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The place is Gabrielle’s Restaurant in Orange, Connecticut. The year, circa 1991. My sister and I are tearing our away at our second basket of crusty Italian bread wrapped in a salmon pink linen on the center of the table. We’ve already gone through our allocation and moved onto the one meant for the other end of the table, where our grandparents, aunts and uncles are seated.

“You still have to eat dinner,” my mom is telling us. But, being the born and bred carb-loving kids that we are, that really isn’t much of a concern and she probably knows it. After all, this isn’t our first rodeo at the old ristorante Gabrielle.

We’d been going to Gabrielle’s for years as a family by this point. For brunches and dinners. For Mother’s Days and anniversaries. It wasn’t just bread, sliced thick and served with pats of butter that we all applied blissfully ignorant of phrases like “grass-fed” or “heirloom grain,” that made us do a little dinner-time happy dance. We also loved the fried calamari the grown-ups ordered, wincing a little when they first told us what it was we were eating, but happy as clams to dive into the squid when it arrived fried and crispy, served with a side of marinara like little oceanic onion rings.

But that was all just a prelude to the main event. One entrée was a standing order for both my sister and me. It was what filled my head with creamy, buttery daydreams the moment someone mentioned an impending dinner at Gabrielle’s. We never looked at the menu, because there was never, ever any question what was coming.

——

The place is Rome, Italy. The year, circa 1914. A local cook named Alfredo is trying to create something his pregnant wife will enjoy. He reaches for a few familiar, readily available ingredients. His notion is a simple one, but how could he possibly go wrong with a combination of noodles, butter and cheese?

This is the legend of how Alfredo Di Lelio wound up lending his name to the Italian culinary hall of fame. Fettuccine Alfredo. The dish he came up with was made with butter and parmigiano—though no cream, which is an element it is rarely seen without these days. In classic Italian cooking, cream rarely appears in central to southern parts of the Peninsula, mostly a luxury ingredient specific to northern regions with colder climates.

Although Di Lelio is given the credit, in actuality it was a likely evolution of pasta al burro—or buttered pasta—con parmigiano. A recipe for something similar exists as far back as the 1400s, when perhaps the earth’s first celebrity chef, Maestro Martino da Como, included instructions for that dish in his book, Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking). Di Lelio’s interpretation five centuries later may have been sans panna (cream), but it was al triplo burro (triple the butter), and an apparent hit at home.

Ultimately, it made it onto the menu at his Roman ristorante, Alfredo alla Scrofa in Piazza Augusto, and found an audience far beyond his own wife’s plate. Of course, social media wasn’t a thing in those days, but part of the popularity actually came on account of the Instagram antecedent—diners’ word of mouth. In this case, some very influential diners. First, Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks dined on Alfredo’s noodles during their Roman honeymoon and raved about it all the way back on the American West Coast. Then, George Rector, the food critic for the Saturday Evening Post, traveled to Rome, tasted Alfredo’s preparation, and dished about it to hungry readers back in the States.

Talk about influencers.

Alfredo Di Lelio with Alfred Hitchcock | Photo courtesy of Il Vero Alfredo

Naturally, we Americans couldn’t leave well enough alone, and always seem to want to add to just about everything. So eventually, when Alfredo’s preparation made its way across the Atlantic, someone thought extra butter just wasn’t enough. How about some cream?

By most accounts, prior to the 1960s, Alfredo’s fettuccine was known as much for its flavor as its reputation as a tableside spectacle. Servers would whip up the cheese and butter together, emulsifying it with the noodles and residual pasta water—much the way cacio e pepe is prepared—right before diners’ eyes.

But as anyone who has attempted to make cacio e pepe according to that traditional method can attest, that wouldn’t have been all that convenient for the home cook to attempt. So it may not be a surprise that the earliest evidence of the creamy twist came when The Pennsylvania Dutch Noodle Company published a recipe on the package of dried fettuccine, perfect timing for the convenience food era homemakers who were being exposed to and inspired by more exotic dishes, but wanted to have impressive meals they could easily pull off for their families. The new recipe would have produced a satisfying interpretation with a lot less fuss.

So, although the dish did originate in Rome, what graces modern Italian food menus would be foreign to Di Lelio and his Lazio-born brethren. Today, American restaurants often even further complicate the recipe and its derivatives. The Olive Garden has published instructions on its website that include both milk and heavy cream, two kinds of grated cheese, and flour. Ironically, this sort of thing is intended to make it simpler to execute at scale and at home, with ingredients like flour to thicken and stabilize (also of note, The OG has added to the menu “Chicken Alfredo Pizza Frittata,” which appears to be some kind of calzone. As well as “Spicy Alfredo Chicken,” described as “lightly breaded and fried chicken tenders tossed in a spicy alfredo sauce”—one wonders whether the liberties taken with his name may have Signore Di Lelio rolling in his grave).

Nutmeg is also a common addition in modern executions, as are pepper and/or garlic; sometimes lemon makes an appearance, and certain versions even call upon egg yolk for an extra creamy, luxurious element to the already decadent sauce.

But for me, regardless of history or origin, my memories of Alfredo are all perfect ones, whether at Gabrielle’s, buried under a heap of dried green parsley, in my grandmother’s kitchen made with her own fresh fettuccine noodles, in Rome where tourist bait ristoranti happily serve the Americanized iteration in exchange for a few Euro—and yes, even at The Olive Garden. All of which are probably a far cry from what its namesake imagined, but all are a study in how a few simple ingredients and a little bit of love as inspiration can create a global legacy—one which I, for one, feel no guilt about taking pleasure in.

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It’s where we plant gardens and build empires. Uncover treasure and bury our dead. Wars are fought over it, and freedom is running through it barefoot. Land is at once a place, an identity, and a resource.

Understanding it is no small task, but in some parts of the world there seems to be a deeper grasp on “the land”—how it anchors us and how we honor it. Hawaii is one such place, offering a rich history so embedded with nature that the rest of us would do well to mimic it, even in very small ways.

Hawaiians exemplify what it means to live off the land and maintain a connection to what fundamentally supports all human life. But they don’t stop there; by blending agriculture with tourism, they invite every aloha-seeking visitor to join them.

A LIVING HISTORY

Nearly fifty percent of all visitors to Hawaii visit Oahu. The island welcomed a record 5.9 million tourists in 2018, so it’s no surprise the ‘Alohilani Resort, located steps from Oahu’s famed Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, would have a vested interest in educating guests on what makes the property so special.

“The ‘Alohilani sits on the site of Queen Lili’oukalani’s summer cottage,” explains Minh-Huyen Nguyen, Area Marketing Manager for Highgate. “We have to make sure that what we are doing is pono, as we say [in Hawaiian], which means ‘the right and honorable thing to do.’”

Queen Lili’oukalani was the last monarch and only woman to rule the Kingdom of Hawaii. Everything at the ‘Alohilani, which means “heavenly brightness” or “royal light,” was renovated with her love for the land in mind. A soaring lobby greets visitors with floor-to-ceiling windows, a 280 thousand-gallon oceanarium, and eighteen-foot columns hand-wrapped in basket-woven teak. A modern, custom coral art piece immortalizes the sea above the reception desk.

But it’s not just the interior that evokes a reign of nature. As part of the resort’s focus on sustainability, guests have the opportunity to plant trees at Gunstock Ranch, a former sugarcane plantation turned working ranch (the name Gunstock honors one of the ranch’s horses). And it has dedicated five hundred of its nine hundred acres to reforestation on Oahu’s North Shore.

Only two indigenous trees had remained on the land when Gunstock first began to reforest it. “Whatever is here is not native,” says Gunstock Ranch CEO Kyndra Smith. “[When this was an operational sugarcane plantation], the U.S. Forestry would send over whatever was good on the mainland to Hawaii, not knowing how it would destroy the local ecosystem.”

Thanks to its partnership with the Hawaii Reforestation Initiative and hotels like the ‘Alohilani, which has committed to planting one hundred thousand trees with the help of its guests, Gunstock is working to restore that ecosystem with milo trees, a native Hawaiian hardwood that was frequently used for royal ceremonies and to eat from, since the wood provides no aftertaste. Milo trees were also prized by King Kamehameha; they grew abundantly around his home in Honolulu.

“Hawaiians believe that everything has a spirit. The animals, the grass, the trees, all of us,” continues Smith. “We want visitors to be able to give part of their [spirit] to these trees. There are about eight hundred that have been planted. All of those trees have a story because someone came out and planted it there.”

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The experience of planting a tree at Gunstock is both beautiful and simple: first digging a hole for the young plant, then tucking it into the warm earth with bare hands. As the plant is watered, the visitor folds their palms around its stem while saying a word of honor. A personalized certificate and identification tag enable the tree’s growth to be tracked over time.

“Our goal has been to make sure these trees become more valuable in the ground than they would be [by] being cut down,” Smith explains. She adds that after milo trees are planted, next will be sandalwood, followed by fruits and flowers that are native to Hawaii.

“We want to encourage tourism that’s not just about consuming,” reiterates Nguyen. “You could come back twenty years from now and see the tree you had planted in honor of an anniversary or your grandparents. It creates a legacy to the land and to the visit.”

THE FUTURE OF FARMING

Thirty minutes south of Gunstock Ranch and forty-five minutes north of ‘Alohilani Resort is Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve, also notable as the filming location of Jurassic Park. Draped in ripples of green, the four thousand-acre property is framed by the Kaneohe Bay to its east and a mountain-like ridge to its west. Appropriately, it resembles the spine of a sleeping stegosaurus.

For the first time, Kualoa Ranch is offering a farm-to-table tour for visitors, most of whom come to channel Lost, ride ATVs, or trek horses through the picturesque “Hawaii Backlot.” But in talking with the direct descendants of the property’s original owner Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, Kualoa’s newest endeavor is more a move back to basics than a gimmick to drive revenue.

“Dr. Judd was such an instrumental person arriving in 1828, practicing medicine, then becoming a confidant of the king and being a minister,” says John Morgan, the great-great-great-grandson of Dr. Judd and President of Kualoa Ranch. “He really cared deeply for the Hawaiian people, and he cared enough about the land that he bought some of the king’s personal land [which today is Kualoa Ranch]. There’s a certain privilege and honor to be part of that lineage, but there’s also the responsibility that goes with it.”

While agriculture is thought to have always existed on the property—a painting from 1864 depicts cows in a view of the ranch—it’s been John and his brother, David, who’ve taken the extra effort to expand and share that agricultural side with the public. The farm-to-table tour reveals Kualoa through a culinary lens, immersing guests via vintage trolley bus in the active raising of cattle, sheep, pigs, oyster and shrimp in addition to the exotic vegetables and fruit, such as breadfruit and cacao, that flourish there. The three-hour tour ends with a six-course meal enjoying dishes like papaya quinoa salad, half-shell Pacific oysters with smoked Hawaiian chili pepper, or garlic shrimp atop ‘uala mashed potato, all while taking in the view of lush taro patches that lead out to the bay.

“It’s part of the Hawaiian DNA,” John explains. “The land is the chief and man is the servant. It’s a stewardship ethic. We know that it’s what we have to do, and we’ve built the business around it. It’s not just about money, but about an authentic experience. We’re real farmers doing real stuff.”

David Morgan, John’s brother and Kualoa Ranch Operations Manager, agrees, but with an added emphasis on the future of farming and the complexities of an industry fewer and fewer seem to understand. “We get incredible numbers of visitors here every day,” says David. “What I’m becoming aware of is a huge percentage of the population doesn’t really know what it takes to produce their food.” He goes on, commenting on the dwindling percentage of people entering the agriculture industry at all, “Now, the average age of an American farmer is over sixty. The next generation is not interested in getting involved.”

While the point of the tour isn’t to make everyone into a farmer, driving through the ranch’s Ka’a’awa Valley does heighten appreciation for (and interest in) those who commit themselves to the balance of the land. It takes detailed layers of attention, for example, to know the growing times of certain grasses and when to move which herds of cattle.

John Morgan, President of Kualoa Ranch
David Morgan, Kualoa Ranch Operations Manager

“If you look out at the living world, everything that’s living in any particular environment is in a battle for its existence,” David comments. “It’s all a battle for resources. The true art of agriculture is to take a limited space and environment and control that battle in such a way that the species you want to thrive, thrives.”

Maybe that’s the best way to truly understand our relationship with the land. The planet is approximately seventy percent water, which leaves only thirty percent as terrain. Of that thirty percent, nearly half is uninhabitable for humans, being either desert, high mountain, or otherwise unsuitable. Of that remaining fifteen percent, should we be shrewd conquerors or humble controllers?

“Our mission statement is to enrich people’s lives by preserving the land and celebrating its history,” John says. “We don’t want them just to be in awe of what we have. We want them to go home and say, ‘Wow, this is my kuleana—responsibility. This is my area that I can affect. Whether it’s [here or on] Main Street, Minneapolis, make a difference.”

This story was made possible with the support and collaboration of Hawaiian Airlines and ‘Alohilani Resort.

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Blast from the past — Mar 12, 2019

Raising a Chef

What’s it like to raise the future leaders of the food industry? We asked the parents of accomplished chefs to share their stories.

Editor’s Note: No one knows a person better than their parents. And for as much media coverage, and for as many diners who pass through the hallowed dining rooms that each of these chefs helm, we still wondered what they were like way back when. Today, we get the inside scoop from the parents of these prominent chefs.

Enrique Olvera

Restaurants: Pujol, Mexico City, Mexico; Cosme, New York City, New York; and others

Source: Mother, Pilar Figueras*

*This interview has been translated from Spanish

Egg was the least favorite when he was a child. He loved cookies with sweetened condensed milk, or rice in any presentation you could imagine. He liked to go with his grandpa to the markets and always taste everything that was offered, but he mainly liked rice.

He wasn’t a difficult child in terms of eating, so cooking for him was always a pleasure and not a problem. More than participating, he was curious about ingredients and kept asking questions; he wanted to know all the names and liked to help in the process. He loved to be at his [paternal] grandparents’ bakery and talk with the bakers, and see the process of bread baking and cake being prepared. He also liked to eat with his grandpa at the Spanish casino.

We’ve always enjoyed family gatherings—no matter the reason or celebration—but always around the table. Good food, tamales or something more elaborate, as happens in Christmas or New Year.

When Enrique was a little child, our vacations were spent more at Cuernavaca, Acapulco, Ixtapa or Valle de Bravo. Cabo seduced him when he was older. Hel fell in love with the place. The places where his restaurants are located are always places that really captivate and seduce him.

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Bill Telepan

Restaurant: Oceana, New York City, New York

Source: Mother, Evelyn Telepan

When Bill initially told me that he wanted to go to culinary school, I have to say I was quite surprised and also didn’t think it was a good idea. While Bill is certainly creative, he didn’t show much interest in cooking when he was younger. I always enjoyed preparing meals for the family while the kids played outside, and usually had to make several calls to get them to come in and eat.

One of my specialties, Hungarian hamburgers, was Bill’s favorite dish, and usually guaranteed an easier time getting him to sit down at the table. I didn’t have an exact recipe, but the hamburgers consisted of ground pork mixed with stale rolls, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. My stuffed cabbage with kielbasa and kraut was always a big hit too. To this day, Bill’s favorite meal each year is our annual roast pork with sauerkraut and fresh kielbasa for New Year’s. I used to serve it all on kaiser rolls. The only thing I really couldn’t get him to touch was liver.

Max Sharrad

Restaurant: Shobosho, Adelaide, South Australia

Source: Mother, Nicki Sharrad

Max was a very confident child with excellent language skills and was talking fluently by the time he was eighteen months old. He was sporty, sociable, bright and always had a love of food. This was not surprising as he was surrounded by family that also loved food.

He showed very early signs of being creative in the kitchen when he tried his hand at creating art with sour cream. He had Italian grandparents and we went [to their house] for lunch every Sunday. He loved watching them make gnocchi, pasta and tiramisu, and was always willing to stir a pot or get his hands dirty mixing ingredients together.

Max had a sweet tooth growing up and his favourite dessert was tiramisu. which I still make for him now with the same recipe his Nonna used. He was easy to cook for growing up and would try anything. He loved brussel sprouts, which we always thought was odd for a child. Cooking for him now is more challenging as his knowledge of food and passion for local, sustainable and organic produce has become a priority.

When Max was in year twelve, he told us he wanted to be a chef and we bought him a Japanese knife and cookbook as a graduation present. He did pursue other avenues and went on to university where he started a couple of different degrees, but he eventually followed his passion and went back to cooking.

Our favourite food memories were and still are our family Christmas feasts where we have a great spread of festive food. Being with family and enjoying food together are still the things Max enjoys today.

Tim Love

Restaurant: Queenie’s Steakhouse, Denton, Texas

Source: Mother, Queenie

Raising seven kids as a single mother, our family menu consisted of a lot of staples like macaroni and cheese, spam, and Tim’s favorite, SOS, which was dried beef with cream gravy. During the early years, Tim showed no real interest in cooking or food, but was always a fiercely independent hard worker. His restaurant empire today is proof of that.

It wasn’t until he had to work his way through college that he discovered his skill and passion for cooking. After starting as a fine dining sous chef, the rest was history. Now he’s representing Lone Star cuisine all over the country. As for his children, Tim loves to teach them the art of cooking and the love and appreciation of good food.

Justin Walker

Restaurant: Walkers Maine, Cape Neddick, Maine

Source: Mother, Denise Walker

Early on in Justin’s life, he’d go trout and bass fishing with his dad, then come home to cook it for dinner. When his dad came home from deer hunting, he’d help him butcher the deer. Justin and his grandfather prepared the Sunday and holiday meals for the family.

Foraging came into play when he and his grandfather went walking through the woods. His least favorite food was eggs of any kind, especially hard boiled. His favorite food was charcoal-roasted potatoes on the barbecue grill in the summer, just like he is cooking them now on the hearth at Walkers Maine.

Cooking at the Walker household when growing up was a group effort. I would leave meats and vegetables for him to start preparing when he got home from school. My husband and I worked, so Justin would start the meals. This is when I knew he found his love for cooking. When I’d get home from work, I’d set the table and usually make a salad with vegetables from our garden that my husband tended. All that was instilled in his love for food then, and has carried him through to become the artist that he is for taste, textures and perfection of foods at Walkers Maine.

Adam Tortosa

Restaurant: Robin, San Francisco, California

Source: Father, Michael Tortosa

About the time that Adam was three years old, he started to ask for a Fisher-Price kitchen for a holiday present—s he would call it a “kitsshen.” When he opened the present he was so happy, all he could say was, “a kitsshen, a kitsshen.” For the next few years we were presented with sunny-side plastic eggs, plastic toast, and a weird yellow plastic butter that he would cook for us in his “kitsshen.”

In elementary school, when he was home sick, instead of watching cartoons, he would lay on the sofa and watch cooking shows on TV. The only kinds of books we remember seeing in Adam’s hands revolved around cooking and food.

On a family fishing vacation in Mexico, he not only wanted to filet the fish he caught, he asked the owner of the resort if he could go in the kitchen and help the cooks prepare the meal for all the guests. He was allowed to do this and that is when we knew we really had a chef on our hands.

Traci Des Jardins

Restaurant: Jardinière, The Commissary, Arguello and others, San Francisco, California

Source: Mother, Linda Des Jardins

Traci was three when her older brother Mike went to kindergarten. Traci was so upset; she would cry until Mike got home. In an effort to make this a little easier, I told Traci we would make chocolate chip cookies for Mike when he got home. We used the Nestle Tollhouse recipe and would make them often. By the time she was five, Traci could make the dough on her own from memory. She was too little to read the recipe, but knew all of the steps by heart. One of the tips I had given her was to fold all of the ingredients together so as not to make the cookies tough. Whenever she was baking with her cousins or her friends, she was always so adamant about folding in the ingredients.

We have a huge family. Traci has eleven cousins on her father’s side and fifteen on my side. Every year, we would bring the family together for Thanksgiving, all cooking together. The night before was the real event. Traci’s Grandfather Des Jardins was originally from Louisiana and we would make his shrimp creole recipe; we were all his little sous chefs.

My mother is Mexican and made fresh tortillas every day. By the time Traci was five she was rolling fresh tortillas with her grandmother and cooking alongside her. One of Traci’s all-time favorite dishes is my grandmother—Traci’s great grandmother’s—albondigas soup. It has been passed down through the generations and evolved over time. Traci’s restaurant Mijita (which means “little one” in Spanish, and is a nickname her grandmother gave her) in the Ferry Building serves the albondigas soup and it is always a favorite.”

Ryan Farr

Restaurant: 4505 Meats, San Francisco, California

Source: Mother, Hulyn Farr

[Ryan] really liked a lot of things, but hot dogs were his favorite. He even had his own recipe for them. My mom (Ryan’s grandma) put together a cookbook of family recipes, and at age ten Ryan submitted his hot dog recipe.

Another favorite food was watermelon and vanilla ice cream for breakfast. His grandpa would serve it to him, and I can remember having the same growing up. Ryan now does this for his kids on special occasions. It’s really carried down through the family.

He was also a big mac-n-cheese fan. When he was a teenager I went on a trip for a few weeks and left him with money for groceries for him and his dad. He returned from the store with a gigantic gallon-sized bucket of mac-n-cheese packets and a huge jar of Tang. I actually still have the bucket (it has a Kraft dinosaur on it) and keep rice and beans in it.

Growing up in Kansas City, barbecue was always a big thing. If we were having barbecue, Ryan always went for ribs. He liked everything, which made it pretty easy. He liked to hang out in the kitchen while I was cooking. He would get involved whenever I was making holiday treats and snacks.

When Ryan was in the third grade he came home with a recipe he had transcribed from a cookbook in the library with the title “Surprise” and asked if we could make it. It soon became clear that we were making donuts.

There were no restaurants in the family, but everyone in our family loves to cook and eat so the kitchen and dining room were always a really happy place. I think that really drew Ryan to the kitchen. He would sometimes come up with recipes. He would make things for the family and have us all guess what the secret ingredient was (it was almost always Tabasco).

Nick Balla

Restaurant: Duna/Smokebread, San Francisco, California

Source: Mother, Wanda Keehbauch-Murphy

Nick arrived in Ann Arbor in the late seventies at the height of the natural foods scene. He was the celebrated first grandchild of two (mostly) Eastern European families who reveled in occasions requiring feasting. From the beginning, Nick loved exploring novel tastes and smells. We used to open spice jars for his sniffing, offered green onions for gnawing when he was teething, and watchfully accepted his decided preference for lemons over sweets.

As an elementary student, Nick proudly conjured up an artichoke salad recipe for a school project. A favorite meal could be steamed artichokes, or a huge bowl of guacamole, or maybe a bowl of curry-flavored popcorn.

In the late eighties, Nick rebelled against me and his stepfather’s low-fat vegetarian experiment. He preferred cooking up big pots of ramen or pastas fortified with artichoke, smoked sausage and olives. As we always had a big garden, homemade pickles and salsas kept things spicy. Nick also enjoyed forays into Indian, Greek, Asian, and other cuisines as a teenager.

Nick’s excitement for food peaked when he spent a year during high school with his dad in Hungary (stories of pig butchering in the backyard were saved for some time after he returned). Back in southwest Michigan, Nick finished high school, but preferred working in restaurants. He was especially adept at encouraging and developing the talents of fellow food workers. Much to my delight, he decided to go to culinary school and is still having fun exploring food.

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NYC — MARCH 7, 2019

Human Capital at Umber Ahmad’s Mah-Ze-Dahr

In New York City, James Beard Award semifinalist Umber Ahmad implements a strategic business model to create accessible luxury in her pastries at Mah-Ze-Dahr.

Words by Stef Ferrari
Photos by Noah Fecks

“I shy away from the term ‘lifestyle brand.’”

This is what Umber Ahmad tells me when we’re seated at her sun-soaked bakery in New York’s West Village, in a corner where we’re barely able to carve out enough space for our conversation. A morning crowd is gathering around the pastry counter, many easing into an obvious rapport with the clerk on duty.

“I think that [phrase] has just become so ubiquitous,” she continues. Her French bulldog, Toro, seems to find her own lifestyle pretty comfortable regardless of semantics. She’s at our feet and I’m feeding her “Toro Treats,” which Ahmad now makes and sells for the cravings of her customers’ canines as well. She, her staff, and Miss Toro have become well acquainted with those customers in the course of three years on idyllic Greenwich Avenue, where Mah-Ze-Dahr has become a part of many daily routines.

And although routine is arguably the antithesis of disruption, make no mistake, Ahmad is a disruptor. Her means of doing so doesn’t involve Instagram-bait chunks of cookie dough or technicolor cream-filled doughnuts. Instead, she makes an impression doing her best renditions of classic, iconic pastries: pain au chocolat that practically drip with French butter; scones that crumble into creamy, ethereal bites; brownies that easily satisfy any chocolate-crazed kid, but are sophisticated enough that the James Beard Foundation recognized Ahmad as a semifinalist for Outstanding Baker in 2019. And all of which easily become an integral part of her patrons’ lifestyle.

This is the mystery of Mah-Ze-Dahr—how Ahmad manages to harness both the tradition and the trend. Being a master of such dualities isn’t surprising. Ahmad herself is a study in the intersection between left and right brain; she’s able to interact with the here and now while always leaning a little toward the future. But to understand where Ahmad is going, it helps to know where she’s come from.

In the Beginning

“We grew up in a very small town with a lot of Norwegians and Polish people,” she says of her Michigan roots. “We were one of two non-blonde families.”

Ahmad is the granddaughter of a Pakistani engineer who harnessed hydroelectric power to further efficiency in farming (the crop, in her family’s case, being what Ahmad refers to as “the best mangoes in the world”). Her parents were intent on making sure she and her sister knew there was more to life than rural Michigan. “My parents were really committed to having us understand that this wasn’t the entire world,” she says. So every summer, the family spent two months in Pakistan with family. The last month, though, was an immersive education in a foreign country, always a different part of the world. “The third month of the summer would be a month in France or Morocco or Monaco or Sweden, and we would learn about the cultures through the food.”

On these adventures, her mother encouraged her children to make the connection between the micro and macro of enjoying food. “My mom would tell us to close our eyes and [would say], ‘Tell me what you taste.’ The idea was removing one of your senses heightens the other sense. So we’d have a bite of chicken with cinnamon in it, and we’d say, ‘This reminds me of Michigan,’ because our nanny would make us oatmeal with cinnamon,” Ahmad tells me. “But we were in Morocco eating pastilla, which is the chicken and the olives and eggs and cinnamon.” Those flavor associations followed her around the world as she built a mental library of places and tastes. “[We’d] have bread in Sweden that has saffron, and that tastes like rice in Spain. And the tea in Pakistan tastes like the bread in Finland because of the cardamom.”

The connectivity, Ahmad says, “Was to teach us that we are all made of the same ingredients; we’re just mixed together in different ways.”

Each new location left its imprint on Ahmad, but she began to wonder about her own mark on the world. “My father is a corneal surgeon, and he literally gave people sight,” she recalls. “What an incredible gift and ability to do that. My parents would always ask us, ‘What will your legacy be? How will the world be better because you’re here?’ And it could be a really small way, or a big way, but it has to be something.”

After completing her undergrad in genetic engineering at MIT, Ahmad returned to the University of Michigan where she earned a masters degree in international health policy and epidemiology. She was compelled by watching what her father was able to do as a surgeon, but wondered how she might have the opportunity to be part of a broad impact.

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She began consulting in healthcare systems. “Here’s this pot of money and here’s this population of people.” She explains it was her work to attempt to treat a population’s healthcare needs with that particular pot, which made her curious about that money and its provenance. “Who makes those financial allocations? I understood that if you’re going to effect change it has to be at the root,” she says. So Ahmad followed the trail and returned to school again, this time for her MBA at Wharton, before going on to roles at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in investment banking.

Okay, I’ll interrupt at this point, because I know you thought you were here for a story about croissants. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. But what might seem a circuitous path is why Ahmad’s contribution to the food world is about more than dreamworthy pastries.

Once on Wall Street, she worked in private equity investing, but realized that. “There were a lot of companies were too small or too nascent to be interesting or appealing to a Goldman Sachs,” she says. So Ahmad left to co-found a firm from which she could help smaller brands achieve their goals, and the work led her to unexpected places.

“I started spending time thinking about where there were pain points in the world,” Ahmad says, identifying that one of those points was food insecurity. “The reality is that the people who need to be fed are not being fed. Where there is arable land and water is actually not where the populations are, so how do we marry those two things together?”

Ahmad began spending more time in the Middle East and “realizing that sixty percent of the population there is under thirty-five, many of whom are obese because of wrong kinds of food choices, and none of whom have arable land and water,” she tells me. She dedicated herself to exploring ways to make that connection. She focused her work on long-term solutions, like helping to build hydroponic farms, and “started understanding what the near-term desires of that population were, and a lot of it was centered around celebrity. They wanted famous brands, they wanted famous chefs.”

After working with several major U.S. companies to determine growth potential overseas, Ahmad did something that really changed the world. She baked a cake.

“Tom Colicchio became a client of ours,” she tells me, explaining her firm was investigating opportunities for his brands outside of the States. After making a chocolate cake for a mutual friends’ birthday, Colicchio approached her. “He said it was the best chocolate cake he’d ever had.” Colicchio being a celebrated chef and she without any formal culinary training, Ahmad was in disbelief. “I was like, ‘You’re Tom Colicchio, that’s ridiculous!’”

That her “amateur” efforts made such an impression is likely evidence of the same dedication and meticulous investigation applied to all her undertakings. “I just started baking for him—everything I knew how to make,” she says. Colicchio was sold. He came back to her and asked what she hoped to do with her food. Her response? “I want to become my own client.” She described wanting to do for herself what she’d done for others—to build a heritage brand. And, as Ahmad remembers, Colicchio said, “Alright, let me help you do that.”

The Business

Today, Mah-Ze-Dahr is recognized as one of the best bakeries in New York City. Ahmad herself has been featured in Time and Forbes, in addition to various food publications like Food & Wine, Zagat and Tasting Table. But much like the way her parents wanted her to see beyond her hometown, Ahmad imagines a more global picture for her company. Her brand may have begun with an unassuming birthday cake, but her vision goes far past the slice of humble pie—maybe even beyond baking altogether.

“It was about understanding that the ability to communicate through food is much bigger and broader than any one brand, any one store. It’s a way to connect a person and an emotion to an outcome,” she says. It may not be surprising, considering she wasn’t coming from a food business background, that she looked to other industries for inspiration.

She references those brands taking an interest in food as well, including Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Prada (who recently acquired the oldest pasticceria in Milan). “You look at a Ralph Lauren ad and think, ‘I want to live there.’ Is it the paint color on the walls? Is it the shirt the boy is wearing? Is it the blanket that’s covering the child? Is it how they smell? It’s all the things,” she says. She was inspired by that holistic approach to building a brand, and the food business seemed like a logical place to start. “There’s this piece of how people want to spend their money and their time, and this focus now on more experiential spending, and less on material spending,” she continues. Millennials, she says, want to share their experiences. “And food fits that from every angle.”

It was with this nontraditional, business-minded query in mind that Ahmad decided to test her own concept. She began with grassroots efforts like asking her investment banker friends to hire her to send client gifts. Then she shifted to a more contemporary approach and built a website from which she could sell and ship her products. It was about answering the question, “How do I get in front of customers who probably could become my customers but know nothing about me?” That brand exposure was priceless, and critical to beta-testing for a physical bakery.

Ahmad pursued partnership opportunities with like-minded brands including Intelligentsia and Jetblue, who had just launched their Mint experience—a premium class service. “When we started with [JetBlue], we were making sixteen passengers worth of pastries per week, and when we finished two-and-a-half years later, we were feeding twenty-two thousand passengers a month.”

The success of the website gave her another important insight: data. “One of the great things about [starting the brand] online was I knew where my customers were,” Ahmad says. “I knew who my customers were; I knew what they wanted to buy and how often they were buying.” She realized the majority of her demographic in New York City lived downtown. “I knew if I was going to be able to service them and broaden the exposure to that population, I had to be where they lived.”

Ahmad’s is no overnight success story; she’s transparent about the steps she took to make her bakery thrive amid a climate in which so many food businesses can’t seem to get traction or staying power even with the best of products. Beyond a seemingly fated encounter with Colicchio, very little was left up to chance when it came to opening Mah-Ze-Dahr.

Little Luxuries

It may not be Hermes, but anyone who has gotten a whiff of the croissant at Mah-Ze-Dahr—a study in French imported butter, sourdough fermentation, and meticulous technique—understands this is definitely one of life’s luxuries. As it turns out, luxury is an ideal that translates well to the food world even when not the fine-dining, white tablecloth setting.

“Luxury, up until now, has very much been this aspirational, unattainable phenom,” Ahmad muses. “And that’s not what it is. Luxury is about how you treat yourself. Nourishing doesn’t necessarily mean going to a play or buying a great watch. It can be. But nourishing yourself is the physical process of creating a sense of balance, and that’s what I try to do every day with my food.”

Proving the value of her products—as a relatively affordable luxury—can be more challenging. The economics of running a food business are still fairly misunderstood, and Mah-Ze-Dahr sees its share of customers who balk at the prices. “People come in and say, ‘It seems so expensive. I make cookies at home and it costs me almost nothing,’” she tells me.

The response requires a deeper understanding of what goes into creating a food business beyond ingredients. “I say, ‘I appreciate that, and I’m sure you make great cookies. But you aren’t employing thirty-seven people, you don’t have upwards of $20,000 a month in rent, and then electricity and insurance.’”

Ahmad is also deliberate in how her business is operated on the human resource side. “I also run an ethical business; every one of the people who works with me is offered healthcare, [and I match their] retirement plan. They get paid a living wage; it’s not a minimum wage,” she says. “Everyone has internal progression; I promote from within.” Building sustainability, she says, is of the greatest importance to her model.

Here, we see Ahmad’s upbringing in action—her interest in humanity, and that idea of making a difference. In order to implement and sustain that kind of impact, her approach has been strategic—to think big and grow into it. But bakeries being the humble community cornerstone that they are is not something Ahmad neglects at Mah-Ze-Dahr. In fact, it was a central consideration in the development of her bakery, especially given her own experience as a woman and person of color.

“After the election in 2016, I started to get a lot of questions about whether I’d change the name of the bakery,” she says. Ahmad recalls being asked if she had concerns about running a business that sounded “foreign” or Middle Eastern. “I’m not Middle Eastern—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but I’m Pakistani,” she would respond, pointing out Pakistan’s location in South Asia. It was at once unsettling and motivating to Ahmad. “People feel somewhat emboldened to cast aspersions, which is horrifying to me and makes me want to double down on wanting this to be a place of camaraderie and community and support and respect,” she tells me.

Ahmad recalls the adversity and “otherness” she experienced throughout her life, first in Michigan, then at MIT (“Where for every two women there were eleven men”), and again on Wall Street. She struggled with finding a sense of community. “I craved it, and I always wanted that.” She asked herself, ‘How do I create a sense of community of like-minded people but with different backgrounds, different origins, different colors, races?’”

While many New Yorkers like their local spots to stay small and to remain their own little secret, it’s hard not to get behind Ahmad’s ambitions to grow her brand, and hope she can spread a similar message in future locations, first capturing attention with something like a slice of cake. Small offerings, she’s proven, can make a very big difference.

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Editor’s Note: A Woman’s Place is a book on the unsung women throughout history that have contributed so much to the food and beverage industry. It’s written by our very own senior editor Stef Ferrari and Life & Thyme contributor Deepi Ahluwalia. Today’s story is an excerpt from the book on the creator of Camembert cheese, Marie Harel.

Marie Harel
1761–1844

Among the creamy, stinky, sweet, salty, and sometimes moldy varieties that occupy the top echelon of French cheesedom, there is one that won over World War II troops and became a symbol of French identity: the beloved Camembert. The woman who created it, Marie Harel, has earned an equal amount of fame and devotion.

The legend of this famous cheese takes us to Normandy at the turn of the eighteenth century, amid the tumult of the French Revolution. Somewhere near the village of Camembert, a local cheesemaker sheltered a priest on the run from an angry mob. The clergyman, himself a cheesemaker from Brie, passed his knowledge on to the woman, Marie. The result of their collaboration? An aromatic cheese called Camembert.

It’s a lovely legend, but here’s a more likely version. Born in Crouttes on April 28, 1761, Marie worked on her family’s farm in Camembert, where she produced cheese according to local custom. Her skill with the creamy cheese was so superlative that her variety became synonymous with the Camembert style, and she later passed her craft on to her daughter and son-in-law, who kicked off a new era of the family business. All of Marie’s five grandchildren also became cheesemakers, expanding the production of Camembert and ensuring that the cheese found fans far beyond its birthplace.

Today, Camembert falls into the category of les fromages à pâte molle et à croûte fleurie—that’s the fancy French way of saying “soft cheeses with a natural rind.” There are plenty of imitators, but the real deal is specifically labeled as Camembert de Normandie A.O.C. Raw Normande cow’s milk is inoculated with bacteria, rennet, and the Penicillium camemberti mold that gives Camembert its iconic soft white rind. After the cheese has ripened, fromage fans can enjoy its rich, creamy texture solo, served at room temperature to allow the complex flavors to bloom, baked and paired with fruits and nuts, or even inside gooey homemade mac and cheese. Regardless of how Marie found her calling in the creation of Camembert, that’s the stuff of legend.

Recipe

Baked Camembert

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1x 8 or 9 oz wheel of Camembert in wooden box
  • 2x garlic cloves, sliced into matchsticks
  • 2x sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed
  • Honey
  • Cracked black pepper

Equipment:

  • Camembert wooden box or small ceramic baking dish

This is a quick and easy customizable cheese course that pairs perfectly with a variety of options.

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
  2. Remove and discard wrapper from Camembert and place cheese back in wooden box (if your Camembert did not come with a wooden box, place cheese inside ceramic baking dish). Score top rind of cheese with knife in crosshatch pattern and insert garlic into cheese. Sprinkle top with thyme and cracked black pepper, and drizzle with honey. Bake Camembert for 15–-20 minutes until gooey. Be careful not to overbake, or cheese will dry out and harden.
  3. Remove from oven and serve immediately with crackers, fruit and herb crisps, toasted slices of baguette, walnuts, dried fruit fruit, or whatever suits your fancy.

The post A Woman’s Place: Marie Harel appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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When we think of how food cultures are formed, many of us envision the in-person passing down of traditions from parent to child or chef to sous-chef. Yet the history of cuisine isn’t purely shaped by observation, osmosis or hands-on education. In the simplest sense, handwritten recipes have long formed a link from generation to generation. And in the case of professional cooking—French cuisine, most notably—the codification of techniques in encyclopedic cookbooks was the key ingredient that gave French chefs a leg up in the global community of cooks.

For Don Lindgren of Rabelais, an antiquarian bookshop in Biddeford, Maine, these culinary texts serve a purpose even more expansive than the preservation of recipes. Widely considered a leading buyer and seller of antiquarian cookbooks and culinary ephemera, his work consists not just in seeking out rare material, but in helping others understand the role those books played in the lives of both their individual owners and society at large.

“I am very interested in the first appearances of things or in the form of books,” Lindgren explains. “For example, what were the first American cookbooks featuring a certain cultural cuisine—like Nigerian or Kenyan cooking? Or how did the function, shape and size of cookbooks differ from the 1550s to the 1950s?”

For those who work in the industry or simply follow food news, Lindgren’s work epitomizes the growing acceptance of food as culture. In fact, with ninety percent of his sales going to institutions ranging from the New York Public Library, to Harvard University, or the UCLA College of Medicine, many of the texts Lindgren sources will directly bolster the academic study of cooking and culinary history as an integral part of cultural heritage.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a world-renowned institution or high net worth individual to benefit from Lindgren’s collection. One of the integral reasons he and his wife Samantha founded Rabelais as a physical bookstore was to create a vertically integrated, accessible shop dedicated to a single subject matter. “There are all sorts of wonders that exist in the form of printed paper, but the merchandising of those books can be somewhat underwhelming,” he explains. “At Rabelais, we welcome people coming in to buy the latest cookbook, but they will also see slightly harder-to-find books that are just a bit more expensive or have an opportunity to save on used books. And then there are the rare or older materials, which give a context for more recent books—because new ideas don’t come out of nowhere.”

Where cookbooks come from or how long they have existed is something most home cooks rarely stop to ponder. “People seem to have such a short sense of time,” Lindgren laughs. “I hear someone talking about Julia Child or Fanny Farmer as if those texts are ancient, but for me, those are very modern authors. I love being able to put a book that is 100 to 500 years old in someone’s hands and to let them simply experience the fact of holding it—to see what they realize.”

Admittedly, for Lindgren himself, chasing down rare cookbooks wasn’t always the obvious path. As a high school student, one of his first jobs was at a New York location of (the then-small business) Barnes & Noble. From there, he worked at Powell’s in Chicago throughout college and grad school, increasingly training in the antiquarian book trade. Eventually, he returned to New York as an independent seller of avant-garde art texts, including work for prestigious high-end dealers. But when he and his wife—who was pursuing a second career as a pastry chef at the time—decided to move to Maine, he began to feel disconnected from the subject matter of conceptual art.

“The market and the sources had never been local, so leaving New York wasn’t endangered by a move to Maine,” Lindgren recalls. “[But once I moved,] I wanted to be surrounded by something more real—something related to the food, farming and fishing that are all so present in Maine. My wife and I literally walked by an amazing space in downtown Portland and over lunch, we wrote up a business plan [for Rabelais’ initial location] on a napkin.”

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The first shop opened in 2006, at a time when Portland’s restaurant culture was rapidly evolving. For young chefs in the city, Rabelais became a destination for research, with the Lindgrens playing a significant role in many locals’ culinary education. “A lot of the people who came in when we first opened have gone on to open their own businesses or restaurants,” Lindgren notes.

From fermentation to butchery, distilling to foraging, Lindgren has witnessed the real-time evolution of food trends through the inquiries of his clientele. He also is a collector of a wide range of culinary ephemera, such as vintage labels from consumer packaged goods or restaurant menus. “Especially for academic institutions, ‘aesthetics’ are less important. Fast food-related objects are just as important [as high-end cuisines] in the study of food history,” he says. “And the cultural trend toward diversity also has an impact, as we are now seeing a growing interest in materials from non-Western regions of the world.”

Beyond the printed information each text contains, cookbooks also boast an unprecedented “evidence of use” in comparison to other literature. “They accrete more traces of life than almost any other book. People write in them, edit or amend recipes—even jam other papers inside,” Lindgren explains. “Sometimes the bindings rip and they are sewn back together. But that doesn’t diminish value, because it demonstrates the life that a single book might have within a kitchen or its travels in being passed from one owner to another.”

Of course, finding the value in a well-worn pile of paper requires a skilled eye. Lindgren recently sold a group of manuscripts that belonged to a single Quaker family in Pennsylvania, ranging from the years 1780-1850. What began as a pile of loose, hand-written scraps turned out to be six or seven household texts used by three generations of the same family. “I’ve never seen better evidence of how people collected and compiled recipes—whether slips of paper from family and friends or, over time, the transcribing of a particularly prized recipe from one book to another,” says Lindgren.

While the discovery of such texts may be most valuable to academic institutions or private collectors, the larger impact is not lost for individuals. In Lindgren’s world, our crumbled, stained family recipes become more than instructions for cooking. He also sees an expanding role for the modern cookbook: “[They] have really become desirable objects, with increasingly elaborate designs that reflect that shift. [In our electronic age], we rarely have enough time or space for creative pursuits, but food is an opportunity for creativity that is always right there.” So whether penned by a chef or your great-great-grandmother, a well-written recipe could be the spark for your next great adventure.

Additional Reading: Explore what drives Carly DeFilippo, our contributing writer, on our Journal’s Contributor Spotlight series.

The post The Culinary Paper Trail of Rabelais Books appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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THE INTERVIEW — FEB. 28, 2019

Creativity and Practicality with Chef Nyesha Arrington

A Different Kind of Palate

Interview by Nicole Ziza Bauer
Cover photo by Deepi Ahluwalia

Some things—like a Renoir up close or a sunrise at thirty thousand feet—are simply best experienced. Some people are like that too.

Similarly, Chef Nyesha Arrington and the passion with which she approaches her career are best seen to be believed. Hers is a vision that exists because of—and yet beyond—the bounds of senses and technique.

It would be easy to summarize her as a graduate of the Culinary School at the Art Institute of California, named a 2011 “Rising Star Chef” by Angeleno Magazine, listed on Zagat’s “30 Under 30” in 2012, and garnering an impressive CV anchored by the Michelin-starred names Josiah Citrin and Joël Robuchon—but to do so wouldn’t yield the full picture. Arrington possesses every ounce of her craft, but in a way that reveals rounded edges where you’d expect sharp corners. She’s generous, thoughtful, and not surprisingly, an empath.

“It’s been interesting to carve out what is my legacy and what I want to do when I’m a grown-up,” Arrington tells me after we’ve settled into the bar at her Santa Monica restaurant, Native. “I’m very fortunate because throughout my childhood all I did was cook. It took me looking back on that after high school to really connect with that. When my friends would come over, I’d always play restaurant. We’d never play house. I’d always be cooking…soups, broths, different things. I love how it would make you feel.”

She discovered culinary school thanks to a friend’s suggestion and it was an immediate fit for the then seventeen-year-old painter and sculptor. “I’ve had these small epiphanies throughout my life when it feels like stars just align and I’m on the right path,” she says. “There’s a scene in the movie Ratatouille where he eats the ratatouille, the lens focuses, and he goes back to his childhood. That’s how I felt the first day sitting in culinary school. I [thought], ‘I’m all in, world.’ This is my life.”

In a time when creative careers are frequently launched more on branding than skill, Arrington’s success is refreshingly well-deserved. Sure, she may have competed on Bravo’s ninth season of Top Chef and won Food Network’s Chef Hunter, but the caliber of her career isn’t fueled by the limelight. It’s driven by something far deeper.

Photos by Jake Ahles Photography

What drove you from art into food?

Nyesha Arrington: Growing up, my dad was heavily into music, film, and wrote a couple of screenplays—super right-side of the brain artistic. I gravitated toward that; that’s my love language. I used to paint and sculpt a lot more. Now, I use the plate as my canvas, so to speak.

I got a lot of inspiration from my grandmother, who’s from Korea. She taught me a lot about discipline and I always joke that my first sous chef position was when I was five working with her peeling the garlic and blanching the vegetables, standing next to her on a step-stool thinking, “That looks like a lot of garlic or octopus to get through.” I remember thinking through what would be the most efficient way to do it so I could go play.

For me, it’s not just about the cooking, not just about owning one, five or ten restaurants. I like to connect with people. That’s why I called this restaurant Native. I thought about the common denominator for people, what is the through-line, and [it’s that] everyone is a native something or comes from somewhere. There’s indigenous food that I get to celebrate with the farmers.

Was there something about using food as an art medium that uniquely appealed to you?

Just as someone can paint something and it can live on a wall and be observed by people, [food is] the same idea, but it lives in the soul. That’s so freaking special. You’re able to take different mediums like color, texture, temperature and flavor and create different layers of an experience. It’s synonymous with creating visual art, but with more meaning, really.

How do you define art?

Art is something you can think about, create and apply a medium to, making it tangible. Art is creation. It comes from a very personal place—a place of self-expression, and it’s something you want to share with someone. You want someone to engage and feel something.

Given all of those layers, what does your creative process look like? How do you determine when a plate is a success?

There are successes and failures, and you can learn from your failures. That’s also part of the process of art.

Two weeks ago, it was raining and I was at the farmers market schlepping boxes around, but I felt happy. I thought, “I want to create a dish that is bright and cheery to offset this dark rainy day. Yellow. I’m going to create a dish of sunshine.”

I wanted to make it vegetarian, so I had cured egg yolks. I made a cashew cream steeped with turmeric, and we added disks of pickled yellow beet, kumquats and mizuna flowers. We did a froth over the top and finished with turmeric oil. Inside the dish were yellow beets and rutabaga-stuffed ravioli. Everything was yellow in this dark, black bowl. It was so striking.

You’re also incredibly passionate about sustainability. When did that start and how does that passion manifest for you and the restaurant?

I started talking to the farmers [at the market], becoming friends with them, and we started having in-depth conversations about CO2 emissions, carbon footprints—all of these things. I thought,I’m one person. What can I do while I’m on the planet creating and having a direct impact on these huge subjects?” I just feel like I want to create and leave a really big legacy for the planet.

Practically, that looks like partnerships and relationships, sourcing sustainably and using byproducts to create new things. I source from people who touch the product. Meredith Bell, who has Autonomy Farms, raises chicken. She eats in the restaurant all the time and knows her product. She is very realistic with me, telling me chickens are a little big or small on a certain week. And while it might not be cookie-cutter product, I work around it. I love that because it’s real.

You go to supermarkets today and the food is not actually food. I remember buying this cherry tomato two years ago. If you plant a tomato, the seeds will sprout and you’ll get a tomato plant. That tomato did not decompose for almost three months. It sat in the soil and looked perfect.

It’s education for me at this point too. I just got back from a James Beard Boot Camp where we talked a lot about SNAP [the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], how farmers markets are working with the government to create healthy food for people who don’t have access to it in food deserts. Creating a dialogue is really where I’m at at this stage.

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Photos by Jake Ahles Photography

On the other side of the table, how do you think the average diner can play a role in fostering sustainability?

For the diner, it’s more about the home, and when you buy a product and don’t always use it so it ends up in the garbage. It’s understanding food preservation and going back to the times when we were preserving a lot more and canning.

I like to ferment and jar a lot, or turn things into kimchee or salt beef. Even when beef goes off, you can still dehydrate it or salt it to preserve it and make into different things. It’s all about pre-preparation. If you want to make a leek or carrot stock, use the peelings and cook them down, add some aromatics, throw it in some ice trays and freeze it, and then you’ll have a delicious base when you want to cook. It doesn’t have to be a huge production; you’ve already knocked a few layers off a recipe and can improvise from there.

In the last five years, I have become more about using organic as much as possible too. Before, you’d hear about organic and maybe think, “Oh, that’s yuppie,” but now it’s a direct correlation to our health and the human race. Food is medicine.

Not to sound cliché, but… Food lives in the soul. When you eat good, you feel good. That doesn’t mean only eating apples and celery, but it’s eating food from Meredith’s farm or Weiser Family Farms—people who care.

I’m always on cloud nine because those are the people who I work with every day.

I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car and driving by restaurants and thinking, “That place looks busy. I wonder what it is about that place that resonates with people.”

Around nine years old, I told my dad, “I’m going to open a restaurant and it’s going to celebrate a different culture every day. Have you seen that? I’m going to call it A+1 Good Restaurant.”

I forgot about that until I opened my last restaurant, Leona, and my dad sat at the chef’s table. Looking around, he said, “You know, you did the thing that you said you were going to do when you were nine. You said you were going to celebrate cultures and flavors.”

I remember that moment and thought, “Wow, this is cool.”

Do you have an “A+1 Good Restaurant” for the future? What do you hope is still ahead for you?

My next layer of work is going to be in humanistic sustainability, and that also happens to be in line with food. Our world needs so much more love and healing. When I can offer that through the lens of cooking, I think that will be the next tier.

I’m at a point in my life where I’ve created a toolbelt; I’m confident and I can do whatever I want, in a very respectful way. I want to do great things in my life. I feel like I have support, and I have earned respect in the industry. I want to be like Wolfgang Puck and Oprah and Martha Stewart in one [laughs].

On that note, do you have any advice for someone just starting out, who maybe feels like their toolbelt is empty?

Nothing that is worth having comes easy. That’s really important for younger people to understand. I waited fifteen years to open my first restaurant because I needed to know the mechanics of how a true oven works next to a Molteni—how the plumbing works, electrical, all the nuts and bolts of what I actually really love to do.

I say this every day because I want everyone to rise together: there is nothing else like dedication and hard work.

It’s very important to have staying power because it takes time to develop relationships. When you set an intention, follow through hard. Exceed your own expectations every single time, on every single level. If you say you’re going to do this, then do it even better than you thought you could do it. You’re going to be doing the things anyway, so you might as well be a champion at them. A lot of things aren’t guaranteed in life, but I guarantee that will be the best thing you can do for yourself.

Additional Reading: Explore what drives Nicole Ziza Bauer, our contributing writer, on our Journal’s Contributor Spotlight series.

The post Creativity and Practicality with Chef Nyesha Arrington appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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“It’s just like bowling!” Armando Chico launches a giant pumpkin off his shoulder with the ease of an Olympian shot putter, hurling the golden orb down the steep mountainside. Like a pinball in an arcade machine, it bounces off rocks and over shrubs as it speeds downward and smashes into an oak tree, the speckled rind splitting open to reveal stringy, saffron insides. A hundred-strong thunder of pig hooves kicks up a cloud of dust as the hogs scurry over to nab a juicy wedge, the rumble fading into a mellow chorus of hasty chomps and satisfied snorts.

Sitting within the mountain range of Andalusia’s Sierra de Aracena nature reserve on the border of Portugal, Finca Montefrío lies in the heart of southwestern Spain’s dehesa, the local, traditional agro-sylvo-pastoral system. It’s there where a unique fusion of farming, forest management and animal husbandry sees the raising of the renowned cerdo ibérico, or Iberian pig.

Native to the Iberian peninsula, which comprises Spain and Portugal, Iberian pigs are traditionally reared among the natural pasture and holm oak and cork trees scattered across the dehesa. Each October, ripe acorns start to fall from the oaks, marking the beginning of the montanera—the period during which the pigs fatten themselves up on the rich kernels. The season runs through February, by which time these crucial acorn-rich months have laid the foundation for the coveted, cured jamón ibérico for which Spain is so famous.

Finca Montefrío is a family affair, run by Armando and Lola Escaño Lopez, and their children, Helena, Natalia and Armando “Chico,” on an eighty-hectare property. From the microbes that live in their soils to the spices that flavor their pork products, no detail on the certified organic estate is spared. While most Iberian pigs eat grains up until the montanera, the lucky ones here enjoy a buffet of those rolling pumpkins (grown in a dedicated field using heirloom seeds that are enriched with a probiotic solution to aid the pigs’ digestion and immunity), along with daily harvested alfalfa plus a custom mix of dried oats, corn and peas milled on-site. “You don’t always want to eat bread; sometimes you feel like something fresh, like salad or fruit. It’s exactly the same for the pigs,” says Armando.

During the month I spend working at Finca Montefrío, days are punctuated by Armando’s stirring calls to the pigs. Each ganadero—referring to a pig farmer—has their own unique warble. Armando’s undulates between what sounds like “eeyore” and “whey” with guttural grunts, heralding that it’s time for the heritage hogs to move from the valley to the mountaintop or back again. Their long snouts, floppy ears, narrow ankles, and dainty black hooves are clear giveaways the Iberian pig is genetically closer to a wild boar than any commercially farmed breed.

In Spain, wild boars were being domesticated as early as the Neolithic period (which began twelve thousand years ago), while texts from the thirteenth century on reference the acorn-feeding of pigs on dehesas in the area surrounding Finca Montefrío. The municipality of Jabugo, which nowadays has a dedicated Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP, or Protected Designation of Origin), is known for its prized jamón ibérico. “You know it was a really long time ago because there are paintings in caves in this area that already show the animals as pigs, not as wild boars,” Armando explains.

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Armando and Lola Escaño Lopez
Armando Escaño Lopez
Helena Escaño Lopez

Short legs for traversing uphill and pointed snouts for ferreting out loose acorns are signs the Iberian pig has adapted to the slopes of the dehesa, but they have one physical trait that’s of particular interest to epicures: fat. Iberian pigs are naturally able to gain lots of weight—they pack on some eleven pounds each day during the three-month montanera—and to store higher volumes of intramuscular fat (read: marbling) than other pig breeds. Plus, thanks to their finishing diet of bellotas (acorns) during the montanera, that fat carries very high levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid and the key component in olive oil, lending the meat its signature nutty, sweet taste.

“If you take a spoon of olive oil by itself, it’s too much; but if you pour it over a piece of bread, maybe with a little bit of honey, it becomes really nice,” says Helena. “That’s just like the bellota—it has a lot of carbohydrates, mixed together with the oleic acid, and sweetness.” Coupled with a lengthy rearing period and the workout from hiking those inclines, this makes for ultra flavorsome, silky meat that, when cured under sea salt and aged to become jamón ibérico, is butter-soft due to the low melting point of oleic acid. A slice of true jamón ibérico will drip between your fingers—and none quicker than a translucent sliver of Finca Montefrío’s intensely scarlet goods, peppered with glossy, custard-yellow striations.

In recent years, demand for the esteemed jamón ibérico has outstripped supply, placing pressure on the traditional dehesa system to keep up. Rearing Iberian pigs is longer, slower and far more dispersed than other pig breeds. Iberian pigs are given the top de bellota (acorn-fed) classification in Jabugo, and require a number of specific considerations: they must each have at least half a hectare of dehesa to themselves, they must feed on acorns for at least sixty days before slaughter, they must reach a market weight of roughly 350 pounds, and they can’t be slaughtered earlier than fourteen months old.

Meanwhile, the free range nature of dehesa farming, which has been proven to positively impact the flavour of jamón, is difficult to replicate. This is likely one reason that of the two million Iberians pigs slaughtered in Spain in 2003, only fifteen percent were acorn-fed outdoors under the montanera; the remaining eighty-five percent were fed a mixed diet in confinement.

Despite strict controls, the term “ibérico” can be confusing. Remember the pigs’ slender pins? “If you can wrap your forefinger and thumb around the ankle of a whole jamón and your fingers touch, then it’s the pure Iberian breed,” Armando explains during a tour of his bodega, or ageing cellar, where rows of Finca Montefrío’s hams are hung to cure. Jamónes are the pigs’ cured hind legs, paletas are the cured front legs, and embutidos are other cuts that are flavoured and bound in a casing, like chorizo, lomo (cured loin) and morcilla (blood sausage).

For the jamónes of Iberian pigs, or their crossbreeds, there are four quality classifications: jamón de bellota 100% ibérico, made from purebred, free-range Iberian pigs fed on acorns; jamón ibérico de bellota, made from crossbred, free-range Iberian pigs fed on acorns (the percentage of Iberian pig breed is stated on the label); jamón ibérico de cebo de campo, made from minimum fifty-percent Iberian free-range pigs fed on both cereals and acorns; and jamón ibérico de cebo, which are minimum fifty-percent Iberian pig breed, commercially raised (not free-range), and fed on cereals.

There are only four zones in Spain legally able to produce jamón ibérico within the DOP system, which regulates high quality food products under EU law. For the DOP Jamón de Jabugo label, where Finca Montefrío is located, there are only around forty producers that comply. Lola and Armando’s jamónes have been consistently awarded the DOP Jamón de Jabugo mark, as well as being deemed the top level of jamón de bellota one hundred-percent ibérico, and also received organic certification.

This trifecta is no easy feat, but Lola and Armando choose a path of tradition—and then some—going above and beyond regulatory requirements to improve the local ecosystem and their animals’ welfare. For example, they provide extra roaming space and a longer montanera than legally called for.

In commercial pig farming, it’s not uncommon to purchase baby animals for raising or to sell raised animals on to food manufacturers. “We manage the full cycle,” says Helena of overseeing the birthing of piglets right through to the production of their jamónes, paletas and embutidos—right down to the very seasoning.

“We wanted everything to taste exactly like what we’d make at home,” Lola says, carrying a crate full of sun-blistered peppers in the permaculture vegetable garden. When she and Armando weren’t satisfied with the taste of the certified organic paprika, dried garlic and herbs available for flavoring their embutidos, they decided to grow their own. It’s just one of so many measures that calls for patience and diligence in the pursuit of quality.

I arrive in October with hopes to experience the famous montanera season, but the days are still a scorching, dry ninety degrees. The acorns should be plump and tumbling down the mountain by now, but the delayed autumn rains are keeping them little and green, clinging to their branches. “As farmers, we take a bet on September,” Helena says of the prospect of post-summer rain. Without it, the fresh pastures don’t arrive, and contingencies must be set in motion to ensure the pigs are well-fed ahead of the montanera. The rhythms of the farm are thrown off. Collecting pumpkins each morning and harvesting alfalfa each dusk shouldn’t still be needed this time of year; but the farm needs to adjust to compensate for unpredictable weather in order to maintain their status and quality of product.

It’s easy to observe the symbiosis between the dehesa and Iberian pigs: the pastures feed them, the acorns fatten them up, their movement and manure stimulate and nourish the soils. To this time-honored scene, Finca Montefrío adds a bold custodianship—respecting tradition and preserving the natural landscape, while also taking active, considered steps to innovate—that anchors an interwoven trinity of land, animal and caretaker.

Standing at the edge of the vast pumpkin patch, Helena inspects a truckload of just-plucked produce for feeding the animals today: “If I had to choose something for my next life, I would be one of my father’s pigs.”

The post Defending the Dehesa appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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Feb. 21, 2019

Fannie Lou Hamer and Farming as Activism

“A PIG AND A GARDEN”

Dr. Monica M. White, Ph.D. shares an excerpt from her new book, Freedom Farmers, with the work of Fannie Lou Hamer leading the charge as an example of social justice through agriculture.

Fannie Lou Hamer / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / The Louis Draper Archive

Editor’s Note: In her new book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, Associate Professor of Environmental Justice Dr. Monica M. White explores the experience of black farmers in the United States from the early days of our country to the modern fields and markets. Today, Dr. White has shared an edited excerpt with Life & Thyme that focuses on Fannie Lou Hamer in particular, along with her trailblazing efforts. Dr. White is a pioneer in her own field, as the first African American woman to secure tenure in both the College of Agricultural Life Sciences and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Freedom Farmers is now available.

In October 1967, the renowned Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer welcomed a truck delivering fifty young female pigs and five brown Jersey boars to Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. A welcome reception, complete with music and dancing, was held in the breeding and boarding barn built by local women.

The Sunflower Pigs were to become Sunflower’s pig bank, Heifer International’s first U.S.-based project. Families who participated in the project would raise a piglet for two years, bring it back to mate at the bank, and then replenish the bank with two pigs from every litter. The offspring could be sold or slaughtered or mated. By 1969, just two years later, the pig bank had provided over a hundred families with pigs, each of which produced over 150 pounds of meat. It was just one of many strategies adopted by the organization Hamer had founded: the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), a community-based, rural and economic development project. Between 1967 and 1976, the FFC provided housing, health care, employment, education, and access to healthy food. Members of the FFC were displaced land/farmworkers, dispossessed of access to land and brushed aside by mechanization.

Unknowingly, today’s urban community farmers draw on the legacy of Hamer’s vision. While the media has often focused on white members of the urban agriculture/food justice/sovereignty movements, both have a strong African American contingent who draw on generations of farming knowledge and a recognition that the existing power structure has little stake in our well-being.

Hamer’s life and work suggests how intertwined the strategy of raising food was with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This synergy also suggests why it may be a key strategy in addressing inequality in America today. Hamer had become a full-time activist and field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after losing her job and home because she refused to withdraw her application to vote. The White power structures of the Jim Crow South, Hamer explained, were controlling African Americans through the threat of starvation:

Where a couple of years ago white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register [to vote], now they say, “go ahead and register—then you’ll starve.”

She was known to say that so long as she had a pig and a garden, she could survive.

Our institutional memory of the Civil Rights Movement largely focuses on urban dwellers and public demonstrations—those who might have had a backyard garden but purchased most of their food in a store. Yet Hamer’s life suggests that those who grew the food and suffered the most profound impacts of Southern racial terrorism throughout their lives played a key role as well. Born in 1917, she was the twentieth child of sharecroppers. She worked in the fields from the age of six and experienced involuntary sterilization when she underwent surgery to have a uterine tumor removed. Caustically and justly, given the state’s role in promoting such abuses against poor Black women, she called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Of losing her job because she had led a contingent of African Americans to register to vote, she later said, “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”

Hamer’s energy was extraordinary, though she had a limp due to childhood polio and permanent kidney damage due to a beating she sustained in jail at the behest of her jailers. Her nationally televised testimony at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 was televised multiple times throughout the convention and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971, an unsurprising result given voter suppression of African Americans, but she was an official delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Fannie Lou Hamer's Powerful Testimony | Freedom Summer - YouTube

In 1973, FFC had six hundred acres in crop production, three hundred families were recipients of animals from the pig bank, and seventy families were living in the organization’s low-income, affordable housing. They distributed scholarships to local high school students to attend college and were able to support the start of several Black businesses. It was one of the first Head Start preschool sites in the state. Though recession, natural disaster, loss of funding, and the illness of Hamer, its most successful fundraiser led to the collapse of the FFC, its extraordinary success for a time suggests the power of strategies built on working the land, local sourcing, and self-reliant communities. Given its time, scope, intention, and liberatory vision, as well as the fact that this vision was enacted within a pervasively oppressive and racially hostile environment, the movement—while relatively short lived—was a manifestation of self-reliance and the capacity of a community to come together for the provision of food, housing, shelter, education, health care, and employment. This radical experience constituted an important chapter in the Black Freedom Movement. And FFC’s present offspring, organizations like the Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network, the Southern Black Women’s Initiative or organizations such as the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the many members of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, may yet achieve her dreams of social justice through agriculture.

The post Fannie Lou Hamer and Farming as Activism appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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Throughout history, cookbooks have been active tools, offering their readers not only recipes but also insights into the time period and lives of their authors. The most successful have been text that impart a sense of intimacy that transcends the printed page. The following cooks accomplished all of the above and so much more. Using food to teach and heal, these strong, entrepreneurial African American women and men helped define American cooking.

The House Servant’s Directory, or a Monitor for Private Families
By Robert Roberts, 1827

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Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeeper’s Guide
By Tunis G. Campbell, 1848

The House Servant’s Directory was the first commercially published household management book by an African American in the United States. Written for butlers and waiters in 1827, Robert Roberts, a prominent member of Boston’s African American community, provides insights and account of what was expected of domestic servants.

In his book, Roberts includes instructions for cleaning furniture and managing a servant’s work schedule. He discusses tips for cleanliness and behavior, rules on buying, preparing and serving food and drink, and even remedies for bad breath. He provides young black men codes that would help them advance in a white-dominated world.

Before writing his book, Roberts worked as a butler for governors and senators in Massachusetts. In later years he became active in abolitionist politics and supported equal rights in education for children of all races. He died in 1860 just before the Civil War.

Twenty years after The House Servant’s Directory was published, Tunis G. Campbell wrote Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeeper’s Guide. Published in Boston in 1848, Campbell’s book honors the tradition launched by Roberts of helping African Americans succeed in the service industry. He insists that readers recognize the dignity of their labor and the need to be educated, well paid, prompt and clean.

Born in New Jersey in 1812 and educated in an all-white Episcopal school in Long Island, Campbell became a head-waiter, baker and preacher, and like Roberts before him, an abolitionist and cookbook author. While he worked as a hotel steward in New York City and Boston, Campbell preached against slavery. Described by white employers as a man of elevated character, the author of Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeeper’s Guide published his work with support from the owners of the Howard’s Hotel in New York and the Adams House Hotel in Boston.

Although household management tips fill much of the book (Campbell favored a military style of organization, instructing waiters to “hold themselves erect”), more than half consists of recipes for the European-style dishes served in early American hotels. Campbell’s instructionals include carefully detailed proportions, preceding Fannie Farmer—the queen of the level measurements—by almost fifty years.

Before the Civil War, Campbell became partner in a New York City bakery and participated in anti-slavery movements, often sharing the stage with writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A dynamic personality, Campbell moved to the South where he worked to register voters and was appointed to supervise land claims, secure land titles, and rebuild schools and churches. As a member of the Georgia legislature, he protected freed people from white abusers and headed a three hundred-strong African American militia against the Ku Klux Klan. Campbell pushed for laws for equal education, integrated jury boxes, access to public facilities, and fair voting procedures.

In the Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B. Du Bois praised the African American caterers of the 1840s who “aided the Abolition cause to no little degree.” Although both Robert Roberts and Tunis G. Campbell began their careers as servants, they led their community toward literal and metaphorical liberation.

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A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen
By Malinda Russell, 1866

Malinda Russell’s 1866 publication, A Domestic Cook Book, is a historical treasure as much for its recipes as for its insight into the lives of free African Americans after the Civil War. Published in Paw Paw, Michigan, her first-person introduction reveals she was a second-generation free black woman, born and raised in eastern Tennessee—her family being among the first set free by a Mr. Noddie of Virginia. Although freedom was her birthright, she experienced more than her fair share of pain and hardship as a free black person in the South during the Civil War.

At various stages of her life she owned a laundry business, served as a nurse/travel companion, and ran a boarding house and a successful pastry shop. “By hard labor and economy, I saved a considerable sum of money for the support of myself and my son,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. She attributed her cooking skills to Fannie Steward, a fellow cook, and to Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife.

Discovered in 2000 by antiquarian book collector Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, A Domestic Cook Book is believed to be the first cookbook by an African American woman. Throughout its slim thirty-nine pages, Russell reveals that Southern cuisine was complex, cosmopolitan, and inspired by European cuisine. Elegant cakes and pastries and delicate sweet and savory custards appear alongside familiar Southern dishes like sweet potato pudding and chow chow, a traditional pickled relish adapted from the previous century’s English cookbooks, popular in the United States at the time. Russell was a black cook two generations removed from the plantation kitchen.

Russell concluded her autobiographical introduction with confidence, stating: “I know my book will sell well where I have cooked, and am sure that those using my receipts will be well satisfied.”

The year her cookbook was printed, a fire destroyed much of the tiny town of Paw Paw, leaving no trace of Russell. Her cookbook, however, lives on and has been an inspiration to countless African American women in the kitchen.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.
By Abby Fisher, 1881

Until the discovery of Malinda Russell’s work, Abby Fisher’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc., of 1881 was considered the earliest black-authored cookbook.

Born a slave in 1832, Fisher learned to cook in South Carolina plantation kitchens. After the Civil War, she and her husband moved to Mobile, Alabama, before relocating to San Francisco in 1877. It was in this sophisticated Northern California city where she gained a reputation for her cooking skills, winning medals and diplomas at various state fairs for her pickles, relishes and sauces. Fisher’s unique flavors blended African and American cultures by combining the foods and spices from two continents. Her dishes represented some of the best Southern cooking of the day, although her distinctive combinations may have also come from her exposure to West Coast recipes including those of the Asian American population.

A sought-after cook and caterer among the San Francisco’s upper class, Fisher’s success enabled her and her husband to open their own business, Mrs. Abby Fisher & Company, and later Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer. Friends and patrons insisted she record her knowledge and experience of Southern cooking in a cookbook, but there was a hitch in that plan. Because it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, the wildly successful Fisher was illiterate. Therefore, her recipes had to be written down by others as she dictated. Hence, the recipe for Circuit Hash could be a misunderstanding of Succotash.

Fisher also shares a personal glimpse into her previous plantation life at times, for example in her recipe for Blackberry Syrup for Dysentery in Children, stating the tried and true syrup is “an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people.”

Published in San Francisco by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking reflects the high degree of trust on behalf of Fisher and the generosity of the people who helped her.

Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc.
By Rufus Estes, 1911

Slave-born Rufus Estes became one of the best-known chefs in Chicago. A renowned chef for the Pullman Railway Car Service, he was first black railway chef to publish a cookbook, 1911’s Good Things to Eat.

In his introduction, Estes offers a glimpse of American history in the explanation of his name. Born in rural Tennessee in 1857, his last name comes from D.J. Estes, his slave master. History continues as he tells the reader that after emancipation, his family moved to Nashville where he briefly attended school and worked various odd jobs, including milking cows for two dollars a month. At age sixteen he began training in a Nashville restaurant before relocating to Chicago to work for the Pullman Co. in 1883.

After starting his career as a private car attendant, Estes quickly worked his way into the kitchen of the opulent railway company. Becoming a chef in the VIP dining car was quite a feat considering dining-car chefs were primarily white. In the railway hierarchy, working one’s way to a higher position was nearly impossible for African Americans who typically served as attendants, maids, porters, waiters and valets. But eventually, Estes’ culinary skills were celebrated among the upper classes of the Gilded Age.

In Good Things to Eat, Rufus explains that its nearly six hundred recipes “represent the labor of years…day by day and month by month, under…in many instances, not too favorable conditions.” His small railway kitchen was likely hot and cramped, but the working conditions did not keep him from creating extravagant dishes in addition to comfort food. Pickles and preserves give a nod to his rural Southern roots and sit right at home beside recipes for lobster bisque and steak with bordeaux sauce and bone marrow. His menus were defined by the train’s route, and his cooking was European-inspired infused with American regional ingredients. Industry magnates, American presidents, foreign dignitaries, and celebrities enjoyed his lavish meals.

Estes left Pullman in 1907 to work for U.S. Steel Corporation in Chicago, which was his place of employment when he wrote his cookbook. When Good Things to Eat was published, the Chicago Defender, the city’s African American newspaper, lauded Estes as a master of his craft. Sadly, Estes died in relative obscurity, but not before gracing the world with his culinary skills.

The post Influential African Americans in Food History appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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