F-Mart’s Mural Provides Beacon for Asian Community in Lawrence

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Being noticed is different than being seen. More than a year ago, F-Mart’s south-facing gray concrete wall wasn’t worthy of much attention. Passersby saw nothing eye-catching about the East Asian food market’s nondescript building located next to Hertz Car Rental. Now the wall is covered with a mural featuring renderings of local landmarks and Kansas sunflowers alongside images of Taiwanese bubble tea, Korean gimbap, Chinese moon cake, Japanese mochi, and other food iconography.  

Japanese-American graphic designer and illustrator Emmi Murao created a digital layout of the mural in the summer of 2022. Her sister Juna Murao, also a graphic designer, teamed up with other artists to bring it to life, painting the wall white to create a blank canvas. Then they added the colorful imagery using blue, green, yellow, orange, and pink paint.

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Owned by Endi Shengcao Chen, F-Mart sells an array of fresh vegetables, meat, fruit, live seafood, spices, dumplings, snacks, beverages, noodles, vinegars, soy sauces, seaweed, and other goods to customers like the Murao sisters. 

Meant to be noticed, F-Mart’s mural is one of five public art projects in Lawrence that are part of the People’s Market Program. Kansas Healthy Food Initiative and other area partners developed the program under the purview of the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Ethnic Markets Initiative. The city-wide project paired different local artists with five culturally specific food retail shops. Beyond adding aesthetic value, the program highlights ethnic cultures, local food policy, and the effort to strengthen equitable food systems in Douglas County through the lens of art. 

Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, a community-based public art organizer and muralist, invited Emmi to create the mural. Fitzpatrick served on the Douglas County Food Policy Council for four years and has been actively involved with local mural projects. 

“Connie and I were vendors at a craft event in Lawrence several years ago and kept in touch through social media,” said Emmi. “When Connie approached me about the project, I was still living in Kansas but knew I would be moving soon. I asked Juna if she would be interested in painting the mural in my place.”

Born in Japan, Juna and Emmi moved with their family to Lawrence years ago when the sisters were children. Emmi now lives in Boston and works full-time as a product designer at Converse and illustrator. Juna studied typography at the London Royal College and graduated from the University of Kansas. 

F-Mart’s long wall inspired Emmi to design a horizontal landscape. 

“With uneven ground and deep textures on the wall, I wanted to keep the design pretty straightforward and simple to execute, especially since I would not be there to direct it,” said Emmi. “It was also my sister’s first time painting on such a large scale. I wanted the icons to be simple and do the storytelling.”

Inspiration for the food icons came from data collected by surveying people in the community on their favorite East Asian food and dishes. 

“Overall, I wanted the colors and theme to be happy with all the icons and elements working and co-existing,” said Emmi.

Co-existence underscores an important aspect of the People’s Market Program. As the only East Asian supermarket in town, F-Mart serves as more than a destination to purchase weekly groceries. Standing out from others shapes one’s outlook and existence, internally and externally. 

“Whenever we feel homesick, we would go there to shop. I believe grocery stores like F-Mart are important for immigrants to feel at home in an unfamiliar place through food and community,” said Emmi. “It’s also an accessible place for people to explore and learn about cultures they did not grow up in.” 

Sustainability and Community

The 2019 Ethnic Food Retail Study, prepared by the KU Center for Community Health & Development for the Food Policy Council, reported on “the place of local ethnic food retail stores in Douglas County and helps inform priorities for promoting a sustainable food system.” 

Findings from the report helped shape the People’s Market Program and Ethnic Markets Initiative. The report indicated that regular customers shared details about ethnic store locations, goods available, and other information with other potential customers in their community. 

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Ethnic businesses must spread awareness through personal networks if they hope to sustain growth. These stores typically lack an advertising or marketing budget. They cannot compete with national grocery stores and retail chains that advertise weekly promotions and offer coupons in local newspapers. Instead, they must rely on word of mouth and social media to attract customers and build community. 

In return, ethnic retail stores play a crucial role in community food systems, helping to ensure food access, foster health, and reduce the likelihood of food deserts in underserved areas. 

Customers have a stake in these stores not only for easier access to food that’s connected to their culture, but also as community building blocks.  

Six local ethnic food store owners and regular clientele were interviewed about the retail businesses. Over 60 percent of the customers surveyed shop at these stores for daily meals that they cook at home. The report’s findings also confirmed that “the stores and the goods they offer are important to customers in supporting, celebrating, and maintaining their cultural identities.” 

Douglas County, the fifth-most populous county in Kansas, is predominantly white (83.4%). Asians comprise only five percent of the county’s population. Overall, nearly 6.5 percent of the population in Douglas County is foreign-born. Lawrence, the seat of Douglas County, is home to the University of Kansas. Whether or not community members are affiliated with the university’s diverse campus population, the city’s ethnic residents, Asian and otherwise, are a visible minority.

As the report points out, stores like F-Mart draw people who are looking for more than frozen soup dumplings, lumpia wrappers, or daikon. 

Customers “feel a sense of community and culture when they enter the stores.” They’re united by similar customs, language, values, and world views. The stores “honor the diversity and cultural uniqueness of their customers” and provide a safe space for Asian clientele “to celebrate their diversity, not just shop for the next meal.” 

Ethnic food retail stores function as a beacon for the Asian community. These stores are the modern equivalent of trading posts in the early 1800s. Westward-bound pioneers sought these outposts in Westport, Missouri, before heading to the Kansas Territory, home to many indigenous tribes before colonization, and upon arrival in frontier towns. For minorities, ethnic food retail shops offer their customers relatable identities, cultural touchstones, and goods that can ease existence in the Midwest without fully abandoning native customs and culture. 

