender! Adjust the flavor according to your taste- if you want more brightness/acidity, add more lemons. If you want it sharper, add another clove of garlic. You want the dill to be a prominent flavor because that’s what makes the salad so refreshing. So add more if it isn’t coming through enough. And of course salt and sweetness always add depth and bind flavors together more so if it needs that, adjust the salt and/or honey.

To make the salad, first cook about 1 cup of farro in about 1.5 cups of broth. I make my own vegetable stock but you can use whatever you have. Bring the farro and broth to a boil and then cover and simmer for a while. Check after 10 minutes. You should turn it off when the farro has a nice chewiness but isn’t hard at all. There might be some liquid left- that’s ok! Lightly and briefly massage the shredded kale with a drizzle of olive oil. Add the grated carrots, roasted and cubed beets, and the farro with whatever liquid is left in it (that will help soften the kale a bit and add flavor to the dressing). Add the dressing and toss thoroughly. Then add in the feta, eggs, and seeds and toss lightly- just enough to integrate them.

SuttonSunbeams

Curry Night

Coconut curry with ginger, basil, kale, zucchini, brown rice

Marinated and baked tofu

Stir-fried shiitake mushrooms with garlic scapes

After dinner: Fireplace roasted smores and fig Manhattans

Frittata Breakfast

Cherry tomatoes, cheddar, chard, leek

Lobsterpocalypse

Corn on the cob

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Green salad

Cozy Afternoon Delight

Orzo, chickpea, spinach soup

Dollop of sour cream

Taco Bonanza

Mussels in coconut basil curry broth

Roasted garlic, tomato, cilantro salsa

Romesco Sauce

Avocado Cream

Chickpeas sautéed in garlic, onion, cumin, lemon

Kale salad with carmelized shallots, feta

Spanish rice

Punch: Bourbon, Campari, Domaine de Canton, Lemon, Soda, Prosecco

Southern Comfort Brunch

Smoked Gouda Grits

Poached Egg

sautéed kale in special sauce

Salsa and romesco

Dockside Happy Hour

Cocktail: Cava, Campari, Gin, Lemon, Vermouth

Snack: Basil, balsamic, garlic marinated and roasted fairytale eggplant with sliced baguette and basil crème fraiche

Farewell Midnight Banquet

linguine with pan roasted chanterelles, parsley, shallots, and parmesan

Garlic roasted new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives

Salad: mixed greens, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers in an herb, yogurt dressing

Baked haddock with lemon, parsley, dill, garlic, and paprika

Blueberry Pie from Little Notch Bakery

Breakfast for the road

Frittatini with zucchini, cheddar, onions, roasted red peppers

Fermentation Rumination

Aside

I love pickles.

I love gherkins and dills and bread-and-butter chips. I love dilly beans and vinegary blueberries. I love pickled okra and beet-stained turnip pickles and pretty much any kind of pickle you can think of.

But I am hands-down crazy about half-sours.

Half sour pickles (and their puckery cousin the full-sour) are to me what a pickle should be – crispy and salty and refreshing. None of this limp, neon-green nonsense that you see in the salad aisle.

The thing that makes half-sours so crispy and delicious is that they are fermented, not cooked or heat-processed. Surprisingly, the worldwideweb is a little thin on half-sour recipes, so I thought I’d share mine here.

Half-Sour Pickles

Yield: 2 1-quart jars of pickly goodness

Protip 1: use the freshest possible pickle cukes. I try to pick and pickle in the same day.

Protip 2: Pickle cucumbers are not just smaller salad cucumbers. They’re a different kind of cuke, generally full grown at six inches or so, and paler green, sometimes with light-colored stripes lengthwise down the skin – not dark green like a salad cuke. They’ve got a thicker skin and crisper flesh then other cucumbers.

Ingredients:

  • 10 -12 pickling cucumbers, very fresh with the stem trimmed off
  • 1/2 tsp. whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. pepper corns
  • 1/2 tsp. mustard seed
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed pepper flakes
  • ¼ tsp. dill seeds
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 4 mature dill blossoms
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic
  • ¼ cup pickling salt (don’t mess with this and use sea salt or table salt. You need pickle salt.)
  • 5 cups purified water

Instructions:

1. Soak your cucumbers in a bowl of icy water for about 15 minutes while you prepare the pickling spice.

picklebath2. Dissolve the salt in the water.

3. Put all your dry spices into a plastic bag and hit them with a hammer. (I tried grinding them with a pestle and they got too ground up, but a few whacks with a hammer – or firm rolls with a rolling pin – cracks your mustard seeds open and busts up your pepper flakes without pulverizing anything.

hammertime4. Split the garlic cloves, pickle spices, and dill blossoms evenly between your jars.

5. Cram pickles into the jars. I usually chop up a few into half-sizes and throw them in the bottom, and then line the perimeter of the jar with pickles sliced in half lengthwise (skin facing in), and then shove a few whole cukes into the center of each jar. Try to keep your pickles tucked underneath the shoulders of the jar.

