Friday, April 20, 2012

Big news.

So remember how, a while back, I said I wanted to write more this year?

I'm now writing for the Zingerman's Community blog.  There should be posts penned by yours truly showing up there two or three times a month.  And today, the first one was posted.

I'm pretty excited about this new development, and I have lots that I hope to say soon.  I hope you'll join me there.

Thanks, friends.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Midwinter break

This morning, I went to the grocery store.   I knew I needed milk and yogurt and oatmeal.  I didn't know I needed a carton each of raspberries and strawberries, but somehow those made their way into my basket, too.  They were not cheap, but it's March now, which means springtime, which means it's time to start thinking about fresh fruit beyond citrus.  (Okay, maybe not totally beyond citrus, I did grab a few oranges as well.)

The berries are bright red, beautiful, sweet, aromatic.  They are also firm just shy of being crisp (it won't do to develop bruises on the long, bumpy drive from Mexico to Michigan, after all).  They may not threaten to drip juice down my chin, but after all, it's only March second.  Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

One year

One year ago today, I cooked myself a bowl of oatmeal and decided to write about it.

Having just reread that last sentence, I must say I sound exceptionally boring.  Thank you for choosing to read these words despite that unpromising beginning.

A year ago, I was in a very different place than I am now.  A few weeks before I began writing this blog, I expected to be offered a job - one that I was extremely excited about.  When that offer fell through by mid-January, I was caught off-guard.  Suddenly I had no plans and no idea what to do next.  I had this vague idea that maybe someday I'd like to write about food, and eventually I decided that if I wanted to write about food, there was nothing stopping me from doing it now, especially since I had all this time free due to that pesky unemployment issue.  So I decided I'd start a blog, and begin to practice writing, and see where it went.

Fast forward to now.   For the last few months, I have been paid to write about food.  Granted, it's only a sentence or three at a time, and it makes up only a very limited portion of my income - but the fact remains that part of my job is to write about food.  Though I've had some time to get used to the idea, I still find that remarkable.

As to whether food writing is really where I want to be headed - I'm still making up my mind.  But I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had to learn, and to taste, and to share my learnings and tastings over the past year.  And I'm grateful to you, too, for taking part in it with me.

What's next in the year to come?  We'll have to wait and find out together.  Except, of course, for more oatmeal, because right now it's lunch time and apparently I'm still pretty boring.

Thanks, friends.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Injecting the orphans with chocolate

Last week, Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie chocolate was in town. He came to visit Zingerman's, which sells several of his chocolate bars, and to lead a public chocolate tasting as well as two staff tastings. In the continuing chronicles of why I love my job, we can add Chocolate Tastings to that list. Shawn's tasting was phenomenal.

When you taste chocolate with Shawn, he wants to make sure you get the full bean-to-bar experience. You start with a handful of just-roasted cocoa beans from Ecuador, cooled just enough that they won't burn your hands. Shawn instructs you to cup the beans tightly between your palms, to press out all of the air, and then to rub the beans to separate the exterior husks from the interior edible nibs. After maybe 10 seconds, you bring your hands to your nose, separate your palms, and inhale deeply. The nibs smell incredible – like the most decadent, delicious fresh brownie you can imagine. This, Shawn tells you, is the moment when you know the potential of the beans. This is when you discover what you'll be able to make with them.

From there, you taste through all the steps of the chocolate making process. You taste the nibs, toasty and dark with mildly bitter chocolately notes. You taste cocoa liquer, the paste that's made from grinding the nibs. Then you taste the cocoa butter and powder, and then the unconched chocolate, and finally the finished bar. Askinosie dark chocolates only include two ingredients: cocoa beans from a single origin, and organic sugar. No vanilla, no soy lecithin, nothing to take away from the flavor of the beans. The result is a chocolate that tastes like that first smell from between your palms – the promise of the beans fulfilled. Tasting through the progression is an incredible experience.

To get beans that are this great, Shawn works to educate the cacao farmers he works with to better understand the beans they grow. He visits the farmers annually, and he leads them through the same bean tasting process he teaches in his tastings with the American public. For him, the flavor is the number one priority – it needs to be, since there won't be any other flavorings to mask any off aromas of the beans.

In the pursuit of great beans, he develops strong relationships with the cacao producers. In addition to paying well above market price and profit sharing with them, Shawn works to help the communities, too. In Davao in the Philippines, Shawn worked with the local school's PTA to help bring the first computer to the area. Now, middle school students in Shawn's hometown of Springfield, Missouri regularly video chat with their Philippine pals. In Tenende, Tanzania, a remote location several hours drive from the nearest city, Shawn and high school students from Springfield helped to dig a deep-water well to bring clean water to the community. As he recounts the story, you can see the pride on Shawn's face as he humbly comments that taking his first sip of water from that well ranks among the best moments of his entire life.

Once the chocolate is made, Shawn sends the farmers chocolate bars made with their own beans. In many cases, the farmers have never tasted a chocolate bar before. Cacao grows only in tropical regions – regions where it's too hot for chocolate to stay in bar form for very long without air conditioning. Young or old, around the world, everyone has the same reaction to eating their own chocolate: Shawn describes it as reverential. They do not scarf down their chocolate; each square is slowly savored. I think we could all learn a thing or two about eating from them.

Listening to Shawn talk about his work is a powerful experience. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Charlotte in college. Charlotte's mom had just called her to tell her about one of Charlotte's high school classmates. This boy had spent his summer in Africa with some kind of medical exchange program, vaccinating children and doing all sorts of valuable humanitarian work. After the call ended, Charlotte, a pre-med student, said, “Man. He goes off to Africa and injects those orhpans, and I sit and watch TV. Watching TV is bad. Injecting the orphans is good.”

As I was driving home after listening to Shawn's story, I couldn't help but think to myself, I watch TV. Shawn Askinosie injects the orphans.  With chocolate.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fried Pickles

Sometimes, I feel so incredibly lucky to work where I do.  Like when I spend my day learning about cheese and chocolate and planning gelato sales games.  Or when I make videos on how to fry pickles.  Perhaps I should say, especially when I make videos on how to fry pickles.

It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it, right?

Hope you enjoy my work as much as I do!