Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Snuggle Grub: I Really am in Richmond Magazine

Got home to see the new issue of Dine, from Richmond Magazine and my full page picture. I can hardly believe that they went with my powdered sugar face idea (although it didn't quite turn my serious gaze snugglie) . If only I'd had a mirror handy, I could have prepared and posed properly. But, whatever. The bit scooped up loads of my favorite eating habits and spread them around the city better than I ever could have hoped to do with this blog. Not too shabby, Megan Marconyac.

From Richmond Mag's site:
The Fall/Winter Issue of Dine
Along with this month’s Richmond magazine, we deliver another edition of Dine. The Fall/Winter guide offers a day-by-day list of special dishes that will satisfy your appetite all week long. Also, local experts serve up tips for finding that most interesting glass of wine. And in addition to our menu and restaurant listings, we sniff out some of the region’s tasty and out-of-the-ordinary brunch dishes.

Surely, loads of people will swoon at the thought of "snuggle grub," as the article is titled and they'll flock to the various places that are mentioned by the four "local food experts." Why? Because, while the piece is about the "guilty pleasures" of foodies, it's also a compilation of well kept secrets where yumminess hides in Richmond. Turn over a rock, and there be food-luvas. Be sure to check it out, as well as the articles on brunch and daily specials (something about wine too, if you're into that stuff). Maybe I'm biased, but I think this is the best Dine yet (at least up until the part where the mag turns into menu ads and regional dining option listings. But, those can be helpful too.

Now, I've got to rack my brain to see what all I blabbed to Megan about and start writing blog posts about those things. After all, it's winter and time for comfort food. Oh, and I hear my beloved Trader Joe's is finally open at Short Pump. Time to dust off the cycling shoes.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I Think I'm Featured In Richmond Mag...

The Dine insert to be specific, but I haven't seen it. I'm visiting my folks in Arkansas and I just found out that my fellow food-lova's have gotten their grubby little hands on the local essential eating rag. Richmond magazine's content is so hot that they can't put it online. So, I guess I can't really comment on my newfound infamy stardome, but I can give you some background about the interview and photo shoot.

A month or two ago I was contacted to participate in a Dine feature about "wintertime comfort food." At first, I was stumped. Comfort food has become too familiar all year round, lately, and this was kind of a sore subject. Nonetheless, I shot some ideas over via email. The Richmond Mag writer, Megan Marconyak wanted to meet up and talk until she had some notes to work with in writing her piece.

Megan and I had lunch at the Phoenician, a favorite for both of us and located conveniently between our two offices. Getting into the topic of wintertime comfort food, I talked about my affinity for frugality (despite my occasional splurges and indulgences), sorta as a preface. Then, I talked about winter time staples, like soup, chili, mac'n'cheese, heavy carbs, Indian buffets, frequent small meals, spicy hot cocoa inspired by the movie Chocolat, heat-creating spices of all kinds, freshly baked goods, and the list goes on. By the end of it, I was amazed at myself. As it turns out, I'm a freakin treasure trove of wintertime comfort food tips. But now, I'd forked over all of my bright ideas for use in this Richmond mag piece and I couldn't blog about it for risk of stealing Megan's thunder. If only my blog afforded me a stenographer/consultant who could elicit this much content from me on a regular basis... Oh well. Perhaps, it's time I revisited whichever tid-bits didn't make the cut.

Evidently, I told her that I rarely order dessert out. But during the winter, I like to over do it a bit and have something sweet. A favorite of mine for sweets is Rowland Fine Dining and I got a call from a Richmond Magazine photographer requesting to meet me there, so they could get a picture of me eating the mini-muffins that Virginia Rowland bakes and serves for free to each brunch guest. I responded to Megan before the meeting to make sure she understood, RVA Foodie ain't about "fine dining," unless there's an exception. In this case, Virginia Rowland's baker's touch provides just the incentive to head over the footbridge from Byrd Park to the Fan to get some desserts or some brunch. I was hoping that she would capture the irony. Still crossing my fingers until I read the thing.

At the photo shoot, I was forced to pose with, and bit into, and chew, and swallow, umpteen mini-muffins. It was absolute torture, let me tell you. These light puffs were warm from the oven and fragrant with bananas, hot brown sugar and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. After a while, I got kinda bored and started mooshing my face into the plate so I would have a whole bunch of white powder on my lips, nose, and beard. The photographer acted tickled and snapped lots of pics, but eventually he asked me to wipe my face clean so he could continue trying in vain to make me look as good as the mini-muffins. Poor guy. I can't wait to see how it turned out.

And that my friends is history now. The issue is on the stands and I'm outed as RVA Foodie in hard copy, for the first time (I'm in loads of pictures on this site). Let me know how you think it turned out and I'll do the same when I get my hands on a copy.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

We Don't Belong at Verbena

For our second wedding anniversary, Karen and I went to Verbena. It was a real treat to get out and leave Jasper in the capable hands of... well, I was ready to hand the little guy over to one of the drunks at the corner store at this point. But, my coworker, Lauren of Feasting on Richmond, graciously stepped up. And, even as Jasper began one of his epic teething meltdowns, we walked out the door and hoofed it down Robinson to the Fan's dining district, trying to quiet the echoing screeches in our brains.

Jasper says, "I have a way with nonverbal communication."

The experience at Verbena that night is deserving of one of my best writing efforts. However, I'm back in school again, so I have to ration my rhetoric. Sorry if this comes across like Cliff's notes. Despite the disclaimer, what follows is an incredible rebound that builds in one direction and then teeters back the other way, resulting in an unexpected landslide (or maybe we were just drunk). Here are the highlights, as best I can recall:

  • We walked in and the hostess tried to seat us right where we stood, virtually in the foyer. Um, no. We would like a booth, anything but this spot where people stand idly over top of us.
  • Then we were lead into the tiny dining room and stuck into a little two-top (because there were two of us, of course) right between two other tables. Seriously cramped.
  • All around us sat over-dressed old money, just short of top hats and ball gowns. We felt totally out of place, dressed only slightly better than we would have for a walk to Carytown. Maybe this is why they didn't want us in the restaurant proper.
  • The place was packed and everyone was talking. Karen and I couldn't hear each other. And when the waiter came, he was so tall, that we had to shout and kinda get up out of our chairs to get our voices to his ears up by the ceiling.
  • We looked over the menu and felt competely underwhelmed. The choices were fairly few and so predictable and pretentious. Each item revolved around some culinary buzz word that is supposed to justify the inflated price tag. We asked each other "what do you think?" both unwilling to utter negativity on our honeymoon outing, even though we felt the same way. It was a simmering stalemate. So we gritted our teeth and barely spoke.
  • My drink came out (a rusty nail, as usual) and there was some mistake. I was served a martini glass full of cloudy copper colored liquid. When I questioned the server, he said it was drambouie and dewars (and yup, it tasted about right). I shrugged if off and Karen and I shook our heads at the ridiculousness of turning a normal drink all fru-fru. I wondered how much extra they charged for straining out the ice and the prissy glass.
  • When the server came back to take our order, I threw off my cheapskate mantle (ignoring the $17 cous cous) and suggested we go all out and order one of everything. Karen talked me out of it and we wound up with a soup, a salad, rainbow trout, a cheese plate, and the crab cakes which was the most expensive item on the menu. I wasn't excited about any of it, but at least we were doing our part to make the best of it.
  • Twenty minutes went by before the $12 cheese plate came out, pissing us both off.
  • By this time, I felt like Jasper getting worked up into a screaming fit that I wouldn't come back from for hours. I imagined taking a flame thrower to this restaurant. "I've got to destroy the restaurant in order to save it." Okay, meanwhile, outside my brain... back to civil and celebratory conversation.
  • The pieces of cheese looked like miniature scale representations of the product we'd be expected to pay for, like the plate they were served on was being featured over the cheese. At first, our server couldn't name the cheeses until he went back and got his cheat sheet.
  • Slowly, we nibbled gingerly. Making polite comments. We compared some of them to cheeses we'd had before. We zero'd in on our favorites, trying to make them last. Next thing you know, we're raving about the whole lot, each declaring cheeses that were possibly all time favorites (I liked the blue. and Karen the camembert)
  • Karen's cured salmon salad was awesome. We had gravlax at our wedding and this stuff took us back. I had the butternut squash soup. It looked just like Jasper's special diaper surprise, but neither of us mentioned it. The flavor was great.
  • I ordered another rusty nail and it came out on the rocks this time, kinda small, but tasting right on the money.
  • More time elapsed. Turns out this was a pattern and they were deliberately "pacing" the meal into a two hour ordeal experience that goes along with the whole pretentious price package deal.
  • My $32 crab cakes came out (as did Karen's trout) and both of us couldn't believe our eyes. These things were huge, like almost 2" think, browned on top/bottom and pale and creamy looking along the sides. There was a beurre blanc sauce (butter, fer the rest of yall). The crab and butter combo, together with a creme fraiche topping was amazinginly rich and tasty. We passed this back and forth and could barely finish one of the two crab cakes. Maybe the best we ever had? Except that they were literally too good to eat, seeming to fit the theme of this place.
  • Karen liked her rainbow trout. It came with coconut rice, which I thought was clumpy and broken. There were other accoutrements, but I don't recall what. I finished the fish even after calling it quits on the crab, so it musta been good (or I'm a cross between Homer Simpson and a garbage disposal).
  • Heading upstairs to the little boys room, I realized that there's a casual area and bar where you can get the same grub without the pomp. They've even got a big TV on the wall, for those who prefer the sportsbar vibe.
  • The desserts sounded great and we found ourselves very excited about alcohol Verbena all of a sudden. But we decided to have dessert at home. The walk back would have been really uncomfortable if we tried to eat anything else.
  • The bill came and I was suprised to see that the drinks were $7 a pop. Not nearly as bad as I thought. At just over 2 hrs, it was definitely time to go home.

"I knew you'd come back. Nope. Not worried at all."

Somewhere around the end there, we started thinking about our child again. Karen says she was thinking about him the whole time, but not me. The price tag on that meal surpassed our one dinner at 1 North Belmont. No way was I going to spend our one night out doing anything but enjoying it (and it took every effort I could muster to set aside my instincts). Next time, we'll just head upstairs for bevs and dessert.

As it turned out, Jasper spent a good deal of the time torturing Lauren for some arbitrary reason, like his teething, or her inability to read 5 month old baby minds, and not lactating, etc. But, once his people returned, he perked back up.

(disjointed ending courtesy of Cliff's notes style hastiness)

A Pesto for All Time

At the end of this growing season, I pulled up an enormous basil plant from my garden and put all the leaves in my food processor with some blanched almonds, garlic, olive oil, and some parmigiano regiano. It made so much that I had to freeze it. To be sure that the pesto would be convenient for future use, I used a couple ice cube trays to make little portions.

I emptied these things into tupperware and forgot about'em. But, when it's time for pesto pasta, or a hastily made dip for guests, I'm all set. Last year's batch lasted me almost an entire year.

I think these two approve. What do you think?

What to do with All These Peppers?

Ever since going to Mexico on my honeymoon, I've been acquiring all these dried chiles. I had the best intentions, but at this point, there is no way that I'll ever use them all. Can you name all the peppers you see here? Sorry the picture isn't that good and the plastic baggies don't help. The real question is, what do I do with them? Make mole sauce? Maybe, but I'd want some help with that. How about a chile cooking party at my place? Invite yourself over and we'll fix up a bunch of spicy grub.

Jasper says, "I dare you to eat them."

For two years running, I have planted poblano peppers in the hopes of becoming a Byrd Park's version of Booby Flay. But alas, my four plants over two years have only produced two (pathetically small) peppers total (always at the end of the season, mind you). Anybody care to explain that one? Maybe mother nature just didn't want me to do this with those poblanos.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Sale You Can't Pass Up

Maybe it was because I spent my formative years running amok in my mother's bookstore in San Francisco, but I love to browse in book stores and, if the price is right, bring loads of them home. Or maybe it's because I was renting a house in the 1300 block of W. Cary Street when Chop Suey first opened in 2001, a stones throw from my porch (no, Ward, I didn't throw any stones).

It's bitte sweet to see Chop Suey leaving the Fan/VCU outpost. At this moment, the books are 50% off of the price listed on the inside cover (used books are usually at least half of the cover price). So, that's basically a 75% off sale. The real kicker is the sheer number of books they've still got left to sell. Ward is a shrewd and discerning "book man" and he acquired great stuff. Alas, the inventory isn't all going to fit in their expanded Carytown location and so its been given the red-sticker eviction notice. Bully for those of us who love books!

From the Chop Suey chefs:

After almost 7 years at the original Chop Suey location, it is time for us to close the doors for good and move west. On September 30th, we will close the doors at 1317 West Cary Street for the last time. However, this sad event will coincide with the expansion of Chop Suey Tuey at 2913 West Cary Street. We are currently renovating the upstairs, and will soon fill it with great used books. We have also constructed a gallery and reading space, and will be expanding our hours. So while we are sad to leave the building that gave us not only our name but also our reputation as a community centered store with great, inexpensive books, we are excited to offer Richmond and larger and rejuvenated bookstore in the heart of Carytown.

For the next 2 weeks, all books at Chop Suey Books will be discounted severely. They are all 50% off right now, but the discount will keep increasing until all of the books are gone. There are plenty of great books here still, so come in soon!

I think they're even expanding their hours to accomodate those of us who need extra time making up our minds about which books we want to take home. So, maybe this should be your plan for the weekend. Go to the bar and bring home cheap girls, like Jack Goes Forth. Or go to Chop Suey, and bring home cheap books. Or, heck. Why not both?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Introducing: Black Eyed Peas and Collard Greens

When I got the news that Richmond's Center for Neighborhood Empowerment and Enterprise Development (C-NEED) had started a blog, I added them to my blogroll quick. That was before I realized that their online anti-poverty platform was forming under the moniker: Black Eyed Peas and Collard Greens. I've blogged about these foods often and even grew some myself this year, but C-NEED does a better job of relating these culinary touchstones to the social justice issues that continue to plague Richmond.

Why Black Eyed Peas & Collard Greens?

The year 2008 represents new beginnings. As we stand on the cusp of new leadership locally, nationally and abroad, we can’t help but to reflect on our history and how this nation was built.

"Black Eyed Peas" symbolize many things but in this case, the small dark portion of the pea is like Black folk. We are viewed as small and not unified and as a result issues that affect our communities are not being heard.

"Collard Greens" represent the "Economic Growth" of our communities as result of our actions to get those running for political office to address our issues. Empowering our community to overcome and resolve the things which keep us from economic prosperity, we can build (“Healthy & Green”) communities.

"Black Eyed Peas & Collard Greens" has been created for the "People" to be heard, through meaningful conversations and debates about issues affecting our community with the intentions of seeing effective and notable results.

