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Category Archives: Intelligent Initiatives

“Speed-dating for Foodies” with the South Jersey Swappers

On the first day of December, I ventured to the East Landis Marketplace in Vineland, where 18 South Jersey food enthusiasts gathered, their arms full of homemade baked goods, canned goods, prepared dishes, crafts and garden treasures. The home-canners, makers and bakers made their way onto the second floor of the Marketplace where they set up their wares, spooning out samples and arranging their offerings. The South Jersey Swappers holiday food swap had begun.

The South Jersey Swappers met for a December swap at the East Landis Marketplace in Vineland.

The South Jersey Swappers met for a December swap at the East Landis Marketplace in Vineland.

Over the past two years, the success of the BK Swappers in Brooklyn has drawn much online attention. As a result, similar organizations (link) have formed in urban areas throughout the country, from Pasadena to Philadelphia, but South Jersey was once again left out of this primarily urban craze. It was only earlier this year that Green Bank resident Lauren Vitagliano started her South Jersey Swappers blog, with the very first swap held in May at Vineland’s Sweet Life Bakery, a stone’s throw from the East Landis Marketplace.

Word of the new swapping initiative quickly echoed across the South Jersey blogosphere thanks to local blogs like Jennifer Malme’s Down Home South Jersey (Malme arrived at the December swap with her sweet and spicy pecans and homemade lavender soap) and even media outlets like Edible Jersey Magazine.

“I don’ t really think it’s grown too much yet; I’m still trying to find a way to get it out there more,” Vitagliano said. “But I think everyone has the love of food in common—good food at that.”

Galloway resident Abi Douglass brought nine homemade goods to the December swap, including apple cider caramel cookies and romesco sauce.

Galloway resident Abi Douglass brought nine homemade goods to the December swap, including apple cider caramel cookies and romesco sauce.

After set-up, participants were free to wander around the designated swapping space, sampling and deciding which items they would be willing to trade for. Participants signed their names on a sheet of paper placed in front of a desired item, also adding which of their items they would be willing to trade. While many of the holiday swap’s participants were first-timers, the events have attracted their share of regulars, or at least repeat-swappers. Seasoned swapper Abi Douglass, from Galloway, brought no less than nine items for the swapping, which ran the gamut from Earl Grey macarons (link) with Biscoff to turkey stock.

When the “bidding” process finally drew to a close, the actual swapping commenced. Swap time itself was a bit like the foodie equivalent of a speed-dating event, with participants scoping each other out for trades while countless mason jars and crinkle-wrapped goodies (instead of phone numbers) switched hands.

At the end of a hard day’s swapping, second-time swapper Stefanie Modri had turned her garden-fresh pumpkin curry soup, fresh dried

Stefanie Modri's  "loot" includes homemade limoncello, marshmallows, and cinnamon Christmas ornaments.

Stefanie Modri’s “loot” includes homemade limoncello, marshmallows, and cinnamon Christmas ornaments.

mint and herb vinegar into a sizable pile of loot. “The homemade marshmallows are really special, and my daughter’s really excited about the [hand-knitted] scarf she got,” Modri said, parsing through her loot. “We got some good things!”

As for me, attending but not participating at a South Jersey Swappers was tortuous! The next time a swap rolls around, I’ll be carrying more than a notebook and a camera.


Rethinking Beef & Business with Philly CowShare

Need something with a little more meat to it than candies and fruit cakes this holiday season? Why not let Philadelphia CowShare help your winter menu find the beef?

philly cowshare logo

Philly CowShare ensures that all the cuts of meat you see in their logo go to hungry homes.

Philly CowShare is the innovative organization that acts as the middleman between you, the consumer, and the farmers and meat processors who produce local, nutritious grass-fed beef. Since part of Philly CowShare’s unique mission is to ensure that all of the beef finds a home, the company sells its beef in bulk, with shares ranging from 1/8 cow (43 pounds of beef) to a full cow (344 pounds).

Jessica Moore, founder and owner of Philly CowShare, says the program gives consumers a direct connection to the process that brings their beef to the table. “We have a production protocol for the business we have to adhere to [in order to] sell cattle under our brand,” Moore says. This, she says, includes learning all about the cattle-raising practices of local farmers. “We give [the customers] all this information so that we can explain and give the customer that connection to the source for the meat.”

In addition to cheapening the cost of being a sustainability-minded meat-eater, cow-pooling also simplifies meal-planning and even provides a way for consumers to gauge their meat consumption. “It invites you to have that conversation with yourself, ” Moore says, noting that when a consumer buys beef from a supermarket, “you’re not adding up in your head how much poundage you’re buying over a period of time.”

Philly CowShare even offers customers another way to get the most beef for their buck by encouraging group orders (see: a ready-made flyer for those seeking to cow-pool).

Of course, with an idea as good as this one, Moore is looking to expand the business into pork territory. Currently working through the research and development of this expansion, she reports that, when compared to cattle-raising, pig raising is (get this) a whole different kind of animal.

