Monday, October 22, 2012

Food Justice Across Cultures

Don Tyler hard at work at the Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop

Last week my friend asked me if I wanted to meet an Iraqi family that has recently settled in Louisville. This family literally had to flee for their lives, and are now safely settled in Louisville as refugees, part of the Kentucky Refugee Ministry program that settles families such as this.

My friend and her daughter have been tutoring one of the three children and helping the family work through the maze of life here in the USA. The mother of the family (let's call them the Jafarris) told my friend that in just two years here in Kentucky, she has gained a considerable amount of weight, and her children are eating a lot of sugar and salty snacks, and are refusing to eat most vegetables. Since arriving in Louisville, they have had to participate in the "system" in order to afford to eat and exist: SNAP Benefits, WIC, Medicaid, etc. The irony of this, as many of us know, is that these federal subsidies often encourage unhealthy eating and life styles. For example, WIC subsidies pay for sugary cereals, conventional cheese, sweet juices, etc. Only $10 of WIC subsidies can be used to purchase fresh produce. Refugees see their fellow Louisvillians buying up the snacks and soft drinks with their SNAP Benefits, and the cheap, easy calories might even become a signpost to these families that they are finally becoming American. Diet-related illnesses, unfortunately, often follow, and then the doctors they see, not knowing or asking the family their food stories, will often prescribe meds, then more sickness, more know the story.

We brought the Jafarris over a produce basket share from the Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop. The week's share was collard greens, kale, pumpkin, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, pumpkin, lettuce greens, etc.

One could of course make the assumption that this family was unfamiliar with most of this local produce. However, my instincts and years on the ground have taught me that opening up the discussion to try and understand each person's individual food story is the very first step toward economic justice and equality. Never should we ever make the assumption that we know more than another adult just because we might have more education, more life experience, live in a better neighborhood, and G-d forbid, have a lighter skin tone. But this is exactly what I see and hear all over the City as I talk about our work at New Roots: "We just have to educate THEM." "THEY don't really know how or want to eat produce, we have to teach them," etc. However, time and time again, I learn that if I simply ask questions of people and listen, I am always happy to learn that, actually, the tables are usually turned. I walk away learning more than they did.

But back to my story. As we slowly started to lift the produce out of the boxes, I asked Mrs. Jafarri if she knew what the vegetable was, or if not, I tried to compare it to some similar vegetable she might have seen in the Middle East (it helps that I have traveled to the Middle East and I am familiar with the cuisine). For example:

"Do you know what this is?" (Me, holding up some good 'ole southern collard greens).
"Yes, we make dolmehs with them. We stuff them with rice and herbs." (Ms. Jafarri).
"Oh, yes dolmehs! So you don't only use grape leaves for dolmeh's?" (Me).
"No, we use these also." (Ms. Jafarri).

Some of the vegetables were not that familiar to the family. For example, acorn squash. My friend took this squash home, and cooked up some awesome squash soup and brought it back over. She also engaged the children in cutting up some sweet potatoes for fries. Smiling faces all around.

HA! Stuffed collard greens! Suddenly it dawned on me that the refugee population are in fact, creative and important participants in rebuilding our local food system and cuisine. A whole world opened up to me. Suddenly I started to think about all the possibilities for us here in Louisville, and the cross-cultural dialogue that can happen—that must happen—around refugees and our local food system. I have been connected to Catholic Charities Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program for many years. It is a great program that helps refugees who might have been farming in their native lands, learn how to farm in Kentucky, and either make a living out of their work, or provide food for their families and friends. However, what I am thinking about is reaching more of the families who did not farm back home, who don't have the time to farm and/or seek out farmers' markets (that are often way too expensive for them, unfortunately), and want to eat local.

I would love to create a Fresh Stop that includes refugees and other families, bringing groups of people together who would normally never cross paths, to collectively raise our food and health IQ. Anyone interested?

Stuffed Collard Dolmehs with Grassfed Beef, Rice and Peas
Ingredients (20-30 Grape Leaves):
30-40 Collard Green Leaves—you will need extra leaves to line the bottom of the pot
1 cup rice
1 medium onion
1/2 cup yellow split peas (lapeh)
1/3 cup lemon juice or vinegar
2-3 tablespoons sugar
1 lb of ground grass-fed beef
½ cup to 1 cup fresh or dry (or combination); these include parsley, cilantro, green onions, mint and savory leaves, and a small amount of tarragon.
salt, pepper
turmeric (your preference; I added 1 TBS)
olive oil

Chop up the onion small and fry it in a pan with a little olive oil. Add the meat once the onion is golden in color and fry the meat. Add about half a cup of water and allow the meat to cook. You will add salt, pepper, and turmeric to the meat as well. Allow the meat to cook for at least 20. Once the meat is cooked set it aside and allow it to cool.
Heat up water in a pot and boil the yellow split peas for approximately 25 minutes. Then drain and set them aside to cool.
Heat up water in a pot and bring the rice to a boil. Drain the rice and set aside to cool.
Clean any fresh herbs and chop them up slightly using a food processor (or a knife). If using any dry herbs make sure to use less than you would if using fresh herbs. Mix all these ingredients together in a bowl, add salt and pepper for taste.

