21 February, 2011

"From Produce To Production: New Traditions In Bay Area Food Culture"

Novella Carpenter Courtesy of ybca.org
Last night I went to a spur-of-the-moment food event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (ybca) in SF with my lovely friend Jason of S. Kitchen fame. The talk was entitled, "BAN6 Conversations: Food. From Produce To Production: New Traditions In Bay Area Food Culture." and looked at how food and art production are of like minds. Such a long name though required a long program (three hours), but I did not mind; I was excited to see one of the speakers in particular (Novella Carpenter) for her super-cool book Farm City on urban farming in West Oakland, CA (no, not just a few veggie plants and chickens - she utilizes something like 4500 sq. ft. for  growing produce, rabbits, goats, and the whole farm shah-bang). She also has a  connection to someone I go ga-ga for, the foodie prince himself: Michael Pollan. She studied under him at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism for two years and if nothing else, she got him to say this about her book: "If you think the local food movement is getting a tad precious, then you'll relish Farm City ... By turns edgy, moving, and hilarious, Farm City marks the debut of a striking new voice in American writing." (Mr. Pollan as quoted from the ybca website.) 

Courtesy of thedailyshow.com

Leif Hedendal Courtesy of 7x7.com
Well, not surprisingly (the event was about people involved in food production after all), I was also impressed by the two other speakers: Leif Hedendal and Bryant Terry.  San Francisco-based Hedendal stood out not just for his involvement in the Slow Food Movement and appreciation of under-utilized produce, but also for his punk-rock approach to cooking that focuses on veggies only, because he himself is no narrow-minded, preachy, vegan wannabe chef. He may not cook with meat or dairy, but he still eats it. He said that he likes the creative limitations cooking vegetarian/vegan dishes puts on him and the challenges it brings that inspire him. He is also quite the foodie rock star as he just returned from Denmark where he interned at the über-hip restaurant noma in Copenhagan that was named the best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2010. Who really cares about the title? I just like looking at photos of their sumptuous, wacky food! National Public Radio (npr) also did a story on them recently here.

"Noma is a homage to soil and sea, a reminder of the source of our food. Take his starter of crunchy baby carrots from the fertile Lammefjorden region of Denmark, served with edible 'soil' made from malt, hazelnuts and beer, with a cream herb emulsion beneath – you are literally eating the earth!" Quote and photo courtesy of theworlds50best.com

Bryant Terry Courtesy of ybca.org
The other speaker was Oakland-based Bryant Terry, and quite honestly, he stole the show for me! Not only is this extremely attractive (but married) and personable man a good cook, he's also a celebrated cookbook author of titles like Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African–American Cuisine and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen  (where he also ingeniously syncs each recipe with a music playlist) who gets to have Alice Waters say nice things about him like this: “Bryant Terry knows that good food should be an everyday right and not a privilege,” (from Terry's website). He also gets interviewed by television (like The Martha Stewart Show here), radio (like The Tavis Smiley Show here), and print personalities alike; he  carries on a blog; he holds a PhD in History; he has his own history of political, environmental, and African-American activism; and despite his "Eco-Warrior" past, he  (like Leif Hedendal) shies away from the label "vegan" in connection to his cooking/lifestyle habits even though he does not personally eat meat or dairy. 

I really liked how he said that what he eats is a matter of choice about better health, environmental concerns, a way of empowerment for disenfranchised groups, and wanting good-tasting food. He is NOT in it to be another militant, hypocritical, so-called vegan: the kind of person that he (and myself) feel have lost sight of the real meaning of "responsible" eating. There is no one path to a sustainable lifestyle. His publisher on the other hand saw "vegan" as a catchy, soundbite word, especially in the context of a "Soul Food" cookbook, that would get some conversations started about alternatives to how one connects food to culture. Now I am not saying that all vegans are silly; I just think that a lot of them behave in nonsensical, counterproductive ways like damning a person who buys a free-range buffalo steak, while the vegan drives a car, smokes cigarettes (even if they are hand-rolled American Spirits), and buys pre-packaged food in non-recyclable containers from a mega-corporation like Safeway or Kroger. People need a little perspective, that's all I'm saying! Give the radio recording below a listen to have Terry himself elaborate on this debate.

