Storm Love

Waking up in Brooklyn today, still dark, windy, and rainy, we’re so grateful to not have been directly impacted by the power of the storm. However, we are so saddened by the damage done to our beloved city and all of our neighboring communities.

Last night we were looking at the mostly dark Manhattan skyline that normally twinkles in my bedroom window. We were thinking about our fellow traveler, Una, and her family, as they were going through the madness of the storm’s impact on their home just across the river–Stuyvesant Town in Alphabet City. It is one of the most confusing elements of the human experience–the way that one can be so close to and have such dramatically different experiences from others. (The different daily realities between neighborhoods in the same city, the different experiences people have walking down the same street in bodies that are read and responded to differently, the different levels of mobility and freedom people experience at borders and checkpoints and airports, etc.)

For those of us in this part of the Global North, we are accustomed to the damage and difference in experience being separated from us by many more miles and borders. With fires raging in the Rockaways, flooding shutting down lower Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn, and Staten Island devastated, we are now experiencing the sadness and stress of the kinds of powerful storms we’ve watched hit other communities further away throughout the past several years.

So we were very cognizant of this existential dilemma as we hunkered down in Crown Heights, with wind pounding the building and lights flickering, but us safe and dry inside our cozy home. As we kept track of the storm’s path and the whereabouts of the people we love, we joined our fellow New Yorkers who were able, in gathering our peeps to cook, drink, and take care of each other. It was kind of an organic and surreal celebration of the goodness of life, home, and community borne of necessity. We created so much color and warmth within these walls, countering the scary night outside.

Blessed by a tribe of loved ones too big to fit in one Brooklyn apartment, we had two encampments a few blocks apart. Seeing as food is the most natural and immediate way we know how to connect with each other, we devised a playful process for merging–brunch in our two households became a creative culinary competition judged by the Honorable Judge Miriam of Big Ceci fame.

Each “team” prepared our menus, plated our food, and sent our write up and photographs to Miriam for judging. Here is what ensued:

The Bergen Brunch Boos

Maple bourbon pancakes with apricot peach preserves & maple yogurt
Rosemary purple potato hash
Hurricane harvest garden kale-cheddar-corn scramble

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Bergen Street brought a strong showing to the competition, with careful attention to form and technique in their preparation of maple bourbon pancakes, topped with apricot-peach preserves and maple yogurt; purple and red potato hash w/garlic and rosemary; hurricane harvest garden kale, corn, and cheddar scramble.  The plate demonstrated a sophisticated use of color and texture, and held a strong seasonal resonance.  In essence, this brunch created an idyllic autumn day that was a perfect foil to the apocalyptic demon storm raging outside.  This judge would recommend a slightly more acidic preserve to balance the sweetness of the maple-bourbon pancakes.  The tang of the yogurt helped a bit but a citrus or tart component might add more balance to the plate.  The hurricane harvest kale was an immediate crowd-pleaser, and elevated this traditional egg preparation to an innovative and delicious farm-to-fork level.

Presentation: 9.0 out of 10
Creativity: 9.2 out of 10
Balance: 8.6 out of 10
Concept: 9.8 out of 10

Overall score: 9.15 out of 10

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza 

Spiced-apple pancakes with homemade apple butter
Veggie-sausage nutmeg greens
Zuke-tomato-basil-cheddar scramble
Sweet potato home fries

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza drew an immediate wow-factor with their precarious-crane-in-a-hurricane reminiscent stack of spiced apple pancakes with homemade apple butter.  Accented with sides including veggie-sausage nutmeg greens and a zucchini-basil-tomato scramble, and served with sweet potato home fries, this summer-to-fall harvest feast brought diners a compelling tale of two seasons, where the summery warm sea temperature flavors of zuke/basil/tomato collided with the winter storm system of apples, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes.  A thoughtful eye to color and palate made brunch stand out, and the brilliant marriage of sweet and savory flavor profiles made this a complex and inspired meal.  This plate’s greatest strength may have also swung as its deepest challenge; the heft of this hearty meal could intimidate the carb-sensitive or starchaphobe.  A lighter lifting aioli for the home fries, or a touch of parsley or fresh green salad might help this meal slide more confidently into the clean-plate club, but overall this july-september romance of a plate could convince even the firmest brunch cynic to fall in love again with the meal that knows no bounds – hurricane brunch.

Presentation: 9.6 out of 10
Creativity: 9.1 out of 10
Balance: 9.4 out of 10
Concept: 8.5 out of 10

Overall score:  9.15 out of 10

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly

During the last week of April I joyfully drove to Jersey to pick up Ryvka from the airport. She was returning from a 6 month stay in Bethlehem where she was doing research on the tourism industry (stay tuned for more on the political, economic, discursive, and environmental battles Israel wages on Palestinians under the guise of eco-tourism).  I wanted Ryvka to feel good coming back to the holy land of Brooklyn and I knew that a big part of that was going to be assuring her that good, fresh dairy exists here (even if not as prevalent or accessible as in the Middle East).  Luckily, there happened to be that very evening an Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn event entitled “Good Dairy.” After letting her nap for a bit, I escorted her directly to the most appropriate homecoming ever.

