Asian Market Excursion in Kansas City

The spicy bite of red curry paste, the taste of sweet roasted coconut juice, the fragrant licorice scent of Thai basil, these ingredients draw me out of winter’s clutch, away from a snowy suburb in south Kansas City to Thailand. I don’t board a plane for my getaway. Instead, I navigate icy roads to Kim Long Asian Market, a few blocks east of the City Market, to gather ingredients for meals to come. Food is my passport to the aromas and flavors of my mother’s native home.

Since I was a child, I have accompanied my mother to Asian markets in or near the City Market. We used to shop at Hung Vuong Market, formerly at 5th and Grand. It is now located on the east side of Grand between 3rd and 4th Street, just south of The Diner. At the original location, overstocked shelves were filled with rice, noodles, sauces, beans, canned goods, and fresh-baked delicacies and dazzled the eye with color. The strong scent of fish and brine-soaked concrete floor in some spots was powerful. Depending on what was in stock, I peered into tubs filled with live blue crab or refrigerated cases filled with glassy-eyed fish. We didn’t buy meat or fish there. We stocked up on noodles, rice, cans of coconut milk, nam pla or fish sauce, and fresh produce including bok choy, morning glory, bean sprouts, and string beans.

Today, I stock my own pantry after shopping at similar Asian markets near Columbus Park. I purchase groceries for Thai dishes as well as Vietnamese and Chinese delicacies and treats. At Kim Long Asian Market, I grab a cart and head straight for the basket of bánh cam (bánh rán in Northern Vietnam), or sweet sesame balls, a Vietnamese treat made with glutinous rice flour, stuffed with sweet mung bean paste, fried, and rolled in sesame seeds. This fried pastry originated in China as jin deui, but has spread to other countries where the food has been adapted into sweet and savory versions. Similar to doughnuts, yet denser, crispier, and chewier, bánh cam cost two for a buck at Kim Long. I try to get to the market earlier in the day when they’re made fresh and still warm.

I’ve grown fond of bánh mì, inexpensive Vietnamese sandwiches ($2-3) made on a baguette. While living in Boston as a student, I ate them often because they were affordable on a budget and were made to order at shops in Chinatown. The sandwich is stuffed with thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon (do chua), cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, pâté, mayonnaise and various meat fillings including sliced pork and head cheese. Use of the baguette is a culinary holdover from French colonialism in Indochina where the bread was adapted into a country-style sandwich using local ingredients. Today, bánh mì can be found in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Kansas City, and any major metropolitan area with Asian markets.

When it’s hot outdoors or I get a nostalgic craving, I swing by the refrigerated case full of beverages and grab a can or two of roasted coconut juice. I grew up savoring fresh juice from coconuts that my mom would crack in half with the back of a 9-inch knife. On a trip to Thailand several years ago, I was introduced to fresh juice extracted from coconuts grown specifically for roasting whole. Roasting the coconut imparts a different, mildly robust flavor to the sweet juice. While the canned version isn’t as good as sucking down a cup from a roadside stand in sweltering heat, it’s close enough to transport me across space and time to Thailand if only for a few minutes.

The array of sauces and spices at Kim Long, like most Asian markets, is mind-boggling. As children, we tend to inherit preferences, or shy away from choices, of brand name condiments and sauces (Heinz, Gates, A-1, French’s, etc.) we were exposed to as children. I gravitate toward specific sauces that I’ve spotted in my mom’s cupboard and recognized on the store shelf.

Nam pla, or fermented fish sauce, is a pungent but essential mainstay for flavoring Thai dishes like ginger chicken, chicken satay, tom yum goong (shrimp soup), and, of course, pad Thai. Believe it or not, brands of nam pla and soy sauce possess different flavor profiles depending on the ingredients used, the fermenting process, and other factors. A crab-based nam pla will taste different than one made with shrimp. I didn’t realize this for years and simply bought whatever my mom used, shifting from Tiparos to Squid to Three Crabs brand. If she bought a off-brand on sale that tasted too strong or salty, then she’d discard it rather than use it and throw off the balance of flavors in her cooking. Just as people in Kansas City are partial to certain types of barbecue sauce, a personal preference for fundamental ingredients makes all of the difference in the dish.

Anyone that has eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant will recognize the ubiquitous clear bottle of Huy Fong srirachi sauce bearing the image of a rooster, thus earning the name rooster sauce or cock sauce. The Americanized version of this spicy red chili sauce, produced in California, is now available in the Asian/ethnic aisle of many mainstream grocery stores as well as Asian markets. Sriracha originates from Thailand rather than Vietnam. I have visited Si Racha, the seaside city in Chonburi Province of central Thailand for which the sauce is named. There, sriracha began as a paste made from a blend of sun-ripened chilies, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt and is used in seafood dishes. For the sake of convenience, I use the Huy Fong brand on occasion.

