Monday, August 25, 2014


I’m writing this in the plane as it wings its way east to Toronto. Air Canada upgraded me, a rare and lovely treat, and so I gave the food I had bought for my flight home to a friend who was on the same flight and NOT upgraded.

I’m thinking about the last week doing prep for and then being at the Grain Gathering, in the Skagit Valley and I'm trying to sift and sort my way through memories, impressions, and thoughts about the future of grain and farming and food production, as well as access to food. (I'll post this tomorrow when I've got internet and have had a night's sleep.)

As I was embarking on this last week’s trip to the Grain Gathering with Dawn Woodward aka Dawn the Baker of Evelyn’s Crackers, sitting in the airport in Toronto waiting for our flight west to be called, she talked to me about the farmers’ markets in Toronto and about the issue of access to food. Her thoughts pushed me to write a letter about the issue…which I plan to send tomorrow to Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada who is also the innovator behind much that has happened at the STOP in Toronto.

In the letter I argue against the practice of charging rent to the farmers who come to the markets in the city every week. They already have gas costs and time costs. And we want those markets. So why try to squeeze money out of the farmers? It’s a crazy dysfunctional idea. Let the markets make money another way, from donors if need be, but even better from city and provincial governments. And let the farmers not be burdened with even more costs.

So this is one piece of the enormous puzzle that is food and access to food and the difficulties of producing food. People at the Grain Gathering this weeks talked about and engaged with other pieces of the puzzle. Farmer-millers talked about what they do; small artisanal bakers also, and scientists from the University of Washington’s remarkable research centre in the Skagit Valley also gave presentations. I met an urban miller named Nan from Los Angeles, a small-town baker from Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast came too, and another from Whidbey Island, and master bakers from San Francisco, North Carolina, Vermont, Toronto… They have all left me with a lot to think about.

Dawn-the-Baker and I gave three workshops: about using old bread ("Waste Not! recipes for making puddings, kvass, a Georgian bread omelet dish, knudeln, etc); Toast (three stunning breads by Dawn, toasted, then with toppings, and how this can work for bakers and eaters too); and Multi-Grain baking (all recipes by Dawn, from buckwheat scones, airy and delish, to rye crust tarts, whole grain Red Fife tart, cookies made with whole grain Kamut, etc). I also helped with a presentation she did with Jonathan, the baker at the centre's Bread Lab. It was a comparative tasting of four different single varietal wheats, just harvested and milled without sifting out any bran, and used to bake both artisanal loaves and madeleines. Fascinating. (The varieties we tasted were Renan, Pachtol, Ludwig, and Colonia.)

I was very happy to have been asked to give the opening keynote. It gave me the chance to take people out, through photographs, to the whole wide world of grain. Almost all humans eat grain in some form every day: bread, noodles, porridge, polenta, whole rice, couscous... And that grain might be corn or barley or millet or sorghum, or rice or rye or oats or teff, or wheat...or a blend. So we went traveling through my photos from a Homng/Miao man ploughing a flooded paddy field in Guizhou China to women in Lalibela Ethiopia grinding barley to make the beer called thalla, to a baker joking with his customers in Iran. All of this is the grain community, the labour of hands and minds, passed along in a chain.

The second keynote was given by Jeffrey Hamelman, a grounded, tuned-in master-baker and altogether lovely man who now works for King Arthur Flour in Vermont. He spoke about teachers and teaching, and students and learning, and the face time and emotional connection time that need to go into the teacher-learner relationship if it’s to be fruitful. It was a moving and inspiring talk I thought, and many agreed.

And the people who participated in our workshops engaged fully, asking questions, suggesting options, participating in the ideal collaborative way Jeffrey was talking about.

But there were also bumps in the road at the conference, or perhaps I should say, things proposed that I took issue with. Those too were enlightening and give me pause.

For example Dan Barber, author of the recent thoughtful and terrific book “The Third Plate” spoke at the plenary that closed the conference. It was a public conversation with Steve Jones, the director of the Washington State Agricultural Research Center at Mt Vernon, where the conference was held. Steve is one of the principal people energising the current renaissance of local single-varietal wheats and has had a big impact on Dan's thinking.

