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...

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.

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.  

Neighboring: Dinner Shares

This week, what we share from our table will also be on a table next door as part of a dinner-exchange we started with some friends who live, as we like to say "one pasture over."  These properties used to be connected by family ties, and the path through the pasture is much shorter than the official way around by road and driveways.  It hasn't taken much to refresh that well-worn path with some neighboring including, lately, passing back and forth with food to share, a couple of nights a week.  

The genesis of this weekly routine came from a point that came up on many visits and meals together: we live with small kitchens with no dishwashers, and we all make a lot of dishes.  It came to a peak one night when we gathered in our small kitchen to put up some food together--a madness of chopping, shredding, and mixing to start kimchee and sauerkraut, feeding literally and figuratively off of the combined energy of two households to get us through a massive pile of produce.

We stopped for a moment in that wild pickling evening to eat dinner together before gearing up for the next step.  As we looked around we had to laugh at the state of the place: cutting boards, knives, and bowls had been shuffled to the coffee table to make room to eat at the kitchen table; buckets and boxes of cabbage, onion, and carrots were piled in the corner of the room.  The kitchen sink was topped over, and each work-station at the counter was carved out of a mountain range of dishes and cooking materials.

Cooperative pickling night with neighbors: a kitchen mess not as far out of the daily realm as you might imagine.  Photo by Noah.

And yet, we all had to admit that while this was completely crazy, it was also just an expansion of the ebb and flow of our daily kitchen work.  We cook from scratch, we cook from the garden, and we get caught up in the excitement of good food.  It does make a lot of good work and good food, of course, but also a lot of dishes.  We realized, as we talked, that cooking for four people makes no more cleanup than cooking for two, and we should really all take advantage of that.  

We decided on an exchange where each household would, on one night of the week, cook for both and deliver extra to the other. It gives us each one evening a week of having only the dishes that we eat off of to wash.   We used some guidelines we'd seen from others doing similar exchanges:  no pressure to make anything fancy, no need to stay and visit if evenings were busy.  If someone has other plans or is out of town on drop-off night, they use it the next day.  It's simple, and yet the knowledge that a meal will be delivered and shared has inspired an occasional extra touch and elevates our own eating just a bit.  It might just be taking a moment to arrange sliced tomatoes or a basil garnish across the top of the pasta or to array the red peppers on a  pizza into a star instead of a random toss. At the surface it's just decoration, but underneath it's also a demonstration of caring, and that makes it special. A care that, we remind ourselves in the midst of busyness, uncertainty and stresses, needs to be both taken and received.  

The exchange started because of dishes, but in a small way it is much more, too.  When we deliver the pan of stuffed summer squash across the pasture, there's a pleasure in the feeling of giving and nurturing, of feeding our friends.  When a dish of steaming rice, greens, and chickpeas arrives at our door at the end of a long day, we sit down to it with gratitude that goes so far beyond not needing to clean the kitchen.  It's gratitude for neighbors, for friends, for caring and being cared for in some small way.  

 

When food preservation gets serious, even the shop tools may find their way into the home kitchen:  Noah pounds cabbage for sauerkraut with the large mallet.  This will find its way into a shared neighbor meal soon, after weeks of fermenting in the corner by the bookshelf. 

On the Table: Stuffed Peppers

We knew from the start that the goal of growing most of our own food would inevitably change our eating habits. We don’t want to take on a 100-mile diet experiment or make  cooking and eating into a complicated set of rules.  But we do want to source as much of our daily food as possible from our own growing spaces and gatherings. More and more we find ourselves looking at our plates and saying, with a new sort of satisfaction "wow, we grew all of this."   

We're making a little space here to share with you what finds its way from our gardens to our table as we move through the seasons.  In these posts we'll highlight one meal each week that shows how we are making use of the ingredients we've grown, gathered, and put up. We invite you to join us at the table by trying these meals out yourself, planting some of these ingredients into your next garden, or leaving a comment or link to what is on your own table these days. 

This week, we're sharing these stuffed California Wonder bell peppers.  We consider any good stout mature peppers in Montana to be a wonder, and these, though their name says “California” have done great in our sometimes-chilly valley.  We hope to stretch another week or two of growing season before the big frosts, to let some of them ripen to red (though they are tasting great green, too).

To make this, we took some of our biggest bell peppers and cut off the tops to pull out the seeds and cores.  The inside filling is sautéed from-the-garden garlic, onions, Jimmy Nardello peppers, coriander seed, jalapeños, sweet corn, and black beans (our first effort growing dry beans has also been an exciting venture). Mixed with a bit of brown rice, olive oil, and local cheese (not ingredients we've managed to grow ourselves yet), we stuffed the filling into the peppers, set them upright in a baking dish, and roasted them at 375. Pulled out after 30 minutes, we topped them with fresh tomatoes and the salsa we made while they baked. 

I'm not sure that an advanced wine-and-food connoisseur would chose blackberry wine as the best pairing for this, but, well, it's what we have because it's what we've made!  For these homesteaders at least, the stuffed peppers went beautifully with the Oregon blackberry wine and a slice of homegrown Golden Midget watermelon for dessert.

  

A meal of stuffed peppers, garden melon, and our own blackberry wine, on the barnboard table. Photo: Noah Jackson