My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today

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9780345806390: My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today

Growing up on a farm in the Austrian Alps and later in Vienna, Nora Pouillon was surrounded by fresh and delicious foods. So when she moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, she was horrified to discover a culinary culture dominated by hormone-bloated meat and unseasonal vegetables. First as a cooking teacher, then as a restaurateur, and eventually as the founder of America’s first certified organic restaurant, Nora redefined what food could be, forging close relationships with local producers and launching initiatives to take the organic movement mainstream. As much the story of America’s postwar culinary history as it is the memoir of a remarkable woman, My Organic Life encompasses the birth of the farm-to-table movement, the proliferation of greenmarkets across the country, and the evolution of the chef into social advocate.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Nora Pouillon was born in Vienna and moved to the United States in the late 1960s. Shocked by the highly processed, preservative-laden foods Americans were eating, she embarked on a crusade to promote a healthier lifestyle, and developed an extensive network of organic and natural farmers in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. She opened Restaurant Nora in 1979 with her partners, brothers Thomas and Steven Damato, and worked with local farmers to supply seasonal organic produce. After years of careful sourcing, in 1999 Restaurant Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the United States. Nora also initiated Washington, D.C.’s first producer-only farmers’ market, FRESHFARM Markets, and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the first Genesis Award from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. An IACP Cookbook Awards finalist, Nora is a tireless advocate for nutritionally wholesome food and a sustainable, health-focused lifestyle based on the premise that you are what you eat, drink, and breathe.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Amuse Bouche
 
Over the past thirty years at Restaurant Nora, as I’ve made the rounds in the dining room, countless people have asked me, “Why do you care so much about organic food?” They want to know why I am so passionate about this subject that I was driven to create the world’s first entirely organic restaurant, where everything—from the produce and meat to the oil, salt, and coffee—is certified organic.
 
The quick answer is simply health: organic food is better for our bodies and our environment.
 
The longer answer begins with a side of beef.
 
In the early 1970s, not long after I had moved to Wash­ington, D.C., from my native Austria with my French hus­band, Pierre, we began entertaining a lot. We didn’t have much money to go out to restaurants, so I started giving dinner par­ties. These turned into catering jobs and then small cooking classes in my home.
 
It wasn’t long before I realized that I needed to buy meat wholesale rather than retail in order to make my catering and classes profitable. So I looked up “beef” in the Yellow Pages and found some ads for sides of beef, which could be stored for me in a freezer locker. This was all new to me: I pictured a side of beef hanging, whole, in a locker, with my name written on it, and wondered how I’d even begin to butcher it.
 
I called up one place on the Eastern Shore and asked about its meat.
 
“It’s Angus beef,” the woman who answered the phone told me. “Wonderfully marbled.”
 
She knew the secret, she said proudly, to turning out the most succulent meat I’d ever tasted: she fed her cattle corn for the last two months of their lives so they’d be fat and ten­der. “It’s prime Angus beef, honey,” she said. “It melts in your mouth like butter.”
 
I was taken aback. Where I grew up, cows ate grass. Corn was for chickens. That seemed like a fundamental rule of nature.
 
“Corn?” I asked. “Cows don’t eat corn.”
 
Normally, no, she agreed, cows don’t eat corn, because they can’t digest it. So she fed them antibiotics to help them digest the corn without getting sick. The antibiotics—laced into the feed—also prevented illnesses that came from the “feedlot life­style.” She also told me she administered growth-promoting hormones through a funnel inserted behind the animals’ ears so they would eat more and get fatter faster.
 
I felt ill. All this time, I had been feeding my husband, two young children, and friends meats that were marbled not only with extra fat—who needs extra fat?—but with hormones and antibiotics. I felt as if every steak I’d thrown on the grill had been slowly poisoning them. As I hung up, I was ready to swear off meat forever.
 
Then I noticed another ad in the Yellow Pages: “I Sell Nat­ural Beef.” Who knew? At this point, it seemed worth a shot. The man who answered, a Mr. Koenig, was a farmer from Pennsylvania. When I asked about his beef, instead of telling me all the things he did to his cows, he told me all the things he didn’t do. He did not give his animals antibiotics. No growth-promoting hormones. No corn feed, only grass or hay. No con­fining pens, no fumigating the carcasses. (Imagine: fumigating the carcasses!)
 
