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Photo: Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe
Mac Hay (left) and Robert Campbell at Mac’s Seafood Market in Wellfleet, Mass. Fish markets are the final link in a blockchain initiative to inform consumers about the food they buy.

Last summer I met a woman running a thriving experimental community garden on an old tennis court in the New York City projects. She told me that she got into growing produce because she found herself overthinking every decision in the grocery store: was that lettuce really organic; were the lettuce pickers paid a living wage; how much fossil fuel was burned transporting the produce to New York?

She may be an extreme example, but I’m hearing that many consumers want to know more about the origins of what they’re eating. They are much less passive about food.

Hiawatha Bray reported at the Boston Globe in October, “A Massachusetts fishing company will soon be able to show diners at a restaurant chain in California exactly where and when the seafood on their plates was harvested, in some cases even showing video of scallops being hauled out of the sea.

“ ‘They can watch it as we catch it,’ said Dan Eilertsen, owner of Nordic Inc., which operates six scallop boats based in New Bedford. ‘The whole story about the product you’re eating will be right in front of you.’

“Nordic Inc. and its distributor, Raw Seafoods Inc. of Fall River, are deploying Food Trust, a system from IBM Corp. that captures detailed information about food production from harvest to table. Now the companies are about to share this information with the consumers who feast on their products — and scallops are just the start.

Food Trust essentially creates a digital tag for each step of the food production process, the data forming a complete biography of every bite we eat, down to each ingredient in a package of processed food. …

It’s already started at French grocery chain Carrefour, which operates stores throughout Europe, China, Africa, and South America. Carrefour customers can use a phone app to find detailed information about two dozen items, including chicken, eggs, oranges, pork, and cheese; Carrefour plans to add about 100 more items by the end of 2019.

“In the United States, early Food Trust adopters are mostly using it internally, to track inventory and monitor freshness. Giant US grocery chains such as Walmart, Kroger, and Albertsons have signed on, as have a number of food suppliers such as Swiss-based Nestle, pork producer Smithfield Foods, and distributor Golden State Foods.

“An IBM spokesperson said that Nordic and Raw Seafoods will be among the first US users of Food Trust to deliver food data to consumers. The experiment begins in November, at TAPS Fish House & Brewery, a four-restaurant chain based in Brea, Calif. A special barcode will appear on the menu next to the restaurant’s scallop dishes. Tom Hope, TAPS director of food and beverage, said customers who scan the code with a smartphone will see the day and date of the scallop harvest. …

“It’s all made possible by blockchain, the technology that underlies digital currencies such as Bitcoin. A blockchain is an immense string of data, each digital tag along the food chain, as it were, adding to the string. The information is stored in an encrypted database that is dispersed across hundreds or thousands of computers. A blockchain can be easily updated with new data, and because it’s encrypted and widely distributed, it’s virtually tamperproof.

“Fishing on the open sea is hard, dangerous work, with little time to punch data into computers. Food Trust makes it easy. The name of the person on watch — the captain or the mate — is punched in once, at the start of each shift. After that, the fishermen just start bagging and tagging.

“Every time a bag hits the scales, a computer records the date and time of the catch, the boat’s latitude and longitude, and of course the weight — generally around 50 pounds each bag. There’s no need for a worker to enter data by hand; it’s all collected automatically from the boat’s GPS system, which acts as clock and calendar as well as a navigator. All this information is uploaded to the blockchain via satellite radio. A fisherman slaps a label onto each bag, with a barcode that links it to the recorded data.”

For a lot more detail, please read the Globe article, here. And start asking questions where you buy food.

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Photo: Ryan Lenora Brown/Christian Science Monitor
Ritesh Patel is the third generation of his family to run Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, one of the first establishments to sell the iconic food of Durban, South Africa — “bunny chow.”

Certain foods carry with them the unique history of a time and place. Such is the case with “bunny chow,” beloved in Durban, South Africa. No actual bunnies died for this vegetarian dish, the name of which is a linguistic misunderstanding. It all started with a lunchbox made of bread.

Ryan Lenora Brown writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “There are a few must-dos for any first-time visitor to Durban, a city of rolling hills in eastern South Africa. Among them: You must be sure to have a bunny.

“Wait, a what?

“Actually, bunny is short for bunny chow – but don’t be fooled. It’s not a rabbit, or a rabbit’s food. The Durban bunny chow is actually a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with spicy curry, and it’s this city’s star culinary attraction.

