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A Jewish Farm, A Yucatan Taco And Grief-Eating Ham Sandwiches

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[Earth Eats theme music]

Kayte Young: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, this is Earth Eats, and I’m your host, Kayte Young. 

Meridith Cohen: There’s just not just a blessing you say before food, and there’s not even just one blessing that you say before eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable  

There’s a blessing that you say before eating fruit from a vine, there’s a blessing that you say before eating fruit from a tree, and there’s a blessing that you say before eating fruit or vegetables from the earth. 

KY: On today’s show, Josephine McRobbie talks with Meredith Cohen of One Soil Farm, about what it means to her to have a Jewish Farming Practice. 

We check back in with Sazon Mexican Cuisine about how their Yucatan Taco Stand has grown since our last visit. 

Poet Yalie Kamara reflects on the ways in which we sometimes turn to food when our grief is more than we can bear.

That’s all just ahead after the news

[music fades out]

KY: Associate producer Alex Chambers is departing from the Earth Eats team, and we will miss him terribly. However, he’s here for one final news report, 

Hello Alex. 

AC: Hi Kayte, yes, I will miss being here. For my last report, we’ve got two stories. One is an update on the USDA's plans to move two agencies to the Kansas City area and the other is about ICE raids at processing plants in Mississippi.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general has added criticism to a plan to move hundreds of researchers from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City Area. Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer explains.

Two Democratic members of Congress from the DC-area, Steny Hoyer and Eleanor Holmes Norton, requested an inspector general’s investigation to determine whether the move was legal.

The report found that while the relocations themselves pass muster, the money to pay for them does not. That’s because USDA failed to provide certain information by a Congressional deadline

USDA is calling the rules requiring that information unconstitutional. But the Inspector General’s report said USDA had read those same rules differently in other matters.

Norton and Hoyer called on USDA to halt the moves. Many Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees chose to leave their jobs rather than relocate.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

AC: A massive immigration crackdown in Mississippi last week underscores the human costs of a food system that relies on workers carrying out perilous work with few protections. 

On August 7, hundreds of immigration officials raided seven processing plants in Mississippi, arresting at least 680 workers. It was one of the largest single crackdowns of its kind in US history.

The facilities face possible charges of “willfully and unlawfully” employing undocumented workers.

So far, the consequences of this raid have landed squarely on the workers and surrounding community. About 300 were arrested and released on the same day, and the remainder held at an ICE facility in Louisiana.

Local communities describe ripple effects, with a severe drop in business that depends on the plants, like grocery stores and bakeries. It also affects businesses that employed detained plant workers in secondary jobs.

The plants are owned by several heavy-hitting companies, including Peco Foods, Koch Foods, Pearl River Foods and A&B Incorporated.

The impact on the companies operating the plants has been minimal. No charges have been filed against them, though an investigation is ongoing.

And that’s the news. Thanks to Amy Mayer of Harverst Public Media and our own Chad Bouchard for those stories.

KY: And Thank you, Alex, for everything.

AC: You're welcome Kayte. It's been great.

KY: Presidential candidates are out in force across Iowa, meeting voters and finding out what’s important to them. Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer reports that’s an opportunity to get agricultural issues on the national agenda.

AM: Iowa's first in the country caucuses are less than six months away and this time around there's little competition on the Republican side but more than twenty Democrats are vying for their parties' nomination. University of Iowa's political scientist Tim Hangle says "It's a heady time to be an Iowa voter."

TH:  And the joke always is is you know if you ask one person in Iowa or New Hampshire if he's decided on a candidate "No, I've only met them you know two or three times."

AM:Iowa went twice for Barak Obama and then for Donald Trump.  Democrats hope they can win Iowa again so candidates are trying to attract voters who aren't committed to either party, by showing they care about Iowa interests; like agriculture.

On a hot 4th of July, a crowd mingled in a private yard ahead of California Senator Kamala Harris' stop in Indianola, a small city within commuting distance of Des Moines.  Corn and soy bean fields stretched around two sides of the property.  Warren County boasts a couple of outlying suburbs of Des Moines but most of it is still farm land.  Kevin Peterson isn't registered with either party.  He's listening to everyone.  He says hot button social issues probably aren't what he and his neighbors will base their decisions on.  

KP:  The economic issues when they're gonna make a significant impact to a rural area or semi-rural area like Warren County is probably gonna sway things a lot more in 2020. 

AM:  Peterson's not a farmer but he wants to know what candidates plan to do about trade deals which some argue have disproportionately hurt farmer's in corn belt states, in particular, the slashing of soybean exports to China has stymied farm profits.  Voter David Kidsis has seen the impact.  

