Thursday, February 25, 2010

Field to Fork Talks African and Heirloom

The 1902 Carnegie Library that houses the Washington DC Historic Society is a Beaux-Arts bon-bon box with a copper roof, marble columns, and, that day, hundreds of people in hand-dyed wool and well-worn Merrell's talking about urban agriculture, land-sharing, suburban agriculture, heirloom seeds, native tree planting, "Food as Social Justice", double-digging, and the Beauty of Earthworms - all things green and spring.

We heard Yao Afachao, of UDC, talk about the newly resuscitated (really, we thought it was dead) university's agriculture extension efforts working with former tobacco farmers in Maryland to grow alternative crops that serve the culinary desires of African and Latin communities.

In the newly revamped, but still-echo-y, museum space - which is gorgeously gilded and there are lit from below maps in the floor - Yao showed slides of Maryland fields full of eggplant cultivars from Togo. They're lime green and the size apricots. You can eat them raw. They're growing among acres of chiles - crazy hot and sweetly tangy, solanaceous greens called njama jama, and a beautiful Avuvo: slender, blossomed, with edible leaves, called "the husband stealer." Yum.

We heard Tony Cohen's - so smooth from years thinking and talking about food, history, slavery, and freedom. Dazzling photos - some from the Smithsonian magazine's documentation of his walk as a graduate student in the 90s following the Underground Railroad from Sandy Springs, Maryland to the border of Canada.

Then many many photos from summery Button Farm ( - 200-year-old, 70-acre farm, lost in the center of Seneca Creek Park - his Dream-Made-Reality Living History Center in Germantown, Maryland. The Center features retreats in which participants (families, individuals, corporate team-building groups) immerse themselves in 19th century rural life in America. That immersion can be a dunking or a dabble, choosing characters black, white, rich, or poor. He said, "It doesn't matter what color you are. People, at the end, call the experience 'freeing'. Everybody's a slave to something."

He talked about Oprah Winfrey (his slide showed her immaculately coiffed and glossy in watered silk and pearls). In preparing for her film role in T. Morrison's Beloved, she asked him to give her an authentic experience of slavehood. They blindfolded her, drove her out to the Center, and she began an experience that involved being chased through the woods at night by bloodhounds from Frostburg, sleeping in caves, and wearing chains.

Interesting questions about carrying seeds with you when you set out for freedom, about poring over 19th Century agricultural journals to find out about traditional cropping techniques, pest control, and how to keep the deer at bay (use a fence and hunt them). Cleverly, Cohen read old cookbooks to find out what people were eating. Button Farm, with Cohen's tireless - really tire.less. - cheer-leading and touting and recruiting of volunteers, and dredging and pleading for dollars and support, sleeping surrounded by heat-lamps and delicate seedlings or tobacco and squash, is now a beautiful, if fragile success.

He works at times with food historian Michael Twitty, founder of the fantastic AfroFood Ways (

Then we had vegan lunch on our laps sitting with everyone on the marble staircase in the sun. The Carnegie Library is a beautiful space to talk about food and freedom.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

In Annandale, a Stream of Consiousness, Shoveling, Bison, and Gunshots

We are snowed in! Three feet deep! There is a gentle swell in the driveway where the Honda used to be. All of us! From the Atlantic to St. Louis. Socked right under! Two feet of tiny, tiny Remarkably Tiny! They are really little! snowflakes, and how they do add up! Let that be a lesson to us all. They are pulling down the trees!

The snapping of branches has been like gunshots all night, and there is nothing worse than the noise of a tree collapsing. Like hair tearing. With an exhausted creak like a huge and heavy door and that vacuum void, like just before a big bell bongs or a car crashes. It makes you want to yell. And then Whump! or Whooomp!, possibly, if it is a very old tree, or possibly, Whoomp. Ka-Smash! Wheep Wheep! Wheep Wheep! if there is a car alarm involved.

That Ancient and Towering and Bird-filled Virginia Pine (It is Pinus virginiana - famous for all the lower branches snapping off leaving just their grey shattered limbs and a gorgeous crown - a forest by itself - 175-feet up and, as it happens, perfect for yanking out of the soil like a carrot, like a troll by the hair. Perfect for flinging onto the neighbor's new and pricey cedar shake roof by the slightest zephyr or perceived insult. This beautiful tree has dangled over the house - my bedroom - for years - perfect for 'The Three AM Fret', but could not be cut down to preserve us all from Death and Needless Expense and Prosecution, precisely because it is Ancient, Towering, and Bird- and Who Knows WhatAll-filled, and beautiful, really the way ship wreckage is beautiful. And this morning full of Red-tailed Hawks, at least four, creamy bellies bared to the sun in the freezing blue and forest green and cirrus beyond, being set upon by crows winging in like the sun from all directions at 17 degrees. With blizzard on the way, that beautiful tree is expected in the kitchen any minute as the wind picks up.

