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Teranga: West African Tradition Meets Fast-Casual Dining

The bustling crowds and cramped store fronts that are commonplace within New York’s eight boroughs offer pedestrians and foodies an opportunity to embrace cultural diversity unlike any other American city. Still, New Yorkers continue to learn more about new cuisines and restaurants opening up in their small neighborhoods everyday. In the borough of Queens alone, there over 6,000 restaurants represented by 120 nationalities.  

Harlem, a neighborhood of Manhattan that has long been a historic center for African American culture, is another dynamic food hub often overlooked by tourists and restaurant critics alike. One of Harlem’s staples is Soul Food–– fried chicken, mac n’ cheese, and shrimp and grits. But what many do not know about Harlem is that there is a cluster of blocks in the neighborhood that are filled with businesses run by West African immigrants, such as “Le Petit Senegal,” or Little Senegal. 

Though it is a 15 minute walk from Le Petit Senegal, Teranga is a cafe located right across from Central Park in the Africa Center, serving food that accentuates the traditional ingredients of West Africa.

Co-founder and executive chef Pierre Thiam started Teranga  in February 2019 and the philosophy that his team brings to their work is simple and holistic: serve food that is “rooted in traditional African home cooking” while welcoming customers with “good hospitality .” They serve coffee in addition to food and offer an open space to sit down and hang out. The furniture and interior decorations have colorful African-inspired patterns inviting the most unfamiliar of guests inside. Unfortunately however, the current COVID 19 set-up is only for take-out and  consists of a table near the front of the restaurant where customers pay and pick up their orders.

Photo courtesy of ny.eater.com

I had first learned about Teranga a few months back in an Eater New York article highlighting an evolving counter-service food scene in the city–– specifically one that serves Pan-African cuisine not found anywhere else around Manhattan. 

Teranga’s menu includes a choice of protein ––free ranged grilled chicken, roasted salmon with Morroccan spices, or sweet potato–– over any of their bases of jollof rice, fermented cassava couscous, or liberian red rice, and a choice of various salads, legumes, and roasted vegetables. 

On my first visit a few weeks ago, I sat on a bench in the park where I enjoyed the well-seasoned and succulent chicken breast with hearty red rice, a bright kale salad with locust beans, and mushy, sweet plantains. Then I added the mafe, a warm peanut sauce, as well as a hot sauce made of scotch bonnet peppers. The peanut sauce added nuttiness while the hot sauce gave the food an incredible burn with a hint of bitterness. 

A spontaneous snapshot of my Teranga Chicken Bowl

After eating the meal, I began to think that any combination of food available on the menu could offer textural and flavor varieties that topped most restaurants in resembling delicious home cooking. For $14, it may have been the most eccentric and comprehensive meal I had eaten in a while. 

Teranga also works to raise awareness of African culture within the eclectic New York community. It is an integral part of The Africa Center of New York, which hosts readings, music performances, talks, and film screenings by representatives from all over the continent. 

The team conveys that hospitality transcends food as they have hosted music and art events, sponsored a community run and protests for racial equality, and donated over 900 meals to healthcare workers just  in the past 6 months. All of its events and initiatives are posted through a sleek Instagram account that continues to grow in engagement.

Post from Teranga’s Instagram page @itsteranga_

Many restaurants strive to become ingrained in their local communities, but Teranga is one that practices what it preaches. It represents a model for more immigrant restaurateurs to use their platform to creatively share the nuances of their home country’s cuisines and expand the types of foods that Americans eat.  Ultimately, they can serve delicious and wholesome meals while helping to transform the neighboring community and beyond. 

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I Miss Eating, It Was So Real.

“I like eating, it is so real” – Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

Eating was one of the last ‘real’ things that COVID-19 left after it disrupted normal life. In a matter of days, the whole country was stripped of the social interactions that go hand-in-hand with sharing a meal. From chats over a morning coffee to a birthday meal at a favorite restaurant, everyone felt this loss. More and more time spent at home with nothing to do drove some to productivity and some to insanity, but it drove the productive and insane to baking.

In December of 2018, Amanda Mull coined the phrase “anxiety baking” in an Atlantic article. Surely “anxiety baking” was a thing before Mull put a name to the phenomenon, but the phrase has only become more and more relevant as time has gone on. “Many [young Americans] seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive,” writes Mull. As weekdays have blended into weekends and the “anxiety of being alive” has been heightened, baking as a release has grown in popularity.

Photo courtesy of washingtonpost.com

The rise and fall of culinary fads has sparked the interest of the masses across social media throughout the past few months. Quarantine began with hopes of flattening the curve and being over sooner rather than later. People quickly jumped on the Dalgona coffee craze. “I’m looking for distraction anywhere I can find it. I wanted to try the trendy coffee,” wrote Alex Beggs in Bon Appétit. Interest in the frothy coffee died almost as quickly as it grew.

A few weeks into this sobering pandemic, around when people realized just how much time they were going to have in quarantine, sourdough bread began to gain traction. “A couple weeks into quarantine, I followed a recipe I found online to make my own sourdough starter from scratch… I named my starter “Tina,” short for quarantine,” said Nicholas Pietrinferno of Boston, MA. The therapeutic nature of kneading and shaping bread has given many an opportunity to forget the worries of a pandemic-ridden world. “The process of baking sourdough has been a relief. When I’m able to take my starter out of the fridge a couple days before baking, I feel like I’m prepping for a big trip with friends” Nicholas reflected. Although there was a great deal of ambition when it came to the sourdough trend, only the strong and stubborn remained committed to perfecting the art of the perfect loaf. 

