Serious Pigs: Rabelais Books, Portland, Maine

The first line of the first book written by Françoise Rabelais — writer, doctor, teller of bawdy jokes — addresses those most “Most Noble and Illustrious Drinkers,” before taking up Plato’s The Banquet, Socrates and Silenus, the foster-father of Bacchus. By this one sentence from Pantagruel, two things are made clear. Rabelais was very sharp; Rabelais was very much a sot.

To call him uncivilized would be unfair. He is known, after all, for his moral clarity (“Frugality is for the vulgar”), for his principles (“From the gut comes the strut, and where hunger reigns, strength abstains”) and for his restraint (“I drink no more than a sponge”). It’s impossible to say just how Rabelais lived, but if the fantasies he wrote reflect anything of the life behind them, then the quality of his character is well documented. He was well read, well fed and always hungry for more.

I should say that my interest in Rabelais started not with his books, but with a bookstore named in his honor. It’s impossible to know, but I’d like to think that Rabelais Books, of Portland, Maine, reflects the better nature of the name it bears.

The two owners, Samantha Hoyt Lindgren and Don Lindgren, are outsiders that have been accepted by an insiders’ state. Don, a former rare book collector, and Samantha, a former magazine photo editor and pastry chef, have their professional roots in Dadaism, in People magazine and, even, in international music. They will forever be from “away” for those old-time Mainers whose narrowly defined regionalism is beginning to feel like an anachronism in an increasingly progressive city. But their energy — comfortable, smart, breezy — is more country than city. At one point, a local chef brought her young son in to pet the Lindgren dog — apparently a favorite of his. The point was there. They’re now part of the herd.

From it’s position on Middle Street, the bookstores is next to Hugo’s, across the street from Duck Fat, Norm’s East End Grill, and Ribolita’s, and only a gull’s throw from Fore Street, The Standard Baking Company, Two Fat Cats and Amato’s, where you’ll find the finest French food, BBQ, fries, steak, seafood and bakery in town, as well as what some argue is the birthplace of the Italian sandwich. Part of the Lindgren’s success is undoubtedly due to how well they have captured the variety of Portland’s longstanding interest in food. According to Don, both he and Samantha are into either the “really high cuisine stuff, or the farm to table stuff. Two sorts of ends of things, but Portland is a town where you can do both.”

For my part, I first stumbled upon the store with a croissant and a cup of coffee in hand, as I made my way over to Duck Fat for some late morning fries — not something that I would recommend regularly, but when done infrequently can kick start one’s system, much like a New Year’s plunge in your neighborhood lake.

On this day, Samantha wasn’t there. I spoke to Dan for a little while, and came back the following day. During our conversation, as we discussed how ridiculous it is that farmers can’t make bacon on their premises, Don lit up. He had bought a slice of imberico pata negra, cut from a black-footed pig in Spain, that he had bought that morning at The Cheese Iron in Kennebunk. Tasting it, and feeling the physical comfort of fat on the tongue, I recalled the story Bill Buford told of Mario Batali serving lardo to his guests. Only now do I realize how generous Don’s gift was. And how serious it made Samantha and he about their food.

What follows is an abridged — and slightly annotated — version of the conversation I had with them that day.

Q&A:

On preserving Maine food heritage:

Don: Basically, we just learn things as we talk to people all day long. Which is great.

It’s very interesting. We’ll start talking about some issue, and we’ll ask, “Well, why isn’t there more so and so?” Then you’ll realize that you’ve got demand over here, and potential supply over here, and there’s something in the middle that’s stopping it from happening.

Samantha: And usually it’s the government.

D:
There are all of these elements, all of these local food things that are going on in Maine, but they’re not really happening because one thing is missing. Sometimes it’s because the FDA is in the way, or the state. Other times it’s because there’s a type of plant that used to exist that no one has any more.

Like here, we have this type of shrimp called the Maine shrimp. Basically, it’s a Janaury to March season. They’re absolutely wonderful, delicious little shrimp. This year it was much better, but last year they were selling off the boat for something like $0.35 a pound, now you go to Whole Foods and they’re $9 a pound. So the fisherman are like why bother, we’ll go for something else. There’s been something of a local movement to get them back.

The local movement also constituted of getting people to learn how to cook them, and also getting all the restaurants to carry them. But the real problem is there are no traditional shrimp picking operations, which used to be a thing that happened all up and down the coast. It used to be little old ladies doing it around their tables. But you can’t do that anymore.

With wheat, there’s a growing artisanal and heritage wheat movement in Maine, but there’s only one mill. So the vast majority of artisanal wheat is shipped to the Midwest, milled, and shipped back.

S: Talk about carbon footprint…

D: So there’s people, like Borealis Bread, and Tom Chappell from Tom’s of Maine, they’re looking at possibly building a mill in Maine that deals with heritage wheat.

There are eight other examples I could give you, but there seem to be these gaps, these challenges, that people can’t quite jump over. It’s too big for the farmer, and too big for the restaurants. So who’s going to jump in and fill that gap?

On the demand for organic v. health books driving people to their store:

S:
It’s not so much “healthy” books, as the word “health” turns both of us off. If you’ve read Michael Pollan, you know the whole thing about in the supermarket, if it says it’s good for you, it’s not. So we don’t get too many people who are interested in healthy food.

But the idea of eating “authentic” is definitely three quarters of the people who walk in the door.

D: Some of it is driven by local. Some of it is driven by issues like heritage. They may not even know that term, but they want to know that they’re not getting industrial products.

S: There are people within that group who do come in because they have allergies to additives and can’t digest whatever, and those are people who are looking for whole foods. But that definitely is a trend.

And, as Don was saying, there are people who are interested in what a real potato tastes like.

On vegetarians eating meat again:

D: There are a couple of other interesting trends we’ve seen. They’re nothing you would not have heard about, but there’s definitely a meat trend.

And there are a lot of people we’ve met who were vegetarians who have converted back to being meat eaters. According to the ones who explain themselves, people feel like they now have a sense of where their food is coming from and they have some element of choice in there and that’s a huge thing.

S: There’s a certain section of the vegetarian population who chose to go organic for political reasons, because of the way the animals are treated. So if they know that the animal has been raised on a farm by a farmer, and they know that he’s treated that animal fairly, then I can eat it again if it’s fed by a farmer. And then, in that formulation, it becomes a political choice. You have to go out of your way to find the farmer and you have to pay more, you can’t just go to the supermarket to get your pork, you have to think about it.

D: Which changes the way you cook. Often, you’re buying half a pig. And so you actually have to know more about what the meat is and how to use it and how to cook it and how to cut it.

And on the restaurant side of things, that’s also driving the interest. You know, it’s interesting, there are all these meat things that are going on, things that are appearing on plates in restaurants that I think a lot of people used to say “Yuck” about. Headcheese. Headcheese had a bad rap for years. Oscar Meyer headcheese, you know. And yet, people now are like “Ok.” And bone marrow, and pig’s feet jelly. These are things where people are like, “Oh, it’s using the whole animal. And it has a role in the culinary world. And it’s tasty.”

On how much of the American public is really being effected by the organic movement.

S: I’m still a real pessimist about that. I still think it’s a very small sliver. We were at the Cheese Iron this morning, talking to them. They have this beautiful store, just up Route One, across from McDonalds, or whatever it was, and we watched them all day long, and that parking lot is jammed. And we’re right across the street with good food.

D: At the height of the anti-fast food movement. Every day, there’s another story about obesity in America.

S: I think, as you were saying about educating our taste buds, those kinds of flavors are so blunt, and if you’ve been eating them since you were a kid, anything else is going to taste scary to you because it’s so big.

The taste of fat is this thing that as organic beings we’re drawn to, but in reality don’t need anywhere near as much fat as tastes good.

We have friend who says to their four-year old son, “If you behave, we’ll take you to McDonald’s.” In that way, it becomes a reward. It’s better than eating at home.

(A nod to John Thorne, for the title, drawn from his book, Serious Pig.)

Source: Originally published in On Earth on June 27, 2008.


Save the Salmon

The way I tell the story, the day my father removed my last diaper he placed a fly rod in my hands. Since then, I’ve cast a line over nearly any open body of water I can find. He nurtured an avid fly fisherman, sure, but also an avid environmentalist.

And so I was sad to see this headline: “Chinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace” above an article that described the virtual disappearance of the Chinook salmon from the Pacific Northwest. “The Chinook salmon that swim upstream to spawn in the fall, the most robust run in the Sacramento River, have disappeared. The almost complete collapse of the richest and most dependable source of Chinook salmon south of Alaska left gloomy fisheries experts struggling for reliable explanations – and coming up dry.” Fellicity Barringer, NY Times, March 17.

Not that I should have been surprised. For much of the past 18 years, I’ve had the privilege to fish for Atlantic salmon in New Brunswick and Quebec on some of the most productive rivers. And for many of those 18 years, the conversation over the fish population has been marked by concern and confusion in almost equal measure.

