Friday, August 27, 2010

Knife envy

I love a good chef's knife. Keep in mind that the one decent piece of cutlery I own -- a scalloped 5" Henkel given to me by my cousin and her husband on my 30th birthday -- traveled with me around the country wrapped in bubble wrap inside my foodstuffs pannier (when it wasn't being used to dice potatoes for the beercan stove dinners or being clutched next to my sleeping bag as I listened to odd animal noises outside my tent). This implement is not to be confused with the multi-tool I used to stab myself in the hand, though that was also surprisingly sharp....

I've had an opportunity to play with some really nice knives lately. A week ago Thursday I had my first volunteer shift at a lovely, local recreational cooking school. It was a Knife Know How class given by one of CulinAerie's personable founders, principal chef Susan Holt. While moving about the tables and assisting the group of 30 aspiring cooks, I couldn't help marveling at Susan's dexterity with the various sharp implements as she demonstrated how to hold and to use each. (And, okay, I was a little giddy being so near a cache of such perfectly weighted, sharp-enough-to-cut-through-tomatoes-like-butter knives.) Susan spoke about the uses for different knives as well as which ones make sense to spend money on: invest in a good chef's knife, no need to spend much on paring knives since they get lost pretty often (and go dull anyway if you have them for any length of time). The class was pretty informative, actually. All these years in the kitchen and here I finally learn how to quickly and neatly carve a whole chicken into "a little something niiiiice" for the grill or saute pan. Could've used these skills when my brother proposed deboning an entire turkey, duck, and chicken to make a Thanksgiving turducken a few years back. Better late than never, I suppose.

At the end of the 3-hour class, during which I tried my darndest not to simply take the knife from hesitant students' hands and show them how to confidently dice an onion -- "just... hold it a little... like... um... no... no... almost... just... a little more tilted... uh huh... no, turn your wrist... um... watch your fingers... here, let me... okay, no... just... yes, like that... kind of... you'll get it" -- Susan whipped up a meal for the group of volunteers as we picked up pots and pans and wiped down the tables. The chicken in mustard cream sauce was simply divine atop a bed of rice, rounded out with a glass of wine, crusty french bread, and some sweet cantaloupe. A girl could get used to this.

I went back for more. This Wednesday I had my second shift, this time with Susan Watterson, the school's other founder. Equally impressive and dry-witted, Susan (W) led a corporate group through a scrumptious corn chowder, pan-roasted red snapper (with a parsley-garlic sauce so outrageously delicious I would bathe in it if I could, though as it is I ate enough that it's probably leaking out of my pores two days later anyway), orange saffron basmati, julienned veggie "noodles", and from-scratch strawberry shortcake. Again, the shift ended with a shared meal with the group of volunteer assistants. A little wine, a little conversation, a little more whipped cream, a little more wine... I took the bus home with a full belly and a happy heart. And some new recipe ideas. Whoever thought to finish rice in the oven? Brilliant.

You see, I love to cook. But there is something about teaching other people how to prepare a nice meal for themselves that is so immensely satisfying. The proud presentation of a thickened, well-seasoned sauce or just-browned, roasted chicken thigh. The shy smile when a tomato is perfectly seeded and diced for the first time. The discovery of a new flavor or texture. The realization that anyone can cook. (Kind of reminds me of Gusteau in Ratatouille.) Sure, CulinAerie is a for-profit business, but it's not just about money. They're making good food accessible to the masses, offering one-time classes and series, corporate sessions and private group workshops. Those who can pay, do. Those who can't still have a shot. Something they don't crow about on their website (so I feel compelled to mention) is the fact that they allow youth education programs like Common Threads to use their facilities now and again. They also offer food lovers of limited financial means (like me) the opportunity to observe amazing courses like Sushi 101 and Regional French Cooking by serving as chef's assistants.

Want to volunteer CulinAerie? Call the school and they'll send you an application and list of open spots. Maybe I'll see you there. Just don't edge me out of the Intro to Bread Baking class. I have a (dull) bread knife, and I'm not afraid to use it....

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I've got worms!

The care package labeled "LIVE WORMS" arrived via postal service around lunchtime today. Woo hoo!

