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A decorative bento box sparks Japanese food sharing in an art museum’s virtual event

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(Earth Eats theme music)

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I’m Kayte Young, and this is earth eats. 

LAURA SCHEPER: ​​Then we get into questions of--okay, based on life experience, based on the thoughts that have surfaced here for everybody, what, if anything, are you wondering? What kind of questions come to mind

On this week’s show we talk with Laura Scheper and Kayleigh Dance about pairing food with art for socially distanced cultural events. We visit a teaching kitchen featuring Japanese food and talk with the chef and owner, Mori Wilhite. And Josephine McRobbie talks with the owners of a sweets shop about how they stay organized. And we catch part two of Harvest Public Media’s series on big ag companies influencing university research. That’s all just ahead--stay with us.

Thank you for listening to Earth eats. I'm Kayte young. Renee Reed is back this week with food and farming updates. Hello Renee.

RENEE REED: Hello Kayte

JONATHAN AHL: Rural counties lost fewer jobs during the pandemic, and recovered faster than their urban counterparts. Harvest Public Media’s Jonathan Ahl reports on the findings of a study by the U-S Department of Agriculture. Unemployment in rural areas dropped steadily for 10 years until COVID-19 hit. Elizabeth Dobbs is an agricultural economist with the USDA. She says after a spike in April 2020, rural jobless rates went down through the summer of 2021.

ELIZABETH DOBIS: These rates are still higher than their pre pandemic values, but they demonstrate greater recovery in rural areas than in urban areas.

JONATHAN AHL: Dobis says rural counties with persistent poverty had an unemployment rate of 6.7% in July and the remaining rural counties were at 4.7%. Both of those were more than a point better than their urban counterparts. Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

RENEE REED: The U.S. is on track to admit more agricultural guest workers than ever before, according to the Department of Labor. Most Midwestern states are on a similar trajectory. The influx comes as employers who hire through the H-2A visa program are complaining that it’s overly burdensome and expensive. Alexandra Sossa (SO-suh) is the executive director of the Farmworker and Landscaper Advocacy Project based in Illinois. She says those employers would be hard pressed to find labor locally.

ALEXANDRA SOSSA: It’s hard to find workers here, who are already in the United States, willing to do the work. Because the work is not easy work.

RENEE REED: Sossa says the rise in the number of ag workers could be due to perceptions that the Biden administration is more welcoming to immigrants, or the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

(Earth Eats news music)

Thanks to harvest public media's Dana Cronin and Jonathan Ahl for those reports. For earth eats, I'm Renee Reed. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks Renee. We'll hear more from Harvest Public Media later in the show as they continue their 

For Bloomington expats Jason and Nicole Evans Groth who started the Raleigh-based bakery and coffee market in 2016 the key to success is only partially about baking tasty treats. The duo who both have a background in information science rely on their organizational and user experience skills to help the shop thrive. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: I'm standing with Nicole Evans Groth in her sweet shop Anisette as she makes her way through rows in a Google spreadsheet. 

NICOLE GROTH: Chocolate chip cookies and cantuccini which is basically the Florentine version of Biscotti, these sort of like...

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: She's running me through a production schedule for what she'll be prepping and baking throughout the week. Another spreadsheet serves as a kind of Rolodex of treat recipes. Nicole estimates that she's developed over 84 recipes over the five years that she's owned her store. 

NICOLE GROTH: But the nice thing about that is always having these things, these numbers in front of me, so I don't have to memorize it. Which I can spend my brain time doing much more interesting things then just memorizing. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: For Nicole and her co-owner and spouse Jason, it's this high degree of organization and control that allows them to remain creative and confident in their work. And Nicole who is a musician as well as a baker has a metaphor for this- 

NICOLE GROTH: Every once in a while I'll measure something and I'll just happen the precise amount on the first try, and I imagine that that's what it feels like execute a guitar solo with your eyes closed. 

(Groovy electric guitar)

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Anisette is something of a Hoosier home away from home for me. I met Nicole and Jason many years ago in Bloomington Indiana. We all moved to North Carolina around the same time when Jason and I both got jobs at NC State. Nicole had master's degrees in linguistics and information science from IU and she'd been teaching in the Kelley School of Business. 

NICOLE GROTH: K201 Computer and business teaching fresh-faced freshmen and sophomores spreadsheets and databases and all that good stuff. And so I was doing all that...

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: The move to the south east in 2013 marked a new opportunity for Jason but also Nicole who love to cook, and bake, and talk about food. She was looking for a career change. 

NICOLE GROTH: And so he took that job, we moved here to Raleigh. And I always kind of knew that there was some sort of food career that's going to happen eventually. Gosh, how do I describe this? I like to gamble. So I have no problem sort of foraging ahead and hoping for the best. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Soon after arriving in Raleigh, Nicole scored a job as confectioner at Videri, a local chocolate factory and store. At that time she didn't exactly have a resume full of restaurant or hospitality experience. 

NICOLE GROTH: My very first job as a 15 year old was at Long John Silver's. Just a little jobs like that throughout college and high school. I did some sort of private catering for while, catering friend's parties, but other than that no. It was more than just learning stuff on my own at home. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: I asked her how she got that job. 

