Preserving America's Food Traditions.
This adventure was sponsored by the Geoffrey Roberts Award (www.geoffreyrobertsaward.com).
The summer of 2007 was a memorable one as we crossed the country in search of America's endangered foods!
Along the way, we visited small family farms, farmers’ markets, and chefs who support local farms, and while doing so, promoted these heroes’ efforts to protect one of the most precious things we have in America : our diversity of food.
Some of the “Endangered Foods” we highlighted include:
Carolina stoneground grits
Carolina Gold rice
Handmade filé (for gumbo)
Capitol reef apples
Baby Crawford peaches
New Mexican native chiles
Olympia native oyster
Honey Royale nectarines
“Really Wild” wild rice
Ossabaw Island hogs
Black Spanish grapes
These products are all either produced in alarmingly low quantities or are threatened with extinction. Our hope is that this road trip generated enough interest about our endangered foods that farmers, chefs, and indeed the American public, will be sufficiently informed and moved to grow, cook with, and buy them before they are gone forever. In this way, we can help small family farmers and these national food treasures survive, while preserving a part of our nation’s heritage
WHY IS OUR FOOD ENDANGERED AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Due to several factors, many American foods are endangered and disappearing. Although the United States retains a bit of regionalism in its cooking, the “Fast Fooding” of our country has led to an increasing blandness and homogeneity in our diet. Americans typically eat the same foods in just about every part of the country. Foodstuffs that were once the backbone of a region’s agriculture and culinary heritage are now being forced out to make room for monoculture. Carolina stoneground grits, the Chiltepin pepper, and the Capitol Reef apple are among the heirloom foods that are being produced and sold with alarmingly less frequency. When our nation loses its unique foodstuffs, it loses its soul. Our culinary traditions are part of our nation’s history, culture, and identity. It is why the pioneers moved out West and why Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row. Food and humans are inextricably connected.
More and more, corporate food companies and supermarkets offer a smaller variety of foods on their shelves. For example, there are literally thousands of varieties of potatoes, yet the vast majority of potatoes grown in Idaho are Russets. When companies choose to produce and sell one type of food over another, nature loses its genetic diversity, small family farms are forced to give way to giant agribusiness, and consumers miss out on delicious foods.
By supporting small family farms and buying local, often endangered, foods, we can build a demand for these products and therefore bring them back from the brink of losing them forever. When you buy local food products you are helping the environment, the economy, and the very fabric of your community—and you just might be saving a great tasting food from dispappearing!
Read on to learn more about our journey across America!
The Datil Pepper: Heat with a History (22 June 2007)
Most visitors that come to my hometown of St. Augustine, FL have never heard of one of our most beloved treasures: the datil pepper. Its history sounds like that of the typical immigrant that arrived on North America’s shores and made good here, though its success story is one that has been mostly ignored by historians. Minorcan settlers from Spain brought the little pepper with a big personality to St. Augustine in 1777 via the Caribbean, where it is believed to have been native. The settlers planted datil bushes upon arriving and incorporated the peppers into many of their dishes. Local Minorcan historian Michelle Reyna says it was probably a way to mask the taste of meat gone bad. “In those days, without refrigeration, meat didn’t keep long. So the Minorcans added datil peppers to their foods to hide the foul taste,” she explained to me.
Today a handful of families that trace their heritage back to the original Minorcan settlers continue to grow datil peppers and make unique products with them. One such family is the McQuaigs, who own the Minorcan Datil Pepper Products Company (www.minorcandatil.com). Their line of datil products includes a spice mix, a mustard, a BBQ sauce, and their top-seller--a hot sauce that is sweet, tangy, and spicy all at the same time. Like most of the Minorcan families, it all started as a hobby. Marcia McQuaig, who married into her Minorcan heritage, learned how to make her various sauces from her mother-in-law, Mildred, who would bottle batches at Christmas for friends and family. When a few local restaurants took interest in her tasty concoctions, the family decided to start the business. “It all started with the mustard, but today we’ve expanded and our hot sauce is the big draw,” she told me.
The greatest challenge the company faces is the low quantity of peppers produced, since almost all production is centered around St. Augustine, and only a small number of farmers can meet her demand. “It’s a temperamental little pepper,” she said. Hurricanes and droughts have made growing conditions less than ideal in the past few years. Still, many locals grow the delicious pepper in their backyards and carry on the tradition of bottling small amounts as gifts. Unlike some peppers, datils have both heat and flavor, making them quite versatile. Locals add them to such dishes as chicken pirlau and Minorcan clam chowder, and you can find a bottle of vinegar infused with datils on the table of many local eateries. No one is sure if the datil will ever be as common as the jalapeño, but for now, locals are fine keeping their little treasure right here at home.
Please see the Recipes section for a recipe of Minorcan Clam Chowder.
South Carolina: From Columbia to Charleston (25-26 June 2007)
Our first leg of the trip took us to Columbia, SC to visit Anson Mills (www.ansonmills.com), a producer of old-fashioned stoneground grits, rice, and other grain-based foods. Unlike some other “traditional” mills, Anson Mills seeks out heirloom varieties of corn, rice, wheat, and other grains that are rarely found in stores and some that are even considered critically endangered.
Founder Glenn Roberts has created in Anson Mills not only one of the country’s finest producers of grits, but also a research center where he has been able to locate and preserve ancient grain varieties scattered across the country. Some of the corn varieties he showed us can be traced directly back to pre-colonial or early colonial times, such as the Henry Moore and Bloody Butcher types. Such corn is stored in large freezers that keep it at a constant -10 degrees to preserve it. In addition, the mill works with Japanese buckwheat, French oats, Italian farro, and numerous rice and wheat varieties. Some of the varieties of grains were already thought to be lost, but Roberts found them on farms on which the farmers themselves didn’t even know that the varieties they were planting were extremely rare or, in some cases, the last of their kind.
Although Anson Mills is a remarkable seed bank, we went for two main reasons: the stoneground grits and the Carolina Gold rice. Both of these ingredients had been common in Southern cuisine for hundreds of years, but as large food companies began industrializing the production processes, traditional varieties and methods of production gave way to the insipid foods found today in supermarkets. Anson Mills grows only organic grains and sells them both wholesale and retail. Their main customers are chefs or people looking to try higher quality, traditional, heirloom foods. Anson Mills’ stoneground grits tend to be coarser with more flavor than typical supermarket grits. Carolina Gold rice looks like brown rice, but comes out like white rice when cooked. When I asked Roberts why he got involved in the heirloom grain business, he said, “One word: flavor.”
If flavor was the reason for Anson Mills’ existence and success, we realized the next thing to do was to sample one of their products. We headed to FIG restaurant (www.eatatfig.com) in Charleston, where Chef Mike Lata uses local ingredients from nearby farms and local fishermen to create elegant Southern dishes, such as Baked Local Scamp Grouper with Fresh Herbs and Warm Asparagus Salad and Warm Salad of Local Shrimp and Radicchio with Crispy Pancetta. But we were there to sample one of his signature dishes—Carolina Gold Rice Pudding with Black Walnuts and Cherries. I am a huge fan of rice pudding and this one was outstanding in texture, spice, and complex flavors. The cinnamon was fragrant but not overpowering, the vanilla bean added complexity, and the clean, sweet flavor of the Carolina Gold rice lent itself well to this dish. It was simply the best rice pudding I have ever had (Just don’t let my mama know!). I don’t want to downplay the quality of the rest of the meal, as it was exquisite as well, but the highlight of the evening was definitely the rice pudding.
In talking with Chef Lata, a friendly, down-to-earth man who took the time to answer our many questions, we discovered someone who shared Glenn Roberts’ passion for local heirloom foods and was happy to be sharing them with his customers. Lata said that at some points in the year, local foods comprise 75% of the ingredients used in his kitchen. He told us that Carolina Gold rice was a great success story and that he was proud to feature it on his menu.
As for the grits…we headed to one of our favorite places in Charleston, the Hominy Grill (www.hominygrill.com). Although they do not feature Anson Mills grits, they do use a small, old-fashioned mill called the Old Mill of Guilford (www.oldmillofguilford.com) as a supplier. We ordered their famous Shrimp and Grits and were delighted with the creaminess and texture of the stoneground grits (not to mention the shrimp, bacon, and mushrooms spooned over them!). In addition to this masterpiece, we ordered the Veggie Plate, featuring yams, collard greens, Hoppin’ John, squash casserole, and a big piece of cornbread. Now that is Southern hospitality!!!
Please see the Recipes section for recipes of Carolina Gold Rice Pudding and Shrimp and Grits.
Chapel Hill, NC: Buy Local, Eat Well! (27 June 2007)
Our first stop in Chapel Hill, NC was to talk with the folks at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (www.albc-usa.org), an organization working to preserve rare and endangered American farm breeds.
“We were originally called the American Minor Breeds Conservancy,” remarked Don Schrider, the self-described “Poultry Guy” of the office, “but I don’t think that name helped us promote the value of these breeds too much in the early days.” Schrider is a friendly man who has firsthand experience with rare livestock breeds—he raises Buckeye chickens on his land. When I asked him about his chickens, he replied, “Buckeye chickens taste great. We sent a few out to some local chefs and got a great response from all but one. Funny thing is that one chef said it had too much dark meat and tasted too much like chicken!” Schrider’s revelation points to how consumers have become accustomed to eating bland foods and no longer recognize or appreciate the animal’s true flavor. “These animals have lost their jobs,” he added. “They are simply no longer desired by the big corporate food companies.” Schrider talked about countless breeds of pigs, cattle, poultry, and other farm animals that were once used across America, but have decreased in number and are close to extinction. (For a complete list, please visit their website.)
I asked him about the recent success of heritage turkeys. “Americans are willing to spend a little more on a good turkey once a year for Thanksgiving. Some farmers are doing better by selling heritage birds for the holiday. Too bad we can’t do the same for other animals. Why can’t we have a Swine Day?” Schrider said with a grin. Heritage turkeys are turkeys that come from varieties such as the Jersey Buff and the Bourbon Red, and played an important role in the development of our country. Turkeys are native to North America and greeted the colonists at Plymouth. But like chickens and cows, companies prefer mainly one type for breeding—in the case of the turkey, the Broad-Breasted White, which produces disproportionate amounts of breast meat, to the point that many are so heavy they can not reproduce naturally and require artificial insemination.
Regardless of his chickens tasting “too much like chicken,” Schrider and the others at the ALBC are convinced that many of these rare breeds are making a comeback thanks to small farmers finding a niche in the marketplace and chefs becoming educated on the benefits of using them in their kitchens. The recent success of heritage turkeys gives hope to the other livestock farmers. We may not have a “Swine Day” yet, but the Christmas ham is a good place to start!
We continued on to the Carrboro-Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market (www.carrborofarmersmarket.com) where gracious manager Sheila Neal introduced us to many community members involved in local agriculture. Each one had a unique story and reason about why they were there. Jack and Sandy Pleasant of Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm (www.sunsetridgebuffalo.com) decided because of health reasons to reintroduce buffalos to North Carolina on the same farm that his family has owned since the 1700s. Jack loves red meat, but as someone who worked in health care, he knows that it isn’t very good for him on a regular basis. When he read about buffalo’s many health benefits, he became convinced they would flourish on his farm and has been happily tending to them since. Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm (firstname.lastname@example.org) brought numerous breeds of heritage turkeys onto his farm not with profit in mind, but to reduce the number of insects on his land. He boasted that they are the best pest management plan he has ever seen. Finally, we met Eliza MacLean of Cane Creek Farm (www.canecreekfarm.us), a pig farmer who found it hard to buy naturally raised, antibiotic and hormone-free pork in stores, and did what she thought was the easiest: raise her own. Not only is she raising healthier pigs, but she is helping to save a rare breed, the Ossabaw Island hog. This particular tasty breed was introduced by the Spanish, who left a herd on Ossabaw Island in Georgia as an emergency food supply after long trips across the Atlantic. Over the centuries, these pigs adapted to the Southeast’s climate and environment, and along the way developed interesting qualities. They can resist heat and humidity better than most pigs and have natural immunities against worms and other pests. Maybe this is the Christmas ham Don Schrider was talking about!
We were very impressed with Chapel Hill’s sense of community. Independent mom-and-pop stores thrived downtown and everyone knew everyone at the Farmers’ Market. Many restaurants featured local ingredients gathered from nearby farms or the Farmers’ Market. Foster’s Market (www.fostersmarket.com), a local restaurant and gourmet market, gets their grits from a local mill called Lindley Mills. Crook’s Corner (www.crookscorner.com), another Chapel Hill landmark, may have started the “Buy Local” revolution 20 years ago with their seasonal Southern menu. But best of all was the meal we had at Lantern (www.lanternrestaurant.com), Chef Andrea Reusing’s creative restaurant that uses mostly local ingredients to turn out Asian works of art.
In what has been the best meal of the trip thus far, we feasted on a whole local flounder that was crispy-fried with a spicy chili and cilantro sauce drizzled over it. As evidence of her support for the area’s farms, we even encountered her shopping among locals at the Farmers’ market the day after dining in her restaurant. Look for her Ossabaw Island pork recipe in the Recipe section soon.
Apalachicola, FL: “The Last Great Bay” (1 July 2007)
“So, you’re here about food, huh? Well, how is this for you? I have a recipe for disaster!” “Welcome to Apalachicola,” I thought, as I introduced myself to Linda Raffield of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association (FCSWA). “Take greedy land developers, mix in lots of bureaucracy and red tape, stir in some competition from cheap foreign seafood imports, and take all of the water that Atlanta is using out of the mixture and you get Apalachicola Bay,” she continued.
We had been to Apalachicola a few times before and on our last trip here I had learned about the hard times the local oystermen had fallen on. Apalachicola Bay is where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico, and together these two bodies of water give and take to create one of the most productive estuaries in the world. The area produces the bulk of Florida’s oyster crop, and roughly ten percent of the nation’s supply. People from all over the Southeast flock here to sample the town’s crown jewels. These oysters are considered some of the best out there, as the Apalachicola Bay is in relatively good condition, ecologically speaking. Unlike the Chesapeake Bay, where pollution from agricultural runoff has been devastating, the Apalachicola Bay and its tributaries have been helped by the State of Florida’s land acquisition program, keeping much of the area pristine. But estuaries are fragile and even the slightest change in freshwater flow can alter the chemistry of the water system. If adequate freshwater is not available, the estuary becomes too salty, and the sensitive organisms that normally thrive there, such as oysters, begin to decline.
The main threats to Apalachicola Bay’s productivity include population pressures to develop more of the coast line, government aid not reaching the oystermen, cheap foreign seafood being dumped on the American market--thereby making it hard for locals to compete, and water wars between Florida, Georgia and Alabama. All this adds up to the tasty mollusks’ troubles. “These oysters aren’t dying, they’re being murdered,” insisted Raffield. Several groups are working with the FCSWA to save the oysters, most notably the Apalachicola Riverkeeper (www.apalachicolariverkeeper.org), led by Dave McLean, an articulate gentleman whose love for the river and the community runs deep. “We have made some mistakes in handling negotiations with some of the stakeholders, and we can’t afford to make any more,” McLean explained. “In the past, the State of Florida has tried to use the Endangered Species Act to help us out, but it was actually to our detriment. What it did was to frame this dispute as a fight to save a little critter against the water that the folks up in Atlanta say they need. But this is not just about the oysters. The real endangered species out here are the oystermen.”
As if the decline in the Bay’s productivity were not enough, the cost of living in Apalachicola has become too high for many of the oystermen to survive. Wage increases have not kept up with the cost of rent and other basic expenditures, as outsiders who have “discovered” the area snap up properties as second homes and put their price tags out of reach for many locals. Many oystermen are overworked and tired from such a hard trade, but their pay does not match their labor. More and more oystermen are being forced to leave their jobs, and indeed the lifestyle they know, because they simply cannot make a living. Raffield rattled off a half dozen names that came to mind of oystermen who were no longer practicing their skills. In such a small town, oystermen do not have the luxury of falling back on an assortment of jobs. Many end up having to leave town with their families in search of a new life. The oystermen that for generations have served as the backbone of this community are now disappearing. “You know, clams and oysters produce pearls, but our pearls are our oystermen,” Raffield sadly remarked.
The community is trying new things to salvage the oysters and the oystermen. Recently, oystermen have been able to make the harvesting season year-round by relaying the oyster beds, which is comparable to crop rotation on farms. By moving the oyster beds around periodically, certain parts of the bay are given a time to heal and improve their output. One new idea that holds much promise is a type of ecotourism program in which visitors could be an oystermen for a day. “People come from all parts to enjoy our oysters—and our oysters aren’t just good, they’re the best. But I think that many folks would like to know more about our bay and the hard work of the oystermen,” said Raffield. Richard Bickel (www.richarbickelphotography.com), a local photographer who has received national recognition, has tried to put a human face on the issue by capturing frames of the bay and the oystermen who work it everyday. His book, The Last Great Bay, documents the recent challenges the estuary and the community have experienced. Finally, McLean would like to see a long term scientific assessment conducted to resolve the water crisis. “Look, we can sit and argue all day about whether the farmers need the water, or if Atlanta needs the water, or if we need the water. But let’s let science decide what is good for this bay. Listen, it takes good water to make a good beer, and it takes good water to make a good oyster.” Let’s just hope—for the good of the oysters, the oystermen, the community, and those of us that appreciate such a rare delicacy—that the fresh water keeps flowing into Apalachicola Bay.
Please see the Recipes section to for two Apalachicola seafood recipes by Chef Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com). Chef Stitt is a huge fan of Apalachicola seafood and was kind enough to share an oyster recipe, as well as one for flounder. We are hoping to meet with Chef Stitt towards the end of our journey and tour the Birmingham Farmers’ Market with him.
Baton Rouge, LA: The Spice of Life (2 July 2007)
Lionel Key is a proud man. “How’d you hear about me? You came all the way from Florida to see me? I don’t know how I do it but people always want to find out about my secret,” he exclaimed with a grin. The secret Key is referring to is the process by which he makes handmade fié for gumbo. He continues his questioning, “How did you know how to pronounce filé? Most people call it file, like it rhymes with mile. But it don’t. It rhymes with day.” Filé is a powder made from ground up dried sassafras leaves. The sassafras tree is of the same family as the bay or laurel tree. The sassafras powder is added to numerous Cajun dishes (in particular gumbo) as a spice and thickening agent. Though handmade filé was once common, today Key is one of the last individuals in the country who makes his own. Most of the filé used today in homes and restaurants is produced industrially, and Key will let you know right away that his is better. “Aw man, it just don’t compare. The stuff I make, that’s the real thing. You can see the difference, smell the difference, and you sure can taste the difference.”
Key gave us a backyard demonstration of how he produces the homemade filé. “I can’t tell you when—that’s a secret—but once a year I go out and harvest the sassafras leaves. I put them in old cloth sacks and air-dry them. Then when they’re ready, I get to work.” Although the sassafras trees’ habitat is quickly shrinking due to land development in the area, a worried Key tells us that at least he knows of one secret grove on private property where he can still harvest the leaves. He pulled out of his garage a big ancient cypress mortar and pestle. “This here is over 100 years old,” he told us. “My Great Uncle, Joseph William Ricard, was the guy that taught me how to use this, they called him blind Willie. When he died my Great Aunt passed it on to me. He started making filé back in 1904, and I’ve been going at it for 22 years. I get asked to do some demonstrations, like at the New Orleans’s Jazz and heritage festival, and people like what they see.”
His two young sons, Christian, 10, and Colton, 8, came out to join us as we watched Key pound away at the sassafras leaves. The pestle had two ends, one for crushing up the leaves into small pieces and the other for grinding those pieces into a fine powder. After a minute or two we could see the fruit of his work. The powder was fragrant and deep. His sons enthusiastically took turns making some too. “Lionel, who else knows how to make filé like you?” I asked. “These two boys do this is the future of filé right here.” Just like cultures have done from the beginning of time a parent passes down what they learned from an elder to the new generation with the hopes that they will do the same one day. We will have to wait a few more years for Christian and Colton to truly carry on this tradition. But I think Lionel’s secret handmade filé recipe is in good hands.
Lionel Key’s company, Uncle Bill’s Spices supplies a few restaurants in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans’ areas. If you would like to order his handmade filé online, his website is www.unclebillspices.com.
San Antonio to Austin, TX: A day in the Hill Country (3 July 2007)
They say everything is bigger in Texas and they are not kidding. Judging from the portion sizes of the restaurants we have tried while driving through Texas, even we’re going to get bigger while we are here. We started the day with a whirlwind tour of the Alamo and the Riverwalk in San Antonio. To be honest we were disappointed with the magnitude (or lack there of) of the Alamo. The building and grounds are well maintained, but I guess we were expecting something bigger and grander. I suppose the legend of the Battle of the Alamo is greater than the Alamo itself, and maybe that is how it should be. We dined at the Casa del Rio, the oldest restaurant on the Riverwalk. When we saw the size of the dishes on our fellow customers’ tables we decided to be good and split a platter between the two of us. It came with three chicken enchiladas in a green tomatillo sauce, refried beans, Mexican rice, guacamole salad, and of course, the proverbial chips and salsa to start things off. Even this was more than enough for the both of us. It was a tasty, if not altogether authentic, introduction to Tex-Mex cuisine.
The rolling green terrain of the Hill Country, punctuated with mesquite trees and cattle ranches scattered everywhere, made for a great ride to Austin. Along the way we came across Dry Comal Creek Vineyard (www.drycomalcreek.com), one of the only places in the world where you can sample wines made with the Black Spanish Grape, a cross between the grapes the Spanish missionaries brought to the area (to make communion wine) and the Native Texas Mustang grape.
Although we found the Black Spanish wine to be a little too acidic, we can recommend two others. The Orange Muscat is a fruity and floral white that we found to be quite drinkable, while the Comal Red VI is a demi- sweet red that is best served chilled and enjoyed with a summer barbeque.
Further along we came across Love Creek Orchards (www.lovecreekorchards.com), which specializes in Native Texan trees and apple trees. A slice of their homemade apple pie on one of their picnic tables was a perfect afternoon snack. Depending on the season you can pick your own fruit here and at many other Hill Country orchards between San Antonio and Austin.
The Hill Country has no shortage of cute little towns filled with character, like Boerne and Bandera, but none more so than Fredericksburg, a town whose German heritage is evident in its bakeries and biergartens. You will not find any chain stores along Main Street, just charming boutiques and places to try apple streudel and local brews, depending on what you are looking for. They even celebrate Oktoberfest and many of the buildings remind you of Bavaria.
We made it to Austin just before nightfall and decided to try some local Texan barbeque for dinner. We headed to Ruby’s BBQ (www.rubybbq.net), which specializes in all-natural, antibiotic and hormone free brisket from the Coleman Family Ranch in Colorado. We ordered the combo platter to share. It came with two choices of meats and two sides. We decided on the brisket and the baby back ribs, along with black beans and a creamy coleslaw with poppy seeds. In addition, we ordered a side of rosemary-jalapeño homefries. The coleslaw and homefries were delicious and showed a little innovation on Ruby’s part but the star of the show was the tender brisket, which had been slow-cooked and smoked for hours. It was as good as brisket gets. I am not certain what western Texas has in store for us but if it is anything like the Hill Country I am looking forward to it.
New Mexico: The Case of the Stolen Pepper Identity (6 July, 2007)
People in New Mexico have been adding chile peppers to their foods for hundreds of years. The state is home to 16 native chile peppers. In villages such as Chimayó and Española in the northern part of the state, farmers have been growing and harvesting a variety of peppers for generations, and the towns are honored with namesake chiles that people not only in New Mexico, but across the country, covet and add to their most cherished recipes. Many of the Southwest’s most famous dishes call for chiles that are native to New Mexico.
One of my favorite soups is New Mexican green chile stew, a spicy concoction of potatoes, beef or pork, and green chiles that comforts the soul, yet leaves your lips tingling. The Chimayó Red chile can be added to many dishes and can be utilized fresh or dried, whole or ground into a powder, or even frozen as a paste. They have a unique redish-orange glow akin to the red clay of pottery. More commonly, people will see and purchase dark burgundy red chiles with the name “Chimayó” on the label, even though these are most likely grown in the southern New Mexico town of Hatch, the self-proclaimed “Chile Capital of the World.”
Though Hatch can boast high production levels, experts and true connoisseurs prefer the native Chimayó peppers, which are hard to find and many would agree, endangered. The farms in Chimayó are small and have a tough time competing against the huge tracts owned by large food companies in Hatch. Many of the peppers planted in Hatch are not native to New Mexico, but that doesn’t stop companies from marketing them as such.
Planting and harvesting chiles is backbreaking work, and many people in Chimayó have abandoned the traditional farming lifestyle. The town, however, is proud of their pepper and the people there know that the soil, climate, and conditions here are perfect for the chile that has evolved in their community. This adds up to something similar to what the French call terroir, or the local characteristics that give a product its unique smell, flavor, and texture. A group of 21 farmers have incorporated to pool resources and have begun to produce Chimayó peppers in small quantities with the hope of expanding their niche market. Most of these farmers use organic methods and know they have a very special product—so much so, that they are in the final steps of gaining trademark status based on historical qualifications. The name Chimayó has both geographical and culinary importance that has been recognized by the State of New Mexico. With the help of the Santa Fe Institute of Native Hispanic Cultures (http://www.nativehispanic.com), the farmers hope to raise the legal status of their chiles in the same way that Champagne makers and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese producers have done to eliminate imitation foods of lower quality that threaten their integrity by using their names. “We will never sell out the farmers' interests” declared Marie Campos, director of the Institute. “We are trying to preserve a unique food through economic development programs and legal and technical assistance that these small farmers might not otherwise have.” This is good news for the farmers, but even better news for the chile peppers and the people who love authentic Southwestern foods. But until the trademark is granted fully and the farmers of Chimayó can increase their production, don’t forget to read the label carefully or you might end up with a phony chile on your plate.
Please see the Recipes section for Rancho de Chimayó (www.ranchodechimayo.com) restaurant’s Carne Adovada recipe. The restaurant serves the finest traditional New Mexican food that we sampled while in the area.
The Capitol Reef Orchards: A Garden Blooms in the Desert (10 July 2007)
When I first learned about the Capitol Reef orchards and looked their location up on a map, my first reaction was, “Southern Utah???? Why would they plant an orchard in the middle of the desert?” Now that I have visited the place, I can see why. It is hard to imagine a more striking setting for a group of orchards than the spot that Mormon pioneers chose in the late 1800s in Fruita, Utah, in what is now Capitol Reef National Park.
Located at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek with a backdrop of deep orange canyons that glow in the sunlight, the Fruita Orchards are both a geological and cultural wonder. The canyon’s microclimate and geology combine to produce a lush oasis of farming, even here in the southern Utah desert. The Mormon pioneers that settled the area were a tough bunch, but when they realized the canyon gave them a mild climate with plenty of water, they unpacked and called the place home.
They began to plant fruit trees as a way to earn a little extra money or to barter the fruit in exchange for other goods and services. Today, the National Park Service manages the numerous orchards that include apple, pear, peach, nectarine, apricot, and cherry trees.
The orchards are perhaps best known for their several types of apples, such as the Rhode Island Greening (a crisp, juicy apple great for pies) and Winter Pearmain (an excellent all-purpose apple). Both of these are heirloom varieties. One of the most fascinating apples found here is the endangered Capitol Reef Red, a subvariety of the Red Delicious apple.
The Capitol Reef Red is indigenous to this national park and park rangers are diligently grafting samples from existing trees on to hardy rootstalk to propagate new ones. According to the National Park Service, the apple is characterized by “prolific clustered fruiting on downward curving side branches, nearly stemless fruit, and characteristic russeting on the upper half of the fruit.” Although the apple harvest is not until September, and we could not sample the Capitol Reef Red, we were able to walk through the orchards and feast on other fruits, most notably, deliciously ripe apricots.
Visitors to the park are free to pick and eat whichever fruits are in season for free. There is a small fee, however, for fruit you take home with you. I’ll never forget the experience of picking apricots off the trees as a warm breeze through the canyon filled my lungs with the sweet scent of the fruit. In addition to fruit picking, visitors are enticed with homemade ice cream, preserves, and pies made with the park’s own fruit and sold at the park’s museum center. How’s that for having dessert in the desert?
To learn more about the Capitol Reef Orchards, please visit the park’s website (www.nps.gov/care/historyculture/fruita.htm).
The Monterey Peninsula: Lessons Learned (16 July 2007)
After spending a week in the deserts of the Southwest (something almost deadly for a Floridian like me), we headed for the Pacific Coast of California. I was born in the beautiful Monterey Peninsula area but moved to Florida when I was only 12 years old. This trip marks only my third time back since we moved almost 20 years ago and I was anxious to see if the area was still familiar to me or if “progress” had changed it beyond recognition.
Monterey has a long history as a fishing town, and it is depicted famously as the setting for John Steinbeck’s book Cannery Row about the sardine canning plants and the colorful characters who call the neighborhood home. Overfishing here caused the canneries to shut down long ago when the sardine schools were wiped out, and as I thought about the places we have visited so far this summer and the many foods that are endangered across our country, it occurred to me that Monterey held some important lessons to share. Though Steinbeck would not likely identify the place anymore as it is filled with T-shirt and souvenir shops, one impressive attraction on the strip that would make him proud is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
It’s ironic that at the very location where sardines were once canned to the point of near-extinction, the aquarium today greets visitors as a renowned center for the conservation of the world’s oceans. As we have traveled across the country this summer, we have found that chefs from every region seem to agree that one of the most critical challenges they face is to provide their customers with sustainable seafood. Tremendous population growth and technology such as sonar that makes fish easier to locate have caused the world’s oceans to be threatened like never before. Pollution and unsutrustainable levels of harvesting seafood are causing fish stocks to plummet worldwide and fishermen everywhere are being forced to catch and sell fish that 10 years ago would never have made it to your table.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program (http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp) was created to help chefs and seafood lovers make better choices about the fish they buy, cook, and eat. The aquarium has several displays to educate visitors about the state of the world’s fisheries and it provides a number of pocket-sized pamphlets (both national and regional) to assist people in making better choices when ordering or buying seafood. The pamphlets can also be downloaded online and printed for your convenience and are updated frequently as new information is gathered by the scientists who work tirelessly for the program. Juliet Pool, one of the informative staff members at the aquarium, told us she thought the pamphlets were one of the most effective tools the institution had in promoting conservation. “We have found that many of the visitors appreciate the pamphlets because it helps them make better choices when they are at the supermarket or in a restaurant. It all starts with education.” One of the great success stories she shared with us was the increased demand for sustainable wild Alaskan salmon, rather than farmed or Atlantic varieties, which are either depleted or cause great levels of pollution. “We have seen people really go out and ask their waiters where the salmon on the menu is from and put pressure on the restaurants to buy wild Alaskan salmon if it is not being offered. Consumers have a lot of power to influence the fate of the oceans.”
The aquarium has also partnered with several chefs and restaurants in the area who have agreed to feature on their menus only fish that are sustainably harvested. One such eatery is the Turtle Bay Taqueria (www.fishwife.com/turtlebay.htm) in Monterey’s historic downtown.
The restaurant is known for its fresh ingredients and inventive Yucatecan-style Mexican specialties. We were very impressed with how knowledgeable the staff was when we inquired about the Seafood Watch program. As we feasted on Pacific sanddab tacos, Turtle Bay’s manager, Javier, informed us on how important he felt it was to serve sustainable seafood. “In the beginning, customers were a little frustrated. They wanted to see snapper on the menu. When we explained to them that the snapper stocks were being depleted and that we wanted to do our part to help them recover, they began to understand and appreciate our commitment. Most of our customers now know about our partnership with the aquarium and realize that there are alternative fish that are just as tasty. And it has really helped our business!” If the delicious sanddab tacos we ate were any indication, eating sustainable seafood will be a great pleasure. The fresh fish was perfectly battered and fried and rested on a slightly grilled tortilla with beans, then covered in cabbage and a tomato-based salsa. The final magical touch was a creamy roasted tomatillo and avocado salsa that had us licking our lips with delight. We ended the meal with an extraordinary homemade coconut flan and a rich, spicy Mayan chocolate mousse to share. They were the perfect ending to a meal that not only made our stomachs happy, but left us feeling good about the seafood choices we were beginning to make.
I may no longer call Monterey home, but I am proud to say I was born here. Perhaps other places around the country that are struggling to maintain their traditions or resources can look to Monterey as an inspiration and do something like it did with Cannery Row and the aquarium. If this city can learn from its past mistakes and make a dramatic yet successful transition from canneries to conservation, anything can happen. It’s an ending I don’t think even Steinbeck could have penned.
To learn more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Seafood Watch program, or to print out helpful seafood buying guides, please visit http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp.
Morgan Hill, CA: Tasting Gold at Andy’s Orchards (19 July 2007)
“Wait a minute, wait a minute! You can’t eat a peach like that!” Andy Mariani scolded me as I bit all too casually into a Baby Crawford peach at his Morgan Hill orchard. “Bite into it at the bottom, right where it comes to a point. That way you won’t waste any of the sweet juices.” Mariani is a walking, talking encyclopedia of fruit knowledge and I just got my first lesson on the perfect peach protocol. His family has operated their 55 acre historic farm since 1957, and although much has changed in the surrounding Santa Clara Valley, his family’s commitment to growing the highest quality fruit has not wavered. “I didn’t want to do this for a living,” Mariani advised me. “I went to college and studied political science and public administration, but I realized in the end, this is what I know and love.” And it shows. Mariani is many things: an expert farmer who could talk all day about the intricacies of each of his fruits; a keen scientist who works with University of California- Davis to stay abreast of new horticultural advances; a talented artist who has designed many of the orchard’s old-fashioned signs and labels; and a shrewd businessman who has found in heirloom fruits a niche market to help compete with the California agri-giants.
“We work from the market backwards,” Mariani told me as he explained why he became interested in rare heirloom varieties that no one else was planting. “I like to experiment with different varieties and plant all kinds of fruits that haven’t been around for years. But I also know that sometimes you come upon such a tasty heirloom variety that you know you’ve hit gold and your customers will snap them up. Sometimes it’s luck. I was one of the first guys in California growing “donut” or Peento peaches. We had a few growing in the orchard and a tour bus from San Francisco packed with Chinese tourists came for a tour. In China, donut peaches were called the “Emperor’s Peaches.” The emperors favored them because they were flat and would not get their beards messy as they ate them. But eventually they fell out of favor even there. When the people on the tour saw I was growing some here, they went crazy. They weren’t even ripe and they wanted to buy them. I told myself that I needed to start growing more of them and for many years I had a solid market in Chinatown, but now everyone grows them. You can get them at any supermarket.”
You might find something similar at a supermarket, but judging from the fruits we tasted, you won’t find the flavor, sweetness, and character that Mariani’s fruits demonstrated at any retail outlet other than his own. While on a tour of his orchard, we sampled the finest peaches (Baby Crawford), apricots (Blenheim), and nectarines (Honey Royale) we have ever encountered. It was like being a kid in a candy store with no restrictions—only this candy was good for you. Mariani would come upon a fruit he liked, would pick a ripe one, and say with enthusiasm, “You gotta try this!!!! It’s great, isn’t it?” And each time we would heartily agree in amazement. We couldn’t believe how good the fruit was and each time we thought we had found our favorite, until we tried the next one. “We let each fruit ripen on the tree. Sometimes it takes several rounds and days for our pickers to get each fruit that’s on each tree. We never pick them before they are ready to be eaten immediately.” Mariani told us it takes two or three years before a picker is good enough to know how to gently handle the fruit and know when it is ripe. Most of the fruit on the orchard does not have a long shelf-life since it is picked ripe and can be easily bruised, so the orchard packs each fruit individually in special containers. “You know those beautiful peach pyramids you see in supermarkets?” he continued. “You can’t do that with our fruit because they would all bruise.”
One of his newest adventures in rare fruit varieties is in saving the Green Gage plum, a classic European plum that is considered too small for American consumers, who generally prefer larger fruit. The flavor of these small plums is so intense and delightful, however, that a friend of Mariani’s asked him to plant some and even funded the endeavor with grant money. “I’m open to growing anything if it is flavorful and unique, and the fact that someone wanted to help with the financial burden made them an even sweeter fruit,” he quipped. It will take another few years before the plum trees are ready for production, so we’ll have to wait patiently to try some. But until then, we can order some of Mariani’s other fruits for next-day delivery and imagine how good those plums will be. “Some of my fruits have a cult following,” he stated, though we needed no reassurance. He had made converts of us in just one afternoon.
To order some of Andy’s Orchards fine fruits or to learn more about heirloom fruits, please visit www.andysorchard.com.
Napa Valley, CA: Charbono Grapes—What’s in a name?
Pliny the Elder, the legendary Greek scholar who penned the world’s first encyclopedia, mentions a grape called carbonica in his ancient tome. When crushed, this very dark grape yields an almost black juice, hence the term carbonica (from the root word of carbon). It is largely held that this antique variety of grape is the one we today call Charbono. Although its story of migration to the Napa Valley is unclear, it is believed to have been introduced to the area in 1847, yet for many years it was some how confused with and labeled as an Italian grape variety called Barbera. Many of the local growers and wine makers scoffed at the suggestion that the two were related, noting several obvious differences between them, but the claim was finally put to rest when a scientist at the University of California-Davis later identified it properly as the Charbono grape, which is related to the Charbonneau or Corbeau grape of southern France. New theories now suggest it may also be related to the Bonarda grape, the most widely planted grape in Argentina. This theory seems to be more palatable to locals, though they are encouraging the Davis researchers to either prove or refute it. For now, they are happy calling the wonderful grape Charbono.
Not many people have heard of the Charbono grape, perhaps because there are only approximately 65 acres producing fruit in the entire United States. It is a late bloomer, ripening at the end of September and requires lots of heat, which would explain why it is mainly concentrated in the Calistoga area where the northern valley hills intensify the warm summer afternoons. We visited the Frediani family’s vineyard just outside of Calistoga to learn more about the grape. Jeanne Frediani and her son Jim warmly welcomed us to their home and told us how they carefully tended to their vines as they have for decades. The family has owned the land since the 1940s and inherited the Charbono grape vines from the German family that previously worked their plot. “Wait until you see some of the Charbono vines. They are so old and gnarly,” commented Jim excitedly as he gave us a tour of the property. Some of the Charbono grape vines he showed us were over a hundred years old and they looked their age with large twisted roots and vines that displayed heartiness and almost a wicked sense of resolve on their part to keep growing the way they have for over a century. Charbono grape vines like to hang low as opposed to other grapes that climb, and they produce beautiful fruit. Because most of the crop was not ripe when we visited, the multicolored clusters of grapes created a stunning collage of hues and tones. The Fredianis devote eleven of their one hundred and thirty acres to the Charbono grape, making them one of the countries biggest producers. “We have the perfect setting for Charbono grapes and they make a lovely wine,” Jeanne told us.
One of the wineries that purchases Charbono grapes from the Frediani vineyards is Duxoup Wine Works (www.duxoupwineworks.com), a two-person entity in Healdsburg, CA. Andy and Deb Cutter have been making wine together for over 25 years after separate careers in the wine industry. “The thing I loved about Charbono early on when I worked at another winery was how resilient the grapes were. I remember once seeing Charbono grapes that had dried up almost like raisins and yet they produced some gorgeous wine,” Deb informed us.
Charbono wines are deep in color and have moderate acidity with heavy berry flavors. The Cutters produce excellent Charbono wines at their all-gravity winery that uses only open top containers with manual punching. The wine is aged in oak (which is at least four years old) for about 10 months, but the wine holds up very well for 20 years or more. “It’s one of the best aging wines out there,” Andy explained. “It’s our secret little wine!” The winery uses solar power and though small, offers other varietals as well, such as Gamay Noir, Syrah, and Sangiovese.
When I asked Andy why he thought Charbono was so rare, he replied, “The wine industry is so tricky…so many fads and fashions. Merlots, Cabs, Syrahs, now Pinots are planted everywhere. You never know what will endure. But Charbono has a long history here and we have some dedicated clients. We really don’t market our wines. We are happy just making them, and they sell themselves.” Many bigger companies invest so much in the other grape varietals that by the time the Charbono grapes are ready to be harvested in the fall, the wineries no longer have funds or the patience to do so. That leaves only a dozen or so smaller enterprises producing the unique wine, and that means less of the wine for consumers. But who knows, maybe one day the Charbono fad will return and Duxoup might be a household name. “We really don’t want to expand,” Andy shrugged. “We are doing what we love to do and drinking what we love to drink and that’s good enough.” Maybe, but given the quality of their wines and the demand from their loyal customers (now including myself), they might just change their mind and that little grape with so many names could end up on your table.
The Puget Sound, WA: What in the world is a geoduck??? (27 July 2007)
The Puget Sound has fed the hungry civilizations on its shores for centuries. Long before Europeans arrived in the area, Native Americans harvested fish, clams, mussels, oysters, and other seafood that was available. The cold, nutrient-rich waters were teeming with life. Today, though it is still a productive fishery, the Sound faces numerous challenges to its health. Explosive population growth in the Seattle/Tacoma area, uncontrolled development along the coastal banks and tidal basins, and polluted run off from septic tanks, agriculture, and urbanization have degraded the water quality and diminished its commercial output.
We came to the Puget Sound to investigate two of its more curious inhabitants: the Olympia Native Oyster and the Geoduck (pronounced GOO-ee-duck ). Brian Phipps, the geoduck specialist for Taylor Shellfish Farms (www.taylorshellfish.com), spent the morning with us and gave us a tour of some of the tidal flats where the company farms and harvests a number of shellfish varieties.
Founded in 1880 by J.Y. Waldrip, the company’s history sounds like a classic story of the American Dream come true. Waldrip was lured out West by pioneer tales of gold, timber, seafood, and other riches and eventually decided to try his hand at shellfish harvesting. His two great grandsons (the Taylors) now run the family business and have turned the enterprise into a multi-million dollar venture. The firm is the country’s largest producer of Manila Clams and cultivates more varieties of shellfish than any other company. Taylor Shellfish Farms (TSF) owns or leases over one hundred parcels of tidal flats where they harvest both the Olympia Native Oyster and geoducks, among other delicacies.
The Olympia Native Oyster is the only oyster native to the west coast and was once found from the coasts of southern Alaska to Baja California. The Silver Dollar-sized oysters are more tender than other varieties and taste sweet and nutty. Native Americans and pioneer settlers prized these small but tasty creatures and harvested them nearly to the point of extinction in the Post-Gold Rush era. The southern Puget Sound near Olympia has been the historic center of its harvesting, hence the oyster’s name. Although new, larger varieties have been introduced to the region to compensate for demand, such as the Pacific and Kumamoto (both from Japan) and the Atlantic, the Olympia Native, or “Oly,” is still a local favorite and is now being sustainably farmed by outfits such as TSF. These companies have partnered with environmental groups who are concerned with the health of the Sound and understand the role that shellfish play in naturally filtering pollutants. Their comeback is being carefully monitored by the seafood industry, environmental organizations, the state government, and most of all consumers, who are anxious to see the “Oly” once again reign supreme over the region’s other shellfish.
These very same groups are also interested in the nascent geoduck industry which is showing great promise. Geoducks are a most unusual specimen and are sure to make you chuckle upon first sight. “Many people have never heard of geoducks, and when they ask me to describe what they look like, I tell them I’m a gentleman,” explained Phipps. “I’d rather just show them one and let their imaginations run wild.” Their shell is much too small for their oversized bodies. Many grow to be more than four feet long and can weigh up to fifteen pounds. The word “geoduck” comes from a Native American term for “dig deep,” and dig deep they do. Their protruding bodies assist them in burrowing on an average of three to four feet, though some have been found at a depth of 300 feet. Geoducks are, in fact, the world’s largest burrowing clams and the largest clams overall in the Northern Hemisphere. They are also one of the longest living organisms on the planet. Many are known to have lived over one hundred years, including a record setting geoduck that lived to be over 160 years old. This longevity is also a weakness—geoducks tend to grow very slowly, typically needing between four and six years to reach harvesting size (about 2lbs). Wild harvesting of Geoducks is, therefore, heavily regulated by the state government who works with Native American tribes to ensure it is done in a sustainable manner.
Geoducks are best used in sushi and sashimi or Chinese style hot pots, as the meat tends to harden quickly when cooked. The demand in Asia and in Asian communities across America has created the need for a geoduck farming industry, of which TSF is a leader. “When I stared here over twenty years ago, there were only six employees. Now, we have over 600,” commented Phipps. Most of the workers involved in planting and harvesting the shellfish are Hispanic immigrants, much as they are in farming communities all across America.
“These guys are the hardest workers I have ever seen. It’s a tough job and they bring a lot of energy everyday. They are a real asset to the company,” continued Phipps. Indeed they are. We watched in amazement for over an hour as the workers hurriedly performed several tasks including seeding, tending to oyster netting, and harvesting. It was the last job that was the most interesting to observe, and the workers asked Lisette is she wanted to give it a try. She enthusiastically took a quick lesson and got a truly hands-on experience with the geoducks, reaching arms length down into the mud and pulling out about five of them.
It was quite a sight to see! Phipps was impressed, but not enough to offer her a job. It was a memorable outing and one we hope to have again in the future. If all the stakeholders of the Puget Sound can work together to address the many water quality issues it faces, then we might just get to personally harvest a few more geoducks in the future. But with or without us, we hope the Sound can keep on producing some of the tastiest seafood on the planet.
Boise, ID: Keeping the Basque Heritage Alive (2 August 2007)
One of America’s greatest assets in terms of its rich culinary heritage is the key role generations of immigrants have played in creating a multi-ethnic cuisine unlike any other in the world. A great example of this is the legacy of the Basque settlers from Spain in Boise, Idaho. Basques began settling in Idaho in the late 1800s and worked as shepherds, miners, and loggers. In Spain, Basque cooking is often regarded as the country’s finest and its cities, such as San Sebastián, are today at the epicenter of Spain’s culinary revival. The Basques who originally settled in Idaho brought with them their homeland’s food traditions and even today a visitor to Boise can experience many of the dishes that are typical of northern Spain. On Grove Street, between Capitol and Sixth Avenues, the Basque influence is so apparent that locals have dubbed it the “Basque Block.” Here you can find the Basque Center, a large building where celebrations of food and dance among Boise’s Basques take place, and the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, where visitors can learn about Basque heritage and their history in Idaho. We had a great lunch at Bar Guernika, a pub that anchors the Basque Block and offers many Basque and Spanish specialties. The hearty lamb stew was comforting and very flavorful, while the authentic Solomo sandwich, a delicious combination of marinated pork loin, pimentón, and pimiento peppers on a fresh baguette, made me feel like I was visiting my family back in Spain. These dishes were accompanied by perfectly cooked homemade chicken croquettes and hand-cut French fries (We were in Idaho, after all!). We washed it all down with a bottle of Astarbe Basque apple cider and finished the meal with a creamy cup of rice pudding. We were so impressed with the meal and the Basque Block that we decided to fill our evening picnic basket with items from the Basque market, a shop that features many Basque foods and other Spanish delicacies.
The following evening we dined at Epi’s Basque Restaurant, which is located in a lovely red house in the neighboring town of Meridian. Epi’s is a place that is known for its large portions and family atmosphere and is considered the finest Basque restaurant in the Boise area. Chris Ansotegui, the restaurant’s co-owner, manager, and part-time cook, is legendary for her warmth and made us feel at home right away with a big hug to welcome us. The place is filled with locals (some Basque, some not) who greet each other as if they were all part of one big, happy family. Though the ambience may feel homey, the food and service were outstanding. Our knowledgeable and friendly waiter, Marty, kindly answered our questions and guided us with expertise through the menu. I ordered the local Idaho grilled lamb chops, while Lisette ordered the citrus crusted fresh Halibut fillet which was topped with a creamy lobster sauce. Both entrees were served with a rich side of cauliflower in a béchamel sauce, along with a bowl of traditional red beans, a fabulous salad which was lightly tossed with a tangy homemade dressing, and a plate of choricero peppers, which are typical Basque peppers Epi’s has grown for them exclusively in Idaho. As we ended the meal with a superb homemade flan, Chris sat down to chat with us.
“Isn’t the flan just terrific? It’s my favorite,” she pronounced. “Actually, your waiter, Marty, made it. He’s been here since the beginning. He’s part of the family now.” The more we talked with Chris, the more we realized that she was not kidding—this really was a family affair. The restaurant is named after Chris’s grandmother, Epifania, who immigrated to Idaho and ran a famous boarding house in which she served traditional Basque meals to the workers of the area. “What we have tried to do here at Epi’s is to be consistent with the quality, ingredients, and recipes that my grandmother used to make. We loved her food growing up, and we’ve tried to build on her successes, and in a few cases, update the recipes with a little more flair, but all the while staying consistent with what my grandmother would have expected,” continued Ansotegui. “Even though there is a large Basque population here in Boise, there aren’t many of us who want to run restaurants and serve traditional food. In this business you really have to want to serve others, and for me it is a blessing. I think my grandma would be very happy.” The restaurant walls are covered with family portraits and the open kitchen is presided over by the next generation of Ansoteguis, Chris’s nephews. It looks like, at least for now, the Basque culinary heritage in Boise is in good hands. But we’ll be sure to check up on it again the next time we are in the area!
Make flan in your own kitchen like the exquisite homemade version at Epi’s by visiting our Recipes session.
Lander, WY: Sheep with Good Taste (5 August 2007)
Nan Slingerland is a model rancher. As the owner of the Spear S Sheep and Cattle Company ranch, outside of Lander, Wyoming, she oversees a property of great historical, ecological, and commercial interest. Situated along traditional Native American and early pioneer routes, her property is one of the oldest ranched in Wyoming and contains antique orchards, over a dozen genuine American Elm trees, and the largest Maple tree in the state. The ranch is an important wildlife corridor and is inhabited by numerous species, including moose, big horn sheep, elk, mule deer, antelope, and eagles. The Little Popo Agie River flows through the heart of the ranch and is home to trout and other fish. “We are a predator-friendly ranch,” explained Slingerland. “That means that we may do some predator relocation from time to time, if one gets out of hand, but for the most part, we let nature take its course. Mainly, we just rely on our sheep dogs to protect our herds.” Though attacks on her ranch are rare, some of the animals that occasionally prey on her herds include bobcats, mountain lions, bears, wolves and coyotes. “We are just trying to develop a balance between being a working ranch and an incredible wildlife habitat.” Doing this comes with great responsibility and Slingerland decided to donate a sizeable portion of her ranch to the Nature Conservancy in the form of a conservation easement, which means that this section of the property will be forever preserved to maintain healthy ecosystems and wildlife corridors. In addition, scientists are monitoring cattle grazing habits with the hopes of finding new ways in which ranches can minimize their impact on grassland ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy believes that cattle and fragile grassland ecosystems can co-exist, and they are determined to prove this on the part of the property they call Red Canyon Ranch, which is open to interested visitors. “One of the greatest things that concerns me about my home state of Wyoming is that as the population grows, properties are being subdivided and new developments are affecting the continuity of habitats and ecosystems. By donating some of my ranch to the Nature Conservancy we will be able to preserve some open space.” Though the relationship between ranchers and environmentalists is often a tense one, this is a perfect example of how the two groups can work together for the common good.
Slingerland is a thoughtful and articulate woman who belongs to the North American Fruit Explorers club, a group which promotes the cultivation heirloom fruits, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which we featured in our visit to Chapel Hill, NC. She ranches grass-fed Red Angus cattle, as well as a number of rare or endangered livestock varieties, such as Dominique chickens, threatened geese species, and the breed that took us to her ranch: Navajo-Churro sheep, the earliest sheep variety brought to the New World by the Spanish. Over the years, the government, scientists, and ranchers have crossbred them with other larger sheep varieties with the aim of increasing meat and wool production. This has left the pure breed variety as an endangered American livestock, and Slingerland owns one of the country’s largest herds with roughly 200 Navajo-Churro sheep. She told us that her sheep were ideal for her ranch because they did not overgraze nor jump fences, but had feisty temperaments. “These sheep will put up a fight when attacked. They’re really remarkable. If a predator corners the herd, the older sheep will line up in front and sacrifice themselves so that the younger sheep can escape,” Slingerland stated with pride.
Navajo-Churro sheep are treasured for both their wool and their meat. Native American artisans have been weaving rugs and other items from Navajo-Churro wool for centuries, although this tradition, like many other Native American traditions, is sadly disappearing. Slingerland showed us some of the beautiful handmade rugs she had acquired from skilled Navajo weavers, as well as some she had impressively designed and created herself. She sells much of her wool to artisans that continue to keep this tradition alive. Because this variety of sheep is low in lanolin, the wool, and yes, the meat are less oily and greasy, and this not only makes great rugs, but a very tasty meal as well. Slingerland graciously hosted us for dinner and we feasted on homemade pitas and kefka, grilled ground lamb flavored with garlic, onions, and parsley, and topped with a refreshing yogurt sauce. The lamb was tender and light, not at all like much of the “lamb” that I have tried in the United States, which is often older, greasier, stronger tasting mutton. This, by contrast, was a much more delicately flavored meat and erased any bad memories of American lamb I harbored. “There is so much you can do with this wonderful lamb. We like to cook it in many ways, even homemade sausages. The problem for us as a ranch is that everyone just wants lamb chops. So much of our lamb is wasted by people who don’t know what else to do with it. We are hoping to change that,” commented Slingerland, as we served ourselves more of the delicious kefka. “It is hard to find a market out here in Wyoming. The state won’t allow us to ship lamb cuts across the state line, only whole lambs. So it is difficult to sell our extraordinary product to people out of state who are simply looking for lamb chops. We are hoping that more chefs will learn about our superb meat and buy whole lambs from us,” she continued. Though rising fuel, feed, and labor costs are challenging her financially, it is finding a market that most preoccupies her. “It is tough because we know we have a superior product and all we need is to be discovered.” As we strolled across the verdant meadow, the sun began to set, illuminating the red canyon walls and setting the valley aglow. In this bucolic setting with twilight approaching, we watched the sheep graze on the hillside and marveled at their beauty. “They’re gorgeous aren’t they? The browns, grays, whites and blacks of their fleeces--just gorgeous,” Slingerland noted. Gorgeous indeed, but for me, they looked even better on my plate. Pass me another kefka!
To learn more about the Nature Conservancy’s partnership with Nan Slingerland’s ranch and plan your own visit, please click on the link below.
Ann Arbor, MI: The “Really Wild” Zingerman’s Experience (10 August 2007)
After traveling across the country and visiting farms, ranches, farmer’s markets, and restaurants in search of the people who are making a difference in the world of endangered American foods, one thing has become clear: there are many superb artisanal products out there, but they often lack the market (or more often, marketing) to become big sellers. One company that is doing its best to ensure that these traditional American foodstuffs continue to be produced and enjoyed is Zingerman’s (www.zingermans.com) of Ann Arbor, MI.
The company was founded by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw over 25 years ago when they opened up Zingerman’s Deli. Today, the deli is considered one of the finest in the nation, offering the best in American and international foodstuffs, and the company has expanded to also include a bakery, coffee shop, restaurant, creamery, wedding cake company, and mail order emporium. While other gourmet food companies may also offer a wide selection of foods and beverages from around the globe, what brought us to Ann Arbor was Zingerman’s passionate commitment to the preservation of American foods and traditions. Staff members scour the country in search of rare or threatened items and work with traditional artisans to develop a high quality supply for the company’s customers.
Our first stop in Ann Arbor was Zingerman’s Roadhouse, the company’s glorious restaurant, where we were feted with an incredible array of regional American dishes. The goal of the Roadhouse is to present American food, from every corner of the country, at its freshest and best, using local, seasonal, and handcrafted items whenever possible. Chef Alex Young has thoughtfully developed a menu in which every region of the nation is represented at the table. It took us a good twenty minutes to even begin putting a dent into reading the menu, but Young eagerly stepped in and told us to sit back and relax, and that he would be taking care of us. We were in good hands. Soon, dishes of all sizes and manners began to appear on the table, and we sampled much of what the restaurant offers on its expansive menu. Some of the most memorable dishes included:
It was both delectable and satisfying to try many of the foods from across the country that we had highlighted on our journey. Young is a chef who is dedicated to preserving these foods and traditions and he utilizes them with great skill and flair at the Roadhouse, but he would also like to feature more items from his own farm. He hopes in the near future to supply the restaurant directly with many of the key ingredients he uses often, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, and beans. As his farm continues to increase in size and production, he ambitiously plans to grow and harvest all of the grains necessary for the restaurant’s namesake bread, the Roadhouse Loaf, a crusty masterpiece with a fascinating history. In early colonial times, settlers could not afford to use wheat flour in their daily loaves, as it was scarce and expensive. Because of these prohibitive factors, wheat flour was mainly reserved for special occasions or for ornamental pieces, such as the top crusts of fruit and pot pies. Bakers substituted wheat flour with other grain types for their daily loaves and an All-American bread was born. “When you look at just about any old colonial cookbook, you will find a simple bread recipe that calls for equal parts wheat, rye, and corn flours,” explained Young. “It’s an excellent bread, and the version we feature here at the Roadhouse is slightly sweetened with molasses, as was the case with many of the American breads of the past.” The bread is a prime example of how Young impressively researches American recipes, ingredients, and traditions and deftly combines them in both classic and modern styles at the restaurant with extraordinary success.
Our next stop was Zingerman’s Deli, an institution in downtown Ann Arbor that is jam-packed with high quality artisanal products. You can find everything from Serrano ham to antique Swiss gruyères to Kentucky dry-cured bacon and everything in between. The well-informed staff at the Deli encourages customers to sample any item they desire, even the $200+ bottles of aged balsamic vinegar. One of the more interesting items we found there was “Really Wild Wild Rice,” a traditional Native American staple that is rarely, if ever, found in supermarkets. In fact, most “wild rice” sold in grocery stores is not wild at all, but rather a blend of industrially cultivated paddy rice that is mislabeled and misinforms consumers. Genuine wild rice has been harvested by the Native Americans of the Great Lakes region (in both the USA and Canada) for hundreds of years and is a naturally occurring crop. The epicenter of today’s authentic wild rice harvest is Minnesota, where strict laws regulate the processing, labeling, and sale of the product. In addition, tribal laws and customs have kept its production as traditional as possible, leaving the final product tasting as it has for centuries.
The story of how “Really Wild Wild Rice” is harvested is a fascinating one. Wild rice isn’t actually rice, but rather an aquatic grass more similar to wheat that grows wild in the wetlands of the upper Great Lakes. It reseeds itself naturally every autumn, and goes through a four-year production cycle in which one year will be a good harvest, two years will be unremarkable, and one will be poor. Native Americans understand this process and know when or when not to harvest certain areas, based on their respective cycles. Two men in a canoe spend the day harvesting wild rice on the wetlands. One of them is called the “poler,” and he is in charge of directing the canoe through the tall maze of grass using a long wooden pole to navigate and propel the vessel. The other individual carries a set of three-foot long wooden sticks called “knockers” to collect the grains. By gently and precisely tapping the stalks with the knockers, the grains fall into the canoe and begin to accumulate. After a long, hard day, experienced ricers can harvest between two and three hundred pounds of wild rice. Ricers can often return to the same area over a series of days because only the ripe rice will fall into the canoe, which is in stark contrast to industrial production where machines usually harvest both ripe and unripe grains.
The rice is then taken to dry ground where it undergoes traditional processing. First, it is cured, or air-dried, immediately to prevent any mildew from forming. Next it is “parched,” or roasted, over an open fire in an iron or brass pot and tended to by two individuals with large wooden paddles who stir the rice until it loosens its outer covering. The open fire gives this rice its faint smoky flavor, something absent in mass-produced “wild rice,” which is parched in a large rotating oil drum. Once the rice has been parched, it must be threshed to remove the husks. Traditionally, this is done by gently stepping or “jigging” on the rice with clean moccasins or hammering it with a paddle to loosen the hulls. Finally, the rice is winnowed, or fanned, by carefully pouring the grains on a blanket so that the breeze will carry away the excess husks. This is one of the most difficult tasks in rice production and is usually reserved for the experienced elder women of the tribe whose skilled touch minimizes waste. The final product is one that may cost a bit more than modern “wild rice” (because of labor costs and time), but is worth every penny. Chef Young’s version at the Roadhouse is prepared with dried cherries to lend a bit of sweetness to compliment the smokiness of the rice. It is a truly remarkable dish--one that should be a centerpiece and not just a side order. It cooks in about 20 minutes and has an earthiness not found in commercial rice. Perhaps most importantly, it is a link to the America of the past, one that would quickly disappear were it not for the efforts of people like Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s, who helped locate and promote such a national treasure. This is as close as you are going to get to authentic American food.
The same meticulous research and thought that goes into the Roadhouse and Deli products are found at the other Zingerman’s companies.
The Creamery features hand-crafted American and European cheeses, and makes many of their own from traditional techniques and dairy products that have been locally selected to ensure quality through the entire production process. When the local dairy that the Creamery relied on for its cheeses and gelato no longer could provide its services, head cheesemaker John Loomis and his staff diligently searched to find another local dairy that matched their desire for humanely treated cows and small-batch, natural milk production. They found what they were looking for in Calder Dairy, an outfit that rotates its 100-plus herd in and out of production to allow recovery time and whose owners love their animals so much they know each cow by name! Similarly, the Bakehouse uses high quality ingredients and recipes to create traditional breads, cakes, and desserts. Customers will find the shelves lined with San Francisco-style sourdough, New Mexican green chile and cheddar loaves, and Jewish rye loaves, as well as exciting new twists, such as a parmesan pepper loaf and a chocolate sourdough loaf—the kind of bread you would want to tear into immediately after purchasing. You can also pick up a loaf of Roadhouse bread to go, or if you are more adventurous, some rye flour to make your own at home. The bakery offers numerous community classes, some geared toward adults, some toward children, and some for the entire family, for those interested in learning how to bake the perfect croissant, baguette, donut, or biscuit. The obvious commitment to the Ann Arbor community was one of the most impressive things about the Zingerman’s empire, which has resisted being bought out by corporate interests so it can retain its individuality and authenticity. It not only serves as a warehouse for all manner of culinary delights, but also as a center for food education where every knowledgeable staff member will help guide and edify you about the pros and cons of Italian olive oils and Californian blue cheeses and why supporting traditional food artisans really matters. This is truly what makes Zingerman’s special and the reason it has become the most successful food retailer of its kind.
For a comforting “Really Wild Wild Rice” breakfast dish, please visit our Recipes section.
Birmingham, AL: Feasting with Figs and Farmers (15 August 2007)
Back in early July when we set off on our epic journey across the country, we made a stop in Apalachicola, FL to research the troubled oyster and seafood industries. We had previopusly learned about Birmingham Chef Frank Stitt’s devotion to Apalachicola seafood (and even featured a few of his elegant dishes in our Recipes section). Back in June, I had the pleasure of talking with him and discussing his thoughts on preserving American food traditions. He spoke of his early years being quite formative for him as a chef. His grandparents owned a farm and he recalled spending days helping them with chores and connecting with the land, but above all, enjoying Sunday feasts with the entire family in which copious amounts of Southern classics were served with love. He described to me what he called “Sunday communion,” not in the religious sense, but in a culinary sense in which he and his family bonded with each other and the food they ate every Sunday. The rewards of toiling in the fields were celebrated at each season’s harvest and enjoyed with passion and a sense of community between the family and their farmland. Chef Stitt was concerned that much of that “communion” was disappearing today, as less and less people paid attention to where their food comes from or how it is produced. He talked of traditional farming practices and trusting the food that he ate as a youth, but being suspicious of much of the food found in supermarkets today. “My grandparents wouldn’t have trusted anything they didn’t grow with their own hands,” he said matter-of-factly. He was genuinely concerned about making a difference, in his own way, in educating people about the benefits of traditional foods to our land, heritage, and (best of all) palates.
Now on our way back through Alabama, we were able to sit down at his restaurant, the Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com), a stylish and jovial place with classic French posters on the walls, and learn more about how this Southern genius developed a taste for Apalachicola seafood and an unwavering commitment to finding other local and regional ingredients through friendships and direct partnerships with farmers and producers. We have enjoyed many excellent meals on this enlightening journey, but perhaps none more so than the one we experienced at Highlands. Chef Stitt personally composed a nine course tasting menu (complete with five wine pairings) for Lisette and me to sample what he does best: utilize the freshest local and regional ingredients in the most elegant, delightful ways. He is taking the regional, often underrated cuisine of the South and employing his refined French training to create a new kind of Southern restaurant in which each day brings fresh seasonal surprises and each bite is bliss to the palate. The meal began with cocktails: a watermelon margarita (loaded with fresh pressed watermelon juice) and a refreshingly inventive pineapple mojito. Our first course was a sublimely creamy corn chowder with bacon, chanterelle mushrooms, and fresh crabmeat. The sweet freshness of the corn coupled with the smokiness of the bacon proved irresistible. It was heaven in a soup bowl. We followed this with a baked Apalachicola oyster topped with herbed breadcrumbs, fresh crabmeat, and a tomato hollandaise sauce. This was, without a doubt, the finest oyster I have ever had the pleasure of ingesting, and I started to get a sense of why he favored these oysters over other, perhaps more unjustly heralded, ones. An heirloom tomato and fresh northern Alabama goat cheese salad followed. If summer had a taste, it was this. It reminded me of one of Stitt’s creeds, “the Imperative of Seasonality,”—find what’s fresh and use it. The fourth course was a light Friture de la Mer featuring fresh Apalachicola oysters, Gulf shrimp, and grouper, along with quick-fried lemon slices that Stitt had become fond of after sampling some in Italy. The Friture was served with an outstanding spicy rémoulade that happily took us somewhere between the Italian Coast and Cajun Country. Next came a “tuna tower” in which fresh sashimi grade tuna was lightly coated in a lemony olive oil and served stacked with avocado and crabmeat. Simple, yet sophisticated. The sixth course featured grilled fresh Gulf triggerfish served on a bed of succotash, again invoking the season with its freshly shelled lima beans and peas. Finally, for our last course before dessert, we were treated to seared Amish lamb with a magical eggplant, tomato, and goat cheese bake. Our server, Patrick, informed us that Chef Stitt thought eggplant was one of the most misunderstood and misused foods. Yet he proved his command of the fruit with this dish which spotlighted his southern French influences. Just when we thought we could eat no more, we were tempted with desserts—not one, but two marvelous concoctions that forced us to find more room in our bellies. It was a sacrifice, but one we were willing to make in the name of research. The first was a blueberry sorbet served with homemade shortbread cookies. The opposing sweetness of the sorbet and slight saltiness of the shortbread, as well as the smoothness of the sorbet meeting the crunchiness of the cookies, was spectacular. But not to be outdone, our last dish was what keeps me still thinking about Highlands: a cheesecake with a graham cracker and caramelized fig crust served with quick-roasted green Ischia figs. Not only was this a fabulously decadent ending to the meal, it was something that captured the essence of Chef Stitt’s cooking. The green Ischia figs burst with a delicate flavor, yet their appearance was perhaps the most dramatic presentation of the night: small with green skins, yet deep pink inside, almost appearing as if they were miniscule watermelons. We asked our server to tell us more about the figs and he informed us of Chef Stitt’s close relationship with a nursery/farm about 40 minutes south of Birmingham called Petals from the Past. The chef is a big fan of many of their pesticide- free fruits and herbs and we realized we should pay them a visit.
One of the things that most interested us about Chef Stitt was not only his support of the Apalachicola seafood industry, but his partnerships with local farmers. He seeks out the very best ingredients at the height of their freshness and, using his charm and grace, develops a long-term relationship with a producer. We visited the Birmingham Farmers’ Market where Chef Stitt acquired many of the vegetables and fruits that we sampled at Highlands the night before. This is a place Chef Stitt knows like the back of his hand. He is friends with such “produce personalities” as Buddy “The Watermelon King” Payton and Mike Arnold, the pea sheller at Sun Up Produce.
He can direct you to the best Chilton County peaches or Cullman sweet potatoes. Though we were impressed with the market’s offerings, we kept thinking about those gorgeous green Ischia figs and we headed south to the town of Jamison, AL to investigate them.
Petals from the Past (www.petalsfromthepast.com) is a family business run by the father and son team of Arlie and Jason Powell and their respective wives, Gwen and Shelley. Jason is the landscape design specialist, while Arlie primarily focuses on their edible plants. Arlie was a longtime citrus consultant with the University of Florida. After retirement, he and Jason decided to open the operation with the idea of educating the public on gardening and horticulture. To this day, they still offer free seminars and tours, as well as demonstration gardens that are open to the public.
“We rarely advertise,” explained Jason. “We find that the best advertising is word of mouth. People come here and learn about gardening and then we give them a taste of some of our plants, and that usually seals the deal.” When we brought up Chef Stitt and Highlands, Arlie’s eyes got big with pride.
“He’s featuring a lot of our stuff on his menus. Blueberries and figs are big right now.” Figs! He must have been reading my mind. We expressed our interest in the green Ischias and a smile from ear to ear appeared on his face. “They’re so good aren’t they??? Try these too,” he added and gave us a Lemon fig to taste. They were bigger than the ones at Highlands and sweet too, but lacked the dramatic beauty of the green Ischias. “Frank does this thing with grilled figs stuffed with a spiced pecan and wrapped in country ham that is just astounding! Did you try it?” “No, but we had a pretty good cheesecake and few other good dishes,” I said sheepishly, not wanting Arlie to get jealous of the feast we had the night before. “Frank is a chef that really cares about the seasons and buying local and we’re just glad he found us. He’s also an eco-friendly chef, and that fits in with what we’re doing here without pesticides.” We continued to sample their fruits: crisp Asian pears, juicy Gala apples that spilled down our chins, and blueberries that exploded with sugar. But nothing compared with those green Ischia figs we had first sampled in Chef Stitt’s incredible cheesecake. Amazed by the array of fruit, vegetables, and herbs that the family offered, I knew the Highlands’ dessert menu was in good hands with this partnership. And the figs? We are ready to plant our green Ischia in the backyard as soon as we get home—Arlie thinks it will really do well in NE Florida. Now if I can just get Lisette to make a cheesecake…
Please visit our Recipes section to make some of Chef Stitt’s best dishes (featuring Apalachicola seafood) at home.
St. Augustine, FL: Honeybees and Biscuits (22 August 2007)
Since my first entry from the trip was about the datil peppers of St. Augustine, I thought it would be fitting to end the trip full circle with a story from home as well. Though this entry spotlights one of our local honey producers, the greater theme is that ALL food would be endangered were it not for one of nature’s most fascinating subjects: the honeybee.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, approximately one-third of all crops need pollinators, such as bees, bats, and butterflies, to carry pollen and become fertilized. This is a process that has gone uninterrupted for millennia, but lately something is happening to the number of bees worldwide. Scientists are reporting a sharp decline in the populations of bees and even extinctions in some areas. This is, of course, of great concern to all of us because without wild pollinators many ecosystems would be disrupted. In particular, farmers that depend on pollinators for crop production may see their livelihoods threatened and as food consumers, we rely on pollinators to help feed us, something most people never think about.
So why are bee populations plummeting? Scientists have been baffled by this mysterious decline, but possible theories include habitat loss, climate change, cell phone towers, genetically modified crops (particularly corn), and the voracity of the non-indigenous varroa mite, a parasite that was discovered in the 1980s and has proven resistant to various pesticide treatments. Research by scientists at Columbia University has even linked weak immune systems to the catastrophe, comparing it to something like a bee AIDS epidemic. Experts are calling the phenomenon colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Over a quarter of the US’s bee colonies have vanished, leaving farmers and scientists puzzled and worried. The situation is so dire that for the first time since 1922, California almond growers had to import honeybees from outside North America to pollinate their trees. The current debate is not only centered on why bees are not returning to their hives, but also if this is a long-term crisis or just a temporary situation. Other declines of various magnitudes have previously occurred with a number of factors contributing to bee population losses. In the past, experts have blamed everything from pesticides to Africanized bee genes. One “scientific” report in the 1800s even said that society’s decaying moral fiber was the cause of the large-scale death of so many bees! Despite such occurrences in the past, scientists are currently working diligently to find new ways to mitigate losses and help the bee populations recover.
Whatever the causes for the recent bee calamity, people all over the world continue using bees to produce honey. Humans have been collecting honey from wild and domesticated hives for thousands of years. It has been called “liquid gold,” perhaps because during Roman times, it was sometimes used instead of gold to pay taxes—though I am not sure the IRS would accept honey as a form of payment today. Honey has many medicinal uses, such as treating sore throats and even topical wounds. But best of all, honey tastes good on toast and breads, makes cakes moist and delicious, and for all you Elvis fans, is the key ingredient in a good peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich. Lisette’s homemade biscuits are even better piping hot with honey drizzled over them. One of my favorite ice cream flavors is honey, and when I am in Paris I head to Berthillon for a scoop of their luscious version. Honey’s culinary applications are almost as endless as its different flavors and styles: wildflower, chestnut, rosemary, blueberry, orange blossom, alfalfa, star thistle, etc. Two of my most beloved types of honey are Florida Tupelo (which never crystallizes and is the perfect choice for that Elvis sandwich mentioned earlier) and rare Hawaiian white (which is thick and almost custard-like in texture and very floral and delicate in flavor).
Most of the honey I consume at home with my morning toast and tea is a wildflower variety made by an old family friend named Buford Honaker. Buford has been making honey for over 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Though he lived most of his life in Virginia, where he learned the skills of the beekeeper, he moved his hives down to Florida, where he has lived with his lovely wife Louise for about 10 years. Buford is a jolly Southern gentleman and on a recent visit to the Honaker’s home, he impressed me with his knowledge of honeybees. He explained how the queen is selected by the other bees and is fed a tremendous quantity of royal jelly, a nutrient rich compound that helps the queen grow bigger than the other bees. We shared a good laugh when he told me that the male bees, or drones, really serve little purpose—they basically mate and die. Sounds like the good life, except that the female bees drive them from the hive and they perish without food. Not a happy ending at all. The females, it turns out, do all the work in the hive and are responsible for honey production. It’s a unique male-female relationship, to say the least.
Buford’s hives are set amidst banana, orange, and lemon trees, lending his honey a unique delicious flavor and dark appearance. When the “supers,” or slats where the bees store their surplus honey, become full (about twice a year), he uses smoke to calm the bees and dons a protective suit to gather the honey. I watched from a distance as the bees became docile and he began removing the supers containing the honeycomb and honey. Though he used to remove the honey by hand, Buford now utilizes a machine that spins the slats around and shoots the honey out with centrifugal force. He currently produces about 120 quarts of wildflower honey a year and sells most of it locally. When I asked him if he had noticed a decline in the number of his bees, he said that the state inspector had recently visited him and told him he had the healthiest bees he had seen in some time. “It hasn’t hit us too hard in Florida yet,” Buford told me. “Yet?” I asked. “I’m just gonna keep doin’ things the old-fashioned way, and hopefully my bees will stay strong,” he responded. Often times, the “old-fashioned way” seems to work better than modern approaches that focus on quantity over quality. The time-honored traditions of beekeepers worldwide are being challenged by the loss of bees everywhere, but nature seems to favor those that respect it, and Buford understands that. “This is an all-natural honey that I produce, and you can taste the difference.” Yes you can, and hopefully Buford’s bees will keep plugging away and making my mornings sweet and delightful.
To learn how to make Lisette’s homemade biscuits, please visit our Recipes section.
Best of the Trip Awards and Thanks
Thank you to all of the people who were involved in the success of this project—farmers, ranchers, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurant managers, grassroots organizations, media contacts, and all others that are interested in preserving America’s foods and food traditions, etc. Thank you to all the people along the way who became interested in our project and decided to become active in the cause! Special thanks to the Geoffrey Roberts Award for making this enlightening expedition possible and Bon Appétit magazine for allowing a greater number of people to learn about this project. Many thanks to my family for their continued support and inspiration—without which I would never have dreamed up this crazy idea—not to mention feeding our cat, mowing our lawn, getting the mail, etc. while we were on the road!!!! MOST OF ALL, two people deserve the biggest thanks. Thank you to Jonathan Crosby, my good friend and the webmaster during the trip, for his constant updating and tremendous work to keep the public informed of our whereabouts. I could not have done this without him and his limitless diligence. Finally, to Lisette Robles, my partner, friend, love, and companion on this road trip of our lives. Her endless patience and assistance, as well as putting up with me for 24 hours a day for six weeks, are awe-inspiring. I could never have taken a voyage like this without her.
The following is a list of highlights of our journey across America. Each represents the best we found in each category:
REST AREA FOR A PICNIC: Hwy 290 West, near the LBJ Presidential Ranch, Texas Hill Country.
COLLEGE TOWN: Chapel Hill, NC.
SOUP: Corn Chowder with Bacon, Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Crabmeat, Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL and Green Chile Stew, Rancho de Chimayó, Chimayó, NM.
FROZEN TREAT: Leon’s Frozen Custard, Milwaukee, WI.
WATERFALL: Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, OR.
PLACE TO FUEL UP FOR A PICNIC: Whole Foods flagship store, Austin, TX.
COFFEE: “Bowl of Soul,” Java Coffee and Café, Boise, ID.
HIKE: The Narrows, Virgin River, Zion NP, UT.
FRIENDLIEST RESTAURANT STAFF: Epi’s Basque Restaurant, Meridian, ID.
SUNSET: Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, AZ.
HOME-STYLE COOKING: Ezell’s Catfish Cabin, Columbus, GA.
BIG CITY: San Francisco, CA.
MEDIUM-SIZED CITIES: Boise, ID; Albuquerque, NM; and Portland, OR.
PAIN AU CHOCOLATE: Chocolatine with Almonds, Le Panier, Seattle, WA.
HISTORIC SITE: Custer Ghost Town, ID.
SANDWICH: Grilled tri-tip with caramelized onions and horseradish sauce on a ciabatta roll, Sage Creek Grille, Custer, SD.
FARMERS’ MARKETS: Ferry Building Marketplace, San Francisco, CA; Pike Place Market, Seattle, WA; and Carrboro Farmers Market, Carrboro, NC.
SLICES OF AMERICANA: Carhenge, Alliance, NE; Mt. Rushmore, SD; Route 66, Albuquerque, NM; and the National Park System, USA.
BREAKFASTS: Goldy’s, Boise, ID and Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, Wilmette, IL.
SCENIC DRIVES: Jackson, WY to Lander, WY via Grand Teton NP and Shoshone NF; Avenue of the Giants, Redwood National Park, CA; Missoula, MT to Boise, ID via Bitterroot Range and Sawtooth National Recreation Area; San Antonio, TX to Austin, TX via Hill Country loop; Going to the Sun Road, Glacier NP; and Custer State Park scenic loop, SD.
AUTHENTIC ROAD FOODS: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, St. Helena, CA and The Frontier, Albuquerque, NM.
SERVERS: Patrick, Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL; Peter, Craftsteak, Las Vegas, NV; and Marty, Epi’s Basque Restaurant, Meridian, ID.
BEST NATIONAL PARKS: Zion, UT; Grand Teton, WY; and Redwood, CA.
BBQ: All-Natural Beef Brisket, Ruby’s BBQ, Austin, TX and eastern North Carolina pulled pork, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor, MI.
CUTEST LITTLE TOWNS: Frederickburg, TX and Mendocino, CA.
MILKSHAKE: Fresh Oregon Blackberry, Burgerville, Vancouver, WA.
MOST BIZARRE YET ENJOYABLE EVENING: Wednesday Night Fish Fry/Auction/ Bowling Alley (all in one), American-Serb Memorial Hall, Milwaukee, WI.
DESSERTS: Carolina Gold Rice Pudding, FIG Restaurant, Charleston, SC; Fresh strawberry and pistachio fruit tart, Bouchon Bakery, Yountsville, CA; and Cheesecake with a caramelized fig and graham cracker crust, Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL.
THRILLS: Millennium Force roller coaster, Cedar Point Amusement Park, Sandusky, OH and Whitewater Rafting the South Fork of the Payette River, ID.
PIZZA: Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Portland, OR.
GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS: Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (www.acenetworks.org), Athens, OH, Kitchen Incubator Program for small-scale production and packaging of locally farmed foods and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, NC, for the preservation of rare and endangered American livestock varieties.
BREAD PUDDING: Seasonal fruit bread pudding, Tartine Bakery, San Francisco, CA.
TACOS: Sanddab Taco, Turtle Bay Taqueria, Monterey, CA and Mahi Mahi taco, Mijita, San Francisco, CA.
COOLEST (literally and figuratively) EXPERIENCE IN A DOWNTOWN AREA: Swimming in the Boise River, Boise, ID.
BREADS: Zingerman’s Roadhouse bread, Ann Arbor, MI and Ken’s Artisan Bakery, Portland, OR.
WILDLIFE VIEWING: Yellowstone NP, WY.
LAKE VIEW: Crater Lake NP, OR.
DRINKS: Red Geisha, Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill, NC; Chai iced tea, Carolina Brewing Co., Chapel Hill, NC; Pineapple Mojito, Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL; Vignette Wine Soda, Berkeley, CA; and Mexican Hot Chocolate, Mijita, San Francisco, CA.
MICROBREW: Fat Dog Oatmeal Stout, Stoudts Brewery, Adamstown, PA.
MEALS: Hands-down the very best meal we enjoyed was the nine course tasting menu with a five wine pairing by Chef Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL. We were also amazed by other very memorable meals at Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill, NC; Craftsteak, Las Vegas, NV; and Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor, MI.
TOTAL MILES TRAVELED: 14,611
TOTAL NUMBER OF STATES CROSSED: 27
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