Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pruning for Growth

Not all people ever gain a real understanding of everything that goes into having a wedding.  The planner, the host, certainly the bride, are all well-acquainted with the intricacies of making that special day perfect in every way; but outside that core group, most people just attend the ceremony, and if that core group do their jobs correctly, everyone is happy with the beautiful ceremony without noticing the details.  It seems like lately I've been more involved in weddings than I ever expected, or necessarily wanted to be.  That's not a bad thing; I have a blast at weddings and it just so happens that recent circumstances have conspired to put me near the frontlines of more than a couple nuptials.  In the past few years I've performed three weddings myself with another lined up for this summer, and that's in addition to my brother's wedding in September.  It's my brother's wedding that inspired this post.  Not only will I be best man, but I'll be taking on a number of other responsibilities as well, since the happy couple have decided to have the wedding at my family's house on the Smith River, the house where I live.

The setting lends itself easily to weddings, (and has hosted a wedding in the past) with riverfront views, grassy fields, and a large garden and orchard.  Each summer it's my pleasure to grow my own food in the garden, and this summer I'll be growing an array of flowers, in addition to the fruits and vegetables; both will be part of making the place look as vibrant as possible for the coming wedding.  The fruit trees and grape vines are no different, and to make sure we have a happy bride, those things needs to be pruned, and soon, to insure they have a proper bloom and set fruit.  There's a lot of grunt work to be done, and right now the pruning might be the most crucial.
Home garden with properly pruned fruit trees and grape vines

I've never pruned before.  My brother and his fiancee know this.  Despite my enthusiasm for having this year be my first attempt at cracking into a new knowledge and skill set, it's understandable that they might be nervous about me doing all the pruning on the property.  The last thing I want to do is compromise the setting of their big day by using our orchard as my own personal experimentation zone, and as I've read: "improper pruning has ruined more trees than failure to prune."  As best man, I was happy to concede pruning duties to an experienced friend.

But that does not stop me from reading up as much as possible to learn about the process.  The upcoming wedding and my own home orchard aren't the only things that have sparked my interest in learning more about pruning.  Back in January I helped organize a community effort in Gasquet to get an orchard planted at Mountain School (see our previous blog post: Gasquet Community Orchard), and as I've learned already, fruit trees in their first year need to be taken care of, first and foremost with pruning.  I'm just cracking the books and doing my Google research, and I'm getting a firm grasp on the pruning process, in theory, at least for now.  As for practice, well, I'm working on getting that, too.

How often do you think a person interested in learning pruning skills has access to an entire orchard, filled with fruit trees that need to be taken care of ASAP, and a job that puts them in contact with a multitude of experts in different agricultural disciplines?  This opportunity isn't going to present itself again in my life, so I need to make the most of it.  I contacted Deborah Giraud, an agricultural advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Humboldt, at first to see if she could give me some pointers, and she ended up agreeing to come up to Gasquet to give a first-hand lesson on proper fruit tree care and pruning, and have it be open to anyone with a burgeoning interest in the arboreal arts.

This post will be the first in a 3-part series that will culminate with a post about our Gasquet Orchard Pruning Day, which will be March 27th.  Until then, I'm going to hit the books, learn the basics, not go near the wedding fruit trees with anything resembling pruning shears, and hopefully I'll come out the other end as an expert, or at least someone whom a soon-to-be bride can call on to make sure those apple trees are fruit-laden and picturesque for her wedding.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Distant Markets: Shopping Perspectives

When I first moved to Crescent City, people asked me how I liked it with great hesitation, as if they were assuming that my first impressions would be terrible. But for the four years leading up to moving here, we had lived in King Salmon, AK, (population: 400) and Cima, CA, (population: 3) in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. To me, the prospect of being able to buy a gallon of milk without a) spending eight dollars (King Salmon) or b) driving 75 miles to Las Vegas (Cima) was a joyous prospect. Four grocery stores! In town!

It was practically a miracle.

King Salmon, where we lived, is on the Alaska Peninsula, leading out to the Aleutian Island chain. It's about 16 miles inland from Bristol Bay along the Naknek River. The only place you can drive from King Salmon is Naknek, sixteen miles away; otherwise, it's a fly-in, fly-out community. Students in South Naknek fly across the mouth of the Naknek River for school every day. They do isolated and rural to the extreme there.

