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

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.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How to start eating sustainably?

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
March 2010

You've heard the reasons why we need to change the way we eat. The average forkful of food travels thousands of miles from field to table, even when the eater is in the heart of farmland. Feedlot animals are crammed some 50,000 deep, devastating the environment with their waste products, while factory-style agricultural has transformed our plant food supply into what is, practically speaking, petroleum products. Meanwhile, eating locally grown foods and humanely treated, pastured animals, preparing meals from fresh, whole foods, eating at locally owned restaurants -- especially those that serve fresh, local foods themselves -- is good for local economies, good for the community, good for your health and your waistline, good for the environment, good for all the plants and animals involved.

So how to get started? Do you have to give up your favorite foods? Do you have to plant a garden and get dirty? Is it going to be more expensive? Where do I get real food, and how hard is it to find? Do I have to learn to cook? Do I have to spend every free minute in the kitchen? Is my new food going to taste weird?

Find out in the March 2010 Brava Magazine.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The hidden face of domestic violence

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach In Brava Magazine, February 2010 What kind of woman gets herself into an relationship with an abusive man, and stays even after he becomes violent? What do friends and family typically advise her as the entanglement develops? What does an abused woman look like? How prevalent is domestic abuse, and how bad does it usually get? I was shocked by what I learned when I explored these and other questions for my article, "The hidden face of domestic violence," for the February issue of Brava Magazine. In the article, I present the stories of three Madison-area women who tell, in their own words, how they found themselves enmeshed with intimate partners who beat, manipulated and dominated them, even as friends and family -- and even a university dean, in one woman's case -- saw only the charismatic, assertive men who presented a positive front to the outside world. To learn more about how domestic violence develops and how you can keep it from happening to you -- or your daughter -- visit DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, a Dane County, Wis. nonprofit) or the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Growing Strong

Claire Strader, farmer-about-town, brings organic agriculture into the heart of the city

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Around the Table
This unpublished article was scheduled to appear in the May 2009 issue of Brava Magazine, which suspended publication for several months in 2009 when it changed ownership.

Related recipe: Spinach Salad

Urban vegetable gardens are tucked away in backyards everywhere. But an entire certified organic working farm right in town? That’s a lush surprise.

Welcome to Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens, a 31-acre site on Madison’s Northside. The five-acre farm produces “well over a hundred varieties of fifty different vegetables,” says farm manager Claire Strader. The farm is just one program among many in this unique organization. “There’s no other development in the entire country that combines farming with community gardening, with prairie and woodland nature restoration, with kids’ gardening, and all the educational programming that’s part of each of those areas, with housing,” Claire says.

It was 2001 when Claire rolled up her sleeves, worked with volunteers to clear the land, and planted “some squash, potatoes and tomatoes.” Today the farm generates about $100,000 annually through sales of sprouts and herbs at local groceries, a farm stand that operates Thursdays May through October 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. on the 500 block of Troy Drive, and CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) shares, whereby members receive a weekly box of bounty throughout the harvest season. All 120 shares for 2009 have been sold out since early spring.

Claire gained national attention earlier this year when a farming couple in Illinois launched a competition for nominees for the position of “White House Farmer,” in the hopes that the administration would respond to urgings from the sustainable agriculture movement to till up at least a bit of the 18 acres of manicured lawn surrounding the presidential manse. Out of more than 56,000 votes cast for 111 candidates, nearly one in five went to Claire. She won handily.

VVK: What does your victory mean to you?

CS: It was very exciting while it was happening. I think it’s not so much about me as about this community. In south central Wisconsin, we’re tuned into, we care about the local agriculture movement. When this idea was put in front of people, they got in touch with their friends around the country, around the world, and said, vote for this person – she grows food here. Will Allen [of Growing Power Inc.], who came in fourth place, he’s from Milwaukee.

VVK: What happens now?

CS: The group is still working on a packet to send the administration. The Obamas have put a garden in, but I haven’t heard anything about a farm or a farmer.

VVK: How did you get into farming?