NICOLE GROTH: Hm... charm? I guess. I don't know, it's probably obvious that I pay really good attention to food. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Nicole thrived at Videri Chocolate Factory. In 2015 her recipe for a strawberry anise ganache even won a coveted Good Food Award for the southeast. When she decided to branch out with her husband and start her own shop she was paying tribute to this particular chocolate. 

NICOLE GROTH: So Anisette itself is like a category of liqueurs flavored with anise that you find in places like Italy and Turkey. And you see those flavors used in sweets a lot there. And those places were absolutely inspirations for the kinds of items that were making here. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: As Anisette prepared to open in 2016, Jason used skills that he'd acquired as a librarian to create systems and workflows for the store. He made Google forms and spreadsheets for opening and closing procedures, inventory tracking, and even coffee extraction math. Nicole also found that her previous career skills were serving her well. 

NICOLE GROTH: I'm kind of doing the information science and linguistics type work, that kind of thinking, is actually really helpful. I think in terms of its be able to produce food in a way that you're going to sell a lot, to a lot of people, there's a lot of organization that goes behind that. And so I think having the creative desire and drive is one thing but if you can't be organized and figure out how to get that stuff out, you're going to have a hard time. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: It's all complex. But Nicole's core desire for the shop has always been simple. 

NICOLE GROTH: I want people to have beautiful food that is not in any way intimidating. I want you to come here and feel welcome, maybe try something. I don't think that anything that we're doing here is particularly innovative or weird, but we're at times using flavors that maybe aren't traditionally found in an American bakery in cakes or pies or whatever, and maybe reimagining something that traditionally from an American Bakery might taste purely like sugar and fluff, and making it actually taste like something, and presenting that in a way that they don’t feel intimidated. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: I visited Nicole at Anisette recently where we immediately launched into what right now feels like a mandatory catch up conversation, by which I mean intensely processing your experiences of the pandemic. 

NICOLE GROTH: Like stuff was happening around us and we were just moving. 


NICOLE GROTH: Follow the rules and make sure you're wearing masks. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [CONVERSING WITH NICOLE]: I know what you mean about not remembering March, because I...

NICOLE GROTH: Totally, and it was just one thing after the next, after the next. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE [NARRATING] : After all the work to move to a new state, train in a new field, and open a business,  Jason and Nicole had settled into a period of stability at Anisette. They were hosting concerts and DJ sets on the back patio and had even opened a second location. But in March of 2020 there were several small signs that things were changing. 

NICOLE GROTH: It seems like such a naive story now but the first thing that happened earlier in that week is that we took away all of the like creamers and such that people would put in their coffee themselves. And I think moved all of the seating outside and then eventually we thought, "Should we even have people sit outside?" So we took all the seating away. Also we got so busy. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Nicole's ability to gamble, to forge ahead, to be organized, to be creative these were all immediately put to a new test.

NICOLE GROTH: We suddenly had to figure out how... I think it was maybe a week of people calling in place to place their order. I don't know how we did that. We think, all of us just sort of flipped a switch and we became robots. I don't know, I don't even really remember it frankly. But yeah, we were so busy and then having to figure out how to get everything now online, which of course we have information science backgrounds so that was very helpful. I can't imagine how people who don't have that background did this and switched to an online system. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Over time and Anisette has adapted to the reality of covid with all pickups taking place in their front parking lot. They've been lucky to make it through the worst periods of uncertainty. 

NICOLE GROTH: The average sales are considerably higher and we speculate that that has to do with the fact that you can so take your time ordering, you can see everything online. 

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: The two owners used to spend a lot of time chatting with customers in the store about the day's menu or maybe just a Donna Summer record that was playing through the speakers. An outdoor pick up model is not conducive to that same kind of lingering. And so they've recreated the vibe online for the time being with Jason producing weekly and very campy menu videos. 

JASON GROTH: Pineapple glaze, decadent, delicious, and vegan. Apple pie is local apples, a flavorful and sweet crumble and a perfect flaky crust. A delicious take on the classic! Our quiche this week is potato and goat cheese. Order now and we'll see you later this week.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE: Now as restrictions loosen and Anisette staff is fully vaccinated they've been able to start looking forward in a meaningful way, instead of just reacting and problem-solving. And once the patio reopens and they can host events again Nicole is looking forward to leaving crisis-management mode and getting back to her core mission for Anisette.

NICOLE GROTH: It's like we're having a giant dinner party in months of welcoming people in, that's the idea. Making all of these things welcoming and inviting.

KAYTE YOUNG: That story comes to us from producer Josephine McRobbie. Find more on our website,

(Guitar strumming)

LAURA SCHEPER: I think for me what I didn't expect was actually how many different perspectives there were and how differently people look at art. 

KAYTE YOUNG: The pandemic has changed the way many of us experience education, dining, socializing, and culture more broadly, including the visual arts. Here it in Indiana University in the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Laura Scheper had to find new ways to engage the public with the Museum's collection. 

LAURA SCHEPER: I'm Laura Scheper, my pronouns are she and her. I serve as the public experiences manager at the Eskenazi Museum of Art located on the Indiana University Bloomington campus. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Her role is to design experiences that facilitate connection between the artworks and the people visiting the museum. Without visitors in the physical space at the museum, Laura faced a challenging situation. She found inspiration in an informal Zoom call between her family, and another family - friends of hers for, where they cook together for a socially distanced culinary experience. It was so much fun that she thought it might make for an engaging experience with the museum.

She enlisted the support of a local foodie and social media influencer Kayleigh Dance. 

KAYLEIGH DANCE: Hi my name is Kayleigh Dance, I am a social media specialist at Indiana University and I'm also a food influencer in the Bloomington community. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Together they crafted a series of art and food pairings for monthly zoom sessions throughout the semester. For each session they invited someone from the food world to identify an object from the Museum's collection, something they felt drawn from a number of options that Laura shared with them digitally. Next they would think of a food pairing for the object and would join the food and art pairing Zoom session for a discussion. Participants could see the artwork ahead of time and consider their own food pairings and possibly even prepare them to enjoy during the session.

Laura's expertise is in guiding people towards engaging with art. 

LAURA SCHEPER: The way it works is that we start with what we call a visual menu, and that menu is in artwork. Typically in most episodes will look a single artwork together, and then I facilitate conversation. So with that were asking people to look closely at the artwork, and we start by asking what do you see? And we ask people to describe with as much vivid detail as they can what we're looking at together. 

So at that point we're not talking about memories, or other things. We're just strictly noticing the details of what we can see. And with any of these conversations the more people who are contributing, the more perspectives, we each notice different things. Kayleigh's eye might be drawn to something than my eye is drawn to. And the more people who are contributing we're going to pick out different details and that's going to lead us to a richer conversation and ideas in to in terms of food pairing.

After we talk about what we see, the next question that I typically ask is based on your own life experience, based on what you can see in this image here, what kind of thoughts come to mind? What are you thinking? 

Once we talk about some of the thoughts, and what we're thinking we're looking at the image, then we can enter a question of "Okay, based on life experience, based on the thoughts that have surfaced for everybody, what, if anything, are you wondering? What kind of questions come to mind?"

And from there that's a natural lead into what kinds of food or beverage might pair with this particular artwork based on all these ideas that emerged, and people's curiosities, you start wondering one thing leads to another. 

There's usually by then a vibe or a sense of feelings or different things that might be thoughts and so forth, and then we'll listen to ideas from the community from participants who were at the table, and then we'll take turns, Kaleigh and myself, and a featured guest, revealing specifically what did each of us choose to pair with this particular artwork. 

KAYTE YOUNG: One of the things that appeal to me about the series is that there are no wrong answers when it comes to pairing food with art.

LAURA SCHEPER: I hope that everybody knows there's no right answers, cause I'm not sure if that's true. Honestly I really hope that, and I try hard to communicate that, it would be easy to think "Oh, I don't know like I'm not a chef. I don't know how to fancily do a food for an artwork" Or maybe you have to replicate the artwork and paint it.

KAYTE YOUNG: Not a chance!

LAURA SCHEPER: I hope that people realize that there's no right answer and the beauty of it is just expressing and finding a way to connect with it in your own life. And when I reached out recently to Mori she said, "Oh yes but I could use it but there's no connection to food."

I was like, "Well there doesn't have to be, we're gonna add the connection to food." (chuckles)

KAYLEIGH DANCE: I think for me what I didn't expect was actually how many different perspectives there were, and how differently people look at art. The individuality aspect of it is so cool because people do have different life experiences even if there are common denominators between two people, no two people are the exact same. So for me when I'm sitting here listening to other people share their stories, share their experiences, and share their thoughts on these pieces, it's really cool because in a way I'm getting to know this single person. And for me it's been really important to amplify my connection with other people because again we are in a pandemic. I can't go see everybody all the time. And one thing that I truly miss is going out and getting dinner or brunch with my friends.

So by doing this series that's essentially what I'm doing. Everybody who logs on whether it's 20 people are 40 people, they're all my friends at that point. We're getting to know each other we're connecting over zoom. And it's again just a reminder that basic human connection is just something that's so important. And I really feel like today we're taking advantage of all that we can in order to keep that connection.

LAURA SCHEPER: We think it's connected on a level beyond what I expected in terms of the feedback and the messages that I get, that people are just really appreciating right now the opportunity to do that.

KAYTE YOUNG: Food can serve as a familiar entry point for people who may not be used to talking about art. 

KAYLEIGH DANCE: A lot of people don't have experience with art, and I was actually one of those people before Laura approached me. Of course I've been to museums, and I've seen art before, but I just kind of had a blind eye to it. I would see these art pieces and I would be like, "Wow that's really pretty." But what am I supposed to be feeling? What am I supposed to be doing? What am I supposed to be thinking? And I had no idea that it was more of this personal connection. It's more of, well what do you see? What do you think?

That kind of opened up my eyes to the art world. Now I walk into museums and I'm like, "Oh let's stop, I really want to stare at the details of this." And I always start asking questions with my friends now. I'm like, "What do you think like the artist was thinking when they painted this color instead of something else?" And it's so cool because it's just like I have this new lens now. And again it is thanks to you so I'm very thankful that you're introduced to me. 

LAURA SCHEPER: Food is universal. We have all experience with food. It can feel like a safe entry point or something familiar, it may be an easy way to start talking about it. I think a great example would be one of the earlier artworks we looked at with executive chef David Talent. It's a painting of a forest stream, and as he talked about that and described what he saw, he had memories of walking across campus in the fall. And for me I was thinking picnics and other things, but for him thinking through the fall and the crunchiness the leaves, and he talked about for him but there was a seasonality to butternut squash in the local farmers asking him, "David are you ready to start cooking?" And they've got the squash and it's coming out earlier than he is ready for. He's not ready for the winter, and that change. And he said, "Not until leaves are down" that he starts to buy this and use this. 

