Industrial Harvest


Kavage Bros. by sarah kavage
December 27, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , ,

It being the holidays and all, I managed to convince my parents to make a visit to keep me company in Chicago for a few days.  All the thinking about grocery stores and food deserts reminded me that being a grocer is part of my own family history.  My dad grew up in a small mining / mill town along the Ohio river, and my grandfather and his two brothers ran Kavage Bros., a small grocery / butcher from the 30s into the 70s. 

I got my dad to refresh my memory with a few stories and descriptions of what the life of a small town grocer was like.  Please indulge, and hopefully enjoy, this short trip down memory lane and diversion from the regularly scheduled “research program.” 

The most important thing to remember about old-time grocery stores is that they ran on a credit system.  Kavage Bros. was no different.  Customers had an account which they would periodically pay off; during strikes at the steel mill credit would be extended for even longer periods of time.  Yes, getting people to pay could be quite an ordeal, even when they weren’t on strike.  The accounting system was a ledger with a tab for each customer and their receipts were affixed to that tab.  When a customer bought or ordered something, the new receipt would be placed on the top of the stack and a running total amount owed was written on that top receipt.  So it was pretty easy to tell at a glance which customers you needed to collect from – they had the largest running totals and the thickest stacks of receipts.  Back then delivery was free, even for a single loaf of bread – my dad did delivery runs practically as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the gas pedal. 

The store was not just a store but somewhat of a social center for a small town.  There was a pool hall in the store basement, and also a 16 mm movie projector with one old silent western on it that my father would watch daily before going to school.  Grandpa pulled the tooth of a one-armed Greek man who came in with a toothache by leaning him back on the butcher block, wrapping a handkerchief around a pair of pliers, and giving a good yank (just writing that makes my mouth hurt).   

Apparently there were also quite a few not-quite-above board activities that went on there.  My grandpa was a big gambler and made so many bets from behind the counter that it sounds like it was difficult for him to get business done; during WWII he and one brother also ran a little bit of a black-market business getting people extra sugar, oil and other rationed goods.  Family legend has it that he somehow did all of this stuff without the knowledge of the third brother who was much more pious and law-abiding. 

For a time, there were two Kavage Bros. stores, one in Yorkville and one in nearby Tiltonsville.  Like many of the small independents, the Yorkville store closed in the 60s, pushed out by the larger chain supermarkets which were coming into vogue at the time.  I have some foggy memories of the Tiltonsville store which revolved around being confused by the fact that we were allowed to eat candy bars there without paying for them.  My grandpa closed the Tiltonsville store when he hit retirement age and spent the rest of his years on the golf course, occasionally taking his granddaughters to the dog races and letting them recklessly drive the golf cart.



Happy Holidays from our sponsor, Noah’s Pudding by sarah kavage

As we were proceeding through our tour of Chicago winter farmers’ markets a couple of weeks ago, Anne took me on a side trip to a middle eastern grocery store in Andersonville.  Middle Eastern and North African folks happen to be among the world’s largest per capita wheat consumers – Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia and Iran all rank in the top ten, according to statistics from the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization.  The grocery carried an appropriately large variety of wheat and wheat-based products – cracked wheat, bulghur, semolina flour, several different varieties of wheat berries, pasta, and fresh-baked pita bread.  Most intriguing, was the bag of pearled wheat berries from a Turkish importer labeled “Wheat for Noah’s Pudding.”  No explanation or recipe on the package, so of course I had to buy it and turn to that great library in the sky, the Internet. 

Noah’s Pudding, it turns out, is a very special traditional dish in Turkey.  Legend has it that back in biblical times, when the waters receded from the great flood, Noah cooked up all the grains, nuts and fruit that were left on the Ark into a tasty stew of a dessert to celebrate and give thanks.  Recipes therefore vary depending on the source, but all of them include one or two different types of grains (wheat, barley and rice are all common), cooked with one or two types of beans (chickpeas and white beans, typically), some sugar and some geographically appropriate dried fruits (apricots, figs, raisins).  Nuts (walnuts, almonds or pistachios) and pomegranate seeds are sprinkled on top along with some cinnamon and even rose water for a bit of a gourmet touch.  It’s served cold or at room temperature, and is sort of a cross between oatmeal and rice pudding.  I’m usually not so much for pudding-y things and was dubious about the inclusion of the beans, but the combination of textures and flavors was surprisingly good (next time I do want to try the rosewater). 

