Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Have you seen this glove?

Nooooooo!!! Not again!

Somewhere between my seat on the bus up from DC and my friend John's apartment in Manhattan, the right half of the pair of my beloved new pearl izumi lobster claw winter bike gloves went missing.

This marks the second straight pair of gifted gloves from mom that were separated within 48 hours of receipt. The other pair, a birthday gift last year, lost Lefty after just one wearing somewhere in San Fran's Mission District. Those were just simple, black fleece ones from a drugstore. These were the finest REI has to offer and one of the nicest birthday gifts ever. Curses. What are the chances? Is there a single-glove-eating monster hiding in my shadow?

Only after retracing my steps from John's apartment all the way down Broadway to the metro stop 8 blocks away, after asking at the MTA's Lost and Found, after inquiring at a number of reception desks along Columbia's nearby campus, after e mailing Megabus with a desperate plea to search the top level of the bus (with a full description of all salient details as well as photos like this one, taken just yesterday), did John and his girlfriend and I give up and go out for Mexican food. A beer and veggie burrito bigger than my head were both delicious, but did little to comfort me.

After making a big pot of creamy hot chocolate for the three of us back at the apartment, I finally pulled myself together enough to call home and fess up. At least mom helped put things in perspective: "At least *you're* okay. They're just gloves." (Just gloves! I LOVED those gloves! But she's right. I guess that's why she's a good social worker.) Still, Burlington is going to be awfully cold with only one lined lobster claw this weekend....

Ah, Righty, we hardly knew ye!

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The claw

Lobster claw bike gloves are my new favorite thing. They keep my hands warm and toasty, even when saluting Dr. Spock look-alikes on the street while riding my bike in the dead of winter.

They're almost as warm as the birthday hugs that came with them. Thanks mom and dad!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


There are twelve days of Christmas, so why not seven days of Ibti's Birthday? Wouldn't you know that I spent much of the past week completely immersed in food. Actually, the Madeira wine sauce I spent much of Sunday evening concocting is something I would consider literally immersing myself in: I could bathe in the stuff. But I'm getting ahead of myself (as usual).

Dad had been pestering me since Thanksgiving about my insistence on cooking for my own birthday dinner. Please. What do I love more than cooking for and with people I care about? Plus, you only turn thirty-three once, you know, and I had a fairly elaborate plan in mind for this year's dinner, something along the lines of Babette's Feast (with perhaps a little less expensive french wine, but dad, to his credit, did try to break out a bottle of champagne). Our little family tradition is that whoever's birthday it is gets to determine the dinner menu. While my family also loves food I could not picture my parents spending 6-8 hours making the mushroom-pecan pate or slaving through the Madeira sauce's 4 reductions. And then there was working with pastry dough.... Me? I love that stuff. Everyone else was assigned other elements of the meal, but I insisted on making the main course: the Portobello Wellington that my friend Meghan has been raving about since she made it a number of months ago. (And now I have my very own copy of the Cafe Flora Cookbook from whence it came, thanks to a little birthday care package from the same Meghan in question.)

Yesterday morning I awoke to the aroma of the velvety rich mushroom and wine sauce that had been simmering on my stove over the course of 4 hours the previous evening. After a double espresso and a chocolate cupcake (the breakfast of champions... not my usual, but nice) and writing belated Christmas cards -- um, I mean early New Years cards -- and just generally lounging around in my pajamas for a few hours, it was time to return to the kitchen. But this time it was not my own kitchen: mom and I had signed up to volunteer at a local soup kitchen....

After mom helped to peel the biggest crate of carrots ever and I aided in the assembly of a couple hundred bag lunches at Food & Friends, dad picked us up and after a quick stop at my apartment to pick up a few ingredients we went back to my parents' house where we proceeded to tackle the final stages of preparation for Ibti's Feast. My brother was already finished making the first of two -- yes, two -- key lime pies; dad's ratatouille was ready to go and he was beginning to tinker with the clams for our appetizer; mom was about to get cracking on the salad; I began the final assembly of the Wellingtons. Here they are just about to go into the oven to be transformed into flaky, garlicky, mushroomy goodness. Soon they would be drizzled with that divine Madeira sauce alongside a dollop of mashed sweet potatoes and celeriac. Ohhhh....

