The Mindful Nutrivore: Ryan Monahan Finds Purpose in Wellness

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After enduring years of chronic illness, Ryan Monahan had almost forgotten what it was like to feel good. He battled the kind of exhaustion that made it hard to get out of bed. He celebrated the days when he managed to brush his teeth or send an email. He was so tired that it made him depressed, and being depressed only made him more tired.

The Athens, Georgia, based musician was trapped in the hell of bad health and running out of places to turn. He saw countless doctors. He researched endlessly. He even presented his case to a group of doctors at Yale. He got no answers. He began to lose faith in Western medicine.

“During that winter of my life, I spent countless hours doing all this research and trying to understand how I might be able to approach this differently,” Monahan says. “Because I'd visited so many doctors and just wasn't getting answers.”

It was hard to explain the gravity of his symptoms, and he suspected that many doctors, not to mention friends weren’t taking him seriously. He came close to giving up.

“I was like maybe this is just how it goes; maybe this is just how I feel. But at a certain point I was unwilling to accept that as the baseline. I thought life could be so much better than how it was at that time. I just got fed up and decided to take my health into my own hands.”

He began to research functional medicine, and he sought a more open-minded practitioner. This pursuit led him to Dr. Moon, who is licensed in both Chinese medicine and as a traditional M.D.

On a hunch, Dr. Moon tested Monahan’s thyroid function and discovered what then seemed so obvious — he had Hashimoto Thyroiditis.

This inflammation of the thyroid gland causes fatigue, brain fog, weight gain, digestive issues, muscle aches, and depression — and Monahan had suffered through it all. But the diagnosis alone brought him hope; now that he’d identified what was wrong, he could begin to deal with it.

Dr. Moon placed him on a prescription medication, and at first it brought him enormous relief. For the first time in years, he felt like himself again. He had the energy to do the things he loves. He was able to play music again, and to engage with his friends and community.

But his improvements plateaued and soon his health began to spiral back downward. He returned to his research.

He read “Hashimoto’s Protocol” by Izabella Wentz, and it changed his life. “The revelation that I had is that the thyroid malfunction is not the problem, it's the symptom. It's the result of the problem,” he says.

He learned the hard way that his own body must be treated like the complex, interconnected organism that it is. He discovered a truth that the medical community is embracing more and more: his illness originated in his gut.

“Once your gut becomes permeable through either infections or a poor diet or a combination of those diet and lifestyle factors, suddenly you've got toxins and undigested protein and bacteria leaking through your gut, and it causes your immune system to go on red alert,” he says. “Your immune system can become so overactive that it becomes confused and it starts attacking your body's own tissue — and that can manifest as fibromyalgia; it can manifest as cirrosis; it can manifest as arthritis; it can manifest as an autoimmune thyroid condition — but it all starts in the gut lining.”

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Monahan attributes leaky gut (in his own case and the general prevalence of the condition) to our modern lifestyles being far from the how our bodies were meant to exist. “Our genetics are programmed over millions of years to expect certain kinds of food and expect a certain amount of movement and expect to be in line with our circadian rhythms, with cycles of light and dark. So the problem is now we're all sitting in chairs and eating Doritos and staying up well past when the sun goes down and that totally confuses the body.”

Using Izabella Wentz’s book and further research, Monahan began to heal his body. He cut grains, processed foods, and sugar out of his diet. He started eating grass-fed meat and butter, bone broth, sauerkraut — many foods we’ve culturally dismissed in the generations since agricultural industrialization.

“One of the reasons that we're seeing higher instances of chronic disease is that we're just not seeing the same amount of nutrients per calorie as we used to,” Monahan says. “What would happen if you put sand in your gas tank? Your car doesn't run on sand. But that's what we're doing to our bodies.”

After making some big changes, Monahan got his life back. In fact, he felt better than he ever had. He picked back up his musical endeavors and restored his relationships. It impacted everything he did. “Your health is at the bottom of that needs hierarchy. You can't fulfill those mental, emotional, spiritual goals until you have that physical health as the foundation.”

But he observed a pervasive culture of unwellness, and wanted to catalyze a much broader change than just his own. “Most people don't even realize that they could feel so much better, even if you're relatively healthy,” he says.

He became a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and launched a business, The Mindful Nutrivore. He guides clients through intensive diagnostics and helps them reset their lifestyles and diets.

He’s had a profound impact on many of his clients, taking them on the same journey he endured from chronic, crippling illness to better health and energy than ever before.

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There are many paradigms Monahan hopes to break as his practice grows. He hopes to open eyes to how our daily choices impact our health. He hopes clients with chronic illness will be treated as a whole person, with all of their systems taken into account.

But perhaps most importantly for his own holistic existence, he hopes to shatter the illusion that being an artist, and especially a musician, means that you have to be unhealthy.

For many professional musicians, there’s no getting around that opportunity comes from a life on the road. Playing dingy bar venues late into the night, for little to no pay, spending hours a day in a van, and sleeping on floor makes healthy choices seem infeasible. But Monahan questions this status quo.

“I really hope that I can do my small part to remove the stigma that you go on tour and eat Taco Bell and drink beer, because it's stupid, and it's not sustainable. And if you want to be a career artist, sooner or later those choices are going to catch up to you,” he says. “To people in the music world, it's almost seen as kind of like a joke. And it's just not funny.”

Monahan is defying the odds himself. He tours the country with his band Easter Island, and he still manages to prioritize his health, even though it isn’t always easy. He packs food thoughtfully, he scopes out places where he knows he can eat well in every city they visit, and he does whatever he can to get good sleep. He even manages to consult his clients while on the road, which serves as a great motivator to walk the walk himself.

“If your goal is really to be a musician, then truly your goal should be to try and share that music with as many people as possible. It takes a lot of stamina,” he says. “You have to be pretty healthy to go on the road and tour and constantly be performing and interviewing.”

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Ryan Monahan makes health his top priority. He bravely embraces a lifestyle that flies in the face of what our culture tells us to do. Although at first glance it seems restrictive, it’s actually life-giving.

“I guess what it comes down to is that I'm all about getting the most you can out of life. I don't know what happens after we die, I don't think any of us can answer that for sure, so that kind of motivates me to want to experience everything I can.”

Story by Jodi Cash
Photos by Elliott Fuerniss
 

Mike Cunningham's 7 Steps to Organic Gardening

 Mike Cunningham of Country Gardens Farm talks to Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics. (Photo by Jodi Cash.)

Mike Cunningham of Country Gardens Farm talks to Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics. (Photo by Jodi Cash.)

“Growing a little bit of your own food is easier than you think,” Mike Cunningham of Country Gardens Farm told us at a recent Georgia Organics Organic Vegetable Gardening Workshop. Many people think that growing a garden can be difficult, but what about an organic garden? Doesn’t that take a lot more time, money and effort? Mike has been farming organically for 10 years on his farm that has been in the family since the 1940s. He reassured us that it is not only more simple than you might think but very affordable to have your own organic garden. Here are seven steps to having your own successful organic garden.

1. Choose the right location. Your garden will only be “seven steps from your door” if you have a location in your yard that receives ample sunlight. If you are building a raised bed, your soil is composed as you desire, and thus, you only need to set it up in a location that has proper sun. Otherwise, you can till and amend your native soil that has complete sun coverage. 

The majority of garden plants require around 6-8 hours of full sun. This can be tricky in yards with heavy tree coverage, but Mike gave us a good way to remember how much sun your plants will need: “If you grow it for the fruit or the root, you need full sun.” This means that tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, potatoes etc. will need to be planted in full sun. If your lawn restricts this need, try to find a community garden near you.

If you still want to try it out on your own land, you can follow Mike’s second rule: “If you grow it for the leaves, partial shade is all you need.” Lettuces, kales, etc. may be more appropriate for your yard if sun is limited.

 Elm Street Gardens, Sparta, Georgia.

Elm Street Gardens, Sparta, Georgia.

2. Make beds and garden containers. The advantages of where you plant your garden depends on your environment. Say you only have a porch at your apartment. Good news, many tomatoes and peppers will grow well in pots. However, it is important that your vessel is around five gallons in volume (approximately one cubic meter). Some peppers, cucumbers and other plants can adapt to less soil, but most tomatoes will need at least five gallons. 

In general, your plants will need enough soil to excel and produce the most fruit. If you have a yard but you want to contain the soil and disruption to your landscaping, a raised bed is an appropriate option for your garden. Raised beds can be built with just about any material (wood, stone, tin, etc.) except for pressure treated lumber. Four by eight feet is about as large as you want to build your bed; this ensures that you can always reach to the center of the bed. 

Generally, the soil should be around seven inches thick, so it is best to build your bed about twelve inches high. If you choose not to build a bed, your plants will still benefit from a raised bed. This encourages proper drainage and gives your plants the most available topsoil to grow in.

3. Focus on the soil. Mike Cunningham said, “The most important thing for organic farming is the soil.” He explained how the soil acts as the stomach of the plant. In a handful of soil, there are billions of living microorganisms, and much like those found in your stomach, they help to convert nutrients and other elements into energy. 

Essentially, there are two options for your garden soil. The first is starting with the mineral soil (native soil) of your area. If you are using this, you will need to take a core sample of your soil and have it tested to determine the amendments you will need to make. 

The ideal garden soil pH is 6.5. If your soil is too acidic, you will need to add lime. Furthermore, your mineral soil will likely need added organic fertilizers, compost and worm castings (act as a probiotic). 

If you opt to build a raised bed and establish your soil from scratch, you can purchase many of the premixed bags of potting soil that contain peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite (elements that aid in water retention, aeration and nutrient retention). 

You will still need to add compost, worm castings and organic fertilizer to your bed [see bottom for “Mike’s Mix,” a suggested soil mixture]. It is important when adding fertilizers and other soil additives to keep in mind what constitutes an organic garden. For example, organic gardens cannot use synthetic fertilizers. Many of these have chlorine and acids in them that are harmful to mycorrhizae and other fungus that aid plant growth. 

Compost can be composed of cow manure, chicken manure, mushroom compost and others. Furthermore, mulch and leaves can be added on top of your beds to slowly add organic material but also to aid in water retention. 

 Full Moon Farm, Winterville, Georgia

Full Moon Farm, Winterville, Georgia

The process of soil correction and optimization can take years if you are using your own mineral soil, but it is still important when using potting soil and compost to keep a vigilant eye on the quality and composition of your soil.

4. Know what to plant, when. It’s not just about location, timing is everything in farming. A beautiful, sun-drenched plot with perfect soil could be for naught if plants or seed are in the ground at the wrong time. 

Planting times are completely contingent on where you live and on the predicted weather for that specific year. For example, Atlanta is in Zone 8a and 7b according to the USDA’s Hardiness Zones. Thus, you should consult weather, temperature and other predictable factors before you plant your garden. 

In general, cool season plants should be planted from March or August to November. Warm season plants should be planted in April. Winter or cool season plants should be planted with protection (plastic covering) in October. Each “season” indicates when the crops are harvested, not planted.

Regarding the approaching warm season garden, check the soil temperature with a thermometer to ensure that it is 65℉ before planting. 

5. Keep your garden hydrated. Leaves and mulch should be added to the top of the soil around plants and in walkways to slowly add organic material to soil, aid in water retention and promote fungal growth. 

Simply using a ground covering that has not been sourced organically makes your operation not organic. For example, hay or straw can have residual synthetic herbicide treatments on it that could harm your crops and decrease the quality of your produce.

A plant should never be watered arbitrarily. Use your finger. If the soil is dry and light, water your plants. If the soil is damp and water can be squeezed from it, wait to water. 

For most open-field plantings in Georgia, the sun will do a pretty good job of drawing the majority of moisture from the soil, so water your plants daily unless a summer thunderstorm soaks them for you. 

6. Protect your garden from harmful pests and diseases. To grow a healthy plant, you need 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, productive soil, compost, mulch and proper watering. But what if you do all that and then the insects and critters decide they want a taste of your crop too?

Plants that don’t need to be pollinated (i.e. leafy greens or plants without flowers), can be covered with a fine mesh to prevent insects and animals from eating them. But if they need to be pollinated, there are a few options for predation prevention. 

Enclosures of chicken wire or fencing are often the only defense against squirrels, rabbits and other small animals that will nibble your plants to death. However, if deer are your public enemy number one, you have a bigger battle to fight. Deer are able to clear fences that are nine feet tall. And yes, by “clear” I mean jump over. “Fly” may be more appropriate. So, tall fences need another layer, a very literal other layer. Mike Cunningham has found that a double fence system seems to work best if you can’t afford a twelve foot fence.

As your garden grows, constant observation of growth is necessary, but further than that, constant monitoring of what insects are interested in your garden is important. Around 90% of insects that you will see in your garden are good for your garden (pollinators, wasps that eat caterpillars), but there are also the enemies that will destroy your garden. Once you have identified the presence of malicious invaders, an attack plan will be needed, and soon.

Even still, it is good to plant flowers that attract beneficial pollinators and insects (try buckwheat, basil, clover, daisies and many others). 

Most synthetic insecticides are blanket killers. This means that when you spray for plant eating moths, you are likely also killing honey bees and good insects as well. But you need to stop the pest before they destroy your garden. There are a few organic options that can be found: organic sprays, dusts, insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, spinosad, organic pyrethrum, neem oil. Always check for target species and proper application. 

Disease can still be a problem in your garden if you’ve effectively controlled all of these other elements. Solutions can range from application of copper, soap and milk to potassium bicarbonate, natural fungus blocker and sulfur. 

7. Enjoy your harvest! Once you start to see your garden begin to produce fruits and vegetables, you will likely rush out to your garden and rip the produce off to show off to your neighbor or wife. But it is imperative (and the reason that harvest is a step to having a successful organic garden and not the end) that you put as much care into your harvest than the rest of your steps.

As soon as your plants begin to produce, harvest in the morning and often. Use a knife or scissors to clip the fruits and vegetables away from the stems. Treat the plants delicately. Don’t allow the fruits and vegetables to get overly large as this is not only taxing on the plants but also diminishes the potentially delicious flavor of your produce. 

Be consistent in your care. Who among us doesn’t like taking care of their pets other than vagrants, criminals and angry old aunts? Your organic garden is your new pet. You can’t just plant it and leave it like you may do with your kid at summer camp. 

Having an organic garden is a lot of work, but presumably you are interested in having your own because you care about where your food comes from, you desire to have a smaller footprint, you hope to minimize the amount of synthetic materials added to the environment at your behest and you love to eat delicious fruits and vegetables. Perhaps, the seven steps necessary to build, plant and tend your organic garden will make you think about all of these things while you discuss life’s big issues over a fresh heirloom tomato and cucumber salad—that you grew.  

This story was made possible by Georgia Organics and based on Mike Cunningham's presentation about the 7 Steps to Organic Gardening. You can learn even more from his book. Check out the Georgia Organics events calendar and the Country Gardens events page for more opportunities to learn about organic food and farming. 

Story by Gresham Cash
Photos by Paige French (except where otherwise noted)

 

What's in Season: April in the Southeast

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This is a bountiful moment in a shoulder season. As the weather waivers between cold and hot, staple winter crops remain and favorite summertime foods appear.  But it’s worth appreciating spring for its own distinctive merit — a time when the natural world comes alive again, marked by the chirp of baby birds and flowers in first bloom. It’s fitting that this prolific season can be celebrated with a myriad of produce.

This list includes foods in season in the southeastern region. We are big advocates for eating locally (and this is the time — farmers markets are back in full swing!), but mindful shoppers can also feel at ease when purchasing foods that are at least regional. When in doubt, phone a farmer.

Fruit

Bananas
Citrus
Cucumbers
Ground cherries
Melons
Peaches
Strawberries

Captivate the height of strawberry season with our Gluten Free Tomato-Strawberry Pie. We’re not being hyperbolic when we say it might just change your life.

Vegetables

Arugula
Asparagus
Basil
Beets
Bok Choy
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Carrots
Celery
Celery root
Chard
Chicories
Chili peppers
Chives
Cilantro
Collards
Corn
Eggplant
Endive
Fava beans
Fennel
Garlic scapes
Green onions
Kale
Lamb’s Quarters
Leeks
Lemongrass
Lettuce
Mint
Morels
Mushrooms
Mustard greens
Nettles
New potatoes
Okra
Onions
Oregano
Parsley
Peanuts
Peas
Pea Shoots
Peppers
Potatoes
Purslane
Radicchio
Radishes
Rapini
Rosemary
Sage
Scallions
Shallots
Snap peas
Snow peas
Sorrel
Spinach
Sprouts
Summer squash
Sweet Potatoes
Taro
Tarragon
Thyme
Tomatillos
Tomatoes
Turnips
Watercress
Watermelon
Winter squash
Yams
Zucchini

While cauliflower, radishes, and greens are still around, try our Roasted Cauliflower Salad.

Story by Jodi Cash
Photo by Paige French

 

Meet Miss Ethel, Athens Vegetable Apostle

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“I believe in my vegetables,” says Ethel Collins, the 79-year-old visionary of the West Broad Market Garden, who can be found most any day of the week with her hands deep in the community.  

Collins has had a lifelong love for produce. She was born and reared on a farm in the Wilkes County town of Rayle, where her parents were sharecroppers. When she was old enough to cook for herself and her parents, she departed from their normal biscuits and gravy and started working vegetables into their meals. She moved to Athens in the early 1950s and has been an active member of the community ever since. 

Her belief in vegetables took a stronger hold late in life, when she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her doctor suggested that she reevaluate her meal plans to achieve a balanced diet. And it worked. Collins has long since been in remission and attributes her health entirely to the power of eating well.

When Collins caught wind of an organic garden in her Rocksprings neighborhood three years ago, she stopped by to see what she could learn. “What brought me into this garden was the word ‘organic,’” she says. “I wanted to find out what is organic—what’s going on with organic?”
At the time, Fenwick Broyard, now the executive director at Community Connection, was running the West Broad Market Garden that she stumbled upon. The half-acre of land is Athens’ first community-based urban farm (soon to be joined by another Athens Land Trust farm in East Athens). Here, produce is Certified Naturally Grown through bio-intensive growing methods like composting and companion planting.

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Along with his colleagues from the Athens Land Trust, Broyard helped Collins become a fundamental part of the operation, and he taught her how to grow crops organically. As she tells it, “I came in the garden one morning, and I met Fenwick at the gate, and I said to Fenwick, 'You mean to tell me you take all these weeds and all these vines and all this stuff that you can’t sell, you take it and you ground it back up and you mix it up and put it back in the garden, and that’s what you use for fertilizer?' And he said, 'Yeah, that’s what organic is all about.'”
She was astounded. The West Broad Market Garden verified her love for vegetables, and the organic practices pointed toward a higher belief. 

“God didn’t make no junk,” says Collins. “To take what we call junk and to turn it into real life, to put that into the ground and vegetables will come out of it, healthy and ready to eat, that’s what it’s all about.” 

Collins has helped to grow the garden in every way, since it began in 2012. In this time, the garden has produced more than 3,000 pounds of produce, and over 600 of these pounds have been donated to the food ministry of its neighbor, The Light Christian Church. On Saturdays 10 a.m.–2 p.m. and Thursdays 4–7 p.m. during the market season they sell what they’ve grown at the West Broad Farmers Market, 1573 W. Broad St.

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The garden now hosts a composting program where about 400 pounds of vegetable waste and other compostable trash is dropped off by Athens residents and picked up from local businesses, diverting it from collecting uselessly in a dump.  

The garden also provides a place for learning. “Miss Ethel” and her fellow West Broad gardeners teach Classic City High School students involved in the Young Urban Farmer Program how to grow food and run a farming business. Younger local students often visit on field trips to learn what’s going on, and people of all ages are welcome to volunteer in return for learning experiences and produce.

Collins hopes that organic farming can bring good health to her Rocksprings community. “It brings something positive to this neighborhood,” she says, “and I’m gonna be the one to voice that what we need is a clean street.”

Collins says she has witnessed a transformation already and sees fewer people causing trouble in the nearby streets. Instead, people are taking an interest in what’s growing in their backyards. 
The West Broad farmers make a distinct effort to grow foods that their neighbors will enjoy, but they also try to expand their horizons to unfamiliar foods, like kale and eggplant. “But I’ll show them and teach them how to do it, what it’s for, you know?” says Collins. “They’ll get it.” 

Collins also shares vegetables with fellow church members. She cooks for them twice weekly and gives demonstrations of new, approachable ways to prepare what comes out of the garden. She uses these opportunities to take a stance to change the norms of eating in her community. 

“You can do your fast food or whatever, but please for God’s sake keep that balanced meal whole and wholesome,” she says. “Pay attention to what God gave us and how to use it.”

This story appeared originally in Flagpole Magazine

Story by Jodi Cash
Photos by Paige French

 

What's in Season: March in the Southeast

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For those of us in the Southeastern U.S., March can be a fickle month. When the first day of spring rolls around on the 20th, there’s little telling whether it will be balmy or snow-laden, and often it varies throughout the region. Just before true spring crops are ready for harvest, this month you can count on hearty winter produce to remain in strong supply. And as farmers markets open back up, it's well-advised to simply check with your local growers about the best things to eat this month. (Remember that this is a month, straddling two seasons, in which there are especially drastic differences between what’s growing in Florida versus what can be found in Virginia, etc. ) 

Fruit

Apples
Bananas
Citrus
Cucumbers
Ground cherries
Melons
Strawberries

For an exotic take on a favorite snack, try our Carrot Hummus with Gochujang and Hemp Oil.

Vegetables

Arugula
Asparagus
Basil
Beets
Bok Choy
Broccoli
Brussels Sprouts
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Carrots
Celery
Celery root
Chard
Chicories
Chili peppers
Chives
Cilantro
Collards
Corn
Endive
Eggplant
Fava beans
Fennel
Garlic scapes
Green onions
Horseradish
Jicama
Kale
Kohlrabi
Lamb’s Quarters
Leeks
Lemongrass
Lettuce
Mint
Morels
Mushrooms
Mustard greens
Nettles
Onions
Oregano
Parsley
Peanuts
Peas
Pea Shoots
Purslane
Radicchio
Radishes
Rapini
Rosemary
Sage
Shallots
Snap peas
Snow peas
Sorrel
Spinach
Sprouts
Squash
Sweet Potatoes
Taro
Tarragon
Thyme
Tomatoes
Tomatillos
Turnips
Yams
Zucchini

What's in Season: February in the Southeast

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February marks a turning point in the winter. The dreariest, shortest days fall farther behind with Christmas and winter solstice. But, it's still cold, gray and the crowns of trees are completely transparent. And yet, the earth still provides us with a unique variety of fruits and vegetables. Trucks of citrus stream out of Florida and Texas like milk from a nursing cow. Greens, true winter greens, are widely available. The roots of many of those greens are colorful compliments to any meal. Don't make the mistake of wallowing in self-pity as you dream about the soft fruits and berries that will be available as soon as late-March. Pick up a piece of produce at the store and consult the sticker to find out where it is from. If no sticker is visible, use the encyclopedia in your pocket to determine if that eggplant is in season ("Not yet, put it down"). Most importantly, continue to enjoy the many vegetables widely available in the Southeast in February, and remember to feast on the flood of citrus from Florida to spare it from rotting on the ground.

Fruits
Clementines
Grapefruits
Lemons
Limes
Oranges

Lighten up the last of the year's dark winter days with our quick, simple Roasted Cauliflower Salad

Vegetables
Bok Choy
Broccoli
Brussel Sprouts
Cabbage
Carrots
Cauliflower
Celery
Collards
Green Onions
Kale
Lettuce
Mushrooms
English Peas
Sweet Potatoes
Radish
Spinach
Turnips

Story by Gresham Cash
Photo by Paige French

The Sustainable Kitchen: A Guide to Reducing Culinary Waste

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Eating has always been a joy of mine; cooking not so much. Times were simpler when I made food solely to feed my own budding appetite — my naïveté in both the kitchen and with the more insidious workings of the food industry made sure of that. You see, so much of our household waste happens in the kitchen, and an inexperienced home chef is an easy culprit for short cuts that quickly add up — negatively impacting both her wallet and the environment. 

