Monday, August 31, 2009


September 3, 2009
It must be nice: Spend your summers traveling around the country, sampling the finest regional wines, eating the best locally-grown meats, cheeses, and vegetables prepared by the best local chefs, chatting it up with vintners, small farmers, and swooning gourmands. And make a living from it too.
Such is the life of Jim Denevan and the crew of Outstanding in the Field, a moveable feast that has delighted the palates of thousands of people from California to Maine for a decade. If you've got 200 bucks and the foresight to book your reservation months in advance, you'll have a dining experience you'll never forget. Jim has sixty of those every season.

It must be nice.

Last Sunday afternoon, a couple hundred folks came to La Plaza Cultural, a block-long community garden in the East Village, for something to eat and drink. After a glass or two of brut-brut Chardonnay champagne from Wolffer Estate Vineyards on Long Island and hors d'oeuvres of heirloom cherry tomatoes skewered with fresh mozzarella and basil, the group gathers around Jim, six-foot-four with straw hat on head and wine glass in hand, who tells of his adventures on the culinary road and of what to expect today. He's followed by Beatriz Arremony, a lithe and lovely cheesemonger whose husband Dennis is president of the garden's association, who relates the story of La Plaza, which twenty years ago was a drug-infested vacant lot and now is a paradise of flowers and fruit trees.

And then it's time to really eat. The guests seat themselves at tables stretching half the length of the garden, and then it comes, on big platters, the work of chef Josh Eden, owner of Shorty's 32 in the Village: tangy greens and grilled vegetables with a lemon-thyme dressing, and a semisweet Tokai wine; then some spicy grilled shrimp and Swiss chard, and a bone-dry Riesling; then honey-glazed grilled rack of pork with garlicky green beans and fluffy mashed potatoes, and a big Cabernet Franc; then (can there be more?) dessert of strawberries in half-whipped cream and a sweet late-harvest Chardonnay — all from local producers. With every course, the volume of talk increases, and by the end of the evening strangers are now friends, business cards are exchanged, and the guests crowd around Jim to render most hearty thanks for four hours of pure perfection.

Jim Denevan grew up surfing in Santa Cruz, taught himself to cook at age 17, and worked as a chef in several area restaurants until he got the idea of taking his show on the road. Catching the wave of interest in local and regional foods, his concept was simple: outdoor dinners at small farms and urban gardens, cooked up by local chefs and interspersed with brief talks from the farmers, the bread- and cheese-makers, and the other food artisans that produced it all.

That's how I got into it.

Four years ago, when Outstanding was about to hit the big- time in New York City, Jim made the rounds of our community gardens, snipping bunches of herbs and twisting off tomatoes and eggplants for his organic extravaganza. When he got to Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, he discovered my beehives and invited me to supply honey and attend the dinner to talk about urban beekeeping. In years past, the honey was drizzled on the desserts; this year it ended up as a crusty glaze on the pork — hardly a better use for it.

The best thing about the food is that by necessity it must be simple as well as extraordinary; it's prepared on the spot, on huge charcoal grills and atop propane stoves. You take one look at these dishes and say to yourself, "I can do that." No Julia or Julie here.

It's a hell of a job to serve 200 people, and one outstanding part of the Outstanding dinners is how effortlessly they are done, thanks to the preternatural organizational ability of Katy Oursler, who has been coordinating these events since 2003. Unfailingly cheerful and continuously calm, she's the quintessential maƮtre d', moving among the tables and chatting with the guests as if she'd known them all her life. Her staff of waiters, osmosing her own disposition, work the tables enthusiastically, keeping the platters filled and the wine flowing.

Jim Denevan sees these dinners as his mission in life. They are, he told Howie Kahn in an interview for GQ magazine, "the story of thousands of years of people bringing in the harvest, gathering it at a table, and breaking bread.... I think giving people the chance to share the table with all the characters involved in the process is something that might change culture."

Just might.

Outstanding in the Field dinners, scheduled from May through October, come frequently to California — mostly in the north, with several in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This year Jim is venturing further south, holding two events at the Wattles Farm in Hollywood in October, both sold out. For background and the list of venues (2010's will be posted early next year), visit the website,

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


August 27, 2009

Last week, a violent little storm hit Manhattan and the Bronx. It lasted just a few minutes, but what the meteorologists called "microbursts" of wind reached 70 miles per hour. When it was over, almost a hundred trees, some over a century old, had been felled in Central Park alone, and many more came down here in the Bronx.
Early the next morning, I got a call from Jim Fischer, a master beekeeper who maintains the beehives atop the World of Birds building at the Bronx Zoo and recently formed the Gotham City Honey Cooperative, an association of urban beekeepers.
"I'm here in the giraffe area," he reported. "The storm knocked down a huge tree right in front of their barn, and the downed section is crammed with honeybees. We've got to get them out of here as soon as possible so the keepers can let the giraffes out. I've gotta chain-saw this thing so we can get it down and level — the piece of trunk with the bees in it is propped up against a giraffe-sized fence about 15 feet up. I'll have to get a ladder and see what we've got. This is really something. I'll keep you posted."
That afternoon he called again.
"We cut the bee section off and swung it with a rope to rest flat on a pile of big limbs," he said, breathless, "and I've pried it open so it looks like a log-canoe. The bee nest is about two feet wide and eight feet long. It's bigger than anything else I've seen in 25 years. It looks like they've been there for a very long time. There may be several coexisting colonies there, with multiple queens. If you want bees to strengthen your colonies, come and get 'em. And call all your beekeeping friends — there's plenty to go around. Bring some bee-boxes with empty frames. We'll cut up the comb and put them in the frames and the bees will go along with it. Let's meet here tomorrow morning at 7:30. This may take all day, and it's going to be hot as hell in those bee-suits."
Worker bees are like interchangeable parts. As long as there's no queen with them, you can put them in another hive, they'll pick up the scent of the queen, and almost immediately they'll integrate into the colony. Beekeepers regularly do this, taking bees from strong colonies to beef up the numbers in weak ones. Rarely do they get their bees from fallen trees, however.
I called Sara Katz, a young and adventuresome beekeeper with a couple hives at a community garden near Yankee Stadium. "I'll be there," she said without a beat.
Sara and I met Jim at the zoo gate the next morning, and we ran a car-caravan to the giraffe enclosure. There it was, the log-canoe, teeming with bees in the half-light.
Most American beekeepers house their bees in those familiar rectangular boxes, the invention of Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania. In 1851, Langstroth devised a way of organizing a hive to encourage the bees' own building techniques while making it easy for the beekeeper to examine the colony and remove the honey without tearing everything asunder.
Honeybees construct their living quarters of wax secreted from glands on their abdomens, shaping it into a "comb" of hexagonal cells in which they raise their young and store honey and pollen, their food. In the wild, in hollow trees or other crevices, they build comb in distinct layers, with space in between to allow them to move and work all around it. Measuring the width of the comb and the distance between combs, Langstroth found it was uniform — about 3/8 of an inch. "Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning," he later wrote, "I could scarcely refrain from shouting out ‘Eureka!' in the open streets."
What Langstroth had discovered was "bee-space."
Inside his wooden boxes, he put hanging frames 3/8-inch wide with a 3/8-inch space on all sides, and as expected, the bees built their comb precisely to the dimensions of the frame and not beyond. It then became a simple task to take out the frames and their contents while leaving the hive intact.
What we saw in the log that morning was natural bee-space, though the layers of comb had been crushed together by the impact of the fall. Peeling back the layers, we measured sections to fit our empty frames, cut them out with a serrated knife, secured them in the frames with rubber bands, shoved them in the bee- boxes, sealed the boxes up with window screen, and took them home. Most valuable was the comb that contained "brood," the beekeepers' term for developing bees in egg, larval, or pupal stages. Placing the brood and the bees that covered it in our hives, we would soon enhance our workforce by thousands.
With the eye of a highly-experienced beekeeper, Jim quickly discovered a queen among the maybe 100,000 workers, caged her, and designated her for a hive of one of his apprentices with a weak and unproductive queen.
Later that morning, several beekeepers from Brooklyn arrived by subway to take their share of bees. As the day warmed from sultry to sweltering, the operation was discovered by wasps, bumblebees, and foraging bees from other places, all battling both the colony and the beekeepers for access to the exposed combs of honey. "Robbing" is the term for it, and it's done regularly to colonies that are vulnerable or weak and unable to defend themselves.
The scene was complete chaos, but Jim and his sweating comrades managed to sweep most of the remaining bees into boxes containing packets of artificial queen-pheromone to make them think a queen was present and induce them to stay put. They sealed up their boxes, and at nightfall, when the robbers had gone home, Jim loaded them into his old Volvo wagon ("Half a million miles and counting," he says proudly), and delivered them to the Brooklynites' hives.
Within a couple days, the remaining comb in the log had been robbed dry, and the zoo crew could set about sawing up the logs and taking them away.
Amidst the detritus of the storm, a treasure was revealed: the secret life of bees.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