F-Mart image by Pete Dulin
Photograph: Pete Dulin

The F-Mart mural is a lighthouse signal for new and returning customers who can “read” painted imagery that transcends native languages. It communicates what people of Asian descent in particular might find on the other side of that wall – food, culture, acceptance. F-Mart and other ethnic stores provide a hub of social, educational, and community services.

“I hope F-Mart will be a place for East Asian people and allies to meet, learn, and connect through food and culture,” said Emmi. “I hope this mural celebrates and energizes the cultures that F-Mart and the community represent.” 

To truly be part of a community requires more than being seen and noticed; it means being welcomed and accepted.

Creating the mural also offered Emmi an opportunity for introspection.

“I was surprised at how much I learned about myself. I realized I had a lot of unpacked trauma growing up as a Japanese-American,” she said. “This project helped me heal by confronting the past. I was able to make something fun with these sad memories. I’m so thankful to be able to work with Juna on a project in our community where we grew up together.”

This story was commissioned by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, Kansas Department of Commerce. Food and drink journalist Pete Dulin was one of ten writers selected for the 2022 Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission’s inaugural Critical Writing Initiative.

Photography by Chikara Hibino.

Essay Excerpt: When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

“When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley” is the title of an essay I wrote for the series What It Means to Be American, a project by The Smithsonian and Arizona State University in conjunction with Zócalo Public Square.

Los Angeles-based nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, an ASU Knowledge Enterprise Magazine of Ideas, syndicates journalism on its site to media outlets worldwide. Zócalo editor Eryn Brown contacted me in October 2017 and commissioned an essay for the series, What It Means to Be American. After discussion, we decided on a topic that would explore the history of winemaking and grape-growing in Kansas before and after Prohibition. I wrote the essay over a month’s time, building on research I had unearthed while writing Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri.

Below is an introductory excerpt from the essay. Visit the links below to read the entire essay.

When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry in production. Bold entrepreneurs, industrious Kansas farmers—many of them German-speaking immigrants—produced 35,000 gallons of wine in 1872. That volume jumped more than six-fold by the end of the decade.

But the growth in Kansas’ wine industry (and its sister industry, brewing) coincided with dramatic changes in the state. From 1860 to 1880, Kansas’ population mushroomed from 107,206 to nearly one million people. Kansans battled over slavery in the Kansas-Missouri Border War (1854-1861) and again during the Civil War (1861-1865). Kansas vintners faced a dynamic and challenging moral, social, business, and political climate. The region’s civic and religious leaders railed against the use of alcohol, which they believed contributed to moral decay and spiritual rot, leading them to implement the first statewide prohibition on selling and manufacturing alcohol in the United States in 1881. For more than a century, this ban caused a slowdown from which the Free State’s winemakers are only now beginning to emerge.

Read the entire essay.



Image caption: Still photograph of teetotaler women from the satirical short film Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), which spoofs the Wichita temperance activist Carrie Nation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thai Tea’s Sweet Salvation

thai tea 2The unrelenting heat of the sun in Thailand takes its toll during late mornings and afternoons. Sunlight casts its brilliant glare and heightens the crisp colors of busy Bangkok streets. Spotting an iced tea vendor’s booth offers sweet salvation among the throngs of shoppers and fragrant food stands lining the open-air markets.

Thai-style iced tea delivers a triple whammy to soothe the weary traveler – an infusion of black tea steeped for strong flavor, ice for simple refreshment, and cane sugar for a burst of quick energy. The vendor begins by filling a glass with two, maybe three, heaping scoops of coarse granulated cane sugar. Thais prefer their drinks sweet and tea is no exception. Then the vendor lifts a conical cloth sieve full of steeped black tea leaves from a metal teapot and pours a stream of deep amber liquid into the glass. He stirs the tea to dissolve the sugar crystals until the golden concoction is nearly ready.

He pauses to comment on the weather. “Lon?” he asks, knowing full well that it is hot outside.

Small talk is universal. Nodding and agreeing does not urge the vendor to move faster, the temperature to cool, or the anticipation to abate. Next he fills a clear plastic bag with ice. Jangling five or ten baht or Thai coins in the palm does not make a difference. Finally, he pours the sweetened tea into the plastic bag and adds a straw. If he asks about adding a shot of sweet condensed milk, the additional sweetness dilutes the concentrated flavor of tea and the delay is hardly necessary.

He ties the bag’s handles together, hands the tea over and reaches for the baht. The exchange is made. With the first drink, the world seems to slow and brighten as the rush of cold tea feeds the senses and refreshes. The sound of three-wheeled taxis known as tuk tuks, bartering shoppers, and street vendors clamoring over the market din resumes. Ah, sweet salvation does not last long so savor every sip.

thai tea 3 thai tea 1


Originally published in Tea Experience Magazine, 2006.




Written November 2000.
I did not want to spend Thanksgiving alone this year. My family lived in Kansas City and would enjoy Thai food and turkey without me for the first time in over thirty years. I had decided to remain in New England during my graduate school break since I planned on flying home for Christmas. Abby Gitlitz, a friend and co-worker, invited me to visit her “crazy” family for Thanksgiving. Her family lived in Kingston, Rhode Island in a house originally built in the early 18th century near the coastline. Abby also mentioned that her family loved to cook. And her family was Jewish. Coastline? Historic house? Cooking? Thanksgiving with a crazy Jewish family? I could not resist.