Thanks to Susie and Nancy for entrusting me with about a pound of their darling red wigglers. I do solemnly swear to do my best to provide them with adequate food, shelter, and love during their time with me. And I'll try to tone down the off-key singing that the houseplants have been complaining about lately.

Even after making the worm welcome sign last week, some additional preparations were in order. A lot of it comes down to common sense, but since I hope to provide my worms with the best possible scenario to flourish -- I want my worms to go to college, become artists and doctors and farmers, lead fulfilling lives as upstanding citizens in the worm community -- I had a whole litany of questions. During an extended counseling session on Sunday, Susie talked me through some dos and don'ts of worm composting. (Easy on the coffee grounds and peach pits, don't open the bin and peer in every five minutes, etc.) I took some measurements and cleared a space below the sink where it's nice and dark, not too hot or cold or moist.

That evening I brought home remnants of the mint and melon salad from a lovely dinner party I attended in Crystal City. I wanted my worms to feel welcome: I'd heard that melons are their favorite. (I'd previously established myself as "the wacky dinner guest who packs out her food scraps" so Kelly wasn't too perturbed when I headed to the metro with a slight wine buzz and a ziploc bag of honeydew rinds.) On Monday morning I shredded some cardboard and drilled holes in a perfectly good plastic bin with my handy cordless drill. (Yes, every self-sufficient modern woman needs her own drill, and I have my former partner, Adam, to thank for this one.) The worm buffet was at last ready for business.

Oh, but when they arrived today I suddenly panicked. Do I have the right balance of cardboard and food? Are there enough air holes? Wait, can I include a few egg shells in the mix? Is it moist enough? I mean, the pamphlet included with my bag-o-worms said to wet until the cardboard and coir (shredded coconut shells) feel sponge-like in consistency. "Sponge-like?" What the...? Is everyone okay in there??

It's taking all of my self-control not to peek into the worm bin every five minutes. While worms are blind, they don't like bright light, and someone poking around in there can't be helpful to the adjustment process. They shouldn't be jetlagged coming from Rhode Island, as it's in the same time zone -- do worms even have circadian rhythms? is there such a thing as NST (No-Daylight Standard Time)? -- but they also just went through two days of USPS transit trauma. If it's anything like flying on American Airlines these days, they're probably worn out and grumpy. At least they didn't have to keep taking off their shoes and coats to go through security lines.

Okay, fine, I should let them be. I'm meeting my friend Ben (famous lender of Sheldon!) and his wife tonight for dinner so at least the worms'll have some peace and quiet for a few hours. Maybe I'll just check on my little wigglers before bedtime....

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ah, put a fig in it

It seems I have been trying to recreate the challenges of life on the road (or, more accurately, the universe appears to be recreating them for me). In the time since my return, I have had my laptop kidnapped by Best Buy for three weeks (the end result of which was that they replaced my nonworking wireless card with another nonworking wireless card and I finally gave up and ran an ethernet cable from upstairs), Ollie's rear hub self-destructed (though, happily, this was covered by my extended warranty and I picked her up with a brand new rear wheel last Thursday), and because a lack of internet and transportation proved too manageable, my apartment flooded during DC's recent rainstorms. Don't worry, things are dried out now, though the floor is still looking a little scary. Talk about needing a little time in the kitchen for cooking therapy.

Luckily I am in the midst of one of my favorite times of the whole year. Not only is the US Open coming up, but it's fig season. Every summer without fail, beginning in late July, dad starts calling his sister daily, inquiring about the status of the fig tree in her back yard. You see, it's a short season, a mere 3-week window when figs are literally falling off the tree at my Aunt Emily's house, so we don't want to miss it. The harvesting is not for the timid, however, with swarming bees and overripe fruit splattering on all sides as we take turns shimmying up a rickety ladder toward the cluster that I... can... almost... reach.

Look at that, risking life and limb to gather the plump little luscious mouthfuls. Okay, actually my cousin Sonia did most of the precarious ladder balancing. Here she is with dad, proudly displaying our bowl of treasures.

