Hello everyone from the beautiful deep blue city of Austin in the heart of red, red Texas. I have all kinds of good news to share with you to get everyone revved up for the convention (even though it's not for another 7 mos!).
I'm sure there's little I can say that the Austin Kossacks couldn't tell you themselves (mainly because they told ME what to do and where to go while I'm here) but I can tell you what it's like to do it as a visitor to the city. You know - getting lost on the way to everywhere you try to go, eating every single meal out, getting gouged by the hotel for parking... that sort of thing.
Special thanks to Judith2007 for showing me around her farm and to Roses & Kath25 for putting together a meetup and diarying it.
Warning: Long diary, with REALLY CUTE BABY LAMB PICTURES about halfway down. If you see Judith2007, congratulate her on being a new mommy :)
The first thing I discovered about Austin is that it's easy to navigate... almost. The nice people of Austin were kind enough to number all of their streets. Then, since that would make it too easy for all the tourists, they haphazardly put "One Way" signs all over the city.
I had plans and directions to meet a few folks from the Sustainable Food Center at Progress Coffee when I got in... but I caught an earlier plane and found myself with two extra hours. Enough to squeeze in an extra meal!
Someone on the plane gave me approximate directions from the airport to campus ("Take 71W to 35N, get off around 12th St, and everything is basically along Guadalupe.") and off I went. He left out the part about the bumper to bumper traffic at 3pm on 35N, but the rest of the directions were pretty much right on.
I had a specific goal in mind, and all I knew was that it was on or near the UT campus somewhere. Veggie Heaven was my goal and I totally stumbled into it (around 20th & Guadalupe). They are totally going to be our friend during the convention. The top price on the menu is $7.95, the food's great, the portions are HUGE, and we can have it delivered! If you end up driving over there, they have parking and they cooked my meal probably faster than I could have microwaved it.
I forgot my camera so I don't have pictures to share, but it's nothing fancy. It looks like your classic hole in the wall Chinese restaurant plus a little bit of Asian decorations (like a mini lion hanging from the ceiling that looks like it fell out of a Chinese New Year celebration).
The woman who took my order spoke Mandarin and she was exceptionally polite to chat with me and not mention how horrible my Chinese grammar and pronunciation are. It totally made my day to get soy Thai iced coffee and a steamed bun filled with sweet red bean, just like the ones they make in China. For my meal I got a teriyaki stir fry. Total bill: $10.
Stuffed to the gills with food, I left Veggie Heaven and found my way back to Progress Coffee. I think you can walk there from the convention hotel. You'd take 6th east past 35N and then hang a right at San Marcos to get to 5th.
Progress Coffee is progressive in all ways. They sell local art and music, they operate out of a refurbished warehouse, and their owner is active with the Sustainable Food Center. Of course the beans are organic and fair trade. They also offer booze, food, and all-day breakfast.
At 5:30, Claire and Joy from the Sustainable Food Center joined me. Claire ran me through an overview of what the SFC does, and then Joy told me about her specific program, La Cocina Alegre.
The SFC does pretty much everything you could ever hope for from an organization with that name. They help bring local farmers together with consumers with farmers markets and a program where employees of large institutions can order boxes of produce for delivery from the farms. They run community gardens and work with school children to teach them about how food grows. You name it, they've got it covered.
In a relatively new program, Sprouting Healthy Kids, they bring their programs into middle schools in low income areas. They told me of a major legal roadblock they face: the schools can only spend up to $1000/year on local foods. It's the law. (Yes, they are working to change that.)
Then Joy took over explaining her role at the center. She works with a program called La Cocina Alegre (The Happy Kitchen). La Cocina Alegre targets segments of the population at high risk for diet-related illnesses (mainly low income folks) and teaches them basic nutrition and cooking skills to bring healthier foods into their lives.
This isn't a program that focuses on organics or fancy raw vegan diets... it's making the difference between diets of processed junk foods (the kind of foods easiest to afford that require no preparation) and real, whole foods. If the carrots introduced into someone's diet aren't local, so be it - at least that person is now eating carrots at all.
Joy told me the classes meet in places like churches and libraries, with about 10-15 people per class. While a nutrition class might not draw a large crowd, cooking classes certainly do! Especially because you can eat during class and you get a bag of groceries to take home.
If you'd like to start something like this in your community, you can get in touch with the Center to ask for details about training to do so. The program curriculum is organized so that it can be recreated all over the country.
Casa de Luz is on the cusp of "too far to walk" and "too short to drive" from the hotel... closer to "too far to walk." I'd guess it's about 2 miles away. The atmosphere - gardens full of tiny lights - is impossible not to love but I'm not sure if I'm totally sold on the food.