Stocking up on some delicious dairy goodies at Edible’s Good Dairy event.

Now one might assume that this is a post about dairy. That would be a fair assumption. However, this is actually about seltzer- a beverage that I’m not very passionate about but is very dear to the hearts of many of my loved ones. How are we making this transition? Well…upon arrival at the Good Dairy event, the first vendors we encountered were the charming gentlemen behind Brooklyn Gin. They were enthusiastic about their small batch locally distilled spirit and so were we. We thoroughly enjoyed the on-the-spot carbonated cocktail they were serving featuring their citrusy liquor. However, Ryvka pointed out to all of us that the origin of the seltzer maker they were using sadly was not such a pure or locally-based process. SodaStream, an Israeli company producing a do-it-yourself, countertop seltzer and soda maker, has been marketing its wares as a “green alternative” to soda cans and bottles. But SodaStream’s main production site is in Mishor Edomim, a settlement and industrial zone in the occupied West Bank, on confiscated Palestinian land. The company is participating in the theft of Palestinian land and exploits Palestinian labor while selling its product with a “Made in Israel” label.

Our new Brooklyn Gin friends were shocked to hear about the oppressive system of production behind their seltzer maker and were really receptive to Ryvka’s suggestion that they find another way to make their cocktails that aligns more with their vision for quality on all levels (taste and process).

Ryvka, being the thorough lady that she is, followed up with an email just the other day. She was excited to discover that there is an alternative to SodaStream that matches the local pride of Brooklyn Gin- Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, Brooklyn! Gomberg Seltzer Works is the last remaining seltzer factory in NYC and Ronny Beberman is the Brooklyn Seltzer Man. He’s 63 years old and still drives a wooden slatted truck full of vintage glass bottles. You can watch “Seltzer Works,” a documentary film about Gomberg Seltzer, at Rooftop Films on July 17th, and you can read a brief and entertaining write-up of this old school seltzer making and delivering operation here: http://reclaimedhome.com/2010/07/01/brooklyn-seltzer-delivery-how-old-school-is-that/

So…getting into Gomberg Seltzer Works is a way to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and invest in the traditional liquid culture of Brooklyn.

Speaking of tradition, liquid culture, and seltzer…while I was home in Cincinnati celebrating the 20th anniversary of my father being the rabbi of his synagogue, I made up a little summer spritzer cocktail to loosen us up before diving into the 600 person dinner (at which the CEO of SodaStream was a surprise performer, being a dear friend of my family’s and the high holiday cantor of our shul. Oh the complexity of the universe). I don’t remember exact measurements but here’s the gist of it:

The Roaring Twentieth

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 generous bar spoon of mixed berry preserves

2-3 oz Sauvignon Blanc (or any available dry-ish white wine)

top off with seltzer

Shake all of the ingredients (except for the seltzer) with ice in a cocktail shaker. Then strain into a chilled wine or champagne glass and top with seltzer. Garnish with a lemon or lime twist. Then clink glasses and toast all to the people fighting the good fight to make food and drink not just delicious but ethical! L’chaim!

A Hummus without People for a People without Hummus

In the fall, I wrote a post about why I support boycotting Israeli goods at the Park Slope Food Coop. Since then, I’ve read many articles about the campaign. Including this one, which refers to the shared passion within the Park Slope Food Coop and the state of Israel, for “hummus and couscous.”  And a blog post in which the author opposes boycott, demanding “more hummus, please” – exhibiting an interest in expanding the cuisine they can consume, and no concern for who it’s being taken from.

This casual reference to such historic and common Arab foods, without acknowledging them as such, relates to a much larger process that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time- unabashed Israeli and Jewish-American appropriation of Arab foods.

This can also be seen within the description of a class that took place at the Coop last night about Jewish foods from around the world, in which the (unacknowledged) politically charged inclusion of hummus, falafel, and tabbouleh is par for the course in these kinds of multicultural Jewish food programs.  I wrote the chef inviting her to consider the bigger context her class will be taking place in and hoping she will be open to making the connections between good food and good politics:

I am writing to reach out from one social justice conscious cook to another. We know that food is inherently cultural, inherently political. As people who have studied and immersed ourselves in the amazingly rich and diverse range of cuisines developed by Jews living in different parts of the world, we can actually use hummus as an important opportunity to open up dialogue about how Jews live amongst and are influenced by other cultures…that there are foods and lands (i.e. Israel/Palestine) that do not belong exclusively to us, and we can give respect to Arab cultural contributions to the world.