DK:  Farmers need help right now, big time and the current administration's not doing it with the tariffs with China and we've gotta get somebody else in there.

AM:  Harris came prepared to address Trump's ad policy, even referencing soybeans rotting in bins because farmers didn't have a market for them.

"We've seen a president of the United States who came into office saying that he was going to protect farmers yet he initiates trade policy by tweet."

AM:  Minnesota Senator Amy Clobuchard toured an Iowa <<??>> plant in April and declared support for the renewable fuel standard, a lot popular with farmers because of the demand it creates for their corn. In 2000, Republican candidate John McCain essentially skipped campaigning in Iowa because he opposed ethanol subsidies.  Other candidates are taking on the merging of large agro-businesses.  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says if she's elected president, she'll undo the uncompleted Baer-Monsanto merger.

EW:  Remember, you can continue to consider the monopolistic impact of these mergers even after they occur.  So this is not one of those where 'darn, now it's happened so there's nothing we can do but ring our hands.

AM:  In the July debates, agriculture came up only a few times. Ohio congressman Tim Ryan called for a more sustainable agricultural system.  And former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke specifically mentioned cover crops and conservation easements but the lack of primetime attention underscores the role of early-state voters.  Again, political scientist, Tim Hagle:

TH:  It does give voters a chance to raise those issues before the candidates and give the candidates an opportunity to consider those issues that they might not consider in another state.  

AM:  Hagle says that can result in pandering but Iowans have a long memory for those caucus season promises.  Obama, for instance, had a tough re-election campaign here.

TH:  He made an awful lot of promises as a candidate and was not able to follow through.

AM:  President Trump came out in favor of ethanol ahead of the 2016 Iowa caucus. He didn't win it but Iowa's Republican senators have made a point to hold him to his commitment.  Hagle says that's the sort of legacy the Iowa caucuses can foster but it's not clear whether any issue will rise to that level for Democrats in 2020.

Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media

KY: To hear more visit harvest public media dot org.

[production support music fades in]

Production support comes from…

KY: Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio. Elizabeth Ruh,  Enrolled Agent with Personal Financial Services.  Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over fifteen years.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net. And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838

[music fades out]

Feature One Soil

KY:  Learning to farm takes hard work, determination, and a lot of elbow grease. For Meredith Cohen, it also took diving deep into her own ideas about faith and fellowship. Josephine McRobbie spoke with Meredith at One Soil Farm.

Meridith Cohen: I’m asked a fair amount ‘What is a Jewish Farm?  What is a Jewish Farmer? What does it mean to be a Jewish Farmer?’

[music-claps and drum sounds]

MC: There’s the way that being Jewish could influence how I farm, and there’s a way that farming and being connected to the land informs my Judaism, and what it means to me to be Jewish. And I think that both of those things are very intertwined. 

Josephine McRobbie: Ten years ago, North Carolina native Meredith Cohen was working as a teacher. She was experiencing burnout and wondering how to create a more sustainable life. She was starting to garden, and dabble in homesteading. And she was also longing for Jewish community and was having a hard time figuring out how to find it. 

MC: And so when I discovered that Adamah existed, like when I first saw the words "Jewish farm" like in the same place, it was like 'oh'. it just sort of planted the seed in my head of like, that's where that's where I want to go, that’s what I want to do” 

JM: Adamah is a Jewish farming program in Falls Village, Connecticut. Residents spend two to three months living communally on the 10-acre farm, immersed in operations like growing vegetables, tending to goats, and helping with lacto-fermentation. Meredith stayed for 3 years. She was immersed in Jewish culture in a way she never had been. 

MC: It was like throwing myself in the deep end. Like it was getting to be in a Jewish place that runs on a Jewish calendar. Where you really just get to be surrounded by Jewish community and culture and also by I think more diverse Jewish community and culture than we often get to in like the rest of our society right now. At Adamah it's a pluralistic space so you know people who had the full range of experiences from feeling really alienated from Judaism and wanting to get a chance to explore that and be in that community and also you know like living in the same house with people who had grown up Orthodox and maybe it was their first time being around people who weren't Orthodox and so it's just, it's a really vibrant community. We have some winter squash, delicata, and butternut... [fades out]

JM: In 2016, Meredith moved back to North Carolina, where she spent two years re-rooting herself in her own local communities, and working on local farms to learn how to grow in the Southeastern climate.

MC: ....we have cucumbers, eggplants, okra...

JM: We're walking thorugh One Soil's half acre in Cary with her sister Caitlyn and nephew Ellis. They're on land that's leased out of the incubator Good Hope. She currently sells Southern staples like squash, watermelon, and greens, at her own farm stand outside the Jewish community center in Durham. Next, she hopes to create a CSA program that operates through both local synagogues.

