The Festive Meal

Dessert at Aunt Marty's. Photo courtesy of Kate Deibler

Piermont, NY – Here’s the tricky thing about holidays like Passover: Stuff the cabbage with shiitakes instead of ground beef and you risk hearing: “It’s not like Grandma Etta’s.”

Which is code for failure.

This, in large part, is why we keep replicating the same dishes our mothers and grandmothers made, even when we think we don’t. Who needs tsouris when you’ve been on your feet for eight hours in front of a hot stove?

So off to Fairway I went, attempting to straddle that line between tradition and nutrition. Shopping has become more of a group activity since I began the dinner circuit in January.

I’ve long heeded Mark Bittman’s call for healthful simplicity. Robert Lustig looms large in the bakery section.  Michael Pollan has me skirting the center of the supermarket. It’s like shopping with a Greek chorus.

The compromise here is that I let Barry pick one traditional dish that I can’t tweak to reduce or eliminate fat, sugar or meat. He picks brisket, which I have to admit is one of my better go-to dishes. But it also cooks for hours, and time at this point was running out. So I subbed in a French cut standing rib roast seasoned with fresh thyme and rosemary and served with a rich portobello sauce. There was also a salmon steak with a splash of lemon for my semi-vegetarian friend.

The menu for seven:

Gefilte fish from Zabar’s, which was provided by my friend Margie Deibler.

My vegetarian version of my mother’s sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. (The recipe’s below.)

Roasted sweet potatoes baked with sliced California dried apricots, a cup of fresh orange juice and a touch of brown sugar.

A mountain of almost-local asparagus, roasted lightly with a spritz of lemon and a dash of kosher salt.

Standing rib roast with portobello mushroom sauce.

Apple kugel, made with matzo instead of noodles and a cup of my autumn apple cider reduction that I mix with homemade apple butter and use instead of milk.

For dessert we had bowls of fresh strawberries and grapes, and one of our guests, Leslie Milton, who is director of major gifts at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side of Manhattan, made fabulous coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate.

I’m going to leave the sociology of the night to a guest, Kate Deibler, who took notes as we chopped and scraped before dinner and was still writing as we washed and dried about five hours later. Check back tomorrow to read what she thought. And for reading on the serious side, check out Paul Greenberg’s “An Oyster on the Seder Plate” in today’s New York Times.

And now, I leave you with Aunt Marty’s Better-Than-Beef Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage:

Make the filling:  Dice and sauté one large onion until translucent in 1/4 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of peanut oil.  Mix together the cooled onion with 1 pound of diced shiitake mushrooms, 1 cup of black raisins, three cage-free fresh eggs and four crumbled matzohs. I used egg matzoh because it was available but the regular cardboard version works just fine.

Make a sauce of one large can of pureed tomatoes, one cup of water, juice from one lemon, and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Add a dash of salt. Mix in large Dutch oven or soup pot with high sides.

Soften whole cabbage leaves in simmering water until soft enough to fold, about a minute. Fill with the stuffing and roll like an eggroll, plop into the  sauce, and simmer for an hour. I like to julienne the remaining cabbage and put it over the cabbage rolls.

And Barry the skeptic? “I’m choking over these words, but it’s equally as good as Grandma Etta’s,” he said.

Happy holidays!

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Welcome to Laurel-Land

Laurel Okorofsky with Baron (left) and his mother, Lori's Strongside.

Rosendale, NY – It’s 5:46 a.m. on Sunday, I’ve let three of the dogs out back and Laurel Okorofsky is bounding down the stairs with the intensity of a coffee fiend.

“Is Nomad out there?” she asks of the sleek Husky who knows no boundaries. We look toward the pretty silvered barn, a hand-made wedding gift from her husband, and toward the paddock, where her rearing colt and gelding are giving meaning to “horse play.”

While I work at waking, still jet-lagged from Denver, she’s trimmed the challah for the French toast, cleaned the kitchen, given me an update on her plans for a wheat crop. Trees will be felled today. The maple taps must come out.

Welcome to Laurel-Land.

There are no limits at Two Hearts Ranch, a homestead, really, which with Laurel’s exuberance and scientific curiosity has become a large personal laboratory for the land’s potential.

Just look around the living areas, which husband Stuart built by hand. Barry and I sleep on the fold-out couch because the mycelium experiments have recently taken over the guest room. There are bee hives under construction by the stove and five trays of tender vegetables sprouting in the office.

It’s a little after 7 a.m., and Laurel has her muck boots on and is out the door. It’s time to sweep the tack room, feed the horses, examine the buds on the vigorously pruned fruit trees.

“You want to be a part of it?” she coaxes, holding the screen door wide for Fin, my shy schipperke mix.  “C’mon.”

