Saturday, February 2, 2013

Luminary Series, Leda Meredith: Sustainability (Not Too Tidy, Please)

Garlic Mustard 

Linden Blossoms

Lady's Thumb

Leda with some of her foraged and preserved foods.

I had the recent fortune to sit down with Leda Meredith. She is a sensation in Brooklyn known for her expertise in foraging. Leda is also an author, a regular columnist on food preservation, a botanist (ergo the foraging), a former professional dancer, and all-around smart cookie. She forages - if you aren't familiar with what that means, basically she has been identifying wild growing edible and medicinal plants, harvesting them (with sustainability in mind, so there's more to come back for year-after-year), and incorporating them into her daily routine - and has been doing so since she was 2 or 3 years old, when her great-grandmother wanted company as she gathered greens in Golden Gate Park across the street from her home. 

Leda's great-grandmother was the first generation to leave Greece, and lived the culture of local-seasonal eating. "To this day," she says, "the Mediterranean way is people in hillsides picking greens – it’s the young people and the older people, the restaurant chefs, everyone. It’s part of the culture, because it is what is in season, and it just plain makes sense." Leda leads regular tours and workshops in conjunction with the New York Botanical Garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Sidetour, and a variety of other independent groups. She even has taught her own mother this age-old practice, paying forward - and all-around, really - skills that were commonplace practice well before agriculture came on the scene.

Currently Leda is finishing her latest book, Wild Edible Plants of the Northeast, a field guide from Timber Press. It will be available at bookstores later this year! She states, "This guide is good for the foodie and novice crowd looking to see what is available and in-season. There is a balance of enough information for proper plant identification, without too much so as to intimidate people." I've contributed a few images to the new book and am eager to see it in print.


What is one of the most important things to you right now in world of food?

Personal sustainability. Not just “yes I care about larger agricultural sustainability and general environmental sustainability” but personal: how my food choices impact the bigger world, and bluntly - if the sh*t hits the fan, do I have enough skills to take care of myself, do I know how to grow food? Do I know how to forage food? Can I share those skills? That is important to me.

Mulling cider to warm the spirit.
Straining and fortifying the elixir. Sooo good.

Was your mom a good cook? Did you have more adventurous meals or conventional as you grew up?

Both my mom and step-dad are great cooks. And totally different. He’s a recipe guy and more traditional, so there’s usually a piece of meat, a starch, and a vegetable on the plate. Very good – but more traditional. My mom wings it. Total improvisation. She can never repeat anything, so if you liked it, too bad.  *...lots of laughter...* That was it. She’ll just fling spices at whatever she’s cooking until it tastes right to her. My mom comes up with wonderful stuff, and really adventurous too. So, I had both sides of the experience.

What is an example of this adventurousness you speak of?

Mainly her use of seasonings and what she thinks to throw together. She doesn’t think of cultural tradition, like “oh, that’s an Italian spice, that’s a Mexican spice” she just says “oh, that’s cumin, that’s rosemary, that’s whatever, and that sounds good to me today,” and put it all together. She combines East Indian spices with Italian, and she doesn’t call it fusion cuisine. And whatever comes out at the other end is what it is. It doesn’t always work, but…. (laughter) ...when it does, it is really awesome. I learned to almost treat ingredients like individual characters. Not lump together, as in “I’m supposed to use this with this…” They are all people in my kitchen. I think, “who do I want at the party tonight?” I invite the ones I want at the party on a specific night…. And that’s from my mom, that’s her approach.

What are five indispensible food items or ingredients for you?

I’ll start with two that when I did the really strict local food challenge, I gave myself exemptions for these, because they were so essential to my kitchen that I didn’t think I could do a year without them. I did a year-long strict 250-mile diet, and no food came farther than that distance from my apartment. It was inspired by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and many of those people. But, Michael Pollan lives in California; I live in a cold winter climate. Very different cultural situation. Barbara Kingsolver has a farm; I have a one-bedroom in Brooklyn. I wanted to know if that notion – of sustainable eating – could actually translate into my life. It was great stuff that they were writing, but I wanted to know if I could apply it, and then for that model to potentially grow into other people’s lives, somehow…

There were a couple things – as committed as I am – that I would not do a year without: olive oil and salt. If not olive oil, some kind of vegetable oil, some kind of non-animal cooking fat, etc. Beyond that, hmmm, what is essential in my kitchen? Alliums are essential – garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, those are all so important and I can’t imagine cooking without them. There must be some kind of allium in my kitchen, absolutely. Also, aromatic herbs – they can be fresh or dried – from any culinary history or tradition. If I have those things, I already have dinner. I could do a damn fine soup just making a broth with some alliums and some nice herbs, salting it a little bit and giving it a drizzle of olive oil, and there we’ve got dinner. So, some kind of really flavorful aromatic herbs would have to be included…. And, probably legumes, interestingly enough. Some kind of beans or lentils or things like that. Yes, for nutrition and protein – and backup to everything else, to make you feel full. Also for small space growing, I know that I could not grow enough of my own grain to make bread in my little backyard, for instance. But, I can grow beans. I can grow quite a few beans if I trellis them up in my garden. For small space sustainability beans are actually, for that kind of sustenance, more the way to go than grain might be. Plus, if you look at my other ingredients, I’ve can also do a damn fine dip. *more laughter* We’ve got the garlic, the olive oil, the sea salt, the beans – and we’re good to go.

