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Finding Russia Just Outside Boston

If you find yourself a bit tired of the Italian and Asian fare that covers our Boston culinary landscape, I suggest venturing to Brookline and Newton to discover a wonderful, hidden, culinary scene: the Russian food community. I discovered these hidden gems thanks to the recommendations of my Russian professor during my freshman year at Boston College. This past weekend, I had the chance to surprise my mother with a Russian food tour during her visit to Boston. I knew it would be a special surprise because she had a connection to Russian culture growing up; she had Russian family members, and her father worked in St. Petersburg, returning to her with treats and recipes to prepare at home.

Our first stop was the lovely Bazaar on Beacon Street in Brookline. With Cyrillic signs and Russian speakers all around, it feels as though you have stepped into another little world. I could browse there for hours. They offer homemade dishes abounding, including cucumber salad, red cabbage salad, and paté. They have a wide selection of fresh seafood, as well as meats, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. 

My mom was delighted to find one of her favorite beers from years ago, the long-lost Pilsner Urquell, among their internationally assorted wine, beer, and vodka section. My favorite area of the store is found in the back, displaying Russian cookies of all flavors and beautiful jars of fruit preserves. My mother was only sad she didn’t bring an extra suitcase to take half of the store back home to Florida. The next time you need to go grocery shopping, consider skipping standard supermarkets and head to this brilliant shop full of surprises.

Our next stop on the tour was in Newton, for lunch at Café St. Petersburg. This is a cozy, colorfully decorated spot that makes one feel as though they are at grandma’s house––which we all know is where the best cuisine comes to life. A grand piano sits in the center of the restaurant for live music performances during dinner. The café boasts an elaborate menu full of traditional soups, salads, duck, steak, chicken, lamb, and seafood, with potato- and cabbage-based entrees for vegetarian guests. 

We began our lunch with the delicious St. Petersburg salad, composed of chicken, potatoes, carrots, eggs, pickles, cucumbers, and mayonnaise. I would return for that salad alone. The traditional and vibrantly colored borscht followed; a meat soup with beets, cabbage, and potatoes. This was accompanied by a pirozhok (meat pastry) and sour cream––the perfect comfort food for a cold Boston afternoon. We continued our feast with beef stroganoff (sautéed beef with cream and spices) and chicken tabaka (fried hen with garlic sauce). On the side were buttery, fried potatoes, and we ended with sweet, cherry-filled blinis. 

My mom was elated, and I left planning my next visit to Café St. Petersburg. I encourage anyone looking for a change to discover these tasty, charming spots for themselves! 

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Artifacts Of What’s To Come

How a BC alum created a new kind of cider for a new kind of world

Jake Mazar’s favorite apple is the Roxbury Russet. It’s a greyish, greenish apple, with a leathery skin. You’d expect it to be sour, but it’s sweet. Not an artificially engineered kind of sweet that Dole and Driscoll’s may dream of, but instead a soft, weathered sweetness. Another admirer of the Roxbury Russet is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, in The House of the Seven Gables wrote, “But I suppose I am like a Roxbury Russet, – a great deal the better, the longer I can be kept.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was definitely a cider drinker.

Jake Mazar, CSOM ’08, decided to start a cidery after growing disillusioned with work in the consulting field. Together with childhood friend (and current Head Cider-maker) Soham Bhatt, who had been working in the biotech industry, he started Artifact Cider. “Something was lacking, and I wanted to do something on my own terms…we had a keen love of cider, something we’d been drinking for a long time, talking about for a long time. Soham started making some at his house in his garage, one thing led to another and slowly we decided to open up a company… and it’s kind of taken off from there.”

It begins, Mazar explains, with locally sourced apples. Once the blend is chosen and the apples are picked, the process begins to resemble that of wine-making. The fruit is crushed, pressed, and its juices begin to ferment, either with added yeast or with naturally occurring yeasts. It’s fermented for anywhere between a few weeks to a few months, and then aged until it is ready to be carbonated, canned or kegged, and finally consumed.

Given apple picking’s cultural ubiquity, it’s no surprise that cider culture has begun to reemerge in the Northeast. Due in no small part to the craft beer boom, where many have begun to shirk the Anheuser-Busch beverages in favor of locally-produced, small-batch brews, where cider has enjoyed a rebirth in the last ten years. As Mazar puts it,

“We’re interested not only what’s been done before, we’re interested in what can be done, what’s possible. Reinvention.”

