Saturday, December 24, 2011

Discovering Israeli Wines with Yarden

Yarden Syrah
In honor of Hanukah (or Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or however you spell it) I am doing a post on Israeli Wines.

Now when I got the email pitch for Golan Heights Winery, I thought the same thing you might be thinking... “They make wine in Israel?” Which yet again reminds me how unworldly Americans like myself can be.

Turns out Israel can make Fraking great wines! In March of this year, the winery received the prestigious Gran VinItaly Special Award for Best Wine Producer of the Year at the 19th International VinItaly 2011 Wine Competition (the first winery from Israel ever to be named the best wine producer of the year from the international organization). And it’s not like there wasn’t any competition… 3,720 bottles were submitted by more than 1,000 winemaking companies taking part from 30 countries worldwide.

Founded in 1983, the Golan Heights Winery is based in the small town of Katzrin in the Golan Heights region (shocker there). The pioneering moshavs and kibbutzes first planted vines in 1976, and initially the grapes were sold to the large coastal cooperatives. However, local experimental winemaking in 1982 produced results which only underlined the potential and the winery was built the following year. The volcanic soil provided excellent drainage, the climate was relatively cool allowing a long growing season, and water was readily available for drip irrigation in the summer.
Golan Heights produces 3 separate labels: Yarden (premier label and flagship brand), Gamla (premium, quality aged varietal wines which are fruit forward and expressive), and Golan (affordable, young, quality wines).

I recently experienced the Yarden Syrah ($25.00). The wine is sourced from the Ortal in the northern Golan and Yonatan and Tel Phares in the central Golan. Rich with notes of Cherry, Geranium, Violets, and Berries, it’s layered with Earth and Chocolate. It opens with a slightly peppery bite that leads into full-bodied flavor with a lightly chewy texture.

So yes, it turns out, “They make wine in Israel.” Fraking Great Wine! Happy Hanukah (or Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or however you spell it)!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

CCF and Cambodian Cuisine


Earlier this year I had the honor of chaperoning five Cambodian kids in SoCal through the Cambodian Children’s Fund (an organization that helps almost 900 children in some of Cambodia’s most destitute communities). It was an eye opening experience that made me recognize how truly blessed we are here in America. It was also a revealing visit on the culinary front as I discovered so much about Cambodian cuisine and culture.

(And in the spirit of the Holiday season if you’re interested in donating to the Cambodian Children’s Fund (a non-profit = a tax write off) you can do so here. These are kids who before they found CCF were scrounging through trash dumps from sunup to sundown in the hopes of making fifty cents a day to help support their families. Every little bit helps so take that $5 Latte money and Pay It Forward. It’s the Holidays!)

And without further ado, here are a couple of factoids that were gleaned during my Cambodian adventure!
  • The staple of a Cambodian meal is rice. The country has lots of waterways (including the Mekong, Sap, and Bassac rivers, along with the nearby Gulf of Thailand) so fresh fish and prawns are very popular in dishes. Beef, pork, chicken, and duck are also popular, but more expensive so less often used in dishes.
  • Some Cambodian delicacies include tarantulas, locusts, and snakes.
  • Along with traditional Khmer (the local culture of the country) Cambodia cuisine draws heavily on the food traditions of their Thai neighbors and Chinese residents.
  • Cambodian is sometimes referred to as “similar to Thai but without the spiciness.” But due to the greasiness of Americanized food (Chinese) and the spiciness (Thai) the five kids were more inclined towards cleanliness of Vietnamese foods.
  • In Cambodia soup is served as an accompaniment to almost all main courses, but not before them as in the West.
  • In Cambodia there are no designated breakfast food (like we have in America). Truthfully the kids thought it was crazy we had certain (heavy) foods that we only ate one time a day. In Cambodia the most popular breakfast is rice noodle soup.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Climb Higher w/ Food Forward

Food Forward Thanksgiving Pick
(Attacking Hunger at a Food Forward pick)

This time of year there’s tons of charities jones-ing for you tax-deductible end of the year money. But when it comes making a BIG change in the world of food look no further than Food Forward, LA's largest urban gleaning organization.

In a nutshell gleaning is when volunteers pick fruit off of donated trees and bring it to SoCal food banks in need. The volunteers get to spend couple of hours in the California sunshine picking fruit and climbing trees (which has the potential to make you absolutely giddy!). SoCal Food Banks such as SOVA and MEND Poverty are happy to receive desperately needed fresh fruit and veggies. The people who donate their trees get a tax write off for the market value of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. And the tree is healthier for being picked of excess fruit.

