July 11, 2010

Frustrations in urban container gardening, part 1

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged at 4:04 pm by chavisory

I like to believe that if the economy or food supply chain were ever to seriously, catastrophically tank, I’d be one of those hardy people who’d be able to grow or forage enough of my own food to get by.

Sadly, this hypothesis is not supported by the results of my efforts at fire escape container gardening this summer.

The location presents several not-insurmountable challenges: first, we’re north-facing, but with tall buildings on both sides.  I guess the resulting light situation would best be described as “part sun,” in that it’s fully sunny from dawn till about noon…and then it’s shady.  (I haven’t been able to sustain anything inside; the apartment is very long and narrow–what’s termed a “shotgun” apartment–and gets almost no real sunlight since we’re faced on both sides by adjacent apartment buildings across narrow alleys.)

Challenge #2: The landlord.

I had put out a window box and a couple pots the second summer I lived here, mostly of flowers.  Shortly, we got a letter from our management office stating that all objects had to be removed from the fire escapes, or they would be removed.  I thought I would be a little recalcitrant and see if they actually meant it, so I ignored about three of those letters.  They did mean it.  Disheartened, I didn’t try to have window boxes again for a couple of years, but finally, the demands of my mental health to have plants won out.

I thought I’d get smarter and put them up on the railings of the fire escape; that way, they’d have no excuse that anything was blocking fire egress.  So I got one box and a railing bracket, and as detailed below, battled the bizarro weather all summer to grow a few herbs.

Sure enough, about September, we got another letter from the landlord.  Remove all objects from the fire escapes.  This time I fought back, though.  I wrote a letter back to the effect that a.) there are no city fire codes that prohibit railing boxes, only boxes that block fire escape walkways, and b.) that there is no provision in our lease prohibiting railing boxes, so, therefore, please leave my stuff alone.  And so far, it looks like I’ve won.  I haven’t heard back from them, and my boxes haven’t been bothered.

Anyway…last summer was complicated in New York by very late cold weather (like, it didn’t really stop feeling like winter until about May), followed by daily torrential rain through July.  The peppermint did just fine; it’s an invasive weed that behaves much like kudzu and is almost impossible to kill.  The basil was okay–it will put up with a lot as long as it’s consistently warm, being a Mediterranean plant.  The sage did not do okay.  I actually did not detect any growth from the time I planted it until it died in November.  Sage is a dry weather/desert plant, so although it was warm, eventually, I think it was just in a state of near-drowning almost constantly, and couldn’t recover.

But somewhat happy with what I did get–a lot of peppermint (which mainly went into Firefly sweet tea vodka lemonades) and basil (snipped over fried eggplant with tomato sauce, or on top of egg/cheese/tomato sandwiches)–I wanted to try to expand this year into some of the 12 feet or so of railing space I still had and try some more varieties of produce.

I wanted to go for baby eggplants, but the sunlight situation, I thought, probably wouldn’t serve them well.  I had always shied from tomatoes in window boxes because of their tall gangliness.  Some other commenters over on the Possum Living blog suggested that lettuces working surprisingly well for containers without consistent sun.  And I had had good luck with strawberries in my Midwest backyard as a teenager, despite woefully neglecting them.  So I settled on some arugula mix baby greens, and an alpine strawberry plant (I just got one, because they send out runners like mint does, so I figured I’d have a whole box by the end of the summer from one plant.)  For the herb box, there was plenty of peppermint coming up again (it’s a perennial, which will return year after year), and I added basil again, and thyme.

And then came challenge #3: The Pigeons.

I have never hated pigeons before this summer.  People call them flying rats that eat trash, but I couldn’t blame them for doing their ecological part in cleaning up the mess that humans make of this city.  People accuse them of carrying like 120 different diseases…but I was at a loss as to how that makes them more disgusting than humans.  And I’ve always found them pretty, especially here–we don’t just have the standard gray ones, but all shades, patterns and combinations of white, black, brown and violet–and even sometimes unnervingly intelligent.

