Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Moving on Up!

Just a reminder that I’ve moved the home of my blog to

AustinGastronomist.com  

In about a week, I’ll be taking this site down. To continue receiving your email or RSS subscription, please update your email or subscription settings at the new site. I hope to see you at my new, improved digs!

Let’s try this again: Big News!

Dear blog subscribers,

I recently upgraded the software I use to blog, including a redesign of the entire layout and look of The Austin Gastronomist. You can see these changes at the site’s homepage: http://austingastronomist.com. The new blogging software I’m using is a lot more powerful than the old platform. Some of the improvements include

  • bigger pictures
  • faster loading time
  • better organized content
  • cleaner, easier-to-read layout
  • posts are easier to share via email, Twitter or Facebook

The best part of the redesign is that it’s much easier for me to design new posts, so I’ll be sharing even more new recipes and stories about local food than before!

I’m trying to make these improvements without disrupting your experience reading the blog. One thing I can’t do myself is to transfer all the email and WordPress subscriptions to the new host. That’s where you come in. If you’d like to continue receiving email, Google reader, or other subscriptions from my blog, please visit the site and sign up again using the “subscribe” option in the sidebar. Sorry for the hassle; I hope this is the only bump we encounter with the new site design. Thanks you for reading my blog and happy cooking!

All the best,
Kathryn Hutchison

Big News and Subscription Updates

Dear blog subscribers,

I recently upgraded the software I use to blog, including a redesign of the entire layout and look of The Austin Gastronomist. You can see these changes at the site’s homepage: http://austingastronomist.com. The new blogging software I’m using is a lot more powerful than the old platform. Some of the improvements include

  • bigger pictures
  • faster loading time
  • better organized content
  • cleaner, easier-to-read layout
  • posts are easier to share via email, Twitter or Facebook

The best part of the redesign is that it’s much easier for me to design new posts, so I’ll be sharing even more new recipes and stories about local food than before! 

I’m trying to make these improvements without disrupting your experience reading the blog. One thing I can’t do myself is to transfer all the email and WordPress subscriptions to the new host. That’s where you come in. If you’d like to continue receiving email, Google reader, or other subscriptions from my blog, please visit the site and sign up again using the “subscribe” option in the sidebar. Sorry for the hassle; I hope this is the only bump we encounter with the new site design. Thanks you for reading my blog and happy cooking!

All the best,
Kathryn Hutchison

Farmer Profile: Marissa Lankes of Boggy Creek Farm

6:00 a.m. at Boggy Creek Farm is a magical time. I was at the east Austin farm last Thursday at that early hour and the field in front of the house was as still as a picture. The usually-bustling farm stand lay bare while a full moon hung in the grey sky. Toesy the hen was one of the only creatures stirring before sunrise, her sisters fast asleep in the coop.

By 6:15 a.m. the moment had passed. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, cars honked and Boggy Creek Farm was waking with the dawn. I met farmer Marissa Lankes, 24, on her way into the farmhouse that morning.

“Time to check in with Carol Ann,” she said.

Marissa checks in with Boggy Creek Farm owner  Carol Ann Sayle nearly every morning in the farmhouse kitchen. The two banter and discuss the tasks at hand while Marissa fills her water jug and retrieves her Felcos from their hiding place in a drawer near the sink.

“She has to hide those shears here in the house or one of the men will take them,” explained Carol Ann. “They’re safe in that drawer with the sponges– no one else looks there.”

I didn’t ask, but I got the sense that Marissa learned to hide her favorite tool in the kitchen the hard way, and that this was one of many lessons she’d learned from mentor Carol Ann.

Marissa came to work at Boggy Creek several months ago and in her time there she was recently promoted from farm intern to one of two personal assistants who help Carol Anne with the seemingly endless number of tasks on an urban farm.

“The best way to learn how to farm is to work on a farm.” Marissa said. “It’s a double-edged sword, though, since most farmers don’t want to answer all these questions from a 20 year-old kid. Carol Ann isn’t like that, though.”

Farmer Marissa Lankes harvests tomatoes

At Boggy Creek, Carol Ann keeps Marissa busy with a job description that’s as varied as it gets. Marissa helps ready the farm stand for market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, doing everything from making labels for the produce to picking extra cherry tomatoes to pulling earworms from tassels of corn. Four other days a week she tills, harvests and plants the fields; feeds chickens; pulls weeds; manages irrigation and handles myriad other tasks that make up farm life.

When we spoke on Thursday morning the first order of business was to harvest from the field the blush tomatoes and “scalders”– those delicate fruits burned by the sun before they were ready to pick. Marissa plucked tomatoes from the vines for nearly two hours that morning, a light load by her count. While I followed along she gave me a lesson in sustainable farming, tomato picking and the challenges of a beginning farmer in Austin.

Farmer Marissa Lankes picking tomatoes

Marissa got interested in farming in a roundabout way. She grew up in Detroit and studied fashion design in school, both at Michigan State University and in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology. There she realized that what drew her most to fashion wasn’t the clothes, it was the self-sufficiency of making ones’ own clothing. Her interest in agriculture developed when she volunteered at the MSU Organic Student Farm, and now the self-reliance of farm life is what keeps her in the field. That, and the food.

In my first tour of the farm I nibbled on four varieties of tomatoes straight off the vine and tasted fresh okra, basil, sorrel and purslane in the field. Marissa had planted most of these delicacies, and she will nurture all of them through Texas’ tough summer. Although she is humble about her cooking abilities (mashed potatoes are her most ambitious dish), Marissa can spot the ripest tomatoes, the most tender okra, and knows exactly when Boggy Creek’s produce will taste best.  When we paused from picking tomatoes for a quick breakfast of green zebra heirlooms Thursday, she said that access to safe, healthy food is one of her favorite things about farming.

Heirloom tomatoes at Boggy Creek Farm

Another highlight is the variety of jobs she faces day-to-day. For example, after Marissa finished picking tomatoes on Thursday morning she went to cultivate a bed of squash in a field in front of the house. Along the way, she tidied up the tomatoes sitting on the farmhouse porch, visited the chicken coop, weeded a row of cucumbers and fixed several leaks in the nearby irrigation drip tape. (Apparently critters like squirrels love to use drip tape as a water fountain, and their teeth make holes in the hose.)

“There’s not really a routine here. You just see what needs to be done and do it. I like that,” Marissa said. “Sometimes people ask me how we deal with mosquitoes and ants. That’s like asking someone in an office how they cope with the fluorescent lighting.”

That’s not to say farming is without difficulties; there are plenty, Marissa said. One of the alarming facts about farmers is that they make very little money from farming. According to the USDA, in 2011 the average family farm will  earn just $11,174 of income from on-farm activities. In fact, the earnings of most family farmers in the U.S. are buoyed by wages from another job, held either by the primary farmer and/or a spouse (source). We didn’t discuss her salary at Boggy Creek, but Marissa expressed realistic expectations for her fortunes as a farmer:

“There’s no money in this,” she said. “No one’s making a living. No one’s getting rich. We don’t have health insurance, but then again, we’re also not getting sick.”

A decidedly more lighthearted challenge Marissa faces in farm life is finding gear that fits. Although there are more than 300,000 women farming in the U.S., clothing companies have been slow to adapt traditional products to this rising demographic. Marissa celebrated her recent birthday with a new pair of Redwing work boots, regarded in the farming world as top of the line.

“These are the most expensive thing I own, besides my car,” she joked. When I asked where she got them, she burst with laughter. “You’ve got to ask that of every woman farmer you meet. It’s impossible to find work boots that fit and I want to know where they shop!”

“I got these at the Redwing store here in Austin,” she continued, “and they had just one pair small enough to fit me– a men’s size five. Still, that’s better than most stores. You go in there and look at the women’s section and they’ll have these hideous gardening shoes and maybe some black chef’s clogs. Not a thing for farmers!”

We both laughed at the irony of Marissa, a former fashion designer, struggling to find work clothes that fit. Still, she said, she wouldn’t trade her work boots for office pumps any day of the week.

Near the end of our visit Marissa opened up about one of the biggest obstacles she sees facing young Austin farmers, the availability of affordable land.

“Our main concern is land. All the time, we’re like, ‘How am I ever going to get land?’ Some people are lucky and they’ll have family land, but otherwise it’s really hard. There’s just not that much capital,” she said.

A quick search of the real estate directory LandandFarm.com reveals that the starting price for a Travis County acreage like Boggy Creek Farm can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, that doesn’t include other farm start-up expenses such as irrigation, supplies, and labor. Marissa said that there are some Farm Service Agency grants available for starting farmers, particularly women, but it’s hard to get excited about taking on the risks that face beginners in their first years.

“Besides, I’ve got the best job in the world right here at Boggy Creek,” she said. “I’m never going to leave.”

CAFB Hunger Awareness Challenge: A Follow Up

A few weeks ago I shared some snack recipes as part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance Hunger Awareness Blog Project benefiting the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB). I promised a three-part series in that first post, and I didn’t deliver. This is just post number two, and I’m way past the deadline. Sorry about that. I’ve stewed about this for weeks now, and I wasn’t ready to share this piece until today.

Before I embarked on the AFBA Hunger Challenge, I assumed that poor people shopped at grocery stores because they didn’t know about farmer’s markets. And that they didn’t cook from scratch because they were lazy. (I am crying as I write this because it is mortifying to admit how judgmental and naïve I was.) Lucky for me, the staff at CAFB used this challenge to teach the facts about the real face of hunger. For example, over 80% of CAFB beneficiaries are not homeless, and many are children. I also learned that nearly 50% of Americans will be on food assistance at some point in their lives, many because of circumstances beyond their control.

Through my research of the SNAP (food stamp) application process I discovered that my husband and I are just a few thousand dollars above the annual income threshold for food stamps. And if we chose to have children now, we would definitely need government assistance to help feed our family.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never used to think that someone on food stamps could be just like me, but now I know better. People in poverty aren’t stupid and they don’t need my advice. They do need support from their communities–including access to clean, healthy food– to succeed against the odds which are often stacked against them.

I originally intended to write for this challenge about how SNAP clients could use food stamps to buy safe, healthy foods from local farmers via community supported agriculture (CSAs). In the CSA model, local farmers deliver baskets of affordable, healthy food directly to consumers. There’s no middle man, so prices for CSA produce are often lower than those for equivalent products at grocery stores. The neighborhood delivery part of CSAs helps end food deserts, and CSAs benefit local economies by keeping food dollars close to home.

CSAs seem like a no-brainer solution in the fight against hunger, and according to the USDA, “many SNAP licensed firms have incorporated CSAs into their business portfolios.” However, not a single CSA program I contacted in the CAFB service area accepts food stamps as payment. (I reached out to thirteen farms and local organic delivery services and counting.) When I asked Greenling Organic Delivery, the CSA-type business that sponsors my blog, whether they plan to expand their payment options to include SNAP benefits, they said “not at this time.” I was tearful and angry after that phone call, and it has taken me over a month to work up the courage to talk about it publicly.* Hopefully I won’t lose them as a sponsor if they read this post.

When I called to talk with farmers about their CSAs and food stamps, I simply asked whether or not they would accept SNAP benefits as payment. Now I’d like to ask “why not?” As it stands, this is a glaring inequity in our local food supply. I am lucky to have the means to eat well. Much of the focus of my blog– eating good food made with local ingredients– is born out of my privilege. As I become aware of this, my thinking about food and hunger changes.

The poor do have a personal responsibility in eliminating hunger, but so does the community. As part of Austin’s food community, we food bloggers must acknowledge barriers that stand between healthy, local foods and families in poverty. We need to demand fair policy from our politicians and fair treatment from our food producers so that everyone in Central Texas can eat as well as we do.

*Edited 6/8/11 to add: Since I first published this post, Mason Arnold, the founder and owner of Greenling, left a comment to explain that no vendors can accept SNAP payments online. That restriction knocks out Greenling and most of the other large CSA and CSA-type businesses in Austin, who accept payments (either monthly or weekly) via credit card over the internet. 

Lisa Goddard, a staff person at CAFB, sent me a lengthy email with lots of information about the barriers that exist for non-grocery stores to accept SNAP payments. They are numerous, and much more complex than my initial research lead me to believe.

I  hope to write additional posts that explore the relationship between poverty and access to local food. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has not yet returned my calls requesting information about this issue, so I really appreciate Mason and Lisa’s input as I continue my research. Thank you, Mason and Lisa! 

#19: Outside my office

Photo: Amy Russell

I’m still plugging away at my #30×30. I know that Kendi and all the other bloggers finished long ago, but I’d really like to stick this one out and see it through. Maybe I’ll wrap it up in time for the next challenge?

10 Things I Learned at TECHmunch

I spent the past weekend volunteering at TECHmunch, a conference for food bloggers held here in Austin. The whole experience was terrific; I had a chance to catch up with a lot of my Austin food blogger brethren, I heard lots of expert perspectives on technology and blogging, and I networked my way towards some new friendships and professional connections. Here are 10 things I learned from the panelists and bloggers at Techmunch Austin:

  1. Successful bloggers build communities of like-minded people online and in person. This network is comprised of readers, the press, companies, other bloggers and PR professionals.
  2. Bloggers can engage that community via blog comments, twitter, emails, events, livechats, video, and myriad other channels. Whether you choose to communicate with your real name or an online persona, authenticity and kindness are key to the success of community engagement at every level.
  3. Monetization opportunities are scarce for small publishers, according to Ben Huh. Other panelists were more encouraging, and recommended building relationships with specific brands as a strategy for small blogs to monetize. Banner ads are another source of income, with iSocket, OpenX, and BlogAds available as tools to bloggers who do not want to do their own coding.
  4. I learned from several fellow bloggers that not everyone wants to monetize their blog or partner with big brands. A lot of us are in this as a hobby for fun, as a way to meet new people, and in the hopes that our blogs will lead to other revenue streams, like a full time office job or a book deal.
  5. Twitter was mentioned by nine separate panelists as their favorite way to interact with bloggers
  6. As you’re getting started, find a blogging mentor. Emulate her. But don’t copy her exactly, since it’s important to have your own point of view. Several panelists mentioned emulating a mentor as a strategy for writing your bio, identifying valuable press contacts, targeting potential brands, and getting inspiration for content.
  7. Video, mobile apps, tablet computing and social interaction were mentioned as up-and-coming technologies. Very few of the bloggers attending Techmunch were actively engaged in these technologies, indicating that implementing new technologies can be a good way to for new bloggers to get noticed.
  8. Editorial Calendars won out as the most-mentioned technique for organizing content. Editorial Calendars are used by PR professionals, press, and successful bloggers to manage time and plan effective content.During a conference break, I found a useful free WordPress Plugin called “Editorial Calendar” that simplifies long-range planning and calendar management on the WordPress platform.
  9. Along those same lines, consistent content creation was identified by several panelists as a key to blogging hapiness. Ben Huh put it best when he said, “The secret to success is creating quality content day in and day out.”
  10. Finally, the biggest theme I took away from the weekend is to treat others the way you want to be treated. That means using kind words, creating inclusive local communities, leaving comments on other people’s blogs, proofreading your pitches, building relationships with sponsors BEFORE asking for favors, and following through on promises to readers.

I’ve seen some other great TECHmunch wrap-up posts by Rene Lynch, Gemma MatherneJessica Elizarraras, Megan Warncke and Natanya Anderson. If you’re a blogger I met this weekend and you’ve written a wrap-up post, please let me know in the comments so that I can add you to this list of recappers.