My cupboard is also filled with sweet black soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sweet chili paste. The refrigerator holds a clay jar of fermented cabbage and homemade nam prik or vinegar-based chili dipping sauce. When the summer garden fades, I freeze homegrown Thai basil, chilies, and string beans for winter use. I pluck kaffir lime leaves from my plant (a gift from Pam) or raid my mom’s overgrown shrub. Using these basics in combination with fresh meat and produce, I can produce an array of traditional Thai and fusion dishes.

At Kim Long, I can find bok choy, morning glory leaves, fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, and other produce not readily available at conventional supermarkets. As needed, I load up on coconut milk, curry powder, star anise, dried galanga (a fragrant rhizome similar to ginger), red curry paste, rice vermicelli, pad Thai noodles (banh pho), and other goods. The store also carries numerous types and brands of rice that can be bulk-purchased in various quantities. Whether it’s Three Ladies brand of 2010 new crop jasmine rice or another brand, the quality of the rice is superior to the brands found at most grocery stores.

As a bonus, hungry visitors can visit the counter next to Kim Long’s market, order a dish, and eat on the premises or grab it to go. Be adventurous, head to a market near you, and investigate the offerings. I’ve noticed a wide range of clientele that includes Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, Filipino, Caucasian, and African American customers shopping for not-so-exotic goods here in the Heartland. Fully stocked, I head home armed with sacks of food that will become not only meals, but also brief excursions to a sunny land far away.

Asian Grocery Shopping

Kansas City and the greater metro area is host to a number of Asian Markets. Visit one near you, pick up some inexpensive ingredients, and experiment with them at home. Recipes for Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Chinese dishes can be found easily online. Or experiment with your own version of Asian fusion cooking.

Kim Long Asian Market – 511 Cherry, Kansas City, MO
Huong Que Oriental Market – 424 Locust, Kansas City, MO
China Town Food Market – 202 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, MO
Asian Super Market – 9538 Nall, Overland Park, KS
Jung Oriental Grocery Store – 930 Minnesota Avenue, Kansas City, KS
Oriental Supermarket – 10336 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park, KS
888 Market – 10118 West 119th St, Overland Park, KS

Originally published in

Original Juan: Bring the Pain

The Source Original JuanThe Source is not to be reckoned with by mortal men. Not by hotheaded men or women willing to flirt with danger. Not by chili heads that boast their ability to eat anything hot. Not this hot. Original Juan Specialty Foods, a manufacturer of over 150 gourmet food products and all things hot, states that The Source hot sauce tops 7.1 million Scoville units on the hot-o-meter. Don’t even think about trying it. Seven million degrees of pain is not good for you. Trust me. We’ll get to that exercise in indulgence later.

Original Juan has built their reputation on this slogan – Pain is Good. You’ve probably seen their products on supermarket shelves throughout Kansas City. The faces of Bubba, Screamin’ Joe, and Mo with expressions of exquisite pain are emblazoned on the salsa and hot sauce labels. These three characters personify the simple but persuasive slogan that self-induced pain is good when it comes in edible form.

Since I am half-Thai, I am not one to fear spicy food and consider it a point of pride to down the ubiquitous srirachi sauce found in Vietnamese joints, Thai bird chiles from my mom’s garden, the smoky flavor of chipotle peppers in a pot of chili, and even the occasional searing mouth-fire that a habanero can deliver. I ate an entire habanero pepper, seeds and all, once on a bet at a Halloween party. Once. But that is another story.

How Hot is Hot?
A rational person respects the power of the pepper, or more specifically, the chemical agent known as capsaicin that rachets up the hot factor in chili peppers. The aforementioned Scoville unit is a scientifically diabolical measurement of hotness derived from the capsaicin naturally found in chilies.

Wilbur Scoville invented this scale in 1912 to measure the heat level in chillies in parts per million. Previously, measuring hotness involved a subjective taste test until some pepper eaters seared their tongues off after a chili tasting gone awry. Well, not quite. Leave it to a man like Scoville to develop a measure of hotness that other men and women of questionable sanity can tally up as bragging rights for eating indescribably spicy food.

Scientists with a desire to live a long, relatively pain-free life adopted a standardized process known as high performance liquid chromotography] for testing levels of Scoville units. Until February 2007, the Red Savina variety of habenero, also known as the Dominican Devil’s Tongue Pepper, was the hottest known pepper (580,000 Scoville units) on the planet. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, ladies and gentlemen, the latest heavyweight champ-yeen of hotness is the Naga Jolokia or Ghost Chili which weighs in at a searing 855,000 Scoville units and is grown in northeastern India. For comparison, pure capsaicin measures 16 million Scoville units packing a heap of pain.