One tree here and one tree there makes a difference! Since forming in 2009, Food Forward has harvested/rescued over 370,000 lbs of fruits & vegetables at hundreds of properties with 100% of what they pick going to feed the hungry. Combined, their distribution partners provide food to over 35,000 clients a month across Southern California.

Right now Food Forward is in the middle of a campaign to reach all the food on the tree (versus only the low stuff we can reach with the equipment we have). Below are the Deets. So if you’re looking for something that will put a smile on your face, take that five dollars you might spend on a Latte in the next couple of days and help make a BIG change with a little act!


Food Forward’s progress over the last 2.5 years has been remarkable.

But as our tiny organization has blossomed over the last two and a half years, we have routinely found we are unable to harvest approximately 25% of the fruit we encounter on any given pick ONLY because we cannot reach it. Something as simple as not having enough of the professional harvesting tools it takes to reach the crown of a tree has hampered us from gleaning literally tens of thousands of additional pounds for the nearly 30 food pantries and other agencies across Southern California whom have now come to depend on us for their supply fresh free local fruit.
So, we put our heads together with the incredibly generous Plum Foundation (whom helped – along with you all - to make the Fruitmobile a reality this time last year.) We are juiced to announce our

With a Plum Foundation matching grant - for the first $7,500 we raise from now through the end of this year - we are appealing to you, the beloved members of Fruitland, to DONATE IN ANY AMOUNT to HELP US CLIMB HIGHER AND HARVEST MORE FRUIT.

Funds raised during this campaign will go towards purchasing badly needed tools and other items that allow us to continue improving the important work we do in touching the lives of Southern California’s most vulnerable: at last count we have served, over 400,000 people in the past year alone!!

Here’s the best part - for those of you Fruitanthropists making (fully tax deductible!) donations at the special levels below during this campaign, there’s a zesty “gimme” simply for stepping up to help us in this special way: For a $100 donation or above you will receive a pair of our nifty Food Forward gloves.

For a $250 donation you will have your (or your family’s) name emblemized along with others on a rung of one of our ladders + a pair of FF gloves.

For a $500 donation you will have your name emblemized on an exclusive rung of a ladder + a pair of FF gloves.

For a $1,000 donation you will receive your name on a top rung + two pairs of FF gloves.

For a $2,500 donation you will have an exclusive naming opportunity of an entire ladder with up to five names of your choice to be placed on any of the rungs + five pairs of FF gloves.

For a $15,000 donation you will be buying us another badly needed tool: a stake side truck (enabling us to haul upward of 5,000 lbs of fruit at any given time.) For this bountiful gesture your name will be emblemized on the cab of this fine vehicle – and you will help us choose the vanity plate!

REMEMBER THE FUNDS MUST BE RECEIVED BY DEC 31ST in order to qualify for the Plum Foundation match.

You may donate via PayPal – or check (send to Food Forward 7412 Fulton Ave. #3 North Hollywood, CA 91605.) Either way, when you make your tax-deductible donation, please notify us of: 1) your gloves size S, M, L, XL; and 2) if donating at a higher level, how you would like you or your family’s name to read on the ladder, and; 3) whether or not you would like to be acknowledged on our website. Please allow 2-3 weeks for delivery of your goodies.

Every dollar counts, so thank you for a helping make Food Forward’s harvests that much more abundant.

Thanks for Sharing the Abundance and helping us do the same. Happy Holidays!

See you up a tree!
The Food Forward Team.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stamets and the Power of the Fungi

Mycelium Running

There was an awesome interview on Good Food this Saturday where they interviewed Paul Stamets a mycologist (someone who studies fungi, if you're not up on all your "-ologists") and author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Stamets is a proponent of eliminating pesticides in favor of using fungi that can repel crop eating insects in the fields and prevent termites from eating your house.

Stamets owns and operates Fungi Perfecti, an online store selling mushroom cultivation kits and supplies. Truthfully he's a total inspiration to anyone who follows the world of permaculture. His Ted Talk "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World" will blow your mind!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Veggie Grill Turns 5

Veggie Grill

Hooray!!! Veggie Grill, the ever so popular SoCal 100% plant-based comfort restaurant chain, is celebrating their 5-year anniversary!

Home to dishes such as the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’” sandwich, “Sweetheart Fries,” and the “All Hail Kale” salad, Veggie Grill opened its first location in Irvine in November 2006. It's since opened an additional six locations across Los Angeles and Orange County, with the most recent (the 7th, if you're counting) being at the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax in Los Angeles. With all of their veggie based dishes made on the premise daily, Veggie Grill is a great example of a positive evolution in the world of comfort food (aka fast food).

