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Food wasted, never tasted

I want to share a commentary, a bit of “food for thought” if you will, I recently wrote after reading an article on Minnesota Public Radio regarding the massive amount of food waste in the United States.

The USDA did the math and figured out that all the food we trash in the US is equivalent to 141 trillion calories, or 1,249 calories per capita per day.

That’s interesting, but lets put this in even more perspective. I did a little more math using the recommended daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories for the average person. All that food we throw? It’s enough calories to feed approximately 193 million people, EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR.

The USDA also estimates that in 2012, 14.5% of households were “food insecure.” The USDA defines food-insecure as households that had “difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” If you figure that the average household is 2.6 people, that is approximately 116 million Americans who at some point (probably more than once) in the year did not know how they would get enough to eat.

So, here it is, plain and simple. We’ve got 116 million people who go hungry for lack of resources at some point in the year. We are trashing enough food to feed 193 million a day.  Now, you do the math.


March 4, 2014 at 10:21 pm 1 comment

Crooning over macaroons

This might be a culinary sin to admit, but I don’t really like chocolate chip cookies. I mean, sure, if offered one I’d likely eat it, but given options, I’d almost never pick one off a dessert tray, nor would I ever shell out my own money to buy one. For example, while many Minnesotans line up in droves to buy buckets of Sweet Martha’s Cookies at the State Fair every summer, I quickly skirt by on my way to the corn on the cob. For some reason, the chocolate chip cookie is just too sweet for me, sometimes sickeningly so. It’s not that I don’t like chocolate, I LOVE chocolate (at least the dark stuff), but over and over, I’ve found these cookies to simply be too much for my taste buds. That said, if the cookie were oatmeal chocolate chip, especially like the ones from Tank Goodness, or included raisins, I’d definitely be more inclined to give it a go. Not sure why the oatmeal and raisins change things (no, it has nothing to do with thinking it might be healthier, I’m not delusional), but it does.

All that to say that there is another cookie which I would eat every time, and then probably two or three, given the chance. And that, my friends, is the coconut macaroon.

Now, I realize I might sound a bit strange, not liking chocolate chip, but swooning over macaroons and all, but seriously, though I know they’re far from societies go-to cookie, I don’t think I’ve met one I didn’t like. The crunchy caramelized outer “crust” with the soft, chewy inside. Slightly sweet, yet rarely does the sweetness dominate. The unique, slightly buttery flavor of the coconut. It all comes together in one perfect treat.

Given my love of macaroons, I’ve been itching to try making a batch for some time. I had some coconut from another recipe and figured it would be a good way to use it up, so I began the recipe search. I quickly found that, while the ingredients are relatively universal, their proportions and methods for mixing are not. One recipe called for whisking the egg whites and sugar in a bowl placed over a pot of boiling water, mixing in the other ingredients and then letting it chill for two hours – I decided that one was better left for another time when I had all afternoon. Some recipes called for coconut flakes, while others recommend shredded – I actually had grated, which is quite different, but I decided to try it anyway. All have a sweetener, but are about split down the middle as to whether that is sugar or sweetened condensed milk. Some are dipped in chocolate or drizzled in caramel, while others mix in nuts or dried fruit. There seem to be endless possibilities. In the end, I found a recipe that created a smaller batch of plain macaroons, which I figured was a good place to start as my first try.

MY NOTES: With the ingredient proportions from that recipe, I used a few of the techniques I’d seen on others, including whisking the Macaroonsegg whites and sugar together (but not over the boiling water) until they were a bit fluffy, as well as folding in the coconut last. I ended up baking mine about 16 minutes at 325º F.  What came out of the oven looked a lot like many macaroons I’ve eaten, though the texture was definitely different given the grated coconut. The outside crust was nice and crunchy, though the overall cookie a bit drier than I hoped. Also, it was slightly less sweet than I expected. Upon inspection of the coconut package, I realized that the kind I had was unsweetened and also lower fat – why on Earth I had this stuff, I don’t know – two things I have since read you should not use for macaroons. The lack of fat likely explains the dryness as well. I did drizzle one with a bit of local honey and that added a hint of sweetness, as well as moisture, bringing it closer to the cookie I love.

Overall, I like how simple of a cookie macaroons are to make and am satisfied I’ve finally ventured into baking them. Next time though, I’ll get myself some fresh, sweetened and full fat coconut shreds.