Straight From the Source
Original Juan recommends The Source only for true chili pepper connoisseurs. Even then, the daring soul that adds this stuff to their hot sauce collection better keep it under lock and key. A single drop creates volcanic temperatures in a five-gallon bucket of chili. Take Juan’s word for it. So yes, The Source is off-limits when it comes to tasting out of curiosity.

Besides, you know what curiosity did to the cat. Killed it dead. That’s where the expression “cool cat” came from. Other cats knew better than to taste anything over one million Scovilles. Otherwise, you’d be counting the number of lives you had left too. Despite being of sound mind, I actually tasted one of Original Juan’s products that topped a fiery 1.5 million units and is sold in the line called Da’ Bomb. That name should have been enough warning. We’ll get to the details of this insanity later.

Let’s get to know Original Juan better. President Joe R. Polo founded the company in 1998 after working in the product and food development industry for nearly two decades. Today, Polo and 30-plus employees work in a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility located at 111 Southwest Boulevard. The building includes a test kitchen, packing, shipping, storage, factory outlet and tasting center where you can determine your own personal level of pleasure-pain.

Besides the popular Pain is Good line, Original Juan produces and ships a diverse array of hot sauces, salsas, barbecue sauces, nuts, seasonings and more under their brand as well as lines such as Bilardo Brothers and Mama Capri. You can order the products direct from the web site or look for them in area supermarkets. Their products have won more than 250 national and international awards and honors. The company itself earned a 31st place ranking on Inc. Magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 fastest growing inner city companies in the nation. Obviously, Juan and company are doing something very, very right. According to Tom Clark, vice-president of operations, “People are looking for flavor in their food. Their palates have changed and they want something to spice it up.”

Indeed, the desire for authentic and striking flavor has changed the way Americans eat. It’s a well known trend that salsa has overtaken ketchup as the most consumed condiment in the country. It’s not just hot salsa either. Specialty varieties can be found on store shelves containing peaches or other ingredients. The Pain is Good line offers garlic habanero, Jamaican pineapple, and smoked chipotle salsa for instance.

Other product lines range from the culinary baby pool of sauces (Wimpy and Zesty) to the more daring Fiery and then the deep end of sizzle with sauces dubbed Meltdown and Off the Chart. Just when you think a company can run of out superlatives in their armory of sauce to explore how hot is hawt, they also came up with the Da’ Bomb line as in Beyond Insanity, Ground Zero, and Final Answer.

My Final Answer
And my personal story of “Pain is Good” begins here. Yes, I went straight for this last line of certifiably hot sauces. Not only was it my responsibility as a food journalist, it was my sacrificial duty as a former professional cook to go to the edge and back. Hey, just call me a fool. During the preliminary tour and interviews with staff, I noticed that I began sweating prematurely. Not mere perspiration, but out and out cold sweat to counterbalance the anticipation of eating some freaking hot sauce. Just thinking about the intensity of heat had my fingers and toes tingling. Maybe the flannel shirt I wore had something to do with a growing sense of uncomfortable warmth, but I don’t think so. I think it was pure fear.

My tour guide, Tammie Butler escorted me to the factory outlet room and offered salsa with chips to taste. I started off with the Pain is Good hot sauces as a warm-up. Literally. Batch #218 Louisiana Style hot sauce came across as tart and vinegary with a mild hotness. More punch than Tabasco, but easily manageable for daily consumption. Next came Batch #114 Jamaican Style, a hot sauce that evoked the exotic spice of the Caribbean Islands. Fruity notes floated atop the base of habanero pepper. Soon, a sweat broke out above my lips. Then, I moved onto Batch #37, a Garlic Style hot sauce prepared with a carrot base. I was entranced by this version because I would have never considered using this vegetable in a hot sauce. Combined with habanero pepper, garlic, lemon, and lime, the sauce has a surprisingly sweet taste with light heat. Notably, this sauce earned first place for the 2005 American Taste Award as the Grand Jury winner.

91GVmCwnmVS._SL1500_I concurred with the judges, wiped my brow, and prepared for the next level. Butler broke out the Da’ Bomb line, the hottest allowable trio of sauces available for tasting. Later I find out that these sauces are not intended for children under the age of 18. I agreed, this stuff ain’t for children or fools. Butler described the concept of pleasurable spice as a “euphoric taste that sets the senses ablaze.” We’ll see, I thought, provided I have any senses left after I touched the tip of my tongue to Beyond Insanity, measuring a significant 119,000 Scoville units. It’s a straight ahead, sharp and fiery heat. Nothing I can’t handle even as my pores opened up freely. Suddenly, I had the desire to start shedding clothes, but forged on.