Abby worked as a store manager at the gourmet deli and fresh food market where I cooked as head chef. Her family often hosted an assortment of acquaintances for the holidays. She drove us from Boston to her parents’ home in Kingston, keeping me amused with tales of past Thanksgiving gatherings that featured Chinese professors and visiting foreign students. Her shoulder-length blond hair, worn in a ponytail, bobbed as she wove through traffic and munched on roasted pumpkin seeds. I have become convinced that Abby was a human dynamo. She biked to work where she cleaned and organized without rest, charming the staff with her quick smile as her no-nonsense demeanor reinforced directions. She created stained glass ornaments for crafts shows and attended a class on Turkish architecture. She spared no time except for sleep.

Nearly two hours after we left Boston, we lugged our gear into the house and entered the kitchen. David Gitlitz, Abby’s father, and Linda Davidson, her stepmother, chatted in the dim lights around an island counter. David, tall with a broad chest and a tint of gray in his dark tangle of hair, greeted me with a handshake.

“Are y’all hungry?” Linda asked with a gentle smile. She wore her long brown hair up, a few tendrils drifted down her neck and along a petite cotton shirt. A Southern accent percolated in her soft voice. Linda was raised with twelve brothers and sisters near Hendersonville, Kentucky in poor tobacco farming country. “There’s chili on the stove and baked beans, grapefruit, bananas, or snacks in the refrigerator. We’re a help-yourself kind of kitchen so make yourself at home,” Linda said.

My kind of place, I thought. I opted for the fresh pot of chili. I cannot resist chili. “It’s an improvised chili with no beans. I didn’t have any beans or chili powder so I threw in some peanuts and peanut butter,” Linda mentioned.

No beans? Peanuts? Goobers, as the nuts are called in the South, did not belong in chili. Granted, many cities boast of food specialties. Kansas City is known for barbecue and steaks. Go to Chicago for deep-dish pizza. Head to Boston for clam chowder. Eat at Chuy’s in Austin, Texas for Tex-Mex. Stroll around the Hill in St. Louis for a plate of Italian spaghetti and meatballs. Gorge on oysters at Emmet Watson’s Oyster House in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. But peanut chili in Kingston, Rhode Island? Hmmm.

“Ahh, that might pass for chili where you’re from,” I could have said. “But back home we serve up the real McCoy.” I reserved comment and let my taste buds judge.

Encouraged by hunger and curiosity, I ladled up a piping hot bowl of tan-colored chili and heaped a spoon of the greasy meat and onions into my mouth. Hey, not so bad. Kind of good actually. I gobbled my food despite the late hour. I felt for crushed peanuts around my gums with my tongue. My instincts as a chef whispered in my ear. Add a little cumin, some tomato sauce, some cayenne pepper. Beans. More cayenne. Spicy enough to make your eyeballs sweat, I imagined.

“How’s the chili?” Linda asked. “Delicious,” I replied.  Truly, it was not bad for an improvised chili by way of Rhode Island. As I gathered the last of Linda’s concoction onto the spoon, a tiny piece of broccoli appeared in the chili. Waitaminnit. “That might pass for chili where you’re from…”

I strolled around the kitchen as Abby chatted with her parents and Deb, her sister, who had come downstairs. The room featured a wide space meant for entertaining. The kitchen opened to the newest house addition, the breakfast nook, built to maintain the historic appearance. Broad planks of smooth white pine ran the length of the two rooms, giving the space the feel of a bowling alley. Small wooden dowels fastened the planks into floor joints in the 18th century style of construction. Nearly all doors in the house used a metal latch rather than a lock and key. The house was on the historic register as were many of the houses in town. David pointed to an exposed beam of worn, rough-hewn wood running from the floor to ceiling at a slight tilt.

“Estimates date this beam around 1683 or ’85,” he said. “The original house was a one room shack built about 1703 by tenant farmers. Additions have been made to the house over the years but the building remains within the codes of the original construction.”

My hosts mentioned they would rise at five in the morning to prepare and stuff the twenty-three pound turkey. Apparently, this family did not quibble over portions. After a brief chat, the family retired to bed. Abby presented my sleeping quarters upstairs.

“The guest room,” Abby said, “once had three different types of red wallpaper at one time. The hallway had once featured three different green wallpapers and paint. The previous owners, a preacher and his wife, had a taste for red and green.”

Since then, sections of the house had been refurbished. Now my room featured creamy tan walls and simple furnishings. The floorboards were polished from years of use. I noticed that crude nails were sunk into the wood. Drawers were built into the walls to maximize space. A framed needlepoint hanging depicted a learned man carrying a staff and a book through the rolling hills in the country. The man wore a red cloak with a satchel strewn across his shoulder and chest. An inscription below read “De Canctolacoboapta Advelperas” which I could not decipher. I imagined it to be a patron spirit for wisdom and travel.

As midnight approached, I sprawled on the futon in my room, awake and focused on my immediate surroundings. The walls were thin. Abby tended to sneeze repeatedly in rapid-fire fashion. She shared a room with Deb next to mine. Coughs and sneezes and giggles and creaks could be heard in the house. The noises engaged my senses and imagination as I glanced at a white bookshelf facing the futon. The book titles included: Mexican Camping, Turkey, The Jews in New Spain: Coat of Many Cultures; The Judeo-Spanish Chapbooks of Y.A. Yuña Volume I,_Exploring Rural Italy, The Secret Jews, Peru. The bookshelf appeared to be well traveled. Actually, Abby and her family had traveled extensively as explorers and academics. David and Linda taught courses on Spanish culture at the University of Rhode Island located in Kingston. David had mentioned that the university was only fifty yards of green space from the house. While the wind plucked leaves from the trees outside, I burrowed beneath layers of blankets and slept between an old world and a new world.

I stumbled downstairs late in the morning to find Linda in the kitchen setting out onions and celery for the stuffing. The preparation of the turkey was running behind schedule. Linda bustled about the kitchen while I attempted to shake off my drowsiness.

“Can I help you do anything?” I asked. “Well, if you’d like, you can cut up some onions for the stuffing,” she replied.

Nothing like dicing onions in the morning to awaken your senses. Since there were only two large onions to dice, I plunged in without hesitation. Besides, I felt most at home in the kitchen and preferred not to sit around. Tears squeezed out of my sleepy eyes. Allyl sulphide is the substance in onions which makes the eyes water. Normally, I soak onions whole in water beforehand and re-immerse them in water after cutting to minimize the effect. Linda sliced celery and tossed them into a sauté pan as I scooped in the toxic onions. The sauté mixture danced in the pan as she added parsley, sage, salt, pepper, tarragon, and paprika. She transferred the blend into a bowl and added bread crumbs, raisins, fresh cranberries from the backyard, and chicken broth. David strolled in and washed up to prepare the turkey for the stuffing ritual. My nose and taste buds applauded the combination of flavors and aromas emanating from the mixing bowl.

Minutes later, Abby and Deb joined us in the kitchen. In contrast to Abby and her parents, Deb tended to sleep in late and seemed slightly more laid back. Even in the morning, a smile curled across her face like a wave as white teeth flashed cheery greetings. She practiced sliding across the kitchen floor in her socks. Deb lived in Portland, Oregon, and had flown into Boston to visit Abby before driving to Kingston prior to our drive. She had not visited her family for nearly six months. Deb inquired about breakfast.

“After the turkey is stuffed and in the oven, I’ll make blueberry pancakes,” David announced.

My ears perked up. Pancakes? Happiness filled the room at the prospect of warm comfort food. Abby, Deb and I puttered around the kitchen reading the newspaper and comics while Linda and David tackled the logistics of stuffing a twenty-three pound turkey.

“I was reading an article in Saveur about persimmons,” Abby said.

“We used to get persimmons in Binghamton. Did you have persimmons in Missouri?” David asked me.

“They grew on a tree and dropped into my backyard,” I said.

Persimmons are a hard green fruit, larger than cherries, and taste sour in the summer. In autumn, they ripen to a bright orange and fall from the tree. The mushy flesh tastes sweet and is often used in jams or eaten fresh. Kids in my suburban neighborhood used to pick them by the bucket load each summer and we had persimmon fights. We hurled the green fruit, hard as a stone, by hand and loaded sling shots as we raced around the yard until the ammunition ran out. I missed those summer afternoons of reckless fun. I hadn’t thought about persimmons for years.

“Do you know how to tell if it’s going to be a hard winter?” Abby asked. “Slice the persimmon in half width-wise, and see if it has four stars or five. Four stars indicate a hard winter is coming.”

“Sounds like a piece of folklore to me based on selective memory like the woolly bear caterpillars,” David said.

“I can’t remember what they mean. If you see a woolly bear, is it going to snow?” Abby asked.

No one had an absolute answer to support David’s selective memory theory; if you experienced a hard winter, you tended to remember that you saw a woolly bear caterpillar in the late summer or autumn. Abby and David joked about hunting for woolly bears with the woolly bear hunting call in woolly bear season. They’re nutty, I thought with amusement.

Granddad Gitlitz ambled into the kitchen with his cane. Granddad, sporting rounded glasses and a white goatee, wore a cornflower blue cardigan and spoke in a gravelly but distinct voice. As a 93-year-old man, he relied on hearing aids and a cane for basic assistance. However, his intellect and memory proved to be sharp and distinct.

“Breakfast will be ready soon,” David announced.

By the time the table had been cleared of newspapers and set with glasses and silverware, a plate of wild blueberry pancakes steamed before us. Each pancake cooked up about triple the size of a silver dollar. Plump Maine blueberries oozed out of the pancakes and earthy walnuts added a soft crunch.

“There’s raspberry jam from the garden, maple syrup from out back, and fresh apple butter from the tree out back as well,” Linda said.

The Gitlitz family knew how to live off the land. I could start every morning with a Gitlitz breakfast. Deb and Abby would later challenge each other over whether David made the pancakes from scratch or a mix. “The apple butter is made from either green apples or red apples. I think this is green apple butter,” Linda decided.

“The apple tree in back is grafted from red and green apple trees. So we never know what type of apples will grow,” David said.

“It’s a schizophrenic apple tree,” Deb said.

After breakfast, David, Abby, Deb and I walked around Kingston to work off the stacks of pancakes. Even beneath layers of flannel shirts, coats, mittens, caps and scarves, the brisk wind wiggled its way under our skin. Kingston lies thirty miles south of Providence and was originally known as “Little Rest.” Many soldiers used the small village as a resting place during the Indian wars. The village retains its colonial New England flavor, with many buildings dating back to the 1700s. David pointed out features of houses as we crossed over to the sunny side of the street for warmth. The 18th century-style houses lined the streets in spacious rows of white and yellow-colored boxes. Several houses we passed were built around 1813, he noted. Two yellow adjacent houses were former inns and saloons. Other houses served as post offices or quarters for servants and tenant farmers. The original landowners lived in the larger structures on properties and built separate cottages on the estate for the workers. The streets were lined with Japanese maples and oaks hoisting naked brushes to a cloudless sky. David pointed out two immense birch trees, stark as bold chalk lines, that towered over a decrepit house in need of a fresh coat of paint. Nature had already shed its coat of paint in flakes of burnt umber, dull yellow, and rust-tinted leaves. Shavings of white bark freckled the ground as evidence of winter preparations for spring’s arrival. We walked through the university campus, peeked into hothouses at rows of poinsettias displaying brilliant leaves of red, and hustled towards home and warmth.