(See? And people complain there are so few pictures of me on this blog! There I am, but, really, how gorgeous are those little Wellingtons?)

It was one of those long, lingering, conversation-filled dinners. We actually had to take a walk after dinner to make room for the key lime pie and dessert wine. Ahhhh. I have no idea what my thirty-fourth year will bring, but along with a job working with food (please, please, please) I hope it includes many more of these dinners with friends and family. Especially if it involves that Madeira sauce. I'm a little obsessed....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A mighty wind

Mother. Of. God. This weather has got to stop.

Do you see that? It's ICE. On the Potomac River -- a constantly moving body of water (but apparently consisting of water not moving fast enough to combat the consistent temperatures below freezing for well over three weeks now). Too bad my crummy blackberry camera didn't capture the whitecaps blowing past, but you get the idea. I was out biking in that! By choice! (I'm not saying it was a good choice....)

I had an appointment at 10:00 this morning in Old Town Alexandria, at a location not far from a turnoff from the Mount Vernon Trail. It's cold, I thought, but sunny at least. Most of the snow has been cleared and it's only 11 miles each way along mostly bike lanes and bike trails. Little did I know that I would be nearly blown off the GW Bridge not once, not twice, but three times. And that was just on the way over.... I actually got blown into the railing three times crossing the bridge on my way home before I decided to walk Ollie to the other side. (I swear in the midst of the creaking along Ollie mumbled something about how we should've taken the metro, but with wind whipping into my ears and nearly choking myself when the draft pulled my helmet back, I can't be sure. Why didn't we take the metro, indeed. Outsmarted by my bicycle. Great.)

We're glad to be back inside again. And I'm not going back outside until the climate gets its act together. Or until my yoga class at 6....

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

After School Special: Kids Cook!

I love working with kids and food. (Now, if I can just find a job that pays me to do it....)

In early November, I began helping out as a volunteer food educator through the Capital Area Food Bank. I'd signed up as a Kids Cook assistant on Wednesday afternoons and would be helping Stacy, one of the program's developers, run the 4-week after school program that teaches kids basic nutrition concepts and how to make healthy, low-cost snacks for themselves. I'd taught a few youth cooking classes before, but I've tended to work with slightly older kids. I learned my first afternoon at the nearby elementary school that the 8-10-year-olds had been in testing all day. (Read: lots of pent up energy ready to let loose. Oh boy....)

Week one's session focused on identifying different food groups and introducing students to the idea of balanced eating. Under Stacy's patient guidance, we tried to "pack our snacks" with at least three food groups, using ingredients that included grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and dairy. After much face-making and loud insistence that "I'm not gonna eat that, it's nasty!" I couldn't help but notice third and fourth graders awkwardly grinning and asking for second helpings of the bean-corn-cheddar-pineapple-salsa mix on wheat thins. (Some even took ziploc bags of the mixture home.) As we nibbled, we discussed things like how things tasted in comparison to their preconceptions, whether they would make it at home, what ingredients they might change. Some would add more pineapple, others might leave out the cheese... There are few things I love more than trying new foods and helping people figure out their personal eater identity.

The second week, Stacy let me take the lead, and wouldn't you know it, we were focusing on whole grains. These youngsters who were unabashed and loud and silly as they came into the room, as they flailed around during our warm-up and stretching, as they poked and teased each other through most of the hour-long session, well, these same kids turned bright pink in the face when I mentioned fiber. It was hilarious. "Aw, Miss Ibti, you don't need to talk about that!" they squealed. We agreed to the statement that it "helps to clean you out" and moved on to the afternoon's recipe: trail mix and yoghurt parfait. This one was even more of a hit than the previous week's salsa, I noted, as students vigorously stirred the sunflower seeds, cheerios, chocolate chips, raisins, and dried cranberries before scooping the homemade trail mix between layers of vanilla yoghurt.

