A (un)Just Food Conference

The highlights of my weekend:

-Taking an awesome road trip with a good fellow farm gal
-Great road trip soundtrack (think Amy Grant, The Duhks, Celine, Fiona and DC talk)
-Visiting a wonderful friend in Portland over pots of steaming chai tea
-Being able to check off Oregon as one of the states I’ve visited
-Getting incredibly inspired by our Eugene hosts’ home garden (complete with backyard chickens, a worm composting bin, high tunnels on over-wintered beds, some of the fattest turnips I’ve EVER seen and a greenhouse made completely out of recycled materials.


Not-so-high lights of my weekend:

-Being disappointed in a Food Justice conference that skirted around anything practical we could do as communities to get real, fresh, whole food to those without
-Being disappointed that far-removed government policy-driven mindsets were the bulk of what said conference had to offer
-Being especially disappointed that said Food Justice conference – where the buzzwords of the weekend included equity, availability and access – would choose to throw a fabulous dinner party complete with a host of organic and sustainably raised produce and meats and local beer and wine, and offer it as ‘invite only’; excluding many attenders in the process

And so this past weekend, with most people having that extra day off of work, the University of Oregon in Eugene held their Food Justice Conference complete with art displays from numerous artists, 3 days of speaking sessions and workshops, open visits to the Urban Farm operation and Vandana Shiva as keynote speaker.  What was set up in my mind to be an outstanding conference, paled in comparison in reality.

As speaker after speaker gave their talks, it became more and more apparent that problems were the focus of the discussion and no one had any real solutions to present.  Most speakers hinted at policy reform and government legislature, and sat behind shiny place-tags with their names and credentials in bold print, emphasizing their expertise and specialization.  But after speeches incorporating such large words as to lose much attention from the willing audience and to be more fitting for a Masters thesis than an honest look at how to get true food from point A to point B, I was already beginning to feel the first heaves of disappointment.  And these were only encouraged as religious and political jabs were made multiple times when agriculture and farming practices were    the topics of focus and politically-correct semantics were courted time and again (it’s not “global warming,” it’s “climate change.” No wait, it’s “climate instability”).  And an entire speech centered on ‘the deliciousness of food’ (which skipped from the definition of ‘delicious’ to the fact that many people are ‘super tasters’ and some are ‘non tasters’ to the fact that organic strawberries taste better than their chemically farmed counterparts to what does our sense of taste say about the nutrition of a certain food) wound up only confusing the majority of listeners and causing our graduate-degreed speaker to admit she needed to do more research in certain areas (especially when a front row-seated Shiva corrected her on what the flavors of foods mean in traditional Ayurvedic philosophy.)

Overall, I was struck by the realization that academia (and politics) have very little to do with sustainability, agriculture and truly living out justice in our very un-just world.  Being so far removed from the reality of growing food, planting seasons, garden work parties, human needs and rumbling bellies, higher education can philosophize til it’s blue in the face, but until anyone in higher positions will decide to move into the projects or trailer parks and start a community garden, give up a meal for someone in need who is hungry, or become a better neighbor to the underprivileged by spending time and effort on their well-being (not just on charitable donations, food bank giving or policy-reform jargon) they will be stuck arguing about politically correct terms with which to categorize said neighbors and their socio-economic potential towards nutrient-deprivation and ignorant cave-ins to mega-corporations’ unethical advertising schemes.

If being a Christian has taught me anything, it’s that we need to walk the talk.  We can’t set out with agendas to convert as many people as we can to our way of thinking or believing, even if we honestly believe it would be the very best thing for them.  The best way to love someone and show care for their well-being is through forming a relationship with them.  Non-Christians don’t want evangelical nuts all up in their face anymore than fast- and processed-food eaters want organic health nuts up in theirs.  And the ‘underprivileged’ and ‘undernourished’ that speakers at the conference had in mind, just might care more about being invited over to supper or given a chance to harvest from a neighbor’s garden, than being presented with a graph recording their chances of contracting a diet-related disease if they don’t get enough of A, B or C in their diets.

But where does the line between being a ranting action-less philosopher and a radical health-Nazi fall?  Perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of caring neighbors and real relationships.  A person’s health is much more than what calories they consume, just as a person’s spiritual life is much more than whether they sit in a pew once every 7 days.

Are we willing to live out our beliefs by example and relationship?



Sauerkraut: Make the Most of Your Veggies

There are many ways to preserve food and put it by: drying, aging, canning, pickling, root-cellaring, sugar-coating, submerging in vinegar or spirits and fermenting.  And while canning and drying just may be in the running for most popular ways to save food, by far the easiest and least implement-demanding is fermenting. No water-bath or pressure canner needed, no drying racks to assemble, no jars and new lids to acquire and it doesn’t take up a lot of space either.

Traditionally the foods used for fermenting were vegetables; their low sugar content doesn’t risk alcohol production like most fruits, and their water content responds to the addition of salt in certain proportions to render an environment hospitable to good bacteria, yet resistant to the harmful sort.  Sauerkraut immediately comes to mind when the term ‘fermenting’ is brought up, and while the age-old tradition of naturally fermenting sauerkraut is stilled used today, it should be noted that not all krauts today are made in the traditional way; anything that has been canned or jarred and is bought on a store shelf has been heated to such high temperatures that any good bacteria present are now dead, and many brands are only vinegar-flavored cabbage with added preservatives (like sodium benzoate.) Please, don’t buy mockraut.  Especially when it is so easy to make your own from scratch.  In its simplest form it is merely cabbage, salt, elbow grease and patience.

