Saturday, February 26, 2011

Upsetting the Applecart

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
- Margaret Mead

There aren't a lot of pictures of Tarek el-Tayyib Mohamed Ben Bouazizi. In most of the pictures that do exist, he's not recognizeable. Hell, he's not recognizeable to most Americans even in the picture above. But his short life, and the way he left it, has completely changed the face of global politics.

Different versions of Mohamed's story conflict with each other; some say he had a computer science degree, others that he never made it through high school. What is known is that he was 26 years old and living in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, with his widowed mother and six sisters. Unable to find employment, he worked for most of his life (from age 10 onward) as a street vendor, selling fruits and vegetables from a cart. Despite police harassment, theft, and a tendency to give away free food to those even poorer than himself, Mohamed was able to provide for his family and send his sisters to school; he was even putting one sister through university, and was saving up for a truck to expand his business.

Enter the police, stage left.

Stories conflict here too. We do know that a police officer named Faida Hamdi stopped him on the morning of December 17, 2010. Some say she demanded a bribe, others say she demanded a permit (which authorities in Sidi Bouzid agree that he didn't actually need), many say she overturned his cart and confiscated his property. Mohamed's family claims that she insulted his deceased father, spit at him, and slapped him in the face. For a young man victimized by corrupt officials throughout most of his life, it was the last straw. He appealed to his government officials, who ignored him until he doused himself with either gasoline or paint thinner and set himself on fire. Eighteen days later, he died of his burns.

This is why the Arab world is under revolution now. It began in Tunisia, where thousands of Mohamed's peers took to the streets in his name to fight for change. Corrupt government, high inflation, high unemployment, widespread poverty - it all came to a head when Mohamed couldn't take anymore, and his peers decided they didn't have to, either. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his office a short time later.

This inspired similar revolt in Egypt, but also in Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain and Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Mauritania, Syria, Morocco, and now Libya. Even Saudi Arabia is getting into the act. Civil unrest appears to be spreading into Europe too, after a Moroccan street vendor with a story remarkably like Mohamed Bouazizi's torched himself in Sicily, sparking protests across Italy as well as Greece and Albania.

Bizarrely, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been getting a lot of credit for his network's part in the revolution; a man in Egypt even named his newborn daughter "Facebook". Though the mayor of Paris plans to name a park after Mohamed Bouazizi, his memory seems to be fading in favor of the rich and powerful, as tends to happen.

Me, I'm sitting here wondering when we're going to follow suit. Corrupt government, high inflation, high unemployment, and widespread poverty all sounds pretty familiar to me. Sure, there's the protests in Wisconsin - but come on, y'all, union benefits? Seriously? We have Morningland Dairy and Estrella Family Creamery playing the part of our own Mohamed Bouazizi, with the FDA in Faida Hamdi's role; Wisconsin even had an Amish farmer, Emanuel Miller, tormented by the USDA in violation of his First Amendment rights exactly two years to the day before Mohamed lost his business. Why weren't we marching then?

And why aren't we marching against our own federal government, who spends almost 700 BILLION of our dollars against our will to maintain unwanted occupation of about 160 foreign nations after our elected president promised - and failed to deliver - "change"? Or our USDA, which once served farmers but now works to subjugate them to oppressive corporations like Monsanto? Or our own Congress, which takes a pimp's approach to demanding an ever-increasing share of the little we have while slapping us with more and more restrictions on our Constitutional rights?

All across North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, people are fed up and working for change, all because one guy pushing a fruit cart decided enough was enough. I hope an American fruit farmer doesn't have to set himself on fire before we decide we've had enough, too.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Can't Help Falling in Love

Wise men say
Only fools rush in,
But I can't help...

...licking every last crumb off the plate after sampling this Elvis Pie.

No kidding, y'all, this is hands down the best pie I've ever made in my life. And I completely made it up as I went along (thankfully I wrote it down as I went, so I can duplicate it later). Charcutepalooza is changing my entire outlook on food here; I've never been a huge meat eater (I was a strict vegetarian for 12 years, from age 11-23) and I've never liked pork, but I cannot get enough of this homemade bacon.

I have a friend here in Portland who is also not too big on meat, but she and I have been experimenting with old-school meat production the way some people (ahem, certainly not us) have experimented with recreational drugs. Last summer we slaughtered five unfortunate chickens who'd been hatched in my garage and raised in my backyard, where they also met their end. At Christmas she hesitantly volunteered to try my maple bacon cream pie (look up to your right at the Kickstarter link, there's a picture); she loved it.

So when I was making my own bacon for Charcutepalooza, she was interested, and her husband owned a little meat smoker. So I borrowed their smoker with the promise of sharing the bacon once it was finished. I did bring them some bacon tonight, but they let me keep the smoker awhile longer, so to thank them I took the opportunity to try out an idea I'd been kicking around for awhile: Elvis Pie.

The only thing it needs is a bit more bacon. Otherwise, it's perfect. I was inspired by the sandwiches that famously killed the King - peanut butter, banana, and bacon, sandwiched between slices of white bread and fried crisp in butter and bacon fat. According to legend, Elvis ate two of these every night. Sure explains how this...

...becomes this.

So just don't eat two of these a day. You still gotta splurge sometimes!

For this pie, I made a graham cracker crust with vanilla sugar, butter, and bacon fat (of course using the fat from cooking my homemade bacon, cured in maple and brown sugar with a touch of cloves). Then I layered in a peanut butter cream filling sweetened with brown sugar and honey. I topped that with a layer of fresh sliced bananas - here's where I'll also add more bacon when I make this again - and then I poured a lovely vanilla custard over it all and let it chill until firm.

Just before serving, I whipped cream with confectioner's sugar, vanilla, and a little more bacon fat. I spread that over the top, then sprinkled it with graham cracker crumbs, chopped chocolate, and finally... that beautiful thick-cut home-cured sweet bacon.

A pie fit for the King! But, except for the one slice I sampled here, I gave it to my friends. Because they're awesome, and because one thing I've learned about meat production and preservation is that it tends to be a community endeavor. And that's why it goes so well with pie.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Homemade Bacon, Homegrown Eggs: Carbonara as it was meant to be.

We ate this spaghetti squash alla carbonara two nights in a row, and would've had it again if we'd had more spaghetti squash. I'd call Charcutepalooza #2 a rousing success.

After curing sweet and savory bacon in the fridge for over a week, I borrowed a friend's smoker and some applewood chips, and fired the whole thing up in my garage since the day was drizzly (I left the garage door open, but it still smells like bacon in there). The cured pork belly sat in the smoker for four hours, at which point I moved it to a 200° F oven to finish off.

I noticed that before I smoked it, when I first removed the pork belly from the cure, it was kind of greyish and not that beautiful bacony pink. I was disappointed at first, but hoped that smoking would pink it up. Sure enough, when it came out of the smoker, I had this:

Michael Ruhlman, in his excellent book Charcuterie (which is the official textbook for Charcutepalooza), says to let the bacon cool to room temperature but adds, "Try a piece now though, straight out of the oven - it's irresistible." He's absolutely right. It was incredible. I shared a piece with Anne, my new roommate and half the genius of Fab Frugal Food, and we both had to stop ourselves from devouring the whole thing. While she ran out to buy a spaghetti squash, I found myself trimming the fatty skin off the bacon slabs while still hot, and chewing on that skin to suck out the warm, fresh bacon fat. So much for that Jewish Guilt.

That very night, we had to try using the bacon. So I put the maple-brown sugar bacon away for another use, and cut some of the savory bacon into lardons. Anne is currently on a grain-free diet, but I wanted to try a carbonara, so we went with a spaghetti squash recipe that Anne calls "low-carb-onara."

I can't find the recipe on Fab Frugal Food anymore to link to it, but I took some liberties with it anyway. I fried the lardons with a handful of garlic and some chopped fresh rosemary and thyme from the yard. Anne roasted the spaghetti squash and then raked it up with a fork until it perfectly resembled its namesake; it went into the pan with the bacon and garlic, while I whipped up three egg whites with one yolk, reserving the other two yolks on a plate. (We used one egg from each of my hens, now that all three are finally laying again.) I beat a ton of parmesan into the egg mixture, then tossed the squash and bacon with it, gave it plenty of pepper...

...and then we dished it up with pine nuts, fresh parsley, and a single yolk on top of each serving, mixing the raw yolk into the spaghetti squash to make a creamy sauce. Obviously I wouldn't recommend doing this with storebought eggs, but real carbonara is definitely a perk of raising my own chickens. I love this stuff. And with my homemade, flavorful, extra-tasty bacon cut thick into lardons... ohhhh my. Any word I could use in any tongue would be painfully inadequate.