To give back to its loyal fans online (nearly 65,000 fans and followers), Veggie Grill is hosting a giveaway on Facebook. Fans who submit a Veggie Grill-inspired video are entered to win one of five, $500 gift cards.

To enter, fans must “Like” Veggie Grill on Facebook and post a video– a testimonial, a “first taste” or VG Virgin experience, a song, a favorite “off-the-menu” item, an ad, or anything Veggie Grill related. At end of November (the contest ends on the 30th), Veggie Grill will pick five winners. Each winner will win a $500 gift card to Veggie Grill.

Sweetness!!! (Plant based!)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Stopping GE Sweet Corn at Walmart

For those who haven’t heard genetically engineered food is a BIG question mark. Untested. Unlabeled. And now, coming to a grocery store near you. Which is something you should definitely care about.

We should all know if our food’s been GE (genetically engineered). Especially now that it’s showing up directly in the food we eat (versus the food of the food we eat). GE sweet corn has be approved by the FDA for human consumption, but the FDA isn’t you. So if you don’t want BIG question marks in the food you eat speak up!

Food and Water Watch have been doing some great work towards this cause. So far this fall, they've collected over 75,000 petition signatures to the top U.S. grocery stores against GE sweet corn. In response to the work, Trader Joe's and General Mills have already come out against Monsanto's GE sweet corn, refusing to sell it to consumers.

Food and Water Watch has decided that their next step is to focus on pressuring Walmart not to sell this new GE sweet corn intended for direct human consumption. As the largest U.S. food retailer, Walmart has a lot of influence over the market and what farmers grow. Even though this crop has already been approved, if we’re able to convince Walmart not to sell Monsanto's GE sweet corn, other major grocery chains are more likely to follow suit, and then farmer's won't grow it.

In order to get this campaign off the ground, Food and Water Watch needs your help. They're looking for volunteers to help by passing out flyers and collecting petition signatures to Walmart against GE sweet corn.

So if you have questions, get in the game and speak up!

The Edible Skinny

Monday, October 31, 2011

So There's More To Wine Than Pinot and Cabs...

 To Be Filed Under Grapes You've Probably Never Heard Of... So a couple of posts ago I noted how I checked out a tasting seminar of the Vins du Sud Ouest (IVSO) (aka the wines of the South West of France). And along with learning about wine acronyms, I learned that there are a lot of grapes out there that I have never heard of. So for anyone looking to expand their wine vocab here are five varietals that are not Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

PS The Above photo from the appellation of Madiran (where the main grape varietal is the below mentioned Tannat).

Tannat is grown in the Basque country, most notably in the tiny appellation of Irouléguy, on the Spanish border. In 1870, Basque immigrants brought the grape to Uruguay, where it adapted perfectly to the local soil and climate. It has since become the national red grape variety of Uruguay, accounting for approximately one third of all wine produced in that country; more Tannat is grown in Uruguay than in the varietal’s native France. Tannat makes decidedly robust wines, with pronounced aromas of smoke and plum, significant tannins and a wonderfully spicy finish.

The Malbec has been grown in the valley of Cahors for more than 2000 years. It is the on the terroir of the Lot River that Malbec finds its optimal condition to give its maximum of potential. The varietal is an easy growing grape but is extremely sensitive to its natural environment: soil, microclimate, length of sunshine, microclimate, etc. Malbec is typically a medium to full-bodied red wine. Ripe fruit flavors of plums and blackberry give it a jammy characteristic. The tannins are rustically woody and earthy.

First used to make Cognac although not as popular for that purpose as Ugni Blanc and Baco Blanc. The Colombard has a high natural acidity making it a good choice for blends. Prone to rot and powdery mildew, the Colombard was the most widely planted grape in California until the early 1990s where it was often used as a base for jug wines. It is also an important varietal in South Africa though decreasingly so and is now being grown in the hotter growing regions in Texas. If given the proper treatment, Colombard can produce crisp whites with citrus fruits (lime and grapefruit), along with green apple and grassy flavors with a soft minerality.

Négrette is a direct descendant of Mavro rootstock, a grape variety cultivated extensively on the island of Cyprus. It is said it was brought to France from the island by knights returning home from the Crusades. In California the vine is known as Pinot St-George. Négrette’s color ranges from deep plum to eggplant and it's flavors include rich plum, sour cherry, peony, violet and licorice.

