2009 local hero award winners

The results are in. Here are the Edible East Bay faves from our 2009 poll.

Local Hero: Farmer/Farm
City Slicker Farms
by Max Cadji

In 1943, Americans planted more than 20 million Victory Gardens, growing one-third of all the fresh produce consumed in the U.S. The emerging movement to bring home food production back into the mainstream draws frequent comparisons to the Victory Gardens, but this time, thanks to efforts like those at City Slicker Farms (CSF) in West Oakland, the gardens are not just appearing behind white picket fences in suburbia. They are sprouting up in side yards, patios, cracks, crevices, and paved lots across urban America.

Larry, the newest “BYG” or backyard gardener with CSF, says he loves anything green, from arugula to collards. In late fall, I visited with him as he planted a final crop of hardy dino kale and collards in his two-box raised-bed backyard garden, where he also has four types of mustard as well as beets, radishes, spinach, and about 10 different herbs. He plants the new starts with a giant serving spoon and waters them from a halfgallon milk jug he fills over and over again from the kitchen sink. This is Larry’s first garden and he is still figuring out when crops go in, asking, “Is now the time put in tomatoes?” He offers me “a plate,” as he calls his vegetarian cuisine, and explains how he hopes to grow a good portion of his own greens and root vegetables to supplement the produce he is able to buy at the Mandela Food Co-op in West Oakland.  This year Larry will be adding his greens to the more than 15,600 pounds of produce that were grown by CSF’s BYGs in 2008. Most of this harvest is consumed at the gardeners’ homes or shared with neighbors.  Any excess is sold or given away every Saturday on the corner of 16th and Center streets, in front of one of CSF’s oldest urban farm plots.

Increasingly, unused or underused public and civic properties are being eyed for expansions of such food security projects. For instance, CSF is working with the City of Oakland to transform two small parks near 34th and Peralta into a rich, raised-bed community farm complete with its own flock of urban chickens and French-style ornamental vegetable landscaping. As I look over the site in early December, I see a dozen long, raised beds being constructed out of sheet metal, rebar, and reclaimed wood. A few snack bags are blowing in the wind, and across the street at a local recycling center, people with shopping carts full of cans and bottles are cashing in their “harvest.” But when I close my eyes and envision the near future at this spot, there is the warm breeze of spring and the cackle of chickens heard over the roar of nearby freeway traffic. It echoes with stories of the past I often catch bits and pieces of at other CSF urban farms, where an OG (that’s original gardener) shares smiles of what West

Oakland used to be and what it has potential to become . . . “Over there we grew cabbages and over there collards greens, cherry tomatoes, and plum trees. Oh, and down on Pine Street there was . . .” •

City Slicker Farms
510.763.4241, info@cityslickerfarms.org

For over 10 years, Max Cadji has been working to bring about food justice and sustainable agriculture for the benefit of urban communities. He currently works as a coordinator with the People’s Grocery, Phat Beets Produce, and “Ferment Change,” an event to raise funds for urban agriculture projects. He can be reached at max@phatbeetsproduce.org.

Local Hero: Chef/Restaurant
Taco Grill
by sage dilts

  • in red chile vinaigrette, then grilled and heaped on a fresh handmade tortilla with shredded cabbage, beans and tomatillo salsa.
  • Handmade corn tortillas, served with your choice of battered deep-fried or grilled red snapper, plus shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, and a chipotle cream sauce.
  • Chiles rellenos made with lightly battered poblano chiles stuffed with cheese in a delicious minimally cooked fresh tomato sauce.
  • Chicken soup made with free-range chicken and big chunks of fresh farmers market potatoes, carrots, and zucchini.
  • Pozole made from organic hominy kernels, soaked for 24 hours then simmered in freshly made chicken stock to rich perfection.
  • Hot atole for cold days, made in-house from masa, milk, brown sugar, and pecans These are just a few of the highlights at Taco Grill Taqueria & Pozoleria, where every tortilla is handmade to order using fresh organic masa dough rather than reconstituted masa harina, meats are all free-range or otherwise natural and sustainable, produce is organic and fresh from the farmers market, and cooking oils are the healthy choices. These efforts are standard for Taco Grill chef and owner Leticia Chavez, who doesn’t see cooking from scratch as extra work or high-quality ingredients as a needless expenditure, but simply necessary in order to produce the good food she serves at her restaurant in the Fruitvale Public Market.

