Election Cake, or: Food in the Time of Trump

I guess we could say the election cake had been an omen. 

A trend of last year, prior to the election, many celebrated bakers, professionals and home bakers alike, got onboard to produce versions of the historical election cake, a treat of boozy fruit and spices that is naturally leavened. Under the (somewhat) clever banner of "Make America Cake Again", the election cake was to be a celebration of civic duty, local foods, and putting some spirit back into an election cycle that, in many cases, seemed to reveal divisive and frustrating tears in American society. The cakes on instagram were light-looking, moulded pound-cake looking affairs, elegant shapes topped with powdered sugar, stately, baked constructions that alluded to civitas the way that Jeffersonian architecture does. Restrained yet inspired. 

So perhaps the fact the cake fell flat was no surprise; the levain i used didn't take, and the entire cake turned into a flat puck of gooey, just baked pancake batter studded with rummy currants, a veritable let down as humorous as it was heavy against the the roll out of the evenings events. The cake was a comic let down; the election itself, a tragic one. It was a reminder that history is never, in itself, a progressive treadmill of consistent progress. That there is still darkness in this world. And while the lessons picked up from baking mistakes leave little room for rancor and a lot of room for learning, the lessons of that night, and all that came with it, were a little less clear cut, the anxiety and disappointment of a different flavor. And having at that time began again in the hospitality world, it made the work I did there, and with food in general, seem inconsequential and almost trivial in light of the things going on around us. 

Food has a way of seeming frivolous; photos of cakes, jam making, farmers market ingredients can seem superfluous as healthcare edges towards possible elimination or as executive orders get thrown about like cheap confetti on everything from environmental deregulation to preventing transgendered individuals from serving in the armed forces. And a lot of the time, the culinary IS a triviality; after all, it's eating and sustenance. But it can serve as escape of people wanting a distraction from the reality of what our political and civic landscape is at this point in time. A couple of hours respite away from the TV, and the seemingly insurmountable amount of harm that is happening close to home and further away. And there is legitimacy to wanting that -- cooking and food can be therapeutic, a social bonding experience with food as a medium or excuse to get people together. It allows one something to investigate, build skills, and otherwise feel empowered in a space and time when one can feel disempowered or lacking the agency to make changes to bigger issues of the day. Saul Alinsky, in his "Rules for Radicals", even points to the necessity of taking breaks; that even full-time professional advocates and folks doing what I call "warrior work" need things that revitalize and re-energize the emotional/psychological labor they engage in. We aren't endless wells of energy, despite some of our best notions of ourselves. We need a break. 

This is in part why I think people respond so negatively when folks attempt to reconcile the disconnect between food and the politics underlying it; one need only look at Food52's attempts at dipping their toes into the realm of looking and analyzing ethnicity and appropriation in the food world to more in depth pieces on Eater or individual food blogs attempting to break open the breech and use their influence to talk about the issues related to their writers, and the way they in turn influence what they do on the plate. But there's a vociferous cry of "just stick to writing about food" that is never as neutral as the writers of those comments make them out to be -- they are the folks for him this is as much an entertainment as it is an escape from consequences. In some cases, there is simply straight up racism -- no one wants to think about the complexity of the cultural appropriation of tortillas, or how white southern chefs may be doing more harm than good when it comes to their promotion of southern slave foods. But in a latter, more trying case, some people just don't want this to be part of their picture -- they're consumers of food and food media, and the realm is sacrosanct for a consumption that doesn't questions their immediate needs/wants. And for those folks, they can afford the privilege enough to not care about the world around them, or choose not to, consumers of food in the truest sense -- as an activity of acquiring a product in ever increasing quantities, regardless of cost or consequence.

This is a flaw, when so much of our food culture is wrapped up in many of the same economic, ecological and social issues of our time. The racial character of Southern food, who gets to profit off of Mexican ingredients, the ecological damage of current farm policy, culturally appropriate foods and SNAP, or even the more obscure issues of urban planning, green space, and food accessibility are all woven into questions of the now. The human cost to farming and hospitality services, and the current governments policy on immigration; the current status of the farm bill and the ACA are both tied to well being within our communities for food access versus handouts to the incredibly rich (and less reach but no better deserving); even just the food that gets put out at the White House dinners -- these are all reflective of issues of our civic culture, our collective ethos, and demand action that relates to much of our overall food environment.

Andrea Reusing, of Chapel Hill's Lantern Restaurant (that I've long admired -- I still have the Gourmet Magazine clipping from their profile ages ago during the Reichl era), touched on some of that this week in a piece she wrote regarding the hollowness of "Farm to Table" cooking when it came to labor. In her piece, she denotes that the labor -- both in the kitchen and in the field -- is often degrading, poorly paid, and rarely protected, and most farm-to-table restaurants or people identifying with that trend are equally hollow, using it as window dressing and feel-good-ism without doing much of anything. It's a half-truth -- there's a lot of eyeroll-emoticon like behavior by a lot of restaurants who ID as farm-to-table, reflecting a view not dissimilar from online food media consumers. But it's also a sweeping pile of nonsense, because people have been working at various levels -- from the CIW in Florida, Fight for 15, to various farmers markets authorities across the country -- working to improve workers conditions, food access, and a variety of other causes. Restaurants should, as she points out, support these efforts, and guests should be willing to support the cost of those endeavors, in part through the slightly higher prices one would be paying at any restaurant. 

The problem being all of these efforts aren't incredibly centralized; they are not systemic. Each cause is fighting at a particular vector, reactive to that individual topic, at which point nothing seems to get resolved, or seems to succeed in a partial victory. Systemic efforts are hard -- not only rectifying the harms of existing policy, but overhauling current regulatory regimes in order to improve outcomes for all stakeholders -- requires an intense amount of work. And portraying all of these issues as being morally indicative and weighted by individual actors (restauranteurs, guests, or even individuals such as you or I) ultimately belies that while there is some truth to it, it also weakens the idea that there may need to be the intervention of a larger authority or collection of stakeholders than simply ourselves. It's one thing to collect compost in your household (which is great! totally do it!), but its far better when municipalities mandate it and write good policy to enforce it. Most of us should pay more for food, but we also should be shifting the way the subsidy payment system works, to level costs, and frankly, after 30 years of declining real wages for most American labor, jobs programs and basic income assistance isn't a bad fight to be thinking of either, because demanding people pay more for food with declining wages is a classism that we should not abide by. 

This all requires both a systemic action (such as working on Farm Bill reforms and other large projects at the federal, state, and local level), but also requires a communal vision, a civic vision, for politics and policy, and even our individual actions. And this means getting people onboard with the notion of politics as a part of everyday life, which also means shifting the norms around "just food" and having that be about a "just food" system, so that the latter becomes to norm, the "farm-to-table" being a given, but in a real, substantial way, and not just as marketing ploy. Building a civic vision around good public policy (that then informs good civic culture) is an incredibly broad project, and requires a long view. And it means having some grace and hospitality when it comes to engaging with the entire population, because it is something we will have to engage the entire population on if we want to see movement or traction. To build a movement that isn't just about the moral righteousness of food choices or consumption, but building one where we can be producers of our own food choices in real and meaningful ways, and build community, economies, and good environmental planning around it, is a real thing. Creating a society where we can talk about pie and not worry that the environment, workers, or our health have been negatively effected and be able to show off on the internets is possible.

That doesn't mean it is easy -- it means it requires work. The lesson pulled from election cake was easy. The lesson pulled from election night took a little more consideration. But I learned that the internet is a shitty place for activism, and being present in our communities and in places of activism was a better move than only being peripherally involved as I had been in the Obama era. (it's also a great way to meet people, feel proactive, and get out of  your comfort zone.) Phone calls to reps was one thing; but I also started attending meetings of the DSA in NYC, and have been putting together a subcommittee for food and agriculture, a subset of the Urban Planning and Housing committee. I'm encouraging friends, relatives, and strangers, when and where I can, to get involved in the ways that make sense for them, and for the causes that make sense to them. And I've been having more uncomfortable conversations these days -- and forcing myself to have them -- with folks who would rather retreat into their lives than participate in a broader community action. It's small actions, amounting to bigger things over time, and shifting our energies into productive daily actions.

I'm also still cooking -- this summer I've completed a month of Tuesday jamming sessions, that have been one part meditative therapy, and one part honing recipes and getting the Diaspora business plan in motion. I still go to the market and take informative pictures that I post to instagram, go dancing crazy late at night, and I still go to restaurants that I like and support and cook dinners with friends, because these are what make us human and stop us from completely going spitballs crazy. If I sat and did nothing but farm data for days, I would get unhinged; we need mental breaks, and things we enjoy, in order to better pursue our work. In the time of Trump, use of time, our mental time and energy, has been the biggest lesson I've taken away. Using it better, to do better, especially on behalf of food and agriculture issues, has been something I've been striving towards. Because it touches all of us. It can empower all of us. And because no one should feel guilty about posting a picture of cake.

My election cake was an epic fail. My response to this election is not letting the same happen to the place I call home. 

Tuesday Jams

So today marks the 4th consecutive week I've taken my "Saturday" (Tuesday), to do some work on Diaspora, by canning the summer fruits here in NYC. It's been a good meditation; testing flavors, tempering the influence of buttressing flavors, and the impatient, nagging watching of proper set points. There's plenty of science to jam making, but also a fair bit of in the moment considerations, and there is the art part of artisan* that comes into play. It's fun to be getting to toy around with products that aren't citrus, even if it keeps the apartment a little warm (NYC apartments aren't known for their ventilation nor their AC units, and our pre-war is especially true in this case, along with being encased in enough brick to be the inside of a thermal oven).

Rather than work on classics, I've given myself the permission to work on new, and decidedly more northeastern flavors. In past years, I've gone to the fruits that I worked with in California -- nectarines, plums, peaches, and briar fruits like raspberries and blackberries. Part of it was familiarity -- i love the acid in those fruits, the flavors, the brightness, and that they can take a little less sugar than some other fruits. But unlike their California brethren, things out here and not like they are out there; the strawberries (short of the Tristars, which are fiddly AF to process), the worst California peach is still more aromatic and sharp than the best NY/NJ/PA peach, and finding varieties of some fruits is still an exercise in aggressive backtracking.

But holding one geography to  the standard of another is silliness, and for someone whose entire proposition is a taste of place, it wasn't the right thing to do, to hold East Coast growers to West Coast standards (the humidity alone makes it rough to do a lot of stone fruits, as do spring rains). And luckily, this year a new grower (to me) arrived at Union Square who made the turn a little bit easier. I knew Wilklow Orchards from other markets -- many market staff professed a love for their fruits, and a couple of my greenmarket grains regulars also mentioned running to different markets than their norm to go and get their produce. With so much of my professional life running around Union Square, I hadn't had time or inclination to check them out at their other markets. But when they replaced Red Jacket at Union Square, it ignited something new -- when someone puts blackcurrants, gooseberries and sour cherries at the forefront of their display, even behind strawberries and rhubarb, it was a good hint something could work.

For a month and change now, I've annoyed their staff with questions about cultivar, their IPM practices, and about their timespan for various oncoming fruits (no gages, but there will be damsons), and they have been stellar; talking out, making calls to Fred to inquire, and generally being pretty generous with their time and energy. In the meantime, I've been doing smaller overall doses, which has refined the method, and engaged with different fruits than I have and generally been experimenting more than I have in recent years. Gooseberry jam, blackcurrants, and sour cherries have occupied most of my time, and some new ways of formatting the jams has made me happier with the outcomes than my previous years efforts. 

Jams aren't profitable, per se. The economics of it make it egregiously expensive, even on a mass scale, to make jams in a small way. For us, its been about showcasing, in a small way, the idea of what we do. When you can make things taste so distinct from what you can find on a supermarket shelf, you can create inquiry. You can generate pleasure. And you can excite tastebuds and other things. This season, I've been able to re-engage with the things that I enjoy about this process, and hoping to figure out the direction this project is taking. 

When I make jam, I listen to music. It helps pass time, create a mood, a space. And that's something that the pop-ups were not quite capable of doing; they were productive, a crazy build up of energy and explosive activity, but not the type of space where we could jive with people, talk, and partake in their enjoyment. While I'll still be doing a pop-up or two in the near future (September!), I want to start doing something more regular, something with an ability to create an environment that generates the types of things we want to do in Diaspora -- a little music, a little food, and a lot of convivia. A Sunday night dinner party has been the idea for a spell -- and figuring out where the jams come into this picture will just be a matter of time. 

Weaver Work

One of the more useful readings I had at the Food Studies program was an essay by G.W. Stephenson at U-Wisconsin (where I almost ended up for graduate school), talks about the three primary actors in the world of developing good food policy (and really, most policy and community building models out there): warriors, builders and weavers. The points are fairly obvious: warriors are the worlds of advocates, litigators, and other "enforcers", oftentimes the true believers who push for the "110% ask", or calling for the strongest vision of a plan available. Builders are the financiers, the business folk, but also organizers and folks who create the structures, physical, social, spiritual and otherwise, that help build momentum around the visions in question. Weavers are every sort -- they're the ones who connect the dots, see the connections, and access the broad landscape to find commonality and try and organize the efforts of both warriors and builders. These are great simplifications, but the orientation of the piece had a profound effect; if you have the time, read the essay as linked above. For anyone seeking the hows and whats of future action and activism of various stripes, its an important read, even if its frame is in the food world. 

I've long considered my role as one of weaver work; having one foot in hospitality and another in the policy realm, I've gotten to see a lot of lay lines between farmers, markets, restaurants, consumers, and the various levels of law, regulation, and politics that lie between them all. I've looked at it from demographics to geography flows, from agricultural applications to regulatory schemes, to restaurant purchasing to consumer habits. These are things I evaluate every day, and continue to learn about, process, and think about. Even while barista-ing, or working the grain stand, every job I have I relate back to the roles and work within a network of moving parts, interests, and relationships. In any position, I try and create connections, enliven interest, and engender enthusiasm for the causes and institutions that I involve myself with. 

It's in that mindset that it's taken me a while to re-center after the election. The mind reels at all the things that are endangered, quite really, by the Trump administration. From climate change to LGBT protections, women's health, voting protections, redistricting, the Supreme Court -- the list grows, and it feels daunting. The mind feels it needs to share every corrupt appointment, every hateful act engaged in the name of the new administration, and the viscera of trying to do all this while still asking "what the hell happened", taking apart the hot takes, the analysis, the real/fake news michigas...and you can feel your mind and heart implode. It is daunting.

I didn't give myself time to mourn, partly because I thought I didn't have the luxury to mourn, to pity, to be in shock. Not when I -- as a white male, Jewish, yes, and a homosexual -- have the degree of privilege I do to be relatively unaffected by the results of this election if I so chose. I read through the long-forms, reposted what felt applicable, made phone calls. I still am. This is reactive work. It's demanding responses and thinking from my peers, my elected officials, and in some cases complete internet strangers. But as we near inauguration, some things have begun to crystalize in my mind and I'm beginning to feel a role return to the core of my work.

There is a lot of narrative being driven about the election: working class revolt (it wasn't, entirely), a rural versus urban divide (less so than it appears), the win of reactionary forces of misogyny, racism, and homophobia (in part, in certain geographies and demographics more than others, and it has certainly unleashed a spike in hate crimes nationally, without question). Was it the failure of Democratic outreach and campaigning? (In part. )  The role of Russian subterfuge and Republican voter suppression? Also relevant -- in part. 

There are a LOT of reasons the ship turned the way it did. Any of one of them alone doesn't explain the totality of the event; in tandem (along with a 3 generation look at the general political and economic histories of many of the spaces in question) and we see a lot of threads. There are a lot of issues at play. Some of them are maddening. Others heartbreaking. Some I can offer no legitimacy for. But no singular narrative provides the absolute reason why we are where we are: not every action the Clinton campaign took was senseless. Not every voter who didn't turn up had malicious intent. Politics, elections aren't a morality play; they are force and values by another name. Politics is about vision to which I ask myself: what next?

I believe in the greater mission of the enlightenment project. I believe in the power of liberal civic society, of Democratic Republicanism, of education and literacy, of creative forces, and the communitarian vision of people building up a better society for everyone that participates in that society. We do so even if we do not directly benefit -- the nature of public schools, of libraries, of public works projects writ large rely upon these principles. It is a humanist vision. And it is constantly in a state of self-correction and remediation; it is not impervious, nor monolith, both as a concept, and in its execution. I believe in the American dream in the same vein as Langston Hughes, that it is a dream unfulfilled, get the promise exists and is possible. This isn't naivety -- it is how social change occurs. It's when we relinquish that vision, absolve ourselves of it, or retreat to the domains that say it is only for us that the idea dies, slow, quiet, and righteous. 

There is good policy to be pursued, good plans to engage in and fights to fight, now, tomorrow, after January 20 and into 2016. And as with that liberal vision of society it must apply to everyone for it to work. Will some fight it? Of course. Will others kick and scream at its implementation? Certainly. It does not mean we deny it to them, or write off whole swathes of people because they reside in the singular dimension and sort they've been painted to be in. Baby faggots will grow up in those areas -- would you deny them protections of the law because their predecessors caused their disenfranchisement? Young women will be raised in those areas, would you deny them your assistance or vision to break the ceiling put upon them? The environment, the ecological spaces of this country which are imperative for practical concerns like drinking water and climate mitigation reside in these areas. All of this requires us, mandates the need for our immediate attention, defense, and proactive engagement. Because more often than not we do not get to choose the where's and whens of our making. 

I do not forgive nor condone those who voted for Trump. But they aren't the only ones who occupy the rural areas I see being blamed and beleaguered by some friends on a daily basis. Maps, data, information shows us this picture is far more complex than that. And especially in farm country, that picture is not uniform, nor singular, nor easily described. I know there is ignorance, there are those who would rather not see, who are selfish and do not share the vision being given above. I grew up with some of those people in my life and there is no quarter I give to them. But this isn't about them -- at least in part. This is about everyone else. This is about building the vision we want to see and make it happen. To throw our support behind them, to show they are not alone and that another work is possible, workable, allowable. And if consuming that anger, frustration, ennui to work towards preventing the world I fear is about to happen, to mitigate its effects, and to prepare to build for the better world after, I can take that. I cannot sit and be angry. 

In the meantime, I'm returning to food work in the way I know how. There may be some fundraising dinners planned. I'm planning on going to some meetings. I threw my hat in the ring for the board of Slow Food NYC. And I'm pitching to several publications the possibility of traveling to the rural communities across the country -- in part to explore the proud progressivism that exists in those corners and the policies that help them (but also, checking out mills and grain growers for the book I'm working on). There'll be some jammin', and I'm still slinging coffee, but I understand now how I can do more than I could before. 

I want to put a better possibility on the table. And the way I know how is to connect the dots, to connect them. To weave together something stronger. 

 

A Furnace...

The fire at Smoke Signals Bakery earlier this year. Using this woodfired oven at various stages of the fire, we could bake off different things all day. Hypnotic, in the best way.

The fire at Smoke Signals Bakery earlier this year. Using this woodfired oven at various stages of the fire, we could bake off different things all day. Hypnotic, in the best way.

At Burning Man, there is a tradition of being named. Your Playa name lives on Playa, and sometimes is carried back to the Default World with you. You don't name yourself; the name sort of comes up, often from circumstances around you, and declared by the people around you. Some names change; others remain the same for years and into death. Some people never come into them. But the best names are a totem, a singular word letting you know everything about a persons character, their drives,  providing you with what in old White Wolf parlance may be referred to as a persons nature and demeanor. A word that says a thousand. 

Two years ago, I was cuddling up against a cute fellow on a particularly chill evening, blanketed up at the fire pit of a neighboring camp. We were cozy, and just shooting the shit at the later part of a night/earlier part of someones morning, that time when it's still dark out but there's hints that the sun may be lingering, somewhere, over a horizon, somewhere. The air was crisp, mild winds carrying the cacaphony of twenty different songs and sounds from across the city and every passing art car. We were there for quite some time under the blankets, shooting the shit, warm, cozy, and slowly getting comfortably sweaty. At a certain point, my gentleman friend opened up our blanket, letting out a refreshed sigh. 

"You ok? Not too cold doing that?" I asked, pulling him back into me.

"Not up against you, cutey. You're a fucking furnace," he said, rubbing my chest for emphasis. 

Furnaces give off warmth; they are not singular items, but a multitude of them -- the latin root for a furnace, fornax, means oven. And just like ovens, furnaces are places of congregation, innovation, and activity. Sometimes used as a synonym for a kiln, furnaces also produce things, whether it be steam, or heat, pottery, bread or other bits and bobs affected by heat and pressure. They can be used for practical purposes as well as they creative. Furnaces are things that have kept people warm, fed, and in a way, innovating socially and culturally for ages. 

In that moment, Furnace became a sort of soul-sister self to me,  something that captured more than just the fact that I (a) run hot, and (b) have a hirsute upper body. Reflecting on that name, I got to self reflect, and understand better my natural self is a warm and comforting person; I have no real desire to harm or hurt others. I want people to feel loved, appreciated, worthwhile. I like engaging in those crafts, but especially where hospitality is concerned, I love being able to deliver appreciation and warmth to people through the foods I produce and the environments I put them in. I want that warmth to be infectious, to be a catalyst for other people to go of and bring their best into their own lives, whether that is on matters practical, creative, or otherwise.. 

It being Rosh Hashanah, and in the lead-up to the next Diaspora Kitchen pop-up on October 20, there's been a lot of introspection going on, both in a large way, and in a deeply personal way. Leaving the playa this year I wanted to understand better the ways of bringing more of Furnace back into the default world with me, and specifically how I could bring it into my professional work. I've always given good hospitality, but when it came to our efforts with Diaspora, I realized that desire for creating really awesome environments conducive to interactions, socializing, and leaving feeling warm, almost improved upon in disposition. (And hey, if it invigorates people to go out and create, all the better.). I want to live a life where my work encourages and invigorates others to do better in their own, a stimulating environment that also sustains them physically through eating. Convivia, and a touch more.

I may be miles away from the desert, but each day I try and bring a bit more back with me.    

[There's also the practical matter that, in the last two years, I've gotten to play around with some furnaces as well -- mostly wood-fired ovens at various occasions. The primacy of wood-fired cooking is less so than it used to be, but something about it resonates, and not just because of the naming convention. I like the results that come out of woodfire, the way that it can engender all sorts of feelings, questions, and results. It requires a bit of planning, and foresight, and a little romance. I'd like to figure out how to use one more prominently in my work, and how it could factor into the plans for Diaspora down the line. The oven itself introduces a bunch of fascinating variables for people to engage with that food alone does not. If anyone has a lead on one in NYC, or a place to use one off hand, lemme know.] 

 

Cleaning Pantry

Tonight I did something I haven't done really in far too long -- I baked.