He told me how he treated his cows. “I’m very careful not to stress my animals when I take them to slaughter,” he said. This was not only for humane reasons, he explained. “If an animal is frightened, the adrenal glands overproduce fight-or-flight hormones, which affect the taste and texture of the meat in a bad way,” he said. “Basically, you’re eating stressed-out muscle.”
 
I told Mr. Koenig I wanted to buy some of his natural beef, but the transaction would prove much more complicated than I had expected. “I’ll call you back with directions for where to meet me,” he said. The next morning, he called with instruc­tions to meet at a spot in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Three o’clock sharp,” he said. “Wait for me.”
 
The following day, I set out with my young sons, Alexis and Olivier, in the backseat of the car. When we arrived, there was no mistaking the pickup spot: five station wagons were already waiting. When Mr. Koenig arrived in a lumbering white van, the women in the cars opened their doors simul­taneously and ran to circle the van’s back door. Mr. Koenig, ropy and small with wire-rimmed glasses, began calling out last names as he doled out cooler boxes and stuffed checks into his jacket pocket. He kept glancing around anxiously, as if he were selling coolers full of fake watches or marijuana. It was all over in a moment, and he tore off in his van.
 
“You’re new,” observed the woman parked next to me as she closed her trunk. I nodded. When I remarked that it had all seemed like a drug deal, she laughed and explained that while it wasn’t the same thing, it was in fact illegal to transport across state lines meat that hadn’t been slaughtered in a feder­ally inspected facility, especially in an unrefrigerated vehicle. It hardly mattered to her. “I have to eat clean food,” she said. She had just finished treatment for cancer a few months before. Several of the people waiting for the meat, she told me, were recovering from serious illnesses. She was convinced that the chemicals lacing her food were at least partly responsible for making her sick. And it wasn’t just beef, she told me. Antibi­otics and hormones were also pumped into our chicken and pork. “Pesticides and fungicides are on our fruits and vegeta­bles, and chemical fertilizers are in everything. We’re poison­ing every cell in our bodies.”
 
As I drove home with my children, I felt certain that I was right to seek out alternatives to what was commercially avail­able at the time. I felt strongly that animals should be able to wander freely and eat grass, as I remembered from my child­hood in the Austrian countryside. My suspicions about the food we ate every day—the squishy white bread with no nutri­tional value, the mayonnaise-laden sandwiches, the packaged snacks, the TV dinners, the canned-soup casseroles—seemed justified. These foods were too far from nature, too processed, too removed from the fresh, just-picked produce I’d grown up with.
 
And so I decided I wasn’t just going to teach my students how to cook. I was going to teach them how to cook health­fully, to make natural, wholesome food that also tasted deli­cious. From that moment on, as much as I could, I was going to seek out food free from pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other chemical additives. I wanted my family and friends to be healthy. I had a new mission, and though I couldn’t fully articulate it at the time, it was to lead an organic life and to help others to do the same.
 
 
Chapter 1
Tyrol

I am a war child. Although the war ended when I was just eigh­teen months old, I am surprised by how much I remember. Maybe it is because the events were so traumatic; maybe it is because the deprivations of the war years blended into those of the postwar years. My earliest memory is of a terrifying sound: a high-pitched siren blaring through our house in Vienna. My mother would grab my older sisters, pick me up, and rush us all down to the cellar. There, we would sit on benches or on the dirt floor, huddled with our neighbors, awaiting the explo­sions. Shivering and closing my eyes tight, I would try to tune out the noise. I would breathe in the damp, earthy smell of the cellar, where my mother stored fresh apples, pears, pota­toes, and glass jars filled with eggs from our chickens to last through the winter. Those rich smells transported me to a qui­eter place—the warm, sunny farm in the mountains where the fruits and vegetables grew—and comforted me until the raid was over.
 
The war disrupted everything, and because I was very young, disruption was all I knew of life. My memories, like Vienna at the time, are shadowy. I know, partly through the stories my family members have told me, that people on the streets were hungry, some were disappearing, and there was a hushed sense of desperation. Everywhere, food was scarce. Farmers had gone to war and left their fields fallow. Food was not something that you could take for granted but rather something that had to be rationed, saved, bartered, or traded on the black market. In Vienna, food seemed very distant from the country fields where it was grown.
 