MC: Barukh ata Adonai ...

JM: Meredith, Caitlyn and Ellis are saying a blessing over a tiny cucumber Ellis has picked off the plant.

MC: Should I bite it? (laughs)

MC:  One of my favorite things about Judaism is that we have very specific blessings like there's not just a blessing that you say before food and there's not even just one blessing that you say before eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable.  There's a blessing that you say for eating fruit from a vine.  There's a blessing that you say before eating fruit from a tree.  And there's a blessing you say before eating fruit or vegetables fromt he earth and I think getting to say those blessings after physically picking a fruit from a tree or a vegetable from the ground and then getting to say the blessing and have that experience.  It's just really special.  

JM:  For Meredith there's a connection between the practice of farming and being in active dialogue with her own Jewish identity and her history.

MC:  It really is a reconnection.  The truth is that Jewish people, like all people, have agricultural root and we're a diasporic people as in you know for thousands of years we have been forced to move aound alot but if you look at our traditions and even our religious traditions, they do come from agricultural roots and many of our holidays that over time we've come to you know sort of connect with a Biblical or historical story are also really connected to the land and to harvest and to the seasons there's just really exciting and meaningful things happening where people are reconnecting Jewish holidays and traditions to nature and the seasons and what does it mean to be connected to land.

JM:  This relationship to land can be complex and that's something she hopes by having a physical space to gather, that she can address more fully.

MC: I'm Jewish and there's a history of diaspora there and think that can be really healing for our community to explore our relationship wiht home and what does it mean claim a place as home and to build a relationship there that feels lasting and safe and I'm also white and you know I live here in North Carolina and you know our country is..was built on colonialism and enslaving people and even me just figuring out, you know what does it mean to own land or to farmland is really complicated and I think that when people have those conversations actually on land it changes the way we can have those conversations.

JM: A grounded, connected approach is reflected in the name of her farm. One Soil, a term coined by Karl Hammer of the Vermont Compost Company, signifies both the physical transformation of waste into fertilizer, as well as the ephemeral nature of our own lives. It’s cited often at Adamah, and it's one of Meredith’s most treasured memories of her time there. 

MC: You're walking across the farm and you see people schlepping compost up the hill and someone yells ‘One’ and everybody else yells back ‘Soil’. It's actually like a cheer that happens and I kind of think of it as shorthand or just a reminder that we're all connected like we're all connected to each other. We're all connected to the land.

 KY: Thanks to Producer Josephine McRobbie for that story

[music fades out]

[new music, upbeat]

KY: If you’ve been listening for a while, you might remember Sazon, it’s a family-run taco stand that sells at the farmers market here in Bloomington. We played our profile of them several weeks ago. The owners are Maria Ucan and Jesus Barajas. They run the business, with some help from their son and now, a few employees.  They’re scaling up, and we’re always curious about what it takes to make a food business work, so we wanted to check back in with them. 

JB: We have a little bit of a prep kitchen area. We have some work tables, we have a half size convection oven, electric food warmers, we have a sandwich press.. [fade out]

 KY: Jesus and I are standing in their new shop. The room is long and narrow, with plenty of nice table seating, and a lime green couch in the front window.   

JB: We like to call this space more of a storefront, not quite a, I mean it is a restaurant, but we refer to it as a storefront, because we don’t have a kitchen here. We are still using the commissary kitchen..

 KY: That’s One World Kitchen Share, a commercial kitchen that several food businesses use in town use for food prep and cold storage.  

JB: That cut a lot of the expenses for us. That’s why it was easy for us to make the decision to moving and getting this space, because we didn’t have all those expenses for build-out, hood installation, grease interceptor installation and all that…

KY: It also means they’re not making huge changes to their menu. But there will be more options. Their menu at the farmers market is pretty focused on breakfast.

JB: Here at the storefront, the toppings and the sauces are the same. We have tacos, we have tortas, which is a Mexican style sandwich, which is a large – it looks, it’s not quite a baguette, it has that shape but it’s not as long. And then we also do quesadillas. We have bowls, with a rice and beans base, and then the meat and all the toppings. We have fresh guacamole and cheese – chips I sorry. And we are trying to incorporate another two or three like shareables into the menu for people just like the guacamole maybe we'll eventually like chips and salsa, or queso or cheese sauce with chips. And then here we have more meat and veg choices... 

