Under the Mango Tree: New Documentary on Food Program for the Mentally Ill in Ghana

Two summers ago, I found myself sweating in northern Ghana’s hot sun, following a t-shirt-clad doctor around his clinic’s grounds. Dr. David Abdulai spoke with the strength and humility of a Zen teacher and had an unusual approach to healthcare: in addition to medicine, he treats his patients with unconditional acceptance. A year later, I returned to Shekhinah Clinic to film a documentary about their food program, which delivers daily meals to over 150 of the city’s mentally ill homeless population. Under the Mango Tree is a forthcoming film about how food repaired the relationship between the mentally ill homeless population and the citizens of Tamale, Ghana.

According to Human Rights Watch, there is one psychiatrist for every 2 million people in Ghana. Psychiatric hospitals often lack the resources to provide adequate food and medicine and face challenges with overcrowding. The widespread belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits, demons, or witchcraft has led to the development of spiritual healing centers called “prayer camps,” where, according to a UN report, people with mental disabilities are chained to trees and denied food and water for days at a time. The same UN report expresses disappointment with the newly formed Mental Health Authority, which has not yet begun monitoring mental health facilities as required by Ghana’s 2012 Mental Health Act. Shekhinah Clinic is one of the few healthcare facilities that welcomes those suffering from mental illness without judgment, mistreatment, or force, and it has what may be the only meals-on-wheels-style program in Tamale, making it a vital source of emergency food.

As a graduate student studying Food Systems at New York University, I was in Ghana taking a class on the root causes of global hunger and food security. After five weeks traveling the country gathering stories and data, I came home gushing about Dr. Abdulai and his incredible work. His personal story is itself inspiring — growing up in Tamale, Ghana, he lost both parents and all ten siblings to poverty-related diseases before he reached age of 10. With fierce determination, he managed to complete medical school. He quit his job in public health to open Shekhinah Clinic, performing the first surgery on location under a mango tree that now shades a cluster of residential wards, a laboratory, and a surgery theater. He offers free healthcare to anyone who needs it, no questions asked.

under the mango tree

Abu, a volunteer at the Shekhinah Clinic food program in Ghana, stokes the flames under groundnut soup. Photo by Marshall Langohr

The food program began 20 years ago in response to complaints from market stall owners that the mentally ill homeless were stealing food, harassing the women, and causing public disturbances. After growing up on the streets himself, Dr. Abdulai understood that these behaviors were often caused by hunger. He and his wife decided to deliver meals directly to the mentally ill living in the streets, and found that once they were fed, they were calmer, caused fewer disturbances, and stopped stealing food in the markets. The program is still going strong today, delivering one nutritionally balanced hot meal per day, seven days a week. The food program maintains a small farm with chickens, fruit trees, and vegetable plants, which are used in the program’s meals. Other programs at Shekhinah provide microloans for women to run small businesses and shops in the Tamale area, helping to alleviate local poverty.

The clinic has limited access to resources, relying on donations from inspired visitors. And with the decline of the global economy , those donations have decreased . Inspired by the doctor’s selfless humility and incredible story, I decided to bring this story to the screen to raise awareness of the clinic’s critical work and the power of their food program. The goal of Under the Mango Tree is to create a lasting piece of media that can be used by multiple parties – the clinic, nonprofits, student activists, etc. – to tell the story of the clinic and inspire viewers to donate. To learn more of Dr. Abdulai and the food program, watch the trailer and get involved here.

Katrina Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer, storyteller, editor and researcher of global food systems. She holds a master’s in Food Systems and Policy from New York University. She is the director and producer of ‘Under the Mango Tree.’

Marshall Langohr is a Seattle-based filmmaker.

 

Baking With Local Flour: A 2-Way Conversation

Stefan Senders of Wide Awake Bakery, just outside of Ithaca, New York, is reacquainting people with local flours. The bakery uses locally grown and ground flour in its breads, and Stefan helps professional and home bakers learn to use these unusual ingredients.

“You have to be reading your dough all the time,” Senders says to students. “This is a romantic question: What does the dough want?”

While local flours are just coming on the radar for mainstream eaters, they’ve been around long enough to earn a bad rap with commercial bakers. Unlike flour sold under national brands, which are a blend of the product of acres of industrial-scale grain fields, local flour is seen as unpredictable. Bakeries are reluctant to gamble with irregularities in protein and moisture content because the losses in time, dough, and product can be considerable.

But wait, didn’t all flour used to be local?

Indeed, before the prairie became the place to grow nearly all our wheat and other grains, all farming, milling, and baking happened close to home. If you ended up with low protein flour, you couldn’t opt not to bake with it. Back then, bakers had to have a deep understanding of flour and a tolerance for the obstacles seasonal variations could present.

Today, these skills are making a comeback. Senders’ one-day workshops, which he co-teaches with two other bakers, are crash courses in understanding the idiosyncrasies of this ingredient.

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Bakers, millers, and agronomists from across the country gathered at Wide Awake Bakery to test-bake with whole grain organic flours as part of a long-term project to revive our once vibrant Northeast wheat crops. Wide Awake hosted a small group of bakers, some of the finest bakers in the Northeast, to test these wheats in an artisanal baking environment. Photo by Allison Usavage

“One of the great complaints about local flour is it’s too variable,” he told a recent class. “If the baker is not being precise, there’s way more variability on [his/her choices] than in any flour ever milled.”

Some of the students nodded. Day to day, a baker makes lots of tiny and inadvertent changes. Inaccurate measuring, lack of attention to timing, or the chemical and biological processes responsible for bread can add up to bad loaves. Professional and home bakers know how much work it takes to make any flour, let alone local ones untamed by blending, into bread.

“Traditionally, it’s said that the baker plays with time and temperature, but of course there’s plenty more than that,” said Senders. “You can adjust the quantity and vigor. You can play with the length and intensity of the mix … and so on.”

In a sense, the baker, the ingredients, and fermentation process are in conversation. Local flour just requires a little more listening. And that’s not the only dialogue that matters. Fresh flour means the farmer listens to the land, and talks to the miller about what has grown. The miller talks to the baker before the baker begins to chat with dough.

Wide Awake Bakery is now three-years-old, and part of a farmer-miller-baker partnership. Farmer Thor Oechsner co-owner in the bakery, also owns Farmer Ground Flour, which stone mills organically grown New York State grains. Millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston are in contact with both the baker and the farmer, working in a way that has gone out of fashion. As a well-informed user and interpreter of this particular flour, Senders can also talk to the mill’s commercial customers. He speaks bread.

At the industrial scale, there is little communication between the people who handle grain. Farmers talk to grain merchants, who deliver grain to mills. Both grains and flours are created to hit performance specifications for baking. In effect, numbers talk to numbers. As the food chain shrinks, people have to talk to people again.

Organizations throughout the country are collaborating to foster these conversations. In the Northeast, a number of groups are bringing together key players. Among them are GrowNYC, which runs farmers’ markets throughout the city, and OGRIN, the Organic Research and Information Sharing Network. They are both partners on grant projects, like a recent one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, which led to Senders’ classes.

The classes are a great way to introduce people to local flour. Senders teaches at the bakery and in other settings, like Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s winter conference. His classes attract a range of bakers. Some of these people are farmers, too, looking for a way to add value to what they grow. And one man came to Ithaca from Canada, seeking information as he planned a small farming, milling, and baking enterprise.

Other people are looking to build their baking skills. A couple from the Adirondacks came to research a bakery project. And a serious home baker traveled from Maryland to get clues about working with freshly milled flour.

“A lot of people have been baking for years and everything has been hunky dory. Then they taste [local] bread, and they want to up their game,” Senders said. “This thing that appeared to be not mysterious at all was suddenly made mysterious again.”

As a teacher, he then works to remove some of the mystery, beginning with an analysis of what makes a good loaf.

“Bread is like a balloon full of little tiny balloons,” he said recently, diving into a tiny treatise on gluten, how it is formed, and how gluten quality varies with different grains, like rye and spelt. In Senders’ classes, you can sense people’s interest rising like dough as he explains the principles, theory, and science of bread. He covers the structures of grain kernels so people can understand both stone and roller milling procedures, and how the resulting flours work differently.

Everyone gets a chance to calculate desired dough temperature, fussing with water, weighing and mixing doughs, and shaping and baking loaves.

As a hint of the size of the undertaking that is bread, Senders refers to advice he received from Jeffrey Hammelman, director of King Arthur’s Bakery and author of the book Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes: “You can never master bread,” Hamelman told him. “You’re just happy to befriend it.”