So he's bringing a really interesting personal connection just by looking at that image and starting to describe the leaves on the ground and what's he's seeing, and the trees and the change of seasons.

KAYTE YOUNG: I asked if they could think of any examples of what a guest chef chose as their pairing. 

LAURA SCHEPER: Our featured guest was Candice Boyd Wiley of Food Love Talk, she is based in Indianapolis. The artwork she selected was titled "A study for support" There's actually a mural in Cleveland that this artist had made so the painting that we have us a watercolor painting the way the artist was preparing to make the mural. It is by the artist Darrius Stewart. It is a watercolor on a white piece of paper. Most of the painting is in the left half of the image, it's vertically oriented. You can see a woman with slightly darker skin and dark hair, and she is looking downward and gazing downward at a young boy of dark skin. He's got very short hair. He's only visible I would say from the neck up. Does that sound right? 


LAURA SCHEPER: They are reaching toward each other. Their eyes are connected. Lovely work. 

So I think when we started to look at it together and describe, people were starting to see that connection between the adult female and the child. And we're thinking about the feelings of connection, and safety, and belonging, and uplifting. We wondered what was on their minds? What with what conversation was happening? What was she saying to him?

And then Candace paired it with several foods, it was actually more than one, which was a beautiful thing that evoked those feelings of connection. I think she had her braised collard greens, I should've looked at my notes before going in. 

KAYLEIGH DANCE: She had cornbread too. 

LAURA SCHEPER: She had cornbread, yes. And she had a cabbage with Johnny cakes, it was fantastic. There are several recipes I want to go back and look at again. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I asked Kayleigh what she had paired with the artwork. 

KAYLEIGH DANCE: I ended up pairing it with this southern style country potato chowder, which is something that my mom used to make for me every time I was sick. And it just reminded me like the mix between the art and the cold weather outside. I wanted to go home so the bad. So I made this chowder kind of just in her name essentially. And for each episode I do take photos of all the food that I had. So the image that I had posted was the bowl of soup, with a little Polaroid of me and my mom when I was younger almost kind of a little younger than the boy in the art piece. But I also had a little handwritten note of the most recent card that she had sent me. So it was very sentimental. But yes I did have a pairing.

KAYTE YOUNG: Sometimes the featured guests prepare their food pairing during the session. Mori Willhite of Katsumi's teaching kitchen at selected in ornate ceramic piece of stacked circular boxes has her art object. Then she taught a cooking lesson. 

KAYLEIGH DANCE: She had made a Bento Box. She taught us how to make sushi actually on the episode. Such a cool experience! I wrote down her rice recipe almost immediately. I am so excited, and I'm so determined to make my own sushi roll one day. 

KAYTE YOUNG: We'll be talking with Mori Willhite later in the episode. Even though meeting as a group for an art and food pairing workshop may still remain out of reach, the museum is now open to visitors and you might have a chance to see some of the artwork in person.

KAYLEIGH DANCE: I do visit the art museum to see the art works in real live and I get surprised every time. So one of the artworks that we had seen it was so much smaller than what I had expected. It was really like this big. 

LAURA SCHEPER: The base was like this!

KAYLEIGH DANCE: And it's so tiny but when I was looking at it I'd imagined it to be this giant thing. And so when I went to the museum it was like a little scavenger hunt. I got to see some really cool art along the way while I was trying to find this art piece. 

LAURA SCHEPER: That's a great point, I think seen that in person I feel the same way as you. It was smaller than I expected on that particular, it's a Japanese face. I remember you paired it with mochi, and I thought that was a brilliant! Like not only the colors in it, and the flavors inside, but even that roundness in the size. I thought brilliant!

KAYLEIGH DANCE: I had no idea. I didn't realize it was that small so when I saw it afterwards, I was like, "Oh, I hit that on the head." 

LAURA SCHEPER: Yes. And that one we think it could be used for as a vase in a Japanese tea ceremony, so I went over to Cup and Kettle and got a tea to go with it. I believe it was an orange blossom tea based on some of the coloring in it. And then Eric Schedler from Muddy Fork Bakery paired it with a croissant with this particular technique where different types of clay are layered together in a very intricate way. So he likened it to the way a croissant is layered with layers of dough, there's a lot of similarities there. Again, just very interesting directions. 

KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Yeah so he's getting into like the structure of how something is made. And Dave Talent was giving in to what are the associations of the season. And that's really interesting. And Mori was talking about how she might use this or someone in her family might use this object, so that is a lot of really interesting connections. Maybe you can't visit the drawing in person, but maybe you could go looking for that mural. 


KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: Maybe that's something you'll get to experience in person, and you would know to look for it, and you might get to actually see it. 

LAURA SCHEPER: Sure, and then you might actually have new connections to it having been in that conversation together with everybody, the memories might mean something different than if you had not had that conversation with a guy on the street. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Well thank you both so much you guys, I had you over here a little longer than expected. 