Stuart, who tackles the farm chores with similar gusto, has taken over in the kitchen. He is lean from cutting down trees and carrying 200 gallons of maple syrup sap out to the fire pit. In their free time they compete in triathlons and think nothing of sneaking in a 35-mile bike ride after a 12-mile run.

Sure, you’re thinking, anyone can do that. But there are killer hills on their route.

Our meal today is a breakfast of turkey sausages, orange juice, French toast with fresh eggs from their vet’s hens, and maple syrup, the production of which has consumed life here for the past month. It took all 200 gallons of clear sap to produce less than five gallons of caramel-colored syrup. They organically grow as much of their food as they can in a no-till garden.

“In the beginning there was snow on the ground. A lot of snow at the time, so I had to carry the sap,” says Stuart, who actually runs a successful business that has nothing to do with farming.  “Originally Baron was supposed to carry it, but that didn’t happen. So I was the pack horse.”

You may recall Laurel as a bit player in other narratives. We’ve slipped in several undocumented meals since this dinner experiment began, but I thought you should meet her now, as the northeast growing season kicks in. Laurel is my enabler. She is the reason I cut two tall red oak trees two years ago into four-foot logs, and convinced Barry to drill holes in them to cultivate shiitake mushrooms. She is the reason I keep bees. She is the reason I’m staring at a $200 hand-crafted Austrian scythe in the corner of my office.

I believe at some point this summer I will be learning to use it in her field to harvest the emmer, an ancient wheat she’s tracked down.

All of this could be construed as slightly insane, but they push at life for good reason: Stuart, who is nearing 60, lost his brother young to AIDS and Laurel, who is still in her 40s, was widowed young.

The French toast is perfectly browned and our friend Amber has set the cherry dining table, which, I should mention was handmade by Stuart along with the 12 Mission-style chairs.

“If you’re having French toast you have to do it while it’s hot,” Stuart calls out to Laurel, who has darted inside between tasks.

“I have one more thing to do out there,” she says.

“There’s one shaped like a heart,” he says. We let out a collective groan, which just makes her laugh. Many hearts have shown up here since Two Hearts was named.

“Maybe I’ll do that one,” she says, and then slips back outside.

Mac ‘n Jalapenos

Boulder math teacher Peter Szameitat, 30, with a school lunch. The teachers love the new healthy menu.

Boulder, CO – I write this from the lovely Kitchen Cafe, far from the hormone-driven hordes at the nearby middle school, where I just observed the eating habits of the average 13-year-old.

Dear God.

The Boulder schools have a celebrity chef, who you may have caught last night on ABC News committing the ongoing heresy of speaking out against chocolate milk. She’s had one death threat so far this week. Chef Ann, as Ann Cooper is called, also has had bad things to say about Girl Scout cookies in the past, which makes some parents positively nuts.

“There are people who absolutely hate me,” she says from her windowless office, a bare cell with a balance ball for a chair. Chef Ann fixes me with a direct stare: “People think I should stay out of their lives.”

There are some great school lunch critics out there, like Washington, DC-based writer Ed Bruske, who recently spent a week in the Boulder school kitchens. I’m more interested in what people do with food at home, where, in between the tasty meals that rely on the crunch of a green or the purity of a grain, I’m witnessing regular atrocities against vegetables and diets that are just plain dangerous.

But I’m here because no one, not Michele Obama or Jamie Oliver, has conquered that cultural hurdle that keeps most of us cooking like our grandmothers.

Ann Cooper thinks she can make inroads by improving the quality of food in her Boulder public school lunchrooms and introducing the youngest children to salads, grains and fruit. She began, with generous grants, by changing menus, upgrading ingredients, eliminating sugary sodas and snacks, and making foods from scratch in several centralized kitchens.

You would think that the parents of wealthy Boulder, like those in the Berkeley school district she came from, would just eat up The Renegade Lunch Lady’s lunchroom reform.

But Boulder, which has the highest per capita number of trust funders in the US, also has a large Hispanic population, plenty of kids on free and reduced lunches, and those cranky parents who say “Who do you think you are? Don’t tell me how to feed my kids.”

“There’s been a lot of pushback,” she says. “Berkeley and Boulder are just as bad as every place else.”

Turning around a school district takes five to seven years, she says, and she’s just a few years into it. The measure of her success to date is in the lunchroom, where a rather energetic group of sixth graders queue today for a choice of a wholesome whole wheat turkey wrap or mac & cheese, which is pretty tasty, but still. It’s pasta and cheese. The wraps are barely touched.

One after another, the students stop at the fresh salad bar, where they can choose from fresh greens! Peas! Red kidney beans! Cottage cheese! There is hope.

Their favorite vegetable?