She didn’t respond.

This issue goes way back, of course- before Chickpea, Mimi’s Hummus, or The Hummus Place all popped up in NYC…

A large part of the creation of a Jewish state was the rejection of the “weak” culture of Jews living in exile and the attempt to create a native Israeli culture, a culture that was not European. This project has involved the expropriation of many aspects of Palestinian culture as well as Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) cultures. Traditional Middle Eastern foods like falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber-tomato salad have been appropriated and presented as typically Israeli foods, with no acknowledgement of the origins of these foods.(much like the state itself and the treatment of the towns and buildings Israelis now reside in).

Student Exhibit at University of Maryland Global Communities

The fascination that the early Jewish settlers in Palestine had with the native Arab population’s agriculture, clothing, and food is apparent in the literary and artistic representations of these Zionist settlers- wearing kuffiyehs, eating olives and Arabic bread- associating themselves with agricultural work and Mediterranean ways of life far from the shtetl back in Europe.

Yael Raviv has analyzed how the falafel became a perfect icon of Israeli national culture because it came to represent a proud, ethnically mixed society rooted in that area of the world. Claiming a traditional and common food of the Middle East was a part of claiming the historic connection and ownership of that land that Israel asserts for itself.  

Political scientist Ahmad Sa’di nails this process for what it is. He observes how the local herbs Palestinians use for cooking and healing, such as Za’atar, have “become a part of an Israeli ‘nativist’ approach…Palestinian culture has thus become a pool from which Israelis pick and choose in order to build an ‘authentic’ Israeli culture.”

In thinking about this piece, I solicited the opinion of my dear friend and fellow Big Ceci contributor, Zein El-Amine, who was born and raised in Lebanon.  I wanted to hear what he has to say as someone whose culture is being breached by this culinary cooptation.

Here is what Zein shared with me:

Many years ago I noticed an increase of the acquisition of unquestionably Arab foods by Israelis and American Zionists.  I noticed this in restaurants where foods such as Fattoush and tabbouleh, distinctly Arab salads, were being referred to as Israeli Salads. In the same period a comedic short film was released mocking the falafel wars between Israelis and Palestinians.  American liberals thought it was funny how something as “silly” as Falafel would be a point of contention. This is consistent with the liberal “balanced” view that gives equates the morality of the cultural domination of an occupier with that of the Arab resistance to the acquisition of its culture.

In the case of Hummus, a food with a long, well documented history of being part of Arab culture, Zionists have not even bothered to change its Arab name to claim as their own.  The word Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic. The actual name for Hummus in most Arab countries is Hummus Bi Tahini which means chickpeas with tahini, to distinguish it from plain chickpeas (note to the colonizers: tahini comes from the Arabic word Tahana, “that which is ground,” because it is made from ground sesame seed.)

Israel has gone to great lengths to claim hummus, at one point breaking the world record for the biggest batch of hummus.  The Lebanese were disgusted at this brazen incursion on Arab culture and answered by breaking the Israeli record and in turn breaking record batches for several Arab and Lebanese dishes that were being claimed by Israel.

To any Arab and any person of conscience, this attempt to occupy Arab food is the same as the occupation of land and displacement of people. Just as there was the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land,” Israel is trying to now claim a food without people for a people without food.  I do not say this to denigrate the rich Jewish culture that can be tapped to establish an identity, on the contrary, the question becomes: if you have such a rich culture then why are you taking such desperate measures to claim foreign foods (Palestinian in this case) as your own?  And the answer is quite simply that the folks who are engaged in such a project know that in order to complete the colonial project of ethnic cleansing, you need to dilute the identity of the people that you are displacing.

Working With, Not Against

Naomi recently put me on to this new effort by The Street Vendor Project. This is such a fabulous example of how to organize in ways that are mutually beneficial and positive…and it points to the importance and complexity of our food systems as we work to build different social and economic structures.

From The Street Vendor Project’s blog:

“Not only is Zuccotti Park, the headquarters of Occupy Wall Street, just a few blocks from SVP’s office in Lower Manhattan. Its also very close to our heart. As protypical members of the 99%, street vendors are oppressed by wealthy elites who are ‘uncomfortable’ with their presence, and yet who have the ear of policy-makers like our Mayor. Though vendors don’t have time to sleep in the park (and though some are sadly losing business,) SVP members are squarely on board OWS’s main goal: economic fairness.”

And what you can do – a call for solidarity in action:

“Occupy Wall Street has made a large impact on the political discussion in this country. But the presence has caused local street vendors to lose business. Liberty Square was a place where many people sat to eat lunch each day and now it is occupied by the protestors. In addition, the large police presence and general activity around the protest has made it a less relaxing place to spend your lunch hour. That coupled with the extremely generous donations of food to the movement have made business tough for local vendors. Because of this, The Street Vendor Project, a local nonprofit organization that advocates for street vendors has started a program where people make a donation to the street vendor project and have those dollars used to buy food from these vendors for the occupy protestors. Helping both the movement and the local vendors.”