And then they destroyed everything.

{To Be Continued……}

May 2, 2010

Long Live the Food Revolution

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 9:51 pm by chavisory

Like many, I’m sure, I’ve been enjoying Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution reality show the past several weeks, and was disappointed that it was such a short series.  At one point I remarked to my roommate that if the entire horrific, sordid history of reality television in America has led us to this point, it’s been worth it.  Much as I had qualms about one town being used as the embodiment of American ill-health, I thought it had real potential to get people interested, and angry, concerning food issues and especially how we feed children.

Of course I’m also aware that people and situations had to have been manipulated in the interest of making exciting television; it was still television, after all.  Jamie had a more than slight tendency towards mild hysteria and blowing situations out of proportion, notably his assertions that if the local hospital wasn’t impressed enough to donate $150,000 to his cause, or if Alice was negative with a visitor, or if DJ Rod wouldn’t come over to his side, then the Food Revolution would be OVER.

He was wrong, of course.  Not insofar that the support of elected officials, local popular figures or lunch ladies is important to changing our food culture, but that the kind of overblown, invented competitions that make for suspenseful reality television will be what accomplishes the food revolution.

A friend of my roommate’s–a kindergarten teacher–was visiting over her spring break and watched a couple episodes with us.  She e-mailed recently to say that when she went home and back to work, she asked her own kindergarten class to take the plain milk at lunch instead of the chocolate milk.  Not only did they do it, they said that they liked it better.

This will be how we actually accomplish the food revolution–incrementally and cumulatively, person to person, by parents parenting (and getting together to put pressure on their own school lunch programs) and teachers teaching, through confidence that we are capable of making small but meaningful changes to make our food culture better.

Jamie frequently asks his fans and readers to learn two of his recipes, and then teach them to two other people; if everyone did that, it wouldn’t be long before we all knew how to cook again.  Well, I already enjoyed cooking before the Food Revolution came along, having started making my own food, and baking, when I was about six, and most of the people I’m close to here already cook as well.  So in the spirit of spreading the revolution, dispelling the myth that good cooking must be difficult or expensive, here are a couple of my own recipes I love making and sharing.

Chicken and mushroom cream sauce
I threw this together from stuff I had in my kitchen one day.

6-7 cloves garlic
2-3 stalks fresh rosemary
8-10 oz. baby portobello mushrooms
4 chicken legs (with thigh and drumstick)
About 1 stick of butter
About 1 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Black pepper

Heat oven to 450°.  Melt about 2 Tbsp. butter and brush over chicken legs in a baking pan.  Put chicken in oven to brown.

Mince garlic, slice mushrooms, and snip up the rosemary or strip it off its stalks if they’re woody.  In a big skillet over low heat, melt the rest of the butter.  Add garlic and rosemary and simmer a few minutes (don’t let the garlic burn!) until they start to get fragrant.  Add the wine, return to a simmer.  Add mushrooms.  Continue simmering and stirring gently.  Add cream, and keep stirring and simmering until the sauce is thickened and very fragrant.  It may be a little brown from the mushrooms; that’s okay.

Check the chicken.  When it’s very nearly cooked all the way through, take it out of the oven, pour the sauce over it, and put it back for 10 minutes or so more, until it’s completely done.  Pepper to taste.  Serve with lightly steamed green beans or asparagus.

Italian Bread Salad
My mother taught me this.  It’s a stretch to even call it “cooking,” but it’s an easy, light but substantial meal, wonderful in the summertime.  It came about as a way to not let stale bread go to waste.  I made it all the time when I worked in a little Belgian café here and was always coming home with half-stale baguettes.