“Jalapenos,” Taza Torres’ says. The 13-year-old seventh grader has doused his mac & cheese with hot sauce, several large bottles of which are by the cash register, and he’s silently working through the side of peppers.

“I usually don’t get the entree because it’s gross and disgusting,” says Mikhaela Moen, 12, who is at a nearby table with three friends. “The whole lunch is nasty and the chicken is nasty.”

“The chicken bits are nasty. The chicken legs are good,” says her friend, Nora Meade, 11, who brings a carefully packed lunch from home that today includes a chocolate chip Clif bar, a homemade chocolate sandwich cookie, homemade clam chowder, and sliced mango.

Mac & Jalapenos

See what the lunch team is up against?

I would say that Chef Ann has a thankless job, but she routinely collects awards for her advocacy, she was profiled a few years back in The New Yorker and gained notoriety as the lunch lady, and has launched a foundation and an interactive website to help other school lunch reformers. She has some very vocal supporters, and there’s also a growing awareness in Colorado that the claim they stake as the skinniest state is relative. About one in 20 Coloradans is obese, and a growing number of them are children.

She’s also very realistic about the cultural hurdles before her.

“If kids are eating an unhealthy diet at home, how do you get them to eat differently at school? Until all of us as Americans make food a core value it’s going to be a problem,” she says.

Against All Odds

Matt Westenhaver, who started a sustainable aquaponics program that grows tilapia and fresh vegetables year-round near Fort Collins, CO.

Fort Collins, CO – The guests have nurtured the ingredients for our dinner tonight: fresh tilapia, spring chard, tender radishes, crisp greens,  freshly-baked breads, and of course, plenty of local beer.

Our gracious host is Linda Hoffman, a local real estate agent-turned-chef who teaches cooking classes in the kitchen of her cozy 1920s bungalow, which she has offered up for our meal.

It is Linda’s mission to wilt and saute, happily adding butter and cheeses and creme fraiche with gusto.

“Does everyone eat bacon?” she asks the eight guests, who crowd in the kitchen doorway as all new guests do. They are mostly strangers, brought together by farming and Be Local North Colorado, a Fort Collins non-profit that offers support, marketing and a winter Farmer’s Market.

The fish guys are from a new business called Quatrix, just up the road in Laporte, and they grow spectacular hydraponic greens in a structure that Matt Westenhaver and his engineer dad, Ken, cobbled together with salvaged rebar, free paint from the dump, and the aquaponics equivalent of duct tape and shoestring.

Their oldest tank has about 1,000 healthy tilapia weighing in at about two market-ready pounds each, although they’re still figuring out where to sell them. The fish they provide arrive at the table in a jacket of bacon and salty bacon fat that set the smoke detectors buzzing.

“It’s not done until the smoke alarm goes off,” Linda calls from the kitchen.

I wonder if it says something about the food culture here that there isn’t a line down the driveway from the Quatrix greenhouse. Or that the subdued group that toured the greenhouse with little yellow notepads a few hours earlier wasn’t lunging for the free mizuna and butter lettuce that Matt offered up.

Or that the bite of the fresh chard from Native Hill Farm is subdued by high heat, butter and a salty bath of milk, parmesan and Gruyere. Delicious and addictive, yes, but it does have me thinking that the USDA should update its five-servings-a-day chart to deduct points for greens that have been stripped of any nutritional value.

This is the the edge of the heartland, a college town where beer appears to be the real cash crop.

The biggest deal in town is Colorado State University, which grew out of a 19th century agriculture school in a region once known for sugar beets, lamb and beef. The beet crops vanished around the time the processing plant closed, almost 60 years ago, but not before messing up a good bit of the ecosystem. The CSU mascot has long been a ram, but the local kids still repaint the white A for Aggies on a high cliff outside town.

I imagine a lot of beer is involved.

What’s the state food?

“Steak,” says the veggie farmer at the table.

“B-e-e-e-f,” says his partner, who pronounces it like the call of a steer.

If I can make any sweeping statements about the assembled guests, beyond the fact that their bedtimes average around 8 p.m., it’s that their presence here speaks to a deep connection to this arid high desert land.

They’re pioneers, all but one of whom hail from someplace else, who get giddy and all “can-do” spirit at talk of dry ditches and crazy water restrictions and baseball-sized hailstones that flatten their spring crops and batter the livestock.

Did I mention that it dropped to -17 this winter, which froze the experimental greens that Matt was feeding his fish? Or that it was illegal until recently to collect the rain that dripped off your roof?

“There are difficult things everywhere,” says Katie Slota, a Madison, WI native who gets up at 5 a.m. to keep her new farm aloft. She could be the poster girl for the new breed of young farmer springing up across the country: passionate and driven, with the kind of optimistic energy that could take on an ice storm.

“We have an amazing community here. And nothing rots here,” she says brightly. “It’s like you trade one set of problems for another.”

Her partner Nick Koontz, 29, who was trained as an engineer, gave it up to work their two acre Native Hill Farm, which takes local eating to an extreme: Their produce travels five miles to market. Across the table is Callie Koch, a watchful 25-year-old Fort Collins native, who was more excited about a sourdough starter she made in London than her investment banking internship. Now she’s back home, begging her dad to build a wood-fired oven in the backyard to complement Ingrained, the bakery she took over two months ago.

“Your community chooses you,” says Nick, whose fledging business has already sold out of shares in their 2011 CSA. “It’s not like you say ‘Oh, I’m going to farm in the Salinas Valley.'”

The Bacon Tree

Farm intern Missy Neville, 23, with one of the Cope Organic Farm lambs.

Boulder, CO – Consider the perfect orange duck yolk before me, nestled on fresh wheat flatbread with lardo supremo and fresh tarragon.

My dinner hosts at The Kitchen, a wildly popular Boulder restaurant, are Anne and Paul Cure, who raised the ducks that laid the eggs and the Berkshire pig that became the excellent lardo. The wheat in the bread was grown by their neighbor, who we spotted not one hour before burning a path through the irrigation ditch by their farm.

“It’s such a treat to have other people prepare our food,” Anne says, taking in an $11 plate of her own brilliant spicy greens, now adorned with chevre and candied pecans.

Seated around our table are the Cure’s four farm interns and the couple’s daughter Georgia, 3, who is working through foods that don’t appear on the menu: a goat cheese mac ‘n cheese, a frothy milk, a martini glass of vanilla ice cream. This is what happens when your name is on the specials blackboard.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I should take you back to this morning on Pearl Street, the city’s broad pedestrian mall, where you would have found me clutching a fair-trade shade grown organic iced coffee in a jetlagged daze as I tried to figure out trendy Boulder and its reputation as the foodiest town.

Paul was pictured on the front page of yesterday’s Daily Camera and is a fixture at the Farmer’s Market, so while I usually don’t show up unannounced in someone’s driveway, I googled his address and about an hour later I was tagging behind two of his farm interns, hitching a lift in the back of a pickup and letting nosy piglets with wet snoots snuffle at my pant legs, all within view of motorists on their way into town.

“We’re trying to show people this is what it means to have a farm,” said Paul, a very good sport who puts up with random strangers. He shakes off any suggestion that his is a noble pursuit. “People are treating it like it’s a luxury to eat healthy food.

So he gets worked up about the disconnect between us and our food. “Wake up man, These are the essentials of life. Why are you so willing to have a five-minute dinner?”

Paul grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, with absolutely no farming background, while Anne was raised on an upstate New York farm. When city cousins visited, oblivious to the source of their food, her father would joke: “Let’s go to the bacon tree and pick some breakfast.”

It’s a hard truth for the farm’s summer camp kids that Custard and Rhubarb the pigs are destined to be artisanal sausage, but education matters here at Cure Organic Farm. There are too many bacon-eating city people like me, who surveys the adorable piglets and says in a hushed voice: “Are they being raised as” and I spell, so as not to alarm the pigs: “f-o-o-d.”

“The kids are screaming at you, how can you do that?” said Paul, who makes it quite clear that some farm animals are meant to be eaten. “One day they’re feeding them carrots and the next day they’re salting them.”

The Cures have farmed the land since 1995, and you would think that just the task of raising tasty certified organic food from the earth and from healthy and well-tended animals would be enough. But farming here is complicated.

Boulder is home to the vocal Prairie Dog Coalition and farmers can’t shoot the animals that destroy crops. Coyotes thrive here, which is why the Rambouillet sheep share a pasture with a spitting, bucktoothed llama named Handsome who acts as their bodyguard. And then there’s the complexity of water rights.

The water that irrigates the crops comes from the spring snow melt from the Arapahoe Glacier looming over Boulder. It runs through a system of ditches, controlled by landowners with claims staked in the 1800s, and monitored by ditch riders who watch where the water flows. The ice is slow to melt this year.

“I can’t plant anything because there’s no water. I’m at the mercy of the gods,” said Paul, whose plants right now are mostly confined to the greenhouses and dampened with precious well water.

The Cures lease their 10 acres from four different landowners, and have built a thriving business that sells directly to consumers and the chefs in town who appreciate their quality. Which brings us back to this corner table in a bistro that is packed on a Monday night.

“We only work with five restaurants and that’s because we have a relationship with the chefs,” Paul says.

“We don’t want to be a product for anybody,” Anne says, as we tuck into a communal platter of lamb sausage.