” ‘A bunny chow is to Durban what a pizza is to New York,’ says Ritesh Patel, part of the third generation at Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, a takeout joint that is one of Durban’s earliest bunny chow peddlers. …

“There are many legends of the bunny chow’s illustrious beginnings, but they all share a few common features. For one thing, it’s undoubtedly the creation of Durban’s Indian community, most of which arrived here as 19th century indentured laborers, shipped in by the British to work the sugar-cane plantations and railroads.

“It also probably owes its name to the banias, the city’s early Indian shopkeepers. By the early 20th century, several were running lunch counters. And then one day, the legend goes, one of them had a novel idea: hollow out a loaf of bread and fill it with beans curry. Voilà: a kind of low-budget, edible lunch pail for workers at the nearby factories and shops. ..

“Some versions of the lore, however, offer a darker reason. In early 20th-century South Africa, people of different skin colors often couldn’t share the same shops, the same neighborhoods, and certainly not the same restaurants. Enter the bania chow, a takeout meal that black customers could eat on the road.

“Whatever its precise origins, bania chow morphed into bunny chow. Joints selling the curry bread bowls proliferated along the length of the Grey Street Casbah, a multiracial stretch of shops, mosques, and apartment blocks through the center of Durban’s downtown. …

“Like many pockets of multiculturalism in South Africa, the Grey Street Casbah was known for its music (jazz), its gangsters (feared), and its politics (anti-establishment). In the earliest years of Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, the restaurant shared a road with the offices of a fiery young Indian lawyer who’d gotten into politics after being kicked off the white section of a local train. His name? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. …

“Today, Grey Street is Dr. Yusuf Dadoo Street, renamed for an Indian titan of the anti-apartheid movement. Zulu gospel music jostles for space with calls to prayer from the gold-domed Juma Mosque down the road. Hawkers sell fat green avocados, roasted corn on the cob, and 25 kinds of knockoff brand name shoes, while prospective customers stream by chatting in Zulu, Shona, and Lingala.” Food can surmount cultural differences.

Read more about the history of this signature dish — and its future — at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images
Chef Jay Fai in Thailand wears a wool cap and safety goggles to ward off the heat from the charcoal fires in the alley where she cooks all of her restaurant’s meals. She won a Michelin star for her high-quality food.

Quality can be found anywhere, as this National Public Radio (NPR) story about a chef in a Thailand alley shows.

Michael Sullivan writes, “Bangkok is legendary for its fun and its food. Especially its street food. And one vendor’s is so good, it has earned a Michelin star for the second year running.

“Raan Jay Fai is a small, seven-table joint in Old Bangkok that’d be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line. There’s always a line.

“You can try to make a reservation, but the place — named after its chef/owner, a local legend — is usually booked a month or two out. Signing up for the walk-in list is the best bet for many, especially tourists. But you need to get there early.

” ‘I got here at 7:30 [a.m.],’ says 24-year old Kashmira Velji, from Austin, Texas, who was determined to try Jay Fai after viewing the chef’s star turn on the recent Netflix special Street Food. Never mind that the restaurant doesn’t open for lunch until 2 p.m. …

” ‘I’ve never had anything like this before,’ Velji says between bites. … ‘Our first bites were very intense. We kind of just stayed silent and were in shock at how good it tastes.’

“Suparat Tretachayakorn — a doctor — isn’t shocked at all. He’s a regular. And the crab omelette is one of his go-to dishes. … He and his friends have also ordered Jay Fai’s famous tom yum soup, and half a dozen other dishes. Tom yum is a Thai staple — made with shrimp, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chilies, garlic and mushrooms — and it’s found almost everywhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good.

” ‘Actually, I don’t normally order tom yum because I know that I’m going to be disappointed at most places,’ he says. …

“It’s another of her signature dishes. One that’s got the visitor from Austin, Velji, baffled. In a good way.

” ‘It tastes just like the soup, but it’s dry,’ she says. “It’s exactly the same flavors of the tom yum soup, but instead of slurping it, I’m chewing it and I’m still getting all those sour, spicy flavors’ …

“Part of the fun [is] watching the maestro at work. The 74-year-old Jay Fai cooks everything herself — over two blazing charcoal fires, in the alley next to the busy street. …

” ‘It’s faster to cook when using charcoal, to stir-fry vegetables,’ Jay Fai says. … Jay Fai is a perfectionist — so much so that she doesn’t let anyone else on her staff do the cooking. That’s another reason why it takes so long to get your food here — even with reservations.

” ‘They can’t do it. This is very hard to do,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I don’t want them to do it, I do. But even when they watch me, they can’t remember anything.’ …

“About that Michelin star: When she got the first phone call, she kind of blew them off. By accident.

