Maria Estrela's face, a rainbow of late afternoon light and shadows, focused with ease on a ball of dough in her hands.
Nothing could have deterred her casual concentration in that church parking lot on that summer Saturday afternoon. Not the furtive scurrying of kids around a makeshift prep table, nor the bellowing calls from her sister, Vilma Nuñez, down an improvised short-order line.
"Una revuelta y una con queso!"
Nuñez shouted as she hustled behind a hot, flat-top grill, a spatula gripped in one hand and a whirling queue of handwritten order tickets flying through the other.
Each order was nearly identical, the menu offering only one item: the pupusa. And the Salvadoran sisters know pupusas.
La Iglesia Hispana Emanuel, at 2504 N. Roxboro St. in Durham, periodically hosts mini street-food festivals to raise funds for various church activities. All of the public is invited.
"Everyone in the community seems to enjoy it," says Julio Ramirez, the church's pastor. "We're sharing our history through food. And it's a reminder that we're not an island. We're all a part of this community, this human race."
The church's Spanish-speaking congregation is made up of immigrant families hailing from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Ramirez is from the Dominican Republic, and he jokes that the congregation still manages to understand each other despite speaking Spanish in different accents.
"This is how we can connect. And we share part of who we are," he says. "We're from different countries and villages. Yet we all come from the same heart, the same history. We're immigrants. Each of us left for different reasons—economic or cultural ones, instability—but we're all here to achieve our dreams. So this simple food gives a bit of aroma, a bit of flavor, to our lives."
Michael Twitty has dedicated his life's work to the study of African slave foodways and how they spread from the Southeastern seaboard. That's where thousands of shackled, malnourished people emerged from hellish journeys to find odd comfort in growing conditions reasonably similar to their homelands.
It was on these plantations and farms that displaced Africans longing for a taste of home developed a sort of fusion fare by blending their native traditions with available resources. Those lucky enough to be assigned work in hot kitchens understood that their job was to cover huge tables with elegantly presented foods and stay out of sight while their white mistresses became renowned hostesses. They were powerless when keepers claimed the recipes as their own, sometimes publishing popular cookbooks that now serve as roadmaps to culinary historians.
Twitty's efforts to reveal these much-discounted labors and to genetically connect contemporary citizens with their slave roots has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, among others. On Sept. 7, during a fundraising event he will lead at Historic Stagville in Durham, he intends to disclose findings of his own genetic testing.
Previous research confirmed Twitty's connection to Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Henry Bellamy. This in turn confirmed at least two direct links back to Africa.
Twitty was intentional about coming to Stagville, which comprises the remnants of one of the largest plantations of the pre-Civil War South, to learn more about his own story. In 1860, about 900 slaves worked its almost 30,000 acres of land.
"On the eve of the Civil War, a third of the population of North Carolina was enslaved. That's a critical fact," he says. "I am a descendant of enslaved North Carolina people and plantersboth sides of the fence. I take it with me everywhere I go."
Tonight, master bartender Scott Richie will present "A History of Prohibition Cocktails" at the main branch of the Durham County Library. INDY readers voted Richie Best Bartender in Durham County in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Former co-owner of Whiskey, he currently bartends at Alley Twenty Six and hosts cocktail-making workshops at The Cookery.
Tonight, Richie will detail the rich cocktail history of the Al Capone-era, when cities teemed with hidden speakeasies that scrambled to make drinks on the sly with limited access to alcohol, paving the way for the ingenuity of the craft today. The free discussion takes place at 7 p.m. at the Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St. More information is here.
Edward Lee’s new book Smoke & Pickles should come with a consumer warning label: Exercise caution when starting this book because YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PUT IT DOWN.
Beautifully written and designed, the volume is part memoir of how a cocky Korean-Brooklyn kid finds his footing in a culturally diverse neighborhood and food scene, experiencing bittersweet success as a hipster New York City chef before finding his destiny at 610 Magnolia, a Louisville restaurant serving contemporary Southern fare. Fellow English majors who morphed into foodies will be nodding to the many literary references, as well as to this good advice from Cola Ham Hocks with Miso Glaze: “Braise for 2 hours while you read some Walt Whitman poems.”
