Monday, August 25, 2014

FoodPorn - Clean Up Your Act

I don't really remember the first time I saw the term "food porn". It's quite possible it was actually #FoodPorn on twitter.  I'll admit that I  was curious....Would the photo be obscene in some way? Titillating? Was something unsavory being done with the food?  I held my breath and clicked on the photo and it was....well, it was just a plate of food....and not an especially good or appealing photo of food.
  So what was the big deal? Why did the person taking the photo and posting it have to call it "food porn"?  To me, and I suspect many others, using the word pornography or "porn" in conjunction with food is not a positive association.  In my opinion using the term "food porn" trivializes the word pornography.  Pornography at the very least objectifies the person photographed and at the worst is a criminal offense. 
Over the years I've seen some amazing photographs of food in cookbooks and magazines and more recently on social media.   Photos that made me want to try and cook it myself or seek out the restaurant where it was served or the chef who prepared it and want to applaud the food stylist involved.   I wouldn't call those 'food pornography" or "food porn" like something to be ashamed of or disguised in a brown wrapper and hidden away.  Beautiful food photos should be celebrated and the people who made the food and styled the dishes should be congratulated. 
So that's my opinion. Stop calling it "food porn" and start calling those photos #FoodFun or #PrettyFood - if you have a better term let me know. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Meeting the Bread Goddess

It makes me smile every time I e-mail Debi Thomas, owner of Wildflour Bakery because her e-mail address is "breadgoddess".  I met up with Debi inside her café and bakery in the small town of Saluda NC.

                                     (interior of Wildflour Bakery & Café in Saluda,NC)

 Debi came out of the kitchen in a black shirt and dark slacks with a fine dusting of flour, very appropriate for baker. When I asked if it was alright to take some photos she insisted on putting on a chef's jacket to look "a bit more presentable." 

(Debi Thomas, owner and baker Wildflour Bakery)

Since it was later in the afternoon there were only a few people in the café so as we talked I ate the day's special,  a hearty bowl of beans and rice.    Several customers walked by and greeted Debi by name and she knew all of their names as well.  An elderly gentleman approached the register and gruffly demanded to see the baker and then seemed surprised when Debi volunteered that she was the baker.  It turned out that he liked baking and had some technical questions about ingredients in one of her rolls. Debi graciously answered,  giving him her full attention. 

We resumed our conversation and I lamented the fact that her breads were no longer in "my" Ingles store.  Debi explained that they have gotten so busy at their shop and restaurant that the strain of supplying so many Ingles stores was beginning to wear on her employees so she decided to scale back.  Currently you can find Wildflour Bread in three Ingles Markets in Hendersonville and our Landrum SC store. 
Debi has spent the last 34 years as a professional baker.  She taught herself to bake as a way of financing college at Indiana University where she studied to be a Special Education teacher.  She would take orders during the day, bake at night and deliver the bread the next morning.  When she and her husband moved to North Carolina,  a summertime gig of baking bread and making sandwiches for the Mother Earth News compound, then near Hendersonville NC,  resulted in a connection with the Orchard Inn Bed and Breakfast.  The Inn invited her to bake in their facility and supply the inn  with bread.  About 30 years ago Debi moved her operation to downtown Saluda and has been there ever since, but still supplies the Inn with bread.   Wildflour Bakery is very definitely a family business.  Debi's daughter Molly appeared in the kitchen doorway and reached down to scoop up her young son, Debi's grandson, as ran into the cafe breathless and excited from an outing to a nearby creek. Molly bakes, manages Wildflour Bakery and handles social media.

One of the things that was clear to me was that Debi loves the little town of Saluda.  As she talked about her "community" she smiled and her face glowed.  "If one of the other restaurants needs something they call me or stop by and I do the same. I love the fact that this restaurant sees all sorts of customers... tree huggers and hippies like me, athletes , families with kids and seniors so it's important to make the food affordable and available to all."
Debi, like many artisan bakers, has had to ride out food and diet fads like the Atkins Diet, "low-carb" and now Paleo and the anti-wheat and gluten-free sentiment.  I asked her what she thought of these fads and she replied carefully "I'm always amazed when people jump on extremes when it all comes back to balance".  She takes pride in the craft of bread making, grinds her own flours and firmly believes that "good ingredients will give you a good product".
There is something very quietly graceful and peaceful about Debi Thomas, maybe it's because of her background as a Special Education teacher, maybe it's she's a baker and because bread, or at least good bread, like many things in life, can't be rushed. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Path to Picking the Perfect Pepper

When you're in Ingles looking for those perfect green bell peppers for your stuffed pepper recipe do you ever stop and wonder how they got there?  What was the path that finally ended up with our produce associates placing those peppers on the shelf so you could pick a pepper? 

I wanted to understand that process so Jay Johnson of JGL Produce and Johnson Produce invited me out to their packing and distribution facility in Haywood County.  Jay's grandfather started JGL Produce 60 years ago in Florida and then opened the Haywood County facility near Canton 42 years ago. During the summer months, July til early October, the Johnson family relocates from Florida to Western NC so their company can pack and distribute produce for about 16 Western NC farmers. These farmers transport their crops to the packing facility where they are cleaned, sorted, packed and then sent out to retailers, directly to stores, to food service or institutions. 

R to L - Johnny Johnson, Glenn Johnson, John Leatherwood, Jay Johnson

One of the farmers that delivers to Johnson Produce is John Leatherwood who stopped by the packing facility during my visit.  Mr. Leatherwood owns 500 acres in Haywood County and his farm is part of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) Appalachian Grown program.   I remarked that this seems like a lot of land for Western North Carolina but he waved his hand dismissively and explained that though he grows vegetables like tomatoes and peppers on some land near the East Fork River, most of those 500 acres is tree covered mountain sides and the other is used for grazing beef cattle, greenhouses, and some is leased to other farmers.  Jay, John and I and John's son Steven drove down to part of Leatherwood farm, barely 5 minutes from JGL produce to walk around the field growing Mountain Fresh and Mountain Majesty tomatoes.

  John is enthusiastic about both varieties of tomatoes and credits Randy Gardner, former professor of Horticultural Science at NC State, for developing these particular breeds of tomatoes with improved disease resistance that can thrive in our mountain climate.  

John Leatherwood holding Aristotle peppers, Jay Johnson

A short walk down a muddy road and I see fields  full of pepper plants. John identifies them as "Aristotle peppers".  Jay shows me a large bright green pepper that he says is perfect because it is "4 globes and blocked". I asked him to explain.  He turns the pepper over, "We want 4 globes on the bottom and they need to be rounded or blocked - not pointed."  That makes sense to me as that would work much better for those stuffed peppers! I asked if they let some of the peppers go to red and John shakes his head, "No, once they start turning they start to get soft and they damage too easily so we need to pick them when they are green."
As we walked back to his truck I  asked Jay about his core farmers and he told me that most are 50-60 years old. Some, like John Leatherwood, have sons interested in farming but overall Jay is worried about what the next ten years might bring.  "We are seeing an increase in people farming on 1-2 acre farms but this is a tough life, it's not like they're going to make a lot of money. Farming is essentially like gambling.  How will the crop do? What will happen with the prices?  Sometimes we forget we are dealing with food!"
In the parking lot of the  processing plant  Jay pointed out stacks of bins.
The wooden ones are "old school" and have now been replaced by white heavy duty plastic bins.  Jay explained that the plastic bins are easier to clean and don't harbor insects which could bore into the wood and then be transported to the vegetables. 

Peppers before being washed, sorted, packed

Once the vegetables are unloaded at the packing facility the process starts with the vegetables getting a rinse and a brush to remove dirt.  It looks a bit like a car wash.  This also cools them down, takes the "field heat" out of them.   If vegetables are too hot when they are packed they can split or become soft. 
Then the sorter separates the vegetables based on size,  for example "1's" are for retailers and food service  and "2's" for institutions.   The  conveyor belt is busy with workers efficiently sorting the peppers and then packing them into boxes. According to Jay, packing peppers is very labor intensive.  Each retailer might have a different specification for how they like vegetables packed.  During the summer season here in Haywood County,  Johnson Produce employees 40-45 workers full-time.
There seem to be vegetables everywhere in the packing facility. This  has been a good summer for crops.  Just the right amount of rain and sun so there have been lots of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. But this, Jay says, is not the best situation for farmers.  "If everyone is producing then the prices go down, Someone has to to lose for someone else to win."

Peppers being packed into boxes

 Soon those "4 globe and blocked peppers" will be on the shelf at your Ingles...ready and waiting for you to choose them to make stuffed peppers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Something's Fishy at Sunburst Trout

It's never a good sign when you arrive for an appointment and the person who you're supposed to meet with says "...I guess you didn't get my e-mail.." (and I hadn't).  If you're Wes Eason, Sales Manager for Sunburst Trout Farm, a 3rd generation family-owned business, and your office manager is out, you're the one who ends up filling in. I've known Wes and other Eason family members who own Sunburst Trout for about a decade and had been out to visit Sunburst before so I assured him that I wouldn't take up much of his time. 
Wes' grandfather, Dick Jennings, who just celebrated his 90th birthday,  left the Yale school of Engineering in the 1940's to pursue his fortune in the mountains of Western NC and started a mink farm near Cashiers.  He soon added a trout farm but when he saw a decline in sales of mink coats switched to strictly trout and in 1965 developed the current location of Sunburst Trout Farm near Bethel, North Carolina.


(Anna Eason with Lake Logan Dam in rear of photo)
  The only thing that separates nearby Lake Logan dam from Sunburst Trout Farm is a high, locked gate but the cold clear mountain lake water, tested once per year,  is pumped into their trout runs.

 Anna Eason (Ben Eason's wife)  walked me around the property and cautioned me to step over the electrified wire surrounding the trout runs.  "We have a real problem with otter from the lake...if they get 4 or 5 young fish that's like they've eaten 20lbs worth and that's a big loss.  The bears don't really go after the fish - they like the trout feed" .

(Feeding trout)

Sunburst feed their trout fish meal, fish oil and wheat middlings - a byproduct of wheat milling. The feed contains no animal by-products, hormones or antibiotics.
Sunburst supplies fresh mountain trout and value-added products like trout jerky, trout dip, smoked trout, and trout sausage to numerous Southeast restaurants, and retailers like Ingles Markets.  You might also see them at a tailgate market and can visit their retail shop in downtown Waynesville. 
I slipped on a hairnet to walk around their processing facility where about 10 of their 25 employees were hard at work as classic rock blared in the background.  Wes told me, "We try and mix the music up, sometimes it's classic rock, sometimes hip hop and latino....We process 400-500lbs of trout at a time, 3000 pounds per day and this time of year about 10,000 pounds per week. " By "process" Wes means, clean, fillet, run the fillets through a machine that removes tiny pin bones and packaged for delivery.  "So a fish that was swimming at 8 am this morning can be delivered to Ingles Market this afternoon and you could be eating that fish tonight for's that for fresh!". 

(John Shipman "recovers" trout & reduces waste)

We stopped at a station were John Shipman used tools to "recover" trout.  After the trout is filleted,  the small amount of flesh that remains can be skinned off and collected. This reduces waste and those small,  but still edible trout scraps can be used to make Sunburst's trout jerky and sausage. 
In an adjacent room that had a pleasant smoky smell,  Wally Ager (if that name looks familiar Wally told me that he is a cousin to the Ager family who run Hickory Nut Gap Farms Meat) packaged their cured and smoked trout for an order.

(Trout jerky)

 I was fascinated by the jerky "cannon" extruding the all natural trout jerky onto sheet pans. It turns out that the jerky is one of Wes' favorite newer products because it's all natural and has a long shelf-life. 
Wes and I returned to the office and I quickly asked a few more questions so he could return to inputting orders and fielding calls. Anna, Sunburst's social media and web guru joined us.  I told them that one of the questions I often get is about preparing trout.  I think many people cook fish incorrectly and then when it turns out dry they decide they don't like it and then avoid it.  Both Anna and Wes recommend grilling trout, " sure and start with the skin side down ... and then cook about 2-3 minutes on each side."  Anna is in the process of redoing the website so be sure and check it for recipes
I asked Wes what he would most  like people to know about Sunburst Trout, "Definitely the short amount of time that it takes for that trout to go from swimming in our trout runs to their restaurant or Ingles.  Many people are also scared of the term farmed fish  because of something they read or saw in the media that scared them,  but this is sustainable fish farming...our fish have not been given any antibiotics or hormones and are healthy.  I get that people want wild caught, but our oceans can't support that type of demand for fresh fish for it still to be considered sustainable."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Going on a WHEAT SAFARI: Grain on the Brain

I got an opportunity to visit North Dakota with the Wheat Foods Council so here is a brief recap of what I learned:
1. North Dakota - or at least the Fargo area is flat, I mean really flat.  I've gotten used to the mountains of Western NC and flying in it looked like a giant quilt of greens and browns and an occasional pond or river - but no hills or mountains.

(Fields around Fargo, ND)

  That being said there is a particular kind of beauty that can be seen in prairie flowers, bright green fields of soy beans and golden fields of wheat.

(Prairie Flowers in Minnesota)

2. Farming is a business - They took us by bus out to Brad Thykeson's farm.  Brad and his 2 sons farm 8000 acres of corn, soy and wheat.

(Wheat growing)

 Brad's family has been farming in this area since the early 1900's and he explained to us that farming, "...just like phones, cars and medicines has changed and had advancements in technology".

(Thykeson barn from the early 1900's and combine from the 1950's)

 He welcomes these improvements that permit him and his sons to support their families off this land.
 "For me, sustainable farming is looking forward to my grandson being able to farm this land."

3. Wheat varieties - I didn't realize that there were 6 classes of wheat grown in the U.S. and these types are grown in different areas, have varying amounts of protein that affect their use in baking.  I also discovered that certain countries prefer certain kinds of wheat to use for their pastas, baked goods and breads.  (Source: )

Hard Red Spring - Highest protein, used for bread in they U.S.
Hard Red Winter - Most of what is grown in U.S. Used in many baked products.
Soft Red Winter - Lower in protein, grown primarily east of Mississippi River used for cakes, pastries, flat breads
Durum - Grown primarily in North Dakota, used for semolina flour for pasta
Hard White - newest class of wheat in U.S., used for (white) wheat breads,
Soft white - grown in Pacific Northwest. Exported to Asian for use for crackers, cookies, quick breads. low in protein.

4. Scientists who study wheat are tired of GMO's - Brent Carver of Oklahoma State University explained emphatically that there is "NO commercially available genetically engineered (GMO) wheat"( he'd obviously gotten this question many, many times) but showed us genomic charts explaining how wheat had evolved from various wild strains. Currently methods like genomic editing or splicing within the wheat species are being used to develop better strains of wheat that can withstand climatic changes and stressors like drought and insects and produce or yield good crop.  This process can take ten or more years to develop a new variety of wheat and involves careful testing and scientific procedures.

5. Myth busting - Lots of popular myths were busted - here are a couple:
"The reason people have celiac disease or gluten intolerance/sensitivity is because of changes in the amount of protein in wheat" - FALSE - Southern Plains, Carver et al. found "No systematic changes in protein content or strength in wheat across 80 year breeding"
-"Big Ag uses more pesticides" - FALSE - Farmer Brent Thykeson explained that new technology and equipment enables modern farmers to use fewer chemicals and fertilizer and apply them more precisely.

6. Pasta preferences - We were able to visit food labs at the Northern Crops Institute and see testing being done on flour blends.  Did you know wheat doesn't have gluten? That's right it has PROTEINS (glutenin and gliadins) and gluten is created when it is processed mechanically or even by chewing. 

I think the best quote I heard was by Dr. Carver:
"If you can't sell it you can't grow it and if you can't grow it you won't sell it."  This sort of sums up the challenge of seed companies, farmers, and food scientists on the ground level of the food system. 



Friday, August 01, 2014

Cow Pies and Cattle - a visit to Hickory Nut Gap Farm

I headed out to Hickory Nut Gap Farm on a misty, overcast and unseasonably cool morning in July. Exiting onto Highway 74A I  crossed under the Blue Ridge Parkway, and passed the Fairview Ingles Market, apartments, strips of businesses and gas stations, it all looked very normal and suburban. After a few miles the 4-lane highway changed to 2 lanes, I crested a hill and suddenly there were farms on both sides of the road and dark, tree-covered mountains ahead, now it felt like I was hundreds of miles from the hustle and bustle of Asheville.

As I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Hickory Nut Gap Farm store a light rain began to fall and the mountains surrounding the farm took on more of a blue green hue.  This land has been farmed by the McClure family since the early 1900s, and from the 1950s to 1980s was primarily a dairy farm operation. In 2000, Jamie and Amy Ager began the farming operation and brand now known as Hickory Nut Gap Meats.   I stepped into the quaint farm shop stocked with HNG meats and various local jams, sauces and beverages.  The best selling items for Hickory Nut Gap are their grass-fed ground beef (available at most Ingles Markets in Western NC)  and their pork sausage which may at some point also be available at Ingles.  You can find HNG meats featured on the menus of many Western North Carolina restaurants and often HNG will offer samples of their ground meat at "Taste of Local" events at Ingles.   Ann Araps, Sales and Relations Manger for HNG,  told me  Jamie and Amy Ager were at the beach with their children and offered to show me around. 
We walked across the road and passed by picnic tables and a play area.  This time of year they have about two groups per week who visit HNG. Ann explained, " the summer it's mostly camps, during the school year it's classes.  So we have different lesson plans for the different ages so it compliments their curriculum.  For example,  elementary kids might learn about the life cycle of an apple and we take them out to the organic apple orchards and let them pick apples."  Ann started out with HNG as an intern and after a stint as a pre-school teacher decided she enjoyed teaching outdoors and now is one of the four full-time employees of HNG. 
Hickory Nut Gap has about 90 acres of pasture land and a total of about 200 acres in Fairview.  They also work with a cooperative of other farms that subscribe to the same principles for raising cattle (i.e. 100% grass-fed, no antibiotics and no added hormones -- cattle have their own natural hormones). The southernmost farm is in Rutherfordton and the furthest north is Boone.  This way, they ensure they can seamlessly provide meat to their customers which has the right amount of marbling(fat) all year long, while being able to adjust for weather conditions like heat, cold and snow. 

 We climb up a hillside covered with rain slick grass and past blackberry bushes (I watch carefully to avoid stepping in cow poop or cow pies) and Ann and I talked about some of the misconceptions consumers have about farming, like why more farms aren't organic or the fact that, often, farmers use organic practices but aren't certified organic. Many farmers, who raise cattle, pigs and chickens as well as crops do use organic practices, but cost can be the primary deterrent for obtaining the certified organic seal.  Ann nods, "For us, it's not only the cost and availability of organic feed for our chickens and pigs, which can be three times as much, but it also costs to have inspections done and put the organic label on items - so then it becomes how much can we charge and how much are consumers willing to spend? We're a business and we have employees and families to support - we have to think about this."

Ann pointed out a group of goats, the distinguished looking male with a long beard sat calmly and watched me disdainfully as I called to the young goats who played nearby.  Ann called the goats "tools" and I asked her what she meant.  "Goats are great at cleaning up invasive plants, they'll even eat ones with thorns, it's like their tongues and lips are made of they maintain the fence line for us."

We head back down and cross the road to see some cows with young calves.  They are clustered together in a field munching on grass, some of the calves with cows under nearby trees and out of the rainy drizzle.

