Artisan Producers, Cooking, Farming, Field Notes

How the OAEC Cookbook Also Teaches about Life

oaec cookbook

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) folks have lived peacefully in an intentional community for nearly 25 years, co-owning some 80 acres of pristine growing grounds near the ocean. From this place of centering, they teach thousands of people how to farm and how to honor and preserve biodiversity.

They maintain, enlarge, and propagate a “mother garden” that contains a wild amount of biodiversity and offers a continuous food production cycle amid West County’s wild weather. They paint and hold Chauttauqua and even produced a cookbook.

All of which is to say that the OAEC community is pretty amazing. But there are some things that they do that you might be able to do, too. Like grow a garden. Like buy what you can’t grow from those who can. Like cook at home. Like remembering to smile.

These and other simple lessons are among the pleasures of the OAEC’s eponymous Cookbook (Chelsea Green; $40), a richly illustrated photo-heavy 416-page declaration of intent, process, and good ways to eat from the land — whatever your land might be.

Founded by seven friends in 1994 as the Sowing Circle intentional community and soon incorporated as a 501(c)3, the OAEC exemplifies the human interdependence that their innovative permaculture design work encourages in the plants and trees that surround them.

Hosting workshops and classes, retreats and day visits, the OAEC has a robust seasonal schedule, so the recipes in its cookbook are cleverly calibrated for either four to six people or 30 to 40 hungry folks.

They’re used to feeding a crowd, and an enduring and crowd-pleasing dish that visitors have come to expect is one of their epic salads.

Called the “biodiversity salad mix,” this collection of propagated and foraged foods changes with the seasons, as the cookbook deftly illustrates. Mother Garden biodiversity director Doug Gosling, in charge of the collective’s nightly salad, has such a wealth of options available that he sometimes picks solely for color palette.

In spring, it might contain tulip petals and broccoli leaves amid the myriad; in the summer, rose petals and celery flowers. While his salads always feature a lettuce or green of some type, the point being celebrated is that “salad” isn’t solely Romaine or iceberg glopped up with something from a bottle but rather, a living expression of what’s happening on the earth the very day you sit down to eat it — and that said eating should be fearless in its wandering and appetite for taste.

As pleasurable to simply read as it is to cook from, the OAEC Cookbook, primarily written by Olivia Rathbone but naturally contributed to by all members of the community, offers such wisdom as that chamomile will get bitter if boiled (and make you sleepy!); how best to cook cactus; that seed saving is a radical act; how to start your own sourdough; what the role of rosemary is in transforming whipped cream; that carnations taste of cloves; why lemon verbena is good with steamed rice; and how sometimes in the winter you are simply so very glad that all visitors have gone home and you’ve got the whole 80 acres to yourselves.

Join us on Thursday, March 15, when members of the OAEC are honored at a special Taste of Place dinner featuring recipes in their cookbook.

Meet the Makers

John T. Edge’s ‘Pot Likker Papers’

pot likker papers

The longer the greens stew with the meat, the richer the pot likker. When the meat and greens are scooped from the pan to be placed on the plates of the privileged, the fat and vitamins stay behind for the bowls of the poor. The bottom of the pan holds the best part of the meal.

Using this as a metaphor and a title, food journalist John T. Edge sketches a brief history of modern Southern culture through what was eaten and who cooked it in his new book, The Potlikker Papers.

The PotLikker Papers grew out of Edge’s 2002 masters dissertation, written during a career curve that found him abandoning the corporate world for an academic career that would earn him a James Beard Award for his writing and a position heading up the Southern Foodways Alliance project at the University of Mississippi.

“For me, this book was an attempt to boil down, distill down 60 years of Southern history and offer voice to all those cooks who express themselves through a kind of subversive creativity in the kitchen and the fields and at tables,” Edge told NPR in a recent interview.

He begins with the Civil Rights movement, one that centered in part on the right to sit at a counter and eat, and one that was certainly fueled by home kitchens and underground restaurants.

“I initially thought I was going to write a book that was the post-Civil War South,” Edge told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “[But] I recognized along the way that I’m definitively disinterested in the Civil War, and that the South I embrace, love and am also angry with begins to take shape as the Civil Rights movement comes into focus.

“And if you think about one of the propulsive moments of the movement, you come to the Montgomery bus boycotts.”

And you come to Georgia Gilmore, an indefatigable mother of six who literally nourished the movement from her own kitchen.

You come to the Black Panthers, for whom feeding the masses was a radical act. You come to the hippies who founded The Farm in Tennessee in order to grow food unfettered by corporate interests and you come to Jimmy Carter’s down-home appeal and Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun celebrity and Craig Claiborne’s refined Frenchified approach.

And eventually you come to the return of the real food of the real people of the real history of the South — fueled by bourbon and brisket.