LAURA SCHEPER: Thank you and thank you for asking and the opportunity to have this conversation today. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Today our guests were Laura Scheper and Kayleigh Dance with the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Museum of art at Indiana University. Find more about their work at I'm Kayte Young and you're listening to Earth Eats. Stay tuned for a conversation and recipe with Mori Willhite of Katsumi's teaching kitchen. 

(Music interlude) 

Kayte Young here, you're listening to Earth Eats. One of the featured guests for the Eskenazi museum's food and art pairings was Mori Wilhite. 

MORI WILLHITE: My name is Mori Wilhite. I am the owner operator of Katsumi's Teaching Kitchen.

KAYTE YOUNG: Mori has been running the teaching kitchen for about six years but recently moved her business into a storefront on Main Street in downtown Beech Grove, on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Mori describes herself as a snob when it comes to Japanese food. She said she gets that from her mother. 

MORI WILLHITE: Not only my mom, my mom is a snob because my grandparents were. One of the earliest earliest memories I have a cooking is what I was like five or six in Japan, and I was helping my Japanese grandmother cook. And so whenever I get sad lonely depressed as I got older I always start cooking Japanese food and just makes me feel happier. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Do you remember what she was making?

MORI WILLHITE: She was busy making whatever dinner it was, but she would have me wear the oversized Japanese apron, and the cut up something very badly, and then made sure everyone knew, "Oh Mori helped today, she cut the green onions!" stuff like that. So it's just food for I think not only me but everybody. If you have good memories with your family through cooking and all that stuff in the kitchen, that's what it represents most to me. 

So I was born in '63 and we were in Japan for a little bit in the late 60's and back then sushi was only eating for special occasions, not as frequently as it does now. So for me sushi is like, "Oh my, something good happened." But now it's everywhere. 

Then plus my dad, he's American someone, so he's a Polynesian too. So I've been eating Japanese style food and raw fish since I can remember. 

We moved back to the states, Dad was in the Marine Corps. And Mom, we were in San Diego, you couldn't take the Japanese out of the girl. So Mom start cooking real Japanese food. And her parents, my grandparents, were sending in monthly Japanese rice and soy sauce and seaweed because there's nothing adequate in San Diego. So we ate like that.

I learned quickly that just because it's a Japanese restaurant it doesn't mean you're going to get what you got at home. And so that's why my sister and I, we didn't formally study cooking of course, but our taste buds were very refined. And as we grow up, as you grow up, you eventually have to leave home. That's when I really started learning how to make Japanese food because unless I learn how to make rice I couldn't wait till Thanksgiving or Christmas when I came back. I mean it's just no way I was going to give it up.

When I went to college of course I made friends with Japanese students, and we did cookouts there and I would pick up something here and there. What's even funnier is I was in the Army, and as soon as I settled somewhere, I'd have my mom send for my rice cooker. She sent it to me! (chuckles) I had my rice cooker with me in the barracks and I made Japanese food because I can't live without it. And you get bored, so you start expanding your menu. 

KAYTE YOUNG: She describes herself as more of a teacher than a chef. She has a background as a Japanese language instructor, but she's found that sharing food is a fun way to connect with others around Japanese culture.

MORI WILLHITE: Everyone's happy around food. Everyone's even happier around good food. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And running her own cooking school allowed her the flexibility she needed when she was caring for her elderly mother and her child with special needs. She started with what she knew from her family, and then dove in the research in Japanese Cuisine to fill in the gaps. 

MORI WILLHITE: Cause people, when they ask you questions you better know the answer type-thing. So yeah a lot of it, thank god my mom was a food snob, because a lot of the stuff, especially here in the U.S., especially here in Indiana, she would tell me how she would get some of her things.

So one time we're having a sushi at my mom's house and then you know that tin container I have to put the seaweed in, so I picked up my mom's, I opened it. And the seaweed looked molded to me. And my mom's all typed out, "Oh my gosh she's keeping the molded stuff." I go, "Mom you should throw this out, it's probably bad." 

And she goes, "No, you don't understand." and finally she confessed back to traditional Chinese medicine, when you ingest gold it's good for you joints. So my mom, I knew she had gold dusted green tea, and gold dusted salt, my mom had gold dusted seaweed. "Mom what the, what is this?" Well, she didn't want to share, because it's gold. God forbid she share it with her first born or something, she shared with her grandson. She wouldn't share... I go, "Mom I don't have to eat this but okay thanks for telling me." It's just totally hilarious in retrospect that she's hiding her gold stuff. Most people invest it, but my mom's eating this stuff so. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Her mom's insistence on high-end Japanese ingredients did come in handy when Mori started her teaching kitchen. She knew where to get all the supplies. In her classes Mori takes the time to talk about specific ingredients and where to find them locally. And she goes over the different grades of rice and why it's worth paying a bit more for the good stuff, without going overboard as her mom sometimes did. Mori tells the story of her mom once paying $75 for a bag of the new crop of her favorite rice. 

MORI WILLHITE: You couldn't wait a week mother? That sort of thing, because she just misses how, I understand and I go, "Next time you buy something like that don't tell me. I don't want to know." 

KAYTE YOUNG: Mori's food and art pairing with the Eskenazi Museum of Art took place on a Saturday afternoon in January. The artwork she chose was a round stacked porcelain lunchbox, lavishly decorated with intricate patterns in shades of orange, and red, and blue. Laura Scheper and Kayleigh Dance lead the discussion of the artwork and guided participants to spend time looking at photos of the piece, and to share thoughts about associations they made. Mori talked about her first impressions of the piece. 

MORI WILLHITE: What I like about this five tier Bento, it makes you anxious that the foods gonna be, when it's the outside and the containers are that pretty, what is the food gonna be like? 

KAYTE YOUNG: Other participants talked about what the piece brought up for them, questions they had, and they speculated on whether the piece was decorative or something that was actually used for food. 

Laura shared information about the history of the piece, where it came from and the type of porcelain that was used. Mori talked about the symbolism of the turtle and the crane figure she noticed on the top of the domed lid of the box. And she wondered if it might have been intended as a wedding gift. 

MORI WILLHITE: Symbolically in Japan, when you go to a Japanese wedding, a tradition that they have is a crane as a present, because the cranes are monogamous. They mate with the same partner for life. And also there's a turtle on the bottom. Turtles represent 10,000 years of continuation or longevity. So that's why I brought up the wedding and hopefully you have a very stable monogamous relationship, for 10,000 or whatever. That's why I brought it up. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Then Laura shared some background information on bento. 

LAURA SCHEPER:  So a Bento itself is a takeout or a home packed meal of Japanese origin. Though it's also used in other countries as well. So a bento box is a box or a container for that meal. They can range from a massed produced disposable container, to lacquerware, so in this case we're looking at porcelain. I think one thing Kayleigh asked is the right question, about when we might actually use this? And I think maybe for a very eloquent occasion.

Just a bit more on bento, for context, in Japan bento are readily available as takeout in a lot of different places, like a convenience store, a treat shop, a train station, or [inaudible] but it's not just for takeout meals. Japanese meal makers and others put time and energy to carefully prepare lunch boxes for their spouse, or their kids, or themselves. 

KAYTE YOUNG: The discussion moved to what foods people had paired with the art object. Laura talked about a sesame ginger tofu dish. Kaylee mentioned some Japanese sodas she found at b-town International Market. And Mori said that she had chosen sushi. 

MORI WILLHITE: The sushi has colorful, vibrant colors, which would set off the vibrancy of the food as well. 

KAYTE YOUNG: After the food pairing discussion, Mori lead the participants through instructions for making a California roll. She talked about the importance of rice in sushi making. Mori makes the point in her sushi instruction of breaking down the origins of the word Sushi. 

MORI WILLHITE: That's where the word sushi comes from. "Su" is vinegar, and "meshi" is rice. So it's supposed to be about the vinegared rice. 

KAYTE YOUNG: This was a revelation to me. I always thought that sushi was all about the raw fish. But it makes sense to me. I've enjoyed plenty of sushi rolls with no seafood at all, with avocado, cucumber, or even asparagus in the center of that cylinder of sticky white rise cloaked in a sheet of shiny nori. My enjoyment of sushi has so often been about the elegant marriage of all of the flavors and textures. Dipping each piece in soy sauce, topping it with a dab of Wasabi, a sliver of pickled ginger. I always feel so awake and alive after eating sushi. And the few times I have not enjoyed Sushi, I will say it was the rice that ruined it.

If you've ever been fooled into thinking a tray of Supermarket Sushi might be a good idea, you know how disappointing it is to bite into that cold and crumbly rice. So it makes sense to me that Mori starts her instruction with rice. It's at the heart of making good sushi. 

Mori recommends that her students take photos of the rice bags and other ingredient packaging in her class as a reference for when they go to the international market. They'll know what they're looking for. 

MORI WILLHITE: Grades, all of this, the premium short-grain, super premium, it's all about the rice for sushi. The high-quality wise will make a difference as far, there is actually taste at this level. When you choose a rice, the more you choose, there's a sweetness to it. But more aside from the taste is that stickiness. You want your sushi rice to be just sticky enough so when you mold it, it will hold it's shape. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Mori walked participants through an abbreviated set of instructions and demonstrated the assembly of the California roll. Then she placed her cut Sushi circles within the context of a Bento Box Meal that she had put together before the session. It was a lovely display of edible art.

When I had the chance weeks after the food and art pairing event to taste sushi that Mori had made after hearing about her careful selection and preparation of the rice, I was convinced good rice makes all the difference. 

Visiting with Mori in her Beech Grove teaching kitchen, I was struck by her generosity. She readily reveals all of her secrets to making the perfect sushi rice, how to build umami flavors for a simple miso soup. 

MORI WILLHITE: Get that umami flavor out and then I'll strain it in a second. 

KAYTE YOUNG: After building a broth base called dashi by slow simmering water, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried Anchovies, and kombu - which is a type of seaweed, Mori is now adding the Bonito flakes. They're made from dried smoked fish that's been shaved into very thin flakes. 

MORI WILLHITE: Strain it all out because you just want the good juices and everything. 

KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So the Bonito flakes weren't in there very long. 

MORI WILLHITE: Uh-uh. They're very thin. You see that apple juice coloring? That's the dashi. This is the miso paste I use. You want to make sure that the miso paste dissolves properly. In the ladle I put some miso paste and I'm using my chopsticks to break it up, dissolve it better.

KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So you added some of the broth to help. 

MORI WILLHITE: Correct. It'll help it to dissolve quicker and better. I'm just adding. As I add some, some of the miso paste already goes into. So this will just make it more.