March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm Leave a comment

Ready, set, roll! Lefse time!

With one month until Thanksgiving and two until Christmas, my brain has started thinking about holiday cooking. Ok, lets be honest, it is always thinking about cooking and baking, but now I think of seasonal things I only plan to make in the coming months. One of my favorites is krumkake, a cone shaped cookie my mom taught me to make and about which I have written before. Another favorite is lefse, a type of Norwegian flatbread. Last Christmas, my husband and I made lefse with his family, and between the six of us we rolled out 200 rounds! (My husband chided me for not writing a blog about lefse after this feat, so all I can say is, better late than never.)

This past weekend I had a chance to take a lefse making class at Ingebretsen’s in Minneapolis. As I mentioned, this is a food I’m familiar with, so I wasn’t going as a beginner, but I know when it comes to cooking and baking it never hurts to learn from others. You might pick up a trick or learn a technique you never knew before, like this video I recently watched on how to efficiently chop onions. Maybe you all know this method, but I sure never learned it. Why on earth did no one in my junior high Home Ec class teach me this?!

Anyway, before I tell you about the class, I want to make sure you know about Ingebretsen’s.

If you’re not Scandinavian or from Minnesota, this shop’s name may not be familiar to you, but if you are, you know the treasures it holds. First opened as the Model Meat Market in 1921, Ingebretsen’s is a wonderful place full of all things Nordic. Whether you’re looking for a wooden Dala Horse, a troll ornament for your Christmas tree, a cookbook on how to make Danish open-faced sandwiches or a the proper slicer for your gjetost (brown goat cheese), they’ve got it all. If you’re the crafty type, head over to the Needlework side of the store where you’ll find no shortage of threads, patterns and other supplies. And of course, the meat market is still there, full to the brim with fish, cheeses and their secret Swedish meatball mix. In 2011, they celebrated their 90th anniversary with a number of events and the release of their book Ingebretsen’s Saga – A Family, A Store, A Legacy in Food. The book features a history of the Ingebretsen family, the store and Scandinavians in Minnesota, plus over 60 recipes for traditional Scandinavian foods, as well as modern twists on old favorites. I loved the picture of the Tomte Sandwiches, cute little appetizers that look like the Swedish beings known as tomte (in Norway they’re called nisse), and think the Nordic Salmon Chowder sounds divine and perfect for a cold winter evening. 

Ingebretsen’s doesn’t only feature items for purchase, but also a number of events and classes, so you can learn the traditions of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Whether you have ancestors from the Nordic region or just an interest in Scandinavian culture, Ingebretsen’s has a wide variety of craft, needlework, culture and cooking classes. Some of those cooking classes include kransekake (a cake made out of stacked rings of almond flavored dough, frequently seen at Norwegian and Danish weddings), krumkake (I actually teach the class!) and of course, lefse.

Which brings me back to the class I took last weekend. The class was taught by Cheryl Netka, who usually teaches the class with her friend Pamela Strauss (who wasn’t able to be there that day). As a side note, Cheryl’s mother also teaches the kransekake class at Ingebretsen’s. You can watch a fun preview of their classes here:

Cheryl shared with us several tidbits about the history of lefse, a variety of recipes and helpful hints to remember when making your own. One interesting things I didn’t know is that lefse wasn’t always made with potatoes. The potato didn’t come to Norway until the 1700’s, so before that it was just flour. It stored very well and was more like a cracker, which kept well during winter months or on ships. When the potato arrived, the Norwegians began mixing it in the dough and it became more of a delicacy, as we know it today. A practical tip that a seasoned lefse roller likely knows, but was a good reminder for me, is to always roll from the center of the dough out. This gives you nice roundish pieces that are more easily transferred to the lefse griddle.

If you’ve never made lefse or want a refresher, I would definitely recommend checking out the class at Ingebretsen’s. It’s a hands on experience, so don’t forget your apron! And if you would like to invest in your own griddle or need a rolling pin, lefse stick or board, they’ve got that too!

October 25, 2012 at 11:54 pm 1 comment

Ode to compost

I am pretty lucky to be employed at a place that works hard to practice what we preach. This includes a number of things like encouraging biking and busing to work, recycling, supporting a good work-life balance and providing space for a staff garden. As part of our effort to reduce our waste and to produce free compost for the garden, we also collect our food scraps during the warm months (though if I have my way, this will become year round in the near future). One of the challenges with composting is, like recycling, not everyone knows what’s in or out. We’ve struggled with getting folks to remember that yes, you can in fact compost the coffee, filter and all, but no, please do not put in your rotten cheese. And please, PLEASE do not put in fruit or veggie peels with those awful stickers (they are in fact plastic and DO NOT compost)!!

