Thursday, May 2, 2013

How to Make an AT-AT Cake

On the ice planet Hoth,
the Galactic Empire used manned AT-AT walkers
 to crush the Rebel Alliance's Echo Base.
A version of this article originally appeared on in the Holidays & Celebrations section.

All Terrain Armored Transport – or "AT-AT" – walkers are massive tanks in the fictional universe of the Star Wars series of science fiction movies. They resemble giant, robotic beasts because they have four legs and an articulated cockpit that extends from the front of the body of the tank like a quadruped's head. The challenge in making an AT-AT cake is supporting the heavy torso on the creature's slender legs, and creating a head light enough to extend from the torso without falling off. Use cake pillars and make a head out of paper and cardboard to solve these structural problems.

Things You'll Need

  • 2 loaf pans
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Craft knife
  • Glue
  • 2 C-clamps
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cardboard toilet paper roll
  • Construction paper
  • Tape
  • 2 craft sticks
  • 2 portions cake batter for a two-layer cake
  • 3 portions white frosting for a two-layer cake
  • 10-by-14 baking pan, or similar size
  • Black icing coloring
  • Icing bag
  • #3 round icing tip
  • 5- or 7-inch cake pillars, 4


  1. Make the base for the AT-AT's torso. Trace the bottom of a loaf pan onto corrugated cardboard. Cut out the shape with a craft knife. Repeat with a second piece of cardboard. Glue the two pieces together. Clamp with two C-clamps until dry according to the glue manufacturer's instructions. Remove the clamps. Wrap the base in aluminum foil.
  2. Prepare two portions of cake batter for a two-layer cake according to the recipe or mix of your choice. Bake one portion in a 10-by-14 or similar-sized baking pan. Divide the second portion between two loaf pans.
  3. Frost the sheet cake -- the cake baked in the large, shallow pan -- with white frosting. This is the base of the cake and represents the snowy fields of the plant Hoth, where the Empire deployed AT-AT walkers in the movie "The Empire Strikes Back."
  4. Color two portions of frosting for a two-layer cake metallic gray. Stir a tiny portion of black icing coloring into white frosting. Mix thoroughly before adding more. Add coloring until you've attained the desired shade.
  5. Frost the loaf cakes as a two-layer cake, with the larger sides facing inward, using the foil-covered cardboard as the cake base. This is the AT-AT's torso.
  6. Cut and tape construction paper into an oblong box about four inches square on the small sides and 4-by-7 inches on the long sides. The exact measurements aren't important. This is the head of the AT-AT. Cut an opening into one of the small sides. Insert a toilet paper roll to a depth of about two inches and fasten it securely with tape. This is the neck. Tape craft sticks to the front of the head so they stick out like tusks.
  7. Frost the AT-AT head and tusks with gray frosting. Insert the toilet paper roll into one of the small sides of the frosted torso to a depth of about two inches. Frost the exposed length of toilet paper roll "neck."
  8. Cut four holes in the sheet cake the diameter of the end of a cake pillar. Position the holes so the pillars can support the torso. Insert the cake pillars in the holes. Frost the pillars with gray frosting. These are the AT-AT legs.
  9. Carefully place the AT-AT torso and head assembly atop the legs. Get a friend to keep the legs stable while you position the torso.
  10. Fit a decorating bag with a round tip and fill with gray frosting. Pipe short, straight lines, squares, rectangles and dots all over the torso and head of the AT-AT. These are bolts and controls and other robotic features. Pipe rectangles on the head to form the cockpit's eye-like windows.

Tips & Warnings

  • You may cut a piece of wood to size instead of using cardboard for the torso base.
  • You may buy a sheet cake frosted white instead of baking the snow field base yourself.
  • Buy cake pillars at craft or baking supply stores


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Fast Facts for Kudler Fine Foods

A version of this article appeared on, in the Business section.

None of these gourmet items can be purchased
at a Kudler Fine Foods location near you.
Kudler Fine Foods is probably the most famous gourmet food shop that's never sold a single morsel of food: nary a wheel of cave-aged Tuscan cheese, tub of cranberry tapenade, nor soy-ink-printed box of hand-rolled, Earl Grey-scented, sea-salt-dusted chocolate truffles. That's because, despite its being the subject of thousands of marketing analyses available on the Internet, Kudler Fine Foods is fictional.

Textbook Exercise

In the "Marketing" textbook by Roger Kerin, Stephen Hartley and William Rudelius, a fictional chain of gourmet markets named Kudler Fine Foods serves as an example for study. A variety of hypothetical situations facing the company is posed for students to solve and analyze. Thousands of papers written in response can be downloaded from the Internet.

Fast Facts

The fictional Kudler Foods has three locations in southern California. The first shop was opened in La Jolla in 1998 by one Kathy Kudler, a visionary woman who wanted one spot where she could buy everything she needed to make dinner and believed launching a chain of gourmet markets was the solution. The Del Mar and Encinitas locations were underway within five years, and the quest for the perfect location for a fourth shop is left as an exercise for students.

Possible Inspiration

Josef von Kudler was an influential economist in the Smithian cameralist tradition. In the 1850s and 1860s, his works were standard reading in Austrian universities. Kudler's belief that value is not inherent in goods, but arises from the intensity of people's desire for them, seems to fit nicely with the concept of a purveyor of expensive versions of ordinary food items. Using the name Kudler for a gourmet shop in a marketing textbook may be a tribute to this historical figure.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Types of Financial Software Other Than Excel

A version of this article originally appeared on in the Computer Software section.

Excel, a spreadsheet software program from Microsoft Corporation, is so well known that, because it can be used for financial calculations, some might think Excel to be the only financial software available. The truth is that spreadsheets are only one of many types of software used for finance, and Excel is only one of many brands of spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets Other Than Excel

Spreadsheet programs are computerized versions of the paper ledgers people used to laboriously construct manually, using adding machines or calculators to figure the values to write in the cells formed by the intersection of rows and columns. VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were the first commercially available spreadsheet programs, starting in the early 1980s. Spreadsheets available today include Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice Calc, Abykus, Numeric, CleanSheets, Apple's Numbers for the Macintosh and Google Calc, an online spreadsheet to be used through a Web browser.

Bookkeeping and Accounting Software

Bookkeeping and accounting software helps small business owners track the finances of their companies. Features may include bill pay, inventory, invoicing and transaction entry based on the double-entry bookkeeping system that is the standard debit-asset balancing model for business finance. Programs include QuickBooks, Peachtree Accounting, Microsoft Dynamics, MYOB, Advantage Business Software and many more. More elaborate programs exist for larger companies as well.

Personal Financial Software
Personal financial software is designed for managing household finances, allowing users to track transactions in checking and savings accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s and other accounts home users are likely to have. A few examples are Quicken, Moneydance, Microsoft Money, Debtonator and Money Manager, but there are hundreds of different programs.

Tax Preparation Software

A variety of tax preparation software programs are available to help people prepare their own taxes, or organize their taxes in anticipation of taking them to a professional tax prep service. TaxAct lets you do your taxes entirely online, while programs such as TaxCut and TurboTax are installed on your personal computer. Tax prep software typically gives you the option to submit your state and federal returns over the Internet directly from the program, saving you the steps of printing and mailing returns. The United States Internal Revenue Service provides a free tax prep software program, Free File, for users who can file relatively simple tax returns.


Techie Buzz: Free Microsoft Excel / Spreadsheets Alternatives
Apple: Numbers '09 A Brief History of Spreadsheets
IRS: Free File Home --- Your Link to Free Federal Online Filing


Accounting Softwares Directory: Small Business Software
Microsoft: Microsoft Dynamics Tax Software
Accounting Softwares Directory: Personal Finance Softwares

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DIY Straws

A version of this story appeared on eHow, in the Hobbies & Science section.

Nearly all types of grass will grow hollow stems
that can be used as drinking straws.
The natural world provides lightweight, hollow tubes suitable for sipping beverages in the form of grass stems. Humans have been making use of these as drinking straws for thousands of years, as we know from evidence of the ancient Sumerians. Dried grass stems -- straw -- is the model from which man-made drinking straws were first mass-produced in the late 19th century. Drinking straws are cheap and readily available at any grocery, but it can be fun to make your own out of unexpected materials.

Things You'll Need

  • Growing wheat, rye, bamboo or lawn grass
  • Light-duty electrical extension cord
  • Hand soap or hand sanitizer dispensers
  • Plastic, hollow coffee stirrers
  • Aquarium tubing, unused
  • Hollow licorice sticks


Natural straws

  1. Plant a patch of bamboo, cereal grasses like wheat or rye, or ordinary lawn grass. Most grasses have hollow stem segments that can be dried and used as drinking straws.
  2. Grow your grass until the stems are the length you desire for your drinking straws. This will take several weeks. Alternately, find a vacant lot where the grass is already long enough for your purpose.
  3. Harvest your grass. Use garden snips to cut the grass stems to the length you desire. Cut off any seed heads. Snip off the nodes, the elbow-like joints that separate the stem segments.
  4. Use your grass stems immediately as drinking straws, or, for better results, dry them into straw. Spread out your grass stems in a sunny location outdoors and allow them to dry, or tie them in a bunch with string and hang them in a well ventilated spot. They should be dry enough to use as drinking straws within three to five days.

Extension Cord Straws

  1. Cut off the ends of a light-duty electrical extension cord. Light-duty cords have two parallel flexible tubes.
  2. Make a 1-inch vertical cut along each of the parallel tubes of the cord.
  3. Get a firm grip on the electrical wiring inside one of the tubes by winding it a few times around the shaft of a screwdriver.
  4. Pull the wiring out and discard it. Repeat with the other tube.
  5. Cut off the slit portions of the tubing and discard. Use the empty tubing as a super-long drinking straw, or cut it into several flexible drinking straws of whatever length you choose. You can also separate the two tubes and make single-barreled drinking straws.

More DIY Straw Ideas

  1. Cut aquarium tubing into whatever lengths you desire for your clear, flexible DIY drinking straws. Incorporate these into, for example, an undersea-themed party. Make several 2-foot to 3-foot lengths of drinking straws and place them by a punch bowl filled with light-blue colored punch and toy plastic fish so your guests can sit around the bowl with their straws directly in the punch bowl.
  2. Use plastic, hollow coffee stirrers as drinking straws. Legions of small children have independently discovered these DIY straws already, but that's no reason you can't take advantage of their ingenuity.
  3. Repurpose a hand-pumped soap dispenser into a drinking-straw assembly. Empty and thoroughly rinse a hand-pumped soap dispenser or hand sanitizer dispenser so that no trace of soap taste remains. Fill the dispenser with the beverage of your choice and sip from the nozzle.
  4. Snip off the ends of licorice sticks. Serve these edible drinking straws along with fruit punch at a children's party.

Tips & Warnings

  • Bamboo will grow in the southern regions of the United States. Wheat and rye will grow just about anywhere in the continental United States.
  • Lawn grass cut to the usual height is only long enough to form blades. After a few weeks without mowing, it will form the hollow stems characteristic of grass plants.
  • Aquarium tubing is similar in diameter to commercially made drinking straws. It is inexpensive and available just about anywhere pet supplies are sold.
  • You can purchase empty soap dispenser assemblies from craft and boutique stores and make these into drinking straws, too.


Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Cook a Hamburger 1950s Style

A version of this article appeared on

Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/ Images
In the 1950s people weren't afraid of eating fat, and they didn't have nonstick pans, which weren't introduced until 1961. To cook a hamburger 1950s style, you need meat that's no less than 30 percent fat and a bare-metal surfaced pan. In the 1950s you might have cooked a hamburger in a cast-iron or aluminum skillet or heavy-duty stainless steel skillet. Some cooks used French, or non-stainless, steel, such as those used in restaurants today. Each of these produces a distinctive outer crust. Other 1950s burger styles approximated fashionable ethnic culinary ideas. MSG was a popular enhancer.


Step 1

Purchase ground beef that is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat. Ask your butcher to prepare such a blend for you if it is not readily available. Alternatively, chop 5 oz. suet finely, removing any membrane. Place in blender and blend until finely chopped. Mix in a mixing bowl with 11 oz. very lean ground beef to create a hamburger mixture that is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat.

Step 2

Mix into the beef 1/4 tsp. MSG, which is sold as a seasoning under the brand name Ac'cent. Use a gentle touch, so as not to compress the meat any more than you can help.

Step 3

Shape into four equal patties, each 3/4 inch thick. Do not compress meat any more than necessary.

Step 4

Heat a bare-metal surface skillet made of cast iron, aluminum, heavy-stainless steel or blue steel until a small droplet of water sizzles immediately when dropped on the surface.

Step 5

Sprinkle 1/4 tsp. salt over the surface of the skillet.

Step 6

Place the patties on the skillet on top of the salt. Cook the patties on the sizzling hot skillet for four to five minutes on one side. Turn them over and cook for another four to five minutes.


Step 1

Purchase ground beef that is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat. Ask your butcher to prepare such a blend for you if it is not readily available. Alternatively, chop 5 oz. suet fine, removing any membrane. Place in blender and blend until finely chopped. Mix in a mixing bowl with 11 oz. very lean ground beef to create a hamburger mixture that is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat.

Step 2

Mix into the beef 3/4 cup sour cream, 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce, 2 tsp. dehydrated onion flakes, 3/4 tsp. salt and 3/4 cup corn flakes for sour cream burgers. Alternatively, mix into the beef breadcrumbs from one slice soft white bread; 2 tbsp. chopped onion; one egg, slightly beaten; 1 tbsp. sugar; 2 tbsp. water; 2 tbsp. soy sauce; one small clove garlic, minced; 1/8 tsp. MSG; and 1/16 tsp. ground ginger.

Step 3

Let mixture rest 1/2 hour in the refrigerator.

Step 4

Broil burgers 4 inches from broiler flame for five minutes. Turn them over and broil the other side for five minutes.

