DSC_5132

Montana Moose

The National Bison Association was kind enough to invite me to Montana for the International Bison Association Conference that happens only once every five years. I have learned a whole lot about bison and the people who are raising it for the American meat market, and I’ll be writing about that for Gourmet News. But for myself, I took some time in a break between sessions to take a little hike up the Moose Tracks Trail behind the Big Sky Resort, which was the venue for the conference. Along the way, i learned how the trail got its name. I’d never, ever seen a moose before, so this was spectacular, especially since she seemed happy just to pose for long enough to let me get several pictures. I was just moving along the trail again when she decided to move along also, and it was at that moment that a calf popped up from where it had been lying behind a bush to follow its mother!DSC_5155

 

It caught up to its mother, walked in under her belly, and started butting her udder. She put up with the calf’s increasingly frustrated attempts to get some milk and then decided that enough was enough and wandered along on her way, her calf following behind. DSC_5176

Waking up in My Own Bed

I woke up just at first light, lay awake for a little while beginning to turn the idea for this essay over in my head and then drifted back to sleep again. The mattress on my bed here at home is well past its “use by” date, and it’s begun to develop a few little lumps here and there, but the springs are still tight. It’s not uncomfortable by almost any reasonable measure, but that’s the best you can say for it if you’re being objective, which, of course, anyone engaged in such intimacy as sleeping with it never is. But after a few days of being away, anywhere away, it’s wonderful to come home to, luxurious and welcoming.

Waking up at Grand Canyon over the last few days was surreal. With my foam pad under me, I was deliciously comfortable, and I awakened each morning to rapturous birdsong, the robins chirruping overhead in the Ponderosa pines, the woodpeckers knocking away as they hammered for bugs, ravens calling to each other as they spied over the campground below them, collaborating or contesting over which of them would be robbing any food left out in the open or scattering any aluminum foil crumpled into a fire ring. The exuberance of morning in the national park was delightful, and of course, part of that delight was simply that it wasn’t home.

But after that few days away, it’s so good to come home and be greeted by the chirps of my house finches, the whit-wheat of the curve-billed thrashers, the chatter of the cactus wrens and the distant cooing of mourning doves. It’s cloudy here and looks like we might get some monsoon rains today, which would be a blessing if it helps to break the heat. It was 111 degrees yesterday when I arrived home, and so the camping equipment that can stand the heat is still mostly packed in the car for me to unload before it gets too hot today.

I still have most of the other unpacking and reorganizing chores to do, so I’m glad that I left myself a day at home in which to do them. The plan for the day is to get that done in the morning, the tent unpacked and repacked properly, since at the campsite I stowed it away in its bag and then turned around and saw its fly still draped across a lawn chair like Mae West on a Victorian parlor sofa; the camp kitchen to be stowed inn its proper place in my garden shed after I have extracted the cast iron pans that I also use at home; places to find for the two new tarps I acquired at Grand Canyon after someone else had discarded them next to the trash container.

Then I’ll ease myself back into my real life – the one in which I’m not a casual camper who doesn’t really like going to bed smelling of smoke – I understand the allure of the campfire for others, but I’ll always bless whoever thought up both the charcoal briquet and the fuel-burning stove as better alternatives for actual cooking. By easing myself back into my real life, what I really mean is easing myself back into my working life. I am going off to Montana in a couple of weeks for a conference on bison, a topic about which I know next to nothing, and I need to study up. We’ll be talking about bioregenerative agriculture, and what I know about that so far is merely that it’s supposed to be good for the land if the soil is turfed up by the hooves of nomadic herds of large ungulates, and that modern bison ranching involves intensive management to simulate what those animals would have done in the prehistoric wild. I know that it’s being thought that, if it’s managed this way, the prairies sequester carbon, which is a help in the fight against climate change. But that’s all I know, and it’s not enough.

The chance to take a day and do some research is why I left the Grand Canyon and the relative coolness of northern Arizona a day earlier than I really had to. My plan now is simply to find the research materials I need on the Internet, print them out, and take them with me when I leave for New York on Friday so that I can read it all on the plane on the way there.

Thus I manage my life as an urban dweller who’s interested in rural life, the agriculture that provides the food resources that make the cities I love and my life in them possible. I am a spiritual descendant of Thomas Jefferson in that way, although I hope without the moral deficit that allowed him simply to overlook the gross inhumanity of slavery and all that implied. I’m referring simply to his deep interest in agriculture and the natural world folded into a life of urban sophistication. Mercifully, the moral ambiguities there are not a problem that I have to deal with today. Today is for tidying away the camping gear and using the Internet to learn about bison.

Where We Are Now

I was in New York recently, and the cab driver noticed me looking around and
asked if there was something bothering me. I could kind of tell what he was
thinking — he had a beard and a turban, and there was quiet chanting in
Arabic coming out of a speaker somewhere. I told him that I was looking at
the snow — that where I live, we don’t see snow very often, so this
was interesting to me. Which was true — it was beautiful.

Anyway, when we got to the hotel, and I was paying, I asked, “Is it
prayers?”

And he said it was. So I said, “Good idea, with all this traffic.”

And he said, “Good idea anyway.”

And I agreed: “These are terrible days.” And he agreed with that.

I am so sad that we are being pitted against each other the way we are these
days, so I am doing what I can to remind us — although I am preaching to
the choir by writing to foodies — that diversity is delicious.

Lots to Learn About Cheese

Over the past several months, I’ve been taking a deep dive into cheese, with the result that I know feel that I know less than I ever did. I have, however, had a great deal of fun becoming so ignorant.

Click the cover image below to see what I’ve learned along the way.

Incubating Greatness in Shared Kitchen Spaces

I stumbled across the phenomenon that I documented in a Gourmet News story called “Incubating Greatness in Shared Kitchen Spaces,” and it turned out to be a very fulfilling adventure. It started when I called some folks who’d become finalists for sofi Awards, the Specialty Food Association’s award for product innovation, and Kendra Coggin, the maker of Pernicious Pickling Company’s Pickled Carrots: Ginger & Spice, told me that she was making her pickled products in an incubator kitchen in Costa Mesa, California. Then I talked to Laurie Pauker of Laurie & Sons, who went on to win a sofi Award for her  Dangerously Delicious Black Licorice Chocolate Toffee, and she told me that she also was working in an incubator kitchen. And then, at the Summer Fancy Food Show this year, I met the folks from Pipsnacks, whose Kettle Pipcorn won a sofi Award in the sweet snack category, and was told that their company had started in an incubator kitchen, moved into a second incubator as it grew, and was just about to move into its own space. By then it was more than clear that something very interesting is going on.

These kitchen incubators are structured to fill the gap between a cottage industry food producer and a business that’s ready to expand into regional sales — a gap that’s caused by the capital requirements of setting up in business to sell food to strangers. As you can read in the article, some of them are publicly funded, some are privately-owned, and they offer a range of facilities and services from simple rentals of processing kitchen space to one-stop-shops offering an array of educational and consulting services along with physical space.

Import/Export Imbalance for Organic Food Signals a Problem

While sales of organic foods are booming in this country, the number of acres actually devoted to producing that food is going down. What’s happening is that the American demand for organic food is driving us to import more, and we haven’t made it worthwhile for enough American farmers to turn to organic production. On the other hand, American farmers are exporting organic apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries — just not enough to balance out all of the organic food we’re now importing. You can read more about this in an article I wrote for Gourmet News that you can find here.

This is very serious, and although it applies only to organic agricultural production, it’s an important symptom of what’s really happening to our American food system. In the United States, we’re used to thinking of ourselves as the nation that feeds the world, but we’re rapidly losing farms and farmers along with the wealth of agricultural knowledge that’s inside their heads. The average age of the American farmer is climbing towards 60, and as these farmers age out of farming, many of them have no succession plans for their land and operations. If this doesn’t change, it’s going to threaten our food supply and it’s going to result in the abandonment of this land or its redevelopment for other uses that will rob us of the important wildlife habitat that our farms provide as well as the other benefits that come from healthy land.

Olive Oil Fraud

It appears that if you’re buying the cheapest olive oil you can get at your discount supermarket, you’re probably not getting extra virgin olive oil, regardless of what it says on the label. The olive oil experts say that it’s just not possible these days to make a quality extra virgin olive oil that’ll sell for $6 or $7 for a liter. What’s most likely really in that bottle is a blend of extra virgin olive oil with lower grade oils or refined oils. It’s all actually olive oil, since it’s easy to detect if the olive oil was blended with other vegetable oils, but it’s not likely to offer the health benefits that consumers are expecting when they decide to give olive oil a try. You can read more about all of this in an article I wrote for Gourmet News with Gaea North America CEO David Neuman, Extra Virgin Alliance Co-Founder Alexandra Devarenne and Maria Reyes, who’s a director, vendor management at KeHE Distributors.

Autumn Sage

Autumn Sage

I have several autumn sage, Salvi greggii, bushes in my back yard. I love them for their bright scarlet flowers that attract hummingbirds and hummingbird moths and because they’re very drought-tolerant. When they do get water, they bloom profusely a few days later throughout the late spring, summer and fall.

They have scratchy stems that leave long bleeding claw marks along my forearms whenever I weed under them, but the aromatic scent that the foliage leaves on my skin is more than worth any pain from the scratches.

The Price of Cheap Food

Over the past few months of listening to farmers from coast to coast, it has become increasingly clear to me that our noble-hearted attempt to try to make sure that everyone in our country has enough nutritious food to eat has gone heartbreakingly awry. Rising childhood obesity rates and the news that we are raising a generation of children whose lives may be shorter than our own coupled with frightening statistics about the number of children in this country who are living with food insecurity makes it clear that we are failing at the most basic level.

At the other end of our food supply chain, the country that we like to think of as a food pantry for the world is now importing more and more of our food and the low prices that farmers receive for their crops has driven many, many of them out of business. It’s really saddening to take a look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics on the financial well-being of our nation’s farmers — and if there’s one area where there’s wealth in this country’s agriculture system, it’s in the statistics by which we measure it — and realize how very precarious it is to be a farmer in this country in this day and age.

As a country, we have demonstrated a profound lack of respect for the people who produce our food. We haven’t even respected them enough to pay them properly for the food they grow for us, and we’ve encouraged them to run their operations in a way that has proven to be vastly more beneficial for other areas of our economy than it ever was for our agriculture. The only solution in sight for any or all of this: we just have to reverse course on our decades-long effort to drive food prices through the floor. It’s been ruinous for farmers, and it hasn’t even solved the problem of giving our children enough good food to eat.

Read more here in a story I wrote after hearing Joel Salatin speak this year at the Natural Products Expo East.