Industrial Harvest


Talking commodities at the G20 by sarah kavage

At France’s insistence, agriculture ministers of the G20 met this week for the first time ever to discuss ways to curb increasingly volatile (and ever-higher) food prices.

France was pushing pretty hard for curbing speculative activity in food commodities markets – Sarkozy and his agricultural minister were talking tough going into the negotiations, stating that France would not be backing down in these negotiations, even at the expense of getting to a deal.  As much as I admire France for taking this on, they must really relish their world role as surrender monkeys, because no matter how well intentioned the resulting “action plan”, well, it’s weak and watered down and no match for any food price crisis.   The high points of the agreement are an attempt at greater market transparency and a pilot program establishing emergency humanitarian grain reserves.  Other than some weak statements of consensus, that’s about it.  Any restrictions on / further regulation of speculation will be deferred to the G20 finance ministers, who the agriculture ministers “strongly encourage” to take action.  Pardon my cynicism for believing that the finance ministers will take that recommendation straight to the round file.



FFD protest at the CME 4/15! by sarah kavage

Come one, come all, to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange / Board of Trade building at La Salle & Jackson on Friday, April 15 (tax day): It’s time for the annual Family Farm Defenders protest!

FFD has been protesting down at the CME for several years now, and from what I’ve been told (oh, how I wish I were able to be in Chicago for this) the traders actually know about – and sort of look forward to – the protest and the discussion.  The web link above has a concise, cogent explanation of what’s wrong with the CME and what needs to change to make the institution more transparent, fair and democratic.  If you don’t live in Chicago, there’s information about who to call at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and Senate Judiciary Committee to demand reforms.



What happened to the flour, part 10: personal use by sarah kavage

Hey, so maybe it’s time for me to tell y’all what I did with my flour…

Presented below, in no particular order, are the occasions of how I personally used the flour to nourish others in the spirit of the project.  I baked for a number of other events related to the Industrial Harvest itself, but these activities are more personal in nature.

For Thanksgiving 2010, I made two batches of dinner rolls and one pear-honey-walnut pie for two different Thanksgiving dinners in Seattle.  The rolls were a recipe my mom sent me, and turned out PERFECTLY for the first dinner, which was held on the official Thanksgiving day at our place with a few friends.  We try to do up a proper feast, usually vegetarian or vegan, every year and as the photo shows, we had a lot to be thankful for this year.  Rolls are in the “wicker chicken” breadbasket, center top; pie is to the right of the rolls.  You may also spy stuffing, two varieties of white potatoes and one of sweet potatoes, succotash with great-grandma’s heirloom red limas, brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, a squash-pecan pie and two breastlike tofu turkey mounds in a sea of roasted root veggies:

The Thanksgiving table

The Thanksgiving table

Thanksgiving dinner rolls

Thanksgiving dinner rolls

The dinner rolls were the exception to an otherwise vegan dinner.  I made another batch for a larger Thanksgiving celebration a week later but cooked them in the host’s oven and they turned out underdone (still totally edible and appreciated).

The pear honey walnut pie made at least three appearances over the summer and fall, most recently at Thanksgiving.  It turned out to be the perfect pie for late summer, as pears are in season and you can always substitute apples or asian pears.  Here’s one example (from the illustration on the top crust, this one probably has apples or asian pears in it):

one of many pear-honey-walnut pies

one of the pear-honey-walnut pies

Our Chicago household (myself included) was partial to breakfasting on this pie – there’s barely any sugar in it, and the walnuts add enough protein to get you through the morning.

I made a lot of biscuits.  I probably make biscuits more than any other baked good, and in Chicago that meant several batches for the housemates and myself, some vegan, some with lard, some with buttermilk depending on all our various dietary quirks.  Back in Seattle, I made biscuits for a couple of different visitors, and a couple of batches for myself and my husband.  Sadly, there are no pictures of the biscuits.

And then there was the pizza.  I got tons of practice making pizza last summer – grilled, wood-oven fired, stovetop, plain old oven baked, I did it all.  My favorite episode involved bringing a bunch of excess dough and homemade pizza sauce (made with fresh midwest tomatoes from my housemate’s garden plot!) home to a little family reunion in Ohio, the first we’ve had in years.  Mom was happy to be absolved from some cooking duties, and the huge batch of pizza that resulted fed everyone at the reunion with slices to spare.

Another epic pizza making session took place on another homecoming – the day of I returned from Chicago to Seattle, which also happened to be my birthday.  We’d invited a bunch of friends over to make pizza as a welcome home / birthday celebration and I pretty much rolled off the train and started rolling dough.  The hilarity in the kitchen that ensued was well worth it…there’s some goofy documentation of the evening here.

I did try bread baking a couple of times, with reasonable success.  These loaves were made for our Chicago household on a verrrry hot July day, right after the flour was finished milling.  They’re not the prettiest, but they were tasty.

The lumpen loaves

The lumpen loaves

And lastly, there’s this decorative bread medallion.  It was inspired by a Bread Bakers’ Guild of America newsletter article on artistic breadbaking, which included a recipe.  Compared to the lovely, highly refined decorative breads produced by the pros, my effort was pretty crude.  Nor did it technically nourish anyone, but as one of the few actual art pieces produced as part of Industrial Harvest, I was somehow happy with it and felt it deserved a place in this list.  It was one of three made for the show at Roots & Culture.  You can see the others here (one fell apart shortly after the opening).

wheat penny bread medallion

wheat penny bread medallion



What Happened to the Flour, Part 9: Meat Pies by sarah kavage

Back to the flour stories!  Recently I received the second of two notes which pertained to the making of meat pies on special occasions.  Despite the fact that I’m a vegetarian – or maybe because of it – these stories were worthy of particular admiration.  The first, received on Christmas day, really needs no further explanation as to why:

From: M
To: sarah
Date: Sat, December 25, 2010 11:38:02 AM
Subject: Venison Pot Pie
Sarah,
This Wisconsin Road Kill Venison (collected and butchered by M) Pot Pie was topped with Sour Dough Pastry Biscuits by you and me and enjoyed by many in Chicago.
Thank you so much for your time and effort on the Industrial Harvest project in Chicago.
Your legacy lives on.
M

roadkill pot pie, up close & personal

roadkill pot pie, up close & personal

On second thought, I should note that the road kill in question was butchered by my Chicago housemate while I was living with him this summer.  No, I did not witness the butchering, that was done in Wisconsin on a weekend trip.  But still, I lived with bloody deer parts in a freezer for a good part of the summer, and so feel a special attachment to it – and some serious respect for my housemate.  I think this was his first road kill butchering.

Then yesterday on the Industrial Harvest facebook page, Mike Sula from the Chicago Reader posted his story of the mince (meat) pies that he and Sheila Sachs made for the memorial to writer Cliff Doerksen, who passed away in December.  Cliff won the James Beard award for his 2009 Chicago Reader story on the history of mince pie in America.  The award was well deserved; Cliff’s tale is a great ride through an odd bit of US culinary history which probably would have otherwise been completely forgotten (Mike’s note sent me off on multiple internet tangents, and not knowing anything about Cliff or mince pie previously,  they were welcome and entertaining diversions).  Mike and Sheila’s sweet tribute – seven mince pies, with crusts made with Industrial Harvest flour, fed 200 people at the memorial.  It was an honor to play even a small part in that.  Thanks to Mike and Sheila for including me and creating such a thoughtful send-off to Cliff.



Action! by sarah kavage
February 22, 2011, 11:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Thought I should pass along these excellent articles on commodities speculation and food prices.  Thankfully, this issue seems to be gaining more and more traction as of late.

The Egyptian Tinderbox:  How Banks and Investors are Starving the Third World, by Ellen Brown, truthout, Feb 2011

How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the worlds’ poor – and won, from Johann Hari (the Independent), July 2010

There’s also a few groups out there doing some organizing around these issues.  This is one of the most comprehensive sites I’ve seen so far – including a fledgling divestment campaign to educate institutional investors on the dubious ethics (and financial pitfalls) of commodities index funds.

As part of the financial reform bill passed last summer, the CFTC recently proposed position limits for commodities (as well as some other rules; see a factsheet here and a Q&A here; prepare to glaze over).  The agency is currently taking public comment on those rules, if we can only figure out what to comment on and what to say before April.  I have yet to see a specific critique of what sort of changes might be warranted, seems like folks might still be figuring that out.  If you have any guidance on this or links that would help, post it in the comments…



And back to our regularly scheduled program… by sarah kavage

Over the past weeks / months, this blogspace has been largely populated by emails and a few letters from people that have done all these good deeds with the flour they’ve received from this project – bringing people together to enjoy a good meal, feeding others that are tired from work / studying, need of some inspiration, or just plain hungry.  As great as these stories are, one could look at this blog and forget the impetus behind the Industrial Harvest project, and that’s not my intent at all.

If you need a reminder as to what this project is all about, all you need to do is look at the news.  Food prices have continued to go up – right now, the price of food is higher than it’s ever been, even higher than the food price crisis in 2008.  All that unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?  It may be good for democracy, but it was largely fueled by anger at skyrocketing food prices, which in developing nations are more closely linked to commodities.  In the Middle East and North Africa, wheat is the commodity of choice – Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.  Algeria (the #4 global wheat importer) also saw food riots recently, along with  Jordan.  As a friend explained to me, wheat is a relatively small market (dwarfed by corn and soy) and therefore more vulnerable to price swings, and these places are highly reliant on that particular staple crop as a source of nourishment.  Big problem – regardless of the regime that’s in place.

There’s no shortage of debate as to what’s making food prices go up.  Some argue that it’s basic supply and demand:  Global population is increasing and urbanizing – and as people in developing nations gain wealth, they consume more meat and more food and more land previously used for farming (as we in the “developed” world consume boatloads of everything, like we always have).  So it is now more difficult to carry over a surplus of staples from year to year, and any uncertain weather or political event event that lowers expected yields will cause prices to spike.

Oh yeah, and those uncertain weather events?  Things like floods, cyclones, droughts, wildfires, late freezes?  There are more and more of those these days, thanks to global climate change, and they certainly impact the global food supply.  Paul Krugman and Joseph Romm at Climate Progress have articulated this argument nicely.  I can’t imagine it yields a lot of satisfaction for the climate scientists, who have been predicting these sorts of things for years, to be vindicated now.

And then there’s the price of fuel, which tracks closely with the price of food – industrially grown commodities require a large amount of energy to grow and transport.  The Peak Oil crowd points out that as oil supplies decline, the prices of both food and fuel will go up even further.  To make things worse, in our desperation for an oil substitute, we are dedicating a significant amount of food crops to producing biofuel.

Other folks point to the devaluation of the US dollar and Bernanke’s policy of “quantitative easing” as the root of the problem.  Ironically, a cheaper US dollar in relation to other currencies drives up the demand for (and subsequently the price of) commodities.

Lastly, there’s the argument that the growth in commodity speculation has played a role – the financialization and deregulation of the  commodities markets (along with the bust in the tech and mortgage derivative markets) have led to an explosion of commodity hedge funds, pension funds, index funds, derivatives, swaps, and on and on.  All that nasty stuff that got us into trouble with the credit and housing crisis is now impacting the food system.

So are Wall Streeters disrupting the food supply in their desire to make a buck?  Well, yes – I think they probably are, and yes, it’s part of the point of this whole Industrial Harvest thing.  Frederick Kaufman’s excellent article for Harpers’ in July was what personally convinced me once and for all, but Kaufman is not the only one sounding the alarm.  Some EU countries – primarily France – have recently spoken up in favor of stronger regulation of commodity markets.  France, as the leader of the G20 this year, is poised to push this issue.  The UN Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) is right there with them.  And all of a sudden, in the midst of all the hubbub around Egypt, a few mainstream news outlets seem to be starting to pick up the story as well.  Better late than never, guys (see here, here and here).