Carefully cut away stem from collard leaves. Boil them in water for a few seconds so that they soft. Lift out with tongs and lay out flat. Take the leaves one at a time and lay them on a surface or cutting board. Take some of the mixture and place it on the leaf and then begin wrapping the leaf up like a little package, folding in first the top of the greens, then the sides, then rolling them up till they are somewhat rectangular.

Add oil to the pot you plan on using to cook the Dolmeh in. Take a few leaves that aren’t wrapped and place them on the bottom of the pot. Take all the prepared Dolmeh’s and place them on the bottom of the pot leaving no spaces.Take the 1/3 cup of lemon juice (or vinegar) and add the sugar to it. Add about a cup of water to the juice/sugar and stir everything together. Once the sugar has dissolved pour the contents all over the Dolmeh’s in the pot.

Place a plate (or something else that’s heavy) over the Dolmeh’s to make sure they don’t move around. Turn the burner on to low heat and place the lid on top of the pot. Allow the Stuffed Grape Leaves to cook for 30-45 minutes. Don’t let them burn! Enjoy warm, with a side of tahini, salad, etc.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action

Ms. French and young friend making homemade ice cream at the
Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop Karamu Party
Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action
Excerpted from and inspired by the book of the same name
by Marcie Cohen Ferris
In honor of Black History Month and the
Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop

[On February 9th, the Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop held its first annual Black History Month Celebration or Karamu—Swahili for Pot Luck Celebration. We had two Kentucky African-American farmers speak, two beautiful songs and a poem shared, food memories and a new movie featuring the work of Fresh Stop and Youth Achievers Leaders. Lots of great food was eaten, old friends greeted, and new friends made. This celebration inspired me to collect some stories of the shared history of Jewish and African-American cooks in the latter part of the 20th Century in the southern part of the United States. Enjoy!]

Matzo Ball Gumbo in Action

During the colonial era a pivotal relationship emerged between Jewish and African American women in home and synagogue kitchens as they exchanged recipes for collard greens and matzo balls. They shared an unlikely alliance as outsiders—Jews because of their religion and blacks because of their race. The kitchen became “free zone” where African American and Jewish women bonded as they prepared meals for the family. Within this space, an important blend of southern and Jewish cuisine emerged.

Atlanta Brisket with a secret ingredient, Coca-Cola, lox and grits, sweet potato kugel, collard greens with cracklins” (made from chicken fat, or schmaltz, of course), Sabbath fried chicken, Rosh Hoshanah “hoppin’ john.”

More than food passed back and forth between Jewish and African American families as black cooks and caterers baked sweet potato pies and cornbread dressing for Jewish employers and went home after the holiday meals and bar mitzvahs with leftovers.

Chopped liver, blintzes, stuffed cabbage, sponge cake, potato pancakes, tzimmes, kreplach, kishke, and gefilte fish.

A fifth-generation Jewish New Orleanian, Catherine Kahn traces her family history to Paris, Alsace and Lorraine.

“I saw my first bagel at college,” says Catherine Kahn. My family pretended they didn’t know anything about Jewish food. To eat Jewish was to look Jewish. By avoiding traditional Jewish foods and instead embracing the cuisine of New Orleans uptown white society, we affirmed our allegiances. We did not deny our Jewish heritage. Rather, we were “quietly Jewish. In the 1930s and 1940s when fear of anti-Semitism was palpable to all Jews, we kept a low profile where being Jewish was concerned.”

Cold lemon stew fish, Sister Sadie’s Honey Cake, creole cream cheese with boiled potatoes and green onions, Kosher Mardi Gras king cakes, Matzo Ball Gumbo.

Shirley Bateman-Barra was a well-known figure in the uptown New Orleans Jewish world, an African-American caterer.