If you were presented your last meal – celebratory to be sure! – what would you want to have at the table?

I would want it to be absolutely 100% local and seasonal. If I could not physically get out and forage or pick it, or gather it at the green market myself, I would want my friends to do it for me. I would want it to have been picked that day and brought to me fresh from the land and fresh from the season. It would be representative of what being here on Earth is. It would be a celebration of that. So I can’t definitively answer that because it would depend on when during the year it would be. In late May, please bring me strawberries. If it would be beginning of September, I want those heirloom tomatoes. (I cut in and say, “so you wouldn’t necessarily have bacon or chocolate??”) Leda laughs and says “and I love bacon and chocolate! But I would not. They would be welcome at the table, but if I was really doing a farewell to meals on Earth, it would be what was hot that day, what was coming out of my area, an hour ago.

What is one of your favorite all-time recipes?

I call it “anything soup.”  (lots of laughter)  It’s the simplest recipe in the universe. You need those alliums again. If you’ve got stock, you use stock, if not, you use water. And you take whatever leafy green that you’ve got at that time in season – it could be a cultivated one like broccoli, or a wild one like sheep’s sorrel – and then some relatively mild root vegetable. Potato is the poster child for that, but it could be something else. Puree the heck out of it once you’ve cooked it and call it dinner. Anything can go into that. It’s not my fanciest, it’s not party food, but it will use up what is in my backyard today and turn it into a filling dinner anytime of the year. Allium, good broth (animal or otherwise), good, starchy root vegetable, good leafy green-type vegetable, and olive oil or butter, or some kind of fat.
Add some crusty bread, get fancy if you want with a drizzle of pesto on top, but that’s the base. The bottom line is simple and from there you can build. Throw sour cream or crème fraiche, but you start out with a root and a veg and an allium.

I do not avoid the more complicated stuff, but more and more, I look at a few recipes and a few techniques, and then move to the embellishments.  If you can apply these to the various categories, you can apply them to anything, like: stuff you can do with meat. Stuff you can do with leafy greens. When you know these basics, you can mix it up and then broaden out and get fancy with it, but, I would love more people to know that basic stuff. In truth, they don’t.

You cannot get people to shop at their local greenmarket or eat locally – much less grow their own food – if they get home and they don’t know what to do with a parsnip. The introduction needs to be made - “Girl, meet parsnip!” And what do you do with it when you get it home? Experienced cooks will go home with something new, figure out how to use it - maybe do a google search because there is so much on the internet and that makes things easier. But if you’re not that comfortable as a cook, the last thing you want is some strange vegetable sitting around - that alien spaceship-looking thing that you just don’t know what to do with - to remind you that you don’t have a wherewithal. Kohlrabi is the perfect poster child for that. Celeriac, too....

Field Garlic Bulbils and Wood Sorrel

Who would you say are some of your food role models, and why?

This role model is someone who has been a role model for so many people so it feels cliché to even bring her up. But her name pops in my brain:  Julia Child is up there, because of the sheer fearlessness and the willingness to make mistakes in public, and just go “this happens sometimes.” She brought cooking to a human level.  I think because of safety codes and whatever, that when we look at food TV today compared to food TV when she was doing it, what happens to an actual person trying to put food on a table is not what we see now, on almost all of the shows. Someone said on Facebook that we are all comparing our everyday lives to other people’s highlight reels. Julia Child didn’t do a highlight reel. She’s said “I just dropped food on the floor and I’m picking it up and rinsing it off.” She shared real-life info and it was awesome, filmed live by her husband. She might flip the omelette and she doesn’t make it, and she lets you see her not make the omelette flip. It’s real. The experience isn’t photo-shopped and edited. It’s hard to think of a six-foot-two woman as vulnerable, but for the sheer humanity of what Julia brought, she is on my list.

I’d also put Barbara Kingsolver on my list, for everything she’s put out there with her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She made sustainability real and not a theoretical, wags-her-finger “you should do this: here are the evils of industrial agriculture, here’s why it is bad for you, here is what you’re supposed to do” kind of rule. Instead, Kingsolver shows what a good way to eat is, what made it challenging for her, what made it great, etc. She translated good and sustainable food into practices that are real, for regular people to use, and what applying this might actually look like in real life – not some abstract theoretical thing. I like people who bring it down to reality: “What can I do, what’s that really going to look like when I do it, and how is it really going to work?” That kind of stuff.