This is the airport we fly in and out of. You can, in fact, see almost the entire business district of King Salmon in this photo. Our summer restaurant is next door to the airport, our bank, National Park Service offices, and a social services office are in the long building across the street. The building in the upper right, cut off at the edge of the picture, is our supermarket (left hand side of the building) and liquor store (right hand side, separate entrance).

This is downtown Cima. The left hand side of the building is the post office (closed permanently by USPS a few months before we moved), the right side is a small store with beer, soft drinks, candy, and chips, open on demand while the post office still functioned. We lived about a mile away. Our nearest neighbors were five miles further north. This is our neighborhood, a collection of abandoned small ranching houses at the junction of several unnamed, sandy dirt roads:

There were many things I loved about living in both King Salmon and Cima. There are things I miss deeply. Grocery shopping is not one of them. There is no real joy in driving an hour and a half to Las Vegas in 105 degree weather, with a toddler, to hit several stores, a library, a park, and every other possible service in one day. Anchorage is also not that enjoyable when a day in Anchorage means going to CostCo, Fred Meyer, and New Sagaya (ethnic and whole foods store), followed by scrounging for cardboard boxes, packing up the food and other purchases, and making a trip to the air freight company.

We had two things going for us: we had reliable transportation and we usually had enough cash available to do two or three months worth of shopping at a time. Without that, I'm not sure how we would have maintained a varied diet in either location. I once paid $14 for four ears of corn shrink-wrapped to a styrofoam tray because it was the only fresh produce in the store -- fruit or veg -- that looked edible and I was low on frozen stuff at home.

So after these experiences, the grocery shopping in Crescent City was enough to make a very good first impression.

All this leads up to my first visit to Pearson's Grocery in Weitchpec. I had driven through Weitchpec maybe a year earlier, on my husband's whim during my first trip to the Bald Hills. This time, I was going to Weitchpec, not through it. When I walked through the store, I was reminded very much of our store in King Salmon. There was maybe a little less produce at Pearson's, but prices were lower than they were in King Salmon. Both are typical stores for rural, isolated places: not much selection, limited fresh foods, high prices, a strong emphasis on prepared, shelf-stable foods.

A larger problem in both communities is that many families are not as lucky as mine. They don't have reliable transportation. They don't have a job that occasionally takes them to places with better stores. They don't have cash reserves that let them stock up when they do get to bigger, cheaper, better-stocked stores.

So how do we make health happen in communities like King Salmon, Cima, and Weitchpec? What changes can be made to bring healthy, affordable food options to places that are way off the beaten path? How do we guarantee that a child growing up sixty, seventy, three hundred miles away from the nearest full-service grocery store grows up with the same nutritional opportunities as someone who can walk to a Safeway or a Whole Foods or a Northcoast Co-op?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Chocolate Beet Cake with Orange Glaze

Beet Cake. Sounds strange, doesn't it? Then, maybe it doesn't when you consider the carrot cake or the sweet potato pie. Featuring root vegetables or tubers in confectionary treats isn't exactly new. Beets, much like carrots, supply a special sweetness, texture and color to a cake.

Root vegetables are essential. They comfort and sustain during dreary, water-logged, winter months. They've got a long shelf life, and they're full of vitamins and sugars. And they're in season now - they can be grown and enjoyed locally (Check Harvest Natural Foods for locally grown foods. They might have that something you didn't know you were looking for).

This beet cake is still a cake. It's not a well-balanced meal. But it is a comforting, hardy addition to a winter meal. Try this recipe with other root vegetables: carrot, parsnip, fennel. Add a half-teaspoon of nutmeg or cinnamon to the dry ingredients for extra flavor.

The Cake:

2 medium beets, peeled and quartered
12 tbs butter, softened, plus extra for pan
1 ½ c granulated sugar
2 ½ c all purpose flour
½ c cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 eggs, room temperature
½ c milk or plain yogurt

Place beets with just enough water to cover them in a small sauce pan, and cover. Bring to a boil, and cook for a few minutes till the beets are just beginning to soften. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease a 9 x 13 pan with a little butter. Put the beets with ½ cup of the sugar in a blender or food processor and pulse a few times to purée.

Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In a separate large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter and remaining sugar until creamy. Add in eggs one at a time; beat until light and smooth. Beat in the beet purée. Mix in about a third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the milk or yogurt. Alternate between the two, stirring gently, until the batter just evens out.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake until set (35 to 40 minutes). Let cool, then top with glaze.

The Glaze:

½ c freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tbs grated orange zest
½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
2-3 c confectioner’s sugar

Combine all the ingredients and beat till combined and smooth. Adjust the consistency with liquid or sugar - it should be just pourable.

- adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, 2007

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hunger Games

Over the past three weeks, I have been fairly obsessed with The Hunger Games trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins. I'm not entirely sure how I overlooked this series. I love speculative fiction and the books closely resemble Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and sequels. But I have made up for my lapse, reading all three twice. I'm in the middle of the first book for the third time. I'll have to think hard about seeing the soon-to-be-released movie. These are the kinds of books that I want to know really well before seeing someone else's imagining of them.

You may be thinking, "Other than the title, what does this have to do with food, hunger, and community?" Well, those themes run through the books, definitely, but there is a more direct link. The World Food Programme and Feeding America have teamed up with the film debut to bring hunger into public discourse. Their Hunger Games website features a video message from the stars of The Hunger Games, a quiz about hunger, and information about how to donate to both organizations.

For one in six households in the United States, hunger is no game. It is a stark reality they face every day and it affects us all whether we directly experience hunger or not. Hungry employees and coworkers cannot work at full capacity. Hungry children cannot learn as well as their peers. And more and more, it is clear: children who fall behind in early grades will likely struggle for much of their lives. Our whole community -- whether you view community locally or globally -- is hurt when members of the community are hungry.

The Hunger Games is fiction, of course, but hunger, in this country and around the world, is very real. If you are able, please consider making a donation to one of these fine organizations, or locally to Community Assistance Network, Rural Human Services, or Our Daily Bread Ministries, all of whom work to prevent hunger in our community.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ferment Del Norte

In 2008, The California Endowment came to Crescent City with its Building Healthy Communities Initiative.  One of the primary reasons we were chosen was a severe lack of food security and sovereignty, coupled with some of the worst health statistics in the state.  We were a sick community, and our lack of a healthy food system seemed to only be making things worse.  With the introduction of The California Endowment's generous grants and support, members of our community were given unprecedented resources to organize and enact some amazing work around food, and I'm continuously grateful to TCE for making it possible.

And with all the work that is possible because of TCE's interest in our community, there have been ancillary benefits to our community that go beyond all the great work that we see and do every day and are not as immediately apparent.  When the work of BHC was initiated, it was necessary to identify and engage a number of young people to help enact all the work that had been planned and would continuously be carried out over the next ten years.  All of a sudden there was a surprising number of young adults in our community doing positive work, both from within the community and from outside.  Some were Americorps VISTAs from all over the country, some were homegrown Del Norters who were empowered to take an active role in the improvement of their community, maybe for the first time ever.  TCE helped bring people together, and helped steer our collective consciousness and conversation toward healthy food, creativity, and community action.

Before this influx, it may have been difficult for a group of friends to enact an idea about a club focused around fermentation.  And a club focused around fermentation that doesn't emphasize drinking alcohol, but instead seeks to emphasize the health benefits of fermentation, culturally, physically, and spiritually??  Let's just say that club may never have gotten legs.  However, as it is, that's exactly what happened.  Only two months ago, I was eating some fresh-caught local crab with two good friends, Tasha Sparks and Aaron Valley, when the conversation quickly turned toward the homemade mead we were drinking.  We were intrigued by a story about where the term "honeymoon" came from and how fermented beverages have played a role in cultural histories.  In our own histories, we all had some connection to fermentation.  I have been brewing beer since high school in small batches; Tasha worked in an educational kitchen in Berkeley where she learned how to make fermented foods; Aaron started brewing years earlier and became and avid and productive home-brewer in college.  We all had experience and appreciated the way fermented foods and beverages bring people together, and fermentation is an almost endless source of new knowledge when it comes to learning about the process.  Why not take advantage of this demographic shift toward impassioned 20-somethings and get people together to expand our collective knowledge and production of fermented goods?  Next thing we knew, we had the idea to create a club.