Today, after one too many food-based Netflix documentaries, I quell my anxiety by keeping my waste to a minimum and my choices as sustainable as possible. Some choices are easier than others, but bear in mind that we’re always learning and growing. With enough practice, certain inconvenient behaviours will become second nature.

I studied Anthropology at The University of Georgia, so I’ve always felt somewhat in-tune with the concept of sustainability as a community-based endeavour. However, much of what I learned at university wasn’t applicable — or even tangible — in my life until I ventured outside my comfort zone, i.e. the American Southeast. Something that I learned early on in my freshman year is the multi-faceted concept that it’s not just finances that shape your food choices, but also your culture and immediate environment. Take for instance my middle-class childhood: my mother, raised in the Midwest, never once cooked fish in our family home. Assume that we had the resources to purchase such a healthy staple, but understand that even if fresh seafood were readily available that far from the coast, my mother would shy away from preparing it for her children due to her personal aversion. Just as our culture defines our relationship with food, so too does it shape our attitude in sourcing, preparing and consuming it.  

My love of seafood and the marine environment has grown steadily over the last five years, and my affinity for the ocean can be traced through my multiple moves to tropical locales. Grand Cayman is a gem of an island, picturesque with turquoise waters and lush vegetation, located just an easy flight from Atlanta. Super yachts and cruise ships frequent the harbour, and the Ritz-Carlton boasts the Caribbean’s only five star restaurant; the rampant luxury makes this country a true “millionaire’s playground.” Convenience and conformity were the order of the day, however. Recycling facilities were non-existent and conservation wasn’t encouraged. The juxtaposition of a near-obsession with water sports and marine life and a blatant disregard for pollution (the dump caught fire no less than three times during my stay) sat like a lump in my throat; no one made an effort, so why should I? I wanted to, but I didn’t. I had no agency, no outlet and no support.

Australia posed less of a threat to my conscience, as I soon discovered that the country known almost exclusively for its unique coral ecosystem would be more inclusive and encouraging towards a slew of progressive environmental practices and legislation. The friends I made in Sydney were also less apt to toss a cigarette butt on the beach or a beer bottle out of a boat; surrounding myself with like-minded individuals made my attempts at sustainability much more concerted and certainly more frequent. I suddenly found myself cooking and eating with both vegetarians and vegans, and exchanging recipes and banter over dietary choices. Whether for animal rights concerns, environmental sustainability or financial reasons, the choice to consume less meat was a common one in my diverse expat community.     

Making the decision to move back to my partner’s home country of New Zealand was an easy one; how could living in the land of Middle Earth be anything less than magical? Fairy bread aside, Aotearoa is home to some of the most wholesome food in the world. Known for its dairy and agriculture industries, it’s not unusual to receive milk bottles at your doorstep or to serve lamb as a casual weeknight meal. Farming and fishing are more revered than religion, and with such esteemed status comes a nationwide respect and understanding of the complexities of each pursuit. Massive swathes of coastline are marine reserves, and the Department of Conservation has very strict guidelines on bag size and limit. Cattle — both beef and dairy — are grazed in grassy, eternally-green meadows, and supplemented in winter with silage, not corn. There is a general, underlying respect for the welfare of the animals that we consume and a subconscious understanding that we are all operating as an ecosystem; this intimacy with nature limits the detachment (food vs. environment) that I so often see in most western countries.  

While our 100-year-old farmhouse is no off-the-grid ecolodge, New Zealand farmers may have been the original hippies. We aren’t equipped with solar panels (yet!), but we are too far outside of town to be on the water or sewage lines. All of our water is derived solely from rain and piped via gutters into hulking plastic tanks behind our home. My access to a precious resource — once an intangible understanding that it was simply there — has been severely limited. Perhaps more painful, the glaring visual of the water tanks reminds me daily of our dwindling supply.  

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Water has never once — save for a brief trip to West Africa — been a pressing concern of mine. However, wasting is easy when you don’t know where it's going. Or where it came from. The Eco Pulse Report on Water (2016) sums it up perfectly: “It's not just that consumers underestimate how much water they use — it's that they simply don't make the connection between the way they personally use water and the potential for a water crisis.  In fact, they have a tough time connecting their own behaviors to their environmental impact in general.”                                                                 

Similarly, I hauled bags and boxes of post-party detritus to the dump recently and was unexpectedly horrified at the sheer ugliness I witnessed. Have you been to a landfill? I don’t mean the sanitized, tidy tours you go on as a primary school student. I mean a 50-acre lot of stained concrete stalls of organised debris. It was utter chaos. The tip was smoggy, and the sound of screeching, belching machinery and hungry, warring seagulls was almost more unbearable than the sight of people’s leftovers. Dozens of obsolete TV’s with once-convex screens, furniture missing vital appendages, and a sea of broken glass as far as I could see. Everything we did — used, ate, wore or read — amalgamated in this hideous collection. It felt desolate, Blade Runner-esque.

I resolved to amend my part in this cycle — to no longer be complicit in the willing degradation of my immediate environment. How could I do this? In what way could I possibly impact the sheer volume of rubbish? By not adding to it, for a start. “Reduce, reuse, recycle" — this is the eco-friendly mantra we are all so familiar with, but a simple starting point for going sustainable. Reduce your consumption, reuse what you can, and always, always recycle. But let’s add another vital step to the alliterative mix: refuse. Say “no thanks” to the plastic bag at the supermarket, or the plastic straw at the local bar. Again, remove yourself from the cycle; there is so, so much we can’t control — but what we can, we should.     

The constant deluge of global issues we are bombarded with can take one down a rabbit hole of consumer anxiety; while a post-apocalyptic world lurks on the edges of our collective imagination, it is important to focus on the enlightenment and progress we are seeing that is necessary to change the course of history. Being a part of such interconnected, grassroots movements can be a salve to the soul and perhaps slowly correct the human trajectory of a ruined planet. Find a local chapter of an eco-organization or have a conversation with a farmer at the local grower’s market; involve yourself in the conversation and be a part of the change.

While I commend those taking baby steps towards sustainability — such as swapping out household cleaners with a natural/biodegradable alternative (indoor air pollution is a thing!) or choosing glass over plastic — I encourage the bravest among you to roll your sleeves up on a weekend and put together a few projects that’ll benefit your home, garden and the wider world for generations to come.

 

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Turn Garbage into Gold: Compost

In Al Gore's eye-opening book "An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It," he highlights a startling fact: “when organic waste materials, such as kitchen scraps and raked leaves, are disposed of in the general trash, they end up compacted deep in landfills. Without oxygen to aerate and assist in their natural decomposition, the organic matter ferments and gives off methane, which is the most potent of the greenhouse gasses — 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in global warming terms. Organic materials rotting in landfills account for about one-third of man-made methane emissions in the United States. By contrast, when organic waste is properly composted in gardens, it produces rich nutrients that add energy and food to the soil — and of course also decreases the volume added to our landfills.” I’d consider the previous quote a pretty substantial introduction as to the importance of eliminating food waste in your home.

Another staple of Kiwi households, the compost bin is a humble tool used to both rid the kitchen of scraps and boost nutrients in the garden. Admittedly, our compost bin is a pre-fab kit from the local hardware shop, but there are a range of styles and sizes to suit any budget or backyard. I’d steer clear of the snazzy tumbler option though, as it’s not significantly speedier at producing compost (as advertised) and doesn’t allow for worms to interact with the contents of the bin (a necessity, in my opinion) — plus it’s one of the more expensive options. A simple three-sided enclosure can be nailed together from a few pieces of scrap wood and you’ll be on your way!

Once your compost bin has been assembled or constructed in a distant corner of your backyard (beware its potential as a pest magnet), it’s time to get the fermentation process started. I keep a giant old Tupperware container under my kitchen sink and pull it out whenever I cook; anything from potato peels to egg shells gets chucked in. I save onion, garlic, carrot, and celery ends in a freezer bag for chicken stock, but most other raw fruit and veggie scraps are safe for the compost bin. Remember to never put meat or dairy products in your compost and avoid anything that’s been cooked in oil. While various yard waste is acceptable to throw into the mix, it’s an especially good idea to keep a pile of grass clippings nearby. This is particularly important if you are going with an open-air design; the grass clippings serve as a thin, protective layer between decaying food and pesky flies — so top it off when necessary. In addition to your scraps pail, another useful accessory for the home composter is a small pitchfork as compost needs to be turned. A few other random bits I toss in my compost bin include un-laminated paper (like newspaper or the toilet roll, but not cereal boxes), hair clippings, and vacuum dust; and while it should be self-evident, never, ever put pet waste in your compost bin. With a steady supply of organic material and a consistent turning, in a few months your compost bin should be producing a dark, loamy soil perfect for supplementing your veggie patch.

You’ll also notice the abundance of worms come to help out the decomposition process, as you have effectively created for them the perfect conditions in which to thrive. Worms have long been known as a gardener’s best friend, and it’s not just because they break down and aerate the soil. Worm poo, or ‘castings’ as they are politely called, are rich in nutrients. It is for that reason that my next eco-friendly home project suggestion is the construction of a worm farm. This is an especially exciting endeavour if you have young children, as it’s not often that you buy worms in a box — or treat them like pets! 

A homemade worm farm requires very little to get started and can easily be added onto later. We purchased two plastic tubs (minimum requirement), but were more concerned about the lid benefits than the size. The containers you choose need to come with sealable lids, and “stackability” is key. I also opted for lighter-colored plastic (but not clear!), as black attracts too much sunlight; too much sunlight means too much heat -and too much heat equates to shriveled worms. I even placed my worm farm in all-day shade (a prime location) when completed, stacked neatly on salvaged bricks (to prevent moisture from decaying the wooden deck underneath).

As for the construction of the unit, start with two same-size containers: one to hold the actual worm habitat and the lower level to catch the castings. As your worm farm grows, you can add upper levels, also full of soil and compost, for the worms to travel through. Again, make sure the tubs fit snuggly together when stacked on top of each other; this is not just for stability, but also to guarantee a more direct route for the castings to pass through the aligned holes in the bottom of the top tub/lid of the lower tub. When drilling holes in the tubs, I have a few trial-and-error recommendations: 1) Stack your boxes in the order that you want them and drill through the bottom of the top tub and through the lid of the bottom tub; this aligns the holes more accurately and saves time. 2) Complete your project on a smooth surface to allow for easy clean up; the abundance of plastic shavings might entice hungry birds/rodents if not disposed of properly. 3) Don’t bother with a precise grid pattern; I tired quickly of this and just made sure no hole was more than half an inch from another.

Once complete and cleared of any debris, I filled my upper tub with roughly ¾ potting soil and sifted a few handfuls of compost throughout (just to add extra nutrients — but you can skip this step if you don’t have any on hand — just don’t use solely compost to begin with). Further, make sure you don’t fill the tub to the brim — you’ll need room to feed your worms! Release your pre-purchased (or garden-sourced) worms into their new home, briefly water the soil (think moist, not wet), and cover with a “worm blanket” before putting the lid on the unit. Some worm farm kits come with a burlap rectangle to fit snuggly over the soil, but I simply moistened thin strips of cardboard from my recycle bin, and overlapped the paper until the soil was covered. The purpose of this step is to not only keep moisture in, but to keep the flies at bay. The warmth, moisture, and presence of decaying food is a big draw for other bugs, but as long as your soil/food scraps are covered, and the lid is closed snuggly, you should only see earth worms in your worm farm!

As for feeding them, I generally save the “better” food scraps from the compost container under my counter for the worm farm. Think sweet — fruit pieces or vegetable peels — not sour or harsh (i.e. no citrus or aromatics). The worms don’t need to be fed often, a handful once a week or so, but be sure to place food under the “worm blanket” or under a bit of soil; rotate the location of the feeding spot every time, just to get the worms moving throughout the bin. Check every few days that the soil stays moist, that there aren’t any stray worms floating in the lower bin, and that you aren’t growing a pumpkin patch by accident. After a few months, you should begin to see dark liquid collecting in the lower bin. This black gold is like magic in your garden -collect and distribute where required. When you’ve got your compost bin, worm farm, and chickens up and running — consider your home and garden a mini ecosystem; everything works in synchronicity.