Though cabbage is the highlight of the sauerkraut ingredients, many other vegetables can come into play from beets and carrots to horseradish and juniper berries to onions and even seaweed!  (And though sauerkraut is of German-origin, many other fermented veggie combinations from other cultures exist; Spain’s ‘cortido’ and Korea’s ‘kimchi,’ each of which have their own twist on vegetable combinations.)

In his book, “Wild Fermentation,” Sandor Katz lists the basic sauerkraut recipe to be 5 pounds of cabbage to 3 tablespoons of salt; that’s about 2 large heads of tightly-wound cabbage to just under 1/4 cup of salt.  There are many variations of the cabbage:salt ratio, and often my recipe includes the term “eyeballing” (in the most scientific and tested form of the word, to be sure.)  Nonetheless, what the salt actually does for the ferment is draw the juices (water content) out of the cabbage and form a brine in which to let the cabbage sit for anywhere from 1-4 weeks or longer, so I often find myself sprinkling in a layer of salt, working with it a bit and adding a bit more later if I find the kraut isn’t becoming ‘juicy’ enough.

Using a pint jar filled with water to press down an unseen tupperware lid to keep the veggies submerged

So, while the basic idea for making sauerkraut is to finely chop/grate the heads of cabbage into a large bowl (*you don’t want to use a metal bowl for this) or ceramic crock, or a gallon-sized jar, toss in an amount of salt and pound, massage, work, crush, batter,  clobber, wallop, pummel and pulverize until the water is leaking out of the cabbage and starting to look like cabbage stew.  At this point you want to press as hard as you can to completely submerge the cabbage beneath the liquid (this is key: you want at least an inch of water sitting above the top of the cabbage.)  Adding weight to the top of the cabbage is also helpful; a plate that fits just inside the crock or bowl weighted with a water bottle is the simplest method, though I’ve used plastic molds, tupperware lids and even a mortar and pestle for weight.  Cover the jar/crock/bowl with a thin towel or layer of cheesecloth, just enough to keep the bugs out, rubber band it on and set the soon-to-be-kraut in a corner out of the way, perhaps a closet or lower kitchen cabinet (you don’t want a lot of temperature changes or direct sunlight.)

After about a week you can come back and there will probably be some frothy bubbles and white mold spores on the surface of the liquid (THESE ARE NOT HARMFUL) but to  preserve the image of your sauerkraut and encourage further good-fermenting, you can scrape off these bubbles and white areas with your fingers, a spoon or a cloth.  From here on out, it’s all a matter of taste.  Start tasting your kraut everyday to see how acidic you like the flavor; the longer it ferments, the stronger and more acidic it will become.  Once you like the flavor and intensity, simply transfer it to a jar (if not already in one), screw a lid on and place in a cool place like the refrigerator or a basement (or spring house or root cellar if you are so endowed.)

Easy as pie, which ironically, isn’t nearly as easy as sauerkraut.

Fermenting is a great place to experiment and try new combos and flavors! Some of my favorites have been:

Green cabbage and Granny Smith apples
Napa cabbage, hot peppers, carrots and garlic (a version of kimchi)
Carrots and jalapenos (that’s right, no cabbage in this one!)
Green cabbage, kelp and onions
Purple cabbage, beets, carrots and garlic
Turnips and onions (called sauerruben)
Daikon radishes

About 10 days ago I began a ‘Winter Harvest” kraut which includes cabbage, leeks, carrots, beets, parnsips, garlic and a couple of Brussels sprouts.  I skimmed off the foam and froth 4 days ago and will start tasting in a couple of days.

Making and eating sauerkraut is great not only because you’re filling your belly with good-for-you-bacteria (probiotics,) but you can stretch the life of fresh vegetables to last, well, nearly indefinitely.


Chai-Spice Parsnip Cake

Among all the winter vegetables there are, mostly of the root variety but some above-ground goodies (like cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts and the ubiquitous winter veggie, kale), some of my favorites have to be parsnips. I only discovered parsnips a couple of years ago and have fallen in love with their sweet, nutty I-am-so-not-a-carrot disposition.

They pair so well with spicy dishes like garam-masala stir-fries, crisped up and served with pinto beans and maple syrup, and as a delightful addition to root veggie roasts.  As a plant, they are freeze-hardy and can be harvested among the early spring vegetables that overwinter well – and actually taste better, sweeter after a good hard freeze or two.  Their greens are totally toxic, so consumption of them is not recommended.  And another surprising place they perform well in, is the starring role in a cake show.

As mentioned before, they are so-not-carrots, but deliver a deliciously nuttysweet taste and dense, moist texture as a cake, and since they pair so well with spices, (and since it’s my favorite winter warming tea) a Chai-Spiced Parsnip cake was soon to be born.

To make this a SOLE food meal and part of the Dark Days challenge, I used locally-milled flour from Bellingham’s Fairhaven Flour Mill (100% whole grain pastry flour), local parsnips from Nash’s Organic Produce, and local eggs from Solstice Farm B&B.

2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
and a mix of spices (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg)
make up the dry mix

3 eggs
1 cup of honey

1 stick of butter
1/2 cup of strong-brewed chai tea
and 1 tsp. of vanilla
account for the wet ingredients

First, as with any butter cake, you cream the butter and sweetener til smooth and emollient.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat the heck out of it some more (but not to the ‘peaking’ point.)
After you’ve whisked the dry ingredients together, you then add them alternating with the chai tea til just mixed in and smooth. And of course, for the final touch (and whole point of the cake):

Take 2 cups of grated parsnips
and stir them in til incorporated.  Pour batter into a greased pan of your choice (I used a bundt pan, you could use a 5X8 loaf pan, or a square pan, or 9″ springform pan, but a 9X13 or a 10″ round would probably be too big for the batter.
Bake at 350F for about 50 minutes, depending on how thick your cake sits in the pan, til the edges are brown and the middle isn’t jiggly anymore.