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.

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Lucky Peach: A Delicious Approach to Food Writing

I am obsessed with Lucky Peach.  It is the quarterly journal of food and writing put together by McSweeney’s in collaboration with David Chang, Peter Meehan, Chris Ying and their posse (often including Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Patterson, amongst others) . Lucky Peach

Each issue focuses on a single theme, and explores that theme from often unexpected angles through essays, art, photography, stories, and recipes.
(For example, one might have expected the “Sweet Spot” issue to be about desserts, but it went a more philosophical route and included pieces about the search for the perfect apricot, the achievement of the ephemeral, split second moment of perfection in a dish, meal, or season, and explorations of the career peaks of athletes and chefs). There were also, of course, some genius approaches to dessert offered by Momofuku’s pastry chef Christina Tosi that you pretty much have to be a professional to undertake.

But why devote Big Ceci space to this publication given that it is not exactly an explicitly food justice or transformative community endeavor?

Well…first of all, I find the publication utterly satisfying in every way so I want to share it with my people. Also, I believe in embracing organic and unofficial subversiveness, creativity, critical analysis, respect, and passion found within spaces not (yet) formally aligned with social movements.
The thing is, the dudely bravado emanating from some of the writing and art of Lucky Peach can be easily digested because the overall approach is deliciously queered and hybridized- multiple forms of media, culinary-cultural reflections, thoughtful political and philosophical commentary, recipes integrated into skillful storytelling, a deep and genuine appreciation for food and those who make it, conversations, collaborations, and humor- providing the complexity and holistic context that I crave when reading and eating, and when reading about eating. (I also find the crass shock-and-awe approach to be chilling out as the publication develops and matures. Something that David Chang even articulates in in his message at the beginning of the most recent issue). Also, like all people who truly care about truly good food, the Lucky Peach crew is extremely knowledgeable about the problematic and the inspiring aspects of food production, agriculture, and food service and they share what they know in really digestable ways….

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Something that really is my bag is collaborative creation and recognition of collective efforts and this Lucky Peach does very well. I commend them for truly coming across as a team. Unlike other publications (or restaurants) with celebrities in the mix, Lucky Peach seems to be a fun and cooperative creative enterprise and through reading it, we get a sense of their crew and the ways they work together, building off each other, inspiring, and challenging each other. It is easy to relate to- it reminds me of my folks and the ways in which we are constructing a shared language, value-system, aesthetic, and vision around food, culture, community, and love.

And although I said above that Lucky Peach is not a “food justice” publication, the articles and their authors always have on-point race and class analysis and articulate these politics in such an unpretentious and dignified way.  Having an “American food” issue is tricky. And they pulled it off really successfully. The key is that they are clever and self-critical and with a positive attitude acknowledge who they are and what they are not.  And, as they always do, they examine many angles. The issue offers a critical analysis of the language of “invasive species” referring to plants and animals and it’s dangerous connections to the lens through which immigrants are represented.  An Ojibwe foodie and writer presents the role of food in the colonization of his tribe while offering a poetic and moving description of traditional wild rice harvesting. Another piece educates the reader about the Khmer Rouge through an unexpected entry point (for those of us who are less familiar with the immigration and labor patterns of Cambodians in the U.S.)- the predominance of Cambodians in the donut shop industry in California.

This literature is using food the way it should be and actually is for many communities- an entry point into a culture, a celebration of special place/time/people, a connection to history, a process of learning, a form of self-expression, an inheritance across generations, a vessel for culture, a way to tell stories….There is also whimsy found in such elements of the issue as the choose your own taco adventure woven between the articles- brilliantly offering a rare nonlinear reading experience.  And don’t even get me started on the poignant critical analysis of food and race representations in cinema articulated by Elvis Mitchell in his piece in this issue and in his conversation with Anthony Bourdaine (who, btw, whether you like his crass politically incorrect straight guy shtick or not, is angry about all the right things and sticks it to elitist dickheads like a pro. See his righteous reading of many problematic food writers, chefs, and restaurants in general in Medium Raw. I’m hyped he’s on our side).