The balance of the book is a 130-recipe collection that ranges from simple to complex. Some are restaurant favorites that have been retooled for home cooks, but most reflect the dishes and drinks Lee makes in his kitchen to enjoy with friends. Reading them, you can almost smell the sometimes bourbon-spiked, umami-rich flavors.
The acknowledged culinary genius and three-time runner-up for James Beard honors will be celebrated Wednesday evening by Chef Colin Bedford with a special dinner at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro. The event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $85, which includes dinner, a beer tasting, gratuity and a signed copy of Smoke & Pickles.
Lee says he looks forward to returning to the Triangle and visiting with close friend Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, who will introduce him.
“Every time I’ve been to the Raleigh area, it’s always ended up a very colorful evening,” he says with a laugh while driving from his home to Oxford, Miss., to participate in a Southern Foodways Alliance event. “I always enjoy the people there. They give me lots of libation.”
The dinner will be a homecoming in other ways for Lee. “I have an uncle that I haven’t talked to in like 15 years. He called me of the blue about a week ago to say he lives about 15 minutes away from Fearrington,” he says.
His uncle is bound to find familiar flavors in the “contemporary approach to the Southern table” that Lee has made famous at 610 Magnolia. In his book, Lee attributes this to “smoke [as] the intersection between my two worlds”—referring to his Korean heritage and chosen Southern home.
“Korean grills and Southern barbecue have a lot in common,” he says. “And there are so many ways to infuse that smoky flavor into foods with great local ingredients like bourbon, bacon, sorghum—or to brighten them with the bite of a sharp pickle. It creates the perfect balance, the yin and yang, that makes a meal memorable.”
Although we're well into the 21st century, people of color continue to experience discrimination in regards to food: access to healthy choices, the treatment of farmworkers and land ownership.
“Race is a very dark place,” food activist and former civil rights attorney Maya Wiley said at a lecture Wednesday night in Durham. “We need to acknowledge how the food system is not working in ways that aren’t always visible to us. When we’re talking about race, we’re talking about all of us. Because we all have one.”
At Center for Environmental Farming System’s 2013 Sustainable Agriculture Lecture, Wiley retold the story of the 21-year-old man who left a life of gang violence and became a food activist. Now he grows and sells produce in his neighborhood through SWARM (Students Working for an Agricultural Revolutionary Movement), a program supported by CEFS and directed by Shorlette Ammons.
“We have to shine a light in dark places,” she recalls him saying.
Wiley is president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a national public policy strategy and research organization based in New York City. She works to protect the rights of disadvantaged communities through policy change. Many of the Center’s programs focus on social disparity in the South as it relates to improving a food system rife with racial inequity.
“People are struggling to help their communities survive,” Wiley told INDY Week in an interview prior to her speech. “Survival in the sense of having healthy food. Youth are in literal, physical danger to gun violence and gangs. It’s about saving the community. And all of their stories [in Goldsboro] were about how they were trying to recreate a sense of community and community connection, and how food was a theme in that.”
Wiley spoke comprehensively about what food justice means to communities, particularly communities of color as both farmers and consumers. In 2007, black land ownership in the U.S. increased, but, North Carolina experienced a drastic dip due to unfair or no opportunities for farmers of color.
The message she delivered was familiar to the audience. The free, public event included scientists, agroecologists, local government officials, university professors, high school teachers, farmers, chefs, community organizers and other local food advocates who have been part of a movement for a more fair food system for decades.
But what was unusual was that race was broached outside of activist circles or conferences, and instead brought up explicitly in a public food-focused event.
Wiley’s candid approach emphasized the inclusion of all underrepresented minorities.
“You can say that some white farmers are sharecroppers,” she said. “We want to pay attention to the white farmers enslaved by the contract of a stateless corporation.”
“We want to pay attention to 90 percent of migrant farmworkers who speak Spanish,” she continued. “And their children who, while we have child protection laws in this country, can legally work in the fields. That migrant farmworker makes about $11,000 a year. That is not enough to feed their family.”