1 stale baguette or Italian bread.
Any combination of the following: sliced Roma tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, and olives
A little crumbled feta cheese
A couple tablespoons olive oil
A dash of balsamic vinegar
Black pepper

Cut the hard bread into chunks about 1″ square.  Place in large bowl or pot with all the veggies and cheese.  Add just enough olive oil to coat the bread mixture and a dash or two of balsamic vinegar.  Cover the pot and shake to mix well.  Leave covered in the refrigerator overnight.  The bread will become tender and chewy again from the oil and moisture from the vegetables.


I’m always on the search for simple, good recipes myself, so share yours, and support the Food Revolution, in the comments.

April 19, 2010

Food and Self-acceptance

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:37 pm by chavisory

Peggy Orenstein’s columns annoy me on a regular basis, and yet, to be honest with myself, I had to read this one twice just to be sure of why it annoyed me so, so much.

Orenstein is wondering how she can raise a daughter with a healthy relationship to food and her own body when she herself has so many weight and body issues, and whether it’s even possible to raise a daughter to love her body while still watching her weight.  “How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body,” she asks?

Well, you can’t.  At first I wanted to rail against the surface hypocrisy inherent in the question; no, you can’t always be bothering your daughter to stay thin, and still raise her to accept her body, thick or thin.

I appreciated that Orenstein wants to do whatever it takes to not pass on her own pathologies to her daughter, though I thought, it shouldn’t be that complicated: encourage eating for health, not for weight control.  Don’t keep junk food in the house.  Turn off the TV.  Make sure she knows how to cook.

But the truth is that I too worry about being able to raise children to be healthier, physically and emotionally, than I am in so many ways.  I wonder how not to obsess about not obsessing about something that you are in fact concerned about.  Because I so rarely really identify with or understand the worries or preoccupations of other women, I find myself expecting not to be able to sympathize with pieces like this.  I want to believe that things are simple, but I know the facts are that for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, they aren’t, especially when you become a parent.  So to be intellectually honest with myself, no, I don’t think her concerns about how to impart both healthy body acceptance and good health are unfounded.  Especially when what’s all around us in the media, in ways we don’t even fully grasp, is so profoundly damaging.

Upon second reading, what I realized caused my visceral reaction of irritation, was that she raises the issue of, but then doesn’t really challenge or criticize in any way, how parents use their children in competition against each other, and in defense of their own self-image and social status.

We are not only what we eat, we are what we feed our children. So here in Berkeley — where a preoccupation with locally grown, organic, sustainable agriculture is presumed — the mom who strolls the farmers’ markets can feel superior to the one who buys pesticide-free produce trucked in from Mexico, who can, in turn, lord it over the one who stoops to conventionally grown carrots (though the folks who grow their own trump us all).

If this is what it’s like to live in Berkeley (and I don’t necessarily take her word for it that it is), that’s a toxic environment for raising emotionally healthy children with a decent self-image, regardless of how organic and local the vegetables are, or how well she manages to suppress her own insecurities about food and weight.

She writes about a study which found that mothers are more likely to notice a daughter’s excess weight than a son’s, acknowledging the expectation of girls more than boys to project the right image:

For organic-eating, right-living parents whose girls are merely on the fleshy side of average, “health” may also mask a discomfort with how a less-than-perfect daughter reflects on them. “ ‘Good’ parents today are expected to have normal-weight kids,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project” and a professor of history and human development at Cornell University. “Having a fat girl is a failure.”

But does she feel this way?  She doesn’t seriously question the presumption that having a fat girl is a parental failure, and that the girl, by implication, is a failure.  I don’t think she’s saying that that’s true, but she legitimizes the prejudice by taking it for granted.  (And she’s engaging in some nasty assumptions herself about the motivations of the “organic-eating, right-living” parents in her community.)  She’s pretty clear; while she doesn’t want her daughter inheriting her own disordered thinking about food, she does want her daughter to stay thin.  Why?  Just for health reasons?