Three stone walls lined the backyard of the Gitlitz home, forming a man-made barrier that surrounded the garden, apple trees and a small oval field of rocks and native grasses. According to David, the right wall was built in 1835 to separate the house from the property next door. Rough stones ranging from the size of large handbags to the size of petite suitcases were stacked uniformly into a gray wall that stood waist-high.

Both houses used to be one property,” David said.

“How old is the back wall?” I asked.

“It was built later in the Victorian era. If you look at the stones, you can see the difference. The stones in the older wall are more rounded. The back wall is made of stones with a flatter top, they’re cut with defined edges,” he said.

The left wall on the other side of the backyard was built even later. The physical structures in Kingston, natural and man-made, possessed a history and purpose beyond my comprehension. I felt that I had just walked through time. Whether I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, or the village roads in Rhode Island, the experiences always awed my Midwestern textbook sense of history. Houses, trails, and stone walls resonated with a sense of endurance not explained by the pages of any social studies textbook. I wondered when I would leave my mark on the world. Abby, Deb, and I crossed over the stone wall into the backyard and shuffled through the piles of leaves. We headed towards a pile of dirt near the back wall, kicking up leaves along the way.

“Linda suggested to Dad to stop trying to mow the middle of the yard because of the rocks. Just let it grow. That seemed to suit him so it became a field. Linda wants to plant wildflowers in there eventually,” Abby said.

“I’m going to lie down and rest. It’s not as cold back here,” Deb noted.

The trees and stone walls provided shelter from the wind so the area felt warmer as the sun glowed above. We plopped down in the leaves and gazed through tree branches at the sky. Every line and curve appeared crisp and sharp.

“It’s so beautiful,” Deb said. She picked up a handful of leaves and tossed them.

Abby brushed the leaves from her face and sat up. I rolled over and watched the sisters erupt into a leaf fight, heaving giggles and smiles and armfuls of leaves. Abby pounced on her sister and they rolled in the green grass with laughter. I grabbed my camera out of my coat and snapped several photographs as they attempted to get the best of each other. Suddenly, they stopped as crumpled leaves scattered in their hair and scarves. I peered through the viewfinder of my camera for another photograph. They both stared at me with grins that meant no good for the cameraman. Lights, camera, action.

After recovering from the tackle and tumble, I studied Abby as she tried to give Deb an airplane ride. Abby leaned back on the ground with legs crouched and arms outspread. Deb positioned her hips on her sister’s feet and grasped her hands. She tried to lean over and fly outstretched over Abby but laughter and awkward stability interfered with a clean take off. I chuckled at the girls as they switched places several times until they succeeded in flying two feet off the ground.

Watching the two sisters play reminded me of how little time I spent lately as an adult in simple fun and horseplay. I was currently attending an MFA creative writing program at Emerson College as a full-time graduate student. I also coordinated catering and acted as head chef at the deli working twenty-five hours a week. Writing, cooking and surviving the grind of life’s daily minutia exhausted my energy. Still, I moved to Boston to experience New England and to pursue a goal of writing and traveling. I left an active but less than fulfilling life working in Kansas City. I missed the time spent playing with my young nieces. I longed for volleyball matches with friends, eating my mother’s Thai cooking, and moments of unbridled creativity. Am I supposed to be playing in the leaves with two Jewish sisters in Rhode Island on Thanksgiving Day? Why had I come this far?

Three people walked into the backyard. Abby introduced her uncle John, his wife Sam, and their nine year-old daughter Victoria. Victoria was born in Peru and adopted from her birth mother at the age of six months. David and Granddad joined the group in the backyard for more horseplay in the leaves. Victoria stood still while the rest of us piled leaves up to her shoulders. She was quiet and soft-spoken, but her eyes shined with delight as the adults frolicked around the yard. As the sun settled into the horizon, everyone trundled inside to warm up and prepare for dinner.

Another guest, Norbert, arrived for the Thanksgiving festivities as Linda and others set the table. Norbert, a pale German from Frankfurt with a mustache, joined David, John, Granddad, and me in the living room to view the latest results of the presidential election proceedings. Norbert and Granddad spoke in German and discussed old German film stars and cities. David and John conversed in Spanish and English about the failings of former Peruvian president, Japanese-born Fujimora, who recently resigned from office. I focused on reading J.D. Salinger stories as the voices and languages babbled around me.

“Dinner is ready,” Linda announced.

The troops piled into the dining room around a wooden table. Brightly colored wooden carvings and reminders of the family’s Jewish heritage filled the room. Black-and-white portraits of Granddad’s father and mother hung on the wall with timeless, solemn gazes. His parents met in 1893 in Belarus, once known as White Russia, a former republic of the Soviet Union east of Poland.  The Gitlitz family assembled around the table beneath the portraits of their ancestral patron and matron. David and Linda sat at the ends of the dinner table as present day hosts among multiple generations of family and guests. David asked each guest to remind the group why they were thankful on this day.

“I am thankful that the world is still kind enough to accept a stranger into a home and make me feel like a member of the family,” I offered.

Wine glasses were raised around the table as toasts were uttered in Hebrew, Spanish, and English. I clinked glasses with several family members, exchanged smiles and warm, benevolent glances. The procession of food rotated around the table in an intricate ballet of hands and spoons and napkins. Slices of tender white and dark meat from the turkey graced two platters. The stuffing steamed with the fragrant perfume of onions and celery that were cut early in the morning. John passed the baked green beans in cream sauce. I passed the steamed asparagus to Linda. Cranberry relish, made from scratch, won out over the gelatinous tube of slick mauve fruit and sugar that Deb had emptied from a can.

I cannot fault her for opening the can and plopping the cranberry “sauce” onto a dish. It probably was not her idea to serve this sweet-tart blob that I had grown accustomed to in Kansas City as a Thanksgiving staple. I enjoyed the touch of nostalgia but helped myself to the homemade version. Some people don’t enjoy Thanksgiving unless they eat a particular dish – Aunt Wilma’s marshmallow sweet potatoes or Grandma Lindy’s pineapple jello salad. Maybe it’s a special version of mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie. I briefly missed my Mom’s pad Thai and stir-fried beef and basil over rice. That is until more turkey gravy and still more food flowed in and out of reach. My eyes slowly glazed over with silent admissions of gastronomic defeat. David poured Spanish Rioja, a Viña Cumbrero 1996, into a few glasses to wash down the last morsels.

Dessert followed dinner with a momentous celebration. The lights were dimmed as Abby carried in a Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie pie with nine candles into the dining room. She set the flaming pie before Victoria, who smiled as candlelight flickered in her dark eyes. The group chimed “Happy Birthday” in English, then in Hebrew, and finally in Spanish. Victoria leaned over with her slender neck and blew at the candles, extinguishing the flames in two tries.

“Abby, do you remember the birthday dance?” Deb asked.

“Oh yeah. I think so. How does it go?” Abby replied. “I forgot the words.”

Deb stood up and led off with a happy anniversary chant. Abby mimicked her moves, hopping and turning side-to-side with waving hands around the dinner table. A top hat and a cane would have completed the duet’s surprise dinner-theatre schtick.

This family is crazy, I thought to myself with delight, as servings of pumpkin pie and Tollhouse chocolate chip pie made the rounds.

While cleaning up afterwards, I noticed a poem, titled Pilgrimage, written on a blue-lined piece of yellow paper on the refrigerator.

The intellectual observes
how words fail.
The romantic exults
at the failure of words.
The pilgrim, speechless, walks
toward the setting sun.

“Who wrote this?” I asked David.

“Hmmm? Oh, that’s just a little note scribbled down. Linda and I have researched and written about pilgrimages as part of our work,” he said.

I waited for more information. The poetry struck me as profound.

“It’s probably something I wrote down,” he admitted and shrugged it off.

Something about those words latched onto me. I referred to the poem each time I passed through the kitchen, pondering how intellectuals and romantics view the failure of words. The idea of words failing to express or communicate was not new to me. No amount of reasoning or thinking can articulate my decisions with words in writing or speech sometimes. At other times, the romantic and creative side of me revels in the mysterious inability of words. The image of a pilgrim walking forward, speechless, towards the setting sun struck me as timeless. Why had I come this far? The question weighed on my mind as I tried to attain the intuitive state of being beyond words. The writer’s impulse to record and communicate resisted this idea of pilgrimage.

Earlier in the day before Thanksgiving dinner, Granddad had shared some details of his life. He was born December 7, 1907 – a future day of infamy – as James B. Gitlitz. His White Russian parents worked in sweatshops in New York. His father learned to be a tailor as an apprentice and later started his own shop fixing up secondhand clothes in Binghampton, New York. His mother went knocking door-to-door, buying clothes from people and washing them before her husband repaired them. Granddad grew up during the Depression and had little money for college. He wrote two poems in October and November, 1929, which were accepted in Harper’s magazine, earning him twenty-eight dollars. “Having those poems published was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Granddad said.

The poems later won a $1000 Morrison poetry prize at Cornell that enabled him to attend college. He eventually earned a full tuition scholarship and began at Cornell Law School in fall of1930. Granddad Gitlitz started a law practice afterwards, working for $12 per hour. He worked in law for the rest of his life.

“For years, I didn’t make more than $5000 a year,” he said. “I had visions of earning a position as Supreme Court Justice. As a registered Democrat in Boom County, in Binghampton, I never stood a chance. If you ran as a Republican in that county, it was tantamount to election. Democrats hadn’t won a spot as a judge in fourteen districts for 100 years.”

When he retired, he had written over 400 opinions working with his law partner. One case involved a two-year fight between the Catholic Church and a local Polish Ukrainian church attended by immigrants. The Catholic Church had sent observers to review the immigrant’s church and determine if practices held to the Catholic standards. The immigrants contested the observer, a Czechoslovakian priest from the seminary appointed by the Pope. They questioned the intentions of the Catholic Church. The case escalated between the various parties until a lawsuit was initiated. The immigrants wanted to establish their own church, or build a new one with their own funds without interference. They recognized the Pope’s authority in spiritual matters but not in legal matters.

During Granddad’s work on the case, he traveled to Presov, located in the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia, to research the Pact of Unguar. According to Granddad, the document related to the case as a religious and legal precedent. During the two-year court case, he traveled to Berlin in 1939 during the week of Hitler’s birthday. While he was there, he helped many Jews obtain visas to depart for the United States during the early stages of the Second World War.

“I got a visa for a 16 year-old boy. His parents laughed at the necessity for a visa and thought everything would blow over. Both parents went to concentration camps,” Granddad said.

He also journeyed to Russia en route to Warsaw, Poland, for legal research. He rode on the U.S.S. Washington to Russia. “This was before transatlantic flight,” he said. “I was on the Britannic, a British war ship, on the travel back home.”

Granddad observed May Day ceremonies in Red Square and was treated like a dignitary during his stay. He attended the Bolshoi Theater and met the president of the lawyer’s bar association. Granddad traveled by overnight train to Kiev, then to Lemberg, Poland, for additional research on the immigrant’s church case.

“After months of research, I came back to New York and wrote the legal brief. I tried the case opposite a lawyer, a law school professor, and won. The Catholic Church appealed to the appellate division in New York but was denied. The chief judge on the court case said it was the best brief ever submitted to him in twenty-five years,” Granddad said.

“Back in Binghampton, I was active among the Inter-Racial Association for Blacks. I met quite a few famous people. Jackie Robinson stayed at my house. Langston Hughes, who worked on the Union League, a national organization, read his children’s books in the mornings to my son, David, at the house.”

Granddad’s tales seemed endless to me but also fascinating in every respect. He had written and published an autobiography to record the details of his life. The book’s introduction acknowledged that the events of his life held no sway over the course of history, but that he wanted his life recorded for the sake of his children. Listening to Granddad made me realize what writing had to offer as a life’s work. He had made his own journeys across countries, historic events, and most importantly, in the lives of people near and far. He had realized that his stories, his experiences, would persevere in written form long after he left the world.

I felt grateful to have heard his story in person. While the rest of the family scurried about in conversation or preparing the endless meals, I noticed that Granddad would nap or simply gaze into a distant place. Somehow, I knew his written words and spoken tales could not entirely capture the life he relived in his mind during those moments. No words can ultimately triumph over the essential experience. Still, his words left me speechless in a sense as I pondered my own purpose.

During the rest of my stay with the Gitlitz family, I ate gefilte fish – a whitefish chopped and stuffed into fish balls, suspended in a jelly broth. The gefilte fish (German for filled) was prepared under the supervision of Rabbis A. Soloveichik and M. Soloveichik which greatly relieved my apprehensions of eating the slimy substance. A healthy dose of horseradish and a glass of Harpoon Ale did not hurt either. I also played board games with Victoria, Abby, and Deb. I collected sea glass and “moonstones,” polished rocks, on the seashore during a walk along Moonstone beach. The smell of salt and decayed seaweed, clean sea mist, and rich brine soaked into the pockets of my coat. Grains of sand dusted my fingertips.

I also took notes on a book written by David and Linda titled A Drizzle of Honey, The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews. The historical cookbook developed through primary research the couple had done on crypto-Jews in medieval Iberia, Spain and other parts of the world. Tens of thousands of Iberian crypto-Jews were converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than completely assimilate, they practiced their traditional customs in secret. The cookbook focused on the lives of several crypto-Jews who attempted to preserve their Jewish heritage in private while maintaining a public image of Christian conformity. These people were persecuted by the Inquisition for defying Catholic practices by cooking, or not cooking, certain foods. Testimonials of servants and neighbors and written evidence of goods purchased, ingredient lists, and item costs were used to try to convict many people.

Again, the book reminded me of the essential nature of the written word. Words possessed the power to memorialize the events of a man’s life, or persecute that life based on records of what a man ate. The recipes and historical accounts of the book disturbed me as a chef and as a person. I never realized that food could be used to condemn. I began to comprehend why I had come so far to New England in my own pilgrimage, to study in Boston, to be a writer. I understood more than ever the necessity of writers to put words to higher purposes.

As the holiday visit drew to a close with a tea service and desserts, I luxuriated in the newfound company of friends and family. Eating regained its communal purpose for me and reinforced the need for communication. The Gitlitz family gathered around the table not only to eat food and nourish the body, but also to exchange thoughts and feed their appetites for life. The Gitlitz family was not so crazy. It felt blessedly normal to return to the table, to lift our forks and raise our glasses, and to share words beyond any intellectual or romantic aspirations. I felt thankful for the food on my lips and the words of this Jewish family who reminded me of the bread I had broken.

Mother’s Day: Imprints Far East and Midwest


mom young 2
A photograph of my mom not too long after she moved to the Kansas City area from Thailand. After my dad completed his tour of duty in the Army, the newlyweds moved to the States and lived in the basement of his parent’s house until they got established. I don’t remember the dog, most likely a beagle. In fact, I am not sure if I was even born at the time of the photograph. I love my mom’s smile. She looks so happy in this moment.

Even though this image is in black-and-white, it’s apparent that the couch is an eyesore. The checkerboard tile and wood paneling are further clues to the mid-late Sixties era. I still have the scroll, originally from Japan, that hangs behind the couch. That conical hat is an actual hat that rice farmers would wear while working in the paddies to fend off the intense heat. For years, we had two of them on display in the house where I grew up. They have since been battered and lost, but I think of them as a symbol of my origins. From the beginning, my surroundings contained elements of East and West.


The resemblance between my mother and her mother (below, far right), who still lives in a village roughly 75 kilometers away from Bangkok, Thailand, is undeniable. I see the similar curve of their face, the slope of their shoulders, the strong arms, the dark eyes creased above wide cheekbones, the connection from mother to daughter embedded in genes no matter how distant the separation. They exist on opposite sides of the world, literally day and night apart with twelve time zones between them.


The photo appearing below was taken during my first trip to Thailand as a young boy. Sitting next to a Buddhist monk and golden statuary, I am hardly the focal point in this dramatic setting. I wish I could remember what went through my mind at that moment. This room lies within a Buddhist temple more than 700 years-old located less than a mile from my grandmother’s home. I have visited the temple several times as an adult, seen how it has grown and changed, endured the passage of time and continued to serve the community. Hopefully, that temple will outlast me, my mother, and my grandmother for centuries to come.

Temple with monk small
It is because of my mother (and yes, my father and his parents) and her mother that I have this origin story, this physical connection to both a Buddhist temple in rural Thailand and a modest basement in a Midwestern house, to gauzy memories and modern images that resonate with meaning across time zones, generations, and tabulations on calendars. A part of the East always remains with me, within me, and perhaps, I have left some imprint of myself and the West on people and a place so near and so far away.

Kansas City’s Food Deserts

In many places throughout the United States, it is more difficult to buy an apple than french fries if you live in a “food desert.” Several counties in the greater Kansas City are home to such food deserts.