Jared Cates of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association speaks tonight on the environmental, agricultural and nutritional implications of the federal farm bill.
The 2008 Farm Bill expired last year; although Congress failed to renew it, lawmakers extended it until a new agreement can be reached.
The event runs from 7—8 p.m. at Irregardless Cafe, 901 W. Morgan St., Raleigh. It is free.
Temple Grandin doesn't like the phrase "harvest plant."
It is a livestock-industry euphemism for a slaughter floor, where animals are killed for food.
"I think that's absolute B.S.," said Grandin, who has redesigned livestock handling facilities. "That's the kind of stuff that the P.R. people make up, and I'm just not gonna do that. That's just ridiculous. I'm gonna use the S-word."
The S word is "slaughter"—the topic and process on which Grandin has spent her career—but it could have been "straight talk," because that's what Grandin gave in her keynote speech during a nose-to-tail pork dinner here Monday night. It was the first of her three talks at the Carolina Meat Conference, a gathering of farmers, butchers, chefs, retailers and other meat-industry people sponsored by NC Choices, a project of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Grandin, who has been called the world's most famous autistic person, didn't mention autism during her 30-minute presentation. Nor did she discuss her belief that the condition has enabled her to better understand animals, a claim that has struck some animal rights activists as self-aggrandizing at worst and unsubstantiated at best.
There are also people for whom the phrase "humane slaughter" is an oxymoron, but humane slaughter was very much on the minds of the 380 conference attendees who attended sessions devoted to topics such as animal welfare and sustainability. And for them, Grandin is a reliable source of knowledge, said Barrett Twitty, the owner of Custom Quality Packers in Sims, N.C. His company slaughters an average of 1,000 pigs a week, mostly for the whole-hog barbecue market. At age 30, he estimates that he's the youngest slaughterhouse owner in the state, and admitted he had a lot to learn after buying the business a few years ago. "She is the one and only when it comes to animal welfare and livestock handling," he said. "There really is no one else to turn to."
During her speech, Grandin mentioned the award-winning 2010 HBO movie about her life, mostly to cite Hollywood folks as another of the various groups she talks to during months of travel every year. Calling it "kind of a weird situation," one day she's signing books and the next she's training animal welfare auditors. One day she's bringing McDonald's executives to a farm and slaughterhouse, the next day she's teaching classes at Colorado State University, where she is a professor. Everywhere she goes, she hears both good and bad about our relationship to the meat we eat.
The bad: A 2012 U.K. study, she said, reported that half of its respondents couldn't connect bacon with pigs. Twelve percent thought beef was made from grain. "Not fed grain, made out of grain," she said — and children who think eggs grow in the ground or on trees.
The good: Industry giant Smithfield Foods decided to phase out sow gestation crates in its slaughterhouses.
"For a while," she said, "the big plants were actually better than the small plants. I'm finding some of the problems in the small plants are simply lack of knowledge."
The sixth annual Empty Bowls benefit for Urban Ministries of Durham is today from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Durham Armory.
Eleven restaurants are providing soup for the event and soup contest, including Thrills from the Grill and Mad Hatter Cafe and Bakeshop. There will also be bread and donated desserts.
This year, Empty Bowls' first after-party will take place at Fullsteam brewery, with area food trucks donating 10 percent of their profits.
Ticket prices to the Armory are $15 for a meal only and $30 for a meal and handcrafted bowl. Children six and under eat free.
UMD hopes to raise more than $30,000 for its Community Cafe, which provides free meals for more than 600 people every day.
A full list of participating restaurants and food trucks can be found at the Empty Bowls page on UMD's website. Tickets can be purchased either online or at the event.
A food symposium runs the risk of becoming a mawkish gathering of foodie intelligentsia basking in the glow of the locavore's paradise that is here in Durham and Chapel Hill.
Except on the first day of Shared Tables: A Triangle Symposium on Global and Local Food Studies, sitting in UNC-Chapel Hill's Hyde Hall listening to a lecture on food and fuel, I heard this from a professor on the distinguished panel:
"We have a food system that sucks."
And then I heard it again, coming from the moderator.
These people are serious.
The bold approach to food issues began around Jacqueline Olich's kitchen table. As Associate Director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at UNC (CSEES), she was looking for a way to use a Title VI U.S. Department of Education grant awarded to the center for four years of Interdisciplinary Symposia on Sustainability & Innovation in Global Contexts. She thought of the impact of food on global economy and culture and settled on her topic.
Then, she learned that Triangle University Food Studies (TUFS), an organization comprised of members from N.C. State, UNC and Duke, had already scheduled nationally acclaimed urban agronomist and community organizer Will Allen to come speak. It was then that she invited members of TUFS, CSEES and the Kenan-Flagler Center for Sustainable Enterprise to meet around her own kitchen table and collaborate on a two-day event at both UNC and Duke. Why?
"Our brazen challenge or question was: How can we feed the world?"
Today's theme focused on global perspective, kicking off with a panel discussion on food issues, politics and farming in the European Union, a region tangled in economic turmoil. An example of Polish farmers taking the reins of small agriculture and pushing for change proved particularly inspiring among students, professors, researchers and local professionals in the lecture room.
The next panel, titled "Food Security, Sustainable Food Systems, and Global Change," began with a list of harrowing global statistics, such as the fact that by 2050, our global population will reach 9 billion. Currently one-seventh of the world's population (925 million people) experiences chronic hunger. Food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 in order to make sure that number doesn't rise. L. George Wilson of N.C. State provided the statistics, also highlighting food waste and his efforts with U.S. Aid's Feed the Future program to implement programs in developing nations that help preserve the quality of their food in the time it takes to travel from the harvest to the market.
Meanwhile, nutritionist, professor and author Suzanne Havala Hobbs presented the "the global problem of over-nutrition," stating plainly that the United States is "the fattest country in the world," with 30 percent of our citizens listed as obese. "Obesity is a national security issue, in my opinion," she stated.
UNC Department of African and Afro-American Studies Chair Eunice Sahle intrigued the audience with her research on development in Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya, where she said "African countries are forced to destroy their own agriculture in order to export commodities."
The outspoken honesty in these statements carried over to the audience. One woman, a student studying public health, stood up and asked, "As an American consumer and inherent capitalist, what can I do?"
"Your American citizenship, you can use that," Sahle said. "It has a lot of normative power in shaping agrarian policy."
While the after-lunch panel focused on food and fuel, the power of consumer choice in a first-world nation remained a bold theme. We learned that in 2008, the depreciation of the dollar coupled with the rise of the cost of grain increased global food prices by 20 percent. Grain is an energy drain, too, as the crop that uses the most fertilizer.
Another connection with food and energy: meat production. Osei Yeboah, Associate Professor in Agribusiness and Applied Economics and N.C. A&T University, stated that one beef cattle requires 2.5 acres to raise. Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, who facetiously prefaced his talk as "unreasonable," said this posed an issue of "the denial of self-satisfaction" for consumers in this country.
"If consumers don't demand those changes in agricultural policy and health," said Yeboah, "it's not going to happen."
The audience left wide-eyed. At Duke tomorrow, they tackle local issues—point-blank.
If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution that’s simpler and less taxing than sweating on the elliptical machine, pledge to go meatless each Monday in 2012.
The Meatless Monday Pledge-olution was created by Eleni Vlachos, who co-organized last year’s Bull City Vegan Challenge and hosts the annual Vegan Thanksgiving Record Party.
“We want to do it in a fun way,” she said. “And harness the power of new years and resolutions. And address reasons why resolutions fail.”
Our best intentions fail because we take on too much—thus the one-day-a-week pledge—and we keep them private. Peer pressure has its benefits.
As an incentive, pledges can enter a contest to win a grand prize. That person will receive a gourmet dinner for two at Solas in Raleigh, a copy of the award-winning documentary, Forks Over Knives, two free passes to The Fiction Kitchen vegan brunch, cooking classes, cookbooks and more.
And if you’re already meatless, refer a pledge and you’re eligible to win the Karma prize. And we could all use better karma. The contest runs through Jan. 9. Get more details at trianglemm.com.