Monday, October 29, 2012

Every Body Eats

This week we attended the Every Body Eats event here in Santa Cruz.  The panel discussion featured some amazing people – Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, John Robbins author of The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less and The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World , Jim Cochran from Swanton Berry Farm, Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon Vinyards, Jamie Smith of the Santa Cruz City Schools, Darrie Ganzhorn of the Homeless Garden Project, and Dr. Wallace J. Nichols of the Blue Marbles Project.

We managed to make it another Date Night and started the evening at Burger again.  I can confirm my positive review from an earlier post.  We enjoyed a vegetarian burger that was excellent, a couple Slop Sloppie Joes that were great and some fries and salad.  More important to note was the joyful service of our bartender, Shawn.  He was our bartender a few weeks ago also.  On this night they were short a bartender and were dealing with an enthusiastic crowd for the Game 2 of the World Series.  Shawn was hustling – doing his best to stay on top of drink orders, food requests, general bar maintenance and pouring beers and wine from the other bar located about 40 feet away.  He performed with panache and ease, epitomizing the adage, “Never let them see you sweat.”  Well done – we will return.

On our way into the event we were treated with free ice cream from the Penny Creamery.  This is a place you must try.  The free treat – mint ice cream on an obviously home-made cone.  The mint was incredible, far, far superior to anything found in a grocery store and guaranteed to make anyone smile in amazement.  Once inside the Santa Cruz High School Theater we were treated to a thoughtful discussion of the intersection of food, science, economics and politics.  

Dialogue began with a discussion between Robbins and Pollan about California’s Proposition 37 which would force food providers to label genetically modified foods.  I took away from this a few ideas.  First, or the good of our families, do we not all want to know what is in our food?  It isn’t about what is or is not harmful – it is about simply having all the necessary information from which the consumer can make individual, informed decisions.  Yet opponents are spending a million dollars per day to defeat this – and that is far more money that the supporters.  The health issue for us here is pesticides.  It is not about taste or nutrition.  It is about the amount of pesticides found in and on our food.  For much there is not enough science to determine the health effects of ingesting these foods…but don’t you want to know if those pesticides are there in the meantime?  In regards to the money being spent and big agribusiness’s efforts to defeat this, I think Robbins had the key quote, “Ignorance is not bliss; it is subordination.”  Check out for more info.  Next, we all need to learn more about BT Pesticide.  I don’t know enough to say much here, but the fact that it can be engineered to occur in our food and therefore is ingested by us following genetic modification is enough to make it a priority for me.  My final take-away from this portion of the evening was this thought: eaters need representation on the Congressional Agriculture Committee to have input in the writing of the Farm Bill.  The committee needs some urban representation.  Is there fertile ground for a food-oriented consumers’ lobby?  Is there such a thing already?

At this point the other panelists joined Pollan and Robbins on stage.  From each panelist these are my take-aways:

Jamie Smith, Santa Cruz City Schools’ Food Services Manager – Our schools should be centers of community service and should be places where kids are safe from harm…and this includes the food supply.  SC Schools have gone to cooking from scratch and using local ingredients.  This has provided numerous learning opportunities for everyone involved.

Jim Cochran, Swanton Berry Farm – Labor issues must be part of the dialogue about our food supply.  If we are serious about caring for our environment and the economy re: our food supply, then getting informed about labor practices is vital.

Darrie Ganzhorn, Homeless Garden Project, Santa Cruz County’s first CSA – Similar to Cochran’s thoughts, Ganzhorn asked, what is the link between the food movement and homelessness?  None of the issues of our day and place exist in a vacuum.  When we realize the interconnectedness of the issues and bring the leaders of various movements and organizations to the table, they can more effectively coordinate to make real change.

Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vinyards – There are wines of effort and wines of terroir.  There are wines for which the maker determines every step of production and therefore taste, and others for which taste all comes from place, weather, and soil of the grapes.  A wine of terroir is low-tech and far more interesting.  Grahm is now trying to develop a very low-tech, very traditional vineyard in San Juan Bautista, and I cannot wait to see what the results are.   

