Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Born and grazed right here in North Carolina

I've met a number of farmers now who have come from non-farming backgrounds, folks who have chosen to embrace humble but fulfilling lives as organic produce and pastured meat farmers for all kinds of reasons. For some it's a sense of food injustice and a determination to make healthy food available where they live. For others, it's a distrust of the mainstream food industry practices (or the American consumer culture in general) that sets them on a path to sustainable farming. And for others, it's something they read that lights a fire under them: for Michael and Christy Underwood, it was an article in Gourmet Magazine (R.I.P.) on farmer Joel Salatin written back in 2002. To my former students who argued that something you read can't change your life, here's another example to the contrary.

Michael was finishing up a degree in History about seven years ago when he came across a feature in the now defunct food magazine. He was all worked up about what Salatin -- who has since been catapulted into farmer rockstardom when he was featured in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (aka Ibti's Food Bible) as well as the documentaries "Food, Inc." and "Fresh" -- was doing in western Virginia. Michael wanted to be a part of this new, whole-ecosystem style of grass-based animal farming and broached the topic with his wife Christy, who was working on her own degree in English at UNC at the time, and she agreed it was a worthy pursuit. A farm internship at Polyface Farm (Salatin's operation) didn't materialize, but instead they worked with a farmer in Fairview, NC to learn how to raise pastured meat animals in their home state. A few years ago they began renting a plot of land and a house in Lawndale, NC and started raising pastured pork, lamb, and beef. And after I met Christy at the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market last Saturday, they kindly agreed to let me work at their farm for a day or two as I made my way through western North Carolina (toward my impending third date with the Appalacian Mountains).

It's some intense work, especially in the southern summer climate, but Christy and I, and her two boys, Isaiah and Jeremiah, managed to water and feed the pigs before the real heat started. (Here's a pic I snapped of their boar as we went about our morning routine. He looked rather menacing at first, but then I sprayed a little cool water in the mud and I daresay he started smiling as he flopped over to wallow.) Then it was time to move portable electric fencing and herd the sheep and cattle to a new pasture. I tell you, anyone who complains about the higher price of pastured meat (vs. conventional feedlot fare) would sing a different tune if he had to trudge through tall grass and thorny blackberry patches in a pool of his own sweat to pull up and refence new paddocks every few days. (Yes, in case you're wondering, we did periodically stop to sample some wild blackberries as we fenced. It is *me* we're talking about here.) I was excited to at last see and help with a rotational grazing system that I'd heard and read so much about, and hot and tired as I was I felt rather proud when the ruminants calmly sidled into their new grassy salad bar. Our animal chores were, thankfully, completed by lunchtime, and after a lovely, veggie-filled meal the boys invited me to join them next door for a swim in the pool. Ahhhh.

Did I mention how HOT it was? I wimped out of helping Michael with tilling and weeding some of the vegetable patches in the stifling heat when he returned from working at his construction job midafternoon. I mean, how often am I around a swimming pool? But I did help Christy with dinner, which included a scrumptious, slow-cooked, herb-rubbed Underwood pork roast. It might have been even tastier than the stew I made with some Underwood beef last weekend at Laura's, but it's tough to tell. I think I was a bit biased by the lavendar-and-honey roasted carrots and homemade mead that their friends Jamie and Sara Jane -- the charming farming couple of nearby A Way of Life Farm -- brought to the meal. (More about my work with Jamie and Sara Jane coming soon.)

I can't help but marvel at the devotion and slow (but growing) success of these passionate entrepreneurs. They clearly love the land, the animals, and each other. Each day brings new trials but also new joys. And though it is not a glamorous or easy life, they seem happy. "At the very least, we eat well," Christy smiled during dinner. "It's one of the perks of the job." No kidding... Yum!

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Helping hands

During my time in Charlotte, NC I was lucky enough to stumble across one of the most successful -- and inspiring -- collaborative models for food outreach I have ever come across. It all started with an offhand suggestion in an e mail from my college friend Mark (whose hectic work schedule prevented us, alas, from meeting up in person while I was in town, but whose local food and farm recommendations have for the most part been stellar)....