Sous Chef Dennis Phelps ducks out of the open kitchen to greet the Cures and place an order: “I’ll take all your duck eggs, 45 spicy, and 30 greens,” shorthand for pounds of the spicy mizuna and arugula mix and tender spring spinach greens. Anne considers a sprig of mizuna and holds it up for the interns, who will cut each green by hand.

“I’m glad we had these so you can see how they look on the plate,” Anne says. “Like, are the stems too long? Do they look silly on a fork?”

We work through a house cut tagliatelle with a braised local rabbit rich with Cure Farm Spinach. Forgive me, Paul. I tentatively taste the rabbit meat, but, like the camp kids, I’m picturing Thumper and the rogue bunny that loped behind the greenhouse today. I pick around the pink meat.

There is rich Colorado beef with a tangy celeriac puree in a rosemary jus, and then the quivering duck egg on flatbread with a side of fresh mozarella.

“Dig in Marty while the yolk is still soft,” urges Laura Reppert, 29, an intern of one week.

“These are farm people,” says another intern, reaching for the quickly vanishing platter of fresh greens.

“That’s our farm on that plate,” Paul says.

Spring arrives to Piermont.

Fin and Teddy help in the garden.

Piermont, NY – Allow me a bit of laziness today as I skip dinner to clean up my spring garden and prepare for tomorrow’s flight to Denver.

I’ll be visiting aquaponics greenhouses near Fort Collins and in Denver, sharing dinner Tuesday with members of a farmer’s market, having lunch Thursday with middle-school kids in a pilot lunch program in Boulder, and learning about a successful food incubator project in Fort Collins.

So I leave you until Monday with a link to Adventures in Beeland, a delightful British blog by Emily Heath, a young beekeeper who has a contagious enthusiasm for her bees.

 

The Cruelest Month

Chris Harp, the bee doctor. Photo courtesy of http://www.HoneybeeLives.com

Summit, NY – And in the end, my bees could not survive.

I left with such high hopes just a month ago, when I opened my hive of Italian honeybees to find a flurry of activity. Could my emergency candy of honey, sugar, thyme and organic camomile be enough to get them through the last weeks of cold weather?

On March 2, several days after my visit, the temperature plunged to 2 degrees.

When I revisited my hive this week I rapped on the honey super, the top honeycomb-filled box where I last saw my bees. And there was silence. It was snowing atop my mountain, although 1000 feet below there was a fine drizzle and the temperatures brushed the high 30s. I rapped again and I swore I could hear the hum of the bees.

So I cautiously opened the hive to see if they needed more emergency supplies, only to discover several dead bees on the hive cover.

I pried open the airtight seal the bees themselves make out of propolis, a pine tar resin they process into something about as durable as Superglue.

The hive was dead.

This has been another terrible year for the bees. At a meeting of the Ulster County Beekeepers’ Association this week, even local bee doctor Chris Harp said he had lost 10 of his 27 hives to intense cold.

Honeybees have some amazing adaptive tricks to keep themselves warm over the winter. When temperatures drop below 40 degrees in late October to November, at least in the Northeast, they form a tight cluster around the queen. Then they move at about 2 millimeters a day, slowly consuming the honey they collected and capped in the warm months.

They break cluster around Feb. 15, when the longer days send a message to the queen that it’s time to start laying eggs again. For an absolutely mind-blowing experience, watch this video to learn how bees can superheat their body to keep the emerging brood heated to the required 94 degrees.

And for a sobering experience, read the UNEP report on the death of pollinators world-wide. We are absolutely in a freefall that threatens human survival, and I don’t have to look much further than my dead hive to see signs of multiple factors behind the dramatic decline.

So what happened to my bees?

They still had about 20 pounds of beautiful amber honey inside the hive, and I could tell by  the way hundreds of the bees were frozen into place across all three boxes that make up my hive that they were active when the catastrophe happened. Was it just a sudden cold snap that caught them off guard?

For confirmation I packed up the hive and brought it directly to Chris, who has a bee yard outside of New Paltz, NY. He also keeps chickens, which was a nice bonus for Teddy, my little 24-pound mutt, who took off after the roaming hens with the focus of a serial killer. The hens survived.

“Let’s autopsy the hive,” he said, lifting the first frame.

Here’s what he found:

Signs of Nosema

See those dark brownish-black spots? That’s the result of nosema apis,  a parasitic fungi that usually strikes when bees are unable to leave the hive for long periods to defecate. In lay terms, it’s bee diarrhea and it doesn’t kill them, but it does stress them out.

Frame from the hive

This is a frame that’s been emptied of honey in the center. We found dozens of dead bees, butt sides out, inside those empty hexagonal cells. That’s a clear sign that they starved to death.

The cruel irony here is that the opaque waxy area you see near my thumb is packed with good honey. The poor bees couldn’t even move the 1/4-inch in some cases to get to the food because of the cold.

