Thursday, April 30, 2009

Opening Day at Columbia City

Yesterday was opening day at the Columbia City Market, the first of the seasonal markets to start. Seasonal markets have a different rhythm than the ones that run all year: they tend to start with big celebrations and draw a lot of people early in the season, folks who've missed the market all winter.

Yesterday was different. There were a lot of empty booth spaces so even vendor turnout was light. The first hour was especially dead, in fact it was so slow that I started to get worried. Things did pick up later and it ended up being an almost normal day, which was reassuring. But I wondered whether the organizers hadn't done as much outreach as they had in previous years. Last year the mayor turned out for opening day. Maybe he was busy this year dealing with the fallout from those probable cases of swine flu.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Organic Slowdown

The Nielsen market research company reported this week that sales of organic products barely grew over a year ago. There was a mere 1% increase, down from 24% growth last year. (Keep in mind that we're still talking about growth here, just at a much slower pace.) Their report attributed the slowdown to the lousy economy, but I couldn't help wondering if their conclusion was a bit shortsighted. The company specifically tracked sales of grocery items with bar codes, or products designed to be sold by middlemen in conventional retail stores. It didn't include direct sales at farmers' markets and CSA's which, I can tell you anecdotally, are doing just fine.

I have a friend who is an organic farmer, who sells only at farmers' markets and through a CSA program. I asked her once why she bothers with organic certification when all of her sales are direct sales. She answered that when she first started, back in 2002, the federal organic certification program had just gone into effect and customers were taking it very seriously, and asking about it regularly. But these days, she said, folks are much more concerned with buying stuff that's locally grown, and they hardly every ask whether her produce is organic. I suspect some of this attitude change is also showing up the Nielsen numbers.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Bluebird Grain Farms was back at the Universty and Ballard farmers' markets this past weekend. They come over from the Methow, where they grow heirloom grains such as emmer and spelt, ancestors of modern wheat.

Emmer is indgenous to the Near East, and is one of the world's oldest cultivated grains. According to Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, its suitability for agriculture was an important variable in the rise of Western civilizations. It is high in protein (13-16%), and it has a hard hull, which made it useful to early sedentary cultures because this casing made it possible for kernels to be gathered and stored. But as consumption of domesticated grains became more widespread and milling technologies evolved, hulless varieties grew more popular.

Eventually agriculturalists also began developing varieties of wheat that had a higher gluten content, and made better bread. As a result, emmer cultivation declined considerably in Europe and the United States, although it has been making a comeback in recent years.

My grandmother's maiden name was "Emmer." I'm proud to have this connection to such an important ancient food.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Small-Mart Revolution

This week I read Michael Shuman's book, The Small-Mart Revolution, about the nuts and bolts of building local economies. I recommend it, despite his predilection for overusing cutesy phrases and acronyms (including "Small Mart".) I've long been passionate about local foods, but this book helped fill in many of the gaps in my understanding of how local purchasing helps to build healthy communities. I was especially interested in his emphasis on banking locally: it had never occurred to me that depositing money at a bank that's based in another city sucks funds out of my own region.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


This quarter I'll be paying more than $5000 for a variety of permits that are necessary for me to legally operate my business. There's a $700 annual permit for my commercial kitchen (if 2 businesses are working out of the same kitchen, they're both required to get one), a $226 permit for each special event, even if it's just one day, and $226 for each farmers' market for the calendar year. The farmers' market permit is actually a pretty good deal compared to the others because it covers multiple days, but it adds up because I'll be vending at 13 or 14 markets. (I even have to get a separate permit for summer and winter at the U District, because in the summer we're supervised by the community center but in the winter we're supervised by the farmers' market.) On top of that, I'll need to buy 3 fire permits at nearly $400 each, because I'll be vending at 3 locations on some market days.

I hate to sound like a Republican, but this is a lot of money. I'm all for public health, but there's got to be a more sensible system. The only positive thing I can say about the permit requirements is that they limit competition, because you've got to be really serious to get started as a food concession.