Also called Fer Servadou, the name refers to the iron-hard woodiness of the vine. Braucol produces a wine high in color, full bodied and rustic. Flavor characteristics include blackcurrant, raspberry, crumpled leaves and red pepper.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gluten Free Supermarket

For the 1 percent of Americans who have Celiac Disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine in response to ingesting foods containing Gluten) eating is forever a battle with anything that contains gluten (which is everything!). And it’s not a walk in the park for the 6 to 7 percent who have gluten sensitivity, although they don’t have Celiac Disease they do have Celiac-like symptoms (abdominal pain, bloating, gas, nausea, fatigue, persistent diarrhea).

It’s become a Big issue: as of this year the IRS now allows Gluten Free foods to be included in deductible medical expenses and insurance plans will start to cover the excess cost of the food.

Chances are you or someone you know has a problem with Gluten. And up until now those seeking out Gluten Free food were subjected to that one half of an aisle at the supermarket… but for those living in the Valley (and those willing to traverse over the Hill) there is now a supermarket focusing only on Gluten Free products.

Pam MacD's Gluten Free Market opened on April 11th in Burbank, as the largest gluten free market in Southern California. Owner, Pam MacDonald was diagnosed with Celiac disease over 14 years ago. Since that time, she has tried virtually every Gluten Free product that exists, and has sorted through it all to bring only the best food together in one convenient location.

A few weeks ago I attended the Launch Party for Pam MacD’s and fell in love with a couple of new products (there’s a lot of cross over from the Gluten Free community to the Vegan/Vegetarian community). My new discoveries are below, but if you want to check out all the possibilities go to Pam MacD’s Gluten Free Market (3516 W. Magnolia Blvd, Burbank, CA 91505).
Divine Dips

Divine Dips A Vegan Ice Cream that kicks ass! Divine Dips embodies the creamy richness, flavor and texture of traditional ice cream, without the drawbacks of dairy! Crafted from a blend of organic coconut milk, cashews, nut milks, and other all-natural ingredients. You can find if retail wise at locations such as Rainbow Acres or get it on top of your Gluten Free Waffles at waffle joint Bru’s Wiffle!

Almond Glory Focaccia Bread and Pizza Crust This 8” Pre-Baked Pizza crust comes on its own black baking tray that you top with your favorite toppings so now the Gluten intolerant can take this anywhere with them and enjoy pizza along with everyone else.

Livia's Kitchen - Vegan, Gluten-Free and Soy-Free Cookies These are some of the most amazing non-dairy cookies I’ve ever tasted. A lot of times Gluten Free/Vegan cookies taste like dry bricks, but these are so moist and decadent you can’t believe there’s not a stick of butter in each of them. You can find Livia's Kitchen at numerous farmer's market in Los Angeles.


Photos by Adam Rubenstein from

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bad Acronyms: Stopping GEs

Hey Guys! Want to sign a petition? The peeps over at Food and Water Watch are trying to stop Monsanto's GE Sweet Corn!

Monsanto's GE (that's Genetically Engineered not the light bulb company. GE’s other aliases include GMO, aka Genetically Modified Organism) sweet corn is approved and could be on your plate next year. This GE sweet corn, the first Monsanto crop designed to be consumed by people, is genetically engineered to produce pesticides and resist herbicides.

Food & Water Watch will be delivering these petitions signatures to the top ten largest grocery store chains in the U.S. to let them know consumers won't buy Monsanto's GE sweet corn.
So why should you be concerned about Monsanto's Genetically Engineered Sweet Corn?
1) This is the first GE crop that Monsanto is marketing for direct human consumption.
2) It will not be labeled.
3) It hasn't been tested for human safety.

Monsanto's sweet corn variety flew through the approval process because it combines two genetically engineered traits that were approved in 2005 and 2008. The USDA does no independent testing of GE crops, and the "stacked" combination of these traits for herbicide resistance and pesticide production has never been through a safety evaluation of any kind.

These traits have never been engineered into a food that will be consumed directly by people. Most of the GE corn that is currently grown is eaten by animals or processed into corn syrup, corn oil and other corn ingredients that show up in processed food. Monsanto's aiming to have their new GE sweet corn grown on 250,000 acres next year (roughly 40% of the sweet corn market). If this scares you take action now to make sure this corn isn't sold at your local grocery store (especially since you can do it on the internet now… remember when you had to sign a petition in person).

If the approval of Monsanto's sweet corn isn't bad enough, genetically engineered crops are not required to be labeled (like they are in Europe). We have no way of knowing if a food has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients.

