Category Archives: Sustainability

Cultural Safari in Tanzania

When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen

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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.

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The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.

A potluck for perilous times

My last trip was planned around a special event organized by San Antonio expressive arts facilitator and playwright Dianne Monroe. 

“I know it’s a long drive, but I’d really like for you to be there,” she told me the last time we met. Now when Dianne organizes an event, I always want to be there. She brings together the wisdom of another age with a childlike sense of fun and wonder and creativity. And when she began talking about The Great Turning, author Joanna Macy’s name for the transition times we are finding ourselves in, I listened. This event was nothing more than a simple gathering, but designed to break the ice to allow us to begin speaking of the previously unspeakable, nameless worries about global climate change, peak oil, economic crisis and pending doom that darken the horizon.

The meeting was well worth the drive; the conversations were more uplifting than disturbing, and the concept is well worth sharing. So I invited Dianne to write a guest blog entry, which I will share with you below. Please drop her a line at dianne@diannemonroe.com and let her – and me – know what you think.

I give you Dianne:

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by Dianne Monroe

I was born with a bit of an apocalyptic gene, so I’ve been watching this global economic unraveling, wondering just how far it will go – at the same time wondering just how much global warming will cause the oceans to rise and if oil will run out before our use of it will make the planet completely unlivable for higher mammalian species.

 Actually, I’m an optimist. So what I really want to know is this – how do we, within this crisis, grow and nurture the seeds of new ways to live with each other and in collaboration with our planet?

I’ve been talking about this with my friends (Tracy among them) and wondering how many similar conversations are going on in living rooms and kitchens across the country – so I decided to invite some friends, and friends of friends to what I called “A Paradigm Shift Potluck – a gathering to vision what it may mean to be alive in this time and place”.

So after vegetarian lasagna, gazpacho and guacamole salad, we gathered to share our hopes, fears and the gifts we each bring to the flowering of a more just and sustainable world.

One person feared seeing her retirement fund disappear, another feared angry, hungry men with guns. One friend brought the gift of organic gardening, another brought knowledge of alternative medicine, still another brought the gift of listening.

People spoke of simpler times and places, of different ways of being and doing. A woman spoke of her mother who grew up on a farm during the Depression, where everyone grew their own food and traded with neighbors for what they needed. Others spoke of time spent living and working in Latin America, how different cultures recycled and reused so many things we routinely throw away.

I wanted to share an approach I’m developing, an easy way into talking about difficult things, that takes us out of our heads and into our hearts (away from our endless “to-do” lists and the hectic pace of modern life and into a place where we can really listen to each other and be heard by others). It’s an approach grown out of my studies in a field called Deep Ecology, that allows us to speak our truths, listen deeply to the truths of others, and seek ways to travel together through perhaps tumultuous times, carrying gifts we will leave for the generations to follow.

If you want to learn more about Paradigm Shift Potlucks, and a workshop I’m developing, called “Nurturing Seeds of Change in Uncertain Times” (I’m offering the first one on June 13), Please email me: dianne@diannemonroe.com.