The final week we focused on calcium's role in building strong teeth and bones and learning to determine which foods are high in calcium. (Milk: excellent source of calcium; cheese-flavored goldfish: not a good source of calcium.) Our final session ended with the group assembling "pizza kabobs" with chunks of whole wheat bagels, mozzarella cheese, and bell peppers -- "Ahem, nobody who looks like they might try and poke their neighbor or start a sword fight will be given a bamboo skewer" -- dipped in pasta sauce. I have to say, for a crowd that insisted they hated vegetables, the big bag of green, yellow, red, and orange bell pepper chunks mysteriously disappeared. What a fun group. I'm going to miss those kids....

As we move close to a new year and you're considering ways to make a difference, I'd encourage folks interested in food education to check out the next round of volunteer programs starting soon at the Capital Area Food Bank.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An engaged community

How cold was it today? Do you see these baby greens? That's frost along the edges of those leaves... and they were inside the hoophouse at the farm where I spent most of this morning and early afternoon.

I'll tell you what I was wearing when I biked over to Vinnie's place about half a mile away: a long-sleeved shirt, a short-sleeved shirt, a turtleneck sweater, a sweatshirt, a fleece vest, a jacket, a scarf, a bandana, a knit hat, 2 pairs of knee-high wool socks, wool legwarmers, long underwear, an old pair of jeans, and 2 pairs of gloves. It was like that scene in A Christmas Story with Ralphie's brother so bundled up he can't move his arms. While I did know I would be joining Vinnie for a day helping out at ECO -- Engaged Community Offshoots' farm in Edmonston, MD -- I wasn't sure if we'd be biking or taking his truck, so I wanted to be sure I was warm enough for the 7-mile ride.

I HATE the cold. Why does it feel like I'm living in Nebraska or North Dakota these days? Somebody please tell me why I don't live in southern Louisiana or Mississippi or, heck, the Caribbean! I am a warm-blooded girl!! I love DC, but the weather these days... not so much.

[End of rant.]

Vinnie and I made our way -- in his truck -- to the farm and we soon got to work putting up some rowcovers to protect the spinach, kale, chard, turnips, and lettuce mix from the bitter cold. (Oh, here I am talking about cold again, but today's high was 27 degrees. Come on!)

I'd first met Vinnie a couple of years ago at a Farm to School panel discussion downtown and had volunteered at the Master Peace Community Garden (part of UMD's Engaged University) in College Park soon afterwards. As we worked together this morning, I learned that due to university budget cuts, the Master Peace Garden was disbanded about a year ago. But its ideas lived on. A core group of the committed folks who were behind it -- including Vinnie (pictured here pounding in a stake to anchor our rowcover support string) -- started ECO: a new nonprofit which developed the working farm with four hoop houses and solar panels, an impressive composting facility (I do believe my friend is more enamored with compost than I am, and that's saying something), and a new/immigrant farmer training program on land leased from the Park and Planning Commission.

I helped Christian (the farm manager) harvest a few crates of gorgeous Swiss chard while Vinnie and a few other volunteers harvested turnips in the next hoophouse over. Crops from the farm, I learned, are sold to two food co-ops in the area: Glut, where we stopped for a few things on the ride home (hello, bulk rate coconut date bars), and the student co-op at UMD's College Park campus. Produce also makes its way to a few local restaurants. Today's harvest was bound for Eatonville, in nearby Columbia Heights. (Oh, goody, a new restaurant to check out when friends are in town for the holidays).

Now, talk about devoted farmers: does your farmer harvest in the snow? Incidentally, if you want to be a part of the great work going on here, ECO welcomes volunteers. (And I promise they don't normally make people work in the snow. Honest. I was just really, really antsy to check things out and do some meaningful work. Not that the piecemeal writing and editing and food education I am doing these days isn't meaningful, but it doesn't leave my body contentedly tired the way that working on an organic farm does.) There are urban farming workshops that you can check out, too, including a few this coming spring.

And talk about devoted cyclists: do you bike in the snow? Me, I don't: I'm too chicken. After a lift back to Vinnie's in the truck, Ollie and I walked our way back home to my snuggly studio apartment, where I immediately changed into dry flannel pants and got a big pot of potato, chard, and celeriac soup simmering on the stove.