They (and I) believe labeling should be required so that people can choose whether or not they want to eat GE foods. Unfortunately, GE sweet corn will not be labeled and it doesn't look any different from regular sweet corn.

Help make sure GE sweet corn is not sold by signing their petition to grocery stores. Food and Water Watch will be delivering this petition to the top ten grocery store chains in the country in an attempt to stop GE sweet corn from reaching our plates.

Sign the petition to grocery stores today:

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Good Food Festival

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Good Food Festival.

The Good Food Festival:

Figuring How Organic and Local Can Save the World One Bite at a Time

Local.  Organic.  Really last week’s Good Food Festival was a four-day long tribute to the importance of these words. 

And yes, these are words that are thrown around like no other in Santa Monica.  But where do they fit in the real world?    And how can they save the world?  (Which as Molly Gean of Harry’s Berries noted was a pretty tall order to fill).

GFF’s Local/Organic panel housed a variety of different viewpoints from the aforementioned Gean (owner of a 40 acre organic strawberry farm) to Will Daniels Senior Vice President for Food Safety at Earthbound Farm (with 37,000 acres in total, the largest organic company out there) to Bruce Palma founder of Co-Opportunity Natural Foods (which as been selling local organic food for 37 years) to Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farms (which has farming for five generations going from organic to chemical then choosing to go back to organic again).  The panel was moderated by Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety (an environmental and public health organization which has initiated legal actions against the FDA and EPA to preserve the integrity of the food supply).

So what’s the big deal with local and organic?  

In the world of food sales organic is only 4% penetration in the market and 9% of fruit and vegetables.  But it’s also one of the fastest growing sections of the food industry. 

Why does it matter if our food comes from the earth or from chemicals? 

The answer is really two-fold health and taste.  The importance of organic taste is something that Santa Monica Farmers Market patrons know firsthand, along with chefs who have the market’s produce flow to them through specialty food buyers to locations as far as Scottsdale, AZ and Las Vegas, NV.   When Molly Gean referred to her strawberries she noted, “They’re smaller, our yields are lower, our cost is higher, but they taste so much better.”

But while most people agree that a organic strawberry will taste better than a GMO-ed one, they will usually with their next breath talk about how we all can’t live on organic farming.  “If the world only ate organic, we’d all starve to death,” is a pretty popular battle cry. 

But Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety noted that in May a United Nations report, titled Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, revealed that small-scale sustainable farming would even double food production within five to 10 years in places where most hungry people on the planet live.

“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

The UN report suggested moving away from the overuse of oil in farming, a problem that is magnified in the face of rising prices due to unrest in the Middle East. The focus should instead be on agroecology, or eco-farming. “Agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry,” he continued.  Barker also noted the World Bank was to be coming out with a similar study in the coming months.  

But that doesn’t mean that organic farming will be easy or cheap.  “Organic is more of an art than a science,” stated Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farms. “There’s a lot of problems, but the taste does give an edge.  I was a chemical farmer; they are difficult not to be.  I went through my learning curve with growing in season.   The only way to grow organic and survive is through diversification.”  “America grows the cheapest food in the world,” he continued.  “We need to pay more for good clean food than that.  Our father’s generation was so excited about chemicals.  But it’s caused so many issues.  You don’t have a quick fix; it comes part and parcel without the chemicals.   Yes yields aren’t as high but it comes out in the taste.”

“I think people need to understand the concept of fruit and vegetables being the primary part of dinner,” noted Bruce Palma.   “Most people don’t think about it that way so they’re not willing to spend the money on it the way they do on their meat.”
“Joel Salatin says on average that we spend 18% on health care and 9% on food,” noted Daniels of Earthbound.  “Decades ago it was different, and I believe it’s because of conventional agriculture.  I would love to see it flip again. “  Not only for the health of the people but also for the health of the land.  “Industrial agriculture consumes 70% of fresh water,” noted Barker.  “30% of greenhouse gases are due to global industrial farming.“  

“Global warming is created because of unbalanced eco-systems,” expanded Daniels further.  “Organic is just that: a balanced eco-system.   In 2011 alone Earthbound’s avoiding the use of over 333,000 pounds of toxic and persistent pesticides and 11.2 million pounds of synthetic fertilizer.   We’re conserving an estimated 1.8 million gallons of petroleum by avoiding the use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers.   We’re fighting global warming by absorbing as much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as taking more than 7,800 cars off the road.”  

