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Archive for the ‘Sustainable agriculture’ Category

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch.

Brook and Rose LeVan raise heritage turkeys on their Colorado ranch, Sustainable Settings.

Every year at this time, my family and I duke it out over the turkey. It’s not about, “Should we brine it or deep-fry?” or, “Do we baste it with cultured butter made by blind Norman nuns or massage it with a dry-rub of hand-harvested spices grown on an 8th-century Kerala plantation?”

Sorry to disappoint, but with the Miller’s, the conversation always comes down to this (the following are direct quotes I’ve received from family members this month):

“I found a pre-brined turkey at Trader Joe’s. ”

“Why would you pre-order a turkey? You’re the only one who cares about its upbringing.”

So, despite the Butterball currently residing in my parents’ refrigerator (my flying in from out-of-state makes lugging a fresh turkey from a friend’s farm logistically impossible), I’d like to share my recent Edible Aspen article on pasture-raised turkeys.

In this big, complicated country of ours- where we have so many choices with regard to our food supply–  it’s about doing the best you can. Armageddon will not occur when said Butterball lands on the dinner table- but I firmly believe that as consumers all, we have a moral obligation to educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. As consumers, we deserve to have access to that information, regardless of our socioeconomic status. Wholesome, responsibly-raised and -grown food shouldn’t be a luxury for anyone, but realistically, we must rely upon integrated agriculture to feed our growing domestic- and global- population.

Worrying about how my Thanksgiving turkey was raised is a First-World problem, and for that, I’m thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Photo love: Epicurious

Photo love: Epicurious

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It may come as a surprise to learn that Colorado now ranks second in the nation for the most distilleries (after Washington state). There’s more to us than legal weed (yawn) and skiing.

I had the good fortune to research (ahem), curate and write Edible Aspen’s inaugural Colorado Craft Distillery Guide, which just hit the stands..

Photo love: Wood's High Mountain Distillery

Photo love: Wood’s High Mountain Distillery

From small-batch eaux de vie made with farmstead fruit to one of the nation’s greenest distilleries, we’ve got the intel on where to find the best tasting rooms, tours, grain-to-glass spirits, and bar programs in the state (there’s recipes, too).

These heirloom potatoes become award-winning vodka. Photo love: Woody Creek Distillers

These heirloom potatoes become award-winning vodka.  Photo love: Woody Creek Distillers

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Photo love: Fruit Maven

Photo love: Fruit Maven

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

Glenn Austin, a 72-year-old seventh-generation peach farmer, recently posed this rhetorical question as we wrapped up our interview for an Edible Aspen feature. He and his wife of 55 years had just taken their first non-work-related vacation, and while they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to return to their 26 acres of high-altitude paradise on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Peach farming reminded me of the six years I spent slinging stonefruit at Bay Area farmers’ markets– a formative and formidable time when I was trying to find my footing as a cooking teacher and food writer. In 2000, I was four years out of culinary school and living in Berkeley- epicenter of the nation’s sustainable food movement. I was working multiple jobs to get by, while simultaneously launching a home-based cooking school and journalism career. Back then, my energy was boundless, and my back a hell of a lot stronger.

What I most wanted at that time was a job at the farmers market, both for the education and industry contacts. It was difficult to infiltrate the ranks of the vendor community, because the most-coveted farms had little employee turnover. I’d gotten to know some of these folks in between teaching, waiting tables, and working in kitchens, and I yearned to become part of the tight-knit market clan.

Home is where the farm is. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Happy place. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Deliverance came one afternoon when I was getting my weekly dog fix from the puppy at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. Owner “Farmer Al” Courchesne’s peaches were the stuff of legend in the Bay Area; his luscious stonefruit appeared on the menus of the region’s most influential restaurants of the day, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe. A peach, Al was fond of saying, “is like sex in a fuzzy skin.”