So Teenage Jewish Vegetarian Kimberly can huff off to her room and slam the door all she wants. I plan to start another batch of bacon this week. I'm moving on to the next phase of Charcutepalooza too - look for homemade corned beef next month, mmm! - but I think homemade bacon is going to be a regular thing around our house. I've never put anything this delicious in my mouth before and I want it all the time.

As for the spaghetti squash, I liked it better than the usual pasta. It had more texture, and its mild flavor complemented the carbonara really well. It wasn't as slippery as pasta, so it held the sauce better, and its nutritional content was way higher than noodles would've been. Score another point for gluten-free!

And what about the maple-brown sugar bacon I made? I fried up a little last night just to taste it, and it's a sticky-sweet-salty concoction that just begs to be used in a pie. Maple Bacon Cream Pie, my specialty, seems obvious, but I feel like a taste of home. So tonight, it's Elvis Pie. A graham cracker crust with butter and bacon fat, with a creamy peanut butter layer on the bottom, topped with a lucious banana cream filling, then garnished with vanilla sweetened whipped cream and chunks of this sweet-salty bacon. I can't wait.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pie on a stick, yo.

I spent today giving out free pie on a stick in Pioneer Square, also known as "Portland's Living Room." I was up late last night and early this morning baking up about 100 of those babies. Some of them broke on the way - oh darn, we had to eat them - and I still have a few left, but I gave out quite a lot, and it was gratifying to hear all the bright "Mmm!"s as people walked away.

Amusing, too, how many people get suspicious when you offer them something for free. Heh. Sad that we live in that kind of world, but I understand! The suspicious ones seemed relieved when all I wanted out of the deal was the chance to give them my card and tell them about my food cart project, Butterpat.

Hopefully some of them enjoyed the pie enough to make a pledge toward the project. I'm exactly a week into my fundraising now and have only 49 days to go. Eep!!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Urban Homesteading." So sue me.

UPDATE: I had to share this amazing post at The Noodle Book: An Open Letter to the Dervaes'. I looked for an excerpt to quote here, but really none of it stands alone; this entire letter is important to share. I hope the Dervaes family reads it and takes it to heart.

So my urban homestead - in lowercase, natch - is a work in progress. We haven't converted the front lawn into edible landscaping yet, we're still in the middle of fencing and building more raised beds in the back yard, the chicken coop leaks in the rain, and the only crop we harvest in any massive quantity is grapes. But our blueberry bushes are growing, the cherry tree we planted on the day we closed on the house is forming new branches, I'm still canning like a mo'fo' when the season's on, and our chickens have begun to resume egg production after their winter vacation. So I have no problem standing up and acknowledging that I am, again in lower case, an urban homesteader.

So what's all this about? Well, a controversy broke yesterday when it was revealed that the Dervaes family of Pasadena has trademarked the term "urban homesteading" (along with six other related terms). The family patriarch, Jules Dervaes, is apparently under the impression that he coined the term in 2001, despite its appearance in news media as early as 1981. There's a decent overview of the furor here at the LA Weekly's website if you haven't heard about it yet.

I had a measure of respect for the Dervaes family before this. They have several websites and blogs dedicated to the urban homesteading movement, and their own little urban farm in Pasadena is truly a model worth emulating. They're off the grid and completely self-sustaining, and while I find their writing to be more self-aggrandizing than educational, they do have a right to be proud. But trademarking a term that they did not invent - a term which has come to represent a global movement - and going after bloggers and educators with cease-and-desist letters... well, that's a tactic more worthy of Monsanto than anyone else.

Urban homesteaders are understandably pissed, though most of us are handling it with good humor. A Facebook group called Take Back Urban Home-steading(s) popped up less than 48 hours ago and has 1,756 followers as I write this, with more fans joining by the hour. Petitions and email lists have already spread to thousands of homesteaders around the world, mostly in response to Facebook responding to the Dervaes' cease-and-desist by deleting nearly every group relating to the subject.

What makes it even worse is the Dervaes response to this outcry. Rather than apologize and retreat, as anyone would if their true goal was increased participation in sustainable urban farming, the Dervaes family has instead watered the Drama Llama with a whining, comment-disabled blog post attempting to justify their actions. Apparently they believe they are rescuing urban homesteaders from corporate co-opting of the term. But, as several have wondered, what exactly are they rescuing us from if they're acting just like a corporate lawyer would?

One thing I do find interesting is that this controversy seems to have stirred up a lot of interest in an excellent book, The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutsen (funnily enough, not by Jules Dervaes). Coyne and Knutzen are also in Los Angeles - actually in Los Angeles, not Pasadena - and their blog Root Simple is a hugely informative and educational look at homesteading as young urbanites tend to practice it.

I've owned the book for a couple of years now and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject; it's seriously got everything, from chicken-keeping and composting to greywater recycling and lasagna-gardening. I've seen more references to this book in the past 24 hours than in all the years I've owned it. So if any good is to come of this tsimmes, it'll raise awareness of the urban homesteading movement and the excellent literature out there that has promoted it since long before Jules Dervaes became our self-appointed priest and publicist.

Here's hoping this blows over soon and we can all go back to prepping our raised beds for spring.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Charcutepalooza: Homemade Bacon

See that there? That is a Big Darn Slab of Pork Belly. In my kitchen.

I've previously alluded to my Jewish baggage when it comes to pork, shellfish, and the like. Round one of Charcutepalooza, with its duck prosciutto, was a fun experiment in food preservation without any of the conflict that I knew would be coming eventually. I was secretly pleased, though, when bacon came up so soon. If I'm going to eat pork, it might as well be bacon, that darling of all the current culinary fads, that mascot of Portland cuisine.

I've made a few tentative forays into bacon over the past few months (including the recently mentioned maple bacon cream pie) and found the good-quality stuff to be a pleasure worth indulgence. So it was with a naughty excitement akin to a date at the swingers' club that I headed out into Portland last week and purchased that thick slab of piggy sin that you see above.

I also needed curing salt, and was fortunate enough to find a carrier here in town so I didn't need to mail order it. This salt has nitrates and nitrites added to facilitate proper curing; in small doses this is safe to eat, but it's dyed a frightening cotton-candy pink so no one accidentally cooks with too much of it. I only needed a couple ounces, but as it was so cheap ($1.50/lb), I went ahead and bought a pound of it in anticipation of future Charcutepalooza endeavors.

I had to go to a warehouse near the waterfront, in the Southeast Industrial District, to get it. As I stood at the counter waiting for the heavily-tattooed man to return with it, another employee came to the front to ring me up. "That's it?" he asked with perfunctory professionalism. "Just the pound of cure?"

With a Brysonesque smile I volunteered, "It's worth an ounce of prevention!"

He blinked, faltered for a second, and shrugged. "Uh, okay. That's a dollar fifty."

My cheeks remarkably similar in color to the curing salt now in my hand, I paid the man in quarters and dignity, and fled for my Kia and NPR. They'd get my jokes on NPR, I thought wistfully.

So I got my illicit pleasures home, consulted Michael Ruhlman's recipe in Charcuterie, and decided to try two kinds of bacon. After whipping up the "basic cure," a combination of kosher salt, curing salt, and sugar, I divided the pork belly into two chunks, one about twice the size of the other. About two thirds of the total went into a sweet cure with brown sugar, maple syrup, and a bit of nutmeg; the remainder went savory, with peppercorns, thyme, oregano, and rosemary, and I'm thinking of cubing that one into lardons when it's finished. Both are now curing in my fridge.

I've been turning them over once a day since Wednesday, and this Saturday they should be ready to smoke. They can be finished in the oven at low heat, but what's the point of bacon without smoke? I have a friend who owns a smoker and is keen to let me use it in exchange for some of the meat.

I think we'll smoke it this Saturday. After all, my friend works during the week, so that's when he's available. And if I'm going to be a bad Jew, I might as well go all the way; no point being half-assed about it. Bring on the Sabbath and let me light that fire.

This bacon better be worth it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I know, I know, I haven't posted in awhile. I've vaguely alluded to my being busy, but now I can finally tell you what I've been so busy with - trying to go into business!

I sold several pies over the holidays (including my most popular offering, the maple bacon cream pie shown above) and since then I've been busy building my Kickstarter page. If you're unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it's a pretty great concept. I've built a page with text and video to explain my concept - click here to see it! - and I'm offering fun rewards to people who back my project.

If I collect enough pledges to fund my project by April 4, then I'll be able to purchase and outfit my own food cart, a Northwest-influenced Southern one called Butterpat. I'll specialize in pie, but I'll also be offering my famous biscuits with gravy and my homemade herbal jelly, as well as plate lunches and other treats. If I don't get enough pledges by April 4, then nobody gets charged and I'll just keep saving up bit by bit. But I've gotten a lot of great feedback from the Portland food cart devotees (we call ourselves "cartivores"), so I'm optimistic!

Spread the word, tell your friends, point everyone toward the page! If nothing else, you can chuckle at the video while I look like a goober to the tune of B. B. King.