Ohhh, how I love figs. But the challenges don't end with the harvest. These lovely but fragile fruits only last a day or two before spoiling, so you need to eat as many as your little stomach can hold (maybe sliced in half with a sliver of parmesan on top) and figure out what to do with the rest. Everyone has a favorite method. On Saturday, after a trip to my aunt's place and a stop by the local hardware store for canning supplies, dad whipped up a batch of my grandmother's fig jam (his preferred way to extend the fig-enjoyment season). It's a simple but tasty concoction of figs, rose water, filtered water, bruised cardamom pods, and sugar simmered on the stove.

Nice, but I was still sporting a giant bagful of ripe fruit and decided to do a little experimenting myself.... The Sunday preserving extravaganza began with the unpacking of a food dehydrator kindly loaned to me by my friend Diana at Green Meadows Farm. Not bad, eh? If I can manage a second fig harvest this coming weekend, I think I can make enough bags of dried fruit to get me (and a few fig-loving friends and relatives) through the winter.

They do shrink a bit, but still pack quite a tasty punch when dehydrated....

Ah, but my most extravagant attempt was the fig-walnut-honey ice cream -- courtesy of Mike's ice cream churner, and made a little fancier thanks to the bottle of Maker's Mark left by my recent apartment subletter. A good portion of the batch was scarfed by the dinner group at my friend Kelly's earlier tonight, but if you can get your hands on some figs, here's (approximately) how to make your own. It's a mishmash of a couple of basic ice cream recipes plus a number of spontaneous modifications.

"Put a fig in it" ice cream (makes 5-6 cups)

[The night before: put ice cream canister in the freezer. It needs to be really cold.]

Chop 2 generous handfuls of ripe figs and set aside.

Puree a few handfuls of figs in a blender or food processor. You'll need 1-2 cups of liquified figs (depending on how, er, figgy you like it -- I initially used 1 cup and found it to be too subtle).

Warm and then cool to room temperature 1 cup organic whole milk.

Toast a handful of chopped walnuts in the oven or roast in an unoiled pan on the stovetop. Cool.

In a metal bowl, beat 2 pastured chicken eggs, then add in milk. Beat in 3 cups organic whipping cream, 4 TBSP local honey, 1 TBSP vanilla extract, 1-2 TBSP Maker's Mark (whiskey). Place the bowl of ice cream mixture in freezer for 1 hour.

Remove frozen ice cream canister and attach to ice cream churner. Turn on the ice cream churner and slowly pour half of the ice cream mixture in, followed by half of the walnuts and bits of chopped fig. Once it thickens, turn off the machine, scoop out the icecream into storage containers, then rinse and refreeze the canister. Churn the other half of the ice cream mixture, adding nuts and chopped figs. Try drizzling extra fig puree over the top when you serve it. (Actually, I tried it with some of the lavender peach syrup Mike and I made as well, but that's a post for another day....)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Diary of an amateur vermiculturist

By now you might gather I am a little obsessed with composting. I have been known to pack out my vegetable peels after making dinner at friends' houses so that Ollie and I might bike them home and deposit the future black gold in my Oscar the Grouch compost bin out back. (My scraps have traveled from such far flung kitchens as those in Foggy Bottom, Pentagon City, Takoma Park, Columbia.) I have trouble sitting still when I see food being tossed in the trash -- I mean I actually get noticeably twitchy. And yet to date there's been no recourse for bits of cooked food I scrape from plates after a dinner party or any protein-based remnants in the home composting setup I have at my disposal. Well, things are about to get a little bit more interesting in the soil building department....

By this time next week I will have my very first under-the-sink worm bin teeming with squirming, munching, pooping, composting machines. Yes, worms. I can't wait!

In preparation I find myself puttering about the apartment moving this and that, measuring and remeasuring, even doing a little decorating. I spent yesterday evening clearing out space for the future worm buffet and making a welcome sign. I can't help wondering if this is what "nesting" feels like. (Should my mother be concerned that my maternal impulses are being directed toward what many would consider fish bait? Perhaps.) But seriously, if you were a hungry worm, doesn't this look like somewhere you'd like to live, maybe start an asexually reproducing family? Prime Columbia Heights under-sink real estate (and you *know* the food scraps will be consistently above average).

