I've started making my own Icelandic style yogurt, or skyr. It's a simple process, but it does take time. I have to plan ahead to have it ready 36 to 48 hours from the time I start heating the milk. The recipe calls for less time, but my way makes the yogurt thick enough for the spoon to stand straight up in it. I eat yogurt every day so my batch lasts less than a week, which means I'm always thinking about it. It's an unnecessary pre-occupation. Or is it? Well, maybe not this specific routine, but some regular, food-centered project of conceiving, planning, tending, just fussing over in general, seems important.

Making homemade skyr does save a bit of money. But that's not the larger reason for doing it. I do have control over my yogurt. I've experimented with the fat level in the milk. I've toyed with the amount of time my pot of bacteria-laced milk (half a gallon of milk and a few ounces of yogurt mixed in) sits in the warmest closet we have, wrapped in a blanket to stimulate fermentation and propagation. Some days my yogurt tastes better than store-bought, but not always. It is always thicker, though, and satiating. I take pleasure in peeling slabs of it from the cheesecloth, and wonder each time if I should do something with the two cups of whey that collect in a bowl under the colander. But, the largest reason for making my own skyr, I now see a few months in, is that I'm vested in my food more closely, like a farmer invests in his land. With homemade skyr in particular, I also feel I'm tapping into some ancient, magical ritual of creation every time.

This introspection was brought on by a brief story I read this week in The Counter commenting on a story published in The New York Times the week before about the difficulty of eating different fruits found in Bangkok's Talad Thai market. "Eating Thai Fruit Demands Serious Effort but Delivers Sublime Reward" discusses the experience of encountering, "harvesting," and consuming jackfruit, durian, mangosteen, rambutan, and langsat; fruits the majority of us in America haven't tried or don't eat regularly. Apparently, you do have to muscle through the thick hide of a jackfruit to get to the orb-shaped fruit. The mangosteen dyes your fingernails purple and you likely have to peel and eat several to find a delectable one. And, if you haven't been in its presence before, the funky aroma of durian is disarming and may dissuade you from experiencing its custardy texture and approachable flavor.

In the end, the NYT article author wonders whether it's worth the effort. The last line in the article in The Counter takes this author to task, commenting, "These objections seem to come not from interviewees on the ground, but from the reporter herself. One wonders: Are all these fruit problems, or are they you problems?" I get the point. At a time when we should be celebrating our differences, not letting them divide us, one should try to check one's prejudices, or at least acknowledge them. What might be labor for some is a labor of love for others.

Never having taken a hatchet to a jackfruit, or pricked my fingers peeling a lychee-like rambutan, I can't say I fully appreciate the effort that goes into eating fruit with a "grapple factor," but my sense is that the ritual alone is vital to enjoying life's bounty, and mystery, in all the places life markets itself.

  • Ali Tadlaoui

Alone, together. That's what it's felt like for many of us for more than three months. Especially for those who live at home in plain sight of neighbors behind apartment windows and on balconies. The elemental urge to commune with fellow human beings will not be suppressed. Sequestered, we've made music together across at least six feet of sidewalk, lawn, and the air between high-rise windows. We shake hands at each other instead of taking palm in palm. Released from lock-down, relieved, we click elbows or ankles together in greeting. And we will do almost anything to meet up, even if it means murmuring through masks. Together, at least, even if apart from others.

But we can't wait to sit, shoulder to shoulder; fans yelling from seats much less comfortable than couches at home, or to stand shoulder to shoulder at a bar because drinking in public is something that drinking at home cannot be. We're desperate for the din of the restaurant. The first few forays to our favorite restaurants have been sad. Quiet and sterile and distant is unfulfilling. Which is why I sank in my chair the other day when I read a brief Bloomberg article entitled "Robot Food Startups Have a New Pitch: No Humans Touch Your Lunch."

The growing interest and investment in automating the restaurant, from the back of the house to the front, has apparently not yielded much to this point. But that might change with the threat of viral contamination permeating every possible public nook and cranny.

Pizza Hut has been advertising that no one touches your pizza from the time it leaves the oven. Zume, a well-funded, Bay area start-up has been trying to figure out how to afford using robots to make pizzas from scratch then serve them. Creator is a start-up focused on using robots to create a new and different burger experience. Imagine a restaurant where a machine makes burgers in the back and delivers them to you on a conveyor belt. When the pandemic hit, according to the article, Creator made the conveyor belt self-sanitizing, and created a pressurized transfer chamber to transport burgers to the outside of the restaurant so they could deliver on the promise that you would "be the first to touch your burger."

This vision for a contactless dining world is echoed in a piece called "Bon Appetit! Robotic Restaurants Are The Future," by Naveen Joshi in Forbes. The article lays out the benefits and drawbacks of employing robotics in addition to, or instead of employees. The description of a robot-driven restaurant experience struck a nerve with me:

"Robots can provide an engaging and intuitive experience to diners. A humanoid robot can provide for a fun experience, especially for small kids. Serving as an attraction, robots can help drive new customers to the restaurant. A more robot reliant restaurant can offer navigation guidance during the experience, along with cooking and serving food expediently and simplifying the payment process. A robot restaurant can completely transform the overall experience for diners, restaurateurs and the industry as a whole."

