Category Archives: Food

Sustainable in the South Bay: Silicon Valley’s Top 10 Restaurants

My fiancé (Kate) is attending Georgetown Med in the fall and we just hit the road for Washington, DC.  I’ve enjoyed eight awesome years in the Bay Area and feel fortunate to have gone to college, worked, and occasionally dominated adult league softball and basketball with so many amazing people.

Several awesome years in the Bay will put a smile on your face.

Several awesome years in the Bay have put smiles on our faces.

While we are extremely excited to check out the Capitol, we will undoubtedly feel some nostalgia for the West Coast.  Significantly less than our friends but more than the Trader Joe’s within walking distance of our soon-to-be-former apartment, I will miss the South Bay’s humidity-free weather.  Though I’ll still be able to vote with my dollars for Chipotle in DC, I’ll also mourn the socially-, environmentally-, and health-conscious meat and seafood options I’ll be leaving behind.  As a tribute to the delicious and reasonably ethical protein I’ve sampled south of San Francisco, from the grill-it-yourself round steak at the famous Mountain View Farmers’ Market to the bacon-wrapped, tempura fried hot dog at Calafia Cafe in Palo Alto, I have decided to rank what I consider to be the top ten restaurants serving sustainable meat and/or fish in Silicon Valley.

Completo

(from the Calafia menu)

Although eating sustainably is indisputably healthier than any other dietary approach, completely sustainable food is rare.  Raising plants and animals in complex, environmentally and socially responsible ecosystems on their natural diets and without the use of hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics can be difficult to do and even harder to scale.  The Global Animal Partnership, an organization that runs a tiered rating system for ethical, health-conscious meat production, has identified only 14 producers that run truly “animal centered” farms or ranches.  It’s also tough to identify sustainable meat when companies make vague, mostly unverifiable commitments to sustainability in an effort to capitalize on the growing market for real (unprocessed) food.  Each restaurant on this list, however, makes a convincing effort to move us towards the ideal – while some do so more informatively than others, most offer specific information about their suppliers.  Every listed business also provides a tasty, enjoyable dining experience.

The order of my list, therefore, relies on a weighted ranking algorithm similar to the one Kate and I used to choose Georgetown over other schools.  I first determined the criteria that mattered most to me, in order: sustainability, taste, selection, service, and atmosphere.  I then ranked the restaurants in each category (ties allowed) and applied the algorithm to determine overall rankings.  If you’re a math nerd like me and want further details, I’ve included the full methodology and scoring breakdown at the bottom of this post.

Honorable Mention: Country Gourmet
1314 South Mary Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94087
408-744-9446

Country Gourmet

Sustainability Rank: 10
Taste Rank: 10
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 10
Atmosphere Rank: 11

The only order-at-the-counter restaurant on this list, Country Gourmet provides unlimited focaccia bread and the opportunity to hang out with the more mature patrons who take advantage of the restaurant’s special deals for senior citizens.  I’ve enjoyed specials from Niman Ranch in the past; though the staff doesn’t always know the origin of specific menu items and you’ll have to ask to be sure, they “purchase local, wild, free-range and organic products when available.”

10. Park Place
10050 South De Anza Boulevard, Cupertino, CA 94015
408-873-1000

ParkPlace

Sustainability Rank: 10
Taste Rank: 10
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 10

The salads aren’t incredible, but the flatbreads at Park Place are cheesy, crispy, and delightful.  Patrons can dine at a normal table or kick back on the couch-like seating outside.  As stated on their menu, “Park Place supports farms, ranches, and fisheries that are guided by principles of sustainability.”  However, you will still have to ask your waiter if you want more information about the source of a given menu item.

9. Vino Locale
431 Kipling Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-328-0450

VinoLocale

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 11
Service Rank: 11
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Vino Locale takes the “slow food” movement very seriously and literally – prepare to wait a while to get your meal.  When it comes, it will be worth it.  If you’re there on a weekday, their bacon-wrapped dates are amazing.  The weekend menu is constantly changing, partially to keep the dishes as seasonal, local, and organic as possible, and though there aren’t many choices, you can be sure that each one will taste fantastic (I ate the best shrimp of my life at Vino Locale a few years ago).  Romantics will love the outside seating area and the live music that often accompanies the meal.

8. Tigelleria
76 East Campbell Avenue, Campbell, CA 95008
408-884-3808

Tigelleria

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 7
Selection Rank: 1
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 3

With pasta made in-house and an extensive array of appetizers and entrees for carnivores and vegetarians alike, Tigelleria is a perfect destination for a date in downtown Campbell.  Significant others have been known to enjoy the pocketed pita-like bread, accompanied with three unique spreads, that arrives while you peruse your dinner options.  A member of Slow Food USA, Tigelleria Organic Restaurant lives up to its full name by offering several 100% organic dishes, and while the Tigelleria menu doesn’t describe the sustainability of every dish, servers happily relay this information to interested diners.  The spighe al cinghiale (wild boar ravioli) and fettucine al pesto are superb.

7. Village Bistro
378 Santana Row #1035, San Jose, CA 95128
408-248-9091

VillageBistro

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 8
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Featuring the second best bread of any restaurant on this list, Village Bistro recently revamped their menu and sadly discontinued two phenomenal dishes, the crab tostada and “forbidden” Thai curry.  I feel confident that the menu’s newcomers will similarly please those who eat there, however; Village Bistro’s wild caught seafood has been consistently better than that served at Lark Creek Blue (its sustainable neighbor that narrowly missed this list).  Village Bistro also serves a wicked weekend brunch.  The chicken, lamb, and most of the produce is sourced locally.

6. The Basin
14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070
408-867-1906

The Basin

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 7
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

Only a dearth of vegetarian options and incomplete information about its meat sourcing keeps The Basin below the higher-ranked restaurants on this list.  While pricier than at other dinner destinations, the meals, particularly those that include mushrooms and/or fish, typically merit the cost.  The Basin’s enclosed patio – with perfectly-balanced temperature control and a tree that runs through the middle of the room – offers the benefits of outdoor eating without any of the drawbacks.

5. Bumble
145 1st Street, Los Altos, CA 94022
650-383-5340

Bumble

Sustainability Rank: 1
Taste Rank: 8
Selection Rank: 8
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 1

One of the most unique restaurants in the area, Bumble attracts families with young children like Ryan Gosling attracts everyone who can see.  They’ve got the highest staff-to-customer ratio I’ve ever observed, a playroom where they’ll entertain your kids for $5-$10 per half hour, and a heated adult patio for people unable to enjoy the magnification of the inquisitive young faces that peer through the domes in the playroom’s aquarium.  The construction across the street makes outdoor seating less agreeable for older folk, but it doesn’t deter the toddlers who have both staked claim to the sandbox and ordered fish-shaped bento boxes that may or may not include the restaurant’s delicious pretzel crusted chicken.  Bumble chooses their suppliers carefully – everything except their cured meats are local, and even their salami and prosciutto come from a Portland supplier that emphasizes sustainable production – and the taste of their dishes reflects the high quality of their ingredients.

4. Casa de Cobre
14560 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070
408-867-1639

Casa de Cobre

Sustainability Rank: 7
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

The Basin’s sister restaurant, Casa de Cobre’s slightly more casual feel in no way detracts from it’s equally strong cuisine.  I was not a fan of my first foray into eating cactus and their guacamole, while good, isn’t the best in the area (see below), but the pozole (an older special), fish tacos, duck carnitas, and roasted wild mushroom side are incredible.  Like Tigelleria and The Basin, Casa de Cobre provides information about the sourcing for many of their menu items and commits to full sustainability “whenever possible.”

3. Zona Rosa
1411 The Alameda, San Jose, CA 95126
408-275-1411

Zona Rosa

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 9

Next to a tattoo parlor and within walking distance of San Jose Unified’s District Office, this small, family-owned, and easy-to-miss gem serves some of the best and most interesting Mexican food in the area.  It’s a little small, but the staff is uber-friendly and the food inspired.  Ever considered eating guacamole with bacon and pistachios?  You should – it’s delicious.  If you’re an avocado aficionado, the fried wedges will knock your socks off.  Lunchtime guests should also try the double-decker carnitas club.  And don’t forget about the callos (scallop tacos).  All the meat is from Niman Ranch and the seafood is wild-caught.

2. Calafia Cafe
855 El Camino Real #130, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-322-9200

Calafia

Sustainability Rank: 3
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 1
Service Rank: 4
Atmosphere Rank: 1

Calafia’s “plant-eaters” half of the menu trumps every other restaurant on the list in vegetarian-friendliness.  Their meat is awesome as well.  Not only is the aforementioned “Completo” every bit as good as it sounds, but the pork belly buns, chicken drumettes, brussels sprout and potato pizza, and tempura fried vegetables are also all dishes for the ages.  For brunch, fans of ground meat will swoon over the David Chang burger, while diners who prefer a more traditional breakfast will find the potatoes hashed to perfection.  The origin of every ingredient is stated explicitly on the menu. Originally started by Google chef Charlie Ayers, Calafia proudly embraces its technological roots through the electronic gadgets that grace most tables.  Use them to order or to (among other fun applications) challenge your significant other to some couples trivia.

