Good Food Awards

Eat Good Food: Girl Meets Dirt is now in Bi-Rite Markets

I've barely left the house in six weeks. Don't worry, this isn't a cry for help or an admittance to agoraphobia, I've got a newborn baby on my hands people! This semi self-imposed isolation has actually been quite lovely thanks to the generosity of our little island community* and the invention of two things: Netflix** and Ebooks. 

Like many new parents our evenings are now spent watching LOST. Six long seasons, high stakes drama, gorgeous island beaches, a cast of characters sporting tans and six-packs it is the perfect escape (..and a lot like life on Orcas, sans a giant smoke monster).  LOST may be cheesy and disjointed but who cares, it's entertaining. The show presents itself as pseudo-religious where everything seems to have hidden meaning or philosophical worth. Weirdly, like many of the storylines of the show, most of these themes never play out. I find myself constantly wondering, "But what does it all mean?!" Oh well, I'm still left with gems of wisdom like when John Locke's says to Mr. Eko, "Don't confuse coincidence for fate." 

In this episode I'm not exactly sure who is the skeptic and who the believer but in general, I tend to live on team fate. For example: Audra recently returned from the Good Food Awards, eager to share new retail prospects. I was at home with the baby spending most of my free-time downloading food related reads on my Kindle. (One of the only activities effectively performed one-handed while breastfeeding.) I had just discovered that by typing in 'food' and 'business' to our library's ebook collection only two books show up. Right as a text came through saying, "Check out Bi-Rite in San Francisco", I noticed that one of the two books happened to be Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food: A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking and Creating Community through Food. (Insert suspenseful LOST theme sound here.) This my friends is my definition of fate. So, with that little nudge from the universe, I quickly devoured the guide, fell in love with the story of Bi-Rite Market and came to understand why Girl Meets Dirt in Bi-Rite Market is better than a gratuitous shot of a shirtless and sweaty Sawyer.  

On the other end of the spectrum, it was pure coincidence that Bi-Rite Market re-opened under management of the Mogannam family in the same year that Bob Dylan famously sang, "the times, they are a-changing...". Dylan's folksy ballad became the anthem of the civil rights generation, a song designed to spark activism and inspire change. It's an anthem equally appropriate for the Mission District of San Francisco, home to Bi-Rite Market. The oldest area of the city, it has been the site of bear and bull fights, baseball stadiums, grazing lands, horse races and duels. For the last two-hundred years the district housed countless Irish, German, Polish, Mexican and Central American immigrants bringing with them a melting pot of food and culture. 

I would bet brothers Ned and Jack Mogannam were clueless to what would become of their neighborhood and the grocery store they opened in 1964. Did they have any inkling that fifty-two years later Bi-Rite Market would evolve into the empire of taste and quality we know today? Not just a grocery store but a forward thinking family of businesses dedicated to changing the world through their practices. Could they ever imagine The Mission as the vibrant food hub, the modern Agora it is today? (A neighborhood currently so hip billionaires are choosing it over the traditional high end real estate of the Bay Area...)

The store's colorful history plays out in my mind in a Scorsese-like montage. I hear ole Bobby D belting it out in the background as I see the bright optimism of the art deco facade,  standing witness to the gradual decline of its surroundings. The famous neon 'Bi-Rite' sign from 1940, one of the only constants in the ever changing Mission District.  By the time the next generation of Mogannam brothers took over in 1997, there were bars on the window and frequent stabbings down the street in Dolores Park. Sam Mogannam, current owner of Bi-Rite, mentions casually in the book he co-authored, "By the time I was twelve, I had been mugged twice on my way to and from the store."

It's no wonder boys who spent their free time cleaning and stocking shelves after school had no interest in the grocery business. But, lucky for all of us, Sam Mogannam is a man of vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Tempted finally by the prospect of reforming the family store, he used his training as a chef and restauranteur to transform Bi-Rite Market. The first step, remove said bars from the windows.

Step two, replace cigarettes and malt 40's with produce and products worthy of his own kitchen. Quickly hopping aboard the locavore locomotive and by listening to their passionate employees, guests and community, Sam and Raph*** developed these guidelines for Bi-Rite: Would we eat this ourselves? Would we feed it to our children? How was this raised, grown or made? What was the impact on the environment? How are the workers treated? Can we feel good about that?   