 The "mama cows" watch warily when I ask Ann to move closer for a photo.
 The steers ( castrated males) are at the Rutherfordton farm right now.  At HNG a typical steer will feed on grass for 18-20 months before being processed  for their meat.  This is done at a facility in Taylorsville, NC. 
We walk back to the farm shop and I ask Ann what she and the rest of the folks at Hickory Nut Gap Farm would want people to know about the farm.  She quickly replied, "That they can come and visit us! We want people to see and understand where their food is coming from."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Annie's Breads - One Loaf at a Time

As a child in New Jersey and later in South Carolina, Giuseppe (Joe) Ritota grew up with bakers on both sides of the family and remembers the care and attention they put into their baked goods.  The business of crafting bread is baked deep inside him -- part of his DNA.  Joe's wife, Annie ,was a restaurateur in Greenville, where Joe and Annie met when his family bakery provided her restaurant with bread.  Currently, their bakery business, Annie's Breads, is housed in the former Square D plant in West Asheville.  Annie's Breads has occupied  about 20,000 square feet of the facility since 2010. I remarked that this was a big step up from their previous location in downtown Sylva, where they prepped and baked in 4,000 square feet housed beneath a retail space and restaurant. "Yes," Joe laughs loudly, " we were packed like sardines...No! we were packed like anchovies!"

The warm smell of baking and just baked breads filled the air and I donned a hairnet so  Joe could show me around their operation. He pointed out ovens, dough shapers  and huge mixers. "This is the biggest; it can mix 360 pounds of dough at one time." Baking is for early-birds;
   (Joe Ritota of Annie's Bread with freshly baked bread)


Joe explained that many of their 25 employees arrive at 4am, so their customers can get freshly baked bread that's been given the right amount of time to ferment, bake and cool before delivery or pick up.

At one oven, Chai Saxon is using a long handled wooden bread shovel to move bread around the oven.  Chai grew up in Colorado, trained as a baker in Denmark and has been working at Annie's Breads  since March.
(Chai Saxon using wooden bread shovel to position bread in baking oven)

After a tour of the baking areas I sat down with Joe, Annie and Rebecca Malynowsky, their Sales, Marketing and Merchandising Manager. I asked more questions as we snacked on some of their freshly baked breads.

Annie's Breads are available in about 50 Ingles stores, from other retailers, as well as in restaurants like Tupelo Honey and food co-ops. Their best selling bread is a multi-grain sliced bread and their cranberry walnut breakfast bread is also very popular.  The cost of ingredients can often present problems.  Joe talked about the price of spelt that right now is making it impossible for them to produce spelt bread.  "The price of spelt practically tripled and we would have had to charge over $7 a loaf." Annie and Joe agree that often customers don't understand how affected small businesses can be when the price of crucial ingredients increases.  One of the ways Joe and Annie try and  control costs and quality for their ingredients is by using wheat grown in the Carolinas and ground in a separate room of their facility through Carolina Ground.   "It took a while to find wheat varieties that could grow and perform well in the Carolinas and put up with the heat, but now we're able to grind it here and blend it in with other organic and high quality flours we buy."
I mention that one of my favorite Annie's products is their Christmas  Stollen, a decadent seasonal item so rich it almost melts in your mouth ...and magically, or so  it seems, Rebecca appears with some slices of stollen for me. Rebecca handles many of the customer calls, e-mails, and Facebook queries and says that often the questions are about ingredients ,availability of product and nutritional information.  "We have the nutritional information on our website." Rebecca explains. 

(Freshly baked semolina bread cooling before being put into packages)

Since Annie's Breads no longer has a retail shop or café, I ask Joe, Annie and Rebecca what they would like customers to know about their breads.  Joe says thoughtfully, "I'd like to tell them that our breads are made with time and care ...." . Annie Ritota adds, "We want to be known as a local artisan bread company that makes high quality bread that is accessible to everyone...not just people who can get to a tailgate market or a café ."   Rebecca then says,"It's like our slogan, 'Making a Difference One Loaf at a Time'."

(Annie's Bread featured in Ingles Markets Edible Upcountry Magazine Ad)