Not for a client, or a pop up or for testing, but just to bake. For myself. And perhaps one other person, the sisterwife, who dutifully cracked open many of the black walnuts whose meat is going into the particular baked goods in question -- namely, that all comfort all star of chocolate chip cookies done the Diaspora way*. It's theraputic when you bake this way, no intentions or goals other than making it; the mind slips away, as it can sometimes in production baking, and you seamlessly enter into a zone of clear headedness only ever afforded to you in the best of yoga or the high point of a hike**. 

This sort of mental clearing house is useful these days -- I've just left one gig, and I'm entering a round of negotiations with the other. If those negotiations fail, I leave that position too, and for the first time since my bout of unemployment in 2010, I won't have a formal job, short of some consulting that will keep me busy through parts of January. There are second thoughts, apprehensions, certainly a fair amount of behind the scenes stressing, and just maybe a dash of imposter syndrome. For being 30, a lot of my professional record is scattered between industries and academia, some white papers and a couple of solid letters of rec and lessons learned. Nary a burned bridge, but nary a feeling that any of my career development is as good a launch point as others tell me it is. 

Taking stock of all this -- the last ten years, the next two weeks -- I begin to clear out the pantry. Baking is good for this, too -- clearing out old product, figuring stuff that needs tossing, reorganization. Getting perplexed as to how certain things got in there to begin with (multi-color jimmies in kettle corn? giant still sealed canister of Cougar Gold?). Looking at the reorganized set, there's a certain order -- the things you forget, the things you use regularly, and the things you use sparingly but necessarily. (Cougar Gold, btw, is definitely the last, and makes a mean mac-n-cheese.) 

The things you forget are occasionally useful, novel, but mostly they lack something that resonates deeply. The sparing but necessary group is the inversion -- novel, useful, and highlight something that wouldn't normally come into your wheelhouse. Each occupies the extremes of the storage pantry. The eye-level stuff the big choc-a-block materials are the everyday, the things that resonate - flours, nuts, dried fruit & beans, but also the spices, the hawaj and the zataar and the marash pepper and things that I don't think i spend a day not somehow throwing into any home cooking I make. It's the stuff that, besides making the practical kitchen and easy stuff you throw together in 5 minutes function, is also intensely personal -- it says a lot like your bookshelf does, spelling out interests, common activities, themes, and the occasional guilty pleasure. 

I miss cooking at home, for people, or having a place/time to do that. I actually derive a large sense of pleasure out of it. It allows me to do the best kind of weaver work, drawing people together and getting to see sparks happen between them. To draw connections others might not see. I like building, tinkering, and having options to do so, to go beyond my comfort zone and trying new things. It allows me the ability to evaluate, experiment, and learn as I traditionally have, on my own, not in a conventional kitchen environment. So when I reorganize, it becomes a recharging thing; an ability to spy what I need to feel at center (more zataar, more hawaj, more rice, oddly enough), and to see where i could grow next (need to get back on the bread making wagon). It reminds me I want a profession, a job, that allows me to do these things, and occasionally be a warrior. One that allows me to explore and tinker in the service of others. And if I can't actually do that in these positions, well, maybe i need to build it myself.  Just like we do with the pantry. We build it up ourselves, all the time***.

But for now, time to go bake off some cookies.  

 

*which is to say, we brown the butter, caramelized the sugar (ATK style), and use half whole Red Fife wheat flour in it, and throw in some Manjari fevres, because Lord and Lady know those walnuts need something to counter-compliment them. 

** minus, you know, sweat, heavy breathing, and sometimes less lycra tights. 

*** see the amazing Trouble Coffee & Coco

Specialty Coffees Wallpaper Problem

In the last week, there have been reverberations from the Dallasfood.org piece breaking down the falsehoods behind Mast Brothers Chocolates, and the subsequent media firestrorm that has followed since. Much of the post-facto deliberation has focused on issues of authenticity, the anger and schadenfreude over the hipster-$10-a-bar chocolate hating crowd, and sometimes asinine thought pieces such as the one in Eater by Helen Rosner, which attempts to blend the two in one of those navel-gazey thoughtpieces that attempts to downplay outrage and talk to consumers (and for that matter, professionals) as if they were children. Thankfully, most commentators, and indeed, other chocolate makers and experts, have made clear that these are not the reason for outrage; rather, it comes down to matters of trust, and more importantly, the ways in which deliberate obfuscations such as those the Mast Brothers have engaged in (and continue to engage in), potentially inflict a lot of damage on an industry that has many practitioners who actually desire to change the way that individual consumers, supply chains, and economics work around cocoa production and chocolate making. 

No one has made this case more clearly, nor more eloquently in 140 characters than Colin Gasko at Rogue Chocolatier. Key among them, Colin has built a strong case for the characteristics that craft chocolate can be said to abide by, and the way in which the Mast Brothers harmed, failed to participate in, and in some ways undermined those norms and behaviors. (Carla D. Martin has also been filling in a lot of beautiful print on the matter, adding history, economics, and sociology to the mix.) The key point they, among others, is spelling out should sound familiar to those in craft industries, specialty coffee, and sustainable agriculture circles: that fundamentally, what craft chocolate is about is redefining the relationship between people and chocolate, from on-farm cocoa production & economics, to chocolate production & sales, to the interactions with customers and shifting expectations as to what chocolate is/can be/should be. That one can have an ethical production practice around cocoa and chocolate and perhaps make a buck at it too. And that there is an education, a learning curve, that can be built upon as being the basis of those activities, understood and recognized in individuals who participate in that process as a craft producer of chocolate. And that one of the key issues of the Mast Brothers case is not the beards nor the fine wallpaper wrappers of their chocolate, but that they broke trust -- with the industry they actively chose to avoid and decry, with the public to whom they knowingly obfuscated the truth and history of their practice, and that they took the moniker of bean to bar as a marketing ploy, less an actual statement of their activities. In an industry that, above all, was encouraging transparency in production and sourcing, they chose to engage in marketing over entertaining those values*.

While there is a furor over the nature of how much of a scandal this constitutes -- from Rosners piece to those who laugh over hipsters buying overpriced chocolate to those who feel shamed or shammed -- there is a clear sensibility that what happened in the Mast case does constitute a failure in what Arjun Appadurai refers to as the "regime of values of goods". The concept is a way of evaluating the "true value" -- moral, financial, and symbolic -- of a particular good. Producers, consumers, and all variations in-between carry with them a distinguishing sense of value over a given product, influenced by media, market information, cost, and a host of other concerns. What speaks to me in the Mast circumstance is twofold: that in an age of increasing consumer consciousness over sourcing and knowing where products are made, the Mast valuation of their goods was decidedly different from those primarily purchasing their goods; however, a willingness to co-opt the values of the industry were part of their marketing and origin branding, in turn damaging the industry they were in, and potentially harming plenty of businesses who were, in fact, engaged values-focused production and sourcing work. 

Unlike Nick Cho's piece on the matter as it pertains to the Mast Brothers relevance to specialty coffee, I'd like to focus the matter moving forward; or rather, to respond to James Hoffmans piece about the lull in specialty coffee, and the way the Mast Brothers issue is part and parcel of that lull, and how we can perhaps move forward. 

When I started out in specialty coffee, in 2006-7, education was something at the forefront of a lot of roasters and shops who I respected. This was especially true when I worked at Barefoot Coffee Roasters (2008-2010, now really Chromatic Coffee),  where the ability of the staff, in the middle of the San Jose-South Bay suburbs, were able to make geekish enthusiasm and hella tasty language come together in a way that Silicon Valley coffee geeks and soccer moms alike feel welcome, try new coffees, and adventure into the specialty coffee world. It was in that space that coffee as a culinary ingredient was at the fore, community knowledge was applied in shop, and when marketing our beans, clear lines where established on labels as to which farms we bought from directly, which ones we got certified, and which ones were just straight up coffees we bought on the fly. Yes, this meant the labels had 100 different symbols on them (UTZ! USDA ORGANIC! FT! SMITHSONIAN BIRD CERT!) but it had the advantage of letting Joe Customer or Sally Specialty Coffee Pro know what they were getting, and encouraged discussions about what was in the bag -- which is half the point of Specialty Coffee.  

Over that time, I began to develop a clear thinking of what specialty coffee could be -- the ways it could move forward, the types of hospitality it could encourage, the ways we could work with customers to increase the drinking public who sought out specialty coffee, and like Alice Waters cajoling in her cookbooks to inquire about farm fresh and organic products, maybe encourage a similar movement in coffee. Specialty coffee could be a vehicle to improve the livelihoods of farmers, professionalize the barista trade (in turn, improving the economic prospects of the coffee labor force), and change customer norms on coffee, maybe even taking consumers and making them what Carlo Petrini refers to as "co-producers" -- people who take an interest or awareness in the making of things. This became cornerstone to my approach in consulting for coffeeshops; that is where I got my rude awakening.

Since 2010 there has been an explosion of specialty shops. Many are run by coffee professionals making it work on their own; many are also run by people with no affinity or history to the industry. These are both fine, and good examples of both exist. But something became clear between then and now, as more shops opened, the less that clarity of mission became . Fewer shops seemed interested in staff education or professionalism than demanding it at standard wages. Many shops I entered would feature coffees from various roasters of good note, but not know anything about the coffee they were serving. The importance of branding and aesthetics seemed to crowd out understanding what made specialty coffee different from the vast coffee world, and education somewhere became a dirty word, loaded in with pretentious barista backlash (much of it coming from shops where, honestly, the staff sometimes knew little about the product being sold. I'm looking at you, LA Mill).

This issue probably took its clearest form in the way latte art became a measure of a "good" shop, especially for consumers. While latte art is a valid way of ensuring certain quality assurance measures are being met, and is indeed a visual plus that distinguishes specialty shops from a majority of their competitors, latte art became paramount in a way that properly calibrated Fetcos or dialed in espresso haven't. Latte art floods instagram feeds, acting as the calling card for shops or baristas, while for customers, a beautiful cover can many times overlay a less than acceptable experience (not asking for a god shot moment, asking for an acceptable experience).  While a bit of a shorthand, I give you this -- we have latte art competitions, but no one is tasting the shots from those comps, are we? When consulting with shops, several were fine with the notion of ok espresso, but sub-par latte art was something that ranked up there with unfavorable P&L's and embarrassing public behavior. Like the Mast Brothers wallpaper wrappers, latte art became representative, to me, of something of specialty coffees equivalent wallpaper problem -- beautiful to look at, highly branded, but increasingly hiding what was going on beneath the foam -- from sourcing claims and buying, to barista treatment, to the outlook the industry was taking on these sorts of issues (which, much like chocolate, had a live-and-let-live sort of attitude, while mulling somewhat glumly all the while). 

Beautiful shops, beautiful latte art, beautiful stories became the (oft uncritical) refrain, which leads to the issue: the regime of values in specialty coffee is having an issue right now. If the SCAA surveys on consumer feedback are any indicator, there is a notion that specialty stands for a series of values -- ecological and social sustainability, flavor, etc -- but that a lot of it is trend and brand associated. This isn't wholly bad -- I don't expect customers to see specialty coffee the entity as the thing to observe -- but the dependency on brands-as-carriers of accurate execution of values expectations creates an issue. It assists in consumers -- at this point passive individuals -- valuing the wrong things, or making it easy for consumers to bank on certain expectations without any of the values underlying those elements actually being met. $5 pourover doesn't make for well paid baristas, usually. $35 for 8oz of Gesha doesn't lead to improved livelihoods for farmers, ecological soundness, or even good messaging in the broader food world. And sometimes, this presumption doesn't even come with well executed coffee. Consumers of specialty coffee are, IMO, being marketed to, and in so doing, losing a lot of what specialty coffee has to offer -- a richer understanding of product and of the world we live in, alternatives to the status quo of "the market"**, and livelihoods for its participants that aren't built on exploitative practices. I believe, as my explosive Christmas eve-Twitter outburst sort of signifies, specialty coffee, as an industry and its membership, has the capacity to do much more if it embraced those elements and what feels like stagnation or saturation within the industry is too many companies who are willing to market themselves and their cafes in the specialty space but not fundamentally engaging with the alternative that specialty coffee represents. 

This it not a post intended to call out individual companies or segments of the industry; indeed, I dont think we have a Mast equivalent. But this piece is to observe, in the face of a current event, several trends that I have been able to observe within the industry, from the perspective of time spent within it, from the feedback of those with longer histories than my own in it, and from the contextualizing work of people who are in specialty coffee in the spaces you don't always hear about -- the Michael Sheridans and Irene Cardosos of our world. I do not think the choice is between latte art or good extraction, hospitality or knowledge, aesthetics or quantifiable measures of quality (or that bogeyman of authenticity) -- it is all of these things. We can improve where we presently fall short, and prove that there is difference between the experience, the product, and the work we do as an industry. We can leave the aping to the larger chain entities of our world, and prove we have viable alternatives***. We can view our guests and customers not as consumers, but as viable partners in that alternative. And we can reclaim the mantle of specialty from the lull we find it in. And it begins with us tearing off that wallpaper****.

* As is spoken about in a number of texts, modern marketing and branding was, in part, specifically engineered to make consumers comfortable with products whose production origins and materials they might never know, and whose production conditions -- usually overseas factories exempt from American labor laws -- were deliberately obfuscated or determined immaterial. 

** There are a multitude of sources on this, Appadurai and Habermas being two, of the notion that there isn't a singular market weighing the world, but a plurality of markets, that we create, engage in, and participate in all of the time. The structures to some of these markets are monolithic -- they're hegemonic in practice, and perceived of as the status quo. But they are man-made, just as any alternative to them would be. This is of particular importance in specialty coffee, where unbinding production from C-pricing could be said to be of paramount importance. 

***Also the reason the purchases of many specialty coffee roasters has proven problematic, but that's another tale for another time. 

****And no, this is not a re-hash of the no latte art movement. But certainly we can see the forest, yeah? 

Professionalism, Pay, and Specialty Coffee

That thing where Squarespace eats your post, which will make this easier because now I can refine the points more clearly. Thanks, bugs! 

So in the last two posts (really three) have come up that have been highly complimentary and interconnected. On Trubaca, two posts on service and the professional comparison game work on defining the role of the barista and its professional obligations. And over at Barista Hustle, the always awesome Alex Bernson tackles the topic of the tip-less cafe, and muses on the notion of how service charges can ease service environments. I encourage everyone to take a look at both presently, as I'll only be touching on them here.

The two articles on service and professionalism within the barista community point to a key issue: there are, few and far between, many professional baristas. Professionalism assumes a series of understandings as to the role and function of the barista both by employers and by the barista themselves. And yet we only ever seem to think of baristas as people who make coffee drinks and provide hospitality. At their core, a barista should be those things; they should also have a growing understanding of the agronomy and origins of coffee, the ways processing and handling affect coffee, and roasting effects, and how various brewing methods effect the flavor outcomes of those coffees. They should be able to provide effective hospitality and emotional labor. In most cases, I would say baristas should be able to troubleshoot and work on basic technical fixes to machinery used in their shops, from espresso machines, grinders, and basic brewing equipment, to dishwashers and water fixtures. For cafes with events programs or roaster-cafes who run wholesale programs, baristas act as important wholesale associates, being the first thing many prospective wholesale clients see and taste from a roaster, and should know how to segue and read those guests when they're in the shop (i.e. direct them on offerings, give out cards, etc), or promote the necessary programs to guests who might be interested or have use for those services. In a certain sense, a professional barista has to be aware of many levels within the profession of specialty coffee itself, as well as a space within the wider hospitality and business environment. 

This is a lot to ask -- it's also nothing that is paid for in most companies, cafes, or other specialty coffee environments. As it stands, most cafes and baristas depend upon tips, not base wages, to supply a fair amount of the value to a baristas wage labor. But as has been looked at in the past, tips are highly variable, seasonal, and by no means consistent; if we look at a standard 40 hour week on wages alone, the average barista comes in at 400/wk before taxes, social security, and all else are taken out. Clocking in at 20,800 annual before taxes, this is not, in the American context at least, sustainable, let alone incentive to invest in the myriad workings of the coffee profession, or being consummate hospitality employees. Short of companies with employee insurance, annual raises, or other such incentives, there's little reason for baristas to be full time employees, or not having other professions, work, or things that help pay the bills. Passion alone is not going to cover it, nor should it -- expertise and professional standards demand pay. 

This is why, in part, the notion of services charges is so interesting -- a way to boost pay without the dependency of guest whims to generate a regular stream of income for baristas. The practice, initially utilized by Euro-centric restaurants stateside like Chez Panisse to build professional standards within their staff ranks, have recently been revived in places like the Bay Area and in fine dining to remove many of the idiosyncrasies and power dynamics of tipping systems. Operating in one of two ways -- either as a flat fee per customer interaction or as a percentage of sales in total -- services charges, like VAT, are there to supply the value-added to a product (such as hospitality service). The coffee may only cost x amount on a spreadsheet, but when you calculate the costs of trained individuals making the coffee, the means of maintaining a staff of such people, a service charge makes sense as a way of ensuring quality employees. For employers and guests, it oftentimes is a boon, removing the awkward process of tip calculation from the equation. (This is not universal; many, especially American guests tend to view the service charge as subverting their right to judge on service, regardless of the fact that those judgments tend to bear on matters of race, gender, and expectations more than the service environment itself.) 

Service charges may do some good, but only under certain conditions. The individual ticket purchase either has to be high enough, or low with enough volume, to simulate or create a consistently high daily return to provision the wages consistently, or enough to assist the employer in subsidizing a standard of acceptable base pay. The charge, whether percentage wise or fixed rate, Needs to be high enough. And to that end, the onus here is still on the barista and the guest, which is the weak point to both articles in the above -- the fact that owner-operators and managers need to be in this picture. 

Much like previous writing I've done on specialty coffee, the issue of professionalism and pay are closely interlocked. And much of it has to do with how we define ourselves as an industry. This is hard because, in every conception, shops want to operate differently, be competitive within their markets, and be successful, which varies in definition. But specialty coffee, if it wants to remain distinct, must offer a value proposition that is greater than machinery or beverages; we actually need to specialize, with a particular pedagogy and practice. Much like defending and distinguishing the coffees we serve through their pricing, the staff we hire in our industry require distinguishing and defense from their mass market brethren. Much like shops that offer a $2 cup of coffee rather than the $4 cup it should be priced at because "it's what the market will bear", shops that demand the veneer of professionalism without building their businesses to pay for that, or expecting "standard going rates" to cover that degree of professionalism, aren't actually wanting it -- or worse yet, undervaluing it and essentially wanting professionalism for pennies. Investing in education, employee growth, and professional development are methods for staff retention and cutting costs on turnover as well as ensuring that the industry writ large can be differentiated from its competition.   

So where does this leave us? We need to have better structural support -- Barista Guild and SCAA would be well served to do more for business planning and modelling assistance for new shops, and maybe work, like USBG does, to help their members with legal clinics and negotiation methods for pay for individual baristas, especially those obtaining certification to give those certs some gravity more than they do now. Building more expansive training into the Barista Certification program, including basic technical training, wholesale service, and even hospitality management, would go a long way to fleshing out the definition and role of baristas and actually service the things they may actually DO on the floor of a shop. Service charges could help to raise base pay for baristas, either as a subsidy for business owners offering better overall wages, or as a tip-replacement. But none of these on their own will replace revamping the business models of cafes to encourage and promote professional standards, pay for that degree of education and staff empowerment, and generate systemic changes to the way specialty coffee is being bought, sold and made. Shop owners, baristas, and the industry need to have a compact not to demand expertise before pay, or pay without any qualified reason*. In an age where minimum wage increases are expected (and should be welcome), and we keep talking about the role of baristas in professionalizing and holding the head of the industry high, we need to remember shop OWNERS have an onus to create their own pedagogy and identity, and actually invest in their staff and their role in creating this industry. Specialty coffee is an industry, a profession, not a passion project that baristas should be expected to carry on their shoulders for pennies.    

* Short of us entering the glorious age where wage-labor is eliminated in favor of basic needs being met through the socialist dream, and baristas can pursue their careers free from material need or worry. I digress. 

The Mission Statement and Objectives of Diaspora Kitchen

Ari Wienzweig of Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, MI, in his book on business management and planning, talks about the need to establish a firm vision and publicly stated mission. He mentions that sharing, besides opening up about your goals, dreams, and ambitions, also forces you to talk stock, defend your positions, or rethink your plans in a way you wouldn't if you keep your materials close to your chest. Sharing it creates accountability. It also, indirectly, forces me to think concretely and spell out the angles of the strategic plan and objectives (which, note, are NOT what a mission statement details) as I re-write the business plan. 

A month ago we gave a general vision of what we want, a year on, Diaspora Kitchen to be as a business in a fully fledged way. Today I'm putting out what took a weekend to piece together, based on the previous business models and thoughts I had written down within a number of notebooks and sketches, finessed into something closer to a series of key points -- the who's and what's of the mission -- and finally locked into a credo that we think encapsulates our values, and gives an indication as to who we are and how we operate as a business and, in the future, as a community. 

A mission statement follows 4 key components:

* What You Do

* Why You Do It

* Who You Do It For

* Who Are You That Do It

[leaves space for all the snickering over the phrasing of the above ;-)]

Now that we've defined the categories, we spell it out.

Diaspora Kitchen is a coffee shop and community kitchen, dedicated to using the products of local and regional agriculture, as well as traditional kitchen literacy, to make delicious food for our community, and inspire, encourage, and empower them to do the same. We do this through providing a space for convivial interaction, as well as workspace for sharing kitchen skills and knowledge both formally (through classes and workshops) and informally (through our means of hospitality -- as a coffee shop, a bakery, a preservation kitchen, and a larder). 

We take this particular tack because, as indicated in our vision, institutional aggregation is not enough to change food systems. While it is important to get preferential buying for local products into schools, hospitals, and other large-scale buyers, unless it is paired with a strong marketing component (as in institutional buying), or an educational component (as with schools or public health programs) there is still the treatment of food and agricultural products as a commodity, with no context for why it is important, the growing practices behind it, or in certain cases, an actual ability to create a viable financial return for the farms in question. Questions of nuance are often dropped, or considered unimportant, in these environments. Diaspora Kitchen reasons that when we promote good agricultural biodiversity, good growing practices, and develop mechanisms for people to purchase those products and use them in their own home, we do more to promote local agriculture by creating experiences, lessons, and windows for inquiry that go missed in other spaces. Programs like Edible Schoolyard work because students see a variety of products, taste a variety, and cook differently with a variety of a single product (think about different varieties of kale and their utility). This increases the KITCHEN LITERACY of a single class, and has been shown, carries a significant post-school effect on students decisions on diet and comfort in the kitchen. We want to tap into that and provide a number of opportunities to encourage, empower, and promote our guests and community to obtain those benefits. We want to build and utilize aggregation from the community/user-end.

  In short, we do this to build CAPACITY for small and medium-sized farmers, hobby orchards, and food crafters, allowing them to DIVERSIFY their income streams and their offerings. By working in aggregation we look to make these products ACCESSIBLE to a wide population of backgrounds, financial, racial, and otherwise. And with a plan to offer a variety of programs and offerings, we look to become a RESOURCE for home cooks, canners, gardeners, and those looking to build confidence in their own KITCHEN LITERACY on their terms. And for myself, I do this because it is, at this time, the best way I know how to finesse and execute on my skills in HOSPITALITY, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, and SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE writ large, and the chance to put into PRACTICE what to some seem only to be theory. 

Diaspora Kitchen does this for, first and foremost, those looking for a refuge, a home away from home. A place to grab a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, to retreat away from matters of work. We are, after all, a coffee shop and bake house, at least on the front of things. A place to think, a place to ask, and place to pick something up you might not have been expecting. We open our house to our guests, those open to PARTICIPATING and building themselves and their community. We encourage IMMEDIACY, and a willingness to be open to experience. And we seek to be an INCLUSIVE space; our guests come from all walks -- the home cook, the coffee geek, the experienced foodie and the person just curious and stepping into their own, and we seek to respect, interact, and encourage our guests on the path of their choosing.

And we do this as people who, ourselves, are on a path as builders, weavers, warriors, but at the front of it all we are HOSTS. Generous of spirit, and skilled in the range of knowledge that kitchens require, we invite people into our house to relax, enjoy, and learn. We are people who REVEL in that grandiose hospitality, that enjoy nothing more than finding the way to answer the unspoken need of our guests, to build a network of interactions that speak WARMTH, EXCITEMENT, and CURIOUSITY. We want to offer you something that makes your eyes light up, your pulse quicken, and make you say "what IS that?". We are the barista who knows the 20something ways to make coffee but will talk to you about your projects first. We are produce monger who offers you a taste of everything because taste will tell you a lot more than we can. We are the bakers who are happy to bake all sorts of loaves, but will be super excited when you decide to try it too, and will give you pointers to boot.

So to put this into a digestable nugget:

Diaspora Kitchen wants to build community, convivia, and confidence around food.

We bake & brew delicious things, with delicious ingredients, and want our community to do so too.

We do this by welcoming people into our house, and being the warmest, enthusiastic hosts we can be to our neighbors. 

And with the intention of empowering our friends and neighbors, we do this all with empathy, encouragement, and the immediacy of experience.

We do this with an eye towards leaving our community better than when we joined it.

And we do this all in celebration of what we can accomplish through food & drink.

So. What do you say? Sound good to you?  

Where to Go When Home is Where You Are

So last week I had the opportunity to go to San Francisco to look at a potential space for Diaspora. An invitation had come through a friend of a friend to look at a space in the Bayview, one of the city's southernmost neighborhoods. Traditionally a working-to-middle-class African American neighborhood, in the last decade the Bayview has become more mixed, slightly older, and slightly economically depressed. It's a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial spaces; south of the Dogpatch, it's home to the city's water services, the remains of the ship-building yards, and hills of Arts and Crafts cottages, mixed Victorian row houses, and warehouses. The MUNI runs through Third Street, and the space sits between two stations - in some ways, a perfect site. 

I spent a day in the hood. I talked to businesses in the area (including the folks at Ritual's spot at Flora Grubb Garden, Trouble Coffee, and even 4B's Portola location). The walkthrough rates are low in the daytime, and there's no certainty it would be a draw or an anchor for commuters. There's certainly capacity to build, and a community that lives and works there -- and will moreso in the future, as an SFSU STEM campus moves into the neighborhood, and as other commercial endeavors come online in the next year. So there are things on foot in the area, but it is not, on its face, an evident line-up for success. 

The landlord is a gent who's lived in the area for 30 years, and is as far as business planning goes, a dream -- liked by community members (and his current renters), knows the insides and outs of the area and its history, and is a booster to the core, wanting to bring energy and resources to the community. He's willing to offer a rent holiday while doing buildout, his square foot rates are appropriate, and he will support the venture from here to high heaven.  The support he is willing to offer is pretty outstanding from my (frankly) limited experiences with landlords. 

So as I sit here, a week later, contemplating this offer, I sit on some uncomfortable ground. Because aside from the gut instinct that the space isn't for us -- it's not large enough to grow into, and would require a lot of reno work -- I question what happens when I, a Jewish, white gay male who spent seven years in Berkeley and Duboce Park, opens up shop in the Bayview. In other words, this is a question about my role and place in the act of gentrification.

The notion of gentrification has become, in recent years, somewhat protean; its definition has been altered, obfuscated, shortened, or made so nebulous as to be all but meaningless. It is oft regarded as some as a net positive, the act of improving and bringing services to previously underserved areas. While true in part, these sorts of dictionary definitions often fit to serve the interests of those framing gentrification in such a way, removing the process and its actions from context, history, and overall impact . The term, coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, focused on the following conceit :: 

" Gentrification commonly occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates opportunities for profitable redevelopment.  It also occurs in those societies where a loss of manufacturing employment and an increase in service employment has led to an expansion in the amount of middle class professionals with a deposition towards central city living and an associated rejection of suburbia. "

This is the standard housing related evaluation of gentrification. Others, such as the one I work with, views gentrification as opposite community economic development; in the former, external sources of investment enter a community and circulate out of a community (investor enrichment), while in the latter external sources of investment circulate through and re-circulate within a community (community enrichment). I find the latter view is helpful in conjunction with the first, as it helps us center the who (is effected by gentrification? benefits from?) and the hows of the development program taking place. 

The process is never just one neighborhood; it is often systematic, happening in many places at once, and oftentimes happens in stages. While nominally about housing or real estate stock, it also has to do with the supporting causes of housing access -- conversions in labor markets and jobs, the structural changes of who is working, where and how, the incentives and programs federal, state and local that deal with property, and the policy actions by various agencies that can cause inter-generational impacts on any and all of these topics (think: redlining as done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, its financial, ecological, and health effects on middle-class African Americans and their neighborhoods).  More often than not, the picture of a place is not its present, nor solely its inhabitants, but the history of a space, its community, and the structural shifts and changes that have come upon it -- implications often masked by narratives we are told about a place. 

In my time working in the sustainable food world, the question of access and food justice are commonplace, and growing moreso, moving beyond the problematic use of the term "food desert" (in itself a code for spaces that are prime for acts of gentrification) and actually finding ways of empowering communities to build their own food economies and avenues. The realization that food access itself was not an answer -- it is tied to the development packages that cities devise for real estate development, to the types of jobs created by such ventures and what they pay, the whos of access to services and political impact, and the hows of ways in which public decision making is devised -- found that in order to help communities in need, you needed to listen to them, to give them the tools and support to empower themselves and gain traction in the decision-making bodies of their polity. Not too lean too heavily on Burning Man's 10 Principles, but the nascent food movement, especially those working in food justice, realized that radical self sufficiency, communal effort, and civic responsibility were keys to generating access, rather than oftentimes imposing a vision of what that access should look like -- and  for whom. 

Coffee shops are not, on their own, responsible for such weighty matter. But I hold specialty coffee -- with its emphasis on improving quality of life for coffee farmers, baristas, and the coffee we drink -- to a higher standard. And as I've spoken about to other peers of mine on this topic, coffee shops are the canary of community development. Whether acting as community spaces or impromptu offices, coffee shops and cafes provide a sense of gravity and activity. As businesses with thin margins, they oftentimes need to seek spaces where rents are lower -- oftentimes finding their core customers are the people whose professional ambitions oftentimes require them to have cheaper rents. These conditions tend to occur in the neighborhoods of the formerly industrial spaces -- spaces closed down through the international race to the bottom of manufacturing prices, the hardball of managements resentment to union wages and the relocation to "right to work" states, or the aforementioned redlining and other urban policies, official and unofficial (domestic security agencies illicitly dumping cocaine into predominantly minority neighborhoods, anyone?). When cafes move into lower rent areas, what we often mean to say is that they are moving into spaces where communities have often been subject to structural forms of racism and economic oppression, where they are able to take advantage of what that means in terms of real estate pricing.

This is not often conscious, and rarely done cynically -- most small business owners want to be able to find spaces where they can afford to do what they want to do. Ultimately they're responding to the conditions years of policy-oriented decisions have borne. But none of this happens in a vacuum, and the ways in which shops behave in these environments matter. Hiring baristas or coffee interested people from within a community matters. Do people see themselves in these spaces? Invited into them? Do owners do the things that provide their workers dignity, an affirming wage, and a space to grow as people and employees? Does your staff make assumptions about the members of your community, or do they know and understand their de facto neighbors? Do you, as an owner, live in and understand the day to day of your neighborhood, or do you telegraph in from another neighborhood or place? And do you, as a business owner, understand if and when resentment may be raised at your if displacement begins to occur within your space? 

These were questions that racked my brain back when I was writing the various business plans as part of my masters thesis at NYU; more than that, I was attempting to look at ways to both (a) think systemically about the business models of cafes and (b) how to make such things viable business engines for community development. Both of these made reference points to job training, hospitality management, everything from service flow to the offerings on hand. Could I maintain price points that did what we wanted to do for farmers and coffee growers, while also affording to pay my staff above-average (15-20/hr) wages, and didn't fundamentally exclude large portions of the community within which I was located? The answer, as always, was "within reason". Consumer choices and business action alone will never be able to rectify the structural problems that exist in labor, commodities markets, real estate. But we can look upon and question whether we gamely accept those conditions and encourage them for personal gain or whether we can use business as a means to help rectify and organize against some of these conditions*.  

Which brings us back to the blank e-mail I've been trying to write for five days attempting to tell this guy no. Part of it feels purely logistical and business oriented. Part of me is racked -- this could be an opportunity, it could be a great way to test these waters. But part of me is also staring at these questions and wondering what the best move is. I currently have the resources to put one shot out there right now. And that one shot has a lot of work to do. In my mind there's a lot of business side thinking that is telling me no. But these questions that this particular instance raised in me are important questions to be asking, because the same way specialty coffee only succeeds when it really works on the side of its suppliers and growers, the same holds true of the communities and the customers it serves. That's why running a community business is important -- because the community is the element that matters, and how you define and operate your business community matters. And when concerning the role that business play in the drama between gentrification and its alternatives, that can make all the difference.**

*I'm reminded too much of the situation of Yaron Milgrom and the Local family of products in San Francisco as the Worst Case Study in this setting. While the story is still filled with holes, there were a few things interviewers and stakeholders agreed upon: Milgrom didn't really work with Mission residents or consider them his primary clientele or his source of labor. And when things blew up, his response was to get antagonistic, or more precisely, remain silent. While his mission is fantastic, I don't think the same care as say Bi-Rite went into thinking about how his work fit into the neighborhood or how it would effect it. 

** See the business differences between Bi-Rite and Local and you get some of that distinction.

*** On a personal note, this is also about commitment. In an ideal world where resources didn't matter, I'd be bi-coastal between California and NY. My family is in the former, along with communities really dedicated towards creating convivia around good food. In NYC, I have an amazing group of people and an intellectual life that is hard to beat. CA has hiking in close proximity; NY has a truly all night to sunrise nightlife. California has work-life balance; NY has people whose edge of expertise is sharper in some ways than I've seen elsewhere. Choosing one place to put down roots is no small decision. But its a decision that needs to be made. And if the issue of gentrification is one of the meta-sized issues of human existence, this issue -- the one of where my home, my community, my people are, is the big question weighing me down because if my visit to SF proved anything, it's that I have a home in both places, FAMILY in both places, and a community in both places that I strongly support, love, and want to build in. Locating where that home will be is probably as hard a question as what that home will look like, save wherever it ends up, it'll be the place I want to be. 