But doing the right thing doesn’t make life easy. “Crop rotation is the key,” noted Daniels.  “Mono cropping is a bad idea all around.  Organic farming feeds the soil not the crop.”   “Being organic forces you to diversify,” noted Phil McGrath.  “It’s very hard to be a mono-cropper and be organic.   For example, if you’re going to do strawberries organically you “should” wait seven years before you do another strawberry crop.  I’m able to do 4 years before plantings.”  Which can be a hard thing to do if you only have 300 acres to work with and a quarter of it can’t be used for another four years.

It was also noted that as we approach 2012 we need to start to rally in regards to the Farm Bill.  

What’s the Farm Bill you ask?   

The Farm Bill is a $300 billion piece of legislation that is passed every 5 years and helps to provide the structure of agriculture ad food policy in the U.S.   As Phil McGrath noted, “Yes it’s boring but its what sets policy.   I can only hope everyone looks at the Farm Bill.   75% goes to nutrition and food stamps.  The other part is subsidies.  That’s the part we need to focus on, we need to apply pressure for some of that to go to sustainable farming.“ 

“I hope progress will move quicker,” stated Daniels.  “The people who make the needle move are the constituents and the lobbyists.  And right now, the biggest and baddies are speaking to your representatives.  Monsanto spends 50 million in lobbying.   They have 100 lobbyists, that are identifiable.  That doesn’t even count the groups.”  And their heavy hand can be found in America’s crops.   “90% of corn in the US is genetically modified,” noted Barker.  90-95% of sugar beets are GMOs”  

“The organic consumer needs to speak up.  They need to tell their representatives what’s important,” continued Daniels.  “I’m sorry to put the onus on you guys,” finished Gean.   “But you have your love of farmers markets.   You need to spread the word.” 

“It’s really all up to you.  Our fate is in your hands.”  

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica food writer who has been inspired to learn more about the Food Bill.   You can see more of her writings at

Friday, September 16, 2011

September: National Childhood Obesity Month

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the September being National Childhood Obesity Month!


September: National Childhood Obesity Month

I recently found out that September has been declared National Childhood Obesity Month.

Which is one of the saddest reflections of our times.

Now, as an "Almost Vegan" I know I am considered the complete opposite end of the spectrum. That because I imposed lots of restrictions on my diet, National Childhood Obesity Month wasn't created for my kids (when I have them).

But I wasn't born an Almost Vegan.

When I started writing about food I ate everything! Ironically, I had a tendency to look down on Vegetarians and Vegans because their diet was so un-Fun. (And in grand scheme of things I considered myself pretty tolerant since I had dabbled with Vegetarianism in college.) At that point my food journalism career consisted mainly of restaurant reviews.

But the thing about writing about food is that you start learning more and more with each article you write, about how our Food system works and all the things we need to fix about it. Somewhere around watching Food Inc., I stopped eating Meat and Chicken. Somewhere around reading Eating Animals, I stopped eating Seafood. Somewhere around the China Study I stopped eating Dairy.

Each of the aforementioned books and movies drew back the curtain a little more, but the last one absolutely blew my mind. Based on decades long project findings in rural China, the China Study details the comprehensive connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. I always tell people, "if you like eating meat, don't read this book; but if you don't want to get cancer, I'd order a copy right away."
But where's the Fun in that?

There is something about kids that we feel that they should have Fun at all times. And for most of us the easiest way for us to create Fun is through food. That there should always be a cookie for a treat, a carton of chocolate milk for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Most people will never look at a piece of broccoli and say "this would be great to celebrate Billy's birthday with." And I'm not saying it needs to go to that extreme, but really we need to do something.

We now have a National Childhood Obesity Month! If that doesn't piss you off it should! This "epidemic" (and really in the world of epidemics, it's the one with the most simplest of solutions) will probably shave five years off your kids' lives. Five years!

I have spent two-thirds of my life working with kids and I have discovered a simple simple truth: kids need restrictions. They need boundaries that teach them right from wrong (and this is something we don't grow out of as adults). What kind of restrictions: telling them Yes and No (the very definition of restriction); making sure they know what is healthy and unhealthy to eat (the easy part); and making sure they eat the good stuff (the not so easy part).

I'm an Almost Vegan, so sometimes I have a cookie or a cupcake. I don't beat myself up about it if I do because it's a treat. But treats are only treats if you don't get them all the time.

Now a lot of people get overwhelmed when you start talking about food. They'd rather play ostrich and eat whatever they want. But every action has ramifications, ignoring the need for a healthy diet today will only show up in heart disease tomorrow.