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, The Blue Marble Project – “The ocean is downstream from our entire economy, “ and everything we consume and all of its packaging eventually ends up in the ocean.  If we care enough to eat organic, local, seasonal, can we care enough to have it all packaged responsibly?  Recently his team found a sea turtle with 3400 pieces of plastic in his digestive system.

My final take-away was this:  We all care about our food for different reasons.  We all have our pet issues.  We are not mutually exclusive.  We need to get to the table, coordinate, share and change our food systems for the good of our children and our collective future.

Monday, October 22, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Beer Bar

“What’ll ya have?” 

I look over the beer menu quickly, discover one that I knew was not yet available bottled, and decide to go with it.

“I’m really into barleywines, so I think I need to try the Charlie 1981.”

A few minutes later the bartender returns with three glasses.

“You guys seemed pretty serious about your beer, so I thought I’d let you try this and see what you think.  We have three versions of the Charlie here.  First we have it from a keg pushed with CO2, like normal.  Then we have it pushed with nitrogen, so it’ll have a different feel.  Finally, we have it cask-conditioned.  Let me know what you like.” 

I have finally found nirvana, the greatest beer bar on Earth.  Here I am sitting on a patio across from a working fish wharf at 11:30 in the morning.  Brewer, a labrador retriever, is lying down between me and John Meier, the brewer of Rogue Ales.  A gorgeous Oregon July day doesn’t hurt.  The food menu also says they are serious about beer.  Beer pairings are suggested, and classic pub food is offered.  I go with the fish and chips which turn out to be among the best I’ve ever had.  The bartender is attentive and continues to be friendly, even after business picks up.  The dĂ©cor says this place is serious and passionate about their beer.   Once the lunch crowd fills the place it is obvious that locals and tourists alike feel comfortable.  Regulars sit at the bar, and converse with the bartender. 

A few years ago Ken Wells wrote a book about finding the perfect beer bar, Travels with Barley.  While there was much I disagreed with Walls about, his task was admirable and fascinating.  Frankly, I am a little jealous.  It was a book I had hoped to write one day.  Great conversation, colorful locals, charismatic publicans, televisions, and music may make a bar - it's a great read.  But a great bar is a different beast than a great beer bar.  What would the perfect beer bar look like?  What and how would it serve?  Who would hang out there?

In another bar, Clark’s Ale House in Syracuse, New York, I entered at opening and found the staff talking about beers they had tried recently in another bar.  And they weren’t talking about Coors Light and Bud.  They had this conversation standing beneath the Ale House’s own beer menu.  On a chalkboard behind the bar was a list of beers to weep for.  Rather than being listed alphabetically or by nation or region of origin, they were listed by serving temperature with a few other key measures such as International Bittering Units and specific gravity. 

The Rogue Public House in Newport, Oregon and Syracuse’s Clark’s Ale House are great examples of phenomenal beer bars.  A great beer bar must serve beer for beer lovers.  That means something with flavor, something that might even challenge me.  They have to serve it right.  Every beer need not be served ice cold.  The British have a saying…Why do Americans serve their beer ice cold?  So they don’t have to taste it.  Fortunately, this description of American beer culture is far outdated.  The United States is now home to the most vibrant and varied beer culture in the world, even if craft and microbrews still account for less than 10% of total beer sales.  And the best bars are respecting this small segment of the industry as well as its consumers.  That respect includes not serving a $4 to $10 beer in a frosted mug.  

A great beer bar also serves as much as possible on draft.  But they recognize that some beers, bottle-conditioned Belgian ales particularly, are actually best served from the bottle. Into an appropriate glass – yes, like wine, glassware can dramatically alter the beer experience.  A great beer bar also has the sense to serve good food that goes with their brew.  Think fish and chips, good burgers, bratwurst, hearty meats, rich desserts, big flavors.

What Walls got right was that a great beer bar is welcoming to everyone.  Conversation is more important than televisions and music.  There are regulars that give the place some local flavor. There’s a bartender that knows the community and his brews.  There’s a staff ready to help you try something new, or stick with something comfortable.  A great beer bar is a community in and of itself. 

Go find the best beer bar in your community and let me know about it.    

Friday, October 19, 2012

If there was a way to bring people together it would be with a plate of hummus

I will spend a lot of time here exploring the role of food amongst family and friends, but I am quite fascinated by the possibilities of using food to improve our communities.  I cannot help but wonder what the impact has been of farmers’ markets and communal gardens.  I like to imagine that food could be used to achieve lasting social and political change.  We know Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan loved to have a drink together.  What if we could get currently-opposed politicians to the table over food?  How about Sunni and Shitte?  Palestinian and Israeli?  This interview got my imagination going…

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Slow Down and Eat Together

I passionately believe that food is central to the way we build relationships, yet much in American culture has changed in the last few decades.  I remember when hand-held food was for picnics and a fast food drive-thru was a novelty.  Microwaves?  My family didn’t have one until I was 15.  Now we have so many conveniences that are supposed to make us more efficient.  But is it really more efficient if we eat while moving and rarely stop to truly connect with each other?  Is it really more efficient if we have sacrificed relationships in order to get more done?  We all know we need to slow down.  We are all happier when we get a chance to savor the joys in life, food being a rather important joy.  Dr. Nadine Burke highlights some of the issues related to health here….

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Date Night, part one

“We need a date night soon.”
“I can see if we can get a sitter next Friday or Saturday.”
“No, I mean we need a date night soon, like tonight.”
“Oh…ok…I will see what I can do.”

Sometimes the need for a date night comes on in a hurry and needs to be addressed immediately.  And for the good of the family, it’s really best to take that need seriously.  This was just the conversation my wife and I had this week.  And the strength of our family starts with the strength of us as a couple.

We managed to have our sitter watch the kids Friday night while we headed out.  And we really did just head out – we had no idea where we were going or when we would be back.  We knew exactly the sort of place we needed, in fact we could name it.  Unfortunately it was up in the city – 85 miles away.  We would need to settle on someplace a little closer to home.  But we needed someplace different where we could get some new flavors, some new scenery, a touch of adventure.  After driving around we settled on a Greek place we hadn’t been to, prefaced by a beer at a place across the street known for its great selection, simply called Burger.  ( We got a couple beers - big, hoppy, floral, bready ones, and just glanced at the menu. 

I should say that Burger isn’t at all your average burger joint.  At 8pm the place was loaded with kids, Archie cartoons were being projected on the wall and there was a box of toys to play with.  The beer selection was, in fact, excellent and diverse.  But the menu certainly made us pause.  We opted to try an appetizer – prosciutto-wrapped figs drizzled with a balsamic reduction.  Burger joint?  They were exquisite.  The bartender was amicable and knowledgeable, too.  We chose to stay and try a salad and a couple wood-fired pizzas.  We caught up on our week, caught the end of a great baseball game and unwound.  Ultimately, that is what we needed – more than a warm atmosphere, more than particular food or flavors – we needed a chance to stop with each other and chat, uninterrupted and still. 
That’s why date night is important…  We all get so caught up with our tasks and chores, never mind the exhaustion of our jobs.  We have to stop and get back to the basics.  The strength of our families begins with the adult couple.  We when are relaxed, connected and joyous together we see the results in our kids.  Family chores, manners, the way they treat each other, our ability to parent all improve.  Though it might seem like we need to spend all our time with the kids and sacrifice dates, romance and intimacy for a few years, the reality is that the health and happiness of the family depends on it. 

As for the pizza…it was excellent, and we will return to Burger.  And we topped off the romance with a stop at Marianne’s for some wonderful ice cream on the way home.  Nothing says Date Night like an ice cream cone after 9pm.