August 20, 2009

My friend Joanie tells the story of her bout with strep throat while vacationing in London some years back.
"I was getting really sick, so I went over to the medical clinic near where I was staying. A doctor saw me right away, did an examination and prescribed antibiotics, which I got at the dispensary right on the premises. The whole thing took maybe 40 minutes, and my total cost was something like $2.50 for the pills. And I was a foreigner! No questions asked, no identification to show, I just signed in. I was sick, so they treated me."
It's experiences like Joanie's that change Americans' minds about universal health care. What? No preliminary questions about payment? No paperwork? No cost? It makes you want to tip the doctor.
Britain's National Health Service (NHS) has been drawn into our own so-called debate in the most curious ways. Opponents of reform here have made the NHS a frightening caricature, the Ghost of Christmas Future if Congress adopts even modest changes to our non-system. They thought that the Brits' frequent complaints about the NHS for its acknowledged inadequacies was a sure sign they're ready to ditch it. But they got an unexpected reaction from across the Pond: Citizens were outraged at the exploitation and embarrassed for America's callous treatment of its sick. Despite its problems, they are fiercely loyal to their system. Even the leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, last week declared forcefully that the NHS would be strengthened, never abolished.
What brings about such adamance in a country that's not only not socialist but that has privatized many other government entities over the last three decades? Perhaps it's because, like our Social Security system, the NHS was instituted in a time of crisis, after World War II, a living symbol of the cohesiveness that brought the country through the war. It removed a Dickensian social scourge and affirmed British dignity as a civilized people. After 60 years, universal health care in the United Kingdom is a given; it's part of the national identity.
You'd think that the U.S., so close to the U.K. in attitude and outlook, would come to see it this way too. Aren't we the most generous nation on earth? What is it about health care that has made it the hot-button issue, even more divisive than war?
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with skyrocketing costs and denials of coverage, the time seemed ripe for a real shift. Yet the same sorry arguments that have been used since Harry Truman's time are de-wheeling the reform juggernaut: socialized medicine and higher taxes. "If Barack Obama and the Democrats get their way," runs a Republican National Committee radio ad, "the federal government will make the decisions about your health care. And their plan costs a trillion dollars we don't have." Whether or not these assertions have anything to do with the actual proposed legislation is almost beside the point. The G- word and the T-word still cause inflammation of that little Darwinian lobe in the collective brain that evokes the self- reliant pioneers and the self-made John D. Rockefeller. No matter that it's insurance companies that now make your health-care decisions and that they're the ones that are taxing you; once the fever starts, the nation becomes delirious.
This could have been stopped.
As the history of effective leadership has shown, it takes a clear vision, a forceful word, and an iron will to dampen inflammatory rhetoric and rally the country around a cause.
Many of us thought this was what Obama was about. Remember "CHANGE"? "HOPE"? "YES, WE CAN!"?
Well, ah ... maybe we can.
Obama's problem with health care is that he thought he could apply the principle of dialogue, one of his most attractive and effective features, to achieve reform. Right after inauguration, he got all those health-policy wonks and insurance/drug execs around a table and they all came out smiling. Then he threw the ball to Congress, somehow presuming they'd play as a team to craft bipartisan legislation to his liking, instead of sending down a bill himself. The first hundred days have turned to 200, those executive smiles hover over the Capitol like the Cheshire cat's, the radical right saw the door wide open to bring him down, and now it's a town-hall free-for-all. Couldn't he see this coming?
The extent to which Obama has lost control of the issue was no better illustrated than by his exchange with the college student in Grand Junction, Colo., last Saturday, who asked him how private insurance could ever expect to compete with a government-run "public option." All he could say was, "This is a legitimate debate to have."
College kid wins. FDR turns in grave.
Rather than taking on the insurance/drug establishment (the correct answer to the student question is: "You're exactly right, and that's why we want it."), he's not only let them in the game but let them call the shots. And rather than taking on the ultra- right by identifying their smears as plain old lies, he tells us they're just "differences of opinion."
Remember Chicago on election night? Remember Inauguration Day? Obama once had the momentum to make health care a national imperative, a part of our identity, as it is in Britain.
No vision, no word, no will: No more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