Last year, for example, the runs on the Grand Cascapedia were particularly low. From those who worked and fished the river, the explanations were many: changing sea temperatures, an ice blockage off Greenland, etc. Always, people say they’ve never seen a year like this. There was no science to back up these stories, only concern.

On the Miramichi, another prized Salmon river, this one in New Brunswick, the story has been somewhat different. While the river doesn’t produce it nearly as many fish as it once did, and its different branches report varying returns year to year, the strict catch and release policy that has sustained sizeable runs makes it a model for the area. Growing up, I can remember Miramichi guides remarking on how quickly the salmon seemed to be recovering.

My home state of Maine offers a similar lesson. The Penobscot River closed in 1999 to salmon fishing, with populations down to around 530 in 2000 — down still from 5,000 twenty years prior. By 2006, the river had recovered to runs over 1,000 and restored a short fishing season.

It seems to me that trying to read the lessons offered by the conversation records on these rivers yields conflicting lessons. One, that Salmon are remarkably resilient and can be nurtured locally, river by river. And two, that they depend on remarkably complex systems. As an anadromous species, they depend upon the rivers they return to, and the oceans they live in. They depend upon watersheds in areas often heavily logged, and on areas of the Atlantic that, until recently, were over fished.

In this sense, Salmon reflect the problem of climate change: they are global in cause and consequence. If these stories do offer a lesson, it’s that while our experience fishing for salmon is often rural, continued practice of fly fishing is dependent upon stabilizing global patterns – rising sea temperatures, shifting ocean currents, and bottom trawling, to name only a few.

But then, to paraphrase Isaac Walton, author of the book everyone owns but nobody has read, if ever hope sprung eternal, it’s in the heart of the angler. Let’s hope he was right.

Source: Originally published in On Earth on March 17, 2008.


Must I Throw Out the Whole Hog?

I came to love cooking as I came to love food. My appetite was undiscerning; everything was open for exploration. I knew only that I wanted to eat.

I also came to love cooking at what would turn out to be the end of a five-year stint as a vegetarian. Few things smell as good to me as a pork loin browning in the pan. Or sound as good as a duck breast crackling over heat. And so, as I learned to eat, legumes gave way to lardons. They simply satisfied an appetite that vegetables hadn’t touched in half a decade.

But for those of us who care about our carbon footprint, the decision of what to eat can often be immensely complicated. Short of becoming a vegetarian, the simplest, and for many, most compelling answer to emerge in recent years is the mandate to think globally by eating locally.

The locavore movement was challenged recently by a study released in Environmental Science and Technology called “Do Food Miles Matter?” The study suggests that it’s “how food is produced, not how far it is transported, that matters most for global warming.”

According to the lead author, Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University, “eating less red meat and dairy can be a more effective way to lower an average U.S. household’s food-related climate footprint than buying local food.”

The article continues to say: “A relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally…Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.”

This comes as a surprise — and a blow — to those of us who have come to justify our avocation for cooking with a commitment to seeking out meats from locally produced farmers, people we often meet and form a relationship with over time. When I lived in New York, for instance, I bought a lot of meat from Flying Pig Farms as I enjoyed not only the quality of the product, but the quality of the people selling it as well.

Despite the fact that I had spent more money on meat than I would have at a grocery store, the purchase left me feeling enriched; I had learned about the meat I was eating, I had taken mass-transit to buy it, I had interacted with the farmer, and I was injecting money in the local economy to help support farmers — a disappearing, and struggling, class.

What more could I do?

This study suggests that the potential for carbon reduction by eating less meat is compelling enough to change your eating habits — if only slightly. It’s not that you shouldn’t eat any meat, but to eat less meat, and more vegetables, more of the time. (May we pause and nod to Michael Pollan.)

I would also suggest that the value of the growing interaction between the American citizen and the farmer has a value that cannot be priced. If we want to solve our food crisis, more people need to know where their food comes from. It’s an educational process, as much as anything else. I find that eating locally serves to satisfy an appetite for information.

It’s this mental appetite that has lead me to consume materials — books, videos, articles — that have changed my physical appetite. What began as a seduction by meat, and lead to a discovery of food as narrative, and as interaction, has led to a conviction that I should eat less of it.

This is nothing new. As Mark Bittman put it, “If you’re a progressive, if you’re driving a Prius, if you’re shopping green or looking for organics, you should probably be a semi-vegetarian.” (More on this talk later.)