“Instead of a myth-veiled cultural monolith, I see the South as an album of snapshots,” Edge writes in the book’s introduction. “I hear the region like it’s a jukebox of 45s. The South I sample is a menu of dishes. Shaped by a four-century-long call-and-response between masters and enslaved peoples, a back-and-forth between Native Americans and immigrants, the region I know, the place that comes to life in The Potlikker Papers, rejects easy encapsulation.”

The result is a fascinating collection of essays that travels widely, introducing us to Colonel Sanders’ foul mouth (and his loathing of his chicken once the franchise was sold), and the innovative cookbook author Edna Lewis before taking us all the way to the present day with South Carolina celebrity restaurateur Sean Brock (newly famous for becoming sober).

What results is a singular story of women, even when Edge focuses on men. Whether a white baby is placed on a black breast — as with an opening anecdote about a mother able to buy a farm by working as a wet nurse — to the tale of Gordonsville, VA, the “chicken-leg center of the universe,” where, Edge writes, “black women supported their families and ‘built houses out of chicken legs'” by making portable meals that could be passed in through car windows in an ad hoc variation on fast food.

Today, a Southern eater is just as likely to enjoy an el pastor taco or a bowl of pho as a plate of meat and greens. “What was once a region of black and white, locked in a struggle for power, has become a society of many hues and many hometowns,” Edge writes, looking on as his teenaged son’s generation emerges.

“Given time to reconcile the mistakes my generation made with the beauty we forged amid adversity, his generation might challenge the region of our birth to own up to its promise.”

That’s a prediction we’re glad to wait for, slowly supping the good stuff from the bottom of the pan.

Chefs, Cooking, Craftsmanship, Field Notes, Modern Grange, Supper series

The Unforgettable Paula Wolfert

Paula Wolfert
“Good food is memory.” —Paula Wolfert

 

“Paula Wolfert,” says her editor and food biographer Emily Thelin, “is the most influential food writer you’ve never heard of.”

Yet, if you’ve ever enjoyed a cassoulet or confit, delighted at a preserved lemon tucked into a dish, fluffed couscous with a fork or cooked in a tangine, you owe a culinary debt to Paula Wolfert — even if you’ve never heard of her.

Paula is the intrepid food journalist and chef who brought such delicacies as cassoulet and preserved lemons to American palates via her nine cookbooks, beginning with Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, published in 1973.

Following her first husband to Morocco in the ’60s, Paula became restless with the ennui of the bohemian expat crowd and instead turned her fine intelligence to the sights and smells of the souk, and finally to the kitchens and tables of the Moroccan people who frequented its food stalls.

Famous for nearly moving in with her subjects, Paula eventually found ease with seven languages, allowing her to move into the kitchens and homes of people across western Europe. An expert on Mediterranean cooking, including our favorite Clay Pot Cooking, Paula introduced French country cooking to an avid audience.

Now 78, Paula is a longtime resident of the town of Sonoma, where she shares a home with her husband, the writer William Bayer. She’s still on a mission, but its aim has altered. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, Paula can no longer differentiate tastes but she can still enjoy the kitchen.

Rather than examine the traditions of a particular geographical area, her focus today is on brain-healthy foods that she hopes will forestall the worst of her disease as long as possible.

Paula’s editor Emily Thelin (pictured above) realized that now is the time to capture Paula’s food memories and best recipes in a new collection and set about trying to sell the proposal through regular New York publishing channels. No one committed.

So she did what we do these days, she took it to Kickstarter, where 1,112 people donated to the cause, raising $91,000 and catching  the interest of both famed food photographer Eric Wolfinger and acclaimed food writer Andrea Nguyen, who agreed to edit the text.

The resulting book, Unforgettable, gathers together some of Paula’s favorite and most iconic recipes along with a lively biography peppered with intelligent asides by Thelin throughout.

A loving and alacritive recent article by New York Times food writer Kim Severson looks at Paula’s current life, after the book’s publication, where she is still active in the kitchen and able to surprise both her biographer and her assistants.

Accompanied by photographer Wolfinger, Thelin and Paula come to SHED on Sunday, June 4, for a special celebration dinner. Each diner will receive a copy of Unforgettable as part of the night. Our chef Perry Hoffman has created a splendid Middle Eastern-themed dinner in Paula’s honor.

“I don’t remember yesterday,” Paula says plainly to the camera in her Kickstarter film. “Tomorrow, I could get hit by a car. So I live in the now and I make it work for me.”

It appears that there’s more to learn from Paula after all.

The Unforgettable dinner honoring Paula Wolfert is slated for Sunday, June 4, from 5pm. $115 per person; includes the book. RSVP today.

Artisan Producers, Chefs, Cooking, Modern Grange

Baking for Geeks: Chad Robertson at SHED

When Michael Pollan visited SHED earlier this year in support of his new book Cooked, he joked about the experience of shaking master baker Chad Robertson's hand. Michael hesitated to wash his own hands later, thinking that perhaps, just maybe, something magical and yeasty from Chad might have translated. Something he could use in his own bread to bring it even halfway to the greatness that the Tartine Bakery, which Chad co-owns with wife Elizabeth Pruitt, daily achieves.

