December 17, 2012
I’ve been immersed in a little, red book for months. It’s called How Fiction Works by James Wood. It’s 248 pages of pure gold for novelists. Wood covers essential elements of fiction: narrating, detail, character, language and dialogue. I’m using it as one of several on-call editors while I revise, revise, revise. I’ve stopped giving myself a deadline to finish my book, opting instead for a natural rhythm that works around my other responsibilities. Writing, I’ve decided, should not be a chore. Wood begins with a quotation from Henry James: “There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.” I’ve neglected other tasks – this blog, included – to concentrate on revising. Even if it’s for just 15 minutes a day, I am caring for the cookery. Following is a little taste of the main dish, served up in a well-oiled, cast iron pot.
Excerpt from Exit Strategy
© Julie Finigan Morris
In the end, her son’s body couldn’t fight the deadly bacteria any longer, hanging on until his exhausted organs slowed to a stop. When he started losing consciousness, Ruth Malmquist climbed into the hospital bed to lie beside him, holding his emaciated frame close to her chest and wishing she could transfer her heart’s beats to his. She smoothed his blond hair behind his ear, holding her hand against his cheek and whispered to him. Don’t be afraid sweetie, the angels will take care of you.
Her resolve, that this was God’s will and he would no longer suffer unbearable abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea got her through the night. She had to be strong for her other children. She had to show him that this would be a calm transition. She suppressed her anger. There was a reason for this. One day God will help me understand.
By the summer of 2008, the microscopic E.coli O157:H7 worked its way from a wild pig’s intestine, dropped in feces onto California soil, sucked up into the stems of spinach leaves to be harvested for packaging, and shipped across the country. Ruth had the misfortune of pulling a bag of the contaminated spinach off her local Hy-Vee supermarket’s produce shelves in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it turned her young family’s life upside down. The tiny pinewood coffin was handmade, lovingly cut and sanded by the child’s older cousin, Liam, and Uncle Bob at the request of his grieving parents. It was a simple box, a reflection of his parents’ deeply held religious belief that salvation was not found in material things. The family arrived for the funeral dressed in their Sunday best, lined up at the front of the church to stoically acknowledge family and friends who had traveled to pay their respects. They had spent the past week by his bedside praying his frail body would overcome the bacteria that eventually shut down his kidneys. Three weeks earlier his mother had made him a smoothie, blending organic apple juice, bananas, and bagged spinach into a healthy snack. Ruth called it her “special green shake” to get the children to drink it. Now she stood at the altar of the small church they came to every Sunday, silent over her young son’s coffin.
This is the intersection of my life. A bubble, inside this church, between the “before” and “after.” Nothing will ever be the same after I walk out this church door today, into the glaring sunlight, his coffin sealed forever. What is the word for a mother who loses a child? Not widow. Not orphan. There is no word to describe what I am now. Maybe I’ll wake up and realize this is all a horrible dream. The most realistic dream I’ve ever had. Please, God, let this be a nightmare. Let me wake up. Let me have my son back. Our life back. I just want everything to go back to normal.
Anthony Morton stood uncomfortably in the back of the church, shifting his weight from one foot to another as he waited for the ceremony to end. He was sent to Iowa for the funeral from Bogey, Appell & Huffington’s law offices in Seattle by his boss, James Bogey, the nation’s top plaintiff lawyer in food poisoning cases. Bogey had a team of talented young paralegals who spent their days scouring the Center for Disease Control’s PulseNet website to study patterns of reported illnesses in the hopes of identifying new food borne illness outbreaks. It was a constant and profitable revenue stream for the firm. Bogey & Appell had made millions defending clients who had gotten sick from contaminated packaged salads, peanut butter and ground beef. They rarely went to trial, knowing that companies would opt for six and seven-figure settlements over negative publicity. It was the perfect formula for making a lot of money from a fluke glitch in the industrial food processing systems designed to prevent widespread contamination. All Morton could think of was his own two-year old son, running around in their spacious backyard as his wife grabbed and tickled the giggling toddler. He looked out-of-place in his gray, Brooks Brothers suit and polished brown wingtips, an obvious outsider in the dusty, simple setting of the Mormon Church. One of the family members approached him.
“Can I help you, Sir? This is a private service.”
“Uh, no, no,” Morton said. He put hands in his pocket and looked down at his shoes. “I am so sorry for your loss. I am here to let Mr. and Mrs. Malmquist know that my firm represents victims of irresponsible food companies that poison consumers.”
“Well, thank you, but we do not believe in suing anyone over this. Life is a gift and we are grateful we had him for the two years he was with us, but now he is with God. We do not intend to make money from this tragedy.”
“Of course. I understand. If I may just leave this with you in case they have any further questions. I would be happy to assist them with anything they need. There are strict product liability laws that make someone responsible for this tragedy.”
He reached out, offering his business card. The man turned and walked away. Morton walked to his rental car before he could meet the Malmquists. He at least had the decency to respect the family’s wishes on such a sad occasion. He’d follow up next week with a letter of condolence and his contact information.
October 6, 2012
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta once lectured a class I took on public policy. He spoke of the ineffectiveness of politicians who hold extreme views, not just in Washington D.C. or Sacramento, but in cities across the United States. He said where good public policy happens is actually in the middle. He called it the “gray area” and said it’s really “the only place where anything gets done.” The most effective politicians work with their opponents to find consensus. They are the true leaders, the visionaries who can see beyond their own self-interests. The same is true in the local food movement.
Our friend and colleague Courtney White of the Albuquerque-based Quivira Coalition calls it “The Radical Center.” I love that term because it brings to mind the passion and determination often associated with extremes, yet the wisdom and calmness of being centered and balanced. Morris Grassfed Beef Co-founder and CEO Joe Morris was recently awarded the Quivira Coalition’s 2012 Clarence Burch Award, celebrating his work to bring ranchers, environmentalists, policymakers and the public together on issues of food, climate change, and land management. If there ever were contentious groups, they would be the steak loving, property-rights proponent ranchers and the lefty, vegetarian, public lands access advocating environmentalists. Local food producers are both. We are rural farmers and ranchers who depend upon urban, city dwellers to consume our goods. We operate daily in “The Radical Center.” Local food producers can be seen as radical, especially when we compete with the larger, food manufacturing industry. We are a disruptive innovation to the national companies who have economies of scale enabling them to charge less and fund slick marketing campaigns. But we know our customers and they know us. We invite them to our farms and ranches. We are often family and/or employee owned and involved in our communities. We are authentic.
Nominated by the California Climate and Agriculture Network, Joe was recognized for his work in the gray areas Mr. Panetta spoke of to educate groups on our interdependence. I’ve heard him tell vegetarians, “If you drink water, you should care about how grazing affects your watershed.” and I’ve heard him tell ranchers, “If you want to maintain this culture, we need to work with our neighbors to preserve open space.” I am celebrating Joe’s 21 years of finding that common ground and collaborating with so many different groups to create a successful and sustainable model of local food production and distribution. When we started direct marketing Morris Grassfed Beef 21 years ago, we had a handful of customers who were family and friends that loved our beef: the taste, the humane treatment of our herd, and the environmental benefits they knew it provided. Today, we are selling to more than 900 individual customers from Sacramento to San Diego, all people who have opted to be a part of this amazing community. The “Radical Center” is getting bigger and bigger, and that’s a good thing.
April 21, 2012
The New York Times recently asked readers to write a 600 word (or less) essay on Is it Ethical to Eat Meat? Expecting a few hundred responses, editors of the NYT Magazine received thousands. They were overwhelmed with the number of readers who felt strongly enough about the topic to submit an essay. Unfortunately they didn’t choose mine, but after reading the six finalists, I can see why. I focused on grassfed beef and they were really looking for advocates of meat in general. I left out all those ethical chicken and sheep farmers I know! So, to read the excellent finalists you can go to the New York Times blog, The Ethicist. They will publish the winner in their May 6 edition. Below is my entry, focusing on grassfed beef.
Well-managed cattle play a crucial and unique part in Mother Nature’s big picture. They are fossil fuel-free plows, tractors, fertilizers, and pruners. They act as natural tillers that build healthy soils and deep roots, preventing erosion and promoting plant “filters” that clean waterways and air. There is no question that certain practices of raising meat are not environmentally sound. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) do present challenges for water quality and humane treatment, but there are viable alternatives and that is the direction we need to be going in, on a large scale. Grassfed beef is Mother Nature’s perfect byproduct: a protein-rich food source that has the added benefits of enriching soil, promoting healthy grass and rangelands, and increasing biodiversity on the watersheds we all depend upon. Animals raised on open pastures and rangelands, with plenty of access to fresh water and abundant grasses, live good lives. They enjoy better views than many humans and are born, raised, and die in stress-free environments.
Their lives are honored further when they are harvested for good food that nourishes people’s bodies and brains. Grassfed beef is a pure source of essential nutrients including iron, Omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene, and minerals. These are the very building locks of healthy bodies. Like plants, grassfed beef is something our bodies have naturally evolved to digest and absorb – there is no waste or added calories that contribute to obesity, diabetes or osteoporosis. Protein is needed to develop young brains and ward off Alzheimer’s in aging brains. Amino acids, the body’s building blocks, are instrumental in forming cells, repairing tissue, making antibodies, building nucleoproteins (RNA/DNA), carrying oxygen throughout the body, assisting muscle activity, as well as being part of the enzyme and hormonal system. Another benefit of protein is helping the body fight off illness and disease and keeping the immune system functioning properly. Our bodies need the nutrients in grassfed beef.
Health benefits aside, well-managed grass and rangelands reduce global warming by sequestering carbon out of the air. Grasslands cover about one-fourth of the earth’s surface. Rangelands, unsuitable to grow other crops, account for even more, up to 70% of the earth’s surface by some estimates. In order for plants to thrive and photosynthesize they need to re-generate. What better way to plant, fertilize, water, and harvest – so it can start all over again – a blade of grass (or native vegetation) than a cow (or goat)? Again, Mother Nature is at work and we meat eaters are merely her benefactors. When managed properly and on a large scale, livestock peacefully go about their day grazing, fertilizing, and turning the soil we all depend upon. They create healthy ecosystems which act as the earth’s largest carbon sink and actually produce the oxygen all life depends upon. Your question should be: “Is it ethical not to eat meat?”
April 12, 2012
There are advantages to living on a ranch. One of them is the custom-built barbecue, hitched to the back of a pick-up truck. I can tow it up from the barn to our front yard and I have an instant way to feed a crowd. It really makes those fancy Viking grills look pretty wimpy. We use mesquite wood chips and pieces of firewood for authentic flavor, no charcoal or lighter fluid fumes here. We celebrated Joe’s 50th birthday this week and I recalled the rule we had when our children were young: one guest per year of celebration. (I can’t say I actually ever followed this rule, but it always seemed like a good idea.) One year olds: one friend, two year-olds: two friends, etc. etc. So, we had 50 guests and a lot of California asparagus to grill. We added orange, yellow and red bell peppers, all seasoned with lemon pepper and Orsi vineyards extra virgin olive oil. Yum. The veggies went on first, followed by 40 Morris Grassfed New York steaks, done to perfection (read: rare).
Not to be outdone by the side dishes and main course, I enlisted Joe’s six sisters (that’s right: six) to each bring a cake. They reminded me that Aunt Thelma, affectionately known as “Aunt T,” used to always bring the cakes to their birthday parties and would bake anything they asked for. She is an amazing cook. So Aunt T brought her chocolate cake and Joe’s mom, Anne, brought an old favorite of his: a three layer sour cream chocolate cake. It was a bad day for a diet, but a good day to celebrate Joe … and the healthy and delicious food he is so dedicated to producing.
