I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?

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

Food Worker Justice is Food Justice!

Knowing as we do that any true vision of food justice must include justice for food workers, we’ve got two important links for you today on The Big Ceci.

1. We want to send our congratulations to the workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, who finally won their battle with the boss after being fired and locked out of their store for organizing their own independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association. We’re filled with admiration for their courage in the face of tremendous threat, and we send them love and solidarity!

2. In other food worker news: the boycott of grocery store Golden Farm in Kensington, Brooklyn is entering its fourth week. The store spent more than ten years paying employees less than minimum wage and no overtime while they worked 70+ hour weeks (they were earning under $5/hour). Today, a year and a half after filing a lawsuit demanding the back pay they are owed, workers still haven’t seen a dime. They’ve called for a community boycott of the store to put pressure on owner Sonny Kim. We want to voice our solidarity with the workers of Golden Farm, and alert you, fabulous readers, to some ways you can support them.

WHAT YOU CAN DO [modified from the boycott’s campaign page on 99 Pickets]

  • Pledge your support for the boycott.
  • Call Sonny Kim, the owner of Golden Farm, at (718) 871-1009, and tell him you support the workers and the boycott.
  • Sign the petition demanding Sonny Kim pay workers their back wages and sign a fair contract.
  • Donate to support the family of Felix Trinidad (a Golden Farm worker who worked throughout his battle with stomach cancer – afraid to lose his job if he took time off to go to the doctor – and passed away in July 2012).
  • Follow the boycott on Twitter at @BoycottGF.
  • Finally, and perhaps most urgently: visit the picket line! This is a beautiful time of year to be outside, after all, and what better way to do it than showing your support for worker justice. Spend an hour or two gathering signatures and talking to local folks about the importance of basic benefits and fair wages for all workers. A little goes a long way – sign up for a shift here.

We’ll leave you with an awesome cartoon (yay for multimedia information sharing!) by badass cartoonist Ethan Heitner, sharing the story of the Golden Farm boycott:

CULTIVATE: Connecting Community through Meals and Media

Last Wednesday night on one of the hottest days thus far this summer, I took a steamy, crowded subway ride from work in SoHo to South Brooklyn for an evening presented and co-organized by The Big Ceci and SIGNIFIED featuring Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and the 718 Collective. The event, held in the basement of the Church of Gethsemane on a tree lined street in Park Slope, was a dinner by the 718 Collective, followed by the premier of SIGNIFIED’s second season episode featuring the 718 collective, an interactive presentation with Just Food and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and a community recipe exchange.

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As a recent resident of Brooklyn (I moved here just a little under two years ago from Boston via Mexico City), the idea of cultivating community in a city as varied and expansive as New York can sometimes seem like a daunting task. I have tried to foster relationships with people who share common interests, and have worked to become invested in certain elements of my local community. For example I joined a social-justice focused CSA and take an active role in working towards making the CSA accessible to lower-income families. And I am pleased to find that through my efforts I have been able to feel that I not only live in Brooklyn, but that I have found a space to give back and invest in my community.

The feeling of having a distinct community where I have laid down my roots has always been an important element in finding happiness in my daily life. Finding that community here in Brooklyn has been difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. While I do feel secure and rewarded by the space I have made for myself here, I am aware of the general demographic of those with whom I spend the majority of my time. While I actively try to be open to meeting new people and work to interact with those from different backgrounds, it can be easy to slip into a space of 20-something artists, writers, and activists who live in Brooklyn, ride their bikes, brew kombucha, volunteer for various causes, and care to know who grows their food. While my friends and neighbors are rich in creativity, experience, and understanding, rarely do I feel that I truly step into the shoes of those with very different lifestyles from my own. But cultivating a varied community just to feel that I have a diversified friend group can also be problematic. So how does one truly work to connect with a community different from their own, without it feeling strained or disconnected?

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During the CULTIVATE dinner I had a great conversation explaining quinoa and kale to the man sitting to my left who had never seen the foods before, and who, in turn, regaled me with tales of his fledging rap career. After a screening of SIGNIFIED’s episode, everyone at the event joined together for an exercise by the Brooklyn Food Coalition about the school food program.  The children of Brooklyn are a community that surrounds me, but with whom I rarely interact. While I live across the street from a public school, I rarely find myself in conversation with anyone under the age of 18 for longer than a few sentences.

The exercise entailed a woman from the BFC who would give out a word or fact that everyone in the room was then asked to free-associate and to write down the first word that came to mind. We then walked around showing off our answers and briefly talking to each other about the phrases that we were inspired to put down. Terms like “school food” brought out negative association words like “yuck,” “fatty,” “heavy,” and  “too expensive.” The fact “The NYC public school system buys the second largest amount of food in the United States, after the U.S. Military” brought out thoughts like “capitalism,”  “schools, prisons, military,” and “buying power.” It was unfortunate that many of the associations she threw out  with school food terms were negative and depressing. When the fact was read— “One parent working in the school food system has the opportunity to affect hundreds of children,” more positive words began cropping up — “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “stand up.” Because children are a community that, by and large, do not have the ability to stand up and advocate for themselves, it is up to those who are older to support, educate, and advocate. So while there can be negative associations related to advocating for communities that may seem disparate from our own, and while I do not yet have children of my own, it is up to us who have have a voice and an understanding of the injustices of our food system to take a stand for them.

While the community of children in Brooklyn may seem far away from my daily life, in reality, they are just down the block. They are a part of my community and as a fortunate child who benefited from healthy school lunches in Oregon, and from the tireless work of my mother, it is my job to help cultivate positive associations with the school food system for this new community of mine.

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See more photos from the event here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nora_chovanec/sets/72157630259177140/detail/

Presenting CULTIVATE: Connecting Communities Through Meals and Media.

Hey people – Naomi here, and I’m writing with some exciting news. It’s been a little over a year since we started The Big Ceci, hoping to create a space on the blogosphere where we could bring together our love for food and our commitment to justice. It’s been a beautiful year, and I’ve been excited and inspired by how many people have contributed to this blog – it’s truly been a community effort.

So, yes, blogging has been good to us, and we look forward to continuing in our second year and beyond. But the one thing you can’t do on a food blog is…you guessed it, folks – EAT!

That’s why this week, The Big Ceci is making moves – stepping out of the Internet and into the neighborhood – to present our first-ever event: a dinner-discussion-screening-salon-experience called CULTIVATE: connecting communities through meals and media.

Get ready, y’all…because this is gonna be a fun one.

CULTIVATE is a collaboration with the fabulous queer documentary project SIGNIFIED (please do the Internet equivalent of running-not-walking to their website if you haven’t already seen it…you need to). During this interactive evening of food and media, we’ll eat a delicious meal prepared by the talented chefs of 718 Collective, discuss food justice work in Brooklyn with Just Food and The Brooklyn Food Coalition, swap stories and recipes across the table, and get to see the premiere of the latest SIGNIFIED episode.

If you’re not catching my drift, people, let me put it to you this way: if you care in any way about alternative media, food justice, Brooklyn, hot queer chefs, or just really delicious food, you will want to find a way to get your butt to our table on Wednesday, June 20.

Space is limited, so we strongly encourage you to buy tickets in advance here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/252443

And of course, for more info, check out the Facebook event here and the Tumblr here.

We’ll see you at the table!