But I was lucky to be able to spend most of the war outside the city, in the place I dreamed about during those air raids: a farm in the Tyrolean mountains. Even before I was born—in 1943—my father had decided that he needed to send his fam­ily away from Vienna while the war raged. He was a successful businessman and able to lease a working farm a day’s distance away so that my mother, my two older sisters, and I would have a safe place to weather the devastation and its aftermath—and have plenty of fresh food to eat. My father was an outdoors­man who loved hiking and healthy eating, so a remote farm­house in the Alps seemed like the best place for him to send us.
 
Later, I came to understand there was another reason he had sequestered us in such a remote place: we were also hiding Jewish friends from the Nazis. But I knew nothing of that then. For the duration of the war, with the exception of occasional trips to Vienna, we were tucked away high in the mountains of Tyrol.
 
I lived in the mountains, off and on, from just after I was born until I was eight years old. The farm my sisters and I grew up on was one of those magical places of childhood, not only because it was safe and comforting—the opposite of war-torn Vienna—but also because it was the place where I awoke to the world with a sense of wonder. More than anything else in my first decade of life, the experience of living on a working farm profoundly influenced the person I was to become. There, in fields on steep mountain slopes, with a chalet-style log house, I discovered how food is grown and how it tastes just pulled from the soil or warmed by the sun. Far from the rubble of Vienna, the food in Tyrol gave me my first taste of nature’s bounty—something that has stayed with me all my life.
 
Mutti, my mother, always loved to tell the story of how I was born, and she repeated it every year on my birthday. The farmhouse in Tyrol was a two-hour hike down steep mountain trails to the nearest village, Kirchberg. Right before I was born, Mutti hid pork, bread, and other food from the farm in her suitcase and the lining of her coat—you were not allowed to carry food back and forth to Vienna—and thus encumbered, nine months pregnant, clambered down the mountain to the village. She was headed for Vienna so that she could give birth in the same hospital where my sisters were born and be closer to my father. From Kirchberg, she caught a train to Vienna, which lasted six or seven hours, or perhaps even longer, because of all the military inspections. The train was frequently halted so that the officers could check everyone’s papers; when the Germans annexed Austria in 1938, my parents had to produce documentation going back three generations in order to prove they had no Jewish blood. My mother’s papers were in order, but she still held her breath to see if she would be searched and caught smuggling food. Anything could happen to you in those days for the slightest infraction; everyone lived in fear. Eventually, she made it to the hospital, which was marked on the roof with a big X to make it clear it should not be bombed. Amid the explosions going off all around in Vienna, I was born, and a couple of weeks later my mother made the long trip back to Tyrol with her new infant.
 
Later, on occasional trips to and from Vienna, I would learn for myself what an adventure it was to reach the farm. I recall leaving Vienna at dawn in my father’s car, driven by “Herr Krakover” the chauffeur, and driving for hours along winding icy roads. Today the journey would take five hours, but then it took all day. The trip was long, boring, and probably dangerous, but all I can remember is what I ate. Throughout the long journey, my sisters and I savored the Wiener schnitzel sandwiches that Mutti had prepared on dark bread, making them last as many miles as possible. Sometimes we would stop at a butchers for our favorite Leberkäsesemmel, which is a kind of roasted-liver pâté. You slice it like cheese, but it’s more like a mortadella. You serve it hot, in thick slices. It’s baked so it has a crunchy crust, and you eat it with mustard and pickles on a kaiser roll. This was a real highlight for us.
 
Finally, when it was night, we would arrive in Kirchberg, where my parents had friends who owned a grocery store and where we could sleep overnight. You couldn’t just pull up to an inn at the time; there were very few places to stay, and peo­ple were cautious and fearful, wary of strangers who might denounce them to the Germans. Only old acquaintances would risk taking you in. We were tired, cold, and hungry by then, so it was wonderful when the owner’s wife would give us thin slices of Kletzenbrot—a dark sourdough bread filled with dried apples, pears, and hazelnuts—which we spread with her homemade butter. Several slices of Kletzenbrot, with a glass of fresh milk, were our dinner. At that point in time, you couldn’t find Kletzenbrot in Vienna; it was truly a regional specialty. They used what they had on hand to make it—rye flour, along with the fruits and nuts—and incorporated it into their daily sourdough bread and made something special out of it. To us, it tasted delicious—an almost fancy snack that gave us a feeling of comfort and safety at a time when traveling was precarious.

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