by Liz Weslandar
WHEN IT COMES TO KOMBUCHA, IT SEEMS THAT PEOPLE EITHER LOVE IT, HATE IT, OR DON’T UNDERSTAND IT. However, if you’ve purchased a beverage from a cooler at a grocery or convenience store lately, it’s clear that the kombucha lovers are winning out over the skeptics. Elliot Pees, founder of the Kansas City area kombucha company, KANbucha, was an early adopter of the kombucha movement in the Midwest and has found his vocation in creating and selling this old-world craft beverage with benefits. Kombucha is a fermented, probiotic-rich tea drink that originated hundreds of years ago in China, but it has only been sold commercially in the U.S. for about a decade and has only really caught on in the past few years. According to market research firm SPINS, kombucha sales saw 29 percent combined growth across all channels from February 2013 to February 2014. For this period, total scanned sales were $122.7 million. A 16-ounce bottle typically costs between $3 and $4.
Pees got into the kombucha game ahead of the curve. After trying a bottle of the sour beverage that his sister brought him from Austin, Texas in 2009, Elliot decided to try brewing his own kombucha. In 2010, he started selling his kombucha on-tap from a kegerator at the Lawrence Farmers Market. From there, Elliot started selling bottled KANbucha at health food stores, coffee shops and gyms around Kansas City and in Lawrence, where he’s based. Business has gone so well for Elliot that he recently partnered with Ben Farmer, owner of Lawrence’s Alchemy Coffee & Bake House, to lease a 25,000 square foot production space.
D e s p i t e k o m b u c h a ’ s popularity, plenty of folks out there are still mystified by the fermented c o n c o c t i o n . Perhaps part of kombucha’s mystique is that the key ingredient is a suspicious sounding substance called SCOBY, or “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” A SCOBY, which looks like a disc of mucus, is sometimes called a “mother,” because it reproduces an additional SCOBY layer with each new batch of kombucha. In other words, it takes a SCOBY to make a SCOBY. Kombucha is its own self-perpetuating process.
“The SCOBY isn’t the foreground mascot for most kombucha companies because it isn’t appetizing in appearance,” said Elliot. “In fact, some literature jokes that you should let your friends drink your kombucha, but don’t let them see it while its brewing right away.”
Once one has acquired a SCOBY, brewing kombucha is a simple process whereby a SCOBY culture is added to a batch of sweetened tea. The SCOBY eats the sugar and ferments the tea. The result is a sour, slightly fizzy beverage. As you can imagine, producing large amounts of kombucha requires a large amount of SCOBYs, and it would not be inaccurate to call Elliot a SCOBY farmer. Elliot said that while some kombucha companies add a “food energy” element to their SCOBY care by doing things like meditating and playing musical instruments while in the presence of the cultures, he keeps the care of his SCOBYs pretty straightforward.
“They really don’t need much tending if the brewing is regular and the environment is appropriate,” said Elliot. “This means they are getting nutrients from the tea and sugar, the temperature is between 70-80 degrees, and the surrounding air is free of contaminates. They like to be left to do their thing.”
KANbucha’s new production facility has streamlined their brewing process and enabled the company to increase production to 80 gallon batches per week. KANbucha brews in smaller glass vessels, each with its own SCOBY. While this is the most volume Elliot has produced to date, he said it’s not even a quarter of what he intends to be produced in the future.
While the improvements in volume and efficiency are great, Elliot said the coolest part of the new production facility is the “work-play” atmosphere, which he believes has a direct effect on the quality of the product. “Our hand-built surrounding is established to inspire us to get things done with enjoyment,” said Elliot. “We like our space and what we get to create for others on a daily basis. This ultimately means a better quality product for everyone.”
Because kombucha can be an acquired taste for people whose palates are not accustomed to tangy or sour foods, the ongoing challenge and art form for kombucha brewers is creating flavors that are not only palatable but that people will actually seek out.
“I see a lot of reactions to kombucha,” said Elliot. “Some people taste it and love it right off the bat. I tell people that if you try it and don’t like it one day, come another day and try it again. It may be that you just haven’t found the right flavor.”
KANbucha comes in seven flavors, the most popular being Ginger Rose – a combination of kombucha, ginger rosewater and some grape juice for color and sweetness. Jasmine Aid – which is made by adding jasmine tea and lemonade to the kombucha – is another popular flavor, said Elliot. KANbucha’s newest flavor, Roonilla, is reminiscent of cream soda.
