Industrial Harvest


Selections from the Piazza Archive – an introduction by sarah kavage

I was touched and honored to be selected as InCUBATE’s Michael Piazza resident.  Piazza (1955-2006) seemed to inhabit many worlds at once – producing work that is mystical and layered with symbolism, yet remaining incredibly grounded in the reality in which we live, never (as Kurt Vonnegut so eloquently put it) “disappearing up his own asshole.” Piazza was a tireless advocate for, and investigator of, forgotton people and places.

As part of the residency, I get access to his archives, which his longtime friend and collaborator Jim Duignan of the Stockyard Institute dropped off the other day.  The archives consisted of three large three-ring binders full of scanned ephemera (letters, exhibition catalogs, event programs), and an old suitcase filled with originals. 

my other laptop - the piazza suitcase archive

Although I never knew Piazza – or heard of his work – until I found out about the residency, I feel like he’s an old friend.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a cliche, but I see so many of my people – and myself – in the collections of strange objects, old diagrams, and xeroxed booklets that it’s unnerving and pretty emotional at times. 

As I go through the archive, I’ll be posting some of my favorite selections here. 

I also feel compelled to say that I get the feeling that Piazza would want me to tell you that life is short, people!  Stop messing around and get out there and do what you need to do.



Tacky and Sticky come to dinner by sarah kavage

This past weekend, Anne and I spent our afternoons trekking around the city visiting different farmers’ markets.  At the cute little downtown farmstand I picked up some locally grown organic flour from Ackerman farms in Chenoa, Illinois – located about 100 miles away, they also grow organic edamame soybeans, corn and other produce.  I also scored some cinnamon-infused honey from another market the following day.  The honey whole wheat bread featured on the Fresh Loaf therefore seemed to be the logical, easy and delicious choice.  Measured by weight, my ingredients would make a bread that is over 75% local and organic. 

I tried to be a little more anal with this recipe, but there was still some improvisation required.  The recipe calls for some a mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flour, which is made by sifting the bran out of the whole grain flour.  There is no sifter at InCUBATE, and I had to pick up window screen from the hardware store across the street to make an improvised version which totally did the trick.  The little kitchen scale at InCUBATE made it possible to actually follow the baking tips on the Fresh Loaf website, which strongly advocate measuring by weight as opposed to volume. 

Whole wheat dough needs to be more moist in order to get a good rise, but I had no idea what the difference was between a “sticky” (not good) and a “tacky” (good) dough.  I thought tacky was bad (smoking / eating while walking, loud gum chewing,  handbags that don’t match).  

Speaking of tacky, the dough rose in the bathroom right next to the heating vent – the warmest available spot.  The delicious smell was the best air freshener ever, permeating the bathroom and then the entire space.  The second rise got cut short due to time constraints, as I was taking the bread up to Mess Hall for Anne’s final Art Institute class presentations.  My loaf was therefore a little small and the crust a little thick, but tasty – especially paired with butter that we made ourselves; the act of doing so was part of one of the presentations.  The class was about creative resistance of corporate culture, and was, appropriately, a potluck (and damn, those kids can cook!). 

 As a footnote, a new acquaintance who is a baker from Floriole bakery (conveniently, their kitchen is located almost right next door to InCUBATE) told me that “tacky” means that there is no spackle-like dough coming off on your hands when you handle it.  Now we all know.  She also said it’s tough to screw up whole wheat bread – “it always tastes good.”  Music to my ears.



Early adventures in baking at InCUBATE by sarah kavage
December 7, 2009, 6:25 am
Filed under: baking | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dec. 2-5, 2009.  While at InCUBATE, I want to get familiar with what can be done with wheat.  I am starting to think about it like one would any other art medium, and it’s a medium I have very limited experience with. 

Baking is the obvious place to begin.  I’m a pretty good cook, but baking, not so much.  I can make a few things (pie crust, biscuits, pita bread, foccacia, pizza dough) – but actual loaves of leavened bread are a little intimidating.  In retrospect, it seems a bit foolish to begin this adventure using a bag of flour that was left behind by the previous InCUBATE resident.  But it would have gone to waste otherwise, and being unfamiliar with the neighborhood and not having a lot of time, I decided to just go for it. 

The recipe was one for “daily bread” from the King Arthur Flour website that seemed pretty simple.  I made up the dough and let it rise overnight (the InCUBATE kitchen is pretty cold, so it was taking a long time to rise) and gave it a second rising in the morning.  The dough tasted salty as all get-out, and I may have made it too dry and despite the cold kitchen let it rise too long.  The final result was a rather lumpy, oversized softball that nonetheless had good color and texture.  Sadly, it was so salty that it was not really edible.  I am what you would call a salt lover, and it’s hard to believe that food could be too salty for my taste. 

Thinking I had mis-read the recipe or somehow mistakenly quintupled the amount of salt called for, I started another batch with 1/3 the salt the recipe called for.  Got a good rise out of the dough, but it was still way salty.  So midway through the first loaf I started a third loaf with no salt which was only slightly better.  As the first loaf went into the oven, I happened to notice that I was using self-rising flour with baking powder and salt.  It’s actually biscuit flour.  Neither loaf tasted any better when cooked (I kept hoping that something would magically change in the oven to make the bread less salty) and went into the trash.  There are few things more frustrating to me than wasting food.  Arrgh.    

The upside of the whole debacle was that I now had an excuse to make biscuits and coincidentally, had a breakfast date with Anne E. Moore, who is an appreciative biscuit consumer.  I was a bit nervous, as Anne is a bit of a connoisseur of baked goods.  If nothing else, I am confident in my ability to make a mean biscuit, even vegan ones, but the issue with the flour threw me. 

I put my worries aside and fired up the ole InCUBATE oven once again.  The biscuit recipe came from my sister when I visited her in West Virginia over 10 years ago.  The piece of notebook paper it was written on is now so beat up and the ink has run so badly that it’s not at all legible, and I’ve modified the recipe and never written down any of the modifications – but I still get out this piece of paper to make biscuits.  It’s some sort of weird pneumonic that stimulates the biscuit part of my brain.  Interestingly, the paper got lost recently so I’ve been flying without a net and doing just fine. 

Here’s the recipe:

  • 2 c. flour, plus a bit for rolling / cutting the dough
  • 1/3 – ½ c. butter or margarine (I usually use vegan “butter” and other folks like to do a 50/50 split with shortening & butter but I like a more buttery flavor). 
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 TB sugar (this is optional – I usually skip it)
  • 1 c. buttermilk.  Or you can 3/4 c. regular milk with the juice of 1 lemon squeezed in to give it some sour flavor.  Not a problem if it curdles.  For vegan biscuits, soymilk works too – this is what I usually do.  Recently I made real buttermilk biscuits and they were so incredibly delicious that I can’t honestly say the vegan version is just as good.  The vegan version is great.  But real buttermilk is over the top. 

Preheat oven to 425 deg. Fahrenheit.  I have also experimented with even higher temperatures – some folks recommend 450 – 475 deg. for crisp exterior / moist interior (if you do this, shorten the baking time). 

  1. Mix dry ingredients together (flour, baking powder, salt)
  2. Cut the butter into the flour till it resembles tiny crumbs.  If you don’t have a biscuit cutter you can cut it into cubes with a knife, then work it into the flour with your hands. 
  3. Add milk and mix just until the flour is all moistened and it will hold a shape.  DO NOT OVERWORK THE DOUGH!  You want the butter to stay in little bits so that it melts during the baking and makes little air pockets.  Too much mixing or kneading will melt the butter.  Overworking will also create long “strings” of starches that are great for regular bread, but make chewy biscuits. 
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, flatten till it’s about ½ – ¾ in. thick. 
  5. To cut the biscuits, you can use a knife and just slice the dough into squares or use a cookie cutter / biscuit cutter.  My mom used to use a red plastic drinking glass, and glasses do work if you don’t have a cutter, but strive for something with a thin edge – the finest crystal will do.  Make sure the cutter is well-floured and sharp.  Dull, sticky cutters will smash down the edges of the biscuit and prevent rising.  It’s fun to experiment with different sizes and even simple shapes (hearts, diamonds) – my star-shaped cookie cutter makes the best biscuits, hands down.  I have no idea why. 
  6. If you have a looser (wetter) dough, you can drop biscuits onto the tray with a spoon.  Some of my favorite biscuit batches have been from very wet doughs; my friend Jed still talks about a late night batch that I’d thought was going to be a mushy mess. 
  7. The biscuits should be placed on the tray close together but not touching; this will help the sides from cooking too quickly, which stops them from rising.  Biscuits are all about facilitating the fluffiness.  That’s right, your job is to be the biscuit fluffer.   
  8. Baking time will vary depending on oven temp, but 12-18 minutes is about the norm.  They should rise a little bit and be slightly brown on top. 

If I can indulge myself in a little self-congratulatory pat on the back for just a moment here, that entire recipe was written down from memory.  No internet research required! 

Of course, this batch of biscuits did not have any salt or baking powder because of this crazy flour.  They contained soymilk and real butter and were perfectly fine, especially paired with Anne’s mushroom gravy and coffee with eggnog.



Calling all Chicago area bakers, cooks and eaters by sarah kavage
December 3, 2009, 5:57 am
Filed under: baking | Tags: , , ,

Since this is a project that is in part a celebration of wheat in all its permutations, and also about cooking, eating and nourishment, my plan is to spend a lot of my time at InCUBATE getting really good at making things out of wheat.  Those things could include but are not limited to…Bread!  Pie!  Biscuits!  Rolls!  Crackers!  Pita Bread!  Wheatgrass smoothies!  Pasta!

This is to put all parties reading this blog officially on notice that I will be gratefully accepting ideas, recipes and advice – as well as guest chefs and guest eaters.  Comment, get in touch, send links to your favorites and perhaps you will be rewarded with delicious-ness!



InCUBATE residency begins! by sarah kavage
December 3, 2009, 5:26 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ll be in Chicago for the month of December 2009 for a residency at InCUBATE to work on this project.  I’ll be posting my activities and any upcoming events here.