KY: They’ll have grilled chicken al pastor, roasted cauliflower with tempeh and corn, and. that. pork

JB: The pork that we talked about before and I described is traditional from the Yucatan and is slow braised overnight and wrapped in banana leaves, that is very popular now and a lot of people they like it and they go for it. And then another dish that’s starting to get very popular is portabellos, roasted portabellos with sautéed onions, garlic, and guajillo peppers.

KY: And of course they’ll also have the toppings that they’ve had at market from the beginning.

JB: chopped onions, cilantro, the pickled red onions we made ourselves that are very popular, sliced radishes, cucumbers, limes, here at the storefront we have sliced pineapple as well ‘cause we do al pastor, chicken. It's grilled chicken el pastor. Both of the sauces, tomatillo, the green sauce, and the habanero one that a lot of people like.

KY: People do like that habanero sauce. Including your host. We’ll talk about the secrets of that sauce in a bit . But first, I wanted to know if the new location was going to offer a new customer base as well.

KY (tape): You’re right here on Walnut, and you’re right across from the Bluebird and some of these other spots that are really popular with students and kind of a nightlife scene and I was wondering if you’d end up staying open longer for people who just want to come in for some tacos or something when they’re out.  

JB: We are really focused on the quality of our product, and I don’t know if we will be able to still satisfy that at late night (KY in background: Yeah, like the bar crowd). Yeah, like for the bar crowd…I really like people to appreciate the product that we are preparing – and it’s not like they are not gonna appreciate it, but maybe not in the same way that if they come for lunch or dinner and they are able to enjoy it in a better setting, or earlier in the day.

KY: Jesus is very focused on quality. And they’ve always sourced their meats and many of their other ingredients from local farmers, I wondered if that would change with scaling up.

JB: pretty much all the vegetables and meats that we've been using from the beginning that’s what we try  to keep. For quality of the product and consistency. I’m not a big fan of going just because it’s gonna be cheap for me. I like to keep it the same way. That way people get the same product every time they come.

KY: They’re juggling a lot these days, maintaining ties to where they got their start, even as they launch this new location downtown.

JB: We are at the farmers market every Saturday, and we’re gonna continue doing that. That’s why we’re closed here in the morning. We’re just open for dinner on Saturday night. We really like the farmers market. Like I said, we didn't know what to expect and how people was gonna react to us in the beginning but then we kind of fell in love with the atmosphere and the community and the other vendors as well at the Farmer's market, and that’s why we’d like to keep that and continue as long as we can do it.

JB: We like to describe our food as traditional or authentic Mexican food. At the beginning it was just Sazon Tacos or Taqueria, because that’s what we were doing, but then when we started doing tamales in some other places and the breakfast items it was a little more broad so that’s why we changed the name to Sazon Mexican Cuisine, so you get more of the cuisine not just the tacos.

KY: I asked Jesus if it was starting to feel like dreams coming true. 

JB: It’s really nice to have this opportunity and to have found this. It’s difficult sometimes, it’s hard to manage everything. It’s still a family business, we still focus on everything local and the quality and the product that we’re gonna present to people. But it’s fun too. It’s fun to come up with different things and new ideas. 

KY: And though it is still a family business, they have hired 5 employees to help run the market stand and the storefront.  You can stop by Sazon’s downtown location for lunch or dinner Wednesday through Friday, and for dinner on Saturday. Details on our website, Earth Eats dot org. 


KY: Okay, one more thing. The habanero sauce. I promised I’d get back to the hot sauce. 

KY (tape): I’m interested to hear more about your habanero hot sauce because I had some at the market on Saturday and they told me it was hot. This is hot, this is mild, And I was like oh I want the hot one and I put it all over the taco and ate it and was like wow I was dying and I really like high spicy food. It was so intense and loved it. It was great. I really, really love it so what all is in that?

JB: It’s a recipe that we kind of put together at the beginning from other places basic recipe that usually people consume in Yucatan just habanero peppers with maybe like lime juice and salt so but we added more stuff to it. Other spices, other juices, sour orange that we are able to get sometimes and what I like about it is that it is really hot but it has a lot fo flavor to it and that's what I like. I'm really, I'm not a big fan of just heat itself because then I mean, it kind of ruins everything but if it has a really good flavor like this one does then yeah you can enjoy it even if your mouth is burning. You just like roast it, it's like the habanero peppers, onions and garlic that has the kind of like charred. They're not completely cooked, it's not like it's boiled or anything. It's just like that and then blend it, yeah.

KY: So there you have it. Not an exact recipe, per se. They can’t give away all their secrets. 

But you’ve got something to start with if you’ve got some habenero’s starting to ripen in your garden and you want to give it a try. But first, you need to taste Sazon’s. You’ll find them at the Bloomington Farmers market this Saturday and now you can stop by their new storefront near 6th and Walnut downtown. 