It's been a good day, in spite of the cold.

("What's that lashed to the back?" you ask. It's my second jacket... just in case I got cold.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Acting up

[photo courtesy of Katherine Bryant, DC Farm to School]

Hooray! Lots to celebrate in recent weeks in terms of improving school food -- both in our nation's capital and around the country.

Just yesterday, my favorite president (okay, well, he's in the top three -- Lincoln and FDR are tough acts to follow) signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, giving more funding to federal school lunch programs, boosting both the variety and the quality of food in schools, and facilitating local farm to school networks and the development of school gardens. It was signed right in the auditorium of nearby Tubman Elementary School, where I've spent the past 4 Wednesday afternoons as a volunteer food educator teaching kids how to make healthy snacks! Too bad I wasn't there for the signing, but it's for the best: there is no way I would've been able to keep myself from hugging the President and First Lady.

But that's not all. Last week, with the help of many, many e mails and phone calls from my fellow DCists, the DC Healthy Schools Act was passed, allowing for similar reforms on a local scale that the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act does nationally. Better food at last for DC schoolkids! Thank goodness! You'd think a 6-cents-per-child increase would be no big deal, but it is. I do believe I've mentioned the atrocious food at the public charter school where I used to teach. (It will remain nameless to protect its identity, but really, from what I've heard from teacher friends at other schools in town, the "food" there is comparable to other District schools.) Oh, and mandatory testing of water for lead in school drinking fountains? Yeah, it's about time that was enforced.

This is not to say that the implementation of these important programs comes without a price: SNAP (aka food stamp) programs have taken a cut to fund the former (federal) program, while the welfare program in the District will be curtailed to finance the latter (local) program. Still, I think both pieces of legislation are major victories, if bittersweet ones, along the road to school food reform.

Oh, and speaking of the road to food reform, check out this Washington Post article, hot off the presses. Looks like sustainable food education, production, and distribution in the DC metro area is about to get a little more interesting, come spring....

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leveling the farming field

[photo courtesy of Ed Coper, New Media, Slow Food USA]

Yep, that's me with my big mouth open, standing among fellow Slow Foodies on the steps of the USDA during the lunch break. I swear I thought Ed had already snapped the picture when I turned to... actually, I have no idea what I was doing. Yelling? Singing? Talking with someone coming out of a door? Yawning? Hmmm. Reason #423 there aren't more photos of me on this blog: I don't stand still very well.

I spent most of yesterday at the last of a 5-part series of workshops on Competition and Antitrust issues in the agricultural sector. (Funny, I've lived in DC on and off since the late 1980s and been obsessed with food my entire life, and yet this was my first time inside the USDA building. Next time I need to scope out the People's Garden.) The sessions mark an unprecedented joint effort led by the USDA and the Department of Justice to learn from producers and consumers about the current state of agriculture in this country and possible paths forward, with a specific eye to cultivating a playing field in which small, sustainable producers have a fighting chance to get (and stay) in business. At least that's my take on it. It was quite a diverse group, from the panelists to the onlookers to the folks giving testimony. People from across the spectrum of the food reform movement and around the country sidled up to the microphone during the public testimony segments and I had a chance to hear folks offer their stories, their suggestions, their hopes for a fairer food system. If our country is going to be able to feed itself, each speaker urged, we're going to need to level the playing field.

I'd first heard of the meetings a number of months ago from the folks at Food Democracy Now. (Hold on. Are you on their mailing list yet? You should be. Even my mom is impressed with the advocacy work they are doing. I get an e mail from her every time she signs a petition. Ah, moms. I'm proud of her.) I ran into the FDN dream team (Dave, Lisa, and Paul) in the hallway between sessions, returning from the Hill where they'd delivered a giant box of comments -- printouts from nearly a quarter of a million concerned citizens around the country, pleas for policymakers to break up domineering food monopolies and give family farmers a chance. It's always good to see some of my favorite food advocates. While the sessions themselves were somewhat meandering -- I don't want to say that the questions panel leaders posed could've been better, but, well, they could've been more probing -- I was proud to be a part of the larger effort of groups ranging from Slow Food USA to Why Hunger to Food & Water Watch to Farm Aid who had come together to demand safer, healthier food and support for the dedicated farmers who produce it.