Help Occupy Wall Street Protestors with food from Local Street Vendors!

http://streetvendor.org/ows

DONATE HERE!

Call for more info: (646) 602 – 5679

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

Back in July, I rushed back from visiting friends in Toronto, driving all day long to come straight to the Park Slope Food Coop general membership meeting.  Why would I do such a torturous thing? Because a call for a membership-wide referendum on boycotting Israeli goods was on the agenda and needed support.

Since I was 18 years old, I have been organizing in solidarity with Palestinians struggling for self-determination.  However, after a bike accident last summer, I stepped back for some rest and reflection.  A central part of my healing and refueling over this past year has been nurturing my passion for growing, making, serving, and eating good food.  In fact, I finally rejoined the Coop last fall after spending two years too overwhelmed by school, work, and organizing to do my work shifts.  Thus, participating in the Coop conversation around boycotting Israeli goods felt like the least I could do to connect my renewed commitment to local and sustainable food practices to my commitment to freedom and justice in Palestine.

Connecting the dots

I joined the Park Slope Food Coop because I am dedicated to an ethical food system shaped by cooperative economics and environmental justice.  There is no true enjoyment of gourmet and organic food that is separate from a larger process of creative and transformative community-building.  So although it is a huge challenge for me to do my work shifts every month, I am committed to the Coop because it is a way to reduce my participation in the industrial food system which destroys the planet, relies on exploited resources and labor, and produces often toxic food.  According to the mission statement, the Coop is “an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business.”

But then here I was at this meeting, listening to many of my fellow Coop members claim that we shouldn’t even be allowed to vote on de-shelving Israeli goods because it would be divisive, too political, and would disrupt business as usual. As if buying Israeli goods is not a political act; as if any food production or purchasing is anything but political.  The deeply political nature of food production is the whole reason why this institution exists in the first place!

Repeatedly hearing the concern that our cheap and calm organic food source could be disrupted by potential conflict due to issues far across the ocean was disturbing.  It speaks to the unfortunate reality that apparently, many members of the Coop do not believe in an ethical and just food system but rather are more passionate about great prices on organic produce that would cost them $2 more at Whole Foods (thank goodness there’s one being built in Gowanus, Brooklyn now, in case the organizing for de-shelving Israeli goods in accordance with our values of democracy and freedom gets too stressful for shoppers).

Whose voices count?

In addition to these self-absorbed shoppers, there were also horrifying displays of explicit racism. Zionist Jews responded to the call for a referendum (in which they would be free to vote according to their own beliefs) by going off on shrill tirades about Palestinians being terrorists. Their claim was that they would be driven away from the Coop if Israeli goods were de-shelved.  The experience and needs of Palestinian members of the Coop (or other Arabs impacted by Israeli occupation and aggression) were blatantly being devalued.  Zionist Jewish members’ beliefs and desires were deemed more important and asserted as the status quo.  The discourse in that meeting invisibilized Palestinians, Jews committed to justice, and other Coop members committed to ending ALL forms of domination and exploitation throughout the world.

Palestine: Captive Market

When I was in the West Bank, it occurred to me that agriculture and food were serious sites of oppression experienced by Palestinians.  In the 1940s and 50s, during the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinian farmers and farm workers were driven off their land into refugee camps and have never been allowed to return home.  As these over-populated, under-resourced camps have grown and become the permanent residence of these now landless communities, their residents have been forced to purchase food from the small stores they have access to.

These stores, very similar to the corner stores of poor neighborhoods in New York City, carry mostly packaged and processed foods, the opposite of the traditional foods these communities used to produce and consume when they lived on their own land.  And these packaged products are mostly Israeli (and sometimes European). Why? Because Israel controls the checkpoints through which the products must travel to get to these stores.  So even if the little stores may be Palestinian-owned, the companies profiting off this captive market are Israeli and European.  Meanwhile, the farmers who have managed to stay on their land are often prevented from getting their fresh, local produce through Israeli military checkpoints to the markets that Palestinians in cities and camps shop in.

In addition to Israeli state-sponsored destruction of Palestinian olive trees, fundamentalist, armed Israeli settlers frequently attack and destroy Palestinian orchards and fields or channel the sewage and chemical waste from their settlements and factories into Palestinian village agricultural land.  When I reflected on this system, I realized that it is classic colonialism and capitalism, working hand in hand – pushing people off their land so they are not able to be self-sufficient and are forced to work in factories and buy processed foods produced by large corporations.  We see this system playing out in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and on and on and on…

Why boycott?

