Friday, February 26, 2010

Small Farms and Small Schools: Locally Grown and Personal

The last couple of months have been inspirational (and possibly revolutionary?) for me in terms of how I see food and its role in my life.  I've always loved to eat.  I mean, I really love to eat.  During the final meditative pose in yoga I often find myself planning my next meal, and then the meal after that.  For those of you who don't practice yoga, this is a big meditative no-no.  But thinking about the foods that will soon cross my path makes me happy, so I indulge, or succumb, depending on how one wants to see it.

Two months ago I ordered Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  (And then a couple weeks ago I ordered four more of his books.)  The book has informed and challenged me in innumerable ways, both personally and, potentially, professionally.  This might sound a little silly, so I'll try to explain.

The Omnivore's Dilemma chronicles four meals: the industrial/processed, the industrial organic, the pastoral, and the personally hunted and gathered.  The most intriguing section of the book for me focused on pastoral farming, highlighting Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia.  Salatin grows grass, on which he feeds his pigs, chickens, and cows (instead of corn--the more common industrial version of the same farming process).  Salatin rails against industrialized farming, and even the "organic" label--he prizes the locally grown and sold over organic foods that have been shipped cross country or even internationally.  Pollan writes of Polyface Farm, "My guess is that there aren't too many farmers today who are up for either the physical or mental challenge of this sort of farming, not when industrializing promises to simplify the job...yet [these farmers] relish their work, partly because it is so varied from day to day and even hour to hour, and partly because they find it endlessly interesting" (220).

It's the only page in the book that I dog-eared.  I marked this passage because the sentiment so closely parallels how I feel about the school where I teach.  Like Polyface, our school is small, which allows us to be flexible and creative when problem-solving.  Salatin created an Eggmobile for his farm, a portable hen house which he tows around behind the grazing cattle so as to allow the chickens to peck through the cows' waste, "breaking the cycle of infestation and disease" (211).  Okay, so our school doesn't have an Eggmobile, but we have similarly hare-brained yet ingenious schemes that support our kids in equally innovative ways.  And we can do this because we aren't "industrialized", we don't focus on test scores in this era of the standardized test.  Just as industrialized farming would have us believe that corn is (rather covertly) the answer to all of our food problems, our education system would have us believe that standardization and higher test scores are the answer to all of our schools' ailments.  It just ain't so.

Polyface can't be cloned, it can't be scaled, it can't be standardized--it is Joel Salatin's creation of love.  In the same way, fabulous student-centered, small schools can't be mass-produced.  (Sorry Bill Gates...)  Each one is its own creature with specific circumstances and needs.  And children are not factory products to be sorted, standardized, and stamped on their way out the door.  Assessing them through standardized testing is easier, but those test scores tell us very little about children beyond how well they take a test.  Students are individual people whose lives are utterly complex; they bring these complexities with them into the classroom each day.  Just like the workers on Polyface Farm, good teachers find our task at hand---a.k.a. educating the children--endlessly interesting.  Because we know them.  We know if they fought with their mom, or if their dog died, or if they haven't eaten breakfast, or if they performed well at their band's gig last night.  And we know how they learn best.  Or, at the very least, we try our damndest to figure it out.

All I'm saying is we should value a little local love and interpersonal relationships.  Bigger often is not better.

*Tune in for Sarah's next educational soap box: Jamie Oliver and the promise of family-style dining in the someday school's cafeteria.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Apple Jellies and Valentines Love

Ten years of Valentines Days with Greg and I can scarcely think of one when we had a traditional romantic date.  That's just not our thing.  One year I stood in a line at the Seattle airport for five hours waiting for a flight to San Francisco, where Greg spent his day waiting for me.  Usually we order takeout and watch a movie at home.  Of course, the very first year we stumbled upon a performance at the Civic Center in Des Moines--show tunes and love songs and the Des Moines symphony.  Dressed to the nines in pajama pants and tennis shoes, we convinced the attendants to let us in for free just after intermission, our most convincing argument being that "We're beautiful people."  It was meant as a joke, but next thing we knew, there we were sitting next to couples decked out in tuxedos and sequined gowns.  The unexpected magic of that moment seems to have set the stage for the last decade, and I find myself not needing February's calendar to remember how lucky in love I am.

Greg and I may not exchange gifts on this holiday, but that's not to say that a couple of heart-covered, chocolate-filled packages don't find their way to my mailbox each year.  One of these is always from my mom, and the other is always from my mom's and my dear friend, Sue.
My mom, who has a Mary Poppins-like ability to fill a box with three times the treats and trinkets than should physically be able to fit into it, layers tissue paper and confetti and dried flowers between her gifts.  Keep looking, and there's always another treasure peeking out from somewhere.  Sue, who is really one of the classiest women I know, maintains a tradition of covering the outside of her Valentines packages with Snoopy valentines and stickers.  You can't miss it.  Her yearly gift typically has a mix of homemade goodies, store-bought delicacies, and a frivolous pink feathered thing or two.

These women are magnificent and this year I finally realized that it is high time they each received a heart-covered package of love from me.  When I came across this post on Lottie + Doof, I knew these apple jellies must be attempted.  And then sent across country as a token of my sugar-coated love.  I promptly went out to purchase seven organic apples, and proceeded to spend the next four days making these apple treats.  That's not quite accurate.  I made them, but it took longer than expected for the jellies to become fully stable...thus the four days.  I haven't made homemade candies since middle school, so this adventure was great fun.  And delicious!

Happy Valentines Day to everyone, especially my mom and Sue, the two women who first taught me the joy of food.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cooking Paris Part 3: Goat Cheese Tart

Last week Greg bought me my very first tart pan (with removable bottom).  It's shiny and wonderful and was purchased first and foremost so that I could try Ina's Goat Cheese Tart from Barefoot in Paris.  I absolutely love goat cheese, and relished the idea of eating an entire meal dedicated to it.  This recipe isn't difficult, but there are quite a few steps, and so my tart was assembled over a two day period.

Thursday night I was determined to make the tart, so I made the dough for the crust.  The dough has to chill in the fridge for a half hour, which convinced me that the tart would be even more delicious Friday night.  Half a tuna sandwich for dinner Thursday.
Friday, a little more rejuvenated and looking forward to the weekend, I retrieved the dough from the fridge, and proceeded.  The crust needs to be rolled, pressed, baked, forked, re-baked, etc., but it's a soothing sort of recipe: a lot of steps without a lot of thought.  Just right for the end of the week when my brain is operating on diminished capacity.  Next, I got to put Betty to work.  Betty chopped the shallots and basil, she crumbled the goat cheese, and mixed the cream and eggs in.  Betty's great.  We love her.

The final steps are to sprinkle the crust with the sauteed shallots, pour in the cheese mixture and bake one last time.  The tart was beautiful and quite tasty.  It's a bit one-dimensional as far as the flavor goes.  I saw online that Ina also has a tomato goat cheese tart that I'm curious about now.  Bits of cooked prosciutto or bacon mixed in might be a nice addition.

We had the tart with a side salad of escarole and peas.  My first time cooking with escarole--it's so curly!  For dessert we had a few sweet heart "cookies" I made with the left over tart dough.  Really they were just a good excuse to play with sprinkles.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Etiquette of Food Blogging

I am ashamed to say that before I began blogging a couple months ago I rarely read anyone's blog.  Since then, my daily reading rituals have changed dramatically, and I am now addicted to many a food blog.  The list of recipes that I want to attempt is growing exponentially and I find myself talking food with friends and family far more than I used to.  Is that even possible?

As I started writing about food and recipes, I quickly realized that I had no concept of the rules, norms, laws or plain old manners surrounding the use of other people's recipes.  Since I rarely create a dish without the help of a recipe, this is a potential problem for me.

I asked a few blogger-savvy friends about this dilemma.  One friend replied that since so few people are likely to read my blog, I really shouldn't worry about it.  Hmmm...  We need to remember here that a huge part of my daily teaching life is showing youngins how to research, paraphrase and quote correctly, and properly cite their sources.  Not worrying about it wasn't going to cut it.  Another friend suggested that simply giving credit where credit is due would suffice.  This seems a better solution, but what if a given recipe is not yet published outside its cookbook?  Should we see the online reveal as a cookbook teaser or spoiler?

To solve said enigma, I have devoted many hours of painstaking research to tease out the answer (i.e. I'm addicted to food blogs with purty pictures).  Here's what I have deduced.  It seems that referencing the original source of a recipe is an absolute necessity.  From there, one is welcome to quote and/or paraphrase an entire recipe.  It's best if the blogger has somehow modified a dish, but even when keeping true to an original recipe, the blogger's own experiences of making and enjoying the food seem to make the writing their own.  It helps, too, that most bloggers are joyously celebrating a new food moment that they can't help but share.

From here on out I will try to quiet the nagging voice that tells me it is not my recipe.  Instead, I will invite you to partake in these delicious experiences with me.  I hope that's okay...

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Gym Bag and Me

Here's the problem: I have every intention of going to the gym after work.  And, on my way to the train at 7am, gym bag happily swinging from my shoulder--stuffed with all sorts of gym-type-necessities, I merrily think to myself how nice a run sounds.  By 5pm, the run doesn't sound so nice any more.

So I have this new fun tradition.  I pack the gym bag.  I bring it to work.  I leave it there at the end of the day, promising myself that I will go tomorrow.  The next day, though, yoga or whatnot is not an option, so now I bring another bag with my running sneakers.  And I persist in my leaving of the gym bag at work, for just one more day.

Today I was really gonna go.  Yeah.  That didn't happen.

The last couple weeks I tried this new plan, which actually kind of worked.  You see, even if I leave the school building intending to follow through, the train ride home, ever so persuasive and cunning, convinces me that the gym is not a good option.  Knowing this, I have taken to telling one of my students on the way out that I am going to the gym.  What's more, I tell them that they should ask me the next day if I indeed did go, and if not, their entire class gets a free homework pass.

Yes, that's the sort of teacher I am.  I would rather go to work out at the end of an exhausting day than to give a whole class of ninth graders a free homework.  Is this a fact to be proud or ashamed of?  It is not entirely clear to me...

I am home now.  My gym bag, with all its potential gym goodness, came home with me.  Not sure whether dim sum or running will win out this weekend, but it seemed a wise idea to have the gym shoes at home just in case.  Le sigh.