And what serves as a better example of staying true to one’s roots while reinventing oneself than an apple itself? The Roxbury Russet has been in the Northeast for close to 400 years now, and it still manages to find new life every time it’s picked off the orchard, fermented for a bottle of cider, or regrown in a Massachusetts orchard.

Photo Courtesy of Jake Mazar
The Artifact Cider Orchard

Artifact’s name lends a bit of poignancy to this sentiment as well. Sure, the likes of John and Sam Adams might have enjoyed a Roxbury Russet some 250 years ago. They might even have had a glass or two of cider from those apples at the local taverns, taking gulps between discussing the merits of liberalism. So while cider, and the distinctly Northeastern apples that it can be made from, all serve as treasures of our past, they also remind us to look towards the future. I don’t think the Adams’ would have minded a blend of apples in their cider.

Although hard cider still makes up a mere 1% of the alcohol industry, the proliferation of cideries around the United States indicates that it’s not a flash in the pan, and has lasting value. Simply put, if cider can last 400 harsh New England winters, one could assume with confidence that it’s here to stay.

Artifact Cider can be found at Chansky’s Super Market and Gimbel’s Liquors.

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Snapshots of a Sustainable Food System

by Anne-Marie Green

Considering how much time we spend eating each day, rarely do we ask ourselves: where does our food come from? Who feeds us? These are questions I personally find troubling as a devoted foodie and an environmentalist. We eat with the hope that our food comes from clean, responsible and perhaps even picturesque places, but we really eat blindly, without any evidence that our food got to us in a way that supports our values.

In search of some “evidence,” I endeavored to photograph and learn about some of the food partners of BC Dining, including the kitchens of BC Dining itself. I explored four arenas of the greater food system, visiting two producers (Ward’s Berry Farm and North Coast Seafood), one provider (BC Dining) and one waste handler (Save That Stuff), in order to understand my food better than I did before. At every site, I encountered overwhelmingly passionate people, and was dazzled by the complex and innovative processes behind every meal. I hope these photos empower and inform you in the same way they did me, and that they may satisfy at least a bit of your curiosity of the origin of our food.

Ward’s Berry Farm is located in Sharon, Massachusetts, and supplies Boston College with vibrant produce like squash, peaches, tomatoes, zucchini and pumpkin. The process of it getting from soil to campus begins with picking. Jenna (photo 1a) and Rory (photo 1c) are year-round pickers, but Ward’s also employs several part time workers during the harvesting season, who, as Rory explained, are typically young people who come from as far as Ecuador looking for temporary work. While Rory viewed the picking process fondly — savoring long, sunny days spent outdoors — he also described it as grueling. Pickers go out in almost all weather conditions, including heavy rain and hail. He considered this past season to be unusually rainy, actually over-watering many of the crops.

This picked produce travels to the factory to be washed and packaged (photo 1b). In the factory, two young women wash yellow squash grown at Ward’s in order to send them in a CSA box, which are assembled down the hall. Ward’s does a local farm share with several colleges, providing their “farmer’s choice boxes” to BC Dining’s CSA Program (Community Shared Agriculture). CSA Members get a weekly surprise box of assorted produce grown at Ward’s, often with various squash species, including this yellow one. Every box is like a food puzzle: what dishes can be made so that none of the vegetable is wasted? My suggestion for turnips: bake turnip “fries” with salt and paprika, and sautee the greens (which are even more nutritious than kale) with maple syrup or honey to cut the bitterness.

While post-consumer food waste is an issue commonly tackled through composting programs, farms themselves also generate a significant amount of food waste. Ward’s efficiently feeds their excess produce to a small pen of pigs (photo 1d). The pigs gobble up produce with baffling speed — they finish one squash the size of a liter soda bottle before you can blink.

North Coast Seafoods, a seafood company based in Boston’s Drydock,  sources all of BC Dining’s seafood. Andrew Wilkinson, a Seafood Specialist and Chef R&D with North Coast, gave me a tour of the fishing docks and North Coast’s processing facility. Andrew and I got there early enough in the morning to see a fewthat a few North Coast-sponsored fishermen were unloading freshly caught Redfish, a fairly underutilized but still delicious local deep sea species. Because the species is a small to medium sized fish, much of what the fishermen bring in cannot be sold to restaurants as a standard fillet size. Andrew’s creative solution iswas to sort and source the smaller catches to local primary schools for a “fish n’ chips” school lunch. Most primary public schools lack healthful and fresh school lunches, he said, so what better way to make use of local, sustainably caught Redfish than to feed our next generation?