After the initial inception of the idea for a club, we spread the word to our friends and people we thought might be interested.  It started with a Facebook group which quickly swelled to about 15 members who joined just on the strength of the idea, and possible interest in belonging to a group that would be making its own beer.  But from the get-go, alcohol was not the focus of the group, and in talking to more and more people about the idea, conversations became more about the potential for a group like this to experiment and create foods together, foods that might not be readily available in a place like Del Norte.  I can't speak for the other founding members, but at those early stages I wondered how far this idea would really go, and whether it would really keep people's interest consistently enough to produce some great food and drink.

I have yet to be anything but impressed by the pure enthusiasm and support the club has gotten.  We had our first meeting in mid-January, fairly well-attended by about 15 people, and everyone embraced the idea and was eager to propose ideas for projects and sign up to carry those projects out.  At that first meeting, we created a sort of loose structure around how the club would be organized and continue:  We would have monthly meetings on the full moon where we would get together in the evening to talk about fermentation, share things we've learned, suggest ideas for projects, talk about methods for fermentation we've used in the past; these would be our "theory" meetings.  And at our theory meetings would be the time to propose new projects, and between full moon meetings, the club would break up into smaller groups to carry out those projects and create food and drink; those would be the "practice." Each project would have a project leader who would be responsible for organizing interested club members, finding a location, procuring ingredients, and making sure the project was recorded and reported on the group's website.  Whatever was created would be brought to the next full moon meeting to be shared and consumed with the group, if it was ready.

The club hit the ground running with projects.  Since that first meeting, we have made 2 homebrewed beers, beet kvass, sourdough, kimchi, ginger champagne, apple cider vinegar, root beer, kefir, and sauerkraut. What's more impressive than the number of goods we've created is the support we've generated.  It seems like 80% of my non-work conversations are about Ferment Del Norte (and maybe 5% of the time it comes up at work).  It has generated a fantastic article in The Triplicate, 40 members on the Facebook group, and over 1,000 views on our website (  And it has also generated interest among the people in our community who specifically work in food production and policy.  The club counts among its members four local organic farmers and two members of our Community Food Council.  As I mentioned, TCE helped make healthy foods a topic in our county-wide conversation amongst all demographics, and Ferment Del Norte is providing a venue  for the conversation to continue in a social setting; both are helping instigate positive, creative action.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Discovering Del Norte through Mealtime

Let me introduce myself. I'm Laura Jo, the new girl, CAN's newest AmeriCorps VISTA.

I was worried when I arrived in Crescent City. Worried there wouldn’t be any young people. Worried there wouldn’t be much in-town diversion. Worried, ultimately, that I’d be spending my evenings at home alone with stir-fried vegetables and rice while the rain came down in torrents outside my window.

Then I met a young person, another VISTA. I asked her what they did – was there a place to dance? Well, no. Not really. But I’d spend a lot of time at people’s houses, eating. And we could dance there, too, if we wanted.

She was right. First it was a small group of three in a white apartment. We shared pizza and salad. They shared with me, the good spots to eat, the good spots to see local music. Meantime, the group was growing. By the end we were nine. We were sharing travel experiences along with our pizza until talk moved on to the coming weekend and future meals to be had. That weekend it was ale and barbeque beef and oven roasted vegetables shared in a fire-warmed cabin on the Smith. We talked of chemistry and botany, of good hiking, of family and holidays. We talked about the next thing at the next house, the next meal.

 I had a couple nights of pasta after the pool, with old records playing in the background, cats and dogs snuggling up to my legs. I heard about what happened in which public meeting and who was heading up which thing.  We had a Sunday morning brunch of quiche and empanadas. We sipped our coffee and mimosas as we looked out at the river from large picture windows. We had a Sunday night “family dinner” of vegetable curry and flat bread. Then we took turns reading aloud in the orange glow of the woodstove.

She was right, that VISTA. I’ve been here for a mere three weeks, and I already feel a community is growing. Or rather, that I am being admitted into one that’s already alive, already here. Already I know there are places for me to visit, things to get involved in, people to share meals with. I discovered all this through mealtime.