Tips and Warnings

  • Thrift shops or online collectible auction sites are good sources of period 1950s cookware. Many modern stainless steel pans are of a much thinner gauge than those made in the 1950s and may burn your hamburgers instead of cooking them properly on high heat; if you're using stainless steel, be sure it is a heavy gauge such as All-Clad makes, or a vintage pan such as a 1950s-era Revere Ware pan. Modern cast-iron pans have a rough interior that won't produce the same cooking result as the smooth interiors of pans you can still find secondhand or as collectibles. French steel, also called blue steel, is available at restaurant supply stores and online.
  • MSG is a controversial food ingredient, although scientific evidence for its being a hazard have been inconclusive. Although Americans are less likely to add it to recipes today, MSG consumption has tripled since 1950 because it is added to many processed foods.

Things You'll Need

  • For classic 1950s-style hamburgers:
  • 1 lb. 70 percent lean ground beef, or 11 oz. 99 percent lean ground beef and 5 oz. suet
  • MSG (optional)
  • Skillet
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • For 1950s-style sour cream burgers:
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. dehydrated onion flakes
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 cup corn flakes
  • For 1950s-style teriyaki burgers:
  • 1 lb. 70 percent lean ground beef, or 11 oz. 99 percent lean ground beef and 5 oz. suet
  • 1 slice soft white bread, ground into crumbs in blender
  • 2 tbsp. chopped onion
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. water
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 1/8 tsp. MSG
  • 1/16 tsp. ground ginger

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Could alternative agriculture be Dane County's antidote for sprawl?

Through site selection and product placement, Dane County businesses support responsible growth and local agriculture.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Corporate Report Wisconsin
May 2001

On the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, dollar bills and jars of jam flash across a vendor table in brisk trade. The woman busy behind the table grew the fruit for the jam on her own land, according to the strict requirements of what well may be America’s largest open-air farmers’ market, where an approximate quarter-million dollars is generated each of 28 Saturdays in the year. The waiting list for an open stall is three to five years long.

And it’s not just the market that’s been a huge success. Over the last 20 years, Wisconsin’s capital city has become a mecca for locally produced agricultural wares. Dane County restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses are leading the Midwest in a national movement toward regional and sustainable agriculture. Whether featuring regional products on the day’s menu, giving locally grown produce prime shelf space, or making siting decisions that protect farmland, businesses are fighting to keep the county’s agricultural heritage alive.

But urban sprawl, spurred by a growing economy and population, threatens the very source of the bounty: the open, pastoral landscape of Dane County. According to the June 2000 “Farms and Neighborhoods” report from the county executive’s office, at the current rate of development, the farmlands will be virtually gone by the century’s end — and with them, a defining feature of the county.

Visually, agriculture is the area’s most striking element, far more prevalent than parkland. Southcentral Wisconsin’s farm vistas, with sweeping fields punctuated by stands of trees and grassy ice age hillscapes — gentle oval drumlins, winding eskers — beckon tourists from Wisconsin cities and neighboring states. And this natural beauty is easily accessible to everyone living in Dane County: Even from the center of Madison, bucolic scenery is as near as a 15- or 20-minute drive in any direction. It’s a treasure, and not just when compared to strip mall suburbia. Some rural landscapes may be flat and featureless; Wisconsin’s is exquisite and endlessly diverse.

A few years back, Money magazine rated Madison the country’s most livable city, and population trends indicate that many people agree. In the 1990s, the county’s population rose an estimated 16.7 percent — an additional 61,500 people bringing the total close to 430,000. But as businesses and new residents race to take advantage of the area’s amenities, development patterns have been less than ideal. In February, USA Today ranked Madison one of the most sprawling of all midsized cities — the 65th worst out of all metropolitan areas. The American Farmland Trust has labeled the high-quality farmland in southern Wisconsin the third most threatened in the nation; Dane County lost 48,000 farm acres over the last decade.

So, how important is agriculture here? Dane County’s revenue from agricultural products, nearly $285 million per year, is by far the highest in the state, according to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census. With more than 2,500 farms, Dane County leads the state in production of corn for grain, and is high on the list when it comes to soybeans, fresh market vegetables, fruit and flowers. An expanding part of this industry is “alternative” agriculture in its various forms: farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards and vegetable patches, and environmentally sensitive farming methods like organic and sustainable agriculture.

There’s a great deal at stake in the survival of agricultural Dane County, and much depends on the area’s business leaders — even those not in the habit of thinking about farms. Jim Arts, Dane County’s director of Policy and Program Development, is concerned that businesses may inadvertently “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” unless they act in ways that protect farms. “Businesses have a powerful impact on the future of the county in making siting decisions, and in the ways they support or don’t support public initiatives of land-use issues,” he says. “I would argue that they have a strong motive to work for maintaining a high quality of life here.”