Amy Halloran is writing a book about regional grain production, “Bread Rising: The New Crop of Radical Grain Farmers, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers and Brewers” (Chelsea Green, 2015). She is extremely fond of pancakes.

Allison Usavage creates things that bring people together: photo, video, design and other things in Ithaca, NY. Wide Awake Bakery, the region’s first bread CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), opened in April 2011. Fresh Dirt Ithaca did a feature about Stefan Senders and the bakery in the Fall 2011 issue. A year later, Usavage decided to follow up. She talked to Stefan and his partner David about their personal experiences and the evolution of the bakery. Update: Check out my photo essay from January 2014 at Wide Awake Bakery about a test-bake with new organic whole wheat flours. 

A version of this article appears published in Civil Eats on June 25, 2014.

Patience

I’ve been waiting a long time for this.

The ham was cut from the pig’s carcass sixteen months ago. The breed was Tamworth: mild-mannered creatures with red bristles, a fine marbling throughout, and a ratio of meat to fat that we presumed was well suited to the prosciutto we set out to make.

I had done my best to cut the ham in such a way as to include all the hind muscle groups while not cutting into the loin. The cut was sweet: precise, that is. The ham, once separated, was round, smooth and appeared truly prosciutto-worthy, so we went ahead and buried it in sea salt. At a certain point, based on our somewhat loose calculations, we remembered to pull it from the salt, brush it off, and hang it up.

It’s really quite simple. Cut the meat, salt the meat, hang the meat.

Just use quality meat. Only use quality meat. Always. Use. Quality. Meat.

More than a few variables exist between the salting and the finished product. We’re working those out. Those are our secrets. I will say this: traditional methods, frowned upon by know-nothings and rhapsodized by the cognoscenti, seem to have a favorable effect. Yes, friends, there is no substitute for sweet country air.

Fifteen months after hanging in various spots in our verdant valley and only days after the one-year anniversary of our opening of Fish & Game, we cut into our ham. Older than the restaurant itself, this is one of several pre-opening projects that is teaching us how the ingredients that end up in the kitchen ready for the evening’s menu are years in the making. Our menu tonight, any night, began years ago.

Jori provided even greater examples of this idea when I showed her this essay. She wrote back to me: “We plant garlic in October and wait patiently until June/July to eat it… We start seeds in February for a plant we won’t harvest until August. We plant puntarelle and asparagus and wait three years to harvest them… We do these things because of the beauty and the reward of having the connection and knowing we’re doing it the right way, even though in this day and age it seems like the wrong way because it takes too long.”

We knew we had to cut into this ham to determine if our curing and aging methods had taken the ham in the right direction—not because we were impatient, as impatient as we all seem to be in this age of immediate gratification—but because we have more hams hanging. Had this ham gone off, there was great likelihood the others were off as well.

This was our test.

We have no ham tester (the little hollow point needle used in Parma and other famous ham regions throughout the world) to stick into the meat and pull out a core sample. We do need to buy one of those.

To date, all the hams had been cured and hung in the exact same method, only at different times.

Holding the ham, smelling it, touching it, we all—Kevin, Jori and I—shared the feeling that everything would be all right. But we had to cut it to know: to taste the salt, the texture, to see whether or not some unwanted bacteria had crept inside, quietly rotting the meat from within, giving us false hope.

The meat was fine. Better than fine. It was a deep pink, with a tight grain and perfectly à point in its saltiness. Fifteen months is approximately nine months shy of when I’d like to be pulling the hams, however with more pigs queuing up for curing, we felt it prudent to check our oldest ham’s progress to aid in guiding our future efforts.

Allowing the hams to hang for at least 24 months, I think, will afford them a more developed “nose:” greater complexity and a bit of funk in the aroma, adding greatly to the sensuous pleasure of consuming salt cured, air-dried pig.

The ham into which we cut is now a staple at the bar, served thinly sliced. Last week we also served it in the dining room wrapped around one of our eggs, soft boiled, and dressed with a ramp leaf salsa verde. Honestly, though, I prefer this kind of ham eaten on its own, perhaps accompanied by a glass (or two) of Malvasia from Emilia-Romagna… or perhaps even a dry cider, made nearby… or sherry, of course. With ham this good you can’t really go wrong.

As Jori elucidated, the ham is only part of that for which I’ve been waiting. The ham is the ham.

The aforementioned waiting also pertains to the time, space and mindset to make the ham and hang it in the manner we did: like having a garden and working the soil, allowing it to develop and knowing that what we do won’t be truly great until the soil is rich with life. The waiting also refers to the spring that teased out its arrival following the deep freeze of this winter past. The waiting is what was and isn’t anymore as I am here and definitely not there.

Waiting may not be the right word. I’m not sure that I or Jori or any of us immersed in this project were ever really waiting. I’m not one to pine. It’s just nice to be here giving it time and allowing for life to take its time. Proper time. And I’m just conscious enough to recognize that. I am, however, also aware that the years, the winters, take their toll and, as Alvaro Mutis put it, on one’s “face one could see the rigidity of controlled pain that is accepted as the price we must inevitably pay to go on being who we are.” The spring eventually softens this hard existence but the lines remain, remnants of the absence of mercy in nature. We have no choice other than to be OK with this.

On occasion something will trigger memories of the time I spent working and living in the city. There were times of elation, moments of inspiration, collaborations with great talents, long hours, weeks, months, intense and engaging discourse, fucking in cars parked outside three-star Michelin restaurants, apartment and neighborhood hopping, intentional decadence, drinking and over-eating, falling in love. Life happened. And as it did it brought memorable moments.

But for a good part of my time in the city after the turn of the millennium, there was a lingering discomfort: a dissatisfaction with the cynicism that surrounded the business, some bad partnerships, and the density, but most of all an unbridgeable disconnect with the product and conflicted feelings about the paradigm on which so many restaurants are built. That has changed. And now spring is here.

We at Fish & Game have created a unique situation in the Hudson Valley, the result of a fantasy shared by more than the people directly involved with the restaurant. What is being built and what has already come to pass at and around Fish & Game is part of a more general awakening. An attentiveness. A more considered style of living than I have ever witnessed of been a part of.

Being human and still very much a New Yorker, I find it challenging not to quip that this “enlightenment” is probably due to our heightened sensitivity that the waste of our rampant consumerism is close to consuming us. Such unchecked growth is perhaps partially a result of too much of the “think big!” mentality, the mantra of industry titans and self-proclaimed masters of the universe.

I wonder now if it was hard to He-Man to see beyond his muscles.

I’ve begun to think of it this way: we’re not capable of much, yet the little bit we do can resonate far beyond our time. It is this small work, when done with great care and attention to detail—up and down the ladder of all the elements involved in our doing, before and after the doing is done—that is making this time more beautiful than any I have ever known. Witnessing this and being a part of it, has made the waiting—if only recognized after it has passed—worth it. And so I smile, knowingly, as I begin to understand that spring—the cutting of a ham and the green—is our annual reminder of the necessity of patience and its persistent beauty.

 

Zakary Pelaccio is the chef of Fish & Game in Hudson, NY and the author of the book “Eat With Your Hands.”

A version of this article appears published in the Spring 2014 Newsletter from Fish & Game titled Spring: Year One, which can be seen here.

Toward the Summer’s Solstice

———

The glory of true beauty is that it’s found in everyone and everything.

No soul is beyond the capacity to love or be loved,
no sadness without a subtle remembrance of the complementing joy.
It is the silence of words that go unspoken
and the fertile roots of our garden weeds.

We were all born with the purity of heart
and so forever have it in our blood.

And as is with the heights and depths of each solstice,
beauty is ever-moving and persistent by nature,
perfect
when the difference between is let go
and we fall in love.

———

digger

Douglass DeCandia is the Food Growing Program Coordinator at the Food Bank for Westchester, which operates on five sites located throughout Westchester County – Leake & Watts Residential Campus, New York School for the Deaf, Sugar Hill Farm at Westchester Land Trust, Westchester County Department of Correction and Woodfield Cottage.

Starting Out: A New Farmer’s First Growing Season

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Tyler Dennis at Alewife Farm. Photo Credit Lloyd Ellman for Civil Eats

It’s spring, the first season of the first year at Alewife Farm in upstate New York’s pastoral Putnam county. Owner and head farmer Tyler Dennis coaxes weeds–miniscule dandelions and tiny bunches of grass–from a neat, compost-dusted bed.

Last week he made his first sale, 1,000 pounds of pea tendrils destined for kitchens in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, via the curated community supported agriculture (CSA) company Quinciple. The sale was a relief for Dennis and proof that his fledgling effort to reform an “unsustainable” food system could compete with established operations in the Hudson Valley. But more than cash flow, it was validation.

Alewife Farm–named for the migratory herring native to the areas waters–sprawls over 40 rugged acres. A suspension-crushing dirt road leads past several stadium-sized meadows to a brook bisected by property lines. The brook provides irrigation to three acres of vegetables and drinking water to the farmers.

This patch of real estate was the culmination of months of research and dozens of visits with realtors. Soil, water, location, price. The checklist of criteria is dizzying.

“It’s pretty unusual for farmers to be able to be choosy about the land they’re on, but this was perfect in a lot of ways,” says Dennis.

young farmer chickens

He signed the lease with financial backing from Ben Hoyer, a former hedge fund manager he befriended while working at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. Hoyer owns the land; the farm rents it. Their partnership is mutually beneficial: Alewife shrinks its overhead costs, Ben supports local agriculture and can get his hands dirty without managerial responsibility.

So far, the arrangement works. Hearing these business partners discuss their venture feels like a glimpse into the future of agriculture, particularly for young farmers trying to enter the game in an era when real estate costs have outpaced food costs by a significant margin. But Dennis is quick to point out a few key qualifications. The most important: autonomy.

“Alewife Farm LLC is owned entirely by me. Ben has no managerial stake in the farm business. That’s crucial,” he explains.

Collaborations between young farmers and wealthy land-owning benefactors are common in major metropolitan areas, but they usually come with caveats. Often, the landowner has final say over decisions best left to the people doing the farming: what to grow, what to buy, and (most commonly) how the farm should look.

“It’s dysfunctional because the farmers in those situations are financially disempowered. They’re not really farming on their own,” Dennis argues.

He sees this as a challenge for his generation. How can a first-timer convince someone to yield absolute control over their land and (often) money? It’s not impossible, with organizations like the Columbia Land Conservancy offering matchmaking services between parties. Still, he admits, “I got really lucky.”

farm beds

Dennis graduated from college in 2011 with a degree in Film Studies and no sense that he might own a farm a few years later. A fortuitous series of accidents lead to a farmstay on an organic olive farm in the bountiful Provence region of France. After three months of wine and olives, he started looking for ways to continue farming in the United States.

Stone Barns, a mecca for sustainable agriculture just north of Manhattan, was a natural fit. “I was there doing physical work and it was great. I was outside, eating amazing food, hanging out with people I really liked,” he recalls. Halfway through his first apprenticeship, Dennis was convinced.

“I realized [farming] was what I wanted to do and I saw an opportunity to do it in the way I wanted.” Shortly after, he started the project that would become Alewife Farm.

Not that it came together so easily. Dennis estimates that he’s invested just over $100,000 in his farm, cobbled together in “every way you can finance a farm.” From foam insulation for a walk-in cooler, to bird-proof netting and used tractors financed by bank loans, farms have staggering upfront costs.

He advises young farmers to prepare by working or apprenticing on for-profit farms, in addition to organizations like Stone Barns and nearby Glynwood Farm (which run primarily on donations, not sales). Non-profit farms are an exceptional way to learn to grow vegetables, but simply “can’t teach much about marketing or decision-making on a for-profit farm.”

So Dennis has been balancing the budget on his own farm, using Google for research and some knowledgeable friends to guide him.

“I’m far from profitability right now,” he allows, but he’s already selling to buyers around the region, most notably the restaurant attached to the Stone Barns farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chef Dan Barber’s shrine to über-local ingredients.

And more sales, more markets, more pea shoots are on the way; part of the daily grind of a young farmer trying to change the food system.

It’s a stressful, arduous task. Or as he puts it, “the best job in the world.”

 

Lloyd Ellman writes about the people, farms, and ethical dilemmas of our food system. He firmly believes that good food is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Recently, he has written for VICE and Food Politic. Follow Lloyd on Twitter.

A version of this article appears published in Civil Eats on June 16, 2014 as apart of their Young Farmers Unite series with the headline: Starting Out: A New Farmer’s First Growing Season