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Awake at the Whisk: February 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer--Another Book Review

You’ll be dreaming tomatoes after reading Tim Stark’s Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer. Though I’m not certain you’ll be dreaming of your own farm.

Stark’s memoir is a gritty, yet passionate look at the life of an organic farmer. Stark lives the life of someone reaching back into history only to find himself surrounded by a buzzing modern world. He toils haphazardly between the two, loving bits of each in his own way. He farms the land on his boyhood home in Pennsylvania, driving regularly to New York City to deliver his produce to the city’s top chefs.

He learns organic farming methods from Mennonite neighbors, battles modern fertilizing practitioners from his childhood, dines in the fine restaurants where his veggies are sold, learns to forage for wild greens with his global cadre of laborers, and rarely gets a full night’s sleep.

Simply written and hard to put down, Heirloom depicts the challenges organic farmers face, and also the passion that drives them to toil on. It is both glory-filled and heart-breaking simultaneously. Stark illustrates the heroic qualities in all organic farmers and the sacrifices made to eke out a living—and to bring those gorgeous, rainbow heirloom tomatoes to the local farmers’ market.

You’ll be inspired. You’ll laugh at Stark’s wit. And you will possibly cry as the story skips from the Ireland potato blight to the current-day extermination of quality farm land as it turns into the newest big box store.

One thing is certain: your appreciation for organic produce and for your local farmer will be raised.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Review of the Day on Yelp

I’m a Yelper. I got started last summer and have been doing it ever since.

I have always been a writer, pen in hand till the wee hours of night since I was in first grade. I have also always been a baker and cook, helping Mom and Grandma in the kitchen since I was tall enough to reach the counter while standing on a chair.

Writing about food is a recent lust. I give credit to Ruth Reichl for this passion. A few years ago, I was stuck in an airport with a nonfiction book that wasn’t exactly engaging my sleepy mind. I headed to the small bookstore and found an interesting New York Times Bestselling memoir: Reichel’s Garlic and Sapphires. It sounded funny; Reichl as a New York Times food critic who dresses up in disguises to ensure her dining experience, and thus her reviews, are uninfluenced by her celebrity status.

The book was certainly filled with humor. Importantly, I couldn’t put it down. I was drawn deeply into her descriptive food tales. The way she described every bite she had experienced soon sent my stomach to growling and my mouth (yes, even this vegetarian) to drooling over her highly illustrative prose of everything from steaks to sushi.

Suddenly, I realized there could be a marriage between my two passions: food and writing.

When I stumbled upon Yelp last summer, I began to set my newest passion to work. It was addictive! On Yelp, I also found a whole community filled with folks as passionate as me, sharing secret spots, telling tales of everything from food fiascos to amazing and memorable bites.

Today, my review of Laszlo’s Gourmet Smoked Fish has received the honor of Review of the Day (ROTD). I have had several such honors in the past, but I am particularly fond of this review—as I am particularly fond of Laszlo’s smoked fish.

My other ROTDs have included Lounge ON20, Formaggio Taverna andPatio, Sacramento Children’s Home Casa Garden Restaurant, and Kelli’s Gourmet Cookies.

Now that I have my own blog, I’m yelping less these days. But I still try to keep up with the reviews when I can—after all, it’s fun!

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Tasting Parties

Tasting parties are all the rage among my friends. We used to hold a typical happy hour gathering to swap stories and catch up. Yet, for the past year or so, we have infused our gatherings with more inspired fare.

It all started with a wine tasting. Everyone was asked to bring a red wine of their choice. We met at one person’s home and, upon arrival, handed our bottles over to the host. The wine was instantly whisked off to the kitchen, hidden inside a paper bag to conceal the logo, and given a number. The numbers went in order from the lightest wine to the heaviest (so, a rose would be #1, and a zinfandel would be #9). Once the wine had been appropriately labeled, the tasting begins.

In our method, we start by sending wine #1 around the room. Each person sips and comments. We ask them to rate the wine based on a scale from one to ten. A score of one means you would never, ever buy that wine. A score of five means you would probably buy it. A score of ten means you would drink it every day.

We don’t stifle folks from commenting, because it’s fun to hear different opinions from folks with different tastes. Some may like more sugar, some more fruit, and some more oak.

Snacks and water are always provided by the host to help cleanse the palette between each new taste. When the last bottle has been tasted and scored, we tally the points and reveal the winners. Folks often stick around to continue chatting and to partake in more of their particular favorite. We email the results to everyone (including those who couldn’t attend) the following day so folks can keep it in their files.

Our group has tasted a lot of delicious, fun fare since we began: wine, cheese, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, salsa, yogurt, beer, potato chips, and more. The key is to select a standard base; for instance, if you’re tasting pizza, ask everyone to bring just cheese so that folks’ preferred topping choices don’t dictate their scores. If you’re tasting ice cream, select one flavor, such as vanilla.

We always let the host decide the rules for the tasting. For example, I hosted a salsa tasting party. I asked everyone to bring salsa from a local mom and pop shop, rather than those bought in a jar from the grocery store. Other times, such as our pizza tasting, we did not dictate whether it had to come from a mom and pop shop, or whether it could come from a chain, so we got to compare quality from a pretty broad spectrum.

The next time you want to get together with friends, considering holding a tasting party. It’s a fun, cheap excuse to get together, and the results are always surprising! Don’t worry about being a food expert—it’s not about that. It’s about exploring everyone’s different tastes for the foods we all love. You might even find a new favorite!

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Monday, February 16, 2009


Deep Economy: a book review

As the country plunges further into recession, Deep Economy offers a financial solution based on common sense. Written long before the current financial crisis, Bill McKibben’s book casts doubt on our current model of capitalism, a system sustained by the production of everything from food to fuel on a massive scale: a model that benefits some, but leaves many behind. Instead, McKibben suggests we take a look closer to home at a financial model benefitting everyone, including our planet.

Chock full of case studies, the book features community organic farms in Cuba, solar energy sharing plans in U.S. neighborhoods, and rabbit micro-businesses in China. Globally, community members are coming together to develop new financial projects that branch out and touch the lives of all affected, while simultaneously protecting our planet. Sure, most folks realize the ecological benefits of eating locally—but who knew it could have financial pay-offs as well?

Deep Economy is not a liberal or a conservative text. Well researched, it draws upon economic studies to poke holes in the current American capitalist logic that suggests “more is better. “

McKibben points out that “The idea that there is a state called happiness, and that we can dependably figure out what it feels like and how to measure it, is extremely subversive. It would allow economists to start thinking about life in far richer terms, allow them to stop asking ‘What did you buy?’ and start asking ‘Is your life good?’…Because if you ask someone ‘Is your life good?’ and count on the answer to mean something, then you’ll be able to move to the real heart of the matter, the question haunting our moment on earth: Is more better?”

McKibben examines the benefits—psychological, financial, and environmental—of being part of a thriving community structure. The book dismisses as flawed our current economic model, which relies heavily on a sense of individualism, a model that the planet physically cannot sustain.

If Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle proves that eating locally is good for our planet, and Dr. Daphne Miller’s The Jungle Effect illustrates the health benefits of such a diet, then Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy casts the final, favorable vote by showing the financial benefits of local eating. This book stands up in favor of family, community, quality over quantity, planet sustainability, and richness of life.

As our politicians discuss bailout packages and CEO salaries, perhaps one of them will pick up a copy of Deep Economy. I believe they will find a winning solution in its pages. In the meantime, the book offers a way for all of us to follow its wisdom in our own, simple lives.

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