Category Archives: Social Issues

WARM BREAD AND A REFLECTION ABOUT SMALL TOWNS

This is not exactly a Let Them Eat Bread report, which chronicles my project of giving away at least one loaf of bread each week in 2011, but this post does involve a loaf of bread that I gave away last night and the events that rippled around it. Each month, my library—Charles M. Bailey Public Library—hosts an author’s night where various Maine writers come to read from their books and to talk about their work. Among others, I have heard Brock Clarke and Gerry Boyle, both of whom are terrific speakers. Last night, Susan Hand Shetterly, a very fine nature writer, was the featured author.

The program was to start at 6:30, and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to make a loaf of bread for Richard, the library’s director. (I’ve already given a loaf to Shane, and my plan is to give a loaf to all the librarians and the assistants.) So I duly made bread, using part unbleached flour and part whole wheat pastry flour, the latter of which actually comes from Maine. (I’ll soon have to post my revised bread recipe. It really is a good one.)

At 6:15, I walked into the library, and the loaf of bread I carried was still so warm that I had to leave the plastic bag open so moisture wouldn’t accumulate. With warm bread comes a wonderful smell. As I handed the bread to Richard, who took it without hesitation, Mike Sienko, whom I work with at the Food Pantry, said, “You can put me on your bread list.” Perhaps I will.

Mary Sturtevant, another patron who was there for the reading, emerged from the stacks saying, “What a great smell!” I’ve known Mary for many years, and I’m thinking she should be on my bread list, too.

In the periodical room (reading room?) chairs were set up for the speaker. I sat down, and Lorraine Ravis, whom I hadn’t seen for years, sat down beside me. Her daughter Lisa and my daughter Shannon were chums in school, and we spent a pleasant 15 minutes or so catching up on news. Around 6:30, a worried looking Shane came in and announced that Susan Hand Shetterly hadn’t arrived, that he had called her publicist, who was positive Shetterly was planning to come to the reading. Everyone in the audience decided to wait another 15 minutes. I chatted some more with Lorraine, and there was the friendly buzz of conversation as other people talked as well. Richard, who hadn’t had dinner, tore into the warm bread.

At 6:45, Shane made another announcement. Shetterly still hadn’t arrived, and they couldn’t reach her on her cell phone. We all decided to wait until 7:00, just in case. More conversation. But at 7:00, there was still no author, and we all concluded that for some reason, she wasn’t going to come. Shane, in his usual kind way, expressed the hope that Shetterly had just forgot about the reading, that she hadn’t been in some kind of accident. We all nodded.

Then a funny thing happened. Most of us stayed until 7:30 or so, carrying on with our conversations. When we finally got up to leave, Mary Sturtevant said, “Well, Susan Hand Shetterly didn’t show up, but I had a good time anyway.”

I did, too, staying until 8:00 to talk with Shane and Richard. While both were naturally disappointed that Shetterly didn’t make it to the reading, they were tickled that the patrons had had such a good time anyway.

Many of us who came to the reading have lived in Winthrop for years and years and are at least casually acquainted. When residents of a small town have this kind of history with each other, a warm, comfortable familiarity often develops, and this sense of community is what makes living in a small town so worthwhile. Richard and Shane, both young enough to be my sons, have done much to encourage this sense of community, and how lucky we are to have them at the library. (And, yes, having lived in small towns all of my life, I am aware of how grudges and resentments can simmer in small towns. This, too, is part of the mix.)

Warm bread, a drizzly evening, a group of townspeople who know each other, an author who didn’t show up. Just another night in a small town in central Maine, a night that will be fondly remembered.

Addendum: As it turned out, Susan Hand Shetterly has a poor memory and did forget that she was supposed to come to Winthrop. She called Richard this morning to apologize and to assure him that she wants to reschedule. I’ll be there, and I expect most everyone else who came last night will be there as well.

 

HOPEFUL NEWS FROM DETROIT

In the New York Times, Mark Bittman has written a terrific piece about a recent trip to Detroit. As readers well know, Detroit has fallen on some very hard times and indeed has lost much of its population. But, with abandoned buildings and lots have come opportunities for farming and food, and Detroit seems to be in the process of making a comeback as a city that gardens. Very encouraging for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which there is something about farmers’ markets, local bakeries and restaurants, and community gardens that bring a town or a city together. In short, along with providing tasty, nutritious food, they also build community, something we all need, no matter where we live.

OH, TORONTO!

On his blog in the New York Times, Mark Bittman has written about a recent trip to Toronto, and some of the things that city is doing to promote sustainable agricultural. The links he provides to the various websites are well worth checking out.

They include The Stop, a “community food centre” that believes “in the power of food”; FarmStart, a nonprofit organization that lends money, equipment, and land to people interested in finding out if they truly want to be farmers; and Spadina House Musuem, with its orchards. (Spadina House is even part of a Rail Garden Route, so that it can be visited in a green way.)

Then there is Not Far from the Tree, an organization dedicated to gleaning unwanted fruit from Toronto homeowners. According to the Not Far from the Tree website, in 2010, their organization picked 19,695 pounds of fruit, which was then split equally between the homeowners, the volunteers who picked the fruit, and various organizations that provide food for low-income folks.

Nearly 20,000 pounds of gleaned fruit from a big city. Very impressive! And what’s even more impressive is Not Far from the Tree’s assertion that “this was only from 1/4 of the trees that were registered with us.” Imagine how much fruit could be picked if more trees were included in the harvest.

Canada has the reputation, according to the late, great Canadian author Robertson Davies, of being England’s “dutiful daughter.” The United States, on the other hand, is the “wayward child,” and it was Davies’s belief that the wayward child is actually the favorite child.

This might be the case—modest, quiet, unassuming Canada is not in the news the way its flashier sibling the United States is. But maybe it’s time for the wayward child to start learning some lessons from the dutiful daughter.

ERIC SCHLOSSER’S THOUGHTS ON BEING A “FOODIE ELITIST”

Today, via the New York Times, I came across a piece Eric Schlosser wrote for the Washington Post. The piece’s title is “Why Being a Foodie Isn’t Elitist,” and Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation, addresses the charges that the food industry and its attendant lobbying groups have leveled against food writers and activists such as Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, and Schlosser himself.

Schlosser has been called “not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American.” Nestle has been labeled, “a food fascist,” and Pollan has been accused of being “anti-agricultural.”

Naturally, Schlosser refutes the charges, arguing that it is not elitist to be concerned about the quality of food Americans eat, and I agree with him. He views the name calling as “misdirection,” an attempt to deflect attention away from the few companies who control food production in the United States. Again, I agree. What better way to discredit someone than to call him a socialist or a communist? In our culture, those are very dirty words, just slightly below serial killer and child molester.

Schlosser honestly notes the way foodies can be elitist, by using food as a way to gain status. Expensive cookware, hard-to-find ingredients, and pricey restaurants can all be symptoms of a snobbery that not only drains the fun out of eating but could also “sideline the movement or make it irrelevant.”

Fair enough, but Schlosser’s original point is correct: It is not elitist to care about the quality of food that Americans—especially those who are poor—eat. It is not elitist to care about people’s health. And it is certainly not elitist to be concerned that the food production in this country is in the hands of a few big businesses. It seems to me that it is quite appropriate to be worried about all these issues, and it would be a very good thing if more people were, too.

And I’m going to go one step further. It is not elitist to enjoy cooking with simple ingredients that are easy to find but are of good quality. It is not elitist to enjoy feeding friends and family. And it is certainly not elitist to enjoy food.

The French believe it is the birthright of all French citizens, regardless of income, to eat good food. Hear, hear!

And this belief couldn’t be less elitist. In fact, you might even call it democratic.

 

 

 

TOO MANY OVENS IN FALMOUTH?

A couple of days ago, in the food section of the Portland Press Herald, Meredith Goad wrote about a home (a mansion, really) and its kitchen, which is part of the Falmouth Kitchen & Tasting tour. The house is 10,000 square feet, has ten bathrooms, and gold-plated faucets. There is even a morning room, which sounds like something straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

The kitchen, which Goad describes as “not so large that it is overwhelming”  has “four ovens, two dishwashers, two warming drawers…” Four ovens! I will admit that from time to time, I have wished for two ovens, especially around the holidays, but what possible use could a noncommercial cook have with four ovens? Isn’t this, well, a bit much? In fact, isn’t it too much?

I suppose that is the point—the glorious excess of it all. As primates, we are all concerned with status, even though we live in the 21st century in a country that supposedly eschews class. And in our current culture, where one oven is the norm, four ovens are so over-the-top that few people can compete with such a display.

Now, I would not want to live in a country where the government dictates how many ovens a family might own. Although I am a firm believer in social services, that would be far too much governmental control for my liking. But wouldn’t it be nice if people with enough money to live in a 10,000 square foot mansion with four ovens followed the Dalai Lama’s advice and used some self-restraint?  Especially since this country is already using more resources than the planet can comfortably provide?

Since I am clearly in fantasy land here, I will go one step further: Wouldn’t it be great if our sense of status came from self-restraint rather than showy display? Not repression—no one likes a Puritan. Not a stingy, bare-bones existence—no one likes a martyr. But instead self-restraint, which might mean being content with two ovens and a bib house that wasn’t a mansion, no matter how much money you had.

A final note of irony: This tour is a benefit for Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative, and I’m sure they will be very happy to receive the money. From here I could easily segue into a piece about how strange it is that one of the richest countries in the world still must deal with hunger.

But I won’t.

 

A MOSTLY VEGETARIAN DECISION FOR US

Bags of beans
Getting ready

A few days ago Clif and I made a decision to really change our diet. Despite our natural liking for fish and meat—especially chicken—we have decided that the time has come to become “mostly vegetarian.”

We’ve been edging this way for a while, with quite a few of our meals being meatless every week. Now, we want to take it another step so that most of our meals are meatless, with fish and meat being very occasional treats saved for special occasions or for going out.

Our decision is based on simple arithmetic as well as geometry. We live on a finite planet with limited resources and an ever-growing population. We humans just seem to multiply and multiply. In a recent post, I quoted Jason Clay: “In the next 40 years we’re going to have produce as much food as was produced in [the] last 8,000.”

Then, I came across the following numbers from a beautifully written book called The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina. “[W]e now take roughly 40 percent of the life that the land produces; we take a similar proportion of what the coastal seas produce. For one midsized creature that collectively weighs just half a percent of the animal mass on Earth, that is a staggering proportion…If the human population again doubles, as some project, could we commandeer 80 percent of life?”

Could we? I don’t see how it is possible and still have a liveable planet.

And now consider this: According to Mark Bittman, “About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption…It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.”

In a world with 2 billion people, it might be possible to justify eating a lot of meat. In a world where the population will soon reach 7 billion, not so much. In fact, not at all. Being a “good eater” can and should also mean eating with a conscience, and Clif and I, in all good conscience, simply cannot justify eating meat on a regular basis.

The same applies to fish. Our oceans have been overfished, and in The View from Lazy Point, Safina writes about how the ocean has been depleted of once plentiful fish, like flounder. When Safina was young, flounder were plentiful in the waters off Long Island. Now they are not. This is true for many species of fish around the world. We are eating fish to the edge of extinction.

Dairy and eggs are more tricksy, as Gollum might say. We will do our best to eat them in moderation, choosing alternatives when it makes sense. For example, broiled bread with olive oil rather than bread and butter with our meal. However, milk, cheese, and eggs are the foundations for good cooking, and I cannot eschew them entirely.

In Maine, at least, it is possible to get eggs and dairy that come from animals that have been raised in ways that don’t wreak havoc on the environment. A lot of cows in Maine eat plenty of grass and hay, and it’s pretty easy to find eggs that come from hens who are fed scraps as well as grain.

So, in the upcoming months many of the recipes and dishes featured will be vegetarian, and I will make occasional forays into vegan cooking.

I’m going to end with a quotation from The View from Lazy Point: “To advance compassion and yet survive in a world of appetites—that is our challenge.”

Yes, it is, and a very difficult one for A Good Eater, but one I am accepting nonetheless

FOOD AS PART OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

Eggplant

In today’s New York Times, Mark Bittman has written a piece called “Some Good News about Food.” Bittman has decided to take a break from being a cranky activist (which I admit I love) and outline all the positive things that have come about because of the current interest in fresh, local, organic food.  

While Bittman acknowledges the relatively small role fresh, local food still plays nationally, he nevertheless sees it as an important development, one that could bring much-needed zip to the environmental movement. 

I hope he is right. I also want to add that although my contribution as a blogger is small, I am proud to be a part of this movement. And, readers, you are part of this movement as well, and I hope you will take the opportunity to give yourselves a little pat on the back.