Reviews

Welcome to Leith (2015)

In “Welcome to Leith,” a documentary about a tiny North Dakota town with a population of 24 (“including children,” the residents boast), the residents explain how they usually bent over backwards to welcome new neighbors to the area. Then they discovered that the new guy in the neighborhood, who was buying up property and inviting others to join him there, was a nationally-recognized white supremacist leader who planned to take over little Leith, North Dakota, drive out the existing residents, and create a white nationalist mecca.

 
The award-winning documentary, streaming on Netflix, follows white supremacist Craig Cobb‘s attempt to take over the town, and how the township organizes in resistance. Local residents and anti-racist organizations organize a protest in Leith against Cobb and his allies, and strategize a mixture of legal and municipal methods to force the case against Cobb.

There are several things that make the movie so compelling, not the least of which is the tension of first and second amendment rights in the conflict between the townspeople and the white supremacists. But of note to me personally, and to the people I’ve shared the movie with to date, is how the rural townspeople rise up — contrary to stereotype — against racism. I live in Indiana, the birthplace of several white nationalist movements, where folks feel comfortable tagging inclusive churches with pro-Nazi and anti-semitic graffiti and talking to the paper about how they organized in favor of Dylann Roof, the young man who staged a massacre on black church-goers in the name of white nationalism. Here, conversations about white nationalist movements in our midst are frequently met with patriotic proclamations along the lines of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” which is honorable, and certainly in the spirit of first amendment freedoms, but is a frustratingly passive argument in the face of movements that openly attempt to extinguish racial and ethnic minorities from our community. 

First amendment and social justice tensions are real, and this movie skates over them to declare victory for the townspeople, which is understandable given the content. There is no first amendment exception for “hate speech” — Americans are free to criticize and say any hateful thing they wish about others, in just the same way you may criticize capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans. The arguments for and against the creation of a “hate speech” category are rich and nuanced (and way over my head), but however you land on the issue, the first amendment doesn’t protect provocateurs and demagogues from criticism or disapproval. A high-minded civil libertarian argument becomes more difficult when you have a heavily armed white nationalist patrolling the boundaries of your neighborhood and threatening to turn your town into a hotbed for white nationalist movements from around the world. Which begs the question of the viewership: what will you do when you see Leith in your own communities?

Review: Bastards of the Party

As the New York Times puts it, Bastards of the Party is the “genealogy for the institution of the gang. This feature-length documentary “traces the origin of black American gang history, from the great migration of African-Americans from the South to northern and western industrial cities, to the rise and demise of the Black Panther Party and the Organization Us of the mid- 1960s, ultimately to the formation of the 1990s and 2000s gang culture in Los Angeles. Through the eyes of former gang member and co-producer Cle “Bone” Sloan, Bastards focuses on LA gang culture as a micro-community reflective of bad social policies all through the U.S.

We misunderstand the gangs when we assume that they have no history or purpose apart from brute violence, but we romanticize them when we imagine that they’re bands of brave vigilantes.

Clear-eyed history — shot through with archival film — begins to set the record straight. Mr. Sloan begins with a myth: that gangs like the Bloods and the Crips started in 1972, when they formed in response to a dispute over a leather jacket. That’s rubbish. The film shows that gang animosity in Los Angeles dates to the 1940s and ’50s, when the police had set up an extortion racket on Central Avenue to bilk the black music clubs.

Then Bastards points an abject finger at the role of the Los Angeles Police Department, and explores how Chief William H. Parker bolstered the ranks of the LAPD with white recruits from the south during his tenure from 1950 to 1966, who brought their racist attitudes with them into the police force and police work processes. Parker’s racist sympathies helped to lay the groundwork for the volatile relationship between the black community and the LAPD that persists today, and led to the rise of gang culture. The “bastards of the party” are gangs who are, according to Sloan, the “bastard children of” revolutionary black political movements. This is what happens, he says, in a pressure cooker of no jobs, no social safety net, and a militarized police presence, and when the hopes of the prior generation turn into the resentments of the present. He ultimately lays responsibility for the allure of LA gang life at the feet of law enforcement and their complicity with and promotion of generations of racist policy.

This is an intensely political documentary that would be appropriate for all audiences interested in social justice, urban American politics, solutions to poverty, maladaptive youth cultures, discussions of gang violence, underground economies, Black American history, and Los Angeles history.

Blue Apron Taught Me Some New Tricks

A friend gave me a free week of Blue Apron, a weekly cooking and grocery service that provides you with high quality produce, including seasonal ingredients directly from farms, importers and family-run purveyors, and easy instructions on how to use them. I like good food and I’m a good cook, so I decided to try it out.

How does Blue Apron work?

  • 20140205-223738.jpg
    Pork brats with caramelized red cabbage and roasted potatoes. I’m not a food photographer, but trust me, it was amazing.

    Start an account with Blue Apron.

  • Select the type of plan you want – meat and fish or vegetarian – and the number of people you will feed. Your weekly cost is determined by the number of mouths you feed, about $10 per person.
  • New menus are posted one week in advance.
  • Free delivery via FedEx.
  • You get all the fresh ingredients you’ll need to make 3 meals. Many of the ingredients are pre-measured, but NOT pre-prepared. You don’t have to be a gourmand, but you should be comfortable in the kitchen.
  • You will need salt, pepper, olive oil and basic cooking equipment like pots, pans, and a good knife.
  • You can cancel anytime before the weekly cutoff and/or skip a week if necessary.

The Arrival

Last Friday, a big box showed up on my porch full of high quality proteins and produce and other ingredients. This delivery included a salmon Caesar salad, brats with red cabbage and roasted potatoes, and a lovely pad Thai. Since I have a hungry teenager that likes to cook, we quickly unpacked the box — a large box packed down with ice coolers and insulation to keep the ingredients cool despite the shipping and weather conditions — and started on the brats, his choice.

The Food

Pad Thai with chicken and baby bok choi. Yum.
Pad Thai with chicken and baby bok choi. Yum.

They were delicious. The red cabbage, especially, seasoned with autumnal flavors like cinnamon and allspice, was great and new to me. A couple of times, the big kid put down his fork and kind of nodded his head like he had to grant his plate extra approval.

Like the brats, the pad Thai and Caesar salad were excellent, easy to prepare, and also quite pretty. The Caesar salad is something I make at home quite a bit, and this version was easier to prepare than my usual recipe and was just as good. The instructions are clear and detailed, printed on high quality card stock with color photographs of each major step.  The servings are also a healthy size, enough to feed my family, including one ravenous teenager, without any leftovers.

There is no bland food here. The flavor profiles are restaurant-quality, and they are spicy, exotic, and include ingredients I can’t easily get in central Indiana. Additionally, it gave me a few new tricks, like adding lemon or herbs or other aromatics to recipes I hadn’t considered before. These were welcome lessons that I’ve taken with me long past the length of my subscription.

Who is it for?

I could see this being a valuable service for busy professionals who like to cook, or for people who want to eat more home-cooked meals but who don’t like the process of meal-planning and grocery shopping. 

But the major drawback is the price. $10 a head for three meals a week is way more money than I spend buying my own groceries and planning my own meals. Because of the cost, I wish there was an option to receive only one or two meals a week.  And while some people hate leftovers, I love leftovers.

Over the years, I have cut so much fat out of my budget by cooking at home and eating the leftovers — legumes, y’all — for lunch at work the next day. Packing my next day’s lunch is part of my cooking routine. I love the Blue Apron cooking experience, but this cost in my budget is akin to eating out twice a week, and I still have to cook for myself the next day.

Looking at the packaging and the quality of the ingredients, however, I’m surprised that this service is only $10 a head. It’s very well done.

UPDATE (2016): I’ve tried most of the other comparable delivery services, and Blue Apron remains my favorite, hands-down.

I Wrote a Thing: Secret Fine Dining, Local Food, and Red Tape with Pop-Up Lafayette

popupthinklala-014-500x333A review of Pop-Up Lafayette, the new, elusive, all local and organic “supper club” that is taking over the imaginations of area foodies.

“Our political philosophies are layer upon layer,” one chef said. Another said, “We just want to cook beautiful food in an interesting way.” Another said, “We want to cook food we are lifted by.” Another argued that the Midwest doesn’t have an identifiable food culture apart from catfish and tenderloin sandwiches. They made a point of emphasizing their purveyors for the event: Everything was purchased or made or grown locally. Mt. Gilboa Farms from Benton Co., farmer’s markets, local gardens of friends and family, a pork farm from Mulberry, locally sourced honeycomb, Trader’s Point creamery, Union City beer from Indianapolis, all fair trade and/or organic. You get the picture.

The problem is the lack of knowledge and confidence us regular non-chef folks have in the kitchen. They spoke, for example, of the end-of-farmers-market routine, where the participating farmers donate what produce they have left over to local food pantries. The food pantries find that while they are grateful to have all this fresh food, people aren’t always sure what to do with it.

Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust.
Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

As someone who likes good food and loves to eat, I wasn’t a strong cook until I got into the now discontinued “The Minimalist” columns from the NYTimes, where columnist Mark Bittman used a narrative recipe style to get you to take 3-6 fresh ingredients, add fat, heat, acid, and seasoning, and end up with a great, fresh meal. I kept going back to the squash salad course in my mind. This deceptively simple dish was quite good, perfect on a hot and humid summer day. I’d never eaten raw squash before. When I asked for a quick recipe to put on the site, they shrugged and discouraged it.

What Pop-up Lafayette would rather we do is get motivated, do dinner with friends, and learn how to cook from one another. Another alternative, one suggested, is to get into City Foods in downtown Lafayette for the regular — FREE — cooking classes they offer there as part of their mission. The other thing is to figure out how to repurpose leftovers, so, for example, how to roast a chicken, and then how to reuse the leftovers on days two and three.

Why all the secrecy? We have a serious red tape problem in town for new restaurants and food concepts, thanks to the ever fragmented laws regulating Lafayette, West Lafayette, and Purdue. Talk to any local cook about the combative relationship between the health department and the restaurateur.

We discuss nonsense food codes with Pop-up Lafayette in the linked article as well.

I’ve been talking about the “pop-up” concept with a lot of artists and foodies around town, and these are the first folks to make it happen. On the Think Lafayette Facebook page, we post a lot of pop-up art and parks and food installations in cities around the world. None of these are municipally sanctioned, and they are organically grown from the creativity of the community around them. I’d like to see more of this in Lafayette, and less “public” art with staged press releases so that local government can take the artist’s credit. As Dave Bangert said, city government is at its best when taking a backseat and letting the citizenry shine. Indeed, for artisans too.

Read the rest at Think Lafayette.

Mystery! Intrigue! Food!: A Night with Pop-Up Lafayette

To get an invite to the hottest dining spot in town, you have to know people. If you’re lucky enough to know people, you then have to follow a series of instructions to get a ticket. It’s a limited seating event, in a secret location, thrown by a secret group of chefs who want to showcase the best of local food and make the case for a vibrant regional cuisine. While I was there I heard it called a foodie destination, art, a “dinner club,”and even “church.” This is Pop-Up Lafayette.

Pop-Up Lafayette Menu, 2013.
Pop-Up Lafayette Menu, 2013. BBQ style. Like your grandma’s house gone high-end art installation. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

So how I do tell you about the best restaurant in town without telling you who runs it, where it is, or how to get in?

Probably the best way is to tell you what I ate:

Red and gold beet terrine served with fresh pickles and tomato jam.
Red and gold beet terrine served with fresh pickled garden veggies and tomato jam. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

The first course was an array of pickled items served on a hunk of local wood. It was gorgeous to look at and a delicate starter. Beet terrine was squared off and served with pickled watermelon rinds, fresh fridge pickles, spicy radishes, and a light tomato jam served with a side of fresh baked bread.

The second course was fresh squash, uncooked, cut into fingers and lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. The fingers lay on a light bed of fresh lettuce and were paired with half a grilled eggplant.

A salad of fresh squash served with grilled eggplant.
A salad of fresh squash served with grilled eggplant. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

The soup course was a cool tomato soup served in a jelly jar, with a gelatin basil leaf and a drizzle of fresh yogurt.

The entree course was pork ribs served two ways, a dry rub and in a Carolina gold sauce, with white beans and ham hock, a healthy side of Swiss chard, and pesto corn bread.

And the dessert course. I would kill your family and climb over their dead bodies to get another chance at this one: lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, and dressed with a hunk of fresh honeycomb and a slice of flaky pie crust. The lavender and honey were explosive, like nothing you get at the grocery store.

Cool tomato soup with a jellied basil leaf and a drizzle of yogurt.
Cool tomato soup with a jellied basil leaf and a drizzle of yogurt. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic, Lafayette.

All of this was served with a side of political exposition about food insecurity in the Midwest, ironically while this section of the U.S. feeds the world, and a plea to get locals excited about growing and cooking their own food again. In our talk after dinner, they discussed at length their desires to have alternative avenues for culinary creativity, and hope they inspire others to get to cooking in their own kitchens.

