Preserving America's Food Traditions.
Gifts in Good Taste
Another holiday season is upon us and it's time to slow down and celebrate the things that really matter most to us all our friends and families with small gifts that remind one another that though our lives may be hectic and that we may not always find the time nor the words, we take comfort in knowing that our greatest blessings are those around us. I enjoy giving and receiving edible gifts because of food's transcendent power to bring people together, regardless of distance, culture, or ideology. Breaking bread together and toasting the New Year are time-honored traditions that help us form bonds and make memories. If you can't spare the time to give a homemade gift of last season's preserves or fresh-from-the-garden herbs, there are other ways to give a gift that send a message of appreciation and fellowship. The following are some perfect food-related gifts for thisHoliday season, produced by a diverse group of American artisans--some edible, some not, all delicious.
Rare foods experts visit St. Augustine for pepper
St. Augustine Record, Publication Date: 11/05/09
Gary Nabhan, of the Renewing America's Food Traditions Alliance and an award-winning writer on food biodiversity, visited St. Augustine recently to research St. Johns County's datil pepper.
Several years ago. Nabhan first nominated the datil pepper for the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a "Hall of Fame" for rare but flavorful regional foods. Now he and two colleagues are looking at how climate change is affecting food supply, particularly with regard to its impacts on rare, place-based heritage foods.
With the help of Chef Kurt Friese of Iowa City and Kraig Kraft, an agroecologist, Nabhan is touring North America to get a better sense of how culinary traditions are adjusting to changes in the climate and ecosystems.
"We just got back from a trip to northern Mexico, just over the Arizona border. We were looking at a pepper that is harvested there called the chiltepin, which was recently hit by a hurricane that dumped 22 inches of rain in the desert in one day," Nabhan said. "Because it's the only native wild pepper in North America, we've been worried that storms, floods, and even drought are reducing its availability,"
Kraft is also worried.
"We're using chiles as just one lens for looking at climate change," Kraft said. "People have this image of melting icebergs and drowning polar bears, but climate change is already affecting our food traditions and where certain crops can be grown. In the future, all that we know about modern farming might have to be reconsidered."
Studying the effects of climate change on chiles makes sense when you reflect on how universal they are in global cooking.
"Chiles are the world's No. 1 condiment," Friese said. "From a chef's perspective, climate change might have a tremendous effect on how and what we eat in the future."
On a mission
While in St. Augustine, the trio visited the First Coast Technical College and met with Chef David Bearl, whose culinary arts department experiments with datils. The school's greenhouse is home to thousands of datil pepper bushes. Bearl and his students are investigating new products to expand the market for Datils.
Marcia McQuaig, owner of Minorcan Datil Pepper Products, also received a visit from the group, which was impressed with the variety of items her company sells. The group sampled some of them before meeting with farmers in Hastings, then feasted on datil-spiked pilau at Johnny's Kitchen. Johnny Barnes, the owner of the Hastings eatery, presented the three men with homemade datil vinegar to take home with them.
"I just wanted to make sure they left with a little bit of St. Johns County with them," Barnes said.
While in town, the group spoke to the St. Johns County Commission in support of local agriculture and encouraged them to consider agritourism as a future source of revenue.
"St. Johns County has a lot of potential to promote heritage tourism through its rich farming history, the datil included. Many areas around the country are finding that preserving agricultural lands makes good economic sense and adds to the community's cultural fabric," Nabhan said.
Before leaving St. Augustine, the men attended a dinner featuring local foods, sponsored by members of Slow Food First Coast, a local non-profit organization that supports the area's family farms and food traditions. Nabhan's colleague Chef Friese is on the board of directors of Slow Food USA and worked with Slow Food First Coast to celebrate the datil pepper's boarding onto the Ark of Taste, a list of culturally significant and endangered American foods.
Publication Date: 10/15/09
St. Augustine Record
I'm the first to admit it -- I'm not a very good gardener. When people talk about having a "green thumb," I just listen in awe, wondering what it must be like. Heck, I don't think I even qualify as having a "green toe."
My father, who was raised on a farm in Spain, gets a good laugh at my expense when he inspects my garden the way a parent does a child's homework.
"I see you planted cherry tomatoes," he'll say with a hint of sarcasm.
"No, those are actually beefsteak tomatoes," I'll correct him, before muttering under my breath, "They just don't seem to want to produce well."
"You think they may need a little fertilizer?" he'll add.
"I made my own compost!" I'll boast proudly.
"I see," he'll say, with a shrug and a look of "Well, at least he tried!" on his face.
But with each failure, I learn a little more. And I've even gotten to a respectable point in my gardening career that I am having the first real consistent taste of success, no matter how small.