Take a look at this new blog and vote in their poll to develop a platform for lobbying local officials and candidates. If "change" is the top priority in our national elections, then there is no reason every community in Richmond shouldn't expect to benefit fully from an upgrade in pay, education, and public health. On second thought, let's not wait for Washington. Let's bring change to Richmond by working together to solve our own problems.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Masala Boondi and Richmond's Best Samosas

I write about falafel so often, you have to be wondering why this vegetarian* isn't promoting Indian food more actively? I mean, 40% of Indians are veggie and fantastic non-meat meals can be had all over Richmond at the various Indian restaurants. Well, one reason I haven't been talking Indian since my Valentine's Day post on cheap date night, is the heat. Heavy curries and rice is the last thing I want when it's pushing a hundred outside.

Now that it's September, the coast is clear to bump some coriander chutney and aloo tiki up in the queue. First of all, if you don't want to commit to a whole meal of Indian, you're in luck. There's this great little place at Broad and Hungry Springs, where you can order little plates, like tapas - sorta. And you can sit in a lounge and sip mango lassi while discussing the flavor of your dish. It's called, Cool Breeze Chaat House (coupons on their site!). Everything on their menu is between $1 and $5. That's my kinda eatin!

Another option is to get a samosa. Every Indian place sells them and many discerning diners judge a place based on the popular appetizer. Cool Breeze mashes theirs up and smothers it in accouterments and calls it "chaat." Some places offer theirs with or without meat inside. One would think that there's not going to be much variation when you combine potatoes, peas and spices fried in a thin dough. But, there actually is a BEST samosa in Richmond. Since I've never heard any opinion polls proclaiming otherwise, I hereby declare Bombay Grocery the purveyor of Richmond's best samosas.

Bombay Grocery
on W. Broad just west of Gaskins (by Blue Ridge Mtn Sports) features a modest selection of Indian products. The frozen foods are especially good for quick Indian meals at home. And on the counter by the register are several platters of homemade foods togo. Among the fried goodies, are some plump but plain looking samosas. They're $1 each, last time I checked. Go buy one now and bite into it as soon as you get out the door. Nope. It doesn't need to be hot. In fact, reheating kinda ruins it (so don't let them microwave yours). Besides, there's plenty of heat packed inside of that pouch. Wow. It will light you up a bit, but the bites will fly by compulsively.

I've brought their samosas home and tried to reheat them in the oven, but it didn't work out. The frying oil soaked up by the shell cannot be reactivated. I'm sure they're best right out of the fryer, but that's just not an option at Bombay. To console yourself, buy one or two of every fresh item they have and dig in.

If you want at-home snacks, get a bag of "boondi." What the hell is that, you're asking? I have no idea, but they sure taste good. One day I told the clerk at Bombay that I was making raita and I asked what she put in hers. BOONDI! When I saw the bag of tiny crispy poofs, I just couldn't picture them in my yogurt sauce alongside shredded cucumbers. But, I brought the bag home. (that recipe actually sheds some light on what I was supposed to do)

Next thing you know, Karen has to have a bag of boondi within reach at all times. They're greasy, salty, spicy, and spherical. Think tiny round Indian potato chips, made with "gram flour." If you're brave enough to make a curry flavored salad dressing, then these would make a great salad topper (Black Sheep, consider this on your already perfect salad - you know the one I'm talking about). There are many brands of boondi. So, don't go hunting just for the item above. And not all flavorings are equal. Start with "masala boondi." Practice saying it in the car before you go and ask the clerk. Masala boondi. Masala boondi. Doesn't that feel good?

If you're in the mood for Indian, having read this, here's some places to go satisfy that craving right now:
  • India K'Raja buffet: Not cheap, but the variety can't be beat
  • Ruchee lunch buffee: Cheap and authentic. Not overspiced or glutinous (unless you just can't stop)
  • Farouks in Carytown: Worst Indian in Richmond. You have to try it to believe it. Tell them what you think afterwards. Still kinda satisfies a curry/raita/chutney jones in a pinch.
  • Royal India on Broad/Hungry Springs: Best Indian in Richmond (in my opinion). They own the Chaat House too. Be sure to try the "shahi paneer."

*ovo-lacto-pesca, currently

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Plea for Help: Babysitter Needed

It's been five months since Jasper was born and Karen and I haven't been out to dinner together since (or a movie, or both). Our second wedding anniversary is Tuesday and we're both resigned to the probability of another night coaxing the little guy to sleep (that's Karen carrying the sleeping sack of taters off to bed). We may not be able to dodge another predictable Tuesday, but it's high time we prioritized Karen and Jason time.

So, friends. If any of you know any reliable sitters, well... we need one. Or better yet, a familiar friend would probably be our preference. We can bribe with cable and premium channels, an adoring snuggle pug, some tasty finger food, and a very dynamic little boy. We're new at baby rearin' but if you've got a kid, maybe we could barter and tend to your tyke in return.

If you're interested, drop a line to jasonguard(at)riseup.net

Whole Foods Revisited (by car, this time)

After biking to Short Pump and buying next to nothing last weekend, it was inevitable that I would go back with Karen and Jasper and buy up a bunch of natural/gourmet groceries. You see, the last visit was more like an art opening for gawking and being seen than a shopping expedition. I just wanted to see what kind of exquisite monstrosity had been bestowed upon the Greater Richmond region. And ooooohhh, is it a dandy of a grocery store. It's not physically or economically accessible for most Richmonders, but I still admire the achievement of bourgois beauty.

Jasper was sound asleep in his carseat when we attempted to pull into the parking lot. The Henrico police had rerouted traffic in a big circle around the place and then directed each car to the few available spots. Once inside, I took charge of the baby, so Karen could get a load of Whole Foods' infinite superiority over all other markets in the area. She had warned me before we came that she was "going to buy stuff." But once we got into the produce section, Karen was like a kid in a candy store... with a credit card. She seriously loved every square foot of that place. Drawn in by nearly everything she saw, Karen initially complained of the same paralysis that I complained about. But, that didn't last long and the cart started filling up.* Sweet Jesus, what have I gotten myself into? I couldn't wait to find out how much this trip was going to set us back.

We took our time going up and down each isle (had to cuz it was so crowded), carefully picking out sale items, unique treats, and exotic ingredients we've wanted to try. Big bottles of San-J Tamari was offered 2for1. Grapefruit shampoo for four bucks and change and Tofurky slices were $2 per pack. There was a long moment that I stood in front of the seafood case, wondering how the price of fillets could have doubled over the Carytown Seafood and PT Hastings prices. Mahi mahi for $17/lb? They also had something called "puppy drum redfish," but the staff couldn't tell me anything about it. Turns out George W. Bush designated it a protected species in federal waters, due to overfishing. Still not sure why I'd never heard of it. I settled on wild coho salmon for $12/lb, but I was disappointed to find it scaley and full of bones when I got it home. Oh, well. That's the price of tangling with nature. Shut up or go vegan, right?

I think Karen's favorite areas were the prepared foods cases and the freshly made desserts. The sushi chefs were giving out samples of the best ginger miso dip either of us had ever tasted. Halfway through, Jasper was awake and fidgety, so I carried him in the Baby Bjorn. He's a dream to shop with if he's suspended in front of me with a full view of the sites. It's a great arrangement, except that I can't see his face and have to ask the oogling strangers if he's smiling. He usually isn't, because he's contemplating the stimuli of our wacky world.

Okay, here's the moment you've all been waiting for. How much did we spend? Well, I'm still trying to track down the comparison study that Trader Joe's did about x number of bags of their groceries versus the same from Whole Foods. Obviously, the difference was pretty wide, with WF looking like pretty steep (TJ's says they're 20-30% cheaper than WF**). However, I'm used to buying six bags at Kroger for $120 or so, or $75 for even more groceries from one of the salvage stores on the Southside (we're talking paper bags, here). And with all of the stories of sticker shock and stories of over-indulgence from other bloggers, I was definitely bracing myself.