Another highlight of Terry's presentation was that he actually cooked in front of us. Here's the recipe for citrus collards with raisins redux that he made and that inspired me to cook my own version for dinner when I got home. (See my photos below). Happily, Terry promotes my own cooking attitude as well, that one should not follow a recipe to the letter. The success of a dish is not about running out to the store to buy the exact ingredients dictated in the recipe; creative use of similar items you already have on hand at home are just as good, if not better, especially if you do not like a specific item that the recipe calls for. Experiment! Play! Eat good food!

Instead of collard greens in Bryant Terry's recipe, I used Lacinato or "Dinosaur" kale; in place of the orange juice I used a combination of white wine, chicken stock, and a dash of apple cider vinegar; and to  the extra-virgin olive oil I added some rendered duck fat that is my new, favorite fat to cook with.

I accessorized my greens with some pieces of nice Gruyere (left) and white cheddar cheeses. Tasty!


  1. PART ONE: Thanks for this fab review of the event. I liked all three of the speakers as well. I think they all brought in different perspectives of the food movement and industry. I especially liked how Novella talked about her love of animals, and they are dinner. I found her description of the ritual of slaughter fascinating, and have been grappling with what it means to me as a meat eater.

    I had a much harder time with the format.

    To me, the crux of the conversation was the intersection of food, art, and social justice. Having come to food and art through the vocation of youth development and educational reform, I have a really hard time when "conversations" about these topics don't also embrace a food, art, and social justice approach. The format of the event was constructed using a classical educational approach. There were "experts", the panelists and curator, and "learners", the audience. These two positions need to be filled in a classical educational approach because the role of the expert is to impart their learning on the learner. The learner has little to no role in the area of expertise.

    At this event, there was even a hierarchy in what role each particular audience member played. Throughout the event, the curator/moderator asked questions to "the artists". While I was in the audience and listening to the conversation and being asked questions, I took comfort in being called an artist. It made me feel like there was a level of importance in being an audience member, that I may in fact be an artist. I felt like they were also trying a new approach to learning, one that, while not completely embracing a social justice or people's educational approach, was at least moving in that direction.

  2. PART TWO: After the event, I stuck around to talk to Bryant. I noticed as the chairs were being picked up that there were technically two classifications of audience members: ones whose seats read "Artist" and ones whose seats were blank. I haven't felt that dissed in a very long time, and it made me question the entirety of the event. Was this event really *for* me?

    It also shed light onto a weird interaction between me and the moderator. During the discussion, I spoke and shared my story of how I came to both food and art. I have mostly worked in low-income, historically marginalized communities. Within those communities, art and food are not a superfluous question. They are questions of both survival and engagement. (I would argue engagement is survival, but that's another debate.) They ONLY way I got young people to the table and understanding anything was through food and art. Parents only came to meetings where food was present. I could only meet with teachers if I brought pizza. And that is solely on the most surface of levels.

    The weird interaction came after I stated, "Take a look around and see who is here and who isn't here." (Or something incredibly similar.) I know I did not see a single person under mid-twenties. I can make a fairly educated guess that most had some (if not a lot) of post-secondary education. (I myself flunked out, so I might not be making that educated of a guess.) And all were, while maybe not rich per se, at least either upper-lower or lower-middle class and above. I couldn't imagine a single youth I worked with in my 15+ years of youth development work ever showing up to the event.

    My comment was dismissed by the curator, and he quickly moved on. I wondered after I saw the chairs with the "Artist" label on them if part of that reaction was due to the fact that I was not labeled an "artist". I also wondered if I struck a nerve on a topic that the museum has been grappling with.

    I know a museum is for a very particular kind of person, one that can navigate it and understand it, which requires a certain level of education. It is also an institution. But as we move forward with the conversation of the intersections of food, art, commodification, and social justice we cannot forget that there is a LARGE segment of the population MISSING from the dialogue. Those people are the same ones that will be the most impacted by any decision (political, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) in these arenas. I think we, the collective we that includes me, can do better at finding ways to engage them. And that starts with some great food and excellent art.


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