So, last summer I wrote a poem. I was on my bike, riding to work, when I thought that maybe something lyrical or poetic would help, so I started racking my brain for clever bits and phrases which might resonate with those standing confused over the food waste container in the kitchen. I created what I thought was a pretty good poem, which I shared with friends and family, but never had quite enough time to get laminated and posted at work. This year, with spring arriving early, I was determined to get this done before we started the garden. After a bit of revising (I really wanted to include something about those darn stickers), the following is my tribute to compost. I hope you enjoy it.


Ode to Compost
Written by Emily

The compost bin here doth stand,
Collecting our food scraps for the land.

In go your peels and apple cores,
Coffee grounds and so much more!

Thumbs up to tea bags and eggshells;
Bits of bread are okay as well.

Things not welcome are sticks and stones,
Meat and cheese and chicken bones.

Worst of all are those plastic fruit stickers –
Please don’t make our gardeners garbage pickers!

This may seem tricky at the start,
Just keep on trying, don’t lose heart!

If you’ve got a question, please do ask,
Making dirt from food waste is our task!

For help in this effort, we thank you now,
We’ll think of you next year when we plow. 


You are welcome to use this poem in your own home, office, garden, etc., I only ask that you please give proper authorship attribution, and please do not alter the text.

I would also like to add a few non-food items you are easily able to compost. These include leaves, grass clippings (though these really are better left on your lawn), egg cartons, black and white newspaper, the cardboard tube inside toilet paper or paper towel rolls and paper plates, napkins and cups which do not have large amounts of grease on them. In reality, it is possible to compost meat, cheese, grease, etc., (collectively known as FOG in the compost world, short for “fats, oil and grease), as well as bones, however many municipalities do not allow these items, as they can attract unwanted critters in ways that veggies don’t and have higher potential for being disease or pathogen vectors. Other things to keep out of your backyard bin are compostable plastics (sadly, these will not breakdown in a non-commercial/industrial setting) and pet droppings.

As always, check with your city about the rules for bins and see if they have a discount program for purchasing one. There are also easy ways to build one yourself out of wood and/or wirewhich is also a great opportunity for using salvaged wood from other projects.

Happy composting!

March 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm Leave a comment


Alright folks, I need to take a moment to get up on my soapbox, the one with the podium. It’s not about politics or religion. It’s not healthcare, education or immigration. But it is definitely about a part of the American way of life which we cannot continue to ignore. It’s about a habit we’ve grown into as a society that our great-grandparents would have cringed at. It’s not prolific tattoos or baggy jeans. It’s not fast driving or talking on cell phones during dinner.

No, it’s wasting food.

During the two World Wars, wasting food in the United States was high on the list of social sins. In fact, one could say that wasting food was close to treason. Ok, that may be my own historical embellishment, but it is not far off when you consider that the American people were asked to abide by rations on sugar, wheat and meat in order to “save it for the troops,” and to not waste a morsel of what they did take home. Our grandmothers cooked, canned and cured every edible scrap they could get their hands on.

Somehow, over the last six decades, however, we seem to have forgotten that NOT wasting food used to be an act of patriotism in this country, and we now seem to carry an air of entitlement to waste. Whether it is kids in a school cafeteria, professionals in the corporate work place, a family out to dine at a restaurant or you and me at our own kitchen tables, Americans throw away 40% of the food we produce. FORTY percent. For a nation that generally claims we need to increase agricultural yields in order to grow enough to feed the world, we might do better to take an inward look at our wasteful gluttony first. The insanity of it really is mind blowing if you think about it for more than thirty seconds.