During the session, I learned that our country has lost more than 800,000 farmers over the past 40 years and meanwhile the remaining farming population continues to age. While many of the folks going into organic farming are relatively young -- at least according to the informal data I gathered from farms around the country during the bikeable feast -- the recent trend of young people going into farming is not on a large enough scale to compensate for the aging general farming population. Not only is the work incredibly hard and poorly paid (reminds me of my days as a high school teacher), I also worry about the ability of these young farmers to handle the debt they are taking on to start these small but critical operations. In an economy like the one we're in, will they be around in 5 years? Then there is the competition they are facing from large, commodity-focused farms subsidized by the government and a food system that depends on cheap labor and low-quality products. My take home message: we need to encourage and support regional food systems led by these small, sustainable farmers. We cannot continue to be controlled by gigantic, self-interested food conglomerates that rake what few farmers remain over the coals.

While the next Farm Bill isn't up for debate until 2012, this first dipping of my toe into federal ag policy has definitely shown me that I've much to learn between now and then so that I can be a more educated and effective advocate for regional, responsible food systems. I'm hoping such learning opportunities in the future don't involve biking in 20-degree headwinds at 7am....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fly by

Here we are about three and a half months into The Great Worm Bin Experiment and I'm still a bit high strung when it comes to my first batch of wigglers. I've been advised by seasoned vermiculturists that the best way to go is something akin to benevolent neglect, but to be honest I live in constant fear of inadvertently killing them. Too much food? Too little? Too much moisture? Too little? Too hot? Too cold? And what's with all of the flies lately?

So here we are midway through the second try with the under-sink worm bin. (Those of you following along may recall the premature sifting through castings just before Halloween, when my beloved little guys almost drowned in a poop lagoon.) Things have been going alright this time around... Well, mostly. You see, there has been a noticeable proliferation of flies in the bin in recent weeks. And, more disturbingly, a noticeable lack of worms. Crud. I hope nobody from Worm Protective Services comes knocking on my door. (Earlier today I had to submit an FBI background check form to work with one of the after school cooking programs. Will this mar my otherwise stellar record? I can see it now: Violation of section 27d of the Invertebrate Guardian Clause -- negligence and second-degree wormslaughter.)

I dragged my bin outside during a freakishly warm afternoon earlier this week and took the lid off, trying to shoo most of the flies out. At least there wasn't standing water this time, but where were the worms? I saw a few 1/2-inch white worms squirming around, but mostly lots of flies. I began to worry. Did I mess things up irreparably? Would it be better for me to bequeath my wormies to a better caretaker, entrust them to Mother Nature? Am I a terrible mother??

As usual, Susie -- my calm and reassuring worm expert on call -- talked me down from the proverbial ledge. The flies can be a nuisance, she admitted, but there are a few ways to curb their numbers. I already had one of the fly traps that the Worm Ladies website suggested (filled with fancy, organic apple cider vinegar -- well, I'm not going to the store in this 30-degree weather just for a bottle of the cheap stuff). I realized that rather than burying the food scraps, which discourages egg-laying by flies, I'd simply been lifting the lid a crack and tossing a handful of vegetable scraps on top as I was cooking dinner every few evenings. But -- not to defend my total failure to follow these basic instructions, I'll admit I missed that part -- wouldn't I be disrupting the worms too much if I was stuffing scraps into the bottom of the bin every time?

My worm guru suggested that I cut a piece of cardboard to fit the top of my bin, run it under the water in the sink so it gets wet/damp, and lay it inside over the scraps. A fly egg barrier, I like it. I learned that putting food scraps in the freezer overnight also interferes with the flies' egg-laying activities. Huh. Who knew?

Finally, Susie pointed out, the presence of small, white worms was encouraging. It meant that the worms were reproducing. (What? My worms are old enough to kiss other worms and go on dates and...? Oh.) My little wormies are growing up. But they'd better get cracking to be able to keep up with my holiday vegetable scrap production. Maybe I need to put on a little Marvin Gaye to get them in the right mood....

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