Okay, I know I've gushed about a few programs over the past 16 months since I started the blog, but seriously the innovative partnership between Friendship Trays (a meals on wheels-style nonprofit based in Charlotte), The Community Culinary School of Charlotte (CCSC), and the local Slow Food chapter is something I simply have not come across before. I taught in the public education system and have worked in a few nonprofits that paid lip service to (and in a few instances actually worked toward) "collaboration," and I am telling you that it can be quite a challenge to pull off a true collaboration successfully, to be able to tap into each person's (or organization's) interests and talents and networks. Here, friends, is a model for how to bring food to those without access (physically and/or financially), empower and employ those without jobs, and educate folks about how to grow healthy food and communities in an urban setting.

I spent last Thursday afternoon -- no, not two days ago, I mean last week, and, yes, this blog post is more belated than intended, but there's been a lot to process in the ibtibrain -- at the weekly Friendship Garden open volunteer day. My friend Laura tagged along and we helped harvest beans and squash, added compost and water to some of the beds, snipped the buds off of the basil, and chatted with other volunteers. As we were finishing up, Lani -- the volunteer coordinator at nearby Friendship Trays -- stopped by and gave us a tour and a bit of history on the green space. The garden, we learned, was made possible with the hard labor of (and some funding from) folks over at Slow Food Charlotte. It was meant as a demonstration garden, so that people from around the city could come and learn how to create similar community gardens in their area. And Lani told us that funding has been secured to build 4 more gardens within the next year.

Oh, but there's more. The produce from the garden -- including beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and a whole mess of fresh herbs -- is often harvested and used by students at the Community Culinary School of Charlotte right next door. Well, a culinary school that is connected to seasonal produce sounds right up my alley. Lani apparently thought so, too, and promptly introduced me to CCSC's gregarious director, Chef Ron, who gave me an overview of his program that trains and helps place unemployed community members in the food industry. There are some income-generating aspects to the 12-15 week program, including corporate cooking classes and the student-and-alumni-run catering business, but the general idea is to help empower folks (who for one reason or another have a hard time finding work) with the skills and experience necessary to find decent, gainful employment in food.

Wait, wait, you're probably wondering what the connection to Friendship Trays is beyond simply being next door. Get this: instead of paying tuition, students in the culinary school are required to log a certain number of hours cooking with Friendship Trays, which cranks out roughly 700 meals each day for delivery in the Charlotte metro area. So along with the 85 volunteers who help pack and deliver these meals, there are real chefs (and chefs-in-training) feeding their communities. I was so intrigued that I made my way back over to Friendship Trays the following morning for the 8-11am food packing shift. It's all true. And apparently the webmaster happened to stop in with his camera while I was adorned in hairnet and plastic apron. I chatted with him a bit afterwards and was tickled to find a piece on my little project on the website a few days later. (For the record, I had *no* idea he was using the mega-zoom feature. Tell me, is my nose *really* that enormous? Actually, don't answer that.)

Interestingly, I learned from Amy (one of CCSC's administrators) that the program is closely modeled on the DC Central Kitchen in my very own beloved Washington, DC. (You'd better believe I mean to check out the work going on there when I get back. Oooh, I'm getting excited just *thinking* about it!) I would love to be involved with a similar food justice collaboration back home.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back in Black (Spandex): The Homecoming

Greetings, loyal readers. The rumors (mostly started by me) are true: I'm heading home!

Many of you have been following the Bikeable Feast around the country as Ollie and I explored organic farms and community gardens, ranches and food co-ops, kitchens and edible schoolyards. We've met with farmers, educators, chefs, and policy makers as we worked, camped, and cooked our way around this big, beautiful country. Your help and encouragement, and in some cases donations, have helped us along. We may have been out on the road on our own, but we were not alone. In fact, we could never have done this alone.

We'll be rolling into the city soon and that means that it's time to celebrate. We've missed you! Ollie and I invite you to join us for the final ride into our beloved District of Columbia, and for some food and drink at one of our favorite local restaurants on Saturday, July 10th.

The plan
Meet along the Mt. Vernon bike trail at 3pm and bike into the city together. Enjoy food and drinks afterwards and have your picture taken with the famous J. Olympia Surly (or at least try not to spill beer on her... unless it's a local brew).

Info for cyclists
We'll meet up along the Mt. Vernon trail just north of Founders Park. Closest cross streets are Pendleton Street and N Union Street in Old Town, Alexandria. Closest metro stop is Braddock Road on the blue/yellow line. (Those arriving early will most likely find me scarfing a cone of Chunky Monkey at the nearby Ben & Jerry's.)

The route* (and approximate timing, allowing time for, um, well, a flat tire or two...)
3 pm Mt. Vernon Trail: Old Town Alexandria to the Key Bridge (8 miles)
4 pm Key Bridge to C&O Canal Towpath mile marker zero (where it all began! -- 0.5 miles)
5 pm A restaurant in Columbia Heights (location to be determined)
After 10 pm (and a couple of beers) I wouldn't be surprised if I talked a few folks into a little dancing at one of my favorite local hotspots....

For those who are not cyclists, or who for one reason or another prefer to meet up with us at the restaurant, I will be posting information on the venue soon.

There will be some ABF end-of-tour commemorative postcards for those who might want to contribute a few dollars -- with original Vincent artwork and recipes, as always. (Funds raised will go toward a plane ticket to Italy this October, where I have been invited to attend the prestigious Terra Madre conference.)

*The Mount Vernon trail is 18 miles long, but we will be cycling only the final 8 miles of it. It is a *bike trail* so aside from street crossings should be relatively car-free. (Watch out for folks with strollers. Oh, and joggers with headphones. And for heaven's sake, wear a bike helmet. I am not above lecturing friends and loved ones on the dangers of not wearing a bike helmet, even during the homecoming festivities.) The rest of the ride will be on streets, but midday on a Saturday in a group should be relatively safe. Still, please be careful! Also, I'd advise bringing sunscreen, water, and a snack or two. If you're coming to the restaurant, you'll want to bring some cash and a sturdy bike lock to keep your ride safe.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You can teach an old dad new tricks

Mine has always been a life imbued with food. My mom makes the best hummus on earth. My brother can marinate and grill just about anything to perfection. Nearly all of my aunts and uncles and cousins are good cooks, with specialties ranging from curries to croissants to baklava. My close friends have each logged many hours over the stove with me. Romantic partners I have chosen throughout my life, at least the ones worth their sea salt, have shared a passion for culinary experimentation (or at least have been able sous chefs, adventurous tasters, and willing dishwashers). And if I were to choose one person who has most shaped who I am today, it would be the man who remains the first and greatest chef in my life: my father.

So many memories throughout my life involve me sitting on a stool in the kitchen while dad makes dinner. Sometimes I am helping mince the onions. Sometimes we're chatting and having a glass of wine as the rice simmers. Sometimes I simply watch him work as classical music in the background accompanies the chop-chop at the cutting board. Kabobs. Dolma. Spaghetti sauce. Ratatouille. Dahl. Curry. And every so often I teach him a new recipe. Broccoli with garlic, nuts, and raisins. Massaged kale salad with apples and goat cheese. As he once tried to sneak chicken broth and anchovies into vegetarian dishes, I subtly introduce fruits and vegetables into family meals. There is give and take.

The kitchen counterside talk is not always about recipes, but just as often literature, film, philosophy, religion, the nature of love, the way the world is changing. And there is the occasional Seinfeld reference. It is in the kitchen that our relationship has matured from that of a parent teaching a child to two adults sharing ideas. (He's still my dad, though, periodically asking if I "need a lift somewhere" or if I am "doing okay on cash." Dads will be dads. Put that $20 bill away.)

As I've been biking along, I've been thinking a lot about how different people have helped to shape the woman I have become -- my values generally and my relationship with food particularly. I've especially been reflecting on these ideas since Aaron recently was good enough to give me a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." The book, in short, examines why and how some folks manage to undertake and achieve things well beyond the norm. (I do not have such delusions of grandeur that I align myself with the impressive subjects of Gladwell's study -- people like Bill Gates or The Beatles or Mozart -- but matters of nature and nurturing, of practice and hard work and luck, fascinate me such that I can't help but examine my own life.) People ask me all the time these days how exactly one comes to a point where she leaves her paying job, packs her life into panniers, and sets out on a bicycle for a year to barter her way around the country and immerse herself in learning about food. "It's... well, people just don't *do* that," they insist. Well, sometimes they do, apparently. It has been largely due to the love and encouragement of my dad that I am able to undertake such a challenging task as I have set out for myself. (He was not a fan of the solo bicycle riding around the country, though, for the record.)