The 6 Cookbook Kitchen: Or, Things to Look For in Cookbooks

So we found out about a month ago that T'ai and I (and our roomate Dave) would be needing to move. Our landlords are deciding to build condos on the site, and while I'm wistful to give up the mantle of the Celebrity Cannibal Rat Boat Sex Box (memo to self: when naming a residency, think succinct!), it is probably time to move on from our possibly mafia-controlled digs and move on. The Sex Box (shorthand) has been a fantastic home since I arrived in New York, both due to its swell location off the Lorimer L, but also due to a fantastic roomate, who not only made my transition to New York from California much easier, but has also accomodated the large degree of kitchen activity and experimentation that has taken place since I moved in. (I mean, he tolerates having cases of fruit stacked up in the living room. He's a gem!)

As the search begins for new digs, it also means the packup for moving has begun, though not quite in earnest yet. No boxes have been purchased, no sales planned yet. I think there will be a clothing dump and maybe a swell couple of bags on its way to Housing Works, along with some bric a brac that has accumulated over the last four years.  One of the biggest concerns, besides the entire pantry overhaul that is going to need to happen (coconut milk! rando grains! delightful yet minimally used fermented tofu!), is frankly going to be moving the cookbooks. And that has got me onto the idea of (gasp) maybe letting go of some cookbooks and making a visit to the Strand desk. But more particularly, it has gotten me onto the idea of what makes a good cookbook. 

So confession -- that's not actually the question. That's the frame i'd like to use for the question, but asking about overarching qualifiers gets us into the game of Desert Island cookbooks, limiting libraries, and playing that Solomon-esque game of picking and choosing that, while occasionally fun, is rarely useful.  And while I still have reservations about the Great Restaurant Cookbook Rut of 2013-4*, I don't like to admonish people for their selection of what may inspire or get them into a kitchen. Sure, the Manresa book may be completely useless, but damn if the ideas didn't get me jumping just a little to try a couple of new things (make your own vermouth!). So when I say what makes a good cookbook, as I prepare to move a couple dozen titles from one residence to the next**, isn't what makes a good book, so much as what makes a cookbook worth keeping.

While I don't like the listacle nature of the Desert Island books, there are in fact six books from this collection which do make the point of what to look for in a cookbook. And while they won't be the only six coming with me, they do define the characteristics of what to look for in books to keep:

1) "Every Grain of Rice" by Fuschia Dunlop. We used this in the cookbook club I hosted for the last two years, and it was one of the favorites. Dunlop does everything an author should in the genre: have a specific goal (introduction to Chinese home cooking, specifically of the southern Sichuan/Hunanese sort), a good pantry primer and methods primer in the first few chapters, and recipes that have been vetted within an inch of their lives. While not a deeply academic title (like Diana Kennedy's "Regional Mexican Cooking"), it fits along with "Rick Bayless Mexican Kitchen" for a primer in regional cooking. Both books are great for minimizing takeout needs, as the ease with which one can prepare order-in staples makes the effort worth it. 

2) "Chez Panisse Cooking" by Waters & Bertolli. This entire lineage of books, including those made by Chez Panisse progeny David Tanis, Cal Peternell, and soon Russel Moore, could be a 7 book library unto themselves. The cookbooks written from la famille Panisse are accessible, thoughtful, coherent, and written with an eye to encourage cooking from even the most introductory cook. But "Cooking", and its later child "Cooking by Hand" from Paul Bertolli, who wrote the majority of the previous books text, is essential because of its copy. "Cooking" weaves together several categories of food (general categories of "Fruit", "Vegetables", "Meat", and others), in which basic methods for evaluating and shopping for raw product, basic preparation, and the infinity of uses for any given item are thrown together in a linear, helpful way. It takes the reader through such conceptual bits like how to plan a menu, what to consider, and even essays on bread and wine, giving the reader tools with the distinct charge of taking command of their eating and dining habits. In the age of "soylent dining" this kind of book is indispensable. 

3 / 4) Good to the Grain by Boyce & Pure Dessert by Medrich. Spoilers! A two for one because (a) I'm a baking fiend, and (b) because baking, compared to cooking, can need a couple of iterations. Both books (as well as Medrichs entire library) are great for a couple of reasons. Breads and baked goods are different from basic cooking, and the components matter for both flavor and consistency. Both Medrich and Boyce vet out those distinctions and deliver not only good primers, but also means to explore the contours of a pretty wide field (grains) within a constrained field of use (baking). Boyce gives a good intro to both breads and baked goods for the home cook; Medrich does the same with pastry and baked goods, but also goes on the ingredient path, showcasing the way you need to think holistically about a medium, its components, and its additions. Both have been essential to understanding baking. (See also, Robertson's "Tartine Bread" for specifically bread baking). 

5) Like the Chez Panisse books, Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" is a primer. But it's also, unlike them, completely encyclopedic. Single topic books like this, whether for regional cooking, or for singular topics (like Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's "River Cottage Meat Book") are a value because of their comprehension. They fill in blanks, they go into details general interest variety books leave behind, and they turn over stones you may not have thought to turn over (like the environmental and nutritional impacts of grass v grain fed meat, or the seed-saving potential of the home garden). They are amazing because they engage with information and their reader as a form of advocacy, yet still retain the ability to get someone behind a slab or meat (for grilling or breaking down), or into a market or garden to use produce in new ways. Whereas the Chez Panisse books hold their politics implicitly, these books offer professional depth to counter the notion that cooking work isn't thoughtful work.

6). Death & Co Cocktail Book. Basically, with the advent of the internet, the need for a general cocktail book is gone. And while I love cocktail books that showcase the originality of a chef, I find that, like restaurant books, they sometimes become undone because they feature things only the bar has access to or that can't be accessed by a reader. Great for inspiration, short on function. But a book that explains bar layout and glass type, prototype recipes for cocktails and variations puts a lot more strength in the hands of a reader. I like what bars can do for the home bar person, and the Death & Co book, more than most others, spells it out with little romance and a lot of caveats (which I appreciate). 

A cookbook should make you want to cook and increase your capacity to do so. It should feed your brain as much as your belly. I'm not sure this list does anything to diminish the size of the library, but it does provide a window into what we like to see in the culinary world.  I don't think we need dozens of cookbooks, though they certainly provide inspiration; truth be told, having not spent large amount of time in professional kitchens, most of my knowledge comes from the writing of cookbooks. But it's precisely because of that experience that I'm not sure so many need to belong on a shelf -- because good cookbooks give you a framework to run with, a methodology to approach from, and an encyclopedia to check-in with. But the rest? Well, that's up to you. And that particular joy is exciting, emancipating, and empowering. 

*a rough period of two years when cookbooks came out from places like Manresa, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Noma Part II, Husk, Coi, and a number of other restaurants that fell into one of two categories -- beautiful but completely useless (the majority) or functional but perhaps not well written. It seemed that the promotional aspect of cookbooks reached a fever pitch in this period, and for all the press they received, it was rough as there were far better books out there in the world, but everything seemed to revolve around these restaurant titles, regardless of their actual functionality or literary merit. 

**There is a closet full of cookbooks back in Los Angeles. It is a terrifying thing of beauty. 

The Diaspora Vision: Or, What a Social Enterprise Food Hub Looks Like

Back when i was working on my city & regional planning degree at UC Berkeley, finding the intersection between agricultural sourcing and urban planning, I stumbled upon the body of literature covering the concept of food hubs. At their core, food hubs are institutions that bring products from a number of farms together in one place for the purposes of aggregation, co-processing, marketing work, and gaining access for farmers who otherwise produce too much to scale at farmers markets or for whom the need of institutional purchasers is necessary (think: flour, beans, and other bulk dry goods). The literature is wide-ranging, covering everything from simple aggregation schemes to much larger social enterprise missions. According to some, they are the second stage of development for sustainable agriculture, as some research indicates that we are hitting a plateau of interest (some may say accesss to) local foods in the direct-to-consumer market. 

Food hubs, are, in most cases, pretty solid. You may not ever see them publicly touted or visible in plain sight, but you've likely been serviced by one. If you buy products from Whole Foods in the Northeast, for example, you may be purchasing from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative and Red Tomato,two groups that bring products together from small and medium sized farms and distribute them to restaurants and larger buyers such as Whole Foods (who have more centralized systems of purchasing that place small and medium size producers at a disadvantage).  Many ideas for them exist throughout the United States, and many are used as economic development cases. At their best, food hubs represent not only an aggregator of product (as any conventional wholesaler would be), but also conduct some degree of value-added work, some form of jobs training and food-based entrepreneurship incubation work, and if one is lucky, also doing the marketing and co-branding along this entire line. When done cohesively, food hubs can not only bring together product from smaller and medium size producers (some of those most in need of support), but also create direct product stream flow into the businesses that can add value and create additional value for those products, with the added marketing, promotional, and business support required to help those products find markets, both big and small. (They can also, as our model we worked on for a food hub in New Rochelle, include a retail storefront that provides a direct to consumer space, allowing for direct feedback to producers and farmers alike.) While some argue that they are middlemen taking value away from farmers, more often than not food hubs can add value by diversifying the types of markets farms have access to, reaching a wider audience than they might have had otherwise and minimizing waste through bulk sales & purchases. 

This all hinges on the caveat of "when". As the momentum on food hubs have increased, so too has the simplification of the concept.  Many interviews and stories simplify the concept as simply one for "aggregation", which has almost become a code word for reducing the cost of produce to increase accessibility. This on its face is a fine goal; getting access to institutional buyers and increasing the possibility for restaurants and other parties to get access to those products is great. But on its own its insufficient; wholesale is, on its own, a poor space for farmers to obtain value, and aggregation can sometimes diminish uniqueness of product when it's not presented well or valued as such. Only if certain stakeholder points are met -- pricing meets a value-plus floor acceptable to both distributor and producer -- and if marketing is sufficient can those elements be overcome. But the dual-income problem -- of producers receiving enough payment to cover their costs and pay them sufficiently for both their social livelihood and the ecological services rendered, and for consumers, generating value for them both nutritionally and access to jobs that can pay to purchase those products at those prices -- still exists and is probably a pernicious issue of the food hub development scheme. At the end of the day, schemes that focus on aggregation alone and forget about the community economic development angle for both rural and urban communities is doomed to replicate the systems that, ostensibly, food hubs are designed to counter. 

Specifically lost in all this is the social enterprise side of the food hub equation -- and the connection between creating channels not only for existing food businesses but specifically cultivating and generating new businesses where connection to local supply chains is built into the existing plans. And furthermore, making products accessible to communities doesn't necessarily reflect the ability or comfort of those communities to utilize those products -- the food access equivalent of bringing a camel to water but being unable to force it to drink. The promotional, education, and use capacity of communities taking part in sustainability enterprises is still fraught -- wanting to respect communities, promoting culturally appropriate and use-responsible methods, and generate an understanding of regional agriculture -- takes time, and oftentimes is seen as an externality that other orgs can take on; the food hub exists just to make it possible. 