6. Pour your brine into each jar, making sure that all your pickles are fully submerged.

7. Put your pickle jars in a pan (in case the fermentation makes them spill over a bit) and put the lids on loosely.

8. Store your pickles in a cool dark place for a few days. Start tasting them at the end of each day – mine were ready to go in 48 hours. The longer they sit, the more they sour – so for half-sours, a few days should be fine, and for full sours, it may take up to a week. Things that may happen and are normal include: the water gets cloudy, they fizz and foam, the garlic turns turquoise (although using fresh garlic will prevent this last one).

pickling

9. When they’ve fermented to where you want them, tighten the lids and refrigerate. You can keep them for months – they will keep fermenting, but very very slowly once in the fridge.

DELICIOUS!

 

 

 

Let It Pour: Meditations on Liquid Ritual & Culture- Recipe Edition

My dear friend Cyrus, whose combined qualities of humble enthusiasm and the wisdom of a sage, make him an absolute delight to be with, has asked for smoothie support. Smoothie

Since my household begins every morning with a smoothie, I am happy to oblige his request. Giovanna and I share the need for our first food of the day to be fresh and healthful. We love baked goods!….but these need to come later, after our bodies have woken up.

There is one thing to note about this recipe- it is dependent on a Vitamix, or another extremely powerful blender. Our Vitamix, inherited from a fierce woman who passed away two years ago, is our prized possession. We practically worship it around here. Its significance increased even more when Giovanna broke her jaw in a bike accident and pureé was the name of the game for weeks. My advice to all who want to cook decent food on a regular basis- do not skimp on a blender- go for quality. A strong one can do the work of a juicer and a food processor without as much of the hassle and clean up.

Morning Elixer SmoothieCircle

1 or 2 dates (pitted)

1 banana

1 large leaf of kale

1/2 cup of yogurt (plain or maple)

1 tablespoon almond butter

1 teaspoon bee pollen

1 tablespoon flax seed oil

1 apple (cored and cut into pieces)

1 3/4 teaspoon of ginger (peeled and chopped)

3/4 cup carrot or apple juice

a few mint leaves

a few dashes of cinnamon

Put all of it in a blender with a few ice cubes and blend! Add more liquid if you want it smoother. Opt out of the supplements if you don’t have them or don’t want to spend the money.

Enjoy!

Let it Pour: Meditations on Liquid Ritual & Culture, Part 1

This is the beginning of a series of posts pondering the almost totally universal centrality of beverages and the rituals that have been developed around drinking them in so many societies across time and geography. In fact, the passion for many of these liquids and the plants, spices, land, and processes required to produce them, have motivated and facilitated connection between different cultures- with varying degrees of mutual influence, total exploitation, cooperation, and cooptation.  Image

To start us off, an excerpt about the power and poetry of drinking tea taken from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, a novel set in Paris.

Photographs by the lovely Prachi Patankar.

I pour the tea and we sip in silence.  We have never had our tea together in the morning, and this break with our usual protocol imbues the ritual with a strange flavor.

Yes, this sudden transmutation in the order of things seems to enhance our pleasure, as if consecrating the unchanging nature of a ritual established over our afternoons together, a ritual that has ripened into a solid and meaningful reality.  Today, because it has been transgressed, our ritual suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again: every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles.  Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time.  Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn—and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb.

So, let us drink a cup of tea.

Image

Comfort in the Classics

Sometimes, you’ve gotta go back to the basics.

A classic done well is an immensely satisfying experience in any field- food, film, fashion….

This month has been cold, windy, dark, and wet.  All of us have been recovering from the month before which felt like a mild, modern day urban plague situation- fever, flu, colds, infections…

So I was not surprised to find myself turning to soup and salad over the past few weeks.

Carrot-Ginger-Cashew Soup to be specific. CarrotSoup

And not just any salad- I went as classic as you can get- spinach, roasted beet, feta salad with balsamic vinaigrette. (And toasted pepitas and avocado of course).

I had been taking a break from beets- they can get overwhelming and boring.  And I usually don’t enjoy raw spinach as much as other greens because it can be so minerally and chalky in your mouth.

But I was ready for those color-popping root vegetables again and the acid from the vinaigrette and mixing the salad while the beets and pepitas were still a bit warm softened the spinach just enough to change the mouth feel for me.

Some people can’t get motivated to cook creatively if they are eating by themselves. I used to be like that  too. Other people were the inspiration for my effort- myself alone could not have been enough of an occasion. I think there are some broader social issues playing out here.  While our society encourages us to behave in an intensely individualistic manner, we are simultaneously trained to be more externally focused in our energy when it comes to love, enjoyment, self-image, etc.  We end up not valuing and loving ourselves consistently, not being more grounded in ourselves as sources of wisdom and pleasure.  And even though I am unquestionably committed to communal meals as fundamental to the good life, I am committed to good food on the daily, no matter what.. I thus have learned to value myself as a perfectly worthy diner to cook for.