Photo courtesy of bakefromscratch.com

Those who came to the conclusion that they didn’t have as much time and patience for sourdough turned to banana bread. Being the ultimate comfort food, banana bread was what sustained bakers and non-bakers alike as quarantine dragged on and on. “If anything, I’ve realized that making some baked goods requires more precision than I’m willing to put in,” remarked Alicia Kang (BC ‘22). “But I like having something in the kitchen that I made with my own hands and that anyone can enjoy”. 

Photo courtesy of handletheheat.com

As the world has begun to emerge from isolation and ease back into social interactions, food has remained the focal point around which all else revolves. Friends and family around the country are able to partake in the realness of eating together once again. However, the power of physical labor and comfort as demonstrated by quarantine baking must not be forgotten. Climbing back down the rabbit hole of baking trends might not be such a bad thing. In fact, why don’t you start here.

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Reservations

Aisles filled with vibrant vegetables and fresh fruits define the stereotypical outer layer of American grocery stores that occupy nearly every street corner in affluent, suburban areas. While this quick access to healthy produce may be expected by many Americans, a large majority of low income and rural areas lack such luxury. Food deserts, areas without grocery stores, negatively impact vulnerable populations and escalate the hardships faced by the residents of these areas. With a lack of access to natural, unprocessed food, populations that are already at risk of poorer health outcomes are at a higher risk of contracting diseases that are preventable. Native Americans, who have been historically and systematically oppressed by the American government, lack access to fresh produce and are at a greater risk for morbidity and mortality.

To understand the vulnerabilities that Native Americans face requires exploring the history behind the formation of reservations, as the original intentions and goals of the US government continue to impact its current relationship with Native Americans. Beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, tribes across North America were forced to leave their land and move to undesirable areas that the US government assigned to them. “For most of the nineteenth century the policy of the U.S. government was to isolate and concentrate Indians in places with few natural resources, far from contact with developing U.S. economy and society,” states Gary Sandefur, a social worker and sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This intentional forced isolation from other upcoming economies led to worse qualities of life on reservations. Then, the Dawes Act of 1887 allocated small plots of land to individuals within tribes rather than to tribes themselves, and reservations were broken up and fractionated, leaving many tribes to share or have no reservation at all. This act was merely the beginning of decades of acts, treaties, and crimes committed with the intentions of isolating Native Americans. The blatant separation of tribes from the rest of society has directly led to the poor living conditions on reservations that exist today. 

The mistreatment of Native Americans went beyond geographical colonization and expanded into the white washing of traditional cultural and culinary practices. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived off the local flora and fauna, thriving on the culinary staples known as the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash. Their growing potential was maximized by farming the three together in harmony. Food waste was minimized by utilizing every part of the animal that had been hunted. These dietary customs were uprooted with the aforementioned forced migration; the land Native Americans settled on was devoid of the local agriculture to which tribes were accustomed. The inability to farm the plants they were used to led to the reliance on rations provided to reservations by the US government. Introducing sugar, lard, and other processed foods, the diets of tribes unnaturally shifted from seasonal and sustainable consumption to dependence on unhealthy, packaged foods. 

The lasting effects of where Native Americans were forced to settle and the numerous other atrocities committed against them are evident today in the living conditions of the 1.14 million Native Americans that currently live on tribal lands. With 28.4% of Native Americans living in poverty, the median income of Native American households is $35,062 compared to the median income of the United States, $50,046, according to the 2008 U.S. Census. Housing is another large issue on reservations, as 30% of housing is overcrowded, and about 90,000 families are homeless. While striving to assimilate and isolate the various Native American tribes with the formation of reservations, the negative issues that riddle reservations, including the lack of access to grocery stores, are not shocking.

Food deserts disproportionally affect Native Americans but are also present throughout the United States. Food deserts are “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable healthy food options is restricted due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance,” as described by the Food Empowerment Project. Around 2.3 million people do not have access to a vehicle and live more than a mile from a supermarket, which typically sells less expensive produce than smaller convenience stores. Convenience stores and gas stations are present in areas without supermarkets, but these stores do not sell fresh produce. Individuals living in such restricted areas lack healthy and affordable options and are forced to purchase processed foods.

Graphic courtesy of medium.com

Native Americans are subjected to particularly high levels of food insecurity. With a low median income and geographic isolation of reservations from major cities, at least 60 out of the 326 reservations in the United States are food deserts. Furthermore, Native American families are 400 percent more likely to not have enough to eat at all.

The Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles and houses 300,000 people, has 13 grocery stores. For context, the Navajo Nation would cover all of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire if it were in New England. With a quick Google search of grocery stores in Boston, a map with over 20 grocery stores spanning the Charles River alone pops up. While these may not all be in walking distance, public transportation makes many grocery stores that are a few miles apart much more accessible. The Navajo Nation, however, lacks public transportation, lacks the multitude of options for fresh produce, and lacks the accessibility to supermarkets that students of Boston College have. Meanwhile, the average resident of the Navajo Nation must drive three hours to even come in contact with a supermarket filled with fresh foods. 

