Film Review: A Place at the Table

Let's be honest:  we don’t get out to the movies much. We are the exact wrong people to give you any recommendation of the latest releases at your local theater.  But recently we've come across and enjoyed a few films on farming, food, and social justice that seemed so relevant, thought-provoking, and compelling, that we wanted to share them with you.  Our first film review covers a Magnolia Pictures documentary on hunger in the US.   

We saw A Place at the Table when it showed as part of the Peace and Justice Film Series at the University of Montana.  The film examines the issue of hunger, specifically child hunger, in the United States, where one in four children experiences food insecurity at some point in their life.  

The storytelling is good, offering a mix of compelling experts in the legal, policy, and health issues surrounding child hunger but anchoring the narrative firmly in the first-hand experience of several families, in both urban and rural settings across the US.  

One of the key issues the film illustrates very well is that childhood hunger and obesity are not problems on opposite ends of a spectrum, but are in fact intricately linked.  It is possible for a child to be both hungry (as in not knowing when or what the next meal might be) and obese. One mother, whose diabetic second-grade daughter illustrates the trend of the development of health problems in younger and younger children, talks about her challenge of trying to stretch dollars by buying the cheapest available foods available in her local stores--which are generally highly processed and less healthy. The girl answers the school health worker's questions about what she will eat when she goes home after school with a single word: chips.  

Another eye-opening point in the film was that agricultural subsidies in the US go overwhelmingly to crops that are the main components of highly processed foods.  Vegetables and fruits represent a tiny sliver of the agricultural subsidies to farmers.   This is reflected in the availability of healthy foods in some geographic areas; both of the urban families discuss how far they have to go to reach a fully stocked grocery store, or find any basic foods like whole fruits and vegetables.  The camera follows one mother on a three-bus, one-hour journey one way to the nearest grocery store.  

This is one of those films--the best sort, really--that leaves one asking "well, what can I do?"  I cringed at the well-meaning enthusiastic student coordinators of the film series who stood up after the showing, thanked everyone for coming, and asked for donations that would go to a Kiva account "to fund projects, like farming and food projects all over the world."  Though I understand the good intention, it seemed almost as though they had missed several key points of the film:  that hunger is not just a problem in other parts of the world, but a fundamental threat to the health and productivity of the United States, as well.  

Like most real issues, there is not a simple answer to "what can we do?" Certainly, giving to or volunteering at a food bank helps, in the short term.  Establishing community gardens in food-desert neighborhoods, or working to help schools incorporate fresh local farm products or simply acquaint kids with healthy whole foods, are all wonderful. The odds are high that an organization near you can provide that opportunity.  

But we can't let ourselves off the hook with a $10 donation to the local food bank; when we dig in it's clear that the root causes are grittier, less charming, and harder to tackle. Measures like private charity programs and government food assistance, which were intended as short-term stopgap measures, have become long-term projects that are not an effective way to accomplish the goal of food security. Poverty and government agriculture and food policies do not make for such satisfying volunteer opportunities.  But I'd encourage you to watch the film, think about the message, and look for ways to keep that in mind in your own actions, votes, and conversations. As the film explains, hunger in the US should be seen as an issue of national security:  when the children who could or should be the future leaders of science, engineering, military, and education, are unable to focus in school and chronically underperform because of their hunger, we are not setting ourselves to live up to full potential as communities or a nation. 

Source: http://www.magpictures.com/aplaceatthetabl...

Making room to dig in and give thanks.

Things will be quiet here in this blog space this week. Many of our recent days have been filled to overflow with the farmland search and re-search, and the next few will bring an even more intense digging in.  

Later in the week we'll retreat to a family Thanksgiving in Oregon, the car loaded with winter squash, potatoes, and a turkey from a young Missoula farmer.

While we are away, we wish you days of safe travel, gratitude, good food, and warmth.  We'll return next week with more images and stories.  

On The Table: Three Sisters Quesadillas

Squash, corn, and beans are among the staples of indigenous agriculture in the Americas.  In some places the tradition of growing them all three together in a polyculture led to the trio being known as the three sisters.  We grew the three crops in separate portions of our garden this summer, but they all ended up together at the table this week in a single dish we now refer to as the three sisters quesadilla.  

This dinner stemmed from two inspirations:  a half-gallon of pre-cooked squash stored in the fridge and needing to be used up, and memories of black-bean and sweet potato burritos we've loved (sweet potatoes don't really grow here, so we haven't had those in a while). This is probably a good place to admit that this, like many meals we feature,  did not begin as a grand pre-planned vision.  It grew organically and unexpectedly out of what was on hand at the time. Sticking as much as possible to food you grow can force some creativity.  That creativity can lead to brilliant discoveries or, well, less than ideal combinations. Sometimes popcorn is dinner.       