Preparing for A Snow Emergency, on Friday, the Crack Team of my Pop and B, at the Safeway were swept up by a screaming wave of mob grocery shopping. Now that the frenzy has subsided, and the sun shines clear, our refrigerator is crammed with pistachio-crusted goat cheese, Dutch bell peppers, and a brick of ground bison. The pantries are full of man-sized - as in, they are the size of men - bags of Cheetos, a satchel of what must have looked like Wine-in-a-Box, but turns out to be gravy, and a 25 lb bag of cardamom. If these are End Times, the house smells great. It makes me want to invent algebra.

This morning, in Annandale people are cross-country skiing down Gallows Road in the sun for lattes. We're holed up lying in piles like lions in the DVD player's glow. B chopped wood and stacked it by the front door, but we were more interested in identifying the lichen on it than setting it on fire. Here are 10 Things You Should Know about Lichen .

My greatest fear is tomorrow, I'll have to use chocolate milk in my coffee. I will steel myself for the hardship.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Isn't it odd to live in a world in which there are objects - brilliant red or orange or talon'd like Vikings, or the size of and shape of seckle pears, delicately billed, shooting through the air all around you. Odder probably, is you are not surprised.

They're everywhere, you know. Birds.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Slow Food is Good Food and the Snail is Metaphorical

Slow Food USA's logo is a snail. Good in a garlicky butter-and-parsley sizzle of course, good too as metaphor for us, of course - plump and happy, clambering through arugula and heirloom tomatoes of an evening. "Soil, water, air, and light. Simplicity," the garden says to us, "Now, That's Delicious."

Slow Food USA ( a movement, a grassroots groundswell, and, as missions go, "the revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture, and community" is a mission as profound, pleasing, and optimistic as soup.

Slow Food USA and all its state affiliates (SlowFoodDC is the closest/biggest to Annandale) is an educational organization dedicated to land stewardship and ecologically sound food production. They work to establish sound food policy, healthy, affordable school lunches, encourage people to plant victory gardens, save heirloom fruit, veggies, and animals (see Orange Oxheart Tomatoes and You).

These are hardly smug and indulgent goals. The group works to feed kids and families. Slow Food USA is one of the reasons why your town has a farmers' market. It's why you know the words "sustainable" and "organic" and "community-supported agriculture."

Then, like all People-Plant-Earth revelries, there are poetic connections. The message is that Slow is Good. Slow is a crusty loaf and dewy glass, snowy cloth and chiclet-toothed friends. Under an arbor. It's history human and animal in that Norton grape, in that Amish Pie Squash. Thoughtful Food. Eat slowly, it says, talk, nod, mop that thick plate with a chewy slice.


Slow Food says that eating is another opportunity to exercise calm in our worlds - to exercise ease, naturalness, frankness, maybe even, what's this?, Love.


Beauty, Tin Snips, and Heart-Broken Me

Running to work on the beautiful W & OD. At last, with fists of fern and sumac and a tuft of the Japanese knotweed with its navy blue berries and its stem full of backward teeth sawing my palm, I got to work in Reston and had a reborrative sluice in our building's clean and roomy and biker-friendly shower, with its little fold-down wooden slat seat like a sauna for all your bottles and balms, and was drying my hair - my old, spidery, webby, haunted, hemp-hank Bedraggle ...sigh...Poor, old, Hemp-Hank...when...

There I am. All adrip and I fire up the Travel Air 1800, and am fluffing and poofing gamely, and curling with an Encouraging Lift for a Youthful and Flirty Wave - all of which is akin to yanking on the armrests to keep the 747 in the air, but I'm beaming bravely and exclaiming heartening things like, "Wow! Burt's Bees Organic Green Tea and Fennel Seed Shampoo! We are glossy, richly foaming, and we smell great!"

So the first floor Ladies's Room at 1900 Campus Commons is drenched in fennel steam and all the while am whipping around with my little blue fanny-packable hairbrush....

But the Serpent was indeed among us. And lull me she did, that pretty blue brush, and wrapped me in clouds of Green Tea and Fennel Seed making me beam like an idiot as we merrilied along - the Travel Air 1800 roaring like a Harley on a mountain curve, buffeting me with a blast like the ginger and nutmeg-scented winds baked out of the hill grasses above Santa Barbara, and I'm singing a Camera Obscura .

"Hey! Lloyd...I'm ready to be heartbroken..." I croon (pretty loud, really) through the roar, sweeping up a magnificent Farrah-y hanks, swathed in scarves of black currant and jewel weed extract, and I switch 'er on High and I'm really singing now: "Cuz I can't see further than my own nose at the moment!.." And Lloyd and I are loping in long, tress-swinging, brown-legged lopes over sand that glitters like sugar - just like me - or smashed glass. Glittering like Me and Santa Barbara. And we are both the color of Demerara sugar.

So, all of us are swinging and loping and gleaming and we smell delicious and we're ready to be heart-broken, when goddammit that vicious little blue hair brush whips around and cleaves itself to the side of my head like a lamprey with its rasp-toothed suckering mouth parts, and would not come loose.

And I had to put on a shirt with one hand and go across the hall to the HV/AC guy who cut it out with tin snips. Now, when I see him in the hall, he pretends it never happened.