Diving deeper into this idea, in the fantastic book mentioned above, each section of your average market is broken down, explained and explored. A how-to guide, if you will, for getting the best of the best. Not just what will taste the best but what is good for all of us, in a global sense. There is an emphasis on buying local, organic, fair-trade and authentic products. For example, check out Bi-Rite's buying guidelines for selecting fruit preserves (sound familiar?):

  • Fruit listed as the first ingredient
  • Organic fruit
  • Varietal-specific fruit
  • Limited - edition flavors
  • Farmer direct
  • Sugar as the only sweetener
  • No added pectin

 Ding, ding, ding! At Girl Meets Dirt we share the same principles of excellence and sustainability that are the Bi-Rite standard. As you can see, it is no coincidence that our preserves made their way onto their shelves. We are proud and pleased to be carried by a company that believes, "...that every grocery purchase affects the environment, the economy, and the well-being of the people who feed us." And that, "We all have the power to either contribute to the problem or be part of the solution. We all have the opportunity to make an impact every time we eat."

Well said. 

Ours is a rapidly changing world, especially the world of food. Now more than ever it is important to have standards and guidelines for our purchases.  

As Dylan so poetically put it: 
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Some things will never change. At Girl Meets Dirt it is our commitment to quality, our love of the little island we call home, and the way that every year in these historic orchards bud turns to bloom, bloom to fruit, fruit to jam. 

I have plans to visit San Francisco in the spring and I can't wait to stop by Bi-Rite. If  I'm lucky maybe I'll sit down with the Mogannam family and listen to their stories. In my fantasy they'll wax poetically about their history, their legacy and speak reverently of the power of good food. In reality, we'll probably sit down to a cappuccino and compare notes on LOST.  (If I'm really, really lucky.) 

*If you're going to have a baby I highly suggest you try it on Orcas Island. I'm not exaggerating when I say that our family was fed for the entire first month of our son's life. In the process I admit I was shockingly wooed by Paula Deen's baked spaghetti  and I was nourished by the rich golden broth of a massive pot of peasant soup featuring collard greens, potatoes and chicken sausage. But in this onslaught of food it was Audra (of course) that brought over our favorite post baby feast. In the midst of packing up the Girl Meets Dirt booth to fly cross country and prepping her acceptance speech for the Good Food Awards she casually "whipped together" Pork Sugo with polenta and roasted vegetables. Foil covered the sheet pan of veggies ready for roasting that I admit I was indifferent to trying. Under the thin layer of tin I pictured lifeless broccoli trees, cauliflower turning brown around the edges and baby carrots bleached and molded into submission. (an understandable image of vegetables if you grew up with a mom like mine...) Oh how very wrong I was! In true Audra fashion the foil was peeled back to reveal chartreuse spiraling helixes of romanesco broccoli florets, the dark almost black purple spears of heirloom carrots, crescent moons of succulent orange acorn squash flesh (from the garden!), all topped with flaky sea salt and infused with the essence of fresh picked rosemary. In addition to all this she included homemade marshmallows dusted with a snowy coat of powdered sugar (um, who knew you could even make these at home? Marshmallows are like Pringles, they are delicious, they are only quasi food stuff and how they are made remains a mystery) and chocolate bars, mamma energy balls and tomato sauce from scratch. This is a woman who truly knows how to Eat Good Food. 
**My husband is constantly pointing out how lucky we are to live in the age of instant streaming. We would be missing so much of our favorite shows if we had to leave the room for every dirty diaper, every water-bottle refill, every baby meltdown. All-in-one clothe diapers with snaps and video on demand...we truly have it all!
***Raph is the buyer for Bi-Rite and was a judge for the preserves category at the Good Food Awards. He was the man we had the good fortune of meeting and sharing our mutual love of good food with.

Nanny's Stole & The Good Food Awards

As I was packing late the night prior to our flight to San Francisco for the Good Food Awards, in with the forgiving black cocktail dress and 'heritage' (harkening back to my Wall Street days) Louboutin heels that I no longer could walk in, extra concealer from my 'mama's getting the baby to sleep in the crib and doesn't sleep anymore eyes', it donned on me I didn't have a shawl to keep my shoulders warm or a jacket that didn't scream "I live on a farm now".  Rifling through my NYC wardrobe tucked away in the nursery (yes, I should pick up some Marie Kondo woo-woo and neatly fold those babies and tell 'em to take a hike but...), deep in the back was my grandmother's (affectionately known as "Nanny") real fur stole, complete with her initials 'SJM' on the inner flap.  In it went into my already too full bag.  