Lastly, I have to include Gary Lincoff, and he’s a wild card to throw in there, but I have to say him as well. Gary wrote the Audubon Guide to Wild Mushrooms, as well as several other books. He has two new books out in the last couple years, on foraging and wild mushrooms and the like. The knowledge is huge. There are various people out there with that kind of knowledge, but he does it all in New York City. For me, because I too live in New York City, the fact that somebody who is famous in wild mushroom and wild edible plant circles has spent his whole life (he’s approaching 70…) in Manhattan, and yet, he is famous for writing the Audubon Guide and other foraging books! – is astounding. He knew Euelle Gibbons personally, and Gary busted the stereotype. He didn’t buy the house in the country – he practiced this lifestyle where he was. It is the practical. Gary knows he could go someplace pastoral to do this work, but he did it here.

If it is too glammed up, too tidy and pretty – “this is how a forager lives, this is how a world-famous chef lives, etc.” – then the rest of us have an excuse not to do anything. It’s distanced from our own experiences. Whereas if you take Julia Child or Barbara Kingsolver and you see how they bring it home. Which in turn makes you feel like “Oh! I can do that.” It allows that margin for error that makes it real. Gary might not love me for saying that but, it’s real. (giggling)… No margin of error in plant identification or mushrooms, maybe...! (giggles some more)

How would you say the culinary landscape has changed in New York in the years you have been here?

I have been here through a few fluctuations, and they have mainly been awesome. The overall trend is a good trend. When I was here at 16, when Alice Waters and the first glimmers of fresh, local, seasonal stuff was starting to get into restaurants, it was not in stores. The stores had iceberg lettuce, they had two kinds of apples – that was it – but the chefs started to pick up and that began to change the food scene. Then, it went totally crazy: “appreciate your lettuce leaf” but there’d only be one on your plate – it got a little ridiculous. Then that brought the comeback of “it’s okay to eat butter, it’s okay to eat bacon” and the acceptance of eating comfort & richer foods and down-home cooking styles. That, and now seeing foraged ingredients that we hadn’t heard of ten years ago – I was eating them, because I was foraging them, but most people hadn’t even known about them then, and they’re even at the markets now. People don’t even blink in seeing dandelion greens at the market anymore, or purslane. I think there’s more diversity and availability in things like vegetables. There’s certainly more meat options. If I wanted to eat humanely raised/grass-fed/pastured/organic meat in 1982, it didn’t exist. I would have had to be vegetarian, and in fact, I was, because there were no clean options. Clean options in food have shown up. It’s not that hard to find now.

The current glass ceiling is that people still think it is hard, and it is not. In some places, granted, it is more difficult, and people do need to modify their lives – that learning curve – but compared to when I did the 250-mile diet in 2007, it is SO much easier now. Stuff is available more widely, even more year-round. Of course I am talking about New York, but things everywhere have changed, and largely for the better.

There is a favorite statistic of mine which I discovered while researching my last book. I’ve quoted it before and I imagine I’ll be quoting it for a while, because it is so awesome. People do one of two things: they get overwhelmed because they have to make all these changes and it just seems like too much – more than they can do – or, right out of the door, sign themselves off and that is their excuse. They decide they’re just not going to do it because it’s so much to do... That’s a really all-or-nothing approach. The stat – which I re-verified 6 months ago, so it’s still current as far as I can tell – says "if an average American family buying most of their current food at a conventional grocery store were to switch 25% of those purchases to a local, and ideally organic, footprint (as opposed to industrial agriculture), that it would save more than all of their glass, metal, and plastic recycling COMBINED."

While people feel virtuous by doing recycling (and it is an important component), they could actually be doing more. Not by changing their whole meal, but by changing even the lettuce in their salad and the like. That does more to help the planet, because of the amount of energy it takes to produce conventional – i.e. grocery-available – fruits and vegetables. Grocery produce is completely tied to fossil fuels: industrial ag fertilizers and herbicides are made out of oil-based products, and that’s before you even get into running the machinery – the mechanization of harvesting, packaging, and shipping the food. Those refrigerated trucks traveling hundreds of miles with boxed produce? Try buying from someplace truly local, where the food was harvested only once it was actually ripe, and traveled less than a couple hundred miles to get to you.

When you just measure carbon footprint, the footprint you save through recycling metal and plastic and glass is way less than what you would save if you were eating local, organic food. The takeaway on that is that it does not have to be everything on your plate, which makes it doable for everyone. As ideal as it might be, it is probably not doable right now for most people, and it doesn’t have to be. Swap out one or two things daily, for good. Start small and build upon that new foundation, incrementally.  

To read more in the luminary series, click here and here. Thank you so much, Leda, for sharing what you have learned with us.

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