It turned out to be approximately 4.5 bags for $160. Not bad, eh? This includes a $12 wedge of parmigiano reggiano, $14 worth of fish, a $10 bottle of wine, and seven bucks for four of the biggest and tastiest apples I've ever had. Seeing the receipt was actually a little alarming, because it was so short. But, the thing is, they print it on both sides of the paper. A cool little eco-nuance.

Next time, Karen wants to cut straight to the prepared foods and buy buy some lunch so we can enjoy a meal in their in-store lounge or maybe in the outdoor seating. Then, we can shop judiciously with full stomaches and maybe even taste some wines that we'll probably never buy.

On the way home, we clocked the drive at 13 minutes and 12.2 miles. Not nearly as bad on a Saturday at 4pm as I experienced at quitting time on Wednesday. But, nonetheless, Karen and I agree that we won't be coming out here too often (in part because Karen had to go back out to Kroger the next day for stuff we don't need special organic brands for - such as the non-fruit ingredients for this stovetop peach streusel from the awesome new Food Network show). But, when we do, it'll probably be an exciting trip.

*A car seat and a diaper bag in your shopping cart helps create an optical illusion of a full load of groceries. Try it and you'll be tricked into spending in moderation.
**I called the Tysons Corner TJ's and they say this is the average of their comparison studies, but that WF's 365 brand does compete with their prices, but not on the name brand stuff.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Community Organizing is No Joke

By Karen C. Waters of Charlottesville, VA

I am a community organizer. I make change.

I am my brother's and my sister's keeper. This is one heck of a big responsibility; one I believe is no laughing matter. Thousands of others like me understand we are in this together, and shoulder the heavy burden to create healthy, just and inclusive communities by harnessing the collective wisdom, energy and efforts of folks willing to sacrifice for the common good. We forgo high-paying jobs, evenings and weekends at home, fancy offices, big expense accounts and public recognition. You can find us in church basements, community centers or walking neighborhoods that others are content to drive past, or on rural back roads that are sometimes impassable.

In big cities and small towns all across America, we solve problems, find resources, manage tight budgets, motivate and mobilize people to rise above their own expectations of themselves, their neighbors, and even those with whom they fundamentally disagree. The job title is one you may not have heard, but the functions are certainly familiar -- working with everyday people to activate a communications network like Paul Revere, organizing peaceful demonstrations like Mahatma Gandhi, speaking truth to power like Martin Luther King, changing policies to benefit children like Marian Wright Edelman, advocating for the poor like Mother Theresa, and partnering with others to get things done like Bush 41's thousand points of light.

While recently some have mocked and laughed at my life's work, I am deeply privileged to work with residents to improve their quality of life as Executive Director of the Quality Community Council and to serve on many community boards and task forces. Helping teachers to make sure that parents, even if they're homeless, disabled, or unable to read well, understand how we can work together to make our schools the best they can be; knocking on hundreds of doors to tell residents how to save our planet by recycling and conserving precious natural resources; teaching families miles from the nearest grocery store to work cooperatively, organically growing the vegetables they need to reduce their risk for obesity, diabetes, and cancer; showing the mother of a murdered youth how to convert her plea for safety to action, challenging City Council to adequately fund the police department before she has even buried her son; empowering a teenager to educate her neighbors on gun violence prevention; organizing forums and dialogues to forge consensus on our community's needs; plus registering enough voters to hold leadership accountable should those needs go unmet.

Although the pay is not much, the rewards are great, and well worth being the butt of petty political punchlines. It was no joke when a low-income retired veteran thanked me for "bringing back America like it used to be -- everyone helping each other." It was no joke when I was told by a teacher that a middle schooler wrote an essay naming me as his hero. It was no joke when a graduate of our leadership program was sworn in as the mayor. At the Quality Community Council, we know that Community Values are American Values, and we believe it takes Courage to Make a Difference.

Karen Waters serves on the State Governing Board of the Virginia Organizing Project.

I tried to address this subject from a number of angles in a previous post.

High Chair from Short Pump Craigslister

After work on Wednesday I drove to a development near Short Pump to pick up a Chicco high chair that I found on Craigslist. It was a steal of a deal and in perfect condition (see the tag still on the seat behind Jasper?). It's got locking wheels and it folds up pretty small. Karen loves it, by the way. This green color has been here thing for years now. Her main requirement was a removable plastic cover that goes on top of the tray and can be put in the dishwasher. This one has two.

The drive from Broad and Thompson took me 40 minutes between 5-6pm, with loads of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, first at the 64 Gaskins exit and then throughout Short Pump on Broad Street. It sucked. That place is a traffic nightmare. Thumbs down to boneheaded development. It would have been faster if I had ridden my bike. But, then I wouldn't be able to get the chair home.

In case you're wondering, we haven't started giving Jasper any solid foods. But when we do, I can't wait to puree the veggies for him.
Jasper says:
"How are you going to give me my milks
from all the way over there?"

"I store milk in my cheeks
in case of emergency."

"I can see into your soul right now,
or maybe I'm just pooping."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is What Recycling Day Looks Like

When I first moved to Byrd Park, there weren't this many households recycling on my block. I'm liking the looks of this.

I Just Bought an SUV*

Most yuppies go for the stroller gold by picking up a $400 BOB or a $700 Bugaboo. Having already scored a haut Peg Perego stroller/carseat combo off of Craigslist, the next step for me is all terrain. Bumpy sidewalks and uneven ground are a serious drag when using an umbrella stroller. So, to reward Jasper for his developing neck strength, I hunted down the best and cheapest jogging stroller on the market. Of course, this toy was for Jasper, not me. Nope, I was not at all interested in the adult accouterments on this thing.

Based on my research, the winner is the Jeep Liberty Limited Urban Terrain Stroller. Not only is this a solid stroller for use around town, it also serves as a kickin' ghetto blaster, as it's equipped with speakers and a jack for your MP3 player. Upon assembly, the first song I played was "Raining Blood" by Slayer. And oh, was it ironic sweetness. Jasper is gonna be the hardest MF'n headbanger in the neighborhood. Or, maybe he'll turn his hat to the side while we put the Perceptionists on blast for all to hear (one of my favorite political hip hop groups).

I missed my chance to buy it on Amazon for $100 shipped and now you can't find it there for a reasonable price. It turned out to be for the best, cuz I found a better deal from an eBayer in Connecticut. She received it as a baby shower gift, but didn't use it much. The online price is around $140 plus shipping, but she was offering "Buy It Now" for $50, plus $26 shipping.

If you're lookin for a stroller, you could do worse than this one. Consumer Reports and the Baby Bargains book both recommend it. And parents love the toy dashboard that pops into the baby's console. Apparently it keeps babies occupied real well. That's good, cuz I'll be behind this thing working the coffee cups and iPod like a daddy DJ. The only draw back is that the manual says you can't run with this jogging stroller. The front wheel swivels (and it has a locked one-direction setting), but this one isn't actually for jogging, cuz it's a hybrid "urban terrain" stroller. Whatever, I love it.

*I don't think I would ever buy a gas guzzler type vehicle. However, I do kinda want something statiowagon-y. The Toyota Matrix is totally my style, but they need to make a hybrid or electric version. Until then, I'll just stick with my '97 Honda Civic (33mpg)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

BRWFSP, Pt 4: The End

Let's beat this dead horse one last time by cutting to the chase before I wrap up the epilogue with some more annecdotes. Essentially, I'm saying that indulgences should be valued and appreciated. Even though Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are right off the highway that doesn't mean that Interstate 64 needs to be your yellow brick road to the wonderful wizard of Oz. Creating a traffic snafu is a contradictory homage to natural and ethical lifestyle choices. Try zumthing different once in a while.