For today, though, we'll stick with another success.  As usual I'll give you not so much a recipe as a set of directions.  And not the GPS or google-maps kind of directions, but "turn left at the red barn, swing right around the stump, and keep on going till the bottom of the hill" kind of directions.  Don't worry, you'll get close enough.  

Three Sisters Quesadillas:  

First, ideally a day or two ahead of time, bake far more squash than you can eat.  Scoop the leftover squash out of the rind, puree or mash it, and store it in the fridge trusting that you'll think of something.  

Next, start some black beans soaking the morning of your intended dinner.  Convince yourself there is some sort of burrito-like plan for them and trust that it will come together by evening. Before going out to feed the sheep, set the beans on the stove and simmer them for an hour or more (unless you, perhaps, have not blown the seal on your pressure cooker, in which case you can cook your beans much more quickly and feed the animals whenever is convenient).

About the time you start to get really hungry, decide the squash and the beans will go together quite well, and formulate a burrito plan (because there are still tortillas in the fridge, right?).  Sautee a chopped onion, a few red-ripe jalapenos or other good pepper, and a big handful of garlic cloves.  Add them to the simmering beans along with a little cumin, salt and pepper. Let all of them simmer till they are a good soft texture, adding more water as necessary.    

Pull out the bag of store-bought tortillas, and now.....choose your own adventure: are you lucky, and they are still good?  Great, proceed to the last paragraph and save yourself some serious kitchen chaos.  No, you see furry spots?  Sounds familiar. Feed those to the chickens and keep reading. You're going to need to make some tortillas from scratch. 

Montana cornflour tortillas (in no way traditional, but they worked): take two large handfuls of kernels rubbed off of the dry flint corn hanging in all corners of the house.  Run them through the grain attachment on the Champion juicer, and discover with great joy that they make a nice fine corn flour.  Mix your two large handfulls of corn flour with one handful of wheat flour (ok, sure, you can use cups if that works better for you). Add a half-teaspoon or so of salt and a generous slosh of oil (or a quarter cup, if you like).  Stir the oil in with a fork, then use your hands to rub it into the flour.  At this point the mix should seem dry still, but hold together a bit if you squeeze a handful.  Add just enough warm water to make a firm dough.  Roll and pat that out into shapes as close to circular as possible, and as thin as you can get without breaking.  Cook them on a flat hot skillet, flipping twice, till slightly browned on each side. Stack them up as they cook and keep covered with a cloth, so they stay warm and flexible.  

On each tortilla, spread a layer of the squash puree onto one half of the circle, and spoon a layer of black beans, then a layer of grated cheese.  Fold the other half of the tortilla over to enclose the filling, and cook on a griddle untill the cheese is melted and the tortillas match your desired level of toastiness.  Top with salsa, and perhaps the very last of the garden-grown red tomatoes.  Enjoy.

Plants We Love: Black Turtle Beans

I have one sharp memory of harvesting and winnowing dry beans as a young child in the family garden, perhaps becuse the process involved jumping and stomping on a truckbed full of dry pods on a chilly fall day. Most years, though, our family garden did not include dry beans, and this year was the first I've grown them myself. 

Once we decided to include dry beans in the garden, it took considerable restraint to limit ourselves to 4 or 5 varieties. Heirloom beans are one of those crops with a diversity of colors and patterns that draws me in to a point perhaps beyond reason; the flavor descriptions only furthered the obsession. I poured over the bean section of the seed catalog and found myself wanting to collect these varieties the way birders accumulate species on their life lists.  And yet, this was new to me, the first time I'd planted them in a garden of my own.  Most backyard growers I know don't bother with dry beans.  We've been missing out. 

A double handful of Black Turtle Beans, and two stray Jacob's Cattle Beans, straight from the garden.  

Dry beans are one of those crops that often cause people to ask "is that really worth growing yourself?"  It's a question worth asking.  Buying enough fresh basil to make our year's worth of pesto would be drastically expensive, so certain crops like that make clear economic sense.  Cooking beans, on the other hand, are already one of the most affordable foods available, especially in bulk.  If you credit any sort of value to your time, you probably aren't going to put away much savings by growing your own black beans.  But of course that isn't the only reason we plant. 

One of our goals this year has been to go beyond just vegetable-growing, to really think about and learn what it takes to feed ourselves completely, to grow the staple calorie and protein crops that provide the base of the diet.  When we think about the feasibility of feeding the world--filling the billions of bellies--these kinds of crops seem important to know and understand. 

This is a food you can raise yourself and easily eat throughout the year, without any special means of putting-up. No canning, freezing, or special dehydrating needed. Once they dry on the vine, it's actually quite quick to crush the pods and blow the peices off the top of the heavier beans.  Or you can sit around and shell them by hand if you happen to be having a long conversation with a neighbor who also isn't used to sitting with hands still. Now we have quart jars filled on the shelf for winter, and another box of dry pods that can just wait till we have time for it.  In the end, these were one of our easiest crops.  