They're proposing raising the temporary event health permits by $75 next year, because they say that $226 doesn't cover the cost of an inspection. That would cost me an additional $1500. If the cost of the permit actually goes to pay the health inspector to come down and inspect my booth, I wonder if they'd be willing to give refunds for the days they don't even show up.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Michael Pollan on "Oprah"

The first thing I ever read by Michael Pollan was an article in the New York Times Magazine in November 2002 in which he describes reading Peter Singer's vegetarian manifesto "Animal Liberation" while eating a steak. The piece goes on to consider Singer's arguments about the moral gravity of eating animals in light of the humane treatment that livestock receive on a well-run sustainable farm, specifically Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia.

So I found it interesting today when I tuned in to watch his Earth Day appearance on Oprah, and heard him tell the audience that the single most important ecologically conscious dietary change they could make would be to reduce their meat consumption. The 2002 article dealt extensively with utilitarian arguments about animal welfare, but never once mentioned the utilitarian point that meat--even sustainable meat--has a much heavier ecological footprint than plant-based foods.

The discrepancy between his earlier stance and his recommendation today highlighted for me just how far we've come during the past few years in the way we think about food.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Hunger Challenge

A number of folks this week are participating in a challenge inspired by the United Way of King County's Hunger Awareness Week. It involves eating on approximately the budget of a food stamp recipient, which is $7/day for an individual. I'm not officially taking the challenge for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I often eat at work, where food is cheap and easily available, in fact, it's often almost free because I barter so much with my fellow market vendors.

On some level I have no right to weigh in about this since I'm not actually doing it, but I don't think I'd have much trouble feeding myself on that budget. I happen to genuinely enjoy many inexpensive foods, I like to cook, and I don't mind eating the same thing several days in a row. For breakfast each morning I usually eat a bowl of oat bran made with 1/2 cup dry oat bran, seasoned with a little bit of salt, and a cup of green tea. I use the cheap, organic green tea which costs about 6 cents per cup, and the oat bran--which is also organic--costs about 20 cents per serving.

This would leave be with about $3.37 per meal for the rest of my meals, which is quite ample if you're cooking mostly vegan meals based on beans and grains, with some fresh vegetables. Of course you have to pay attention to prices, and have time and reliable transportation to shop and cook. It also helps to enjoy this kind of food.

I appreciate this challenge and I'm glad folks are doing it. But I can't help wondering if it misses the point to focus on price alone. In Revolution at the Table Harvey Levenstein describes the frustrations of early twentieth century American social workers trying to teach poor immigrant families to spend less on food. They found that these households ate meat whenever they had the opportunity because they valued it more than other foods: it signified living well. If you're resourceful you can certainly eat well on $7/day, but it'll always feel like a sacrifice, unless you're doing it by choice.

I don't know how we can change the perceptions and preconceptions that make us value some foods more than other, equally nutritious alternatives. But if such a broad-based attitude shift could ever occur, it could go a long way towards alleviating food insecurity.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yelling for Jesus

A couple of guys carrying signs and wearing "Fear Jesus" sweatshirts hung out at the entrance to the University District Farmers' Market all day Saturday, yelling about how we're all going to soon pay for our sins. It should have been a good market day because the weather was decent, but it was a slow day for everyone down at our end, probably because customers wanted to get away as soon as possible. I'm hardly an expert on Jesus, but I do think these guys were a bit off the mark.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


As I plant my humble garden, I'm trying to take particular care in choosing the seeds. I especially like the ones that seem to come from companies that are on board with the idea of seeds saving as a radical endeavor, an antidote to the hijacking of seed stocks by multinational corporations like Monsanto.

Seed Savers Exchange seemed to be right up my alley, as did Uprising Seeds. I was also drawn to some packets that looked like they came from small operations or people who like to cook.

I did buy a couple of packets from Seeds of Change, which sounded like a company breaking away from the mainstream. (Besides, they had seeds for quinoa and tepary beans, which both sounded exciting.) It wasn't until I got them home that I remembered hearing at some point that the Seeds of Change food company was owned by a larger corporation. I did some cursory research and found that they are, in fact, owned by the M&M Mars Company. So much for stepping out of the mainstream.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


This week I used rutabagas in my grilled vegetable mix for the first time. I'm not quite sure why I avoided them in the past except that they seemed a bit rough. But last weekend Nash's Farm was sold out of almost everything else by the time I got there, so I decided to give this underappreciated root a try.

I was delighted with them. They cooked up really nicely on the grill, and had a texture like potatoes but a sweeter taste. Apparently they gained a reputation as a famine food in Europe during World War II, when there was little else to eat. I suppose I came to them in a similar way--due to lack of alternatives--but I'll certainly be using them more in the future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Many Vegetarians Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?