“[Pigs] are somewhat destructive in their nature … They strip the forest, knock down trees, dig up the roots, eat the grass,” she says. This means that a label like “grass-fed” doesn’t really mean much when applied to pigs; getting all-natural pork is not quite as simple as just swapping pigs for cows in a big grassy field. “In about three days you would have a big field of mud,” she says. “That’s what they do. They root.”

While Moore perfects her sales pitch for pork, head on over to the Philly CowShare website for more information about the company, who should buy what, and the beef itself. Happy sharing!

Food & Faith: A Hazon CSA in South Jersey

The Hazon CSA of Southern New Jersey is dedicated to forging important connections between faith and food. Photo courtesy of the Hazon South Jersey website.

The intersection of agriculture and religion is not an unexpected one, just as long as we’re talking about harvest gods, fertility cults and all of those spooky pagan archetypes. Rarely do we conceive of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as having these same strong ties to nature, but the idea that God has bestowed humanity with land, of all things, is pronounced in all three of these religions’ scriptures. Today, after some 2000 years spent off the land, Jewish communities like Hazon Community-Supported Agriculture of South Jersey are rediscovering the sanctity of the soil.

In Community-Supported Agriculture, members buy “shares” of a local farmer’s harvest at the beginning of growing season to be received in weekly allotments throughout harvest time. Hazon (huh-zone), an international Jewish organization dedicated to “creat[ing] healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond,” has been spreading the CSA model throughout its communities since 2004, raising more than $5 million for sustainable agriculture and donating more than 30,000 pounds of food to food banks. All of this would not be possible without the individual Hazon CSAs sprouting up all over the country, including South Jersey’s very own Hazon CSA.

The South Jersey CSA was co-founded by Marty Feigenbaum and Val Yasner in 2004, when the two first paired up with Honey Brook Organic Farm of Pennington and Chesterfield. As Yasner explains, Hazon is an attempt to “connect people to Judaism in ways they haven’t before,” and part of that attempt is rekindling a connection with the land.

“The beauty of the CSA is that you are tied to the farmer,” Yasner says. Just earlier this week, she says, Hurricane Sandy prevented farm workers from harvesting the fields for the weekly pick-up. “This is what you buy into when you participate with a CSA,” she says. “We’re sharing that with the farmer and making farming a sustainable kind of occupation where they can get paid a fair wage.”

The Hazon CSA of South Jersey is partnered with Honey Brook Organic Farm. Honey Brook has locations in both Pennington and Chesterfield. Photo courtesy of the Hazon South Jersey website.

Feigenbaum says that the intermingling of religion, food and environment can be traced back all the way to the creation story of Genesis, whereupon God told Man “to till and to tend” the land of Eden. “Hazon interprets “tending it” as a responsibility to make sure future generations have the same opportunities that we have,” he says, pointing to Jewish traditions of showing respect for the land. “A commonly accepted natural practice of agriculture is of a sabbatical for the land, where you are to let your land lie fallow [one in every seven years]. We recognized years ago that land needed to regenerate itself.”

This logical respect for nature carries over to the treatment and even slaughter of domesticated animals. Yasner recalls a Hazon Food Conference in Connecticut at which goats were shechted (slaughtered according to kosher principles) by a shochet (trained ritual slaughterer) and served at dinner. Even Yasner, who is vegan, describes being affected by the reverence of the occasion. “I just never felt that before,” she says. “You certainly don’t feel that when you go to the grocery store and get your Styrofoam plastic-wrapped slab of beef.”

In its four years of operation, the Hazon CSA of South Jersey has held countless events to raise awareness and build community amongst its members—everything from a yoga and challah-baking event to a Sukkot farm-to-table dinner prepared by famous Philadelphia Chef Michael Solomonov and served to 150 people under a full-sized sukkah, or temporary hut constructed for the Sukkot celebrations.

One need not be Jewish–or even religious–to appreciate the impact of the Hazon movement. After all, religious groups have staked out a claim on many social issues, so why should environmental issues be any different?

Though Hazon is a Jewish organization, Hazon CSAs are open to people of all faiths. More than 50 Hazon CSAs have been established across the U.S.. 

Food & Art: Foodie Comics Spice Up Food Storytelling

The most recent update for “Cocotte,” a foodie webcomic written by Kat Vapid with art by Ryan Kelly.

We kill for it, we play in dirt for it, we build reality shows and fairy tales around it: food is a great plot device. And the unique visual storytelling of the comics industry may be just what food needs to jump-start its fiction career.

Late last December, American comics artist Brian Wood predicted a flurry of food-related comics for 2012. Wood’s own food-related comic, “STARVE,” had been rejected by two publishers, both of which had claimed that the work was too similar to other comics already in the pipeline.

The cover for “Get Jiro!,” a dystopian foodie novel written by famed chef Anthony Bourdain and published in 2012 by Vertigo.

One of these comics was Vertigo’s “Get Jiro!,” a gory parody of food culture that follows rebel sushi chef Jiro as he carves out a name for himself among the master chef-mobsters of a futuristic L.A.. Co-written by Anthony Bourdain, author of “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and host of the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “The Layover,” the comic boasts the biggest name in foodie-ism to have yet ventured into the comics industry.

The unexpected Vertigo-Bourdain pair-up may have sent the comic to the top of the Bestseller List, but the comics industry knows that there are limits on what can be sold in the age of free web content.

