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.

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