I really like the fisherman who had this sign hanging in his booth. (He has Native American ancestry, so it's not nearly as politically incorrect as it looks, at least not in that respect.)
  1. Although I'm not completely vegetarian myself, I eat a largely vegetarian diet, with plenty of meals that are completely vegan. But I'm still amused and fascinated by the ubiquity of jokes poking fun at vegetarianism. I enjoyed the Jack in the Box commercials a few years back showing carnivores playing football against vegans. (Guess who won.) Another Jack in the Box ad showed pointy headed Jack feeling mortified at his son's graduation as his son gave a speech about how he wanted to be a vegetarian, until he realized that the boy was confusing the word "vegetarian" with "veterinarian". I also remember a reader board outside of a gas station I used to pass that read, "If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?"

I suppose what amuses me (apart from the humor) is this need that some die hard meat eaters have to poke fun at vegetarians. There's nothing new about this: people have been writing diatribes against vegetarianism since Pythagorean times. This long history brings home the fact that we have an old and complex relationship with meat-eating, and if we are ever going to make a large-scale change to a diet made up of mostly plant based foods, we will also have to find some way of honoring our meat-eating traditions.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mostly Local

  1. During the many years I've been in business, I've always looked for ways to balance costs with a concern for the quality of my ingredients. This has especially been on my mind lately as I see the sustainable food ethic being associated largely with high end restaurants and affluent consumers.

My own approach--which I've arrived at more intuitively than deliberately--has been to use mostly local and organic ingredients, being scrupulous but not fanatical. I can make a $6 quesadilla with about 80% local and/or organic ingredients, but if I strove for 100%, I would either have to double the price, or barely make a living.

I'm comfortable with this compromise, but I haven't had much success when I try to explain it to customers who ask about particular ingredients. It's important to me to be honest, but I often feel like I'm being defensive.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Most years kale is the winter standby, the faithful green that keeps on giving long after the others are gone. But this year has been far from typical. We stopped seeing abundant kale around the end of December, although Anselmos's has managed to consistently keep it on their table, and Stoney Plains has had some small bunches.

But the past few weeks more farmers have been bringing it to the market, and it feels like a whiff of spring rather than a pillar of winter.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Matzo Ball Soup

Last night was the first night of Passover. I don't usually celebrate religious holidays in any formal way. It goes against the grain for me to set aside specific times and places for reverence and ritual. I want to see everything as sacred, always. But I felt the need to commemorate it somehow, so I asked myself what kind of food signified freedom to me. I realized that the way I eat every day is all about freedom. It expresses my values and my whims, and carries an equal mix of responsibility and choice.

It was a lovely insight, but it didn't help me along in choosing what to eat for dinner. I ended up going to Whole Foods and buying some matzo ball soup. I love matzo ball soup, and theirs is a respectable version of what I ate while I was growing up. When I was a kid I used to eat my chicken soup packed with egg noodles, and also matzo balls. (Like most kids, I was partial to white, starchy foods.) Both of my grandmothers made chicken soup: different versions, both fondly remembered.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


April is a month of transition for me. It's a time of making the change from my laid back winter rhythm to my crazy busy summer schedule. It's a time of paying exorbitant sums for health permits and tuning and replacing equipment. I start feeling wistful about the leisurely days that will soon be few and far between at the same time that I'm eagerly anticipating a solid income and plenty of terrific food.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Extortionism and Fine Dining

  1. Bob from Stonybrook Farm wrote a piece last week about how small-scale meat producers could charge a lot less for their products if they'd only scale up a bit. The Ethicurean ran the piece as well, and it received many comments from outraged readers who were disturbed by both its content and its tone. They questioned his accounting, and his daring to challenge the assumption that we should all be willing to pay more for good food because it simply costs more to produce. They also took issue with his use of the word "extortionist" to describe the producers who charge top dollar for their products.

I personally take issue with the idea that it's in our best interests to lower the price of meat, even sustainable meat, but I appreciate his commitment to defending the idea that good food just doesn't have to cost so much. I feel a similar indignation when I watch the chefs who prance around the farmers' markets in their whites, making a show of selecting the perfect ingredients to implement their artistic vision.