So when we devised the business plan for Diaspora, I thought long and hard about those elements. You may be thinking "but don't you guys do jam and baked goods?", and you would be correct -- jams and baked goods are the things we have done while I've worked two other jobs. But at its core, the business plan -- the thing I wrote my masters work on -- was focused on developing a food hub for community use. Jams, breads, preservers and the like are just some of the products one can make in sufficient scale through aggregation. But providing a space where those products and their production are showcased, where communities and individuals have access to purchasing those products at retail or in quantity for their own processing -- that sort of project gets at my core. I love making jams -- I also love seeing people make their own. Much like the Happy Girl Kitchen Food Preservationists, I envision Diaspora as a space where people can come to learn about preservation methods, purchase products in quantity, and make their own jams, preserves and the like. And like the Bi-Rite Market family of products, I want to take on more advocacy and community development work, fostering a space for nascent food producers to be presented publicly.  Diaspora may on its face be a cafe-bakery with amazing coffee, delicious food, and righteous hospitality, but it's also a place that can act as a community food organization, supplying families, individuals, and perhaps yes, even businesses with foods & knowledge they can use, at a price that leaves farmers, guests, and indeed us, a middleman of sorts, happy to do the work we do. We want to use convivia as a mechanism for change. We want to be the conduit that makes a social enterprise, well, social. 

Ari Weinzweig, one of the guys behind Zingermans and a huge contributor to the managerial philosophies to which I ascribe, talks about the need to be public with our visions of what it is businesses want to do. And I believe wholeheartedly in that -- both because our missions and values should be public and because those ideas are inseparable from who and what I am, and what we want Diaspora to become. For that, we not only have to talk about these ideas openly, but also have others know what we want to do, and as stakeholders in our project, hold us accountable to what we hope to become. 

Some spring in our step....

So in our last post we hinted that there are some things afoot here in the Diaspora Kitchen, and by hinted, I mean did that terrible thing where we bludgeoned your over the head with news of an announcement, and thusly, here we are. (I'm pretty sure not following through on such things is like a -1 modifier to your luck roll.)

So first, the more droll bit of news: we're formally launching Diaspora's subscription service for jam. This was a practical thing -- a lot of folks wanted jams sent to them on the regular, with new offerings, and bits of news and updates, and didn't want to have to go through shopping each time to do it. So we're making it easy by setting up a 4-month subscription. At the start of each month, you'll receive 2 jars of decidedly delicious jam plus a little newslettery bit from T'ai & I here at Diaspora, with a little note about the jams, current events, and upcoming events. This all comes at the steal of $100 for the four month run, which amounts to a $20 savings off our retail price. (Imagine ALL THE KOUIGN AMANN YOU CAN BUY WITH $20!!!!!)

The second announcement is far more interesting: starting in May, we'll be starting a weekly community-supported bread (CSB) drop. Like a community supported agriculture (CSA) box scheme, the CSB is a pre-paid, weekly drop, containing two different offerings (at this point): either a single loaf of delicious bread (changing week to week but mostly pullman-style bread loaves) OR a single loaf of delicious bread (same terms) PLUS a delicious tack-on goodie bag, containing anything from additional baked goods to seasonal treats from our friends at the Greenmarket. Loaves and goodies are picked up at a pre-selected (and consistent) location, every week, without fail. we're still working on that particular detail, but that's fine -- we need a minimum of 20 members to make the CSB worthwhile, so we'll be hoping some of you sign up for the subscription -- either option A for $8 or option B for $15 -- on the shop here. (It's also the opportunity -- hint, hint -- to tack on a monthly jam delivery as well. Because bread & jam, you know, kind of go well together.)* 

The CSB model works for us in a number of ways. While Diaspora is making money from our jams and pop-ups, the CSB gives us the opportunity to expand our repertoire and our abilities, and begin scaling Diaspora to a project that we want it to become. It's been a while since I've done production baking, and like any skill, its something that requires practice, and allows me to get back into that rhythm. The CSB also gives us the operational capital to buy fun stuff like bulk flour, kitchen space, and the biggest thing, new equipment. Jams and pop-ups were the first step, and they'll still be our mainstay. But starting subscriptions and the CSB will allow us to also begin building something with regularity -- something that also helps build community, which is a cornerstone of what Diaspora is about. 

But that's another post, no? 

Catching Up

So, it's been a while, no?

After figuring out that my work from the Terroirism blog is now more or less lost to time (my Squarespace coverage was given to this website), AND after having my first two-day consecutive weekend off in 14 months, it feels fair to be able to say "hey, maybe you should start writing again". And thusly, here we are. (Not to mention: Easter! Resurrection! Spring awakening! Etc!) 

The last 14 months have been a whirlwind. I was a market manager for Greenmarket, the NYC farmers markets, where I enforced rules, conducted outreach campaigns, printed recipes and did cooking demos, and woke up way too early on Saturdays for a year. I also took on an events and operations position for the great Regional Grains Project, a side project of GrowNYC and the Greenmarket working on rebuilding the Northeastern grainshed. I went to the NOFA-NY Winter conference in January, which was a blast, and introduced me to some lovely people -- including the grains farmers we work with in the RGP, the great kids from Elmore Mountain Bread in Vermont, and generally getting a lil drinky and social with some of my favorite farmers and farmers markets attendees, like Tamarack Hollow Farm and Quinciple. We've hosted a few pop-ups, and even have our first true wholesale account with the awesome folks at Boxkite Coffee in the East Village & Upper West Side of NYC. I've also continued being a floor barista for the kind of delightful people at Everyman Espresso, who continue to be my grace. 

I say have been because it's been about time to put some things to rest. My time with the Greenmarket is reaching a conclusion, and along with getting back in on writing,  it's been time to re-up our commitment to Diaspora, taking it from a nascent project of the winter months to a fuller, more buxom being in our slowly arriving spring. We've got two new projects starting up in May: we'll have more on the both of those later this week. But needless to say, watch the space -- Diaspora is coming back in a big way in 2015.

Summer Programming: The CSA Challenge

For the last two years, we've participated in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box program. For those unfamiliar, a CSA works like this: you pay a farm in advance (sometimes in installments) for a weekly pickup of foodstuffs, for a set period of time, usually about 20 weeks, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on seasonal variations (tho a few, to their credit, run year-round). Each week you pick up a box of fruits & vegetables, with other things like grains, eggs, meat, honey or prepared foods like preserves added on (depending on what your farm in particular grows, or the farms they may be working in partnership with). And so it goes, until the time comes to an end for a season.

A CSA is a great thing for a number of reasons: it supports a local farmer, giving them cash up front at the beginning of a season when cash is tight, giving them the space to secure equipment, seed, or experiment with new things they may not have felt comfortable trying before (like a new crop or a new technique). It also brings you farm fresh produce weekly, and can be crazy substantial -- we've typically shared our boxes each year, alternating weeks, and found ourselves being able to use all the produce in about a week and a half time. So a full share, at the height of the season, can be generous. This is not to say there aren't ups and downs -- since you've essentially invested in the farmer for the season, if the season gets rough -- like a drought or extensive summer rains -- sometimes the box returns can be slim pickings. Sometimes, if you're not careful, you'll select a CSA that has an established crop preference (like ALL THE LETTUCES) -- tho that one is avoidable and most farms are forward about what they grow and don't. And the double edged sword -- sometimes you get produce you do not know about. And what can be both a challenge and a joy is finding out how to use it. 

We for one enjoy the ups and downs of the CSA model, and that's why this year, we're going to be documenting our experiences with it, and what we end up doing with our weekly bounty. We'll toss in some recipes, mention the retail value of our weekly drop, and throw around the highs lows and ostensible laughs of what happens when you suddenly end up with five pounds of rainbow chard. Hopefully you'll enjoy and come along for the ride! 

Ramping Up

No puns this time! (Besides, ramps are like, so last month.) 

So we've been quiet since the pop-up, and with good reason -- we sold a lot of product (like, all of our jams from last season, which is awesome), Stephen started a new gig working for GROWNYC, the greenmarket operators in New York City, and while spring has definitely sprung here in the northeast, nature can be a tease, and fruits of the spring-y sort -- cherries, strawberries, and other berries -- are still a few weeks out from being available. So while we've been baking plenty -- we're getting to test some flours as a part of the NY Regional Grains Project -- we're still waiting on delicious fruity things to come from the trees. So jams are out for a spell -- but only a spell. 

We've been experimenting with flavor combinations, and this year it'll be nice to have a depth as well as breadth of flavors. Not just cultivar-specific jams, but also more flavors within categories. Take, for example, strawberries. Not only are we going to have the awesome Seascapes from Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in August, but we'll also have Raritans from Norwich Meadows in July. Along with straight stawberry jams, we're also looking to have the return of the strawberry caradamom-saffron jam, a chamomile-infused strawberry, and if Bernard Ranches in California gets back to us in time, a Meyer Lemon Strawberry marmalade. And that's just strawberries. 

Pop-ups are coming back -- we're currently working on two: one hopefully for midsummer, and another for the fall to showcase the full new jam lineup. We're also talking to the wonderful folks at New Amsterdam Public Market to pop in once in their new season, as well as the group Made In LES, to host a cooking class or two during the season. Can't wait for those? You know that Diaspora also does events -- cocktail parties, planned dinners, a group cooking class or even just a birthday cake. If any of those interest you, get in touch at info@diasporakitchen.com -- your respected source for all questions big and small. 

So worry not -- like the spring itself, we know we can be a bit of a tease. You'll see more of us soon. 

A Clockwork Cara Cara Orange

Winter on the East Coast can be (and thanks to this short-lived cold snap, still is) a bit dreary. Apples & pears, harvested back in October and November, have been cellared, and while some varieties may be awesome, most will be reaching the end of the operational awesomeness, their sugars converting to starches and the structure giving way to mealier, grainier textures. Most stone fruits and related crops are still a while off, and numerous warm snaps may have lead to early budding which, followed by a return to cold weather, may decrease yields of cherries and other fruits this year. In other words, we still have many weeks before we can access any solid local fruits (let alone salad greens and, dare i say it, tomatoes). 

Traditionally, the East Coast has received a respite from the winter fruit doldrums through the world of citrus; in the 1700's, it was sour oranges from Spain, sweet oranges and lemons from Italy and the Ottoman provinces, and limes from the Afro-Caribbean, and in the late 1800's, by icebox rail from California. Representative of plenty and richness in the New Year, oranges became occasional Christmas gifts (ever get one in a stocking?) and a generally active presence on middle-class tables during the winter season. (Jared Farmer, in his "Trees in Paradise: A California History", gives an awesome evaluation of American culinary and consumer preferences on the citrus.) The citrus club has only grown, as Texas and Florida jumped into the commercial game in the 1940's, and the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside began to develop new cultivars and dig into the multiplicity of global varieties of citrus from blood oranges to Australian finger limes (mostly for geekiness, but also to keep the diversity of California commercial citrus crops highly competitive on the global market). 

The Cara Cara, by all rights, shouldn't exist. It's a spontaneous hybrid, a mutation derived from the Bahia Navel (itself a grafted cross between a Portuguese Sour and Valencia Sweet oranges) that found it's way to California in the 1980's. In this particular mutation, the fruit produces elevated levels of lycopene, a cartenoid that gives red grapefruit and blood oranges their deep hues and berry-like flavors (and tomatoes their deeply-hued flesh). The result is a navel orange with grapefruit-like qualities of slightly pinkish, juicy-sweet and bracingly bitter flesh with a firm, almost cinnamon-spicy zest.   While a great eating orange, it also has a multitude of culinary applications -- think in salads with avocado and pickled red onion, or mixed with other citrus into a raw compote for savory (ceviche) or sweet (tossed over pound cake and whipped cream). 