They serve vegan, macrobiotic meals for a set fee. You pay as you enter, help yourself to soup, tea, and salad, and then a server brings your meal. Everyone gets the same meal. I couldn't recognize much of what was on my plate. I loved some of it, and I tolerated some of it. I tried so hard to force myself to eat the green leafy stuff but I just couldn't do it.
I've heard that some nights are better than others (depending on the menu) so I'd definitely go back to try it again. I should also add, MissLaura, that they had a wonderful selection of gluten free desserts.
On the way to Casa de Luz, I passed the flagship Whole Foods (it's about halfway to Casa). On the way home, I stopped in just to gawk. Whole Foods probably is walking distance from the hotel. It's on 5th & Lamar. I wasn't as shocked and awed as I'd expected, since I've seen a Whole Foods almost as big in Dallas (that one had a SPA inside of it!!!), but I did get lost.
My first stop was the gelato bar, because I'd heard it was made in the store back when I worked at the gelato counter serving not-homemade gelato at the San Diego Whole Foods. I sampled a number of flavors including avocado, watermelon, panna cotta, pistachio, and pineapple basil.
They don't just make their own gelato. They also smoke their own seafood and roast their own nuts. Hell, they probably churn their own butter.
I took a few notes while I was there. For one thing, the roasted asparagus was going for $9.99/lb at the Prepared Foods counter. Are they insane? Fresh asparagus at a farmers' market is going to run you (max!) $5/lb. Does the process of adding a bit of olive oil and roasting it double its value?
The other note I took is now posted up on Marion Nestle's blog. It's a drink called "House Call." Here's the label off the drink bottle:
An apple a day keeps the doctor away? The docs at Function think that's slightly rude. What you should keep away are the millions of germs threatening to run you down. So to get back in your good graces, the physicians at Function created House Call. Now you can have a little doctor in your fridge. We call him Dr. McDrinky.
What exactly does Dr. McDrinky consist of, you ask? Sugar water with a few vitamins mixed in. Yuck.
I left the store without buying anything. What do I win?
When I finally drove over to the hotel, I found the parking is $15/night self park or $19/night valet. Since I didn't see anything resembling a parking lot or a garage and I had to pee, I chose valet. This summer, I'm taking cabs everywhere instead. (I'm at a Marriott Courtyard next to the convention hotel, the Hilton, but I can't imagine parking is any more plentiful or cheap next door.)
I got up at the crack of 9am to meet Judith2007 at the downtown farmers' market. It's a small market but an easy walk from the hotel - just a few blocks over to 4th & Guadalupe. Of course this market will be a bit bigger in July - more things grow then than in the dead of winter.
Judith was in high demand because she's active on NAIS opposition and other kinds of ag issues. When we finally pulled ourselves away, we joined Marla (editor of Edible Austin magazine) in getting coffee and breakfast and sitting down.
As it turns out, Marla's a Kossack. She's not only familiar with NN'08 - she's working on the DFA training for the convention. When we started chatting with her about incorporating local food into the convention she gave us a number of great ideas. I love Kossacks!
I couldn't imagine why Judith insisted on seeing another farmers' market, Boggy Creek, until we got there. Boggy Creek is an Austin icon, she tells me. The "market" is really just one farm, but they also sell products from other local farms to help other local farmers and to allow their customers to finish their shopping in one place.
I hadn't bought more than I could eat on the spot at the downtown market, but I greedily stocked up at Boggy Creek. I got kohlrabi and baby turnips (two favorites I haven't had since leaving Wisconsin) and some citrus.
To make sure I had a full tour, Judith and I hit the Sunset Valley Farmers' Market before heading back to her farm. It's the biggest of the three markets but it's not close to the convention center.
My only food purchases were challah cinnamon rolls and a grapefruit. I also bought a bar of soap called "Hippie Hollow" as a gift for my parents. They went to school in Austin in the 1970's and they've talked for decades about nude bathing at Hippie Hollow during grad school. Not that they ever did that, of course... I mean...
Warning if anyone goes here, there are some Scientologists around and they try to trick you into whatever it is they are up to by offering you what appears to be a sort of massage or something. My market at home offers massages (real ones) so I temporarily fell for this, until the woman said the word "L. Ron Hubbard."
The best moment at this market was when I found out I'm a retrovore. That's a new word, invented today. One of the farmers we were chatting with said his kid said to him "Dad, if you didn't raise animals the way you do, I'd probably be a vegan." He said, "I probably would too."
That's when they came up with the term "retrovore." One who eats food that was raised the way it should have been raised... like they used to do it before they learned how to ruin it. On the other hand, telling people who don't know the difference between mainstream food and the animal products I'd consider fit to eat that I'm a vegan is easier than saying "Your food's disgusting."