If you're feeling overwhelmed start small. Follow Michael Pollan's basic tenant of food health:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly pants.

It doesn't get any simpler that that. Pollan actually has an entire book dedicated to simple ways to eat right: Food Rules. They are simple pieces of wisdom like the ever so fitting #39.

#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries, even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we're eating them every day. The french fry did not become America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they're so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you're willing to prepare them — chances are good it won't be every day.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Celebrating 30 Years!

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica Farmers Market Celebrating 30 Years!


Celebrating 30 Years!

Santa Monica Farmers Market Quarterly Library Panels Series

The Santa Monica’s Farmers Market turned 30 this year and in celebration its Quarterly Library Panel Series decided to focus on the past, present, and future of good food in Santa Monica.   The August panel consisted of the normal medley of chefs and farmers this time focusing on Santa Monica Farmers Market pioneers. On the cooking sides chefs Mark Peel of Campanile and Josie Le Balch of Josie and upcoming Next Door by Josie (which was just approved this week, new more casual restaurant that will be offering both lunch and dinner that is, appropriately, next door to Josie).  These taste making chefs were joined by farmers market stalwarts “celebrity potato farmer” Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, and Molly Gean of the flavor astounding Harry's Berries.  Laura Avery, the Santa Monica Farmers Market Supervisor and Wednesday Farmers Market Manager, was the night’s moderator.  

Although the Farmers Market now brings farm fresh local produce to some 900,000 customers a year in the beginning it was a little different.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market began on July 15th 1981,” explained Laura Avery.  “At that point Santa Monica was famously profiled in 60 Minutes as the “People's City.” “Then-Mayor Ruth Yanatta-Goldway a one term Santa Monica mayor, said ‘I want to start something downtown.  So with the help of the Department of Agriculture the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  The Santa Monica Farmers Market doubled in its first year, and then doubled again in its second year when I started working for it.”

In the beginning people weren’t quite sure what a Farmers Market was supposed to be.  “I remember when the Farmers Market started because the business was commercial,” noted Gean.  “Many big farms thought it was a great place to dump their seconds, those that were the wrong sizes or had bumps or bruises.”  “But then came the revolution.” “Bring back the flavor.  Flavor is the most important thing to us.  It’s seven or eight on the list in the world of commercial food.”

“For years, we shipped through the normal shipping channels, and we grew the commercial strawberries because they ship well.  We were always on the brink of disaster.  Farmers are optimists; they are able to think ‘there’s always next year.’  But, our commercial sales were getting worse and worse.  But with the Farmers Markets we could control what we wanted to grow.  We could grow “bad” commercial brands that don’t ship well, but taste better and were much sweeter.  It went from the place where you sell your seconds to a place where you sell the best quality.  I can say Farmers Markets saved our farming business.  We are exclusively at Farmers Markets since 1993.”

Avery asked how each person on the panel how they came to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  “When I was asked to talk on this panel my husband and I realized, ‘Gosh that was the long time ago,’” noted Gean.  “Many of the people we started out with have passed, retired, or, like us, now have our kids are behind the tables.  Harry’s Berries has been at the Farmers Market for twenty-five years.  The way we got started was we heard on local NPR that they were starting these things called Farmers Markets.  I called Laura up and she said ‘we already have too many berries, we don’t need anymore!’  But what got us in at Santa Monica was the Seascape Strawberry (a berry that is now a capstone of taste at the Farmers Market) because it’s an off-season variety.  That got us in the door in.  But Laura told us we had to leave once the season really started because they already had too many berries.  But luckily they let us stay.”

Weiser’s story is even more humble; “I remember being in the double wide we were living in when we got a knock on the door and a man said, “I want to tell you about this Farmer’s Market I’m starting.”   My Dad said, ‘that’s good because Alex is starting college in the fall maybe this can help pay for college.  Initially my family had apples; we had bought 160 acres of Rome Beauty Golden Delicious and Red Delicious for process.  At that time, you grew for the table market or the process market so the apples were being used for baby food and apple juice. It wasn’t the dream my family thought it would be.   We were trying to figure out how to survive that is until we got the knock on the door.  It was great.  I employed all my friends, put them through college.  I learned as much at the market as I did in college.  Communication is not something you get on the farm.”