“The name comes from the ingredients of Rooibos tea and vanilla, and the flavor’s profile is similar to some traditional sodas in that it’s creamy, woody, herbal and malty,” said Elliot. KANbucha’s dry tea ingredients come from Hugo Tea Company, a premium tea purveyor based in Kansas City.
It might seem counterintuitive that an unfamiliar beverage with a difficult taste profile would be in such high demand, but Elliot said there are a number of reasons people are embracing kombucha. One is that kombucha is what the food industry calls a “functional beverage” – meaning that it is a drink that may also have significant health benefits.
There is research showing that the consumption of fermented foods, including kombucha, introduces beneficial bacteria – often referred to as probiotics — into the digestive system. With the proper balance of gut bacteria, the digestive system can absorb nutrients more easily. Probiotics have also been shown to help slow or reverse some diseases, improve bowel health, aid digestion, and improve immunity.
“Kombucha is an example of ‘food as medicine,’” said Elliot. “While I typically refrain from talking too much about health claims due to liability reasons, if you do your research, you’ll find that fermented foods have the potential to treat a number of chronic problems. Customers of mine describe lots of different benefits they receive from drinking kombucha.”
Aside from the health benefits, Elliot said the kombucha craze is part of a larger renewed interest in old-world foods that foster a sense of community and tradition.
“Like many foods that have a long history, the production of kombucha has a passing-down element, meaning you cannot make it without sourcing a pre-existing culture from someone who has nurtured it, historically a family member or neighbor,” said Elliot. “This is important because it directly reminds us that food was communal because culture and living was more communal.”
Elliot said that yogurt cultures, sourdough cultures, miso cultures, and vinegar cultures are other examples of old world foods for which families had, or may now have, ongoing cultures their ancestors kept alive and passed down.
The old world niche is also part of the even larger “craft” food and beverage trend, which emphasizes variety, uniqueness and quality, all things KANbucha strives for.
“Craft foods are often locally made using ideas both of old world genres and new synthesized inventions,” said Elliot “This is what people are enjoying right now in coffee, bakery goods, beer, wine and also kombucha. In light of this, KANbucha represents kombucha in the regional craft beverage world.”]]>
CAFÉ GRATITUDE, ALONG WITH FÜD AND EDEN ALLEY, MAKES UP A THIRD OF THE RESTAURANTS IN KANSAS CITY’S VEGETARIAN “WHOLESOME” TRINITY.
IndieFit recently caught up with Natalie George, the café’s “Creator/Director of Awesomeness” (yep, that’s her actual title) to discuss their free Thanksgiving community meal and to reflect back on the restaurant’s recent third anniversary. Known for their idiosyncratically named entrées (which all begin with “I AM…” – I AM MUCHO, a Mexican bowl of black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, salsa verde, cashew ricotta cheese, etc.), the vegan stronghold is the only member of the upscale Café Gratitude chain outside California. (The other restaurants are in Santa Cruz, Berkeley and LA). With only six locations (eight if you count the uberhip Mexican spinoff Gracias Madre in San Francisco’s Mission District and West Hollywood), Café Gratitude nonetheless is a strong brand in the vegan world, having garnered praise from the New York Times and a cadre of veggie-leaning celebrities who love the culinary radicalism of the chain, which is loosely based on the very Left Coast-sounding philosophy of “Sacred Commerce” that attempts to integrate personal transformation, sustainability and business.
So why is Kansas City the first outpost of the brand outside Cali Nation? George, a Wichita native who previously worked at Garmin for ten years, said she originally wanted to bring the restaurant to KC because “for the longest time in my life, I’d wanted to live in California, but I stayed in the Midwest. Then something clicked in me. I realized I wanted to bring the things that are in California to Kansas City.” Believing that the Midwest, particularly Kansas City, is very community driven, George felt that “community is what the culture of Café Gratitude is all about. It’s more than just the food or vegan philosophy. There were people in Kansas City who craved the energy of clean eating — or at least the promise of it — that California represented to me and also the more open definition of community that is what Café Gratitude is all about. We were hungry for that in Kansas City.”
Café Gratitude’s annual free Thanksgiving community meal will once again take place at their Southwest Boulevard location, which is undergoing renovations to add an upstairs for private gatherings and community workshops. George wants to set one thing straight about the purpose of the event. “When we first started doing the meal two years ago, so many people would want to come volunteer, but they wouldn’t want to eat with us. I think the normal way people viewed this sort of thing was that it was about giving to the homeless.”