Phil Lewis, a noted landscape architect (he was the driving force behind Madison’s 21-mile E-way system of greenway and trails), agrees. “High-quality personnel are seeking a high-quality environment — one with beautiful scenery and recreation that produces the clean food and fiber and farmers’ markets that they can enjoy throughout a lifetime, for generations.”

Businesses who value Dane County’s special character can help by putting their considerable muscle into supporting land-use policies that help farms stay in business, says Lewis. Making siting decisions that are friendly to farms and natural resources is another powerful tool, with an even more immediate impact. Once a siting decision is made, landscape architects and building architects can work together to ensure that the new facility will have a low — or even beneficial — impact on natural resources, through canny positioning of buildings on the lot, plantings and more. Also, businesses can get involved in local efforts to take advantage of the state’s new Smart Growth Initiative. Smart Growth rewards municipalities that comply with state guidelines for growth. Lewis encourages business leaders who are planning new construction to talk to county and municipal officers, and find siting solutions that are good for everyone concerned.

To Lewis, the countryside is a mosaic of interdependent elements, each reinforcing the other. He’s identified “corridors of exceptional natural diversity,” including farms as well as parks and historical attractions, which support the tourist industry. Wetlands, water systems and steep topography — where terrain is at a 12.5 percent slope or greater — are also key features. Says Lewis, “We’ve inventoried key patterns of natural diversity. Anybody can call them up and interact with them on the county’s Web site.” But neither wetlands nor steep topography, for instance, are protected by law. So it’s up to individual decision makers to make each choice a conscientious one.

Part of the problem, says Arts, comes when decisions are made piecemeal, instead of as part of an overarching plan. Individual exceptions to municipal planning policies add up to a general pattern of sprawl — residential, commercial and industrial. However, Lewis says “there’s ample room for building without encroaching on or destroying resources.” “Farms and Neighborhoods,” to which Arts contributed, supports that: the report says there’s plenty of developable land within Dane County’s existing city and town borders — enough to fit the expected growth for decades to come.

Odessa Piper is one local entrepreneur who’s earned national acclaim by directly — and vocally — supporting local agriculture, and encouraging more businesses to do the same. Her restaurant, L’Etoile, serves upscale cuisine based on locally produced foods. For more than 25 years, Piper has built tight relationships with more than 100 Wisconsin farmers and producers, who supply everything from strawberries and spinach to bison and veal.
“We put the customers and the dining room in touch with the local farmers by creating the synthesis from the field to the table,” she says. “People are delighted by it. Customers love to be part of the solution.” Piper is an activist as well as a restaurateur, writing and speaking around the nation about the importance of supporting local agriculture. She’s been featured in national magazines like Bon Appetit, Sierra and Wine Spectator, and she’s had a tremendous influence on the growing number of restaurants in Madison and in the rest of the Midwest who now purchase directly from nearby farmers.

But she’s concerned that many businesspeople don’t recognize how much Madison’s high quality of life depends on maintaining farmland close by. “I’ve sat down with people who have made absolutely no connection between their wealth and the way that they’ve developed land. No connection that they’ve had an impact on the availability of fresh, seasonal, locally available food,” Piper says. “But then they ask how is this so delicious? How is this food so good? I tell them, it’s because it’s from a farmer who’s local.”
In a country where food travels an average distance of 1,300 miles from farm to table, restaurants and food service are just beginning to take advantage of the premium merchandise offered by local farmers. A few years ago, Home Grown Wisconsin, a 20-farmer cooperative, broke into a new restaurant market: Chicago. There they were welcomed by chefs starving for locally grown food. Even the UW dining service is beginning to look into local connections, testing the waters with annual organic, regionally grown dinners. The UW’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research facility within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, points out that if UW dining bought just 10 percent of its food from Dane County farmers, it would keep an extra $1 million within the local economy.

Besides restaurants, grocers are increasingly keen on locally grown produce. It’s easy enough to guess that natural foods stores like Williamson Street Grocery Co-op, Whole Foods Market and Magic Mill Natural Foods Market would support local, smaller-scale agriculture. But big supermarkets are also getting in on the local action, and Dane County is the focal point.

In the mid-’90s, Stevens Point-based Copps Food Center established the Copps Produce Developmental Center and placed it in Madison stores. “Our Madison customers spent more per dollar on produce than at any of our other stores,” says Tom Pozorski, Copps’ category manager for produce. “We look to Madison for what the trends are going to be in the rest of the Midwest.”

What the CPDC discovered was a strong preference for locally produced food; now Copps buys local whenever possible. “The growing season is short here, so that’s the biggest limitation,” Pozorski says. “But in season we sell 100 percent Wisconsin sweet corn, for instance. There’s nothing better than Wisconsin sweet corn when you’re in Wisconsin.” Apples and potatoes are also big crops, and they store well, too. Wisconsin is the third largest potato producer in the U.S. “They’re the best in the world. You can’t beat a Wisconsin spud,” Pozorski says. Locally grown organics and other specialty crops are growing in popularity and availability, too. “We have a lot of new growers approaching us,” Pozorski says.

Star Liquor in Madison finds that locally produced goods are a big draw. “People want to support the local economy,” says manager Mark Mason. “They want to know where their money is going. People want to drink local — I give them what they want.” At least 25 percent of Star’s beer sales are regional brands, says Mason, adding “that doesn’t include Miller, Leinenkugel and Point” — popular Wisconsin-brewed beers with out-of-state ownership. Mason points out that Dane County is the proud home of Capitol Brewery, rated America’s #1 brewery by the Beverage Tasting Institute in 1998. Even wine from Wisconsin sells well, especially at Christmastime for gifts to ex-Wisconsinites. In a refrigerated case next to the champagne, Star also sells specialty cheeses from Bleu Mont Dairy. It’s the only place other than the Farmers’ Market on the Square where this Dane County dairy’s cheese can be purchased.

If healthy, vibrant farms are key to averting sprawl disaster in Dane County, then alternative agricultural methods — and perspectives — will increase in importance. Compared with traditional megacrops like soybeans or corn for grain, which gross about $275 to $375 per acre, grosses for fresh market vegetables can range from $8,000 to $16,000 per acre, with a net of between $4,000 to $9,000. Therefore, to support a family, specialty vegetable farms don’t need to be as big as conventional feed crop farms.

Organic milk, meat, vegetables and fruit are more labor-intensive to produce, but they do command higher prices in an expanding market: the market for organic has been steadily growing by 20 percent yearly since 1989. The Miller Farm in Dane County’s Town of Bristol is Wisconsin’s largest organic dairy farm, with 350 milk cows. Because their milk is organic, the Millers can sell their milk for 50 percent more than the conventional price.

And there’s plenty of room for niche marketing. For direct sales, there’s the 300-vendor Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square, as well as markets in Middleton, Sun Prairie and Fitchburg, and outside Madison’s Hilldale Shopping Center. There are roadside stands where farmers set up informal shop for the day. U-Pick orchards and berry patches let you walk through the growing fields yourself, and are often touted as an attraction for children.

Despite these opportunities, the future of Dane County’s rich agrarian tradition, and the beautiful landscape that comes with it, is far from certain. From here, Dane County may join the list of America’s lost paradises. Or it may become a great success story, a blueprint for others to follow. How the business community approaches development, how strongly it supports locally produced foods, and the stand it takes on land-use policies — all these will play an incalculable role in the shape the county will take.

But before business is likely to exercise its power to help Dane County farmers, it must first recognize how important Dane County farmers are to business. “We need to raise awareness,” says Jim Arts. “If we want to preserve the character of Dane County, we must keep farmers in business.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

A fork in the road: 14 ways to start eating sustainably

A version of this article appeared in Brava magazine, March 2010.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

The journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single bite.

Many of us think we need to change the way we eat: that we should eat less processed food, less junk food, less food on the run, and maybe just plain less food.

But increasingly, it seems the entire food system could use some serious adjustment.

More and more, we’re taking notice of some troubling facts. Too much our food comes from thousands of miles away, so that it takes lavish amounts of petroleum just to get it to our plates. Too much of it is elaborately packaged, generating lots of trash. Too much of it is produced by agribusiness operating on an enormous scale, even as our own Wisconsin family farms continue to shut down. Too much of it is peppered with pesticides and herbicides, and grown in biologically “dead” soil soaked in chemical fertilizer. And too much of it comes from animals that really could be treated better.

A lot of people – many of them right here in southern Wisconsin – have been working very hard for decades to change this dismally inefficient, environmentally devastating, unhealthful shape of things. Recently, movies like Food, Inc. and author Michael Pollan’s bestselling books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have brought mainstream attention to these issues. Sustainable eating, a phrase being heard more and more these days, is one popular description of the multi-featured groundswell of grassroots response by concerned eaters and growers to all these issues.

“I like to say ‘ethical eating,’” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP), the Madison-based organization behind efforts like Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, which brings locally produced food into schools, Buy Fresh Buy Local, which helps forge relationships between restaurateurs and farmers, and the Farm Fresh Atlas, which maps sustainable food producers throughout the state. “‘Ethical’ gets people thinking about all the things we’re talking about a little more quickly, like fair trade. Organic is an important issue, for instance, but it’s not the only issue.”

Here in Madison, with the nation’s largest farmers market, world-class restaurants that make a point of pride of naming the farms that supply their ingredients, and an abundance of organic and artisanal farms, cheese makers, breweries, bakeries and more all around us, we’ve long been at the epicenter of what many see as a revolutionary movement. In September, when Michael Pollan gave a series of talks here that drew crowds of up to 5,000, he described our town as “one of the important fronts in [the] battle to change the American way of eating and growing food.”

Pretty weighty stuff.

In fact, it might seem a bit overwhelming, wondering how to start. You might worry: Is this just one more thing for me to feel guilty about not doing right? Do I have to give up my favorite foods? Can I still shop at the supermarket? Can I ever eat out? Do I have to slave for hours in the kitchen? Do I have to start a garden and get dirty? What if I don’t have time to shop at the farmers’ market – and what would I do with the weird stuff I bought there, anyway? And the expense! Will I go broke trying to live on whole, fresh, natural, locally produced food?

Relax. Breathe. That’s not what this trip is about. If you want to change the way you eat, some of the area’s sustainable food leaders have shared their insights and advice for making some tasty transitions, one forkful at a time. 

1.Pay attention. The first step is just to increase your awareness. Let yourself wonder all sorts of things whenever you shop or order out. Where did it come from? How did it get to you? Who handled it? How did it get to look the way it does? Could your great-grandmother have made this out of raw ingredients? Or does it look like a factory and lots of patented technology is required to make it? Where will the packaging and the scraps go after you’re done with your meal? Let your mind become accustomed to drifting along these directions. Any concrete measures you decide upon will connect naturally and easily to your train of thought.
“When you go to a supermarket, don’t just go in a daze,” suggests Barbara Wright, owner of The Dardanelles restaurant and a past president of Madison Originals, an association of independent restaurants. “Don’t throw things into your cart in zombie mode. Look around. You might notice, ‘Oh, those red peppers, that looks good to me.’”

2. Start small, and make delicious discoveries along the way. “Don’t try to change everything overnight,” advises chef Leah Caplan, the chief food officer at Metcalfe’s Market at Hilldale and that store’s local-food liaison. “You can start up with one meal a week using ingredients from this area. If on Wednesday night [you] usually have roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with some spinach, come to the grocery store, buy a local chicken, some local potatoes and spinach. You’ll notice a definite quality difference. Snug Haven grows spinach year-round in hoop houses. This time of year, with the frost, it’s candy sweet. If you taste that side by side with spinach from California or South America this time of year, there’s virtually no flavor to the shipped spinach.”

3. Read labels. Make it a habit not to put anything in your cart until you’ve consciously chosen to accept each ingredient. You can go a long way by choosing just two or three key offenders to avoid, without needing a chemistry degree.  Try crossing these two off your shopping list: monosodium glutamate (MSG) – which adds a quality known as umami, or “tastiness,” but also makes you crave more food while deadening  your palate –  and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a highly refined substance metabolized differently from traditional sugar that’s drawing fire for possibly contributing directly to today’s obesity epidemic.

4. Shop for ingredients, not meals. If you’re concerned about price, this is the best way to turn the equation around to your favor. For instance, if you take microwave-ready lunches to work, the “all-natural” equivalents will be pricier. But if you prepare meals from scratch – say, a chef’s salad, pasta salad or lasagna – you’ll be able to swap in the finest local ingredients and come out even or ahead.

5. Learn to cook. Treat yourself to sturdy pans and quality knives, a cutting board you find beautiful, whatever will make it easier and more enjoyable to create your own fantastic food. “Take some lessons if you’re jazzed by that idea. Get cookbooks, if that’s what you like. There are so many great angles for getting into this,” says Terese Allen, food editor at Organic Valley Cooperative, who’s written several cookbooks celebrating the pleasures of local food, most recently co-authoring The Flavor of Wisconsin. “Give yourself permission to keep it simple. I like to think in terms of what I call repertoire dishes: an omelet, a pizza, a rice dish, a soup. I can think, ‘OK, this is pasta night,’ and any week of the year I can make a dish using seasonal ingredients. It doesn’t take that much more time to smash some cherry tomatoes in the pan and add some basil leaves, rather than serving something with added ingredients and a shelf life of thousands of years – and sometimes is not all that convenient.”  

6. Choose local products. Many Madison grocers identify these. Metcalfe’s has won national awards for its “Food Miles” program locating “anything within Wisconsin or in a 150-mile radius from Madison,” explains Caplan, with signs like highway markets. “For instance, Capital Brewery is 5 miles.” Similarly, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative names the local farms that grow its produce and labels local items throughout the store. If your supermarket doesn’t highlight local products, talk with the manager or drop a note in the suggestion box.

7. Join a CSA. Purchase a share of a farm’s annual harvest through community-supported agriculture (CSA), and you’ll get a weekly box of fruits and vegetables for nearly half the year.  Some programs provide add-ons of local meat, cheese, eggs, honey and fair-trade coffee. “This food is picked within 24 hours,” says Keira Mulvey, director of Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), which helps consumers and farmers find one another. “It’s the connection between you and the grower that’s important to us, You  get a whole bunch of newsletters with recipes and a little bit of a deeper understanding of what’s going on at your farm, what kind of drama is going on with the animals and the machinery. You can visit and be a part of on-farm events – pesto festos, corn boils. It’s not just a farm visit; it’s a visit to the farm that’s producing food for your family. That’s a fun way to engage with your food.”
If you don’t cook much, “you can split a share” with a friend or neighbor, Mulvey suggests. MACSAC’s cookbook, From Asparagus to Zucchini, will help you figure out what to do with that kohlrabi, or fennel, or whatever unfamiliar treasure might be in season. “The beautiful thing about CSAs is, it pushes you to try things you might not otherwise,” Grunes says.
Incredibly, Physician’s Plus, Dean, Unity and GHC pay you up to $200 in cash when you present your CSA receipt. “That’s a recipe for good health,” Grunes says. Interested in learning more? Visit MACSAC’s CSA Open House March 14 at the Monona Terrace.

8. Shop at farmers’ markets. A cornerstone of the local food movement, this is the place to find food diversity like you’ve never imagined and bright, fresh flavors unmatched by foods bred for long storage life and shipping hardiness. “When my sister had carrots right out of the field, she said, ‘Wow, this is a carrot, but it tastes so much better.’ Even within the simple potato, you can find a wide variety of flavors and textures. You’ll be able to find that typical Russet, but also purple, blue, fingerling, Yukon gold.” says Claire Strader, the farmer at Community GroundWorks, an educational facility on Madison’s Northside that includes a certified organic farm producing food for a vendor stall at the Northside Farmers’ Market, a CSA and several grocery stores.  “People might not realize they can find a wide range of food,” Strader says. “Why not go shopping at the farmers’ market first and then swing by the grocery on the way home for everything you didn’t find? You can get meat, honey, eggs, milk, cheese, fish, baked goods there. You’re not going to get Pop Tarts there.”
New to the scene? “Ask to go with a friend who’s familiar with that market, as a sort of tour guide. People have favorite foods and favorite vendors,”  Strader says. During the growing season, there’s a market every day of the week somewhere in or near Madison. REAP’s Farm Fresh Atlas, available online and in print, will help you find one that’s convenient to you.

9. Cook with friends. “If you’re working on it together and it’s kind of a social thing, it’s just so much fun,” Allen says. “I have neighbors who are in a vegetarian cooking group, and they make meals for each other. Make it a group thing!”

10. Grow something to eat. “Gardening is my favorite thing to do, but it isn’t for everybody,” Grunes admits. If you want to dip a toe in, “herbs are a great way to start. You can do it in a window box. Just snip off what you need; you won’t have a whole cilantro package going bad in the fridge.” Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow, also, and the payoff is big. “A warm tomato from right out of the yard – it doesn’t get much better than that.” Or any more local.

11. Visit a farm. Make an outing of it. Take the kids; go with friends. Several local farms offer “U-Pick” apples, strawberries, pumpkins and more. “I’ll take a vacation and go to Bayfield and pick blueberries with friends,” says Allen. “I may spend more money to get blueberries that way, but I’m getting so much more out of it. It’s not a dollar-for-dollar item-for-item kind of thing.”

12. Patronize independent restaurants serving local food. Chuck Taylor, president of Madison Originals and owner of The Blue Marlin, says, “You’re supporting your neighbors” when you choose an indie eatery, especially one that makes food from scratch and deals directly with farms. “The money stays local. It’s not going to a prescribed purveyor or to buy sauces made in some group kitchen somewhere. We would like to see that money stay in the community.”
But do we, as a nation eat out too much? Barbara Wright says, “If you’re eating out because you want to spend time together laughing about things, enjoying each other’s company, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, ever. Even if it’s at McDonald’s.” The problem, she says, is in “disordered eating.” She explains, “People ordering something and bolting it down while on their way to the next thing, shoveling food into their stomachs, that’s the problem.”

13. Get informed. Read books like In Defense of Food or Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. Get on the e- mailing lists of organizations like REAP and Community GroundWorks so you can take advantage of upcoming events where you can learn about and enjoy local foods, and even find volunteer opportunities.

14. Have fun! “This is one of the few habits you can change that can be really, really  deliciously enjoyable,” says Allen. “You don’t have to give up anything. There’s so much potential and variety in the world of food. The goal isn’t to get to 100 percent sustainable, or local, or seasonal. It’s to add that in. It’s not all or nothing. That’s not life. That’s not what this movement is about.”