They were remarkably simple to grow, essentially taking care of themselves after initial planting and a few passes of weeding and mulch.  By mid-summer they were a thick jungle of leaves well capable of holding out against any weeds--almost impossible to walk through, but that was fine since they didn't really need any attention again till fall, when we collected dry pods from the frost-killed vines. 

The beans pictured here, and appearing most frequently on our table lately, are the Black Turtle Beans, grown from seeds from the High Mowing catalog.  They are the most-mainstream of the bean varieties we grew, in part because black beans are our favorite bean for burritos, a frequent food on our table.  I was skeptical of whether there would be much taste difference between our home-grown and store-bought black beans.  It's not the level of difference that we notice between purchased and home-grown tomatoes, but it's there.  The beans cook more quickly (probably because they did not get an additional heated drying period on a warehouse after harvesting), and we think they do have a richer, deeper flavor. Though they'd be cheap to buy, growing them ourselves was well worth it. 

 

On the Table: Harvest-Day Potluck

This week our featured meal is the one we shared on a neighbor's table on Sunday.  We had joined friends and neighbors at Turner Family Farms for a special annual workday: the fall hog butchering. They raise a few pigs each year on their small farm, including their boys' 4-H hogs and a handful of others that are sold directly to neighboring families who agree, as part of their ownership of the animal, to help with the processing.  

We'll tread gently, in this space, on the topic of raising animals for consumption.  We know how personal the decision to eat meat is, and that for some people it is simply unnacceptable. We, after various periods of not eating meat, have now chosen to incorporate animals into our diet as mindfully as possible, including being a part of the entire process. For us, one of the outcomes of a committment to knowing the full story of our food has been that we eat meat very sparingly.     

We are not quite as insistent as that couple parodied in the Portlandia sketch, who must request every detail of the chicken they order.  But we do take some good-natured ribbing from family sometimes for our "where did it some from?" questions, and we do take the vegetarian or wild-fish option most often when eating out. Of course, we're not complete purists: we've succumbed to the pancetta-topped pizza at our favorite place without obtaining a full pedigree, more than once.  And sometimes as a guest, it's best to simply eat gratefully and not ask too many questions.  

So, at events like potlucks we are usually pretty wary of the options.  But when we broke for lunch at the Turner's, it was an interesting and different experience to be at a potluck where each contribution came from a family willing to engage so directly with their food as to help in the butchering process.  And so we were suddenly faced with a surprising array of choices: slow-cooked barbequed chicken grown right there, home-smoked pork, and wild game chili with a squash and bean base.    

On the table, at a different table this week: the potluck feast on harvest day at Turner Farms. 

I have a theory that when people really understand and engage with what it took to produce meat, it tends to be used more sparingly: smaller amounts can feel denser, more nutritious. It doesn't have to be in a huge slab or the main event of a meal. And so, of course, the other featured foods were just as exciting and filled out most of the plate:  cabbage slaw, kale and spinach salads, dollops of roasted winter squash, baked brie with huckleberry jam, and the just-unveiled sauerkraut the Turners make each year in a stone crock over 100 years old (the secret, they claim, to their successful and delicious saurkraut each year).  

It was a solid day of work, but felt like part of a long tradition, too.  We cut and packaged up seven animals to be used throughout the year by about ten families.  We ourselves brought home one-half of a hog, and are venturing into our first experience home-curing bacon. It's meat that will be a benefit to our cold-climate winter diet, gifts for family at the holidays, and sourced in a way that we can feel good about. It doesn't mean it's easy, but at least we are part of the whole process, all the way from the field to the table.    

Harvest day is all hands on deck, regardless of age.  Several of us were brand new to this work this year, but Gus, in the lower right, is and old pro and called the shots in the packing room for much of the day.  

From the lens: China Mountain Harvest

Last year, at this time, I journeyed to the mountains of China.  After days working my way to Yunnan province, working with tea farmers, I decided to journey to a more remote area, less accessible, where traditional agriculture was older.  Ironically, much farther from a road network in hills in the mountain shadows of Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountain , I found farmers working organically along an old trade route, known as the Tea Horse Road.  This old trade route, that links Tibet with China, helped the region trade their prized tea with equally prized Tibetan horses, ridden by warriors.  Foot and horse traffic is still the only way to navigate portions of this trade route, and I stayed with Tibetan families for some days, drinking tea at night, and capturing the agriculture landscape by day.  The images are not dissimilar from traditional agricultural activities in our own mountain shadows where we farm in our valley. 

As part of this project, I went on assignment for the Rainforest Alliance to make a film about the people who grow the tea that traveled this tea trade route.

Friday Photo: Unwrapping Corn

This Friday, we join Amanda Soule in the tradition of {this moment}.  As she describes it: "A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see."