As they chatted I was struck by Dan’s emphasis on what chefs could do to shift the current food systems, and the culture of meat at the centre of the plate. His “second plate” is the current farm-to-table movement which emphasises organic local food, but is still centred around an unsustainable North American assumption, that meat (or fish) is at the centre of the plate, with greens and grains on the periphery.

So here’s a chef, a thoughtful guy, who has two restaurants, one in New York City, the other at a remarkable centre, Stone Barns, that is underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, talking about the need to bring non-meat/non-fish, to the centre of the plate. That's great. But he’s seeing chefs as the people to get that started.

I can’t.

I see it happening through home cooks. It's already happening in many households. I know some that are vegetarian, not in a hardline way, but truly meat-free (with a dab of fish sauce on the side perhaps). Others eat lightly of meat and fish. Food on their table is appreciated and enjoyed for its deliciousness and flavour.

But when a NYC chef is talking about cooking and serving the full range of local produce, with no heavy protein on the plate it’s a big problem: he or she is in business, with rent to pay and staff to pay, and investors to reward. People who go out to eat at a famed restaurant expect the “treat” of a protein at the centre of the plate, be it grilled fish or steak or lamb. The meal is expensive. And so the economic interests of the chef and the diner are at odds with the expectations of the chef and the diner.

In fact perhaps the chef-restaurant is the LAST place that things can change. The fine-dining venue is one for people who feel entitled to have a treat or to be spoiled. They don’t want to be reminded of their social responsibility to eat lightly and to save the planet by their food choices.

In contrast, in the home cooking situation the economic and gastronomic interests coincide. The household eats well in every sense of the word, and can feel good about what they’re cooking and eating, from its provenance and philosophy to its flavour and its lower cost.

The people who deal with these issues of what gets eaten, what goes on the plate, every day are the people who are responsible for feeding a family or a household or community. Mothers, spouses, partners, colleagues, students in their first apartments - home cooks in other words - are the people on the front line of shopping and cooking. And in many cases they can and are also on the front lines of leading by example - showing the way - household by household, meal by meal.

A participant at the Grain Gathering, a woman baker from Toronto named Carol, told me that as she read Dan’s book she experimented with substituting “home cook” for “chef” in all his sentences. And when she did so, she reported, it all made more sense. Exactly.

Yes, this still leaves us with the issue of how to get people engaged in metaphorical “nose-to-tail” eating, that is, eating all the products of a farmer’s fields, from pulses and legumes to wild and tame greens, etc, as well as lesser known grains. How do we make this happen for home cooks and eaters everywhere? 

Chefs can help by figuring out new combinations and ways of cooking. On the other hand the food traditions of other cuisines. for example those of India, Mexico, China, etc, are a richer more deeply layered source. Cooks in those traditions work with very little meat for these are sustainable cuisines that have developed over the centuries, cuisines loaded with diversity and deliciousness. There are plenty of cookbooks out there to explore...and to help guide home cooks in this new terrain.

The goal is to turn people on to the pleasures - the flavour, health, and environmental benefits - as well as the lower costs, of cooking and eating this way. And we’ll get there. People aren’t stupid. And the adventures that lie ahead for cooks and all of us eaters as we explore this new Third Plate frontier will surprise us all.


Rachel Laudan said...

Naomi, I couldn't agree more with your acute observation that when people go to restaurants, especially expensive ones, it's to celebrate and throw over normal constraints on eating. So I think home cooks and,here you might disagree, behind them food corporations once they see the way the wind is blowing.

Oh and toast. Now there's a wonderful, wonderful subject. wish I'd been there to hear it.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hello Naomi,
Your post about how home cooks will lead the way to the "Third Plate" has me smiling. I loved watching you question Aaron (from the B Ranch) and afterwards provide a terrific suggestion to him re: putting up food. Afterwards, he told me that your questioning was "intense!" I love your style.
I'm the one who would appreciate a connection to the Canadian woman who knows of a good tour to Iran. Thanks for that when you get a chance.