1. Mayfield Bakery & Cafe
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
650-853-9200

Mayfield

Sustainability Rank: 1
Taste Rank: 1
Selection Rank: 3
Service Rank: 1
Atmosphere Rank: 3

I developed my algorithm before knowing which restaurant would come out on top, but Mayfield Bakery & Cafe (located right next door to Calafia Cafe) seems like an appropriate choice for first place for three reasons: my future father-in-law declared the ribs the best he’s ever had, the restaurant sources all of its meat from local California farms (the company that owns Mayfield even sources some of the food from their own ranch), and our waiter gave us two free, gigantic bags of assorted bread to take home after I asked for more to eat several times during our first visit (clearly an effective marketing tactic; we’ve been back countless times since).  The kale salad is awesome and every entree I’ve eaten has been mouthwatering.  Their chocolate chip cookies also make a delicious dessert.

That concludes the list, though fellow math enthusiasts and those who wish to debate the ratings in the comments will of course want to see both the methodology and the more detailed results:

Weights: sustainability (x5), taste (x4), selection (x3), service (x2), atmosphere (x1)

Methodology: Unweighted scores are determined in reverse order of rankings.  Since I ranked eleven restaurants, a restaurant in sole possession of first place in a given category would receive 11 points, the second place restaurant would receive 10 points, the third place restaurant 9 points, and so on and so forth (if two restaurants were tied for fourth place, they would receive 7.5 points each, the average of what sole occupants of 4th and 5th place would have received).  Weighted scores are then computed by multiplying the category weights by the unweighted scores, and each overall score is the sum of the restaurant’s weighted scores in every category.

Rankings:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Bumble

1

8

8

4

1

Calafia Cafe

3

1

1

4

1

Casa de Cobre

7

1

3

1

3

Country Gourmet

10

10

8

10

11

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

1

1

3

1

3

Park Place

10

10

8

4

10

The Basin

7

1

7

1

3

Tigelleria

7

7

1

4

3

Village Bistro

3

8

3

4

3

Vino Locale

3

1

11

11

3

Zona Rosa

3

1

3

4

9

 

Unweighted Scores:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Bumble

10.5

3.5

3

5.5

10.5

Calafia Cafe

7.5

8.5

10.5

5.5

10.5

Casa de Cobre

4

8.5

7.5

10

6.5

Country Gourmet

1.5

1.5

3

2

1

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

10.5

8.5

7.5

10

6.5

Park Place

1.5

1.5

3

5.5

2

The Basin

4

8.5

5

10

6.5

Tigelleria

4

5

10.5

5.5

6.5

Village Bistro

7.5

3.5

7.5

5.5

6.5

Vino Locale

7.5

8.5

1

1

6.5

Zona Rosa

7

8.5

7.5

5.5

3

 

Weighted Scores:

Sustainability

Taste

Selection

Service

Atmosphere

Overall Score

Bumble

52.5

14

9

11

10.5

97

Calafia Cafe

37.5

34

31.5

11

10.5

124.5

Casa de Cobre

20

34

22.5

20

6.5

103

Country Gourmet

7.5

6

9

4

1

27.5

Mayfield Bakery & Cafe

52.5

34

22.5

20

6.5

135.5

Park Place

7.5

6

9

11

2

35.5

The Basin

20

34

15

20

6.5

95.5

Tigelleria

20

20

31.5

11

6.5

89

Village Bistro

37.5

14

22.5

11

6.5

91.5

Vino Locale

37.5

34

3

2

6.5

83

Zona Rosa

35

34

22.5

11

3

105.5

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Filed under Food

Feb 17 – Mar 1: Azienda Agricola Mauro Iob, Vetralla

After staying with Bridget in Tuscany, my next stop was in the province of Viterbo, in the small medieval town of Vetralla, littered with waterfalls and caves. When I arrived, Rita had trouble finding me at the train station, but I’m not sure why, as there are several obvious reasons why I’d be not so difficult to spot.

the directions that I never used

the directions that I never used

Rita and Mauro are probably some of the nicest people I know; it’s surprising how at home you can feel while moving into the home of a random middle-aged couple in central Italy.

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Their daughter and her friend arrived that night for an excellent welcome dinner. And when I go to bed after the first night, I find these two quotes carved into my room wall:

ogni uomo doverebbe conoscere i propri limiti
(every man should know the proper limits)… but I ask limits for what, set by who, and how?

la vita ti chiede ciò che sei in grado di affrontare
(life asks only what you can bear)

Rita was also a huge fan of Siddartha by Hermann Hesse (of which my attempt to read in Italian was an utter failure), while Mauro likes Per Una Vita Migliore Ovvero il Libro della Autosufficienza (the English translation that is used is ‘The Guide to Self-sufficiency’) by John Seymour,

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…so from these alone, we had some interesting springboards for conversation — not to mention the vertiginous times where we had entirely too much wine and dipped into slippery squabbles, about the unintended byproducts of cheap labor, or how Italy is becoming the ape of America in some way through adoption of ‘gym culture’.

The work

Their main business is an agritourismo, doubling as a small hotel and a farm, and they hold courses on beekeeping for children.

Spring was not yet arrived, so the work was very preparatory in nature: clearing the garden, hauling manure, which is mainly why they keep the donkeys — which we mostly put in the asparagus garden, which is more fun than you might think. Before hauling, you have to make sure it’s not too damp or else it’s too heavy, but you also don’t want it to dry out — so it’s a delicate balance. But you collect it in one place and let it rot down for about 1-2 months, to let all the bacteria and germs do their thing. Hauling manure downhill is not easy, and as the maggots and beetle larvae multiply, the load can get quite heavy and intimate. (I’ve learned quite a lot about manure at this point, but I’ll save it for my time in Cherni Kamuk, Bulgaria) I bet the donkeys don’t know or care what we do with their manure. While I slave to haul their dung, they lazily graze by the wayside, and the dog chases them occasionally, playing, ducking.

There is also fencing to keep the donkeys out of the asparagus garden, not because they eat the asparagus, but because they trample over them. Generally, they eat grasses (but trees and bushes, if they are desperate) they can see or reach, and whenever we come near them, they expect us to have a handful of grass or hazelnuts. They wait for about 2 minutes, then if they get nothing, walk away. In the summer, during the day, they stay in nearby caves for shade, and feed at night, as Italian summers can be very hot and dry.

The donkeys were actually one of my favorite parts; watching them graze is quite peaceful. I think they already know how to live in the present without being taught. But I doubt such a thing can be taught, but only realized — in the same way that poets don’t live their experiences, but are merely swept up by them, buoyed up onto the crashing waves of surrealism. I try not to transform or meddle with the experience, but surrender myself to it.

they're easy to love

they’re easy to love

IMG_1216
.
We dig up the weeds — ‘waste not, want not’, we feed them to the donkeys instead of discarding them — which are unwanted plants in the garden, but it wasn’t for vegetables or herbs, but so we could plant specific flowers that Mauro wanted for the bees, of which one of my favorites was rosemary.

IMG_1140

 

up close and personal

up close and personal

 

spring sent us an early gift

spring sent us an early gift: cherry blossom

As soon as I get my hands in the dirt, I feel so much life. Spiders, worms, millipedes, ants, bees, aphids, everything else, there is so much life all around us, that we never see. As soon as we are truly aware of life, the reaper smirks with eyes twinkling: dying leaves signal autumn; clothes were plants once, as was paper. Every time we eat, a life is being extinguished so another life can continue. Aren’t plants alive, too, vegetarians? Life lives on life. We are all murderers or conspirators with murderers — either way, we roam at large.

Worker bees can only sting once, and die shortly afterwards. The male honeybee dies as soon as he mates with the queen: his mission is finished! I mean, aren’t insects are the most varied and probably most important species on earth? So many things that crawl have been doused with bad press: spiders, cockroaches, flies, and other “pests”. Many agricultural pests are just nature’s way of dealing with overgrown monocultures. Insects should be allowed to write opinion pieces in our papers if we truly had “freedom of the press” — But then again, their views are written all over the earth, only in a language that we neither understand nor respect.

 

***

There are many types of honey in Italy listed here (le miele da castagne is chestnut honey, spicy and pungent) being the most expensive, and the type of honey is whatever flower the bees are pollinating. Most honey in American stores is clover honey or miele millefiori (multi-flower honey), the latter meaning that the keepers don’t care which flowers the bees are visiting. Funnily enough, what the flower smells like is totally unrelated, and sometimes completely opposite, to what the honey tastes like. Mauro likes to tell of this one flower that everyone was raving about, but when they tasted the honey the bees made from it, it was awful.

Also, the worker bees generally make more honey than they themselves need, and we just take the surplus. The other part of the work, which was really time-consuming but worth it, was shelling hazelnuts to make butter, which is the base ingredient for gnutella (but I doubt gnutella in the store uses real hazelnuts). We made massive amounts of delicious butter, and the oil naturally rises to the top, so you know it’s the real thing.

IMG_1129

As a parting gift, they gave me a jar of honey and butter, which I am (unsuccessfully) trying to send home, along with the oil I got from my very first farm in Monteleone Sabino.

IMG_2159

IMG_1175

They also use their honey, instead of cane sugar, to make jams, which is healthier and tastier. Sugar is added more for preservation than sweetening, because without added sugar, most marmalades won’t last past a few days, as the fruit ferments quickly. And most fruits are cooked and then sugar is added, and both of these processes harm the intrinsic vitamins — so the less sugar you can add, the better.

i basically drunk half of this

i basically drunk half of this

Luckily, these hazelnut trees were on the land when he purchased it, so all he has to do is pick them. The “first come, first serve” harvest is in September, and you have to wait for the nuts to drop from the tree and race to get them, before the squirrels do — and squirrels wake up at 4-5am.

***
Rita and Mauro have agreed to speak only in Italian with me from now on, which is great, because I feel like there is no true cultural exchange without making an attempt to learn the language. Which is why I despise common tourism, because it makes no attempt to actually talk to a person, or suggest that you might have a conversation with a local beyond how to greet and ask for things, but merely insists on teaching you “standard phrases” so you can “get around” and get exactly what information that you need. Yes, the locals may be pleased that you can say basic things, but you cannot actually engage any further with a person unless they speak a little of your language. And since the whole ‘civilized world’ is on the fast track to English fluency… motivation is not widespread among Americans to learn another language.

I like to help my hosts improve their English; obviously they express themselves much better in Italian. I see them suffer and grasp for words in English, and I picture myself doing the same thing in Italian, and the epiphany comes: either they stumble and fall, sometimes succeeding, while trying to speak my native language, or I do the same while trying to speak theirs (invalid in cases where one person is fluent in both languages). The least I can do is meet them halfway, and we can split the embarrassment evenly.

 

What’s most disturbing about this is how we judge intelligence by articulation and pronunciation: if someone doesn’t enunciate correctly or spell words right, we count them uneducated and look askance at them in amusement or pity — and conversely, if someone articulates very well, they are assumed smarter. (Because if you sound smart, you are halfway there. Appearances appear to be more important, so they are.) And sometimes, however wrong and absurd, this is the first thought I have if this person stumbles over basic things in my language, as the ancient Greeks thought that every foreigner was somehow subhuman. The Greek barbaros, from which barbarian was derived, literally means ‘foreign’, which essentially means anyone with different speech and customs. Although now, we take the word to mean primitive and uncivilized, which are very loaded concepts — that ultimately are relative, and objectively, mean nothing, in and of themselves. — And Montaigne’s references are pointed (Book I, Ch. IX, “Of Liars”)–

An ancient father says “that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand.”

Ut externus alieno pene non sit hominis vice.

[“As a foreigner cannot be said to supply us the place of a man.”
—Pliny, Nat. Hist. vii. I]

No matter where we go in the world, if we speak the language, we are automatically more human to the local people than someone who doesn’t.

I think language is the first way people identify with others, “OK, this person is one of us.” — or for immigrants who speak the language — “This person is trying to be like me, like us. Let me help them assimilate.” — and perhaps all other ways (race, class, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) we have used to limit and divide ourselves are only as influential as the words that buttress them. — Word choice, and the subtler use(s) of silence, is the most important choice, the bane of our existence, but Solomon was more poetic, for,

“death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” Proverbs 18:21

…and how do we know if there is any truth in the words we choose, or even how and why we choose them?

“Words lie in our way! — Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is! — they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution. — Now with every piece of knowledge, one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.” The Dawn, Nietzsche, s. 47

or from the spacey and ethereal view, a wee Wilde, from The Portrait of Dorian Gray,

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

Language is the original philosophical problem, to which all others succumb, but which all happy religions must overcome.

***
Wine consumption here is so indulgent (I hear, there are some 350 varieties of grapes in Italy): we have at least a bottle or two with every meal, because, — well, why not? Mauro claims it’s because he’s from Trentino (a northern region of Italy) where they drink in much larger quantities, and Rita is from Umbria — Every time, Mauro takes a 5-10 minute break from working to roll some tobacco, he occasionally drinks a glass of wine also — it seems to prepare his palate for the ensuing never-ending Italian meal? 🙂
And we have the typical vino, formaggio, salumi con il pranzo e qualche volta la cena se non siamo troppo pieno

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

And we actually get some massive (decent) boxed wine for 10 euros that’s fairly excellent, beside which is some home-brewed hazelnut liqeur.

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And we even listened to opera or (squabbling about Italian politics), and Mauro mentioned once when it was in German instead of Italian. So picture listening to opera while gorging yourself on wine, cheese and oil, then entering a half-serious debate on whether opera should really be sung in languages other than Italian, then realizing you are drunk and need to take a nap… but there is donkey manure to be shoveled later that day!

Olive oil and wine are considered ‘high-brow’ things in the US, which just shows there really is no true culture for either in the states. (Mauro is an official olive oil taster, so we had had some excessively detailed conversations about oil.) In the US, to be a wine connoisseur is deemed a plea for sophistication. If you care excessively about olive oil, you are so rare and so faux-European, that you can probably can afford to care. It’s funny to me how America looks up to Europe (esp. France and Italy) in terms of food and wine. Even so, at all the ‘serious’ culinary schools in America, French cuisine has yet to be dethroned from her lofty, contemptuous stance. And because of the way the US looks up to these countries, in our quest to produce olive oil and wine, we are merely trying to imitate the best oils in Italy and the best of French and Italian wines — just as many artists and writers can be obsequious disciples of their greatest influences. What a pity that so many seek mastery by imitating previous masters, when true mastery lies in the honest and unbridled attempt at originality. ‘But’, we think to ourselves, ‘tis better to be a copy of a renowned original, than to be an original.’ — And the whole world approves by honoring our pursuit only of what posterity has deemed great. Because others are more likely to recognize and praise the copy of a famous iconoclast, than someone who is unique on their own terms, in spite of the dominant prejudices of their time. It is not so difficult to be original, as to avoid imitating past originals. An acute historical sense is both rare and costly: if you are too filled up with your education and what you have been taught to know and cherish, then how can you give to your contemporaries what is really you? A refined and cautious ignorance has its uses. ‘Tis better to peek, sigh, and glance at what is commonly revered in history — and not try to surpass them, but merely seek to be different — but beware that the world only respects certain flavors of ambition.

Is a path that can be followed worth following? Can we only go farthest when we don’t know where we are going? The competitive urge often defeats its very purpose: we want to conquer this one game in this one field, and forget that there are a thousand fields, each with a thousand games, right over there. We want to be better by setting other’s achievements as our goal, surpassing them, and then looking around at the world and saying, “Hey, look at me! I beat them!”, while it has always been more admirable to simply differ — to stop comparing oneself to past, present, or future greats. How can I have peace until I stop comparing myself to others? Money, status, prestige is only one type of rat race — there are a million others (re: the so-called ‘hipster’ culture) in which people are doing nothing but comparing themselves [to death] with others on the same path. Every ladder of comparison has infinite rungs, each of an infinite length…

And some rainbows have pots of dung at the end, not gold, and maggots churning, no leprechauns.

***

After morning work, we stop for a 1 hour lunch at 12 or 1, and afterwards take a 1 hour riposo (literally: repose) in the Italian style (Spain is apparently well-known for its afternoon siestas, where the shops close and everyone naps — or does whatever they want except work — after lunch). There are whole towns that essentially “go to sleep” in the afternoon here, especially in the summer.

Isn’t it obvious you definitely shouldn’t go back to work right after eating? — for digestive reasons, and also because meals should never be rushed for stress purposes (it’s not like we have to guard our food from predators or vultures) — but that is what most do in America. Whether you are on the clock or on salary, to take “too long” of a lunch break consistently may get you fired — you may be seen as lazy and unproductive, abusing the system, etc. I’m not saying that Americans should have a 5-course meal like Italians and the French, but just that we enjoy our food, slowly, succulently, whenever we eat. Gratitude never rushes: some African proverb says, “A man in a hurry is already dead”. I joke here that if I had wine with lunch every day in the US, eyebrows would be raised, suspicions of borderline alcoholism would be in the air. And even so, my American brain is having trouble adjusting… wait? you mean we just nap in the middle of the day, every day, no matter what? Even if we didn’t work that hard in the morning, we still deserve a bottle of wine for lunch, then an hour’s rest? And don’t confuse siesta with a “power nap”, those hideous progenies of time management. Why can’t a siesta be an end in itself? Why must a rest be a means for more work? I think vacations and retreats have that function: if some people didn’t need to rejuvenate to go back to work, they wouldn’t even go on vacations, because they only see time off as a means to perform better at work. Leisure should be an end in itself; I think we, especially Americans, work entirely too hard — I once confused someone by saying, “my most idle moments have also been my happiest” — and forgot to add that ennui is the mother of art,

Quiet fruitfulness. The born aristocrats of the spirit are not overeager; their creations blossom and fall from the trees on a quiet autumn evening, being neither rashly desired, not hastened on, nor supplanted by new things. The wish to create incessantly is vulgar, betraying jealousy, envy, and ambition. If one is some­thing, one does not actually need to do anything–and neverthe­less does a great deal. There is a type higher than the “produc­tive” man. Human All-Too-Human I, Nietzsche, s. 210

***
They let me borrow a bike, to roam through the meandering Viterbese countryside

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….