Given my wholesale criticism of all of us here, I will sadly acknowledge the three fingers pointing back at me. A few weeks ago, after a crazy month of meetings, dining out and otherwise ignoring our kitchen, I went through our fridge and threw away an embarrassing amount of food. This is not the norm for me these days – I have worked hard to shop for what we need and not in excess. Unfortunately, as a colleague sometimes jokes, that week I had “really expensive compost.” Fortunately, I am able to compost most of our food waste, but it still does not sit any better with my sense of responsibility. A responsibility for caring for the land (that produces our food), the people (who tend and harvest it) and the resources of this planet (extracted to process, package and truck it all)

In May 2011, I participated in an EPA webinar on food waste.  It was definitely not the first time I’d thought about food waste, but author Jonathan Bloom had some excellent commentary, which he shares with folks on the blog Wasted Food and in his book American Wasteland. On the same webinar I learned about an awesome marketing campaign against waste in the UK. Called Love Food Hate Waste, this creative effort uses humorous imagery and blunt facts to remind food lovers that we’ve got to cut our wasteful ways.

Not wanting to be a complete Debbie Downer on this, here are some ideas for reducing food waste – recycled, revamp and regurgitated – from others to me to you:

  • Reconsider bulk. I’m not talking about the bulk bins at your local co-op. I’m talking about the Costco kind of bulk. The kind where you buy a (sometimes ridiculously) large quantity of food – amount uncontrollable by the purchaser – because it seems like a good deal, then end up throwing half of it away because you are unable to consume it all in time. Consider instead finding a smaller volume of those perishables from a more sustainable source. Then pay the producer (probably the same as you would at the Big Box) so they can make a living. And finally, waste none.
  • Shop more frequently, buy less. This is a super hard concept for Americans in particular I think, but it fits in with the first suggestion. We like the shopping carts large enough to haul an SUV worth of groceries, but what we end up taking home largely becomes trash. Doesn’t that seem silly? We pay money for food so we can pay more money to have it hauled away on Tuesdays? Consider buying your fruits, veggies, dairy, meat and other perishables on a more frequent basis and then use them up before heading out again.
  • Remember what’s in your fridge. Alright, this one is a “personal experience” idea. My husband and I were members of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm for several summers and would often get way more food than we could deal with in a week. In addition to not knowing what to do with all of it before the next box came, I also struggled with remembering what the heck was in the drawers and on the shelves in my fridge. Enter magnetic white board. Left over from my days in the college dorm, this went up on the fridge door and I now track everything in the fridge (at least in the summer when we have lots of fresh produce from the garden and farmers markets). I kid you not, if you keep it updated, it will help with reducing waste, as well as meal planning. Not to mention that it will help reduce the energy wasted every time you stand there with the door wide open deciding what to eat.
  • Leftovers – eat ’em or freeze. If you and your family cannot eat leftovers within a few days (or get “leftover fatigue” after a few meals), consider freezing a portion. For example, I love to make soup in the summer when the ingredients are fresh from my garden, but my husband doesn’t like hot soups in the heat. So, I make the soups, put a few portions in the fridge for me and freeze the rest for fall and winter. We use produce in season, reduce waste and have homemade frozen dinners ready in the cold months. Triple win.

So, those are some of my tips for keeping us moving down the path of less food waste. What are your ideas? How will you use 2012 as the year to be a better steward of your food?

January 9, 2012 at 8:30 pm 6 comments

On being Norsk: Krumkake

Ya, sure, ya betcha! Uff da! Ha det! Mange takk!

You guessed it: Jeg er Norsk. Twenty five percent anyway. My great grandparents (my mother’s father’s parents) came to America from a place called Bømlo, a small island south of Bergen off the western coast of Norway. All my life I have learned about being Norwegian. The art, national costume (for women, called a bunad), some of the language and of course, cooking and baking.

Christmas is one of the main times of the year when many traditional Norsk baked goods are made. The cookie my mother always did when I was growing up is called krumkake (pronounced kroom-kaka), literally meaning “crumb cake” (though Wikipedia says it means “bent or curved cake.”) They are incredibly delicate, like a very thin ice cream cone, and are wonderful filled with whip cream.

Last night I made krumkake, an annual ritual I have done each Christmas since I have been married (since I no longer live near my parents and my mom bought me my own iron). The recipe I use comes from the booklet that came with my Bethany Housewares iron (though I usually add a little milk), and each batch makes about six dozen cookies. As I’ve written in the past, I usually make 14-18 dozen before the holidays, and last night I made 17 dozen. While the ingredients are cheap and the cookies easy to make once you get the hang of it, krumkake is most definitely a labor of love. My iron makes two cookies at a time and takes about 35 seconds to bake. Then you roll them on a cone (before they harden). Before making the next cookies you must make sure the iron is hot again. Making a dozen krumkake probably takes about the same time as a dozen of any other cookie, except you can’t walk a way and let your oven do the work!

