Tuesday, November 25, 2008

if the mad hatter drank coffee

Stumptown Coffee Roasters is known as a purveyor of some of the best coffee in the world and yet when I arrived at their roastery in Seattle last week they didn’t offer me coffee. They poured me kishr. Or qishr, depending on how you take your spelling of this byzantine beverage. It was amber and translucent, easily mistaken for an oolong tea, and tasted and smelled strangely reminiscent of an herbaceous and prune-y tisane though I couldn’t identify exactly what kind. And oh yes, it tasted a bit like coffee.

Only because I traveled with Aleco, Stumptown’s coffee buyer, in the hinterlands of Rwanda this summer and made it home alive did I trust accepting a cup from him before knowing what it was. Call it kishr, call it coffee-tea if you, like me, don’t really know how to pronounce much in Arabic: it’s the dried coffee husk steeped in water. Originating in Yemen circa 1100, I imagine it traveled the world on spice trading routes before falling out of fashion with a newly cafĂ©-ed Western Europe for its deceitful simplicity. Kishr isn't hefty like coffee, and certainly wouldn’t stand up to milk. And it has a faint citrusy flavor that might be cooling on a thick Yemeni summer day and little out of place in a Viennese coffee shop. I joined the group of men wearing skinny pants in deeply inhaling kishr steam from little cups; huddled down the stairs from Stumptown’s main shop and plotting kishr’s comeback in hushed voices, I felt for a moment that I was on coffee's avant-garde.

What is old is new again… though exotica from the colonies always ran the risk of becoming bourgeois, didn’t it.

I had come to Stumptown to sample some El Salvadorian coffees and hear the grower of that coffee speak, but kishr stole the show. Our dried coffee husks were indeed from one of the coffee farms in Western El Salvador owned by Aida Batlle, a wonderful woman whom I wrote about in a post on the Civil Eats website today. With an experimental spirit, she left coffee cherries to dry on the trees before being harvested and then dried them again on clay patios for four days. Some of her nimble-fingered workers picked the husk off of the coffee bean. It’s the coffee equivalent of a late-harvest Riesling or Muscato and she bagged only 250 pounds of it this year. Pittance. If the Seattle underground doesn’t drink it all first, I think you can order it directly from Stumptown for $6 or $7 per pound, a downright 19th century price.

The best description I’ve found of kishr, as if dredged up from a sunken Indian Ocean trading ship, is from this article in The New York Times dated May 13, 1877. Right, 1877, and you can read it right here on the internet. They recommend adding “a few bruized cardamoms or a little dry cinnamon or ginger” and simmering for half an hour to yield a “most agreeable beverage.” Most agreeable, and also most caffeinated. The fruit of the coffee cherry (the coffee bean itself, as you probably know, is the seed of the fruit) retains more caffeine than the bean does; shocking that energy drink companies aren’t engineering coffee husk extractions (are they?). Coffee is brewed on the island of Zanzibar with nutmeg, clove and cardamom and I’ve been meaning to make a version of this concoction with kishr. There will have to be a kishr ceremony of course, like the Ethiopian coffee ceremony or a Japanese tea ritual; I’m open to suggestions of what this will entail. My most Mad Hatter of friends will be invited to the kishr ceremony and also a smattering of pirates, but only the ones who thieve fresh cinnamon in lieu of grenade launchers. I know, pirates are wrecking serious havoc these days and it's not funny business. But, by no small coincidence, they do their craftiest work just off the shores of Yemen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

edible art

'Life is one continuous mistake,’ Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, used to remind his students. When he shopped he sought out the rattiest vegetables at market, all the discarded and maimed culls, and his meditation grew strong, nourished by the continuous mistakes of human life. --Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Buried in The New York Times last week was a write-up about a victory for vegetables. Two weeks ago the European Union pitched “overly curved, extra knobby, or oddly shaped produce” into the grocery store’s waste bin; now they let
them stand proud in the grocery store next to all their perfect relatives. It’s a real high-five for the previously “discarded and maimed culls,” the twisted and misshapen vegetables and also a few fruits. Irregular tomatoes, apples and peaches are still banned, unfortunately, while carrots, peas (have you ever had a run-in with a deformed pea?) and a few dozen others are no longer. It must be a case of political discrimination. Where I think the real achievement lies though is in the acceptance of misshapen root vegetables, always the most macabre of the produce section. Any edible pulled from the earth wears scars of its life underground and if Edward Gorey had written a Thanksgiving tale, it would have been a tale of these misshapen root vegetables.