I also made a list of questions to ask Susie, of the friendly Worm Ladies -- the Rhode Island-based small business who will graciously be sending me my first batch of worms -- so that I know what to expect when I'm expecting. You see, as excited as I am, and as much as I've read and spoken with other people who have tried their hand at vermiculture (the fancy word for "worm composting") -- heck, I even volunteered at Growing Power, Milwaukee's own urban composting mecca -- I find that I still have a lot of questions. How will I know if I'm doing things right? How often do I need to add cardboard? Is the bin big enough? What if it's too small? How many air holes will my wormies need? How can I tell when it gets too crowded in there? How will I know if they have enough food? How much is too much food? Are there foods I should avoid? (I compost a fair bit of coffee grounds, but what if they have too much caffeine: will the worm bin start rattling? If so, should I tipple a little cooking wine in there to calm them down? Kidding...mostly.) What if they get too cold? Or too hot? What if they drown? Or dehydrate? How do I get the finished worm castings -- the fancy term for worm poop -- out? Will they smell funny? Will they like me?

My first batch of red wigglers -- the preferred vermiculture candidates, due to their chill disposition and ability to eat their own weight in food scraps each day -- will be mailed out on Monday. I'm actually having trouble falling asleep I'm that excited. If you've ever daydreamed about building your own indoor worm composter, stay tuned for the next installment of The Diary of an Amateur Vermiculturist....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Will work for food

In spite of the fact that I am no longer technically on the road researching sustainable food at farms and gardens across the country, I still find myself up to my elbows in dirt and string beans fairly frequently these days. Yes, while I have yet to secure gainful employment -- which has the potential to greatly interfere with my cooking and writing aspirations unless it is the right kind of job -- I find myself volunteering in exchange for food. It's been working out pretty well, this bartering system.

This past Saturday, for instance, I cajoled my neighbor Henry into joining me at City Blossoms' Girard Street location for a little cooking in the garden: we harvested goodies for baba ghanouj and a lovely tomato salsa, which we prepared and enjoyed with pita bread and lemonade with Mia (who manages the community garden) and the other volunteers. Then yesterday I found myself back at Clagett Farm, this time picking bell peppers on a dripping hot August morning as part of my workshare. Gail had kindly offered me a ride from her place in nearby Petworth to the farm (located in Upper Marlboro, MD), as well as a ride back with my overloaded pannier and an additional crateful of organic veggies and fresh cut flowers. The farm's only 15 miles from downtown, but the roads looked a little dicey. And Gail works there so she was going that way anyway. And, okay, I'm a slacker: I'd rarely biked and farmed on the same days during my cross-country farm trip, and I'm feeling a bit beaten down by the DC summer heat.

To those who believe they can't eat well on a budget -- that a diet filled with lots of fresh, organic, local produce is out of reach -- I suggest you check out Clagett Farm. They offer CSA shares, a program that doles out weekly boxes of seasonal fresh goodies from May through November, for significantly less than what one would spend at the farmers' market (or even, believe it or not, a grocery store). It works out to around $20 per week, or around $10 weekly for a low-income share. (I know! What a deal!) Or you can work in exchange for food. Yep. Each 4-hour volunteer shift, what they term a "workshare," earns a portion of the farm's bounty. This week's share included melons, beans, garlic, squash, peppers, and cucumbers, plus all of the tomatoes and eggplant and fresh herbs I could carry, and some sweet corn that was added to the "for volunteers" pile (and which is currently simmering with potatoes on my stove as part of a savory, creamy summer chowder). They grow a LOT of food. There is so much food, in fact, that in addition to supporting your friendly neighborhood bicycling foodie and a couple hundred CSA shareholders, some 40% of the farm's output is donated to local charities in the DC area. And yet it is still smaller and more diverse than your standard conventional farm. Amazing.

So now you're probably wondering how you can get involved and get your hands on unlimited local, organic summer squash. It seems the farm welcomes volunteers all year round, and especially on CSA harvest days (Saturdays and Tuesdays) during the growing season that runs from mid-spring through late fall. You'll find yourself sweating, sometimes profusely, yet folks can take as many breaks as needed so long as their active work time adds up to four hours. The tasks are moderately challenging, but hardly slave labor. On Monday, for instance, after the morning pepper harvesting the group chatted while feasting on fresh, cold watermelon at the veggie wash station before heading out into the (never ending) bean fields after lunch.

