Monday, October 24, 2011

Foods of time and place

Part 1 A while back, my sister had the opportunity to visit Turkey. I got a Turkish coffee pot out of the deal (thanks, sis!). I make turkish coffee about every other week. I like it. Now the thing about making of Turkish coffee is that it’s something of a procedure. You need finely ground beans (right now I’m using some nice sustainably grown, finely ground coffee direct from Costa Rica, thanks to a student that visited there recently). You put a goodly amount of finely ground beans into the Turkish coffee pot, add enough for a cup of coffee, bring it to a boil pour some off into the cup to give some boiling room to the pot, bring it to a boil again, pour some off, bring it to a boil again, then pour the rest in the cup. You then leave the cup for a few minutes so the grinds can settle to the bottom. You then sip your coffee contentedly, but slowly so as not to get any of the grinds. You get the idea that Turkish coffee isn’t something you whip up to grab and gulp going out the door. It takes time make and, once you take all that time, you’ll want to take the time to savor it (and time to be careful not to gulp the grinds). The taste of the coffee is worth it, but also just taking the time out to enjoy it is also worth it. In other words, when I’m drinking coffee, I’m drinking coffee. Part 2 Today has been declared Food Day by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Food Day objectives include improved health, sustainable agriculture and local foods. I just got back from a pot-luck lunch for our Food Day Committee. Lots of good food prepared well. Not all of it was local foods, but much of it was. All of it was wholesome and prepared caringly, all of it was well appreciated. One idea of Food Day is that meals should be prepared well and appreciated, not slapped together and wolfed down. Every day should be Food Day. In our family, it often is. Last night we had a soup of end-of-season produce from the garden: tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, celery, carrots and rutabagas, with some turkey from the freezer. It took a bit of work, but not really that much. We just put it in the crockpot early in the afternoon and it was ready to eat for dinner. Good tasting, good-for-you food need not be expensive or overly time consuming. But eating it should be time consuming. When one takes time to craft a nice dinner, it shouldn’t be eaten while doing something else (no reading, no TV, no papers for work) and it certainly should not be eaten in a hurry on the way to something else. One should take the time to savor the flavors and think of where they came from and what it took to get it to the table. It’s about being mindful about eating. “But I’m too busy to do that,” you’re saying. I reply, “Yes, you are too busy.” Part 3 Part of eating locally includes eating what makes sense to grow in your area, and in eating them, thinking about how they are grown and how that ties you to your place. That approach takes you away from the homogenized national diet that the TV commercials say we should be eating. Just as placemaking is about celebrating unique landscapes rather than converting them to anywhere USA, local eating includes celebrating foods unique to your place rather than eating the same thing everyone else across the country is eating. I’m not saying that as someone in northern Michigan I will give up oranges, but a good part of my diet is based on what’s locally produced (some by us). Instead of a national diet that’s the same everywhere and the same across the seasons, diets should vary by region and season. They should be part of what makes your place a special place Diets used to be regional. The middle of the country had its beef, the coasts had their seafood. The northern states had their winter root crops, the southern states had their long-season vegetables. Let’s not go back to northerners only having rutabagas to eat, but some amount of rutabagas can be a good thing. Brussels sprouts are even good in small quantities (especially if sautéed in butter). So go visit your local farmers’ market, buy a some late-season vegetable you haven’t had. The vendor would be happy to suggest how to cook it. Make it part of a nice meal and take the time to think about locally produced foods. Part 4 Nothing says fall in Northern Michigan quite like apple cider, especially freshly pressed apple cider. Under Michigan’s new cottage food law, we can once again buy unpasteurized apple cider. The new cottage food law is designed to help promote small, local agriculture, but still provide for food safety. The law permits people to make and sell small quantities of otherwise low-risk foods, such as breads, jellies, fruit pies and some other products without having to have an inspected, commercial kitchen. The sales must be face-to-face and quantities are limited. The idea is that people a trust relationship will be in place between seller and repeat buyers. Apple cider is not exactly low risk. Several years ago, serious illness outbreaks were traced to E. coli in apple cider. In response, it became illegal to sell unpasteurized cider. I like unpasteurized cider much better, but I don’t like E. coli. It is a balancing act. The new law allows face-to-face sales by the person who made it and in limited. So this weekend at the Traverse City farmers’ market, I bought some. Food safety laws have their place, but in this case I am confident in the producer’s attention to safety. The cider sure is good and a real taste of Northern Michigan.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Small, local retailers

When shopping, I generally check first with the small, local retailers. I can often find what I want at a competitive price and I usually get better service and more expert advice. Sometimes they don’t have what I need and I end up at the big box, but I try the local places first. On a recent shopping trip like that around town, I found myself wondering about the interplay of local and national-chain retail. I found myself thinking back to when I was a kid and the small town I got to spend some time in with my grandparents. I make no claims to be an economic historian (or any kind of economist or historian), but in my amateurish musings, I thought about trips to the local retailers with my grandmas and how the attitude about local retailers was not always so positive. Back when the local retailer was the only place in town, he may have taken advantage of the captive market. Prices may have been inflated, business practices may have been a bit shady. In some cases, the national chains that moved in represented an alternative that offered predictable business practices and level of quality, and lower prices. A little competition may have helped the local retailer improve. Mind you, I’m not buying into the claim of the big national retailer that it doesn’t drive viable, well-managed places out of business. Their claim sounds a bit circular to me: “if that business went out, it must have been unviable or poorly managed.” But maybe in some cases, an expanded competitive pool has resulted in local businesses that work harder to earn their customer base, not just take it for granted, and as a result the current positive view of small, local retailers. They do work hard to earn our business. We should give them the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, the next time you want the local alternative, it won’t be there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall Rains

September and October are the rainiest months for us, with a long term average of 6” of rain for the two months. For the past 5 days, we’ve been in that fall rains pattern for a total of 2” of rain. This morning, more of the same. Cool, windy, rainy. When picking out a shirt for today, I took a dark, long-sleeve shirt. I hadn’t started wearing the muted fall.winter colors yet, but today seemed like a good day to start. Can’t quite go sweaters. Not winter yet, but definitely fall. For me, the rainy fall season is in-between time of year. Too late for hiking, cycling, paddle sports. Too early for XC skiing. Too muddy to get in the garden for the last of the fall cleanup. It is a good time for catching up on some fun reading, though. I just finished two novels placed in the UP. South of Superior was a nice, slice-of-life about people getting new starts and learning to live with themselves in a small town on the east side of Lake Superior. No murders, just a realistic look at life in a place that some people have figured out how to make a go of it. In real life, the novelist owns a diner with her husband in Grand Marais. The other book, the Truth About Fire, took place at “Keweenaw U” in Houghton where a history prof gets entangled with a world-spanning racist plot. It’s an exciting page-turner. Several murders and a good deal of bed hopping give way to true love. In real life the author is a prof in the northeastern US. Both books feature the UP sense-of-place well. I recommend them. Rainy days are also good for getting caught up on inside chores and getting the supplies needed for them. When we lived out in one particular rural area out west, the local small town would increase in size on rainy days as ranchers and farmers took advantage of the break from outside work to go get things done in town. I have not noticed any increase in activity in the Soo on rainy days. Rains here are common enough that not everyone uses the same rainy day to go to town. A few more rainy days are in the forecast, then clear and cool. Pretty soon, sweaters will be the fashion.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Date Night

“Let’s finish the chores early and head out to see the fall colors. I haven’t really gotten out to see them this fall, and I need some pine cones.” That’s all I needed to hear to pick up the work pace a bit. By 6:00 PM we were on the road west to Taquamenon Falls, for leaf peeping and dinner at the brew pub. Two stops at red pine stands along the way yielded some cones for decorative uses. Red pine cones are good for that. They’re squat and solid with flat bases. And they're not sticky like white pine cones. Got to the park at about dusk. Walked to the first overlook to the falls. I had never been to the falls at dusk (I’m usually out there in the summer during the day, not late in the evening). The red-enriched light came in along the canyon. One particular trees with yellow-tinted leaves caught the light just right, almost making the tree glow. The falls were backlit. Now I need to go in the morning to see the falls lit by the morning sun. Someone in another group mentioned to his companion how cool it'd be to light the falls like Niagrara. I chose not to verbalize my disagreement. On the way back on the trail, the almost full moon shone between the tree tops. A photo would not do that image justice. One of those that makes a better mental image than a captured image. The fact that the view through the tree tops was so good because of the beech die-off made it a bit melancholy of an image. A nice dinner at the brew pub among several other people out enjoying what the fall scene has to offer and a nice drive home winding along the Curley Lewis Highway topped off a wonderful date night. We could have kept working on all the chores that still remain to be done, but it’s important to get out and see what there is to see. That’s why we live here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming to a University Near You

I just learned that the special honors seminar I had proposed for next semester has been approved. So I and a colleague in English will be teaching a seminar on Developing a Sense of Place. Should be fun. As I developed the course proposal, I got on the web to see what other universities have such classes and was pleased to see that a number do. Some are in humanities-related departments (architecture, visual arts, writing). A few were in environmental sciences type departments. Some were in Honors programs. During the the next semester, I'll let you know how the seminar comes along. The course project will be a mini-symposium at which students present a scholarly paper or creative writing or visual art about how sense of a particular place has informed their lives. I already am eager to see what they will have to show. The mini-symposium will be open to the public and coordinated with our annual Environmental Summit and an artifact of each presentation will be posted on the web. Speaking of presentations, as part of my casting about on the web for that course proposal, I found a TED talk on placemaking in an urban setting and pass it on: