December 17, 2015

Talking Japanese School Lunches on Heritage Radio Network

At Heritage Radio Network's East Williamsburg, Brooklyn studios.
Earlier this week, I had the fun experience of being a guest on host Laura Stanley's Heritage Radio show and podcast "Inside School Food," along with Japanese documentary filmmaker Atsuko Quirk. Laura does a great job covering the nuances of the topic, and I recommend it to you. The school lunch plate, her show demonstrates, is where our beliefs about food justice, public health, childhood nutrition and education and sustainability all converge.

Laura occasionally widens her focus on the American school lunch to examine the noontime repast of kids around the world. On our visit the show, the topic was the Japanese school lunch. Atsuko spoke about the making of her wonderful film titled School Lunch in Japan: It's Not Just About Eating! I added my two cents by describing the delightful experience of dropping in on a fifth-grade school lunch at Sanya Elementary School in Tokyo (part of a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship tour earlier this year focusing on food, nutrition and Japanese cuisine).

Lunch at Sanya Elementary School, Tokyo.

In sanitary white coats, caps and masks, Sanya
fifth graders bring lunch food from kitchen to class. 

Atsuko decided she needed to introduce the Japanese school lunch to westerners after visiting her child's elementary public school lunchroom in New York City. She was appalled at what she saw: chicken nuggets strewn across the floor, indiscriminate food waste, zero clean-up effort on the part of of students, no discernable recycling measures and worst of all, a lack of gratitude toward the cafeteria lunch ladies.

The lunch line; students serving their peers.

Miso soup week: student reports on regional styles,
illustrated with photos of what they made at home.
By contrast, what she depicts in her film, and what I saw at Sanya, was the midday class period when kids take the lead, hauling large pots of miso soup and accompany dishes from school kitchen to classroom on carts, setting up a buffet line, serving fellow students, listening to a description of where their lunchtime foods were sourced, and a mini history lesson on the traditions behind those foods. Student-led chants of appreciation and gratitude began and ended each meal. They even clean up after themselves, too, and at the end of the lunch period there are no leftovers!

On our visit to Sanya, we had our pants practically charmed off us by these adorable and enthusiastic kids, and were also suitably impressed with how the lunch period is handled. We learned that the Japanese government has been concerned in recent years at the rise in obesity and lifestyle-related diseases, thinness obsession among young women, the loss of traditional Japanese food culture and a series of food safety incidents that have highlighted an over-dependence on food from abroad.

The Sanya garden, tended by students, parents and community volunteers;
20 different kinds of vegetables are grown here.
The Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011 shook the entire country up, explained school principal Ryoichi Yamagishi, and underscored concerns about food safety and sustainability. "Everyone is more aware of the importance of life," he said, the food they eat and where it comes from and the need for energy self-sufficiency. Since the disaster, Yamagishi noted, Sanya has cut its electricity use by half.

Even before the earthquake disaster, though, the shokuiku (food and nutrition education) movement was gaining steam in Japan. The goal of shokuiku is to increase food and nutrition knowledge, food choice skills and healthy eating habits, not to mention its emphasis on gratitude, table etiquette and local food production. The government passed the Shokuiku Basic Act in 2005; in 2010, the law was amended to require that at least 30 percent of school lunch ingredients be sourced locally. Last year Sanya won the coveted designation of "Super Shokuiku" school for the excellence of its food and nutrition education program.

Another aspect of the shokuiku movement that America's school lunch lacks is the incorporation of nutrition education and food and cooking literacy into the class curriculum. There are now more than 5,000 nutrition educators working in Japanese schools. They offer nutrition presentations during lunchtime, weekend cooking workshops for parents and students, and provide counseling for issues such as picky eating.

Voting on future lunch entree choices.
The shokuiku curriculum is standardized. Second graders learn about local foods and practice simple knife skills and food preparation techniques. They have an obento (box lunch) assignment for which they must learn to make their own onigiri rice balls. In third and fourth grade they make their own tamagoyaki (egg omelet rolls) and by fifth and sixth grades, they are able to make their entire lunch.

Sanya also leases a rice field in the countryside, which students visit in the fall to help with planting and in the spring to assist in the harvest.

Giving thanks after eating. 
The day I visited, the menu included Fukagawa-meshi, a rice dish, kenchinjiru (miso soup with tofu and vegetables), kibinago (silver stripe round herrings) cooked in soy sauce, half of a Satsuma mandarin orange, and milk. A student announcer explained that the rice was a Tokyo-area specialty, traditionally made with clams, miso, burdock, carrot, garlic scapes and shiitake. "Twenty years ago there were many clams in Tokyo Bay," he explained, "but today they are mostly imported from elsewhere. The dish is a local specialty that was often served at Tokyo food stalls. Today's Fukagawa-meshi has clams in it, so please enjoy the Edomae (Tokyo style) flavors."

There's a lot to admire about Japanese school lunches, but Laura pointed out areas where the U.S. arguably does a better job: food and nutrition assistance for low-income students,  for example, done in an unobtrusive way that doesn't stigmatize recipients.

For more on school lunches, check out Cafeteria Culture, an amazing local not-for-profit organization Atsuko helps lead that has done much to make school lunches more sustainable.

December 11, 2015

Chef's Choice: Twenty-two Chefs Dish on Japanese Food Culture

One of the most entertaining reads of this fall for me was Chef's Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine by Saori Kawano and Don Gabor.

Kawano, the founder and president of Korin Japanese Trading Corp., the Tribeca Japanese chef knife and tableware store, and writer Gabor have put together a series of interviews that will appeal to the aspiring chef or culinary student as well as anyone interesting in eating and cooking Japanese food. Each interview is divided into sections describing the chef's influences, career path, cuisine, training and "a day in the life," section devoted to amusing or instructive anecdotes.

Each chef was selected for his or her affinity and love for Japanese cuisine, so it's not surprising that Japanese influences figure heavily in their cooking. Some even have to hold back to keep from overdoing it. Eric Ripert says he's channeled his exposure to Japanese cuisine into his food at Le Bernardin, and notes. "Now I sometimes restrain myself because I discover that ninety percent of the menu has a Japanese influence. Then we have to go back to French cuisine--at least a little bit!" Increasing globalization means that an aware chef is plucking influences from a wide array of cuisines. The challenge, Ripert notes, "is to be creative without being disrespectful of tradition," to help customers "understand other food cultures."

But what does that mean?  Slavishly reproducing classic Japanese dishes, or riffing on them in a way appealing to western audiences? When foreign chefs depart from the traditional Japanese way of doing things it can be dismaying to Japanese customers. For example Wylie Dufresne, known for his intellectual, avant garde approach to cooking, makes a pumped-up dashi that registers on the palate like a pounding tsunami, not the gentle ocean swell of traditional dashi. Where Japanese chefs will immerse their bonito flakes into their konbu broth briefly, from ten to 30 seconds, Dufresne pushes the boundaries, going for a ten-minute soak.  Japanese customers will complain; this is not the soft, gentle umami they are used to. "I don't know whether it's right or wrong, but it's different." says Dufresne.

Besides some mind-of-a-chef techniques, you'll learn a little about Japanese taste predilections. Cookbook author and teacher Elizabeth Andoh discusses the importance of mouth-feel to the Japanese. Ingredients that might be off-putting to westerners, like the neba-neba (slimy, sticky, or stringy) texture of okra, junsai (watershield, a pond green covered in a transparent jelly) or natto (fermented soybeans) are beloved in Japan.

You'll also learn a bit about the history of Japanese ingredients in western cooking. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, French and American chefs began going to Japan, and Japanese chefs flocked to France to study and cook. David Bouley recalls the first time he saw soy sauce used by a French chef, by Joel Robuchon at his Saint Germain L'Atelier in Paris. Robuchon combined soy sauce with butter, ginger and lemon juice, a move that must have seemed daring at the time but now seems almost quaint.

Besides Andoh, there are only two other women included, Lee Anne Wong, who gained fame on Top Chef and now heads Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, and Toni Robertson, Executive Chef of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Singapore. Growing up in a family of doctors, to satisfy parental expectations, Robertson became a U.S. Air Force emergency room medic and served in the Air National Guard before turning to cooking. The experience wasn't a waste though. She calls it "perfect training" for professional kitchen work because she learned how to remain calm in the midst of "controlled chaos."

Some of the most tantalizing tidbits involve the chefs' thoughts on individual ingredients. Marcus Samuelsson loves yuzu and smoked fish liver. Wylie Dufresne rhapsodizes about kuro edamame, or black soybeans, which he calls "a higher level of soybean that tastes almost like corn, peanuts, or a little of both," with a black outer skin but "an emerald green bean inside that shines through. When you pop the soybean out of its skin and eat it, it's so delicious and flavorful that you'll never want to go back to the other edamame."

Nobu Matsuhisa highlights the importance of ingenuity and imagination when faced with a lack of ingredients. When he arrived in Lima, Peru as a young man fresh fish was bountiful, but not Japanese ingredients. To approximate Japanese rice he tried mixing local rice with sweet glutinous rice. To come up with a facsimile of Japanese rice vinegar he mixed soy sauce, acetic acid, and then later wine, kombu and salt. Without fresh wasabi, he mixed powdered wasabi with horseradish and some local hot pepper.

Bouley advocates intuitive cooking  "When you cook a dish that you're worried about, I suggest that you rely more on your senses... Stop thinking, because that's going to distract you." He gives the example of learning how to cook onions by paying careful attention to sensory input every step of the way. "What do they smell like they they are cooking and getting sweet?...What do they smell like then they are still full of water? They smell bitter, they smell acidy. Trust your senses and they will not lie to you."

The chapter on Australian chef Ben Flatt, who married his wife Chikako and then worked with her parents at their Noto Peninsula guest house Sannami, is fascinating. Flatt learned Japanese knife techniques, fermentation, pickling and seasonal cooking from his in-laws, and he and Chikako now run an inn and cook "Noto-Italian" cuisine at Flatt's by the Sea. They make 400 litres of ishiri, a fermented squid sauce, a year. One of his dishes involves hinazushi pickled fish that tastes like blue cheese paired with deep-fried flying fish wings and dressed with a mix of sansho leaf, olive oil and sugar.

All of the chefs, not surprisingly, recommend working hard, no matter how lowly your first position in the kitchen turns out to be, adapting to any working condition, and figuring things out on your own. A common criticism of American-trained chefs is that they need to be spoon-fed recipes and techniques, a far cry from the Japanese system, where no one teaches apprentices anything; they are expected to learn by watching how the masters do things.

Yosuke Suga, whose father ran a French restaurant in Nagoya and who worked for ten years as Joel Robuchon's trusted lieutenant, says that as an apprentice and later chef in both Japan and France, "nobody trained me or taught me recipes. I had to observe and absorb them." Today's culinary school grads, he notes, are alway on the lookout for the next best gig. "But even if the chefs are smart and learn the technique in just one year, they cannot learn philosophy or's difficult to trust them on a deeper level."

October 22, 2015

In Upstate New York, Talking Tanka Poetry

Here's some of what I collected at Tanka Sunday in Albany over the weekend.

Tanka, the ancient form of Japanese poetry, is alive and well, I found out. Two lines longer than haiku (formulated in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern instead of haiku's 5-7-5) it's being given new life every day by by ardent practitioners of the form, not just in Japan, but around the world. Present at the Tanka Society of America's bi-annual meeting were poets from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan, who shared their poems and discussed why it is they write tanka. 

Pulled into this world of verse by a collection of tanka that my grandparents published in 1960, little did I know that it would lead to such a rich and warm community of like-minded poets. Included in the photo above, center, is The Sky Unchanged: Tears and Smiles, a collection of tanka about the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster, many of them written by survivors themselves. Amy V. Heinrich, former director of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University, was one of three translators who rendered the poems into English, and also the keynote speaker at Tanka Sunday. 

Here are a few poems from the book:

locally grown
hardly sell--
I eat my heart out
this evening
        Toko Mihara
        Fukushima, June 2012

unkempt and unshaven
the town mayor
encourages his staff
"we can do it!"
all the while crying
        Yoshihiro Yamauchi
        Iwate, May 2011

Michael Dylan Welch, the founder of the Tanka Society of America, also runs a small press for haiku and tanka books called Press Here. On the left in the picture above is his most recent tanka publication, a beautifully designed and produced collection of tanka by the late poet Pat Shelley, titled Turning My Chair. On the right, is the latest edition of The Tanka Journal, from the Nihon Kajin Club (Japanese Tanka Poets' Society). At 5,000 members strong it's the largest organization of tanka poets in Japan. Editor-in-Chief Aya Yuhki, who studied English literature in university, traveled from Tokyo to attend Tanka Sunday.

My friend and translator Kyoko Miyabe and I each gave presentations on our forthcoming English-language translation of my grandparents' book, By the Shore of Lake Michigan. Yet for sure, it was we who learned more about tanka from the assembled poets, not the other way around. 

October 6, 2015

A Greenhouse Tour at Stone Barns

Guide and farm staff member Ryan Sokoloff, who started his studies at
Cornell in neuroscience, but decided sustainable ag was more interesting.

Over the weekend, I visited Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, the farm lab, four seasons farm and education center whose Rockefeller land and money have made it a Shangri-La for sustainable agriculture experimentation.

It was the center's annual Harvest Fest, where visitors, many of them wide-eyed future consumers, participated in egg collecting, hay rides, bread and butter making, pickling and carrot top pesto making, among many other things. The weather was cold and gray, and what the day lost in picture postcard ambiance it gained in a display of the kind of real-life weather that comes with the job of farming. 

Destined for the salad plate.

My favorite activity was a tour of the Stone Barns greenhouse led by Stone Barns apprentice Ranan Sokoloff. The Stone Barns 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, he explained, involves 55 different varieties of vegetables that fall into around 10 different plant families. These families are rotated on a 10-year cycle. Each year, each crop family is planted in a new location so the different crops draw on different accounts of the soil's nutrition bank, preventing depletion. In between harvests "cover crops" like sorghum, winter rye and vetch are planted for the sole purpose of enriching the soil.

Cover crops in their infancy.

In preparation for winter, two types of crops are underway: those that are planted in the fall to be harvested in March or April (celtuce, tsai tsai, peas), and those that are planted and harvested continually throughout the winter (carrots, mustard greens, turnips, radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, spinach and mache). Since the growth rate of all of these crops is slower during the winter, it's important to plant successively in order to ensure a constant winter harvest.

Purple peas!

An engaging guide, Sokoloff explained that winter crops are finicky, and must be started from seed and transplanted early enough in the season so that they can take root before the real cold hits. The greenhouse's electric heaters keep the temperature just above freezing, so it's no Florida. The season's heating bill is low enough to be easily recouped by sales, says Sokoloff

He compared this to greenhouses that grow tomatoes in winter. These heat-hungry plants need a steady 65-degree environment, which means that in the Northeast, the annual cost of heating a greenhouse makes it the lucky farmer who breaks even on tomatoes, while burning through lots of fuel. Yet worried about keeping customers through the winter, some farmers feel compelled to grow them. Something to think about when you reach for that alluring winter tomato, the apple in today's sustainable Garden of Eden.

Bees and humans both love these. 

At Stone Barns, added, Sokoloff, "You can eat delicious fresh food all year around. But no tomatoes. That's something you have to wait for."

White dahlias, blue bedder salvia.

In the greenhouse, every square inch of soil is maximized. So often, longer-term growth plants will be inter-planted among shorter-term lettuces. The benefits of some greenhouse products just can't be measured, though. Sokoloff guided us to a row of beautiful white dahlias and spiky blue bedder salvia, noting that their benefit, besides providing beautiful cut flowers, is to attract vegetable plant pollinators and break up the disease and pest cycles of other plantings. The flowers have helped recruit an astonishing 114 varieties of native bees, an added value that Sokoloff notes "might not show in the bottom line."

Farm tours at Stone Barns are offered every Friday, and are well worth the price of admission.

September 4, 2015

A Mother's Farewell to Heart Mountain

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. 
Looking west over the center with its sentry namesake, 
Heart Mountain, on the horizon.  (NARA 538782)

Late last month I attended a pilgrimage to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the former U.S. Government concentration camp where my mother and her family were placed for three years during World War II. My mother had not been back to Heart Mountain for 70 years, since she left as a girl of 12. She wanted to go, she told us, to see the mountain the camp was named after one more time. Its iconic shape, more like the angled smokestack of a cruise ship than a heart, had found a permanent home in her memory. While living in the prison camp she had even once had a nightmare about the mountain coming to life with flailing arms, rising up as if to smother her.

My mother, circa 1944, with the iconic Heart Mountain and camp
barracks behind her. 

The camp was one of 10 wartime prisons the U.S. government set up in remote locations of the country, where 110,000 prisoners, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were forced to live. The victims of wartime hysteria and race hatred following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were stripped of their right to due process, forced to sell most of their belongings and given low-wage jobs running their own prison, as doctors, nurses, mess hall cooks, garment workers, policemen and farmers.

My mother in front of the mountain that still lives within her,
here obscured by smoke from forest fires in
states to the west. 

My mother claimed not to remember much else about camp. Yet as we made the 13-mile drive from Cody, where we were staying, to the site of the camp and as the mountain suddenly appeared in the distance, she gasped audibly and whispered, "Oh my god, I can't believe it." Tears came to her eyes, shocking her with their arrival. She was unprepared for the onslaught of feelings, she told us later, of nostalgia and sadness.

The weekend-long pilgrimage featured interviews with former prisoners, speeches by former U.S. Transportation Secretary and U.S. Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta and former U.S. Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson (the two became friends when Simpson's Cody Boy Scout troop visited Mineta's Heart Mountain prison camp troop for a jamboree) and moving performances by the spoken word artist G Yamazawa.

A restored guard tower and the smokestack
from the prison camp hospital still stand.
But what made the biggest impressions on me were the stories of the former inmates themselves (so reduced in numbers now that the only ones still living were, like my mother, for the most part teen-aged or younger when they were in Heart Mountain). As we walked the former prison site and toured the Heart Mountain Foundation's sensitively organized interpretive center, memories flooded back to her.

She remembered the windstorms that sent tumbleweeds scuttling across the camp, and how unlike now, no matter how far you looked in any direction, all you saw was sagebrush and that looming mountain. She remembered the harsh, sub-zero winters, and one snowball fight that landed her in the Heart Mountain hospital: it contained a rock that left her eye swollen and bloodied. Inmates, mostly from the Los Angeles area, were totally unprepared for the climate. My mother remembered that first winter how everyone ordered pea coats from the Montgomery Ward catalog. She remembered the servers in the mess hall walking down the aisle with gallon cans of sugar, doling out one teaspoon per person (paltry to a child to wanted more), and how she loved roller skating on the smooth cement floor of the laundry room. She remembered in summers, catching horned lizards in the desert, and a murder in the barrack across from her family's--fallout from a love triangle. "We had a little of everything," she commented.

One wing of the 150-bed hospital, where my mother was treated
for a facial wound, remains.
Looking at a photo of the Heart Mountain swimming hole, my mother remembered "almost drowning" when she couldn't get out from under some sort of barrier. Later that day, on the short bus ride to a memorial site that commemorates inmates who joined the U.S. Army to fight in Europe, I spoke to another former prisoner, a retired Seattle newspaper editor, who had the exact same recollection. "I almost drowned in the swimming hole, he told me. There was a platform that all the kids would jump on, and I couldn't get out from under it."

The swimming hole still conjures memories of near-drownings.
My mother remembered my Uncle Tosh leaving camp early to join the army, one of more than 750 prisoners who left Heart Mountain to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the war. She remembered that when he asked her what she would like from the outside, she requested an Andy Russell record and a ring with her birthstone, pink zirconia. Fifteen of those servicemen who left Heart Mountain to serve were killed in battle, leaving their families to mourn behind barbed wire. To the great relief of our family, my uncle was not among them.

My mother also remembered Kiyoshi Okamoto, the founder of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, coming in the back entrance to her family's grocery store in downtown Los Angeles before the war to talk politics with her father. At Heart Mountain, when the military presented its "loyalty questionnaire," the Fair Play committee drafted its stance: members were U.S. citizens loyal to the United States and willing to serve in the U.S. Army, but only if their legal rights were first restored and they and their families were released from the prison camp. The Fair Play Committee set itself apart from the "no-no" boys, those who refused to answer yes to two key questions: would they serve in the U.S. armed forces if asked, and would they swear unqualified allegiance to America and forswear any allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Both groups, especially the "no-nos," were reviled by many who joined the U.S. armed forces, in part to prove their loyalty to America.

This photo, taken by prisoner Bill Manbo, shows the farewell held for
"no-no" prisoners, who were transported to the Tule Lake Segregation
Center in Northern California, where the "no-nos" were isolated.
My mother, who is now 82, does not think she will return to Heart Mountain. But she accomplished what she wanted to, to see that heroic mountain one more time. When I sent her this post to read before launching it, she told me there was one important fact that I'd gotten all wrong: the dream about Heart Mountain coming alive was not a nightmare at all, but actually a comforting dream.

"I always had good feelings about that mountain," she told me. "It's the one thing I thought about when I thought about Heart Mountain at all." I realized that it was I who had projected onto that dream all my assumptions about what her repressed feelings about camp must have been. Surely behind her innocuous memories there lurked fear, anxiety and anger, or at least if they were not her own emotions, they were the internalization of those picked up from her parents and other adults near to her?

Could it be, I asked, that making Heart Mountain a protective symbol was her child's way of coping with loss and tragedy? "That could be," she admitted doubtfully, "it's hard to say."

Perhaps the deeper emotional truth of what happened to my mother 73 years ago will never be recoverable, and I suspect it is the same for many of the former incarcerees I spoke to. They remembered the daily events of school and play, the fun they had, but also the harshness of the climate and their living conditions. Today they recognize the gross injustice of the treatment they received so long ago, but its sting rarely pierces the stoic armor of Japanese gaman (endurance, patience and tolerance) and the practical shikata ga nai (it can't be helped) attitude that became the default response of so many who were imprisoned.

Or maybe, as the translator and Fordham University Japanese language professor Mariko Aratani said to me, it's impossible to understand the Japanese reaction to the concentration camps because it belongs to "a totally different paradigm" than the worldview of most westerners and more assimilated Japanese Americans.

For my mother, the trip "was sort of like closure," she told me. "Going back after all these years, and having all those hidden feelings emerge, I now feel like I don't need to go back again." 

September 3, 2015

Remembering Oliver Sacks

As a correspondent for People magazine, I spoke to many people who were famous, infamous, formerly famous, hoping to regain fame, or on the cusp of fame. Though I've forgotten most of them, a few of my interview subjects left me with indelible memories.

Dr. Oliver Sacks was one of them, because of his brilliant writing and storytelling ability, the way his boyish delights still worked their magic on him at the age of 67,  and for his seemingly enormous capacity for empathy--for his patients, family, friends, and even for one of the many reporters who were by then vying for his time. 

We spoke in 2001 at his Horatio Street office in the West Village, for a story slated to appear in a special Oscar edition of the magazine. I was to ask the doctor to look back at the release of the film "Awakenings" eleven years earlier. The film was based on Dr. Sacks's 1973 book by the same name, which told in compelling detail of his experience treating patients who had been rendered catatonic after contracting sleeping sickness. When the doctor administered a new drug to them, L-dopa, they underwent astonishing "awakenings."The movie starred Robert DeNiro as Leonard L., one of Dr. Sacks's patients, and Robin Williams as a stand in for his own character.

Dr. Sacks, I realized, was a kind of an intellectual fan-boy, and he loved to share his enthusiasms. He scurried off at one point to retrieve his autographed copy of Eve Curie's biography of her mother Marie, a gift from his surgeon mother when he was 10. The one memento from the set of "Awakenings" that he wished he had kept, he said, was a beautiful rendering of the periodic table. He had just finished his manuscript for the book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, in which he detailed his passionate boyhood love for chemistry. As we spoke, he he sipped tea from a mug imprinted with a the periodic table; another version of his beloved chart, in Basque (a gift from a friend), hung above his desk.

Although he would later write about his experimentation with drugs and his identity as a gay man, his then-forthcoming memoir detailed none of that, and, he noted, "finishes discreetly at age fourteen." But he did consider writing more. "The one thing I can't decide is whether to indicate that anything has happened, you know, subsequently, in the years thereafter," he said. "But I've certainly had enough about writing about myself for the time being, and will gratefully get on to other things, namely a book on botany (another of his passions), which became Oaxaca Journal.

After telling entertaining stories about DeNiro and Williams, the conversation turned to the making of the film "At First Sight," which was based on Dr. Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars and starred Val Kilmer as a blind man who regains his sight. The doctor gleefully described his fascination with the fact that the film's producer, Irwin Winkler, shared the same last name as the discoverer of the element germanium, one of his own "favorite elements." Then he leapt from his chair once again to find a book on the giants of chemistry, and showed me the entry on Clemens A. Winkler the scientist. "I kept asking Irwin if he was related to THE Winkler," Dr. Sacks said. "I think he said, 'I'm THE Winkler.'"

But it was the doctor's obvious empathy for his patients that was most moving to me. He told the story, which he's told before, of how, in 1988, during a Tourette syndrome awareness week in Cincinnati, hundreds of Tourette patients converged and met others like them (many for the first time in their lives), and the "remarkable feeling of community" they found in each other. "I'm regarded as an honorary Touretter," he noted, adding, "in fact some of my patients think I have the real thing."So when a member of their group got thrown out of the local Wendy's fast-food restaurant for twitching and cursing, he joined ranks with 200 young adults with Tourette syndrome to descend on restaurant in protest.

The patients he had written about so empathetically in Awakenings were all dead by the time of our interview, but they were still very much alive to Dr. Sacks. "When I had my house in City Island," he said wistfully, "I used to keep all the files of the Awakenings patients out. In fact they were out till last year. Then I said, 'What's the use of having these files out?' But they never quite died for me."

August 13, 2015

What I'm Reading: "Homemade for Sale" Cottage Food Business Primer

You know all those small-batch products you're seeing at farmer's markets: pickles, jams, pretzels, vinegars, and other items you wish you had time to make yourself but are glad others are making for you? Well, their makers are worth supporting for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that if you shop selectively, you're getting delicious, high-quality, homemade products straight from the hands of the person who made it. Another is that if you believe in the value and transparency of local food systems, this is a first step in capitalizing yours. Reward a quality cottage food business and you're helping the next generation of makers establish a foothold in the local economy.

If you want to be the next Jeni Britton Bauer (Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream) or Beth Linskey (Beth's Farm Kitchen), here's a great book to help you get started: Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up and Market a Food Business From Your Home Kitchen, by wife-and-husband team and back-to-the-land gurus Lisa Kivirist  and John D, Ivanko. 

This user-friendly guide explains that the explosion of culinary entrepreneurs we're seeing at the greenmarkets and online (just check out, or go down the list of winners of the annual Good Food Awards) owes a lot to changes in state laws governing small-scale, independent home-based food businesses. Over 42 states have recently established such laws, making it easier than ever before to launch a business out of your kitchen.

Homemade for Sale covers everything from navigating your state's cottage food laws to product development, design, packaging and pricing; navigating zoning, licensing and legal hurdles; managing the books, and for those who want to, scaling up. Interspersed are profiles of successful "cookiepreneurs" and "profitable picklers," as Kivirist and Ivanko dub members of the kitchen entrepreneur movement, as well as tips gleaned from the couple's own experience of starting and running their carbon-negative inn, Serendipity Bed & Breakfast, and their farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

Helpful tips include advice on making sure your baked good is a "non-hazardous" one (meaning low moisture and shelf-stable to prevent mold and harmful bacteria growth); offering samples of your product (check venue rules and local health department regulations first), and a word of warning to Canadians (where selling food made in your home kitchen is outlawed for all but farmers).

The promotion, advertising and public relations chapter offers plenty of helpful links to web design and social media sites, and to free directories on which you can list your business (,, and, to name a few).

Read this book and you, too, will feel that you can play a part in changing our food systems for the better and changing the way America eats.

July 14, 2015

Coffee Cupping: How to Taste like a Pro

If you hang around "third-wave" coffee houses or coffee geeks you probably have heard the term "cupping." Yesterday I learned the basics of how it works at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters' spanking new Loft, not too far away from Union Square.

"Cupping" is the term coffee buyers use for tasting and evaluating coffees. At my Intro to Cupping class, we learned there are three categories of aromas that we'd be looking for. Enzymatic aromas relate to the plant-based characteristics of the coffee bean, and include the floral, citrusy and berry-like. Sugar burning aromas are the result of the sugars in the bean meeting heat. Not surprisingly, these tend to the deeper end of the spectrum: nut, malt, syrup, honey, chocolate or vanilla. Then there are the dry distillate aromas, which go even deeper, into territory that might be described by expert cuppers as smoky (pipe tobacco), ashy, medicinal (camphoric), or warming (cedar, pepper).

Our instructor Josh Littlefield even provided us with this handy flavor wheel to arm us with some descriptive adjectives to apply to our smell and taste sensations later on. As with my sake tasting experience, a big part of being able to identify the different aromas you discern is having the descriptive vocabulary to attach to them. Those terms make it easier to remember and describe different coffees or sakes.

The tasting was a two-part process: first we tasted from coffee that had been brewed with 205-degree fahrenheit water poured over grounds and steeped for about four minutes. A "crust" forms on top, so we slid our spoons in at 45-degree angles to break the crust and scoop up clean brewed coffee. We slurped and inhaled at the same time to maximize access to the aromas, tasting five different coffees that ranged from super peanutty to tea-like, to umami-filled, to one that tasted like blueberries. Our favorite was the Los Ninos honey process from El Salvador, which instead of being put in a mechanical dryer, is left to dry in the sun, giving it richer, honeyed deliciousness. (To learn the full story of how this coffee farm, Talnamica, and its owners, Hermann and Nena Mendez and their daughter Mayita, became part of the Irving Farm family, read my Edible Manhattan story on Irving Farm here.) Unfortunately Irving Farm has only made a small experimental batch of the Los Ninos; it'll be gone soon.

We then tasted pour-over versions of the same coffees, which lost a bit in aroma bandwith compared to the steeped coffee. To get the fullest range of aromas, Josh recommended a French-press coffee maker.

Here is another cool thing we got to sample: 36 tiny bottles of different coffee aromas (rose, coriander, hazelnut), synthetically replicated by Le Nez du Cafe, a kind of study guide or cheat sheet for coffee professionals or highly motivated amateurs.

And for a peek into the detail that the pros go into when they cup, here's a page out of Irving Farm's cupping notes, sprinkled with scribblings like "jam toast" or "cherry cola."

Josh told us that there are over 400 aroma/flavor compounds in coffee, more than twice that of wine, though he admitted that wine people might take issue with that claim to tasting complexity hegemony.

For those who are interested, every Thursday at 10 am, Irving Farm holds a public cupping at its Loft.

July 7, 2015

Cooking Teacher for a Day

From left, students Angel Gutierrez, Melvin Carter, instructor Andrea Bergquist-Zamir, Carrie Pierre, Lewil Rodriquez, Martha Nunez and Dominique Icart.
As a non-professional in the kitchen,  I was happy to be invited to guest teach my second Japanese food cooking class at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) recently. Chef Andrea Bergquist-Zamir has headed the Chef Training Program at the supermarket-style food pantry since May 2013, and has transformed it into a serious career training opportunity for WSCAH clients, many of whom face challenges ranging from lack of housing and documentation to mental illness. For some students, just getting to WSCAH or finding adequate childcare are major hurdles to overcome.

The first time I guest taught was in February. We made ozoni, the traditional rice cake soup served on New Year's morning (read my Saveur article on it here) and chirashizushi, a sushi rice dish scattered with various vegetable and other mix-ins Since the students loved both dishes, and they worked well in the class, we decided to repeat the same dishes even though ozoni is not exactly a dish for summer.

Once again, I found the students an impressive bunch: enthusiastic, eager to learn, and determined to get the dishes right. They were also once again adventurous in their tastes, and they delighted in eating the dishes we made. One student, Awilda Santana, exclaimed to me, "We're so lucky to be here now, at this time in food, when so much is happening." I couldn't agree more. Santana, as she is known by her classmates, also insisted on giving me her beautiful apron (which another WSCAH client had made by hand) and her chef's hat.

Student Awilda Santanna

Chef Andrea, who opted out of a high-powered career as executive chef of Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster and Merkato 55 to teach at WSCAH,  is proud that graduates of her classes have landed jobs in a wide variety of restaurants and kitchens, from Shake Shack and Whole Foods to Lucy's Whey, The Filling Station and Hot Bread Kitchen, to name just a few. Connecting with people and giving joy and hope through the food of one's heritage is a powerful feeling, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to do so. Now I'm just hoping I get invited back!

June 2, 2015

With Sake, Rules Are Made to be Broken: In the Class with John Gauntner

I'm in Las Vegas now, for John Gauntner's sake professional course. John is the foremost non-Japanese expert on sake, and the rise in popularity of his professional courses is testament both to his skill as a teacher and to the growing popularity of premium sake in the U.S. He's taught the course over 30 times, and this, he told us, was his largest class ever, at 70 people. 

The three-day course packs a massive informational punch, but some of the best parts are John's digressions and stories. Here's one he told to prove two important and related points: one, "exceptions abound" to any rules of thumb that you might try to apply to sake, and two, you can "rest assured that some of what is taught here will be contradicted by someone somewhere along the line." 

To prove his point, John told the story of visiting the Dassai brewery in Yamaguchi Prefecture about 10 or 15 years ago, to meet its president, Kazuhiro Sakurai. It is unusual for sake presidents to also serve as master brewer, or  toji, of their breweries, and Sakurai was no exception. One day, though, his toji quit on him, and Sakurai was in a bind. Impulsively, he decided he would take over as toji. He shook up a lot of things, including the brewing schedule. Instead of brewing for six months of the year, which is the way things have traditionally been done, he started brewing year round. To solve the problem of not having freshly harvested fall rice year round to brew with, he decided to freeze part of his rice crop to use in summer. He let John in on the secret to making good sake with this method: you had to mill, or polish the rice before freezing. 

Some time later, John visited the Rihaku Brewery in Shimane Prefecture. Chatting with the brewery president, he learned that Rihaku makes a special New Year's sake that ships every year on New Year's Day. But if they used local rice harvested in October, they would not have completed sake ready to ship on time for New Year's Day. So they decided to use rice from the previous year, which they had frozen. His secret? "You must not mill the rice before you freeze it."