Next, Andrew showed me around the processing facility. I was stunned to witness the complex technology that produces the seafood that we, especially as Bostonians, love so much. Salmon filets travelled through a conveyor belt to remove hundreds of small bones, and employees removed the rest with tweezers (photo 2a). In such a high tech facility, none of the bones, guts or fish heads get wasted. North Coast collects these inedible or unwanted fish parts and creates “gurry”: a highly nutrient dense mixture used in fish oil supplements, pet food and fertilizer. Lastly, while touring the facility I soon realized that it smelled…normal. Andrew explained that when fish are removed from the ocean, bacteria can flourish, materializing in that infamous fishy smell. To prevent this, hanging from the ceiling throughout the facility were hoses of ozonated, or electrically charged, water that when sprayed on fish, it eliminates all surface bacteria so that the “fishy” smell disappears. Andrew excitedly asked me to press my nose right up against a half cut bass to discover the true fishy scent for myself. I sniffed it reluctantly, but it was actually pleasant, earthy and natural. Andrew said it was his favorite smell.  

BC Dining serves approximately 22,000 meals to thousands of students everyday. But behind the kitchens, it’s clear there are diverse and familial communities within each dining hall (see 3d for a window into the community members at Hillside). Student employees work hard every day to feed their fellow students (photo 3c), and all employees handle massive amounts of food each day for students’ breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks (photo 3b).

While there is significant consistency across dining halls, each unit adds a unique flare to the food that it serves. This is excellently embodied in the cookies. Each dining hall has a signature cookie recipe, like the wide and chunky Hillside cookie, the giant Stuart cookie and famously gooey Eagle’s cookie. This is because the bakery for all BC Dining baked goods is located right behind the Eagles Nest, home to Executive pastry chef Tim Fonseca, a baking master with a competitive edge. Tim makes sure to add a little extra love and chocolate chips to uphold Eagle Nests’ rumored status as the best cookie on campus.

Interning with BC Dining’s sustainability team has given me the privilege of working beside cooks, like Derek (Photo 3a), during FRESH to Table Kitchen Demos on Wednesdays. Every week, the chefs at Lower and the BC Dining sustainability team collaborate to serve and give samples of a dish that is either Fairly Traded, Regional, Equitable, Sustainable or Healthy. Students know this as the night with free (and delicious) samples, but the chefs, managers, and interns like myself consider Wednesday nights as sacred opportunities to share our passion for sustainable food. While I enjoy virtually all FRESH Demos, especially the dessert samples, I particularly enjoy when we sample underutilized fish species, like hake and pollock. This reminds me that we e have power as consumers of seafood: if we are willing to experiment beyond the typical seafood menu, and are persistent in pursuing responsible sourcing, we can help to balance our overfished oceans by trying one of the many underutilized species.

Save That Stuff is the processing facility that collects all of Boston College’s recycling, trash and food waste. While students toss food scraps in bins labelled “compost,” Save That Stuff does not necessarily compost the food that comes to them; they do something a little more novel with exciting ramifications for the future of organic waste handling. First processed to extract non-organic materials like food packaging, food scraps are then handled by engineers like Conrad (photo 4a), who mix the food in a chemically balanced Engineered Bio-Slurry (EBS). Marc Galardi, Business Development Manager of Save That Stuff, explained that certain companies are obligated to send Save That Stuff their pre-consumer food if the waste total exceeds 200 lbs. This rule explains the unsettling amount of Ben & Jerry’s pints (photo 4d) being stored in the food waste processing room when I visited the facility in November. The pints of Brownie Batter ice cream had never been enjoyed; Marc explained that they were likely in the facility due to labeling inconsistencies or allergy conflicts, which he said was not unusual. In these cases, waste production is left out of the consumer’s control, rendering even the most faithful environmentalist, like myself, feeling lost and helpless.

But what was done with the EBS restored my excitement for proper waste management practices — after the EBS is stored in giant, dark green industrial cylinders, it is sent to a wastewater treatment facility in Lawrence, MA, to be combined with septic waste. This facility not only converts the gas of this mixture into energy through the process of anaerobic digestion, but also transforms the solid remains into fertilizer pellets. Conrad appeared delighted that the resource potential of food waste is harvested nearly to full completion at Save That Stuff.

With Save That Stuff, the food circle is essentially closed. Our food is grown at the farm or caught from the sea, prepared and consumed, and then, ideally, re-harvested to create energy or enrich soil to restart the entire cycle. It should be noted, however, that while these photos represent a microscopic window into the realm of our food, this glimpse is also somewhat utopic. Not always is our food picked by Jenna or Rory, our fish handled with so much care by Andrew, or recycled properly by Marc or Conrad. This project, while partly curiosity-satisfying, truly leaves me wanting to know more: is there an uglier side of food production, and what would that look like?  

Indeed, only a small percentage of our food is grown and caught locally by sustainable and caring producers (about nine percent in Massachusetts), and unless we actively compost, our food scraps are wasted in an incinerator or landfill. If we allow ourselves the time and research, we can make small decisions that support food production as it should be: regional, sustainable and efficient. In this way, our consumer power and awareness of sustainability become tools to bring a beautiful, responsible food system to fruition — one of which we can be unwaveringly proud.


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Spyce Kitchen: The Future of Fast Casual?

Michaela Santillo

MIT Engineers, a French Chef, and the hunger for success: the three key ingredients for the new robotic restaurant Spyce. Biting into the first morsel of my machine-made bowl at Spyce in Boston’s bustling Downtown Crossing, I could not feel further from my species’ roots as a hunter-gatherer—and I love it.

Contrary to what the image of a “robotic restaurant” may conjure, Spyce employs a number of real, human workers. Smiling and welcoming, the garde expedites the process by ushering customers in and helps with the orders. Beyond simply ensuring that the process goes along smoothly, they’re there to answer any questions about the concept, the process, and the product. It turns what could been an overwhelming and stressful process into a relaxed and well-informed one. Especially when contrasted with the pressured on-the-spot ordering at most fast-casual restaurants, this efficient process offers the customers a more streamlined experience.  

Though humans are used for ingredient portioning and garnishing, everything in between is completely automated. The robotic kitchen includes seven cooking woks, five hoppers, and a runner. According to the restaurant, their robotic kitchen is able to serve up to 150 meals every hour. This rapid speed speed, however, doesn’t take away from the experience of the meal.The involvement of MIT Engineer’s minds is clear in the exact timing of the process; the bowls are cooked just the right amount for the ingredients to mingle without blending into a monotonous mash.

Spyce celebrates food as a source of nourishment as well as creativity. Thanks to of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, the bowls are thoughtfully crafted. What a place like Spyce has the ability to do thanks to its incredibly efficiency is refocus labor costs into sourcing quality ingredients, allowing each bowl to taste of its own distinct terroir, be it Latin-American, Moroccan, or Asian.

In our hyper individualized culture— where personalization is the norm—these customizable bowls fit right in.  Throughout the ordering experience, the customer is offered a multitude of customizable options including vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Still, it’s hard to see your food be prepared by a robot and not feel a tinge of dread. Food is, after all, a cornerstone of what makes us human. Our ability to elevate our food using complex techniques and combinations of ingredients is a facet of our rationality – what happens when all of that is being done faster, better, and cheaper, by machines. No matter what you may think, these bowls aren’t “made with love”. They’re made with cold, hard steel in practice and cold, hard cash in mind.

At the core of the company is the desire to provide, good-tasting, nutritious meals at affordable prices. Boston, with its student population of 150,000, seems like the perfect place to pilot this type of model. Due to the everpresent rapid pace of life in the city, fast-casual dining has taken off; automated machines taking over the process may not be the dangerous leap forward it might seem. Rather, it could be that in terms of ameliorating the product for the consumer and the profits for the producer, this is the logical next step. Simply put, to eat a meal with Daniel Boulud’s name behind it at the price of $7.50 would not be possible without these Faustian robo-cooks. Still, despite all my doubts, the bowl tasted great. So while there’s no way to tell what the future holds, I can only hope it tastes something like what Spyce has cooked up.

Spyce Kitchen, 241 Washington St, Boston, MA 02201