I agree. But I still want my bacon, if only on Sunday mornings.

(Note: See this post for a full discussion of Mark Bittman and eating less meat.)

Source: Originally published in On Earth on June 10, 2008.


What Will Obama's VP Pick Mean for the Environment?

With Senator Barack Obama set to announce his VP nomination by Friday, the speculative field of possible names has been whittled – if only by the press – to a select three: Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. Two other possible candidates, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, now seem less likely.

In weighing the benefits of each nominee, conversation has largely focused on the various roles this candidate will have to fill: The candidate should be a safe choice, they say, able to help Sen. Obama gain an audience in parts of the south, and to lend him credibility on foreign policy – for many, the largest gap in the senator’s resume.

Absent from this conversation has been a weighing the various VP candidates’ environmental record. Where there ought to be lively discussion, there is – listen closely now – crickets.

This reflects a larger silence on climate change, in which the media trails far behind Americans’ climate concerns. According to a poll out last year by Yale University, 71% of Americans believe global warming is happening. And lest you cry the influence of limousine liberals, a Fox News poll has this number even higher, at 82%.

And yet, according to a study by the League of Conservation Voters, out of 190 interviews and debates, as of February the top five political talk show hosts has asked only 8 questions about climate change. As of January, the words “global warming” or “climate change” were uttered a mere three times in the debates.

In an election whose theme, if not rallying cry, is change, an Obama administration would restore environmental issues to where they should be – as serious debates concerning our national health, the vitality of our ecosystems, and the strength of our economy.

Given the Bush Administration’s environmental record – which stands, in my estimation, somewhere between criminal and unconscionable – an Obama administration would mean, in nearly all areas, a complete reversal of environmental policy. Obama, for instance, has already indicated an understanding that our political decisions today will effect our nation, and our families, for generations to come.

In his August energy speech, Obama framed climate by embedding it in a tapestry of mainstream American concerns. “When it comes to our economy,” he said, “our security, and the very future of our planet, the choices we make in November and over the next few years will shape the next decade, if not the century.”

Next year, parties of the UNFCCC will meet at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen to negotiate the international treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. A strong American commitment at Copenhagen, combined with a national move to regulate carbon, would do much to restore America’s geopolitical credibility.

But the question is even simpler than that. Obama asked: “Will we be the generation that leaves our children a planet in decline, or a world that is clean, and safe, and thriving?”

It is a question we should ask of Obama’s VP nominee, as soon as he’s chosen. While VP’s are often offered little more than scrutiny on foreign affairs and economic issues, the scale of climate change will certainly mean VP engagement.

And so, what are the environmental voting records of Obama’s top picks? In the absence of direct questions, here’s a quick overview of the three candidates’ records. (With many thanks to the League of Conservation Voters.)

Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware: According to the League of Conservation Voters, Senator Biden’s lifetime voting record is a respectable 84%.

In interviews during his Presidential race, Biden said his top priority was “energy security,” which he defined broadly, including climatic changes effecting the world’s poor, and national energy policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden passed a resolution directing the Administration to return to international climate negotiations. He has called for raising fuel economy standards to 40 mpg by 2017,

Most recently, Biden cosponsored the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, the most rigorous climate bill. He was one of six senators to express support of the Climate Security Act in the absence of their vote.

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana: Between 1999 and 2006, Bayh’s LCV voting score ranged mostly between 73% and 89%, with one low year at 56%.

Recently, Bayh joined with 10 other senators from key manufacturing and energy-producing states in writing Sen. Boxer a letter informing her of their decision not to vote for the Climate Security Act.

Senator Bayh is a longtime supporter of ethanol-based flex-fuels. He has gone so far as to suggest that NASCAR switch over to ethanol, and would like to devote more farm land to the production of ethanol.

Gov. Tim Kaine, Virginia:
The Virginia governor’s record is more difficult to easily summarize. While he is on the record as recognizing climate change as “one of the most critical issues of our time,” and in lending supporting the Climate Security Act – both good things – there is an article over at Grist regarding the governor’s handling of a proposed coal plant raises questions as to the governor’s ability to stand up for his environmental convictions.

How do you think the environment should influence Obama’s VP selection?

UPDATE: After speaking with a few people today, Kaine has turned out to be the most polarizing. On the one hand, people point to his support for a new coal plant, and his willingness to consider expanded offshore drilling, as a criticism of his environmental creds. But we should note that Kaine’s position on offshore drilling is in lockstep with the positions Obama, and Pelosi, have adopted.