I could extoll Judith and her farm forever, but I'm going to go right to what everyone probably wants most: cute baby lambs!
If you thought Joel Salatin in The Omnivore's Dilemma was great, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Judith and her husband are passionate environmentalists. Like Joel, they practice rotational grazing. She's got a background in biology, law, and eco-agriculture, and he's a genius with animals and putting things together and making them work. In addition to the sheep, they also raise chickens, turkeys, and horses.
If you read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! you might recognize the turkey breed, Bourbon red. It's the same one from the book. I've been turkey-obsessed ever since I read it. Judith swears by the flavor of hers.
A common theme throughout my time at the farm was Judith's husband's love of animals - and their affection for him. He's got a soft spot for the turkeys so they stay right by the house. He can get right up to them and pet them, whereas I couldn't get anywhere close.
The same went for the sheep. They are a prey animal so Judith had to teach me how to approach them without scaring them off - eyes down, zigzag towards them instead of walking straight at them, stay together, and pause for a bit to let them readjust when you reach the edge of their comfort zone. The sheep were extra cautious because the babies are just a week old, but they still let her husband close enough to kidnap a baby for me to pet.
We stayed with them a while, taking pictures and watching them. The babies have grown so much in the past week that they have to bend their knees a bit to nurse. When they nurse they head butt their poor moms a bit and wag their tails like crazy. That's what the one we kidnapped did when we let him go - he needed comfort food, STAT!
While we were there, Judith kicked over what I thought was a pile of manure to expose an ant hill. Dung beetles pull all of the fresh manure down into the soil, leaving behind piles of healthy soil where the manure once was. It still looks like a pile of poop, but that's just the very surface. Because dung beetles are extremely sensitive to chemicals, they only live on farms with absolutely NO chemical treatments.
Judith also explained the use of compost tea to develop the microbiological makeup of the soil. When you don't have enough compost to cover an entire large farm, you use what you've got to brew up "compost tea" - the microbiological makeup of the compost cultivated in water. Spray that all over your farm and you'll reap the benefits of spreading compost everywhere.
Her whole farm is an example of her success with compost tea and other holistic management practices. Where the soil was once hard as concrete, it's now soft and spongy. With such wonderful soil, plants survive lower cold temperatures, higher hot temperatures, and longer droughts.
Her animals obviously benefit the soil, but I asked her if they harm the environment as cattle do via belching. She replied that animals fed a natural diet do not belch nearly the amount of greenhouse gases into the air that feedlot animals do. Not surprising.
She asked me what I knew about Brix. I knew only the very basics: it's a way to measure the nutrient density of a food. She uses it extensively on her farm. For example, if you want to determine whether a specific fertilizer will help a plant, you do an experiment. Take two small areas where your plant grows and take Brix measurements. Then spray one with water (as a control) and one with the fertilizer. In eight hours take Brix measurements of each plant. If the fertilized plant's value went up, then you should use that fertilizer.
What I love about Judith is that she's living proof that sustainable farming does not mean going back in time. Judith's farm is high tech! The fact that her high tech equipment consists of A LOT of animal poop doesn't negate the science behind it.
She went on to tell me that insects bodies are designed opposite ours, in that what's good for us is bad for them and vice versa. Their antennae can spot the crops that are good for them too. If you plant one tomato plant in potting soil and another in high quality compost, intertwine the plants, and let aphids at them, guess which ones the aphids go for? They want the one in the potting soil. Take Brix measurements and of course the plant in the compost gets a higher score.
Just with that little bit of information alone, she's debunked the idea that we need tons of commercial fertilizers AND tons of commercial pesticides. We need neither. Build up your soil properly and the plants you grow in it won't attract pests. Can you even imagine what the world would look like if everyone took that advice?
After leaving the farm, Judith and I returned to civilization to meet up with Kath25, Roses, and the rest of the Austin Kossack crew. Kath's got pics and she'll do a diary. I'll stick to reviewing the restaurant.
We ate at Mother's, a vegetarian restaurant that burnt down and just reopened. The food is somewhat standard vegetarian fare - veggie burgers, stir fries, smoothies, salads, soups, etc. I liked my veggie burger quite a lot but unfortunately couldn't eat more since I'd ruined my dinner with Judith's fabulous eggs and a whole bunch of turnips and kohlrabi. Mother's isn't close to the convention but it's a good time, so you might want to make a trip anyway.
I'm going to be sorry to leave Austin today but I'm ready to get back to my work routine in Dallas. There's going to be LOTS of follow-up from this weekend now that Austin's sustainable food crowd is engaged in making Netroots Nation '08 more wonderful. If you're interested in planning sustainable food's presence at the convention, join our email group.