Basically, reading Lucky Peach I learn a lot and am unbelievably entertained. Where else can you find a mainstream fancy food project headed by famous chefs and food writers that has such perspective and actually takes on issues of race, culture, identity, class and combines it all with whimsy, science, film, poetry, and cartoons?

The Miso Cast of Characters. The perfect way to learn about different kinds of miso. Lucky Peach Issue #2

Their fifth issue is The Chinatown Issue. I just started reading it and have already laughed out loud, learned how to make fresh rice wine, and been enlightened by the exploration of the function of Chinatown in the white American imagination…check.it.out.

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.

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

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?

Sacred Meals: Food Justice and (Sikh) Spirituality

This post is an edited version of a piece I wrote entitled “Working for Langar Justice” for a progressive Sikh blog called The Langar Hall.   I’m excited to share it here at the Big Ceci and look forward to bringing conversations about the relationship between spirituality, food, and justice to this space. 

I love food.  I love to cook.  I love to gather with friends, community, and sangat and share a meal together.

Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and one another, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads—so we can weave a whole, meaningful picture for ourselves.  I still believe food has this unique power.  With food as our starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they jar us out of our ordinary way of seeing the world, and open us to new, uplifting, and empowering possibilities.                                                                                                        – Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, from Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet

The Sikh institution of langar has always been something near and dear to me, partially because of my borderline obsession with food, but also because it really gets to the heart of Sikhi.  The practice of langar, our free community kitchen, was started some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, to meet a basic human need – eating – and to create a space for community-building that reflected the Guru’s radical vision of equality.  Rules about food preparation and eating were (and still are) one of the central ways that caste oppression was enforced.  Langar turned this all on its head.  With everyone sitting together on the same level (on the floor) and eating the same simple food, which was prepared by people from all caste backgrounds, langar was nothing short of a revolutionary accomplishment.

It is with this lens that I want to discuss the food of langar itself.

When I sit down in the langar hall (which exists in every gurdwara) to eat in that very sacred space, I rarely consider where the food is actually coming from.  Yes, we very well know the labor of the volunteers from the community who prepare and distribute the food with love and with the spirit of the Guru.  But what about the ingredients?  What do we know about the farmers who grew and harvested the potatoes, cauliflower, and peas?  Do we know if they were being paid a decent wage and treated with respect?  What do we know about the living conditions of the cows from whom the milk and butter originated?  And what about the handful of multinational corporations that control the majority of the world’s food supply and bring home billions in profits?

There is nothing sacred nor revolutionary about harmful pesticides (that affect farm workers, the earth, and those of us who ingest them), the exploitation of migrant farm workers, the horrendous and unnatural confinement of animals on factory farms, and the carbon footprint of having our vegetablesshipped from thousands of miles away.

I am well aware of the barriers to accessible, affordable organic, locally-sourced food in many of our communities, especially working class communities.  But creative solutions do exist, from CSAs (community supported agriculture) to community gardens (imagine if large Sikh neighborhoods and/or large gurdwaras had their own community-run gardens!), farmers markets to food co-ops.

Isn’t it time we ask ourselves, as Sikhs who are so proud of our institution of langar and who love our Punjabi food:  What are we doing to promote food justice, or more specifically, langar justice?

If langar is an institution that is, at its core, about equality and justice, is it unreasonable to expect ethical and just food sources for this sacred meal we share together as a sangat?

Has anyone ever come across a house of worship that makes conscious choices about where its food comes from?  Any organic langar halls out there?  Locavore langars?

I know we’re a long way away from this in most of our gurdwaras and communities (where styrofoam use is the unquestioned status quo!).  But if Guru Nanak and his followers succeeded in creating the institution of langar in the face of one of the most ancient forms of oppression (caste) hundreds of years ago, it must be possible for us to transform the way we do langar in gurdwaras today to better reflect the values of Sikhi.

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.