While geographic distance limits those who are able to go to grocery stores, the poverty and low average income of residents makes it extremely difficult to then afford the expensive fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods available at said stores. An updated report completed by the First Nations Development Institute found that Native American shoppers pay $7.51 more for a standard “basket of groceries,” which contains bread, ground beef, eggs, milk, tomatoes, and coffee. This reality in which Native Americans struggle to buy affordable fresh food prevents many from obtaining quality ingredients. 

The impact of inaccessibility to fresh produce is evident in many of the health outcomes in Native American populations. Native Americans are disproportionately affected by non-infectious diseases, known as non-communicable diseases. Many of these diseases are preventable based on lifestyle factors, specifically diet and weight, but the disparities that Native Americans face leave them more vulnerable to the same non-communicable diseases.

With the forced loss of traditional food sources and the deficiency of affordable fresh foods, their diets now are filled with high quantities of foods with high added sugar content and sodium, which is reflected in the high percentage of diabetes in the population.

Photo courtesy of lpbstores.com

Compared to the 8.7% of non-hispanic white individuals, more than 16% of Native Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. While this alarming rate of diabetes appears within a small population, this rate has been attributed to dietary rather than genetic factors. “Several studies have shown that unhealthy, nontraditional foods like canned meats and fast-food, are a large part of the problem,” notes Dr. Amanda Fretts, an epidemiologist who has studied the dietary habits of Native Americans. With scientific evidence attributing poor health outcomes to diet, the impact of the lack of access to fresh food is apparent. 

With numerous resources attributing the poor health outcomes and high prevalence of disease in Native American populations to poor dietary habits, it is time that the American government is held accountable for the history of systemic oppression. To begin to improve health on reservations, federal funding for Native American programs needs to increase. In 2019, the GOP recommended that for the 2020 fiscal year, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would decrease by $17.2 billion, and families with an income of at least $90 per month would have to receive half of their SNAP benefits as canned or shelved items. Potential decreases in funding to programs aimed at mitigating the absence of fresh produce is only perpetuating the harm to Native American communities, and these programs need to receive better federal funding to enable those who rely on their benefits to adequately feed their families and to begin repairing the damages done by colonialist actions. 

Furthermore, the federal government needs to utilize its power to provide incentives for supermarkets, who sell affordable produce, to open stores in areas that may traditionally be seen as unprofitable. When opening these grocery stores, incentives and programs that educate and encourage shoppers need to be an integral aspect of the shopping experience. Simply introducing accessible produce will help address the issue of food insecurity but may not immediately eradicate dietary habits. 

In tandem with increasing federal funding for nutritional aid programs, additional non-profit organizations have been created to fight food insecurities rampant on reservations. The Fruits and Vegetables Prescription Program, which was started in the Four Corners region in partner with Partners In Health, provides patients with a “prescription” that is worth a month’s worth or free fruits and vegetables at their local store, and Partners In Health then reimburses the local stores. This has made produce more accessible and has demonstrated direct impacts on individual’s health, as one-third of children who were overweight at the initiation of the program are now at a healthy weight. Even though it is an example of a small scale intervention, the program demonstrates that change can be made and the health of a population can be improved with more affordable and accessible options. 

While innovative programs are popping up on reservations and amongst other vulnerable groups to address food inequality, the federal government ultimately needs to take greater responsibility to solve the unequal access to healthy food. The 2020 elections offer an opportunity to vote for politicians that are dedicated to advocating for health equity for all populations and equitable health care options. Make sure that you are registered to vote and have signed up for your mail in ballot, if you need. We as voters need to ensure that our voices are heard and that all populations have equal opportunities to live healthy lives. 

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The Faces Behind Our Food

It’s no secret that the food industry is currently hanging by a thread. 

While restaurants have seen a sharp decline in profitability in the wake of COVID-19, food media groups like Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street are trudging along, doing what they know best: bringing the hidden corners of the culinary world straight to your doorstep and changing the way you think about cooking. The growth in readership of food media parallels the decline in the rest of the food industry, giving ventures like Milk Street an opportunity and a responsibility to highlight those who are struggling.

Milk Street began in 2016 after Chris Kimball left the praised cooking show America’s Test Kitchen. Kimball spent almost 20 years building up the ATK empire before deciding to go in a different direction. “The point of Milk Street is to spend time with folks who view cooking very differently than I do,” said Kimball during our pre-pandemic conversation in February. “That is the joy of culinary travel—learning from home cooks who know more than I do”. 

With a weekly podcast, multi-season television series, bimonthly magazine, radio show, online store, and in-person cooking classes (now available online for free), Milk Street quite literally does it all. Instead of finding their niche by dominating a certain medium, they have established themselves in the culinary world through their worldly approach to cooking techniques, ingredients, and influences. 

The foundation of Milk Street’s movement towards a global approach to food is Kimball’s proposed ‘new rules’ for cooking. “Good cooking shouldn’t take hours,” states rule number 3, a contradiction to the basic idea that more time means more flavor. These rules are revolutionary propositions that have been inspired by home cooks from Mumbai to Oaxaca and everywhere in between. “We are moving towards a world, as we already are in music and fashion, where everything is going to be a mix, a hodgepodge of different cultures and experiences,” noted Kimball in discussing the future of the American food scene. The importance of food in every culture lends itself to laying a foundation for empathy and equality across cultures. 