“I learned my trade from my grandmother Lucy Ater. Together we prepared food for Jewish holiday dinners, bar mitzvahs, weddings, temple banquets, and society functions for more than 60 years. Grandma Lucy was born in 1893 in Berwick, Louisiana and overcame poverty and limited education to become one of the leading caterers in the New Orleans Jewish community from the 1940s through the 1970s. One benefit of working for Jewish families and learning to cook Jewish was the assurance of future jobs within the community. The way it happened was that Grandma Lucy cooked for the Rittenbergs, one of New Orleans most prominent Jewish families for many years. At this death, Joseph Rittenberg left a bequest to Grandma that allowed her to open her own catering business. I learned from Jewish people how to handle food and what to do with food. Most of my cooking experience is from Jewish people. I think they loved me and I loved them. After studying to be a dietician at the State University of New Orleans, I took over Grandmother’s catering business. Jewish people, they like to eat! They like to eat more than they like to drink.”

Ponchatoula-grown chocolate-dipped strawberries, miniature cheesecakes, salmon and egg-filled appetizers.

Vinie Williams, an African American woman born in Ville Platte, Louisiana, began to work for the Jewish family, Myrtle and Bernard Zoller in the 1950s and stayed until their daughter Anne Zoller Kiefer married in 1967.

Says Anne Zoller Kiefer:

 “At holiday time, Mama and Vinie prepared Jewish dishes. They could cook for a crowd. My entire life of wonderful family eating experiences was solidly nurtured from my mother’s country Jewish recipes to those of Vinie Williams. Together they created the perfect mix of Jewish and spicy creole delicacies like Dirty Matzo dressing for Passover.”

“The Jewish grandmammas—they just died so fast. And the recipes went home with the maid, the bartender and the chauffeur.”

Caper sauce fish, matzo schalet, MawMaw Evelyn’s fig preserves, okra with tomato and corn, stuffed veal.

Mary Jordan, an African-American caterer, worked with Atlanta’s German Jewish community from the 1940s to the 1960s. Through contacts Mary made with Jewish families she began to cater Jewish functions and parties. Jordan’s son Windsor now runs the catering firm.

“I remember the downtown Jewish grocery store owners who lived near mama. Me and my brothers, Vernon and Warren, played with the eastern European children in the neighborhood.

“We first met Jewish people in their small neighborhood grocery stores. The storeowners would let us black customers buy on credit and pay them later. You could go in there and I don’t care what you went in there for, he always had it

“Mama knew the rabbis well. They advised me on the rules of keeping kosher. We developed a taste in our house for corned beef and knishes. The Jewish families always requested soul food-styled dishes because, in the South, they were going both ways because they were so influenced by southern cooking. And you know how bland Jewish cooking can get after a while. They wanted some soul. And it was “Jewish Soul cooking.” You added a little bit there to make it taste better. I mean, how many times can you eat matzo ball soup? Mama was the original black Jewish mother. Before she died, she told me, “When I go, I want God to come and cook.”

Scrap cake and candy from downtown Jewish bakeries to make “sad” cakes and bread puddings. Eggs, chicken feet and necks from Southern Egg Company, chicken necks stuffed with bread, onions, green peppers and spices.

Lamar White, food manager for Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, began work there at age thirteen when he helped his grandfather. By incorporating African American flavors and cooking methods Lamar created a southern and kosher culinary style distinct to Atlanta.

“My food is so popular, the synagogue sells carry out trays of my brisket, meatloaf, barbequed chicken. People ask me so what makes this kosher food different from food eaten in an Orthodox synagogue in New York? Only way I can tell you the reason why it is southern is because there is nobody like me in those areas. I’m not in there cooking. I guess you can call me, Lamar White the secret ingredient. My knowing African American cooking traditions and combining that with the knowledge of kosher, created a uniquely southern Jewish culinary experience.”

Crispy baked chicken, cornmeal-fried fish fillets, Pesach fried green tomatoes, red soup, Lamb spare ribs, Brunswick Stew, Kosher pickles.

Lisa Cohen lives in suburban Atlanta, and shares her household responsibilities with Fannie Bailey, an African American cook and housekeeper who has worked for the Cohen family for more than thirty years.

“She makes the best chicken soup. It is so clear. It’s like the Gulf of Mexico. You can see straight through it right to the bottom of the pot.”