But George has a different vision for the event. “At our community dinner, anyone and everyone is invited to participate. And we do have homeless guests, but this is our way of giving back to all of the community, including our customers. We don’t target the homeless. We target the community. The main focus is celebrating together. It’s about sharing our gratitude because Thanksgiving is the day set aside for that.” Attendees all pitch in to help serve the meal. George carefully searches for words to describe how the event makes her feel about food, community and even the definition of family: “I love my family and — how should I say it — this is the only way I’ll ever do Thanksgivings going forward or at least some version of this. My favorite part is at the beginning when we all stand in a circle, and everyone goes around and shares what they’re grateful for. It’s really moving. It almost moves me to tears every year. Usually there’s a line out the door waiting to come in. We can get upwards of 70 people. So to go around and have that experience with so many people at once, it’s really powerful.”
When I asked if her definition blended the notions of family and community she said, “yes, that beyond resonates with me. That’s what I’ve created at the café. The staff is like my family, and I think they would say that about each other.”
CAFÉ GRATITUDE’S COMMUNITY MEAL WILL TAKE PLACE THURSDAY NOVEMBER
26, NOON – 3 P.M. (OR WHEN THE FOOD RUNS OUT)
On the Menu: A salad, main dish and desser t, all served family style
Café Gratitude Kansas City
333 Southwest Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108
BEFORE I DIVE INTO THE CULINARY SPLENDORS OF GENGHIS KHAN MONGOLIAN GRILL, which has been open now for almost 20 years just south of 39th Street on Belle Street, I need to start with a disclaimer. I love this restaurant and not just for the well-curated ingredients on the buffet or the ginger water or the sleek urban vibe that can build to a crescendo on Saturday night or the portrait of Stephen Hawking that watches over guests who jockey for position around the restaurant’s signature 700 degree cast-iron griddle.
Not long after we got married, my wife was diagnosed with a rare and very acute blood disease that landed her in the intensive care unit at KU Med Center. For a while things didn’t look good for her. At nights I stalked the empty halls of the top floor of the main hospital or hiked back and forth on 39th Street when I needed to get some air or food. One night I walked into Genghis Kahn for the first time. I ate my dinner at the bar and plunged into more detail than I’d planned about what had been going on with my wife and her condition for the last couple weeks. When it was time to pay and head back to the hospital, I looked at the check and restaurant – either the barkeep or manager Nga Huynh who you can still find at the restaurant most days – had picked up the tab. I’ve never forgotten that kind gesture. My wife eventually made a full recovery and we’ve been loyal customers ever since.
Back to the food. Most people come to Genghis Kahn for the Mongolian grill, an all-you-care-to-eat buffet of vegetables, meats, seafood, and sauces that you select to create your dish. Despite the name, the Mongolian grill tradition is really Taiwanese in origin. Taiwanese, Malaysian, and Singaporean “fusion” cuisines are incredibly popular in California and other parts of the US but aren’t as common in the Midwest (with the recent exception of bubble tea), but the restaurant definitely has a fusion flair to some of the menu items. The Genghis buffet is hands-down the best of its kind in Kansas City. I’ve noticed that some of the more suburban incarnations have an almost parental oversight of your “experience,” where servers guide you through options, explain how to choose sauces depending on your spice tolerance, or even disallow certain food combinations for reasons I’ve never fully understood. There’s pomp and flair at the Genghis Kahn buffet as well, but you don’t need a guide dog to enjoy it; the experience speaks for itself. The curation happens before you ever get to the restaurant.
Ingredients on the buffet include fat black beans and pinto beans, crispy tofu, the usual thin slightly-frozen chicken and beef, calamari and shrimp, and a plethora of sauces and “waters” (like my favorites ginger and garlic water). A couple sauce combo recipes are taped to the last station in the line if you need inspiration, but otherwise you’re on your own. (I always use the same mix: five ladles of ginger water, two ladles of garlic water, and a dollop of sesame oil – try going lower sodium than that at a restaurant). The buffet includes seasonal fruit (how they manage to find decent watermelon even in the middle of winter has always impressed me), small dessert squares, a killer hot and sour soup (which you might have to ask for) and their legendary sesame bread – a thin baked concoction of sesame seeds, brown sugar, and white flour.
Venturing back onto the menu, some good IndieFit choices include:
I suspect that someday aging Gen Xers might haul their grandkids to 39th Street’s restaurant row, much like their own grandmothers hauled them to the bygone Putsch’s Cafeteria institution that fed generations of blue-haired grannies and their broods on Sunday afternoons of the past. Until then, I’ll keep coming back to Genghis Kahn on Saturday afternoons for the little blue bowls of veggies, the ginger water, and the memories of a compassionate gesture many buffet visits past.
GENGHIS KAHN MONGOLIAN GRILL
3906 Bell St, Kansas City, MO 64111 | (816) 753-3600
M-T 11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. | Friday 11:00 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. | Saturday 12:00 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. | Closed Sunday
How better to celebrate Thanksgiving IndieFit-style than with a savory holiday veggie-loaf?
To stay on the up-and-up, I should tell you that most of us here at IndieFit Central are all about the turkey. That said, we also know that some people – especially those of us who sweat it out in the kitchen while Uncle Joe and Aunt Trudy chomp Brazil nuts and sip Cold Duck in the living room – get bored cooking the same old traditional turkey and dressing we’ve eaten every Thanksgiving since we were kids. We’ve mixed it up in the past by declaring, cuisine-wise, an Italian or Mexican or Chinese-themed holiday. But, in the end, these solutions fell flat. Despite our best attempts to guide our families and friends towards new culinary terrain, we missed the aroma of fresh sage and rosemary.
The solution? Even if you’re a rampant carnivore the other 364 days a year, this Thanksgiving go veggie! After all, its harvest season, and autumn vegetables and aromatics are at their peak in local markets. It’s a fun way to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal that’s healthy, steeped in holiday flavors and aromas you’d otherwise miss, and definitely a change from the usual focus on the bird. (The American wild turkey’s scientific name, if you were wondering, is Meleagris gallapavo). Also if you would rather eat no meat for the holidays than a cheap factory produced turkey raised on a diet of antibiotic-laced corn (factory turkeys eat corn not only to fatten up but also because workers chop off their beaks soon after they exit the incubator), a vegan loaf is a sustainable alternative that’s a lot less expensive than a high quality organic turkey that you might have to order weeks in advance.
First some loaf history. The original vegetarian holiday loaf – Tofurkey – was introduced to America in 1955 as a quick, tasty way for vegetarians to enjoy the holidays. Tofurkey’s inventor, Seth Tibbott, emulated the texture of turkey meat with the magical properties of soybeans, rather than using vital wheat gluten, the more common meat substitute of the day. The original Tofurkey sold for an eyepopping $30 and featured not two but eight faux gobbler legs! Over time the legs came off, stuffing and gravy mixes were added to the kit, and the price was slashed. Tofurkey’s still the king of vegan birds, but today it has competitors. What follows is a guide to several glorious veggie main courses that might be just what you need to wow (or worry) your Thanksgiving feasters, depending on their proclivity for the loaf.
The Magical Loaf Studio
Our first entry is not a loaf but an entire loaf studio! Regardless of your dietary requirements, the Magical Loaf Studio website (www.veganlunchbox.com/loaf_ studio.html), created by Jennifer McCann, has a loaf for you. Simply click through the screens of a short interview about ingredients (you’ll be asked to select your carbohydrate, protein, binder, and so forth) and voila! Out comes your customized loaf recipe.
Turk’y Roast by Quorn
The “meat” of this roast, and all Quorn products, is created by using a special mico-protein derived from fungus. (Like with sausage making, I think the less I know about how some of these products are made the better). Of all our loaves, this one has the most realistic meat texture. The flavor is mild – like real turkey – so you may need to jazz it up with spices and gravy. Leftover Turk’y can be used convincingly for sandwiches. It’s not vegan (they use egg whites and milk protein), but it’s a good choice for people avoiding gluten. Serves four.
Holiday Roast by Gardein
Gardein is a plant-based product developed 25 years ago by a French chef, although it’s relatively new to the US. Their Holiday Roast is made from a combination of non-GMO soy protein and grains (including wheat). The roast has a turkey-like exterior that’s filled with a hearty cranberry stuffing. The Gardein faux meat is, again, similar to turkey, and hence flavor-neutral, but with the two gravy packets and delicious stuffing it makes a fine roast. Serves four.
The original traditional faux turkey with the silly name is a holiday staple for many vegetarian homes. Tofurkey is a non-GMO, wheat and tofu based loaf with a flavorful rice-based stuffing that will infuse your kitchen with the herbaceous aroma of Thanksgiving at your grandmother’s house. This loaf comes with gravy, and optionally, an Amy’s Kitchen Chocolate Cake. The flavor is mild. Serves about four people.
