Monday, October 12, 2009

New Orleans Edible Schoolyard

Four members of the Association of Food Journalists journeyed to Samuel J. Green Charter School, which is in the middle of the gritty neighborhood where rapper Lil Wayne grew up. Attached to the school is the first Edible Schoolyard outside of the original founded by Alice Waters in Berkeley. The Green school had been taken over by First Line schools 10 days before Katrina. During the storm, the school took on eight feet of water in the cafeteria. Also before the storm, the school was a failing school for 20 straight years and was crammed with 650 students. Flash forward to now, and the school has a new cafeteria kitchen and a new teaching kitchen thanks mostly to the Ruth Fertel Foundation and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The school's garden doesn't grow enough food to supply the school's food needs. However, according to Edible Schoolyard director Donna Cavato, it was uphill work negotiating with food supplier Sodexho for nutritional foods and five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The kids and their parents learn how to cook and to make things from the garden products. In fact, the kids sell soap, loofahs, pickled okra and peppers and other items they make at the monthly Freret Street market. The school is K through 8. Two grades a week rotate through cooking and gardening classes. A lot of the 450 kids in the school get 80 percent of their daily calories from the breakfast, lunch and two snacks they get at school. The cafeteria tables have fresh cut flowers and water pitcher so kids can learn sharing and get hydrated. They also make and eat food from the cultures they are studying. For example, Aztec pumpkin soup and quinoa pilaf. There are after school programs for kids who are below grade level in being business entrepreneurs.

After Katrina, when the school administration discussed their plans for the garden and improvements to the school, most of the parents were skeptical. Like a lot of school systems, New Orleans was long on promising and short on delivering through the years. When the garden went in and the outdoor classroom started being built, some of the parents wept. Cavato says that a lot of the parents are in poverty and had poor education, but you don't need a college degree to cook or garden.

The kids compost, use dishes and silverware to cut down on waste and the first graders use washcloths instead of napkins and help launder them. The round tables in the cafeteria encourage socializing and teamwork. As Cavato says, "If you have a place at the table, you have a place anywhere."

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: A New Orleans Thanksgiving

Probably the best quote at the final session of the Association for Food Journalists conference came from chef Frank Brigtsen: "Everyone in Louisiana has a propane burner out back of their house that could probably launch a rocket." This is how fried turkies and house fires are born. Brigtsen roasts his turkey by doing the following: Rub the turkey with butter and salt and pepper. Put butter under the skin of the breast bone. Preheat oven to 500 degrees and put turkey on V-shaped roaster. Put it in the oven then reduce heat to 325 and cook 15-20 minutes per pound. Brigtsen also prepared shrimp mirliton (aka chayote) dressing and offer some simple tips on layering flavors and how not to make your dressing too bread-y. He points out that onion, bell peppers and celery is not unlike French mirepoix. He recommends making turkey stock using wings, necks and legs before Thanksgiving and also a little shrimp stock for the dressing. He also cooks some of the onions, pepper and celery longer than others to add layers of flavor.

Poppy Tooker, who seemed to be attached to the conference, demonstrated how to cook a roux. The French may use butter, but she recommends canola or another vegetable oil because butter burns at high temperatures (see above center). The Creole favorite for roux is bacon grease. She also recommend pre-chopping your veggies and putting the onions ( they should be yellow) first. You cook roux over medium to medium-high heat. She also referred to roux as "Cajun napalm" for its ability to burn cooks. She recommends using a wooden spatula to stir it so it doesn't fly all over you. The seasoning base for roux is thyme, bay leaf and garlic.

While some of us ate oyster dressing, Chiqui Collier showed us how to make pralines (see above left). A candy thermometer is essential, as is rest for the mixture once it reaches the soft ball stage. All of us received the recipes, which I will post as PDFs on the AFJ Website. We also got to eat shrimp mirliton dressing and gumbo as we went along, and left with a praline to snack on. The conference was officially over after a short tour of the House on Bayou Road, but there's one more thing to come.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: New Orleans Food and Farm Network

Your blogger came back from the Association for Food Journalists conference, weighed herself and nearly passed out after seeing she only gained a pound. I've only recently found the energy to post on the conference's final activities. Saturday morning we boarded a bus with Daphne Derven of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network. NOFFN provides tools, gardeners and support for urban farming efforts in the city. Our first stop was at Marilyn Yank's Little Sparrow Farm. Yank works on the garden about six to eight hours a week and has work parties three or four times a year. She sells flowers to local restaurant and food to neighbors when things are in season. Post-Katrina, there are 65,000 vacant lots in New Orleans with some 35,000 undeveloped. The Little Sparrow Garden is bordered with hyacinth peas (see above right), which attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. NOFFN is also working with Covenant House to train 100 at-risk kids for food jobs and they will also help the house start 10 gardens of its own. The group is also working on education programs to certify more growers.

We left Little Sparrow to head to the Hollygrove Market. Unlike the usual CSA model of a hefty upfront payment and membership and core committees, the Market offers food for $25 a box (or bags; pick and bring your own containers). There's a swap table in case someone prefers satsumas to eggplant and other produce and locally made goods for sale at the Market. I tried the pea soup with tasso ham from Vintage Garden Kitchen. The Kitchen employs the developmentally disabled from ARC. You find out more and donate (this is not an AFJ endorsement, just a suggestion from someone who was impressed) at their Website.

There are also seven hens and a pair of contrasting farms at the Market. Kasey Mitchell (pictured above left) farms permaculture style, meaning his farm self-organizes according to nature's dictates. He doesn't mulch (a common practice in the area) and the plants nurture and protect each other.

If Mitchell is right-brain, Morgan Fry (pictured right) is left-brain all the way. He does commercial-style farming on a smaller scale complete with crop rotation, irrigation. From his arugula beds, he can usually get four crops with judicious replanting. Also on site is a tool shed where equipment can be borrowed by master gardeners and others. There is not a problem with theft, Derven says.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

Friday, October 9, 2009

AFJ 2009: Sugar In and Around Baton Rouge

While some members of the Association of Food Journalists breakfasted on churros and brandy milk punch, it was a croissant dipped in honey for your blogger. It would not be the last time something sweet crossed her lips. Before we get down to the granular level of the information we received on sugar throughout the day, I have to moan aloud about the candied bacon that was laid across an incredible crab and roasted beet salad that was part of our Sugar Barons dinner at Houmas House in Darrow. Can life get any better than candied bacon? I think not. Each course of the dinner featured some sugary aspect in honor of the industry that built plantations like Houmas House.

We began the day on the bus from New Orleans to St. Gabriel, where parts of the old women's prison have been turned into a sugar research station run by LSU. On the trip over, Charley Richard (pictured in blue shirt), whose consulting firm serves the international sugar industry, shared some facts about the growth of the sugar industry in Louisiana. It's one of four states producing sugar cane in the U.S. with Florida, Texas and Hawaii rounding out the quartet. The can production accounts for 46 percent of the production in the country with the other 54 percent coming from sugar beets in more northern states. For more industry information, Richard recommended the American Sugar Alliance and the American Sugar Cane League. The latter represents the Louisiana cane growers.

We tromped into the cane fields to watch cane being cut by a combine. Joining us Kenneth Gravois (left), who is the resident director of the station. Gravois also showed up the pollination of cane crossings that are more resistant to cold and disease. Sugar cane is a tropical plant, and Louisiana is temperate so the harvest can be threatened by all kinds of weather.

We saw a short slide show reinforcing what we had seen outside while eating biscuits dipped in cane syrup. There was also raw cane to try. Simple rule: Chew but don't swallow.

We drove to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which is the largest nutrition research center in the world. It's also part of LSU. George Bray, the founding director who is now the Tom Boyd professor of medicine. Bray shared a compendium of research on the effects of fructose on health, including the obesity epidemic, increased triglycerides, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The introduction of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener in 1967 has paralleled the rise in obesity. Bray also noted that sucrose, which most of us know as table sugar, is just as high in fructose as high fructose corn syrup. Some food manufacturers are replacing HFCS with sucrose since some of the buying public is avoiding HFCS. His conclusion? Eat only naturally occurring fructose, which is found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has been tied to weight gain.

Then Dr. Catherine Champagne presented on "Sweeteners in Nutrition and Cooking." Her information offered a breakdown of the pros and cons of each of the sweeteners, including the sugar alcohols. The memorable health risks of sweeteners included aspartame's phenylalanine, which harmful to people living with Phenylketonuria (PKU). The product carries a warning label. Saccharine can cross the placenta, but there have been no studies on its effect on babies in utero.

Champagne also presented maximum daily amounts for each sweetener in a chart. She and Bray also offered their e-mail addresses to anyone needing further information.

Our final stop at LSU was the Rural Life Museum. After a sharecropper's lunch and a lecture by Chef John Folse (top of page, holding meat) on the history of cane production which had a questionable timeline and a stunningly benevolent view of sharecropping, the members looked around the museum. Highlights included the dogtrot house, the syrup house and seeing the boiling syrup strained. David J.W. Floyd, the director of the museum, explained the syrup making process, noting that the principles were similar to evaporative stills.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

Thursday, October 8, 2009

AFJ 2009: Katrina’s Unknown Stories

James O’Byrne, director of content at, offered a presentation on Katrina. It’s impossible to understand the magnitude of Katrina if you weren’t here and his slide show only conveyed part of the story. 250,000 people were displaced from southeastern Louisiana, an area seven times the size of Manhattan was underwater and more than 150,000 homes were destroyed. Most of the damage was due to a failure of the levee system, for which the Army Corps of Engineers has officially apologized.

Following the heartbreaking slide show was a panel that featured Brett Anderson, Ashley Graham, Louisiana director of Share Our Strength, chef Donald Link (Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher) and Cindy Mandina, fourth generation owner of Mandina’s in Mid-City. Anderson (not pictured since he is a restaurant critic) says you may not see this in the Central Business District, but the recovery is ongoing. Anderson thinks people are sick of hearing about Katrina outside of Louisiana, but it’s important to see how far things have come and how.

After Katrina, Anderson found Link at Herbsaint drawing up a menu with duck confit and soft-shell crab because the staff was tired of hamburgers and boneless chicken breasts. He then went to Mandina’s and met the feisty founder and they were meeting to see if they were going to demolish the building. Anderson talked to Graham on the phone about housing for restaurant workers since there were jobs but no housing. Dickie Brennan was trying to get dormitory space for people, and Anderson’s reporting brought him to Graham.

Link evacuated the Saturday before the storm hit Monday. He was watching the storm tracker, and gets a call that plumbing is backing up. He went to the restaurant and the streets were empty. Link thought it was weird. No evacuation order was given, but Link decided to go and shut his place down. Other restaurateurs didn’t see a big deal. Link went to St. Charles, and then heard from chefs who were trying to leave Sunday. Link called a neighbor who said the water was at the bottom of the door. Two hours later, it was over the roof. Link says it was his “oh shit” moment since his house was four feet off the ground. Link learned how to text as his employees were calling to figure out what to do. Their homes had also been wiped out. Link got shin splits from pacing. He agreed to pay his core staff for three to six months.

Mandina was flying to Pensacola that Friday. She called her mother who said it was going to be a direct hit. She lived in Lakeview (as did Link) and called her neighbor and asked him to move her car off the street. Her dad wanted to ride it out, but ended up spending 14 hours driving to Destin. The insurance adjuster came to renew their insurance and suggested an increase in business interruption coverage. First thing she did on Monday was to call to see if the check cleared. It had, but payment went to mediation.

Graham had been with Share Our Strength for 17 years. She had been planning a 20th anniversary event, and was a regular at Jazzfest. Graham and her staff were watching TV and figuring out what they could do. The event became a fundraiser. They also created a Dine Out event to raise money for Gulf Coast restaurants. A third of the proceeds went to those people.

Link was trying to figure out how to reopen his restaurant. People were saying it would be three to six months before they could return. Link fabricated a pass and came back into the city. Link’s goal was to get the meat out of the walk-in. Cleaning out was the most disgusting thing he had done. His uncle said he would have electricity in three weeks. He thought the water was OK, even though it was advised not to shower in it. They reopened on Oct. 5, the day the water was declared safe to drink.

Mandina said their two buildings sustained serious damage, including one sans roof. There was six to eight feet of water in the restaurant. The looters took no alcohol, but took a bag of coins. Mandina’s dad did not want to reopen. Cindy wanted to reopen and did after 18 months. The ruin stank and it was hot. The architect said to knock it down. They gutted it and redid it, which was an adventure. Fittings were expensive, and were often stolen during building. Mandina said some of her staff scattered and they even thought some were dead until they heard from them. The business has been better since the storm.

Graham said when she stayed at a local hotel, the woman who served her breakfast had lost the house she was selling, the house she was going to buy and her mother. Graham said she drew from that strength and the humor. Graham also brought corporate donors down and raised another $2 million from those trips.

Link said his customers were mostly locals who were delighted with the signs of normalcy that the restaurant being open indicated. Graham said dining out was a civic duty. Link said he’s done his best business since Katrina.

Although I was busy taking this down, I had to thank panelists for digging in when most people would have cut and run. New Orleans is a worldwide cultural treasure and its comeback needs to belong to all of us. Enough blatant editorializing. It's awards night and we're hungry. Winners will be posted on the AFJ site.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Writer in Residence John T. Edge

After an introduction by Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson citing his stereotypical Southern, whiskey-swilling and eating skills, Association of Food Journalists writer in residence John T. Edge opened by suggesting an alternate title, “A Guilty White Southerner Eats His Way Through America.” Edge has chips on his shoulder – being a Southerner, writing about food (is it worthy?). The Southern part comes first with Edge riding his Schwinn from the farmhouse in Jones County to the Old Clinton BBQ for smoked pork cut by a cleaver by Miss Maddie. But Edge couldn’t recognize the black men who cooked the BBQ so he works under that debt of pleasure.

Edge’s father worked for the Federal courthouse and watched his father put away white men involved in illegal activities in civil rights. At school in Athens, Edge went to Bertha’s scarfing eggs and grits with the same white men, likely Klansmen, his father had tried.

Edge went from University of Georgia to Mississippi to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The society wasn’t integrated but the food was – black-eyed peas and okra from Africa, chess pie from those Anglo-Saxons. When talking with writers here, he heard a reluctance to embrace their sense of place.

According to Edge, those of us who write about food work under a burden of pleasure. Food, not sex, is our most frequently indulged pleasure. Food is our greatest cause of disease and death, but the serious-minded dismiss it. Food offers a non-threatening way to discuss big issues. Warren Belasco wrote “Food: The Key Concepts” can get you up to speed on the basic concepts, but it is dense.

Edge introduced us to four key New Orleans stories, saying that knowing New Orleans well represents a certain cultural literacy. His first magazine piece was about the Lucky Dog Bordello, and Edge worked a Lucky Dog cart for four days leading up to New Year’s Eve for the celebrating drunks. Alice Clark took care of Edge and he wanted to convey a deep respect. Clark is dead now, felled by a stroke. Austin Leslie, proprietor of Chez Helene in Treme, was basis of Big Arthur in the television series “Frank’s Place.” Austin’s chicken was capped with confetti of garlic, parsley and pickle slices. Austin died in exile in Atlanta after Katrina. Thomas the shucker at Pascale Manale's, still gives the best patter of oyster shuckers including a mean impression of Mighty Mouse.

Edge read a section from a story about Middendorf’s in Manchac that is impossible to recreate here because its rhythms and use of language spring from the peculiar polyglot of Southern culture, food, absurd detail (Renaissance reproduction portraits all with the face of one party’s husband) and class. The economy of repetitive motion, family advice handed down and the tendrils of Katrina that cling to all food stories in the state are all there.

Sometimes dedicated patrons and writers ascribe too much significance to a restaurant. Take the read of the restaurant and the story to absurd levels (e.g. study of mules in Faulkner), Edge said.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

AFJ 2009: Lunch at Hermann-Grima House and Broussard's

The Hermann-Grima House was built in 1831 and features an authentic hearth kitchen with ironwork from the era and we food journalists enjoyed shrimp with mascarpone grits from the hearth prepared by Bacco's. The house was lavish for its time and was dressed for a wake when we arrived. We were also greeted with a bananas Foster martini, which was refreshing after the steamy walk from the conference. After looking around the house and hearth, we repaired to Broussard's, the adjacent restaurant, for a Louisiana lunch of chicken and andouille gumbo, shrimp florentine with bechamel sauce. I saw what looked like bread pudding for dessert, but my aching feet trumped my journalistic instincts and I did not investigate further. Lunch ended with a hot stroll or a cool cab ride back to the conference.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger