ZingLife

Z-Pic of the Week

August 16, 2014

Former UM footballer and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard shares a laugh with Brad and Tom from Zingerman's Mail Order.

Former UM footballer and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard shares a laugh with Brad and Tom from Zingerman’s Mail Order, and a genial fellow from UPS.

ZingLife

Z-Pic of the Week

August 8, 2014

A very welcoming sign...

A very welcoming sign…

ZingLife

Z-Pic of the Week

August 2, 2014

Lovely carrot salad at the Central Provisions dinner.

Lovely carrot salad at the Central Provisions dinner.

Food, ZingLife

The Gardens at Cornman Farms

Tractor-Planting

A chat with Farm Manager Mark Baerwolf

Mark Baerwolf is one of the original Roadhouse employees. Since 2005, Mark has divided his time between cooking at the Roadhouse and managing the agricultural operations at Cornman Farms. He helped open the restaurant, and soon found himself enamored of Executive Chef Alex Young’s dream of bringing fresh, pesticide-free produce to the dinner plate. When the opportunity to work on the farm came along, Mark jumped at the chance.

These days Mark spends his summers outside tending the crops growing on the farm and his winters poring through seed and farm equipment catalogs and planning for the next year’s harvest. You’ll still find him in the Roadhouse kitchen occasionally though now he’s more than likely preparing food that he raised.

This season has brought some big changes to Cornman. With the opening of the event barn at the farm house, we have also created a new garden space on the property. I toured the gardens with Mark out at the farm to learn a bit more about Zingerman’s work to bring the farm to the table.

“Heirloom vegetables are like a step back in time. They’re history on display.” Mark is talking about the new garden beds at Cornman Farms. The beds lie on the low ground near the restored barn, and Mark and his crew are busy planting herbs in the hot sun. His face is flushed, and he’s holding a handful of chive plants. “But heirlooms and such are not just about history, they’re also about connections to family and friends.”

Take the chives, for example. “They came from a friend of mine. They’re just chives, but they represent something deeper. They have a history that’s not really heirloom, but it’s important.” The plants, it turns out, are direct descendants of chives that were brought to Michigan nearly 70 years ago by Polish immigrants who’d originally arrived in Philadelphia in the early 20th century. When they decided to move to the Mitten in the late 40′s, the chives, and a bunch of other herbs and vegetables, traveled with them. “Like a lot of people who lived through that time,” says Mark, “they always had a little Depression survival garden going.”

“These are walking onions.” Mark goes on to describe the plant’s ability to spread by “walking.” When the onion stalks reach a certain height, they develop a tiny onion bulb at the top of the plant. As the bulb grows larger, it pulls the long stalk over to the ground, where it roots in. As the new bulb matures, it grows its own stalk and tiny bulb, and the process is repeated. This is how the plant “walks” itself over open ground to proliferate. “I got the walking onions from a server at the Roadhouse,” he says.

The gardens don’t really have an official name yet, but Cornman staff have been calling them the “Educational Garden” to differentiate them from the vast expanse of rows known as the “Production Garden,” which supplies the Roadhouse. “What you see here,” he says, gesturing to the new beds in front of the barn, “is a reflection of what’s happening out in the production areas. We wanted people to see a sample of the varieties of heirlooms we’re growing out here.” The garden integrates the ideas of traditional, beneficial, and sustainable farming practices they’ve been using at Cornman Farms for the past eight years.

Back inside the farmhouse, Mark shows me a website run by Slow Food USA called the Ark of Taste. The site is a knowledge repository of our collective food heritage here in the US. Listed within are all manner of heirloom fruits and vegetables, animal breeds, forgotten and “lost” foods, and even traditional and heirloom recipes. “I encourage the chefs at the Roadhouse to look here for inspiration. There’s so much great stuff here.”

Mark goes on to tell me that when it comes to the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, squash, and peppers listed on the Ark of Taste, most are currently grown on the farm. The exceptions are the varietals more suited to southern climes, unable to handle our northern winters. “This year, we’ve got 40-45 different types of heirloom tomatoes growing out there,” says Mark. “Many of these heirloom breeds have documentation going back to the Civil War, some back nearly 200 years!” He also makes the point that the very oldest heirlooms were shared with European settlers by indigenous peoples who had likely been cultivating them for thousands of years.

“We really wanted to tap into this, to use heirloom breeds and recipes. A great example is the pepper vinegar we serve at the Roadhouse.” The recipe comes from an old Pennsylvania Dutch Civil War-era cookbook called Die Geschickte Hausfrau (“The Handy Housewife”) that used a spicy hinkelhatz pepper. Mark and Alex stared growing the hinkelhatz at the farm, added it to a good cider vinegar, and it has become a staple at the restaurant. “We used the heirloom pepper, the heirloom recipe. It was great way of carrying this food forward to the 21st century.”

When fully planted, the new garden will be a sort of microcosm of the larger farm. Guests will be able to stroll between the beds and see heirloom varieties of squash, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and herbs of all types. And even though some might be “just chives,” they’ll all have a story. And whether it’s a tale of deep history from the early days of North American civilization, a connection to generations who came before, or just a great flavor, Mark is sure to know the story. And if you have a few minutes, he’d be happy to share it with you.

Want to learn more? Sign up for a tour of Cornman Farms and hear it from the people who work there! More information here. 

Featured, ZingLife

Chef Alex Hits the Road to Eliminate Childhood Hunger

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Last week, Zingerman’s Roadhouse Executive Chef Alex Young took a mini-tour of Baltimore and Washington D.C. with an organization called Share Our Strength, a group dedicated to ending childhood hunger. We recently caught up with Alex for more details:


Tell us about your tour…
I toured Baltimore with the folks from Share Our Strength and eleven other chefs from around the country. They took us to these vast areas of the city where there are no food stores, there is no work, and there is no nothing. It is just unbelievable. But in Baltimore, they’ve created some really fantastic systems to get food to these kids. The Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry organization has looked at each of these individual areas, each of these individual schools, and has come up with really creative solutions to get these people food. They’ve really done a lot of wonderful things. 

What can you tell us about Share Our Strength?
Share Our Strength was founded by Billy and Debbie Shore in 1984 in response to the famine in Ethiopia. Since that time, they’ve transitioned to spending more and more resources in this country. More recently their goal has been shifted to “ending childhood hunger by 2015.

There are a lot of kids pre-K thru 12 who are on free and reduced cost lunch programs at school who currently receive food, but there are lots of kids eligible for these programs who do not receive food. There are many reasons why a child eligible for these programs does not receive food, and much of it has to do with stigma and peer pressure. Variables like the school environment, how the food is delivered, how it’s made available, what time it’s made available, all of these things play into whether or not a child elects to receive food even if they are hungry.

In Michigan, for example, only about 53% of eligible kids actually receive lunches. And just 13% of those kids receive lunch or breakfast in the summertime. And you can bet if you are poor and live in a food desert in places like Detroit, or many other parts of our state, or even say an isolated trailer park or home in a rural areas of the state, you can’t get to the where the free and reduced food is being distributed and most of these kids sit there hungry all summer long.  They either live too far with no transportation, or the area isn’t safe…they just can’t get to the food. In these areas, there are no grocery stores within 2-3 miles of these people, which fits the definition of a food dessert. *

Michigan is truly in great need. Michigan is economically suffering, and the children are really the key to the future. If you start with kids and educate them, there is hope. And the reality is that for many of these kids, the only real square meal they get each day is the school lunch. And kids simply cannot learn if they’re hungry. There are many, many studies that show the negative effects of lack of nutrition on one’s ability to learn.

What did you learn in Baltimore that might help fix this?
In Baltimore, they figured out a way to get meals delivered to classrooms under the free and reduced cost meals program before the first bell goes off. The kids eat their breakfast, they clean up after themselves, and they go about their lessons, and they are so much more focused. Teachers love it. They are singing the praises of this program because the kids are not hungry and distracted; they’re more focused and they learn better. We spent all day [last] Monday in these areas of Baltimore and hearing from teachers and program administrators.

But that was just the first stop?
Right. So on Tuesday, we got a nice tour of the White House with Sam Kass, chef at the White House. In addition to his duties as chef, he’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, and he also works very closely with the First Lady on her initiatives to end childhood hunger.

From the White House, we then went to Capitol Hill to meet with U.S. Senators, Representatives, and their staffs. We met with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s staff, for example. All twelve chefs on the tour met with these folks to tell them about our tour. We all had bullet points to discuss why this issue is important, what we saw in Baltimore, and what we’d like them to do to help us. We know that many of these folks have [congressional] breaks coming up, and we lobbied them to come and visit some of these food desert sites with us. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act is also coming up for renewal next year. It’s very important that this act is reauthorized, and that we have enough people in congress on the right side of this issue.

We’re not asking for anything new, we’re just asking that we be more creative in getting these kids the food they need. All of these programs already exist; they’re already funded, they’re already paid for, they’re already available. What we need to do is push our elected officials, and folks the private sector, like us, in getting this done. In some instances, you have to get permission from one state department, and then permission from another department to do the very same thing. So, we’re just trying to get past these silly little political roadblocks and get this stuff done.

What’s next?
So, the next steps are to reconvene with Share Our Strength and coordinate our efforts. By many accounts, there will likely be a big turnover in the House of Representatives next year.  Many of the incumbents, such as U.S. Rep. John Dingell for example, have done a tremendous job on this issue in their careers. But he’s retiring, and we need to start working on this now, and hopefully, get it in front of the candidates before the election. It’s an opportunity for the public, with a little bit of information, to make better choices.

These are very important issues, in my opinion. The very basis of our communities is our children, so this has huge economic implications. We need to talk to the people who are running, and help them understand how they can do a better job on these issues. And we also need to enlist more private sector people, make them aware of these issues, and see what they can do to help. Share Our Strength currently doesn’t have many champions in Michigan, and that’s something that I’d like to change.

How would you sum up your tour?
It was very sobering, but it was also very inspiring.

I’m reminded of something that [Zingerman’s co-founder] Paul Saginaw said many years ago that really stuck with me: “All of our lives are diminished when a single kid goes to sleep hungry.”

It’s just a very basic need that we need to do something about…

 

*Note: According to the US Dept. of Agriculture, food deserts are defined as “…areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet…”

Further, “They qualify as ‘low-income communities’” and “They qualify as ‘low-access communities’” with a significant portion of the population living “…more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store…”

 

ZingLife

Z-Pic of the Week

July 25, 2014

Patio dining at Zingerman's Roadhouse

Patio dining at Zingerman’s Roadhouse