Industrial Harvest

Tonight! by sarah kavage
September 21, 2010, 8:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Last night I had the pleasure of attending FIS 101 at Oakton Community College, otherwise known as Introduction to Commodities & Futures Trading.  Russ Rsezsutko has taught Intro to Commodities for the last 15 years, and when I met him at the Roots & CultureWe are all Beginners” reception, he told me I could drop in on his class.  Born and raised in Back of the Yards, Russ is classic Chicago, and fully embodies the trader personality – he’s a live wire, pacing around the room while lecturing a mile a minute in one of the best Chicago accents I’ve heard so far.  He’s been a broker for over 3 decades, and the experience shows.  This was the first class, so we went over the history of growing, buying and selling commodities and their evolution from straight cash transactions to forward contracts to futures contracts.  I also learned the difference between speculation and gambling – yep, there is a difference.

All of this made me super excited for tonight’s “Commodities 101” session at Mess Hall, because Russ is one of the speakers.  He’s going to give a whirlwind introduction to futures (if this means he has to talk faster to cover it all in 15 minutes, watch out!) and then we’ll launch into questions.

Russ’s counterpart on the panel is Paul Maggio, a senior VP at Newedge, a large international brokerage firm.  If Russ is “old school”, then Paul is “new school,” although he’s been working in futures for nearly as long as Russ has.  When I met Paul, I was surprised at how calm, soft spoken and downright mellow he was.  It’ll be a study in contrasts and, if the conversations I’ve had with these guys is any indication, a fascinating discussion.

SO, one more time:  Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood (red line Morse stop, then 1/2 block south), 7-9 pm.  Be there!  Afterwards, your assimilation of this knowledge will be tested, should you choose, in the form of a PIT tournament.

St. Columbanus by sarah kavage

Every Wednesday, at around the same time the traders are headed down to LaSalle & Jackson, hungry folks are lining up at St. Columbanus church in West Woodlawn for their weekly food pantry.  Food distribution starts at 10 a.m., and people stand in line for several hours or more to make sure they get a spot in line in order to receive one of the 500 bags of produce and dry goods.  When the food pantry at St. Columbanus started 5 years ago, they served about 50 people a week.  When the economy crashed in 2008, they saw a spike in the number of people seeking help, and reached 500 people in February of 2009.  At this point, 500 people a week is their limit – although they sometimes do serve a few more if they have extra food.  “It’s hard to turn people away,” their director, LaVerne Morris told me.  Although their dedicated volunteer crew shows up at 6 a.m., there’s only so much you can do with volunteers before people burn out.

LaVerne signed up for a bulk donation of 2500 pounds of flour – enough for 5 pounds per food bank client.  She had extra volunteers come in to bag up the flour the night before the distribution, and, wanting to see their operation in action, I offered to come down and pitch in for a few hours.  6 a.m. was a little too early, as I’ve been keeping late nights working, so I showed up at 9 like a real Seattle slacker and LaVerne put me to work on the “assembly line” for the produce bags.

When you’re serving 500 people, you’ve got to be or-gan-ized, and LaVerne and her crew had things tight.  One set of volunteers walked around with bags open, collecting the produce that the other set of volunteers dropped into the bags.  I got a plum duty (couldn’t resist that one), working with Jerome over a giant box.  Each bag got 4 plums.  Or maybe 6, if the ones you picked up were small.  Or 8, if Jerome and I happened to each put in a handful.  Or a dozen, if you were feeling like there were so many that you’d never reach the bottom before the bags ran out.  Or 4, if suddenly the plums all disappeared and there were still bags to fill.  Jerome, who has been a St. Columbanus volunteer for 4 years now, was a great ambassador and a friendly guy, telling me that he the feeling that he gets from working at the food pantry is “like nothing else.  It just makes you feel so good, helping people like this.”
The bags contained plums, carrots, potatoes, watermelons, meats and cheeses, and a bunch of other fresh veggies that I didn’t get to see because I had my head down in the plum box.  Clients also got separate boxes of dry goods.
At just after 10 a.m., we were ready and LaVerne began directing the crew to their stations for the distribution.  I was put inside the “glass house,” where the clients register, so that I could hand out the flour.
The lineup for the food bank stretched around the block.  People had brought folding chairs like they were lining up for concert tickets – it’s either that or stand up for 4 hours (or sleep in and risk missing out entirely).  Slowly, the line worked its way through the glass house and back outside to the food distribution area on the other side of the church.  Troy and Dee greeted the clients and directed them from one place to the next.  People were polite and mostly subdued, but not quite downtrodden – more like maintaining in the face of what must be so many challenges.  Some were styled out, some didn’t seem to have a roof over their head.  A few were obviously embarrassed to be in such a situation, others seemed downright used to it.  I wondered which was worse – feeling humiliated, or being so used to getting handouts that it becomes the status quo.  In a conversation with a friend later that day, we talked about how food banks are this huge band-aid for so many of the structural inequities in our society.  Although I would never describe St. Columbanus as anything other than amazing and positive, because the root causes of hunger in our communities never really get addressed in a serious way, food banks become institutions that feed (literally) the dis-empowerment of entire communities.