So what's keeping you from volunteering at this impressive local farm? You've got excuses, I've got retorts....

Have a day job: Check out their Saturday shifts or bank a few regular shifts during holidays.

Don't have a car: The farm has an informal carpooling setup. (I wouldn't recommend public transit, though. It took Meghan and I nearly two hours when we tried that last time.)

Not into hot weather: You can come by in the fall for some of the work "winterizing" the garden, or in early spring months to help with indoor prep work. (You can bank your hours and redeem workshare food pickups when the harvest season begins.)

Not strong enough for farm work: Inquire about cool-weather work like seeding starter trays in the greenhouse. (Easy on the body and actually kind of interesting, especially if you have OCD tendencies.)

"Be sure to call a few days ahead," Gail insisted when I mentioned wanting to post something on the blog about the almost-too-good-to-be-true workshare program. (This is so that staff can plan appropriately in terms of tasks and management.) So now you know. Get out there and get yourself some tomatoes!

Save our strawberries!

A couple of weeks ago I biked to my friend Preeti's place in Bethesda for dinner (and to meet her adorable new puppy). I wasn't there to talk about food justice or anything -- I swear -- but the post-dinner conversation turned to food policy as my friend told me about an amazing field-based plant gene bank that she'd learned of through her work, where a group near St. Petersburg maintains some crazy number of rare fruit varietals... a facility in imminent danger of being closed. I started following the story, incredulous that the Russian government was considering tearing down this priceless plant vault -- an international treasure, to say the least -- to build a few luxury homes. With the nonsensical methodology of a Palin campaign, it seems that there is a very real threat that the plant bank that survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad during WWII (when a dozen devoted scientists starved to death rather than eat the seeds and plants contained in the vault) is in danger of being demolished by a housing developer. I didn't know this kind of stuff happened outside of made-for-TV movies.

One would think that developers could, oh, I don't know, choose somewhere else in the gigantic country to build some houses -- Russia is not exactly a tiny place -- but no. One might suggest, as I did, to simply move all of the plants to a new location. I mean, we're talking about a century of plant stewardship and cultivation about to go down the tubes. Thousands of varieties that don't exist anywhere else on earth. Turns out that they can't simply be transferred to, say, round out the Svalbard seed vault. See, the problem is that many of the plants -- like the 1,000 varieties of strawberries -- reproduce not by seeds but by runners. They can't simply be moved. The process would be lengthy, expensive, and laborious, and the option was not on the table to begin with. Cripes, what can we do?

Last week's NY Times blog featured a story on the impending doom of the invaluable plant collection: "The director of the Pavlovsk station has said that bulldozers could be in the fields within three to four months if the court decision goes against him. And that, the trust says, would 'destroy almost a century of work and an irreplaceable biological heritage.'" (Three months! It's taken Monsanto decades to methodically destroy seed crop diversity around the world.) According to, "all those thousands of varieties of crops — 90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world — will be bulldozed to make way for luxury homes. Genetically diverse and incredibly rare varieties of crops would fall victim to the ubiquitous McMansion, a tragedy of epic proportions."

The Russian court is expected to make its decision on Pavlovsk on August 11th. Tomorrow! I just signed the petition asking President Dmitry Medvedev to protect Pavlovsk and the future of food. You can add your voice, too. Together, I hope we can save the strawberries.