So why does she do it this way? Leticia explains that she grew up in Puerto Vallarta in a family deeply involved with producing good food.  Her parents ran a farm, and she says that her father was relentlessly committed to natural solutions to the inevitable challenges of farming.  The family also ran a restaurant where everyone was involved in cooking.  Of her five sisters, Leticia spent the most time there and was the best cook. As an adult she started and ran a number of businesses in different fields, but her family always encouraged her to start a restaurant; her mother in particular felt that this was Leticia’s true calling.

In winter of 2007 Leticia followed this calling and started Taco Grill, bucking the norm for taquerias and building relationships with farmers and producers to supply ingredients that are up to her high standards. Leticia says that natural, fresh, organic, and healthy ingredients are the basics of traditional meals in Mexico, so there’s no reason for them not to be here as well. •

Taco Grill
Fruitvale Public Market
3340 E 12th St Ste 11, Oakland
510.534.3752, taco-grill.blogspot.com

Sage Dilts authors a blog, mindtomouth.org, on which she writes about the subjects of using limited resources to eat and live well and the use of domestic skills to practically support health and a vibrant regional food system.

Local Hero: Food Artisan
Barlovento Chocolates
by sage dilts

Peter Brydon’s adventures in the chocolate trade began six years ago at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market when he bit into a dried Bing cherry from Smit Farms and realized how good it would taste covered in a certain beloved confection.

What began as simple inspiration turned into a journey, as he sought to find just the right chocolate for the job, and then got caught up in the intricacies of chocolatiering, going so far as to get some formal training. He persisted, cooking up small batches and testing them on his family and friends (none of whom complained about the work), and soon found himself with a new hobby. Before long the hobby had ballooned into a full-time job, not only for Peter, but for his family as well.

Barlovento owes more to Bay Area farmers markets than simple inspiration. Many of the fresh flavors of his truffles and treats benefit from Peter’s commitment to using fresh herbs, nuts, and fruits sourced from local farms. Because of this reliance on fresh produce, much of Peter’s work involves adjusting recipes to account for subtle changes in the flavors of the ingredients throughout the year. For instance, spring mint is not the same as summer mint to Peter’s careful palate.  Another reason Peter appreciates and is committed to farmers markets is the invaluable opportunity they provide for small and burgeoning producers to connect with customers. It was through talking with a visitor to his Grand Lake Market booth that Peter was given the idea for his most popular item, the Mayan Hot Chocolate Truffle, which is based on a recipe for the ancient spicy bittersweet drink. Customers with lemon trees at home make a sweet trade, bringing in fruit that has been “organically neglected” (as Brydon refers to it) and taking home some Meyers Lemon Zest Truffles in return. Talk about taking life’s lemons!

For his understanding of great confectionery Peter credits a mix of intuition and guidance from his wife, Laurie. She’s the true cook of the family, and makes all the caramel for Barlovento Chocolates in a small copper saucepan. From the start, she was a supportive partner in getting the business off the ground. After explaining how little convincing he had to do to get Laurie to let him become a full-time chocolatier, Peter admits that he is a lucky man.

The foundation of all Barlovento wares is single-source Venezuelan dark chocolate. It provides an aromatic flavor profile for everything, from the fleur du sel bars and caramels to herbed, spiced, and/or fruity truffles, and the chocolate-covered cherries and marshmallows.

You can find these exquisite goodies in the East Bay at the Oakland

Grand Lake Farmers Market, or stop in for a visit at the factory, 638 2nd Street in Oakland. • barloventochocolates.com

Local Hero: Beverage Artisan
Blue Bottle Coffee
story and photo by david gans

My wife, Rita, has always been fussy about coffee. When Blue Bottle Coffee first came on the scene at the Oakland farmers markets, she tasted it and said, “This is like fine wine. There are flavors and aromas to savor, top notes, complexity, and finish.” It got me wondering; The Bay Area has been a coffee mecca for more than a century, so how could this coffee be that much better?  To find out, I went to talk to Blue Bottle’s founder, James Freeman.  I learned that before he became so busy roasting coffee, he was an itinerant clarinetist, teaching and freelancing with various classical music organizations. Coffee was a hobby for him at first. “I roasted coffee on a perforated baking sheet at home, and when I had to travel I would take some coffee with me . . . it was how I kind of controlled a little part of my environment.”