PS:  a reminder that TUESDAY (tomorrow) NIGHT it’ll be time for COMMODITIES TRADING 101 at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood in Rogers Park, 7-9 pm.  If you want to understand the commodity / Board of Trade system, this is your chance to get the lowdown with two longtime brokers.  Paul Maggio and Russ Rsezsutko have 50 years of experience between the two of them, and will able about how futures trading works, the history of the CBOT, recent changes there, and how what happens on the trading floor impacts eaters, farmers and real food.  We’ll have a PIT tournament afterwards, so get ready to unleash your inner capitalist.  See the rest of the schedule for my remaining week at Mess Hall here

Upcoming Mess Hall Events! by sarah kavage
September 14, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Starting this week, Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in Rogers Park, is handing the reins over to me for two weeks of Industrial Harvest-related programming that YOU, interested reader, should attend.  Since I started this project, people have been asking me about solutions and alternatives to our current commodity / staple crop system.  As we transition into a new season and the concluding half of the Industrial Harvest, I wanted to begin to look at solutions.  All of the events will be very interactive discussions with fascinating panelists and experts, and I’m hoping we can use them to think together about these systems, how they serve us, and what we can do to change and shape them into the future (I’ll also be camping out in MH several days a week, hanging out and giving out flour, so you can also just drop by during these “office hours”).

The schedule of events is listed here and here.  Mess Hall is located at 6932 North Glenwood Avenue, Chicago (Morse stop on the Red Line).  Hope to see you there!

bread and riots by sarah kavage
September 12, 2010, 9:59 pm
Filed under: Commodities trading, project updates, the wheat market

Hey, wow, the last post was dated August 9.  Has it really been that long?  I do apologize…in the mania of leaving Chicago, going back to Seattle, alley weddings, other art installations, trying to catch some of the last summer weather, returning to Chicago, trying to set up a ton of events, and then leaving yet again to visit my folks back in Ohio (from whence this post is dispatched) – well heck, I just got sidetracked.

The food riots in Mozambique last week are a little bit of an old story by now, but the increase in wheat prices caused a 30 percent increase in the price of bread there.  Speculation on the Board of Trade is implicated in the price runup – the article above suggests that investors may have turned to commodities due to low interest rates and a volatile stock market.  The quote in the final sentence of the article  is worth a reprint:  “We are going to have much bigger fluctuations in weather and therefore the food supply than we had in the past, so we are going to have to learn how to cope with fluctuating food prices.”

The government of Mozambique coped by reducing bread prices (which are set by their government, so it’s too bad people had to riot before this happened).  The reductions in the price of bread were paid for by (among other measures) reducing compensation for the chairmen of the boards of public companies (that sentence is a grammatical nightmare, sorry).

In other news closer to home, check out the updated Industrial Harvest events listings for fall.  There’s a lot of great stuff on deck, including two weeks of programming at Mess Hall starting this Wednesday, the 14th.  There’s more that’s being added to the calendar for the weekend of the 18th too, so take another look in a couple of days – we’re working out some last scheduling details.  Hope to see you there!

catching up by sarah kavage

It’s been a hectic week, and I’ve got some catching up to do on recent events.  Rob (on a visit from Seattle) and I were lucky to be included as part of one of the semi-regular trips to Angelic Organics’ rural Learning Center with folks from the Heartland Alliance’s Kovler Center and their sister program, International FACES.  Both programs work with refugees and victims of torture.  Many of the refugees come from rural or agricultural backgrounds, and many of them rarely get to leave the city (for some of the folks, this was their first trip outside Chicago since their arrival in the US).   Angelic had a wood-fired oven, I had some flour, Rob had a camera, and the refugees had their traditional recipes from their home countries.  We harvested vegetables, rolled dough, and talked.

I think Rob, the son of refugees, puts into words what I can’t about the experience.

Speaking of putting things into words well, Martha Bayne really did an amazing job with her feature article about this project in the Reader.

And, one last thing, I got an answer to the question in the previous post about how farmers benefit from an increase in wheat prices if the harvest is already past.  I’ll be posting that in the comments section of the post momentarily (or maybe tomorrow).

The latest on the Board by sarah kavage
August 6, 2010, 7:48 am
Filed under: Commodities trading

Just a quick post to mention what the wheat markets are doing lately.  Going up, up and up – December wheat was over $8 a bushel yesterday in Chicago, due to drought in Russia, crop failures and subsequent wheat export ban.  This all makes high American wheat prices.  Also makes me wish I’d stayed in the futures market…one little taste & you get greedy.

The Bloomberg article mentions potentially higher prices for foodstuffs as a result of this price spike almost as an afterthought, but of course, price increases are a major concern in the developing world.  At the same time, I’m not sure how much high prices will benefit farmers.  From what I understand, most wheat farmers sell their wheat right after harvest, and since harvest was in July, many of them would have sold their crops already.  Although July wheat prices weren’t bad, it certainly wasn’t $8 a bushel.  Anyone out there who knows more care to comment?

Flatbreads day at Kendall by sarah kavage

I was invited by Melina Kelson, who teaches the artisan breadbaking class at Kendall College Culinary Schoool, to spend this morning talking to her class and baking pizza / foccacia in the brick oven she built with 4 students last year.  Today was the last class day of an intense session, where students come to class for 10 days straight, 6 am – noon.  Finals are tomorrow, so today was sort of a fun day.  The dough was made with the Industrial Harvest all-purpose flour, which Melina was quite happy with.  She said it is perfectly aged and working beautifully.  Greenfield Mills does it again – !

The students started by weighing and apportioning the dough into 12-oz pieces.

The dough is then rolled into balls.  Melina had the students double-fisting – rolling up two balls of dough at a time, one in each hand.

After each students rolls up their dough balls, they label it with their initials…

…and it is covered and left to proof.  The many gaps between breadbaking tasks leave plenty of time for short lectures, so we’d talk in between. We spent an entire break talking about the specifics of my futures transaction – pretty impressive!  The students asked lots of great questions and made it easy and fun to talk about what I was doing.

Here, Melina (center) demonstrates rolling out pizza dough.  I’ve seen this done many different ways, and Melina started with a rolling pin and then began to stretch the dough with her knuckles.  Her tip:  stretch the edges, the middle will take care of itself.

The final demo pizza:  thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes (a waxy potato that will retain its crunch better then starchy varieties), carmelized onions, blue cheese.

We migrate out into the courtyard, where the oven has been heating up all morning, and Melina loads the pizza in the oven.  She cracks an egg on top right before it goes in.  The oven needs to be at least 450 degrees, preferably hotter.

The demo pizza cooks for under 5 minutes, is lovingly documented and then consumed.

The finished demo pizza.  It was incredibly delicious.

We also got to make our own pizzas, and the students shared their dough with me and showed me the ropes.  Hannah was on top of it enough to suggest that she take a picture of my pizza going in the oven.  Having worked in at least 3 pizza restaurants in my “career” in the restaurant industry, I had collected a number of tips over the years:  don’t use too much sauce or cheese, oregano goes in pizza sauce (not basil, that goes in pasta sauce), and brush the crust with olive oil.  There were so many toppings that it was tough to decide what to do, but I went with olives, mushroom, mozzarella and parmesan.

The finished pizza – a couple blackened blisters which could have meant a re-do at Two Boots, but overall was great.  All in all, a pretty good morning’s work – I took it home and we had lunch, with 2 pieces left for dinner.  Thanks so much to Melina and all the students for creating such a sharing, welcoming atmosphere – I really had a blast playing chef for a few hours.

Women in Grains! by sarah kavage
July 21, 2010, 1:55 pm
Filed under: project updates

Finally getting around to posting a quick update / rundown of the Women in Grains show in Reedsburg, WI this weekend.  The weekend had a little bit of a bachelorette party feel to it (in a good way) with all of us women in grains packed into the upstairs apartment of the gallery drinking coffee, gabbing, eating and sharing the bathroom.  It was a great time and great community, and the gallery was located right between a thrift store and a brew pub, so we were well entertained and my temporary Chicago home is gradually getting appointed with the finest vintage kitchenware.

When I met Cathi Buzide last year, she gave me the lowdown on grain-related artwork around town, and in the process of the telling, happened to realize that much of it was by women.  In addition to her own work in ceramics and other media around corn and soil, she also told me about Ann Belden’s amazing corn basket, the mowed fields at the Fields Project, and Abby Sadauckas‘ sprouted wheat portraits of female grain farmers.   Corrine Peterson, Jiyeon Yim and Marjorie Woodruff – Cath’s studiomates at Lilstreet Art Center – also made work for the show, along with Anne Leuck Feldhaus, Carole Hennessy, and Stephanie Samuels (who has been known to be inspired by corn herself, but mostly creates art with baked goods at her bakery Angelfood).

Pictures of the show, & more descriptions here:

AND, in case you didn’t get the email, I’ll be giving away flour at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival in Logan Square this weekend.  Industrial Harvest will be part of the Urban Ag Fair at the intersection of Medill & Milwaukee, 10-5 Saturday and Sunday (24th – 25th).  Stop by and say hello, bring your friends, get some flour, trade baking tips, gossip, dish on what the weather and the commodities markets are doing, whatever.  A super nice crew of volunteers has lined up to help me out both days – a big thanks to Neka, Robert, Jessica, Bryce, Kelly, Bettina and Ben!

To Market by sarah kavage

Yesterday was the first flour giveaway at a farmers’ market.  I have been working on setting up a few farmers’ market appearances around town, and this one is a brand new market on the UIC campus organized by the Hull House Museum.

Having several friends that are seasoned flea-market vendors, I dig the market vibe.  It can be an endurance test in the same way that waiting tables is – you either seem to be standing around twiddling your thumbs, or totally “in the weeds” – and there’s a cameraderie among market vendors that comes from going through all of it together, the same way there is with a good restaurant staff.  I’ve spent many an hour hanging out at friends’ booths, which usually means helping with setup / breakdown, watching booths during bathroom breaks, running food and water, kvetching about the customers and maintaining a running commentary on street style and dogs as the parade of humanity goes by.  So, given that I’ve also been schooled on proper market presentation, here’s the market signage…

We didn’t even get a chance to take a picture of the whole setup.  It was complete madness, in a good way of course.  The kind folks at the Hull House had arranged for a volunteer to help me.  I didn’t even know I needed help but was so, so glad to have it!  Cristina, a grad student in urban planning who is studying food systems, helped me set up, I walked her through the drill of the flour distribution and accounting “system” and we were swamped with “customers” shortly thereafter.  A line of people kept us hopping – Cristina did the accounting and label preparation, and I scooped flour into bags.  I started having flashbacks from my restaurant days and kept having to remind myself to relax.  People did not seem to mind standing around for 5 minutes, and if they did, well – whatever, it’s free.

Most of the folks that came by were from the UIC community – many of them had read about the project already, but for those who didn’t Cristina and I got lots of practice explaining the project.  There were a couple repeat customers from the Hull House talk, some visitors from New Orleans, an economist, most of the other market vendors, and the UIC food safety officer, who seemed curious but completely unphased by what I was doing (as it should be, but a relief nonetheless).  Someone pointed out to my surprise and delight that the vintage scale reads “not legal for trade”!  It took about 2 hours for the “lunch rush” to die down and we were able to visit the other market booths for some lunch of our own.  One of  the vendors told me that he thought we’d helped bring him some business – awesome!

By 3:00 the sun had taken its toll.  We had no tent or shade, and I could feel the sunburn / heatstroke coming on.  So we packed up (another nice thing about giving stuff away is that I’m not losing any money by going home early) and got out just in time.  Hopefully those that came later in the afternoon were not too disappointed.  I’ll surely be back to Hull House again and will also be making appearances at other markets around town.

Upon returning home, I was thrilled to find out the “official” ledgers had arrived!  These gorgeous ledgers have been gathering dust at home for at least several years, and when I realized they’d be the perfect thing to use for accounting purposes, I had Rob ship them out.  Much better than an old crappy notebook.  Get ready for a barrage of statistics.
FYI, these are actually Czech ledgers (you think they still make things as nice as this in the US??).  They appear to be made to track blood transfusions…

Shifting gears now as I go up to Wisconsin for the opening weekend of the “Women in Grains” show in Reedsburg…

Inspiration for Documentation by sarah kavage
July 11, 2010, 10:08 pm
Filed under: project updates, where the flour went | Tags: , , , , , ,

Today I received an email with documentation of what one of the flour recipients did with the flour and she gave me permission to share it with you all.  It’s a lovely story very much in the spirit of what I am trying to achieve with these flour giveaways, and sharing it articulates my goals better than I would ever be able to do on my own.  This is not to put undue pressure on the flour recipients, but I do hope that others find it inspiring.  A huge thanks to Erin for sharing!

Attached is photographic documentation of what I did with those four cups of flour on 4th of July weekend.

One of my favorite breads to make is Challah because it tastes so good and because of the mind/dough/body connection this bread inspires.  Challah means “dough offering” in Hebrew and, like any good offering, it never fails to bring my friends and family together in surprising and delicious ways.  The three strands of this braided bread stand for truth, peace, and justice.  Challah lets us hold these things in our hands and in our mouths, and it reminds us of all the ways in which human beings nourish each other.

Fourth of July weekend is a big celebration of national and personal independence.  This 4th of July, the people I love came together over challah and grilled vegetables to celebrate all the ways in which we are dependent.   We wanted to take the time to honor how much we mean to each other and how much we have needed each other.  And how much we hate to say good-bye.

Because this 4th of July was also a good-bye party.

After the January earthquake that devastated so much of Haiti, my Haitian friends came to live with me and my roommate in Chicago. The nearly-six months that have followed could not have happened without the miraculous support of so many people.  My Haitian friends (Michelaine and her children ages 12, 8, and 2) were given free food, toys, winter clothes, medical attention, English classes, and day care.  The alderman helped us find the family an apartment, the French immersion school accepted the kids for free in the middle of the year, and hundreds of friends, family members, and complete strangers donated their time and resources.  We raised $10,000.

Throughout those 6 months, the baby began to talk (in English, French AND Creole), the 8-year old made many new friends, and the 12-year old discovered that she likes to dance.   Michelaine made us diri ak pwa, my roommate gave up her bedroom, and I learned how to ask for help.  We tromped through snow.  We skyped family in Haiti.  We cried and laughed and played silly games.  We fed each other.

This 4th of July, as we stuffed challah rolls into our mouths, we celebrated all those things while we fed each other one last time in Chicago.  On July 5th, Michelaine and her kids flew back to Haiti.

We miss them terribly.

The bread we made with this flour was one of the many ways we learned to nourish each other.  We are very grateful for the time, the community, the stories, and the food that we have shared.

-Erin Edwards

Challah rolls and bread before they went into the oven

4th of July picnic with the challah (and other delicious foods!) in our garden.  Pictured:  Michelaine, Anaïka, my dad (Wayne), my mom (Susan), Taïsha, my partner (Liz), Yamiley.