Though food-related webcomics are few and far between, they are out there. Wood’s lamentations on the failure of “STARVE” were spurred by illustrator Ryan Kelly’s attempt at a foodie webcomic of his own. The project, called “Cocotte” (a French term for “casserole dish” and an old-fashioned word for “prostitute”), is a gritty slice of life story about a line cook at a stylish Minneapolis restaurant. Though the project intended to prop open the double doors and expose the culinary hierarchies of a restaurant kitchen, the comic hasn’t been updated past its first chapter. Cancellation of this quirky little comic seems inevitable; in August, Kelly posted the most recent “Cocotte” update on his blog, writing “I’m not even going to waste time begging you to read it. It’s a good comic…I’ve done everything I can.” 

Even before the explosive success of Bourdain’s “Get Jiro!” was Image Comics’ “Chew,” the Eisner Award-winning series first published in 2009. Written by John Layman with art by Rob Guillory, “Chew” follows FDA agent Tony Chu as he utilizes his psychic abilities to solve food-related crimes. But Chu’s psychic powers don’t come to him as clairvoyant whispers in the midst of meditation; rather, Chu must learn about food and people by…eating them. The comics provide a psychic spin on many aspects of food culture: in addition to “Cibopaths” like Chu, Effervenductors are baristas who control minds through the foam on their specialty drinks.

Food may not do well in a cape and tights, but its visual appeal and storytelling potential make it great new territory for the comics industry. Let’s hope the success of undertakings like “Chew” and “Get Jiro!” will lead to a cornucopia of foodie webcomics that (aside from being free) will provide a fresh new take on food storytelling.

Grass-fed Cheese at Cherry Grove Farm

To Americans, cheesemaking is one of the more cryptic processes of food production. Perhaps because of the rubbery “cheese food” that has become so commonplace in American grocery stores, it’s easy to assume that there is something of the unnatural—or at least the unpalatable—in cheese production.

A trip to Cherry Grove Farm taught me that cheesemaking is indeed a strange process full of strong smells, odd chemistry and microbial chefs, but all of these factors work wonders in producing what is ultimately a delicious, well-storied product. And, in Cherry Grove’s case, a walking tour of the farm and facility is essentially a tour of cheesemaking itself, from the organic grass and the cows that eat it to the store where the final product is sold.

With Head Cheesemaker Sam Kennedy as my guide, I was able to tour the facility and farm, snapping pictures along the way of the animals, land and labor that create a Cherry Grove cheese.

The Salem City Community Garden: Where Rural Meets Urban

This sign alerts passerby that, yes, someone put these vegetables here on purpose.

In April, the corner of Hires Avenue and New Market Street was just a vacant demolition site sitting sad and barren in front of the City Clerk Office in Salem City. Today, a border of wooden shipping palettes—stacked, hammered, and painted into 4 foot high raised beds of soil—surround a tidy oasis of greenery called the Salem City Community Garden.

Salem residents Krystal Hall and Britney Lillya first conceived of the garden after signing up to volunteer for similar projects at the First Annual Philly Farm and Food Fest in April. “Britney and I found ourselves signing up for other community gardens that weren’t in our community,” Hall says. “We thought, ‘Why not do it in our town?’”

With the support of City Council, Lillya’s connections at the Salem County Sunbeam, where she works as a photographer, and a notice posted on Facebook, initial support for the project far exceeded the pair’s expectations. “When we did our build, there were probably 30 people out here,” Hall says. “ I was really surprised that day how many people came out to help.”

Now, the gardeners harvest long hots, roma and regular tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and bell peppers that they have yet to find homes for. Charitable purposes like Meals on Wheels and educational programs have been considered, but the group is still pondering, wanting to ensure that the garden’s effects reach as far into the community as possible.

Britney Lillya and Krystal Hall working on some Mexican Sunflowers, which are, at the very least, visually delicious.

I can appreciate the extent to which the Salem Garden blurs the rural and the urban: the garden is a piece of the agrarian in the middle of “Salem City,” which is itself a semi-urban island in a sea of farmland. Surprisingly, as fellow founding gardener Ken Blades explained, the reality of Salem is not one of a town in which farmland and city always blend graciously. Rather, a cultural divide exists between some of Salem’s city-dwelling and farm-dwelling residents that gives some incentive to critique the community garden project.

“People [from the country] were asking us when we started this, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” Blades says. “There’s a lot of negativity out there.”

Of course, every well-meaning project always has its senseless detractors, but what about residents who feel a little too welcome to the garden’s produce?

“Sometimes people would come with shopping bags and just take whatever they wanted,” Hall says. “We’d prefer it if they did that differently, but…”

Blades completes Hall’s thought for both of them. “I’m over it,” he says.

Over the winter, the group hopes to secure access to a public greenhouse, but its plans don’t stop there. “We’re not big enough to be a nonprofit yet, but it might be a future goal,” Hall explains. “We’ve just got to figure out what we’re doing with the food first.”

A last resort, of course, is to donate it to the causes of this vegetably destitute blogger, who is now one bag full of eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers less hungry.