Celebration Roast by Field Roast
Field Roast is the new kid on the block. Originating in 1997 in Seattle, Washington, out of all our loaves, the Celebration Roast best evokes the abundance of a true holiday cornucopia. The Field Roast is loaded with vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, spices, and even fruit (apples). The base is seitan (wheat gluten). Along with the savory stuffing, this dish is not bland, but some people think it’s a little too salty. The one-pound roast is small and serves two-three people.]]>
IN THE EVER-EVOLVING WORLD THAT IS YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE, there are more options than ever to amp up your nutrition with products and ingredients that emphasis the word “free”. Not free as in price of course, but gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, you can take the equation “x”- free=dinner and substitute for x (oh those painful memories of algebra) and somebody’s surely marketing it in Whole Foods or the Hy-Vee health section. Vegan diets are implicitly egg-free of course, so how do you handle the hanker for a Denver, er, Veggie Omelet, when only the sensual taste and texture of real chicken eggs will do?
There is a “free” for that. Rocky Shepheard, founder of The Vegg, a Pennsylvania-based startup, invented a “vegan egg yolk” that’s the heart of an entire line of egg substitutes (all available online, see details below). Products range from a vegan baking mix to a promising French toast formula to his original “Vegg” yolk. Yep you heard right, that’s “Vegg yolk.”
“What’s unique about these products is that they all taste like egg,” Shepheard said. “There are a lot of egg replacers out there, but we’re the only ones that actually taste like an egg.” Tasting like egg seemed more prerequisite than unique quality to me, but as a vegan egg newbie it definitely inspired me to stick to the Vegg at first and try the dubious “non-egg-tasting egg replacers” at some tobe- determined date.
Shepheard’s newest addition to the vegan egg family is the Vegg Scramble. We tried it out at Indie Fit on a late lazy Sunday morning that screamed all-you-can-eat Brunch! But we’re tough like that, we stayed home and cooked. Like all ‘Vegg’ products, the scramble starts as a powder that you whisk together with unsweetened soy milk and then simmer for 10 minutes in a pan over medium to low heat until curds form. Stir up the curds, wait a few more minutes to reduce, and you’re left with soft, light-yellow, scrambled “eggs,” which can be microwaved an additional two to three minutes for a firmer texture. OK, I was still a little groggy, but after I whisked in a dash of tabasco and some pepper, my taste buds told me “egg.”
The Vegg Scramble weighs in at 12 grams of protein – about what you’d expect in two chicken eggs. It’s completely cholesterol free (that’s one of the reason’s you’re eating vegan eggs right?), fat-free, loaded with a healthy swirl of amino acids, and since no chickens were involved in the making of the Vegg, Shepheard assures us his products are cruelty-free.
“The mission of The Vegg is to provide plant-based egg texture and flavor without the cruelty,” he said. “Hopefully, it will catch on to the non-vegan audience for one reason or another to show that any kind of taste and texture is possible without cruelty to animals.”
To learn more about the Vegg visit www. thevegg.com and order from the Vegg shop. Now back to bed.]]>
IN ALL SERIOUSNESS, I EAT A LOT OF BEANS. ONE CHRISTMAS MY sister bought me a set of bean-themed kitchen storage containers – for a gag– and I’ve used them with a straight face for years. When a guy heard my wife talking about how many times a week I slow-cooked beans he told her he was amazed I hadn’t bought a pressure cooker, so the next week she gave me an Emeril T-fall 6-Quart electric model that is by far my most treasured kitchen gizmo – I even take it on vacations. Beans are an easy source of protein when I’m on a vegetarian kick, high in fiber, they come in handy for Rick Bayless recipes, but more than anything, I just like them. I’m on the bean team.
My wife, though, is not, so one night when she looked down at my frijoles and said, “If I’m ever going to get into those, I think I need to find a really good bean,” I was initially at a loss. As she twirled some idealized bean around in her mind like a free-range rotisserie chicken, I realized that, quite frankly, other than for the coffee variety, the only thing I’d ever shopped for in a dry bean was price; I liked my beans cheap, in bulk or pre-packaged 2 pound bags that I dumped into plastic Stikko wafer-stick jars (now you know my guilty pleasure). Raising an eyebrow when she noticed my complete cluelessness, she suggested, “Maybe something locally grown.”
With one (big) exception I’d never heard of dry bean farming around Kansas City. Green beans were one thing; everybody’s grandmother grew them, the ones that flossed your teeth for you if you didn’t string each pod prior to dumping them into the crockpot with a chunk of bacon and a bag of brown sugar to ease their day-long simmer into evisceration. That big exception of course is soybeans. According to stats that the US Department of Agriculture carefully harvests each year, Kansas hovers around 10th in annual soybean production. But soybeans are grown as an oil crop (the meal is used to feed pigs). I wanted culinary beans I could stoke the Emeril with. I checked with a couple of local health food stores but didn’t have any luck. After I’d forgotten about it, I overheard some people at Bad Seed Farmers Market talking about local beans. They told me to drive up to Lawrence and look for Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm at the Saturday farmers market there. A few weeks later I did, and I would find not only that perfect local bean my wife wanted, but also learn about the fascinating reinvigoration of a family farming tradition that traces its roots to the 1850s on a plot of land near the Kickapoo Indian Reservation and a remarkable new cooperative agricultural experiment 50 miles northwest of Kansas City that blends the latest organic non-GMO urban farming techniques with foodie culture, indie music, and traditional Kansas row cropping.
As a farmer, thirty-something Jake Johannes defies easy categorization. What’s certain is that, for now at least, he’s the only culinary dry bean farmer in northeast Kansas. Even when he lived thousands of miles away, the bean culture of northeast Kansas was never far from his mind. “After I graduated from college and worked for a little while, I left for Japan where I went to teach high school students and study Japanese timber farming. My dad had been farming soybeans almost his entire life near the town of 50 people where I grew up. In Japan I ate soy products on a daily basis, fermented soy, but also a lot of tofu and unfermented soy. I think it gets a bad rap, because of GMO soybeans. But it was really good for my health,” Johannes told me.
Back from Japan, Johannes, who graduated from KU with an architecture degree in the early 2000s, got a job with an architecture firm in Kansas City. But in 2008 everything changed. The economy crashed, he lost his job, and nobody was hiring freshly minted architects. Beans were back on the plate for Johannes, this time literally, as in rice and beans for dinner every night. Johannes had a solid fallback though, a 150 year tradition of farming, something his family had done in Kansas since the days of abolitionists and border ruffians. But he knew to make an impact, it wasn’t enough to just move back to the land. He needed to add to his agricultural pedigree, not in the fields alongside his father or in an ag program at K-State, but right there in the city where he had been laid off.
The business of agriculture has been changing for years. Today Americans plant roughly the same acreage as a half century ago, but farms are bigger (the average family farm was 733 acres in 2015) and a growing percentage are corporate owned. 4H, Future Farmers of America and the Grange (the once radical farm “fraternity” otherwise known as the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry) have long been declining. But go to any health-food store and browse the magazines at the checkout aisles. A new kind of farming with a new kind of farmer has taken root. This new farm is inspired in equal parts by Palo Alto startup culture, “Goin’ Up the Country” indie social collectivism, and foodie cravings for organic non-GMO crops grown within a 50 mile radius of the whoever’s holding the fork. The business model involves eliminating the middle man and going direct to market, which reduces the number of acres you need to plant and creates a potential job market for local cultivators willing to get out in the fields and sweat.
Johannes found the perfect way bolster his farming IQ. “I got an internship with the Growing Growers program through Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (now called Cultivate Kansas City). Katherine Kelly hired me, and in one year I learned a lot about the vegetable side of the business.”
But Johannes didn’t want to grow vertical gardens in Westport; he had the potential to become organic farming’s “triple threat.” He’d row cropped since childhood and now he knew small-scale urban vegetable farming. Add to that the business side – the ability to direct-market everything to the end user: farmers markets, coops, restaurants, and local food manufacturers – and Johannes was ready to make good on a dream he’d had since high school. He told me that studying engineering and architecture, teaching in Japan, and now wading into the world of urban farming was always about “bringing some set of skills back to that rural community where I grew up, to enliven it, to give back,” as he put it.
So in 2010, he moved back in with his parents and worked with his father to convert their traditional grain and soybean operation to organic. It wasn’t an easy decision and took 5 years to complete. He said, “Going back home, it was like going to graduate school for agriculture. I learned so much from my father in the time I got to work with him. It was the kind of information I couldn’t have picked up at any other farm in the area because he was doing large acreage row crops.”
His father, skeptical at first, is a believer now that they’re on the other side and fully certified. Last season when neighbors in Brown County were farming four times the acreage and getting $3 per bushel for corn, Johannes’ corn was food grade quality, which allowed them to drive to Indiana and sell it for $14 per bushel. They were working smarter, not harder. As Johannes said, “It’s like farming four times as much land, and our inputs are less, we’re not spraying, we’re using mechanical cultivation to take care of weeds. We don’t get the yields our neighbors do, we make up for it in profit since we’re a niche product now.”
But he wasn’t finished with his experiment. His ultimate goal went beyond the revitalization of his family’s Brown County farm – he was interested in what the future of Johannes farming in Kansas could be, how he could build on his heritage and start his own family tradition. So in 2014, with his wife Jessica and their friends Jen and Jim Martin and their children, the two families founded Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm on 40 acres northeast of the small town of Perry, Kansas. Perry was once a bustling railroad town with an ancient elm tree in the town park that locals named the “tree of knowledge.” Johannes brought his own knowledge and community vision to the Perry region, one that looked back to the days when families lived together in close-knit agricultural enclaves. He wanted to revive what his grandparents and greatgrandparents did: grow everything a small family would need to survive winter.
Sacred Sun is a hipster farm. 40 acres and they’re cool. The farm is cooperative in the sense that both families – the Martins and Johannes – share the costs, labor, and profits of the farm. They employ a “whole diet” CSA farm model (CSA stands for community supported agriculture). Members pay a monthly fee to become shareholders, but unlike shares of stock, the farm pays dividends in produce via a weekly supply of whatever crops are in season. Of the Martins Johannes told me, “They moved to the land with us. We farm together, we share the costs together, I feel like we are a true coop. We share the profits. They’re incredible, we couldn’t do any of this without them. Eventually, it’s a goal of ours to hopefully bring more families here and establish a community out in the country, centered around agriculture.”
They also share heroics when nature raises hell in the middle of the night. Jim Martin said that in May it rained at the farm 29 out of 31 days. Their land extends mostly down the south-facing slope of a gentle hill. He said that late in the month, around 2 a.m. he and Johannes had to go out in the middle of a severe thunderstorm to dig a retaining ditch around their fields. More than 10,000 acres of water ran down that hill during the month. That’s some serious bonding male bonding, Kansas style.
Towards the community side the farm hosts potlucks for friends who drive up from Kansas City and Lawrence to help with large projects. When they first moved in, all the outbuildings were crammed with 10 to 15 years of trash. They filled up a roll-off dumpster, hooked up the amplifiers (many of their friends are musicians), and cooked food at the end of the day.
Johannes might have moved his family to a new farm and started working towards his vision of cultivating everything on the table at Thanksgiving dinner – but he still couldn’t stop thinking about beans (remember, this is a story about beans). Because of soybeans, he knew a culinary dry bean culture in Kansas was possible. Some Western Kansas operations planted pinto beans. The Kanza and Osage tribes cultivated dry beans, as did Johannes’ childhood neighbors the Kickapoo, whose generational seed collections were so sacred that only select members of the tribe were allowed to see them. He also knew that local veggie-burger producer Hillary’s Eat-Well was actively looking for local farms to grow adzuki beans for their products.
So the first full year of operations at Sacred Sun included a stab at dry bean farming (the beans were actually grown up in Brown County – next year they plan to grow beans at the Perry location). Johannes decided to start out with black-eyed peas and black beans, but immediately ran into a roadblock. He couldn’t find enough seed. In a state dominated by five crops, planting enough edible beans to harvest wasn’t as simple as driving down to the seed store and placing an order. But unlike many vegetables and fruits, beans themselves are seeds, so Johannes worked out a deal with the Community Mercantile in nearby Lawrence to buy 200 pounds of organic black-eyed peas and black beans for seed stock. He planted them. They came up. A bean’s a bean right? Well maybe, Johannes wasn’t completely sure the equipment he used for soybeans would work for his new culinary cultivars. When it was time to harvest he even switched from his old John Deere 8820 combine to an International 1666 which has a gentler threshing mechanism. The black beans were a success, but the black-eyed peas presented a problem at harvest. “The plants they grow on are viney and the pods are fibrous, so when they went through the combine they didn’t get shredded up and pulverized and ended up coming out as these giant balls of vine. You can’t disc them into the ground. I had to go out with a pitchfork and manually remove them from the fields. I found out that even though we can grow a lot of these beans here, a missing part of the equation is how they are harvested.”
That’s how my wife’s perfect bean was grown. Sacred Sun marketed many of those first year’s beans to local restaurants across northeast Kansas and western Missouri, but a few choice 5-lb bags were saved for the Saturday Lawrence Farmers Market, and I snagged one with my daughter on a sweltering August morning. When I showed my wife she was impressed. “You really did find a local bean.” That night we ate perhaps some of the first completely local Kaw Valley bean burritos ever made – authentic down to the local corn tortillas my daughter pressed out in our tortilla press, some low-heat jalapenos out of the garden, and the Sacred Sun black beans. My wife’s still not on the bean team, but she’s interested in the other products Sacred Sun brings to local markets. I loved the beans, but I also loved the story of Sacred Sun and Johannes, just one of many stories of sustainable agriculture taking root on the rich alluvium of the Kansas and Missouri River valleys and the vacant lots and garden plots of urban Kansas City. Jake Johannes can’t really be called a pioneer – he’s a son of the pioneers after all – but he embodies the spirit of the new Kansas City, a city which was founded in a large part by farmers.
In October you can find Sacred Sun at the Saturday Downtown Farmers Market, 900 block of New Hampshire Street, 8 am – noon and the Thursday Cotton’s Farmers Market, 1832 Massachusetts Street, 4 pm – 6:30 pm, both in Lawrence, Kansas. You can also find them on Facebook: http:// www.facebook.com/sacredsunfarm.
Photo by IndieFit Staff
The Bite, a small sandwich shop nestled between Farm to Table and Taste of Brazil tucked in the northwest corner of KC’s City Market, serves a fusion of world cuisine with a Mexican flair designed by chef and owner Carlos Mortera. Like most of its adjacent peers, the Bite has a food truck vibe. The menu and seating are limited, but that’s fine by me, I like to make a regular grub crawl out of my City Market outings, patching a meal together from multiple venues. On a recent visit that started at Quay Coffee and ended with a decadent detour from my diet at Beignet, I sat in one of the small two-person tables and admired their selection of artsy skulls and wacky décor that mirrors the sweet, savory, and spicy weirdness of the menu.
Before Mortera started the Bite, the space housed a series of mini-restaurants including versions of Foodo, Nabil’s, the Grille on Broadway, and Mr. Good Chicken. I was intrigued by the promise of Korea meets Mexico – a potentially rife combination in my opinion – but balance wins out at the Bite. The menu has three basic items: sandwiches, tamales, and sides. I’m a mushroom fan, so I ordered “The Toadstool,” a potent layering of mushrooms, red onions, and a savory sauce stuffed into a sliced bolillo (a Mexican hoagie roll). Crusty and chewy, it didn’t turn to mush with the sauce and fillings. My dining companion ordered the “Kickin’ Chicken,” a straight-out-of Mexico City dish loaded with slow-cooked chicken carnitas and queso fresco – until it’s plated up and slathered in Korean BBQ sauce and sriracha crema.
Other sandwiches feature pork, chicken, crab and a few vegetarian options. Everything is heavy on the eclectic. Next time I return I want to try the “El-Vez,” a far-out combination of peanut butter; prosciutto, banana, and Nutella(!).
The sandwiches and tamales are pretty darn filling, but that didn’t stop us from trying a few side dishes, especially the “Patatas Bravas”: quartered potatoes topped with chipotle mayo and garlic oil alongside fresh cilantro and – I’m going to have to revoke your Yelp Visa card if you don’t know what’s coming next – kimchi! This kimchi is mild enough that it blends in nicely with the potatoes, providing a crunchy tang at the finish. I also tried both the maduros (fried plantains topped with queso fresco) and the “Bite Greens.”
The drink selection is limited to bottled and canned pop; they have San Pellegrino, Mexican Coke and a selection of Jarritos that includes pineapple and tamarind. I was in the mood for an iced tea, so since this is the city market I popped out and returned 3 minutes later with my drink. A jug of té helado con limón would be a welcome addition in my opinion.
The Bite is a lunch place and closes at 4 p.m. most days. They run out of items sometimes, so be prepared to come up with a second choice or have a menu on hand when placing a carry-out order.
It’s not hard to stick to a healthy plan at the Bite. Gluten free options include plain corn tamales and corn tamales with spinach and black beans. Both are topped with mole, queso fresco, sriracha crema, pickled onions and a side of sesame slaw. You can add other meats or veggies. I tried the crunchy smoked tofu, but pretty much all the sandwich fillings are available on the tamales as well. Both kinds of tamales can be prepared vegetarian or vegan, and there are several vegetarian sandwiches. Meat items are clearly marked and the kitchen is happy to remove dairy from almost everything on the menu. Overall the Bite is a tasteful flavor-fest that fits in nicely with the eclectic buzz of the City Market, and health conscious diners will find options even though the menu, and space, are small.]]>