KAYTE YOUNG: Each of these ingredients--The mIso, kombu, shitake, bonito flakes, anchovy--they're all working together to build that fifth taste we refer to as umami. It's a deep and complex savory flavor.

MORI WILLHITE: The thing with the miso paste, since they have some micro-organisms in there, live ones to help with your lower gut, you don't want to have that water too hot cause it'll kill them. I'm gonna turn it down some more.

KAYTE YOUNG [INTERVIEWING]: So you always add that at the end, right before you serve it?

MORI WILLHITE: Yes. This is the easy part. The broth is what takes the most time if you're doing it from scratch. Here's some tofu that I cut up. The green onions I usually wait to about when I serve it, because they wilt so quickly and stuff. So in our family we put a little bit of sake in there to enhance the flavor. So dry is better. Understand, eyeball it, (add) just a little, like a teaspoon or so. Right before, towards the end. Cold days like this miso soup is best. 

KAYTE YOUNG: While I was there, Mori also demonstrated how to make spring rolls, California sushi rolls as she had done in the art pairing session, and she even showed me how she bakes a cake in her rice cooker. 

MORI WILLHITE: I can't believe we flipped that out of the rice cooker but it's one of those hacks that just turns out. I try to promote a lot of Americans go, "I don't want to just get one appliance to do one thing". Oh no, you can make cake, you can make mac and cheese, I try to introduce other stuff.

And as a good auntie Mori, most of my friends, their children go to college so I buy them a proper rice cooker, and I give them a bag of rice. If that's not love I don't know what is. So they spend time with me, make the rice, make all these Japanese dishes. So don't call me and tell me you're hungry, I sent you to college with a bag of rice. You know how to make stuff. 

KAYTE YOUNG: With the covid-19 pandemic hitting the U.S. just as Katsumi's teaching kitchen had moved to its new location, Mori had to make some adjustments. She started teaching classes over Zoom, and even built her own DIY overhead camera mount out of PVC pipe. 

MORI WILLHITE: And all the classes have been easy. Once you buy, you get the recipe and the shopping list. And I tell you call me if you can't find it, we will try to get something equal.

KAYTE YOUNG: I tried out one of the zoom classes with a few friends. We made a Japanese version of pork and cabbage pot stickers. It was fun to connect and to make food together from the comfort of our own kitchens. And even though she wasn't in the room with us, Mori made sure we understood each step including the tricky steaming and frying technique at the end. The pot stickers were fantastic. 

You can see photos, find the miso soup recipe, and learn more about Katsumi's Teaching Kitchen at 

KAYTE YOUNG: In 2013, the largest farmland asset manager in the world made a five million dollar gift to the University of Illinois to establish a research center. As part of the Big Ag U series, Harvest Public Media’s Dana Cronin reports on how the center was founded to study the very area of investment where the company has few rivals and has wandered into controversy.

DANA CRONIN: You probably know TIAA as a manager of retirement accounts. It’s a huge player in that market.

TIAA AD: In over 100 years, we've never missed a payment. Guaranteed monthly income for life.

DANA CRONIN: And part of that giant investment portfolio … is farmland. Because, as it turns out, farmland is a really good investment -- it’s stable and tends to increase in value year to year. And, as the saying goes, they’re not making any more of it.

So, farmland is increasingly viewed as a commodity … something to be bought, sold or rented. And the TIAA Center for Farmland Research, housed at the University of Illinois is evidence of that. The five million dollar donation that made the think tank possible is the fourth largest corporate gift the university’s agriculture department has received in the last ten years. That’s according to data obtained by Harvest Public Media and Investigate Midwest through the Freedom of Information Act. Bruce Sherrick is a professor of farmland economics and the center’s director.

BRUCE SHERRICK: When people ask me what I do, I say I'm interested in anything that affects farmland values, anything that affects farmland values. Who does that matter to anyone who cares about farmland values?

DANA CRONIN: He says that’s not just the center’s benefactor.

BRUCE SHERRICK: That's farmers, that's investors, that's input dealers, that's crop insurance people.

But some say focusing on farmland as just a commodity puts investors over the communities that rely on the land.Gabrielle McNally leads an initiative at American Farmland Trust that supports women landowners. She says corporate investment in farmland drives up the cost of the land. And that can make it harder for new people to own farmland.

GABRIELLE MCNALLY: And it is by and large women and folks of color who kind of make up this sort of new and beginning farmer group.

DANA CRONIN: Research also shows that conservation often falls by the wayside on plots of farmland owned by corporations.

TIAA has also come under fire for working with a land grabber to acquire some of their Brazilian farmland… That’s led some of TIAA’s own clients to speak out. Like University of Iowa anthropology professor Laura Graham. Her research focuses on indigenous communities in Brazil. Her retirement account? Managed by TIAA.

LAURA GRAHAM: And so it’s very ironic that my own retirement is supporting something that my research and my work with communities is in direct opposition to.

So she and other University of Iowa faculty demanded transparency and accountability from the investment giant.TIAA declined comment for this story. Sherrick -- head of the TIAA Center for Farmland Research back at the University of Illinois -- says that controversy hadn’t surfaced yet when the university received the gift. But he says that no-strings-attached corporate gift created a model for universities to dedicate themselves to research in perpetuity.