We also examined the simple white plastic tray that I keep below the hive to catch debris. We found tiny varroa mites, enough to be noticeable and yet one more stressor on the colony, but not enough to be fatal.

Chris also noted that at the center of the upper brood box he could only find seven brood-filled cells. The bees couldn’t generate the heat needed to keep the brood alive and the queen wasn’t laying spring brood.

So why did my bees die?

According to Chris, it was a cascading series of events most heavily influenced by climate change and troubling practices, including the introduction six years ago of Australian bees needed to pollinate the California almond crop. They brought with them their own set of health problems.

My bees got started late last spring because unusually cold weather in Georgia, where they originated, kept the hives from building up enough to be divided until mid-May. That means my bees got their start long after the black alder trees and the fruit trees stopped blooming.

Italian bees are known for being docile, which makes them a practical choice for beginners like me. But they’re not genetically programmed for cold weather and die off up north in disproportionate numbers.

They’re also not bred for hygienic behavior. The feisty Russian bees and the hybrid Minnesota hygienics are known for picking mites off of each other. My Italians? They just co-exist with the mites, which hitch a ride on their thorax, or upper body, and cut into their outer shell. That opens the bees to all kinds of opportunistic infections, including fungi that may be at the root of CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.

There is one bright note: Chris said I can reuse the frames left behind by my dead hive so that my new Italians will be able to immediately gather nectar and the queen can lay eggs. Last year’s girls had to take on the labor-intensive task of building honeycomb in the empty box I dumped them in.

So I’ll pick up my new bees on May 2, knowing the odds of survival continue to be against me, to attempt one more time to keep alive the tiny pollinators at the very foundation of our food chain.

Here’s wishing good luck for all of us.

Red Beans and Rice on Mondays

At home in the Garden District

New Orleans, LA – Dr. Edwin Beckman, a pathologist with a sense of humor, offers up a good New Orleans-style medical riddle to the dinner guest:

The medical examiner was investigating a death that had happened several days earlier. How did they know that it happened on a Monday?

Easy, I say: “They found red beans and rice in his digestive track.”

It’s nice to come prepared.

We’re in the city’s elegant Garden District, where dining room posters of tango and Tabasco hint at the interests of the owners, the Drs. Beckman.

He’s on staff at the big Ochsner medical center in Jefferson Parish.  Barbara Beckman is a professor of pharmacology and Associate Dean of Admissions at Tulane’s Medical School, and they have come directly from work. Dinner, I’ve been warned, will be humble fare.

Which is why we’re having this chat over a steaming bowl of spicy red beans and rice. Did I mention the Tabasco?

This is one of those nights when we’re strangers for about five minutes, before Barbara’s inviting me to use the spare guest room on the next visit and I’m plotting dinner in New York. Their enthusiasm runs from the general insanity of Louisiana politics, to the vibrancy of Brazil, and the diversity of New Orleans culture. It figures that at this dinner table, in a city known for gastronomy and a state known for obesity, the lively talk would turn to the local diet.

Louisiana, after all, is home to the Sugarbuster docs.

Then there’s Dr. Gourmet, an internist colleague of Barbara’s who combines his love of good food and his background as a chef with sensible diet advice. He lectured earlier in the day and Barbara encouraged the staff who struggle with their weight to sit in on the lecture about the Mediterranean Diet.

“I have never met a physician who cares this much or is so passionate about what we eat,” she said. “Dr. Gourmet could be Dr. Oz. He’s that good.”

We are on the appetizer course now, a gorgeous steamed artichoke. I have a fleshy leaf in one hand, poised above a very appealing and generous cup of melted butter. Will anyone notice if I slowly back away from the fat? I sip more red wine.

The Beckmans live in a handsome 19th century house with a deceptively narrow facade and an interior that goes on and on. It survived Hurricane Katrina intact, as did they.

Like most of their neighbors, they had begun to tune out the hurricane warnings that happened every three years or so. The Garden District, where wealthy New Orleans residents built mansions in the 1800s to avoid contact with the Creoles of the French Quarter, is several feet above sea level and less prone to flooding.

Another pathologist insisted on staying through the storm at the hospital, which was the command center for Jefferson Parish, freeing Edwin to go home.  And then their next-door neighbor weighed in:

“Beckmans, it’s time for us to leave.”

“The way he said it, we took him seriously,” Barbara said.

They made it as far as Baton Rouge, where the traffic jams stopped them, and they found shelter with a colleague.

“Katrina was horrible in that 80-percent of the city was flooded,” he said. The doctor who took his place at the hospital suffered terribly in the stifling heat and horrible conditions, and ultimately retired early because of the ordeal. “The whole city was abandoned for eight weeks or more. Nobody was here.”