For the chefs going to the place where the best quality is sold was a no brainer. Le Balch noted how she was first introduced to the seasonal concept while working for Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison.  “Wolfgang was the first person I met who had no idea what he was going to make for the specials that night.  In the beginning I was like, ‘what am I doing working for this guy?’ But it was great.  It taught me the freedom to experience what’s fresh.  Going to the market is like a candy store for us.  At Josie people will call us to find out what is going to be on our Farmers Market menu and I have to say, ‘I have no idea.’”  Peel didn’t remember the exact experience of the first time at the market (or the exact amount of parking tickets he’s accumulated over the years).  “We opened in June 1989.   I don’t really remember what brought me first, but I remember seeing what was available and thinking ‘that’s good, let’s try that.’ Nancy, my ex wife, she starting going first (Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bread Bakery, Pizzeria Mozza, and Osteria Mozza).  Then we just started planning seasonal menus.”

Avery noted that according to the Chef’s Collaborative the food industry is a 385 billion dollar industry.  “If people are going to hear about anything, you’re going hear about it from a chef.  I was thinking about the power of food.  Chef’s are tastemakers that create people’s eating habits.”  “We have to give Alex his due,” declared Peel.  “We depend upon the farmers to bring us the best of what’s available.  We don’t always know what’s going to happen next.   What’s coming up next.”

“In the beginning, people would go to other restaurants and the food would have no flavor,” expanded Le Balch.  “It was an evolution, making people understand you might be paying more, but the experience is better.  Just look at the evolution of the heirloom tomato.”  

Purslane, Fuji Apples, Kiwis, Dandelion Greens, these are all things that were introduce to eaters through chefs through the Farmers Markets.  Many of these “non commercial items” created uneasy waves when they were first introduced (reintroduced) to the dinning market.  “Lamb’s Quarters is a delicious herb/vegetable that we serve at Campanile, but it’s a weed,” noted Peel.  “It actually grows in the alley in the back of restaurant, but I swear I don’t harvest it there.   We had a waiter who was from Minnesota and he said ‘you have to take Lamb’s Quarters off the menu because my mother is coming into town and she will have a heart attack that you’ve got a weed on our menu.’” 

“I will be interesting to see what the next 30 years are,” noted Peel.  “The Farmers Market went from mom and pop to much bigger.   Now people complain about chef’s scooping things up.”   “I think it’s inevitable,” stated Avery. “The chef’s have been our biggest collaborators.   My sales are the same but now they’re now sixty to seventy percent chefs so I ask ‘where did my table customers go?’”  The discussion then slid into now ubiquitous specialty food companies that buy the market’s produce for high priced restaurants in Los Angeles along with further places like Las Vegas and Arizona.  

Peel continued, “the produce companies are here to stay, they’re the life blood.  Most farmers now sell about fifty percent of their produce not on the street but on the sidewalk behind it.” “We’re the victim of our own success,” noted Gean.  “At one point I stopped wholesale sales because the mom’s at the market deserve taste too.”

Opinions on what to do about this today and how it will affect the future were offered.  “It’s interesting that now everyone wants a Farmers Market in their city,” noted Avery.  “But in most cities they’re not Farmers Markets they’re Swap Meets.  The Department of Agriculture will call it a Farmers Market if they have 2 farmers and 40 people selling ceramic butterflies.  So I think the next big thing is a growth, growth in wholesale.”   Everyone wants to copy the Santa Monica Farmers Market template.  “The commercial growers want to lower the standard, to have unsanitary produces,” explained Avery.  “We need to protect our farms from the legislature pushed by BigAg.  They want to allow dirty farming practices and irradiate all the food.”  “Wal-Mart trying to lower the standard of organic so it’s easier for them to sell it at their stores,” chimed in Le Balch.  

“We’re a niche,” noted Gean.  “But we’re such and important piece of the puzzle because we’re the flavor.”  “What is needed is a massive amount of growth,” observed Peel.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market is very small potatoes compared to what a single Ralphs will do.   If they are going to be important in the next thirty years this needs to become the standard.  It’s important to figure out this model and increase it by ten times.”

But it was the near future that these farmers and chefs focused on at the end of their panel discussion.  Next month, the Santa Monica Farmers Markets will be a holding a five-day Good Food Festival and Conference, held September 14th through 18th.  The event is billed as an “unprecedented multi-day event” bringing together famers, sustainable food advocates, chefs, food businesses and “people who care about good food.”  Events will include a good food street fair, cooking demonstrations at Santa Monica High School and programs focused on school food at Santa Monica College. The event is sponsored by Chicago-based, which trains farmers, promotes local sustainable food and is leading a national effort to improve food safety on small farms.  Brochures describing the festivities can be found at the four farmers market in Santa Monica. 

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica who is very very happy 30 years ago the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  You can check out more of her writing at her food blog