This reads as mechanical as I expect the humanoid robot restaurant experience to be if it were to become the norm. As a one-off, a novelty, sure. It's too bloodless for the many occasions we need to commune, whether alone among many, or together with others, over a meal.

We spend around 60% of our food dollars on food and drink we get outside the home. Of course it's more convenient to let someone else feed us, but we eat out for the pleasure of dining in the company of others. The restaurant atmosphere depends on the menu, decor, music, and other physical attributes of the space, but the ambience maybe depends more on the ebb and flow of the people occupying the space. Real people. Raw emotions. Genuine smiles and servile, tip-driven smiles. "Can I have everything on the side?" "Sure!" "What's your favorite thing on the menu?" "I had the special, and it's amazing...but if you're not into fish..." A robot might refresh without asking your sweet tea as efficiently as your server, but would it get all embarrassed after spilling a drink on the table, and offer a glimpse into its life's struggles and hopes while wiping up the spill?

These life-affirming exchanges are what we'd miss with contact-less dining. The best trained robot will fall short of serving what matters almost as much as the food. Going fully self-serve is even sadder. I think we're too hardwired to let this contactless contact become the norm. I hope this to be true...

Alone, together. Take a good look at the people in the diner in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl mused about Edward Hopper in the June 8 &15 issue of the magazine. He writes "Aloneness is his (Hopper's) great theme, symbolizing America: insecure selfhood in a country that is only abstractly a nation." He says this aloneness is not loneliness, but rather, solitude. I say solitude is necessary for good mental health. But there's only so much solitude one can enjoy.

The exchange of food across all the continents and oceans, and across millennia, has elevated the eating and drinking experience for virtually everyone on the planet.

Some might say that the ubiquity of globalized packaged food products - products manufactured to meet a profit margin and built for the convenience of consumers and all the players in the food chain - has somewhat diminished the eating experience and created health-related issues. There's some truth in that.

But that first exchange of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, onions, peanuts, cacao beans and kidney beans, crab apples and pineapples, coffee beans, peppers and pepper corns, and many other basic foods not known in large parts of the world until several hundred years ago completely transformed cuisines and raised expectations of how enjoyable eating and drinking can be.

Not to say there isn't room for improvement in how we are enjoying some of these now staple foods, and where we are sourcing them. We are missing something by eating so many potato chips, frozen mashed potatoes, and pre-cooked french fries instead of the unadulterated spud that initially arrived from Peru.There's a lot of tomato going into pizza sauce and ketchup that could be enjoyed freshly sliced or quartered. And, it was odd to me living in Nebraska a few years back that my fresh corn was from Florida. Wouldn't the best-tasting (and more eco-friendly) corn come from a field not more than an hour away?

You don't have to stray too far from home to appreciate how the exchange of food can be transformative too. Fresher. Local. Healthier.

The other day I talked with Chip Paillex, President and Founder of America's Grow-A-Row, a non-profit organization that, with the help of thousands of volunteers who plant and harvest fruits and veggies, donates fresh produce to those in need through food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other hunger relief groups. What started in 2002 as a daddy-daughter project on a 30 ft by 30 ft plot of land in rural New Jersey has grown into a multi-farm organization that distributed 6 million servings of fresh produce across seven states last year.

There's no doubt that Chip's experience with America's Grow-A-Row over the past 18 years has been personally transformative. It began as a weekend project. Now it occupies all his time. One of Chip's goals at the outset was to get his four-year old daughter to want to eat fresh, healthy food by planting and harvesting herself. In the process Chip too has adopted healthier eating habits. And the more he gave away of the overabundance of produce from his oversized plot, first to co-workers and neighbors, then to those who really need much more fresh food in their diet but who don't have access to fresh produce, the clearer it became to him that he had stumbled on a calling to serve in this way.

What also became clear to Chip is that many people want to be more actively involved in addressing hunger and malnourishment. This is why America's Grow-a-Row now has nine thousand volunteers. It's transformative for everyone involved.

This is particularly true for volunteers, many of them kids, who come from urban areas with limited access to healthy food. Many of them have never been to a working farm. Imagine tugging a potato out of the ground for the first time. And how gratifying it feels to know that you nurtured it all the way through. How proud you would be hauling home a crate of, say, zucchini squash, green beans, cauliflower, and nectarines at the end of the day.

The volunteers who come to give back keep coming back and spreading the word because they are themselves growing this fresh, healthy food that goes into their local communities. They are getting their hands dirty too. They too are witnessing the growth from seed to fruit. They are sharing in the experience; learning how to "grow a row," and probably teaching a thing or two as well.

What really makes America's Grow-a-Row work, it seems to me, is this valuable exchange built around food for people who share the same patch of Earth. A willingness to work, learn, and serve others flows into the farms, and fresh, healthier food flows to where it's really needed. Goodwill flows in both directions.

There is more talk of food sovereignty and food security, these days. Down-to-earth, grass roots organizations like America's Grow-a-Row can play a needed role in acting on these lofty goals.

My conversation with Chip Paillex will be on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode dropping on July 1st.


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