 

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Keep Your Own Chickens

Over the past half-year, I have come to adore the four hens we call pets. They are clever, curious animals, and the blatant hierarchy amongst them is fascinating. Our recent move to the countryside allowed us the space to let our girls roam free; aside from the hesitation to go barefoot now, we don’t regret our decision. They have access to much more land — meaning shady spaces to scratch for worms and bugs, sandy spots to wriggle and nap in dust, and plenty of luscious grass to munch and scratch. The added nutrients — namely protein — from the multitude of discovered bugs gives their eggs a vibrant orange yolk. I am forever amazed at the daily uniqueness of each egg: in colour, shape and texture. There are the occasional abrasive calcium ridges or an interesting ring of white on an otherwise caramel-colour egg. Nonetheless, I find myself eager to collect the four eggs each morning and I’m forever scanning endless recipes for new and exciting ways to use eggs in the kitchen.

My partner and I were in agreement from the beginning about what to feed and how to treat our hens. We opted for a ‘scratch & lay’ mix, as opposed to the more commonplace pellets. We liked knowing what our girls were getting, and visually calculating the composition of ingredients. In addition to seeds and grains, chicken feed is recognizable for its calcium content — often in the form of crushed oyster shells. In addition to these rough pebble-sized bits necessary for shell development, they are accompanied by an insoluble grit. Lacking teeth, chicken require the consumption and brief storage of grit to aide in the digestive process. As our hens are free-range, they find small rocks and sand quite easily on their own. Equally as important as their food, chickens require a fair amount of water to survive. Quite meticulous in their cleaning process, I find that the girls not only drink water regularly, but they also use their water dispenser to rinse their beaks.

Chickens, though long domesticated, are quite hardy creatures, and often found wild and thriving in the bush. While some say we might spoil our birds, there are a few basic requirements I’d say are necessary for proper care. If you aren’t able to provide a fully “free range” environment like we’ve been able to do, at minimum I believe household chickens should have a ‘run.’ This is a relatively small, enclosed (but open-air) space outside the actual coop. While there are no natural predators here in New Zealand (leaving me a bit lax in their protection), I would strongly recommend making the run — and the henhouse for that matter — completely predator proof.

As for the coop itself, there is a relatively easy equation for deciding the dimensions of your coop relative to the number of chickens you want to house (consult Google), but I’m a firm believer in the more outdoor space they have, the less room they need indoors. Minimum requirements would suggest that the place where they sleep is separate from where they lay for the sake of hygiene; regardless of the size of your flock though, you’ll often find that they have a favorite nesting box — and that they’ll wait patiently for their turn in line. So do make sure that there are at least two nesting boxes, but more than adequate roosting space (their preferred sleeping location). Roosting space can also be provided in the run (in the form of large branches or logs), but chickens will need a safe, known location to sleep indoors. Twilight is an enjoyable time of day to observe your hens. As the light fades, they will slowly make their way to the henhouse and put themselves to bed — in order, of course.

While most of your kitchen scraps will make their way to the compost bin or worm farm, it is beneficial to get your hens familiar with fresh food as well. They often refuse anything other than feed in the beginning, but withhold a bit of their pellets or grains, and they’ll eventually be hungry or brave enough to eat offcuts of veggies or fruit. Unlike the compost bin, chickens can consume meat scraps (they love fish offcuts!), but don’t feed your flock anything mouldy or spoiled. Our girls are very well fed, between their feed, grazing, and bits and pieces from the kitchen; as such, they are very friendly and forward with their attention and affection.

Chickens aren’t an easy, self-reliant pet; they require daily feeding and watering, along with egg collection. Further, they are prone to minor hiccups that can quickly turn to major issues — things like mites or soft eggs can lead to more serious complications if untreated. Regular cleaning of the coop is also a commitment that many don’t anticipate, but like any labor-intensive endeavor — the benefits you reap make the effort worth it!

 

Waste Reduction in the Kitchen & Throughout the Home…

Applying sustainability practices in your own home can seem a bit daunting, as the learning curve is long and often painful — and living in a nation that finds caretaking your surroundings as a revolutionary concept certainly doesn’t ease the stress of going against the grain. Groupthink is a scary reality, but if you can start your own positive trends, you can see small, but meaningful change. Just note that what is often (initially) the most personally inconvenient choice may be the more conscientious or considerate option for the greater good; think of your actions as one of a global citizen doing good for his or her fellow earthlings.

What follows is a hodgepodge of advice and trial-and-error attempts (collected over years and across countries) at reducing my household consumption of resources and production of waste. Bear in mind that my partner and I reside in rural New Zealand; our immediate environment is most likely drastically different from the average reader’s — in physical landscape, policy decisions, and the pop culture approach to conservation. Apply what you can and alter what you need; what works for us may not suit your lifestyle, but we were once big-city dwellers too — the road to sustainability is a process!

 

My Kitchen Rules — basic guidelines that determine my shopping, cooking and waste disposal choices:

  • NO plastic.

  • Remember that water is a finite resource.

  • Make or take your own.

  • Plan and budget.

 

Breaking it down further…

 

  • This instead of that:

    • The less packaging the better!

      • Buy bulk instead of single-serve.

      • Choose loose produce (bring your own mesh bag) instead of pre-packaged.

    • Choose glass over plastic (for single-use containers/packaging).

      • It’s easier to recycle (glass can be recycled, whereas plastic can only be down-cycled),

      • healthier for you (plastic leaches chemicals into your food),

      • and a great option to reuse the container.

        • There’s a store-brand lime marmalade that I only use once in a blue moon (secret ingredient to a perfect Thai green curry!), but I purchase specifically for the cut-glass look of the softball-size jar

      • If you must use plastic, reuse an old take away container or washed yogurt pot — never buy new Tupperware; most new plastic is virgin, or newly made, as opposed to manufactured from recycled materials. Not only does this mean useful material that could’ve been repurposed is in the landfill, but also that resources had to be wasted in order to manufacture a brand new object.

    • Avoid aluminium:

      • Glass > canned food: better for you, better for the environment.

      • I always buy my tomato sauce or puree in a jar; not only is this better for your health (the acid in tomatoes breaks down the lining of the can), but the glass container is the perfect size and shape for large batches of chicken stock.

      • Make your own beans and lentils from a dried state — better tasting, no preservatives, less waste AND cheaper.

    • Metal, wood or silicon > plastic kitchen utensils: (better for you, better for environment, and they last longer).

  • Useful tools:

    • Containers: Again, avoid plastic and invest in glass if you can, or metal (I love metal bento boxes for lunches); however, I try to avoid buying new — either try to repurpose previously used containers or dig for unique treasures at a thrift store (some of my best kitchen utensils, cookware, and appliances are second-hand).

    • Serving dishes and tableware: choose ceramic, metal, glass, wood or other natural fiber over plastic; I realize picnic or camping use calls for indestructible items, but enamelware is a trendy alternative that I adore.

    • Standard kitchen rolls, such as cling film, baking paper and paper towels can be easily (if reluctantly) replaced with reuseable alternatives; thanks to beeswax wraps, a silicon baking sheet and an abundance of multi-purpose tea towels, my kitchen trash can is often empty for days.

    • Stock your purse, backpack, suitcase or car with the essentials to prevent any impulsive purchases: a (glass or metal) water bottle and coffee cup are key, but even having utensils (cutlery, chopsticks, drinking straw) on hand prevents unintentional wastage.

    • Reusable shopping bags — this is one of the easiest changes!

  • Accountability for waste:

    • Recognize that when purchasing anything from a shop, you are not just buying the product, but also the packaging. The onus to dispose of such waste (often hard to recycle soft plastics) is now on you, the consumer. Discuss with the shopowner or attendant, search for the better choice (i.e. loose onions vs. bagged), and declare your discontent on social media. We’ve all seen what organizing for action can do; don’t be afraid to exercise your voice. If you think something needs to be done in your community, weigh in.

    • Consider every dollar a “vote.” Companies and corporations generally have an ethos, albeit often for PR reasons; however, choose your allegiance wisely and make every effort to go for the product from the company who uses recycled packaging, sources local goods, keeps manufacturing as green as possible, and who supports progressive labor or environmental movements and policy.

    • Check with your local recycle center about whether or not they accept soft plastics (our supermarket here accepts old plastic shopping bags and other soft plastics), and whether or not they would consider it with enough support. With this service available to us, almost nothing in our house goes in the trash!

  • Seasonal and professional:

    • How many times do you hear “buy local”? It’s a good rule of thumb to follow, not just because it puts money into the local economy, but because the food didn’t have to travel far to reach you (meaning less resources wasted in transport AND much fresher because it travelled a shorter distance).

    • Americans have food — regardless of season — available at the drop of a hat. The proliferation of hothouse produce makes choosing seasonal fruit and veg a difficult endeavor, but give it your best shot. Buying produce in season saves your wallet, and also encourages experimentation in the kitchen when resources are low.

    • One of the best pieces of advice I have encountered in my voracious consumption of cook-books, food documentaries, and chefs’ biographies is that you should run your home kitchen like a professional kitchen: as in, like a tight ship. I don’t mean to say that only the best ingredients will do, but that you need to be smart about what you buy and how you cook. Use fewer random ingredients — or if you need something unique, make sure you put it to good use throughout the week. Use more of the food you buy — like peeling and chopping the stalk of the broccoli (as opposed to just consuming the florets), saving the rind of a hard cheese to flavor your risotto (chuck the parmesan rind in the freezer until needed, cook to recipe, and discard before serving), and using the stems of cilantro during the cooking process (vs. only using the leaves for garnish). Use meal planning religiously — this will prevent unnecessary purchases and also prevent wasted food down the track. Make your own — sauces clutter our fridges and are often a hidden source of sugar and preservatives. Master a few easy sauces (béchamel, gravy, aioli, balsamic reduction) and you’ll never buy packet products again! I am also a huge proponent of homemade spice mixes — try to buy one new spice jar on every shopping trip, and soon you’ll have an envy-inducing collection; I find spices can turn an otherwise sad assortment of pantry staples into a delectable meal. Don’t be afraid of frozen foods! Frozen foods are flash-frozen immediately after harvest, so they are often more nutritionally valuable than some fresh fruit and veg that have already begun the decomposition process on the shelf. This is often a more affordable option for certain foods (berries, for instance), and is a great back up when a last-minute trip to the supermarket for fresh produce isn’t an option. Some of my favorite frozen foods include free-flow spinach (for anything from smoothies to spaghetti Bolognese), frozen green beans (for curries), and peas or corn (a quick side dish in a pinch).

  • Resources:

 

In today’s ultra-modern world, it's incredibly time consuming and often inconvenient to “go green.” There are certainly companies out there that have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon and with clever marketing have made conscientious consumption more attainable. Do your research. Decide what works for you and implement small changes throughout your life where possible. I do believe that it is a process, so don’t beat yourself up for not being the perfect hippie just yet. The path of least resistance is just that — so make the unpopular choices and be a revolutionary in your own home, and perhaps you will influence the community around you.

Story and illustrations by Sarah Belcher

 

 

 

 

On Reading and Drinking to Be Seen

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When I was very young — probably about six or seven — my mother taught a life-drawing class at an all-female college. She was a single mother, and so I would often go with her across the mountain to model for the class. A group of about 30 women would stand behind easels in a circle around me as my mother arranged me seated, standing, and then laying down. When I told her that it was really, really boring, and therefore hard for me to sit/stand/lay still, she’d let me read while I posed. But then my hands, flicking pages, interrupted the sketch’s stillness. It was decided that I could have the book, but that I couldn’t turn the page. One day I remember I had my favorite childhood book — "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" — and I read of the same 7,000 fathoms over and over and over again. 


Ever tried to read at a bar? Perhaps due to my personal history of reading-to-be-watched, I can’t do it. The paper in front of my face makes all of the people around me all the more interesting. Even the baseball on the TV is suddenly so fascinating. And I hate sports. And I also love books. So this is saying something. Sometimes I can’t even read when I’m alone. I feel totally watched. I have to isolate myself, however insufficiently, like a cat retreating into a cardboard box that actually sits in the same house he’s scared of. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is — what if you were to embrace the performativity of reading? What if you were to drink not what fits the mood of the book, but to consider what beverage makes the most hilarious, apt or curious juxtaposition between you, the book and the drink itself?


A few months ago, I saw a photo of Paris Hilton reading Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War." It turns out that the photos were part of a promo shoot for the 2006 VMAs, which was the same year that I went as “dead Paris Hilton” for Halloween. I wore zombie makeup, a blonde wig and a pink miniskirt. I was 12. I digress. It’s a Gemini thing. Anyways, this photo of Paris had me thinking of all the ways in which books can act as props.

Towards the end of my time in high school I would recline in the direct sunlight of a UVA garden, drink black coffee, cross and uncross my legs in the shortest shorts and read the collected works of the Marquis de Sade from behind my extra-extra-large sunglasses. I wanted to be seen. No one saw me. But that’s a good thing; it turns out that de Sade’s a really nasty guy and the schoolmarms aren’t lying about that. Due to my pose-reading I read about a page per hour and that was enough. 


For pairing: Try "Lady Chatterly’s Lover" and a dirty martini. "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" and a stout. "In Cold Blood" and, hell, a Bloody Mary.

Words by Ryan Murphy
Photographs by Jodi Cash

What's in Season: January in the Southeast

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If you’re anything like us, perhaps this New Year brought a resolution of eating both seasonally and locally. It’s not always easy, particularly in the winter months when so many of our favorite foods aren’t being grown in the Southeastern region. Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile effort, and with a little planning and creativity, you can make the foods that January has to offer go a long way. As always, what’s available varies from state to state and even changes within the scope of a month.

Fruits
Grapefruit
Lemons
Limes
Oranges

An exceedingly cold winter in the South calls for soups, stews and other warming meals — we recommend our Winter’s Bounty Stew.

Vegetables
Arugula
Bok Choy
Brussel Sprouts
Cabbage
Carrots
Celery
Chard
Collards
Kale
Leeks
Lettuce
Mushrooms
Peanuts
Radish
Sweet Potatoes
Spinach
Turnips

What's in Season: December in the Southeast

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In days of old, oranges and grapefruits were exchanged as Christmas presents or hallowed as the centerpiece of a grand holiday meal. The bright, seasonal fruits were common stocking-stuffers, treasured for their sweetness and vibrant colors — so naturally flavorful that they were worth craving all year long. This holiday season, ask Santa for the gifts of nature's bounty and trade the candy cane for your favorite citrus fruit.  

Fruits
Grapefruit
Lemon
Lime
Oranges (Valencia and Temple)
Persimmons

Despite the holiday season's call to eat all things decadent and sweet, December remains an excellent time of year for leafy greens and root vegetables. We offer our Turmeric Turnips with Spinach Chimichurri as an exotic reminder that a well-seasoned vegetable is as good a treat as any. Plus, you'll redeem yourself for the extra holiday temptations to which we all inevitably succumb.

Vegetables
Arugula
Beets
Bok Choy
Broccoli
Brussel Sprouts
Cabbage
Carrots
Collard Greens
Greens
Kale
Lettuce
Mushrooms
Peanuts
Pecans
Spinach
Sweet Potatoes
Radish
Tomatoes
Turnips
Winter Squash

Words by Jodi Cash
Photo by Paige French

What's in Season: November in the Southeast

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Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us. Thus begins the time for Thanksgiving meal planning, and of course, we recommend you orient your menu around foods that are locally grown and in-season. This list reflects a general guide of what can be found in the Southeast, although it varies. On your next trip to the farmers market, ask what your local growers will be serving at their own Thanksgiving feasts. 

Fruits
Apples
Cucumbers
Grapefruit
Oranges (Valencia and Temple)
Persimmons

By little coincidence, we tend to drink our fruits rather than eat them as the weather grows colder. With this month's bounty of grapefruit, try this recipe for Clarified Milk Punch by Michael Clancy at The National in Athens, GA. 

Vegetables
Arugula
Beets
Bok Choy
Broccoli
Brussel Sprouts
Cabbage
Carrots
Cauliflower
Collard Greens
Field Peas
Greens
Kale
Lettuce
Mushrooms
Peanuts
Pecans
Spinach
Sweet Potatoes
Radish
Tomatoes
Turnips
Winter Squash

Looking for a decadent dish to win Thanksgiving this year? This Butternut Squash Risotto is a guaranteed hit. 

Words by Jodi Cash
Photo by Paige French

Kate Van Cantfort + Lotta Mae's Supply Co.

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“They rode up on a bicycle,” Kate Van Cantfort recalls of one of the early days of Lotta Mae’s Supply Co.

It was a late summer day when Oscar Clarke and Casey Magner happened upon the newly opened farm, garden and home shop. Not minutes after they peeked into the small store, they proudly returned with some of “the most engineered, highest quality goods” Kate had ever seen. The professional team mechanic cyclists and childhood friends had been handcrafting practical, durable bags and packs under the moniker Magner Co. during their off-season.

“You think you can sell them?” they asked. “I think you can’t stop me from selling them,” Kate replied.

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Kate grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia, raised by parents who owned small market radio stations in Jesup, LaGrange, McRae, Gordon and Milledgeville.

“Their whole business was about the success of other small businesses, so I’ve always been small business minded,” said Kate.

Lotta Mae’s Supply Co. reflects this attitude in every hand-selected item displayed on shelves built by the hands of one in-town carpenter. On day one, Kate opened her doors to a line that lasted five hours to visit a shop stocked and designed with just local inventory.

This is Kate’s definition of community development – harness the multiplier effect made possible by supporting the local producers and thereby the local economy. “It’s been part and parcel to my life’s work,” she said.

Proudly, Kate already stocks three makers’ goods who have never had placement in a shop before. She’s coached them and helped encourage their brands. It’s only the beginning. The quality of the product is non-negotiable and the story of the maker, just as crucial.

The medley of goods that fill Lotta Mae’s all have that in common, that and the necessity of purpose. An axe is a tool, and if she’s going to sell a clutch, it better be durable enough to be tossed around a dirty truck bed next to a bag of feed.

Kate is a strong, confident woman. She drives a big pick-up truck. She doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is, or like she sees it. Years of activism wouldn’t allow it. Her tall stature commands attention, and her life’s many turns along the way all somehow led to the space she has created in the semi-industrial corridor alongside the railroad tracks of Barber Street in Athens, Georgia.

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In one of the first photographs of Kate as a baby, you’ll find her wrapped in a carrier with her mother protesting the landfill in Gordon, Georgia leaking into the water supply. At a young age, Kate’s father sent her to record the news at the city council meetings.

“This is what happens when you do this with a child, when you force civic-mindedness at a young age,” Kate said. She grew up with the powerful feeling that she too could press on the levers of change.

In her 20’s and early 30’s, Kate bounced between gut-wrenching social work and quests of personal integrity. She ran a shelter until she couldn’t any longer, then lived in a cabin in Moose, Wyoming with no utilities. She worked for an anti-poverty and homeless organization in Colorado, then went off-grid on top of a mountain in New Mexico doing environmental work.

Through her first marriage, Kate found herself in Kansas. Despite feeling suffocated in the heart of Monsanto, she quickly gained a following as an informal greening guru, a lovingly nicknamed plastics conspiracy freak. In her husband's big agriculture machine manufacturing building, she found her space on Saturday mornings, having carved out a section in the front aisles to sell organic seeds and starts, gloves and magazines for farm wives, and coffee with muffins to be enjoyed while reminiscing on farming life long past. 

“These are crusty ass Kansas farmers, old guys. They would come in and look at stuff. The first few times they wouldn’t say much, just seeing what this Georgia lady was doing,” Kate remembered fondly. “Then they would sit and talk, and it was all memories of what their grandma had grown. They had me tracking down these seriously old fashioned cucumbers and melons.”

Kate was always the one asking what now, and developing community always resurfaced as her way of making an impact.

In 2004, back in Athens upon her mother’s request, Kate bought one of the first new construction homes on Peter and Arch Street, in the heart of the historically poor black “Iron Triangle”. Encouraged instead of scared by the old southern gentleman who warned her of the purchase, she was the second white person living on the block. A self-proclaimed companion gardener, Kate welcomed the afternoons when she would garden and tell stories with the widowed black women who had occupied that neighborhood forever.

“All this time [in social work] I’d been a gardener on the side. I’ve been calling it a farmender – bigger than a garden, smaller than a farm,” she said.

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In 2017, Kate finds herself again in a transitional neighborhood, wedged between a hipster coffee shop and a family shelter, with a chance to lovingly engage with her community and hopefully challenge barriers to diversity of race, age, income and lifestyle along the way.

“The first time you do something different it’s the hardest, and its easier every time after that. If the first time you go in here…and it’s not the perceived notion that its difficult, maybe we’ll make some change happen,” she said.

Before deciding on this space for Lotta Mae’s Supply Co., Kate literally backed her truck in. She did her homework. She researched. Kate Van Cantfort is thorough. While staying true to her vision, a vision she’d been cooking for years, she wants Lotta Mae’s to tap into what this community needs from it too.

“If [my customers] couldn’t pull in a dually to throw in 50 pounds of feed then I wasn't going to have that kind of clientele,” she said. “They needed to feel comfortable driving their truck down the road to get where I was.”

With Kate, the sky is the limit. She is constantly dreaming as she walks through her small, bright square footage, imaging more from classes and workshops, to community meetings, to bee-keeping out back, a tool co-op and maybe even a chicken hotel.

“I want to have functional items that are high quality, that are not for luxury. I balk at [the idea that] only people with certain income have the right to have quality items.”

The brilliant aesthetic of Lotta Mae’s Supply Co. may be accidental according to Kate Van Cantfort, but the positive consequences of one woman’s “second child” will all be intentional.

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Words by Erin Wilson
Photographs by Paige French

Celebrating Atlanta's Bounty at Concrete Jungle's Finders Keepers Dinner

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Take a walk around Atlanta during the spring, summer and fall, and you might notice ripe fruit, squashed onto sidewalks and crushed beneath your feet. It’s a bounty that often goes unnoticed. This verdant “City in the Trees” is home to thousands of fruit trees and bushes, many of which grow untended on residential lots and in public spaces. 

The founders of Concrete Jungle saw an obvious solution for the wasted fruit: Why not harvest it to feed the city’s hungry and homeless? Since the organization was established in 2009, they’ve donated more than 60,000 pounds of produce from neglected trees in the city and throughout North Georgia (as well as what's grown on their own small farm) to Atlantans in need. 

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Their ingenuity is worthy cause for celebration, and on Sunday, November 5th, lucky diners will have the chance to do just that. Local chefs Philip Meeker of Bright Seed, Ryan Smith of Staplehouse and Sarah Dodge of 8arm are working together to serve the Finders Keepers dinner, a 10+ course dinner featuring preserved fruits foraged by Concrete Jungle throughout the year. The meal will also be complemented by wine, beer and cocktails prepared by Julian Goglia of The Mercury and The Pinewood. 

To learn a little more about the inspiration behind the event, we spoke with Chef Philip Meeker.

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The Seed & Plate: What do you enjoy most about cooking with foraged fruits?

Philip Meeker: They have a taste that's different than the fruits you find in supermarkets. The flavor is not always better or worse; it's just different. It's always interesting to find those different flavors. Even on the same tree you get so many different flavors from one kind of fruit. It's interesting to play around with that because you can draw out subtle differences that you don't get from regular mass-produced fruits. For this dinner, the idea is to express the individuality of the fruits as much as possible in each dish.  

S & P: What drew you to work in collaboration with Concrete Jungle?

Meeker: I think the work they do is so cool. They not only try to make all of thsee old fruit trees around town an important part of the landscape; they also use them to help feed people who need food. It's food that would otherwise go to waste. I hate to see food wasted, and it's great to see people taking food that would otherwise just be laying on the ground and rerouting it to people who need it. 

S & P: Is there a particular dish you can’t wait to serve at the dinner?

Meeker: Not really! I look at the dinner more holistically, and I'm just excited about telling the story about this year's fruit harvest through the fruits collectively. But each fruit will be expressed individually within its own dish. I'm excited about each fruit and the way I've preserved each of them.

S & P: When did you begin preserving fruits for the dinner?

Meeker: Either May or April... I started getting serviceberries right around then and started to preserve those in different ways. Every now and again when a new fruit comes in, Craig (who sits on the board) will give me a call and I'll pick up a different bag of goodies from him or from Katherine, who runs Concrete Jungle. 

S & P: Do you hope that people will leave inspired? 

Meeker: I hope that the sparks people's imagination to think about what we can achieve through maintaining a diverse food system. I think food diversity is really important, and garnering support for the idea of having more varieties of fruits and other foods in the marketplace is important. Each one of these different varieties has a different genetic code that enables it to survive and thrive under certain conditions. Especially as weather patterns become less predictable, having these different varieties available to us for agriculture and for creating food — I think it'll be way more important. 

S & P: How did preparing for this event challenge your creativity?

Meeker: I think one thing that's interesting about all the fruits that I've preserved for the dinner is that I haven't made any jams so far in preserving them. Instead I've opted to use salt and vinegar fermentations. So they'll be a subtlety with the fruit that is interesting and uncommon and perhaps unfamiliar to some people. 

S & P: How do the values of Concrete Jungle align with those of Bright Seed, your own business of personal chef services, cooking classes and edible garden planning?

Meeker: I've always valued local food, especially when it's been grown in a responsible way, and I try to use it in my work as much as possible. Most of these fruits, they just grow on their own and they're thriving with little human intervention. I think being a good chef is about highlighting that beauty just as much as it is coming up with inventive preparations.

Tickets for the Finders Keepers dinner are $120 and can be purchased here. A $20 discount is offered to Concrete Jungle members. 

Story by Jodi Cash

Photos by Dessa Lohrey
 

Victory Hemp Foods is a Win for Kentucky

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When the 2014 Farm Bill passed, Chad Rosen knew the provisions for industrial hemp could mean good business. The bill provided that, for the first time in about 70 years, hemp could be grown legally in the state of Kentucky (as well as nine other states, all under a five year research period). The native Californian made a move from San Diego to the Bluegrass State to take root in the open field of opportunity. 

Hemp has long been a hotly-contested crop. It’s a member of the cannabis sativa family, just like it’s more famous relative, marijuana. The distinguishing factor is that hemp has an exponentially lower amount of THC. “Just like all dogs are canines, a lot of those canines have very different phenotypical traits,” Rosen says. “A greywolf has really long sharp teeth, a chihuahua is really annoying and has a sharp shrill bark, so those are phenotypical traits. So just like that cannabis sativa has this one phenotypical trait that we're looking for, which is the amount of THC. And if it's less than 0.3% THC, our government defines it as industrial hemp.” 

This important distinction allowed Rosen to found Victory Hemp Foods, a company that produces organic hemp products like oil, protein powder, flour, and de-hulled seeds. He launched the company in June of 2016, not just seeing opportunity for himself but for all of Kentucky. 

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Tobacco left a gaping hole in the Kentucky economy. The state once economically subsisted almost entirely on family tobacco farms, but between deregulation, buyouts and a drastic change in demand, it no longer offers a livelihood to Kentucky farmers. Between 1997 and 2015, the number of U.S. tobacco farms dropped by more than 95 percent — 93,330 to 4,268. What few tobacco farms still exist are mostly found in the Carolinas and Tennessee. But even before tobacco reigned supreme in Kentucky, hemp was a vital cash crop there, grown for use as riggings on naval ships since the late 1700s. 

In 1936, the movie “Reefer Madness” was released to frighten young people away from marijuana. A year later, as the intended craze swept the country, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized the drug. This legislation ultimately meant that industrial hemp production also came to a screeching halt. It resumed in 1942 when the USDA produced the video “Hemp for Victory,” encouraging farmers to resume growing the crop to support the war effort. Farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere produced the crop, which was ultimately used to make parachutes, ropes, webbings, shoes, clothes and other vital products. Farmers who grew hemp for the war effort were dually rewarded. Yet still, in 1957, the crop was outlawed again as part of drug-related legislation. 

Rosen saw the possibilities, and he launched a business named in honor of hemp’s wartime purpose. “I started to see all the different uses for hemp, so that’s how I got focused on the hemp foods, because I saw that it's in 7000 retailers in North America and we import 98% of our hemp foods from Canada,” he says. “I thought that it was just the perfect place for an entrepreneur to sink his teeth in. And also given the potential impact it could have, I knew that if it wasn't done right, it would just be another failure of ag to have an impact where it really could.” 
When Rosen talks about impact, he’s got his eye on several factors. He wants to create products that are sustainable, in terms of how they were grown and how they’re commodified. He wants to offer foods that are nutritious. He wants to educate consumers on the value of hemp. And he wants to put fair wages in farmers’ pockets by providing a supply chain for a crop that could replace the revenue tobacco once provided. He’s only a little more than a year into his business with Victory Hemp Foods, but he’s succeeding on all fronts. 

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“We have such strong potential to create an enormous amount of demand and demand is always good for farmers,” he says. “If demand can outrace supply, farmers would be in good shape, right? And so if we don't talk about it as hemp, and we just look at the nutritional profile, it's absolutely amazing. It's got all nine essential amino acids, and proteins are just amino acids, so it's a complete plant-based protein, it has more digestible protein than, say, soy or flax or chia ... It's an amazing protein.”

It’s a matter of creating a demand for high quality products, made from a sustainably sourced crop. This is how farmers can receive parity, which is fair pricing that compensates for all inputs — something that hasn’t happened in Kentucky since the heyday of tobacco. 

“So, not that I've figured out a way for it to have this great impact and restore all our small family farms, but it definitely has the potential and I think that it's going to come down to the policies that processors and the philosophies that processors kind of build this industry through … I mean we have the most amount of small family farms in Kentucky, and you also have the highest declining rate of small family farms, and so how does hemp fit into that?”

It’s a deeply important question. All of the elements are in place for hemp to succeed in Kentucky: the farmers can grow it; there’s infrastructure for things like dairy farming, but the dairy farms are gone, so the infrastructure can be used for hemp milk; and it can be made into high end, highly-desirable value added products. Aside from oil, protein powder, flower and de-hulled seeds, Victory Hemp Foods collaborates with other artisanal food purveyors to create things like hemp chocolate, whipped hemp heart honey and hemp pasta. 

It’s too soon to say whether hemp will be the answer Kentucky farmers have been waiting for, but it’s likely to play a role in redeeming the rural economy. And Victory Hemp Foods is at the forefront of making that possible.

Story by Jodi Cash

Photos by Ethan Payne
 

Drinking with Literature: Richard Ford and Whiskey Neat

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When I was a first-semester freshman in college, I checked out an enormous hardbound copy of Richard Ford's entire Frank Bascombe trilogy from the school's library (I'm aware it's not a trilogy anymore, but I haven't accepted that in my heart). Every day, I would go to the gym and read Ford while doing cardio. I'm still not sure how I did that without vomiting from dizziness, but my point is that I can't process the brilliance, sadness, and mundanity of Ford without being at once physically exhausted and exhilarated. 

This habit caused a personal crisis. Ford is someone on whom you can think, but should never overthink. Thus to consume this work, you should relax rather than run, and sip rather than chug.

In case you haven't read it (and I really think you should): the Frank Bascombe series is about a man named, you guessed it, Frank Bascombe. He was a married sportswriter at one point, with a son, but he went through a bitter divorce and refers to his ex-wife only as 'X' throughout the series; later, he finds a career in real estate which is thrown out of whack by Hurricane Sandy. The books are very 1980s-2000s New Jersey, though Ford himself comes from a blue-collar Mississippi family. Frank is honestly an asshole, but that's besides the point. Richard Ford has made a life for him in these books (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land comprise the aforementioned trilogy; the complete Bascombe works include the fourth book, Let Me Be Frank With You), and it's incredible to imagine that this man exists only in another man's mind. There's no sense in a plot summary, because the books are moved by intimate detail rather than by story. That's something I like; again, that's a sip, not a chug. Feel the way the taste changes in your mouth the longer it sits. How it changes from the front of the palate to the back. You aren't here to get drunk. You are here to taste a drink, a tincture, a preparation.

That being said, I tried to get my grandma to read the series and she gave it up, said it "didn't go anywhere and didn't have a moral." Figures: her drink of choice is Pinot Noir, pronounced in her thick accent as Peanut Noor.

For a drink that you can (and should) drink as slowly and thoughtfully as you read Ford's masterful, Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, we recommend Swift Distillery's Single Malt Texas Whiskey, served neat. 

 

Story by Ryan Murphy

Photographs by Jodi Cash

What's in Season: October in the Southeast

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Autumn is upon us. This shoulder season brings about some of our favorite flavors of the year: baked goods made with warm spices, gourds that flourish in all shapes and colors and slow-cooked stews and soups. This guide is meant to inform your seasonal shopping and meal planning pursuits, though the best way to determine what you should eat this month is to check out your local farmers market to see what they’re selling. 

Fruits:

Apples
Cucumbers
Grapes
Pears

The crisp air of October calls for a change not only to the way we’re eating, but also to the way we’re drinking. In the height of apple harvests, enjoy the Old Man Smith, a seasonal take on the classic Old Fashioned.  

Vegetables:

Arugula
Beans
Beets
Bok choy
Broccoli
Cabbage
Carrots
Collard greens
Eggplant
Greens
Herbs
Kale
Lettuce
Mushrooms
Okra
Peanuts
Peas
Peppers
Persimmons
Pumpkins
Radishes
Summer squash
Sweet potatoes
Tomatoes
Tomatillos
Turnips
Winter squash
Zucchini

This is also the season to begin preparing food more slowly and thoughtfully, as in our recipe for Slow-Cooked Okra, Fennel and Carrots. And if you’re looking to reinvent a roasted vegetable dish this month, try our Turmeric Turnips with Spinach Chimichurri.

Words by Jodi Cash

Photo by Rinne Allen
 

What's in Season: September in the Southeast

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Here we are at the turning point of summer to fall, a time when fields are still verdant and bountiful but cooler winds begin to blow. The temperatures in September are particularly unpredictable, so as always, it’s best to go straight to the source and ask your local farmers what’s still growing in their gardens. This guide is meant to help you plan seasonal meals this month, and we highly recommend finding sustainable sources in your area for September’s fruit and vegetable offerings. (Naturally, what’s in season will also vary state to state.)

Fruits:

Apples
Cucumbers
Figs
Grapes
Ground Cherries
Peaches
Pears
Persimmons
Raspberries
Tomatillos
Tomatoes
Watermelons
Valencia Oranges

Peaches are on the last threshold of freshness in South Carolina, so be sure to preserve them while you can using our Peach Butter recipe. And while the warm days continue, cool off with our The 5 & 10’s recipe for Scuppernong Sorbet, one of our very favorite frozen treats. 

Vegetables and legumes:

Beets
Bok Choy
Cabbage
Collard Greens
Edamame
Eggplant
Chili Peppers
Chives
Garlic
Green Beans
Greens
Green Onions
Herbs
Kale
Lettuce
Leeks
Lima Beans
Mushrooms
Okra
Onions
Peanuts
Peas
Pecans
Peppers
Pole Beans
Potatoes
Pumpkins
Radishes
Shell Beans
Spinach
Sprouts
Summer Squash
Sweet Potatoes
Turnips
Winter Squash
Yams
Zucchini

With football season in full swing, there’s no better time to whip up our recipe for Classic Boiled Peanuts and win the favor of your tailgating friends. Our Heirloom Squash Pie is also sure to please for those who would rather enjoy vegetables as a dessert. 

Words by Jodi Cash

Photograph by Paige French
 

What's in Season: August in the Southeast

 Foraging for wild grapes might just be our favorite edible activity this season. 

Foraging for wild grapes might just be our favorite edible activity this season. 