” ‘I was confused,’ she says. ‘They said they wanted to invite me to an event, a gala dinner, and I said, “Oh, my, a gala dinner, no thank you. I don’t want to go. What would I wear?” ‘…

” ‘To be honest, it was the high point of my life. If I die now, if anything happens now, I’m OK with it. I’ll die peacefully.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Photos: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)
Visitors to the Sidewalk Festival enjoy a µTopian Dinner with Hinterlands performers outside the Mobile Homestead.

Kristina and I were discussing the other day all the different kinds of yoga that are popping up. Suzanne’s friend Liz tried goat yoga. Kristina had heard of knitting yoga and laughter yoga.

Similarly, it seems like I’m constantly hearing about new ways of extending the boundaries of theater. In this story from Hyperallergic, sharing food with audiences in person and through Skype is the focus.

As Sarah Rose Sharp writes, artists are practiced “in finding ways to forge interpersonal connections through gesture, metaphor, and performance — or sometimes just by inviting people to dinner.

“ ‘Food is so interesting, because it evokes memory, and it’s a multi-sensory experience,’ said Liza Beilby, in an interview with Hyperallergic during preparations for one in a series of µTopian Dinners, staged by Detroit-based experimental theater ensemble The Hinterlands and co-produced with Poetic Societies, a performance lab fostering cross-cultural and poetic connections. …

“Since 2017, the group has been staging permutations of the µTopian Dinners as a subset of a larger work, The Enemy of My Enemy, a hybrid, digital-live performance project that simultaneously links performers and audiences in the US and so-called ‘enemy’ nations of China, Russia, and Iran. …

“The Hinterlands views the µTopian Dinner projects as a kind of a laboratory to investigate the cultural values that are reinforced through eating, meals, and cooking. [In August], µTopian Dinners took literally to the streets, as the ensemble presented a four-part performance and rotating series of events, during the homegrown and wildly popular Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts. …

“[The group] — as well as their foreign counterparts tuning in from Moscow, Bejing, and Tehran — operated out of the modular traveling unit from Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which is permanently housed at the [Museum of Contemporary Art], making one of the rare forays into the farther-flung Detroit neighborhoods for which it was expressly designed. …

“Artist and designer Yi Zhou, who runs a studio out of Beijing called Body Memory, met The Hinterlands during her 2016 residency at Popps Packing, and the ensemble has visited her twice over the last two years, touring with their previous show, The Radicalization Process, and other performances.

“ ‘In between the first year that we went and the second year that we went, she and a bunch of friends who are designers and architects started this group called TGIS,’ said Beilby. ‘It’s a Sunday brunch in this little courtyard at the studio of one of the members, and they invite people to come and have brunch, and then there’s a lecture, or talk, or conversation, which are themed.’ During the Sidewalk performance, Hinterlands Skyped into the beginning of the brunch taking place in Bejing. …

“ ‘It’s like translation, in a way. You’re trying to contextualize something for the people where you are, that’s meaningful, and then express something about the people here to another group. … It’s an interesting way to try to bridge two spaces or times or peoples, through sensory experiences that aren’t just talking.’ …

“One could call it a new medium, enabled by the tools of our increasingly interconnected world, or one might consider it the mission of any meal undertaken by people who begin as strangers, and perhaps leave with a better understanding of each other.”

More here.

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead traveling unit at the Sidewalk Festival for the Performing Arts in Detroit.

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urban-foraging

Photo: Pop-Up City
Urban foragers don’t like to see the food in parks go to waste.

Do you pick berries along the side of the road? I am drawn to blackberries. Suzanne loves mulberries. When we graze opportunistically like that, I guess we are foragers.

I have written before about both gleaning (usually picking up edible food after the farmer has finished harvesting) and foraging (usually in urban or suburban areas). This story suggests the practice is gaining adherents, in part because city dwellers feel too divorced from nature.

Jenny Cunningham writes at the Guardian, “According to Langdon Cook, there’s one golden rule of foraging: if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. Cook is a leading figure in America’s growing urban foraging movement – in fact he’s written the book on it. As we make our way along a trail through one of his favourite hunting grounds, Seattle’s Seward Park, he mentions some of the poisonous plants out there, such as hemlock. The famous feller of Socrates looks a lot like carrot tops or flat leaf parsley to the uninitiated.

“There’s still plenty of good eating in the city’s parks and green spaces – researchers once identified 450 edible plants in Seattle. Cook enthusiastically points out some ripe thimbleberry. ‘It has a shelf life of about a nanosecond, so you’ll never see it in a farmers market,’ he says. The soft berry slumps off the plant and into the mouth like it’s already been made into a sweet, tannic jam. So yummy, so organic … and so illegal.