In an effort to take advantage of their platform and highlight these different cultures and experiences, Milk Street has started #MilkStreetFaces, a social media movement that “shares the stories of the people who feed us.” 

Photo collection from Milk Street Instagram @177milkstreet

#MilkStreetFaces projects the voices of those who were previously limited in the communities that they reached. “Food injustice is racial injustice,” stated Vel Scott of Purple Oasis Farms in Cleveland, Ohio. “You’re not going to be able to fight and march and make change unless you have a healthy outlook.” The ideas that begin with food soon permeate every facet of life. 

Across the country, chefs are using food as a common denominator in the wake of intense racial discrimination and a relentless global pandemic. “If we get people to sit down, break bread, and talk, get to know each other, we can build the relationships to tackle the really tough things,” remarked James Beard award-winning author, Adrian Miller. Food is especially powerful in this way.

Milk Street has always worked through food to bridge the divide between cultures. Over the past few months, however, the urgency and necessity of this goal has only become more obvious.

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“Whole” Foods: America’s Obesity Epidemic

As if America were not already struggling enough, over forty percent of American adults were obese as of late 2019, reports the NCHS, and by 2030, almost half of all Americans could suffer from obesity. Though the COVID-19 pandemic currently overshadows the obesity epidemic, the link between the two has become increasingly important.

Recent studies with COVID-19 patients in New York found that those suffering from obesity were twice as likely to be hospitalized. Despite this strong link, the obesity epidemic may still seem abstract within the confines of a college campus. The active lives of many students, abundant resources for recreation, and exposure to diverse food options create a bubble in which many of us live. The high obesity rates mentioned above disproportionately affect Americans with middle to lower incomes, people of color, and many who have no college education. 

The convergence of these two severe health crises sheds light on an uncertain future for health and food norms in America, as extended quarantine and work-from-home have shifted several of them.

One of the most significant shifts has been more reliance on home cooking. In fact, 45% of Americans have been cooking more in the past three months than before. Earlier in the year, Americans ate a third of their meals outside of their homes–– whether it be consuming fast food, dining at restaurants with enormous portion sizes, or relying on food delivery at the touch of a button. This new trend has the potential to create better eating habits, says esteemed Dietician Cara Rosenbloom. Her clients have reported greater intake of fruits and vegetables, fewer fad diets, and overall improvements in their mood when cooking more.

Photo courtesy of Vox

Another shift, says Hajra Jaffer, my mother and a health and well-being coach at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is towards eating habits that incorporate “whole” foods. These are plant-based, unprocessed foods, like colorful vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. They contain nutrients that are essential to adopting sustainable eating habits, she adds. 

My mother’s insight on sustainable eating has not only been relevant to her clients over the past few months but also to a few members of my household. My sister, a 24-year-old professional, chose to dedicate a month to eating only whole foods as a part of the Whole30 Program. She cut out carbs, added sugars, dairy, legumes, and alcohol during this time. One of her main takeaways from this challenging commitment was her “awareness of how much food in America contains additives.” When substituting fresh fruit for a scoop of ice cream, she began to realize how her “mind and body reacted positively to the healthy substitute.”

My father also modified his diet a few months after recovering from COVID-19. He began experiencing allergic reactions to eating certain foods and, after consulting health professionals who had no concrete answers, he decided to follow a diet of whole foods and fewer fatty proteins, desserts, and processed snacks and drinks. He is now feeling better than ever with the various light chicken dishes, roasted vegetables, and salads that my mother prepares everyday.

Photo courtesy of Harvard.edu

My family is just one example among many that give hope for change, not only during this unprecedented time, but in the long-term. 

While it may not directly impact many people in affluent and privileged areas, obesity prevalence is a persistent issue and a product of inadequate policy, education, and investment in countless communities around the U.S.  People experiencing food insecurity and living in food deserts have barriers to accessing whole foods that are nutritious with the primary options being “low cost, energy dense processed foods,” a recent New England Journal of Medicine article states. Some of these communities have been hit even harder by the economic impacts of COVID-19, as families have experienced higher rates of food insecurity in April than prior months. Thus, obesity disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and Native American communities that struggle with food insecurity, and COVID-19 is only making it worse.

The most vulnerable age group in these communities tends to be children, as countless studies from the NIH have also concluded that childhood obesity is a significant predictor of adult obesity and chronic disease down the line. 

Public and private entities can continue tackling the obesity epidemic by improving the current food programs already in place and emphasizing the power of whole foods in these communities. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leading health-focused philanthropic organization, suggests that policymakers continue to increase funding and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides a stimulus for lower-income families to purchase healthy foods. SNAP compliments the meal programs that American public schools must continue to provide to children for lunch during the school year. Additionally,  governments could incentivize companies to partner with community dining entities and offer meal kits with whole foods to eligible employees.

The above data is courtesy of the U.S. Bureau: Current Population Survey, 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

It is important to also recognize that exercise and physical activity go hand in hand with eating whole foods as factors that influence the prevalence of obesity in various communities. Communities with more public transportation, parks, bike lanes, and recreation spaces have weaker ties with obesity prevalence, according to Harvard Public Health. People today spend more time in their homes due to COVID-19, often unable to go outside or to the gym to exercise. Eating habits may take time to change, but if a greater number of Americans are physically active during the summer months, such behaviors could have a positive influence on other efforts to prevent further increases in obesity. 

There is a long way to go, but progress is only possible if those with the knowledge and resources can get the attention of leaders with adequate influence. There may be no better time than now for our society to treat this issue with more urgency.  

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A Moroccan in Miami

A walk through my Miami neighborhood takes me past a Spanish melody echoing out of the Cuban restaurant, the faint chatter of a masked crowd waiting outside of the Japanese bistro, and the sight of fresh gyros being assembled through the window of my favorite Greek spot.  While many associate Miami with its Cuban presence in culture and cuisine, our city is home to many smaller communities that make up our melting pot. Over the past year, my family and I have been discovering Miami’s Moroccan community through our friend Maryama. Maryama grew up in Casablanca, Morocco and immigrated to Miami, Florida by herself at 25 years old. It was in Miami that she met and fell in love with her husband Amr and had three kids together. Maryama came to be a part of our lives after my mother, a nurse, began to care for her son. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Maryama as she shared her love of cooking and how she uses food to keep her Morrocan culture alive in a new country. 

Maryama celebrating her son’s birthday.

Caroline: How did you learn to cook?

Maryama: I learned to cook at home when I was growing up with my family. Cooking is all we do! It’s a big part of our culture. Cooking was my school. It’s how I learned many things. If we were home, we were cooking!

What were some of your favorite dishes growing up?

I loved couscous, of course! I loved to make bastilla, which was a baked pie with fish. These were very special dishes for us. 

When you moved to the United States, did you feel any pressure to “Americanize” and forget or hide your culture?

I did not feel that pressure in Miami. Even though I was adapting to a new country, I still wanted to keep my culture and was able to do so here. I would cook only Moroccan food for myself. I don’t miss Morocco a lot now, but I still feel connected to my culture. I travel back there to visit sometimes.

Were you able to make new friends and find a support system here?

Yes, I was able to make some friends. My best friend here is from my city back home, and we have a big group of friends. We would meet every couple of weeks, before Covid of course.

How do you keep your Moroccan heritage alive for yourself and your family?

I keep a Moroccan fridge and a Moroccan kitchen full of spices. I cook only Moroccan food for my kids, and I make sure that they have the same dishes I had growing up. I try to incorporate some of my culture into the decor in the house. For example, I have furniture from Morocco in the house. I also teach the kids my native language.

Couscous, a Moroccan cuisine staple.

Where do you buy your ingredients? Are there any good markets in South Florida that sell Moroccan ingredients? Is it hard to find ingredients sometimes?

Well, something I love to do is buy lots of spices in Morocco when I visit and bring them back with me (she laughs). But here, although I have not seen any specifically Moroccan markets, I have been able to find many Moroccan spices and ingredients in Asian markets, some Chinese markets and Indian markets like Big Bazar. Many of our traditional ingredients, such as ginger and saffron, can also be found in the average supermarkets like Publix and Walmart. I can usually find most of the ingredients I need to cook Moroccan food here.

Are there any good Moroccan restaurants in South Florida?

Although Moroccan food is not as present as other cuisines in the Miami restaurant scene, there are some Moroccan restaurants such as Dar Tajine and King David Cuisine. There are some restaurants that blend Moroccan cuisine with other cuisines such as French and Spanish, like Rouge and Boulud. Many Mediterranean restaurants offer Moroccan food options. Surprisingly, many Jewish restaurants here offer great Moroccan food. Some Jewish restaurants that offer Moroccan dishes are Shalom Haifa Kosher Restaurant and Subres Grill.

Has it been hard to pass on your culture to your children when you are living in a different country?

It has been hard to pass on my culture to the kids because of school and work. Most of the time, the kids are at school and I am at work. I work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even when the kids have a break from school, I don’t usually have many holidays off from work. Because of this, I don’t get as much time with them as I would like, but I try to teach them about my culture as much as I can. I try to show them my culture and practice my language with them. Learning my language has been hard because they mostly speak English all day in school, but I am trying. They cannot speak it very well right now, but they can understand a little better.

Finally, would you be able to share one of your recipes with me?

Yes, of course! I am going to write a couscous recipe for you.

Thank you so much for chatting with me today!

Of course!

. . .

There are people like Maryama all over the U.S who immigrate here from around the world and bravely face a new country, culture, and language. However, they still find different ways to preserve a piece of their heritage, as Maryama does with her cooking. Food gives us the power to take our culture with us wherever we go, and provides us the comfort of home in new, unfamiliar places. Through food, we can also learn to appreciate cultures that may not be our own and embrace people like Maryama, who make our country so wonderfully eclectic. 