Of course, it’s unrealistic to pretend that what’s going on with food prices is based on any single factor.  Nor can I be 100% sure what’s going on.  But, if someone asked me, I would sum up my view of the situation as increased demand and a host of other factors (climate events, biofuels, monetary policy, etc.) magnified by a pretty large and unstable speculative system, which is in turn driven by a few huge, powerful, vertically integrated corporations.  This is all exacerbated by the fact that with markets it doesn’t matter what’s actually happening – it just matters what people think is happening – and what people think people think is happening (and so on).   The fact that this house of cards could be brought down by any of, oh, 5 or 10 or 100 different and / or random events (or all of them, or some of them) is not only discomfiting.  It also makes it easy for any single party to point the finger at the others, effectively diffusing responsibility, perpetuating ignorance and causing those who should care to throw up their hands in inaction and confusion.



What happened to the flour, Part 8: grandma’s cooking by sarah kavage

There is something about being a grandmother – once you have fed a couple of generations, you are generally considered to be the font of knowledge in culinary matters.  This email from L made me think of my own grandma, also named Sarah. She was a generous, compassionate person who worked as a supervising nurse at the local hospital back before it was common for women to have jobs outside the home.  She could also play cards, tend a garden, sew a little girl a pink princess dress and COOK, all with an inordinate amount of style.  What I remember best is the homemade pasta – beef ravioli, and on Thanksgiving, egg noodles served with “just a little” butter.  Her spirit has been with me throughout this project.

Whatever the dish, there is something special about a grandma’s cooking that is tough to replicate, as L attests to here.  Not being grandmas, we can only speculate about what that is.  Maybe it’s decades of practice, thrown into sharper relief by a culture obsessed with instant results.  I also suspect there’s some secret magic at work, unknown to us ordinary citizens.

From: L
To: sarah
Sent: Wed, January 5, 2011 5:30:40 PM
Subject: flour project
Hi Sarah,
This has been a long time coming, but better late than never, I hope! Here’s my description and photos of what I baked with the flour.

A summer memory: I baked my baba’s famous pie. She’s always made apple or cherry pies, but since harvest season was upon us, I made an apple and a pear pie with fruit I bought at the farmers market. I shared the apple pie with my community garden at our weekly workday. The pear I served at a barbecue I hosted with my old neighbors gathered in the backyard. (Yes, we heated the pie on the grill!)

pies a la baba

pies a la baba

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

My baba’s baked goods have been a family tradition since before I was even born. That side of the family lives about 600 miles from where I grew up, so it was a special thing to have her nowhere-else-to-be-found pastries once or twice a year. She’s 88 now and still baking the same sweets I remember from my childhood. I think her baking is even more special to me now, and I haven’t found a pie that tastes better than the kind she bakes from scratch.

I knew I wanted to share my baba’s pie recipe as soon as I read about the Industrial Harvest project. My crust turned out inferior to hers, probably because she’s been baking for decades and bakes by intuition -  she just adds a little of whatever ingredient is needed if the texture isn’t right – but I’ll keep attempting to maintain the baking tradition. Coincidentally, the day I got my flour was also her birthday.

On Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 2:26 PM, sarah wrote:
L,
that’s a really beautiful story. I have so many fond memories of my Grandma in the kitchen (and the garden) too, and am still trying to live up to her culinary legacy.  I would love to share this on the project blog. Is that OK?
Happy new year!
s

From: L
To: sarah
Date: Fri, January 7, 2011 10:59:52 AM
Subject: Re: flour project
Thank you! That would be great to have the story posted on the blog. Yes, my baba was also an avid gardener in her more energetic days (that’s another trait I inherited from her). There really is something to a grandma’s baking – I think one actually has to be a grandma in order to achieve that level of skill with combining ingredients. There’s a real comfort in those foods.

Happy new year to you, too. I’m so glad that I was a part of this project!
L




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