Ground Zero ups the Scoville ante to 234,000 units, but who’s counting? The flavor of this sauce got my attention with its rich complexity. It was certainly as hot as Beyonce’s backside. The sauce had a lingering depth that I hadn’t expected. A heatwave swept over my body and through the furnace of my mouth moments later. I could still form words so I continued. The Final Answer reminded me of that ’80s hair metal band Europe with their hit, “The Final Countdown,” except no spandex or hairspray was involved in tasting this aptly named sauce. Rather than offer a tiny plastic spoon with a scoop of sauce like the previous selections, Butler wisely submitted a single toothpick dipped into The Final Answer. What harm could a mere drop barely bigger than a pinhead do?

I saw Butler’s look of apprehension out of the corner of my eyes. I’m sure she thought, “Why do people do this to themselves?” You might ask the same question of Sly Stallone when he made Rambo 3.

Does anyone really have to go to such an extent to prove a point? Admittedly no, but it was worth trying just once in my life. I accepted The Final Answer and made contact with the toothpick, sucking out the essence of 1.5 million Scoville units etched into this sauce. The concentrated heat transfered to my tongue, infusing taste buds with a pure expression of AAAAGGGHHH, then the scorching, charring, and annihilation began. I can’t say that the sauce tasted like anything except the abstract concept of hot in a truly surreal way.

These three sauces are not really meant to be eaten directly from the container unless you’re a sadist. Cook with them and respect them. Even then, you’d better have a phone nearby with 911 on speed dial if you don’t have a spotter with you. Fortunately, Butler offered a handful of napkins so I could dab away the waterfall of sweat on my forehead. She couldn’t begin to imagine the moisture levels happening from the neck down below my flannel shirt. Butler wouldn’t even consider my foolish request to try a taste of The Source. 7.1 million Scoville units. Why not? I had gone this far. She knew better. And I thank her for the restraint in retrospect. As it was, I didn’t cool down and stop sweating in my car until twenty minutes later when I reached home absorbed in a delirious, euphoric connection with the outer limits of the universe.

Yes, pain is good. And Original Juan is even better. You can take that from a not-so-cool cat.


Originally published in Present Magazine.


Woke up half an hour late. Rushed to the Forest Hills T stop, at the southern end of the orange line in Jamaica Plain, en route to downtown Boston where I’d transfer to the red line to get to Davis Square in Somerville and walk the last two blocks to work. I skipped a shower and shave and only dabbed on some cologne. A European shortcut perhaps, but I didn’t mind. Compared to the grumpy faces of professionals in ties, pressed slacks, polished shoes, and hair coiffed just-so riding the T next to me, I appeared roughshod. I didn’t care.

The kitchen at Celia’s doesn’t requires a professional appearance. Basic grooming habits are expected. Snazzy dress attire isn’t. I stumble into the kitchen late, mumble apologies, and hear in reply from Kevin, the head chef, “ Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf is dead.”

I absorb the news of his death. He died yesterday. Hank was a regular personality that appeared on “The Howard Stern Show,” a program that Kevin liked to listen to on the kitchen radio as we cooked.

“Really? Wow. Dead?” It’s the best I can muster at the moment.

Kevin, who is part Armenian with black hair and a permanent five-o’clock shadow, has dark eyes that alternate from jokester to don’t-screw-with-me to a panther ready to pounce with his next rant, random tidbit of information, funny tale, or it-could-work idea. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans with a white apron secured around his waist, he begins the morning with coffee, a perfunctory glance at the newspaper headlines, and an ear tuned to the bratty rant of Howard Stern and crew. Dunkin’ Donuts, The Boston Herald, and Stern’s self-serving tirades fuel Kevin’s rocket as the morning passes into the second stage.

Food is my first and only thought. A piece of bacon, a slice of cantaloupe, or a chunk of cold barbequed chicken – anything to appease my hunger and kick start my metabolism. The rest of the morning routine is automatic and instinctual. I grab an apron and a couple of white towels soft as pillowcases. I lay a wet towel on the stainless steel worktable and set the plastic cutting board on top. The towel prevents the cutting board from slipping. I pull a 9-inch chef’s knife from the rack. My feet and hands move of their own accord. My mind hasn’t quite caught up yet.

Celia’s is a gourmet deli where customers can order and eat in or take food to go. Other than a set menu of sandwiches and a salad bar, the soups, entrees, salads, side dishes, and desserts are prepared and displayed in a refrigerated case. Each morning’s production begins by evaluating what hasn’t sold from the night before, determining if it is still presentable enough to serve, and preparing a new array of dishes. Beyond staples like grilled chicken and grilled tofu, Kevin and I prepare small batches of a dozen or so dishes daily to maintain variety and freshness. We have the freedom to create dishes based on what’s fresh and available.

My senses sift through the evidence of last night’s dishes. The vegetarian salad bar doesn’t show much damage. I note that the mesclun salad, alfalfa sprouts, and julienne bell peppers need to be re-stocked so I can make one trip to the basement and gather ingredients for restocking. Each trip saved means less wear and tear on the legs as I haul cases, cans, and trays loaded with produce and goods.