She seems to recognize the wrongness of it, yet still tacitly engages in it, if the first paragraph of the article is any indication.  Whether or not she actually sees having a fat daughter as a failure, she’s seeing life and child rearing in terms of competition over image and reputation, and I think that’s potentially just as damaging to a child’s self-acceptance as being saddled with a parent’s food issues is–the knowledge that you’re never valuable, sufficient, or truly loved, apart from the image of the family that you project.  That more than being healthy, content, and comfortable with yourself, you need to worry about what other people might think of you, or might think of us because of you.  And that’s what it means to a child to say, “be healthy, but watch your size.”  Having healthy kids isn’t a competition.  Living well isn’t a competition.  Orenstein doesn’t quite seem to understand that, and I’m not sure that it’s Berkeley’s fault.

March 29, 2010

Not a hipster on food stamps….

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 12:26 am by chavisory

I’m a little late on a response to this, from Salon.com last week.  I did participate a bit in the comments section there, but it riled me enough that I couldn’t really articulate a full response–my feelings about it have been fairly volatile.

Basically, Salon did an article entitled “Hipsters on Food Stamps,” with the tag line “They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies.  Got a problem with that?” and what could’ve been an insightful piece on a group that we don’t normally think of as using food stamps–the young, childless, highly educated intellectual/creative class–now finding themselves turning to them, or about the fact that it’s actually possible to eat decently on a limited budget, got turned into an article practically guaranteed not to shed enlightenment but to elicit reflexive outrage at entitled young “hipsters” using government handouts to buy luxury foods.

One of the subjects of the first article wrote a response about how he was portrayed in an unnecessarily frivolous manner, and some of the real issues he’s dealing with, which is more than worth reading.

My friend Steven wrote a very personal response today, so I figured I’d better get my act together, but what really elicits the following is a commonality of anger and indignation I’m hearing from both family members and friends–some of whom may be reading, and I hope they’ll comment–at people who use public assistance and the low-income: presumed beneficiaries of things like the health care bill, benefits that were part of the stimulus package, and a more progressive tax code this year.  “The government just makes it too easy for people to not do what they’re supposed to do,” my mother said.  A fairly common refrain from a friend with whom I debate often is “At what point are people ever going to be allowed to fail without the government to step in and save them?” I’ve heard more than once that I wouldn’t be so supportive of Obama, or progressive taxes generally, if I made more money, and a whole lot of consternation over the threat of policies which “take money away from people who work and give it to those who don’t.”

The first misapprehension to get out of the way is that we do in fact take a lot of money from people who work and just give it those who don’t.  We don’t.  You can’t be an able-bodied adult and just decide you don’t want to work, and live off of public assistance.  Almost every available program has some kind of work hours or placement requirement.

Secondly, there seems to be a perception that the poor have it easy, or that we’re poor only because we don’t work hard enough, or enjoy being able to take advantage of government money.  So let me share some personal experience:

I applied for food stamps once.  I was in my stage management internship, on a stipend of something like $216 per week after taxes, if memory serves.  I.e. $864/month.  I actually tried to survive on that for a few weeks, tightly rationing 3 meals a day, no snacks…and then I was just too hungry.  My stomach hurt all the time.  I couldn’t think.  I sold a toaster on Craigslist for $10 to do my laundry one week.  So I went to apply for food stamps.  It was a horrible, degrading experience which I do not wish to repeat.

I certainly wasn’t ashamed nor did I feel undeserving of them–I was after all working for very little–even my hyper-conservative, solidly anti-social safety net Republican father said “You’ve paid taxes; it’s just YOUR money.”  Still, I felt…strange, out of place, going to the food stamps office.  Like a well-educated, ambitious person like me shouldn’t need this, or someone who’s voluntarily gone to work in the arts has made their own bed and shouldn’t have the nerve to ask for help.

But if you weren’t ashamed to begin with, they’d make you ashamed. In the waiting room of the food stamps office we were treated like criminals.  Very stupid criminals.  Appointments were running 3 hours behind schedule and we literally were not allowed to ask any questions about why, or what was going on, or if we might reschedule.  The room was windowless and I had a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.  I finally saw a social services worker, who talked to me like I was a dimwitted child who’d done something bad.  I was crying by that point.