Once again I am far from home on Father's Day -- last year I was in Connecticut with Felicity's family; this year I'm in North Carolina with an old family friend -- but dad is not far from my thoughts. Laura and I have been spending much of today doing what dad and I would be doing if I were home right now. Yep, cooking and talking. In fact, I think he'd be proud of the spinach-basil-walnut pesto I whipped up. Heavy on the garlic, of course. (Dad remains the master pesto chef among the Vincent clan.) He might not have put it into a quiche, as I did, but who knows. One can teach an old dad new tricks. Like the massaged kale salad he's been showing off at dinner parties lately. When folks ask for the recipe, he just smiles. (Busted.)

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fame del lupo

It means "hungry like a wolf" in Italian, and is a phrase I have bandied about for many years. I get hungry a lot, even before I was biking 70 miles a day (like I did yesterday), so it comes in handy quite often.

Bet you didn't know I studied Italian in college. Yep, I spent a semester in Rome studying film and church architecture and the history of the papacy and a bit of the language. (Officially. Unofficially, I studied the charming carabinieri and stunning cuisine and managed to put on ten pounds that I directly attribute to the discovery of Nutella.) Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, the home of luscious gelato and spaghetti westerns. And this October I'll have a chance to break out the few shreds of the language that I retain from my semester of Italian 101 because...

I'm going to Turino!!! I found out this afternoon that I have been accepted to the most exciting international food conference in the universe: Terra Madre 2010.

You'd better believe I almost fainted after reading the message from Slow Food USA on the side of the road when I stopped to check my e mail on the way into Charlotte, NC earlier today. Farmers, food educators, chefs, and activists coming together from around the world. Workshops on food appreciation and cultivating biodiversity and building regional food communities. Sounds like my kind of gathering. I'm... speechless. Except... due cappucinos per favore!

Play with your food

I am obsessed with food, I admit it. Every so often I come across someone else who can talk about what they're making for dinner as they're eating lunch. My dad. My best friend Felicity. My friend Mark in Burlington. Occasionally there is someone with an interest as much in food enjoyment as in food justice, like my friend Martha in Milwaukee. And then, so very rarely, I come across someone who includes all of the above qualities and who inspires me by coming up with a novel way to educate about the importance, and the joy, of a healthy, active life. Chef David Leathers is one of those people. In fact, I think I am in love with his life. (I like my own pretty well these days, but still.)

I first met David on Will's farm in Tupelo, MS as we prepared for a farm dinner. Here's a pic of David and Will assembling the delicious salad course early on in the evening. (Photo courtesy of Aaron, my personal paparazzi for two weeks.) It was pretty busy all night, so I was glad for a chance to talk with the inspiring chef a few nights later at a smaller, informal dinner gathering in town. It was over some rosemary and goat cheese focaccia and a few beers that I got the scoop on a kids TV series David is filming for PBS....

It's called "I Play With My Food" (David's catchphrase) and I can't wait for when it comes on the air. The show sounds like Sesame Street meets Julia Child, with cooking demonstrations interspersed with singing, dancing, and mini lessons on topics from nutrition to recycling to the importance of exercise. In addition to David and a bevy of kiddos, the show has its own band, The Paisley Pickles, and a muppet-type worm who lives in the set's compost bin. What fun!

(Since I don't have a working TV at home, I'm going to have to cajole my way into friends' homes to watch a few episodes. I'm happy to cook in exchange for TV access -- remember LOST? Mitch, back me up here....)

I love everything about the series that's geared toward 4-7-year-olds. What a fun way to teach kids about healthy living, reaching them at their most impressionable. Maybe I can make a guest appearance on the show one day as The Tire Iron Chef, teaching kids how to make healthy, tasty meals with things they can bring on a camping trip. Meals one can make in the time it takes to change a bike tire. Or something. (I wouldn't necessarily recommend that they carry 25 spices and a chef's knife -- I can tone it down a bit -- but I could tote things there in Ollie's panniers.)

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Tell me why...

Why is it that bike shops in The South pay no attention to the actual tire tube size one needs? I was pontificating on this very point after Aaron had a string of flat tires on our way through Mississippi and Alabama. Something like 6 flats in less than 2 weeks: that's even putting *my* record to shame. (I'm at 17 flats since leaving DC.) Well, we looked at the tubes that he'd bought at various shops and only a couple were the correct size for his bike! What?? Yes. They were actually selling -- or sometimes giving -- him the wrong size tube.

People, I know I only worked in a bike shop for 6 weeks before leaving on my trip, but even I know you need the correct size tube. Too small and it is prone to exploding from overinflation by the time it fills the tire; too large and the resulting explosive flat blows the tire right off the rim (as I learned from flats #1 and #2 on Day 1.)

I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth -- where does that expression come from, anyway? -- but when someone gives me spare tire tubes that are the wrong size, they're actually putting me in danger. It's like a gift horse kicking me in the knee caps. No thanks. When you ask me what size I need and I tell you I need "26 x 1.5 presta" tubes, don't give me "26 x 1.9-2.6." It's happened. That's why I always check now.

I contemplated entitling this post "Size does matter," but, well, after the uptick in blog traffic following the "Vagabondage" post I worry about attracting the wrong kind of attention. But seriously, make sure you get the right tube size for your tires. And make sure you wear a good bike helmet. (Thought I'd slip in that little reminder, since I was already ranting about safety and very few bike riders in this part of the country seem to find them necessary. Y'all should expect a lecture at the stoplight soon....)

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Doggone it!

Confession: I kind of wanted a dog to get run over today.

I usually *love* dogs. No, really. My family has always had dogs. (Well, up until Rusty passed away a couple years ago and my dad swore he was done with dogs -- I think he was more attached to that troublesome pooch than he realized.) I dogsat for Meghan and Andrew for a week on my way through Houston. I've snuggled with various pups at friends' homes. I even temporarily adopted two rottweilers and a german shepherd who were living at the house I rented in Mexico. But these damn unleashed, un-fenced-in mutts in rural America are really on my last nerve.

What is it about dogs and bicyclists? Is there some kind of universal canine code? (Kujo's First Law: Kill anything on two wheels.) The first time I was very nearly attacked was on my way through Indiana. A snarling, frothy-mouthed shepherd mix almost took a chunk out of my calf. Then in West Texas I was chased for over half a mile by what looked like a rabid golden retriever. I actually called the cops that time, but was not surprised that Animal Control never showed up. Here in the south, the dogs remain unleashed, but the majority are somehow less bloodthirsty: usually they just run alongside and bark, but with tails wagging. Sometimes there's a token "arf arf" and then the dogs go back to what they were doing before. Are they lazier here? Is the heat slowing them down as much as it's slowing *me* down? Maybe they're more well-loved here, or better fed. (Does southern hospitality apply to the way canines are treated?) But today, on my way through the tiny town of Ninety-Six, SC (yes, that's the real name of the place) I was almost mauled by another damn loose dog.

As a woman stood on her porch and called once to her dog -- and not in an overly loud or commanding voice, mind you -- her mangy mutt continued to chase me down the street. I screamed at the top of my lungs. A van coming my way slowed slightly, I suspect out of a sense of morbid curiosity because the guy made no move to pull over and help me or even roll down his window. Just as I was pulling out my pepper spray, the dog backed off. I think it saw the gleam in my eye that said I was getting ready to kick it in the nose. (That's how you're supposed to get away from sharks, anyway: punch 'em in the nose. Preferably while you still have an appendage to strike with.)

I still love dogs -- I mean, can anyone resist a pup as cute as Nugget (pictured here)? Just be sure your pooch doesn't try to chew my legs off and we'll get along just fine....

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Homeward bound

Ollie and I are in the home stretch! Having reached our southeasternmost point, we've got about a month and a bit over 700 miles to go. In fact, mark your calendars: we're aiming to roll into the District on July 10th. (I'll post details on the homecoming festivities soon -- still working out some logistics, but you can bet it will involve bikes, brews, and local food.)

Home. Wow. I'm getting close. Not surprisingly, I've had a fair bit of Paul Simon on the mental mp3 player recently. And as usual, after a few repetitions, I started changing some of the words....

Homeward Bound (ABF remix)

I'm sittin' on the front porch waitin'
For the rain to pass, while conversatin'
(Well, it *is* The South)
On a tour around the States
On a loaded bike with too much weight
The temperature's at ninety-eight
When will the humid heat abate?

Homeward bound
I'm finally
Homeward bound
Home, in the east coast time zone
Home, where the city rats roam
Home, with my loved ones waiting patiently for me

Every day's an endless ride
Cars whizzing past just beside
And each town looks the same to me
The WalMarts and the Mickey Ds
And each park ranger's face I see
Reminds me that I'm glad to be

Homeward bound
At last I am
Homeward bound
Home, where the shower's all mine
Home, where my clothes smell just fine
Home, with my Netflix queue there waiting just for me

Tonight I will not shower again Rewear the wet socks and pretend
Mosquitos aren't biting me
While I sip on a cold sweet tea
With Ollie leaning next to me
And all the roads point toward DC!

Homeward bound
I'm getting close
Homeward bound
Home, where my friends are waiting
Home, where the salsa's playing
Home, in my bed I'll lay down for a long, long time....

Clean sheets. A real pillow. My espresso maker. Yes, just about a month left. Can you believe it?? DC, here we come!

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Return of the native, Part 2


During my time in Mississippi, I had a chance to visit a second young farmer -- Horton, the driving force behind Isis Gardens. Like Will, Horton recently returned to his native Tupelo after years of working on farms elsewhere. (In his case, he was returning from Colorado.) He, too, decided that home was calling, that Mississippi was in dire need of chemical-free, responsibly grown food. He, too, moved home and began cultivating a piece of land that had been in the family for years. And yet it was a very different operation from the town's other organic farm.

When Aaron and I stopped by the CSA farm on a Friday afternoon, Horton walked us around the rambling property, excitedly pointing out various cover crops, dozens of heirloom vegetable varieties, the insectary (a plot of land set aside to attract beneficial insects), purple marten houses (to attract bug eating birds), even the inside of the Depression era home he had recently come to inhabit. It was decidedly less structured, and perhaps overgrown in places, but the green space nurtured an abundance of plant and animal diversity quite rare in these parts.

As we took a little rest in the shade of the front porch to sip on cups of cool sun tea, Genevieve joined us and the couple graciously invited Aaron and me to stay for lunch. As we munched on leftover pasta and a giant salad, and sipped on cold beers spiked with chamomile flowers, Horton expanded on his passion for seed saving. As conventional American (and global) agriculture careens at a breakneck speed toward uniformity and productivity, this young farmer remains part of a small but persistent group of growers striving to preserve quality and diversity in our food system. Perpetuating strains of corn and potatoes and beans that are all but extinct. Nurturing tomato and melon varieties from places as far away as war-torn Iraq. (Consider the very real possibility that without heirloom growers like Horton, some of these treasures may be lost forever.)

Now, I know southerners have a reputation for hospitality. I have also found organic farmers to be more welcoming and generous than the general population. Horton espouses the best of both groups, with a ready smile and openness to sharing both food and knowledge. I was just giddy when he sent me away the following afternoon with a big hug and envelopes of heirloom tomato and melon seeds from my dad's native country. I can't wait to get planting, doing my part to keep some of these rare (and delicious) species around a bit longer...

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Who gave that jerk a license?

Greetings from Alabama, land of the most reckless drivers in the country. Maybe in the world. Keep in mind that I lived in Kuwait, where it was not uncommon to see a car in a tree near the highway exit ramp.

Ollie has noted an uptick in muttered profanity in direct proportion to the number of vehicles trying to run us off the road. To channel some of the frustration, since it appears I can't report these jerks with no rear license plates, I think it's time for a few more rewritten license plate slogans from the past few states....

Texas: Are we there yet?

Louisiana: Where the stimulus money is clearly not being spent on road repair

Mississippi: When did the hills start?

Alabama: Our truckers make Massachusetts drivers look like boyscouts

Onward into Georgia, where at last we will be heading north in earnest! And I do believe we'll be there for the start of peach season. Lovely.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Southern discomfort

Okay, sure, I realize I am biking through The South in The Summer. Thunderstorms. Spandex that never quite dries out. Unrelenting heat. Fire ants. Aggressive truck drivers with partially consumed six-packs in the passenger seat. But seriously, with temps in the 90s and 95% humidity (and that's when it's not torrentially raining on me) every day, how do folks survive here? Southern Comfort and lime on ice is sounding pretty good right about now, climbing hill #78 (give or take 20 hills) since crossing over into Alabama. I'm having flashbacks to Pittsburgh or San Francisco or, heck, Big Sur as by the end of yesterday's ride I pushed my bike uphill and rolled it downhill (after deathgripping the brakes and squeaking down a series of screaming descents) the final leg to Seth's apartment.

And if the weather and hills weren't enough, Birmingham officially gave Aaron the middle finger yesterday: 2 wipe-outs, a murderous flat tire (with 4 separate slashes), a cracked iPhone, broken bike chain, and mangled derailleur. All unrelated incidents. Yeah, I know. Ridiculous. Thankfully none of these events involved an automobile (though not for lack of garbage trucks trying to run us off the road along Hwy 78). And thankfully my brother pulled through with a little tech support, giving me the number for a local bike shop after I frantically called him from the side of the road. An hour later, Roger had transported me, Aaron, the two bikes, and our gear (which completely filled his truck bed) over to Bob's Bikes, where the friendly mechanics not only fixed up Aaron's bike but also gave me a screw to replace the stick I'd been using to hold my rear fender in place. Now *that's* service.

At least the evenings have been nice and cool. And we've been spared serious attacks from the Mississippi state bird (aka the mosquito). I wonder, though, if the decline in bug bites is due to a lower resistance to OFF or an increase in my personal disgustingness since leaving Tupelo, MS....

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Return of the native, Part 1


I'd first met Will back at Deep Seeded Community Farm on my way through California last December. As we harvested kale and washed carrots, I learned that he had spent some years working on organic farms in Humbolt County, and now, at 24, the anthropology-student-turned-farmer was ready to start his own place. But rather than add another farm to the somewhat saturated organic produce market in coastal northern California, Will decided to move home to Mississippi, where comparatively little exists in terms of sustainably grown food. Modeled closely on the Arcata farm where he'd been interning, the goal was to provide fresh, clean food and build a sense of a food community. What I discovered during my days working with Will last week in Tupelo was that over the past five months he's managed to cultivate not only healthy plants but a healthy fan club. Organics taking root in Mississippi? Y'all better believe it.

He's something of a local celebrity, with a recent article in the local paper leading to dozens of calls from folks interested in buying fresh produce, seeking gardening advice, or sometimes letting the young farmer know he was welcome to come by to harvest their extra mulberries. People would stop him on the street, in a cafe, at the market, to compliment the work he has been doing. He seems to take it all in stride.

Cultivating a piece of land on his parents' property for vegetable farming, and with plans for a flower and animal operation on his own land soon, Will has already built up a strong group of supporters for his operation. (No, really, at the Saturday farmers' market the sole organic stand generally sells out by around 10am.) He welcomes volunteers and neighbors to come by Native Son Farm and chats easily about the different varietals, from the sweetness of the heirloom corn to the history of the "mortgage lifter" tomatoes. Folks coming to pick up their CSA-inspired produce box from the front porch on Fridays sometimes wander about the crop rows or seek advice on preparing unusual items. There's a woman in town with a penchant for kohlrabi who was the inspiration behind Will's planting of the delicious, alien-looking root vegetable. I suspect others will be stopping by with requests in coming months. People are talking; Will's listening.

It's a family affair, with dad assisting with equipment, mom reaching out to community members and sending out the weekly CSA notices, sister Lauren and girlfriend Amanda working alongside Will on the farm and at the Saturday farmers' market.

In addition to the CSA and farmers' market stand, there are plans for a series of farm dinners -- to celebrate local food and help supplement the farm's income -- featuring the talent of Will's friend David, a local chef. (More on David's amazing work in a future post.) The first farm dinner, with ingredients culled from a 30-mile radius (including fresh rabbit and goat cheese), happened to take place last Thursday, so Aaron ("the photographer from San Francisco" deemed, well, the official photographer) and I ("the woman biking around the country for over a year to visit farms" and happily designated as the evening's wine stewardess) had a chance to help out. The food was divine. In spite of a series of rain showers, the event was an overwhelming success, with gleeful, full-bellied patrons advising on dates for the next dinner as they departed. And there will be more: the farmer and chef team are looking to hold 6 or so each year under the stunning giant oak tree alongside the farm.

All in all, I was impressed by Will's insight and his success thus far. Soon hopefully other farmers will begin to provide fresh, clean food in Mississippi. Wouldn't you know that I met a second organic farming friend in town over the weekend. Check back soon for more on Horton's organic farm down the road....

[In case you're wondering about the higher quality of this photo, it was snapped by "the photographer from San Francisco" while Will and I washed veggies for the farm dinner. Yes, a real camera... and a real photographer, for once. ;)]

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