Huge swaths of the U.S. population have little access to affordable and nutritious food. A new online tool launched by the USDA illustrates that stark reality with a map pinpointing America’s “food deserts” (shown in pink) – tracts where residents lack access to large grocery stores.

The Food Desert Locator is the latest initiative of Michele Obama’s Let’s Move program to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Lack of access to quality, reasonably priced healthful foods has been associated with

• poor dietary habits
• a higher risk for obesity
• other health-related problems

Lower-income families, sensitive to price, are more likely to purchase food from convenience stores that carry cheap, processed foods. Reaching for Twinkies instead of an orange or other health-oriented food options can have health consequences over the long-term if the dietary habits remain unchanged.

A food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

How the Map Works
The mapping tool uses census figures to identify “low-income” tracts (where at least 20 percent of residents have income at or below the federal poverty levels) and “low-access” areas (places where at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than a mile away from a grocery store).

Low-Income, Local Impact on Poverty
Based on 2009 figures, the median household income for Missouri is $45,229. The estimated median household income (in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars) is $44,436 for Kansas City.

According to a study based on the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Missouri’s poverty rate rose 1.2 percentage points to 14.6 percent in 2009. Approximately 365,000 Kansans and 849,000 Missourians lived in poverty in 2009. An estimated 111,357 families in Kansas City, Missouri live below the poverty level (73,170 married couple families; 29,911 families with a female as head of the household and no husband present).

Definition of a Food Desert
According to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group, a food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Several tracts in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area fall into this category. To qualify as low-income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Click the link for more information on the NMTC’s definition of low-income census tract. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract’s population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

Food Deserts in Kansas City
The sizable population of Kansas City families that can be classified as at or below poverty level raises concern. More pointedly, a significant portion of these people don’t have ready access to a supermarket or grocery store. Visually, the Food Desert Locator map enables us to zoom in on specific tracts in counties in question that make up a major portion of the metro area. Users can even search for a specific area and zoom down to street level. Pop-ups display population statistics, such as the percentage and number of people who are low-income and have limited access to grocery outlets, or the number of low-access households without a car. More ambitious users can download complete data on the state, city, and county level and crunch numbers.

The proliferation of pink zones or food deserts is surprising in the greater Kansas City metro area map. Food deserts are evident in stretches of Jackson County in northeastern Kansas City, but also across the river in the Northland. Huge swaths cover southern and eastern Jackson County. Pockets can be found outside of Independence as well as on the Kansas side of the state line in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.

Based on data from the Food Desert Locator, over 10,000 people populate three urbanized tracts identified in Clay County. Nearly 4100 people in that group have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store; 3200 of them are low-income residents. Low access to a healthy food retail outlet is defined as more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than ten miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.

Moving to Jackson County, the map data tabulates that over 83,000 people live in 33 identified urbanized tract areas. Of that population, over 48,000 people have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 18, 740 people in that group are considered low-income.

Nationally, roughly 75 percent of these food-desert tracts are urban, while the remaining 25 percent are rural. An estimated total of 13.5 million people in these census tracts have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store—that is, they live more than 1 or 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store. Of these 13.5 million people, 82.1 percent are in urban areas.

What do these numbers mean for the poor in Kansas City?

Some thoughts:

• Easier access to fresh and affordable healthy food is needed at numerous key locations throughout the greater KC metro.

• Access to and distribution of this food at supermarkets and grocery stores can be supplemented by more farmers markets, neighborhood gardens, and local retail/corner shops that serve their community especially in urban settings.

• Farm to Street Corner – The farm to table trend is admirable for getting fresh locally grown and produced food and products to consumers through event dinners, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs). Another trend taking root in Kansas City are food trucks positioned to sell everything – snowcones (Fresher Than Fresh), cupcakes and coffee (CoffeeCakeKC), meatballs (Magical Meatball Tour), gourmet tacos (Port Fonda), etc. Why not have Farm Fresh Food Trucks with fresh harvested produce and goods (honey, preserves) that make regular stops in designated areas around town that need better access to whole foods?

Many existing local organizations, programs and studies work hard to fight hunger and provide access to food at different levels of the community – schools, food banks, markets, farms and kitchens. Here’s a list of resources to learn more about the connections between food and community.

KC Healthy Kids – www.kchealthykids.org/
A nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing obesity and improving the health of Greater Kansas City’s children.

Kansas City Community Gardens – www.kccg.org/
This organization provides self-help and educational assistance to low-income people, children and community groups in the metropolitan area to grow their own food from garden plots located in backyards, vacant lots, schoolyards and at community sites.

Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition – http://kcfoodpolicy.ning.com/
The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition is an alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses and government representatives representing all critical components of our local food system.

Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture – www.kccua.org
Promoting small-scale, community-based, entrepreneurial farming in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Kansas City Food Circle – www.kcfoodcircle.org
The Kansas City Food Circle is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization created to promote the development of a permanently sustainable local food system. We serve the greater Kansas City area (eaters and growers in Missouri, Kansas, and reaching out to nearby communities in Nebraska and Iowa) providing an alternative to the conventional agricultural system.

Model for a Local Food Buying Club – www.kcfoodcircle.org/resources/model-buying-club/

Harvesters – www.harvesters.org
Harvesters’ mission is to feed hungry people today and work to end hunger tomorrow. As this area’s only food bank, Harvesters is a clearinghouse for the collection and distribution of food and related household products.

Missouri Farmers Market Directory – http://agebb.missouri.edu/fmktdir/view.asp?region=3

A tip of the hat to Fast Company Design’s Infographic of the Day for inspiring this article.

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 PresentMagazine.com.

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.