Why crop diversity matters:
I don't know that I've written much on the blog about this issue, so if you're wondering why I am advocating for the preservation of a plant gene bank in Russia when my focus is sustainable food in America, well, let me just say that it's all related. Above and beyond the visual enjoyment of different blooms and gustatory pleasure of a breadth of flavors, we need to keep as many plant varieties in existence as possible, especially food plants, because they might literally save our lives one day. You see, each unique strain of tomato or corn or strawberry has a set of characteristics that makes it desirable under particular circumstances. Maybe it requires less water or is resistant to a particular plant blight or grows in poor soil. The best way to build a more secure food system that is resilient in the face of adverse growing conditions is to keep a lot of varieties around, since different strains thrive under different conditions. If we continue to lose these precious variants, not only will our food options be less interesting, we may lose the ability to grow food at all. What if Monsanto manages to get everyone in the world to grow a single variety of corn (patented by them, of course) and then a pest emerges that wipes out that single variety? There'd be a lot less high-fructose corn syrup on the market, but think about the other implications.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Spread the word

My friend Liz manages a group of high schoolers who are working at one of the Neighborhood Farm Initiative's community gardens this summer. The program that pays young adults to do outreach and direct community service is part of the Mayor's Green Summer Jobs Corps. Now, I know Mayor Fenty has been getting a lot of flack for all kinds of things, from his choice of school chancellor to the disaster which was Snowmageddon here in the District, but this is a program after my own heart: kids getting paid to work 4 hours each summer weekday to do things like install rain gardens, advise residents on how to make their homes more energy efficient, and maintain parks and community gardens. It's like Junior AmeriCorps! When Liz invited me to teach a cooking class this past Monday morning, I eagerly agreed.

Ollie and I made our way to Fort Totten a bit after 11am to find the kids and staff out in the field. After a bit of work in the garden--I'd arrived a bit earlier than expected and found myself weeding a row of sweet potatoes with a couple of (only slightly whiny) adolescents--we got cleaned up and I gave a little bit of background on my own interest in community gardening and food. Then we got chopping....

I'd been asked to come up with a recipe that required no cooking (since there was no access to a stove or oven) and would include a number of ingredients that we could harvest together from the garden. I like a challenge. (Please. Remember the pumpkin-themed Iron Chef competition?) I decided on one of my favorite summertime salads: tabouleh. I'd arranged for Liz to bring some of the ingredients that were not in the garden (oil, lemon juice, and backup cucumbers and tomatoes--it's been a tough year for both at the alternately dry and boggy farm), I'd brought some pre-soaked bulgur, and together with the teenagers we wandered through the garden walkways to gather parsley, mint, and chives. As we washed ingredients and chopped, I explained a bit about Middle Eastern cuisine and a few variations that different friends and family have tried -- my dad, for instance, likes to include pomegranate seeds when they are available; I am quite partial to mixing in a little fresh mint; today we'd be substituting chives for green onions.

As we sat around the picnic table to enjoy the finished salad, Keshawn and Lanita scooped heaping plates for each of us. Everyone agreed the big bowl of salad needed more lemon juice so we added more. "See? It's all about tasting things and seeing what you like and fiddling!" I chirped, perhaps a bit nerdily. Destiny quietly smiled as she nibbled. Malcolm asked me how to spell "bulgur" so he could write about it in his journal. As we finished up, Keshawn asked me for a hug. "Wow. Now I've hugged someone who biked around the whole world!" ("Nope, only the whole country," I grinned.) I left a little while later with a big, goofy smile on my face. I love teaching folks how to cook. Not cooking for them, but with them....

Give a child some tabouleh and you feed him for a day. Teach a child to make tabouleh and you feed him for a lifetime. (Or something like that.) Can I do this every day??

BTW, just before I left Monday's cooking extravaganza, Malcolm mentioned that I should drop by the Tuesday afternoon farmers' market in Brookland, where the group would be selling their organic herb and vegetable wares. My old college stomping grounds in Northeast DC remain sorely in need of fresh, healthy food, so I stopped by to check things out. I couldn't resist buying some new potatoes -- harvested that very morning, and delicious (I discovered when scrambling them with some eggs and cabbage from other local farms for a late afternoon snack). As the one of the students weighed out my potatoes and made change for a $5, I mentioned how impressed I was with the group. Malcolm turned to me with a grin and thanked me for coming to support them, "And, please, spread the word!"