“Despite the popularity of foraging in Seattle and cities far beyond the Pacific north-west, municipal parks are generally off limits to foragers in the US. For city authorities, the risk of destruction to plants and wildlife is too great: what if everyone decided they wanted a piece of the park for lunch? Then there’s the potential for overzealous amateurs to make themselves very unwell. …

“While foraging is an ancient art that has taken place in US cities for as long as they’ve existed, the practice has exploded in popularity in recent years.

“There are some who forage because they struggle to afford food, but that is a small percentage, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Mostly, it seems that urban dwellers – starved of light and spending much of their time in virtual environments – crave a stronger connection to nature. Worried parents want their children to have some life experiences unmediated by glowing screens.

” ‘We are drawn to do what our grandparents did,’ says Cook. ‘It’s that “do it yourself” mentality we see in the renaissance of fermenting, pickling, brewing. Foraging fires up all our synapses.’

“Fired up synapses have collided with strict city codes across the US. … But there is fresh hope for foodies as some cities attempt to embrace their foraging communities. After doing away with its ‘molesting vegetation’ rule last autumn, Minneapolis now allows people to pick certain wild nuts, fruits and berries in most city parks. Cities from Boston to Austin encourage the public to harvest in existing park orchards.”

Read more at the Guardian, here. Do you forage?

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Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times.
Ali Shehadeh, a plant conservationist from Syria who fled the war in his country, at work in Terbol, Lebanon.

The harm that wars do seems endless. Every aspect of life is affected. And yet, against all odds, good people rise up to save or try to reconstruct what might be lost. In this post, everyday heroes protect a seed bank from the war in Syria.

Somini Sengupta has the story at the New York Times. “Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat.

“He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

“Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their ‘wild relatives’ from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here.

“But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather, and war.

“The center, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. …

“By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya.

“Trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were stolen and killed for food. … And the center’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.

“But researchers there had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, the center had begun to send seed samples — ‘accessions’ as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the ‘doomsday vault,’ burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.

“War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, center scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa. …

“Mr. Shehadeh … is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. ‘They’re the good stock,’ he said.

“He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.”

The experts believe that the seeds from plants that thrive in this arid part of the world will be needed for feeding the planet as it warms.

Read the whole article here.

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Restaurants are having trouble finding trained workers, and many low-income people have trouble getting themselves qualified for a job.

Enter the Culinary Arts Training Program at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Dorchester, Mass.

Sacha Pfeiffer writes at the Boston Globe, “A recent business survey found that the state’s dining sector is facing its worst labor shortage in more than three decades. That survey, by the Federal Reserve, called the staffing situation a ‘crisis,’ and Boston-area restaurants of all types report that hiring at every level, from dishwashers to chefs, is a major challenge.

“But those industry woes pose an opportunity for graduates of free culinary training programs offered by the Salvation Army, Pine Street Inn, Lazarus House Ministries, Community Servings, UTEC, Roca, and other local nonprofits, which have become a small but valuable source of employees for the region’s food service industry. …

“At [November’s] culinary graduation at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Corps Community Center in Dorchester, for example, several prospective employers attended the event to canvass for possible hires. …

“Aimed at low-income students, the programs generally offer basic training in cooking techniques, knife skills, food terminology, menu planning, nutrition, and kitchen safety standards. Many also teach ‘soft skills,’ such as resume writing and effective interviewing, and job-readiness, like the importance of punctuality. …

“Most also provide job placement assistance at not only restaurants, but school cafeterias, hospital kitchens, nursing homes, sporting venues, corporate cafes, and large food supply companies such as Aramark and Sodexo.

“ ‘There are more jobs than we have students for,’ said Paul O’Connell, the former chef/co-owner of Chez Henri in Cambridge who is now culinary director at the New England Center for Arts & Technology, which offers a 16-week culinary training course. … And even low-level jobs in the food sector can lead to lasting careers.

“ ‘The beauty of our industry is if people have a really good attitude and want to learn, they can go from the dish room to the boardroom and everywhere in between,’ said Robert Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which collaborates with many nonprofit programs.

“ ‘I’ve seen an incredible number of people grow their career from line cook to assistant kitchen manager to kitchen manager to chef and beyond,’ Luz added, ‘so it’s the road to middle income for a lot of people.” More here.

Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
A graduate of the Culinary Arts Training Program at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center shows off his certificate.

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