From the Outside In, "Eat, Drink and Be Fair" at the Artists for Humanity CenterBlogging has become an increasingly complex political terrain, especially when "freebies" are involved. Whether it is the Federal Trade Commission trying to set standards, or bloggers themselves struggling with the line between advertising, reviewing and recommending, it can be infinitely messier than it appears on the surface.
When I began this blog it was never with the intent (or even idea) that I would receive anything free. The goal was simply to share what I already do: find wonderful food, restaurants and recipes that my family enjoys. I also have always tried to focus on independently owned places, to highlight chefs who use sustainable and local foods, the joys of organic food and to emphasize the benefits of shopping at farmer's markets and farm stands.
So when I am offered the chance to learn more about a socially conscious business, I am more than happy to listen. And, if it includes some free samples, that is simply a wonderful benefit.
That being said, when Green Mountain Coffee invited me to two different events to showcase Fair Trade, I was pleased for a few reasons. First, two of the events featured Will Gilson, a chef that I had followed for a few years. Second, I am a coffee fiend, incapable of starting the day without grinding my beans and sitting with a cup or two. Finally, I have long been a supporter of Fair Trade products, even if I wasn't 100% sure as to what that meant.
The advantage of this opportunity was the chance to learn more about coffee itself and Fair Trade. And, sure, while a skeptic could claim that I was being sold a line, it is hard not to want to support an effort to support an organization that helps local communities to empower themselves and help get themselves out of poverty.
It is hard to condense Fair Trade products to a few lines and their website (as well as Green Mountain Coffee) can give you the full story. However, these events made me aware of a few key points. First, Fair Trade certification itself means that a local community (for example in Kenya, Nicaragua or Sumatra) gets, amongst other benefits: a guaranteed minimum price for their products, support for small scale farmers to organize democratic cooperatives, a "social premium" to help communities improve water, education, health and infrastructure, and education to improve their products themselves. There is also a movement to create have Boston be one of the first "Fair Trade Cities." Again, the criteria is quite extensive, but ultimately it means that Boston would make a concerted effort to get its products from Fair Trade certified communities.
Green Mountain Coffee currently offers over 41 types of Fair Trade certified coffees. On our night at Garden at the Cellar we sampled the Sumatra Lake Tawar and the Kenyan Highlands Cooperatives. These are available at a range of grocery stores, and, yes McDonalds! I prefer the espresso brand, whole bean, as I tend to drink very dark roast coffee. In fact, my favorite GMC type is the espresso for the Keurig coffee brewers.
Yet Fair Trade certification goes beyond coffee and includes vanilla, bananas, honey, cocoa, chocolate, tea and sugar.
At a follow up event, titled "Eat, Drink and Be Fair," 4 chefs were given the opportunity to create courses that focused on these Fair Trade Products. Chef Will Gilson and sous chef, Paul Callahan (from Garden at the Cellar and The Herb Lyceum) prepared "Fair Trade Smoked Sirloin with Banana Squash Puree and Green Mountain Fair Trade Coffee Sunchoke Gravy. I loved the topping of Taza chocolate nibs.
Chef Richard Garcia and sous chef, Matthew Maue (Tastings in Foxborough) offered up a "Sea Urchin and Green Mountain Fair Trade Coffee Vanilla 'Cappuccino'. Despite not loving sea urchin, this dish was creamy and delicious. The coffee added a bitterness that broke the richness of the soup.
From Bambara, Chef Jay Silva cooked a coffee crusted pork tenderloin with a heavenly sweet potato puree.
Finally, the official winner of the event was Peter McCarthy of EVOO in Somerville, created a wonderful Green Mountain Fair Trade Dark Roast Coffee Marinated Duck Breast with Verill Farm's parsnip puree and pickled pumpkins.
I loved the crisped duck skin that he served on top, but the pickled pumpkins were persuasive enough to make me want to hide a few of our jack-o-lanterns!
Other vendors were there as well, such as Ben and Jerry's who shared their fabulous Fair Trade chocolate macadamia ice cream, and OKE Equal Exchange bananas.
The food was wonderful, but the highlight of my night were the moments that we had a chance to hear directly from coffee producers from Guatemala. While my Spanish is amateur, at best, I was able to understand from these men, how much the extra money and support allows their communities to be more healthy and to offer better education to their children.
Lastly, the event was held at the Artists for Humanity Center in South Boston. This was another discovery that I hope to come back to in a later post. The center itself was a beautiful space that made use of recycled materials in wonderful ways. For example, the bathroom was created out of the materials that came from the original structure. It was actually the first LEED certified building in Boston. More importantly, the Center houses art classes and paid art jobs for Boston youth! I am grateful for the chance to have been introduced to this place and what it offers teens.
Garden at the Cellar, 991 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge
The Herb Lyceum, Groton
Artists for Humanity, South Boston