August 13, 2009

The September issue of Consumer Reports is out. Cover story: "Ratings of 76 Health Plans."
Seventy-six health plans? And those are only the major ones identified in a survey of 37,500 CR subscribers.
Talk about bureaucracy. Most of those plans — 35 health maintenance organizations (HMO's) and 41 preferred provider organizations (PPO's) — operate in individual states; only a few are multi-state or nationwide. Each has its own policies and protocols, each its own billing and payment system, each its own customer service apparatus. It's no wonder that the average health-insurance premium rose 38% over the last two years, due substantially to administrative costs (lobbying included) that comprise around 30% of their budgets.
The CR article reports that 64% of those surveyed were "completely satisfied" with their insurance plan, wryly noting that such a "lukewarm response" is only slightly higher than the satisfaction level for cable TV companies. And as with cable TV, people can't use CR to comparison-shop for a better deal; they're basically stuck with whatever they've got.
The health-care "system" today isn't a system at all; it's a byzantine collection of individual units from providers to insurers, all out there to profit from the third thing that's sure in life besides death and taxes: sickness.
You'd think that with all the red tape people are tangled in (the CR survey rated the billing procedures of every single PPO as fair to poor), they would be clamoring for a simple, unobtrusive insurance system. Today, almost 30% of the people of America are covered by some form of government-funded insurance: Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor, S-CHIP for children, Tricare for military personnel and veterans. Medicare and the military programs, which are administered by the federal government, are user-friendly and immensely popular — so popular, in fact, that some people don't even think they're government- run; witness the widely-reported story of the man who told Rep. Robert Inglis of South Carolina, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."
Why not take something that works admirably for people over 65 and extend it to everyone?
What Congress is now grinding out is the usual sausage — baloney, specifically: a hodgepodge of tinkering that leaves the non-system basically intact and has so confused and frightened the public that they're pulling back from these proposals like turtles into their shells. It's not that they've suddenly become happy with their health plans; it's just that they have utterly no idea about how these various thousand-page pieces of work will affect them.
That's why it was so refreshing to hear that Rep. Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn/Queens is introducing two bills into Congress, one to abolish Medicare and the other to extend Medicare to everyone. The first one is a piece of legislative irony you seldom see in the present climate of Congressional nastiness, daring all those public-payer paranoids to dismantle a program their constituents love. The second one is a straightforward single-payer alternative. Weiner had to wait a long time for this — he had to secure Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reluctant agreement to put single-payer on the docket — but it may in fact be a stroke of good timing. Many people, including some members of Congress, are so frustrated by the mishmash that they may take a good look at a plan that's clear, simple, and efficient (administrative costs for the present Medicare program are 3%).
So many of the objections to single-payer are driven not by evidence and common sense but by ideology, and of course by the insurance industry. As Weiner has noted, almost everybody who's privately insured has a single payer right now: their insurance company. There's very little "freedom of choice" involved; employers give few options other than choosing between an HMO and a PPO. The only difference is that their money is going to a business rather than to a government agency.
It's so strange that people and politicians can get so worked up about paying taxes and be so resigned to paying premiums. According to CR, the median annual premium of the individuals surveyed — that's not counting employer contributions — is now $1,829. Why not eliminate the premiums — and the companies that charge them — and tack that amount, and perhaps substantially less, onto a universal Medicare tax?
Once again, as in so many other legislative proposals both federal and state, there is apparently little in the several health-care bills about paying for them. President Obama himself has created his own "read-my-lips" moment by promising "no new taxes" on the middle class. But new programs should always be directly linked to new taxes. All this "creative financing" — cigarettes here, "the very wealthy" there — just leaves everybody, middle class included, with feelings of unfairness. The best solution is the most "transparent": a graduated health tax on income both individual and corporate. Right now, the Medicare tax is flat — 1.45% on all earnings for employer and employee, and 2.9% for the self-employed. Graduating the tax based on ability to pay (and that would include retirees, who presently pay nothing for Medicare Part A hospital insurance) would equitably raise the funds for universal health care.
The intangible health benefit of the current Medicare program lies in its providing not only insurance but assurance. It's guaranteed, and in most cases, it's hassle-free. People can worry about their health rather than their health insurance.
For those over 65, health care has come to be seen as a universal right. Why not extend that right to the population at large?