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.

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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!

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

HPD Raid a South Bronx Community Garden

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) completed their raid of the Morning Glory Community Garden in South Bronx on Monday, November 7th, 2011. They pulled up kale by the roots, they trashed raised beds, and they erected a fence around the garden so the Morning Glory members could only stand by and watch. The HPD claims the community garden stands in the way of building “affordable” housing in the area, despite there being no concrete bid on the lot. They raided with no warning on Friday, Nov. 4th, and came back on Monday to finish the job. Morning Glory members and allies attempted to block the Monday eviction, in vain. In the wake of their garden’s destruction, Morning Glory members are reaching out to the community board to seek further action.

They could use your help in donations or even an email of support. You can follow updates on their blog Morning Glory Garden, or you can email them at morningglorygarden [at] gmail.

History of Morning Glory

The garden was originally an empty lot, owned yet abandoned by the city for 30 years. In 2009, South Bronx community members decided to re-imagine the space, creating an environment where children and adults could learn to grow, harvest and cook their own food. In the past few months they had accomplished quite a lot with very little resources. In their own words, they:

  • Doubled our growing space, for a total of 15 raised beds
  • Built a new compost system
  • Built a large seating area, with shade structure, cafe tables and chairs
  • Planted our first tree (A peach tree! And it actually produced peaches.)
  • Grown a lot of collards, kale, onions, beans, and tomatoes. Like, a lot.
  • Organized ourselves as a general meeting with working committees
  • Hosted an open mic and a community barbecue

Before the raid, they were attempting to raise another $400 dollars to work toward their own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which would provide affordable and healthy food for anyone in the South Bronx willing to participate. Grassroots organizing like this should be embraced by the city. It’s low cost, galvanizes a community and it allows for self-empowerment, education and fun. Morning Glory understands the mission of the HPD and doesn’t discount the need for affordable housing, however, I they make a valid argument, that “affordable housing is def needed, and would be easy to come by if the city would repair broken-down buildings or put rent controls on these new richy-rich developments being built.” They see that the HPD and Mayor’s housing plan doesn’t really support the communities they claim to. It supports contractors, the city departments, and those who can afford the new and pricy housing. Historically, most urban development leads to the complete displacement of the communities where development takes place. Since the 2002 implementation of The New Housing Marketplace Plan, there has been only 1 progress report in 2005, before the housing crash. It’s now nearly 2012, and self-mobilized communities like Morning Glory deserve reasonable communication from the city.

Access to Food

Morning Glory just posted this great video of community member’s voices.

Food access is a major issue in communities where there’s not much more than convenience stores and fast food chains. The South Bronx is a “food desert.” Morning Glory took this issue into their own hands, and gave the South Bronx access to healthy, organic food. Again, they deserve the respect of the city and answers for an unwarranted demolition. For more information and ways you can assist, please contact: elliottjliu [at] gmail.

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.