BRUCE SHERRICK: State funding had gone away. Federal funding had gone away. Our extension program. Finances have gone virtually, completely away, so we're substituting for those other sources.

DANA CRONIN: Others say this corporate model leaves out rural communities that schools also need to serve.

DOUG HERTZLER: We need to be looking at farm policies which would strengthen small-scale farmers and make land more accessible to them.

Doug Hertzler is a senior policy analyst with ActionAid USA.

DOUG HERTZLER: People that have a worldview that playing the market is what matters, aren't thinking about the well-being of those rural communities.

DANA CRONIN: Hertzler says creating more of these corporate-university research partnerships could ultimately hurt those whose livelihoods depend on farmland: farmers.

I’m Dana Cronin, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG: This report is part of Big AG U, an investigative series by Harvest Public Media and Investigate Midwest on corporate influence at public universities across the Midwest. Find more at

That's it for our show this week.

Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Jason and Nicole Evans Groth,

Laura Scheper, Kayleigh Dance and Mori Willhite,

RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Toby Foster and the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

Mori Wilhite looking down at a saucepan on a portable burner on a metal table with other ingredients. A decorative screen in the background

Mori Wilhite of Katsumi's Teaching Kitchen participated in a virtual Food and Art Pairing program with Indiana University's Eskenazi Museum of Art (Payton Knobeloch/WFIU)

"Then we get into questions of--okay, based on life experience, based on the thoughts that have surfaced here for everybody, what, if anything, are you wondering? What kind of questions come to mind?"

On this week’s show we talk with Laura Scheper and Kayleigh Dance about pairing food with art for socially distanced cultural events.

We visit a teaching kitchen featuring Japanese food and talk with the chef and owner, Mori Wilhite.

And Josephine McRobbie talks with the owners of a sweet shop about how they stay organized.

And we catch part two of Harvest Public Media’s series on big ag companies influencing university research.

Kayleigh Dance and Laura Scheper standing close together with windows and limestone wall in background
Kayleigh Dance (left) and Laura Scheper joined forces this year to host food and art pairing virtual events with the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University.(Kayte Young/WFIU)

Gather Around the (virtual) Table, to Talk About Food and Art 

The pandemic has changed the way many of us experience education, dining, socializing and culture more broadly--including the visual arts. Here at Indiana University, in the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art  Laura Scheper had to find new ways to engage the public with the museum’s collection. 

Her role as the Public Experiences Manager, is to design experiences that facilitate connection between the artworks and the people visiting the museum. Without visitors in the physical space of the museum, Laura faced a challenging situation. 

She found inspiration in an informal zoom call between her family and another family (friends of hers) where they cooked together for a socially distanced culinary experience. It was so much fun, she thought it might make for an engaging experience with the museum. 

She enlisted the support of a local foodie and social media influencer, Kayleigh Dance

Together they crafted a series of art and food pairings for monthly zoom sessions throughout the semester.

Hear all about it on the show this week. 

A row of sushi roll segments with a peach colored creamy sauce on each one, aranged on a white plate with a bamboo mat visible underneath.
Mori Wilhite was one of the featured guests on the Pairing Art and Food virtual series and she included a sushi making lesson as part of her food pairing. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

A Japanese Cooking School in the Heartland

One of the featured guests for the Eskenazi Museum’s Food and Art Pairings was Mori Willhite. 

Mori has been running the Katsumi's Teaching Kitchen for about six years, but recently moved her business into a storefront on Main Street in downtown Beech Grove, on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Mori describes herself as a snob when it comes to Japanese Food, and says she's more of a teacher than a chef. She has a background as a Japanese language instructor, but she’s found that sharing food is a fun way connect with others around Japanese culture. And she likes the idea of bringing more Japanese cuisine to Indiana.

She teaches cooking workshops where participants learn how to make sushi rolls (news flash: it is all about the rice, NOT the raw fish), Japanese-style potstickers, Bento and more. She takes the time to talk in depth about rice, different types and grades (and why that matters) and she helps students source Japanese ingredients so they can continue to cook Japanese food at home. Bloomington residents can find most of what Mori talks about in the episode at B-Town International Market on the east side of Bloomington. 

Once the pandemic hit, Mori moved her cooking classes online. Now she teaches both in-person classes (with fewer students) and zoom classes.

Listen to our conversation, and catch Mori's instructions for building umami flavor in her miso soup--on this week's episode of Earth Eats. 

Find more recipes from Mori, including how to perfect your sushi rice, on the Earth Eats YouTube channel. There's more of those to come, so you might as well subscribe so you don't miss any!

Music on this episode:

The Earth Eats’ theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Mori's Miso Soup

A bowl with cloudy broth and green bits, overhead view, bowl has red interior and two pale sticks are across the bowl towards the top.

Mori Willhite of Katsumi's Teaching Kitchen might go a bit overboard in building umami flavor into her miso soup. But the results are delicious.

Behind The Scenes At Anisette Sweet Shop

Nicole Evans Groth standing in a commercial kitchen with face covering and scarf holding back her hair. She is scooping batter from a steel bowl, muffin tins with batter are next to the bowl.

For Bloomington expats Jason and Nicole Evans Groth who started their Raleigh-based bakery and coffee market in 2016, the key to success is only partially about baking tasty treats.

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