Sure, they're able to find customers who are willing to pay top dollar for their creations, but it seems narcissistic to me to create dishes with an eye towards showing off personal talent rather than making quality food accessible to as many people as possible. I understand that innovative chefs have been instrumental to the growth of the local, organic food movement, and many farmers have come to rely on their demand for specialty offerings. And yet I can't help feeling that it's time to change focus, especially in this unfortunate economy. Instead of setting out to create the most unique and elegant meal out of the available ingredients, I'd like to see more chefs driven by the desire to provide their customers with the best possible value.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Street Food

The city of Seattle has begun making an earnest attempt to foster a street food scene. This is good news because there is very little street food here at present, and its a great way to build community, encourage entrepreneurship, and make some wonderful food available.

I attended a panel discussion this afternoon with representatives from the city, some other food vendors, and folks involved in street use permits and special events. I doubt anything is going to come of it in the immediate future, but they seemed to honestly want to hear our opinions, and see what they could do to remove obstacles.

The most onerous difficulty that every one of us named was the health department's unwillingness to work with us. I've called them and asked what it would take to have a tamale cart, and they said it was impossible: they only issued permits for carts for hot dogs. (Does anyone actually believe that hot dogs are inherently safer than tamales?) Other vendors expressed similar frustration with their inflexibility.

There was no health department representative at the meeting, which was probably fortunate because it enabled us to talk more freely. The folks from the city noted our concerns and frustrations, and they'll meet with them separately.

Who knows? Maybe it'll be the start of something.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cover Crop Inspiration

Last week Nash's Farm was selling bags of cover crop seeds, a mixture of vetch and clover that fixes nitrogen into the soil, acting as a natural fertilizer. I love to see farmers expanding their offerings, especially during lean times of year, so I picked up a bag even though I probably won't use it until late fall.

It did get me inspired, though, to start digging in my own garden. As I've mentioned before, I'm not much of a gardener but I do have a deep respect--even a reverence--for agriculture and lately I've been feeling like it's important to get my hands dirty and to have a more intimate experience with the process of growing some of the food that I enjoy cooking.

I'm thinking of it as a multi-year process. Just as farmers need to get to know the idiosyncacies of their own soil, I'm going to learn over time what does best in my particular backyard microclimate, and what's hardy enough to survive my own lack of skill and my inability to follow instructions.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Beans: A History

I just read Ken Albala's book, Beans: A History. It was a timely read for me because I've been thinking a lot about the relative value we attach to certain foods, and lamenting the fact that we'd have fewer food security issues if we could only learn to use and appreciate more of what's available.

Beans have traditionally been thought of as "poor man's meat" because they offer an alternative source of protein for folks who can't afford to eat meat regularly. They have a long shelf life and they're relatively inexpensive to produce, but unfortunately these qualities make them less valued in class conscious societies where resource-intensive foods are typically thought of as status symbols.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Palestinian Olive Oil

I was on my way to hear Alice Waters speak at the Green Festival this past weekend when I stumbled on a table selling Fair Trade Palestinian olive oil. Needless to say, I bought a bottle.

I first heard about Palestinian olive oil in Mort Rosenblum's book Olives. He tells the heartbreaking story of traveling all over the world tasting olive oil and finding perhaps his all time favorite on the West Bank, made by producers who had no infrastructure for exporting it. He was able to get some to take home in a reused glass bottle, but he dropped it and broke it at the airport as he rushed to catch his plane.

Five years ago I was vending at a Rolling Thunder event and there was a table there with folks selling dented cans of Palestinian olive oil for $25. I don't know how they got them, but it wasn't nearly as slick an operation as the one at the Green Festival. I bought a can, and nearly everyone working in my booth got one too. It was very, very tasty.

No matter how you feel about who has title to which Middle Eastern piece of land, you can't argue that the fact that thriving, small scale industry is in everyone's best interest. When people are gainfully employed and taking pride in their work, they're participating in something peaceful and life affirming.

Olive trees are especially well suited to this kind of endeavor because they live for a long time and their fruits go into creating a shelf-stable, artisan product. Some of the most important early ideas about democracy evolved in olive producing regions, most notably ancient Greece and eighteenth century France. The skill and pride that came along with tending these venerable trees and pressing their oil gave the citizens of these regions a sense of dignity and self respect which set the stage for political developments and ideas which endure even today.