We say bon appetito: they share a kiss before every meal, and Rita always sits on the right of Mauro… so it’s essential that I don’t accidentally sit on his right, or else he’ll go in to kiss me, simply out of habit. [I should have tested this theory]

Mauro left home when he was 18, he told his parents he wanted to travel alone, without them, and they were vaguely offended and horrified: but one night, he planned a trip to travel with his parents, but later that night packed his bags, snuck out alone, left for the south of italy, and his parents called the police, and they said something like “Well, he is 18, there is nothing we can do, he is his own man now”… So he came back after spending the whole summer hitchhiking in Italy, penniless — and being a young traveler, strangers invited him back to their homes and was curious to know who he was and his story. (You can’t make this stuff up)

Mauro hates cell phones, hates being connected all the time, and is OK with people waiting for him at the landline if he is not available at the moment. He thinks people work too much to buy things they don’t need or things they think they need because everyone else has them (and he counts a cell phone among those superfluous things). Living is only as difficult as we make it and we probably don’t need to work as hard as we do. — And the concept of merit in the work we do is vastly overrated: to deny the role of chance is hubris; pride and gratitude divorced when Lucifer fell. One could almost say that people can be less grateful for things they feel they deserve, in the case of relationships and friendships especially — because they feel they are entitled to them. The concept of debt has always ran rampant in friendship and love, for,

If our friends do us a favor, we think that because they are called friends they owe it to us, and it never occurs to us that they do not owe us their friendship. – Vauvenargues

.. and what is this “You are entitled to your opinion”? This actually gives others license to defend their opinions with little to no argument, for few defend what they feel they are entitled to — why should they?

We work hard and so think we deserve only good outcomes, so because we expect to be duly compensated, we forget that chance is often a more powerful force than merit… so are we more likely to be grateful if we give credit to chance instead of merit? Is believing “I deserve this” incompatible with humility? The earth is indifferent to my wishes, as it is towards those of the human race — so, why should the human race be any less indifferent towards me, and the things I deem worthy in this life?

***

But anyway, they read ‘Il Fatto Quotidiano’ (the everyday facts), one of the few independent newspapers in Italy, that is not supported by public funds, which of course means that it can say whatever it wants, while the other newspapers are beholden to the opinions of public officials, the shareholders of this thing we call ‘the world’ — or are ‘we, the people’ the shareholders? Not quite sure how this whole capitalism thing is supposed to work.

Funnily, another part of the cultural exchange is watching American romantic comedies dubbed in Italian — foreign films and tv shows are always dubbed in Italy — with English subtitles (if the film happens to have them).

awful

awful

I would never have watched “P.S. I Love You” or “A Cry of the Heart (or whatever it was called)” in the US. The reach of American pop culture is, unfortunately, very far. But I learned vast amounts of vocabulary like un stronzo, “a piece of shit”, and “ti voglio bene”, which is how to say “I love you” to family or relatives, as “te amo” is usually reserved for romantic situations only.

**

Lastly, Rita made some awesome food, which I would be remiss to talk about.

We had two types of very tasty octopus, with fennel, oregano, and red pepper.

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and of course, pasta

and of course, pasta

Slow-roasted artichokes with potatoes, rosemary, olive oil and parsley, and cauliflower baked with gorgonzola (or pecorino, I forget?)

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cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

Rita’s brother came down from Umbria (we talked and listened to blues and soul for a bit), bringing some prosecco.

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the Franks rage

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the French rage

They trade some of their honey for good homemade sausage; also, we get a nice cut of pork to butcher up ourselves.

a successful barter

a successful barter

 

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

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And last, but not least, Mauro understood and appreciated my addiction to olive oil, so I could indulge myself freely :-O

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Filed under Food, Philosophy

Feb. 8-17, Castagneto Carducci, Le Catre

Tuscany is as beautiful as everyone says it is: a region heavily frequented by tourists, Italians and foreigners alike, for its wine and generally hideous landscape. Much more green and lush than Monteleone, it also rains a lot more. Also, Castagneto Carducci is 5 km from the beach, where we took the dogs for a few hours Sunday morning.

a little more green than Lazio

a little more green than Lazio

in the far view, you can see the Tyrrhenian sea

in the far view, you can see the Tyrrhenian sea

But I also have this fool to wake me up every morning at 6am (or really whenever he feels like it, he needs to work on his consistency, or maybe I should work on tolerating his inconsistency), my own personal alarm clock, infinitely better than any electronic one:

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The town is named after Giosuè Carducci, a very famous poet, whose statue is in the city center, and whose quote I ran across:

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which translates to, roughly, “Sweet country where I wore the fierce dress and heard such a disdainful song, I shall nevertheless see you again and my heart jumps in the meantime.” I suspect poetry is only translatable in emotion, not words. Indeed, I suspect if a poet is great, the poetry should be so subtle and profound as to make translation impossible — or conversely, as to make it seamless, because the emotion should transcend the language it is written in and encircle all human experience. But what do I know?

***

The area is less renowned for its olive oil (within Italy, but worldwide very much so) but certain Californian olive farmers began their cultivation by buying and importing the actual olive trees from Tuscany to the US. It sounds weird to import a tree, but it is very common, as there are many difficulties in the quest to produce good oil. Just to name a few: you need to be rich because you need to buy and maintain the land, and give the trees time to grow, and when they are full-grown, they may not produce olives when and how you want them to, and even if they do, these olives may not produce good oil, and then you must prune the trees, and then you decide which variety of olive you want to cultivate… and only if the climate of your particular region is right and if you can wait 15-20 years before you see any return on your investment… then you can produce olive oil, if you are very lucky… and planting a few hundred trees would be advisable, as some of them will probably die, as having many children was advisable a few centuries ago for the same reason!

At Le Catre, we do a little bit of everything: a bit of olive oil (just enough for ourselves), various fruits (figs, persimmons, pears, etc), spices (garlic, mint, parsley, oregano, etc), vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, etc). Conservation of energy is a big focus as well: There is no central heating/air system so we haul and chop wood down to a certain size to fit in the fireplace (and we only heat a few rooms, so we have to make sure to keep the right doors closed when the fire is going). This seems to be a common theme among the farms I visited, as a way to save money, but for every penny you save, you make up for it in solid, rigorous labor. We have solar panels, we collect rainwater in tanks to store up for the year-round water supply and for irrigation as well for the extremely dry summers in some parts of Italy; we use a washing machine, but no dryer, we always hang the clothes out on the line (I’ve been to 4 farms, and they all do this.)

how long depends entirely on whether the air is humid or not

how long depends entirely on whether the air is humid or not

We plant certain ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants to use them as compost later on. Nitrogen fixation is when N2 in the atmosphere is converted into ammonium (NH4) or nitrogen dioxide (NO2). N2 by itself is relatively inert (apparently), so nitrogen-fixing plants and animals free up nitrogen to combine with other elements, so it can then act as fertilizer, or be the building blocks for other amino acids. Many legumes (for example, we used fava beans) are great nitrogen-fixing plants.

***

(WWOOF: Willing Workers on Organic Farms, the organization that facilitates contact between the volunteers and the hosts, http://www.wwoof.it/en)

Bridget is our host, a Scottish woman (also head of WWOOF Italia for some years now) who moved to Tuscany 30 years ago, and fell in love with the place, as I am catching myself doing now.  Where can I get this good wine for so cheap? Or succulent oil so plentiful and inexpensive? For fresh produce, organic is always better for two reasons:  organic produce is always seasonal, and you know it has only been picked when it is ripe. (I have heard the standards for what passes as “organic” are taken more seriously in Europe than US, but I’m not sure.) I haven’t had a bad orange since I’ve been in Italy, and we eat them every day for dessert, which is an excellent way to finish a meal. In the main, there is no concept of seasonal produce for the American general public: we expect any of the fruits and vegetables to be available in the markets whenever and wherever we want them.

Bridget is very knowledgeable, without even trying: I’ve learned how to identify many herbs and spices in the wild, and fruit trees as well. Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and fennel are indigenous to Mediterranean shores, so we dry it for cooking and I love watching the bees at the flowers.

a wheelbarrow full of rosemary, the bees really like the flowers too!

a wheelbarrow full of rosemary (from pruning, and for eating)

the bees like the buds of the rosemary, just like me

belliiiissimoooo

Once you realize that most foods that we now cultivate once started in the wild in whatever climate they were indigenous to, paying for food seems a bit strange; many farmers I work with have a barter system with other farmers. (Although in theory, money is just a medium of exchange, so it is more flexible than the barter system.)

Very few people know how to identify the wild plants that all modern cultivated plants are descended from, and fewer can identify even the ones that we have cultivated — all most of us know is what the end product looks like — that is, after the local market has sprayed it with pesticides and coloring. (I’ve had delicious oranges that were not even orange, and just because an apple is full of bruises doesn’t mean it can’t be scrumptious. Isn’t it strange that in the grocery store all the different types of fruits are so uniformly arranged and all the same size?) In organic produce, the size and look of every fruit varies widely. Advertising does not really intend to deceive, but merely to convince us to accept its point of view — conveniently forgetting that the two often coincide.

She is one of the main people in charge of WWOOF Italia, so she has many stories to tell — from how the experience can subtly and drastically disturb people’s opinions, to the legal hurdles in getting and staying certified to be an organic farmer, or how having travelers in and out of the house all the time always reminds you and your family how ridiculous and dense the human race is — and really embodies the spirit of WWOOF (passion for organic agriculture, understands the importance of flexibility and adaptability for each host and wwoofer, and readily disabuses WWOOF of its romantic aspects). She refused a picture, but here is the only one I could find on the web:

Tidge Lamentano

I volunteered with Matt, an Australian; this was his first farm and I think he had a welcoming experience. It is a big change from your normal life: going into someone’s home, eating every meal with them, being forced to make new friends, learning way too much, and sometimes, having to play with their kids, or just getting really, really good at listening to people.

She keeps a heavily varied forest garden with a friend, with herbs, fruits, vegetables, and forestry (ash, chestnut, hazelnut, and many more). She mentioned that monocultures are unnatural, and unfortunately, nearly all modern agriculture (including most organic as well is carried out in monocultures. Row after row of only one or two of the same crop, because most companies specialize in only one crop, or a few crops in the same family. So a more organic and natural way is to try and mimic the wild: using only plants that are native to the area, and mixing the species and varieties up (trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, etc). Also, I imagine this is better for the insects and the bees as well, as they depend on many plants for health (and vice versa), just as we do.

**

But we also have ways to protect the crops without hurting the animals. For example, some put a CD on the fruit or olive trees that is used to stop the birds from eating the fruit. Apparently, the reflection from the CD, as it hangs and rotates from the tree, distracts and disturbs the birds enough to make them go to elsewhere.

There is also a clever trap that guards against the olive fruit fly. The flies harm the tree in two ways: in quantity, they remove a significant portion of the pulp which reduces the yield of the crop, or in quality, by causing much deterioration of the quality of the olive oil. I don’t know exactly how the trap itself works, but I think the basic idea is that the plant is saturated with a pheromone that attracts the male fruit fly (because they want to visit the tree where the female has laid her eggs), and then sterilizes the fly, and then lets it go, so the damage cannot be done.

**

She complains of the farmers nearby, who breed pheasants, solely to introduce them into the wild to hunt them down. The funny part is that these hunters get angry at local residents if they let their dogs “go astray” and roam the land (which is what dogs, and presumably we too, are supposed to be doing anyway), because the dogs sometimes manage to catch the pheasants before the insipid hunter gets a chance to craftily sneak in with his absurd costume and his contraptions. To what lengths do we sometimes go, with ears gullible and tongues loose, to control inputs and results! (Bridget was once scolded for her dogs, Brandy and Whiskey)

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it” – Kahlil Gibran

As amiable as they look, they only chase any animals for play, and don’t (usually) eat them.

BRANDY!

brandy

WHISKEY!

whiskey

Let’s all have a moment of silence for how ridiculous human beings can be, and usually, are: we want other humans to control their domesticated wolves, so these wolves don’t hunt the birds that we artificially introduced into the wild. It’s not the dog’s fault that they are better hunters than we are. Instinct is the higher form of intelligence, as well as its basis: that is what we have trouble admitting, no matter how many times we try to escape her bosom, her saddle.

**

The work is varied and interesting, but it should be disabused of the romantic notion. Many times, we do work that is unpleasant and difficult: cleaning the chicken coop, pruning and clearing various brambles and thorns that are overgrown and inconvenient (of course, we humans decide what those words mean…) because we want to replace them with plants we prefer, or sometimes having all the work you did yesterday undid by rain, snow, or heavy winds the next day. You try your best to work with nature, but it has no obligation to work with you.

the fava beans we buried under the ground as compost. every job we do is harder than it looks.

the fava beans we buried under the ground as compost. every job we do is harder than it looks.

Bridget has a story she likes to tell to ridicule our insatiable need to control nature. Some time ago, they installed a pond and put some fish into it. However, they were worried about the fish population growing too big, but a heron turned up at the pond and starting eating the fish. Then, they were worried about the heron eating up all of “their” fish that made the pond look so nice. But before long, a fox came and ate the heron. So even though this pond was introduced artificially, somehow nature intervened to set things aright. Doesn’t always happen this way, but it’s interesting to note: in spite of our worries, the world has wisdom we cannot predict — but the meteorologist needs to make money, no matter how hollow his hubris is.

Just making the decision to grow your own food has unforeseen difficulties, as Nature has its own agenda, which it hides from you constantly — not out of malice, but rather from indifference. The weather does what it wants, when it wants — and we had better be content about that. Complaints about weather or about time — for are not nature and time two of three gods, the third being chance? — are the most commonly ignored signs of our confidence run amok. Atheism means nothing in the face of these three: they will make you believe in them; the choice is emphatically not yours. Try to manage time: she will manage you; dismiss chance: she drops anvils on your goals; ignore nature: she kills you, and then gives an all-too-honest eulogy. At the hands of those who have no mercy, a little sycophancy and reverence are indispensable.

***

But in how many ways do we ignore nature? We mismanage our bodies, and we take drugs to correct, instead of looking to diet and habits first. We sit down all day, and wonder why back problems are so widespread. We spend so much time “indoors”, in our offices, our houses, our cars, that getting a breath of fresh air is almost like an event. “Being outdoors”, “going on a hike” [1] or whatever other reasons we find to be outside, are seen as excursions, when they should be the norm. All air should be fresh — we shouldn’t have to go and “get it”.  And some people don’t even exercise outdoors — even when the weather is “nice!” — because some exercise only when they go to the gym.

The first step in the direction of being civilized — spending more and more time indoors — is a step backwards for our health. I feel incomplete if I don’t get at least 2 hours each day among the trees, even if I just walk and stare in complete idleness. In whatever ways primitive humans were barbaric and uncivilized — to say nothing of how specious and flimsy the words and connotations themselves are — they had one thing right which was exceptionally genius and quite simple: they spent the majority of their time outside. They did not “go outside”.

But what is civilization, really, but wanting to reach the limits of our potential, to know and discover all that we can? How precious and undervalued is such a wisdom that places bounds even to knowledge! [2] All facts are not created equal; neither are any two paths which arrive at the same fact.

***

I try to describe all outdoors work, even the unpleasant work as ‘intimate’, because there is an undeniable energy and emotion when working in the air, that the plants offer as a gift. The work is intimate if we receive the gift; harsh if we reject it, harsh if we have no feeling for nature, if we see the plants, spiders, and insects as something in our way. There is an undeniable and divine pleasure in watching insects, just as there is in watching people. Whenever we deal with other living things, vulnerability and insecurity is at play with our emotions, irrepressibly jazzy and giddy, so there is much intimacy at stake. Why not relish that intimacy? Why not become it?

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***

So as you might imagine, all this work takes an incredible amount of work and planning. The path towards self-sufficiency (or really just trying to work with nature as far as is humanly possible) — meaning to plan for and provide one’s own food, energy, and water, as far as one can — is quite difficult, and if you ever get there, and that’s a big if, can you maintain it? The idea of being self-sufficient easily seduces many who want to live ethically with the environment but are simply tired of compromising with a world who could care less about preserving and respecting the environment of which it consists. Self-sufficiency is a way of opting out, living ‘off-grid’ so to speak, and any time you choose to forego the benefits of mainstream society — because you are appalled to discover the unintended consequences of these benefits and conveniences that are so highly extolled by others or simply because you despise the path of least resistance — countless concerns pop up.

But many never think of opting out of the benefits (whether these are conveniences or superfluities depends on how far one inquires into the depths) of society because they are afraid of the alternative. Civilization only makes sense within the narrow confines of our literature and culture. If you ever leave the civilized world, and really attempt to test the origins of your habits and traditions, a very puzzling and stultifying can of worms appears before you. It will beckon and flirt with you to come play, and only someone doltish and reckless enough to ask too many whys, hows and what ifs is overjoyed to flirt back.