In the kitchen, the morning moves quickly as we operate on autopilot. I chop baby spinach leaves coarsely and toss them in a bowl with diced red bell peppers for color contrast. The trinity of olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper comes next. In the reach-in, I spot sun-dried tomatoes and grab a handful. Their soft, wrinkled appearance and chewy texture plays against the sweet crunch of the bell peppers. Artichoke hearts swim into the mix. The other colors pop against the dull green. I toss the salad lightly and taste the artichoke’s tang as it complements the sweetness of the tomatoes, but something still lacks. I find a bag of red pearl onions; steam, skin, and cool them, and add the purplish bulbs into the salad. They punch up the taste and color with the right amount of pizzazz.

Kevin walks by and glimpses over my shoulder. I’m tempted to add something more to the salad. “That looks really good,” he says.

He doesn’t comment often on my dishes. I taste the salad again, add a dash of salt, and am satisfied. Kevin’s remark reminds me to let the food speak for itself. Simple ingredients combine to produce big flavor without much prodding. Thinking about my morning commute, I realize that often our best qualities become obscured by the image and airs we put on.

A customer at the deli counter asks me about the salad I just prepared. “How does it taste?”

I offer a sample and let the food speak. It doesn’t lie no matter how it’s dressed up.

Harvest: A Late Season Visit to Fair Share Farm

Late summer sun bleaches the sky into soft cotton denim over the fields of Fair Share Farm. Head up Highway 69, race down the straights of Route MM, and ride the gentle bends until a dusty finger of gravel road beckons. This 228-acre organic farm in Kearney is just a few miles from Watkins Mill State Park. Farmers Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri invited me to tour the organic farm and taste test recipes to be included in their weekly newsletter to community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers. How could I resist? I needed the countryside drive to escape the tensions of the city if only for a few hours.

Ruggieri greets me when I arrive. His soft-spoken voice offsets a solid and stocky frame. A quick smile cuts through a profile of wiry hair, bushy eyebrows, and grizzled chin. Graff joins us for a stroll across the rolling grounds and sloped fields. Butterflies dance and skitter among a carnival of flowers. Thyme, rosemary, and other herbs stitch long rows across the first field as we walk a path toward the other crops. Ruggieri pauses to gather a couple of plump green tomatoes. “We need these to test out the recipe of a CSA member for fried green tomatoes,” Ruggieri said.

The prospect of cooking dishes with organic food picked recently from the field appeals to me. Can you eat food fresher than this? Eating organic food serves as the primary reason many people in the Kansas City and surrounding area choose to participate in a CSA program. Community-supported agriculture programs exist in many different forms across the nation. The basic premise involves subscribing as a member to receive weekly shares of produce and other goods from the farm. Interest in such programs has grown steadily.

“We have doubled the number of subscribers since last year to roughly fifty members. Our limit will be about one hundred. That’s what the farm can support,” said Graff.

A Growing Market
Operating an organic farm requires an immense amount of work, knowledge, and belief in the cause. The number of family farms continues to dwindle throughout the country each year. National events such as Farm Aid draw attention briefly to the plight of disappearing family farms. Many small-production operations such as Fair Share Farms find the means to survive by connecting with customers through CSA programs and participating in farmers’ markets.

Notably, the number of farmers’ markets has increased 79 percent according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 3,000 markets operating nationwide. Fair Share Farms is one of several local farms as well as individuals that sponsor the Crossroads Farmers Market* each Wednesday near YJ’s in downtown Kansas City. As the growing season draws to a close, I bought candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, basil, okra, and beans to take home. The Crossroads farmers’ market also doubles as a rendezvous point for urban CSA customers to pick up their weekly shares of produce.

Overall, the interest and participation in CSA programs has grown slowly and steadily. According to Sharing the Harvest, a book by Elizabeth Henderson, over 1,000 family farms operate a CSA program where local residents buy a seasonal share of produce directly from family farms. The advantages seem obvious––fresh organic food from the farm without chemicals, reasonable prices, meeting the people who actually grow your food, supporting the local economy, and helping the environment. Rather than buy expensive produce grown in California and other parts of the world that is shipped long distances to supermarkets, a basket of tomatoes, carrots, or beans from Fair Share Farms travels fewer miles and tastes fresher.

This afternoon’s visit to the farm enables me to see the crops first hand. Ruggieri explains how planting seasons on the fields are rotated so the land can recover from growing and cultivation cycles. Cover crops such as clover help the soil rejuvenate for future planting. The process makes sense. Conventional farm methods tend to grow crops in the same fields, resulting in decreased crop yields, depletion of minerals and natural resources, and soil erosion. Small-scale organic farming techniques use natural and beneficial methods of pest control and agricultural maintenance.