Biking may not be the best way to do a Short Pump trip, no matter where you live. But evidently, it's a pretty provocative idea. I do highly recommend the experience, but I probably won't do it often (you know what they say about bodies in motion vs. bodies at rest). The Patterson to Three Chopt route is really rather pleasant, even if you're driving. Richmond has a lot to offer in the form of historic neighborhoods, parks, and a multitude of authentic cultures. So, I hope that the pre-fab environments of malls and big box stores are a relatively infrequent experience for me. Enough moralizing and on to some of my own contradictions:

Of course, when I do hit the humongous havens of retail heaven,
I'm gonna do it my way:

If this you missed the previous installments, here's part one, two, and three.

Meanwhile, back at Short pump...

In my post bike ride haze, I apparently visited the free avocado stand twice by mistake. Whups! Guess I had stopped by there on the way in and the way out. Maybe I was discombobulated by all the consumer excitement. ;0) After packing everything away, I hopped on my bike and rode across Broad to Best Buy, proud to be two wheeling it in Glenn Allen where car culture is king. I've got a subscription to eMusic, and sometimes albums that I want don't show up there. If it's a really dire case, I'll head to Best Buy, hoping for a sale (avoiding the $17.99 of Plan 9 - I mostly buy used there). Today, I just wanted a treat and to diversify my bike basket portfolio. I searched the end-caps where the $9.99 discs are displayed, hoping to find something new. And there it was: Fleet Foxes. I had no idea what it sounded like, but the critical acclaim made me feel like I needed it. I asked the clerk if they have a listening station, but they didn't (score one for Plan 9 - the album is very lovely, btw). After picking up some rechargeable D batteries for Jasper's swing, I headed out.

Back across Broad Street, I rode through the Trader Joe's parking lot. There were cars out front, so I thought I might peep some of TJ's secrets, oompa loompas carrying cases of Two Buck Chuck, or some piece of news that I could break for you all. I pedaled right up to the front door and it swung open for me (the motion sensor made it do that automatically). I debated going inside the haunted TJ's, but I noticed that there was nothing on the shelves as of yet. I decided against intruding and left, wondering if they might wanna hire an internet hype artist for their opening. Just kidding, I'll be out of town that weekend anyhow.

My last stop was the Vitamin Shoppe in the same little leggo-land mini-mall. I headed straight back to the clearance bin and zero'd in on the 75% off items. The clerks must have a knickname for people like me who blow past their carefully placed product displays for the scratch and dent and almost expired items. I picked up an irresistable 2 lb tub of "pre-workout muscle igniter." The claims on the label really grabbed me:
  • Explosive Energy
  • Insane Muscle Pumps
  • Laser Sharp Mental Focus
  • Lemon Lunacy Flavor
Those are all word-for-word quotes, yall. I was temped to add this to my water bottle, but I've had too many negative experiences with energizing products to poison myself way out in the middle of nowhere. No, I'm gonna try this stuff at home. Now, how much are you supposed to snort? Come to think of it, this epic four part blog entry kinda smacks of stimulants of one sort or another. But, it's all natural exhibitionism and ego, locally produced and non-gmo. Don't you worry.

Back on the road, I vowed to take my time getting home. No, I didn't go to West Elm or H&M (not without Karen, anyhow). Despite my anti-consumerist diatribe, I love to shop. But I couldn't weigh my bike down any further.

There was no rush and I no longer had a full head of steam. Nonetheless, my sense of accomplishment and newfound knowledge of the roads made the ride go by quick. In fact, it was somewhat meditative and relaxing. My legs had resigned themselves to the movement and this acceptance helped me transcend some of the muscle fatigue. I detoured through Carytown and Groveytown before that, but I didn't stop anywhere. The ride back home was 50 minutes, capped off with a shower and furious somewhat inspired blogging.

So, back to the operative question. The Whole Foods vision of loveliness was totally worth the trip. It's a totally dreamy place. Everyone reading this should go and see it and try at least one thing. Considering my small bike basket and limited funds, I could only take part in "Partial Foods." Not that there's anything wrong with that. I love expensive things and expensive places. Just in small doses. As for the bike ride, these blog entries of mine usually fall into either the "how to" category or the "how not to" category. I'm pegging this one a "how to."

For analysis of the grocery store market impact of Whole Foods, see Veronica, my favorite patiserie. Which stores will Whole Foods' impact, assuming they successful establish themselves? Some say it's Ukrops, Ellwoods, Fresh Market. What do you think?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Bike Ride to Whole Foods in Short Pump, Pt. 3

The people at the customer service desk were very receptive about getting a bike rack. I decided against prattling on about the need for Whole Foods to encourage non-car travel. Even though bicycling to Short Pump might seem a little crazy for those who don't live in one of the surrounding developments, it's just good business to model the ethics behind your products. I also just wanted the staff to know that the bike ride from downtown is possible. Only 45 minutes, as it turns out.

If this you missed the first two, here's part one and part two.

Luckily for me, the achievement of arriving twelve miles from home on a hot day, under my own power, totally restored my sapped energy and made me more than a little giddy. I had walked into a carnival atmosphere of awestruck customers and "hihowareya" employees. At every turn there were things to try and slick design and attractively arranged foods and products. It was sensory overload. The other customers were all walking around like they were trying out a new pair of shoes, nodding in that "yeah, I could get used to this" kinda of way.

Let me clue you in up front so you don't get the wrong impression about my angle here. I don't like health food stores, big or small. They're almost always too expensive to the point of elitism, and yet, I want everything I see in those places. Consequently, I can't decide on even a few purchases and I spend loads of time wandering in a state of paralysis. Most everything I see gives me ideas about cooking, or eating, or learning something new and they're all fragmented incomplete thoughts. That's not how I like to shop. I like to find diamonds in the rough and bargain basement deals. To be fair, Whole Foods is a culinarily Mecca worthy of a pilgrimage if it's within your means. To each their own, right?

I previously complained about Penzey's for the same reason. I don't want all that stuff under one roof. I want to hunt down obscure stuff in obscure places. And when it comes to splurging on natural products, I prefer to rifle through the clearance bins, discount stores, salvage markets, or closeout items at Kroger. In other words, I probably won't be a regular customer at Whole Foods, even though the place is a breathtaking thing of beauty. I'm pretty well satisfied by Kroger, occasional stops at Sam's Club, Tan-A, and various Latino markets and specialty stores. If I do go to Whole Foods, it will be on my way home from Trader Joe's (opening 9/26/08)

Needless to say, Whole Foods had no clearance bin (it being day four and all). There were sale prices and opening weekend specials. But over all, the place was absolutely teeming with excess. I mean, obscene amounts of prepared foods and endless displays of produce. I felt like I'd walked into Willy Wonka's factory, where even the ground you walked on was edible. Who's gonna eat all this stuff? I can't fit it all in my bike basket. This is a crisis! We've got to get this cornucopia to the people who need it. All these "customers" are just gawking, like me. No way all of this stuff gets bought. What happens to all the stuff after the store's initial buzz wear's off?

Okay, Jason, calm down. Overproduction is a business tactic. They're just trying to dazzle us (it worked!). The Whole Foods staff will surely be proactive about funneling would be waste to Richmond's soup kitchens and food banks instead of the trash compactor. There's nothing to worry about. Eat something and poke around for a while.

Samples that served as my lunch (and breakfast):
  • Tortilla chips with queso dip
  • really good green olive hummus samples
  • chipotle salsa
  • deliciously dark Desk coffee, from the Blanchard roasters on Forrest Hill
  • onion cream cheese and red pepper cream cheese on sesame crackers
  • Shennendoah Joe coffee from CVille
  • Parano cheese (twice)
  • crab dip
  • guacamole and chips
  • sun screen from a tester bottle (reapplying to face, neck, shoulders for the ride home)
  • pineapple
  • pound cake and lemon curd
Ahhh, that's better. Now, let's talk about this big opening. There was a lot of skepticism about Whole Foods in Short Pump (probably still is). The thing is: green, organic, local - all of these things are currently riding a marketing tidal wave. Little stores like Ellwoods and Good Foods can't supply the surging demand for the entire region. So, Whole Foods has moved in at an opportune time. Just check out Fresh Market by Regency. They're crowded every weekend. It just goes to show that "if you build it, they will come" (assuming you have the stuff they want). And that's why Whole Foods was going all out to make a big first impression: to create lasting customers beyond the eco-fad and into the economic downturn.

A couple store details that really grabbed me:

The seafood was immaculate, voluminous, and included esoteric varieties. There's an amazing wine cafe in the middle of the place where you can pay for samples of each bottle and sit and contemplate oaky nose and notes of pepper corns before buying. The inside and outside seating for eating is really cool looking. The salad bar is like Ellwoods times five or ten. I seriously expected to find a blogging station in the store designed so customers can brag online or Twitter about the tantalizing foods. No public computers, as it turned out. But there were a whole lot of local and Virginia based products and exhibitors. The parmasano reggiano was on sale for $13/lb and the Gruyere was actually affordable. Sure, the prices are over all high, but the Whole Foods brand products tend to be competitive with name brand products from a traditional grocery store.

Feeling pretty satisfied by the samples, I almost strolled out of the store without buying anything. After investigating the place from top to bottom for almost an hour - can you believe that? Their beautiful pizzas by the slice tempted me with their exotic toppings. Then I started worrying about my ride home and decided to buy an energy bar to help propel my legs. I also found a product that my wife had been wanting for when we don't feel like making these lactation cookies.

And that was it. Kinda anti-climactic, huh? What, did you expect the frugal guy to rent a uHaul and buy out half the store with money I don't have? I'm actually an exception to the target market for Whole Foods (although I'm blogging like they're paying me, right?). I was there to take part in the spectacle and the bike ride aleviated most of my self-conscious and political concerns. Of the hundreds of people that I encountered, there were virtually no familiar faces. I kinda wanted to chew the fat with someone and maybe brag about my bike ride (to someone other than the staff). I called Karen, who is excited to visit the place (although she feels about the same as me. It won't be a regular thing for us). I oogled some babies, since Karen and Jasper were out of town for the weekend. And somehow, I failed to acquire a single compliment on my carrot socks. Because I was carrying a helmet and cycling shoes, I did get some stares like I was wearing beachwear in Alaska. But, that's suburbia for ya. For me, just a place to visit and hopefully make a scene in the process.

All that was left was to ride home, but I felt like procrastinating a little. I wasn't really worried about the physical trial of the ride. It would be almost a victory lap, having made it this far. So, now I just need to make a couple other Short Pump stops to make the shopping trip really worthwhile. And that's the crux of the issue here. What on earth could Short Pump offer that would make the long distance trek truly necessary (by car or bike, for that matter). Do we NEED corporate wonderland, or does the big box paradise need us? Well, West Elm and H&M, her I come...

To be continued... (the epilogue is much shorter, I promise). Sorry, if this thing is dragging on. I've still got loose ends to tie up, but I may have kinda poured most of my available prose into part two. Remind me about any issues we need to wrap up, in case I forget.

"Did you forget my teething pops?"

Here is part 4.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Bike Ride to Whole Foods at Short Pump, Pt. 2

I had this great idea: Ride my bike to Whole Foods opening weekend in Short Pump and gloat about my ethical transportation choice to frolic amid the the corporate chi chi avant gourmet perfection. All that was left to do was actually make the trip there and back (easier said than done, right). My hypothesis was pretty obvious: This increasingly ridiculous big-box retail conglomeration is just too damn far for regular trips for rational Richmonders. Now that the experiment has been carried out (I made it there and back in one piece), my conclusion is a bit different (for now). This story, although only transpiring over the course of four hours (made some other stops), is currently feeling like Frodo's trip to Mordor to destroy the ring of power. Or, maybe I'm just outta shape and over-analyzing.

It started with a whirlwind preparation this morning, that propelled me out the door and onto my bike. I chose my wife's flat bar road bike over my much faster road bike. It has a detachable basket that held my water bottle, keys, cell phone, wallet, lock, and room to spare for a few purchases to bring home. To prepare for the heat, I wore a sleeveless wicking shirt and stretchy/chamois Canari's under my cargo shorts. Except for my comical socks and clip in shoes, I do not wear neon lycra outfits like those guys on bikes that cost as much as my Honda Civic. Helmet, check. Gloves, crucial to avoid hand fatigue (especially on a flat bar with only one hand position). Sunglasses, yup. 100 psi in the tires and I'm off. Surprisingly competent prep considering my hangover (but I did forget to eat anything for breakfast. doh!).

Cutting through the fan and Museum District to get on Patterson is familiar territory for me since I often bike to work at Broad and Thompson. Once past those 2.5 miles, the rolling hills of Patterson woke me up to the reality of this workout and the sorry state of Richmond's roads (many potholes to avoid, nearly popping my tires). By the time I passed Libby, I was feeling the burn and wondering why Trader Joe's didn't decide to go with the old Westbury Market right there and save me a trip out to the corporate wonderland (oh yeah, THANKS UKROPS). I mean, seriously. Trader Joe's is going to be my main motivation in going all the way out to Short Pump (by car) in the future and popping by Whole Foods will a secondary sometimes thing. Anywho, bargaining is the stage acceptance I was in as I reluctantly pedaled ahead. If I waited here long enough, maybe a yuppy paradise would eventually show up and fill that empty grocery store.

When I reached Three Chopt and Patterson, I found some shade and stopped, not sure if I was going to make it. Even if I did, would I make it back? Was I still drunk when I made the decision to ride to Short Pump? I'm not in shape enough for this. My muscles were screaming and I realized that I hadn't stretched at all. So I took five and got limber and caught my breath. Part of me suspected that my second entry on this topic would be about wussing out, turning back, and admitting my naivite. But only 20 minutes of riding had gone by and I wasn't ready to throw in the towel. No, I wasn't prepared for this ride, but exercise is how you get in shape and doing the ride is how you get your body ready for the next one (the quads just needed stretching and I was good to go and demystify some Richmond roads). Plus, maybe I won't have to change my pseudonym to RVA Fattie.

Turning onto Three Chopt, the ride changed into something else altogether, mostly very pleasurable. At first it was rough, because I struggled to get my shoes clipped back in and once I did I found myself having to stop at a light. Low and behold, I didn't get my feet out in time and I fell over on my side, crashing bike and body against the pavement, still attached at the feet with a dozen cars stopped all around me, gawking and agape. This is a humiliating happening that most biking noobs like me are familiar with. Okay, I'm not a novice rider. I'm just undisciplined and out of practice.

After I picked myself up, I pedaled hard to leave that bad memory behind. My bike ate up the curves and hills and I totally hit a goove. Thank god for gears! The music in my ipod totally fueled this poriton of the ride (thanks to recent downloaded music: The Foreign Exchange, Girl Talk, The Lines, Black Mountain). Yes, I like to wear headphones on my bike. Hearing is overrated on a bike when dumbasses are probably yelled at me and taking it out of the equation heightens my other senses and distracts me from my fatigue. Let's not debate this practice, please. I know it's unwise. Virginia law says you need to have one ear open to traffic sounds and my earbuds fell out frequently enough to put me in compliance part of the time. All in all, this was a really peaceful part of the trip through a fairly lush green version of suburbia.

Soon, I was passing Regency, Parham, and then Gaskins. HOLY SHIT! I just passed Gaskins. Only one more stop on 64 to go. Up ahead, I was on a stretch of Three Chopt I'd never seen. The unfamiliarity was concerning, but I was thankful not to be buzzed by too many cars on the narrow two lane road. I passed Cox road and the tranquil road opened up to pretty recent housing developments. Pedaling on, I was looking for Pump road to tell me that I'd gone far enough, but not sure if I'd find a better option to make a right turn and hit the shopping centers. My anticipation was getting really strong and I had to keep from freaking out about where the fuck I was.

As you can see, I was pretty excited. But nothing prepared me for the vision on the right that unfolded. The trees gave way to a distant vision, an oasis, if you will (also known as a "clear cut"). Smack in the middle of a cluster of unfinished brick structures jutted out the facade of Whole Foods and a small sea of cars surrounding it, shining like glittering water in the hot sun. Yes!!! I made it. I could even read the sign from here. But there was no way to get over there. Soon, I had left the vision behind me and freak out mode set in again. Luckily, a newly constructed "street" opened up on my right and I took it's windy turns through the construction to the mouth of the Trader Joe's, Five Below, PetCo, Vitamin Shop installation. Booya!

The only real drag of the trip so far was right here. I had to backtrack on Broad Street a bit. Biking on Broad, especially west of Boulevard, really sucks. Richmond needs to make Broad more bikeable. But, that's another story cuz as long as there are lots of cars and fumes, etc, I won't wanna bike that route. Riding among the spectacle of sprawl in process and all the big box construction sites, made me wonder. Was all this deemed necessary just because white flight and decades of massive resistance? It's a lot of trouble to go to just cuz white parents don't want to send their kids to school with African-Americans. Anyhow, I rode up to the 64 East exit and then veered into the cutesy brick paved Whole Foods lot, dodging traffic cops and throngs of gridlocked cars. This place was slammed. And wouldn't you know it? No bike racks.

Considering myself discriminated against, I locked up my bike to the most prominent street light in front of the store and made a bee line inside for customer service, even passing the stand where they were bribing new customers with FREE AVOCADOS. By the way, looking at my watch. The time of my ride was 45 minutes (plus that 5 minutes of stretching/reevaluation).

To be continued... Tune in tomorrow (Sauron awaits) for the story of a foodie in paradise and some conclusions from this experiment.

Here's part three.

Bike Ride to Whole Foods at Short Pump, Pt. 1

There is such a stigma attached to the drive to Short Pump that I feel like I need to do something to justify my curiosity about the new Whole Foods. Much of the negativity has actually come from me and my website, as I've talked endless sh*t about the traffic version of a double windsor knot that is the Short Pump stretch of (far) West Broad. How do my carrots look?

Seriously, the conglomeration of retail fabrication is so epic that most Richmonders just shake their head in wonder. Of course, every other Saturday, even the naysayers wind up strolling through Best Buy or buying fillet by the foot from Tom Leonards. Yeah, I think the place definitely has found a niche as everyone's dirty little gas guzzling secret. But, that's precisely why I'm writing this piece. I want to see if it's possible for a downtown resident to make an ethical trip to Whole Foods and have the whole experience of an earned vacation in the oasis of eco-friendly and ethical organic unprocessed bioregional macrobiotic antioxidant-rich alternative green naturopathy (trade mark).

Jasper says, "Bring me back some organic teething popsicles."

According to Google Maps, the trip is at least 12 miles each way from Byrd Park, taking Patterson and Three Chopt, most of the way. I don't guess that I'll need to get a hotel along the way, but I'm bringing my credit card, just in case. If you haven't noticed, all of this writing is taking place BEFORE the ride. As optimistic as I am about the trip, I'm not sure about the ride back. How will I get my purchases home? FedEx? I could take my wife's bike with the basket on the front, but it would take much longer. Not sure at this point. And then there's my slight hangover from enjoying toxic beverages while watching Chuck Liddell get KTFO'd last night. Let's hope this adventure doesn't do the same to me...

To be continued.

"Just kidding. Be safe, daddy."

part two for ya.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is a Community Organizer, Anyhow?

... besides a Republican punchline. At the Republican National Convention, some of the speakers ridiculed Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer. Never mind the fact that the RNC was themed on "service" and Republicans of the past promoted social programs involving "a thousand points of light," I don't think these people have any idea what it means to be a community organizer. Or do they?

First of all, here in Virginia, we can lay claim to an authoritative source on the subject or community organizing. A book was recently published called "We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do--and Why" by Joe Szakos and his wife Kristin of Charlottesville.* Pretty convenient, huh? That should answer a lot of questions, and it probably won't surprise you to know that We Make Change is the first book of its kind on the topic of community organizing (although there is a handbook/bible for practitioners). Joe Szakos is the Executive Director of the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP).** This statewide organization "empowers people in local communities to address issues that affect the quality of their lives." That's basically the core idea behind community organizing.

Does this work sound like something that should be ridiculed? The answer is YES, if you are an advocate of the filthy rich or an elected official who lives in fear of being held accountable. From that point of view, community organizing is threatening as it brings people into the political process and gives them a voice and a taste of power. The organized go from political subjects, to actors.

Another reason why Republicans are trying to laugh away Obama's background? He was damned good at his job! Barack Obama turned a congregation based group from a $70k annual budget to a $400k a year group that mobilized thousands through job training and defended against victimization by slum-lords. And now, he's coming for McCain's multi-house owning ass with an army of underprivileged Americans who are fed up. Um, yeah. That might inspire nervous laughter and defensiveness.

But seriously, Virginia may have VOP, but we aren't well known for community organizing otherwise. The standout national group, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), is renowned for turning recent college grads into high producing, iron fisted, straight talking, progressive political pitbulls. But they haven't found a foothold in Virginia. They pay a pittance for 80hrs per week of door knocking and rack up scads of political victories (like Living Wage ordinances) virtually everywhere they take root.

It's a pretty small percentage of ACORN organizers who actually stick with it and stay with the organization. Their system is about as demanding and cutthroat as Dean Witter in The Pursuit of Happiness. All of this pays off in an expanding grassroots power base that can rival corporate interests in the political process and leverage votes come election time. In other words, national politicians might talk smack about community organizers, but local politicians are usually a bit more careful, if they know what's good for them.

In Richmond, community organizing goes on sporadically beneath the surface of our everyday politics. And once in a while, there is a flare up and the art reveals itself. In 2006, RISC (Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Communities) pressured city council to commit to passing a Living Wage ordinance for the 500+ contracted city employees that are currently paid a wage below the federal poverty line (just ask the guys on the City garbage truck how much they make). RISC picked up the fight after the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage (RCLW) all but gave up their fight to see this change through (which started in the year 2000 and over the years we had supposed champions in McQuinn, Trammel, Jewell, McCollum, Pantele, Jackson, Connor...).***

After years of misleadership by Richmond city council members, RISC put several local politicians' feet to the fire in dramatic fashion, before a backdrop of gospel singing and thunderous clapping. It would have been a conversion moment had our officials felt any sincere loyalty to the public welfare, much less their own word. As soon as RISC's gifted thirty-three year old community organizer, Michael de Beer, suffered an untimely heart attack, the council used his death as a way out of their commitment to uplift the poor who toil on the city payroll.

This local story of community organizing may not inspire hope, but then again, this is Richmond, Virginia. The community is rarely organized and the fight-back spirit is largely missing from the equation of our democratic process, unless you count Ukrops and the RTD's influence over city government. But, enough sour grapes outta me. Community organizing is only going to grow stronger as our leaders sneer and snicker. If you want to get involved in changing the disproportionate distribution of power, get that book, contact VOP, or look at some of the projects you're already involved in and realize that you might be already be a community organizer.

*This book is seriously awesome. If you want to borrow my copy, just say the word.
**I serve on the Statewide Governing Board of VOP.
***I was a founding member of RCLW.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

(I think) I'm Voting for Dwight Jones for Mayor

Why isn't anyone talking about the Mayoral election? Sure. There have been articles about candidate forums here and there, but let's not kid ourselves. Richmond is not engaged in this election. Why is that? Few key issues come to mind besides the one that unites them all: Couldn't be worse than Wilder. Months ago, a list of tough questions were compiled on a community blog. I chimed in there. What ever happened to those? These candidates are giving superficial pitches, and we're the ones who are going to pay for it if we can't discern a clear direction for our city among this slate of candidates.

But first, lets rewind for a moment:
  • The debacle that was Wilder's "strong" mayor tenure shows us the destructive potential of the position that we created in our haste. That's right, Wilder's behavior was practically predictable considering the white horse that we gave him to ride in on. "At-Large Mayor" was regressive change for change's sake; Richmond at it's most Ukrop/RTD driven and racially divided. How so many could be so wrong (on both sides) is puzzling, to say the least. Refresh your memory: Here's an incendiary assessment I wrote on a sort of community blog back in 2003, before Richmond had community blogs. You probably never saw it, because the RTD feigned interest in running the piece, since they hadn't published a critical word on the At-Large Mayor straight through the referendum. When Ross McKenzie axed it, I posted it on our local Independent Media Center where a citizen journalism was taking root, but not thriving.
Okay, enough I told ya so's. My point is that we need someone in the Mayor position who will COLLABORATE and reach out to the most marginalized sectors of our city, instead of parading their alleged mandate all over the other elected officials and citizen groups. We should have learned this under Wilder and Bush, if you ask me. I'm crossing my fingers that Dwight Jone's General Assembly experience will help us find regional solutions to some of Richmond's problems and his pastor position will translate into a social mission to address the widespread poverty that holds Richmond back.

With such a painful mistake in our recent past, it's no wonder that Richmond's head is still in the sand. At Church Hill People's News, 122 votes were collected and Dwight Jones came out ahead of Grey by two. But there were 23 "I dunno" votes and I think there's more where they came from. The debate that followed called for a poll that required a ranking, to avoid spoilers, because a few candidates might split the vote and prevent a clear winner. I would contend that what we've got on this slate is a ranking OF spoilers. But here goes anyhow:

Ranking from least embarrassing to virtual self-flagellation:
  1. Dwight Jones (community connections, but is he a social justice big talker?)
  2. Paul Goldman (definitely all talk and darned good at it, thanks for giving us Wilder)
  3. Lawrence Williams (political nobody)
  4. Bill Pantele (giddy and greedy, salivating at the prospect of schmoozing developers)
  5. Robert Grey (opportunistic corporate power broker and Wilder lackey)

Notice that I've got the unqualified goofus in the middle position. He's the neutral point between probably benevolent and probably sinister. So, thank you Lawrence for providing that clarifying framework. Can you tell that I'm really not thrilled with my options here? Okay, I'm not the only one who's non-plussed at this point. John Sarvay said as much, but much more responsibly and comprehensively. Hat tip to the B&M. But, Sarvay's take is a long read, so I say B&M or get off the pot. Let's light a fire under these wanna be leaders!

Whether you're with the press or simply willing to press an issue, it's now or never. If these people can't define the leadership we can expect from them, then let's help differentiate them ourselves. Somehow, this town's political juices need to get flowing and I think it's up to the people to lead the way with our own opinions, caramelized and otherwise.

I'll probably chime in with some of my pro/cons on each candidate if a discussion gets going. I know I didn't touch on everybody's pet issues, not even my own. So, stay tuned for that. Or speak up and draw it out.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Fu Jian. May I Help You?"

In Defense of Fu Jian: The RVANews Best/Worst poll features the prominent Fan Chinese take out joint, Fu Jian, in almost every one of its worst restaurant categories. Why the spiteful attention for such a run of the mill restaurant? Fu Jian even offers fried chicken, fish and shrimp, spare ribs, french fries, and other junk food staples to keep everybody happy and meet the unhealthy appetites of those too unadventurous for beef with broccoli.

Sure, sitting at the corner of Meadow and Main means that Fu Jian is bound to get some attention. That's usually a good thing. But, considering that they're constantly replacing a repeatedly broken front window, maybe Fu Jian is getting the wrong kind of attention. Nonetheless, Chinese take out is what it is. So, why all the hate? I've been ordering from Fu Jian since 1998. It is music to my ears to hear that familiar refrain at the other end of 353-5888, "Fu Jian. May I help you?" If you've got an ax to grind with Fu Jian, please speak up. But if you haven't tried their lightening fast delivery, I don't mind passing along my (mostly vegetarian) ordering advice:

  • Bean curd with garlic sauce: For the price, you can't beat this dish. Probably about three lbs of tofu, deep fried to perfection, and slathered in a tangy/spicy brown garlic sauce. No veggies. Only tofu and LOTS of it. Unfortunately, the sauce is sometimes too thick and a little gelatinous and gloppy. (you can also get the same with broccoli instead of tofu, but they won't combine the two). ($5.75 for a quart - pints not allowed)
  • Bean curd in home style: Same as above, only the sauce is bland and forgettable and it's got veggies in place of half of the tofu. A decent trade off, actually. ($6.00)
  • Shrimp toast: Disgustingly good. Meaning, it tastes really good, but makes you feel really disgusting if you eat more than one triangle. Greasiness is a fine line to tread. Balance this out with rice or soup and an oil absorbing facial. ($3.25)
  • Fried cheese wonton: Wontons stuffed with cream cheese, then deep fried. Dip these in the duck sauce that comes along and think of brie and jam. It's not that, but for three bucks, what do you expect? Considering how heavy these are, you could almost consider the starter as your meal, if you're not into vegetables or starch or spending money. ($3.00)
  • Bean curd roll: typical fried spring roll without a trace of meat* and sometimes bits of soy protein. ($1.10 each)
  • Moo shu vegetables:A really big portion of sweet moo shu favored cabbage and carrot shreds, served with five "pancakes," and some plum sauce. The veggie version is only X dollars cheaper than the meat, so get whichever you prefer. It's all about the plumb sauce and the burrito style wraps that bleed juice through your fingers and down your arm. You'll need extra pancakes, but don't ask for them unless you want to pay an extra $3. ($6.00 serves three)
  • Ma Po To Fu: A big vat of spicy slime with squishy cubes of curd and previosly frozen veggies. This dish is a Chinese classic that the take out world hasn't really altered that much from the original. Try it at least once. ($5.25)
  • Lunch specials: They've got 30 options that come with pork fried rice or white rice, a FREE soda, or an egg roll. Um... yes, please. ($3.99 -$4:99 from 11-3pm)

Doesn't all of this sound good? Dinner can be had for under twenty with enough leftovers for lunch the next day. So what if Richmond's Chinese take out is generally subpar. So what if you got sick once or twice from the shrimp with lobster sauce? It's bound to happen from any restaurant if you go there enough. And what are you doing ordering seafood take out, anyhow?

*Traces of meat are bound to be found in nearly all dishes. Veg-heads: live the lie and don't scrutinize.