Well, the simple answer is because if I want local, seasonal produce, Palestinians should be able to get their local, seasonal produce and Israel’s occupation prevents this. Also…boycotting Israeli products is a common sense strategy – a way for average citizens like you and me to use a nonviolent economic organizing tool to put pressure on otherwise unaccountable governments and corporations.  There is absolutely no legitimate opposition to boycotting Israeli goods in a socially and environmentally conscious institution such as the Coop. If Coop members believe, as I do, that the pleasure of good food must be rooted in a commitment to our communities and the planet, then deshelving Israeli goods at our Coop is a key element of working towards the world we want to live in.

A recipe

Supporting Palestinian farmers and artisanal food producers is an exciting and important way to support the preservation of traditional Palestinian food ways.  Recently a friend brought me some za’atar from Jenin (in the West Bank) and I used this tangy, green spice blend in an impromptu yogurt sauce served over roasted fairytale eggplant from Bodhitree Farm:

Za’atar Date Yogurt Sauce

Take half a container of Greek-style yogurt and mix it thoroughly with 1 tablespoon of zaatar, 1.5 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, 1.5-2 tablespoons of date molasses, 1-2 cloves of crushed garlic, salt and pepper to taste.  Of course taste this to make sure it suits you – add more of anything if you want, or more yogurt if one of the ingredients is too strong.

Roasted fairytale or baby eggplant

Cut each eggplant in half.

Lay them side by side, face up, on a baking sheet.

Mix a little bowl of olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and crushed garlic.

Use a pastry brush to baste the open faces of the eggplant halves with this mixture.

Place in oven at 375 degrees. After about 15 minutes, take them out and baste them again if they look like they’re getting a bit dry.

When they’ve browned and are sizzling and you can sink a fork in them and they’re nice and soft and melty, take them out. Sprinkle fresh chopped parsley over them and arrange them on a platter around a bowl of the yogurt sauce.

Served with heirloom tomatoes, sauteed chard, and halloumi cheese and markouk bread from D’vine Taste

Cool as a cucumber

As you know, this week we are celebrating the birth of Ryvka, who in turn helped birth The Big Ceci.  (Yes – if you are paying attention you will be wondering exactly how long a week is with these people. The answer is: as long as it needs to be. Time is flexible and expansive around here.)

So today, I am toasting Ryvka with my recipe for a refreshing summer pitcher cocktail: The Cucumber Cooler.


Why this beverage? Because…

* Ryvka loves cucumbers – they are cool and refreshing like her.

*Ryvka loves people – this is a pitcher cocktail that serves many at a time (unlike many classic cocktail recipes that you have to make one by one, consuming the host’s attention for most of the evening).

* Ryvka loves me – she is my partner in life since the age of 11 and whenever I make something up like this she tastes things so deliberately and gushes with appreciation and pride in a way that makes me feel like a superstar.

Cucumber Cooler – a pitcher cocktail for the summertime

(Thanks to my co-pilot Naomi for lending her tendencies towards precision to the process of nailing this down. I think this is pretty close to what we decided…?)

In a cocktail shaker add:

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1.5 parts apple juice (I used Fuji Apple Juice made by Red Jacket Orchards)
  • 1 part fresh lemon sour*
  • 2 parts cucumber puree
  • a dash of simple syrup*
  • ice

Shake vigorously then pour into a pitcher. Do this until the pitcher is full.  Stir it up and taste it. Mess around with the proportions if it isn’t sweet enough, strong enough, or cucumbery enough for your liking. Then place large ice cubes in the pitcher and a long bar spoon for stirring when people need refills. Note: larger ice cubes have less surface area so they melt slower, thus keeping the drink cool without diluting it as fast.

Place two regular ice cubes in each person’s glass and garnish with mint after the drink is poured in (mine is chocolate mint from my garden!).

* Simple syrup is aptly named. Just take 1 cup raw sugar and 1 cup water and in a medium saucepan combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool.

* Lemon sour is also very simple: Combine 1 cup fresh lemon juice and 1 cup simple syrup in a large jar with a lid. Cover and keep refrigerated.

So Ryvka! Here’s to you! May the deep love, radical visions, and creative comraderie you offer the rest of us be returned to you a thousand-fold. I raise my glass (or whole pitcher) to you – thank you for finding ways to enjoy this broken beautiful world completely while not being content with the way things are.

Meet Una – member of The Big Ceci family & a big fan of Ryvka.

My girls

I recently returned from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Along with sharing the multimedia curriculum developed by the Palestine Education Project, I was there helping Chef Walter Whitewater with his session entitled “Cooking As a Form of Media: Stories & Experiences of a Traditional Native Chef.”  After five days away from home, the first thing I did was drop my bags, grab all of the pitchers I have, fill them with water, and climb out my kitchen window, excited for a hydrating reunion with “my girls.” Thanks to the careful, loving attention of my sister Shalva, my plants were looking better than they ever have when left in someone else’s care. Yet they still seemed to perk up even more after a day of my talking to them and touching them (rubbing leaves, pinching off dead flowers, checking for bugs).  They missed me! Coming home from being on the road and communing with my plants was so grounding. And I harvested my first basil! Isn’t she gorgeous?