“It’s through food that you keep your culture alive—okra and yams—those were brought over from Africa in seed pods in Fannie’s ancestors braids. We both want our children and grandchildren to have some kind of cultural background. Food is really how you weave it in. People can take you out of your native land, but they can’t take away your food and your habits and your culture.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

Youth Achievers/New Roots “New You” for a New Year Project

Youth Food Justice Leader LaJuan Odom giving
“Karyn’s Hummus” with fresh veggie dippers a try
At the end of 2011, New Roots and the Chestnut Street YMCA Youth Achievers decided to join our strengths and create the very first Youth Food Justice Leadership Training in Louisville. New Roots developed a Food Justice Leadership Curriculum in 2011, but this eight-week, 16 hour class was geared towards adults. Our challenge was to come up with a training for children from K-7 that would reconnect the children to their food culture and history, and therefore encourage a return to cooking and eating “from scratch,” i.e., with fresh local fruits and vegetables. The idea is to instill pride in the children that they are descended from men and women who had (and still have) an abundance of knowledge about growing food “out of the ground,” and that without their ancestor’s foresight to bring seeds across the Middle Passage to the Americas, southern cooking’s main ingredients, i.e., okra, collards, yams, etc., would never have arrived on these shores.
In November 2011, New Roots organizers Blain Snipstal and Karyn Moskowitz met with the Youth Achievers volunteer leaders Kellye Cunningham, Ria Chandler, and Jamie Keith, and their children, to create this new partnership and ensure that it would be community-inspired and led. The five of them invited the parents of the Youth Achievers to come to an open forum in December 2011, to find out what issues the families were passionate about. The parents were very interested in talking about their children’s and their health, and how to start to lose weight. The families are from all zip codes around Kentuckiana, so the issue of food justice didn’t come up as much as it does in areas of Louisville where many people are having challenges accessing fresh food. Parents were very interested, however, in the injustices they see in the JCPS school food, that is, that some schools have better food than others, that the menus sent home don’t always reflect what is actually served, and that the food, in general, is not healthy. They felt that JCPS school food is exacerbating the problems of childhood obesity and going against what some of the parents were trying to do at home, namely move away from processed foods into a fresh food-based diet. At the end of the session, Blain gave out fresh bok choy to any family that wanted some, and there was great excitement in the air. The feedback we got from the parents was very positive. Many asked the Youth Achievers leaders when New Roots was coming back.
After many weeks of organizing, and expanding the planning group to include some New Roots board members, Shawnee Fresh Stop leaders, and other volunteers, including actor/director and JCPS teacher Jou Jou Papailler, we came up with a plan. Saturday, January 14th was designated “New Roots Day” at the YMCA Youth Achievers session. The program was two hours long, and included an inspiring introduction by Ms. Ria Chandler, and a presentation on African-American food history by Blain Snipstal. In small-group sessions led by Mr. Papallier, Ms. Myrna Brame, Ms. Mary Montgomery, Mr. Nathaniel Spencer, and Mr. Snipstal, the children talked about their own personal food histories. The small-group sessions were followed by a one-hour “round robin” where the children and their parents rotated through 5 tables of fresh snack demonstrations led by four volunteers, Doris Bailey Spencer and New Roots board members, Ali Mathews, Karyn Moskowitz and Kathey Schickli. The idea was to offer snacks that children can either make on their own, or with the help of their parents, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Snacks were chosen that “mimic” the sensations of eating fast food, including creamy, savory and sweet all in one meal, such as hummus dip with fresh carrot, pea and cucumber dippers, orange smiley faces with fresh pineapple chunks, lettuce wraps filled with “luscious fruit salad,” celery boats with raisin sailors, and “instant” banana pudding made from fresh bananas, applesauce and yogurt. The children loved the snacks! Thanks to the creativity and initiative of Kathey Schickli, the children were each sent home with a kid-friendly cookbook, which included recipes for all the snacks prepared that day. And much appreciation to Ms. Lynn Johnson, the Director of the Black and Youth Achievers, and the YMCA for purchasing the beautiful fresh ingredients that went into the snacks. The day ended with a rousing speech by Ms. Myrna Brame, reminding the children of their connection to the produce that grows on the farms in our region, and asking them to visit their elders and bring back their stories to share at our next gathering.
55 children, 10 parents, and 10 New Roots leaders, for a total of 75 people, attended the event. The children were sent home with instructions to gather information, including recipes, photos, drawings, etc., about their own personal food culture and history. New Roots will reconvene with Youth Achievers on February 25, 2012. The “New You” group would like to keep meeting throughout the school year, hopefully once a month. The parents will be invited to join in the second annual Food Justice Leaders Class, starting in April, at Redeemer Lutheran Church. In June, when the Shawnee Fresh Stop kicks off, we will invite the children and the parents to join the organizing team so they will learn “the ropes” about Fresh Stops. In August, when the children return to the Youth Achievers program, we hope to teach the children community- organizing skills so they can see if the neighborhood residents surrounding the YMCA would be interested in launching a special, pilot Youth Achievers Fresh Stop before the end of the 2012 growing season.
At the beginning of 2012, New Roots is excited and hopeful about the prospects of developing Youth Food Justice leaders. We invite anyone in the community with an interest in helping our youth to reconnect with their personal, family and community food history and culture to join us in this innovative adventure.