I got denied for not providing a FULL bank statement, which was just a level of intrusiveness that I couldn’t deal with, so I never even got to the stage where you have to be fingerprinted.  I didn’t bother to appeal; the initial experience had been tiring and depressing enough.

It’s not easy being poor; it’s hard, and it’s not only those who don’t want to work hard enough, or didn’t bother to get an education, or had children too young, who wind up poor.  Sometimes, it’s people like me.  Especially now.

I don’t consider myself a hipster; I’m nowhere near cool enough, to start with.  I still qualify for food stamps based on income, though I’m sure many people, including some friends, would think that I don’t deserve them: I’m single, childless, relatively healthy and knowingly entered a low-paying artistic profession.  And while usually I say that I’d have to be much more desperate than I am to repeat the first experience I had…sometimes lately I wonder if it would actually be the more responsible thing to do to go apply again.  I’d be able to look out for my health better.  I’d be able to save more money and pay down my remaining credit card balances faster (which I ran up mainly with groceries), and food stamps are a good deal for everyone: they return, last I heard, $1.71 to the economy for every government dollar spent.  So every person on food stamps is actually helping the economy and their neighborhood, especially if they spend them on locally grown food, more than they would by struggling nobly and unnecessarily.

My point, I suppose, and the unintended lesson of the pair of Salon articles, is that it’s easy to condemn with superficial information.  But reality on an individual basis is much more complicated.

March 2, 2010

Happy accident~sparkling cider!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 3:43 pm by chavisory

So I was making pork stew a few days ago and was about to steal/borrow half a cup of apple cider from my roommate to throw in.  (It gives it a nice slightly tangy sweetness that compliments the pork.)  But when I got out the half-empty jug of cider, it was all bloated…which usually means “don’t eat it.”  I opened it and sniffed, and it smelled slightly sour.  I didn’t want to just pour it down the sink, as it wasn’t mine to begin with, and if it had turned to vinegar, it might not’ve been totally useless, so I just put it back in the very back of the fridge.

Fast forward three nights; I’m sitting at my desk when I hear the following sounds emanating from the kitchen:

CIDER JUG:  {fizzy sounds}
ROOMMATE:  Agggghhhhh!  {sniff sniff}  Hey, Emily, I think we made some hard cider!  Come try this, it’s really good!

I took the proffered wine glass of amber, slightly cloudy liquid with apprehension and sniffed skeptically.  It smelled…a little off, but not bad.  I sipped.

And it was really good.  Slightly carbonated and fizzy, very tart, but still sweet, with just a little bit of an alcoholic kick.

“I don’t get it, it’s not even past date,” my roommate said.  I can only guess that wild yeasts and a faulty round of pasteurization are to blame.

So we’ve been drinking it for a couple days, and so far no ill effects.  Still, I don’t know that I’d recommend this mode of consumption on a regular basis.  It’s probably not a reliable outcome of just leaving stuff in the back of your fridge–we just got a lucky batch of wild yeast.  It’s mellowed out and gotten a little dryer since we first tasted it.

I came home from a long day of dance workshopping yesterday and poured myself a glass, with just a little Smirnoff dashed in for oomph, to relax over an episode of This American Life, and went to bed early.


February 24, 2010

Rice Pudding

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 1:07 am by chavisory

is my new favorite winter midnight/bedtime snack.

Half a cup to a cup leftover brown rice
Milk, just enough to make it soupy
Handful of raisins
Dash of cinnamon
Dash of cardamom
Pinch of raw sugar

Combine in small saucepan and heat and stir JUST until it bubbles.  Do not boil.  Eat.  Go to sleep feeling warm and content.  Especially on February nights when the weather outside was invented by Satan himself.

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