Left: Connor Caldwell, Rachel McCain and Aaron Valley, a part of my new community, sharing pizza

Thursday, February 23, 2012

SNAP: A Critical Local Economic Resource

Last year, we featured a few articles about the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called CalFresh in California. There's been quite a bit of buzz around town about CalFresh recently.
Del Norte was again recognized at the state level for our success in having a high percentage of residents eligible for CalFresh benefits actually using them. It's not just a win for our neighbors who need some help buying nutritious food, it's a win for our grocery stores and the people they hire. Hundreds of thousands of grocery dollars come into our county through CalFresh each and every month. Those dollars free up other sources of household income for purchases of taxable goods, raising the local tax base. It's a cycle that helps the whole community. You can read more about it in the Triplicate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Bountiful Lenten Season

Many cultures around the world have periods of time when people give something up, whether it is the day-time fasts of Ramadan, fasting on Yom Kippur, or the current season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras, celebrated just yesterday, is a raucous celebration before the 40 days of abstension begins.

The idea of "giving something up for Lent" has spread past church walls. Many people whose cultural traditions don't specifically include the concept use this time as an excuse to give up sugar, coffee, alcohol, internet (!!), and other things in life sometimes viewed as indulgences or even vices.

Here at Growing Tables, we thought we would take Lent in the opposite direction. Instead of giving up, we are adding on to our workload by promising a post at least every work day in Lent (and maybe the weekends, too). We have a few things in our back pocket to get things rolling, but if any of you have suggestions, we'll take them!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Gasquet Community Orchard

There are new and exciting things happening in Gasquet.  With talk of expanding Mountain School's kitchen, opening the school gym as a community center, and a new community garden growing, Gasquet is gearing up and showing support for positive community work and progress.  On January 28th there was a big step in the right direction when some 35 Gasquet residents and volunteers came out to plant a fruit orchard at Mountain School.
The orchard is one part of a continuing effort to increase food availability in the Gasquet Community.  Last May, First 5 Del Norte spearheaded an effort to build a community garden at Mountain School open to all residents of Gasquet. This orchard is an expansion of the garden and will also be open to all of Gasquet.  After the garden was built last May, Patti Vernelson, Director of First 5, and Michael Waddle, Americorps VISTA with Community Assistance Network (CAN), applied for a grant through Jamba Juice on behalf of Mountain School.  The grant awards $500.00 to schools to be spent on fruit trees and only fruit trees.  You don't need to be an arborist to know that $500.00 worth of fruit trees won't plant themselves, so some community organization needed to take place.
Patti Vernelson and Connor Caldwell, Americorps VISTA with CAN, started attending Mountain School PTO meetings to get parents and school staff involved with the project.  Since the garden-building project last May went so well, everyone was eager to repeat the success.  Patti and Connor, Sara Haug and Sarah Demuth (both VISTAs with First 5), and the PTO mobilized and worked together to make flyers, coordinate food, obtain the trees, get compost, and spread the word to the whole Gasquet community.  With $500.00 burning a hole in our collective pocket, Jon and Sierra Schenck, Gasquet residents and parents, worked with Miller Farm's Nursery in McKinleyville to use our grant wisely, and ended up getting 24 fruit trees to make an orchard of 5 different types of fruit!
With the trees obtained, compost delivered, the word spread, and an array of homemade soups, chili, and cornbread (thanks to PTO parents!), the orchard was ready to be planted.  Attempting any outdoor activity in Del Norte in January is risky, but we were lucky enough to have the sun shining on us all day, with only a little wind.  After getting breakfast, provided by Deb Kravitz of Network for a Healthy California, the volunteers started digging holes and breaking through the "Gasquet Potatoes" to make 3'x3' holes, deep enough to plant the saplings to their "grafting point."  Suzanne Nurre and Michael Laslovich, Gasquet residents with extensive farming, gardening, and nursery experience, showed the volunteers how to properly mix compost in with the natural soil and spread the roots out to ensure they grow properly and can expand into the earth.
The planting was a success, and the volunteers were able to plant all 24 fruit trees in less than two hours!  With the coming rainy season, these trees will be heavily watered in and be ready for continued maintenance this summer.  The Gasquet Orchard Day was yet another inspiring and positive project that Gasquet residents and all Del Norte community members can be proud of.

Thanks to Kelley Atherton for the excellent coverage in The Triplicate, and for helping spread the word on great community projects.