But farmer’s markets have never been discriminatory against ugly produce in the way that grocery chains have (sites of industrial agriculture that they are) and yet I realized that I always search out the most aesthetically perfect fruits and vegetables, however subconscious this practice may be. Inspired, I made a game out of looking for the most imperfect produce as I toured the Ballard farmer’s market in Seattle with my friend Michelle last Sunday. A truly good friend rarely questions one’s ill-justified pursuits and so Michelle didn’t press me on why I was attracted to the farmer’s market’s least-wanted. We found piles and bins: she pointed out twisted carrots and stood patiently while I took some photos of strangely curved beets, soft-edged cabbages and irregularly shaped Asian pears, three-pronged carrots and purple potatoes with pink splotches. Misshapen edibles were all over the Ballard market but rarely were they broken. No, these were not mistakes wrought by a human hand but by ecology itself: the beet that grows its sweet root down and hits a rock perhaps, or the apple that didn’t quite get enough sun on one of its halves and so shows its mis-proportioned growth. I don’t really know the why of the knobs and lumps and funny colors, but finding them all in plain view made me think about the why of caring what fruits and vegetables look like. So long as a fresh food isn’t showing signs of rot and thus danger, does visuality matter if we ultimately perceive quality through its flavor? Is the visual any reliable indication of the taste?

We’ve long privileged vision and hearing over the other senses, with taste often falling to the bottom of the philosopher’s hierarchy. It was considered to be a bodily and therefore primitive sense by Aristotle, who favored the cognitive senses, seeing and hearing, that allowed for objective rationality and thus the production of knowledge. Taste, as a gustatory pursuit, was too subjective to contribute to that. So what does the European Union’s turn away from using vision to judge produce quality suggest? Ironically, one would think that those cultures with deeply rooted peasant cuisines, the French and Italian being chief among them, would have always privileged the flavor of a vegetable or the succulence of a fruit over the item’s physical appearance. After all, those who grow what they put on their own dinner table could hardly dismiss a deformed peach or stunted carrot as a parent wouldn’t cast away an ugly baby. Unless, of course, the compost pile needed beefing up.

I didn’t allow myself the luxury of searching out imperfect produce at the Santa Monica farmer’s market this morning, though it did occur to me that there seems to be less of it in Los Angeles than in Seattle. It was back to the usual market business instead, sizing up the availability of apples (the ladies with the Gold Rush variety were there!) and economizing on lettuce, four small red leaf heads for three dollars. My splurge, as I was retreating from the market’s dead-end where the row of stalls threatens to lead you into the Pacific, was on persimmons. A strange and whimsical fruit, if only because my tour guests told me so when I chatted them up around the vineyard and garden in Napa when I worked there: how can a tree lose its leaves and leave the fruit hanging, they would ask as I led them past Frog’s Leap winery’s two Fuyu persimmon trees. Or more commonly, what is that orange thing, they’d exclaim, can we eat it? And inevitably a tall man would reach up and pluck one for his wife, who never had the audacity to bite into a strange fruit in front of the crowd. The Fuyu variety, squat like a pumpkin-colored tomato, remains hard even as its insides become sticky with sugars so I’d tell her it was safe for transport inside her purse.

The practicality of these Fuyus means I usually prefer them to their cousin, the Hachiya, which are only sweet when they’re soft enough to scoop with a spoon. Until then, they remain stoically firm, a powerhouse of bitterness that rivals that of the uncured olive (which occasionally a winery tour guest would grab from the tree, chew, appear to be poisoned, and promptly gulp down his, and his wife’s, glass of red). But feeling whimsical myself today, I dropped $4 for three Hachiyas, curious how different they’d actually taste from the Fuyus. They were like little tapered bowling balls and the man who took my dollars told me that they’d take six or eight weeks to ripen. I almost asked for my money back.

“Think of them as edible art,” said the persimmon peddler. “Put them in a bowl to look at, check them a few times a week or so and then one day you’ll be surprised-- they’ll be ready to eat.” So it is that I have a display of pretty persimmons sitting dormant on my table, perfect to the eye... but not to the palate.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

bringing sexy back down to earth

For all the seduction surrounding food these days, the earth that gives us such a bounty gets remarkably short shrift. Sure, small farmers are basking in all sorts of glory if you know where to look, and terroir has always been a sexy topic among certain connoisseurs. But how do we rally the troops, as we’ve started to around glaciers in the Arctic or forests in the Amazon, and convince the masses that soil is important, really important? What will persuade us to pay attention to the quality of our soil as the element of our kosmos that offers up nutrition, flavor, and ultimately oxygen for us all but is often referenced by its pejorative nickname, dirt? This recent National Geographic article and the accompanying photographs did a pretty good job at illuminating soil (though I expect as much from them). But the author describes unsexy subjects such as this in terms of MEGO: my eyes glaze over. It’s true. What could possibly make soil, as a subject, sexy? If there’s anything out there that does it for you, I want to know about it.