Although the precise seasonality of crops varies throughout the Southeast month-to-month (and of course, it’s contingent on the weather which is only more erratic all the time), this is a general guide to help you seek out the right stuff at your local markets. Don’t let this stop you from exploring other options offered by your farmers — when it comes to seasonality, they know best!

Fruits:

Apples
Apricots
Blackberries
Blueberries
Cantaloupes
Figs
Grapes
Nectarines
Peaches
Raspberries
Tomatoes
Watermelons
Valencia oranges

Try those abundant blueberries in our Blueberry-Sherry Vinegar Shrub. This Muscadine Spritz is another of our favorite ways to beat the heat this month. 

Vegetables and legumes:

Butter beans
Cabbage
Collard greens
Corn
Cucumbers
Eggplant
Field peas
Green beans
Greens
Herbs
Okra
Onions
Peanuts
Peppers
Pole beans
Summer squash
Sweet potatoes
Zucchini
Zucchini blossoms


Summer squash steals the show in this Stuffed Summer Squash with Kielbasa Pork. We also love to feast on okra and peppers in this Trinidadian Pepper Pot

Words by Jodi Cash

Photograph by Paige French

The New Stice Wine: From Coast to Coast, Farm to Table

Meet Phil Stice
 
It’s 5 o’clock on the first Friday of January, and Phil Stice is in his element, hosting a wine tasting at Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens, GA. He does events like these from time to time in Athens, where he lives, and Atlanta, where he earns most of his living. Uncorked tonight are some of the hippest new wines to come out of California, establishment-defying Chardonnays and Grenache blends that are setting new standards for what California wine is and what a California winemaker can or should be. Unbeknownst to most of the Athens retirees, University-affiliated yuppies, and young, pretty service industry professionals scattered about the bar, Phil Stice is not only a wine taster and the chief sales representative for a small boutique company called Specialty Wines, but he is also a winemaker himself. He’s spent significant time in farms and cellars and released his first wines earlier this year. So while “Dr. Phil,” as he is sometimes affectionately known, simply charms the small seafood establishment’s patrons and educates them on the nuances of the nouveau Cali juice at their fingertips, he’s also part of the story of what’s changing in California, and an example of the way these changes are helping make American wine more interesting, delicious, occasionally cheap and definitely cool.
 
Stice is good-looking, with clear blue eyes, short wavy hair and an easy smile. He’s quietly confident and possessed with an impeccable palate. He’s also culturally ambidextrous, as easily at home in a crowded bar watching a soccer match as he might be in a high-level wine grape biogenetics lecture in the oenology program at the University of California at Davis. He came to the wine business honestly, if not directly. Raised in Athens, Georgia, he attended both the local public high school and the local public University, where his father is a Ph.D. in the Animal Dairy Science Department. Two cousins, however, are winemakers in California (one at Caymus in Napa and the other at Bohème in Sebastopol, California, near the Russian River Valley). While Stice started out pre-med with a biology major in college, he eventually tacked on a horticulture minor and finished college while doing a Maymester in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Georgia’s campus in Tuscany. After that experience, he left his medical dreams behind and turned his sights to the California side of the family business. The only “Dr.” in his name may be the one Athens has given him.
 
First he went to work locally at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in North Georgia, just around the corner from Goats on the Roof on Highway 441 near the North Carolina border. In the fields with iPhone buds in his ears, hedging and thinning the grapevines, then harvesting the grapes, then diving into the cellar work of fermentation and aging, Dr. Phil learned the process from the earth up and back down again. That same year his cousin hired him on at Caymus. There, he learned the work ethic of a vineyard field crew, farming alongside the locals from dawn to dusk. He also had the pleasure of a work trip to Mendoza, Argentina to see first-hand a wine operation south of the border. With a solid foundation in the field, he came back to Georgia. Working at a boutique wine shop in Atlanta, he sharpened his palate on the bottles of white Burgundy brought in from the generous clientele’s home cellars for Friday tastings. Then he set out again for the west coast, interning at Rhys Vineyards in a California wine American Viticultural Area (AVA) called the Santa Cruz mountains, where he spent more time in the cellar learning the chemistry of winemaking. This time when he came back, he established the Stice Wine Company.  

The Changing Model for California Wine
 

In theory, there are two sorts of models for how California wine has always been made. The first is the estate model, which is largely the model we think of when we think of Napa Valley: the huge, ornate mansions (and Cabernets and Chardonnays to match them) with rolling, winding hillsides of beautiful vines and paths and irrigation systems, in-house farming operations that operate like clockwork, big tasting rooms and 5-star restaurants. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the grower model — the small, back-to-the-or-never-left-the-land farmers who grow grapes alongside chickens and goats and oranges and make wine with it themselves, day after day, year after year. While both tales have their basis in fact, the truth, it seems, is a little cloudier, more interesting and in some ways more troubling.
 
For example, there are many people and families and farmers in California who have grown grapes for decades and never made a single bottle of wine. They sell the grapes in a variety of ways, either through established contracts with estates or other producers, or through the help of the “grape broker,” who lines up potential buyers, especially for fruit that is unaccounted for toward the end of a harvest. More likely, these growers turn to what Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine,” calls the “Big Three:” Gallo, Constellation Wines and the Wine Group. These big California companies are responsible for producing two out of every three bottles of California wine. The five biggest producers after the “Big Three” account for another 20% of California wine (these are names you’ve heard of: Two Buck Chuck, Sutter Home, Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, etc). Together that’s over 80% of the wine being made in California. What’s interesting (or troubling) is that these companies don’t necessarily own all of the land or fruit that 80% of the state’s wine is being made from, but they find a way to access it, and often, to control its production and distribution (and revenue). Even in situations where landed California estates or small, sustainable producers own some of the land or fruit and produce some wine from it on their own, they just can’t compete with the low-cost production of the “Big Three” or the skyrocketing property value of the wine industry it created. What’s more, according to Bonné, the “Big Three” and the other major grocery store brands often don’t have anything to do with farming most of the juice that goes into the bottles you drink — they buy mass-produced grapes from the Central Valley to use for their cheap labels. This stuff comes from vineyards who go heavy on herbicides, insecticides, irrigation, nitrogen and steroids, essentially overproducing their fruit by overstuffing the soil and then packaging the juice up and shipping it out like a truck full of chickens bound for the plant. There’s no time for hands-on farming or winemaking decisions, only a guaranteed profit and a need for more chemicals the next year. 
 
Meanwhile, the remaining 20% of California’s wine is being produced by winemakers and farmers who’ve fought long and hard to buy land, or lease land to grow grapes, or purchase small batches of grapes through brokers to make wines that no one has heard of, unless you’ve gone looking for them. These farmers and winemakers are attached to the land, even if it’s not their land; they are attached to a sense of place and the special kind of wine it can produce, even without maximizing its yield with irrigation or pesticide; they are attached to idea that California wine has something more interesting and more rewarding and perhaps even more sustainable to offer than Two Buck Chuck (full disclaimer: as a cheap graduate student, I bought dozens of bottles of Charles Shaw at Trader Joe’s and drank them enjoyably and without remorse). But when you have the pleasure of spending wine time with Dr. Phil, who quietly yet charismatically and humbly claims that there is something out there that’s a little better, that isn’t necessarily more expensive, that tells a story of its own, that looks past the “Big Three” without attempting a revolution, that focuses simply on making good wine, while empowering the people and noticing the places that do it, why not dig a little deeper, learn a few new things, venture out and take a chance? After all, it only involves drinking more wine.

Phil Stice Makes a Chardonnay

Fortunately for Phil, his family had a built in love for wine and his cousin Kurt at Bohème was the perfect guy to lean on when it came to making wine. Kurt leases approximately 20 acres of land over three vineyard sites and is somewhat of a testament to the ways the wine business is changing in California, charting a different path between or outside of the mythical estate and grower models. Perhaps because of this, Kurt is adamant that the business side of winemaking must be viable: “there are serious costs to managing the entire process of making wine from start to finish, not to mention the extreme overhead just to lease vineyards to farm and harvest grapes”. For Kurt, running a good business is part of the sustainability project, which is part of why he resists the popular trend to get organic certification or turn fully biodynamic. The organic and especially biodynamic aspect of farming can be very expensive and can result in huge losses of grape product if the weather turns nasty or unpredictable, which in California, it does. The key at Bohème has been to follow organic practices and farm over 90% of the vineyards organically but without the certification, reserving the option to spray or adjust where necessary to keep the crop — and the business — alive. Kurt calls it an “organic, yet practical” business approach to reaching the same shared goal: good, quality, clean wine. This practice is also quite common in the Old World, where farming has been largely “organic” for generations without seeking a label or jumping through the necessary time and financial hoops to get the certification. Stice learned to respect these time-honored styles during his wine-shop time in Atlanta, with his boutique distributor, Specialty Wines, and, of course, in the field and cellar with his cousins. With this vision of straddling the New and Old Worlds, Phil set out to make a classic, Burgundian-style Chardonnay with California grapes: full-flavored but not heavy, with acid and fruit and body — a wine, if it met its goal, of “weightless power.”
 
Kurt offered Phil a facility he could use to make the wine, but first he had to find grapes. He knew he would probably be working with the popular “Wente” Chardonnay clone largely used in California, but he didn’t want just any grapes. He wanted the best grapes possible, from the best site possible, with the opportunity to establish a direct relationship with the farmers and farming practices that would determine the core of his product. One of the things that Stice and every other aficionado stresses about wine is nothing new to the wine world: terroir. The word doesn’t have an easy English translation because it incorporates a slew of things that relate to where and how a grape is grown, as well as what is done with the grape once it’s harvested to maintain these characteristics. It refers to the soil type and quality at a particular vineyard site, the weather patterns both daily and seasonally, and the farming techniques used (which could include the type of herbicides or pesticides or nitrogen used or the lack thereof, as well as other organic methods of preventing disease). It can even refer to a winemaker’s choice of which grape varieties to grow or seek out, given weather and farming techniques, or when to harvest certain grapes during a particular season. All of these intricacies are at the forefront of what Stice wants to know about a particular wine that he is selling for his job with Specialty, and so, of course, they transferred over to a particular wine that he was interested in making himself. At last, on a hunch from his cousin, Stice found a patch of “Rued” clone grapes, a Wente subtype of the Chardonnay grape, that were available through the Mengle Vineyard and largely contracted and farmed by a prestigious and independent Russian River Valley farming family. Through the help of a grape broker, Stice was able to procure a part of the harvest for his first wine. In essence, these were grapes that had made great wine before, and he felt good about the way they were farmed, the people and the place, the terroir. The Rued subtype also provided a little extra depth since it is often known for its aromatics and full body, one step closer to the desired “weightless power.”
 
He bought the grapes and set to work at Kurt’s facility. First, they gently pressed the grapes in a “bladder” press, rested it 24 hours to settle any remaining solids (the so-called “heavy lees”) and fed the juice into four barrels he had hand-picked from the cooperage Francois Freres, barrels he’d worked with at Rhys Winery. These barrels were toasted, providing a warmer oak flavor, a “graham cracker thing”. He wanted a long, slow, cold fermentation as is often done in Burgundy. He also chose a unique fermentation process, using lab yeasts on two of the barrels, while letting the other two barrels ferment spontaneously with indigenous yeast, another Old World technique. The first two barrels took two weeks to ferment, while the indigenous yeasts slowly worked their magic over the next six months. Throughout fermentation, Stice and his cousin turned the barrels and stirred the lees in each of them (lees are the byproducts of yeast fermenting grape juice into alcohol that can add texture to wine that ages on them). After fermentation, in classic Burgundian-style, Phil put the Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, converting malic acid, a tarter flavor, into lactic acid, a smoother acid, enhanced by the byproduct of diacetyl, a compound that imparts a buttery flavor to the wine (this buttery flavor is one facet of what can often set Chardonnay apart from other white wine varietals, especially in California). After this secondary, malolactic fermentation, Phil aged the wine in oak barrels for one year at cellar temperature (~65 degrees). Then, before bottling, he moved the wine (called “racking”) into a tank for cold-stabilization to further avoid contamination and to begin mellowing the wine (cooler temperatures tend to do this while warmer temperatures can reactivate yeasts or encourage bacteria). Finally, after another trip to California where Phil and Kurt did what they claim was officially called “trailer-cowboy bottling” (literally, a trailer that they rented with a bottling line on board), Stice’s first wine was in bottle and ready to age. After a year in bottle, he hosted his first release party at Seabear Oyster Bar in April 2017.


A Georgia Boy in Fine Californian Company

Stice is far from the first person to seek out such these particular characteristics and processes when making wine. The basic grape crushing and fermentation process is almost standard. The hands-off approach in the cellar is a little less common. Many wines, including many in California, are ripened as long as possible to create as much sugar as possible, which then translates into higher alcohol levels. Higher fermentation temperatures or certain strains of lab yeast can also do the same. But there is a growing trend that Dr. Phil has tapped into toward a new sort of California wine, that echoes some of the long held practices of the Old World, but in a California-way. Stice sells some of these wines in his work for Speciality, notably Kenny Likitprakong of the Hobo and Folk Machine wine labels, Ian Brand of the L’Ptit Paysan and La Marea labels, Steve and Jill Matthiasson from the Matthiasson label, and, of course, his cousin Kurt at Bohème. These winemakers are all part of the California wine world and a trend away from what that has meant for the past 25 years. They’ve each started making wine in a very small way, without owning vineyards, without owning winemaking facilities and without a huge amount of expendable capital. They either farm their own grapes, consult on how grapes are grown, or have direct relationships with the farmers who grow for them and the vineyard sites where they are grown. They’ve been focused on making terroir-focused wines, using varieties that grow well in the places where they choose to get their fruit, rather than picking any desired varieties and forcing it into a climate that doesn’t suit it. These people embrace the unique qualities of California terroir without trying to "fix" it with drastic irrigation, changing the soil or drenching the vines in chemicals. 
 
Each of these new California winemakers is also unique in some ways. Kenny Likitprakong started out as “gypsy” winemaker, making wine however and with whatever he could get his hands on, in co-ops with leftover fruit, traveling extensively to learn and taste and try new methods, but now he has his own winemaking facility and four or five labels that he supports with it. Kenny’s Folk Machine and Hobo wine labels have also focused on making affordable table wines, outside of the mainstream of big Napa and Sonoma wine houses and with an aesthetic to a younger, hipper generation of sippers. The Matthiasson family is more focused on organic farming practices with the ideal farm being a completely sustainable organism (not biodynamic or “natural” but sustainable), complete with cover crops nourishing the soil, restrained irrigation strengthening the vines, and the use of unorthodox grape varieties that suit the Napa climate. Steve Matthiasson literally wrote the book on sustainable viticulture in California and still consults for a myriad of farmers and winemakers implementing organic and plant focused farming practices. Ian Brand at P’tit Paysan is apparently obsessive about soil type and quality and goes to great lengths to find the wildest, most unconventional vineyard sites specifically because of their soil quality. This sometimes leads to wine grown in gravelly and granite heavy soils, for example, and creates wine that tastes fun and different while remaining true to place. Most recently, he released a unique and exceptional California Albariño — traditionally a Spanish seafood white — on his La Marea label from a coastal Monterey vineyard whose soil is composed of sedimentary rock and calcium-rich shale (it’s amazing). Phil’s cousin Kurt likes to be hands-on with his land and leases. Bohème’s wines are mostly farmed by Kurt himself. He goes to great lengths to knows his vineyard sites well, paying close attention to the weather and growth in each one, and uses painstaking traditional techniques to trim each individual vine in each vineyard he farms. He also maintains close community relationships with other long-time farmers in the area, making wine from other vineyard sites that he leases from them, and, as we know, occasionally finding fruit for our friend Dr. Phil to ferment.
 
However different these people and wines may be, there is a unique desire to make something both new and normal in their products, something out of the California mainstream but not overtly strange or weird, just good. Not an over-ripened or over-extracted Pinot Noir or Cabernet, or an over-oaked Chardonnay, but aromatic and flavorful wines with individual expression reflective of the terroir that grew them. There is a more nuanced and particular, yet simpler approach to every part of the process. This new approach is a shared creation and vision ofthese new California wine folks alike, normalizing an emphasis on a more vibrant sense of place and a cleaner, more sustainable wine flavor. All of this while focusing simply on each vine and each grape and each wine that comes from them and either intentionally or inadvertently keeping the “Big Three” out of the equation. Now Dr. Phil earns his place among them. 


Story by Hunt Revell

Photographs by Paige French
 

Being the Change: How 3 Porch Farm Takes Responsibility

Steve O’Shea takes his environmental footprint seriously. Alongside his wife Mandy, he owns and runs 3 Porch Farm, an organic flower and fruit farm in Comer, Georgia. From the outside, their life seems glamorous. The couple embodies a lifestyle that’s frequently romanticized — a simple life, living off the land. But farming is strenuous, demanding work that requires tireless attention and effort. And following USDA organic guidelines doesn’t make it easier. Instead, it adds costs and complications, all in the name of conscientiously stewarding the environment — not because it’s easy or lucrative, but because it’s what they believe is right. Their products are beautiful, and they’ve grown a substantial following in Athens, Atlanta and the Southeast at large — and still, they make approximately $4 an hour, with much of their limited income being sown back into their operation (literally).  

But at this juncture in his life, O’Shea has no room for excuses. He began studying the environment and climate change nearly twenty years ago and feels increasingly motivated by what he learned. “I was not only humbled but somewhat terrified by the information I studied and am sad to say that all the climate projections were not only accurate, but what seemed like the most ‘drastic’ models of what would happen in the last two decades have been met or surpassed by reality,” O’Shea says.

He’s right: the last three years have been the hottest consecutive years on record, flooding reached record highs in the U.S. in 2016, the ocean is warming and rising and the occurrence of catastrophic weather incidents is rapidly increasing. All of this poses a radical threat to our health, safety and global stability. 

Farmers see this firsthand.

“As the climate changes further and drought becomes more frequent followed by heavy storms that erode soil and damage or destroy crops, we are on the front line of those impacted,” he says. “More importantly though, as weather systems continue their tendency towards extreme and erratic conditions, crop losses become more common and the world's population of 7 billion and rising will struggle to meet their (our) food needs. Scarcity equals high prices, equals famine and panic, equals conflict. Without unified action from not only governments, but each individual citizen at the daily level, we'll wind up exactly where we are aiming.”

For the O’Sheas, organic farming is the way they can combat global warming and be a force for good. “What started out as pure fear in my early 20s has now morphed into a sense of personal responsibility,” O’Shea says. “This farm isn't an occupation to me. This farm is our contribution to the world.”

At 3 Porch Farm, the O’Sheas go well beyond the call of avoiding chemicals and invigorating soil health. They’re also focused on their energy consumption and corresponding outputs. Inevitably, farms require significant amounts of energy between their infrastructure, use of equipment and vehicles for transport. The O’Sheas use solar power to run all of the facilities on their farm and they currently have three vehicles powered by spent vegetable oil (and O’Shea plans to convert a large delivery van to run on vegetable oil this winter). Aside from this, they’re conscientious of what many of us would consider the little things like turning off lights, turning off the heat or air conditioning when they leave the house and supporting local, sustainable businesses. 

“I think farmers and all citizens really, need to focus on the whole as much as possible.  Doing one positive thing like recycling, composting, or gardening is good, but if we aren't looking at the sum total of our impacts than we aren't getting the full picture,” he says. “Of course, life is demanding and there are limits on what any one person can do, but the danger is in the desire to shine a spotlight on our positive contributions while neglecting to acknowledge the repercussions of the vast majority of our actions. They all count whether we choose to look at them or not.”

O’Shea is a vocal advocate of these practices, and he doesn’t consider a meager farming income to be a sufficient reason not to make these changes. Instead, they’ve sought out resources to make it happen. “I don't think we can stop at organic production and call it good. The USDA currently offers a generous grant for rural farms to install renewable energy systems. The federal tax credit is still up for grabs too. Between the two, more than half of your renewable energy system is paid for in short order. We have used both programs twice.”

And though farming is clearly a passion for O’Shea, he admits that it isn’t what he always wanted to do, or even what he’d do if not for feelings of moral obligation. “I've discovered that living in line with my worldview is far more important to me and my sense of well being, than pursuing a more immediately enjoyable craft, or one that pays well. I've happily made that trade and am quite glad to have done so. Creating and sustaining this farm checks off every other box on my personal values list.”

In the wake of the recent election, there’s more cause for all of us to take individual responsibility for the environment. The incoming administration threatens to derail the EPA and to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, which would undermine all hope that our federal government will promote vital environmental protections. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with a man whose life’s purpose revolves around sustainability.

“With virtually every other world leader and 97% of all climate scientists on the planet in agreement that humans activities are aggressively changing the earth's weather patterns in a way that will lead to greater global instability within the next 10 to 20 years (think Miami underwater in 2030), it is an absolute shame that our government is pledging to block efforts to prevent things from getting out of hand,” he says. “This is not a political issue and no other country on earth is treating it as such. Natural disasters, starvation, unparalleled extinctions, mass migrations and increased military conflicts don't care who you vote for. It's not political. It's about sustaining our life support system so we can all live another day to have our petty self-centered arguments.”

It’s obvious that O’Shea isn’t alone in these sentiments. But the danger is that he’s among the few who will actually take action. To so many of us, taking responsibility for the greater good feels too ambitious. We sit around and wait for the world to change or for policies to change and then maybe we’ll fall in line. All the while, the world is in an undeniably precarious environmental state. Climate change is real. It is already taking a toll on weather patterns and crop production — a frightening reality in the face of a growing world population. 

O’Shea offers us a sobering call to action: “Many of us tend to complain about the state of the earth and the looming threat of climate change and we like to point fingers at this political party or that nefarious corporation, all the while we neglect to take stock in our own ability to have an impact and the cumulative effect that billions of individuals can have to make change now. Our criticism of others bears little merit if we don't apply those same standards to our own lives. Our stated values don't matter if we don't act on them and live by them. Be the change, don't just talk about what needs to change.”

To be clear: you don’t have to drop what you’re doing and become an organic farmer to be a part of positive change. Instead, you can evaluate how every element of your life impacts the environment — whether you’re contributing to waste or conservation, whether you’re being cognizant … “There's a hundred things we can all do every day to reduce carbon consumption if we are mindful of our impacts,” he says. O’Shea recommends beginning with the following:

  • Solar on the roof if you are a homeowner and an electric vehicle or hybrid vehicle are some of the most impactful things you can do.  
  • Insulate and seal your home.  
  • Turn the lights off when you leave a room.  
  • Turn the heat a few degrees cooler and put on a sweatshirt or blanket and snuggle.  
  • Turn A.C. and heat off when you aren't home.  
  • Walk or bike short distances instead of driving.  
  • Inflate your tires to increase mileage.  
  • Switch your light bulbs to compact fluorescents or better yet, LED's.  
  • Hang your clothes out to dry.  
  • Cut down on beef and dairy and make sure to buy grass fed local products when you can.  Shop at farmers markets or join a CSA to get your groceries from within 50 miles instead of the 2000 mile average.  
  • Support restaurants that do the same.  
  • Use the toaster oven instead of the big oven for smaller items.  
  • Choose Energy Star appliances.  
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  
  • Filter your drinking water instead of buying disposable bottles. 
  • Advocate for renewable energy.  
  • Speak up to elected officials and your power provider.  
  • Plant some trees.  
  • Buy carbon offsets for your air travel. 
  • Attach an aftermarket bidet to your toilet to minimize paper waste, logging and milling.  
  • Buy local flowers instead of roses imported from Ecuador. 

“There are no good excuses to not take immediate action,” O’Shea says. “If you are a conservative, then it's time to conserve. If you are a creationist, then it's time to respect God's creation. If you are a leftist, then for crying out loud, put your money where your mouth is. If we don't actually step up, extend ourselves further into positive actions that benefit the greater good and not just our own personal interests, then we are the problem. If you hurt and fear, do something good. If you are happy with the election, then help make America great and protect it from instability. We need everyone on this and we need you immediately.”