While making the cookies last night, I remembered something I did one of the first times I made krumkake by myself using my mom’s recipe. As any good Scandinavian cookie recipe should, it called for a stick of butter (which is unfortunate right now, given the shortage of butter in Norway). I mixed everything in my food processor, but couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t very smooth like when my mom made it. I started making the cookies and they really weren’t turning out well – they had a lot of unevenness in baking and holes I’d never seen in krumkake before. I called my mom and only then did we figure out what I’d done wrong – you have to MELT the butter first!!

I was able to salvage part of that batch, I think I may have tried to take out some of the larger chunks of butter and melt them, but it was weird because of the eggs. These days though, I am always sure to remember this very important detail. Ah the joys of learning to cook sans mama!

December 11, 2011 at 9:17 pm 4 comments

Let me plant a seed for you

As I’ve discussed in the past, I love the bounty local foods, like beets and potatoesavailable in the fall, and my enthusiasm for winter squash is no exception. Butternut squash soups, baked acorn squash with maple syrup, pumpkin pie and the list goes on.

One part of squash that many people overlook, however, is the seed. Most of us are used to toasting pumpkin seeds when we carve jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, but many people aren’t aware that you can eat the seeds of other winter squash as well. While the volume of seeds you get from other squash is smaller than a pumpkin, I would argue that they are a tastier snack. The hulls are thinner, so the seeds get crispier and require a shorter baking time. Nutritionally, they are low in sodium and every source I’ve read states they are full of zinc and magnesium. Also, if you leave the shells on (which I definitely recommend, it is way too much work to remove them), they are a good source of fiber.

Preparation for baking any seed is simple. After scooping them from the squash, rinse them well to remove any strings or bits of squash that may remain. It is good to let the seeds dry out a bit, as it will help shorten the baking time. Some recipes suggest patting them dry with a paper towel, but I usually leave them in a colander for several hours to let them air dry. You can even leave them in the fridge overnight.

Preheat the oven to 250-300º Farenheit. I recommend a lower temperature for smaller seeds, a higher temp for larger seeds like pumpkin. After they are mostly dry to the touch, lightly coat them with olive oil. You can use other oils if you like, but I usually use olive oil, which is safe at this low of a temperature. Select some of your favorite herbs and spices for flavoring. You can do sweet or savory, though I personally find the savory ones more appealing. A very simple option is garlic powder or garlic salt. Pre-made mixes also work well. It all depends on the flavors you like. I encourage you to test out different options until you find something you like. Because the batches are small, if you don’t like one batch, you don’t end up with a bunch of seeds you’re not interested in eating.

The baking time will vary depending on the type of seeds, but the small ones usually only take 15-20 minutes. Pumpkin seeds will take longer, sometimes up to 40 minutes. You may hear the seeds begin to pop, which usually means they are done. “Doneness” is also a matter of preference, we prefer a nice crispy seed versus a chewy one. You can store the seeds in any container at room temp, but if it is like my house, they won’t last more than a few hours!

So, the next time you make winter squash, don’t forget to keep the seeds for an easy and healthy snack. Happy toasting!

November 21, 2011 at 12:10 am 1 comment

My “Midwest Food Fest Quest”

Alright, I’m a sucker for rhyming, but can you really blame me when it has to do with food festivals?

A few summers ago, I started to notice a number of food related food festivals in Minnesota. I am someone who, obviously, loves food, and I also have an affinity for random gatherings of strangers around shared interests. Even if you only directly interact with the food in your mouth, I think the feeling of interconnectedness I get at these events is quite fantastic.

Now, as I share with you the festivals I’ve found, you must promise to get out your calendar, pull up a search engine and find a food festival you will go to in the next year. Seriously, you’ll have a blast.

For me, my first food related fest was the Cannon Falls Wine and Art Festival. Not being one to turn down the chance to sample wine of any kind, I loaded my husband in the car and drove the hour or so down to Cannon Falls from the Twin Cities. The festival features Minnesota vineyards and wineries (yes, grapes do grow in places other than France and California), some of them which have been around for many years and others which have just arrived on the scene of viticulture. Some of them make traditional grape wines, while others venture into the world of berries and other fruits. Some are really good and others…well, let’s just say they need some aging. Either way, for only $20 you get quite a sampling of what Minnesota has to offer, which may not meet high expectations of a wine connoisseur, but does give you an idea of the creativity oenologists must have in northern climes. For more info on that topic, check out what the University of Minnesota has been doing in grape breeding for just over 30 years.