Okay, Malcolm, how's this?:
You can meet these amazing teens in person. The all-organic, by-donation market booth is next to the Brookland metro station every Tuesday from 3-5pm.You can also meet them and see a documentary featuring their summer program at an event next Thursday in Northwest DC. It's part of a fundraiser for the program. A $25 ticket includes the film, local wine, and plentiful hors d'oeuvres. Details are here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Get a j-o-b

Kudos to my friend Arkady for once again pointing me toward an amazing resource. No, not another installation of news articles on how amazing the sustainable food scene is in Detroit (though I am happy to read those), but rather a great, easily-navigable database of jobs for those interested in sustainable food.

How convenient: I've been looking for a job along those lines.

Most of you reading this probably already have some form of gainful employment, but in case you don't, or you're looking to take your involvement in the Great Food Reformation a step further than organic gardening and shopping at farmers' markets, check out Sustainable Food Jobs. (I am assuming that you have some interest in sustainable food if you're reading this blog... or maybe you are simply trolling for updates on the number of flat tires I'm up to. Still 17.) The blog lists not just farm worker openings -- though there are a number of these -- but also positions with education programs and nonprofits around the country.

See, I'm an open-source kind of girl, sharing recipes and ideas and resources as I come across them. But, hey, don't go taking my dream job.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pay it backward

As I waited for the guys at the bike shop to give me a call back this afternoon with the verdict on Ollie's rear hub, I was out digging around in my backyard garden plot. I proudly observed my little darlings peeking up through the topsoil on this pleasant, slightly overcast day. It's not the most lush of gardens -- at least not yet -- but I'm pretty proud of my spunky little bean and squash plants. Aren't they lovely? Oooh, I'm already daydreaming about homegrown crookneck squash ratatouille and bacon-wrapped roasted green beans. Mmmm.

As I stood admiring my little Eden in the City, over the fence I heard a man's voice calling me. "Hello, Miss, I heard you were starting a garden." It was Quentin, an older gentleman peering over the divider, offering me tomato and watermelon seedlings. Really?? It was our very first conversation. After all of the kindness of strangers along my round-the-country odyssey, here again I am humbled by a simple gift from a man I've lived next door to for the better part of the last 3 years and never met until today.

It's not like I dislike my neighbors, but somehow during my previous life I was always running around too much to pause and chit chat. Between work, social engagements, cooking, keeping up with friends on the phone, if I wasn't asleep I was always going, going, going. Why is that? What's the rush? I find myself wondering now. (Of course, being unemployed these days I have more time to reflect on these sorts of things.) I do know Henry, who has lived on the other side of me, and who has even contributed to the compost bin from time to time, and Bev and Marcelo down the block have had me for dinner a couple of times. But I just met Sonny the other day. He's lived on my street since before I was born, I think, and is the unofficial neighborhood watchman from his front porch lookout. I need to bring that man some baked goods. Quentin's overdue for some as well. (I seem to be logging a lot of hours over the stove as I procrastinate, putting off the task of distilling what exactly it is that I accomplished over the past year and a half into some kind of coherent paragraph on a resume, so I'd expect a few dozen cookies or mini quiches to find their way into neighbors' hands soon.)

A few years ago I saw the movie Pay it Forward. It's a drama about a young boy who decides to change the world one person and one kind act at a time. He begins by doing something to help three people who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people, who then each reach out to three other people, and on and on. A steadily growing, one-person-at-a-time revolution -- right up my alley. Admittedly, it was a bit sentimental (and the film did not have to end that way!) but I think the idea's been percolating in my subconscious for years. In a less structured way, I've been trying to pay it forward, helping people out whenever and however I can. But considering all of the food and hugs and shelter I've been freely and openly offered by people all around the country, and help here in the District since my return, I'll be paying it backward for some time. Maybe for the rest of my life.

One of the things I have been trying to focus on since devoting myself to learning about food and community is, well, taking time to engage with the community. I'm not running off to start a commune or anything, but I am not a fan of the trend toward insulation and isolation that seems to be swallowing our country. So I'm starting my own revolution. In our normal, everyday lives it's time we look each other in the eye and smile instead of scurrying past with our heads down. Share a cup of coffee and a recipe. Offer encouragement and consolation and help. Give people the benefit of the doubt and maybe a little space in the bike lane for a change. Grow things and cook things with friends (and not-yet-friends). Maybe that's how I'm meant to give back. Cooking my way to a better world... I like it.