But as became clear when Chad talked about his new book, Tartine No. 3, with our own Lora Zarubin at SHED on Sept. 14, 2014, it takes more than a mere handshake to glean some of his mojo. Chad is a man obsessed, a fermentation geek and a chemistry nerd whose experiments just happen to be delicious.

What he experiments with in No. 3 are whole grains. But he doesn't just do a straight trade with white flour recipes for its browner cousin. Rather, he deconstructs and then reassembles the very nature of bread's essence using many whole ancient grains which now rarely feed us. Moreover, he ferments. Anyone who proofs yeast engages in the fermentation process, but the secret to Tartine Bakery bread is in the length, the delirious lassitude, of the ferment. Chad regularly lets his loaves rise for 10 to 12 hours before baking. 

Of course, certain grains have fallen out of favor for understandable reasons: they're difficult to bake with and require clever work-arounds to make edible, let alone delicious. Chad and his team — including head baker Richard Hart, who was onsite at SHED to assist — regularly make what they call "porridges" from "difficult" regional grains.

Inspired by René Redzepi's work with ancient Nordic grains for his world-renowned restaurant NOMA and emboldened by the superior team he had in the kitchen, Chad took his essential recipes and reimagined them for an older larder. One a pharaoh might recognize.

Remembering Chad as a "surfer/baker dude" in Pt. Reyes when he and wife Elizabeth first opened their Bay Village Breads Bakery out there over a decade ago, Lora asked Chad about the impetus of this newest cookbook, the third in his series emanating from Tartine Bakery's work.

"It started as another bread book and then went into pastries," Chad said. "I knew there was more we could do with whole grain pastries." He added, "I was getting slightly tired with the taste of white flour. I wanted to go back with my team and see what we could imagine, rather than just swappping out the white flour.

"We didn't go back to the drawing board," Chad stressed. "We went to our basic way of making breas and adjusted from that. We deconstructed it, trying different grains, particularly those without gluten, to incorporate into the breads. We made porridges and tried sprouting grains to discover new ways."

Chad discussed growing up in the French pain levain tradition and living in France with Elizabeth, who has gluten-intolerance, yet could eat the bread without distress. Broke and baking, bread is something they ate without cease. When they returned to the U.S., her discomfort and symptoms returned and she had to stop eating bread again. 

"That was the 20-year question for me," Chad said. "Why could she eat bread there and not here?"

He came to understand that fermentation probably has a lot to do with it, meaning that the way bread is produced might indicate whether it will cause upset to someone who has difficulty processing gluten (unrelated to celiac disease). "We were already making bread that gluten-intolerant people could eat," Chad says. "We just didn't know it."

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Heritage, ancient, whole grains have less gluten than the enriched white flour that forms the basis of most modern bread today. They're also extermely versatile, as Chad's team discovered during the year that they devised and tested recipes for the book.

"Our goals was to show the range of possibilities," Chad said. "We stopped at 10 recipes for porridge, for example, but we could have gone on and on."

Other questions included whether his bread is affected by place (not unless he's using local flour, in which case it adds its own terroir); if he prefers high-tech or wood-fired ovens (he loves them both for different reasons but misses working so much with fire); when his Tokyo store will open (mid-year, 2015); does fresh-milled flour affect the taste? (yes, it's like the difference between fresh ground pepper and a box of the dusty stuff from the store); does he collaborate with any farmers (he works closely with the Bread Lab at the University of Washington, which is experimenting with 40,000 different grain varieties); what's the best way to keep your sourdough starter alive when you're on vacation (either spread it out on a piece of parchment paper set on a cookie sheet and let it air dry while you're gone or take a small amount and add a lot of flour, until the consistency is like Play-Doh — that slows the starter down vastly and it can be reconstituted upon return); how to get airy bread (be careful with your preshape molding: the tighter you make the bread, the less air holes you'll get); and what he would do if he didn't bake (restaurant owners and trained chefs, he and Elizabeth would cook).

What should home bakers take away from the book, Lora asked.

"A lot of people don't know how to use amaranth or other grains that I've learned to work with," he said. "This is a way to incorporate these grains into your diet. There are other grains than wheat and they're very interesting and have their own unique qualities."

One of the ways that such decidedly non-sexy items as old grains become fashionable, Chad said, is to be championed by those bakers and chefs who want to use them, making it sensical for farmers to grow them, making them available to consumers to taste them. 

"I'd like to help reposition old grains in a more stylish way," he said, "so that people choose to eat them and not just for the health reasons. Before, it was boring; there weren't a lot of choices.

"Now, we have hundreds of varieties of wheat to choose from."

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