They returned, enthusiastic about rebuilding.

“My goal now is to admit students to Tulane Medical School who I sense would settle here. I’m rebuilding New Orleans one person at a time,” Barbara says.

We’ve moved on to dessert, a classic bananas Foster, the signature dish at Brennan’s, that stops short here of a flambe at the table.

Edwin, a native of Louisiana whose jokes run to the culinary, tells of the golfer who stops when he hears a funeral procession pass, and puts his hand over his heart.

“What a sign of respect,” his golf partner says.

The other golfer says, “that’s my wife. We were married so long we almost finished the bottle of Tabasco.”

The Drs. Beckman both laugh in unison. Hot sauce is consumed here in copious quantities.

“We’re going to Russia this summer and we’re taking a bottle with us,” she says.


More wine, Blanche?

Serving the Pinot Noir in the courtyard

New Orleans, LA – There’s a crowded ghost tour passing outside our Royal Street door, a string of college students clutching plastic dacquiri cups, a heavyset couple who trudge past, their pasty pale winter legs bare beneath baggy shorts.

Inside one of the French Quarters grand courtyards we hear the hum of an air conditioner and the stready trickle of the courtyard fountain.

This is Lee Brasseaux’s world.

He’s a chain-smoking Cajun with gentlemanly manners and the slightest of drawls, here from the flat plains of Abbeville, LA. For the past 22 years he’s made his living cleaning and caring for some of the Quarters loveliest homes.

Within the Vieux Carre, there is a disregard for class distinctions, he explains, so you can iron the shirts of the friend who later invites you to dinner. He counts among his best friends a collection of doctors, lawyers, realtors, waiters and noted local cook and author Carol Allen, whose courtyard we eat in tonight. She is at the opera while we borrow her dishes and cutlery.

“The Creoles celebrated life,” he says, a spirit that extended to embracing the mix of cultures in the original Quarter. “We had things like the Quadroon Ball. It was very foreign to everybody else. Even though we’re a part of the United States we retain that sense of being different.”

We’ve begun the evening at the nearby Verti Marte Deli, on Royal Street, a rather unremarkable corner shop that has just reopened after a grease fire in the kitchen shuttered it for eight months. Rumor has it the staff went outside for a smoke while the fire took off.

The regulars scribbled odes to the deli on the plywood that was tacked over the windows during reconstruction: “I will be the first in line for the bread pudding” and “please come back. I miss my chicken Creole,” and simply: “I’m hungry.”

Lee does not cook, unless you count mac ‘n cheese.

“This is what a lot of the locals do,” he says. “I work long hours. I’m single. I don’t have a lot of free time.”

For $10 we pick a main course from Creole favorites that tonight include jambalaya and and a catfish fillet with crab stuffing. Lee, who is lean with chiseled high cheekbones, orders the enormous crabcakes, which come two to a single order, with two sides. He picks the mac ‘n cheese, a long spaghetti noodle with a Velveeta-orange sauce on top and held together with a yellow cheese sauce. Our vegetable is a corn niblet, buttery and stewed with bits of green peppers and a load of salt.

Tourists peer through the glass while we wait for our order to be heated, and Lee waves them in. “It’s good,” he says, with one more exaggerated wave.

They laugh and move on.

Curtis Quate, the Verti Marte’s delivery guy off and on for the past three years, hangs out at the register, happy to be back to work. “I sat on the couch with my mother for six months. All we did was watch movie after movie after movie. She had the best lawn in town.”

It is a different New Orleans behind the grand wooden doors at Carol’s home. We sit at an old cast-iron garden table and split a bottle of pinot noir. The mosquitoes are out and we swat at our bare wrists and legs. The crabcake is heavily breaded, but tasty. I nibble at the greens and ponder my cholesterol level.

“How on earth do you stay so thin?” I ask, as Lee takes the barely touched pound of mac ‘n cheese off my plate and consumes it with relish.

“I don’t have a car,” he says. “I walk everywhere.”

Lee was in France, tending Carol’s chateau, when Hurricane Katrina hit. They sat in front of the TV and wondered what they would find back home. He came back to the States and stayed with friends in New York for almost two months. His small apartment was spared.

We refill our glasses, the wine kicks in, the bugs have left us alone.

Hungry in New Orleans

Joyce Fountain, left, and Ingrid Albert

New Orleans, LA – I went to bed hungry last night, which takes an effort when your hotel is next door to Emeril’s and your suitcase has a stash of Aunt Sally’s pralines.

For me, it was a matter of choice.

You may have heard of the HungerFast campaign that runs to April 24th to protest the proposed federal budget cuts that will reduce food aid to the most vulnerable people by 41-percent.