[music fades out]

KY: Some people say food is not political. I’d say that food is part of culture, and that it carries meaning into all of the spaces where we find ourselves eating together, sharing food. Poet Yalie Kamara reflects on gathering and sharing food in the face of violence and morning.

Yalie Kamara: Repast In The Diversity Center

We line up with our paper plates in hand: two pieces of white bread packs

of mayo, mustard and ketchup. There are tongs to grab the fixings: water runs

down the spine of the washed lettuce; it arches like a back snapping

out of nightmare. Sliced tomatoes bleed into the foil pan holding them.

The Spicy Nacho Doritos rub against the pink ripple of meat peeking

from between the bread slices. After every two or three deaths,

we are invited to grieve-eat ham sandwiches. I sit at a roundtable

and struggle to open my bag of chips between each microphoned voice

that laments another loss. How we’ve come together once more to eat

all that we cannot bury.

A man holds a mic like an ice cream cone:

“I mean, I guess I’d be willing to die if I had to.”

He tugs at the bottom of his untucked purple polo shirt.

I thought the food would taste better.

When I am sad, the noises in my head are louder. In my mouth,

the chips sound like someone walking on loose gravel. My people

need to crunch up. It’s crunch or never. I’d rather crunch on my feet

Than live on my knees. It seems I might miss the revolution eating

state school-sponsored snacks. A white woman from the campus mental health clinic

offers counseling services. She stutters and then fades into the wall as if to make

space for Marvin as he croons his famed question into the speakers.

I’ll tell you what’s going on: the lemonade is too sweet for such an occasion. 

I’d rather drink water. Cheesy stardust bruises the tips of my fingers.

It smears onto any surface I touch. I am marked. Lord, people are dying

and the only evidence of my mourning are these party hands.

What a bright color against these deep black blues.  

I have to be honest. I only came because I was hungry.

KY:Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American writer and native of Oakland, California. Find more about Yalie and her work at Earth Eats dot org

[theme music fades up]

Renee Reed: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

Special thanks this week to Merideth Cohen, Yalie Kamara, Jesus Barajas and everyone at Sazon. 

Production support comes from insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch insurance.  Offering comprehensive auto business and home coverage in affiliation with Pekin Insurance.  Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838. Bill Brown at Griffy Creek studio.  Architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects.  Sustainable, energy-positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world.  Bill at Griffy creek dot studio and Elizabeth Ruh, enrolled agent providing personalized financial services for individuals, businesses and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying and estate services.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net.

[theme music fades out]

A woman wearing a Judea Reform Congregation t-shirt standing behind a table loaded with fresh lettuce (indoors).

Meredith Cohen currently sells Southern staples like squash, watermelon, and greens, at her own farm stand outside the Jewish community center in Durham, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Meredith Cohen)

On today’s show, Josephine McRobbie talks with Meredith Cohen of One Soil Farm, about what it means to her to have a Jewish Farming Practice.

We check back in with Sazon Mexican Cuisine about how their Yucatan Taco Stand has grown since our last visit.

Harvest Public Media has a story about how agricultural issues are showing up on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa.

And Poet Yalie Kamara reflects on the ways in which we sometimes turn to food when our grief is more than we can bear.

Stories On This Episode

What Does It Mean To Be A Jewish Farmer?

A woman standing in a mostly empty greenhouse, some potatoes and supplies in the background.

Learning to farm takes hard work, determination, and a lot of elbow grease. For Meredith Cohen, it also took diving deep into her own ideas about faith and fellowship.

Sazon Mexican Cuisine Opens Downtown Location

Glass storefront, with Sazon Mexican Cuisine logo, hours, and neon "open" sign.

It's something between a taco stand and a restaurant. They're calling it a storefront.

Repast At The Diversity Center

Headshot of Yalie Kamara, in floral shirt.

Poet Yalie Kamara reflects on the ways in which we sometimes turn to food when our grief is more than we can bear.

Iowa's Rural Voters Are The First To Have A Say, Which Holds Sway Over Candidates' Policies

A multi-racial crowd applauding at outdoor event, some holding small american flags.

Presidential candidates are out in force across Iowa, meeting voters and finding out what’s important to them. Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer reports that’s an opportunity to get agricultural issues on the national agenda.

ICE Raids in Mississippi Shed Light On Exploitation In Food System

Workers in blue uniforms and protective gear at an assembly line at a chicken processing plant.

A massive immigration crackdown in Mississippi last week underscores the human costs of a food system that relies on workers carrying out perilous work with few protections.

Episode Transcript 633

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