Excited about my lil herbs and inspired by a delectable little dish at The Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck, Long Island, involving tiny new red potatoes topped by dollops of pesto and crème fraiche, I pulled together this brunch for my parents and dear fellow food traveler and friend, Sonny:

New Potatoes

Bring a pot of water heavily salted to boil and add little new potatoes (I used about 20).

After about 10 minutes, check them by sticking a fork in them – as soon as you can easily poke it in and pull it out, they’re done! (You don’t want them too soft and mushy so just keep checking them – better safe than sorry.)

Drain them and cut them in half.

Green Sauce

In a food processor combine:

–       2 small cloves of garlic or one big one

–       1 cup basil, 1 cup parsley, and ½ cup mint

–       about a teaspoon of sea salt

–       a few pinches of black pepper

–        ½ cup pine nuts or walnuts

–       1 cup olive oil (or drizzle in until it’s the consistency you want)

Polenta

I used fresh stone ground “quick grits” from Farmer Ground. Farmer Ground – which is farmer grown, owned, and ground – is part of a larger effort to restore grain growing to New York state. Upstate New York once grew so much grain that Rochester topped the nation’s flour production in the mid 1830s, giving it the nickname “Flour City.” Federal subsidization of agribusiness in the Midwest undermined that once thriving local industry.

And I use my mother’s recipe for making polenta:

1.5 cups cold water

1/3 cup cornmeal (more or less course or fine depending on the consistency you want- the finer, the creamier)

¼ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup cheese

1/2 tablespoon each of chopped thyme, sage, parsley, and/or basil (or whatever herbs you like)

1 or 2 tablespoons butter (depending on how rich you like it)

Bring the water, cornmeal, and salt to a boil in a thick bottomed pot.

Reduce the heat and stir in the herbs.

Stir consistently, making sure to scrape the bottom, for about 15 minutes.

When it’s creamy and thick, remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese, and add salt and pepper to taste if needed.

You can serve it warm and creamy or spread it in a square pan or casserole dish and chill for an hour, cut into squares, and serve.

(Stay tuned for my sister’s upcoming posts entitled “Gritty City” exploring polenta and grits throughout NYC.)

Early Summer Veggie Sauté

To be honest, I make these things up as I go along. So here’s what I can remember about how I made this:

I sliced up garlic greens and shallots and started sautéing them in olive oil.

I like to sprinkle some dashes of paprika on my garlic/onions/shallots while sautéing them before adding the extra veggies.

I then added a couple of handfuls of summer squash (zukes and yellow) sliced thinly into half-moons and a handful of chopped asparagus (it was late May when I made this dish and the asparagus abounded here in NYC).

I sautéed them covered for a couple of minutes and then lifted the cover, added some chopped thyme, parsley, and maybe oregano and then a few pinches of this honey-lemon-saffron blend called Mishmish N. 33 that my mother gave me from La Boite a Epice.

(I hope that this Israeli-born chef’s commitment to “the spices our ancestors used” is indicative of his respect and support for the indigenous peoples of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa from which he draws his inspiration and makes a living.)

When the veggies were soft, I added a dash of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Egg

I used to be so freaked out by eggs but now am enchanted by their magic – how many forms they can take and how many nutrients they contain. Of course, fresh, free-range eggs contain around four times as many nutrients and taste infinitely better than eggs from factory farms full of miserable, unhealthy, over-crowded chickens who never see the light of day.

For this breakfast, I simply fried an egg in black truffle oil and tossed a pinch of salt and a sprig of fresh thyme on top.

Serving

As you can see in the above photo, I plated a healthy portion of the polenta next to a mound of veggies. Then I laid out the halved little potatoes, drizzled the green sauce on them, and topped them off with a drizzle of Liberté Goat Fresh cheese. I then added the egg to each plate and we dined on the deck amongst the plants from which the flavors of our brunch were derived.*

*As with all great culinary efforts, I had invaluable assistance provided by my mother. So really I should be saying “we…” when referring to the preparation of this meal. Here’s to all of the kitchen tops like mother who are humble and generous enough to be kitchen bottoms when called upon!

Cabbie Cuisine

Over the past few months, I have taken to asking my cab drivers about their cooking. I have found it to be a foolproof way of comfortably tapping into a stranger’s personal history and passions.