Perhaps I was inclined to like it because I was so pleased to find a dish that mirrored on a small scale what Industrial Harvest is actually all about.  Both Muslim and Christians in Turkey and other places around the Mediterranean prepare it as a gesture of sharing and goodwill between different peoples and religions.  It’s customarily made at a certain time of year, prepared in huge batches (if you search online for recipes, you’ll find they make 30 portions or more) and shared among neighbors and the poor – tradition dictates giving a cup to 40 neighbors to the east, west, north and south, no matter their race, religion or how you may feel about them.  In more recent times, religious and cultural organizations (particularly those with interfaith or intercultural ideals) in the US have picked up on this tradition and use it to celebrate goodwill between religions and cultures.  I shared my batch with my fellow students at the Adventure School for Ladies, with plenty left over to serve at the InCUBATE symposium potluck the following night. 

For those of us who have been turned off by the dogma, judgment, money and politics that is unfortunately associated with religion, Noah’s Pudding seems a refreshingly straightforward and tasty way to generate actual goodwill.  So make some and share it.  Happy holidays!



Axe St. Arena Manifesto by sarah kavage

Michael Piazza was a co-founder – along with Bertha Husband, Mary Jo Marchnight, James Koehnline, Rebecca Wolfram, and Laura Piazza – of Axe St. Arena, a gathering space / gallery / event center in Logan Square in the mid-80s.  Here is their “manifesto” (it is not actually labeled a manifesto, but more neutral descriptions such as “mission statement” seem insufficient to describe it):

We reject a world in which education and information are touted as the answers to all our problems, while in reality they are seen as other mechanisms to intimidate and control.  We also reject an art which panders either to the investment-minded art collector and careerist art-maker, or the narrowly propagandist left.  Instead, we desire to indulge ourselves in such forbidden activities as dreaming and conversation, principled action and determined inaction.  From these things, real art, that strange fruit of mysterious intuitions and indefinable connections may, we hope, be encouraged to participate in our futures.”



Greetings from the middle of the food desert by sarah kavage

Ironically, spending a month in Chicago working on a project about food and nourishment has up until this point meant sacrificing the ability to nourish myself.  You see, despite InCUBATE’s location in a pretty good neighborhood, there is little fresh or organic food to be found nearby.  It’s just in one of those nowhere-ish locations and although it’s been great to be around so much good Mexican food, one cannot live by tortillas and micheladas alone (although I’ve been trying), and eating out gets expensive really quickly.  Plus, most of the time I’d just rather eat my own cooking. 

So I’ve been getting into the terrible habit of living in semi-starvation mode for most of the day and then doing dinner meetings or social events where food is served.  Semi-starvation mode, for me, means snacking on bread (haven’t lacked for that), cheese and peanut butter, the occasional soy shake, and coffee throughout the day with no real meal.  On days when I don’t go out, that pattern just continues till I go to bed.  I most certainly am not starving, but I have a high metabolism and sometimes it feels just a little bit like it.  Plus the lack of ability to find a good vegetable is really frustrating.  I’ve been able to pick up some great baked goods, cheese and tofu at the Logan Square Sunday farmer’s market (next door!) but there’s little fresh being sold there these days due to the obvious fact that not much grows in mid-December in the midwest. 

One of the most interesting concepts in geography / urban planning to have cropped up in the last few years (or ten) has been that of the food desert.  Definitions vary, but usually food deserts are areas lacking in access to a) fresh b) affordable c) any food outlets.  Instead, you see fast food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores.  Usually these are poor neighborhoods with more darker skinned people and new immigrants.  It’s unfortunately no surprise that the upper-class white neighborhoods get the fancy organic grocery stores, the farmers’ markets, or any grocery store at all, and that the fast food chains prey on people who think they can’t afford anything better or are working two or three or four jobs and don’t have the time to run around the city looking for more nutritious alternatives, much less cook them.   A lot of people in Chicago (and other places) have been working to change this through community gardens and farmers’ markets, but it’s tough to get the big grocery stores to budge.  Small grocery stores can change what they carry, but are often locked out of their ability to get better quality goods because the large chain grocers have a lock on the distribution networks, or can undercut prices so much.  

I went to the local grocery store around the corner, a larger independently owned Mexican grocery that was actually quite fine in all respects except for the rather ugly, industrially produced produce.  In Seattle, the basket of groceries that I walked out with would have been of much higher quality (organic, etc) and cost between 30 and 40 bucks.  This basket?  $13 and change ($5 of which was for organic butter – yikes).  A three-fold difference in cost?  You gain a little bit of understanding into what people mean when they say they can’t afford organic.  I’m not at all rich by American standards, but I am a little bit different from most people because I don’t have a car and will pay a high premium for convenience (our local grocery in Seattle is a 5-10 minute walk from the house), and because we eat nearly all of our meals at home it’s easier to rationalize paying more.  And I love good food and want to support small farmers and organic farming.  So the bottom line is I pay that premium willingly, but I still feel like a sucker and wonder are we helping to create local food systems or are we helping to create TWO food systems, where the good food goes to people who can afford it and working class / poor people get the cheap, industrially produced crap?

To continue blathering on about my food consumption, observant readers may have noticed the use of “up until this point” in the first sentence of this post.  Yes, I finally found nourishment in the form of the Dill Pickle Food Coop, a newly opened coop that began as a buying club a few years back and now has a small storefront space in Logan Square.  Kudos again to Bryce, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of all things food-related, for cluing me in to this.  It was about a 15-minute walk, non-members can shop there, and they had some beautiful kale, potatoes, carrots and some almost at the end of their life-span but very cheap tomatoes. 

Guess how much I spent.  Forty bucks.  I knew that’s how much it would cost, too – it was just like being back in Seattle.  Despite the sinking feeling that I have become a yuppie snob, it was a great feeling to come back and actually cook.  I made some delicious lentil soup – which I ate two bowls of with the fresh baked bread and felt finally, totally nourished and very grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to afford such things.

Look for more posts about this topic in the future.  It’s one I have a great deal of personal and professional interest in, but it’s complicated and I have not done nearly enough research to discuss all of or even some of these issues sensitively and in depth.  The food desert phenomenon is real, and illuminates so many issues of race and class in our society, but what can / is being done about it?



Thanks, all you talkers! by sarah kavage
December 21, 2009, 11:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

One thing I have learned in my visits to Chicago is that it’s a city full of intelligent, articulate people doing awesome stuff, and last night was no exception (those of you who were here from out of town are no less awesome than the locals, either).  A huge thank you to all who came out and shared their thoughts on BIG AG, economics, feeding people, and food-as-art.  It was incredibly exciting to hear people engaging in real time about the issues that I’ve been trying to articulate with this project.  The discussion has given me some real – ahem – food for thought.  Onwards!



The Four Mystics by sarah kavage

The Four Mystics

This image appeared repeatedly in Piazza’s archives.  The text reads, “there is an old Jewish tradition which tells of four mystics who ‘entered the garden,’ as the trance state is called.  Only one emerged in peace.  Of the other three, one went mad, another died, and a third took up magic.”   

Given the way he approached his artwork – a combination of modern-day mysticism, surrealism and achemy, Piazza must have related to this image.  Upon seeing it, it’s hard not to wonder about oneself, especially if you are prone to fits of inspiration and other such trancelike states.  Piazza seemed to be especially focused on the madness angle – he had a show called “On Preparations for Madness” and designed an ‘OPM’ logo that regularly appeared on stationery and other publications.  Art and insanity go together, it’s true, but the thing is, Piazza did not go mad.  He was the one that died young.  

I know that’s a little dark.  But this image has stuck with me ever since I saw it in the archives, I just don’t know how else to say the above, and my point is that you go into that place never knowing how it will affect you, but knowing that it will.



Milling About, Observing and Routine by sarah kavage
One of the things that came with me to Chicago from Seattle was a couple pounds of hard winter wheat berries grown in Eastern Washington.  That seems just a little bit silly since I was going to the heartland and all, but there it was in the bulk foods section, begging to come along and weigh down my luggage.  

This project requires understanding every link in the cycle of growing, refining and making all sorts of things with wheat.  Now that I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the baking, I can take things up a notch – what about actually making the flour?  Back in Seattle, I ground some of the wheat up in a coffee grinder just to see how that would work.  It took a long time and almost burned out the motor, but I did end up with something flour-like.  I thought I might be able to find someone who had a home-use flour mill in Chicago and try it, but it turns out I’ve been a little busy trying to find things like commodities traders and farmers and cannot even bring myself to think about running around this huge city trying to track down a flour mill.  Somewhere, somehow I heard something about using a blender to do the job.  And InCUBATE happens to have a really nice heavy-duty blender.  So this is what happens when you put wheat in a blender and make some bread with it.  

It took 5 or 6 rounds of running the blender, sifting out the flour, and putting the rest back in the blender till I was good and sick of the noise, and there were still a bunch of cracked wheat berries left over.  


Here’s the side by side comparison.  The blender flour (left) was more uniform in size and texture, while with the milled flour it’s quite easy to differentiate the flour (made up of the endosperm, the starchy interior part of the wheat) from the bran (its brown, papery exterior).  The texture of the blended flour was also coarser – comparable to hruba mouka, the coarse-ground flour used by the Czechs to make bread and dumplings.  

I decided to repeat the bomb-proof no-knead recipe from the other day, and used 1 cup of milled whole grain flour, 1 cup of fine whole wheat flour (the whole grain flour sifted) and 1 up of the blender flour.  To that I added a healthy dose of pure wheat gluten that a friend gave me.  Made from the protein part of the wheat, pure (or vital) wheat gluten added to bread is supposed to help it rise – another trick home bakers use to get bakery-quality results, especially for whole wheat breads.  

At the end of the milling, sifting and measuring stage, here’s what was on the counter.  The photo deliberately misrepresents my organization / neatness level. 

Wheat, Deconstructed

Wheat, Deconstructed

From left to right in the bowls, we have the sifted and unsifted milled flour, the blended flour, and the cracked wheat.  The cracked wheat won’t go into the bread but can be made into some sort of porridge (ugh) or as a substitute for couscous or bulgur in a pilaf (not so bad), or even into bulgur wheat itself, which sounds delicious but labor-intensive.  In the center we have the gluten on the left and the bran on the right.  The excess bran is used to keep the dough from sticking and to put a little crunchy crisp on the top, but there will still be some leftover.  I’ve been using it in shakes for breakfast and gave the rest to the person who gave me the gluten. 

The result:  delicious!  I was a little bit amazed at how quickly this bread baking stuff has become somewhat routine.  The motions, the textures and the timing are already starting to feel more intuitive.  No doubt my learning curve has been flattened (steepened? anyway, it’s getting easier) due to the advice of many friends and visitors (pros and hobbyists) to the InCUBATE ‘test kitchen.’  The all-powerful internet helps too, but the internet can’t stand in the kitchen with me and tell me  “that’s a good crumb” or “those little strands are what you’re looking for” or “it’s probably time for it to go in the oven now.”  These people are teaching me what to look for and how to observe the process, and it’s making this project a whole lot more satisfying and delicious. 

As a postscript, I thought of Heike a lot making this latest loaf and this post – read her observations, and her observations about observation here (I liked them so much I put them on my other blog).  She’s also the proud owner of a new flour mill!