Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Dinner at Finca Bella Vista in Costa Rica

"Ecogastronomics." When my daughter told me yesterday that she just registered for a college course with this title, my first thought was, "What the heck is ecogastronomics?" My second thought was, "Why is this a credited course at a University?" My third thought was "When is that girl going to get serious about her college career and start working on a "real" major!?"

Thus, I found myself awake in the middle of the night, once again, Googling for information, where all of my questions seem to find an answer these days. Ecogastronomics, by simple linguistic analysis, is the study of the ecology and economics of food. Okay, I thought, that is definitely relevant. To answer my second question, it turns out that the University of New Hampshire made the news back in 2008 by pioneering Ecogastronomy as an official major area of study. Their aim is to integrate the study of agriculture, nutrition and food services management into a course that examines the effects of our food choices on local and global scales. Or something like that. Michael Pollan's books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food Rules" are obvious choices for primary texts; the "Slow Food Movement" is the philosophical foundation of this new trend of study.

My third question does not have an answer on the Internet, but I realized that one of the reasons my daughter chose to go to college is to explore the world beyond the heavily plodded pathways of "normal" careers and lifestyles. These first two years are a golden opportunity to learn about other cultures and topics that just aren't part of the standard middle class American public school system. Yoga, Argentine Tango, Vietnamese History, Western Philosophy, Photojournalism and now, Ecogastronomy, are somehow colluding into something unique and exciting for Brooke. I can't wait to see what she cooks up!

So now I turn to my pantry and refrigerator and ponder the idea of ecogastronomy in my own life. As I snack on almonds (from California) and sip my Yerba Mate (from Argentina), I'm intrigued at how most of our food has absolutely no ecological relationship to the local landscape. Phoenix is no longer well known for it's agriculture, although Cattle and Citrus were once the economic engines of the region. My veggie gardening skills are weak. However, I do have a bag of mesquite flour in my freezer, ground from seed pods that I gathered in my front yard. Might mesquite be a key ingredient in the restoration of ecological and economic sustainability here in the Sonoran Desert? And maybe a culinary ingredient that could be reintroduced to the local culture?

Mesquite bean pods

Some nutritionists of aboriginal cultures suggest that restoring indigenous food cultures could cure a lot of health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. In that case, I'd like to live wherever cacao is part of the native ecosystem!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Skulls & Feathers

If you open my freezer looking for ice cream, don't be surprised if you find a dead bird in there. I have this odd habit of collecting roadkills and assorted gifts that my cat brings home. When time and inspiration collide I harvest the feathers and skulls from these creatures to add to my collections. Maybe a little odd, but I was inspired by museum collections like Chicago's Field Museum, the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History, a collection for academic study at Colorado College and displays at many national parks that I've visited over the years. Some of history's most noteworthy naturalists contributed to these kinds of collections in the days when harvesting creatures for scientific study was the norm: John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Olaus Murie all collected hundreds of birds as well as multitudes of other creatures, carefully preserving their skins and bones so that they could be observed by other curious naturalists. So I started my own little museum.

There's nothing very scientific about my collection. I keep them because I am an artist as much as a naturalist, and am enamoured with the delicate curves and details in the bones, the patterns and textures of the feathers, the way the wings spread. The process of curing a skull teaches me about anatomy. Plucking feathers teaches me about insulation and flight. I figure it's better than throwing the carcass into the bushes, or letting it get flattened by traffic into a totally unrecognizable smudge on the road. My kids are used to the fact that I'll stop in the middle of a highway to pick up a dead bird, and even back track if I've noticed something interesting while moving 65 miles per hour. It keeps the contents of our freezer interesting!

Friday, August 26, 2011


For year-round bloom power, Lantana (Lantana camera) tops the charts here in central Arizona. No matter how blistering hot or desperately parched the summer weather becomes, Lantana keeps on flowering. When I first ventured into the Phoenix suburbs in 2002, this plant was unknown to me, since I'd always lived in cooler climates. One thing Lantana can't survive is a hard frost. Since then, I've realized that these flamboyant flowering shrubs can be a nuisance in some regions; in Australia and southeastern North America, they bear the loathsome label of "invasive species." And to a serious landscape designer, Lantana is on par with petunias: colorful, yes; but sort of like linoleum or popcorn ceilings. Unsophisticated unless you have a retro-modern or unique creative streak going.

But, I don't get tired of their colors and heartiness. Or the way their name feels on the tongue. Lantana, lantana, lantana!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Big-rooted Spring Beauty

I roamed from the Phoenix suburbs to the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains this summer, where one of my favorite plants thrives. Succulent. Delicate. Long-lived. Claytonia megarhiza is a common alpine plant growing on talus and scree in North American mountain ranges, forming perfect rosettes of leathery leaves surrounded by porcelain white flowers. The magnificent roots can grow to six feet long and up to three inches in diameter! Eighteenth century Virginia botanist John Clayton should be proud to have such a fine species named after him!