20 December 2008


As of Tuesday afternoon my final papers and grades for my students were all handed in. Phew. That's that for this semester. Now I just need to finish up the spring semester (last spring)...

Wednesday was devoted to running errands, cleaning up and getting ready for the holidays. The snow storm in the northeast put a crimp in my original travel plans, and I had to load up a rental car with things and cats on Thursday instead of Friday, so as to safely drive home. So now I find myself in CT at my parents' home. The cats have settled in, the snow fell and I thought I would finally catch up with "Of Verdant Thoughts" after a week long hiatus.

"Gemütlichkeit" is a classic German word and concept. Literally, it translates as "coziness" or "snugness," but it really means much more. "Gemütlichkeit" represents candle light, good company, warmth, comfort, feeling at ease and not rushed, etc. Germans love to have a strong sense of "Gemütlichkeit" at home, with company and, above all, when they eat. Rushed meals are frowned upon. As are meals lit by neon lights. Though a country like Spain clearly has a food and comfort culture of their own, I recall encountering many brightly lit restaurants while trying new places with my German mother, who visited me while I studied there in college. No no, somehow the meaning and pleasure of eating a meal with loved ones seems diminished by harsh lights.

It might not be difficult to make a connection between my adherence to a calm and relaxing morning ritual and a desire for "Gemütlichkeit." As I already mentioned, my mother is German. My childhood was a German one, though predominantly staged in the U.S. We followed many German traditions, our holidays were always celebrated following (secularized) German rituals (especially Christmas and Easter) and our day-to-day existence was largely influenced by certain German (or European) ideas of "joie de vivre." Life was "gemütlich."

As is often the case, the "Germanness" could largely be seen in food. But I do not mean that we ate "German" food. It is not so much what we ate, but rather how we ate it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were eaten as a family at the table. (When my brother and I were at school, or my father at work, lunch, obviously, was not a shared, family meal.) Candles were lit, the table set properly, and we sat, ate, manners and civility were observed and conversation enjoyed. No one would have ever considered rushing to get away from the table. Even when we went out for dinner, it was as a family and we never hurried our meal.

This appreciation of food culture and the adherence to etiquette strongly influenced my current opinions of food and food culture. Eating well and with good company has made me more aware of what is actually on the plate. Even while living and often eating alone, I strongly desire to recreate the sense of "Gemütlichkeit" that can be found at my parents' table. As my morning ritual suggests, I try never to eat a rushed meal. I want to savor the food I prepared for myself and enjoy the connection it has to the local community. My beliefs and customs are completely secularized, but they are no less meaningful.
Knowing that a snow storm loomed, I easily envisioned a "gemütlich" evening at home Friday night with my parents. I pictured the snow falling, candles and the lights of the Christmas tree shining in the dimly lit room. With the winter-wonderland theme, I could imagine nothing more appropriate than the hearty, social swiss meal, "Käsefondue" (cheese fondue). Before getting the rental car Thursday morning, I headed to a Philly institution and an excellent source for cheese: DiBruno Brothers. Following the recommendations of a Swiss roommate I had when living in Boston, I bought 300 grams of Gruyere, 150 grams of Appenzeller and 150 grams of Vacherin for the fondue.
Late Friday afternoon I began to grate the 3 cheeses. I then rubbed a fondue pot with a clove of garlic, heated a little more than 1/2 cup of dry white wine with nutmeg and pepper. To the hot but not boiling wine I slowly added the cheese until melted. The final step is adding a shot of Kirschwasser with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch (or another thickening agent) to the cheese and stirring until the right consistency is acheived. While I prepared the fondue, my mother cut up a good, crusty bread into 1-2 inch chunks and prepared a salad.
When eating fondue, it is traditional to first briefly dip the bread in Kirschwasser before dipping it into the cheese. This should only be done with high quality Kirschwasser, however. The local liquor store only had a cheap variation, which was fine for cooking, but not for dipping! So we skipped that first step. The perfect compliment to such a rich meal is a simple green salad and a nice white wine (or prosecco!).

12 December 2008

Highlights: Secretary of Food and the Kitchen Cabinet

I am not done with papers. I have barely started my papers. So I'm not really "posting" today, just offering a couple of highlights that I cannot keep to myself. For a full round up of this week's ecovore news check out Paula's lovely summary at Civil Eats.

Paula mentions this too, but if you have not seen Nicholas Kristof's op-ed, you should really take a look. He writes about the need to re-evaluate the position of Secretary of Agriculture. When the majority of Americans are no longer farming, but all Americans are eating, why are we not looking for a Secretary of Food? Here is the opening of his piece:

As Barack Obama ponders whom to pick as agriculture secretary, he should reframe the question. What he needs is actually a bold reformer in a position renamed “secretary of food.

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

Renaming the department would signal that Mr. Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
If you did not already see it coming, he then refers to Michael Pollan. Kristof cites a statement made by Pollan:
As Mr. Pollan told me: “Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”
Would the Secretary of Food be part of Obama's "Kitchen Cabinet"? The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Alice Waters and a letter she wrote President-Elect Obama, offering her services, along with Ruth Reichl and Danny Meyer, to form the initial "Kitchen Cabinet" for the Obamas. She would volunteer her expertise in food-related matters: from gardening to cooking. This is an excerpt from her letter:
At this moment you have a unique opportunity to set the tone for the changes we need to make in the way our country feeds itself. The purity and wholesomeness of your campaign can find a parallel in the purity and wholesomeness of the food at America's most visible and symbolic address: the White House.
The article also writes of her failed attempts to influence Bill Clinton's eating habits. Though she apparently had better luck with Hilary Clinton, who even planted a rooftop tomato garden at the White House!

You all know I love Alice Waters, and in a few weeks I'll even be eating at her restaurant in Berkeley (!!!!), so please take a moment to read this informative and entertaining little article.

Off to the Post Office, then to proctor a make-up exam, meet with a professor, then home to write!

P.S. I made apple sauce last night. It might have been the easiest thing I ever did.

09 December 2008

Food for Democracy: Sign this Petition!

Food for Democracy has composed the following letter to the President Elect Barack Obama, asking him to select a sustainable-minded Secretary of Agriculture. It is a petition, and I encourage you all to sign this petition, which can be found at this link.

Dear President-Elect Obama,

We congratulate you on your historic victory and welcome the change that your election promises to usher in for our nation. As leaders in the sustainable agriculture and rural advocacy community we supported you in record numbers during the caucus, primary and general election because of the family farm-friendly policies that you advocated during your campaign.

As our nation's future president, we hope that you will take our concerns under advisement when nominating our next Secretary of Agriculture because of the crucial role this Secretary will play in revitalizing our rural economies, protecting our nation's food supply and our environment, improving human health and well-being, rescuing the independent family farmer, and creating a sustainable renewable energy future.

We believe that our nation is at a critical juncture in regard to agriculture and its impact on the environment and that our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a broad vision for our collective future that is greater than what past appointments have called for.

Presently, farmers face serious challenges in terms of the high costs of energy, inputs and land, as well as continually having to fight an economic system and legislative policies that undermine their ability to compete in the open market. The current system unnaturally favors economies of scale, consolidation and market concentration and the allocation of massive subsidies for commodities, all of which benefit the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families.

In addition, America must come to understand the environmental and human health implications of industrialized agriculture. From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, global warming and air and water pollution, we believe our next Secretary of Agriculture must have a vision that calls for: recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment, biodiversity and the health of our children while implementing policies that place conservation, soil health, animal welfare and worker's rights as well as sustainable renewable energy near the top of their agenda.

Today we have a nutritional and environmental deficit that is as real and as great as that of our national debt and must be addressed with forward thinking and bold, decisive action. To deal with this crisis, our next Secretary of Agriculture must work to advance a new era of sustainability in agriculture, humane husbandry, food and renewable energy production that revitalizes our nation's soil, air and water while stimulating opportunities for new farmers to return to the land.

We believe that a new administration should address our nation's growing health problems by promoting a children's school lunch program that incorporates more healthy food choices, including the creation of opportunities for schools to purchase food from local sources that place a high emphasis on nutrition and sustainable farming practices. We recognize that our children's health is our nation's future and that currently schools are unable to meet these needs because they do not have the financial resources to invest in better food choices. We believe this reflects and is in line with your emphasis on childhood education as a child's health and nutrition are fundamental to their academic success.

We understand that this is a tall order, but one that is consistent with the values and policies that you advocated for in your bid for the White House. We realize that more conventional candidates are likely under consideration; however, we feel strongly that the next head of the USDA should have a significant grassroots background in promoting sustainable agriculture to create a prosperous future for rural America and a healthy future for all of America's citizens.

With this in mind, we are offering a list of leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to the goals that you articulated during your campaign and we encourage you to consider them for the role of Secretary of Agriculture.

The Sustainable Choice for the Next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

  1. Gus Schumacher, Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.
  2. Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, NE.
  3. Sarah Vogel, former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, attorney, Bismarck, ND.
  4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA and President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.
  5. Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota's Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  6. Neil Hamilton, attorney, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, IA.

    08 December 2008

    School Gardens!

    It is the end of the semester and I should be writing seminar papers! I am writing papers, but thought to take a quick break to address my potential absence this coming week. I am currently working on a paper about the "post" gendered space of letters in a Romantic novel by Dorothea Veit Schlegel. Once this is done (or nearly done), I'll work on a "thought piece" concerning the structure and organization of my ideal German language program.

    I did post a recipe at Farm to Philly (take a look), and in my efforts to avoid cross-posting, I will offer you an article from Sunday's New York Times (of course). The article is about the educational benefit of gardening for children. Alice Waters was a pioneer in creating school gardens to allow children to learn about the origin and production of their food. The children grow the food that they then eat in their school cafeteria. The Times' article goes farther and suggests that gardens could lend themselves to almost any subject (math, science, language arts), and not only reinforce knowledge about food and nutrition (which alone is already a wonderful lesson for today's generation of chemical-food-replacement consumers).

    05 December 2008

    German Apple Cake

    A couple of months ago a recipe popped up on Smitten Kitchen (SK) which made my mouth water and stomach growl with excitement. The timing was perfect, as apple season was in full bloom and my CSA share was overflowing with crisp, delicious apples. If you haven't yet clicked on the click and the apple-reference wasn't clue enough: apple cake. Smitten Kitchen's mom's apple cake. Jewish apple cake. German apple cake. All one in the same: cinnamon-kissed apples suspended in moist, cakey goodness.
    Some of you might be comparing the date of my post and the date of the SK post and commending my self-control. Don't delude yourselves! I have made this cake three times now. A few days after the post I made a perfectly scrumptious cake which looked like it had come into contact with a bomb (not to be insensitive towards recent world events). In my gluttonous exuberance, I pulled the cake out of the oven and turned that tube pan over and attempted to shake the cake out. For some reason, I did not think to let the cake cool down before forcing it out of the pan. Instead of the intact disc you see in SK's picture, I had cake pieces. But oh was it good. And, yes, I ate it all by myself. How could I share such an ugly cake?
    A few weeks after that I went apple picking with friends. A portion of these apples were set aside for take two of "German" apple cake baking. This time I carefully cut out some wax paper to fit the bottom of the form and decided to not shake the cake out right away. I was too good at greasing, flouring and lining the pan, because the cake fell right out of the form (again while it was way too hot) when I attempted to let it cool upside down, and it cracked in the middle. Still, it looked a whole lot better, but I think it could have baked a tad bit longer, as it was TOO moist (in my opinion, though others -- yes, I shared it this time! -- claimed it was fine).
    So...take three! I mentioned yesterday that today is my last day of teaching for this academic year. I have been teaching an accelerated German language course (2 semesters of elementary German in one) and tomorrow I am treating my students to some breakfast: local multi-grain bread, organic butter, local swiss cheese, homemade plum-honey preserves, local raw honey and a "German" apple cake. Fingers crossed, I managed to finally make a cake that was both tasty and intact! Miraculous.
    Now, you might be wondering why I keep putting German in quotations. The original recipe is sweeter than any cake I have ever eaten in Germany. But fruit cakes abound in Germany, and though this recipe definitely comes from the USA, its origins clearly are German. I have tweaked the recipe (reducing sugar, etc), and I think this final version is just right.

    On another note: I am up and posting on Farm to Philly now! The first post is strikingly similar to my maiden post here, but I will attempt to avoid overlap with future posts.

    A couple of notes to the recipe: I used sucanat (organic) which I ordered in bulk from Four Worlds Bakery. It's darker than some of the organic cane sugars you get in the store, which lent the cake a nice rich, almost chocolaty color. The flour I used was also ordered in bulk from Four Worlds Bakery: local, organic Pennsylvania white pastry flour. Michael Dollich mills all of his own grains in his bakery, so I know that this is the freshest flour I could ever have access to. The eggs and apples were local and organic, as well. The original recipe calls for orange juice. I used to keep orange juice in the fridge for a friend, but, honestly, I never keep it in the house for myself, though I do like it. I had been using local apple cider instead. Today the co-op was out, so instead I juiced a couple of crispin apples myself. I don't know why I hadn't thought to do this for the other two tries; I always have apples and my juicer sits pretty in a corner on the counter.

    German Apple Cake
    adapted from the Smitten Kitchen recipe

    6 apples (I used york apples this time, but any firm, tart baking apples will do!)
    1 tablespoon cinnamon
    5 tablespoons sucanat (or any other, preferably organic, not too refined sugar)

    2 3/4 cups flour
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon fine sea salt
    3/4 cup vegetable oil (I used sunflower oil this time, canola and a canola/olive oil mix in the past!)
    1 1/4 cups sucanat
    1/3-1/2 cup apple juice (start with 1/3, add more if the batter is too too thick)
    2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
    4 eggs

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a tube pan and dust it with flour. Cut out a piece of wax or parchment paper to fit the bottom of the tube, to ensure the cake doesn't stick (If you have your own tricks for this, go ahead and use them -- I'm clearly no expert here!). Peel, core and chop apples into chunks. Toss with cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

    Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, apple juice, sucanat and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

    Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a tester comes out clean.

    Don't be too greedy and allow the cake to cool before shaking it out of the pan, unless you want to eat the cake crumbles by yourself (which is a valid option, of course!).

    04 December 2008

    Morning Ritual

    Tomorrow is my last day teaching this academic year and also my last day waking up at 6:30! I enjoy teaching and have lovely, motivated students, but I must confess to not enjoying waking up so early 5 days a week. There was a time when I voluntarily woke up early every morning. I am not quite certain as to what changed, but those days are long gone. Honestly, my ideal sleep pattern now would be to go to bed early, wake up late and take a nap in the afternoon. This isn't really possible (not always). Perhaps I think too much about sleep. I do not like being tired and know that I am less productive and function not as well on little sleep. The fact that I have been incredibly tired for over a month has done little for my academic work, but things will change soon (I hope).

    The earliest I have to be on campus (which is a less than 10 minute bike ride away) is 9am. So, I probably don't need to get up at 6:30. I do not take much time showering or "primping," but despite my busy schedule and dislike of prying my eyes open so early, there are certain rituals I am unwilling to cast aside. Or perhaps precisely because of my busy schedule and my exhaustion, I cling even more to my morning ritual. I wake up, I sweep up after the kitties and their dusty bran litter, I shower, turn on the npr, feed the cats, brush Firlefanz, make my tea, prepare breakfast (granola from the CSA or oatmeal), and then settle down to read the paper (online) and scan my food blogs. Everything leads up to dropping myself down into my comfortable desk chair and catching up on the world. I need time to enjoy, relax and reflect before facing a long day. I cannot imagine having to spend up to 12 hours on campus after a rushed morning; I'd feel frantic all day. And I know the cats appreciate my sloth-like presence. Usually Firlefanz finds repose on my lap (making sure I am extra furry before walking out the door), while I read the New York Times. Getting up extra early in order to have time to wake up and come to terms with the day means a lot to me. The same routine happens on the weekend too, though not quite as early.

    This morning while reading the paper I came across quite a few noteworthy articles. One New York Times article in particular dealt with the relationship between meat consumption and high emissions. It is definitely worth taking a look at it. Of course I am an ecovore and vegetarian (of sorts), but neither I nor the article is suggesting that meat consumption must be eliminated altogether. Rather, the article clearly and rightly states that meat consumption should be reduced and that the consumer should make wise choices when considering what kind of meat to eat, taking into account origin and farming practices.
    I encourage you to check out the article in full, but here are a couple of highlights:

    “It’s an area that’s been largely overlooked,” said Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says people should eat less meat to control their carbon footprints. “We haven’t come to grips with agricultural emissions.”

    The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.


    A sober scientist, [Dr. Pachauri of the United Nations] suggests that “the most attractive” near-term solution is for everyone simply to “reduce meat consumption,” a change he says would have more effect than switching to a hybrid car.

    Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, according to Lantmannen, the Swedish group.
    I believe that many are unaware of the true environmental impact of producing and consuming meat. I too was ignorant for a long time about these facts. Knowing these figures, however, is, for me, incredibly convincing. Again, I do not say that everyone must be a vegetarian, but reducing meat consumption is necessary for the future of our planet.