While I continue to mull this task over, a lifetime’s work of a self-proclaimed ethnopedologist (one who studies the cultural dimensions of soil, I didn’t make it up), I want to share with you some of my favorite characters who’ve grabbed my attention and thrown it back to earth. Believe it or not, they aren’t chefs and farmers glamorizing vegetables and the ecologies that yield them (though a remarkable job of calling attention to agriculture these foodies do). They also aren’t scientists who write persuasively about the demise of our soils around the globe. Here instead are a photographer, an historian, and a Buddhist gardener who all have a creative way of reminding us how valuable our soil is. I call upon their work whenever I’m forgetting.

One of my favorite modern photographers is one who has taken planes into the sky and lingered over fields of toxic waste. And Los Angeles sprawl. And cozied up to canisters of human remains. Mostly I like the toxic waste series, for its vibrant aerial depiction of abandoned strip mines, evaporated lake beds--sites in the western United States where culture and nature collide and erupt into gaseous form. The photographer, David Maisel (whose work I will refrain from unethically posting on my blog and instead send you to his website here), spoke to a seminar I was taking around this time last year on his interest in images that blur aesthetics and ethics. His photographs are undeniably compelling, most would say beautiful, though his subjects are often places where the earth’s surface has been contaminated and degraded beyond habitation, or cultivation. Can, or rather should, the toxic be depicted as beautiful? Does the beauty of his images obscure the fact that these are indelible scars of human action and inaction on the land, or does it jumble the all-too-persistent dichotomy in which nature=good and people=evil? Maisel claimed not to have an explicit environmental message in mind when he shot these series, but it’s hard not to imbue them with your own.

A more recent find was the book Dust by Carolyn Steedman, also suggested for a class, on the history of, and created by, the archive. It’s an irreverent treatise on why historians do what they do, which is create a present out of a past that is mostly empty until they come to find it and piece it together. Steedman speaks her piece through the perils of book dust (which used to pass along anthrax spores to unsuspecting archive-dwellers) and the pleasures of tearing apart a narrative constructed outside of the archive, as such is the 19th century’s Middlemarch. But towards the end, when few passages had yet been deserving of ink underlining and stars in the margins, I was roused by this:

‘This is what Dust is about: this is what Dust is, what it means and what it is. It is not about rubbish, nor about the discarded; it is not about a surplus, left over from something else; it is not about Waste. Indeed, Dust is the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone. Nothing can be destroyed.’

She, of course, is referring to the concept of the narrative, of the inscription of history. But the soil is also a record of history, and can be read both scientifically and culturally to understand our history and the planet’s. This, I think, is what ethnopedologists do. And soil too is Dust, the opposite of Waste, at least until it becomes degraded to the point of no restoration and hung framed in a photography gallery.

Wendy Johnson has a book called Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate and I must warn you, if you read it, she might have you convinced that moving into a Zen monastery is the best way to spend the rest of your life. She’s no proselytizer, but she does have a way with words that renders the mundane transcendental. Johnson was the master gardener at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County for many years and she weaves accounts of her daily routine at GGZC with dharma (‘the way’ as practiced through Buddhism) passed along from her Zen teachers. Toiling closer to the land that produces our food than the others I’ve mentioned here, the humility surrounding her knowledge of gardening’s produce makes me feel ever boastful of my cooking endeavors; her wisdom falls from her prose in pieces that I want to snatch and keep on my nightstand, like the seashells I’ve swiped from the sea. Because it’s getting late and I must return to reading about soil fertility and undernutrition in Rwanda, I leave you with only this brief quote of hers. For the moment, it’s keeping my eyes from glazing over, even more so than coffee.

‘Composed of clouds of countless, invisible microorganisms digesting the land and running it through their intestines, soil is feces, and within the body of soil, all beings garden.’

Sunday, November 2, 2008

citizen eaters

Sometimes, stirring bread flour into my sourdough starter or dolloping jam into jars feels like an indulgence. I devote time, and subject my debit card, to the pursuit of food for pleasure on a near daily basis. Should I really have made another pot of fruit preserves? Will the dozen cups of flour I’ve devoted to sourdough starter ever manifest into something edible… and did four more cups really need to be tossed into yet another batch of pumpkin-based baked goods?

I’ve learned to let go of thinking too much about what constitutes luxury versus necessity, and nutritious or practical versus indulgence, when it comes to my personal food decisions. But what I have a harder time contextualizing is how I can spend time stirring a pot of mulberry jam in between reading article after article on the recent violence in eastern Congo, near to where I spent most of last summer and where few people are able to make dinner for their families right now. The violence has kept aid workers from even distributing nutrient bars.

I know, it’s the old refrain: “You have to finish everything on your plate because there are children starving in Africa.” I cringe thinking that anyone should be forced to eat all that lies in front of them as children with protruding bellies look over their metaphorical shoulder. This, after all, exemplifies a treacherous global paradox in which half the world stuffs themselves while the other half starves (to paraphrase activist/writer Raj Patel). But nevertheless, I’m not beyond being able to reconcile my brimming pantry with the information that people in a place I’ve visited have nothing to eat today.

A dairy farmer at a grass-fed livestock conference I was at once proclaimed to me that “producers” must be referred to as farmers. And “consumers,” the other half of the food chain dichotomy, I asked? “Consumers are citizens!” said the dairy farmer.

But those who have managed to return to their farm plots in eastern Congo as the fighting subsided this weekend are not citizens, at least not as we define citizens. They often struggle for the right to be even consumers, picking up each other’s scraps of unripe banana and papaya as they wander along footpaths, wondering where they’ll lead their families to sleep that night. In a region perpetually destabilized by bloodshed, the inhabitants of eastern Congo are subjects of a pawn game played out in a power vacuum by various armies. A messy arrangement of rebels hawking ethnic affiliations, UN peacekeepers, and a ragtag Congolese national army that is better equipped to rape and pillage than protect can hardly be considered governance. Congolese haven’t elected any of these groups to power and yet all of the armies strip the people of eastern Congo of their basic rights to food, shelter, and safety.

When any one of the rebel groups stirs from hibernation, hundreds of thousands of Congolese scramble to escape, flee, scatter. Whatever verb best describes it, it’s a routine that involves putting down their hoes, packing up their houses, and uprooting their families for an uncertain amount of time. This past week, droves of Congolese fled Goma, a city on the northern edge of Lake Kivu and on the border of Rwanda, in advance of an encroaching rebel line. The fact that these particular rebels (who are accused of being propped up by Rwanda’s government) were threatening to take Goma surprised even the most battle-hardened journalists stationed in the area. Goma has long been considered a safety zone for UN aid workers and also for tourists from Rwanda stepping cautiously, rebelliously, over the border.

There’s been a cease-fire in effect for the past few days and according to The New York Times life has all but returned to normal in Goma this weekend. The headlines on this particular spat of violence couldn’t have faded from the news any faster. But I haven’t been able to get this whole story to fade from my mind. I spent a weekend in Gisenyi this past July, at the nicest hotel in Rwanda that is a mere 15 minute walk from the Congo border. This violence thus seems all the more real, and also more surreal. The hotel shares a beach with Goma’s hotels; the single connecting road has been a lifeline for refugees from both countries.

I briefly contemplated paying the $50 visa fee to walk across the border and take a few photos in Goma but my companion at the time, James, had already made a few visits there. I resigned myself to watching the subdued scene from the passenger seat of James’s jeep, munching on Trader Joe’s Asian rice crackers while James renewed his car permit at the border. A blue-helmeted African UN peacekeeper peered into the jeep and squinted at the sight of all the road-trip snacks we had in the car. The Congolese soldiers milling around projected the authority of Tappan Zee Bridge toll collectors. Everyone was stroking their guns, and yawning.

Later that night we drove to a high point in Gisenyi to see the spooky red glow of Goma’s active volcano, which spewed ash all over the region in 2003 and baked Goma’s crop fields to dust. Its stirrings are as unpredictable as the activity of the rebels. What is predictable in eastern Congo right now is the rainy season, which has just commenced. I imagine it’s both a blessing and a curse, having made sleep miserable for those who spent this week on the run but also bringing life to fields of potential food.

This New York Times article from the other day titled “With Tense Calm in Congo, Time to Assess the Damage” ended with:

Rebel soldiers were working with village elders on Friday to assess the damage caused by the departing government forces, who residents said had picked clean dozens of homes and robbed the local bank, cracking open the safe and stealing the villagers’ savings. But Mr. Nkunda’s troops may have committed similar abuses. “These guys are bad, too,” one man whispered in Kibumba.

But he did not want to elaborate.

Instead, he slipped away, down a path toward the bright green bean fields. It is planting season now, and many people have said that if they don’t go back to work, soon again there will be nothing to eat.

On the eve of our own most prominent ritual of citizenship, we’re gearing up to exercise the privilege (or is it a fundamental right?) of choosing those who we will trust to govern us. Few Americans fail to recognize the significance of being able to do so, particularly this election year. But there’s another ritual of citizenship that so often goes unacknowledged, that of feeding ourselves without fear. Whether or not we farm our own food, or even bake our own bread, all of us here eat as citizens, not just consumers. So I’ll keep stirring pumpkin muffin batter and grinding my $17 a pound coffee, wondering if Congo, or Rwanda for that matter, will make the front page headlines tomorrow, and feeling proud and powerless all at the same time.

citizen eaters: accompanying photographs

To accompany my recent post, "citizen eaters," here are some photographs taken this past summer in the vicinity of the Congo/Rwanda border. Though the soil is just as fertile on the Congo side of the border, ongoing violence prevents enough food from being grown and the UN often trucks food to Congolese refugee camps from Rwandan markets. Lake Kivu is the backdrop common to both areas.