I’ll think of one more beleaguered group while I skip a few meals. I spent yesterday in the Ninth Ward, where the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took the most lives and did the most damage. The residents here dropped out of the food chain six years ago and few people outside this battered neighborhood seem to be doing much about it on a significant scale.

Joyce Fountain has lived here 66 years, minus the five months she was shuffled from one shelter to the next, first in Mississippi, then Texas, then Oklahoma, then eastern Louisiana. “It was an odyssey,” she said, shaking her head sadly. She returned with her husband to their battered little yellow bungalow and a moldy lump of furniture, and did her best to rebuilt her life despite health problems that include diabetes.

But the Winn-Dixie and Sav-A-Center never returned, despite tax breaks designed to bring back retailers.

You can drive 1/4-mile to reach the Magnolia Market in the Bywater neighborhood. It sells dried and canned food, and there’s a long wall filled with cheap beer brands and soda. They take precious floor space for a revolving display of cellophane packets of fried pork products, the yellow fried fat with absolutely no nutritional value and a sodium content that can’t possibly be good for anyone. Another wall is filled with 99-cent candy packets. While I was there a tiny girl named Ruby was picking out three huge candy suckers while her mother bought soda.

And in the back of the refrigerated section, there were exactly three $1.99 stalks of celery, four 99-cent green peppers that were small and spotted and would be in the dumpster behind my Fairway, a few lemons and some apples and oranges in a cardboard box. There is a Winn-Dixie that many Ninth Ward residents frequent in St. Bernard Parish, but they complain the produce there is inferior to the produce in white suburbs.

“If you go out to Metairie, they have better selections out there,” Mrs. Fountain said. She apologized: “I am not a racist, but…” her voice trailed off. “Our bellies are not like their bellies? We go to our store and our produce is not as fresh.”

It’s not much better in East New Orleans, another entirely black, low-income neighborhood.

“We ain’t got nothing out there,” said Ingrid Albert, who has to drive several miles for her groceries.

The supermarkets like A&P-owned Sav-A-Center and Winn-Dixie shut down after Katrina, and to compound the misery the buses no longer run with the same frequency out of the black sections of town. For the elderly and poor without transportation that means using limited funds to take cabs, which charge an extra $1 for each grocery bag and a premium for each passenger.

The food issues in this part of the country are limitless, and in some cases, self-inflicted. Kasey Mitchell is the resident farmer at the ARC Vintage Garden Farm, the city’s first organic operation in the affluent Garden District. He’s lean and sun-weathered and educated, but he gained 30 pounds in the first three months after moving here from stints in India and New Mexico.

“The food culture in New Orleans is their pride. It’s the tastiest food,” said Mitchell, whose surplus vegetables support gardening and healthy eating initiatives in the poorer parts of town. He is aware of the challenge he faces: “So many people are eating crappy food.”

As in other parts of the country there’s a growing youth movement interested in local farms and gardens, he said. Yet here that interest in fresh and local collides with a tradition of artery-clogging dishes. Cooks throw pork fat and butter and cream at their vegetables and cook the life out of them, rendering them a nutritional zero. Michelle Obama could paint her hair green and do handstands on Canal Street and that still wouldn’t stop the home cooks of Louisiana from producing the best tasting junk food I’ve run into in almost two months of home cooking from Seattle to New Hampshire.

Lousiana has the fifth highest number of obese residents in the US, according to a Gallup survey last month, which found close to one-third of its residents clinically overweight. It doesn’t take a scientific poll to know that this community is eating itself to death: Just stand in the check-out line at a Winn-Dixie in Marrero as I did and look at the junk in the carts and the fat bellies and massive behinds on the shoppers.

There are bright spots like Hollygrove Market & Farm and the Crescent City Farmer’s Markets, although small by most city standards and in affluent neighborhoods. This week they offered pints of fresh-picked strawberries for $2, greens like kale and collards, dried shiitake mushrooms and two vendors who sell fresh seafood and crabs still kicking in a bed of ice. They also sell pralines, pastries and suckers shaped like Fleur-de-lis.

The New Orleans Food & Farm Network, which was created to stimulate home gardening, promote healthy eating, and the development of small urban farms on abandoned lots, fell into chaos last year and is just now reorganizing under an energetic new director.  The soil in the poorest neighborhoods has recovered somewhat from the flood of salt water, but some people are still reluctant to garden. “People hop the fence and steal the vegetables,” Mrs. Fountain said.

So I will resist the lure of Creole cuisine, just long enough to get a caffeine withdrawal headache and feel a bit light-headed. When my 24-hour fast has ended, I’ll have the luxury of standing outside my hotel door, and deciding between etoufee or another po’ boy, all within a block, or a pricey green salad at a better restaurant. And the elderly black residents in the Ninth Ward will wake up and figure out who will drive them to a market in the distant white suburbs.