The cooler weather of early autumn is certainly helping my gardening efforts. My herbs are proudly standing tall after months of taking a beating from the oppressive heat. The parsley, rosemary, and mint are thriving, the oregano and chives are going nuts, and I have more basil than I know what to do with.
I've had such a bounty of herbs, in fact, that I've been able to give some away, which is very rewarding.
The pecan trees are full of nut clusters ready to drop (if the darn squirrels don't get to all of them first) and I have a good number of Seminole pumpkins and Calabaza squash ready to be turned into luscious holiday pies and soups.
The Valencia orange and Meyer lemon trees I planted a few years back are loaded and ready for winter juicing. Not bad for in-city living!
I got so swept up in my recent triumphs that I went out and bought a Caribbean Red papaya tree and an Arbequina olive tree the other day. (Secretly, I'm hoping the planting of a Spanish olive tree will give me a little bit of street cred from my dad when he tries my homegrown olives in a few years.)
Now if only I could get my banana trees to produce, I would feel like a miracle worker.
But I guess my point is that if I, of all people, can have success in the garden, anybody must be able to. It's incredible what you can grow on a small plot, so don't be afraid to give backyard gardening a shot. Find a small corner in your yard and plant something you think you will enjoy eating, because that's the biggest pleasure -- literally tasting the fruits of your labor.
And speaking of fruit, the peaches have been fabulous this year, but the fleeting season is coming to an end. We have been busy doing all kinds of things with peaches -- baking homemade vanilla bread pudding with fresh peach compote; roasting whole peaches in the oven; mixing peach juice with Italian prosecco for a delicious Italian bellini; and just simply peeling and eating them and enjoying their luxurious flesh and juice. But my new favorite way to enjoy peaches is a twist on the traditional "Peaches and Cream" in which I cut up a peach in a bowl, add my mother's divine homemade granola, and pour milk and eat it all like a bowl of cereal. It's good at any time of the day, and I bet it's delicious with fresh Florida winter strawberries as well. Sounds like I need to plant some in next season's garden! At the end of this article, you'll find the recipe for the granola.
There are still a few slots available in two local Community Supported Agriculture programs, in which subscribers receive a glorious box of local, organic produce on a weekly basis from a small family farm.
Contact Francisco Arroyo of KYV Farm at firstname.lastname@example.org or Wendy Smith of Smith Family Farm at email@example.com for information on produce and pricing.
The Smiths also offer local grass-fed beef.
CSA programs are a great way to get to know the people who produce your food and keep jobs in our community, while at the same time samplE some of our region's freshest, most affordable produce. CSAs are good for your health, good for your community, and good for your wallet! You can learn more about them at www.slowfoodfirstcoast.com.
Mighty Fine Granola
(Adapted by Linda Villadoniga)
2 1Ãš2 cups old fashioned rolled oats, not instant
1 cup coconut
1Ãš2 cup wheat germ
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 1Ãš2 cups nuts (walnuts are best, but pecans, almonds or hazelnuts are also good)
º cup vegetable oil
º cup honey
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
Dash of salt
Optional: 1 cup raisins (or dried cranberries or other dried fruit)
Mix oats, coconut, wheat germ and nuts together. Stir to combine well. Add salt, condensed milk, honey, vanilla, and oil and mix well.
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper and spray with non-stick baking spray (such as Pam). Spread granola evenly on baking sheet and bake in oven at 300 ¡ for about 1 hour or until golden brown. Using a spatula, stir every 15-20 minutes to prevent sticking and burning.
When golden brown take out of oven and add raisins/dried fruit, if desired. Stir and let cool. Store in an airtight container.
A Big Slice of Goodwill Pie
By Richard VilladÃ³niga
This is the fifth installment in the "Kitchen Conversations" series in which I feature locals who are changing the way we think about food in Northeast Florida. This month, I interviewed Malea Guiriba, a North Florida native and founder of Pie in the Sky, a unique shop in Hastings that sells€”you guessed it€”pie, as well as local foods and crafts, all in the name of charity. The business is another fine addition to what I like to call the Hastings Renaissance. Guiriba, an inspiring woman who seems to have no trouble getting people involved in community service, worked for the Betty Griffin House rural outreach program in Hastings for three and a half years before hatching the idea to open a spot where people can sell locally produced items, with proceeds being used to fund community improvement projects. You can find Pie in the Sky at 224 N. Main Street, Hastings, FL or by calling (904) 692-3902.
By Richard VilladÃ³niga
This is the fourth installment in a series called €œKitchen Conversations" in which you can read excerpts of discussions I have had with people who are changing the way we eat and think about food on the First Coast. Recently, I sat down with local artist and beekeeper Gayle Prevatt and we talked about the pleasures of working with bees, producing honey, and a mysterious affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that is causing bees to vanish. Bees pollinate up to a third of all field crops in America and any large scale loss of honeybees, therefore, has dire consequences for our food supply. Prevatt makes glorious local honey and you can purchase some by contacting her at (904 829-2142) or by visiting her art gallery, Moultrie Creek Studio, at 9C Aviles Street in downtown St. Augustine.
Happy Cows Make Better Steaks
By Richard VilladÃ³niga
This is the third installment in a new series called €œKitchen Conversations" in which you can read excerpts of conversations I have had with people who are changing the way we eat and think about food on the First Coast. In this week's article, I am profiling local cattle rancher Howard Griffin, who owns an 1800 acre property in Putnam County on which he and his wife Debbie humanely raise grass-fed beef, which is becoming an attractive alternative to industrially raised corn-fed beef for a number of reasons, some of which are explored below. Griffin began ranching after a career in mortgage software, following what has increasingly become a trend by urbanites to live a more rural lifestyle. His beef is tender, well-marbled, and dry aged for a period of weeks to seal in its flavor. The beef that I sampled from his ranch was juicy and full-flavored, the product of months of nurturing and pampering his cattle. If you are interested in purchasing locally raised grass-fed beef, Jeb and Wendy Smith of Hastings (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Cognito Farm of Starke (email@example.com) are also reliable sources, in addition to Griffin's tasty cuts, which can be ordered by emailing him at HAGRIFF@AOL.COM.
Name: Howard Griffin
Business: Griffin Farms/Diamond Bar Ranch
A Garden For Everyone
By Richard VilladÃ³niga
This is the second installment in a new series called €œKitchen Conversations" in which you can read excerpts of conversations I have had with people who are changing the way we eat and think about food on the First Coast. In this piece, I profile activist Cash McVay, the 38 year-old founder of Citysprout, a local community and urban gardening organization that was recently given the unanimous green light by the St. Augustine City Commission to begin transforming a portion of Eddie Vickers Park in Lincolnville into a place where residents can gather, plant and grow fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs, and strengthen the neighborhood's sense of community. McVay's vision and drive are impressive, as is the fact that he only began thinking about community gardens about six months ago. Community and urban gardens are blooming all over the nation as more urbanites become interested in knowing what is in their food and where it comes from. Even in super densely populated areas like New York City, people are becoming creative, planting home gardens on rooftops and abandoned tracts of land. Not only does this beautify public areas, but it often provides the only source of fresh fruits and vegetables to inner city residents. For more information on how to get involved with or sponsor the Lincolnville project (or to start one in your own neighborhood), visit www.Cityspout.org.
Name: Cash S. McVay
Occupation: Commercial Real Estate; Founder of Citysprout
Please answer the following questions:
The primary goal of CitySprout is to make gardening an integral component of the neighborhood by offering an activity that increases social interaction. We would also like for gardens to create awareness that producing food locally is an effective energy conservation program, as well as a vital element to enhance our community's sustainability.
Interview with 29 South Restaurant
First Published in the St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 05/21/09
Today we begin a new, occasional series in which I will interview local chefs and other people involved in the world of food. In the next few months, you will be reading excerpts of conversations with locals who are changing the way the First Coast eats and thinks about food.
The first installment in this series is an interview with Chef Scotty Schwartz of 29 South Restaurant in Fernandina Beach. When I first dined at 29 South, I was blown away by the freshness of the food, and no wonder -- the eatery features a beautifully tended garden in the backyard that supplies the kitchen with a great abundance of organic produce. In addition, Schwartz has cultivated an impressive network of regional family farmers, and his relationships have paid off. They provide him with everything from naturally raised Berkshire pork to local honey to dairy products from southern Georgia. The creative, locally-sourced menu features dressed up comfort food bursting with flavor. The crispy fried green tomatoes with fresh goat cheese and roasted sweet red peppers may be the best I've ever had, and a mesmerizing dish of grilled scallops and Mayport shrimp in a pesto sauce was served with creamy polenta and a wonderful grilled vegetable ratatouille. It was so good I asked for more bread to sop up the last of the sauce and veggies. But perhaps the most memorable dish I tried was a simple salad of mixed greens that Schwartz's wife, Nan, had just picked out back in the garden. The greens were tossed with a delicate champagne vinaigrette and house-grown radishes -- stunning proof that fresh, high quality ingredients need little fuss to shine. It's a delicious testament to Schwartz's commitment to seeking out the best local ingredients and letting the food speak for itself. And it makes for an extraordinary dining experience.
Name: Scott Schwartz
Restaurant: 29 South (www.29SouthRestaurant.com)
1. How would you describe your style of cooking?
Modern American with Southern Influences
2. What is your favorite ingredient of the moment?
Whatever Mother Nature provides for me at the moment. Lately, DelKat Family Farm pork belly, Romanesco, and lots of beets and fennel.
3. How do you incorporate seasonal and local ingredients into your menu?
We adopt a "Use it while we can" mentality. We talk with farmers that grow for us and develop crop plans, as well as discuss what we can grow in our on site garden. Then we build our menu around what is available. As new things arrive that would be short-lived through the season we utilize them in nightly specials.
4. When you don't eat in your own restaurant, what's a special place where you like to dine?
The Spotted Pig in NYC. I crave it fortnightly; regionally, Biscotti's, B.B.'s and Bistro Aix.
5. What's your favorite thing to make at home?
Braised short ribs and polenta
6. What three ingredients do you always have in your refrigerator?
Short ribs, olives, lots of butter
7. What role do you think chefs should play in educating the public about foods that are good for diners' health, have a positive impact on the health of the planet and are respectful and fair to those that produce them?
I think chefs have a huge responsibility because we are the experts in food, and our language is more accessible than that of scientists. We have the responsibility to promote what's best for our clientele. We should also take responsibility as to how that might affect our planet. Every ingredient has a cost. Although monetary costs are our first concern, we should make the environmental cost the next. Why serve a fruit from Chile just because we can get it? In this day and age of jet set transportation, anything is available anytime we want it. The environmental impact of transportation should outweigh the "want" of that ingredient by the chef. When we as chefs embrace the procurement of local and seasonal products we give up the ability to cook with our egos. We cook what Mother Nature gives us, not what is available at a farm halfway around the world. I'm not saying everything needs to be local. We don't grow truffles in Fernandina Beach and it is not going to stop me from putting them on a menu, but it is the exception not the rule.
8. How do you see the future of the North Florida food scene?
I would like to see it move in a direction of sustainability. We have an amazing climate for growing food and a large amount of product available at our doorstep. More chefs should support local farms; even if it is just one ingredient, it would make a major impact. There is nothing better than shaking the hand of the family that raised your pigs. The impact of that can be seen in the pride our staff has in selling and preparing our products.
9. What is one food that you tried and would never eat again?
Fermented herring from Iceland -- almost couldn't swallow it.
10. What is your first food memory?
Cooking with my mom. She was an amazing cook with a very diverse repertoire.
11. What type of restaurant are we desperately missing in North Florida?
We need more ethnic restaurants and markets. The more food diversity our community has the better. It is incredible the impact this has on the chef community.
Saving the Seminole pumpkin
First Published in the
St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 04/30/09
Sometimes finding your next favorite food can happen right in your own back yard.
Local Master Gardener Guerry Bradley has been busy planting Seminole pumpkins in his garden for a late summer harvest, and he's very excited. Seminole pumpkins are an endangered variety of pear-shaped squash that once grew throughout our state and were widely planted by the various Native Americans and colonists who inhabited Florida, particularly along the banks of the Everglades. Botanist John C. Gifford named the Seminole pumpkin one of the five plants "essential to Indians and early settlers of Florida."
The Creek, Miccosukee, and Calusa people (who today we collectively call the Seminoles) prized their delicious flesh for eating, but also their hardiness in a state in which heat, moisture and pests can devastate many crops. Their hard outer shell makes them naturally mildew-, pest- and disease-resistant, while the fact that the vines like to climb helped those early farmers keep them off the moist South Florida ground where insects, foraging animals and rot often ravaged gardens.
The pumpkins are such good climbers, in fact, that the Creek word for them, "chassahowitska," means "hanging pumpkin." The natives usually planted them at the base of trees to allow their vines to climb and the fruit to hang like a Christmas ornament, ready for the picking. The pumpkins do require some space to spread their vines, but once they take hold, you will be rewarded with a plentiful bounty.
"They're the easiest things to grow, and they were the most productive plants in my garden last year," Bradley said recently. One packet of seeds, which can be purchased at www.southernexposure.com, can yield 30 pumpkins.
The flesh of the Seminole pumpkin is bright and firm with a sweet, delicate flavor and can be prepared in a number of ways, including baked, pureed or transformed into the most flavorful pumpkin pie you've ever had.
Food writer Amy Goldman calls baked Seminole pumpkin "the treat of a lifetime." I roasted a few of Bradley's pumpkins last year in the oven with just a touch of butter, maple syrup and pecans so as not to overpower their own flavor, and they made an extraordinary side dish. Bradley makes an excellent Seminole pumpkin dessert that is fragrant with cinnamon and spice but still showcases the delectable flavor of the squash.
Natives in South Florida still value the squash so much that they include authentic pumpkin fry bread in many of their contemporary ceremonies. It's even on the menu, along with other traditional dishes, at the restaurant in the Miccosukee Indian Village on the Tamiami Trail. Nonetheless, the pumpkins are rarely cultivated today because other varieties have become popular and bland, canned pumpkin is a cheap and convenient alternative. Still, the Seminole pumpkin's natural qualities and ecological adaptations make it a perfect vegetable for a curious gardener or food lover to grow in our region and I encourage you to give them a try and help bring these disappearing natives back to the table. They should be planted in April or May and can be harvested in about 60 days with little effort. Plus, because of their tough outer skin, they will hold for up to a year! I myself have decided to give it a go in my own backyard. For those of you who are a bit nervous about planting them, Guerry has even kindly offered to answer any concerns you might have. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jumpstart your kitchen renaissance
First Published in the St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 03/19/09
It seems to always be the case that when people start feeling the pinch of rough economic times, they dine out less and cook at home more often.
When times get tough, the tough get cooking. It's an easy way to trim your budget and experiment a little with recipes you've been collecting and meaning to get around to trying since the Clinton years. (Don't worry -- we all do it!)
But here's the thing: It doesn't take that much time or money to put together a healthy, memorable meal the whole family will love, and with a little imagination, you can even transform those leftovers into a brand new meal. The main thing to focus on is stocking your fridge and pantry with a few key ingredients that can be utilized in a number of ways to enhance your dishes.
Good olive oil (DON'T cook without it), fresh garlic, fresh (or frozen when not in season, but rarely canned) fruits and vegetables, salt and freshly ground pepper, eggs and even humble cuts of meat like bacon, chicken legs and thighs and pork chops work well to add lots of flavor to simple dishes and won't break the bank.
The following is a list of ideas -- I won't call them recipes because they are more like collected brainstorms without precise directions or measurements--to help you jumpstart your kitchen renaissance.
1. Homemade hummus: In a food processor, puree garlic, olive oil, and a few sprigs of parsley, add chickpeas and a pinch of salt, and blend until smooth. Add water to reach desired consistency.
2. Grilled vegetables: Chop bell peppers, onions, zucchini, squash, mushrooms and eggplant coarsely, lightly coat with olive oil, salt and pepper and mix. Broil in oven until slightly charred. Toss with a little more olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and fresh chives. Great with hummus.
3. Bacon wrapped dates: Slightly cook bacon on rack in oven, remove from heat and cool. Cut into small pieces and wrap around pitted dates. Place on previously soaked skewers and broil until bacon is crispy.
4. Gambas al ajillo: Saute crushed garlic, chopped parsley, a little crushed red pepper flakes, and fresh, local shrimp in olive oil. Season with salt for a terrific classic Spanish dish.
5. Quick veggie tacos: Toast corn tortillas on warm skillet, fill with slightly smashed pinto beans and top with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, onions, diced jalapeos, avocado, cilantro and a squirt of lime.
6. Country trout: Place a slice of thick cut bacon into the belly of a cleaned farm raised trout, dust lightly with flour, and fry in olive oil. Seriously.
7. Perfect pesto: In a food processor, puree basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Toss on pasta or smear on anything else.
8. Coconut rice: Cook jasmine rice with a handful of shredded coconut. When cooked, toss with chopped cilantro and diced Roma tomatoes.
9. Steak sandwich: Season a ribeye steak with salt and pepper and grill or broil until desired doneness. Remove from heat and slice across grain. Place on baguette with arugula and thinly sliced onion or grilled cubanelle peppers or Spanish piquillo (red roasted) peppers.
10. The best oatmeal you've never had: Cook oatmeal (preferably steel cut) with milk, then add dark chocolate and a pinch of cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Stir and devour.
11. Eggs and potatoes: Make your own French fries in olive oil, then top with two eggs fried in a separate pan with a little olive oil. Dig in and let the yolk stream out over the crispy potatoes. Simple and so satisfying.
12. Braised chicken: Season chicken thighs and legs with salt and pepper and fry until slightly browned in olive oil. Remove from pan and add chopped onions and cook until soft. Add white wine, crushed garlic, and a couple of piquillo peppers. Bring to a faint boil, then reduce to low and add chicken. Let simmer until chicken is so soft it can easily fall off the bone. Serve with yellow rice.
13. Garbanzos: cook chopped onions and a little garlic in a few teaspoons of olive oil until soft, then mix in a can of chickpeas and dust with cumin. Throw in a bag of baby spinach and stir until wilted. Season with salt.
14. More garbanzos: cook chopped onions and a little garlic in a few teaspoons of olive oil until soft, then mix in a can of chickpeas, dust with cumin, and add a handful of raisins and some pinenuts.
15. Pinchos morunos: Chop a few pork chops into cubes, toss with olive oil, oregano, cumin, pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika), salt and crushed garlic and broil on presoaked skewers.
16. Roasted root vegetables: Cut carrots, sweet potatoes and beets and toss with salt, pepper, a little olive oil and rosemary. Bake in oven.
17. Tuna like never before: Mix a can of good quality albacore tuna packed in olive oil with capers, chopped onion, diced Roma tomatoes, green olives, basil, an anchovy (chopped), and a can of white beans. Serve on a bed of lettuce with a toasted baguette.
18. Buy your favorite rotisserie chicken. Shred leftover meat and combine with mayonnaise, curry powder, raisins, pecans and scallions for chicken salad deluxe.
19. Buy your favorite rotisserie chicken. Shred leftover meat and set aside. Boil bones with onions and carrots until stock forms, remove bones and return meat to stock, then add noodles and cook until tender. Season chicken soup with salt and pepper.
20. Mango Madness: Slice a ripe mango into pieces. Sprinkle cayenne pepper and salt over mango, drizzle lime juice, and mix gently.
Big heart in Hastings
First Published in The St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 02/19/09
Loretta Smith doesn't understand the meaning of the word "no."
"An older lady called me up the other day, talking about how cold she was with this weather we've had lately, no heater in the house. I knew I had to help her out," she said. "I gave her a few of my blankets and a space heater. I couldn't stand to think of her in that cold house alone."
It's that kind of selfless attitude that has made Smith one of Hastings most well-liked residents -- or maybe it's her good cooking. For the past four years, she has organized a free Thanksgiving dinner for the community's underprivileged citizens and farm workers.
"The Good Lord has called me to serve," Smith said. And serve she does, with more than 300 people being fed this past Thanksgiving in what was her largest turnout yet. "It just keeps getting bigger and better."
Smith, who was born in San Mateo, just west of the county line in Putnam County, grew up working the fields in our area with her family.
"Daddy was a crew leader and Momma worked hard too, but my favorite memories of her was of her cooking. I remember waking up before the sun came up and going out to the fields to start the day, then watching her come out to deliver breakfast in our old beat-up station wagon. You knew it meant good food was coming," she said. "We would stop, two at a time, and have breakfast and sit on the back bumper of the car. She came out with real dishes and silverware, and we'd get grits and all kinds of good things, and then when everyone had eaten, she'd disappear, only to have her show up again around lunchtime. It was the best feeling."
Smith's family, like many others at the time, followed the seasons and headed north in the summers to harvest wherever there was work.
"We'd move up through the Carolinas, into Virginia, even up to New York. It was hard work, but it was a good life," she said. "My parents taught me that hard work and discipline were important. They trained me well. I still am early to rise and to get to work."
Moving around each summer from farm to farm might seem tough on a kid, but she and her siblings got to keep the money they earned and bought new school clothes with it. Plus there was always fresh food to eat -- sweet summer corn, snap peas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans and other crops.
"We ate whatever was in season. Momma made a dish in the summer with fresh corn. She would cut the kernels off and then scrape the cob to let that milk out, and fry it all up in a skillet with a little bacon fat. It wasn't quite fried and it wasn't quite creamed corn, it was just good! Sometimes she would add tomatoes, rice, even some chicken. She was very creative with whatever we had available," she said.
"As a treat, she'd make sweet potato fries with cinnamon sugar, pineapple upside down cake, ambrosia or homemade donuts. She'd punch out a hole in the middle of the biscuit dough with a bottle cap. Sometimes she made this dish that wasn't really a soup or a stew. You'd just throw all your favorite things in a big old pot--a turkey neck, tomatoes, okra, corn, macaroni--and just let it all cook slowly. I think Rachael Ray calls a dish like this that she makes 'Stoup,' but this was way before Rachael Ray. Yes indeed, Momma taught me how to feed people."
Smith wants to share her blessings with others.
"There is something about food -- it's that spirit and desire to sit down with anyone and share a meal that brings people together. Sharing and fellowship, it just feels good to do good things," she said.
Smith plans on organizing another dinner in May, but is looking for help to defray the cost of feeding so many people.
"I'm hoping to get some community sponsorship to make this possible on a more regular basis. It would be my dream to do this once a month. You know, get a van and deliver a big pot of 'stoup' to the migrant camps or out to the field workers. They'd see me coming -- it would be like Momma's station wagon."
Smith has received some limited food and monetary donations in the past from local businesses, organizations and individuals, but she is searching for added assistance because of the current economic downturn.
"There are a lot of folks in need right now," she said. "People feel better when they have a good meal. They can work harder and it gives them a sense of worth. When I cook for them I put love into it, just like my Momma did. I think that's why they call it soul food. You put your heart and soul into it."
To donate food or money to the upcoming dinner, call Smith at 209-6080, ext. 4071.
My recipe for this southern classic was inspired by my conversation with Smith. Traditionally, ambrosia features oranges, pineapple, and coconut, though Smith's mother would add cherries to the mix. In my version, and in keeping with the seasons, I've substituted Plant City strawberries for the cherries and added homemade whipped cream spiked with vanilla to add a little sophistication.
1 pint Plant City strawberries, chopped
2 cups canned chopped pineapple, juice drained
2 seedless oranges, peeled and cut into small segments
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup coconut flakes
2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, scrape beans out with a knife (or 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract)
1/2 cup sugar
In a well sized bowl, combine the first six ingredients and toss gently. Adjust sugar. Chill in refrigerator. With a mixer, combine the last three ingredients and whip the cream until soft peaks form. Spoon fruit into serving dishes and top with a generous dollop of whipped cream and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Dinner Benefits Harvest of Hope Foundation
Slow Food First Coast invites the public to attend a fundraising dinner March 5 to benefit the Harvest of Hope Foundation (www.harvestofhope.net).
Harvest of Hope is a nonprofit organization that works to assist migrant farm workers with emergency aid.
The benefit will be held at Johnny's Kitchen in Hastings, with doors opening at 6 p.m. for a social hour and dinner being served at 7 p.m.
"Expect to be well-fed that night," commented Johnny Barnes, owner of the popular eatery. "I plan on putting together a menu using only St. Johns County-based ingredients. It's going to be fabulous. We want to spotlight the wonderful foods that our region produces and at the same time draw attention to the hard work of the individuals that bring us this bounty."
The dinner will coincide with the Harvest of Hope Fest, to be held at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds March 6 through March 8. The festival is expected to attract thousands of people with its musical acts, but the message of compassion for the nation's migrant community will be front and center.
"We want to heighten awareness of the plight of migrant farm workers in this country and raise money for programs and services they might not get anywhere else.," explains Harvest of Hope president Phillip Kellerman. "We distribute funds for everything from food and clothing to medical emergencies, as well as educational scholarships, to the neediest and often most overlooked among us."
One hundred percent of the proceeds from the dinner will benefit the Harvest of Hope Foundation, and seating is limited to 100 people. Tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased by calling Barnes at 692-1800.
For those not able to attend the dinner but wanting to help, contributions to Harvest of Hope are also appreciated.
"What could be better than eating well and knowing you are making a difference in the lives of the folks that harvested your food?" Barnes remarked. "This is a chance for the community to give back and recognize the often unappreciated hard work that farm workers contribute to each of us."
Slow Food First Coast is a nonprofit organization that promotes local food production, the preservation of our community's culinary and cultural heritage, and public education and discourse on a system of food production and consumption that supports equity, sustainability and quality.
Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.
For information, e-mail email@example.com or go to www.slowfoodusa.org.
New Year, New Foods
First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 15 January 2009 as "Taco joint on food list of 10 musts for new year."
I think it's safe to say that most of us are happy 2008 is over. There were ups and there were downs, but as we turn the page into 2009, let's start on an upbeat note. Here are 10 food-related things you shouldn't miss this new year, in no particular order:
1. Tacos at Mi Carnal Taqueria
If you haven't dined at this authentic gem of an eatery yet, be forewarned: the tacos are affordably addictive. The chicken, beef, and pork tacos are simple masterpieces of genuine Mexican street food. Throw in some refried beans, guacamole and a Mexican Coke (made with sugar cane), and you have a spectacularly filling meal that won't break the bank. My favorite: the delicious tacos al pastor (pork stewed with pineapple for a complex and unique flavor). Tienda y Taqueria Mi Carnal, 2602 U.S. 1 South, St. Augustine, 794-5175.
2. Benton's Bacon
Since we're talking pork, let's focus on a food that makes everything taste better--bacon. Have you tried Mo's Bacon Bars from Vosges' Chocolates (www.vosges-chocolate.com)?
Just when you naively thought it couldn't get better than peanut butter and chocolate, these geniuses discover the magical fusion of chocolate and bacon, of all things. Just heavenly. And my favorite bacon: the old-fashioned kind from Benton's smokehouse in Madisonville, Tenn. -- a miraculous union of hickory smoke (slowly applied for up to 72 hours) and glorious pork belly. BLTs have never been better than the ones I make with Benton's smoky, thick-sliced, meaty bacon. http://bentonshams.com
3. Pierogies at Gaufres & Goods
I know, I know, lay off the pork product, but just one more--I promise.
Do yourself a favor and sample the delightfully plump, tender, homemade Polish dumplings at Gaufres & Goods, downtown St. Augustine's most unique culinary destination. Its Old World menu eclectically combines dishes from Poland, Greece and Belgium, including fluffy, crisp waffles and potato-stuffed pierogies that are the stars of this temple of comfort food. Try the pierogies topped with sauteed onions and -- what else? --bacon, and you won't be disappointed. Gaufres & Goods, 9A and 9B Aviles St., St. Augustine, 829-5770.
4. Sorghum Syrup
Introduced to the U.S. in 1853 to help reduce our demand for imported sweeteners like sugarcane, sorghum is a wild grass native to Africa that is still grown in 26 states, mainly in the South, though its production is highly threatened by the increase in popularity of artificial sweeteners like corn syrup. A hardy, drought-resistant crop, it is first pressed and its juice extracted then reduced down to a dark syrup that is thicker and more earthy than maple syrup, with a flavor reminiscent of molasses. It is wonderful drizzled on pancakes and even better on freshly baked biscuits. Order some at http://muddypondsorghum.com/
5. Visit a farmers market or join a CSA: local food suppliers are sprouting up everywhere in St. Johns County, bringing fresh, affordable produce to local residents, while keeping money and jobs in our own community. At last count, shoppers had their pick of area farmers' markets including the St. Augustine Amphitheater, the Beach Pavilion, Nocatee, County Road 210, Neptune Beach, Flagler Beach and Fernandina Beach, not to mention the granddaddy of roadside stands out in Hastings, the County Line produce stand. In addition to farmers' markets, a number of Community Supported Agriculture projects (CSAs), in which members receive a weekly box of fresh produce from a local farmer, have started up locally in the past year. If you are interested in joining a CSA or being a part of the local food revival, visit www.slowfoodusa.org or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Datil Cranberry Sauce: It seems like everyone has their own version of a datil sauce, some of them highly-guarded family recipes, others new twists on a familiar favorite. But I've got to hand it to my good friends at Minorcan Datil Pepper Products who have come up with a uniquely American condiment: datil cranberry sauce. Spread it on toasted bread for a terrific turkey sandwich or clean up next year's Thanksgiving leftovers with a dabble of the sauce on just about anything you make for the special day. Minorcan Datil Pepper Products, http://www.minorcandatil.com/
7. American Spoon Peach Preserves: Toast is underrated. Toast with preserves and a dab of butter is an undervalued luxury. And the best peach preserves I have tasted come from American Spoon, a gourmet fruit and food company from Michigan. The company uses Red Haven peaches that early ripen in orchards along Lake Michigan to produce an artisanal, chunky, flavorful spread that's neither too sweet nor too tangy. To order, visit www.spoon.com.
8. Neighborhood Gardening: Feeling cramped in your back yard? Not even enough room for an herb garden in your urban confines?
Join a community garden. A new group called Citysprout is busy planning a network of neighborhood gardens, including their first one in Lincolnville. According to their Web site, the group is "dedicated to creating a productive network of community gardens throughout the neighborhoods of St. Augustine to stimulate social interaction and strengthen community sustainability." To get involved, visit www.citysprout.org.
9. Tanka Bars: On a tour of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., this past summer, I came across an extraordinarily simple energy bar made by the Oglala Lakota tribe which combines two North American indigenous foods, prairie-fed buffalo meat and dried cranberries, into a tasty and high-protein snack that I found to be similar to a fruity beef jerky, but a whole lot better tasting than that probably sounds. Sales of the bar are creating employment opportunities for a disadvantaged tribe that faces difficult economic hardships.To purchase some for your next hike or run, visit www.tankabar.com.
10. If you read only one piece of writing focused on food issues in 2009 (aside from my column, of course), read Farmer in Chief by Michael Pollan, which was an open letter published in the New York Times in which Pollan calls on our next president to consider the far-reaching impacts that food policy has on our health, our energy independence, our national security, and our environment. It will be worth all 20 minutes it takes you to read the piece. Google "Farmer in Chief" to read a copy online.
You Are What You Eat.
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