At 5 am after the legendary blizzard in December, my sisters and I were riding in the only car service we could get to take us to LaGuardia to catch one of the only flights departing that morning so we could make it home to surprise our mother for her 60th birthday.  Amidst the drama of the snow and the darkness and the sleep deprivation, the driver and I fell into a conversation about kefir. I had recently abandoned my experiment producing my own kefir inspired by an article in Edible East End about the innumerable health benefits of this strange and ancient fermented yogurt drink.  As we drove up to the terminal he hurried to give me all of the details of his mother’s recipe for Armenian kefir soup. As intriguing as it was, all I can remember is cooking it with a whole onion in the pot…an idea that I love and want to try in some kind of soup for sure–imagine how tender and flavorful that onion would be once removed from the broth! But here’s a recipe for kefir soup appropriate for this season.

Uzbek Cold Kefir Soup

Months later, while heading to Detroit to help develop the curriculum for the Detroit Future Media Workshops, Tony (my cab driver) was suffering from allergies. I asked him about what remedies he uses and he explained that the most effective one he’s tried is some concoction devised of coconut milk and oak.  When he told me he sneezes more when he eats dairy, I shared with him the little bit I’ve learned about lactose intolerance.  I explained how as mammals, we are born with enzymes needed to break down our mother’s milk and that when we grow to be around 4 or 5 years old, most people’s bodies stop producing this enzyme given that most children should be weaned off their mother’s milk by this time.  There are a few communities in the world that have co-evolved with their herd animals (goats or cows) whose digestive systems have continued to produce the enzymes needed to break down lactose. However, most of the rest of the people in the world do not continue to produce these enzymes.  There’s a really helpful breakdown of this in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Tony’s charming and earnest response to my mini-lecture was, “What else do you know?” I laughed and told him that I don’t know much–that I just love food. He immediately became very animated and told me that he loves cooking.

Reflecting back on the conversation, I am struck by the questions he asked me–what spices do you use? What’s your favorite tomato sauce? How do you do your rice? How do you do your meat? He was excited to share his techniques and really curious about mine. I was tickled in particular by his questions about my preferred spices–I like the idea of that as a way of getting to know someone (“Hello, my name is Ora and I like paprika and ginger”).

After telling him that I refuse to buy prepared pasta sauce and explaining how I make it myself, I insisted on him sharing his rice cooking techniques.

This is how he broke it down with me very deliberately and passionately (my reflections in italics):

“First I wash the rice and get all the impurities off. Then I soak it again but not too much because you don’t want the rice to lose its strength. Then I get a pot really hot on the stove and I mash up garlic and adobo seasoning, add it to the pot with some oil–enough to cover the bottom of the pot. I add the rice and turn it so that it is coated and then add water that just covers the rice. I turn the rice a few times, taste the water and add salt when needed.”

(Here’s where things get complicated) “After the rice gets dried out (I’m not sure what that means) I put a plastic bag over the pot and then put the lid on. This is how it stays flavorful, firm, and separate. Not how you guys do it where it gets too mushy and wet and flavorless.” (I was confused about who he meant by “you guys”…white people? Italians? I had talked about my mother’s cuisine being from Italy…either way, it is true that I personally do not feel satisfied with my rice-making technique and it is often too mushy!)    

When I asked him about the plastic bag melting, he said it melts but it doesn’t get on the rice and that’s how he makes the rice stay strong and separate. I feel like I would need him to demo this for me before I tried this at home.  But I definitely feel like he’s provided me with some ideas for how to step up my rice cooking game.

So now I’ll put Tony’s question to all of you: How do you do your rice?

The Power Plate: Perhaps Unexpected Parallels between Julia Child and Native Chefs in Santa Fe

Tonight I had a long conversation with Lois Ellen Frank, a half-Kiowa native and half-Sephardi Jewish chef who grew up in Long Island and is now based in Santa Fe. I was so inspired by her passion and her praxis. She is literally decolonizing her body and her family and healing trauma in native communities through growing and preparing food and teaching how to do it!

In a slightly different vein, last night I watched “Julie and Julia.” And although Julia Child and the woman from Queens who blogged as she cooked her way through Julia’s cookbook were not doing much to connect with communities or confront systems, I got almost as energized and happy watching them as I did talking with Lois tonight. Because when it comes down to it, when I listen to or am around other folks for whom food is a liberating/pleasing/exciting element of their lives, a force that turns them on and takes them places…I don’t feel like such a freak! I feel like there are others like me!

It’s interesting because Julia Child’s passion for quality food and commitment to making it accessible to women “without cooks” and her genuine enthusiasm and appreciation of the delights of picking out a vegetable or a piece of meat or a loaf of bread at the market in Paris, are all not radical tendencies per se, but she lived in a committed, unabashed, joyful and sensual relationship with food, which was not a small task for a woman in the society she lived in.  And becoming the professional and knowledgeable cook that she did was crossing, as Lois said tonight, “culinary gender lines.”  Lois shared with me how she does not get listened to in the kitchen by the team of cooks sometimes until Chef Walter, her partner in crime, repeats her instructions.  And then, crossing the culinary gender line from a different direction, Walter, a Dine (Navajo) man who comes from a very traditional family, was scorned for wanting to cook.