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A Petri Dish for Employee Exploitation and COVID-19 Cases

With shelves empty of the traditionally easy to find toilet paper and aisles barren of baker’s yeast, grocery store aisles across the country were filled with palpably tense air, as stressed shoppers braced for the unknowns of stay-at-home orders and uncertainties within their lives. With an unprecedented increase in demand for large quantities of everyday items, manufacturers began to experience the effects of the consumers’ frenzy. “There is not a supply shortage, but it does take some time for the manufacturing process and our supply chain to catch up from the significant spike in demand,” stated the interim president of Giant Food, an American supermarket chain. While many producers quickly bounced back from the increased demand, the meatpacking industry has struggled to process its normal quantities due to the temporary closures of plants resulting from high numbers of positive coronavirus cases amongst plant employees, a predominantly immigrant population. The outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants not only threaten the meat supply chain, but more importantly place many immigrant employees at risk of contracting COVID-19 or facing severe financial repercussions. 

When the Smithfield Foods facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota closed in April due to positive novel coronavirus cases among employees, approximately 550 livestock farmers lacked a plant to process their livestock. As the Sioux Falls facility accounts for 4 to 5% of all pork produced in the US, its closure greatly reduced the supply of pork in grocery stores and restuarants. Soon after the South Falls facility, multiple other meatpacking plants closed as a result of the spread of COVID-19 among their employees. 

Workers in a Smithfield Foods facility- Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Although the various closed meatpacking plants are not physically close to one another, it isn’t shocking that multiple meatpacking facilities experienced large numbers of concentrated cases. Working elbow-to-elbow to utilize all the space in a factory, “some workers had as little as three feet of space at the cutting table.” These close quarters led to 28,303 confirmed coronavirus cases and 102 coronavirus-related deaths among meat-packers as of June, 26 2020. 

There is a long history of documented mistreatment and unfair working conditions among meat-packing employees. In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Sinclair sheds light on how poorly the employees are treated by highlighting the experiences of a recent immigrant to Chicago who began working as a “shoveler of guts” at a meatpacking factory. Addressing the back-breaking labor, low wages, lack of soap and water in bathrooms, and transmission of illnesses, Sinclair hoped this story would lead to reform of the treatment of employees in the meatpacking industry; however, public outrage focused more on explosive information regarding the lack of sanitary practices in meatpacking. This led to the passage of the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug Acts of 1906, which were major strides for improving the safety of consumers. Despite the major improvements in the quality of meat, the treatment of workers, specifically immigrants workers, did not improve.

The thousands of positive coronavirus cases among meatpacking employees reflect an industry that has historically thrived off of mistreating a vulnerable population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30% of meat and poultry packers are immigrants. This percentage does not account for the number of undocumented immigrants who also work in meatpacking plants. In addition to being exposed to potentially unsafe work environments and intense physical labor, immigrants already are at risk for worse health outcomes, often due to lack of access to adequate healthcare. Without access to COVID-19 testing, workers continue to go to work until their symptoms physically prevent them from doing so.

When the Center for Disease Control reported in April 2020 that positive coronavirus cases were emerging in meatpacking plants across 19 states, the industry responded by increasing preventative measures; however, the number of cases among employees has only continued to rise. This drastic increase in positive cases follows President Trump’s Executive Order on April 28, 2020, which invokes the Defense Production Act to label meat packing plants as “critical infrastructure” and thereby encourages meat- and poultry-packing plants to stay open amidst the pandemic. This order comes as an attempt to decrease the impact on the meat supply chain and prevent a shortage of meat across the country.

While the executive order only encourages meatpacking plants to stay open, many are offering large bonuses and raising hourly wages to incentivize employees to come to work. JBS USA, a leading producer of meat and poultry products in the United States, has begun to increase salaries by $4 per hour with a $600 bonus. While workers who remain home for health concerns do receive normal or slightly decreased salaries, the increase in wages from JBS USA and many other meat manufacturers provides an opportunity for increased financial security during the economic downturn. This has led many immigrant employees to continue working at the plants, posing a risk to themselves and others. 

In an interview, Achut Deng, a Sudanese immigrant who works at the aforementioned Smithfield Sioux Falls Plant, discussed how she supports her 4 sons and 5 family members who live in Africa with the income from her meatpacking job. After being exposed to a coworker who tested positive for coronavirus, Deng was sent home to quarantine for 2 weeks. “Overtime is, like, $500 extra. $500. That, for me, it covered a lot of things,” Deng explained, noting the financial impact of only being paid for 40 hours a week, which was much less than the overtime she normally worked. Deng recently tested positive for coronavirus but is recovering well and focusing on her health. 

Deng’s story resonates throughout the immigrant community as many are not just responsible for financially supporting their own families in the US but also their families in other countries. Yet, many employees have not had the same experience with their employers. At a Smithfield plant in St. Charles, South Dakota that closed only briefly to look into positive COVID-19 cases, a woman stated that she witnessed social distancing guidelines not being followed at work. “If I don’t go to work, they’ll say OK, but then I won’t have a job,” stated the woman. This puts many employees in a situation where they must choose between their physical health and the money they rely on to live.

The difficult decision and sacrifice to go to work that meatpacking employees are forced to make is only an issue because of the meat supply chain. With large manufacturers and processors of meat and poultry closing down due to coronavirus outbreaks, farmers have nowhere to send their animals to be processed. The enormous number of pigs that will be euthanized as a result of this may be the only option that farmers have. 