It crossed my mind that perhaps it wasn't fashionable, and perhaps it might even offend someone.  But the thought of wearing that piece of my own history, in a moment so important, felt just right.  And that's why, as I sat on the the stage that night at the 2016 Good Food Awards, I wore it proudly, thinking of my early days in her Albany, NY kitchen, refining my sweet tooth with homemade carrot cake, circus peanuts and Poppy's orange sticks.  

Audra wearing her grandmother's stole at the Good Food Awards

Audra wearing her grandmother's stole at the Good Food Awards

I think a lot about the many lives of things - a fur stole, a family recipe, a century old King Apple tree - my own many lives.  This is why I do what I do.  Because through food, we tell stories, of our past, our now, and even dreams of our future.  We plant a seed and watch it grow / hope for it to grow/ dream of its fruit nourishing us/our children/our friends.  That is why GOOD FOOD, is its many, many interpretations, is so very important.  Good food makers, as Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, so eloquently stated that evening, were "intermediaries between Earth and humans, Earth and the sky."  Food is one of the many languages we use to communicate with one another.

Our winning preserve, the Shiro Plum with Mint, is a fine manifestation of this.  One of the first preserves I ever made (after foraging local Salmonberries), it was the product of necessity and faith.  Our first summer on the farmette, I took one look at an overgrown Shiro Plum tree, flocked by a patch of spearmint gone wild, and starting picking and cutting.  Into the pot they went.  What grows together goes together, indeed.

I am so grateful to the Good Food Awards & its outstanding team of employees, leaders, and volunteers.  I was honored to give the acceptance speech on behalf of the Preserves category - nervous indeed - but eager to share my story in food, inspired by heritage, and rooted in a craving for family.  I was stunned to learn just how many people this message resonated with.  I've noted before how challenging it can be to be vulnerable - and I mostly restrict these moments to the written word - not quite sure how speaking them might change their impact.  Speaking at the awards ceremony made my vulnerability real in an altogether new, and affirming way.   

Here's an excerpt (click here for the clip from Heritage Radio Network, or here to view the video):

Just shy of 10 years in Manhattan, I walked away from a Wall Street career and city life with a new husband and two dogs to head West. Life in a farmhouse down a one-lane road hasn’t been all primroses. I’ve watched a lot of things grow – and subsequently die back. It’s made the pain of growing and the challenges of starting a family, of which we’ve had many, more palatable. But the fruit keeps coming back, year after year. In a bad season, the trees dig deeper into the earth – they adapt – to bring us their bounty. The sweetness has brought untold joy—carried me through 3 seasons, 5 miscarriages, and launched a business.

I am deeply grateful to work in this field, with such talented, creative individuals who respect terroir and the lessons of the garden, farm, and orchard. I stood in my kitchen the other day, spoon deep in a jar of jam in the middle of winter, giving tastes to my now 1-year old son. We cheers’d with our spoons —to the seasons changing, to barren branches, to buds, to blossoms, to fruit - to the harvest I thought would never come.

Thank you to all who came up to me afterwards and greeted me with an embrace, a warm, knowing smile, or a simple 'thank you' and nod.  It meant the world to me.  And the support from afar - from our island community, in hugs, and smiles, and kind words - has been overwhelming.  I talk a lot about gratitude - perhaps because talking about it helps me to practice it better in my everyday life, which can often feel like a jumble and rush towards an unidentified end (young parents, you hear me ??!!)  But in the end, I make jam for a living.  I make it with people who are glad to make it alongside me - who also want to share their story in food, and dive deeper into it, crumbs on their fingers.  I talk story about ancient trees and heirloom fruit and the alchemy of fruit & sugar, copper pot & wooden spoon.  And then I share the fruits of our labor with hungry friends eager to break bread, spread butter, and dollop on jam, and carry on into the day about topics unbounded.  I can't imagine it any other way.  How could I not be grateful?

And Alice Waters, wise teacher who graces the prime spots in my cookbook collection and memories of simple, inspired meals (your fava bean puree, early in spring with the very first fruits of my first island garden, was the first homegrown dish I ever made!); if you're out there, thank you for buying a jar of my jam: you made my year!

Girl Meets Dirt Founder Audra Query Lawlor (far left) and the speakers and presenters of the evening - notably Alice Waters (second from right) and Carlo Petrini (not pictured)

Girl Meets Dirt Founder Audra Query Lawlor (far left) and the speakers and presenters of the evening - notably Alice Waters (second from right) and Carlo Petrini (not pictured)