My next festival may, in fact, be my favorite, largely because who doesn’t love GARLIC? The Minnesota Garlic Festival is held annually every August in Hutchinson, Minnesota. For only $5, you can watch cooking demos featuring the area’s finest chefs, dine at The Great Scape Cafe, sample dozens of kinds of garlic from as many vendors and purchase a supply of garlic that will last you until at least the following March. Leave the breath mints in the car and bring your appetite for fun because this one will leave you longing for more.

The last festival I went to that first year was the Warrens Cranberry Festival, which requires a jaunt over the river to Wisconsin for any Minnesota folks. Though not my favorite food festival,  it is an intriguing one to hit up. There are many cranberry foods to try (cranberry cream puffs anyone?) and activities (you must go on a bog tour, if for no other reason than to meet a cranberry farmer!), but be forewarned that this one is also SUPER busy and has a ton of vendors completely unrelated to cranberries, kind of like a giant flea market of sorts. But again, most festivals are worth checking out once, so if you’re in the area in September, consider a stop.

This summer I added a new festival to the list and it features one of my all time favorite summer foods, the ever-versatile rhubarb.

Rhubarb Fest tasting menu

The Annual Rhubarb Festival is well worth the drive to the lovely town of Lanesboro, Minnesota. Also know as the Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota, Lanesboro is located on the scenic Root River, which makes for a great backdrop for a tasty festival. When you go to the Rhubarb Fest, be ready to wait in line to taste test all the rhubarb recipes cooked up for that year – to give you an idea, they included everything from the classic Rhubarb Crisp to the more adventuresome Rhubarb Grillin Salsa. Also, don’t forget the entertainment – the Rhubarb Sisters  and rhubarb games. Definitely a fun event for the whole family. And lest I forget, be sure to take a walk down the street to check out Das Wurst Haus. Even if you’re like me and don’t eat brats, the homemade rootbeer and the possibility of an impromtu accordion performance by owner Arv Fabian are well worth it.

So, I realize this may seem like a random time of year to be thinking about summer food festivals, but I felt compelled to write this post today because I just came across the next festival on MY list – the Minnesota Cheese Festival. Though their event page may still be under construction, I’ve already budgeted for the $30 ticket and marked my calendar for next June 2nd.

Have you?

November 2, 2011 at 11:00 pm 3 comments

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets: The odyssey of an heirloom

Last weekend I made a big pot of Borscht, as I do at least once every year. I use the recipe from the original Moosewood cookbook, and it’s pretty much my favorite soup ever. They should call it “Root Veggie (plus Cabbage) Delight.”

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets

But my love of Borscht is not why I’m writing this post. This post came to fruition because I used a few new ingredients in the Borscht this year. Nothing wild and crazy, just blue potatoes and candy cane beets. That’s right. BLUE potatoes and CANDY CANE beets. I promise you, I am not making these up.

You see, in our current agricultural system we grow very few of the crops once available and cultivated by humans around the planet. I recently finished reading an article in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic called “Food Ark,” which discussed a number of issues around seed varieties which have been lost and many which have been saved through the hard work of concerned individuals across the globe. Even still, the number of beets varieties commercially available has gone from 288 to 17 in the last one hundred years. Lettuce has gone from 497 varieties to just three dozen in the same period of time. And the case of dwindling options goes on – this chart gives a stark visual of the seed situation.

Many of these types of crops, as well as livestock, which are not seen in large scale farming, are referred to as “heirlooms.” Most were developed by local communities to suit the growing conditions of the area, and were subsequently saved by generation after generation. Because these seeds belong to families and communities, they are hard to patent, thus a very important aspect of heirlooms. Food sovereignty. Most of the world’s seeds are “owned” by a select few companies – something I personally think should be illegal – and these heirloom varieties are an important part of maintaining all people’s right to food.