I’d gotten to know Al’s wife, Becky, as an occasional customer (their stuff ain’t cheap). Perhaps she was just sick of me molesting her dog but rarely purchasing fruit, or maybe she took pity on me. Whatever the case, Becky hired me and thus began my glorious career as a part-time peach and pastry pusher. For over half a decade, I worked three markets a week in Berkeley and San Francisco, year-round.

I gleefully did manual labor, unloading and loading the farm truck, setting up tables and pop-up tents, hefting up to 50 pounds of fruit at a time, and tying down loads. My hands were callused, my nails perpetually dirty, my body bruised, my skin a cancer-cultivating hue. Al was a mercurial taskmaster. But I loved the job. I was also totally ripped, my refrigerator overflowed with peerless product (bartering being the raison d’etre for working low-paying market jobs) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends and colleagues who shared my passion for food and family farms.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

By 2003, I’d transitioned to food and travel writing (Becky, more than anyone, is responsible for encouraging me to do so), and contributed to several Lonely Planet guidebooks. The following is an abridged excerpt from World Food California, for which I wrote an essay on the Berkeley Farmers Market:

If…waiting tables is a challenge in Berkeley, then try selling food products at its farmers’ markets…due to any number of food sensitivities, aversions, allergies, purported allergies, or political statements. When Becky, a gifted pastry chef, started making organic jam and pastries from the farm’s fruit, she was fulfilling a longtime dream of turning the raw ingredients growing right outside her kitchen into edible offerings that reflected the soul of the farm.

I severely underestimated the high-maintenance requirements of Berkeley’s food militia, but despite the occasional verbal assaults from pissed-off vegans and early-adopting gluten-phobes, most of our customers were pretty cool. The people-watching never failed to disappoint. Entertainment came in the form of observing Berkeley’s resident weirdos, busting thieving kids and derelicts (my nickname was “The Enforcer”), and trying to prevent customers from double-dipping when tasting our jams.

The defendants at the SF Ferry Building farm shop. Photo love: Edible Excursions

Becky’s tarts on display. Photo love: Edible Excursions

“Freeloaders and freaks, homeless and housewives, children and chefs…the market is a truly special place to work. To be surrounded by people so connected to the land and so committed to preserving California’s precious resources, growers of exquisite produce, food artisans of a quality equal to any found in Europe; these are the reasons I stay...There’s a camaraderie that exists amongst the market vendors. We’re a family. We support one another. I’ll trade you some first-of-the-season Burlat cherries for some of your haricot verts.

The market offers a respite from the urban racket. It’s an oasis of green, earthly things, a refuge from the ever-growing parade of strip malls and tract homes that threaten to engulf our agricultural land. I can think of no other community so deeply dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, or of so many chefs and consumers enamored of cooking and eating the fresh, the seasonal, the local.”

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Some Colorado Easter Egg radishes.

As much as I loved the market, I began a slow but inevitable burn-out. I called my conundrum the “velvet handcuffs” because I didn’t know how to a leave a secure job (Becky and Al were nothing if not supportive of my writing career, allowing me to take off as much time as needed for assignments) with decent pay (Al believed in rewarding hard work). I spent nearly two years agonizing, until the combination of a bad breakup and a collapsing housing market made the decision for me. It was time to move on.

Eventually, I ended up back in Colorado, always my longterm goal. I love my rural life in the Rocky Mountains, in a valley nationally renown for its sustainable agriculture. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of a market community, and the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a long, physically demanding work day. I’ll never get used to the short growing season, lack of indigenous citrus, and crappy tomatoes. My fridge is far more anemic, since my freelance budget doesn’t permit splurges on walnut oil, fresh chestnut flour pasta, duck fat, or dry-farmed heirloom produce- bartered items I once took for granted.

Yet, moving here has finally enabled me to earn a living as a writer. True, writing softens you in ways the physical demands of restaurant and farm work don’t- muscle tone and posture are the first to go, followed by the ability to think quickly on your feet and interact with other Homo sapiens. But writing also hardens you. To rejection, setbacks, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Writing isn’t an occupation for those with weak constitutions, a shitty work ethic, or lack of passion. But then, neither is being a chef. Or a farmer.