CS: I started out studying biology and genetics, then switched to philosophy and women’s studies. I wanted to think more carefully about how I exist in the world – building shelter, making clothes, growing food. I thought the best way to learn would be to go work for an organic farmer. I worked for a farm run by man and his wife the summer I graduated from Wellesley. He was great. I loved working for him.

VVK: What brought you to Wisconsin?

CS: I sought out a farm run by women. I wanted to learn everything – to run the Rototiller, to fix things – regardless of my gender. I found Luna Circle, which was then in Gays Mills, and was there four years. We built a straw bale house, dug a well, lived off the grid. Later I went to UC-Santa Cruz for an apprenticeship in ecological horticulture and learned new things, beekeeping, orcharding. I decided that I wanted to work for a nonprofit, to do farming and education. I sent applications all over the country, and wound up becoming Troy Garden’s first employee.

VVK: It seems unusual, traditionally, for a woman to be a farmer.

CS: One of the things we learn in women’s studies is that agriculture across the world, historically, has been the domain of women when it’s on a small scale. For their own use, or for small-scale selling. I feel like women are a natural fit in this world of small-scale agricultural production, with organics and sustainable agriculture. Men not excluded – there are plenty of men here and across the world involved in it.

VVK: I noticed that women were the top three vote-getters – 40% of all votes cast – in the competition for White House Farmer nominees.

CS: For me, that does fit in. Also, none of us are traditional family farmers who own a farm. We’re all associated with education and broader mission statements. For me that makes sense as well.

VVK: How is the farm, and your job as a farmer, influenced by being part of Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens?

CS: I’m not just the farmer, I’m also project coordinator. In the winter my job changes and becomes more internal to our organization -- writing grants, raising money. It’s hard for family farmers to devote a lot of time to education. Fewer farmers are offering internship programs; more are just hiring employees. Because of the nonprofit, we have the opportunity to do that. I really like training future farmers.

VVK: How is the current economic climate affecting the organization?

CS: Our programs are very strong, like the Kids’ Garden, things people see. It’s much harder for us to raise money for the salaries, the administration. This is true generally for nonprofits, but these days that piece of our organization is being much harder hit.

VVK: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

CS: Worrying constantly about the financial stability of the organization as a whole. We rely on individual contributions. It’s a lot lot of work to get the word out and solicit contributions, especially right now, for obvious reasons. I work really hard, and it’s tough to worry about financial things on top of all that.

VVK: Do you live nearby?

CS: I’m about a mile from the farm. I have a garden at home.

VVK: What! You farm all day, and then you garden when you get home?

CS: My partner, Sarah, pushed for it. We really like having food outside our back door. We have about 12 fruit trees and 40 asparagus plants. I’m experimenting with strawberries and raspberries. We’re ripping out the front yard for more dry beans. We’re committed to not buying any vegetables. Sarah is a woodworker and our next project is to build a solar food dehydrator for leeks, tomatoes, broccoli, all kinds of things.

VVK: What’s your favorite crop to grow?

CS: Carrots. They’re delicious, they store well, you can get lots of different colors, you can eat them raw or cooked. And they’re not easy to grow. They’re difficult to germinate, and it’s not easy to give them what they need to get that shape. I like that I keep learning.

VVK: How about the toughest crop?

CS: Corn is really hard for me. I have a lot of luck with popcorn, but sweet corn...! There are insect pests that are very difficult to deal with. I keep trying.

VVK: What projects are you working on now at the farm?

CS: We’re raising money for a passive solar greenhouse. We’re partnering with the UW for their first hands-on organic agriculture class ever at our land-grant university; students will work at the farm. We have lots of applications for our intern positions, including people who want to come back for another year, people from Michigan and Illinois, and even an applicant from France.

It’s a small farm in the scope of things. I’m honored and proud that there are so many people who hear about it and want to be involved.

Each month in her column “Around the Table,” freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach profiles women who are influential in Wisconsin foodways: cooks and bakers, farmers, teachers, authors, activists and more.