Some people will try to tell you that heirlooms are “genetically inferior” and “only alive for nostalgia’s sake,” but it simply isn’t true. Sure, not all heirlooms can be grown everywhere, to a certain extent that defeats part of the purpose of heirlooms, but many of them have traits (pest and disease resistance, as well as drought or flood tolerance) which make them much stronger in certain regions than the commercial, monocrop varieties most of us buy at the grocery store. In addition, the taste of many heirlooms is absolutely superb. Heirlooms generally don’t do well over long distance travel, there has been no reason to breed that trait into them, as there has been with most large-scale varieties. But many commercial varieties have gained “shipability” and shelf life at the cost of flavor, something that those of us who appreciate good tasting food, in addition to high quality food, appreciate.

This summer, I was involved with three gardens. Our staff garden at work, the community garden at Cottageville Park and a shared garden with a friend, each of which contained several heirlooms. We tried the Cylindra Beet and Envy Soya Beans (edamame) from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. A friend donated squash, okra and lettuce varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The plethora of tomato seedlings we planted in the three gardens this year were almost all heirlooms; some of my favorites have names like Stump of the World, Pruden’s Purple, Orange Strawberry, Black Cherry, KBX and Paul Robeson (many of which came from my friend at Norsejenta’s Seedlings). Our peppers came in a fantastic array of shapes, sizes and colors; highlights include Bulgarian Carrot and Cayenne, both scorchingly hot, and Lipstick and Gypsy, two sweet treats I’ll be repeating in the future.

All in all, I think this was one of the most diverse and colorful gardens I’ve ever been proud to grow. There are many options for buying both seeds and seedlings. So next spring, as you begin to plan your garden, consider heirlooms, you may just find your new favorites.

September 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm 3 comments

What eggs you, my dear?

Aside from cheese, eggs are the reason I couldn’t be a vegan (at least not by choice). They are just so tasty and make lots of things amazing.

That said, there are a lot of things in the egg world that aren’t so lovely. And I’m not talking about salmonella. No, I’m talking about “sweat shop eggs,” as my husband calls them. You know, the ones that are perfectly white and uniform which come from chickens in tiny cages (the EU and UK call them “battery cages“). The ones produced by hens with clipped beaks and few feathers.

I know, not exactly what you’re hoping to think of as you sit down to a breakfast of eggs and toast, but I think this is an issue that eaters need to take seriously.

In an effort to not dwell on the horror stories you can get on any animal rights webpage, I’d like to tell you about where I get my eggs and why. My egg man’s name is Tim. He works in the city, but raises some beautiful hens who lay the most egg-cellent eggs you could imagine (sorry, couldn’t resist). Tim raises his chickens without hormones or antibiotics, though they are not certified organic. They dine on bugs. They scratch in the dirt. Their eggs range from small to HUGE! One hen Tim referred to once as “Big Red” lays the most gigantic eggs I’ve ever seen from a chicken. Occasionally, I get a double yolk. Once I even got one with NO yolk! (Yes, it’s real, and humorously referred to as a “fart” egg. Look it up for more info.) The last dozen I got, the yolks were so orange, my husband asked if I’d added some sort of spice to the scrambled eggs to make them so dark. Most weeks the shells are a mix of white and various shades of brown, and when the Araucanas are laying, they’re even green! Oh, and did I mention he delivers the eggs to me and my co-workers at our office? All this for only $2.50 a dozen. Best local food deal I ever found.

Some weeks I miss the egg order and have to get a dozen at the store. The tricky thing at the grocery store is the labels. I’m sure you’ve noticed what I’m talking about. Organic, natural, cage-free, free-roaming, hormone free, no antibiotics, cruelty free and the list goes on. Many of these terms are almost completely unregulated. The worst in my book – natural. Arsenic and lead are “natural” my friends and you would not want them in your breakfast burrito. Even the most regulated of the terms, like “organic” is not always straightforward. As the fine folks at the Cornucopia Institute have found, not all organic brands are created equal. Some “organic” eggs are questionable in how much of the spirit of organic they actually follow. Is an antibiotic free egg really what you want if the chicken was still debeaked and raised in a barn with 10,000 other hens? A very helpful resource I would encourage you to check out is the Organic Egg Scorecard. The unfortunate thing you’ll find is that organic eggs sold as store brands are often some of the worst offenders (the same is also very true for dairy).

Ultimately, I know it is not possible for everyone to know a Tim, but for me, eggs are not something to be taken lightly. I want to know more than a label can tell me. I want to know what “cage free” really means. I want to hear about “Big Red” and how things are going for the person who raises her. I want to build that relationship of trust, because that is what really makes food safe.

September 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm 3 comments

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