Photo courtesy of Ingredients Network

With more meatpacking plants opening as restrictions across the country are lifted, the amount of processed meat and poultry will soon increase and meet the demand of the country, yet this ability to process meat relies on the sacrifices and risk-taking of vulnerable immigrant populations. From the toilet paper industry to the meat industry, this pandemic has shed light on the need to restructure the supply chain so that it can withstand the unpredictable future.

If we as consumers are only able to obtain our desired goods at the risk of other human lives, there is a major flaw in a system that has been accepted and relied upon for far too long. The meat supply chain therefore needs to be restructured and redistributed throughout smaller communities, enabling local farmers and processors to play a larger role in the meat industry. 

With the frailty of the meat supply chain and its historic reliance on the exploitation of immigrant workers exposed, it is time to demand the fair treatment of all employees and the restructuring of these systems that harm society.

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Features

Bon Voyage, Adam Rapoport

Apparently, there are at least 59 ways to cook an egg. Moreover, over 27 million people are willing to watch some guy present all of them over the course of nearly half an hour. 

That’s what Bon Appétit’s most popular YouTube video looks like. Their other videos cook up recipes with a bit more complexity but haven’t received quite as many viewers, yet. Largely due to its Youtube channel, Bon Appétit has become one of the most recognized food media outlets circulating magazine stands and web browsers around the country. Today, they boast 6.5 million print subscriptions, 7.6 million ‘unique users’ digitally, and 11.4 million followers on social platforms.

As such, Bon Appétit has received recognition for the direction in which it has developed in recent years. Since 2010, the magazine and its offshoots have received 15 nominations and 8 wins for James Beard Awards (often called “the Oscars of the food awards”). In the near 20 years that these awards existed before 2010, Bon Appétit totalled only 4 wins and 8 nominees. 

This is in part due to the numerical expansion of media categories in culinary awards, which followed the incredible proliferation of media forms that are now prevalent in the mainstream; Bon Appétit has successfully taken advantage of such growth. While its print circulation has more or less remained the same, digitally, they’ve made great strides, with over 6 million subscribers on YouTube. Bon Appétit has garnered what other magazines strive for in terms of a digital following. 

Previous Bon Appétit editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport

Perhaps more importantly, this growth largely occurred while Adam Rapoport held the title of editor-in-chief. Condé Nast—the global mass media company that parents publications from Vogue and GQ to Wired and The New Yorker—has been home to Rapoport for decades: before Bon Appétit, he was the style editor of GQ. Prior to his adoption into the Condé Nast family, though, he had food writing experience for a number of other publications, including the James Beard Foundation and Time Out New York.

Before Rapoport took over, Bon Appétit was, as a 2010 New York Times article about the switch in editorial leadership stated, “accessible, highly professional, and in the business of providing recipes, recipes, and more recipes, largely devoid of text and context.” Formerly based in Los Angeles, not yet in its New York office, it had been run by the same editor-in-chief, Barbara Fairchild, for over 30 years. 

While Rapoport’s leadership brought 10 years of shimmering success, its stardom recently came into question when freelance food writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a photo of Rapoport and his wife dressed as Puerto Ricans. The magazine soon received a great deal of scrutiny from the public and received uproarious reactions from contributors, editors, and readers alike. In response, Rapoport stepped down as editor-in-chief.

The photo of him was from 2004, his Instagram post from 2013. To some, this may not seem like a very serious issue—I mean, it was 2004, times were different then, and he’s apologized. No harm, no foul. Right?

The reason that this is such a big moment for Bon Appétit is because it came during an important movement in the United States, and it exposed so much more than one photo. In January of this year, chef and writer Soleil Ho wrote about the race problem in Bon Appétit’s popular Test Kitchen series, which some believe is “the most lucrative thing Condé Nast has.” In 2016, Bon Appétit faced a small but mighty uproar after posting a video in which a white chef explained the ‘right way’ to eat pho, a Vietnamese specialty. While either instance could—and should—have easily sparked the same amplified outrage, the photo of Rapoport came to light at a time when the public was more actively engaged in addressing racial justice. It caused a ripple effect that exposed racial disparities in Bon Appétit and Condé Nast’s office culture.

There’s been a lot of coverage about this moment for Bon Appétit. A plethora of articles feature the experiences of numerous Bon Appétit employees and the marginalization they experienced at Bon Appétit as discussed in interviews, Twitter threads, and Instagram stories. The many articles out there are very easy to find and clearly recount the details and the words that brought Bon Appétit to the place it is now—a place with increased transparency, unpleasant as it may be. Many of these articles describe the release of the photograph causing “a revolt among Condé Nast employees, many of whom described an entrenched culture of racial insensitivity.” 

Assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly, a familiar face to fans of Bon Appétit’s test kitchen, found that the company’s response to the offense was initially disappointing. In a Sporkful podcast, she recalls the outrage developing slower than it probably should have. During a company-wide Zoom meeting in the immediate aftermath of Teclemariam’s tweet, at which Rapoport issued a brief apology, El-Waylly suggested that he resign. Only a few editors were active in the discussion, until she broke the others’ silence by rebuking it. 

Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen staff

Recent backlash against Bon Appétit’s racist culture and leadership not only reveals a need for change within the company but also serves as a gateway to observing a similar trend in the food industry and its media coverage. Though it is certainly not a new issue in the culinary community, the lack of diversity in media coverage has lately become a focus of food writers and chefs; in these discussions, more representation is often the most cited suggestion to improve. Chefs love to explore ethnic cuisines, but they have a tendency to take ingredients and elements of recipes from other cultures and whitewash them rather than acknowledge the cultural history that accompanies it. 

At this point, Rick Bayless and his empire of Mexican restaurants have already been brought up a number of times, but representation in kitchens and print is only the beginning. Last year, chef Kwame Onwuachi wrote about the lack of diversity among food critics, which can be seen in nationally recognized awards. James Beard nominees, for example, tend to be male, and they tend to be White. In 2016, 218 of the 341 James Beard nominations were White men. In the last few years, though, the James Beard Foundation has made efforts to address this with changes in representation, accessibility, and transparency. Even so, there’s still work to be done to equalize the playing field for the James Beard Awards. And just think: that’s only one layer of the equality that’s missing in critiques and evaluations of food figures. 

It’s difficult to acknowledge a toxic culture in a publication that is so well-recognized and successful as well as an industry that is loved by many. However, this should be seen as an opportunity for Bon Appétit and the food industry to improve by recognizing where they are flawed, intentionally or unintentionally, and fixing themselves. Chefs like Onwuachi and El-Waylly want other chefs and publications to give recognition where recognition is due, whether that be in recipes, awards, or salaries. Having been reprimanded by their own contributors, writers, editors, and staff for the ways in which they treat their employees, Bon Appétit has an opportunity to lead the way for a change in the food industry. 

So, this is a bit more than just a racist photo from a decade and a half ago; that was just the cherry on top. The food industry and the publications that cover it have been making this sundae for decades. There are layers upon layers of injustices to taste, and it’s about time for us all to dig in—bon appétit.

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Features

The Gingered Peach is Here to Stay

LAWRENCEVILLE, NEW JERSEY – The mixers, ovens, and restless hands in the kitchen of The Gingered Peach haven’t slowed down despite no longer welcoming the typical lines of hungry customers. In fact, the bakery seems to be using quarantine to its advantage, further establishing their product as unparalleled and their voice as a call for change. The Gingered Peach occupies a unique position within the Lawrenceville community as a woman- and Black-owned business that works towards bringing Lawrenceville together to eat, grow, and commit to communal action.

The Gingered Peach has been supplying the surrounding area with pie, pastry, and pure joy for over 5 years. A smile spread across the face of local resident Kristen Heinzel as she recalled some of her favorite memories there. “For my family, it was a routine to make tea and bring back baked goods from The Gingered Peach on Sunday afternoons,” Heinzel noted. The fresh baked goods became the focal point of so many family memories for her.

“It’s pretty rare to find a small town bakery with so much charm these days,” remarked Nancy Mckeon, longtime patron of The Gingered Peach. Many locals wouldn’t hesitate to say the same. With its signature red paint job and striped awning, The Gingered Peach stands out as a place of warmth, happiness and unity.

When businesses in New Jersey were forced to abide by distancing restrictions as a result of COVID-19, food industry businesses were among the hardest hit. The Gingered Peach was no exception. However, owner Joanne Canady-Brown refused to let quarantine stop the momentum they’ve been building for years.

In addition to the unparalleled deliciousness that comes out of their kitchen, The Gingered Peach bears an important voice within my community. In reaction to the racist murders of George Floyd and countless others, Canady-Brown wrote on Instagram,

“As a Black owned business, it is in our culture to foster a workplace of inclusion and awareness… But that is not the reality outside of our walls.”

She went on to thank the local police department for “hearing me and opening up a dialogue of how we as a community can move forward from here.” 

Lawrenceville falls very much into the category of “small-town America,” and the close quarters make it rare for residents to mind their own business. This creates a community of individuals committed to understanding and supporting each other in word and deed. Canady-Brown has taken it upon herself to create space for conversation and encourage action. Owned by a Black woman and boasting a devoted customer base, The Gingered Peach has a voice that stands out among the rest. There’s no doubt that this is how and where change will happen.

Canady-Brown is no stranger to using her position in the food industry to fight for social justice. In 2019, she participated in the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program. In a recent article, Canady-Brown found there “a network of [women] who made you feel comfortable and supported. No idea was stupid.” In an industry that leans towards masculinity, support from fellow women becomes so important for growth. Women giving other women tools for success is the future of the food industry, and Canady-Brown has made it clear that she wants to lead this movement. 

While they have used their voice to speak on national issues, The Gingered Peach has also committed themselves to local affairs, which is a true source of pride within Lawrenceville. When quarantine hit, the well-known brand King Arthur Flour started ‘For Goodness Bakes,’ an initiative “to help keep bakeries running by purchasing bread and pastries, that is then donated to people in need.” A suggestion of giving back to the local community was all it took for the small but mighty team at The Gingered Peach to pull out their donut fryer and buy up all the yeast that they could find.

Whether it’s through the impact of their voice on social media or the simple act of sharing one of their gooiest cinnamon buns, The Gingered Peach has discovered the secret to prosperity and progress: if you truly commit to improving your community, the people around you will not let you fail.

The Gingered Peach on 2 Gordon Ave, Lawrence Township, NJ 08648
Find their hours of operation and more information on their website here.

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Features

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!