February 12, 2012
Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays I’ve never really taken seriously, good for Hallmark and florists but a bit too fluffy for me. I’ve never expected a bouquet of red roses, in fact it almost seems too cliché to mean anything. (I just told Joe I was writing on the topic. His response: ‘Uh oh. What are we doing for it?’) If there’s one thing, though, that Valentine’s Day is good for it’s an excuse to eat chocolate. In addition to being delicious, chocolate has a long list of health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and slowing the aging process with its antioxidants.
I learned a lot the year I lived in Italy, including how to bake and enjoy biscotti. Italians dip them in a dessert wine called vin santo after dinner, but I love to dunk them in my morning cup of coffee. So ditch the overpriced roses and bake your sweetie some of these triple chocolate biscotti this Tuesday. If you’re too busy to cook, there’s always the store-bought option. San Franciscan Italians brought biscotti to North Beach and have been baking them here for generations. My friend Steve Siranni, with whom I spent many a fun time in high school, took his grandmother’s biscotti recipe from Lucca, Italy and started Nonni’s Biscotti shortly after he graduated from college. The company has been a huge success and you can now find them at grocery stores everywhere, including Costco. So whether or not you want to bake your own or pick up a jar of Nonni’s at your local grocer, get heart healthy and celebrate this Valentine’s Day with some chocolate biscotti.
Makes about 30
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup of unsweetened coca powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup white baking chips
Line large baking sheet with double thickness of foil. Sift flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt into medium bowl. Using electirc mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl to blend, Beat in eggs, one at a time, then vanilla. Beat in flour mixture. Stir in semi-sweet and white chips. Drop dough by heaping tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets in two 10-to-11 inch long strips, spacing 3 inches apart. Using metal spatula or wet fingertips, shape strips into 11-by 2 1/2 inch logs. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake logs until tops are cracked and dry and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25 minutes; cool 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F. Using foil as aid, lift logs onto work surface. Line baking sheets with clean foil. Using serrated knife, gently cut warm logs crosswise into 3/4 -inch thick slices. Arrange half of slices, cut side down, on each prepared baking sheet. Bake biscotti until just dry to touch, about 8 minutes. Cool on sheets and enjoy with coffee or dessert wine, and your sweetie, of course!
January 22, 2012
In our house football season means chili. In honor of the San Francisco 49ers NFC championship game today, I’m posting one of my favorite recipes: Anchor Steam Chili, made with San Francisco’s own Anchor Steam beer and – today – served with red and gold corn muffins. I can’t take credit for this recipe, Lucy Maytag came up with it. Because it’s printed on a 10+ year-old photo copy in my recipe file, I can’t even name the source. Apologies to the cookbook author I am stealing from! If anyone recognizes it, please let me know. Here goes … and Go Niners!
Anchor Steam Beer Chili
At one time during the gold rush days (Go Niners!), San Francisco had more than two dozen steam breweries. (The steam beer process was developed to get around The City’s lack, at that time, of cold storage necessary for lagering the pilsner-type beer preferred by Americans.) By 1965, San Francisco’s unique steam breweries had dwindled down to one, the Anchor Steam Brewing Company, and it was about to quit business when Fritz Maytag came to the rescue.
“Meet a Maytag Who Produces Suds That Will Not Clean Duds,” the Wall Street Journal headlined its story about Maytag’s getting into the steam beer business, describing him as the “scion of Iowa washing-machine family.”
It is only natural that Maytag and his wife, Lucy, have experimented with using steam beer in cooking. Lucy Maytag says that “cooking with steam beer is like cooking with wine. Steam beer adds a little something to the end product, but doesn’t dominate it.” Here is the result of some Maytag research into making chili with steam beer.
1 lb. Morris Grassfed ground beef
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
3 Tbs. tomato paste
2 dried California chiles
1 or more dried pasilla chiles
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. oregano
1 Tbs. cumin
Salt to taste
1 or 2 bottles Anchor Steam beer
1 15 oz. can kidney beans
In a 4 qt. saucepan sauté chuck together with onion and garlic until meat is just brown, stirring with a fork while it is cooking. Pour off excess grease (there shouldn’t be any of you’re using grassfed beef). Add other ingredients except the beans, putting in only one bottle of Anchor Steam. Mix well. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beans with their juice and, if you like a soupy-type chili, a second bottle of Anchor Steam. Continue cooking for another 10-15 minutes. Serve in heated bowls and top with a mound of grated cheddar cheese, dollop of sour cream and sliced fresh avocados. I also serve corn muffins and a fresh green salad with this. Enjoy!
Cook’s Notes: Use Porter House for a darker, slightly richer flavor. In California, the dried chile poblano is widely called a chile pasilla. They are dark, can be almost black, are roughly triangular in shape, and have a richer and often more pungent flavor than California or ancho chiles.
January 9, 2012
There’s no shortage of authentic, local flavor at Mama’s Fish House, located in Kuau Cove on Maui’s north shore. We recently returned to this magical place for 10 days, celebrating the holidays and our 20th wedding anniversary. Admittedly crowded, Maui is not my favorite island, but it was the perfect getaway with two teenagers and to remember our honeymoon there in 1991. Live music, lots of buzz and Mama’s make it more of a party than some of Hawaii’s more secluded places. My daughter Sarah decided the place was cool only after we spotted Zack Braff, Donald Adeosun Faison, and their girlfriends waiting for the table ahead of us.
You know you’re in a place that appreciates fresh and local food when the menu is printed daily and reads: “Wild Fish Caught by our Fishermen.” With descriptions like “Opah caught in local waters by Sergio Barra on the Queen Diamond II” and ”Opakapaka caught by Layne Nakagawa bottom fishing in sheltered waters near Lana’i” my local foodie radar was screaming.
The waiter started us off with small ramekins of creamy asparagus soup, followed by warm bread and caesar salads. I ordered the Opah, “Upcountry style” with carmelized Maui onions, bok choy and jasmine rice. Delicious. Joe had the deep-water ahi, seared with peppercorns and served with Hamakua mushroom sauce, also amazing. Maybe it’s the venue – stunning views and the natural high of being on vacation but every time I’ve been here, I loved it. The first time was as a teenager with my parents and my memories are just as fond. If you’re ever on Maui, make it a priority.
November 12, 2011
Like millions of others, I have been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests spread to cities across the U.S. and the world. I am impressed by the overall peacefulness of the demonstrations (with a few exceptions, thanks Oakland) and simplicity of the message: “We are the 99%.”
Critics will say the demonstrators have failed to articulate a clear message and have yet to tell us what it is they want, but if you read the extensive chatter on the Internet via blogs, videos, photo essays and news articles, there is a consistent theme: It’s time to stop bailing out private equity companies with public funds. People are angry. The impetus of this whole movement is the financial meltdown of 2008 when privately owned banks took lots of money from the Federal Reserve (that’s us, folks!) and kept it for themselves. No jobs were created, no public infrastructure built, no public institutions funded and no loans for small businesses that make up the fabric of the U.S. economy. They took our taxes and bought themselves fancy toys. And nobody did anything about it, at least not right away. Fast forward to Sept. 2011 and you have Occupy Wall Street. So it took little while, but these movements have to build over time.
How does the Occupy Movement relate to local food? In addition to organizers’ commitment to feed protestors well, I see a strong connection between holding the 1% accountable for what they’ve done with taxpayers’ money and the growing movement to ask how our food is produced. Food activists have shown us how simple questions lead to change. They held the food industry accountable for questionable practices. Who wants to eat a hamburger from the ground beef of 50 different cows? Consumers got angry about industrial farms and facilities where animals were caged and workers were paid non-livable wages. Profits trumped sanitary procedures that led to nationwide foodborne illnesses, sometimes fatal. They didn’t like that pesticides were being dumped in waterways and that the overuse of antibiotics had become a routine practice of the beef and dairy industries. Is it too much to ask that the milk we pour our toddlers be drug free? Of course not.
The millions of Americans who have made local and organics the fastest growing segments in the food industry are de facto activists. Over the past twenty years, they have affected policy by creating the National Organic Standards and new federal dietary guidelines. Increasing awareness for labels like “grassfed” and “free range” have followed. They have fueled a resurgence of family farms and Community Supported Agriculture co-ops from Vermont to California, and made studying agriculture in colleges viable again. Their questions led to anger, which led to activism, that led to policy changes. They occupied mealtime and have established a seat at the head of the table.
Occupy Wall Street’s future is yet to be seen, but I do not see these young, intelligent, educated and passionate activists going anywhere soon. They – we! – have legitimate questions that deserve to be answered. Their anger has led to activism, that could lead to policy changes. Those who quickly write them off may want to recall the mis-attributed* Marie Antoinette’s fate when she famously wrote off the protestors outside her palace with the dismissive “Let them eat cake.”
*Marie Antoinette is widely known as the person who said this, when in fact, it was said 100 years earlier by Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV. But you get my point.
October 31, 2011
My first idea on the theme of this blog was to write about the transition from city to country living. Growing up in San Francisco and living in San Diego, Florence, Italy, and Washington D.C., respectively, the move to San Juan Bautista, pop. 1,800, was quite the adjustment. But after a bit of research I found the whole “city girl moves to country” theme wasn’t all that original. I also realized that I didn’t want to write about myself all the time, so I decided to shift my focus to another favorite topic: food.
For the past several years I have been writing on the people and places that make great local food. It’s been a good way to ease into blogging: no deadlines, writing about things I value, taking pictures, and featuring cool friends and current events that relate to local food. About the time I started this blog, I also started writing fiction. The result is my first draft of a novel, working title: Exit Strategy. I don’t expect it to be a NYT bestseller, (although that would be nice!) but at the very least it’s been an exercise in perseverance and creativity, two things I aspire to practice.
The story is based on my five years working at one of the nation’s largest, organic salad companies. One could argue that I am sticking to my theme of local food. Set within the walls of an industrial food production facility, Exit Strategy explores the effects of large-scale food production on its workers, its consumers, and its owners. A journalist by training, I was taught to always back up my story with at least three, named sources. In fiction, the novelist’s “sources” are the experiences and characters in her head. My experiences at the salad company included a nationwide E.coli outbreak, several failed attempts to sell the company, one successful attempt to sell it, and countless interactions with the cast of characters we all have in life.
I have a fitting analogy to this project. As a fact-checker for Thomson Newspapers’ Washington D.C. bureau in the early 1990s (my first job out of college), I had the opportunity to attend a presidential press conference at the White House. Needless to say, it was a young journalist’s dream assignment. The night before we were to meet the president, I practiced my questions in the mirror. Although I was seated just feet from the president, I was not one of the reporters he called on. Devastated that I had blown my big chance to include an interview with George Bush in my portfolio, I returned to the office and wrote a column instead on what it was like for a rookie fact-checker to attend a presidential press conference. My bureau chief loved it and sent it out to all 122 Thomson Newspapers’ dailies across the country. Some editors gave me a banner headline. My favorite: “Julie Meets the President, Well Almost!” I still have those clips and they’re much more fun to read than the question I was going to ask him about offshore drilling. I compare my five years at the salad company to that press conference: I’m going to get a good clip out of it! This time, in the form of a novel.
As the Stanford economist Paul Romer said: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Stay tuned for occasional Exit Strategy posts to this blog, where I hope, dear readers, you will still find valuable insights about the beauty of local food.
p.s. If any of you know someone who designs book covers, let me know. I am looking for one who can beat that Thomson Newspaper editor’s banner headline!