I have the privilege of working from home several days a week. There can be times when I’m sitting with my breakfast or lunch creation, thoroughly enjoying it all by myself, when I get so excited that I need to document it and share it with someone. These moments are no longer about feeling regretful that others aren’t here to acknowledge/enjoy the masterpiece. It’s more that I just get excited about beautiful things and want to share.

My culinary comrade Sonny, a Big Ceci contributor, has often served as an enthusiastic receiver of such random outbursts of Wednesday afternoon food photography. My partner tolerates my enthusiastic texts with some amusement- I know he’s laughing at me as he looks at my latest bowl of ramen or slice of frittata. It’s always satisfying to share with Boris, my friend who has his own creations he proudly documents at his new cafe The Pantry- being the love bug and Parisian chef trained from childhood that he is, he always responds with encouragement.  It would never occur to him to do anything other than unabashedly and constantly celebrate one’s meals.

It occurred to me today that this is partly what our blog is for! SpinachBeetSalad

I am very wary of the boring food photography and general self-obsessed over-sharing that social media facilitate so I tend to be a more reluctant, self-doubting blogger. But this soup and salad have made many delicious, easy meals for me these past couple of weeks and the colors are so inviting against the backdrop of a grey city right now. Also, my friend Jackie, a brilliant film-maker who usually can’t be bothered with complicated culinary labor, is finally turning her attention to cooking soup and I promised her a recipe.

So I’ve decided to share. Buon appetito!

Carrot Cashew Ginger Soup

Sauté one large yellow or sweet onion in about 2.5 tablespoons coconut oil for 1 minute.

Stir in about 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger. (A bit more if you want more of that kick).

Add about 1 teaspoon of curry powder and a couple of dashes of sweet paprika.

Sauté for a couple of minutes- just until the onions soften and start looking translucent.

Then add about 3/4 cup of raw cahsews and stir them in so they get all coated in the goodness. After 1 minute, add about 3 or 4 cups of carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks. Add 1 cup of  peeled and chopped up butternut squash (this adds to the sweet orangeness of it all). Then I sprinkle 1 or 2 teaspoons of thyme and 1 teaspoon of salt on the veggies and stir it in.

Sauté with the lid on, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. You want the veggies to start getting soft but not too soft.

Then add several cups of vegetable broth.  I usually make sure that the vegetables are covered by about 2 inches of liquid. You can add more later if it’s not enough. You want the final product to be creamy so don’t add a huge amount of stock at first.  After I bring the soup to a boil, I turn it down to simmer.

Brief tangent: I make my own stock because it’s so easy, saves money, and repurposes what would otherwise be waste! (Also, when I use stock prepared by someone else, I feel like I can’t claim full credit for the flavors of my dish. So a little ego is involved here too).

I just save the peels, stems, and ends of garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, herbs, kale, herbs, and other veggies in a container in the freezer for a few weeks. When I have enough, I put it all together in a big pot and fill it three quarters of the way with water.  I bring it to a boil and add about 3 tablespoons of salt (I use a huge pot- put a bit less if your pot isn’t a cauldron like mine). I also add a big handful of parsley (if you have a bunch of the stems in there already you’re fine) and some thyme (dry or fresh) and simmer it until it’s nice and dark and fragrant. Then I pour it through a strainer and store it in jars, jugs, and tupperware, making a huge mess along the way. 

Back to the soup. When the veggies are soft enough to easily stick a fork in them, I turn off the soup and let it cool for about 5 minutes. Just so it’s not scalding. You should probably wait longer but I never have time for that. Then I ladle the soup into a strong blender, working in batches and making sure each batch has a good balance of liquid and veggies. After combining all of the pureed soup into a new pot, I taste it to determine how much more salt it needs (it will need more or less depending on how salty your broth was). I also add the juice of half a (juicy) lemon and a few dashes of black pepper.

Spinach Beet Salad

As for the salad, y’all can easily figure that one out for yourselves. I prepare my beets the way my father does. I wash them and cut the stems off and place them whole in a piece of tinfoil in a roasting pan. I pour ample amounts of olive oil over them, throw in a few cloves of peeled garlic, and sprinkle salt and pepper over them. Then I wrap them up in the tinfoil and roast them on 385 for about an hour. I check them at about 45 minutes to see if I can easily stick a fork into them and pull it out. When I cut them up, I leave the yummy, oily and salty skins on them. Others might choose to peel them for a smoother texture. I cut them up and mix them with spinach, sliced radishes, crumbled feta, toasted pepitas (or pine nuts), and diced avocado. Cucumbers are good too but I’m not feeling them in these wintery months- they’re too cool.  The vinaigrette I toss it with is one that my wifey and I make in large batches and just keep around the house for all kinds of purposes (including marinading).  It’s just olive oil, balsamic vinegar,  dijon mustard, lemon juice, a few dashes of hot sauce, salt, and pepper. While doctoring it up, I sometimes I add a few dashes of tamari sauce instead of more salt.