I have to believe that's part of the reason the marmalade itself is so versatile. It doesn't have the aggressive, almost tannic bitterness that a three-fruit marmalade would have, nor the cloying sweet-sourness that tends to come along for the ride. We've been taking samples and trying them out and thus far the marmalade itself lends to sweet dishes on its own -- toast, ice cream, the great Provençal dish of marmalade omelette with fresh chevre -- but diluted down by stock or as a component of a sauce, the endless dressing or savory uses of the marmalade could be legion. Duck l'orange comes to mind immediately, but dishes where bitter orange is used, like in some Persian, Moroccan, and Iraqi dishes (think braised lamb with cooked citrus juices and couscous) and a whole world opens up. It's a definite example of the way in which cultivar-specific cooking can be manifest -- we couldn't have necessarily done this with, say, Valencia oranges or generic navels; even Ruby Red grapefruit would have been too bitter, and the pigment dulls too much. The use of the Cara Cara was purposeful, intentional, and as a result, we get to offer you something a little more dynamic than you'd find on your average store shelf. 

 

It's a Date!

Have we spoken about the illustrious power of dates? 

While Diaspora Kitchen is dedicated to using the products of the Northeast, you could call us a little slutty. There are just a couple ingredients we use on the regular -- spices, sugar, and citrus -- that just don't happen to grow so well in the colder climes of New York and the surrounding areas. And so when we find an awesome farmer or grower somewhere in the continental US doing awesome stuff -- like the Bernards of Bernard Ranches in California, from whom we get our citrus, for example -- we will put in an order or two, or pack a suitcase full of the stuff to last us a while. 

Traditionally, in places like New England and the Mid-Atlantic, dried fruits of various types have had an illustrious if occasionally ignored history -- currants or raisins in Boston brown bread, dried fig or apricot in the fillings of hamentaschen, various dried fruits in the fillings of empandas or other savories of Latin American foods, or the presence of dried apples in the apple stack cakes of the Appalachia (though variations on a theme exist throughout the bluegrass and low-country American South, with combinations of dried apple, apple butter, and apple sauce taking on different importance in certain regions....I digress).

But dates are especially compelling. The fruit of the genus Phoenix dactylifera, it is botanical kin to the palm trees that dot Los Angeles streets. Whereas many of those trees are ornamental, date palms are specifically a distinct clade within the palms because they fruit (dactylifera meaning date or finger-bearing, from the Greek). While a number of cultivars exist botanically, an interesting point of date botany is the added distinction of not only the botanical distinction between trees, but also the harvest period of a given date palm. Some, like Barhees or the common Medjool date are picked specifically when young and "soft", when their sugars are soft and syrupy and not fully developed. Semi-dry dates, such as the Deglet Noor, are "ripe" when they have lost moisture and the texture of the fruit is firmer, less chewy and moist. Dry dates, like the rarely seen outside of Algeria Thoory date, are like little packets of sandy brown sugar, brittle packages that are only ripe when they have been on the vine long enough to wick off moisture and crystallize the sugars. That the species are distinguished based upon harvest cycle is unusual within most cultivated fruits. (They also tend to ripen much like grape clusters, where whole branches will ripen at the same time, though not necessarily bunches on the same tree.)

Dates are little miracle workers in the Diaspora Kitchen. Besides being great little snacks, they also do beautiful things in baked goods, adding moisture to cakes & cookies while converting in the oven to little brown nodules of sweetness that are both tasty and mildly beguiling, Think of them as that girl in every high school romantic comedy who isn't visible but always gets good lines -- you don't always know they're there, but you like what they add to the equation. Chopped up in mandelbrot-style cookies, they make for sweet little accents alongside almonds or hazelnuts. In Persian-style lamb stews fragrant with cumin and black limes, they help elevate the sweet unctuousness of lamb abreast of the savory spices. And in our particular favorite, we mix them up with our Honeycrisp Apple and Seckle Pear compote and place it in shortcrust hand pies, where they convert into liquid brown sugar, buttressing the flavors of apple and pear, while acting as a foil to the pepperiness of our quatre epices blend. 

Want the recipe? It'll be coming in a day or so! 

 

Taking the Leap

[Note from Steve: This was written back in January on my professional blog over at Terroirism. It sort of gives some good background as to my professional life till now, and some of the things that drive our mission here at Diaspora. SSW]

A New Year seems like a good time as any to begin with an introduction (also, this has been a post a long time coming): Hi, my name is Stephen Wade. This blog was started as a way of distilling some of the work I was doing as a masters student at NYU's Department of Food Studies into more easily decipherable, legible, and less jargon-tastic pieces of short-form essaywork. Inspired too by my work in the world of specialty coffee and urban planning, the blog Terroirism was a melange of topics and covered a lot of ground in a lot of different capacities, albeit inconsistently and with gaps in time. (Realization: unless blogging is your professional life, your actual professional life gets in the way of writing occassional. Quelle shock!) 

I graduated with my Masters back in July, having written a thesis that was one part business plan and one part review of food hubs & institutions that mimic their capabilities. The thesis was an amalgamation of work not just in the program, but also professional consulting I had done (and still, on occassion, do) under the name of this very blog. The business plan element was a long time coming, something that I have had visions for but have always put off; coffee I have long jokingly defined as my abusive relationship, and my purpose of getting a masters was, in part, to get me back into the world of public policy, advocacy, and other work that I have done for a multitude of other organizations in volunteer andinternship capacities, yet never gotten the opportunity to work in. That's where I always felt I could do the most good, and the reason why I kept doing research papers, presenting at conferences, and doing things that were on the career-track for that line of work.

That line ends now. Or rather, is being recast. Part of what got me in my research was that food hubs take on a number of forms. And some of the restaurants and cafes where I have had the pleasure of working (or spending inordinate amounts of time at) fulfilled many the functions of food hubs, directly and indirectly. They were restaurants and classrooms; community spaces and coffeeshops, distribution points for CSA's and processing facilities for farm produce. Places like Charlie Hallowell's Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Jessica Koslow's Sqirl in Los Angeles, or Matthew Dillon's Sitka & Spruce group in Seattle all had elements of this at play, and all reflect their respective geographies. And they all play a role in my thinking about next steps. 

Ari Weizenberg, of Zingerman's, writes about how new businesses come from a process of good vision planning but also good mission statements. His method for going about this talks about the need to start from content (the who's, what's and why's of what you do) before moving to the composition and contrast of what you do -- the physical, material and structural things you will be building. This was an amazing exercise, and a conceptual framework I have used with clients before. It was crucial in setting up the business plan I assembled in my thesis, and as such, was useful once more when I sat down to reconceptualize the blog, but also my larger goals of which it has always been a part.

Terroirism is still going to be the home for a lot of content regarding urban planning, community economic development, and sustainable agriculture. Those are topics both near and dear to my heart, and are still professionally relevant moving forward. There'll still be thoughts on coffee and elements of the specialty coffee industry. But as one professional relation once told me, my visions and interests are too big to be constrained by sticking to coffee. And while it has served as a good medium for me to talk about a number of topics, there is a time to be moving on professionally within it. 

In that spirit, Terroirism is also going to become a home to document and talk about the day to day development of Diaspora Kitchen & Provisions, the pop-up element to a much larger project, that of establishing the business I laid out in my thesis work. I think smart businesses can integrate the goals of sustainable agriculture into their business models, and not only be profitable for themselves, but for their communities and employees as well. Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Rainbow Grocery both uphold that fact in very different ways. And while coffee is still a stimulating professional field, I need to begin actually working on applications of my other interests and goals within other fields I consider myself to be a growing and learning professional within. Coffee cannot, as of this time, remain my sole source of income nor can waiting for policy jobs to pick me up be a rational course of action. 

It was also in this spirit that a decision to remain in NYC has become personally important. When I left SF in 2010, I realize in retrospect I did so without putting up much of a fight and without following all my options. Being 23, sort of lost and at that point unemployed an trailing in kitchens was neither going to pay way in SF, and there was a lot of pushback from my parents that I had neither the confidence nor heart to protest. I left a lot in SF and I still regret that particular choice to not dig my heels in and commit. After over two years in NYC, and having split a professional life that has one eye cocked towards the west coast for some opportunity that has yet to avail itself, I've built up too much of a community, too many good people and see to much change that can happen in NYC to leave just yet. NYC has many of the same problems as the Bay Area -- a place I still look to and feel as my spiritual home -- and many things that it lacks, especially where food sustainability issues are concerned. If I can do work in this field -- this wide open space where all these things come together -- and make it here, then, well, you know how that old ditty goes.

Here's to 2014, everyone. Time to take that jump. 

Finding Focus in a Lifetime of Histories

As we've attempted to make moves with Diaspora, I find myself re-writing business plans, excel spreadsheets, and affirming both visioning exercises and mission statements to help focus the core values of the business, both to make it more holistic, as well as to provide the root of the systems that will make it work. But the one sticking point is when I continue to evaluate menu development, and recipe testing, I find myself somewhat flummoxed. 

Creating a menu of things that reflect culture or background require you to dig deep -- to go back into time and memory and relive experiences, places, things that have stuck with you. Meals sit in memory, memories beget contexts, and that thing that you were reflecting on when you had that bite of something you found phenonenal suddenly comes rushing back. It's first times and last times, moments you think will happen another time and never come again. It's times that were magical because of who was behind the wheel at a given restaurant, or a certain time of year. They are whispers, sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, and there is never a time when you can seperate the dish from the context. 

Finding coherence in memories and whispers of taste can be a challenging proposition. I draw the lists of endless meals and dishes and divine the things that bring back floods to mind: The mel-y-mato at Cesar in Berkeley. My dads brownies/the brownie at Du-Pars. The lumberjack cake at Frances. Roasted pluots and noyeaux ice cream at Pizzaiolo. Apple dumplings made by a fellow resident in the Stebbins Hall co-op at Berkeley. Bakewell slice in the UK. Trazee peaches from Peacock Ranches. Vickis Tarocco blood oranges from Bernard Ranches. 6-hour long lunches at Aunt Mina's in Tel Aviv, finishing with mint tea, Turkish coffee, home-made schnapps, and baklava, small cookies, and most likely a pound cake of some sort after 13 previous courses (the original tasting menu endurance test). New York crumb cake from Seattles Best in LA. Kanelsnegls in Copenhagen. The babka and various sand cookies of a long-forgotten Jewish bakery in Studio City where there now stands a Panera. The white truffle hazelnut macaron at Pierre Herme in Paris. And let's be real, anything to step foot out of the bakery at Tartine. Deeply caramelly steamed puddings from The Robin Hood, our Van Nuys, CA British pub. Foccaccia with red onion "bruscetta" from our local Italian white tabelcloth joint Spumonte, also in Studio City. 

Things like this lend a lot of the mind, and its easy to get lost in fogs of forgotten moments, unlocked feelings for peoples and places where I am not nor ever will be again. It's nice to know my sense of recall is working, and that indeed there are moments of food that permeate strongly through time. Perhaps it's the red wine -- Broc Cellar's 2012 Vine Starr Red Zinfandel, as awesome as the last two vintages I've had the pleasure of having -- that's leaving me a little unfocused in all this listing and reminiscing. But without these memories, the use of personal and cultural history can become an empty, hollow thing, without attachment or purpose. It can become rote, or deeply cynical, or worse, both. A menu, ultimately, reflects much of this. And so focusing on the past is as much attempting to find inspiration as it is to root it down to something meaningful, prescient, and much more powerful.