“Our political philosophies are layer upon layer,” one chef said. Another said, “We just want to cook beautiful food in an interesting way.” Another said, “We want to cook food we are lifted by.” Another argued that the Midwest doesn’t have an identifiable food culture apart from catfish and tenderloin sandwiches. They made a point of emphasizing their purveyors for the event: Everything was purchased or made or grown locally. Mt. Gilboa Farms from Benton Co., farmer’s markets, local gardens of friends and family, a pork farm from Mulberry, locally sourced honeycomb, Trader’s Point creamery, Union City beer from Indianapolis, all fair trade and/or organic. You get the picture.

Pork ribs served two ways with Swiss chard, ham and beans, and pesto cornbread. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.
Pork ribs served two ways with Swiss chard, ham and beans, and pesto cornbread. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

The problem is the lack of knowledge and confidence us regular non-chef folks have in the kitchen. They spoke, for example, of the end-of-farmers-market routine, where the participating farmers donate what produce they have left over to local food pantries. The food pantries find that while they are grateful to have all this fresh food, people aren’t always sure what to do with it.

Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust.
Lavender ice cream served with gooseberry puree, fresh honeycomb, and flaky pie crust. Photo by Michael Dick of ISPhotographic.

As someone who likes good food and loves to eat, I wasn’t a strong cook until I got into the now discontinued “The Minimalist” columns from the NYTimes, where columnist Mark Bittman used a narrative recipe style to get you to take 3-6 fresh ingredients, add fat, heat, acid, and seasoning, and end up with a great, fresh meal. I kept going back to the squash salad course in my mind. This deceptively simple dish was quite good, perfect on a hot and humid summer day. I’d never eaten raw squash before. When I asked for a quick recipe to put on the site, they shrugged and discouraged it.

What Pop-up Lafayette would rather we do is get motivated, do dinner with friends, and learn how to cook from one another. Another alternative, one suggested, is to get into City Foods in downtown Lafayette for the regular — FREE — cooking classes they offer there as part of their mission. The other thing is to figure out how to repurpose leftovers, so, for example, how to roast a chicken, and then how to reuse the leftovers on days two and three.

What is quintessential Indiana cuisine — other than tenderloin and catfish?

Seasonal food. Corn in July, watermelon in August. Asparagus in the spring. And morels. MORELS. I don’t understand why restaurants here don’t serve corn. You can’t go anywhere in this area and get hyper-seasonal food.

What restaurants are most worthwhile in Lafayette?

Taco Rico. Sharma’s Kitchen. And I don’t want to ruin it, but the little hidden Asian restaurant next to Hodson’s Bay. Get a steak at DNR — it’s built into our genome to put meat over fire.

How do I learn how to cook?

I asked why more local restaurants don’t offer this array of local, sustainable food.

“They’ve tried. As a restaurant, in order to get the quantities you need, you need to be able to project what you need for the whole season. For a restaurant, doing it this way means living hand to mouth, and planning for business becomes a difficult balancing act. You have to live day-by-day, week-by-week for your menu. You can’t set a menu for six months.” Another chef chimes in, “Also, the customer base isn’t concerned with locality at this time, and they don’t want to pay the prices. People complain about the cost, so places stop serving local and organic food.”

The chefs also expressed concerns about how industrialization has scrubbed many choices from local foodways. You can’t get raw milk or soft artisan cheeses unless you know the legal loopholes or buy and sell on a black market. Bacon is treated differently from prosciutto by the food department, although they’re functionally the same thing. Grandma can no longer sell pies out of her own kitchen. The chefs compared European health code standards to American food standards and expressed frustration with the inability to access food resources that are right under our noses due to industrialization laws. “We’ve given the power to the wrong people.”

Moreover, they talked about the need we have as human beings to feel some regional ownership and pride over our food. Terra, one chef explained, is the flavor that’s particular to our region thanks to the minerals in our soil and the environment the food is grown in. That’s why an egg from your neighbor’s chickens looks and tastes to much different than one you buy at the grocery store. And that’s why your neighbor in New Chauncey’s eggs taste different from your neighbor in Benton County’s eggs. This, he said, is what makes food so special and why we should be pushing back against industrialization efforts. He questioned whether having fresh strawberries at the grocery in January, for example, is worth the environmental and human costs.

I asked the chefs how to turn things around and get people more attuned to what they’re putting in their bodies. Their answer was unanimous and emphatic: “Get in your kitchen. Stop cooking out of boxes and cans and spend some time in your kitchen.”

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Special thanks to Michael Dick of ISPhotographic for providing photos.