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

I don’t know. I hope I’m never able to tell you.

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

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Yes, this was necessary.

As a former cheesemonger, marketing director for a cheese company, trade show ho and educator, I’ve done my share of schlepping dairy products. While packing cheese into a cooler requires some organizational skills, it’s not exactly rocket science. This, of course, excludes the time I accidentally left an empty box from a shipment of washed rinds (read: stinky cheeses) in my car overnight during a heat wave. I spent nearly 15 minutes the following morning crawling underneath my car and peering into the fan belt and engine block trying to find the dead animal causing the unholy stench, before cluing in to my error.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit sort-of shotgun on a cheese delivery in the Kathmandu Valley. I was working on a Nepal cheese feature for culture: the word on cheese, and was on my way to Himalayan French Cheese (owned by entrepreneurial genius Frenchman Francois Driard). It’s located eight kilometers north of Kathmandu, epicenter of the quake. Accompanying me was Francois’ Nepali business partner and a driver, who was later going to drop me at Francois’s sister’s farmstay on the other side of Kathmandu.

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Suzuki Maruti?

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Maruti Suzuki?

Let me explain something about driving in Nepal (beside the fact it’s done on the left). It’s motherfucking terrifying. I had just come off of a 17-hour ride in a clapped-out Indian bus (I suspect Uttar Pradesh traded it to Nepal for a plate of dal bhat), returning to Kathmandu across the Terai (Eastern Plains) after a 12-day trek/whitewater trip on the Tamur River. Tip: Xanax is also essential for developing nation long-haul bus rides, especially in cultures where the main objective is to drive as fast as possible whilst playing chicken with oncoming semi’s and other buses on high-mountain passes with blind curves. Good times.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of rice on the floor which made for good sleeping.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of bagged rice on the floor which made for comfy sleeping.

I digress. The point is, when you have a car the size of a Maruti Suzuki- essentially a SPAM can on wheels- there’s not much room to spare. With three passengers, my 40-pound backpack,  a loaded daypack, and what turned out to be over 300 pounds of cheese (hefty wheels of lusty Belkot- Francois’ signature creation- as well as dozens of tommes, Reblochon, camembert, St. Marcellin, some trial bries, and buckets of yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta- there wasn’t much room to spare). It was also hellishly hot and humid.

After the cranky driver tied my backpack to the roof of the car with a piece of twine, I folded myself and my daypack into the back seat (which was broken, so it flipped forward at every application of the brakes, which in Nepal, like the use of the horn, is constant). Behind me were two loaded coolers and boxes; beside me was a cooler and a weathered cardboard box of tommes that split at the corner seam the first time our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid an oncoming suicidal motocyclist.

Francois' lovely cheeses at rest

Francois’ lovely cheeses at rest

Thus, I spent the next 90 minutes with my left arm awkwardly bracing the torn box to prevent the pristine tommes from flying through the windshield, and having 175 pounds or so of Bellecotes slamming into my back and effectively bending me in half every time we braked. Because Kathmandu’s pollution (hello, inversion layer) is so epic, most locals wear face masks; I developed what I affectionately called KTM black lung on day two of my arrival. Thus, I was forced to wear a scarf around my nose and mouth to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning whilst holding down the dairy fort, so to speak.

Eventually, after bumping (shock absorbers? Hells no!) through back alleys and potholes big enough to swallow a water buffalo, we made it to the Kathmandu office of the cheese company, from which our precious cargo would be distributed to nearby restaurants and hotels.

All in a day’s work for an immgrant cheesemaker in Nepal, and a terrifically entertaining cultural experience for me. My thoughts are with all of my new Nepali friends and cheesemakers; thank you for an incredible trip and for showing me, in the words of churppi maker Mitra Kala Khanal, that, “In Nepal, cheese is life.”

Yak in the mist

Yak in the mist

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Yes, I slaughtered this lamb. Don’t judge.

People (and by “people,” I mean, friends, visitors to my home, landlords, and former boyfriends) often ask me, “Laurel, why are you such a freak? What is it that compels you to collect animal skulls and other skeletal fragments?” The former boyfriends are also wont to comment, “Laurel, your obsession with forensic reality TV and willingness to participate in livestock and poultry slaughter frightens me.” Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m impervious to animal urine, shit, vomit, and roadkill. Changing a diaper? Hells no. Curing the skull from a found deer carcass for three months as a cool “souvenir” from a summer living in Telluride? No problem.

From a work standpoint, my editors love that I’m also a human garbage can, willing to eat anything (sketchy street food, insects, tadpoles, animal testicles and weird meaty odds and ends). They’re somewhat baffled by my enthusiasm, but as long as it results in a good story, they’re cool with it.

I’ve given my strange proclivities a lot of thought, and the only source of blame I can point to is my dad, Dr. Robert M. Miller, aka RMM, Bob, or “Doc.” Most people assume that being the child of a veterinarian (a large and exotic vet, at that) isn’t all that different from having a parent who’s an MD, if they think about it at all.

At the castration of a circus elephant. No, really.

At the castration of a circus elephant.  I was allowed to miss school for this. No, really.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When your dad is a large animal vet, you grow up with a very skewed idea of normal. My older brother and I never got the birds-and-the-bees talk, but by first grade, I knew what AI (artificial insemination) was, and how it’s done. One of my favorite pastimes was hanging out at my dad’s clinic, gaping at what my sibling and I dubbed “The Shelf of Horrors.” It was stocked with dozens of jars of formaldehyde-pickled specimens: Horse fetuses, a two-headed calf fetus, and other pre- and post-natal abnormalities and floaty bits and pieces. It both fascinated and repelled me, but I know I spent more time there than was probably healthy for a formative mind.

I started going on calls with my dad at age five. As a result, I became very cavalier about removing stiches, loading syringes, fetching drugs and supplies, watching rectal palpations (I was in my late teens before I realized what K-Y jelly was really used for- true story), and assisting with surgeries and necropsies (the animal version of an autopsy). On one occasion, we necropsied one of my prized 4-H show rabbits, which were all dying of a horrific mystery disease. We were told to send their eyelids to the UC Davis vet school for pathology. The results came back positive for myxomatosis, a deadly virus amongst wild rabbits that hadn’t been seen in California since the 19th century. As a result, my family obtained the first trial vaccines in the U.S., which were, er, gifted us from a French veterinarian. My dad also administered my family our annual flu shots- as a kid, I had a deathly fear of needles, and one year, fed up with my namby-pamby attitude, he injected himself in the thigh with a horse syringe. “Look!” he shouted. “Do you see me crying?” Needless to say, I got over it.

A bear getting dental surgery

A bear with a bit of a toothache.

I mention all of this because on July 18, my 87-year-old father required open heart surgery to replace the defective aortic valve he didn’t realize he had. I flew from Colorado to the small Southern California ranch where I grew up, and my brother and his family came down from Lake Tahoe. The night before his operation, Dad played his harmonica while my 18-year-old nephew accompanied him on acoustic guitar. We were all extremely concerned about the procedure, mostly due to Dad’s age, despite his active lifestyle and overall good health. He sailed through the surgery, but at 3am, we received a call from the hospital that he had pulmonary edema and unexplained bleeding, and was being rushed back into surgery for what turned into a second open heart operation to replace his mitral valve.

Since the initial surgery, Dad has been heavily sedated, because he keeps trying to remove his trach tube and IVs (we’d expect nothing less; he’s a feisty SOB). While he hasn’t actually been conscious during our visits, he’s responded to some questions with hand squeezes (most notably, “Are you ready to go to Hawaii?”).  He’s scheduled to lecture at the Hawaii Horse Expo next month, and cancelling isn’t an option, as far as he’s concerned.

Hitting the slopes in the early 50s

Hitting the slopes in the early 50s

Dad has, in fact, cancelled only two speaking engagements in his 50-year-plus career. The first was when I was born, three weeks early (something I’m still getting grief about from both parents; my untimely arrival forced them to cancel their annual veterinary ski meeting), and this week’s seminar at the AVMA conference.

Over the past decade, Dad has had more surgeries than I can readily count (mostly to replace/ remove/repair failed body parts, including a hip, knee, ankle, cataracts, some vertebrae, his appendix, and in the most extreme instance, drain two liters of blood from a subdural hematoma that was the result of a four-month-old concussion). The latter nearly killed him while he was in the midst of judging a horse show; after months of worrisome decline, he called me minutes post-op and sang out, “I feel 30 years younger!”

The point I’m trying make is that the man is a freak of nature, a machine who, were it not for his fused ankle, would still be skiing with my 81-year-old mother. A world-renown equine vet and behaviorist, he rises at dawn every morning to write or cartoon (he’s the author of over a dozen books on horses and eight rather warped cartoon books, has been contributing to veterinary journals and equine publications for over 50 years, and is probably the only living journalist who can get away with submitting longhand, as he doesn’t know how to type). He rides and swims daily, and still travels all over the world lecturing on natural horsemanship and equine behavior. If he were wont to use such language, he’d say, “Retirement is for pussies.”

Not as popular as the December issue of Veterinary Journal that had a St. Bernard eating a reindeer carcass

My fave cartoon was the December cover of a vet journal, which depicted a St. Bernard on a roof, eating a reindeer carcass. PETA sent hate mail (for reals).

Last night at the hospital, my mom and I received the first truly encouraging news we’ve had since the second surgery. Once a day, Dad’s care team wakes him up and performs neurological and brain function tests. Gaby, our favorite nurse, told us, “Everything looks good; his behavior is normal, except that today, he indicated he wanted to write. We gave him a pen and paper, and he drew an unintelligible doodle.” Her brow wrinkled, indicating that perhaps there was a bit of brain damage, after all.

To the contrary, this was the best possible indicator that all was well in Dad’s mind, beneath the fog of Propifol (what Gaby refers to as “Michael Jackson juice.”). If he’s trying to cartoon, Dad is clearly on the mend. Since they didn’t save the scribble, I asked my mom to stand lookout while I snagged a pair of latex gloves and dug through the trash, trying to find it. We figured family friends would find it as hilarious as we did, but unfortunately, Gaby caught me. “You really don’t want to be dumpster diving in there,” she admonished, giving me a severe look.

I also need to credit Dad with my interest in eating. I mean this literally, because as a kid I only ate what my mom describes as “white foods,” with the exception of Kraft Mac & Cheese. Despite my aversion to anything not in the high-glycemic food index, when I accompanied Dad on calls, lunch was one of my favorite parts of the day.

Daddy's girl with one of our Australian Shepherd pups

Daddy’s girl with one of our Australian Shepherd pups

Unless we had one of his assistants riding shotgun, I was always allowed to pick where I wanted to eat (We loved the stacked, bloody-rare roast beef sandwiches from a certain Calabasas deli, and the ravioli at an adjacent Italian restaurant with sawdust-covered floors). There was a Hunan dive in Woodland Hills that made amazing Mongolian beef, and a Thai place- in the late 70s a virtually unknown cuisine in Southern California- in Encino. Taquerias were the lunch stop of choice. The carne asada burritos from Somis Market were the Holy Grail for hungry large animal vets and their tiny assistants. There, I learned to like cilantro. For dessert, we’d pluck tangerines from the surrounding citrus groves. Sometimes, if it was a night call, we’d stop at Carvel Ice Cream or Farrell’s for a black-and-white sundae (ah, those blissful days, pre-lactose intolerance).

I also inherited my travel jones from my dad, who early in his career finagled ways to combine his passion for the outdoors, skiing, horses, and veterinary medicine with long plane trips. A WW II veteran from a poor family, his two years in post-Occupation Germany ignited his addiction to travel. I remind my parents of this every time they give me shit for moving (again) or taking off on an extended trip to one sketchy destination or another.

A young Doc Miller with one of our colts

A young Doc Miller in his backyard

Family trips are what first got me to expand my limited palate. My dad took a summer sabbatical when I was 10, and we explored Europe in a borrowed camper van while he lectured at various vet schools. I tried venison, chanterelles, non-Oscar Mayer sausages, and beer for the first time. For some reason, what would have made me recoil at home was intriguing overseas, so I’d request tastes of whatever he was eating, unless it involved raw or pickled herring (something I still find repugnant).

Post-Europe, I branched out, culinarily-speaking, although I was still far from what you’d call an adventurous eater. At 11, I tried “calf fries,” aka testicles, while working a cattle drive with my parents. I described the experience thusly in an article on Santa Maria Style barbeque:

When my dad proudly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse?  To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, himself a former wrangler. It was time to grow up, and grow a pair of my own.  I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down….chewed…swallowed. It was good!  Smoky, salty, a little bit chewy, just a touch of heat and sweetness from the salsa, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices now dribbling down my chin. Yep.  Tastes just like chicken.

Mom and Dad, 2012

Mom and Dad, 2012

The takeaway from of all this reflection is that my dad and I are more alike than perhaps we’d care to admit. Since my adolescence, we’ve had an often-contentious relationship, mainly because we’re both stubborn as hell, tough as the proverbial rawhide, and will debate endlessly because neither of us are willing to admit defeat. It’s doubtless been a challenge for him, given his generation, to have an opinionated, foul-mouthed, dirtbag daughter entirely lacking in maternal instinct (except where animals are concerned), and for whom marriage is an antiquated notion (meanwhile, he and my mom have been married for 58 years).

Lake Powell, 1972. I do have a mom; she's our photographer.

Lake Powell, 1972. I do have a mom; she’s our photographer.

While he no doubt prefers I’d shut the hell up, find a man, and stop this crazy nomadic behavior, Dad has long been supportive of my gadding about the world, and subsequent attempts to eke out a living writing about it. The Millers aren’t the most verbally communicative folk, and given my dad’s love of the written word (another trait we obviously share), I wanted to use this forum to publicly share my admiration of him, as well as give our friends and family a bit more insight into the man behind the elbow-length OB gloves.

I love you, Daddy. Get well soon.

Postscript, August 29, 2014:

One month to the day after my dad’s cardiac surgeries, he landed on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he conducted his seminars at the Hawaii Horse Expo. As I write, he and my mom are enjoying a much-deserved rest on Maui. Their 58th wedding anniversary is September 16.

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Big Island, August, 2014

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Don’t miss acclaimed chef/restaurateur/author/snappy dresser/”Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson, who will be giving a talk on “The New Home Economics” at the Basalt Regional Library. I’ll be moderating the event, which is $20 (including wine and guest appearance by Avalanche Cheese Company’s delectable goat cheeses).

Proceeds go toward funding the library’s educational programs, including its landmark Heirloom Seed Bank. If you’re unfamiliar with Hugh and his unibrow, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and one of the most talented, articulate, funny, down-to-earth chefs around. Don’t miss out on this special event.

P.S. Take a peek at Hugh’s new booklet, Pick a Pickle, and get inspired to put up a summer’s worth of produce.  The summer issue of Edible Aspen, featuring my Q & A with Hugh, is on the shelves.

BRLF Hugh Acheson Poster-3-page-0 (2)

 

 

 

 

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Photo love: redbubble.com

I confess I’m self-promoting out an updated article that originally ran on Gadling in 2011, but hey, folks, HuffPo doesn’t pay.

Of greater importance: there’s a slow but steady backlash against food elitism. Pass it on.

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