Even when we go for excursions in the woods, the nature trail is carefully marked for us, always there to care for and guide us. There is nothing natural about the way we live, even when we go out ‘into nature’: some of us can only have sex in a bed. And others brag about all the risqué places they have had sex in — as if they had liberated themselves from this prosecutor called society! And what do all other ‘wild’ animals do? They have sex ‘outside’, in the open air, without even the slightest desire for privacy: mamma mia, how daring and rebellious the insects are!

We are forever confusing wants with needs, and many wants become needs because our eyes are greedy, our noses sniff pots without respect, our ears drop eaves without discretion, because we want what our friends or our peers have, because we want to elevate ourselves — in dress, intellect, or verbiage — beyond the average person, because we are lonely — and one way to soften the pangs of solitude, if only temporarily, is to constantly acquire new things or experiences that we believe are necessary to make us better, smarter, richer — and do all of this, faster. Productivity! “But at what cost?”, says no one ever.

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But, on a related note, I think whatever work any of us find worth doing, we have to love the process, and not be so enamored with the result. Of course, we want to final product to be excellent, but if it isn’t, we have to be satisfied with what is, not with what could be or should have been. We always hear, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”, but why is it true? Because the destination is a mere point, a fleeting moment — indeed, the goal is as Carl Sagan once described the planet Earth, “a pale, blue dot” — but the journey takes up all the time. And time is what life is. The views on the way to the mountaintop are just as much as, if not more than, important than the coveted summit: that is what everyone forgets. Travelers are the worst here: they check off cities after only a few days, the camera gradually replaces their neglected eyesight, they neglect learning the language because they only see the blinding difficulty of the goal (conversation, fluency) and overlook the inherent joy and silliness in failing and learning another interpretation of life.

In short, better to appreciate the process and fail at the result, than to despise the process, but actually meet one’s goal.

Or, dare to neglect the false dichotomy between process and result, as well as the one between you and me.

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***

This may seem like a stretch, but working in the fields, especially when the work seems overly repetitive and mundane, makes me feel like a slave. (Although I know it is very, very different because I am volunteering at different farms as an eco-tourist, and I can leave at any time on a flight “back home”, and I have money, and I am not beholden to my master…), but bear with me. I mean that, doing unpaid physical labor (even though I have always gotten much better intangible gifts in return), can be pleasant, but also dull and aching and — “boring”. But then I think of those old, gospel spirituals, “amazing grace”, “take me to the water”, “near the cross”, or “i’ll fly away” and start humming or singing, and I think I am so lucky to take part in such a rich culture and to have grown up listening and breathing to such beautiful songs…. And somehow I feel some unfathomable, voluptuous solidarity with my brothers and sisters who once invented those very songs under much harsher conditions than I face today — and I can only feel a tiny fraction of what they felt; yet I can feel it. And Du Bois was right to call them ‘sorrow songs’, because somehow sad songs overcome their cause;

“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?” – Du Bois, Chapter 15, “The Sorrow Songs”

***

Food

For all the serious lovers of peanut butter, I recommend making it the old-fashioned way, as we did: shelling and grinding up the peanuts, and adding salt to taste. But, the peanuts don’t make enough oil by themselves (at least the ones here in Italy don’t), so, in typical Italian fashion, we make up for the deficiency by using olive oil. It tastes great, and add some of the homegrown jams (we had peach, orange or raspberry to choose from; we didn’t get to make the jams during my time there sadly) that Bridget makes, it’s absurd how something so healthy can taste so good. And shelling the nuts can be very intimate and meditative, and we say whatever comes to mind, with no form or fashion to our meanderings.

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healthy fat and cholesterol rom the nuts and the oil

robust, healthy fats from the nuts and the oil

As for the rest of the food, I’m so accustomed to the quality and quantity of the olive oil, wine, the seasonal and fresh fruit, that I’m spoiled now, I’ve come to expect it: having high standards is the ubiquitous cause for disappointment. It no longer feels touristy or novel, because we eat it every day. But two things at least have changed drastically: at home I never consumed coffee or cheese — now I eat so many different types of cheese every day and have un caffè doppio, sometimes con latte, in morning and afternoon. So, I have adapted, which means I can also hold full conversations in Italian — with a lot of patience.

Bridget complains that I eat too slow — but also that I eat too much. But I think I eat more because I eat slow; I chew my food well so I don’t get full as quick. But you have to eat slow to appreciate and love your food. Food is an experience, and all experiences worth anything need patience and time. Chew slowly for food; breathe slowly for air; savor slowly for love. (It’s funny because I used to eat very quickly, but when you grow up with three brothers, the sword and shield never go down) — But loving slowly is a rare art, not because we don’t know how, but rather because we find it difficult to try — for love wants so badly to be feverish, intoxicating, devilish, like a whirlwind.

***

To end on a positive note: for lunch one day, we had ‘rigatoni alla puttanesca’, or translated, “whore’s pasta”. It’s unclear where the name came from: some say Neapolitan (Napoli) prostitutes cooked it in between clients, or because so many random things go into the pasta, and there are at least a dozen other suggestions. At any rate, it has lived up to its name, in that so many claim to know the story behind the name. For us, it was tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, and pancetta, which is Italian bacon, made of pork belly cured with salt.

our vacant next door neighbor

our vacant next door neighbor

the dogs were so happy we took them on this 3 hour walk

the dogs were so happy when we took them on this 3 hour walk

Footnotes:

[1] interesting anecdote on the word ‘hike’, from here

[On a Sierra Club Outing, author Albert Palmer tells of a conversation he had with John Muir on the trail. He asked Muir, “someone told me you did not approve of the word “hike”. ‘Is that so?’ His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied]:

“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

[2] (Nietzsche, Dawn, Section 429)

“Why do we fear and hate the possible return to barbarism? Because it would make people unhappier than they are? Ah, no! In all ages barbarians were happier: let’s not deceive ourselves! – Instead, our drive for knowledge is too strong for us to be able still to value happiness without knowledge or the happiness provided by a strong, deeply rooted delusion; we find it painful even to imagine such a state! The restlessness of discovery and ascertainment has become just as appealing and indispensable to us as an unrequited love is to the lover, a love he would never trade at any price for a state of apathy; indeed, perhaps we too are unhappy lovers! Knowledge has been transformed into a passion in us that does not shrink from any sacrifice and, at bottom, fears nothing but its own extinction; we honestly believe that under the pressure and suffering of this passion the whole of humanity itself to be more sublime and more consoled than previously, when it had not yet overcome its envy of the cruder pleasure and contentment that result from barbarism. Perhaps humanity will even be destroyed by this passion for knowledge! — Even this thought holds no sway over us!”

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Jan 9-25, Monteleone Sabino at Ozu farm

[I plan to write a different post for every farm I visit. More than going to Italy, I’m visiting small parts of people’s lives for 2-4 weeks each. Volunteering through farming is a very different way to ‘travel’ because you worry about money way less, you live with locals, you can treat it as an apprenticeship, and you actually have a relationship with the food you consume, instead of having a typical tourist restaurant experience and seeing sights. The only sights I want to experience are people, for the most interesting thing I have ever done is get to know another person — and I suppose that will always be the case.

I fully expect every farm and family to be different, which makes more sense than trying to make any generalizations about “Italians” as a whole. So I cannot really answer the question “So, how was Italy?”; therefore I apologize in advance 🙂 I find the more I get to know people, the less I can make any final conclusions about them… the more we know, the less we judge; the less we judge, the more we live… ]

***

From Jan 9-25, I was in Monteleone Sabino, working at Ozu Cultural Centre (www.ozu.it)

It’s very easy to fall in love with the olive tree.

carismatica

carismatica

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the field where we work.

Before I realized it, I was swept up, lulled, enchanted — enraptured by her branches, her succulent olives and her graceful leaves. Yes, I believe in the olive tree, and I would be honored to care for her — for better or for worse, through sickness or health — even though she doesn’t need me. But maybe that is what love is: to love them without feeling the need to possess them, without being jealous when they love — or are loved — by others at the same time, for,

“there is more self-love than love in jealousy” – La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 324

Monteleone Sabino (‘mount of lions’, ~60 km east of Rome) is quite the quaint mountain town. The houses next to where I am are mostly stone-hewn cabins with chimney and sheds, most situated next to their own olive groves and vineyards. Wild herbs are not hard to find: my hosts pick rosemary,

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bay leaves, chili peppers, and various berries in the spring. When we have to go into the town to buy something, we talk of going “down to the village”.

the view from somewhere

This town was very isolated for centuries, as a road connecting it to another town was just built only in 1970. Before that, there was just one gravel road, that farmers used to get from town to town, by mule, which took around 6 or 7 hours to reach the end of. So, yeah, barriers can enclose us in bubbles if we let them. The surrounding towns share similar fates, so every region has its own distinct character, pride, cuisine, and dialect.

You can see a large swath of the Apennines, the mountain range that runs down the middle of Italy, from my bedroom window, as the fog sweeps over, and snow blankets the summits (when it rains here, there’s snow up there). It’s all very idyllic, really — even more so than you’d imagine. The winds are robust and howling, but the best part is all the birds that you can only find here in the mountains. How they maintain such a magnificent chorus through the entire day is beyond me. Davvero, che fortuna.

It’s almost depressing how difficult it is to capture the natural beauty — the many-sided beauty that you can feel, see and hear — of Monteleone Sabino; no matter how expensive the camera is, some moments and landscapes simply refuse to be captured, even as you beg otherwise.

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romance

i’m not convinced this picture is real

Yet, the desire to capture moments may be totally misguided in itself: the camera can easily prevent us from living in the present, as we try to bottle up the past. Can you even imagine a world without photos? Whether traveling or at a big life event, everyone wants to see the pictures. It almost seems that if you did something and didn’t take photos, it didn’t really happen. “Did you document it?” Everyone else wants to share the experience with you and you want to bottle it up for yourself — which is fine, but a world without photos is well worth imagining, if only because it did once exist, and still does for “primitive” tribes everywhere.

**Do photos make it impossible to live in the present?** (… as I drown in irony…)

Why not just stare and appreciate? I frequently enter spiritual raptures, and feel I can’t fully appreciate certain trees, dragonflies, bees, or pinecones — even after I’ve stared at them for hours. And believe me, I’ve tried. — And I will keep trying, because who ever succeeds at fully appreciating their mother(s)?

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what i see when i wake up

l'amore di nuovo

l’amore di nuovo

***

My hosts are Enrico Blasi and Paolo Simoni, and Ettore, their 6 year old who drags me to watch Kung Fu Panda, Storia del Giocattolo (Toy Story), and I Puffi (he’s obsessed with the smurfs). They regularly hosts artists and writers at their place, a cultural centre where they hold art and cooking classes in the summer. Tracy and Christina, my fellow volunteers were great, too, and it was a privilege to get to know them, and I hope we keep in touch.

i miei amici nuovi

i miei amici nuovi

christina toughing it out

christina toughing it out

Here is their description of the farm:

“We have 3,5 hectares of land with 350 olive trees, fruit trees and a vineyard, 60 km from Rome. The land is very steep in places and has been abandoned and is therefore overgrown with blackberries. Help needed with clearing, maintenance and with pruning the olives and vines. The woodland needs clearing… Meals are sometimes organic but are principally made using local produce, and we buy from farmers and the supermarket. We collect wild vegetables and fruit.” ( paraphrased)

We’ve had some interesting conversations so far: concerning different interpretations of original sin, ideological differences between America and Western Europe (someone said, “America has the very best and the very worst of the West”), the distinct cultural and linguistic differences between regions in Italy (it’s really like a bunch of small city-states, similar to India, where every region has its own flavors of cuisine and dialect), and why Monsanto is ruining the world, and i fascisti nuovi in some parts of Italia and many, many more…. If I could list them all, they wouldn’t nearly be interesting enough!

The 6 cats (hard to catch them all at once) gather for warmth most mornings, as they leer at Balu bothering them.

molto freddo

molto freddo

leering

leering

They (not the cats :p) patiently correct my Italian, and I help them with English (though they need less help than me). Even though I understand very little, it’s so useful to just sit there and listen to the intonations and inflections of the language. Accent means so much, especially in Italian. A little Italian goes a long way, and actually trying to make legitimate conversation beyond basic etiquette and ‘standard phrases’ is totally unexpected. It really opens up people who would otherwise treat me as just another tourist (American tourists are notorious for not trying to speak the other language), even if I stumble over trivialities and sound like a total dunce (which I always do). We say we don’t want to learn a language unless we can use it[1], but I really think it’s because we don’t want to look ignorant and awkward, as we are reduced to communicating solely by gestures and facial expressions, and constantly trip over subtleties that are so obvious to the native.

Pride goes before destruction, the Scripture says, and the fear and failure of learning something new is the classic example. We collect excuses in our closets, some have grown stronger over time as we’ve rearranged and redecorated them for new and improved cases, while others sport cobwebs as we’ve matured past them. Or maybe some lose their savor because the situation which supported them has changed, and not us?

“When our vices leave us we flatter ourselves with the idea that we have left them” [La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 192]

— and usually we manage to be proud of our excuses, as if they were born from logic, and not cowardice. As if our excuses were always won with hard-earned effort, and were last resorts when we have tried everything we could. I mean, really, what is the difference between an excuse and a reason? [2] Clear questions rarely get clear answers, while unclear questions get none. Certainty dies a thousand deaths, but only if we are honest. I’ve seen people keep certainty on life support; for them, it is more important that certainty live than they flourish.

****

Food

“Oil” here always means olive oil, and we put on everything, which is great for two reasons: healthy and great taste. The olive oil is so good it’s absurd: aroma, texture, etc; I truly felt spoiled and indulgent.  Il pranzo (lunch) is usually some variation on pasta, zuppa o i panini (panino is singular) — and lunch is almost always an event, to say the least. We picked wild broccoletti (totally unrelated to broccoli) for lunch and had guests over. We had espresso before lunch, wine during, scotch after, then another espresso. “Lunch” was from 2-7pm. Lunch at someone else’s house was from 1-6.

In Italiano, “pizza” refers to the style of bread that is prepared, irrespective of what is put on it. I’ve had pizza with le patate e il rosmarino, or with nothing but l’olio d’oliva e salsa di pomodori on it — no cheese or “toppings”.

The main antipasto throughout the day is freshly baked pane con olio e sale. Sometimes we soak fresh chili pepper in the oil, which gives a reddish, succulent hue. Wine is always there as an drink option, so now I’ve had wine for lunch every day, which in the states would be considered irresponsible and eccentric, if not downright alcoholic.

Fruit is the typical dessert: tangerines, mandarins, blood oranges, apples. My kind of people.

On a Saturday, they laid out a big block of wood on the table, spread polenta on it, then poured tomato sauce, sausage, and other meats on it, then gave everybody a fork, then “Cin cin!” (Cheers). That was the Southern style of polenta, then we had Northern style the next day of mixing it all together and eating like porridge.

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Paola laughed when I called this “corn on wood”

pouring the sauce on

pouring the sauce on

Also, I eat a lot of pepper (by my host’s standards), so they laugh at me. We grind the peppercorns by hand with something that resembles a small cudgel (a baby version of the one Cain used to kill Abel) and stone chalice.

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

Work:

The farm mainly produces olive oil, some they sell, but most for themselves. Lesser crops are wine, vinegar, various fruits.

Picking olives is quite peaceful and fulfilling. The raw olives are not usually eaten, but can be, and are spicy and bitter; the flavor is not at all what you would expect. They taste nothing like olives on American pizza or salad; I brought up the subject of olives in America and my hosts laughed with derision. With ebullient contempt, Enrico describes American pizza as ‘something on top of something else’.

If the olives are not pressed immediately for oil, they are cured. Curing the olives is a way to make them edible by placing them in salt for ~20 days to drain the bitterness, and then soaking them in olive oil, in a tightly sealed jar.

Pruning, the strategy of removing and shaping branches to alleviate the task of picking, is more of an art than a science. 50 different people can prune the same tree in 50 different ways, and they can all be “right”. Pruning is also related to health of the tree and quality of the oil, but mainly is done to make the picking process easier. At its best, pruning is a highly strategic and refined process that takes a while to get used to, because it seems counterintuitive: you’re killing parts of the tree to make it healthier. It seems another case of humans doubting that nature has its own intelligence. — But as I have more experience with it, I learn more about it, so I will keep an open mind.

I used a shovel to dump our firewood ashes around each of the trees. Apparently, forest fires are a natural occurrence, and have been discovered to increase plant and animal diversity through regenerating the soil — so we pour ashes as fertilizer to imitate nature. It seemed weird, but it made sense.

***

How some tried to talk me out of this:

I was warned repeatedly that “farm work” would be tedious labor that I would quickly become bored with. I needed a higher quality of intellectual work to sustain my brain! Farming is not for the illustrious ‘Stanford’ graduate! I shouldn’t sell myself short! I deserve better! (And obsession with money and social status hovers in the background of all these retorts and concerns). I don’t know what I want to do as a career, but it’s telling how many people seem repulsed and startled by the idea that farming would even be considered as a worthwhile career choice. We have so little regard for those who produce our food because most of us have no knowledge or experience concerning the process — we just want the result. We treat our food like we treat our internet browsing: we want a friendly and seamless user experience with little regard to who makes that experience, and how they work their magic. We want our food affordable and in a convenient location down the street, but we can’t (or don’t want to or know how to) grow it ourselves — the local supermarket has many of us in a chokehold, unless we can afford the farmers’ market.

In a way, knowing everything you can about your food is so basic, because your diet literally makes and sustains your body. Only the healthy are rich.

What a tired, false distinction between types of labor: that physical labor is less skilled than labor that pays well and needs a ‘degree’. Nearly all physical labor is consistently degraded as ‘unskilled’ labor, and farming is no exception. Sustainable and organic agriculture, for yourself or as a business, requires an extraordinary amount of strategy and patience: so much can go wrong, and you have to foresee all of it, or bear the brunt of the consequences — just like any other highly-touted, well-paid job.

On the contrary, the work is rewarding and stimulating. And even when the days are rough and long, it’s such a bonus to be outside in the fresh air. My body may be exhausted, but being outdoors and doing work that matters is a great combination.  And what could matter more than food? Work for food — not for money to buy food, but work directly for food — is the only essential work there is. — And so there is nothing more important than the quality of our food and the relationship we have with it.

***

On a side note, Balu is having a terrible day:

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So, yeah, I miss this place and the people, and already thinking about returning.

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Next? I’m going north to Tuscany region, but I am in Roma from 1/26-2/1.

Tell me your thoughts.

[1] Since when did practicality mean so much? Everyone enjoys things that are “useless”. But enjoying is the point! Usefulness is only useful in moderation.

[2] Maybe, the difference is that an excuse is something that neither party accepts as a valid reason. And we only concern ourselves with our excuses for failures and not successes, which, tangentially, reminds of something Mill said, “… success discloses faults and infirmities that failure might have concealed from observation…”

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Voting with Our Dollars for Chipotle

Vote with your dollars.  That’s the message Mike Levy, my tenth grade history and ethics teacher, delivered to Moorestown Friends School’s graduating class in 2004 (the same year 34justice author Jon Zaid delivered a convincing anti-war speech to that same class).  That idea – that I send a loud message with my decisions as a consumer – has grown more and more compelling to me over the past ten years.  When I boycott companies for their horrible labor practices (like Walmart) or anti-gay attitudes (like Exxondespite their improvement a few days ago), use my Working Assets credit card or CREDO Mobile cell phone plan, or transfer my money out of major banks and into my credit union, I’m exercising some political power.

Advocating that people vote with their dollars supports a consumerism-driven society, which I find somewhat problematic.  And most items I purchase and the services I use, even the ones mentioned above, still have plenty of hidden costs along the production line – it’s virtually impossible to buy ethical gasoline, for example.  I am currently unwilling, however, to forego modern civilization to live an entirely ethical life, and I doubt I’d make much headway suggesting that we all sell our belongings and return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  At the same time, the more we consider the social, environmental, economic, and political costs associated with the items we buy, the better off the world will be.

Food has been a primary focus of my monetary votes since I took a nutrition class with Clyde Wilson during my junior year at Stanford, but I was initially more concerned with health than anything else.  Wilson convinced me to drastically increase my consumption of salads before meals, cut out every drink other than water (and the occasional alcoholic beverage) from my diet, and to dramatically reduce my intake of white carbohydrates.  I also began to order a CSA box from Albert & Eve Organics once I graduated.  It was not until reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, that I thought deeply about the political significance of our food consumption.  Michael Pollan, the book’s author, completely revolutionized my perception of both health and the social impact of our food choices.

Pollan beautifully summarizes the differences between typical industrial factory farms, industrial organic operations, local farms, truly sustainable farms, and wild foods.  He demonstrates how, when we eat processed packaged goods or most conventionally produced meat, we harm farmworkers, the environment, and our bodies in one fell swoop.  Pollan’s research on and ideas about food deserve considerably more attention than I will give them in this post, but an overview can help explain the impact of the gains he notes for food movements.  The industrial organic movement, for all its flaws, has grown into a multi-billion dollar a year industry largely on the backs of people voting with their dollars.  Consumer purchasing decisions have driven a food culture where many food companies (in the Bay Area, at least) attempt to portray themselves as pioneers at the cutting edge of the “slow food” movement.

The question, of course, is whether these companies truly outrank their competitors on food morality or merely want to hoodwink us into casting our financial votes in their favor.  David Sirota’s article on Chipotle’s new scarecrow ad (see below) caused me to reflect on this question as it pertains to Chipotle.

Sirota, one of my favorite columnists, argues that the ad misleads because it juxtaposes factory farming with vegetarianism instead of contrasting typical industrialized meat with meat from more sustainable sources.  Since most Chipotle eaters consume meat in their burritos, Sirota’s critique has some merit.  He does give Chipotle some credit, writing that he’s “actually psyched that there’s at least one major fast-food company willing to publicly rail against factory farming methods” and noting that Chipotle recently introduced sofritas, a vegan alternative, on their menu (for the record, sofritas are really freaking good).  But despite the ad’s problematic qualities and Sirota’s acknowledgements of some Chipotle positives, I think Chipotle gets an unfair shake in Sirota’s article.  The company is pretty revolutionary in terms of fast food and monetary votes for Chipotle can help support significant social change.

Full disclosure: I love Chipotle burritos.  I started eating them once a week during my sophomore year of college and probably still come close to that frequency of consumption.  Their deliciousness contributed to my New Year’s Resolution this year to only eat meat that meets, at a bare minimum, the sustainability standards Chipotle sets.  After doing some more research, however, I feel justified in having set that bar.

Though Chipotle’s ad is misleading, it does significantly more good than harm.  The difference between the food most people eat every day and Chipotle’s food is many, many times greater on nearly all the metrics Sirota lists – carbon emissions, energy supplies, water resources, and health – than the difference between Chipotle’s meat and vegetarian options.  Yes, Chipotle’s food is closer to the normal fare from the “Big Organic” industry than the food which one could eat at a truly sustainable farm, but I’d argue, based on everything Pollan brilliantly documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the typical vegetarian’s diet does worse on these metrics than a diet which focuses on sustainability across the board and includes meat.  Two of the articles Sirota cites to claim the virtues of vegetarianism conflate meat eating in general with the majority of meat eating done in the United States, while the two others provide indirect support for my argument above.  Pollan also makes a strong argument that eating animals that live happy, free lives is completely acceptable from a moral perspective.  While I am fairly certain more people would be vegetarians if they followed Pollan’s lead and reflected on meat-eating by participating in the slaughter of animals raised on sustainable farms, I don’t think it’s Chipotle’s job to subject people to that imagery.  What Chipotle should have done in their ad, in my opinion, is shown some Niman Ranch pigs rooting around happily before having the scarecrow serve a carnitas burrito.  That would have been more honest.  But while Sirota deserves props for his commitment to vegetarianism, there isn’t a ton of difference from a social, environmental, or ethical perspective between that decision and the decision to eat sustainable meat.  If Chipotle’s ad drives people towards better meat options, that benefits us far more than the ad’s omission of the pigs hurts society.

I also think it’s important to give Chipotle credit for pursuing profit and ethics simultaneously.  Sirota contends Chipotle’s intentions are about profit alone, but as Elizabeth Weiss’s excellent New Yorker article on Chipotle makes clear, the company’s commitment to continuously improving the ethics of its food sourcing has been around for 12 years, much more time than the “slow food” movement has been a breadwinner for restaurants.  A lot of companies toss around claims about “all-natural” and “grass-fed” food with little indication about what these words actually mean, but Chipotle clearly defines the standards they impose on suppliers for their pork and indicate where they’d like to go for beef, dairy cattle, and chicken.  When a restaurant can’t source enough meat at Chipotle’s standards and must resort to conventional suppliers, the restaurant sticks a large sign explaining this issue at the front of their burrito line.  The sign is impossible to miss.  I know Chipotle has this practice not just because their communications director told the New Yorker about it, but also because I’ve been to a Chipotle displaying one of these signs in the middle of a chicken shortage.  Sirota mentions his belief that Chipotle “is interested in seeming vegetarian without actually being vegetarian,” driven in part by Chipotle’s failure, before 2011, to note on in-store menus that their pinto beans are made with bacon.  While it’s no consolation to Jews who unwittingly ate pig prior to that year, it’s worth noting that Chipotle mentioned the recipe on their website, always informed anyone who ordered a vegetarian burrito that the beans weren’t vegetarian, and issued a “razor quick” response and added a note on their in-store menus immediately after they were made aware of the problem.

Chipotle is far from perfect.  It took the company way too long to sign onto the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a program intended to guarantee some basic rights for farmworkers.  There’s not a great excuse for the pinto bean oversight and the scarecrow ad should probably have shown some antibiotic-free animals.  In the context of ethical food production in the United States, however, Chipotle is towards the top.  In terms of widely available fast food, there isn’t a single company with food ethics remotely close to Chipotle’s.  And if the company’s past is any indication, Chipotle’s future will feature continued improvement.  I therefore can confidently cast my monetary votes for Chipotle and I hope you feel comfortable doing so as well.  Eating a Chipotle burrito is an incredibly delicious and easy way to “cultivate a better world.”

Update (7/14/14): For a Chipotle ad that contrasts factory farming with Chipotle-style meat production, see below:

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