Celebrate National Day of the American Cowboy

American cowboyYes, Virginia, there are cowboys. And thanks to the efforts of American Cowboy magazine, the tough, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women who make your juicy T-bone possible are getting their own day of recognition. I’m not talking about your wannabe, Keith Urban-listening, jacked-up pick-up driving, tight jeans-wearing, soft-handed yahoos. I’m referring to the real deal: people who work the land for a living, and actually know how to ride a horse, throw a lariat, and mend a fence.

The National Day of the American Cowboy, held this year on July 23rd, was founded by the magazine in 2004 to “preserve, protect, and promote our Western heritage.”

Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to American Cowboy, but not just because I grew up on a ranch and immersed in the Western lifestyle. It’s because I spent my formative years around ranchers, wranglers, packers, and rodeo folk that I have the respect I do for these people, and have dedicated myself to helping preserve their way of life. I may not agree with industrial livestock production and certain ecological aspects (which don’t pertain to all ranchers, anyway) but I can separate that from the need to feed millions–if not billions–of people, and the respect cowboys and ranchers have for the land, their animals, and their heritage.

Few people are more invested in preserving open space than cowboys. Their livelihood depends upon it. And without a deep investment in the welfare of their livestock they can’t make ends meet. So this year, think about thanking our cowboys by joining a local event (click here for listings). Or put on Sons of the Pioneers, fire up the barbecue, and offer a toast with a bottle of Coors or shot of Jack.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mharrsch]

Mobile farmers markets: the next “big thing” in food trucks?

food trucks2010 was the Year of the Food Truck, with cities from Seattle and San Francisco to D.C. taking it to the streets, literally. While street food and taco trucks have long been a part of U.S. culture in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland, health regulations have historically made it considerably more difficult in other parts of the country. Eatocracy reports that Atlanta–despite its tight mobile cooking laws–now has a “hybrid” approach that enables food trucks to exist, albeit in a different form. Could 2011 become the Year of the Mobile Farmers Market?

For the uninitiated, street food technically refers to food that is prepared (cooked, if applicable) and sold from a street cart, stall, or permanent stand. Food trucks are essentially mobile street food, and can change location from day-to-day, or remain parked in a stationary spot. These are not your “lunch” trucks of old, selling flabby sandwiches and processed, grab-and-go items. Today’s food truck offers food prepared from seasonal produce and other ingredients likely sourced from local family farms.

Until recently, state and county health departments largely prohibited street eats due to fears regarding potential foodborne illness. It’s harder to regulate things like sanitation and temperature control in a non-stationary kitchen, but far from impossible. Thanks to the open-mindedness of city officials across the country, enterprising chefs and other food industry professionals have been able to give mobile food operations a shot, the most successful of which have gone on to achieve national acclaim. Portland, Oregon, has been so supportive, there are now permanent designated locations for food cart clusters.

But even as we’re becoming more of a food truck nation, it’s still an uphill battle. Eatocracy states that Chicago is just one city making it next to impossible for actual cooking to be done on-site. Instead, food must be pre-packaged, which is a buzz-kill for many budding entrepreneurs. Atlanta requires convoluted logistical wrangling (trucks selling cooked-to-order food must change location every half-hour, nor operate at more than two locations a day) as a deterrent. One local farm’s solution: focus on the raw ingredient, not the end product.

[Photo credit: Flickr user star5112]


food trucksRiverview Farms of Ranger, Georgia, has created a mobile farmers market that brings sustainably-grown produce to various locations in Atlanta. As creator Elmer Veith puts it, “We’re going to bring the farm field to the neighborhood, so you don’t have to come to us.”

Veith retrofitted a Mac Tools truck to create Riverview’s Farm Mobile. Customers enter the truck from the rear, and pay before exiting at the front. The sides are outfitted with shelves for produce, as well as the farm’s cornmeal and grits. There’s a freezer for Riverview’s grassfed beef and heritage Berkshire pork. Other offerings may include bread, pasture-raised chickens, free-range eggs, and cheese from other local food artisans and farms.

Customers get updates on Farm Mobile’s location and that day’s product via email, Facebook and Twitter. The social media aspect is a key part of the success of today’s food trucks. Yet Farm Mobile is subject to less regulations, because they’re not selling prepared food. They are, however, licensed by state authorities, and require permission from property owners to park on their land. If outfits like Farm Mobile (or Richmond, Virginia’s Farm Bus) catch on, can we expect to see more markets on wheels servicing urban areas? Greg Smith, President of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, hopes so.

“Street food adds life and vibrancy to the city,” he says, predicting that in the future, “There will be multiple ‘food truck lots’ around the city and the trucks might move on a daily basis from lot to lot.” The Coalition, which seeks to help entrepreneurs break into the industry, is yet another sign that mobile eating is here to stay. TruxMap is an iPhone app that lets users hunt down their favorite food trucks, while dedicated sites such as Food Carts Portland are attracting legions of fans. The best way to show support, however, is to start eating on the street. Check out Eater.com, to see if there’s a food or farm truck (coming) near you.

To sign up for Farm Mobile updates, click here.

Ten great food co-ops in the western U.S.

food co-opsIf the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.

One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.

Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).

No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.

Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:

1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.

[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]

food co-ops2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.

3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.

4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
food co-ops
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.

6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
food co-ops
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.

8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.

9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
food co-op
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.

For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.

[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]

Washington’s farm tour season kicks off at Tonnemaker Family Orchard

Despite a late spring, Western Washington is gearing up for farm tour season. At Seattle’s U-District, Ballard, and West Seattle farmers markets (as well as the flock of smaller, seasonal neighborhood markets), stalls are advertising celebratory summer kick-off tours of dairies, cheeseries, farms, and ranches. One of my favorite vendors is Tonnemaker Family Orchards, a 132-acre, third-generation, certified organic farm in Central Washington’s Frenchman Hills. The family grows over 400 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. At the height of summer, their stall is an explosion of color, overflowing with crates and bins of melons, heirloom tomatoes, and up to 230 varieties of peppers. The family’s produce turns up in some of the Seattle region’s most acclaimed restaurants, including Spring Hill, Tilth, Poppy (chef/owner Jerry Traunfeld recently vied for the title on an episode of “Top Chef Masters”), and The Herbfarm.

The Tonnemaker’s are hosting a farm tour on June 27th, to coincide with the beginning of their cherry harvest: they grow over 12 varieties, including esoterica like the Black Republican, and Sonata. There will be a guided walking tour led by the Tonnemaker brothers (farmer Kole, and his brother, market manager Kurt), and a chance to shop at the farm stand. Lunch is by Seattle chef Matt Dillon (not that Matt Dillon, but still a celebrity in the world of chefdom), using ingredients from the farm. Dillon, co-owner of The Corson Building and the opening-at-any-second, relocated Sitka & Spruce, is a 2007 Food & Wine Best New Chef, and champion of local farmers and food artisans.

The Corson Building, a miniature urban farm-in-industrial-neighborhood, is one of my favorite restaurants on the planet. It’s not cheap, but it’s a beautiful example of how the parameters of “locally-sourced” food are changing within the restaurant industry, and how communal dining can be a unifying experience. Did I mention Seattle has what is perhaps the most progressive urban farm scene in the nation, and that summers are spectacular, even if you never leave the city?

Farm tour tickets are $60.00 self-drive, or $100.00 with chartered bus; registration deadline is June 13th. Fees for all farm tours help support family farms, local food security, and education about sustainable food systems. Local Harvest is a great national resource for finding farm tours, markets, and other events in your area.

SkyMall Monday: Slug Trap

This is the time of year when we all stop focusing on which sweatpants are most comfortable for when we’re watching TV and begin thinking about tending to our gardens. Am I right or am I right? From flowers to herbs to fruits and vegetables, it’s time for us all to thaw out our green thumbs. Those tomatoes aren’t going to grow upside down by themselves.

As we all look at our neglected patches of grass and soil, barren and ravaged from another long winter, we must develop solid plans for rejuvenation. In the past, SkyMall Monday taught you how to fend off one villain of the gardener with the Solar Powered Mole Repeller. Today, however, we direct our attention to an even more dastardly scourge of the backyard: slugs.

Slugs have wreaked havoc on human gardens since the dawn of time.* Don’t let their speed (or lack thereof) fool you. Slowly, methodically and with blatant disregard for all that we hold dear, slugs destroy gardens for no other reason than they just find destruction so erotically thrilling.** But how can one lowly gardener battle such an epic beast? For those of us who have tried to defeat slugs with traditional methods such as guerrilla warfare, trade embargoes and verbal abuse, we know that they are resilient. Thankfully, I’ve called in reinforcements. Leave it to SkyMall to finally figure out how to defeat our slug overlords. This week, we’re unleashing the Slug Trap.Slugs may be slow, but they are crafty. They lure you into a false sense of security and then strike when you least expect it. After a summer rain, you will often see slugs scattered around your yard seemingly overcome by the deluge. However, they are simply absorbing the Earth’s life force through the water.*** Strengthened and emboldened, the slugs unleash fire and brimstone on your flowers and crops. This is not only disheartening, it is life-threatening. For those of us New York City residents who rely on our gardens to sustain us through the long winter months, a slug attack in the summer can mean starvation for our elderly and children come winter.

Think that slugs can just be stepped on or ignored? Think that some salt will solve your problems? I bet you never had to stare a slug in the eye and wait until he blinked first. But, I’ll humor you (not that there is anything funny about slugs in your garden). Let’s take a look at the product description:

Slugs and snails can do a lot of damage in your garden, so use this charming slug trap to stop them in their tracks. No chemicals needed — simply bury the stem of the resin mushroom slug trap into the ground and add a few tablespoons of sugar water or your favorite beer to the tray inside. Instead of chewing on your plants, these destructive pests will be lured inside the slug trap where they’ll meet their end out of sight.

Beer is supposed to make you stronger, wittier and more attractive. The fact that beer kills slugs is proof that they are evil incarnate. And when evil incarnate is finally vanquished by beer and/or sugar water, it is best that they expire out of sight. Since slugs have no souls, their carcasses can turn humans to stone.****

Look, if you think you’re so smart, you can ignore the slug occupation and stand idly by as they destroy your garden, steal your wife and eat your children. But don’t come knocking on my slug shelter when your garden is overrun by those slimy angels of death. You’re on your own, buddy. I’m going to defend myself with the Slug Trap.

* Mike Barish does not employ a fact checker.
** Mike Barish has a wild imagination.
*** Mike Barish was never much of a biology expert.
**** Mike Barish may have dementia.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.