More positively, people point to the fact that he created a “Development Cabinet” to help use discretionary capital to reward smart growth policies — what Kaine calls “balanced growth.” The connection between growth, transportation, and climate is a connection most politicians miss entirely. Given his management experience, he might be able to do something about it.

And then there’s always Ana Marie Cox who, according to her Twitter feed, is on the short list.

Source: Originally published on The Huffington Post, August 19, 2008.


Local Politics, Global Change: Vote Democrat

On November 4th, Americans will cast their vote for our next President. In doing so, they will cast a vote for a candidate not on the ballot — America’s next environment.

In this election, national environmental discussions have focused on energy independence over climate change, and on the risks of ethanol over the economic benefits of a low-carbon economy. This has confused the underlying issues. Americans have not yet witnessed a nuanced debate in which climate, energy and food are discussed for what they are: independent yet interconnected national issues of global consequence that must be met with local action.

Consider that while climate change is global in cause and consequence, international climate agreements such as The Kyoto Protocol have proven difficult to negotiate and nearly impossible to enforce. As such, many international climate agreements remain largely symbolic arrangements. Meanwhile, in the United States, 25 states have committed to mandatory caps on their greenhouse gas emissions, and over 800 mayors have signed a climate protection agreement. In the race to reduce emissions, our states are far ahead of our nation state.

This makes sense. It is our local officials — our mayors, governors, congressmen and senators — who are closest to the localized effects of a changing climate. They can see the erosion to their shores, and they feel the effect of declining fish stocks on their economies. Many of them grew up in these places; they know those who are bearing the burden of climate change.

Moreover, it is these local officials who can do the most about it. Local governments have an advantage over national governments in that they have not only more familiarity with the local constituents, but more flexibility in providing a solution. They are less bureaucratic, and more likely to respond a timely manner with a tailor-made solution.

And so, for those of us who care about environmental politics, November 4th means choosing not only a national environmental leader, but local environmental leaders as well. In some states, the choice may not seem simple.

Take my home state of Maine, for instance. The choice between the incumbent (R) Susan Collins and (D) Tom Allen, a five-term congressmen, appears, at first, to be a difficult one. Both Collins and Allen have served their country with distinction.

Moreover, their environmental records appear to be remarkably similar. In 2007, both Tom Allen and Susan Collins received a 100% record from the League of Conservation Voters. Looking at their lifetime score clarifies the choice a bit. Allen has a lifetime score of 93%. Collins’s lifetime record is significantly lower at 68%.

In this instance, a consideration of the candidate’s party is helpful. And it is here that, for those Mainers who care about the environment, the choice becomes clear.

Over the 20th century, Republicans have based their platform on the promotion of economic growth, often at the expense of national environmental integrity. This has created a Republican legacy that favors production over protection, often regardless of the cost.

The Bush policy of the last four years has been the most extreme translation of this doctrine. The President has gutted environmental law, only regretfully acknowledged the reality of climate change, and mined natural resources with little regard for stewardship. Many agree that President Bush has the worst environmental record of any modern President, bar none.

But what, you say, does this have to with Maine’s election? What to do with Susan Collins?

It’s important to recall that in environmental politics, all politics are global, not local. With air pollution blowing across national boundaries, climate policy is not limited by traditional geographic boundaries. American environmental policy directly impacts the rest of the world with its disproportionate carbon emissions, and influences the rest of the world with its example.

And so, let me offer an analogue. It was the case that in the 2000 election, voting for a moderate Republican was tantamount to enabling a radical religious right. In this election, voting for a moderate Republican will be tantamount to enabling a radical environmental right that misconstrues energy policy and denies the fundamental science of climate change.

Consider that while McCain has worked his crowds into chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill!”, his running mate and so-called energy expert questions the role of human activity in climate change. For those who care, the call for drilling will come at the long-term expense of our shorelines, with no short-term reduction in energy prices. Furthermore, humans are unquestionably contributing to climate change. It’s not about belief; it’s about empirical evidence.

And so, if you care about environmental politics, vote for Tom Allen. His lifetime environmental record far exceeds that of Collins. But the same is true across the country. The Democratic party is the party that promises to match environmental renewable with economic renewable through an investment in green jobs, green tech and green policy. It is a generational challenge, and a great opportunity.

We can’t afford eight more years of Republican failures. We need Democrats locally, as much as we need them nationally. Let us not forget that on November 4th.