Rejecting government definitions of healthy eating is also an act of rebellion that Julia Child and Lois/Walter have all engaged in.  Julia’s praise for butter and her excessive use of it certainly defied all the formulas for eating that were provided at that time…and while it’s probably not healthy to eat the recipes that she shared all the time, the wisdom of the French way of eating is that you eat the freshest and highest quality local ingredients, you eat smaller amounts, you eat slowly, and you have a little wine. The problem is that when French cuisine gets taken out of the broader culture and planted within U.S. society, you keep the butter and lose the quality of ingredients and philosophy which actually lead to a different digestion process.

And this is exactly what Lois talked to me about tonight.

She is helping build a movement to be healthy and specifically to combat diabetes in native communities by returning to ancestral diets.

Native ancestral diets necessitate the use of foods that have to be worked with and prepared by hand and can’t be mass produced.  So when we eat those foods and buy them from the small communities that produce them, it is a win-win for everyone—you keep these traditions alive and you get healthy.

We all know that there are differences in which foods different groups of people around the world can process. However, the government developed the food pyramid in a way that does not take into account the different nutritional needs of different communities (i.e., natives tend to be lactose intolerant but dairy is one of the main parts of the pyramid).

So Lois and Walter have developed an alternative to the Food Pyramid. They call it the “Power Plate.” There are four elements of the Power Plate: legumes, grains, fruits, and veggies. (According to Lois, native foods used to be 90% plant-based.)

Lois gave her own tribe as an example of how the digestion systems and food ways of a people can be disrupted and cause huge societal damage. The Kiowa were the original peoples of the areas around what is now Yellowstone National Park, extending to Iowa.  They were displaced along with about 50 other tribes and forcibly moved to Oklahoma, where the government gave them seeds and told them to farm. However, they were historically hunter-gatherers, so there was a starvation period during which government rations began (lard, sugar, wheat, etc). Now Lois and others are working to “decolonize our bodies with our diets” as an essential element of healing native communities from trauma and oppression.

Another insightful and impactful element of Lois’s work is her definition of “Native Cuisine.”  She understands that no culture is “pure” and that communities have been influenced by each other’s foods forever…that there has always been “fusion cooking” as a result of cultures interacting. (She points out how archaeologists have found ancient cacao remains in North America, demonstrating how extensive the trade routes of pre-contact natives were: “Our brothers and sisters from down south were coming up here and trading cacao!”)

Lois gives the example of sheep amongst the Navajo. She says that if you tell a Navajo child that sheep aren’t “native” (because they originally were introduced by the Spanish), the child will cry. And the truth is, they ARE native…just beginning in a certain way at a certain point (just like everything else). So Lois and her partners have developed the term “first contact food” to refer to these foods that were almost immediately exchanged (and it truly went both ways—natives dramatically influenced European cuisine, changing it forever. The tomato in Italy is one example of this).

Although it seems totally silly to assert this connection too strongly, there is a parallel between Julia Child’s commitment to making French cooking accessible to housewives without servants/cooks and Lois’s commitment to making organic, sustainably produced foods possible in low income households. One way her team is doing this is by creating recipes and teaching people how to cook these recipes that they have calculated to be as low as $1.27 per person for a meal.  They’ve developed a recipe they call “No Fry Fry Bread”—made out of lentils—and it costs 27 cents a serving. (They have developed language referring to fry bread or Indian tacos as being “sometimes” food—so that while they are not being negative about these foods that are comfortable and familiar, they are facilitating people moving away from eating too much of these foods, which are the result of government food rations.)

Lois’s personal system is dry farming; she grows as much food as she can living in the desert.  And she does things like arranging to buy “seconds” from the farmers’ market: she buys the bruised tomatoes that the farmers can’t sell at market, makes and cans tomato sauce, and barters it for salmon and berries from her friends in the Northwest. Cool! I’m so inspired, and wondering what bartering systems amongst my friends I can set up. My sister Tehila and I had floated the idea of a “market day” once a month where we each bring prepared foods and barter them with each other (pickles, bread, etc). Maybe we can…?

So, although I am so charmed by Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child as fearlessly in love with eating, as well as eternally positive (I love anyone who geeks out about hollandaise sauce as much as she does in that movie)…the truth is that watching Julie and Julia got me all happy and then Lois and her organization, Red Mesa, took me home.

Check out what Lois and Chef Walter do more extensively at their website.

Lois, as well as some other creative and committed women working on different aspects of food production and preparation, is featured in this book: Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat.