happy belated birthday

One week ago fresh cracked pepper turned one. I meant to make a cake, but it didn’t happen. A blog doesn’t complain about the lack of cake like a person does.  I guess I could’ve made myself a cake, being the brains behind said birthday blog. Instead I went to a Superbowl party and took advantage of other people’s industriousness.

I stumbled upon a quote sometime ago that I’ve been saving up for an occasion such as this. It comes from our modern-day Brillant-Savarin, the venerable Michael Pollan. It distills what I try to do here in one sentence:

“It can be incredibly rewarding to move food closer to the center of your life.”

OK, so it’s not the most profound idea. Some of you might even find it humorous. But in its simplicity it got me thinking about a simpler time when our life cycles moved in closer concert with the soil’s, the sun’s, the rain’s. It got me thinking about worms and carrots and bulbous onions, and about the spring that’s fogging up my windows today, taunting with her almost-warm breath.

Since the day I started itfresh cracked pepper has done just that. It’s helped me see how food can mark the passage of time, define cultures, moments, people. It’s got me thinking about the various ways we experience the simple act of nourishing our bodies and our lives.

82 posts, 30 022 views, one link from a foodie celeb, one wikipedia link, and 274 comments later, I can’t wait for year two.

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green in the belly

I can’t believe I still haven’t posted on resolutions. January’s almost over, and the only insights I’ve offered into the hallowed New Year have been of the barley and lentil variety. I can do better than that, don’t you think? Don’t I owe you more than just these meagre attempts at undoing eight pounds of Christmas cookies?

Peering into other people’s resolutions is kind of thrilling. A keyhole glimpse into another person’s I’ll-do-it-betters can rejuvenate even the most tired of an old year’s routines. Resolutions actually make New Year’s one of my favorite times of the year. Why do I love this event full of pressure to HAVE SO MUCH FUN, you might ask. It’s simple: I’m addicted to newness.

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Newness doesn’t have to be sparkly or expensive. It’s simply the chance to see something differently: a morning, a plate of food, a friend, yourself. Newness rubs the spice into our stale lives, and livens up even the most jaded. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with each bout of new. Making lists and setting goals, bring it on.

Our 24-hour train ride home (plus the 8 hour delay in North Dakota, plus the layover in Chicago) delivered moments abundant with time for resolving. I nestled up with my journal against a snowy window frame, the American prairie unfurling its stark white coattails behind me. What did I see in the snowglobe months ahead?

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So not only did I etch out a scintillating list of things to do in the first week back, I cobbled together some realistic aims for the new semester, including: developing a better working vocabulary, putting away the recipes to nurture my spontanous cooking side, and making my kitchen— and my body—more environmentally friendly.

How serendipitous then, when I returned to my February Bon Appetit proclaiming 50 Ways to Eat Green (sorry Paul Simon). After unpacking, showering, and ceremoniously devouring the crumbs of our train-induced junk food binge, I dove in. I couldn’t wait to read all about how I could fight the Christmas-body blahs and save the planet all in one proverbial bite.

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I quickly discovered that I’m already doing something right. I am proud to say that 17 of their handy little tree-hugging tips are already habits of mine. All those crushing moments reading about the demise of agriculture and all those non-organic apples I’d purchased flitted away like the plume of a free-range chicken. I waited for Al Gore to come out in an angel costume and give me a USDA Organic stamped halo. (When he fell through, I resorted to good old self-congratulation.)

So in no particular order, here are the 17 food-related things I — and probably many of you — already do to save the earth. Following that list are five more I resolve to practice more diligently in the New Year.

What I do:

1. A full freezer uses less energy than an empty one

2. Cooking with bison actually helps save the species

3. Cooking at home avoids excess packaging and processing of foods

4. Roasting a whole chicken means less waste and yummy stock to boot

5. Hand chopping uses less electricity than fancy processors

6. Buying in bulk reduces wastefulness and packaging and encourages whole-food eating

7. Being your own barista reduces expenses and landfills

8. Reusing containers and bags is a given

9. Making your own soup stock reduces trash

10. Making your own cereal cuts out packaging and is good for your bod

11. Going mostly vegetarian frees up energy for others

12. Packing your lunch makes lunches greener and more fun

13. Eating more tofu conserves water in a way that meat does not (replacing one pound of beef with tofu each month saves 20,000 gallons a year!)

14. Reusable grocery bags are more fun to carry and better for the earth

15. Boxed wine generates half as many carbon dioxide emissions in transport as bottles (and there ARE good ones out there!)

16. Keeping and eating the greens from beets reduces waste

What I will do:

1. Eating Alaskan Salmon is more sustainable and higher in omega-3’s

2. Savor Sardines because they they aren’t in danger of being overfished and contain less mercury than tuna 

3. Join a CSA and support local agriculture  

4. Bike to the market when the weather gets nicer and I find a safe and scenic route  

5. Text the Blue Ocean Insitute’s FishPhone when I buy fish, and find out how good it is for me and the world

paraphrased from Bon Appetit magazine, January 2009

straight talk in the produce aisle

I want to eat organic, I really do. I’ve read enough about how organic farming is better for the environment, my body, and things I don’t understand but sound good, like biodiversity. By this point in my life I really should be inviting organic produce into my home on a regular basis–not just in the middle of summer when the regional farmer’s market pretty much hands it to me.

I should know better. Whether I understand why, or whether it’s even been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt*, I should get it. I should know that chemicals don’t have a place in my salad bowl.

I should be practicing what I read.

But, you see, a strange thing happens when I hit the grocery store. I prance proudly over to the organic section, eyeing those smaller-than-I’m-used-to peppers. I glance back at the conventional produce, like a comfortable old friend. I see the higher price tags, and that’s it. Once again, my desire to hold onto my cash grips my ideals like a vice.

I walk out of the store, another next-time organic buyer.

Before there could be a next time though, I happened upon this sensible Guide to Organic put out by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit group based out of Washington, D.C. This thing is great. It says yes, we know you can’t afford to buy everything organic, so here’s what you really should be buying if you care about your health and are strapped for cash. Think of it as a pauper’s guide to chemical cleansing.

The site offers a list of various produce items’ “pesticide load,” which is basically to what degree each item suffers from chemical contamination. I had no idea that this happy medium between all or nothing organic existed. The Group even provides their ranking criteria, noting, for example, that all tests were performed with washed fruit.

Since they provide a pocket guide, there’s really no excuse this time. I think this might be the end of my once-in-a-blue-moon, feel-good-about-myself organic binges. Now I can focus my organic intentions on the bigger culprits: peaches, apples, peppers, celery, grapes, and spinach. When I need to pinch a penny or two, I’ll turn to onions, mangoes, squash, and bananas.

I’m not here to talk about studies or to try to convince you that organic is better. I’ve heard it said that buying local actually does a broader range of good than organic. And of course, it’s been argued as well that organic is just another marketing tool. Governmental regulations for organic are confusing and long-winded. There is plenty of dissent about the new “industrial organic,” which, if you like cynicism, you can read about in chapter nine of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Big Organic.”

All I wanted to do was (should you feel compelled as I do to eat more-ganically) give you a few easy ways to  do so. So next time you’re stressing over the organic avocados, fear not. There are always apples for that.

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*Pollan cites a study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis, published in 2003 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. The study describes an experiment where identical varieties of different vegetables and fruits were grown using conventional and organic methods. The group found that the organically grown foods were higher in polyphenols, compounds Pollan summarizes as playing “an important role in human health and nutrition.” Pollan states elsewhere that there has been “remarkably little research” done to figure out the effects of prolonged exposure to pesticide and growth hormone that the government allows in our foods.

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Since reading Michael Pollan’s magical chapter on foraging, I’ve been tempted to brave soggy spring forests on the hunt for mushrooms and other edible treasures. So far, this has remained a pipe dream. Good writing can do that to you; when words trump experience, armchair adventure is born.

As good as his prose is I still haven’t got my hands into the dank earth beyond my doorstep. As convincing his argument for the virtue of growing and gathering, I still haven’t turned over a single fallen tree, hoping to catch the flash of creamy mushroom-flesh it might conceal underneath. But on Saturday morning I did vacate the armchair long enough to indulge in some foraging of my own: at the Regional Market.

With bags in hand, my market mate and I set out after so many other Central New Yorkers to see what new bounty Spring had cobbled together. Flowers and herbs spilled out of the covered sheds as sunlight poured into their place. Seedlings boasted bright green sprouts, as if coveting our affection from their plastic beds. All the usual suspects were there, from the bread- to the buffalo-people.

With a pound of PDH Farms ground bison, a dozen of my favourite free-range eggs, and some locally-grown onions jostling for space in my bag, I was ready to be on my merry way.

Until this: “oh look Jen, fiddleheads!”

Adding to its unapologetic whimsy, the word was spoken with such delight and wonder I was drawn immediately to the bag of coiled greens resting at my friend’s fingertips. Though we hadn’t found them growing wildly ourselves, someone had, and we had journeyed past the supermarket to find them. We each procured a meagre ¼ pound for a simple lunch without breaking the bank.

I think I spent more time photographing these alluring young ferns than I did preparing them. It turns out that they flourish in our region, and all the way up to the Canadian Maritimes. The first fruits of the Ostrich Fern, edible fiddleheads turn up only in the Spring – and usually far from grocery store shelves. As I held a tender coil, gently removing the papery brown chaff that still clung to it, I felt as though I was holding a tiny piece of the force of life. Each baby fern breaking through the Spring soil is turned inward on itself to protect it from the still-harsh temperatures. As if accustoming to its new world, they will slowly open, revealing their fluted leaves to the elements in triumph over even the mighty omnivore. But until then, sauteed and sprinkled with some Parmesan Reggiano, they will make for a mighty fine lunch.

*my new dragonfly garden gloves also make an appearance (as background material) in this post

*see Wild Harvest for more information on fiddleheads, as well as cooking and handling tips