Rather than operate as a commodity farm with industrial scale production, organic farmers forgo economies of scale to devote more time and hands-on labor to the process of growing food. They act as stewards of the land with a long-term view similar to how all farming used to be practiced nationwide six decades ago. “My family has farmed this land since the 1930s,” Graff said.

She and Ruggieri have been farming these acres together for the past three years under the banner Fair Share Farms. They continue to learn as they combine a dedication for organic farming with an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to preserving a way of life.

Admittedly, the production of conventional farmers feeds the nation, and even world markets, with cheap and abundant food largely subsidized in the marketplace by the federal government. Even so, conventional farming bears costs to the environment, energy consumption, and other factors not truly accounted for in the price of supermarket food.

I take comfort in the fact that every piece of produce from Fair Share Farms is picked by hand. Somehow, the consumer culture of eat-at-will, preprocessed, fast food, microwavable, frozen, supermarket deli, mass produced lifestyle of eating seems distant and alien now.

Sharing the Harvest
A sense of history and tradition exists on this land and in these people. Frankly, I tried to avoid the cliché stance of an “urban dweller who heads out to the country and glorifies farming” from the first moment I stepped away from my car. The contrast in lifestyle is undeniable, but we share common goals. Each person decides how to live. The actions have consequences – how we eat, how we spend our dollars, how we use and preserve natural resources, how we understand and respect the role of modern farming in this country – whether we know it or not.

Graff takes the tomatoes from her partner and tucks them into the front pockets of her dress. I find the gesture charming and timeless. She stands before rows of broccoli, chard, and cabbage, surveying nature’s progress with one arm propped on her hip. Her skin glows with a hard-earned tan. Later, we move to a section of rattlesnake beans named for their unusual coloring. Ruggieri picks a bean and tastes. Farming relies just as much on sensory information as it does on time-proven traditions.

Organic farming is certainly a more time-consuming, tiring, and expensive approach; however, the results provide an opportunity for the farmers to tell their customers specific details about how their food was grown. As we stroll the fields, I am reminded that farming requires a broad array of knowledge: the lay of the land, soil content, weather patterns, and pest control; habits of flora and fauna, dealing with invasive weeds, hungry rabbits, and crop-damaging deer; biological characteristics of seeds and crops, building devices and adapting tools, marketing, promoting, pricing, and distributing product. The list goes on. Farming is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, but this way of life offers pleasures as well.

We finish the tour of the crops, the worn barn where bunches of onion and garlic dry, and the storage room where weekly orders are packaged. Graff heads inside to work on the newsletter that accompanies the weekly CSA deliveries and appears on their web site under member services.

Ruggieri and I begin preparations to test the recipes that will appear in the newsletter. Now the fun truly begins. I follow the recipe from CSA member Pat Horner, a Southerner, for fried green tomatoes. I slice them one-quarter inch thick, douse in egg batter, dredge in coarse ground corn meal, and then fry them in safflower oil in an iron skillet. Any vegetable oil will work that won’t burn at high temperature. Each batch of slices only takes a minute or so to yield crisp, browned discs of fried tomatoes. I dust them with salt and pepper, then dig in. The coarse corn meal’s gritty texture balances the juicy tomato. Ruggieri suggests adding a dollop of sweet tomato preserves (his recipe) which helps to offset the tartness. Now we’re cooking.

Between glasses of white wine and a few bottles of Boulevard beer, we assemble two courses including fried green tomatoes, tomato olive tapenade spread over toasted slices of olive rosemary ciabatta (a rough-textured country Italian bread), a dip of yogurt cucumber raita, garden fresh salsa and blue corn chips, summer vegetable curry, and sloppy joes. Somehow, I have set aside my self-imposed city slicker status as a guest cook. My natural inclination to cook and get my hands dirty not only earned me a meal, but also offered an opportunity to feel even more welcomed in this hands-on farm home.

As the evening wears thin, Graff, Ruggieri and I trade details of our mutual interests in food, farming and local advocacy groups such as the KC Food Circle. We sit down briefly outdoors at a table with a canopy strung with white lights near a flower garden.

The meal draws us together, city and country, into deep conversations about the social power of food and a simple appreciation for the outdoors. Until the bugs bite, that is. Now that we have broken bread together, we head to the living room for more conversation, Eventually, we exchange goodbyes. A soft fog settles into the fields as I drive home across bareback highways with the cool night wind whispering in my ears. Tonight’s autumnal equinox signals a shift in season, but I sense fundamental changes have already begun deep in my senses, in the soil beneath my feet, in the food that symbolizes a time for harvest and a friendship still growing.

Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2008.


Sixty Pumpkins

Sixty pumpkins bashed, battered, beaten, and bruised, pale orange flesh and seeds scattered on the street by vandals. This sight greeted me as I returned home at 2:30 AM after a Saturday night spent at Davey’s Uptown. I was still energized from performances by Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, The Expassionates, and Hidden Pictures, three local acts that played to a tight-knit audience of music lovers and friends.

Turning down the car stereo, the recorded voice of Howard Iceberg on CD faded as I concentrated on the broken bodies of flesh on the street. Instantly knowing what happened but hardly comprehending why, I parked the car in the garage and retreated to bed.

Going to the show at Davey’s was a protective measure of sorts, an antidote to the day’s glumness, an attempt to distract myself for a few hours from the news of Anne Winter’s death and another friend, Barbara Moss, who died recently. So many people in Kansas City, online on Facebook and holed up in their home, were still reeling from the news that she took her life last Thursday. The comments, tributes, recollections, and news began to accumulate on news websites, Facebook pages, and across the digital ether like layers of leaves fallen from summer suspension to an autumnal rest. Certainly, she touched many lives as the former co-owner of Recycled Sounds, a fellow music lover, a fixture and supporter of the local music community, a friend to many. No matter how well any one person knew her, the loss of her presence and the tragic manner of her death was difficult to deny. Sadness settled over the city.

At Davey’s, a number of people had gathered to get out of their heads, listen to live music, dance, drink, and share warmth in each other’s company. I needed this as much as anyone. It was a relief and a joy to be surrounded by Elaine, Abby, Chris, Christian, Rhonda, Rebecca, Anne, Mel, Scott, Sam, Rich, Marco, Christel, and so many other familiar faces. Kansas City’s music clubs and venues offer more than a so-called “scene to be seen” for people that self-appointed social critics label as hipsters. These people around me – fans, singers, songwriters, sound guys, musicians, or simply souls out to support their friend on stage – form a community that exists because they show up for each other, believe in the music produced from talented local artists, and prefer to frequent a locally-owned watering hole with a history of true investment in Kansas City. In the wee hours of the morning, these thoughts run through my mind. It’s a speech best saved to remind myself of why I live, work, and play in my hometown when the days seem too long, the nights play out too slowly. Cold beer, a warm hug, and a good music, for now, that’s what I needed and wanted.

Howard Iceberg is acknowledged by many to be one of the best, if not the best, songwriters in Kansas City. Thoughtfully, he dedicated the set to Anne Winter and offered a few words in the aftermath of a gathering on Friday night in her memory. Echoing the wishes of family and friends, Iceberg urged us to “not dwell on Anne’s death, but to celebrate her life.” Anne loved music, he said. Being here at Davey’s was as good a place as any to get our share of it. And, without delay, the audience was ready for release.

Iceberg was backed by a strong lineup of long-time cohort and guitarist Gary Paredes, drummer Pat Tomek, bassist Scott Easterday, and guitarist Dan Mesh. These Titanics produced a thunderous sound. Rock-and-roll doesn’t get any better than this. Fifties rock spirit blended with doses of rockabilly and Americana roots. Iceberg belted out forlorn love songs and raves filled with his poignant, precise lyrics. The Titanics’ warm, harmonizing vocals and musicianship also won the crowd over easily. At one point, the sheer pleasure on Tomek’s face as he knocked out beats on the drums was radiant.

The Expassionates took the stage next and launched into their trademark sound – expansive as the desert and canyons of the Southwest, solid and sure as Midwestern bedrock. They reeled through their set of introspective songs, some newer and many feeling like cherished classics, with poetic lyrics penned and sung by leader Scott Easterday. Dressed in suit jacket, silvery vest and tie, Richard Burgess manned bass guitar with equal parts aplomb, grit, and joy. He lowered his tall frame, bending at the knees, leaning into the rhythm, and rollicking to the groove. Sam Platt alternately walloped on drums when called for or simmered on the slower, New Orleans dirge-like “Gone to Kansas.” Easterday joked, mock snarled, and crooned with ease. He served each moment, each lyric, like a basket of warm bread that everyone wanted a piece of. Of course, the sound of the Expassionates would not be complete without the searing, expressive yelps, growls, and doleful notes coaxed from the guitar of Marco Pascolini. A stratospheric sound tethered to the stage by tight musicianship left the crowd feeling exhilarated.

Much later, Hidden Pictures closed out the night with an energetic, melodic run of indie pop songs. The harmony of Richard Gintowt and Michelle Sanders rang out over a backdrop of keys by Nate Holt, bright pings on glockenspiel, and muscular drumming by Tomek. During the Expassionates’ set, Gintowt kidded about tonight’s incestuous lineup. Easterday played guitar in his band and bass in the Titanics. Gintowt and Sanders hopped on stage for guest vocals to support Iceberg on a song. Tomek drummed for the Titanics and Hidden Pictures. Such an interchange of players among bands is common in Kansas City’s legion of bands where musicians perform in multiple acts.

A night of dancing, talking, and being together with friends works wonders for a soul. Questions about Anne worked into conversations, but no answers came forth. Why and how and what remained prompts for a constant unease with the loss.

I could not help but think of another loss that I learned about only a week or so earlier. Barbara Moss, a talented artist, poet, and author of two successful memoirs, died from cancer in early October. Her husband Duane called to inform me and invite me to a gathering of friends and family. The news of Barbara’s death caught me off-guard. When are we ever prepared to face the news, the actuality, the finality of death?

I was at my mother’s house, my childhood home, working in a flower and vegetable bed as I discussed details with Duane. Turning soil with a shovel, I covered the base of rose bushes to prepared for an eventual frost. Petals, bright red cherry tomatoes, the remains of vines gnarled as a witch’s veins, and scraps of basil stalks and coriander seed covered the ground at my feet. Barbara had already been laid to rest in Alabama where she grew up. Poetic imagery sprung from my feet into my head as I processed the news. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I could not help but think she would be tickled to inspire creative impulses even in death.

I did not know Barbara Moss well as I wanted to or Anne Winter on a personal level. Receiving the call from Duane about his wife was a sacred gesture of warmth, kindness, and inclusion. I had interviewed Barbara at length in her home about her difficult life in the South, motherhood, her struggle and achievement as a writer and painter, her fears and joys. Sitting on her couch and sharing warm green tea and butter cookies, I felt honored, thrilled, and privileged to have this private audience with an accomplished hero. She had published two powerful memoirs, written poetry, and produced stunning artwork that reflected her life experiences and dreams. How often do we get to be in the presence of someone we admire? Yet, Kansas City is such a place where artists, musicians, writers, and business owners are not only accessible, but they can also become friends and dear acquaintances.

Like many who came into contact with Barbara through her published work or as a mentor and teacher of literature, she encouraged and inspired those around her to reach for possibilities, dream big, and make things happen. If she could overcome a life of poverty to achieve, then certainly we all could make progress. Writing several stories about Barbara’s writing and artwork was only a start at what I hoped would be a lifelong association. In the back of my mind, the seeds for another visit to foster this friendship were always waiting to germinate and grow. Even though I had met her a couple of times and Duane once, I already thought of them as kindred spirits and companions that I would grow to like, love, and value even more over time.

As I shook the dirt from my shoes and walked in the dew-laden grass at my mother’s house, it occurred to me for the first time that these people will not live forever – the countless artists, writers, photographers, musicians, cooks, chefs, and people from all walks of life that I know through my work and adventures about town. Intuitively, logically, I knew this as immutable fact. I’ve encountered the death of family and friends before, yet this unshakeable idea that those I will always be able to see, those I know and love and brush shoulders with––at Davey’s Uptown, recordBar, Potpie, Le Fou Frog, The Brick, chance encounters on sidewalks about town, at galleries and festivals and the annual cycle of remarkable events that fill the calendar––suddenly didn’t seem so solid and reassuring. A time comes for each of us to pass; the time to live and make the most of here and now is, well, here and now.

Being at Davey’s on Saturday night for music and companionship was not only a stab at coping with the loss of Anne and Barbara, but also a grab for the fleeting hours and experiences that color the lines and shade the contours of my life. It means being present in spirit, in intent, in action.

As I made my way home from Davey’s in the wee hours back to the ones I love, I listened to Howard Iceberg on CD as a guide past mercurial thoughts. The sight of smashed pumpkins in the headlights was disturbing, an underscore to the night, a cruel prank that would be dealt with in the morning.

When daylight arrived on Sunday and filtered through gold, russet, and red leaves, I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and headed to the street. An image of a car bomb and dead bodies flashed through my mind. I hope to never experience such a deadly act or its aftermath firsthand. Of course, these pumpkins were not the same as human bodies strewn across a blast zone. Scooping up the flesh, seeds, and stems, I could not help but feel a sense of loss, frustration, sadness, and bewilderment. I understood that vandals have their moment too, their way of acting in the present for self-serving purposes. The destruction at my feet was senseless. The questions and doubts about the goodness of people, the purpose of life and how it plays out, rose and loomed in my thoughts. The grating sound of shovel on asphalt punctuated the quiet morning.

I couldn’t save these pumpkins. I couldn’t have known or anticipated what would happen. I couldn’t bring them back or restore them in a tempting, clumsy line along the sidewalk in front of the house. Life rarely adheres to our sense of order and illusory sense of control. My father had grown these pumpkins at his place by the lake and brought them to me a few weeks ago. He had planted them late so many of them were still green and just beginning to turn orange. I told Pam and her kids that they were Irish pumpkins. Now, two wheelbarrow loads of broken flesh would become compost.

Standing in the vegetable bed in the back yard, I shoveled the remains onto the ground and spread the contents evenly. I studied the hundreds of seeds and knew then that even in the aftermath of a senseless act, a loss difficult to explain or absorb, that time would pass, that life will and must continue for the rest of us, that the potential for a fresh start lay at my feet.


Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2009.