He was getting the unroasted beans from a coffee broker in South San Francisco, who was willing to sell them by the pound instead of by the 135-pound bag. “I would drive down there a few times a month, pick up a few pounds of this or that, and roast it on my baking sheet,” said Freeman. “Sometimes I’d burn it and sometimes not.” One particular batch, circa 1997, changed everything.  “There was a Puerto Rican coffee called Yauco Selecto. I remember trying it a couple of days out of the oven and it kinda like blew me away. I was used to Peet’s coffee-kind of dark. They do a good job but they have their certain style, and I was used to that profile. This was very much a soft, ‘island’ kind of coffee. It was a lighter roast, just by happenstance, because I pulled it out of the oven at a certain time.  That’s what really got me hooked.”

Over the years Freeman grew more serious about coffee as he grew more burned out on the extended traveling his career required. “Playing Holst’s ‘The Planets’ with the Modesto Symphony was not the most inspiring way to spend time,” he said.  Freeman launched Blue Bottle in 2002. “Ignorance is bliss. Being a clarinet player, I didn’t have a background in business or in coffee.  But I had this drive, and a very small amount of money. People were skeptical at first, ’cause it seemed kind of ridiculous.” I asked Freeman how he managed to get attention for Blue Bottle in this coffee-saturated market. “In a bigger sense, I don’t think it really is a coffee-saturated market,” he replied. “There’s ubiquity, but there’s not a lot of choice. There are dozens or hundreds of different types of coffee that’s roasted thoughtlessly and prepared poorly.” Blue Bottle’s new Oakland home is in the produce district near Jack London Square. “I fell in love with that building. The warehouse itself was built in 1923 and it’s been extensively remodeled. It was Bay Cities Produce since 1947.”

The retail shop on the corner is open seven days a week. “We sell products from our kitchen, coffee to drink, and coffee beans. We’ve got a full production kitchen where we’re making a lot of the food that’s in our cafes. We’ve got a cupping room and a special event room, where we recently had the Pork Prom [a meat-sharing event where people could buy 5- and 10-pound shares of heritage free-range pork from Shasta Valley Farm]. This year we’ll be featuring some public cuppings, and Rose Levy Beranbaum is coming in for a book signing in April.”

“That’s what I want that building to be,” says Freeman. “A center for interesting things; a fun place for people to gather. Sometimes coffee will be the entire focus, and sometimes it’ll just be an important part of the event.” •


David Gans: Musician, journalist, photographer, radio producer, and adult-onset food activist. cloudsurfing.gdhour.com

Local Hero: Organization
Merritt College Landscape Horticulture
and Permaculture Design Programs
story and photo by helen krayenhoff

Home gardening is definitely on the rise in the East Bay, as it is everywhere. And while that may show up as more pots of basil on the patio, it also means more people are looking for a solid technical education in traditional horticulture or in the rising field of permaculture gardening. All this comes along as public funds for continuing education have all but disappeared.

Merritt College in Oakland has responded quickly to expanding demand in the past nine years, making their horticulture and permaculture programs accessible to as many people as possible. The permaculture design program, which has come about primarily through the efforts of Christopher Shein, has been especially popular. This hands-on program has blossomed into one of the most affordable and sought-after in the Bay Area.

“What exactly is permaculture?” many people ask. On a recent tour of the Merritt College permaculture garden, Anders Vidstrand, a program staffmember, gave a “short version” definition: “Permaculture is community, ecology, and culture.” He explained that every garden site has many levels of community, from insect, plant, and wild animal communities to the community of people cultivating it, past and present.  He spoke eloquently not only about local indigenous practices but also about the farming practices of peoples in other parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean and lower elevations of the Andes, where there is a similar ecology. Plants from these areas grow well in some parts of the Bay Area and include some perennial vegetables that are hardy, nutritious, productive, and tasty.

In order to show some examples, Anders led us through a fruit and nut orchard that the student gardeners have interplanted with perennial vegetables and herbs. He pointed to a comfrey plant that is growing right up against the trunk of a fruit tree, explaining that the deep taproot of the plant brings up nutrients into the comfrey leaves, which, when cut and strewn around the fruit tree, decompose and give the tree’s surface feeder roots a boost of essential nutrients. He also pointed out plants that flower in early spring, attracting bees that will also pollinate the fruit tree blossoms. These examples of complex plant community relationships are echoed in the relationships students create with the gardens and each other.

For more information on the Landscape Horticulture and Permaculture Design programs at Merritt College, including other classes offered in the permaculture program, such as Natural Building, Mushroom Cultivation, Regenerative Design, and Beneficial Beasts, call

510.530.4911 or go to merrittlandhort.com. •

Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner with her partner Peggy Kass, of Kassenhoff Growers, a local organic plant nursery, kassenhoffgrowers.com. Her illustrations appear regularly in this magazine.

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