Recipes from Rachel Carson’s Alma Mater
I’m writing this blog on the Saturday morning after a week that started with raids on the President’s personal lawyer, the one responsible for managing the Stephanie Cliffords affair, and maybe more, and ended with U.S. missile strikes at Syria. Between Monday and Friday the Special Counsel tightened his focus on obstruction of justice charges against the President; James Comey’s new book leaked into the press, and now we know that even the FBI is unnerved by Trump’s crime boss ways.
It feels both strenuous and relieving to turn away from the lurid, sinister, sad, and scary, and think instead about Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson, marine biologist and conservationist, author of The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring, is recognized as the mother of the modern environmental movement. She led a generation to see the sea as a complex life force, a sibling in a family called Nature. She first publicly cited that synthetic pesticides, developed by the military during World War II, were killing songbirds and critically damaging the environment. I remember her Silent Spring claim that whatever made car seats sticky in the summer also caused cancer. I was around 12 years old when I read that book, and it forever changed the way I consider how we interact with the earth.
In 1929, Rachel Carson graduated from Chatham University in Pittsburgh (then Pennsylvania College for Women), a school which now treasures her legacy. Today Chatham has a second campus twenty miles away - the Falk School of Sustainability and the Environment. It’s 388 acres described on their website as “the first school in the world built from the ground up for the study of sustainable living, learning, and development.” It’s pinned with at least eight sustainability awards, and is cited by Forbes Magazine as being one of the forces working to make Pittsburgh a greener city. The campus rolls over a hillside, and includes an old dairy barn, an heirloom apple orchard, an outdoor amphitheater, an aquaculture laboratory, hyper-sustainable modern architecture, a bank of solar panels, and that’s just to start. This is Chatham University’s crowning monument to their most famous alumna, and home to The Rachel Carson Institute, with a mission to amplify her philosophy of environmentalism.
The center of the campus is a squarely grand early 20th century home, once the summer retreat of Heinz executive and philanthropist Sebastian Mueller. When he died in 1938, he left the property to working women, particularly women working at Heinz, but also in the Pittsburgh area, for them to use as a restful, rural vacation. In 2008, Chatham University received the property from the Eden Hall Foundation, Mueller’s foundation still active in Pittsburgh.
We were there to interview Alice Julier, head of the Food Studies Graduate Program, which offers courses such as “The Politics of Grains” and “Food, Labor, and Inequality.” Julier is a sociologist and author of the book, Eating Together, Food, Friendship and Inequality. We wanted to hear her thoughts on the sociology of shared meals. She gets down to the very basic question of - from a potluck to a dinner party - why we make the effort.
Julier’s graduate students host a monthly potluck, and we were lucky enough to be there for one. As part of the “Culture and Politics of Meat” curriculum, a turkey was slaughtered on a local farm for the meal, and prepared by students in the large Eden Hall community kitchen. As you hear in the podcast, Nicie and I dined well that night, but we also had a lot of conversations that never got recorded. We’re still interested in hearing about student Sam Applefield’s project, “Dining With A Difference;” he’s trying to bring people together with opposing points of views, to have difficult conversations around a dinner table. You can hear our interview with Julier, and a little about that potluck meal with the Falk Institute students on our Potluck Podcast.
We believe a shared meal can heal a bad day. We believe a potluck meal - which Julier calls the most democratic of dinner parties - has the power to heal a bad week. If ever there was a week that needed a potluck it’s been this one. We may be in for more weeks like this, so soak your black rice for Julier’s recipe below, find some extra chairs, and put your friends on notice.
And it’s never too late to read Silent Spring, a book that called so many people to action in the 1970’s. We need action now more than ever.
These recipes are from the Falk School potluck dinner: Becky Welch Luttrell’s “Texas Caviar” salad and Coconut Black Rice Pudding, which Julier considers a choice potluck recipe.
Luttrell Family Texas Caviar
Serves at least 12 and can be easily halved
Luttrell’s recipe was copied from her family cookbook; it comes with the notation, “Mama served this at BBQ’s.”
2 cans black eyed peas, drained
2 cans hominy
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 roma tomatoes, chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed (I use more garlic and mince the garlic instead)
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
few dashes hot sauce
1 cup zesty italian dressing (I use less)
2/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Combine all ingredients and marinate for several hours or overnight. Serve with tortilla chips. Mama used the dipping tortilla chips.
Pulut Hitam or Coconut Black Rice Pudding
The color black in nature comes from anthocyanins, the densest form of antioxidants. Eggplant, blackberries, blueberries, black beans, even purple cauliflower all have high levels of anthocyanins, but black rice - the species used in this recipe is called “Forbidden Rice” - has the highest level of all. It takes time to break down the rice’s starchy cover here; the recipe is simple, but the most important ingredient are the 7 hours of soaking in advance. Just remember to plan ahead, but the beautiful color and unique sweet texture makes this Indonesian dessert very special.
1 cup black sticky rice or Forbidden Rice
2/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt, divided
Approximately 1 cup coconut milk, stirred well so it is creamy without lumps
1 mango, peeled and sliced into lengths.
Soak rice for at least 6 to 8 hours in a large bowl filled with cold water.
When ready to prepare, drain the rice and add it to a large saucepan. Pour 8 cups (2 quarts) of water over it, and add the sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Bring the water to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 1 - 1 1/2 hours, or until the rice is plump and tender. As it cooks stir the bottom to prevent the sugar from scorching. The pudding will be loose like risotto, but will thicken more as it cools.
Combine coconut milk with remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and let come to room temperature.
When ready to serve, spoon rice pudding into serving bowls and drizzle 2 tablespoons (or to taste) of coconut milk over each portion. Lay 2-3 mango slices attractively on top. Serve immediately. Leftover pudding may be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Reheat before serving.
Eating Together, Food, Friendship and Inequality by Alice Julier
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson